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The Bearskin Cloak

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Smoke and flame filled Ronon's vision, engulfing the black outlines of the burning house. He could hear its death roar, the heavy crash of timber beams as the wood his great-great-grandfather had felled collapsed in on itself. A giant burst of sparks flung into the night sky, danced briefly across the familiar constellations, and were gone.

Ronon kept staring up, not wanting to watch his mother's garden burn, watch the fire rip through rows of beets and radishes, squash and rhubarb, rushing greedily towards the barn and outbuildings. His face was wet and the stars were blurring and the heat from the flames drove him back a step –

She stared at him in horror, her impossibly wizened hand clutching a smoking kerosene lamp. "No," she said, her voice weaker than he'd ever heard it. Not even when a cranky kick from his uncle's mule had broken her ribs, back when he was twelve and thought himself strong enough to hold the beast. "Not now, not like this."

He stepped back. A small step, all instinct and fear. But this was his mother, too strong to be felled like this: shriveled and shaking, all the strength drained from her. He glanced around the once familiar room, seeing but not making sense of the kindling papers and firewood strewn across the usually spotless floors.

A corpse was laid out on the dinner table. An old man in too large clothes, withered away to skin and dust. His father, dead from the plague that had wiped out Ronon's battalion, the plague that was now killing his mother. His despair outweighed his cowardice, pushed Ronon forward. "Mama," he said, like he was six again and she had the power to make it all better.

She shook in his arms, frail and failing. "I'm sorry, Ronon," she said. "I didn't want you to see us like – " a coughing fit wracked her body.

Ronon smoothly shifted his hold, bracing her shoulders while still giving her room to cough up the blood and phlegm her body was expelling. Just as he'd done for Tyre and Hemi and Ara and others withered past recognition. She coughed and choked –

Squeezing his eyes tight, desperate to shut out the memory, Ronon stepped back, and back again. It didn't work. His mother's ravaged face filled his vision. ("No... Not now, not like this...") He stumbled and turned and ran. Into the woods, shadow-black and treacherous, running past thickets he'd once hid in as a boy, leaping the small gully he'd pretended was the great Genii river when he'd played soldiers with his cousins. Branches ripped at his clothes, slashed at his face, grabbed at his ankles and still he ran. Away from the burning bier that had been his home, away from the parents he'd failed.

He didn't fall. Couldn't remember falling anyway, and certainly nothing seemed broken or too badly bruised. But he must have collapsed at some point. Because here it was, barely daylight, and he was curled at the base of a large oak, fluttering green leaves tinged with red. A squirrel, autumn fat, chittered down at him from the safety of a high branch. Something scratched at the back of his mind, dark and ugly. Ronon stared stubbornly at the craggy bark, trying to lose himself in the patterns.

Didn't matter. The darkness clawed through, and instead of oak trees and fat squirrels, Ronon saw his mother, choking her life out in his arms, his father dead on the table. He saw towns and villages and homesteads reduced to smoking rubble in a desperate bid to contain the plague. He saw barracks turned into bonfires of the desiccated dead. And always he saw himself, somehow whole, somehow alive, while all around him burned.

A cry ripped from his throat, the sound tearing and wet, and Ronon pushed himself back up to his feet. Pushed himself forward again. A canteen hung from his belt (had he grabbed it when he'd left the dying army base? couldn't remember; didn't matter) mostly full, though he didn't remember filling it. Ronon drank as he moved. Not running full out, but keeping to a steady, ground-eating pace. Ignored his hunger, mostly ignored his thirst. Moving was the important thing. Moving kept the darkness back.

Ronon moved 'til there was no light to see by. Pulled together a half-assed shelter, curled into a ball, slept. Light woke him. Woke the darkness, too. He got moving. Days passed. Didn't track how many. Hunger went away and took thought with it. After a while, the dark stayed back, scratching but muted. Sometimes he'd build a fire, mostly he didn't. Sometimes he'd think to refill his canteen when he splashed through a stream or walked by a creek. Didn't always remember to drink it, though.

One night, a pack of wolves woke him with their howling. Sounded far away, a good ten miles at least. Ronon realized he was disappointed, wanted them closer. In a distant sort of way he found the realization startling. The wolves weren't quitting, so Ronon mulled on it for a little while. The conclusion came as the wolves quieted. He'd come to the woods to die. Relief flowed through him. There would be an end. Soon, probably. He settled back down, pulled his coat higher up around his shoulders, drifted into sleep.

The sound of a match struck against stone filled his ears. A sound so familiar Ronon ached to his bones. Someone was hunched down next to him, a shadow against the night. A slight sucking sound, and the glow of pipe tobacco highlighted a man's dark face, his strong nose and sharp cheekbones. The glow strengthened and died with each breath, finally settling into a gentle burn. Leaning back into a more comfortable sprawl, the man shook out the match and puffed contentedly on his pipe.

Ronon shifted, pushing himself up on an elbow, and the man smiled over at him.

"Hey, Ronon."

"Hey, Dad."

His father used his pipe to gesture at the scant branches Ronon had leaned up against the fallen log he was rolled up next to. "Pretty pathetic shelter you got there."

Ronon looked up at it. "Yeah," he agreed.

"That how they do it in the Army?"

Ronon thought of what Tyre would say if he saw it. Nothing good. "No," he said.

"Not how I taught you."

Ronon looked down, embarrassed. His father waited patiently and finally Ronon pushed the branches aside, dragged himself up into a sitting position, and pointed out the obvious. "You died."

His father looked at him quizzically. "So you thought you'd build a bad shelter in my memory?"

Ronon shrugged, "Stopped caring."

"Ah." His father leaned back again, smoked his pipe for a bit. The smoke hung in the small space between the trees, forming a pale, moon-lit wreath above their heads and filling the space with the familiar smell of night fall and bedtime stories and the quiet talk of his parents as Ronon fell asleep.

"I just," Ronon began. His father looked over at him and Ronon forced himself to continue. "I don't see the point. Everyone's dead, so I don't see why..." He trailed off, ashamed.

"Don't see a reason to continue on yourself," his father filled in. Ronon nodded, grateful that he'd been understood. His father grunted and returned to his pipe. "It's a tricky thing though," he said finally, "reason." He made a circling gesture with his pipe. "Sometimes you don't see it until you're already through and on the other side."

"I'm tired, Dad." Ronon could feel his exhaustion like a weight. "I don't want to go through anything. I want to stop. Just...stop."

His father smiled at him, kind and loving and sad. "But you're needed, son. I don't think they can last much longer." He reached out, his hand callous-rough and gentle on Ronon's cheek. "Right now, though? Right now, you rest. I'll keep the watch tonight."

A protest rose and died in Ronon's throat, and he settled back down, allowed his father to tuck his long army coat more firmly around his body. His father stayed seated at Ronon's side, clever eyes staring out at the night, watching things Ronon couldn't see. So Ronon watched his father instead, let the old sensation of safety and contentment wrap around him. His father glanced over at him, his face creasing into his usual mischief-filled grin. "Don't worry, Ronon. It'll all look better in the morning." Ronon slept.

The insistent trilling of a robin woke Ronon from a deep sleep. The sun was high enough to send light beams dancing through the thick trees. For a brief moment Ronon thought he smelled pipe smoke, but it passed. His nose filled with the expected scent of pine and moss and the slow, fertilizing rot of the fallen maple he was pressed up against.

He remembered his dream, so vivid he half expected to see the imprint of his father's presence in the soft ground next to him. There was nothing, of course, and Ronon pushed himself, slowly and with too many groans, to his feet. He couldn't tell where he was. Not woods he was familiar with. He wondered if he'd crossed into Atlantis territory. Countless stories were told of the magic-thick land of Atlantis. Ghostly visitations would fit right in.

Not the sort of thing Ronon knew much about. Not the sort of thing he wanted to know much about. Magic was smoke and water: hard to see, harder to grab hold of. How real his dream had been, Ronon decided, didn't matter. What did matter was he was finally awake. Awake and in embarrassingly bad condition.

His hair was a mess of twigs and leaves and mud. His head was pounding; probably a sign of dehydration. His canteen was half full; he slowly sipped it down to a quarter. He didn't feel hungry, but Ronon had a deep suspicion his body wasn't sending out reliable signals just now. So he dug through his coat pockets and found a supply of jerky. Still wrapped in the twine the supply chief used to bundle them into standard packets of fifteen.

Pulling one piece loose, Ronon ripped off a bite with his teeth. The moment the salty flavor hit his tongue his mouth filled with saliva and his stomach let out a begging growl. Chuckling at himself, Ronon chewed on the tough jerky as he began an inventory of what exactly he had on him.

His jacket pockets were empty, but his army coat rendered up another packet of jerky, a round of fishing line, a half empty box of matches, and his knife-care kit. He had a vague memory of slinging a traveling kit over his shoulder, almost a sense memory to match the motion of shoving the jerky packets into his pockets. But he couldn't find a bag anywhere around his sleeping area.

Just as Ronon was concluding that he'd dropped the bag at some point (God, how long had he been out here?) he had a sudden chill. He was wearing his belt, and his sword was digging into his side, but... He felt along the thick strap of leather, past the hilt of his sword, until he found his skinning knife. It was tucked safely into its sheath, though twisted around towards his back.

Relief washed through him as Ronon pulled the knife out and checked the blade. His mother had made that knife for him, herself. Steel from his grandfather's foundry, but formed in her own little forge that she mainly used to repair farm tools. Losing the sword would have been bad (made by his grandfather and worth a fortune for that fact alone), but losing his mother's knife... Well, it hadn't happened so best not to worry about it.

Two of his throwing knives were tucked away in his boots, but the one he usually kept in his wrist sheath was gone, as was the little knife he tucked into his hair (a trick he'd picked up from Hemi). He pulled the knife from his left boot and tucked it into his wrist sheath. Not as well armed as he preferred to be, but better than nothing.

Ronon tore into another piece of jerky, taking measured sips of water from his canteen. Closed his eyes and listened. He thought he could hear the sound of rushing water somewhere behind him. Good for filling his canteen, obviously, but fish would be nice as well. His stomach burbled happily at that idea.

The rushing grew to a roar as Ronon followed the sound through sun-dappled woods, promising a good-sized source. Thinking of fresh caught fish cooked on an open fire, Ronon pushed eagerly through the thick undergrowth onto the bank of a small river. In the middle of the river, not five feet from him, was a bear.

Fur shining reddish brown in the sunlight, it was hunkered down in the water, facing the swift current. Its mouth was opened impossibly wide as it gulped down what must have been gallons of water. It looked like the bear was trying to drown itself. At least, until it was interrupted. Pulling its massive head out of the water, the bear fixed its malevolent gaze on Ronon, let out a deafening roar and charged.

Chapter Text

Water flew up in great sheets as the bear plowed towards him. Ronon breathed in, pulling his sword free of its scabbard. The bear was on him. Ronon leapt to one side, dragging his sword beneath the bear's throat as he went. The bear skidded to a stop, spinning a turn unthinkably graceful and quick for such a large beast. Ronon landed awkwardly on the uneven rock bed, gusted out a breath, struggled to find his footing, to raise his sword for the next clash.

The bear reared up to its full height, far above Ronon's own, reached out to pull him into its deadly grasp. Then, its blue eyes widening in almost comic surprise, it hesitated, felt tentatively along the shallow cut Ronon had managed to land. Clever claws traced the horizontal wound barely noticeable beneath the bear's thick fur. It sat down with a thump, began digging and tugging and ripping its own skin away from its body.

Ronon stared, stunned by what he was seeing. He'd have said the bear was poisoned, except he knew his blade was clean. Then he realized that the quickly widening wound wasn't revealing the expected fat and musculature of a bear, but instead a man's chest. Pale and striped with gore, but unmistakably human. Ronon started towards the animal-man and then hesitated. The bear tumbled onto its back, turned its head towards him. Blue eyes, Ronon noted, the implication finally hitting him. Wrong color for a bear. They looked human, looked pleading, and that decided him.

Sheathing his sword, Ronon drew his skinning knife and dropped to one knee beside the bear. Starting from the mangled wound at the bear's chest, Ronon pulled his knife downward. He didn't worry about neatness, just concentrated on keeping the cut shallow, uncertain of where bear ended and man began. It was like cutting through a weak seam in a badly made shirt. Like the skin and fur wanted to be sliced open. Stopping above the bear's genitalia (he really didn't know where bear ended and man began, and this was not the place to find out), Ronon moved to pull the bear's skin back.

The bear started to claw at the opened skin, and Ronon batted the paws away. "Stop, you'll cut yourself," he said. The bear stopped its clawing, obediently dropping its paws up by its head. Ronon glanced up. The bear was staring back at him, its too human eyes wide and hopeful and scared. It was creepy. Ronon looked back down, concentrated on his task.

As before, the skin pulled away with startling ease. Ronon didn't even need his knife, and he put it down rather than risk cutting the man beneath the fur. Sunk into something vaguely resembling muscle and tendon, the human body took up space that should have been organs and bones. Ronon reached in, grabbed the man's shoulders, and pulled. At this, the bear-body balked. It sucked at the man like quicksand, greedy to hold him fast. Ronon slid his hands around the man's back, getting a better grip. He braced himself, took a breath, then pulled, strong and steady. Slowly, slowly, he could feel the man pulling free. Adjusting his stance, getting both his feet beneath him, Ronon kept on pulling, up and back.

As the man's torso pulled free, the bear-body finally gave up its grasp. The man's head popped loose of the massive bear-head, his arms and legs slipped free of the bear-limbs, and Ronon tumbled over backwards, carrying the man with him.

Winded, as much by his exertion as the weight of the man landing on him, Ronon lay on the stony river bank and caught his breath. After a moment he raised his head and looked down at the gore-covered, naked man lying on top of him. "Hey," he said, "you okay?"

The man pushed himself up off of Ronon's chest. Short brown hair stuck wildly out from his high forehead, globs of bear-matter trapped in the thinning strands. That, combined with his startled expression (all wide eyes and open mouth), served to make him look slightly clownish. But then his expression changed, became panicked, alarmed.

He scrambled completely off of Ronon, towards the broken underbrush, away from the river. His back heaved convulsively and suddenly he was puking up river water. It gushed from his mouth in what seemed a never ending stream. Ronon rolled quickly to his feet, stepping back out of the way. His eye caught his mother's skinning knife, lying beside the weirdly deflated bear carcass. Ronon snatched it up before the flow of water could reach it.

The man made a horrible choking sound. His mouth opened impossibly wide (just like the bear, was Ronon's wild thought), his body gave a massive heave, and something impossibly large slipped out of his mouth and landed, flopping, in the muddy leaves between the man's hands. It was a carp. A beautiful, golden carp.

"Quickly," the man said, his voice harsh and rasping. He reached towards Ronon with one shaky hand, or more properly, towards Ronon's knife, and snapped his fingers impatiently.

With a start, Ronon realized he knew exactly what the man wanted him to do. He knelt beside the weakly flopping carp. Holding it steady with one hand, he carefully placed the blade of his knife at one gill. The slightest of nicks and suddenly the carp burst into a shower of golden scales, revealing a naked woman.

She had long golden brown hair, and warm golden brown skin, soft where Ronon's hand rested on her bare shoulder. Her hair curled around perfect breasts and scattered scales sparkled on her skin and Ronon realized he was staring. He blushed and pushed up onto his feet, stepping back so quickly he nearly stumbled.

The man didn't seem to notice Ronon's confusion. He was leaning forward, gently tapping the woman's cheek. "Teyla?" His voice still sounded painful and rough. The woman opened her eyes, pulled in a breath, and pushed herself into a sitting position.

"Rodney," she said. She grasped his arm tightly, like she was afraid he was going to disappear. Then she looked up at Ronon, brown eyes cautious and measuring, taking in the sword on his hip and the knife in his hand. "And you are?"

"Ronon Dex," said Ronon. He hastily sheathed his knife and pulled off his coat. He was about to hand it over to her, when he had a sudden thought. "You aren't going to puke up a bird or something, are you?"

The woman, Teyla, glanced over at Rodney. They shared a look: fear or worry or a combination of both, from what Ronon could tell. "No," said Teyla, finally. "No, there is only the two of us." She took Ronon's coat with a grateful smile.

"I could lend you my shirt," Ronon offered Rodney. Though he was relieved when Rodney reluctantly shook his head. It was the only he shirt he had and, unlike Teyla, Rodney was pretty filthy.

"Much as I'd love – " Rodney cut himself off, rubbed his throat and grimaced. "Clothes," he said, and waved his hand in a direction roughly upriver. "Cave."

Ronon nodded. "Okay. I'll take you there."

Teyla and Rodney shared another look, this one too complicated for Ronon to follow. Trying to decide whether or not to trust him, was his best guess. He wasn't offended. They'd obviously been through something big and he was a stranger to them. But it seemed wrong to leave them, naked and vulnerable, by the riverside. Plus, he didn't want to lose his coat.

Finally Teyla looked up at Ronon, nodding graciously. "We are in your debt."

Ronon shrugged and reached out his hand. "Nowhere else to be," he said. Teyla took his hand and rose easily to her feet, swamped in Ronon's coat.

Rodney scrambled less gracefully to his, hampered by his attempt to keep at least one hand cupped over his privates. "This way," he said, then winced, coughed, and headed up the narrow riverbank.

Teyla fell in behind him, and Ronon began to follow her, when a thought struck him. "Hey," he called. "You want your bearskin?"

Rodney stopped, looked back at the bear carcass, open and gutted on the riverbank. His face twisted in disgust and he opened his mouth, head already shaking in a pretty decisive no. But then he paused, eyes narrowing in calculation. The clown became a strategist. He looked at Teyla, eyes now fierce, mouth determined. He didn't say anything, didn't try to, just picked his way back over the rocky ground, and heaved the entire carcass up over his shoulder.

Ronon almost offered to help carry the thing. It had to be heavy, even without the usual innards. But the look on Rodney's face changed his mind. So he stood quietly aside, let Rodney take the lead, nearly swamped by the bearskin, the massive head dragging the ground behind him.

It was slow going, especially with Rodney and Teyla being barefoot. There was one scary moment while crossing the river at a wide, shallow spot, when Rodney slipped and fell into the rushing waters. But he popped back up to his feet before either Teyla or Ronon could react, bearskin clutched in both hands.

"Okay! I'm okay!" he said, though now he was shivering badly. He did his best to smile, though it didn't quite work. "Needed a bath, anyway."

"Rodney, you are freezing," said Teyla, eyes worried, voice fierce. "Perhaps we should stop now – "

"No, no." Rodney grimaced again, swallowing convulsively. "Close," he said, nodding his head towards the thick woods hanging over the riverbank. He pressed on towards the far bank, dragging the sodden bearskin behind him, face dark with determination. Frankly, Ronon would have either dropped the skin or asked someone else to carry it, but this wasn't his battle. It was when Rodney began clambering up the steep bank of the river that Ronon noticed.

"The head's gone," he called out.

Rodney paused, one foot still in the shallows, stared down at the bearskin. At first he looked enraged, but then his face went calculating again. Suddenly he dropped the bearskin down into the river, spreading it out beneath the swiftly running water. "Rocks," he snapped, "big ones." Then he looked up at Teyla and Ronon. "Please," he added.

Ronon shrugged. It was easy to see what Rodney wanted, and there were plenty of river rocks to choose from. So he grabbed a good sized rock and used it to pin down one edge of the bearskin. Working together, they had the bearskin held fast under water quickly enough. But Rodney was wetter than ever, and Teyla got plenty wet herself. This far into the season the cold could come on fast, even with the sun shining.

"We need to get to your cave," Ronon said. "Now."

Rodney looked up from where he was checking the bearskin. His lips were blue. "Yes," he said, and pushed himself wearily to his feet. A sign of how exhausted he was, Rodney didn't seem to care anymore about being naked.

Fortunately, the cave was a quick, but steep, scramble up from the river, tucked back in the shadows of a narrow, rocky ledge. As soon as they arrived, Rodney disappeared into its depths and Teyla began gathering sticks and laying out the makings of a fire. She looked like she knew what she was doing, so Ronon decided to leave her to it and give her and Rodney some space.

"There's matches in one of the pockets," he told her, pointing at the coat she wore. "Thought I'd try fishing?"

Teyla began searching the coat pockets and smiled up at Ronon. "Fish would be nice," she said.

"If I catch anything. There's jerky if I don't."

Teyla had already pulled out one packet. "I see that," she said, sounding amused. "And I believe you'll need this?" She held out his round of fishing line.

Ronon shifted, slightly embarrassed. "Yeah. Thanks." He took the fishing line and, not letting himself think too much about it, unsheathed his wrist-knife. "Here," he said. "It's not much but..."

Teyla looked up at him, eyes searching. Ronon avoided her gaze, looked down at the knife he was offering. Finally, she accepted the knife and Ronon was able to leave.

He gave himself the day. Took time to find a promising spot, fashion several good hooks, a workable pole, pick out the best bait. When the sun began to dip low through the trees, Ronon headed back to the cave with a gratifying number of good-sized walleye dangling from his catch line.

Teyla and Rodney looked up as he came through the trees. They were both dressed, Ronon was pleased to see. Their clothes were mismatched and heavily layered and badly sized, but they looked warm and dry and much more comfortable than when he'd last seen them.

Their eyes lit up when Ronon held up his catch, though apparently Teyla had planned on success. She'd found a thin, flat frying rock and had it hot and ready over one section of the fire. Teyla and Ronon made short work of cleaning and filleting the fish, Rodney took charge of the frying rock, and by the time darkness settled in, they were enjoying a hot and satisfying meal.

Teyla had also woven cattail leaves into a watertight bowl in order to carry up water from the river. Apparently, she'd plied Rodney with cocklebur tea all afternoon. When the walleye were all eaten, she brewed a fresh batch, using water donated from Ronon's canteen, for the three of them to share.

"Impressive work," Ronon said as he passed the bowl of tea to Teyla.

"Thank you," she said. "It's a skill my people learn at a young age for just this sort of circumstance."

Rodney blinked at her. "Being freed of a dark enchantment in the middle of nowhere?" he asked.

"Being stranded in the woods with limited supplies," replied Teyla, her eyes amused as she passed the bowl back to him.

"Oh," said Rodney. "Yeah, that makes more sense."

"Good you had those clothes, though," said Ronon.

Rodney raised the bowl to Ronon in acknowledgment. "Somewhere there's a farm wife missing a whole line of laundry," he said. "I just wish I'd thought of shoes."

Ronon looked at Teyla and Rodney's feet and realized they were only wrapped in fabric. Good for warmth but not for any serious walking. That was going to be a problem. "Is the farm close?" he asked.

Rodney looked up from his tea, expression startled. "What? No, that was months ago, when we were first enchanted. No, I think we're well and truly in the wilderness, my friend."

"I should be able to fashion something for us tomorrow," said Teyla. "Though I suspect it will take a good portion of the day."

Ronon poked at the fire, wondered if he should add more wood. "Better to start out prepared than have problems along the way," he said.

"You have been most helpful," said Teyla, her tone casual, her eyes not, "however we would not want to delay you from your own tasks."

Ronon went ahead and threw another branch on the fire. A shower of sparks flew up into the night and he had to swallow against a sudden feeling of nausea. "Nowhere else to be," he said, his voice thick.

Teyla nodded and then, to Ronon's relief, looked at Rodney. "Well," she said, "I think it's time I said goodnight."

Rodney decided to join her and they headed into the cave. Ronon elected to stay with the fire. Teyla had hung his coat on a nearby tree limb and it was not only dry, but nicely warm as well. Rolled up in his coat, next to the warm campfire, Ronon should have been comfortable.

He shouldn't have thrown on the extra wood. He closed his eyes and visions of his mother's wasted face, his father's withered corpse, swamped him. Suppressing a groan, Ronon opened his eyes, stared into the fire. He took a few moments to bank it down for the night. Closed his eyes and the burning bodies of his unit came for a visit. Giving up on sleep, Ronon thought he might get up for some night fishing or hunting or something. But before he could push himself up, the sound of someone softly singing wafted over him.

It was a quiet melody, simple and soothing and almost familiar. Ronon listened to it for several moments before realizing it was Teyla. He wondered if Rodney was having bad dreams and then a pleasant baritone joined with Teyla's voice, not the same melody and too complex to be a simple harmony. It was like Teyla's song was asking a question and Rodney's was giving a detailed answer.

The song drifted around Ronon, and he closed his eyes to listen, could feel himself relaxing. At some point he must have fallen asleep because next thing he knew he was waking up to early morning sunlight. Teyla was turning some sort of tuber nestled on the campfire's hot coals, and Rodney was stumbling out of the cave, moaning piteously.

"Oh my God, my arms!" He collapsed to a seat by the campfire. "I think they might be broken. Or pulled out of joint. Or," his eyes went big, "the ligaments have all been torn and I'm dying from internal bleeding as we speak!"

"Your arms are not broken, torn, nor out of joint," said Teyla. "They are, however, strained. You should rest today."

"That will not be a problem," replied Rodney, miserably, "since I currently have no use of my arms." He looked over at Ronon. "And good morning to you," he said. "Sleep well?"

Ronon sat up, loosening himself from his coat and dragging his fingers through the thick twists of his hair. "Slept real well," he said. Embarrassingly well, if he was honest. It was a little unnerving to think that Teyla had been able to come so close, to start cooking breakfast, without his noticing.

As though she'd read his mind, Teyla said, "You looked comfortable so I tried to be quiet."

Ronon gave her a tight smile and decided to let it go. "Not surprised you're sore," he said to Rodney. "That was a lot of bear you were dragging around yesterday."

Rodney sprang to his feet with a surprising amount of energy. "The bearskin!" he exclaimed. "I need to – "

"Rodney wait!" cried Teyla.

Rodney froze, stared at Teyla with wide eyes. "What?"

"Remember you're barefoot," she said calmly. "Walk with care."

"Oh." Rodney looked down at his feet, pale against the dark forest floor. "Okay. Thank you for the heart-stopping warning, I guess."

Teyla concentrated on the tubers, an amused smile on her face. "I know you Rodney. Getting your attention when you have a project on your mind can be..." she looked up at him, smile blooming into a full grin, "challenging."

"Yes, well," Rodney started towards the trees and the steep slope down to the river, "congratulations on a job well done."

Ronon pushed himself to his feet. "I'll go with you," he said. "Carry you if the ground gets rough."

Rodney twitched, glanced at Ronon uncertainly, "Um, I'm not sure..."

"Kidding," said Ronon brushing past him and into the trees.

"Ah," said Rodney. "Yes, let's mock the shoeless guy. Fun for the whole family."

Rodney took his time and Ronon didn't press him. It gave him a chance to take a piss, for one. For another, the last thing they needed was a foot injury. Once at the river, Rodney sighed deeply and then, after rolling up his oversized pants, stepped into the flowing water.

"Need me to move rocks?" Ronon asked.

Rodney was bent low, feeling the bearskin with both hands. He made a noncommital sound, continued exploring, then nodded decisively and stood up. "Yes, actually you can just grab the whole thing and bring it up to the cave. I think the water's done its work."

He picked his way carefully out of the river and stood waiting while Ronon waded in to collect the hide. Ronon wasn't thrilled with the idea of lugging a huge, water-logged, bearskin up the steep slope to the cave, but he'd pretty much volunteered for the job. Only, instead of pulling the hide of a full-grown bear out of the water, Ronon found himself holding something much smaller. The bearskin had shrunk, and lost its limbs, and was now more a rough rectangle than anything recognizably bear shaped. Plus, it looked like it had been properly tanned, the flesh completely cleaned off.

His surprise must have shown, because Rodney chuckled a little. "Interesting isn't it?" he asked. "If I left it in the water, it would eventually reduce to nothing. Magic of this sort is primarily illusion and emotion. Tap into someone's fears and then trap them in it. But, once you separate the emotion from the magic, expose the illusion, it can be destroyed. Like sunlight dissolving a cloud."

Ronon threw the hide over one arm, holding the sopping mass as far away from his body as he could. Smaller didn't mean small. And the thing was still heavy. "Seems pretty substantial to be an illusion," he said.

"Ah, but that's the trick," said Rodney, obviously pleased to share his knowledge. He began to pick his way, slowly and carefully, back up the slope. "Once trapped, a sort of self-perpetuating loop begins with the illusion feeding the victim's fear and the fears feeding the illusion. By the time it's done the illusion can become more real than reality." He looked back at Ronon and nearly tripped over a tree root.

"Eyes on where you're going," said Ronon, resigning himself to the fact that he was going to get wet.

Rodney kept on talking, though he obediently kept an eye on his footing. His explanations quickly sank into the esoteric and, by the time they crested the slope, Ronon had lost the thread. He was just about to interrupt and ask where Rodney wanted the bearskin when Rodney said, "...and Satedan steel, of course."

"What?" asked Ronon.

Rodney frowned at the dripping bearskin draped over Ronon's arm. "I'm not sure simply hanging it to dry will be enough," he said thoughtfully, "but would smoking it be overkill?" Then he blinked up at Ronon. "What? Oh, um, Satedan steel. Cuts through illusionary magic like a hot knife through butter. Nothing better." He gestured towards Ronon's hip. "That's Satedan, right? In fact, I'd say all your blades are. They give off that energy, anyway."

Ronon realized he'd dropped his hand to his sword hilt. He forced himself to keep his grip relaxed. "Yeah," he said, hoping his voice didn't sound as rough as it felt. "Yeah, they all are."

Rodney nodded, satisfied, and Ronon was glad he'd managed to appear casual. To Rodney at least. When he glanced over at her, Teyla was giving him a measured look. But she turned her attention back to the campfire, so Ronon relaxed.

There was some fussing over the placement of the bearskin, but soon Ronon had it hung to Rodney's satisfaction and they were all settled down for breakfast, served on plates of woven birchbark. Teyla had discovered a patch of sunroots during her explorations yesterday, and they made for a hearty meal. For a little while, everyone concentrated on eating.

Then Teyla looked over at Ronon. "I have not known a Satedan soldier to operate without his unit," she said, voice deceptively casual.

Ronon stiffened, concentrated on chewing and swallowing.

"Oh, are you a soldier?" asked Rodney.

Ronon carefully put his birchbark plate down, looked up at Rodney. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I am."

"A Specialist, according to your mark," added Teyla.

Ronon touched the rank marking on his neck, met Teyla's eyes. He hated her for a brief moment. For seeing it, seeing him, and forcing him to remember. "Yes," he bit out.

"And yet you are far outside Satedan borders, alone and seemingly without purpose," she pressed.

Ronon could feel his eyes burning. He opened his mouth, though he wasn't sure what he was going to say. "Sateda is gone," he said, finally. Surprising even himself.

"Gone?" Rodney shook his head, confused. "What do you mean, 'gone'? Countries don't just go."

"There was a plague," Ronon replied, and now he had to look away. "It spread quickly and everyone who caught it..." he swallowed. "Everyone died."

"But that doesn't make any sense." Rodney pointed at him. "Look, early spring Sateda made a successful attack on the Wraith fleet. We all heard about it. John said – " He cut himself off, threw a miserable look at Teyla. "It was a topic of conversation for a while," he mumbled. Then his voice strengthened "But a country doesn't go from strong enough to attack the Wraith in one of their main harbors to," he waved his hand, "to weak enough to succumb completely to a disease. There's no magic I'm aware of that could do that. It doesn't make sense."

Rodney's words hit Ronon like a blow. He remembered that strike: the brutal cold of the far north waters; the soft creak of the ships as they sailed, quiet as the fog, towards the Wraith harbor; the elation of watching what seemed like the entire Wraith raiding fleet go up in flames. They were so sure they'd crippled the abilities of the Wraith raiders to pillage Satedan fishing towns and coastal farmlands. Sure that Sateda had nothing but prosperity and peace ahead of them, for many years to come.

Shaking himself out of the memories, Ronon realized he was on his feet, one hand tight on his sword hilt. "Believe me or not," he managed to grind out. "Sateda is gone."

Then he was crashing into the woods, pushing his way through the underbrush, stumbling down to the river, stalking up its narrow bank. He was furious. At Teyla for asking questions she had no right to ask. At Rodney for doubting the answers. At the Wraith. Maybe he should just keep going, head up north until he crossed into Wraith territory. Visit some hurt on them. He'd die, of course. But if it was surrounded by a heap of Wraith dead he'd count that a win. The image filled him with a fierce satisfaction.

Was going to get cold, though. And soon. That thought slowed Ronon down. Would he even make it to Wraith borders as winter came down? There was no glory in dying of exposure. Ronon stopped, stared up at the sunlit sky. It seemed mild enough, but he wasn't a fool. Autumn was slipping away and today's warmth could easily slide into tomorrow's bitter cold. He didn't even have his coat. It was still up by the fire, right next to his unfinished breakfast. With Teyla and Rodney.

They'd probably be okay. Teyla seemed skilled and she had his knife. (And his fishing line, and his jerky. And his knife-care kit for that matter.) Plus, he'd only just met them. For all he knew their enchantments had been punishment for some horrible crime. Maybe they'd brutally murdered that John-person Rodney had regretted mentioning. Ronon tried to picture Teyla and Rodney as ruthless killers and let out a quiet huff of laughter. The picture didn't fit. He was looking for excuses and doing a bad job of it.

The last of his rage drained out of him and, feeling deflated and childish, Ronon turned around. He didn't relish going back after crashing away like a sulky schoolboy, but what he felt didn't matter. He'd found Rodney and Teyla, rescued them both. He'd decided not to abandon them once and he wasn't going to do it now because he couldn't handle a few questions.

Rodney was using Ronon's knife to cut a large sheaf of birchbark into even strips, and Teyla was weaving the strips into a large mat. They both looked up when Ronon came through the trees. "I am glad you returned, Ronon," said Teyla.

Ronon looked down, letting his hair cover his heated face. "Nowhere else to be," he mumbled.

Mercifully, Teyla left it at that. "Rodney and I must return to Atlantis," she said with an easy casualness Ronon appreciated. "We would be pleased to have you join us."

"Okay," said Ronon. Both Rodney and Teyla looked relieved enough that Ronon felt even more awkward. He looked around for a diversion and settled on the fishing pole he'd made yesterday, leaning on a conveniently close tree. "I'll get some fish. For the journey," he said, grabbed his fishing pole and fled.

By sunset, Teyla had fashioned the birchbark mats into two pairs of shoes, Ronon had neat strips of fish smoking on a makeshift grid, and Rodney was carefully cooking their dinner on the heated frying rock.

Ronon filleted the last fish, giving Rodney a look as he handed the meat over.

"What? Look, I told you I've never cleaned a fish before," said Rodney.

Ronon shook his head in mock disbelief, sharing a quick grin with Teyla that Rodney completely missed.

"I mean, I'm sure it's not hard," Rodney added, "once you know what you're doing. Just a simple matter of angle and pressure. Given the opportunity I'm certain I'd easily master the technique. But when you devote your life to understanding the vast complexities of magical law – "

"Okay."

Rodney blinked at him, mouth still open to speak. Then his eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Okay what?"

"I'll teach you how to clean a fish." Ronon nodded solemnly. "And a rabbit, and even a bird if we catch any. Make a proper woodsman of you."

"Oh, I...." Rodney said, face a picture of trapped panic, "thank you? I guess?"

Teyla burst into peals of laughter and Ronon could no longer hold back his own smile. Rodney shook a chiding finger at both of them. "Yes, yes, laugh at my ignorance. Very amusing," he said dryly, though he couldn't quite conceal an answering grin.

Eventually Rodney stopped grumbling and Teyla stopped sniggering and dinner was finished. No one seemed eager to go to bed, and Ronon was content to sit by the fire, listening to the sounds of the forest nightlife waking up around them. Teyla seemed lost in her own thoughts, still and quiet. But Rodney was getting more and more twitchy. Staring at Ronon, then catching himself and quickly looking away, only to return to staring a few moments later. Ronon was just about to confront him when Rodney broke.

"Listen," Rodney said, "I understand this is an unpleasant topic and I will understand completely if you don't want to discuss it, but... Can you – Would you be willing to tell me a little more about the plague?"

Ronon gave him a sharp look and Rodney flinched back. "Never mind," he said quickly, "just... just forget I even brought it up."

But Ronon wasn't willing to let it go so easily. "Why?" he asked. "Still don't believe me?"

