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Monster Fest 2018

Chapter Text

“You’re not darkness.”

Julian, leaning in the doorway of Evan’s bedroom, straightened up, his sexy pout fading.

“But I’m -”

“You’re a shadow, yes,” Evan said, “but that’s not the same thing as the darkness.”

Julian sighed and crossed the room, flung himself dramatically across Evan’s bed, bent one knee and posed sexily some more. He’d materialized out of the shadows in the hallway - literally - and he was vying for attention.

The rest of the house was asleep. Mom and Nan and Tally wouldn’t even know he was there. They didn’t know about that door in the basement, the wooden one that was painted shut, that had once led to Grandpa’s laboratory, one not for magic but for science.

They thought the door was painted shut because there was nothing behind it.

Eight other worlds were behind it.

Evan, five years old and curious, had traced the runes carved in the door, the ones not quite hidden by the paint. A stray splinter and some blood and he had a new friend.

Julian, the shadow boy. Ageless, inhumanly beautiful. He’d first appeared to Evan as a child, appeared to grow with him. Now they were - Evan wasn’t sure what they were.

He glanced at Julian out of the corner of his eye. Julian was still posing. Evan was working on an art project.

Julian sighed, rolled onto his stomach, rested his chin in his hands. “I don’t get it. You’re not afraid of me. You’re not attracted to me.”

“Why should I be afraid of the darkness?” Evan asked. “When I always have light.”

He sketched a single rune in the air, kenaz, and fire blossomed above his palm.

Julian’s eyes narrowed. He snapped his fingers, and the little flame went out. He was on his feet and across the room, standing over Evan, hands on his hips.

“Why are you so mean to me?”

“Giving someone what they want all the time even if it’s not good for them isn’t the same as being mean,” Evan said.

Julian eyed him. “You sound like a boring grown-up.”

“One of us has to be grown-up in this relationship,” Evan said.

Julian’s too-blue eyes lit up. “So you admit we’re in a relationship?”

“We’re friends,” Evan said patiently. He turned to a blank page in his sketchbook, offered his pencil to Julian. “Want to give it a whirl? The old-fashioned way.”

Because Julian could create illusions with colors behind human comprehension.

Julian eyed him. “Just friends?”

“Sometimes,” Evan said, “it’s better than being lovers.”

Julian’s expression remained skeptical. Evan’s lights flickered. If his rooms went totally dark, Julian would be at full power, Evan at his mercy. Julian was beautiful, and it was hard to say no to him, but -

But Grandpa had told Evan about the door in the basement for a reason, told him about the realm of ice and shadows, warned him about the danger the darkness could be, if it spread.

He’s trusted Evan, who’d been very small at the time, to figure out how to build a light, one that would never go out.

“Really?” Julian asked.

Evan reached out, tugged the other chair close to his desk so Julian could sit beside him. “Really. And after this, you can teach me something you like.”

Julian nodded and sat down, reached for the pencil, and Evan thought of the power of darkness, how no matter how fast light traveled, the darkness was already there first, and it was waiting.

Maybe, when the moment counted, the face in the darkness would be a friend.

Chapter Text

Being dead? Was like being at summer camp. Only a lot less fun. John had come to in what looked like an infirmary but was actually some kind of waiting room in Heaven. The last thing he remembered was driving home from that party where he’d been playing with his band, high on adrenaline because he’d totally nailed an amazing guitar solo.

And then there’d been screeching tires and metal and a cheerful teenaged boy in a white lab coat who was asking if he was all right.

John had blinked at him. “Are you a doctor?”

The boy laughed. “Och, no. My name is Carson. I’d have been a doctor, had I lived, but alas I, like you, am dead. If you arrived here and not on one of the upper levels, you’ve got a wee bit of soul-searching to do, but that’s fine. Not smelling sulfur or feeling flames or homicidal rage, are you?”

John, sitting on an exam table wearing the same outfit he’d worn at the party, stared at him. “No.”

“Excellent.” The boy patted him on the shoulder, gave him a little lollipop, and pointed to a door. “Head out that way and Evan will make sure you’re sorted.”

John slid off the table obediently, headed for the door. When he pulled it open, he was standing in a long hallway lined with many doors - and that had many teenagers just like him standing beside them and looking bewildered.

At the end of the hall was another teenage boy, who had dark hair and blue eyes - was he related to Carson? - and was dressed like a preppy straight out of a sock hop movie. He was holding a clipboard and a pen even though he had another pen tucked behind his ear.

“Dex, Ronon?”

The boy who raised his hand and stepped forward was tall, muscular, golden skin gleaming.

“Hi, Ronon. I’m Evan. Welcome to Heaven. Looks like you’ve got a bit of work to do. This is Aiden. He’ll be your mentor during your orientation before you’re sent out on your first mission.”

Aiden had dark skin and curly hair, bright eyes. He slung an arm around Ronon’s shoulders and led him out of the double doors at the end of the hallway.

“Sheppard, John?”

John stepped forward. “That’s me. What the he-”

He cut off mid-sentence. He couldn’t say the word.

Evan clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “No mentions of Deep Six up here,” he said. “Welcome to Heaven. This is Teyla. She’ll be your mentor during your orientation before you’re sent out on your first mission.”

“Mission?” John echoed.

