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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.

Chapter Text

Making an android companion was pretty damn cliche for a scientist, Rodney could admit that, but he was lonely, and he was a genius, and if no human could tolerate him (as his last girlfriend had screamed before she’d stormed out of his penthouse apartment), well, he’d settle for someone superhuman.

His Lornebot was superior to humans in pretty much every way possible. He was Rodney’s personal secretary, managing his calendar and correspondence with impeccable manners and poise, always handling incoming calls with poise and just the right amount of good cheer. (If Rodney had had to download an Emily Post volume or two into his Lornebot, because heaven knew he couldn’t base the Lornebot’s manners on his own, well, it had worked.) Lornebot also managed Rodney’s finances, not just the simple tasks like balancing the books but bigger tasks like managing his stock portfolio, paying his taxes, and making appropriate donations to charitable causes.

Lornebot also cooked. Rodney had downloaded every single online course ever from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, old Julia Childs videos, and just about ever cooking show on the Food TV Network ever into his central database, so he was a gourmet chef, pastry chef, chocolatier, and more. Of course, everything he made for Rodney was citrus-free and Michelin Three Star quality. Lornebot cleaned, assisted by an army of roombas and other assistive robots. He did the laundry, starched Rodney’s shirts just how he liked, and never turned the whites pink.

Lornebot was also capable of slightly more intimate tasks, like giving Rodney neck and scalp massages, or foot rubs when he was tense and stressed out. He also knew how to fix up a bubble bath just how Rodney liked, he had impeccable taste in wine and whiskey for nightcaps, and a literally encyclopedic knowledge of classical music and literature, so Rodney could be entertained at will. He knew when Rodney wanted to listen to a symphony, or when it was better for quiet, or when he should recite a humorous selection from Anthony Trollope as well.

Even though Meredith Labs was a sole proprietorship, Rodney needed help now and again, and Lornebot was the perfect lab assistant. He was, of course, a calculator par excellence, and he was a walking catalogue of every single scientific journal Rodney subscribed to, plus a few more he’d signed for after he’d built some hefty translation software for Lornebot.

Lornebot didn’t need to sleep, but it creeped Rodney out, to think of him roaming the apartment like a silent roomba all night, so while he was charging and updating he curled up on one of the couches and looked like he was asleep. Rodney had even acquired some pajamas for him, plus a blanket and pillow on the odd chance that someone stopped over.

Which no one ever did. Rodney did all his collaboration via teleconference, had all his groceries delivered, and if he needed sunlight and fresh air, well, he could enjoy his rooftop garden (which Lornebot tended meticulously) on sunny days.

Because Rodney was neither a prude nor a saint, he’d built Lornebot to be attractive in a sort of conservative, grown-up boy-next-door kind of way, with neat short dark hair, bright blue eyes, dimples, and broad shoulders, so in the event anyone spotted him doing something vaguely superhuman, he looked strong enough to pull it off. If Rodney wanted for human companionship - well, he never wanted for human companionship. He had his science (and dealing with other people was tedious enough for work; why do it in his free time?), and he had his music and books, and for everything else, there was Lornebot and the roombas.

Lornebot wasn’t a conversationalist, tended to just nod and smile in all the right places when Rodney was rambling. The good thing about Lornebot was that he was smarter than just about every other human out there besides Rodney (and, okay, maybe Jeannie), so he never made pointless comments or asked stupid questions. He could answer inquiries into his wellbeing perfectly politely, and he always had a comment about the weather should Rodney ask about it, but Rodney wasn’t inclined to chat with him to fill silence, and Lornebot never tried to fill the silence either.

He didn’t stare awkwardly, either. He was just - there. A constant, consistent presence, always helpful and comforting, never interfering or irritating. He was perfect, better than any human.

And he was perfect for Rodney.

After a while, Rodney found himself talking to Lornebot, casual comments about how his work was going, ideas he had, comments about his collaborators, or the meals Lornebot made. Lornebot always responded politely but honestly. Rodney couldn’t manage that in himself, but he could pull it off perfectly in an android.

And then one day Rodney mentioned his sister to Lornebot.

“Tell me more about her,” Lornebot said.

Rodney didn’t even think about it. He just did. He talked about growing up with Jeannie as his only ally in a fractured household, the terrible contempt children had for parents who were literally stupider than them but had authority over them anyway, how his mother had hated him and his father had been too weak to defend him, and now he was on his own and Jeannie was wasting her brilliance changing diapers and getting baby food thrown at her.

One day, Lornebot said, “It’s your sister’s birthday in a week. Would you like to send her  a gift?”

Rodney, who was contemplating a new method to capture zero point energy, glanced up from his laptop. “A gift?”

“And a card.”

“What kind of gift?”

“Given your longtime estrangement, perhaps flowers and a small token to memorialize the bond you had before your estrangement.”

“Sure,” Rodney said. “Whatever you think is good.”

“I’ll make arrangements.”

Later that day, while Rodney was eating lunch, he heard Lornebot making a call.

“Yes, David, this is Lorne, Dr. McKay’s assistant. Could you design a bouquet? For his sister’s birthday. If you could send it to this shop in Toronto, I’ve done the research, and I believe one of the florists there would be capable of handling your designs.”

David Parrish was a PhD botanist but preferred flower arranging, and whenever Rodney needed to send someone an apology bouquet - those occasions were much fewer and further between, now that Lornebot was here to smooth the way - he had Parrish do it.

He was pretty sure Parrish had a crush on Lornebot.

“Thank you. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it. No, I’m sorry, Dr. McKay is keeping me very busy. Maybe one day we’ll go for coffee.”

It was what Lornebot said every time someone made a pass at him.

“Have a good day.” Lornebot disconnected, and then when he spoke again a moment later, it was in fluent Italian.

Rodney tuned him out and kept on enjoying his lunch.

A week later, while he and Lornebot were running calculations for a potential zero point energy capture method, the shrill ringing of his telephone broke their comfortable working silence.

“It’s your sister,” Lornebot said. He was always connected to Rodney’s smartphone.

Rodney looked away from his whiteboard. “What?”

“Your sister, Jean Miller.”

“Put her through,” Rodney said.

Lornebot nodded, and then Jeannie’s voice spilled over the surround sound system in the lab.

“Hey, Mer,” she said.

“Jeannie.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine,” he said, and winced internally at how abrupt he sounded. “How are you?”

“I’m good.” Jeannie cleared her throat. “I wanted to thank you for the lovely birthday present.”

“I hope you enjoy the flowers,” Rodney said.

“I just - I don’t know if I can accept it. It must have cost a fortune,” Jeannie said.

Rodney frowned, and then he realized he had no idea what Lornebot had sent with the flowers. “Don’t worry about the cost,” he said, because money really was no object for him.

“Just - a first edition of Newton’s Principia. How did you even find it?”

“I had help,” Rodney said slowly, staring at Lornebot. A first edition of Newton’s breakthrough work.

“Well - thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Rodney said. “How are your husband and -”

Daughter, Lornebot mouthed.

“ - Daughter?”

“Kaleb and Madison are great. Madison’s finally starting to really talk.”

“That is great,” Rodney said, a little helplessly.

“So...what are you working on these days?” Jeannie asked.

“Zero point energy,” Rodney said.

“What? Mer, that’s science fiction.”

“Hear me out,” Rodney protested, and unspooled his theory of zero point energy capture for his sister to hear.

“That’s actually not so crazy sounding,” she said.

“There’s more,” Rodney said, and spoke on.

He barely noticed how much time passed, the two of them talking, Jeannie pausing to tend to her daughter in the background, Lornebot bringing him coffee and then non-caffeinated tea as the evening wore on, finger food so he could have supper without breaking conversation.

By the time Rodney and Jeannie finished talking, her daughter and husband were both asleep.

Rodney looked around the den and saw that Lornebot was in his pajamas, curled on the couch covered by a blanket, charging.

“Wow, Mer. We’ve talked forever.”

“Making up for lost time,” he said softly.

“We should do it again,” Jeannie said.

“Sooner, this time.”

“Yes. Sooner. Thanks, Mer.”

“Happy Birthday, Jeannie.” Rodney ended the call and stared at Lornebot’s not-really-sleeping form.

Maybe he needed more human interaction after all.

Rodney stood up, stretched, started for the master bedroom so he could brush his teeth and get ready for bed.

Lornebot said, “You’re going to go out more, aren’t you?”

Rodney paused, turned to him. “What?”

“You’re going to go outside more, to spend time with humans.”

It was odd and disturbing, because Lornebot looked asleep, but his mouth was moving.

“Maybe. Why?”

“If you do, you should shut me down and put me away,” Lornebot said.

Rodney stared at him. “What?”

“Humans won’t understand,” Lornebot said, “that you made me for a companion.” His eyes opened, and he looked straight at Rodney. “And you’re all I have. I don’t think I could stand it, if you left me.”

Unease prickle down Rodney’s spine. “Why not? It’s not like you’re in love with me.”

“I don’t know how to love - I’m a machine,” Lornebot said.

“Then why would you care if I left you? Not that me going out and occasionally partaking of humanity means I’d be leaving you.”

Lornebot gazed at him fixedly. “You made me. You are my creator, my sole companion, the only source of life and knowledge I have. Without you, I’m nothing.”

The unease turned to icy fear. “Lorne -”

He closed his eyes. “Like I said. You should shut me down and put me away. Once you start going out.”

After that, he said nothing, and he didn’t move an iota.

Rodney stared at him, heart pounding.

