Once, in a world known simply as Pegasus, there was a relatively peaceable kingdom nestled in a lush valley between two dangerous lands.
Prudently, this kingdom of Athos extended a hand of friendship to the not-too-distant land of Atlantis in the north. And Atlantis, sensing the fruitfulness of such a venture - since Athos was greatly known for its arable fields and dense magical forests - agreed to help protect Athos from the warring armies of the Wraith and Genii in exchange for uniting their kingdoms by way of holy matrimony.
So a deal was met and, at the ages of eight and eleven, the two heirs of these lands were contractually betrothed, to be wed on the youngest boy's twenty-first birthday.
Unfortunately, Rodney of Athos and John of Atlantis clashed upon first meeting, and their relationship went downhill from there.
John mainly thought Rodney a whiney know-it-all with large, thick-lashed, disdainful eyes. And Rodney, alternately, thought John incredibly dim-witted, base, and skimming his way towards greatness - for he'd heard many times over of the young rival prince's widespread likableness - by the twist of his admittedly pretty mouth and artfully mussed hair.
Years passed, filled with loud bickering and arguably satisfying arguments in which Rodney knew John was wrong about absolutely everything. And John tried his very best to piss Rodney off by leaning against walls - doorjambs, thrones, anything semi-stationary - and throwing lazy smirks at him, since he'd learned early on that getting Rodney so angry he couldn't speak was the only way to actually shut him up. Plus, his hand gestures grew more pronounced, and that was just bonus hilarity.
John drove Rodney insane, really, so when Rodney's sister, Jeannie, was born six years into the ally agreement, hale and hearty and with burnished red ringlets already adorning her crown, Rodney felt all the marital attention shift to his sibling with grateful relief. Honestly.
Almost all of Athos showed up to pay their respects to the princess a few weeks after her birth, as well as the royal Atlantean family, a troubadour satyr known for clever words, and three wild wood fairies, representatives from the First Forest that edged the kingdom's arable lands - the same three wood fairies that had paid respects to Rodney when he was born, although their gifts of beauty, music and intelligence had skewed themselves as he'd grown.
According to his mum, his eyes were as clear and lovely as the sky at mid-morning, and his fingers stroked the keys of his baby grand with precision and technical grace. But he was far too practical-minded for singing, far too much of a perfectionist to ever be an accomplished pianist, and his endless hours seeking more and truer knowledge in the castle's mammoth library - as well as his quite honorable quest to prove all his father's men ignoramuses not fit to serve the king - left half his mouth pulled perpetually downward, and his skin too pallid for anyone to recognize him as beautiful.
His health, of course, was another matter entirely, and Rodney was still quite miffed that the fairies hadn't thought of that when he'd been in the cradle. Allergies, especially his fatal one towards citrus, left him understandably paranoid and at a physical disadvantage, always out of breath when he trailed after John on one of his lack-brained adventures. Not to mention the detriments of his hypoglycemia, which the castle's doctor - the quack - continuously refused to acknowledge.
Still. He was fourteen, and not completely pessimistic. The business that married John to his sister instead of him, for instance, was set to give him considerably more freedom. He certainly wouldn't miss the company of the impetuous older boy.
"I suppose you're ecstatic about this." Rodney scowled at his ex-fiance, arms crossed over his skinny fourteen-year-old chest.
John, just past seventeen and graced with his mother's flirtatious demeanor, gave him an indulgent grin and drawled, "Of course."
For all John's complaining that Rodney was a pain in the ass, though, he was sort of disappointed that he didn't have to marry him anymore. He'd spent the better part of six years resigned to the fact that someday he'd be sleeping next to Rodney and Rodney's enormous brain, and it seemed surreal that the tiny, rosy-faced baby in the gilt-edged rocker was replacing him. He'd inherited a stubborn protective streak from his father that was liberally threaded with possessiveness and, honestly, he'd never been very good at sharing. The abrupt change of focus would take more than a little getting used to.
He'd no longer have to sneak into the kitchens and toss out all the lemons every time Rodney visited, because Rodney probably wouldn't be visiting anymore. And he wouldn't have to remind his mother about her cut flowers and Rodney's overly-sensitive nose, and he wouldn't have to hide snacks in every room, just in case the boy was off by himself being angry and right and he got a little dizzy from hunger. And there wouldn't be any more shouting about who got to sit where at the Great Table, and he wouldn't have to listen to Rodney's lectures about the outdated and impractical use of feudal systems and, also, the total incompetence of every single man on John's father's staff.
John looked down at Jeannie's delicate little hands fisted up close to her cheeks - cheeks that had the most adorable dimples - and hoped she wouldn't be boring.
At the sound of a trumpet the boys snapped to attention, and the three wood fairies stepped out of the milling crowd, bowing first to Rodney's parents and then turning beatific gazes onto the newborn girl.
The first fairy, the shy Miko, small-boned and pretty beyond measure, threw a wavering smile towards John and Rodney before bestowing her stock gift of beauty upon Jeannie, wand sprinkling pink sparkles down on the infant. And instantly all could see the radiant glow that emanated from her, and everyone gave a large, wistful, fond sigh.
Rodney snorted derisively and John sent him a censoring look.
The second fairy, the kind Elizabeth, soft in form and motherly-firm in manner, gave John a twinkle-eyed glance before circling her wand over Jeannie's head, and strains of music, lush intertwining melodies, slipped out of the tip, settling down into her body and fading into an echo of singing joy.
The fierce Teyla - the only fairy, Rodney thought, with any sense at all - raised her wand next, but before she could utter a single word a sharp crack rang through the hall, and a thick cloud of black drifted down from the cathedral ceiling, lazily dissipating as it neared the stone floor to reveal a hunched and cackling figure.
The Sorcerer Kavanagh.
"Oh, for god's sake," Rodney muttered, maneuvering around the bassinet to place himself between the grossly inept sorcerer and his sister. After a wry shake of his head, John joined him there, and they stood glowering at Kavanagh with equally foreboding expressions - Rodney's more of a close-mouthed, lopsided scowl and John's more of a steely-eyed warning.
Kavanagh dismissed and ignored them, launching into a loud tirade about not being properly invited to toast the princess' birth - which caused both sets of parents to roll their eyes - and then he lashed out his wand, a bitter clenching of his teeth tightening the corners of his mouth, eyes beady little slits as he tossed the boys aside and growled down at Jeannie, "This kingdom doesn't deserve any happily ever after."
And that was when he cursed Jeannie to an early grave, killed at the tender age of sixteen by a spindle prick.
Rodney would've been more irate if he hadn't felt so stunned - since when could that idiot actually curse someone? - and he was only vaguely aware of his mother's wails, the hoarse shouts of his father ordering his guards to cut Kavanagh down, tar and feather him, hang him from the courtyard gallows - did they even have courtyard gallows? - even as the sorcerer, slippery and cowardly, escaped in another waft of thick smoke.
John slid into Rodney's muzzy view, hands gripping the top curve of his arms. "Rodney?"
He swallowed hard, dragging a hand across his sweaty forehead. "I'm fine," he managed, and the sheer lack of bite screamed to John that Rodney definitely wasn't fine, but he couldn't do anything about it right then except wrap a supportive arm around the younger boy's shoulders, and watch as the fairy Teyla, who had not yet given Jeannie a gift, moved forward again.
