When Sheppard walked into the ramshackle hall, golden light streaming through the gaps in the roof, dust rising from the straw-littered floor, the doors glowed pure white, and the steps to the control tower lit up, one by one as he climbed.
Rodney thought: He's used to this, he's used to cities welcoming him with a Cerenkov glow from the photonic shockwave of his superluminal presence.
Anyway, this city welcomed Sheppard just as Atlantis had, flickering into life the instant he walked in. The inhabitants, as ramshackle and ratty as the hurt city they lived in and around, drew closer to Sheppard, staring at him in awe.
Rodney scowled at his boots; he'd stepped in something en route from the puddlejumper. He also wasn't sure he wanted to watch Sheppard's shine in yet another city of the Ancients.
He felt Ronon stir beside him, though, and a murmur run through the crowd. Teyla was frowning, and everyone was staring at Sheppard.
A little girl held Sheppard's left hand, smiling up at him with a dirty face and raggedy clothes. Her feet were bare, even though the temperature was cool to Rodney, but she babbled something, pointing with her other hand.
"What's going on?" Rodney asked, but Teyla shushed him and Ronon shrugged one shoulder. They watched as other villagers came in. Some looked at Rodney and his teammates, but only briefly; everyone was watching Sheppard.
After a pause, he continued up the steps, each one lighting up casting their weird light upward, the light growing stronger until Sheppard was a silhouette in the brilliant glow of Ancient technology welcoming him. Or his gene, Rodney reminded himself. Just a freak of nature.
But he didn't believe it. Sheppard was special. The minute he'd sat in that chair in Antarctica -- and why had he, anyway? O'Neill had told him not to touch anything. Like calls to like, Rodney thought, trying not to be jealous. He'd always been the special one, but here was Sheppard: beautiful and spiky and dangerous and darling of the Ancients. He was the special one in this galaxy, the most special of them all.
When Sheppard reached the top, the entire wall behind him began to glow and then, as in Atlantis, revealed itself to be a series of doors, which louvered open and then turned on their axes, revealing a large room full of dust-covered consoles.
"Oh my god," Rodney murmured, and started after Sheppard, but the crowds had thickened and he couldn't push his way up the stairs. "Colonel!" he called, but the hush was church-like and he fell silent, guilty of his disruption. "Let me up," he whispered to the person in front of him, who stepped aside. "Please," he said to the next, and slowly began working his way up, quietly determined. He felt Ronon's presence behind him, and knew Teyla would be there, too, but he didn't risk turning around and losing momentum.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he could see into the room. Light fell from the ceiling onto Sheppard, his hair glowed almost blue in the intense light, and he was surrounded by people. He looked, Rodney thought, heroic.
He looked like what he was.
Then it started. Someone kissed Sheppard's hand; Rodney could see him mask the distaste, but he pulled subtly away. Then another seized his hand, and another, and then the group began to kneel to him, and those closest prostrated themselves before him, reaching out to touch his boots, and an eerie moaning filled the cavernous remains of the city.
Next to Rodney, a woman began to cry, and an old man pulled himself forward with his crutch. "Help me," he cried. "The healer has returned, the healer." Others took up the cry, and "Healer, healer" pealed out.
The pressure grew greater and Rodney staggered as more people pushed up behind him trying to reach Sheppard. He twisted his head back to look at Ronon, but Ronon looked as tense as Rodney felt. How would they get out of here? What did these people want from Sheppard?
But Rodney also wondered if Sheppard could give them whatever it was they desired. He seemed almost magic when he worked with the jumpers and consoles and artifacts of Atlantis; Rodney thought that whenever he watched Sheppard fly. And here, in this miserable, broken-down, poverty-stricken place, in his clean uniform and healthy glow, triggering the wonders of this beautiful forlorn city, he seemed even more magic.
"The hands of the king are the hands of a healer," Rodney murmured to Ronon, who looked sharply at him, then nodded.
"I have heard that," he said, and they studied Sheppard.
Then more people pushed forward and Rodney was separated from his teammates. He shoved his way past the others, trying not to step on children or topple the infirm, but his goal was theirs: to reach Sheppard. The light was dazzling, but he could see Sheppard's outline, still blue; he really did emit Cerenkov light, Rodney thought, and reached out his hand. "Sheppard," he called, speaking quietly but with an intensity that made Sheppard look up in relief.
"Rodney," he said, and twisted away from the hands clutching at him to clutch at Rodney, like a lifeline, Rodney thought, a lifeline back to Atlantis, back to home and safety.
"Well, come on, Colonel," he said sharply, ignoring the growing clamour. "We're waiting for you." He pulled Sheppard away from the grasping hands and staring eyes, protectively putting his arm around Sheppard's waist. "Time to go," he said even more loudly. "Running late; places to go, things to do, colonels to rescue."
"Hardly rescue," Sheppard objected, but mildly, and he leaned into Rodney's bulk, letting him thrust their way through the crowd, hands tearing from Sheppard like Velcro, Rodney thought with distaste.