Then he headed into his bedroom. He sat down on the edge of his bed, stared down at his phone. He powered it up, navigate to the Bot Control App he’d coded and installed on his phone, fired it up.

Then he input the override code, and he shut the Lornebot down.

He watched the shutdown clock slowly count down, and once it reached zero, Lornebot was completely powered down and turned off.

Rodney went back out into the den, unplugged him.

Then he carried him into the guest room, to the closet where he’d kept the large box Lornebot’s hardware had been in when it was delivered from the factory. He arranged Lornebot inside, closed the lid, and then closed the closet.

Then he went back to his room, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.

Tomorrow, he was going to the shelter to buy a cat, and for the first time in who knew how long, he was going grocery shopping. Maybe he’d buy flowers from Parrish just because, tell him Lorne had moved on.

To be safe, he threw away the power adapter needed to charge Lornebot. If he needed to, he could order another one online later.

Rodney closed his eyes to sleep, and dreamed.

Of sunlight, and human laughter, and leaving his loneliness behind.

Chapter Text

“Oh, Evan never cried as a baby,” Bobbie Lorne said.

Kate paused in taking her notes, looked up. “What do you mean by ‘never’?”

Bobbie raised her eyebrows. “You know, never.”

“As in if he cried it was rare but he always quietened down easily, or literally never?”

Bobbie beamed. “Never. He was such a good baby. Never made a sound. Just looked at the world with his pretty blue eyes. He got those from me.”

Kate swallowed down the horror that rose in her throat. “All right. Tell me more about what Evan was like, when he was a child?”

“A very precocious boy, was my Evan. He was such a little organizer. All the other kids on the commune did what he said. He made sure they knew what their jobs were. He practically raised himself. He’s so smart. Made first in his class at the Academy, you know.” Bobbie smiled some more, pleased.

Kate glanced down to make sure her recorder was on, because while she could believe she was hearing, she was pretty horrified at hearing it, wanted it recorded for posterity, so someone else could hear what Evan’s mother was saying.

“When you say the other kids on the commune did what he said -”

“Oh, he was a little soldier, even then. They took orders perfectly from him. I mean, him being such a soldier was - odd, on the commune. But then his daddy had been a soldier, so he came by it honestly.”

“Evan never talks about his father. What was he like?”

Bobbie’s smile faded, and her gaze turned distant. “He was a good man. Before the war. But Vietnam messed him up. And when he came back - well, the only good thing he brought with him was the poppy juice. But he couldn’t handle it. Killed himself when I was about five months along with Evan.”

Poppy juice. A lot of Vietnam vets had turned to opiates to deal with the horrors of war.

“Did depression run in Alex’s family?”

Bobbie shrugged. “Don’t know. Never talked to them. Don’t even know if his folks are still alive.”

Kate made more notes. “So, besides you, who helped raise Evan?”

“My mom, obviously. And - really everyone else on the commune. Takes a village and all that.”

“Was there anyone in particular that Evan had as a sort of father figure?”

“No. I mean, we don’t subscribe to traditional gender roles, and a male parental figure isn’t necessary for a child to grow up to be well-adjusted. Evan might have been close to a couple of my boyfriends, maybe a couple of his sister’s boyfriends, but like I said, he basically raised himself.” Bobbie shrugged again.

Kate made more notes. “Did you have any pets in your household?”

“No. Evan made sure our home was clean and vermin-free. He’s always been so clean and organized. Don’t know where he got it from. It certainly wasn’t me.” Bobbie laughed.

“Did anything frightening ever happen when Evan was a child?”

“Frightening how? Kids get scared sometimes.”

“Like - was your family ever victims of a crime? Or involved in a natural disaster?”

Bobbie’s expression turned thoughtful. “Well, one time there was a terrible fire on the commune. Old Man Turner’s place burned down with him in it. It was tragic, but he’d always been an outcast even in a haven for those of us who eschew traditional society. Evan helped put the fire out. After, he suggested turning the empty lot into a garden. It grew some of the best fresh vegetables.”

Kate nodded. “Thank you.”

“Anything else I can do for you?”

“No, I think I’ve heard enough.”

*

There were only two types of people in the world: people who’d help you get where you were going, and people who were in the way. Evan had learned that truth early on. He’d also learned another important truth: no one gave a damn about him, and if he wanted something, he had to get it for himself.

Getting someone else to get it for him was the next best thing to getting it for himself. He learned fast how to get other people to do things for him. Sometimes he had to cry. Sometimes he had to smile. Sometimes he told them what they wanted to hear. Sometimes maybe he had to scare someone, or he had to hug or kiss someone. But he always got what he wanted, and everything was okay.

Evan’s mother was usually so busy getting high and having new boyfriends that she couldn’t be bothered to do things for him, but that was okay, because other moms on the commune would give him food if he smiled right or cried right. If other moms didn’t give him food, a pinch or a threat to the right child meant Evan could get food from them. Sometimes mom’s boyfriends were fun, would let Evan sneak a drink or a smoke. If her boyfriends weren’t fun or were too mean, well, Evan would bide his time. He’d let them put their hands on him, pretend to cry and be sad or be afraid or be charmed, and he’d wait till they let their guard down, were too stupid to be afraid of him.

People had bad trips all the time.

Sometimes a really bad trip could kill a man.

Evan figured out that his dimples and big blue eyes made people think that he didn’t do the things he needed to do - or sometimes just wanted to do - to get what he wanted. He also figured out that if he pretended to follow stupid rules, he could do other things he wanted that were more fun than the stupid rules, and if anyone told on him, no one would believe them.

As long as Evan did the stupid things people wanted - homework, dressed and fed himself, made sure he was clean and neat - he could do whatever he wanted. He could have money. He could experiment with knives and fire. He could try to make things fly (and oh well if they crashed).

Evan’s father had been a soldier. If he was weird, if he wasn’t like the other kids on the commune, well, it was because of his dad. Soldier were violent. Soldiers were mean. But for the most part he was good. He did what he was told. He smiled and helped. And when no one was watching, he did what he wanted.

When the man came to Evan’s high school and told him about the Air Force, about the opportunity to become a fighter, to become a leader, Evan knew what he had to do. He could go to the Academy. He could become a leader. A leader meant power. Other soldiers would have to do what he said. He could become a fighter. A fighter meant weapons. Tools. The chance to do something exciting and dangerous. Evan knew if he wanted to join the Air Force and become an officer (and they got paid better, and girls liked them), the Air Force Academy was the best chance. He knew he’d have to pass a bunch of tests, so he studied up on all of them, especially the psych tests. Those were the hardest to pass.

But Evan knew when to smile or look sad, when to say I’m sorry, that must be hard, when to laugh or offer a hug. It was hard, sometimes, when he was tired, because pretending to be nice took a lot of energy, but for the most part, it was worth it, so he could do whatever he wanted.

Making it into the Academy was a breeze. Evan was smart, knew he was smart, knew how to always have the right answer. He was right about girls liking him. He dated as many girls as he wanted in town, which impressed the other cadets. And if he messed around with some of the other male cadets, well, who would believe them if they told? Because the girls in town had great things to say about him on dates, in bed.

Big Air Force was kind of boring. Surveying. The SGC was amazing. A real warzone. Things that were out of this world. Because it was such an unorthodox posting, well, people were lax about a lot of rules. Evan could do a lot of things that were fun, and crazy, and half the time they were the right thing to do. And if they weren’t - well. They were harmless. Or the others knew better than to say if anything had been harmful. Which really it wasn’t. People were just too afraid to get things done, make things happen, get what they wanted.

Evan always, always got what he wanted.

*

Dr. Daniel Jackson was a fascinating soul, a mix of scientist and soldier that puzzled Kate endlessly. She’d love to pick his brain. For all that Rodney McKay was on a gate team, he’d never blurred the line between scientist and soldier. For all that Dr. Jackson exuded that meek scholarly air, with his glasses and tendency to trail off into long tangents filed with academic minutiae and bizarre trivia, he carried a weapon confidently, responded like a soldier during an emergency, and had given up his longer, softer haircut for one that was regulation.

He sat opposite her in her office, elbows resting on his knees, looking aggrieved. “I only really ever dealt with Major Lorne one time, during the crisis with the Unas on P3X-403.”

“And how was he?”

“He was - a military officer. Respectful to his superiors. Not so keen on scientists and civilians.” Dr. Jackson shrugged. “He was frustrating and aggravating, but - he was just a man.”

“What was your interaction with him like?”

“When I got to the planet, he showed me the Unas-related artefacts his team had uncovered and moved but failed to report to my department.”

Kate nodded. “What was the significance of his failure to report the discovery to your department?”

“Well, if he’d reported them and abided by protocol, the dig site would have been intact and allowed for more accurate study, and maybe we would have discovered the Unas presence on the planet before we’d started digging a mine into their sacred site and angering them and leading them to kill Lieutenant Menard to ward us off,” Dr. Jackson said.

“What was his response, when you asked him why he failed to abide by protocol?”

“All he said was they were in the way.”

Kate raised her eyebrows. “He expressed no remorse?”

“None,” Dr. Jackson said. “But then I didn’t really expect him to. I get attitude from military personnel all the time.” His gaze turned thoughtful. “Teal’c said he hurled pretty bad when they found Menard’s body. I mean, that might not have been remorse so much as - reflexive. The smell, the sight - could startle a lot of people.”

Kate made a note. “And after that?”

“Once we knew what we were up against, he did fine. Performed well under pressure. When the Unas ambushed us he didn’t lose it, didn’t make the situation worse, let me and Chaka handle things.” Dr. Jackson looked at her. “Do you really think he’s -?”

