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Earning Wings

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{Elsewhen, in the depths of The Pits}
Since few that have been there ever make it back to tell the tale to the mortal world, there are hardly any accurate descriptions of what Perdition is actually like. There exist folklore and faith; mere speculation containing pieces of the whole, guesses made by mortals as to what the nature of a place of everlasting suffering might be. None could possibly have the real truth of it, however, because Hell is personally tailored to each individual soul, created at the moment of entry out of the fears and imagination of the one being damned for whatever transgressions they had committed in their time in the mortal realms. The punishment made to fit the crime, to a certain extent.

The demons were the keepers, so to speak, of this prison of mortal souls. They were created and put there for the purpose of adding further torment to that which the soul had created for themselves, on the off chance that soul had been a little too lenient in their meting out of personal justice. Needless to say, the demons were not exactly happy with their fate, an eternity in The Pits of damnation is no way to carry out an existence. The demons spent their time coming up with ways to harass and keep the souls from escaping The Pits, should one rouse himself sufficiently to bother resisting after a plethora of tortures.

Not that souls didn’t try to escape. For the majority of those still capable of rational thought, existence was an endless cycle of torment broken up by desperate escape attempts, thwarted by demons.

And for a select few, it was an endless escape, interspaced with attempts by one particular demon to break them.

 

“You might as well climb down from there, maggot. There will be no escape for you today,” Garronawox hissed and looked up at the soul dangling precariously from a precipice on the cavern wall. Dubious progress had been made in the climb since Garronawox had last been to this particular cavern.

Hearing the demon’s entrance and words spurred him on to faster motion. He reached for a handhold and pushed himself up. He refused to look down, he wouldn’t give the demon the satisfaction of seeing that he was frightened. He was so very frightened. He gained a precious few hand’s span of distance before the demon spoke again.

“I know you hear me, maggot.” The acoustics of the cavern carried the demon's voice to all the nooks and crannies within, there was no way not to be heard. “Give up and allow yourself to fall. I am feeling magnanimous today, and the fall shall be all the punishment I require.”

“Never,” he whispered, his fingers digging into the hot rock of the wall, finding a tiny indent to use for a hold and trying to widen it slightly by brushing at it with the raw tips of his fingers. He knew that the fall would hurt, it might even be less painful than the torture Garronawox would inflict upon him when the demon’s talons began to rip and tear at him. But he would not submit willingly, he would not take the easy way out. Not this time. Taking the easy way had landed him here in the first place, had earned him this damnation. He was done with this, he wanted out, no matter how long it took.

The flap of leathery wings brought the gargantuan Garronawox level to where the man clung to the hot stone, panting and terrified. The air displaced by the flapping of the torn leathery wings as the demon hovered blew hot and fetid against his face.

“Stubborn simpleton,” the demon hissed with forked tongue. “Very well, maggot, have it your own way.”

Knowing what was coming, he steeled himself for the pain. If the walls of hell were hot and near to burning to the touch, the demon’s talons were like molten lava as they scored across the tattered rags that had once been a fine shirt and into the flesh of the man’s back, leaving steaming, charred streaks of pulp in their wake.

He screamed as he lost his grip and fell back into the depths, Garronawox keeping pace with him the entire way down and hissing into his ear, adding insults to the injuries.

When Garronawox was done with him, he would start again. As he had done each time before in this endless cycle.

 

{Elsewhere, elsewhen}
Across time, the alarms were clanging throughout The Hierarchy; the event that had been but a rumor and a whispered about Possibility had become a reality. Not merely a reality, but one that was upon them.

Somewhere, up at the Top, He had decided to Forgive. The ramifications, the reverberations if you will, of that Forgiveness would be felt for quite some time. Since time moved differently on the Heavenly Plane than in the mortal realm, ‘quite some time’ could mean eons and epochs in the lifespans of mortal men on the mortal planes.

The ranks of Heaven slowly swelled as the denizens of the under realms, including Purgatory, passed over into the realms of light as their sentences were, one by one, lifted in ultimate Forgiveness. The smaller the infraction, the easier to claim His Forgiveness. Some souls crossed from Damnation to Elsewhere with far more ease than others.

However, for some, the path to the light was far longer than it was for others. Indeed, the climb up from the depths of damnation was seemingly insurmountable for many. For inasmuch as the punishment of the Almighty was great, the self-inflicted damage to a soul could indeed be greater.

For some, they climbed from the depths of damnation to find they were discomforted by the sudden light. They needed time to adjust. Others needed to prove, to themselves, that they were worthy of the light, that they had truly done their penance and earned His Forgiveness.

And thus became, throughout time, the state of Between, not quite of the Heavenly Plane, but not quite wholly in another. The Protectors came into being, souls with something to prove, only to themselves, of course, because once He chose to Forgive, their sin was no more.

 

{In The Pits}
Garronawox was waiting at the bottom of The Pit, his victim should drop at any time now. Another demon had shown Garronawox a way to poke and dig a talon in a particular motion to inflict a deep and long lasting pain on a soul. Garronawox had known exactly which tenacious soul was deserving of such a wound. He would shut that insolent, disrespectful and flippant human’s mouth for once and for all.

All around was suddenly silent. Disturbingly silent to the demon. The screams of the tortured, the background ‘black noise’ of The Pit was inexplicably not there, in the span of a moment, everything changed.

“Maggot!” Garronawox shouted, taking flight and searching the walls for the errant soul, not finding him, he sought out the others assigned to him.

“Where are my maggots?” After much searching of this and many other caverns, Garronawox was forced to admit that the only beings remaining upon this circle of Hell were the demons charged with guarding it.

Landing on an outcropping, Garronawox truly lamented his lost charges. What to do now, without souls to persecute?

 

{Later, but always, because time is kinda like that Up There}
Seraphim Yaloyse was developing a twitch, wholly in response to the alarm claxon that seemed to be constantly ringing on his level of The Hierarchy. It was merely an exaggeration of his imagination, because half a dozen times in as many years could hardly be construed as constant, by a reasonable sort of being. But this was Seraphim Yaloyse, not always the most reasonable of beings. A good soul, true, but hardly patient or temperate.

Another wave of damned was incoming, escaping the depths of the final ring of Hell and needing the attention of those at the lowest rungs of Heaven. He thought they had seen the last, but apparently, the depths were still spewing forth souls in need of placement and guidance in the the Days of Amnesty, as the time of Forgiveness had come to be called, at least within the halls of The Hierarchy.

Surely, it would be more efficient for him to call on one of his subordinates to assist in the handling of these cases? He couldn’t be faulted for delegating such an important responsibility to one that needed to prove their own mettle in order to advance a rank? Surely not. He Summoned the individual he had in mind.

“Please, excuse me, Seraphim Yaloyse, you want me to place a what?” Celia blinked in astonishment at the dossier in her hands. “Surely this is a mistake?”

“Questioning, First Protector Devereau? Are you Questioning me, and thus the will of your superiors in The Hierarchy?”

Under her dark skin, Celia blushed then shook her head, sending her ebony curls bobbing in all different directions. “Forgive me, I misspoke.”

“I can do nothing less, in this Time of Forgiveness, lest I ignore His example. You will place this individual as a Protector, that he may earn his way to the next stage of his being.”

“But sir, surely a heretic...”

“Former heretic,” Yaloyse corrected in a dull tone.

“But, he doesn’t believe...”

“It was said by other mortal men that he didn’t believe. Only the Almighty knows what is truly in a heart. After centuries of Perdition, this soul has a need to prove himself. We, you, will provide him the opportunity to do so, as a Protector.”

At Celia’s frustrated stare, Yaloyse relented and suggested in a huff “Oh, give him another to focus on for a change, rather than himself.”

She sighed and read through the dossier. “Difficult. Very difficult. I’m not sure I know of a place where he will fit. Surely it would be easier to let this soul start anew on Earth, as we have let so many others of the formerly damned?”

“Easier, perhaps, but this one is different, deserving of attention. Such a step would merely defer the inevitable. Another life would not mend the damages, and a tortured mortal existence would merely be an extension of his former damnation in The Pits. No, in this Time of Forgiveness, we must find a way to help this one to forgive himself and accept the blessings of the Almighty.”

Seraphim Yaloyse crossed his arms and stared intently at his subordinate. “You, of all the First Protectors, are the most... shall we say resourceful? I am certain you are capable of finding a way to place such an antagonistic, introverted, intractable, troublesome soul. I leave it to you. The Hierarchy shall be paying close attention to the handling of this case, especially with regards to promotion.”