Teyla was a pretty dark-skinned girl with a serene smile. “Hello, John. Welcome to Heaven. Come this way. I will show you to your cabin.”

John was sharing a cabin with four other boys: Daniel, Cameron, Lyle, and Jonathan. They’d all died. They were all supposed to go on missions to earn some kind of heavenly points so they could go upstairs. Because Heaven had levels.

Daniel was a junior archaeologist, had been shot by tomb robbers while he was in Egypt on a summer dig. Cameron had died in a hunting accident. Rammed by an elk. Lyle had died in a plane crash while on his way to visit a cousin. Jonathan had died pushing a little boy out of the path of a moving car.

“I don’t see why you aren’t just all the way upstairs already,” Daniel said.

Jonathan shrugged but said nothing.

“Wait, so we’re teen angels?” John asked, once all of the cabin mates were assembled and Teyla was giving her orientation speech.

She nodded.

“Where are our wings or halos or harps?” Cameron asked.

“Harps are available for recreation,” Teyla said. “Wings are only available to those who’ve reached seraphim level. Halos are only available to those on the Second Floor and above.”

“How many floors are there?” Daniel asked.

Teyla smiled serenely. “You will find out as you Ascend. Now, each of you will be assigned to assist another teen on Earth so they may find the right path.”

Lyle snorted. “You mean religion?”

Teyla shook her head. “No. We do not subscribe to a specific religion or dogma. All we do is guide our charges on the path upward instead of the path downward. On Earth, you will appear to all others as an ordinary mortal, and you will have identification as needed. You can eat and sleep, though neither is required. You will appear to breathe and have a pulse. You will not have any supernatural gifts. However, you may pray to a senior angel for assistance in times of emergency.”

“What if we don’t want to go up to the Second Floor?” John asked.

Teyla’s expression turned sorrowful. “If you do not make progress, you will be sent to Deep Six.”

John couldn’t say the word, but he knew exactly what she meant.

“What’s so bad about it?” Lyle asked.

Teyla said, “You will never see your loved ones again.”

At that, John perked up. “You mean I can see my mom?”

“I do not know who your loved ones are,” Teyla said. “I am here to guide you through your stay on the First Floor. I have mission assignments already.”

John was on his feet. “Let me see mine.”

His was a boy named Meredith Rodney McKay, a sixteen-year-old genius going after his second bachelor’s degree. He was in danger of heading for Deep Six because he was unnecessarily harsh and cruel to the people around him, and he was at risk of burning bridges with the people who needed him most - and who he needed most. His family.

“So, what, I’m supposed to make him be nice?” John stared at the picture. Meredith Rodney McKay was almost angelic himself, dark blond curls, blue eyes, a wide mouth.

“You cannot make anyone do anything,” Teyla said. “That is not our way. You must teach and persuade and guide. But beware - agents from Deep Six will also be attempting to sway him, and their tactics can be much more forceful.”

“How will I know a Deep Six agent when I see one?” John asked.

Demon, he meant.

Teyla patted his shoulder. “You will know. Are you ready?”

John nodded.

It was Evan who dispatched him back to Earth. One moment John was standing in Evan’s office, which really did remind him of the summer camp director’s office from John’s childhood, and then there was a flash of blue-white light and -

John was standing in the doorway of Professor Graham’s lecture hall, just in time for computational fluid dynamics. Meredith Rodney McKay - Rodney - was in this class.

John was an angel with a mission, to save Rodney’s soul.

But John also knew that he was John Messenger, another teen prodigy math major who was staying in the prodigy dorms near Rodney. John had been good at math while he was alive, but - the things he knew now.

Impossible.

And then someone pushed past him, and John saw blue eyes and dark golden curls, and he followed.

Sat beside Rodney.

The girl sitting on the other side of Rodney, mousy and blonde, had eyes that flared red for just one second.

She was a Deep Sixer.

John glanced at Rodney and said, “Hi.”

Rodney glanced at him, and his gaze narrowed. He was suspicious. “Did you lose a bet or something?”

“No. We’re neighbors. I’m John Messenger. I live across the hall from you.” The fake name rolled off his tongue naturally, easily.

“Rodney McKay,” he said, and that was all he said to John.

For a week.

By the end of the week, John was willing to give the prayer thing a try.

So he sat beside Rodney in the cafeteria, sent a silent prayer upward to Evan and Teyla, and said, “Prime Not Prime.”

Chapter Text

It took eons for the message to reach them, because after the dissolution of the Four Races, they left, and they traveled, in search of new stars and planets, new life and times. They moved and moved and moved and never looked back.

And then one of them paused long enough to open an old receiver and there it was, a transmission from Thor of the Asgard. Another race was ready to join them, become the Fifth Race. They were wonderful, brilliant - and as fallible as any other race to come before them. But they were ready.

So they returned, the Furlings, to the little Milky Way Galaxy, to see them, these Tau’ri. They were like the Asgard had once been, like the Anquietas had once been, or so the Furlings thought. Was it narcissism, on the part of the Asgard, to think these creatures so like them, ready to succeed them?

The Nox had not weighed in, but it said something, that the Nox had evolved over time so they looked like the Tau’ri, less like plants and more like hairless bipeds.

Before the Furlings could make contact, they wanted to observe the Tau’ri, their ways and culture, and see the best form they should take for optimal contact. It had been so long since they had seen the Asgard in their old form, the Anquietas in their physical form, so they did not remember much about the form and how it functioned.

