Everything was different, on the ground.
Major John Sheppard had overflown this stretch of coast more times than he could count. Coming in hot with Luftwaffe fighters on his tail; coming in easy with the sun setting, glorious gold, to his left; coming in at night, the slow waves wrinkled with moonlight and the beaches fringed with white foam. He'd soared northwards, homewards, free.
Now John Sheppard, plain Mister, had no home, and every yard of the long straight road ached in his bones. To his right, snow and straw tweeded a ploughed field. The soil was dark and rich: good farmland. To his left, black birds — crows? — quarrelled and alarmed in the rimy hawthorn hedge. The air glowed pink, and the North Sea stretched like slate to the horizon.
Everything was flat, horizontal, stratified: everything except the stone barn at the end of the road. And this had to be a joke, because there was no home here, no brave new community named Atlantis, no sign of human life: nothing and no one here, only bird-noise and the fading light. Only the old stone barn, flint and brick and cobbles, and the sea-wall meandering north and south like a border. Only himself, walking east to the edge of England, his breath clouding like smoke around him.
Lights were coming on in the village behind him, in the town across the estuary to the north, but they were further away than they'd ever been from twenty thousand feet. He was utterly alone. Sure, he could turn back to the last pub he'd passed, the Anchor, and ask for lodging: sleep in another empty room, and wake to another empty day. Too late to catch a train back to London tonight, now: it'd take him hours to walk the ten miles back to the station, in the dark, on roads that had lost their signposts at the start of the war. Too late for the last train, and nothing to go back to. He was truly glad of the peace: he'd seen too many of his friends die, these last few years. But war had given him a home.
Better to walk on, to seek shelter in the ruined barn, to find a corner out of the wind and make himself a bed. Eat the last of the bread he'd bought in Spitalfields market, drink cold tea from his flask, sleep 'til dawn. Dawn came late, these January days: late and cold, and bleak. He'd lain awake waiting for the light too many mornings since the war was won.
The light was dimming and the road fading to a rutted track: he stumbled once, again, almost fell. Ice crackled under his boots. The crows were quiet now, though the trees roiled and rustled with their fluttering. A long black feather drifted down in front of him. John let it fall.
This had to be a joke. Back in the Anchor they'd told him to follow the road. Watch out for old Cole, they'd said: he don't like trespassers. Stick to the road and you'll be right.
The gate creaked when he opened it, cold latch burning his cold hand, hinges harsh with rust. Old Cole could use a can of oil. Maybe he could use a hired hand. Maybe in the morning John'd swallow his pride again, knock at the nearest farmhouse, trade the strength of his body for food and drink. In the morning.
The stone barn loomed. A heavy wooden door, studded with iron and scarred with what looked to John like gunfire: unglazed windows high in the wall; a wreath of withered flowers, white with frost on the doorstep, and a horseshoe above the lintel. John shouldered the door open and stepped inside.
It was too dark to see much, but he could tell at once that this wasn't a barn. This had been a church, or a chapel, once: there was the altar, bare wood, and Christ slumped on a wooden cross above it. Long wooden pews on the rough flagstones. In front of the altar someone knelt in prayer, someone who looked to be wearing an old-fashioned monk's habit: taking it a bit far, but what the hell. A lot of people took things too far, since the end of the war. He wouldn't be here now (in this cold empty chapel, waiting for the kneeling man to notice him, shivering as he hadn't shivered outside in the last of the light) if some country squire's widow hadn't decided, in the first jubilation of peace, to create a place for the lost and wandering, for men and women like Major — Mister — John Sheppard who had nowhere to go.
"Excuse me?" said John. "I'm looking for Atlantis." It sounded dumb, like he was looking for some fairy-tale city beneath the slate-coloured sea.
Perhaps the guy was deaf. Perhaps he was so deep in prayer (how long since John'd prayed? How long since he'd believed in any God?) that he was oblivious to the world around him. "Excuse me?" said John, louder. His voice echoed from the beams.
Behind him the door groaned open. John's spine prickled: he swung round. There was a tall woman there, her hand on the door, silhouetted against the last of the light.
"Were you looking for me?" she said. John could see her head turn: she must've heard him talking, just now. He couldn't see her clearly, but she held herself tall. He was pretty sure she was wearing men's clothing, pants and a heavy coat. "I'm Elizabeth Weir, founder of the Atlantis Community: welcome."
John glanced back over his shoulder, but the kneeling man had taken himself silently away.
"John Sheppard," he said. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. And ... yeah."
* * *
John Sheppard ("Used to be a major. Air Force. I resigned my commission last summer." "Before or after the atom bomb?" "After.") was quiet and watchful as he walked beside her up the track towards Atlantis. The young trees shielded the community from view, but the lamps were being lit — she'd have to send Laura to fetch more paraffin from the village — and smoke was rising, almost invisible against the evening sky, from the kitchen.
"Why here?" said Sheppard. She liked his voice: American, easy, friendly. He was a good-looking fellow, too. She found herself hoping that he'd stay.
"My late husband owned the land, before the war." There: the first lie she'd told him.
"But the Army requisitioned it?"
"There was a high risk of invasion along the coast," said Elizabeth. "This was a minefield until just before Christmas."
Sheppard's pace didn't change, though she saw him glance down at the muddy grass, black beneath their feet. "Surprised you got the land back so quickly."
"Colonel Caldwell, at Colchester, is an old friend," said Elizabeth.
"It's good to have friends," said Sheppard. "So, how many of you are there?"
"In Atlantis?" Elizabeth took a moment, opening the gate, to tally the newcomers. "A dozen or so," she said. "It's early days yet. Come on through: I'll do the introductions."
"I'm sorry, did I say something amusing?"
"My apologies, ma'am." He was more polite than most Englishmen, never mind the Americans at the airfield. "Sounded like a formal occasion, and I was just thinking I'm not dressed for it."
"We don't stand on ceremony," said Elizabeth, smiling at him as she turned to snick the gate shut. "There's no place for that here."
Sheppard slowed, looking around him, and Elizabeth tried to see Atlantis as a stranger might. The low curve of the Nissen huts — draughty, but they kept the rain out — that served as dormitories: one for the men, one for the girls. The low, sprawling Hall, patchworked with wood from all over the peninsula, from demolished barns and pig-sties and Mrs Watts' cottage after the bomb destroyed it. Chickens scrabbling in the mud behind the kitchen at the back. Yellow lamplight spilling out between the gingham curtains. Katie at the sink, washing dishes; the radio playing — Elizabeth frowned — in the background.
"You can leave your bags just inside the door, here," she told Sheppard. "Once you've met everyone and seen the work we're doing, you can decide whether you'd like to stay."
"No need," said Sheppard, staring up at the clear sky. "I made my mind up before I left London."
"Don't you think that's rather ... impulsive?" said Elizabeth, trying not to let relief or pleasure colour her voice.
"Nowhere else to go," said Sheppard flatly. "And I like the sound of what you're trying to do."
"The war's over, Mr Sheppard," said Elizabeth. "If we can learn to live together in community, perhaps we can prevent another conflict."
Sheppard studied her, head tilted. "You really think you can make a difference? Change human nature?"
"Perhaps," said Elizabeth, aware that she sounded defensive. "You just said you, what was it, 'liked the sound of it'."
"Whether I like it or not doesn't matter a damn," said Sheppard. "Just because it's the right thing to do, doesn't mean it's going to change anything."
"Am I correct in thinking," said Elizabeth crisply, "that you commanded men, in the war?"
"Yes, ma'am." His spine straightened perceptibly.
"Then I'd appreciate your impressions of the people here," said Elizabeth. There were voices from the Hall: the community was already gathering for the evening meal. "After supper, perhaps. Come along," Elizabeth invited. "You must be hungry."
Sheppard ducked his head: he was smiling. At her direction, he shed his heavy coat and hung it on a spare peg. He was thin, but wasn't everyone these days?
Elizabeth led him through to the Hall, trying to see this, too, through the eyes of a newcomer. Paraffin lamps hung on the walls, safely away from the shabby curtains. There were candles on the table, and their flickering light hid the patchiness of the paint, the mismatched squares of carpet, the place where the ceiling had leaked and been mended. Katie had painted a couple of old coffee tins, and filled them with bright paper flowers. There was a game of cards in progress at one end of the table, and Zelenka and Carson intent over a chessboard at the other.
"Did I see a Nissen hut, round back?" said Sheppard.
Elizabeth nodded. "I've a friend in the Army," she said.
Sheppard looked ... nervous. Perhaps it was simply the ordinary discomfort of a stranger entering a crowded room; perhaps it was something more. Elizabeth did not give him time to change his mind, though if she'd known him a little better she would have liked to ask him what he was thinking. She clapped her hands, and everybody looked up.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mr John Sheppard, formerly of the US Air Force. He'll be joining us."
"For dinner?" said Laura, coming in with a covered bowl in each hand. "I'll set another place."
"For longer, if he cares to," said Elizabeth.
A chorus of greetings, and Sheppard shifting uncomfortably beside her.
"Actually," he said amiably, "it was the RAF."
"I didn't think they let Americans join up," said Laura, disregarding Elizabeth's sharp glance. "I thought you had your own."
"A bunch of us came over in 1940," said Sheppard. "Didn't want to miss our chance to fight the Germans. And by the time America joined the war ... well, I'd been with the guys through combat: I didn't want to leave them behind."
Elizabeth was not prone to gambling, but she'd have bet there was more to Sheppard's story than he'd divulged.
"Perhaps you'd all like to introduce yourselves?" she suggested to the others. "Mr Sheppard, won't you have a seat?"
Elizabeth leant back against the wall, watching John Sheppard as he fixed his gaze on each man and woman there: learning their faces, their names, the way they defined themselves here in Atlantis. That was always intriguing. Zelenka, the Czechoslovakian scientist, introduced himself simply as a refugee from Prague. Mr Parrish claimed he'd come here to survey the wildlife in the wake of war. Laura Cadman told Sheppard she was 'just a local girl'. Carson Beckett waxed lyrical about his skills as a doctor, but he did not mention the hard-won experience he'd gained in wartime. And here came Katie, flustered at the unexpected guest at the table, almost dropping the teapot as she nodded and smiled at Sheppard.
Sheppard just sat there, smiling and relaxed, and perhaps only Elizabeth could see the tension in his spine, or the way his fist balled beneath the table as he deflected every one of their questions about the life he'd left behind.
"I can't believe you eat this stuff!" said Laura, giggling and prodding at the ... the thing on her plate. "Nearly made myself sick just cooking it."
"It's a fine tradition," said Carson Beckett. For a man who still had two fingers of whisky in his red china mug, his words were pretty slurred. John wouldn't put it past him to have another bottle of whisky — the good stuff — stashed away somewhere. Maybe the man could be persuaded to share. John wouldn't mind getting drunk, properly drunk, one of these nights.
He kept quiet, forking up haggis. It wasn't so bad if you smothered it in pickle. He was still checking out the people here, gauging them, trying to figure what'd brought them to this remote, isolated, visionary community that Elizabeth Weir had founded with her money and her land and — John was pretty sure — her own guilt about something. Something or someone.
Carson was a good man. John'd woken up suddenly (spiralling like a sycamore seed, flames and green corn, screaming over the radio he couldn't shut off) the other night. He'd lain there, sweating, silent, in his bed in the men's hut — draughty and spider-infested, with the constant drip of water in the corner whenever it rained, but a cut above some of the RAF barracks he'd lived in — and waited for his mind to clear. And Carson had known he was awake, never mind the muffling curtains, never mind that John'd bitten his lip until it bled to stop himself making a sound. Carson had got out of his own bed, lit a candle, and come to sit on the end of John's, chatting to him about everything and nothing. Nothing dangerous, nothing about the war or the past. He'd talked about his mother in Fife, and how she'd sent a postal order for ten pounds when Carson'd told her about Atlantis. "There's never enough money," Carson had said softly in the darkness. "But Elizabeth — Mrs Weir, I mean — hopes we won't be needing money."
"What about food?" John'd said, forcing himself to breathe calmly, to speak as though his nerves weren't still jangling. "We all have to eat."
"We're hoping to be self-sufficient," Carson had told him, and he'd started on about chickens and the field out back and bartering his services — "aye, and anyone else who cares to help" — for grain, fish, offal. "Halling's a good sort," he'd murmured. "That's the chap who runs the shop, over in the village. He's got a gammy leg, and he can't do so much of the heavy work: and he lost his son in the war."
Just that one word had set John's lungs labouring for air again, and Carson'd stopped mid-sentence and told him to breathe, in and out, slow, from the diaphragm. It'd helped.
And nobody'd said a word about his nightmares, or the fear that'd gripped him that night. Carson must've kept quiet about it, and if Zelenka or Parrish had heard anything, they didn't discuss it when John was around.
Fine. He was fine, he was among friends — or men and women who might become friends, some day — and the war was over. He didn't need to tense every time an aeroplane went over: he didn't need to think about bombs falling here on Atlantis, splintering the wooden barn that Elizabeth called the Hall, ripping open the Nissen huts like sardine tins, exposing the neat rows of beds and their sleeping, vulnerable occupants.
Not thinking about it, that was the answer. Nothing to fear any more, except the stuff in his head. And he was sleeping better, here. Maybe it was the hard work that he'd set to with a will: ploughing the field with a hand-plough, sweating in the cold clammy air, or chopping up barrowloads of wood for the stove, or helping Parrish put tar-paper over the roof of the Hall.
The whisky'd help, too.
"Now," said Carson, pouring the last of the bottle into his own mug, "it's traditional to sing, or to recite poetry. And make toasts."
"I've a toast," said Elizabeth Weir firmly, raising her own cup. The light from the paraffin lamp softened her features, made her look younger: John was pretty sure she wasn't any older than he was. Her eyes sparkled. "To Atlantis," she said. "To a new way of living."
"Mrs Weir," said John, open and friendly, once he'd drunk. "Why Atlantis?"
"It's a long story," said Elizabeth, her gaze unfocussed.
John spread his hands, slouched back in his chair. "No rush," he said. "We've got all winter."
Rodney McKay wouldn't call this a road, though it was clearly what passed for one around here. More like a mudbath, and God knew what the ruts and potholes were doing to the suspension of his car. The Morris Eight was stuffed with books and papers, clothes, gramophone and records: everything he'd wanted to bring away with him. If he'd known he was coming to such a backwater, he'd've thrown caution to the winds and brought the furniture too. Into exile.
Gusts lashed the bare treetops, shaking loose a storm of crows. Rain blattered against the windscreen, too much for the wipers to clear. Rodney had a suspicion that his feet were wet: the Morris wasn't what you'd call watertight, though of course he'd had no idea he'd be driving through puddles deep enough to drown a man on foot. He ruthlessly suppressed the memory of Cambridge's narrow streets and terraced houses. He'd left all that behind.
There was no way this could be it. There was an ugly squat stone building in the middle of a field, and the sea beyond it was as grey as the sky. Four p.m. and it was already getting dark. He must've taken a wrong turning somewhere, back in the huddle of houses they called a village. He'd have to go back and bang on doors until someone gave him decent — accurate — directions to this bloody Atlantis place.
There was a tall man in a black coat leaning on the gate at the end of the road, watching the Morris bump and rattle its way towards him. He made no move to open the gate. A vicious-looking dog crouched at his feet. Rodney didn't much care for dogs, and this one looked as though it'd go for his throat at the drop of a hat.
He wound down the window. "You there! Is this the way to Atlantis?"
The man spat in the mud.
"Charming," snapped Rodney. "Is that a yes? If it is, I'd be obliged if you'd open the gate. Or, if it's a no, perhaps you'd be so good as to direct me. Or point, if you haven't yet mastered the act of speech."
The man just stared at him, hostile. Maybe he didn't speak English. Maybe he was an escaped prisoner of war. Oh God, what if he was violent? What if he was getting ready to hit Rodney over the head and steal the car? No way was Rodney getting out of the car now. Anyway, the rain was getting heavier, if that was even possible.
"Right, I'll assume you're the village idiot," said Rodney, "and I've taken a wrong turning. Perhaps you'd like to get out of the way? I need to turn the car around." Which wasn't going to be much fun, with all the mud and a ditch between the track and the hedge, and that bloody dog probably jumping around under the wheels.
"Afternoon, Mr Cole!" called a voice from somewhere behind the car. Rodney glanced in the fogged mirror, rubbing it clear. Another man was walking — squelching — up the track from the village. He halted beside Rodney's window and bent down to peer into the fuggy interior. "Hey, you looking for Atlantis?"
"Yes, yes I am. Who is this guy?"
"Local farmer," said the man. He was American, and he sounded disgustingly cheerful despite the water dripping from his dark hair and soaking his collar. There was a rough sack over his shoulder, and another in his hand. "Don't mind him: he doesn't like company. Hey, Mr Cole? Could you could open the gate for my friend here?"
"I'm not your servant," growled the man. His dog crouched at his feet, growling too.
"No problem," said the American easily. Hefting the sacks — they looked heavy — he walked up to the gate. No more than a glance at the dog, but it backed away: no more than a glance at Cole, but he stepped aside so that the man could push the gate open and beckon Rodney through.
Rodney couldn't help it if the wheels spun in the mud, splattering the two men and the dog. The American was grinning, though, as he shut the gate behind the Morris.
"Any chance of a ride?"
"Are you joking? You're filthy," said Rodney. "And the car's full, anyway."
"Aw, come on." And before Rodney could drive off, the American was opening the passenger door and dumping himself and his muddy sacks on the leather seat, pushing Rodney's carpet bag and his useless AA maps into the footwell. "It's not far," he said encouragingly. "Just head across the field." Were those lights glimmering behind the trees? "And the sooner this gets to the kitchen, the sooner we'll be eating. I'm John Sheppard: pleasure to meet you. Glad you found us okay."
"I wouldn't call it 'okay'," said Rodney bitingly, wrestling the car into gear again. "It's six months since the end of the war: you'd think they could bring back the signposts now, given that there's no chance of German troops overrunning the countryside, desperate to occupy Cold Norton or Nether Bumpstead or Little Lackwit. I've driven through a plethora of pretty little villages with matching sets of thatched cottages and interchangeable duckponds — not that there's any ducks left, they've all been sacrificed to the War Effort — and inbred straw-chewing yokels who don't even know the name of the place where they live." Rodney swerved to avoid an especially large puddle: the Morris's wheels skidded on wet grass. "And the roads — if you can call them roads — the roads must've been laid out by the local drunk. I mean, who puts a double bend in the middle of nowhere, for no reason? It's flat as a pancake round here, it's not as though ... And there's more than one Bradwell in Essex, did you know that when you sent me those, frankly laughably inadequate, directions?"
"Wasn't me," said Sheppard. "And the other one's miles from the sea. Bradwell-juxta-mare: that means —"
"Yes, yes, thank you, I'm familiar with Latin terminology. Sea, huh?" Rodney peered out, east, towards the blank horizon. "Looks more like mud to me. As if you didn't have enough mud on this alleged road."
"Hey, you found us, Mr —"
"Doctor," snapped Rodney, braking hard as a bank of mud loomed out of the rain. "Doctor Rodney McKay. Of Cambridge."
"Fooled me," said Sheppard. "Could've sworn that was a Canadian accent."
"Yes, originally, of course, but the research opportunities were vastly superior at the Cavendish." The car stopped sliding. Rodney turned off the engine and just breathed for a moment.
"Pleasure, Dr McKay. Why don't you grab a bag or two and come on in?"
"In? In where?" Rodney stared ahead through the rain. He could see a light or two, but nothing distinct. "Are you, are you camping out or something?"
"We've got Nissen huts," said Sheppard. He was grinning. "It's coming along. Doctor, did you say? We've got a doctor, though we can always use another."
"My doctorate is in physics," snapped Rodney. "And what makes you think I'm staying?"
"Hell of a lot of baggage," said Sheppard easily, with a nod of his head towards the boxes and bags in the back seat, "if you've just come by for tea. Come on in, McKay: come in out of the rain."
The fog was like a blanket tucked over Atlantis, keeping it safe and dim, jewelling each bare branch with fat round droplets. John hated it. He wanted to be up above it all, in the sunshine, looking down on the soft grey clouds, with the radio to guide him home safe.
No use thinking of what he couldn't have, what he'd given away. He chopped wood for the Aga, carried water from the stand-pipe, settled himself in the steamy kitchen with Katie Brown and Laura Cadman and listened to them bicker as he peeled potatoes.
"I'm not going back," Laura was saying defiantly. "I've been earning a wage, being an independent woman, for years now. Why would I want to go back to how things were before?"
"I miss it," said Katie, red-faced with the effort of turning the mangle. "I miss living at home, and going to dances. I miss going to the pictures on a Saturday night. And I hate doing laundry!"
"Here, let me give you a hand with that," said John. His other clothes were somewhere in the wash, and if he left it to Katie they'd be damp for days.
"Thank you, Mr Sheppard," said Katie, blushing. It was kind of cute. "You never finished telling me what you did before the war."
He'd never started telling her. "You can call me John. And I ... didn't do much." No way was he telling them about his father, the ranch, the arguments. About flying. "Hung out, went to school: the usual."
"It must be very different in America," said Katie wistfully. John let her voice wash over him, her Hollywood fantasies and her misconceptions. Laura was smirking to herself: she winked at John. Hell, was Katie coming on to him? John lowered his head, hoping the flush he could feel rising up his throat could be blamed on the heat and the effort: wound the mangle harder as Katie, still chattering, fed in another soggy garment.
"Sheppard? You in here?"
McKay's voice sounded like the cavalry coming over the hill. "Hey," said John, straightening. He gave the wringer one last heave. "What's up?"
"Oh, nothing," said McKay. "I was just looking for someone to help me with a couple of boxes."
John grinned. He'd helped McKay the other day, if 'help' was the word for lugging things into the Hall and putting them where McKay wanted them. Wasn't as if there was much space for personal stuff, in the men's hut. McKay'd made a beeline for the bed next to John's, separated from him by a thick, ugly curtain. John hadn't had a chance to warn McKay about the nightmares that brought him awake thrashing and shouting: he had a feeling McKay wouldn't have listened, wouldn't have cared. Probably wouldn't even notice: McKay, it turned out, slept like a log and snored like a chainsaw. It was kind of nice to lie there, waiting to sleep, with the sounds of other men close by. He'd missed that, since the war.
"What's in the boxes?" he said.
"Just, just some books. And some equipment." McKay's gaze slid away from John's. "Nothing much."
"Sure," said John easily. "Let me finish up here."
"I'll do it," offered Laura.
"I'll be in the field," said Katie sullenly. "It's good weather for planting."
"Great," said John. "What —"
"C'mon, Sheppard," said McKay, and he was out of the door while John was still shooting a rueful smile at Katie.
The boxes were damned heavy, and McKay hovered, telling John to be careful, not to drop anything. The fog beaded on his hair and eyelashes.
"Why don't you get the door," said John, panting. "Where're these going, anyway?"
"Oh, Elizabeth said I could use that room — well, it's pretty much a cupboard — in back of the hall," said McKay, walking ahead of John with his hands in his pockets. John tried not to stare at his ass, but he had to look somewhere. "For my work."
"What is your work?" said John.
McKay's mouth went thin and unhappy. "When I was in Cambridge," he began, but — unusually for him — he left the sentence hanging.
"Cambridge?" prompted John, setting the box down as gently as he could, just in case there really was something fragile in there.
"I had to leave," snapped McKay. "You wouldn't understand."
"Try me," said John. He crouched down, levering the box open.
"Leave that alone! I was working in the Cavendish, but they wanted me to build them a bomb — oh, they kept talking about peaceful applications for the work we were doing on neutron fission cross-sections, but I could see where they were headed, and no, no, just no."
"Cool," said John, peering in. Wires and valves and small, battered cardboard boxes. It could've been the makings of a bomb, or of a crystal radio set.
"Yes, yes, I'm sure you think so," said McKay. "It doesn't matter to you, does it? You just fly over German cities and drop the things. You don't —"
"Hey," said John. His skin was prickling: yeah, he wanted a fight, even if it was only words. "One, I was a fighter pilot: I didn't drop bombs. Two ..."
"Two?" prodded McKay.
"Two, it did matter." It sounded lame. "It does matter."
"Then why join up?" McKay was watching him now, staring at John's hands, his face. His eyes were ridiculously blue, and his slight frown pulled his eyebrows together. "Why fight?"
John wanted to tell McKay that he'd only ever wanted to fly, but that sounded lamer than anything. "I wanted to help win the war," he said.
"So you came to England for the, the RAF?"
"Yeah," said John. "One of the Eagle squadrons."
"What, America didn't come in quickly enough for you?"
"None of your damn business," said John, suddenly sick of explanation. "And you can carry the rest of your gear yourself."
"Hey. Hey! Sheppard, I'm ... I'm sorry." John could hear how seldom McKay apologised to anyone. "I was just ... I don't ... I don't always say things the best way, okay?"
"Yeah," said John, staring down at his hands — dirty fingernails, a long red welt where he'd brushed the edge of the Aga — and wondering what'd really brought him here. "Same here, buddy."
"Huh," said McKay. "Look, you don't have to help with this. I'm sure there's — what?"
The thrum of engines, somewhere outside. John's head came up, and he flapped his hand at McKay: keep quiet.
"It's just transports," said McKay, "or —"
"Sssh!" John hurried outside, but the fog still softened everything. Up there, up in the blue, two aeroplanes — C47s, Gooney Birds, he'd know those engines anywhere — were flying north along the coast. It'd be cold and clear and empty up there. There'd be the smell of gun oil, hot metal, high-octane gasoline; the steady numbers on the dials, altitude and airspeed; the pull of the ground.
He'd never felt heavier or less free.
Shrove Tuesday dawned clear and fine: spring was on the way. The first thing Elizabeth saw when she came, blinking, out of the women's hut was John Sheppard running towards her. A frisson of alarm — what was he running away from? — but then she realised that he was ... just running, his canvas trousers wet to the knee with dew, his limbs loose and easy.
"In a hurry, Mr Sheppard?" she greeted him.
"Just can't wait for that coffee," Sheppard told her, grinning.
Elizabeth sighed. "There is real coffee in Camp Coffee, I assure you: I checked the label. Though I have to say I've become quite accustomed to the taste."
"Hey, it does the job," said Sheppard. "See, if Parrish was a serious botanist ... Hey, I meant to ask you: were there any new arrivals, last night?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "Nobody's come to join us since Dr McKay, last month," she said. "Perhaps there aren't that many people seeking what we have to offer. Why do you ask?"
Sheppard shook his head. The armpits of his loose shirt were dark with sweat. "Saw a couple of guys I didn't recognise, out on the beach: just wondered if they were ours, or ..."
"Fishermen, perhaps," said Elizabeth, as they began to walk towards the Hall. "Do you enjoy running, Mr Sheppard?"
"John," said Sheppard. "Running? Keeps me ..." He tilted his head, considering: from the way his mouth quirked, Elizabeth was certain that he'd discarded his first, honest response. "Keeps me on form," he decided at last.
"There'll be pancakes for breakfast," said Elizabeth. "Katie's been saving the eggs for days. Though if you're on some regimen, I'm sure there'll be someone who'll eat your share."
"Better hurry, then," said Sheppard, grinning. "Need to keep my strength up: I told Parrish I'd help out with the field, later."
"There you are," said Dr McKay, almost accusingly, as the two of them entered the Hall. There was a dish heaped with steaming pancakes in the middle of the table, and McKay was forking another onto his own plate, oblivious to the impatient looks he was getting from Carson, Parrish and Laura. "Thought I'd have to tackle these without you."
"I'll make you some more, Doctor McKay!" said Katie Brown brightly, coming through with the kitchen with a pot of ersatz coffee and a jug of milk.
"Thanks, Katie," said McKay, intent on his plate.
"Could you fetch some lemon juice?" said Elizabeth to Katie, hoping to distract her from the revolting spectacle of McKay's table manners. "I think there's still a lemon in the cupboard: I found —"
"Lemon juice?" squawked McKay, swallowing quickly. "What, you're trying to kill me now?"
"What are you on about, McKay?" drawled Sheppard. He'd taken the seat next to McKay and reached across, grabbing the dish before McKay could protest. "Lemon juice?"
"I'm allergic," said McKay. "It's a recognised medical condition: isn't that right, Carson?"
"Aye, Rodney, but —"
"One whiff of lemon juice," Rodney went on, ignoring Carson's rueful look, "just one drop anywhere near these, and I'll break out in —"
"Vitamin C's good for you," said Sheppard. He looked amused. "Hey, Katie, you got any lemon?"
"No," said Katie defiantly, red-faced. "No, we haven't."
Elizabeth opened her mouth to contradict Katie: closed it again, because she didn't want to start the day with an argument.
"See?" mumbled McKay, pointing his fork at Sheppard. "Katie believes me."
"Of course I do, Dr McKay!" Katie was blushing and smiling, and Elizabeth ducked her head to hide her own smile, because it was unkind to be amused by other people's romantic aspirations.
Not that she was in any position to judge anybody.
"She likes you," she heard Sheppard say, sotto voce, to McKay once Katie'd gone back into the kitchen.
"She? What? Katie?"
"Don't sound so surprised, McKay. Girls must've hit on you before."
McKay didn't answer that: he applied himself more vigorously to his breakfast. Elizabeth pushed her own plate away, and poured herself a mug of coffee. "Mr Parrish," she said, "I understand you're hoping to clear more land for cultivation?"
"Yes, yes," said Parrish, setting his teacup down. "That patch of cow-parsley and goosegrass between the kitchen and the field," mapping the community land, two-handed, in the air in front of him, "could easily be fenced off — so the chickens don't get in — and used for beans and carrots."
"Cow parsley?" said Sheppard, elbows propped on the table, sipping his coffee. He must be getting used to it, thought Elizabeth: he doesn't make faces any more.
"Just a weed, Mr Sheppard: we should be able to dig it out before lunch," said Parrish cheerfully. "Though really, we should be careful not to clear too much of the native vegetation: there are some species here that I haven't previously encountered in the wild, and I'd like to make a survey of them, maybe send some specimens to Kew."
"Of course," said Elizabeth, smiling the smile she gave the vicar's wife when they met in the village. "But do remember, please, that we're aiming for self-sufficiency. It's vital, Mr Parrish, that we do not allow ourselves to become dependent on others."
Parrish nodded jerkily. "Have you considered the sea?"
"Difficult not to consider it," said Sheppard lazily. "It's right there."
"Yes, exactly: and some of the liminal plants, samphire for instance, can provide valuable nutrients. Why, back in the War ..."
"Right, so we're on seaweed now?" snapped McKay.
Elizabeth directed a speaking look at his empty plate. "If you insist on finishing off everything that emerges from the kitchen," she said dryly, "we'll have to make do with whatever we can find."
"Forage," interjected Sheppard, with a tight, provocative smile. "Living off the land."
"Wait, no, what about trade?" said McKay, snapping his fingers. "There's, there have to be fishermen round here, and farmers!"
Elizabeth inclined her head. "But," she pointed out, "we have nothing to offer them in return."
"Nothing to — we have plenty to offer!" McKay looked angrily around at them all. "Carson Beckett, purveyor of medical science's finest folk remedies! Parrish, over there, our resident expert on horticulture! Laura and Katie, the best cooks this side of Colchester!" ("Flattery'll get you nowhere, McKay," murmured Laura, but there was laughter in her voice.) "John Sheppard!"
"Yeah?" said Sheppard. "Not much call for my sort, round here."
"Didn't they teach you anything in the Army?"
"Air Force," said Sheppard, lounging back in his chair and lacing his hands across his stomach.
"I'll think of something," said McKay. "You wait."
"Never figured you for a cat-lover, McKay." It was Sheppard, of course, displaying his irritating knack of tracking Rodney wherever he went. This afternoon he'd found Rodney in the shed, sitting on a bale of hay, scribbling busily in his notebook with a cat sprawled in his lap and another winding around his ankles.
"Cats are much easier than people," said Rodney coolly. "Uncomplicated."
"Huh," said Sheppard, hunkering down next to Rodney and tickling the big tabby's stomach. He had good reflexes: that paw-swipe would've gutted a rat. "Friendly, isn't he?"
"He doesn't trust you," said Rodney darkly. "He's probably alarmed by your hair. And, if you hadn't noticed, some of us are working, here."
"Yeah, I noticed you hiring me out to the Anchor, too." Sheppard rolled his shoulders. "Hard work, getting those barrels out of the cellar."
"What? We got some beer from the deal."
"And by 'we' you mean you, yeah? Or were you planning on sharing?"
"Of course," said Rodney quickly. Sheppard was craning round to read his notes, and he automatically covered the page.
"Relax, McKay," said Sheppard. Now he got annoyed. "I'm not trying to copy your homework."
"Bet you used to," said Rodney. "I'll bet you did that a lot."
"Nah," said Sheppard, "they copied from me."
"Fine, whatever. Look all you like," said Rodney defiantly. Hah. Sheppard was frowning; but he was staring at the page, his eyes flicking left to right, left to right. "Well?" said Rodney. "Any the wiser?"
"Maybe if I knew what it was you were trying to do," said John.
"It's something we, something I was working on in Cambridge," said Rodney. "Using ... hey, why am I telling you this?"
Sheppard shrugged. "Perhaps you need to tell somebody?" he offered.
"Well, you're as good an audience as the cat," said Rodney, reaching down to pet Schrodi. "My — a friend of mine, Alan, was working on cryptography: that's —"
"Codes and decoding: Enigma, and all that jazz," said Sheppard. "Yeah."
"Alan was — is — brilliant," said Rodney. "Maybe not as brilliant as me — what? False modesty is a waste of everybody's time — but, yes, pretty much a genius. And he had some ideas about wave functions, the Copenhagen interpretation (which isn't necessarily wrong, just pointless, because what? 'Don't ask until you know the answer'?) and about that paper by von Neumann that I can never remember the name of, something about quantum. But Alan was more interested in the math, and he wasted his time building this, this gadget to work out the Fourier series for the Riemann zeta-function —"
"Wait," said Sheppard, "wasn't von Neumann the guy on the Manhattan Project?"
"I'm impressed," said Rodney truthfully (though he couldn't help rolling his eyes: Sheppard'd derailed his train of thought). "You are listening."
Sheppard shrugged. "Okay, so your friend," was that a smirk? what'd Rodney said to give himself away? "got interested in something you didn't think was worth it, and you took off alone to finish the work you started."
"Well, that's a gross oversimplification —"
"Gee, thanks, McKay: my speciality," drawled Sheppard.
"— but: yes, more or less. That and the business with the bomb," said Rodney: and yes, that still stung. "It's not that I couldn't do it," he burst out, "it's that I wouldn't. That kind of power, unleashed ... And they didn't believe me. Hell, I could've had a working model up and running in half the time, given the resources they had over there: but. No way."