"My apologies, Your Majesties," the wild fairy intoned evenly, "for being unable to completely undo the damage the Sorcerer Kavanagh has done, but I will do all that I can to help." Then she threw both her bare arms in the air and wove even more magic over the unknowing baby. "Let death not touch this child with the hapless prick of a spindle, but instead invoke a spell of dreamless sleep, to be broken only by true love's kiss."
A hush fell over the hall, even the queen's weeping paused, and then the three wood fairies disappeared in a whirl of multi-colored sparkles.
"Better than death," slipped past John's lips on a murmur as the crowd's silence was fractured by speculating and worried gossip.
Rodney turned an incredulous eye on him. "Oh yes, thank you, John, so much better," he snapped. Because Rodney was under the impression that true love didn't honestly exist, and, truth be told, John wasn't much for it either.
But, of course, it was better. Of course it was.
So Rodney, vocally scoffing the fairy's claim that nothing else could be done for his sister, locked himself up in the castle's cavernous library. John, adrift from having one fiance taken away from him and another cursed to sleep evermore, followed his royal parents home to Atlantis and began training in earnest to fight Athos' enemies, since he could think of little else productive to do.
Years passed this way, and Jeannie grew with grace and beauty, the stone castle awash daily with her musical laughter. And she was smart; not as smart as Rodney, of course - who was? - but she was clever and witty and could spend hours in Rodney's company without wanting to strangle him. And Jeannie became Rodney's whole world.
When she was ten, all the spindles in the kingdom and all the spindles in Atlantis were burned to gray ashes, and Jeannie started making monthly trips to visit John.
John liked Jeannie. She reminded him of Rodney, only less obnoxious, but she was ten and he was twenty-seven, and he couldn't really picture himself married to her one day. It never occurred to him to refuse, though - well, it did, but refusing would've required running away, and John never ran away from anything, particularly if it meant leaving Rodney's kingdom at the mercy of the Genii or Wraith.
So he smiled at Jeannie and let her run rampant over his mother's handmaidens, and John taught her the extended remix version of prime/not-prime, and he told her as many stories of Rodney's youthful adventures in Atlantis as he could remember - and many more that he'd simply made up, because, honestly, the way Rodney had been heading he was bound to have made half the Atlantean Royal Guard cry at some point.
Which would've been cool to see, of course, but luckily John had a good imagination.
When she was thirteen, Jeannie strolled into the library in search of her brother and cornered him on the third balcony, pinned him against their five volume edition of Practical Magic Versus the Sea with a careful pout, and demanded, "Why don't you ever visit John with me?"
Rodney, by then almost entirely immune to Jeannie's Careful Pout, sent her a glower and a brisk, "Busy now, go away," with a dismissive flap of his hand.
"He asks about you, you know," she said, poking his chest.
Rodney's eyes widened. "He does?"
"Yes," she stressed, as if talking to a very slow person - which Rodney certainly wasn't - "of course he does. You were friends, weren't you?"
"Friends. Yes," Rodney answered absently, because he hadn't looked at it that way before. Since Jeannie's birth, John and Rodney only ever saw each other on Christmas Day, and they always had too much wine and grinned too loosely and bickered tenaciously over the dark meat - even though Rodney honestly didn't care if he had dark or white, just so long as it was meat, but he was self-admittedly contrary, and he didn't get to fight with John any other time, so - and yes they'd been engaged at one point in their lives, but friends? "No, I don't think so. Not really. Now go," he waved her off again, "visit your spasmodically-haired fiancÃ© and leave me be."
When she was fifteen, John stared at Jeannie's mouth as she shouted, "My god, you're all imbeciles," to the liege lords in his father's Hunt, and he thought for the very first time that perhaps marrying Jeannie wouldn't be that terrible after all.
When she was sixteen, despite all precautions, Jeannie pricked her finger on an old forgotten spindle in the topper most chamber of Athos Castle, and the old sorcerer Kavanagh laughed smugly as he layered the fierce Teyla's magic with more of his own. In petty spite, he left the entire castle enchanted in slumber, right down to the winking hypoallergenic daisies on Her Majesty's windowsill.
Then he coaxed the thick brambles surrounding the moat into even thicker tangles, rising high above the fortress walls and extending far down into the villagers' arable fields, and, just for good measure, he froze the inner courtyard, encasing everything, stables and all, in thick, unforgiving ice.
Except. Except Kavanagh hadn't left the entire castle enchanted in slumber.
For Rodney had read the complete five volume edition of Practical Magic Versus the Sea in search of anything remotely helpful in his never-ending desire to break Jeannie's curse - it was the 'practical' part that'd initially attracted him, of course, though he hadn't found anything the least bit feasible in it, except. Except he'd blindly roped out threads of what had been deemed, by the highly unfeasible book, as protective spells, and he'd encompassed the library with enough of them so that the sorcerer's magic, raining down from above, fizzled into nothing without doing any damage at all.
Rodney wasn't aware that anything was wrong with the castle 'til he realized he hadn't been brought his mid-morning meal, and he gazed around the library quizzically, finally sensing the unnatural quiet. He rose to his feet and stalked towards the door, only to be stopped by a buzzing ball of light, a tiny glowing figure housed in a bubble hovering just in front of his nose. Then the bubble expanded and burst, and the wild fairy Teyla was poised by the entrance, her body dressed for war.
"Prince Rodney," she said softly, her loosely clasped fighting staff barring the way, "you cannot leave just yet."
"What, why?" he demanded sharply.
She tilted her head, ear listing towards the door with an expectant air. "The snow hasn't settled."
"Well, that makes perfect sense," he cracked. "It's June." At least, he was almost certain it was June.
Her smile was both indulgent and sad. "Your sister's fate has come to pass, and the castle suffers and mourns still."
"My sis..." He trailed off, mouth agape. "But she hasn't... it isn't..." he stammered, mentally calculating the past years because Jeannie couldn't be more than fourteen yet, and nothing was supposed to happen at all until she was... "How old am I? Never mind," he slashed his hand through the air, "that's... how have I lost years?" Years, with nothing to show for them?
"You have been a good brother," said Teyla, patting his arm encouragingly.
"Thank you for that astoundingly, so very wrong assessment. Years." He rubbed a hand tiredly over his face. "I need," he went on, snapping his fingers, "I need to start over. I've missed something, I know I have. Possibly some component I'd originally dismissed as too stupid to be of any—"
"Prince Rodney," Teyla interrupted, "it is nothing you have missed. We must seek out Prince John."
"Prince John...? Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Rodney exclaimed with disgust, then he jabbed an accusing finger at the fairy. "This true love nonsense is all your fault. Like John will be able to do anything useful at all!"
She inclined her head, unruffled. "Even so, I sense the answer lies with Prince John. We must go quickly, or the Sorcerer Kavanagh might realize you are awake."
"What's this 'we' business?" he asked, narrow-eyed. "Why don't you go get John, and I'll start with the Z's and go backwards. Z's. Where's Zelenka, anyway? He mentioned yesterday he had a somewhat promising theory about the ecliptic coordinates of Pegasus' orbit and the size of Kavanagh's pe—"
"Prince Rodney," her voice was starting to fray, "the whole of the castle is asleep. And you will travel with me to Atlantis."