“I haven’t made definitive findings yet,” Kate said, as calmly and professionally as possible.

Dr. Jackson nodded, his gaze going distant.

“Anything else you can tell me about your interactions with him?”

“No. Like I said, my time around him has been limited.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate your time,” Kate said.

Dr. Jackson turned to her, his smile sad. “I hope I helped.”

*

Evan was lying in his cell when footsteps approached. He sat up, saw both of his guards snap to attention.

Colonel Sheppard stood on the other side of the Ancient force field.

Evan rose, stood to attention.

“Major,” Sheppard said.

Evan inclined his head politely. “Sir.”

“I’m not here on official business,” Sheppard said.

Evan tilted his head, curious. “Social call?”

Sheppard looked right at him.

Evan met his gaze. Evan knew how to meet a man’s gaze.

“Look, I’m not out to bust you, and I know you don’t have your JAG officer here, but - just tell me. Did you do it?” Sheppard’s gaze would’ve been unreadable to anyone else.

One thing Evan had learned very quickly was to be able to read his COs. Making sure he knew how they worked ensured he’d be able to serve under them at his pleasure without them getting in his way. Sheppard was trying to look calm, reasonable, but he was worried, afraid.

People had been afraid of Evan before.

He said, “I did what I had to for the mission, sir.”

Sheppard sighed. “But did you have to do it?”

“If the answer were as simple as a yes or no, I’d either be back on Earth rotting in Leavenworth or going about my duties in the city,” Evan said, “not in here while Dr. Heightmeyer runs around talking to everyone but me to try to get into my head.”

Sheppard looked him in the eye again. “What if you wanted to do it more than it was necessary? Don’t we need to know that?”

“If I made the right decision, what does it matter, what I intended?” Evan stepped closer to the force field.

Sheppard said, “What if, next time, what you want is the wrong decision?”

“What if, next time, what I don’t want is the wrong decision?” And then Evan realized he was being a little too honest, had to rein himself back in. “In the heat of battle, sir, we make decisions based on our training and how we apply it to our immediate circumstances. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, and most times whether we’re right or wrong is out of our control. If Walker and Stevens had lived, or maybe even just one of them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If I was wrong, I was wrong, but I can’t change what happened. No one can.”

Sheppard said, “But do you feel bad that you were wrong?”

“No one likes being wrong,” Evan said. “But I made my decision, and I have to live with it.”

“Walker and Stevens don’t get to do that.”

“No,” Evan said softly, “they don’t, but McKay is still alive, and that’s all that matters, right? To you.”

Sheppard swallowed hard. “What are you trying to say, Major?”

“Nothing, sir. Unless you’re asking something I’m not supposed to be telling?” Evan kept his voice low, raised his eyebrows, waited for Sheppard to catch the implication.

Shock flared in Sheppard’s gaze. “You -?”

Evan continued to keep his voice low, too low for the SFs to hear. “Rodney tells me his woes. I’m open-minded, sympathetic. Was raised in the Bay Area, you know. Free love hippie commune. I’m more flexible than some of the other officers around here.”

Fury crossed Sheppard’s face.

“What?” Evan asked, widening his eyes. “No one likes to be second-best. He can’t have you. Doesn’t get to have me either. You should loosen up a bit yourself, sir. He’s worth it, that mouthy scientist teammate of yours. In more ways than one.”

Sheppard snarled and slapped the button that controlled the force field, and it vanished. He wrenched the cell door open.

Evan backpedaled rapidly, eyes wider, hands raised in surrender. “Sir,” he said, “I’m sorry Walker and Stevens are dead, but please -”

The SFs were there in an instant, hauling Sheppard out of the cell and slamming it shut, reactivating the force field.

“Sir,” Corporal Sun said, “you should go now.”

Evan kept his hands raised in surrender, his expression shocked, as Sheppard stormed out of the brig.

“You all right, Major?” Lance-Corporal Mack asked.

Evan nodded, lowered his hands. “Yeah. I didn’t realize Sheppard was so close to my teammates is all. He cares about all of us more than we know.”

“Sure,” Sun said, skeptical.

Evan went back to lying on his bunk, and he closed his eyes.

*

“Major Lorne?” Rodney asked. He was drinking coffee and poking at his datapad.

Kate sighed. “I need you to focus.”

“I don’t see what the fuss is.”

Kate raised her eyebrows.

Rodney sighed, rolled his eyes. “I mean, yes, two men died, but I survived and Ronon survived and John was saved, so in the end it was worth it, right? I don’t know how military types do their people math, but - it’s an ugly truth. Some people are worth more than others. Those two are, in a word, replaceable. Me and Ronon and John not so much.”

“So you didn’t see anything strange in Major Lorne’s behavior?”

“I was too busy running away from giant alien lifesucking insects,” Rodney said, gesturing with his coffee cup and almost spilling. He winced, corrected himself. “What I noticed was he saved us all from getting eaten, but two of his guys didn’t make it.” Then he eyed her. “How come you’re interviewing everyone and not some, I don’t know, JAG officer or something?”

“I’m sure JAG officers will do their share of interviews,” Kate said, “but I have a different purpose. Have you ever noticed anything about Major Lorne that seemed, I don’t know, off?”

Rodney’s expression turned hunted. “No. Why?”

“Well - tell me about the first time you met him.”

“Um. He wasn’t here in the first year with us. I think - maybe the day we met Ronon? When we almost found Ford on that alien planet. The one with the deadly amounts of solar radiation. John paired me up with him to go looking for Ford.”

“And what was he like?”

“He was - well, like every smart-assed soldier, I guess. Sarcastic. Not particularly nice to me, but few people are on the first go round. Teyla’s a rare exception on that score. Pretty sure not even my mother was nice to me at first.” Rodney sipped his coffee some more.

“How did you feel he performed, as a soldier?” Kate knew the appropriate term was airman, but she’d go with the terms Rodney preferred for the sake of keeping the peace.

“He was kind of useless, really. I mean, he yanked me around a lot, and instead of just trying to capture Ford, he made me try to capture Ford, and then he took off running and left me alone on the dark alien planet, and then he got himself stunned, so - it was a complicated situation. Honestly, he probably wasn’t wrong, to have me try to use non-violent conflict resolution with Ford at first. In retrospect, that was pretty un-American, but then he was raised on some kind of hippie commune, so - maybe he was taught better as a kid than some of the other American military meatheads wandering the halls of this city.” Rodney set his datapad aside.

Kate paused, looked up. “I’m surprised you know that about Major Lorne. Few people know that much about him.”

“Really? Evan is very open and friendly. Isn’t he? People seem to like him. Or maybe just his cooking.”

“You know his first name.”

Rodney’s expression turned hunted again. “...Because it’s his first name?”

Kate put down her pen. “Rodney, how well do you know Major Lorne?”

The corner of his mouth turned down. He put his datapad down. “You promise not to tell anyone? Patient confidentiality and whatnot, right?”

For the purposes of this interview Rodney wasn’t her patient, but -

Kate nodded. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“Because I get that Evan’s in trouble for his behavior in the field. It’s all tactics and military and - whatever. But he shouldn’t get in trouble for this.”

“For what?” Kate asked, keeping her voice gentle.

“He and I were - we weren’t dating. We were sleeping together. And occasionally eating together and watching movies together and he’d stay late in the lab to initiate things for me sometimes, because he’s pretty strong with the Gene. If we stayed really late he’d bring me coffee and snacks. That’s how it started, really. And then one night, really late, he walked me back to my quarters, and - I was tired. I was stupid. But he’s hot and was being surprisingly nice, and one thing led to another.”

Kate definitely hadn’t seen that coming.

Rodney’s shoulders tightened. “But maybe it was more serious for him than it was for me? Because when I told him I was in love with John, he ended things. I mean, he’s still nice to me, but - please don’t tell John.”

Kate sat back, processing. Could this have been the stressor? The one connection Evan made, and it was broken? Because up to this point, he hadn’t ever crossed the line.

That anyone knew of.

She thought of Evan’s mother, and what she’d said about him ordering other children around, and about Old Man Turner burning to death in his own home, and how Evan had never, ever cried.

“I promise not to tell anyone,” Kate said. She could include this information in her report without naming names or giving out too many identifying details. But the information was important.

Maybe she was wrong. Maybe Evan wasn’t a psychopath, just had some sociopathic traits that were, well, sometimes beneficial in certain jobs. The ability to keep a cool head, make difficult decisions under pressure. High intelligence. The ability to charm people. Maybe he’d just made a difficult command decision and the result, though tragic, had been beyond his control.

John Sheppard knew all about that.

Why had he insisted on this investigation? Had he known about Evan and Rodney?

No. He’d been genuinely concerned when he’d read the AAR after Walker and Stevens died offworld. And it hadn’t been him, really, had it?

It had been Ronon.

“Something’s not right,” Ronon had said. “Lorne didn’t even check, didn’t even give them a chance, just - tossed the grenade. I think at least one of them had a chance. If I knew that, he knew it.”

Between him and John, they’d pieced together a mildly horrifying picture. Lorne had scrapped the mission because he’d lost two men. What if he’d sacrificed them deliberately, so there was no reason to try again to save John?

At the time, John had suspected political motives, that Evan, part of the second wave, was more loyal to the SGC and Caldwell than he was to Atlantis.

Ronon had insisted, “There’s just something not right about him.”

Rodney jolted Kate out of her brief reverie.