It became clear, however, that the smaller version of the form was dominant, as the larger versions of the form were devoted to feeding, carrying, and otherwise pampering the smaller form. The small form made a noise, and a large form came to respond, no matter the time of the solar cycle, even if the larger form had been in repose. The small form was washed, decorated in bright fabrics, carried around, entertained with songs and dances and bright, noisy, sometimes flashy offerings.

The small forms were much revered and respected. Whatever their utterance, the larger forms would respond with,

“I know, right, buddy? You’re so smart!” or “That’s my girl! You’re such a genius,” or “You’re exactly right. Why didn’t I think of that?”

If the Furlings wished to be greeted and treated appropriately, they would take the smaller form.

The Tau’ri had combined multiple forms of technology - Asgard, Anquietas - to explore multiple planets and galaxies, so on that score the Asgard were correct; they were probably ready to join the circle of Races.

Two of the best Furling negotiators were given the task of finding a planet the Tau’ri would visit, assuming small forms - about one cycle around the star - and making contact with the Tau’ri.

The Tau’ri came through the astria porta, dressed to explore, and happened upon the two negotiators.

“Captain Hailey, we’ve got incoming.”

“What is it, sergeant?”

“Ma’am, it’s a couple of babies. Maybe...one year old?”

The Tau’ri with the golden hair knelt, scooped up one of the negotiators. “Any sign of parents or adults?”

“MALP footage was negative for any signs of civilization,” the Tau’ri with the short dark hair said.

Captain Hailey bounced Negotiator One in her arms. “Hey, little guy, look at you! You’re so tiny and cute! What are you doing all the way out here by yourself? Where’s your mom and dad?”

Another Tau’ri picked up Negotiator Two and cradled him close.

Negotiator One said, in his best imitation of a small form Tau’ri, “Take us to your leaders.”

Captain Hailey smiled. “That’s right, little guy. Let’s get you home. Sergeant, dial the gate. Let’s get these little ones back to Dr. Lam for a check-up, and then send a couple of Marine teams to see where they came from.”

Negotiator One made eye contact with Negotiator Two. Perfect.

Chapter Text

“Major Lorne, come check this out!”

Evan was on his way to the command office to work on fitreps for end-of-year evaluations, but he veered toward Parrish anyway. “What’s going on?”

Parrish beckoned. “You have to come see for yourself.”

So Evan followed him to the botany lab.

Where seemingly every scientist on Atlantis was gathered in solarium three. There was a platform set up, multiple cameras, and all seven of the pseudo-Delvians were standing, waiting.

“Okay,” Bruno said. “Are we ready?”

Parrish towed Evan through the crowd to stand beside Dr. Peace, who was running the central camera.

“Ready,” Peace said.

“Ready,” Brown said. She was running the left camera.

“Ready!” Kiang pumped a fist in the air. She was running the right camera.

It was Sun, the eldest of the pseudo-Delvians and their leader, who counted them in, and they bowed. And then they struck some kind of weird group pose, all seven of them, limbs intertwined so they looked like, well, some kind of massive flower.

“All right - hit it!” Bruno shouted.

There was a flare of light, like the bright light that emitted from the glass globes where the pseudo-Delvians had been imprisoned, the light that signaled their release. Only instead of brilliant gold, it was many colors. Seven, to be exact. And not all the colors of the rainbow.

Evan squinted, shaded his eyes.

“Adjust the filters,” Peace said, and the camera operators scrambled to obey.

The light flared brighter, brighter, almost blinding, and then it started to dim, shrinking down on itself, fading, fading.

Evan stared.

The platform was empty.

No, not empty.

All seven flower-men were gone.

In their place was a single, massive alien plant, like some kind of tentacle-bush. Only it had blossoms. Seven blossoms, each a different color. They looked just like roses.

“See?” Parrish breathed, awed. “They can turn into flowers.”

Evan blinked. “You mean they’re - they’re plant shapeshifters?”

Parrish nodded. “Isn’t it amazing?”

“Do they always have to do it like that, as a group?”

“That’s their preferred method,” Bruno reported. “I guess it was part of their performance, back in the day. They’d be rolled onto stage in a giant flower pot, and there’d be a light show, and then suddenly seven men dancing and singing.”

Evan stared at the plant. It was disconcerting. “Can they hear us and understand us in that form?”

“Yes,” Bruno said. “We already ran some tests on that score. Maybe we should record some for posterity.”

Evan’s mind spun. “Can they transform individually and then be bundled into a bouquet or something?”

Peace, Parrish, Brown, and Kiang stared at him.

“Or is that offensive and degrading?” Evan hunched his shoulders, embarrassed.

“It was a common assassination technique, actually,” Jones said. “Their masters would have them transform into individual blossoms to be given to enemies as bouquets. They’d get stuck in a vase, the enemies would go to sleep, and then - death. A single blossom would do the trick.”

“Maybe that’s why no one gives flowers,” Ronon said.

Evan hadn’t even realized he was there. But of course, he was friends with Sun and Seok, who liked to spar with him.

“What?” Jones asked.

“I always thought it was weird, how you people give each other flowers as a sign of - whatever. Love. Respect. Mourning. Most of us don’t do that, not out here,” Ronon said. “I always heard it was rude. To give someone weeds.”