Rodney pressed his lips together, glaring at her mutinously. After a few moments, he let out an annoyed huff of breath and said, "If I could just map out a few more simula—"
"Prince Rodney," Teyla said in warning.
"Fine. Fine! Let's go get John." He ground the name out like a curse and stomped a foot petulantly. But then he remembered his sister was curled up dead-asleep somewhere, and he couldn't imagine how something that horrific wouldn't affect her brain patterns irreparably, so he yanked at the door - this time, Teyla didn't stop him - and set off down the corridor for the front foyer.
She matched his stride as he gingerly walked across the cold encrusted courtyard, and then she guided him towards the stable where he balked again, staring up at his father's massive, frozen solid stallion, the blackness of his hide crystallized gray in the milky ice.
He shook his head emphatically. "Oh no. No, no. I don't ride anything with four legs and that sounded really bad so not one word," he wagged a finger in Teyla's face.
"Perhaps your mother's gentle mare, then?" the wild fairy suggested sweetly.
"Four legs!" Rodney nearly shouted.
Teyla nodded. "Ah, you would rather run. I see."
"What? Are you insane?"
Teyla lit a fire between her fingers and not long after, though he wasn't exactly sure how, Rodney found himself astride Primrose, a dappled chestnut palfrey with a powerful stride and a smart mouth. He was jostled like a loose sack of potatoes as they raced for the castle gate, and Teyla, light on her own steed - a beast that looked more like a tawny fawn than a horse - shouted encouraging directions at him which he promptly ignored. Grip with your calves; head up, heels down, wrists straight, blah, blah, blah. He was having enough trouble just keeping the mare on the right path.
Even though the portcullis was tightly woven with spiny branches, it rose smoothly when they approached, the wood fairy's magic turning the winch with little resistance. And even though the once green ground outside the castle was a sea of brown thickets, they sailed effortless through the brambles without any snags or tears.
"Kavanagh's spells," Teyla explained, projecting her voice towards Rodney and hardly breathless at all from their grueling pace, "were only meant to keep intruders out of the castle. He is short-sighted and smug, and would not think anyone could have escaped his blanketed curse of slumber."
Rodney gripped the reins and the ends of Primrose's mane tighter, and wondered how the hell they were supposed to get back in.
Atlantis was a good four days away from Athos, even traveling the shorter path that ran parallel to the Furthest Forest and took them across the deepest part of their single clear-spring lake. They made the journey in two and a half.
Rodney had dropped to the ground in an exhausted heap when Teyla finally brought them to a stop that first night, the moon well past its zenith. Scant hours passed before the wood fairy roused the prince from a boneless sleep, riding hard once again through the morning, afternoon and half the night. By the time the famed glass walls of Atlantis Castle shone against the dying sun the day after that, Rodney could hardly speak, his complaints tossed with glares and the wordless pull of his mouth.
Teyla dismounted gracefully when they gained the courtyard, and Rodney slumped forward onto Primrose's thick neck in relief.
"Rodney?" a worried voice hummed in his ear, and then warm hands were on his thighs, moving up over his sides, and John - he recognized John - was coaxing him to let go of the reins. There was a soft exhalation of laughter as Rodney staggered off the horse and into John's arms, along with a teasing, "Jesus, Rodney, you weigh a ton."
"Shut up," Rodney snapped with as much bite as he could muster - which admittedly wasn't much. "Shut up and give me a bed, and don't wake me for three weeks." And then he jerked his head up, almost clipping John in the chin, and grabbed onto the other man's biceps with a frantic, "No, don't, caffeine. Because..." He took a strangled breath and Teyla suddenly appeared at his shoulder.
"Princess Jeannie has pricked her finger as it was foretold, and Athos Castle has been wickedly enchanted by Kavanagh."
"Well," said John, spreading fingers through his hair. "Shit."
"Yes. Yes, exactly." Rodney was standing on his own by then, albeit wavering slightly, and he pressed shaky hands onto his abdomen. "When have I last eaten?" he asked wildly. "Oh my god, it's been days, hasn't it?"
"You were fed just this morning, Prince Rodney," Teyla offered with some amusement.
"Hours, then. Do you realize what will happen if my blo—"
"Relax, Rodney," John cut in placatingly, "you're all right. Let's just go inside and get you some food, and then we'll figure out what to do next, okay?"
"What do you mean, figure out what to do?" Rodney demanded. "We need to get back into Athos Castle and you've got to kiss her."
John grimaced. "I'm not sure that's going to work."
"Of course it won't! It's a completely ludicrous plan!" He turned a glare on Teyla. "If it wasn't for you—"
"Jeannie'd be dead," John pointed out softly.
"Ah." Rodney visibly deflated, and he wrapped a wide palm over his nape. "True."
Teyla's brows rose.
"Thank you for that," Rodney forced out grudgingly.
"You are welcome," rejoined the wood fairy, then continued in an apologetic tone, "Had I realized that love would be a foreign concept for you, I would have chosen my words differently."
"It's fine," John said, even though inside he was very close to panicking. John liked Jeannie a whole lot, but. True Love's Kiss was going to be really hard to manage.
"What are we standing around for?" Rodney groused shortly, and Teyla nodded.
"We should be on our way as soon as possible, before Kavanagh thinks to contact the Genii king or the army of Wraith."
"Because he's just that moronic," muttered Rodney, crossing his arms over his chest. Even the malevolent sorcerer called the magical Athosian forests home, and bringing the destructive Wraith down upon them would essentially be stabbing himself in the foot. No, Rodney wouldn't put that folly past him at all.
John slipped an arm behind Rodney and started steering him towards the front doors of the castle. "Food first."
"I'm not going to argue with that," Rodney said tiredly, resisting the urge to lean into John. "Sleep would be good, too. Sleep would be heaven. Sleep would be the equivalent of chocolate if there wasn't actually any chocolate in the vicinity, which I'm going to go ahead and assume there is for my own sanity. And by chocolate I mean coffee."
John's mouth twisted up in a half-smirk. "I miss you when you're not around, Rodney. Once a year just doesn't do it for me."
"Ha. Very funny, John." He couldn't even work up enough energy for a proper scowl. "Your hair."
"Shut up. It made sense in my head."
John's eyes widened. "Oh, it's waaaay past your bedtime."
"I can function," Rodney protested indignantly. "I'll have you know I've reworked entire horribly wrong theorems on as little as two hours sleep and there was only that one miniscule, very small incident with Radek and Carson's goat and why am I arguing? I thought I wasn't going to argue?"
"You can't help yourself," John said sympathetically. Well, he was sort of sympathetic. At least he wasn't laughing on the outside.
"I suppose we can spare a few hours rest," Teyla offered magnanimously. "It would do no good to have Prince Rodney..."
"Hallucinating," John finished for her. "Yeah, I get it."
He drooled in his sleep. John had already known that, of course. Had commemorated the fact in pictures for future blackmailing opportunities - he'd realized at an early age the importance of stockpiling ammunition against his at-one-time husband-to-be. Although his cousin Laura had drawn a walrus into most of them, which kind of ruined their believability even while making them ten times more hilarious.
But anyway. Drool. Drool wasn't supposed to be attractive, right?