“Aloof, cold, unsociable,” pacing before Seraphim Yaloyse, she read the commentary made by the last Seraphim to interview and assess the soul when he had arrived in the Light. “You have set me a nearly impossible task, to get a soul such as this to care for the well being of another, to act as a Protector, of all things. Is it even fair of me to put an innocent soul into the charge of one such as this?” Even as she spoke, an idea began to form in Celia’s mind. A radical possibility, something that had never been done before, but as she reviewed the Rules in her mind, she realized that the idea she had was not specifically disallowed.

“Celia?” the Seraphim prodded when she had fallen silent for too long.

“I shall do whatever I am able to do, Seraphim Yaloyse. It might take some time to come to full fruition, but I think there might be a way. I am familiar with a time and place, a situation where this soul might do some good.”

Seeing a glimmer in Celia’s eyes, Yaloyse had a moment of trepidation. Then he grew suspicious. “You’re sending him THERE, aren’t you? Can’t you leave those people alone, Celia? This borders on favoritism and meddling.”

“It isn’t meddling. They just need a little more help than some of my other charges, a tiny bit more of my attention. And despite what we may claim otherwise, one cannot help but have a favorite now and again.” She left to return to her own corner of the Sanctum.

Fabricating a background for a Protector’s insertion into an Earthly situation was one of Celia’s strengths. Her attention to detail was renowned amongst her peers. She had, in the past, created lineages and family trees that enabled her to drop new charges in when necessary with minimal effort; for instance as cousins, siblings and long-lost children.

But this case needed something new. Something tailored to the taciturn soul she needed to place. After much planning and thought, she had called in an old friend for advice and consultation.

“I dunno, CeCe. I don’t think this guy can cut it at the SGC. He’ll make enemies,” Lorne handed the dossier and the background details across the ornate gilded desk and leaned back in his chair, as much as his wings would allow.

His estimation didn’t trouble Celia overly much. “He’ll make enemies wherever he goes, until he learns to like himself.”

“Seems to me, that’s part of his problem, he likes himself too much. It’s getting him to like others that’s the problem.” Ignoring CeCe’s eye roll and shake of her head in disagreement with his assessment, Lorne crossed an ankle over one knee and pointed to another dossier on the desk. “What’s that one?”

“The reason I called you in. An idea I had to make this work.”

Lorne picked up the folder and thumbed through it, then stopped, gave CeCe a quizzical look and began to read more intently. He finished, and then sat staring at CeCe for a time, thinking over what he had learned and trying to figure out what the somewhat devious First Protector was planning. “No. This one is already settled, on the path to redemption, earning his way. It might take a millennia, but this soul is on the straight and narrow. You cannot be thinking what I think you are thinking? CeCe, it has never been done.”

“Is that a valid reason not to do it? The question is, will it work?”

“They’ll hate each other.”

“Hate is such a strong word, so negative, and so unbecoming of a Protector,” CeCe clucked her tongue in disapproval at Lorne.

He chose to ignore her disapproval. “I mean it, they’ll hate each other. How can a Protector effectively do his duty when he hates his charge?”

“Again, hate is such a wrong word, Lorne. Hate and love, two sides of the coin. What if it works? If this plan works, then two souls are saved, and the long path of a millennia is cut down to a single human lifetime. We’ll have two Protectors worthy of the rank, should this come to fruition.”

He sighed and picked up one of the dossiers again, waggling it as he said in warning, “This one will be trouble.” A thought occurred to him and he narrowed his eyes and peered at her suspiciously. “You’re putting me right in the middle of this, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not.” As he continued to stare at her, she shifted uncomfortably, fluttered her wings and conceded, “Okay, a bit. But, just on the sidelines. In fact, you won’t even be aware of what is happening, of which souls are the ones we placed there at the SGC. They won’t know your true origins either. It will be better that way, it wouldn’t be fair to you or your current charge to ask you to divide your attention any more than it already is. If a time should come when your Intercession is needed, you’ll be there. With a volatile situation such as this, I prefer to have someone close at hand. But this isn’t your story, Lorne.”

He sighed in relief and relaxed slightly. “I’m glad for that. Things are going well for me now, I don’t need the attention.”

Celia nodded and folded her hands. “Now, tell me more about this SG-1, I need details to make this work.”

 

“Mistress Celia, I do not understand. The Hierarchy is sending me back to Earth? I have spent the past four hundred and seventy three years, and believe me, Mistress Celia, I have counted each and every every day in my attempt to reach...” John flailed his hand around to indicate the misty golden halls of the Sanctum.

Celia interrupted him before he could continue. “Just Celia, please. This isn’t a punishment, John. You’ve been chosen to be a Protector. Not every soul is given such an opportunity, it is an honor earned after many lifetimes of service. While carrying out your duties, you’ll be what we refer to as Between, living the life of a mortal while acting as a Protector, with access to the special abilities that come with that role, when they are needed.”

“I shall be mortal once again?” John rubbed his chin thoughtfully and then pushed back the long, dark hair that had fallen across his face. The idea seemed to appeal to him, in Celia’s opinion.

“Well, not really. Being Between isn’t mortal, but you’ll be able to feel pleasure and pain and emotions, just as you did in your first life. Your Between form can take a great deal of damage before breaking, far more than a mortal body. You’ll need to earn your way back to another full, mortal life, if that is what you decide you truly want.”

He glanced back over his shoulder at the dark feathers attached to his back, the new attribute that still amazed him. Then he looked meaningfully at Celia. “Surely, I will not pass unnoticed, unless mortal men have taken on the raiment of the angels since my passing?”

With a small smile, Celia shook her head. “You will look normal to them. When you are Between, you shall be able to conceal your true nature, that is one of your gifts. The only time your wings, Armor or Halo will be visible is when you fully utilize your abilities in the course of your duties. Even then, it is possible, with practice, to keep mortals from seeing through to the... shall we say, real you?”

Standing, John paced before her desk. Then he stopped and placed both hands flat near the edge and leaned in to stare at her. “I have felt the fires before, Mistress Celia. I have no wish to be burned at the stake, yet again, for witchery or consorting with demons. Men have narrow minds and only see that which they choose to see before them.”

“Have no fear, John. You go in Grace, with Heaven’s blessing, and if necessary, our Protection.”

“Where was this protection the first time I faced the flame?”

“Where, indeed? I’ll spare you a long sermon. Those times are over. Just think on these words and how they apply to your particular situation; you need to have faith and believe, John.”

She stood and walked over to give him a considering appraisal. “You are looking entirely too sixteenth century, my friend, a makeover will definitely be necessary before we can integrate you down there. You’re sounding behind the times, as well. Before you start your assignment, you’ll need some time in Immersion, to bring you up to speed with technology and language and current events. Some lessons in utilizing your new abilities, your gifts, will follow Immersion. Then we’ll lay the cover persona over you, and that will take a short time to sink in. Then you should be ready to start your assignment.”

“You would have me be another person?” he started in alarm as her words sunk in, and backed away from Celia.

“No, John. You shall still be you. We could never change your soul. But, in order for you to slip seamlessly into the life of your charge, so that you may live and work alongside him, we have constructed a background for you. You must be able to reference that past life, in order to play the role. We merely invent some convincing details and put them in your mind so that you may work with them. Do you understand?”

His brow furrowed in concentration as he thought over what she told him. Then a light of understanding suddenly appeared in his eyes and he smiled. “I would be as an actor upon a stage? But, rather than reading scripted lines on a page, I would, instead, have everything up here, in my mind?” He tapped his forehead.

“A very good analogy,” she nodded with a satisfied smile. “So, are you ready to begin?”

“‘Tis better than fighting demons at every turn,” John conceded with a lopsided smirk.

She didn’t have the heart to tell him his fight was far from over, and demons come in many forms. He had enough on his plate, for now.

 

{Later}
“So this is where I come in? Could you have found someplace colder?” John shouted to be heard above the blowing wind. “Where are we, anyway?”

“Antarctica. I’m not sure there is anywhere colder, on Earth, anyway. This is where you’ll meet General Jack O’Neill, he’s your ticket onto the Atlantis Project.”

“I hear your words, but it is still taking time to understand, Celia.”

Celia reached over and pressed her index finger to his forehead, intending to remind him of his cover. Her eyes glowed slightly as she invoked her gifts and began to chant in an undertone, “Major John Sheppard, the SGC...”

He gently clasped his hand around her finger and pulled it down and away. “I remember Celia, you do not need to Reinforce anything. I believe I shall... I’ll just take time to consider my words before I speak. This is all new Knowledge to me. Utilizing it shall... will take practice.”

“Of course it will, you are doing very well so far, John. Are you ready to fly?”

He looked over his shoulder in panic, afraid he would see his dark wings manifested there. Instead, he saw only the snow blowing behind him. Celia tapped his arm and pointed. “The helicopter. You’re to take General O’Neill over to the Ancient base.”

