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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe

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Faith finds the cottage just as the sun is draping itself over the horizon and lending a golden tinge to the crowns of the surrounding trees.

 

For all the fuss that has been made about it it’s a thoroughly innocuous structure. Huddled in its little dip in the landscape it sports a freshly thatched roof and plain light-painted walls that have been spared the thrash of the north wind because of its protected position. A small boat lies dipping up and down in the ocean right below it, moored to a small pier. The salty smell of sea is fresh and sweet in her nose, and there’s an apple tree stubbornly clawing at its soil, flowers blooming pink-white.

 

A clothesline is strung between the apple tree and the cottage. A pair of undergarments are still hanging off it, probably forgotten last night and now damp again from dew.

Nothing looks even remotely haunted. At least she can’t remember a single ghost story that had involved underpants. She squints down at the whole picture from her hiding place behind a rocky overhang. This was... not what she’d expected.

 

There is a rustling in the underbrush behind her and she jumps, barely containing a yelp of surprise as something shoots past her leg in a flurry of fur and paws. As abruptly as the thing had come barreling out it stops, coalescing from a blur of speed into... a cat. A slightly chubby tabby cat with white markings.

 

It glares reproachfully up at her in the way of cats everywhere, as if astounded at the abject rudeness of any being occupying space where they weren’t supposed to. Faith returns the glare as her pulse settles back down again. She can practically hear her grandfather’s voice in her head berating her for letting herself be taken by surprise like that. There could be much worse than this sorry excuse of a fleabag rat catcher in these woods.

 

She clenches her teeth and shoos at the cat quietly, waving her hands at it. As if to prove a point the cat sits down. If it had had eyebrows it would be raising them sardonically. Its tail flops lazily back and forth on the forest floor.

 

Be like that, Faith thinks, peering back down at the little cottage. It continues to look wholly innocent.

 

Figures. For as long as Faith can remember these parts of the woods have been forbidden by Queen Harmony’s decree. Now that she knows that there’s nothing out here except this harmless building, she’s forced to consider that the queen’s reasons had always been a bit on the vague side. Nobody was allowed to go there because was the Beast’s hunting ground, and it doesn’t mind the taste of human flesh from time to time. (It was especially partial to small children, because they were fresh and tender.) Nobody was allowed East of the hunting post on the border of Tanglewood and Rockwell  – because it was haunted by the ghosts of evil witches, or because the ground was soaked with poison when the Wraith attacked somewhere in the distant past; because at night the ocean yielded its scale-covered monsters and slimy sea worms.

 

The anger bubbles back up Faith’s throat because she’d believed it. She’d sat with all the other children, wide-eyed in horrified fascination as the queen spoke.  She’d never even noticed that the reason was never the same twice, or that the queen would be conveniently hazy on the details –  just enough to ensure it sounded ominous, yet not enough to actually say anything ever.

 

It had all been just bullshit. Everything was.

 

She jumps for the second time in ten minutes when the cat, having changed its assessment of her from ‘Personal Insult’ to ‘Possible Source of Stomach Rubs’, headbutts her arm insistently until she scratches behind its ears.

 

“Dumb animal,” she mumbles, petting its head and getting a chorus of purrs. Its fur is soft and warm and surprisingly clean for being so long. It looks like it’s been cared for.

 

Down by the water the cottage door bangs open. The cat perks up noticeably.

 

There are various clanging and crashing noises from down there, a muffled shout that sounds like a swear word, and then a figure steps out of the doorway, ineffectively kicking off a coil of rope that has wound itself around his foot. The figure moves a little stiffly, like her grandfather does on cold mornings.

After realizing that the current method isn’t working out so well he leans heavily on the door frame and uncoils the rope by hand. Then he nearly overbalances, only catching himself before he faceplants into the door.

 

The scary aspect of this place is diminishing by the minute.

 

The man kicks the rope back in over the doorstep absently and briefly ducks back inside. When he comes out again he’s holding two metal bowls. A new sound breaks the morning silence.

 

“Archimedes!” the man’s voice calls. It sounds cracked and raw, like it hasn’t been used for a while. “Archimedes, breakfast time!” Like a shot the cat disappears from under Faith’s hand and barrels down the rocky crag towards the man with the bowls. When it reaches him it claws at his legs until he crouches down and scoops it up, letting it sink its claws into his shoulder as he fills the bowls from two different buckets standing close to the cottage wall.

 

Yup, that’s... decidedly disappointing. Why would the queen go to all that trouble just to hide an old man and his cat?

 

While the cat eats, the old man goes inside for a while and then comes out carrying a mug of something that steams in the morning air and a bowl of his own, heaped dangerously high with food. He goes to sit on the pier, legs dangling in the air above the low tide.

 

Faith watches him and tries to find a more comfortable position. Her grandfather has always told her that a good hunter should be as capable of being still for hours as she is at tracking and shooting, but he hasn’t told her any great secrets as to how to stop your knees from burning while you kneel.

 

The man puts his food away with great enthusiasm, popping bit after bit into his mouth between gulps from the steaming mug. The sun glints off the water lazily. The cat pads over to him and starts washing itself. His appetite makes her uncomfortably aware of her own stomach rumbles. She could probably have planned this better – the bread and piece of cheese she’s brought had gone last night, and while there are plenty of good qualities to edible roots, taste tends not to be one of them.

 

The old man finishes and gets up off the pier heavily. He takes his own bowl and the cat’s over to the barrel where he presumably gathers rain water and sloshes some water over them.The cat winds unhelpfully between his legs as he carries the bowls inside. He’s only gone for a couple of minutes before he comes out again, a leather bag slung over his shoulder. After a long period of indecision on the cat’s part as to whether it wants to go out or stay inside, full of false starts and jerky turns, the man shakes his head and shuts the door in its face.

 

The man starts walking up the hill, but way too far to the right to see her. The entire rocky overhang she’s hiding behind is in shadow; in her dark clothes she is virtually invisible.

 

It’s pretty slow going – the man doesn’t seem too set on going wherever it is he’s headed at any speed. At one point he even stops, as if realizing he’s just forgotten something, and roots around in his bag. She can’t make out what he fishes up, but it’s a rectangular shape in a light color. For a while the man just looks down at it, and then he raises his head and studies the forest. For one heart-clenching moment Faith thinks he’s looking right at her, even though it’s impossible. He reaches into his bag again and comes up with –

 

The shot hurtles by dangerously close to the top of her head, a flash of blue light and a crackle of sound as it passes.

 

She looks up, stunned, tempted to pat the top of her head just to make sure the hair isn’t singed.

 

“I know you’re there,” the old man yells. “If that shot didn’t stun you, you should come out where I can see you!”

 

When she peers over the edge of the stone she sees that in his hand is something that looks a lot like the guns the Genii use, except the shapes of it are rounder, the colors lighter.

 

The man hesitates. “Well, that was a pretty dumb thing to say,” he points out. “You still could just pretend to be stunned to lure me up there, couldn’t you.”

 

Faith, who had been about to stand up with her hands above her head, thinks this over. She comes to the conclusion that any old man who gives his enemies tips like that is probably not a lot to be afraid of. She might as well do the easy thing for both of them and pretend she’s just a stupid little girl who’s gotten lost or something.

 

Her evaluation immediately changes as she stands up and has to throw herself to the side to avoid the second shot.

 

“Hey!” she screams, hands coming up to protect her head, “cut it out, I’m trying to surrender!”

 

There’s a pause. “Wait – what? I... stay right there.”

 

It turns out that his former slowness had been deceptive, because he moves up the hill pretty quickly if clumsily, gun still pointing in Faith’s direction. Closer up he’s not as old as she’d first thought – probably younger than her grandfather, or at least less weather-worn. His hair is almost entirely streaked through with grey but most of it’s still there, apart from the slightly receded hairline. He’s wearing a shapeless greenish-grey knitted sweater and baggy brown pants, making him seem even stockier than he is.

 

There’s something strangely familiar about his square face and broad, slanted mouth, but she can’t tell where she gets that from. 

 

“A kid?” the man says, voice going high and reedy with indignation. “What the hell are you doing out here? I almost shot you!”

 

He actually has the nerve to sound as though hehad been exposed to a greater inconvenience in almost shooting her than shehad almost getting shot.

 

“I didn’t know there’d be crazy people with guns running about, did I?” she hisses. He has lowered the gun now, and he doesn’t look like he’s going to shoot at her anymore. “You’d be surprised at how many times I haven’t been shot at in these woods!” The blood is still pumping hard and fast through her limbs, and her bruised hip is not very happy with resting on the rocky ground. 

 

To his credit the man looks a bit contrite under the bluster. “Well, you can’t really blame me when you sneak around like that.” Secretly she has no problem blaming him at all, but even though she’s not actively scared of him she isn’t dumb either, so she keeps her silence.

 

He peers at her closely with sharp eyes. “How old are you anyway, seven? Do the parents just let you kids roam around half-feral these days?”


She zeroes in on the important part of that. “I’m twelve,” she tells him scathingly.

 

“Oh well, excuse me,” he says, rolling his eyes and putting his gun away. “You should have mentioned that before you made me shoot at you. What are you even doing out here though? You must have been told not to come here.”

 

This would be the an excellent time to ask him what exactly he was doing here, but she suspects this would gain her no points. Instead she decides to take the safe route.“It’s the first time I’ve gone tracking this far on my own and I got lost.” She tries to deliver this in as petulantly childish a tone as possible. It’s not very hard, with the way her hip is throbbing.

 

The old man studies her as she gets to her feet. For a minute it looks like he’s going to go on with his established line of accusation, but then his shoulders slump and he just says: “Okay. What’s your name?” She hesitates a little. He rolls his eyes again. “And I’ll be able to find out if you’re lying, so there’s no point.” The eye roll sits incongruously on his face; it’s the gesture of a much younger man.

 

Going with the principle that you may as well avoid provoking someone who has a gun when you don’t, she says: “It’s Faith. Faith Lumsbred.”

 

He screws up his face. “Lumsbred. That rings a bell. Hm. Oh, hey, wait,” he exclaims, snapping his fingers at a dizzying speed, “I know, that was the name of Harmony’s, uh, Minister of Hunting or whatever, right?”

 

She doesn’t ask what a ‘Minister’ is. “My grandfather Nolar Lumsbred is the greatest hunter of his time and an important figure at court,” she says stiffly. She has never met anyone who didn’t know who her grandfather was. “He taught Queen Harmony when she was young.”

 

“That’s it. The guy who taught her the... bird roasting and everything.”

 

He appears very pleased with himself for remembering this little piece of incomprehensible nonsense.

 

“Sure,” Faith says, in sympathy with the prematurely senile.

 

His face falls back to the the tired, drawn look of before. She notices that he has a pinched way of carrying his expressions, as if he’s in constant low-level pain. “Well then, Faith whatever, do you know how to get home from here?”

She nods.

 

“Okay. Then if you don’t tell anyone you’ve met me, I won’t have to talk to the queen and tell her that you broke her law, and in turn she won’t have to put you in house arrest for the rest of your life. Capiche?”

 

For a moment ‘I’ll tell on you to the queen’ doesn’t seem like such a realistic threat, but then Faith remembers that the queen named the whole Eastern part of Tanglewood off bounds for this guy alone. She nods again.

 

“Great,” the man says, waving his hands at her not unlike she had to the cat a little while ago, “be a good girlie and go home, keep your mouth shut, move on with your life. Go on.”

 

It’s her turn to roll her eyes this time, but she does as she’s told and starts moving up the hillside.

 

 

-------

 

 

What the man apparently doesn’t know is that the hill leads up to a mountain ridge which gives anyone climbing it a perfect view of the forest floor beneath.

 

Faith tracks the man’s progress as he appears and disappears under the crowns of the trees. She just doesn’t understand why the queen has been hiding this old man out here since before Faith was even born. Either she’s just dodged the most enormous bullet of her life or the guy is exactly as harmless as he seems.


Well, okay, he did pull a gun on her. But he had said he was sorry. Kind of. In a roundabout sort of way. He’d seemed a lot more peevish than she’d ever imagined a cold-blooded murderer would be.

 

Eventually she has to move a little to keep tabs on him, jogging along the ridge. After five minutes or so he stops, standing so she can only just make him out between the branches of a big fir. There’s a rise in the landscape just ahead of him; a rocky crag slightly lower than the one she’s standing on. It seems kind of stupid if he knew this was where he was going. Now he either has to walk around it or climb over it.

 

As it turns out he does neither. She stands there for five, ten, fifteen minutes, just to be certain.She has an all-encompassing view of the woods for miles in any direction, and he doesn’t show up again. There’s no way he could have sneaked around her line of vision, least of all in the sharp warm daylight that’s bathing everything.

 

It’s like he’s sunk into the earth and disappeared.

 

Her interest, somewhat dampened by the anticlimax of finding an old man where she had expected – well, she doesn’t know, something cool – sits back up and pays attention. Maybe it’s time to find out what the queen is so desperate to hide.

 

 

 

 

-------

 

John rubbed a hand over his face. “So you woke me up at four in the morning – which, FYI, Rodney, is not a time most normal people are keen on experiencing while awake – because. Because something in Janus’s lab was blinking.”

“Like a Christmas tree. Don’t tell me that’s not significant.” Rodney gave him an expectant look, waiting for the ball to get rolling through the halls of John’s sleep addled brain.  

“So we’ve got decorations for the mess hall next year, Rodney. Good job. Can we go back to bed now?”

Rodney waved a dismissive hand. “Do you remember how well it went last time something was blinking in here and we didn’t notice?”

“If an alien invasion is forthcoming, they better have the decency to wait until eight o’clock,” John muttered, but  his tone suggested he accepted that Rodney had a point. Leaning on the back of Rodney’s chair, thereby bringing himself in range to swipe the last dregs of Rodney’s coffee, he peered at the computer screen. The bed-warmth of his body seeped into Rodney’s side. “So, okay, what do you think we’re dealing with?”

“Well, hopefully it’s not another doomsday machine, but it was broadcasting the same signals as the subspace disruptor in Janus’ lab.”

John blinked slowly. “Are we going to have a bunch of homicidal ETs on our doorstep any time soon? Inadvertently blow up anyone significant? Get Todd worked up into a hissyfit?”  

“No, no, I doubt anyone would have been able to pick it up, I turned it off as soon as I got a... hm. Hm, that’s weird.”

“What?” In his peripheral vision John made a face at the taste of cold coffee.

“I think I’ve found out where the signal came from and that planet... I’m sure I’ve seen it before some – ” He felt his eyes bulge. “Princess McSnootypants!”

There had obviously been times before when John had expressed sincere doubts about the McKay state of sanity (usually but not necessarily in conjunction with caffeine; withdrawal or over consumption thereof). Judging from John’s face this was one of those times.

“Yeah, that’s what my friends call me,” he said flatly. “Rodney, what the hell are you talking about?”

“The... with the... princess and the Genii. Uh, that planet is Harmony’s planet.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, I was knighted there. It’s not something you forget.”

After their last trip to that planet – Rodney still couldn’t tell whether that had been a hallucination, since dragons had been involved and Rodney’s life had long ago taken a turn for the weird, but there’s weird and then there’s weird – Harmony had deigned to grant John a medal that might corrode in wet weather and two sacks of a local fruit that were sort of like dates, which, to add insult to injury, he’d had to carry back to the Jumper himself. If John had been the kind of man to carry a grudge, you could consider it a grudge of Olympic torch dimensions.

Rodney had endeavored to make it up to him in... other ways, in the true spirit of chivalry.

“So what on Harmony’s planet would be sending out the Janus equivalent of the Bat-Signal?” John asked. “That drone thing, while cool, doesn’t exactly measure up to the death-ray scope we’ve seen before.”

Rodney snorted. “It does seem sort of underwhelming considering the overly ambitious ‘the-laws-of-physics-are-more-like-guidelines’ mentality we’ve all grown to know and love, yes. But the machine there did have protocols in place to prohibit the wrong people from accessing it, so someone must have thought it a secret worth keeping. I mean, what if that was just a red herring? As long as it’s dormant an underground facility wouldn’t –”

 “Uh, Doctor McKay?” Chuck interrupted over the radio.

“Busy,” Rodney snapped, still typing furiously.

“One of our trade contacts have dialled in and, uh... I’ve been told to tell you that you’ve been, uh, summoned or granted an audience or, or - something by Queen Harmony. At her pleasure. Or under the threat of her displeasure, I’m not sure.”

From the background came Amelia’s voice saying: “She certainly didn’t sound very pleased.”

“What do you want me to tell her?” Chuck asked. 

Rodney stared back at John for a long time before saying: “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Does this mean I’ll have to put on proper pants?” John sighed. Rodney lifted an incredulous eyebrow. “I’m not answering a royal summon in my pajamas, McKay.”

Chuck cleared his throat uncomfortably over the radio.

“Yes, whatever, go change. Chuck, tell Her Majesty that we’ll be along in, say, an hour?” Rodney scowled at the computer screen before standing up. “Oh, and we probably should tell Woolsey, right?”

“You sure it can’t wait until tomorrow?” John tried, and with his sweatpants hanging low on his hips like that and his hair in wild disarray Rodney was direly tempted for a moment to just say ‘fuck it’ and go back to bed. Still. 

“With our luck whatever it is on that planet will have blown a hole in spacetime by breakfast. Come on.”

John slouched after him, bare feet slapping against the floor. “How come I always end up playing chauffeur just so you can satisfy your curiosity?” he complained, rubbing at his neck. 

“Because one day I’ll mention you in the Nobel speech.”

“Aw shucks, McKay, you sure know how to make a guy feel special.”

“‘And finally I would like to thank my parents for making me succeed out of spite, Sam Carter’s breasts for renewing my dedication to science even at times when it all seemed pointless, and John Sheppard’s highly motivational and innovative use of death threats and blow jobs in the line of – ’  ah, fuck, I thought we agreed not in the hallways, Mr Discretion-is-My-Fictitious-Middle-Name!”

“Please note that I’m not using my hands, which I vaguely remember being a key phrasing in that agreement.”

“...yeah, okay, whatever you say. Mhm. M-no, wait, we have a royal invitation pending, get off.”

“Rodney...”

“And whining won’t help you either. Go put on pants.”

 

-------

 

Two days later she is approaching the cottage again, this time not even pretending to hide. The forest is waking up around her as she walks but it’s a cold morning for summer. Everything is very quiet, as if even the birds have chosen to just huddle in their nests for a while longer. Her skin draws itself tight with goose pimples. She didn’t bring her coat.

In her head she plays through everything her mother would have to say on the matter, from cloying concern to invading annoyance to anger. Faith doesn’t care; she’s old enough to choose what she wants herself and she’s going to. Her mother can think what she wants.

The straps of the backpack dig into her shoulders uncomfortably. She tries to look casual as she walks down the hill towards the cottage, as if she’s just strolling past this particular corner of the woods on a whim. Then she realizes how stupid that is and stops it.

The old man is standing outside the cottage when she comes into view, gun already in hand in a half-hearted sort of way. She stops, first holding her hands up to signal she has no weapons and then turns it into an awkward little wave. Not terribly smooth, but who cares.

“Do you have a problem with your short term memory?” the old man calls up at her, letting the hand with the gun flop down against his side. “As in, you don’t have one?”

Since the world wants to be deceived, especially on the point of the silliness of twelve year old girls, she shouts back: “I was just thinking that it must be lonely for you out here all alone.”

He doesn’t look too impressed by that.

“And also I wondered if I could pet your cat,” she adds, even if it makes her wince internally with the thick layer of childish naivete she has to put on. “My mother’s allergic, so we can’t have one at home.”

Since the gun is lowered and the man mostly looks annoyed more than anything, she walks towards him, strolling until they’re a couple of meters apart. “I brought food,” she says, hoping this will be the clincher. She’s seen the way he eats. “And I’m a pretty good cook. There are some cookies, too.”

His face screws up at ‘cookies’. He’s going to give in, she realizes smugly; it’s written all over him, the yield of his shoulders, the little pull of his mouth, all of it.

“All right,” he sighs finally. “Since you’re already here anyway.” 

He turns and starts walking back towards the cottage, and taking that as permission she follows him inside.

 ---

The cottage seems even smaller on the inside, even though the walls are whitewashed. From the cluttered hall there’s one doorway to the kitchen, if you could call it that, and one into what doubles as a living room and a bedroom which is in darkness except for the streak of light slipping in between the curtains.

It smells pretty okay in there, though – clean and earthy and only a little bit like stale seaweed, thanks to the buoy discarded in a corner.

The kitchen table is strewn with an astounding amount of paper – proper quality paper is pretty expensive, and Faith was never allowed to draw on any at home.

He puts the kettle on the hearth.Faith ends up hovering in the doorway, wondering if she should try to break the silence. Then she realizes it’s not really silence at all: the old man is muttering to himself in a low continuous stream of words, adjusting the kettle before he sits back up creakily. The mumbling keeps going as he shuffles over to where some bulky pots and bowls and ceramic jugs are stored in a window sill.

For a moment she has to rethink the wisdom of coming out here all alone, without telling anyone, to visit a weird old hermit who talks to himself. Then she shrugs it off. They don’t need to know where she goes or what she does, and she has a mystery to divulge Her Royal Highness of.

“So,” she says uncomfortably, pulling at the straps of her backpack.

He jerks, as if he’s surprised she’s still there. “Oh, um, yes, of course,” he says, sounding slightly embarrassed. “Sure.” They look at each other for a while. “Sit down,” he adds. There’s a tentativeness there that suggests he’s not sure that’s the right thing to say.

How long has it been since he’s had to talk to other people?

She slips  the backpack off her shoulders and slinks down on the room’s single chair. Both it and the table look home-made, crafted by someone who is definitely no carpenter but still pretty reliable with a saw.

The old man stands in the middle of the floor for a while, fingers flexing restlessly.

“So, do you, uh. Would you like some tea or something?” he says finally.

“Yes, please,” she says. He turns his back again to fumble around with the ceramic jugs.

Some of the papers on the table are drawings. It’s mostly sketches of the cat in various sleeping postures or studies of hands or a few of the landscape outside the window. They’re very good. She carefully pushes them further in on the table and sets down her backpack to untie the drawstring. She figures that she should use the unifying medium of food the way her mother’s always going on about.

“Do you want... whatever you guys call it. That dried herb that tastes sweet.”

“Sweetleaf?” she says, unable to stop the sarcasm from seeping into her voice. “I – no, thank you.” She used to take her tea with sweetleaf, but her grandfather always said that it was just as well learning not to, since you wouldn’t always have it on you when you were out tracking.

“Suit yourself,” he says, and adds several pinches with the stuff to his own mug.  The water boils in the kettle and he shuffles over to take it off. He doesn’t brew his tea like Faith’s mother does. All his movements are precise, though, as if he’s focusing on the task.

There’s the sound of something heavy flopping onto the floor in the bedroom, and after a couple of seconds the cat comes sauntering in. Maybe it’s used to being fed around the same time the old man brews his tea. It goes straight to Faith and starts rubbing against her leg, marking her with its cheeks.

“Hello to you too,” she mumbles, leaning down to scratch its neck.

“What?” the old man says, distracted in his pouring of tea water, before he notices she’s talking to the cat. “Oh.”

“I brought some sardines,” she hurries to say. “For the cat.” He blinks a little and then just shrugs, carrying the steaming mugs over to the table. He picks up one of the metal bowls on his way.

She takes the brown paper package of sardines she’d pilfered from the pantry and puts a couple in the bowl. The cat pounces on it at once, glaring down at the sardines like it thinks they’re planning something.

“It’s kind of cute,” Faith says, as it swipes at the limp little fishes with a paw.

The old man snorts. “Trust me, that cat has personality disorders coming out of his ears. Pretty much all my cats have. It’s actually kind of weird, the way you find them on almost any planet you visit. I guess nature made rats and where you get rats you need cats.”

“You’re not from here, then?”

He hesitates. “Not... originally, no.” If she presses too hard she might prompt him to clam up for good, so she just nods and says: “The Wraith?”, because that’s a good bet with anyone who’s had to leave.

“Something like that.” It’s distant and dismissive; it’s clearly not a welcome subject. He pushes the unsweetened mug of tea over to her. She can see already that it’s oversteeped.

It smells good, though, and she’s starting to get really hungry from the long walk. Even the most direct route from town takes hours. “Have you got any plates?” she asks, unwrapping the bread.

“...I’ve got bowls?”

As he putters around for them she wonders if she should offer up the only chair as a sign of deference to old age or whether that’s going to come across as an insult. In the end he takes a chair from the hallway that had  been covered in old coats and brushes the dust off it, sitting down across from her.  “Let me just...” he swipes the papers into a slapdash pile and stuffs them into the window sill. A tug pulls at Faith’s chest: those drawings were way too pretty to be handled so carelessly. He’s got long, slender fingers, strong hands. She’s pretty sure those drawings were made with himself as a model. 

The tea is so strong her eyes tear up at the first sip. She tries to cough as discreetly as possible. She points out what everything she brought is – the bread, the sausage and cheese and cookies with dried marga-fruit – and they start eating. The silence that descends on the cottage is not the slightly oppressive one from before but that of two people who have better things to do with their mouths than talking. The bread is some leftovers her mother will never miss, but it’s still dark and sweet and relatively fresh.

“This is really good,” the old man comments, gesturing with a slice of bread with cheese on it.

The pride that fills her is almost as great as if she’d been the one to bake it, not her older brother Shevan.

The old man roots around until he finds a jar of apple jam behind the pots in the window sill and offers it up to her. It’s a surprisingly pleasant mix of sweet and tart.

“So what’s your name?” Faith asks towards the end of the meal, around a mouthful of cookie crumbs.

He looks up from his industrious application of jam to bread. “Why d’you want to know?”

She rolls her eyes. “Uh, because it’s what civilized people do when they meet? They introduce themselves to each other?”

He snorts, going back  to his slice of bread. For a while that’s all he does, and she thinks she won’t get anything more from him. Then, without raising his head, he says: “It’s McKay. That’s Doctor McKay to you,” he adds, with a twist of the mouth that could be a smile.

“You’re a doctor?” she says skeptically. “Then how come you stay out here in the middle of nowhere instead of, I don’t know, going around healing people?”

He starts to splutter, obviously offended by that, before he seems to decide he’s too resigned to bother.

“Not a medical doctor,” he says snippily. “It’s a title. For people who know a lot of stuff. Of course I’m actually a doctor twice over.”

That whole thing sounds pretty unlikely, but in the end she supposes it’s best not to ruffle any feathers unnecessarily.

“Cool,” she says non-committally, taking another cookie. The hearth keeps the room cosily warm, and the light coming in through the slightly dusty windows is starting to edge away from the blueish tint of early morning into the golden one of dawn. The cat lies sprawled in front of the fire, giving small snores from time to time. 

McKay looks like he wants to say something more, but then he just starts chewing his bread.

“So you’re a doctor of... art?” she asks, thinking of the sketches.

McKay nearly chokes and then glares like she’s actually hurting him inside. “No! No, I’m not – why would you – no. I’m an astrophysicist.”

“That just sounds made up,” she can’t help but point out.

“It means,” he sighs, “that I know a lot about the forces that underpin the workings of the universe. Like what stars are,” he adds at her doubtful look.

“They’re stars. What more is there to say on the matter?”

Another aborted splutter. “I hope you know I’m only letting you get away with that because you’re just a child.”

That is at least the second worst thing you can say to someone who is twelve and six lunar cycles.

“Oh well, excuse me for not knowing stuff only stuffy old men in stuffy old suits find in stuffy old books,” she says, taking another sip of nostril-opening tea.

“Don’t you go to school?” McKay asks, in much the same tone her grandfather uses when discussing ‘young people these days’.

“Well, no,” she says patiently, “because I’m not going to be a scribe or anything. I’m going to be a hunter. I’ve been an apprentice to – ” she stops, gathers herself, goes on, “I’ve been an apprentice for three years and I’m due to be let into the Guild this winter if I pass my test.”

McKay waggles his head thoughtfully. “Well, to each their own, I guess,” he concedes, taking a cookie and biting into it daintily. “I suppose some people have to be geniuses, while other people run willy nilly through the woods throwing spears around.”

It’s her turn to splutter, almost sending tea out her nose. Then she sees he’s smiling at her, a little bit; a turning up of the corner of his mouth that almost looks sad, a crinkle to his eye that wasn’t there before.

“If you mean some people have to sit around uselessly while other people get food for them, that sounds about right.”

The smile gets a bit wider even as he shifts his focus back down to his cookie. His grin is uneven, mouth higher on one side than the other.

As they finish up – leaving only bread crumbs because, man, this guy can eat – they sit in silence for a while.

“I, uh...” she begins. He’s wrapped his hands around his tea mug as if he’s cold, even in here by the fire. She bites her lip. “Can I come back? Tomorrow, maybe.”

His face scrunches up in a doubtful grimace.

“I could help you out with stuff,” she hurries to add. “I’m a good worker. I could... clean or something.” She gives a meaningful look to the corners of the room, where the fact that a man has lived here alone for a long time is readily apparent in every cobweb and dust bunny. “Maybe cooking. Anything else it’s hard to do alone.”

McKay looks at her for a long time. “Aren’t they going to miss you at home?” he says finally.

The question catches her unexpectedly behind the ribs.

(She thinks about their house, quiet and remote like it’s been set under water; thinks about every pale, suddenly foreign face constantly caught on the threshold of grief.)

“No,” she says.

