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# PROLOGUE

 

 

The forest lay black beneath the scope of cold flat starlight. Wind blew down the mountains and sawed across the slope. Down in the foothills, trees creaked and rushed in waves like a disquieted sea. The smell of resin and juniper was strong, even up here.

Resting against the ceremony stone, he had his legs stretched out before him. The heavy fur coat protected his back and torso but couldn't prevent the chill seeping into him from the ground. His breath crystallised into white plumes at his lips.

To his left, the ragged walls of the canyon hid the Ancient spire in shadows. All the same he knew it was there: a slender tower, rising from the rocks like a blade of black steel. He had seen the glint of setting sunlight on its metal turrets. It was there, only a few miles away.

He tried to stand up but as he dragged his heel across the gravel, strength poured out of him like water from a broken spillway. He didn't try again.

At the canyon's mouth, ice cracked on a frozen brook. The quiet was hypnotic, soporific. If he listened long enough, the silence would spread inside him, too. Snowflakes settled on his brow and cheeks. Slowly, he felt the sweat on his face turn to frost. Even the blood on his shirt was no longer warm. The soaked cotton stuck to his skin, spreading more coldness.

They shouldn't have separated. It had been a mistake to let Teyla go.

He flexed his bruised fingers. By now the cold hurt worse than the cuts on his hands. He briefly wondered how much longer he would remain lucid. As yet, his aching body kept him awake but surely that would fade soon. Already the pain was dimming from his side - the wound didn't throb that hard anymore.

He felt dizzy, though. Gut churning with nausea; he turned his head to the side and his hair rasped against the stone. Thoughts passed in and out of his mind, turning like leaves on a river's surface. No longer able to keep a hold on them, he let them drift until they blurred. Sleep was close, and it was easy to give in to it. For the first time in a long while it was easy. It almost felt like comfort. At this point he didn't long anymore, didn't wish for things to have turned out another way, didn't want to see a lost face again or go home.

Home.

Had never been a place.

 

RIVER OF ICE / OBLIVION

_______________________________

 

 

This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Gwendolyn MacEwen

 

1 / NORTHERN LIGHTS

 

The smouldering grass filled the hut with sweet smoke. John thought it smelt like curry, which wasn't so bad once you got used to it. He could've done without the stinging eyes, shortness of breath and headaches, but que sera. All for the sake of diplomacy.

John watched as gnarled hands passed along the ceremonial braid of herbs and fur, the ignited end leaking trails of fume. Inhaling the stuff was supposed to clear the soul of evil influences. True as that might be, the smoke's stench also came close to clearing John's stomach of his last lunch.

Teyla, on the other hand, looked perfectly at ease. When the braid passed to her, she closed her eyes and waved a cloud of smoke into her face. Amongst the gathered Ord, she looked like she belonged. Never mind that she was the youngest by a margin.

Half a dozen old timers had gathered in the settlement's central hut. Under the low roof their brown and wrinkled faces looked oddly still, like masks carved from wood. Har, the paramount elder, took the braid and described a circle in mid-air. He cupped a hand over the smoking grass before lowering his mouth over his palm. At last he lifted his face.

"The Keepers have gathered," he announced. He looked at his sister Ymer, who'd be their story-teller tonight.

John shifted on his deer hide, sensing a cramp in his left calf. It was hard to disguise his discomfort, but if he wanted to gain something from these meetings, if the Ord should think him worthy of their trust, he had to endure. He understood these folks depended on ceremony much as the military depended on protocol. It didn't change the fact that the Ord were going to tell the same story they'd been telling three days in a row.

On the eve of the Hunter's Moon, John thought.

"On the eve of the Hunter's Moon," Ymer began, "two of our clan decided to follow the spirit trail."

The omens were full of warning . . .

"The omens were full of warning, but the young men went all the same, disregarding their Keepers' counsel."

They struck off into the woods, bought a pair of glitter suits and made lots of money with a show in Vegas. John smiled.

"They struck off into the woods, went by the forbidden path and got lost behind the line of stones. Know this and remember."

Yeah, John knew the story. They all did by now. Two brothers went into the mountains to find the spirits. They were gone for the better part of fourteen days. Only one of them returned.

John lifted a hand to his throbbing temple. He closed his eyes for a second, hoping no-one would notice. Incense clogged his throat with bitter, scratching air. Breathe flat, John reminded himself. Stay calm.

Ymer's voice took on a warbled, echoing ring. The fumes reached into John's head, curling around his brain and invading him from inside his skin. Sweat broke out on his forehead, one droplet running past his brow and down his nose.

"Hear what I tell you," Ymer said and just in time. "Hear it well." That ended the story and for a painful while, nobody moved. Then Har placed the braid into a bowl and his neighbour doused it with water. After that, the group began to disperse. Someone folded back the flap of hides that covered the entry, and a bar of light stabbed into the hut.

John fumbled his way outside on stiff legs. It was all he could do not to retch. He hurried around the corner of the hut and braced his hand on the wall. Forcing the bile back down his throat, he lifted his face into the wind. Inhaling the cool air, he waited for his head to clear.

"Are you all right?"

John opened his eyes. Teyla came up beside him, searching his face. John noted that she didn't look queasy in the least. As he often did, John felt like a fake beside her, hoping that she wouldn't notice how little clue or guts he had. Most of the time he suspected she did notice but graciously pretended not to.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "I'm just glad they didn't break out the birch sprigs."

Teyla gave him an indulgent smile, the one she reserved for earthling references that meant absolutely nothing to her.

"Ymer and the other women invited me to share their tea," she told him. "It felt to me like they are ready to share what they know, as well."

"Good," John said, swallowing a cough. "That's good. No offense, but I think their repertoire's a bit thin spread."

Teyla smiled and put a hand on his arm. "Remember what Elizabeth said," she told him. "If they don't give us directions today we will focus our energies elsewhere."

"Yeah," John said. "If you ask me, it's time we got the hell out of Dodge." Smile widening, Teyla walked away. Watching her go, John didn't know whether he would be glad to hand down the mission to the beta team or resent the waste of his time. They had come looking for an Ancient outpost, but even though the locals confirmed there existed some mysterious stronghold in the wild, they didn't break out the maps. Teyla might be confident, but John suspected that by the time she broke the ice, he would have died of smoke poisoning.

Heading for the south end of the hamlet, John sniffed at his fingers with dismay. He smelt like a joss stick and he didn't owe the bouquet to the last hour alone. It was days since he'd seen a decent slab of soap or even a sink. Thinking of the Ord's washing facilities, John cringed. 'Facilities' in these here parts translated into rain barrels. No sponges, so you took a rag of cloth, dunked it past a layer of other peoples' dirt and ignored whatever might be rotting at the bottom of the barrel. Rodney would have hated it with a passion.

John smiled. He missed Rodney's griping – his attitude made missions a lot more entertaining. Although, maybe John should be grateful for the safe distance, because these last few weeks, McKay had finally mastered the art of striking people dead with one glare.

Carson had grounded Rodney right after John's team escaped the Hive. Medical supervision, he called it, to double-check Rodney's heart for late effects. Rodney insisted he was fine, Carson disagreed and in the end Carson's expertise got Elizabeth's backing. Rodney did not take it quietly.

John remembered the fight in the infirmary, Rodney and Carson hurling insults at each other like there was no tomorrow. The rest of the medical personnel had fled the grounds at the first opportunity. Ready to run, John had watched from the doorway, shocked and fascinated, preparing for the moment the two men would start throwing things.

John had seen Rodney livid before, no big deal. Carson's fury, on the other hand, was unexpected; as a rule Beckett hid his steel behind a smile. The fact that he flew off the handle that time made John wonder.

Elizabeth had told him they'd come close to losing Rodney. Somehow the weight of the news had failed to reach John until Carson's outburst made it real. No-one talked about how bad it had been. John didn't ask. But that day in the infirmary he'd witnessed the afterburn of fear inside Carson's anger and knew Rodney sensed the same. Most likely that was why he raged as loud as he could. Carson's anxiety made them both vulnerable.

After the fight, John grew watchful. He found himself sneaking glances at Rodney, looking for signs of withdrawal. He didn't notice any; Rodney came across as competent and snappy as ever. Cranky, too, but that wasn't new. It sure looked like he'd bounced right back. And yet John couldn't shake the impression that something was different - not wrong, perhaps, but changed. Some things got to people no matter how hard they ignored them. A lesson John was learning first hand these days. Decisions he'd made, things he'd witnessed, things he hadn't seen but could imagine too well . . . lately each memory opened a can of worms. Only thing you could do was put the lid back on hard.

Sometimes it worked.

 

* * *

 

The Ord's hamlet was small, surrounded by sloping woods that melted into a distant mountainscape. In the middle of this wilderness the hamlet looked like a work of defiance: the huts huddled together in a crouch, their thatched roofs reaching to the ground. Everywhere you went, the smell of peat mingled with the green tang of crushed fir needles. Ducking under one spindly species of fir-tree, John walked out between two huts and emerged on a dusky meadow.

Out in the open, Beckett was in the middle of packing up his gear. A young Ord lingered some distance behind him, inspecting one of the mossy rocks. John tipped the youth a nod, before turning to Atlantis' designated medicine man.

"Carson."

"Colonel." Closing his med kit, Carson straightened. His glance drifted to the Ord who was now staring at the dim sky.

"Any progress?" John asked quietly. He doubted the kid would eavesdrop, but discussing his condition out loud still felt rude.

Carson sighed. "Not really. I still don't know what's wrong with him."

"Can you guess?" John asked.

Carson gave him a wry smile. "Oh I can guess all right. If you want to know, progress in medicine often hinges on the right hunch at the right time."

"Somehow that doesn't comfort me," John said, rocking back on his heels. Carson's smile brightened a notch before it faded to a hard line.

"Well," he said, "so far my tests point to a deficient production of acetylcholine. Scans show way too many abnormal protein filaments inside his brain. Oh, and the deposition of amyloid outside his nerve cells is really running riot. Which would explain the short-term memory loss. "

"Did you hide any information in that?" John asked wryly.

Carson winced and returned to what John liked to call the plane of lesser intelligence. "Of course," he said, "I'm sorry. The boy shows all signs of spontaneous dementia."

"Dementia?" John repeated, surprised. "Isn't he a bit young for that?"

"It can happen to adolescents, but you're right, the cases are rare. Especially since people tell me he's been just fine a couple of months ago. If I had to guess, I'd say the change was brought about forcefully and from the outside."

"Which means?"

Carson shrugged. "It could have been shock, some traumatic experience. Or he could have come in contact with nerve gas, but how and where, on a planet like this . . . I honestly have no idea."

"Right." John looked at the boy once more. By now the light of day had near vanished. Against the looming forest, the kid almost vanished into shadows. John felt a tingle in his spine, pity mingling with the old restlessness that would have him intervene even if he could do nothing. "Can you help him?"

Carson shook his head. "I wouldn't know where to start. If I knew what brought this about, maybe I could devise something. But as long as I can't determine if this happened due to physical dysfunction – which is possible, but, as I said unlikely – or whether there've been toxins involved, extreme psychological stress . . . it's like a jigsaw with pieces missing."

For a moment, neither of them said a word. Eventually Carson continued, sounding subdued. "If I'd got to him sooner, maybe it would've made a difference. But he's been like this for quite some time now. His brain cells have deteriorated so much I'm afraid the damage is beyond repair."

"Is he aware of that?" John asked, almost hoping that the answer would be no.

"I doubt it. In fact, I don't think he has any sense of who or where he is. In his state there's nothing left to remind him."

John watched the boy tilt his head to the side. He was a skinny kid. His brother had got all the muscle, or so John had been told.

Why the siblings took into the woods no-one knew, though there were rumours about dares. Whatever the reason, John doubted the result was worth the risk. The older brother never came back and the younger returned broken. Having no notion of time or identity, he walked the hamlet like he'd misplaced something. His clansmen were kind enough, or so John thought, but they kept their distance. They had made the kid part of a story. A poor compensation for what else he'd become: An outcast, a stranger returned in the skin of one formerly known and loved. He didn't look sad, at least. He looked like he didn't feel anything at all.

"How about you?" Carson asked, and for a moment John failed to see the connection.

"Me?"

Carson eyed him patiently. "Any progress?"

"Oh. That." John scratched the stubble on his jaw-line, caught another whiff of incense and winced. "Seems like Teyla broke the ice today. She thinks they're ready to spill."

"Does she now," Carson said thoughtfully. He frowned, creasing his brow in a way that should look comical on his round face but didn't. There were too many new lines around his eyes, too much shadow. "And if Teyla gets the clues you'll, what, hike out?

"That's the plan."

"Do you really think there's an Ancient outpost out there?"

"There could be," John said, knowing he didn't sound enthusiastic enough. "It's a lead, what else have we got?"

"Of course," Carson answered. "It just feels like we're on a wild goose chase that never leads anywhere."

"You're telling me," John said with a sigh, clasping his hands on the nape of his neck.

"Right. Sorry." Carson's mouth curled into a sympathetic smile. He patted John's shoulder, picked up his med case and shouldered the cooler-bag that contained his collection of Ord blood. "Well," he said. "I'm going back to Atlantis, see if I can get something more out of the new samples."

"You do that." John tried not to envy him for the steaming hot baths of the city. Staggering only slightly under his load, Carson took two steps before he bent and fetched a big-bellied pouch from a boulder. "Here," he said, holding it out. Reaching for it, John realised it was a flask made of hide. When he flipped off the lid, a heady smell of fermented berries hit his nose.

"One of the Ord women gave it to me," Carson explained. "It's her way of saying thanks for a treatment. She had this fungus between her toes, a nasty little bugger. You don't want to know the details."

"Believe me, I don't," John agreed, sniffing the flask with growing admiration.

"Thought you might enjoy it more than I would," Carson shrugged. John knew him enough to see that he was flat out lying but he was appreciating it.

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it," Carson returned, smile dimpling his cheeks. "Oh, and, Colonel?"

"Yeah?"

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell Rodney about the guessing."

John lifted the flask in wordless salute. Carson turned, shrugged his bag into place, and disappeared into the shadows between the huts.

John turned back to the meadow. Seeing the kid had gone, too, he sat down on a boulder and lifted the flask to his mouth. Drinking on missions was against regulations but John figured after another afternoon in smoke-ville, he'd earned a drink. The brandy was sweet but left a bitter aftertaste; soon John's tongue began to feel furry. He took another sip and the heat spread. Leaning back on one arm, John looked up at the sky.

Night had come, but it wasn't dark. Up above the woods, ribbons of green light slashed the firmament and parted into veils of shimmering blue. A faint yellow ripple criss-crossed above the treetops.

John watched the display of colour without seeing it. He couldn't stop thinking about the Ord kid, and John wondered how it might feel, letting go of the knowledge, erasing memories instead of locking them up.

 

 

 

2 / ReUNION

Standing atop the watchtower, John looked out over the rolling woods. This early in the morning, the forest steamed with mist. Dawn reduced the mountains to a dim line of blue.

Untouched, infinite wilderness. Without directions, John's people would spend weeks in search of an outpost that could lie ruined, overgrown or at the bottom of a lake. The Lantean database had been vague, merely mentioning that some kind of Alteran construction could be found on this planet. The Ord called it Anerheimen, homestead of the ancestors. According to the elders there even was a path leading from their settlement to the fabled homestead. But even though the markers that showed the way had been passed down from generation to generation, the Ord stayed clear from the path, claiming that it was guarded by hostile spirits. Throughout the decades, only a few visionaries, fanatics or rebel kids had headed north never to be heard from again.

The one surviving pilgrim John had met; the young Ord Carson had tried and failed to heal. Following in the footsteps of a kid who'd lost his wits and his brother didn't really get John's groove on, but Elizabeth had nailed it: It was a one time opportunity. The chance of finding an Ancient base, ordnance, perhaps, intel, anything – it was worth checking out. They just had to trust their luck that no bad things would happen. Because that had worked so well in the past.

Round and round we go, John thought, staring out across the forest. At least today the waiting would end. Last night Teyla had been initiated into the knowledge of 'The Path' – had been treated to some potent tea, too, by the sound of it. John had contacted Atlantis straight after her report.

Elizabeth hadn't hesitated either. An hour after this planet's sunrise, she'd sent gear and reinforcements on the way. Trees growing close to the local stargate prevented the use of jumpers, but even so everything would be ready for the hike in no time.

John winced, imagining the day to come. He didn't like pushing his way uphill or freezing his ass off while sleeping on the ground, and he'd absolutely no love for shrubs. There was a reason he'd become a pilot.

With a resigned sigh, John moved to the ladder and left the look-out.

 

* * *

 

A clearing outside the hamlet had been picked as point of assembly. Once John rounded the corner of the last hut, he saw that not only had their gear arrived, but the beta team was already busy setting things up. Looking at each soldier, John remembered names and ranks until he caught sight of one very familiar face. Surprised, he stopped mid-stride.

McKay stood in the middle of the newly arrived gear, surveying his surroundings with a sour face. He looked about as happy as a man facing root canal treatment.

John grinned, feeling his mouth tug in a way that was by now familiar. He hadn't expected to see Rodney before the next mission. He should have known better. Never expect to predict the McKay phenomenon. Shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket, John walked over to where Rodney was supervising the distribution of equipment.

"Colonel," Rodney greeted while glaring at two marines handling a heavy looking box.

"McKay," John returned. "What've we got?"

"More than a human being can possibly carry," Rodney snorted, indicating a pile of backpacks. "You get the heavy one."

John tried to tune down his glee at the much-missed sarcasm and failed gloriously. Rodney slanted him a look and narrowed his eyes.

"What?"

"Nothing."

A brief pause, then Rodney's face darkened with outrage. "Hey!"

John had jumped halfway out of his skin before he realised Rodney was shouting past his head.

"Could you be any less careful with that?!"

John twisted around to see the marines settling their box, both of whom were glaring intently at the ground. Dr. Lindsay hurried their way, looking flustered.

"Dr. McKay," Teyla's voice cut in. John turned back and there she was, eyebrow raised as she studied Rodney.

"Yes, yes, I'm here," Rodney said impatiently. "Can we get past the embarrassing welcome-back procedure and get on with the work?"

"Of course," Teyla nodded, giving John a sideways glance and the hint of a smirk. Focus, he reminded himself. As if on cue, Lieutenant Thomas came over and stood to attention.

"Colonel Sheppard," he greeted and John returned a good-natured "Lieutenant".

"We're about to set up the relay station," Thomas reported. "We should have no problems keeping contact. There's warm clothing for both you and your team over there," he pointed to a stack of folded garment, "and the supplies have been distributed amongst the backpacks."

Rodney, who'd arrived clothed in several layers of microfleece, pulled a headband out of his pocket. "I hope you're a fast walker," he told John, "with the little food they packed we have to get there and back again in two days."

The Lieutenant winced. For some reason, he seemed in a hurry to put some distance between himself and McKay. "Colonel," he said. "If there's nothing else?"

"Show me the rest," John granted. He signalled Teyla to pick jackets for her and Ronon before following the lieutenant to the edge of the hamlet.

"We set up the relay station here," Thomas said. "Dr. Weir scheduled check-ins every three hours."

"Good call."

"There are clips for the side arms in the backpacks, two tents and sleeping bags. You've got rope, quickdraws and a couple descenders, just in case the going gets steep."

"Sounds like you know what you're talking about," John said.

A blush crept onto the Lieutenant's face, making him look younger than he probably was. "My family spent lots of their holidays at Joshua Tree Park," he explained. "We did a lot of climbing." He turned his head, looking at the wall of conifers and the ragged mountaintops in the distance. "Looks like mighty fine country out there," Thomas said.

"Want to go in my stead?"

The Lieutenant ducked his head and grinned. "No, sir."

Sure you don't, John thought but smiled all the same. "Thanks, Lieutenant. Dismissed." Thomas went off with a nod.

Cold wind blew out on the clearing, ruffling the witchgrass that covered the slates. Zipping his jacket closed John walked back to his team.

Rodney kept watching the unloading of tackle with an eagle eye. It was obvious that he itched to comment. Teyla had carried a stack of clothing to his side and remained.

"Everything ready?" John asked.

"Almost," she said. "I will take these clothes to Ronon, then we should meet at the headman's hall. Ymer offered to prepare a send-off."

"Breakfast?" Rodney turned around, attention homing in on Teyla. It was endearing. John himself had a sudden vision of fresh bread and his stomach rumbled quietly.

"Yes," Teyla said, eyes crinkling with amusement. "There will be food."

Rodney grinned. "Now we're talking."

 

 

3 / BORDERLANDS

 

When they first entered the woods, they had to pick their way through the web of hunters' trails and the odd deer track. Now as the sun sunk beyond its zenith there was only one path winding deeper into untamed country. It was bumpy ground, going up and down in turns. At one point a string of geese flew by overhead, crossing the bleak sky in phalanx. They were the only wildlife John saw along the way.

As usual, Teyla brought up the rear while Ronon took point. For the longest while there was no conversation, only the rhythmic clinking and creaking of gear interspersed with the wind shifting through the trees. John strained to hear through the quiet of the forest, picking up the sound of dead wood cracking and birds fluttering out of sight. They were climbing into another hollow, going sideways so they wouldn't slip, when Ronon suddenly stopped.

"There," he said. "The marker."

"Brilliant," Rodney huffed, his breath sounding just a little wheezy.

As they approached, John could see it, too. A stone, waist-high, resting in the shadow of what looked like an elderberry. The symbols on the weather-beaten surface had been traced with red paint. Even from a distance John could see the marks were Ancient.

Once there, Rodney went down on one knee and pulled his glove off with his teeth. His bare fingers brushed the petroglyphs, scrubbing at a patch of lichen.

"We might be on to something," he said, pulling his little scanner out of his jacket.

John looked over Rodney's shoulder. His Ancient wasn't quite as fluent as Elizabeth's, but he could decipher these symbols. One could be the sign for 'road' or maybe 'passage'. The other . . .

"What does it say?" Ronon asked.

"Well," Rodney answered, scanning the inscription. "Roughly translated it reads: 'The way home'."

 

* * *

 

John's team came upon two more markers before it finally grew too dark to continue. They arrived on the planet in its fall season and the days were short. On his part, John didn't mind calling it an early night. When he put down his backpack, his shoulders were sore and stiff from the weight. Sitting down on a mound of stones and herbs, he stretched his legs carefully.

Some way to the left, Rodney and Ronon debated procedure – Rodney wanted to eat, Ronon wanted to set up camp first. Rodney played on home turf, going on about too many cooks spoiling the broth, arguing that one party could very well prepare food while the other took care of the tents; there was no harm in sharing tasks and so on. Ronon still had the stronger argument. He snatched Rodney's pack and hung it on a branch out of reach.

John let them squabble, using the break to catch his breath. He hadn't felt that winded since basics. If he didn't know better, he'd swear someone had poured lead into his calves.

Teyla joined him, sitting down at his side and passing along a thermos flask. John took it gratefully.

"So how much farther do you think it is?" he asked, after he'd taken a sip.

"It is hard to tell," Teyla said. "The path is in the Ord's Telling, but there hasn't been anyone who walked and returned unharmed in a long time." She didn't say more but something in her voice sounded off.

"It's bothering you, isn't it?" John asked.

For a while she didn't answer, giving John the chance to study her face from the corner of his eye. She did look a bit worried, although with Teyla, it was sometimes hard to tell.

"I visited many planets and met many people," she said at length. "In my experience, if people decide something is a sacrilege, they do so for a reason."

"Religion."

"It is more than that."

John turned to her, surprised. Suddenly he recalled the last time his people had breached another culture's bylaws, back on Athos. Maybe Teyla remembered, too.

"We do not always know the origin of a warning," she said. "But I think a taboo surviving for generations usually either protects the lives of many or secures the power of few."

"And what sort of taboo are we dealing with?"

"I cannot say. But the fact that we are breaking it makes me feel uncomfortable."

"Uncomfortable enough to abort the mission?"

"I don't know."

John swirled the rest of the water around in his flask. He knew how Teyla felt. He didn't have any good vibes about this trip, either. But saying that would hardly help. If he abandoned missions every time he got the heebie jeebies he would miss out on gaining what often turned out to be useful experience. Like being shot by renegade Wraith turned cannibal. Or love-bites from hell's own blue critter . . .

Meanwhile on the clearing, things had come to an impasse. Rodney stood straight-backed, arms crossed, while Ronon held up a tent pole. Neither moved so much as an inch.

"Set this up."

"Make me."

The scene was oddly reminiscent of a Laurel & Hardy routine minus the cakes. John pulled a Power Bar from his backpack and held it out to Teyla. "Want to make peace?"

She took the bar with a smile and stood. "I will see what I can do."

"You could set up our tent while you're at it."

"Do not test me, John."

* * *

 

John was up at the crack of dawn, having slept little and badly. He crept out of the tent to take a leak, bumping his foot against a root as he stumbled away from the camp. He'd brought a flashlight, but switched it off as soon as his eyes got used to the murk of not-yet-sunrise.

It had frozen over night. A skim of rime silvered the dead foliage on the grass. Cobwebs covered the hassocks in white lace.

Standing at the edge of a frost-rimmed brook, John pulled his gloves back on. His knees were stiff and aching from yesterday's hike, his skin sticky with sweat after hours locked in an insulated sleeping-bag. Had he ever enjoyed the outdoors? He must have. He remembered summers at Yellowstone, his thirteen-year-old self strapping supply bags into trees. Back then, camping had been fun. These days it was dressing in a tent where he couldn't stand up, condensation dripping from the tent-roof and MREs. Ford would've seen the upside. Hell, he'd probably call this the time of his life. Get a rise out of it. He'd been that way.

John smoothed his jacket's cuffs down over his gloves. Those random flashes of memory hurt, but John expected no less. The image of Aiden tossing him a tuna sandwich would always be paired with the knowledge that John had abandoned him twice. Not that there were many options. The first time Aiden had run, the last time leaving Aiden behind was the only way to save Teyla and Ronon.

It was no use, though. No matter how often John repeated his reasons, they never felt right. Any explanations he came up with were only excuses, anyway. The truth was he'd made a choice.

Tell me, Colonel. Was his trust misplaced?

John didn't like the answer he'd have to give now. He wasn't naive; he knew people walked into danger all the time. Sometimes you lost them. But now it started happening on John's watch and that was a bitter pill to swallow. He thought he'd never get used to it. He was afraid someday he would.

John shook his head, putting useless thoughts aside. When he ran a hand through his hair, he noted it had grown too long. He'd have to get a cut as soon as he returned to Atlantis. But first he would run a long, hot shower . . .

With a sigh, John turned and trudged back to the camp, waiting for the others to wake up.

 

* * *

 

John sat near the cold campfire, legs folded tailor-fashion. He cradled a stainless steel mug in one hand, using the other to stir oatmeal with a spoon. Behind his back, Teyla was fastening one of their dissembled tents to her backpack while Ronon loaded up on gear and weapons.

Rodney chose that moment to return to the clearing, smoothing down the front of his jacket with both hands. Past missions had taught John that Rodney was not a morning person and today was no exception. Rodney still looked rumpled and sleepy, hair sticking out every which way. When he sat down at John's side, John handed him a mug of semi-fluid breakfast. Rodney eyed it sceptically, prodding the surface with his spoon. "What's this?"

"Oatmeal. Ronon made it."

"Ronon?" Rodney repeated, tilting his mug so the clump of bloated oats wobbled to the rim. "Why did he . . ."

"He wanted a turn," John said softly, checking if Ronon was close enough to overhear.

"And you let him?" Rodney asked, mesmerized by the thick drops of pap dribbling from his spoon.

John shrugged. "I figured oatmeal's so simple, you can't mess it up."

"Good thinking."

"Tell me about it."

At least it didn't crawl from the mug to smother their faces, John reflected. Letting the mug sink to his lap, he looked at the path. Not for the first time, the lack of growth on the trail had John thinking. If the Ord were telling the truth, only one or two in each generation came here. Not enough boots to keep a track visible. So who or what kept vegetation from smothering the path? John hoped they wouldn't find out. He could do without surprise guests for a change.

When he looked again, Rodney was busy spooning grey paste out of his mug.

"What?" he mumbled with his mouth full. "It's not so bad."

"I can see that," John said, feeling his mouth quirk.

"Reminds me of that movie," Rodney continued. "You know, the one with the giant pudding trying to eat everyone. What's it called?"

"The Blob."

"Yeah. That."

Not for the first time John thought that the one thing more bizarre than his definition of cinema classics was the fact that Rodney shared his taste.

 

He eyed his mug. Maybe he should eat the oatmeal. Before it got any ideas.

* * *

 

Later that morning the team was on the march again, walking through coils of ground-fog as they headed north. Two hours in, they reached a low wall, eroded in places and covered with brown moss. Seemingly endless, the wall dwindled away into the distance east and west between tall trees.

"Cute," Rodney remarked. "It's the Great Wall – downsized for miniature golf."

"What wall?" Ronon asked.

"One of the seven world wonders on Earth. A huge wall, about six thousand kilometres long. Built by the Emperor Cheng. Quite remarkable, actually. Plus, another major sight I missed out on."

 

"Shih Huang Ti," John said.

"Bless you."

"It's a name. Shih Huang Ti built the Wall, not Cheng."

"No, that's not . . ." Rodney paused, frowned. "You could be right."

"I am."

Distracted, John watched Teyla wandering off along the wall. Some way down, she stopped and stared into the forest with a frown. John followed her gaze but couldn't see anything. He turned back to find Rodney grinning at him.

"What?" John asked, warily.

Rodney rocked back on his heels, grin widening. "How often did you watch Jeopardy?"

"Never did."

"Liar."

"Knock it off."

At this, Rodney put on the mother of smug grins. John decided to back out of this one and joined Teyla at her lookout. "Anything wrong?" he asked her.

She shook her head. "Nothing I can hear or see." The quiet seemed to satisfy her. The departure of her frown also did wonders for John's calm. It put him at ease, knowing Teyla had an eye out for them. He trusted her instincts more than his own which, in many ways, was a first-time experience.

"Is this the wall the Ord talked about?" he asked.

"It would appear so."

"I know this might sound repetitive," Rodney said as he closed up to them. "What wall?" He patted the rocks before sitting down on a moss-free stretch. He fished his flask from the side of his backpack and unscrewed it.

"The Ord call it Line of Stones," John explained. "It's a border."

"It is also a warning," Teyla added. "Ymer told me about it. Within are the Ord's hunting grounds. Without is hallowed territory."

Rodney shook his flask to make sure it was empty, then turned to John. "Care to elaborate?"

"Don't ask me," John said. "Teyla's been in on their secrets, I'm just the sidekick."

Teyla slipped her pack from her shoulder, pulled her canteen from a pocket and handed it to Rodney. "Ymer says there had once been spirits living near the mountains. Apparently they could change their skin and turn into animals. From what I have gathered, the Ord have not been on friendly terms with them."

"Haven't been," John repeated. "That's past tense, right?"

Teyla gave a slight shrug. "The spirits have not been seen in Ymer's time or the generation before her. Among the Ord it is told that they long ago changed into wild beasts and forgot how to turn back."

"That's a pretty tale for a campfire," Rodney commented.

"You do not believe in spirits?" Teyla asked.

"Oh, please," Rodney said. "Spirits and any other religious effigies are just a desperate effort of the human mind to impose a supernatural structure on an inherently indifferent universe."

"So, no rules to reign the chaos?" John teased.

"Of course there are rules," Rodney snorted. "Physics. Causality. But the existence of a higher power assigning fates while he twiddles his curly white beard? I don't believe that for a second."

Rodney wiped the canteen's mouth with his sleeve then offered it up to John who'd drained his own bottle about fifteen minutes ago. As he drank, John took another look at the seemingly endless wall. It felt weird to encounter something man-made in all this wilderness. Gave a sense of falsity to the picture, somehow. John considered the effort it must have taken to set up these stones and wondered what iron purpose had driven the builders.

"John?" Teyla's voice tore him out of his thoughts. He turned back to her, seeing she was ready to hit the road.

"Should we continue?" she asked.

"We'd better."

He returned her canteen and she stuck it back in her backpack. Together they walked to a gap in the wall.

Once more, John noted the arboreal quiet, the solitude stretching for miles around them. He looked ahead to see Ronon already on the other side, standing in the shadow of a tree, facing the path. For a second, John felt oddly reluctant to cross the wall. He tapped the rubble with the tip of his boot, and feeling Teyla's eyes on him, stepped over the scattered stones.

 

* * *

 

By midday they entered a stretch of wood that was denser in vegetation than what had come before. Saplings sprouted between trees, grasses and ferns clustered between the roots. Every now and then giant boulders bulged from the ground. The temperature dropped another notch and the air tasted thin and metallic. John suspected snowfall would not be far off.

He'd been walking side by side with Rodney for a while now. They were swapping easy talk, John catching up on some Lantean events he'd missed. Rodney told him how Elizabeth convinced Caldwell of their mission's value, outlining the need of a hike and explaining in a slow voice that, no, they could not send a jumper through the stargate. It had amused Rodney. He hadn't been too keen about the walking-on-foot issue, but like Elizabeth he rated the potential benefit worth the strain. Not that Elizabeth would have to get her walking boots, Rodney added in a sour tone.

"You think those spirit-folk were Ancients?" John asked.

"It's possible," Rodney said. "You know, by now we've heard so many mystic manifestations of the Ancients that I have trouble keeping track."

"True enough," John agreed. "That shapeshifter idea is new, though."

"Bedtime stories to scare little children," Rodney said promptly. "Just another version of the Big Bad Wolf."

"Let's hope so."

"What, Colonel," Rodney said with a crooked smile. "Are you superstitious?"

"Rarely."

They came to another bend in the path, skirting a group of man-sized rocks. John was about to round a boulder when he heard the rustle. It sounded as if a breeze disturbed the leaves close by. Funny. The air had been still until then.

John frowned, listened again. Only silence as far as he could hear. Could be his ears had tricked him. He doubted it. Without turning, he slowed his pace so Teyla would catch up. Ronon was at John's shoulder in less than five seconds.

"I think we should take a break," John said aloud and stopped.

"What?" Rodney asked, perplexed. "Again? Didn't we rest half an hour ago? Not that I complain."

"We're not alone," Ronon said in his deep, unperturbed voice and hunkered down beside his backpack.

Rodney choked. "We're . . . what?"

"We got someone on our ass," John muttered, casting a quick look at the forest beyond Rodney's shoulder. Ronon took a sip from his flask. He'd look relaxed if it weren't for the coiled tension in his crouch. Teyla had strolled up to them; backpack slung loosely over one shoulder.

"One or many?" John asked in a low voice.

"More than one," Teyla said.

"What do we do?" Rodney whispered.

"Ronon and I could circle back," Teyla suggested. "Surprise them."

"Can you do that?" John asked, eyeing the thin underbrush.

"They won't see us coming," Ronon answered.

"Okay." John gave their surroundings another swift survey. "Drop your packs out of sight. We'll return to the spot once we've dealt with our shadows."

Teyla nodded and Ronon rose with his backpack in hand.

"Let's move," John said, taking the lead.

They followed the trail for a couple more meters before Ronon and Teyla split off, blending behind a group of boulders. John and Rodney continued along the path.

A stand of saplings flanked the trail, branches catching at John's pants. Walking, John strained to hear any traitorous noise, the squeak of a boot, crack of a twig, but heard nothing. Give them their due, their pursuers where stealthy. John hoped their skills didn't amount to any more than that.

They stepped out on a clearing and John's hand slipped to his holster, flicking the release. He sensed Rodney tense beside him.

Somewhere to their left, wood snapped like a whipcrack in the silence. So. No more effort was being made to keep quiet. John doubted that was a good sign.

They stopped at the edge of the forest. Normally John would have opted for cover, but this time he had the notion that re-entering the thicket would be a bad call. He pushed his pack from his shoulders, eyes scanning the trees. Hearing Rodney's gear clutter to the ground, John pulled his sidearm from its holster. A quick glance told him Rodney was armed as well.

More noise to the right, then behind them, dry foliage teasing with its whispers. John whipped around and this time glimpsed a tall figure beneath the shadow of a tree.

It was a woman - he could see the pale gleam of hair and a white robe, spattered with dark specks. Jaw tightening, John waited for her to move. He was about to call out when something quick and sharp hit him in the throat. John lifted a hand to feel a barbed spine embedded in his skin.

That would be the shit hitting the fan.

Fiery pain seared into John's neck and shoulder. He heard a dull thump beside him and turned to find Rodney out cold on the ground.

Blinking, John looked up at the line of trees blurring fast before his eyes. He thought he saw people move inside the forest just before his gun slipped from his fingers and his legs stopped working. He hit the ground knees first, kneecaps blazing with pain as they struck frozen soil. Bright lights whirled in the air, masking his sight as white noise flooded his head.

One last glimpse of Rodney's blue jacket through the swirl, and John dropped forward, the world turning grey.

 

 

4 / MANIFESTATIONS

 

He woke up with his head pounding and for a moment the jack-hammering ache was all he knew. Then a surge of frustration superseded the pain. John groaned.

That went well.

The last thing he remembered was the ground rushing up to meet his face. Something told him his fortune hadn't exactly improved.

John opened his eyes and took stock of the situation. Flat on his stomach, he lay as he'd fallen. Pebbles chafed his cheek. He tried to move and realised his hands were tied behind his back. Someone had hog-tied him like a rodeo calf. All things considered, John figured a headache was the least of his problems.

With some difficulty, he turned his head and spotted Rodney next to him. He lay on his side, back towards John, hands tied. His thigh holster was gone, as was his jacket. John peered down the length of his own body and saw he'd been stripped the same way. It made for an odd sense of exposure.

"Rodney," John hissed. No reaction. "McKay!"

A shiver ran along the other man's back. John saw him twitch and heard a sharp intake of breath. The next second, Rodney was moving, rolling onto his stomach and turning his head in John's direction. Grass blades and a smudge of dirt clung to his forehead. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated.

"Sheppard? Where are . . ."

He stopped, sentence cut short by the crunch of footsteps. Out of the corner of his eye, John glimpsed a pair of dusty boots, approaching his head. John twisted to look at the man above him. The stranger was of average height, dressed in clothes patched with fur and strings of hide. Impressive rig, but irrelevant compared to the thing on his shoulders.

Campfire tales. Like hell.

Inside his fleece-shirt, John's skin tightened with gooseflesh. He tried not to back away although he hadn't been that spooked since reading Pet Cemetery at the age of thirteen.

Instead of a face, the stranger had a bird's head with a bone-pale beak in place of a nose. A crown of feathers swept back from his forehead and mingled with a shock of black hair. When he talked, his voice sounded charred and raspy. A crow's voice.

"Get them up."

Someone hauled John off the dirt until he kneeled, weight resting on his shins. His back protested, so did his knees, but at least he could find no other injuries. That settled; he went on to check his surroundings.

One look told John they had changed location while he was out. A flat strip of rocky ground connecting one cluster of pines to the next had replaced the clearing.

Their pursuers were in the open now, watching from a semi-circle. John counted six besides the bird-man, plus another potential pair behind his back. With a flash of relief he noted that neither Teyla nor Ronon were in sight. He glimpsed his backpack near one of their captors, contents strewn by the stranger's feet. John discreetly moved his ankle, but felt at once that his knife was gone. He looked sideways, checking for Rodney. Like John, he'd been pulled upright. His face was ash pale save for the angry flush of his cheeks. Mouth thinned, he glared at their kidnappers. His whole body radiated indignation.

"Who are you?" the man with the beak asked.

John lifted an eyebrow. "It's hosts first, where we come from."

At this, Bird-face looked damn thoughtful for someone without facial expression. "My name is Rook," he said at last, then added: "You're not Ord."

"Marvellous deduction," Rodney replied and turned to John. "What do you think, was it the lack of beads or furs that threw him?"

John shrugged. "Must've been the North Face collection," he agreed.

Rook crouched down on his haunches. Resting his arms on his thighs, he leaned closer and John saw confirmed what he'd suspected after the first shock: the crow face was a mask, made to fit smoothly on the man's true features. Dark human eyes glimmered in a frame of grey feathers.

Rook studied John for a good while, blinking twice in a rapid, bird-like fashion. At last he stood. "We have to decide whether you are appropriate." With that, he turned off and strode away to join his crowd.

"You know," Rodney said, "this bondage routine is getting old."

"Hear, hear," John muttered. He kept trying to circle his wrists, but the ropes stayed tight. Settling back on his calves, he surveyed their options.

He could take out that Rook figure when next he came near. The bonds would be a hindrance, but John knew a thing or two about attacking without the use of his hands. That still left him outnumbered. Of course he could threaten to kill Rook once he'd laid him flat. But that would do no good, either. The others would only have to hold a knife to Rodney's throat.

John decided Teyla and Ronon were their safest bet. He hoped the two were already watching from the forest. They would spring Rodney and him free when the time came. The trick was to be patient. Well, John thought, he could do patience. He bent his head from one side to the other, trying to lose he annoying numbness in his neck.

Meantime, the strangers had gathered out of earshot. Their discussion seemed avid, laced by whispers and gestures. A small fire burned in their midst, the faint glow of embers showed between their legs.

Each of them wore a mask, though none as elaborate as that of their leader. One guy had dark scales arranged around his eyes; another's face was painted reddish brown beneath the rim of a fur hood. John began to understand how the shapeshifter rumours had come into being.

At length the council dispersed and Rook walked back toward John and Rodney.

"We have judged you suitable," he announced, not without flourish.

"Suitable?" Rodney repeated. "For what?"

"You are to complete the pilgrimage."

"Really?" Rodney jeered. "How generous."

John's mouth twitched into a grin. A while back, Rodney figured out that his insolence amused John. He had yet to realise that every time he gave some homicidal maniac the lip, it gave John strength, as well.

"You may continue to the valley of the Homestead," Rook continued.

Rodney bristled. "And you had to knock us out and tie us up to tell us that?" he demanded.

Rook was unfazed. "We will accompany you."

Rodney said nothing and John felt his stomach clench. He hated not knowing what was going on. Only this time he had an inkling that ignorance wasn't so bad a place to be in. He wasn't wrong.

"We will take you to the place of Offering, where we will let one of you return and sacrifice the other."

John felt a touch of cool metal against his skin before his bonds were cut and his hands came free. A beat of silence followed, as everyone seemed to wait for a reaction. John rubbed his wrists and tried to cover his confusion.

"This is absurd," Rodney said at last. He eyed their captors warily.

"I realise you've come unprepared," Rook said, "and ignorant of our ways. Just like the last two."

"The last two . . ." John echoed, then stopped himself. Of course.

"It's not to be helped," Rook went on. "We will initiate you as we go. But first you have to make your choice."

"That's all very fine and cryptic," Rodney said, voice tight but still sharp. "And just so you know, you're not making any sense at all."

Rook looked at him with patience. "You have to decide which of you will be sacrificed and which will be released."

Almost, John had seen it coming. Not the very words, but something along the same lines. He waited for a rush of adrenaline but even though his body tensed, on the whole he stayed calm. Accepting, even. If these guys drooled for drama, he would be happy to disappoint. John trained his face to a neutral mask. Better to say nothing and reject the others' terms by silence.

Or so would have been his plan.

"All right, break out the straws," Rodney said, flapping his hand in invitation.

"Rodney," John groaned.

"On second thought," Rodney continued, "why complicate?" Lifting one eyebrow, he turned to John. "I'll take sacrifice."

"Stop it."

"Why?" Rodney demanded, words coming out just a little too fast. "Seeing as they're all set, we might as well get on with it. Here, see, I volunteer."

"No, you don't."

"Don't be courteous now, Colonel," Rodney said. "I doubt these people care for performance, but rather me than you, if we are to be theatrical." He sounded determined; adamant in a way only Rodney could sound.

John took in the pallor of Rodney's face, the flutter of his pulse just beneath his jaw and knew the façade of bravado for what it was. He was bluffing. Maybe his stand-off with Ford's men had given him a taste of reckless heroics and the way Rodney was talking, you sure got the impression he invited everyone and their neighbours to take a swing at him. There was a new edge to his boasting and one that might just get him killed.

Rodney's confidence, the smooth talk, the shrewd glance he shot John – wrong, all of it. It was Ford all over again, strutting with courage and resolution. I'll hold the Wraith back, boss. Now go. I'll be OK. Anger sparked inside John, a small, hot grain of frustration. He moved until he stood face to face with Rodney, barely keeping his hand from shoving Rodney's shoulder. "Why are you doing this?" he asked, voice turned harsh.

"What?" Rodney flinched, clearly confused. "What do you m. . ."

"You never acted the hero before, so why now?"

"Are you implying . . ." Rodney began, but John cut him off, moving close enough he might have whispered his next words.

"Nothing to imply there."

"You're calling me a coward!" Rodney called, stepping back.

"You don't exactly own the patent on bravery."

"Not like you, you mean," Rodney retorted, words flowing faster. "Excuse me. Would you prefer I blew myself up with an A-bomb?" Real anger hardening his face now, he threw his hands wide to pantomime an explosion.

"Shut up." The muscles in John's back pulled tight, ropes of tension winding him up like a spring. At this point, John lost even the pretence of calm and he hated the exposure. He turned away, feeling he would indeed explode if he looked at Rodney a second longer.

"Oh, that's rich," Rodney spat. "You lecturing me on self-preservation. You. Say, when was the last time you cared for your own skin?"

"I don't know," John shot back, whipping around again. "When was the last time you cared for anything else?" He realised Rook was watching keenly, but couldn't stop. John knew he was losing it and pulling Rodney along. What the hell was wrong? They always fought when things got hairy but it never felt this fierce. In a last-ditch effort to regain control, John grabbed Rodney's arm and pulled him close. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" he gritted. "Stop acting crazy!"

Rodney seemed baffled for a second, then his eyes narrowed. "I see," he said. "How rude of me. I should've left the headlong chivalry to you, of course. I'm sorry, did I steal your line?"

"What?!" John gasped, dropping Rodney's arm.

"It's your part, isn't it?" Rodney asked, not moving an inch. "First into danger, throwing your heroic self into the fray, reason be damned. How did you call it? Oh, yes -- acting crazy."

John gaped at Rodney, wordless for once. That was so off the point . . . he didn't . . . for Christ's sake! Choking on a flood of resentment, John clenched his fist.

"You arrogant bastard," Rodney said in a low voice. "It's you in charge or no one, right? See, here's the news. You're not going to the front this time. I am."

"Like hell you are," John snarled, fingernails biting into his palm.

"It's not your decision."

"Wrong."

John hit him. Landed a square punch on Rodney's jaw before he or any of the others could react. Pilot's reflexes. Didn't see that coming, did they.

John sure didn't.

Rodney was on the ground, staring up at John, wide-eyed and stricken. No question, this had shut him right up. Good, John thought fiercely, good, even as something twisted painfully inside him. As he watched, Rodney's eyes darkened, his face turning grim and remote. Catching himself, John glared back.

"We're decided," he said and turned once more to their captors. He kept his fist clenched, fearing his hand might shake if he didn't.

Rook eyed him for a second and nodded. The men who'd cut John loose stepped forward, each seizing one of Rodney's arms and pulling him off the ground.

"Prepare him," Rook ordered.

Startled, John stepped forward. He'd barely moved when two men grabbed him and trapped his arms against his body. John threw his weight against their hold, until one of them wrapped an arm around his throat and squeezed until John could hardly breathe. He watched for a baffled second as they dragged Rodney to the side before rounding upon the leader.

"You said we decide," he accused, furious.

"Yes," Rook agreed. "And so you have. We'll now prepare the one who will walk so he may return purified."

One of the Masks lifted the bowl from the fire and carried it up on a rock. Steam rose from the dish in thick, white furls.

It clicked into place, then. All the things John hadn't seen, the connections he had failed to make.

Nerve gas. Not quite.

If I am to take a guess, I'd say the change was brought about forcefully and from the outside.

I don't think he has a sense of who or where he is.

John went deadly still inside, hands clawing at the arm around his throat. On the brink of nausea, he clenched his jaw tight enough to hurt.

The one who returns purified.

There's nothing left to remind him.

They pushed Rodney down to his knees in front of the bowl. Rodney strained away from the steam, but the men grabbed his shoulders and forced his head down. Smoke swallowed his face. John had a vivid recollection of the Ord's incense as it got into his nose and choked the air out of his lungs. He watched Rodney fight, heard the gravel skitter under scrambling knees, followed by strangled coughs.

