“You want him to what?” Sheppard asks, reaching for his empty holster, and the universe confirms for Rodney that it’s always a bad idea to let people take away their weapons. Sure, the bald-headed guys with the blue robes seemed harmless plying the team with honey-flavored cakes and spiced tea, chanting incomprehensible prayers to unknown deities, but none of that matters when the room starts to spin. Rodney only has time to say, “Told you so,” before he slides into unconsciousness.
When Rodney wakes up, Sheppard’s threatening someone, Teyla’s negotiating, and Ronon’s testing the ropes. The smiling priest drapes a tiger skin around Rodney’s shoulders and the situation progresses from bad to worse.
“If you have a ZPM or technology that’s not working, I’m your man, but wrestling tigers clearly falls under Colonel Sheppard’s areas of expertise.” Rodney tries—and fails—to keep his voice in a manly range. “I’m from Canada!”
“There aren’t a lot of tigers in the U.S. either, McKay.” Sheppard’s deceptively casual voice has a familiar “anything happens to my people, there’ll be blood” undertone that makes Rodney feel oddly comforted.
“I’m no expert, but I think this tiger’s going to be a little pissed if I waltz in there wearing one of his relatives,” he says, but the priests nudge him outside, and he has no choice but to follow the narrow path until the temple is lost in a swirl of falling snow. At the mountaintop, a cave mouth beckons.
Rodney has no weapons except his brain and his mouth; he doubts the tiger will be impressed.
Wind sweeps around the mountain’s curve, and Rodney pulls the tiger pelt tighter. Another icy gust pushes him closer to the cave. “I get it! Freeze to death out here or die at the claws of a warm tiger. After all, why put it off?”
One hand trailing along the rock face, Rodney follows the curve until the cave widens into a room bright with torches. He scrambles forward, rubbing frozen fingers over the nearest flame. A brazier burns within a circle of twelve priests. Heavy curls of smoke hang in the air.
“The tiger approaches.”
Rodney glances behind him, shifting closer to the circle. There’s only one entrance to the chamber. Maybe it won’t be so bad. He likes cats – has always liked cats – and what’s a tiger except a bigger cat? With fangs. And claws that can cut his flesh to ribbons.
Rodney straightens his shoulders, raises his chin defiantly. He’s about to explain why death by tiger is inconceivable for the smartest man in two galaxies when he catches the scent of wood-smoke. It reminds him of skating, parties in college, that one memorable summer at his grandparents’ cottage; his eyes drift closed, the sweetness rolling over him. He’s strangely unafraid.
“Wrestle tiger, return to mountain.”
When Rodney opens his eyes the cave seems larger, walls scored with tiger stripes of flame and shadow. Tongues of fire flicker orange, and Rodney dreams with his eyes open. Tiger stumbling through the snow. Black wolf howling in darkness. A deer, mouth full of teeth. Two birds circling, a tornado of white feathers exploding in wormholes and starbursts. Blue-tinged hands reach for him, fading into puddlejumpers and gunfire. Familiar hazel eyes, a slow smile, and heat ripples across Rodney’s skin.
Then the tiger is there, blues eyes piercing him, paws crushing his chest. Fear scratches at Rodney’s throat, and he can feel a scream prying his jaws apart, the taste of blood bright on his tongue.
He makes no sound. Swallows blood and fear. Hopes he’s strong enough. In the silence, he hears everything—murmured chanting, rustle of silk, feet and hands breaking the air in intricate steps. The wind sounds like a song he knew once.
When he opens his eyes, he’s lying inside the circle. The coals burn dark and orange, smoke turning the room blue-grey. Shadows stretch until Rodney can see figures dancing on the walls.
The first is Teyla, body charting an elaborate choreography with Sheppard, Athosian fighting sticks slicing the air, crackling like embers. Rodney sees Teyla sharing tea. Singing. Smiling. She is surrounded by Wraith, by children, the people of Atlantis. Everyone holds part of her, pulling in opposite directions until the image breaks in a whiff of smoke.
The room shimmers. He sees Ronon in a copse of smoke-coloured trees, orange leaves crunching beneath his running feet. The Wraith are close. Ronon’s running through Altantis with Sheppard, boots pounding on metal catwalks. Running through darkness with Rodney and Teyla. Fighting. Running.
Rodney knows sooner or later Ronon will run from them too.
Shadows cover the entire wall as the brazier burns low, and Sheppard’s there in the middle of the black. A shield between Atlantis and the Wraith. Between them and everyone else. Rodney watches a jumper disappear in atomic light, sees John’s face, blue and scaly beneath a hood, witnesses him die again and again only to rise from the ashes, a little darker each time, a step slower. Rodney reaches out a hand and touches only smoke.
When Rodney returns, he sees Teyla first. He places his hands on her shoulders, forehead meeting hers.
“You know who you are. So do we,” he whispers.
A smile spreads across her face, even as her hands flutter away from him. He thinks of feathers. Hope.
Ronon punches him in the arm, already moving, anxious to go, but Rodney stops him. “What’s the hurry?” he says. Ronon shakes his head, but doesn’t break the hold. Rodney squeezes, hoping it’s enough, and lets him go.
Then he’s alone with Sheppard. “Tiger 0, McKay 1?”
“Something like that.”
“Never doubted it.”
It’s a lie. The wolf behind Sheppard’s eyes is proof this could’ve ended differently. Badly. Sheppard’s their shield, dark with blood.
“You’re not alone.” He’s not sure Sheppard understands. When Rodney’s arms circle him, Sheppard remains solid as a mountain, until … a breath like spring wind caresses his cheek: