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Clockworks and Beautiful Things

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Ladon Radim was a sickly child, once upon a time - small and pale and raised in a city of concrete and electric lights, tucked into the earth and away from the sun. The first time he sees the sky he’s eleven.

The stars surprise him; they are nothing like the bright yellow blobs of the children’s picture books he and his sister read at bedtime. They seem dimmer, indifferent and cold. Still, he carefully breathes the sweet tang of grass, testing his lungs against the chill night air, and it feels like an innocuous sort of miracle. His sister ducks out after him and lends him her jacket when he can’t bring himself to tear his eyes away. Dahlia has always been better at that than he is: looking out for pneumonia rather than looking to the stars.

She ruffles his hair. No one else treats him like she does, not as if he’s a fragile porcelain doll likely to fall to pieces from one single cough, but still like something worth protecting. “Everything alright out here?”

He spends some time figuring out how to explain it to her, how to wrap the vastness of it all in words. He snuggles into his sister’s jacket - it smells incongruously like home in this strange new world. A seam at the shoulder is fraying a little. He’ll mend it for her, he decides. He’s good at fixing things, and she is his sister. If the sky tore open like a wound right now, he’d try to stitch it back up for her.

“Ladon?” she asks after a while, resting her hand on his shoulder.

He looks at her profile - sharp-nosed and soft-mouthed, her hair so pale it’s almost white in the moonlight - and leans against her side. She stands awkwardly for a second, then puts her arm around him as if shielding him from the cold, like he can vaguely remember their mother doing a long time ago, when she was still alive and he was very little.

“Bit overwhelming, isn’t it?” she asks quietly.

He shakes his head. That isn’t it, not really. She lets him think a bit more, because she knows him better than anyone.

“I just didn’t know I loved beautiful things,” he says finally.  

For a while she says nothing, and then she lets out a chuckle. “Well,” she says. “We live and learn, little brother.”

He considers that. “I mean. One out of the two would be acceptable in a pinch - though I suppose those who learn are more likely to live, in the end.”

She kisses the top of his head and laughs at him.  

 

-------

 

Ladon’s aunt is loud and generous and has a non-tolerance policy for any kind of ‘silliness’. As far as she is concerned the petty power squabbles following in the wake of the death of the last great leader is ‘silliness’, Cowen’s rise to power is ‘silliness’. Indeed the whole war is just  a protracted case of ’silliness’. She is the kind of woman who believes that if everybody sat down around a table and stopped being so damned stupid for a second, all the world’s problems would disappear like dew in sunlight.

It doesn’t take Ladon too long to figure out that this is a gross oversimplification, but somewhere in there is a spark of gold. Aggression only gets you so far and he’s not very good at it anyway.  There are other paths.

“Your mind is like one of those new clockwork machines,” Kolya says, smiling like the very essence of predator self-assuredness. “Layer upon layer and moving pieces and every part slides out of the way if it’s not useful.”
Not entirely true, Ladon thinks, but then again it hadn’t been a question.

Ladon isn’t a predator by nature, but he can see no reason why this should stop him. He is not, in himself, violent, though he is occasionally the cause for violence in other people. He’s first and foremost a scientist: someone who works methodically and logically towards a goal. If that process involves bashing in the occasional head … well, eggs, omelettes, it’s hardly anything new or revolutionary. Just open a history book to a random page and see for yourself. These violent men tend to give each other violent ends anyway – might as well channel their brutality in constructive ways and avoid the collateral damage.

 

---

 

Cowen doesn’t listen when Ladon tells him that, contrary to what he’s been assured before by various sycophants, these levels of radiation do have adverse effects on the human body - it’s not in Cowen’s repertoire to change his mind. He seems to think that if he refuses to acknowledge the inconvenient facts of reality they will eventually magically disappear just to please him. Ladon finally gives up in the face of the sheer vastness of the man’s meticulously maintained ignorance. He backs down, even though he knows he’s right.

In hindsight it seems unforgivable.   

Dahlia starts speaking slower, as if she has to force the words across great distances before she can get them over her lips. Her hair thins and her cheekbones start showing too loudly on her face.

Ladon gets to work.