“They’re not weeds,” Parrish protested.

“No, Ronon isn’t saying that,” Jones said, “but he might have a point. It could be that the people in this galaxy originally had a taboo against giving flowers as gifts because Min and his kind used to be used for assassinations, but the origin of that taboo has been long-forgotten.”

Evan said, “Can you have them change back now? It’s weirding me out.”

Peace said, “It’s how they sleep. Voluntarily. When they were imprisoned, they were in forced hibernation. But plant-form is how they sleep. I mean, they can be awake in plant-form. But that’s how they like to sleep.”

Evan stared at her. “They don’t sleep.”

“Well, not like we do. But they can and they should.”

Ronon said, “Then are we disturbing them?”

Immediately everyone around them lowered their voices.

Light began to emit from the plant, first blue, then red, then purple, then gold, then white, then pink, then it was bright and blinding and everyone had to cover their eyes -

And then there were seven men standing on the platform.

Min immediately bounced off the platform and over to Evan. “We did good, yes? Bacon?”

“Yes, you did very good,” Evan said.

Min beamed and threw his arms around Evan’s neck, hugged him. He smelled like roses. It was disconcerting.

Evan patted his back helplessly and said, “Sure, I’ll go fry you up some bacon.”

Chapter Text

Barry sat on the edge of the pier, shivering and soaked and gulping in desperate swallows of blessed, blessed air.

“So, can you even swim?”

The boy who’d rescued him was older, a teenager. He was really muscular, like the guys in the posters that Iris had on her walls. He had long brown hair, dark eyes, and some cool funky tattoos on his arms.

“Um, no,” Barry admitted, rubbing his arms in a bid for warmth.

The boy sitting beside him was wearing a pair of swimming trunks and not much else. He didn’t seem cold in the slightest. “But you jumped into the water anyway.”

Barry offered up his most winsome smile, which was not so winsome while his teeth were chattering. “I wanted to see a mermaid. Iris told me if you fall in the water a mermaid will rescue you. We saw it on Splash.”

The older boy said, “There are easier ways to see mermaids. Or mermen.”

Barry looked the boy up and down, eyes wide. “Are you a merman? Mer-boy? What’s your, uh, preferred term?”

“Atlantean,” the older boy said. “Now stop jumping in the water till you learn to swim. I won’t always be here to save you.”

He twisted and landed smoothly in the water, treaded water below the little pier and looked firmly at Barry.

“Wait,” Barry said. “Can you teach me to swim? Unless - unless you always swim with a fish tail or something.”

The older boy rolled his eyes. “We don’t have fish tails. We can just swim underwater and breathe underwater.”

Barry offered up another winsome smile. “So you can teach me to swim.”

The older boy eyed him. “Yeah, but not in winter. Wait till the water warms up. First day of summer, meet me here.”

Barry nodded. “Okay! Um - what’s your name?”

“Arthur.”

Like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Was Arthur going to be King of Atlantis one day?

“Nice to meet you, Arthur. I’m Barry. I’ll be back on the first day of summer, I promise.”

“Now get home, before you get sick,” Arthur said, and began swimming away.

He paddled out further into the water, dived deep, and was gone. Barry sat on the edge of the pier, scanning the water, waiting for Arthur to surface, but then he remembered. Arthur could breathe underwater. He was probably on his way home.

Barry was cold and numb by the time he finally stood up and trudged back to his foster home. Iris and Joe and Wally fussed over him. He ended up catching a cold, and he had to promise not to try to go swimming ever again without someone with him. He promised, because the next time he tried swimming, it would be with Arthur.

He went to the pier sometimes, to leave messages for Arthur. The best way, he’d learned from Iris, was messages in a bottle. He saved empty wine bottles from Joe, who didn’t mind that he wanted to send messages in a bottle out to see. Joe probably thought Barry was sending them to his mom, but Barry knew what it meant, that she was dead. Barry wrote letters to his dad every week, so it was easy to also add in writing a letter to Arthur as well.

For Halloween, Barry sent Arthur a paper pumpkin he’d made in school.

For Thanksgiving, Barry sent a paper turkey he’d made, with all the things he was grateful for written on the turkey’s tail feathers. Included on one of the feathers was Arthur.

For Christmas, Barry made Arthur a pretty snowflake.

For New Years, Barry sent Arthur a copy of his new year’s resolutions (like he did for his dad), and included in the list was learn to swim.

For Valentine’s Day, Barry sent a few chocolate kisses, because they were tasty, and French people kissed each other hello even if they were only friends.

For St. Patrick’s Day, Barry sent some chocolate gold coins, like the kind a leprechaun would have at the end of a rainbow.

For April Fool’s, Barry sent Arthur some of the best jokes he’d learned.

Barry received letters from his dad every week. He never got letters back from Arthur, but he knew Arthur was getting his letters, because every week, when he went out to the pier, last week’s bottle was sitting on the edge of the pier, clean and empty. Which was good, because Joe didn’t drink that much wine, and Barry only had a few bottles to use.

As the spring wore on, Barry learned something he hadn’t known before: there were two days to figure out the first day of summer. Based on the weather and temperature, that was the first of June. Based on the stars, it was the summer solstice, which was around June twenty-first.

Which first day of summer had Arthur meant?

School was already out by June first, so Barry went along to the pier, with snacks and some books and a towel, and waited. But Arthur wasn’t there.