Heat drained from John like it never existed. His throat hurt, but he still jerked his head, the second Mask twisting his arm behind his back. He felt like he watched from a great distance and Rodney's struggle was the only sound in the world.

A distant, isolated part of John finally admitted he was terrified.

 

 

5 / PURGATORY

 

The ropes stayed off and John supposed he should be grateful for it. As it was, gratitude was not a feeling he had in him just then.

The Masks broke camp in less than an hour and returned to the Path. Before long, John and Rodney trundled along on a trek that was now heading north in a beeline.

John tried to memorise faces so he'd know who stayed with them and who left. One man stuck out. Always walking a step behind Rook, he just screamed second in command. Instead of bird features, he wore a pale marten's mask. The carved muzzle covered his nose, and small fangs reached down to his upper-lip. The lower half of his face was painted white, save for a black stripe that ran from chin to hairline. For want of introduction, John dubbed him Badger.

Another Mask, a woman with feathers on her cheekbones, followed at John's heels. At least five others trudged in her wake. John suspected more of them were ranging in the forest.

Between his observations, John's gaze strayed to Rodney. He hadn't said a word since they picked up the hike. John could hardly blame him. In a way, he dreaded the moment when Rodney would break the silence. Time wore on, though, and John began to wonder if Rodney would ever talk to him again. Or talk at all, for that matter.

John had expected Rodney to rave and rail, but instead he remained profoundly impassive. He didn't protest even once. The reaction was so atypical that it daunted John into silence, as well.

 

* * *

 

By midday they reached the end of the Path. Contrary to Ord legend, it didn't terminate at the Homestead – it ended in a barricade of dead wood and hunks of loamy earth. By all looks, an avalanche had ended the Path miles before its holy destination.

The trek halted and John took a look around. A slope rose to the right while the ground fell into a hollow on the other side. John peered down into the ditch, considered an escape that way and discarded the idea. They wouldn't get far with broken necks.

Apparently the landslide didn't surprise the Masks. Most of them lingered on the path while Rook went ahead and climbed the slope. The feathered woman followed.

There was nothing left to do but wait. John chanced another look at Rodney, but if he hoped to be noticed, he was disappointed. Rodney stared into the forest with stoic contempt. Ash added to the dirt on his forehead, soiling his face worse than before. The bruise along his jaw also blackened fast, dark purple standing out against a stretch of pale skin.

It had been a while since John felt truly miserable. He did now.

Back there, things had spun out of control and he didn't really know why. There'd been no need to lash out like he'd done. Except the thought of risking Rodney had suddenly been too much, unlocking every bit of guilt John had suppressed these last few weeks. Each regret he had denied himself after the loss of Ford had borne down, backed him into a corner until he couldn't think straight anymore.

He had been caught off guard and why? Because he had fooled himself after all; he had thought them safe. Even as hell came down all around them, he'd pretended that his team was protected. As long as John locked out the what-ifs and the worry, they were invincible. A whole lot of horseshit that was.

If it happened to Ford, it could happen to any of them. Hell, it was likely. Who or what could prevent his people from being picked off one by one? He, John, the leader? That was a laugh. His gaze strayed again to Rodney's bruise.

Yeah. It was fucking hilarious.

John pushed at the cynicism and rising shame. He couldn't weaken himself that way or allow self-doubt to take over. He should be fine. He had years of practice, stashing away his emotions and thinking separately. Work separately. It was his gift. Why did it fail now?

"The smoke," Rodney said suddenly, startling John out of his thoughts. "It's what happened to the boy, isn't it?"

No use for sweet-talking. It wouldn't be a mercy now, anyway. "It's likely," John said, peering up the rise for a sign of Rook. After a while, Rodney continued.

"So how long until I turn into a drooling one-year-old?"

John winced. He'd been keeping the Ord boy from his mind as best as he could, but his empty eyes were there every time his control slipped. He couldn't let Rodney know that. Nor could he betray how fragile his own confidence was at the moment.

"You don't know that will happen," he said, keeping his voice down so the others wouldn't overhear. "There's no way to be sure you'll be affected the same way." He hesitated. "Do you feel anything yet?"

He hoped the answer was no. Hoped it fiercely. Rodney, however, didn't answer or look at him. Which was perhaps no less than he deserved. In a way, it was heartening. If Rodney still harboured enough sneer to slight him, the poison had to be slow.

A feeble comfort, if ever there was one.

"Listen," John began and stopped. There were things he needed to say. To explain. To mend, but none of it crossed his lips. In the end he opted for a hollow phrase, feeling too coarse and awkward to make it more. "There's every chance you're going to be fine, if we just . . ." His words petered out, useless as he'd known they would be. Rodney wasn't fooled, either.

"Safe your breath, Colonel. I read Carson's report."

What else was there to say?

The woman reappeared at the top of the crest, motioning for the others to follow. Badger walked up to John and gave his shoulder a rude shove.

"Go on."

 

* * *

 

Once they topped the rise, the trek continued uphill in a gentle curve. The deeper John walked into the forest, the more he doubted Teyla and Ronon were keeping pace. Surely they would have given a sign by now. As time wore on John had to begin wondering what had happened to them, he could not continue believing all was well. The uncertainty gnawed at him. He couldn't ask his kidnappers. If Teyla and Ronon were still out there it would only give them away. If not . . .

Don't go there.

John sucked at his lower-lip, going through his choices. One, wait for an opportunity to break away from the group and escape into the forest. Not an option, since their guards knew these parts way better than John. What else? He wondered how much time had passed since the last check-in. More than three hours, easily. Okay, so Elizabeth would know what to do, give the team at the relay a heads up and send more men. They'd be on their trail within the hour. Rooks' men were in no hurry and if they managed to stall them . . .

John calculated how long a rescue party would need to catch up. Without the help of a jumper... a day. More. Thirty-six hours if they cut short on the breaks. John gripped a low branch and levered himself across a cluster of rocks. If Carson was up to speed, he'd send med-staff with the backup. No way the doc could predict what had happened to Rodney, but maybe the medics could help all the same. Inject Rodney with something. Keep him going until he was back at the infirmary.

Enough time. It had to be.

* * *

 

Climbing down a rockslide, the trek came out on a wide-open space and a fast river. Birches flanked the banks, yellow leaves quivering on the trees or riding the swirls of the current. The air was moist from the water's spray. John looked up at a sky hidden behind grey clouds.

For a while, they continued alongside the river. A couple miles in, however, the valley narrowed into a canyon and the trek moved up again. Hugging the hillside, a trampled track led to a ledge several feet above the rapids. The gurgling rush of water echoed up the walls of hard-packed loam.

John alternated between watching the ground and Rodney, whose hand never left the rock-face at his side. John hoped the track wouldn't get any trickier than this, but of course, it did.

Some metres ahead, a lump of granite reached like a tongue into the ledge. At the tip of the fold, the trail seemed no wider than a foot. Beyond a fringe of grass, the ground dropped vertically into the chasm. John looked down and saw the river reduced to a ribbon at the bottom of the canyon.

John had never been bothered by altitude. He knew it was an issue for Rodney. John watched as Rook and his scout slid past the rock slab. It looked like a regular piece of cake. Then Rodney approached the rock.

Something went wrong at once. A hesitant step, a jerky move . . . Rodney swayed and every muscle in John clenched tight in anticipation. Gravel skittered over the edge, clicking on stone. John began calculating his own jump, how fast he'd move to grab hold of Rodney's arm, how far he'd stretch his arm, but at the last second, Rodney tipped to the right and braced himself against the boulder. Moving carefully, he edged past the abyss. At last he made it to the other side and vanished behind the wedge.

John closed his eyes. Blood was pounding in his ears while the rush of the rapids sounded unnaturally loud. From a distance, he sensed Badger approach and knew he had to move. Exhaling the breath he'd been holding, John walked on and manoeuvred himself past the bend.

 

* * *

 

After what seemed like an eternity, the trek re-entered the forest. For once, John welcomed firm ground under his feet, but his relief was short lived. The trek hadn't come far before they reached another ravine and this time, they would cross over. A fallen tree bridged the gully, serving as footway. The log was at least ten metres long but not nearly that wide.

It was the final straw for Rodney. Seeing the others headed for the tree, he stopped dead in his tracks, crossed his arms and didn't move another inch. John, spent and worn out, halted at Rodney's shoulder and waited.

Rook had half climbed the tree-bridge when he noticed they didn't follow. He returned to them with a frown. "What is the matter?"

"Apart from the abduction and the gassing?" Rodney snarled.

"We have to move on."

"I'm not crossing that log."

"I assure you, it is quite safe."

"Good. You can take your assurance and shove it up your plumed ass."

That actually seemed to baffle Rook. Badger came up and immediately pulled a blade. With a flare of anger John recognised his own knife. Rodney must've seen it, too, for his eyes narrowed with contempt.

"What are you going to do?" he snapped. "Kill me? See if I care."

Changing tactics, Badger turned to John, who shrugged. "I'm dead anyway," he said, slowly crossing his arms to mirror Rodney.

"My, my," Rodney said, tilting his head at Badger. "Was that a snarl?"

Before Badger could move, Rook stopped him with a sign of his hand. He untied a waterhide from his belt and tossed it to John.

"Rest a while," he said and waved for two of his men. John watched as one of them unrolled a rope he had produced from God knows where. What they planned to do with that John couldn't guess. He found it didn't interest him at all.

Rodney had walked to a nearby tree-stump and sat down with his back to the chasm. John joined him, crouching down on his haunches. He held up the flask and Rodney took it without comment. John saw his hand shake a little as he unstoppered the lid.

Weariness settled with a solid weight on John's shoulders. Far from caring if anyone noticed, he hung his head and rubbed his sweat dampened face. When he lowered his hands, Rodney was looking at him, face softened with exhaustion. All the previous edge had gone out of him as he held John's eyes. Suddenly, Rodney's mouth twisted into a lopsided grin. He shook his head. "Who've thought the 'stomp your feet' routine would work with these people?"

"Took the wind out of their sails," John agreed. Beneath the automated reply, Rodney's behaviour surprised him. This wasn't how he had thought their silence would break. He'd expected reproach or a barrier of aloofness, but none of it was there. For once he had no idea how to react. Oddly tongue-tied, John waited.

"Got a plan yet?" Rodney asked.

John felt his stomach flip despite himself. "Working on it."

Rodney dipped his head in a nod-like droop, and drank some more before returning the flask to John. After that he bent forward, leaned on his thighs and let his arms hang by his shins. Hearing the vertebrae pop in Rodney's back, John bit down on a wave of affection.

He had never been good at apologising. With Rodney, somehow he didn't need to be. He had no idea why Rodney forgave so easily, but he was more than ready to accept the peace. He was only startled by the force of his relief.

John stared down at the flask, trying hard to control his face. At length he took a sip, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked over to the chasm. Rook's people had stretched their rope from one end of the tree to the other, creating a provisional handrail. They were resourceful, one had to give them that.

When Badger looked to Rook for another sign, John knew their rest was over.

 

 

6 / SLEEPLESS

 

Nightfall came and submerged the forest into shadows. Boots catching on invisible roots, John stumbled more than once. Still he plodded on, feet dragging like the ground had extra gravity.

People around him changed to ghosts in the twilight, drifting like fog between the pines. John tried to navigate by sound, but the soft noises were confusing and hard to sort out. Dazed, he struggled to stay aware of Rodney who toiled along somewhere to the left.

They hadn't rested since they crossed the tree. Hours must have passed but John had lost all sense of time. He had also lost all hope of remembering their passage. What little strength he'd left dwindled with the effort of setting one foot before the other.

After a time the trek slowed down. Bird reappeared at John's side, catching his eye and pointing ahead. John had to blink before he could focus. For a second, he saw nothing but thicket; then he recognised something man-made among the trees.

The shape indicated a primitive lean-to and really it was no more than sticks roped together and coated with moss. As they moved closer, John realised they were about to stop for the night. He also realised he'd been a fool to complain about the expedition tents. Tonight's shelter consisted of nothing more than a hole in the ground and the lopsided awning. Bird urged them closer and pointed into the pitch.

"Down," she said, grabbed John's elbow and pulled. He shook her off, approached the edge on his own and climbed into the hollow. His balance was off and he slid half the way on his six, catching his weight on a protesting ankle. Once on the ground, he turned, watching as Rodney scrambled down after him. He came down just as awkwardly, landing on his knees and hands.

"You okay?" John asked, voice rasping inside his parched throat.

Rodney didn't answer. He only dropped sideways, limp and breathing hard. The visible side of his face was nothing but a pale smudge in the gloom. John patted his shoulder – all the solace he was able to give. He looked up once more, seeing Bird's face and her eyes glittering faintly before she was gone.

John sank back onto the lair of dry leaves. The sour smell of rotting foliage flooded his senses, but for the moment he was too tired to care.

 

* * *

 

Flickering dreams punctured his sleep. Ford lying on a gurney, left side of his face marred by ridges and deep lines. Carson's worried face. Rodney struggling away from a cloud of steam. When at last John managed to wrestle free of his nightmares, he lay awake with stinging eyes.

High above, he could hear the wind shaking the tree-tops. Pine-cones dropped and tumbled into the pitch. John rolled on his side, shoulder-blade digging into a chip of rock. As the humid night air crept under his collar, he gritted his teeth against the cold.

He was about to turn the other way when Rodney stirred. John froze, convinced he had woken him, too. Rodney made some disgruntled sound and turned, leaves rustling beneath. The next second a heavy arm looped around John's chest and pulled him close. Rodney uttered a satisfied sigh and went still again.

John lay motionless while the night quietened down around him. His heart was still beating fast, stomach twisting into a hard knot. Staring into the dark John felt Rodney's chest sink and rise peacefully against his back. Rodney shifted, a soft breath grazing the nape of John's neck. Their shoulders touched as Rodney moved into a more comfortable position, one thigh spooned against John's leg.

By now John was trembling, chest shivering beneath Rodney's hand. For long minutes, the cold seemed more pronounced, covering the skin inside his clothes and sinking deep into his bones. Against this was the solid heat of another human being, the firm weight of another's arm. Warmth came gradually, but it came, settling all around John, spreading both without and within until it filled him to the brink. Rodney's fingers still clutched John's jacket, either to hold him still or keep him close.

The rhythm of John's pulse bumped and hitched for a time until it dropped into a calm pace. Slowly, he reached up and covered Rodney's hand with his own. Tension melted from his body. Closing his eyes, John eased carefully into the embrace and went to sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

RIVER OF ASHES / DESCENT

_______________________________

7 / SUBTEXT

 

The cold dragged him from sleep, sneaking icy tendrils up his feet. Perfect. Was the heating broken again? He'd give Radek an earful. Only responsible for one teensy department and the man couldn't manage. Routine-check the system, keep ahead of the flood damage ... was it that much to ask?

Rodney pulled up his arms, but instead of a blanket, his fingers touched the sturdy folds of microfibre. He frowned. A strange, organic smell reached his nose. He couldn't be in his room, surely not. For all their ingenious disorder, his quarters never reeked. But if this wasn't Atlantis, then where... Rodney froze as the memory of a tree-shaded path flashed through his mind.

Opening his eyes too quickly, it took Rodney a few seconds to realise he was looking at a wall of earth. He stared at roots and ridges, drooping soil and tufts of ... grass? Disorientated, Rodney pushed up on his elbows. John sat at the far side of the lean-to, arms resting on his knees. Confusion petering out, Rodney sank back on the ground with a groan.

It was all back now, stepping through the stargate, the trek, their capture ... yes, especially that. Rodney closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead with the heels of his palms.

"How are you?" John asked.

"Fine. Peachy." Rodney put his left hand on the leaf littered ground and sat up. He should stop thinking things couldn't get any worse.

Rodney swallowed and grimaced. His own spit tasted like something had crawled into his mouth and died there. Looking around the dugout, he noticed a leather bag and a water hide. "That's breakfast?" he asked. John nodded.

Lifting the bag's rim, Rodney discovered a cheese the colour of mould along with a slab of blackened bread... Food, in theory. Rodney dropped the bag and reached for the leather flask. Finding the lid already removed, he raised the hide to his lips and drank. Stopped, coughed. And spat.

"What the ..." he sputtered and stared at the hide. "What is this?!"

John shrugged. "Milk."

"From what?" Revolted, Rodney wiped his mouth. He might not be an expert for rural diet, but milk should not have hairs in it. Nor should it curdle. Or crumble, for that matter.

Rodney picked up the charred bread, which tasted no less terrible. Eating it felt like grinding chalk between his teeth. At least it dulled the milk's aftertaste. The cheese was edible, acceptable, even, compared to the rest. Rodney chewed slowly to make each bite last but even so, the food diminished rapidly.

"I can tell you right now," he said to John between bites, "if this is all the food we get, I'll be in hypoglycaemic shock by the end of the day."

John didn't react and as the silence stretched between them, Rodney cast him a sidelong look. Resting against the wall, John had dropped one arm off his knee. To the common observer he'd seem at ease, but Rodney knew better. He observed the small line between John's brows, noted how close his hand rested to his thigh where his sidearm should be. He didn't need to know more.

Rodney looked at his lap again, squeezed some cheese into crumbs and shoved them into his mouth.

It struck him how used he'd got to all of this. Life and death situations, the weird silence in the eye of conflict... Did he wonder how he stayed so calm? A little. But perhaps he shouldn't question that calm too much, for he'd a feeling his composure was fragile. It should be, by all means. Considering the smoke he'd breathed... he pushed the thought aside and swallowed dry cheese.

There was always a way out. If past disasters had taught him anything, then it was that. He'd come up with something. In a way, he almost anticipated the moment he could pitch his intelligence against certain doom. To know the solution, to be the one standing in the end was...

addictive

...exhilarating.

In addition, there was John. His presence was a reliable, if peculiar insurance for the success of Rodney's plans. They worked well together. As a rule.

While Rodney chewed, he was keenly aware of his aching jaw. The area John had hit contracted painfully with each movement, sending a nasty pull through all the left side of his face. Another detail that didn't bear analysing.

Eventually the cheese was gone and Rodney turned toward the bread. As he tore a bit off the loaf the memory of Ronon's porridge rose vividly in his mind. Was it really a day since they shared breakfast? It seemed so long ago.

"Do you think Teyla and Ronon are all right?" he asked.

"I don't know." Pause. "I hope so."

Even under the circumstances, John sounded surprisingly bleak. Almost like he'd given up. But surrender wasn't John's style. Rodney was convinced of that much at least. As if he'd picked up on Rodney's thoughts, John turned slightly and flicked one corner of his mouth into an almost-smile.

That was more like it. Satisfied, Rodney returned to the bread. He was about to make a remark about their wretched luck, when something moved above. They looked up at the same time. John pushed free of the wall.

Rodney recognised the woman from the night before, feathers lining her cheeks and her coat's collar. Seeing they were awake she twisted backwards to call over her shoulder. A second later, two men appeared at the rim of the pitch and reached down their hands.

"And a good morning to you," Rodney grumbled. John was already rising, moving with an ease that was both amazing and annoying. Rodney took his time, gathering his legs beneath him to push off the ground.

He didn't bother to pick up the bag or waterhide.

 

* * *

 

The ground had frozen over night and the grass crunched beneath his boots. White clouds of breath drifted from Rodney's lips while the cold of the open bit into his bare hands. He dug into his jacket's pocket and found his gloves were still there.

Looking around, Rodney saw nothing but anonymous forest and the Masks, waiting by the trees. John and Rodney were signalled to remain by the trench-hole. People turned their way, radiating disapproval. Rodney returned the stares without turning a hair. Throughout his career he'd become familiar with hostile scrutiny. As he pulled on his gloves, he noticed another thing, though. Whereas everyone else seemed eager to snatch a glance at him, John didn't meet his eye. He stood off to one side, shoulder turned in Rodney's direction.

Was John still troubled by the punch? Rodney supposed he could be. Although... John? Scuffing his boots over a hotheaded decision? There was something you didn't see everyday. Of course, why he'd swung in the first place was a mystery for the ages.

Stomping his feet to get some blood circulation going in his icy toes, Rodney managed not to stare at the back of John's head. Now that the brunt of indignation had passed, Rodney was mostly puzzled by John's outburst.

Back there when Rook outlined his sacrifice bushwa, Rodney's plan had been simple but faultless: puzzle the Masks by not being impressed. Rook might have judged them either fearless or ignorant. Both would have been good. They might have bluffed their way out of there like so many times before. He'd counted on John to play along but instead; John had attacked out of the blue. Which, surprisingly, bothered Rodney more than his sore jaw. Not that the pain wasn't excruciating, but the fact that he couldn't explain or understand John's aggression needled him more. Rodney huffed, closing the zipper of his windbreaker all the way to his chin.

Irrationality always annoyed him. Rodney held to the belief that everything was predictable once you gleaned the pattern - even people were structured. Rodney had few troubles foreseeing his colleagues' reactions or decisions; most of them were tiresomely obvious. John, on the other hand, seemed inherently unpredictable. For example, Rodney had pegged him for the stoic, close-guarded type. Yesterday that theory had gone down the drain as John showed chinks in his armour, telegraphing his bad conscience for the entire world to see. In all their missions that had never happened.

Seeing John distressed had muted Rodney's anger and at some point worry had taken the place of scorn. Which, in turn, had been an entirely unexpected development.

Rodney remembered John's troubled eyes, the stains of dirt and sweat on his face, the way his mouth pinched every time he climbed another rise. Rodney doubted John had even noticed him watching. He also remembered the urge to reach out. He'd certainly picked a great time to get in touch with his inner philanthropist.

Off to the left, John went down on one knee and Rodney watched as he tied his boot. Noticing the exposed strip of skin on the nape of John's neck, Rodney itched to pull up the collar of John's jacket.

Fretting about John couldn't be the appropriate course of action, but neither was sulking. Only an idiot would bear a grudge under these circumstances. Whatever had come between them could wait. For now, Rodney was content to shelve the issue. He expected John to do the same. Which obviously wasn't happening.

His first impulse was to confront John straight away but something about John's behaviour made him hesitate. Maybe it was his John-sense tingling. It went against all his instincts, but there it was. Rodney sighed quietly. So he should leave John to come around on his own. He needed space? He could have it. For now.

 

 

8 / ALGORITHMS

 

By midday, a group of larches came into view, splotching the monochrome forest with splashes of orange. Fat boulders covered the ground and russet needles filled the hollows between the rocks. There was an odd silence about the place, a weird sense of suspended time. It occurred to Rodney that this could be the spot, the place of offering Rook had mentioned, but then –

With a spurt of panic, Rodney turned to John. He needn't turn far. Walking close behind, John looked tense but not freaked. Rodney turned back, nestling at one of the pockets in his pants, trying to tune down his anxiety.

When they arrived under an isolated tree, John and Rodney stopped in silent consent. At first, no-one paid them any attention. Their escort started to settle down on the boulders, shrugging off packs and breaking out the waterskins. Rodney relaxed. This was no sacrifice; this was lunch. He looked at John who gave a small shrug. Finally their constant shadow, the woman in bird's motley, remembered them.

"You. Sit there," she called and pointed a long finger at the larch in their backs.

"Charming," Rodney muttered and collapsed to the ground. Resting his forehead on his knees, he massaged his legs with small groans of pain. He didn't feel motivated to move for a long while.

By the time Rodney looked up again, it had started to snow, white flakes floating in the air like thistledown. Bird came over and tossed them a square bundle of cloth. John caught it with a flick of his hand. He folded back the wrapping and revealed the same bread Rodney had despised at breakfast. John tore the loaf down the middle and handed Rodney one half. It felt dusty and unsubstantial between his fingers. Black ash crumbled onto the side of his thumb.

"What a mess," Rodney muttered.

"Yeah." John pulled up his legs and began to nibble at his scrap of bread. "I've been thinking about escape," he said.

Despite his weariness, Rodney's heart gave a little leap. He made sure to quench the energy quickly. Getting his hopes up now would only drain him faster. "Me too," he said. "And the chances are still slim." Bluntness didn't bother Rodney, he'd never seen the use of sugar-coating. "We have no weapons," he continued. "No bearings. Plus, they outweigh us in numbers."

"That won't be a problem."

Surprised, Rodney shot John a sideways glance. Chewing slowly, John stared at the gathering of Masks. There was something unsettling about his bee-lined attention.

"Well." Rodney cleared his throat. "That still leaves us with the way back. Are you telling me that's no problem, either?"

At this, John's focus broke and he lowered his eyes. "We could retrace our steps," he ventured.

Rodney shook his head. "No good. I'm too tired to run and you'll be lost after we've rounded the first tree."

John sighed and wiped his flour-stained fingers on his pants. Rodney guessed what he was thinking. He missed Teyla, too.

Rodney turned the bread in his hand. He was hungry but had no appetite. That had to be a first. Munching a corner of loaf, he caught a faint whiff of smoke: A slight, herbal tinge in the air, there one moment, gone the next.

Rodney's heart lurched as though he'd swum into a pocket of cold lake-water. He tried to ignore the spike of anxiety, but his treacherous senses reached out for the weak scent.

It had vanished.

Rodney clenched his fists and counted. One, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, seventeen. The numbers calmed him, securing him like a lifeline to his sane mind.

He forced his shoulders and hands to relax. Looking down he realised he'd squished the remnant of his bread into crumbs. He tried to pick some of them out of his palm, then discarded the rest with a sigh. He still had some dignity left, thank you very much. As if to spite his resolution, his stomach grumbled quietly.

Rodney leaned back until his head rested against the tree. His gaze strayed away from the clearing, drifted among the trees until it caught on a smudge of white. Rodney frowned, squinted. Shadows confused the scenery, but he thought he discerned a pale face in the underbrush. Probably a shy member of their entourage.

Something brushed his shoulder and Rodney turned to find John rising. Without a word, John walked to the Masks between the stones. Rodney watched in bewilderment as John tapped one of them on the shoulder.

"What do you want?" the guy snapped. Obviously, he didn't want to talk to John. Not that John gave a damn.

"Care to share some?" he asked and pointed to the heap of bags in the group's midst. As none of them moved, John added: "Hand over the bag, kid, and no one gets hurt."

John's addressee, a young man if his voice was any indication, jumped to his feet. "What did you say?"

"You heard me."

Rodney's confusion morphed into annoyance. What on earth did John think he was doing? To his growing disgust Rodney watched as the 'kid' drew a knife. His chums rose to join him and at least one of them had twice John's width. Plenty of hands moved to the hilt of a weapon. John's sole reaction was a slight tilt of the head.

For crying out loud.

Rodney pulled himself up, feeling what Ford would call 'royally pissed'. His calves cramped as he moved, sending jolts of pain all the way up to his spine. He stalked toward the scene, not caring in the least how clumsy he might look. Just before he reached the Masks, the group dispersed. The youth sheathed his knife and stepped back among his peers. Rodney rounded on John.

"Are you completely insane now?" he groused. "What did you provoke them for?"

John spared him an irritable glance and Rodney felt like smacking him. A punch for a punch, it seemed only fair. Before he could do any such thing, the knife-happy youth returned, bearing a leather satchel. With a grimace that screamed disdain he thrust the packet into John's hands. After that, he made sure to put some firm distance between himself and the captives.

"I don't believe it," Rodney groaned. "I don't believe you're going Rambo on me now. What is it? Did you figure some more trouble would do us just fine?"

John shot him another unreadable look before he slapped the bag against Rodney's chest. Without explanation he walked away.

"What the hell," Rodney muttered, untied the strings and threw back the cover-flap. He looked at the contents and his exasperation collapsed.

The satchel was filled with food. Bread, two loaves this time, strips of smoked meat, dried fruit and a pouch of what seemed to be honeyed acorns. Rodney stared into the satchel, flooded by the food's spicy scent.

It was one of the few times in his life when he truly felt like an idiot.

 

* * *

 

He'd been dozing for some time when someone touched his knee. Startled, Rodney jerked awake. He stared blindly for a second before his gaze fixed on John crouching in front of him.

"What?" Rodney asked, flustered. "What is it? What's going on?"

John shook his head. "Don't know yet." He turned to look over his shoulder and Rodney followed his gaze.

A discussion seemed to be in full swing at the far end of the clearing. Rodney could see Rook, surrounded by his cronies. As Rodney watched, one of the men stepped away from the others and peered into the forest. A few more moments and, the gathering scattered. People returned to their boulders and sat down, talk carrying on at a quiet level. At least for the moment, it seemed like nothing important was going to happen.

Rodney settled back against the tree and sighed. The doze had done nothing to refresh him.

At least he was no longer hungry. The supply bag lay close to his thigh, strings curling in the moss. Rodney considered John with a calculating look before indicating the satchel with his chin. "Saved you some."

John gave him a wry smile, swivelled on his heels and flopped down beside him. He slipped a hand into the bag and pulled out a dried piece of apple.

"You could've told me, you know," Rodney said. "What you were going to do."

He attempted to sound reproachful and failed. He doubted John bought into the act anyway. Suddenly it seemed childish to hold back. It still took some effort to wrench out the words. "I'm sorry."

"Never mind."

Snow finally drifted through the larch's branches, tumbling down from the gloomy heights. Rodney watched the flakes settle on his knuckles and melt. Beside him, John turned his hand palm-up to catch a few snowflakes. There wasn't much space between their shoulders, but for once, Rodney didn't mind the proximity.

Never mind. Funny that it should be so effortless. Between him and John, it usually was. They resolved many of their conflicts without ever addressing them. The paradox of their communication wasn't lost on Rodney, but he'd grown used to it. Respected it, even.

In many ways, talking to John was easy. Rodney didn't need to slow down or check his sarcasm. Sometimes their conversations even worked without words. It was the sort of simplicity Rodney appreciated. It still mystified him that he should find a synchronised mind in a USAF Colonel of all people, but that was John for you: unexpected, but welcome.

Not that Rodney would admit to such sentimentality, or waste much thought on it. He'd always taken pains not to over-analyse his social bonds – few that they were. If they worked, fine. If not, prodding a sore never helped. Even so, Rodney suspected his friendship with John made it easier to deal with others. It softened his edges. Though perhaps it only felt that way to him.

A smile crept on Rodney's lips. He doubted many of his colleagues would admit he'd developed a pleasant streak. Certainly that little Czech, what was his name, yes ... he'd make a strong case for the contrary. Which was entertaining, too.

Rodney smiled until the significance of his blunder dawned on him. Slowly the reality of what had happened locked into place. He'd forgotten Radek's name.

No. No, of course he hadn't. It was just nerves. Nervousness and exhaustion. After such strain who wouldn't lapse a little.

Zelenka.

Of course he knew the name.

"I think we're moving on," John said and Rodney flinched.

"What?" He looked up and saw the others were gathering their packs. "Oh. Yes. Great."

John gave him a curious look. Rodney diverted the attention by grabbing the satchel. He stood too quickly and black dots swirled at the edge of his vision. He waited a moment for his head to clear, half-aware of his arms pressing the satchel against his chest.

Exhaustion, he repeated.

Nothing more.

 

* * *

 

Within an hour the snowfall turned to sleet. Icy water whipped into Rodney's face beneath his hood, numbing his skin. He plunged his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket, hardly paying attention to where he walked. In his head, he lined up numbers and algorithms.

Where usually he rushed through at near-speed of light, he now proceeded step by step. He built his thoughts like a card-house, and for the first time in his life felt insecure about his equations.

He couldn't stop wondering. What would it be like, losing his memory? Would it be so absolute he didn't even know he had amnesia? Or would he live with the shadow of what he'd forgotten, the dim notion of a once-trim mind? He imagined drowning inside a quicksand of confusion, dreading the loss of his sanity with a panic that made his chest tighten.

Caught up in thoughts, Rodney tripped on a rock and stumbled. He would have fallen, too, if John hadn't grabbed his elbow in time.

"What's wrong?" John whispered, searching Rodney's face. Rodney straightened and shook his head. The others were close by, eyes watchful. Ears, too, no doubt.

They moved into a hollow that was probably a riverbed during the spring-melts. Water trickled along the middle of the gully, glittering over pebbles and fern. Some yards further down was a pathway covered with dead branches criss-crossing an opening between jagged rocks. Lichen dangled into the gorge.

The trek passed under the cover of wild vegetation, diving into twilight before it emerged from the tunnel into a bowl of silt. Looking up, Rodney realised they'd reached yet another lair. Inside the forest he spotted screens and a number of tents.

Up on the bank, John and Rodney were shown to a shelter of their own. It was a relief to step under a roof and out of the rain. The ground was damp but Rodney sat down anyway. He pushed back his hood and scrubbed a hand up his cheek. Stubble rasped against his palm.

"How are you holding up?" John asked quietly.

The decent thing would've been to lie, but he'd never been good at fabricating. If he opened his mouth, his panic would spill and catch fire. So Rodney said nothing.

Outside, the sleet diminished into a fading drizzle. Raindrops caught on the fir-needles of the canopy, trembled and dribbled down in broken runlets.

Stargate specifics, ZPM technology... all gone, all deleted. He wouldn't even know there was such a thing as wormhole travel. He wouldn't even know how to tie his shoes.

I'll forget everything. I'll look at my own notes and they won't make any sense.

Would he be able to read? Talk?

I won't remember high school. It'd been a worthless time, but I won't even know that. I'll forget the trips to Muskrat Lake, which is a pity because that's a reasonably good memory. Haven't thought of it in ages. Shouldn't miss it, but what if I will?

As if to defy the threatening white-out, snippets of a childhood summer overwhelmed him in living colour quality. He remembered the scent of sun-lotion and warm grass, the feel of wood planks beneath his bare feet, a pale green sky and Jeannie in her red bathing suit, jumping from the jetty and spreading her arms like she could fly.

Jeannie. She wouldn't even know what happened. Would someone tell her?

Would she care?

Of course, once he degenerated, more would change. Sooner or later his colleagues and friends would work with an insight he no longer shared. He'd fall behind, and then, ultimately slip away. He imagined faces full of pity, looking sad, but moving on, turning away from him.

A hand closed around his wrist. Startled, Rodney looked at John who in turn fixed him with a hard stare. Dimly Rodney realised his heart no longer sat in his chest but was thundering in his throat at a runaway speed. He bowed under the onslaught of fear, nearly fractured, but there was the pressure around his wrist, warm and solid. John held his eyes until his head stopped spinning.

"Snap out of it," John said. "Stay with me, okay?"

Rodney nodded. "Okay."

John let go of him and settled back down. Beyond the shelter, raindrops tinkled like tiny bells as they hit the fern.

"Remember P4M - 707?" John asked.

Rodney shook his head. "The time we fell through a bridge and into a swamp the size of Ontario? No, I suppress that episode."

John lifted one corner of his mouth into an idle smile. "I thought we'd never lose that smell."

"At least we had clean clothes in the jumper," Rodney remarked. "I doubt we'll get any fresh socks out here and mine are soaked."

"Yeah," John agreed. "But on the upside – no leeches."

Rodney gave an unwilling chuckle. He saw what John was doing; do-it-yourself psychology, supplying blatant distraction. It worked all the same. The serene rhythm of John's drawl took the hurry out of Rodney's thoughts. He began to calm down.

Meanwhile, John had pulled up one leg, elbow resting on his knee. "Want to play 'Anywhere but here'?" he asked.

"And there I thought my brain was going downhill."

"Indulge me."

Rodney snorted. "If you'd suggested 'I Spy', I would have hit you."

John waited and as always, Rodney gave in. "Okay." He gave it a second's thought, then said: "Atlantis."

"Wow."

"What?"

"You've got the imagination of a beer can."

"Ha ha."

Rodney reached into his jacket and brought out the pouch of roasted acorns. Despite their restricted rations, they'd managed to save some sustenance for the road. John carried the supply bag, but Rodney had pocketed the nuts. How's that for a poetic pun, Rodney thought wryly. He picked a few acorns and offered the pouch to John.

"Any place you like, and you come up with Atlantis?" John asked, sounding curious. Rodney shrugged. Where else should he wish to be? He briefly imagined his flat on Earth, shadowy and stuffed, tiled kitchen-floor and prehistoric couch. Rodney still harboured some fondness for the place, but there? Why?

"Where would you like to be?" he asked John.

"Skiing on Mount Everest."

Rodney snorted. "Of course."

John closed his eyes and his mouth slid into a reminiscent grin. "Surfing naked at Waimea Bay."

Rodney lifted his head, took a breath, shut his mouth again. The image was there, unbidden but persistent. John. Bare-assed surfing. He might be an unimaginative tin can, but this he could visualise. Quite vividly.

Rodney stared at John in disbelief and shook his head. "You're weird, you know that?"

"Takes one to know one," John countered mildly.

Side-tracked by their talk, the end of their solitude caught Rodney unawares. He only noticed when John's gaze darted to the left. With a trickle of unease, Rodney looked up. Five Masks were coming toward their shelter with the avian woman in charge. "Get up," she told Rodney once they'd arrived.

Well, since she asked nicely. He was about to rise, when John grabbed his arm and held him back.

"He's not going anywhere with you," John said. Or growled. Even as his pulse spiked, Rodney was touched by his team-leader's protectiveness. Not that it helped. In one synchronised move, the men pulled the crossbows from their shoulders and lowered arrows' points at John. The woman went down on one knee, pulled a dagger from the shaft of her boot and levelled it alongside her lower-arm.

"You make things hard for me," she said, "I'll make them very hard for you."

He had no trouble believing her. For a moment, John's grip on his arm tightened, fingers digging into his biceps, then he let go. More than anything, this told Rodney he'd run out of options. He climbed to his feet, brushing needles from the seat of his pants. If they wanted to scare him, he was determined to disappoint. "Lead the way."

The woman turned and did just that. Rodney started to follow and was at once sandwiched between two heavies. One of them took hold of Rodney's elbow. "Get your hands off," he snapped, but the grunt didn't even react. Instead his partner moved in closer, hemming Rodney firmly on the left. They were leading him, Rodney realised, like a man to his execution. It came to him that his last meal had been acorns and the urge to laugh was so strong, he could barely bite it down.

They walked past a row of shelters until they reached the centre of the camp. A large tarp was stretched between the trees, keeping off the rain. The space beneath was cleared of fern and debris to make room for a block of stone.

As far as altars went, this one looked remarkably plain. No ornaments to attract the attention, no insignia to distract from the bed of coals and the covered bowl perched on top.

Rodney faltered and the grip on his elbow tightened. "No," he whispered. He stopped, twisting backward, but the men were dragging him along regardless.

Rook was there, waiting by the stone; the black feathers on his face were spangled with raindrops, the dark skin glistened. A surge of phantom heat scalded Rodney's skin. His mouth went dry, words of defiance crumbling like ashes on his tongue. He'd always known how to hold on to his spite, but now it was simply gone. Humiliation twisted Rodney's stomach, but he could no more control his voice than he could hold back his panic. "Please." The word was small, firm and desperate. They didn't even hear it. He was swung around and positioned right in front of the block. Rodney dug his heels into the ground, straining the other way with all his might.

"Calm down," Rook advised him. "It will be easier if you do."

"Oh yes?" Rodney spat, voice shaking. "For whom?"

Hands clutched his shoulders and Rodney clenched his teeth. They pushed until his legs caved. As he fell, the men used his momentum to rush him forward. Rodney's hands flew up and got hold of the block. Pain fired through his right palm as it caught on ragged stone. A hand gripped the back of his neck and forced him down, face first toward the covered bowl. The acrid reek of charred herbs bit into his nostrils.

I won't breathe. I just won't breathe.

His glance flickered beyond the bowl as he flailed for something else to look at, some way of escape. He caught sight of John, flat on the ground at the square's edge. They'd pinned him down, one man jamming his knee into John's back, another planting a boot on his wrists. John looked up, as far as that was possible, and for a brief moment, their eyes met across the needle-strewn ground.

Rodney realised then that there was no way out. The hand on his neck shoved him further down as someone folded back the cover. A white cloud unfurled from the bowl to swallow his face. He tried to hold his breath but his reflexes betrayed him and he inhaled a stream of coiling fume. It tasted bitter and sweet, revoltingly organic and fetid. Rodney gagged, swallowed more smoke and choked on a squall of heat.

His body fought, hands scrabbling at the splintered rock, fingers scraping and flexing. Incense filled his nose and clogged his throat. From a distance, he heard a high, desperate whistle – his own breath's noise, removed and bodiless. He pounded his fists against the stone. Once. Twice. At last they grabbed the back of his jacket, hauled him away from the censer and dumped him on the ground. He curled into a ball, clutching his collar.

There was no air.

Rodney tore at his jacket's zipper, coughing through the agonising burn inside his throat. There was a flurry of noise and movement, and then someone turned him over on his back. Cool washed over his face.

Hands, first on his face, then his fingers, pushing his own hands aside, opening his collar. Rodney's jaw worked, but his windpipe was too tight to be of use. No strength left in his lungs. All he managed were dry gasps and broken sounds.

He was lifted then, torso rising from the ground. A harsh voice against his ear, "Breathe, dammit." Air. He needed ...

Someone grasped his chin and tilted his head back. Rodney drew a breath that rattled down his throat. Another one, squeezed between coughs, and yet one more. When he made the mistake of opening his eyes, brightness pierced into his skull like myriad shards of glass. He got a brief vision of John's face, blurred by black spots. Rodney squeezed his eyes shut again, but even as the light disappeared, the pain did not.

Rodney shuddered. The next thing he knew was the shock of water on his face, then the touch of a wet rag dabbing his temples. Not where he needed it. Rodney grabbed the linen and pressed it against his closed eyes. All his senses lurched, spun and homed in on the cold. His heart gave another jolt and the tendons in his neck seized. Panic flared, dimmed ... and gave way. Rodney took another shaky breath.

"That's it, buddy." John again. Softer this time. "In and out. Just like that."

Bit by bit, Rodney regained a rhythm. His lungs still screamed for oxygen but he struggled to keep it slow.

Don't hurry, don't panic, don't hurry. He repeated the words until they sunk in. At last he could ease up.

Rodney dropped the rag. Now that his body no longer cramped, he felt incredibly heavy. Drained, he sank down and rolled on his side. He was vaguely aware of his head, resting on a thigh instead of bare ground. His hand brushed John's knee, then touched the ground, fingers curling into pine needles. Through the fibre of his jacket, he could feel John stroking his back in slow, soothing circles. Rodney clung to that sensation, fearing to pass out.

Scraps of sensory detail drifted into his awareness, the rustle of pines overhead, rain drumming on the tarp, the earthy smell of John's clothes; all convincing him that he was still here, still real.

Even so, darkness loomed close.

 

 

9 / HERESY

 

Long after the downpour ceased, the evergreens drooped with moisture. The soaked moss gave off a dull, eldritch glow. In its dankness and silence the forest could have risen from the depth of a lake. Even the air smelt rich and dark, like marshlands in between floods. If ever there was a threshold to the netherworlds, this had to be it.

Rodney lay on his side, ground close enough to blur before his eyes. He didn't mind. He didn't want to focus.

His throat was raw and the skin around his eyes felt bruised. His side hurt from coughing. Sanity-wise, he didn't feel any different, but by now he knew the safety was illusory. The toxin was inside him, eroding brain cells, destroying matter that could never be fixed. There was nothing mystic about it, no complex issue a shrink could mend: It was purely pathological. Dying tissue, the brittle structure of veins, collapsing.

Rodney stared at his hand, the dark drops of blood and grime in his palm. He'd torn a fingernail, too: So far his trophies of a useless battle. Pathetic, Rodney thought without heat.

John paced the side of their shelter, the sound of his steps a restless shuffle. At length he returned under the screen and Rodney watched him kneel down. John's front was caked with mud, a token of his close encounter with the forest ground. They must've held him there the whole time. After a time, John reached for Rodney's hand to inspect the blood-stained palm. Rodney offered no resistance.

As John saw the torn skin, his face twisted with... some emotion. Anger, most likely, but there was something else, too. Too mixed up, too complicated it was hard to decipher and Rodney didn't have the energy to try. He knew, though, that John wanted to help and couldn't. He couldn't undo what had happened, either, and he must've known it. And yet he stared at the blood as if it were an accusation.

For a second Rodney almost roused himself to put John at ease and tell him none of this was his fault. The words wouldn't come. He didn't have the strength to pour confidence into powerless assurances. Instead he withdrew his hand. He didn't want to put John off, but right now feeling another's touch was ... difficult. The warmth of John's grip, the raw sorrow on his face stabbed at the thin membrane covering a well of bottomless fear. So far, Rodney hovered above it, just barely. That would change if he gave into John's sympathy.

Rodney closed his eyes. All his senses frayed with fatigue. He wanted to curl up and sleep but feared to lower his guard. What if his mind gave out while he was unconscious? The mere idea made rest impossible.

Something rustled. Rodney cracked an eye open and saw John slip out of his jacket. He pulled the fleece sweater over his head, too, revealing the default black t-shirt he wore underneath. Twisting, John gripped the t-shirt sleeve and ripped it from its seam. After a second of bewilderment, Rodney realised what John was doing. In any other situation he would've scoffed at the gallantry, but John's matter-of-fact procedure left no space for hilarity.

Placing the strip of cotton on his thigh, John put his sweater back on. He bent, picked up the waterskin from their pile of supplies and pulled off the plug. He still didn't look Rodney in the face. "Here," he said. "Let me just ..."

When John touched his knuckles, Rodney winced. Snatching back his hand, John clenched his fist around the ripped-off sleeve. There was something shockingly reflexive and vulnerable in that gesture. Rodney was sure he hadn't been meant to see that. This time, he didn't dare look up for fear what he might see in John's face. He took a breath instead, and held out his hand. After a moment's hesitation, John reached for him again.

Although he found their mutual silence increasingly awkward, Rodney couldn't bring himself to talk. Water poured over his shredded skin and spilled over the sides of his palm. He clenched his teeth as the wound pulsed. The cuts looked shallow, now that the blood and dirt were washed off. Even so, Rodney felt queasy at the sight of raw flesh and his own skin in tatters.

John bandaged his hand, securing the torn sleeve with two knots. It was done quickly, efficiently, until the pressure of the wrap eased the stinging. Rodney flexed his fingers. Remarks about Boy Scouts were on the tip of his tongue, but for once he held them back. He wondered briefly how many men John had patched up in the field to become so adept, then he shoved that thought away, too. Lying on the ground, he tried to shift into a more comfortable position without success.

Beside him, John stretched out his legs and leaned back on his hands. His thigh was close and Rodney recalled how it had felt to rest his head there: the warmth radiating through coarse BDUs, the curve of taut muscle against his cheek. That moment, Rodney wanted to repeat the touch, just to feel something good, something human and gentle. He was so weary the idea didn't even seem as absurd as it normally would.

Lying still, Rodney relaxed, fingertips lingering inches away from John's knee. He couldn't tell how much time passed until he heard John's voice again.

"Get lost," John rasped.

Rodney squinted down his side and found they had company. Rook stood just outside their shelter, a silent observer of their misery. Had he come to announce yet another surprise? What would it be, this time? Communal singing? An old-fashioned flogging?

Behind Rook's legs, Rodney made out a group of people, one of them the man John called Badger. Rodney sat up, gritting his teeth against the throb in his ribs. Wiping at his smudged cheek, he watched the little progression advance.

A tall man led the column. As they came closer, Rodney saw the new guy's mask was special. While the others wore pieces made of a single wood-segment, this guy's ornament was a combination of bark in various shades. It also hid only one half of his face while the other was covered with coiling blue lines.

"Jorun Avatar," Rook greeted and bowed. Interesting. Rodney had taken Rook for the top of the food-chain, but obviously he'd got it wrong. Avatar. It had to be some sort of title.

"That's them?" the newcomer asked. Rook nodded. Badger stepped forward and dropped a backpack at the Avatar's feet. Black fibre with blue inlays, a small compass tacked to one strap ... Rodney's own pack.

Having dumped the goods, Badger glared at John and Rodney. Disdain rippled off him in waves. "You will show respect to the Avatar."

"Screw you," John answered pleasantly. "Screw him, too."

Badger pulled his lip back in a snarl. This time, both of his superiors intervened. Rook placed a hand on his shoulder and the tattooed fellow pinned him with a stare. "It's fine," he said. "Leave us now."

Badger looked like he'd rather chew off his foot. All the same, he went. Rook followed with another deferential nod.

The so-called Avatar waited until they were out of earshot. Hunkering down, he pushed the tails of his coat back from his thighs. In the shifting light of the forest, his varicoloured mask was fascinating, but even more impressive was the left side of his face. The intricate pattern of blue feathers ran all the way down to his collar. Looking down, Rodney saw the design continued all over the man's left hand.