 

-------

 

The wraith listens more than he speaks, which makes him cleverer than Cowen. There’s something unsettling about his sharp predator’s eyes, watching them like they’re a strange mix of a circus act and a herd of cattle.

What the hell did we just wake up? Ladon thinks, rubbing his thumb over the smooth surface of the bone charm the wraith had had on him when they woke it up. It heats up and vibrates whenever Ladon takes it near the wraith or any of his technology, but otherwise it stays as quiet as it must have for centuries before they dug it up again. We are so in over our heads we might as well be strolling around on the seabed.

Sometimes he feels like the wraith gazes at him knowingly, as if he knows Ladon’s head is full of plans, of contingencies and people guided around the chess board of life until they’re where he needs them. The wraith smiles at him every time their eyes meet. Ladon tries not to look at him more than strictly necessary.

”You are more like us than the rest of them,” the wraith whispers one night, when the lab is just noisy enough that no one else will hear him. ”It is... admirable.”

Ladon pauses in his work. Being singled out by a life sucking demon might say things about his life he’d rather not think about. ”...you’ll forgive me if I don’t take that as a compliment.”

The wraith shrugs as well as he can in his tight bonds. ”Take it however you wish. It is the truth.”

If he means this as flattery, Ladon is slightly disturbed. If it’s meant to unsettle him... it hits a little closer to home.

You may have them fooled, with yourbland smile and trickery and quick words. I am not fooled. You move people around in your head like they are simply cogs in a clockwork – not with any sort of malice, I think, simply blithe indifference. You allow yourself to see them as real, as thinking, feeling individuals , right up until the moment that is no longer convenient for you. Beauty appreciated but not deemed inherently necessary. You know what’s at the core of you. Do you not feel the kinship?”

Ladon thinks about this. ”No.”

The wraith laughs quietly. ”Good for you. But there are words for men who treat other men like mere elements in a mathematical puzzle.”

”If that leads to the least amount of suffering, I’m willing to take on all those words for a little while.” He is done standing by as innocents die because of the sheer stupidity of men like Cowen. Every casualty of this idiocy now feels like a personal insult, when none of it would have needed to happen if someone at the top just had two brain cells to rub together. He has set rules for himself – no civilian casualties, no chemical weapons. Other than that all bets are off.

”Then for your own sake you better hope you know when to stop. History has many bitter lessons to teach you.

”I’m not afraid to learn.”

Even if what you learn is only defeat and death?”

Ladon shrugs. He’s no more indispensable than anyone else once his plan has been carried out. And if he goes overboard... well, these systems tend to self-regulate.

”Perhaps not enough like us, then.”

When the wraith escapes Ladon is not surprised.

 

-------

 

It’s the last day of the Harvest Feast – not the charade celebration going on up on the surface, naturally, but still an important occasion. People who live away from the sun wouldn’t be able to do so if the year wasn’t governed  by days that are in some way special. No one gets by on fear alone.

Ladon’s aunt has made enough food to feed half the Genii army, as usual, and most of the electric lights are out, leaving the living room slightly dim, like a cave lit by campfire.

Most of the dishes are still stacked on the table, unwashed. He told his aunt he would deal with them after the rest of them went to bed, because it’s been a long time since he’s done something with his hands that wasn’t ultimately wired for death.  

Dahlia stays up too, her plate barely touched, her wine glass still half-full.  

“Cowen is sending sick people to the enemy,” Dahlia says. “They’ll act as hostages. When the enemy realizes they’re no use to them, it’ll be too late.”   

“Hm,” he says, looking down into his drink, not really paying attention. She knows that he knows Cowen’s plan. Maybe she even knows of Ladon’s plans; his head has been full of what-ifs and just-in-cases for over a year now. “I heard.”

He has made sure that he’s risen in Cowen’s regard these past few months - not too much, just enough to gain him some trust without standing out. There hasn’t been this many scientific breakthroughs in Genii history for nearly a hundred years. He’d stored them up, just in case he’d need to impress his superiors while he prepares. He looks from the outside like a competent tactician, though given to convoluted solutions and overly complicated maneuvers; Cowen likes that. It always feels safer to have underlings who are a little bit slower than you.

This is the first time in weeks he’s gotten to eat dinner here, at home, with only his family, no contacts to be convinced, no deal to battle through except for the usual familiar squabblings, the diplomacy of blood ties.