“Right, of course.” He had been given a very brief background about the Ancients, and had been told he would learn all that he needed to know at the same pace the persona he had taken on would learn it, only Knowledge he absolutely needed to perform his duties had been crammed into his mind during his Immersion and subsequent Protector training.

Glancing around the snowy landscape, John saw a man talking to a woman near the entrance to a nearby tin-roofed building. “Is that him?”

“That’s him. I’ll shadow you for a short while, until I am certain your insertion will hold without any further manipulation on my part. No one but you will be able to see or hear me, your Between sight gives you that ability.”

When he looked at Celia, John could see that she had a faint, nearly undetectable glow around her, he needed to concentrate in order to see it, and only because he knew it should be there made him think to look for it. It gave him a mild pain between the eyes concentrating to discern it, so he stopped trying, and the pain quickly faded. Lesson learned, don’t stare at the angels.

John crossed through the snow to the waiting chopper, which was thankfully warmed up and ready to go. He busied himself with checking things over, the process of preparing for takeoff coming to him as if he had been doing it for years, instead of merely minutes, thanks to the Immersion he had gone through in preparation for this persona.

He had just finished the check when O’Neill stomped up to the passenger door and yanked it open. “Ready to go, Major?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” John replied, and quickly added, “Sir.” He busied himself with the process of flying the helicopter. Luckily, O’Neill wasn’t overly chatty, and he was able to get things underway. He thought he had managed to make it look as if he was confidently doing what he was doing.

He pointedly ignored Celia, crammed in the back, with her face pressed between John and General O’Neill’s seats. John managed to carry on a stiff sort of conversation with the General. When answering questions, he stuck to the truth, as much as possible, trying not to rely too much on his cover story, lest he get tripped up in the still unfamiliar details.

It was all going along fine, until something came hurtling towards them in the sky.

“John, that object will destroy this vehicle,” Celia told him, quite unnecessarily, as he had already figured that out on his own.

Somehow, he managed to avoid the missile or whatever it was that seemed intent upon destroying them. He guided the helicopter, replied when necessary to the General and completely ignored Celia, who was attempting to give him advice in the midst of the chaos. Apparently, four-plus centuries of avoiding demons had considerably sharpened some of John’s reflexes.

He landed the helicopter, relieved to find them all in one piece.

“Well, that was different,” he said to Celia, standing near the helicopter.

Apparently General O’Neill thought John was speaking to him. “For me, not so much.”

Just what had he agreed to? John wondered as he climbed back into the helicopter. Before he closed his door, he saw Celia standing on the snow, dressed as she had been in her office, in flowing chiffon robes, her ebony curls loose around her round face and lying on her shoulders, watching him with a smile on her full lips. The smile made her look stunningly beautiful in a way John had not considered previously.

He realized the wind had stopped blowing, because not one of her curls was in motion. He looked around and saw that O’Neill was frozen in place. Celia had paused time, done a Time Stop, a skill he, as an initiate Protector, did not have.

“I don’t think you need me, you’re going to do just fine. Trust yourself, John. Trust your instincts. Remember that your charge needs you, despite what you might think from outward appearances, or what he might say. People put up fronts to hide what they do not want others to see. Your charge is a master at evasion. If he cannot evade, then he charges straight in and goes on the attack. Look deeper. Be patient. Wait. It will take time, but you will learn how to work with him.”

John nodded in understanding and time resumed, Celia was gone.

 

He did not have to feign his wonderment at the sights that awaited them at the base. Never in his life had he imagined such things could exist. He tried not to let it show that he loved the elevator. What he would have given for an elevator to have shortened his climb up from the depths. He imagined the heavy metal doors closing on the face of an approaching demon, just in the nick of time. The mildly indulgent fantasy of that happening made him smile, and he had to glance away to hide it when O’Neill gave him a quizzical look.

“Don’t touch anything,” O’Neill had warned when he left him. Of course, that made John’s fingers itch to do just as he had been told not to do. He sighed inwardly, had he learned nothing in all his time below? He tamped down the urge to misbehave.

He wasn’t sure why, but something made him lash out in a temper when he learned just who it was that had been responsible for the ‘drone’ that had nearly destroyed the chopper on his way to the base with the General. Even as he shouted at the Scottish doctor, he felt guilty. It was glaringly obvious the man had not meant to attack the helicopter, and felt terribly guilty for his part in the fiasco. John forced himself to calmness. He had a job to do here. He needed to work with these people, in order to keep his charge safe on this mission.

The chair called to him. He needed to sit in it, he didn’t know exactly why he felt so drawn to it, but the pull was irresistible. Celia had told him to trust his instincts and his instincts were telling him, no, screaming at him that he needed to be in that chair. He did not expect the reaction he got when he finally gave in and settled himself back against the Ancient device.

Celia had told him that back in the Sanctum they had given him some physical enhancements that would stand up to medical scrutiny. Rather than force him to constantly use his energy to seem to be what he was not, he would stay in this form, without access to most of his abilities. The body he was in seemed to be mortal, but was a Between shape. He had practiced shifting from one form to another in the Sanctum, and it was easy there. But he had been told that on the Earthly plane, the change was quite painful, and somewhat messy as his wings emerged. John was content to remain as he was, he was not overly attached to the new abilities being a Protector gave him, although he did enjoy flying, that was pure pleasure. He’d learn to work without his gifts, if he could. He had been centuries with nothing but constant pain and no abilities, Between or otherwise, and thus his current form was gift enough.

His Between shape apparently had the Ancient gene that was necessary to operate Ancient technology, or the enhancements he had been given made it seem he had the gene. The Ancient technology was tricked into recognizing him, at any rate. John wondered if that was the same for every Protector, or if he happened to be unique. It was something to ask Celia about, the next time he saw her.

John lay back in the chair, with lights flitting about him and Doctor Beckett seemingly going mad beside him. How interesting his life had just become. Or his afterlife, to be exact, since he was not technically alive. Or was he? He was a living soul, currently residing in a corporeal body that greatly resembled the form he had possessed when he last walked the Earth. In that moment, as he stared up at the chamber ceiling, he decided that this was indeed his life now, and he would no longer question the validity of it. With that decision came a sense of peace he had not felt in quite some time.

Then a man ran into the room and drew his full attention, and dispelled his peace. It was a pattern to be oft repeated in the coming years. “Major, think about where we are in the solar system,” the stranger that wasn’t exactly a stranger said to him.

Had he somehow summoned his charge, without a conscious thought to do so? Whoa, pull back the reins! These Protector powers might be more potent than he had been led to believe. At the same moment, a graphic representation of the stars appeared in the air over their heads, lighting the chamber and casting flowing lights over the faces of all those present as the image rotated.

“Did I do that?” John wondered aloud, and then looked at Meredith Rodney McKay, the man he had been charged with Protecting, his first assignment for The Hierarchy.

 

{Some six years later...}
With a heavy sigh of annoyance at being interrupted, Rodney saved his work and slapped the cover of his laptop closed. “Hold your horses, I’m coming!” he shouted at the insistent knocking on his apartment door. He was trying to bury himself in his work in order to avoid thinking about other things going on back in the States, and this intrusion into his process was not helping. He had finally been in the flow; work had soothed his jangled nerves and was letting him move on and get over what he had decided needed to be done.

The knocking didn’t stop. He yanked the door open to find a grinning John Sheppard standing there, with his hand raised to knock yet again. John quickly dove his hand into the colorful shopping bag he held cradled on his arm and came up with a familiar green and white plastic case, shiny with cellophane and price stickers. He waggled it enticingly before Rodney’s nose. “Busy, McKay? New game, let’s go.”

Absolutely astounded to see Sheppard on his doorstep, Rodney was momentarily speechless. Sheppard used the opportunity to push past him into the room. He dropped his bags and the game on the coffee table and began stripping out of his black leather jacket, revealing civilian clothing beneath. No ubiquitous duty uniform, as he had grown accustomed to seeing. Rodney was near the door, still staring at his unexpected visitor while John positioned himself on the sofa and reached into another bag to pull out two beers, offering one to his host.

Rodney ignored the extended bottle, which Sheppard placed on the table after a few moments of dangling it in air. “You are not supposed to be here,” he finally sputtered, closing the door and moving towards the sofa.

“Aw, Rodney, I thought the game would make up for dropping in without calling.”

“Quit being obtuse, Sheppard, you know exactly what I mean. This has nothing to do with your lack of manners. You are supposed to be on Atlantis.” He looked at the watch on his wrist, still synchronized to California time. “She launches in twenty two minutes. What in the hell are you doing in Canada? San Francisco is that way!” Rodney pointed in the direction of the United States with a jabbing motion for emphasis.