"I do!" Rodney protested. "I have no reason not to, anyway, but – "

"We both believe you are telling the truth," broke in Teyla smoothly. "But a plague that can wipe out an entire country is a worry for us all. I'm sure Rodney hopes to figure out the cause." She looked at Rodney and he nodded, eyes earnest.

"You a physician?" Ronon asked him.

"No," Rodney said. "No, I'm something much, much better. I'm a sorcerer. A really good one. In fact, I only know a few people that might possibly reach my level of –" Teyla put a hand on Rodney's arm and he cut himself off, started again. "The important thing is I strongly suspect magic is behind the plague that attacked Sateda," he said. "And I'd like to find its source. But," Rodney glanced at Teyla, "it's been pointed out to me that this is a painful subject. So if you don't want to talk about it, just say the word and," Rodney paused, looked both reluctant and resolved, "and I swear I won't bring it up again."

Ronon stared into the fire. He was sorely tempted to tell Rodney to leave it alone, let him bury it deep. Yesterday, he definitely would have. But, for some reason, that choice seemed wrong tonight. Maybe because they were about to start a journey together. Maybe because he'd been invited along in the first place. Maybe because they cared and they were asking.

Whatever the reason, he took a deliberate breath and said, "It started with the stranger."

Rodney leaned forward, eager. "Where did the stranger come from?" he asked.

"We never found out. He just walked into the base one morning. Slipped right past the guards which was weird. But he wasn't wearing any weapons."

"What did he look like?"

"Couldn't tell. His face was shielded."

"Wraith?" asked Teyla sharply.

Ronon looked up at her, eyes fierce. "Wraith wouldn't have made it through." She nodded, and he relaxed a little, closed his eyes, summoning up the image of the stranger as best he could. "Wasn't a face guard. Just a piece of cloth hanging from his hat. Like a dust shield or something. Looked like a dirt farmer."

He remembered looking up as the guy walked past the meal tent, elbowing Ara, joking that they were finally going to clean out the kitchens. Getting an elbow back because Ara had kitchen duty that morning.

"And he was sick?" asked Rodney.

Ronon shook his head. "No, I don't..." He changed his mind. "Except, maybe he was?" He looked over at Teyla and her eyes softened.

"What happened to the stranger, Ronon?" she asked.

"Base guards finally realized he didn't belong. They surrounded him, asked him who he was, what he was doing there." Ronon closed his eyes again, remembered the confusion and the excitement of the unexpected on a routine day. "People began to gather. We were all wondering what was going on. And then..." He opened his eyes. This part he'd prefer not to visualize. "It was like he dissolved."

"Dissolved?" Rodney asked, sharply.

"That's what it looked like," Ronon said. "First he was a guy, just standing there, and then he was a cloud of dust, blowing into the crowd. People began coughing and I think a few got sick right away. Pretty soon the sick outnumbered the healthy and," he shook himself, running trembling hands through his hair. He didn't want to remember this. "It all went to chaos."

"Okay," said Rodney, "so I guess we've found the delivery system. I wonder if – "

"Who's John?" asked Ronon, grabbing desperately for a diversion. Rodney had mentioned the name this morning and then shifted quickly away from it. Maybe it was time for Rodney to be on the defensive.

"What?" Rodney looked confused and Ronon felt a perverse twist of pleasure.

"Who's John? Is he the bird?"

"I..." Rodney looked towards Teyla, obviously lost.

"The bird you guys were worried about back at the river." Ronon found he was leaning towards Rodney, taking advantage of their height difference, looming over him.

"I don't remember – "

"Yes," Teyla broke in, voice calm, eyes watchful. "We do not believe he's been enchanted into a bird. But he is our friend and Rodney and I are worried that he is still in the grip of the man who trapped us."

"A sorcerer?"

"I didn't think so," said Rodney, his voice bitter. "But, given what he did to us, I would have to say he has at least a certain amount of ability."

"Magic." Ronon threw a branch at the fire, this time enjoying the violence of sparks cast into the air. "Magic is shit."

"Yes." Rodney's mouth was turned down. "Yes, sometimes it is."

The rest of the evening was pretty quiet after that. Each of them lost in their own thoughts. Which suited Ronon. When Teyla and Rodney turned in, he settled down, readying himself for a parade of visions from his lingering dead. But then Teyla began to hum her soft song and Rodney joined in and Ronon was carried off into a gentle sleep.

Over the next weeks Ronon got to experience first hand what Teyla meant about Rodney and his projects. At first it seemed like Rodney had let the Satedan plague go. Really he was just biding his time, waiting for Ronon to remember his threat to teach Rodney some basic woodsman skills.

"I tell you what," Rodney said, staring at the dead fish and the knife with equal trepidation. "I follow your instructions without complaint and you answer my questions."

Ronon didn't have to ask what questions Rodney wanted answered, and to be honest, he wanted to learn what had been done to Sateda. But he couldn't let Rodney win too easily. "Follow my instructions correctly," Ronon stressed, "and I'll answer a few questions."

Rodney started to protest the vagueness of the deal ("Wait, wait, how much is 'a few' exactly?") but when Ronon pulled back the fish like he was ready to walk away, Rodney quickly caved. (Ronon's mother would've had Rodney for lunch. And made him pay for it.) In the end, the questions weren't that bad. Rodney fixated on odd things, like how clean the stranger's clothes had been, and the very mundaneness of his focus made it easier to talk about.

Rodney soaked in everything Ronon told him, and Ronon was pretty sure Teyla learned just as much from what he didn't share. In turn, as they traveled ever deeper into the darkly forested mountain range cradling Atlantis's southwestern border, Ronon learned as much as he could about them.

They both held high positions in the Atlantis court, Ronon was a bit startled to learn. Teyla was a court advisor (which went a long way towards explaining how she recognized his rank markings) and Rodney was a court sorcerer. They both reported to the queen, but worked most regularly with their friend, John, leader of the Atlantis military. The thought of him being held captive by an evil sorcerer was a chilling one. Even for Ronon who didn't know the guy. After Athos fell, Atlantis became the foremost border kingdom. If she fell, too... In the end, they avoided talking about John.

Teyla led them steadily through the steep and tangled mountain passes. They ate fish and tubers and rabbits and mushrooms, provided by Teyla and Ronon and prepared and cooked by Rodney. They slept, huddled together, beneath a shelter of woven pine branches, each keeping the others warm. One day melted into another and it was almost a shock when they stopped to make camp one afternoon and Teyla said, "I believe Atlantis is only a day or two away."

"Wow, really?" Rodney looked ridiculously pleased. "That was pretty fast, wasn't it? It seems like it was really fast."

Ronon shrugged, returned to clearing out a space for the campfire. "Been over a month," he said.

"Over a month in the forest?" Rodney absently scratched at his beard, which was coming in thick now, a light brown that turned golden red in the sunlight. (Ronon had offered his knife, but Rodney had blanched and said he'd always wanted to grow a beard.) "I never thought I'd last over a month in the forest."

"I always suspected you had the ability," said Teyla, grinning. "You just needed proper incentive."

"Well, now we've learned finding oneself naked in the middle of the wilderness is excellent incentive. May it never happen again."

Ronon chuckled and looked up to share his amusement with Teyla. Then he noticed something sparkling on her cheek. "You got something there," he said, touching his own face to illustrate.

"Do I?" Teyla rubbed at the wrong cheek, and then the right one. But it didn't brush away.

"No, it's still there," said Rodney, leaning in to get a closer look. "What is that? Is it a..." his voice faltered and his eyes went large. "Teyla," he said. "Okay, now don't panic."

Ronon winced. If there was a wrong thing to say, he'd learned, Rodney was really good at saying it. Teyla's own eyes had gone wide and she was definitely thinking about panicking. "It's not a bug," Ronon told her, his voice as reassuring as possible. He squinted at her face. "Actually, it looks like a mark."

That did not reassure Teyla. "A mark." she repeated. Her voice a brittle sort of calm that Ronon didn't think would last long.

"A carp," Rodney said, flatly. And that broke her.

"Get it off! Get it off!" she cried. Then she pulled the throwing knife Ronon had given her, brandishing it towards her face.

"Teyla, no!" cried Rodney, grabbing her shoulders as Ronon grabbed her knife hand. "I can remove it! It can be removed!" Rodney shook her. "Teyla, look at me!

Teyla stopped struggling, though her breath was still coming in pants. "It is his mark, isn't it?"

Rodney cupped his hand over the small stylized fish. He closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them, his face grim. "Yes. But it's minor magic, a vanity."

"It is not minor to me," said Teyla forcibly. "Get. It. Off."

"I will," said Rodney. "Teyla, I will. But I'll need access to my workroom."

"Rodney," she said, voice small.

"Just a few days, Teyla. We get to Atlantis, get into my workroom and I will get that thing off of you."

Teyla closed her eyes, bowed her head. Rodney leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. "Teyla, I promise," he said.

She sucked in a breath, pulled back from Rodney and opened her eyes. "I believe you." Then she looked over at Ronon. "You may release me," she said.

Ronon looked at her carefully, then let go of her wrist.

Teyla tucked her knife away and licked her lips, calmer but still shaken. "I need some time alone," she said. Rodney opened his mouth, his eyes worried, but she talked over him. "I will not hurt myself, but..." she shook her head. "I need this, Rodney."

"Okay," said Rodney, though Ronon thought he'd have preferred to keep Teyla right by his side. "Okay. We'll get the camp set up. No promises on the state of the campfire though."

She managed a small smile, though it trembled on the edges. "I am sure you'll do fine, Rodney. You have learned much."

She walked away and Rodney stared after her for a long moment. Then he sighed and began clearing space for a campfire. Ronon didn't comment, just abandoned the campfire he'd begun and turned his attention to setting up their lean-to. He kept glancing at Rodney, waiting for him to break the silence and fill him in. But, unusually, Rodney stayed quiet, concentrating on the placement of each stick and twig .

Finally, Rodney had a fire going. So Ronon quit fiddling with the lean-to and sat down. Tried to look like a good listener. Rodney glanced over at him but then returned to feeding the steadily growing flames. For once, he wasn't making it easy.

"Never thought I'd see Teyla lose it like that," said Ronon, deciding someone had to break the silence.

"She didn't lose it," Rodney snapped. "All things considered, I thought she handled it rather well."

He glared at Ronon and Ronon raised placating hands. "Okay," he said.

Rodney winced. "Sorry," he said. "I just hate being so damn useless." He threw his remaining handful of sticks into the fire, then wrapped his arms around himself, his whole body collapsing into a huddle of depression.

Ronon gave him a rough pat on his shoulder. "You helped her," he said.

Rodney looked up at him, eyes nakedly hopeful. "Really?"

"Definitely." Ronon nodded firmly.

"Because Teyla is the only reason I was still there to be pulled out of the bear when you turned up," Rodney said. "If it wasn't for her anchoring me, keeping my mind engaged," he shuddered, "I don't think I would have lasted a month."

"How'd she do that?" Ronon asked, more to keep Rodney talking than actual interest in the details. Rodney liked to talk and Ronon wanted to keep him from sinking into gloom. That wouldn't help Teyla any.

"It was really quite ingenious," Rodney said. "You have to understand, I was in the bear, the fish was in me, and she was in the fish. There were too many barriers between us to communicate verbally. I could sense her: her presence, her mood, her emotions, etcetera. But we couldn't exactly chat. Teyla could feel me slipping away, but she couldn't say anything to stop it. And then she hit on it."

Rodney was practically grinning now so Ronon went ahead and asked, "Hit on what?"

A full-bloomed smile, as proud as if he'd thought of it himself. "Music," Rodney said. "She sang to me."

"Thought you said you couldn't hear each other."

"Ah, that's the trick, I said we couldn't talk to each other." Rodney was in his element now, animated and gesturing. Ronon felt pretty ingenious himself. "But music has its own magic. I couldn't hear her in the usual sense of the word, but I picked up on the melody."

"And that helped?"

"It was a lifeline." Rodney's smile became a little more grim and he stared into the fire. "I took the melody and played with it, dissected it, turned it inside out and backwards." He looked up at Ronon. "It kept me engaged, kept my mind focused. It was the perfect puzzle."

Suddenly it clicked for Ronon. "Your singing," he said. "You and Teyla. That's what that is."

Rodney looked startled. "You heard us?"

"Every night," Ronon replied. "Pretty hard not to."

Now Rodney looked embarrassed. "Oh, I didn't realize... It must have slipped into an unconscious habit. Like thinking out loud. I'm sure we can stop – "

"Don't," said Ronon, wishing he hadn't said anything. "It's nice."

"Oh," Rodney actually blushed. "Okay, I... I'll um. I guess I'll just... continue."

Poking at the fire, Ronon decided it was ready for one of the thicker branches. "So, what do I need to know about that fish-mark on Teyla?" He gave a quick sideways glance at Rodney as he threw a branch on the fire.

Rodney stiffened, and for a moment Ronon was afraid he'd decide not to tell him anything. But then he sighed. "Teyla is Athosian."

Ronon blinked in surprise. Though, thinking about it, he should have realized as much. Her well-honed survival skills, her unusually high level of alertness, even the weave work in the baskets and shoes and cordage she'd made all pointed towards Teyla's background. But the story of the Athosians, the Great Fall when the Athos borders collapsed and they were overrun by the Wraith, was such a stuff of legend in Sateda, it was hard for Ronon to think of them as actual, living people rather than characters in a stage-play.

"You're familiar with their history," Rodney stated rather than asked, though Ronon nodded anyway. "She was just a girl, but she lost her mother and then her father to Wraith warriors, saw countless friends and loved ones carried off by slavers, before her group reached the Atlantis border. To bear a mark herself..." Rodney trailed off, mouth twisted downwards as he stared into the flames.

"The mark is Wraith?" Ronon asked.

Now it was Rodney's turn to blink at him. "Of course," he said, eyebrows raised in surprise. "The Wraith mark their personal slaves. Everyone knows that."

"Not everyone."

"But, don't Wraith raiders – "

"Those the Wraith take are never seen again," said Ronon, his tone repressive enough that Rodney shut his mouth and returned his attention to the fire.

"Yes, well," he said. "I just wonder why I wasn't marked, as well."

"As do I." Teyla walked out from between the trees, the mark on her cheek sparkling in the rosy glow of the setting sun, a brace of rabbits dangling from her hand.

"Teyla!" said Rodney. "We were just... um, that is, how are you?"

Teyla's mouth twisted into a dry smile. "Better," she said. "And even more eager to return to Atlantis." She sank gracefully to a seat across from Ronon and handed Rodney the two rabbits.

"I'm sure you are," said Rodney, absently putting the rabbits down beside him. "But we're only a few days – "

"Do you have any theories," asked Teyla, speaking right over Rodney, "as to why am I marked but you are not?"

It was weird to see her so impatient. Rodney seemed thrown off as well. "Oh, well, I suppose it might be..." and then his voice faded, his whole body seeming to deflate. "No, not yet."

"Rodney wasn't supposed to change back," said Ronon.

Both Teyla and Rodney turned to stare at him, their bewilderment just this side of insulting.

"When you changed," he said, looking at Teyla, "you came out easy, but you" looking at Rodney, "were sunk in deep. It was work to pull you loose."

Rodney had rocked back a little, his eyes wide with surprise. But now he was snapping his fingers and nodding. "Yes, yes, of course. I mean, my memory of the actual event isn't all that clear – and believe me, I prefer it that way – but I do have a vague sense of the bear," he made a grabbing gesture, "clinging to me. And if it weren't for your efforts, Teyla," his face began to burn a bright red, "well... suffice it to say, I think Ronon has a workable theory."

Teyla gave Rodney a real smile, fleeting though it was. "You were meant to remain a beast, while I..." she trailed off, frowning.

"Michael did seem inordinately interested in you," said Rodney. "I suppose he hoped to," he swallowed, "own you. When all was said and done."

Teyla breathed in sharply, jaw tight and expression fierce. "That would not have gone well for him."

Rodney nodded with grim agreement and picked up one of the rabbits.

But Ronon was distracted by a disturbing thought. "This Michael," he asked. "He's the sorcerer who changed you?"

Teyla nodded.

"And he marked you as a Wraith would?"

Teyla grimaced and nodded again, this time more reluctantly. "We fear he may be Wraith," she admitted.

Now it was Ronon's turn to be rocked back in surprise. "But that's – "

"Impossible," Rodney broke in, "we know." He put the rabbit back down and began ticking off points on his hand. "He's working alone, he claims to be a subject of Atlantis, he gave us his name. All very good arguments for the Not-A-Wraith category. But..." he trailed off, looking over at Teyla.

"But," she sighed, "it's the only explanation for the magical trap he used to enchant Rodney and myself. Only Wraith use that form of illusionary magic. Combined with the mark..."

Ronon shook his head. "How do you miss a Wraith?" he asked.

"He didn't have the usual physical characteristics," said Teyla. "His face was marred, but it seemed the result of a childhood accident, not the facial scars of a Wraith warrior."

"He was unusually pale," said Rodney, "But you can't judge a guy for being pale." And then to Ronon's glare, "Look he had short hair and a name and we were a little distracted at the time. It's not like we expected a Wraith to come knocking at the front door!"

"You must understand, Ronon," said Teyla, "John was sick and injured and we'd long feared he was dead. When Michael returned him to us – "

She stopped herself, shook her head. "This would be clearer if I started at an earlier point," she said. After thinking for a moment, Teyla began again. "Mid-Spring of this year, the palace received word that an unknown animal was threatening a village. It was far from the city and, as I was involved in a complicated trade negotiation and Rodney had ongoing work of his own, John decided to deal with it without us."

"It was supposed to be a cakewalk," said Rodney. "He only took a few soldiers."

"Each of them good hunters," Teyla added, "but not seasoned fighters. The village was far from the border and the Wraith had been quiet since the Satedan raid. I believe John thought it would be a good training exercise."

Rodney smiled a little bitterly. "We're making excuses. The point is, John went out without us and something went wrong."

"Wasn't an animal," Ronon guessed.

"Not that we ever found," said Teyla. "After John had been gone a week or so, a message arrived from the village wondering when we would respond to their first request."

"Which cued a flurry of activity, let me tell you," said Rodney. "We sent out scouts and soldiers and the city's best trackers and they all found nothing. Not a trace of John or his team. It was," Rodney swallowed heavily. "It was pretty terrible."

"And then Michael arrived at the city gates, carrying John and crying for assistance." Teyla's mouth twisted. "We treated him as a hero, welcomed him into the palace with open arms."

Rodney snorted. "We were idiots," he agreed. "Though, to be fair, Michael played us beautifully. Very 'village youth in the big city' and such. And he seemed so taken with John, so worried that he hadn't 'rescued' him in time, mooning around the sickroom watching John sleep. It'd be like expecting a kitten to attack you."

"So what changed your mind?" asked Ronon.

"Mutilated bodies were discovered in the city," said Teyla. "With more appearing every few days. The mayor tried to speak with Queen Elizabeth but was told she was so worried for John – "

"Which, in and of itself, was suspicious," broke in Rodney. "Queen Elizabeth would never ignore the mayor like that. Never."

Teyla nodded in agreement. "After his attempts to speak with the queen were frustrated, the mayor spoke with me. I consulted with Rodney and we realized we shared a growing mistrust of Michael." She spread her hands in a gesture of futility. "So we determined to confront him."

"He must have been expecting it," said Rodney. "Before we even had a chance to level an accusation he sprang his trap. Next thing I knew, I was a bear and Teyla was transforming. I panicked, cast a protective spell on Teyla, swallowed her, and ran. Then there was a lot of thrashing around in the forest. And then you found us. And here we are."

A ghost of amusement crossed Teyla's face. "Perhaps not the most elegant rescue," she said, "but I am grateful you did not leave me behind."

Rodney looked over at her, eyes narrowed, mouth open to defend himself, but then he noticed her small smile. "Yes, well, you work with what you've got," he said with a tentative smile of his own. Then he picked up the rabbits, "Speaking of which..."

They all took up the tasks that had become their evening routine. Rodney prepared the meal. Teyla carefully examined the shoes she'd made, repairing any damage done by the day's journey. Ronon stocked up their wood supply. All familiar motions, but it didn't feel the same.

There was none of the usual talk. No complaints or questions or quirky personal stories from Rodney. No sly observances from Teyla that you didn't quite realize were jokes until you caught her grin. By the time Rodney declared the rabbits edible, the silence was so oppressive Ronon wondered if they'd go the rest of the evening without speaking.

Then Teyla said, "I think Rodney and I should start for Atlantis tonight, after we've finished eating."

Rodney coughed, then swallowed, then asked, "What, now? Why?"

Ronon realized he was more startled by Teyla speaking than what she'd said. In a strange way, he must have been expecting it. Still, he didn't like the idea of them going on without him.

"I had hoped Michael's true nature had been discovered when we went missing," Teyla answered Rodney. "That his growing hold over Atlantis had been broken. But with this," she gestured towards her face, "I fear his grip has only grown stronger."

"Okay, that part makes sense," said Rodney. "What I'm confused about is this traveling in the dark of night idea. Oh, and leaving Ronon behind."

"She's being cautious," said Ronon. He looked at Teyla, "Makes sense," he told her. Which was true. He didn't like it, but this wasn't a time for worrying about feelings.

Teyla nodded at him, grateful. "It is not that I don't trust you, Ronon," she said. "But, right now you are safe. Michael does not know you, does not see you as a threat. But if you were to accompany us to the city, I fear that would change." She shook her head, her expression firm. "I cannot ask you to risk yourself for a country not your own."

Ronon shifted, feeling awkward and uncomfortable. "Don't have a country," he mumbled. "Not anymore." Then he forced himself to look up at Teyla, to look right at her. "I want to help you," he said.

"And we want you to help us," said Rodney quickly. "Don't we?" He looked over at Teyla, his eyes wide.

"Are you sure?" Teyla asked Ronon. "I cannot promise you anything. Who knows what Atlantis has become under Michael's influence?"

Ronon nodded. "I'm sure," he said.

Teyla looked at him closely, and then she gave a brief nod and Ronon felt himself breath again. "Then I accept your offer," she said. "Here is what I think we should do."

As they ate, Teyla sketched out her plan. It wasn't a complicated one. Couldn't be since they had no idea what they were getting into. Mostly it boiled down to Rodney and Teyla sneaking into the city while Ronon walked in through the city gate.

"The Southeast gate is a small one," Teyla explained, "and most commonly used by hunters and trappers. You will not raise suspicion coming from that direction, dressed as you are."

"Just, don't flash any of your blades," said Rodney. Ronon gave him a look (when had he ever 'flashed his blades'?), that Rodney ignored. "I seriously doubt a gate guard would recognize Satedan steel, but best not take that chance."

A few more details were discussed and, sooner than expected, Rodney and Teyla were ready to head out. They were traveling light, taking only what they'd need to survive the next day or so. And Rodney's bearskin. For some reason he refused to share, Rodney had hauled the thing the entire journey and he wasn't going to abandon it now.

Shouldering the heavy bundle, tied up tightly with several of the chords Teyla had woven, Rodney gave Ronon a forlorn look. "So, I guess we'll see you in a couple of days. If all goes well," his tone suggesting that it probably wouldn't.

"Two days, at Ancestors' Rest," Ronon confirmed.

"It should be there," Teyla said, again. "Halling would not leave unless things were truly dire. And you remember the directions? Two streets in from the gate, turn left at the first canal..."

"I remember," Ronon said. Two reiterations and an oddly precise map (quickly sketched by Rodney), were more than enough. "I'll see you there."

Rodney knelt to fiddle with one of his shoes and Ronon seized the opportunity, pulling Teyla a step or two aside. "You've got a mission here, and that's good," he said quietly. "But remember," he jerked his head towards Rodney, now stomping his foot more firmly into place, "he's still new at this."

Teyla's expression went cold and Ronon feared he'd gone too far. But then, after examining his face for a moment, she smiled and patted his arm. "I will care for him, Ronon," she said. "Do not worry."

"Oh God, are you worried?" asked Rodney frowning over at them as he adjusted his shoulder straps. "Because if Ronon's worried then I'm definitely worried. I mean, I was worried before but I can – "

"Worried she might strangle you before you reach Atlantis," said Ronon, breaking Rodney off before he got going.

Rodney glared at him, but his shoulders stopped climbing up to his ears. "Oh, hah, hah. I suppose this is an example of gallows humor?"

Teyla chuckled. "I think we should leave now, before you two descend to hair-pulling." She headed into the forest, Rodney falling in behind her.

"Now that's a contest I think I could win," he said. "His hands are bigger, but I'd have the advantage when it came to gripping area – "

"May I remind you that we are attempting stealth, Rodney?"

Rodney had a reply, of course, but Ronon didn't try and pick out the exact words. The sound of their gentle arguing faded into the dark forest and soon he was alone at the little campfire. The flames were flickering down and he didn't bother building them back up. Just sat and watched the fire slowly die. It was going to be a long, cold wait for dawn.

Chapter Text

Ronon sank into the steamy, hot water, sighing with pleasure. After so long in the wilderness a simple bath felt like an indulgent luxury. The bathing room at Ancestors' Rest was plain and fairly small with only two large, wooden tubs. But it was clean and warm and, at this late morning hour, empty.

"You're here for the prince, aren't you?"

Well, empty except for the young bath attendant.

"Do you plan on entering the questioning? It's been awhile since anyone was old enough to enter." The boy, tall in the stretched-thin way of a sudden growth spurt, swept the puddled water from Ronon's initial scrub-down towards the central drain. "Wex says that's why the prince doesn't dance as often. He used to dance every night, but now it's just once a week. So you made it just in time because otherwise you'd have to wait." The boy leaned on his broom and sighed. "I wish I were older."

"What's the prize?"

The boy boggled at him, obviously shocked at the question. Ronon hastily scratched at his newly trimmed beard to hide his amused grin. "The prince of course! And half the kingdom, though Wex says that his mother says Queen Elizabeth would never allow it. But maybe you'd get a title and –"

"Jinto?" The call, along with footsteps coming down the stairs, interrupted the boy. "Do I hear you down there?" The innkeeper, Halling, stooped through the low doorway, a bundle of neatly folded clothes in his arms, as the boy hurried to put the broom away.

"I am just finished, Father," he said. He grabbed up Ronon's boots and dirty clothes, carefully avoiding Ronon's sword belt, and skirted around his father towards the stairway.

"Jinto –" began Halling, but Jinto spoke right over him.

"I must clean these boots," he said and clattered up the stairs.

Halling looked after him for a moment then turned towards Ronon with a gentle smile that, in a strange sort of way, echoed Teyla's. "I have brought clothing I believe should fit you."

Ronon shifted, the bathwater lapping gently around him. "Thanks," he mumbled. Halling's generosity was still a bit overwhelming.

"It is the least I can offer," said Halling. "You have given me something infinitely more precious."

For a brief and horrifying moment Ronon thought Halling was about to cry but he managed to hold himself together. Still, Ronon waited for Halling to leave before climbing out of the bath. When he'd first entered Ancestors' Rest and passed on Teyla's message ("Tagan's little songbird sends her greetings") Halling had stared at him in shock, then swept him into a bone-crushing hug that Ronon was not eager to experience again.

The clothes fit well. A little tight in the shoulders, but long enough. Most importantly they were clean and warm and dry. A cold, drizzly rain had begun the morning after Teyla and Rodney left and never really stopped. That had been three days ago. It'd taken two full days to reach the gates of Atlantis, close enough to sunset that Ronon had waited until this morning to enter the city.

He hadn't had any problems. The guard post had been empty. Which had been a little disconcerting, but probably meant Teyla and Rodney had successfully snuck in. In Ronon's experience, a discovered parameter-breach resulted in tighter security. Unless their capture was a secret. Which was an uncomfortable possibility. Ronon was giving them the day. If they weren't here by this evening ... well, he'd figure it out when the time came.

The little room Halling had given him, at the back of the inn overlooking a narrow canal, was warm and cheery. Someone had lit a fire in the fireplace and hung his coat on a nearby peg where it steamed towards dry. They'd also left a tray of food on the battered chest at the foot of the bed. Lifting the lid off the earthenware bowl, Ronon was overwhelmed by the savory, rich scent of venison stew. His stomach gave a mighty gurgle and Ronon chuckled. "Beats cold rabbit," he murmured, and settled down to eat.

He was just sopping up the last of the stew with a chunk of thickly buttered bread when he heard something outside the room. Moving silently in his stocking feet, he cracked the door and peered out.

Jinto was setting his polished boots in front of the door. He startled a little when Ronon pulled the door fully open, but recovered quickly. "Your boots are ready," he said, and then rattled off in a bored rote, "Please let us know if we can be of further assistance."

Ronon began to wave the boy off when a thought struck him. "Wait. Where does this prince do his dance?" he asked.

That earned him a real smile. Jinto stepped a little closer, then peered down the empty hallway. Once he was sure no one was sneaking up behind him, Jinto said, "The rose gardens, right next to the palace. He usually shows up around sunset, but you'll want to get there earlier if you want a good viewing spot." He shared a man-to-man wink, and Ronon had to fight to keep from laughing out loud.

Fortunately Jinto missed Ronon's effort, distracted by a sound from the stairway behind him. "Say nothing to my father," he whispered, then loped down the hallway towards the front stairs.

This thing with the dancing prince was weird. Teyla and Rodney would probably wait for nightfall to find him, and doing a little reconnaissance seemed a better plan than hiding in his room. It looked like the rain had stopped and that, along with his practically dry coat, decided him. He pulled on his boots, cinched on his sword belt, and snagged an apple from the ruins of his meal. Buckling his wrist sheath back into place, Ronon headed out.

Atlantis was a good sized city, but not a sprawling one, so Ronon thought he'd be able to get a good sense of it by foot. Tucked between the base of the ancient mountain range Teyla had led them through and the shore of an inland sea, poets called it "the floating city". Negotiating the maze of narrow canals and grand waterways, Ronon could see where they got the idea. He'd heard it was built on the ruins of an even older city, dating back to the mythical times of capricious gods and untamed magic. Ronon figured that was more poetry than fact, but the city did have a weirdly beautiful combination of architecture. The usual sort of buildings of brick and stone butted up against strange structures of metal and glass stretching uncomfortably high into the sky.

Highest of all was the palace tower in the heart of the city. A graceful and obvious landmark, it soared above the city's tallest rooftops. It should have looked uplifting and majestic, instead it seemed looming, even malicious. Ronon might have put it down to his imagination twisted by worry for his friends, or blamed the dark clouds hanging heavily overhead. But the townspeople avoided looking at it themselves, even when giving him directions to the palace. And if they did catch a glimpse they'd shrink in on themselves like they feared being seen.

The further into the city he went, the more apprehensive the population. And the sparser. The few people he did see seemed frightened, scuttling quickly on whatever errand had driven them outside. Their paranoia was catching. Ronon realized he was growing more and more tense the closer he came to the palace. Like he was heading deliberately into an ambush. At one point he found himself gripping his sword hilt so tightly his hand actually hurt.

By the time he reached the rose garden, after several wrong turns, the gray sky had darkened to a wet iron. Despite Jinto's advice, Ronon expected to find it as empty as the rest of the inner city. He was wrong. Groups of adolescents jostled for space amongst the spiny stumps of winter-readied rose bushes, tramping down the piled earth. For such a young crowd, they were weirdly quiet. Their attention was fixed, with tense anticipation, on a high grassy bank just across a minor canal and on what Ronon was pretty sure were palace grounds.

Two large braziers flanked the top of the bank, leaving a wide space between them. For a little while, they were the only things to look at. Then two palace guards appeared, wearing leather armor and metal helmets, visors covering their faces. They lit the braziers and the crowd surged forward, leaving Ronon standing alone in the back. At first the braziers sent out more smoke than flame, billowing across the canal and nearly overwhelming the garden. The smell bordered on nauseating, an unpleasant combination of cloying and musky. But it wasn't enough to drive the crowd back and eventually the wood caught flame and the smoke began to clear.

There was a collective gasp. A man, tall and skinny, with short, messy dark hair, stood on the bank staring down at his feet. He was dressed simply in loose white pants and a fitted white shirt. He held two slender rods in his hands. Going by the crowd's reaction, Ronon figured this was the prince. The man crouched down, sticks crossed protectively in front of him, then he whirled into an aggressive attack and nearly fumbled one of the sticks out of his hand. Whatever he was doing, it didn't look like dancing. Looked more like a martial art he was just beginning to learn. The crowd was enthralled though.

Another billow of smoke wafted through the garden and Ronon breathed in its sweet, pungent scent. He had to admit, despite a lack of precision the prince moved with an enchanting grace. Pushing through the crowd to get a better view, Ronon knew he could take him. The prince left himself too wide open, especially when he went on the offensive. It'd be easy to sweep his legs out from under him, have him on his back and defenseless before he even realized Ronon was on him.

The braziers flamed and smoked. The thin, white material of the prince's clothes reflected the flickering light, his skin painted honey-dark by the flame. He was beginning to sweat a little, his shirt clinging to his body. Ronon could smell the musky sweetness of him. His stomach muscles bunched and stretched as he moved. Ronon could imagine the play of those muscles under his hands, after he'd taken him down. Could imagine the prince breathing on the floor beneath him, dark lashes fluttering over flushed cheeks. He wondered if the shirt's fabric was silky, wondered what the prince's skin felt like. If he tasted as sweet as he smelled.

There was no music, but Ronon's heart beat out a percussion that matched the prince's movements. When the prince stopped, for moment it felt like Ronon's heart stopped as well. The prince stood still, breathed, and Ronon breathed with him. Behind him, the crowd was silent, all eyes fixed on the slender figure in white.

Another man, dressed in dark courtly robes, crested the bank. "The prince seeks a consort," he announced, voice ringing through the garden. "Are any here worthy?"

The crowd burst into a full throated roar and the prince flinched back.

"The age limit still stands." The crowd groaned and the man held out placating hands. "I know, I know," he said. "I am working on that, I promise. But is there no one of age among you? No one brave enough, wise enough, to try their hand?"

"I am!" Ronon cried out. "I am of age!"

The man focused on him. "Ah, brave stranger," he said. "Are you willing to take the risk? The contest is a simple one. Three questions over three days. Answer them correctly and the prince and half the kingdom are yours. Fail and you forfeit your life, one more bauble for the prince's garden. A high price if you lose, but..." he gestured towards the prince, standing with downcast eyes, "...such a prize to be won."

"I'm willing," said Ronon.

A smile curled the man's thin lips, his pale eyes burrowing into Ronon's. "Your word is your bond?" he asked.

A ringing sound filled Ronon's head, blocking out everything else. The excited whisperings of the crowd, the rush of water through the canal, the slowing breath of the prince, all dropped away. The man's words were all that remained, echoing through his head, through his body, "Your word is your bond?"

"My word is my bond," said Ronon. It felt like the promise had been wrenched up from his belly, ripped out of his throat. Sound returned. The crowd whispered, the waters rushed, the prince breathed.

"A new suitor!" cried the man, and the crowd shouted its approval. He waited for the cheers to die down, then said, "Tomorrow, midmorning, come to the palace and answer the first question. Your word is your bond." He turned, ushering the prince before him, and they disappeared behind the bank.

Ronon felt the loss of the prince like a kick to his gut. Adolescents milled around him, staring up at him with envy and wonder as they flowed out of the garden. The guards covered the braziers and left. The bank was empty. There was no more reason to stay.

Back at Ancestors' Rest, Jinto was sitting on the front stoop, talking intently with a short, round-faced boy. They both broke off to watch Ronon stumble up the stairs, whispering even more urgently after he passed. Ronon couldn't make out what they were saying. The ringing sound had never fully gone away.

There was a buzz coming from the inn's crowded dining room, along with smells that should have been enticing but made Ronon feel slightly ill. He pushed up the stairs to his room, feeling more unsteady by the moment. He looked forward to collapsing on his bed and waiting for the world to settle. Unfortunately, his room was not empty.

"Oh, thank God you're here!" cried Rodney in a loud whisper. "Hurry, come in, come in." He waved Ronon into the room, shutting the door behind him. "Halling said you'd made it, but then you were gone and we were afraid you'd gotten yourself into some sort of trouble."