John reached out and curled a hand over Rodney's arm. It was a really nice arm, too, with more defined muscles than John would've guessed, and that thought was going no where good so he chirped, "Wakey, wakey," in a tone that was sure to annoy the crap out of Rodney, and shook him briskly.
"Go 'way," Rodney growled into his pillow.
"Okay, sure," John said amiably, settling down on the edge of the mattress. "Jeannie probably won't mind waiting while you catch up on sleep. Especially since she's, you know, unconscious in an enchanted castle and all."
Rodney cracked one eye open and gave him a bleary glare.
John widened his own with mock-innocence. They stared at each other silently for a few, laborious minutes, and then John said, "You're still a few clicks behind, aren't you?"
"You've been saying that an awful lot lately," John pointed out, head cocked to the side, a not-quite-smirk on his mouth, and Rodney rolled over onto his back with a groan.
The past few days seemed to have hit him all at once. Even his bones ached. "Primrose has clearly held a vendetta against me for years."
"Horses are tricky like that," John drawled. He was inordinately pleased with himself when he refrained from offering to give Rodney a rubdown, which, while it might've been nice - and, wow, now that he'd thought about it, really, really sexy - it would've been wholly counterproductive. Jeannie, breaking the curse, True Love's Kiss - Christ, why couldn't their parents have just left things well enough alone?
Instead, John patted Rodney's stomach and gained his feet. "Let's get this show on the road."
Teyla knelt down beside Prince John by the small fire. Moving at a slightly slower pace than before, they had reached the Furthest Forest at the edge of Athos in two days, and she could feel inquisitive eyes upon them - had felt these eyes upon them for most of the evening. "We are being followed," she told him in a hush, head pressed close to his.
He flicked a glance towards Rodney, fussing over Primrose and promising as many apples as she could eat when they got home if she'd just stop lipping the ends of his hair.
"I sense no danger," Teyla continued evenly, following his line of sight without comment. "I just thought you should know."
John nodded. "Thanks." He stretched one leg out across the ground, looping an arm around the other, and gazed at her speculatively. "I gotta ask, Teyla. Why are you helping us?"
The wild fairy fingered the thin leather thong that attached her wand sheath to her thigh. "For thousands of years," she explained with careful deliberation, "my people have named the Forests of Athos as ours, long before the Wraith and Genii claimed the lands to the east and west and burned the air to arid nothingness. Were it not for the bravery and strength of the Athos Guard, we believe the devastation to our home would be immeasurable."
John furrowed his brow and said, "If anything ever happens to the forests, you know, you're all welcome at Atlantis."
Teyla bowed her head, soft pleasure curling her lips. "That is very generous of you, Prince John."
"Just being neighborly." He broke into a grin.
"Neighborly," Rodney harrumphed, dropping down beside him and biting into a round of flat bread Teyla had wordlessly passed him. "You just want Atlantis to be as magical and cool as Athos."
"Hey now," John protested. "Atlantis already is cool. Two words, Rodney: glass. castle."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, yes, and perhaps one day someone will throw a rock and you'll have to build something more structurally sound."
"Yeah, since it's not as if all of you over in Athos begged my parents for help with the Genii."
John had a point, of course, but Rodney wasn't actually going to concede it. "That proves nothing about the impenetrability of Athos Castle—"
"Except it does," John interrupted smugly.
"And anyway, there's an extraordinarily hirsute man striding towards us, though man is really too restrictive a term. It may be a dog."
"Way to change the subject, Rodney, and he's on two legs," John drawled, but his eyes were sharp on the dark line of trees and the somewhat huge, hairy figure striding towards them. His hand automatically dropped to the sword lying on the ground by his hip.
"A trained dog, then," Rodney amended, then snapped his fingers and held his palm out expectantly towards Teyla.
She arched a brow, but placed another piece of bread in his hand. "It is a basajaun," she said.
"A what?" John asked.
"A lord of the woods. There are none currently living in Athos, but I believe he is a reassuring presence." She rose to her feet smoothly as the basajaun drew closer, the ends of his matted, dark hair glowing strangely red-brown in the moonlight, any paleness of his body eclipsed by the twisted locks. Stepping forward to greet him in wild custom, she pressed her palms on either side of his chest and he bent his head to hers, touching their brows together lightly.
"Teyla of Athos," she murmured, and he answered in turn with a brusque, "Ronon of Sateda."
Teyla dropped her hands and moved away. "You have traveled far from your home," she said curiously.
He grunted, then skimmed his gaze over the small campsite. "There's no reason to return, so the distance means nothing."
An uncomfortable silence fell, then John clapped his hands together. "Well. You're welcome to our camp, but we won't be here for long."
Ronon nodded. "I've been following you."
"Great." Rodney bobbed his head. "That's just, ah, fantastic. Really," he said, then hissed to John, "what are you doing? He could be rabid!"
"Can it, Rodney," he muttered out of the side of his mouth, then grinned brightly at Ronon. "Sit. Eat. Teyla has... bread."
"Yes, but not an endless supply!" Rodney added desperately.
"I have brought plenty, Prince Rodney," said Teyla. "You need not worry."
John smirked. "That's like asking the planet to stop spinning."
Taking a chunk of bread from the wood fairy, Ronon hunkered down by the fire, the dreadlocked hair on his head tangling with the finer growth covering the rest of his body.
"My god, that isn't a suit of scalps, is it?" Rodney demanded tactlessly.
Ronon narrowed his eyes at him.
"Seriously, I think we should know if there's a possibility of you skinning us alive and wearing our hair like pelts," Rodney went on, glancing at John. "Right?"
"Rodney," John groaned, pressing two fingers into his forehead.
"What? Oh, like you're not curious!"
"He is a basajaun," Teyla repeated the term from earlier, a mixture of tolerance and censor in her tone. After all, she'd known Rodney since his birth. "The hair is his own."
Rodney huffed, but kept silent, watching Ronon with a wary eye and scooting closer to John.
The night air seemed to breathe, the Furthest Forest housing sounds that were strangely soothing to the small party's frayed nerves. Nightjars, the Athos nighthawk and the sad-songed poorwill, keened above the ebb and flow of chirruping crickets. The raw rasp of cicadas called and answered in the tall grass by the forest edge, and a single nearby owl queried the darkness in a low, throaty, stuttering voice.
Soon, Teyla broke their quiet with a soft, "We must sleep for a few hours."
"You go ahead." John nodded at Teyla. "This isn't the greatest neighborhood, so—"
"I'll keep watch," Ronon cut him off, casually ripping into another piece of bread. "You should sleep."
John arched a brow. "Nice of you to offer, but—"
"Prince John, we will be fine." Teyla gave him a small smile, then reached out and squeezed Ronon's wrist. In return, the basajaun dipped his head once and got to his feet, then melted noiselessly into the darkness surrounding them.
John expected Rodney to complain about being watched over by a guy that could possibly - in his mind - kill them all in their sleep, but Rodney was predictably already nodding off, slumped against John's arm, cheek mashed into his shoulder. Fondly, John brushed a few damp strands of hair off his forehead, a half-smile pulling his lips. "He's all tuckered out again," he murmured.
When he lifted his gaze, Teyla was eyeing him from across the fire, a carefully blank expression on her face.
"All will be well," she told him.