“Nah. Not going.” Sheppard opened his beer and took a long draw as he shrugged casually, avoiding Rodney’s glare as he looked around the apartment at anything else but his friend.

This was not the plan. Not at all. In his usual callous manner, Sheppard was screwing everything up, again. Sheppard was supposed to take Atlantis back to Pegasus. Their professional association was supposed to be done. Rodney was not supposed to have to deal with Sheppard’s reckless heroics anymore. Sheppard was supposed to be in Pegasus, light years away from all the various factions on Earth that wanted to see him dead; since the Stargate program had gone public, the crazy had seeped out of the woodwork. The Earth Only Coalition had started assassinating high ranking SG officers and Oversight Committee members, targeting them as the ones responsible for all the current world crises.

“Listen, Colonel Reckless,” Rodney started to say as he approached closer to the sofa.

“Not a Colonel anymore, I quit. Retired,” John interrupted the next tirade and then reached into the grocery bag he’d brought and withdrew a bag of corn chips.

“Like that is going to solve anything. You’re outed, Sheppard, the people who care to know, know that you have the gene. They are not going to stop hunting you and trying to blow you to smithereens just because you tucked your uniform into a box in the corner of a closet somewhere.” Rodney sighed and crossed his arms. Seeing that his dire prediction had not affected Sheppard in the slightest, he tried a different tactic. “Just how do you expect Atlantis to get back to Pegasus without you?”

“O’Neill is going. He’s numero uno on the Coalition’s hit list, so it’ll be safer in Pegasus for him, anyway.”

Rodney began to pace, ignoring Sheppard as his friend took another drink then set aside the bottle and began to tear open the cellophane wrapping on the new game he had brought with him, reading the label aloud as he did so. “Interactive characters, extended levels, and customizable vehicles, cool. Where’s the console?” Sheppard got up and went to the TV stand and leaned over to look on the shelf underneath, pulling out the game controllers.

“Stop with the game, already, Sheppard, this is serious. O’Neill has never flown the city, we don’t even know if he can or if his body will be able to withstand the strain. He isn’t forty anymore.”

“Neither am I. Lorne’s there to take over, and Beckett too if necessary, I’m redundant. Ah, here it is.” He pulled the game unit from where it had been tucked away and began stretching the wires out to reach the coffee table.

Rodney stomped over and grabbed the controller in Sheppard’s hand, starting a slight tug of war over the plastic. “It isn’t safe here.” His eyes finally met John’s, and then he couldn’t look away. They stood motionless for a few moments. “They’ll get to you too. You need to go, John.”

“Not without you. I go where you go.”

All the plans, going to hell.

“Why are you doing this? Why can’t you just go, go where you’ll be safe? It was all arranged, it took months to make these plans, to get everyone on board. You agreed.”

Sheppard continued to stare at him and said nothing.

“You agreed. You’re taking Ronon and Teyla back to Pegasus.”

“And leaving you here alone? Not gonna happen.”

Rodney blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m not alone.”

“Right.” Giving up the struggle for the controller, instead, Sheppard reached past Rodney to the shelf of the TV stand and picked up a framed photo of Rodney’s sister and niece, both smiling broadly as together they held up a blue ribbon at the school science fair.

Rodney dropped the controller onto the shelf and grabbed the frame and put it back into place. “They’re far safer going to Pegasus than staying here. I don’t want those Earth Only Coalition people getting to them the way they got to Jennifer.” After a moment, he shook away the troubling memory and jabbed a finger at Sheppard’s chest. “YOU were going to be there on Atlantis to protect them, I was counting on you to do that.”

“I’m here to protect you, McKay.”

“I don’t need you here.”

“Lorne will keep a close watch on Jeannie and Maddie. We’ll figure out a way to make this work, here.”

“No, no, you need to go.” Rodney started to push at Sheppard’s shoulder. When he didn’t move, Rodney got more insistent, and began to shove him towards the door. “Go. There’s still time, we’ll call someone and get you there. Damn it, Sheppard!”

John refused to move, and Rodney began to beat at his arms and chest with his fists. “NO! YOU CAN’T STAY! YOU HAVE TO GO!” Sheppard flinched, but let Rodney continue to pound on him.

After a few moments, John did the most unexpected thing; he wrapped his arms around Rodney and held him. “Not going,” he said simply as Rodney struggled for a short time, then went limp, the battle lost, that simply.

“Don’t you understand how hard this is? Don’t you get it?” he mumbled, dropping his forehead onto Sheppard’s flannel covered shoulder.

“Yeah, I know exactly how hard it is.”

Something in Sheppard’s tone alerted him. Rodney pushed away and glared at John. “You want to go.”

The casual shrug in response to the statement was easy to interpret after years of knowing the man. Rodney knew he was right, Sheppard wanted to go. This was yet another reckless, noble Sheppard sacrifice. At lightning speed, Rodney considered the situation and all the possibilities and conclusions he could conjure.

“I hate you,” Rodney spat, with anger but no venom, taking a few steps back from his friend, his best friend. “I had plans. I was going to go at them from the inside, take down the stupid Earth Only Coalition. I was going to make them pay.” He picked up his photo of Jeannie and Madison and a few other knick knacks from the shelves and coffee table on his way to his desk, awkwardly clasping the growing pile to his chest. Grabbing one of the empty shopping bags, he dropped his stuff into it. Then he picked up his laptop. “I really hate you.”

Knowing the difference between bluster and truth when it came to McKay, Sheppard was unaffected by Rodney’s declaration of hate. He smirked as Rodney slammed the door to his bedroom behind him. John could hear him muttering and moving things, drawers opening and closing, the closet door hitting the wall. Packing.

Sure that things were now moving according to his plan, Sheppard gave a nod of satisfaction and went to the kitchen. He opened the pantry and cupboards and bagged up some of Rodney’s favorite groceries that would not be available in the Atlantis PX in a big black trash bag he found in a drawer. There was still room in the bag, so after some consideration, he scooped up the game console and all the game cartridges and put them into the bag too. Even if Rodney didn’t want to play the games, John and Ronon might find some time to do so in the future.

Wandering through the rest of the apartment as Rodney cussed and fussed incoherently in the other room, John scanned each of the rooms and collected a few things he thought Rodney might miss and filled his trash bag and went to the sliding glass balcony door to wait.

McKay came out of his bedroom with a backpack slung over one shoulder and a partially zipped rolling duffel behind him, clothing hanging out of the top. He glanced around the room and practically snarled at Sheppard as he picked up a potted pothos Jeannie had given him as a homecoming gift and that he had somehow managed to keep alive ever since returning to Earth. He curled the plant into one elbow and clutched it to his chest protectively.

With a smirk at Rodney, Sheppard reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a com unit, slipped it over his ear, and tapped it to life. “Colonel Sheppard to Daedalus, we’re ready for that lift now, Colonel Caldwell.”

“Daedalus, acknowledged, stand by, Colonel Sheppard.”

“You didn’t quit,” Rodney hissed in accusation. “Such a liar.”

Sheppard shrugged, looking straight ahead, rather than at Rodney. “I filled out the paperwork.”

“You did not.”

“Well, some of it. I was going to finish it,” Sheppard replied as Rodney awkwardly dragged his luggage over to stand beside him.

“You had no intention of staying.” McKay began to fume silently as he realized he might have been manipulated.

“I did. I really did. If you don’t go, I don’t go. I promise, Rodney, no lie.”

This made a complete mess of Rodney’s plans for revenge on the Earth Only Coalition. How was he going to wreak havok upon them, if he was in a whole other galaxy? How could he avenge Jennifer and the other fallen SGC all the way from the Pegasus galaxy? He gritted his teeth as he felt the first tingles of the Daedalus’ transport beam.

“I hate you.”

“Nah, you don’t.”

That was the heart of the problem, at least for Rodney. He didn’t.

As for John, he was relieved as he made his way to the Chair Room on Atlantis. Celia’s warning had come almost too late to be of use. She had called John back to The Sanctum to inform him that the Probability that Rodney would undo all his progress and fall back into the darkness if left to his own devices was too high for John to go off to the Pegasus galaxy without him. His charge was in a precarious moral position. Rodney would embark on a path of vengeance that he might never be able to find his way back from this time.

John hadn’t been entirely certain he could convince Rodney to leave Earth. His loyalties to the charge he had been assigned by The Hierarchy; Rodney, and his loyalty to the ones he had taken on of his own accord; Ronon and Teyla, and by extension, everyone on the Atlantis mission, had been torn.