Ronon glowered at him, leaned back against the thankfully solid door, and crossed his arms. Rodney looked hurt for a moment, then shrugged it off and sat down on the bed. "I mean, not that you can't take care of yourself," he said. "Anyway, you're okay so that's good."

"We have not yet attempted to contact anyone at the palace," said Teyla, seated in the room's small chair, "but Halling shared disturbing news."

"John is being used," Rodney said. "Used in the most horrible way – "

Ronon huffed with impatience. He wasn't in the mood for gossip. "Why are you telling me this?"

Rodney blinked at him. "Um, because you'd said you'd help?"

"Ronon, are you alright?" asked Teyla.

"I'm fine." Annoyed with the attention, Ronon pushed off the door towards the fireplace, grabbed up the poker and jabbed at the burning logs.

"No." Rodney sounded like he'd just discovered something. "No, I don't think you are."

"There is a strange smell to you," said Teyla, pushing herself up out of the chair. "Where have you come from?"

She came up beside him and Ronon was overcome with rage. He swept his empty hand towards her, meaning to backhand her to the ground. She ducked smoothly beneath his intended blow, twisting his arm up behind him and, with embarrassing speed, wrestling him to the floor.

"Teyla!" cried Rodney. "Wait, wait, hold him still. Let me just –"

Water dumped on Ronon's head. Sputtering, and shaking drenched hair out his face, Ronon glared up at Rodney. Then the fury left and a wave of shame flooded him.

"All better now?" Rodney stood over him, the empty water pitcher clutched to his chest.

"Yeah." Ronon rested his forehead on the drenched wooden floorboards.

Teyla shifted, releasing her grip and standing up. But as she stepped over him, she stumbled, tripping into Rodney's hastily out thrown arm. "Here, sit down, sit down," Rodney said, guiding her back to the chair.

Yeah, the floor was a good place for him to be, Ronon thought. "Did I hurt you?" he asked.

Teyla gave him a gentle smile. "No," she said. "Rodney kept his promise, but the process was," she breathed in, "draining."

Sitting up and pushing back his hair, Ronon actually looked at her. She looked tried. But she was clean and her clothes actually suited her and, most importantly, her cheek was clear. The Wraith mark was gone. "You did it," he said to Rodney, unable to keep the surprise from his voice.

Rodney frowned. "Well of course I did it." He was clean-shaven, his clothes no longer swamping him. "Now stand up and let me get a look at you. I'd prefer it if both my companions were free of aggressive magic for the time being."

Climbing to his feet took more effort than he'd expected. "Don't remember getting enchanted," Ronon said as Rodney peered into his eyes.

"Hmm, I suspect bewitched is the more proper description," Rodney said, holding his hands over Ronon's ears. "Let me guess, annoying ringing sensation?" Then to Ronon's nod, "It should be gone now."

Ronon began to nod again and nearly toppled over as a wave of dizziness passed through him.

"Whoa, careful big guy." Rodney took his arm in a surprisingly firm grip, directing him to the bed.

"Sorry," said Ronon. "I'm –"

"Drained? Off balance? Feel like you've just run a long race while carrying a ridiculous amount of baggage? All classic side effects of a broken bewitchment. Not the subtlest form of magic. I'm slightly embarrassed I didn't spot it at once, though I think I can make a claim for extenuating circumstances."

Rodney paused for breath and Teyla grabbed the opportunity. "Where did this happen?"

"I'm not..."

"There would have been smoke," Rodney said. "Probably an unusual amount of it."

Ronon groaned, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "The rose garden," he said. "The smoke smelled weird, but I didn't think about it."

"Don't beat yourself up," said Rodney. "With smoke, by the time you smell it, it's too late. Gets in your nose and you're primed to be influenced. That's why smoke is such a popular delivery method. Especially if you're trying to get a good amount of people at once."

"It was a pretty big group," Ronon said. "They were there to watch the prince dance."

Teyla leaned forward. "The prince?" she asked, voice sharp.

Ronon nodded. "He didn't really dance though. Just went through some fighting forms. He had these two sticks –"

"Bantos rods," said Teyla softly.

"He wasn't very good at it, but I couldn't look away."

"And there's the reason for the bewitchment," said Rodney, voice tight.

"Then this other guy said you could win the prince by answering some questions, so –"

"Oh my God, you didn't," said Rodney. "Tell me you didn't enter into a sick contest to win ownership of another human being." Then to Ronon's grimace, "Oh my God, you did! Well that's just great. That's excellent!" Flinging his hands in the air, Rodney did his best to pace the small room, his face flushed a dark red. It would have been funny if Ronon didn't feel so crappy. "We leave you alone for a few days and you – you – you sign up for some loaded contest you have no chance of winning like some – some – backwoods ingenue!"

"He was bewitched, Rodney," Teyla said.

Rodney waved a dismissive hand, "Which would not have happened if he'd stayed in his room and waited for us as we'd planned. Well," he crossed his arms and raised his chin, "you just won't go. They can hold this so-called contest without you."

Ronon's gut churned. Even the thought of pulling out of the questioning made him want to throw up. "Have to," he gritted out.

"No you don't," said Rodney. "I broke the bewitchment, so you can't use that as an excuse. We'll lock you in if need be."

Ronon clutched his stomach and toppled over sideways, barely managing to stay on the bed. "Hurts," he gasped. It felt like his guts were trying to churn their way out of his belly. He panted, trying to ride through the pain. Trying not to scream. There were sounds of panic from Rodney and Teyla, but he couldn't focus on it. The pain was all.

"...promise, Ronon," he finally heard," we will not try to stop you." He forced his eyes open. Teyla was leaning over him, one cool hand on his forehead. "You will keep your promise," she said. "You will not break your word."

Her words were like a lifeline. The pain began to subside and Ronon slowly uncurled from the tight ball he'd pulled into.

"That bastard." Rodney stood behind Teyla, his mouth a grim line. "That malicious, evil, bastard."

"...happened?" Ronon managed to ask. He felt weak and shaky and bruised.

"Michael," said Teyla. "He's trapped you with the Traitor's Hook. You must fulfill your part in the contest or you will die. Painfully."

"–at's not good," he mumbled, eyes drifting shut.

"Yes, well put. If you prefer understatement, as you stoic types usually do." That was Rodney, his voice rumbling like he was far, far away.

"Sleep, Ronon." That was Teyla. Her voice gentle and almost as soothing as her singing. "Rest. We will watch over you."

When Ronon next opened his eyes, it was to a dimly lit room and Halling reading by the low lamplight. Ronon moved cautiously, and was pleasantly surprised when his body didn't cramp with pain.

Halling peered at him from over his reading glasses, and smiled. "You're awake," he said. "Are you feeling better?"

Ronon pushed himself up to sit back against the headboard. Someone had removed his coat and sword and boots and covered him with the bed's thick coverlet. It was uncomfortably warm now, so he pushed it off. He was starving, but his head felt clear and his body felt limber. "Much better," he said. "How long was I out?"

"A few hours. We approach nine o'clock." Halling tucked his reading glasses and his book away. "I was told you would be hungry." He reached into a basket on the floor by his feet and pulled out a large, round bun.

Taking it, Ronon bit eagerly into the still warm bread. Deliciously chewy, it was filled with a mildly sweet fruit and nut chutney. He wolfed it down in three bites and Halling handed him another, chuckling at his obvious appetite.

"We usually serve these at breakfast, but I thought they would fit your need. They're filling and they travel well."

Swallowing down the last of that bun, Ronon accepted the next one. "We going somewhere?" he asked.

"To meet our mutual friends," said Halling.

Ronon paused mid-bite. That was a cryptic way of speaking.

Halling smiled a little and shrugged. "There is a fear that you were followed. I have seen no signs of it, but caution seems prudent."

Ronon didn't remember being followed, but he couldn't rule the possibility out. Most of his journey back to the inn was a blur. Shaking off his self-annoyance, Ronon shoved the remainder of the bun into his mouth, swung his feet off the bed and began pulling on his boots.

They took the back stairs. The front lobby was brightly lit and the sound from the dining room suggested dinner was still going strong. But the back of the inn was shadowed and Ronon didn't think anyone saw them. They used a backdoor that opened almost directly onto the narrow canal he'd seen from his window. It was dark. The door's lamp was unlit and most windows were shuttered.

Halling had a canoe and soon he and Ronon were gliding out of that canal into a much bigger waterway. Even this late in the evening, there was enough water traffic for Halling to get lost in. He paddled quickly past slow moving passenger crafts, lingered behind heavily loaded barges, waited for traffic to thicken then darted between passing boats. He cut through numerous canals and twice passed under a bridge only to swing around its pilings and head back the other direction. Ronon was impressed. It was impossible for anyone to follow them on foot, and they'd have spotted anyone following them on the water.

Shortly after his last bridge trick, Halling turned down a canal so small the canoe barely fit between its wooden sides. There was no room to paddle, so they pushed the canoe forward using the walls on either side of them. The canal slipped under a lintel low enough that Ronon had to bow his head nearly to his knees to avoid hitting it. Fortunately, it almost immediately opened into a spacious room.

They were in a warehouse, Ronon realized. Looked like it'd been shutdown for a while. The narrow entrance they'd used was the flow-through section of a blockade designed to keep out barge traffic. Halling paddled them over to the canal's original stone bank, stopping at a rusted metal ladder.

Carefully climbing the thin, flaking rungs, Ronon breathed easier once he reached the warehouse floor. He stretched down to take the basket from Halling then took a more deliberate look around while Halling climbed up. The only light came from what he assumed was the warehouse office. A wooden room built up near the ceiling and jutting out over the floor, its windows had an unobstructed view of the building's interior.

Halling headed for the office and Ronon fell in behind him. The rickety stairs leading up to it creaked and groaned as they climbed them, though Halling assured him they were sound. Made for a good warning system. If the office had another escape route it was a good place to set up.

The door creaked as well, when Halling pushed it open, and lamplight spilled down the stairs. "Here he is, well fed and safely delivered," said Halling.

Feeling a little like a pet pig, Ronon followed him into the office. A few stacks of empty crates and wispy leavings of packing straw were scattered around the otherwise empty space. There was another door midway down the room between several boarded up windows. Which meant it probably opened to the outside. The thick dust showed signs of only recent disturbance.

As they passed through the door, Rodney beamed at them and patted a large, bulky bundle resting beside him on a short stack of crates. He wore a long winter coat, filled with pockets of varying sizes. At his feet was a smuggler's lamp, its shutters flung open to send out the maximum amount of light. "I have the most amazing thing to show you," he said. Then his attention was caught by the basket Halling held. "Ooh, are those breakfast buns?" He was already heading towards the basket, hand outstretched.

Halling laughed, handing the basket over to him. "I made a full tray so there would be enough to share. There's a flask of tea in there as well."

"You are a wise, wise, man," said Rodney, taking the basket and flipping it open. He sighed with happiness, grabbed a bun and took a large bite.

"He did say share, Rodney," said Teyla.

Ronon started. She was standing behind them, her dark coat helping her blend into the shadow of the open door. A good precaution, though he was a little dismayed that he hadn't realized she was there. A small smile hovered at the corner of her mouth. She didn't say anything, but Ronon was sure his surprise hadn't gone unnoticed.

"Of course," said Rodney through his mouthful, eyes big and innocent.

"I should return before I am missed," said Halling. He pulled Teyla into a hug, then rested his forehead against hers. "You be careful, Teyla. I do not wish to go through losing you again."

Teyla gripped his arms, "I will do my best, Halling," she said.

He was turning to go when Ronon remembered something. He hesitated, but decided it was better to speak than keep this a secret. "Halling, I'm pretty sure Jinto was there, too. Watching the prince dance."

"Jinto?" Teyla looked surprised.

Halling did not. "He has been many times, I fear."

"And you just let him go?" asked Rodney.

"There is nothing I can do. Nothing any of us can do." Halling grimaced. "Most, if not all, of the city youth have been enticed by the dance. There is an age limit that prevents them from entering the questioning but they return, again and again, to watch the dance."

"You can't just lock them in their rooms?" Rodney asked. "My parents did that all the time."

Halling shook his head. "It has been tried, but they become dangerous, either to themselves or to others." He held out his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "With the age limit protecting them, at first it seemed easier to just let them go. By the time we realized the extent of the danger it was impossible to prevent them from going."

"Halling," Teyla began.

He held up a hand, stopping her. "I know you will do your best to free Atlantis of this taint," he said. "In the meanwhile, I will say nothing to Jinto of your return. I do not think he'd purposely betray you – " He broke off, swallowing heavily. "I will pray for your success," he said finally, and left.

"Well, this night just gets better and better," said Rodney.

"We knew Michael's presence would be felt," said Teyla, one hand rubbing her temple.

"Hey, you okay?" asked Ronon.

Teyla smiled up at him, "I am fine," she began, but Rodney had already sprung into action.

"Here," he pulled a crate away from the wall and dusted it off with his coat sleeve. "Have a seat on this. I think it's stable enough."

"Thank you, Rodney." Teyla sat down with unconcealed relief. "I will admit, I am eager to get my full strength back."

"Of course you are," said Rodney, putting the basket on the floor next to her. "And you will. A few days, max, and you'll be right back to fighting form."

"Unfortunately, not soon enough," said Teyla.

"Soon enough for what?" asked Ronon.

She sighed, glanced at Rodney, then said, "Tomorrow's question will be impossible to answer."

"And we do mean impossible," added Rodney. "Of the many who've tried, and there have been many, not one has made it past the first question. You'd think it'd keep anyone from entering, but," he shrugged, "I guess that's what the bewitchment is for."

"While you were recovering," Teyla continued, "I made contact with someone still inside the palace. He says the queen has done her best to ensure the questioning is as honest as possible. The questions themselves are impossibly unfair – "

"'What am I thinking of?,' that sort of thing," threw in Rodney.

"But the answer is written out ahead of time and given to a panel of judges."

"So we can find out what the answer is from one of the judges?" Ronon asked.

"I wish it were that easy," said Rodney. "Unfortunately, the parchment is magically sealed until after the question is asked and an answer given. Break it beforehand and the entire contest is forfeit. But we've learned something almost as helpful."

"Our contact has been keeping as close a watch on John as possible," said Teyla. "The night before a questioning, at midnight, he flies from the palace to somewhere far beyond the shore. He often doesn't return until nearly daybreak, but the moment he does, the sealed answer is delivered to the queen."

"So John gives the question to the prince?"

Rodney looked startled. "What? No, John is the prince," he said.

Now it was Ronon's turn to be surprised. They hadn't discussed John a lot, but he'd picked up a sense of the man from the little Teyla and Rodney did say. A respected leader, fiercely protective of his people and ruthless when need be, Ronon had pictured him as a younger version of Hartoren, his first squad leader. With fewer scars, maybe. And more hair. But still not the sort of man to be used as an object of enticement. "I thought he'd be," he began, then hesitated. He didn't want to insult their friend.

Both Teyla and Rodney looked at him, waiting. "Less clumsy," he settled on.

"Yeah, he's gotten that reaction before," said Rodney. "Sending him out as a dancer is not the most obvious choice. Except I know he'd hate it. Hate every second of it. And we've established that Michael is sick and twisted and..." he made a complicated gesture with his hand, words apparently failing him.

"We need to release John from Michael's control," said Teyla to Ronon, "and that requires your answering all three questions correctly."

"So you want me to follow John to wherever he gets the question and the answer," said Ronon. He remembered something. "Didn't you say he flew?"

"She did and we do," said Rodney. "And yes, it seems like an impossible mission. How do you follow a flying man without being seen?" He was beaming again. "Fortunately, we have a secret weapon." He pointed both thumbs at his chest. "Me. And I have come up with the most amazing thing."

"A flying machine," Ronon guessed.

"What?" Rodney blinked up at him. He'd been reaching towards the large bundle Ronon had noticed earlier, but now he hesitated. "No. Well, sort of, but that's not the amazing bit. Or, okay it was amazing, but I created these a year or so ago." He rummaged through a couple of his coat's pockets then pulled out a small, flat package. "As soon as I heard how John was leaving for his midnight meetings I knew exactly how he was doing it." He unwrapped the package and a tangle of ribbon and feathers and leather fell into his hands.

"Hair ties?"

Rodney managed to glare at Ronon for a brief moment. "No," he said untangling a section and holding it up. It looked vaguely familiar, though Ronon had a hard time putting his finger on what he was seeing. "Sandals," said Rodney, wide grin back in place. "Flying sandals!"

Ronon frowned. "Really?"

With a put upon sigh, Rodney walked over to him. "Yet another, believe it when they see it, sort," he said, kneeling in front of Ronon and reaching for his foot.

Ronon looked over at Teyla, a little nonplused. But she looked amused and expectant, taking the opportunity to enjoy one of the breakfast buns. So Ronon allowed Rodney to strap the sandals on him.

The thin, leather sole tucked under his boot, the faded ribbons laced up the length of his boot, keeping everything in place. The tiny feathers fluttering by his ankles seemed too ridiculously small and fragile to launch him into the air and keep him there. But once the sandals were laced on, Rodney sat back and smiled smugly up at him.

"Go on, give them a try," he said.

There was enough of a dare in his tone that, despite his doubts, Ronon took a step. It felt normal enough except his foot didn't hit the ground, instead hovering a few inches above it. He stopped, looked at Rodney who grinned up at him. Ronon took another step and now he was completely in the air. With greater boldness he began to move around the room, walking several inches above the dusty floor.

Rodney waved a hand towards the office door. "Give them a full work out. You want to be practiced up when you follow John. He's pretty speedy."

Ronon didn't need a second invitation. Once in the warehouse proper, he tried a full out run. It was wonderful, like running on soft, springy grass. He sprinted around the warehouse, sweeping down towards the dark canal waters, powering up towards the ceiling rafters. It took all of his self-discipline to stop before he exhausted himself. As it was he was fairly winded when he glided into the office. He knew he was grinning like a fool, though. He couldn't stop that.

"I think he likes it," said Rodney, an equally broad grin on his face.

"You made these?" Ronon asked, collapsing on the ground near Teyla and grabbing a breakfast bun from the basket.

"For John," Rodney said. "I made two pairs with the, I'll admit, incredibly shortsighted idea that we could race each other. I failed to take in account my paralyzing fear of heights, so this pair has been moldering away in my workroom. Lucky for us, I suppose."

"So Ronon will be able to follow John," Teyla said to Rodney, "but I am still eager to learn how you will prevent him from being seen."

"I am so glad you asked," said Rodney, flushing with excitement. Ronon glanced at Teyla then quickly looked away to keep her amusement from triggering his own laughter.

Rodney missed their interchange, carefully unwrapping the large bundle. "They said it couldn't be done," he said, "an impossible dream best left to children's stories and ancient myth." The cloth fell away and Rodney held up the bearskin he'd refused to leave behind. "Oh, how wrong they were," he said and swung the bearskin over his shoulders. He disappeared.

Ronon sat up straight, the knotted laces of one flying sandal forgotten in his hands. Teyla froze as well, her cup of tea halfway to her mouth. Ronon concentrated. He could hear floorboards groaning, but it was hard to pinpoint the source of the sound. He looked at Teyla and she shook her head. She couldn't locate Rodney, either.

"I give you complete and total invisibility." Rodney was behind them, bearskin cloak sliding down his back to pool around his feet. "No unexplained heavy breathing, no exposed ankles or floating heads. Not a single indication of your presence."

Ronon reached out and tentatively touched the bearskin. It felt normal, though the skin side was incredibly smooth and soft. More like a fine velvet than leather.

"Rodney, this is wonderful," said Teyla. "How did you manage it so quickly?"

"It was the bear remains," Rodney said, grimacing a little. "The magic that saturated them was meant to remove all traces of me and replace me with the bear. My first instinct was to destroy it, but it hit me that, with a little tinkering, the magic could be redirected, if you will. In a sense, Michael had already done the heavy lifting." He gave a bitter smile. "A nice bit of irony, I suppose."

Ronon swung the bearskin over his own shoulders. Rodney looked amused. "You have to fasten the clasps," he said. "That's what triggers it."

Ronon felt along the edge of the bearskin, found the clasps nearly buried within the thick fur, and hooked them together.

"And there you go," said Rodney.

Except Ronon was still visible. "It's not working," he said. But both Teyla and Rodney ignored him. He said their names. Still nothing. So maybe it was working. Quickly unlacing the sandals, Ronon stood up and walked softly towards the back of the office. No one tracked his movement from what he could see, but he was leaving footprints in the dust. If Teyla thought to look, she could figure out where he was.

"Of course! Please just leave our one pair of flying sandals lying tangled on the floor," Rodney complained.

Unable to resist, Ronon tiptoed back to where Rodney was huffily stooping to pick up the sandals. He unhooked the cloak's clasps. "Sorry," he said, and nearly fell over laughing when Rodney jumped, flinging his hands into the air.

"Oh my God, this is how you choose to use the power of invisibility? You could have killed me!"

Ronon clapped Rodney on the shoulder. "You're not that fragile."

"Thank you. I think," said Rodney. He picked up the sandals, keeping one leery eye on Ronon.

"I could see myself. And I left footprints."

"Well, yes. The cloak doesn't affect your physical structure so you'll still have to open doors and avoid mud puddles and such," said Rodney, folding the flying sandals back into their package. "And creaking floorboards will still creak under your weight. What it does do is create the illusion that you aren't there. Being you, you know you're there, so you can still see and hear yourself."

"You've really outdone yourself, Rodney," said Teyla She finished closing the tea flask, tucked it into the basket and stood up. "We should leave now. It is not a short journey and I would like a chance to rest once we reach the palace grounds." She looked at Ronon. "The route we will take is a tightly held secret. Normally neither Rodney nor I would have the authority to share this secret with you. But," she smiled a little dryly, "these are not normal times."

Ronon rested his hand on his sword's hilt, not quite standing at attention. "I will keep the secret safe," he said. Which wasn't quite an oath of allegiance, but he thought Teyla caught his intention.

"It is a bit of trek," said Rodney, busily folding up the large cloth he'd wrapped the bearskin cloak in and tucking it under the basket's handles. "Which reminds me, proper footwear is something I will never again take for granted. Honestly, getting my own shoes back ranked right up there with bathing."

"We are all grateful you bathed, Rodney," said Teyla.

It took him a moment, but eventually Rodney paused from snapping all but one of the shutters closed on the smuggler's lamp. "Wait a minute, was that an insult?"

Teyla laughed and took the lamp from him, heading for the door between the boarded up windows. "All of us benefitted from bathing," she said. Then she frowned thoughtfully at Ronon. "You should wear the cloak."

Ronon was about to argue, if anyone of their group should wear the cloak Rodney seemed the obvious choice, but Rodney cut him off. "Oh, good idea. So if anyone spied the two of us coming in, they'll only see the two of us leaving." He pointed at Ronon. "Keep you as our secret weapon."

"Thought you said you were our secret weapon."

"I did, didn't I? Maybe it's more I'm our secret bow and you're our secret arrow?"

Ronon had no idea what to say to that, so he let it go. "We could all fit under here," he offered.

Rodney shook his head. "No, it only works for one person. I'm sure I can make it more powerful, given a little time, but for the moment one's the limit."

"So it is settled," said Teyla. She closed the last shutter on the smuggler's lamp, leaving them in total darkness. "Shall we go?"

The door opened up to the outside, just as Ronon has suspected. From their height he could see they were on the outskirts of a small warehouse district. There was a distant glow of streetlights, but their area was heavily shadowed, especially with the thick cloud cover. Fortunately, the stairs leading down to the street were broad and solid and it was easy to feel their way down. Once they reached the street, Teyla led them between warehouses to a narrow footbridge.

Across the little canal was a more residential area. The next street over was well lit, but Teyla followed the canal to an alleyway, keeping them in the shadows. Within the alley, she stopped at a seemingly random stretch of wall. It was one of those strangely alien buildings, Ronon realized, made of a material he didn't recognize. It looked a little like copper and felt a little like porcelain but with an aura of age that suggested a much greater durability than either. Teyla pressed her palm against the wall and a square section, barely bigger than her hand, glowed a dull blue for the briefest of moments. There was a muffled click and a door-sized section of wall slid back a crack.

Once they were inside, and after Teyla slid the door closed, she opened one side of the lamp. They stood in a spacious, but windowless hallway that stretched beyond the light's reach. It was made of the same sort of material as the building itself, though there were large geometrical panels breaking up the bare walls.

"Ronon?" Teyla called, quietly.

Ronon unhooked the bearskin cloak and draped it over his arm. "This part of the secret?" he asked.

"It is," said Teyla. "There are many such places scattered throughout the city, and a few beyond her walls."

"They're all different," Rodney added. "Some are buildings, some are trees, or they look like trees anyway. But they all have one thing in common." He pushed on one of the panels and it swung open. Teyla's lamp showed a square stairwell descending deeply down into the darkness. "Welcome to the original city of Atlantis."

They didn't take the stairs all the way down. Ronon wasn't sure they even hit the halfway mark, though they went down quite a ways. But at a landing that seemed no different from the others they'd passed, Teyla pushed open yet another concealed door.

This one opened up into what looked like an underground cave. If he hadn't been told this was the remnants of an ancient city, Ronon would have taken it for a complex cave system. But as they walked, now and again a gleam of blue-green would catch the lamplight, barely noticeable sections where the stone had broken away.

"No one really knows when the stone formed, or why," said Rodney when Ronon asked. "Natural passage of time or a defensive shielding, it's anyone's guess." He traced a hand gently along the stone wall. "Believe me it's on my to-do list."

Shortly after the tunnel had begun a barely perceptible climb, Rodney pointed to a darkish section of wall up ahead, just visible in the lamplight. "See that?" he said. "Foundation of the palace boundary walls." As they got closer Ronon saw that the darkness was actually a different type of rock. Or something rock-like. "It came first," Rodney said. "It's how the palace builders determined the exact dimensions of the palace grounds."

"And it means we are nearly there," said Teyla. She sounded relieved and a little breathless.

"Yes, it does." Rodney smiled and patted the dark stone as they passed. Then he frowned. "Huh."

Teyla stopped and directed the lamplight back towards him. "What is it Rodney?"

He was rubbing his fingers with his thumb and staring at the dark wall. "I'm not..." He reached out again, but stopped short of touching. He'd been digging around his coat pockets with his other hand and pulled out a little leather pouch. "Hang on a moment."

Rodney pulled a tiny strip of paper out of the pouch and dabbed it gently on the wall. He handed it over to Teyla, who took it gingerly, holding it by its edges. Ronon put down the basket he'd been carrying and took the lamp from her, careful to keep the light positioned so Rodney could see what he was doing. Rodney uncorked a small glass vial he'd pulled from the leather pouch. It had a clear liquid in it that Ronon doubted was water. Especially with the care Rodney used when he tilted the bottle so Teyla could slip the paper in.

After corking the vial, Rodney gave it a good shake, then held it up to the light. The liquid had turned green. "Huh," he said. "Someone's done something to the boundary walls."

"What does green mean?" asked Ronon.

Rodney looked up at him. "That someone's done something to the boundary walls."

Ronon resisted the urge to smack him.

"But is it something good or something bad?" asked Teyla.

"I'm not sure."

Now Teyla looked frustrated. "Rodney, does this affect our mission?"

"I don't know." Then to Teyla's frown, "Seriously, I can tell magic's been laid but I can't tell for what purpose. Not without further study."

"Which we do not have time for." Teyla sighed and rubbed her temple.

"I say we go ahead," said Ronon. Both Teyla and Rodney looked at him and he shrugged. "I'm dead if we don't."

Teyla grimaced. "A good point. Alright, we move on, but with greater caution."

A few yards past the dark boundary wall was an open doorway. Inside was a rough stone stairway climbing steeply upwards. Ronon's legs were burning by the time he reached the top. Rodney was gasping and even Teyla was breathing heavily. It looked like they were in a small cave with the only entrance the one they'd just come through. By this point though, Ronon figured there was a hidden doorway somewhere. It was big enough for all three of them to sit comfortably and that was enough for now.

"Once we leave this shelter we will truly be in Michael's territory," said Teyla after she'd caught her breath. "I will point you towards John's window, but you will be on your own after that."

Ronon nodded, flexing his hands and fingers.

"Here." Rodney tossed the package of flying sandals towards him, then flopped back against the wall. "I do not envy you the long run."

Strangely, now that it was all starting, Ronon looked forward to the chase. Looked forward to finally doing something. He took his time untangling the sandals and lacing them onto his boots; concentrated on keeping his breathing steady.

When he was done, Rodney checked them over to make sure they were on securely. "I made them for John so they're tough," he said as he ran his hands over the ribbons. "They'll stand up to all sorts of abuse." Ronon nodded and Rodney rocked back onto his heels. "Okay, you're good to go."

Teyla was tucking a pocket watch back into an inner coat pocket. "You should have a good half hour or so before John leaves," she said. "But I think it's best we get you there early."

Ronon agreed. He pulled on the bearskin cloak, hooked the clasps, then rested a hand on Teyla's shoulder. To her credit, she barely startled. Just led him through what looked like solid wall. They came out in a grove of birch trees. The clouds had cleared just enough for the birches to glow in the pale moonlight.

Teyla paused. They stood in the shadow of a tall and craggy rock. Outside the little grove, the palace grounds stretched towards the palace itself, dark and silent. Moving with quiet care, Teyla kept to the more shadowed parts of the grove, working her way to its edge. With the sandals floating him above the ground Ronon didn't have to watch his step, but keeping low was difficult. The sandals wanted to fly. It didn't take long, but he was still relieved when they reached the grove's edge.

Ronon squeezed Teyla's shoulder, and she pointed to a section of the palace close to the tower. "The only light," she said softly, and he squeezed her shoulder again. It was a high window, with a balcony. It wasn't brightly lit, but with the rest of the palace so dark, it stood out. He pushed up into the air, quickly rising above the trees. He looked back, watched Teyla ghost back towards the craggy rock, a liquid shadow in the grove. Then he turned and ran towards the sleeping palace.

The balcony was wide and empty. Ronon hovered above the smooth flagstone, peering into the spacious room beyond the glass doors. Thick curtains, designed to keep out the cold, were pushed back so he had a fairly unobstructed view. Embers of a dying fire glowed in the large fireplace to his left and against the far wall a single lamp burned low on a writing desk. Didn't look like anyone was in there.

The doors were locked, but it was a simple latch and easy to flip open with his skinning knife. He pulled one door open in a slow, smooth motion he hoped would be mistaken for the wind if anyone saw it. But no one lurked in the corners and Ronon relaxed a little. He pulled the door closed and re-locked it.

On one side of the room, across from the fireplace, was the hulking shadow of a large canopied bed. Of more interest to Ronon were the three closed doors. The one closest to him, on the same wall as the fireplace, opened to a good-sized closet. Closing that door, Ronon glided towards the other two. He glanced at the mirror over the mantel as he passed, wanting to make sure the bearskin cloak was working. It was; he couldn't see himself. He was just reaching for the second door, bracketing the first on the other side of the fireplace, when something in the mirror caught his eye. Someone was in the bed.

The flying sandals transformed his surprised jerk into a much bigger motion and Ronon very nearly brained himself on the ceiling. Then he very nearly thumped down into the floor when he overcorrected. Finally getting the sandals under control, and subduing a brief surge of laughter, Ronon walk-glided over to the bed. The bed hangings were pulled back, leaving it open to the chilly night air. The pale figure that had thrown Ronon so completely, lay on top of the white coverlet, covered by a thin blanket and nearly blending into the bed itself.

It was the dancing prince; John, the man that Teyla and Rodney cared so deeply for. He was laid out like a corpse: hands folded over his chest, his dark head sunk deep into the thick pillows. Looking down at him, Ronon was relieved to find he no longer felt the overwhelming possessiveness that had taken him during the dance. But he still had a hard time seeing the man Rodney and Teyla had described: the military leader that stood defiantly between Wraith territory and the southern realms.

Neither prince nor military leader nor friend, the figure on the bed seemed more statue than flesh and blood. The blanket helped give that impression. It had settled so fully onto John that his body was clearly outlined underneath it. Ronon could practically see each finger of his folded hands. John himself lay so quiet and still that for a horrible moment Ronon thought he might actually be dead. But when he cupped his hand just above John's nose and mouth, he felt a gentle puff of breath.

Sighing with relief, Ronon straightened up. Then hissed, jerked his hand back and shook it out. He'd barely brushed the bed when his hand had tingled, then gone numb, like he'd pricked it on a poisonous thorn or something. There was no noticeable mark and feeling was rushing back into his fingers, but something had affected him.

Turning a little, so the low light from the writing desk shone more on the bed, Ronon looked for the telltale glint of a needle or hidden blade. There was nothing. He picked up the corner of the blanket, meaning to pull it gently back and see if there was something under it. But his hand began to tingle as soon as he touched the thin fabric.

Biting back a curse, Ronon backed away from the bed, shaking his hand out as the numbness returned before once more fading away. John hadn't moved. He lay on his back under the blanket, like he'd been laid out for a viewing. With a dawning horror, Ronon reached forward and brushed his hand lightly over the blanket, felt the familiar tingling, then numbness, then return of feeling. There wasn't anything hidden in the blanket; the blanket was the poison. No wonder John lay so still. Trapped underneath it his entire body would be numb.

Ronon suppressed the urge to rip the blanket off of John. Barely. It helped that he didn't know the man personally. It helped that John didn't look like he was in any pain. If anything he looked relaxed and unstrained, almost childlike in the room's shadowed light. He wasn't on a rescue mission, Ronon reminded himself. Not yet.

But he was gathering information. And this was information Rodney especially would need. Ronon glided around the bed to the side nearest the balcony windows. Using his coat as a protective barrier, he picked up the edge of the blanket. The hem was unfinished, so Ronon used his skinning knife to cut a long curving piece from the edge. Unless someone checked pretty closely, chances were good the trim would go unnoticed.

He pushed the stolen sample deep into his coat pocket and about to head back to the second unexplored door, when the third door flung open. It hit the wall, rattling the writing desk and the lamp and nearly sending Ronon back up to the ceiling. A man in dark robes strode into the room. He flung a handful of powder towards the fireplace and flames immediately leapt up, filling the room with a weird pale light that gave off no heat. Ronon realized he'd seen him before, though he'd been distracted at the time.

There was something wrong with his face. A dramatic twisting of bone-white scars radiated from his nose to his cheekbones. They weren't the usual facial scars of a Wraith warrior, but they could easily camouflage them. His hair was Wraith pale, but cut in the short style many Atlantians seemed to favor. Michael wasn't immediately identifiable as Wraith, but Ronon could see it lurking underneath. It was strange Teyla hadn't seen it. Strange Ronon had missed it when he'd first seen the man six or so hours ago.

Unaware of Ronon's scrutiny, Michael went directly to the bed, flinging the blanket off of John, leaving it to puddle on the floor. The poison either didn't effect him or he ignored it. He simply stood at the edge of the bed, watching John with obvious impatience. Ronon wasn't sure what he was waiting for until John gave a full body shudder. He was only wearing a thin pair of pale sleeping pants and the room was cold enough for Ronon to be comfortable in all his layers. But Ronon didn't think the shudder had anything to do with the cold.

John's eyes began to move beneath his closed lids, his body began to shift out of position. But apparently Michael had reached the end of his patience. He gave John's shoulder a rough shake and John hit out at him. It was a weak attempt. John's hand barely tightened into a fist and he moved sluggishly. Michael easily avoided the punch and pinned John's arms down to the bed.

"Now, now, my prince, none of that," he said. His voice was soothing but his eyes were hard.

John subsided almost immediately, blinking up at Michael with obvious confusion. He looked like he was about to speak, but Michael ignored him, pulling and pushing and prodding until he had John seated at the edge of the bed..

While John sat, slumped and docile, toes digging idly into the thick rug, Michael went to the closet Ronon had discovered earlier and fetched a familiar pair of sandals. With the efficiency of someone who'd done this many time before, Michael soon had John laced into the sandals, the ribbons lashing the sleeping pants to his legs. Then he pulled John to his feet and floated him towards the balcony doors.

They rattled from a heavy gust of wind and Michael hesitated. "It is getting colder," he murmured. Leaving John floating, Michael dug into the closet.