He studies her some more, blue eyes curiously opaque. His hands are still folded over the mug. He has some calluses, but not like her grandfather has, not like someone who does hard work with their hands every day.

After a pause that probably feels longer than it is he shrugs. “Sure. I’ve got a lot of crap up in the attic that should be dealt with.”

She grins. “I’m good at dealing with crap.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

---

 

McKay stands in the door to the cottage as he sees her off, arms folded over the chest of his ugly, ugly bulky sweater. Faith gives him a tiny wave as she starts to walk away. For a moment he seems unsure how to respond, and ends up giving an awkward little nod.

Oh well, maybe however many years in isolation does take the social graces out of a man. It’s not as though Faith has ever been very good at the ins and outs of the social thing either. She prefers the quiet of the forest and the hunt to the bustling life of the town. Her mother says she’s just like her father’s side of the family like that.

“No citrus!” McKay suddenly shouts after her. She turns to glance at him, confused.

“What?”

“No citrus, as in, lemons and similar foodstuffs. I’m deathly allergic.”

“I’ll make a note of it,”she tells him, even though she’s never heard about a ‘lemon’ before in her life. “Only lemons if I’m trying to poison you.”

He gives a snort of derision. “As if you could. I’ve been avoiding the stuff since long before you even got out of your nappies. It’s not as though I won’t be able to smell it.”

“If you say so,” she sing-songs cheerily, and starts walking back towards the town. 

 

It takes her a lot of self-discipline not to whistle all the way home. She’s got a foot inside the door now. If she’s sneaky enough and keeps her eyes open, she’ll be able to figure out what they’re all hiding.

 

-------

 

Harmony greeted them by the Gate accompanied by a guy who rivaled Ronon in size, and arguably also in the ability to radiate grumpiness.

 

“Doctor McKay, Colonel Sheppard, this is Nolar Lumsbred, the greatest hunter of my people. Mister Lumsbred, this is my old friend Doctor Rodney McKay and... the Colonel Sheppard.”

 

Behind his sunglasses John was already starting to sport the pained expression associated with visits to Harmony’s planet. Hell hath no fury like a spoiled girl in her early teens with the power of royal command behind her spurned, Rodney supposed.

 

Nolar Whatshisname grunted something that might with some charity be construed as a greeting. When god handed out the social graces this guy wasn’t only standing behind the door, he was probably busy beating up the bouncer.

 

“Pleased to meet you,” John said with a light bow the man probably wasn’t going to understand as sarcastic. “Okay, Harmony, what was it you wanted us to see?”

Since Ronon had just grunted something unkind from the depths of his pillows when they went to see if he wanted to come, and that after  acquiring a toddler Teyla had made it clear that waking her for anything barring an outright apocalypse was to be considered an act of reckless self-endangerment, they’d ended up going alone.

 That was probably for the best, as Rodney could all too easily see Ronon and this guy in a pissing match over who could make like Survivor Guy the longest, and then that Satedan honor thing might have kept him out here for half a year in wintertime, eating ants and making tents out of moose,  just to make a point.  

“I am willing to make use of your expertise when it comes to the technology of the Ancestors,” Harmony said.

“How gracious of you.”

“You see, I remembered what you said about the shrine being a machine,” Harmony said. “So I went back there and studied it, to see if it had other secrets than the Beast to be revealed.”

“Against my better judgment, if not yours,” Nolar Lumbrick said in a disconcertingly pleasant tone considering the expression on his scarred cliff wall of a face.

Harmony grinned at him. “I was with you; nothing in those woods would have dared touch you.”

Rodney could practically see the man’s disgruntlement melt under the brilliance of her smile.

“Well, the mini drones could have turned you into Swiss cheese at any time, of course, but other than that...” John mumbled. 

“It did come damn close a couple of times,” Nolar grumbled, but without any heat. Like putty in her hands, Rodney thought, unimpressed.

“Once I learned to control the Beast properly I started experimenting with different input. Last night I had something of a breakthrough, if I do say so myself. And early this morning we had an earthquake which... actually, you better just come see.”

 

 

---

 

The whole part of the forest where the drone testing facility used to be – the shrine of whatever Harmony kept calling it – Lagos? Iago? – had turned into a valley.

 

 

“Uh,” John said beside him, “I seem to remember there being a lot more landscape around here the last time we went hiking through these parts.”

 

 

“Well, yes,” Rodney said, blinking at the chaos of scattered stone and crisscrossing giant trees, trunks snapped like matches, lying like a battlefield before them.

 

“It happened in the early hours of this morning,” Harmony explained. “The evening before we were out here, and I had just noticed a strange humming sound coming from the forest when I touched the altar in a specific way. When we could find out nothing more we went home, and a few hours later –“

 

“Boom,” Nolar said prosaically.  

 

“I would say it was more of a CRACK, myself, but close enough. Anyway, when we came here to investigate, this is what we found. This, and in the ruins… hold on for a moment…” She fumbled around in the leather purse she kept in her belt. “This.”

 

She held out the familiar green diamond shape of a personal shield. It lit up in her hand.

 

“You found this in the debris?” Rodney asked, taking it from her and studying it. John leaned over his shoulder to peek down at it.

 

Harmony nodded. “This, and much more. Nolar – I mean, Mister Lumsbred, will you show them?”

 

With a shrug Nolar made his way down into the crater, easily skating down through the earth and stone.

 

Rodney felt a twinge of unease. “Hey, wait, if there was an earthquake here recently, maybe we shouldn’t…”

 

“I assure you, Doctor, there have never been any phenomena like this in this area before in recorded history. This earthquake – if that was what it was – was triggered by something specific.”

 

“Well, excuse me for doubting your experience in geological –“

 

“McKay, listen to the nice lady who could take away your knighthood,” John said, taking him by the shoulder and following Nolar.

 

At first Rodney didn’t understand what they were looking for – there was just earth and stone and fallen tree trunks that had to be cumbersomely climbed – and Nolar’s back was not exactly expressive where he bulldozed his way through the landscape, giving no hints that they were getting closer to anything.

 

“I’ve got lots of stone in my shoes,” Rodney muttered mournfully, trying to dislodge a pebble that had gotten stuck under his toe and keep walking at the same time. That little hop and skip was not a move that could easily be pulled off with dignity, but Christ, the pebble was driving him mad.

 

“Think about something else,” John advised, trudging along beside him.

 

“That’s the problem with being a genius; you’re fully capable of thinking of several things at the same time. Oh, for fuck’s…”

 

He was so preoccupied with trying to toe the pebble away that he didn’t notice that Nolar had stopped and almost walked right into him.

 

“Sorry about that. Uh. So what now?”

 

Instead of answering the man crouched down, grabbed a boulder about the same size as him, and heaved. Rodney quickly moved out of his way due to his long-standing phobia of death by crushing. Where the boulder had been was an Ancient control panel, glowing faintly up at them.

 

“Stuff like that,” Nolar grunted, nodding down towards it. 

 

“Move,” Rodney said immediately, diving in. “What the hell…”

 

“Is that…” John began, then pushed a heap of earth aside with his foot and bent down. He came up again with the familiar shell of a standard Ancient door panel. “Huh.”

 

Rodney scrambled to get out his tablet. As soon as he managed to get it on it beeped excitedly, telling him that it was picking up unusual energy readings.

 

A lot of unusual energy readings. 

 

“Hm.”

 

“Is that a good ‘hm’ or a ‘get ready to run’ hm?”

 

“I don’t… I mean, I can’t say yet, but – hm.”

 

“Rodney.”

 

“Well, if this is right, we’re standing at the entrance of a shielded underground facility, probably Ancient in design, possibly still functional.”

 

“You can tell all that from this?” John waved at the tablet.

 

“Yes. Oh, well, and I recognize the energy signature. It’s the same we picked up from Janus’ lab in Atlantis, and it’s coming from in there somewhere.” He glanced over his shoulder to see the outline of Harmony against the morning sun, up there on the edge of the newly created valley. With a wave of his hand he beckoned her to come over. “Hey, um, you,” he said to Nolar, “did anything out of the ordinary happen here last night, or…?”

 

It took some time for the answer to come, but when it did it was sure and steady. “Not really. The queen amused herself by making the Beast fly in different formations for a while and then tried some stuff on the shrine itself. After a while a humming started from further inside the forest, and it stopped when she let go. She asked me to try and touch the thing and to think about the hum while I did so, but nothing happened. Things like that happen all the time, so I didn’t think any more of it. We went home.”

 

“Huh. Wait, so you touched it? After she’d initialized it?”

 

Nolar raised an eyebrow in quiet if disdainful confirmation.

 

 “Okay, so maybe…” Rodney started to poke around on his tablet, pondering what would be the most efficient way to go about confirming his suspicions.

 

“Doctor McKay,” Nolar said, his voice low and rumbling. “I don’t want any harm to come to Her Majesty, do you understand? She’s a good girl, but she gets ahead of herself sometimes. Don’t encourage her.”   

 

“Uh,” Rodney said to the underside of the man’s chin as he towered over him.

 

“Hey, hey,” John said, shouldering his way between them and holding out a calming hand in Nolar’s direction. “None of us want Harmony to get hurt, okay? Just help us keep an eye on her so she doesn’t slip away, and it’s going to be fine.”

 

“What do you think?” Harmony asked breathlessly, scurrying over to them. She gave the tableau they made an unimpressed look and unceremoniously forced her way between them to get a look at the Ancient control panel.

 

“It’s… interesting,” Rodney admitted, returning to his tablet.

 

“I knew you would like it.”

 

“Hey, young lady, smugness doesn’t become you,” Rodney said. “Okay, I think I might have something. Do these readings look familiar to you?”

 

John looked at him blankly.

 

Rodney waved impatiently. “Sorry, of course they don’t, it was a segue. They do look familiar to me, because I know everything there is to know about Atlantis’ self destruct. See how neatly the ground has collapsed here? That’s because I’m detecting traces of radiation which… See, the earthquake wasn’t really an earthquake, it was the facility’s self destruct that initialized and for whatever reason it didn’t finish. I think it might just be busted, or maybe it was part of a plan to regain the entrance to the facility again if they ever came back.”

 

“Explains why Her Highness has the Ancient gene too,” John said. “If they took the trouble to set up all of this they must have kept up a presence here right up until they abandoned Pegasus entirely. Maybe some scientists stayed behind under pretense of guarding the drone project, mingled with the locals.”

 

“That is actually very clever, John,” Harmony said, smiling at him the way she sometimes did when she forgot he was actually an enemy of the state and a usurper to boot.

 

“I have my moments,” he drawled, kicking at some rubble speculatively. “D’you think there’s some way to get in there, Rodney?”

 

“Well, it might not be as easy as an ‘Open Sesame’, but that’s where my genius comes into play. My genius and a dozen combat engineers for the grunt work,” he amended.

 

 

---

 

 

It only took the combat engineers a couple of hours to clear enough stone to discover an entrance, or at least the ruins of an entrance. It only took Rodney half an hour more to make an educated guess and approach it like the resonance-sensitive material back on Atlantis.

 

Okay, so maybe some minor members of the science team carried the equipment and set it up, but Rodney did all the real work. He poked a stick through the rock to be sure, and then threw his hands up in triumph. “Eat it, Ali Baba!”

 

Nolar gave him a very weird look from where he was standing on the fringe of the small crowd of people who had gathered by now, but who cared. He didn’t have any means to understand what a masterpiece of deduction had just taken place before his eyes. Harmony stood beside him, arms folded sulkily over her chest because John had told her that the facility might be too dangerous a place for a reigning monarch who hadn’t secured any future heirs to the throne yet.

 

Rodney half-wanted to be the first to go in, but John leveled a meaningful eyebrow in his direction and a couple of the marines stepped through and checked instead.

 

“Seems to be clear, sir,” said one of them, sticking his head back through the stone in a way that would have looked really weird if you didn’t know how it worked.

 

“Right. Okay, let’s go check this out. Nice and slow and careful,” he added meaningfully in Rodney’s general direction.

 

“Why are you looking at me?”

 

“I’m just saying we have been here before, and invariably some Ancient biology class project that has been allowed to stew for ten thousand years jumps out and tries to chew our faces off. Let’s try to stay ahead of that this time.”

 

“Yes, okay, we look through the whole place first, we proceed with caution, can we go now?”

 

“After you.”

 

They walked through the stone and into… a corridor that actually resembled Atlantis to an uncanny degree. It tilted quite steeply downwards and was lit in the low blue light that the Ancients, for unfathomable reasons, seemed to have thought was enough illumination for lab work. The marines stood clustered a little further in, glancing over at John every so often.

 

“Hah,” Rodney said, looking around. “This all looks surprisingly intact.”

 

“Life signs?” John asked. 

 

“No. Though that doesn’t mean we’re not playing Hibernation Hide-and-Seek, of course.”

 

John made some of those hand gestures Rodney couldn’t seem to get a grip on and the group of marines edged slowly forwards. After a while they hit another two corridors meeting the first one, and continued down one of them until it lead to another set of corridors going off in opposite direction, and then followed that, down and down, until they reached a gigantic room  that was mostly empty but for a couple of consoles and a cylindrical metal contraption with strange symbols carved into it that was bolted into the middle of the floor.

 

“Wow,” Rodney said. His voice echoed between the high walls.

 

“What the hell were they doing down here for them to need half a football stadium’s worth of space?” John demanded, shining the flashlight on his P90 up towards the roof. It didn’t reach even half way up.

 

“I don’t know, maybe they played squash in here. Worked out for Fermi.”

 

It took over a minute to pass the entire floor of the room before they found themselves in yet another corridor.    

 

“How big is this place, anyway?” John asked, sticking his head around the next corner briefly before returning with a slightly disconcerted look on his face.

 

As if taking cues from John’s screwy genes, a screen in the wall beside his head lit up and brought up a floor plan. The cavernous room they were standing outside was mostly just a speck in one corner. Around it sprawled a complicated network of corridors and chambers and bigger rooms.

 

“Well, shit,” Rodney said, poking at the screen to zoom in on the different rooms, finding labels with cryptic Ancient names. Since their conceptual understanding of a lot of fields was so fundamentally different – read, more ridiculously advanced – from the one Rodney had access to, most of them were completely nonsensical, but he’d found that he could figure most things out on his own terms if given sufficient time to sit alone in a dark lab and squint at it. Some things he did recognize from Janus’ notes back in Atlantis. “I think he might have worked on the Time Jumper in one of these labs. He mentions going off-world a couple of times when he refers to it, and if I was going to screw around with causality I’d want to do it where there was no chance of being disturbed too.”

 

“Maybe it’s like a time garage,” John said lightly. “Maybe he made a recall function, just in case he sent it off to the end of the universe or something by accident and needed it back.”

 

“Yes, I’m sure that’s how time travel works. You press a button on your key ring and your time machine comes hurtling back to you.”

 

“Like a salmon up the stream of time.”

 

Rodney noticed that a couple of the marines were staring at them. “Or you know, whatever. From here I should be able to figure out where the subspace signal is coming from, hang on.”

 

As it turned out the subspace beacon was located in a small room next to the main power room, in what almost seemed to be a broom closet. Rodney turned it off, just to make sure no other civilization capable of space travel noticed it and wanted to join the party. After making sure that they were probably not going to be attacked and killed by a Wraith in hibernation or rudely interrupted in some other way, the science teams started trickling in, wide-eyed and hushed as they moved through the broad corridors of the facility. They spread to a couple of smaller labs that lay close together, just in case they needed to get out in a hurry. Some of the marines accompanied them, while others kept guard in the corridors. Apart from the lights and the life support pumping air into the rooms there wasn’t any sign of running systems, though it was not out of question that when you left your super secret underground facility without knowing when you could return, you set the place to slumber.

 

 It took Rodney quite a lot of time to gain access to the auxiliary control systems, but not as long as it would have if he weren’t already familiar with Janus’ style. Whatever triumph he felt hit a wall immediately after, as he watched the readings from the rest of the facility.

 

“Of course,” Rodney groaned to no one in particular, his good spirits dwindling somewhat. “Practically all the systems seem to have been severely damaged or at least impacted by the self-destruct. It struck the hardest in the power distribution systems, messed up the whole network.”

 

“Irreparably so?”asked one of the science team juniors – a Swedish woman called Eriksen, Eklund, something like that, standing on tiptoes to look over his shoulder.

 

“Probably not, because I’m on it,” Rodney said, pointedly holding the tablet to his chest and out of her view until she got it and pulled back. He set them all to the more boring diagnostic work in labs where the probability of them doing something monumentally stupid and getting themselves electrocuted was minimal, and made his way to the main power room.   

 

The main power room itself was perfectly intact, but that didn’t help much when there was no way to distribute the energy from there and out to the rest of the facility, at least not if you wanted to be sure nothing vital exploded once you did so.

 

Every part of Rodney’s body, from his eyelids to his toenails, was twitching with the frustration that he had so much new knowledge right outside his reach, but that he had to fix the goddamn wiring first. He was wrestling with the panel of one of the Ancient consoles when John came strolling in, looking peculiarly at home under the blue lights. 

 

“How’s it coming?”

 

For a minute all Rodney could do was channel his excitement through a series of hand movements. “John, this is… I mean, this is amazing. Just… you could spend half a lifetime down here and still not see everything.

 

“You know, people say that about the Louvre, but I’d seen more chubby renaissance babies than I ever wanted to long before the three hours it took before Nancy was ready to get out of there,” John drawled, but he was watching the lab with curiosity. “Janus’ ‘little’ group of followers must not have been so little, if the output of work they managed is any indication.”

 

“Either that or, you know, a smaller work force but combined with time travel,” Rodney pointed out, fumbling under the console for a control crystal that wasn’t there.  These were of a subtly different model than the ones he usually worked with. “There’re all sorts of experimental Ancient tech here that’s way ahead what was in common use back in their heyday. I’ve managed to identify biology and medical labs, experiments with new kinds of hyperdrive – incidentally there’s one very like that alternate reality drive, which show that the alternate McKay who came up with it wasn’t that far off – new beaming technology which is completely at odds with how the Asgard systems work, something that looks like it’s meant to be the sketches of a brand new class of warship...”

 

A smile tugged at the corners of John’s mouth. “Pretty cool, huh?”

 

“While I’m not sure how wise it is to tamper with such a basic and unpredictable natural force as time merely to get more work hours into your week, it’s pretty cool, yeah. Oh, there it is, of course. Could you hand me that – thanks.”

 

“Hey, wait, what if the entrance caves in on us again?”John asked, walking about and eyeing the ceiling suspiciously while Rodney got to work under the console.

 

Rodney waved his hands unconcernedly. “Then Her Highness would send some people to dig us out. The only reason it caved to begin with was the half-assed self-destruct, the rest of it should still be safe as houses. This place is fully equipped with life support anyway. Besides, the floor plan suggests there are at least two other exits. I mean, this is probably where he built the Time Jumper, so he’d need to be ready to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice in case the Council got a clue. But for god’s sake!” Rodney added as the lights dimmed and John hurriedly put his hand behind his back with an expression that stretched hard for innocence but ended up pooling around sheepish. “Would you please stop poking things before I’ve ascertained that doing so won’t electrocute you? The structure is still stable but there’s no knowing what kind of tricks the power conduits could pull.”

 

“It’s just a light switch,” John tried.

 

“This is Janus we’re talking about. There are probably light switches in here that tear holes in spacetime just because he felt like it that day.”

 

“You have to hand it to the Ancients, they built to last.” John trailed his fingers over an Ancient console, lights following his touch.”Which is funny, considering they were all planning to fuck off and play Kumbaya among the celestial harmonies sooner or later anyway.”

 

“Well, at least this facility is one of Janus’, for whom, as mentioned, time was just another tedious inconvenience. Who knows how he thought about it. He might have been investing in the future. Or the past, even. Hand me that, would you? No, not that, the other – thanks.” 

 

John wandered about some more while Rodney got a picture of quite how banged up the systems were. (The answer: disconcertingly. He’d probably have a lot of convincing to do before Woolsey’d let him work on it, because just getting most of the labs operational would be a time suck of unimaginable dimensions. ‘Think about the potential technological advantages that could be lying around here, ready for us to use against the Wraith,’ he told a mental Woolsey, and since the mental Woolsey was part of Rodney’s brain and therefore reasonable, he realized the obvious correctness of what Rodney was saying much faster than the real Woolsey usually did.)  

 

“Man, it’s hot in here,” John mumbled, shrugging off his tac vest and pulling his jacket off, forearms flexing. It managed to distract Rodney from the data on his screen for exactly six seconds, which was saying something because Rodney was right now standing at the heart of a possible revolution of Scientific Theory As We Know It (again, admittedly, but still).

 

“Somehow I’ve decided to ensure the stability of the power distribution before I move on to the thermostat,” Rodney said, but it wasn’t as though he was complaining about John removing his clothes.”You know, we might even figure out how to make ZPMs of our own from this place. One of the chambers at the north end looks really promising, and we know they’d need to have quite enormous amounts of energy to keep only half of the labs running, so they’d have to be self-sufficient in some way.“

 

“You’re saying we wouldn’t have to go on insane missions to planets where everything  up to and including the butterflies wants to kill us, only to get hold of ZPMs that turn out to have been depleted all along? What am I going to do with my weekends?”

 

 Rodney brushed away some dust from the crystal panel to get a better look at what it said. Unhelpfully enough the writing only declared it to belong to station seven, which he’d already sort of gathered. “I might have some ideas, though I don’t think it’s the sort of thing we should mention in reports.”

 

There was a bit of a pause. “Well, I’m convinced. Bring on the baby ZPMs.”

 

John’s radio crackled to life. He answered it, and Lorne’s voice came, sounding slightly harried. Since slightly harried was practically Major Lorne’s default state of being Rodney ignored the conversation, only getting the general understanding that it was something about the new recruits who had been scheduled to come in today and that Ellis was being a bitch about it, ‘no, sir, he says it’s important, sir, only wants to talk to you, sir, I told him that, sir, he still isn’t budging’.

 

“Yeah, okay, tell him I’m coming. Give me half an hour to get back to the Gate. Sheppard out. Sounds like I’ve got to go check that one out,” John said, hand coming down to rest on Rodney’s shoulder. “You’ll be okay here for a while, right?”

 

“Sure, see you, tell Zelenka it was too bad he had to stay behind,” Rodney mumbled, not looking up. John’s fingers tightened on his shoulder briefly, and he smiled absently at the sensation while trying to get the tablet to navigate through the frayed tatters of the Ancient system.

 

Just as the door shut behind Sheppard, Rodney noticed that he left his jacket draped over the back of his chair.“Hey, hang on,” he called, “John, you – ” But it was no use; the complex was as soundproof as you’d expect from a building that made Cheyenne Mountain seem like a public park free for anyone to stroll about in.

 

He shrugged. He’d take it with him later. 

 

 

 

-------

 

 

McKay is a very strange guy.

 

Of course this is kind of a given, since most normal people don’t live all alone ten miles from established civilization with only their cats for company, like some demented hermit, for at least twelve years running.

 

Still, his quiet awkwardness from that first time turns out to be nothing but a devious cover.

In reality he’s crazy like a fever-bitten volpau. Pretty much every little action she performs in his line of sight is accompanied by a cry of “Careful with that!” or “Watch out!” or “God, what are you doing, are you crazy?”. Once, while she’s putting away one of the ceramic jugs after having dusted the window sill, he comes with an appeal to caution so explosive that she startles and loses her grip on it just because of that.

 

“Man, if you don’t stop doing that you soon won’t have any tableware left at all,” she says, still out of breath from narrowly catching the jug before it cracked open on the floor.

 

He also organizes certain things into patterns obsessively. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the little room that could generously be called his pantry. In the pantry everything is lined up in straight rows. If one row can’t adequately fit on the shelf, he makes two rows of equal lengths. If there’s something left over, he will start on a new row next to them instead of adding them to an existing row and making them uneven. Things are sorted after color and size and whatever other hidden properties McKay may conjure up in his feverish mind. Once it might have been intended as a way to save space, having everything neatly organized, but like anything that moves from convention to habit to rule it has lost that effect along the way and now requires anyone venturing in there to have a pretty good head for logistics. He will react to anyone trying to put things into a more efficient order by having a fit and clutching the threatened foodstuff to his chest as if you’re going to rip it from him. It takes her a week and a half to regain his trust enough to be allowed in there again to get a root vegetable for a stew.

 

It’s pretty clear he must get supplies from somewhere – he doesn’t keep animals yet there’s some dried meat, even some cheese, and there’s a sack of dried beans he certainly hasn’t harvested from his mossy little patch of land – but the queen could have that arranged in a suitably cloak-and-dagger manner, hiding the after all humble yearly intake of one man in the food orders from the castle, with its over hundred mouths to feed.

 

He mumbles to himself all the time, a low untiring monologue that underpins everything he does. After a while this goes from mildly unsettling to a very handy way of locating his whereabouts to an almost soothing background noise. One particularly noteworthy instance of this happens a couple of weeks after she starts coming to the cottage. She senses it right away – would probably need to be deaf and blind not to, since his words are coming out in a hectic smatter of unintelligible mutters and he’s pacing back and forth over the kitchen floor, patently searching for things that are right there in his line of sight.

 

“Is this what you’re looking for?” Faith asks after his third round, holding up the kettle with the reasonable assumption that that’s why there’s a fire going in the hearth and a bucket of water on the floor next to it.

 

“Hm?” He looks up, holding his tea spoon for no other apparent reason than it being his shield against this cruel world. “Yes, yes, sure.”

 

On his way over to the hearth he stares out the window, turning his head to keep watching as he puts the kettle on without ever knowing how close he comes to singe his fingertips.

“Are you expecting someone?”

 

“Yes, of course, I’ll do it next week,” McKay assures her, tapping the spoon absently against the base of his thumb while throwing more surreptitious glances out the window. He picks up the jug in the window sill, looks at it blankly, puts it down again.

 

She wonders if she should guide him away from the soon-to-be boiling water. “Are you feeling okay?”

 

“Hm? Oh, fine, fine, I just – did you see Archimedes on your way over here?”

 

“Did I see who?”

 

“The cat! Who lives here! With me! That’s his basket in there!” He gestures at the wall, so the basket must presumably be in the bedroom. “Not that he ever uses it if he can get away with lying on top of me and half suffocating me when I sleep.” He fiddles with the spoon. “He didn’t come home last night.”

 

At his expression Faith recognizes that if Archimedes is dead, she’ll have to snatch some scrolls from the palace library and teach herself necromancy because that is one useless lump of man she sees before her.

 

“I’m sure he’s okay.”

 

“Mhm,” agrees McKay in the least convincing hum of assent she’s ever witnessed.

 

“I brought more cookies,” Faith says. “And – yeah, the water’s – don’t burn yourse – put it in some cold water, at least.”

 

After they tie a moist rag to the burn on his hand to keep it cool they sit at the table while McKay sketches nervously with his unhurt hand, using a charcoal stick that he manages to rub out with his own sleeve more often than not.

 

“So,” Faith says, watching as whisker after whisker appears and is smudged out on the paper, “have you had... Archimedes for a long time?”

 

“Seven years,” McKay says distractedly, “give or take. Harmony forced him on me when Hypatia – she was my cat before that – died. When he was a kitten he’d try to bite my toes while I slept. Once I kicked him clean through the room by accident. Gave me the silent treatment for a week.” Yup, definitely feline necromancy on the side of her other studies from now on.

 

“I’m sure he’s alright,” she says, in accordance with the often posited theory that repetition leads to truth.  

 

Under the pretense of fetching more water Faith searches the nearby bushes for any trace of Archimedes,  leaving a couple of sardines beside the porch just in case this will lure the stupid animal back faster.

 

In fact they’re half-way through lunch before the tell-tale scratching noises on the door prompt McKay to jump to his feet and stumble into the hallway.

 

“What time do you call this, then?” she hears him demand as the door swings open. “I waited up! Where the hell have you been?”

 

Archimedes gives that long soulful mewling that either means he’s happy to see you or, more likely, is meant to communicate that right now would be a really great time for the humans to stop being dense and get on with feeding the household’s most important member. There’s an embittered stream of mumbled expletives from out there, but when McKay comes back in Archimedes is slung across his shoulder like a particularly smelly fur, just as it’s supposed to be.

 

“Looks like he’s been in a bit of a fight,” Faith says, taking in the bloodied nick in the cat’s ear.

 

“If only he realized that the overwhelming majority of the animals out there are at least twice his size,” McKay laments, petting Archimedes’ neck as he finds the rest of the rag they’d torn up to cool his hand.

 

“Nothing wrong with a bit of ambition,” Faith says, taking the rag from McKay and studying the cat’s ear. “Should you hold him still or should I?”

 

“Well, since he’ll try to scratch your eyes out, I might as well.”

 

If there is a more thankless task than giving medical attention to a cat, Faith can’t think of it right now. After her narrowly avoiding being bitten ten times in a row the ear is cleaned and her sympathy for the animal has dwindled substantially.

 

“There,” McKay says, releasing Archimedes, who gives him a death glare and goes to sulk over by the window. “Actually, maybe he needs stitches?”

 

“Do you know how to do that?”

 

He huffs dismissively. “My most hands-on experience with that so-called branch of science is the two times I’ve dated a medical professional and gotten medical student hypochondria in sympathy.”

 

She makes a face. “But you’re like, a hundred years old or something. You must have had some time on your hands to learn first aid at one point or another. My grandfather taught us the most basic skills before we were even allowed to hold a knife.”