Now at least he wouldn’t have to choose. Although he might not have needed to; Lorne had inexplicably come to him and told him not to worry about Ronon, Teyla and Rodney’s family, promising that he would make sure they were kept safe if John needed to stay on Earth with Rodney. Odd, the timing of that, coming on the heels of his visit with Celia. But John didn’t have time to ponder it, he had a city to fly. He settled into place in the control chair, all at once familiar and comfortable.

 

{Elsewhere}
“This will either be brilliant, or a complete disaster,” Celia mused as she watched John take the Atlantis pilot’s chair from a viewer in her office.

“I suspect the latter, and according to the Predictions in the Probability Chamber, we will lose four Protectors, as well as their charges, due to your meddling,” Seraphim Yaloyse had arrived in time to hear her words and offer his opinion. “Your overconfidence has done this, First Protector Devereaux.”

Her chin went up and she matched her superior’s stare. “My meddling? Lorne’s charge, Parrish, becoming a Protector was not my doing, that order came from higher up. The pair of them are outside my jurisdiction, acting independently, it is their choice to remain with the Atlantis expedition.”

“They should be recalled and put to helping quell this demon revolt,” Seraphim Yaloyse huffed.

“As I said, outside my jurisdiction. I don’t order Lorne or Parrish to do anything. Did no one Foresee this revolt? It is hardly surprising, given that the demons have lost their primary purpose. With such relatively low numbers of souls to oversee, they’ve fallen to infighting amongst themselves.”

The Seraphim’s eyes flashed, almost with anger. “What anyone Foresaw or did not is none of your concern! You overstep your rank, First Protector.” She cast her eyes down and mumbled an apology, which seemed to satisfy him. “The demon Garronawox was among those that escaped The Pits, and still remains at large.”

“I have heard this news as well.”

“Indeed. Are you also aware that several of Garronawox’s former charges have been destroyed since the escape? It appears the demon is hunting them in the mortal realms. Collateral damages are running high, Garronawox is not discriminatory in the killing, numerous innocents have been slain. The inexperienced Protectors you placed within the Ancient city are in jeopardy.”

“I am watching the situation, Seraphim Yaloyse. In addition, I have alerted Lorne to the potential danger.”

He gave a noncommittal shrug and left her alone, much to her relief.

She had not bothered to tell him, as it would only have annoyed him further, that she had also nudged the situation a tad to keep John and Rodney together, despite their best efforts to go their separate ways. They might be inexperienced as Protectors, but they would be stronger together. She needed to believe that. There was nothing else she could do. Unless someone specifically prayed for Intercession, begged for help, in which case, she could justify interfering directly.

 

{Atlantis}
Something was wrong, the city felt ‘off’ to Rodney. The first half of their flight had gone well, all the numbers were in the green, and Sheppard was blissfully in the throes of his communion with the city through the chair down in the control room.

But now something was different, the hairs on the back of his neck were up, and the air seemed tingly. He checked and rechecked the computers, going so far as to walk around the room and look over everyone’s shoulders in the Gate Control room, earning him a dirty look from Chuck as he practically breathed down the man’s neck reading his laptop screen.

He almost wished Sam Carter had come back with them, she was handy in a crises. There had been a chance, when he and John had been beamed in from the Daedalus to find Carter and O’Neill waiting impatiently, a few moments when he thought he and John had come for nothing and SG-1 would be taking the mission to Pegasus. But then Carter had hugged them both, O’Neil gave them a wave and they were gone, the mission handed back to Sheppard. This time out, it was all his, a military oversight of a colonization program. Atlantis was to be the first Earth colony in the Pegasus galaxy.

But Sam Carter wasn’t here, and so Rodney felt he couldn’t abandon the Control Room to go down personally and check on John, as much as he would have liked to do so. He looked at the monitor and the video feed showed Sheppard right where he should be. Rodney didn’t want to distract him from his task by asking him if he sensed anything wrong through his communion with the city.

The longer he concentrated on it, the more Rodney was convinced that there was danger, something was not what it seemed to be. Stuck as he was in the Control Room, in his Between form, he couldn’t use his Other senses without attracting attention. That is, he couldn’t use most of them.

But there was one he could utilize, one he had never had occasion to use before while in the city. He concentrated and Looked around to see if anyone present was anything other than mortal. Everyone surrounding him in the control room was familiar and thankfully human. But now that he was open to it, he could definitely feel that there were others here that were not. He had not had a reason to look around Atlantis at his fellow crew mates like this before. But there were many new faces on the mission, colonists crowded in for the trip, perhaps something else had come aboard.

“There’s something very wrong,” Lorne whispered urgently in McKay’s ear, startling him as Rodney stood leaning on the railing and looked around with deep concentration at the crowd of people milling around the Gate Room.

With a muffled exclamation of surprised, he spun to glare at Lorne, who had a faint glow around him. But he sensed absolutely no malevolence. Like Rodney, he was obviously not what he seemed to be, either. Things that had happened in the past that had seemed odd about Lorne started to fall into place.

“What do you mean?” he demanded of the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel.

“I don’t know what it is, but the city seems off,” Lorne replied.

“And you’d know, wouldn’t you, Protector?” Rodney snapped, annoyed that Lorne had kept his nature a secret all these years.

Lorne blinked, then replied smoothly, “As much as you would, Protector. Now, seeing how that particular cat is out of the bag, we need to figure this out, before things go upside down. I don’t know who your charge is, but get them to safety.”

“What about yours?”

“I don’t have one, or I guess you could call the whole city my charge now. That includes you and yours. Go, see to him or her, I’ll keep an eye out here until you get back,” Lorne offered.

Rodney sighed and admitted reluctantly, “I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” Lorne demanded in a hushed tone. “Look, McKay, First Protector Devereaux told me to be extra alert, something is going down on the other plane and it’s leaking over the edges to us here. Go and collect your charge and put them where... erp!”

Rodney had grabbed Lorne by the arm and dragged him over to the monitor displaying the Chair Room and jabbed a finger at the screen in silent explanation.

Lorne looked from the monitor to McKay and back. “Sheppard? Damn it. This is so not good.”

“Tell me about it,” Rodney replied quietly. “We’ve got at least another hour before he can leave that chair.” They both stood staring at the monitor quietly as they tried to come up with a plan.

Walking into the Control Room, Teyla sought out Rodney and came to stand beside him. “Hello Rodney, Colonel Lorne.”

“Teyla.”

“Teyla.”

“You seem deep in thought, perhaps I should not interrupt you,” Teyla said, her tone hinting that she wanted to know what was going on.

Rodney forced a smile. “You aren’t. Do you know where Ronon is?”

“I believe he is in the Chair Room with Colonel Sheppard.”

After giving it some thought, Rodney decided it might be better to have the two people John would be most concerned about in the same place. If his team was all in the same room, at least Rodney would know where they were, when the trouble started. He expected it to start sooner or later, Lorne had merely confirmed his fears.

“Teyla, I’m a little concerned for Sheppard. You know how stubborn he is, he wouldn’t ask for help if he needed it. And Ronon isn’t exactly observant, if you know what I mean.” Rodney forced himself into a conciliatory tone. “Would you mind going down and making sure Sheppard’s okay for the last part of the flight? I know it’s a lot to ask, and that you have the Athosians to worry about, but...”

“My people are fine, Rodney, they are quite happy to be returning home to Pegasus. I will go and stay with John and Ronon, and keep watch,” she smiled serenely at him and left without a backwards glance.

“That went better than I expected,” Rodney muttered.

Lorne gave a mild snort.

Rolling his eyes, Rodney complained, “Oh damn, you put the whammy on her while I was buttering her up, didn’t you?”

“It looked like you needed all the help you could get, McKay.”

He didn’t bother to complain, Teyla was going where he wanted her to go, thanks to Lorne’s unsolicited assistance. Sheppard would have the best two fighters in the city looking after him, while he was ‘in the zone’ flying the city, so Rodney felt he could concentrate on finding whatever it was that had set his and Lorne’s nerves on edge.

“Zelenka, I’m going to check on the ZPMs, keep an eye on things here, will you?” Rodney called out as he and Lorne went through the Control Room, earning a surprised nod of agreement from the Czech scientist.

“Look at you, making with the delegating,” Lorne bopped his shoulder with a fist as they galloped down the steps into a corridor below the Gate Room. Rodney ignored him.

“We should split up, cover more of the city. At least with two of us looking, we have a better chance of spotting the... whatever it is. I don’t suppose the First Protector told you what form this trouble might take, did she?”

Lorne shook his head. “Nope. That would be telling.”

“Not to mention useful,” Rodney snapped.

An Ancient glass screen nearby suddenly flashed into life, drawing their attention. A single word scrawled out across the screen in green letters and flashed once, before disappearing. It seemed to be all the warning they were going to get.