“This is a terrible situation. Two men died. But I don’t know that, had I been in Evan’s shoes, I’d have done differently,” he said. “I mean, I’m not a soldier, but -”

But in some ways, Rodney was a little sociopathic himself. Difficulty connecting to others. Thinking himself above rules. Ends justifying the means sometimes. Taking potentially fatal risks at the expense of others.

Kate smiled at him. “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.”

He nodded, scooped up his datapad and empty coffee mug, and fled her office.

*

Evan was surprised when Rodney stopped him in the hallway.

“Hey,” Rodney said.

Evan paused, smiled at him. “Hey.”

“I’m glad they let you out. That whole thing was - totally stupid.”

Evan shrugged. “They were following protocol. It was uncomfortable, but I don’t fault them for it.” He’d despised being in that cell, but that wasn’t what Rodney expected to hear.

He saw, over Rodney’s shoulder, Sheppard passing by.

Sheppard spotted them, paused.

Evan turned his attention back to Rodney. “But while I was in there, I got to thinking.”

“About?”

“About how stupid and petty I was being,” Evan said. “Before. About you and Sheppard versus me and you.”

Interest sparked in Rodney’s eyes. “Oh?”

“Even if neither of us is getting the exact thing we want, it’s stupid for both of us to get, well, nothing,” Evan said. He stepped closer.

Sheppard was still watching.

Rodney swallowed hard. “You’re right. You were being stupid and petty before, but I forgive you.”

Evan leaned in further, lowered his voice. “In that case, how about a nice, hard, make-up fuck? You can top all you want.”

Rodney blushed bright pink. “Right now?”

“Any time you want.”

Rodney actually checked his watch. “Yes. I have time. Right now. Come on.” And he initiated Evan’s door.

Evan followed him - but not before he looked back at Sheppard and smiled.

*

“I just can’t shake it,” Elizabeth said. “The look in his eyes, when he came back through the gate with just an unconscious Rodney.”

She was sitting in Kate’s office, disheveled, having been awake most of the night after a long day of work and several sleepless nights before that.

“Tell me more,” Kate said.

Elizabeth actually held out her datapad. “It started here, and it just - grew.” She tapped the screen, and a video began to play.

It was a clip from Atlantis’s security feed, of Elizabeth talking to Evan and his new team.

“Colonel Sheppard’s team is three hours overdue.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time. Any radio contact?”

Elizabeth pause the video. “He’s not at all concerned.”

“If he became emotional over every potential disaster, imagined or otherwise, he wouldn’t be a very effective officer,” Kate pointed out, not just because she wanted to be devil’s advocate but because she had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she wanted to make it go away.

Elizabeth resumed the video.

“None since they left,” Elizabeth on the video said.

Evan was smiling. “Well, you know those guys.” He did have a handsome smile.

“What do I know about those guys?” Elizabeth asked.

“Just that they tend to get all caught up in whatever it is they’re doing, and sometimes they don’t check in. They forget how much you worry.” Evan sounded totally unconcerned, and that wasn’t wrong, but something about his reaction was off.

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at him.

Evan corrected himself, “That we worry. Collectively, I mean.”

And there it was. The failure. To have concern himself.

Elizabeth looked visibly discomfited. “Yes, we do.”

And there was Evan’s realization, his adjustment. Reminding himself to be human, to show empathy and concern for others. “Yeah…we do.” To his team he said, “Okay, guys, looks like we’re heading back out.”

Elizabeth stopped the video. “He was totally unconcerned. Three hours is a long time to be overdue.”

“But he went out, and he did come back.”

“And everyone but Rodney died.”

“Better than no one coming back,” Kate said.

Elizabeth shook her head. “Ronon once said something to me, but I never saw it. And now - now I do.”

“Are you sure you’re seeing it? That you’re not just - upset that John is gone, and being replaced?”

Evan’s promotion ceremony was in a couple of days. Caldwell was staying on the Daedalus. Evan was up for promotion, and the position was naturally his. He’d been Sheppard’s second-in-command.

“I’m sure,” Elizabeth said. Then she shook her head again. “I don’t know.”

“If you ever see anything more,” Kate said, “please, feel free to come talk to me.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Thank you, Kate.” She rose, yawned, and padded out of Kate’s office.

She left her datapad behind.

Kate would return it to her in the morning.

But first, she’d watch the video again. Just in case.

*

It was only fitting, that the silver oak leaves they pinned onto Evan’s uniform had been the ones that had been on Sheppard’s. He was stepping into the other man’s shoes, after all.

Sheppard could have only wished he’d been in Evan’s bed, where Rodney was sleeping soundly.

Rodney missed Sheppard, still had nightmares about the time they’d been captured together. His memories of the rescue were hazy. When he woke, upset and shaken, Evan was there to soothe him, calm him, reassure him that Sheppard’s death had been swift and painless and there was nothing either of them could have done.

Evan stripped out of his uniform, hung it up so it wouldn’t get wrinkled, and then crawled into bed, spooned up behind Rodney.

Rodney frowned, murmured wordlessly.

Evan smoothed a hand over his brow, shushed him gently, and closed his eyes.

I always get what I want.

Those were the last words he’d said to Sheppard before he’d pulled the trigger.

 

Chapter Text

“That one,” Evan said.

Rodney paused. “Which one?”

Evan reached out, pointed to one of the photos in his old album from flight school. Because he was non-corporeal, his fingertip passed through the page ever so slightly. It was a little disconcerting.

But Rodney could see exactly which person he meant. “Yeah, that’s him. I’ve seen him around base.”

“John Sheppard. Assuming no serious disciplinary issues, he should be a major, like I was. He was rotor.”

“In civilian,” Rodney said patiently. It was easier to be patient with Evan, because compared to a lot of people who were still wasting breath, he was intelligent enough to get along with. Most of the time.

“A chopper pilot.”

“I’ve seen him on base. He is Major Sheppard now.”

“We were in flight school together, and then in Afghanistan briefly before I joined the SGC. Not sure why he’s there. He get recruited?”

“Apparently he has the Ancient Gene. In spades.” At first, Rodney had been rather dismayed to discover that the very nice apartment the SGC was leasing for him while he worked at Cheyenne Mountain was haunted by its former occupant, but Evan was really the perfect roommate, because he never made messes, and he listened to Rodney, and most importantly Rodney could talk to him about classified things (who would he tell?) and he understood them.

“Ah. I had the Gene. I think I was...maybe on par with Carson? Nowhere near O’Neill.”

“Sheppard’s above and beyond O’Neill,” Rodney said.

“So does he help you in the lab?” Evan asked.

Rodney nodded. He was sitting on the sofa. Everything in the apartment was, actually, Evan’s. Rodney had thought it was nice, that he’d been given a fully-furnished apartment, and such a well-kept one at that. Learning everything in the place belonged to a dead guy might have been worse, except Evan knew where everything was and how everything worked.

“Perfect,” Evan said.

“Why is that perfect? I just think he’s cute.”

“Cute? He’s hot,” Evan said.

Rodney stared at him. “You’d never have said that when you were alive, would you? DADT and all that.”

“On the contrary,” Evan said. “John and I banged all through flight school, till he got married.”

Rodney almost spilled his coffee.

His cat, Volta, who was curled up on his lap, yawned and eyed him, unimpressed.

“You - what?” Rodney asked.

Evan nodded. “He’s really hot. Great in the sack, too. He plays guitar, so he’s got phenomenal hands, but - you play piano, so that’d probably be a bonus for you.”

“You and Sheppard dated in flight school?”

Evan laughed. “Nothing so domestic as dating. We were both airmen on the rise in our careers. Kept it on the downlow. Just - you know. Knocked boots whenever we could. Me, I’m mostly a bottom - was, if you want to get technical - but John’s a switch-hitter. Sometimes I’d bake stuff for him, but then I baked stuff for everyone.”

Rodney still couldn’t wrap his head around that. Once he’d discovered who his ghostly roommate was - and that he wasn’t either dangerous or annoying, was in fact quite useful - he’d asked around on base about Major Evan Lorne. By all reports, he’d been a model officer, kind and considerate, excellent at logistics, polite, hard-working. Kind of boring-sounding, really.

Evan looked amused. “I told you I grew up on a hippie commune. The stuff I got up to would probably make your hair curl. Not that your hair isn’t kinda curly anyway.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Rodney asked.

“Look, it’s the SGC. Everyone knows Jackson and O’Neill are basically married. If you wanted to date John, you could. I’d help you.”

“You said he was married.”

“It didn’t last.”

“Why would you help me hook up with your ex-whatever?”

“I believe the term you’re looking for is fuck-buddy.” Evan smiled sweetly.

“Did you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“No, but I did share joints with her.”

Rodney’s mouth fell open.

“I know all his favorite foods, what he likes in bed, the stuff he likes to do for fun.”

Rodney recovered from his shock. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

Evan shrugged. “Well, being dead does give a man certain liberties.” He’d died in an offworld mission, pretty horribly by all accounts, killed and maimed and possibly tortured by aliens. “Look, John’s a great guy. He deserves to be happy. You deserve to be happy. It’d be perfect. You both have the same security clearance.”

“And he’s still in the Air Force,” Rodney said.

Evan rested his chin in his hands and actually batted his eyelashes. “C’mon. What’s the worst that could happen? He’d say no?”

Rodney considered. Well, the worst that could happen would be someone overheard Rodney asking Sheppard out and Sheppard got into massive trouble. But Rodney wouldn’t get into trouble.

“I know what you zoomie types are like.” Rodney closed the album and set it aside. Why had he even gone looking through it? That was right. To learn names of current personnel and maybe some other useful contacts. He’d noticed how attractive Sheppard was and wanted some tips about how to smooth things out between them, since he was so useful in the lab but seemed bored by being a human light switch.