So Barry went home after it got dark, a bit sunburned around the edges, and resolved to try again on the summer solstice.

The next time Barry went to the pier, he went with a towel, snacks, sunblock, several bottles of gatorade, and some books to read just in case. He got there right as the sun was coming up. He sat down on the edge of the pier, spread out his supplies, kicked off his shoes, and set to reading.

He was just getting to the good part when he heard a splash, and when he looked up, Arthur was there, hauling himself up onto the end of the pier. He had even more tattoos, and compared to Barry, he was very tanned.

“You made it,” Arthur said.

Barry nodded. “Like I said, one of my new year’s resolutions is to learn how to swim. I promised my foster dad I wouldn’t try swimming alone, so I waited for you.”

“Foster dad?” Arthur asked.

Barry nodded. “My mom died, and people think my dad killed her, so he’s in prison, but I know he didn’t do it. One day I’ll be a really smart scientist and prove he didn’t do it.” He stood up and peeled off his t-shirt. He was already wearing swimming trunks. “All right, Arthur, merboy, Atlantean, teach me how to swim.”

The first thing Arthur taught him how to do was not to swim but to float.

“You have to trust me,” Arthur said. “Lie on your back. Arms and legs out like a starfish. And then arch your back like you’re trying to stretch.”

The first few times Barry started to sink, and he panicked, but Arthur caught him.

“Trust me,” Arthur said. “I won’t let you drown.”

“Right, because you’re a merboy, and you’re supposed to save people who are drowning.”

“Close your eyes and tip your head back, like you’re sleeping.”

That was kind of scary, but Barry did - and then he was floating!

“There, now you know how to float. Now, can you stay floating and kick your legs?”

Barry tried - and nearly sank again.

But Arthur was there to catch him, and sure enough, Barry could swim a bit on his back, kicking his legs and using his hands to sort of steer.

By the time lunchtime rolled around, Barry could swim on his back properly. They took a break, sat on the end of the pier and shared the snacks Barry had brought.

“You should wait a bit, after you eat, before you swim,” Arthur said. “Well, regular humans should. Doesn’t matter to me.”

“Where is Atlantis?” Barry asked.

“Deep, deep under the ocean. Regular humans can’t get there, not even in submarines.” Arthur had a giant knife he kept strapped to his ankle that he used to cut their peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches in half.

“Is it super cool there? Do you like living there?”

“I don’t live there. I live with my dad. He’s human.”

“Is that why you don’t have a tail? Because you’re only half merboy.”

“Atlanteans don’t have tails,” Arthur said.

“Why does everyone think merpeople have tails?”

Arthur shrugged. “Because people are dumb.”

Barry nodded. People were. People thought he was a bad kid because his dad had killed his mom. His dad hadn’t killed his mom, and even if he had, Barry had never been bad. He was really smart at school, and his parents had taught him to be polite long before he’d gone to live with Joe.

Once they’d waited long enough for the food to settle, back into the water they went. Arthur taught Barry how to float on his front, and how not to get water up his nose, and how to kick with his legs and paddle with his arms so he could get where he wanted to go.

By the end of the day, they were both tired, Barry had used a lot of sunblock, and they were hungry. But Barry knew how to swim.

“Thanks for teaching me,” Barry said.

Arthur said, “No problem. Don’t go drowning now.”

“Does this mean I’ll never see you again?” Barry asked.

“Dunno.” Arthur shrugged. Then he said, “Thanks for the letters. Atlanteans don’t really send letters.’

Barry smiled. “You’re welcome.”

The sun went down, and Arthur dove into the water, vanished beneath the waves.

Barry headed back to Joe’s house, tired and hungry but pleased.

He was pretty sure he’d never see Arthur again, but that was all right. They’d been friends, if only for a little while.

And then he was struck by lightning and became The Flash, and he was supposed to help Batman with some kind of new Super Freak Squad.

And there was Arthur, bigger and stronger and with even more tattoos.

“Hey,” Arthur said.

“Long time no see,” Barry said.

“Glad you didn’t drown.”

“Me too.”

“You two know each other?” Bruce asked.

Barry said, “Old friends.”

Chapter Text

Even though Professor Kirke had told them that the best way to get back to Narnia was when they weren’t trying, Peter felt like they had to try. After what he’d seen - well, it was the only thing to do. They had to go save Narnia if possible. Once a high king, always a high king. The rings Polly Plummer had given them should have helped them make the journey.

As soon as they were on the train, Peter slipped his on, the one that was supposed to take someone to Narnia.

And then there was the horrible screeching of metal, the shriek of steam, people screaming all around as glass shattered and steel twisted and -

Peter woke up in a wood. He was lying on the ground, wearing Narnian clothes - in fact, wearing hose and a gambon and armor fitting a High King of Narnia. He had Rhindon and his shield to hand.

He sat up, looked about, but he was alone. He was lying beside a pool of water. It was utterly still, like a glass mirror. He leaned over, peered at his reflection, but he was still himself, still just a young man, not the king he’d once been, that first time he’d ruled Narnia. So many years that he was never going to get back.

Where was he? He was in a beautiful wood. It was quiet and serene. Something the entire place fairly hummed with energy. When Peter knelt and pressed his palm to the grass, it felt cool, but electric. Alive. The wood was dotted with many pools, some calm and serene, others with rippling surfaces.