But it was all that McKay needed. “Garronawox,” Rodney breathed out on a shudder as memories washed over him. “Oh, crap.”

Lorne was puzzled. “What’s that mean? What’s a Garronawox?”

“A demon. A particularly nasty demon, in fact,” Rodney replied. “Look, Lorne, I’m relatively new to all this, and really out of practice. Is there anything in our arsenal that can deal with a demon?”

“Not while we’re in our Between forms. We need our Armor for protection. And our Halos are the only weapon that can truly damage a demon. Is it a high level demon?”

“And I would know this how? I didn’t exactly get a PHD in demonology while I was in Hell, Colonel.”

“Was it black, green or red?”

“Uhm, mottled red.”

Lorne sighed in resignation. “A high level demon. That means smarter than average, meaner than average and stronger than you or I, even in True Form.” When Rodney looked at him askance, Lorne explained further, “They were designed to exist in The Pits, to endure the unendurable and still be functional as guards. We’re going to need all three of us working together, to have a chance at taking this one down.”

“Three?”

“You, me and Doctor Parrish, he’s a Protector too; my partner.”

It was a good cover, Rodney never would have suspected the humble botanist of being an otherworldly being, certainly never a Protector.

“Is this a time of flux for your charge, is there a chance this is why you are here, now, to watch over Sheppard?”

Rodney shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. We were supposedly past that, I was done with the assignment. The assassin that nearly killed Woolsey? That bullet was meant for John. There were a few other times during the original mission in Pegasus that I had to intervene, but that assassination was supposed to be the end of the assignment, I was to be given a new charge.”

“The question is, what is this Garronawox after here?”

The screen on the wall beside them flashed again. “Revenge. Rodney.”

“Great,” Rodney sighed when the writing stopped. “At least it isn’t Sheppard. If he gets me, at least my charge is safe.”

“No,” the screen flashed again.

“Could you please come here and explain, CeCe?” Lorne hissed at the wall impatiently.

“No. Watched. Medd...” the wall suddenly went dark, the Ancient screen no longer accessed from the Sanctum.

“I suspect she meant to say meddling. We’re on our own from here, McKay. I’ll go let Parrish in on what’s happening. This cannot be discussed over coms. It’s probably best to stick together, so we’ll come back to you and we’ll find the demon.”

As he watched Lorne stride away, Rodney wondered if he would he be leading Garronawox straight to Sheppard if he went to check on him? How closely was he being tracked? Did he dare? He couldn’t do... nothing. According to Lorne, he couldn’t be Between when he faced Garronawox. That meant he couldn’t be where Sheppard was and protect him from the demon at the same time. There were dire consequences for revealing one’s True Form to a mortal, severe consequences for the Protector as well as for the Protector’s charge.

In all these years, he had managed to keep Sheppard ‘mostly safe’ by using his brain, rather than his otherworldly gifts. Rodney was not overly fond of the abilities, they were more trouble to use in this form than they were worth, in his opinion. He had not drawn his Halo since The Storm in their first year here, had not donned his Armor or manifested wings since the whole Ford incident, years ago.

In True Form, he would have to expend energy to Cloak himself, to Shield the Atlanteans from seeing him. He couldn’t utilize the Atlantis systems to do this search. He had to rely on the stupid spidey senses that were making his skin tingle. He had to be methodical and systematic, right? It figures, the one time he could have used Sheppard’s experience and expertise and backup, and he couldn’t talk to him about it.

Damn it.

 

“Maggot,” Garronawox hissed, lurching through the green and blue corridor, the light was too bright, it nearly pained the demon. A sniff at the air produced a demonic smile, drool pouring from the curved lips to spatter on the tile floor. “Maggots! I know you’re here.”

A scream drew Garronawox’s attention. Heaving forward, Garronawox saw three humans, a male and two females, huddling in fear at the intersection of two corridors. Talons clacking against each other, Garronawox advanced on the mortals, intent on causing pain, of tasting their fear as they died, so delicious, so nourishing to the demon while on this plane.

The light became suddenly brighter, Garronawox threw both arms up to shield from it. “Run, hurry, to the lift!” A voice commanded, in Tones that could not be disobeyed. The humans did as ordered, Garronawox heard them scurrying away down the corridor.

“Meddling featherhead! My meal!” Garronawox roared at the Protector, clad in Light that obscured him from view. But the demon knew that it was an interfering low level angel, for all that the glow was blinding. “You disrupted my hunt, chased off my meal!”

“Not here. My charges are not demon snacks. You’ll have to go away now.” The Light dimmed and moved as the Halo producing it, now in sword form, was swung around and brought to bear. The Protector, a tall, thin male with mussy sandy hair, hovered a few inches above the city floor, wings flapping slowly as he faced the demon.

“Come a little closer, birdie, I’ll shove that stick right into your dirty place,” Garronawox took a threatening step forward and swiped at the glowing blade, fangs bared. “And twist it, hard.”

“Stop!” Tones echoed along the corridor. “Stand down!”

“Another one?” Garronawox hissed, spinning to see a second Protector coming up from behind, in full angelic Armor, chestplate gleaming and reflecting Light in all directions. This one held his Halo-sword with far more confidence, the bigger threat, then, the warrior of the pair. Garronawox chose to focus the attack there.

Lorne’s earlier assumption was correct, the two of them were not enough to overwhelm the demon’s onslaught despite their best, concerted efforts. Parrish was quickly grabbed, overcome with a wave of demonic energy, shaken like a rag doll, and hurled into a wall, to lie in a boneless heap on the tiled floor. Lorne managed to get a few deep slices in with his Halo, but he too was seized up by the gigantic demon and overcome, waves of demonic energy jolting through him like electricity, frying his senses. His ears were ringing as Garronawox flung him aside to land near his partner.

He crawled over to Parrish, reaching out a hand to touch his back, to find he was, thankfully, merely unconscious. With relief, Lorne switched both himself and Parrish back to their Between forms. The effort made his stomach lurch and his head pound, but he couldn’t afford for them to be found in True Form, should he too lose consciousness. When that was done, drained of almost all his energy, he fumbled in the pocket of his BDUs and found his com.

“Lorne to McKay.”

“Go ahead.”

“Ran into trouble. Big, red trouble. Gonna be a while before we make that rendezvous,” he could feel himself losing consciousness. “McKay. Hide,” he advised before the last dregs of his energy drained away and he passed out.

 

Hide? Was Lorne insane? He couldn’t hide from Garronawox. The demon had tracked him here. What good were a few Ancient walls? Ancient walls? Sheppard. He needed Sheppard. For some reason, the city had always been willing to roll over and beg for a belly rub, if Sheppard wanted it to. Maybe the city could provide some kind of shielding, maybe the regular shields could be adapted? But Sheppard needed to know to activate the systems.

It didn’t take Rodney long to get to the Chair Room. He nodded to Ronon and Teyla as he entered the chamber and crossed to stand beside Sheppard. The Colonel’s eyes were closed as he reclined in the chair, which glowed blue around him.

“Sheppard. Wake up.” Rodney tapped him on the arm to get his attention.

“Rodney?” Sheppard opened his eyes and looked straight at him. “What’s wrong?” Status panels and lights all around the room began to shut down as Sheppard brought the chair upright.

Damn it! He’d been so focused on the possibility of using the city as a shield or weapon against the demon, that he hadn’t thought this through, how was he going to explain this to Sheppard?

“There’s something in the city. An intruder,” Rodney finished lamely with a wave of his hand at the city beyond the door. Behind him, Rodney heard the metallic swipe of Ronon’s sword clearing the scabbard and Ronon and Teyla moving to take up positions on either side of the door.

Sheppard squinted at him for a moment, then leaned back in the chair, new information screens flaring to life, flashing images as Sheppard scrolled through with a lightning speed that had always made Rodney mildly envious. “Crap. What was that?” Sheppard mumbled.

A viewscreen appeared and something large and red passed before the camera.

“That was Sub-corridor 4, section 15. Switch over to section 14, now 13, and 12?” Rodney told John, wanting to confirm his suspicion as to what they’d see.

The camera in section 12 showed one man in a sciences uniform stretched out along the wall, and Lieutenant Colonel Lorne sprawled beside him, clearly unconscious. “Damn it!” Sheppard hissed. “Ronon, Teyla, can you go check on Lorne, he’s in Sub-corridor 4, section 12 not too far from here, stay away from section 15. I sent an alert to Medical, but you’ll beat them there.”

“Of course, Colonel,” Teyla replied as she and Ronon left.

“Can you shield this door?” McKay demanded when the others were gone.

“Huh? Why?”

“That thing is coming this way. Atlantis is vulnerable now, we’re pretty far from our destination. If that thing comes in here, and the Chair gets damaged,” in his mind Rodney added ‘if you get damaged.’