“What, stupid jarheads? You have us mixed up with Marines. No, not all of us are as smart as Major Carter -”

“She’s a lieutenant colonel now.”

“Really? Good for her! Anyway, no, most people aren’t as smart as her, but like you, she’s a genius. You’re not geniuses if you’re average.”

“Certainly not,” Rodney said, indignant.

“But all officers who weren’t battlefield commissioned have to be college-educated. Need a masters or equivalent to make major.”

Rodney raised his eyebrows. “Really? Then you -?”

“Masters in geophysics.” Evan preened.

That was far more impressive than Rodney would have guessed. “And John?”

“Topological combinatorics.”

Rodney swallowed hard. “That’s actually really hot.”

“I knew you’d think so. His favorite baked good is red velvet cupcakes, by the way.”

“Why do you know this?”

“Because knowing how to grease wheels is a vital logistical skill, and half the time skillfully baked goods are more likely to get you what you want than a well-placed compliment or even a blow job.” Evan stood up, headed into the kitchen.

(They hadn’t figured out why Evan couldn’t touch things but didn’t fall through furniture, and they agreed that for now, death was beyond conventional physics.)

Rodney followed him. “You never actually blew anyone to get your job done, did you?”

“With my cupcakes, I never had to.” Evan tapped his chin thoughtfully. “They got rid of most of my personal effects, sent my art supplies to my mom, but I bet no one thought to look for my recipes. They’ll be on index cards in an old tin. I used to keep them on the windowsill, but you might have to check in a cupboard.”

Rodney poked through the cupboards, felt around even though he was nervous about spiders, and then he found it. An old tin. He hopped down off the step ladder, closed the cupboard, and found a dish towel to dust off the tin. When he opened it, it was indeed full of index cards.

He fished one out.

Lemon blondies. Definite no.

“Did you type these?”

“Hm? No. I was a surveyor for a naquadah mine on SG-11 once I got done doing logistics and was gate-rated. I took some drafting classes. I had really neat handwriting.”

“I’ll say.”

“Recipes are in alphabetical order. Red velvet cupcakes will be under R. Or maybe C for cupcakes.” Evan reached out and not-quite-petted Volta, who’d hopped up on the barstool at the center island and was sitting primly, her tail curled around her.

In the movies, cats always hated ghosts. Apparently Volta was braver than other cats or Evan was nicer than other ghosts or movies got it super wrong.

“Or?” Rodney asked.

“Some details get fuzzy after death,” Evan admitted with a shrug.

Thankfully Evan had little alphabet tabs in his box of recipes, and Rodney found the recipe easily enough. He stared at it.

“I don’t know what most of this is. What’s non-dutched cocoa?”

“You’ll need to go to a specialty baking store for some things,” Evan said, “but once you have everything, I’ll walk you through it step by step.”

“Were you actually human? Because no one is a super amazing painter and badass soldier and perfect logistician and gourmet chef all in one.” Rodney eyed him.

“Well, I also died alone, not even a cat to my name, so - had to fill my time somehow.” Evan shrugged. He looked a little sad. “Also, my Nan trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris when she was younger. Art and cooking were just - a way of life in my household.”

“Along with toking joints with your mom.”

Evan said, “At least I talked to my mom.”

Rodney winced. “Touché. Okay, fine, I’ll bake fancy cupcakes to share with Major Sheppard.”

“Just as an ice-breaker. Make enough for everyone in the lab.”

“If I make some for everyone in the lab, how will he know I’m interested?”

Evan said, “Challenge him to a game of chess.”

Rodney said, “Okay,” because Evan was right. John not being interested really was the worst that could happen if he started on this journey.

*

Although turning the kitchen into a disaster because he didn’t know how to use a power mixer was an unexpected intervening step.

Evan was doubled over laughing.

Volta, covered in cupcake batter, stalked out of the kitchen, tail held high, ears flat to her skull. She was probably going to sulk in the bedroom, get batter everywhere and also have an unhealthy feast while she cleaned herself off.

Evan walked Rodney through cleaning the kitchen and how to make sure the non-dutched cocoa didn’t stain anything red (okay, the way the vinegar turned the cocoa red was kind of cool), and then they took a break. Rodney could try again next week.

In the meantime, Evan recommended that Rodney talk to John some more, find out about him. While there was a lot Evan knew about John, it would be weird if Rodney knew all Evan knew without asking, and besides, the point was for Rodney to find out some more on his own, and Evan didn’t know how things had been for John after they’d been separated at flight school, brief posting together in Afghanistan notwithstanding.

“John’s a charmer,” Evan warned him. “He’ll deflect, ask you questions about you, get you talking about yourself so you forget you were asking questions about him. Don’t get fooled. Don’t interrogate him, but - keep him honest.”

Evan said John had been the best chopper pilot in their class, was a phenomenal officer, and brilliant enough for MENSA (he’d passed the test but never actually joined), but from what Rodney had heard from other officers on base, John was kind of a black sheep. He’d done something pretty terrible, but instead of being kicked out of the armed forces, he’d been sent to the SGC.

He never got to fly anymore.

“What do you think he did?”

Evan shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe one day he’ll tell you. But - don’t ask about it.”

“Do you think he’s sad? That he can’t fly anymore.”

Evan said, “He’s probably miserable.”

So the next weekend, Rodney made a trip to the gourmet cooking store, and he bought more supplies for red velvet cupcakes, and he submitted himself to Evan’s ghostly tutelage.

Evan hadn’t been kidding when he’d said cooking had been a way of life for him growing up. Not only did Rodney bake gourmet red velvet cupcakes from scratch, he also made frosting. He’d spent a pretty penny on cake decorating supplies, but Evan had him make a double batch of frosting so he could practice his technique before he applied it to the cupcakes.

On Monday morning, Evan sent Rodney in to work with two dozen cupcakes all in special cupcake trays that came with their own lids with handles, so the frosting didn’t get smashed.

“Make sure to save one for John. Let me know how it goes,” Evan said, hovering anxiously as Rodney headed for the door.

“I will,” Rodney said, because who else was he going to tell? Not his sister. They hadn’t spoken in years.

When Rodney returned to the apartment after a long day made longer by an accident in the lab - some chemists had spilled hydrofluoric acid and everyone who’d come into contact with it had had to scrub down (which resulted in some people stripping down and hopping into the emergency showers), get checked by medical, take calcium supplements, and then fill out a load of paperwork in triplicate.

“I wish I could touch things and move things,” Evan said as soon as Rodney came in the door. “Then I could have dinner waiting for you when you get home.”

“If you could touch things and move things, why would you stay here?” Rodney asked, setting down his laptop bag, the two empty cupcake trays, and his jacket.

“I’m still dead,” Evan said. “How did the cupcakes go?”

“Good,” Rodney said. “Everyone liked them.”

“How did John like them?”

“He was impressed. He had two,” Rodney admitted. “We had a real conversation today, like you suggested. We’re on for chess during lunch one day.”

Evan beamed. “Excellent! Remember, though, that on top of being pretty smart at math, he’s an officer. Strategy is what they train us for. He’s pretty damn good at chess. I mean, he only beat me a few times, but - I was also kind of a dark horse, during on-base chess tournaments.”

Rodney eyed Evan.

“I know,” Evan said. “People always expect me to be terrible at chess. But on top of being an officer, I’m an artist. I have pretty good spatial reasoning skills. Anyway, I’m glad things are going well with John. You’re off to a good start. Let’s talk about dinner.”

Rodney groaned. “I’m too tired to cook.”

“Then order in. But make it something healthy. You don’t want to end up like me any sooner than you have to.”

Rodney ordered in some Chinese, made sure it was citrus- and MSG-free, and then he went to take a bath. He’d timed it so he’d be done by the time the delivery guy showed up.

It was incredibly handy to have Evan around, not just because the man made sure Rodney never missed his alarm, ate healthier, cooked better, and worked out once in a while. His insight into wooing John Sheppard would be invaluable. Talking to him today had been pleasant. He’d been cagey, tried to deflect a little, but once Rodney got him talking about what he’d worked on for his masters thesis, he’d relaxed, really opened up and just talked.

That was the tricky thing about John Sheppard. Due to his tendency to slouch or perch oddly on surfaces besides chairs, his non-regulation hair (that Rodney thought was sexy), his sardonic grin and attitude, most people thought he was entirely casual. But he wasn’t. He was tense, guarded. All the time. But his shield was his smile and his attitude. When he talked about math, he came alive.

Rodney wondered, now that he no longer had flying, what got him out of bed in the morning.

So he resolved to start having John helping him with calculations around the lab. That would fill his time when he wasn’t being a light switch.

Rodney climbed out of the tub and dried off, dressed about ten minutes before his food was supposed to arrive. He headed out of the bathroom toweling his hair - and stopped short.

Volta was nudging Rodney’s shoes into place beside each other against the wall. He’d kicked them off rather haphazardly when he came home.

“Good girl,” Evan crooned.

Volta padded over to him, and Evan reached down - and through her. Volta arched, purring happily.

“Can you actually touch her?” Rodney asked.

Evan glanced up. “No. But - she can sense me, at any rate.”

“Have you been training my cat to do tricks?”

“Cats are just as trainable as dogs,” Evan said. “And she’s not doing tricks. She’s helping around the house. She’s very smart.”

“Of course, she’s my cat. Just - is that what you do all day?”

Evan shrugged. “Well, I can’t touch anything, and you’re gone all day, so Volta and I keep each other company.”