Sheppard looked kind of sympathetic (or possibly dyspeptic). He'd been sitting in the straw at Rodney's feet, teasing the cat with a long yellow stem. Now he knelt up, and for a moment Rodney thought he was going to clap Rodney on the shoulder, no doubt spouting some platitude about the greater good: then the cat woke up enough to realise he'd lost Sheppard's attention, and regained it with an outstretched, clawed paw.
"Ow!" said Sheppard, clutching his knee. He sounded ridiculously young.
"Serve you right for neglecting him. There isn't any blood: what are you complaining about? Hey, Schrödi—"
"What did you call him?" said Sheppard, examining the cloth of his pants intently.
"Schrödinger. You know, the Austrian guy with the cat in a box that's ... huh." Rodney grabbed his pencil again: yes, that'd make sense, but he had to get this down before ...
After a while he realised the light was dimming. Sheppard must've — no, the American was still there, elbows propped on his knees, stroking Schrödinger's stripy belly. Rodney was surprised, pleasantly surprised, that Sheppard'd managed to keep quiet for so long. Three pages of notes, and really, when you thought about it, it was so obvious: there might be an infinite number of states, but reduce it down to an either/or and it didn't matter how many ...
"Want me to sharpen that?" said Sheppard, nodding at Rodney's blunt pencil. Of course he had a pocket-knife; of course he kept the blade keen.
"Thanks," said Rodney, handing it over. Schrödi batted at each curl of wood as it fell, and out came Einstein and Bohr, eager to play. Rodney drummed his fingers, trying to set his thoughts out on a mental blackboard: trying not to watch Sheppard's quick, capable hands.
"Okay, so what's the deal with Schrödinger?"
"What, the cat?" said Rodney, sniggering.
"No, McKay: the Austrian physicist with the cat in the box."
"Schrödinger," said Rodney, "was building on some theories set out by Heisenberg and Bohr. I don't suppose you've heard of the Uncertainty Principle —"
"Not sure," said Sheppard: then caught Rodney's glare and burst out laughing.
"Haha, very funny. Incidentally, you have a laugh like a donkey," said Rodney, but he was laughing too.
"Uncertainty," said Sheppard, twitching a long piece of straw along the ground. Couldn't he learn from experience? "That's when just observing something makes it behave differently, yeah?"
"No. Well, yes, kind of." Rodney wondered if he was behaving differently right now: Sheppard was looking at him so intently, and Sheppard himself looked more ... more there, more awake, more intelligent than Rodney'd ever seen him. And God, he had a nice smile. And, apparently, a brain underneath that messy hair. "It really only applies to sub-atomic particles," Rodney said, spreading his hands. "At least, as far as can be proven. But hypothetically, it might just spill over into the superatomic world: it might mean that consciousness is, is interlinked with reality."
"So if I see something, I'm somehow ... what, making it happen? Making it real?"
"Von Neumann's point precisely!" crowed Rodney. "You collapse the wave function, you force a single state: you look at the cat in the box, and that's when it becomes alive or dead."
"I don't fancy putting this cat in a box. He's got claws." Sheppard was looking down at Schrödinger: outside, the sun had come out, and a beam of light mapped the curve of his cheek, the arc of his eyelashes. Rodney felt warm. "Hey, you got the time?"
Rodney bit back a flirtatious retort, and checked his watch. "Four o'clock."
"Hell!" said Sheppard with unusual vehemence, pushing himself to his feet. "I told Katie I'd give her a hand with the fish," he said. "Better get to it. Oh, and McKay?"
"What?" said Rodney, feeling like a cat in a box, because Sheppard was leaning down towards him, and it was like he —
"The cat's called Sunny," said Sheppard, and went out into the sunshine, chuckling.
High tide wasn't until six-thirty in the evening, but by four o'clock waves were lapping the fringe of seaweed and flotsam that marked the tideline. The wind was rising, gusting hard, bearing round to the east. Elizabeth had borrowed Laura's wireless to listen to the weather forecast, and John Sheppard came in, uninvited, to sit with her as they listened to the calm voice.
"Heligoland, Humber, Thames: Northeast veering north eight to nine at first, decreasing seven or eight later. Rough or very rough in Heligoland, Thames. Heavy rain, squally showers. Poor or moderate: very poor later. There are warnings of gales in Heligoland, Humber, Thames, Dover."
"That doesn't sound so good," said John, once the forecast was over. "Do you get floods, here?"
"Some years," said Elizabeth tightly. "I remember, back in '38 ... Of course it depends on the tides, and the weather. But the land's low-lying, and we only have the sea-wall to protect us against storm surges. A high tide and an easterly wind? I don't know what we can do, John."
"Sandbags," said John decisively. "We can't hold back the sea, but we can keep from being flooded out if we sandbag the doors."
"What about the fields?"
John shrugged. "You have to decide what's a priority, Elizabeth," he said carefully. She understood that he was ceding control, or refusing to accept it; that Atlantis was hers, and the decisions were not his to make.
"What do you recommend?" She wanted to call him Major: 'Mister' didn't ring true, for the man who sat across from her was unmistakably military. But he'd left all that behind, walked away from it when he walked towards Atlantis.
"Sandbag the huts first," said John, on his feet. "Get the rowboat back from the beach, somewhere we can keep an eye on it: if we flood, we'll need it. You need to talk to Carson, find out if there's any preparations he needs to make: people might get hurt. Tell Laura and the others to collect flasks and cans: people are going to be coming in wet and cold, they'll need soup or something."
"Tea," said Elizabeth dryly. "We're English."
John cracked half a grin at her. "Nah, we're Atlantean now." Then, over his shoulder, "I'll get the sandbag crew together. You'd better tell everyone what's going on. Could be there's people here who've dealt with flooding before."
Elizabeth stared after him for a moment. She was glad to have someone like John Sheppard on her side — no, no, don't think of sides, of us and them. She was simply glad to have John Sheppard supporting her, helping her, working for Atlantis. And yes, she was curious: she wanted to know what had brought him here. Maybe some day he'd tell her.
It wouldn't be today. The wind was howling around the eaves: when Elizabeth rang the bell to summon everyone to the Hall, she could barely hear the sonorous note over the noise of the weather. The others had heard it, though. They hurried in, wet and red-faced, alarmed and looking to her for ... for reassurance.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're at risk of being flooded," said Elizabeth crisply. "Mr Sheppard is taking steps to protect the community: please do as he tells you. We'll need to move everything valuable, everything that isn't waterproof, to higher places."
"My gramo ... My work!" squawked McKay, and before Elizabeth could say a word he'd turned and left, hurrying towards the cubbyhole that he'd made his own.
Elizabeth shared a wry smile with the others. "Well," she said, "Doctor McKay's taking care of his own possessions: that means the rest of us can concentrate on what's important."
Nobody was panicking, though Katie Brown looked scared. Laura was calmer, and fiercely competent: she took Katie by the elbow and steered her towards the kitchen, murmuring about flour and the Aga. Elizabeth headed for her office, hoping that the roof wasn't leaking again. The ledgers, the file of letters ... there was a tin trunk somewhere that'd protect her papers from flooding, but it'd —
"Excuse me?" said Elizabeth. There was someone at her desk, a stranger, a man: no, it was Mr Cole, from the farm down the lane, and he was reading her letters, reading —
"Mrs Weir," said Cole, smooth and calm.
"Do you mind telling me what you're doing here?" demanded Elizabeth. "This is private property: you can't —"
"I can, Mrs Weir, and I have," said Cole. When he smiled at her — bad teeth, at odds with that dapper moustache — she wanted to flinch.
"Well, you can stop!" said Elizabeth, hating the way her voice went high. "If you leave now, I shan't report this to the police."
"And if I don't?"
"I'll have you removed," said Elizabeth, through her teeth. "Forcibly, if need be."
"Will you, now," said Cole.
"Mrs Weir, you have to — wait, what?" said McKay from the doorway, and Elizabeth felt herself relax. It wasn't just her: she wasn't alone.
"Mr Cole is just leaving," she said calmly.
Cole shoved his way past McKay, who shot him a furious look. It seemed for a moment as though he might go after Cole, demand an apology, even punch the man: but when Elizabeth sighed, pressing her fingers against the bridge of her nose, McKay refocused.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "Did he —"
"I don't know what he was doing," said Elizabeth. "But he was ... he was here."
"Bastard," said McKay, and didn't apologise for the profanity.
* * *
It was almost dark already, night brought earlier by the heavy blanket of roiling cloud, but there was light enough to see the men out on the beach. John's shirt was clammy with sweat, cold against his skin. He and Parrish had dug a trench up the beach and right through the seawall, which would — might — channel seawater away from Atlantis, into the ditch that ran along the bottom of Cole's field. Cole wouldn't like it, but he wasn't around to complain: and the ditch would drain some of the floodwater back into the marsh, instead of into the field behind the Hall.
A dark, fast wave slapped at his boots, but he was soaked already: he didn't try to evade it. He leant on his spade and just breathed for a moment, blinking rain and sea-spray from his eyes, watching the indistinct figures way out on the white cockle-spit. Figures that had appeared from nowhere, out of the rain and the sea.
A flicker of light in the corner of his eye: a lantern, someone hurrying towards him from the Hall. It was Elizabeth, and she must've seen his expression, because she shielded the lantern and turned her head to follow his gaze.
"What is it, John?"
"Two guys," said John. "Look: there." He pointed. One of the men seemed to be holding his hand up, shielding his eyes from the driving rain, staring further out to sea. The pale blur of the other's face was turned towards them.
"Parrish?" said Elizabeth. "One of the fishermen?"
"Nah," said John. "But I think I've seen them before." He squinted into the wind. "I'm glad you can see them too."
"What? John, what are you saying?"
"Elizabeth," said John, slow and clear, "I don't think they're really here."
"What? No, John, I can —"
"Everyone's accounted for," said John. "And who'd be wandering around on the beach with a flood tide forecast?"
"They should come in," said Elizabeth fretfully. "The tide's very high: they'll be swept away, drowned."
"Yeah," said John. "I think that's exactly what happened to them."
Elizabeth seemed ... distracted. "I'll take your word for it," she said. "Right now, we have a bigger problem."
"It's an hour since high tide," said John. "The wind's pushing the water onshore, but I reckon the worst of it's over: it's not going to come up much further." The sea lapped at his ankles, and his feet were numb with cold, but no more than a couple of waves had broken over the top of the sea wall.
"That's not what I meant," said Elizabeth. "I just met Mr Cole — you know, from the farm up the road."
"Bet he's not too keen on being flooded out."
"I didn't enquire," said Elizabeth dryly. "He was in the Hall. In my office. I think he was looking for something."
"He what?" said John. He could feel his spine prickling: he cast an accusatory glare towards the two men out on the spit, but they weren't there any more, and anyway why should the Hall be their business?
"I told him to be off," said Elizabeth. She looked kind of fierce. "Or I'd take steps to have him removed. Not that violence is any —"
"I'll remove him, all right," said John harshly. He stabbed the spade into the ground and turned on his heel, striding past her.
"He's gone, John!" cried Elizabeth behind him, but John shook his head and started running, sure-footed despite the sodden earth.
McKay was in the Hall, manoeuvring boxes onto the big refectory table: John barely spared him a glance. "Cole?" he said, loud enough to be heard over the rush of wind and rain from the open door.
"Gone," snapped McKay. "Where were you when —"
"Can it, McKay!" John looked around. The guy could be anywhere, lurking. The thought of him creeping around in here while John and the others had been working out there, trying to protect Atlantis from the flood tide, made John's stomach twist. What the hell'd he been after, anyway? Elizabeth didn't have anything to hide.
It'd be hard to secure the Hall against enemy incursion: hard, like defending the community against wind and sea, but not impossible. A different kind of challenge. John found himself eyeing the door: it could be barred, bolted. There were no weapons here, but they could make do: pitchforks, spades — he'd left that spade stuck in the mud on the sea-wall: Elizabeth'd have to bring it back — the axe he'd been using to chop —
"Sheppard!" McKay, right up in his face, snapping his fingers. John slapped his hand away and glared at him.
"Sorry, sorry," said McKay, but he didn't back off. "You were — look, you need to focus. What's happening out there? Are we going to get flooded out?"
John took a deep breath. Right. One problem at a time, and Cole wasn't at the top of that list. Never mind that he'd got John thinking of enemies, attack, invasion ... How much threat could a nosy farmer be?
"High tide's past," he said. "We might get a bit of spray, but the sea wall's gonna hold."
"Good! That's good, isn't it?"
"Well, McKay," said John, "it's still pissing with rain out there; there's a lot of water, and the wind behind it. And Cole —"
"He's gone," said McKay. "And Parrish is keeping an eye on ... on things. Outside."
"Not bad for a botanist, eh?" said John, nudging McKay.
"They have to be good for something," said McKay.
Elizabeth hurried in, out of breath, red-faced, water streaming from her hair and her coat. She was gripping a spade. Her knuckles were blue against the wood.
"He's not here," said John levelly.
"Are you sure?" Elizabeth was looking around, quick nervous darting looks: he could see the white all round her eyes.
"Positive," said McKay: John shot him a glare, and he subsided.
"Cole's out of the picture," said John. "Wanna tell me what he was hoping to find?"
"How — how should I know?" But she wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Cole was after something, Mrs Weir," said John. "He wasn't hunting for the strongbox." Huh, she hadn't known he knew about that. "He wasn't after anything obvious. He was looking for something in particular. Care to tell me what it was?"
"I ... I don't know," said Elizabeth. She was a bad liar.
"Look, Mrs Weir: Elizabeth. If you're hiding something — if there's something Cole thinks he can use against us —"
"There's nothing!" said Elizabeth furiously. "There's nothing here he could possibly want, nothing that could be any of his concern."
'Here', John noted to himself.
"If you think of anything he might've hoped to find, Mrs Weir," he said flatly, "you just let me know. I —"
But the door was opening again: Parrish, this time, as drenched as Elizabeth but less uptight about it. "Area's clear, sir," he reported. "Mr Cole was last seen heading back up the track, and the lights just came on in his house."
"Sir?" said John.
"You called me 'sir'," said John. "What did you do in the war, Mr Parrish? Were you Army?"
"Home Guard," said Parrish. "Conscientious objector. Sir."
"Look, just — don't call me that, okay?" said John. He shoved his hand through his wet hair, scattering droplets. There was still the taste of salt spray in his mouth, stinging his sinuses. Somewhere out there, Cole (just Cole?) was working against Atlantis and all its people. Somewhere out there, those people were still building barricades of sandbags against the wind and tide. Here in the Hall, the wind whipped through the half-open door — "Raised in a barn, were you?" snapped McKay, striding across to slam it shut — and the four of them stood around the box-stacked table, shivering and wary, eyeing one another.
How had this become his command? How had this become his home?
The motion of the cart was not comfortable, and Teyla's empty belly roiled with every bump, every impact of the plodding horse's hooves against the rough road. This was so different from the stories her aunts had told her: horse-drawn carriages on river ice, white furs and the sparkle of snow and of jewels.
She had no jewels any more. She had nothing left to sell, save herself, and that was not a fit trade for her father's daughter.
Her cousins had told her to come here, to this remote place on the very edge of the land. Exile within exile. There was a place here, they had assured her, for any who were lost, lonely, without a home. Teyla would not stay here, not for very long. She had a home, and she would return. But she needed to be strong and healthy for the voyage, and it was dangerous, still, to embark on such travel. She needed to rest, to heal, to be at one with herself again. Perhaps by Easter she would be ready to continue her journey once more.
There were brave flowers blooming in the hedge, and birds singing. Foreign flowers, foreign birds. This was not home, would never be her home.
The drover must be speaking to her. Teyla bit back a haughty correction. She was not a princess now. She was only Teyla. "Yes?" she said.
"You'll have to walk from here, miss. It's just up there: follow the road around. You can't miss it."
Teyla's feet burnt and ached, as if she were barefoot in snow, when the thin soles of her boots met the ground. She gritted her teeth, took her satchel, thanked the man graciously: none of this was his fault. Hitching the leather strap over her shoulder, she began to walk slowly up the track past the church, eastward. Perhaps this was the way home, though her home lay further east than any of these country folk could know.
The road was straight, and narrowed to a point before it reached the horizon. There were houses here and there, their windows blank and blind in the late morning light. Farms, set back from the road, echoed with the noises of chickens and dogs. After half a mile or so, there was an inn at the roadside, its sign bright with new paint: an anchor on a beach, twined with rope and resting upon the British flag. Perhaps she could ask for a drink of water. Perhaps they would tell her more of this Atlantis that lay hidden in some curl of the flat, empty land.
There was the low rumble of men's talk as she pushed the door open, and the smell of smoke and beer and — Teyla's stomach rumbled — hot food. But the men fell silent as she stood there on the threshold, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness within.
"Can I help you, miss?"
A dull-skinned blonde girl leant over the serving-counter.
"A glass of water, please," said Teyla. Her throat was dry, from the smoke or from nerves.
"Won't you have a cup of something?" said the girl. "Or there's stew."
"I am sorry," said Teyla slowly. "I have no money. Please, just a small glass of water?"
"Here, love," said one of the men. Teyla turned towards him — turned too fast, and the dizziness rose up again. "You come and sit down here by the fire. You look dead on your feet."
Teyla wanted to object, to tell them she did not need their pity. But the fire was so warm, and her hands tingled with tired cold. "Thank you," she murmured, and let herself slump onto the bench.
Perhaps she had dozed a little, staring down at the faded carpet and mapping the stains there, because a moment later the girl was setting a glass of water on the table at her elbow, and a bowl of something that smelt delicious.
"I did not explain myself well," said Teyla, her stomach grumbling with need. "I have no money: I cannot pay you for this."
"On the house, love," said the man next to her. He had black hair, blue eyes, and a firm chin. His smile was kind. "You looking for the Atlantis people?"
"I am," said Teyla. "How did you know?"
"Nowhere else to be headed, on this road," said the black-haired man. "'Less you're Cole's latest hire?"
Teyla raised an eyebrow. It was hard to think with the smell of food flooding her mouth with saliva. "I do not know anyone named Cole," she said. "Are you sure I may eat?"
"You're our guest," said the girl, glancing at the man as though checking that she had not spoken out of turn. "Eat up!"
Teyla's vision blurred again. It must be the steam from the bowl. Stew, tough meat boiled to tenderness with only salt and pepper for seasoning. It was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted. She thought she might be sick, from eating so quickly.
The door opened, and sunlight flooded in: a tall man stamped his feet on the mat. From one hand hung the limp corpse of a rabbit. Heavy boots: military. Teyla could feel the tension in her neck and shoulders. "Morning, Lorne!" he called. His voice was strange: American, Teyla decided, like the men at the railway station. "Just found this bunny in the hedge, hit by a van, I guess. It'll — hey, who's this?"
"She came in just now," said the girl. "Looking for you — for Atlantis. Looked —"
"You did good, Sara," said the man. A stripy cat wound itself around his ankles, batting at the dead rabbit's paws, and the man crouched down to caress it. "Any chance of a cup of tea? And one for the lady."
"Of course, John," said Sara. "Here, let me ..." She took the rabbit from him and put it on the wooden counter. Teyla could see blood on the animal's mouth.
"McKay wants a word with you, Lorne," said this John. "Something you were saying the other night."
"What, about the —" Lorne waved his hand, oddly graceful, looking askance at John.
"Yeah," said John. "You know what McKay's like: he's got a theory, he wants to prove it right now."
Lorne laughed. "I'll come by this evening," he said. "If McKay can wait that long."
"Hey, I'm only the errand boy," said John. The cat tired of his ministrations and wandered away, and he unfolded himself to his feet and came over, slowly and with his hands spread, to where Teyla sat by the fire.
"I'm sorry, I don't think we've been introduced," he said, and there was a sparkle of mischief, of laughter in his light eyes that made Teyla want to smile back at him. "I'm John Sheppard: I live in Atlantis."
"My name is Teyla," said Teyla. The rest of her name — who she truly was — did not matter. "And I am seeking Atlantis."
"Drink your tea," said John, "and I'll walk you back."
April Fool's Day
"That's the lot, Mr Sheppard," said Sara. John let the rope fall and stretched 'til his back popped. He'd forgotten what hard work it was, heaving barrels. But worth it.
He helped Sara latch the heavy trap-door, and watched as she padlocked it and tucked the key into her pocket. "Can't be too careful, huh?"
"Desperate times," said Sara. "You can wash in the scullery, if you like."
John didn't like to remove his shirt in female company, but he splashed cold water over his sweaty face and arms until his hair was dripping cleanly.
"It was kind of you to help," said Sara from the doorway. "But I'm afraid we can't pay you." She was blushing.
"That's fine," said John easily. He hadn't, he was startled to realise, had a penny to his name since he'd come to Atlantis: hadn't missed the weight of coin in his pocket. There hadn't been any need for it. "Glad to help."
"But it doesn't seem fair for you to work so hard for nothing," said Sara. "Why don't you come back this evening and have a drink?"
John thought there might be another invitation in her smile, but he really couldn't be sure. Always hard to tell, with nice girls: that was why John preferred girls (and, in the privacy of his own head, guys) who weren't nice. You knew where you were with them.
"I'd like that," he said anyway, because it was true. "Mind if I bring a friend?"
"As long as it's not the whole lot of you," said Sara, grinning. She didn't seem disconcerted at the prospect.
John walked slowly back to Atlantis, thinking about friends: thinking about Holland, and Steve, and the people he knew now. Friends. He could do that. Chances were that they'd all survive the year. Things were different, now the war was over.
So who could he call his friend?
The evenings were drawing out, but it was full dark, the paraffin lamps glowing and smoking around the walls, by the time he'd sat down to eat.
"Hey, McKay," he murmured, once Katie'd cleared the dishes away. "Want to join me for a beer?"
"Beer?" said McKay, loudly surprised.
"Sssh," hissed John, but too late: Carson Beckett was looking over at them, beaming. Damn it. It wasn't that he minded Carson's company, but the doctor was so earnest.
"Helped out at the Anchor earlier," said John, shifting in his seat so he was facing McKay. "Sara's paying me in kind."
"Delightful," said McKay, the corner of his mouth drawing sharply down.
"What's wrong with that?"
"Very thoughtful of you to flaunt your conquests at me," said McKay, and was about to say more — John could see him drawing breath to talk over any objection — but then Carson was pulling up a chair, sitting down next to McKay.
"Did somebody happen to mention beer?" he said.
So it was the three of them — McKay still sullen and uncharacteristically silent — who strolled up the dark road towards the distant lights of the pub. Carson was chattering on about Laura: "Did you know she was an ATA engineer?"
"A what?" said John, half-listening.
"Air Transport Auxiliary," said Carson, burring the words as though he'd already been drinking. "Worked on fighter planes, did our Laura. What a girl, eh?"
"Cool," said John, impressed.
"Hurry up, Sheppard!" called McKay, and John jogged the last few yards to the open door of the pub.
Inside was noise, warmth, tobacco smoke and the smell of beer. More people than he'd seen in one place since New Year in Spitalfields, and they made him nervous. Had the hum of conversation died down since the three of them'd walked in? Maybe. John wasn't sure this was such a good idea.
But Sara had seen him from behind the bar and was calling out a cheery greeting: and Beckett and McKay had gotten to the bar already and were looking impatiently back at him.
Hell, it was only a pub. John smiled at Sara, and said, "Can I get three pints of whatever I was heaving around this afternoon?"
"Of course," said Sara, reaching for the heavy glass tankards from the shelf above the bar. She'd pushed her sleeves up and John watched her muscles work as she pulled each pint. Christ, he needed to get laid.
"Cheers," said McKay, raising his glass in a toast.
There were raised voices from the fireside, and John leant over and set his beer down on the nearest table, turning, ready for trouble if it came to that.
"... know what I saw!" a man — Lorne, the fisherman — was saying loudly. "I saw it!"
Somebody shushed him. "You ain't making sense, mate: you don't know what you're on about. Reckon you hit your head when —"
"I bloody do know what I'm talking about! There were —"
There was a crash of breaking glass. John frowned, and made for the disturbance: but Carson Beckett, of all people, was there before him.
"'Scuse me," he was saying, in that soft Scottish voice. It carried well enough. "I'm a doctor. A medical doctor. Can I help?"
"Lorne here's gone a bit crackers," said a light-haired man, laughing. "Says he saw something when he was out —"
"I did! I saw ..." The words knotted up in a racking cough that made John wince.
"Easy now," said Carson. "Let's have a look at you, lad."
John hovered behind Carson, watchful. You never knew when things might get ugly. But it was plain enough that Lorne, slumped on the bench by the fire, was sick: and his friends around him — one tendering a half-full tankard, another flinching away at each cough — were more worried about him than about the strangers in their midst.
"Eww," said McKay from behind John, startling him so that he jostled someone's elbow. "That sounds disgusting."
"Sorry 'bout that," John said to the guy whose beer he'd split. "Back off, McKay!"
Carson was murmuring softly to Lorne. He looked around at the others. "How long has he been this way?"
"Crazy all his life," said someone: but the blond man said, "Just today. Reckons it came on while he was out on the boat."
"I think it's pneumonia," said Carson. "Bring him up to Atlantis tomorrow, if he's no better: I can give him something for the fever, if nothing else. No wonder he's —"
"I know what I saw," said Lorne, loud and clear. "It was ghosts, I tell you. Clear as day. You know — Markham, you know there's always been ghosts round here. Well, there's more now. Since they came."
"They?" said Carson softly. "D'you mean us, lad?"
"Yes," said Lorne, leaning forward: the effort made him cough again. "It's something you're doing, isn't it?" Lorne caught John's eye then, and there was something like a spark of recognition: but the coughing overwhelmed him, and he fell back.
John didn't understand the relief he felt when Lorne stopped talking, but it made him feel like a coward, and he hated himself a little bit.
It was flat here, and empty. Too empty. Ronon Dex wasn't used to open country. He wanted a wall at his back. He wanted a limit to what he could look at. Here the horizon was not the end of the street, but the limit of light and air: the horizon was miles away, and anything could be waiting in those miles.
The air smelt wrong, too, but not bad wrong. He could smell grass and growing things, and a kind of earthy underlay that must be the fields with their green haze of corn just starting to push up through the dark mulched earth. Ronon's mum had taken to gardening, when they'd turned the yard into a vegetable plot. He liked the smell of earth. He liked the idea of planting something and watching it grow.
There were birds singing, and it was a nicer noise than the constant racket of Spitalfields, never mind the familiar harsh caws of crows in the treetops. There was a pale spring sun pouring down on him, light everywhere in the wet grass and in the hedgerow. Ronon walked slowly, keeping an eye out for ... for people, for this Atlantis place, for anything. The curate at St Peter's had said everyone was welcome in Atlantis: everyone who felt empty with the end of war, everyone who was lost, everyone who wanted the peace to last and life to be better. And Ronon'd had to get out of Spitalfields: with his mum and his mates gone, and a tangled wreck of brick and timber where their house'd been, there hadn't been anything to keep him there. He was sick of fighting for his patch, sick of watching his back, sick of being alone.
He'd have to watch his back here, too.
In the village they'd looked scared, scared of him and hostile because of it. The women in the shop had huddled together, scowling, and they wouldn't talk to him even though he was as polite as could be. The way he looked, the colour of his skin. It hadn't been a problem when they were all evacuated that first time, five years ago: there'd been six of them then, not just Ronon on his own. The local kids'd taken the piss, all right, but Ronon and Kell'd shown them what was what, and they were friendly enough by the time the London lads were sent home again.
Home to bombs and Blitz and death. But it'd been good to be home, before home was destroyed.
There were rabbits scampering across the field: live rabbits. Ronon wished he had his catapult. He'd been pretty good at bringing down pigeons, before the war, and he'd taken care of the rats in the cellar — and in the warehouses in Fashion Street, once word'd got around. Tuppence a rat: he'd been able to buy bread. But rabbits were better. There was good eating on a rabbit, and it'd be fresh as anything.
"Good morning! Can I help you?"
Ronon looked round. There was a woman coming along the edge of the field, heading for the gate ahead of him. She didn't look the sort to give a darkie lad from the East End the time of day: nice neat frock, sturdy boots covered in mud, smart coat, hat, gloves. Farmer's wife, maybe. But he'd come this far and there wasn't anywhere to hide, no one else she could have been speaking to, nowhere else Ronon could've been going but along this muddy track.
"I'm looking for Atlantis," he said, deliberately not trying to sound like anything he wasn't.
"You've found it," declared the woman, with a wide, friendly smile. Could be fake, could be for real. "Well, not quite: but you're almost there. I'm Elizabeth Weir, the founder of the community. Welcome!"
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," said Ronon. She was looking at him like she expected him to say something else. "I'm Ronon: Ronon Dex, come up from London."
Mrs Weir's eyebrows went up, as if she hadn't expected him to have any manners, but her smile hardly faltered. "I'm just going into the village," she said. "I've some letters to post, and Carson asked if I could pick up some more liniment for Lorne. That's one of the fishermen from the village: Carson's our doctor, and Lorne came to him with a shocking fever. Perhaps you'll walk with me?"
"Been there," said Ronon. "They looked at me funny."
Mrs Weir laughed, and Ronon frowned: but then he saw she wasn't laughing at him. "You just come with me," she said. "They can look at both of us funny." His words in her mouth made Ronon grin. "Two for the price of one, eh?"
Okay, it wasn't exactly an office — more of a broom cupboard, not even a quarter of the size of his lab at the Cavendish — but it was better than nothing, and the camphored curtain across the empty doorway gave Rodney a modicum of privacy. He could sit here with Beethoven playing, and figure out just how —
Someone was tapping on the wall beyond the curtain. Rodney sighed theatrically and — it was ridiculous — called "Come in!"
"Doctor McKay, if I might have a word?" It was Elizabeth — no, no, Mrs Weir, given her ridiculously English insistence on formality — and her expression was grave.
"Of course," said Rodney, tapping his pencil on the unfinished equation.
"Could you turn the music off, please?"
Rodney scowled. "It's almost finished. About a minute to go, though this guy's taking it a little too fast." Because really, what sort of heathen left the Moonlight half-played?
Elizabeth took a slow breath. "Of course. Actually, that was what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Beethoven? All very emotional and sweeping, of course, but there's true genius — and I should know — in that final movement: a shame, really, that it's been lumbered with the name 'Moonlight', because that's really only the first movement. I ... I have to admit, Mrs Weir, I hadn't realised you were an aficionado of Romantic music. Do you —"
"Doctor McKay," interrupted Elizabeth, "I've come to ask you not to play your gramophone records."
"What? You ... what?"
"Here in Atlantis," said Elizabeth, her eyes unfocussed as though she were reading from some internal script, "we should be relying on our own resources, not spending our attention on entertainments from —"
"If you don't like Beethoven," suggested Rodney, "I have other recordings. There's a charming rendition of Bach's Klavierkonzerte, the D minor — some Polish woman, I seem to recall — that —"
"Doctor McKay! We have to rely on our own resources!"
"These are my resources," snapped Rodney. "Hang on: why? Is there — oh God, there's another war, isn't there? And we're going to be cut off from civilisation, forced to make do with —"
"There isn't a war." Elizabeth's voice was hard now. "But when I founded the Atlantis community, I was determined that it would be self-sufficient, able to grow and thrive without the noise — and I don't just mean literal noise — from the world outside. Don't you see, Doctor McKay, that it's unfair on the other members of the community for you to play your music?"
"No, I don't see that at all," said Rodney stubbornly, because damn it, he was right. "And hang on, doesn't," he snapped his fingers, trying to recall the girl's name. "Doesn't Linda in the kitchen play her radio all the time?"
"Laura," said Elizabeth. "And I've spoken to her about it: told her that we need to conserve the batteries for emergencies, or for news and weather reports."
"It's manifestly unfair if she gets to listen to music, if you can call it that, while I'm condemned to silence. Surely you realise that in order to work —"
"I realise that you're a remarkably selfish individual," said Elizabeth coldly. "What makes you so special that you deserve privileges that the rest of us have —"
"It helps me to think," said Rodney, tight and furious. "Maybe you should try it some time. So — what? You want me to do without music?" The equation in front of him had transmuted into nonsense. "I ... I don't see ..."
"I'm not asking you to give it up completely," said Elizabeth, with what she probably imagined was a kind smile. "Just ... save it, perhaps, for special occasions?"
"High days and holidays," said Elizabeth. "Or you could talk to some of the others. I believe Doctor Zelenka plays the violin: do you play an instrument, at all?"
Rodney ignored this patronising suggestion. "I cannot work without music, Mrs Weir," he said. "Perhaps you're unfamiliar with the work of scientists, but it's been proven that music — by which I mean classical music, of course, not that racket you hear in dance halls — stimulates the brain."
"I'm sorry," said Elizabeth, but there wasn't an atom of apology in her expression. "My decision stands."
"What, not even Music While You Work? Not that that'd help my work: I need something more intellectually stimulating. Bach. Beethoven. Mozart, at a pinch, though whoever said he wrote too many notes had a point. I —"
"How does that help you to ... I confess," said Elizabeth with a wry smile, "that I don't understand what you're working on."
It was obvious she'd intended it as distraction, but Rodney still welcomed it. "I'm building on some theories I developed with ... with a colleague, in Cambridge," he said. "We'd been reading Bohr and Heisenberg, and I came up with the theory that there are many realities, all intertwined and layered: nested within one another, if you like. Alan — my, my colleague — suggested that, given a quantum correlate of a force such as magnetism, it would be possible to give one reality more weight: to draw it into our own reality, or rather to bring our own universe, our own experience, into synchronicity with that other state." The final notes of the Moonlight Sonata rang out, and Rodney reached across to swing the stylus back to its resting place. "By emitting ... huh."
At least Elizabeth had the sense not to interrupt him while he scribbled a hasty amendment to his earlier equation.
"Do you see?" said Rodney at last, looking up at her. It was plain from her expression that his explanation had been wasted on her: he sighed. Maybe Sheppard ... "And yes, yes: the music. No music. Our own resources. But ... I have an idea."
There was something about Rodney McKay that fascinated John. Maybe just the way he kept talking about things that didn't matter — well, okay, did matter, but not to the everyday life of Atlantis. Maybe it was his blue blue eyes, or the breadth of his shoulders. (Couldn't hurt to look, could it?) Maybe it was the way he teased John, drew him out, made him think about things he hadn't considered for years. And not just ...not just getting laid. Other things. Math. Physics. The life of the mind.
It was fun, though sometimes exasperating, to watch McKay. Today he was baiting the Czech guy, Zelenka: God, he was bad with people, bad enough that if John hadn't found him so entertaining — and so completely oblivious to the effect he had on others — he'd have been worried about whether McKay'd last here in Atlantis. Whether Atlantis would last, with McKay in the middle of it. But McKay seemed to live in his own world, most of the time, and people were getting used to him.
It was a rainy spring day, the weather warming, and John'd spent the morning out in the field, weeding and hoeing. He ached, and he was content to lean back in his chair and watch Zelenka, the tip of his tongue poking out between his lips, stringing a fiddle.