Sheppard nodded. “We’re stuck. Right. Let me see what I can do.” He began scanning through various systems, leaving Rodney alone with his thoughts. Troubled thoughts. He’d locked himself in this room with Sheppard. He couldn’t manifest his True Form, and apparently, even two experienced Protectors had not been enough to stop Garronawox; as evidenced by the unconscious Lorne and Parrish, now being attended to by Teyla and Ronon on the monitor.

 

Watching Rodney out of the corner of his eye, Sheppard was concerned. He had sensed something off about the city during the flight, but none of his cursory searches through the systems had revealed what the cause of that might be. He had been about to drop the city out of hyperspace to give the matter his complete attention when Rodney had appeared in the Chair Room, shattering John’s calm with the waves of panic coming off the scientist. Rodney might appear to be controlling his emotions, but John could read him better than that.

Whomever or whatever the intruder was, it was evading the city’s sensors and security systems. How had they gotten onto Atlantis in the first place? The hairs on the back of John’s neck were standing on end, whatever this thing was, it was tripping John’s Other senses. However, with Rodney in the room, John couldn’t manifest in order to bring his full gifts to bear on the matter.

“Rodney, maybe you should go back up to the Control Room,” John tried suggesting, hoping to get Rodney out of there so he could handle the intruder without a witness.

“No!” Rodney replied, far too quickly.

The door to the Chair Room began to shake as a pair of enormous fists pounded upon it. “Maggots! I know you’re in there!”

John felt a wave of cold rush over him as he recognized the voice. The past six years dissipated in a heartbeat, and he was once again the battered soul he had been before he had passed into the Light.

 

“Crap, crap, crap,” Rodney muttered under his breath. “Sheppard, are the shields up? Sheppard?”

Rodney looked over to see that Sheppard was standing beside the control chair, all color drained from his face, as he stared at the door, his mouth hanging open.

“Sheppard, damn it! Are the shields up on that door?”

“No, no, no,” Sheppard was shaking his head in time with the pounding on the door. “Not here. Not here.”

Having never before seen Sheppard react to anything in such a manner, Rodney paused for a surprised moment before running over to his friend and grabbing him by the shoulders and giving him a shake. “Are. The. Shields. Up?” he demanded.

Dumbly, Sheppard nodded, his eyes focused on the door as the demon bellowed for entry again. “They won’t help,” Sheppard whispered.

“Maggots!”

“I can’t go back to that. I can’t,” Sheppard whispered, hunching over with his arms wrapped across his stomach. “I can’t do that again.”

“Do what again? Sheppard, do you know what that thing is?” Rodney did, and he felt that Sheppard’s reaction was entirely appropriate, under the circumstances. But Sheppard should not know what was on the other side of that door.

Head down, Sheppard whispered something that Rodney couldn’t hear.

“What?”

“Garronawox,” Sheppard repeated, “please don’t make me say it again.” The pounding on the door continued, with several demonic howls accompanying the racket.

“He isn’t friggin’ Beetlejuice, he isn’t going to appear if you say his name three times, Sheppard! Damn it, how do you know that, that, that fiend?” When Sheppard continued to look at his feet, Rodney reached over and grabbed his chin, forcing his face up. “How do you know Garronawox?”

“He’s after me.” Sheppard met his eyes and held them for a moment, and then he shook off the odd malaise that had come over him and straightened himself up, pulling away from Rodney. “He wants me. I’ll go out and meet him. You...” Sheppard looked around and then grabbed Rodney’s arm, dragging him across the room to the wall. He slapped his free hand against a wall panel and a door popped open nearby. He steered Rodney towards it. “Go through the access shaft.”

“And then what? Get a grenade launcher and come back with the marines? That’s a high level demon out there, Sheppard! Conventional weapons are useless. Shooting him will just make him mad... der.”

Running a hand through his hair, Sheppard snapped, “I don’t know, Rodney, find a priest or a holy man and exorcise his ass! Just get yourself out of here.”

Stubbornly, Rodney crossed his arms and glared at his charge. “No.”

The door shook again, and the shield John had convinced the city to erect shimmered and snapped with electricity in response. “We don’t have time for an argument.”

John let out a yelp of surprise when Rodney grabbed his arm and shoved him towards the access shaft. “You’re right, we don’t. So go.” John was so surprised at the sudden turn of events, that he found himself hurled to his knees inside the dark accessway, with Rodney slamming the panel closed behind him, still not quite sure how his scientist had done it.

He tried forcing the door back open, but it wouldn’t budge. This was ridiculous. His charge was out there, about to go toe to toe with a gigantic demon. “Rodney!” John shouted, pounding at the access panel. This was a failure on so many levels. Unable to get back into the Chair Room the way he had come, John scrambled rapidly through the accessway on his hands and knees until he found another panel that opened to his touch. He swung himself out into the brightness of an Atlantis corridor and tried to get his bearings. It took only a moment, he could hear Garronawox roaring and battering at the Chair Room door.

He used his abilities to scramble the security cameras on this level, blinding the electronic eyes from elsewhere in the city to what he was about to do. Sparing a quick glance around, and checking with his Other senses as well to be sure there were no members of the Atlantis Expedition around to bear witness, John quickly shifted from Between to his True Form. Driven to one knee, he clenched his teeth and bit down on the pain through the transformation, barely able to keep from shouting out as it nearly overwhelmed him. He glanced back to see blood dripping from his black wings, where they had torn through his skin, a few drops splashing onto the chest plate of his Armor. It was temporary. He would heal quickly, the pain was already passing.

Wings unfurled as far as possible in the confines of the corridor, he drew his Halo, the extension of his soul that was his most powerful weapon. Even as he did so, he feared it would not be enough. He didn’t have enough power on this plane to take down the demon. But he had to protect Rodney, for as long as he could.

“Maggot!” Garronawox turned from the door and spit acid in John’s direction as he came around the corner. “All shiny and new. All clean.” The demon spit again, narrowly missing John’s boot-clad foot. He wore his Armor over his black BDUs. “You’ll taste like shit, and after all those years I spent marinating you to get you just right.”

This had been John’s greatest fear, the source of his nightmares. As the demon bemoaned the loss of John’s flavor, a realization came to John, and with it came a new strength. “You were never going to eat me. You weren’t allowed to eat me. You were nothing but a pumped up security guard, with no real power.”

The demon’s nostrils flared and it took a single step back as John advanced the same distance. It blinked. And John knew he was right.

Garronawox sneered and took two steps in John’s direction, trying to regain the upper hand, trying to put fear back in Sheppard’s eyes. “We’re not in Hell now, featherdick. I’ll eat you, Light-ridden and spoiled or not.” Talons clacked as Garronawox made a grab for John, which he easily dodged.

John swung his Halo-sword at the demon, which was dodged. The effort cost John his balance, and he took a step to right himself and reset his stance. He tried to swing again, but suddenly he found himself frozen in place. The world went completely silent, the demon’s deep sonorous breaths gone quiet, the gentle hum of Atlantis simply gone. It had been years since John had experienced one, but he knew it for what it was, a Time Stop.

“Who did this?” he called, “Celia?”

“No, not Celia. She couldn’t come, but sent me with a message instead.” John felt a warm hand on his shoulder and he found he could move. He slowly lowered his soul-sword and turned to see Evan Lorne standing behind him. He had no wings, but Lorne glowing with an Other Realm light. He had a Halo, formed in a ball, bouncing lightly and casually in the palm of one hand as he leaned against the bulkhead.

John shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe I never guessed. You’re a... Protector?” John wasn’t sure, he hadn’t spent enough time in the Sanctum to get to know all the ranks of The Hierarchy, nor had he cared to spend the time there.

“Independent, but yes, I’m a Protector. In the interest of saving time, so’s Parrish, he’s my partner. I’m feeling a bit stupid myself, I never guessed it was you that Celia put here in the city.”

In an attempt to push aside their mutual discomfort at years of ignorance, Sheppard prompted, “You said Celia had a message?”

“We can’t end Garronawox.”

“What?!? Why?!?” Sheppard looked over at the frozen demon. It would be so easy to just walk over and drive his Halo right through the demon’s sloped, spiked forehead. So easy. He sighed and dropped his chin to his chest in defeat. That was the point, it had to be the point.

He looked back at Lorne. “The Hierarchy could end this at any time. Stop time, destroy the demon, banish it back to The Pits. There’s something else to this, beyond my ken.”

Lorne nodded.

“Can’t tell me, gonna make me work it out?”

Lorne grinned and nodded.