Reaching into the backpack, the Avatar pulled out a lifesigns detector. Rodney felt a flicker of surprise despite himself. In its wake came a surge of dismay as he saw the ragged fissure that ran across the gadget's black display.

"You brought this," Jorun stated. Neither Rodney nor John reacted. Really, how stupid did he think they were?

"Where did you get it?" Jorun asked and this time, John did answer.

"Cereal surprise," he drawled.

"You are not from these parts," Jorun said, ignoring the jibe.

"We're visiting."

"On your own?"

"Yes."

Jorun considered the reply and Rodney thought his mouth curved a little. He turned the Ancient gadget in his hand. "Pity it is broken," he said. "Else I would know at once if you were lying."

"You know what this is?" Rodney asked, surprised.

The Avatar chuckled. "Spirit craft," he said, but his voice had an undercurrent. Something told Rodney this man wasn't half as ideologically blinded as the rest of them, which made him about twice as dangerous. He might seem pleasant enough, but Rodney didn't fall for the jovial attitude. He was getting curious, though.

"You upset my people," Jorun told them.

John leaned forward. "Your people, is it?"

"In a way."

They stared at each other in silence, expressions guarded. Rodney had watched John do this before, sizing up an enemy to mark him for later. Ignored for the moment, Rodney did his own math. He quickly figured out that Jorun was testing them, prodding for hidden resources. That they might still be judged as a potential threat kindled a spark of hope inside Rodney.

Eventually Jorun seemed to make up his mind. When he spoke again, his voice had lost some of its pomp. "Word to the wise," he addressed John. "I would not goad Hakon. He will have the honour of offering and he can make the passing ... last a while." He looked back over his shoulder and added: "A sacrifice should be docile, after their code."

"Not our code," Rodney cut in, words grating in his singed throat.

"I know," Jorun agreed. "That is why they distrust you. As trespassers you are sacrosanct, prey caught for the Shifting People. All the same, you don't belong."

He clasped his hands between his knees, miming a thoughtful expression. "Most of them don't like your being here," he continued. "They are afraid your presence might anger the spirits, keep them from showing their face. They don't know what to make of you because of this." He held up the lifesigns detector. "You're not one of them, you're not spirit, but you possess holy craft. It makes them question the legitimacy of your sacrifice. Are you perhaps avatar, spirit-touched already? Should they exempt you from the rite of purification? That's what they ask themselves."

"Wait a minute," John interjected. "They think about letting us go?"

"If you were avatar, they would have to." Jorun sighed. "Lore tells us that the spirits bestow gifts upon their chosen, to single them out from those who yet walk the pilgrim's path. These chosen are sent among the people to teach them the way of the spirit, so the devout might pass the stages of Becoming until they too shed their earthly shape. Until then, offerings must be made, trespassers purified to please the spirits."

With every ounce of esoteric gibberish, Rodney's anger inflated. He was fed up with this whole purification crap. He saw Jorun's sacred rules for what they were: strategy. Like so many religions, this here was about power and the sheep that followed. The trick was to find the man who pulled the strings, look him in the face and see the manipulation behind the belief. Rodney had a feeling that man sat right in front of him. The Guru, the spiritual leader, the hypocrite. Puzzling it out from there wasn't hard.

"Let me guess," Rodney said. "They sent you to validate our sacrificial quality."

"I am their Avatar," Jorun confirmed. "They look to me for guidance."

"So you could tell them to let us go."

"That I could."

Rodney's voice turned cold with fury. "But of course you won't."

Jorun inclined his head with a smile.

"Of course," Rodney repeated bitterly. "So tell me, are you a megalomaniac or just one of those homicidal fucks who get off on others slitting throats on their behalf?"

"Your sacrifice doesn't renown me," Jorun corrected patiently. "It will honour the spirits."

"Sure. Right. That's why you won't tell your cronies we're chosen. You tell them that and we walk. But that's not what you want, is it?

"Cut the man some slack, Rodney," John sneered from the side. "Can't be easy to face competition."

Rodney snorted. "Scared to share your fine title, Avatar?" He spat the last word. Corruption on top of superstition. It was enough to make him sick. All the humiliation and terror Rodney had endured these last two days condensed into a tight ball of hatred. He couldn't say whom he despised more: this fraud who controlled their fate by no reasonable right, or his disciples who were too stupid to smell the set up.

In the meantime, Jorun looked at him with new interest. Something hard and calculating had crept into his gaze. Rodney pressed his lips into a thin line. They might just have succeeded in convincing Jorun they were still dangerous. Belatedly Rodney wondered whether that was such a good idea.

"I'm grateful," Jorun said at last. "Your words aid me in my judgement. But I'm afraid you are wrong. I do not fear for my position." He smiled thinly. "I know you aren't chosen."

He got to his feet and turned toward the waiting crowd. Rodney was surprised to see that more than twenty Masks had gathered in the near distance to watch.

"They know nothing of the spirits," Jorun announced loudly. "Their craft comes from the old cities but it is not theirs. They're scavengers."

"We're not!" John exclaimed, furious. Jorun turned to him and hunkered down again. His gaze travelled from John to Rodney and back again.

"You will be set free of the cares that tie you down," he muttered. "Rejoice."

With this, he got up and left, carrying the pack by one strap.

Rodney watched him go, his head swirling with questions. As soon as Jorun reached the others, the group made room for him. He spoke to them and Rodney could almost see the relief that rippled through the herd.

Sheep. Brickheaded, backwater cretins.

What came next looked like another ritual. The crowd got on their collective knees, bowed their heads and seemed to engage in group meditation. More people filed in from all corners of the camp and settled down into a circle around Rook and Jorun. Rodney watched the scene with disgust. He would no longer be shocked if they danced around naked and spray-painted each other's backs. They could help themselves to a round Kool-Aid for all he cared.

Rodney slumped forward with a quiet groan. He reached up a hand and winced as his battered fingers touched his forehead. When he looked up again, John was watching him.

What was it with the scrutiny? Shifting, Rodney curled his bad hand in his lap.

"Let's make a run for it," John said suddenly.

Rodney's heart jumped up into his throat. "Now?" he blurted and shot a glance at their kidnappers. It had to be two dozens over there, maybe more. "Why?" he whispered. "The odds haven't changed one bit."

"Do you think they will?" John asked.

At this, Rodney was struck silent. He'd known. Deep down he'd known it would come to this. And yet he'd denied the truth despite all his pessimism. In all previous catastrophes, someone or something had stepped in at the last minute. He must've grown soft, foolishly coming to expect a happy ending. Maybe this was fate's idea of a practical joke.

"Good point," he said at last, the words heavy on his tongue.

Maybe they'd fooled themselves in counting on Teyla and Ronon. Rodney didn't want to think this one through to its inevitable conclusion, but he had to at least consider that there would be no cavalry. In any case they were running out of time. After this recent episode of mystic lunacy he shouldn't have any illusions about what was in store for them. Death for John, by whatever means their jailers could imagine. Imbecility for him, which was as good as death. Rodney recalled the smoke, thick, sluggish, revolting, and knew he'd even less time than John, who was waiting. Rodney nodded.

John picked up his jacket and rose without haste. Rodney followed, swallowing despite his dry mouth. They moved out of the shelter and began to walk away from the gathering.

"Don't turn," John said, and Rodney didn't. This was insane. Did they really believe they could just stroll into freedom? It was like hoping to turn invisible if you covered your eyes. And yet it seemed to work. Rodney forced himself to step out evenly while all his instincts told him to break into a run. Fear drilled through him but his heart soared with elation.

They got as far as the edge of the lair when an angry cry tore the silence.

"Run," John hissed, but Rodney didn't need the incentive. He plunged forward, stumbled on his first step, caught himself and took to his heels. Shouts rose behind his back. They sounded surprisingly distant.

The ground was uneven, slippery, but Rodney sprinted on without thinking. Pain seared up his side and into his ribs. He had a brief moment realising they were headed the wrong way but lost the thought just as quickly. Fleeing uphill, they dodged branches and crashed through the heather. No more voices behind them, just the dim forest ahead, and Rodney thought they were going to make it after all.

John fell first, hitting the ground with a curse. Rodney spun around, hand shooting out instinctively. He'd barely turned when the poisoned dart hit his throat and knocked the breath from his lungs. His muscles seized at once. He crashed into the evergreen, back first, his body paralysed so entirely he couldn't even blink.

Eyes wide he stared up at the swirling black branches and grey sky beyond. Darkness gathered at the edge of his vision, and then flooded him in a single sweep.

 

 

10 / THE OFFERING

 

RODNEY moaned and the sound rattled around his scull like a Welsh brass band. He woke into a hangover from hell. He also felt queasy, like he had nothing to eat in hours. Achy and underfed, better and better. Behind closed eyelids Rodney tried to sort out his condition but couldn't recall a thing.

Great. Hypomnesia.

That was one experience he'd never wished to repeat. Not after that chemists' party in 1991. Drinking alcohol that was one percent short of blinding you--not recommendable. Rodney only hoped that this time he'd made it to his bed.

Perhaps he'd collapsed. It was likely. Two weeks in Atlantis and he was already overtired. His initial enthusiasm had morphed into annoyance, as he was forever wanted in three places at once. Check this, save that. And they actually begrudged him his coffee.

Rodney swallowed and ran the tip of his tongue over parched lips. He needed to hydrate, but even the thought of water sent an unpleasant ripple to his stomach. If he wasn't already there, he should relocate to the infirmary. Have Carson fix him with one of his potions.

It sounded like a plan. Now he only needed to get up.

Rodney opened his eyes and looked at a boulder so tall the sight alone made him dizzy. He blinked and squinted through sticky lashes. Close to his head, red lichen covered the rock like a rash. Not his bed, obviously.

He turned his head the other way and saw John, sprawling on his stomach. One of his hands splayed close to his head, hiding his face. Despite the dwindling light, Rodney saw that John's knuckles were scuffed and grazed, red scratches criss-crossing the back of his hand. Rodney was appalled. What had they done to him?

He frowned. Who'd done what? He lifted his own hand to rub his gritty eyes only to stop and stare at the ragged bandage. John had made that ... from his sleeve? Rodney faltered. This made no sense. Where was he? Time seemed warped.

Atlantis ... something wrong about the stargate, they couldn't go back ... no, no, that was earlier. Fixed that. They had been on a mission, which one -- an outpost? Was that it? Yes. And John was hurt because they'd been kidnapped and tried to run.

Was that right?

Slowly the details of their situation returned but what should have aligned into cohesion remained fuzzy. Rodney rolled over and pushed up on his hands as everything spun around him and inside his head. For a moment he was sure he'd be sick, but the urge passed, leaving him nauseous. Sinking back down, Rodney pressed his forehead into the cold ground. John beside him grunted softly. There was the scuff of footsteps and the mutter of voices.

"... awake?"

"Doesn't matter."

A pause, leather creaking.

"We bind them this time. I don't care what Rook says."

"Hakon --"

"Just do it."

Someone bent over Rodney and a squall of sour breath flooded his nose.

"On your feet."

"Bite me," Rodney muttered. Without further ceremony, he was gripped by the back of his jacket and yanked off the ground. There was no dignified way to describe his reaction: he squawked. He almost threw up all over their feet, too, which would have been satisfying.

The man in front of him was brawny, bandy-legged, about Rodney's height but twice as wide; a thick fur cloak expanded his bulk. Without comment he began to tie Rodney's wrists, but as he fastened the knot, he pulled the cords tight enough to cut skin.

"Watch it!" Rodney snarled as the cuffs crushed sinew against bone. "What are you planning? Hm? Cut off my blood circulation? Because if that's it, great work."

Rodney still felt awfully disorientated and frightened, but at least he still controlled his voice, at least he was still angry. He clung to that. "I know basic anatomy will be hard for you to grasp, but you're in for a fascinating demonstration of congestion. Here's an outline: My fingers will turn black, shrivel up and fall off. Then you can go around and pick up my extremities because I won't have the thumbs to do so." He was shouting by the end of his tirade but Bear's square face showed no reaction. Rodney thrust his hands against the man's chest. "Loose the ropes, idiot!"

At this, Bear frowned and turned to his left where bird woman had reappeared.

"Do it," she said quietly. Scowling, Bear obeyed and started to redo his knots. Rodney hardly noticed. He peered over his shoulder just in time to see Badger nudge John sharply with his boot.

"Hey!" Rodney shouted. As he watched, two men hauled John up and stood him on his feet. Badger pulled John's hands behind his back, tied him up and walked away. John, still dazed, listed sideways.

Rodney had seen enough. He pushed Bear's hands off and sidestepped him without hesitation. He reached John and the others in two strides.

"Leave him alone," he barked, enraged and light-headed with wooziness. "Go get your Kumbaya-vibe going, you've done enough." He turned away from the Masks and toward John, who stood unsteadily.

"Get a grip," he hissed. "Come on, Sheppard." Not knowing what else to do, he put his bound hands under the other man's chin, tucking up John's face. John lifted his gaze, and for a terrible moment he looked too bleary to be lucid. Then his eyes focused and Rodney knew a moment of dizzying relief.

"Are you still there?" he asked in a low voice.

John lifted a tired eyebrow. "Afraid so."

Rodney exhaled a shaky breath. The grin he felt on his face must've looked awful. Awkwardly, he patted the front of John's fleece shirt. Badger picked that moment to return. "We move on," he announced, order flat as usual.

"Bite me," Rodney muttered and John shot him a sour grin.

* * *

 

After their failed flight, Rodney expected closure of some kind but he guessed wrong. What followed was just another timeless period of walking. Only now several Masks walked between Rodney and John. If the footpath curved, Rodney sometimes caught a glimpse of John's black fleece and tied hands. They hadn't returned John's windbreaker, most likely out of spite.

After a time, the ground began to rise and the landscape changed. Trees stood farther apart and they had to pick their way between rubbles of stone. Before long, the trek emerged from the forest and moved out onto a rocky slope. A few thwarted pines flanked their passage until vegetation dwindled to crimson moss and spindly weeds.

Not far from the last copse, the trail arrowed upward alongside a crest of pale, sky-high rocks. There, at foot of the ascent, the procession came to a halt. Rodney craned his neck and saw Rook talking to Badger on the side of the path. They exchanged a few words while each gripped the other's arm. At last, Rook turned to go. Most of the Masks followed. The handful of men that remained with Badger moved uphill. Rodney fell in line before Bear could shove him.

Further up the slope, traces of human work marked the path. A short flight of stairs led upwards, the steps polished smooth by many feet. Rocks on either side were decorated with Ancient scripture, long lines of symbols traced with red colour.

None of it meant anything to Rodney. He should be able to read at least one third of the glyphs, but the Ancient alphabet eluded him. So did his sparse Wraith and the Cyrillic he'd picked up in Siberia. Bit by bit his knowledge greyed out, as if areas of his brain were leeched of content. He still had his Algebra, his command codes and for some stupid reason, the lyrics of Yellow Submarine kept popping back up.

He was humming the refrain when the stairs led out onto an exposed plain, stretching ahead of them beneath the leaden sky.

Rodney looked up, startled by the cool air and sudden vista. The mountain range was arrayed in front of them, jagged peaks vanishing into a sagging pile of clouds. Snow covered the higher saddles but most of the slopes were black as slate.

At first, he didn't see it, the metal blended so well with its surroundings. Then a smidge of light glinted off a window and Rodney's eyes widened.

Across the plain, the Ancient spire stood at the entrance of a dark canyon, rising from the rocks like a thorn of steel. Its design was similar to Atlantean architecture -- the same slender base, the angular top. Rodney could see pikes and oriels that looked so familiar he almost stopped dead in his tracks. As it were, Bear had a firm grip on his shoulder and pushed him onward.

Filled with amazement, Rodney dropped his gaze from the distant tower. The sight he caught then choked all previous wonder.

Some distance ahead, a tall stake had been driven into the ground. Close by, a block of stone, topped by a rusty brazier. One Mask was already busy kindling the coal.

Rodney stumbled as the phantom stench of incense was back in his nose. Recalling the sickly heat and bitter perfume, the world tilted under his feet.

Like a sudden clap of hands, a bubble of silence extended around Rodney. From that soundless space, he felt his coherence slip like sand through a hair-fine crack. It didn't even scare him. Transfixed, he watched the preparation of the brazier until some turmoil at the head of the column sidetracked his attention.

John had broken from the line and attacked the man behind him. He was fighting dirty, kicking gravel into his opponent's face, ramming a knee into his groin. Others were rushing forward, grabbing at John and pulling him back. He used their hold on him for balance, and swung up his legs to hit the closest man in the chest. Those who were supporting his weight dropped him and strong-armed him down, three to one. John kept writhing, aiming kicks for crotches, knees or anything he could reach.

Funny, Rodney thought. Such a scrawny guy and they couldn't keep him down. Then John's cry of pain barrelled through the cotton-wad around his brain and the world came rushing back. Horrified with himself, Rodney gasped for breath and the sense of breaking through a surface sent his stomach into a seizure. Turning, Rodney bent over to vomit.

When he struggled back up, his ears seemed tuned to an unbearable keenness. His head was light, pounding. He heard the grating rasp of gravel, the clink of metal clasps and John, panting. Rodney started forward but Bear held him back, one hand clenching around his biceps, another twisting his collar.

"Enough of this!" Badger shouted. "Get him over here."

As Bear dragged Rodney to the stone, two of the Masks were picking John off the ground. His head hung limp, bangs of dark hair hiding his face. Rodney willed him to look up, go on, keep fighting, but the next second, John was out of sight and Rodney faced the altar.

Badger stood close by. At his feet, Rodney glimpsed their long missing backpacks and another sense of vertigo washed through him. He didn't have to kneel, the brazier reached up to his chest, but his head was forced down all the same. Bear held him, squeezing his nape with a callused hand. Rodney's eyes began to water, as he smelt the spirit they'd used to prep the coals. Although the liquid incense wasn't boiling yet, the air Rodney inhaled simmered with heat. Sweat broke on his brow.

This was it, then. No reserves left to fight; he was too weary, too hopeless, too frightened. But even so his heart thundered and his jaw ached with tension. Part of him wanted to surrender, but the rest just didn't know how to quit. He'd always been a sore looser.

Rodney's fingers clenched the stone's flat top. He forced himself to hold on despite the embers' stinging heat.

As the first string of bubbles rose from the bottom of the liquid, Rodney grabbed the bowl. Using all his force he jerked upright and flung the boiling water into Badger's face. A scream, the hiss of steam and Rodney broke free. He whirled around and drove his elbow into Bear's collarbone. According to Ronon, this should knock the man flat. Bear only frowned in surprise.

"Oh, what the hell," Rodney gasped and crashed the bowl against the man's skull. As Bear collapsed, someone else grabbed Rodney's elbow and the bowl slipped from his fingers. Without thinking, Rodney turned sideways to follow the bowl and a blade missed him by an inch. The Mask came for him again, but before the she could strike, a stone hit her temple and sent her flying.

Before dropping to his knees, Rodney caught a glimpse of John grappling with one of the others. Rodney's fingers fumbled for the Mask's knife. Weapon in hand, Rodney turned when a shadow fell over him.

A boot shot out and kicked the blade from his grip. Rodney scrambled backwards but didn't get far before he was backed against the altar. Badger stood above him, a dark silhouette against the white sky. His teeth were bared, marking a pale line on his shadowed face. He had his crossbow ready and strung, square bolt aimed at Rodney's head.

Rodney lifted his arm to shield his face, but the impact he expected didn't come. Instead he heard a muffled grunt. When Rodney looked again, Badger stood frozen with the business end of a spear sticking from his chest. The crossbow clattered to his feet, as in slow-motion Badger keeled over, hit the ground and went still.

Rodney scrambled to his feet. The copper taste of panic still clogged the back of his mouth and he looked around wildly. No one else came for him, though. The fight was over.

John stood in Badger's place, ignoring the man he'd speared, searching Rodney's face instead. "You okay?" he asked.

"No," Rodney rasped. "No, I'm not."

John's mouth twisted into a grin. "Don't ever complain about sparring again," he said with a snort of laughter. Then the remaining colour drained from his face and his legs caved.

Startled, Rodney jumped forward and caught him. John sagged in his arms, folding into a boneless weight. Going through a number of contortions, Rodney settled them both on the ground before he propped John against the altar. Sitting, John squinted down his side and made a face. Rodney followed his gaze and stared at the gash in John's fleece jacket. "You're bleeding!" he exclaimed.

"It's just a flesh wound," John offered.

"Quit the jokes," Rodney snapped. "This isn't funny."

"Guess not."

Feverishly, Rodney looked around and remembered their backpacks behind the altar. "Don't move," he told John and scrambled to his feet.

"I'm not planning to."

Rodney hurried over to their packs and dragged them to John's side. He opened a rucksack at random and rooted through its contents. After a brief search, he pulled out the first aid kit. Everything was there; compresses, burn ointments, even painkillers. Rodney ripped open one of the sealed antiseptic wads.

Carefully, he lifted the hem of John's sweater. If possible, John went even paler as Rodney peeled the blood soaked fleece off John's skin. "This'll sting," Rodney warned. As he started dabbing blood from John's side, John exhaled sharply through his nose.

Rodney worked quickly. Once the wound was cleaned it still looked nasty, but not fatal. If the knife had slashed his stomach, instead of his flank ... Pressing his lips together, Rodney continued to dress the gash in the best way he knew how. He was no medic. He'd no idea if this was enough. John probably needed stitches. He needed Carson, for Christ's sake.

In his hectic race to secure the bandage, Rodney brushed John's knee. At the touch, John let out a low grunt of pain.

"What happened?" Rodney asked with a look at John's legs.

"Kicked me in the knee. Bastard."

Rodney reached out to check how bad it was, but John clutched at his sleeve. "Don't."

For a long moment, they looked at each other. Rodney took in John's grey face, his split lower lip. He looked like he'd just survived a bar brawl that involved Mike Tyson. Rodney knew he looked no better himself.

"Shit," Rodney muttered. "Fuck. Crap. Fuck."

"You have to get back."

"Oh, shut up." And miraculously, John did.

Rodney sat down heavily, looking at the stake. His gaze brushed over the motionless figures on the ground and the windswept plain all around them. Place of offering, was it? Fitting. Rodney leaned forward to massage his ankles.

They'd eliminated their guards, but now what? Rodney thought of the miles of wilderness between them and the stargate and his heart sank. How would they manage, beat up as they were? John couldn't walk. Rodney was starting to lose his marbles. All things considered, they were really screwed.

Rodney stared down the barren plateau toward the sea of dark pines. Even if they were up to the ordeal of another hike, they still might not get very far. If Rook had posted sentries on the path it would be capture all over again.

"Listen to me," John said into the silence. "Take the same trail back. They'll let you pass, like the kid. You're supposed to be purified. You'll be miles away before they notice something's wrong."

Rodney didn't answer and John mistook his silence for agreement. "Elizabeth must've sent a search party," he continued. "They'll follow our trail, meet you halfway up the path. They'll take care of you."

"And in the meantime you'll do what?" Rodney asked. "Die like a good martyr?"

"Rodney."

"Should I get you a gun so you can make my decision easier?" Rodney barked, anger rising. "Is that what you're saying?"

John's eyes widened before he looked away, embarrassed. He might not have remembered but Rodney did. And he'd be damned if he let John be another Brendan Gall. He tried to feed his fury, draw strength from it, but the steam went out of him too quickly. He looked at John's downbeat face and couldn't be angry with him. Rodney sighed.

"I won't leave you behind," he said, softer than he'd intended. "Now stop interrupting. I have to think." Flexing his aching toes inside his boots, Rodney settled back and began to draw up a plan. Rubbing his face, he spread grit and sweat. God, he needed a break. Just a minute, a moment to breathe.

John shifted carefully against the altar and rested his head against the stone. He looked wearier than Rodney had ever seen him. More banged up, too. The blood on his lip had darkened and dried. Uncomfortable with his hands being idle, Rodney unwrapped another antiseptic wipe. "Sit still," he said, although John didn't look fit to move a muscle. Carefully, Rodney touched a tip of the wad to John's lower lip. At this, John did flinch.

"Sorry," Rodney murmured and continued to dab gently at the cut. He wondered when he'd moved from repairing things to fixing people. Fixing John, in particular. It made quite the difference, too. He never felt clumsy around inanimate objects.

Blood stained the pad, clots fading into the cotton. Looked like the bruise wouldn't swell, Rodney reflected. His gaze fixed on John's half open mouth; he idly noted the sandpapery jaw-line against the back of his fingers. Beneath his thumb, John's lips felt cold with antiseptic, soft and a little chapped. At some point Rodney noticed his hand was no longer moving.

Dropping his gaze, Rodney pulled back the wad. His throat constricted, making it hard to swallow. "Can you walk?" he asked.

John shook his head. "No."

"We'll work around that," Rodney said firmly.

When John wanted to protest, Rodney just lifted a finger. "How do we play this," he muttered.

There was wood down the slope, saplings and branches. He could devise some makeshift crutches for John and a splint for his knee. If they managed a fair distance in the beginning, they might out-hobble their pursuers. John was right, backup had to be on the way. It was simply a matter of walking toward them.

His sore feet and aching limbs prophesised walking would be anything but simple, but Rodney refused to be distracted. Of course they would make it. He'd give John a piggy-back ride to the next DHD if that's what it took.

It won't work, his head-voice put in helpfully.

Yes, it will.

Oh, yes? Why?

Because I say so.

Ah.

"If I get you a crutch, can you manage?" Rodney asked.

John shot him a dubious look. "How would you get a crutch?"

Rodney huffed and flapped his bandaged hand. "What, did you think you're the only creative brain here? I fetch some branches up the trail, we cut up one of the others' coats for straps, piece of cake. Only –" He broke off, frowning. His plan depended on him staying sharp. No guarantees for that any more. Right. Another variable, how to put it in?

John's voice rattled him from his thoughts. "What is it?"

"I'll need a cue," Rodney muttered. "Wait a second!"

He dug into the backpack and retrieved the notepad they kept in case of technological failure. Rodney fished the pen out of its slot and pulled the cap off with his teeth.

"What are you doing?" John asked.

"I get blackouts," Rodney explained, distractedly. "It's the poison. If I slip while I'm gone I need to know where I am and what I'm supposed to do."

Message from a sound mind ... Rodney couldn't decide what to write. The pen lay awkward against his singed fingers.

"Come on," John said suddenly. "Let me do this."

Grateful for the support, Rodney shoved paper and pen into his hands.

"Write down what I need to do," he said. "'Find some sticks, get back here'. Something like that."

John nodded and set to work.

While he waited, Rodney remembered something else. Casting about for what he needed, he got up and marched around the altar. Bear still lay as he'd fallen, the shaggy fur of his coat rippling in the wind. Bowing over him Rodney saw a dark bruise on the man's throat. Not Rodney's doing, but it had finished the job.

Hunkering down, Rodney started to peel the hairy topcoat off the man's back. Not an easy task, considering the body's bulk and weight. When at last the coat came free Rodney rose to his feet. The garment's inside, lined with softer fleece, was still warm. Rodney suppressed a shiver and walked back to John.

"Done?" he asked and John dutifully held up a folded piece of paper. Rodney took the note and put it in the front pocket of his jacket. John looked at the coat and lifted an eyebrow.

"I don't know where they put your windbreaker," Rodney explained. "This'll do for now."

John's face froze to an unreadable expression but he bowed and let Rodney help him into the sturdy cloak. It was at least twice his size and he all but vanished inside the fur. It should be warm enough, though. Rodney hesitated and wondered if he should button John up, as well. John seemed to guess his thoughts.

"It's okay," he said. "Go on down."

"I'll be as quick as I can."

"I know."

No more to say. Rodney turned around and started walking, turning up his collar as the wind picked up.

 

* * *

 

Rodney cringed; every step was painful. Even his blisters had blisters. He so was going to request a holiday after this. He would dial some tropical planet, with white beaches and no population whatsoever.

He reached the stairs and began to climb down between the rocks. Inside the ragged stone wall's shadow, it was calm and gloomy. Rodney descended alongside the Ancient writing, his palm brushing petroglyphs as he traced the wall for balance. Elizabeth would love these. Language to her was as beautiful as information. She even combed the database for fictional texts in her spare time. Soft-science to the core, what could you say. Only last week, Peter had stumbled across a file full of Ancient poetry and decided to give Elizabeth a print-out for her birthday. Grodin was a closet romantic but he couldn't format worth a damn so Rodney had got the poems into decent shape. Much eye-rolling involved.

For a moment, Rodney recalled lunch with Peter in a crowded mess hall, then the memory crossfaded into the satellite's explosion, bright sparks and fire imploding in space. The static from his radio was back in Rodney's ear, Peter's absurd apology, the silence.

Resting his forehead against the stone wall, Rodney squeezed his eyes shut.

Elizabeth's birthday had come and gone. Peter had died months ago.

Rodney flattened his hands against the wall, felt the world tilt and settle. He was on P5K – 727, near the mountains and the outpost. John needed him to do ... do something. Rodney froze. He'd come down here with a purpose, but to his growing dismay Rodney realised he'd forgotten what it was. He recalled a hustle, but the flashback was hazy. Were they running again? He didn't know.

Calm down, he told himself. Easy does it. Something about a cue. Oh, yes. Rodney reached into his pocket and pulled out the scrap of paper. He unfolded it and there was John's handwriting, cramped letters and narrow vowels. Rodney exhaled with relief. Go back on the trail, he read, watch for the river. And beneath in bolder caps:

Go home.

Rodney looked long at the note and willed his brain to make sense of it. Recognition returned, in parts. The path. Okay, he remembered that. He lifted his head. Confusion was crowding in from all sides but John's words would guide him. He'd make good by them. Rodney straightened up, left the stairs and started to walk.

 

 

11 / Homecoming

 

UNABLE to stay inside the tent any longer, Carson waited at the edge of the hamlet. He glanced at his watch; it was two hours since Major Lorne had radioed in. Two hours and counting. Carson buried his hands inside his pockets.

Night foundered in a ghostly glow with the triplet moons hidden behind drifting clouds. The air was cold and carried the tang of rank wood. The Ord believed that up in the mountains, it was snowing already. Temperatures would soon drop below zero above the timberline. Even with their outdoor gear, Sheppard's team wasn't equipped for freezing degrees. They weren't supposed to get caught in the onset of winter.

They weren't supposed to lose contact, either.

We've got McKay.

Recalling the message, Carson relived the combined force of relief and dread.

What's his condition?

Not good.

Is he conscious?

No. You best be ready Doc, he's pretty banged up.

They'd set up the emergency tent yesterday, prepared for all eventualities, or so Carson hoped. Ever since Ronon carried Teyla back to the village, they had been waiting for the other shoe to drop but nothing happened. For two days, the search parties continued without news.

John and Rodney had vanished without a trace. It was as though the forest had swallowed them up. Carson tried not to imagine them at the bottom of a pitfall, limbs broken or worse. Experience told him not to lose faith. But no matter how often the flagship team pulled out of scrapes by their whiskers, his anxiety never eased. Carson could never rest easy until he had all his people where he could fix them.

Now at least Rodney had been found. Carson hoped fiercely that with his return, things would clear up. He was confident he could mend Rodney, too, but first he needed to see him and his injuries. Waiting was hard.

At long last, Carson spotted the skittering beams of several Maglites. Two seconds later, a troop of marines broke through onto the meadow. One was lighting the way for the pair that carried the stretcher, the rest following behind. Flicking on his own torch, Carson hurried their way.

The men were out of breath, faces grim with exertion. They'd covered Rodney with a thermal blanket that came up to his chin. Above the silver lining, his face was white as marble. Carson lifted his torch and felt for a pulse. One look confirmed all his worries. He took in Rodney's blue lips, the dark circles beneath his eyes and the lashes crusted with rime.

"Good Lord," he whispered. "Take him inside. Careful, now." As the men set off, Carson caught up with Lieutenant Thomas.

"What happened?" Carson asked.

"Can't say for sure," Thomas answered. "We found him near a river and couldn't wake him. His pants are soaked up to the hip. Guess he fell into the stream."

"Any response from him since?"

"None."

Carson took a small breath. "Colonel Sheppard?"

The Marine shook his head. "No sign of him. Ronon and Major Lorne are still out, looking."

"You better brief Dr. Weir."

"Right away."

Amber light illuminated the medical tent from the inside. When Carson rushed in, he charged into a cocoon of warmth.

Teyla was already undressing Rodney, peeling the boots off his feet. Without the support of her crutch she had to brace her hip against the gurney. Carson knew better than to try and send her away.

He pulled out his stethoscope, unzipped Rodney's jacket and slipped the scope's diaphragm beneath the remaining clothes. The bare chest was cold enough to numb Carson's palm. As he listened for a heartbeat, Carson's gaze slipped up to Rodney's face. Beside the oxygen mask, a purple bruise darkened the whole left side of his jaw. Carson doubted it was the result of a fall.

Bastards.

"Doctor?"

Corrigan had rolled up with the heart monitor and was ready to take over.

"Good, put it on him," Carson said before turning to the second nurse. "We have to raise his body temperature. Warmed IV fluids, heating blanket, the whole set. And get him a glucagon injection.

"Already got it, Doctor," Isobel replied.

"Go ahead, then."

In the meantime, Teyla had cut away Rodney's soaked BDUs. She covered him with blankets as soon as the electrodes were attached. While Corrigan waited with the heating blanket, Carson used one of their portable scanners, checking for any internal injuries. None showed. He went on to examine Rodney's extremities. His hands were badly messed up, fingers blistered in what looked like a second-degree burn, but at least there was no frostbite. His feet were another matter. The skin was damp and cold, toes already showing a faint blue hue.

"All right," Carson said. "Cover him."

Corrigan placed the heating blankets over Rodney as Isobel finished the infusion. Carson stepped back. For the moment there was nothing left to do but wait. Gradually, the tent fell silent around the sound of the oxygen mask hissing.

Carson picked up Teyla's crutch and walked over to her. She stood at the gurney's head, hand lingering beside Rodney's temple.

"Sit down, Teyla," he told her. "That ankle needs rest. You won't do him any good if you harm yourself."

Teyla accepted the crutch but stayed at Rodney's side.

"He was holding this," she said and pressed a scrap of paper into Carson's hand. Ripped from a notepad, the sheet was soggy and crumpled. Something had been written on it, but the words had blurred into an illegible smudge. Not knowing what else to do with it, Carson folded the note and put it into his pocket.

Chapter Text

RIVER OF FOG / MNEMOSYNE

_______________________________

 

He's lost in the fog. No benchmarks.
Margaret Atwood

12 / DEAD END

He could always tell when a mission was about to go south. There was a taste to the air, a quiet, a trickle of electricity on his skin.

"They're watching us," Ronon said. Lorne followed his gaze, tipping his head to search the height of the pines. Catching the faintest rustle in the evergreen branches, he had just time enough to unclip his P90 before all hell broke loose. The first wave of projectiles caught them like hail in the open. Malcolm was the first to go down, taking the bolt of a crossbow through his thigh.

"Take cover!" Lorne shouted, slipping an arm under Malcolm's shoulder and dragging him off the path. Above the din of machine gunfire, he heard Lee hollering at the others to haul ass. They'd almost reached cover when a second volley rained down and Malcolm took another hit in the back.

"Dammit," Lorne cursed. Malcolm's weight pulled him down and saved him from being struck. He felt a bolt cut the air close to his ear, rolled back on his knees and raised his P90. No visible target, but he fired a round into the trees all the same. Someone fell with a scream. Up there, branches camouflaged the archers. Down on the open track, Lorne was target practice. He willed his limbs to move, knowing he'd be too slow no matter what he tried. Suddenly Ronon was at his side and pulled him to his feet. The blast from his gun tore a hole into the nearest treetop.

"Go," Ronon growled and stuck to Lorne's shoulder as they ran into the forest. They leapt a boulder, hunching low and continuing to fire, covering their men while Lee and Hutchins dragged Morrison out of the fray. When the last of the marines was safe, the enemy's attack suddenly ceased. Weapon cocked, Lorne searched the treetops, the path and the wood's edge. No one showed. There was only Malcolm's prone body in the middle of the track, his discarded gun and the errant bolts.

"See anyone?" Lorne asked Ronon.

"No."

He turned to the rest of his men. "Morrison?" he asked.

"He'll live," Lee answered. "He's just unconscious."

Lorne slid down the rock and pulled a new magazine from his vest. In the growing silence, the smell of gun smoke washed over him and mingled with the forest scents. Mushrooms, mould, resin, the whole range. Lorne punched the ammo into his gun.

Throughout the last three hours he had lost two men and they still hadn't managed to advance so much as a mile beyond that cursed wall. Hidden sentries that even Ronon had a hard time detecting flanked the path. Trip wires and pitfalls riddled the forest around the trail. Lee had sprung a trap and nearly got himself skewered on a row of pikes, and he was only alive thanks to Ronon, who'd yanked him back by the scruff of his vest. Thomas hadn't been as lucky. The pitfall that killed him was so steep they couldn't even reach his dog tags.

A crack in the ground, a flash of Thomas' surprised face and he was gone - as quick as that.

Things were going badly. They had no idea how many hostiles stood between them and the mountains. Could be a small army of snipers out there and even if they breached enemy lines, there was no guarantee they'd find the Colonel.

Lorne scrubbed at his face. He should've pulled the plug on this mission when Thomas died. He'd known it then, but had refused to order a retreat. And even with the odds they'd faced, Lorne still hesitated. If he turned back now, he'd be giving up on Sheppard for good. There'd be no other team. He'd been with the military long enough to know the run of things. Looking at his men, Lorne knew each of them would go on without question and that they would keep looking no matter what. It made his decision that much harder.

"Leave it to me," Ronon said. "I get rid of them."

"You'll get some, sure," Lorne returned. "Then one of them gets you." He shook his head. "They've manned the goddamn trees, how far would you get?"

Ronon didn't answer. He looked ready to blast every moving target into kingdom come, but Lorne trusted he also saw the situation for what it was: a dead end. Lorne cast another look over his shoulder, wondering if the snipers would allow them to get Malcolm. Leave no man behind. They hadn't had much chance to honour that vow so far.

"Take point," he told Ronon, pushing up to his feet. "Lee, Hutchins, you have Morrison. I'll take our six."

"Which way, sir?" Lee asked.

Lorne scanned the thicket behind them. "Back to the Gate," he said. "We're calling off the search."

 

 

13 / DIMINISHED

 

Atlantis' kitchen was deserted. Leaving for their afternoon break, the staff had left their domain spotless, not a smudge on the chrome counters. Carson opened one of the huge fridges and returned a milk bottle. He'd already located a basket full of raisin buns left from breakfast, and was piling some of those on a platter when he heard steps behind him. Half-turning to look over his shoulder, he spotted Elizabeth making her way past the central hearth.

"Hey."

"Hey yourself. Dr. Biro said I'd find you here."

"Well," he said. "I thought it high time to reinstate some Scottish traditions." He smiled tiredly at the buns. "Afternoon tea."

"I thought the English invented that."

"A common misconception."

He put the buns on a tray already laden with a teapot and two mugs. "Cup of tea?" he asked Elizabeth. She shook her head and moved to lean the small of her back against the counter.

"Major Lorne just radioed in."

Putting an errant bun back on the plate, Carson closed his eyes. He guessed what she would say next.

"He's calling off the mission."

"Any sign?"

"No."

Carson stared at the tray and clenched his jaw. He told himself it didn't mean anything. The times they believed John was lost, he'd always returned. This might be no different, but for some reason, his gut was telling him otherwise.

Carson exhaled a small breath and lifted his head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Elizabeth clutching the counter's edge in a white-knuckled grip. Carson reached over and covered her hand with his. Such a small hand by comparison, dry, much too thin and cold. Long, silent minutes ticked by during which she never looked at him. Eventually, Elizabeth pulled away.

"How's Rodney?" she asked.

Carson sighed quietly. "The same."

She nodded. "Let me know if there's any change, will you?"

"Of course." If they'd been different people, in different positions, he would have embraced her. As things were, he let her go, knowing her walls were as necessary as his own. Remaining at the counter, Carson watched Elizabeth walk away through the empty, stainless kitchen.

 

* * *

 

There was no reason to keep Rodney in the infirmary, so they had moved him to his quarters. Carson hoped the familiarity of his private space would comfort him, reach him somehow. They were all desperate for some kind of response. So far they waited in vain.

Like the day before, Rodney sat alone by the window, back against the wall. The balcony's door stood open, curtains rippling in a breeze. Light pooled on the floor and climbed Rodney's shins.

Carson moved into the room, trying to ignore the little camera above the door. Because the presence of a nurse made Rodney nervous, they'd resorted to video supervision, a measure Carson hated with all his heart. It was dehumanising, turning people into data,. It was also necessary.

The first time Rodney had regained consciousness he had panicked, not knowing where he was or what had happened to him. He didn't recognise Carson or Elizabeth, nor did he have any recollection of Atlantis at all. Carson had initially feared it was damage caused by hypothermia, but then he found out it was far worse. Scans of Rodney's brain showed that he shared the Ord boy's symptoms. Once more Carson was left in the position where he was able to diagnose the clinical condition, but not what had triggered it or more importantly, how it could be stopped. He could only watch the damage spread. Every hour Rodney deteriorated further, and although he fought, the fighting exhausted him. In the dead of night Rodney had a panic attack and by the next morning he no longer spoke.

Carson walked past the bed and sat down on the floor. He placed the tray between Rodney and himself. Rodney shot him a look before staring back at a picture he clutched in both hands. Carson wondered which of the diplomas he'd taken from the wall. Maybe he had tried to find himself in the list of achievements, the mentions of his name.

Carson looked at the pictures above Rodney's desk, his private wall of fame. Someone had tidied Rodney's room and Carson found he missed the chaos of jumbled shirts, empty coffee mugs and dissembled widgets as much as he missed Rodney's rambling. It was hard to accept that his sharp tongue should be diminished to silence.

Hands in his lap, Rodney looked at the picture with a deceptive thoughtfulness. Lights are on but nobody's home, Louise's sad words echoed in Carson's ears.

"May I?" Carson asked and Rodney gave up the picture easily enough. He still responded to questions, physically at least.

Carson turned the frame in his hands. Not a certificate after all. A snapshot. The picture had been taken on their last trip to Earth on an official dinner with the SGC brass. Elizabeth was there, hands clasped in front of her. Carson saw himself and Rodney, wearing a white shirt and brown tie. Off to the left, decked out in his uniform, was John Sheppard. It had been the evening after his promotion and Rodney had prophesised that sooner or later that grin would split his face. Carson looked at the new wings on the Colonel's sleeves, his shaved chin and the hair with an attitude. No one should be able to look smug and sheepish at the same time. John managed.

Carson passed a hand over his eyes. When he looked up again, Rodney was staring at the window where a strip of ocean showed every time the curtain shifted.

Putting down the picture, Carson reached for the teapot. He poured two mugs and shoved one of them in Rodney's direction. Rodney first peered past his knees, then bowed over the tray. He picked up one of the buns for closer inspection. It was such a Rodney thing to do – going straight for the food. Carson smiled. How easy to pretend, just for a moment, that things were like they used to be.

 

* * *

 

Inside John's room, the blinds were only half shut and a grid of evening light covered the wall, desk and floor. No one had thought to open the windows; the settled air tasted tepid and stale.

Why had he come here? Carson couldn't say. He'd kept himself busy during the day: routine muted everything else, leaving only a vague sadness like dregs at the bottom of a cup. Now at dusk, Carson had run out of tasks.

He looked from the sideboard to the meticulously made bed, the pictures and surfboard. Belatedly he noticed the lonely figure, standing in the shadow of a girder. As Teyla turned, the white cast on her leg shimmered briefly.

Carson recalled the morning when Ronon had carried her into the hamlet, her face grey with pain. Later she told Carson they stumbled into a hidden pitch, falling several feet before they hit the ground. Ronon had been lucky. Teyla had suffered a minor concussion on top of a broken ankle.

It was Ronon's decision, bringing her home instead of pursuing John and Rodney. He was off again as soon as he'd delivered her to the medics' care. Teyla stayed behind, knowing she wouldn't be useful in a search. She was stoic about it, but Carson saw the hours of waiting chafed her. Her sorrow, forbidding in its wordlessness, kept everyone at arm's length. Carson didn't try to comfort her. Instead he shared her anxiety while each of them watched the forest's edge in silence.

"I have never been inside his room," Teyla said. Moving out of the shadow, she looked about her in a way that seemed almost timid. She looked a little lost, surrounded by these Earth things, Sheppard's odds and ends.

"Me neither," Carson answered. He was uncomfortable, feeling he'd intruded on a private moment of grief. He considered leaving but another look at her held him back. Braced on her crutch Teyla seemed stooped, smaller. A leader parted from her people, a warrior with no one to fight, she looked as abandoned as this room.

Carson moved over to stand at her shoulder.

"If I had not broken my ankle . . ." she began, broke off. Tried again. "I should have seen the trap."

"Don't you blame yourself, love," Carson said softly, alarmed by the bitterness in her voice. "Don't you dare."

Teyla just shook her head. "My people say each of us is made to leave," she said. "If that is true, then why am I destined to stay behind?"

Carson stared at her as his throat tightened so suddenly it hurt. Before he could recover his voice, Teyla wiped quickly at her eyes and straightened. Turning around, she reached into her coat. From a pocket she pulled a twine of grass and twig. Carson recalled several of the Ord wearing similar ribbons strapped to their belts.

"Ymer gave this to me," Teyla explained. "It is a talisman for Rodney. To guide his spirit out of the fog." She pressed the plait into his hand. Carson swallowed.

"Why give it to me?" he asked.

"Ymer thinks you are our shaman. It is for you to use." Teyla shrugged. "It is one of their rituals."

Carson felt the coarse twine, smelling the sweet fragrance that rose from the herbs. Dried leaves crumbled between his fingertips.

A shaman. If only. He could do with some divine assistance.

Behind his back, Teyla limped gingerly out of the room.

 

* * *

 

Laura walked out of the bathroom, wearing one of his t-shirts. Carson wiped furtively at his eyes. She took one look at him and detoured to his cupboard. While Laura rummaged through the lower shelves, Carson ran a hand through his hair.

The day had drained him. Feeling hopeless and jittery, Carson knew sleep wouldn't come easy. He wondered if Elizabeth would take the sleeping pill he left on her desk. He wondered if she remembered to eat. She'd always been stick-thin but these last few days had worn her down to a brittle edge. She wasn't the only one. Radek told Carson he'd found Ronon in the jumper bay, fast asleep inside one of the ships. He didn't have the heart to wake him, so instead he'd covered him with a blanket and left him be.

Carson squeezed his eyes shut. It was a bloody mess, all of it.

When Laura returned to the bed, she carried a bottle of Scotch and tumblers. She settled down beside him and pulled her bare legs onto the mattress.

"This seems hardly appropriate," Carson said.

"Au contraire." She pressed the glasses into his hands and poured two shots. Stowing the bottle within range, Laura lifted one of the tumblers in a salute. "Here's to Colonel Sheppard."

Carson hesitated, then swallowed a third of his drink. Feeling the familiar burn inside his throat he realised Laura was right, it should be done like this. John was never the man for pomp and fanfare anyway.

Carson cleared his throat. He should think about John more. Come to terms with his demise. Somehow he failed every time he tried, wondering only how this loss would affect the others. Even now the grief he should feel fainter than music played next door. It felt like a betrayal. Carson stared at the Scotch's amber liquid. Say goodbye. Maybe he already had. Maybe he was afraid to.

"To Rodney," he said at last and emptied his glass while Laura watched him with a raised eyebrow.

In a way, it was easier to focus on Rodney. At least he was still here. Hand clenching around his tumbler, Carson clung to the conviction Rodney could yet be saved. He'd been going over Rodney's symptoms a thousand times. His condition must result from poison, there was no other explanation. And if they dealt with venom, there had to be an antidote. There always was. If only Carson knew what had poisoned Rodney in the first place. Synthetic, organic, injected, digested . . . Just a little more information and he'd figure something out. As it was, he couldn't even try. It drove him to distraction.

"Hey there," Laura said, placing a hand on his thigh. Conjuring up a hollow smile, Carson moved to cover her fingers with his.

"I hate this," Carson admitted. "I should be able to help him."

"If there's a way, you'll find it," Laura said. Looking up, Carson took in her serious face and the little line between her brows. She meant what she said. Maybe it was selfish, but in that moment, Carson felt grateful for her support. Reaching out, he brushed some of Laura's hair back behind her ear.