“Oh yes, listen to you, Ms Freshly-out-of-Utero,” McKay mumbles sourly. “Not everyone can learn how to wrestle moose and amputate limbs before their seventh birthday, okay? Some of us have more important things to do at that age. Like building A-bombs and preparing to gain the world’s best understanding of wormhole physics.”

 

“You know how to build bombs?” Faith asks, ready to fake a renewed respect if it means he’ll show her.

 

“I’m not putting explosives in the hands of the prepubescent,” McKay declares firmly.

 

---

 

She’s loathe to admit it, but he does know a lot of stuff which is, if not actually useful, occasionally quite interesting, and he has some kind of odd genius in coming up with practical solutions. His well, for example, works in some convoluted way that allows him to get a fresh bucket at any time merely through the flick of a little finger to a small lever.

 

“I would have taken some time to lead it inside and make a tap in the kitchen,” he says when he first shows it to her, “but then I never got around to it and now it doesn’t seem like there’s much point.”

 

“I don’t even understand how you managed to make all this!” Faith says, waving at the well.

 

“Well, as mentioned before I am a genius,” McKay says, grabbing the bucket. “Done in an afternoon.”

 

“Don’t tell my mother, because she waited years for my father to rid our well of salamanders so we wouldn’t find their tails in our tea water.”

 

“I was trained a lot better,” he says. “Usually under the threat of oncoming doom and insistent nagging. Come on, help me with this.”

 

 

It also becomes increasingly clear that whatever else he is, McKay is not a man of the ocean. She’s never seen anyone so potentially lethal in their handling of an oar. Not to mention his steering ability; one windy day they spend half an hour trying to navigate around a tiny headland because he refuses to accept any kind of help.

 

Their effectiveness in setting and retrieving arhar trap rises commendably when Faith one day rolls her eyes and just grabs the rope right out of his hands.

 

“You keep looking like you don’t want to get them up and into your boat,” she says, heaving it over the side. “I hate to break it to you, but that’s the point of the whole exercise.”

“I always thought lobsters were kind of creepy, and they didn’t have seven claws and a poisoned spike.”

 

“They won’t be able to use that poisoned spike on you if you crunch their heads as soon as you get them up,” she says, using the blade of the oar for exactly this purpose.

 

“Of all the little girls on all the planets in all of the Pegasus galaxy, I get the one who’s a psycho,” McKay says weakly, edging back subtly from the oar.

 

“It’s that or braving the poisoned spike. My grandfather told me that when he was a boy he once saw someone get stabbed in the eye by one of these. Died instantly. So he made a point of teaching me. Do you want to do the next one?”

 

 

Neither does he have much skill in dressing himself for warm weather.

 

“Let’s just say that where I grew up, that wasn’t a priority,” McKay says, handling the oar with a slightly queasy look. “Besides, I spent most of my youth indoors.”

 

His skin is a lot paler than her own dark brown, though. He’s already pinkening dangerously under the glaring sun being thrown back up from the water’s reflection.

 

“You should wear a hat or something,” she says. At his baffled expression she adds: “So you don’t get burned. I have no wish to hear you whining about how your nose is peeling for the next two weeks.”

 

He makes a face. “I tried making my own sunscreen again, but it was too hard to get the ingredients, and I don’t care what Harmony says, animal fat is not an acceptable substitute for cocoa butter.”

 

“A sun ‘screen’? Made from butter?”

 

The oar almost jumps out of its row holes as McKay makes a dismissive hand movement. “You know what, forget it.” 

 

---

 

After a month or so they attack the small, dusty and above all crowded space that is McKay’s attic.

 

“Were you planning on making a three mast ship out of this?” Faith asks, barely able to poke her head in through the attic hatch to take in the phenomenal stack of crates occupying all available space.

 

“Things sort of heap up over twenty years,” McKay says from where he’s keeping the chair she’s standing on steady on the uneven floor. “You think, maybe I’ll take them down next week, put them somewhere else, get it organized, and then you don’t, and then suddenly it’s like playing a game of deadly Jenga perched on top of a rickety chair and then it seems just as well...not to.”

 

“What is all this stuff, anyway?”

 

“This and that,” McKay says, ever helpful.

 

“Any explosives?”

 

The chair rocks under her as he gives a sound of scornful indignation. “Oh yes, because if I did have any highly volatile substances at hand I’d store them right here, on top of my own head.”

 

“Hm. Okay, is any of this stuff fragile?”

 

“Actually most of them are empty. There’s just nowhere to store them down here. From time to time I get one down to use as firewood. Mostly in winter when I can’t be bothered to go outside, I have to admit.”

 

“I think you’ll find you are going to have enough firewood for the rest of your life when we’re done here. All right, let me down.”

 

They shut Archimedes into the bedroom to avoid any unforeseen casualties – he meows indignantly when he understands that they’re going to do something without him but its better than him being squashed because he doesn’t think gravity applies to him – and then take cover in the kitchen. Using a length of rope wound with utmost care around a couple of the crates they let the most unstable ones come crashing to the floor from a safe distance, and then McKay uses the broom to eek out some of the stragglers.

 

It all goes very smoothly if dustily until one crate falls with the loud crack of breaking glass.

 

“Crap,” McKay says, leaning down to open the lid. Inside is some straw and, in the straw, lots of broken glass tubes. A couple have actually survived unscathed, and Faith holds one up to the light. It’s the finest glass you get in these parts; there are other planets with more skill in glass making but those wares are usually expensive.

 

“What are these for?” she asks, turning to watch McKay’s features squish up and move apart as she shifts the tube.

 

Gingerly he picks up a couple of shards. “Oh, there was one period where I followed a line of inquiry that would have required a lot of chemistry experiments, but that turned out to be a dead end pretty fast. I did test different apple jam recipes with them, though. Took me three years, but now I’m confident I make the best jam possible considering how tart those apples are. Obviously there won’t be any more endeavours of that kind.”

 

She considers this. “But your jam is pretty good.”

 

This earns her a surprisingly unironically pleased smile. “I could teach you how to make it, if you’d like. I mean, it’s only going to be a month or so before I have to start on it anyway, you might as well be useful while you’re here.”

 

“Deal.”

 

McKay mutters darkly about slipped discs and splinters as they start carrying the crates out to where they’re going to chop up and stack the crates for firewood, but quite quickly he channels this anxiousness towards Faith instead, nervously hovering every time she lifts something heavier than an old moth-eaten sweater or the inexplicable ball of yarn they find between some of the crates.

 

To be fair Faith secretly thinks he might have a right to as she lets the scales tip too far in the direction of efficiency in disfavor of good judgement and tries to carry four crates at the same time.

 

“Watch your back!” McKay yelps, making some wobbly hand movements. “Seriously, you could just take one crate at a time.”


“But then I’d have to make two trips,” she points out, balancing the top crate precariously.

 

When he doesn’t answer her with a new snipe, like she’s come to expect, she sees that he’s just looking at her, hands fallen down to rest limply along his sides, shoulders slumped.

“What?” she demands.

 

It takes him a couple of seconds to return from the lost inward look of his eyes enough to shake his head slightly. “It’s... It’s nothing. You just... it reminded me of someone I know.” He smiles, tentatively, mouth askew and he’s an old man. He’s bound to have known a lot in his time that she’ll never be privy to.

 

---

 

One day as she makes her way back home, she realizes that her head is full of apple jam recipes and how Archimedes had spilled a whole pot of beans into his owner’s lap and trying to come up with some way to get McKay to teach her how to draw, and not about how to find out what it is McKay and the queen has been keeping from her.

 

She decides that she’ll amend that, as soon as she’s sure she has the whole jam recipe. She’s sure there’s one special ingredient he’s keeping from her.

 

-------

 

 

He got the hail six hours later, as he was trying to contort his back into previously unimagined shapes to reach under the battered Ancient console.

 

“Rodney,” John’s voice came in his ear, sharp and sudden enough that he jerked up into sitting position only to almost brain himself on a corner.


“Ow – for fuck’s – Hm, yes, what is it?”

 

“Rodney, are you okay?”

 

Rodney sat up creakily, still rubbing his forehead. “What? Yeah, sure, as much as I ever – ”

 

There was a long tremulous outbreath on the other side, and then John said: “Can that subspace signal be tracked back to you?”

 

His voice was strangely urgent, like it mostly was when they were about five minutes from being blown to smithereens, and Rodney was starting to notice strange sounds behind his voice, as if  John was running through a crowd. Something tight lodged itself behind his breastbone.“What – Sheppard, what’s that in the background?”

 

“Dammit, McKay, just answer the damn question!” Rodney jerked as the volume went up to a shout straight into his ear. “Could anyone trace the signal to Harmony’s planet or not?”

 

Rodney’s chest wound itself tighter as he scrambled to his feet. “Well, I, uh, I turned off the transmitter both from this side and back home, so the only way would be to find it in our records and extrapolate –”

 

“Good, Zelenka already deleted all that, so that should be – ”he was cut off by a loud crash, and then that terrible echo-like sound of many people screaming at the same time.

 

Rodney’s feet got to their senses long before he did, taking him towards the exit as fast as he was able to go. “John! John, are you – ”

 

John coughed on the other side and Rodney’s mind went empty for a second with ‘Oh, thank god’ even as his body was too busy running to produce the accompanying feeling of relief or anything but clean, sheer terror hacking into his chest.

 

“Yeah, Rodney, I’m – Ronon! Ronon, take that exit. Get ready.”

 

Almost pleading now Rodney asked: “John, what’s going on?” as he shoved people aside in the castle hallway and bolted against the courtyard.

 

Instead of an answer there was John yelling “Now!”and the sound of gunfire, with the distinctive zap of Ronon’s gun weaving between the smatterings.

 

Ronon’s voice screaming something over the din – Rodney couldn’t make it all out no matter how hard he tried, but it sounded like something along the lines of “They have something something the lab, something something Teyla”, and Rodney reached the edge of the courtyard and had the Stargate in his sight, the blue surface unperturbed and calm and –

 

and then it collapsed and flickered away, and there was only silence in Rodney’s earpiece.

 

“John?” Rodney said into the new all-consuming quiet, except his voice broke on it so it didn’t sound like anything at all. “John, are you there?”

 

 

And he’d dialled and dialled and dialled the Gate without the silence lifting, until it was all that filled the inside of his head and his lungs and Harmony was staring at him with wide, frightened eyes, trying to make him stop.

 

 

Rodney opens his eyes to the ceiling of the little cottage, too inured to the flashback dreams by now for his pulse to even start racing.

 

It’s barely getting light outside.

 

He lies in bed for a while longer, but experience suggests that he won’t get any more sleep tonight, so he gives up the ghost and just scoots out of bed, grappling for his clothes as he goes. Dawn is just far enough along that you can see where you’re going, and anyway he could probably walk the path to the lab blindfolded by now. He might as well get some hours of work in before Faith comes over to make another... interesting meal.

 

He packs his tablet, takes the life signs detector and the gun just in case there’s something more dangerous than half-feral twelve year olds out there in the forest, even though the life signs detector has almost given him a heart attack more than once because it refuses to differentiate between people, Wraith, and animals large enough to ping its sensor. Then he slips on one of the sweaters that Harmony keeps insisting on knitting for him herself even though he’s suggested in differing values of tactfulness that maybe she should leave this to someone who actually knows how to navigate a knitting needle, and walks out into the half-light of morning.

 

 

-------

 

 

Then one day Faith comes to the cottage only to find that McKay isn’t there.

 

She stands in the doorway for a while, awkwardly clutching the basket of eggs she’s brought because she thought she might make omelettes, listening for an answer from the kitchen and getting nothing.

 

“Hello?” she calls again, feeling her spine go all tight and tingly even though she knows it’s silly. “Doctor McKay, are you here?”

 

Still no answer.

 

She puts the eggs down on the porch to take a look around the cottage, to make sure he isn’t just over by the outdoor toilet or something.

 

He’s not, and he’s not down by the little shed with the fishing equipment and boat stuff, and he’s not by the apple tree picking apples for breakfast. He’s not on any of the surrounding cliffs plunging into the ocean. He’s not out on the water having loud arguments with an arhar trap he’s trying to extricate from a tangle of seaweed. The boat is fastened to the pier. For a while she stands on the very edge of the pier, looking out at the ocean because her stomach is feeling kind of weird. Then she gathers herself and turns back to the cottage. 

 

Her mother has always taught her that it’s rude to go into someone’s house without being invited, and though she cheerily breaks that rule while McKay is around she suddenly feels the taboo now, when the cottage is quiet and remote and full of secrets that creep into the cracks in the walls when he’s actually there.

 

From the porch she eyes the darkness leaking out of the half-ajar bedroom door, weighs the stuttering hammer of her heart thinking about what she might find in there against the fact that if... that if something has happened, she’s the only one who would ever come by to find him.

 

She swallows hard, and then lifts her foot to step inside.

 

It’s an overcast day outside so the cottage only gets the dim illumination of grey early morning light. Everything’s very quiet. Archimedes’ food bowl is standing on the kitchen floor, but she can’t see him anywhere. When she reaches the bedroom door she hesitates before knocking on it, hard. “Doctor McKay? Are you in there?”

 

There’s no sound from inside.

 

She pushes the door open with her fingertips. The hinges are well oiled and don’t as much as creak, which she guesses makes sense. He’s pretty persnickety about keeping stuff in working order. 

 

The bedcovers are folded to the side; she can see at once he’s not in there. Something in her heart gives and lets her be a little angry instead – where the hell has he gone, if he’s not in here? Didn’t he remember that she’d be by like she is, oh, every other day?

 

It then occurs to her that she’s standing in the bedroom of a man who isn’t directly related to her for the first time. Right after that it occurs to her that anything McKay’d want to keep from her, he’d have it in here. She’d be a pretty poor spy if she didn’t check it out. She glances around, a little furtively.

 

Predictably it’s mostly unexciting. McKay doesn’t have a lot of clothes, and they’re all the same terrible bulky model she can’t bring herself to suspect he knitted himself but wonders where the hell he got, if he didn’t. He’s obviously not too bothered about how he stores them either, because while there is a piece of furniture in there that may be a commode (if a commode built by a carpenter with one bad eye and two thumbs too many), most of the sweaters and pants are crumpled haphazardly on top of it.

 

One of the pieces of clothing stands out from the home-made-by-a-blind-aunt look of the others. It’s a leather jacket that had probably once been black but is now faded to a cracked dark brown. On one shoulder it has a rectangular patch that’s probably meant to hold a mark or insignia of some sort. Even if the mark was still there it probably wouldn’t tell her very much; she never did have the patience to memorize the interplanetary markings of the various trades and guilds and whatever. For all she knows it could be from another galaxy entirely. Maybe it’s something McKay wore back before his planet was destroyed.  

 

There’s a rickety nightstand with a device she doesn’t recognize on it. It’s a flat rectangular shape with lots of buttons, almost like some of the machines in the castle. There’s a possibility that he’ll be able to tell if she touches it – the queen certainly knew when Faith picked on that orb thing when she was a kid – so she doesn’t. It doesn’t tell her much except that McKay is in some way connected to the queen, which is not exactly a new insight. 

 

The nightstand’s legs are of differing lengths, so the left leg is propped up with a wedge of folded paper. She strains her ears to listen for approaching footsteps, but there’s nothing. Practically feeling her mother’s outraged stare on the back of her neck she slides open the drawer in the night stand.

 

It’s full of drawings.

 

These are not the meticulous studies from the kitchen. A lot of them are drawn in stark black ink, as if something’s cracked open on the page and bled into the paper. There’s no detached, fussy observation and registration of shape and volume, simply a chaos that at first makes her doubt their origin because McKay doesn’t seem the kind of man to make something this… intangible. It looks like someone grasping at fading traces of a dream, mooring them in the paper.

 

The artists at court are mostly interested in mirroring the observable world back to itself. Faith has never seen art look like this. She checks over her shoulder yet again, aware that this is a bad idea but unable to drag herself away.

 

The first sketch she finds is of a line of buildings, or maybe a city, though bigger than the capital surrounding the queen’s castle by far. The towers and spires have strange, twisted shapes, as if they were once alive, as if they cracked their way out of the ground some time long before living memory, dark windows against the world like a thousand eyes looking out while you look in. Something’s written under the picture, but it’s in those strange angular letters McKay occasionally uses when he’s leaving notes for himself. She can’t read it.

 

The city looks beautiful but abandoned; the sort of place where ghost stories are real and souls get lost, instead of just turning out to be a lonely old man living in the woods.

 

She carefully runs her finger along the sharp thick lines of the central tower, feels something strange in the back of her mind, though she suspects it’s second hand. The detail is impressive, small grooves in the minor towers recorded as faithfully as the big shapes. It’s hard to believe that it could be made up purely from someone’s imagination, but it’s equally unbelievable that there is such a place out there, such a strange alien structure left and discarded.

 

There are more drawings of the city, all so consistent that after flicking through enough of them she

almost feels like she knows it, could navigate through it to a degree the same way she does the forest.   

 

And then there are people, each and every one captured and recaptured like it was somehow necessary to pin them to the paper, to make them stick. She resists the urge to track them with her finger, thinking she might smear them. There’s a man with long hair in dreadlocks. He has a tattoo on his neck and every time he turns up he towers over all the others, broad shoulders hemming in the people around him, muscled arms tensing as he picks up a baby, as he holds a gun, as he eats off a fork. A small, petite woman with a pair of Bantos sticks, a style of fighting Faith knows is common in nomadic people on other planets, where ease of transportation is paramount. She has a wide smile that crinkles her eyes and is very pretty.  

 

Their faces are mostly stylized, rough outlines, but as Faith turns the pages she feels like she’d recognize them if she saw them in a crowd. There’s a small, scrawny man with wispy uncombed hair, perpetually squinting over the top of his glasses, a woman with curly hair and a wide, slanted mouth who turns up all alone, or with two shadowy people on either side of her, or holding a little girl on her arm; there’s a slight woman with long straight hair and a nervous smile holding something that looks like the kind of knife their family doctor uses.  

 

The Wraith show up in some of them, but almost incidentally, a peripheral darkness. Faith has never seen one close by, and she’s certainly not more eager to now.

 

There’s one recurring character she takes particular note of eventually. It’s a tall, thin man with dark unruly hair, usually sporting some kind of weapon on his person, his clothes black and practical, like a uniform – almost always turned a bit away from the viewer, so you can’t really catch his face.

 

She wonders if McKay is aware of doing that.

 

The dark-haired man turns up infrequently but differently from all the others; any time he shows up he’ll be rendered in greater detail, as if the artist was loathe to leave him on the paper and let go.

 

 Then she reaches a page that makes her almost drop the whole pile.

 

“Oh dear,” she says out loud, hearing her mother in her own flustered voice because wow, she did not expect that.

 

Her eyes keep skirting down to the page and away again, caught in an impossible tug of war between the realization that man, she’s overstepped a dozen boundaries here, and the strange fascination that’s working her over like magnetism.

 

In the end magnetism always wins out, like McKay has told her, being a force of nature and all.

 

She trails the lines on the paper with her eyes, a stupid blush warming her cheeks because that is one naked man. That is one very, very naked man.

 

To be fair to her own sense of propriety it’s not so much the fact that he’s naked – she’s seen naked men before, of course, bathing in forest waters and dipping up and down in the ocean and it hasn’t exactly been noteworthy, except for a certain horrified fascination with the …flabby bits – as much as exactly how he is naked. She’s reasonably sure she has never seen anyone naked like this at all.

 

She thinks it’s the same dark-haired man as before, except it’s kind of hard to tell because he’s out of his uniform and devoid of any weapon and somehow that had been intrinsically tied to the image of him. Also you can see his face in these. (It’s not the only thing you can see, but she tries to keep her gaze away from that because there is too much information and then there’s too much information.)

 

And yet she finds that somehow it’s the small stuff that makes her the most overwhelmed – a facial study that should have been innocent except the man’s head is tilted back and his mouth is half-open and curled up in a smile at the same time and his eyes are closed, eyebrows drawn slightly together. Just a ducked dark head, strong, long fingered hands holding a book thick enough to be used as a siege weapon. A figure in the distance, slouching nonchalantly against a wall, still somehow recognizable. A rare splash of color in a hurried sketch; blood red splattering a face that is almost too hard and cold to be recognizable, the unyielding metal of a gun.

 

When she puts the drawings back her stomach is clenched, radiating low-level nausea out from her gut because… well, she was never meant to see that, and it made her feel small and young and stupid. And even if he never catches her out she’s kind of caught herself.

 

She stands in the middle of the grey, hollow room, thinking that if someone tidied up the clothes it would be like no one ever lived here at all. The cottage is still and empty around her, her own breathing occupying too much space.Then there’s a scratching on the door and Archimedes’ familiar mournful wail of ‘seriously, if someone doesn’t feed me right this instant I will probably die’. She lets him in, watching him strut around the kitchen with the proprietary unselfconsciousness that is the privilege only of cats and a certain type of old lady. When he finds out his food bowl is not already filled he gives her the stink eye.

 

Normally she’d tell him “Well, don’t blame me, I’m not the one who thinks you need a diet,” but today her voice doesn’t want to come out from the shell of her throat.

 

She goes outside to stand in what, for lack of a better word, is the cottage’s garden. It’s mostly a patch of moss with some brave tufts of grass pushing through right beside the apple tree. If you scan the terrain really carefully – which she’s been taught to since she was, like, four – there’s a definite track winding up the hillside, through several clutches of trees and heather.

 

It’s the same path McKay had been taking that first time they’d met and he’d shot at her.

 

Her feet itch. It’s weird - it’s not as though she’d be wise to divulge to him that she knows where he went that day, it’s not as though she hasn’t been out there to check it out and found nothing but mossy rocks... but she wants to find out where he is, that he’s somewhere close by.

 

In the end she resolves to take the path and just keep her ears open in case she needs to dive behind a rock and hide. Aside from the lack of sunshine it’s a nice morning, pleasantly warm and full of birdsong. Faith reaches the place where the path ends fairly quickly – under fifteen minutes – and she doesn’t see anything or anyone bigger than a scurrying forest mouse the whole time.

 

So. Not here either. She puts her hands on her hips, frustrated.

 

And then the rocky crag gives a high, tingling sound, like the one of a bell, and there’s the sound of approaching footsteps. For one very confused moment she just stands there, rooted to the ground like a rabbit before a predator, and then her feet take the initiative she can’t and run hell for leather to the nearest thicket of trees, hiding. On second thought the trunks probably won’t be enough of a cover, so she scrambles up the branches of one of them, knowing the thick cover of leaves will cloak her from pretty much any angle.

 

Through a little gap in the leaves she watches as the rocky hillside does a lot of unusual things. The first thing it does is to start shimmering slightly, like a heat haze or the rippled surface of a pond. The second, even more remarkable thing it does is yielding as Doctor McKay steps out from what is ostensibly solid rock, carrying his dodgy shoulder bag and the white rectangular thing she’d seen him with that first time. Studying it with most of his attention he drags his hand down the rock of the hill side. In the trail of his touch there’s a blue glow for a couple of seconds before it fades. When he pulls his hand away back the shimmery parts of the rock have settled again, looking as mundane and unnoteworthy as you’re wont to if you’re a great chunk of stone.

 

He still prods it once or twice, reminiscent of how some people pull down the handle of their door just to make sure they really locked it.

 

Faith gapes and promptly gets a mouthful of leaves. She clings to the tree limb she’s currently hanging on to as her mind reels, trying to find an explanation as to what the hell just happened. In the meantime McKay looks up from the white thing in his hand, brow wrinkled as he scans the nearby landscape. His gaze ends up scarily close to the tree Faith is perching in. Seriously, how does he do that?

 

She weighs the relative merits of calling out, exposing herself before he has the chance to, or climbing further up and hide in the upper branches to make sure she isn’t visible from the ground. As she carefully feels around the bark she jostles a small branch minutely, and in turn it pushes against a branch of the next tree over.

 

An indignant hoot comes from over there, and the big, sharp-beaked head of a Great Loren Bird sticks out from the mess of leaves.

 

The moment she feels sure it isn’t going to launch itself over to her and scratch her eyes out she changes her gaze back to McKay, only to find that he has the gun in his hand again.Seriously, what is it with that man and his trigger-happy... The hoot of the Great Loren Bird seems to have pacified him, though. After glancing down at the white thing – and somehow that has got to be how he knows someone’s there, because she knows his hearing is going or at least going incredibly selective, and that he tends to be lost in his own thoughts far too often to take notice of the real world much. She has no idea how that can be how he knows, but it’s the only explanation.

 

He shrugs, putting the white thing away but not the gun. When he walks away Faith waits as long as she feels she can with the cross face of the planet’s largest tree-dwelling bird species glaring grim death at her, and then makes her way down the branches to the ground. She lands, not quite as quietly as her grandfather would have applauded were he here, but without twisting any limbs.

 

Checking around to really make sure McKay has gone and she’s alone, she goes over to the rock wall, studying it. There are no cracks, hair-thin or otherwise; the thing is as seamless as you’d expect a rock to be. She drags her hand over every inch of the surface like McKay had done, but there are no blue lights, no sound of bells. She’d think she imagined it all, if it weren’t for the fact that the threat of being shot focuses the mind wonderfully, and she knows what she saw.

 

As she pulls her hand away there’s a series of small, distant cracks, but nothing happens under her expectant look. Probably some pebbles shaking loose.

 

She decides to ponder it for herself later and run all the way back to the cottage, so he won’t wonder what the basket of eggs is doing on his porch.

 

 

 

-------

 

 

“Hey, this is actually really good,” McKay says with his mouth full of omelett.

 

“What do you mean, ‘this’?” Faith asks suspiciously. That tone of surprise wasn’t very nice.

 

“Nothing,” he says with a haste that negates some of his pacifying intent, and since he’s always the man to dig himself deeper, he adds, “Nothing, nothing, not even the most egalitarian palate can enjoy everyth – ... it’s really good, is what I’m saying.”

 

“Well, good,” she says, returning to the pan with her improvised kitchen shovel, fashioned out of a broken knife handle and a flat piece of wood. She turns her own slowly browning omelette.

 

“I mean, nothing’s even burnt or anything,” he adds in that airy tone that makes her pretty sure he’s just messing with her on that, at least.

 

“Hey, I’ve seen your cooking, you should just be grateful for food with no visible pieces of charcoal dipping up and down in it.” She picks the omelette up and drops it onto her plate. Since the plate of choice is still a bowl, it then sags sadly into the middle.

 

“You definitely need some more cutlery and stuff,” she proclaims, taking the wooden fork that will also serve as her knife because the actual wooden knife had snapped last week and Faith hasn’t gotten around to getting McKay to show her how to make new ones.

 

Between bites he mumbles something mildly uncomplimentary about if someone would detain from cutting their meat like they were a caveman with a hatchet instead of a kid with a glorified toothpick... She generously ignores him and sprinkles salt herb over her food before sitting down across from him.

 

“That herb thing of yours really makes it work,” McKay concedes. “But I still don’t know it was worth all your trouble.”

 

In a sudden flash of inspiration Faith had grabbed a couple of handfuls of the herb on her way back, conveniently giving herself an alibi for her absence.

 

“No trouble at all.”

 

“If you say so,” McKay says easily, instantly over his worries of exploitation.

 

They eat in comfortable silence for a while. McKay’s hair is standing up on one side the way it does when he scratches his temple while he thinks hard.

 

The cat headbutts her calf until she leans down and strokes his head. The waves roll against the shore outside, a reassuring pitter-patter against the ear drums.

 

Now that she no longer has the cooking to focus on, Faith thinks about the things she’s inadvertently learned about McKay today just about every other second, and is either better at keeping a straight face than she gives herself credit for, or else just very lucky that McKay is extremely oblivious.

 

It’s one thing with the magic door or whatever out in the woods – as far as mysteries go it’s rather neat and solveable; she just needs to find a way to follow him closely and see what he does. The queen has magic artifacts at the castle, not to mention the Beast.

 

(Magic, Faith figures, can’t be that big a deal if Prince John, eight years of age, can do it. Little John, while as talented at many things as his sister Flora when it comes to numbers and reading, has an unfortunate inability to walk for more than a man’s length or so before tripping over his own feet. Once at a garden party at the court he got stuck on the lowest branch of a tree and Faith’s father had had to find a chair to pick him down because he flat out refused to jump.)

 

So it’s not as much that part that bothers her. It’s... the other part. In the bedroom. Especially the part of the other part with the... well.

 

She tries not to think about it when they have eye contact, when she can see his face, when she can’t, when he’s in the room and when he’s not in the room. In short she’s trying her darndest not to think about it all the time. She never got the whole “Don’t think about a pink Rhoticon”-conundrum, mainly because she never considered “Because you aren’t supposed to!” as valid grounds for not thinking about whatever she wanted to, thank you very much. Now she’s getting intimate with the phenomenon in ways she strictly speaking could have gone without.

 

She tries to distract herself by talking more than she normally would. “I got the eggs from Paddick down on the royal farm,” she explains as they do their synchronized washing up routine where McKay scrubs everything to within an inch of its life in accordance with his exacting and somewhat neurotic standards, and Faith dries with a threadbare yet clean rag.

 

“Paddick? ... interesting name. And who’s he, then?”

 

“He’s a friend. He’s an apprentice blacksmith down there, and ever since the groundskeeper got sick for almost half a year and people forgot to check in on the chicken coop there have been a lot more eggs than anyone has need of. I mean, there’s a limit to how much chicken casserole a body can take. So he gave me some.”

“Oh, so this Podrick – ”


“Paddick.”

 

“Paddick. He’s like a ‘friend’ friend, then?”