And then he remembered what Professor Kirke and Polly Plummer had told him, about how they’d first met Jadis, Queen of Charn, the Ice Queen, and how she’d ended up in Narnia, and how they’d arrived in Narnia when it was first being created by Aslan. This was the Wood Between the Worlds. There was a way to Narnia from here.

He’d just come from Earth. He had a dagger on his sword belt, so he knelt, scored a deep mark in the grass beside the pool where he’d awakened. The soil was dark and rich. Anything would grow here. Which pool led to Narnia?

Peter rose, sheathed his dagger, took up his sword and shield, and he set out, peering into each pool one by one, trying to see something, anything beneath the surface, some kind of clue that would tell him what each pool led to. He kept checking back over his shoulder to make sure he could still see which pool would lead to Earth, and - no. He ought not to stray too far. He went back to the pool and saw that the mark in the soil was already healing. He had to find a better way to mark his path home.

He used his dagger again to cut a branch from a nearby tree. He cleaned off the smaller shoots from its length, then sharpened one end into a stake, and drove it into the ground beside the pool. He fished about beneath his gambeson for a pocket, and sure enough he had a white handkerchief. He knotted it about the end of the little stake, and then he tested it, made sure it was in the ground solidly. Sure enough, it was. He’d be able to find his way home.

He set off searching again through the pools, for any kind of clue as to where Narnia would be. He recalled what Professor Kirke and Polly Plummer had told him about Jadis saying in the beginning there were eleven worlds, but there were far more than eleven pools. And not all of them were pools. Some were dried hollows, having been long empty. Others were still empty, as if they’d just dried up. Were those worlds destroyed? Or had the doors to them simply been closed forever?

Peter kept a hand on the sword of his hilt, wary. He was alone. Where were the others? Was he the only one here because he was the only one with a ring?

He looked down, and the yellow ring was still on his left hand. He patted himself down, and indeed, he had the green ring in his pocket as well. Would the others be able to get to Narnia?

And then he remembered.

The noise. The chaos. The screaming.

The train they’d been on - there’d been a crash.

Peter went still. Everyone was dead. Was he the only one alive? Had he been saved because he’d thought to put a ring on?

Panic set in. No. He couldn’t panic. He was needed. Clearly Narnia needed him, if he was wearing his royal armor. He forced himself to take deep breaths. Once he got back to Narnia, he’d find the others, he was sure of it.

Peter was startled out of his attempt at meditation by a sudden mighty rushing of water. He spun, hand on the hilt of his sword, shield up, and watched water shoot skyward from one of the pools. It hit the closely-grown tree canopy, and then it vanished.

Water didn’t sprinkle down from the leaves at all. Peter stared at them, startled and confused. He’d definitely seen water spray up from the pool. He looked down at the ground for any indication of water, that he’d seen what he’d seen, and he saw a young man, maybe his same age, lying on the grass beside the pool.

Peter drew his sword.

The young man stirred, sat up. “Fer cryin’ out loud, I said on my mark, and that was not on my mark.”

He was American. Peter knew their accents, from some of the American GIs who’d been stationed near London.

In fact, the young man was dressed like a soldier, though his uniform was strange colors, mottled browns and greens. He had a pistol strapped to his thigh and some kind of sleek black rifle, the likes of which Peter had never seen before.

The man scrubbed at his face, and then he looked at Peter.

“This isn’t Earth,” he said.

“No,” Peter said. “Earth’s back that way.” He pointed toward the pool he’d marked. “But you don’t sound nearly as surprised as most people might.”

“Well, no.” The man stood up. He had name on his left pocket. Nealson. “I was running for the gate - chappa’ai, Ancestral ring, whatever you want to call it - and one of my teammates had to set off some claymores behind us, and I jumped through, and - wait. No. We weren’t in the Milky Way. We were in Pegasus.” He pressed hand to his head, looking pained. “This isn’t Atlantis, either.”

Atlantis. The famed civilization who’d had the magic to make the rings to allow travel between worlds. Peter narrowed his eyes. “Are you from Atlantis?”

“Not natively, no. I’m from Earth.” Then Nealson narrowed his eyes. “You’ve heard of Earth.”

“Because I’m from Earth,” Peter said.

Nealson looked him up and down. “From when on Earth? Is this Earth? Did I travel through time again? Was there a solar flare? Only - you’re speaking modern English. I can understand you. Unless it’s that whole weird gate translation thing that no one can explain?”

“Of course I speak modern English,” Peter said, affronted. “I’m quite modern. I know time passes differently in other worlds, but on Earth it’s 1949.”

Nealson said, “That outfit isn’t from 1949.”

Peter smoothed a hand down his breastplate. “When I come to Narnia - or places near Narnia - I’m usually transformed into my more kingly self.”

“Kingly self,” Nealson echoed.

“I’m Peter Pevensie, High King Peter the Magnificent, Emperor of the Lone Islands, Lord of Cair Paravel, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion,” he said, even though the titles sounded foolish even to him, boy as he was.

Nealson slid a hand toward his pistol. “Listen, High King Peter or whatever you’re calling yourself, do your eyes happen to glow? Do you have a snake in your head?”

“I do not. I am a human,” Peter said, indignant, though he was also intrigued. No one else he’d ever met had had such an open mind as to things beyond the ordinary world, at least not since his time in Narnia.