"Come here," she said, placing her whisky on the nightstand and moving up the mattress until she sat leaning against the headboard. Carson followed, swinging his legs up on the bed and moving to lie back between Laura's knees, his back against her chest.

"What about Parrish?" Laura asked, stroking the nape of his neck. "You said he'd help."

"He's trying," Carson answered, closing his eyes to Laura's touch. "The entire botanical crew is trying."

"But?"

"But," Carson shrugged. "Oh, it would take years to analyse the planet's flora. Or fauna. It could be poison frogs, for all we know."

Now that he was lying down, exhaustion took over. "We need someone who knows the planet," Carson murmured.

"What about the Ord?" Laura asked, tracing her thumb along his jaw.

"If they know something, they're not aware of it," Carson said, starting to drift. "Maybe . . . maybe the nature of the poison is hidden in their lore somewhere, handed down by word of mouth and they don't recognise it."

 

It would need the right questions to unlock the Ords' knowledge. But while Carson had thought about this approach, he didn't think it would do any good, at least, not in time. The Ords' wisdom was traditional, instinctive. Right now Carson needed science. The fast kind. He doubted some ritual would be effective enough to --

Wait just a moment.

Carson moved his tongue inside his mouth, the warmth he felt inside his stomach coming only in parts from the whiskey. Laura began combing his hair back from his temples but he hardly felt it.

Imagine the toxin had been organic. Did it not stand to reason that other herbs could serve as cure? A combination of native plants, most likely. Who were the specialists of herbalism? Witches, in Earth's old cultures. The tribes' wise men, their shaman. Carson dragged his thumb over the rim of his tumbler. It couldn't be . . . could it?

He sat up with a start, bowing over Laura's knee to reach for the bedstand. Frowning, Carson took the ceremonial Ord braid he'd left under his reading lamp. He turned the herbs between his fingers, crumbled a few leaves and sniffed the brittle stalks.

"Carson?" Laura asked, as he slid to the edge of the bed and swung his legs off the mattress. "What is it?" Carson squished a pine needle between his thumb and forefinger. The sap was still fresh and sticky. Pungent.

To guide his spirit out of the fog.

Could it be that simple?

 

 

14 / ERASE AND REWIND

 

Something smelt good. Spicy and sweet like raisins. The flavour reminded him of the curried chicken surprise they served in Kits. He mistrusted foreign food, but that chicken had been tasty. Supposed to be Hawaiian or Thai or something.

Rodney opened his eyes for a fraction. On his bedstand stood a glass bowl with a wire basket and tea light candle underneath. It looked like one of the aroma lamps his aunt Cecile used to scatter all over her house. Abominable things that had assaulted his child-senses with the reek of violets and patchouli.

Rodney turned his face into the pillow. His cheeks felt flushed with heat. He thought he was sick. He couldn't move a finger and his forehead seemed filled with fog. Once, when he was ten or twelve, he'd got a mean headcold. Tied him to his bed for a week. Boring as hell. Jeannie had been there, insisting to feed him imaginary medicine from a plastic mug. A squeaky-yellow mug. Colour of lemons. Childhood trauma.

Rodney closed his eyes. He drifted in and out of sleep, caught and released errant noises and movements that floated by his bed. Once, he felt the mattress dip and when he looked, someone sat by his hip. For a moment he thought it was his sister and expected to see her curly blond ponytail. The person at his side though was a grown woman, with almond eyes and chestnut hair.

He felt like he knew her. Her fingertips stroked the inside of his lower-arm. He drifted off again.

 

* * *

 

He dreamt of a silent forest. Black spruce and tall pine, twilight colours. Blue mist hung between the trees and elderberries. Rime covered the bark and heather. The air smelt of snow, crushed needles and thin ice on water. Overhead, branches creaked and shirred.

In the midst of a clearing lay a man. The cuffs of his shirt were fringed with ice crystals. Black scratches marred the back of his hand. His eyebrows and stubble were picked with beads of frost. The mouth was pale save for a cut that looked like a dark stitch on his lowerlip. Shadows wavered on his still features and the wind stirred the tips of his hair. As Rodney looked close he could see that the side of his face was already frozen to the ground.

 

* * *

 

Rodney jolted awake with a strangled gasp. For a second, he teetered on the edge of his dream; then the terror dropped and left him shaky with distress. He closed his eyes with a quiet moan. The cotton stuffing of his pillow rustled as he turned his head.

Nightmare. I hate nightmares.

Lifting a hand, he rubbed his forehead. Sweaty. Rodney stiffened. Where was he?

Opening his eyes, he looked at his hand. John's sleeve was gone, replaced by a white bandage. Rodney tucked his chin and looked down his chest, saw the beige scrubs and blanket. Startled, he pushed up to his elbows. A blinking monitor stood next to his bed. The dimmed light of the infirmary barely illuminated the far reaches of the room. The desks were empty. So were the other beds.

Rodney put both his hands over his face. First one memory, then two, then a flood of images pounded by his eyes: A dark mountain range, a stake covered with peat, a twisted body. Bear's massive throat bruised black. The heavy fur coat, rippling as John sunk into it. Rodney flinched and clutched at his blanket. The note! Where was – He whirled around, froze and stared at Carson's worried face. "Carson?"

For a moment, Carson seemed to fall apart at the seams. All colour drained from his face, his hands fell useless to his side and his eyes widened. It was deeply unsettling.

"What happened?" Rodney asked, wary of Carson's reaction.

"You know my name?"

"Of course I do," Rodney returned irritably. "What's going on?"

Carson plain ignored his question. "Thank the Lord," he exclaimed and dropped down into a chair. Rodney had no patience for Carson's antics. He still had trouble catching up with the fact he was no longer off world. He looked down the aisle, saw glass cabinets, russet beams and milky light-panels. This was Atlantis. He had come home.

Reality poured like hot lead into Rodney's stomach. "Why did you bring me here?" he demanded, fumbling for the hem of his blanket.

Carson leaned forward with a frown. "Easy, calm down."

"No, no, no, you don't understand." Rodney struggled out of the sheets, tugged at his IVs and winced. "We have to get back. Sheppard's hurt. I tried to fix him, but he can't move."

Carson caught his arm and plucked his fingers away from the catheter. Rodney hardly noticed. He saw John's face again, white as marble, the frozen leaves that stuck to his cheek. Not a memory. But why did he dream . . .? "It started to snow," he muttered, then louder: "It did, didn't it? God, Carson, how much time did you waste dragging me here?"

"I didn't . . ."

"How many rescue teams are out there? Where are they?" He reached for his ear. "Headset. I need a headset."

"Wait, Rodney, slow down."

"We need a stretcher and someone to carry it. Marines, two teams. No, wait, make that three." He had to get to the control room; they'd already lost precious hours. "Where are my clothes?" he muttered. Swinging his legs off the bed, he sat up and had a bout of vertigo. Carson jumped forward to steady him. Rodney expected him to be halfway out the room by now, but the man hadn't even left his chair.

"Hey!" Rodney snapped. "Are you deaf? Don't just sit there, get Elizabeth!"

"Rodney."

"What?!"

"It's been three weeks."

Rodney opened his mouth, closed it and narrowed his eyes. This was so obviously he didn't know how to react. Three weeks . . . from when? Carson didn't make any sense. Or did he? Rodney pressed the heels of his hands into his thighs. "Nonsense. It didn't take me that long to return to the village."

Carson shook his head. "You didn't reach the village."

"Of course I did. How else could I be here?"

"Lorne's men picked you up when you were unconscious. They carried you out of the forest. You haven't been lucid since."

Rodney stared at him, trying to process the information and failing.

"You've been poisoned, Rodney."

It came back to him. Spotty images of hot coals, a bowl, fume . . . "Smoke," he said slowly. "They made me breathe smoke."

Carson nodded. "I was wondering."

Rodney stared down at his feet. Wrapped, like his hand. As if they returned from a great depth, he heard sounds, a river rolling over stone, gravel cascading down a hillside and his own heavy breathing.

". . . the Ord didn't even know they had the antidote. I guess the herbs' practical use got lost in oral tradition. Once we figured out the compounds, we created a synthetic counter agent . . ."

Memories blew past him like bits of ash. He climbed into the valley after sunset. The muscles in his calves quivered, his knees caved on every other step. He tried to hold on to a shrub, but the brittle twigs cracked and he fell, hitting his hip on a slab of rock. He got up again, burning reserves that no longer existed. He repeated John's name over and over again. Even as the rest slipped away.

"Rodney?"

"Where's Sheppard?" Rodney asked without looking up. "Did they bring him back?" The silence that followed was answer enough.

"Lorne led a rescue mission," Carson said eventually. "The search came up empty." Another pause. "I'm sorry, Rodney."

Carson kept on talking, but his voice faded from Rodney's ears, words dwindling to a senseless murmur.

Three weeks.

 

* * *

 

Tapping a pen against her desk, Elizabeth stared at the latest sanitation report. Try as she might, she couldn't concentrate. No longer tired, she'd moved past exhaustion. This was numbness and she was the better for it. Or that's what she told herself.

The sound of boots on metal shook her from her thoughts. She looked up and saw Rodney crossing the bridge to her office. Elizabeth set down her pen. She wasn't surprised to see him. Actually, she had expected him sooner.

He still walked stiffly. After two weeks in bed, he had yet to recover his strength. He'd lost weight, too, his blue shirt hanging loose around his shoulders and midriff. There was life back in his eyes, though. They sparked with energy and focus every time Elizabeth looked. She couldn't help checking. The memory of his empty stare still haunted her.

"Elizabeth."

"Rodney. Come in, have a seat."

He sat down, picked up a battered paperback and turned it around. "Hakluyt?"

She smiled a little. "It helps me keep things in perspective."

Rodney nodded vaguely and placed the book back on the desk. "I'm here to change your mind," he said.

Don't I know it, she thought. "I already said no."

"We have to send another team."

Elizabeth sighed. "You heard the reports. The others couldn't find so much as a foot print. They didn't even know where to look."

"Yes, but that was before I woke up, wasn't it?"

Despite her better judgement, his self-assurance trapped her. Clasping her hands on the table, Elizabeth leaned forward. "Can you give us directions?"

"Not yet."

Elizabeth sank back in her chair. "Rodney, listen to yourself. Have you any idea how that sounds?"

"I'll remember once I'm back," he insisted. "Look, have I ever been wrong before?"

"Yes."

"Not this time."

Elizabeth withstood the urge to rub her temple. She knew Rodney. Once he made up his mind, no argument would sell him. She wouldn't sway, either, but she'd hate for this to turn into a fight. She'd spare him, if she could. "Listen," she said. "I haven't forgotten how often you saved each others' lives. I know how you feel."

Rodney snorted, eyes flickering to the left. "Really. How do I feel?"

Elizabeth trained her face to a neutral mask. "I want John back as much as you do. But the way things are, we must assume--" She paused and hated herself for the theatricality in that second of heavy silence. "We must assume he didn't survive. You said it yourself, he was hurt and your kidnappers would've looked for him by now. If they didn't kill him, three weeks without food or shelter did."

Rodney crossed his arms. "You don't know that."

"You're right. I don't. And I won't risk more lives . . ."

"He could have made it to the tower," Rodney cut in. "It's what we should have done in the first place."

Elizabeth opened her mouth, then thought better of it. It was pointless. Compassion would get her nowhere with him. He wasn't going to make it easy for her. Well, what did she expect?

"Sheppard's resourceful," Rodney continued. "He's . . . he's military. He's trained to stay alive. He'd wait for us as long as possible."

"Yes," Elizabeth agreed.

"So?"

"It makes no difference."

"Excuse me?"

She didn't say that even John wasn't indestructible. That road only led to irrational disappointment. Instead she explained the one truth Rodney had yet failed to see.

"It's not about him anymore." Nor me, nor you, she added to herself. He knew it; she could see it in his eyes. He just refused to accept it. Rodney could afford loyalty to one man. She couldn't. "Atlantis isn't just John. It's every member of this expedition. I can't put everyone on hold for one person."

Rodney's hands twitched before he moved to hide them under the table. Elizabeth continued, feeling steel creep into her voice. He'd heard it all in the debriefing. She repeated every fact. "The Daedalus has been in orbit to the planet for three days. They couldn't get a lock on John's transmitter. The scans failed to show an outpost. Every search I sent came up empty. Two marines died, one I had to send back to Earth because of her injuries."

She recalled Sergeant Ada Miller's smashed hand, her white face as they carried her through the event horizon. She was shipped out on the same run as Anthony Malcolm's body and Bill Thomas' effects. She'd seen the rest of the marines, grimy, burned out and exhausted. They were hers, too.

Rodney glared at her across the table. Elizabeth met his glare face-on. She splayed her hands on the desk. "There comes a time when you have to cut your losses."

"I see."

She watched his face go white with anger, his mouth crimp into a tight line. No flailing of hands, no string of urgent demands. This was a sort of fury she'd never witnessed in Rodney before. It nearly threw her off balance.

More than anything Elizabeth wanted to pretend it was the situation. But for the time being, Rodney's hostility was aimed at her. Elizabeth felt a pang of regret. Had she hoped they would comfort each other? No, she knew better. If she now felt like Rodney had let her down, it was her own weakness.

Rodney sat up straight, all tension and scorn. "I'll go by myself, then."

Elizabeth groaned before she could stop herself. "No!"

Rodney leaned forward and gripped the edge of the desk. "So John's expendable, but I'm not?"

Elizabeth wanted to yell. You don't get it. He had not seen the MIA report Caldwell had pressed into her hands. Signing that paper had been harder than anything she'd ever done. She had pushed it off, stared at it until her eyes stung, chewed her thumbnail until it tore. Rodney knew none of this. She would not debase herself by explaining.

"Everyone can be replaced," she said, fully aware how it would strike him. "But your knowledge and expertise are too valuable to be wasted."

Not long ago, Rodney would have agreed. He had changed, though. He of all people had become part of a group. It wasn't lost on Elizabeth how her flagship team formed a special union. She'd watched them bond, sometimes envious of their friendship but knowing she had to set herself apart. No matter how much she cared for them, there was an ultimate line she never crossed. She could handle the isolation. The mission, this place, her people were worth it. She had her little moments of personal contact and those sufficed. If it wasn't fulfilment, it was something close. She'd been content. Now without John . . .

She couldn't make him family. Not in any way that showed on the outside.

Breaking apart is not an option. That's what they say in the fine print. That's what you signed.

She looked away from Rodney who radiated accusation; she didn't expect him to thank her for this. But he needed to understand, for his sake as well as her own. She couldn't lose him, too.

"Not every problem has a solution," she said sadly. She lifted her head, sought some familiarity in his hard gaze. "You always found it hard to accept the things we can't change."

"Not like you," he agreed flatly. "You know how to back down."

The insult was deliberate and meant to hurt. It hit her badly and she snapped. "Do you think this is easy for me?" Elizabeth hissed. "Do you think--" She broke off, took a breath. "I hate this more than you know. But I'm the one who has to decide what's best for the project."

"As long as you can sleep."

Fuck you, McKay. It was on her lips. It frightened her how close she came to saying it. Elizabeth gritted her teeth and slid her arms from the desk. Put as much distance between them as possible. It was getting out of hand. Too many emotions threatened her control. Suddenly she wanted Rodney gone, out of her face. He stripped her defences and she could hate him for it.

He'd suffered a loss. But so had she.

"I have responsibilities. So have you," she said, voice professional again. "You made a commitment, Rodney. It's time you stood up to it."

He didn't even wait for her to finish. In the midst of her sentence, Rodney pushed back his chair and walked out. Stunned, Elizabeth watched him leave.

As he disappeared behind the control room, Elizabeth put her head in her hands.

 

* * *

 

He could've screamed with the trapped fury. Instead Rodney pulled piles of paper from his desk and flung them on the bed. Theorems and equations scattered on the coverlet. He had burned to meet whoever had 'cleaned up' his room, and would still be happy to slap his messed notes around the idiot's head. A mere three weeks and they stored away what traces were left of your life. Good to know.

It still felt like he'd woken on the wrong side of the rabbit hole. For one thing, Rodney just couldn't accept that all the ends had been tied up in his mental absence. He was used to having a say in important decisions and usually the others waited for his input. Only this time they hadn't. And the results spoke for themselves.

Rodney rooted through his notes. The pages were unnumbered; he had a special piling method that helped him structure his solutions. It would take him days, weeks to reconstruct the system. "Waste of time," he murmured. "Waste, waste, waste of time."

Dropping notes on the floor, Rodney looked sidelong at the windows. Outside, the sea and sky had darkened. Lights of another tower glowed behind Rodney's balcony and mingled with the room's pale reflection.

I'll be as quick as I can.

I know.

"Bastard," Rodney whispered. He tried to focus on the document in his hands, but the image he kept seeing was John, holding up the slip of paper without blinking. The memory stood out clear and hard, a steady replay of the same scene. Go home. Rodney wished fiercely he could return to that moment. If he could turn back time, he'd use the chance to shove the note down Sheppard's throat.

The jingle of the door's sensor made him flinch. Spinning around, Rodney shouted: "What now?" He crossed the room in a few strides, opened the door and stared at Teyla's serious face. Ronon loomed in the shadows behind her.

Rodney's first impulse was to shut the door but when he hesitated the chance was gone.

"Can we come in?" Teyla asked.

"Why ever not?" Rodney snapped, too baffled to fend them off. He hadn't really talked to either Ronon or Teyla since he'd recovered. Now was the worst possible time to change that. It was too late to send them away, though. Teyla already limped into the room ahead of him. Her clumsy gait quashed Rodney's anger into a dull throb. He pulled up a chair, metal feet screeching on the floor. "Here."

Teyla sat down without comment. Ronon went to lean against the desk. Rodney waited for them to speak, realised they wouldn't and marched over to his bed. After a second's hesitation, he dropped his papers and perched on the edge of his mattress.

Teyla didn't meet his eye while Ronon watched him with an unreadable expression. As the minutes passed, Rodney's anger deflated.

In a perfect world they would comfort each other, share the load, make cocoa or something. Rodney couldn't pull it off. He hadn't the first clue how to deal with the situation. Considering the others' inaction neither had they.

John's absence was a gap between them. Without him, Rodney's connection to his team frayed. He didn't know how to talk to them and their silence made him nervous. If only they would leave him alone. Rodney didn't want to be burdened with their worries, not when he needed every bit of energy to nurture his resentment. But here they were: Teyla, staring at her knees. Ronon, dragging a thumb along the table's edge.

"I'm fine," Rodney blurted at last. "Fixed. Sane. Good as new." He paused, flapped a hand in growing embarrassment. "Are . . . are you? I mean, are you, ah, okay?"

At this, Teyla folded her hands in her lap. "We are also fine," she answered quietly.

"That looks painful," Rodney said with a small nod at her cast. For a moment, Teyla looked like she wanted to hide her lame leg. Then she lifted her chin and squared her shoulders in one small, graceful move. She'd never been so formal since her first year on the team.

"It is a minor injury," she said.

Rodney struggled for a sensible answer. "You're lucky it was treated in time. Joint fractures are no laughing matter."

"Dr. Beckett says I will have no trouble once it is healed."

"Good. That's good."

He didn't know where to look. It wasn't like he hadn't met Teyla and Ronon since he'd left the infirmary. They'd been at the debriefing. Their story filled the gaps of his report. Back then, the relief of seeing them alive was railroaded by the chaos in his head. Now Rodney was ashamed that he'd paid their safety so little mind.

"You spoke to Dr. Weir," Teyla said.

"If you could call it that," Rodney replied sourly.

"Did she change her mind about mounting another rescue operation?"

Hearing the hope in her voice, Rodney's heart sank. "No."

"I see."

"I could go back," Ronon suggested. "Might have more luck on my own."

"Forget it," Rodney said. "Elizabeth won't let anyone within ten yards of that planet."

Rodney recalled their confrontation with a tinge of irritation. Of course he saw Elizabeth's point; he wasn't stupid. He simply didn't share herdefinition of inevitable. She didn't come up to his expectations. Rodney wouldn't waste any more time convincing her.

"We made a mistake," Teyla said quietly. "We should not have returned to the village."

"It was the right decision," Ronon rumbled from the side.

"There were other options," Teyla returned. She didn't even look at Ronon. Rodney stared from one to the other, surprised. He re-assessed the rigid set of Teyla's face and the way she sat so very straight in her chair. Slowly it dawned on him that she was angry. At Ronon? But why would she be?

If possible, Ronon spoke even slower than usual. "You were hurt."

"I could have handled myself," Teyla said in a flat voice.

Suddenly put on the sideline, Rodney kept his mouth clamped shut. The more he heard, the more he was convinced he witnessed the echo of another quarrel.

Ronon folded his arms in front of his chest. "I'd've gone after them," he said, "and you'd been defenceless."

"It was an acceptable risk."

"Not for me."

"Obviously."

At this, an icy quiet fell between them. Eventually, Ronon pushed free off the desk and stalked out of the room. As the door slid shut behind him, Teyla's shoulders slumped. An expression of weariness crossed her face just before she lowered her head. Rodney watched helplessly. He had half a notion what was troubling her but surely he was the last person to ease her mind. What did he know of consolation?

"You should go after him," he suggested at last. Reluctant to make this any more awkward than it already was, he forced himself to reach for her. He had intended only to pat Teyla's knee, but when he touched her, her hand moved to cover his. Startled, Rodney held still. He tried to close himself off to her sorrow, but suddenly it didn't seem fair. As much as he wanted to move on, Teyla deserved this moment. He remembered her sitting at his bedside. She'd held his hand while he recovered and hers had been the first face he'd recognised.

"It seems so wrong," she whispered. "That we should have left him out there."

"I didn't leave him." The words were out before he could stop them. "He tricked me."

This time, the pulse of anger couldn't quite cover his disappointment. Neither Elizabeth's stubbornness nor the weeks he'd lost got to him half as much. It was the lie that hurt the most.

Come on, let me do this.

To think he'd been grateful for John's help. Relieved.

"Rodney?"

"I'm fine. Go, look after Ronon."

He pulled back his hand and after a while Teyla stood. After she'd left, Rodney bent to pick up his notes and made another effort to sort out the chaos.

 

* * *

 

"I want to take your place."

"I'm sorry?" Radek looked up from his laptop, wispy hair slipping into his face.

Rodney crossed his arms. "On your offworld assignment. I want to take your place."

Radek stared at him. "Why?"

"Suddenly we need reasons?" Rodney bristled. "How many times have I stood in for you because you, oh, let me see, had a bad feeling? And let's not forget that very convenient stomach flu."

Radek, unimpressed, clutched his elbows and waited. Eventually, it was Rodney who gave in. "I want to get out, that's why," he grumbled. "I'm sick of people hovering at my elbow, treating me like I'm made of glass."

Radek shoved the hair away from his forehead. "They're concerned, is all."

"Hm, yes. If I get one more look of heartfelt pity, I think I'll blow up the planet."

Radek stared at him, tell-tale lights of the screen flickering on his glasses. Rodney arched his brow. "I'm joking."

Radek relaxed visibly, but even so, he didn't look convinced.

Rodney sighed. "Look," he said. "I've been penned up inside for days . . . weeks, if we count the time I was in vegetable-land. I had enough sessions with Goldilocks the Shrink to last two lifetimes." God, had he ever. Anger is a natural reaction to loss. How insightful. He never told her that he embraced the anger because the alternative scared him. He hated the quiet of his rooms while the buzz of people in his lab drove him up the walls. Over night, it seemed, Atlantis had become a foreign place, an enclosure. In the evenings, he stared at his ceiling and couldn't shake the feeling of wrong. He had trouble sleeping. He kept expecting John to seek him out like he used to.

"I can't be stuck here, I . . ." Rodney licked his lips. "I need to do something."

The look of understanding that crossed Radek's face left a sour taste in Rodney's mouth. He didn't plan for this to morph into some embarrassing heart-to-heart. It was the last thing he needed now or ever. He realised he was fidgeting with his jacket's cuff and stopped abruptly.

At last Radek tilted his head. "Are you familiar with the water recycling system on Mydera?"

"Of course I am. I helped you design it."

"Well, I made some adjustments . . ."

Rodney lifted a corner of his mouth, couldn't help it. "I'm sure I'll figure it out."

Radek levelled a gaze at Rodney. "You'll need to recalibrate the tanks for the spring's flooding."

"Yes, yes, I read the objective." Rodney flapped his hand. "I know what to do."

Radek took off his glasses, hesitated. "Are you sure you're up to this?"

"Everyone keeps asking. Yes, I am sure." He leant forward and steepled his fingers on the desk. "I know my tables from eleven to twenty, I remember my first grade teacher and favourite soda flavour. You want to put me through an IQ test first?"

Radek held up his hands in defence. "All right, all right." He put his glasses back on and leaned back in his chair. "Should I inform Dr. Weir of the change?"

"I can do that," Rodney said.

"What about Carson, has he--"

"Given me a clean bill of health. Come on, what are you, my nurse?" Rodney forced a smile on his face. "It's just a couple of hours, Radek," he said and hoped he didn't blush. "I'll be back so fast, you won't even miss me."

Radek gave a wry smile. "Hardly." He sighed. "I'll leave my blueprints on your desk."

"Thank you," Rodney said, tone lofty but he did mean it. He was grateful. Rodney stared first at Radek, then his own fingernails.

"Is there anything else you wanted?" Radek asked.

Rodney pulled his hands off the table. "Uhm, no, actually."

"Let me work, then?"

"Sure." Rodney picked up his empty coffee mug and walked out of the lab.

 

* * *

 

He forced himself to sleep. Swallowed a sleeping pill and downed a glass of water. He would need every hour of rest. Even so, he was up and dressed shortly after dawn.

Rodney pulled the closely written pages from beneath his bed. Once more he inspected his own scrawl, the shorthand intermixed with artless sketches. It was a map, of sorts. Everything he remembered – bends in the path, a cluster of trees, ridges of stone like headlands inside the forest. It had to be enough. Rodney folded the pages and put them into his backpack. A windbreaker was already rolled into a bundle at the bottom of the rucksack. In a last minute insight, he'd replaced his laptop with an extra medkit. The bulk of his pack wouldn't attract attention; people expected him to carry half his lab into missions.

Rodney opened wide the windows. There'd been a thunderstorm in the night and the rain-washed air cooled the room right down. Rodney pulled the mission jacket over his fleece shirt. He'd be sweltering before long, but that couldn't be helped.

Raindrops on the window speckled his hands with shadows. No more bandage; the scratches had healed.

 

* * *

 

By the time the engineering squad was scheduled to dial out, Elizabeth was locked in video conference, discussing candidates for the new commanding military officer. Rodney wagered Caldwell stood on top of a very short list. Right now, it was the least of his concerns.

There was a small arms depot next to the gateroom, supplied with just about everything a team might need. When Rodney entered, Lorne and his men were already there, gearing up.

"Doc," Lorne drawled.

"Major," Rodney returned.

"Zelenka's not coming?"

"As you can see."

He was prepared for more questions along the 'sure you can do this' line, but to his relief, Lorne didn't ask. Rodney avoided eye-contact and walked over to the crates, where he picked up two magazines for his side-arm, then one more for good measure.

He didn't much care for changes in his personality. Least of all changes he didn't approve of. Ever since this second detox, he was wary of people coming too close. Movement behind his back made him twitchy. Two days ago, he nearly punched a lab assistant who tapped him on the shoulder. The gun didn't make him feel safer, on the contrary. But considering where he was about to go, the weapon did give a sense of gratification.

Jaw clenched, Rodney turned around. To his surprise, he saw Lorne stuff a couple of grenades into his backpack.

"A lot of artillery for a milk run," Rodney remarked.

Lorne shrugged. "You never know."

"You're escorting plumbers."

"That we do."

Rodney decided not to push. The less conversation he had with the man, the better. He had no illusions about his own acting abilities. It was a miracle Radek hadn't smelt a rat.

Rodney left the depot, rounded a corner and walked straight into Teyla and Ronon. By the looks on their faces, he knew at once they'd been waiting for him. Rodney clutched the strap of his backpack. Wonderful. Just wonderful. The three of them stood just outside the amber light that spilled down from the gateroom. Rodney was grateful for the shadows, because he felt the heat on his cheeks. John once told him he couldn't lie to save his ass. He'd better be wrong.

"Who told you I was going?" Rodney asked at last.

"Dr. Zelenka," Teyla answered.

"Did he?" Rodney bit his tongue to keep back a flood of expletives. He would drown Radek in his own coffee mug. Unreliable little gossip. Before anything could slip out in spite of Rodney's clenched teeth, Lorne came out of the depot and walked past them with a nod. His men followed.

"Listen, I appreciate your concern," Rodney said once the marines were out of earshot. "But I am – again – an above-average intelligent adult who can leave the house whenever he wants."

Teyla held up a hand. "We are not here to hold you back."

Rodney blinked. "Oh. That's good... I guess." Or maybe not, he thought, suspicious of Teyla's resolved face.

"Ronon will go with you," Teyla declared, confirming his suspicions. Rodney looked at Ronon who wore, in fact, his travel coat. He also had his dreads tied back and his gun strapped to his belt. All set to go, it seemed. Rodney swallowed a few more curses. What was it with people these days? And was he suddenly wearing a 'Coddle Me' sign on his back?

Rodney cast a look over his shoulder, caught a glimpse of the gate. He needed to be off. Before Elizabeth finished her meeting. He couldn't waste time arguing with his team mates. But if Ronon tagged along, splitting off on Mydera would be virtually impossible.

So simple. Leave the pipelines, re-route to the stargate, dial, go. It should have worked like a charm. Rodney looked from Teyla to Ronon, exasperated.

"What is this?" he demanded. "A conspiracy to break my nerve? Did Carson spread out his mother-hen gene? I'm fine. I can walk, I don't drool, I don't need a babysitter."

"McKay." This from Ronon.

"What?"

"Shut up."

Rodney sucked at his teeth in confusion and stared. Teyla stepped forward and grasped his elbows. With a patience that floored him, she lowered her head, waiting. Caught off guard, Rodney leaned forward, hesitated before finally touching his forehead against hers.

"I would go," she said, words barely above a whisper. "If not for my leg, I would go."

Rodney tried to say something but didn't find his voice. Teyla's breathing was even, woven into the warmth that radiated from her skin. When she moved away, she took Rodney's hands and brushed her thumbs over his knuckles. "Be safe."

She turned and, with an air of determination, repeated the gesture with Ronon. At first, Ronon stood tense and guarded. Then he closed his eyes and placed his hands on Teyla's shoulders. She barely reached to his chin, Rodney reflected. Watching them, something twisted painfully inside him. He didn't know whether it was relief or sadness or fear. Maybe it was everything. More than ever, he was aware of who was missing.

Rodney shared a final glance with Teyla. He nodded, hoped she understood the promise he couldn't give out loud. There was a knot in his stomach that wouldn't untie.

We might still be too late.

What else could they do but try.

Rodney turned away and shouldered his pack. As he climbed the few steps to the dais, Ronon joined him. In front of the gate, Lorne acknowledged them with a tip of his head. He didn't seem the least surprised to see Ronon. Rodney recalled the explosives in the major's backpack and wondered.

"You all set?" Lorne asked.

Rodney cleared his throat. "Yes."

"Good." A grin, so subtle it was barely there. One hand resting on his P90, Lorne gave the sign to dial.

 

Chapter Text

RIVER OF GLASS / LABYRINTH

_______________________________

 

 

To bury the pain so deep you needn't feel it.
To walk over the graves and never look down.

Ursula K. LeGuin

 

15 / QUIET LITTLE PLACE

 

Snow, tumbling from a black sky.

Breath-sounds, followed by a grunt. The crunch of gravel.

Nothing for a while, no sensation, floating in grey space. Then warmth, whispers, darkness.

Sleep.

 

* * *

 

Something brushed his forehead, waking him. Opening his eyes a fracture, John saw a face swimming into focus. Brown eyes. Pursed lips, blowing air against the bridge of his nose. John blinked.

Seeing he was awake, Edie sat up and braced both hands on her thighs. "Rise and shine, buddy," she said. "Time to hit the road." Smiling, she left the bedside.

John turned on his side. Light fanned through the French windows. From the marketplace, John could hear traffic noise, someone trying to start a truck, the off an on clatter of mopeds. He turned on his back again, scratching his chest. Up on the ceiling, shadows of palm leaves quivered around the defective fan. Like the rest of the pension, the room smelled of green bananas and bugspray.

At the foot of the bed, Edie continued packing. The lenses of her camera stood on a table and she picked them up one by one, stowing them in a padded bag. John's backpack waited ready against the wall. Not much time until they were off. Pushing back the thin blanket, John rolled out of bed and at the same time looked at his ten year old self, putting bare feet on the floor.

His vision doubling for a dizzying second, John stumbled back. The world around him seemed to expand and shrink until finally he found himself in the corner next to the door. At the other side of the room, the boy that was – had been him - pulled on his trainers.

Had he really been that skinny?

John felt his mouth go dry. Meeting this incarnation of his past was downright bizarre. He didn't have any pictures of himself as a kid. In fact, he hadn't kept any snapshots – not of his childhood or his college friends. Not of his mother. When he forgot how she looked and needed Polaroids to remind him, he threw away the pictures to make a clean cut.

Long after her face had faded, Edie's scent had disappeared. At the moment, John did not only recall her perfume, he smelled it again: A mixture of sun lotion and Dove soap, a trace of sweat mingling with road dust. Her hair had always been tied in one way or other. At present it was fixed in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a yellow t-shirt, bought in Bangkok, on the floating market. Jesus. How could he remember that?

As if one random memory flash wasn't enough, John suddenly recalled a photograph in his father's house that showed Edie in the very same shirt. John had been in the picture, too, leaning against her knees while she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. God only knew where that picture had ended up. Perhaps Carol took it. And how long since he had thought of his mother's best friend? Twenty years at least.

John swallowed. Detail after detail floated up, long dead moments lighting up like neon signs in a dark alley. Backing up against the wall, John felt rough plaster under his palms. The fact he could feel this jarred him badly. This was crazy. John watched the kid version of himself go past, scratching a bug bite under his t-shirt. Before John could even think of saying anything, the boy opened the door and slipped outside.

The door didn't close. Moving his hand to the doorframe, John felt a breeze against his fingertips. Gooseflesh trickled up his elbow. Should he go after the kid? Should he move at all? John dug his fingernail into the splintery doorframe, bits of wood pricking his skin. This couldn't be real.

Between him and the window, Edie closed her bag. John watched the glint of morning sunlight on her hair and the long, narrow hands fastening the bag's straps. There was a quiet efficiency to her moves, a calm that flowed out to everything around her. She snapped the last clasp shut before gathering her notebooks from the table.

John reached for the doorknob, fingers closing around flaking enamel. Pushing free of the wall, he turned and stepped out into a bright corridor.

As soon as he crossed the threshold, John knew he was no longer inside an Indian hotel. Not only had the bedroom's warmth dissolved into air-conditioned chill. Everything from floor to ceiling was now white, except for a green stripe running along the wall.

To his left, John located his kid-self. Sitting in a plastic chair, he no longer wore pyjamas. Instead he was in trousers and shirt, Sunday clothes. A woman sat next to him, wild curls pulled back with a necktie. Carol. She looked like she always had -- bright red blouse, long brown skirt and rows of wooden beads around her neck. She had brought a paperback, but didn't read. A paper cup stood on the table next to her, the kid held another cup in his hands. Mouth clamped into a white line, he stared at his knees.

John made no effort to talk to either one of them. His curiosity had vanished, likewise his confusion. He knew this scene all too well. Knew where it led, too. He watched the boy, caught somewhere between anger and a rising tide of numbness. Down the hall and around a corner, a closed glass door waited. Thinking of it, John's stomach tightened.

Over the years he had forgotten the reality of this place: the smell of ammonia and disinfectant, the bright green exit sign, the squeaking noise of trainers walking across linoleum floors. The way he had felt sitting there came back to life inside him, too. Clenched. Bowed. Waiting. A bitter stone in his stomach.

John dragged a hand across his mouth, turning away. It wasn't right. This day belonged into his past, a past he had dealt with. Too much distance lay between who he was now and the boy he was then. He was still trying to stem the memories, when a black flutter caught his attention. The moment he looked up, he knew he'd lost it.

A blackbird approached Carol and hopped onto the table with a shake of wings. It started to peck at the empty paper cup.

John frowned. Watching the bird, he felt a sudden unpleasant pulse in his knee. Reaching down, he tried to feel for the sore spot. In the meantime, another bird joined the first, barging in with a clumsy bounce and head-butting the cup.

How the hell . . . why . . .

Birds?

John stared as the cup dropped off the table and rolled against the tip of Carol's shoe. Carol didn't seem to mind, in fact, she didn't even notice. This finally convinced John he was dreaming. Of course he was dreaming. Forget the metallic taste in his mouth or the air on his damp nape. This had to be a dream. John tried to cling to that truth, but the birds' flutter kept distracting him. Straightening up, he turned to look down the corridor.

For the first time he saw the hospital hall ended in a stained glass window. Not a church rosette, but something else altogether. The frame was narrow and jagged; squares of blues formed rectangular patterns. To complete his confusion, John spotted a tall figure, backlit by the glow of the window. Squinting, he recognised a woman dressed all in white. Her shapeless robe reached to the ground and her grey hair fell to her hips. At least a dozen blackbirds clustered around her feet.

A shiver skittered down John's spine. He didn't know why, but seeing this woman made his skin crawl. Something in the way she stood, something in her dress... John couldn't say for sure, but it seemed like she was looking straight at him. Transfixed, he took a step in her direction. The birds at the woman's feet froze. The next second, one of them took off the ground.

Wings spread, the bird shot down the hall, darting for John like an arrow. It came on so fast John barely had time to whip around and out of its way. Twisting, he caught his weight on one leg and cried out in surprise. White pain exploded in his knee, filled his head and knocked him off balance. The clap of wings rushed in his ears. Falling, John sucked in his breath, reared up ---

--- and screamed. Hot air rolled over him, brought the reek of burning herbs and sweat. The corridor was gone, replaced by a blurred ceiling. Dazed, John dropped down and clenched his eyes shut. His whole leg felt like it was on fire, a throbbing mass of infection and muscle. Something heavy seemed to press down on it, crushing his swollen flesh. Spasms from his thigh spider-webbed along his hip and into the small of his back. The heat was excruciating.

Clenching his teeth, John fought the moan rising in his throat, but the sound wrenched free anyway, hoarse and breathless. Gasping for air, John opened wide his eyes.

A flickering, brownish light glowed all around. Shadows quivered on high walls. Someone looked down at him, another woman, a stranger. Oval eyes and a pointed chin dominated her long pale face. She watched him with a frown. Cold fingertips stroked John's brow and he jerked away from the touch. Sweat ran into his eyes, his chest jumped with every breath.

"Hush," the woman said, or seemed to say. "Hush, now."

As her voice drifted to his ears, the pain ebbed away from John's body. For a moment he thought he would be sick, but the impulse disappeared quickly. The woman's face blurred again, it was getting harder to hang on.

Rise and shine, buddy.

John didn't feel his eyes closing, but everything went black anyway. His body seemed heavy and out of strength: A lifeless heap of limbs, not of his concern. Oblivion rose to swallow him. He didn't fight it.

"Hush."

Time to hit the road.

 

 

16 / THE ORCHARD

 

HALF asleep, John turned over on his side and felt the touch of sleek hair against his cheek. A second ticked by before he woke with a sharp intake of breath. Another second and he wished he'd held that breath. Not only was his nose filled with the smell of old skin, his face was also pressed into what felt like a dead animal. A few stray hairs had found their way into John's mouth. Lifting his head he realised he hadn't slept on a pillow, but a roll of fur.

That was different.

John pushed up on his elbows, touched the shirt that covered his chest. Linen. Not what he remembered wearing. With a frown, John lifted the furs and quilts that half buried him.

When he looked around, he didn't recognise the room. High, with convex walls on the window side, the place resembled the inside of a chapel. To John's left, a huge pillar connected floor to ceiling. The room was awash with light, tinted blue by stained glass. Windows were set high, with a narrow landing underneath. John's pallet was raised, too, with broad steps leading down to floor level.

At the foot of the platform, someone had set out dinner. Glazed earthenware bowls, all arranged on a wooden tray. There even was a napkin.

At the sight of the food, John's stomach churned. He hesitated, then slid down from the pallet and knelt in front of the tray. The cooking wasn't great – bread, a beet soup of some sort, sour winterberries and lukewarm tea. To John, famished as he was, nothing had ever tasted better. Not bothering with a spoon, he drank the soup from its bowl.

Chewing berries, John gave the room another survey. The place was Ancient architecture, all right. John recognised the angular shape of the friezes and traceried windows. In addition, the bulging outer wall gave the room a bow shape. This as much as anything else proved what John had suspected all along. He was inside the Ancient tower on P5K-727.

John finished the tea and got to his feet. Taking the last of the bread with him, he climbed the landing under the windows. The glass fogged as soon as he breathed on it. John cleared a spot with the heel of his hand and peered outside.

If he squinted down, he could just see the stretch of rock that led from the foothills to the canyon. Searching the distance, John scanned the sea of black pines. The sky was dim, almost white, melting into a strip of pink at the horizon. It had to be evening, or at least late afternoon.

Sucking breadcrumbs from his fingertips, John jumped down from the plinth. He landed easily; his muscles didn't seize, his knees didn't bother him. He felt as healthy as can be, which was, of course, absurd.

When John had passed out on the plain he had expected to go down for good. The cold had filled him inside out; his breath had been like ice water in his throat. The knife wound had shredded his side into waves of pain. It got so bad that he had hoped he would die. What happened was he woke up here, unscathed and energised. In fact, he hadn't felt that rested in a long time.

John touched his knee, feeling the sound bone with disbelief. He recalled the sound of Badger's boot stomping on his leg and winced. Even now, the memory of his own bones cracking made him sick. The crushed knee had swollen fast into a throbbing mess. The slightest touch, the slightest move had been hell. And now? John bent his knee, tried putting his weight on one leg. Everything seemed just fine. John slid one hand under his shirt and felt his side. Nothing. No sign of the knife wound, not even scar tissue.

Clutching a fold of the shirt, John squeezed his eyes shut. Opening his eyes, he located the room's exit. Seeing the door was open, he didn't think twice. Explanations could wait; for now he'd take his fully functioning legs and use them.

John hunted around the room until he found his boots. No trace of his other clothes. What was it with people in these parts? Did they get off on stealing microfleece? At least they'd left him his socks. Then again, no-one in their right mind would want to steal them.

At least we had clean clothes in the jumper. I doubt we'll get any fresh socks out here and mine are soaked.

Rodney's voice started up in the back-reaches of John's head without warning. Bits of conversation drifted up along with the smell of rain and flickering glimpses of Rodney's tired face. John squashed all of it down; no distractions, he told himself.

Lacing his boots, John scanned the room for anything he could use as a weapon, but found nothing. Unless he wanted to dismantle one of the braziers, he would have to go weaponless.

Rolling up the too-long sleeves of his shirt, John moved to the doorway. He had no idea who had brought him here or why. Could be someone had meant to help him. Could be he was set up for another kill-him-dead surprise. Whatever the case, he wouldn't stick around to find out.

 

* * *

 

The spire turned out to be a warren of stairs and passages with many deserted rooms to the side. Two levels down, there were no more windows and the only light-source came from square panels in the wall. As a good many of those were broken, the illumination was murky at best. It was freezing, too.

A long time and countless stairs later, John reached the tower's ground floor and ended up in a lobby. Light streamed in from a wide-open gate at the end of the hall. As far as John could see, there was nothing between him and the exit. No guards at all.

This was way too easy.

John walked toward the exit, back stiffening. He expected someone or something to jump out at him, but nothing happened. The gateway was empty, inviting him to step outside. A year or two ago, he would have just walked on through. Now he slowed down, noticing that there was no draught, despite the open door.

Digging into his trousers' pockets, John found a leftover acorn and snapped it off his thumb. The nut hit the air inside the door and froze inside the blue ripple of a force field. With an audible click, the failed experiment dropped on the floor this side of the threshold. Just like he'd thought. John stared at the door, hesitated. Force fields had different power degrees. You never knew, maybe...

As he touched his finger to the barrier, the electric shock hit him like a fist in the shoulder and rattled every bone in his back.

"Dammit!"

John shook his hand before cradling his numb wrist. Wonderful. Now what?

While the pins and needles in his arm subsided, John stepped closer and inspected the doorframe. Without tools, he couldn't pry off the panelling. Not that it mattered much. Even if he reached the wire-works, he had no idea which of the wires to cut or tweak or whatnot. Lock picking was Rodney's department and if things were right, he'd be here to do the job. Strike that. If things were right they'd both be home, kicking back on a couch. Sharing an after-mission beer.

"Tell you what, buddy," John said. "The universe hates us."

 

* * *

 

After he had searched the ground floor and found nothing but sealed doors and empty hallways, John gave up. He was stuck, period. The only choice he had left was to return to his room, which was easier said than done. Every hallway looked the same, stairs that should turn left, turned right. Once John reached the fifth floor, he had to admit he was lost.

He was considering turning back when he came upon a staircase that twisted up in a spiral. A dozen steps up, John glimpsed a ray of light spilling down from behind the bend. Intrigued, he moved on up. At its top, the stairwell opened on a long walk much like a colonnade. For once, the passage was bright and open, thanks to a row of windows, most of them smashed.

An icy wind whistled through the empty embrasures. Wrapping his arms around his torso, John stepped closer to the ruined windows. Looking out, he once more saw the endless foothills they had crossed... the other day? The other week? He had no idea how long he'd been out. Not long, or else a search party would have come for him by now. Unless, of course, they assumed what-- by rights-- should have happened.

John rubbed his side where the knife wound had been and thought of Elizabeth. He knew she had to decide at some point. What kind of action she would or wouldn't take, he didn't want to speculate.

John stared down the colonnade. He was about to return to the staircase, when something else caught his eye.

There was another flight of stairs at the end of the walk and a bar of light spilled from the open door on top. John stopped. If he strained his ears, he could just hear a soft chime drifting down the colonnade. Quietly he crossed the hall and sneaked up to the door. From the threshold, he looked in on a round chamber, wide and airy and aglow with a sparkling cascade that hung from the domed ceiling.

The sight was unlike anything John had ever seen. Hundreds of blue and golden shards turned on long, wafer-thin strings. A breeze stirred the glass into a tinkle, sweeping through the curtains like wind in the rye. Sunlight glinted off the broken edges. Coloured prisms flickered all over the floor and walls. Fascinated, John watched the moving canopy of glass. It took him some time to realise he wasn't alone.

At the back of the room, a crescent dais led to a large window. This one was intact, all intricate glasswork and iron lattice. One wing was pushed open, showing a stretch of salmon sky.

A woman stood on top of the dais, her profile illuminated by the evening's glow. She wore a shapeless robe and a brown shawl wrapped around her shoulders. As if things weren't weird enough, a flock of black birds clustered around the seam of her robe. She fed them from her palm, flicking grains to the floor.

Lingering on the threshold, John had the oddest sense of déjà vu. He'd seen this before, the exact same scene, only the woman had been different. This one had dark hair, some of it pulled back in a loose tail. The woman in his dream... she'd been old, hadn't she? John frowned. His dream. He'd forgotten all about it. Even now, he could only dig up fractured images, no more than echoes in his head. For some reason, he had the scent of Dove soap in his nose.

He still tried to make sense of it all when someone seized his shoulder. Startled, John turned and looked at a face printed with tattoos, eyes dark with hatred. The moment John thought to flinch back, Jorun Avatar pushed him down the stairs.

Taken by surprise, John missed his footing and tripped into thin air. Even as he fell, he raised his arms and managed to turn. As a result, he hit the foot of the staircase, flank first. Pain exploded in his ribs. Trying to get his legs under him, John rolled onto his stomach with a groan. He'd barely moved before Jorun grabbed his collar and smashed his head into the nearest wall. Dazed, John dropped forward, falling on his face. The Avatar jumped on his back, one knee trapping John's arm. He twisted a hand into John's hair and forced his head off the floor.

Pressing a knife under John's chin, he hissed curses that sounded like Ancient. His voice was harsh and clipped, no hint of amusement or superiority this time. He bent close, hot breath dampening the side of John's throat. John twisted, but the knee on his arm only ground in harder, crushing his biceps.

"Murdering bastard."

"Jorun." A new voice joined them, soft, but close. John strained against the Avatar even as he saw someone crouch down next to him. John caught a glimpse of a linen robe with threadbare embroidery. He looked up as best as he could.

It was the woman from the dais. Up close, she looked no more than a girl, tall perhaps, but with a bland and ageless face. One slim hand slipped out from the hem of her shawl as she reached out.

Instinctively, John flinched back. She hesitated, but what was more, Jorun seemed to back off as well. John felt the pressure of the blade ease until it vanished altogether. As the girl lifted her head, Jorun moved off John's back and retreated. At once, John rolled onto his side so he had the wall in his back. He tried to push up, but his arm wouldn't support him. He settled for a half-crouch and clenched his fist.

The girl sat down, wrapping an arm around her bent legs. Breathing heavily, John turned to watch the Avatar. Jorun glared back at him, face twisted with anger. He still clutched the knife in a white-knuckled grip, but something seemed to hold him back. John pulled up his knee, struggling against the pain that weighed his body down.

Come on. Get up.

A dull prod kept stabbing under his ribs and into his torso. The side of his face began to throb. Still Jorun didn't move.

"You are in pain." It was the girl speaking. John tried to keep his eyes on the Avatar, but her closeness distracted him. She talked slowly, as if she had to pick the words one by one. Once again, she reached for John and this time, her fingertips touched his forehead. Trying to evade her, he bumped his head against the wall. The girl stroked her thumb over his brow and moved her hand to cradle the side of his face. She had soft skin, dry but smooth. Holding his head with both hands, she guided him until he lay on the floor. Every muscle in his body seemed to go lax. The girl went on to caress his cheekbone, his temple and all the places that had collided with the wall. Her touch was steady, calming.

John closed his eyes, his breathing evened out. He was sinking or floating, or something in between. Off in the distance he heard a rustle, a silvery sound, like shreds of paper snapping in the wind. Something else, too: The rush of a creek running over a rock-bed. He smelled wood smoke.

This was familiar. It reminded him of fishing and how he never saw the attraction. When he consented to fly-fishing weekends, it was to do the Colonel a favour. Despite the willpower it took to go on those trips, John had to admit that it was only at those times he felt some sort of kinship with the old man. Life was funny that way.

Mud, silt and leaves between rocks. A blur of red and white, a checked-shirt between bare branches. The quiet of the mountains. Clouds like watercolour strokes.

John opened his eyes and saw the flicker of yellow leaves against a pale blue sky.

17 / PANTHEON

 

 

For a long time he drifted in white space, knowing nothing. When he finally came around, he woke up on the familiar pallet. Same shirt, no shoes. That's right, woodchuck chuckers. "It's Groundhog Day," John murmured.

Sitting up, John moved his hand to his face. No pain. He touched his forehead, felt for bruises, found none. Like before, he was good as new, full of energy, rejuvenated. He must have been out for some time, though. The room was dark, the windows hidden in shadow. A brazier was burning, filling the air with coal smoke.

As if on cue, John became aware of his dry throat, his tongue cloven to the roof of his mouth. He swallowed, but there was hardly any spit to go down. Searching the floor, he was disappointed. There was no food this time. Only his boots.

So he was back at the beginning. What next? If he went out, would it happen again? Someone pushed the reset button, and he returned to this spot, go to jail, do not pass go. Was that it? A game? John sucked at his lower lip, trying to level his frustration.

 

Breathe, he reminded himself. Pushing back the blankets, he slid down from the pallet. With deliberate calm, he crouched down to put on his boots. Who had stripped him? Jorun? John flashed back to the Avatar hurling him from the top of the stairs. That was hard to digest. All his military training and he didn't notice the enemy sneaking up from behind. Ronon would kick his ass from here to Nirvana if he knew. Truth be said, John had had about enough himself.

"Hello," he shouted as he walked to the door. "Hey! Come on, people. I'm awake. Where's my goddamn dinner?" He waited; nothing. "Your room service sucks!"

"I would stop that if I were you."

Startled, John whirled around, ready to leap this time. Only there was no-one to leap at.

John's hand twitched to the side of his thigh. The voice had come from the shadows behind the brazier. Something moved there, John could see a piece of darkness shifting. "Who's there?"

At this, a woman stepped partway into the circle of light. Considering John had walked abandoned halls for hours, the tower suddenly seemed amazingly populated. He tried to see more of this latest newcomer. A smudge of orange light painted her forehead, cheeks and chin. Thick tresses of grey hair fell past her shoulders.

John drew back another step. "Who the hell are you?"

"Interesting. I was about to ask the same question. With a little less profanity, of course." She came closer, the hem of her robe swaying around bare feet. Her face in the dim light looked much like a dried apple, all wrinkled up, with deep-set eyes and long lines around her mouth. Skin sagged at the hollow of her throat. "Per aspera ad astra," she said and while John realised she'd addressed him in Ancient, he was too baffled to remember his vocabulary. The woman bent her head from one side to the other. "Hm. I thought so. You aren't one of us." She lifted her chin, giving him an unabashed once-over. "You must be a descendent, though. Adahi says you have the blood."

John tensed, alarm lights flaring up in his head. His blood? Who said what about his blood?

"How many generations," the old woman wondered. "A hundred? More? I never would have thought."

This last brought John up short. She'd lost him after the not one of us bit, but he understood the key part. And there he'd thought things couldn't get any crazier. "You're an Ancient."

The women lifted an eyebrow. "Why, thank you. I know I've looked younger."

"Alteran," John amended. "Ancient is what we call them. You."

"Ah. And who would we be?"

John bit his tongue. She'd almost got him. He never would get used to this. Ancients popping out all over the place, never a warning. You turned a corner, and it was Chaya all over again... with slight variations.

Inside the homespun shirt, John was sweltering, coarse linen itching on his damp skin. With only one brazier burning, the room was warmer than it should be. John could feel the sweat on his palms and made a furtive attempt to wipe them on his pants. Meanwhile, the old woman nodded. "Fair enough." Walking past John, she perched on the edge of the bed platform. "Perhaps we'll start with something less delicate. My name is Haruveld."

"John Sheppard."

"Well, it is a pleasure to meet you." She first lifted her hands to her chest then held them out in his direction. Before John figured how to respond, she lowered her arms. "So. You're Adahi's new project."

"Adawho?"

"Adahi. The woman who saved you."

When he didn't react, she eyed him in a way that reminded John so much of Teyla he almost laughed. Don't you get anything, the look seemed to say. Maybe he didn't. But he sure knew how to play a cool front.

"She's the girl from the glass room," he wagered, edging closer to the bed. There was something strange in the way the light fell on this woman. The room was shadowy, but still you'd think the coals' glow would give her contours more substance. John could barely tell her robe and skin apart. Maybe it was the fabric's colour.

"Hardly a girl," Haruveld contradicted him. "It's safe to say she is your senior."

"Another Ancient?" John asked, surprised. Once more he was rewarded a stare. He gave up. "You seem to know a whole lot of what goes on here," he said. Somehow he found a smile and smoothed it onto his face. "Care to set it out for me?"

Haruveld cocked her head, smiling back. "Where do you want me to start?"

John sat down at the far end of the bed. He wanted to look like he trusted her. He knew the gestures. Relaxed slouch, leaning on one hand: Unthreatening. "Why am I here?"

"Is that a specific or a general sense of life question?"

This time, it was John's turn to stare. Noticing his confusion, Haruveld made a chagrined little gesture with her hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "Being around Jorun makes the calmest of us satirical."

John perked up at her use of 'us'. "How many of you are there?"

"In the tower? Three. Adahi, her wretched brother and me. Sometimes Bornhelm comes by. He is the one who brought you here."

She told him Bornhelm was Adahi's servant, bringing her food and other essentials. John made a mental note of this. If people went in and out of the tower, there had to be a way to get through the power barrier. Maybe it was just a matter of flipping a switch. He tried not to freak out on the news that Jorun was as Ancient as they come.

"You were quite hurt when Born brought you in," Haruveld continued. "I didn't think you'd last the night."

Now this was something he definitely needed to know. "How long was I out?" John asked.

"Three days, I think."

"That long," John murmured, hiding his surprise. Three days wasn't enough for his injuries to heal, not nearly. Of course, a couple of hours wouldn't mend a smashed face either. His earlier unease returned. It felt like his own body was keeping secrets from him. Was it possible someone had messed with his healing process while he was out? He didn't like the thought. At all.

Haruveld studied him and something like sympathy crossed her face. "You have never been healed before, have you?"

Oh, he'd been healed all right. Fixed, stitched up and pierced with IVs. Somehow he doubted that was what she had in mind. "How?" he asked.

"It's Adahi, she is a healer. Her hands . . ." Haruveld hesitated. She turned her own hands palms-up, looked at the drooping skin before clasping them in her lap. "Her hands are comfort."

John recalled the girl's touch, the way her finger strokes had soothed him, the way they had hypnotised. Just thinking of it made him want it again; the calm rhythm of her thumbs, drawing circles on his skin. The impulse alarmed him. More and more he felt there was a danger his gut understood, but his mind didn't grasp yet.

"What did she do to me?" he asked.

Haruveld's eyes narrowed a little. "I told you. She healed your wounds. And a little more besides."

No kidding. All of a sudden, John thought of the tower's gate, the misleading door that was not an exit but part of the prison. His fingers curled into one of the furs. When Haruveld talked next, she sounded intent. "You have to be careful, John Sheppard. You might think you're safe here, but you're not."

Not for a second had he thought this place was safe. All the same, the old woman's warning fired his tension to a new degree. "Jorun . . ." he began, but Haruveld cut him short.

"Forget him," she said. "He's the least of your troubles."

Instinctively, John reached for his throat. "Can't say I agree."

"I better show you, then," Haruveld said and rose from the pallet.

* * *

 

Not bothering with explanations, Haruveld led John down into the spire's catacombs. John made a vain attempt at remembering their passage; a dozen bends down he'd lost all orientation. Haruveld seemed to know her way around though.

"In here," Haruveld said. They had reached a hall not unlike the jumper bay of Atlantis. There were no ships, though, and a layer of dust coated the floor. In the meagre glow from dying panels, John could barely make out the lines of footsteps, leading in and out of the place.

Once inside, John looked at a familiar set up. Two months ago he'd shone his flashlight on the Aurora's stasis pods, protruding from the ship's walls like mushrooms. What he saw now was similar almost to a fault. Oval capsules, sleek metal encasing, symmetric line up... Marvelling, John went from pod to pod. The numbers were different. While the Aurora had been filled with pods from hull to hull, here there were no more than fifty stations. These pods also weren't active. No lights on the displays, no glow from within. Most of the hoods were coated with a layer of frost.

Stepping closer, John wiped at one of the cases with a corner of his sleeve and saw there was in fact someone inside. Although the term 'someone' didn't apply by half. In the chamber's wane light, John looked at a corpse, half mummified, half decayed.

"What are they?" he murmured. "Coffins?"

Haruveld had come up behind him and looked down at the pod. "I guess you could call them that," she said.

"What happened?" John asked.

"The Wraith. The war. Everything." Haruveld passed by him and walked to the opposite side of the room. John watched her, wary.

"When we came here," she said, "we looked for a hiding place from the Wraith. Not all of us were fighters, not all decided to fight. This tower was supposed to be a refuge, our last harbour in this galaxy."

Slowly, the old woman followed the line of pods. A couple cases down, John saw that there was at least one display still working. Haruveld stopped outside the glow of the green lights. Her voice carried in the empty vault.

"But the war went on and on. Years, decades. It wore us down. At the end, we lived in constant fear. News was coming from the fleet, terrible news. Then months, when there were hardly any messages at all. "

John walked over to her, taking his time. He scanned the walls, took in the plain architecture. The whole place had the air of a morgue. And who was to say it wasn't? Even Ancients had to be buried somewhere, those that didn't ascend, at least. He stopped at Haruveld's shoulder and looked down at the working pod. Someone had covered the hood with a scarf.

John watched Haruveld from the corner of his eye. Her face had taken on a vacant expression, the past she related taking hold of her. In all likelihood she was back there, seeing it all, replaying it in her head.

"We were afraid, desperate for a way out. By the time people started talking about evacuation, space-travel had been suspended. The one ship we had left tried to reach Atlantis and never returned. We were marooned here. Sooner or later, the Wraith would come for us."

John itched to pull the scarf aside. He listened to Haruveld's story, and yes, it was fascinating. Even so he couldn't shake the unease that crawled at the back of his head. He'd never been a fan of suspense. If there was something for him to see, he wanted it over with. It was either that, or get the hell out.

John tried not to show it, but Haruveld must have noticed his impatience. Lifting her head, she became aware of him once more. "It escalated," she explained. "We thought this was our only escape."

At this, she seemed to watch John's face for a reaction. Finally her eyes cut down to the pod once more. "The scarf is strange, isn't it? I was wondering for a while why she did it." She reached out and John thought she would lift the cover. Instead she pulled back. "The reason is she doesn't want to see. She can't bear it. I call this the height of avoidance." She gestured for John with a nod of her chin. "Go on. Look."

John resented the cue, but he was curious. Keenly aware of Haruveld watching him, he pulled away the sheet.

He didn't know what he had expected, but it sure as hell wasn't this. Clutching the scarf in one hand, John stared down at Haruveld, the same old lady, encased within the Ancient pod. The artificial light picked out every detail of her wizened face. No obscuring shadows this time. Even the blue veins were visible behind her liver-spotted skin. Next to John, the first Haruveld shifted closer. "Do you know the greatest irony in all this?" she said softly. "The Wraith never found us here."

John dropped the scarf, retreated a step. Haruveld turned to him and the double image – the woman standing and the split image of her inside the pod – sent his stomach into a cold knot. Without warning, Haruveld stretched out her arm. John tried to jump back but didn't move fast enough. Her hand reached him, then in a sweeping move, passed straight through his chest. John sucked in a breath, every muscle in his body freezing with shock. The old woman brushed through solid bone and flesh. He didn't feel a thing, but even so, his skin was crawling.

Haruveld's lips thinned into a bitter smile. Half her arm embedded in John's torso, she fixed him with a hard stare. "Now that I have your attention, I hope you'll heed my advice: Avoid Adahi."

 

* * *

 

John wanted to leave the pods and Haruveld led him away without arguing. They ended up inside the tower's pantry. The room's stock erased every doubt about the presence of people inside the spire. Shelves were stacked with salted meat and sacks of oats. Dried herbs, turnips, there even were spices: Bushels of red peppers and something that smelt like rosemary. John had a notion the henchman Haruveld mentioned didn't limit his foraging to one planet.

Apart from the food, the pantry also stored clothes that looked like donations from the Salvation Army. On one pair of breeches John discovered a pattern of dried blood. While John was going through the supplies, Haruveld sat on a pile of boxes. Since they had left the morgue, John made sure there was ample distance between them. She took the hint and didn't try to come close.

Even to look at her was hard. Whenever she moved, John stiffened. He kept his hands from touching his chest, but barely.

When Haruveld had finally pulled her arm out of him, John had moved quickly, so the pod was between them. He had tried not to shake, but his hands had given him away.

What is this? What are you?

That is a long story. You best find yourself a seat. She'd watched him with a raised brow. But not here, I think.

In the cavernous pantry, Haruveld showed John some tennis-ball-sized globes, which started to glow as soon as John touched them. He took a few of them out of their crate and placed them around the room. They gave off a mellow light, which was pleasant, even under the circumstances. John used one of the orbs to light into the depths of the shelves. While he explored, Haruveld talked.

"When the war was all but lost, the small council turned to Adahi. She had been our healer for years and her talents had not gone unnoticed. She was special. A prodigy, you might say."

"Where others healed only by the laying on of hands, she could mend a person with her thoughts. You see, Adahi has the ability to weld her consciousness to the mind of her patient so she can convince his body to heal from within."

At this, John turned and lowered the orb. Heal from within... he thought he felt a phantom throb in his knee. Haruveld must have seen some reaction on his face, because she canted her head to the side and nodded. John felt sick. So someone had tampered with his body. No, not only that. Healed from within, she'd said. What did that mean? He slowly paced the shelf until he stood opposite to Haruveld.

"Dying means more than the shutting down of organs," Haruveld explained. "It is preceded by the surrender of your mind. Adahi rallies your will to fight, taps into energies that would otherwise stay locked away for good. Although it does burn resources." Haruveld threw him a knowing look. "You must have been hungry when you woke."

John thinned his lips. "So she fixed some people. Good for them. What's that got to do with..." He waved his hand at her.

"Everything," Haruveld answered at once. "Think about this: if she can manipulate a mind to speed the healing process, what else could she accelerate? If she can open ways to unused energies, she can open other doors as well."

"Adahi is highly empathic. She can sound the depth of your consciousness, your memories, longings, fears. It's all written on the map of your mind. Adahi's the one who can read that map and she can make you see..." The old woman hesitated. When she continued, John had a suspicion she left a good deal unsaid. "Some things are obscured for a reason. Under normal circumstances, you suppress bad experiences so they fade into the background. We call this healthy repression, it's necessary to go on living." Haruveld shrugged a shoulder. "In order to ascend, however..."

John did his best not to gape. "Don't tell me you're ascended."

"Not quite." She eyed him quizzically. "Are you sure you won't sit?"

"I'm fine."

"This will take a while."

"I said I'm fine."

"Well, your shuffling makes me restless."

Exasperated, John plunked his ass down on the floor. He considered throwing the orb at Haruveld, just to see what it would do. He rested his arms on his knees instead and leaned his head against a sack of oats. It looked like he was in for an epic, whether he wanted or not. Perhaps it would be best to just suffer through. It wasn't like he needed to be somewhere. Breathing the earthy smell of the oat-sack, John started to feel tired.

In the meantime, Haruveld resumed. "Ascension is a combined effort of mind and body," she explained. "The body must be as strong as possible before it is discarded. Else the strain of ascending will kill you before your time. In addition, the mind must be freed."

"Of what?"

"Of everything that ties it down."

"Memories, longings, fears," John repeated.

"Just so."

John rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Now let me get this straight. You let Adahi tap into your brain so she could what... root up your subconscious?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

Haruveld shrugged. "To lead us into Ascension."

He understood then, or at least he thought he did. It was clever. If you couldn't run on this plane of existence, you rose to another and hid there. It was a coward's choice, but experience had taught John a thing or two about the Ancients' idea of bravery. He wasn't surprised Haruveld's people picked the easy out. Out loud he said: "You used a short cut."

"That we did." Picking up on the judgement in his voice, Haruveld shot him a narrowed look. "It is a long process, shedding your earthly bonds to reach another plane. You have to give up your life, your very identity. Many of us weren't ready to make that sacrifice. So Adahi... helped them."

"How?"

"She did what by rights we should do ourselves – seek out our burdens and dissolve them. She burned our bridges, so to speak."

"I don't get it."

"What binds you to this life?" Haruveld asked. "It is your memories, your idea of self as much as anything else. You want to be an individual, someone with choices to make, someone with a history." Haruveld leaned forward, hands closed on her knees. "Now imagine none of this mattered anymore. If you didn't give a fig about who you are and what was important to you, what would hold you back?"

John was struck silent, but that seemed answer enough for Haruveld. "Exactly."

All of a sudden, Jorun's voice was back in John's ears. You will be set free of the cares that tie you down. Rejoice. Haruveld watched him with that cynical smile of hers. "You are catching up, I think."

John leaned forward, intrigued. "Is that what happened?" he asked. "Adahi made you toss your burden and you got a ticket out of here?"

"That was the plan. The execution proved . . . difficult." Running a hand along her braid, Haruveld shook her head. "At first, Adahi just sought out the moments that defined us in good or bad ways and erased them from our minds. But if she eliminated too many memories too fast, the person would snap. Many went mad and eventually killed themselves. In retrospect, I think they were the lucky ones." At some point, Haruveld started walking up and down the pantry. She lifted a hand over a crate of turnips, hovering near them without touching. "In time, Adahi adjusted her methods. Instead of erasing the memories she just leeched them of emotion. No more shame, no more guilt. No regrets. You would know a thing had happened, but you wouldn't feel it anymore."

John frowned. "Is that even possible?"

"It seemed to work."

"So how come you didn't get to be a spirit in the sky?"

Haruveld shrugged. All of a sudden, she truly looked her age, hunched and brittle. "It turned out Ascension wasn't as easily bought as that," she resumed quietly. "As I said, many of us weren't ready to let go and not even Adahi's skills changed that fact. I don't know what went wrong, but instead of ascending we got... stuck."

"Stuck," John echoed.

Haruveld looked at him and for the first time he noticed that the light of the orbs didn't reflect in her eyes. Bowing her head, she explained. "Our consciousness left our bodies but it didn't go anywhere. Nor did our body fade as it should have. We ended up as two entities, the spirit, if you will, and the flesh. But even split, our aspects would not be separated permanently." She lifted her hands, looking at them as if she did not recognise them as her own. "You asked me what I am," she said. "I can't answer your question. Jorun calls us waifs -- projections of the people we once were. I am everything that made Haruveld who she was. Everything, except her flesh and bones." She moved her arm to the left and it passed through the metal rods of the shelf next to her.

A shiver of cold slithered down John's back. He pressed his back into the sack of oats behind him. Haruveld retrieved her arm way too slowly for his taste.

"Knowing no other way to help, Adahi put us in the pods you saw down below." Grim tension stretched Haruveld's mouth, adding a twist of bitterness to her words. "She thought we needed more time to complete the process. But completion never happened! We stood by our pods for years on end and as our bodies aged, so did we. We watched our hair turn white, our skin whither to parchment. Thanks to the stasis, the process was slow. Stretched over millennia." She grimaced and John caught a glint of the desperation that nestled in the folds and wrinkles of her face.

"We could never leave," Haruveld said. "No matter what we tried, our bones always drew us back. We were tied to them as by a cord, and yet we could not re-enter our bodies. Trapped. Have you any idea how long I contemplated the word?" She heaved a breath, her chest trembling. A second later, she hung her head and laughed quietly. "See?" she said. "Even now I can't stop pretending. The truth is, I can't even remember how it feels to breathe." She looked at the crates full of food and clenched her fists. "I'm only thought. There's no taste, no sensation, no relief."

John shifted uncomfortably and stared into the shadows of the pantry. Feeling restless, he got up and resumed his exploration of the supplies but his heart was not in it.

He didn't want to feel pity for the old woman or get involved in any way. But her story was too enormous for him not to start wondering. How would it feel, waiting day in and day out, never able to touch or change anything? If there were a hell, it would be this: An eternity of waiting and watching without sleep, without even death as a release. John jerked his head. Those thoughts were no good. He tried concentrating on something else.

"What happened," he asked without turning, "to the others who were with you?" He recalled the mummy in one of the pods and thought he knew the answer.

"I don't know," Haruveld answered. "I suppose they died. A few hundred years in, our energy sources ran low and Adahi had to switch off one pod after the other to maintain our crucial systems. Those she shut down . . ." She paused. "Well, you saw one of them. When the stasis stopped working, the bodies . . . deteriorated. Their reflections did, too. It was hard to watch."

John guessed so. Before he could help it, his mind conjured up the image of decomposing Ancient waifs wandering the tower. He briefly closed his eyes and got down to one knee. Then he discovered it: A backpack made of dark fabric with the Pegasus tag stitched to its lid. John pulled it out of the shelf. "You're pod is still working," he observed, half distracted.

"Yes," Haruveld agreed stiffly.

John guessed he should find out why she was the exception. But for the moment, he couldn't bring himself to care. Microfibre crackled between his hands as he pulled the evidence of his failed mission between his knees. He thought he knew how it came to be here. When what's-his-name had found John at the ceremony stone, he must have gathered up the remaining rucksack, as well. Unclipping the flap, John remembered all too well who had taken the other backpack.

Running his thumb over a zipper, John wondered whether Rodney had made it back to the gate. The moment he allowed that question to enter, John also recalled what he tried to block out: Rodney getting to his feet with the strain of simply rising etched on his face. He'd been burned out just as much as John had but at least he could still walk.

He made it, John thought. He made it.

"John Sheppard?" Haruveld said from behind his back. "There is more yet."

John clenched his teeth. No kidding. "Yes," he told her. "Go on. Shoot."

"You have a funny way of talking –"

"You wanted to say?" He realised his response lacked even the pretence of good manners, but under the circumstances he was running low on courtesy. He pulled a power-bar wrap from the backpack, touched a rolled t-shirt and a tin mug. Wait just a minute. These things . . .

"You have to listen," Haruveld implored. "You're in great danger."

Frowning, John shoved his hand deeper into the rucksack and his fingers closed around a wedge of coarse fabric. When he pulled the wedge out, John saw it was a clip-on maple tag. This was Rodney's backpack.

"Please," Haruveld urged. "I'm here to warn you!"

They never wore their flag-tags on missions. Protocol said to leave them at the base, but Rodney forgot to ditch his nine times out of ten. John replaced the tag inside the backpack and clipped the flap shut. When he got to his feet, he was surprised to find Haruveld had left her crate to approach him. Angrily he stepped around her. "Yeah, I know. I'm in danger."

"No, you don't understand," Haruveld said and hurried to put some distance between them again. "Adahi, she wants to help you. Like she helped us."

Irritated, John was only half listening. What was he doing here? While he wasted time listening to Ancient yarn, anything could happen to his team. What if Rook's people had captured Teyla, Ronon, or found Rodney? John clenched his hands around the backpack's straps, trying hard not to throw the pack against the wall. Haruveld still tried to get his attention and her insistence grated on his nerves. "Adahi still thinks we're threatened by the Wraith," she urged. "In her reality, Ascension will protect you."

"Why the hell would she think that?" John asked sharply.

"Because she is broken," Haruveld returned. "Can't you imagine what our fate has done to her? She wanted to save us and damned us to... to this." Speaking, she indicated her non-corporeal body, haggard inside the tattered robe. "When we couldn't bear it anymore we begged her to end it. We all crowded around her, begging her to kill us – it drove her insane."

"She must have passed that on to her brother," John murmured.

"You still don't see!" Haruveld cried. "She will force Ascension on you. Every time you let her in, she will drain parts of your memory until you transcend to –"

"You know what?" John interrupted. "I think I've had enough storytelling for one day." He slung the backpack over one shoulder and fished another Ancient orb from the shelf.

Haruveld's eyes widened as he moved for the exit. "No, you can't –"

"Watch me." Before she could start in his direction, John initiated the orb and walked out the door.

 

* * *

 

He didn't go far, just slipped into another deserted room down the corridor. Once he reached the nearest wall, he slumped down and slid the backpack from his shoulder. Not knowing how to shut off the orb, he stuffed it into the rucksack. As the room returned to darkness, John leaned his head against the wall.

He tried to settle the chaos in his head, pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes before dragging his fingers through his hair. His earlier energy evaporated. There was only exhaustion, sitting deep in his marrow and thickening his worries into a lump of desolation. The burst of adrenaline on finding Rodney's backpack had only worn him out more.

There were a thousand ways his team could have reached safety; a thousand ways in which they did not. It all boiled down to the fact he didn't know. He just didn't know. John lowered his head and clasped his hands on the nape of his neck.

At first, the change didn't register. Only when a subtle noise displaced the silence around him did John sit up, listening. There were few things creepier than footsteps in an abandoned house.

John turned in the direction of the door and watched the darkness give way to a pale gloaming. As the light waxed, the sound of fabric dragging across the floor joined the approaching footfall. John pressed his back against the wall. For a moment, light filled the open doorway then it moved past and disappeared. The shuffling steps faded.

John waited until both light and noise were gone before he reached into the backpack to retrieve the orb. Shielding its glow with one hand, he moved to the exit and peered around the corner. He caught a glimpse of the retreating radiance at the end of the hallway and followed it.

The hallway opened into a vast foyer with a staircase leading up to the next level. At the foot of the stairs John detected Adahi who carried an orb just like his. Haloed in the honeyed gleam, John watched her climb the stairs one end of her scarf trailing behind. Quietly, John moved back into the concealing darkness of the corridor, shoulders brushing the wall. A growing sense of discomfort replaced the tiredness he had felt only seconds before. John smelled something, which at first he thought was Adahi's perfume: A green, fresh scent that didn't belong between the massive iron girders of the spire.

Retreating deeper into the shadows, John took careful breaths so Adahi would not hear. At the same time he had the strange impression that something started to breathe inside him. He looked down at the ruptures of light between the fingers that clutched the globe. As a kid, he had sometimes touched windows and the sunshine filtering through his splayed hand had looked just so. John inhaled deeply and cool air unfolded in his chest as if a door had been opened. He remembered . . . something.

He had narrowed his eyes, hadn't he, looking at his hand suffused with sunlight? And when he took his hand away he had seen the Sycamore tree down in the garden. Was it the first day he stayed at his father's house? Possibly. John recalled standing in his new room, recalled in particular the bed with its straight sheet that showed no wrinkle. Even through the window, he had heard girls' laughter, a high peeling sound coming from the lawn below. John breathed the mingled scent of Windex and fresh laundry, and for a second he was gripped by loneliness so strong it seemed to twist every muscle of his heart.

It was the fierceness of the emotion that repelled him, made him aware once more of his surroundings and his present self. Gasping for air, John nearly dropped the orb when a voice suddenly whispered at his side.

"Sheppard."

"Jesus," John hissed as Haruveld materialised out of the shadows. "Stop that!" His heart was thumping loud in his chest, a ferocious beat that hurt his ribs. He didn't even understand what had shaken him so.

"Careful," Haruveld said softly and nodded at something behind his shoulder. John turned, shocked to find that he'd inched out of the hallway's safety. He hadn't even realised he'd moved let alone neared the open space. A second longer and he would have walked straight up to Adahi. Knees weak, John hastily withdrew from the corridor's mouth. Looking up, he found Adahi had stopped in the middle of the stairway. Standing still as though she was captured in freeze frame, she waited with her head angled to one side, listening.

John felt the thud of his heart move to his throat. Pressing the orb close to his belly, he waited, dreading the moment the Ancient girl would turn around. Seconds dragged by until finally Adahi resumed climbing up the stairs until she was out of sight. John sank against the wall and exhaled. His fingers squashed the rubbery surface of the orb. He relaxed his grip, but his skin still prickled. Slowly he pieced together what had happened and the realisation hit him like a gunshot.

"So," Haruveld said, her shape still half blended with the surrounding gloom. "Will you believe me now?"

 

 

18 / OUT OF MIND

 

AFTER what happened in the hallway, John was sure he would not be able to sleep. He returned to the pantry, gathered some food and Rodney's sleeping bag before relocating to the room where he had left the backpack. As soon as his head hit his makeshift pillow--Rodney's rolled up t-shirt--John was gone.

Waking up the next morning, he felt every single year on his back and decided he was definitely too old for this shit. Getting to his feet, he was surprised he didn't creak. The fact he could smell himself didn't improve his mood either.

Haruveld stood against the wall, hands linked behind her back, watching him. "You snore," she remarked.

"I'm sorry," John returned. "Did I keep you up?"

Ignoring the amused smile on Haruveld's face, he padded away from his bedroll. Walking, he tried to roll the kinks from his shoulders. He looked around the room, trying to figure out where he'd landed. The floor was covered in metal tiles of blue-black colours, spiralling into a mosaic. In the centre of the room John discovered five hulks, covered with grey gauze. Feeling curious, John approached one of the blocks and pulled the covering sheets aside. As he saw what was underneath, his heart jumped sideways in his chest.

Light from the floor-to-ceiling windows revealed a craft of some sort, supported on two blocks of steel. John circled the vehicle, everything else forgotten for the moment. It was a smooth design, streamlined, with two hardcase wings and a saddle that would fit two people. John ran his hand over the same emery metal the jumpers were made of. The console didn't look so different from a jumper's dashboard either. The display had been simplified; it had a handlebar instead of a stick, but otherwise – very familiar. "What are they?" he asked.

Haruveld shrugged. "Scouts."

John inspected the dashboard before climbing on the craft and straddling the seat. When he saw the initiation panels were worked into the handlebars he closed his hands around them. Nothing happened. John looked for an alternative starter, but found none. So much for that.

While he tested the hovercraft, Haruveld walked up to his side once more. "When was the last time someone used these?" John asked.

Haruveld arched a brow. "Hard to say. A hundred, maybe two hundred years ago?"

John ran a hand along the handlebar. "You don't have a manual to go with these, do you?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Never mind." He swung out of the seat with a pang of regret. That would have been a sweet way to escape. Walking over to the windows, his footfall echoed in the hangar. He had hoped for a look outside, but the windowpanes were covered with ice crystals – on the inside. Returning to his cot, John pulled the sleeves of his shirt over his hands.

"This place is a damn icebox," he muttered, upending last night's supplies for something left to eat. "Any reason why it's freezing like that?"

Haruveld lifted a shoulder. "I told you, we're almost out of power," she said. "For the last centuries, all the energy has been going into Adahi's room, my pod and the defences."

John raised an eyebrow. Defences. Hear, hear. "What kind of defences?"

"The barriers on the exits and the camouflage, of course."

"Camouflage," John repeated.

"The spire is surrounded by an electromagnetic field which renders us invisible to Wraith scans."

John snorted. "And there we thought we were original."

"Say again?"

"Nothing." He sat down on the sleeping bag, turning a wrinkled turnip in his hand. "Any idea how the force field at the exits turns off?" he asked without much hope.

"As far as I know," Haruveld answered, "you need to enter a sequence of symbols into the master control panel."

"You don't happen to know . . ."

"No, I don't. It's Jorun's programming."

"Of course." John grimaced over the turnip's unappetizing texture. His situation just kept on improving. Not only was his recent nemesis a master of manipulation and stealth, he was also a tech wiz. Just his luck. John dropped the turnip, deciding he didn't want to eat.

"There used to be more barriers," Haruveld continued. "Three in all. One at the exits, one further in, and the last one in the great hall. Engineers started constructing a fourth in the vaults." Haruveld shook her head and added in a sour voice. "I guess this speaks for the extent of our paranoia."

John shrugged. "If the Wraith would have come . . ."

"I doubt it would have held them back for long."

"True."

John's gaze strayed back to the craft. Reaching into the backpack, he searched the contents until he retrieved Rodney's tool kit. Once unfolded, the kit offered an array of screwdrivers, pliers, tweezers, tox and clamps. There even was a good old pocketknife. Shifting his shoulders against the wall, John tapped his thumb on the tool kit's case, thinking. "How does this . . . this Born get in and out?"

Frowning, Haruveld sat down tailor-fashion next to him. "He wears a key bracelet, Jorun made it for him."

John sighed through his nose. Figures. "So," he said, "we get it from him. Or Adahi."

Haruveld immediately shook her head. "No, she doesn't have one."

"Him, then." It was a bad plan, but it was a plan. John got to his feet and walked toward the crafts. Haruveld stood slowly.

"I don't think that's wise," she observed. "Born is a trained fighter."

"One thing we got in common," John returned. When he turned, Haruveld shot him a look so full of doubt it was near comical. John flapped a hand before he could check the gesture. "Trust me. I'll deal with him."

Doubt slowly making way for something else, Haruveld closed in on him. "You could use my help with that."

"True." Recognising her calculative tone for what it was, John turned around all the way to look at her in full. It seemed the time to place his bets had come. "Would you help?"

"On one condition," Haruveld said and folded her hands over her belly. "If I help you escape you must do me a favour before you leave."

John masked his reservation carefully. It was hard to remember the absurdity of Haruveld's existence when she talked like a normal person. Even so she made him feel a steady, throbbing uneasiness. Like a sore spot on a molar. John also didn't trust her one bit. "Let's hear it."

One more time the old woman surprised him. "Turn off my pod."

John could tell the request came out more forcefully than she had intended. As if the outburst had broken some measure of restraint, the composure of Haruveld's face dissolved into frustration. "I'm sick of this . . . this hovering in between. I'd rather be gone for good than continue like this. I know how it works, but I cannot do it by myself." She made as if to touch or not-touch one of the crafts but John stopped her.

"Yeah, yeah, enough with the demonstrations already," he cut in with a shudder. Reluctantly, he searched her face, trying to see if she played him but there was nothing to disprove her sincerity. It might be worth a shot. "You're serious about this?"

"I am."

"All right," John said. "Then the first thing we should do is get to the control room."

"Why?" Haruveld asked, at once looking sceptical again. "I told you Jorun has all the necessary codes."

"Let's just say I still have some cards up my sleeve," John said, improvising unconcern. "Will you show me the way or not?"

Lifting her chin, Haruveld crossed her arms over her chest. "Does that mean we have an agreement?"

This time, John didn't hesitate. "Yeah, we have a deal."

 

* * *

 

Whatever he had up his sleeve was useless in the control room. Haruveld had nailed the problem. John could access the defence systems, but he was unable to undo the Avatar's configurations. The only thing he could do was dial up the force fields' power or switch on the dormant barriers. Both would be counter productive.

Haruveld waited quietly until he had exhausted all his options. To her credit, she spared him a 'told you so'.

"The Avatar lives in the Spire, too?" John asked at last.

"No," Haruveld answered. "He prefers to stay with his followers."

"And his sister can't leave."

"Yes, he made sure of that."

"Why?" John asked. Too frustrated to keep trying the unresponsive glass keys, John stepped away from the control desk. Behind his back, the aquatic glow of the screen winked out.

"To protect her," Haruveld snorted. "Or so he says. I think he just keeps her where he can control her."

John rounded the desk, looking for a weakness in the casing, a crack or fissure that would allow him access to the structure beneath. He couldn't shoot it, but there were more ways than one to roast a wire core. The metal panelling was flawless, though. The Ancients built to last. "So how often does he show up?" John asked.

"There's no telling; he stays away for months sometimes." Haruveld lifted a corner of her mouth. "He seems to have taken an interest in you, though. I wouldn't feel flattered. And before you ask – Born isn't around every day either."

Looking around the control room, John felt his spirits sink. So disabling the Avatar's commands was out of the question, the two people owning a door key were outside the tower. The only ones inside the building were either mad, incorporeal or approaching the condition of a frozen fish stick. Not what he would call a first-rate scenario. John sighed and watched his breath curl in a white cloud before his mouth. The night on the floor was taking its toll, too. Grimacing, he sat down on the steps of the dais. "Seems like all we can do for now is pace our cell," he said with an end-of-the-world humour he didn't feel.

"That's not exactly true," Haruveld objected.

John snapped up his head. "How do you mean?"

Haruveld rubbed her palm with her thumb, a guilty gesture if ever John saw one. "I can leave," she admitted, sounding chagrined. "For a time at least. If I concentrate, I manage to leave the spire and walk in the woods for a while. Sooner or later I'm pulled back to my body's side, though."

John's eyebrows shot up. Yes, it came back to him now. Back in the woods, just before Rook's men had captured him, he'd thought he had seen a white woman in the underbrush. "I saw you," he said, surprised.

"I thought you had," Haruveld mused.

The question was, did it make a difference? For a moment, John considered asking Haruveld to search the woods for the rescue party from Atlantis. In the end he decided against it. If his people were looking for him, they were his one solid prospect of escape and he wouldn't waste that on the off chance that Haruveld wasn't as good-willing or honest as she gave out to be. But since he also didn't know if the rescue was still operating, he would do well to prepare alternatives.

Scratching the underside of his chin where the stubble started to annoy him, he asked: "Could the force fields be cranked up high enough to kill?"

"I suppose so," Haruveld answered. "Why?"

"If Ancient Girl is as much of a danger as you say, this might stop her."

"I don't understand . . ."

"If I switch on one of the dormant fields Adahi might walk into it before she knew what was up and be done for."

"Is that really necessary?" Haruveld asked, sounding more than a little reluctant. "I mean, how would it help you escape?"

"It would help nothing," John admitted. It was just a thought and one he didn't consider intently. In truth he didn't have the stomach to kill someone that casually. Not if she didn't hold him at gunpoint.

So. Seemed like he was back to the old choice of sitting tight or sitting tight. "Can you warn me before Jorun or the other guy come knocking again?" he asked Haruveld.

"I believe I could," she answered. "But it might be a while, as I said. What will you do in the meantime?"

"I'll improvise."

 

* * *

 

As the sun set outside the hangar, John fetched some of the orbs. He placed them in a circle around his workstation until their golden glow chased away the shadows. Haruveld watched from the sidelines while John returned to the suspended craft. Stepping over an empty canteen, he bent to pick up Rodney's pocketknife. The dinner he'd fixed lay half eaten by his tool kit.

He had been working for hours: More than enough time for him to familiarise himself with the Ancient hovercrafts.

Each of the scouts was equipped with three sets of control crystals and something like a miniature ZPM. There could be plenty reasons why the crafts no longer worked, but John hoped it boiled down to power depletion or broken crystals. The plan was to scavenge crystals and power sources from each craft, fit them into one model one by one until one combination worked. It was a long shot, but in view of the non-existent alternatives...

Shifting his pocketknife, John tried to blow some warmth back into his hands. By the minute his fingers were getting too stiff for millimetre work.

Looking over his shoulder, he saw Haruveld move to lean against the hovercraft. Unknowingly, she mimicked models from countless car adverts. John imagined the slogan: Cars to last a hundred lifetimes. The smoothest ride to Ascension in this galaxy. He allowed himself a grin.

"Something funny?" Haruveld asked.

"Not really."

Wedging his pocketknife between a crystal panel and its encasing, John drilled into the breach hard enough to hear something crack.

Well, shit.

Just when he thought he had jammed the panel for good, the crystal box came loose. Actually, the bastard popped out so fast John had to dump the knife in order to catch it. Once secured, he transferred the crystals carefully to the floor.

Sitting up, John felt the vertebrae of his spine pop back into place. More than ever he wished Rodney was here. He would get this can running in a heartbeat. With a rueful smile John recognised his faith in Rodney had grown out of proportion. Even so, his reliance on Rodney's competence was something he could live with. He didn't even want to imagine how it would be to lose that assurance.

John had decided that even as he held out here Rodney was recovering. He plain rejected the chance that even if Rodney reached Atlantis, Carson might fail to fix him. It wouldn't be that way. When they met again, Rodney wouldn't stare at him without recognition. It just wouldn't happen.

John rubbed at the bridge of his nose, spreading a hundred year old grease. The smile that his reminiscing had initiated was long gone. No matter what he tried, he kept on running into the same wall. He had sworn not to get sidetracked by his worries. But once the anxiety broke through, it was no use bulldogging it down. Maybe... but no.

John risked a look at Haruveld. Not for the first time he wondered if she could tell him what had happened the day he and Rodney got separated. If she was outside the tower the day they arrived, she could have watched the fight at the offering place and everything that came after. Wasn't that possible?

"When you were in the woods that day," John began, trying to sound casual, but, God, this was hard. Part of him wanted to know, but the rest of him really didn't. "Did you see--" He stopped, cursing himself. He shouldn't make such a big deal of it. The last thing he wanted was to interest Haruveld in Rodney. When he was sure he had his voice under control, he tried again. "One of my people escaped from the plains. About my height, brown hair, blue jacket."

"The one they pushed into purification."

"Yeah."

"I haven't seen him."

John tried to welcome her answer. At least she hadn't seen Rodney captured or worse. A good sign, he repeated, but his heart sank all the same. Forcing his hands to move, he lifted the second crystal set from its mounting.

Haruveld watched him fiddle in silence for so long it made John nervous about the conclusions she might draw up in her head. "You know," she said eventually, "the potion they administer isn't perfect. More likely than not, it would have taken more sessions to send him over the edge."

It sounded like the usual platitudes. Don't worry. All will be well. John tried not to fall for false hope, but of course his feeble mind grabbed for it. To distract himself, he crouched on the floor, spreading the crystals before him.

"It wouldn't surprise me if they'd tampered with the original mixture," Haruveld went on. "Seek higher plains. Blunder, is all they do. These men. They lack a sophisticated understanding of the mixture. Not to mention the effects."

John stared at the crystals, trying to figure out which of them were sound. "How come you know so much about the poison?" he asked, picking up a crystal stick. He ran a thumb over the surface, feeling for flaws. Haruveld didn't answer right away. In fact, she didn't answer at all. When John checked to see what was wrong, Haruveld avoided his gaze. Was it his imagination, or had she flushed? Could she even do that? Before he had time to figure it out, Haruveld lifted her head.

"I created it." Once the confession was out, she lifted her chin, this time challenging him for eye-contact. John went very still.

"We were close, once, Adahi and I," Haruveld explained, voice tight with a mix of despair and defiance. "I saw how she was driving herself, destroying her health in the effort to help us. She was my friend. I designed the potion to help her."

Listening, John felt every muscle under his skin clench. He could also feel his pulse thudding at the side of his neck, a violent throb that made his teeth hurt. Unaware of the change in him, Haruveld kept on talking. "Later, when all was over, Jorun got hold of my notes. He learned how to mix the potion and passed the knowledge on to his adoring congregation. They've been using it ever since. The fools."

Even before she finished, John turned around and bent over the tool kit. He took care to move slowly. For once, schooling his face to a passive mask demanded too much effort to even try. He imagined himself very clearly, walking into the vault and ripping out every conduit of Haruveld's pod.

The image of Rodney bowing over the steam bowl was back in his head; John could hear once more the ragged sound of his breathing, the coughs that wouldn't stop. She had done it. It had been her.

Picking up a screwdriver, John returned to the craft and pushed himself under the vehicle's belly. In the space between floor and hovercraft, the soiled hem of Haruveld's robe moved closer.

"John?"

He ignored her, grimly drilling into the craft's underside. A square piece of metal came loose and the stale smell of old oil got into John's nose.

"Is everything all right?"

He lifted the panel aside and kept working wordlessly. After a while, Haruveld vanished from the periphery of his vision.

 

 

19 / UNLOCKED

 

But I began then to think of time as having a shape,
something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies,
one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time
but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface,
sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
Margaret Atwood

The work on the scouts provided him with focus and kept him from going insane. After four days without progress he had to admit the attempted repair was pointless but it didn't stop him from trying.

He found other occupations, too, went running through hallways after Haruveld assured him Adahi was safe in her shard room. Taking a pen from Rodney's pack he started marking the walls so he would no longer get lost around the spire. He discovered the power room only to find it sealed with another of Jorun's codes.

To ward off the cold John wore three shirts at once, the uppermost tunic reaching down to his knees. Strips of linen wrapped around his wrists and hands served as makeshift gloves. Not a suave outfit but it served its purpose.

When everything else failed he sat down with Haruveld and let her talk about her past. He soon gave up pumping her for information. From what he gathered, the old woman had never been involved in any tactical decisions nor had she communicated with Ancients outside her spire during the war. She also couldn't provide any useful gate addresses, claiming she had a bad memory for numbers.

Every now and then Haruveld tried to persuade him to offer some detail of his own background, but John tiredly ignored her questions.

 

* * *

 

The spire still had running water in one place. Haruveld had showed John the room in question, explaining the water was pulled from a stream under the mountains. Without the benefice of a heating system, it was freezing like everything else in that godforsaken rat-hole.

John stood with one hand braced on the wall, waiting for his second canteen to fill. Once the flask was ready, he left the one-time communal bath and wandered out into the hallway. He didn't even look up until he almost walked into the person in front of him. Half-expecting Haruveld, John jerked up his head and looked into the limestone face of Adahi.

He jumped back, or he intended to. Every thought in his head screamed flight, but his feet didn't move one inch. As Adahi reached for his cheek, his hands opened and the two canteens clattered to the floor. This time, her touch seemed to toss him into dark water but when he opened his eyes, he was not under an ocean but inside the jumper bay of Atlantis.

The lights in the stacked nooks were on power-saving status, barely illuminating the recumbent spaceships. John stood in front of the rear-hatch of the jumper that had been equipped with the second atomic bomb, watching McKay dismantle the weapon. Some odd hours had passed after the cloaking of the city and Atlantis started to regain a measure of quiet. After all the hustle John knew he'd be better off in bed, but for a number of reasons he didn't want to sleep.

John leaned on the hatch's edge, one elbow propped against the jumper. He looked at the bomb and tried to feel something, a sneaking horror perhaps considering he almost killed himself a short while ago. Instead he only felt numb. It was strange, but in the wake of the battle's excitement all that was left was a sense of aimlessness.

Inside the ship, McKay had finished his work. He rose, bracing his hand on his thigh in order to push himself to his feet. Wiping his hands on a rag he walked to the jumper's exit. Once he reached John he stopped, giving him one of his crooked, defiantly awkward smiles. John nodded and in that moment he did feel something, a tiny tremor of the enormities they had faced in the last days.