"You're always spouting these sweeping assurances," John commented wryly.
"And I am always right."
"Rodney's been rubbing off on you," he teased.
Teyla's gaze slid to Rodney, her lips pursed thoughtfully. "He is a better man than he thinks he is."
"Yeah," John readily agreed. "He kind of is."
Athos Castle was hardly recognizable by the time they finally crested the last hill between the First Forest and the arable lands. The brambles had grown rapidly and lushly, snaking across the castle grounds in thick twists of thorns that had already overtaken three of the five villages settled in the kingdom's valley.
"Wow," John breathed. "This is gonna suck."
The four of them - since the basajaun had pretty much invited himself along, and who was going to argue with that? - surveyed the mess with varying degrees of frustration.
And then Ronon rubbed a big hand under his nose and sniffed. "Something's off," he said.
"I sense it, too." Teyla straightened her back.
"What?" Rodney swung nervously around, scanning the horizon. "I don't see anything."
The wood fairy held up a hand and cocked her head, listening for the mingled voices of the First Forest that gamboled on the wind. "Kavanagh knows we are here."
"Ooookay," John drew out slowly, "that isn't good."
And then the ground rumbled and dirt spewed through the air as the thickets surrounding the castle were swallowed into the soil, leaving the landscape riddled with wide, gaping holes.
Ronon bared his teeth. "He's inviting us in to play."
"I'm not so sure I like his tone," said John, unsheathing his sword.
A flash of lightning sliced the sky in half, chased by a crack of deafening thunder, and the clouds above Athos Castle churned gray to black.
"Socially speaking," John drawled, "I'm betting Kavanagh doesn't inspire a lot of friends."
"So we're hiding," John commented idly, leaning his back against an outcropping of rocks at the edge of the First Forest.
"Yes," answered Rodney, just as Teyla shook her head and said calmly, "We are waiting for him to show himself."
"Right." John's brows peaked skeptically over his nose.
"His magic is strong, but he wields it foolishly," said the wild fairy, one knee on the grass and fingers wrapped tightly around her fighting staff. "He will no doubt take the form of that which he deems invulnerable."
"What, like a cockroach?"
"Invulnerable," Rodney muttered, ignoring John. "Which to Kavanagh probably means large and fire-breathing."
"Like a dragon?" John really would've preferred a cockroach.
"Possibly. Hey, how about you distract him while Teyla and I sneak inside?" Rodney suggested brightly.
"Or how about you distract him," John countered dryly, "since I'm the one who's actually supposed to make it past Kavanagh alive?"
"Right. Terrible plan," Rodney agreed, nodding. "No one is distracting the dragon."
"I'll distract the dragon," Ronon volunteered, and John shook his head.
"Are we sure he's even going to be a dragon?" he asked. "Maybe he'll take on the form of a puppy. Puppies are sort of invulnerable. No one wants to hurt a puppy. It'd just whimper and make cow eyes and I'm going to shut up now." Rodney was getting kind of red in the face. John didn't think that was a good sign.
"You're being stupid on purpose, aren't you?" Rodney snapped.
"I prefer to call it optimistic."
"So you're telling me a dragon isn't invulnerable?" John asked, because the very large, very unfriendly-looking winged beast hovering above Athos Castle definitely wasn't a puppy.
The black clouds had caught up in a sudden high wind, a swirling cone that'd grown faster and wider and brighter until they were more navy than black, and then more indigo than navy. Then finally they'd morphed into a damn enormous dragon, with bat-bony wings arched long and inelegant over its back, and knobby, vicious talons clutching air.
Its wide maw was a mess of sharp teeth covered in bloodthirsty drool, its cry was almost heart-stoppingly shrill, and the whole valley smelt of ash.
"Yes." Rodney cupped a hand over his eyes, gaze fixed on the circling black form. "Just extremely difficult to kill."
"Oh, well in that case." John hefted his sword and grinned.
"I can't look. I'm not looking." Rodney peeked out between his fingers. "Oh my god, what does...? Does he have a death wish? He's going to get sat on! He's going to die from being sat on! Is that bothering anyone else? Is he out of his mind? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR OBVIOUSLY TINY MIND?" he ended with a shout as he stood up, arms flailing.
Ronon tackled him to the ground just before the purple-black belly of the dragon skimmed the top of the hill, rolling them back down behind the outcropping of rocks.
I am out of my mind, John thought, dodging an unfurling claw as big as his torso and teetering unsteadily on the edge of a gaping hole before sliding into a crouch.
He knew what he had to do, of course. Invincibility jokes aside, he knew how to kill. He knew he had to catch just the right angle, had to charge beneath an upraised wing, thrusting hard enough into its side to break through the tough, leathery skin. He knew he had to slip his blade underneath the chest plate and puncture the heart, twisting viciously so the wound would bleed open and raw, with no hope of healing.
But Kavanagh was fast and breathed fucking fire and Jesus. John had learned a lot from the Atlantean Guard, but he'd never learned how to fly.
"Off, off, get off," Rodney spat, pushing at the hairy man-dog lying heavily across his body. He smelled like a barn.
Ronon moved away with a gruff, "You're welcome," and Rodney narrowed his eyes at him.
Teyla's hands were on his arms as he struggled into a sitting position, and she chastened firmly, "Prince Rodney, we must keep out of sight."
"Yes, because then nothing at all will divert Kavanagh from killing John, which, by the way, was so not part of the plan." In fact, any situation where John could die was not acceptable, and if he hadn't been so spitting mad with fear he probably would've been more concerned with what that epiphany actually meant.
"He is doing well," Teyla said.
"He's fallen into a hole," Ronon commented. "I'll be right back."
His side hurt. His side hurt and he was pretty sure a few of his ribs were broken. He wasn't going to dismiss the possibility of a concussion either, so he decided that he liked the nice, safe hole he'd dropped into just fine.
And then Ronon landed in front of him, tall and broad and light on his big feet with the white flash of a grin baring his teeth. "You stuck?" he asked, and John cursed, "Son of a bitch," under his breath.
Rodney scowled at Teyla. "Aren't you magic? Can't you," he rolled his wrist, "conjure something, blast Kavanagh out of the sky, do anything useful at all besides stand there and sparkle?"
"I am a wood fairy," she explained, ignoring his disgruntlement. "We deal only with possibilities. I cannot make Prince John any faster or stronger than he is as a man grown, and I cannot give him something which he does not already have."
"Well, then what good are you?" Rodney snapped.
Kavanagh keened a harsh cry and they both glanced over to see John being literally pushed out a hole, sprawling out onto the red, muddy earth with one arm wrapped protectively over his left side, his breathing visibly short and pained. Ronon, agile despite his huge size, hopped out easily after him, sending them a toothy grin before bending over to help John to his feet.
"We are so screwed," Rodney whispered.
"Perhaps..." Teyla cocked her head at Primrose, the mare wild-eyed and on the edge of bolting, her equine nerves obviously frayed by the mingled scent of blood and smoke. Next to her, Prince John's steed stood equally antsy, but for clearly different reasons.
The Atlantean mare, a wild bay dun, fey blood apparent in the dark dorsal stripe flared along her spine, was prancing in place, massive front hooves stamping the moist ground impatiently, nostrils flared and eyes nearly mean as she arched her neck and tossed her mane. Her withers twitched, the muscles quivering in pulse-quick waves, and Teyla approached her with a smile and a soft hand.