 

“What?” She feels her face heat as she gets it. “What – that’s – NO! Ew! He’s like, twice my height! He smokes!”

 

“I hear that blacksmiths get really built, though,” McKay chirps, obviously enjoying her misery. “You know, big, manly biceps, strong enough to carry you around if you so wished... Big men with big feet, too, usually, and you know what that – ”

 

“Holy Queen Mother in the sky,” Faith says, scandalized, “I can’t believe you just said that.”

 

McKay hands her a bowl to dry, uncaring at his own rampant inappropriateness. “Well, now that you’re, what, ten – ” she groans at him, taking the bowl, “you’ll soon enter into the dark realms of puberty and you might as well meet prepared.”

 

“I’m not interested in anyone,” Faith complains. “Everyone my age is boring. And if I were, it sure wouldn’t be in Paddick.”

 

Though now that McKay mentions it, Paddick has indeed started to take on a more... manly form after beginning his apprenticeship. (She’s not even going to try and recall his shoe size because ugh.) Too bad he’s about as engaging in conversation as the farm’s moncons, then. He just stands around looking at people expectantly long after the conversation is done.

 

“So what, are you married or something?” Faith asks, realizing belatedly that one, if he was he probably wouldn’t be living here all by himself and two, if he had been once, it was likely to be a loaded issue, seeing as his home planet is all gone and everything.

 

Contrary to Faith’s sudden onset of social awareness McKay only gives one of his odd, crooked grins down at the washing up. “Not in so many words, I guess, but yeah, I used to be.”

 

Faith’s mind throws up the drawings from the bedroom, doing a mind’s equivalent of rolling your eyes and going ‘duh’.

 

“I was supposed to be a dancer in the queen’s wedding,” she offers, not continuing the conversation about McKay’s love life for too many reasons to count. “But I was five and refused to wear the purple dress, so they pulled in a girl from the Bingen family instead. I don’t remember much about it, but my mother says I wanted to wear an archer’s outfit instead.”

 

His smile broadens even more as he hands over the last bowl. “In my admittedly very limited experience, the only sensible thing to wear to a wedding is battle armor. At least if you invite my Great Aunt Harriet, and after that thing with her dentures and the pudding I – you know what, never mind. I was totally okay with not remembering that.” He goes outside to empty the wash basin, and comes in again with the the arhar trap that ripped last week when he hauled it over the rail of the boat.

 

“We should probably take this out to the pier,” he says. She follows him out, gathering up the trap’s rope so he won’t trip on it again.

 

They spend some time figuring out the trailing tatters of the trap before McKay starts tying it back together. There’s still no dazzling sunshine but it’s pleasantly warm outside. The high tide has yet to come in, so McKay’s toes are dangling right over the water’s surface in their questionably grey, clumpy socks, and Faith’s bare ones have almost half a meter’s clearance. Archimedes follows his usual routine of sitting by the water’s edge and occasionally throwing out a paw, just to keep the little fish on their feet. Their fins. Whatever.

 

“Uh, Faith, listen,” McKay says abruptly, hands stilling for a second in their work, “and don’t take this the wrong way because I don’t want you to stop coming here, okay? As long as you still want to I’m all on board with that, and now that I’ve gotten used to your, uh, particular brand of cuisine – ”

 

“What’s a ‘cuisine’?” Faith asks, squinting at him.

 

“A kind of hairstyle,” McKay says so smoothly that it’s either the truth or a hair-rising lie. His face is usually so transparent that it can be hard to tell when he’s actually being a jerk.“But what I’m trying to ask you is how you can be here so often. I mean, it’s a pretty long trek. It’s got to take you quite some time each trip. Doesn’t your family wonder where you are? How about that whole hunter-in-training thing?”

 

The day suddenly seems a lot less warm. Faith can’t quite look up to meet McKay’s inquisitive eyes. “Actually – “ she begins, and maybe she can say it, maybe it would be okay to say it, here, McKay a big bulky shape of reassuring warmth beside her and the cat batting at the small fishes scattering in the water.

 

It’s not quite enough, though. She always knew she doesn’t know him all that well, really; the drawings cemented that. She hardly knows anything.

 

“Actually my teacher has been ill for a while,” she says, opting for the truth she’ll be able to tell. “So I’ve been having a lot of spare time. Actually.”

 

“Oh,” he says. “That’s a lot of ‘actuallies’.”

 

She shrugs. “The doctor sees to him every other day. She says he’s going to be fine.” Her voice sounds like it’s reaching her ears from a long way away, all strange and like it belongs to somebody else. “I’ll probably still be able to finish my training in time.” 

 

McKay clears his throat. “Well, that’s good. Right?”

 

She nods.

 

They’re both silent for a while and then McKay says: “You want to take over for a while? My fingers are starting to cramp up.”

 

“Your fingers can’t cramp up,” Faith says, taking over custody of the arhar trap. “There aren’t any muscles to cramp, just sinew.”

 

“Here I take in a youngster to show her the ways of the world and all she gives back is pseudo-voodoo and attitude,” he sighs, and she grins, pleased.

 

“You could show me how to make you new fork handles, too.”

 

“Since you insist on breaking them, I guess it’s only fair.”

 

“And then I can teach you how not to make them paper fragile.”

 

“Keep that up, young lady, and I’ll be forced to make you eat all your meals with a spoon.”

 

-------

 

 

 There’s something... there’s something he’s meant to remember. It’s maddening, like a melody going around and around in your head, except you can only remember it in fragments, and none of them help you identify the song.

 

He lets the spaces in his mind go blank, opens the skies of it to a wide unhindered blue and watches the clouds pass him by as they curl in on each other, as they break away, as they coalesce into something else, something truer.

 

He follows one cloud, yearning to touch it. It spirals against him, welcoming, desperate for recognition and he remembers...

 

 

It’s late – the kind of late that makes you feel like your eyelids are lined with sandpaper and all your blood has turned into something slow and barely trickling. He’s walking home through a half-lit corridor; soon the city is going to make the light stronger parallel to the rising dawn outside. The noises of the city are all around him, cradling his mind with their familiarity.

 

He’s in the Zen state that lack of sleep sometimes hands out as a consolation prize for the way your brain has stopped functioning in any meaningful way. Things seem far away, but in a pleasant, a-layer-of-cotton-candy-between-you-and-the-world manner. When he finally reaches the door it startles him. He ‘hah’s triumphantly, pleased with this supreme feat of navigation, slumping against the door frame as he waves at the panel. The doors slide open, he tumbles in. He stands in the middle of the floor, spending some time taking in what he sees.

 

John is still fully clothed, boots included, lying with his ankles crossed and ‘War and Peace’ perilously balanced on his chest the way it usually ends up when he’s trying to pretend to not be nodding asleep every five minutes, just like Rodney’s grandmother used to with her knitting magazines.

Rodney watches him sleep for a while because…well.

 

The windows of their quarters – well, it was Rodney’s quarters, but Johnny Cash overlooks the room in full black and white glory, so it’s theirs now – are half open, and the smell of the ocean comes in with a mild breeze. This new planet does have a climate to be recommended, if nothing else.

 

When he notices that the reason his face feels so weird is because he’s smiling he steps up to the bed, saving the city’s military leader from suffocation by literature by lifting up the brick of a book and slipping in the bookmark – soon to be half-way through there, he notes – before letting it fall heavily to the nightstand.

 

“Wha – ” John jerks, blinking up at him.

 

“I said you shouldn’t wait up,” Rodney tells him, leaning his hand beside John’s hip to toe off his shoes. “When I say the thing might take all night, that really means all night. I’ve made the all-nighter into an art form. I am the Picasso of insomnia. Scoot over.  ”

 

“Wasn’t... there was the book,” John says weakly, rubbing his forehead. He wriggles to the side, giving up room for Rodney beside him. 

 

“Sure,” Rodney says, sitting down to take off his pants. “You still have your boots on.” 

 

It’s a good thing John’s perpetual laziness leaves his laces only half tied at all times, because it’s sad enough to see him struggle with the concept of getting them off as it is. There’s some low but heartfelt swearing before they hit the floor with two definite ‘thunk’s.

 

“Time ‘sit?” John mutters, narrowing his eyes at the bedside clock.

 

“Too early to be late and too late to be early,” Rodney answers, kicking his legs up and stretching with all the assorted cracking noises that come with it. “We did it, though. Plumbing optimized and ready to go again for the morning shift. Zelenka may or may not be planning to murder me in my sleep after tonight, but I think it was worth it.”

 

“I’ll keep an eye out and stun him if he tries anything funny,” John promises, which might have been more comforting if he weren’t currently squinting down at the fastenings of his pants as if their workings elude him. 

 

“My hero,” Rodney says as John nearly trips over his own pants on his way out of them.

 

“Damn right,” John rumbles, getting back up on the bed and managing to get under the covers this time.

 

When he was sharing a bed with Jennifer, Rodney had always been distantly worried that, unbeknownst to him, he was extremely annoying in his sleep – worried that he snored loudly, for example (which, to be honest, he knows he doesn’t, because Jeannie would certainly have used that for all it was worth) or that he’d roll in his sleep and crush her or something, even though he rationally knew that he sleeps like the dead, barely moving a nostril the entire night. In the past he has fallen asleep with his face mashed into astronomy articles only to blink awake to the exact same line he’d been on the night before and a pen in his hand still ready to scribble profanities over the more inaccurate paragraphs, sporting an impressive kink in his neck as an added bonus.

 

With John, on the other hand, he never worries about any of that, because as soon as he falls asleep he plasters himself to Rodney’s side and doesn’t move away before he wakes up again, effectively limiting Rodney’s potential wriggle space. Rodney doesn’t mind – John gives off surprisingly little heat for a guy his size, which probably explains how he slept in those high-necked sweaters that first year in the city – and when Rodney isn’t there he lies all tensely curled up on himself and that’s just not right. 

 

He palms John’s hip and sighs happily.

 

 

But no, that’s not it; that’s not it at all.

 

 

 

------

 

 

“Oh, Faith, darling, there you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”

 

Faith freezes part-way through putting on her leather boots (which are worn pleasantly soft, almost like a foot glove, and not ‘little more than tatters’, no matter what her mother says). She almost jumps off her seat on the staircase step and out the door, but then figures there won’t be much point.

 

“What is it, mama?” she asks, starting to tie up the laces of the left boot.

 

Her mother sticks her head in through the doorway from the kitchen, hair in its usual wild disarray in its hurriedly thrown-together bun. Faith’s skin is quite a lot darker than her mother’s, as she takes after her father’s side like that, but she has her mother’s smooth dark hair that refuses to comply with any attempts at keeping it in a hairband, to her great annoyance. The only thing that helps is if she braids her hair and ties the ribbon into her hair from root to tip and back again, which is way more energy than she’s happy with spending on her hairstyle. She’s considered taking a knife to it herself, but it doesn’t seem worth it considering the dismayed looks from her mother she’d have to weather for years to come.

 

“Oh, it’s just that the Seradons are coming over and we’re having tea and sweet bread in the parlour soon and since we haven’t seen much of you lately I thought – ” her face falls as she notices the rucksack and the boots. “You’re going out again?”

 

“Yes,” Faith says, starting in on the laces of the right boot.

 

“Faith, honey, if we get any more meat now we won’t have anywhere to put it for drying.”

 

Faith shrugs. “So I won’t hunt any more game. It’s okay.”

 

Her mother comes out of the kitchen, absently wiping her hands on her apron. Sweat has gathered to a light shine over her forehead. When Faith was little she used to be soft and curvy, but the last few years after Faith’s father died she’s been dealing with everything through excessive baking. So she’s getting a bit dumpy even as Faith gets taller and skinnier every year, no matter how much she eats, or how much she’s lately been wishing to see some clue in her body that she’s, well, becoming a woman, like the Bindel-twins with their long blonde hair and pointy breasts. Nothing drastic, of course, just enough to assure herself that she won’t have to put up with people talking to her as if she were a little kid forever.

 

McKay keeps insisting she looks like a beanpole, which would be more insulting if that wasn’t his way of hiding the fact that he sometimes leaves the last cookie for her.

 

Her mother hovers between Faith and the front door, all but wringing her hands. “Are you sure you shouldn’t take a break, just today?”

 

“Yes, mama, I’m sure. I want to go out.”

 

“But I’m sure everybody would be very pleased if you – ”

 

“Mama, none of them care if I’m here or not. You must have noticed. Why would they, I’m not even the heir to the house or title.”

“I think you’ll find that it’s not as much that they don’t care as they’ve gotten used to you never being here anyway.”

 

Faith just leans forward to tie the drawstring of her rucksack, strategically hiding the striped wrapping paper of the cheese she hasn’t strictly speaking asked if she can take and is going to be a vital ingredient in the salad she’s been idly planning to make with the sour apples from McKay’s tree.

 

“Honey, I know this time has been hard for you, but I really don’t think you should go right now. The doctor was here yesterday and she says that it might do your grandfather good if –  ”

 

“I’m going now,” Faith interrupts her, too loudly, standing up. “Are there some herbs or something you need that I should pick up along the way? I might go down to the royal farm, too, if you want eggs for dinner.”

 

“No, honestly, Faith, I don’t know what to do with you,” her mother says, and all the pretense of cheerfulness leaves her voice to be replaced with that high tight brittleness Faith hates. “All your tutors tell me you are so talented and smart, and I know you are, you’ve always been far ahead of the other children your age, so why don’t you use it? Why do you insist on wasting your time like this? I thought you just needed some time to get better but it’s been half a year now, and Master Mavin tells me you don’t show up to your lessons, you never co-operate with others in your hunting group anymore, you don’t listen when they try to teach you – ”

 

“If he can’t teach me, I don’t want to be taught!” Faith is startled by the loudness of her own voice.

 

They both turn to look down the corridor with the half-ajar door in dark heavy wood as an unspoken focal point, listening for the uncertain call that doesn’t come this time.

 

After the quiet settles safely her mother sighs. “You can’t just stop living your life, Faith.”

 

Faith hauls the  rucksack up on her shoulder, starting towards the door. Her mother lets her pass, arms folded over her bosom, her unhappiness coloring every room in the house tense and uninhabitable.

 

“The queen will be over to say her blessings over him soon,” she tells Faith’s back in her intolerably quiet, defeated voice.

 

Faith stops, and it’s only through great effort she doesn’t turn around and yell. “That’s good,” she says instead. “She’s proved so useful up to now.”  

 

The door shuts on her mother and their warm, beautiful home and the smell of tea and sweet bread, and Faith decides to skip the royal farm and just go straight to the cottage.

 

 

------- 

 

 

He stretches for another cloud image, searching, running his fingers over it to get the feel and then sinks into it, fades into the memory.

 

 

He is crossing the South Pier, idly checking out stuff on his tablet as he walks, when he hears a godforsaken noise and turns around to see that two dark blurs of speed are hurtling towards him.

 

“Whoa!” one of the blurs exclaims, grabbing hold of the other and jerking to the side so they both swerve away from Rodney, only to be forced to a sudden stop by one of the ventilation grooves. A crazy tangle of skateboard and dreads and limbs comes to a crashing stop by Rodney’s feet. Rodney stares in horror. When strange noises start to emerge from the bundle, it takes Rodney a couple of panicked moments to realize that it’s not someone coughing up blood from a punctured lung, but the sound of John Sheppard cackling.

 

“Oh god, you’re both actually insane,” Rodney croaks, watching as John and Ronon roll apart, both shaking with laughter. John trails off in a long keening noise: “Aaaaah that was awesome. Let’s do it again.”

 

“Race you there,” Ronon says, getting to his feet with ridiculous ease while John winces a little.

 

“Insane,” Rodney yells after their backs. “Clinically chronically batshit insane nutcases! I won’t even feel sorry for you when you complain about your knees tomorrow!”

 

“But then you can kiss it better!” John calls over his shoulder, skateboard tucked under his arm.

 

“All kissing privileges will be withdrawn if you break your neck!”

 

The closest door behind him slides open and Teyla comes strolling up to him, Torren resting safely on her hip. Rodney gestures passionately but mutely towards where John and Ronon are taking up position on top of the highly improvised ramp they’ve constructed at the end of the pier. She glances over and lifts a skeptical eyebrow. “Is that wise?”

 

“It was probably Sheppard’s idea; what do you think?” Rodney demands. “This is why we have more injuries on mandatory rest days than the rest of the year combined!”

 

“Oooh,” Torren coos immediately, stretching his hands towards the ramp, occasionally clapping in glee. “Me too, mama, me too!”

 

“I think we should stay at a distance for the time being,” Teyla says, putting him down. His legs start pumping even before they hit the ground, but Rodney is getting good at this kid thing by now and hurriedly scrambles to put himself between the Wall of Death and the three year old  desperately infatuated by it. Torren giggles and tries to scoot between his knees.

 

“Good try, kid,” Rodney mutters, holding him at arm’s length by the crown of his head. This predictably only serves to make Torren even more excited, pushing against Rodney’s hand until he’s at a precarious 45 degree angle to the ground and only keeps upright thanks to Rodney’s counterweight.

 

“I could swear I saw Torren here just a moment ago,” Rodney says, directed at Teyla, as if said little terror weren’t leveling kicks at his shin. “He must have disappeared.”

 

“I’m here,” Torren crows, laughing as Rondey pretends to look around without catching a glimpse of him. “Down here!”

 

“What’s that sound?” Rodney asks.

 

“Me! Is me!”

 

“Maybe we’ve got rats in the ventilation shafts again,” Rodney says to Teyla, who is pressing her lips together in that usual suppressed grin. “I mean, I can send Zelenka down there again to check.”

 

“It’s ME!” Torren yells happily, finally abandoning his attempt at getting past Rodney and throwing himself forwards to hug his legs instead.

 

Rodney throws his arms up. “There you are! We thought you were gone for good!”

 

Torren rolls his eyes, still clutching Rodney’s pants leg. “Not gone. You’re just blind.”

 

“Maybe this isn’t our Torren. I don’t remember our Torren being so rude.”

 

“No, I think I can safely say this is the genuine article,” Teyla says, ruffling Torren’s dark hair. “And I have the banana stains on my bedcovers from this morning to prove it.”

 

 “Everybody stand clear!” Ronon bellows from on top of the ramp, and Teyla and Rodney quickly shepherd Torren out to the side.

 

As had been the case with Madison Rodney finds it infinitely easier to be around Torren now that his basic language skills are coming into play and Rodney doesn’t have to engage in the ‘Guess the Wail; nappy? food? bored? general discontent with the world at large?’ game. Besides Torren knows enough to realize that John and Ronon are the go-to uncles for wrestling matches and hair pulling while Rodney is likely to have chocolate at hand and might bestow it on a kid wise enough to sit quietly in the corner and doodle on Zelenka’s notepad. For such a small kid he is actually pretty calm most of the time, happy to spend hours just looking through the picture books Lorne and Zelenka had gotten second-hand from their respective siblings with kids.

 

He even gets sudden – and for the people who are around him on a daily basis and regularly have to power through endless repetitions of children’s songs crowed in the loudest way possible for such a small voice box, highly inexplicable – bursts of crippling, mute shyness when meeting strangers, hiding behind the nearest pair of parental or at least familiar legs and peeking out as if to see if the danger’s gone yet. Teyla says he takes after Kanaan, which Rodney wouldn’t know about because he’s pretty sure he’s never had a full conversation with the guy. It’s hard to talk to Kanaan and not feel that you might as well be talking to a vaguely sympathetic brick wall.

 

This time both John and Ronon at least manage to stay on the skateboards until they’ve crossed the arbitrary line that apparently counts as the finish area, though this is not thanks to a spirit of fair play. Ronon starts it with an ‘accidental’ elbow right out of the gate, and John strategically waits to elbow him back until right before the finish line, when Ronon has stopped expecting it.

 

That’s when they both tumble to the ground, skateboards skittering on without them. After a couple of seconds of groaning inactivity, Ronon raises his arms in a clear gesture of victory. Then he lets them fall back down with a whimper. John turns over on his back and flops down limply.

 

“Awesome,” Torren breathes reverently.

 

“You need to stop letting him hang around the marines,” Rodney tells Teyla, following her as she’s dragged forward by her son’s hand on her pants leg. “He’s going to pick up their lingo.”

 

“SHEPPY!” Torren shrieks, throwing himself on top of John. In turn John ‘ooof’s audibly. “Can I try? Can I?”

 

“That’s up to your mom, buddy, ask her,” John wheezes, putting a steadying hand on Torren’s back before he overbalances.

 

“But she just says no,” Torren says, in the mournful tones of someone who has recently understood the inherent unfairness of the universe.

 

“Maybe when you’re older, then.”

 

“Or perhaps not,” Teyla says. “I do not think you have sufficient skull thickness for this game, Torren.”

 

Ronon pushes up to his knees, shaking his head. “Well, that was cool.”

 

In agreement to that sentiment Torren launches himself from John to Ronon, accidentally shoving a knee into John’s stomach while he’s at it. After coming over that bout of breathlessness John squints up at Rodney. “What’s that you’re holding?”

 

“What – nothing, nothing, why would I be holding something.” Rodney says, ineffectually hiding the tablet behind his back.

 

“I thought mandatory rest day was, you know, mandatory.”

 

“Yes, well, but the sensors on the pier picked up something and I –“  

 

“Whatever. Could you…”

 

Rodney extends his hand and helps John to his feet. John makes a very special face as his back cracks.

 

“You haven’t considered that you’re getting too old for this shit?” Rodney asks.

 

John’s shoulder knocks into Rodney’s. “Quitter talk, McKay.” Then he stretches and winces at the rattling cracks of his back. “Okay, maybe a little. Dinner time?” He jabs his thumb against the closest door.

 

“It’s like you’re reading my mind,” Rodney says, falling into step behind him, picking a piece of barnacle off John’s shoulder.

 

 

 

And he reaches out for it again, hungry, high on the warmth that briefly saturated the endless stretch of cold open sky, but it doesn’t work like that. The cloud tendrils wind through his fingers and away. The image twists, and twists again, and he looks for meaning in the churning mass of it but finds nothing but pain.

He spirals away from that again, into something chiller, pieces of needle-sharp hail beating down on him, too many and splintered to get a proper hold on – 

 

 

“Ow, yeah, okay, we’re in private, please let go of my fucking arm now, thanks. Jesus Christ.”

 

“McKay –“

 

“I don’t know what you want me to say! I’m sorry, I really am, but I can’t do what you want me to. It’s physically impossible.”

 

“Rodney, those are our people out there, we sent them there, and if we don’t get them –“

 

“- they are going to die, yes, I know, trust me, I get it! I am painfully aware of it! I haven’t thought about much else the entire day! That doesn’t change the facts. It. Can’t. Be. Done. Not in the time we have available, not without putting the entire city in jeopardy. It’s… I’m sorry, John, but I don’t know what else to tell you. ”

 

“I thought you were the one with the miracles up your ass, why can’t you just – ”

 

“No, no, that’s you. You ask me to do five impossible things before breakfast and usually I do! Usually I can! But hey, guess what, sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes nothing is going to be enough, and that’s how it is. It sucks, but that’s how it is.”

 

“I’ve said it before, this is a very bad moment for that Messiah complex to –“

 

“John – do you really think there are a lot of things I wouldn’t do if you asked me to?”

 

“…Sorry. Sorry, I just…”

 

“Hey, it’s not your fault either.  You’re hearing me, right? This isn’t your fault either. John.”

 

 

 

And he wants to ward it off but right now it’s all he has and he can’t bear to let it go –

 

 

 

His hands are shaking; the blood is trickling out between his fingers and pooling on the floor, way too much of it, sticky and cooling against the stone floor and it’s all he can do to keep pressure on the wound and to scream at himself inwardly for being so damn stupid, for not seeing this coming, for somehow letting himself be tricked into thinking anyone’s invincible, that any of them were ever going to grow old, that he’d get to keep any of this -

 

 

 

His neck aching from where he’s lying slumped forward on the infirmary bed; someone is stroking his hair clumsily, IVs and tubes getting in the way. 

 

 

His name, barely recognizable through the cracks and rusty grind of the voice saying it, but he looks up anyway and John is smiling at him in a way that might be fondness, might be painkillers.

 

“Hey.”

 

“Hi.”

 

Under the lowered infirmary lights everything feels like it’s underwater, Ronon’s snoring faint and far away though he’s only on the next bed over.

 

“You’re awake,” Rodney says, in the spirit that stating the obvious is better than just staring at each other. “Should I... fetch a nurse? Do you need anything?”

 

John shakes his head lazily. “Nah. I just wanted to...” The rest trails of into a drawl so laid back that it’s actually incomprehensible, but it sounds like ‘to see you’, which doesn’t make much sense, though it might be perfectly logical to someone frolicking in the sweet valleys of really good painkillers. Rodney certainly doesn’t want to know what kind of dosage you have to reach for a man who currently has less than one third of his ribs intact to smile faintly and benevolently at the world.

 

“Right,” Rodney says.

 

In lieu of anything better he stretches out, touches the skin around the stitches on the gash over John’s cheekbone. “Oooh, that’s going to scar, isn’t it.”

 

“Chicks dig scars,” John says peaceably, still looking at him with those soft, dark eyes.

 

“I’ll tell any ‘chick’ who tries anything,” Rodney gives the word the flat twist of the terminally uncool,

“that their opposition knows how to build A-bombs. That should shut it down.”

 

“Well, sometimes they’re Ancient chicks,” John murmurs, but he closes his eyes and cranes into Rodney’s touch. His eyebrows draw together quizzically, as if he’s trying to remember something. “I... I came back, Rodney.”

 

“Fourteen hours overdue and only nominally in one piece, yes,” Rodney says, but his hand reaches out to find John’s shoulder, as if it wants to make sure he’s still there.

 

– his face and arms stinging with it, and the forgotten song is reaching a crescendo in his head, keeping him from turning away, rooting him in place.

 

And it’s still not what he’s trying to find.

 

 

 

 

-------

 

 

She can see at once that something is wrong when she comes to the cottage the next day. McKay is sitting on the porch, hunched in on himself, uncharacteristically still.

 

He glances up when she approaches, eyes widening. “Of course,” he croaks, looking like all the jigsaw pieces just fell into place and he doesn’t like it one bit.

 

“Well, good morning to you too,” Faith says, taken aback at the way he’s staring at her. He doesn’t look very well, either – his skin is grey and clammy, and his face is disconcertingly lifeless.

 

He looks like Jeon had after accidentally stepping in a volpeau trap once when they were out hunting and his leg got all torn up – like he’s in shock. When he doesn’t look away or even blink for another half minute her worry ratchets up all the way. She puts down her bag and crouches in front of him.

 

“Hey, are you okay? Did something happen, are you sick?”

 

For a moment he turns unseeing eyes towards her, and then they slip closed and he lowers his head and he starts laughing.

 

It’s not like any sound she’s heard from him before, or even how laughter is supposed to sound. It’s that same awful noise some people make when someone in their family has died but their brains are too confused to let them start crying.

 

It makes a shudder run down her back and she reaches out to touch his arm, but hesitates when he looks at her hand like it’s a snake crawling towards him. The laughter dies down in small, breathless hitches, and he puts his face in his hands for a second.

 

“Doctor McKay,” she says, sounding like a little girl to her own ears, “what’s wrong?”

 

He’s quiet for a while and then he stands up from the porch and grabs a hold of her sweater.

 

“I want to show you something,” he says, pulling her along after the sleeve of her sweater, barely giving her time to grab the bag.

 

“I – what – but – ” Faith stammers as she’s hauled along, before she digs her heels in and adds, “Wherever it is we’re going, I can walk on my own!”

 

He lets go of her clothes, but keeps walking – towards the forest, she realizes, towards the barely-there track she’s seen him on before. It takes them about ten minutes to reach the end of the path, and McKay doesn’t say a single word the entire time. Well and truly brought into the realms of the severely freaked out by that alone, Faith trails after him, staring into the back of his very ugly sweater and his broad shoulders, desperately trying to understand what’s happening. When they arrive at the right place McKay doesn’t stop, just barrels over to the hillside with the magic door in it, giving Faith’s sleeve a tug to make sure she follows.

 

“I – ” she starts, but he ignores her and strokes his hand down a piece of rock of no immediate interest, and Faith blinks in surprise as it lights up blue again and makes the high, clear bell sound. Following this new trend of not even getting half-sentences out, she begins a “What the hell” before he takes hold of her arm and pulls her forward – into the rock wall and through it.

 

It doesn’t really feel like anything – it’s just that one minute she’s out in the morning sunlight and the next she’s  in a cave half-lit by a blue light.

 

Not actually a cave, though, she realizes, while the rest of her mind is in a state of wild bafflement, every angle is too sharp and precise for it to be a cave – it looks like a corridor more than anything.

 

“Look over there,” McKay says, pointing with an unsteady hand further into the corridor.

 

Too disoriented to do anything else she follows the line of his finger. The blueish light is coming from long rectangular slits in the walls, covered by glass. A couple of meters away from them the corridor has collapsed, the way blocked by rubble from floor to ceiling.

 

“Wow,” she says, dazed.

 

“Wow?”

 

“Well, it’s a lot to take in. What is this place?”

 

McKay takes her by the arm again, touching the wall the same way he’s done outside and producing the same bell sound. She blinks against daylight again.

 

“You were following me,” McKay says in a cold, hard voice she has never heard from him before. “I thought it was just one of those infernal giant birds the scanner keeps picking up, but that was you, wasn’t it. What did you do?”