Without a word, McKay reached for John's shoulder. He gripped John hard, a strong, firm grip that somehow allowed John to feel both fear recalling how close they had come to lose everything and relief for having survived. Without thinking, John dropped his arm from the hatch and reached out in turn, closing his hand around McKay's upper arm ---

"No." He had no idea where he got the strength to say the word out loud, but speaking broke the spell. For a moment, his vision blurred, then he saw Adahi, a pale shade inches away from him.

"Get out," he growled, quivering with the effort of clinging to the present. The Ancient had moved her hand, touching his shoulder instead of his face. Drawing on every bit of fury and panic he could reach, John pulled upright and pushed her arm away. It was still hard to make his voice work and any sound rolled in a rough whisper from his throat. "Get the hell away from me."

He managed to stumble backward, first one step, then two. Adahi watched him, showing no reaction other than a mild curiosity. "Does it hurt?" she asked. "Should I make it better?"

John willed his body to move, to retreat down the hall until finally the bond broke and he was able to turn and run.

 

* * *

 

That night he dreamt with an intensity he hadn't known in a while. Everything from the taste of sweat-salted skin to the glide and pull of muscle felt incredibly vivid, sending blood in a rush to his groin. After days spent on the edge of hypothermia the heat shared with another body was almost too good to bear. John edged in closer, pressing his thigh between another's legs and digging his fingers into a firm, round shoulder. He held on for dear life, knowing if he let go he would lose the warmth and nearness, both things he needed desperately. Torn two ways between moving so he would get more friction and fear of breaking contact he felt his body draw together until it ached with want. A hand stroked up his back, the underside of strong fingers and palm riding up his ribs.

John twisted, forehead bumping the other's temple as he sought... what? He lingered, tendons in his neck quivering, on the corner of Rodney's mouth. Even with eyes closed he knew who was with him, cataloguing Rodney by his taste, scent and feel. Those details he had no way of recognising but in this fantasy, nothing could be more familiar.

John knew it was a dream early on and that knowledge should have cleaned away his reserve. No consequences would come of what he did or imagined doing. He couldn't, though, not even then.

Breathing hard, John tried to keep the illusion with him, so true to life and limned with all the right sensations, but he was already slipping. Ferried by a phantom breeze, the oily redolence of smoke mixed into the clean scent of recently showered hair. The acrid stench of burning rubber threatened to get the upperhand. Already half awake at that point, John understood he had lost.

* * *

When he opened his eyes, the hangar hovered in a grey predawn blur. The air had a mineral, liquid ice quality that got into his nose and stung. John turned and rested his face on his forearm, waiting until his body lost the remaining tension. Inside his clothes he was drenched in sweat, but his skin was already cooling and the linen stuck to him in awkward places.

After a while John sat up, wrapping the sleeping bag around him like a cocoon. He scanned the room for Haruveld but didn't see her. Pulling his legs and feet closer, John hoped to stoke what little warmth his body could generate on its own.

Shoving his hands under his armpits, John stared in direction of the scouts and the covering shrouds tangled at their bases. Listening into the antiseptic silence of the spire, he needed only to close his eyes to hear the sound of rustling sheets, continuing like telephone wires humming in the night. John opened his eyes with a sigh.

Hard to believe, but the dream as such was no surprise. If nothing else, John liked to think that he had few illusions about himself and he had accepted long ago that his idea of beauty included the angular bodies of men. He didn't act on it but neither did he make a fuss. Being anxious about that aspect of his psyche would only give it too much space in his life. Besides, he was way past the age when sexual attraction dominated his brain. At the moment it also wasn't so much the sex as the warmth he regretted losing, the illusion of being anywhere else and safe.

John lifted his hands to rub his face. Shedding the sleeping bag, he moved onto his knees and leaned over to reach for his equipment. Most of the camping gear had still been with the trekking backpack; the sleeping bag, flashlight, stainless steel mug and a small propane stove. John set up the latter, poured water from his canteen into a pot and put it on the flame. He rummaged through his supplies for one of the rags he'd cut for washing. Sneezing, he grabbed a frayed square of linen, sat back on his haunches and waited for the water to heat.

He had to admit, Rodney's appearance in this night's episode was a bit unexpected. Turning it over, John chalked the cameo up to stress and Adahi's prodding. It must have been the replay of the hangar snapshot that put Rodney on his mind. Strange, though, that Adahi unlocked a memory as ordinary as that. Or was it ordinary? Spotlighting the moment, Adahi invested it with an importance John had failed to acknowledge at the time. Why had she seized on that memory?

You know why.

Unfortunately, he did. If Adahi singled out the defining experiences of his life, making friends with Rodney would make the list. John wouldn't go as far as saying that they were matched from the start, but sometime during their second year – maybe starting with that wordless exchange in the jumper – he had realised there was something about the two of them that fit. They fell into step. Considering John's social life history, or the lack thereof, this friendship was a big deal, but he managed to treat it commonplace.

John turned the rag between his hands. At some point or other Rodney had become a constant, someone steady that pleased him without the demands social ties usually entailed. If his mind sometimes went where it should not, if he sometimes appreciated a random touch more than was called for, it made only marginal ruptures easy to overlook. Besides, he never claimed to be an ascetic.

The wet dreams John had about people close to him happened so far and few between that he could still look them in the eye without flinching. It was just the mind, processing surplus energy. That night's episode resembled fantasies John knew from before; it only differed in its ferocity.

Watching the blue flame of the stove lick along the edges of the pot, John ran a thumb over the twist of linen he had pulled around his hand. He could still feel the phantom pressure of Rodney's thigh on his own. It didn't usually linger like that. For the first time in a long while his imagination and body had enacted sharp edged immediacy, transmitting a raw need that prevented any escape into detachment.

John looked down at his clenched fists and relaxed his grip on the rag with a rueful smile. Bowing forward, he turned off the stove before the water had a chance to boil. After he had peeled off his shirt, he set about the pitiful business of cleaning himself up with his makeshift sponge. Once he reached his nape, he hesitated, drops of water trickling along his collarbone.

Unwanted, he recalled the encounter outside the baths and sensed a ghost of the anger he'd felt then. Like a tick Adahi had latched unto him, unearthing events she had no right to witness. The moment inside the hangar had been private, isolated and peacefully uncommented. John loathed the focus Adahi forced on the situation, the avalanche she set off by implying Rodney's special status. He didn't like the fragments of desire she laid bare. Casual was better and he had learned to appreciate the efficiency of his self-control.

So why then did his body tug in uncomfortable ways, why was his traitorous mind returning to the sensations he had in sleep?

Pressing the cloth against the back of his neck, John became aware of the water-droplets running down his chest. Irritated, he lowered his hand. Haruveld had called the girl a prodigy. John started to think he'd need another, less positive definition for Adahi.

John wrung the sodden rag over the pot before folding it into a square. Skipping breakfast for the moment, he decided to run first and clear his head.

 

* * *

 

Another afternoon leading nowhere: John spent half the day dissembling and reassembling scouts without progress. The last of the vehicles he scavenged were the most trouble or maybe it was just his patience running out. Trying to dislodge a crystal set, John jammed a screwdriver behind the casing and pushed until the screwdriver snapped in two. Cursing, John dropped the broken tool, stepped up to the scout and swept his canteen from the seat. He ended up throwing crystals, tools and everything else in his reach.

 

* * *

 

Concealed inside the shadow of a stairwell, John sat watching as Adahi crossed the hall downstairs. She wore a hooded mantle for a change, something light in colour with a green stripe on the back.

It was hard to take his eyes off of her. John realised he circled like a moth around the flame, but there was something about the Ancient girl that drew him. Part of it might be the lingering disbelief that someone as inconspicuous as she should trigger so much fear or wield power of any kind. Watching her produced an unhealthy kind of fascination. John took pains to make sure she didn't notice him though. "Where's she going?" he asked.

Haruveld, who sat two steps above him, shrugged. "To the front gate. It's Fifth Day."

John didn't ask, but Haruveld explained anyway, telling him that in the middle of every ten-night, the Masks came to bring gifts for Adahi.

"They leave the offerings on the threshold," Haruveld said, "and after the people are gone, Adahi watches the tokens from behind the power barrier. She can't reach them herself, of course. Sometimes Born brings the gifts in when he returns, but mostly they wilt without anyone touching them."

John leaned forward, clutching hands behind his ankles. Sitting up again, he scratched his chest through the coarse weave of his undershirt.

"They bring garlands of berries and evergreen in winter, bunches of wild flowers in the warmer seasons," Haruveld said and smiled wistfully. "Adahi once told me flowers were the things she missed most in this place. Flowers and spring trees. When I was still whole we tried to make silk blossoms, but it just wasn't the same." She nodded at the departing girl. "She goes every Fifth Day."

Watching Adahi leave the hall, Haruveld fell silent. Today, the old woman was only half there, meaning one half of her body looked much more transparent than the other. It was one of the irregularities of her state, like an inexplicable power lapse. John was no longer freaked out by it. "We're not so different, she and I," Haruveld mused. "We both repeat the patterns of getting through the day as if it still means something."

"I know the feeling," John muttered.

"No, you don't."

 

* * *

 

As another evening dragged to its close, John ended up staring at a pair of sealed balcony doors. Outside, it was spitting snow, long trails of ice water hitting the stained windows. John stood close to the threshold, touching the iron welt of the glass-panes. The tower was soundproof, so he couldn't hear the wind raging outside. When he pressed his hand flat against the doors, warmth leaked from his skin until his palm seemed to be made off the same bloodless matter as the leaded glass. He could no longer tell where he ended and the door began. Passing through solid walls, becoming immaterial, would it feel like this?

"John?"

Turning, John saw Haruveld step down a staircase. Retrieving his numbed hand he moved away from the balcony, sensing she had news.

"I promised I would help," Haruveld said, stopping next to him. "I hold to that oath."

John didn't pry her, even as the adrenaline started up in his blood, energy filling him like it hadn't in days. He almost didn't care what she would tell him; anything, any change, any threat, even, would be better than this waiting.

"Born is on his way," she said tightly. "He comes with supplies and will shortly reach the tower. But John . . ."

"Where can I stop him?"

"It won't do any good, I tell you. At least we should not rest all our hopes on overwhelming him. If you fail here . . . I only ask you to reconsider."

"Where?"

 

* * *

 

"I still don't think this is a good idea," the old woman murmured.

"Quiet," John returned. Concealed behind a mezzanine's balustrade, he waited for the sound of footsteps in the hall. If Born headed for the pantry, he had to pass this way.

John turned the metal rod in his hand for a better grip. He new he wasn't in the best of shapes, days of malnourishment and scant sleep had whittled away his strength. This meant he had to overpower the other man fast; if the situation turned into full-fledged hand-to-hand combat his chances would be close to zero. Just this one guy standing between him and freedom. It was hard to believe yet, but the thought he only needed Born's bracelet and the barrier would open, to imagine the fresh air he would feel on his face . . .

"He's coming," Haruveld whispered, half-rising from her crouch.

"Quiet," John hissed, cursing that he had allowed her to stay. He could hear it now, too, a heavy shuffle below. Squinting through the balustrade, John saw Born coming closer. Clad in a patched fur-and-leather cloak, Adahi's servant carried a covered basket in front of him. A square beard half concealed his face; his greying hair was tied back in a number of braids. A tattoo reached from his temple into his forehead, inked coils distorted by the furrows of his weathered skin. John felt the sweat break out on his palms in spite of himself. Haruveld had said this guy would be no midget, but in persona Born was huge. His head almost reached the mezzanine.

Muscles bunched for the jump, John waited for Born to pass under his hiding spot. Once the braided head came into full view, John bounded over the balustrade.

It went wrong from the beginning. Instead of bringing the other down, John only managed to land on top of Born's back. Born stumbled and dropped his basket, turnips rolling all over the floor. Using the element of surprise, John wedged the rod under the man's chin, gripping both ends and pulling back. Jesus, this guy dwarfed even Halling. John groaned with the strain of choking him. Pass out. Pass out already.

Born staggered before reaching up and digging a hand into the back of John's shirt. He picked John off like a flea, tossing him over his shoulder with a grunt. John rolled to his feet and tried to jam the rod's end into Born's stomach. Impossibly fast for his bulk, Born caught the rod in one fist and twisted it out of John's grip. John ducked the follow-up thrust, slipped sideways and pulled his pocketknife. He meant to go for the kidneys but never even came close.

This time Born's blow hit home, the back of his hand colliding with John's skull and knocking him off his feet. Dazed, John tried to get up, tasting blood in his mouth. He dropped the knife, hand stupidly closing on thin air. Born seized him by the front of his shirt, lifting him bodily off the floor like he weighed nothing. John got a brief vision of the leathery face above the beard before Born flung him against the nearest wall.

 

20 / SUNRISE

 

He woke to the sound of glass, a cacophony of pings and jingles. Opening his eyes, John looked at a floor heaving up and down beneath him. A second later he realised the ground didn't sway; he was moving. Born carried him over his shoulder like a sack of wet laundry, shoulder-bone digging into John's midriff. The next moment, John was dumped on the floor. Vision blurring in and out of focus, he watched the glass canopy overhead, sparkling threads running up to an invisible ceiling. The shards looked like snowflakes all the colours of the rainbow, dancing above his head.

Someone touched his temple and the next second, he was overwhelmed by Adahi's smell, a cloying mixture of violets and animal fat. John wondered if at some point she would tire of fixing him. As she stroked his hair back from his forehead, his eyes slipped shut and he passed out again.

 

* * *

 

He lay still in bed for a while, watching the cracks and spots on the ceiling. The naked light bulb looked charred, dangling from a twisted wire. Arms close to his side, hands on his belly, John successfully avoided touching the people on either side of him.

Turning his head, John looked at the two girls on his left, one wrapped around the other. They looked older in the waxing morning light, a fact for which he felt grateful. The one with the spiky hair also wore a glass-gem in her nostril he didn't notice before. John stared back up at the ceiling before looking reluctantly to his right. The guy might be his age; his skin was darker but their hair had the same colour. He was sleeping on his stomach, the sheet flung over his legs, showing he was as naked as the others. John breathed through his nose, stomach rising and falling under his hands. The bed smelled of jasmine, sweat and cinnamon. With the tranquil dips and rises of shoulders, hips and calves, the sleepers reminded him of arranged fruit, perfectly round and still. Trying not to pull at the sheets, John slipped out of bed and headed for the balcony.

The floor and most of the wall was tiled. Porcelain that had looked emerald green in the light bulbs' glow seemed a sick sea-grey now. John reached the open balcony doors and stepped outside. Looking over the roofs of the city, he saw the blue mountains in the distance, minarets, flat roofs and a tinge of sunrise in the east. He could also see a bank of clouds coming in from the desert, rolling toward the rising dawn.

Somewhere in the city, tires were burning and the smell got to him. John wiped his face, half expecting his hands would come away grease- and smoke-stained, but of course he was clean. He'd showered not long after his bird touched safe ground.

If he was quiet, he could still hear the rotor blades of the Huey, a discordant clatter at the edge of his hearing. It felt much like tinnitus and he wondered if that sound would ever go away. He'd also left part of him in the cockpit, forever trying to find a spot to land while picking out orders from the racket of M-16 fire.

The week behind John merged into a blur with yesterday's medevac at its zenith. John had stayed in the cockpit like he was supposed to, but when a group of snipers came running out from the rocks, firing at John's squad, John pulled his sidearm and took two of them out. One came close enough for John to see his eyes widen as he was hit. Belatedly John realised this last soldier had run out of ammo knifing for the chopper; he'd kept racing head on without firing. It was all over in minutes, but when John replayed the scenes in his head, they brimmed with detail. He remembered the shot man's hand, dust coated fingers and sleeve flapping on the ground in the rotor blades tow.

What did he expect? People kept quoting Henry V at him, but all he could think of was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. They told him he would get used to it. John had thought he was dealing with the pressure like the rest of the guys, but obviously something crucial was wrenched or why else had he followed the impulse to come here?

John looked back over his shoulder into the room that offered no furniture beside the bed. Everybody knew there were places like this. It was even rumoured that some guys from the ranks had chipped into a few of the brothels. John retreated sideways from the balcony door until he had the wall in his back. It wasn't exactly a big deal; some even considered buying a night as part of proving your mettle around here. But this... John knew he'd ended up in a place that would be considered off limits even by those who approved of sex for sale otherwise.

The weasley little Sergeant that had dragged them here walked all night with a frenzied gleam in his eye. Another marine who'd followed nervously had vanished after the second round of drinks. John came; convinced he was past caring.

Yesterday he'd come out of the shower, numb and overwrought, with the echoes of the action clinging to his back like a second skin. It was impossible to bear.

Why the sudden lapse? Yesterday's mission was just another shoot-out in a line of many. Maybe it was the live-feed of death and destruction piling up. He only knew that suddenly he'd wanted to go under, to think nothing at all, and to lose himself for a time. The underlying idea was of course to resurface in the morning and be whole again. As the early chill raised his skin into gooseflesh, John had a sneaking suspicion he had miscalculated.

He got drunk last night, but he'd been sober enough to understand he got into bed with two women and a man and letting him do things – John closed his eyes. That was not like him at all. Or was it? Having sex with a guy had never even crossed his mind before. Yet last night it seemed irrelevant, something he passed over with a 'what the heck' at the time. John approached this revelation about himself like objects under glass. He felt detached from the changes, slightly confused perhaps. He thought he should feel shame, but the concept wouldn't take shape in his head.

John crossed his arms in front of his chest and held his elbows. It felt like his heartbeat, dull and heavy, had relocated to his stomach. He concentrated on the throb in his midriff, welcoming the distraction and feeling nervous at the same time.

The clouds had reached the mountains, shrouding the higher peaks. Somewhere down in the city, the night bazaar was closing shop for the day. John slid down into a crouch, hugging his knees. Sometimes it seemed like there was no other place in the world than this, like everything beyond the horizon had vanished into white space leaving only this hopeless and devastated stretch of earth. He tried to tell himself this was not where he belonged, but with every week he felt more like a part of this city, the barracks and the ever-changing frontlines.

John tasted last night's beer, bitter and sour, in the back of his throat. Cracked plaster that had crumbled on the balcony floor dug into the soles of his bare feet. Clothing seemed beside the point, not least because he would never feel as naked as he had these past few weeks. At first he hadn't noticed, but with every new scrape of action it felt like another protective layer flaked away from him. And now? He tried to connect to whatever had grounded him before, and found he didn't even know what had previously anchored.

John pulled his arms back against his stomach. What had he done? Why had he come here? What had been numbed before returned in flashes, harsh breathing and groans, teeth on his earlobe and his own mouth on a pale, soft belly. He remembered also the moment when he'd turned away from the women, forgetting they were even there as he dug his hand into the other man's hair, hips pushing up as he was pinned against the mattress. He'd given himself up into the hard embrace and briefly his heart seemed to open wide – only to realise the artificiality of the set up, reminding him he didn't know the guy who pressed his face into the side of his neck. There were no names exchanged and John didn't look at the others' faces for long – cheekbones, forehead, the set of a mouth or the tilt of a chin held no familiarity: Nothing to connect to or reflect what he felt. He had tried to be himself for a while, to find in the easy pleasure of bodies something he recognised but instead he'd burned the last bridge to what he had thought was safe and true.

John dug his fingers into his ribs, feeling the moment he unhinged. As the sun climbed orange to meet the cloud cover, he realised he'd lost his way. Somewhere between the men he shot and the anonymous prostitutes of last night, John had given something up, some ideals about the sympathy and bonds between human beings. Stomach churning, he pressed his hot face against his knees. Shame burned at last, accelerated by disgust and, worse, the suspicion that indifference would soon overwhelm it all.

 

* * *

 

John lay in Adahi's lap, one arm wrapped around her knees. The stench of burning tires lingered long after the re-lived morning subsided. This you can take, he thought. This one memory you can burn out of existence. Part of him wondered if he let her have this, what other doors might open? And if he conceded once, would he give them all up? John turned his face into Adahi's thighs, shame eating away at his insides, opening passages to dark places he was terrified to face. What he couldn't shake, what he couldn't escape now was the knowledge that no matter how many years passed, no matter how strong he made his walls, the ugly despair would be there still. Ready to spill whenever he let down his guard.

John dug his fingers into the folds of Adahi's robes, feeling his stomach twist once more with hopelessness and repulsion. Adahi stroked his clenched fingers, murmuring in Ancient.

"Take it," John whispered. "Please. Take it."

 

21 / FRACTURED

 

While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp
at any exquisite passion ... or any stirring of senses ...
or the face of one's friend.
Walter Pater

John lay curled up on his sleeping bag, crossed tightly under his chest. After Adahi was finished with him for the day, she had left him to make his own way down the stairs, getting lost twice before he made it back to his hangar. He didn't run from her like last time. If she had followed him, he would not have stopped her. It was the closest he'd ever been to admitting defeat.

His time in Afghanistan must have woken Adahi's interest, because after the brothel morning she pulled forth other scenes from that time, confrontations with his superiors, a bad flight where John came within inches of killing his crew, and Holland, of course. In between, Adahi slipped back to the last fight he had with his father and his first date with Nancy. The rollercoaster through his past left him battered and chafed; feeling like his soul had been dragged over coarse sand.

Haruveld said Adahi drained memories of emotion but so far that didn't happen. She just uprooted these stations of John's past, pulling the scabs of old wounds. Maybe she needed his pain to bob on the surface before she could skim it up and away.

The thing was, the heap of emotions Adahi revived stopped making sense. She seemed to pick out glimpses of John's life at random, never allowing for a sense of development or even a thread to connect the pieces. Middle East, college, his mother's death, his marriage: Without linearity, these events lost their coherence. Doubts he'd resolved, worries he'd discarded or suppressed all came back to life under Adahi's touch, coexisting, contradicting, confusing the distinction between past and present knowledge. She showed John so many versions of himself, he couldn't find a common ground anymore.

As Adahi dissembled his history into isolated chunks, John feared he was turning from a whole person into a mass of molecules. He felt like he was coming apart at the seams. If this is Ascension, he'd be happy to pass. In good moments, he still fooled himself into believing he had a choice.

"How does it feel?" John asked without lifting his head.

Haruveld sat next to him; he could see her bony feet sticking out from her robe's hem. "It doesn't feel like anything," she said quietly. "At some point, you just open your eyes and find you're exiled from your body. After that, whatever you think you feel is just an illusion. Like the phantom pain of a lost limb."

John closed his eyes. "God, I hate this place."

"It's a miserable hovel," Haruveld agreed. After a while she leaned forward, breast against her pulled-up knees, almost like she wanted to reach out for him. "Come on," she said softly. "Get up, wash, change. You feel more like yourself then."

John made an effort, collecting himself stiffly off the floor. Self. He wondered what that was.

 

* * *

 

When Haruveld disappeared in the evening, John turned on the propane stove and settled down on his knees. In the skittering light of the flame, he opened Rodney's backpack, took out every single object and placed it in a row on the floor. After looking at the contents and remembering what had been used on this mission, he took up each item in turn, touching a spoon, a small digital camera and the cracked screen of the life-signs detector. The tangible/material reality of these odds and ends returned to John some solidity; in a way, they gave him back a set of landmarks. He lingered over Rodney's badge, feeling the ridge of the seam and the stitched leaf. On an impulse, John reached for his lip, but the cut Rodney treated was gone. Most likely it was the first wound Adahi had healed.

After a moment, John started putting back the gear, stowing away the pieces one by one. He only kept the maple-tag, putting it in his pocket before he closed the bag.

 

* * *

 

He had started a calendar on the hangar wall, ticking off the days as far as possible. As he drew this day's little bar with Rodney's drying-up marker, he was looking at a sum of two weeks. Not a long time under normal circumstances, but going from John's state of mind, the scratches on the wall could easily number months or years.

Haruveld was close, standing in a ray of pale light coming from the windows. She seemed to enjoy the sun, ineffective as it was in her case. John kept his back turned on her. After the Born failure she had started watching him carefully, like she expected him to shatter or skedaddle at a wrong move. She also took pains to be very gentle when she spoke with him. John didn't count it against her. After all, she didn't know him. Taking his eyes off the calendar, he screwed the cap back on the marker.

"Don't loose hope," Haruveld said.

"I'm not." Throwing the marker into the backpack, he rose to his feet. "But I've been thinking. We need to reassess our arrangement."

That seemed to take her aback. Turning, John caught the flash of suspicion that crossed Haruveld's face. "Like how?" she asked, stepping to the edge of the light-beam.

John shoved his hands into his pockets. He didn't lie, he had thought long about this. And it wasn't surrendering, it just . . . he never expected to be stuck here this long. In the beginning he'd imagined he'd fight his way out and Haruveld would have his back. Yet all they really could do was wait it out. If he looked at his situation neutrally John knew the only thing he could control was his promise. For now. "I'm not giving up," he explained aloud, "but things might come to a point when I can't hold up my end of the bargain. Say Adahi changed the command codes of your pod. Or, I don't know, she could decide not to heal me next time I beat up Born or her brother. And when . . ." He forced himself to say the next words: "When my people come for me there's a good chance we'll have to split in a hurry." He paused to catch her eyes. "I wouldn't be able to switch off your pod in time."

Haruveld stiffened. "It is a risk," she said flatly.

"Doesn't have to be."

Clutching her elbows, the old woman narrowed her eyes. John shrugged. "If you want, I'll do it now. There's no point in waiting. For you."

"You'll be left alone with the rest of them," Haruveld said doubtfully. Adahi, Jorun, Born . . . John knew the odds. He also understood, as most likely did she, that Haruveld's presence made little to no difference at this point. She'd shown him around the tower, alerted him to Adahi's abilities, explained as much as she could. She'd done all she could. To keep her hanging around just because he longed for company would be selfish.

I'm not giving up.

"I'll take my chances," John returned.

Haruveld still seemed reluctant, but the gleam of excitement in her eyes told John everything he needed to know.

"I can't pretend..."

"Then don't."

Haruveld inclined her head, turning up her palms like the first time they had met. "Thank you."

 

* * *

 

The pod room was just like they had left it: gloomy and morgue-like. The pool of light around Haruveld's pod encapsulated both her and John like a second husk. Down under the hood, Haruveld's limbs seemed carved from marble with nothing but the sagging, old linen to cover them. Only a small patch of misted glass showed the person inside was still breathing.

"Are you sure?" John asked, looking up.

Haruveld studied her body for another moment before meeting his eyes. "I am sure."

"Even if this won't make you ascend?"

The old woman lifted her mouth into a wry smile. "Believe me, after a couple of millennia, eternity seems no longer that tempting."

John nodded. "Tell me what to do."

She led him through the separate steps, providing the commands he had to insert until there was only one panel left to press.

"This sounds empty now," Haruveld said finally. "But I really wish I could have helped you more."

"Yeah, I believe you do," John answered, eyes returning to the graphs monitoring life-functions. For a moment, Haruveld looked at the shawl still draped over foot-end of her pod. "She wasn't always dangerous, you know," she said softly. "And she never meant to do harm." With a long sigh, the old woman closed her eyes, letting her arms hang loosely by her sides. "I am ready."

The end of her sentence collided with a startled sound from the other end of the hall. Hand hovering over the display, John turned around and saw Adahi standing in the entrance of the pod-room. When she called again, John realised she was using Haruveld's name, pronouncing it with an Ancient cadence. The fear and hurt in the girl's voice told John he had not a second to loose. Over his shoulder, Haruveld cried out in dismay. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her move as if she wanted to come between him and Adahi, but it was already too late. His fingers never even so much as brushed the panel.

Pain exploded in his head, blinding him and freezing the scream in his throat. He lost all hearing under the excruciating onslaught of a high whining, growing louder and louder until it pierced his eardrums. He didn't know he fell nor did he notice his elbow hitting the floor.

 

* * *

 

Even after he came to, his ears were ringing. He had no sense of where he was, realising only that he lay on his back. Jorun was there, staring down at him with obvious glee. "You made her angry," he called. "Congratulations." To John's agonized ears, he sounded like he was chewing through Styrofoam. The Avatar's grin widened as he took a bow and left the stage to his sister.

John tried to find a place inside, a refuge from consciousness and pain, breaking away from torture like he had been trained. The only problem was, once he had found this distanced mental space, Adahi had no trouble following him there.

 

* * *

 

He managed to escape on the third day after having endured the worst episodes of humiliation, fear and shame his life had on offer. The phase of exhilaration and well-being he had experienced after the first few times Adahi had meddled with him didn't happen, either because Adahi didn't allow for it or because he had reached another stage. This last session had left him physically exhausted, with his legs weakened and throat swollen. By the time he reached the shelter of his makeshift camp, he could barely stand. He couldn't even wonder why Adahi had let him go and didn't finish it this time.

John collapsed on his sleeping bag, coughing into his fist. He dragged one end of the bag over his hip but didn't have the energy to do more. His toes were like ice in his boots. He almost didn't catch Haruveld calling his name through his next coughing fit.

"John? John?"

He had never been so tired. His eyes shut before he even decided to close them. Even the hard floor against his elbow and hipbone didn't stop him from sliding off into sleep, conscious thought dissolving like snowflakes on a lake.

 

* * *

 

Much to John's surprise, getting up the next morning was easy. He didn't remember dreaming anything and he felt rested even though he moved in a bit of a haze. Rising from the floor, he turned into bright sunlight. It looked like the storm had ceased during the night.

John lifted his arm to shield his still tender eyes, but for some reason, his hand didn't quite shadow his face. The light continued to glare, almost too white to be pleasant. John rubbed his eyes before lowering his arm. Something was off but for the time being the long night's sleep made him too lazy to concentrate. Remembering breakfast, he turned around and faced what had escaped him before.

Down on the floor, sprawling half out of the sleeping bag lay his body. Pulling air into his lungs for a shout that never came, John launched at once for his discarded human shell. Yet even as he moved, he felt his sense of being there fray apart, scattering him like cotton seed.

Holding on... going... gone.

In the darkened hangar, John started awake with a harsh cry. Jolting upright, he clawed his hands into the sleeping bag and doubled over, coughing hard. Panic flooded his mouth with the taste of copper. Hands shaking, he first touched his face; then rolled up his sleeves to clutch at his arms. He barely kept himself from scratching his skin to make sure there still was blood underneath. His fingernails dug into his flesh hard enough bruise.

"John, stop it. John!"

A dream, it was just a dream. He looked up wildly and stared into Haruveld's worried face. "You're still here," she said. "Calm down. Breathe."

Trembling worse than ever, John turned away his face, hating that she saw him like this. He would have yelled at her to get lost, but that would only betray him more. His chest and throat constricted painfully, wracking his body with another fit of dry coughing. A headache began to throb behind his left eye. Pain. God, pain meant it was true. He had not ascended yet.

Wrapping his arms around his chest, John bent over, waiting until he could breathe again. He cleared his head, forced himself to think of nothing. It went some distance to diffuse his terror, but the shock sat deep.

After some time he felt it was safe to sit up. He still avoided looking at Haruveld and stared at his Alcatraz calendar instead. Twenty-five days he'd been stuck here, counting today. John bit the inside of his lip. How many days more until it happened for real, until he woke up trapped outside his body? Still nibbling at the soft skin inside his mouth, John squeezed his wrist. He wouldn't allow it. He would cling to every bone, every limb, every microstretch of muscle. Just like he did last night? No, John realised. He wouldn't fight. He wouldn't even get the chance.

Cloistered with his demons, with no rest, no change, dragging on for years on end... semi-ascension would cut off all the pleasures that made living worthwhile. He'd always hoped that when he died he'd simply stop, but to think he'd keep on seeing, unable to intervene, barred from touch or taste. His mind balked at the idea. One more run into Adahi... would it be enough? John decided he wouldn't wait to find out. Eyes fixed on the calendar, John saw what he needed to do.

Grabbing his canteen, John got to his feet. Without a second look or a word he headed for the hangar door, Haruveld calling after him.

 

* * *

 

John was halfway through his programming when Haruveld joined him in the control room. Coming up the dais, she sounded alarmed. "What are you doing?"

"Activating the second force field." His hands pulled the required switches with steady precision. On the screen behind him, a blueprint of the tower's ground level appeared. A red circle marked the barrier on the exits. John entered a sequence of commands and a second circle lighted up, just inside the hallway that led away from the spire's threshold. His throat started itching, threatening with another cough, so he reached for his canteen and drained it.

Haruveld stared at the screen, face pinched with anxiety. "Why this," she asked. "Why now?"

John touched another glass key. The controls were remarkably similar to those in Atlantis. It didn't take him long to find the panel that activated the spire's tracking system. System stats recorded a convulsive drop in power levels, but John ignored the warning. The screen showed two life signs, one in the control room, the other moving down from the spire's eyrie.

"John?" Haruveld asked.

Reaching for the force fields control, John dialled the inner barrier up to lethal degrees. "It is Fifth day," he said. "She's going to collect her presents."

Haruveld's eyes widened as they both turned to watch Adahi's life sign. For a moment it seemed as though Haruveld's skin turned semi-transparent, the blue light of the screen illuminating the veins in her face and skull. "Is there no other way?" she asked softly. By way of an answer, John left the dais and walked out of the control room.

 

* * *

 

John hid in the shadow of the main stairway, waiting for Adahi to come down. He could hear her early on; the rustle of her robes' hem dragging on the floor betrayed her. When she reached the stairs just above John's head, he retreated further into darkness and closed his eyes. Only when he heard her reach the ground floor did he exhale his breath. Edging around the staircase's lowermost pillar, he saw her heading for the foyer's entry.

He waited until Adahi had walked out of sight before running after her. Pressing his shoulder against the wall, he peered around the door frame. Tagging her was reckless, but he needed to see. If he didn't, he would turn every time he felt a cold breeze on his neck or heard a glass tinkle. John wanted to witness her fall as a human. Only that would stop him from starting up in the middle of the night, convinced that Adahi crouched next to him. It had little to do with rationality.

The deceivingly open gate at the end of the foyer spilled light into the hall. Hands smoothing down the sides of her robe, Adahi headed for the exit. She held her head very high, acting just like a nervous girl before her first date. Perhaps she expected Rook's people to linger and look at her. John clenched his jaw. Ten more steps. Five.

When an arm's length separated Adahi from John's trap, the Ancient suddenly slowed down. In front of her, the air began to waver like concrete on a hot day. Adahi stopped and John almost started forward. The next second, the shimmering air gathered into a liquid shape and Haruveld materialised between Adahi and the invisible force field. John closed his hand around the doorframe.

For a time, Adahi and Haruveld looked at each other without speaking. John felt his heart hammer in his throat, hoping against hope that what he saw didn't mean what he thought. Then Haruveld held out her hand and Adahi stepped into her immaterial embrace, canting her head as if she could rest it against the old woman's shoulder. Between deceivingly random ridges on either side of the hall waited the force field she would now never cross.

John stepped into the doorway, regardless of the risk. Across the hallway, Haruveld caught his eye and formed mute words with her lips. Face drawn with regret, she said she was sorry.

He wouldn't make it, John realised. His fantasy of escape ended right here. He couldn't even care why Haruveld waited this long to sell him out. Looking into the old woman's eyes, at the tower's wide open and unpassable exit, John remembered how it had felt to lose his grip on the world in his nightmare – like he'd been balancing on a taut rope that suddenly went slack. Falling, ever so slowly, into thin air. As if she'd noticed him by his thoughts, Adahi lifted her head.

"Adahi," Haruveld called softly. "Don't." She reached for the girl, but couldn't stop her of course. As Adahi started to look over her shoulder, John turned away and ran, stumbling through the gloom until he reached his hangar.

He slid down to his knees, forehead resting against the wall. Squeezing his eyes shut, he wrapped an arm around his midriff and clutched a fold of his shirt. The cold that had hounded him the last week had full hold of him now, hurting deep in his chest every time he tried to hold back a cough. He was at the end of his strength and he knew it.

Breathing hard, John reached into his pocket and pulled out Rodney's maple-tag. Closing his fist around it, he sunk down onto the sleeping bag. Sooner or later Adahi would come for him. He could only hide and hope he would find something to steady him against the current she released in his head.

Chapter Text

RIVER OF LIGHT / EQUILIBRIUM

_______________________________

 

 

Nothing has changed. Except for the course of boundaries,
The line of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid these landscapes traipses the soul,
Disappears, comes back, draws nearer, moves away,
alien to itself, elusive, at times certain,
at others uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place of its own.

Wislawa Szymborska

 

22 / SQUARE ONE

 

Twenty Ord hunters, wielding cross-bows and hatchets, surrounded them five miles outside the village. Expecting no resistance from that quarter, Rodney's party stumbled headlong into the surprise. It should have made them wary, though, the way things started out so well.

On Mydera, Lorne had ordered his men to go with the engineers and look the other way. Everyone obeyed except Lieutenant Lee, who'd been a member of the original search party. Guessing what Rodney and the others were up to, he requested to come along. Lorne let him.

They dialled P5K-727 and stepped into the planet's late afternoon, pines casting long shadows over the gate. None of them had seen the watchman, running from the gate to alert the village. They walked for ten minutes when the Ord welcome committee materialized from the shelter of the trees. Ronon pulled his gun at once, just as Lorne and Lee moved to cover Rodney. Surrounded by a ring of armed Ord, the Lanteans fell back to the DHD.

"Wait," Rodney called after the first shock. "Don't shoot. You know us!"

One of the Ord stepped forward. "Yes, Dr. McKay." He made no move to lower his crossbow. "We were sent for you."

Ronon switched his gun from stun to kill with a flash of electronic sound. Lorne stopped him: "Ronon, no." Turning to the Ord hunter, he asked, "What do you want?"

"The Elders request your presence," the hunter answered. "We're to escort you."

Lorne exchanged a look with Rodney. "If we follow without resistance, you won't harm us?" he asked.

The Ord nodded. "You have my word."

Rodney watched Ronon's hand flex on his gun. They could shoot their way through, but not without risking injury. They would also kill several of the Ord, people who were supposed to be trading partners and had helped them in the past. With mounting frustration, Rodney lowered the point of his sidearm to the ground. He'd expected many things, but never dreamed his plan would be stifled that early in the game.

"Okay, everyone stay calm," Lorne said, signalling his team to put away their weapons. "Lead the way."

If he'd predicted the crossfire they were about to enter, Rodney would have asked Lorne to open all batteries there and then.

 

* * *

 

Standing around the Ord's central hearth-fire, Rodney found himself surrounded by a circle of angry people with the Paramount's sister Ymer glowering the most. Arms crossed tightly over her chest, she walked up and down the room, looking like she barely reigned in her temper.

"Ever since you left," Paramount Har said, "brigands threaten our borders."

"We have seen no sign of the Spirits since I was a child," Ymer said. "Now you have walked the Path and they cross the Line of Stones again, waylaying our hunters. Almveig's daughter has been attacked, gathering winterberries by the stream!"

"Is she alright?" Lorne asked.

"Only because her brothers got there in time to fight off the enemy," one of the Elders said.

"They had wolves' heads," Har added quietly.

"You brought this upon us," Ymer grated, striding to the centre of the circle and stopping close enough Rodney could smell the dye of her clothes. "You woke them."

"I assure you we did not," Rodney returned, bristling with resentment. Ymer lifted her hands as if she meant to throttle him and Rodney lifted his chin, daring her to strike. "They were busy-bodying way before we came."

"Then you must have angered them," Har said, reaching for his sister's elbow and trying to guide her away from Rodney.

"Believe me, the sentiment goes both ways," Rodney snapped. "Look, these ...," he began then waved around his hands looking for the right word, "these people are no spirits. They are human or some deluded version of sentient life who poisoned me and tried to kill my friend. He's still out there. I ... we need to find him."

"You will not walk the Path again," Ymer exclaimed, shaking off her brother's hold and stabbing a finger in direction of Rodney's face.

This time, it was Rodney's turn to cross his arms. Lorne shot him a warning look which Rodney ignored. "Try and stop us," he said to Ymer, feeling blood rise to his face.

"Oh, we will," Ymer returned, voice dangerously calm of a sudden. Har tried to intervene, but Ymer lifted her hand to stop him. To Rodney she said, "I know your weapons are more advanced than ours and if you chose to, you could kill many of us. But if you go, if you increase the Spirits' wrath, none of my people will be safe again." A short, square-jawed woman who looked like she'd never been shy of hard work, Ymer stepped up to Rodney with clenched fists. "I will stand in the line of your weapon myself before I let you commit another sacrilege."

"You know," Rodney said acidly, leaning right into her space. "You're not that different from your spirits. You're just as insane as they are."

"McKay," Lorne cut in, reaching for his sleeve.

"We won't let you pass the borders of our village," Ymer hissed.

"Then we have a problem, don't we," Rodney shot back, furiously swatting Lorne's hand away.

"McKay," Lorne repeated. Exasperated, Rodney turned to him. Almost imperceptibly, Lorne shook his head. Rodney gritted his teeth, knowing he'd reached the limit of his patience. "Get some air, Doc," Lorne said.

Without a second glance at the gathered Ord; Rodney slammed out of the hut. Pulse racing, he plunged into the night. Damn it. Damn this whole pestilent planet. Why the hell did they ever come here? Clasping his hands on the nape of his neck, Rodney walked a few steps, then turned.

Ronon waited in the shadow of a wall. Seeing that Ronon's dark stares fired up the elders' fury even more, Lorne had asked Ronon early on to wait outside. Rodney had a notion that Lorne's decision saved a couple of lives in there. Right now, Rodney was about ready to let Ronon lead the argument his own special way.

Only of course he wasn't. With a sigh, Rodney buried his face in his hands. Ronon walked toward him, hands in his pockets. "Don't ask," Rodney muttered.

"You say the word," Ronon offered.

"I know, I know," Rodney said. "We can't, though."

"Yeah," Ronon returned in a noncommittal tone. "Clock's ticking."

Ever so true. Rodney scrubbed his chin. Lorne's marines could cover for them only so long. It was only a matter of time before Elizabeth would realise what was going on. The Daedalus would be half-way back to Earth by then, but still...

Rodney stared at the black mount of forest beyond the village's roofs. To be thwarted before he even had a chance to try and find John .... Close, he was so goddamn close. He also knew if they were turned back now, they wouldn't get another shot.

Straightening his back, Rodney took a deep breath. He had been prepared to fight. He didn't predict the need for diplomacy.

 

* * *

 

When Rodney re-entered the hut, Lorne was still trying to placate Ymer. As Rodney stepped back into the circle, Lieutenant Lee acknowledged him with a nod.

"We only want to get our man back," Lorne said and added with an entreating smile: "We might even take some of your enemies out on the way."

Ymer snorted. "Yes, I'm sure that will appease them."

"They steal our people and take away their memories," another elder piped up.

"That we can fix," Rodney interceded and all eyes once more turned to him. Showtime. "I told you," Rodney said, reminding himself to speak slow, use a neutral tone. "They poisoned me, too, but my people found a cure. There," he went on, pointing at the many bushels of herbs that hung to dry beneath the rafters, "there it is. You just need to know how to mix it and what herbs to use and how to administer it."

"Is it true?" Har asked and a murmur went through the crowd. Ymer stopped the noise with a wave of her hand, but a calculating frown had appeared on her face. Taking that as a good sign, Rodney continued.

"We can show you how to prepare the antidote. We would have anyway." A blatant lie: Rodney had no idea if passing on the knowledge had ever been discussed between Carson and Elizabeth. Rodney watched the changing emotions on Ymer's face, searching for an opening. "Look," he said, struggling to keep in the insults he wanted to hurl. "No matter what we do now, the Masks are already on your case. True?"

Ymer nodded. Encouraged, Rodney continued. "That won't change, even if we walk the Path."

Ymer said nothing, but Har supplied a reflective comment: "It was already too late when we revealed the markers to you. We don't believe in interfering with a free man's decisions – we only advise with our storytelling. Now we are left with regret and measures we always deplored." He shot a sad look at the hunters by the door. "If only it were so simple, and we could reverse the deed as we did in our grandmothers' time."

"Is there?" Rodney said, eagerly jumping on the opportunity. "A way to reverse the... the sacrilege?"

The Ord Elders exchange glances. Ymer bit her lower lip, watching Rodney. Did he imagine it, or was there a glint of indecision in the old bird's eye? Rodney was certain that if only he could sway Ymer, the rest of the Ord could be dragged over to their side. He didn't know he would beg until the words were out of his mouth. "Please," he said. "If there is a way, any way at all you would allow us to search for Sheppard, tell us. You want to protect your people. We just want a chance to do the same."

One of the Elders, introduced as Jarl, turned to Har's sister. "He's right Ymer. They can't undo the first transgression. But if the last of their group returned..."

"Yes," Har agreed, ancient voice whispery and brittle. "If he is the bone of contention, leading him through the Four Cycles might mitigate the Spirits' anger."

"How do you know that?" Ymer objected. "We don't know that. The Spirits might reject the ritual now that so much time has passed."

"But certainly they won't rest as long as a stranger dwells on hallowed ground," Jarl ventured.

Har placed a hand on his sister's shoulder. "I think it is worth a try."

Hands flexing at his side, Rodney witnessed the exchange. For a moment, Ymer seemed torn. She stared into the hearth-fire, running a hand back over her head. "If you find your friend," she said at last, "you'll return here."

"Yes," Rodney agreed, heart beating faster.

"You will remain with us until he has completed the Four Cycles."

"Absolutely." At present, Rodney was ready to concede everything if it allowed them to hit the road. Seeing Lorne open his mouth, Rodney quickly flapped a hand to shut him up.

"Ymer?" Har asked.

The old woman nodded. "Under these conditions, I'm prepared to allow your passing," she said.

Rodney closed his eyes and exhaled. "Thank you."

"We're not like the Spirits," Ymer said, narrowing her eyes. "Unlike men stained with the souls of beasts, we know compassion."

"I know," Rodney hurried to say. "I'm sorry."

"It will be best if you go now."

"Yes, yes, of course." Rodney nodded vehemently and motioned the marines to the exit. He intended for them to be at least five miles down the path before Ymer got a chance to change her mind. He waited for Lorne to step outside, then lingered a second by the door-flap. "One question," Rodney said, looking back over his shoulder. "What are the Four Cycles?"

 

 

23 / LIGHT BREAKS WHERE NO SUN SHINES

 

For all the effort Rodney put into his sprawling maps, Ronon remembered the forest far better than he. Having learned the lesson the first time around, Ronon took them on a route alongside the path, keeping out of sight. Ronon also wanted to double time their progress, but Lorne decided for a steady pace, opting for endurance rather than speed. Rodney knew what neither of them said aloud: he was holding the soldiers back.

If he thought the second hike would be easier, that his purpose would lend him wings, he was mistaken. He didn't handle the trek any better than he did the last time, and the weeks he'd spent in an infirmary bed didn't help. None of it mattered, though. He would get there.

They made camp off the main river, seeking shelter under a stone-ledge. They had agreed to sleep four hours, but Rodney woke after two. Ronon didn't lie down at all. Standing over a trickling brook he kept watch, his large frame silhouetted by the moonlight reflecting off the water.

Above the camp, a pine clung to the rock and rustled with the wind. Rodney swirled cold soup around in his mug. Looking at Lorne, cocooned in a thermal blanket, he considered waking the marines ahead of schedule. Rodney knew he needed the rest but he longed to be off all the same.

Dealing with the exhaustion was one thing, but the quiet also made Rodney wonder what lay at the end of this search.

Digging the heel of his hand into his belly, Rodney grimaced. It felt like the soup had turned into acid eating holes into his insides. Would this never stop? Ever since he left the infirmary, food had been either tasteless or stone-heavy on his stomach. He had thought the tension would lessen now that they ran the rescue mission, instead he felt even more on edge than before.

Unable to sit still any longer, Rodney got to his feet and walked over to Ronon, frozen grass cracking under his boots. Wordlessly, he offered his flask to Ronon but the Satedan only shook his head. Ronon barely looked at Rodney, either, scanning the surrounding forest instead.

Rodney, gaze drawn to the trees and shadows beyond, said softly: "It's strange we haven't been detected yet."

"It is," Ronon agreed.

Feeling the cold breeze like a faint touch on the nape of his neck, Rodney tried to joke: "Fortune favours the brave, huh?"

 

Ronon said nothing, glaring into the underbrush as if he expected someone to show up there any minute. Unable to look away from the forest, Rodney thought he spied a flicker of white between the low branches of the aspen trees. Trick of the eye, he thought or wanted to think until Ronon spoke up, saying quietly: "Wake the others."

Mouth dry and heart hammering fast, Rodney backed away and walked to where the marine's were sleeping. He crouched down and, absurdly enough, placed the flask quietly on the ground first.