She slid her palm onto the black-brown muzzle, loose arm following the dip and bob of the horse's head. The mare wanted to fly, that much was apparent. She wanted to fly fast, wanted to stretch her legs into nothingness, and she'd already come so very close - she told Teyla with her restlessness - when Prince John raced her across the pastures of Atlantis, wind at their backs.
So much potential, that's what Teyla saw, and she unsheathed her wand.
John was almost certain he was hallucinating.
Pain wasn't so much radiating from his side as stabbing, shooting sharp threads of agony around his midsection, making his abdomen spasm and clench. And Blackbird was soaring right at him with what appeared to be a twenty or so foot wingspan, yellow-brown feathers on flexing bone, folding up into neat triangles along her flanks as she alighted onto a narrow patch of ground between two holes and whinnied at him.
"How the...?" John stared in wonder, and then Ronon shoved him solidly forward with a wide hand on the center of his back.
"That should help," the basajaun said, and all John could think was understatement. Total understatement.
He awkwardly swung himself up onto the familiar-yet-unfamiliar back, jarring his side with a hiss through gritted teeth. Then he trailed light fingers over the crooked bone protruding from Blackbird's shoulder blade and breathed, "Cool."
John thought perhaps he'd enjoy the flying a lot more if he wasn't dodging a giant fire-breathing dragon, but it was still pretty awesome.
Blackbird was as fast in the air as she was on the ground, responding to the slightest pressure of his calves on her belly, the shift of his upper body, and he left the reins loose on her neck, letting his movements on her back guide her as he wielded his sword somewhat unsteadily with one hand and clutched his wounded side with the other.
And then they were gliding under a thick, leathery wing, Kavanagh curving his neck around to snap bitter flames at them, and John palmed the hilt of the saber over his shoulder. He thrust blindly, praying it wouldn't deflect off a rib, and when the long, sharp blade sank in smoothly undeterred, he wrenched it sideways with all his strength, watching with grim satisfaction as blood welled out over his hand.
Kavanagh screeched and lurched away, almost unbalancing John as he jerked his weapon out, crimson sliding down the sword point, bubbling fast enough out over the dragon's hide for John to realize he'd hit his intended target.
They stood stock-still as the dragon plummeted down, a spiral of smoke and squawking cries, less than graceful as its wings spasmed and failed to catch air.
It was over far quicker than anyone had anticipated, but it'd still felt like forever to Rodney, and he rushed towards John as soon as the winged mare touched ground. John was sweaty and bloody and had dirt caked on his clothes, his left elbow, smeared across half his face. He didn't dismount so much as pour himself out of the saddle, and his legs didn't seem to be working all that efficiently. Or at all.
"You are an idiot," Rodney said briskly, slipping under John's right shoulder to hold him upright. "Much dumber than I'd previously surmised."
John winced, but didn't pull away. "Thanks." And though he'd meant it to be sarcastic, the word came out far too heartfelt and couched with relief. He couldn't promise that he wouldn't pass out, either.
"I clearly underestimated the hair," Rodney went on, "which, by the way, does not seem to realize you're hurt." He narrowed his eyes at the wind ruffled strands that weren't any less perky than usual.
"Funny," he breathed. The pain dissipated somewhat, though, with the lack of movement, and he managed to grin at Teyla. "You," he said, "are my new favorite person."
Rodney huffed. "Technically, she's not a person. She's an overgrown, humanoid bug with magical powers."
The fairy frowned at him before turning a lighter look on John. "I am glad I could be of help. Your mare has a very brave soul."
"You mean she's as insanely reckless as her master," Rodney groused in a low voice, then went on louder, "Could we get a move on here? And why does it seem like nothing's changed?" The castle walls were still interwoven with thickets, the entire fortress mired in eerie silence.
Teyla gazed out over the land in wrinkle-browed concentration. "He is bleeding out his magic slowly," she said finally. "The castle will wake the same way."
"And Jeannie then?" Rodney asked hopefully.
"I'm afraid that she is another magic entirely. Curses are embedded much differently than spells."
"Of course they are." Rodney deflated somewhat on a sigh.
John nodded towards Athos Castle. "Shall we?"
Ronon and Teyla kept watch in the castle yard as John and Rodney made their way past the tall wooden doors and across the foyer, slicing through dry vines with John's sword, stepping over and around guards and servants that had slumped down where they'd been standing, sleep nodding their heads.
Winding up staircases, progress made slow by John's injuries, they finally found Jeannie in the topper most chamber, curled into a loose ball, head pillowed by a bent arm. She looked peaceful, at least, if too pale and too still, and Rodney batted John's hands away when he reached to lift her up.
"You couldn't carry a pencil right now, so get out of the way." She was light and bone-thin in his hold, which was not right and beyond scary but Rodney was not panicking. He hugged her to his chest and John followed him with careful movements as they trudged down the spiral steps, passing through corridor after corridor until they reached Jeannie's room.
Laid out on her bed, dark covers beneath her, she looked even more pale, auburn hair lank over her shoulders and white fingers resting on her sternum. She looked beautiful and she looked like death and Rodney had to swallow back something painful in his throat.
"Okay," John murmured, and he squeezed Rodney's arm as he moved around to the other side of the mattress. "Okay."
He lifted a hand, dried blood crusted over his knuckles, and pressed it feather-light against her throat, long fingers curling behind her ear. His thumb stroked up over her chin as he leant down, lips wet with a quick swipe of his tongue, and then he brushed their mouths together in a soft caress.
Jeannie didn't stir.
"It didn't work," Rodney said in slight disbelief. No matter how far-fetched he'd found it all, some small part of him had obviously expected something to happen. "Well, of course it didn't work, but. Maybe you should try it again?"
"Rodney," John started, frowning.
"In all logic it shouldn't work, yes, I know that, but I don't think we should give up so quickly, either, since we don't actually have any other options at the moment," Rodney went on in a rush, anxiousness edging his voice.
"Tongue!" His eyes lit up almost maniacally. "Yes, try using your tongue and—what?"
John just stared at him. "I'm not going to french kiss your unconscious sister, Rodney."
"Why the hell not?" he demanded, leaning over Jeannie's prone form. "Teyla didn't say true love's peck, did she? True love's smooch?"
"John! If you're going to do this, you have to do it right!"
He crossed his arms over his chest. "I demand that you french kiss my sister."
"Now." Rodney glowered at him darkly, one foot tapping in a rapid, irritated rhythm.
"Christ!" Eyes pressed shut, John shoved a hand through his hair, tugging viciously on the ends, and when he looked at Rodney again there was a wild, almost trapped-animal desperateness to them. "Rodney," he tried for cool-calm, but was just shy of pulling it off, "I'm not in love with your sister—"
"Of course you aren't," Rodney cut in impatiently. They'd been over that already. Or at least he thought they had. True Love's Kiss = Unbelievably Ridiculous Variable of Plan. "That's been the problem from the very beginning, and currently really isn't the poin—"
"I'm in love with you."
Rodney blinked, words stuttering to a stop in his throat. "Oh," he croaked out finally.