 

“Nothing!” she says, in that standard instinct to confusedly deny everything when pressed. “I didn’t, I just wanted to see where you were going.”

 

“Did you do something to the door? No, wait, what am I saying, of course you did, the self-destruct tried to start up. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

It’s the first time he’s spoken to her like that, and she feels as little and voiceless as that one time when she was seven and had a fight with her grandfather and stayed out all night, and he had been so mad when he found her. She’d been way more scared of that anger than any animal she’s met during hunting.

 

“No!” she says, “no, I have no idea what I’m supposed to have done, because you won’t tell me what’s happening!”

 

“Oh, then, let me tell you what’s happening, then. I was working on something important in there!” McKay yells. “Something so important you couldn’t even begin to comprehend it! And I was so close, I’m almost there, except now there’s half a collapsed mountain between me and everything I need to finish it.”

 

“You honestly think I made it cave in? Have you looked at me lately? I’m half as tall as you and one third as broad!”

 

“I don’t know what happened, some of the systems are still out of whack, maybe it reads anyone without the gene as a hostile invasion, for all I know you have some Wraith DNA! I just know it’s the only explanation, and – ”

 

“Am I supposed to understand any of that? What’s a DNA?”

 

He opens his mouth to yell some more, then he just grimaces and shakes his head. “Forget it,” he says, and he suddenly looks so sad and beaten that Faith feels bad, even though she still doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to have done.

 

“We could shift the rubble,” she tells his slumped shoulders. “I could help you.”

 

“Are you mad? It would take years. And I can’t be sure I have years anymore.”

 

The following silence presses down on the forest like molten lead.

 

“Is there some way I can... make it better again?” she asks. 

 

“Hey, you know what, not everything  is about you!” hisses McKay. “There’s so much that’s dependent of me figuring this out, you can’t even, you can’t even begin to understand, and just because you can come interrupting me all the damn time because there’s nobody who needs you – ”

“Then why can’t you all just stop lying to me?” Faith yells, those last words of his wrenching into her like a bullet. He looks a bit startled, and Faith keeps on: “Why do you tell me you want me to come here if it’s not true? You might as well have told me flat out, so I didn’t take up all your valuable goddamn time!”

 

“Faith – ”

 

“And my grandfather isn’t getting better, he’s going to die. He’s getting worse by the hour and no one has the guts to tell me and he’s never going to survive long enough to see me finish my training! Oh, and by the way, your precious Her Majesty the Queen is no use, because guess what? She can’t do anything that’s worth a shit; she doesn’t know how to hunt, or bake a bread, or – or fix people, things, that are broken. She’s not some sort of half-Ancestor, even though everyone is too scared to say it!”

 

To her mortification the tears are splashing down her cheeks and her breath comes in hitching, bitten-back sobs. Usually she can keep it locked up tight, but right now everything’s heaped on top of her in a red-hot pile of injustice.

 

McKay makes a small sound, somewhere between a sigh and a word. “Hey, listen, I didn’t mean – “

 

“Don’t touch me!” she snaps, shying away from his tentatively outstretched hand. She looks steadfastly down at his worn boots, would rather face a thousand fire-breathing beasts than meet anybody’s eyes right now.

 

When it seems that nothing more is forthcoming Faith turns on her heels and walks – well, runs – away, leaving McKay alone in the forest again.

 

-------

 

 

Faith stays out in the woods that night, in a hunting burrow that’s inconveniently placed and therefore often free. She doesn’t want anyone to see her.

 

She sits and stares at the forest around her and thinks the kind of thoughts you normally do at times like these, like how she could probably live out here alone, if she wanted to, she knows the forest well enough, her grandfather always lived more outside than in a house anyway, she could get away with never seeing another human being again, she doesn’t need anyone.

 

When the sunset starts to brush across the sky she’s cold, stiff, hungry and still completely miserable, so she decides to deal with three out of four and starts walking towards home, gnawing despondently on the cheese from her rucksack.

 

The house is hushed when she lets herself in, as it has been for months now. Even Faith’s little brother Sevan keeps his voice low and careful these days, as they all skirt around the existence of the sick room. There’s no one in the hall, and no sounds from the kitchen. Everybody’s probably gone to sleep. Faith hangs up her jacket, stuffs the rucksack into a closet, toes off her boots.

 

And then she does hear a sound; a low melodious humming and the clink of spoon against China from the parlour.

 

When Faith goes to look, Crown Princess Flora is sitting in their living room.

 

Of course Faith has met her before – since her grandfather has always worked so closely with the queen her family has been tight with the Royal Family. Faith and Flora occasionally played together as children, though Flora was a couple of years older and Faith, since her family were still in essence hunters and farmers, if somewhat glorified ones, spoke with a much rougher accent than Flora did. Flora used to like books and had that perfect flowing handwriting that Faith could only aspire to, and her nails were always clean.


The last two years Flora has been mostly away to learn... whatever it is princesses have to learn to become queens, and Faith has been busy with her grandfather’s merciless training regime (or arguably even regimen, when he has a soft day).

 

In those two years Flora has gone from the cute, somewhat pug-nosed and chubby girl Faith remembers to becoming, well, everything Faith hasn’t. Flora now has long, copper-colored hair that falls in smooth heavy curls over her shoulders, and breasts that are two soft swells under the light fabric of her dress.

 

“Uh,” Faith says, standing meekly in the doorway with her worn hunter’s outfit and uncombed hair.

 

Flora startles and nearly tips the tea cup over her lap.

 

They look at each other for a flustered moment. 

 

“Hi,” Flora says finally, smiling a little. “Your mother will be back any minute, she just insisted on going out to  find some fruit for the cake.”

 

“Oh, that’s okay,” Faith hurries to say. “I wasn’t, um, I wasn’t looking for her. So, you’re, hm, home for a visit, then?”

 

Flora nods, her curls bobbing around her long neck. “Just for the summer.”

 

Faith casts about for something intelligent to contribute. “Neat,” she ends up with.

 

Flora smiles down at her tea cup. “My mother certainly likes having someone to talk at again.”

 

“Well, she’s like that,” Faith says, thinking this act of minor treason worthwhile when it deepens Flora’s smile. “Remember that time she tried to tell us why we don’t trade with the Genii?”

 

“‘Those godless deal-breaking backstabbing cowards’!” Flora says, in a fair impression of her mother’s righteous indignation, and then she sniggers. “She still goes on that rant sometimes, actually. I think it cheers her up during all the paperwork in tax season.”

 

Faith chuckles too, uncomfortably aware that her sock has a hole in it just by the toe.

 

After a while Flora’s grin fades off her face, though. She looks up and says: “I was truly saddened to hear about your grandfather. He has always been here, as long as I can remember.”

 

Faith does her best not to stiffen. “He’s not dead yet.”

 

“Of course, of course, I didn’t mean to – it’s just that your mother wanted us to come over, just in case.” After a beat Flora adds: “The queen is in there now, if you want to see him.”

 

She points with a slender hand towards the sickroom.

 

Faith’s initial reaction is ‘like hell’, but then that’s what she’s been doing the last half year to no discernable effect, and McKay’s words about having no one who needs her are still swirling around her head.

 

She nods at Flora just as her mother’s footsteps sound from outside, and goes over to what used to be her grandfather’s bedroom, and is now just the sickroom.

 

 

She doesn’t knock, just presses the handle down and pushes the door open. It’s a fairly small, non-flashy room, much like Faith’s own. The walls are a light greyish green, and the carpet is basically just an advanced form of one of those rugs Faith’s grandmother had been fond of making. There is a bed and a closet and not much else – ever since her grandmother died her grandfather would hardly ever sleep inside except for the coldest stretch in the middle of winter.

 

It used to smell like her, too, a little, as if the room had been left alone for so long that she stayed in the walls, but that was before it started to smell like illness and sweat.

 

 The queen is sitting on an uncomfortable-looking straight-backed chair beside Faith’s grandfather’s bed.

 

She doesn’t even look up at the sound of Faith entering, just says: “Hello, Faith.”

 

“Hi,” Faith says, standing right inside the door.

 

The queen is a dark-haired slender woman and seems tall in that way some people do, like they get bigger through sheer intensity of presence. If you really look you can see that she’s barely taller than her daughter, and that her wrists are thin under the sleeves of her ornate dress.

 

“I will miss your grandfather very much,” the queen says. “He was a good man and a good friend to me.”

 

What do you mean, will, Faith thinks, but she takes another step or two into the room.

 

It’s almost easier to look at him when someone else is, too. The left side of his face is still slack and lifeless, and the wrinkles that were never as noticeable before have deepened around his eyes, between his brows, at the corners of his mouth. All his features used to be hard, sharp, like they were carved out of dark wood, and now the skin hangs off the bones of his skull like wet cloth.  

 

Faith would never have thought of her grandfather as an old man a year ago, but now it’s plain as day that’s exactly what he’s become.

 

She sits down on the edge of the bed, careful not to jolt the mattress too much. He doesn’t wake – he hasn’t stayed awake for much longer than fifteen minutes at a time for almost four months now, which was when Faith couldn’t stand entering the room anymore.

 

The covers of the bed are a little askew. Faith reaches out and straightens it, brushing his softened, oddly cold hand. At first she shies away from it, and then she puts her hand beside his so their fingertips brush.

 

They both sit and watch the drawn face of Nolar Lumsbred for a while.

 

“I know about McKay,” says Faith.

 

“I know you do,” the queen says. At Faith’s glance she snorts a decidedly unladylike snort. “You did not think he would tell me?”


“He told me he wouldn’t tell you if I didn’t mention him to anyone else.”

 

The queen shrugs. “He seemed to be happy enough to have you there, so I did not see what harm it could do. He speaks of you very highly, if not about your cooking skills.”

 

“He does?” Faith says, surprised. Then the insult hits her and she adds: “Oh, well, from now on he can make his own soup, see if he manages not to burn anything at all.” After a while she adds: “Have you known him a long time?”

 

“I met him for the first time when I was your age. He wasn’t alone, then, of course. His friends were good people.”

 

“What’s he doing out there?”

 

The queen hesitates. “I think... he’s trying to bring them all back, somehow.”

 

Faith makes a face. “But they’re all dead, aren’t they? Or they’d be here too?”

 

“Yes, they are, but he does not seem to let mere reality get in his way.” There’s a warmth in the queen’s voice that is just like pride. “I for one think he can do it.”

 

“Really? How is he going to bring a whole bunch of people – ”

“An entire city.”

 

Faith remembers the drawings, the strange alien spires of the city. “But how? With magic?”

 

“I always come to the conclusion that the less I know, the easier my life will be. He tried to explain it to me once, but I didn’t understand a word he was saying. But he’s working on something in an underground base we found many, many years ago. I think he showed you the entrance from his end.”

 

“So you don’t know if what he’s working on is dangerous?”

 

“It might be. It probably is, at least if it malfunctions.”

 

This comes in a tone of no great concern, as if she didn’t have a potential catastrophe ticking along under her feet.

 

“Then why do you let him...”

 

“He is my friend,” the queen says. “And he is trying to get home.”

 

Faith listens to the strained breaths of her grandfather – thinks she understands.

 

“But the entrance caved in,” she says.

 

“We’ll work around that.”

 

“...okay?”

 

“I may not actually be a god,” the queen says airily, “but I do have my ways. Just meet me by McKay’s cottage tomorrow morning, and we shall see.”

 

“Isn’t there supposed to be the weekly meeting at court tomorrow?”

 

“Oh, nothing that can’t be postponed,” the queen says, gesturing extravagantly with a hand as if dismissing all the most powerful men and women in the area with a flick of her fingers.

 

“Can you do that?”

 

“When the queen says she has to go out into the silence of the forest to meditate on the responsibilities and burdens of leadership, I have found that people tend to nod and smile and say ‘yes, your Majesty’ and ‘no, your Majesty’ more or less as prompted, just in case missing that day of contemplation will cause her to raise the taxes for the richest families. Both my children have been conceived in similar circumstances, to be honest.” Faith looks right ahead but makes a pained sound to express just how inappropriate the adults around her are turning out to be.“It is one of the perks of being a supreme ruler.”

 

And suddenly Faith remembers that although Queen Harmony’s reign is largely considered to be the most peaceful and progressive the people has experienced for generations, this is still the same woman who put her own sister in a jail cell twenty five years ago and hasn’t let her see daylight yet.

 

“Just as you say, your Majesty.” She makes it just dry enough that the corners of the queen’s mouth quirk up.

 

 

 

-------

 

 

 

 

That night Rodney lies too long watching the rough planks of the ceiling of his little cottage.

 

He hasn’t gotten under the covers, hasn’t even taken his boots off. He keeps his hands folded over his stomach because he doesn’t know where to put them otherwise. They seem peculiarly alien, like they’re some kind of tool he’s unfamiliar with.

 

In an absent sort of way he wishes he could look away from the planks, but his eyes keep tracking every nail and crack and curl of wood with untiring exactness. Obsessively. That’s the word, he knows. It should probably upset him. It just. It feels good, except not really, but somehow it’s something to do.

 

His eyes dry out a bit. He should blink again sometime soon, maybe.

 

 The room feels neither cold nor hot. There’s no noise, or rather, it’s the lack of sound that’s noticeable.

 

The absence of noise pushes into his skin, into his mouth and nostrils and ears, curls from inside his head to down his throat, twines between his ribs and pushes into his stomach, smoke-like. It’s like putting your ear to those shells people mistakenly think you can hear the sea in, except you aren’t the shell or the person listening, you are that unrelenting bruising hush lying about the ocean.

 

The light changes. Rodney notices the morphing patterns of colors and shadow across the planks.

 

And then, mercifully, the silence ends, and he can blink again, and he hears someone say his name from somewhere nearby.

 

“No,” Rodney says as John climbs onto the bed, dark hair edged with moonlight. “No, please. Please don’t. I can’t.” Even as he’s saying it he’s stretching towards John’s warmth, his smell; Rodney’s sense memory twists itself into his muscles and bones and lets him curl his fingers bruisingly against every part of John they can reach.

 

John lets him grab him by the waist, gently gripping Rodney’s shoulder for balance, leaning his cheek down to rest on the top of Rodney’s head. His other hand comes up to stroke up and down the nape of his neck.

 

“Hey, buddy,” he mumbles down into Rodney’s hair, voice just a low rumble. Rodney feels his hands start shaking. 

 

“Rodney,” John sushes, “Rodney, Rodney – ” He manages to wrap his arms around Rodney firmly enough that he can easily wrestle them both down on the bed, gentle in a whole-body way.

 

Rodney scrambles to get his arms around him, face mashed into the line of John’s throat, fingers trembling like they haven’t in a long time as they find new purchase in John’s clothes, brushing warm skin.

 

It’s just a dream, he knows that somewhere deep and basic; it’s what his brain does when met with a threat so overwhelming that he can’t deal with it alone. When he was a kid it used to be his mother, who had always seemed to him a force of nature in herself, then Sam Carter, who can make the laws of physics bend around her like they were only so much plastelina – Carson, who was gone and would never be able to tell Rodney anything ever again.

 

It’s even happened before, in those twenty something years he’s been here, stuck trying to make up for an old mistake even though he doesn’t know how or why or when it was committed.

In the beginning it had been pretty frequent, just vivid dreams following him over the threshold of sleep and into wakefulness for some extra moments, innocuous little seconds where he was convinced he heard someone else’s breath beside his own, felt the warmth of an arm slung over him, lips pressed to the nape of his neck – noticed the pitter-patter of small feet approaching their room to wake them in some highly annoying yet disarmingly adorable way.

 

Then one day he’d woken to the grey autumn light seeping in through the bedroom window of the little cottage, still half-lost in the dream that had wound itself into his spinal cord, knotted between his ribs, and realized that the reason it had felt so odd was that he no longer remembered what John smelled like.

 

He’d gone without proper sleep for a week, so disturbed on some level that the mere thought made him sick. It was then he started with the drawings, out of the mind-numbing fear that he’d lose all their faces while he looked the other way. He had some photos on his tablet, but all too soon they became nothing more than empty windows into somewhere he couldn’t go anymore.

 

“It’ll be okay, buddy,” John murmurs against the side of his face. “You can do this. You’re almost there.”

“I don’t believe you.” It feels almost like blasphemy.

 

A soft touch to the nape of his neck. “If you didn’t, I wouldn’t be here, would I.”

 

And Rodney turns his head into John’s dark hair even though he’s forgotten what he smells like and starts weeping for the first time in as many years as he can remember, clinging to his body in a way that would be pathetic except for how anyone thinking that could never have felt like this.

He cries and cries like a broken thing, like a frightened child, sobs racking through his chest, shaking through his limbs, and John murmurs awkward nonsense and strokes through his hair, arms tight around him. 

 

“It’s okay, I’m right here,” John tells him, and Rodney cries even worse, and John adds, “Well, not literally, maybe, but I’m pretty damn close,” and Rodney gets a very strange rhythm to his sobs when a chuckle tries to join them on their way out.

 

“I’m so fucking tired,” he tells the skin right behind John’s ear.

 

“I know,” John says, clutching him tighter.

 

 

-------

 

 

Homesickness. When he was young he’d never understood that word at all; had it firmly categorized with other meaningless sentiments people kept inflicting on him. He always thought a home was something you carry with you wherever you go; his own portable universe neatly hemmed in by his cranium, where he could be safe and undisturbed and alone.

Now, though, he’s familiar with the word on a level of intimacy he doesn’t wish on anyone. It’s well-phrased, too. It is a sickness. It’s a bright hum vibrating at the back of his ribs, a never-ending sense of displacement.

 

 

When he’d first realized that Atlantis was gone and that, sooner or later, Earth would come to retrieve them, he’d found Harmony, taken her aside.

 

“Harmony,” he’d said, ”Harmony, this time you’ve got to listen to me.”

 

She’d looked at him with wide, dark eyes. Her shoulders seemed very narrow and fragile cradled  between his much bigger hands.

 

“If the people I work for get to know what I’m trying to do, they’ll stop me. Okay? They’ll never let me do it. They can’t know I’m here. Do you understand?”

 

He’d removed the subcutaneous tracker almost at once, with a lot of swearing and blood but ultimately it secured him his freedom. When the Daedalus came back to take the survivors of Atlantis back to Earth he hadn’t been with them – which is, perhaps, apt in a way he doesn’t care to consider very deeply.

 

Sometimes in the years after he’d wondered, in a distant sort of way, what they’d made of it when they couldn’t find his life signature anywhere. He doubts there was anyone in that small crowd of people who knew him well enough to suspect what he had done, and it wouldn’t take much of an imagination to put the facts together and come up with what must have seemed like an educated guess. Whether they believed he’d thrown himself off a cliff or something completely different; they’d left without him, and that was what counted.

 

With Atlantis gone there was no way the SGC would keep up much of a presence in the Wraith-addled Pegasus galaxy, nevermind for some obscure facility in need of repairs so substantial that in several places it’s more of a complete reconstruction.

 

Well, Rodney had figured he was going to have a lot of time on his hands for the foreseeable future.

 

Those first few weeks he’d mostly just been sitting in the blue glow of the facility, watching all the damaged systems, thinking, evaluating. Deep down he knew it probably couldn’t be done, but a voice that had somehow snuck even closer to the core while he wasn’t looking told him that it was crazy, and a terrible plan, and that it could be done.

 

So after two weeks or so of doing nothing, he started to work.

 

Harmony, who had come back to check in on him every other day even while he wouldn’t – couldn’t  – respond to anything she said, had been the one to be quiet when she found him elbows deep in a broken console, working industriously. He hadn’t even looked up to greet her, just said: “I’m going to bring them back.”

 

Harmony had stood behind him, quiet, the only other warm thing in this world held in by smooth metallic walls.

 

“I know you can’t know this yet,” Rodney told her, turning around to catch her eyes, “but I can do it.”

And Harmony had fixed him with a level stare and said: “I know you can do anything. That is what scares me.”

 

After a while she had handed him the screw driver wordlessly, and sat down to watch.

 

 

It isn’t so different, he tells himself, from that time John had gotten lost in the future. Of course this time he had to search the past for him, but as far as Rodney’s concerned that’s all just semantics.

 

Those twelve days he’d been gone Rodney had walked through the corridors unable to think about anything except how maybe John was there too, close enough to touch but thousands of years out of reach.

 

(It scares him, sometimes, that his time in Atlantis has only been a small fraction of his existence, a few reverberant tones in the silence that was before and settled after, and yet that short stub of a melody is what he considers to have been his life. Everything else has been echoes.)


Some days it’s all he has, the knowledge that somewhere out there is a man just like him who has done what he tries to before. He can do it again.

 

 

(Maybe somewhere out there there’s a Rodney McKay who sits on the South Pier watching Ronon and John tumble around with Torren’s kids while Teyla attempts to better her cooking, still to no avail. He’d eat whatever she managed to come up with, too, as long as he got to stay.

 

Maybe there’s one Rodney McKay out there who’s still in bed because the Wraith are all gone, and he can watch John Sheppard sleep beside him because sometimes you can win and stay whole and unbroken.

 

Maybe somewhere they’re all together, even if it’s under the threat of war.)

 

 

Sometimes it feels like he’s stripped down until he’s only a song stuck in the back of his own head and it’s all that keeps him breathing.

 

 

 

--------

 

 

 

The meeting has already begun inside the cottage when Faith arrives, though the promised cloak-and-daggerness of it all falls flat since she can hear their voices from miles off.

 

“Well, since you still insist on funding the ‘alchemists’ up at the castle, I can’t see why – ”

 

“What’s that’s supposed to mean?”

 

“Harmony, they think falling stars are sparks of fire from the sun. They wouldn’t even begin to understand gravity if Newton himself appeared before them to personally chuck an apple at every head; they’ve repeated science’s greatest mistake and reintroduced light-bearing aether to physics!”

 

“Well, it keeps them too busy heckling between themselves about the name of some element or other to think about other things. I hope I do not have to remind you, of all people, what can happen when a group of very clever individuals with access to base elements is left with too much time on their hands.”

 

Faith stops some meters away from the door, listening to this odd exchange.

 

“And yet you let them – ”

 

“Rodney, I am not going to let you make explosives out here,” The queen says severely.

 

“Oh, come on!

 

“You have come too far to run the risk of blowing yourself up now. Besides, an explosion is just as likely to cause a further cave-in as clear the rubble.”

 

“Dear god, it’s like Zelenka-hour all over again! If you’re going to shoot down every idea without contributing – ”

“I do not know who gave you the idea that explosives can solve every problem, Doctor McKay, but – no, wait, what am I saying, of course I know –  it is just that he was wrong.”

 

A sullen silence.

 

“I will use the ‘remind me who is the queen of this planet again’-card if you do not let me help you with this.”

 

A silence that somehow contrives to be even more sullen.

 

“If you say so, your Majesty.”

 

“Ah. Is it not splendid that we can always find some common ground? Now. You still take one pinch of sweet in your tea, I trust?”

 

“Well, if I’d taken it like you do I wouldn’t have any teeth left by now.”

 

“Capital. And your friend, how does she like it?”

 

“Actually she takes it bare. Which is pretty brave, considering I usually oversteep it. Can’t get the timing right. If you’d like it there’s some – Jesus, Harmony, there’s a spoon in there for a reason!”

 

There’s a muffled sentence that might be “Monarchs need not concern themselves with such petty things”.

 

Still inappropriately touched that someone other than her mother knows her tea preferences, Faith deems this as good a time as any to make her presence known. She walks to the open door and knocks her knuckles against the inside of the frame. “Hello?”

 

The queen’s head pops out the kitchen doorway, a slice of bread heaped with jam sticking out of her mouth. She still manages to retain her air of royal dignity when she beckons Faith in with a gracious wave.

 

Three people and a cat threatens to be a bit of a tight fit for the kitchen, and neither of the grown-ups offer up their chairs so Faith has to stay standing, but on the whole it’s cosy, even more so because the queen has brought a new knife to help the sad state of McKay’s cutlery drawer. The queen isn’t wearing a dress today, but tight brown riding trousers and a sturdy yet tired-looking jacket.

 

McKay meets Faith’s eyes, opens his mouth to say something, apparently remembers that they’ve been fighting, and ends up with his mouth half-open in the perfect image of a fish out of water.

“I anticipated this,” announces the queen, cutting the potentially awkward moment short, “and planned accordingly. Here is your tea,” she shoves their respective mugs at them, “now go out on the pier and make up so we can get some work done.” At their matching blank stares she adds: “By royal decree. Now be gone until you can be reasonable.”

 

Faith is relatively sure her face mirrors the expression of disgust on McKay’s, but such is the nature of people who are used to having their orders obeyed that they  both find themselves standing on the pier while the queen makes breakfast up in the cottage. After a long, tense moment where the only thing that moves is the steam rising from their mugs, McKay sits down on the edge of the pier. Faith follows suit, setting her mug down beside her.

 

McKay sighs, fiddling with a frayed sleeve. “Okay, so, listen, I might have, in the past, been told that I am.... a bit sucky at the whole apologies thing.”

 

“I can’t imagine.”

 

“But I really am sorry for what I said. You couldn’t have known, it’s not as though you... it’s just that... I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a bit of a Messiah complex. I mean, aside from the general ego.”

 

She might not know all the words in that sentence, but she recognizes the general thrust of the idea he’s trying to convey. She levels a ‘do go on’ eyebrow at the water, still unable to look up at him.

 

“And I have a lot of stuff on my mind right now. There’s a lot of things depending on me – everything, actually, from my perspective. I’ve worked on this for twice as long as you’ve been alive. But that doesn’t mean... I shouldn’t have said you were interrupting me. Because it’s not even true; I’d almost forgotten how to be a person and not just a task, before you came out here.”

 

She can feel his eyes on the side of her face, but can’t look up, not yet.

 

“It’s been good, having the company. Well, not just the company, I mean, it’s you, specifically, too. You’re... you’re great. You know, for someone barely out of her nappies.”

 

This is rapidly becoming the most emotionally exhausting thing Faith has done since that time her grandmother got drunk on Roose wine at her Uncle Cavan’s wedding, climbed up on the table with her skirts hitched up and starting making a speech full of slurred words Faith hadn’t known at the time but the adults very obviously had. (She’d only come down after Faith’s grandfather pulled her back into her chair by the knicker elastic, and Faith’s mother had forbidden everyone in the house from repeating the song she’d started in on during the dessert under the threat of bed without supper for a week.)

 

That emotion, while immensely intense, had pretty obviously been second hand embarrassment, and right now she’s not entirely sure what she’s feeling at all.

 

She goes for that time-honoured sign of overwhelmed affection and punches him in the arm. When this doesn’t seem like quite enough she leans over and hugs him, mashing her face into his sweater. After a couple of seconds he squeezes her back, one broad hand rubbing her shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry too,” Faith says into the hideous knitwear of his chest. “About your home and your family and everything.”

 

“You weren’t even born.”

“Still.” She doesn’t know what makes her say it, but it falls out of her mouth anyway: “When I was little my grandfather used to say that when I grew up, we’d hunt for dragons in the mountains together and bring their heads back to show the queen. And then when he got sick I realized that was just one of those things that you tell to kids that isn’t really true but isn’t meant to be a lie either. And...”

 

“I know what you mean. Someone once promised me I was stuck with them forever, but you don’t always get to choose things like that.”

 

“It’s not fair.”

 

“No. It’s not.” It feels so good that someone else says it – not ‘It’s not about fair’ or ‘That’s not our place to judge’ or ‘Life isn’t fair’ – that she slumps for a moment, boneless, just a useless bundle of limbs that would topple over without anything to lean against.

 

 

Before she pulls away Faith makes sure to blink enough that her eyes won’t appear suspiciously moist. When she sits back McKay is wearing a look of dazed but good-natured bewilderment, his hand wavering in the air before he gives her shoulder a little pat.

 

“So that’s all okay, then.”

 

She nods and ducks her head, watching her own toes where they’re attracting the attention of several little fishes. It then occurs to her that there will with all probability never be a better time to come clear about... related matters.

 

“There’s maybe one more thing,” she admits carefully. “That I’m a bit sorry for, I mean.”

 

He lifts his eyebrows. 

 

“I-went-into-your-room-and-looked-through-your-stuff-when-you-weren’t-there.”

 

“...what was that?”

“Once when you weren’t here I went into your bedroom,” she says wretchedly. “And I might have... peeked in your bedside drawer.”

 

She immediately thrusts out a hand to catch the mug out of his flailing hands before he scolds them both.

 

“You did WHAT?”

 

 “Well, I thought you were maybe dead.”

 

“I like how you think that does anything but give rise to more questions! Why the hell would you think I was dead?”

 

“Because I called for you and didn’t answer and you weren’t anywhere I looked and Archimedes hadn’t been fed and the bedroom door was shut, just like when I found my grandfather.”

 

“...Ah.” The tips of her ears are burning, and McKay looks at her with sympathy, quickly replaced by outrage again when the next train of thought hits him. “And once you’d established that I hadn’t expired in my sleep, how did you figure going through my personal stuff was the next thing on the list?”

 

“...that was just because I was curious. Though they were really good, too.”

 

“I –  that – all of them?” McKay’s voice has reached a dangerously high pitch.

 

This is where a convenient lie would have been very useful, but if you’re coming clean anyway you don’t leave a smear of untruth on your soul without a better reason than that. “Yes,” she says weakly.

 

They contemplate their own private worlds of humiliation in silence for a while.

 

“I don’t suppose we can solve all of this by pretending this conversation never happened?” McKay asks, cheeks burning red.

 

“I thought you’d never ask,” Faith says. They both let out audible sighs of relief.