"What kind of screeching are you going to treat us to? Gypsy reels and quaint folk dances?" demanded McKay, pulling out another chair. John wondered if he'd dragged it across the tiles deliberately. "And is there any cake left?"
John shoved his own plate, with half a slice of heavy fruitcake, towards McKay. "That's the last of it," he said. "We need to make Sara grateful for something else."
"That's your department, Sheppard," sniped McKay. "Why don't you go and flirt with her some more?"
John raised his eyebrows. "Not getting anywhere, McKay?"
"As a matter of fact —"
"In answer to your question," interjected Zelenka, with an irritable look at McKay, "I have not played for some time. But I hope to remember some Bach."
"Bach?" said McKay, and his face brightened. "Partitas?"
Zelenka shrugged. "Maybe," he said. "Do you play? Perhaps we can find a —"
McKay was shaking his head. "I don't think so," he said. The skin around his eyes was tight. "I'm busy: I'm working."
"Working on what?" said Zelenka, tightening a peg.
"I'd be wasting a perfectly good explanation if I told you," said McKay.
Zelenka sniffed. "Whatever you say, Rodney." He plucked the string he'd just tightened; frowned, and tightened it more. "But perhaps there is something you do not know about me."
"You think so?" sneered McKay. "Here's something you probably don't know about me: I don't care."
John could see this getting nasty. "Doctor Zelenka," he drawled, "remind me where you studied?"
Oh, that was worth it for the look on McKay's face, pinched and sour. But you had to hand it to the man: he recovered quickly, scraped his chair round to face Zelenka, and said, "You're a doctor? Of what?"
"Applied physics," said Zelenka nonchalantly. John suppressed a snort of laughter at his innocent expression.
"Really?" said McKay, all eagerness now. "What did you work on, in the war?"
"McKay," growled John, because Zelenka's mouth straightened, and his gaze was flat and angry.
"In the war," said Zelenka tightly, "I was in a," he snapped his fingers, "in a labour camp." He looked around at the Hall. "Not as nice as this."
"Labour camp?" said McKay. He was frowning. "But you're —"
"I would not work for the Nazis," flared Zelenka, "and so they took my family, and ... No, I am sorry, Rodney. I cannot talk about this yet." And he shoved his chair back from the table, grabbed his violin by the neck, and strode out of the Hall.
"Way to go, McKay," said John.
"I, I didn't know, okay?" said McKay crossly. "How am I supposed to know the entire life history of everybody I meet?"
"You could try asking them," suggested John.
"I could — okay. Tell me something about yourself."
"Er," John said. "That's not fair."
"Hah!" said McKay. The scene with Zelenka'd slid off him instantly, water off a duck's back: he was smirking triumphantly at John as though he'd just caught him out. How the hell was John supposed to respond to that demand?
"What do you want to know?" he said levelly. "My favourite colour? The name of the dog we had when I was growing up? Which character I like best in War and Peace? Jeez, McKay: you can't just shoot that kind of question at a guy!"
"Hmmm," said McKay, head cocked, looking at John as if he was something washed up on the beach. (Which was actually pretty accurate.) "Who was the last person you kissed?"
"None of your damn business," said John, shifting uncomfortably, because no way was he going to —
"What, you can't remember?" goaded McKay.
"Of course I can remember, McKay!" said John through his teeth. "But a gentleman doesn't tell."
"Okay," said McKay. "At least tell me when."
"New Year's Eve," said John promptly. "With Big Ben chiming in the background." And hell, it'd been dumb to take that risk, but there'd been so many people around, and nobody'd looked twice.
"Was she hot?" said McKay, leaning forward, conspiratorial. "Did she ... you know."
John was feeling reckless again, just like that night, like he was going into a dive, like he was jumping without a parachute. Something in McKay's open interest, something in the way he'd looked up at John that afternoon in the shed, piqued John's own interest: made him want to push a little. He leant back in his chair, stretching, and grinned at McKay. "What makes you think it was a girl?" he said: and McKay's dumbfounded expression felt like the best kind of buzz.
The marshes were hazy with sea-lavender, and where the mud showed through it was marbled with blue sky where water still stood. The sea itself was far away: Teyla had never lived on the coast before, and she did not know if the tides here were unusual. To her it seemed strange that the water swept up at high tide, drew back at low.
Circles everywhere. Circles and lines of wooden stakes black and crusted against the gleaming mud. (Mr Parrish said they were fish-traps from the olden days.) Concentric circles in the sand. Teyla watched as the wind lashed the tough grass, each blade inscribing its orbit. She stepped carefully, the shelly white sand soft and cool against her bare feet. Barefoot here, or she might lose a boot in the sucking mud — like Mr Parrish had last week, wading out to gather samphire for the stew — and then she'd be barefoot everywhere. Poverty was a state of mind, but lack and want were hard facts.
Atlantis. Teyla had listened to the stories around the fire. There had been another Atlantis once, a city of gold and marble that had sunk beneath the waves. There was once, too, another land out there beneath the gentle waves: a land, said Mr Parrish, where men had lived and hunted and died before history had begun.
"And sometimes, up along the coast," Lorne the fisherman had said, "you can hear bells at low tide, ringing in the steeples of drowned churches."
So: there were cities beneath the sea. Here, the border between earth and sea was blurred and unclear. The land crumbled, slid, melted to mud: the lines of the old fort — she must ask Doctor McKay or Mrs Weir to tell her all the stories in their proper order — led out into deep water, past the tideline; but perhaps the tides had flowed differently in years gone by. Perhaps, out there, the bones of Roman soldiers rested next to those of the monks who had built the old chapel. Perhaps her bones would lie there with theirs some day.
Or perhaps she would go home.
Teyla walked slowly, searching the tideline for whatever the sea had brought. Sometimes there were bones here. Sometimes there were things that could be salvaged and sold, though Teyla did not always understand why one thing was worth selling, worth keeping, while another was not. Parrish had sat down at once to draw the bird-skull she'd brought to him, lines firm and sure on the cheap paper sketchbook: Elizabeth had exclaimed over a broken piece of pottery, her eyes bright. Teyla found more beauty in the spined green shell of some sea creature, fragile yet intact: she had placed it on the shelf above her bed, next to the doll that had come with her from Russia, and the little pot of Vaseline that Katie had given her for her chapped lips.
Last week Teyla had found a twist of metal as long as her arm, jaggedly silver and oddly light. John had told her it was part of an aeroplane that had crashed into the sea. It had been clear that the thought (or perhaps it had been a memory) brought him pain, so she had not pressed him for tales of his own time flying. She had seen him gaze upwards like an eager dog when the planes went over: she had seen him flinch, sometimes, at the noise of their engines.
Now only birds wheeled above her, against the rich velvet blue of the zenith: white birds falling away like leaves down the sky, through the turquoise to the delicate duck-egg blue at the horizon, where light reflected up from the calm blue sea. Only birds, but they were watching her. Someone was watching her. Someone's gaze so strongly on her that she felt it like a touch, heavier than sunshine. The fine hairs bristled on her skin. Crouching to examine a twist of weed, Teyla glanced up from beneath the veil of her hair, afraid that it was Cole the farmer again. She did not like the way that Cole looked at her whenever they met: as though he could see through her dress, through her skin. If he was watching her now, it was from some secret place. There was nobody standing on the sea-wall; nobody on the beach, no boats on the incoming tide.
Think, Teyla told herself. But it was not thinking: it was feeling. Feeling the direction of that gaze, feeling the attention, turning towards it: turning south-east, out past the end of the spit, to where two figures stood.
At first she thought the taller of them was John Sheppard: there was something in his stance that called John to mind. But John was working in the little field behind the sea-wall: and anyway, there was no reason for him to be standing so far from Atlantis, right at the creeping limit of the sea.
No: they were not standing at the edge of the sea. They were standing out past the line of surf.
Teyla stood, slowly, and began to walk towards the two figures. The wind whipped her hair, her skirt: rattled a wrack of seaweed, startling her. The watchers did not move, though she could feel them watching her still. Could they be strangers, lost on the road? That last mile led only to Atlantis, and the sea. Perhaps they were fishermen, their boat sunk deep with the drowned bones. Perhaps they were prisoners of war, escaped from some camp. Teyla was ready to flee, but they did not move.
Hesitantly, she waved a greeting to them. And the taller of the two raised his hand, returning her salute.
* * *
"Ghosts? That's not right. That's not even wrong."
"No, listen, Sheppard. There are no such things as ghosts. Ghosts do not exist. Whatever you thought you saw out there, it wasn't a ghost."
"Rodney," said the Russian girl, "I saw them. They saw me too."
"There you go," said Rodney brightly. "Why would a ghost be able to see you? Just supposing for a moment that there's any foundation for, for ghosts, they're in the past, right? They're," he snapped his fingers, searching for a word that'd make her see reason. "They're echoes. You weren't there in the past. They're not here in the present. QED."
"What is QED?" said the girl — what was her name? Tara? — while Sheppard just leant back against the door, smiling at Rodney's attempts to quell Tara's gullible Slavic soul.
"Quod erat demonstrandum. I've proved it."
"Well, McKay," drawled Sheppard, "you haven't actually proved anything. You've just told Teyla and me that we're hallucinating."
Rodney shrugged. "How am I supposed to know what goes on in your head, Sheppard?" The light in Sheppard's eyes — he was laughing at Rodney, damn him — was like a goad. "For all I know you're still suffering from combat trauma, or whatever they're calling it." Hah. That'd wiped the smirk off his face.
"I know what I saw, Doctor McKay," said Tara — okay, her name was Teyla — coolly. "There were two men, and one raised his hand in greeting. And then ... then they were not there."
"I saw them too," said Sheppard. His mouth was straight and thin-lipped. "So did Elizabeth. The night of the flood. And before that, when I was out on the beach with Parrish."
"The night of the flood? Exactly," said Rodney. "You weren't thinking straight. You were overwhelmed by —"
"I was not overwhelmed by anything!"
"Gentlemen!" Elizabeth came in, followed by Zil ... Zol ... the Czechoslovakian. (Why did everyone have to have such difficult names?) "Is there a problem?"
"Teyla, here," said Rodney indulgently, "claims to have seen ... apparitions, out on the beach. And Sheppard's backing her up."
"Hmm," said Elizabeth, exchanging a quick unreadable glance with Sheppard.
"You can't seriously believe them?" Rodney wiped his mouth: spluttering again.
"It is possible," said the Czech, "that if we redefine our terms — redefine what is 'ghost' — we can find a scientific explanation for this."
"Really?" said Rodney. "Is that the kind of science they teach in grade school where you come from?"
"No," said the Czech, and he was angry too. Great. Rodney was surrounded by superstitious peasants. "But it is not excluded by the laws of physics. What if time is not a straight line? Or there are other realities pressing against ours? Or the wormholes of which —"
"Yes, yes," said Rodney impatiently. "I've read that Einstein-Rosen paper."
"As have I, Rodney," said the Czech dryly. Through the thick spectacles, his eyes were very intent. Very focussed. "And I believe that Teyla and Mr Sheppard are telling the truth: that they saw something unusual on the beach."
"I saw something — somebody — as well," contributed Elizabeth.
"One of Cole's farmhands, maybe? Or somebody out for a walk? I don't understand why you're so keen to, to believe in the supernatural, instead of using some common — or, let's be realistic, uncommon — sense."
"Somebody who vanished between one moment and the next," insisted Elizabeth.
Rodney rolled his eyes.
"Right, so there's — what? A wormhole? A temporal anomaly? — out on the beach. Why the beach? There's nothing there."
"Mr Parrish tells me the sea was lower, once," said Teyla.
"Right, he's a botanist: of course you'd listen to him. Though, huh."
"What?" said Sheppard.
"The Roman fort: that must've extended out over the marshes, if the usual dimensions are anything to go by." Rodney, pacing, shoved a chair out of the way. "Okay, so why here?"
"We are on the edge," said the Czech. "This is a ... a limen?" He glanced at Elizabeth.
"A liminal zone, Doctor Zelenka," said Elizabeth, almost as though she was taking this, this messy-haired European seriously. "Is that what you meant? A place that's on the edge?"
"Neither land nor sea," said Zelenka. "Neither here nor there. The marshes ... and the chapel, the old chapel ..."
"First night I was here," interjected Sheppard, staring down at his hands, "I saw someone in the chapel."
"That was me, John," said Elizabeth, laughing a little.
"No," said Sheppard. He looked up, frowning. "Before you came in."
"I didn't see anybody," said Elizabeth.
"I can't believe you're all seriously talking about ghosts," said Rodney loudly, in the faint hope of distracting the others from this nonsense.
"I can't believe you haven't seen them for yourself," retorted Sheppard. "Maybe if you didn't wander around in a world of your own —"
"Excuse me? I'm not the one hallucinating, here!"
"Lorne says he has seen them too," said Zelenka. "He says there are more of them, this year."
Zelenka shrugged. "Perhaps they are coming to Atlantis," he suggested. "Perhaps they have no home."
"Right," said Rodney. "So now we're running a, what, an asylum for lost spirits? Please." God, he hated that patient look on Sheppard's face. "Let's apply some scientific method to this, shall we? Okay. You, you and you," pointing in turn at Sheppard, Elizabeth, Teyla, "you all claim to have seen these ... apparitions."
"Rodney ..." said Sheppard.
"Am I right?"
"Yeah," said Sheppard.
"I only saw them when I was on the sea wall," said Elizabeth. "With you, John."
"Okay: have any of you seen one of these things when Sheppard wasn't around?"
"What, are you saying I'm making them happen?"
"It's the hair," said Rodney. "Or maybe they think you're ... charming. Well?"
"Yes, Dr McKay," said Teyla. "As I told you all just now, I have seen them on the beach."
"Okay. Zelenka? Parrish?" Because the discussion had attracted quite an audience now, everyone milling around and muttering to each other. "Anyone else seen," Rodney snapped his fingers, "'ghosts'?"
"Lorne," Zelenka reminded him.
"Well, he's not here to join in with our little séance, is he?" snapped Rodney.
"Hard to tell who's a ghost," volunteered the big guy from London. "Sometimes there's too many people."
"Right, fine," said Rodney, wanting to mock but ... cautious of the man's easy, ready stance. "So, let's hypothesise for a moment that there are ghosts — no, hang on, let's call them energy forms, because it doesn't sound quite so stupid — that maybe aren't quite real, but they're close enough to reality for us (or some of us, especially Americans with dumb hair) to see them. And let's imagine that Sheppard, and Teyla, and that Lorne guy, are especially attractive to these energy forms. Voila! Easy to test!"
"What d'you mean, McKay?" said Sheppard from his boneless slouch against the door.
"If I hang around with you — or, or Teyla, or Lorne, of course — then sooner or later ..." Rodney gestured expansively.
"McKay," said Sheppard, "I never knew you cared."
And okay, there were a million and one things Rodney could've said to that: but he couldn't say the truth, not here in front of everybody. (Even if Teyla's sly smile told him she'd guessed.) Couldn't say that Sheppard, with a single offhand comment about kissing, had given him a whole new set of hypotheses to test.
"Yes, well," said Rodney brightly. "Scientific method."
These people weren't like the people at home in London. They were strange. Ronon kept waiting for someone to boss him around, tell him what to do. Mostly, nobody seemed to care. He helped out in the kitchen, chopped wood with Sheppard, hauled water from the standpipe at the gate if Cole hadn't turned off the supply that morning. (Sheppard and Parrish took it in turns to walk up the track and turn the water back on at the mains.) There was too much time to fill, and he couldn't figure out what everybody else did all day.
Mrs Weir, now, she worked hard: always with a book or a ledger open on her desk, a pen in her hand, writing letters or adding columns of numbers or reading newspapers. Sheppard seemed to work pretty hard, too, with his hands and his body. Strength to spare, though. That first morning when Ronon'd woken up and wandered out of the men's hut into the early sunshine, he'd seen Sheppard running along the grass behind the seawall. Not running towards anything, not running away from anything: just running. Ronon couldn't figure that either, but a couple of days later Sheppard'd beckoned him. "Come on!" And Ronon'd found himself running too. It cleared his head after a night's sleep, made his body feel alive again. He guessed it was as good a way as any to start the day, and Sheppard didn't seem to mind his company. Didn't say much, either. That was good. Ronon didn't want to talk about the past, and he hadn't worked out where he fitted, here, yet.
So when Doctor McKay, who was arguing with Parrish at the gate, called Ronon over and said, "I need you to help me carry something," Ronon didn't mind. Everything he did for these people, for any of them, was another reason for them to let him stay.
"Right," he said. "Where is it?"
"Doctor McKay!" said Parrish. He'd just come back from the village: there were letters in his hand. "Don't you think that's rather unfair?"
"No," said McKay, looking at Parrish like he was mad. "I mean, look at him!"
Ronon stared back at Parrish, and maybe he was laughing a bit on the inside. They all thought he was stupid, good for nothing except his strength. Maybe some day he'd get a chance to show them. Until then, he might as well make himself useful.
"Ronon — Mr Dex won't be able to do it on his own," said Parrish.
"You c'n call me Ronon," said Ronon. "Want to help?"
"Me? No, no," said Parrish hastily. "Hello? Mr Sheppard?"
Sheppard was coming up the path behind Ronon and the others, head down, walking fast. Ronon wondered if he'd been going to the chapel. "Hey," said Sheppard, nodding to them all. "What's up?"
"I was, ah, just asking Ronon if he could help with a delivery," said McKay. His fingers were twitching. "But it's a two-man job, at least."
"Hey, don't let me hold you up," said Sheppard, head cocked, smile bright.
McKay snorted. "Don't suppose you'd care to help?" he said. "It's a valuable item: there needs to be somebody in charge, someone to make sure you're ... to make sure it's being carried properly."
"That somebody being you?" said Sheppard.
"If you're not going to help —"
"Hey, I didn't say that," said Sheppard. "But I'm curious to find out what this delicate, valuable item might be."
"Come and see," said McKay, and he was bouncing on the balls of his feet. Ronon hadn't seen him honestly excited about anything — anything real, not just on paper — in the month he'd been here. It made him curious, too.
The three of them went up the track towards the road. Sheppard walked next to McKay, and made him laugh about something to do with cats. Ronon didn't understand the jokes: he hung back, a step or two behind the others.
"McKay," said Sheppard, stopping short when he saw the delivery van, "you've got some nerve!"
"What? Elizabeth told me we had to rely on our own resources."
"I don't think that's what she had in mind," drawled Sheppard.
"What is it?" said Ronon. He didn't recognise the name on the side of the van, or the colours it was painted: the man leaning on the side of the vehicle, smoking a Woodbine, looked pretty much like every delivery man Ronon'd ever seen.
"It's a piano," said McKay, slow and loud. "The piano I ordered."
"How the hell," started Sheppard, but then he stopped talking and just shook his head. It couldn't be that bad, though: he was grinning. "Okay," he said to the driver, "let's see what we've got."
There'd been a piano like this in the Ten Bells, back home: a big, jangling wooden box, with black and white keys and lots of brasswork. Every time it tilted — raining notes that drowned out the birds in the hedge — McKay hissed, or swore, or told Ronon and Sheppard they were idiots. (The van driver, once he'd helped to lower the thing out of the van, just stood there like a bloke at a cock-fight, grinning and looking on.) Ronon kept his mouth shut, but Sheppard gave as good as he got, and McKay seemed to be okay with that.
"This is dumb," said Sheppard. They'd moved the thing no more than a couple of yards, and it was hard work.
"You need a dolly," said Ronon.
"A what?" snapped McKay. "Listen, you —"
Sheppard held up a hand, and just like that McKay shut up. Cool. "Go on, Ronon," said Sheppard.
"You need a dolly — something with wheels, like they use in the market — and some rope, and about six more people," said Ronon. "Too heavy to carry: we need to haul it. Those little wheels on the bottom ..." ("Castors," said McKay.) "They won't do for this." Ronon nodded at the rutted track. "Any wheels around, Sheppard?"
"There's a hand-cart in back of the chicken shed," said Sheppard. "I'll get it." And he was trotting off back down the track, leaving Ronon and McKay staring at one another over the top of the piano.
"Sorry," said McKay in a rush. "I shouldn't have — I'm sorry, all right?"
"It's okay," said Ronon. "Want to —" He paused as the van started up, noisily, billowing black smoke. "Play something?"
"What, here?" said McKay, looking at him as if he was mad.
"Sure," said McKay, leaning down over the piano: and Ronon rested his arms on the top, and let the music shake its way through him, and didn't listen to anything McKay was saying any more.
"Good afternoon, Mrs Weir."
It was Mr Cole. Elizabeth closed the ledger and set her pen down. She hadn't seen Cole, save as a figure in the distance, since the high tide at the end of March: more than two months ago. She felt cold despite the sunshine that streamed in through the rippling glass. What did he want? And what gave him such assurance, walking in as though he belonged in Atlantis?
"Mr Cole," she said, polite and precise. "I didn't hear you knock." You didn't knock. "Or perhaps you were hoping that I wasn't here?"
Cole gave her a rueful smile. "I'm prepared to let bygones be bygones," he said. As though he —
Elizabeth wanted to slap him. "I'm happy to hear it," she said, clasping her hands.
"May I?" said Cole, his hand on the back of the other wooden chair. It was the first time she had seen him without that heavy black coat. His hair was slicked back, and his shirt was freshly-laundered. He might have been a handsome man once, when he was younger. There was something grotesquely charming in his manner.
"Please," said Elizabeth, inclining her head. "May I be of assistance?"
"I'd like to discuss the harbouring of dangerous enemy aliens," said Cole calmly. He examined his fingernails — they were remarkably clean, for a farmer's — and glanced up at her as though surprised by her silence.
Two could play at this game. "I'm afraid I have no idea what you mean," said Elizabeth. "There are certainly foreign nationals in residence here in Atlantis, but I assure you that their papers are in order. None of them are a threat to Atlantis, or the village, or to the nation. We work hard —"
"You work hard on secret projects," interrupted Cole, "which, I have every reason to believe, pose a formidable risk to all of us."
"Us?" said Elizabeth sweetly, raising her eyebrows. "I'm not sure I know to whom you're referring, Mr Cole. But do forgive me: I can tell from your words that you're an educated man." Or that somebody told you exactly what to say to me. "I may have misjudged you." Or I may be right not to trust you.
Cole's smile stretched his lips, but didn't reach his eyes.
"I'm very much afraid, however," Elizabeth went on, "that you have also misjudged us. The people here are refugees, fleeing oppression; the exiled and homeless, seeking a home; the —"
"The ex-servicemen whose war records aren't available for inspection," said Cole. "The scientists who were involved in the creation and engineering of atomic weaponry. The Communists."
Elizabeth laughed, though she had seldom felt less amused. "Mr Cole," she said firmly. "No, please don't interrupt me again: do me the courtesy of hearing me out. I'm afraid I have no interest in refuting your accusations on a case-by-case basis, especially given your tendency to multiplication. How many ex-servicemen am I supposed to be concealing here? Or did you just mean Mr Sheppard?"
"Don't play games with me, Mrs Weir." Was it her imagination, or had Cole just stressed her title? His smile was certainly less pleasant now. He knows, he knows, he knows about Simon. She smothered that niggling fear.
"Then don't come to me with baseless accusations, Mr Cole. Tell me what you hope to achieve, and perhaps we can negotiate."
"I want you to leave," said Cole, and it would've been better if he'd sounded angry: instead, she heard amusement in his voice. "You're trespassers, vagabonds, nuisances! I want you all to leave, and take everything with you."
"You want the land," said Elizabeth. "And I'm afraid I shan't sell it to you."
That surprised him. "It's not yours to sell."
"Really?" said Elizabeth. "I'd show you the deeds if I felt there was anything that I needed to prove to you. Unfortunately," and she tilted her head, staring back at him, "they're with my solicitor."
"This land was requisitioned by the Army," said Cole.
"And after the war was over, I applied for its return," said Elizabeth. "Since you've brought up the subject of trespass, you won't object to being reminded that you could be regarded as the trespasser here. Now, Mr Cole, if that will be all? I have business to attend."
"No, Mrs Weir, that will not be all." Cole leant forward, and for a moment Elizabeth was afraid: afraid that he would actually attack her, afraid of the fury in his eyes. She met his gaze and did not blink. Over the thud of her heart, she could hear Laura and Katie laughing in the field. There were heavy footsteps in the Hall outside her office: somebody — John? — walking and then halting. Somebody was standing sentry. She was not alone.
"Please be brief, Mr Cole," Elizabeth said. "You've mentioned ex-servicemen, scientists ... I'm sorry, I've forgotten your other concerns."
"Communists," said Cole. "There are communists here, working to overthrow His Majesty's government."
Elizabeth shot him a brief, cold smile. "I assure you we have better things to do with our time," she said.
"You yourself named this the Atlantis Community," said Cole, his lip twitching. "And you can't deny you've given shelter to the daughter of a Russian revolutionary!"
"Every one of us," said Elizabeth, dry-mouthed, "is here as his own man, her own woman. We have no ties to the outside world. We are not to be judged by birth or wealth or anything save ourselves."
"I judge you," said Cole, rising slowly to his feet and leaning towards her. His breath smelt of coffee and tobacco. "I judge you, and find you guilty, Mrs Weir: and I aim to ensure that justice is done."
"You know the way out," said Elizabeth, not letting her voice waver. She turned back to her ledger, opening it at random. "Good day."
She was shaking. She was shaking, because that vile man ... because he'd stated his intent to destroy what she had built. Because he'd made her doubt the people she'd gathered. Because ... because he thought that she, that Atlantis, was the enemy.
By the last week of May they'd acquired a squad of former prisoners of war, filthy and hollow-cheeked, assigned to Mrs Weir for general labour. John had looked them over — two women (one of them Japanese), four men, all dull-eyed and defeated — and made an effort to remember their names, but he left it to Elizabeth to give them their orders and tell them where to go. All that (commands, administration, responsibility) was behind him now, and he didn't like the idea of being in charge of the enemy: of people whose sons or brothers or fathers or lovers he might've shot down, some fine clear day over the blue North Sea.
"They're just people, for God's sake," McKay told him. "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: they were rounded up and put in camps. We're not, we're not torturing them, unless you count bramble-clearing as torture, which I for one —"
They were in the shed again, John slouched back against a haybale with his book at his feet and a cat (the fluffy tabby McKay'd christened Heisenberg) grinding her head against his stubbled chin. McKay claimed he couldn't hear himself think in the Hall, but out here, in this gloomy sweet-scented privacy with foolhardy mice rustling in the straw and the cats — it seemed to John there were more cats than before, not to mention the kittens scrapping and mewing behind the bales — prowling around them, his pencil scratched furiously, page after page of notes. John stole a peek now and then, and maybe he was kidding himself, but he reckoned he was starting to get what McKay was on about.
And yeah, it was intellectual curiosity that kept him hanging out with McKay between chores. Nothing to do with the look on McKay's face when inspiration hit him, or the way his left hand idly petted the nearest cat — okay, Schrödinger — while his right hand scrawled numbers, crossed them out, corrected them.
Christ, McKay's hands. John couldn't remember ever taking the time to look at a guy's hands before, not like this: looking, and thinking about that hand touching him, wrapped around his —
"Wha'?" said John, blinking and shifting, hoping that McKay wouldn't notice he was getting hard.
"Have a look at this," said McKay, thrusting the notebook at him. It was a kid's schoolbook, wide-ruled with a glossy red cover and a space for someone's name and form. John opened it up, and lost himself again in the precise mesh of numbers and functions. This, he could own up to: this was allowed.
Heisenberg butted her chin against his hand, and dribbled on the paper. John absently wiped it clean.
"Eww. That's revolting," said McKay, leaning over. It was pretty warm in here, and McKay was giving off heat like a radiator. John could smell his sweat.
"It's only cat-spit," John said. "Hey, what are you trying to do, here? I never saw that symbol."
"My own convention," said McKay proudly. "And you've never seen it because no one's ever done this before."
"Yeah, yeah," said John. "What's it meant to —"
Music, faltering single notes, sounded faintly from the direction of the Hall. "My piano!" McKay squawked, and he was on his feet, cats leaping out of his way.
"The communal piano," John reminded him lazily, because it was kind of fun (though too damned easy) to wind up McKay.
"Excuse me," said McKay. "I need to keep an eye on ..."
"Hang on," said John, but McKay was already heaving the door open, letting in bright sunlight and fresh air.
John took a moment to brush the straw out of his hair — McKay'd rushed out looking like a scarecrow, but John had more pride — and went after him. By the time he got to the Hall, McKay was in full flow, standing in front of the battered piano and lecturing that nervous-looking Japanese woman.
"... a delicate instrument, and your ham-handed efforts —"
The Japanese woman looked as if she were about to cry. She was trying to say something, but McKay barrelled on, not even listening.
"Leave it, McKay," said John. "Give her a chance, huh?"
"A chance to do what? Wreck —"
"Come on," said John, exasperated. "You — Miko? Miko — play something for us, eh? Doctor McKay won't mind." He shot McKay an admonitory frown, and McKay huffed a sigh and stepped aside.
And yeah, the Japanese woman could play. Her hands were red and raw from whatever work she'd been doing, and her touch was oddly hesitant. But a ripple of notes, and another: and John didn't know much about this kind of music, but McKay'd stopped glowering at her, and instead he was listening, head cocked, so John was pretty sure Miko's playing was good.
"I. Er. I apologise," said McKay awkwardly, when the music stopped and Miko sat, hands in her lap, head bowed. "I'm sorry I, er, doubted you."
"I don't think her English is that good," John said.
"I understand you," said Miko, looking up at McKay. She had a peculiarly sweet smile. "And I apologise, Doctor McKay, for failing to seek your permission before I played." She stood, gracefully, and bowed her head again. "Will you play for us?"
McKay didn't need asking twice. He sat down on the rickety wooden stool, flexed his fingers, and ...
John'd heard him play before: some classical stuff, some ragtime, something slow and bluesy. This music was different: passionate and furious, precise as machinery but still somehow ... free. Like clear blue skies, like lines and forms and new dimensions spinning out of a single elegant equation. Like flying. Like ...
And yeah, the force and flow of the music (clouds rushing past at sunrise, stars circling overhead as he dived and spun) spoke to something in his brain: but the certainty of McKay's hands teasing out each note from the yellowing keys, and the way his shoulders flexed under his shirt ... John didn't dare look at McKay's face. He stared at his hands, and simply wanted. Wanted the mind that could embrace the equations McKay'd shown him in the shed and, minutes later, this music: wanted the body that could translate some long-dead composer's score into tumbling, triumphant sound: wanted to be touched, even if he only got a fraction of the focus and passion that McKay was pouring into the music. Wanted.
"Look at this," said Rodney, nudging John Sheppard with his toe. "Ever seen anything like this?"
It'd taken him a while to locate Sheppard: he'd checked in the Hall, in the field, out on the beach. Maybe Sheppard hadn't wanted to be found, Rodney thought belatedly: but here he was, lying on his back in the grass behind the seawall, staring up into cloud-flecked blue. There was a book — War and Peace again — at his elbow, but it was closed. He looked pretty happy.
"What?" said Sheppard now, blinking and turning his head to look up at Rodney, and at the thing in Rodney's hand. "Nah," he said.
"What's so interesting about the sky?" demanded Rodney, dropping down beside Sheppard. "What are you looking for?"
"Listen," said Sheppard, and yes, there was a distant sound of aeroplanes. "Gooney Birds."
"Really," said Rodney, unimpressed. But there was something bitter in the twist of Sheppard's smile. "What?" said Rodney.
"I," said Sheppard, his gaze fixing on Rodney. He looked annoyed, and Rodney could practically see him biting back some sharp retort. "I miss it, okay?" said Sheppard at last.
"You miss dicing with death? Because you're too smart not to be scared."
"Gee, thanks," said Sheppard. "Course I was scared. Blind courage doesn't get you anywhere, up there: you have to keep your wits about you. But ..." He shrugged. "I miss the sky."
Rodney didn't think it would help to point out that the sky was right there, huge and blue like a china dome above them. "Couldn't you, isn't there some kind of work you could do?" he said instead. "Wouldn't the RAF take you on to train recruits, or —"
"Too many pilots demobbed," said Sheppard. "Nothing for us to do, now the war's over."
"You can't possibly want another war," said Rodney, appalled.
"Of course I don't, Rodney!" Sheppard closed his eyes and huffed a sigh. "I just ..."
The aeroplanes were approaching, engine noise louder, and the skin around Sheppard's closed eyes tightened. His eyelashes made half-circles on his tanned skin. And okay, it was probably wrong to stare, but Rodney couldn't look away. John Sheppard was astonishingly good-looking, not in a Hollywood idol way but ... real. There was a small red mark where he'd cut himself shaving, and an older scar, white and waxy, along his chin. Grass in his hair, and a glossy green beetle climbing slowly up his neck, traversing the fat blue vein. That had to tickle.
He was nothing like Alan. Nothing at all.
Rodney was pretty sure he hadn't moved, or made a sound, but Sheppard's eyes snapped open, and there was nowhere to hide.
"You, ah ... you've got a bug," said Rodney. "On your neck."
Sheppard grimaced, and swatted at his throat, mashing the beetle into his stubble. He didn't stop staring back at Rodney. The sunlight made his eyes unusually green.
"So," said Rodney, fidgeting. "Lorne found this in his nets yesterday," he said brightly, holding up the crystal so that it caught the light. "I've never seen anything like it."
Sheppard held out his hand. Rodney couldn't help it if his fingers brushed Sheppard's as he passed the thing over.
"Weird," said Sheppard, and finally his gaze dropped away, and Rodney could breathe properly. The crystal — oblong, oddly angled, light glinting from lattices within — refracted sunlight onto Sheppard's face. "Is it glass?"
"No," said Rodney. "I think it's crystalline, but I've never ... huh."
"What?" Sheppard was holding the crystal up to his eyes, staring through it.
"Do you ... is it ..." Rodney waved a hand at the sky. A cloud dimmed the sun, but the crystal still seemed to glow. "Sheppard!"
"Wow," said Sheppard. "Luminescence?"
"I don't know," said Rodney. "Here." He snapped his fingers, and Sheppard smirked as he obediently handed the crystal back. Rodney said "Huh," because he must've been imagining that odd light: the thing was dull and inert in his hand. He could see the internal structure more clearly now; a myriad of intricate traceries, fine as cobweb and precise as circuitry.
"No way this is natural," said Rodney. "I wish I ..."
"I was just thinking," said Rodney unhappily, "that if I was still at Cambridge, I could've gotten a better look at it. Microscope, spectroscope ... Huh, I wonder if we can cut it?"
"The advancement of scientific knowledge," snapped Rodney. "Plus — here, hold it again."
He was a scientist, damn it. He didn't imagine things, he observed them. And he was pretty clear on what he was observing now: the thing lit up when Sheppard held it. Huh.
"Where was Lorne fishing?" said Sheppard.
"What? Off the Point," said Rodney. "Why does —"
"Which means we might find more of these on the mudflats, once the tide's out."