He wasn't as skinny as Ronon had first thought. And his body had a decent collection of scars. Those scars spoke of a soldier's past, even if the way John held himself, slumped and unaware, did not. There was an odd scar on his chest, partially hidden by his chest hair. Ronon glided closer, trying to get a better look. John shivered and crossed his arms. Embarrassed to realize he'd been staring, Ronon glided backwards very nearly hitting the balcony doors.

"Ah, you're noticing it, too." Michael returned and draped a thick white cloak over John's shoulders, reaching around him to fasten the clasp. "This should help. My prince."

John slumped even more and Michael pulled him back to lean against his chest. He wrapped his arms more tightly around John, and whispered into his ear, "And now, my prince, you must go."

John closed his eyes. "Where am I going?" he asked. His voice was sleep-thick and confused.

"To see our Lady, my prince," replied Michael.

"Is she far away?"

"Across the water, my prince, and beneath the earth."

There was a lilting sound to their exchange, as though they'd spoken the words many times before. As they spoke, John leaned further into Michael until Michael was all that was keeping him upright. It was as if he was falling back asleep.

"Will she be pleased to see me?" asked John.

Michael smiled and Ronon shuddered. "My prince, she will eat you up."

At that, John straightened, his eyes focused on the night sky beyond the balcony doors. "Then let me fly to her?" he asked. His voice was stronger now, yearning.

Michael stepped away from him and flung open the balcony doors. John took off in a dead run, leaping from the balcony and up into the night.

Chapter Text

Ronon launched himself into the air and sprinted after John, a quickly vanishing point of white against the night sky. He disappeared behind a rooftop and Ronon pushed himself faster. He was not going to lose John at the very beginning of the chase. Clearing the rooftop, Ronon was faced with an unbroken expanse of night-darkened clouds. No trace of John. Ronon didn't stop. They'd been heading for the lakeshore so that's what Ronon aimed for as he desperately scanned the sky.

A flash of white! John was there to his right, Ronon practically abreast of him. Afraid that cutting towards him might affect his speed, Ronon continued to parallel him. It wasn't easy. John didn't run in a straight line. Darting around rooftops, weaving between chimney stacks, swooping down to fly beneath the higher canal bridges, it was no wonder Ronon had lost him. Not trying to follow John's every twist and turn, every dive and climb, Ronon kept John in his line of sight and kept running for the lakeshore.

When they reached the lake, John finally settled into a more straightforward course and eased his speed down to a more sustainable pace. Which was good, because once they left the relative protection of the harbor the wind blew wild and directionless. John's cloak whipped every which way, sometimes incasing him like a massive cocoon, sometimes streaming behind him like a flag. The heavier bearskin cloak didn't give Ronon as much trouble, but it was still more hassle than help.

They'd dropped low, to keep beneath the thick cloud cover, and the wind-tossed waves soon soaked Ronon's pants through. He supposed he should be glad it wasn't raining, but it was hard to imagine being wetter or colder. As bad as he was, Ronon at least had boots to keep his feet dry, and layers between himself and the bone-chilling wind. John, barefooted, bare chested, thick cloak now wet beyond usefulness, must have been miserable. But he didn't break rhythm, just kept running.

For a long while it was just them and the wind and the water. Then a dark shape formed out of the gray. It was a tree line; they were finally reaching a shore. Soon Ronon could pick out the actual trees, mostly conifer, that made up the shoreline. John angled up and they skimmed over the treetops. Ahead, another dark mass loomed. It refused to resolve into any recognizable shape, and it wasn't until they were nearly on top of it that Ronon realized it was a sheer rock face.

John stopped and hovered in front of the cliff. Ronon looked up, wanting to get a sense of the thing, figure out if it was the side of a mountain or a tall bluff or what. But the cloud cover was too dense. It was impossible to make out anything beyond a few feet. A deep rumbling pulled his attention back to the rock face. A hole, barely bigger than John, opened up in front of them, a sickly yellow glow outlining the shape of it. Ronon would have hesitated, the glow didn't give enough light to see by, but John darted in as soon as the hole was complete. So Ronon darted in after him.

It was good he did. The moment they cleared the threshold the hole rumbled closed, entombing them inside the rock. The unbroken silence, after the constant roar of the wind, only fed the panic Ronon could feel building. He stomped it down, concentrated on following John's silhouette deeper into the rock. They were going down a steeply sloped tunnel, unnaturally regular in size and shape. Worms, glowing a greenish-yellow, clung in squirming globs to various sections of the tunnel surface. They were the light source, too dim to provide anything more than a sense of the tunnel and their own pulsing movements. Ronon focused on John.

The light had just begun to warm, Ronon just beginning to see more clearly, when they glided out of the tunnel and down into a vast cavern dancing with light and shadow. Large torches were hung at varying intervals around the space, burning with an uncannily white brightness. More familiar fires blazed from fire pits ringed around the uneven floor. Stalactites, hanging down from the cavern's dark heights, were pocketed with glimmering gems and reflective glass. And candelabrum, balanced on trimmed stalagmites, added their candlelight to the glare.

Though the placement seemed random, the lights all focused towards a open space not quite in the cavern's center. Within its halo, a woman stood before a throne of solid rock. Smooth white hair, loose and long, fell to her hips. Her glistening black gown, fit for a Householder's gala, highlighted her pale skin and slender shoulders and fragile collar bones. Her high forehead and rounded cheeks reminded Ronon of his baby cousin's delicate dolls. The ritualistic scars on either side of her nose, the darkly inked symbols on her temples, marked her as Wraith.

She was smiling and holding her hands out to John. "Oh, I have longed to see you again, my pet," she said, as John glided down to her. "A new suitor at last!" John stopped in front of her and she made a pretty little pout. "Must I ask you every time?" She sighed, caressed John's cheek. "Kneel."

John sank to his knees and her pout melted back into a pleased grin. "You are a stubborn one, but since you bring me such wonderful gifts, I forgive you. Who is your suitor this time? No one too old, I hope?" She sank gracefully to a seat. "The old are so near death, there is little to relish in bringing it to them."

"A solider," John gasped out, like he'd been forced to speak. "Young."

She clapped her hands. "Delightful! Oh, this is why I adore you so, you know exactly how to please me." She leaned forward, touching John's hair, his face, his shoulders. Her hand brushed John's cloak and a moue of distaste crossed her face. "You are disgustingly wet, my pet." She raised her hand, made an imperious gesture.

A man, tall and heavily muscled, stepped out of the darkness. A thickly woven face-guard hid his face. But his head was left uncovered and vulnerable, protected only by the thickness of his long, pale hair. That, along with the markings on his black, leather tunic, meant he was a Wraith Drone. Unquestionably obedient, inhumanly stoic, formidably strong, Drones were the honor guard of choice for Wraith aristocracy. Not the brightest fighters, but very hard to kill. Ronon had never seen one travel alone.

The Drone took John's sopping cloak and carefully stretched it out on two stalagmites. Ronon flew up towards the cavern's ceiling. Now that he knew to look, he was able to pick out five more Drones. Each stood in concealing shadow in strategic areas around the cavern, serrated blades drawn and ready. If a threat came, they'd swarm with punishing force before their victim fully realized they were there.

Finished with John's cloak, the Drone retreated to his dark alcove. Ronon dropped back down to hover near the Wraith's throne.

"– wet and cold," she was saying, "I had not realized winter was so close. My little hobby has kept me delightfully distracted. Would you like to see how many I have now?" She sounded eager.

John did not respond. He'd remained expressionless throughout the Wraith's stroking and chatter, eyes lost in the middle distance. For the first time, she seemed to notice.

She sat back, her expression thoughtful. "It's been too long between doses, I fear. Our web has never worked as well on you as it should. Such a stubborn pet and a bit more cunning than you'd like us to think, hmm? " She leaned forward again, and this time her smile was sharp. "Easily remedied. Position yourself."

A muscle jumped in John's cheek. But he shifted a little, so he more squarely faced the throne. He put his arms behind his back, clasping his wrists with his hands. He swallowed, then dropped his head back, staring up at the stalactites dripping down above him.

A creature hurtled out from underneath the throne, springing onto John. Skinny legs, cruelly barbed, wrapped around John's ribs and neck, clasping onto him like a grotesque breastplate. Its body was covered by a glistening carapace, blue-black in the cavern's light. It had fangs. It bit into John's chest and John cried out, his hands convulsing then tightly gripping his wrists.

The creature's carapace split, revealing a soft, yellow sack. As the creature bore down, the sack began to expand. John took shallow, panting breaths. His eyes squeezed shut. A slow line of blood trickled down his chest. The Wraith watched, entranced. Ronon gripped his sword, forced himself to not draw, forced himself to keep watching.

It stopped. The creature slipped its fangs out of John and massaged its sack with the sections of its carapace. The sack began to pulse a yellow-green light, like the worms in the tunnel they'd come through. The pulse became a flicker, became a steady glow. John whimpered, and the creature bit down once more.

John screamed. A pale fluid, thicker than blood, formed around the creature's fangs as it pumped the stuff into John's body. Ronon turned away, then forced himself to turn back. Forced himself to watch as John gritted his teeth, holding back further screams. Watch until finally, finally it stopped.

The creature let go and dropped to the cavern floor with a heavy thunk. Its many legs waved almost drunkenly for a moment, then it managed to find the coordination to pull itself back under the throne.

John sank down, hands falling limply to his side, chin resting on his chest. Spots of blood showed where the barbed legs had gripped him. Flakes of dried blood ran down his chest, and venom froth began to crust around the open wound where the creature had bit him. He looked ready to topple over. The Wraith patted her knee. "Come here, my pet. Rest next to me."

With a wet sigh, John shuffled towards her until he was close enough to sink against her leg. Head pillowed on her knee John stared, unblinking at a nearby candelabra. Worried, Ronon hunched down in front of him. John's eyes were black, his pupils blown completely open.

"You are such a sweet little thing after a dose," the Wraith said, tangling her fingers in John's hair. "It almost makes up for your stubbornness." She made a casual flicking motion with her free hand. "And now our treat."

She stared expectantly towards a dark section of the cavern. Ronon followed her gaze. A row of soldiers, twelve abreast, emerged from the gloom. They were quiet at first, but as the rows kept coming and coming, the dull sound of their boots striking the floor began to fill the cavern. Their path twisted around the fire pits and rock formations, but they never lost step, never fell out of rank. Just marched steadily across the cavern in a never-ending, perfect line.

Ronon floated away from the Wraith, closer to the soldiers. They looked strangely familiar to him, though their drab brown uniform was unlike any he'd seen on a Wraith. Ragged clothing, woven hats rather than helmets, faces covered by a cloth shield, it seemed more like something a struggling farmer would wear than an elite soldier. A dirt farmer.

His sword was in his hand before he'd realized he'd drawn it, his body falling into an attack position. These weren't soldiers. They were an army of plague-carriers. Identical to the stranger who'd carried death right into the heart of Ronon's battalion. The death that struck down his father and his mother, that struck down his entire country. He wanted to kill them all.

His feet slid, throwing him slightly off balance; the flying sandals weren't good for this type of stance. Ronon closed his eyes, made himself think. He didn't know this enemy. Didn't know if his sword could kill them, or even harm them. A full frontal attack would most likely end in his death. Maybe even John's, if the Wraith or her Drones panicked enough. The bearskin cloak and the flying sandals would fall into enemy hands. Teyla and Rodney might never know what happened.

Ronon opened his eyes, sheathed his sword. He ran up over the plague-carriers, racing to get ahead of them as they marched steadily across the cavern. Maybe this wasn't the time to attack, but he could bring back an accurate count. Except the line marched right through the cavern wall. No, not through the wall, they disappeared into the ground in front of it. Sinking into a pile of wet, stinking mud. As Ronon watched the mud pile grew, each line of plague-carriers adding to its mass.

Ronon followed the line back to the far side of the cavern. There was a mud pile there, too. A much smaller one. As he watched, a final line of plague-carriers, only five this time, rose up out of the mud. Formed out of the mud was the better way of putting it. Once the five were fully formed, the pile was gone, leaving only a mud-streaked, rocky floor behind.

Ronon trailed after them, stopping when he reached the throne. The Wraith was clapping her hands, like a little girl at a parade. John, a collapsed rag doll at her knee, was still entranced by the flickering candles of the nearby candelabra.

"Wasn't that wonderful?" The Wraith pushed John back onto his knees.

He smiled, head lolling onto his shoulder. "Yesss," he said.

She chuckled, stroking his cheek. "It is only because of you that I have so many to play with. Soon all the southern realms will burn." She sighed a little dreamily. "It will be such a beautiful sight; an achievement no one dared dream of. And mother told me it couldn't be done." Her smile trembled a little and she shook herself. "But she is dead now and the night grows old and you must return and be wooed. So, to business." She gripped John by his shoulders, staring into his eyes.

He stared back, still grinning a little goofily. She didn't seem to care. "Sleep, dreamless as death, wrapped in the numb of nothingness, what am I thinking of? Say it, pet."

John cleared his throat, attempted to straighten, though he slumped pretty much immediately. "Sleep, dreamless as death, wrapped in the numb of nothingness, what am I thinking of?"

"A cocoon," said the Wraith.

"A cocoon," said John.

Two more nights and then I kill you, thought Ronon.

The Wraith stood, drawing John up with her. At her gesture, a Drone brought over John's cloak and fastened it around John's neck. "I look forward to tomorrow night." She stroked John's hair, gave his cheek a final pat. "Don't forget to bring me the heart. A soldier's heart will be lovely. Now, fly home, my pet. Fly at fast as you can."

 

They arrived at Atlantis with the false dawn, the clouds stretched thin and pale. Michael was waiting for them. He rose from a chair by the fireplace as soon as John flew in, caught John before he could hit the floor then half carried him to the writing desk. "Almost time to sleep, my prince." Michael tumbled John onto the spindly chair and pressed an inked quill into his hand. "First the formalities."

John scrawled the quill across a large cut of paper while Michael unfastened John's cloak and removed his sandals. When John was done, Michael stood him up, stripped off his sodden sleep pants, and guided John to the bed. It looked like the poisonous blanket had been taken away, and this time the bedclothes were folded back. John struggled to burrow under them, finally managing to drag a thin sheet over himself.

Michael returned to the desk. "She's getting creative," he said as he read John's writing. He looked back at John, "Your intended better show up soon before she gets too bored." He laughed a little, busily folding and sealing the paper. "Her boredom tends to end in tears. Rarely hers."

Ronon glided closer to John. He knew John was exhausted, and yet he seemed to be struggling to stay awake. Staring with bloodshot focus at Michael, jerking his head whenever his eyes drifted shut.

The room went dark. Michael had turned down the lamp. He tucked the sealed paper into his robes and pulled open the door. He hesitated, then looked back over his shoulder. "Sleep," he said, and left.

At his words, John finally closed his eyes. He was shivering. Ronon gritted his teeth. He should leave now with what he'd learned. He swore under his breath, then pulled the thick, down-filled coverlet over John. He glided over to the fireplace. The fire was nearly dead, but a few embers still gleamed. It only took a few moments to poke them back to life, lay a few logs where they'd be sure to catch and give out a steady heat.

It wasn't much, but John was a curled up lump under the thick covers, and the room was beginning to heat up a little. Small changes. Hopefully so small Michael wouldn't notice them. Ronon made himself leave it at that.

 

Rodney and Teyla were waiting for him inside the rock. They were both asleep: Rodney opened-mouthed, head back against the wall, Teyla leaning on his shoulder. Ronon unclasped the bearskin cloak, let it drop to the ground. As soon as it hit, Teyla woke up and her stirring woke up Rodney.

Ronon didn't return either of their smiles. Just sat down and began untying the flying sandals.

Rodney's face fell. "It didn't work."

"It worked," Ronon said. "I know the question and the answer." He threw first one sandal, then the other at the bearskin cloak. His face must have been grim because Rodney opened his mouth then closed it without saying anything.

"It was bad," said Teyla.

Ronon nodded. "It was bad."

She flipped open Halling's basket and pulled out the tea flask. Ronon was surprised when steam rose from the cup she poured, but he took it gratefully. When Teyla pulled out a thick slice of bread, adding a slab of cheese and cold meat before handing it to him, he asked, "Halling?"

"We contacted him while you were gone to arrange a more convenient meeting place," Teyla said. "He thought you would be hungry."

Ronon tore into the bread without comment. Honestly, he was only eating because he knew he should. He wasn't feeling much of anything at the moment, hunger included.

"So, um, how bad is bad?" Rodney was fiddling with the sandals, repetitively smoothing out the ribbons.

"Saw Michael," Ronon said. "He had John covered with a poisonous blanket."

"When you say poisonous – "

Ronon fished around his coat pocket, then switched his half-eaten bread into his other hand, and searched the other pocket. His hand tingled and went numb as he pulled out the blanket swatch. He dropped it on the floor, shaking his hand out as soon as it was free. "Brought you a piece," he said.

Rodney looked horrified. "And you used your bare hands to collect it? You don't even know what kind of poison it is or what it does!" Curiosity flashed across his face. "Do you?"

"Don't know what it is, but you go numb for a moment if you touch it."

"Which you discovered by touching it." Rodney was digging in his own pockets now. "Unbelievable."

"And John was covered by it?" Teyla asked, drawing Ronon's attention away from Rodney.

Ronon forced himself to stop frowning, drank some tea. "Yeah. He woke up pretty quick after Michael took it off, but he was out of it. Didn't seem to know who he was or where. Michael told him to fly to the lady, and that's what we did."

Rodney looked up from tucking the now carefully wrapped blanket swatch into his coat. "Wait, lady? What, lady?"

"Another Wraith," Ronon said. "In an underground cave somewhere."

"Nobility?" asked Teyla.

"I think so, yeah," said Ronon. "She had six Drones with her."

"Oh, that's bad," said Rodney. "It explains a lot, but it's very, very bad."

Ronon shook his head. "Not the bad part. She has this ... thing, this bug creature." He held out his hands to approximate the size of it. "It fed on John and then it sent something back into him and after that he was..."

"Obedient," said Teyla and Ronon nodded. She looked sick.

Rodney looked sick as well. "Please tell me that was the bad part?"

"No. The stranger I told you about? The plague-carrier? She has an army of them. A thousand at least. Said she wanted to see all the southern realms burn." Ronon gave a grim laugh. The food he'd just eaten was a heavy lump in his stomach.

"But you want to know the bad part?" He stared at Rodney who stared back with wide eyes. "The bad part was that I had to stand there and watch. Watch a man be tortured, watch the things that destroyed my people march by in parade. I had to watch and do nothing."

Ronon pushed to his feet, stepped over Teyla's legs, and headed down the stairs. It was good to walk on solid ground again, to feel the hit of each step on the ball of his foot, the reverberation of it in his bones. But by the time he reached the bottom, standing alone in the inky blackness, he felt like an idiot. Stomping away solved nothing.

The approaching beam of light announced Teyla and Rodney. She held the bearskin cloak, he had the basket and the lamp. Ronon, feeling even more rotten, took the cloak from Teyla. They headed down the rock encased corridor. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..." Ronon waved his hand, trying to encompass everything he shouldn't have done in a gesture.

"There is no need to apologize," Teyla said. "I share your frustration, and I did not have to stand witness." She gave him a grim smile. "I would offer to spar with you, if we had the time."

That sounded good. "Maybe when this is over," Ronon said.

"If we're done making plans to pummel each other?" Rodney asked. He pushed past them, shining the smuggler's lamp down a narrow corridor that branched off from theirs. It was lined with doors, though several of them were partially covered with rock. Rodney opened one of the accessible ones and led them up a metal stairwell, similar to the one they'd taken from the surface.

This stairwell led to a regular cellar: dust choked, with an awkwardly low ceiling, and made of the expected stone and wood rather than strange, alien materials. They gathered under the cellar door and Teyla took the bearskin cloak back from him.

"Halling is waiting outside," she said. "He does not know of the underground city."

Ronon nodded.

"I know this will be difficult, but try and sleep. I suspect today will be just as long as yesterday."

Ronon nodded again. Like his non-hunger, he didn't feel all that sleepy. But he'd do his best to get what rest he could.

Rodney shifted, setting the basket on the ground and looking up at Ronon. "You're going into unknown territory here –" Ronon snorted, and Rodney managed a small smile. "I know, I know, what's new. But the thing is, we have no idea what'll happen after you've answered the question. We don't think you'll be killed on the spot – "

"Not if Elizabeth has any power remaining," broke in Teyla. "And the age limit suggests she does."

"Contest rules say three questions," Ronon said.

"Michael should be bound by that," said Teyla. "So you should be safe while the contest is ongoing."

Ronon nodded, flipped the latch on the cellar door. "Okay. See you later."

"Wait." Rodney grabbed his arm, keeping him from pushing the door open. "Look, if things goes awry, find Radek. Radek Zelenka. He's our palace contact and at the very least, he can get word to us."

Ronon patted Rodney's hand. "Okay, Rodney," he said. Then he pushed open the cellar door and climbed up the short flight of steps into the cold stillness of pale dawn. He let the cellar door drop gently back into place, deliberately not looking down. It looked like the street was empty, all the houses closed against the night. Then a shadow peeled away from a dark stoop. It was Halling, hunched down to camouflage his height, wrapped in a thick woolen coat.

The canals were quiet this early in the morning, and they made it back to Ancestors' Rest without incident. Ronon collapsed into bed as soon as he reached his room, barely taking time to strip off his clothes. He didn't really sleep, but he managed to slide into a small doze.

As the sun came up, so did the inn's residents. Before the morning clatter became too lively, Ronon got dressed enough to get down to the bathing room. He scrubbed down, but didn't bother with a soak. He did take the time to shave and trim his beard. He was glad of it when he returned to find his own clothes, cleaned and pressed and wrapped in brown paper, just outside his door. It seemed important, somehow, that he show up as a Satedan. Even if neither Michael nor the Wraith realized it.

He walked to the palace. People came to their doors, leaned out of windows, as he went by. Apparently they'd heard there was a new contestant. For the most part they looked grim, sad. The kids, though, they looked excited. A few older ones followed him over several canal crossings, hanging back only when he came in sight of the palace gate.

The gates were unguarded, swinging open at Ronon's touch. The palace doors, also unguarded and unlocked, opened to an abandoned entrance hall. Dust covered the wide marble floor, dustcloths the large mirrors and paintings on the walls. An elaborate chandelier hung heavy with cobwebs. Potted trees, long dead, leaned drunkenly in various corners.

Ronon stuck close to the walls, walked as quietly as possible. He picked a hallway at random, out of the several that led from the entrance hall, and followed it deeper into the palace. Every room he came across, every hallway he chose, was as empty and abandoned as the last. A feeling that he was the only thing alive in this place began to creep up on him, needling the back of his neck and putting him on edge.

So when he saw sunlight he followed it, passing through an archway and into a large courtyard. Two old maples, very much alive, arced graceful branches over the open space. Their fiery leaves covered the ground, crunching under Ronon's feet as he followed the covered path around the courtyard.

He nearly passed the woman without seeing her. Tall and slender, dressed in gray robes, her dark hair covered by a thin veil, he'd mistaken her for one of the ancient pillars she stood between. In his surprise, for a brief, wild moment Ronon thought she might be one of the keepers of the ancient city. The ones from the stories who defied the gods and died for it.

"You are here for the questioning," she said.

Ronon nodded and her eyes were filled with grief. "You should go," she whispered, "leave while you can." But she sounded resigned and when Ronon shook his head, she seemed unsurprised.

"It is too late, then." She closed her eyes for a moment. Then she looked at him, her expression unreadable, her voice brisk. "Come with me. I will take you to the questioning."

It was only after she'd brushed past him, leading him further down the covered corridor, that Ronon noticed the silver signet ring glinting on her finger and realized this was Queen Elizabeth, ruler of Atlantis. She led him into a different wing of the palace and the air of abandonment changed to simple neglect. The hallways were grimier than they should have been, but the plants were drooping instead of dead, the dust and cobwebs mainly confined to untraveled corners.

Queen Elizabeth paused at a plain pair of doors. "What is your name?" she asked.

He saw no reason to lie. "Ronon Dex, of Sateda."

The queen flinched. "Sateda?" she asked, her voice pained. "Are there any ... is there anyone we should contact if you give the wrong answer?"

"No."

She swallowed, then nodded and turned to the doors. She hesitated. "I am sorry," she said finally, then gave the doors a light push.

They slid open to reveal a good sized solarium, empty of furnishings, the glass walls covered with thin curtains, muting the sun's light and warmth. Ronon was a little surprised. He'd expected the questioning to be held someplace formal, like a courtroom or an arena. But this was definitely the place.

Michael stood waiting, his back to the curtained glass. John stood at his side, freshly shaven and dressed in a white, high collared uniform, an empty sword belt cinched around his waist. He didn't look as exhausted as Ronon would have expected, but he stared at the floor either unaware or uncaring of what was going on around him.

Queen Elizabeth led Ronon to a point midway between Michael and the doors sliding shut behind them. Then she joined a small group of blue-robed courtiers, huddled together by the far wall. Two palace guards flanked the doorway, their swords drawn, their visors down. Ronon kept one hand resting lightly on his sword hilt.

Michael noticed that, smirking a little as he prompted John. "Time to ask the question, my prince."

John raised his head but didn't look at anyone. "Sleep, dreamless as death, wrapped in the numb of nothingness, what am I thinking of," he recited, voice a dull monotone.

Michael didn't look away from Ronon, so it was Michael Ronon spoke to when he said, "A cocoon."

Michael's smile went a little sick. John gasped and Ronon glanced at him. John was staring at him, now. He had hazel eyes.

For a moment, no one moved. Then Queen Elizabeth asked, "Was that it? Was that the right answer?"

One of the courtiers, a little man with wispy, flyaway hair and wire-rimmed glasses, untangled a sealed paper from his robes. He cracked the seal and quickly scanned the document. His eyes widened. "Yes," he said. He looked up, staring at Ronon as he shoved his glasses back up his nose. "That was the correct answer."

Another courtier, a thin blond woman, grabbed the paper from the man. There was a murmuring rustle as the rest of the group gathered around her, peering over her shoulder. "It is correct!" someone exclaimed. They began talking, one over the other, their volume rising as the paper was passed around.

"Guards!" Michael's roar stopped everyone. "Seize him."

Queen Elizabeth quickly stepped forward, one hand out in protest. "You have no grounds," she said to Michael. "He answered the question correctly. He followed your rules."

"He cheated," said Michael. "He must have cheated."

"Was the seal broken?" She didn't look away from Michael.

The wispy haired man cleared his throat. "No, it definitely was not. There would have been spell marks and frankly I'm not sure the young man," he gestured towards Ronon, "would have survived to give the answer if he'd broken the seal."

"Well, Michael?" Queen Elizabeth asked. "The rules you insisted upon have been followed. Do you call a forfeit?" Michael's face twisted at that, and he glared at Ronon. Ronon looked back, keeping his expression unconcerned. "Or have you finally decided to openly challenge my power," she continued, "invoke the ancient laws and attempt to remove me from my throne?"

"I have never had designs on your throne," Michael said, dragging his attention away from Ronon and focusing on Queen Elizabeth. He shook his head and chuckled a little. "I apologize. I was startled by such an ... unexpected outcome." His poise regained, Michael gave the queen a benign smile. "But you are correct. The rules were followed. The young man will remain untouched while he is here in the palace."

"Then he shall remain here for the duration of the contest."

Michael's smiled faltered for a moment, but only for a moment. "As you order, my queen," he said, bowing his head. He summoned one of the guards. "Give him a room on the third floor. One of the chimney rooms, I think."

"I would rather –" Queen Elizabeth began to say, but Michael cut her off.

"Allow me to see to this, my queen," he said. He reached out towards John as he spoke, and John looked away from Ronon, stepped closer to Michael. "This has been a busy morning. I'm sure we could all do with some rest." He strode from the room, John following in his wake. John flickered a final glance at Ronon as he passed. And then they were gone.

Queen Elizabeth turned to Ronon. "Go with the guard," she said. "He will not harm you. Not here." She looked at him. "Not in the palace," she repeated.

Ronon nodded. He'd picked up on the not so veiled threat when Michael first gave it. Nice of her to make sure he got it, though. "Yeah, I'll stick around," he said.

The room the guard left him in barely had space for the narrow bed. No fireplace, but the brick soffit crowding into the small space was probably a section of chimney, going by Michael's description. It radiated warmth in any case. There was one small window. It looked out onto the palace grounds and opened just wide enough for Ronon to fit through. But Ronon wasn't going to use it now. The door wasn't locked, and Ronon took that as an invitation to explore.

There wasn't much to see on the third floor. Most doors were locked and those that weren't opened to either more hallways or empty rooms. Ronon checked every window, familiarizing himself with the palace layout. This was the eastern section, towards the back of the palace, where John's room was located. Which meant the birch grove was just around the far corner wall he'd seen from his window.

The second floor held more public rooms, though these too were empty, dustcloths covering the sparse furnishings. On the whole, not that interesting. Then Ronon slid open a set of doors and very nearly smiled. It was a sparring room. One wall was almost all window with sections inset with colored glass of yellow and amber and red. The sunlight streamed through the glass giving the room a golden glow. Across from the window the other wall was taken up by a large weapons rack hung with practice swords and staffs and spears, the wood gleaming in the sun.

Ronon carefully slid the doors closed behind him and walked, almost reverently, over to the rack, rapidly cataloging his many choices. For a moment he hesitated, hand hovering over several different swords. He settled on the one closest to his chosen blade: two-handed, single-edged. He took it off the rack and gave it a few practice swings. It was a remarkably good mock-up. The weight was off, but to be fair, any sword would compare unfavorably to one crafted by his grandfather, especially a wooden practice sword.

Slipping off his coat and hanging it on a nearby peg, Ronon started with one of his more basic routines. It felt good to fall into the familiar forms, reacquaint his body with the positions and moves, hear the swish of the wooden blade cutting through the air. His balance was a bit off. Ronon shook out his shoulders and arms, returned to the starting position, and began the routine again.

He was midway through, when he heard one of the doors slide open. Ronon allowed his momentum to carry him around, automatically falling into a defensive stance. John lingered in the doorway, one hand still curled around the sparring room door.

Ronon lowered his sword, pushing his hair back with one hand. "Hey," he said. "You here to practice?"

John blinked at him. Ronon was just wondering if he should repeat the question when John started towards the weapons rack, still keeping a careful eye on Ronon.

"Want me to go?" Ronon asked. Then, when John didn't answer, "Or did you want to spar?"

John's head came up a little and Ronon decided to take that as a sign of interest. "It's been a while since I've had a chance to spar with someone," Ronon said. There was something of a skittish animal to John, so Ronon kept his movements easy, his voice soft. "What's your weapon choice?" He walked over to the weapons rack, careful to not crowd John. "Those bantos rods?"

There were several pairs of rods like the ones John had used the night before. Ronon picked a pair and offered them to John. Then he backed towards the center of the room and fell into a basic start position. John gave the rods a few tentative swings, then followed Ronon onto the floor. He went into a defensive position, so Ronon made the first move, striking out with deliberate slowness, allowing John to push his sword aside.

"Good," said Ronon. "Now, let's get an idea of what you can do." He struck at John again, a little faster this time, following through with a second strike when John pushed the first hit aside. Gradually, patiently, he led John through a defensive routine. John kept up with him. His responses were too predictable, and sometimes dangerously awkward, but he kept up.

After a while, Ronon stopped, gave John a chance to catch his breath. John was sweating, but his mouth was curled up a little and he looked more alert than Ronon had ever seen him. After a moment, John loosened his jacket collar, then raised the bantos rods. It was the same defensive posture as before, which made Ronon curious. "You know how to attack with those things?" he asked.

John looked uncertain for a moment, licking his bottom lip and flickering a glance at the rods and then back at Ronon.

"Come on, I'll give you an advantage," Ronon said, tucking one arm behind his back.

John's mouth twitched into what might have been the beginnings of a smirk, then he shifted, swung out at Ronon. The rods hit down on Ronon's blade, and Ronon stepped back, leaving himself open, encouraging John to press forward. And John did. Awkwardly and predictably, but with a dogged persistence that filled the sparring room with the rhythmic clatter of wood striking wood.

"There you are." Michael stood in the doorway, dark robes absorbing the sun's light.

At the sound of his voice John dropped his arms, stood, breathless and withdrawn, staring down at his feet. Ronon lowered his sword, crossed his arms. Did his best to look unimpressed, even bored, as Michael looked him over.

"I see you've made yourself at home," Michael said, finally. "I would remind you, there are still two more questions to go. Perhaps your time would be better spent in quiet thought and preparation."

Ronon said nothing.

Michael's mouth twisted, the scars on his face writhed. But he merely held a hand out to John. "Come, my prince. It is time for you to return to your rooms."

The bantos rods fell from John's hands, clattering discordantly on the wooden floor. Head still down he allowed Michael to usher him out of the sparring room and down the hall.

Ronon picked up the bantos rods and hung them and his practice sword back on the weapons rack. Then, in an admittedly childish gesture of defiance, used his own sword to go through a few of his more complex routines. Kept at it until he'd worked the rust off.

By the time he headed back to his little room, his muscles were good and loose, and he'd finally regained the sense that his sword was an extension of his body. The courtier from earlier, with the wispy hair and the glasses, was leaning on the wall outside his door. He straightened as soon as Ronon appeared.

"Hello," he said. "I am Radek Zelenka. I thought you may like some lunch?"

Ronon recognized the name Rodney had given him, but Radek gave no indication of being anything other than a stranger. Ronon followed his lead. "I could eat."

Radek started down the hallway. "I should warn you, there are few of us here, and none of us cooks. No one has been made ill, though." He pushed his glasses back into place. "Yet."

Turned out the kitchen was a couple of floors below Ronon's room. Which explained why this section of the palace was still occupied, and the warmth of the chimney running through his room. He recognized two of the courtiers from this morning, a small, dark-haired woman and a wiry, pointy-faced man, dispiritedly chopping vegetables at one of the worktables. A palace guard sat by the fire, face guard down but sword sheathed, watching them work.

They all looked up when Radek and Ronon entered, staring with interest as Radek led Ronon over to the worktable furthest away from everyone. Radek ignored them, serving up a watery soup and day-old bread. He hovered nearby while Ronon ate, spooning out a second serving as soon as Ronon finished his first.

As the soup poured from the ladle to the bowl, Radek murmured, "Night fall; the rock," so quietly Ronon almost didn't catch it. Ronon hesitated for a brief moment before dunking his bread into the broth. He was impressed. And glad to have even a once removed connection with Teyla and Rodney. He finished off the second bowl of soup, and a third, and then Radek gave him a brief tour of the kitchen.

"And this is the pantry. Or, no, sorry," he shook his head, half laughing. "This actually leads to the kitchen gardens and palace grounds. But with the weather the way it is, I'm sure you'd rather stay indoors." He lead Ronon away from that door to one adjacent. "Yes, this is the pantry. Please feel free to help yourself to anything. And at any time. The kitchen never closes."

Ronon nodded, tried to look bored.

"Now, I should show you back to your room. It is easy to get turned around in all these hallways."

But Radek didn't lead Ronon back to his room. They came at it from a different direction, but Ronon recognized the doors before Radek slid them open. The sunlight had disappeared, and the solarium's thin curtains looked drab and lifeless. Radek pulled them open; Ronon stepped backwards.

The solarium windows looked out onto a large garden filled with several species of flowering trees. This time of year the trees were bare, of course. But the dark lines of their branches were gracefully sketched against the graying sky. And within nearly every graceful tree, several bodies dangled like macabre ornaments. The corpses, most dissected down to withered husks, were placed with care. Dormant vines trailed over and around and, in some cases, through the bodies, incorporating them into the trees.

Ronon forced himself to step forward. He walked up to the glass walls, opened the glass door, walked into the garden. It didn't stink. Not of the usual wet rot, anyway. Instead it had a dry, dusty odor, a subtle wrongness that overwhelmed in its own way. Ronon had smelled this death before.

"All of these were contestants," Radek said softly, trailing behind Ronon.

"Look like plague victims."

"Plague?" Radek sounded startled. "Oh. No. No, we have not had such a plague here." Ronon glanced at him, and had to look away before the pity in Radek's eyes infuriated him. "This withering occurs shortly after death," Radek continued. "Something Michael does to them."