 

---

 

When the queen has assured herself the hatchet has been buried six feet deep and laid to rest, she forces everyone to have at least two bowls of her porridge and then gets McKay to clear the table.

 

“So I have been thinking a bit about this,” the queen says, her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth as she draws a map on the back of one of McKay’s pages of doodles. “And formulated several potential plans. As you know,” she turns to McKay, “there is an entrance to the facility near the castle. It is how we have been meeting,” she adds, turning even more to address this to Faith. “It is a lot easier to bring supplies that far when you can just roll them on a cart across a flat floor instead of dragging them over an uneven forest path. So all my plans are variations on how to get you,” back to McKay, gesturing with the charcoal stick so black dust rises in a small cloud, “into the castle.”

 

“I swear to whatever god you have available, if any of these plans involve me dressing up as a laundry woman...” McKay mutters.

 

They both stare at him. “Where did that come from?” says the queen.

 

“Do you really want to know?” asks Faith.

 

“Hey, don’t look at me, people in history did that stuff all the time!” McKay says. “Lots of historic precedent. Escaping jail cells, smuggling, invading cities...It’s true!” he adds indignantly as Faith and the queen exchange glances.

 

After a polite pause the queen clears her throat. “And what a joy history lessons must have been on your planet. Now back to the plan.”

 

“Meanwhile here in the civilized world women are actually in the battles because an arrow is an arrow no matter who points the crossbow,” Faith says meaningfully. Wherever McKay’s from the people there seem rather daft.  

 

“As I was saying,” the queen says pointedly, “there is another entrance to the facility close to the castle. It would be relatively easy to get to the areas you were working on from there. The only problem, of course, is that while I am proud to be able to say I have no Wraith worshippers or other... unwanted elements amongst my people, many traders from other planets have gathered in the markets around the castle to sell their wares before the feast days. Naturally I cannot vouch for them with any real certainty. While you have been lying low for some considerable time now, Wraith have long memories and I would rather not take the chance of one recognizing you. Thus arises a need for secrecy.”

 

“I was afraid you’d say something like that.”

 

“You may know that every year we hold a feast at the castle. We often make a traditional meat soup in which moncon is an essential ingredient, and my kitchen staff likes to pick the animals we use themselves. Conveniently they have all been given the day off, so if we get you unseen from the courtyard, through the Palace garden, past the guard in the East Wing and into my quarters – ”

 

“That’s not exactly what you’d call a direct route, is it?” McKay demands. “And what does the soup have to do with anything? Yes, okay, come on,” he adds, letting Archimedes scramble up his leg to fold up in his lap, purring smugly.

 

“You will see. All I need is some assistance from you.” To Faith’s surprise the charcoal stick is leveled towards her.

 

“Me?”

 

“Exactly. I have been informed that you have... a foot inside the door of the Royal Farm, so to say. Now, all I need you to do...”

 

 

------

 

 

“No offense, your Majesty, but – ” says Paddick, twiddling his floppy hat nervously in his hands.

 

“None taken, Prattick,” the queen assures him graciously, patting him on the shoulder.

 

“It’s just that – ” Paddick continues stolidly, because he isn’t very good at changing a train of thought before it’s run its course at the best of times, “you probably should wait for the Overseer to come back so everything can be more, uh, official, like, and – ”

 

“Nonsense,” the queen says, gesturing to the eight moncons lumbering towards the wagons. “To me it looks like this is going splendidly!”

 

“But Miss – I mean – Your Highness!” Paddick wails, hat now merely a blur in his hands, “I haven’t really handled the moncons before and they’re pretty big animals and – ”

 

“I am sure it would prove no problems for a strapping, well-built young man such as yourself.”

 

“Yes, but you see, we didn’t expect to have to deliver them until – ”

 

The queen makes an expansive hand gesture. “You see, I got the strangest fancy that what we really needed up at the castle during the preparation for the feast was something to liven up the view, and I can hardly think of anything more livening than seeing a field full of grazing moncons. I get such strange fancies regularly, in fact. Once I got it into my head that having some stocks in the courtyard would be a nice touch. My advisers convinced me it would clash with the architecture, though.”

 

Faith can’t help but marvel at this display as the queen leaves a pause to let Paddick’s brain digest this. “Beside,” the queen continues silkily after a while, “if we get some to spare, the Beast is always hungry.”

 

Faith nods in quiet wonder behind Paddick’s suddenly tightened back and tries to stay clear of the little herd of moncons. They’re the least aggressive and possibly the dumbest of all known animals, but they’re also the slowest. They’ll only notice they’ve trampled you five minutes after the fact, and then they tend to look very sheepish but that’s all the same to your ruptured spleen.

 

She doesn’t like pack animals much; they tend to be incredibly slow and annoyingly easy to confuse. Dogs are nice, though. She might get one to raise after she finishes her training.

 

When all of the moncons have shuffled into their wagons, the queen tells Paddick to go look for some striped paint or something similarly unkind to someone like Paddick, and whistles the signal for McKay to come out of the bushes. He does, stumbling out onto the flatness of the little space behind the barn.

 

This is your plan?” he asks, staring at the dung heaps and muddy footprints in the wake of the herd.

 

“I would pretend to be modest, but even I have to admit it is rather brilliant.”

 

“Oh yeah, that’s modesty incarnate.”

 

“I wonder where she gets it from,” Faith mumbles, not quite under her breath.

 

With her usual sense for when to ignore the outside world trying to divert one of her plans, the queen  goes over to one of the wagons and knocks her knuckles lightly against the tightly strung canvas that makes up its sides.

 

“Come on, get in.”

 

“You’re smuggling me into your own castle in one of these?” McKay says doubtfully. He pulls aside the curtain hanging over the wagon’s opening and sticks his head in.

 

Then he pulls his head back with impressive speed, spluttering. “No, no no, are you kidding me, that thing looks like the twisted love child of a crocodile and a mammoth!”

 

“Rodney, they are completely harmless,” the queen says impatiently. “Just do not get between a calf and its mother and you will be fine.”

 

“What happens if I do?”

 

“Squash,” Faith intones, illustrating with her palms. She has the sneaking suspicion that she’s observing this with an expression of skepticism that is less than reassuring, but it can’t be helped.

 

“You’re sure they don’t eat people?” McKay asks plaintively, lifting the curtain to sneak another glance into the cart.

 

“Only the whiny chicken-scared ones,” the queen says pleasantly.

 

“They only have a couple of teeth. In their lower mouth,” Faith says. “And they’re flat. For scraping bark off trees.”

 

“Your Majesty,” Paddick’s earnest voice calls from the distance, “I think we’re out of that paint because I can’t find any!”

 

“Go,” the queen hisses, pushing McKay bodily into the wagon.

 

“Hey – ” McKay goes, arms flailing.

 

“Never mind, Paddick,” the queen shouts back, shutting the curtain behind McKay. “I will come back for it some other time, it will not pose a problem. Just come over here so you can drive the wagons.”

 

Paddick appears behind the nearest shed, his hat now so thoroughly abused that it’s hard to recognize. “Uh, I, I don’t really know how to – ”

 

“Excellent, I will sit beside you, here we go.”

 

After standing despondently slouched in front of the wagon as the queen gets on, Paddick turns to Faith. “Want me to help you up, Miss Lumsbred?”

 

“No, that’s okay, thanks,” she says, hoisting herself up quickly and holding out her hand for him.

 

“I was just going to make some horse shoes today,” Paddick says mournfully, taking her hand. “‘It’ll be easy,’ the overseer said. ‘No one here but you, all peace and quiet’. Right.”

 

Faith hands him the reins.

 

 

------

 

 

Everything does not go exactly as planned.

 

Paddick is standing, hollow-eyed, beside the wagon, now turned over on its side, as moncons move with glacier speed around him and from time to time give him an uninterested sniff. Faith is slightly worried about the fact that he hasn’t moved much in the last few minutes. There’s some depth of personal despair there she suspects it’ll take some time and gentle words to extricate him from.

 

“Mother?” Flora says, staring as seven moncons sedately trample every painstakingly grown flower arrangement in the royal gardens one by one, experimentally chewing on the budding night roses. “What... what did you do?”

 

“Nothing!” the queen exclaims, as the exquisite bed of pink Amerdallos are trodden into muddy oblivion. “Why would you think I had something to do with this?”

To Faith it looks like Flora is doing her very best at keeping her palm from coming up to cover her face. “Because every time you get one of your sudden fancies, something like this happens.”

 

“What do you mean, every time? The clock tower worked out beautifully!”

 

Between the tall stems of the moon flowers Faith notices McKay’s face poking out, looking flushed and a bit puffy. Maybe there’s something to his constant claims of allergies. Or maybe he’s just fallen face first into a fire bush. She makes a discreet hand movement to signal that he better get on with it.

 

“Mother, whatever time that clock keeps it’s not on this continent. Maybe not even this planet.”

 

“It is whimsically charming! A landmark!”

 

“It keeps waking everybody in the middle of the night with its yodeling!”

 

“Should I get some guards to help get the moncons out of here?” Faith asks.

 

Mother and daughter turn to look at her, then turn to look at each other.

 

“That might be a good idea, thank you,” says Flora, a blush rising in her cheeks. The hem of her dress has been crusted with mud, and her dainty shoes have gone from a rich red and yellow to assorted shades of brown. Faith feels an illogical urge to offer up her own boots. In the background McKay scurries into hiding behind a moncon with uncharacteristic speed.

 

A boy’s voice calls from an upstairs window: “Mother, there are some beasts in our garden! Are they supposed to be there? Can I pet them?”

 

“I think it would be better all round if you didn’t come down, John,” the queen shouts up to a dark-haired head sticking out of the window. “They have made rather a mess!”

 

“Awesome, I will be right down!” Prince John yells, with that enthusiasm for different kinds of mess that comes naturally to children of certain age.

 

Flora’s hair is unravelling itself from its bonds in a very interesting way. The coppery curls are starting to rise into a frenzy around her flushed face, winding particularly wildly just behind the pale shell of her ear.

 

“I, uh, I’ll go find a guard now, then,” Faith says, slipping into the castle before John comes down and makes everything more exciting and even more full of mud.

 

Since most of the staff have been sent away for enforced sunbathing or whatever it is the queen considers to be a sufficiently relaxing spare time activity, the castle is unusually calm. She doesn’t meet anyone as she trots through the hallways, and there’s no sound but her own footsteps echoing between the stone walls.

 

The guard posted at the hall by the East Wing has all but pushed his helmet over his eyes, leaned on his spear and settled in for a snooze. Little wonder; the East Wing holds the Royal Family’s personal quarters and doesn’t see much activity between the hours of early morning and late afternoon. It takes a while for him to notice Faith standing in front of him, though to his credit once he does, he stands up properly and makes a spirited attempt at smartness.

 

“Hi there, Miss Lumsbred. What happened to your clothes?”

 

Faith looks down her own mud-splashed front. “Uh, that’s what I’m here about, actually.” She explains the current situation of unwanted bovine presence in the palace gardens while he listens with an expression that suggests he’s not sure he’s awake enough for this. “So the queen said that I should ask you to get some men and help out. Some of those guys had to have been raised on farms, right?”

 

The guard glances around a little nervously. “But my post – “

 

“I guess the queen thought it was okay, since there’s no one around today anyway.” The doubt doesn’t quite leave his eyes, so she adds: “If it’d help, I could keep watch here for a while.”

 

The guard finally grins and shakes his head. “Well, when you put it like that... you’re a great little lady, Miss Lumsbred, thanks for helping out.” He pats her on the head and it takes all of her concentration to turn the grimace into a suitably innocent smile.

 

She allows herself to roll her eyes at his back as it disappears down the corridor before looking around for McKay. There are certain benefits of belonging to a group of people so small that most of them can remember you running around in only your underpants when you were four, but the conservation of dignity is not one of them.

 

“It’s clear,” she not-really-whispers. McKay edges out from behind a tapestry where before there had seemed to be nothing. “Okay, I take everything back, you can be sneaky. That was pretty good hiding.”

 

“It’s amazing how quickly you learn this stuff when failing means getting a whack and a barked command from Ronon,” he mumbles, dusting off his clothes and sneezing in a way that is almost dainty. “Jeez, I think Harmony should dust around here a bit more often. The stuff is in my eyes.”

 

“More sneaking, less complaining, “ Faith says, pulling him along towards the queen’s quarters. McKay blinks theatrically all the way there, but manages to pull the key from his pocket and unlock the heavy, ornate door.

 

Inside the queen’s rooms are unexpectedly practical and simple. The bedroom is behind another locked door, and they’d been told to only go in there if something went awry or a guard came to check in on the main room. She guaranteed that no one would poke their noses in there ‘again’. Whatever lay behind that innocent word it was probably for the best that they didn’t know.

 

This room is quite large but curiously underfurnished – a low table to drink tea at surrounded by pillows that are soft and worn from use, a big desk strewn with scrolls and some decorative trinkets peeking out between them. There’s nothing regal about it, apart from a faded red tapestry with the queen’s family crest on one wall.

 

“I’m a bit disappointed,” Faith says. “I always thought there’d be gold. Actually she told us there was gold. She said she slept in a pile of gold coins and jewels.”

 

“That’s what the rest of the palace is for,” McKay says, sneezing again. “Red velvet and gold linings or whatever to instill a healthy sense of awe in people, and in your own room you can do whatever the hell you like. How did you think sleeping on a pile of coins wouldn’t break your back, anyway? Hey, do you see a handkerchief anywhere?”

 

On second thought this doesn’t seem like the room of a queen; it looks like somewhere to drink tea and read and stretch out on pillows. Some paintings line the walls, too, and even though they’re all in the dull earth tones that have been the fashion the last century, the whole collection has to be worth a fortune.

 

To her surprise there’s a portrait of her grandfather as a younger man, scowling at the viewer as if he’d rather be tearing the painter limb from limb than having to sit in this position for a minute longer. Faith smiles at his angular nose as it was before it got broken and his dark eyebrows drawn thunderously together. There’s that story he tells about how he broke his nose that involves wrestling a troll, which she’s long suspected of not being entirely true, but it occupies a kind of space for mythical truth in her head. Looking at his portrait it’s easy to imagine him as the kind of man who’d go out to wrestle trolls. The frame declares him to be ‘Nolar Lumbsbred, trusted advisor to the queen’.

 

Another portrait is of the queen’s mother, who died a long time ago and had her daughter’s dark hair, and then there’s yet another of the queen’s late sister Flora, who the current Crown Princess is named after.

 

It’s only when McKay exclaims: “Hah, found one!” from over by the desk that she sees a couple of paintings there too, and she can’t believe it.

 

“You’re kidding me,” she says as McKay blows his nose into a handkerchief lined with lace, her eyes moving from the painting to McKay and back again.

 

McKay throws a confused glance over his shoulder. “Oh, that. Actually it’s painted from a photograph, we didn’t have time to stay for the infinity of sittings the guy insisted on. He was very, you know, artistic.” He gave the word much the same spin as you would ‘slimy and highly poisonous’.

 

The painting has a background of a lonesome mountain landscape in a near-monochrome, and in the foreground four people are standing around the severed head of something that is either meant to be a dragon or a dangerously inflated lizard. It surprises her how easily she recognizes McKay, even considerably younger and wearing the same dark uniform as the others in the picture.

 

McKay is taking care not to look directly at the picture, and before Faith has found any good way to frame any questions there’s the sound of five rapid knocks on the door – the agreed signal – and the queen slips inside, panting lightly.

 

“Everything went okay?” McKay asks, stuffing the handkerchief into his back pocket.

 

“My gardening staff might suffer a collective breakdown when they come back, but otherwise I think we have everything under control, yes. Come on, let us get you out of here.”

 

As it turns out, one of the convenient features of your average castle is secret passageways. Faith can’t see what the queen does to the wall beside the cupboard, but whatever it is it causes a piece of the wall to swing in and reveal a dark corridor. The queen takes one of the castle’s magic devices - it looks like a rock worn smooth and round by the ocean, but also glows with a soft yellow light when the queen touches it, which most rock tend not to do.

 

“Please do not speak while we walk; I have been lead to believe that the sound can carry to other rooms, and though the staff has fortunately concluded that this means I am allied with otherworldly powers I find it best not to take unnecessary chances.”

 

She leads them down the corridor. As they’re all inside she pushes the secret doorway behind them with something suspiciously like a ‘snick’, though Faith can’t see any hinges or locks anywhere. They walk for quite some times in the damp, clammy darkness, since the narrow corridor makes a lot of twists and turns and springs sudden changes in levels on them from time to time.

 

“Wide open skies,” McKay hums manically under his breath at one point, “wide, wide open...” He quiets as the queen first slaps his shoulder and then leaves there in a comforting gesture.

 

When the end of the corridor comes Faith doesn’t expect it, to the degree that the queen has to throw out a hand to stop her from walking face-first into the wall. Then the queen does something to this wall too and part of it opens to the nice late summer weather outside.

 

They’re standing at the back of the castle, on the narrow piece of land between the castle walls and the sharp drop of Castle Gorge. Any enemy stupid enough to try and climb up from the riverside below, up the flinty cliffs and over the castle walls is presumably too stupid to pose a real threat. The castle is well-built and cleverly positioned; no one has ever managed to conquer it.

 

The queen extinguishes the yellow light by squeezing the stone in her palm and slips it into a pocket. “It is over here.”

 

To Faith the area of boulders they’re zeroing in on seems identical to any other around the cliff edge, but then that’s probably intentional. The queen doesn’t hesitate for a second before going over to one non-descriptive slab of rock and putting her hand on it.

 

There’s the sound of bells.

 

“Should someone stay here and keep watch?” Faith asks.

 

“It would be very helpful,” the queen says, and Faith nods. She’s had a lot of weirdness happening to her the last few days; she’s happy to put off seeing this magical underground base for a while longer.

 

The queen makes an impatient gesture. “Come on, Rodney.”

 

McKay looks doubtful. “You’ll be okay out here, right?” he asks Faith, brow wrinkled. “I mean, of course you will, somebody could put you on a raft in the ocean with only a piece of string and some flint and you’d be okay, you’re that kind of – I mean, I might not see you...”

 

“I’m going to visit you,” Faith says, and then when she sees his face she adds: “Right?”

 

He shakes his head as if to clear it. “Of course. Of course you’ll come visit, I just – I wasn’t thinking.”

 

“I might even bring food, if you promise to stop maligning my cooking.”

 

He smiles at her. “Bring whatever you want to,” and then, after a pause, “thank you.”

 

She has an indefinable feeling that he’s not thanking her for her omelettes.

 

“Mmmhm,” she allows cleverly, nodding. As so often happens in these situations she feels that this might not be sufficient to express her feelings, so she just stands there helplessly until McKay steps forward to give her a brief, tight hug, and as she hugs back she supposes that means he gets it anyway.

 

“Good luck,”  she says gruffly, shooing him towards the queen, “now go on.”

 

She stands beside the slab of rock as they both go inside, watching the dark holes of the castle’s upper windows because she’s not quite sure what else to do with her brain. For a while she practices standing so still she‘s just a faded shadow in the background, like her grandfather taught her. She listens to the whooshing of wind between the castle’s towers, and the high screams of birds of prey, and for some moments she tries to see herself as the birds must, just one unmoving spot on the ground among all the others.

 

Once, when she’d been fairly young and easily distracted, she’d asked her grandfather if, since some insects had a lot of eyes in their eyes, did that mean they just saw the same picture repeated a lot of times?

 

And to her surprise her grandfather hadn’t admonished her for talking while they hunted –  it had been a warm spring day and everything was so quiet it was like their voices got carried right up into the open sky. Instead he’d chewed thoughtfully at the end of a straw for a while, resting his elbows on his knees.

 

“I don’t know about that, Faith,” he’d said finally. “There are lots of different kinds of seeing. Think of how a big cat sees. It belongs to the ground, and it sees movement, how the world surrounding it shifts and changes. It knows everything that happens close to, and nothing else. And then think of a bird; it belongs to the sky and it sees the world unfold under it in the bigger circles that can’t be seen from down here, and yet it can’t see that you and me are different from the other beasts down here; won’t know why you’re important to me like a deer isn’t. It’s all just patterns of shifting colors and shapes from up there, just like clouds are to us. But you, Faith, you’re a human, and you can see through the eyes of both the cat and the bird as you want. That’s what makes you strong, without any claws or beak or pointy teeth.”

 

That was the most she’d ever heard her grandfather say in one go. After a while he’d added: “Wonder what the world looks like to the dragons.”

 

She’d thought about it carefully.

 

“Flammable,” she’d decided, and felt pride well up inside her when he grinned and said: “Yeah, I reckon so too.”

 

They’d been quiet after that, and afterwards Faith had caught a shrew and they went home to show it off to everyone even though it truth be told hadn’t even been a very big shrew. She’d been so proud.

 

Standing down here on the ground and listening to the birds overhead, she can’t help but wonder what her grandfather had seen that day, what he’d seen after, what he saw when he looked at her.

 

She doesn’t know how long she stands there but when the queen’s return is announced by the faint tinkle of bells Faith turns around to meet her.

 

“How did it...”

 

“Oh, fine, fine,” the queen says. “None of what he has been working on has been impacted. He will have to live down there now, but he assures me that there is only going to be a short span of time left before he is finished.”

“We’ll just have to make sure he eats some greens in the meantime.”

 

“Hmm. Well, I suppose my daughter has struggled enough with the livestock on her own, let us go back.”

 

They make their way up the dark corridor again, guided by the yellow glow from the queen’s stone. When they’re back in the queen’s quarters, Faith takes another look at the painting where McKay is so absurdly young. She recognizes the three other people too – it’s the man with the dreadlocks, the woman with the broad smile and the Bantos rods, the tall thin man with the dark hair.

 

“Do you like it?” the queen asks, coming up beside her. “It is one of the last paintings of Chellon the younger. I was very sad to see him go. He did some of the finest work in the last century.”

 

“Those are his people, right? His family.”

 

The queen darts a look at her. “Yes.”

 

Faith focuses on the tall dreadlocked man’s arm around the woman’s shoulder, her coyly lifted eyebrow even as her foot rests on the dragon’s head; McKay and the dark-haired man making faces at each other rather than turning towards the viewer.

 

“They look happy.”

 

“As well they should be, they’d just slayed a dragon without losing as much as a finger,” the queen says.

 

When Faith scowls at her she says, “Really, they had. That painting is more or less right in scale too. It was a monster of a thing.”

 

“So you’re saying there are actually dragons in the mountains.”

 

“No need to take that tone, I have to say there was one, at least. I saw it. Well, not precisely a dragon, perhaps; it did not breathe fire and it did not fly, but it is easy to see where our ancestors got the idea. This one took too much livestock in a city further up the coast line, so we had to deal with it. There are more of them, but they do not usually grow that large.”

 

“They’re real,” Faith repeats, not taking it in any better now that it’s in her own voice. Her eyes stray to the bronze plaque under the painting. It says:

 

‘Heroes in Her Majesty’s service:

 

Specialist Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan of the Athosians, Sir Dr Dr Rodney McKay, Lt. Col. John Sheppard’.

 

Well, that explains the oddly foreign-sounding name of the Prince, at least. He’s named after someone from another galaxy.

 

“Flora wants to be a painter, you know.”

 

Faith looks up. “She does? Oh. Well, she’s always been good at the, uh, you know, fiddly stuff.”

 

“Quite. When she moaned about having no one but her brother for a model I told her she should ask you, but the prospect seemed to make her rather flustered.”

 

Faith blushes embarrassingly. “I’m not, uh, I’m not good at sitting still.”

 

“I cannot imagine that she would mind. She did say that you seemed ‘Okay, I guess’, which I understand to be how you young people express appreciation.” She lets Faith hang there in mute mortification for a while longer before taking pity. “You are welcome to come visit whenever you want, of course.”

 

“...thank you.” 

 

There’s a glint in the queen’s eye that reminds Faith that this is the woman her grandfather has obeyed and protected since before Faith was even born.

 

Faith clears her throat. “I... can I ask you something?”

 

“Certainly, though of course I cannot guarantee that I have an answer for you.”

 

“When you say your blessings over the dying... do you believe it? Or is it... is it something else? Because my grandfather doesn’t believe in the, uh, soul or anything, any more than I do and... if you knew him at all, you’d know that.”

 

The queen curls the crooked edge of a smile. “In the end all the things we do around death is ultimately for the living, don’t you find?”

 

 

And as Faith casts one last look at her grandfather’s portrait as she leaves, she thinks that once she said that Harmony didn’t know how to deal with the important things – with people – but she may have been wrong about that.

 

 

-------

 

 

It hurts, lodging deep and everywhere, skittering across his skin and he can’t even tell if he’s getting closer –

 

 

Being offered a place on ‘Destiny’ was meant to be a joke.

 

Scratch that, it was a joke. How could it not be a joke – who could imagine him, Rodney McKay, willingly signing up to another mission likely to end in death or, in that way he had somehow gotten used to, worse? Why would anyone imagine that, having finally risen to a position reflective of his considerable abilities – Woolsey might think he was the leader of the whole shebang but, newsflash: Woolsey did not have control of Atlantis’s power supply – his next life choice would be hitching a ride on a spaceship with destination “the universe, wherever” and no way to get him home?

 

He hadn’t even really mentioned it to anyone before he remembered it in passing a week and a half later and then he’d considered it a sort of potential new in-joke - something about how, if Atlantis wasn’t willing to keep him in the lifestyle and number of ZPMs to which he’d become accustomed, there were others who’d know to appreciate him.

The words had had an... unexpected effect.

 

“They wanted you to come with them?” John had said, his eyebrows rising as he turned towards Rodney in one too-sharp jerk. Rodney almost walked into him on the way into the mess hall.

 

“Are you saying you wouldn’t want the world’s foremost expert on Ancient technology on board to navigate your temperamental space vessel?”

 

And somehow that had been the wrong thing to say, because John had looked at him for a long time before his gaze drifted away to every thing in the room except him, and in his eagerness to fix whatever it was that had gotten them there Rodney had babbled on for most of dinner while John hardly said anything at all, and somehow that had felt more like digging himself deeper than making it right.

 

The next few days had been weird. This thing between them was new enough that Rodney hesitated to see any pattern as set in stone yet and so he didn’t do anything when he didn’t see or hear more of John that first day, but then he slept alone for two nights, three, and when they approached the fourth he figured he was probably at least expected to comment on it.

(John had gotten strangely cold and distant and full of an infuriating kind of laissez-faire attitude that had felt a lot like indifference, or even, in the darker spaces of Rodney’s mind, like he was somehow relieved at the chance to get rid of him. And of course that wasn’t what it was, of course that was stupid, except it kept churning there right under his ribs, no matter what he told himself.)

 

“I stayed up really late sparring with Ronon,” John shrugged when Rodney finally managed to corner him after dinner. “Thought I might as well let you sleep.”

 

“Well, it’s hardly like you coming in and slipping under the covers would be a hurricane of disruption,” Rodney said.

 

“Yeah, well, I was tired.”

 

Rodney only just stopped himself from pointing out that John slept better when he wrapped himself all over Rodney like a clingy octopus. He could, despite what evil tongues might suggest, take a hint when it was being shoved in his face. So he said sure, okay, of course, and wasn’t at all unsettled when John went directly for his own quarters that night as well.

 

He went so far in his not being unsettled that he was pacing back and forth over the floor in his quarters, desperately trying to tell himself that it didn’t really mean anything, stuff like this happened from time to time, Rodney was certainly not going to be the first to blink here because it wasn’t him who’d made this weird out of the blue, and if John thought...

 

Eventually he flopped down on his bed, exhausted by the whirlwind of thoughts stirring up his head.

 

As he sat there on the edge of the bed, finding nowhere to put his hands, looking around as if he was a stranger to the place, it was only so long he could ignore the realization that the empty feeling in his chest was trying to get across to him.

There was no way to tell from this room that anyone but Rodney had ever been there. Not as much as an errant sock, a comic book, a –  a –  Rodney didn’t even know, a golf magazine, to suggest that anyone had occupied this space with him.

 

(No way to tell that in the beginning John had touched fleetingly, almost fearfully, as if he’d forgotten how to, leaving spaces between them before he fell asleep, only ever leaving the back of his hand to rest on Rodney’s chest; the  most fledgling beginnings of closeness. No way to remember how the change had happened all at once, as if something in him had broken open and spilled its contents all over the bed, taking refuge between the sheets as John held on almost painfully tight, his breath too fast and tight against Rodney’s skin even in his sleep. How that had eased too, until Rodney could send him off just by keeping close and stroking fingers through his hair and letting his mouth run on low, comforting autopilot in a manner that was fortunately inherent in the McKay genetics.

It had been the first time in his life that Rodney had truly felt there could be worth in doing nothing.)

 

It was like John had never been there at all, and Rodney couldn’t shake this horrible feeling that it’s somehow on purpose, that he made sure there was a way out before he’d ever even set foot inside. Rodney sat on the bed for some time – he wasn’t quite sure how long, swallowed up by the silence – and then his brain broke through the immobilizing haze his body was frozen by and got up, got out of the door, walked down the corridors.

 

John took enough time answering the door that Rodney was moving his weight from foot to foot compulsively by the time it slid open, and then he only took the time to put on the most basic pretense of common courtesy, saying: “Hey, can I come in, thank you,” even as he was brushing past John and well over the doorstep.