"Point," said Rodney, grinning at Sheppard.
"Great," said Sheppard, sitting up in one smooth surge of movement. (Rodney tried not to watch the way his muscles tensed beneath his shirt.) "I could do with ... Fancy a walk?"
"Sure," said Rodney. "Hey, don't forget your book."
Sheppard scooped up the heavy volume. There was a bookmark poking out, near the front of the book.
"How long've you been reading that?" said Rodney. "Because I haven't read a novel in years — there's quite enough imagination and escapism, not to mention improbably happy endings, in the physics journals — but, er, is it any good?" Christ, he was babbling like an idiot. But this was John Sheppard, who drew the eye; who could hold his own in a conversation about quantum theory; who made mysterious deep-sea crystals light up like a fairground; who made Rodney ...
"On and off," said Sheppard. "It belonged to a friend."
"Hell," said Rodney. "I'm sorry." Because it was pretty clear from Sheppard's expression that his friend wouldn't be asking for his book back any time soon.
"Doesn't matter," said Sheppard, shrugging. He practically ran up the steep slope of the sea wall, looking out to sea for a moment before he turned back to Rodney, watching him take the incline more sedately.
"Holland and I had a bet," said Sheppard. He was staring out to where a couple of distant figures picked their way slowly over the glistening mud. The sun angled up sharply, bright as diamond, from pools of water: a flock of gulls quarrelled at the edge of the receding sea. "Five bucks said he wouldn't finish it," he hefted the book, "by the end of the war."
There wasn't really anything Rodney could say to that: but hey, maybe Sheppard didn't need him to say anything. Maybe Sheppard just needed him to listen.
"I guess I won," said Sheppard, and whatever he was seeing it wasn't Rodney.
People were saying today was the first day of summer, though it'd been hot and sunny for weeks. Ronon thought he could get to like this: working in the sunshine, cooling off on the beach where there was always a breeze, the noise of bugs in the long grass and birds in the hedges. The men's hut was hot and smelly, the kind of smell you got from a bunch of guys living in one place. Ronon didn't mind that too much. He was used to worse.
He'd been keeping an eye on the new guys — they were German, they were the enemy — but none of 'em stepped out of line, and they all seemed pretty grateful to be here. A couple of the men had been working for Cole, up the lane, but he'd sent them away. Didn't like foreigners. Mrs Weir was soft on them (they ate with the rest of the community, slept indoors, did the same share of hoeing and weeding and hauling), but it wasn't Ronon's place to tell her so. He guessed she knew what she was doing.
Most mornings he ran with Sheppard, and it felt good to be faster, to beat the older man. Felt good to be running, free, nobody to get in his way, no fires bombs buildings crashing down noise except the breeze in the long grass and the splashing of waves against the sea-wall. Sheppard said they'd nearly been flooded out back in the spring, but maybe he was making it up, because the water stayed down there on the beach, and even when the tide was in it wasn't that close to the top of the wall.
Sometimes Ronon'd go across the field to the old chapel. His mum had been religious, though she hadn't made a big deal of it. He thought she'd like it if he tidied up in there a bit, sat quietly and thought of her. If there was anywhere she could keep an eye on him, it'd be in the dark cool stillness, beneath the simple cross.
Sometimes there was another guy in there, praying. Nobody Ronon knew, nobody from Atlantis, but he didn't bother Ronon so Ronon didn't bother him.
Mostly he just did as he was told, and watched everybody else. Sheppard was a good man, and he didn't waste words. If he said something, Ronon listened. McKay, on the other hand, never stopped talking. He kept trying to explain things to Ronon — tides and stars and stuff like that — and Ronon thought it'd probably be rude to say he didn't care. Anyway, some of it was interesting. Parrish had some good stories about the olden days; Laura was pretty cool, and she had a wicked sense of humour. Carson'd given Ronon something to clear up the sore on his back from the bomb, the one that wouldn't heal. Mrs Weir treated him like she treated everyone else. Yeah: good people.
"Wanna give me a hand?" said Sheppard, leaning back on the chapel wall next to where Ronon sat soaking up the afternoon sun. He was munching on an apple: he tossed another one down to Ronon.
Ronon bit into it. "Sure," he said, when Sheppard didn't seem inclined to say anything else. "What we doin'?"
"Elizabeth wants to throw a party tonight," said Sheppard, with that quirky half-a-smile. "Music, dancing. Food and drink."
"Cool," said Ronon, finishing the apple and tossing the core into the long grass by the ditch.
"So, I'm thinking we lug some of those logs out front of the Hall for people to sit on," said Sheppard. "Maybe bring out a few chairs. That kind of thing."
"Okay," said Ronon, pushing himself to his feet. "Let's do it."
Hot work, and he was sweating like a pig by the time they'd built a bonfire — a small one, "just to keep the bugs away" — and set up a trestle-table for the food.
"Hey," said Sheppard, slumping down on the grass. "Reckon we deserve a beer?"
"Hell, yeah," said Ronon, grinning. "You got any?" It was weeks since he'd had anything stronger than coffee.
"Nah, but Sara at the pub owes me," said Sheppard, waggling his eyebrows.
Ronon snorted. "Right." He hadn't been to the Anchor yet: hadn't, far as he remembered, been anywhere except Halling's shop in the village, carrying parcels and bags for Mrs Weir.
The pub wasn't as far as the village, and nobody took any notice as he and Sheppard walked up the dusty track towards the road. Sheppard was quiet, which meant Ronon had time to think.
"Listen," he said, slowing. "This isn't a good idea."
"What? Why not?"
"They won't —"
"The hell they won't," said Sheppard, low and intense. "C'mon, buddy: you're not scared of a bunch of farmers and fishermen, are you?"
Ronon scowled. "I'm not scared."
"Right," said Sheppard, exasperated.
"It's cool, Ronon," said Sheppard. "C'mon."
The door to the pub was open, and Sheppard just wandered in like it was nothing. Ronon felt like a stranger: like he'd felt in some of the pubs down in Limehouse, where everyone stopped talking and looked at you.
Sure, they were looking at him, looking at both of 'em: but a couple of the guys were saying hello to Sheppard, and the pretty girl behind the bar said pertly, "Who's your friend?"
"This is Ronon Dex," said Sheppard, yanking Ronon forward. "Sara, you got that, that thing we talked about?"
"Out the back," said Sara, jerking her head. She had a nice smile, and she was smiling at Ronon as well as Sheppard. "Want to try it before you take it back with you?"
"Sure," said Sheppard easily. "And I was, er." He scratched the back of his neck, where the sunburn was peeling. "Just wondered," said Sheppard to the carpet, "if anyone wanted to wander down and say hello. We're having a bit of a party."
Looked like Sheppard was the one who was scared. On the other hand ... Ronon frowned, and leant forward. "Mrs Weir know?" he whispered fiercely in Sheppard's ear.
"Elizabeth wants us to reach out to our neighbours," said Sheppard, cocking his head and trying for a proper English accent. He didn't do it very well, but Ronon could practically hear Mrs Weir saying those exact words, so he guessed it was okay.
The beer was pretty good, and Ronon got talking to one of the fishermen, a friend of Lorne's, who reckoned he could use a hand on the boat. When Sheppard stood up, Ronon was almost sorry that it was time to go.
But it turned out a few of the guys were coming along — Lorne helping Sheppard roll a barrel of beer along the road and down the track, and a couple of the others carrying net bags that stank of fish. Once they got closer to Atlantis, Ronon could hear music. There was a girl singing a Billie Holliday song; the smell of sausages cooking; people laughing, and McKay's voice loud and insistent, lecturing somebody about something.
"Hey," called Sheppard as they got near the fire, "I brought some friends back."
"John, we —" started Mrs Weir, standing up quickly: but she glanced at the rest of them, and nodded once, like she'd made a decision, and said, "You're all very welcome to join us."
"That's that German bloke from Cole's," whispered the blond guy behind Ronon, eyeing the Germans where they stood together by the fire. Ronon heard somebody hawk and spit.
"Yeah," said Ronon, turning round slowly. "You got a problem with that?"
"Me?" said the blond. He looked kind of nervy. "Course not."
"Good," said Ronon. "'Cause we're all friendly here, right?"
"Right," said the guy.
The music started up again: turned out it was that little Czech bloke with his fiddle, tapping his foot to a jig or something, and Laura on her guitar, struggling to keep up. Someone cracked open the beer and handed out mugs. The blond guy passed the first one to Ronon, and raised his own in a toast.
Yeah, thought Ronon, smiling into his cup. All friends, here.
Yeah, this was cool: the sparks from the bonfires rising up into the cool blue evening, a bottle of cold beer in his hand (they'd finished off the barrel on party night, but John'd chopped some more wood for Sara), and bread and cheese on his plate. His muscles ached from carrying water — Cole'd switched off the mains supply again yesterday, but there'd been water this morning — and he was content to loll back on the hard ground, head cushioned by the sweater he'd brought out for later, and listen to Rodney playing the piano, notes tumbling like birds above and around the voices of his friends.
Yeah, this felt like home.
Rodney was playing ragtime tonight. The music rang out clear and familiar from the hall, and if John closed his eyes he could practically see Rodney's big hands searching out the piano keys. Whatever Rodney turned his attention to, weird crystals or farm accounts or black keys and white, he did it with precision and skill. John kind of envied him that. Sure, he'd had skills, but here on the ground they didn't matter much. Maybe he'd fly again, some day: maybe, in the fall or next spring, he'd head out to one of the airfields that hadn't shut down and see if there was work for him. Time enough. There might be another war some day, and John'd join up again like a shot. But he wasn't dumb enough to wish for war, not when peace was settling over England like sunlight.
He let his eyes drift shut, listening to the music, listening to the fire crackling and popping. He was sleeping easier these days, and the nightmares didn't happen as often. And okay, sometimes he'd lie awake listening to McKay snoring in the next bed, and wish ...
John blinked. Must've dozed off: the music had stopped (though he could hear Cadman tuning her guitar) and above him stars dotted the deep, soft blue sky.
Rodney sat down, stealing John's beer.
"Hey!" protested John. "I worked for that!"
"I'll get you another, if it's not going to send you back to sleep."
Rodney was looking down at him intently. John could feel his ears reddening. "I'm awake," he said, propping himself up on his elbows.
"Fancy a walk?" said Rodney, his eyes on John's, and John didn't know why he felt so ... itchy.
They went north, towards the seawall. Across the river, the lights were coming on. It was almost dark, but the air was still warm. John slapped at a mosquito on his arm, waiting for Rodney to start complaining about blood-sucking insects and malaria and plague, but Rodney was uncharacteristically quiet.
A white line of gulls fringed the slow dark water. The tide was coming in, and out in the river a fishing boat motored east.
"Wonder if Lorne'll bring up anything interesting," said John, more or less at random.
"Hmm," said Rodney. "You know, I hooked up that crystal to a couple of batteries —"
"Yeah, I heard Laura was a bit upset about her radio," drawled John, just to get a rise.
"She never listened to anything worthwhile," said Rodney dismissively. "Music while you work? Ha! Music while you shirk, more like. Anyway: I ran a bit of current through it, but it didn't light up, not like it did when you were touching it."
"Hey," said John. The beer was fizzing in his veins, making him reckless again. Or maybe that was just ... "Happy to touch whatever you want me to, Rodney."
"Really?" said Rodney, and John snuck a glance at him. He looked ... interested. Curious. Hell, John'd do whatever it took to satisfy Rodney's curiosity. And Rodney was looking at him now, and maybe he wasn't imagining that, that spark: maybe he hadn't been reading too much into the way Rodney'd looked when he talked about his friend Alan, or the way that, when John'd hinted that he'd kissed a guy, Rodney's dumbfounded look had shaded to speculation.
"Hey," said Rodney, gesturing at the beach. "What's that?"
John couldn't see anything, but he followed Rodney down onto the sand. The tide was coming in, and the moon was turning from day-white to glowing gold as night came on. Rodney was just a dark shape against the pale beach, but John could hear him poking around, hear shells crunching under his feet.
"You carry on, McKay," John called, cheerily. "I'll just ..." He dropped down into the cool sand, drawing his knees up, and waited. And, yeah. Less than a minute before Rodney came over and sat down next to him, silent for a change, the pale shape of his face turned towards John.
The stunted gorse bushes sheltered them from the breeze, hid them from the sea wall. Somebody could walk past ten yards away and never notice the two of them here, if they kept quiet. It made John think of necking with Louise Harris at the dance, that last summer before he'd come to England. They'd snuck away behind the hedge, kissing sweetly, nervously. He'd got his hand to the middle of her thigh before she'd stopped him.
Here he was, alone with Rodney McKay, who was brilliant, who might fuck men as well as (instead of?) girls, who was turning all that focus on John, and it didn't make him itch any more but it made him warm and want. He didn't know what to say, what to do, but he was pretty sure that if he waited long enough, Rodney'd talk, act, take charge.
And then it'd always be between them: that Rodney'd made the first move. Assuming there was an always. Assuming there was anything past this evening. Assuming —
Fuck it. John leant over, got his hand on Rodney's shoulder to hold him still, and pressed a close-mouthed kiss on that wide, slanting mouth.
Just for a moment he felt Rodney tense against him, felt Rodney's urge to flee: then the tension was gone, and Rodney was leaning in, and his mouth was opening under John's.
John was instantly helpless. It'd been so long. So much too long. Never mind the second-guessing in his head, his body was taking the controls, his cock was hardening (hell, just from a kiss, like he was a teenager again) and his other hand was on Rodney's warm muscled forearm. Rodney was kissing him back, wet and kind of clumsy to match John's kiss, his teeth sharp against John's lower lip, his eyes open and yeah, he was frowning a bit, but he was humming too. That and the scrape of stubble against his own skin made John a little wild, and he deepened the kiss, shuffled closer so they were touching from hip to knee, and yeah —
There was a distant cheer, and John jerked back.
"Yeah," Rodney told him, wet-mouthed and grinning. "Yeah."
St Swithin's Day
Since Midsummer Night — and really, how could it be Midsummer when the summer solstice was three days before it? Even the English summer lasted longer than a week — Rodney felt as though he'd been dancing round John Sheppard, circling him, trying to draw him in. No, that wasn't right: they were orbiting one another, some shared gravity drawing them close and yet not close enough. Astronomy told Rodney that to get closer would end in disaster. He didn't much care about astronomy, though, not when he was with Sheppard.
Most nights, with the sun setting over Maldon town in the distance, they'd walk out along the seawall, north or south; walk for miles, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Some evenings John would offer up a story from his past. Rodney knew that John Sheppard had always wanted to fly, even before he'd paid a dollar to be taken up in an elderly biplane that was touring the summer fairs of Kentucky. Rodney knew that John had kissed a girl in back of the barn right after that first flight, and it hadn't been as good as flying. Rodney knew that John had seen his best friend go down in flames the winter before last, his aeroplane buried wing-deep in a field of early corn, his dying screams loud over the radio.
And in return Rodney'd told John things he hadn't ever had anybody to tell. About Cambridge, and Alan, and how easy it'd been to be himself. About his sister. About the ideas shaping in his head — and yes, yes, John Sheppard wasn't as stupid as he acted, by a long shot. John didn't have the language, or the years of study, to talk to Rodney as an equal: but he had a sharp mind and he knew the right questions to ask, the questions that'd get Rodney's brain thinking along the right lines. Assuming he didn't get distracted by thinking about John's mouth.
At some point on every evening's walk, they'd sit on the narrow beach, or on the concrete slabs of the sea-defence, or behind the sea-wall in the dip of long grass, and make out like teenagers, kissing and kissing.
"Saint Swithin's day, if you see rain, for forty days it will remain," said John, nudging Rodney. There were tiny white moths fluttering around his head.
"What? What does that even mean?"
"Something Laura said earlier," said John. "Supposed to be infallible."
"Yes, yes, like the red sky at morning thing." Rodney gazed at the sunset. "Red sky at night, sailor's delight."
"Reckon we'll have a long hot summer of it," said John lazily. For Christ's sake, he was sucking on a grass-stem. It should have looked ridiculous, but it made Rodney ache, made his cock harden just at the sight.
"John," he said, with no clear idea of how he was going to finish the sentence.
"Rodney?" And fuck, John Sheppard knew exactly what he was up to, with that sly sidelong glance.
"You're a disgraceful tease," Rodney accused. "Here: come here." He plunged down the side of the sea-wall, pollen flying up in clouds around him (back home this would've set him sneezing, but hey, maybe there was something in Parrish's claims about hayfever being triggered by a particular species: no way was this the same kind of grass that grew in Canada, after all). With any luck, John'd just stop fooling around and come after him.
John did more than that: he practically leapt after Rodney, and when Rodney put out an arm to stop him plunging headfirst into the drainage ditch, they both went down. The grass was dry and aromatic, and there were little pink flowers knotted through it. Underneath Rodney's back was hard earth: on top of him John was a warm weight, pressing Rodney down, grinning at him, ducking down to kiss Rodney rough and sweet.
Which was all very well, but ... Rodney braced himself and rolled them both, pinned John's elbows with his hands and held him down, and had to stop and look at John for a moment, just a moment, because even in the soft dim evening light John was ... John was gorgeous, huffing laughter and half-heartedly trying to push Rodney off him, and oh Christ arching up against Rodney, and he was hard, they both were hard.
"Tease," said Rodney again, and mashed his mouth against John's.
"Is it teasing," John managed at last, "if I'm ready and willing to follow through?"
"Prove it," said Rodney. "Christ, John, it's been ..."
"Three weeks," said John hoarsely. "Three weeks just kissing, Rodney, and fuck, I want —"
Rodney had to kiss him again, and he had to get his hands on skin, and the neck of John's faded blue shirt was open already, just a couple more buttons and Rodney could slide his hand inside and splay his fingers over John's collarbone, feeling John's quick uneven pulse hammering under his palm, feeling the hitch in John's breath. John's throat tasted of salt, and grass, and smoke.
"I want to touch you," Rodney said, gasping. "I want to touch you all over, I want to see you ... I want to bring you off, I want —"
They wanted the same thing, if the ferocity of John's kiss was anything to go by. John's hand was working down between them, cupping Rodney's dick through his pants, and Rodney couldn't stop himself rocking down against John, against John's hand. Sweet pressure, sweet hungry kiss, John's dick pressing hard against his thigh, John's stubble rubbing Rodney's chin raw.
Rodney was vaguely aware that he was talking — no, babbling, exhortations and swearwords and instructions, telling John to touch him, really touch him — but most of his attention was taken up with the undeniable fact that, for once, John was ahead of him: John's hand was easy on his fly, unbuttoning, working his way past Rodney's shorts and Christ his skin felt hot against Rodney's hard-on, which had to mean —
Rodney got one knee under him and pushed up just enough to get at John's crotch, to get to him, to feel John's dick hard and oddly cool, heavy in his hand: Rodney wanted to taste him but maybe John didn't do that (though, hang on, red-blooded American male) and anyway it was probably a bit late to change technique, with John's hand working him so, so competently, and the least Rodney could do was return the favour.
They panted and gasped into each other's mouths. This was possibly the hottest thing ever, John Sheppard arching under him and groaning — Rodney could feel that groan where his hand was spread against John's hairy chest — and maybe he was trying to say Rodney's name, but all that was coming out was vowels. There was fire, brightness, gathering in Rodney's spine, in his balls, in his brain, as if John was lighting him up like that damn crystal and oh, John was loud now, his eyes snapping open, his dick swelling against Rodney's fingers, spilling, coming, fuck —
"Oh my God," said Rodney, once the power of speech had returned to him.
John was still pretty much pre-verbal, but he put his sticky hand on Rodney's face — eww, but also hot — and kissed him, and that kiss said enough and promised more.
Teyla's hands were grazed and bruised from the hard work of building. If her aunts could see her now! There was sweat on her face, making sticky paint of the orange brick-dust that covered every inch of exposed skin. The new wall stood firm, mortar drying quickly in the sun. The men — standing around, smoking cigarettes, drinking water — were saying that it'd be a long hot summer, no rain for weeks.
Her own happiness surprised her. This was not the life she'd been promised as a child, but that did not mean it was not a life worth living.
"I'm going swimming," John announced. "Anyone wanna join me?" He'd taken his shirt off (Teyla had never seen a man shirtless until she had come to Atlantis) and sweat sheened his tanned, dark-haired chest. Teyla looked away, swallowing.
"Swim?" said Rodney, appearing from inside the Hall. He had not been helping with the bricklaying, or with the removal of the corrugated iron and damp wood that the brick had replaced. Rodney's shirt was clean, and buttoned to the neck. "Sheppard, are you mad? Not even you can swim through mud: you'll get stuck, like that kid Lorne was telling us about."
"Relax, McKay," drawled John. "The tide's in. And I want to cool down."
Teyla wondered if anyone else had noticed the intensity with which Rodney looked at John. Perhaps that connection was permissible, here.
"Aren't you getting hot in all those clothes?" John was saying, and yes, he was as focussed on Rodney as Rodney was on him.
"For your information," said McKay, "I burn easily in the sun. Excuse me if I don't want to subject myself to days of agony."
"I've got some calamine," said John. He winked at Rodney.
"All right," said Rodney. "I'll come and watch you drown yourself. But don't blame me if ..."
"C'mon, then," said John, turning to the others.
"Can't swim," said Ronon.
"I'll teach you," said John easily. "Won't take long. And it's the closest you'll get to a bath, here."
All at once Teyla longed to be truly clean: to immerse herself in cool water and scrub off the sweat, the tiredness, the fear. It had been a long winter, a long spring. Cleanliness had been a bowl of tepid water, if she got to the kitchen in time: washing herself down in the dank dark washroom with her threadbare washcloth, the door latched, having to hurry because people were waiting. No worse than it had been in the house in London, but she hadn't felt clean for ... for years.
"May I join you?" she said tentatively.
"Sure," said John. "You know how to swim?"
"Yes," said Teyla: nothing more, because the river on the estate, and the long Russian summers, and the delicious wickedness of bathing naked at dusk, were her secrets. She would not strip to her skin here, not with these rough laughing men.
The water was cold and green, bitter as loss and salt as blood. By the time Teyla was hip-deep — her trousers clinging to her legs — she could not see her own feet. She winced at the sharpness of the shells against the soft skin of her instep: took a deep breath, and plunged, and she was swimming, swimming, slapped in the face by a foamy wave, sun hot on the back of her neck, her hair tangling like seaweed around her face.
Ronon was choking and spluttering, and John was laughing at him, amicable mockery, telling him that even little kids could swim if you threw them in. Teyla twisted round until she was floating on her back. The water felt silky on her skin: her nipples hurt where her rough shirt rubbed coldly against her breasts. John and Ronon had stripped down to their drawers. Teyla envied them, but she did not think it would be decent to remove any more of her clothes. Mr Parrish, at least, was shy enough to have kept his trousers on.
And on the beach sat Rodney, shaded by a gorse-bush, a book open in his lap. He was not reading: but he was watching John, watching John laugh, watching the water bead on John's skin and trickle down John's chest, down the line of hair that bisected his torso. Did Rodney know how much his expression told? Teyla felt uncomfortable, looking at him, as though she had glimpsed some secret.
Her legs were beginning to cramp with cold: she turned away and began to swim, north against the current, the unaccustomed motion easing the muscle-ache from the morning's labours.
Out to sea there was a fishing-boat, red against the blue-green water. Lorne, perhaps, or Markham. Teyla trod water for a moment — the way of it came back to her as easily as though she'd swum only yesterday, not years ago — and watched. She did not know what she was looking for, but there was something, something moving at the edge of her vision ...
Up on the white, shell-striped beach sat Rodney McKay with his neglected book in his lap: and just to his left, close enough to have cast a shadow over the pages of that book, stood a tall figure, indistinct against the bright sky, looking out to sea. It was nobody that Teyla knew: nevertheless, she had seen this man before, out on the point beyond the breaking waves. Her breath caught, and she lost the rhythm of swimming: salt water stung her nose and throat, raw and painful.
Teyla coughed, and flailed, and found mud soft and velvety beneath her feet. She stood up, staring at Rodney, willing him to notice the ... the ghost. The shadowless figure. The man.
Rodney's mouth was moving: he was speaking, though she could not hear his voice from here. He turned to the man at his side. Looked away: looked sharply back. He was not, Teyla thought, afraid. He was ... curious.
"John!" she called.
John was wrestling Ronon in the shallow water, the two of them laughing together. Ronon was stronger than John, but he knew enough to flounder back, away, when John's head went up, when John looked at Teyla. Teyla, already wading toward the beach, did not trust her voice: she only pointed at Rodney and his companion.
Teyla did not see the man depart, but by the time they reached him, Rodney was alone, staring intently down at his book.
"McKay!" said John. "What ... you ..."
"Rodney," said Teyla firmly, "I believe that you have just encountered something that you claim cannot exist."
"What?" said Rodney. "Oh, him." He waved a hand towards where the tall man had stood. "Well." His chin came up. "Clearly there's some phenomenon here that bears further investigation, scientific investigation. I mean — ow! Stop dripping on me!"
John had cuffed McKay round the head, not very hard. And Teyla saw that Rodney could not help the grin that met John's smirk.
"It's not my first time, McKay." John leant back against the sun-heated wall of the pillbox, smiling at Rodney in the way that ... yeah. Rodney was licking his lips, and rocking forward for a kiss, and fuck, his mouth —
John flipped them round, pressing Rodney up against the warm concrete, and kissed him some more, deep and dirty. Rodney gave as good as he got, biting John's lip, his hand on John's ass, pulling him close so they could grind together.
"Wait," said Rodney, red-mouthed and panting slightly. "What?"
"Not my first time making out in a pillbox," clarified John, rolling his eyes. "Hey, it's cover."
"It's a chunk of concrete in the middle of a cornfield, Cole's cornfield: are you mad? No, wait, don't answer that. Come here."
"I'd rather come here," leered John, dropping to his knees. Hard dry earth gritty through his thin canvas pants, a sharp flint against his kneecap, but it was worth it for the look on McKay's face.
"You do ... ah. You do that?" Rodney sounded ... surprised, which was a damn shame (because he should've had guys lining up to make him feel it, to watch him come) but also good news, because John'd surprised him again.
"Hell, yes," said John, tilting forward so Rodney'd feel his breath. He pressed his mouth against the clear outline of Rodney's dick, and got his hands up to Rodney's waist.
"Anyone could be watching," said Rodney faintly, but John was pretty sure that was just for form.
"Nobody here 'cept us," he said, flicking open Rodney's buttons. "The corn's high: it'll hide us." Me, anyway, he didn't add. "Tell you what: you keep an eye out for anyone who wants a free show, and I'll just ..."
Rodney's cock was thick and heavy in John's hand. How come he'd waited so damn long to taste Rodney, to get his mouth on him, to make him come apart this way? Sure, it was cool to curl up together in the grass and wank each other off, but this, the warm rich taste of skin, the slickness on his tongue, the weight, the way his mouth felt stretched: this was what he wanted. Some of what he wanted.
John pulled back and looked up under his eyelashes (it always looked hot when girls did it) at Rodney, and Rodney was staring down at him open-mouthed — which made John even keener for Rodney to return the favour some time soon — and yeah, his hand was on John's head, fingers tightening in his hair, not quite forcing him down again but ... inviting him.
A deep breath, and ... and yeah, he could still do this, still take a guy all the way, though his throat was trying to spasm at the invasion and he'd forgotten how to breathe. He jerked his head back, gasping for air, licking the head of Rodney's dick, and Rodney made the neediest, whiniest noise John'd ever gotten out of him. John's own dick was pressing painfully against the seam of his pants, but he could wait. One hand on Rodney's hip to balance himself, he brought his free hand up and slid it back to cup Rodney's balls, and just as Rodney drew breath to swear at him or beg him or tell him to get a move on, John said, "So: what you been up to today?"
He wanted to laugh at Rodney's scowl, but yeah, Rodney was talking, stammering a bit: "Trying — trying to rig up something that'll, nnnn," (John's tongue swirling around the flare of his cockhead) "that'll show when there's an, an, an energy form — John, if you want me to —"
John hummed enquiringly, and Rodney's fingers dug into his scalp. He slid his mouth down, slow-slow-slow, not too far: and Rodney got the message, because he was talking again, a mile a minute. "Of course, there's a problem, there's always a, oh, a problem: problem is, how do you get energy forms to manifest where ... to show ... to, fuck!"
John swallowed around Rodney's dick, or tried to, and that was it, Rodney was shooting down his throat, deep and ticklish, slightly gross and incredibly hot. John jerked his head back to get a taste of it on his tongue, his lips, and he was pretty sure it was in his eyebrows by the time Rodney'd finished.
"Fuck," said Rodney again, reverently, staring down at him. "Come — come here, let me —"
"Let?" said John, but Rodney swallowed down the word, licked John's mouth (John groaned), manhandled him back and down and sprawled over him, yanking at his fly. This was all going to be over too damn fast, but John was past caring: he bucked up into Rodney's hand, felt the first touch of Rodney's mouth on his dick, Rodney's nose nudging his crotch, Rodney's tongue, and that was it, he was a goner.
Somewhere a dog was barking: further away, faint and clear, there was music. Laura with her guitar? Radek with his fiddle? John didn't care. He let himself fall back against the dry dark soil, breathing in the evening air, the rustle of corn-stems and the pounding of his own heart enough to drown out everything except Rodney, who'd slumped forward onto John's chest and was breathing open-mouthed, slick wet semen on his lips, eyes closed, grinning.
"Okay," he said eventually, "you're no lightweight, McKay. Shift." He heaved Rodney off himself, and Rodney grunted. "Anyway," said John, "you never finished telling me about your day."
"Trying to put together something that'll act as a detector, warn us when there's energy forms around," muttered Rodney to John's armpit. "Tricky. They're never around when you need 'em."
"Least you believe in them now," said John peaceably, staring up at the deep blue sky.
"I'll believe in them more," said Rodney, sitting up and picking dry grass out of his hair, "when I can see what's happening while they're around."
"How you planning to do that?"
"If they're visible, chances are they're emitting some kind of energy," said Rodney, making shapes in the air with his hands. His fly was still unbuttoned, his dick hanging out. "See? It's all encapsulated in the term 'energy forms', who'd've thought? If I can work out what that energy is — recognise it, measure it — then I'll be a step closer to discovering what the hell's going on around here."
"Cool," said John, grinning at him. "And then what?"
Rodney cocked his head, raised an eyebrow: John wanted to kiss the querulous twist of his mouth. "I'll think of something," said Rodney. "Wait and see."
The easy monotonous rhythm of forking hay took John back to his childhood in Kentucky, long summer days of lemonade and sunburn. The slide of his sweaty hands on the age-smoothed wooden shaft of the pitchfork, the smell of seeding grass, the warm buzz of bees in the hedgerow: all familiar, though the iodine tang of seaweed was new. The physical labour made him sweat and ache, clean and safe, safer than letting himself think about Rodney.
Because he couldn't stop. Couldn't stop now, couldn't stop thinking about Rodney's hands and Rodney's mouth, Rodney's ass, Rodney's kiss. Rodney arching up under him: Rodney holding him down. The taste of Rodney's semen on his hand, salty and strong, like samphire. And things that hadn't happened yet: Rodney pressing him down into a mattress, opening him up, melting his bones until his dick was the hardest bit of him, until it hurt to breathe. Oh Christ, so long since he'd had that, since he'd given himself up. He wanted, was desperate to be taken, mastered ... fuck, just thinking the word made his neck prickle with heat. He was hard again: he reached down to adjust himself.
"Don't think I didn't see you."
Fuck. Cole. John straightened up, slow and nonchalant, plastering a grin over his face. He was stripped to the waist: even Cole's dirty grey shirt put him at a disadvantage.
"Afternoon, Mr Cole," John said amiably, swiping his hand across his sweating face.
"I saw you," pursued Cole, narrow-eyed. "You and ... Doctor McKay. Down by the pillbox."
"Did you now?" said John. "Ain't that nice for you."
"Disgusting," said Cole, and spat into the hay. "Think the law doesn't matter, do you?"
John said nothing. Sure, Cole could start some nasty rumours about him. It wouldn't be the first time. Rodney wouldn't notice, maybe wouldn't care. Okay, it might be a little awkward in the village, and Cole could report them to the authorities if he could find a policeman who'd take him seriously. But John reckoned Cole was after something else. He held the other man's stare, flat-eyed and unsmiling, certain that he wasn't giving anything away.
"What would Mrs Weir have to say about that? Seems she's got plenty of opinions about other people's business."
"What makes you think she doesn't know?" countered John.
"Then you won't mind if I discuss it with her," said Cole, with a cold straight smile like a knife.
"Be my guest," said John, hefting his pitchfork. "You'll find her in the Hall, most likely."
"Right," said Cole, turning away. John knew it for a feint. His skin was prickling again, this time with readiness for a fight: the noise of grass stems under Cole's shoe was like gunfire, and John let the pitchfork fall (got to play fair) and brought his hands up against Cole's onslaught.
Hell, but Cole was stronger than he looked. There might be iron in his hair and deep lines around his eyes, but his muscles were solid as wood and he outweighed John. Fair play went by the board pretty quickly, because Cole wasn't afraid to fight dirty, so neither, John decided, was he. He blocked a low swipe and swung at Cole: landed a solid blow on the man's solar plexus, but Cole just grunted and brought his knee up, and John had to twist away. But Cole'd caught hold of the pitchfork — he held it like a quarterstaff — and there was no way John could keep dodging those whistling, scything blows. He looked around, quick glances with most of his attention on Cole's torso, waiting for the tension that'd telegraph the next onslaught. There were usually people around, content to watch John or Ronon work: but today there was nobody in sight, nobody who could raise the alarm or come to his aid or, fuck, pick up the pieces when John went down. Did Cole mean to kill him, here in the lee of the seawall, yards from home?
"Isn't this kind of extreme?" panted John, swaying back from the business end of the pitchfork. "You could've just —"
The butt of the shaft connected with John's gut, driving the air out of his lungs in an agonised rush, and yep, going down now, trying to hitch in summer-scented air and not getting any, and damned if he was going to let Cole beat him on home ground. John got one foot under him and lunged up, roaring: mashed his fist into Cole's pug-ugly face and sent him staggering back. Where the fuck was everybody? He drew breath to cry out, but Cole was on him again, and this wasn't, this couldn't just be about John kissing (and wanking, and blowing) a guy, could it? This was somehow personal. This was Cole against Atlantis, and John had somehow become Atlantis' champion.
He shoved Cole back two-handed, tried to hook the man's knee with his foot but no dice, it was like trying to bring down a tree. There was blood on Cole's face, though, bright as poppies, dripping down onto the hay. Sweat in John's eye, but when he smeared his hand across his temple it came away red as well. Okay. Okay.
"Leave it!" he yelled. "Leave it, Cole!"
But Cole was leaving it: was backing away, looking at something — someone — behind John, and thank Christ for that, finally one of the others'd heard the racket and come out to see what was going on.