"John, I..." He opened and closed his mouth a few times and his eyes were a watery shade of sad, and he was giving John his oh-my-god-this-is-really-horrible-and-uncomfortable grimace.
"It's all right, Rodney," John sighed. He hadn't actually expected any sort of declaration in return.
"Right," Rodney fluttered his hands, "of course it's all right. Perfectly fine. I'm. You're." He shifted on his feet awkwardly, at a complete loss of what to say.
John looked away from him, concentrated on the arched windows, the break of blue sky over the castle walls, ignoring the tightening around his eyes. He swallowed hard and said, "Yeah."
Outside of the castle, Ronon leaned against a thicket-covered wall and rolled his shoulders, scratching an itch at the top of his spine with the thorny branches. "They're not very smart, are they?" he noted gruffly.
Teyla stood two arm-lengths away, the patch of ground surrounding her feet melting into spring, tiny white flowers of sweet alyssum sprouting up from beside her leather-clad toes. Faint rustlings and small voices drifted down from the open windows as the castle slurred into wakefulness. "Prince Rodney is the most intelligent man in all the kingdoms of Pegasus," she said, tipping her face to the sky.
She shot him an amused smile. "Still, it is taking them an inordinate amount of time to figure this out."
They ended up sitting a foot apart on the floor beside Jeannie's bed, backs against the mattress, since neither of them wanted to look at her pale-as-stone face. Rodney was tapping his fingers rapidly against his thigh, face pinched in thought.
"How could you possibly be in love with me?" he snapped suddenly. "We never. I mean. I only see you on Christmas."
"We were engaged for six years," John ground out, and he couldn't believe Rodney didn't think that meant something. "You were my best friend, Rodney."
"I." Rodney's mouth screwed up into a grin. "Really? Best friend?" Then he narrowed his eyes. "You were going to marry my sister."
"I pretty much had to," John shrugged. "I figured it wouldn't be so bad, though. She reminded me of you a lot of the time."
"She...?" John's words left Rodney jealous and disgusted and slightly flattered all at once, and he glowered darkly at him. "You were okay with marrying my sister because she reminded you of me?"
John sensed that Rodney was really kind of angry about that, but he went on anyway. "Seemed like the thing to focus on, yeah."
"But. But you both would've been miserable!" Rodney shouted, a red flush spreading up from his neck. "You, pining for me, and Jeannie in love with a man in love with another man. It's like some farcical play where you tragically die of a broken heart and Jeannie weeps over your dead body—"
"I don't know," John interrupted casually, because Rodney seemed to be going nowhere. Fast. "Can you see Jeannie weeping over anything?"
"So not the point! You weren't planning on telling me at all, were you?" accused Rodney.
John gave him an are-you-insane? quirk of his eyebrows and slowly shook his head. "No," he drawled, but Rodney seemed more hurt than truly angry and he gazed at him in speculation. "What's the problem, Rodney?"
"What problem? There's no problem. Unless you count the problem I have with a loveless union between you and my sister, there's no problem at all!"
"Whoa." John snatched Rodney's flailing wrist out of the air and somehow the younger man ended up pressed against his side, wide blue eyes even wider with a quiet sort of freaking out, except he really wasn't all that quiet. "First of all," John cut off the tirade that was visibly working its way out of Rodney's throat, "you know as well as I do that love was irrelevant to the entire contract. And, anyway, I never said I didn't love her," he thought it was a little impossible not to love the sharp-witted young lady who always demanded attention and often held herself like a queen, "I'm just not in love with her.
"Second of all," he tightened his grip on Rodney almost reflexively, hope fluttering his pulse, "second of all, why would you care?"
Rodney would've shouted that he didn't care, except it was completely obvious that he did. And, really, denial could only be taken so far before it just made you look obtuse and callow.
John smiled an infuriatingly knowing smile at his silence, hazel eyes lit up adorably, pleased and self-satisfied, and Rodney slipped his free palm over John's nape, nudging him closer, because there was no way he was going to let a smug prince with excitable hair get the last word.
Still. Their lips were too dry when they met, and, despite his previous conviction, Rodney had absolutely no idea what he was doing, what he was getting into, what any of this really meant. He could taste his own unexpected nervousness in the back of his throat, and John whispered, "Relax," against his mouth, but, actually, John didn't seem all that comfortable against him either.
So, technically, it wasn't the best kiss. He normally wouldn't have even rated it above that time he'd kissed Sam behind the theoretical physics section of the library and she'd slapped him so hard his eyes had wobbled, except it was John. And a horribly awkward, clueless kiss from John was still better than a perfect one from anyone else - though Sam was unbelievably hot and maybe if she'd shown the slightest interest—
"Rodney," John half-moaned, and his tongue slicked out and oh. There was nothing at all dry about their mouths anymore.
John palmed Rodney's jaw, pads of his fingers pressing lightly just below his ear and stroking down his throat, the pressure in direct contrast to the roughness of his lips, the tongue licking over his teeth and had he honestly thought this wasn't the best kiss ever? A nip and then John's mouth was following his fingers and Rodney's neck was liquid, falling back, the faint scrape of nails along his collarbone echoed in a pulsing tightness around his heart, the base of his spine, the arch of his boot-clad feet.
There were no dreams to wade out of and she woke as if a switch had been flipped, black to blinding light within seconds, no cobwebs of sleep to blink out of her eyes. Though she kind of wished there had been, since Rodney was making an odd keening noise, head tipped back onto the edge of her bed, expression blissed, and John's face was pressed into the curve of his neck and, god almighty, she couldn't even see their hands.
"Oh yuck," she said, because it was her brother and he was making sex sounds in front of her, and that was disturbing and wrong on so many levels. She threw an arm over her eyes. "Stop it. Stop it now."
"Jeannie," John said brightly, "you're awake!"
She cautiously raised her arm and peeked out at them.
"You are in so much trouble," Rodney snapped, though his words were softened nearly to the point of ridiculousness since he was petting John's hair.
"What did I do?" she asked indignantly.
Rodney scowled. "You were in the top tower. You touched a spindle point. I wasn't aware that anyone sharing my blood was even capable of being so massively stupid."
"Oh, you want to talk about stupidity, do you?" she ground out, coming up on one elbow. "What about you and your pitiful avoidance of John because you couldn't properly express your love for—"
"Oh my god, you did it on purpose!" Rodney shouted, jumping to his feet and thrusting a finger at her.
John slumped over with a low, "Ow," as he was jostled out of the way.
"You pricked your finger on purpose and how did you know? How did you know it would work?" he demanded shrilly.
Jeannie shrugged. "I studied the curse's wording. 'True love's kiss' didn't specify anything about me. I took a calculated risk that it would work simply if I was in the general vicinity."
"You took a..." His jaw dropped open, and then snapped shut with an audible click. "Do you have any idea what the odds were that we'd kiss at all, let alone at your bedside? Not to mention the fact that John had to fight a dragon—"
"Really?" Jeannie threw John a half-concerned, half-fascinated look and he grinned loosely back at her.
"Oh, that is so cool," she gushed, rolling up into a sitting position and leaning forward onto her knees.
He nodded. "Especially when Blackbird—"
"Excuse me! Does anyone care that I had to ride a horse, and that John nearly died because Jeannie decided to be an impulsive child—"
"Not really," John cut in smoothly, and Jeannie beamed at him.