One of the corpses wore a familiar looking uniform. Ronon stepped closer. It wasn't Satedan. Relief and disappointment swelled; he pushed them both down. Under the weather-worn jacket and gapping shirt, the corpse had a long, tearing wound down the center of its chest. Ronon stepped back, scanned the other bodies within view. Those he could see all had the same wound. He thought of the Wraith, waiting eagerly in her cave.

"He takes their hearts?"

"Yes," Radek said. "We have no idea why. But the body goes into the garden and the heart..." He grimaced, took off his glasses and polished them with his robe. "I am not sure where the heart goes. Honestly, I'm not sure I want to know."

"I have some idea," Ronon murmured.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"Nothing. I've seen enough." Ronon didn't want to see how large the garden was, how many more dead decorated the trees.

Radek nodded, put his glasses back on. "Yes. I will return you to your room."

The clouds, which had begun to thicken while they were in the garden, soon hung heavy in the sky. Ronon lay on his small bed, watched them darken and roil, waiting for the shadows to grow.

When it was dark enough, Ronon left. There was a convenient balcony joist just above the window, making it easy for Ronon to slither through the small opening. The wind was bad, screaming around the palace wall and buffeting Ronon where he clung. But the rough rock provided more than enough finger and toe holds for Ronon to scramble down to the ground.

The birch grove was where he thought it'd be, so the hardest part was actually crossing the open grounds. The palace windows were unlit and no one called out as he crossed. But the back of his neck didn't stop prickling until he entered the giant rock. Inside was stone-dark, the empty silence almost a weight. But it beat the weather outside.

He sat down on the cold floor. Didn't even have to wait that long. A beam of light flashed up the stairs, then disappeared, then reappeared, growing steadily brighter. Ronon stood up.

"– too cautious, but frankly I think we should err on the side of caution. Especially when it's your health on the line. God, these stairs never end. You know, I have this theory about those ornate closets scat– Gah!"

The light skittered around the ceiling then settled as Rodney stopped flailing and stepped into the rock's vestibule. He dropped the basket and bearskin cloak and pressed one hand to his heart. "In the future, you might call out a warning or something when you decide to linger in a dark room. Just a thought."

Ronon took the smuggler's lamp from Rodney, placing it where it shed the most light. "Didn't want to startle you."

Rodney snorted. "And that was a screaming success."

"We are pleased to see you so soon," said Teyla. She was carrying several large cushions. "You were able to cross the grounds unseen?"

"There's a bad storm brewing. It got dark early."

"A storm?" Rodney gave Teyla a significant look. "Wow, that'll make the flight really, really miserable. And hard. One might even say unnecessarily challenging."

Teyla sighed. "Rodney, I have regained my strength. I am perfectly capable of following John, now."

Ronon frowned. "Thought that was my job?"

Now it was Teyla's turn to look confused. "I thought to share the burden," she began, then hesitated, eyes searching Ronon's face. "Though, perhaps," she said slowly, "I am overeager to test my strength."

Unexplainable relief coursed through Ronon. "I get that way, too, after an injury. But you should take it easy while you can."

"Two against one!" cried Rodney, taking a cushion from Teyla and dropping it on the ground. "That means I win." He plopped down on the cushion and opened the basket. "So who's hungry?"

Digging into the chewy bread, thick stew and hot tea provided by Halling, they kept their talk to easy things. It wasn't until the food was eaten and they were each nursing a mug of hot tea, that Teyla asked Ronon about the palace. He did his best to describe everything he'd seen. Surprisingly, Rodney and Teyla seemed pleased by the palace's state of decay.

"She's pulled back her influence," Rodney said, "concentrated her power in one place so it's stronger, less vulnerable to attack. Clever Elizabeth."

Ronon's confusion must have shown, because Teyla explained, "There is a magic to Atlantis, a power that comes with the throne. The queen or king is, almost literally, the life of the palace. And the palace, in turn, is the heart of the city. The health of the city depends on the health of the palace depends on the health of the queen."

"That's why they grabbed John?" Ronon guessed. "Get to the queen through her son?"

Rodney spewed his mouthful of tea, thankfully not towards Teyla or Ronon. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, staring wide-eyed at Ronon. "Please tell me you didn't say anything to Elizabeth about her son, John?"

Teyla's reaction wasn't nearly as dramatic but she was definitely fighting back laughter. "John is a distant cousin of Elizabeth's. They're barely blood relations and are of a similar age."

Rodney didn't hold back his broad grin. "Can you imagine the look on her face? Or on John's face?"

"He's called prince," Ronon said, a little annoyed. Sateda didn't have royalty. "I thought that was what a prince was, the son of the king and queen."

"It's a technicality." Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "Something the council insisted on when Elizabeth recruited him to lead her army. He never uses the title himself."

"Michael uses it."

"I doubt Michael has any more under– wait, is that what he calls John?" When Ronon nodded, Rodney snapped his fingers, then pointed at Ronon expectantly. "And that's all he calls him, right? Never John or Colonel?"

"Yeah."

"Of course. I should have seen this hours ago. That blanket piece you brought back this morning, the one John was covered with? Turns out it's not poisoned fabric. It's a venomous substance secreted by ..." Rodney looked expectantly at Ronon.

"That spider thing that attacked John?"

"Got it in one. The iratus."

"They build large webs," Teyla said, "and when prey is trapped, they cocoon them in this substance. It keeps the prey alive but unmoving and enables them to feed at their leisure."

"And you're wondering what this has to do with what Michael calls John." Rodney's eyes were gleaming, as they did whenever he dove into the world of magic. "The Wraith have co-opted the iratus and its abilities to further their own ends."

"I had heard of iratus venom used to curb rebellious slaves. But, according to my research, the cocoon is another method." Teyla's mouth twisted. "It's considered a more gentle form of persuasion. Rather than putting poison into the victim, it empties the mind and leaves the victim vulnerable to manipulation."

Rodney nodded. "So Michael covers John with this cocoon-blanket and calls him prince and John has a hard time figuring out who he is. And with his sense of himself wavering, it makes it easier to weave an ownership spell around him."

Ronon frowned at that. "So the contest is real? It's not just a game Michael set up to collect hearts?"

"Oh, it's very real. I'm working on a way to – wait a minute, 'collect hearts?'"

Ronon put down his tea mug and explained about the garden Radek had shown him, the withered corpses and their missing hearts. "He didn't know where the hearts were going, but the Wraith wanted John to bring her my heart. She was happy to hear I'm a soldier."

Rodney's eyes had lost focus, but he was gesturing like he was on the cusp of an idea. "Wait, wait, wait. The mutilated bodies we were told about, had their hearts taken." He looked at Teyla. "How much do you want to bet the people that village lost were missing their hearts, too?"

"What are you thinking?" Teyla asked.

Rodney had begun to smile. "That the hearts are the core of the magic that creates the plague-carriers. Animating mud? That's easy. But throwing in toxic magic?" Rodney shook his head. "They have to have something holding them together and a human heart would do it. The stronger the heart, the better." He frowned, lost focus again. "But how does she concentrate it?"

Ronon grimaced. He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer to that question. "Aren't you in contact with Radek?" he asked. "I thought he would've told you about the garden and the hearts."

Now it was Rodney's turn to grimace. "Our messages are necessarily limited. I know, I know," he held up a hand, as though Ronon were about to interrupt him, "you were expecting some fantastic, magical means of communication. I've been working on it. Believe me. But for the time being, we're stuck with the normal means." He sighed. "Pigeons."

Teyla looked like she was holding back laughter. "Oh, Rodney, you have to admit they are rather sweet creatures."

Rodney raised his chin. "I will admit no such thing. The last one we sent to Halling nipped at me. Who knows what diseases it might be carrying?"

Teyla looked at Ronon and began to laugh and Ronon found himself smiling back at her. He looked down. "So, I should get going."

"Already?" Teyla pulled out her pocket watch. "There are several more hours until midnight."

"Yeah, but no one's answered a question correctly before. It could effect the schedule." It was good reasoning, but not exactly honest. Ronon was getting antsy, like he was skipping out on a mission. Leaving his teammates vulnerable. Stupid, but Ronon couldn't ignore it.

"Good point." Rodney handed Ronon the flying sandals.

As he tied the sandals to his boots, Ronon asked Rodney, "You find out what magic was done to the boundary walls?"

Rodney frowned. "No. It looks like the basis of a shield, but unlike any I've seen before." He shifted towards Ronon, began checking the sandals. "I'm tempted to say it was a bungled piece of magic that no one bothered to clean up."

"So nothing to worry about?"

"Probably not?" Rodney glanced up at him. "I can't not worry."

Ronon could understand that. He grabbed the bearskin cloak and stood up, floating a little above the ground. "We good to go?"

Rodney patted the side of his boot. "You're good to go."

 

Outside, the birches groaned as the wind whipped through them. The gusts made it hard to run, especially in the bearskin cloak. If he wasn't careful it caught the wind like a sail, giving Ronon little control over his direction. In the end, Ronon acted as if he were in a boat traveling against the stream. He aimed for a point far past John's window, then rode the wind right onto the balcony.

The room was just as deserted as before. John lay on the bed like a corpse, shrouded with the iratus cocoon; the fire slowly burned down in the fireplace; the lamp on the writing desk cast its dim light. After he'd made sure John was breathing, Ronon checked out the door near the fireplace. It led to a personal bathing room, with tiled floors and a large porcelain bathtub.

Quietly clicking that door closed, Ronon floated over to the door near the writing desk. Michael had used it last night, so he cracked it open carefully, as though Michael waited on the other side. Light flowed through the crack and Ronon peered out. He could see a brightly burning fireplace, a couple of armchairs and a couch, and a low table strewn with open books and scrolls.

A sitting room, then. And empty at the moment. Ronon was about to explore further when he heard muffled voices and then another door being thrown open.

"And I grow tired of your excuses. He's an over-muscled giant, not a mouse. Find him!"

Ronon shifted so he could see the other end of the room. Michael was standing in a doorway, speaking to someone in the hallway beyond. Or finished speaking, anyway. As Ronon watched, Michael came fully into the room, slamming the door closed behind him. He paced for a few moments, muttering to himself. Then threw himself into an armchair, grabbed up one of the books and began poring through it.

It was going to be a wait, then. Ronon floated back from the door and settled on the floor between the balcony and John's bed. It wasn't as comfortable as an armchair, but he could stretch out, listen to the wind shake the windows. For a long while the wind was it. But, eventually, the clouds made good on their threat. Starting with fat, ponderous drops it quickly became a deluge. Sheets of water streamed down the windows and the rain's roar filled the room. Ronon was not looking forward to tonight's midnight run.

The bedroom door banged open and Michael rushed in. Ronon pushed himself to his feet as Michael ripped the cocoon off of John. After a moment John gave a full-body shudder and Michael gave his shoulder an impatient shake. Everything as it'd been the night before. Only this time, John hit out with more speed, more focus. This time, his blow landed. It was still weak, glancing off Michael's cheek without doing any damage. But it infuriated Michael.

He caught John's arm, wrenched him towards the edge of the bed. "You spoiled, ungrateful, rotten, little child," he snarled. "I cannot believe the amount of time I've had to waste tending to you." He yanked John up into a sitting position, nearly dumping him off the bed in the process. "If I could get away with it, I would kill you now. Her plans be damned."

John glared at Michael, though he didn't struggle to get up, to get away. Just sat, sullen, where Michael had put him.

Michael fetched the flying sandals from the closet, began strapping them onto John. "I've never seen the pleasure in causing pointless pain," he said. "It always struck me as a wasteful sort of indulgence." He pulled the ribbons tight each time he crossed them around John's leg, ignoring John's grunt of pain as he did so. "But I must admit, for you I could make an exception." He finished knotting the ribbons and dragged John to his feet.

He pushed John over to the balcony doors. A bright flash lit up the room, then left it in darkness. Michael snorted. "The irony. This flight could very well kill you." A loud rumbling shook the windows. "And that would leave me holding the blame and bearing the consequences." He pulled John's white cloak from the closet. "So, despite everything, I am left hoping you survive."

Michael wrapped the cloak around John, then pulled him back against his chest. John leaned stiffly against him, his expression mulish.

"And now my prince, you must go," said Michael.

John struggled briefly then huffed in exasperation and collapsed back against Michael. "Where am I going?" He sounded sulky.

"To see our Lady, my prince."

John closed his eyes, his expression softening. "Is she far away?"

"Across the waters, my prince, and beneath the earth."

"Will she be glad to see me?" His voice was almost wistful now.

"My prince, she will eat you up."

John sighed, opened his eyes. "Then let me fly to her?"

When Michael opened the balcony doors, John flew through them as eagerly as he'd done the night before. Ronon, more prepared this time, followed right on his heels.

The rain was wild and unrelenting, washing out the shape of the city. Lightening flashed, hitting out at every tall structure and forcing John into a more straightforward path. They were soaked before they reached the lake. Pounded by wind and waves, Ronon had this nightmare-certainty that they'd never leave the storm, never reach their destination. It was almost a relief when his foot brushed a treetop, when the unnatural tunnel grated open in front of them.

The Wraith stood, arms out in welcome as John flew down to her. But then she frowned. "You come empty handed? Where is my tribute?"

John floated in front of her, eyes on the ground, saying nothing.

"Well? Did you drop it? Or is my servant growing impatient and this is his quiet little way of telling me so?" Her mouth twisted with anger. "I find your stubbornness less and less amusing. Kneel and speak."

John collapsed to his knees. "The question was answered." He spoke in an expressionless monotone.

The Wraith reared back at that. She looked stunned. "But ... how? Was it my little poem? No, it couldn't have been. There was nothing there that truly hinted at the answer." She began to pace, hands wringing her skirts. Then she stopped, turned back towards John. "Have you been followed?"

"No."

"No, no of course you weren't." She returned to pacing. "You couldn't have been. Those clever sandals ... no ship could keep up with them. Unless," her eyes narrowed and she swept towards John. "Sweet pet, you haven't been keeping something from me, have you?" She grabbed his chin, tilting his head back so she could meet his eyes. "How many pairs of sandals are there?" Her voice sounded odd, a strange echoing tone that Ronon found both attractive and repulsive.

John grimaced then gasped out, "One! Made for me."

"Made especially for you. Yes, you've told me that before. But were any others made? Surely there were prototypes?"

John stared wide-eyed at the Wraith. "I..." His hands flailed out then fluttered back to his sides. "There were prototypes, but they were destroyed. Too dangerous." He was panting.

"So there are no prototypes around for some brave fool to use to follow you here?"

"The prototypes were destroyed." John had begun to sweat.

The Wraith frowned down at him. "As far as you know," she said, her voice back to normal.

John nodded as best he could with her still gripping his chin. Ronon frowned. John was lying. Wasn't he?

"Hm. Not that helpful, pet," she said. But she released John, leaving him to collapse back on his heels as she walked thoughtfully to her throne. With a quick flick of her wrist she flipped something up into the air.

A multidirectional burst of purple light shot through the cavern. Ronon felt the blast of it, blowing back his hair and ruffling the bearskin cloak. For a brief moment, everything was dark. He blinked and a strange, violet luminescence filled the cavern. It came from the Wraith. And John. And every single Drone.

Ronon sucked in a breath, looked down at his body. He wasn't glowing. The Wraith, directing her Drones as they searched the darker corners of the cavern, completely ignored Ronon where he stood next to John. Rodney's magic beat her magic, apparently. He was going to love that.

The violet glow died down, the light returned to normal and the Drones returned to their posts. "Well, it was a slim chance," said the Wraith. "Perhaps this soldier was merely lucky."

She returned her attention to John. "And how did a correct answer affect you, my pet?" She stroked his face with both hands, tilting his head to better study his eyes. "To be expected, I suppose." She stroked his hair one more time. "Position yourself."

John gasped.

She smiled. "Ah, you remember." She patted John's head, then returned to her throne. "Second feedings are exceptionally painful, I know. And this time you've done nothing to deserve it, poor pet." She sat down, carefully adjusting her skirts. "Very cruel of your current suitor to put you through this." She raised an expectant eyebrow.

John was panting, his eyes wide. He glanced wildly around the cavern, and Ronon almost expected him to make a run for it. But John remained on his knees and, squeezing his eyes shut, locked his arms behind his back and exposed his neck. The iratus launched out from under the throne, rustling the Wraith's skirts as it jumped onto John and sank its fangs into his chest.

John's scream, a cry of hopeless rage, echoed through the cavern. Ronon clenched his fists, turned away from John and the rictus of pain etching itself into his face. He hated this. Hated this like nothing he'd ever hated before. The Wraith watched. It was all Ronon could do to not run her through with his sword. Let her blood run down her black skirts and stain the throne she sat on.

There was a flickering, yellow glow and John screamed again. This time he didn't stop. His voice grew more and more ragged and then there was a thump and the screams cut off. Ronon whirled around. John had collapsed backwards, his legs bent awkwardly beneath him, his arms trapped between his back and the floor. The iratus was weaving a drunken path back towards the throne. John rasped in one breath, then another.

Relief battled fury as the Wraith rose to her feet and swept gracefully towards John. Ronon slipped behind her throne, putting it between himself and her, between himself and the nearly overwhelming urge to use his weapon. He rested his head against a massive stalactite. It very nearly touched the cavern floor. Not far from its thick tip was a container that reminded Ronon, weirdly, of a hatbox. It had a hinged lid, and was thickly lined with silky fabric.

It seemed so out of place that Ronon felt only a detached sort of bemusement when the iratus crawled out from beneath the throne, tipped itself into the hatbox and, using two of its skinny, long legs, pulled the lid shut. He didn't allow himself to think, to weigh the risks and benefits, just hooked the latch and picked up the hatbox. It wasn't heavy.

John gave a gasping groan. He'd managed to pull one arm free and used it to push himself into a sitting position. His legs were tangled in his cloak and he very nearly knocked himself back over getting them free. The wound on his chest oozed blood and venom. John finally pushed himself onto his knees and looked up, eyes wet and black, at the Wraith standing over him. Any hints of the soldier inside the man had drained away, leaving behind an empty shell.

"Well handled, sweet pet. Your intended is dawdling, typical behavior unfortunately, selfishly leaving you to pay the price." She brushed a hand through his sweat-crusted hair, winced a little, then discreetly wiped her hand on her dress. "But we will rid ourselves of this current suitor and your intended will rush in to claim you and all will be well." John leaned against her leg, as boneless as an exhausted child.

The Wraith grimaced and poked his head with one finger. "Now pay attention. You need a new question and answer."

John heaved a breath and straightened, stared with empty obedience up at the Wraith.

She smiled down at him. "The gift of oblivion, what am I thinking of? Pain."

John repeated the words back to her, his voice so ripped and rough Ronon winced to hear it.

"Good. That should be impossible to guess. Now, up you get." She tucked a hand under John's arm, helped him to his feet. "Fly home and come back tomorrow with a good, strong heart."

The flight back was a misery. The wind had lulled, but the rain still fell. And it was cold and wet and John looked like he might drop at any moment. Ronon spent most of the journey with the hatbox cradled in one arm and the other ready to pull John up if he did fall. Not until the dark outline of the city broke through the rain did Ronon allow himself a sigh of relief.

John dropped. No stumbling or flailing, he just tipped forward and plummeted towards the lake. Ronon barely caught him in time; wouldn't have if he hadn't been watching for it, if John weren't wearing sandals that wanted him to fly. Other than a grunt when Ronon jerked him back upright, John didn't react to the invisible rescue. Neither did the iratus, despite the jostling. So Ronon tucked the hatbox under one arm, wrapped the other more firmly around John and very nearly carried him to the palace.

Once they reached the balcony, Ronon let John collapse against the closed doors. Michael was inside, comfortably seated in front of the fireplace. He took his time getting up.

"You're back early," he said, dragging John inside. Ronon slipped in on John's heels. As Michael unhooked John's cloak, he chuckled. "And freshly fed on. Poor prince." He left the cloak where it dropped, pushing John towards the writing desk. "Still one task left."

John slumped in the spindly chair, obviously exhausted. But he took the ink quill and obediently scrawled out the question and answer, collapsing back in an awkward sprawl when he was done.

Michael read over what John had written. "Charmingly unsubtle as always," he murmured. He folded and sealed the paper and tucked it into his robe. He pulled open the bedroom door, hesitated on the threshold, then left without saying a word.

Ronon swore. From what he'd seen last night, John couldn't sleep unless ordered to. Ronon followed Michael; watched him walk out of the sitting room, heard him lock the door. Which meant Michael was a vindictive bastard, and Ronon was going to do something stupid.

He made himself wait. In case Michael came back, or sent someone else to take care of John. The sitting room fire was dying, but there was still enough light for Ronon to skim through the various books and scrolls he'd seen Michael going through earlier. He couldn't make much sense of them, but certain words and phrases were repeated a lot.

No one came. And Ronon wasn't going to wait any longer. John, still sprawled in the desk chair, head at an angle that made Ronon's neck hurt just looking at it, stared, with unblinking focus, at the ceiling. A hatbox suddenly appearing by the desk, a thick piece of firewood lying across it, didn't catch his attention. Neither did someone grabbing his leg and propping it up on an invisible knee.

Taking off the sandals was the hardest part. The ribbons had swollen with water and it took patience to work through the knots. But Ronon finally picked them loose and carefully unwrapped the too tight ribbons from John's legs. He left them where they fell. Let Michael think John had managed it.

"That's got to feel better," Ronon said, gently messaging away the cruel marks on John's calves. John groaned and tried to sink even further into the chair. "Bed's a lot more comfortable." Ronon got John onto his feet and steered him towards the bed. Like the night before, the iratus-web blanket was gone, so Ronon pulled the covers out of the way and John collapsed gratefully onto the bed's soft surface.

Ronon wrestled him out of his rain-soaked sleep pants and began to tuck the thick bedcovers around him. The bite on his chest looked painful, though rain had washed away the worst of the blood and venom. Ronon lightly brushed the area around it. John hissed. "Sorry." Ronon pulled the bedcovers up over John's shoulders and decided if he was going to be stupid he may as well go all the way. Ronon unclasped the bearskin cloak.

"John," he said. John looked up at him, frowning with mild confusion. "John, you can sleep now. Sleep. And no bad dreams." John's forehead smoothed. His eyes drifted shut and he relaxed into the bed. By the time Ronon had the cloak clasped, John was asleep.

 

Rodney was waiting alone in the rock. A large book was balanced open on his knees and he was scribbling madly in a smaller book, face creased with concentration. Even after Ronon unclasped the bearskin cloak, letting it slide to the floor, Rodney stayed focused on his writing. After a moment, without looking up, he asked, "Who made your blades?"

Ronon blinked.

Rodney snapped his fingers impatiently. "A master blade-maker, a loved one, all of the above?"

"My grandfather made my sword," Ronon said. "He's a master. My mother made my skinning knife. She's not a master, but my grandfather trained her."

"So that's two blades and at least one of them doubly powerful..." Rodney trailed off as he wrote, a satisfied smirk forming. Finally he looked up. "You're early," he said. There was ink on his cheek.

Ronon shrugged. "No plague-carrier parade."

Carefully blotting what he'd written, Rodney closed both books, then capped his inkwell. "Hm, well I suppose the Wraith didn't feel like celebrating."

"She was angry," Ronon agreed. "John paid for it."

Rodney grimaced. "Yes, I suppose that's..." His eyes fell on the hatbox and he frowned. "What's in the box?"

Ronon shifted. This wasn't going to go well. "The iratus."

Rodney's frown deepened. "And when you say..." He looked back up at Ronon and his eyes went wide. "Wait the actual iratus? The most deadly creature in the known world is trapped in that, that, that – " he waved his hand in an encompassing circle.

"Hatbox," Ronon supplied.

"Oh, my God!" Rodney scrambled to his feet. "I'm – ! I'm – !"

"Speechless?"

Rodney pointed at him. "Don't put words in my mouth. If Teyla were here – "

"Where is she, anyway?"

"My workshop. She's researching the combined effects of exposure to both an iratus' cocoon and its venom. She has a much stronger grasp of the Wraith's written lang –" Rodney cut himself off and glared at Ronon. "Don't change the subject! You haven't explained why you're toting around an iratus like it's a pampered pet."

Ronon glared back, annoyed. "There was an opportunity, I took it. I think it's sleeping."

"Unbelievable." Rodney began gathering up his things, tucking the books into a satchel. "You are quickly reaching John-levels of stupidly brave. Or bravely stupid." He shouldered the satchel and glared at Ronon. "That is not a compliment."

"Wouldn't take it that way." Ronon waited until Rodney started down the stairs. "Shouldn't I take off the sandals?"

Rodney turned back, opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, then shook his head and stomped back over to him. "I'll take off the sandals, you hold that box. And for God's sake don't drop it!"

Ronon bit his tongue. Let Rodney strip the sandals off his boots. Enjoyed the sensation of planting his feet on solid ground.

Rodney stood up, shoving the sandals into one of his many coat pockets. He looked unhappy. "How badly did they hurt him?"

"Pretty bad. There was a second feeding and it..." Ronon clamped his mouth shut. He didn't want to relive the thing. "It was bad," he finally settled on.

Rodney sighed. "One more night," he said.

"Then we can kill them."

Rodney smiled a little at that, though it didn't reach his eyes. "I'm not usually the bloodthirsty sort, but I have to admit, the thought actually cheers me up a little." He clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. "Well! Let's go let Teyla know we've got an actual live specimen to work with."

He wouldn't let Ronon carry the bearskin cloak or the lamp. "You just concentrate on keeping that box tightly closed," he said. "I'm already hearing things in these tunnels. I don't need an actual escaped iratus adding to my paranoia."

Ronon frowned. "You've heard things?"

"Oh, it's nothing. Teyla didn't hear anything so I'm sure it's just my imagination. I've got a powerful one, unfortunately." He sighed. "Price of being a genius, I think. The mind's always working."

Since Rodney was concentrating on the steep steps, Ronon allowed himself a full grin. The urge to fake-drop the hatbox was strong, but he managed to resist. They reached the end of the stairs, Ronon just stepping off the final step, when there was a soft thwap, a clatter, and the lamp went out.

Rodney cried out and Ronon shifted the hatbox, reaching for his sword. A bright light blinded him and a voice called out, "No, keep your hand away from your sword."

Chapter Text

"My archers don't miss and, frankly, you're an easy target. Don't make me ask again."

The voice was male and coming, Ronon was pretty sure, only a few strides beyond him. Just behind the lights: three lamps with bright, focused beams, all pointed at Ronon and Rodney. It was impossible to see past them, see how many archers, how big the threat. Gritting his teeth, Ronon lifted his hand, keeping it open and visible to those beyond the light.

Rodney had his arms flung up in front of his face, shielding his eyes, but he began to lower them. "Wait a minute–"

"It will take less than a second to snap his neck. I recommend lowering your weapons."

Teyla. Ronon allowed himself a small smile as the lights flailed, glinting off drawn arrows. Three archers, equally spaced from each other, impossible to take in one rush. There was a hissing of urgent whispers and Ronon quickly shifted so he was standing more in front of Rodney. He was about to push the hatbox on Rodney, free himself up to attack, when the lights finally settled.

Two focused on Ronon and Rodney, one on a man, short and sturdy, arms pulled behind his back, a bantos rod tight across his throat, pushing his head back. He wore a dark, utilitarian, military uniform, unfamiliar rank markings on the collar. Teyla was a shadow behind him, protected by her hostage and the wall behind her back. She'd chosen her attack spot well. Ronon let his hand drift downwards.

"The big one is moving, sir. Permission to fire?" The voice was focused, professional.

Ronon froze, knowing the man was in no position to answer, but taking the warning.

"Then I will kill him," Teyla said, her voice cold. The man she held began to choke.

"Wait," said Rodney, actually shifting out from behind Ronon's protective cover. "Just every–"

"Teyla?" The same person who'd wanted to shoot Ronon. Only now she sounded unsure, young.

The man stopped choking, began sucking in gasps of air. "Dusty?" Teyla shifted, half her face coming into the light. She glanced at her hostage and blinked with surprise. "Major Lorne!"

"Holy shit, it is you!" the archer exclaimed, voice almost laughing.

"As I've been trying to say," Rodney broke in loudly, "I think we're all on the same side here." He started forward and Ronon shifted, blocking his path.

"If these are your friends, why'd they shoot at you?" Ronon asked, still keeping his hand away from his sword, still waiting for an opportunity.

Teyla had lowered the bantos rod from Maj. Lorne's neck but, at Ronon's words, she frowned, half-raising it again. "Ronon asks a good question."

"I didn't shoot at you, I shot at the light. And that's what I hit," the archer said, her voice still amused. "Anything or anyone I aim at, wears my feathers."

"We didn't know who you were," said Maj. Lorne, carefully not struggling in Teyla's grip. "Just that you were here without our knowledge or consent. We had to assume you were a threat. And Sergeant Mehra is right; if we'd wanted to kill you we had ample opportunity."

Ronon wasn't sure he believed him. But Teyla looked like she wanted to, even as she said, "We've made contact with the palace. Why were we not informed of your presence in the ancient city?"

"The palace doesn't know we're down here," Maj. Lorne said. "Queen Elizabeth banished us after the first wave fell to the questioning."

"Wait, banished you?" Rodney sounded stunned.

Maj. Lorne smiled, though without humor. "We lost a lot of soldiers and Queen Elizabeth felt it would be safer for us to go." That would have stung, Ronon thought. Probably still did. "But we weren't about to abandon Atlantis. It's cutting a fine line, but she ordered us to leave the city, not the ancient city."

"So the entire Atlantis military is camped out in the ancient city?" asked Rodney.

"Not the entire," said Maj. Lorne. Then, before Rodney could question him further, "So you brought a stranger into the ancient city." His tone was mild. His eyes were not. Ronon shifted. He could feel the archers focus in on him.

"He rescued me and Teyla and is in the process of rescuing John, so I'm not sure 'stranger' is the right category to put him in," Rodney said, easily moving from stunned to annoyed. "I'd lean towards 'colleague,' maybe even 'friend,' if I were assigning labels."

"A helpful stranger brings back two long-lost colleagues, gaining everyone's trust? Now where have I heard that one before?" Maj. Lorne asked.

Rodney paused. "Okay, that's a good point," he said, finally. "Teyla?"

"I suppose our word won't be good enough?" she asked.

Maj. Lorne shook his head. "Sorry. Our paranoia's been serving us well lately, and we're kind of attached to it."

Teyla released him, moving into the lamp's light. "What can we do to prove ourselves to you?"

"Let me ask your friend some questions, get my own take on his story."

She considered it, eyes flickering towards Rodney and Ronon. "We do not have a great deal of time."

"I can work quickly."

Teyla glanced at Rodney again. Then she nodded.

Maj. Lorne smiled at Ronon, though it didn't reach his eyes. "First question: What's in the box?"

Ronon couldn't hold back a small huff of laughter even as Rodney groaned. He didn't think the answer was going to help him any.

"Okay, you have to get some background here first," Rodney said, speaking quickly even for him. "Ronon's been following John to this evil lair, filled with evil things, and –"

"All due respect," Maj. Lorne broke in, "I asked your friend. Ronon, is it?"

Ronon had worked with officers like Maj. Lorne before. Any kind of hedging would ring all his alarm bells. Best way to go was bald truth, no matter how ugly. "Specialist Ronon Dex of Sateda," he said, ignoring the murmurings at the mention of his country. He held the hatbox up a little. "It's an iratus. I think it's sleeping."

The reaction was pretty much what he expected. There was a wave of creaking as the three archers pulled back their bows. Maj. Lorne drew his sword, face going flat with anger. Teyla raised her bantos rods, her eyes wide with shock and, surprisingly, fear.

"See? I said background would be necessary," Rodney hissed before stepping in front of Ronon, hands raised placatingly. "Listen, it sounds bad, but believe me it's better for the iratus to be here rather than there."

In Ronon's arm, the hatbox shifted a little. He glanced down at it, frowning.

"It's been used to keep John, um Colonel Sheppard, in a state of –"

It shook a little, the latch rattling. Ronon slapped his free hand on top of the lid. "Rodney," he said.

"A state of disorientation and –"

It was really moving now. "Rodney!"

"Disorientation and – What?" Rodney snapped.

"It's awake."

"What?"

"It's awake!"

"Oh my God, my workshop, now!"

For a brief moment Maj. Lorne balked, but Rodney rode right over him. "Shoot me if you want! Hell, shoot all of us, then die a horrible death. Because, at the moment, that's your choice. My workshop or horrible, painful death. Oh, and the fall of Atlantis."

"Well, when you put it like that," said Maj. Lorne.

And then they ran. Teyla swiftly took the lead, grabbing one of the lamps out of a soldier's hand to light their way. Ronon was right on her heels, Maj. Lorne sticking doggedly beside him, and Rodney panting behind them. He kept up though, which made Ronon strangely proud. The rest of the soldiers fell in behind and around Rodney.

Ronon, concentrating on keeping the box closed, completely lost track of their route. They took stairs at one point, pounding down a level and then running through hallways again. The iratus wanted out. And it was strong. It pushed up against the lid, trying to work its skinny legs through the narrow opening it created.

Finally Teyla threw open a door. "No crowds," Rodney yelled at Teyla, and she hung back, letting only Ronon through. There was an argument, but Ronon left it to Teyla, moving aside to let Rodney take the lead.

Lights flared up as soon as Rodney entered. Which was a good thing. Cluttered barely began to cover it. Books and scrolls overflowed the floor to ceiling bookcases and were piled in dusty stacks on any available surface. Models of planets and moons and winged creatures (some animal, some not) hung down from the ceiling. Large mechanical constructs and eye-bending geometrical structures fought the book-stacks for table space. Ronon immediately stubbed his toe and nearly fumbled the hatbox before Rodney passed him, heading towards one of the doors at the back of the room.

The room he led Ronon to, in almost disorienting contrast, was clean and organized and spacious. A large, scarred worktable stood empty and waiting in the center of the room. Rodney went right to it, dropping his satchel on the floor and pulling a glass jar from a shelf as he went. Uncapping the jar, he poured out a glimmering powder in a large circle on the worktable. As soon as the circle was complete the powder turned into a clear liquid, though it kept its form. Rodney snapped his fingers. "Quickly. The center of the circle."

Ronon did as he was told. The box scrambled and shook, so he kept one hand pressed down on the lid, holding the box in place as the iratus pushed and scratched from inside. Behind him, he heard two, no three, people lingering in the doorway. He ignored them for now. "When I let go, it's going to explode out of there," he warned Rodney.

"It's a bell-shield," Rodney said. "It'll activate as soon as the threat does."

Ronon looked at him and Rodney nodded. Taking a breath, Ronon pulled his hand back. The lid flew up, there was a burst of light, and the iratus sprang at Ronon, its barbed legs reaching for him. It splatted against an invisible wall, light shimmered, and the iratus dropped down onto the worktable, trapped in a bell of light.

"Holy shit," someone breathed.

Ronon glanced back. Teyla, Maj. Lorne, and the archer, Sgt. Mehra, stood just inside the doorway, transfixed by the scene in front of them. The iratus reared up, venom sprayed from its fangs creating a light display where it hit the shield. It clawed and ripped at the invisible barrier, letting out a hair-raising shriek when that effort failed as well.

"Shield strong enough?" Ronon asked as the iratus began systematically attacking a section with venom and claws.

Rodney nodded. "Nothing should get through that sucker." The iratus' efforts sent up sparks of light. Rodney frowned. "But you know, there's nothing wrong with being extra careful." He grabbed a jar from another set of shelves, and carefully poured one drop of what looked like honey over the shield. As soon as the drop hit, the space within the shield crystalized into a translucent amber, trapping the iratus inside.

Ronon could feel the room relax, now that the iratus was no longer active. Teyla came up beside him. "I have never known anyone to successfully capture a live iratus," she said.

"Didn't really catch it," Ronon admitted.

"Then how did you get your hands on it?" Maj. Lorne asked. He was leaning comfortably against the doorjamb, and he looked prepared to stay there awhile.

Stepping back so he could keep the two soldiers and the iratus in easy view, Ronon leaned against a convenient bookshelf, purposely echoing Maj. Lorne's ease. "My second night following John," he glanced at Rodney, "Colonel Sheppard, the Wraith put him through a second feeding – "

"Another feeding?" Teyla looked horrified. Then she looked angry. "I have never..." she shook her head, swallowing back any further words.