 

“..sure,” John said, letting the door close again. He looked a little crumpled, gazing at Rodney like you would a dentist or anyone else who could potentially inflict intense bodily pain on you outside of your control. He leaned back against the wall, folding his arms over his chest. “Was there something you…”

 

There were swarms of words like migratory birds circling Rodney’s head, all of them wrong, too small or cumbersomely drenched in other people’s sentiments, equally misrepresentative of his meaning. He folded his hands on his back and started pacing back and forth.

He would just have to approach this steadily and methodically, showing his work.

 

“I –” he began, “you...John.”

 

John almost-flinched at the sound of his name, and Rodney wanted to… what? Fix everything in the world that could make John look like that? A tall order, given that he didn’t quite know what had been broken.

Rodney paced and thought, then paced and thought some more, then stopped and raised a finger as if in epiphany - and then, realizing that there had been no lightbulb moment after all, kept pacing.

 

“Is this some kind of performance art?” John said suspiciously.

 

“No, no, hold on, this is important. I…” He continued pacing, desperately fighting for some equilibrium. He looked at John’s face and he had to find some way to say it.

You could just tell him the truth, he thought suddenly. It could be that simple.

Simple, but not easy, another part of him answered. You could ruin everything.

But it’s still the truth.

Go ahead, it’s your own damn funeral.

Rodney cleared his throat and came to a standstill. He pulled in the deepest breath he could remember taking.

 

“I just need to know that you know that…” He closed his eyes briefly, steeling himself. “I love you. I love you and I would never leave for anywhere if you weren’t coming with me.”

When he opened his eyes John was completely still, like Rodney had been talking to an old photograph of him the whole time and hadn’t noticed. Rodney cleared his throat. “I just thought… you should know.”

 

At John’s frozen, deer-in-the-headlights look Rodney realized with a start that what he really wanted to do was to hug him, and then, a fraction of a second later, that he didn’t quite know how to do that. It was a sombering thought that he’d somehow reached middle age without picking up that trick.

Well, he decided, he was a genius from a family of geniuses. He’d make it up as he went along.

 

In the end it felt almost too easy, like laying down a corner piece in a complicated jigsaw puzzle and then slapping your forehead because of course, that was the tip of the seagull’s wing and a curl of cloud, it seemed so obvious now. His brain might not have known how, but his hands did, gathering John up against him and holding on. John smelled so good - he pretty much always did, at least when he wasn’t covered in wraith gunk. That smell was hotwired directly to Rodney’s heart at this point. He was so fucked.

 

At first John just stood there, and then his hands came up hesitatingly to rest on Rodney’s shoulders, trailing the outline of them like a blind person searching out a shape. Then in one slow wave he melted forward, hugging back just this side of uncomfortably hard, face turned into Rodney’s neck. There was a very fine tremble running through Rodney’s fingers.

 

After a while John pulled back a little. Rodney let him, even though he was far from ready to let go. He wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to say, exactly, but he still felt he hadn’t gotten all of it across yet – only John wasn’t pulling back, he was tilting his head to kiss him, bringing his hand up to stroke a thumb over Rodney’s jaw, lips slow and soft and warm against Rodney’s, then against the corner of his mouth, his cheek, before moving away enough for him to rest his forehead against Rodney’s temple. They stood there for a while.

 

Performance art,” Rodney said eventually, in mock accusation, a laugh stuttering out with his breath. “That’s what they call it where you’re from?”

 

John chuckled into his hair, pulling Rodney with him as he leaned back against the door, gently pushed up against him everywhere. Rodney ran his hand down John’s chest as best as he could with how close they were standing, then reached up to stroke his hair. John’s breathing was getting heavier, his head tilting back to leave his neck open and Rodney pressed his lips to his throat, marvelling at the warm, smooth skin changing into stubble. He trailed his fingers over John’s jaw and into his hair, pulling on it just this side of too light, in that way that usually made John’s eyes go soft and distant.  

 

John made a low, harsh noise, arching into the touch and sliding his hands down Rodney’s back to his ass, pulling him in closer. John was definitely, gratifyingly just as hard as him, and Rodney gasped out a couple of breaths between undoing the fly of John’s pants and getting enthusiastically kissed.

 

“Hang on,” he panted, finally getting his hand inside, “just give me a moment – stop that, I’m working here,” he added, flapping irritably at John’s hand trying to worm its way between them to undo Rodney’s trousers too. John laughed again, and that really was the best sound in the universe, Rodney was willing to make up a whole new science to prove it.

 

Between them they managed to rid themselves of their clothes, though John came out ahead since he hadn’t actually been wearing socks and thus drove Rodney out of his mind with slow, soft kisses to his neck and shoulders while he was trying to get his socks off. “Oh for god’s sake, it’s not as though it’s rocket sci– there, there, I’m ready,” he announced. He could feel John grin against his neck and then jerked and moaned as he scraped over the skin with his teeth.

John put his hands on Rodney’s hips and shifted a little, meeting his mouth at a slightly different angle, pulling a sigh from Rodney as he tilted his head back in answer. John’s mouth felt soft and slick against his, and Rodney reached out for John’s shoulder as if for balance, because everything else seemed to shift and glide around him.

 

“Come on,” John said, taking his wrist and moving towards the bed.

 

“Good idea, very smart,” Rodney said, flopping down on the bed and pulling John after him down into the sheets, which were soft and lackadaisically disordered around them and smelled almost painfully familiar.

 

Rodney traced the line of John’s spine with his fingertips, slowly losing his coordination as his pulse started beating wildly in his chest. He brushed the backs of his fingers up his side, then followed the line to his shoulder and then down along his arm - and good god, John’s arms, the long solid muscle of them, the wiry strength and his callused hands.

 

John wrapped his fingers around Rodney’s cock and started jerking him off, annoyingly gentle when all Rodney really wanted was for him to be rough about it. The oddly soft, careful touch made something in his stomach ache. He pushed into the kiss, trying for demand but ending up somewhere around pleading, then pulled back to watch John’s face, mellow with concentration.  

 

“I meant it, by the way,” he managed between panting breaths, because while his general demeanor had obviously gotten it across somehow – seeing as he was here, under John, being clung to like he was the last life raft in the vast ocean of the universe, as opposed to sitting alone in some dark distant corner of the city getting slowly and miserably drunk – he thought it might be one of those things that he needed say out loud. “And I am sorry.”

 

There was the very slightest break in rhythm. “Sssh,” John shushed, hand tightening and sliding down to rest over Rodney’s hip. “Don’t.”

 

“You know that, though, right? I’m really –“ he broke off on a squeak as John bit his shoulder, just hard enough to come across as a playful warning.

Rodney sniggered. “You’re ridiculous.”

 

“Well, I can think of better things to do with our mouths right now than talking,” John said thickly. “And if we keep talking about this I may have to fling myself out the nearest window. Have mercy.”

 

“I know, I know.” Rodney felt his whole face crease with the grin, because of course. Of course John would do anything up to and including murder, treason and abstaining from talking about American football for weeks at a time for all of them, but he couldn’t string together three meaningful ‘I feel’ statements if all their lives depended on it. It was a sad state of affairs when Rodney was the powerhouse of mature emotional expression in any situation, but he honestly didn’t give a fuck - the kiss John gave him as he cupped Rodney’s face in his hands was worth any words anyone could put together. It was a language in itself, a lilting accent of tenderness.

 

John moved his mouth to the side of Rodney’s neck, sucking the skin there just the way he liked it, right on the edge of hard enough that there was a chance he’d have to wear a high neck sweater tomorrow. Rodney moaned loudly and opened his legs wider, letting them settle on John’s hips. John whimpered, his hips jerking forward and his hand grabbing Rodney’s ass, hauling him even closer. The bulk of John’s body holding him down was almost too good; Rodney bit his lip and clung to John’s shoulder.

 

“You remember where we put the lube?” John rasped after a while, stubble scratching satisfyingly against Rodney’s neck where it was buzzing faintly from the attention.

 

“Yeah,” Rodney groaned immediately, his hips pushing up into John’s solid weight. “In its natural habitat, bedside drawer, you should – ”

 

“‘Natural habitat’?” John echoed with mild incredulity, stretching and fumbling and coming back with the tube.

 

“Whatever, not the point, give that here - ” Rodney poured a generous amount into his palm and reached down to take both their dicks in his palm, the slickness taking him almost to the edge within seconds. John wrapped his palm over Rodney’s, thumb brushing over the head of Rodney’s cock in small circles. Rodney squeezed his eyes shut and slowed the movement down while he caught his breath a little. Then John licked a kiss into his mouth and his rhythm was completely thrown off, faltering to a stop as John’s tongue brushed against his, as John took his bottom lip between both of his and sucked carefully.

It was John who got them back on course again, giving an encouraging squeeze to Rodney’s hand and pulling it up a little. Rodney shook himself and started jerking them both off again, putting a bit of concentration into it, searching out the speed and pressure he knew worked for John. Turned out it worked a little too well for Rodney too; he had to gasp a few breaths and focus on something - anything - else for a few moments, the folds in the sheets, a drop of sweat running down John’s collarbone and across his chest.

 

“I don’t think this is going to last much longer,” he ground out between soft, keening sounds that he might have considered embarrassing a few years ago.

 

John didn’t answer, just wrapped his entire arm around Rodney’s shoulders and pulled him impossibly closer. His cock was so warm and heavy against Rodney’s; Rodney clawed his free hand against the sheets to try and find some kind of purchase.

 

The bed started giving protesting sounds under them, groaning under the movement, but then John’s hips jerked out of rhythm for a beat, causing him to slip out of Rodney’s grasp and that was all Rodney needed, John’s hot cock shoving against him like that, the hardness of it against his hip. Coming felt like being punched in the stomach, except in a hitherto unprecedented good way, and it left him limp and powerless to do anything but melt against John, reaching for his solid warmth blindly. Through the pleasantly bewildered haze of aftershock he felt John tense up, wrapped all around him as close as he could get, heard the small hitching gasp he always let out right before he came and then sensed him relax all at once on a long shaky outbreath.

 

For a while Rodney just lay there, noticing far away that he couldn’t really breathe like this and that he didn’t care, and how he could feel John’s heartbeat against his chest, small absent kisses whispered against the side of his neck. Eventually the respiratory limitations got the better of him, though and he carefully edged his way out from under John, turning over on his side to look at him. John was heavily flushed and even more wild-haired than usual, wearing his normal post-coital look of dazed but happy confusion. When he noticed that Rodney was looking at him, he reached out with orgasm-clumsily limbs to pull him back down, twining their legs together and letting his arm rest over Rodney’s waist, his eyes falling shut as his breath eased down.

 

Rodney turned his head to press a kiss to John’s temple, nosing at the skin behind his ear. (If Rodney found pressing in close right there to smell John to be incredibly soothing, well, he didn’t intend to tell anyone because middle age had apparently turned his brain soft and useless and no one ever needed to know.) He was still feeling strange and shivery from the moment he realized how close he’d come to screwing this up. For a moment he shut his eyes and let it wash over him again, ice cold and bottomless.

 

“I’m still sorry,” he said quietly, because he was, and John should know that. In fact he was thinking about handing in his Mensa membership because he’d almost let it happen, he’d almost been too stupid or too scared or whatever bad excuse there had been to not just swallow his pride and admit that there might be more important things than being right. “I’d never… this is home. I wouldn’t – I didn’t want to. I wasn’t even considering it – let them keep the Ancient Enterprise of the Damned, I’ve done my share of almost dying in the endless void of space, it’s not all they make it out to be. I just… when I told you it seemed like you… didn’t care – ”

“Rodney.”

“ – and I got… I’d never leave.”

 

John’s eyes slipped back open, eyes dark and unreadable. “I know.”    

 

“Do you?” Rodney demanded, pushing up on an elbow to glare down at him. “Really? I’d never –“

 

John grabbed him by the back of the head and kissed him quiet, his thumb rubbing slow circles into Rodney’s neck, his shoulder. When he pulled back he looked younger, less tired. “I know. I just…” His face got that pinched look it did when he was trying to dredge up some meaningful way of expressing himself. “I freaked out. When it sounded like you’d thought about it. I didn’t mean to…”

 

“I’m not leaving.”

 

As if the words cut the tight hold of invisible ropes John slumped a little, hiding his face in Rodney’s neck. Rodney held onto him tightly, breathing him in.  

 

“You’re stuck with me,” he said quietly, running a hand through John’s hair. “Just accept it. It works both ways.”   

There was a snorting sound from the general area of his collar bone.

 

(The next day he’d found Johnny Cash hanging on his bedroom wall.)

 

 

 

– but right now it’s the only thing he’s got and he doesn’t want to think about what’d happen if he let it go.

 

-------

 

 

In the end the last day looks like every other day has. Rodney has been at this for so long now that he’d expected... well, something. A fanfare, at the very least. Maybe his praises being sung as the skies open with the voice of a thousand men’s choirs. He isn’t picky when it comes to celestial recognition, as long as it’s suitably impressive.

 

Instead he wakes up, eats his breakfast, goes to the bathroom, starts working.

 

And then, after more than twenty-five years, he’s out of things to do for the first time, because it’s done. All of it is done. The consoles and the many improvised power conduit solutions are glowing a faint blue. Every reading shows exactly what it’s supposed to. It’s done.

 

He did it.

 

For a while all Rodney can do is stand there. This is all he’s lived for for almost half a lifetime, and now he doesn’t know what to do – thinks about getting Faith or Harmony down here just to get a second opinion, just so he knows this isn’t one last fatal hallucination and he’s isn’t going to blow himself up in a fit of delirium; thinks about just sliding down with his back to one of the facility’s smooth cold walls and staying there for a long, long time.

 

He looks around the place where he’s spent the last month or so. Harmony’s knitting lies scattered on a lab bench, half-way to becoming a pair of incredibly wonky socks in three colors that all manage to not match with any of the others. Some clumsy sketches and one stick of charcoal snapped in two lies beside it, because Faith has that kind of volatile patience that happens through pure stubbornness over a large period of time punctuated by outcries of “I quit! I don’t even care anymore! This is dumb!”. That way it’s almost like teaching Ronon to use any modified Ancient tech more advanced than what can be covered by ‘Point it in that direction and pull the trigger’ or ‘Run to a safe place, press the button, BOOM’.

 

He shuffles back and forth over the floor for a bit, as the consoles give a low hum that is usually reassuring but seems somehow threatening now.

 

...it’s done  If he wants to, he could try it right now. He can press the right buttons, finally, and see.

 

If he doesn’t do it right now, he realizes, he’s not going to be able to do it at all. When he’s done being overwhelmed like this the thought that it might not work, or that it might, or just the thought of what he’s going to do – he won’t be able to extricate himself from that ragged tangle of doubt, too caught up in distrust to even try.

 

Still, it doesn’t seem right, leaving without saying goodbye.

 

Then it hits him that this is one of their feast days. Harmony is going to be busy, being the reigning monarch and all, and Faith is probably out taking her hunting exam or whatever you’d call it right now.

 

If he waits until tomorrow, he’ll never be able to do it.

 

Actually there’s a good possibility that it won’t even matter – depending on which model of quantum theory you ascribe to, this timeline will probably disappear from existence altogether. For someone who’s had less time and brain capacity than Rodney to consider the issue, that would probably sound like a pretty bad thing to do, but since there are enough timelines for everything that can happen to happen – an infinity of Harmonys who lived on, who continued, an equal infinity of Faiths growing up to be possibly the most terrifying person in the galaxy after Teyla – and one unhappy ending must be an acceptable sacrifice in the circumstances. In another infinity of universes none of them were born. It works out, in the end.

 

So even though the most probable outcome is that they’ll never notice he’s gone – in fact none of them will technically ever have been here – he leaves a letter, anyway, just in case.

 

And then he mentally throws himself off the cliff with his eyes squeezed shut and compiles the finished program, pours over every test result as it’s deployed to the Ancient consoles to satisfy his paranoia, before he runs the initialize function as quickly as he can, leaving no time to second-guess himself. There’s a cheery sound of confirmation, and then it’s done.

 

It’s pretty disappointing. There’s no hum of electronics whirring to life until it reaches a steady whine, no crescendo of light or showering of sparks. The only noticeable change is that some lights blink on beside the console and... and he realizes the Jumper is already here – was there before he pressed the button.

 

For a moment he just looks blankly at it, wondering if he lost time or physics just broke and cause and effect don’t work like they’re supposed to. Then his brain comes to its senses. Time travel. The perceived span of time from his point of view is entirely irrelevant.

 

The Jumper is exactly as he remembers them, sleek and familiar in its Ancient design, and the most welcome sight in the world.The hatch lowers and a head pokes out. The head has curly dark blond hair over a high forehead, a pointy nose, and green eyes that seem somehow... chipper and vacant, like those of a cartoon squirrel.

 

“You’re Janus?” Rodney asks.

 

“Indeed I am.”

 

“You came,” Rodney says, almost surprised.

 

Janus raises his eyebrows, smiling in an absent-minded sort of way, as if he’s vaguely befuddled to find himself here, too. It seems benevolent, but then it can be hard to tell with these guys. “Only a very few people would ever be able to understand the mechanics of this Gateship well enough to send that recall. I thought it might be ... interesting.”

 

“Have you met Elizabeth Weir yet?”

 

He tips his head to one side. Rodney can’t help but feel he’s being observed like a lepidopterist would a butterfly he wasn’t sure he’d keep. “A matter of hours ago, in fact. You must be the young Doctor Rodney McKay. Well, obviously not so young anymore.” A careful head-to-toe once-over. If Rodney had had any leftover self to muster, he might have managed indignation. “Doctor Weir mentioned you. I take it you survived this time around, huh?”

 

“I suppose I did.”

 

They’re both quiet for a couple of of minutes. The Jumper makes small noises Rodney hasn’t heard in such a long time, but which still send small trembles of ‘home’ down his spine.

 

“What did you want with me, then, Doctor McKay, since you have gone to such trouble?”

 

“I need your help. It’s about the city,” he adds. “It’s about saving the city.”

 

Rodney has had a long, long time to think about what he should say when the time traveling alien arrived, and his predictions work out. At the mention of the city Janus’ eyes come into focus, a light carefully downplayed washing back over his face.

 

“Ah. You better tell me everything, then. Please come inside.”

 

 

In the beginning Rodney can’t quite bring himself to sit down in the passenger seat of the Jumper. He just stands there, heart hammering in his chest, because he’s not sure this is real and not just a final death throe of his mind as it goes into permanent chaos. It smells like Atlantis in here, and it reminds him of something he can’t name, and the consoles look exactly as he remembers. It’s all too real to be real. 

 

“Doctor McKay?” Janus voice is almost droned out  by the blood pumping in Rodney’s ears. “Feel free to take a seat.”

 

Rodney focuses on the – inelegant, half-finished – clump of metal on the floor that is presumably what sets it apart from the spaceships that move in only three dimensions and that makes this Jumper different from the ones he knew. He dumps down into the passenger seat, clutching at the arm rests.

 

While Janus listens intently he explains how he came to be here, though there’s a horrible niggling doubt in his mind that he’s forgotten things, or that his mind has rehashed it all so many times he’s starting to add lies without meaning to. Even the notes he remembered to make shortly after it all happened, for just this purpose, seem insubstantial and inconclusive.

 

Unaware of this, Janus leans his chin on the top of his steepled fingers. “So you have not had the resources to actually find out what happened?”

“No.” He’s imagined it, though. In technicolor and high definition, again and again, until every single scenario had worn grooves in his mind.

Janus lifts one amicable eyebrow, leaning over the controls. He handles them just like Sheppard used to, and Rodney has never seen anyone else do it quite like that, like they’re handling an extra limb. “Then I suppose that is where we should start, no?”

 

------

 

Janus spends a while tweaking the navigation system – which, of course, features a fourth dimension, though not in a way you’d call intuitive; it’s just a wild chaos of differently coloured lines crossing the map on the Jumper screen – before he looks at Rodney over his shoulder.

“Ready, Doctor McKay?”

Rodney, who knows that the principles behind the Time Jumper’s construction are... well, not sound, but pretty plausible all things considered, yet has been unable to trust an Ancient invention 100% since his near-fatal brush with the ascension machine, nods and discreetly grabs on to the seat of his chair.

This turns out to have been an unnecessary move, as the light on the Jumper dashboard just flashes once, and then dies down again. When Rodney glances out the window, the lab looks exactly the same as it did a second ago, except Harmony’s knitting and his own work equipment is missing.

“How far back are we?” he says, uncomfortably aware of his own temporal displacement and that in all probability most of the people he’s ever known , barring Wraith and other statistical improbabilities, are either not born yet or long gone.

“Hm? Oh, several thousand years into the past. The facility lay untouched for a long time, I figured it was best to avoid a chance encounter with anyone who might recognize the technology.”

Rodney turns his head to study the stone ceiling above them, whose single most immediate property is its impenetrable solidness. “Okay, so now we’ve moved in this dimension, now how do we get out of here physically?”

Janus’s face splits in a large grin. “You’ll see. I think you are going to enjoy this.”

Not at all feeling the same kind of certainty on that matter, Rodney takes hold of his seat again. He hasn’t been in any vehicle that moves faster than his little rowboat in a stiff breeze for a long time, and all the tolerance he’d built up riding shotgun for John ‘It Isn’t Speed Unless It Approaches Light Speed’ Sheppard has faded into an unlikely dream.

Janus maneuvers the Jumper towards the corridor that leads to the exit right by where Rodney’s cottage is going to be in the far future, and not surprisingly the space is just wide enough for it because if Rodney were to do illicit experiments on a machine to turn it into the TARDIS, he would have made sure the lab space was big enough too.

“Uh, hey, what are you – ” Rodney says as the end of the corridor approaches and Janus doesn’t slow down.

Janus only smiles even broader and runs his hand over something on the dashboard. The entire Jumper lets out the high clear tone that the resonance-sensitive material reacts to and they fly through the rock without it giving more resistance than cotton candy would at that speed.

 “What do you think?” Janus asks as they hover in the air outside the facility entrance.

Too busy staving off an inconvenient heart attack to come up with anything, Rodney just nods profusely. 

Janus makes a happy humming sound and turns the Jumper’s cloak on.

“Now all that remains is to make use of this planet’s Stargate and go to Atlantis, and then we find the right date to find out what happened. Easy work.”

“Altering timelines. Just like riding a bike.”

“A bike?”

“Never mind.”

---

Since they can’t risk going to Atlantis in the time they’re currently in – it would eat up all the remaining power Elizabeth has to conserve until their arrival from Earth in a few thousand years’ time – Janus comes up with a plan. Once he’s made Rodney tell him the last known location of the city he makes some calculations that are annoyingly far from Rodney’s understanding (mostly because Rodney has never had a chance to get familiar with the subject, he assures himself).

“So is there anything else I should know about this thing?” Rodney asks when the silence stretches out for long enough to get boring. “Like does it send you into an alternate universe if you step on the brakes too hard?” 

Janus lights up. “Aha ha, Doctor McKay, I’m glad you ask; I’m sure a man like yourself will find this most interesting. Let me see... if I... no, no, of course, bad idea, but if I... yes, there it is.”

The metal lump on the floor hums intently , and the Jumper windshield flickers as a ghostly image settles over the view.

The landscape of Harmony’s planet changes suddenly around them. Where the forests and cliffs were before there are now ruins of giant buildings, glass and concrete and whatever else scattered around on the dry, lifeless ground like the remains of shattered marbles. It looks like the skeletal aftermath of a civilization that had been forced to lie down and die under its own weight.

Before the view changed they had been suspended not very far from the Stargate, well within range to see the castle. There’s no castle now; just the cracked remains of a giant glass dome spanning a ridiculous distance.

“In the process of creating the time drive I figured out how to send only the Gateship’s sensors back and forth through time. Neat, isn’t it?”

“So you can look into the past or the future as you want?” Rodney asks, idly thinking that if Daniel Jackson were here he’d probably have an excited heart attack and die right on the spot.

“Well, to a certain extent. Because the the mechanics of causality are so fickle, what we are really getting is... a likely universe. It’s by no means foolproof, but for the most part it’s very helpful when it comes to avoiding moving forward in time and into a supernova.”

“Right,” Rodney says. “Right. That’s... cool.”

“Isn’t it? The Council feared it would destroy the fabric of the universe – that observing the future would fragment the natural functions of causality, fixing futures that could not happen with the current set of universal conditions, causing collapses in reality as we know it – but they do have an overly cautious attitude towards these things.”

To protect the poor tatters of his sanity Rodney completely ignores this, looking out through the window instead. He wonders who is going to put up all these strange buildings – for all he knows it could be the Genii in their less amish, post-subterranean Nazi aesthetic period.

“This is the future, right?”

“Mhm. The far future from where you are from.”

“Is it safe there?”

Janus considers this. “As long as you don’t stick your head outside, it certainly is. The atmosphere has become poisonous to your species. The radiation might also be deadly, if you’re exposed to it long enough, but the Gateship would have protected us from all that. Ah, yes, that’s it.. Let me just confirm that...”

He touches the Jumper’s DHD, the ghostly image of the broken city fades away and the Stargate down there lights up. Humming slightly he punches in an address. The event horizon blazes into existence. Janus makes a pleased sound.

“I recognized the address you gave; we used to have a team of scientist posted there to study the unique sea life to be found in the oceans of the planet’s southern hemisphere.”

“Well, we knew you’d been doing something there, since there was already a space gate and everything. We gave that to the Travellers when we moved the city there.”

“Hm. Attempts at planting a human population were made early on, but you didn’t seem to grow very well there. Pity, really, it had a very agreeable climate.”

“...Let’s just go, huh?”

“Certainly.”

As they pass through the gate, Harmony’s planet is left behind, green and quiet and open.

 

-------

 

The planet that will, in the future, be host to Atlantis after it returns from Earth has apparently not changed all that much in the intervening time. It’s still – already? this time travel thing does a number on human language – the soft, mellow blue that Rodney remembers, and since it’s 80% ocean down there there’s a lot of it.

They’re hovering around it a bit closer than the nearest of the planet’s three moons, Janus deep in work, Rodney doing his very best to avoid being a disturbing background element. After a while of prolonged silence Janus pushes a button and the flash that means they’ve changed position in time appears again. The planet still looks pretty much the same as it did in Rodney’s time.

He looks at the time stamp at the bottom right corner of the screen. “You moved us to the future again?”

It takes a while to get an answer.

“Hmm, yes, about two hundred of your Earth years after you went there.You see, the thing about the present moment is that it’s nowhere near as sturdy as people give it credit for,” Janus says eventually, hands flying over the controls, “but once you are looking back at it, it can be quite reliable. Let me just – there. What was the date you lost contact with the city, again?”

Rodney tells him, using the Ancient calendar and time units as the Earth ones would be like measuring the whole of the United States with a one meter long ruler, and after a while Janus punches a button and again the ghostly image settles over the windshield, thought the change is less impressive as the view is still overwhelmingly just the darkness of space. Obviously you can’t see the city from orbit, so the planet also looks completely unchanged.

“Wow,” Rodney says flatly.

Janus chuckles. “A bit of patience, please. It’s an incredible feat that I can pinpoint the day at all if you’re not going to expect it to hit the right time of day on the first try. Let’s move forward a bit...”

If it weren’t for the time stamp down in the corner of the windshield moving faster you wouldn’t know that Janus was sending the sensors forward it time in five-minute chunks, because the view out the window is still exactly the same.

Exactly the same, that is, until something dark flickers over the screen.

“Stop it there,” Rodney says sharply, absently reaching out a hand that itches to do it itself and letting it hover in mid-air. “Wind back a little.”

Janus lets the passage of time back to its usual trickle and they watch as a shadow moves past their line of vision. Rodney stares at the surprisingly small ship hovering in orbit over the planet.

“It’s Asgard,” he says, brain starting to race.

Janus makes an impressed sound beside him, keeping his eyes on the instruments. “They’ve held out this long? Quite an achievement, considering the troubles they were already experiencing in my time.”

“Yeah, you know what, maybe the Wraith don’t like the taste of creatures who’ve been living on Pesticide Grand Central for thousands of years. The Asgards sure as hell haven’t made an effort to broadcast themselves as your friendly galactic neighbourhood type of race. Every baby in the galaxy could become Wraith snack bars and they’d just lift their eyebrows in mild disdain from a distance. If they had eyebrows, that is.”

“Ah. They don’t involve themselves much.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“A prudent if... annoyingly conservative move, I suppose.”

“You’d know.”

Janus does not seem to take this as the insult it’s half meant as. “Would you please shift the crystals in the second row to the left until they all show the right value?” he asks lightly, tapping his finger against the top of the metal lump until a panel in its side moves away and reveals a tiny compartment inside.

Rodney ducks in, fumbling around until he gets hold of one of the violet ones.

“Doctor McKay, I’m wondering what motive was behind the destruction of the city. Have you been in conflict with the Asgard before?”

Rodney squints down at the crystal tray; this is a different model from those generally used in the facility on Harmony’s planets and he’s having to overrule muscle memory constantly. “Both yes and no. I mean, we did blow up the only planet in this galaxy they’d been hiding out on for the last ten thousand years, but we were mostly just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not that any of us would have been in that place at that time if it weren’t for Daniel Jackson,” he mutters as he wrenches one particularly stubborn blue crystal out so he can jab it in three places over to avoid frying the circuits later on. “They weren’t very happy about being shaken out of their sheltered existence, but I always figured that if they were planning on retribution they’d go at it a lot sooner. To be honest I don’t care about why they’re doing this. I just want to know how to stop them,” he adds, putting a couple of the crystals down on the floor beside him. 