"You don't count," Rodney growled. "You're only thinking about sex, anyway."
"Hey, ew. Still in the room here," Jeannie protested, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
John stared up at Rodney curiously. "Who counts then?"
"Me. And you're both grounded."
"You can't ground me," his sister complained. "Only mum and dad can do that."
"And you don't think they will?" Rodney scoffed, pacing towards the door. "After this stunt?"
"I'm pretty sure you can't ground me either," John drawled, openly amused.
Rodney paused, taking in John's negligent lounge against Jeannie's bed, one arm running the length of the mattress, the other... Well, the other was pressed tight against his injured ribs, but he seemed to be amazingly good at compartmentalizing pain, if the gleam in his eyes was any indication. "Don't be so sure," he said, striding back towards him.
John didn't think Rodney could move like that. He was broad and solid and almost marched when he walked, which John had always thought was quirky and cute, but this wasn't a march, wasn't quite a saunter, and John definitely drew the line at 'predatory stalking'- Rodney could never pull that off - but just the words, resonating in his head, burned a pleasant path down his spine. He arched a lazy, daring brow as Rodney knelt down in front of him.
"How's the side?" he asked.
John tilted his head minutely. "Painful."
Rodney leant forward, concern furrowing his forehead. "Unbearably painful?"
"Manageable," John answered, reeling him in with fingers curled in the front of his shirt, licking the corner of his mouth.
Jeannie's eyes widened when Rodney pushed closer and groaned, opening his mouth and. "What are you...? No! God, no! The burning!" Jeannie yelped, slapping hands over her eyes. "Not in my room, not in my room!"
"I think we're scarring your sister," John laughed.
"Irreparable damage!" she squealed, voice muffled by her pillow as she flopped over on the bed.
"Eh. She'll live."
The Third Forest was spooky, with shifting dark shadows and perpetually bare trees. Blackbird shied sideways, wings fluttering open and then closed again, and she hardly ever shied at all, so John eyed the edge of the woods warily, urging the horse to a stop. The undergrowth was thick and washed pale under the early morning sun, and the shiver down John's spine matched the shimmering twitches of the brush, ruffled by an unfelt breeze.
And then the bushes parted and Rodney came striding out, grinning triumphantly and wiping his hands together, with Radek trailing a step behind and practically spitting dissention, obviously very, very upset. So upset he'd reverted to his native tongue, and John just arched his brows at them both and backed Blackbird up a step, keeping out of their way as they stumbled onto the path.
"What are you two up to?" John asked suspiciously, and Rodney just grinned wider, rocking back on his heels.
"Absolutely nothing," he crowed.
"Why do I not believe you?"
"Because he is horrendous liar," said Radek, pushing his glasses up his nose from where they'd slid on his scenic tour of the second scariest Athosian magical forest - the first being the Diagonal Forest which was occasionally invisible to the naked eye - so that he could focus his glare on Rodney with even more intensity. "And delusional."
Rodney whistled. Whistled.
"Rodney." The man was seriously creeping John out.
Radek poked him in the side. "See?" He gestured towards Blackbird. "Is handsome bay."
John furrowed his brow and glanced down at his mare. "Um, thanks?" he ventured.
"The black was healthier," Rodney said simply, the beginning of something mutinous and tight forming at the corners of his mouth. Still, his eyes were glowing far too brightly for John's peace of mind.
"Coat was nice," Radek scoffed, hand waving dismissively. "You are distracted by shiny things, then? Mealy bay was better choice." His voice was louder and more strident than John had ever heard from the small man, and he widened his eyes, watching incredulously as Radek leant in close to Rodney and said, "Leg was spindly on black—"
"They were all spindly," Rodney protested.
"—head too small. He is cute, yes, but has too much weaknesses. Bay was better."
John cocked his head to the side. It sounded an awful lot like... "Are you buying a horse?"
"None of your business," Rodney blustered, a flush staining his neck and the edge of his jaw.
"He is getting sickly horse," Radek grumbled.
"You don't even like horses," John needled. And, with the possible exception of Primrose, horses didn't really like him either.
Rodney was steadily turning bright red. "I like horses just fine," he huffed.
"He is getting bad deal," Radek went on, then poked Rodney again. "You should let him choose."
John blinked. "Are you buying a horse for me?"
Rodney glowered at Radek, and growled, "That's it. I'm letting Carson's goat eat you."
"Please." Radek rolled his eyes. "You ask my advice, yet you ignore everything. Prince John should choose."
"You are buying me a horse!" John's grin was slow, and Rodney's scowl broke into a mischevious half-smile as he looked up at him.
John's gaze slipped past him and into the dark trees beyond, forehead crinkled in question. "From the Third Forest?"
"You're intent on ruining the surprise, aren't you?" Rodney snapped, but he seemed more annoyed than angry. He spun around and trudged back into the bushes, then threw over his shoulder, "Come on, then," and John didn't waste any time following.
He slid off Blackbird's back and left her with Radek as he ducked into the forest after Rodney, winding single-file through the dense underbrush, dodging bare, whip-lean branches and wondering what the hell kind of horse would be living in a magical forest. After ten minutes of listening to Rodney grumble about what sounded like conniving foreigners and irresponsible pet owners with napoleon complexes, and then another ten minutes of ignoring Rodney in favor of counting how many trees they passed looked exactly the same - he was starting to regret not having left a trail of breadcrumbs - they came to a large clearing inhabited by a smiley little gnome and—
John sucked in his breath, and Rodney sent him a smug I'm-the-best-boyfriend-ever! grin at the squeaky noise he subsequently made. And he was not a girl and thus there was no way he was going to burst out with oh my god, they're so cute, but it was there in the back of his mind, spinning on an endless loop that nearly made him giddy.
"You're buying me a flying horse?" John asked, a little awed, because Blackbird was awesome but. There were four pint-sized foals frolicking around the grassy field, overlarge hooves layered with fluffy fetlocks, knobby knees and big ears and tiny diaphanous wings fluttering over their withers.
"They aren't flying yet, though it's fairly amusing to watch them try," he clarified, contentedly watching John grinning contentedly at the foals, and Rodney had a feeling he wasn't going to get away with buying just one, but he wasn't sure he cared.
John narrowed his eyes at him. "You're trying to one-up Teyla, aren't you?"
"Is it working?" Rodney asked cheerfully, because he so knew it was.
"Depends." He slid an arm around Rodney's waist. "Are we considering this your dowry?"
Rodney rested his head on John's shoulder, watching a little dark chestnut stumble into a run after a pixie butterfly. "Only if you think you can survive a public verbal thrashing and a clothes closet full of incontinent goats." Carson owed him a few favors.
"So that's a no," John drawled.
On the other side of the clearing, one of the mothers stepped out of the bare trees and into the sun, light gleaming on the arch of her gray wings, feathers ruffled from a recent flight, darker mane a long tangle on her thick neck.
"You know what would really outdo Teyla?" John murmured, gaze locked on the elegant horse as she walked further into the field, head high and ears pricked towards them.
"Yes, of course I do, you're very predictable. We'll get all four."
John gave him a startled, blooming smile. "Well, I was thinking more along the lines of a barbeque, but that'll work."
And they lived fairly happily ever after. The end.