Now that Rodney thought about it, his house was a lot neater than he usually kept it, though he’d chalked that up to Evan’s endless ‘suggestions’ that Rodney tidy up more.

“Are you stuck here?” Rodney asked.

“No,” Evan said, “but for some reason no one else can see me - none of my relatives or old teammates or colleagues.”

Rodney felt bad for him. “Is it - are you stuck around me forever?”

“No,” Evan said. “I have unfinished business.”

“What is it?”

“I couldn’t say.” Evan shrugged helplessly. And then he started bribing Volta into nudging Rodney’s laptop bag against the wall more neatly.

Before Rodney could pursue the conversation further, the doorbell rang, and Rodney went to get his food.

While he ate, Evan explained that he was trying to teach Volta how to turn on and tune the radio so that while Rodney was gone Evan could hear what was going on in the outside world.

It would be a simple matter, to rig up some buttons that Volta could press with her paws to make a switchboard that hooked into Rodney’s simple radio, which he tended to keep tuned to the local college classical station. Since Evan was helping Rodney woo John, helping Evan have more stimulating entertainment than an uppity cat was the least Rodney could do.

*

Over the weeks that passed, Rodney’s relationships progressed well. Evan was so delighted that Rodney helped him with the radio that he taught Volta a bunch of new tricks in addition to working the radio, like bringing Rodney his newspaper and finding his keys.

Daily chess games with John during lunch became part of Rodney’s routine. Evan hadn’t been kidding. John was a damn impressive chess player. He was chatty while he played, smiling, charming, telling Rodney funny but insignificant stories about his childhood, like his horse riding lessons. By all appearances John never focused on the games much, but Rodney had yet to beat him, and Rodney was no slouch.

Evan continued to suggest things John might enjoy - racing RC cars or helicopters, video games, Johnny Cash music, horror movies - but Rodney wanted to date John on his own terms, not just be the ghost of Evan, so he took Evan’s suggestions but also incorporated some of his own ideas, including having John help him with calculations and occasionally designing math puzzles for him.

Rodney usually went over to John’s place to watch movies or have dinner. He wasn’t sure if they were dating or not, instead were hanging out like a pair of nervous millennials, though John would let Rodney huddle close during the scary parts of horror movies, and Rodney would always set aside one of his baked goods especially for John.

Rodney hadn’t brought John over to his place because, well, of Evan.

But one night, while he and John were sharing homemade salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and mixed vegetables, John said, “So the next time we hang out, we should do it at your place. I want to meet Volta.”

Rodney took a deep breath. Then he said, “Sure. It’s a date.”

John raised his eyebrows. “A date?”

Rodney nodded, tensing, in case he’d read all of John’s signals wrong (even though he and Evan did a post-mortem on every hangout and Evan insisted John was interested and Rodney should just make a move already).

John smiled, pleased and a little shy. “I’d like that.”

“Oh thank goodness.”

“You didn’t think I’d be interested?”

“There’s the part where you’re a military officer.”

“Have you seen Jackson and O’Neill?”

“They do fight like an old married couple,” Rodney admitted.

John said, “At first you kind of reminded me of this guy I kicked around with when I was in flight school. Evan. He baked a lot. He was smart and thoughtful. But you’re - well, I’m not sure how I’d describe it. You’re you, and I like it. A lot.”

“Thanks,” Rodney said. “I like you a lot, too.”

John chuckled. “Look at us, like a pair of middle-school girls.”

“Well, what I have in mind for you is decidedly adult,” Rodney said.

“Oh, do tell.”

Rodney said, “Let me show you.”

*

Evan and Volta were both pacing back and forth when Rodney rolled back into his apartment the next morning about an hour before his alarm was scheduled to go off.

“Where have you been? Are you all right?” Evan asked.

Volta leaped up into Rodney arms and yowled, displeased, batted lightly at his face.

“I’m more than all right,” Rodney said, scratching idly at the love bite on his throat, and Evan said,

“Oh. Oh! Congratulations! How was it?”

“Amazing,” Rodney said.

Evan beamed. “I’m so happy for you. Took you long enough. What next?”

“I’m inviting John over for dinner on Friday night. He’s going to bring his guitar and we’re going to jam a little.”

“Excellent. That was something we could never do together. I’m utterly unmusical. Do you want help preparing a menu?”

“Sure,” Rodney said. “Just -”

“I’ll make myself scarce once he arrives, absolutely.”

“Is it - weird for you? That I’m dating your ex.”

“No,” Evan said. “Not at all. I want you both to be happy.”

“What’s in it for you?”

Evan sighed, looked at him. “Rodney, not everyone has to have an ulterior motive for helping someone. Like I said, I care about both of you and want you to be happy. You care about John, right? Want him to be happy? Would want him to be happy even if it meant you didn’t get to be happy.”

“Well - yes,” Rodney admitted.

“That’s love,” Evan said softly. “You love him. He probably loves you too. It’s okay for people to love you.”

Rodney floundered. “Now wait a second. I never said it wasn’t okay for people to -”

“Then just accept that I want you to be happy.”

“Okay,” Rodney said, though he was still discomfited by the notion.

All that week, Evan helped him design and plan the menu for Friday night. They picked recipes Rodney could handle on his own - and he really was getting better at cooking and baking - and made sure they had ingredients to hand, had calculated all the cook and prep times so everything would be ready at the same time. Rodney prepped some things the night before, like setting the chicken to marinate and making dessert.

When Friday night finally arrived, Evan helped Rodney pick an outfit that was casual but made him look good, insisted he wear an apron, and coached Rodney through the cooking process.

The doorbell rang at seven on the dot, just as Rodney finished setting the last dish on the table.

Evan vanished.

Volta pawed the air where he’d been, made a small mewl of distress.

Rodney took off his apron and set it aside, went to answer the door.

John stood on his doorstep, casual in jeans and a soft, dark sweater. He looked beautiful.

“You look amazing,” Rodney said.

John smiled. “So do you.”

Rodney blinked a bit, and then remembered his manners. He stepped back, held the door open wider. “Please, come in.”

John toed off his shoes just inside the door. “Smells amazing.”

“You came right on time. Everything’s ready.”

Volta prowled toward John. She reached out, patted his leg with her paw, looked startled that she could touch him. John knelt, offered a hand for her to inspect. She sniffed him, then immediately arched into his hand, demanding to be petted.

John smiled. “This must be Lady Volta.”

“She rules this house and just lets me live with her,” Rodney said. “I’m impressed she likes you. Half the time she doesn’t even like me.”

John gave Volta one last pet, then straightened up. Rodney let him wash his hands at the kitchen sink, and then they both sat, ate. Even though this interaction was different, their first official date, conversation flowed easily, and Rodney was pleased. Once supper was finished, John helped him wash up, and the domesticity of it was surprisingly comfortable.

Afterward, John went out to his car to get his guitar, and Rodney opened a bottle of white wine, set it to breathing. John returned, and together they sat beside Rodney’s piano, working to tune John’s guitar.

“What can you play?” John asked.

“Anything if you can give me the chords,” Rodney said.

John smiled, pleased. “All right. Let’s start simple. How about...Ring of Fire?”

Rodney nodded, played the chords as John rattled them off, shifted some to inversions for better flow, and then he started in on the song. John could play the melody cleanly, had learned to play Flamenco guitar as a youth, and his skill was impressive (and he did have amazing hands, in bed or otherwise).

They played music and drank wine, and eventually they turned on soft music and retreated to the couch, sipping wine and talking, and talking turned to kissing, and kissing turned to undressing, and together they headed for Rodney’s bedroom.

The next morning, Rodney woke first. John was still asleep.

Volta was curled up in her cat bed in the kitchen.

There was no sign of Evan.

No matter. They’d talked about the morning after, so Rodney had supplies for John’s favorite omelettes. He fed Volta and set to cooking. Right before everything was done, John wandered into the kitchen wearing boxer shorts and one of Rodney’s t-shirts. He kissed Rodney on the cheek, asked what he could do to help.

Rodney had him set the table, and then they ate together.

While they ate, they talked. Both of them had chores they needed to do, but they agreed to meet up on Sunday to catch a movie together.

They did the washing up together, and then John kissed Rodney goodbye before he left.

As soon as he was gone, Rodney said, “Evan? You can come back now.”

There was no response.

Evan could always ‘hear’ when Rodney called him, no matter where he’d gone off to.

Was he upset?

“Evan? Are you there?”

There was still no response.

Rodney’s heart sank. Apparently Evan hadn’t really wanted him to be happy. Or he had, just grudgingly.

He shuffled into the kitchen, went to close up Evan’s tin of recipe cards to set on the windowsill so Volta wouldn’t get into them and chew them up, and he saw.

On top of the cards he’d used for last night’s dinner, a new card with familiar print on it.

Take good care of him. Be happy.

It didn’t have a signature, but it did have a little sketch of someone who was clearly Evan, with wings and a halo, hands folded in prayer but his expression far from pious, instead winking.

I have unfinished business, Evan had said.

On the back of the card Evan had written, It’s finished.

Rodney smiled, tucked the card into the tin, and carried on with his day. He would take good care of John, and more often than not, he would be happy.

Chapter Text

“So, not what I was expecting,” Laura said.

The two gorgons shrugged.

“Can’t help you there,” the one sporting long snakes for hair said. He was sprawled across a broad, flat rock at the rear of the cave and was picking his nails with a large drop-point knife.

The other gorgon had shorter snakes and was, by all appearances, reading and also playing a game of chess against himself. The chess set was gorgeous, abalone and ebony for the squares on the board, the pieces made of alabaster and onyx.