John turned round, and maybe Cole'd got in a blow to his head, or maybe it was just shock, but his knees went from under him and he was kneeling in the grass looking up. Not at Rodney, or Lorne, or Ronon: at a man he didn't know, a man in a heavy cloak (John could smell the greasy wool, and the guy's sweat) and salt-blotched leather boots, striding down the steep seawall with an honest-to-God sword, dull grey iron, heavy enough to make the tendons in his wrist stand out, raised and ready to fall.
John looked round, and Cole was running, awkward and stumbling: looked back, and there was nobody there any more.
* * *
"What happened?" said Elizabeth sharply when John Sheppard came in, bruised and bleeding, from the hayfield.
"Cole happened," said John thickly: his lip was split.
"He attacked you?" said Elizabeth, disbelieving.
"Difference of opinion," said John. "Jus' let me get cleaned up, okay? I don't want ... I don't want to worry anyone."
"Too late," snapped McKay, shoving his way past Elizabeth. He jabbed a finger at Sheppard. "What the hell was that about?"
"Doesn't matter," said John, scowling. Elizabeth saw him wince as the cut above his eye trickled more blood.
"Are you stupid? Did Cole knock that last molecule of sense out of your head?"
"Doctor McKay!" said Elizabeth sharply. "This isn't your business."
"As a matter of fact," said McKay hotly, "I think it actually might be. I think it's about —"
"Rodney," snarled John. "Don't —"
"Come on, Sheppard," said McKay. "Why did Cole suddenly decide to make you his punchbag? It was the other night, wasn't it?"
John shot McKay a nervous, accusing look. His face was more flushed than when he'd come in.
"Gentlemen," said Elizabeth, "is there something you'd like to tell me?"
Stubborn silence. McKay wasn't even looking at her. He was glaring at John Sheppard, and John was still frowning. Elizabeth was reminded of schoolboys she'd encountered. She kept her smile smothered.
"What happened the other night, John?"
"You better tell her," said McKay. "Unless you want Cole back here — that's what it was all about, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," said John. It was practically a sigh: as close, perhaps, as John Sheppard ever came to showing defeat. "But listen." He turned to Elizabeth now, and his face was open and honest, his smile ... embarrassed. Elizabeth tilted her head, half-amused, half-indulgent, ready to listen to whatever tall tale he elected to tell: but then she met his eyes, and what she saw there was quite different. That expression was only what he wanted her to believe. "Listen," said John again. "There was ... there was a ghost, or whatever you want to call them. That's what stopped him." There was blood on his shirt, as well as on his face. He flexed his hand, and Elizabeth started at the loud crack of his knuckles.
"Fascinating," said McKay, "and please note that I'm not mocking you, though my suspension of disbelief is strictly temporary pending further research." Not surprising that McKay was red in the face, if he never stopped to draw breath. "But you haven't actually answered the question, John. What was it about?"
"Cole doesn't like us," said John, shrugging awkwardly.
"Us meaning Atlantis? Or us meaning you and me?"
Elizabeth bit her lip. You and me. If she looked, now, she could see it: see it in McKay's flushed face, in John's look of betrayal, in the way they leant towards one another but did not touch. The way that McKay'd called John Sheppard by his Christian name. Two men, together. Of course she'd heard ... Perhaps it should have been disgusting, or repulsive, but it was John and Rodney. And it made so much sense. Why hadn't she seen it before?
"Either. Both," John was saying, flicking a glance at Elizabeth. She lifted her chin and looked back at him steadily, waiting for him — or Rodney — to tell her whether her intuition rang true.
"Elizabeth," said Rodney McKay abruptly. His arms were folded across his chest, hugging himself: he was braced for unpleasantness, at the very least. "Mrs Weir. You should ... I think you should know that John and I are, ah ..."
"Together?" said Elizabeth dryly. John was blushing, ducking his head, rubbing the back of his neck: exactly like a bashful youth, if you ignored the flat insolence in his eyes. McKay's hands were clenched, and he was rocking slightly on the balls of his feet. She wondered if he'd ever been forced to fight, to defend himself, or if there'd always been someone like John Sheppard to take the punishment for him.
"Yeah," said John, so quiet it was almost a sigh. "Kind of."
"And Mr Cole takes exception to this," said Elizabeth.
"Yeah," said John. "He saw ... he saw us."
Elizabeth swallowed. She didn't want to think about what Cole might have seen: didn't want to think how he might use that against her, against Atlantis. "Did it occur to you, gentlemen," she enquired crisply, "that you're giving him leverage to use against all of us here? No, don't answer that. It's clear to me that ... well."
The two of them exchanged a long, silent look that she couldn't read at all.
"We'll leave," said Rodney angrily, "if that's what you want."
"What I want?" said Elizabeth, smiling so desperately that her mouth hurt. "I want Atlantis to be a place where everyone can be free, Rodney."
"What, where some straw-chewing yokel can beat John up for kissing another man?"
"Rodney," said John again. He'd found a rag somewhere and was blotting the blood from his face. Elizabeth didn't think it coincidental that his expression was concealed by that act.
"Not at all," she said. "But Atlantis is freedom, and I will defend your right to love who you will."
John's breath hitched audibly, and McKay looked away. If anything, his colour was higher.
"Elizabeth," said John flatly, "it's against the law. Here, back home —"
"Canada, too," muttered McKay, staring at the floor.
"Do you imagine I care about that?" demanded Elizabeth. "What the two of you do in private," she put a little emphasis on that word, and saw John Sheppard register it, "is nobody's business but your own. If Mr Cole wishes to involve outsiders, I shall do the same."
"We can't ask you to —"
"You don't have to ask me, John," said Elizabeth. One word amiss and he'd leave, she was sure of it: leave Atlantis, perhaps leave Rodney McKay. Or perhaps take McKay with him. She could see the connection between them now, but she didn't understand it. Was this mere lust, or was there something more to it? (When she'd mentioned love, they'd seemed ... discomfited.) She wanted context, but she'd just told them it was nobody else's business: not even hers.
"I have always said that Atlantis is a home, a place for freedom and a new way of life: and it's a place for you," she turned to McKay, "for both of you, to live as you please." She paused, watching the tension ebb away. "Excepting the gramophone, of course!"
"Huh," said McKay, looking pleased. "Mrs Weir — I appreciate ..."
"He means 'thank you'," said John. "Look, I hate to break up this show-and-tell, but I'd like to get cleaned up. And I wanna talk about the ghost: no, Rodney, it rescued me."
"Then what? Where did it go?"
John shrugged. "Just ... wasn't there. But he was there for me, Rodney. Cole would've beaten the crap out of me — beg pardon," he apologised to Elizabeth, "if it, if he hadn't come along."
"Big guy with a sword," said John laconically. The rag in his hand was filthy with blood, dirt and sweat. "And he was on my side." He looked at Elizabeth, eyes wide and very green. "On our side."
August Bank Holiday
Teyla was glad that she had accepted Lorne's invitation. It was good to be out on the water. The fishing nets were easy enough to untangle, gather, cast. The ugly mud-coloured gloves that Lorne had given her protected her hands from the rough orange fibre, and from the sharp fish-scales and oily slime that coated the nets. And the breeze was cool on her face, the sky wide and blue above the little boat, the Orion, as they motored east, away from Atlantis.
"I have never been out of sight of land before," said Teyla, shedding the gloves with a sigh of relief. Her hands were sweating: she leant over the side of the boat, trailing her fingers in the cool water.
"Didn't you come across from ... from Russia?" said Lorne. "You must have crossed the Channel."
Teyla shrugged. "You are right. I had forgotten that journey," she admitted. "I was very ... sea-sick? Is that the correct word?"
Lorne nodded. "Is it bothering you now? It's a calm day, but we can go back if you're not feeling right."
"I am well," Teyla assured him. "And it was only that night, that I was sick. I do not remember the crossing, but my mother told me we were down in the hold, hidden from sight: we could not have seen the land vanish behind us."
"No wonder you were sick," said Lorne sympathetically. "Fresh air and a steady horizon, that's the trick." He stared up at a white bird, a gull, gliding lazily behind the boat. "It must be hard," and now his voice was hesitant, "to leave your native land behind."
"It was hard," said Teyla. "As hard, perhaps, as waiting for your country to be overrun, invaded, taken from you." Lorne did not respond, though she thought she heard him sigh. "But perhaps," Teyla went on quickly, "perhaps one day I shall be able to return."
"What about your family? Your mother and father?"
"My father ... stayed behind," said Teyla, willing herself not to show pain. "He ..." No, she could not tell Lorne any of this: could not tell him about the Revolution, or the firing squads, or the prison. Her mother had told her the tales night after night, giving Teyla her birthright and her heritage, even as she took away all hope. "My mother died," she offered. "She was very sick, and we had no money for a doctor."
"I'm sorry," said Lorne, and there truly was sorrow, honest and dark, in his eyes. "How old were you?"
"Ten years old," said Teyla. "My aunts ... my aunts raised me."
"Where are they now?"
"They are dead," said Teyla, and that word should not hurt any more. "I am alone."
"You're not alone," said Lorne, and for a moment she was afraid that he would try to touch her. She would fly apart, in grief or in fury, if he laid a finger ... But his hand returned to the Orion's rail, though he was still looking intently at her. "You're not alone," he repeated. "You've found a new home, here: Atlantis is your home now, isn't it?"
"Perhaps," said Teyla. "But I do not know if there is a place for me. I do not know what ... what I can do."
"The same as any of us, in Atlantis or not," said Lorne, with a quick smile. "You can get by. You can work, and make something out of nothing. You can live, and see what tomorrow brings."
Teyla inclined her head. She did not have words to express the turmoil in her mind: not in English, and not in half-remembered Russian.
Behind the boat, the land lay flat and featureless against the horizon. They were too far out, now, for Teyla to make out any signs of life on land. There was the grey stone chapel, square and unlovely, and a white line that must be the beach where she'd wandered so often. Atlantis was hidden behind the trees, behind the sea-wall, and there was no smoke from the kitchen: Laura had said it was too hot to cook, too hot to be indoors. Teyla could not blame her. Even here on the Orion the sun battered down at her, making her feel weak and lazy.
"Sometimes," said Lorne softly, "you can hear bells out here. Even during the war, when all the churches were silent, you could hear 'em."
"Bells?" said Teyla.
"Yes," said Lorne. "People say there's a lost church out here somewhere." He chuckled. "I'm pretty sure it's just ships' bells. From shipwrecks," he added when she looked questioningly at him. "Heck of a lot of wrecks in these waters. Have to be careful the nets don't snag in them."
"Why are there so many wrecks?" said Teyla, not because she wanted to know but because his warm voice was a distraction from the bleakness of her thoughts.
"The tides shift year by year," said Lorne, "and the water's shallow enough even at high tide. Get stuck on a sandbank — though it's mostly mud — and most boats'd roll and breach, or break their backs, when the tide turned. And you'd get a lot of ships heading in for the harbours, Maldon and the village, even up to Colchester in the olden days. I've seen ships that didn't look as if —" He shook his head. "Mr Parrish told me, the other night, that all this," Lorne waved his hand lazily at the calm blue sea, "was land once, with trees and deer. I don't know ..."
Teyla let his words wash over her, not listening to their meaning but only to their rhythm. They faded into the sound of waves against the wooden hull. Lorne had turned off the engine, and they were drifting slowly south, towards the bright summer sun. Somewhere beneath them, Teyla thought, there would be graves: there would be the bones of monks and soldiers, rough with coral and barnacles, shrouded in weed. Somewhere beneath them were grassy fields and fallen trees. Somewhere beneath ...
She had fallen asleep, soothed by the gentle motion of the boat on the waves, the soft whisper of water. Her face was sore with sunburn, and Lorne was shaking her shoulder.
"Listen," he said: and Teyla heard the distant, echoing sound of bells, as if they rang in another world.
St Bartholomew's Day
All day thunder had been rumbling in the heavy purple clouds to the south. "I thought it was supposed to be dry here," Rodney grumbled to Laura. "You can't tell me we're not going to get rain."
Laura leant over the sink and swiped her finger across the condensation-misted glass, short lines: tallying, Rodney realised. "It's forty days after Saint Swithin's Day," she said at last, and really, Rodney couldn't help the rush of heat that went through him, remembering Saint Swithin's Day and John's mouth on him in the long grass behind the seawall.
"Superstition," he scoffed anyway, as much to force away those memories before Laura noticed his hard-on as to let her know what he thought of her folk wisdom.
Laura shrugged, grinning. "It's forty days, McKay, and we haven't had more than a light shower in all that time. Ground's like concrete: hadn't you noticed?"
"Why would I notice?" said Rodney, shifting uncomfortably at the sense-memory of hard earth against his back and John hard against his front.
"No reason," said Laura, chuckling. "Oh, hello, Radek: come to give Rodney a hand?"
"I have come to talk to him," announced Radek, lifting the lid of the big pot to sniff at dinner — rabbit stew again, from the smell of it: Ronon was pretty good at snaring bunnies — and perching himself on the edge of the kitchen table. He looked like a gnome out of a book of fairytales. "Rodney, I have had a thought."
"Congratulations," said Rodney. "Mark the date on the calendar: we'll celebrate the anniversary when it comes round. And thanks for not offering to help with this, by the way." He was busy with the wiring of Laura's radio. Easier in the long run to wire the batteries back in — they were useless to him now — than to listen to Laura and Katie's increasingly pointed remarks about boredom, silence, the fascination of the weather forecast. Ha! He was onto them: what they really wanted was to listen to dance music.
"Why, are you unable to mend the apparatus?"
"I'm doing fine," said Rodney. "Thought?" He snapped his fingers, pointing at Radek. "You had a thought? Come on, then, out with it: I could use some light relief."
"The device you are building," said Radek. "It needs voltage, yes?"
"Yes, yes, it's electricity: did you have that, back in Czechoslovakia?"
"Piezoelectricity," said Radek, eyebrows raised, hands spread.
"What? What are you on about?"
"You need voltage, Rodney," said Radek, revoltingly patient. "Why attempt to rig a battery if you can achieve the effect — a more, a smaller effect — in another way?"
"Because it's ... huh," said Rodney. Laura's radio buzzed in his hands, and he set it down. "You know what? That could work. But how would you —"
"Rochelle salt," said Radek.
"You going to finish that?" interrupted Laura, gesturing at the battered radio in front of Rodney.
"It's fixed," snapped Rodney. "Take it away and play with it somewhere else. Rochelle salt? Where on earth are we going to get Rochelle salt in any sort of quantity?"
"We can make it," said Radek, as Laura huffed out of the kitchen. Outside, thunder rumbled: the storm was getting closer.
"If, and it's a big if, we can find a source of pure potassium bitartrate," said Rodney. "Want to bet they don't sell it at Halling's?"
"We could send for some," said Radek doggedly. "It would make the device more, more flexible. More adaptable. We could —"
"No, no, no," said Rodney, snapping his fingers again, and wincing. Damn, he'd burnt himself with the soldering iron. "There's got to be another — yes. Radek?"
"Yes, Rodney?" said Radek. He looked wary.
"The gramophone," said Rodney, beaming.
"Why the gramophone?"
"Because of the cartridges: are you stupid?"
"I am not familiar with gramophones, Rodney: that does not make me —"
"Whatever," said Rodney. "Gramophone cartridges — the crystal ones, not those newfangled ceramics — are made of Rochelle salt. See? No need to set up a chemistry experiment!"
"But your records —"
"Never mind the records," said Rodney. "I don't need to listen to them every day. Anyway, Elizabeth — she thinks Bach is boring! Can you believe it?"
Radek shrugged. "She liked it well enough when we played," he reminded Rodney. "How many cartridges do you have here? And how large is each crystal?"
"Wait just one minute," said Rodney. Outside, fat raindrops, warm as the air, were starting to fall. He hurried across to the Hall. A couple of people seemed to want to talk to him, but Rodney was busy, a man on a mission: he rooted around in the tea-chest behind his desk until he found the red and gold cardboard cartons. One of them was damp — hah, he'd told Elizabeth he needed to keep his stuff dry! — but the rest looked fine.
"What's up, Rodney?" Sheppard, barrelling in as usual.
"Here: carry these," said Rodney, thrusting a double handful of boxes at him. "I think I've cracked that voltage problem."
"You have?" said John. "How? Hang on, where are we going?"
"Good point," said Rodney, because the Device — the prototype, anyway — was right here. "Just let me get Radek."
"I'm here, Rodney," said Radek behind him.
"Will you stop sneaking —"
"I did not want you to be ... distracted."
John glowered. "Hey, I resent that!"
"Surprisingly," said Rodney crisply, "Mr Sheppard has been of considerable assistance on this project."
"Ah!" said Radek, hand raised. "That is what you have been working on so late at night, yes?"
"Radek? Shut up. Sheppard?"
"McKay?" said John, leaning back against the wall and shoving his hands in his pockets.
"You know that problem with the voltage? Where we couldn't get the current without overloading the circuit?" Radek opened his mouth to say something. "Something Zelenka said got me thinking: yes, yes, I know, but he's got a point. Piezoelectricity!"
"What?" said John, screwing up his face.
"Look, you know how a gramophone works, right?"
"Right. The cartridge," Rodney grabbed a box, upended it, caught the cartridge as it fell and held it up triumphantly, "consists of a stylus — usually diamond, but these are sapphire — and a crystal."
"Like the crystal from the beach?"
"No, no: well, maybe. That's not the point. The mechanical movement of the stylus in the groove generates a proportional electrical voltage, and it does that by stressing the crystal. Which is," he added, pointing the cartridge at Radek, "Rochelle salt. That's piezoelectricity in a nutshell, or rather a plastic shell: voltage caused by movement, in the most simplistic definition I can bring myself to verbalise."
"Great," said John. "So ... what does this mean for the, the device?"
"The crystal — the one from the beach — didn't light up because I was running too much current through it, too steadily," said Rodney (in a hurry, because he really wasn't comfortable confessing his own mistakes).
"A reasonable error," soothed Radek.
"No, no it's not. But if I hook up a couple of these crystals, the ones from the cartridges, and feed the voltage from them into the crystal from the beach —"
"Where does the movement come from?"
"I, I'm working on that," said Rodney, faltering: he repaid John with a malevolent glare.
Radek was snapping his fingers — God, did the man have to copy Rodney's every mannerism? — and grinning.
"Music," he said. "Your recordings, Rodney —"
"No," said Rodney, and he could feel comprehension flooding through him like a warm, sudden wave. Like — ha, John was smirking at him as if he knew precisely what Rodney was comparing the thrill of discovery to. "No: it doesn't have to be music, and it doesn't have to be loud." And, raising his voice against the thunder crashing outside, "every voice, every bird-cry, Laura's guitar, the chickens, even your damn fiddle, Radek. Sound, we can run on sound."
The Opening of the Oyster Fishery
Rodney protested when John got into the driver's seat, but John'd expected that: "Don't want you too wound up before your appointment," he said, with that particular grin that always got a rise out of McKay. "I'll drive there: you can drive back."
"You probably drive like a lunatic," grumbled McKay, settling himself in the passenger seat and winding down the window. "Yes, Laura," he called, "I've got your shopping list: Sheppard can run your errands while I'm with Colonel Caldwell."
"Gee, thanks," said John, pulling out the choke and hoping like hell that it'd fire first time. McKay's Morris hadn't seen much use over the last six months. For all John knew there were mice nesting in the gas tank. But the engine rumbled sweet and easy, and Ronon was opening the gate, and everyone was gathered to wave them off.
John felt like he was going on his honeymoon. A day alone with McKay, and nothing to prevent them stopping along the way, somewhere quiet ...
"Wonder what Caldwell wants?" said Rodney, grabbing the strap to brace himself as John sped up. "Take it easy, Sheppard: it's not the Grand Prix!"
"Hey," said John, taking a hand off the wheel to wave to Mr Cole as the farmer dove for the hedge, "I like to go fast, okay?"
"That makes one of us," said Rodney, though he was peering back over his shoulder, grinning, as Cole's angry figure — he was shaking his fist — receded in the dust.
"Potholes are easier if you take 'em at speed," said John, pressing the accelerator to the floor. He'd driven in England before, jeeps and trucks: it wasn't so hard to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road (not that this road was wide enough to have two sides) or to the gearstick being on his left. Harder to have Rodney in the passenger seat — okay, there was sweat on Rodney's upper lip, but he'd get over it — and not be able to concentrate on him.
"I might be sick," warned Rodney faintly. "If mankind was supposed to travel at this kind of speed —"
"Hey, we're only doing thirty," lied John. "And like I said, I like to go fast. The Mosquito, now that was a buzz: 330 mph ground speed, though of course when you're up in the air it doesn't feel like anything. You have to be on the ground to feel it."
"I'm feeling it," said Rodney, swallowing.
The road out of the village was narrow and sinuous. John couldn't figure out why there were so many bends, because the countryside was flat and featureless, harvested fields glittering golden with last night's rain. The day was warm and humid, and John took a hand off the wheel to wind down his own window (narrowly missing a horse and cart on a blind bend). He breathed in deeply. Warm earth overlaying the distant smell of the sea: hay, and manure, and the sharp smell of burning stubble.
"How far's Colchester?" he asked Rodney. "Hey, wake up: you're my navigator."
"There's only one road," said Rodney, not opening his eyes. "When you get to Maldon, turn right."
"Okay," said John patiently, "how far's Maldon?"
"You can't miss it," said Rodney. "It's a town."
Turned out John could miss it, and he had to stop the car ("I'm warning you, Sheppard; I have a strong stomach, but your driving would induce motion sickness in, in anybody, and if I'm sick I'll make sure it's over you") for Rodney to check the map, and squint at the sun, and decide that they were going the right way after all. And okay, since they'd stopped and it was sunny and there was nobody around, he had to take the time to make it up to Rodney, leaning back against the Morris and giving himself up to Rodney's mouth, Rodney's hand gentle on his jaw, Rodney's thigh pressed firmly between his legs.
"Look," said Rodney breathlessly, "I get that this is a pleasure trip for you, but some of us have important engagements."
"'S okay," said John, staring at Rodney's red mouth. "I can drive a bit faster. We'll get there on time."
"Sides," said John, running his hand down Rodney's side and hitching his fingers under the waist of Rodney's smartest pants (flat-ironed by Katie in exchange for the promise of chocolate), "you don't want to walk into Colonel Caldwell's office with a hard-on, do you?"
"Anyone could come along this road," said Rodney, but his hand was on John's shoulder, and John let himself be pressed down to kneel on the grassy verge. It didn't matter if his clothes got muddy.
They reached Colchester in good time (Rodney looked a little green) and John found the entrance to the garrison without a single wrong turn.
"Sure you don't —"
"Positive, McKay," said John. "I'm a civilian, remember? I've got no business here."
"I'm a civilian too!"
"Yeah, but you're the one whose work's come to the attention of Colonel Caldwell," John pointed out. "The one who's been invited to explain why you're working on, what was it, 'atomic devices' —"
"I still say we've got Cole to thank —"
"And your appointment's in five minutes," John said sweetly. "Wouldn't do to be late."
"Right," said McKay, blinking. "Okay. I'll meet you ... where do I meet you?"
"I'll pick you up here," said John. "No: that pub over there: the Fortune of War."
"Because you need a beer to settle your nerves after that drive?"
"No, Rodney, because you might be a while," said John. "Couple of hours?"
He drove back into the middle of town and parked the car in the market square. The people on the street looked gloomy, despite the sunshine. More people than John'd seen for a while, and every one of them a stranger. John was startled to realise that he hadn't been further than the village since the day he'd walked from the station to Atlantis. Nine months, give or take. It hadn't seemed that long.
Laura's errands (sewing thread, strong elastic, Radian-B, aspirin) were easy enough. John had a pocketful of ration cards and coupons, and Elizabeth had given him pounds, shillings and pence, along with strict instructions to find everything as cheaply as possible. He went to three different shops for her ink, and in Woolworths — different from the Woolworths back home — they told him where he could buy seeds for planting. A couple of guys gave him funny looks, but then he was a stranger, an American, and he was pretty sure that his military background showed when he wanted it to show. He didn't invite trouble, and he didn't get it.
Men in the street were talking about India, riots, independence. India! It was like another world. Hell, it was another world. John bought a newspaper, but abandoned it half-read on a windowsill. Every story — mass graves near Dresden, elections in Greece, bread rationed again, war trials and strikes and a telegram from Stalin — felt like part of some elaborate practical joke. This wasn't John's world any more, though he didn't know when he'd left it behind.
Once he'd crossed everything off the list — apart from rosin for Zelenka, which he couldn't find anywhere — he hauled it all back to the car. Might as well drive round to the garrison: no use carrying parcels further than he had to. Might as —
The car choked into life slowly, reluctantly, and John took a moment to check the gauges and lights on the dashboard.
Well, hell. The fuel dial was nudging 'empty'. Shouldn't have been a surprise, given how far they'd come: but how ...
John sat there, engine idling noisily, and grinned so hard his teeth hurt.
* * *
"Cal— he's an idiot," Rodney told John, slumping down in the seat opposite him. Christ, that was good: the Army probably specialised in uncomfortable furniture, or perhaps they'd got their chairs surplus from some interrogation chamber. His back ached, and he could ...
"Cheers," said John, raising his own glass and pushing the other pint of beer across the table to Rodney. "How did it go?"
"Oh, not too bad," admitted Rodney, once he'd taken a good long drink. Mmm, beer. "He'd gotten a letter — anonymous, of course — full of alarmist nonsense: he wanted to know what I was working on. I told him it was all conceptual."
"Right," said John, slow and knowing. Rodney watched his throat move as he swallowed: fuck, even that was enough to make Rodney's cock twitch.
"Tell me about it," said John. "Y'know, given ..." He waved a hand at the other men — and a couple of girls, lipsticked and laughing — in the bar. They were talking about the cricket, as far as Rodney could tell: India, Lord's, not out.
"Right," said Rodney. "The walls have ears: look out, there's a spy about."
John just smiled into his beer. Rodney didn't like that smile. Correction: he liked it, he liked it a lot, but it .. it didn't fit. Not here, not now, not when they weren't alone. "What?" he demanded. Too loud, maybe: the blond, blue-eyed fellow by the bar glanced across at them. Whatever he saw (John, probably: John was always worth looking at, and Rodney prided himself on his objectivity about that) made the blond grin and wink. He raised his glass in a toast when Rodney scowled at him.
"Thing is," said John, slouching against the wall and looking down his nose at Rodney, "we might have a bit of a problem."
"What? Oh my god, you've let somebody steal my car, haven't you? No, no, you've been arrested for, for —"
"Gross indecency?" said John, low and promissory. "Nah, McKay: I'm here, aren't I? It's just ..."
"Go on," said Rodney sharply, thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong, thinking of having to ask Caldwell for help after all the lies he'd told, thinking ... God, it was difficult to think when John was looking at him like that, and anybody could be watching, and this wasn't Atlantis.
"It's nothing to worry about, McKay," said John, and all of a sudden he was cool and collected. "Just, we're out of gas."
"Right," said Rodney. "Right. Er. Coupons," he remembered, snapping his fingers. "You need coupons."
"I have coupons, Rodney."
John nodded. "Enough."
"Then what's the problem? Why can't you just go and buy more petrol?"
"The gas station — the whatever, okay? — it won't be open 'til tomorrow morning."
"Damn," said Rodney. "What — oh."
Judging by John's expression, he thought he'd been pretty clever. For once Rodney agreed with him.
"We better sort out somewhere to stay," said Rodney, trying not to look too happy about it.
Him and John. A room. A bed. That'd be a first, and Rodney was all about new experiences when it came to John.
"Done that," said John, with a slow-burning smile that made Rodney want to do a whole catalogue of inappropriate things to him. "Finish your beer."
* * *
The Station Hotel was shabby and soot-blackened, and some of the windows were broken. "Couldn't you have found something slightly more salubrious?" Rodney griped.
John leant in close to him. "They won't ask questions, here," he murmured.
"Point," said Rodney. They had no luggage, not a change of clothes, not even a toothbrush between them: the woman at the desk barely looked at either of them when they signed the register, and she didn't bother to put out her cigarette before she led them to a room at the back of the building.
"Huh," said Rodney. Ugly square of carpet, bed, chair. "Bathroom at the end of the corridor," said the woman. "No strong drink. No singing. Out by eight."
"Thank you, ma'am," said John, bestowing that charming, empty smile on her and getting a hesitant simper in return. "We'll be turning in early: it's been a long day."
Rodney shut the door in the woman's face, turned to John, opened his mouth to say something — anything. But oh, John was there already, right up close, pressing Rodney against the wall and touching him everywhere, knees and thighs and bellies and chests and, oh, mouths.
They kissed for a long time. John was pretty quiet, but that wasn't new. Rodney wanted to make more noise, wanted this to be normal and natural and okay. This wasn't Atlantis: they didn't have to worry about Radek, or Parrish, or Ronon hearing them. They were out in the world now, out in England. Rodney moaned into John's mouth, and if his breath hitched when he whispered "Bed?", that was forgivable.
Because: John. John Sheppard, sitting there on the end of the bed, taking off his boots, his shirt, his pants, his underwear. Standing there and letting Rodney look at him. This was new, this gift of time and privacy. Rodney wished he had a camera (but no, he'd have to develop the pictures himself, and he'd need a darkroom and chemicals and ...) to record every inch of John's skin, the way his muscles quivered under Rodney's gaze — and, oooh, under Rodney's tentative hand — the way his dick bobbed and twitched — Rodney dropped to his knees, never mind the noise, he had to get his mouth on John, had to taste him.
"Christ, Rodney, that's so ... you're still dressed, that's ..." John's hand tightened on Rodney's shoulder.
"Shush," said Rodney fondly, and instantly reduced the chances of John shushing by sliding his mouth down, all the way down, over John's dick.
John groaned, and Rodney would've groaned too if he hadn't been otherwise engaged. He trailed his fingers up John's bare thigh, light enough to tickle, and the noise John made then was indescribable. But John went quiet pretty quickly, and Rodney looked up at him: and fuck that was hot, John Sheppard biting his own hand to keep himself quiet, his eyes half-closed, staring down at Rodney as if —
Rodney felt John's dick tauten and swell in his mouth, and he pulled back quickly, because he didn't want to swallow John's come, not this time. Five or six pulses, and his mouth was pretty full: he spat into his cupped hand.
"What ..." managed John, looking down at Rodney with that lazy, crazy smile.
"Lie down," said Rodney, and he was only stammering a bit. "I want to, to do this: trust me, John, I'm going to do it right, I'm going to —"
There was music from somewhere, another room, jazz: Rodney found himself trying to recognise the tune, and was glad of the distraction because otherwise he might've come just from the sight of John sprawled on the bed, legs open, and that was all Rodney's, all for him.
This was going to get messy real fast if he took off his clothes: he fumbled with his belt one-handed, his other hand still wet and sticky with ...
"Let me," said John, swaying up bonelessly from the bed: and yes, there was that intensity, that intention, John unbuckling Rodney's belt, shoving his pants down to his knees, yanking Rodney down onto him.
"Have you ..." said Rodney, closing his eyes in a futile attempt to concentrate. "You done this before?"
"Couple of times," said John thickly. "C'mon, Rodney, come on."
"Shut up, shut up," chanted Rodney. His fingers were clumsy, opening John too quickly, pushing wetly into him with John's own semen: John didn't flinch, just stretched and spread and tilted and pushed, and that was it, Rodney had to be inside him right now or this was all going to be over far too soon. And fuck, John's dick was twitching on his hairy belly, hardening again already.
"You a ... teenager or something?" said Rodney, wiping his sticky hand over his own aching erection.
"You," said John: just that, and the way he was looking up at Rodney, not hiding anything: desperate to be fucked, desperate for Rodney, like he was in love.
"John," breathed Rodney, and he couldn't be slow, he couldn't hold back another moment. John grunted when Rodney pushed into him, and the skin around his eyes tightened: but he was rocking up into Rodney, hips canting, his hand working his own dick and there was no way, no way at all that Rodney was going to last long enough to get him off. One, two, three-four: Rodney lost his balance, lost sight and sound and there was just John, John, and yep, he'd probably shouted John's name, but, but what? He didn't care.
He eased out slowly, but John — his hand pretty much a blur on his dick — didn't wince, just groaned long and low, and the sound made something hot curl in Rodney's abdomen. He wanted to do this again, right now, every hour on the hour ...
"Get naked," slurred John, fixing Rodney with that heated, intense glare, his hand slowing. "I wanna watch."
* * *
Fuck, who'd've thought that the sight of Rodney stripping off his sweaty shirt (hell, they were both going to stink of sex tomorrow, he didn't even have soap), kicking off his pants, could be so incredibly hot? All that skin — it'd turned John on impossibly more to see Rodney's paleness pressing against his own tanned thighs — and John wanted to do it all again, do it to Rodney — would Rodney do that, give it up to John, would he —
He was coming all over himself, his balls tightening, and this, this hurt so good, this was ... this was different to anything he'd ever done before.
Rodney pretty much fell down beside him on the threadbare green bedspread. He curled into John, humming happily, and John got his arms round Rodney and just ... just hung on.
"You ..." murmured Rodney. "This ..."
"Hey," teased John, "don't say this is all it takes to shut you up, McKay. I'd've done it months ago."
"I wish," said Rodney sleepily, swatting John. "Hey, we're going to do this again, right?"
"I'm game," said John, and it was true: his dick was getting hard again, never mind that he'd come twice in an embarrassingly short space of time. God, it was too long since he'd had this, too long since he'd had the chance to spend the night with a lover — okay, with a man. Too long since he'd been with anyone who could take him apart, take him, so completely.
"Not giving you up," said Rodney against John's shoulder. "Rather give up Atlantis."
"No need to give anything up," soothed John, though Rodney's words made something cold twist in his heart. If he had to choose ... if he had to choose, what would he choose? "We don't need to choose, Rodney," he said, wriggling closer. Rodney was very warm, and his skin was flushed. John wanted to stretch him out and just look at him. And yeah, okay, maybe touch, maybe fuck ...
They dozed for a while: when John woke up, Rodney was already talking, soft and lazy, telling John about Colonel Caldwell and his assurances that — "now he knows the situation: I mean, as if" — the military would take any accusations directed at the Atlantis community with a pinch of salt. "So bloody Cole can just back off."
"You didn't tell him —" said John, tensing.
"About Cole beating you up?" Rodney ran one finger down John's neck to his nipple, and John squirmed: too much, too much and not enough. "Hell, no. Just said Cole had a problem with us. Okay, okay, I might have hinted that he wasn't entirely what you'd call sane."
John snorted. "Let's not talk about Cole," he suggested. "Not when we're here ... together ... naked ..." He rolled on top of Rodney, pinning him, and licked at the sweat on Rodney's neck.
"You wanna ..." began Rodney, licking his lips nervously. Christ, that mouth. John got his knee between Rodney's thighs, and Rodney spread his legs wider, letting John curve down against him. They both gasped.