Rodney patted her arm, but didn't say anything.

"After the feeding," Ronon continued, "I observed the iratus entering the hatbox. It was an opportunity to remove the threat to Jo– the Colonel and bring a sample of the venom to Rodney. So I took it."

"You are so lucky the iratus didn't nullify the bearskin cloak," Rodney said. But he was starting to grin, so Ronon figured he was more pleased than upset.

Maj. Lorne shook his head, chuckling a little. "My list of questions just keeps getting longer."

"Oh, come on! Don't tell me you still think Ronon's put some sort of glamour spell on me and Teyla." Rodney looked personally offended at the idea.

Maj. Lorne held up placating hands. "Actually, I'm beginning to trust the guy." He looked at Ronon and this time his smile reached his eyes. "Your answers are too weird to be lies. But it does sound like you're taking the battle to Michael. I'd kind of like to know about it."

"Oh," said Rodney. "Okay, I guess that's fair?" He looked over at Teyla.

She nodded. "We should tell you everything. I myself am interested to learn about your activities. But that sort of sharing will take time and," she began to pull out her pocket watch, when a melodic whistling sounded through the room.

Sgt. Mehra started. "Oh, that's me," she said, and pulled a tiny mechanical bird out of her pocket. Holding the little creature on the palm of her hand she said to it, "Sgt. Mehra here, go ahead."

"Drone confronted in the northern forest. Maj. Lorne needs to advise," piped the little bird.

Ronon glanced over at Teyla and Rodney. She looked bemused and he looked ready to burst, reaching for the mechanical bird with an eager hand.

"Tell them we're on our way," Maj. Lorne said.

"Returning to base camp, Mehra out." She tucked the bird back into her pocket and Rodney exploded.

"That's my walk and talk device, isn't it!" He was almost quivering with excitement. "We were working on it right before ... well, right before Michael," he told Ronon. "Imagine it! A communication device you can take with you wherever you go! We were this close to done. Radek must have finished it. Am I right?" Not waiting for an answer he held his hand out to Sgt. Mehra. "Can I see it? I was still having connection issues outside an extremely limited area. I wonder how he fixed that."

"Still limited," said Sgt. Mehra. "It only works in the ancient city. When we leave the tunnel system the birds go silent."

"But the entirety of the ancient city is covered? I mean, as far as you've seen? I wonder if it's tuning into a specific alloy or –"

"Walk and talk," said Maj. Lorne, ushering Rodney from the room.

They made for a funny group, heading through the dark tunnels. Rodney and Sgt. Mehra, formed one circle of light, Rodney eagerly quizzing the sergeant about the little bird. Teyla and Maj. Lorne's light barely overlapped them, quietly talking about those who'd fallen to the questioning. Ronon hung back, figuring no one wanted a stranger around for that sort of conversation. He walked in the shadow between their light and that of the soldiers following behind him.

The base camp was located deep within the ancient city and close to, if not directly beneath, the palace. At least, Ronon was sure they'd passed the dark rock of palace boundary walls shortly before arriving. Lined with doors, the large central hall had half its space taken up with long dining tables, currently filled with uniformed soldiers. They hadn't been particularly noisy but there was still a notable silence when Maj. Lorne's group entered.

Ignoring the attention, Maj. Lorne headed for the other end of the hall, where a single table stood. Bright, overhanging lamps, shone down on several papers. Maps from what Ronon could see. Most of his view was blocked by the six or so soldiers gathered around it. A fierce looking woman broke away from the others as soon as she spotted them, walking briskly over to Maj. Lorne.

"Lieutenant Teldy," said Maj. Lorne, returning her salute without stopping.

"Major," she said, falling in beside him, one hand resting casually on her sword pommel. Her eyes had widened a little, taking in Teyla and Rodney. And she'd swiftly measured up Ronon, but she went straight into her report. "The Drone did not survive contact."

"Any casualties?" Maj. Lorne asked.

"None. No injuries either. It was an easy win. Too easy, in my opinion."

"The Drone was alone?" Ronon asked.

Lt. Teldy looked at him, glanced at Maj. Lorne then, at his nod, said, "He was. Though Sgt. Bates is double checking the area. The Drone was carrying this." She indicated an object on the table. It looked like an ancient battle horn, fashioned from a large ox. "He was so intent on using it, he didn't defend himself."

"I believe I've heard of such devices." Teyla reached out, then hesitated. "May I?" At Maj. Lorne's nod, she picked it up. "Did the Drone sound it?"

"It looked like he did," said Lt. Teldy. "But we didn't hear anything."

"I am fairly sure you would not," said Teyla. She looked at Rodney. "It is said to sound such a low note only Drones are capable of hearing it."

He looked thoughtful. "Too low for human ears? I doubt a Drone is that different from your run of the mill brute squad candidate. I wonder..." He flipped over the little bird Sgt. Mehra had been showing him, digging a cloth roll out of one of his pockets and unrolling it onto the table. It held a selection of delicate tools. Hunching over, he made some adjustments inside the belly of the bird. Then he straightened up, standing the little bird back on its feet. "Okay, give it a try."

Teyla grimaced, wiped down the mouthpiece with her shirt hem, then gave it a tentative blow. There was no sound that Ronon could hear, but the little mechanical bird began to quiver. Its beak fell open and a piercing shriek came out of it. "ECOMESHECOMESHECOMESHECOM"

It felt like something was trying to drill through Ronon's ears and into his brain. He slammed his hands over his ears, hunching down like he was blocking a physical blow. Maj. Lorne was shouting something, hands clutched tightly over his ears, but Ronon couldn't begin to hear it. Finally, Rodney hit the bird with his elbow and it toppled over, falling mercifully silent.

"What was that?" Maj. Lorne asked, as people began to uncover their ears, stand up and, in some cases, crawl out from underneath the tables they'd rolled under. Ronon felt a certain relief he actually heard the question. Not that he knew the answer.

The little bird made a popping sound and smoke came out of its seams.

"Oh no!" Rodney swooped the little bird up, cursed, dropped it, then cursed again as the papers it fell on began to smolder. A quick thinking soldier brushed the bird into his mug, there was a hiss of steam and the crisis passed.

"I can fix that," Rodney said, but no one seemed too worried about the bird.

"Did anyone make out the message?" Maj. Lorne asked. "Om, something?"

"She comes," said Lt. Teldy.

"I heard 'He comes'," said Sgt. Mehra.

"Someone comes, in any case," said Teyla. "The question is who and where."

"Could be the Wraith's missing her pet iratus," Ronon offered. "She's coming to find it."

Teyla frowned. "I do not think so. Drone messaging is used only for the most dire and immediate of reasons. The woman you described has enough Drones to be a high ranking member of Wraith aristocracy. She would not feel the need to inform Michael, a man of lesser rank, of her arrival."

"Wait, how many Drones are we talking about?" Maj. Lorne asked.

"Six with her," Ronon said. "Seven, if the Drone your people killed was one of hers."

"Michael has two with him," Maj. Lorne said.

"That is," Teyla paused, "hard to believe," she said finally, obviously having chosen a more diplomatic phrase.

Maj. Lorne shrugged. "They dress in our ceremonial uniforms and they try to keep their visors down, but they're Drones. We realized that just before Queen Elizabeth banished us."

"Nine Drones?" Rodney looked worried. "Wouldn't that make Michael –"

"No." Teyla curled her lip, disdain evident. "Michael was too obsequious for that high a rank. Only three Drones less than a member of the royal family?" She shook her head. "The woman, maybe. Which makes it even less likely she'd warn Michael of her arrival. Or come to him at all."

Ronon was absently looking at the maps on the table as he listened. One of them was of the palace, the boundary walls outlined in deep blue. A memory fell into place. "John's intended," he murmured. He looked up and realized everyone was looking at him. He focused on Teyla. "Last night the Wraith talked about John's 'intended' like it was her end game. And Michael had mentioned an 'intended' the night before."

"I really need to debrief you," said Maj. Lorne.

Teyla frowned. "You've not mentioned this before."

"Didn't put it together 'til now," Ronon said. "But Michael was reading a bunch of books on magical theory last night." Beside him, he felt Rodney snap into focus, intent as a hunting dog catching a scent. "I didn't understand most of it, but they all mentioned the palace boundary walls and impassible shields. Maybe they're building a trap for this intended and using John as bait."

"And maybe," said Rodney, picking up the thread, "the magic laid on the boundary walls really was the beginning of something, not the remnants of a mistake." He snapped his fingers a couple of times, eyes going distant. He absently turned away from the table, then focused on Teyla. "I need to get back to my workshop."

"I really need to debrief all of you," said Maj. Lorne.

Ronon looked at him and his belly gave a strange twist. He frowned, one hand going to his stomach.

"We could do it over breakfast," Maj. Lorne offered. He glanced at the dining tables, now mostly empty. "Looks like its almost over, but I'm sure there's something left at the bottom of the pot.

"Okay, I'm conflicted. I really need to get back to my workshop, but your offer sounds oddly appetizing," said Rodney. "I must be hungry."

If anything, Ronon felt nauseous. He reached for the table as a wave of dizziness swept over him. He finally realized what was happening and looked up at Teyla. She was already reaching for him.

"The curse," she snapped. "We must get Ronon to the palace. Now!"

"Sergeant!" barked Maj. Lorne.

"This way!" Sgt. Mehra grabbed a lamp and sprinted across the hall towards one of the doors. She flung it open and pounded up the metal staircase inside. Ronon stumbled after her, Teyla supporting him, almost dragging him up the first several flights. Fortunately, as they climbed, the pain began to lessen. By the time they reached the top Ronon almost felt normal.

"This door leads directly into the palace wine cellar," said Teyla. "We are beneath the kitchens. Can you orient yourself from here?"

"Yeah." Ronon put his hand on the door and paused. His belly cramped in warning, but this needed to be said. "John lied," he told Teyla. Pain radiated from his belly and Ronon gritted his teeth, tried to ride through it. "Said only. One pair. Sandals."

Sgt. Mehra refocused her lamp on him and Teyla asked, "He lied to the Wraith?"

Ronon nodded. "Before feed – " His guts rippled and Ronon groaned.

"I understand," Teyla said. "Now go!" She pushed him through the doorway, following him into the darkness, even as Sgt. Mehra hissed a warning. The weight of her hand on his back directed him towards a doorway, dimly outlined and high up towards the ceiling.

Ronon stumbled up the stairs and into the kitchens. He half ran, half stumbled through the empty hallways towards the solarium. His belly tightened and roiled in an almost rhythmic way, increasing in intensity and pain with each pulse. He collapsed against the solarium doors, just managing to slide them open. John was waiting for him. The pain left.

Pulling himself upright, Ronon walked carefully to the center of the room. He glanced over at Queen Elizabeth, standing with her courtiers, tension smoothing out of her face. John, who'd focused on Ronon as soon as he entered the room, took a step forward. Michael put a hand on John's shoulder, his mouth twisting with displeasure.

"You are late," he said.

"Not too late," said Ronon. The lack of pain was like dropping a huge weight. He felt almost lightheaded, reckless. He barely managed to hold back a smirk.

"That is not for you to decide. I could call you forfi–" Michael's mouth twisted again, only this time it looked more like pain than anger.

Ronon gave in to the urge and began to smile. "Stomachache? Looks like we're caught on the same hook." His smile grew into a grin, wide and wild.

Michael glared at him. "Ask your question," he snarled, shoving John forward.

John blinked, rubbed his hands, almost nervously, against his white trousers. "The gift of oblivion, what am I thinking of?"

Ronon could feel the courtiers holding their breaths, could feel Queen Elizabeth staring at him almost as intently as John. But he didn't break eye contact with Michael, didn't drop his grin. "Pain."

John swayed, then stepped towards him, shrugging off Michael's hand.

"Radek," said Queen Elizabeth, her voice tight.

Radek broke the seal, scanned the paper. "Is correct," he said. "The correct answer, again!"

The courtiers broke into cheers.

Michael ignored them. "Who are you?" He started towards Ronon, hand reaching for a sword that wasn't there. "Who is giving you the answers? You will tell me if I have to rip it out between screams."

Ronon dropped his hand to his own sword, thumbing the hilt loose from the sheath. The guards weren't at their posts. Michael was unarmed. He glanced at John staring back at him with unnerving focus. He looked back at Michael, and a warning wave of pain rippled through his belly. The damn curse. He'd probably be able to land a killing blow before it killed him, but he'd still be dead. And John would remain a captive, owned by the Wraith waiting in her cave. Michael had looked panicked for a brief, satisfying moment, but the smugness swiftly returned when Ronon winced.

Queen Elizabeth stepped in between them. "Our business is done for the day and Ronon Dex may go," she said to Michael.

Behind him Ronon heard a guard enter, quiet except for the tell-tale creak of leather armor, as Michael's smugness slipped into frustration. "You do not have the authority –"

"That is the one thing we do have," she said. "Ronon Dex is in our palace which places him under our authority and we say he may go." She turned to Ronon. "Leave us. Now."

Ronon gave a brief bow, and backed towards the doors. The newly arrived guard stood just inside, hand hesitating over his sword, visored head swiveling between Ronon and Michael as he awaited his orders.

"Besides," Queen Elizabeth turned back to Michael, "I believe you have a search to call off."

Barely holding back laughter at Michael's expression of helpless rage, Ronon nearly closed the doors on Radek. The little man slipped through the narrow opening, closed them himself and murmured, "Come with me please."

Moving with brisk efficiency, Radek led him up several flights of stairs to a residential section of the palace. Windows, framing the gloomy weather outside, lined one side of the hallway, widely-spaced doors the other. He followed Radek through one such set of doors into a large sitting room. Despite its size, warm shades of red and amber made the space welcoming. A fire burned merrily in the fireplace and a grizzled old dog was curled up on the hearth rug. The dog cracked opened his eyes, thumped his tail a few times in greeting, then slipped back into sleep.

Radek pointed him towards the chairs over by the windows. They overlooked an inner courtyard several stories down, where dogwoods and maples stretched their winter-bare limbs gracefully upwards. Across the way was another windowed hallway. With those rooms facing the palace grounds, he figured John's rooms were probably in that section. Ronon threw his coat onto one armchair and settled into another, shifting so his sword hilt didn't poke him in the ribs.

Sinking gratefully into the soft, well-worn cushions, he stretched out his legs with a groan. A nearby gaming table held an interrupted chess match, fiercely contested going by the pieces. Radek was doing something by the fireplace, patiently working around the unmoving dog. Ronon leaned back, eyes drifting across the gentle gray sky.

It took the door clicking open for Ronon to realize he'd slipped into sleep. Coming swiftly awake he stood up as Queen Elizabeth came in, shutting the door behind her. In her layers of gray she didn't seem to fit with warmth of the room. But the old dog stretched himself awake and padded over to her, nuzzling his nose into her palm. She rubbed his ears and smiled at Ronon. "Good," she said. "I hoped to keep you out of Michael's hands."

Radek was pulling a toasting fork out of the fireplace, a thick slice of toast speared on the prongs. Towards the center of the room a small, round dining table was set for three. Radek added the slightly singed toast to an already generous stack. "It is not fancy," he said, "but it should be filling."

"Thank you, Radek," Queen Elizabeth said. "This looks lovely." She started towards the table then stopped, swayed as though she were about to collapse, one hand going to her forehead.

Ronon started forward, but Radek was already at her side, one hand under her elbow, gently leading her to her seat. Her dog paced anxiously beside her then, once she was seated, rested his head in her lap and stared up at her with soulful eyes. Radek took a seat himself, pushing the third chair out in obvious invitation.

As Ronon sat, Queen Elizabeth gave him a wry smile. "I apologize. I sometimes forget to take proper care."

"Sometimes?" Radek muttered, as he poured her out a mug of tea, adding a healthy amount of milk and honey.

She raised an eyebrow, then ruined it with an amused grin as she took the offered mug. "Michael will push," she said simply.

"He is trying to break through again?" Radek asked.

Queen Elizabeth was piling a surprisingly generous amount of food onto her plate. She looked so thin and pale Ronon had assumed she'd have an equally anemic appetite. He was evidently wrong. Along with the toast, a basket of what turned out to be soft-boiled eggs and a large cut of smoked ham crowded the table. Queen Elizabeth took liberally from all of them.

Finally, her plate full, she looked up at Radek and grimaced. "He seems especially determined this morning. I presume it's pique from Mr. Dex's success."

Ronon concentrated on cutting off a chunk of ham. "What's Michael trying to break into?" he asked.

"It's more him trying to break out, actually. I've trapped Michael within the palace. Neither he, nor his two Drones, may leave the area I've managed to keep under my control." She shook her head. "It's an ongoing battle, unfortunately."

"I am not convinced we properly implemented the magic," Radek said, tapping the top off his egg. "I do not think it should come at so high a cost."

"I think we did rather well under the circumstances," Queen Elizabeth said to Radek. She looked at Ronon. "I'm still relatively new to the throne and we've only begun to comprehend the power available."

"Keeping Wraith out of your city seems like a good job to me," said Ronon.

Queen Elizabeth smiled. "Thank you. I count it as a victory, too." She picked up her mug. "I also thank you for all you've done for my cousin."

Ronon looked down at his plate. "No need for thanks," he said, piling a layer of toast and egg and ham onto his fork.

"Radek says John has seemed better cared for when he checks on him in the mornings."

Ronon looked up at Radek, surprised.

Radek swallowed, then explained, "Michael allows me to tend to Col. Sheppard in the mornings. I am not allowed to speak to him, but I think it is preferable to Michael."

"Wish I'd known that," said Ronon. "I'd have done more."

Radek shook his head. "No, you have done plenty. Too much and Michael would suspect more than he does."

"Radek says you came to Atlantis with Teyla and Rodney?" Queen Elizabeth's fingers whitened around her mug. "How are they? Did Michael...Were they badly hurt?"

"They're good," Ronon said. "They want Michael out of Atlantis."

Queen Elizabeth closed her eyes, took a deep breath. When she looked back up at him her eyes shone, though her voice remained steady. "I am very pleased to hear that. When they first disappeared, I thought ... Well, I feared the worst. We all did."

"It was a bad time," Radek agreed. "Our best Wraith expert and our best sorcerer disappear at the very moment Michael reveals himself hostile, bringing two Drones into the palace." He shook his head. "It was natural to assume the worst."

"Perhaps this –" Queen Elizabeth began, but a knock at the door, quick and impatient, interrupted her.

Queen Elizabeth stiffened, then gestured at Radek. He was already springing to his feet and heading towards a large bookcase, signaling Ronon to follow him. He did something at the end of the bookcase and a narrow section of paneled wall swung open, revealing an equally narrow passageway hidden behind it.

A loud whisper came through the door. "Queen Elizabeth? Radek? It's me."

"Simpson," said Queen Elizabeth, with obvious relief.

Radek left Ronon by the passageway, hurrying to unlock and open the door. A slight, blond woman slipped into the room. Ronon recognized her as one of the courtiers. She didn't see him at first, instead focusing on Queen Elizabeth and Radek. "A ship just docked at the lakeshore," she said. "It could be Wraith."

Queen Elizabeth sat up straight and her dog huffed his displeasure. "And it arrived without warning?"

"It came with the fog," Simpson said. "We barely caught a glimpse when it actually docked. The fog's covered the lower city already." She pointed towards the windows. "Looks like it's reached the palace."

At her words, everyone looked out the window. A thick mist was drifting down the far wall and into the courtyard, slowly fading out the slender tree limbs. Ronon frowned. It was moving strangely for a fog, enveloping the courtyard far too quickly for such a still day.

"And Michael?" asked Queen Elizabeth. "How has he responded to the news?"

Simpson had been staring with surprise at Ronon. But she quickly recovered, returning her attention to Queen Elizabeth. "I'm not sure he even knows about it. He's been in the south grounds ever since the questioning." She frowned. "There's been a lot of noise. We think from the rose garden, but his Drones have kept us from finding out for sure."

"And is John with him?" Queen Elizabeth sounded calm, but her hands were fisted.

Simpson shook her head. "Not that we could see. He was sent to his rooms before Michael left. As far as we know he's still there."

Queen Elizabeth buried one hand into her dog's fur and stared down at the table. Then she nodded to herself and looked up at Simpson. "Okay. I want everyone gathered here, in my rooms. I want us all together."

"What about keeping watch?" Simpson asked.

"In this fog?" Queen Elizabeth shook her head. "Too much risk for too little return. If a visitor comes to the palace, we will learn of it soon enough. And if they stay in the city, there is nothing we can do. Right now, my priority is keeping all of you safe, and I can do that more easily if we're all together."

After Simpson left, Queen Elizabeth collapsed back against her chair. "What is Michael up to?" she murmured.

Ronon shifted, feeling conflicted. Maj. Lorne's presence in the ancient city wasn't his secret to tell, but he didn't think Queen Elizabeth should be kept completely in the dark. "There's another Wraith," he said, finally. Both Radek and Queen Elizabeth stared at him in surprise. "Michael serves her. And I think they're expecting someone."

Queen Elizabeth narrowed her eyes, frowning thoughtfully down at her plate. Then she looked up, started to say something and froze. Eyes wide with shock, she stared over Ronon's shoulder.

Ronon turned. John was standing in the entrance to the narrow passage, still dressed in the white, high collared uniform he'd worn this morning. He looked lost, uncertain and when Queen Elizabeth said his name, barely breathing the word, he spun, disappearing into the dimness.

Ronon glanced back. Queen Elizabeth had her hand out, reaching for John. Radek looked stunned. "I should go," Ronon said, pointing towards the passageway. Queen Elizabeth didn't say anything, didn't look like she could. But she nodded and Ronon took that as permission, running into the passageway after John.

He hadn't gone far. As his eyes adjusted, Ronon spotted him lingering at the first corner, just under a high window. He seemed to want Ronon to follow him, keeping beyond Ronon's reach, but not beyond Ronon's sight.

The passage led to a twisting, but sturdily built staircase. The whole layout had the feel of a servants corridor, so Ronon wasn't surprised when the staircase spilled them out into the kitchens. John wasn't interested in food, however, going straight through to the palace hallways. They turned a corner and Ronon realized where John was leading him.

The sparring room was deeply shadowed today. The fog hugged the large window leaving the colored glass dull and lifeless. John stood in front of the weapons rack, looking hopefully at Ronon.

"You wanted to spar again," Ronon said. He was strangely touched.

John bounced on his toes, eager.

"Thing is, this isn't a good time."

John deflated and Ronon felt like he'd just kicked a puppy. "I mean, I want to, but –"

"How very sweet." Michael stood in the open doorway, his two guards flanking him. He looked very pleased with himself. "And how convenient finding both of you at once."

Ronon dropped his hand to his sword and his belly gave a warning writhe.

Michael chuckled. "Careful, young suitor. As you pointed out this morning, we are both beholden to the Traitor's Hook." He didn't seem nearly as frustrated by the thought as he had this morning. Instead he easily dismissed Ronon, turning his attention to John. "Come with me, my prince," he said. "We have guests to entertain."

John obeyed Michael, glancing forlornly over at Ronon as he passed. Once John was by his side, Michael waved the two guards (two Drones, Ronon reminded himself), into the sparring room.

"I have had quite enough of you having free rein of the palace," Michael said to Ronon. "So you will be escorted to a dungeon and held until tomorrow's question." He dropped a proprietary hand on John's shoulder, smiled at Ronon, then left.

The Drones were predictably professional, keeping a safe distance from Ronon and not bunching up together. One had his sword drawn and ready. The other gestured at Ronon and he realized they wanted him to turn over his weapons. Ronon hesitated for a brief moment, quickly visualizing various ways he could attack. Most ended in failure. Even the possible victories were dubious, leaving Ronon badly injured. With a grimace, Ronon unclasped his sword and his skinning knife from his belt and handed them over.

They led him down now-familiar hallways, never dropping their guard. Ronon wondered how difficult a dungeon escape would be. He still had one knife left, hidden in his boot. Could be useful for lock picking. They were crossing a small lobby, heading for a hallway Ronon didn't recognize. Behind him came a meaty thump. As Ronon glanced back, the Drone behind him collapsed to his knees. Ronon stopped, holding his hands out unthreateningly, and the Drone tumbled face forward onto the marble floor. He looked dead.

The other Drone drew his sword, but didn't approach his fallen comrade. Instead he circled slowly, eyes alert behind his visor. Ronon backed against the wall, keeping his hands out and up. The Drone flinched back, lashed out with his sword. The sword rebounded off of nothing Ronon could see. The Drone struck out again. There was a dull clang. The Drone stumbled, his helmet tipping backwards, the visor catching on his forehead. As Ronon watched, the Drone's throat caved in and he teetered and fell, slamming hard against the unforgiving floor.

There was a flash of color very close to him, and Ronon startled back in spite of himself. It was Teyla, bantos rods in one hand, the bearskin cloak around her shoulders nearly swamping her. Ronon began to smile, but Teyla's face remained hard, fierce. "We must hurry," she said, and disappeared.

Her hand slipped into his and she barely gave him time to grab up his sword and knife, rushing them back to the kitchens. She was bleeding. Not too badly, but the drops suddenly appearing on the stone floors were enough to leave a trail. He said as much, but Teyla didn't respond. She didn't even slow down. Not until they were through the wine cellar and inside Sgt. Mehra's stairwell.

A shuttered lamp hung just inside the door. Ronon opened one side of the lamp and Teyla revealed herself. In the focused light, her injury was easy to spot: a blood-soaked slash, just above her knee. Ronon knelt, free hand fumbling for his coat pocket before he remembered that he'd left his coat up in Queen Elizabeth's sitting room.

Teyla pulled a crumpled note from her coat pocket, pressing her other hand against the slash with barely a wince. She held the note out to Ronon. Her hand was shaking.

Ronon took it from her. It was in a blocky print, hastily written going by the amount of ink blots and scratch outs.

Teyla –

Just got word from Halling. Michael has Jinto. Worst case: will question about Ronon using ugly, ugly methods. Even best case (mind altering magic?) not good. I'm going to go get him. Trade myself for him? Would Michael go for that?

Taking sandals – should show I'm the power behind Ronon.

Requesting rescue.

– Rodney

P.S. Don't be too mad. And don't do anything stupid I know you can do it!

– Rodney

 

Ronon looked up at Teyla.

"I am so – " Teyla bit off whatever she was going to say, her lips going thin. "I will rescue him," she said finally. " And then I will kill him."

Ronon looked rather pointedly at her leg. Blood was seeping past her fingers. "You need to get that bandaged first," he said. Teyla looked like she was going to argue. "I'll take the cloak," Ronon quickly added, "find Rodney and Jinto and bring them back. You fill in Maj. Lorne, get yourself fixed up.

"You don't know the palace – "

"If I don't find them, I'll come back. And then you can have your turn." Ronon stood up. "But you need to get your injury seen to and meanwhile Michael has them both." That last was a dirty hit, and Teyla looked furious for a moment. But it was also the truth. Which Teyla was too pragmatic to ignore. She slipped off the bearskin cloak.

"You need to be aware," she said as she handed it to him, "that we believe the Wraith woman arrived via ship a short while ago. The last I was able to find suggests she and her Drones were heading here, to the palace."

"So it was 'She Comes'," Ronon said.

Teyla shrugged. She looked worn out. "I do not know. Maj. Lorne was unable to confirm the original sighting. I offered to go into the city to see if Halling had more accurate information. I had no idea Jinto had been taken or that Rodney had gone to rescue him. Rodney left his note in his workshop and I left without conferring with him." She managed a humorless smile. "I was afraid he'd try and talk me out of going into the city."

Ronon frowned. Something didn't fit. "Queen Elizabeth told me she has Michael and his Drones trapped inside the palace. How could he have taken Jinto?"

"Michael has the children of the city deeply enthralled," Teyla said. She leaned back against the wall and sighed heavily. "Apparently he asked for information about you, and Jinto was mentioned. I believe Jinto went to Michael on his own."

Ronon felt sick. "Teyla, I'm sorry I brought this down on Halling and his son."

Teyla shook her head. "It is not your fault. Not anymore than it is mine for sending you to Halling or for not telling Halling to leave the city as soon as I suspected –" she cut herself off. "The fault is Michael's," she said finally. "

"And we'll make sure he pays." Ronon flung the bearskin cloak around his shoulders.

After leaving Teyla, he took a moment to clean up the blood trail leading to the wine cellar. He didn't bother with the trail leading into the kitchen. Instead, he cracked the door to the kitchen gardens and flung the bloodied rag into the compost heap. Not his best false trail, but it would at least confuse things.

The dead Drones were still lying where they'd fallen. Ronon didn't approach them, instead heading for the stairs. Michael had mentioned guests, so he figured John's rooms were the best place to start. His theory was confirmed before he even reached the correct floor.

As he climbed, a Drone came pounding up the stairs behind him. Ronon hugged the wall then slipped behind the Drone, following him up a few more flights and into the hallway he'd seen from Queen Elizabeth's sitting room. Further down, four Drones flanked an open set of doors. Going by their uniforms, all of these Drones had come from the cavern.

It was strange, walking so boldly past alert Drones, but the bearskin cloak did its job and Ronon slipped through the open doors and into John's sitting room. The Drone he'd followed had already given his report, but Ronon could guess the content by Michael's reaction.

"– believe they let him get away!" Michael was saying. He turned away from the Drone, stalking angrily towards the fog-filled windows. "If he hadn't killed them I'd do it myself."

The Wraith woman stood in front of the burning fireplace. She still wore her black gown, though with its travel stains and with her pale hair pulled back in a low bun, she didn't look quite as elegant. She dismissed the Drone and he left, closing the doors behind him. "Really, my dear, it is of no moment," she said to Michael. "Either he returns tomorrow and we kill him then, or he doesn't return and dies in agony."

Michael leaned against the windowpane, staring into the gray nothingness. "I look forward to his death."

"And I look forward to his heart," the Wraith said. She shivered a little, and turned towards the fireplace, holding out her hands to its heat. "How deliciously strong he must be, to kill two Drones."

"I am sorry your Drones were lost," Michael said. He pushed away from the window. "They served me well."

The Wraith sank gracefully to a seat beside the low table, waving a hand in dismissal. "As you said, they failed in their duty." She started looking through the various books and scrolls spread out on the table. "This is all of what you've found?"

Michael hovered behind her chair. "Yes, my Lady."

Her brow furrowed as she paged through the papers. A lock of pure white hair escaped her bun and fell across her cheek, gleaming in the firelight. After a moment she looked up and smiled at Michael. "Well done, most faithful servant. Then our shield is ready, the bait taken, and our trap ready to spring. Soon I will be restored to my rightful place."

"At long last," Michael said, visibly pleased with her praise.

"Mm, the wait has been longer than I'd expected." The Wraith frowned, idly turned a few pages. "You don't have any siblings, do you?" She didn't wait for Michael's answer. "I envy you. They are nothing but trouble. I should have realized that when I was younger."

Michael licked his lips, shifted nervously. "And what of the trap I am tangled in?" he asked. "Will you be able to free me of it?"

The Wraith stood, tsking gently as she pulled Michael towards her, encouraging him to lay his head on her shoulder. "Sweet boy, freeing you will be the work of moments. Once we have finished with the queen, we'll simply kill her and let her magic unravel with her death."

Michael sighed. "And my face?"

The Wraith stroked his hair. "That cannot be undone."

Michael jerked but the Wraith tightened her grip, holding him down. "But you promised!"

"Your scars will be celebrated, my dear. The sacrifice they illustrate will be sung of forever." The Wraith continued to stroke Michael's hair, making a soft humming sound as she did so. Finally she asked, "Better now?"

At Michael's nod she prodded him up and stepped back. "Then let us check on our little pets. See how well they've played together without our supervision." She glided towards John's bedchamber, Michael at her heel, Ronon following unseen. The Wraith went right for an armchair, positioned with its back to the brightly burning fireplace.

Rodney knelt at the foot of John's bed, hands bound behind him, a gag cutting cruelly into his mouth. John stood in front of him, one hand gripping Rodney's hair and pulling his head far back. The other hand held a sharp dagger, its point aimed at Rodney's exposed throat. Rodney stared, wide-eyed, at John. John's face was a rictus of agony, the hand holding the dagger white-knuckled and trembling.

The Wraith adjusted her black skirts, tucked the free lock of hair back into her bun. Only then did she look up at the frozen scene in front of her. "Oh, all right," she said, her voice exasperated. "Drop the knife and come to me."

John gasped, the knife fell from his hand, clattering dully on the thick rug. He lurched towards the Wraith and dropped stiffly to his knees, panting fiercely.

She shook her head, laughing a little. "You are a stubborn pet, aren't you? I do find it fascinating, the battles you choose to fight." She looked over at Rodney, his attention now focused on her, and her smile sharpened. "And you, cunning little thing. How tameable are you, I wonder?"

She gestured and Michael went to Rodney, picking up the dagger John had dropped. Ronon started forward, hand on his sword, but Michael merely used the dagger to cut Rodney's gag free. Rodney stretched his jaw, tongue probing the corners of his mouth where the gag had rubbed the skin raw. He glared at Michael, but he didn't say anything.

The Wraith waited for a moment, then she leaned back in her chair, one hand encouraging John to rest his head on her knee. He balked for a brief moment, but finally went down, eyes staring unblinkingly at Rodney, his hands in fists. The Wraith didn't seem to notice John's reluctance, her fingers toying with his sweat-sodden hair.

"So you can keep quiet when told," she said to Rodney. "There is hope." She leaned forward. "I have a few questions for you. Answer them quickly, truthfully and completely, and your little friend will not pay the price."

Rodney started, mouth falling open. But he said nothing, restricting himself to a searing glare. The Wraith laughed. "Delightful! Oh, this will be fun." A smile played around the corners of her mouth as she asked, "You fed the answers to the soldier, yes?"

Rodney nodded. He kept his mouth shut.

"How?" asked Michael.

Rodney sneered at him. "Interpretive dance. How do you think? I verbally gave him the answers."

John hissed with pain and Rodney's sneer evaporated. "Stop it! I'm answering your questions!"

"Yes, but your attitude, little one," the Wraith said with a moue of disappointment. She stroked John's head. "At least a facade of respect would be nice."

Rodney shifted, mouth going sullen. "Well, if someone wouldn't ask stupid questions."

Michael started forward, but the Wraith, chuckling, waved him off. "There is a core to you, isn't there, little one? One I will enjoy bending. So, not a stupid question: How did you learn the correct answer."

Rodney sighed, staring down at the thick carpet under his knees. Ronon had a moment of intense panic. He hadn't told Rodney about the purple light. If Rodney said he'd followed John to the cavern he'd be revealed a liar. Ronon loosened his sword, though he had a sinking feeling killing Michael and the Wraith would end badly. For himself definitely, but for John as well.

Rodney looked up and jerked his chin towards the writing desk. "I watched it get written out," he said. "For the judges."

Ronon heaved a sigh of relief, let his sword drop back into place.

"Impossible," Michael spat. "I would have realized you were there."

Rodney looked up at him, sneer back in place. "I'm sure you'd like to think so. But do you know how to spot a chamaeleon-cloak? Wait, I can answer that. You can't, because you didn't."

Michael growled and the Wraith flung out a hand, grabbing his arm. "Easy, my dear. Don't let his bark get to you. It is all he has, after all." She looked thoughtfully at Rodney. "A simple chamaeleon-cloak was all you required to spy in these rooms?"

"I wouldn't say it was 'simple'," Rodney muttered, then quickly added, "I created a few modifications for the spell, stabilizing the base magic to minimize the sudden flash-outs and whatnot. Plus," he nodded towards the ceiling," I used the flying sandals to stay far above eye level. Even I couldn't prevent the tell-tale oddities of light and color, but who stares at the ceiling?"

"Clever," said the Wraith. She looked like she meant it. "Though this does lead to another question." The hand fondling John's hair tightened, pulling John's head up and back. "My dear pet assured me he knew of only one pair of flying sandals and not a day later you show up with a second pair." She stared down at John as he struggled to maintain his balance without grabbing her leg. "Why would he lie to me, I wonder?"