Turning back to stare at the mottled red demon, John tried to reason it out. Celia had told him Rodney would backstep if he’d stayed on Earth and gone after the Earth Only Coalition, made them pay for what they did to Jennifer and Woolsey. In the Chair Room, it seemed that Rodney had known the demon’s name. Rodney must have had dealings with this demon in the past. John thought about how he had known Garronawox, and what had happened to remove him from the demon’s thrall.

He spun back around to Lorne and pointed in the direction of the Chair Room. “He’s one of us too, isn’t he? Rodney’s a Protector, or at least has gifts, he’s on a redemption path and Celia put me here to keep him on the path?”

“Who better to protect a vulnerable Protector than another Protector?” Lorne replied, confirming John’s theory.

“It sure would have helped if I’d known that six years ago!” John snapped.

Lorne shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. You’ve both been better off not knowing, up until now. You protected him, he protected you, you both kept Atlantis and the expedition safe.”

“He protected me? So what, he thinks I’m HIS charge?”

“You are his charge. Think about it, Sheppard. But later. Right now, we have to figure out a way to corral that thing, without killing it.”

Still feeling a little irked at how they had been manipulated by The Hierarchy, John pushed it aside to deal with the issue at hand. He and the others could hash things out later.

“So I wouldn’t be breaking any rules if Rodney saw me like this?”

“Nope. Smashes Celia’s game to bits, but no rules about Revelation broken.”

“Good. Turn time back on. And when we’re done with this, you’re going to show me how to do that trick.”

Lorne nodded. “You got it. I take it you have a plan?”

“I think so. You can hear me if I shout?”

“Yup. Always. How do you think I kept finding you and your team all these years? Angel GPS,” Lorne tapped his temple and smirked.

John hadn’t used this particular skill in years, since he had to be in True Form to do so, but teleporting came back to him easily. One moment he was standing beside Lorne, the next, he was at Rodney’s side, in the Chair Room, just as time started up.

“Don’t ever lock me out like that again!” John punched Rodney’s shoulder as Rodney’s jaw dropped in shock at the sudden appearance of John’s True Self; black wings, Armor, and Halo, all over his comfortable and worn BDUs.

“Wha? Huh? How? You?” Rodney pointed at John’s wings.

John nodded and took Rodney by the shoulders and steered him to stand in front of an Ancient display screen as it materialized in the air. “My Ancient is terrible, I don’t speak it as well as you,” John confessed. “This is a banishment spell, meant to work on demons. I need you to speak it. You need to speak it with Intent.”

“With Intent... oh, oh! Okay, yeah. I guess you know about me too.”

“I guessed. Lorne confirmed. Garronawox is going to get through those shields any second.”

“We need to kill that thing. I think if we all go at it with our Halos, one of us can try to do a Time Stop...” Rodney sneered at the door, as the demon threw itself at it.

John dropped his hands onto Rodney’s shoulders and turned him to look him in the eyes. “Rodney, no.”

“Garronawox hurt you too, that’s what he was designed to do. We need to end...”

“The cycle. We need to end the cycle, Rodney.” John continued to stare at his friend, watching the anger and hate and need to hurt flit over Rodney’s features. “No more. Garronawox was just doing what demons were designed to do.”

Rodney jerked back and away from John, seething. “So you want to just send it back to The Pits, let it continue on torturing souls?”

“Not our place to punish it, Rodney.”

“All those years. All that torture.”

“Maybe it’s time to forgive, Rodney,” John said in a whisper, as much to himself as to his friend.

Rodney snorted. “Forgive that? Forgive that thing?”

“Among other things, Forgive ourselves, Rodney. I think I’m done paying for the past.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Rodney hissed as the door practically buckled.

“Then just read the spell, and try, Rodney. Do the best you can.” John went to the door and touched the panel beside it to shut down the shield that the city had provided. He opened the door, which was filled with the seething, snarling, furious demon.

“Oh for the love of...!” Rodney exclaimed behind him and began to read the spell, with all the Intent he could muster while in his Between state. There was no time to shift with John being an idiot and letting the monster in the door.

John felt the faint tingle of the banishment swirling in the air as Rodney brought it to bear on the demon. “Go home, Garronawox. I don’t want to hurt you. Just go home.” John held a hand out, palm up and thought about The Pits and about Garronawox BEING in The Pits.

“John, what are you doing?” He heard Rodney sputter in panic, just as the world shimmered and Atlantis was gone, replaced by the arcing stone walls of The Pits. He and the demon were alone.

Seeing the change in their location, Garronawox howled in outrage.

“This is your place, Garronawox. If you want something better, I think you need to earn it. You should look into how to do that,” John advised, then sprung up in flight as the demon lunged at him.

“No!” Garronawox screeched. “Don’t leave me here. I don’t know what to do!”

Something in the demon’s plea made John stop and hover, and listen.

“I don’t know how to be anything else,” Garronawox wailed pitifully.

And that is how John Sheppard, Protector, became a champion of demon’s rights and a right pain in the tailfeathers to The Hierarchy. But that’s another story.

 

{Atlantis}
“You never guessed. Not once, which just proves my superior skillset,” Rodney bragged as he grabbed for the jelly donut on Sheppard’s breakfast tray a few mornings later. The jelly donut supply they had brought with them from Earth would be gone very soon, as they were now safely on the planet where they were supposed to settle in Pegasus.

“Superior skillset,” John repeated with a snort, “Right.” He swatted at Rodney’s hand. When that did not deter him, John sighed, and Paused time, a skill Lorne had so recently taught him. It wasn’t a full Time Stop, and would only hold for a few seconds, but he only needed a brief delay.

Leaving Rodney, he walked over to the serving table set with platters of pastries, fruits and other assorted breakfast goods, selected what he thought was the best option, returned to the table and swapped it out for the donut on his tray that Rodney was making a grab for, his hand hovering in midair as time held still.

He was enjoying his moment of peace. He closed his eyes and munched on the jelly donut with no one to witness his momentary indulgence in mostly empty, but so delicious calories. He licked the jelly off his fingers with a noisy slurp.

“One should not abuse one’s gifts, John Sheppard,” a silky voice chided. He looked up to see Celia standing behind Rodney.

He shrugged and smirked, reaching for a napkin to properly clean his fingers. “I couldn’t resist. I’m surprised to see you here, or perhaps not.”

She smiled indulgently, like a proud parent. “You did well, John. In fact, I came to tell you you’ve earned your way to the next stage.”

“I have to leave?” John looked around at the cafeteria, filled with the members of the Atlantis Expedition - the Atlantis Colony, that he had taken under his wing. He had looked forward to being here for that, for Earth’s next big adventure, colonizing space. Now that he didn’t have to keep his nature hidden from Lorne, Parrish and especially from Rodney, he had looked forward to having some sort of camaraderie as well, some peers to converse with about Otherly things. “Rodney?”

“Still has a ways to travel on his own path. He’s made an excellent start, thanks in part to your companionship. I’ve come to collect you, you’re to return to the Sanctum with me.”

“I don’t want to go. Can’t I stay?” John heard and hated the pleading tone in his voice.

Celia blinked at his reluctance. “You don’t want to leave? What about all the paperwork and the hassles and the red tape?”

John dropped his head and confessed, “I kinda like all that,” he quickly added, “But don’t tell Lorne.” It made him feel normal, and as much as he pretended not to be, he was good at it.

“You can fly freely in The Sanctum, I know how you love to fly, John, you do not have to exist Between any longer,” Celia coaxed. “You may claim your True Form and remain so, for as long as you wish.”

“I have the City, and the jumpers, and I can get away now and then to shift form and fly when I need to. I’m not ready to leave here yet.” He met Celia’s eyes and repeated, “I like being Between, I’m not ready to go.”

“I’d hoped you would say that. Very well, the choice has always been yours. While he is not strictly speaking your charge any longer, I would ask that you please keep Rodney on the path, look out for your charges, and take care of yourself, Protector John Sheppard.”

“Thank you, Celia.”

She raised an arm, about to Dissipate, when she lowered her arm again and gave him an odd look. “Oh, one other thing?” When John glanced at her in puzzlement, she requested, “Don’t rile up the demons too much. The Hierarchy hasn’t quite adjusted to all of the Damned flooding into the Light. Coping with demons might be too much, too soon. Take it slowly. Very slowly. A trickle, if you please.”

“I shall take that under advisement.” John smiled as she disappeared with the sound of wings beating and time resumed a normal pace.

“How did THAT get there?” Rodney jerked his hand back and sneered in disgust at the lemon poppyseed muffin that was now on John’s tray, where a tantalizing jelly donut had been seemingly an instant before.

John grinned broadly and picked up the muffin, breaking it into pieces. “Superior skillset, McKay. Superior skillset.”

 

The End