"I wanna," confirmed John. "You ... anything we can use?"
"There's a ... In my coat pocket," said Rodney, and oh, that was hot, the way his dick was hardening right up against John's own.
"Don't go anywhere," said John. He stretched over the bed, snagged McKay's coat from the floor with his fingers, dragged it closer and found the pocket. "Rodney!"
"You went up to see Caldwell with a pot of, of Vaseline in your pocket?"
"I could have chapped lips," said Rodney, moistening said lips with a swipe of his tongue. John propped himself on his elbows and just stared. "Everyone uses Vaseline, don't they? Laura —"
"Not for this." John managed to get the lid off one-handed: his other hand worked down between them. "Can I?" he said. "I ... do you?"
"Yes, yes, get on with it," said Rodney impatiently, but he was grinning up at John like he'd just made some wonderful discovery.
John'd have to make himself more interesting than radio circuitry or those weird crystals Teyla'd picked up on the beach. He wanted to keep that look for himself, aimed at him: wanted to keep feeling the blood rush around his body, directed by Rodney's blue gaze. He wanted, oh yes, to push one greasy finger into Rodney's ass and feel Rodney tense and shiver and sigh against him: to pull out that finger slowly, use two, stretching and scissoring and opening him up — and fuck, he could still feel the ache and burn where Rodney'd done this to him, and already he wanted it again, wanted to be fucked, wanted to give Rodney everything that Rodney'd just given him: wanted to give and take, like they were swapping come and kisses and Christ the way that Rodney groaned when John slid three fingers in, easy like, like magnetism.
Thank Christ for that radio in the other room. His own breath had to be audible next door, the way he was gasping.
"Got to ..." he managed, and Rodney must've understood, because he spread his legs wider — John wanted to tip him up, get his own shoulders between those thighs, feel that muscle — and tilted, and writhed, and John's dick was right there against Rodney's tight balls, rubbing against the base of Rodney's dick. John lost himself in that for a moment, but only a moment because Rodney was whispering furious instructions, like John didn't know what he was doing. Okay, it'd been a while, but it was like riding a bike: you didn't forget how.
"Don't worry," John murmured against Rodney's sweaty neck. "I'm just following your example."
"I never teased you this much," sulked Rodney, and John had to kiss that mobile mouth — though, right, not so much a kiss as a bite because he was pushing, pushing hard, pushing in and this felt like the best sort of danger, like a steep spin, like g-force pressing down on his eyeballs.
There was no way he was going to be able to keep this going, to hold back, to be anything but fast and reckless with Rodney: but Rodney didn't look like he minded too much, the way he was biting at John's jaw, pinching John's nipple ("Ow!" John wanted to say, but he was too busy biting back, giving Rodney McKay a huge purple hickey just where his collar'd rub: what the hell, the thing with Caldwell was over and done with) and the way Rodney's knee was pressing bonily against John's flank, forcing him deeper, making him lose the rhythm of fucking, of breathing, of biting.
"Fuck," breathed John, once he could breathe at all. "McKay!"
Rodney was a mess. John'd missed him coming. (Damn, they'd have to do it again. And again.) Rodney was looking at him, clever and curious and maybe a bit superior: Rodney was asking him something.
"The petrol — the gas station. Was it really closed?"
"Course not," said John, and he buried his head in Rodney's damp armpit and let himself laugh out loud.
Elizabeth was angry with John and Rodney when they returned, but Teyla could see that her anger came from fear: fear that they had met with some misadventure, or that the invitation from Colonel Caldwell had been a pretext to arrest or imprison Doctor McKay. Teyla had shared those fears, though of course Elizabeth Weir had not spoken of them to anybody in Atlantis. She was not one to share her burdens.
Rodney McKay was loudly defensive: Teyla could hear his voice clearly from outside the Hall, though she could not make out the questions that Elizabeth was asking. John Sheppard did not say a word, not that Teyla could hear. Still, it was easy to follow Rodney's tale: that he had met with Colonel Caldwell and assured him that the Atlantis community was thriving, that it was free of enemy incursion, and that Doctor McKay's own work — "entirely theoretical, I told him: which is perfectly true if we accept the current state of the physical sciences as presented at, I don't know, the Royal Society" — posed no danger to anyone.
"Cole? Cole's an idiot," Rodney declared. Teyla (standing motionless in the shadow of the Hall, aware that she should not be listening to the voices in Elizabeth's office but reluctant to walk away) could not see his face, yet she was sure she would find contempt there. A flicker of movement caught her eye abruptly, and she sucked in a breath, because as though the name had summoned the man — like the Devil, he appeared when one spoke of him — here came Mr Cole, striding down the path past Rodney's mud-splattered car as though he owned every inch of the land, glaring at Teyla as though she were the intruder.
It was too late for her to cry warning, or to prevent Cole from entering the Hall: she stepped forward out of the shade, hoping to slow him, but he went on by, not even looking at Teyla as she stood there with her basket of eggs.
"What's up?" said Ronon, coming round the corner of the building with a sack of grain on his shoulder. (Halling had told her that bread was on the ration again: here in Atlantis, they baked their own.)
"John and Rodney have returned from Colchester," reported Teyla, "and Mr Cole has gone into the Hall."
"Huh," said Ronon. He let the sack slide off his shoulder to land at Teyla's feet, turned on his heel, and strode quickly into the Hall.
This could not end well. Teyla followed Ronon, set the basket carefully on the table and stood for a moment, listening. A small curled brown feather floated past her: Katie, in the kitchen, was plucking the pheasant that John had brought back for supper.
Cole's rough voice was deeper than either John's or Rodney's, and his words rumbled and tumbled into one another, fast and angry. But Teyla could hear 'spying' and 'traitor' and 'lie', words like weapons, words like knives: and her heart sank.
"Mr Cole!" said Elizabeth, an edge of desperation in her voice. Teyla hoped that Ronon was there with her, though surely John Sheppard would not let any harm befall Elizabeth Weir.
"Cole," came Rodney McKay's voice, clear and vicious, "you obviously don't have the faintest idea of what I'm working on. Ghosts? Ha!"
Cole said something about cats.
"Right, okay, so we're implementing a devious plan to, what? Steal your cats away and make you see things that aren't there? Of course: that all makes perfect sense — oh, wait, no: no, it doesn't. It's —"
"Mr Cole," came John's lazy drawl, "perhaps you could be a bit clearer on what it is you're accusing us of doing?"
"Doctor McKay," said Cole, making the title a sneer, "is working on some new-fangled device: don't deny it, McKay, I've heard you talking about it."
"Why would I deny it?" said Rodney. "Yes, I'm working on something 'new-fangled', as you so quaintly put it. No, it won't make your cats vanish or blight your crops or any of that superstitious crap —"
"Rodney!" warned Elizabeth.
"Is it atomic?" said Cole.
"Is it — what sort of a question is that? No, don't answer, I doubt you'd be able to express yourself any more clearly if we stayed here all day, which I for one have no intention of doing: is it atomic." Rodney laughed out loud, a laugh with no humour in it, and Teyla almost pitied Mr Cole for having become the target of Rodney McKay's savage mockery. She had heard Rodney berate Radek, and sneer at Mr Parrish, but never had she heard such contempt in his voice.
"Just answer the question, Doctor McKay." Cole's voice held such threat that Teyla's sympathy sheered to alarm.
"Yes, Mr Cole," and that wasn't Rodney's voice but John's, though sharper and more commanding than she had ever heard it. "Yes, it's atomic: yes, the military are aware: no, it's not causing any of the effects you've mentioned. That's all you need to know. Mr Dex, please escort Mr Cole —"
"I'm going!" snapped Cole, and the door was flung open. Teyla stepped back behind the table, tensed and ready for whatever other violence Cole might offer. But again, he seemed not to see her: his mouth was working furiously, and his brow deeply furrowed. Teyla was sure that she could defend herself against him if it came to that: but she was not the target of his rage, and she feared what he might bring down upon all of them, to Atlantis.
"So," Elizabeth was saying crisply, her equanimity quite restored, "was that two lies, John, or three?"
"I'm sorry about your gramophone," said John. "Maybe we can get you another one."
"Never mind," said Rodney, stretching out on the thin tartan blanket. The concrete pillbox roof was still warm beneath him from the afternoon sun. "Elizabeth didn't like it, anyway."
"You liked it," John pointed out.
"Yes," said Rodney. "So did Teyla, actually: I played her some Rachmaninoff, and she said it reminded her of home."
"I guess what's-his-name's a Russian, then."
Rodney gave him a long-suffering look. "No shit. But I needed some piezoelectric crystals for the, the Device. Anyway, if I can get hold of some sheet music, I can probably —"
"How's that going? The Device, I mean."
"Pretty good," said Rodney modestly. "I'm almost positive it'll fire up properly next time."
"Sure," said John, with a wry look. "How come you're still calling it 'the Device', anyway? C'mon, McKay. You need a name for it. Something ... sciency."
"Sciency?" mocked Rodney. "Like what? The Multi-Reality Synchronator?"
"Hey," said John, with that broad, toothy grin that meant he was up to no good. "How about the Atomic Resonance Synchronisation Enhancer?"
"The ... oh, ha ha, very funny. If you're twelve." Rodney jabbed John right under his ribs, and John giggled — yeah, he was twelve, all right. "Though," Rodney went on, chewing his lip, "that is what it's meant to be doing, the synchronising thing."
"Synchronising thing?" said John. "Okay, that's it: you're never allowed to name anything."
"Oh, like calling it A.R.S.E. is going to get anyone to take us seriously!"
"Right," said John, still laughing a little, pushing himself up on his elbows and brushing his hair out of his eyes. "Okay, you're ready to fire it up. Then what?"
"Then we make some careful observations," said Rodney, "and record anything that changes."
"Look, I don't know, all right? I just know it didn't work last time, and when I told Alan —"
"You wrote him?"
"Yes," snapped Rodney. "And he wrote back. Is that a problem?"
"Course not," said John. "Why would it be? Hey, I got you a present."
John was twisting round to reach into his coat pocket: Rodney sat up too. "A present?"
Something small, rectangular, black and gold ... "Is that a Mars bar? Cool!"
John's hand came down over Rodney's, aborting his wholly instinctual snatch. "Thought we could share."
"Okaaaay," said Rodney, eyeing the businesslike knife in John's hand warily. "No need to get defensive."
John gave him a cagey sidelong look, but his laughter cancelled out the menace. Rodney made a show of covering his ears. Sure, John Sheppard was hot and funny and smart, but when he laughed it sounded like a gaggle of geese.
"Just making it last," John was saying, carefully slicing the chocolate bar. "I used to have a girlfriend who ..."
"Who what?" said Rodney waspishly, electing to ignore the 'girlfriend' thing. You kept up appearances, Rodney knew that. Despite Alan. "Who'd suck your dick for a Mars bar?"
"What?" said John, grinning. "I don't usually have to bribe you. Here." He held out a morsel, jerking it away from Rodney's hand when he reached up. "You want it?"
Rodney might've bitten his fingers, just a little bit, but he made sure he licked every scrap of chocolate off John's skin. "I know you like to make things last," he said, smacking his lips, and it was worth it to see the heat in John's eyes and in that broad beaming smile.
"This is pretty cool," said John, pouring the last of the coffee (foul stuff, but it did the job) into the cup and handing it to Rodney. "This. Here. We could be the only people in the world."
"If only," said Rodney darkly. But yeah, it was kind of cool to be out here with John, their backs to all of England, staring out over the smooth shining mud, the dark sea, the darkening sky. "That moon's really something."
The sun was sinking behind the seawall. A huge harvest moon, one day from full, hung in the sky like a yellow balloon, if balloons had mountains and craters. "I wonder if we'll ever make it there," said Rodney wistfully.
"I wanted to be a spaceman, when I was ten," confided John. His voice was as warm and lazy as the light. "You ever read science fiction, Rodney? H G Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, all that?"
"Wells had some pretty good ideas," Rodney allowed. "And Heinlein — you read any Heinlein? — he's kind of fun. But Burroughs? Honestly? His books might as well be fairytales for the degree, the minuscule degree, of scientific accuracy he manages. Airships! Canals! Hey, I bet you wanted to be John Carter when you grew up: running around killing fearsome beasts and marrying Martian princesses. "
"John Carter was a good Southern gentleman," drawled John, and yeah, his voice was slow and rich with that Kentucky drawl. "And he went ... he found a place to belong, after the Civil War. He found a whole new world. A world that didn't have Hiroshima, or Dresden, or ..."
"Hey," said Rodney, after a long moment. John's mouth was still open, a little, but he seemed to have run out of words. "Hey," said Rodney again, and he put his hand over John's, and felt John's fingers curl round his own. John sighed, but he was smiling again, staring up at the moon.
"It's like a whole other planet," John murmured. He sounded half asleep. "This huge moon just hangin' there, like on the covers of those magazines, and this weird landscape. And nothin' ... there's nothin' human in sight."
"I'm right here, thanks very much," said Rodney, pressing down on John's hand. "And it is a whole other planet. Well, satellite."
"What I said," retorted John, sitting up. "Look, Rodney: if you look right ahead," and John's hands were grasping Rodney's head, turning him gently and firmly, "look out there. Can you see anything man-made? Anything human?"
Rodney shook his head. John's palms were warm against his scalp. "No," he murmured. "Well, there's that boat — probably Lorne going after more — ow!"
"Just ... use your imagination," said John fondly, stroking the ear he'd swatted.
"Huh," said Rodney.
"Over there," said Rodney softly, pointing. "Tell me what you can see."
"Well, there's quite a bit of water," drawled John, "and ... "
"It ... it's like there's something made of glass." John was leaning forward now. He'd grabbed his old, battered binoculars and he was peering out to sea.
"Give me those," said Rodney, and didn't wait for John's consent. Yes: yes, there was something out there, something reaching up towards the moon, something that barely reflected the moonlight but that made the air ripple and gleam.
"My eyes are better than yours, anyway," grumbled John, unfolding easily to his feet. "What is it, Rodney?"
"Whatever it is, it's not real," said Rodney, pressing the binocs painfully into his eye-sockets as if that'd let him see more. "See those birds? The white ones?"
"Whatever. They just flew right through it."
"Right," said John heavily. "So it's an illusion. A mirage."
"Yes and no," said Rodney. "I mean, it can't be ... You couldn't make something like that out of glass: it'd shatter under its own weight. Maybe one of the new plastics, but ... huh."
"What, Rodney?" Okay, John sounded pretty pissed now.
"Look at the ... follow it down, look at where it meets the sea."
John sucked in a breath, but Rodney couldn't look at him. There were waves, slow waves, breaking against ... against the piers of the city in the sea.
John was sitting with Elizabeth, trying to make the numbers in the ledger come out positive, when he heard Rodney's raised voice in the Hall. At once the figures — twelve shillings and sixpence for corn, nine pence for salt (but hey, there was all that salt water stretching to the horizon: maybe they could extract their own), half a crown for apples, four pence for yeast — spun off into nonsense again: because Rodney didn't sound upset, he sounded ... jubilant.
"Elizabeth!" and here came Rodney, steaming in without bothering to knock, beaming like an idiot, eyes wide and very blue.
"Doctor McKay," said Elizabeth repressively. "We're just —"
"Do you speak Latin? I've got — because Carson said you were probably most likely to —"
"Latin? Rodney, what are you talking about?"
John found that he was grinning too: Rodney's enthusiasm was infectious, even when he didn't know what'd provoked it. "Rodney," he drawled, "what's up?"
"Come and listen to this," said Rodney, gesturing spasmodically with both hands. "You have to hear this. It's — well? Come on!"
John met Elizabeth's exasperated look with what he hoped was a reassuring smile. He shoved his chair back and went after McKay.
The thing Rodney'd been building — the A.R.S.E., thought John with a secret smirk — had grown quite a bit. It sprawled over most of the table: there were coloured lights twinkling here and there, like the Christmas lights in London last winter, and wires running between the main part and peripheral tangles on the shelf. John reached out to where an angled prism of crystal, held in place with a cat's-cradle of fine copper wire, seemed to glow in the dim room.
"Hands off!" said Rodney, slapping at his wrist. "This is a very delicate instrument, and Christ knows what ... ah, Elizabeth! Put this on." He waggled a battered radio headset at her.
"Hmmm," murmured John, sidling close to Rodney, "could be I know what happened to the rest of Laura's radio."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," said Rodney, lifting his chin. "Ready?" he asked Elizabeth, who was settling the earphones over her ears. At her nod, he leant over and threw a switch.
"Ow!" said Elizabeth, trying to pull the headset off.
Rodney grabbed her wrist. "Sorry, sorry," he said insincerely, adjusting a dial. A green light stuttered and shone. "Just let me ... there."
"What's she listening to?" said John, trying not to feel slighted that Elizabeth got the first go at whatever-it-was. She was the leader of Atlantis, after all.
"You are not going to believe this," said Rodney gleefully, bouncing a little where he stood. "This is ..."
Elizabeth's frown opened out into wonder, and she began to smile. "Rodney," she said — too loudly — "is this ...?"
"What you're hearing," said Rodney with pride, "is the sound of another reality."
"But there are ... there's a voice!" said Elizabeth. Her eyes were closed now, the fine lines at their corners creased with concentration.
"Yes, yes, but I can't work out what it's saying," snapped Rodney. "It's Latin, isn't it?"
"Ssssh," said Elizabeth. Her mouth moved soundlessly for a moment. "Not Latin," she said, "but ... close to Latin."
"A voice? C'mon," said John, fizzing with impatience. "And — what the hell, McKay? How long've you been sitting on this?"
"I worked it out last night," said Rodney, chin up, folding his arms. "I was just thinking, if we can see the city, maybe it's ... observable, tangible ... in other ways. Other forms of radiation."
"Radiation?" said John, waggling his eyebrows. "Don't tell Cole, he'll have a fit."
"He's not high on my list of need-to-know," agreed Rodney. "But — I wanted you to ..." He cut a glance at Elizabeth, serenely oblivious as she listened.
"Never mind," said John. He couldn't stop grinning. "Rodney, I can't believe you did —"
"Here, John," said Elizabeth at last. Her face was soft, smiling, relaxed. "Listen."
At first it was only the sound of wind and waves, and John wondered if he'd broken something. The lights on the device flickered as he reached towards them, and Rodney tapped his hand — pretty gently, considering — and told him to keep listening.
Then John heard somebody speak.
It was a woman's voice, an accent he couldn't place, and if he tried to make out the words they were nonsense. Could be Latin or Serbo-Croat or Swahili, for all John could tell. But if he let the words lull him, they started to make a weird kind of sense. There was something about welcome, something about waiting: something about flight, but maybe that was just his own brain telling him what he wanted to hear. If he relaxed a bit more, if he let the rest of the world fall away and focussed on those words, they'd make —
"John!" This voice, Rodney's voice, was real and familiar and too loud: John winced as the voice in the headphones dissolved into static and feedback.
"What the hell?" he snapped, dragging the headset off.
"You were ... you weren't responding," said Elizabeth. She was frowning again.
"I was concentrating," said John, scowling. "What was that? What was she saying?"
"It wasn't Latin," said Elizabeth, leaning on the back of Rodney's chair. "But some of the words seemed Latinate. I'm pretty sure it's not a language I've ever heard spoken before."
"I need you to keep listening," said Rodney to Elizabeth. "Here: write down whatever you can make out."
"Rodney, I'm busy —"
"This is important, Elizabeth!" Rodney's face was flushed: he looked happier, more himself, than John'd ever seen him. "This is, hello? Another reality we're listening to: we don't know how long they'll keep ... broadcasting, or whatever it is they're doing: we need to know what it is they're saying, and maybe they'll tell us how to get there, and —"
Elizabeth held up her hand, and Rodney stopped speaking as though she'd switched him off. "All right," she said, shoulders straight. "Give me a pencil and paper: I'll keep monitoring."
She eased the headset back onto her head, grimacing as a strand of hair caught on the band. Rodney flipped through his notebook until he found a blank page, and set it in front of her, with a sharp new pencil. There was a certain amount of jostling as he and John both moved to stand behind Elizabeth's chair, peering over her shoulder.
"I ... She said something about flying," said John, hoping against hope: and Elizabeth, scribbling, nodded. John watched the words unfurl from her pencil, in neat copperplate script. 'Welcome' and 'flight': 'city' and 'sea' and 'waiting'.
"Oh my God," said Rodney, reverently, as Elizabeth wrote. "They know we're listening."
"What?" said John: but even from this angle, he could read Elizabeth's emphatic capitals.
"Have you seen her hands?" Rodney demanded. "That Japanese woman. Mina."
"Miko," corrected John. They were walking back from the Anchor, the long way round along the sea wall, past the blackened cage of stakes that Parrish claimed was a Saxon fish-trap. Okay, yes: clearly something made, something with purpose, but Rodney didn't see the point in arguing about just how old a rotten stick might be.
"Yes, yes, Miko. She's got the tiniest hands. I had her put together a circuit board, and she's ... her hands are made for fine work. Can you believe this? Where she was before, some farm she was assigned to, they had her planting cabbage. Cabbage!"
Rodney's own hands — big, scarred with a myriad burns and gouges — were clumsy, compared with Miko's. There were things he simply couldn't do, not with the primitive tools that were all Atlantis could offer. He frowned down at them, compiling a list of the work he'd have Miko do. She was handy with a soldering-iron, so —
John grabbed Rodney's wrist and planted a kiss on the broad palm. It felt like electricity, and Rodney could feel his blood surging.
"Hey!" he protested, pink and pleased. "Anyone could see!"
John made a show of looking around: he didn't let go of Rodney. "There's nobody around. And nobody minds if —"
"Cole," said Rodney darkly. "Cole minds, all right."
"Cole's probably holed up, writing more letters —"
"Hey, what was Sara saying to you while I was talking to Lorne?"
John shrugged. "Just that Cole'd been in there, asking about us. Something about a guy named Wallace, or Wall: she couldn't remember."
"God knows," said John. "Doesn't matter." He laced his fingers through Rodney's, and leant down to lick the back of Rodney's hand, looking up at Rodney through his lashes. Rodney shivered at the warmth of his mouth, the chill of the air.
"Don't what?" said John. " I like your hands."
They were walking again, slowly, towards Atlantis: above them sailed luminous clouds, pink with sunset against the wide violet sky. Rodney breathed deeply, enjoying the rub and press of John's fingers against his own. "You like my hands?"
"Yeah," said John, tipping a lazy smile at him. "They feel good."
Rodney was abruptly flushed with the memory of John's skin under his hands, John arching up into his touch. "My hands, my hands like you too," he said. "I mean, I. Like you."
"Mutual, Rodney," said John, nonchalant as anything. The skin around his eyes was creased with one of those private smiles, the ones that never reached his mouth.
"I don't know if I can do ... do this," blurted Rodney.
"Do what?" And just like that, he'd driven every trace of contentment from John's face.
"No, no, I didn't mean that: I didn't mean you."
"'Cause you can do me any time," interjected John, low and inviting, and Rodney had to swallow before he could say another word.
"No, I just meant: it's too damn cold to keep sneaking away into the bushes —" Getting colder, too, from the tingle of air against his skin: or perhaps Rodney was getting warmer. John had that effect on him.
"And the bushes are kind of ... bare," noted John, waving his free hand (the other still holding Rodney's in a warm, firm, insistent grasp) at the scrubby hedge that bordered the sea-wall, the drifts of leaves scattered across the path.
"I just," said Rodney, levelling an intent gaze at John, willing him to get it. "I just don't think I can face a whole winter without ... you know."
"Without fucking?" said John, soft and precise. "Without getting each other off? Without —"
"Yes, shut up," said Rodney, squirming. Wanting. "All that."
"Well, what do you suggest? You're the genius."
"Yes," said Rodney. "Yes, I am. And I've got nothing."
"You've got me," said John. "I reckon — Ow!"
"What? What is it?" Rodney spun round, anchored by John's hand, trying to locate whatever'd hurt John. There was a sharp cold sting on his cheek, and another. "What the hell?"
"Hail, Rodney," said John, and he was yanking Rodney's hand, insistent. "Hailstorm."
Rodney let himself be pulled: down the slope of the sea-wall towards, through the hedge — "Quit complaining; there's a gap!" — and towards the outbuildings. He tucked his free hand over his head, because the hail was coming down fast and vicious now, from an empty sky — from those pretty pink clouds — and hell, it stung. "If I lose an eye —" he panted.
"Relax, Rodney," said John, and they were crammed up against a door, and John was fumbling with the latch. "We've got shelter. We've got company."
They were in the shed, dim and musty, straw-scented. Rodney shook hailstones the size of peas out of his hair, his sweater, the turn-ups of his pants. Schrödinger and Einstein came to rub around his ankles, mewing, and he hunkered down to fuss them.
"Hey," said John, amused. "What about me?"
"There's kind of a line," said Rodney. "Wait your turn."
"Huh," said John, dropping down beside him, loose-limbed, red-faced from the change in temperature, so, so desirable that Rodney's breath hitched in his throat. "So: how's the Synchronator coming?"
"Elizabeth thinks she's transcribed everything they've got to say," said Rodney, rubbing his thumb under Einstein's chin and feeling her purr vibrate through his arm. "It's like they're repeating themselves, like a loop of tape: welcome and city and flight and home and Atlantis — though I still can't work out how they know about us, unless — huh."
"If they've got a Synchronator too — or more likely something much more advanced, not just a jumble of spare parts held together with sealing-wax and string — then there's no reason they can't be watching us, just like we're trying to watch them."
"Hold on," said John. "Watching? What, we can see them now?"
"No: well, not unless you count the energy forms —"
"You mean the ghosts."
Rodney sighed theatrically. "The energy forms, John: whatever they are, I'll put money on them not being the lost spirits of Roman centurions, or whatever Gothic nonsense Parrish is spouting this week. (He's a botanist, you know: not a real scientist.) Anyway," he held up a finger, admonitory, "unless the energy forms are somehow connected with the, the city, with whatever it is we're detecting here ... where was I?"
"Watching them," said John. "Or, y'know, not watching them."
"Right," said Rodney. It was hard to concentrate with John sprawled next to him, Einstein stretched out on John's lap and kneading his thigh. It was hard to think about waves and particles and radiation, energy and entropy, with this marvellous unexplored territory close enough to touch, ripe for discovery, grinning at him. "I've had some of my best ideas in this damn shed," said Rodney, aggrieved.
"I remember a couple of 'em," said John with that slow sly smile, tipping Einstein off his lap and brushing away a cloud of white fur. "Want me to remind you, Rodney?"
The last day of October dawned clear and cold, leaves topaz, amber, ruby against a sapphire sky, tumbling down like a drift of gold coins to the mud. Elizabeth had not slept well. She'd woken before dawn to a woman's voice bidding her welcome, the last tatters of a forgotten dream, and a haze of fatigue hung between her and the morning. Keeping busy had not closed that imaginary distance, but at least the accounts were done, and her correspondence answered and filed. She had washed dishes, picked sloes from the spiny bushes behind the sea-wall — the grain-spirit that Radek Zelenka distilled needed something to take the edge off it — and helped Katie sort seeds. The morning's oddness had mellowed into honest weariness, from work well done.
Now Elizabeth sat on the bench outside the Hall in the afternoon sunshine, sipping sweet tea and watching Carson and Laura tease each other as they raked leaves. From behind the commons came the regular beat of wood-chopping: John and Ronon, no doubt, amiably competitive as ever. John Sheppard seemed so ... so sane, so adaptable: but something about him bothered her. She knew he'd had a hard war, though he never spoke of his experiences. Perhaps all this, the ghosts and the voices and the shining city that he and Rodney had seen, or thought they'd seen, out to sea, was simply a reaction to the horrors, the loss; perhaps even John Sheppard, strong and dependable, had a breaking point, and it had taken ten months for the tension that'd held him together to fade. Or perhaps it was his reaction to being stranded on the ground, instead of soaring free and solitary above this country that wasn't his home.
None of that would explain Elizabeth's own experiences: the voice on the radio, the figures on the beach. None of it explained anything, except that John ... John had always been there, watching with her, listening with her. John was the constant.
Teyla had seen the ghosts (energy forms, Rodney had wanted to call them, but nobody had taken any notice) and so had the fisherman, Lorne. John hadn't been their constant. But he'd been with Rodney: he'd been out on the seawall with Rodney when they'd sighted the city, and who was to say that he hadn't been there, watching Rodney, helping him build the device?
Elizabeth drained her tea, smiling down into her empty cup. One night's broken sleep (she usually slept much better, here, than she ever had in Simon's house) and she was indulging the most extravagant fantasies. And tonight ... Elizabeth laughed out loud.
"Share the joke?" Ronon invited, halting beside the bench. There was a big axe slung over his shoulder, and sweat on his face.
"Nothing," said Elizabeth, smiling up at him. "Just ... I was thinking about the ghosts, and tonight's Halloween. You know, when ghosts and spirits appear."
"Huh," said Ronon. She could never read his expression: bland and friendly and always on the verge of a smile. "Is that what the bonfire's for?"
"That's to keep the bad stuff away," said Elizabeth firmly. It didn't matter if he didn't believe her: it didn't matter if she only half believed herself.
By dusk, the bonfire was blazing merrily. Laura and Katie were scrubbing potatoes in seawater, and they'd roped in Teyla and Parrish to cut green wood so that everyone could toast sausages (Halling'd been very grateful for Elizabeth's help with his suppliers) in the flames. John Sheppard was nowhere in sight, but Rodney, swaddled in scarves and a greatcoat (actually, wasn't that John's coat?) had settled himself on a tree-trunk near the fire, and was scribbling busily in his notebook.
"We should tell ghost stories!" said Laura brightly, handing round mugs of sweet tea.
"Isn't it scary enough out here with the real ghosts?" said Katie sullenly, huddling in her coat.
"The real stuff's never as scary as what's in your head," said John, shoving Rodney until there was room for him to sit.
"Okay, Mr Sheppard," said Katie, narrowing her eyes. "You start."
John's story was rambling, bloodthirsty and full of digressions — Elizabeth lost track somewhere around the second murder — but he knew how to engage his audience, and everyone was leaning forward eagerly by the end of his tale.
"You stole that," Rodney said accusingly, under the laughter and applause.
"I did not!" said John. He was pouting.
"That was Edgar Allan Poe," said Rodney. "That was —"
"Well, there's one my mother used to tell me," said Carson. "Always used to put the willies up me, so it might be too eerie for some of you."
"Tell us!" cried Laura, bouncing like a child. Elizabeth saw her elbow Katie and whisper fiercely to her.
Carson didn't need much encouragement. He launched into a tale of spectral White Ladies at a remote fountain, and Elizabeth had to admit that his soft Scottish brogue was more suited to ghosts and mysteries than it was to medicine and hygiene. She found herself dozing, unperturbed by the tragic events Carson was unfolding: but Lorne's voice — why was Lorne here? — startled Elizabeth awake.
"There's a light out to sea," Lorne was saying. "I was coming back along the sea wall: thought you'd want a look."
"Good evening, Mr Lorne," said Elizabeth: it was still important to be polite. "Could they be fishing boats?"
"Too bright," said Lorne, frowning. "And it ... there's something odd about it."
"Could do with stretching my legs," said John easily, unfolding himself from beside Rodney.
"I will come with you," said Teyla quickly. Ronon, next to her, didn't say a word, but he threw his apple core into the fire (it sizzled and steamed for an instant) and stood up.
"Oh, all right," said Rodney, as if someone'd asked him to go too. "It's probably just a ship, or a drifting buoy, or —"
"Or one of the Ministry's secret weapons?" said Katie.
"Don't be stupid — well, assuming you have a choice, which I'm beginning to doubt: why would there be secret weapons now, eighteen months after VE Day?"
Elizabeth rose slowly. She was feeling dizzy again, and the cold air would help. She followed the four of them down the path through the trees to the sea wall, grateful for her coat against the autumn chill, wary of what she might see tonight.
* * *
Behind them, orange sparks spiralled up from the fire: out to sea there was a surreal blue light, like water in moonlight, except that there was no moon tonight. And the light was growing brighter, stronger, somehow larger: like something rising towards the air.
Everyone was gathering on the sea wall. John could hear Laura laughing with Carson, and Zelenka and Parrish speculating about the light, the ghosts, whether this was all real. It felt real to John. It felt as if they were all on the brink of change.
"Submarine?" suggested John, because he had to say something, he couldn't just stand there staring like the rest of them.
"Too shallow," said Lorne. "Sea's no more than a few fathoms deep out there, and there's more wrecks than a broth— I mean, than a breaker's yard in Portsmouth. No sub commander worth his salt'd risk coming in so close."
"The bells," said Teyla, incomprehensibly.
"The city," breathed Rodney, and John had never heard him so ... so humbled, so awed. "The city's rising."
Rodney was right. The city was coming true: surfacing: coming into the world, into John's world. There — "There!" cried somebody, and there were gasps and, yes, cheers — there was the first tower thrusting upward, skyward, starward, the light blurred by water streaming down the glowing crystal.
"It's the same," said Rodney, hushed, at his shoulder.
"The same colour," said Rodney. "The same as the crystal that lit up in your hand."
"Rodney!" Because that was theirs: John'd never mentioned it to anyone, never done it where anyone except Rodney could see. It was ... it was a private thing.
"I'm just saying," said Rodney defensively, and John reached down — eyes still fixed on the glorious, almost silent, spectacle at sea — and grabbed his hand. Rodney shut up.
"This cannot happen," said Zelenka. "The sea here is too —"
"It's happening," said John. "Deal with it." He wanted them all to be quiet, to stop cheering and swearing and calling on God: he wanted to hear the water rushing away from those glowing crystalline towers, the ... was there a hum, like static? Was that the city, calling him?
Rodney's hand tightened in his, grounding him: not forcing him to earth, but bringing him safely down, discharging the electric crackle of tension in his spine, reminding him that there were other ways to fly.
More towers. Maybe those were windows, where the lights were brightest. The lines of it were so clean, like it was fresh from a mould or a factory or an artist's knife. There had to be seaweed clinging to the sheer glassy surfaces: had to be barnacles and coral crusting the gleaming metal — gleaming with the city's own light — that reared up out of the calm sea like, like, like nothing John'd ever imagined.
"Eureka," said Radek Zelenka: and Rodney said, incomprehensibly, "Yes, yes, there's no displacement."
"Are you even awake? Think about how much water something that size would displace. Think about where that water might go, huh?"
"Point," said John. Thing was, he couldn't think. There were too many people around him (far too many people: far more than there'd been round the bonfire) and the city, the shining city, was calling him. He wanted to listen. He wanted to be ... to be there. The city's towers were tall now, impossibly tall above the dark water, reaching towards the constellations.
"Get the boat," said John. "We can row —"
"Are you mad? It's not real," flared Rodney, rounding on him. "There is just no way that anything that size could've been sitting there all along. Are you listening? Lorne said —"
"If I go —"
"You're not going, John!" said Elizabeth sharply. "It's dark, and we don't know —"
"It's the city!" John interrupted, and he might've been ashamed of the desperation in his voice, but ... "We have to. We can't not go."