"He didn't lie!" Rodney cried out. "He didn't know about the second pair. I made them as backup but I didn't tell him because I was afraid of what he'd do if he knew there was another pair. He pushes the limits at the best of times. I was afraid if he knew he didn't have to be careful with his sandals he'd do something ridiculously stupid and end up killing himself. So I didn't tell him, he didn't know." Running out of breath, Rodney panted, staring at the Wraith like he could make her believe him if just concentrated hard enough.

Her eyes narrowed, but after a moment she nodded. "Believable," she said and released her grip on John. She looked up at Michael. "Do you have any questions, my dear?"

"I have two, my Lady," Michael said. He stared hard at Rodney, hand flexing by his side. He was still reaching for a sword that wasn't there, Ronon realized. "First, how did you free yourself from the bear?"

"The soldier is Satedan," Rodney said, still breathing heavily. "I attacked him. He cut me. It broke the spell."

"Of course," the Wraith murmured, "Satedan steel." She looked up at Michael. "I will take his sword as well as his heart. I've longed to learn the magic of the Satedan blade-makers. That was my one regret in wiping out that country." She smiled happily. "But now a Satedan sword falls into my hands. Keep a happy thought, and good things will happen." She looked at Rodney. "That's one of my guiding philosophies."

Rodney looked like he was fighting back several different replies. Finally he just nodded. Ronon gripped his sword hilt. He imagined slashing out at the Wraith woman, watching her head roll on the hearth rug. It helped.

"And my second question," said Michael, "where is Teyla?" He was going for mild curiosity, Ronon thought, if not indifference. But his eyes were too interested, his body too tense, to pull it off.

Which is probably why Rodney smiled rather grimly even as he answered. "Dead."

"You lie!" Michael snarled, mask of indifference forgotten as he started for Rodney.

John cried out, bucking up against the Wraith's hand, his face twisted with grief.

"Hold!" cried the Wraith, she flung one hand out, blocking Michael's progress, and pressed John's head down with the other. "Both of you, still yourselves!"

Michael obediently stopped, lips thinned with anger, but no longer moving towards Rodney. John kept flailing, breaking free from the Wraith. She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "Look at me. Look at me!" she demanded.

John looked at her, even as he tried to twist out of her grip. "I will kill the Athosian boy if you are not still," said the Wraith. John sucked in a surprised breath, and looked up at something behind Ronon.

Turning to follow his gaze, Ronon was startled to see Jinto, hanging high up near the ceiling in the corner between the bed and the writing desk. He was wrapped in what looked like an oversized cocoon, the color blending into the walls, only his head visible. His face was unnaturally pale, his eyes closed.

He looked back to find John huddled in on himself, still in the Wraith's grasp. "Good," she said. "Now apologize for your unruly behavior. And pet?" She caressed his face, then tilted his chin so John looked at her, once more. "Make it believable or I'll have you deliver the killing blow."

John squeezed his eyes shut, his jaw tightening. Then he opened his eyes, gazed up at the Wraith and said, "I apologize, my Lady. Please forgive me." His voice barely changed pitch but the Wraith seemed satisfied.

"Very well, pet, I do forgive you."

John managed a small smile. "Thank you, my Lady," he said, then settled his head on her knee, breathing out a sigh as he collapsed submissively against her leg. His face, turned away from the Wraith, was another story. His eyes were filled with rage and he glared at Rodney from beneath the Wraith's petting hand.

Rodney stared back wide-eyed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I tried to look after her, tried to –" he cut himself off, shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said finally.

"Sorry isn't good enough," Michael snarled and the Wraith lost her patience.

"Enough," she said, face cold. "All this excitement over the death of one renegade Athosian girl is unseemly, Michael, especially for you. And I will not have it."

Michael had started at the Wraith's use of his name. Now he looked at her, eyes wide with hurt. "My Lady," he said. "Please don't use that..." he trailed off under her glare.

"What?" asked the Wraith. "The name given you by these creatures?" She shook her head. "Well, when you behave so unlike a Wraith, what else shall I call you?" She made a sound of disgust and pushed John off her lap. "I am bored," she announced. "I would like to retire to my rooms."

Michael stepped forward, grabbed John by the arm and hauled him to his feet, out of the Wraith's way. "Of course, my Lady. Shall we do the question and answer now? Save you returning?"

The Wraith sighed. "Yes, let's get this silly formality over with." She rose to her feet and grabbed John's chin. "What are you thinking of, pet?"

John blinked at her, puzzled. "...thinking of?" he murmured.

"Yes, little one. Look at me and tell me what you are thinking of." The Wraith's voice was coaxing as she stared deeply into John's eyes.

"I think of ... I think of you, my Lady?" John said, finally. He sounded unsure.

"There you are, my pet. Your final question, and the obvious answer. One the Satedan will not think of." She looked at Michael. "Anything else?"

He shoved John towards the writing desk. "He needs to write out the answer for the judges." Michael glanced at Rodney. "Shall I kill the sorcerer?"

John stumbled on his way to the desk, looking back at Michael, but the Wraith was already shaking her head. "Not yet, I think. He amuses me."

Michael tensed. "He is dangerous, my Lady."

"You think his magic stronger than my own?" The question was mild, but there was a dangerous undertone that Michael did not miss.

"Of course not, my Lady. I meant only that he may cause trouble without you here to suppress him."

The Wraith patted Michael's arm. "Of course you did." She looked thoughtfully at Rodney. "But caution this close to victory is always a good idea." She sat back down in her chair. "Fetch me my mirror."

Michael bowed his head. "At once, my Lady," he said and left the room.

The Wraith stared at Rodney with a small smile, one hand smoothing her skirts. Rodney met her eyes once then flinched away, staring at the ground as he shifted, uncomfortable on his knees. The scrapping thud of a burning log settling in the fireplace, the scratch of John's quill across the paper, were the only sounds.

Finally, Michael returned with an ornately decorated, silver hand-mirror. He handed it to the Wraith and she gazed into it. "Now, how many shall I use?" she asked, absently fixing her hair. She looked at Rodney, and her smile grew playful. "How clever are you, I wonder? Would three be too many? How disappointing if you couldn't handle three." She looked back at the mirror, made a small motion across its face.

Ronon was just beginning to slip past Rodney, move to where he could see what the Wraith was so enthralled with, when the Wraith put the mirror down on her lap. "There," she said, then beckoned at Rodney. "Come here, little one. No, stay on your knees."

Rodney shuffled forward. He looked worried.

"Now," the Wraith held the mirror up, "what do you see?"

Rodney licked his lips, stared into the mirror. Ronon crouched down behind him, peering into the mirror himself. At first it held only the reflection of Rodney's worried face, oddly blurred. But then the blur coalesced into a scene. Not a clear one, more like looking through running water. But Ronon could make out a street corner. Atlantis, going by the buildings.

The fog had thinned and Ronon could see a few distant figures hurrying down the street, clothing ruffled by a strong wind. There was another, much closer, figure; unmoving and almost blending into the building behind it. It looked familiar somehow. Ronon frowned, leaned a little closer, wishing he could nudge Rodney aside without panicking the man. The figure shifted, turning slightly, and Ronon could finally make out the cloth face-shield, the dingy, straw hat.

"No!" Rodney cried. "Please, you can't –"

"That's one," the Wraith said, speaking over Rodney. The image in the mirror blurred, reformed onto a different scene, a wide bridge crossing a grand canal, a plague-carrier looking down at the swift current. "Two," said the Wraith. The mirror blurred and now they were inside what looked like a large trading hall, only half-filled with goods and people, but still bustling. A plague-carrier stood, unnoticed, by one of the central stalls. "And three."

Rodney stared up at her, face slack with horror. "You don't have to do this, I'm not going to –"

"Not now, of course," the Wraith said. "Not while I'm right here in front of you. I give you credit for that much intelligence, at least." She smiled fondly, patted Rodney's cheek. "But you've got a busy little mind, don't you? And as soon as I'm gone that busy little mind will turn towards defying me." She stroked her hand through his hair. "You can't help it, little one, I know that. It's in your nature. But I shall use it to save you from yourself. Here." She held the mirror out, then looked up, visibly amused. "Michael? His hands."

Michael came up behind them, and Ronon barely moved aside in time. As Michael cut the bindings around Rodney's wrists, Ronon realized John had been moved from the desk to the bed, positioned for the iratus-web blanket. The parchment was gone as well; folded and sealed and in Michael's pocket, no doubt. Michael had done all that and Ronon had missed it. Backing into the corner between the balcony windows and the fireplace, Ronon deliberately kept Rodney between himself and a view of the mirror. He needed to stay fully alert.

The Wraith pushed the mirror into Rodney's hands. "Can you feel it, little one? How much they want to separate, to spread themselves across the city?" Rodney stared into the mirror, eyes wide. "Now," her fingers twitched as she released the mirror, "the responsibility is yours. Can you figure out how to keep them – ah, there you go." Rodney was frowning now, concentrating as he brushed his fingers across the mirror. "The mirror connects you to them, and with it you can keep them from their purpose. But only while you can see them, so you'll need to check on each one –"

"Yes, yes, I've got it, thank you," Rodney snapped. His shoulders stiffened, twitched. "How do you switch to see...? Oh. Okay, that's straightforward enough. Wait, I just did you. Didn't I? Oh, I see, this part's not so straightforward." He hunched forward, focused on the project in front of him. "There's got to be a pattern," he muttered.

The Wraith laughed, delighted. "Perhaps you will find one. I've not been able to." She stroked Rodney's hair one more time, then stood. "I'll leave you to juggle those three. If you do drop one, try and choose carefully. Perhaps only a section of the city will be lost." Rodney ignored her, focused completely on the mirror.

"Will that be enough?" Michael asked, shaking out his hands. He'd just finished covering John with the iratus-web blanket.

"Oh, you are a worrier, aren't you?" the Wraith asked, but her smile was fond. She crossed to the room's closet, and came out with a bundle of fabric. More of the iratus-web, was Ronon's guess. Confirmed when the Wraith flung an end of it towards Rodney. In a blur of motion the fabric encircled him, tugging him to his feet and cocooning him from the chest down, leaving his arms free. Rodney didn't look up from the mirror. With a final gesture from the Wraith, the cocoon splatted high up in the corner, just above Ronon's ducking head. Rodney grunted when he hit the wall, but his focus remained with the mirror.

"There," the Wraith said. "All of our pets tucked up safely for the night. And," she held up a finger, smiled at Michael, "I shall send in one of my guards to keep personal watch while the palace slumbers. Will that suffice?"

Michael smiled back at her, bowed his head. "I am certain it will, my Lady."

"Good." The Wraith tucked her hand into the crook of Michael's arm. "It will be interesting to see if he survives the night with his mind intact. Time only strengthens their need to fulfill their purpose."

Michael paused at that. "If he drops one, will we –"

"Dear little worrier," the Wraith said fondly. "Your research has confirmed it. The shield will rise the moment the palace is endangered. Their queen may receive an uncomfortable jolt," she waved a dismissive hand, "but with her city dying around her she will sacrifice everything to provide them sanctuary." The Wraith smiled. "She will drain herself trying to protect them and will instead protect us. So, we are perfectly safe."

They left the bedroom and Ronon followed them. "I think you should wear your proper uniform," the Wraith said. "The time for disguises is past, don't you think?"

"I long to dress more suitably," Michael said and the Wraith beamed.

"I do hope my poor iratus has been found," she said, as Michael opened the door to the hallway. "Things will get misplaced in moves, but if she was truly left behind and has to make her way through the woods to me, it will take weeks to coax her back into a good mood." She glanced at the Drones guarding the door. "And if anything disturbs my pets, I will use all of you for the coaxing."

One of the Drones immediately left his post and headed into the bedroom. With a smirk, Michael shut the door and Ronon was left alone in the flickering light of the dying fire. He wanted to pace, but the bedroom door stood open and Ronon wouldn't risk a creaking floorboard. Not with an alert Drone in the next room. It was growing dark outside, speeded by the thick fog that still clung to the sitting room window.

Ronon shook his head. He was wasting time. There was no way to rescue Rodney or Jinto and he knew it. Getting out of these Drone-guarded rooms was his task now. Get out and return to Teyla, empty handed. A thought struck him. Ronon studied the walls, scanning for a barely noticeable outline ... there. An entrance to the servants corridor. Carefully, gently, Ronon pushed against the concealed door. There was a soft click and the door swung open. Ronon froze, listening. All was quiet.

He slipped into the corridor, carefully closed the door behind him. Then he was running down the dim corridor, down the narrow stairs. No one was in the kitchens, no one in the wine cellar. A lamp hung just inside the secret stairwell, but there was no sign of Teyla.

Fear snapped at his heels as he ran down this next set of stairs. If Teyla had gone after them, if she disturbed Rodney, broke his concentration... Ronon exploded out of the stairwell and into the base camp. He startled the young soldier standing watch, but unclasped the bearskin cloak before the boy could cry out an alarm.

"Teyla?" Ronon asked.

"She's with Maj. Lorne, sir." The soldier blushed a little and cleared his throat. "If you'd follow me, sir?"

Ronon could barely keep himself to the young soldier's pace, brisk though it was, as they crossed the large hall. The boy picked up on his impatience, stammering out Ronon's name when they arrived at the small room where Teyla and Maj. Lorne waited, fleeing as soon as Maj. Lorne gave him leave. The room had been made into a make-shift living quarters. The major's, going by the officer's coat hanging near the cot, and the requisition papers stacked neatly on the desk. Teyla stood up as soon as Ronon entered, face drawn with worry.

"They're alive," Ronon said, and Teyla breathed a barely perceptible sigh. "But there are plague-carriers in Atlantis."

Teyla blanched and Maj. Lorne leaned forward. "You mean those things that attacked Sateda?" he asked.

Ronon nodded, but didn't look away from Teyla. "She's using them to hold Rodney hostage. He has to keep them from dissolving and spreading their disease."

Teyla reached for the bearskin cloak Ronon held over one arm. "I need to go to him," she said. "He shouldn't be alone."

But Maj. Lorne was standing up, shaking his head. "Wait a minute. Let's hear exactly what Ronon witnessed."

For a moment, Teyla looked like she was going to argue, but then she shook her head and sat back down. Maj. Lorne offered Ronon his chair, but Ronon was too agitated to sit. Not that standing was much of an improvement. The room was too small to pace. Fortunately, Maj. Lorne was experienced at debriefings. He asked good questions, and didn't force Ronon to repeat himself.

"So the safety of the entire population of Atlantis hinges on Rodney's ability to keep those things inactive," Maj. Lorne summed up.

"Rodney will hold them," Teyla said. "Even if he loses himself in the effort." She grimaced. "And we cannot help him. We cannot create any disturbance that may reach the Wraith woman, and apparently her reach encompasses the city."

"I could kill her," Ronon offered. "Or the plague-carriers." Teyla was already shaking her head, so he hurried on. "Rodney said my blades were powerful. He said Satedan steel can cut through any kind of magic. My grandfather is one of the best blade-makers in generations. And he's always said my mother was his best student. If anyone could make weapons capable of cutting down –"

"Ronon." The gentleness of Teyla's voice brought him up short and Ronon found himself having to take a deep breath to keep from embarrassing himself in front of the major. He'd been using the wrong tense. He sat down heavily on the room's sleeping cot, forced himself to be still.

"Your blades are powerful," Teyla said, "and the deep connection between their makers and you make them even more powerful. Rodney suspects that is what kept you alive when all around you fell to the plague. But to strike down the plague-carriers themselves..." Teyla spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness. "They don't have a true core, or a true life. There's nothing in them to strike. It would be like ... hacking at a bog. Sticking a sword into a swamp doesn't hurt the swamp."

Ronon looked at her. "Then I kill the Wraith woman," he said. "She's flesh and blood. Stick a sword in her and she'd feel it."

Teyla shook her head. "Not yet. Not while she still holds John." Ronon closed his eyes and then felt her hand on his arm. "Just a few more hours, Ronon. Less than a day."

Ronon pulled in a breath, opened his eyes, looked at Teyla, nodded.

"Will killing her even effect the plague-carriers?" Maj. Lorne asked.

Teyla grimaced. "I do not know. Rodney had a few different theories, but they contradicted each other. Her death could nullify the plague-carriers, or it could set them in unstoppable motion."

"Wonderful." Maj. Lorne sighed, leaned back in his chair. "So if we act it could all end in catastrophe. And if we don't act it could all end in catastrophe."

Ronon stood up, headed for the door.

"Ronon –" Teyla began, but Ronon didn't let her finish.

"I'm not going to kill her. Yet. Someone needs to watch Rodney's back," he said.

"I agree," Teyla said. She stood up as well. Then slipped between him and the door. "However, it cannot be you." He opened his mouth but she spoke over him. "You are John's best hope and you cannot be risked. I will go."

"But your leg –"

"Marie has bound my wound. And I have fought Wraith with worse injuries." Teyla had a sympathetic smile, but her eyes were iron. "I will go." She took the bearskin cloak from him.

After she'd left, only a slight limp marking her injured leg, Maj. Lorne had dinner delivered to his quarters. Ronon ate mechanically, answered the questions Maj. Lorne asked, tried not to think about the plague-carriers waiting in the streets above his head, or Rodney and Teyla risking themselves while he ate dinner in safety.

"Now I'm even more glad I didn't shoot you," Maj. Lorne said, pushing to his feet. "No, keep your seat," he told Ronon. "In fact, feel free to use the cot." He grabbed his coat off the wall. "You've given me a lot to work with here. And I'm betting you could use the sleep."

"So you're going for, 'act'." Ronon said.

"I'm preparing for action," Maj. Lorne said. Then he grinned. "Easier than doing nothing."

The cot was rickety and, unsurprisingly, not quite long enough. Ronon forced himself to lie down, anyway. Shut his eyes. Opened them. It was cold. There was an extra blanket on the footlocker. It wasn't that thick, but it kept out the damp. Ronon shifted carefully, closed his eyes again. His sword was digging into his side. He sat up, leaned his sword against the wall. Wondered if just having it nearby would give him the same protection that saved him in Sateda. Kept him safe and alive while everyone around him died. Forced himself to close his eyes and this time, stubbornly kept them closed.

He was back in Sateda, back in the barracks. Familiar snores surrounded him and he floated in that half state between awake and sleep, content. Almost. Something wasn't right. It niggled at him. Ronon turned his head, cracked his eyes open. His bunkmates were on fire. Flames tangled in their hair, tugged at their bedding. They didn't move, though. Just stared at him, eyes filled with bleak accusation as they burned. He tried to move, get up and help. But his bed was ice and he was frozen to it, forced to watch helplessly as his unit burned.

A strangled gasp, and Ronon was awake. Awake and in Maj. Lorne's quarters, blanket tangled around his legs and trailing onto the floor. His sword was right there, propped against the wall by his head. The room was dim, light seeping in under the door. It was impossible to tell the time. But Ronon thought he'd been lying here for a good while. His eyes felt gummy and hot and his body was stiff, like he'd held it still for too long. He got up.

They were serving breakfast. Grabbing a bowl of porridge and a large mug of strong tea, Ronon settled at the end of one of the long tables, away from where sleepy diners gathered into informal groups. A few people glanced at him but most, like him, focused on their food. No one tried to join him.

"We've got a plan." Maj. Lorne thumped his breakfast tray down across from Ronon. He looked almost cheerful. "Want to hear it?"

It wasn't a bad plan. Pretty straightforward, in fact. Which Ronon liked.

"Our biggest worry is the timing," Maj. Lorne said. "Too soon and it's all a waste, too late and," he chuckled, "it's all a waste."

Ronon shook his head. "Timing's not that important. Once it begins, it's on. I'll take care of things from my end. You concentrate on the Drones."

 

The false trail Ronon had left pointed towards the palace grounds. So that's where he allowed the Drones to find him. The fog was gone, leaving chilly blue sky behind. Outside the craggy rock, the birches sparkled in the crisp sun, sheathed in a thin coat of ice. Frost-white grass crunched under Ronon's feet and his breath puffed out in pale plumes. He was just beginning to miss his coat when two Drones arrived.

They took his sword and marched him to the palace. Radek was waiting just inside the kitchen door. He looked worried, his hair more wild than usual. But he didn't say anything. Just walked beside Ronon, casting nervous glances back at the Drones as they went.

More Drones waited at the solarium doors. Three on one side, two on the other, standing at attention, swords drawn and ready to attack. They didn't move as Ronon and Radek passed between them. Not even to watch their passage.

The solarium was filled with light and warmth. The curtains had been pulled back. Ice-sheathed, like the trees they hung from, the withered corpses of failed suitors glittered in the sunshine. Framed against them, the Wraith woman waited. She wore a gown of icy-blue, blue jewels gleaming in her elaborately curled hair. She smiled at Ronon, pale eyes warm with welcome.

Michael, a shadow beside her, smiled with victory. He wore the armor of a Wraith warrior: plates of blue-black over a sickly yellow tunic. Echoing an iratus, Ronon realized. Even his sword curved like one of their fangs. On her other side, white uniform rumpled and face unshaven, John stared at Ronon with almost naked yearning.

Kneeling beside John, eyes blood-shot and wide, Rodney stared down into his mirror, rocking back and forth as his hands moved across the mirror's face. He didn't look up. Not when Ronon stopped a few feet from the Wraith woman, not when Radek shut the solarium doors with an echoing bang.

Radek stared at Rodney as he crossed the room to stand by Queen Elizabeth in her grieving gray. All of the courtiers huddled around her stared at Rodney, faces etched with worry. Queen Elizabeth, however, stared at the Wraith woman. She looked furious. If she could flay the flesh from the Wraith woman's bones, she would have, Ronon thought.

The Wraith breathed in, opening her mouth to speak – a sound, like a swift volley of hail, rattled against the solarium doors. So, Maj. Lorne had chosen to act. He was a bit early, but Ronon was good at improvising.

Michael was stepping forward, his sword already loose in its scabbard. Ronon moved in concert with him, slipping around Michael to reach the Wraith woman before Michael realized what he was doing. His skinning knife, tucked inside his wrist sheath, fell into his hand as he wrapped his other arm around the Wraith woman's waist, pinning her arms to her sides and pulling her back against him. He pressed his naked blade against her throat, felt it flutter beneath his knife.

"Not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet," Rodney said, voice cracked and broken. He stared into his mirror.

"You are a fool," the Wraith woman said. He could feel her arms flexing as she tried to break his hold.

"Wait, that's too many!" Rodney cried out. "Too many, I can't hold them! Not all of them!'' His hands flew.

Ronon gritted his teeth, looked at John. "Ask," he said.

John's eyes were wide. He startled a little, licked his bottom lip. "What am I thinking of?"

One of the doors slid open. A Drone, arrows sprouting from his torso like porcupine quills, stumbled backwards, sword still raised. Michael, lips pulled back in a helpless snarl, stared at the Wraith woman trapped in Ronon's arms. John was so focused on Ronon he quivered.

Ronon spoke quietly, gently. "You think of your Lady." He felt her draw a breath. "And now you are free of her."

A simple motion and the Wraith's blood sprayed wide, hitting John from chest to hair. John sighed, shoulders visibly relaxing. His eyes, reflexively closed, opened, startling pale against the red of her blood. John smiled. "I am yours."

Chapter Text

The Wraith woman was heavy in Ronon's arms, and getting heavier. Michael stared at her, sword drooping by his side, face sagging with disbelief. John stared at Ronon, ignoring the blood masking his face, ignoring the corpse Ronon held, ignoring everything. He was too close to Michael, well within sword's reach.

"Too many, too many, too many," Rodney chanted beneath his breath, his hands darting across the mirror. Ronon had to force himself to forget about Rodney, forget about Rodney's task. He had his own burden to carry.

"Behind me," Ronon said, stepping forward. John flowed obediently into the narrow space between Ronon and the solarium windows.

The other door slammed opened and Drones poured backwards into the solarium. Their swords flashed faster then eyes could follow, beating back a volley of arrows from the hallway. The first Drone, quilled with arrows, began to collapse. Michael's face tightened into focused fury.

Acutely aware of his empty sword belt, Ronon thrust the Wraith's body at Michael, forcing him to either sidestep the corpse or catch her.

Michael reached out with his free arm and Ronon ran past him, towards the falling Drone and his loosely grasped sword. John ran with him, a faithful shadow at his heels. Ronon reached for the Drone's weapon. A flicker of color and a sword, still in its scabbard was flying through the air, towards Ronon. Behind him, someone – Queen Elizabeth? – was calling out a warning.

Ronon reached up, grabbed the sword, realizing it was his own blade even as he used the momentum to spin around. Michael, free of the Wraith, had remembered his sword and was slashing it down towards John's unprotected back. John, whose sole focus was Ronon. Ronon flung himself forward, knocking John out of the way, and used his scabbarded sword to block Michael's hit. John tripped, stumbled to the ground and suddenly Queen Elizabeth, Radek, a handful of courtiers were there, grabbing John and pulling him back against the wall.

"Stay with them!" Ronon shouted, hoping John heard his order, hoping he wasn't going to struggle free to join Ronon on the battleground. Ronon slashed out with his skinning knife, forcing Michael to jump back, giving Ronon time to jerk his sword free from its now broken scabbard.

"Everyone in this room will die." Michael's voice was thick with rage and hate. But he spoke with conviction and the back of Ronon's neck prickled. There were Drones behind him. Too many. He could hear some strain to slide the solarium doors shut against Maj. Lorne's people, could hear others shift as they turned their attention from the hallway to the room.

Michael glanced past Ronon, lips curling into a vindictive smile. His smile slackened, he gasped, "You're dead!" The words stuttered from him, like he'd been kicked in the gut.

Ronon risked a quick look behind him. Teyla stood between him and the Drones, her bantos rods blurring with the speed of her defense. The bearskin cloak was pooled at her feet. She sent one Drone crashing to his knees, but another had his sword raised for a killing blow. Ronon flipped his hold on his skinning knife, pulled back for a throw. A paralyzing cry, bone-shaking in its depth, rang through the room. The Drones had finally noticed the dead Wraith woman, sprawled like a broken doll in the glittering sunlight.

"The assassin still lives!" Michael pointed his sword towards Ronon. "His weapon is still wet with her blood!"

Teyla, the struggle over the doorway, all were forgotten. The Drones swarmed Ronon. He threw his skinning knife at them, gripped his sword with two hands. They were on him. He beat them back, sword flashing faster than thought. Relied on years of training, centuries-old technique etched into muscle memory, to keep him standing, keep him alive. A Drone fell. Another took his place.

They fought as a unit. Ronon wasn't going to win. He tripped, a Drone corpse appearing under his feet. He'd been herded, deliberately and uncaring of members sacrificed, towards that fall. Ronon rolled, felt the wind of Drone swords barely missing their mark. He smiled, felt it stretch into a wild grin. So he'd die. But he'd die surrounded by enemy dead. Show them the price of a Satedan death.

An arrowhead bloomed from the throat of the Drone above him. As the Drone began to fall, Ronon sprang to his feet. Three Drones surrounded him. He lashed out at them, but they were already falling. Behind them, soldiers in the dark uniforms of Atlantis stood panting, their swords red with blood.

"Couldn't let you have all the fun." Maj. Lorne's eyes glittered, still riding the high of battle.

The solarium was filled with the Atlantis military. A line, bristling with weapons, stood between Queen Elizabeth and the room. Others stooped over the fallen Drones, pulling off face masks and verifying deaths.

"How many you bringing?" Ronon had asked.

Maj. Lorne smiled. "Fair fights are for schoolyards. I'm bringing everybody."

Ronon gulped back air, muscles still twitching, still ready to fight. John stood apart from the huddle of courtiers, staring at Ronon from behind the jostling line of soldiers.

"Rodney?" That was Teyla. Ronon followed her panicked voice, pushing through dark uniforms. Teyla stood over Michael's broken body, but she was looking at the figure crumpled against the solarium windows. Her bantos rods fell with a clatter and she dropped to one knee, grabbing Rodney's shoulder just as Ronon reached them.

One side of Rodney's face was caked with blood. But before the sick feeling in Ronon's gut could climb any higher, he blinked up at Teyla with his one clear eye. "Wow," he said. "You were... I mean that was..." He saw Ronon and managed a crooked smile. "Did you see her? She was like something out of a storybook."

"Rodney, you are hurt." Teyla reached out with gentle hands, searching for the wound.

"Oh." Rodney winced, sucked in a pained gasp. "Yes, yes I am."

Ronon realized something and his gut tightened. "Where's the mirror?"

Rodney pushed himself into more of a sitting position. The silver hand-mirror was cradled against his chest. "I think we're okay," he said, wincing as he moved. "The feeling at the end there..." He looked into the mirror, then frowned. There was a large crack bisecting the front of it and the surface was a dull black. "Um. Maybe that's a good thing?"

Ronon growled with frustration. He shoved his sword at Teyla, grabbed one of Rodney's hands and wrapped it around Teyla's, making sure they both gripped the sword's hilt. "Hold onto this, I'm going out to check."

"Wait," Rodney called out. "Ronon! It doesn't work that way!"

Ronon ignored him. Pushed through the crowd of dark uniforms towards the open doors of the solarium. The hallway was nearly empty. A medic, black hair pulled back in a sloppy bun, was sewing up a nasty arm-wound. Her patient had one arm flung over his face, lips tight with pain. She glanced up at Ronon, "Is it over?"

"In there it is," he said.

She began to smile and then her eyes widened. "Col. Sheppard?"

Ronon glanced over his shoulder. John stood behind him, awkwardly staring at the floor, as if he'd hoped to go unnoticed. Still covered in the Wraith woman's drying blood, he made a gruesome sight.

The medic, thread still connecting her needle to the soldier's arm, reached out towards John with her free hand. "Come here, let me see where you're injured."

John looked at Ronon, eyes going wide with panic. Ronon hesitated. John would hate it, but it'd be safer for him to stay here. A lot safer than following Ronon into a possibly plague-ridden city. He was about to tell John as much when a soldier came running up the hallway. He had the focused look of a messenger. Ronon grabbed his arm as he passed. "What's the news."

The boy gaped at him and Ronon realized he knew him. He'd been on watch by the secret stairwell last night. The boy glanced towards the solarium. "The plague-carriers are gone, sir. They melted. They're just piles of mud now."

Ronon tensed and the boy winced. "Melted?" Ronon asked. "Were there dust clouds? People coughing?"

"Dust clouds? No, sir. Just mud piles. And no one reported any coughing." The boy pulled a little on Ronon's grasp. "I need to report to Maj. Lorne, sir."

Ronon let him go. Felt a little guilty when the boy rubbed his arm as he slipped into the solarium.

"Then it really is over." The medic was smiling, a beautiful wide smile. "We're finally home." The soldier under her care closed his eyes, sucked in a breath. He was biting his lip now. This time though, Ronon doubted it had anything to do with his sliced-up arm.

In the solarium, a cheer broke out. Sgt. Mehra, her quiver empty, a bloodied sword hanging loose in her hand, swept up a courtier with her free arm. "God, Alison, I thought you were dead," she said, her voice floating into the hallway. "I thought you were dead."

The medic was staring longingly into the solarium, but she blinked and shook herself and began applying a bandage to her patient's wound. "Colonel," she said with careful briskness, "come here and let me get a look at your injury."

John either ignored her or didn't realize she was talking to him. He was staring, almost shyly, at Ronon. Though he quickly dropped his gaze to the floor when Ronon looked at him. Ronon sighed. "The blood's not his," he told the medic. "Go join the others. I'll take the Colonel to his quarters, get him cleaned up."

Climbing the stairs, finally free of onlookers, Ronon glanced over at John. "You okay?"

John looked at him, smiled. "I am yours."

Yeah. That was going to be a problem.

 

John's rooms were empty, two open and gaping cocoons hanging in opposite corners of his bedroom the only sign of its recent occupation. John followed Ronon into the bathing room, but he wouldn't do anything for himself, just held the wet cloth when Ronon handed it to him. So Ronon stripped off John's blood-soaked jacket and washed the worst of the gore off of his face.

"That'll do for now," Ronon said, throwing the cloth into the wash basin. "Hopefully Rodney's figured out how to wake you up."

John smiled at him, eyes as wide and guileless as a child's.

Ronon had finished building up the fire in the sitting room, was just beginning to worry that he'd have nothing left to do, when the door creaked open and Teyla and Rodney came in. They both looked exhausted and battle-stained and Rodney had a bandage high up on his forehead. Ronon was glad to see them both.

"You are a complete and total idiot," Rodney said. He held out Ronon's sword, sheathed now in its broken scabbard. "What could you possibly have been thinking, leaving your protection behind and charging out to confront the plague-carriers?"

Ronon smiled at him, took the offered sword.

"And why didn't you mention that Hol Ronon is your grandfather? Yes, I noticed his mark. That you carry a sword crafted by the finest blade-maker in, oh, a century might have been pertinent information to have."

Now Ronon was grinning. He shrugged. "Used to people knowing, I guess," he said.

Rodney snorted, but a smile was twitching behind his frown even as he collapsed onto the couch.

Teyla was holding back laughter as well as she held out Ronon's skinning knife. "I appreciated the gesture," she said as Ronon took the knife from her, "but in the future something a little less suicidal will do."

Ronon rocked back a little at that. "Wasn't really thinking of it as suicide," he said. Which was the truth. He hadn't been thinking about his own life at all.

"That's not actually comforting," Rodney announced. "Believe me, one mindless risk-taker in my life is more than enough." He shifted over, making room for Teyla to sit, but he was looking at John.

John had shrunk behind Ronon as soon as Teyla and Rodney arrived. Now he shifted a little, using Ronon to shield him from Rodney and Teyla's view.

Rodney frowned. "Well, he's not catatonic, I suppose that's something." He looked at Ronon. "I was a little preoccupied at the time, but he asked and you answered, right? The ownership spell was successfully transferred?"

"Yeah." Ronon grimaced. "You can fix that, right?"

"Of course. I'm sure of it. I mean, there are a few details left to fiddle with, but I'm quite certain I've got the basic formula figured out."

Teyla grabbed Rodney's hand, stopping him from fidgeting with his bandage. "You'll have all the resources of Atlantis at your disposal. I am confident you can do it."

Rodney blinked at her, expression caught between surprised and pleased. "Oh, well. Of course. I mean, I've never doubted –"

There was a light rap on the door and Teyla and Rodney twisted to look over the back of the couch. Queen Elizabeth stood in the open doorway, Radek and Maj. Lorne beside her. "May we come in?" she asked.

"Of course," said Teyla, smiling warmly as she stood up. "In fact, Rodney could use Radek's assistance." She glanced over at Rodney, eyes dancing with stifled laughter.

"Mm, assistance is a strong word." Rodney tried for a repressive frown as he pushed himself to his feet, but he couldn't hold back a smile. "Though a second set of eyes, even yours, wouldn't hurt."

"Ah, yes, the damning praise. What does it say about me that I missed it?" Radek shook his head, but he was smiling as well. He and Rodney retreated to a corner, heads bent closely together, their conversation diving into such thick magic it was like they were speaking in code.

Teyla and Queen Elizabeth watched them with fond smiles. Maj. Lorne seemed amused as well, but also a little confused. He looked at Teyla. "What's so urgent? Something Michael left behind?"

Teyla glanced towards John, now standing fully behind Ronon, one hand tightly gripping Ronon's sword belt. "That's certainly one way to describe it," Teyla said. She sank back down onto the couch, Queen Elizabeth and Maj. Lorne following her lead. Ronon stayed standing. John seemed dependent on having him as a barrier and it felt cruel to take that away.

"The Wraith entangled John in an ownership enchantment. He fought it." Teyla smiled with fierce pride. "Fought it more successfully than I'd have ever expected. But in transferring to Ronon, the enchantment seems to have gripped John much more tightly. Perhaps because he fought so strongly."

"Like when you pull on a rope with all your might and it suddenly breaks?" Queen Elizabeth asked.

"Something very like that, yes," Teyla said. "By pulling so hard against the Wraith's grip John propelled himself, unresisting, into Ronon's." Ronon shifted uncomfortably and Teyla glanced at him, sighed. "That John resisted enough to lie to her ... Rodney and I wondered if this would be the result."

"But, wasn't the entire point of the contest to free the Colonel from Michael? Or the Wraith or whomever?" Maj. Lorne looked frustrated.

Queen Elizabeth shook her head. "The contest was never for John's freedom. He was a prize to be won, nothing more."