“So, let me get this straight, you’re human, and you’re from Earth, but on Earth it’s 1949?”

Peter nodded.

Nealson said, “Does time pass differently here? Is this some kind of time dilation field or something? Or whatever the reverse of that is?”

“Why?” Peter asked.

“Because I’m from Earth, and it’s 2009.”

Peter’s throat closed. “Are you sure?”

Nealson said, “I’m sure. Because I was born in 1952.”

Peter eyed him. “If you were born in 1952, and it’s 2009, surely you would be much older.”

“I was,” Nealson said. “I mean - it’s complicated.”

“I understand,” Peter said. “I was older once, when I was king. And then I returned to Earth from Narnia, and I was a boy again. Living to adulthood again has been - well, I’m sure you understand.”

“So - are you looking to head back to Earth?” Nealson asked.

“No, I’m trying to go back to Narnia,” Peter said. “Because Narnia needs me. I could feel her calling. I just don’t know which pool leads to Narnia.”

“Pool?” Nealson echoed.

Peter nodded and pointed. “Like the one you just came from.”

Nealson looked down at the pool he’d appeared from, and his expression went oddly blank. “Ah - no. No, I came through a stargate.” He framed a circular shape in the air with his hands. “It’s, oh, about yea high, round, made of strange metal called naquadah, decorated with funny symbols. Has a kind of mushroom-looking pedestal with a big red button in the middle so you can dial it. Like a telephone. Phone home?”

“No. There was a great gush of water, and you just appeared here. I think this is the Wood Between the Worlds,” Peter said.

“How did you get here?” Nealson asked.

Peter decided to skip the bit about the possible train wreck and how everyone he knew and loved was dead. “With a ring, made from the dust of Atlantis.”

“That’s a description I’ve never heard before,” Nealson said, “but sure. We’ll go with that. Where’s this ring?”

Peter held up his hand.

Nealson stared. “You meant an actual ring. Like a piece of jewelry.”

“What other kind of ring did you think I meant?”

“The kind big enough for people to walk through. Or fly a specially designed spaceship through,” Nealson said.

“There are spaceships in 2009?” Peter asked.

“Yes,” Nealson said. “Just - most of the ones I fly are alien-made. So you’re from Earth in 1949, but you lived on another planet called Narnia for years and were king, and then you went back to Earth and you were a kid again.”

“Not another planet, another world,” Peter said.

“Right. And you want to get back to Narnia?”

Peter nodded. “Do you want to get back to Earth?”

“I’m stationed out in Atlantis. I want to get back to Atlantis,” Nealson said.

“I don’t know which, if any, of these pools leads to Atlantis. When I spoke to Professor Kirke, he made it sound as though Atlantis had long since faded, and only a bit of its magic remained. I’m sorry.”

Nealson smiled. “Well, luckily for us, Professor Kirke was wrong, and we found Atlantis, in 2004. You say these pools lead to other worlds? Then let’s find the oldest.”

“Very old worlds or destroyed worlds have no pools - they dry up,” Peter said.

As if on cue, the pool Nealson had sprung from let out a gurgle. Both men watched, horrified and fascinated, as the water bubbled away, deep into the ground, and left a mud hole in its place.

“I didn’t want to go back there anyway,” Nealson said. “So, Atlantis. Let’s go look for it. You say you came from Earth?”

Peter pointed to the pool he’d marked with a stake.

“Noted. If we can’t find Atlantis, well, I can head back to Earth, report in to the SGC, and they can send me to Atlantis on the next transport.” Nealson straightened up. “By the way, I’m Captain Jonathan Nealson, United States Marines.”

“Pleased to meet you, Captain.”

“Call me Jon.” He let his hand fall away from his pistol. “You want I should call you Your Majesty or something?”

“Peter is fine.” He pointed opposite the direction of the pool from Earth. “I think that’s the older part of the wood. If the pool to Atlantis is anywhere, it’ll be there.”

“That sounds logical to me.” Jon smiled. “So, you’re British.”

Peter nodded. “I am. So - you’re a pilot?”

“Well, the first go around, I was an Air Force Pilot. Ah - no such thing during World War Two. Formalized version of the US Army Aviators. They made us our own branch of service. And then I got turned into a kid - fifteen - and when I was old enough I joined the Marines instead.” Jon eyed him. “So when you’re not High King of Narnia, what do you do?”

“I was going to university, studying history, languages.”

“I knew a guy who was like that, into history and languages,” Jon said.

Together they walked through the woods. There was so much Peter wanted to ask Jon, about the future, about what Atlantis was like, but he had no idea where to start, and would he damage things, if he learned about the future?

If he went back through the pool to Earth now, would it be 2009? It always seemed that time on Earth passed slower, not faster than time in other worlds.

Finally Peter said, “I don’t know if I’ll keep it up, if I go back.”

“If you go back?” Jon glanced at him.

“I hadn’t intended to go back, the first time I went to Narnia,” Peter said. “We were out hunting, chasing a white stag, and it led us into some woods, and we had to dismount from our horses and walk when the trees became too thick, and then - we were back on Earth. And children again.”

“Trees too thick to ride horses through - like here?” Jon asked.

Peter nodded. “Yes, but - definitely not these forests. I knew all of Narnia well, and this - this is no part of Narnia.”

“How do you know that?”