One trembling hand reaching for his sidearm, the other reaching for Lorne's shoulder, Rodney whispered, "Major." Lorne twitched and sat up. As his blanket crackled in the silence, Lieutenant Lee also woke up with a start.

Without question, the men were on their feet in a second with guns drawn. Ronon already had a group of dead trees in his sights and the others copied his aim. His eyes grown used to the twilight, Rodney saw a shape move between the gnarled trunks. Shifting his P90 for better aim, Lorne signalled them to hold fire.

After a moment's wait, an old woman stepped out from behind the trees, holding her empty hands away from her body. "Please," she said. "I'm not here to harm you."

"Stop right there," Ronon said, gun pointed at her chest.

"I won't move," she assured them. "But I repeat: I won't harm you. I want to help."

"Is she one of them?" Lorne asked Rodney.

"I don't know," Rodney replied. She didn't wear a mask and he didn't remember seeing her among Rook's bunch. That proved zilch, though. In the moonlight, both her skin and hair looked ashen, the tattered sleeves of her robe falling back from bony lower-arms.

"My name is Haruveld," she said. "And if you're wondering whether I belong to Jorun's followers, I assure you I don't."

"McKay?" Lorne repeated.

"I said I don't know," Rodney yelled, nerves snapping and dropping his aim for a second before he brought the gun back up with a start.

"You're looking for John Sheppard," the old woman cut in, rattling Rodney even worse. He wasn't the only one startled.

Taking four fast strides, Ronon closed in on her. "How do you know?" he growled.

Despite the gun pointing at her head, the old woman didn't blink. "I have been with him these last weeks. Inside the tower."

"The Colonel's alive," Lorne exclaimed. Even though he didn't lower his weapon, relief spilled across his face. Rodney found that any words he might have said bunched up in his throat.

"Yes, he lives," Haruveld agreed. "But I'm afraid he is in bad shape."

That can mean anything, Rodney thought, remembering John's battered face the day Rodney left him on the plain. Remembering the blood that soaked his clothes, too. But alive, Rodney repeated, feeling sick again. Injured or not, being in bad shape meant John was still there. Only then, hearing his hopes confirmed, did Rodney realise part of him had always expected they would be too late.

"What did you do to him?" Ronon growled.

"If I said I did nothing," she answered with narrowed eyes, "you would not believe me. And it doesn't matter." With this, she turned to Rodney once more. "We don't have time to explain," she urged. "Every second we linger here is a second your friend can't loose. I can take you by the fastest route but we have to leave now."

"Take us where?" Rodney managed to ask.

"To the tower."

"I don't trust her," Ronon said and eyed the old woman with a contempt he usually reserved for the Wraith. Going from her answering reaction, the dislike was mutual.

"You listen to me," she hissed. "These woods are riddled with trackers and they are already aware of your presence. They will wait for you at the foot of the mountains, where the open terrain makes you easy targets. I know ways to elude them. Without me you'll just waste time fighting them off and chances are you'll die in the process. We can't afford that."

'We', Rodney repeated, wondering.

"I don't trust her either," Lee cut in. "Where the hell did she come from?"

"We don't need her," Ronon added.

Looking between Rodney and the old woman, Lorne seemed to struggle with a decision. "Let's think about this for a second."

"What's there to think, Sir?" Lee said, circling so he and Ronon hemmed the woman on either side. "She's one of them. Has to be."

Rodney listened to them go on, but couldn't concentrate enough to join in. His mind reeled at the thought that John was still breathing. Looking down, he realised he had lowered his sidearm again.

"We're going," Rodney said.

"Dr. McKay, we should--" Lorne began, but Rodney cut him short.

"We're going," he repeated. Without further discussion, he started gathering his gear. Lorne nodded at Lieutenant Lee and after a long pause, the Lieutenant lowered his gun and started back to his pack. Ronon stayed where he was.

"You're making the right decision," Haruveld assured Rodney. "I won't disappoint your trust in me."

Lifting his backpack on his shoulders, Rodney said without turning, "Ronon?"

"If you set us up, I'll kill you," Ronon told her without a moment's hesitation.

Haruveld watched him for a beat, her face hardening. "I'm sure you'll try."

 

* * *

 

Haruveld led them on a route that bewildered Rodney's inner compass, but Ronon seemed to understand her navigation and approved of it. After a while, the old woman let Ronon take the lead again, giving directions once or twice when he was veering off course. Lee brought up the rear and Rodney did his best to keep up with them all. After some time, Haruveld slowed down to walk beside him.

"You're the one they tried to poison," she remarked, watching him with unabashed curiosity.

Rodney clenched his teeth. "They didn't try."

Haruveld continued to study him with a pensive look. "I'm sorry," she said at length. Then, after a pause, "John will be glad to see that you are recovered."

Her use of Sheppard's first name made Rodney's scalp prickle, not with indignation but, stupidly, with hope. The way she talked, it sounded like John had an ally. "How... how is he? What happened to him?"

Finally, Haruveld took her eyes off Rodney. "Many of those things you know better than I," she said. "You were with him when he was injured, weren't you? As for what happened after... Well, he was brought inside the spire and there his wounds were treated."

"How many people live inside the tower?"

Haruveld shrugged. "At the moment, just one."

"And you," Rodney contradicted.

"And me," she agreed.

"But you're not with Rook."

"No."

"Then who are you?" Rodney asked, sensing she volunteered no more than necessary.

They reached a rocky ridge and Haruveld made way for Rodney to clamber up first. As he topped the boulder, she said, "John had a name for us--the Antiques?"

"Ancients," Rodney corrected. Looking back down at the old woman, he stopped. "You're an Ancient?"

Haruveld tilted her head in agreement.

"Holy cow," Rodney murmured. "So it's true! The outpost is still inhabited!"

Haruveld smiled sourly. "In a manner of speaking."

"McKay!" Ronon called from the head of the column.

"We had better move," Haruveld suggested.

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, walking on. He sneaked another sidelong look at the old woman. An Ancient woman. Who was on first-name basis with John and whose face softened when she spoke of him. Rodney snorted. Why was he not surprised?

Rodney could think of a hundred questions he wanted to ask, but something about this woman made him hesitate. Maybe it was her absurd looks, the threadbare linen-shift and unkempt grey hair. Or maybe it was the unspoken conviction that her sudden appearance was too good to be true.

Rodney knew that in following Haruveld he cut the proverbial deal with the devil. The Ancient's small-talk didn't fool him. In truth, Haruveld had nothing to speak for her, it could well be she led them into a trap. Lorne would have listened and so would Ronon, in a heartbeat. One word from Rodney and they'd ditch the old woman for the risk she was. Trusting her jeopardised John's rescue and all their lives on top, but Rodney found he didn't want to call this off. The small chance of Haruveld leading him where he needed to be erased the thought of compromise.

When it came to the things Rodney wanted badly, he'd always been too stubborn to believe in limits or consequences. And all other things like loyalty or defiance aside, there was one basic reason at the bottom of this mission: Rodney wanted John back. It was as simple as that.

Following Ronon's zigzag course along the uneven terrain, Rodney gave up any pretence of controlling the puff of his breath. His lungs burned with the cold air and the strain. Not without bitterness, Rodney noticed Haruveld kept up remarkably for a woman her age.

"When you reach the tower," Haruveld said eventually, "you cannot simply go through the doors. Jorun has locked them with an energy shield."

"Jorun, huh?" Rodney huffed. "Don't tell me. He's an Ancient, too." When Haruveld didn't answer, he shot her an incredulous look. "You're joking," he said.

"I'm afraid not," Haruveld answered.

To keep the immediate and exhausting outburst of anger at bay, Rodney bit the inside of his mouth. Jorun Avatar, an Ancient. So that's why the bastard recognised the lifesigns detector. Rodney felt the heat rise to his head. "Is he the one living inside the tower?"

"No, he just comes by every now and then," Haruveld answered. "He prefers to surround himself with his adoring masses, spinning yards of mythical creatures and providences."

"Sounds like the man we met," Rodney retorted. "So you're not friends I take it?"

Haruveld grunted. "Hardly." A grim smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. "Pretentious little impostor. Manoeuvring you through his nets would be worthwhile just to see the look on his face."

"Is that why you help us?" Rodney wanted to know. "To score off Jorun?"

"No."

The ground now rose in long stretches and sudden humps. Rodney pushed himself uphill, cursing the necessity of his backpack. "I suppose it's pointless to ask why you do it then?" he asked through gritted teeth. To his surprise, Haruveld answered.

"I want to make amends," she said. "I did John a bad turn."

Rodney climbed on and said nothing. When Haruveld next spoke, she sounded almost imploring. "If I don't see John, will you tell him I am sorry?" Before Rodney had any chance to reply, she muttered, "He knows about friendship. He will understand."

Rodney snorted and slipped on a root, stumbling to his knees with a curse. Haruveld turned as if to help him. He wanted to yell at her, then, demand that she cut the crap and tell him what the hell was going on. Before he could say any of it, though, he noticed for the first time the old woman's feet. As Haruveld stepped through the heather, her feet showed beneath the hem of her robe and Rodney realised she walked barefooted. A cold knot lodged in Rodney's chest drowning any urge he had to speak.

Lee closed up to him then, bowing to take Rodney's arm. "You okay, doc?" he asked.

"Yes," Rodney answered, staring at Haruveld. "Yes, I'm good." He allowed Lee to help him to his feet, still flustered and trying to make sense of what he'd just seen.

Turning away from him, Haruveld lifted her head and peered into the forest. "We're almost there," she said and picked up the pace.

 

* * *

 

They left the forest at sunrise with the sky stained yellow. Taking point, Haruveld guided them through a copse of dwarf birches. Stretching his back in the waxing morning, Rodney re-familiarised with the view. The angle was different, but they were en route to the canyon. Some distance to the west Rodney spotted the mouth of the great divide and there, in the crook of the mountain, he saw the spire.

Dread and hope mingling in his chest, Rodney scanned the fjeld and glimpsed Rook's stake. The next second, he spotted movement down the plateau.

"I told you," Haruveld said, following his gaze. Whistling softly, Lorne motioned them to take cover behind a fringe of rock. Cowering close to a shallow river, they waited for Lorne to scan the place of offering with his binoculars. "I can see them," he said. "'Bout a dozen or so, gathered on the plain."

Haruveld tilted her mouth into a satisfied grin. "They're waiting for you to come by the path."

"So what next?" Rodney asked.

"It's just a stone's throw from here," Haruveld began before she suddenly jerked up her head and froze.

"What's wrong?" Lorne asked, starting forward until Rodney stopped him with a wave of his hand. Haruveld looked like she controlled her breathing with an effort, face immobile. Rodney watched the wind tug at Haruveld's long grey mane, only to realise that it wasn't so much her hair that was moving but her whole body – everything about her seemed to ripple almost imperceptibly. "I'm out of time," she said in a distant voice. "Follow the river bed and you will reach the tower without being spotted. Remember the seal on the doors. I have to go now," she whispered.

"You're not going anywhere," Ronon grunted, stepping into her way and pulling his gun. At this, Haruveld turned a wry face at him. "If that could stop me, I would ask you to pull the trigger," she told him, then, to Rodney: "If I can, I'll let him know you are coming." With that, the old woman wavered and disappeared into thin air much like a hologram, there one moment, gone the next.

"What the hell?" Lee cried and Lorne hissed, "How did she do that?"

"She's an Ancient," Rodney explained. "Probably ascended." He sat down on a mound of rubble, stretching his aching legs.

"Where'd she go?" Ronon demanded, looking furious.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Rodney replied, feeling tired. For a short while, neither of them said anything. Lorne stared irresolutely at the river, milling its way down a rocky bed. "So. What now?" he asked at last.

"We do as she says," Rodney answered, preparing for the moment when he had to heave himself and his backpack off the ground.

"I don't know, Doc," Lorne said. "I can't say I like this. Trusting this woman just doesn't make any sense."

Rodney laughed. "When did you tune in, Major? Before or after we decided to take on a tribe of maniacs on our lonely selves?" he asked. "We're, what's the term, absent without leave: I went behind the back of my superior, you disobeyed orders. We did about everything to get us fired except stealing pens from the office supplies." Grimacing at the pain in his lower back, Rodney laboriously got to his feet. "Sense has got nothing to do with this."

 

* * *

 

They followed the melt water upriver, closing on the mountains as the sun climbed behind the peaks. Pine-bush cushions along the way provided cover and allowed them to sneak past under the Masks' radar. About halfway to the tower, Lorne signalled them to stop. Crouching behind a bulk of stone, they waited while Lorne fetched out his binoculars.

"What are they doing?" Rodney whispered.

"Don't know," Lorne muttered. "Looks like a procession. Damn. They're headed for the tower." He lowered the binoculars with a frown. "Maybe we should wait."

Ronon and Rodney objected as one. "No."

"I'll distract them," Ronon added and Lorne's face darkened, obviously resenting the idea of splitting up.

Lee leaned forward. "With your permission, Major, I'll go with him."

"All right," Lorne gritted, staring them both in the face. "But don't do anything stupid. I've no urge to come and get your tags."

By way of an answer, Ronon pulled open his collar, revealing the lack of tags, which left Lorne visibly flustered.

"Major?" Lee asked.

Lorne looked from canyon to plateau. "Give us half an hour," he said, "then swing back for the tower. We'll keep the door open for you."

"Yes, Sir."

Half-lowering his backpack, Lorne retrieved his grenades and transferred them to Lee's hands. "Don't engage toe to toe unless you have to," he said. Watching Ronon, Rodney had a hunch this particular order did not register with his team-mate. Catching Rodney's eye, Ronon nodded once.

"Half an hour," Lorne repeated. Without further ado, Lee and Ronon were off downriver, Ronon moving with the effortless speed of the trained runner. Watching him go, Rodney suddenly felt a good deal less confident. For the first time he remembered that he'd intended to return to the planet alone. You would have done it, too, he told himself. He realised, though, that sheer resolve didn't compete with the assurance that Ronon had his back.

"Come on, Doc," Lorne said. "We're almost there."

 

* * *

 

For the last leg they had to wade through the river, water soaking their boots. When the riverbed finally angled into the canyon, the wind had picked up, blowing Rodney's sweat-matted hair around his head.

They heard the first explosion as the ornate gate of the tower came in sight above the bank. Lorne signalled Rodney to stop and surveyed the open terrain south of the tower. Following the tilt of Lorne's field glasses, Rodney glimpsed a column of smoke down the plateau.

"They're moving off," Lorne said, sounding satisfied. "Okay, it's now or never."

Rodney, pressing his lips into a firm line, followed as Lorne jogged toward the tower. To Rodney's surprise, the Major did not head for the main entrance but made for the back of the spire instead. In the shadow of the canyon, Rodney spied another, much less impressive gate. Catching his confused gaze, Lorne said, "Never through the front door, McKay." Then he added with a grin, "No wonder you guys get into trouble so often." He was about to step through the doorway, when Rodney clutched his sleeve.

"Yes," Rodney snapped, "and it's no miracle we have to save your hides time and again." He made a waving motion in front of the deceptively open door. "Sealed, remember?"

Lorne stepped aside with a mocking bow and Rodney pulled off his gloves. As he pried a piece of panelling from the doorframe, another explosion rattled the foot of the mountains. Mouth gone dry, Rodney pulled out his pliers. Fortunately, the spire didn't differ much from Atlantis' wire-works. Disabling the force field took but a minute. Mimicking the bow, Rodney made way for Lorne. "After you."

Switching on the searchlight on his semi-automatic, Lorne crossed the threshold and Rodney followed into the dim corridor beyond. A couple metres in, the hall gave into a vast room. Failing light panels illuminated a broad stairwell and a circle of pillars along the walls.

"Sweet mother of God," Lorne whistled, tilting back his head. Mirroring the motion, Rodney stared up at the web of catwalks in dizzying height and the darkness above. They were still marvelling at the size of the place, when Lorne's radio switched on.

"Major," Lee's voice screeched from the speaker and Lorne jumped to turn the volume down.

"Go ahead," he said.

"We've drawn them from the tower," Lee warbled through the static. "But they're on our tails now. Can't elude them much longer."

"Can you double back, outrun them to the outpost?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Then get to the tower ASAP. McKay opened the door on the north side."

"Understood."

Turning to Rodney, Lorne asked, "Can you get the force field on the door back up and running?"

"What for?" Rodney asked back and Lorne raised both his eyebrows.

"Because, we don't want those Masks to get in as easy as we did."

"What makes you think they don't have a key?" Rodney wanted to know, gooseflesh trickling down his back. The idea of being closed in by force fields on every exit didn't exactly float his boat.

"It's the only way," Lorne argued. "We have to make our stand somewhere, and I'd rather have all of us inside than scattered all over the damn mountain."

Rodney crossed his arms, hackles raised. "So we wait for Ronon and the Lieutenant, wasting time on the off chance that Rook's dirty dozen just waltz on in?"

Lorne pondered this for a moment. "You got your lifesigns detector?" he asked at last.

Rodney fumbled in his jacket's pockets until his hand closed on the detector: After he'd lost his to the Masks, he'd scrounged another from Atlantis' small pile of spares. He could only imagine Radek's tantrum once he found out. Switching it on, Rodney waited impatiently for the scanner to adjust to its current perimeter. Finally the display showed one bio signature, about five levels up. The detector's range didn't go any further. Rodney swallowed. One life-sign. Could be anybody.

"Just the one," Rodney said out loud and Lorne, looking over his shoulder, asked, "Sheppard?"

Now it was Rodney's turn to raise a brow. "I don't know, Major, but look at this rakish dot, the resemblance is astounding."

Lorne shook his head. "Okay, here's what we do. You show me how to get the shield back on and I seal us in once Ronon and Lee are inside. You go look for the Colonel in the meantime."

"And after I've found him?"

"We'll figure it out from there."

Rodney snorted, breath quickening despite his best efforts. You were prepared to go on your own, he reminded himself. Only now that plan seemed unbelievably foolish. Pressing his lips together, Rodney followed Lorne back the original corridor. Once they arrived at the exit, Rodney led Lorne outside to the open wire channel. Instead of cutting the electronics, he'd applied a clamp to disconnect the energy's current. Others would simply chop through the bunch of fibreglass or blast the whole panel, but Rodney liked to think he had more finesse.

"Look here," he told Lorne, indicating the clamp. "You pull this off and you have about five seconds before the shield is back up. That enough for you to pull your arm back?"

Lorne smiled sourly. "It'll do."

"Mighty good," Rodney returned and continued a little too fast. "Well, I suppose I'm off to see the wizard, then."

"Be careful, Doc," Lorne said.

"Don't sweat it, Major," Rodney returned with a strained smile. "I know my way around a gun."

"I know," Lorne returned, eying him solemnly. "Just take care."

 

* * *

 

Rodney took turns observing the detector's display and checking the spiralling staircase. The spire had a tangled layout, easy to get lost in. Pulse thumping at the base of his throat, Rodney set one foot before the other, trying to avoid any noise that might betray his presence.

Closing up on the bio signature, Rodney lifted his head to a flickering glow falling out of a doorway. Rodney switched off his flashlight and drew his sidearm instead. Sweat beading on his forehead, he edged around the door.

The room reminded him of a cairn decked out with furs, tripods and tapestries. The rubble smothered the sleek Ancient architecture, only the intricate windows hinted at the chamber's sophisticated origin. Chest tight with tension, Rodney checked the detector. Still one signal, but no one showed.

Come on, he thought. Where are you John? He took another step before he noticed the raised pallet and the motionless figure at its foot. At the sight, Rodney's hand clenched around the life-signs detector.

John lay on his stomach, a quilt of sturdy weave half dragged over his hip and legs. He wore strange clothes and his face was hidden in a welt of carpet-fur, but Rodney identified him without a second's doubt.

Fumbling his sidearm back into its holster, Rodney hurried across the floor. He slipped the backpack from his shoulder and dropped it to the ground. As Rodney slid down to his knees all the visions he'd had of John dying – of his wounds, of the cold, of Rook's men returning -- gathered for a final punch to his gut. He reached out with the intention to turn John on his back. Instead he found himself continuing from there, gathering John up, wrapping one arm around John's shoulder and the other around his waist until he held John firmly in the curve of his own body. It was foolish, downright foolish, but Rodney could neither stop his hands nor the fierceness with which he hugged John to him.

John, out cold but breathing, did not stir. With a ragged beard grown thick along his jaw, cheeks hollow and shadows under his eyes he looked like death warmed over. For his part, Rodney had never seen anyone or anything more wonderful. Almost starting to laugh, Rodney shedded a weight he hadn't realised was there. After days with his body and mind clenched around a single thought it was finally safe to let go.

Rodney was coherent enough by then to know he should end the embrace. The explosive relief had calmed enough to be no longer an excuse, but still Rodney hesitated to give up the physical contact, this tactile proof of John being sound and safe.

Overwhelmed by gratitude, Rodney rested his forehead on the top of John's hair, figuring John was too zoned out to notice. Only then John moved, lifting one hand and placing it on Rodney's hip. He leaned into Rodney, his response erasing any sense of suspended reality. Rodney stiffened. All at once their closeness seemed both impossible and strangely reasonable, the contradiction and what it could mean sinking into Rodney until he felt he had to speak. "John?" he asked, peering down at John's drawn face. At this, John's hand tightened on his hip and let go. When John finally spoke, his words and the hatred behind them startled Rodney like a knife drawn.

"Hands off."

With a stab of guilt, Rodney sat up straight, removing his arm from John's waist. He was struggling for a dignified way to back off, when John opened his eyes and fixed a hazed look on his face. At first, the expression on John's face changed from hostility to confusion, then his cheeks flared and his whole body tensed. The next second, John cringed into a ball and started coughing violently enough to dislodge his lungs.

"Easy now, easy," Rodney stuttered, scrambling away to make room before reaching out, stopping one inch short from patting John's back. When John's fit seized and he slumped to the floor, forehead resting on his arm, Rodney dared to touch his shoulder.

"John?" he asked once more.

Half dropping on his side, John lifted his head. "Rodney," he croaked out. "Is that you?"

"Me?" Rodney repeated, dumbfounded. "Yes. Yes, of course."

John closed his eyes for a moment and now the language of his face became impossible to read. "Took you long enough," he managed at last. Rodney thought John might have smiled then, but every possible expression was smothered in another harsh succession of coughs.

"Jesus," Rodney murmured and then finally felt able to move with some sort of purpose again. He fetched his backpack, retrieved his flask and unscrewed the lid. John pushed off the floor and Rodney helped him sit up to lean against the pallet. He pressed the flask into John's hands and then continued to watch quietly as John swallowed tepid soup. Taking in the thin fabric of the shirt and jacket John wore and how it hung on him, Rodney had the sudden urge to wrap John into every blanket he could find. He also didn't miss the blush on John's otherwise ashen face.

"Is that fever?" he asked. "Are you running a temperature?" Frowning, he pressed his palm against John's forehead. It took no genius to realise that the heat glowing through John's skin was bad news. "You're burning up," Rodney began when suddenly a wail burst from the belly of the tower.

Rodney didn't need John clamping down on his wrist with bone-crushing force to jump halfway out of his skin. While they both stared at the room's exit, the howling outside amplified as the source of the noise ascended the stairs. Rodney cast about wildly, but the room offered no place to hide, no convenient cover, except . . .

"Come on," he rasped, dragging John to his feet and bustling him around the pallet into the shadow of the central pillar. Hurrying to get his backpack, Rodney dropped to the ground next to John, pressing as close to the bed platform as possible. The abandoned flask rolled against his leg, soup spreading on the floor and soaking the side of his pants. It didn't register for long.

Moaning with pain, someone entered the chamber. Rodney closed his eyes. If whoever was out there decided to come to their side of the pallet, they had to be prepared. Rodney had to see the other first, had to move, but, God, he didn't want to. With shaking fingers, Rodney drew his sidearm. He sank down to his belly and turned, edging to the pallet's corner. John tried to hold him back, but Rodney clenched his jaw and moved on. He pulled a face, pushing up on his elbow, not quite knowing how to hold the gun in this position. He wasn't made for this Mission Impossible crap.

Peering around the bed platform, Rodney recognised at once who had joined them. Anger rippling through his body, Rodney clenched his jaw so tight his teeth hurt. It was Jorun: The Avatar stood in the middle of the room, arms crossed over his belly, one leg of his breeches darkened with blood. The skin of his face was white under his swirling tattoos. It seemed he was calling for someone, half of his words slipping into Ancient. Soon enough, Jorun turned for the exit, hope blooming on his contorted face.

Rodney waited with a pounding heart for the second arrival to move into view. He expected Haruveld but instead he found himself looking at a slip of a girl no older than twenty. Like Haruveld, she wore a shapeless robe of undistinguished colour. The shawl she had draped over her hair and shoulders hid most of her face. She took her time approaching the Avatar even as he lifted a hand and urged her to take it.

Staring at them, Rodney recalled with a rush of heat the lifesigns detector: The gadget still lay were he had dumped it, on the furs where he'd picked John off the floor. If the others saw it, they were doomed. Praying to gods he didn't believe in, Rodney watched as Jorun crumbled to the floor. The girl helped him by holding his elbow until he lay curled on the ground.

"Sister," Jorun groaned. "Sister, help me." Twisting, he clutched a fold of her robe in a blood-stained hand. Rodney wondered whether it was Lee's gun had done the damage. Hadn't Jorun said in Ancient that 'they shot him'? "Adahi," he moaned. "Please . . . please help. Heal me."

The girl went to kneel down next to him, folding back her shawl. Rodney drew in a startled breath. He'd been dead wrong about her age. Jorun's sister had the stature of a girl all right, but her eyes belonged to an old woman: grey, almost colourless they studied Jorun with overwhelming sadness.

Adahi said something too low for Rodney to overhear. He could only see Jorun's mouth fall open and the next second the Avatar babbled in terror, "No! No, no, they have not come. It's not that, I..." He broke off, words segueing into another wail as he pulled his legs close to his body. The girl whispered again, face disturbingly vacant.

"No," Jorun protested again, but his voice was loosing strength. Adahi bowed over him, gently touching his forehead and his mask. To Rodney's unending bewilderment, the girl began to hum. One of her hands cupped the side of Jorun's face, the other cradled his chin. For a beat, Jorun let it happen, but then he jerked violently, struggling to get out of her clasp.

"No!" he cried. "Not that! I won't, no, please, no."

As she bent down, the curtain of her hair hid Jorun's face so Rodney only saw his legs kicking. It was enough. Feeling sick, Rodney withdrew behind the pallet, his whole body trembling. He nearly cried out when John grabbed him by the jacket and hauled him closer into the shadow. Digging his fingers into Rodney's sleeve, John trapped him in place. It seemed to Rodney that John's eyes sunk deeper than before just as his whole face pinched into pale agony. Not moving a muscle, Rodney stared at John while he listened to the heels of Jorun's boots scrabbling on the floor. Quite suddenly, everything fell silent.

For the stretch of endless seconds, nothing happened. Finally Rodney heard the rustle of clothes and then footsteps, leaving the room.

Even after the sound of footsteps was gone, John held on to Rodney's jacket, knuckles white and tendons standing out on the back of his hands. Heart hammering in his chest, Rodney lifted his hands to circle John's wrists. He could see John struggling, eyes wild and a muscle in his jaw twitchung, but at last he let go of Rodney. Running the tip of his tongue nervously along the back of his teeth, Rodney didn't know what spooked him more: the scene he'd just witnessed or John's fear. Even the silence around them seemed ominous, charged. Gathering what courage he had left, Rodney slowly crouched to peer over the pallet. The girl was gone. Jorun lay motionless on the floor, arms spread wide. Rodney looked for the door, but saw no-one lingering.

"Wait," he told John, moving around the bed on unsteady legs. He picked up the lifesigns detector, staring at the monitor. It showed two signatures inside the room and one moving up the tower-levels. With a sigh of relief, Rodney turned to find John leaning on the pallet. Staring past Rodney at Jorun, John breathed visibly, a muscle in his cheek twitching. He backed away, bracing himself on the pallet.

"We so need to get out of here," Rodney mumbled, walking over to John and sliding an arm under his elbow to support him. Ill and underfed, John looked like he wouldn't be able to walk two steps on his own. "Come on," Rodney said. "We got to get back to Major Lorne."

"How many men?" John asked, voice rasping.

"What," Rodney mocked, "me in my shining armour isn't enough for you?" When John stared at him with bloodshot eyes, Rodney relented and told him they were four in all. John said nothing to that number. After a moment's consideration, Rodney decided to leave his backpack. Navigating John down the stairs would be complicated enough without the extra weight. When they shuffled past Jorun's prostrate body, John hesitated.

Rodney grunted and averted his face. The dead avatar was a sight he could have done without. Blood had run not only from his leg wound, but also from his mouth.

"I never thought I'd say this about anything Ancient," Rodney mumbled, "but I'll be glad to see the last of this dump."

 

 

24 / RELEASE

 

Before they tackled the long way down, Rodney contacted Lorne. "I found him," Rodney spoke into the radio, feeling John watching him.

Lorne's voice sounded tinny as he asked, "How is he?"

John, leaning against a pillar, lifted an eyebrow. "Good," Rodney replied. "He's... he's good." He cleared his throat before adding, "We might be a bit slow coming down, though. Will you wait for us by the door?"

"I'm afraid that option's out," Lorne said. "Ronon and Lee are on their way but they have all hell's hounds on their tails. I can let them in, but I doubt the others will just go away to clear the road for us."

"Right," Rodney said, thinking fast. "Could we avoid them by using another door on our way out?"

"Might be worth a shot."

"All right," Rodney said, struggling to free his flashlight from his jacket. "We'll be heading for ground level and look for an alternative exit."

"Get back to me as soon as you're there," Lorne said and broke off contact. Rodney switched on his flashlight and walked over to John's side. "Come on," he said, guiding John's arm across his shoulders. The fact that John didn't even complain about him mother-henning spoke volumes about his state.

 

* * *

 

By the time they made it to the grand stairs, Rodney was carrying John. It worked up to the last leg before John toppled forward and Rodney failed to catch both their balance. They stumbled down a few steps, falling slow but landing on their asses all the same.

"Jesus," Rodney murmured. He helped John up, who grimly avoided his gaze. Together they left the stairway and hobbled across the hall. When they reached the foyer, Rodney was sweat-drenched inside his jacket. John slid down against the doorframe, wrapping his arms around his midriff. His face was lined with exhaustion. Rodney pulled out his radio to check on Lorne. "Major where are you?"

"Still at the back door," Lorne answered. "Five minutes until Ronon and Lee catch up."

"Did they lose Rook's people?"

"No."

Rubbing his forehead, Rodney looked down the length of the foyer. "Okay, this is what we do. Remember the big hall at the end of the corridor? There's some sort of lobby right opposite the stairs and a gate. I'm pretty sure this'll be protected as well, so I'll start dismantling the barrier straight away."

"We'll join you as soon as Dex and Lee are in," Lorne said. "What about the Masks?"

Rodney snorted. "Well, let's just hope they'll concentrate on the other side of the tower."

"Don't open the barrier before we're there," Lorne cautioned.

"I'm not stupid," Rodney snapped.

"I don't like this, Doc," Lorne went on. "We might end up in a siege."

"Yes, that is an obvious possibility," Rodney grated, flexing his free hand nervously. "We just have to take that hurdle when get there, won't we? And in the meantime, how about some positive thinking, Major?"

Finishing the sit rep, or stand rep or whatever, Rodney turned back to John. "You heard all that?" he asked. John just leaned his head against the wall, swallowing convulsively. If anything, he looked more wasted than when Rodney first found him. "Beckett's going to have a fit," Rodney murmured. "Wait here."

Opening his jacket, Rodney reached into an inner pocket for his toolkit. His eyes were fixed on the gate and the ragged stone-plain beyond. How long until he'd see one of the Masks out there? Waiting for him to open the door? Rodney tightened his lips into a thin line. Come on, he told himself. After everything he endured this had to be a cake walk.

Rodney walked toward the middle of the lobby, when John started coughing behind his back. This time, the fit sounded not only violent but frantic. It also seemed as if John tried to call Rodney's name. Startled, Rodney turned and in the seconds that followed, sounds and vision collided. Rodney saw John struggling to his feet, heard a faint hum like some electrical current starting up near by and then pain like nothing he'd ever known lanced into Rodney's elbow. Rodney opened his mouth without a sound, rocking back on his heels. A fist the size of a fire-truck rammed into his back, hurling him off his feet. He didn't understand-- was his skin on fire?

He hadn't hit the ground yet when a wave of liquid ice clenched around his heart and everything went black.

 

* * *

 

A cloud of cotton surrounded his head, muffling the sound of his breath. Rodney foundered toward consciousness, swallowed and returned to the feel of the hard floor. His left arm had gone to sleep, tingling and cramping as he moved. Staring at the ceiling, Rodney saw the light panels through a haze, outlines distending.

Disoriented, Rodney blinked and turned his head. John crouched next to him, looking even greyer in the face than before. He also had pulled off the linen jacket. Frowning, Rodney lifted a hand above his shoulder. Yes, there it was, folded under his head.

Rodney wet his lips, tasted salt. When he touched his face, his fingers came away stained. Nosebleed. Lifting his head off the ground, Rodney tried to staunch the bleeding with the heel of his hand.

When he looked again, John had clasped his hands behind his neck and stared at the floor. Squeezing his eyes shut, he looked about ready to break into pieces.

Rodney pushed painfully up on his elbows. Gathering John's jacket off the floor, he held it against John's chest. John looked up, one hand reaching to take the jacket, clenching tightly into the folds.

"Catch your death," Rodney murmured. John's face twitched. The next second, his eyes darkened and his hand shot to Rodney's thigh, tearing the sidearm from its holster.

John aimed the gun across the hall and when Rodney turned his head, he saw the girl Jorun had called sister standing at the lobby's entrance. She waited, frozen like a deer in the headlights, eyes fixed not on the gun but on Rodney. Remembering what happened to Jorun once she was through with him made Rodney's stomach turn. He didn't think attracting her attention was a good thing at all.

Rodney pushed up on his hands only to gasp with pain. John still clutched the gun, keeping the girl in his sights. He tried to steady his hands so hard, but it didn't look like it would work. Rodney felt his mouth go dry: John's hands shook.

For a moment, time stopped, leaving Rodney shocked and confused, then Adahi moved and the gun dropped from John's hands, clattering to the floor. Sucking in one breath, Rodney dove for the weapon. He reached it but didn't grab it right. Twisting around, he expected Adahi by the door and instead found her kneeling right before him, her face some bare hand-breath away from him. A wordless grunt of surprise burst from Rodney's lips; nobody could move so fast.

As Rodney stared, paralysed, the girl reached out for his face. Her expression softened, brown hair slipping over her shoulder as she tilted her head. Rodney felt his grip on the gun go slack until his whole being focused on the girl's hand. Before she could touch him, though, John whipped forward, caught Adahi's hand with his own and held on. The Ancient hesitated, looking at John with surprise on her face.

Rodney tried to move but couldn't, a strange haze seeping into him, damping his senses. He wet his lips, but no words came out. John didn't even grip her hard, on the contrary, his touch was almost gentle and Adahi looked at him with a smile. Rodney could only watch while deep inside, he strained to push the Anicent as far away from John as possible.

Above him, Adahi offered up her other hand, inviting John to take it. With a horror he couldn't explain, Rodney watched John's face crumble with surrender as he reached for the Ancient.

It was in that moment, John's fingers inches from Adahi's, that Ronon reached the lobby. "McKay!" he yelled, tearing Rodney from his stupor.

"Ronon," Rodney began but didn't get any further. Adahi, surprised by the newcomer, jumped to her feet and whirled around, long hair flying around her face. Five steps toward Ronon: She moved fast, but not fast enough this time.

Striding into the hallway, Ronon pulled his gun and shot the Ancient square in the chest. The blast of the weapon exploded in a red flare and the girl crashed to her knees before dropping to the ground face first.

Staring at the prostrate girl, Rodney felt a wash of cold rush through his veins and clear away the rest of his weird haze. Next to him, John dropped his hands in his lap.

"John?" Rodney asked softly.

Without looking at Rodney, John dug his fingers in the folds of his pants, twisting the BDUs into his fists. Without thinking, Rodney reached out and touched John's wrists. John, still averting his face, simply shook his head. Breathing out, he let go of his pants and flattened his hands on his thighs.

Confused, Rodney pushed into a sitting position and got to his feet. John followed slowly. By the time they stood, Ronon had reached them and said a single word. "Sheppard."

Before John could react in any way, Lorne and Lieutenant Lee ran into the room, skidding to halt in front of the motionless Ancient. Lorne knelt down, feeling her pulse. He came back up without telling whether she was dead or alive, but he did turn his back on her.

The marines came over, Lorne's eyes wide as he took in John's condition. Rodney couldn't say what was on the Major's mind, most likely a lot more than he let on. Considering he'd put his career and Atlantis on the line for a half-assed rescue mission, his comment on said mission's success turned out rather mild. "There you are, Sir."

John inclined his head, one hand braced on Rodney's shoulder. Rodney watched from the corner of his eye, as John opened his mouth, tried to speak and coughed instead.

"You look like shit," Ronon commented.

John flipped him off and struggled back into his shirt. Ronon grinned. "Let's get out of here," he grunted and moved for the exit.

"Wait, wait," Rodney cried and Ronon whipped around with a glare. "There's a barrier, a trap," Rodney hurried to explain. It only now occurred to him to check on his elbow for real. To his silent relief, he saw his arm was still intact – numb, maybe, but not cut or mutilated. The way the electricity had slammed into his bones sure had felt as if it sheared off a part of him. No, he thought. He'd been lucky there. Lucky too, that he turned when he did. John's attempt to call him saved his life – otherwise he'd've walked full-frontal into the force field.

He looked down at the motionless Ancient. Yes. Lucky in more ways that he could understand.

"Can you shut it off?" Lorne asked.

"Yes, sure," Rodney said, shaking off the lingering shock. "Let me just..." He didn't get any further before they all saw the movement outside the front-gate. Two men jogged up to the spire; Rook's people. The Masks had finally done their math and sent some of their own around the tower. Apparently, they knew about the barrier on the entrance. They lingered outside the threshold, staring inside. One of them called over his shoulder. Rodney clenched his fists. There goes that.

For a moment, nobody spoke. In the end it was Lorne who pulled himself together first. "All right," he said. "Options."

Ronon lifted both his gun and an eyebrow.

"Other than that," Lorne said grimly.

Rodney tilted his head back and closed his eyes. They all jumped when John tried to speak, voice as rough as sandpaper on a brick. "Lorne."

Major Lorne looked at him, but before John could add anything else he started coughing again. He tried to hold back, but Rodney could feel his whole body shake with the effort. In the end he twitched his head and Rodney leaned in to listen. John whispered. At first Rodney thought he'd misheard. Then he smiled.

"What?" Lorne asked, frowning. "What is it?"

Rodney shook his head, still grinning. "He said he's found us a ride."

 

* * *

 

The hangar wasn't far. At the sight of the sleek little crafts, a wave of enthusiasm gripped all of them. Even John smiled. While Lorne and Lieutenant Lee went to check out first the hangar doors, then the large windows at the back, Rodney set to work. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw Ronon stick to John's side like a second shadow. Lorne had given John his thermos flask and John kept both hands closed around it, the relief on his face no longer guarded.

It took the rest of the afternoon and most of the night to fix the crafts, or scouts, as John called them. Finally pushed over the limit of his strength, Rodney slept for an hour or two and so did the others. His watch told him it was three in the morning when he woke. Letting the others sleep, Rodney got back to work, only watched by Ronon, who sat cross-legged by the door. At sunrise, Rodney had got three of the scouts up and running, cannibalising the rest of the models and rerouting a couple of conduits.

"Great work, Doc," Lorne praised.

"Thanks," Rodney said, too tired to come up with a flip comment. He wiped his hands on a scrap of cloth before dropping it to the floor. Can we go now? He didn't ask the question out loud, but it must have been written all over his face.

He dragged himself over to where John sat and settled down beside him, leaving Lorne, Lee and Ronon to familiarise themselves with the scouts' controls. John watched them but didn't make any move to join them. Could be he was too exhausted, but Rodney doubted it. He remembered the moment between John and Adahi in the lobby and the way all light had seemed to shut off in John's eyes. Something told Rodney, though, that now was not the time to ask questions.

"We're going to be fine now," Rodney said, feeling like he should pat John's knee or something.

"Yeah," John answered, sounding anything but convinced. After a moment's pause, he added,"Hey Rodney."

"Yes?" Rodney asked.

"How did you find me?"

"Well," Rodney said slowly. "I came back to where I left you. Obviously." That at least earned him a small twitch in the corner of John's mouth. Encouraged, Rodney continued. "I hate to admit it, but aside from my genius being guided by the Ancient version of Lassie helped a little."

"Haruveld," John clarified.

"Yes," Rodney agreed. "She said that was her name."

"She helped you?"

"Yes," Rodney answered, frowning. "Why? Is that important?"

Beside him, John pulled up his legs and propped his arms on his knees. Before he would answer, though, Lorne came over with a badly suppressed grin on his face. "These ought to be smooth, Doc," he announced, then turned to Sheppard, "The scouts should take us home in no time, sir. And we can keep them."

"Damn right we will keep them," Rodney huffed. "That way, something will come out of this disaster."

Lorne's grin widened up until the point when John said quietly, "We can't go home yet."

"What?" Rodney blurted, whipping around. Lorne, equally surprised, stared at John with a frown.

"Sir?"

Pushing off the wall, John heaved himself up off the ground and to his feet. ... "I have to finish something first."

 

 

* * *

Leaving Lee to guard the scouts, Rodney, Lorne and Ronon followed John into the dark and damp belly of the tower. Passing under dust-coated beams of abandoned corridors, John let them into a vault filled with stasis pods that turned out to be little more than glass coffins.

Rodney stared at the rows of Ancient pods, arms wrapped close around his torso. The whole room creeped him out with its mummified corpses lining the walls. Why the hell would anyone display the dead like this? Entering the vault, Rodney had started to ask questions, but John put him off with a 'Not now'.

Not for the first time Rodney had the feeling they stumbled into the place after the main action had taken place. He wondered what had happened here, but reluctance dampened his curiosity, kindling the suspicion that here was an open window he'd do well to pass by.

As they neared the far side of the vault, John signalled them to stop. Looking past John's shoulder, Rodney saw a single pod, glowing with a bluish light. There, encased by the faint halo, sat Haruveld, leaning her head against the side of the pod.

Lowering his flashlight to point at the floor, Rodney frowned at the sight of her. If possible, Haruveld looked even older than before, folded in on herself with narrow shoulders poking through the worn linen of her robe.

Leaving the others behind, John walked over until he stood to look down at Haruveld. She lifted her head then, arms wrapped around her shins. "I didn't think you would come," she said before adding," I didn't dare. I didn't dare come to you this time. I only would have tried to save her." None of this made any sense to Rodney but John seemed to understand, bracing himself on the pod to crouch down on his haunches. Haruveld stared at her knees, whispering. "I chose to look away."

"It's over now," John said, not unkindly.

Haruveld looked at him, a sad smile lifting the corners of her mouth. "That's what we have to find out, isn't it?" she said.

To Rodney's surprise, John smiled in return. By unspoken agreement, they both got to her feet, John moving to the pod's control panel. The old woman watched until John's hand hovered above the display. Apparently, the programming was finished.

"John," Haruveld said, causing him to look up. "Thank you."

John held her gaze for a moment and nodded. Without any more words from either of them, John pushed one of the buttons and simultaneously the lights of the pod went dark. Haruveld closed her eyes and released a long breath. She clenched her fists in front of her stomach, then her whole body relaxed, arms hanging by her side. A look of serenity came to her face that touched Rodney in ways he couldn't explain.

The change started on her skin. For a moment, the old woman seemed to darken, like a light had gone out in her as well. As they watched, Haruveld blended into the shadows without moving, the white of her robe and hair fading to grey. By then it was hard to see, but it appeared her flesh sunk in on her, hollowing her cheeks and caving off the bones in her arms. Blurring into a dim wedge of darkness, Haruveld dispersed like fog in the night.

If this was ascension, it was nothing like Rodney had imagined. Haruveld didn't blaze into a sinuous bolt of coruscant energy; she simply disappeared.

Once she was gone, John stepped away from the pod.

"Done?" Ronon asked, sounding like nothing extraordinary had happened at all.

"Done," John rasped.

 

* * *

 

When they walked back to the hangar, boots echoing into the silence, Rodney moved close to John, checking his face. Ronon had given up his coat for John to wrap in and the hot drink had bolstered him up some. He still looked harrowed, though, like a weight pressed down on his shoulders giving him a hard time to walk up straight.

"John," Rodney began but before he got any further, a keening wail began somewhere up in the tower. It was like nothing Rodney had ever heard, a sound of pure, fathomless anguish. The noise seemed to fill the tower, skimming along the walls as though it were carried along the metal itself.

"What . . ." Lorne said, startled, and they all slowed, listening. Only John walked on, barrelling past the Major.

"Don't stop," he muttered, "Keep moving." Rodney swallowed. That cry was haunting. Birds in a trap might sound this way.

"But Sir," Lorne ventured, "shouldn't we check who's . . .?"

"No."

Was it Rodney's imagination, or did John almost break into a run?

 

* * *

 

The hangar doors wouldn't open, so Lorne's C4 made short work of the wide windows. Climbing onto the pillion seat behind Lorne, Rodney gripped the handles on either side of his thighs, hoping the scouts wouldn't go as fast as he feared. Never having steered anything remotely like these Ancient dinghies, Rodney left the driving to the soldiers of the outfit. Lorne made light, talking of the black Indian he had on Earth. He touched the ignition and the scout levitated off the floor with an almost inaudible hum. Rodney closed his eyes. It was like waiting in the car of a rollercoaster, handlebars down and no way to run. A blast of cold air blew in from the hole in the wall, but Rodney didn't dare close the collar of his jacket.

They arrowed out of the hangar one by one, the scouts dropping vertically after they crossed the broken windows, holding two metres above ground before speeding across the rocky plain.

As the scout shot onward in a smooth line, Rodney looked back over his shoulder. The spire was falling fast behind, retreating into the shadow of the canyon. He saw a few Masks running after them, but they had no hope of catching up.

Turning left, Rodney saw Ronon steer the second craft and John huddled behind him.

We did it, Rodney thought with a mixture of disbelief and giddy triumph. With every inch of distance growing between them and the tower, he felt his heart grow lighter.

As the scouts reached the treeline, some isolated snowflakes started floating down from the sky, tumbling in the head wind. Ronon took the lead, guiding them downhill until they reached the river and followed its bed south in direction of the stargate.

Chapter Text

RIVER TO SEA /HARBOUR

_______________________________

24 / CONVALESCENCE

 

 

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
Pablo Neruda

 

THEY reached the Ord village just after sunrise, with the clearing still in shadow. Alerted by the watchmen, people poured into the meadow, watching the scouts from a safe distance. Ymer barrelled through the crowd, followed – to Rodney's surprise – by Carson and Teyla. Carson overtook both women, running toward John with his coat tails flying. John climbed down the scout with Ronon's help, startled by Carson's sprint and the unintelligible flood of curses.

Before Rodney got a chance to join them, Ymer descended upon him demanding a full report. He turned for his friends, but the old woman dug her claws into his arm and dragged him away.

"Tell me," she said, "in detail. How much worse are we off?"

 

* * *

With John tucked safely away and sleeping like the dead, Rodney sought out Carson. He found the doctor sitting in the assembly hut with Lorne, both cradling mugs filled with some steaming drink of obscure origin. Rodney joined them, carefully stretching his legs under the table. While a central hearth-fire warmed Rodney's back, Lorne and Carson filled him in on the news.

It turned out that after discovering Rodney's mutiny, Elizabeth came to the planet herself. Ymer, the sly old bat, had taken the opportunity to relate every detail of Rodney's concessions, including John passing the Four Cycles. Elizabeth in her diplomatic splendour confirmed the deal, providing the ritual didn't threaten John's health. By the time Rodney arrived, Elizabeth had gone, leaving Carson, Teyla and a back up team on stand by.

"She waited until Lorne radioed in with the good news," Carson explained after the upheaval upon John's arrival had calmed down.

"Hm," Rodney commented, feeling queasy as he remembered he would have to face Elizabeth sooner or later. Regardless of their rogue mission's success, it was safe to say Elizabeth would take issue with Rodney and Lorne's conspiracy.

"How did you know we would be here?" Carson asked.

"It figured Dr. Weir would send someone," Lorne shrugged. She hadn't talked to them, though, not even after the message of John's safe arrival got through.