Maj. Lorne glanced at Ronon, eyes narrowing and Ronon's guilt stabbed deeper. "I wasn't trying –" Ronon began to say.

"No, no I didn't think you were," Maj. Lorne said "I'm just thinking of everyone who died trying to free him. It seems like an especially cruel joke." He sighed, looked at Teyla. "How badly does this complicate things?"

"Our hope is that it won't matter," Teyla said. "The willingness of the," she grimaced a little, "owner is the issue. With Ronon's help, we should be able to break the –"

"Yes, but without the proper components this is impossible!" Everyone turned at the outburst. Radek was glaring at Rodney.

Rodney glared back. "Of course it is! That's why getting the iratus was such a coup!"

Radek blinked at him, mouth opening and closing. "You have an iratus?"

"Yes, of course. I told you that."

Radek rubbed his forehead, sighed wearily. "No, Rodney you did not." He ran his hand through his hair, standing it even more on end. "It does not matter. The important thing is, yes. If we have a supply of iratus venom it can be done."

"You're talking about a way to free John completely?" Queen Elizabeth asked.

Rodney looked at her, confused. "What else would we be talking about?"

Queen Elizabeth raised one eyebrow, obviously fighting a smile. She straightened, managed to school her expression. "How quickly, gentlemen?"

"Two –"

"Twelve –"

Rodney frowned. "Three."

Radek frowned back at him. "Six."

"Wait, you're dropping from twelve to six? You've grown soft, Radek." Rodney looked at Queen Elizabeth. "Four hours. Tops."

"Probably more like five. If we push," said Radek. He shoved his glasses back into place and ignored Rodney's glare.

Queen Elizabeth's eyes had widened in surprise. "You mean, this will all be done today?"

Ronon was a little shocked himself. It seemed too easy and too fast. He'd expected more effort. More time.

Rodney, though, looked a bit smug. "Too soon?" he asked. "Because I can drag it out if you'd like."

Queen Elizabeth's eyes were still wide, but she was beginning to smile. "No, Rodney, that's wonderful." Then she took a good look at him and her smile faded. "But you must be exhausted. Maj. Lorne told me –"

"I can do it," Rodney said, his smugness swiftly replaced by urgency. "I have to do it." Queen Elizabeth opened her mouth and Rodney began talking faster. "I'm tired, yes, but I've worked with less sleep before. I've already worked out the basics and Radek will check my work, make sure I'm not mucking up the formula. But it has to be today, Elizabeth, it has to."

Queen Elizabeth held up a hand and Rodney visibly forced himself to stop talking. "Okay, Rodney, okay," she said, her voice gentle. "I believe you. But if you could explain why it has to be done today?"

Rodney was fiddling with his bandage again. He glanced at Teyla, shoved his hands into his pockets. "It's such a strong enchantment to begin with, and it's already sunk so deeply into John. That the transfer made it stronger..." He gave an awkward shrug, obviously missing having his hands to gesture with, "I'd like to avoid time adding to its strength."

"What can we do to help?" Queen Elizabeth asked.

Rodney let out a breath, tension leeching out of his shoulders, and gave Queen Elizabeth a grateful smile. "Let me give the disenchantment my undivided attention," he said. "I can't concentrate on it and figure out what Michael was doing to the boundary walls and worry about the plague-carrier mud."

"I have people cordoning off the mud piles as we speak," Maj. Lorne said.

"Good, good," Rodney said. "Have Simpson help. She's got experience with toxic magic. Tell her to use my bell-shield powder as an extra precaution." With a nod to Queen Elizabeth, Maj. Lorne headed out and Rodney turned his attention to Radek. "We should put Grodin on the boundary walls mystery. He's got a decent grasp of the ancient city's– What?"

Radek was shaking his head. "Peter Grodin was lost in the second wave of questioners," he said quietly. "Perhaps Alison Porter?"

Rodney swallowed. "Oh. Yes. Porter. Um..." He trailed off, blinking rapidly.

Queen Elizabeth put a hand on his arm. "I'll speak to Alison," she said. She moved towards the doorway and Rodney walked with her. "You and Radek concentrate on breaking that enchantment. We'll meet back here in... six hours?"

"Five," said Rodney.

Radek and Teyla followed them out, shutting the door behind them.

As soon as they were alone, John settled into a chair by the fire. Sprawled and relaxed, he kept a heavy-lidded watch on Ronon. Too agitated to sit, Ronon paced, feeling John's gaze like a weight on his shoulders. When John finally drifted into sleep, Ronon grabbed a book from the bookshelf and tried to will himself calm. It didn't work. Sunlight crept halfway across the room and Ronon realized he hadn't read a single line. A gentle knock on the door, Teyla returned, was a welcomed sound.

She'd visited Halling and brought back a basket of food. A bribe John accepted, sitting a careful distance from Teyla, but with less suspicion in his eyes. Teyla talked as John and Ronon ate, Ronon grateful for the excuse to stay silent. Jinto was doing well, his memories of his ordeal mercifully fuzzy. Word that Michael had actually been a Wraith in disguise was spreading rapidly through the city. Teyla had overheard two separate diners tell Halling they'd always suspected it.

Shadows followed the retreating sunlight and Teyla lit the lamps. She was just adjusting the brightness of one when a knock sounded loudly at the door. John looked at Ronon, eyes widening. As if John's panic were catching, Ronon realized he was bracing for an attack, moving to John's side, on the edge of drawing his sword. He felt a little foolish when Teyla opened the door and two soldiers lugged a large, copper bathtub into the room.

Moving with a deliberateness that spoke of precise orders, they cleared away the furniture in front of the fireplace and rolled up the hearth rug. Once the space was clear and the tub positioned, they carried water in from the bathing room and filled the tub halfway. John watched them as carefully as they ignored him. He'd moved towards the windows when they approached the fireplace, eyes narrow with distrust. Ronon stayed between the soldiers and John, but John didn't relax his watchfulness until the soldiers left.

Queen Elizabeth and Maj. Lorne arrived shortly thereafter and John watched them just as carefully as he'd watched the soldiers. They both looked calm enough, though Queen Elizabeth was worrying her signet ring. Teyla put a comforting hand on her arm. "I am sure Rodney will successfully break the spell," she said to Queen Elizabeth. "He's been working on a solution from the moment we learned of John's enchantment."

Queen Elizabeth's expression softened into a smile and she replied, "I have utmost faith in him."

"Of course you do." Rodney bustled into the room, a small, copper vial held gingerly in one hand. "And, as expected, I have delivered. Is that the bathtub? Oh good, they filled it correctly."

"You were very explicit," Radek said, following in his wake and giving Queen Elizabeth a wry smile. "It would be more surprising if it was not done correctly."

"Yes, yes." Rodney waved his free hand dismissively. "Ronon, I need John over here. Everyone else, stand back."

John didn't want to leave his spot by the window and he looked at Ronon with disappointment that deepened into suspicion as Ronon tugged him towards the bathtub.

"So, when I give you the go ahead, you need to plunge John into the water." Rodney emphasized his words with the hand not holding the vial, thrusting his fist aggressively forward.

John didn't like that. He shifted away from Ronon, looked furtively around the room. Ronon tightened his grip and John scowled at him. Ronon felt a flash of guilt, pushed it away.

"He'll need to be fully submerged," Rodney continued, not noticing the silent interplay beside him. "Let him push up out of the water, then submerge him again. After the third dunking, the enchantment will break and it'll be over. Easy!" He smiled almost too brightly, eyed the vial, and his smile slipped a little. "Just, um, whatever happens? Don't let John out of the tub until it's over. And don't let go."

Ronon gave him a sharp look. What was that supposed to mean? But Rodney was already uncorking the vial, pouring the clear liquid into the tub. For a moment, it sat on the surface of the water, like a thin skim of ice. Then it melted, there was a faint ringing sound like the echo of a faraway bell, and the clean scent of woods after a thunderstorm filled the room.

Rodney stepped backwards. "Now!"

Getting a good grip on the thin material of John's shirt, Ronon backed John towards the tub. John pulled at Ronon's arms, tried to wrench himself free. He was panting through gritted teeth, his lips pulled back in a silent snarl. He tried to knee Ronon in the groin. Ronon twisted out of the way, and John head-butted him, landing a glancing blow on Ronon's cheek. At the bright explosion of pain, Ronon growled, decided to fight a little dirty himself. A knee in John's belly left John gasping for breath and Ronon was finally able to shove him into the waiting bathtub.

John went down hard, water splashing dramatically and soaking Ronon. As soon as John was under the water began to bubble and roil, turning a deep black. Ronon forced himself to keep a grip on John, keep him submerged. John pushed upwards, flailing up out of the water. He had completely transformed. His skin had turned a dark, scaley blue and his fingernails were thick, black claws. He glared at Ronon with sickly, yellow eyes as he tried to struggle up out of the tub.

"Death-bringer," he snarled. And Ronon froze. "You brought death to your lands and now you come here, carrying the same taint."

"No." Ronon's voice sounded too weak to his ears. He glanced up, but a fog had settled around the tub. He could barely make out the figures of Teyla, Rodney, everyone else, shifting uncertainly in the mist.

"Leave now," John ordered, yellow eyes narrowed and accusing. "Leave while you still can, before death takes them all. It follows you. You stink of it." His clawed fingernails scraped against copper as he tried to leverage himself out of the bathtub.

Ronon closed his eyes. John was lying. Or the magic was. It was just struggling to – to survive or something. Rodney would have said something if the plague-carriers were still a threat. He gritted his teeth. "No," he said and pushed John back under.

A thick smoke, dark and sulfuric, billowed up from the water's surface. The smoke blinded Ronon, but he could feel John pushing up out of the water. "I'll go with you." This time John's voice was gentle, almost coaxing. "You don't have to be alone. Let me go and I'll stay with you forever."

"I'm not..."

"Not alone? You are. They won't stay with you. They want you to leave. You're just a stranger passing by. A symbol of their struggle. Once you've done your job, they'll want you gone." The water sloshed and Ronon felt John's breath whisper against his cheek. "But I'll stay with you. When they make you leave, I'll go with you. Let me go and we can leave now." He felt John's mouth curve into a smile. "Leave before they throw you out."

Ronon sucked in a breath, shoved John back. The smoke had thinned and it was the bone-white face of a Wraith staring back at him. He hissed at Ronon, pale eyes filling with rage. Ronon tightened his grip and pushed John under the water.

A thick, pale foam frothed up to the water's surface and began to dissolve. As the water cleared, Ronon could see John lying at the bottom of the tub. He looked like himself but he wasn't moving. Panic kicked at him and Ronon looked up.

The fog was gone and Rodney was coming towards him, eyes wide. "Maybe you should –"

John lunged up out of the water, and Ronon let go of him, stepped back. John hung over the side of the tub, coughing. He stayed there for a moment, getting his breath back. Then he sat straight up, one hand plunging into the water towards his hip. He glared at the people around him, eyes flickering to each person in the room.

His glare softened and he scrubbed a hand through his wet hair. "Okay," he said. "I'm wet. I'm confused. Someone want to tell me what the hell is going on?"

Queen Elizabeth let out a gasp that was half laughter, half tears, a hand flying to her mouth. If she did start to cry, Ronon was pretty sure Teyla was primed to join her. Radek as well, going by his rapid blinking. Maj. Lorne may have already started. He'd turned towards the windows and was staring intently into the darkness.

Rodney cleared his throat. He was smiling so broadly Ronon was surprised he was even able to speak. "It's kind of a long story, actually –"

"You were enchanted by a Wraith," Ronon said. "Rodney figured out how to free you."

"Oh. Yes. In sum." Rodney waved a hand at Ronon, not taking his eyes off John.

But John's eyes had snapped to Ronon as soon as he'd started speaking and now they narrowed with distrust. "I don't know you," he said. The flatness of his tone was a dismissal and Ronon sucked in a breath, told himself he should have expected it.

Managing a tight smile, Ronon nodded. "No, you don't," he said. He headed towards the doors. He was halfway down the hallway before he heard someone running after him. It was Radek.

"You must excuse the Colonel," Radek said once he'd caught up to him. "He has had a great shock and –"

"Yeah," Ronon said, folding his arms and taking a step back. "I understand."

"Yes, well, he will feel bad about it later. Queen Elizabeth will see to it." Radek gave him a tentative smile, then let it die. He shoved his glasses back into place. "In the meantime, Queen Elizabeth has moved you to a new room. Shall I show you?"

The room wasn't far, only one floor down and in the same wing. It was bigger than the room Michael had given him, with a fireplace and a sitting area and a good sized bed piled high with a thick coverlet. Radek bustled about for a moment or two, lighting the lamp on the sitting table, closing the heavy curtains against the cold night, getting the fire started in the fireplace.

Ronon watched, amused in spite of himself, waiting for Radek to come to a stop. Radek glanced up from the fireplace, caught Ronon's small smile, chuckled a little. "Sorry," he said. "I've grown used to preparing rooms for..." He stopped himself and straightened up, dusting off his hands. "So. Is there anything further you need? Food, maybe?"

"I'm good," Ronon said.

Radek started to leave, then hesitated on the threshold. "What happened during the disenchantment? The fog ... we couldn't see anything."

Ronon folded his arms. "Nothing." Radek looked skeptical, so Ronon shrugged and added, "John changed colors, but that was it. Pretty easy, actually."

"Hm." Radek eyed him for a moment. "Well, then. I will leave you."

Alone, Ronon glanced around and was relieved to see his coat, carefully laid across one of the armchairs. He searched the pockets, found his knife-care kit, settled into a chair near the table and the lamplight, and began tending to his blades. He lost himself in the familiar ritual for a time. When his blades were good he fiddled with his scabbard. It was usable. Barely. But he'd have to find a good leather worker to get it fully fixed. He wondered if the animals this far north had their winter coats, yet. Winter white usually made good trade.

The room had grown warmer. He took off his jacket and realized the book he taken from John's bookshelf was in one of the pockets. He pulled it out, read the cover and was startled to see it was a printing of "The Final Battles of the Genii Empire." That had been one of his favorite books as a boy. He and his cousins had acted out pretty much every battle in the woods behind his house.

He shied away from that memory, tossed the book onto the table. It fell open to an obviously well read section, the margins bristling with handwritten notes. Looked like someone had thoroughly dissected the described battle. Intrigued, Ronon turned the lamp a little brighter. He was quickly engrossed and almost missed the knock at his door.

He grimaced, considered not answering. But it was probably Teyla or Rodney (or both) and they didn't deserve to be ignored. So, holding his place with his finger, half-formed thoughts of using the book as an excuse to cut their visit short, Ronon opened the door.

"Hi." John was leaning against the door frame. "I didn't wake you, did I?"

Ronon shook his head, stepped back in invitation.

John looked different. Part of it was obvious. Still unshaven, and wearing the black, utilitarian uniform of the Atlantis military, John actually looked like a soldier instead of a boy playing dress-up. But there were subtler changes as well. He was still wary, but he hid it better: measuring eyes masked by a sheepish smile.

"So I got a pretty thorough chewing out from Rodney and Elizabeth," John said, glancing around the room, eyes lingering on Ronon's sword and knife-care kit, still lying out on the table. "They told me what you did. Rodney came close to singing paeans." He finally looked at Ronon. "So I came to say thanks. And apologize."

"Nothing to apologize for," Ronon said, folding his arms and leaning against the wall.

John had wandered towards the fireplace. Now he knocked his foot idly against one of the andirons, sending up a burst of sparks. "I was kind of a dick."

Ronon shrugged. "I'd have done the same in your place."

John nodded thoughtfully. "And then you would have received the full force of Teyla's 'disappointed' look. And you'd be the one apologizing." He gave Ronon a small smile, letting it bloom into a full grin when Ronon huffed out a surprised laugh.

"Okay. Apology accepted," Ronon said.

John nodded, like he'd just scored a point. Then he shifted a little awkwardly, glancing around again. He spotted the book and asked, "So, what're you reading?"

"It's yours," Ronon admitted. "I grabbed it from your bookshelf before..." He trailed off uncertainly.

"Ah, the old 'Final Battles.'" John ambled over, sat down heavily in Ronon's chair, pulled the book closer and flipped through it. "Hard to beat the classics."

The lamplight caught a thin layer of sweat on John's forehead. Ronon frowned, realized John looked paler than normal, that the hand not turning pages was shaking a little. Looked like the disenchantment had taken its toll. And it looked like John was doing his best to cover that fact up.

Ronon hesitated for a moment, considered saying something, then pulled out the other chair and asked, "Those your notes?"

John nodded, leaned back. "The Genii use more modern weapons now, but," he threw an arm over the back of his chair, stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles, "know your enemy and all that."

"Genii your enemies?"

John smirked. "Oh, we have very friendly treaties. Mutual appreciation meetings, even. But, every once in a while, there are these," he made a vague gesture, "complications."

Ronon nodded. The Genii had that reputation.

John gestured towards Ronon. "Nasty looking bruise," he said. "Did I do that?"

Resisting the urge to touch his sore cheek, Ronon leaned back in his own chair, folded his arms. "Yeah."

John grimaced. "They said I fought being disenchanted." He looked away for a moment, his expression hard to read. "No one could tell me what happened once Rodney's spell started. And my memory of it's a total blank. You want to fill me in?"

Ronon shifted, reluctant to rehash the thing. "You fought it," he said, finally. Then, to John's raised eyebrow, "Nothing bad. Just words. Lies."

"Promises I didn't intend to keep?" John asked. He was smirking a little, but it didn't reach his eyes.

"Something like that," Ronon said.

"Okay." John looked down, nodded to himself, then pushed himself to his feet. He stumbled a little, tried to camouflage it by shifting the chair back into place. "Keep the book as long as you'd like," he said. And then he left.

Ronon stared into the steady glow of the lamp for a moment or two, bemused. He felt like he'd just gone through a test or a trial of sorts. He had no idea if he'd passed. Had no idea if he wanted to pass, if he was honest. Then he laughed at himself, turned the lamp down, and headed for bed.

 

Ronon was home. He was looking for something. Something he'd just misplaced. The room was dark and weirdly unfamiliar. Too big, too cluttered. Or maybe he was too small. But he had to find it. It had to be here. A door opened and his mother came in.

The sun was bright behind her, shining through her hair and lighting it to a warm copper. She was laughing at something over her shoulder, her basket overflowing with leafy green vegetables from her garden. She turned towards the kitchen and started with surprise. "Goodness, Ronon, what are you doing in here?" She put the basket down on the kitchen table, wiped her hands on her apron. "It's beautiful outside, you should be out in it."

"I just need to find..." Ronon trailed off, turning towards a looming cupboard. Maybe he'd hidden it in there?

"Ronon, listen." His mother was at the kitchen counter, now. She was peeling apples, her hands strong and sure, her paring knife flashing in the sunlight. "Did you hear that?"

It was cold and dark where Ronon stood. His mother glowed in the sunlight and he shivered. She'd told him to listen. He cocked his head. He couldn't hear anything.

His mother put her hand on his cheek. Her hand was warm and that warmth spread through him. "Oh, Ronon," she said. She gave his hair a gentle tug, like she always did when she wanted him to pay attention. "Wake up!"

Ronon sat up. The room was dark, with only a dull glow coming from the fireplace, the wood burned down to coals. He shivered, feeling weirdly off balance. He frowned, shoved the covers back, quickly pulled on his clothes before the warmth from the bed could leave him. He was just building up the fire, chasing away weird feelings with mundane routine, when someone knocked on his door.

"You're awake." John, clean-shaven and smiling, stood in the doorway. "Good. You up for a morning spar?"

Ronon leaned against the door frame, considering. He decided he was tired of games. "I am. You sure you are? Wraith spells can take it out of you."

"So I've been told," John said, his smile shifting into a smirk. "I've been feeling a little shaky. You'll have to take it easy on me."

Which was probably the truth, though John spoke it as a lie. Shaking his head, wondering if this sort of camouflaging was normal for John, Ronon grabbed up his sword belt.

It was early. The windows facing the courtyard were dark, though the eastern windows in the stairwell had a promising glow. But the palace bustled. Servants armed with mobs and brooms and buckets of warm, soapy water were attacking the layers of dust and grime. Here and there, yawning courtiers wandered. Though they had the look of people heading towards bed instead of waking from it.

"You know, I'm also really, really rusty," John said, nodding at the various courtiers and servants as they went, receiving warm smiles in return. "You should probably tie one of your hands behind –"

Ronon glanced over, realized John had stopped walking as well as speaking. Then he saw what had caught John's attention and felt like a complete idiot. They shouldn't have taken this route.

The doors to the solarium stood halfway open. Strangely askew, one of them deeply dented, Ronon wasn't sure they could be dragged shut. The solarium itself was murky darkness. John was staring into that gloom, hand dropping down to his sword. Quiet, focused, disarming mask completely dropped, John stalked towards the solarium.

Ronon looked around. There was a courtier, the dark-haired woman who'd been hugging Sgt. Mehra yesterday, further up the hallway. She obviously saw the issue, her eyes widening with dismay as she watched John disappear into the solarium. She looked at Ronon, gave him a determined nod, then ran towards the stairs. Help of some sort would come. In the meanwhile, Ronon would have to do.

John was pulling back the curtains, letting the thin light of early dawn spill across the marble floor. Someone had cleaned up the bloodstains. Out in the garden, the trees stretched skeletal limbs towards the pinking sky. The bodies were gone. John opened the door. It was cold, but instead of yesterday's ice, only a light dusting of frost covered the ground. John stepped outside, started up the flagstone path, dark footprints marking his passage. Ronon sighed a white-plumed breath and followed after him.

John stopped in front of a large, broken dogwood. "I remember," John said, his voice barely audible. He let his sword fall back into its scabbard. "I remember propping up those branches. So many dead. The tree couldn't take the weight."

John turned, headed more deeply into the garden, Ronon silently following. He stopped at a circular clearing. The ground here was rough, frozen mud instead of smooth flagstone. "This is where we butchered them." He hunched in on himself, shoved his hands deeply into his pockets.

"Thought that was Michael," Ronon said. He wished Teyla or Rodney were here. They knew John. And John knew them.

John looked at him, his mouth twisted into a self-mocking smile. "You think that lets me off? That I didn't hold the knife?"

"You being enchanted lets you off," Ronon said.

"I was happy," John said. "Michael cut out their hearts and put them in a box and I was happy that I'd have something to bring to her."

Ronon shook his head. "That was the magic, not you. And you fought it. I saw you fight it."

John looked away. "Tell that to the dead."

Ronon could hear someone half-running up the pathway. He looked back. Queen Elizabeth, still in her white sleeping-gown, had obviously come as quickly as possible. She stopped several feet from where he and John stood, pulled her red woolen dress-robe more tightly around her.

"John," she said, catching her breath. "You don't need to see this."

"Not much to see, Elizabeth," John said, anger thickening his voice. He turned away from her. "You must've had people working through the night to get this place cleaned up so quickly."

"It was a mockery," she said.

"And a record of my crime." He gave her a hard smile. "Should I thank you for protecting me?"

"Stop." Now Queen Elizabeth sounded angry. She walked towards John. "Just stop. I cared for the dead, for the dead. And for their families. It was the least I could do." She shook her head. "You would have done the same in my place."

John closed his eyes and his anger seemed to drain from him. "I'm – You're right, it was the right decision. I just..." he trailed off, looked around the garden. He looked lost. "Everything I did... This seems too easy," he murmured.

Queen Elizabeth began to reach out. "John," her hand brushed his arm, "no one blames you for this."

John flinched back. "Don't they?" He shook his head and began walking back towards the solarium. "I do."

Queen Elizabeth sucked in a breath, like he'd physically hit her. She turned to follow him, then stopped. Ronon came up beside her and hesitated. "Go with him," she said quietly. "He shouldn't be... I don't want him to be alone." She looked up at Ronon, her eyes wide with worry.

He wanted to reassure her, but he couldn't think of anything to say. Not anything true, anyway. So he didn't say anything, just nodded and headed after John, catching up with him in the solarium. John glanced at Ronon as they walked briskly from the room, but he stayed silent as well.

Maj. Lorne was waiting in the hallway, Queen Elizabeth's dog leaning worshipfully against him. He straightened as soon as he saw John, giving the dog a final pat on the head. "Wraith ship on the horizon, Colonel. It's coming at good speed."

"Our cannons still working?"

"They are, but there's a twist, sir. It's flying a Safe Passage pledge."

John shook his head, a grim smile began to form. "Let me guess..."

"Yeah," said Maj. Lorne. "It's yours."


Ronon shifted, thumbing his sword out of its scabbard, then clicking it back into place. He glanced over at John, leaning casually against one of the pier's thick pilings. John glanced back, gave him a quick grin, then returned to watching the fast approaching Wraith ship. It was a small one, made for navigating rivers. Even so, waiting like this, out in the open, just the four of them, was unnatural. He thumbed his sword loose, clicked it back.

"Okay, this is weird. Anyone else feel like this is weird? We should be, I don't know, throwing explosives or something." Rodney paced towards the pier's edge than back to the group.

Teyla reached out, pulled his hand away from his bandage. "I agree that this is..." she paused, her mouth tightening, "irregular. But the ship flies John's pledge of Safe Passage."

"Yes," Rodney agreed, absently touching each of his coat's many pockets. "Which is why I'm also nervous about Maj. Lorne readying the cannons."

"He'll only use them as a last resort, Rodney," John said, not looking away from the rapidly growing ship sails.

"Oh, I'm sorry if I'm not as comfortable leaving my life in the hands of a trigger-happy –"

"Thought it was John's life," Ronon said. More to stop the rant than anything else. Rodney had aired his objections during the trip down to the lakeshore. Repeatedly.

Rodney stopped mid finger-wave, threw a guilt-filled glance at John. "Oh. Yes, technically. I just thought a cannon hit," he mimed an explosion with his hands. "Collateral damage," he said, then turned bright red.

Teyla frowned at Rodney, though her mouth twitched. Ronon went ahead and grinned. Rodney would imagine the most dramatic death. Though, honestly, Ronon wasn't sure what a cannon hit would do. It was true that the wounds sustained by the protected were also felt by the pledger. But the stories he'd heard of broken Safe Passage pledges usually spoke of blades or arrows.

"Thanks, Rodney. Your concern is really touching," John said, but without bite. He was staring intently at the Wraith ship.

It was close enough now that Ronon could make out the Wraith manning it. Warriors, from what he could see. One Wraith, standing in the bow, seemed to be watching them as carefully as they watched the ship. He turned his head, pale hair blowing across his face, to say something to the Wraith behind him. When he turned back, Ronon could make out a stylized marking etched around his left eye. The leader, then.

"I don't believe it." John was shaking his head, his mouth twisted into a grim smile.

"You know him?" Ronon asked.

"We shared a prison cell, once," John said. He straightened, picked up the satchel resting by his feet, and pulled the strap over his shoulder.

Ronon stared at him, eyebrows raised. But it seemed that was all John was going to say.

"Apparently he was deeply disliked by at least two of his fellow Wraith," Teyla murmured as the ship coasted gently towards the pier. "Such lengths, just to kill him."

"Mm, and not a pretty death they had planned, either," Rodney added.

The ship glided to a stop and the Wraith leader leapt over the ship's side, landing easily on the pier. "John Sheppard," he said, his voice rough but also amused. "I see word of your enchantment was greatly exaggerated."

John met the Wraith's smile with a tight one of his own. "Not so much exaggerated as out of date."

The Wraith raised an eyebrow at that, but his attention seemed caught by something further down the pier. Ronon followed his gaze and realized the bell-shields covering the former plague-carriers were shimmering in the rising sun. Ronon had felt a surge of nausea when he'd seen how many plague-carriers the Wraith woman had set in motion before he'd killed her. Now, seeing the interest this Wraith man showed, he felt a swell of rage. He thumbed his sword loose of its scabbard.

John glanced towards Ronon, gave a minute shake of his head. "You know what those shields are covering?" he asked the Wraith.

The Wraith nodded. "Death-bringers," he said and Ronon sucked in a breath.

John glanced at him again, a flicker of worry crossing his face. He shifted, adjusting the strap of his satchel. "And you know who brought them here? To my city?"

The Wraith finally looked away from the bell-shields, met John's angry gaze. "The inventor, I'd expect." He glanced at Ronon, his eyes flickering from Ronon's rank marking to his sword, and his expression saddened. "My sister has always been blood-thirsty." He looked at John and his smile returned. "Even among the Wraith."

"Your sister." John huffed a laugh, though the amusement didn't reach his eyes. "I should have known." He slipped the satchel off his shoulder, held it out to the Wraith.

"A gift?" the Wraith asked, taking the satchel.

"A warning," John said. "And a lesson."

The Wraith unbuckled the satchel, looked inside. He began to laugh, a dry, rasping sound. He looked up at the Wraith warriors lining the ship's side. "It seems our quest is over," he called up to them and, fitting the strap over his shoulder, reached into the satchel with both hands and pulled out the severed heads of Michael and the Wraith woman.

A frisson of excitement moved through the Wraith warriors. Ronon shifted, exchanged worried glances with Teyla and Rodney. John was watching the warriors, a puzzled frown on his face. "We'll show these as proof and your claim will be impossible to deny," one of the warriors said.

"Claim," John said flatly, focusing back on the Wraith leader.

"A family dispute," the Wraith leader said. He closed the satchel, handing it up to one of his warriors. "One that spilled over our borders, unfortunately."

"A dispute? That's what you call it?" Rodney asked. "You realize she enticed you down here to kill you with her," he waved a hand, "'death-bringers', right? Oh, and wipe out the entire city of Atlantis while she was at it. While she and Michael and ..." he shifted, looking a little ill, "well, probably just them, waited safely behind the palace shields."

The Wraith leader cocked his head. "You have shields that protect against death-bringers?"

Rodney sneered. "Wouldn't you like to kno–" He cut himself off, stopped by Teyla's hand on his arm.

"The pledge of Safe Passage is fading," Teyla said, nodding up to where the flag flapped in the morning's gentle breeze.

Everyone followed her gaze and one of the Wraith warriors said, "Your Majesty, we should go."

Ronon's attention snapped back down to the Wraith leader. John had dropped his hand to his sword. "Majesty?" John asked.

"A little premature," the Wraith said. "But my mother was the first victim of my family's little," he glanced at Rodney, "dispute. With my sister dead," the Wraith gave John a sly smile, "now I am King of the Wraith."

John stared at the Wraith, his eyes narrowing.

"Are you thinking of killing me, John Sheppard?" The Wraith smiled, as if he were pleased at the thought. "We would die together."

"Might be worth it," John murmured.

Ronon gave him a sharp glance, but the Wraith roared with laughter. "Ah, but we would both be missed. My people need a strong, stable leader. And your people... I saw signs of activity in the unclaimed lands as we sailed down to you. Perhaps rumors of your enchantment flowed east as well as north? Perceived weaknesses will attract enemies."

John gave the Wraith a wide grin. "I guess we'll have to wait for next time."

"I look forward to it." The Wraith used one of his ship's ropes to leap back on board and the ship began sailing away from the pier, rapidly picking up speed despite the lack of any real wind.

"I have got to figure out how they do that," Rodney said.

"Breaking the Wraith's mastery of the sea would be nice," John agreed. He squinted after the ship. "I don't suppose the Safe Passage will run out while they're still in cannon reach?"

"I very much doubt it," Teyla said. She sounded disappointed.

John shrugged, started to turn, and nearly collapsed. Ronon grabbed him by the waist and hauled him over to the nearest piling. John leaned against the thick wood, his breath coming in pants. "Thanks," he said. He took the pocket flask Teyla offered, gulping down the strong tea it held. He wiped his mouth with a shaky hand. "Glad that didn't happen in front of company."

"The weakness should pass in a week or so," Rodney said. He handed John a strip of jerky. "You just broke out of a powerful enchantment. This is perfectly normal."

John nodded, bit off a piece of jerky.

Rodney peered down at him, forehead creased with worry. Then he brightened. "Oh! I should tell Maj. Lorne he can stand down." He pulled a little mechanical bird out of one of his coat pockets. "Hello?" he bellowed at it. "Maj. Lorne can you hear me?" The bird's beak fell open and an ugly sound, like a dog choking on a bone, came out. Rodney frowned, began moving down the pier towards the shoreline. "Can you hear me now? Hello?"

John huffed out a tired laugh, then slid down to sit on the pier's worn, wooden planking. "I'm good," he said to Teyla. "Just need a moment."

Teyla frowned down at him, and they exchanged a look Ronon couldn't interpret. Teyla's expression cleared and she nodded. "Rodney?" she called out, patting Ronon's arm as she passed him. "Rodney, I'm sure Maj. Lorne has noticed the ship leaving."

"So, I should..." Ronon pointed over his shoulder, but John was shaking his head.

"I'm getting bits and pieces of my memory back," John said, squinting up at him.

Ronon sighed and wished John hadn't sent Teyla away. He sank down to sit on the pier as well so John didn't have to look up at him.

"I called you a death-bringer."

Ronon froze, mid-shift, flickered a glance towards John's black-clothed knee, then concentrated on arranging his sword. But finally the silence got too heavy. "Didn't mean anything," Ronon said.

"I wanted it to," John said. "God, I was ... I needed to ... I wanted you to stay with me." Ronon risked a glance. John was staring intently at his boots. "And these," John made a grabbing motion, "suggestions just floated up. The perfect way to hold onto you."

Ronon sucked in a breath, fiddled with the broken section of his scabbard. "Like Rodney said," Ronon finally managed, "it was a powerful spell." He glanced at John, back away. "None of it was true."

John laughed, the sound cynical and tired. "Yeah. I'm not responsible for the garden." He shifted, nudged Ronon with his knee. "You're not responsible for Sateda."

Surprised, Ronon met John's eyes, was caught by the understanding, the shared pain. "No," Ronon said, his voice thick. He cleared his throat. "Feels that way, though."

"Surviving," John said. "It's ..." He stopped, shook his head.

Ronon waited, but apparently that was all John had to say. He glanced over his shoulder. Rodney and Teyla were halfway down the pier. Rodney, practically quivering with curiosity, blatantly stared at Ronon and John. Ronon looked back at John and John laughed, this time with real amusement.

"Yeah, I'm not sure how much longer Teyla can hold him," John said. "So, I'd better just ask." He straightened, then looked seriously at Ronon. "I've got rogue Drones wandering the northern woods, a new, and quite possibly insane, Wraith king on my border, and the Genii getting complicated in the unclaimed lands." John grinned. "You want to lend a hand?"

"You asking me to stay?" Ronon asked.

John nodded. "I'm asking you to stay."

Ronon pushed himself to his feet, walked to the end of the pier. He stopped, closed his eyes. Scenes from his life in Sateda flooded him: his mother in her garden, his father in his forest, his cousins and aunts and uncles, his grandfather at his forge; his brothers and sisters at arms, those he'd drilled beside and fought beside, those he'd learned from and those he'd taught. They were gone now. The forests empty, the barracks burned.

He opened his eyes, turned. The sun, climbing up behind him, gilded the slender buildings of Atlantis, turned her many canals to lines of liquid gold. The central tower glowed, stretching its great height towards the warming sky. John had climbed to his feet, leaning with apparent ease against the piling. Further away Rodney was saying something to Teyla, gesturing widely. Teyla was laughing, the sound floating towards Ronon.

Ronon went back to John. "Okay," he said. "I'll stay."

"Okay," John replied just as seriously. Then he grinned, knocked Ronon's shoulder with his own. "Okay."

"Finally!" Rodney exclaimed when they reached him and Teyla. "We were thinking, breakfast at Halling's? I mean, we should tell Elizabeth what happened but," he gestured at John, "you need to eat. It's important for your swift recovery."

"Oh, well if it's for my swift recovery," John said, still grinning.

"Excellent." Rodney rubbed his hands together, fell in beside Ronon. "You've had Halling's breakfast buns, right? The tip of the iceberg, my friend, the tip of the iceberg."

Teyla, walking between Ronon and John, added, "Also, Halling would let us use one of his pigeons. We can finally tell poor Maj. Lorne to stand down."

Her peals of laughter were contagious and even Rodney succumbed. Laughing with them, Ronon looked up at the shining city of Atlantis. It wasn't home. Not yet. But it came close enough.

 

THE END