"It is real," said Teyla serenely, staring out at where the city ... where it floated, impossibly, though the waves lapping the white beach were shallow and slow. "It is calling to us."
"Something we've done," said Rodney, snapping his fingers. He rounded on Zelenka. "What did we do, today?"
"I ... I do not know, Rodney. We listened, again —"
"There was nothing new," said Elizabeth, flexing her fingers. "I wrote down what I could, but it was ... it was like a record, playing over and over. Welcome, and flight, and city, and ... invitation."
"Right," said John. There was a headache firing up behind his right eye. "So what are we waiting for?"
"Mr Sheppard," said Lorne, more formal than he'd ever been, "we could go out there right now, but I'd bet we wouldn't ... there wouldn't be anything there. Not anything real."
"Is it ... I think it's beginning to fade," said Rodney. He sounded lost. "John, you can't ..."
"You think it's another ghost, huh?" John knew they were talking sense: really he did. But disappointment roiled in his gut.
"I think it's not here yet," said Lorne. He was frowning. John frowned too, because how was he seeing Lorne's face on this moonless night except by the light of something that apparently didn't exist?
He turned to look at Rodney, wanting Rodney to tell him it was real, true, somewhere they could go. And the light must be fading, the city was fading, because now he couldn't read Rodney's expression at all.
"Shame we haven't got a guy to burn," said Ronon.
"Old Cole?" said Laura sweetly, and Elizabeth frowned.
"Laura, that's not funny. Mr Cole —"
"Joking, joking," said Laura. "Here, have some more tea."
They'd been building up the bonfire all day, with brush and driftwood and a couple of tree-stumps that he and Sheppard and Lorne had dug out of the new field. The fire loomed tall on the beach — Sheppard'd insisted it had to be on the beach — and people were gathering around it, impatient for heat and light. Their voices did nothing to drive away the silence that swelled around them. That silence still surprised him, mornings: set his nerves on edge.
It was a cold clear night, with a thin curve of moon hanging above the sea. The sky was wide and very black, glittery with stars. Elizabeth knelt to light the fire, and the dry brush — doused with paraffin — caught quickly, popping and fizzing as the flames got hold of the heavier wood. It smelt different to the fires he remembered from London. Cleaner.
"So," said McKay, shuffling his feet on the crunchy beach, "did you, did you do Bonfire Night, back in London?"
"Yeah, we used to let off bangers," said Ronon. "Before."
"I only ask," said McKay, "because in Canada we didn't celebrate it. Except in the provinces: Newfoundland, Labrador."
"Huh," said Ronon. He didn't know where Newfoundland was. He didn't care.
"Of course, since I've been over here I've been exposed to a lot of your quaint English customs," McKay went on, and Ronon was pretty sure McKay was trying to be funny. "Though during the war, of course, there wasn't time for —"
"The war changed a lot of things," said Laura. "Got a light, Doctor?"
"Yes, yes: here," said McKay, fumbling in his pocket and producing a cigarette lighter. "I didn't know you smoked."
"Fireworks, McKay," said Laura, smiling bright and quick.
"Fireworks? Where on earth did you —"
"Made 'em," said Laura proudly. "It's not that hard. One of the ATA guys showed me, after VE Day. You just have to be careful, and use a bit of common sense."
"Where's Sheppard?" said Ronon, because usually he and McKay were inseparable, and McKay was looking kind of gloomy.
"Up the beach," snapped McKay. "Looking for his lost city."
"We all saw it, Rodney," said Laura. "It was there."
"Well, it's not there now," said McKay. "And —"
"Hey," said Sheppard from behind them. "What you got, Laura?"
"This and that," said Laura, grinning at him. "It's a surprise."
"Cool," said Sheppard. He was looking at McKay, eyebrows raised, and McKay was scowling back at him. The tension between them made Ronon uncomfortable: he headed for the fire.
Laura was following him. "So," she said cheerfully, "what did you do, in the war?"
"Survived," said Ronon.
"Sorry," said Laura. She didn't sound sorry at all. Then she was turning round, telling everyone to stay back: pulling something long and thin out of the rucksack on her back and crouching down on the sand. The flare of the lighter, a fizzing noise, and Ronon's spine prickled: then bang!, and light, coloured light, red and green, and something soaring up and it was going to come down —
Sheppard caught him up at the seawall, and grabbed hold of Ronon's arm when Ronon tried to shove him away. Stronger than he looked, but Ronon knew that. In blind panic, he pushed again, and Sheppard went down; but he'd hooked his foot behind Ronon's knee and fuck, he should've seen that coming.
"Hey," said Sheppard, lying in the mud panting. "Hey, buddy: listen, listen to me. It's just fireworks. It's not ... not bombs, or ..."
It helped a bit to do as he was told: to listen to Sheppard's soft, drawling voice, listen to him insist that everything was safe, everyone was safe, there wasn't any danger. To kneel there, his knees cold and wet, and pull Sheppard up so he was kneeling too.
"Wanna tell me about it?"
"Why?" said Ronon.
"'Cause sometimes it helps," said Sheppard. "Sometimes it helps to tell someone."
"Yeah," said Ronon scornfully. "Like you tell everyone what's up with you."
Sheppard's face was just a grey mask in the night, but Ronon could see him turning away. Could hear him sigh.
"Not the point," said Sheppard at last. "I ... I talk, when I need to. When I have to."
"To McKay," said Ronon.
"Yeah, sometimes. Other people, too." Sheppard was facing him again. The black ovals of his eyes were wide. "Look, if you don't want to talk about it, that's fine. But ... but you can."
"It felt like every night," said Ronon to the darkness. It was easier not to look at Sheppard, even if Sheppard couldn't see him. "The planes came over. There were searchlights. Where we were, where we lived: too close to the middle of London. They hit the church, the synagogue. Didn't matter who you were."
"I thought they evacuated all the ... the kids," said Sheppard.
"Yeah," said Ronon. "They brought us back too soon."
Out on the beach something flared, and Ronon tensed. He would not flinch. There was nothing to fear, here.
"We were in the shelter," he said. "The bomb screamed when it came down. Wood everywhere. Splinters. Big ones." His arm ached, where the scar was. "All clear wasn't for hours, and the light went out. Sitting in the dark."
Sheppard's hand was on his shoulder, not hugging or pulling, just ... just there.
"When we got out," said Ronon, the words coming easily now, "the house wasn't there. All this orange dust in the air. Brick dust. No house. The house next door was there, but ours was gone."
Something howled, on the beach, and when Ronon's head swung round he was dazzled by a ribbon of sparks.
"Catherine wheel," said Sheppard. "Cool. Hey, maybe you could learn to make those. Bet Laura'd teach you."
"Yeah," said Sheppard easily. "Reckon she likes you."
"Huh," said Ronon, pleased.
"You wanna head back to the Hall? Maybe beat me at cards?"
"Nah," said Ronon. "Let's go and watch the fireworks."
Rodney had been loudly sure that more mysterious artefacts would be washed up by the sea, after the storms in the night: so Teyla, glad of a reason to absent herself from the comfortable noisy fug of Atlantis, wandered down to the beach in the morning. The wind was cold, but not unpleasantly so, and the sound of the waves was soothing. Teyla let her eyes unfocus, gave herself up to whatever might capture her attention. She held the image of the ghostly shining city clear in her mind: come to me, show me, let me see.
Here was something shiny: an oyster shell the colour of the sky, bigger than her palm. Here was a smooth amber gem of driftglass. Here was a black purse of skate's egg, the spines tangled in a wrack of seaweed. A fragment of butchered bone, red with clay. A coin, round and green with age: she put that in her sack, for Elizabeth. The place where the bonfire had been last week was a black scar on the pale sand, ash and charcoal scattered by the wind. But here and there along the beach were pieces of charred wood, charred, still wrapped in paper: they puzzled Teyla, until she remembered Laura busy with powder and paper, making her fireworks on the bare earth behind the kitchen. Strange that so much light and noise could have been contained in these brittle scraps.
Behind her the grass whispered, and if she concentrated on the sound she could almost hear words, strange words: almost hear her own name, and 'Atlantis'. Teyla shook her head — hair whipping stingingly across her face, the tie had come loose again — and bent to examine a glossy purple crab-shell. The voices whispered away, becoming no more than the rattle of seaweed blowing along the beach.
Low clouds raced overhead, dark against the heavy pale haze of the sky. There was samphire out on the mud, emerald in the dull light: Teyla had grown used to the strange sea-bitter taste of it, and she gathered it in handfuls, shaking free the small shelled creatures that clung to the swollen stems.
The city had been real. She had felt it, somehow, in her bones. (Her aunts had been angry at her stories, but sometimes she had seen things that they did not.) The city was there, nearby, curled away hidden in the salty air. She wanted to see it again: wanted to call it closer.
John wanted that too, she was sure. But he had been silent, absent even while he sat next to her at the table: barely responding to Rodney's words, to Rodney's bad temper. Perhaps he still saw the city. Perhaps Rodney would bring it back for him.
Weak sunshine dazzled suddenly through the curtains of cloud, making Teyla blink. There was a point of light out on the spit, so bright it might have been a lamp. She picked her way carefully over the slippery clay, leaving the samphire unharvested because the sunlight wouldn't last. And there, yes: a sliver of crystal worn free of the mud around it, catching the light and casting it into her eyes. Teyla fixed her gaze on the glimmer, trying not to hurry. Haste was her enemy on the tidal flat.
When she plucked the crystal out of the mud, it seemed to glow in her hand: a pale blue glow, bluer than a summer sky. Like sapphire: Teyla had worn sapphires, just once, before the man had come to buy them from her aunt.
She slipped the crystal into her bag. It chimed.
Out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed movement: turned too quickly, mud slick beneath her feet — these canvas shoes of Laura's were no protection against the cold and the wet — and almost fell. There was a man there, further out towards the muddy waves: looking at her, beckoning her. There was something indistinct about him. The slanting light ... despite the sunlight, he cast no shadow. Teyla was suddenly certain that he was not ... not real, not part of the present: but she went carefully towards where he stood.
He was a tall man, like John Sheppard. A heavy-set man, though surely a man so big and strong would sink with his own weight on the treacherous mud. His hair was as long as her own, and his clothes were dark and dripping. Was that a smile, beneath his grey beard? Teyla faltered, and the man's mouth moved as if he spoke to her, though she could hear nothing save the gulls crying and the distant murmur of the sea.
Now he was pointing down, down at the mud, down at his booted feet.
"I do not think you will harm me," said Teyla, clear and loud. The sound of her own voice reassured her. "And I cannot, I think, harm you."
The man nodded. It was recognition, contact: thankfulness rushed warmly through Teyla's bones. Heartened, she picked her way towards where the man stood waiting. The mud sucked wetly at her feet. She did not dare stop, even for a moment, for fear that she herself would be swallowed up. Old bones, here, old bones ...
She was close enough to touch the man, but she did not reach out to him: for at his feet was an elaborate twist of metal, a made thing, intricately curved and spiralling, studded with sun-bright sparks although the sun was behind the clouds again.
Somewhere behind her, somebody was shouting. Teyla did not have time to listen to them, or to turn and look. Quickly, kneeling to spread her weight, she began to work at this gift, numbing fingers sliding the clinging mud away from the metal.
"Thank you," she said, again and again, to the empty air.
Rosehips bright as poppies in the hedge outside the chapel, and drifts of dead leaves on the path. Two minutes' silence was too long, not long enough for John to remember those who'd died. Their names were always with him, but their faces, voices, selves were fading fast. Holland, with his bright blue silk scarf and his book under his arm: Mitch flirting with the girls at the Saturday dance: Lieutenant Smith playing chess in the sunshine outside the barracks. All dead and gone (the aeroplane spiralling down like a sycamore seed, flames, green corn, the radio screaming in his ear).
"It must never happen again," said Elizabeth solemnly. Her breath misted in the cold air: it was colder inside the chapel than outside in the sunshine.
"That's what they said after the first war," said Rodney, and John wanted to punch him. "But it did. It was worse."
"Don't curse the darkness: light a lantern," said Elizabeth. "We must do what we can."
"Like we can do anything —"
"We can hope," said Elizabeth. "And pray, if prayer means something to us."
John could see Rodney gathering breath for a tirade against religion, and — not here. Not now. "Men make war," he said. "There'll always be wars: it's human nature."
"Not if we refuse to fight," said Teyla. "Not if we work for peace."
"Yes, yes, but we don't always have a choice," snapped Rodney.
"You had a choice," John reminded him. "You chose not to build that bomb."
"True," said Rodney, looking self-satisfied. "But I'm only one man. Maybe I saved a few lives, but there were plenty of other scientists willing to do what I wouldn't." His mouth slanted abruptly down. "Too many."
Alan, thought John.
"The world wants war," said Elizabeth slowly, "but what if we could find, what if we could create a place where —"
"The city," said Teyla softly. Light from the remains of the stained-glass window poured down over her, red and yellow and blue.
"The city isn't real," said Ronon. His face was perfectly expressionless.
"What? Of course it's real! You saw it —"
"McKay," said John. "Whether it's real or not, we can't reach it."
"Yet," said Rodney, truculent. "And hang on, Sheppard, weren't you the one so keen to row out to it?"
John shot him a quelling look. "Maybe I wasn't thinking straight," he said. "Anyway, even if we could, we'd be ... we'd be running away."
"Moving on," countered Elizabeth. She was hugging herself against the cold: and yeah, maybe they should leave the chapel, the cross and the altar, because it was damned cold in here. Always cold in here, even in summer. John motioned Elizabeth towards the door, and let the others fall in behind her. The sunlight that poured in once the door was open didn't warm him.
" John?" called Elizabeth from outside. "Are you ... is something wrong?"
John frowned, and turned: but no, there wasn't anyone behind him, though he could've sworn —
His boots sounded heavy and ominous on the flagstones as he headed for the door.
"Remember the night I came here?" he said to Elizabeth, latching the door behind him with relief. Like shutting something in.
"Yes?" said Elizabeth, head tilted, curious.
"There was a guy in the chapel then," said John. "Looked like a monk."
"John, there haven't been monks here for hundreds of years."
"Maybe not," said John.
"What's wrong with running away?" said Rodney sharply, and his voice brought John back to the moment: cold crisp air, everything autumn-bright, the things they'd been talking about still there between them.
"We'd be leaving everybody behind," said John. That wasn't what he'd wanted to say, not quite, but he couldn't find the words.
"Everybody?" scoffed Rodney. "Warmongers, Germans —" He broke off, glancing guiltily at Schneider.
"People, McKay," said John, trying to get Rodney to understand. "In the ... in the war, you didn't leave anybody behind."
"What, so we stay and watch the rest of the world bicker and threaten, arm themselves again, think up reasons to have another war?" demanded Rodney. "Because you know that's going to happen sooner or later. You said it yourself, Elizabeth: it's what the world wants."
"When I created the community of Atlantis, I was trying —"
"Yes, well, maybe you didn't leave the world far enough behind." Rodney's chin was up, his arms folded across his chest: braced for argument.
"I can't believe, Doctor McKay, that you're seriously considering this ... this mysterious, unknown city as a place to go," said Elizabeth. The others were starting back towards Atlantis, but Teyla and Ronon lingered, listening. "We don't even know —"
"We will know," said Rodney. "We'll find out, we'll discover, we'll understand: and we can go there, Elizabeth, it's real."
"Okay," said Elizabeth slowly, and John took a moment to wonder if she'd picked up that particular bit of slang from him. "But the city's not ... it's in another reality, you said so yourself. Explain to me how you plan to get there. And where 'there' is, if it's not the world around us."
"Look, I — I don't know, okay?" Rodney's arms were folded over his chest: he gesticulated with one hand. "But I'm getting there: every day I'm a step closer to working it out, to understanding. The device that Teyla found the other morning? I think I've found a way to integrate that into the, the Synchronator."
"The what?" said Elizabeth, exasperated. John ducked his head, hiding a smile: he was looking forward to hearing Rodney try to explain away that acronym.
But Rodney said proudly, "the Quantum Reality Synchronator. It's —"
"Hey," said John, nudging him. "I thought you weren't allowed to name anything."
"Yes, well, I'm not twelve," Rodney shot back.
"I appreciate your enthusiasm," began Elizabeth, and John could tell that was exactly the wrong thing to say to Rodney.
"Enthusiasm? Enthusiasm is for idiots," snapped Rodney. "This is the thrill of scientific discovery: maybe you can get Zelenka to explain it to you. I'm —"
"McKay," said John: just that, and something in his voice was more effective than anything Elizabeth'd managed, because Rodney stopped speaking. Well, he glared, and that glare spoke volumes: but he was quiet.
"McKay," said John again, "do you honestly think we can — we could go to the city?"
"Yes," said Rodney, defiant. "Yes I do. Yes we can."
"Where will we be, if we're in a city that isn't a part of this world?" said Zelenka, stamping his feet against the cold.
"I don't know. But I want to know. I want to find out. Who knows what's waiting for us there? Who knows what secrets we might discover? Yes, yes, it might be ... it might not be everything we hope for. But if we don't go, we'll never find out. If we don't go, we'll be wasting an opportunity that nobody's ever had before. And you know, maybe, maybe there's something there that we can bring back, that can help." Rodney gestured westwards: the village, England, the world. "Help the ... the others."
"Bring back?" said John. "Hell, Rodney: we don't even know if there's anything there. We don't know if we can come back. Maybe it's a one-way trip: ever thought of that?"
Rodney barely hesitated. "It's still a journey worth making," he said.
There was a beat of silence, Rodney's gaze holding John's, Rodney asking: and John let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding, and said, "Yeah. I'll come."
Rodney didn't bother taking his coat off. The Hall was warm and snug, the smell of paraffin from the lamps mixing rather nauseatingly with the reek of the cigarettes that German guy insisted on smoking, and the lingering odour of rabbit casserole. Rodney wasn't going to admit it, but he was pretty grateful for Ronon's skill with a catapult.
John was at the far end of the table, cards in his hand, giving Zelenka that thousand-yard stare of his. Probably meant he was about to crash and burn: it was Rodney's duty as a, as a friend to get him out of here.
"Fancy a walk?" said Rodney, nudging John's shoulder with his elbow.
"It's kind of cold out there," protested John. It wasn't as if that hand wasn't going to win him the game, though.
"You whine like a sixth-grader," Rodney informed him. "C'mon: there's something I want to show you."
"I've seen it," said John, like he didn't care that Zelenka was watching the two of them so intently. Of course it was impossible to keep any kind of secret in Atlantis, with all of them living on top of each other: Rodney was bleakly sure that everybody knew he and John were ... whatever they were. But nobody seemed to care. It was like being at King's: people accepted you for what you were. They didn't try to change you.
John was looking up at him, and his smile was mocking and affectionate at once.
"Oh, ha ha, very funny," said Rodney quickly, recovering from his reverie. "Come on, Sheppard!"
John slouched and grumbled his way to the porch, but he grabbed his coat and followed Rodney out into the crisp clear night. The moon wasn't up yet, and the stars above them — Orion, Cassiopeia, the Plough — were bright as crystal. Rodney could make out nine, maybe ten, Pleiades, which was impressive (and reassuring) considering how much close, squinting work he'd been doing lately.
"Where we going?" said John. The dim glow of the porch lamp cast his face into shadow.
"Sea wall," said Rodney, because it was the closest clear place.
"Not exactly private," said John, but he was following Rodney along the path, and up the steps that somebody had notched into the slope. "Hey," said John, "is it the city again?"
"No," said Rodney. "Well, maybe, but: no." He halted on the top of the wall, pulled his scarf closer 'round his neck, stared upwards. "There!"
"Look at Leo," Rodney directed John. "The ..." But John's head was tilted at just the right angle: of course, he'd been a pilot, he'd probably navigated by the stars. Of course he knew where Leo was. Rodney wanted to kiss him.
"What am I — oh."
A line of light down the sky, a shooting star (to use the colloquial, and wrong-wrong-wrong, term) falling to earth. A chunk of rock hurtling out of space, drawn by gravity, burning up in atmosphere. The rate of descent could be described by the equation ...
But Rodney was distracted, because that, that was the kind of noise John made when they were having sex, that low astonished groan. Never mind the cold, portions of Rodney's anatomy were warming up PDQ.
"I never thought of seducing anybody with a meteor shower, 'til now," said Rodney, as another sudden blazing light arced down swiftly towards the sea.
"Maybe you were trying to seduce the wrong people," murmured John, and he was right behind Rodney, pressing up against him, not so much passionate as ... warm, present, there.
"Point," said Rodney, leaning back against John, watching the stars fall. The sky was mercifully clear tonight, though ... "Huh."
"Is that ...?"
Something, something out there, was blurring the meteors as they fell, dimming their last bright glory: like looking through a window at the stars. Rodney strained to make out the sharp clean lines he wanted to see. Was that a glimmer of light against glass, crystal, metal? Was that an answering light, bluer and quite still?
He rubbed his eyes, blinked, looked again: but when the next meteor fell, its light was clear and white until it blinked out abruptly somewhere over the sea.
"Amazing," said John. Rodney could hear that Southern drawl in his voice, the way John only let it sound when he was tired or when his defences were down. (Or when he was winding Rodney up about something.) "That's ... amazing, Rodney."
"You never saw them before?"
He felt John shrug. "Never looked for them."
"The Earth's passing through a band of cosmic debris," Rodney told him. "Some of it's attracted by gravity ..."
"Attracted," said John, wrapping his arms round Rodney's waist. "Yeah."
"Jesus, Sheppard, do you ever think of anything else?"
"Lots of things," said John, huffing a laugh against his ear. "But right now ... wanna go to bed?"
"Bed? We can't —"
"Sure we can. It's early yet. Everyone'll be in the Hall for hours."
"Yes, and there's a reason for that: ooh, maybe because it's cold everywhere else?"
"I'll keep you warm," promised John. Rodney forbore to point out that he was already remarkably warm, with John's arms round him and John's chest a steady living heat behind him. Not to mention the way his skin was prickling, like sunburn. "C'mon, Rodney," John was wheedling. "We'll keep the curtains drawn round my bed. Nobody'll know."
"Oh, and I suppose you're going to be quiet for a change?"
"I'm not that loud!"
"I can make you loud," said Rodney smugly. "Remember when — or, hey, you can blow me! Less noise that way, less mess: yes, yes, that'd work."
"Gee, thanks, Rodney," drawled John. "What's in it for me?"
"Ever heard of a sixty-nine?" said Rodney brightly, and John shuddered and bit at his neck. Yes, yes: that was a yes, all right.
St Nicholas' Day
A cold white fog draped Atlantis, sucking the warmth out of Teyla's bones, leaching colour from the world. Water dripped steadily from the trees as she walked from door to door, lighting the lamps. It was not yet three o'clock, but already she could barely see ten yards in front of her. A sphere of hazy white light bloomed around each lantern as she lit it. The dull metal of John's lighter was cold in her hands. The initials engraved upon it, she realised, were not his.
"Want a hand?" That was Ronon's voice, and a moment later he loomed out of the mist, moisture beading on his shabby sweater and in the dark mess of his hair.
"I am nearly done," said Teyla. "But thank you, Ronon. Would you walk with me?"
"Scared of the ghosts?" said Ronon, and she saw the glint of his smile.
"Of course not," said Teyla. "They would not harm any of us: they are ... they are the guardians, here."
Ronon did not reply. Teyla was certain that he was thinking about what she had said, and so she did not press him. They walked in silence towards the back of the Hall. From within came soft music: Laura, picking out a haunting tune on her guitar. Teyla could hear Elizabeth talking to Mr Parrish about some discovery he had made, up on the shore where the lines and circles of wooden stakes stood stark in the mud. She smiled to hear the excitement in Parrish's voice. He found fascination in the strangest things!
But perhaps that was true of everybody here, everybody in Atlantis. They had each turned away from the lives they had led. Teyla could not remember the last time they had spoken of anything that was happening in the world beyond the village. Now that Laura's radio had been broken up for Rodney's experiments, they did not listen to the daily news: Teyla had never learnt to read English well, but she had not seen a newspaper since the summer. Sometimes Lorne, or Halling at the village shop, would mention some momentous event, some crisis or triumph: but nobody seemed especially interested in these fragments of the world.
They cared, instead, about oddities: about the ghosts that John (and Teyla herself) had seen from time to time, on the beach or in the fields. They cared about the crops in the field. They cared about the work that Carson was doing in the village, healing the sick, comforting the old, grateful for but not expecting any gift that they might offer him in thanks. They cared about the strange device that Rodney was building, a delicate sculpture of wire and crystal and light. They cared about the voice that Rodney said came from another place, the voice that spoke — though Teyla did not understand the words — of freedom and home and of Atlantis.
"What are they guarding against?" said Ronon, as Teyla reached up for the last lantern. He hooked it down easily, and held it for her to light.
"What do you mean?" said Teyla, still thinking of the voice that she had heard through the headphones, and how the sounds of that other world (the gentle sigh of waves, the muted chime of bells) had woven around it, soft and quiet and yet sufficient to drown out the everyday sounds of Atlantis.
"The ghosts," said Ronon. "You said they were guardians. What are they guarding against?"
"I ... I do not know," said Teyla. "When Mr Cole attacked John, there was a ... a man, with a sword, there to help him. And when I was on the beach, another man pointed the way to the object that I found there. If they are guardians, they are not guarding against us. They are helping us, Ronon."
"How should I know?" said Teyla, a little sharply. "Perhaps there is something that we can do for them. Perhaps there is something that they wish us to do." Memories of her aunts' tales rose in her mind: the unquiet dead, seeking vengeance or justice or simply remembrance. "Maybe they wish us to discover the city that we saw," she said slowly, each word like a droplet of water from the trees around them. "Maybe they wish us to make it real again."
"You think it's real?"
"I am sure of it," said Teyla. "You saw it too, Ronon: we all saw it, at Halloween. Surely nobody can believe it does not exist."
"McKay thinks he can ..." Ronon shrugged. "Make it realer."
"He is working very hard," said Teyla. In truth she had scarcely seen Rodney for days. "I am sure he will be successful. He is a clever man."
Ronon held the Hall door open, and Teyla ducked under his arm to enter. The sudden warmth brought tears to her eyes, and made her sniff. Rodney was standing in front of the fireplace, rubbing his hands, arguing with John: John leant back against a chair, and though he seemed lazy and unconcerned Teyla could see the tension in his stance.
"It's going to need more power, a lot more power, than we can channel through —"
"Yeah, I get that," said John, "but it's not going to be so good if it blows up in your face, Rodney!"
One of the Germans — was it Schneider, or Hesse? — said something that Teyla did not understand. Rodney scowled reflexively, and opened his mouth for a blistering retort: but then he snapped his fingers, nodding.
"That — that isn't as stupid as it sounds," he said. "If we can —" He deflated abruptly. "There's no way we could cobble together anything like that, without valves and —"
"Rodney," said Zelenka. His spectacles were thick with steam, as though he too had just come in out of the cold. "Could we not send for the components we need?"
"Don't be stupid. There's probably still a Government ban on anything that could be used to ... huh."
Rodney's sudden smile was like a light, and it illuminated the faces around him: John, and Zelenka, and the German, all smiling too, all smiling together.
"Ronon," said Sheppard, beckoning him over as he came out of the kitchen, "I need you to help me out here."
"Sure," said Ronon easily. Despite the fire blazing in the hearth, and the heat of the paraffin lamps that were already lit against the early winter night, Sheppard was dressed for the cold. He was wearing his heavy blue coat, threads hanging loose at the shoulders: there was a striped scarf around his neck, and a woolly hat pulled down over his hair. The corner of an envelope poked out of his coat pocket, and he'd slung a canvas rucksack over his shoulder. "You going somewhere?" said Ronon. "Want me to come?"
"Nah," said Sheppard. "I'm good. But I don't want Rodney to know about it, okay?"
Ronon frowned. "I thought you two were ..." He didn't want to say what they were: he didn't want to tell Sheppard that everyone knew the two of them shared one cramped bed, some nights, behind the curtains at the end of the men's hut. Didn't want to tell him that they weren't that good at keeping quiet. No one else'd said a word about it: why should Ronon be the one?
"We're .... we're fine," said Sheppard, flushing slightly: he wouldn't meet Ronon's eyes. "Hey, I want to surprise him, that's all."
"What do I tell him?"
"Whatever," said Sheppard. "Tell him ... tell him I had to go up to Maldon, on business."
"Business?" said Ronon, raising an eyebrow. If Sheppard wanted to keep his secrets, there was no way Ronon was going to get anything out of him, but that didn't mean he couldn't try. "How're you going to get there?"
"I was going to borrow McKay's car," said Sheppard, smirking. "It's not like he uses it. But in this weather?"
"John," said Zelenka, hurrying in from outside. Snowflakes clung to his wild hair. "I have the information you asked for."
"Thanks," said Sheppard, taking the papers that Zelenka handed him, scanning them quickly and frowning at what he read there. "Want to talk me through this?"
"No time," said Zelenka quickly. "Rodney is coming to find you."
"Right," said Sheppard. "Look, is this going to make sense to anyone who isn't Rodney?"
"If you can find this Alan," said Zelenka, "he will know what it is you need. It is all there, the diagram and the specifications. Even some of the numbers. But you must go now, quickly."
"I'm pretty sure I know where to find him," said Sheppard, patting the envelope in his pocket. "Assuming he's still at his old address. Whether he'll see me ..." He shrugged.
"I think Rodney's name will count, with him," said Zelenka. "I think he will want to help Rodney."
"Cool," said Sheppard. "Okay: wish me luck." His smile was wry.
"You're leaving now?" said Ronon, scowling. "It's nearly dark."
"Yeah, well ..." Sheppard shoved the papers into his rucksack. "I'd've gone earlier, but I wanted to be sure about what he needed."
"Yes," said Zelenka, spreading his hands. "It took longer than I thought, but I did not want to, to alarm him."
"You're not going to Maldon," said Ronon flatly.
Sheppard shook his head. "Cambridge," he said. (Ronon didn't know where that was. Somewhere north, most likely.) "I'm pretty sure I can get there by train."
"In the snow?"
"Better than driving," said John brusquely, turning towards the door. "Look, I —"
"Sheppard? You busy?" That was McKay, striding in. Behind him the doorway framed the setting sun, round and red as a traffic-light. Ronon wouldn't have set out on a journey this late in the day, in this weather: but Sheppard was tough, and he looked determined, and he could take care of himself.
"I've got Teyla's artefact rigged," McKay was saying, talking fast as if he was afraid someone'd interrupt and tell him he was wrong. "But we're going to have to work around that problem with the valves: triodes just aren't adequate — though thanks for your help on that, Radek, your knowledge of primitive electronics is truly impressive — and even if we — if —"
McKay stammered to silence as he took in the sight of Sheppard, bundled up for his journey.
"What? Where —"
"Just heading out, Rodney," said Sheppard easily, lifting a hand. "Private business. I might be a while: don't wait up." And even while McKay was gathering breath for an argument, the door was closing behind John Sheppard with a swirl of dusty snow, shutting out the cherry-red sunshine, closing against the winter night.
Elizabeth didn't know where — or how — Laura and Katie had managed to get wine, but the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg filled the Hall, overlaying the scent of the Christmas tree and the fresh green tang of holly-boughs and trails of ivy. It reminded her of Christmases before the war, with Simon: but she would not think about Simon, because what she had made here, now, was a marvel in itself. Last Christmas there had been a scant dozen of them, sitting shivering around an inadequate fire, the windows cracked and uncurtained, the roof letting in rain. One year: a single year, and everything had changed. Was changing. The New Year felt like a trembling promise, a gem quivering in the warm air. The city, waiting ...
But here came Katie with a tray of mugs. "Mulled wine!" she called. "Get it while it's hot!"
Zelenka grabbed a couple of mugs — "One is for Rodney," he told Katie when she began to object — and headed for the cubbyhole where McKay was working. Elizabeth couldn't make out what Zelenka said, but McKay's tone was irritated: Zelenka's back straightened, and he turned back to the Hall with both mugs.
"He is unhappy," Zelenka told Elizabeth. "That is why he is burying himself in his work. He thinks John will not come back."
"That's ridiculous," said Elizabeth, loud and clear so that her words would carry to where Rodney hunched over his device. "Why on earth would John Sheppard leave Atlantis now?"
Zelenka shrugged expressively. "John is a part of Atlantis: you know that, I know that. But Rodney thinks ..." He shook his head. "He thinks some accident has befallen John; or perhaps," Radek's voice dropped, "perhaps he thinks John will not return to him."
"He is right here, thank you very much," came McKay's voice, bitingly. A moment later he appeared, running his hand through his hair. Elizabeth studied him: he looked tired, and dispirited. "And, for your information? I don't give a damn what Sheppard's up to. I'm more concerned with getting the Reality Synchronator up and running — which will, maybe you remember, give us a chance of seeing the city again, regardless of whether Sheppard's here to see it or not — and working around the limited and substandard resources available to me in this backwater. Not," he added, barely pausing to breathe, "that I can get any work done with all this noise."
"It's Christmas Eve, Rodney," said Elizabeth brightly. "We —"
"Yes, and?" snapped McKay. "Don't tell me we're going to celebrate Midnight Mass? Sing some carols, maybe? Play charades?"
Elizabeth forbore to mention that they might have listened to the carol concert on the new Third Programme, if Rodney McKay hadn't dismantled Laura's wireless in the name of science. "Each of us will celebrate Christmas according to our beliefs," she said. "Perhaps you'd consider playing something for us? Something ... seasonal?"
"Given the revolting climate, the piano's probably out of tune by now," said Rodney, but his grumbling was obviously reflexive. "And some of us have work to do."
"Your work can wait, Doctor McKay," said Elizabeth. She needed to be firm. "It's Christmas."
The door opened, letting in a blast of cold air, and Elizabeth's heart ached at the sudden eagerness on Rodney's face. But it was only Lorne, with a sack over his shoulder, red-faced and smiling. He spent so much time here: she really should try harder to encourage him to join them. He'd lived in the village all his life, but he had no family any longer, no ties ...
"Bloody cold out there," Lorne said. "Beg pardon, Mrs Weir. I've brought some more supplies for dinner tomorrow."
"Thank you, Mr Lorne," said Elizabeth gratefully. "Katie's in the kitchen: she'll be pleased to see you."
"Do you think John'll be back?" Rodney demanded. "Do you know where he's gone?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "I'm afraid I don't. But I'm sure he'll be back as soon as he can."
"Only a complete idiot would set out on an unnecessary journey in the middle of a blizzard," said Rodney angrily. "I mean, what could be so damn important that he had to drop everything and take off like that? Or — I know!" He snapped his fingers. "Who collected the post the other day? They'll know if there was a letter for him —"
"I did," said Ronon, startling Elizabeth. For such a big man, he moved silently. "Nothing for Sheppard."