"Someone has to brief her," Carson reminded them.

"Lorne can do it," Rodney said at once.

"Hey!" Lorne complained, sounding hurt.

"Actually," Carson ventured, "I think it would be better if you went, Major."

Rodney swallowed, Lorne looked pained. Lifting the mug, Lorne drained it before getting to his feet. "All right," he said, rubbing his neck. "Wish me luck."

"She's very happy you brought John back," Carson insisted.

"Yeah," Lorne said, moving away from the bench. "Might be the one thing that saves me." He walked off like a man headed for the gallows. Rodney felt for him, but didn't want to swap places.

"I can't believe you pulled it off," Carson remarked, studying Rodney with a sidelong glance.

"Don't you ever get tired of underestimating me?" Rodney asked before adding "Sheppard would've done the same. How is he anyway?"

"Fine," Carson answered. "Better than I thought. He missed pneumonia by an inch, but the way things are he'll be up and about in no time. He needs to pack in some calories, though."

Rodney huffed. "No kidding." It didn't escape his attention that Carson still goggled at him.

"Rodney--" Carson set off but Rodney stopped him short.

"Just leave it."

Of course, Carson ignored him. "It's just... what you did. I wouldn't have thought."

"What?" Rodney snapped. "Wouldn't have thought what? That I could care enough?"

"No," Carson blurted. "No, of course not." He turned away, shaking his head at some idea he didn't choose to share. "It's good to have him back," he said at last.

"Yes," Rodney agreed. It was.

 

* * *

 

Describing their second encounter with the Masks, Rodney finally convinced Ymer that her spirits were as human as the next person. Going from her expression, the revelation kindled a rage fit to scare a Wraith queen. Her anger was no longer aimed at Rodney, though. At least, not exclusively. On the second day after Rodney's return, Ymer left for the forest in the company of two hunters, planning to negotiate an armistice with Rook. Rodney admired her courage but thought it was a dangerous waste of time. John's comment boiled down to "Weirder things have happened."

On day three back in the village, Rodney stepped out of the guest lodgings, which connected to the assembly hut through a roofed walk. Evening hadn't come yet, but it was dark out, not to mention it poured buckets. From the shelter of the roof, Rodney saw Major Lorne returning, clothes and hair drooping in the rain. Being present at their last transmission to Atlantis, Rodney remembered Lee advising Elizabeth about the weather condition. She held back the supply team with the long-promised Athosian grain, but she did send Lorne with some necessities for John and the other Lanteans.

Elizabeth did ask whether it was hailing. In retrospect, Rodney thought her question held a hopeful note.

Shivering, Rodney walked the small distance to the assembly hut, assuming the Ord had set out tea for John and hoping there would be enough for two. Lifting the door-flap, Rodney walked in on John and Teyla, embracing in the middle of the hut. No foreheads touching this time, Teyla held John close and he hugged her back, cheek against her hair.

Blushing, Rodney quietly replaced the door flap and retreated.

 

* * *

When John debriefed Elizabeth over the radio, Rodney sat by, listening to John's explanations of half-ascension and how Haruveld got stuck between the plains. When John said Adahi tried it on him, too, but failed, Rodney took notice of John's stoic face.

"And she healed you?" Elizabeth asked, sounding intrigued.

"Yeah," John replied, hand moving to his ribs. "Worked like a charm."

"Fascinating."

After ordering John once more to heed Carson's instructions, Elizabeth signed off, focusing her attention back on a flooding incident in the lower botany labs. Inside the deserted Ord assembly hut, John turned off the radio and reached for a mug filled with cooling tea. He didn't acknowledge Rodney at all, hoping perhaps Rodney would take his leave now the debriefing was over. Rodney wouldn't dream of it.

"So. Are you going to tell me?" Rodney asked, watching John from his side of the table.

"Tell you what?" John wanted to know.

Leaning forward, Rodney crossed his arms on the table. "Everything you didn't tell Elizabeth just now."

By way of an answer, John just knocked back the rest of the tea, avoiding Rodney's gaze.

"What did she do to you John?" Rodney insisted, trying in vain to read John's face.

"Leave it, Rodney," John said, sounding distracted as he turned the empty mug in his hand.

Rodney clutched his lower-arms. Something had happened at the spire, he was sure of it. John had told them about Adahi and his clashes with the outpost's male contingent, getting beat up both by Jorun and Born. He left something out, though. John had escaped worse scrapes than the one he described and bounced back before he left the edge of his infirmary bed. Whatever they did to him, it had to be bad to stick like that. And Rodney should just let that go? Screw that.

"So is this where I keep pressing you for an answer?" Rodney asked, hearing the wry note creep into his voice. "Or should I just 'go home'?"

At this, John turned to look at him, shocked and, yes, pained, too. Rodney almost hoped John would get angry because anything was better than this weird detachment. People walked into the hut just then, some women carrying bowls and baskets, but Rodney kept staring at John, willing to force a reaction even if they had witnesses.

John seemed to search for words but then his face suddenly twitched and his hand shot up, fingertips touching his lower-lip. Rodney opened his mouth to say something but was drowned out by one of the Ord women, calling for someone outside the hut: "Come on, Eli, and don't you drop that basket again!"

As if on cue, a small girl stepped into the hut carrying a basket full of small apples. She stumbled despite her elder's admonition and some of the fruit dropped to the floor rolling every which way.

"John?" Rodney asked but whatever had happened just then, the spell was broken. John dropped his hand and slid off the bench, leaving Rodney reeling with confusion.

"I'm sorry," John mumbled but if he apologised for the note he'd written on the plains or something else entirely Rodney couldn't decide. Strangely tongue-tied, he watched John walk over to the girl and bend down to help her pick up the errant apples.

Rodney stared at the empty mug John left behind and wondered what the hell was going on.

 

 

* * *

 

Since Carson pronounced John sound enough to stay, there was no way to escape the Ord's promised ritual. Ymer might believe Rodney, but it would take more than her and his words combined to revise a faith the Ord clung to for generations. The Four Cycles, so Har explained, would verify John's return to the world of men and pacify the spirits by re-establishing the lines that were crossed. First, the Arrival, which translated as a day of rest and sleep. Second, the Nourishment, eating ritual foods to reconnect with the earth. Third, the Cleansing, which involved a certain herb braid. Fourth and last, the Telling, at which point John would have to relate all that happened to him to the Ord Keepers.

In John's case, the Arrival outstripped the traditional timeframe. He slept four days and continued to look like death on a cracker until Carson's antibiotics kicked in. After that, he turned mellow enough to continue with his spiritual decontamination.

Carson himself had a hand in preparing the second stage, making sure the Nourishment turned into a regular feast. People brought mulled wine to the assembly hut, along with roasted venison and some sort of cabbage cooked with spices tasting like juniper and caraway. There was plenty of bread and honeyed cakes for dessert. Spirits soared as the wine diminished until Ronon engaged in a song contest with one of the younger Ord. Some of the Satedan chanties roared that night even made Brenton Lee blush.

Rodney spurned the wine but didn't hold back on the cakes. Pleasantly sated, he listened to Ronon daring Teyla to participate. Teyla let him tease, laughing into his face. Carson seemed engrossed in a conversation with Paramount Har, both of them drinking from thimble-sized cups that didn't look like they contained wine. It was warm inside the hut, comfortable with the smell of fresh rushes and the laughter. Rodney checked for John, sitting at the far side of the table. He still nursed a half-emptied plate, crumbling a cake between his fingers. He smiled when his neighbour addressed him, even said a few words. Rodney could see, though, that his heart wasn't in it. On another bench, Lee launched into a dingy limerick, refusing to be called prissy. John watched, but didn't comment, didn't crack a joke or lift his mug in salute.

Ever since the debriefing, Rodney had kept an eye on John and the more John physically recovered, the more he convinced Rodney that something else was wrong.

Between his talks with Ymer and John's rest marathon, Rodney didn't have the chance to quiz John again or draw out the story that wouldn't make the official report. With every day Rodney waited, though, it became harder to ask questions. No doubt John savoured being back but even so he remained unapproachable. He'd never volunteered much of his private thoughts, not even before, but now?

Why couldn't Rodney shake the feeling that there was something going on, that there was a danger of some sort brought back from that damn tower?

Caught up in his thoughts, Rodney almost missed John leaving. Pledging exhaustion, John stepped away from the table and headed for the exit. Teyla stood up to join him, assuring Ronon with a brief nod. After a second's doubt, Rodney followed.

They turned to him as he stepped outside, Teyla looking worried, John sheepish.

"Hey, buddy."

"Are you okay?" Rodney asked

"Yeah," John answered. "I'm just not into crowds right now."

"You're tired," Teyla stated.

"That, too."

Not quite knowing what he was supposed to do here, Rodney half turned for the door again. "So we leave you alone, yes?" he tried.

"No," John stopped him and reached out to grab Rodney's shoulder. "No, stay."

Rodney and Teyla exchanged a look, Rodney gathering Teyla was as much at a loss as he. One minute John seemed close-mouthed as may be and now he asked for company? Touched Rodney, even?

"Sure," Rodney said, trying to cover his confusion. "No problem."

"We will walk you to your hut," Teyla assured him, slipping an arm under his elbow. John smiled at her gratefully, keeping his hand on Rodney's shoulder.

"Come on," Rodney said, feeling a lump in his throat.

 

* * *

 

Ymer returned the next day, unharmed and triumphant. She closeted herself at once with the other Keepers, drawing up ideas how to break the truth to their people. Rodney guessed that put an end to his participation. Not that he would mind that.

The rain had stopped, leaving the water barrels at the village's edge filled to the brink. Rodney stood in front one such barrel, eyeing it with disgust. A flimsy skin of ice floated on the water's surface. Wash... how?

Just fill a bucket and bring it to your hut for heating, one of the Ord had told him. Rodney observed the moss climbing the barrel, no doubt pushing through the cracks in the wood. Use this. As if. Was that a dead mouse riding belly-up in the water?

He was about to leave when Ymer joined him.

"Are you finished?" she asked bruskly.

"You bet I am," Rodney returned, pretty sure his regard for offworld hygiene had come to an all-time low. Ymer twisted her mouth in disapproval.

"Walk with me."

She led him across the village until they reached a group of children, wrestling in a puddle of mud. Ymer stopped to watch them, hands clasped behind her back.

"So, your trip to the woods was successful, I hear?" Rodney asked.

"Yes."

"And how is Rook?"

"Smarting," Ymer said and was that the hint of a smile there? She didn't go into detail, but she told Rodney enough to make him relish the not quite literal image of Ymer kicking Rook in the balls. Apparently, Ymer pointed out to Rook that she knew his Masks weren't immortal. She mentioned the attacks on her people and explained that two could play at this game. So far the Ord hunters had held back out of reverence, but Ymer would see to it they got over that reluctance. She also let drop her connection to other villages, all of them equipped with crossbows, hatchets, knifes and plenty folk to carry them. She gave Rook a choice; it was either war, or truce with each party minding their own business.

She wisely refrained from shedding a light into Jorun's shady agenda. On a hunch she deduced that Rook would stop any negotiations if she tried to defame his deity. In the end, Rook opted for a ceasefire.

"I also told him you died and your gun-strapped friend didn't survive his escape," Ymer added.

Rodney frowned. "But we're not dead."

"Obviously."

Rodney pondered this, figuring it was a clever move. No threats in the world would keep Rook from storming the village if he knew the Ord sheltered the people responsible for his Avatar's death.

"Do you think he'll honour the deal?" Rodney asked.

Ymer clucked her tongue. "If he tries to prod, we're prepared. He might be chief on his side of the wall, but we know our part of the forest. Better than they."

"I hope he'll stick to his word," Rodney said, meaning it.

Ymer harrumphed and called one of the children to her side.

"Eli," she ordered, "prepare a tub with warm water for Dr. McKay. And get a bucket down your own hide while you're at it."

The girl gave a tooth-gapped grin. "Yes, Keeper."

"Wait," Rodney protested, horrified. "There's no need for that!"

Ymer watched him with narrowed eyes, wrinkling her nose without even faking subtlety. "Yes. There is."

 

 

25 / VARIATIONS ON THE WORD SLEEP

 


I was like one blind
Unafraid of the dark
Yosano Akiko

 

Once he could stay on his feet without watching the world spin, John fell into the habit of walking the village twice a day. After the novelty of his return from the spirits had worn off, people got used to him. One Ord woman of the motherly sort even gave him a dark red scarf he didn't mind wearing. His cough had lessened, but his throat remained sore, voice hoarse.

One week after his arrival at the Ord village, John strolled past familiar huts, gloved hands in his pockets. Some bends west of the village centre, he came upon Ronon, helping two Ord fix the roof of a shed. Despite the cold, Ronon had shucked his jacket and hauled wooden planks in his shirt-sleeves.

"I didn't know you were a carpenter," John remarked, stopping to watch.

"Work needs doing," Ronon grunted, attention fixed to the one guy on the roof.

John smirked. So far Elizabeth hadn't ordered them back to Atlantis. Rodney interpreted her silence as punishment but John had the suspicion Elizabeth just wanted to give his team some time-off. Although John didn't doubt for a second that Elizabeth enjoyed seeing Rodney squirm. "Bored like hell, huh?" he asked Ronon.

"You have no idea." Ronon turned to John, holding out a saw. "Want to help?"

"Naw," John drawled. "Looks like you got it covered."

Ronon gave him a dirty look and got back to work. John found a bench close by and sat down, back against the hut. He crossed his legs at the ankles and watched Ronon and the Ord labour. Five minutes in, he decided to shut his eyes for a bit. He tired easy, despite or because of Carson's meds. Resting, John thought, just like the doctor prescribed. It worked for about two minutes.

The faint tinkling of glass swelled out from the backreaches of his head, followed by the smell of dried flowers and dyed linen. He went cold inside his fleece sweater, feeling the clammy damp of the spire on his skin.

Breathing the winter air, John opened his eyes and forced himself to focus on the tang of sage and hearth-fires. He stroked his palm along the splintery surface of the wooden bench. This was real. This was now.

Tipping his head back, John watched a black bird bank in the iron sky. He was good as long as people talked to him. Left on his own, memories broke loose. Not just what happened at the tower, but the whole baggage, every damn situation of his past spilling out the flood gates. Two days into his return he realised it didn't need the Ancient's touch to remind him, he scattered with phantom sensations without the incentive. Adahi couldn't get to him anymore, but he didn't have the key to lock up what she released. Open on all sides, he no longer had the luxury of repression.

Back at the Ancient tower, John and Haruveld had surmised that preparing people for Ascension was a two-step process: Dormant worries had to be waked before they could be wiped. With John, Adahi never got past the first phase. She'd resurrected his fears and left them burning, eating at him from the inside, day and night.

John swallowed, downing the panic he didn't allow rise. What if it never stopped? He'd managed to deal with unpleasant episodes one at a time, but all of them, in a heap?

He had to find a way, though. Somehow he had to work out a way to rebuild his walls. He didn't know how to continue otherwise.

 

* * *

 

Carol's kitchen felt safe because it was tiny. Never messy, it still harboured a clutter of bowls, fruit baskets, spice racks, handwritten cookbooks, jugs full of cutlery and fridge magnets. It was the closest place to home he'd ever known.

John sat bowed over his plate as the rain outside spattered shadows over the tiles. Seeing he hadn't touched his pancake, Carol came over and wrapped her arm around him. John held on to the folds of her vest.

"I'd rather stay with you," he murmured.

Carol sighed. "I know, cricket," she said, stroking the back of his head. "But you belong with your father. Hey, they're all looking forward to have you. And I'll be a phone-call away."

"I wish he died instead of her."

Carol's hands tightened on his shoulders, but she didn't say anything.

 

* * *

 

The front of his Blackhawk was spattered with debris from the explosion, blurring the view. John searched the wrecked houses outside, shouting himself hoarse over the radio until Reynolds' voice crackled in his earphones.

"Sheppard! Sheppard are you there?"

"Still here, buddy," John answered, dizzy with relief and unabated panic.

"God. God, oh God, God."

"Where are the others?"

"They're dead, man, they're all dead."

John closed his eyes, stomach churning. How did it go wrong so fast? They were supposed to bring medical aid to a village that had been hit yesterday. Command said the fight had moved on. The guys on his chopper had been medics, two of them members of the Red Cross.

"I'm with Shayne," Reynolds said. "Got blown out the window. Shit. There's, there's glass everywhere. I tried to pull him down the curb . . ."

"Leave him, Harry," John said, terrified of the moment the bombers returned and he would hear Reynolds get shot over the radio.

"But he's so heavy, I can't drag him. You gotta help me, carry him back."

"I can't . . ." John began, but couldn't finish. Pilots didn't abandon their birds, not in a situation like this when any straggling Taliban soldier could scoop up an empty chopper. It was drill. John clenched his hand around the door-handle. If he went and someone took over the helicopter, they'd be stuck, cut off.

Reynolds' started sobbing at the other end of the radio, talking to the LT. John opened the Blackhawk's door only to bang it shut again with a curse. He pulled his gun, staring through the dirt-smeared windshield.

"Please, Sheppard!"

John switched the radio's channel to CASEVAC frequency. "Where's the goddamn backup?" he yelled before tearing the headphones off his head and scrambling out of the helicopter.

Sprinting through the alley, he had to avoid a caved-in wall and a twisted bicycle. First one body sprawled in the street, then John cut a corner and saw what was left of the people he'd ferried to this place.

 

* * *

 

Inside the guest hut, John sat up in bed with a start, the image of burnt bodies fresh in his mind and the smell of scorched flesh lingering. Pulse jumping at his neck, he pressed the heels of his hands against his forehead.

He didn't know what wrecked him more: the flashbacks of pain and fear, or the fact these horrors segued into memories of comfort, love or bliss. The taste of Carol's pancakes, the racket of crossfire, his hands itching with blue scales, Nancy's black silk dress under his mouth ... It was all mixed up, tossing him about. Each night now he turned over his life to find the rot underneath. At their worst, his set-backs felt more real than whatever happened around him. He was losing his grip on the here and now.

Pushing off the blanket, he swung his legs out of bed and placed both feet on the floor. The rushes were cold, the heat of the fire's embers not reaching this far. John focused on the chill, numbing his toes and heels. It cleared his head a little, gave him an anchor.

Weariness evaporated, John grabbed a quilt and got up to leave. He didn't know where he'd go, but anything was better than lying around, listening to his head buzz. As he turned for the door, his gaze darted to Rodney, sleeping with his back to the room.

For a moment, a split moment only, John considered crawling in beside him, sharing warmth like they did the first night the Masks' took them. Only Rodney didn't know a thing about that and John didn't know why he wanted to be close now. If the need he felt when looking at Rodney was genuine or if it was substitute for some other emotion he'd bottled up long ago.

It had been good, though, hadn't it? That one moment in the tower, when Rodney had come for him. Wrapped around him.

John felt the corner of his mouth lift in a smile. He tried to evoke the embrace, feeling Rodney breathing unevenly around him. Instead he felt a stabbing pain in his knee, smelt the snow of the canyon and his own blood. A wave of despair seized him that had no place in the present. His smile faded.

It had to get better in time, he told himself. He would be patient. And he refused to consider the alternative, the solution that occurred to him time and again: To head out into the woods, find Rook and give himself over to Haruveld's poison, putting an end to the uprising of his subconscious, wiping the slate clean even if he was catapulted into the very half-ascension he so dreaded.

 

26 / SOLID GROUND

 

Another rainy evening, Rodney sat brooding over a move Carson had left on their chess board. John had stretched out next to him on a bench while Teyla had gone off to check in with Elizabeth. Near the hearth, Ronon sat cross-legged between two Ord kids, whittling a fox at their request.

It was peaceful, with the rain cascading behind wooden shutters.

Rodney looked down at John, dozing with his arms crossed behind his head. He was supposed to stay in a secluded hut, prepared special for ritual subjects, but he frequented the regular guest lodgings anyway, hanging out.

If he didn't show, Rodney sought him out. They didn't verbalise their reasons, but they didn't stray far from each other's side as a matter of course. It showed in all of them, the whole team, basking in a sense of being complete.

Rodney looked around the room and their belongings, heaped on the beds. Ronon's weapons, set out on the mattress for cleaning, Teyla's duffel... none of them in a hurry to leave. Elizabeth didn't rush them, either.

Lorne had brought fresh clothes, but John wore one of the Ord's pullovers anyway, some uncomplicated, blue weave. It looked good on him. Part of the hem had twisted when John lay back and Rodney resisted the urge to smooth the fold. He shouldn't do this, shouldn't look for excuses to touch John. A month ago, the idea of invading John's personal space would not even have crossed his mind. Now he wanted proof. Seeing John didn't suffice. Wrapping his hand around John's wrist, fingertips on his pulse, that might just convince him that John was back.

Didn't they all think that way? If anything, the last few weeks had spotlighted the protectiveness John provoked in his comrades. But Ronon didn't get touchy-feely – perish the thought. Not even Teyla did after the one hug Rodney had witnessed. So how come he needed the reassurance?

Sighing, Rodney picked up his knight only to set it back down a moment later. Damn Carson had gotten far too good at this. Down beside him, John opened his eyes a fraction.

"Hey there, Sleeping Beauty," Rodney quipped.

John gave him his indulgent, wry face then nodded at the board. "Getting anywhere with that?"

"In time," Rodney said and added, "I wonder who taught Carson to play like that." John's mouth pulled into a smug grin.

Rodney rolled his eyes and sat up to stretch his back. "This isn't the fun it used to be," he declared. "I requested a laptop so we can switch to that golf game of yours. I hope Teyla mentions it."

"Elizabeth still not talking to you?"

"No. I think she has rigged up a dartboard with my face on it, though. Radek mentioned something like that."

John snorted.

"I wish she'd forgive and forget," Rodney continued, "but considering I spent three weeks indulging that sentiment beyond legitimacy, the saying falls on the morbid side of metaphor." He sniggered without mirth, adding, "Unless uttered by me, of course."

Bowing over the chessboard, Rodney tried to concentrate until he noticed John watching. Bewildered, Rodney lifted his head. "What?"

"Are you all right?" John asked quietly.

"Sure," Rodney answered, guessing that John didn't refer to the chess problem. It was the first time John touched upon Rodney's recovery. Rodney figured John decided to compartmentalise the gassing, a decision Rodney supported wholeheartedly.

"For a while there I had the memory of a goldfish," Rodney offered. Seeing John's blank face, he explained, "Three seconds. That's as much as a goldfish remembers. They say."

John chuckled. "Glad you didn't stay that way."

"You and me both."

Rodney watched John slide his eyes shut again and wondered whether he could pat his arm. That was something guy friends did, wasn't it? Acting casual, saying without so many words, no harm no foul.

He didn't, though. Of course he didn't.

 

* * *

 

The ritual hut set aside for John stood outside the village, just inside the forest's fringe. Built snug to a pine tree, the hut's roof was covered with needles and twigs. Due to lack of use, the place had been filled with debris, too, but the Ord had cleaned up before John moved in. New cover on the entrance, new straw mattress and a fire to boot. They'd known worse.

Rodney walked toward the door, carrying a kettle filled with tea. Carson had left that morning, returning to his duties, stationing one of his nurses at the village instead. He also left instructions, ordering John should, quote, drink enough, eat enough and leave off gallivanting or his hide would be forfeit. End quote.

Having nothing else to do, Rodney intercepted nurse Isobel and offered to take the compulsory tea to John in her stead.

All things considered, he thought he'd be happy to see the last of this planet. As it was, he didn't mind being here, taking it easy for a while.

Entering the hut, Rodney found John standing at a table, peering into the small shaving mirror that came with the offworld kit. He also clutched a pair of scissors in one hand, using the other to comb a fringe of hair into his forehead. He pinched one strand, lifted the scissors, pulled a face and hovered.

"What are you doing?" Rodney asked, intrigued.

John flinched, lowering the scissors. "Nothing." He couldn't tear his gaze from the mirror, though, fingertips raking the hair at his temple.

Rodney snorted and moved to put the kettle into the fireplace, an iron basket filled with smouldering coals. "Vanity's a sin, you know," he said.

John lifted a corner of his mouth into a smirk. "Hate the sin, love the sinner."

Rodney knelt down, blowing into the coals. When he got up again, John leaned closer to the mirror, inspecting one of his cowlicks.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Rodney grumbled and pulled up a chair. "Sit down."

"What?" John asked, wheeling on him. "Why?"

Striding over to him, Rodney took the scissors out of John's hands. "I'll cut your hair," he declared.

"I don't think so," John growled, taking a step back.

"If you pet that hair any more," Rodney groused, lifting his chin, "it'll demand alimonies when you're through."

"Rodney."

"Sit."

Apprehension written all over his face, John perched on the chair. Rodney took position behind him, reaching for the pitcher and comb on the table.

"Are you sure about this?" John asked.

"Sure I'm sure," Rodney answered, framing John's head in both hands. "I've been cutting Jeannie's hair since I was ten."

"Wait a minute!"

"Hold still."

Rodney dipped the comb into the jug of water, then started running it through John's hair. Long, firm strokes . . . the rhythm was pleasing and Rodney caught himself humming on and off. He smiled, not really knowing why, gathered a strand of hair between two fingers and snipped off the tip. The first time, John twitched but the longer Rodney went on, the more he relaxed. Rodney made fast work of it, confident his hands knew their business. Toward the end, he left off the comb and used his fingers to smooth John's hair into shape. Looking into the mirror past John's shoulder, he checked his work.

"That's better," he muttered.

"Every time I got you figured," John said quietly.

Rodney looked up, startled. "What?"

"Forget it."

Confidence stilted, Rodney set about finishing the cut. Mussing the back of John's head, he made sure he left no awkward edges. At last he used his thumb to flatten the ends of hair against John's nape. Still moist from the comb, John's hair felt silky against his stroke, almost as enticing as the warmth of John's skin. Rodney lingered, transfixed by the velvet texture, stirring the hairline back and forth. He cradled the back of John's neck with his palm just to know how it would feel. Realising what he did, Rodney froze with shock, unable to step back.

Was it his imagination, or did John lean into his touch?

Pulling himself together, Rodney let go and moved away, putting the scissors on the table. He didn't dare look John in the face.

"Thanks," John said and Rodney closed his eyes, listening to him leave the chair. All good, he told himself, opening his eyes again. Nothing to see; move on. Down in the fire basket, the kettle spouted ropes of steam. Rodney picked up a padded cloth and lifted the kettle out of the coals.

"You better drink this," Rodney said, placing the tea on the table. "Or Carson will have both our heads." Feeling a powerful need for fresh air, he gathered up his jacket.

"You're not staying?" John asked.

Rodney turned to him, clenching his hands around the jacket. "Radek promised to send reports at the next check in," he lied. "Expects me to read them, can you believe it."

"No rest for the wicked, huh?" John remarked, eying the tea.

"None," Rodney agreed. "I'll scare up some dinner. Join us later?"

"Sure." Taking up the cloth, John lifted the kettle's lid and sniffed.

Rodney edged for the door. "So."

"Yeah," John said, then: "Is that sage?"

"And fennel."

"Jesus."

Rodney shrugged into his jacket and reached for the door. Hand on the ridged wood, he looked back over his shoulder. John had left the kettle and picked up the mirror, holding it up with an anxious twist to his mouth.

Seeing John fuss, Rodney couldn't help but smile. Watching John, he often felt randomly grateful and satisfied these days. He must be getting soft. That would explain the little awkwardness just there, but still Rodney wondered why on earth he let himself go like that. To place his palm on the back of John's neck in the first place. And the fact he didn't pull away... Why should that even bother him? More importantly, why didn't it bother him more? Something was different, Rodney reflected. Somewhere between their capture and mounting the cavalry, Rodney's perception of John had changed. Or not changed, but shifted.

That time John took care of him after Rook gassed him the second time. Maybe he should have noticed then.

It occurred to Rodney that he didn't touch John because he worried, he touched him because he wanted... well. Just that. He wanted.

The realisation hit him like a ton of bricks, followed by a surge of exasperation condemning his stupidity. Of all the harebrained blunders he committed, pining for John had to be the farthest out there. Not to mention he didn't swing that way. Rodney almost laughed. The irony of it! All those James T. Kirk jibes and suddenly the joke was on him.

Rodney left the hut, zipping his jacket closed, convinced this new whim would blow over just like so many weird ideas he considered and dismissed in his life.

 

* * *

 

Lorne delivered a laptop on his next visit along with a request that Rodney start on his report. Rodney wondered what his lead in should be. This report describes in detail the preparation, realisation and outcome of my personal insurrection actualised on day etc.

Watching Lorne warm himself with a mug of broth, John said he didn't envy him the long walk back, especially with night falling and all.

"No worries, Sir," Lorne answered. "I've come and gone so many times I could walk the distance with eyes closed."

Later that night, Rodney joined John in the ritual hut, misusing the laptop for pastime with no line of report written yet. Rodney clung to the delay, his period of grace dwindling.

John had completed the Telling the other day, now the Keepers had time to memorise the story before repeating it in John's presence. After that, there would be no more reason to stay. Since the Ord predicted abysmal weather before the week was out, Rodney favoured leaving ahead of the snow.

Ronon had joined the Ord for a night-hunt and Teyla had been invited to Ymer's place, so Rodney decided to bring dinner to the suburbs. John welcomed the distraction. They killed time until the laptop's battery died, decimated the food and discussed the pros and cons of a Star Trek remake. As the hour grew late, John settled back, reading a battered copy of Russian short-stories, and Rodney stretched out on one of the extra cots. He fell asleep fully clothed, quilt pulled over his legs.

 

* * *

 

Rodney woke up to a dim room, the coals in the basket burnt down to a shady glow. Raising himself on one elbow, he saw John had left, Chekhov abandoned on the pillow. Rodney rubbed his face, trying to restart his sleep-addled brain. He left the cot with a half-hearted attempt to smooth his rumpled clothes.

He figured John had wandered over to the outhouse. Rodney decided to stoke the fire, hoping to heat the place for John's return. He walked toward the crate of firewood when he noticed John's jacket thrown on a chair. Moron, Rodney thought. One week of medication and revolting teas and John still didn't take the hint. After a second's hesitation, Rodney picked up the jacket, figuring he'd meet John halfway.

Exiting the hut, Rodney looked up in surprise. It snowed. Moonlight filtered through the trees, silvering the flakes drifting soft as thistledown. Temperatures had dropped, of course. Rodney looked down at John's jacket and thought, great. If he didn't know better, he'd say John enjoyed the martyrdom of a good, long influenza. Maybe someone should tell him a running nose wasn't all that attractive, not even on him.

Rodney turned only to discover that John stood right outside the hut, arms crossed over his chest, hands tucked under his armpits. Rodney stared.

What the hell?

Sucking in air, Rodney opened his mouth but whatever he planned to say never made it past his lips. John turned to him, eyes too dark even with the shadows. He looked distracted, only that didn't nail it. Distant, Rodney thought. He looked distant. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn John just returned from the other side of the universe. Never before had he seemed so remote; a stranger with John's face. It sent a spark of fear flaring in Rodney's chest, the feeling that he had lost after all, that if he reached out now he would touch nothing and John had not made it home after all.

The impression disappeared, leaving a sense of unease in its place.

It was just John, same as always, Rodney thought. Tiredness replaced whatever absorbed him before, making him look older than his years. Rodney decided he would ask John now; this was the time to find out what haunted him and make it better.

Ingenious plan. Speak, damn it. "Forgot your jacket." Could he roll his eyes at his own inadequacy?

"Yeah." John uncrossed his arms and came over. Taking the jacket from Rodney, he looked down at it with a face so inexplicably sad, it left Rodney speechless.

Deciding he failed at comfort, Rodney placed a hand on John's shoulder. He half expected John to look up and make light, but instead, John grabbed him in turn, hand clenched around his arm. He stared at Rodney with a familiar expression, a mixture between despair and 'to hell with it'. When John closed the distance between them, Rodney's back stiffened but he didn't retreat, not even when John kissed him.

It was so strange at first. The angle, John's cold lips, his callused hand against Rodney's cheek. The smell of snow and crushed needles mixed with John's taste and nothing could be more surreal.

Rodney still marvelled at the situation when he caught himself moaning into John's mouth. He started to respond, pulling John's collar into his fist, when John broke the kiss, forehead resting against Rodney's, white breath mingling between them. Up close, Rodney smelled the wood-smoke in John's clothes, felt the fine spray of melted snow on his sweater. John was shaking, too, tiny tremors along his shoulders, as if the cold had just now reached him. Without thinking Rodney pulled him in, wrapping both arms around him as if that might shelter him better, warm him better. John hugged him back, one hand clutching a fold of Rodney's jacket, the other curled in his hair.

Stupid words clogged in Rodney's throat, pleas like Don't go, don't disappear. He held John's body through the fleece sweater, too thin, but here, alive. They stood on a brink, Rodney could feel it but failed to look either back.

John stepped back first, stroking a thumb along Rodney's cheekbone without meeting his eye. He bent to pick up the jacket he dropped and walked back into the hut. Rodney followed, catching the edge of the door before it fell shut.

Inside, John paced to the fire basket and Rodney hesitated, tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. He watched John pour a mug of cold tea and drink it off. He watched as John stared at the jacket bundled in his hands and hurled it at the wall. Rodney moved before he made his decision, rounding the fire and walking up to John's side.

John caught his arm to hold him off. Twisting Rodney's sleeve, John shook his head, throat working. Rodney frowned, confused but determined to find out what would happen. He reached out, framing John's face with one hand, drawing his thumb across John's temple. John made a low, soft noise and squeezed his eyes shut. Moving his hand to cup the back of John's head, Rodney watched every small reaction. John relaxed his grip on Rodney's sleeve, but he breathed with an effort, chest rising and falling out of step. John's stubble against his palm, Rodney waited for the panic to catch up with him. It never did.

When John looked at him again, he searched Rodney's face, searching for an answer Rodney couldn't give. At least, not with words. Meeting John's gaze, Rodney combed his fingertips through John's hair.

When John pulled him into a second kiss, Rodney tasted the bitter sage on his lips and tongue. The length of John's body against his did things, not only to him, but to John, who flushed and didn't seem surprised by the effect at all. John's intensity, the way he seemed to know where he wanted his hands to be; John had thought about this and the realisation mesmerised Rodney to the point where he lost track of the way they moved, John licking his lower lip.

First, only their thighs touched, then John shifted, pressing his erection against Rodney, drawing breath sharply through his nose. Rodney felt his pulse jump and a flare of heat spreading in his stomach. It seemed he'd been wrong about his preferences after all. He clutched the small of John's back, grip slipping on the fleece.

John moved against him, pushing one leg between Rodney's and the friction startled Rodney away from the kiss with a strangled gasp. John stopped, head bent so his breath grazed Rodney's jaw-line. He went so still it nearly drove Rodney out of his insane. He tried for control and in a second, almost had it, seeing clear through the haze. John clutched the lapel of his open jacket, clinging to his clothes like he didn't dare cling to Rodney.

Rodney wondered if this was the moment they could turn back only to realise that the chance to back out had come and gone. Besides, going away now felt crazier than everything else combined.

He turned his head until his nose brushed John's cheek and John's fingers dug into his shoulder blade. Rodney bucked his hip, grinding into John's thigh and for a moment he thought with amazement he'd come there and then, with not a stitch of clothing removed.

"Bed," John whispered, pulling Rodney along with him. They got rid of Rodney's jacket and shirt, John yanking his sweater over his head. He heeled off his boots, too, a feat Rodney couldn't copy, fumbling with his shoelaces instead. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he scrambled back to make room for John.

He never thought watching John undress could do anything for him, but seeing him now, hands hurrying with the button and fly, Rodney forgot how to take care of his own pants. The small line between John's brows, the curve of his hipbones above the waistband... everything new, everything...

Naked, John knelt on the bed, pulled off Rodney's BDUs and settled between his legs. Rodney lay back, taking John with him, arms folded around John's back. They ended up tangled together, John braced above him, face drawn with need. They found a rhythm, rocking against each other, heat building until John came with a choked-off groan, taking Rodney over the edge with him.

Breathing through the aftershocks, Rodney stared at the ceiling, feeling John on every inch of his sensitized skin, his sweat and come, his heartbeat. He trailed his hand up along John's spine and closed his eyes. He thought John said his name, but for the moment, he didn't trust himself to talk.

John rolled onto his side, one hand remaining on Rodney's waist. Rodney reached down, stroking the curve and hollow of John's wrist. Testing his reaction, brain and body, Rodney couldn't find regret, only a faint disbelief mixing with bone-deep satisfaction. John didn't pry or explain, either, he was just there, pushing sweat-matted hair from his forehead, looking content if a little shaken.

"Are we..." Rodney ventured but John shook his head at him, echoing Rodney's reluctance to assign meaning just yet. Rodney continued to caress John's arm, tracing fingertips along lithe muscle, realising he could finally touch his fill.

 

* * *

 

Rodney woke the next morning, curled around John, who slept like a question mark, snoring softly. Rodney breathed the scent of John's sleep-warm skin and splayed his hand on John's chest, coarse hair against his palm, pleasing in a new and different way. He'd never been one to hang around in bed before breakfast but he could get used to this. At the same time he figured John wouldn't mind food, either, at some point.

Untangling himself, Rodney eased up on one elbow, the quilt slipping down to his waist. He waited, but John didn't move a muscle. Whether he was still not fit or merely spent, Rodney couldn't say. Carson's warning echoed in his ear, telling him to keep John from overtaxing. Well.

Recalling a fragment of last night's 'taxing' Rodney's cock twitched and he clenched his jaw. God. Who would have thought?

He still couldn't fathom all that happened, sensing he should be agitated in some way but failing to work up a suitable turmoil. That should tell him something, he supposed.

Rodney leaned closer, watching John's half-parted mouth. He thought of the time he'd dressed the cut on John's lip and wondered if John had known then. Reviewing the last month, Rodney realised a lot that passed between them during their capture and after showed in a new light. Which made him wonder: If circumstances were different, would they still be here, lines crossed? Rodney couldn't say.

One thing was for sure, though. They had always cared too much. He knew that now. Experimenting, Rodney bent over and kissed John's shoulder before pulling the quilt back up. He picked up his clothes and dressed quietly, leaving his belt and shoelaces for outside. The door didn't creak and John didn't notice him leave.

Out in the open, Rodney saw last night's weather didn't last. Only a thin powder of snow dusted the ground, crunching under his feet as he walked to the village. With the fresh air, a ghost of the tension he expected tightened his chest but even with the uncertainty of how they'd go on, Rodney couldn't shake the feeling something had fallen into place last night. For the moment, that was enough.

27 / THE HARSH LIGHT OF DAY

 

Rodney had left the bed to stoke the fire, crouching in front of the iron basket to add new logs. When he blew into the embers, the flames' red glow flickered on his naked skin, bare shoulders and thighs. John thought Rodney would be more inhibited about nudity, but he moved around the room without even the attempt to cover up and didn't seem to mind, either. John still waited for either of them to run like hell. It mystified him why he himself hadn't bailed.

Something had changed. His pulse still hammered too fast but other than that he was calm. Hand in his damp hair, John closed his eyes, listening. Nothing. No thought, no intruding memories tearing at his sanity. He was aware of his body only, the brush of linen sheets under his thigh and the cool coming from the wall toward his naked arm. Here. Now. It felt like stepping from a dark, noisy room out onto the seaside. Nothing but the surf and -- peace. His throat constricted, the relief so great John almost cried.

Rodney returned, stretching out next to him. After a moment's pause, he threaded his fingers with John's, studying him the way he looked at potential discoveries – could be ground breaking, could be a scam.

"I didn't see this coming," John admitted.

Rodney narrowed his eyes. "You're kidding."

"No."

For a moment, he almost apologised but something in Rodney's face told him that would be a mistake. Leaning in, Rodney kissed him with more concern than passion and John wasn't prepared for that. He pulled away from Rodney's hand and loped an arm around Rodney's shoulders instead.

Rodney made a small, almost humming noise. He put so much focus in every single touch, as though he expected each reaction, his or John's, to reveal a truth. And it did, didn't it? John could track Rodney's hand running down his side, following his waist, slipping down, hesitating. John clenched his fist, stopping short before he showed Rodney where he wanted his hand to go. Things happened fast as it were, he shouldn't push. Rodney caught him out, though, a half-smile pulling at his mouth. That face was so Rodney, crooked and amused, catching John off guard and pleasing him so much at the same time. It laid him bare, every muscle drawing tight with want even before Rodney wrapped his hand around John's cock.

They went slow, easy, this time, Rodney mapping every inch of John's body, holding him together at the seams until he felt whole again. Later, Rodney fell asleep on his side, one arm flung over John's leg. John looked at his receding hairline and used his fingertips to trace the vertebrae running down from his nape. Listening to the coals crack and spit, John let his eyes drift half-shut, drowsy with contentment.

He felt very much at home, not only here in bed with Rodney, but also within himself. He didn't feel shamed or alienated by anything he did. Rodney mumbling in his sleep, John closed his eyes with a smile. He dozed off with an ease he wasn't used to, unafraid and untroubled.

 

* * *

 

When Har's granddaughter Eli came to wake him the next morning, Rodney had already left. John stared at the empty side of the bed with a sinking heart until he noticed the tray waiting on the table, topped by a scraggly note that said 'eat up'. Eli hadn't brought that. John took his time dressing, having breakfast while he sat cross-legged on the bed.

The elders summoned him to the assembly hut and he duly listened to their retelling of his story. He talked to Teyla, after, and she promised to prepare their departure while he took care of 'stuff'. She didn't question John's need for reclusion, merely saying they would be ready when John wanted to leave.

Midday almost gone, John sat atop the watchtower, legs dangling over the edge. Twisting a brittle stalk of grass between his fingers, he looked across the woods to the snow-covered mountains. He tried to make sense of last night, but he couldn't get over the realisation that he'd woken up this morning feeling better.

It should make him suspicious and it did, but the fact remained that things had calmed down. He'd only had one flashback so far and even that lacked intensity. Apparently, his bygone sins dropped back into obscurity, a fragile peace, but peace it was. It seemed absurd that Rodney accomplished that. He did, though. Somehow he gathered up the pieces. That hug, the least likely response to John's awkward kiss, set things right that had no way of fitting.

John dropped the stalk of grass and pulled Rodney's maple-leaf patch from his pocket, stitches worn shiny with touch. He couldn't remember how often he'd taken it out, squeezed it inside his fist while hiding from Adahi.

It had been a close call -- in retrospect, John understood that even more. Digested by his past, he could have ended up like Jorun, biting off his tongue before Adahi managed to ascend him by force. Instead Rodney found him and fixed him, became a fixed-point that allowed John to ground himself in what happened around him. It had felt incredible, the moment John could concentrate on someone beside himself, drop the tide of overloaded introspection and just be. Not to mention the sex had been good, too. John smiled. He didn't know how he could ever tell Rodney all or even any of that. He was determined, though, to show him, to give him back--well. Interesting question, wasn't it: Give him back what?

Giving in, burying his face in Rodney's shoulder, coming with a full-body shudder -- John thought he grasped what it resolved, but where to go from there? He didn't have a clue. Last night might have been born of desperation and perhaps he caught Rodney in the rush of the moment, he couldn't quite tell. There was no denying, though, where John turned to when endurance gave way to need. He looked at the patch, trailing the seamed edge with his thumbnail. His instinct proved a far better guide than his reason.

Stay or leave, John couldn't figure it out. It depended on Rodney's reaction, too, and John was satisfied to wait, see how they would deal and find out what he wanted, then. He was done defining, performing, analysing for a while.

Shoving the patch back into his pocket, John turned for the ladder. Setting his feet on the first row, he looked once more at the distant mountain range.

They should return to the spire with the Daedalus, making sure all ends were tied up. Ronon told John his weapon had been set to stun, so they should at least check whether Adahi survived. Speaking with Elizabeth, John never made the suggestion. It wasn't mercy but it wasn't revenge, either. In truth, the thought of him – or anyone – coming near Adahi made John's blood run cold. So if Caldwell asked him about weapons, John would tell him there were none even though he'd never set foot into the tower's arsenal.

Would Adahi continue to haunt the spire, now that Haruveld and her brother were gone? John imagined her standing in the shard room, surrounded by black birds, their flutter the only sound in the silence.

Recovering or not, the picture of her would creep him out for a long time.

Something occurred to John, then. He remembered when Adahi dragged up the first time he had sex with a guy for all the wrong reasons and how he begged her to deal with that memory, take away the humiliation. And maybe she did. Could it be she purged that experience, leaving room to try a second time, unblemished by past shame? Was that why he didn't bolt last night?

The idea startled John, but if it was true, he'd never seen a gift in a stranger wrapping.

 

* * *

 

He found Rodney by the water-barrels, tugging at his t-shirt and sniffing with a grimace. "You ready to leave the luxury?" John asked, coming up behind him.

"Funny." Rodney smoothed his t-shirt and zipped his jacket closed. With a last, mournful look at the barrels, he turned. Meeting John's gaze he didn't falter, lifting an eyebrow half with challenge, half with curiosity. John didn't know how to begin, but Rodney spared him the trouble. "I can't wait to get home," he said. "I won't leave the shower for an hour."

"Hm," John said, fighting off interesting imagery.

Rodney's eyes widened before he crossed his arms, a muscle in his cheek twitching. "Are you serious?" he asked in a low, disbelieving voice.

Caught, John scratched the back of his head, desperate for distraction.

Ronon was washing at the next barrel, using soap and a wet rag on his bare torso, neck and arms without scruple. For the finish, he leaned over the barrel and dunked his head in to the shoulders.

"That can't be healthy," Rodney commented.

"Actually, it is," Ronon said, pushing back his dripping dreads with a grin. "Steels your body."

"Right."

Teyla chose the moment to join them, duffel slung over her shoulder. "Feeling better?" she asked with a look at Ronon who pulled on a clean shirt.

"You tell me," he returned, still good-natured. She stepped up to him, sniffing.

"Yes," she nodded. "Better."

"How come you look fresh as the morning dew?" Rodney wanted to know.

Teyla picked up a towel and handed it to Ronon. "I went with Ymer and the other elders to the river this morning."

"The river . . ." John said.

"Isn't that even colder?" Rodney asked, horrified.

Teyla shrugged. "It helps keep off a cold. You only have to warm up after."

"That's it," Rodney declared. "I'm done with the outdoors."

"We can leave as soon as you're ready," Teyla assured him. "There won't be a big send off this time, but Ymer wants to say goodbye."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Right. I'm sure she'll miss me."

Passing him, Teyla patted his arm. "Be nice, Rodney."

"I'm always nice," he huffed.

"Come on," John cut in. "Let's get our stuff."

"Isn't Lorne here?" Rodney asked as John led him away. "He's handy, carrying things."

They walked through the village, heading for the guest hut. John shoved his hands into his pockets, well aware Rodney was watching him.

"I brought you breakfast," Rodney informed him.

"Yeah. Thanks."

And there it was, the wry curl of mouth that pushed all the right buttons. "I hope your gratitude only refers to the food."

John grinned back at him. "Yes."

"Good."

They reached the shadow of the guest lodgings and stopped to face each other. John considered Rodney's demand that humility shouldn't come into this and judged it a glimpse of hope. What happened between them wasn't a result of any misguided charity. That solved one question, at least. "Didn't think pity had anything to do with it," John said softly. Rodney seemed pleased by that.

"Again with the good."

"So?"

"So."

Rodney's eyes were bright, chin up, only the tight set of his mouth betrayed some nerves. John hoped his own poker face was even half as good. Time to make up his mind.

Stepping forward, John took Rodney's face in both hands, foreheads touching. He could feel the rush of his blood and the sudden warmth that spread from his fingertips. His mouth dry, he swallowed, skin tingling with strange elation.

Rodney seized his arms and John could feel a hitch in his breath. "This could get very complicated," Rodney said.

"Might," John concurred.

"That doesn't stop us, though."

John smiled. "No."

"Good."

 

Fin

___________
finished 03/09

beta by Auburn, Blue Adagio,
Dossier, Enname & Eretria

Index
An Inukshuk is a stone landmark used as a marker or guidepost by the Inuit to mark trails and sacred spaces. In contemporary culture the Inukshuk also symbolises human beings' dependence on each other and the value of strong relationships.

Quotes from:
Gwendolyn MacEwen, Dark Pines Under Water
Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye
Walter Pater, The Renaissance
Wislawa Szymborska, Tortures
Pablo Neruda, If You Forget Me