Peter told Jon everything he knew, about the Wood Between the Worlds, and Narnia, and Aslan, and all Professor Kirke had told him about Charn and Jadis and Aslan making the world, and the wardrobe made from the apple tree that had grown from the apple Professor Kirke had brought back from Narnia as a boy, and Professor Kirke’s Uncle Andrew the magician, and the rings made from the dust of Atlantis.

“Talking animals. Never saw that offworld. I was always kinda disappointed, how life on other planets was so similar to Earth,” Jon said.

“Other planets?” Peter asked.

So Jon unfolded the story of the Stargates, the Goa’uld, the Ancients, and Atlantis. It wasn’t magic, he said, but science. Science too far outside their realm of understanding so it seemed like magic. But it really wasn’t.

Peter kept waiting for that moment Polly had told him about, how the wood made her tired and sleepy and forgetful, but it never happened. They kept walking, and they kept talking. Jon told Peter about Atlantis, which was indeed a city, but also a starship. It could sink under the waves, or it could fly through outer space.

“And you live there now?”

“Seemed like the thing to do. Most people out there don’t know about me and the whole clone thing, and since I have the Gene, I’m useful.” Jon shrugged.

If Peter had thought turning back into a child after being a king was bad, being turned into a child version of himself while someone else got to live his life was worse. But Jon seemed to have done all right for himself, kept on going, was an impressive soldier.

Not that Peter hadn’t been an impressive warrior in his own right.

They continued to pass pool after pool after pool. Peter was pretty sure he could get them back to the pool to Earth, but - did the wood go on forever?

It didn’t.

The trees started to thin, and the green quality of the light, changed, deepened, took on a bluer note.

And then the trees were gone and they were standing on the edge of a lake.

Its surface was as still as glass, serene, and opaque. Peter was hesitant to disturb it.

Jon said, “Any moment now, some lady is going to pop out of the lake and give one of us a sword. Maybe me, since you already have one.”

“You’re familiar with the tales of King Arthur as well?”

“More than I’d like to be,” Jon grumbled.

“You know,” Peter said, “some people thought Atlantis might be the Glass Isle, Avalon, which floated on a glass like.”

“Like this lake?”

Peter nodded.

“You think this lake is the pond to Atlantis?”

“It would make sense,” Peter offered. “After all, it’s the biggest, if not the oldest.”

“All right. So I just - jump into the lake?”

“You need to be wearing a green ring. Yellow rings bring you to the wood. Green rings take you to new worlds.” Peter fished in his pocket for the green ring, held it out.

Jon said, “But if I take the green ring, won’t you be stuck here?”

Peter said, “If I’m holding the ring and you’re touching me, we can both go. And then I can come back and continue my search for Narnia.”

“Maybe the database on Atlantis had coordinates for Narnia,” Jon said. “If you help me get to Atlantis, do my a solid, I’ll scratch your back too.”

Peter huffed. “You mixed some metaphors there.”

Jon shrugged. “What do you say? Tit for tat?”

Peter nodded. He put the yellow ring in his pocket, then closed his hand around the green ring. He offered his other hand to Jon.

Jon stared at him for a long moment, then took a deep breath, took his hand. Together, they stepped toward the edge of the lake.

There was another mighty rushing of water.

Peter jerked back instinctively, one hand going for his sword. He clutched the ring tightly. He dare not use it. Was someone else arriving in the wood?

No. A massive creature reared out of the water. It had a long serpentine neck but far too many teeth for a snake. And Peter could see that its body was massive, flat almost like a turtle, and it had four massive flippers.

Jon said, “Holy crap! Nessie is real!”

Peter, who’d raised his shield instinctively, paused. “Nessie? As in the monster that inhabits Loch Ness? That’s a -”

“Fairy tale? This from the guy who’s a king when he jumps in a pond,” Jon said. He had his rifle shouldered. “Get behind me.”

Peter went to draw his sword.

The creature reared up and up and up. It stared at them with its massive yellow, reptilian eyes. Water sluiced down its dark mottled body.

Then the creature dove close.

Jon jumped back, dragged Peter with him.

The creature pressed its nose to the shore briefly.

“High King Peter the Magnificent of Narnia, Emperor of the Lone Islands, Lord of Cair Paravel, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion, greetings.” The creature had a deep, rumbling voice, like rolling thunder.

“Greetings.” Peter shook Jon’s hand off and stood tall, dignified.

“I am Uisge, father of all lake dwellers,” the creature continued. “Aslan calls for you.”

“I am ready to answer his call,” Peter said.

“Aslan has a mighty quest for you, and your new knave.” Uisge flicked a glance at Jon.

“Knave? Don’t I warrant at least knight?” Jon protested.

Uisge bared his teeth.

Jon flinched but didn’t give ground - or lower his weapon. He was brave.

Peter put a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “I will accept Aslan’s quest.”

“You must accompany the Knave to Atlantis. Your quest begins in her halls.”

Peter inclined his head. “Thank you, Uisge.”

Jon said, “Isn’t the way to Atlantis, you know, in your lake?”

Uisge bared his teeth in a grin. “Yes, it is.” And he lunged, swung around. Swept them both into the lake with his neck.

Jon reacted lightning fast, grabbed Peter’s wrist. Peter clung to his shield.

And the green ring.

They hit the water.

The world around them dissolved.