“I volunteered,” Dahlia says flatly.

It takes him approximately ten seconds after being yanked out of his own mind like that to find his voice, another five to make sense of what just happened. “What?” he says dumbly, fork still clutched in his hand.

“I volunteered.”

He looks at her, and maybe it’s all the late nights he’s had recently but there is only a dull ’huh?’ to answer his internal inquiries. “You can’t do that,” he says automatically, though not with any particular heat behind it.

She doesn’t even deign to give a response to that, simply watches him with grey unblinking eyes and hunched shoulders. From what he understands about the radiation sickness, she must be in constant pain.

He changes tactics. “Why?”

“Malin’s pregnant, Ladon,” Daliah says. “In seven months or so I will have a niece, or a nephew. You can’t expect me to sit by and watch from a sickbed as the world that kid is born into crashes and burns.”

“There are other ways. I am working on this, you don’t have to -”

“Sooner or later my body’s going to fail. I’d rather die, fighting to keep this - all of this - safe,” and she gestures, taking in everything: the still-messy table, the bookcase, the colourful rugs on the concrete floors and the paintings on the concrete walls, their great aunt’s knitting left in her armchair. Now that he knows what to look for, he sees that it is going to be a pair of tiny, tiny socks.

The quiet stretches out, a vast country of unsaid words and broken promises between them.

He says: “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I knew you’d do this.” She sounds annoyed. ”I didn’t want to worry you.”

He laughs incredulously. “Didn’t want to…” He rubs his forehead, unable to make his eyes stay on one thing for more than a second. Everything has been knocked out of order, like someone flipping his workbench over and spilling the contents on the floor.

She comes over to sit beside him on the armrest of the sofa. “I know what you’re like. I don’t want you to beat yourself up over things that can’t be helped.”

When he doesn’t answer she lifts her hand hesitantly, then ruffles his hair, carefully, like no one has done since they were kids. He closes his eyes because he can’t help himself, that touch is hot wired to his heart and he doesn’t think he can stand it right now.

His brain changes gears.

“Malin’s really pregnant?” he says.

Dahlia nods, a tiny smile jerking at the corner of her mouth.

“Huh,” he says, twiddling the edge of his serviette between his fingers. “We’ll have to start thinking about gifts for the naming ceremony.”

“I was thinking a proper steel knife. You know, with the carved handles. Nice and traditional.”

Ladon nods, and he doesn’t have anything more to say. He learned to love beautiful things. He can unlearn.      

“Oh, little brother,” she says, kissing his forehead gently. “I’m sorry. You can’t fix everything.”

He refuses to look at her face and takes her hand, strokes the life line carefully with his thumb. Maybe… maybe it could be that easy. “Why not?”

She huffs. “Because that’s not how the world works.” She folds her other hand over his, squeezing carefully. Her skin feels way too cold.

Why not?” he insists. He steels himself and looks straight into her eyes. “At least let me try. Before you give up… let’s just try.”

Even her eyes are faded these days, like shuttered windows. Still, she looks at him, and breathes, and finally shakes her head a little, as if he’s just convinced her to try sneaking into the kitchen for some candy behind their aunt’s back again and she can’t believe she’s going along with it. “Okay, let’s say I’m willing to indulge this god complex of yours. What is your plan, exactly?”

And she lets him spend a few breaths lining it all up in his mind before he tells her.

 

 

-------

 

He would like to see the city of the Ancients, of course - he imagines crystal spires, a thousand lit windows like watchful eyes, hallways of elegantly twisted metal hushed by millennia of kept secrets. Perhaps he overly romanticizes it, but then it is more of a dream than a tactical concern. Surely he has earned the right to the occasional reverie, just like everyone else.

...Kolya would find it and use it until all that remained was a hollow shell, only to move on to the next precious thing when it couldn’t give him anything more. He’s like a cat that way, only interested in things that still have some pluckiness left in them right up until he devours them for good.

He’ll have to find some way to get Kolya out of the picture, he thinks, as he speaks in front of the royal court. There would be no point to unraveling Cowen’s power base only to have Kolya solidify his. They are both unfit to protect their own behinds, never mind a whole people.