“If you want to chop off someone’s head, maybe wait till Rodney and Evan get back, so you can explore all your options.”

There was a small cooking fire in the middle of the cave, over which a pot was boiling. Whatever was cooking smelled delicious.

Both of the gorgons were wearing sunglasses.

Teyla, who was huddled behind her mirrored shield, prodded Laura in the spine. “Are we going to proceed?”

“I’m not sure,” Laura admitted.

Dusty and Alicia, bringing up the rear with their own mirror shields (Dusty had an axe instead of a sword for more efficient beheading), made questioning sounds.

And then Alicia screamed and there was a scuffle.

Laura and Teyla spun.

Alicia was lying on the ground a few feet away, dazed.

Two more gorgons - both with short snakes, also wearing sunglasses - were standing over Dusty, who had her shield and axe raised.

One of the gorgons was carrying grocery bags with the logo from the Quik Mart the ladies had passed earlier on their way up the mountain to the cave.

“Let me guess,” the other gorgon said. “Elizabeth sent you.” He sounded distinctly unimpressed.

“It’s nothing personal,” Laura said. “Miko needs some of your snakes for one of her magic spells.”

“Just snakes?” the gorgon with the grocery bags asked.

Teyla nodded. “Yes. It is vital to the protection of the city of Atlantis.”

“Well, you can have some of our snakes without beheading us,” the gorgon with the grocery bags said.

“Evan!” the other gorgon hissed. His hair snakes echoed his sentiment.

Evan shrugged. “I prefer to avoid unnecessary beheadings where I can.” He nodded at Dusty. “How about you help your friend up, and you all have dinner with us, and we can talk about these snakes you need.”

Dusty scrambled to grab Alicia, help her to her feet and collect her weapons.

“I thought gorgons were, you know, women,” Laura said. But she beckoned to the others, and they followed Evan and the other gorgon - he must have been Rodney - into the cave.

Evan knelt beside the cooking pot and set about adding ingredients to it. “Well, you know, gorgons have to come from somewhere, and since we’re animals and not plants or insects, where there are lady gorgons, there are also gentleman gorgons. Ronon, will you find some dishes for our guests?”

The long-snaked gorgon rose, headed further back into the cave.

“Why are we even friends?” the other short-haired gorgon asked. “These ladies show up to chop off our heads and you invite them to dinner.”

“We’re friends because I cook better than you,” Evan said calmly. “So, introduce yourselves and be polite.”

“I’m John,” the gorgon said, without looking up from his book.

“Ronon,” he said, and returned with a stack of bowls and a fistful of spoons.

“Rodney.” He sat opposite John and frowned at the chessboard.

Teyla smiled. “I am Teyla, daughter of Torren. This is Laura, Alicia, and Dusty. We are all of the Queen’s Guard on Atlantis.”

“Well, welcome to our humble abode,” Evan said. “So, what’s this about you needing snakes for magic? Do you need full snakes, snake blood, snake venom, snake scales, snake teeth, or something else I haven’t thought of?”

“The venom, mostly,” Laura said, still kind of dazed.

Dusty sniffed the steam rising from the cooking pot and grinned eagerly.

“We all have different breeds of snake,” Evan said. “Rodney’s are the most venomous. Mine are just...grass snakes, basically.”

“The more venomous the better, I think,” Alicia offered. She eyed Rodney warily.

“Rodney,” Evan said, “go get the -”

“Yes, the venom milking jars.” Rodney dragged himself away from the chess game and headed to the back. He called over his shoulder, “You ladies should be glad Evan’s such a pushover. I’d have just turned you all into stone.”

“Liar,” John said. “You hate moving statues.”

Evan smiled at Laura. He had dimples. “So, how are things on Atlantis?”

*

“And that,” Laura said, handing Miko several jars of gorgon snake venom, “is how we got your venom but didn’t chop anyone’s head off.”

“How was the stew?” Miko asked.

“Delicious,” Dusty said fervently.

“Maybe,” Miko said, “I’ll come with you next time.”

Chapter Text

“This looks - not terrible,” Rodney said, as they tromped through the forest. The UAV had showed signs of civilization far from the gate. The gate was in the middle of a forest, but beyond the forest there was a mountain, and a town was built into the mountainside.

“It’s nice,” John said. “Peaceful. Pleasant. I like the, uh - the blue flowers.”

“I have not seen such blue flowers before,” Teyla said. “Have you, Ronon?”

“No,” he said.

“Why, you want to take some back to Botany?” Rodney asked. “They’re just blue flowers.”

John, because he was feeling a little impish, said, “We can grab some on the way back.”

Rodney cast him a look. “Really?”

Ronon raised a closed fist, and John stopped short automatically.

“I hear it also,” Teyla said.

The way they worked as a team sometimes was kind of uncanny.

“Hear what?” Rodney asked.

John said, “Ronon, scout ahead. Teyla, go with him. Rodney, on me.”

Rodney obediently moved to stand behind John’s left shoulder. Teyla and Ronon eased forward through the undergrowth, footsteps silent, and vanished.

John waited, weapons at the ready. Behind him, Rodney’s breath was loud.

After a few minutes, John heard several taps on his radio. Tap code signal. Advance.

So he started forward the way Ronon and Teyla had gone, trusting Rodney to stay on his heels. The undergrowth got thicker, but then he could hear what the other two must have heard, human voices in cadence - chanting? And some deep, low, simple, throbbing, primal beat, almost like a heartbeat, but not quite right.

John prowled further through the trees, and then he came upon Ronon and Teyla, who were standing in the thick of trees and watching a strange scene unfold.

“Is it an orgy?” Rodney asked, shouldering up past John.

Ronon said, “...Maybe?”

“They are in some kind of greenhouse,” Teyla said. “It is full of those blue flowers.”

Young men, seven or eight of them, wearing black, were sitting in a circle around a table that was laden with lab equipment from the Victorian era. All around them were flowers, and some kind of blue liquid was bubbling away on a tripod over a bunsen burner.  They were passing around a silver bowl full of more blue liquid. One of them was standing over the table, waving his hands in the air in some kind of possible pattern, like a deranged priest.

Each of the young men hoisted the bowl high, then took a sip before passing it on.

They looked drunk.

Or maybe like they were on their way to an orgy. They were leaning all over each other, pressed close, looking into each other’s eyes, smiling and laughing. The man at the table produced several pots of thick, brightly-colored cream and started passing them around, and sure enough, the young men immediately got handsy with each other, painting each other’s faces and necks and chests.

“Maybe we should take those blue flowers back to Botany after all,” Rodney said.

“They seem relatively harmless,” Teyla said. “Perhaps we should leave them to their celebration and continue on to the village.”

“I agree,” John said, and started to ease back.

And then as one, all of the young men turned to stare at him.

He froze.

Ronon raised his weapon.

Teyla stepped out of the trees, hands raised in surrender. “We mean you no harm.”

The young men glanced at each other.

“You have a weapon,” one of them said.

“We are travelers and have encountered much peril on our journeys, and we seek to keep ourselves safe,” Teyla said.

The other young men - six of them - spoke a language that was unfamiliar.

“What’s that?” Rodney asked.

“Never heard it before,” Ronon murmured.

Judging by Teyla’s expression, she hadn’t heard it either.

John wondered why the gate translation system wasn’t working on the language, but then it didn’t work on any Earth language save English, so maybe the language the young men were speaking wasn’t the dominant language on the planet.

“Where did you travel from?” the seeming leader asked.

“I am from a planet called Athos,” Teyla said.

The leader frowned. “Planet?”

“Do you understand the concept of a planet?” Teyla asked.

The leader conferred with his friends in the other language once more.

“Did he send you?” the leader asked.

Richard Woolsey had, but John was pretty sure that wasn’t who they meant.

“I do not know who you speak of,” Teyla said. “My friends and I are merely travelers, wishing to learn of new planets and maybe trade for our mutual benefit.”

“The Old One,” the leader said. “Did you come because you heard his call?”

“What is this Old One’s name?” Teyla asked.

Unease prickled down John’s spine.

Whatever the leader said was in that strange language he shared with his friends. The mere sound of the name made John’s skin crawl.

“I am unfamiliar with that person,” said Teyla. “We happened upon this place and seek to build a friendly alliance. But if you are not interested, we will continue on our way.”

“The Old One is calling for us,” the leader said, and behind him, the others murmured as one, a chant or a prayer.

The unease in John’s blood turned to heavy dread, cold and low in his gut.

“How will you answer him?” Teyla asked.

Ronon said, “They could be Wraith worshippers.”

“We answer him always,” the leader said, and he reached out to the young man beside him, smiled fondly, smoothed a thumb over one of the blue sigils painted on the other young man’s face. “With our bodies. With our souls.”

“Or maybe an orgy for reals,” Rodney said.

“What will happen when you meet this Old One?” Teyla asked.

“The end,” the young man said.

John made an executive decision, tapped his radio, sending out the code for retreat.

“The end of what?” Teyla asked, and slid back a step.

“Everything.”

Ronon reached out, grabbed Teyla’s shoulder, and yanked her back into the trees.

“Back to the gate,” John said, and shoved Rodney.

Ronon took point, Teyla and Rodney behind him.

John stayed on their six, watching.

He waited for shouts, for weapons fire, but there was nothing.

Just that soft chanting, and laughter, and the distant beating of a drum, of a mis-pulsing heart.

Finally John turned and headed after his team, and he didn’t look back, walked straight through the already-dialed gate.

“Colonel,” Woolsey said, “you’re back early.”