"Huh," said Rodney, scowling unseeing at the blazing fire.
"Rodney," said Elizabeth, "I'm sure John is well."
"Then why isn't he back? Maldon," said Rodney to Ronon, "you said he'd gone to Maldon. How can it take days for him to get to Maldon and back? Even with his sense of direction ..." He trailed off unhappily.
Elizabeth shrugged, pulling her cardigan more closely around herself. "Maybe he was delayed," she suggested. "Maybe some of the roads are blocked by snow, and he's had to stay there until the weather settles. And there's no way he could send word: why, when the two of you didn't come home from Colchester, back in August, we were worried that something had gone wrong."
Perhaps it was just the heat of the fire that made Rodney's face redden. "He better not ... Huh." And without another word he was turning on his heel, heading back to the work he'd left. The curtain rings screeched as he tugged the curtain across the doorway, closing himself off from them all.
Elizabeth shared a long, puzzled look with Ronon. "Ronon," she murmured, as softly as she could above the cheerful noise from the kitchen, "do you know where John's gone?"
"Yeah," said Ronon.
"And?" said Elizabeth patiently.
"Can't say," said Ronon.
"Cambridge," said Zelenka abruptly. "He is in Cambridge, trying to find the valves, the pentodes, that Rodney needs."
"Why didn't he tell me where he was going?" said Elizabeth.
Zelenka looked miserable. "Because he thought he would have returned before now."
"He didn't want McKay to know," said Ronon.
"Oh dear," said Elizabeth, staring anxiously across at the curtain that separated Rodney McKay's cubbyhole from the main Hall. "Do you think —"
"No use worrying," said Ronon, and his hand dropped onto Elizabeth's shoulder like a warm, steadying anchor. "He'll be back. Things'll change."
It didn't take a genius to work out that Elizabeth was disappointed with him, or annoyed: probably both. He knew the others were out there having fun, singing carols (for Christ's sake!) and telling jokes, but what was the point in that when there was a whole new world, a whole new reality, almost close enough to touch? And yes, yes, John would probably be back some time, but that didn't alter the fact that he was gone, or that he'd left without a word to Rodney.
It didn't matter. He didn't need John's help, and he sure as hell didn't need all these pathetic feelings that were buzzing around in his head like demented bees, distracting him from his work, making him stare for minutes at a time at the way John'd soldered the wires around the second crystal, at the squared-off neatness of the fabric (Rodney was pretty sure it had once been a woman's girdle) that he'd used underneath the Bakelite grille. And okay, pretty much everyone here had dropped in on him — regardless of whether he was busy or not — to listen to that strange voice declaiming words that nobody could understand: but maybe if they could all hear the voice out loud, that'd make up for, okay, wrecking Laura's portable radio in the name of science.
Though science was clearly more important than carol concerts and religious broadcasts.
Right, that was it. As long as the wires were long enough ... Rodney hefted the speaker case, balanced it on one knee while he pulled back the curtain, kept his eyes on his feet as he shuffled out into the hall. There were cats everywhere (Katie'd probably been feeding them scraps) and he didn't want to trip over a furry hazard: it would be undignified. Besides, the sound levels had dropped as soon as he'd emerged, which probably meant everyone was looking at him.
Elizabeth, a mug in her hand, was at the head of the table: of course she was. "Mrs Weir," Rodney announced, depositing the speaker in front of her, "I'd like to share this with everybody here in Atlantis."
"Rodney," said Elizabeth brightly, smiling but clearly puzzled, "what —"
"The sound of the city," said Rodney, rubbing his hands, willing Elizabeth to pick up on his excitement, to come on board.
"That voice?" And now the others were muttering amongst themselves. Rodney tried not to listen, in case they were laughing at him.
"And more," he said proudly. Though really, it wasn't — hell, it was his discovery, his Synchronator, even if this wasn't what he'd intended.
"I don't hear anything," said Elizabeth.
"Wait just a moment," said Rodney urgently, turning: but Radek was there.
"Let me turn it on, Rodney: I understand the controls. You — you stay here."
Rodney was tempted to go after him, just to keep an eye on things, but he was tired: and, yes, Radek did know how to turn up the volume, at least, because there was crackle and hiss and that sweet, remote voice. Everyone at the table leant forward, listening, maybe soothed like Rodney by the rhythm and flow of the words. The fire rustled in the hearth: a tap dripped in the kitchen. Radek sat back down next to Rodney, and smiled encouragingly at him, and Rodney found himself smiling back.
And then there was another crackle, and a sharp report like gunfire, and Rodney was on his feet. "What did you do?" he snarled at Zelenka.
"I — nothing, Rodney, I —"
"Gentlemen!" snapped Elizabeth, her hand up: weirdly, she was smiling. Beaming. Rodney gaped at her.
"Listen," she said: and, oh. Oh. There was music.
Music. Voices, singing, men and women together: a choir united in jubilation. If he listened hard, he could almost make out ...
"Like Bach," whispered Zelenka, reverent.
"Like angels," breathed Katie, and Rodney let it pass because ... He closed his eyes and let the music sink slowly, lovingly, joyously through his skin and his skull, resonating in every nerve, ringing out like bells: music he'd never heard (comparing it to Bach was like comparing Zelenka's sloe gin to fine brandy), music he could listen to forever. This was more than he'd ever hoped for from the Synchronator, a finer proof than he'd dared imagine. Voices twining together like ivy, like lovers, like time and space: he wanted a pencil and paper, he wanted to work through the numbers of this fugue, discover this other path to the place where the —
He barely heard the door swing open, the rush of cold snowy air outside: or rather, he heard it but it didn't matter, not beside the music, though wasn't there something, someone he was awaiting, someone who was almost home?
That last thought made Rodney straighten in his seat, his eyes blinking open, trying to catch his breath.
And a voice he didn't recognise, harsh against the music, said "Elizabeth! I was told I'd find you here."
"Simon," said Elizabeth, and her voice was stripped bare.
A long journey, and a hard one: the trains had been backed up outside Colchester, snow-felled trees across the line, and John'd shed his coat, left his bag in the carriage and given the engine driver and the guard a hand, because hell, he had to get home before Christmas was over. Had to get home to Rodney, and to Atlantis: to the promise of the city that lay waiting for them just around the corner of reality.
The trains were all stopping at Colchester: he'd hitched a ride in a farm truck, given the driver all the money he had left and the promise of a warm welcome if he ever ventured as far as the village ("Bradwell? Where's that, then?"). From Maldon the roads had been unsalted, untracked by vehicles: it was Christmas Day by now — he'd heard the bells ringing out from the train — and all good folk were safe at home with their families.
Trudging through Mayland, he'd been wished a Merry Christmas by a farmwife with a big, friendly Labrador: the woman had invited him into her house for tea, and sloshed a generous measure of brandy in it while her husband looked on silently.
"Get that down you: it'll keep you warm the rest of the way," she'd said. "Far to go, have you?"
"Bradwell," John said: mumbled, if the numbness of his face was anything to go by.
"Your wife'll be right mad at you," said the woman, grinning. Wife! John could only grin back, silently, because no way was he going to repeat that one to Rodney.
But yeah, Rodney'd be right mad. Hopefully John could distract him with the Christmas present he'd brought back from Cambridge.
The wind howled and sang like a church organ over the flat fields east of Mayland, shoving John off the verge and into the ditch. Ice cracked unseen under his boots: his rucksack was heavier than ever, sodden with half-melted snow, on his back, by the time he'd struggled back into the middle of the road. The sun was setting behind him, casting a lurid pink light over the white fields. He was pretty sure he wouldn't be home before dark: but he'd be home tonight, and Rodney'd forgive him, and —
The rattle of an engine, a poorly-maintained engine, echoed behind him. John kept walking, glancing back over his shoulder every few steps. An old black van, motoring barely faster than John was walking, but hey, it'd spare his frozen feet, and get him home all the sooner.
"Get in," said the driver curtly, slowing beside John, and John didn't need telling twice. He opened the door — one of his gloves was back in that ditch, and the metal felt colder than snow — and swung himself in, glancing over at his benefactor.
"Aye," said Cole, glowering.
"I'm damn grateful," said John, trying to keep his smile polite. "And Merry Christmas to you."
Cole grunted. He flicked a glance at John: said, after another slow mile, "Reckon you're all moving on soon."
"Yeah," said John, fatigue and the warmth of the van making it hard to care what he told Cole. "Maybe."
"Good," said Cole. "I told them. You don't belong here."
'Them'? John shrugged, or tried to: his coat was wet and heavy, and God he was tired. Starving, too. Maybe it was the brandy. "Don't belong anywhere," he slurred.
"Atlantis," said Cole, and huffed. Was that the beginning of a smile? Probably not.
John thought he might've nodded off, because it seemed a lot darker by the time Cole nudged him and said, "Off you go."
"Thanks again, Mr Cole," said John, clambering out. The track to the chapel looked incredibly long, and the snow lent an eerie light to the scene: beyond it, the sea was quite black, and the sunset had faded, leaving the sky a deep blue-green.
There was another car next to Rodney's: Cole wasn't the only one dumb enough to drive in this weather. At least it'd stopped snowing, some time in the night: at least he could see ten feet in front of him. See the lights of Atlantis twinkling. Hear ... was that music?
He shoved open the door, closed it behind him and stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light, the candles on the table and the tree, the warm flicker of the fire. Took a step forward into the Hall, another: and maybe he let the tension ebb away too fast, because here was Rodney striding towards him, finger jabbing the air.
"You idiot! You complete — honestly, if I didn't know there was (or used to be, anyway) a brain in there, I'd swear blind you were dropped on your head as a kid and never got over it. Didn't it occur to you —"
"Merry Christmas, Rodney," said John, and he probably did look like an idiot, because he could feel his chapped skin sore and cracking as he grinned.
Rodney kept coming, and John had to bring both hands up to grab Rodney's biceps before Rodney knocked him over.
"Hey, what's —"
"I thought," said Rodney miserably, chin down, looking up at John through his eyelashes just the way he did when he was —
Yeah, John was feeling better already.
"Needed to fetch your Christmas present," he said cheerfully, sliding his left hand up Rodney's sleeve just to touch warm skin.
"My what? Christ, your hands are freezing, get off me!"
John could hear someone smothering a laugh, and Zelenka saying something in Czech. Probably something rude. He let go of Rodney (who was rubbing his neck and glaring accusingly at John) and swung his rucksack down from his shoulder. In here somewhere, wrapped up in layers and layers of newspaper against the journey ... John's fingers slid over the waxy skin of an orange and touched something chilly and solid. He panicked for a moment: what if the cold had damaged them?
"For future reference? You don't look anything like Santa Claus," Rodney informed him. "But I'm touched that — oh. Oh."
"That's the second time I've got you to shut up," said John.
"What," said Rodney, staring down at the bulky valve in his hand as if it was made of solid gold. "Where ... John, this is a pentode, this is ... where did you go?"
"Cambridge," said John. "There's another three of 'em in here."
"How," said Rodney: then his gaze sharpened, and John felt hot and prickly with guilt. "Alan," said Rodney. "You ..."
"Yeah," said John, bowing his head so he wouldn't have to see what Rodney thought: Rodney could never hide what he really felt, and —
But Rodney was hauling him closer — John had to twist so's not to trample the rucksack — and he was kissing John, stubble and all.
"Hey, the mistletoe's over here!" Laura yelled across the Hall. Somebody was saying, quick and flustered, "That explains —", and somebody else swore, and got told to can it. There was applause, a cheer, a gasp, a laugh.
Yeah. Home for Christmas.
Mistletoe, it seemed to Teyla, was another thing like Atlantis, a thing that belonged to two worlds. Mr Parrish had shown her where it grew, nestled between the branch and trunk of a massive oak tree at the edge of Cole's field, its waxen white berries aglow in the evening air. They had cut the twigs carefully with Parrish's knife, bearing them back to the Hall, and Parrish had tried to explain to her how mistletoe grew. It did not root itself in the earth like other plants. It was halfway between earth and sky. Perhaps that was why it was blessing, to kiss beneath it as John and Rodney did. Teyla smiled to see them so free.
Her smile fell away as the door to Elizabeth's office crashed open. Simon, the stranger who had made Elizabeth's face so grim, emerged, and barely drew breath before he was shouting. "You disgusting perverts! You — I'll see you —"
Rodney McKay growled, there was no other word for it: growled, and swung around, and his hand was a fist flying towards Simon's handsome, sneering face, while Elizabeth cried out wordlessly. Teyla faltered, not knowing what to do.
Then John's hand was on Rodney's arm, preventing him from landing the blow: there was violence enough in the flat-eyed stare he bestowed on this Simon, but his tone was civil enough when he said, "Who are you?"
"John, this is Simon," said Elizabeth. She had hung back in the doorway, as though hoping she might steal away without anyone noticing her.
"I can't believe you permit —" Simon was speaking to Elizabeth behind him without even the courtesy of turning to face her: and Elizabeth, calm Elizabeth, raised her voice to drown out his words.
"You are the outsider here: you're the guest, never mind that you came here without invitation or warning! The least you can do is try to understand —"
"Understand what? Understand that you've made this visionary colony, this brave new world, a haven for vice and debauchery?" His voice was greasy with mockery. "A place for people to come when decent society's shut them out? I see now why Mr Cole felt it necessary to write and inform me of your ... your actions, Elizabeth. How dare you," Simon's voice dropped, "how dare you call me husband. How dare you imply that I am any part of this, this —"
"This brave new world, Simon," said Elizabeth. Teyla could see her eyes glitter in the firelight, but her head was held high and her voice very nearly level. "It is a new world. We've discovered —"
"Yes, well," said Rodney McKay belligerently, stepping forward until he was almost toe-to-toe with Simon. "Elizabeth, please tell me you're not even considering taking this man's petty sniping seriously: purely from my own observations, I'm forced to conclude that his mind's far too narrow to let in any new idea, let alone an understanding of what we've achieved — what we're in the process of achieving — here in Atlantis. And if his —"
"How dare you speak to me like this!"
Rodney folded his arms across his chest, red-faced, chin up and his mouth slanting down at an angle which, in Teyla's experience, preceded an explosive display of temper. "I beg your pardon?" he said. "Do you have any credentials I might recognise, Mr Weir? Have you come to offer your heart and your mind to the work we're engaged in? Or did you just show up to eat Christmas dinner and insult everybody? I had an aunt like that once," he added, inconsequentially. "She made my sister cry."
"Rodney," drawled John. He'd stepped forward to stand at Rodney's shoulder, straight-backed and military. Teyla could see Simon reassessing him.
"What?" said Rodney. "I'm sorry: you missed all the excitement while you were roaming the byways of East Anglia. This is Simon Weir, Elizabeth's husband —"
"He's not my husband," said Elizabeth. She stood as straight as John, her head turned slightly away. "We never married."
"— and ... oh," said Rodney.
"Why did you come here, Mr Weir?" enquired John, staring the man straight in the eye.
"The name's Wallace." Simon was furious, though his anger was revealed only in the iciness of his voice. "I received a letter —"
"He came to try to persuade me to hand over Atlantis to him," interrupted Elizabeth, as lightly as if it did not matter to her. Teyla knew otherwise. "But he has no right to the land, and no right to the community: and, as you've seen, no inclination to join us as we stand."
"You know what?" said Rodney, one finger raised. "Let's not tell him what we're working on." He glanced back at the rucksack on the floor, at the red cardboard carton on the table, as though to reassure himself that they were still there.
"Tell me one thing, Rodney," said Elizabeth. "Will your invention work, with what John's brought?"
Rodney frowned, staring down at the floor: at his own reflection in Simon's fine leather shoes, thought Teyla, smothering a nervous giggle. Rodney's mouth was moving, but he did not speak, and nor did anybody else.
"Yes," he said at last. "Yes, it'll work."
"Rodney!" That was Zelenka, plaintive and accusatory. But Elizabeth was nodding, her smile lighting up her face as it had not since Simon's arrival.
"I'm glad," she said, walking slowly forward, walking past Simon as though he were a ghost: she turned to face the rest of them. "Ladies and gentlemen," Simon snorted, "I have a proposition. A suggestion. I'd like to speak to each of you in person, tomorrow. And, Simon?"
"Elizabeth?" said Simon, his mouth a curl of insolence.
"You may seek lodging at the Anchor," said Elizabeth. "You are not welcome here tonight."
Then Ronon Dex stepped forward, his calm steady gaze on Simon, his muscles taut and ready beneath the heavy linen shirt he had worn for Christmas Day. John Sheppard, still in his long wet coat, stood braced, too, his stance wide, his hands ready to defend. Rodney did not move, but only stared at Simon, cold and malevolent. And Simon ... Simon, looking from one to another, bit back his retaliation and lowered his head.
"I'll go," he said. "For now. But I'll —"
"Come back the day after tomorrow," said Elizabeth crisply. "At noon. I shall have an answer for you then."
It'd already been Boxing Day for several hours by the time Rodney's headache had gotten too bad for him to concentrate. It had become habit, unthinking, to snuff the lamp; to make his way out of the Hall with a single candle in his hand to light his way across the yard, down the path to the men's hut and his cold bed. He'd been too tired to care about the snow, to keep the candle from going out when he'd pulled back the curtain, to do more than strip off the outmost layers of his clothing before he fell into bed.
Which had turned out not to be cold, nor empty, after all.
"Hey, Rodney," John'd murmured sleepily, holding back the blankets for him: and yes, okay, the bed was way too small for two grown men, but Rodney'd been pathetically grateful to be sliding between warm sheets, huddling close to a warm body. More grateful than anything that it was John there, wrapping his arms around Rodney, murmuring "Merry Christmas" against his ear — never mind that he was hours late — and just ... just there.
Even when Rodney'd squeezed his eyes shut (they stung and teared from too many hours of close work by the light of the paraffin lamp) there'd been intricate circuits and brilliant, strangely-coloured lights streaming through his mind. But John had felt like an anchor grounding him, his big hands on Rodney's back keeping him there in the world, his whisper tickling Rodney's ear.
"Yes," Rodney'd muttered thickly. "Yes. All done, bar the ... the ..."
He couldn't remember, in the gloom of morning, whether he'd ever managed to finish that sentence. Didn't matter. John'd know what he meant.
Speaking of — where was John? Surely the idiot hadn't gone out running in the snow, not after that epic journey (and Rodney wanted all the details of that: like, how had he known where to find Alan?) to Cambridge and back. For me, Rodney thought: he did that for me. That was as warming as John's embrace had been, last night.
Okay, maybe he hadn't actually slept enough, because he'd swear he could smell —
"Morning," called John cheerfully, an icy draught zeroing in on Rodney as the door at the other end of the Nissen hut banged shut. Nobody answered John's call: they must all be up and dressed by now. What time was it, anyway?
"Rodney? You awake? I brought you coffee."
"Oh my God," said Rodney, absolutely definitely awake now. And yes, here came John, bundled up in a dirty sweater, unshaven: there was a steaming mug in his hand, and Rodney couldn't take his eyes off it because real coffee, and how long had it been since he'd tasted that? "Oh my God," he said again. "Coffee? Not acorns and weeds? Not that Camp abomination?"
"Coffee," said John patiently, perching himself on the foot of Rodney's bed. "From Alan. He said you were kind of ... addicted."
"Huh," said Rodney, grabbing the mug as soon as it was within reach and inhaling deeply. God, it was going straight through his sinuses to his brain. "Alan." He sipped gingerly, not caring if he scalded his tongue. "How did you find him, anyway? And how did you know what — because with all due respect," he waved his free hand negligently, and shoved it back under the blankets to warm up again, "you're not ... well, you're not me."
"Nah," said John. "You do a good enough job of being you. Zelenka told me what you needed: you mean to say you didn't get suspicious when he was asking all those questions?"
"That little Czech weasel!"
"Hey, Rodney, he did it to help," said John. "And finding Alan was pretty easy: he puts his address on the back of the letters he writes you."
"You read —"
"Of course I didn't read them!" John looked honestly annoyed now. Maybe hurt, too. "I just copied it down off the back of the envelope. You were using it as a bookmark."
"It's still —"
"In my book, Rodney," said John. "Hey, for all I knew you wanted me to look him up."
Rodney thought of John and Alan in the same room — all that lean runners' muscle, Alan's wild-eyed enthusiasm, John's lazy charming smile — and took a fortifying swig of coffee. "How come you were away so long?" he said.
"Weather," said John laconically.
"What? You were away for four days: how can that be 'weather'?" Rodney knew his voice was rising. He couldn't — hell, he didn't care.
"Well," said John, glaring at Rodney, "let's see. I didn't get a train 'til lunchtime on the 22nd: then I had to go halfway down to London, because they closed the line: then I couldn't find my way round Cambridge in the snow, because there was nobody around to ask for directions, so I didn't get to his house 'til the morning of the 23rd, and he wasn't home. Then it took a while —"
"Okay, okay, shut up," said Rodney. He was feeling guilty and it wasn't fair. "Did I ..." He drained the rest of his coffee, and reached over to set the mug down on the floor. "Did I say just how ... how grateful I am? How ... did I say thank you?"
"Not in so many words," said John affectionately. "But I. I knew."
"I — John, I —" And God, Rodney wanted to say more than 'thank you'. He wanted to tell John —
"I know," whispered John. His ears were bright red, and Rodney didn't think it was just from the cold. "Er. Me too."
Rodney had to kiss him then, had to: and there was plenty more he'd have done, if the door hadn't clattered open.
"John?" called Zelenka from the doorway. "I don't want to disturb, but Elizabeth —"
"On my way," John said, leaning back from the kiss. He looked dazed. "Rodney," he muttered as the door closed again, "you wanna fill me in on what's been happening here? Just quickly?"
"Well, that guy Simon showed up, which has to be Cole's — oh my God, John! You haven't heard the music!"
"The music: Christ, John, it's like nothing —" Rodney was scrambling out of bed, pulling on his pants and his sweater, hopping one-footed to get his shoes on before his feet froze to the bare boards. "You have to hear it." And at John's blank, bemused look: "From the city. It comes from the city."
All morning Elizabeth had been closeted in her office, calling in the people of Atlantis one by one, asking them a single question: if we can go, will you come with us?
She'd had to seek out Rodney in his cubbyhole last night: he hadn't come to her. "Well, Rodney? Can we go there?" she'd said gently. "To the city?"
"Yes. Yes, we can. But, Elizabeth ..."
"I can't promise that it's not a one-way trip."
"But you've built —" Elizabeth had begun, gesturing at the tiny, brilliant lights of the, what had he called it? The Quantum Reality Synchronator. She was very tired, and the intricate coils and glowing valves were almost hypnotic. She could easily fall ...
"We can't take it with us," Rodney'd said, startling her awake again. It had been clear from his tone that he'd thought her an idiot. "It relies on ... even if I could dismantle it — and obviously, we'd need to open the way to the city first — there's no guarantee it'd work anywhere but here." And he'd started to tell her about localised phenomena, and liminal zones, and the impossibility of achieving what he'd already achieved.
"Each of us has chosen to leave the world behind," Elizabeth had said firmly, interrupting Rodney mid-flow. "I shan't lie to them: I'll make it clear that if we go, we may never be able to return. But they deserve to make that choice for themselves."
To Elizabeth herself, the answer seemed obvious, plain common sense. A new reality to explore: a place from which to begin afresh. Not everybody felt the same. Katie was crying in the kitchen, red-faced, slamming down lunch plates on the table as though she hoped they'd all smash. The Japanese woman, Miko, looked miserable too, though surely the shining city was better than any of the fates that might have befallen her as a prisoner of war. The Germans had taken over a corner of the Hall near the Christmas tree — its candles lit afresh today — and were talking fiercely amongst themselves.
Carson Beckett had listened intently to her as she spoke of what might await them. "We'll need a doctor, whatever we find," Elizabeth had said, eager to recruit him. But he had asked for time to consider his decision, and she could not in conscience deny him. Carson, after all, still had family: he wrote regularly to his widowed mother up in Fife. She could not promise him safe return. She could not promise anything at all.
The ledger on the desk, its edges stained and creased, was open to the very last page. In the column on the left were the names of those who'd said yes to her question: to the right, she listed those who wished to stay. The right-hand list was very much shorter than the other. Mr Parrish's name was there: he'd seemed desperate to convince her that the city was a trap, a shining lure, a danger to them all. Katie's name was below his, and Naylor's. The ink was still drying on 'Galland', the youngest of the German prisoners, who had told her in halting English that he'd promised to return to his pregnant wife, that he longed to see the son or daughter she'd have borne to him by now.
Through the Hall tumbled the joyous sound of music, calling the exiled and despairing, the hopeless and the hopeful, to the shining city.
"That'll remind them what we might achieve," Rodney'd said, wrapping wires in duck tape to protect them against trampling feet. "It'll keep them on target."
There was no question of Rodney not joining the exodus, assuming that his sleepless nights culminated in the success of the Synchronator. None of them would have this choice without Rodney McKay. And John Sheppard would surely go wherever Rodney went.
Assuming, too, that the city was real enough to be reached. Assuming that Parrish was wrong and they'd find a welcome there.
Rodney'd looked up from his work when she'd asked him that, eyes very blue, smile beatific. "They're there, they're inviting us in, they're —"
"Inviting us in? You make it sound as though we're merely calling on our neighbours for a Christmas drink."
"We are," Rodney'd said. "We really are."
The next person at her door was Ronon Dex. He came in smiling, dropped an orange on the desk in front of her. (John Sheppard had found oranges somewhere, to Rodney's vociferous disgust; Elizabeth had thought them all eaten days ago, like the chocolate he'd brought back.)
"Thank you," said Elizabeth, lifting the fruit to her mouth and inhaling the heartening, tangy zest. Ronon just nodded and sat down: loose-limbed, glowing with health, with that inextinguishable spark of humour in his curiously light eyes.
"By now," said Elizabeth, "you must be aware of what —"
"I'm coming," said Ronon.
Elizabeth blinked. "That's a ... very rapid decision."
Ronon shrugged. "Nothing to stay for." He nodded at the door. "There's ..."
"Thank you, Ronon," said Elizabeth warmly. She scribbled his name in the left-hand column.
Next was Teyla: if the Russian girl had any surname, she'd never confided it to Elizabeth. She carried herself like royalty (with more dignity, indeed, than the princesses when Elizabeth had seen them at the Palace before the war), though the faint lines around her eyes spoke of tribulation.
"Teyla," Elizabeth greeted her. "I expect you know the question I'm about to ask you."
Teyla inclined her head. "I have thought deeply upon this matter," she said, slow and dignified. "You know that I have always wished to travel back to my home, to seek out my family."
"I know," said Elizabeth, hoping that her smile conveyed sympathy rather than empty sentiment. From what she'd read in the newspapers, such a journey would be fraught with risk, and likely to end in disappointment. Still, it would certainly be safer, more predictable, than a journey to another reality.
"But, Elizabeth," and Teyla's eyes were bright and grave, "I fear that I am the only survivor. I do not think there is any home, now, for me to return to."
Elizabeth bowed her head. Those words would have been easier to hear if Teyla had wept or raged: how could she be so serene?
"It does not matter any more," said Teyla. "My home is here, Elizabeth: Atlantis is my home and my family, now, and where Atlantis goes, I shall follow."
"You could stay here," offered Elizabeth. "Simon ..."
"I will come," said Teyla simply. She glanced at the ledger open in front of Elizabeth, watching unabashed as Elizabeth wrote her name below Ronon's. "And I am pleased that so many others will join us."
"Yes," said Elizabeth, leaning back and pinching the bridge of her nose. "I hadn't expected ..."
"We have a common purpose," said Teyla, "a common need. It may be that we shall find it in that city: it may be that we shall travel further together. But home is not always a place, Elizabeth."
"Home is what we make it," Elizabeth managed. "Thank you, Teyla. Would you ... would you ask whoever's next to give me a minute, please?"
She had not wept since Simon's unheralded, unwelcome arrival: stupid that the tears should come now, when everything was decided. Simon would be out there somewhere, watching everyone, close-mouthed and smiling to himself as though he alone knew the punchline to the joke. People did not speak to him, any more than she would speak to one of the ghosts. Elizabeth knew she'd have to talk to him, to tell him what would happening: she did not relish the prospect.
Atlantis would be his. He had promised refuge to any who wished to stay: Elizabeth had signed the letter he'd set in front of her, deeding the land to him. Atlantis would endure. But it would not be Atlantis any more.
New Year's Eve
The last sunset of 1946 was fading to night. John lounged back on the bench outside the Hall, watching the western sky turn from blue to gold to deepest crimson. Only when it was too dark to make out trees against the skyline did he stand up and head back indoors, begging a mug of coffee ("it won't last forever!") from Laura, and take it in to where Rodney sat, hunched over the Synchronator, mumbling to himself.
"How's it going?" said John, setting the mug down where Rodney's elbow wouldn't knock it over.
"What? Oh, fine, fine."
"Well?" demanded John. "Are we going to be able to, to go?"
"What time's moonrise?"
"It's already up," said John. "Been up all afternoon."
"Like I'd know?" said Rodney. "Haven't been out yet today. Right: okay. Then ... we're in business."
"What, now? And why —"
"No time like the present, Sheppard," said Rodney: and while John was still standing there gaping, Rodney'd swooped in, kissed him full and tingling on the mouth, and was striding out into the Hall, shouting for Elizabeth.
The next hour was rush and haste, like a flight crew scrambled for action but, crap, infinitely less organised. John took off for the men's hut and shoved stuff into his rucksack. Who knew what they'd need, there? ('There' made him kind of dizzy to think about: he concentrated on details, lists, the mundane.) War and Peace: some clothes: his dog tags (like anyone in another universe was going to care about his serial number).
The bag was still half empty, so he grabbed a handful of Rodney's gear. Christ, the man hoarded like there was no tomorrow: letters, notebooks, pages ripped from magazines and journals. John left the gramophone records to gather dust on the shelves. He was pretty sure there wouldn't be gramophones where they were going.
"Good evening, everybody," Elizabeth was saying as he got back to the Hall. And yeah, everybody was here: some of them with kitbags, rucksacks, canvas bags at their feet, some resolutely unburdened, unready, unmoved. "Those of you who've chosen to stay here in Atlantis: we wish you all well, and if it turns out that we can't come back, we'll keep you in our thoughts. Mr Wallace assures me that he'll do his best to make sure Atlantis continues to grow and thrive as it's done for the last year." Simon flinched at the fierce look she shot him. "The rest of you — I'm honoured to be with you in this venture. We're going where nobody's gone before, into the unknown, like the pilgrims and adventurers of centuries gone by, who sought freedom of mind and body across the sea. Like the people who came here before us, came to this stretch of coast as strangers and made their homes on these shores. As we have made our home, here."
'Home': the word seemed to echo, to be caught and chorused by the music that still played softly from the shabby wooden speaker on the table. Between one breath and the next, one note and the next, John felt the truth of it, like an anvil, like an anchor in his heart.
Elizabeth paused, her gaze roving over the gathering. "It may be," she said, sombrely, "that we can never return. That tonight, we're bidding farewell to everything we have ever known." A beat's silence. John admired her eloquence. "Or it may be that we'll be back by nightfall!"
"That's," said Rodney heatedly: John kicked him, not hard, and he subsided.
"But this I'm sure of: the journey that we're about to embark upon is a step towards a new world, a world worth building."
There were tears in Elizabeth's eyes. A few of the women were crying. John couldn't wait to get out of the Hall, away, towards. He hung back anyway, watching as people filed out through the door.
"Come on," said Rodney. "Hey, I need —"
"It's all here, McKay," said John, weighing the bulging rucksack in his hand. "I got it."
The beach was dark and silent, but there seemed to be a lot of people standing there, in twos and threes and all alone. John couldn't make out their faces, but surely —
"The ghosts," said Teyla softly beside him. "They have come to wish us safe journey."
"That's a nice ... yes," said Rodney, looking around. "Yes, they have, haven't they?"
Ronon said nothing, but he bowed his head as he walked past a tall warrior.
"How many can we fit in the boat at a time?" Elizabeth asked somebody.
"Ten or so." Lorne's voice, and John was relieved to hear it, relieved that steady level-headed Lorne would be around when ... when whatever happened, happened.
He thought of Dunkirk. But this wasn't a retreat, they weren't under fire. There wasn't even a war. They weren't running away (from Cole, from Simon, from a world in the habit of war). They were running toward: towards that brave new —
Elizabeth was talking urgently to Lorne, gesturing. "Look!" cried Laura. "Look, over there!"
The moon was bright and silvery as foil, and its light shone down on silver, crystal, shimmering blue. Zelenka swore in Czech and leapt back as a wave surged up the beach: another: another.
"It's really here," murmured Rodney at John's side. "It's ... it's displacing water, it's ..."
"We gonna drown?" said John urgently, because after all this —
But someone was cheering, and someone was shouting, and when John got to the edge of the crowd (how did Atlantis get to be a crowd? Maybe he'd been wrong, thinking only a few would choose exile and adventure) he could see why. Out on the mud, where the black weed-strung wooden stakes had leant and tilted, there was something new.
"A causeway," breathed Parrish. "It's a causeway."
"Bridge," said Ronon, as if it mattered.
The shimmering path out over the water, out towards the city, looked more like reflected moonlight than something you could walk on. But Elizabeth was moving forward — her pants wet to the knee with salt water — stepping onto something, turning back to encourage the rest of them. The look on her face was like summer.
The heavy thrum of engines overhead, somehow wrong and out of place now. John glanced up, finding the aeroplane at once. A Hurricane, maybe a Tempest, heading south. He wondered if the pilot could see them all, down here on the beach, streaming towards the shining city in the sea. What he'd tell them, back at base: whether he'd write it off as fatigue, last night's beer, gremlins.
Didn't matter what stories they left behind. It was time to go.
The bridge was firm underfoot, barely swaying with the weight of everybody walking, hurrying, along it. John hung back, waiting for Rodney, who'd grabbed a notebook and a pencil from somewhere and was scribbling busily.
"Not now, McKay!"
"It's not," said Rodney, his chin coming up defiantly. "It's a letter, okay?"
"Okay," said John, and he stood with one foot on the hard shining bridge and the other knee-deep in the waves, waiting, waiting, trying to keep everything real, while Rodney hurried back up the beach to where Katie and the others stood, witness to their departure.
One of the cats — Einstein, though John, though they all looked colourless in the cool moonlight — leapt lightly up over the breaking waves, landing just beside John's rucksack and rubbing briefly against John's leg: another two followed, trotting busily and importantly across the bridge towards the city.
"Sorry, sorry," said Rodney, and John stuck out his hand and pulled Rodney onto the bridge, a laggardly Bohr hurtling past the pair of them. "I just wanted ..."
"Shush," said John, because they were so close now, and he didn't think he could bear it if ... He jogged forward, still hand-in-hand with Rodney like kids at a picnic, and it was real, it was there: they were passing over, crossing the border, leaping off the edge of the world. And ahead of them all, in the shining city, the lights were coming up like a clear blue dawn.