They’d known of the city’s existence for centuries, of course, but in a vague way with no urgency; it would still be there after the war. And yet the wraith’s description had lit a small candle of longing in Ladon’s chest. It would have been enough just to see it, to know that something so impossible could actually exist.

Cowen sent him to the SGC and the SGC sent him back and now they both think he’s their double agent - he feels vaguely that they think he’s some kind of ball they can bounce between them. He’d be insulted, but it suits his purposes just fine.

Then, in the middle of his speech, the wraith spell he carries with him at all times starts moving in his inner pocket.

What. What. He covers his shock by clearing his throat and shuffling his papers, as if he’s simply lost his train of thought momentarily. It’s a half-assed speech anyway, full of comfortable platitudes and limp ideas, he can recite this kind of thing in his sleep - which is a good thing since his mind now erupts into an anthill. Did their wraith wake more of his kind in his short period of freedom? What else did he get up to? Has some third party found a way to activate wraith technology?

Once he’s done with the speech he takes out his tablet and tries to pretend he is simply going over some notes as he desperately makes readings of the magical makeup of the room. A few trinkets here and there, some subtle talismans for luck or beauty or charm giving away the nobility’s anxieties and little foibles. But all of it is dwarfed by the main output of magic, a black hole drawing everything towards him – the sick gravity of wraith sorcery.

They’d announced him as the wizard Mer when he arrived.

Ladon watches the man for some time, until it looks like he’s about to leave.  

“Excuse me, sir. Would you be the wizard Mer?”

The man is well dressed in a nonchalant, understated way that has Ladon inferring the hand of a Mrs. Wizard Mer in it. Deep, luscious blacks and clean lines that emphasise his tall, lean frame - it doesn’t seem like an accident. Ladon thinks about his aunt straightening his uncle’s tie and buttoning up his coat; it’s the same sense of someone’s care and fondness about this man, despite his coarse profession. The wraith spell vibrates wildly in Ladon’s palm and he puts his hands on his back to conceal it.

The man looks at him with an admirably unreadable expression. If he’s nervous, it’s too subtle to tell from the outside, and he has a blank, diffuse sort of face, at once familiar and unplaceable. An obscuring spell, then. “Yeah. Mr. Radim, was it?”

Ladon smiles while his mind runs in circles, who the hell are you, how did you get that curse, was it our wraith, has Teyla Emmagan figured it out with her Gift yet, wizards and wraith working together, what does it all mean

 He says: “Just call me Ladon, everybody does.”

 

-------

 

Without the amulet the man turns out to be pale and narrow-faced, with unruly black hair falling into his eyes. Ladon recognizes him from the posters - Major John Sheppard, wanted for murder, possibly armed and definitely dangerous. On the other hand he is, very clearly, not a wizard. Well, that’s… a surprise. When he’d picked up on the strange, almost seamless glamour at the palace he hadn’t expected it to be hiding this.

“You’re a long way from home, aren’t you,” Ladon murmurs, leaning his elbows on his knees. A long way indeed - so long that it seems unlikely he’d get here from Skarby without having been picked up by somebody. Somebody who could weave glamours and enchantments unlike anything Ladon has ever seen. Somebody who might even know how to use the stargates.

Somebody who is going to want him back.

Ladon checks Sheppard’s temperature - still much too cold - and pulls down the collar of his shirt just enough to look at the mark on his chest - which feels hot enough to burn his fingers. Sheppard is skinny in a way that would have Ladon’s aunt scrambling to fatten him up with pies and puddings and cream-based desserts. Not that it stopped him from packing quite a punch - Ladon touches the stitches in his forehead and winces.  

Kolya is probably going to kill this man. That is what Kolya does, whether he really means to or not. He never creates something new, he just wrecks old things into broken things.

...the bomb is almost ready. The only part that remains is to get Cowen and his men to go, unsuspecting, to somewhere isolated enough that there will be no collateral damage. As for Kolya – there are other ways to deal with him. He’s not a popular man, within the military or outside of it. In all honesty most of Ladon’s planning has been focused on the aftermath of it all – it’s all well and good to tear down, but the important part is to know how to rebuild later.

Dahlia is being treated right now, miles and miles away. Someone out there wants this man to come home to them.

Sheppard shivers in his sleep, and Ladon leans back in his chair. It’s going to be a long night.