"Whatever," he murmured, and then Ronon was on the other side of Sheppard, scooping his arm over Rodney's, so the two of them manhandled Sheppard back down the steps, to Teyla, and then out into the fresh air.
Rodney looked back. Unlike Atlantis, as Sheppard left, the lights dimmed and Rodney knew that, when Sheppard had gone, they would go out. People cried and called, and young men looked angrily their way. "Hurry," he said to Ronon, and Teyla nodded, gripping her P90.
"We should leave immediately," she said, but Rodney'd already reached that conclusion. Lightning was going to strike, the crowd was that restive and the noise darkening, like a bad storm sweeping down on them. As soon as they were free of poultry and children, they began to jog toward the puddlejumper.
"Go, go, go," Ronon demanded, but Rodney needed no urging, and Sheppard recovered himself enough to run ahead of them. The jumper hatch opened and they ran straight in.
"Let's get out of here," Rodney gasped, wiping his face, but Sheppard stopped to look back. In the dark of the jumper, he still faintly glowed blue, the tips of his hair blue sparks.
"John," Teyla said urgently, so he turned and ran to the pilot's seat. The hatch began to close. Rodney grabbed onto a handhold and stood watching the angry and anxious faces they were leaving.
Only when they were safely airborne and zooming toward the gate did Rodney sit down. Teyla handed him a bottle of water, and he sloshed some on his face. "Filthy place," he said, wiping his forehead on his shoulder.
Sheppard was quiet all the way back. "That was a quick return," Elizabeth told them, clearly puzzled. After an awkward pause, Teyla said, "The people have suffered great deprivation. I do not believe trade with them is a viable option." Rodney wondered where she'd learned the phrase "viable option" while being grateful for her quick wittedness.
Elizabeth and Lorne studied the four of them; Rodney found that he had to stare at his filthy boots again. He wondered how to clean them. At last Elizabeth said, "Well, off to the infirmary with you. We'll debrief once Carson has cleared you all."
Without thinking, Rodney put his arm around Sheppard's waist again; he felt the same need to deliver Sheppard from the pressure here that he had in the debilitated city, to ransom him from the gaze of others. Sheppard went with him, still silent, though once they'd passed from the Observation Centre into the corridor, he sighed heavily and straightened up. "Thanks, Rodney," he said, and Rodney dropped his arm, a little embarrassed.
There was nothing wrong with them, of course, as Rodney told Carson and his nurses loudly. They'd only been gone an hour. "I just want a shower and some way to clean my boots," he insisted. Carson shook his head but let them go, only after stabbing Rodney's arm to take blood in his usual vampiric way.
Rodney felt oddly reluctant to let Sheppard out of his sight, so he drifted after him; their quarters were on the same level, so it wasn't unheard of for him to follow Sheppard. Ronon stared at Rodney and then left for his quarters. Teyla stopped Sheppard with a soft, "John," and they stared at each other for a long moment before he leaned over so they could touch foreheads in the Athosian manner.
Then Rodney was alone with Sheppard. "Um," he said, rubbing his neck. "What happened up there? I couldn't see. They called you a healer."
Sheppard looked away from Rodney, who could see his jaw working. "Nothing, really," he said, and Rodney knew he was lying.
"You can tell me now or I can pester you until you do tell me," he said, crossing his arms.
Sheppard glared at him, but sighed again. "I don't know. Really," he added when Rodney opened his mouth. "I just, that little girl, did you see her? She pulled me up the stairs to this woman. People kept touching me." Rodney thought Sheppard shuddered at bit at the memory. "My hands, especially, but then my shoulders and back and even my feet."
"And nothing. They kept touching me and then you came."
"Look, let's go over this again. You tell me --"
"I don't know, Rodney, okay? I don't know."
"Just tell me what you saw. I'll take it from there."
Sheppard glared at him, suddenly looking a lot more like himself. "I'm not sure, but I think she got better. The woman, I mean. She, like, straightened up, and her colour got better. Pinker in the face. Even her hair looked better."
Rodney opened his mouth but he couldn't bring himself to be sarcastic. Sheppard still looked shaken, and a bit sad, and very tired. "Took a lot out of you," he finally said.
"Yeah. It was -- yeah."
Rodney stood a bit longer, wondering what to say, if there was something he should do. At last, he awkwardly patted Sheppard's arm, the way he had before. He nodded at Sheppard, and passed him, on his way to his own quarters.
"Rodney," Sheppard called just as he reached the turn toward his rooms. He looked back. "I, ah. Thank you. You know."
"Just keep saving my life," he finally said, and the penny dropped. The hands of the king were the hands of a healer. His mouth dropped open and Sheppard looked concerned. "Lucky for me you're damn good at that," he said, and quickly hurried on.
The hands of a king, he thought later, finally under the scalding shower he'd been longing for. He imagined Sheppard's hands on him, not dressing a wound or thwapping him upside the head, but gently, tenderly, powerfully. He came with a silent shudder, sighed deeply, and turned off the water.
He's our golden boy, he thought, dressing in a clean uniform. He really does glow. He is our king.
Rodney left for the debriefing.