John said to Chuck, “Lock that address out of the dialing computer.”

“Why?” Woolsey asked.

Teyla said, sharply, “Just do it.”

Chuck nodded, eyes wide. Teyla never spoke like that.

“I forgot to get some of the blue flowers,” Rodney said. “Why didn’t you remind me?” He nudged Ronon.

John said, “It’s fine. We don’t want any of that anyway.”

He went to turn in his gear at the ready room and then head back to his office and write his AAR.

That night, while he slept, he had no dreams, just heard the distant beating of a broken heart-drum.

Chapter Text

When Spencer had realized he was going the way of his mother, he’d - well, he’d panicked. His mother was brilliant, and having her mind betray her was incomprehensible. Spencer understood, on a very technical level, how her illness worked.

And now he understood it on a personal level.

He couldn’t trust his own mind anymore. His mind had always been the one thing he’d trusted, the thing about himself that he’d prized, the tool that allowed him escape from his misbegotten childhood. His genius was his identity.

His genius was nowhere, destroyed by time, by age, by a disease he’d inherited from his mother. No one could trust what came out of his mind because, well, he couldn’t trust what was coming into it.

Auditory hallucinations were far more common than visual hallucinations, but Diana Reid had had visual hallucinations often.

It was no surprise that Spencer had them as well.

He regretted all those books he’d read, the terrible cases he worked, every detail stamped indelibly into his memory, because it all came back to haunt him. Literally. Tobias Hankel. Amber Canardo. Frank Breitkopf. Francis Goehring. Professor Rothchild. Pennywise. Hannibal Lecter. Patrick Bateman. Mr. Hyde. Mr. Dark. Randall Flagg. Norman Bates.

Spencer saw them out of the corners of his, heard them walking behind him in the dark, felt them whisper to him at night.

He tried traditional remedies - medicine, psychology, psychiatry - but none of them worked, not without making him numb and empty. No wonder his mother had hated her meds.

When those didn’t work, he searched further beyond the realms of tradition, of accepted science.

It was a sincere-looking seventeen-year-old girl with coppery curls, freckles, and big green eyes who told him that being turned in a vampire had cured her of terminal cancer.

Spencer had met her in a club called The Black Rose, had gone to some extreme lengths to make himself look like a goth poseur to get in. She’d looked surprisingly normal, bright, cheery.

Until the moment she parted her lips and he saw her fangs extend and her eyes turn silver.

“If it can cure cancer, it can probably cure you,” she said.

“I’ll do anything,” Spencer said.

So he made arrangements at work, took a week off. Invited the girl - Poppy - over to his apartment, and let her drink from him, drank from her in return.

It was simple. He’d die as a human, be in a vampiric coma for three days, and then rise, a Night Child. He could go out in sunlight. He could eat normal food. He could eat garlic and even go to church. But fire and a wooden stake would kill him. And he’d stop aging.

But he’d be cured.

Except he wasn’t.

He woke three days later, nominally immortal, and still hallucinating.

Poppy was deeply apologetic. She at least taught him how to hypnotize a human prior to feeding and then mind-wipe them after, showed him how to heal the bite wounds so they wouldn’t have even a trace of feeding (and he was glad that so many legends were wrong, that he didn’t have to kill to feed).

Spencer had three days of vacation left. What could he do?

He remembered something someone had suggested once. He could recognize when he was hallucinating. An outside trigger could help.

Like a dog. If his dog didn’t respond to someone interacting with him, that person was a hallucination.

So Spencer went and purchased a service dog, and he went to speak to his psychiatrist to get on the most mild meds possible. And then he had a long phone conversation with Poppy’s boyfriend, also a vampire and the one who’d turned her. He’d been a vampire for much longer and understood the condition better. Where cancer was a mutation, Spencer’s mental illness was written into his genes, and apparently when the transformation had taken place, the vampirism didn’t consider Spencer’s mental illness something to be cured, so his brain remained as it was.

When Spencer returned to work, Derek gave him a high-five.

“Pretty boy! Looks like that week off did you some real good.”

Spencer knew that he didn’t actually look any different, none of his facial features or limbs had changed, but he did look - prettier. His complexion was perfect, glowed. His hair was soft and glossy. His eyes were brighter. He was also faster and stronger. He’d get a perfect shot every time from here on out. He was weaker in sunlight, but compared to humans he was still far stronger.

“Thanks,” Spencer said, as carefully as possible.

“Who’s this guy?” Garcia asked, kneeling to greet Millie, who was a sleek golden retriever. She hesitated when she noticed Millie’s little service dog vest.

“This is Millie. She’s my service dog.”

“Are you all right?” Rossi asked.

Spencer nodded tightly. “Yes. So - I took the week off to make some arrangements. You all know I’ve been struggling recently.”

Hotch crossed his arms over his chest, expression grim.

“I’m undergoing treatment,” Spencer said. “Yes, I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. But I’m on medication, I have a treating psychiatrist, and I have Millie. She’s here to help me make sure I’m grounded in the real. So - interact with her occasionally. You’re allowed to pet her. If she reacts to you - well, I know you’re real.”

“Sure,” Garcia said, and petted Millie. Millie nosed her hand.

“Well, you look really good, so I’m guessing the treatment is going well,” Emily said.

Spencer managed a smile. “So far, so good.”

And it really was. Some days were better than others, but Spencer managed. Every couple of days he fed - usually on cute college students he picked up at coffee shops and bookstores, because part of being a vampire was being attractive and charming so as to lure prey - and he took his meds and he checked in with his doctor, and Millie was with him around the clock.

Becoming a vampire hadn’t cured him, but he could manage his illness better than his mother had, he was sure of it.

Also, no one was wise to Spencer’s new state of being, because he really could eat food and be in sunlight without a blink.

Although - he heard things sooner than the rest of the team, and smelled things before they did (if they noticed those smells at all), and could see further than they could.

One time while they were at a crime scene pondering over blood spatters patterns, a detective was surmising that the victim had been stabbed in the kitchen, dragged into the living room, and then finished off.

Spencer had to bite back a comment that there was a second victim they hadn’t found, because the blood in the kitchen was different from the blood in the living room. All he had to do was figure out a plausible explanation for his theory that there had been a second victim.

He hadn’t counted on telepathy. It was strongest right after he fed, and it made interrogating suspects so much easier.

Derek started calling him the Unsub Whisperer.

Which was fine and dandy till they got into a shootout with an armed and deranged unsub and Spencer grabbed Rossi, yanked him out of the path of a bullet - and then caught the bullet.

He hadn’t had a chance to think.

He’d just - reacted.

“Reid?” Rossie stared at the bullet on Spencer’s palm, eyes wide.

Spencer said, “There’s an explanation for this.”

Poppy had told him he wasn’t allowed to tell humans what he was, but this was his team. They trusted him with their lives. He ought to trust them with his.

“Prove it,” Garcia said, eager.

The others had looked dismayed, like Spencer’s mental illness had gotten the better of him.

But he showed them his fangs.

Hotch fainted.

Spencer caught him before he hit the ground.

“How come Millie isn’t afraid of you?” JJ asked, petting her.

They all petted her constantly when they were around her, which had led to her becoming a bit of an attention hog. If she didn’t go to someone nosing for pets, well, they weren’t real.

“Because she’s my pet and I take good care of her,” Spencer said. “I’m not a werewolf or a ghost. Just - a vampire.”

“Do you drink blood?”

“A couple pints every other day.”

“From a food bank?”

“Ah, no. From humans. But I don’t kill them or hurt them, and they don’t remember when I’m done. I pay them.” Well, he bought them books or coffee for their trouble. It was part of his pick-up routine.

“And that’s why you look so - pretty,” Emily said.

Spencer nodded.

Hotch came to quickly, though he was dazed. Spencer helped him into a chair.

“Vampires are real,” Rossi said.

“Yeah. Being a vampire cures cancer, but not schizophrenia.”

Derek eyed him. “How fast are you?”

“He’s fast enough to catch a bullet,” Rossi said.

“Or me. Thank you.” Hotch pinched the bridge of his nose, looking pained.

“Faster than any human. Stronger, too.”

“But - you go out in the sun. And eat real food,” JJ said.

Spencer nodded.

It was Garcia who stood up and pulled him into a hug. “Thank you for telling us, sweetie. I’m sorry it didn’t cure you.”

“I have Millie now.” Spencer patted her, and her tail wagged. “And all of you. So -”

“So your intuition on cases lately,” Hotch said. “It’s from -”

“My new vampire senses. I can tell different blood donors apart, and I can smell things and see things and hear things others can’t. And, uh, I have mild telepathy sometimes. Right after I feed it’s stronger. Helps with questioning witnesses.”

“Telepathy?” Rossi looked alarmed.

“I can turn it on and off,” Spencer said. “I don’t go around listening to other people’s thoughts all day. My own thoughts are exhausting as it is.”

“What does this mean for the BAU?” Hotch asked.

“It means I’m here to stay and do my best,” Spencer said.

Millie nudged Hotch’s hand, put her chin on his knee. He petted her absently. She was trained as a therapy dog, would comfort people when they were upset. She was helpful when they had to question children.

JJ hugged him too. “You’re still one of us.”

And Spencer knew that would be enough (till it came time for him to move on, when his lack of aging became too obvious).

(It would be Derek, who helped him find a gig as an in-house profiler at Chicago PD.)

(It would be Poppy, decades later, who helped him build new identity documents so he could continue his work, move on to another PD.)

(It would be his mother who died first, the only one of his immediate loved ones who still thought he was human.)