“Which is admirably practical of you. Hm. So they had not shown any hostile intentions immediately before the attack?”

“No one had as much as reported an E.T. spotting for years beforehand.”

“And they showed up right after you discovered the facility?”

“Yeah.”

“Ah,” Janus says. “They must have noticed the signal and thought it would lead them to another weapon they could use in their fight against the Wraith. They might as well make sure there wasn’t any competition for it. Or perhaps they were anxious that you would turn it on them.”

As Rodney had come to that conclusion about half an hour ago, he turns to the second important thing about that statement. “Would they have found another weapon of Attero-class in the ruined parts of the facility?”

Janus presses his lips together in an apologetic smile.

“Why do I even ask,” Rodney mutters, turning back to his work.

It takes some time for him to finish up, and Janus is very quiet for all of it, which Rodney isn’t sure whether to take as a good sign or not.

“So?” Rodney prompts as he taps the metal to get the compartment to close again. “First impressions? Creative solutions? Any ideas as to how the two of us single-handedly wipe out the last fraction of one of the most advanced races in the history of the universe?”

The hesitant, narrow gaze from Janus, at least, is not reassuring. “I have the solution you need at hand,” he says slowly, “but there are... some minor problems.”

“How so?”

“Firstly it’s a largely untested method – that is, it works perfectly under lab conditions, but it has never been tried on such a large scale. Secondly it would require us to find and make use of one of the city’s – what did you call them? Zero-point modules. There is a small risk of being exposed, since for practical reasons we will have to take it from the city right before the attack hits, to be sure its removal won’t be noticed. Thirdly, it might, by some, be construed as.... somewhat unethical.”

“Only somewhat?” Rodney says dryly. “We’re practically going to come out of this smelling like roses, then. That’s a new thing for me.”

“Let us just say it was one of the projects the Council didn’t look too enthusiastically upon.”

“Are there any more minor catches in this plan of ours? You see, I like to know these things, because once I accidentally blew up a solar system and it wasn’t as fun as you’d imagine.”

“A solar system?” Janus says, that weirdly vacant, fascinated smile dawning across his face. “Really?”

“Four fifths,” Rodney amends. “And it was uninhabited, in case you were wondering.”

“Hm,” Janus allows dreamily, as if this was but an added bonus. “Well, there is another potential problem – nowhere as severe as what you just described, of course – that we didn’t manage to eliminate in the tests.”

“Oh yeah?”

Janus sighed. “Our test subjects and anyone in the surrounding area  tended to go ‘splash’ rather... indelicately.”

“Your test subjects went splash? What kind of testing were you doing?”

Janus deliberates this. “Do you know much about the building blocks of life, Doctor McKay?”

Having always suspected that his complete inability to take biology seriously would come back to bite him in the ass – not in a concrete sense, of course, just the same way he’d always found it best to anticipate every worst case scenario right at the start so there wouldn’t be any surprises – Rodney says: “You mean like cells, DNA, genes, that sort of thing?”

Janus eyes him like Rodney might anyone who, when asked to define mechanical physics, started by citing a manuscript on alchemy from the Middle Ages. “Okay, so maybe not a lot. It never seemed important.“

“It’s a tricky and initially imprecise field of study, but ultimately very rewarding. Nevermind, let us look at it in the broadest term possible.The technique in question allows us to pinpoint and lock onto a specific range of genetic variance – in your terms I suppose we could call it a ‘species’, though that is a gross oversimplification – and eliminate the... cells in question very effectively. Though, as I mentioned, a bit messily. We never got past that minor bump.”

Rodney stares at him. “And how come the Wraith are still here, if you had that thing thousands of years ago?”

“Well, for one the Council wouldn’t let me finish the work,” Janus sighs, “and the undesirable messiness of the whole ordeal would have affected every other creature on any world a Wraith happened to inhabit at the time the technique was deployed. We had yet to do the fine calibration, you might say. But from what you tell me these Asgard you speak of live close together and in isolation,” he adds at Rodney’s dubious look, “so it’s all perfectly safe.”

“Oh, but when you put it like that,” Rodney says.

 

------

 

”Are you sure there’s no other way we could get hold of a ZPM?” Rodney asks, as the Time Jumper hovers ever closer to the surface of the planet. “Because if I’m going to die, I’d very much like it not to be from friendly fire because I was perceived as less than friendly.”

Janus hums in dissent. “I do have the methods, but not the means. The materials are very difficult to acquire, and none of the… ZPMs from the facility have enough power left for our purposes. Besides,” he adds, brightening, “I am a bit of an expert at sneaking into the city after curfew. It’ll be easy.”

Rodney doesn’t say anything, just stares glumly through the windshield as it slowly fills with the shifting blues of the oceans.

“We should catch a glimpse of the city any minute now,” Janus says, and just as it’s out of his mouth Rodney sees a dark speck huddled in among all the blue.

Closer and closer and the city unfolds on the water like some very peculiar alien waterlily. There’s a touch to his arm and he turns his head to see Janus smiling mildly at him. He realizes that he’s standing, bent over the Jumper control panel to get closer to the windshield.

For a second he feels embarrassed, but Janus just turns back to the controls.

“I’m thinking we’ll enter through one of the underwater bays,” Janus says, as the outline of the city gets clearer and sharper every moment.

“Sure,” Rodney says, spires and towers rising in his vision. Somewhere in the back of his head a voice is yelling that this is crazy, and that any minute now the city sensors will see through the Jumper’s cloak, leading to spectacular trouble one way or the other.

(Plan B is to be carried through if they get caught and is 80% dependent on Rodney managing to explain to his younger self all that has happened and hoping that he’ll believe it and let them run off with the ZPM before the Asgard attack starts and they get blown to pieces with the rest of the city. Even with his best will – which he’s prepared to admit isn’t all that good – Rodney can’t imagine Woolsey agreeing to something like that without a week to consider it first, and Rodney doesn’t have a week.)

They don’t get spotted, of course, even though they’re hanging in the air only a little way away, close enough to the nearest tower that they can see in through the windows, see people passing in the corridors. It’s late afternoon in Atlantis, the lights from the windows starting to stand out in the settling darkness.

Rodney wants to be closer, wants to press his whole face against the windshield so he can see all of it.

“Hold on, Doctor, I’m taking us underwater.”

 Rodney’s eyes cling to the lights of the city above as they sink under, but pretty soon the only illumination is the soft blue-white lights that periodically line the base of the city. “The Jumper bay is –“

“I know where the underwater bay is, Doctor McKay,” Janus says kindly.

Rodney’s hand flops down mid-point. “Oh. Of course you do. Forget it.”

They sit quietly for a while as they close in on the doors to the underwater bay, and then Janus asks: “What is a ‘Jumper’?”

Something squeezes tight in Rodney’s stomach. “It’s a nickname. For the Gateships.”

“I see.” Janus presses a button on the console and the doors slide open.

Once they’re inside and the chamber is depressurized, Janus fumbles in an inside pocket of his tan Ancient jacket and takes out a metal wristband that he gives to Rodney.

“This will obscure your life signs from the city sensors. It’s a modified version of the Gateship’s cloaking device.”

“Neat,” Rodney says, peering down at it to see the details as he fumbles it on.

“If you want to keep your secret labs secret, it’s always best to err on the side of the creatively paranoid. Let’s go.”

When Rodney sticks his head out into the corridor the familiar smell punches him straight in the face with memory. He has to stand there and let it pass a little; his body is telling him he’s home even though he knows he’s going to leave again soon.

“Doctor McKay?”

“I’m fine,” Rodney croaks, “fine. Let’s just – the closest transporter is over here, right?”

The halls are quiet and empty – they’re in the northern end of the city, where there aren’t many living quarters. In Rodney’s hands the life signs detector flickers cheerily, showing people wandering around in other parts of the city.

If you close your eyes and listen for it you can hear the low, steady hum of the city all around, almost like a song.

“I was not happy to have to leave this city behind,” Janus says, the tips of his fingers trailing along a wall as he walks. “But it is good to see it still living, after all this time.”

Rodney is having problems turning what he’s thinking into words even to himself; he doesn’t say anything.

(It’s like a dream – or maybe it’s the first time he’s been awake in twenty five years.)

They easily avoid meeting anyone. Between the life signs detector and Rodney’s knowledge of the operation of the city at this time it’s not even a real challenge. Rodney’s eyes sometimes stray to the blinking dots passing in neighboring corridors and he wonders who they are; behind every one there’s a face and a name – okay, maybe not a name, he’s terrible with names, he’s forgotten the name of his mom’s sister at least twice under compromising familial circumstances – but well, at least a face that he knows. Knew.

When they reach the power room they stand quietly until Rodney picks up on the expectant look Janus is giving him. “Yes, yes, of course,” he says, shaking his head and punching in his access code.

(One feverish night in what must have been the second year, Rodney had written down all the significant numbers of his life he could remember, as if this very act could make them universal constants, safe from the passing of time. All his passwords and security codes are on those scribbled pieces of paper, as, among other things, are Madison’s birthday – to within reasonable doubt; he’s pretty sure it’s the seventh of May and not March – the license plate of his mom’s car, Anna Geldar’s phone number, and John’s social security number, which Rodney can hardly have failed to memorize since he’s woken up with it imprinted on his cheek more than once.)

Janus immediately goes over to where the ZPMs are steadfastly pouring out energy, leaning down to look at the laptop that’s connected to it. “Excellent, this will be more than enough. Are there any failsafes or...booby traps I should know about before I remove it?”

“Of course there are,” Rodney huffs, indicating that Janus should step aside. It’s a long time since he’s looked at these systems but then most of it was made by him, so it doesn’t take him long to get the hang of it. He spends a few minutes rerouting the power drainage to the two other ZPMs, all the while making involuntary mental notes as to how he needs to tighten security, now that he knows how easily someone could sneak in and just steal a ZPM right under their noses. Somehow he’d never thought to think that the person he might need to keep out would be himself. Which, considering the nature of his life, is quite an oversight.

“Okay, I’m just making sure that I’m not compromising any of the city systems before – ”

– and that’s when the first crash comes, shuddering through the city’s walls and floors, even down here. Alarms go off in far-away corridors.

They look at each other.

“I might have miscalculated the Asgards’ arrival a tiny bit,” Janus admits apologetically.

“Oh, really?” Rodney turns back to the ZPM, discarding caution and just telling the machine to spit it out already. Just as the ZPM deactivates and Rodney reaches out for it there’s another crash, and this time it’s followed  by distant screaming.

“Come on, come on – there.” Rodney grabs the ZPM and stands up. “This thing doesn’t seem to have helped them much in the first place, so. Okay, let’s go back to the – ”

“Excellent idea; follow me.”

They slip out through the door and down the corridor, this time at a considerably more impressive speed. Rodney’s knees, which haven’t had to put up with paces faster than a hurried shuffle to make sure the kettle doesn’t boil over in a long time, immediately start to broadcast their displeasure.

“You don’t happen to have any weapons on you?” he pants, scurrying along with the ZPM clutched under his arm.

Janus smiles meekly. “Nothing apart from my brilliant mind, I’m sorry to say. I’ve always  considered myself a personal pacifist, though I could see my resolve soften a bit in the near future.”

From the distance there’s more noise, and even down here Rodney can catch a wiff of smoke.

“I do have a couple of these, though,” Janus adds, fishing up the familiar diamond shape of a personal shield. “It can be dangerous to be a pacifist.”

Rodney snatches the shield being offered to him and feels that momentary full body tingle as it starts up. They make steady progress, even though Rodney’s breath is wheezing from his lungs and his legs are burning. They’re half-way down a corridor when Rodney hears it, and he stumbles to a stop, straining his ears because it can’t be...

“This way, Radek! Hurry, they are still coming!”

“Teyla,” Rodney says dumbly. “That’s Teyla.”

“Doctor McKay – ”

“Get out of my way,” Rodney says, shoving the ZPM at Janus and moving towards the sound of her voice.

Janus is still blocking the doorway. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have time –

“So you go on ahead, and you can leave on your own if I don’t come back in time. You can do whatever needs doing from here just as well without me.”

The rattle of a P90 being fired, closer now.

“I need to know,” Rodney says. “Let me through.”

Janus studies him for a long time. Then he steps aside.

“If you aren’t back in ten minutes I will have to leave without you.”

Rodney doesn’t even bother to answer, rushing past Janus and into the next corridor, listening and listening as his chest churns. He finds her in a corridor further south, not too far away from Janus’ Atlantis lab. From the sound of it she’s alone, talking to someone over the radio.

“Doctor Zelenka says he has removed the entire – yes, John, but I do not know if – there might be other things in that lab that they could – Understood. I will stay here and keep guard. Teyla out.”

Rodney stops in the next corridor over, breathing heavily and fighting the urge to throw himself around the corner and yell at her to take everyone and just run, as if it were that easy they wouldn’t have done that the first time around.

He swallows and carefully steals a look around the corner.

Teyla is standing there, alone between the light green of the walls, her P90 at the ready. Her whole body is tensed, coiled to spring, but she’s not wearing a tac vest – she’s actually in her civilian clothes, he realizes, heart sinking. God, she’s so small – he knows that she’d beat him up six ways to Sunday if he ever aired that thought and that she routinely takes down people twice her size without breaking a sweat, but how did he never notice how tiny she is? Or how young? Well, presumably he must have been that young once, but he can’t really imagine it anymore.

He doesn’t give himself more than a few seconds to look; she has an uncanny sense of knowing when she’s being watched. It feels like her face is still burnt into his retinas, though, so familiar even if logically it should be anything but, after all this time.

Then there’s another familiar voice, crackling over the radio: “Damn it. Teyla, scrap that, I don’t think we can hold the Gateroom much longer, we’re coming to you.”

“John, have you managed to establish contact with Rodney yet? We still cannot know whether they can trace – ”

“Teyla, I know, we’re working on it, we’re trying to dial – fuck. Just... just stay where you are for now, we’re coming.”

“Understood.”

Rodney presses his forehead to the wall, willing there to be more, listening and listening, but there’s nothing.

The metal of the wall is cool and so solid; it seems silly that the city isn’t going to stand forever.

As if responding to that thought there’s a loud bang somewhere closer by, so close that you can hear the clatter as rubble falls to the ground, so close that you can hear the beginning of metal-hollow footsteps clanging against the floor.

Rodney doesn’t have a weapon, and he doesn’t think alerting Teyla would do any good; it would probably confuse the situation even more and be the opposite of helpful – but his hand still twitches for a gun that isn’t there, a gun it had taken him years to be even nominally comfortable with, and his voice curls up in his throat, ready to claw its way out and warn her.

He doesn’t do anything, though, just stands there and watches as dark silhouettes start approaching down the hallway. He recognizes their battle armor suits, faceless lurking shadows gliding through the corridors.This time they’re wielding some kind of staff, or maybe spear, not unlike the Jaffa staff weapons he’s seen in SGC files. Just like last time they don’t look around, they don’t speak, they don’t even glance at each other as they stride forwards. 

As far as he can make out there aren’t that many of them – eight, maybe, though it’s hard to tell when each metal suited body has exactly the same outline.

“Stop, or I will have to shoot!” Teyla yells, and something cold and awful lodges itself between Rodney’s ribs because why can’t she just run, why does she have to do the brave thing and stand between them and the lab? It’s not as though she can be thinking she has a chance to beat them, after the last time.

“Teyla, get down!”

A flash of light and heat fills the room before Rodney can turn his head to see Ronon, but he recognizes the voice easily enough and, well, the liberal application of explosives is a dead giveaway.

For a minute the resulting smoke is too thick to see much past the rippling green shimmer of the personal shield protecting him from the heat and flying chunks of debris, but then it fades a little and it’s clear as day that seven Asgard are still standing as if nothing ever happened. 

“Are you kidding me?” Ronon growls from a hiding place around a corner somewhere, and then there’s the well known ‘zap’ sounds of a gun not even remotely set to stun.

Rodney can’t see Teyla anymore, but judging from the P90 fire that joins in after a few moments she’s still alive at this point, still well enough to hold a gun and fire it.

The Asgard start answering fire, bolts of plasma shooting from the ends of their staffs and scorching walls, the ceiling, burning black marks along the floor. They don’t seem too worried about taking aim first – they don’t have to; it’s not that big a space, sooner or later they’re bound to hit something.

Then there’s at least a dozen more bursts of P90 fire coming from somewhere else and John is yelling “Teyla? Ronon?”, and Rodney can’t even see him but his stomach twists up and he can’t breathe.

He should go now. Janus is going to leave any minute now, and what use is it to have seen this happen right in front of him and not be able to do a damn thing?

 

(He stays and he stays and he stays every moment he could turn around and leave.)

In the end it happens so quickly, all of it in under a minute; the Asgard stop shooting back and just start walking straight at their chosen targets, bullets falling uselessly at their feet as their kinetic power is absorbed by the force field shields of the battle suits. Rodney realizes with some still-active, detached part of his brain that it looks a lot like the protection offered by the personal shield; the exoskeletons may be of Ancient design originally. It would certainly explain how he and Daniel Jackson could fit into suits worn by a race not much taller than the average seven year old.

There’s blood. He’s not sure whose at the moment. Tracing cause and effect right now is beyond him – he knows that there’s blood, that bodies are flopping to the floor as spears are thrust into their chests, stomachs, shoulders, that when the spears are removed they lie mostly still but he’s not at all confident enough to say which order it all happens in.

When there’s a touch to his shoulder he doesn’t react at first. He should probably jump, startle, something, but it just feels like nothing.

“Doctor McKay,” Janus says, “we need to leave now.”

“I’m coming,” Rodney answers automatically, like he used to answer ‘I’m awake, I’m awake’ when his mom came to wake him on school mornings, with the application of cold hands to sleep-warm body if necessary.

“Good,” says Janus, who probably doesn’t know that just because you can make you mouth make words it doesn’t mean your brain is online. He starts towards the doorway, obviously expecting Rodney to follow.

Out in the corridor John is on his knees, clutching at his stomach, and Rodney doesn’t understand why before John keels over slowly and the Asgard standing over him braces a foot against his shoulder and  jerks the tip of the spear out of him again.

When all sound except soft, bubbly ones or low moans have ceased, the Asgard turn towards the lab as one and start walking again, still not looking around, still not looking back.

The silence settles over everything like a blanket of ash.

Janus pokes his head back in through the doorway, looking genuinely worried for the first time since Rodney met him.

“Doctor McKay, we really do need to hurry before – ”

But Rodney can’t move – wants to but can’t, because he’s done his best not to imagine this for all these years but here it is, Atlantis in ruins, blood pooling on the floor, everybody strewn on the ground like marionettes with their strings abruptly cut, more like ragdolls than the real people he remembers loving.

He doesn’t know what he’s feeling; might not be feeling anything because there’s not enough left of him for that. 

The figure that’s John stirs, impossibly, pushing up on an elbow and then sliding back down again with a low groan. Rodney watches, almost impassionately, as John reaches out for his radio, gripping it painfully slowly, fingers curling around it as if it takes all his strength. He fumbles with the buttons, says Rodney’s name into it in a horrible rasping voice.

Rodney already knows there’ll be no answer on the other side of that radio because he remembers how it all went quiet.

In that moment he knows, in that cold, clear way that happens when you strip everything else away, that everyone who did this is going to die.

“John,” he says. “John, I’ll come back for you, I’ll fix it, I promise. I just have to go right now.”

John jerks, turning his head towards Rodney’s voice, his eyes already all but unseeing. His hair is matted on one side from the blood gathering beside his face. “...Rodney?”

“I’ll come back for you,” Rodney repeats, letting himself be pulled away by Janus’ grip on his shoulder, pushed towards the nearest transporter.

He knows that time must pass between that and sitting in the passenger seat of the Jumper although he can’t account for it in hindsight. He knows that at some point the Jumper must have moved, Janus must have steered it out of the underwater bay and away as fast as it could bear, thinks that perhaps he helped to co-pilot in some way, feels the after images of old familiar actions like a film of gunpowder residue inside his palms.

The next thing he’s really aware of, though, is looking out the windshield to blackness spattered with distant stars.

“Hello and welcome back, Doctor McKay.”

Rodney glances over to see Janus doing something with the ZPM that Rodney distantly recognizes as getting it ready to interface with an appliance not originally intended to be directly hooked up to it. There’s a lot of wires lying about.

“Where are we?”

“Pretty much exactly where we were before. Different when, though.”

“The Vanir – ”

“We will find them,” Janus says easily. “I took note of their energy signature, it was most unlike the others that are regularly found in this galaxy. It’s quite easy to trace.”

“Okay,” Rodney says. After a while he adds: “We’re going to kill the last of the Asgard. I mean, all the others killed themselves already. After this there’ll be no one left.”

“And good riddance, if they don’t know to stay away from things that can fight back.”

Rodney watches his profile for a bit. “It’s still, you know. Genocide.”

There’s something different to him now; something more intense and sharper along the edges, something stranger, like he’s dropped a person mask to reveal what lay beneath. Rodney wonders if that’s how all the Ancients were: like people on the outside and living lightning inside. It would explain a lot.

“I suppose it is,” says Janus.

He keeps working, and Rodney doesn’t stop him.

Half-way through connecting wires around the edges of the ZPM with a couple of centimeters’ between each Janus says: “He called you ‘Rodney’, hm? The dying man, I mean. Was he perhaps the Major Sheppard Doctor Weir spoke of?”

“Yes. Well, he’s a Colonel now. Was.”

“But that is not your name, is it?” Janus says, and his voice is warm and bright and conspiratorial, as if this is a secret just between the two of them, like there is something undeniable they share.

“No,” Rodney admits, unable to be quiet in the face of the smile on the other man’s face. It is hypnotic, in its way, wide and innocuous and open in that socially unselfconscious way that Rodney can never help distrusting.

“Meredith,” Janus twitters, thrilled, “Meredith, lord of the sea. It’s not what it means, but what it can become. Strange coincidence, is it not?”

Rodney can’t come up with anything intelligent to say so he keeps his mouth shut, watching Janus fiddle with the ZPM. Janus, he thinks, memories of Daniel Jackson’s voice surfacing in his mind, same as in January, means two-faced. God of two faces. Beginnings and endings. The passing of time. Doorways. I don’t know.

Janus sits back on his heels, looking at Rodney with his light blue eyes. “Take care of my city, Meredith Rodney McKay. I invested more in it than most people will ever know.”

“I do take care of it, but it’s not for you.”

Janus smiles. “No matter. For your people’s sake, for your own, for your Colonel Sheppard, for those who are already gone or just because you can; it is irrelevant. What’s important is the city.”

Rodney has made a point to avoid agreeing with the stereotypical mad scientists as often as possible, but in this case it’s hard. It’s very very hard, with the mirror image of his own fascination with the universe staring him in the face. “I know.”

After a while Janus says: “This will probably take some time. You could get some sleep in the meantime, keeping a suitable schedule can get a bit clumsy when you’re not fixed in time.”

“No,” Rodney says. He can’t ever sleep again, he knows it in the weird hum in his bones, the brittleness of his mind. If all goes according to plan, he’s not going to have to wait too long for sleep to be entirely irrelevant.

Janus shrugs. “It’s your choice.” He sounds more normal again, calmer and slower.

It’s good to watch his hands work, quick and steady motions that can be easily predicted, easily followed. Patterns are good. He knows about patterns, like the keys of a piano with their mathematical precision and small self-contained logical world.

He feels constantly on the verge of humming a melody he thought he had forgotten.

 

-------

 

Oh.

 

There it is.

 

“I cannot believe I am stuck here, with you, on a night like this,” Radek complains, chin resting in his hand, tapping away at his computer. His glass of unidentified alien liquor is still standing beside him on the floor, as is the ridiculous pink party hat he’d been wearing.

“If you can imagine such a thing, the feeling is mutual,” Rodney snaps, rubbing his forehead. He’d already had one and a half beers before they’d had to scuttle down to this godforsaken corner of the city, and he is seriously thinking about finishing the second just to dull himself to Zelenka’s jabbering. “The faster we find out what’s wrong, the faster we can get the hell out of here and you can dance the conga or whatever it was you were doing with that botanist.“

They can still hear the faint sounds of the party from here, and it’s not as though Rodney is especially good at parties but this is not exactly preferable.

For a while they sit in glum silence broken only by the sound of them both typing, and then Rodney exclaims, “I thought you said you’d fixed the entire problem with the sewage system!”

“Obviously, I was mistaken.”

“Obviously.”

“Listen, Rodney, when you tell me, ‘Oh, Radek, make sure we can be ready at a moment’s notice, this is all-important’, I take you at your word. The shortcut was your idea in the first place. If we needed to leave in a hurry – ”

My idea was not to make it a permanent solution!”

“It isn’t! We have hardly been back in Pegasus for a week, I do not have time for every little thing on the insane megalomaniac lists you keep handing out!”

“Wouldn’t you say that upon touching down on a new planet, among the very first priorities should be making sure the corridors aren’t periodically flooded with – ”

“There you are,” John says, poking his head in through the door. “I was wondering where you guys had gone to.”

Rodney glances up from his screen. “Oh, hi. What are you doing down here – oh. Um”

“Rodney disappeared on me half-way through a talk with Parrish,” John tells Zelenka, his tone light, conversational and with undercurrents of murderous. “I now know more about the probable life cycle of anything going through photosynthesis on this planet than I ever knew I didn’t want to. He said he was off to get some more beer and would be right back, but obviously – ”

“I was going to come right back,” Rodney protests, “but then that guy from maintenance – ”

“Peterson,” Zelenka clarifies, unnecessarily; they all look the same to Rodney.

“ – he came over and told me that there’s some sort of unfortunate pileup building in the city’s waste management system and well, here I am, trying to make up for Zelenka’s shortcomings.”

When Radek doesn’t as much as sigh at this, Rodney knows that he’s pushed him just short of a hysterical fit and resolves to try and be a little nicer for the next, say, half an hour, lest he be settled with this all on his own.

“Sounds like the best way to celebrate,” John says, slouching into the room. Technically they’re all off duty, but John is wearing the usual BDUs and a black T-shirt. “Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

Rodney snorts mirthlessly. “If the system backs up completely the effects would mostly be noticeable around the quarters of the marines, and I like to think I’m past the period of my life where I get pushed into lockers.”

“So what’s the problem?” Sheppard asks, plodding around the small lab, occasionally squinting at a screen for a while as if he has the first clue of what it’s saying.

Zelenka sighs. “We do not know, exactly. Some major changes were made to how the city normally operates while it was on Earth, in order to minimize our discernible presence. It may be that some of the systems were not successfully returned to their normal level of functioning.”

“He means he forgot.”

“Rodney – ”

With a speculative expression John trails his fingers over the information unit in the middle of the room. “So, is it this thing that controls – ”

At the mere suggestion of his touch the thing lights up, letting out a loud, intense humming sound that makes John pull his hand back like he’s afraid it’ll get chopped off. From some space far under their feet there’s a loud, drawn out sucking sound, like a plug coming away, and then nothing.

“What did you do?” Rodney demands, getting to his feet and standing on tiptoes to look over John’s shoulder and then brushing past him to check that it isn’t all some kind of ulcer-induced hallucination from sitting in here with Radek the last hour or so. “No, no, no, that isn’t possible, we’ve been trying everything, you can’t just – Zelenka, take a look. Tell me I haven’t gone crazy.”

Zelenka comes over, his glasses still a bit askew, confetti from god knows where on his jacket shoulder. “About the last one, that the jury is still out on – but this looks right, yes.”

“What did you do?” Rodney asks again, staring at Sheppard, who seems a bit freaked out and confused himself, closely mirroring the way he’d looked pretty much all the time during the first time in Atlantis, when every new piece of mundane Ancient tech came as a surprise to him.

“Oh, you know, magic touch,” John says, breaking out the jazz hands. “Maybe it’s the universe telling me I should’ve been a plumber.”

“I do not care how it was done,” Radek declares, retrieving his glass of booze and pushing the party hat back onto his head at a jaunty angle, “I only know that it means I will not have to speak to you for the rest of the night, McKay. I will see you... some other time. Later. Much. Later.”

“Have fun,” Rodney calls after him, but he’s too relieved to have the problem fixed so soon to really give it the nasty edge it needed. He spends some time just staring at John, wondering how the hell these things happen all the time around him. It’s like he’s in the business of accidentally succeeding where others fail with conventional means, like hard work and logic.

“We really need to stop meeting like this, McKay,” John drawls after a while.

“Do you mean generally or as in trying to navigate Ancient sewage systems? Over Zelenka in a party hat?”

“Take your pick,” John says. “I brought more beer. Let’s get out of here.”

“See, this is why I like you,” Rodney says, taking the bottle being offered him and following John through the corridor and out into the night air. It’s nice and warm, the sweet smell of the ocean stroking over Rodney’s face as he struggles to open the bottle.

“Let me,” John says, taking the bottle back briefly to open it smoothly with the cap of his own, wedging them together until Rodney’s pops open. Then he fishes out a coin from his pants pocket and makes short work of his own.

“Cool,” Rodney says admiringly, accepting his back. John grins and accepts the compliment with a shrug.

“You going back to the party?” he asks, gesturing with his beer towards the lights streaming over the balconies.

Rodney makes a face. “I think they’ve reached the part where everyone who likes dancing is trying to drag everyone else out on the floor in order to uphold a steady balance of social humiliation. Ah, I think I’ll pass.”

John shrugs. “We could go sit on the pier. This planet’s climate is pretty sweet, even this far North.”

“Part of the reason we chose it,” Rodney says over his shoulder as John trails after him. “I mean, the previous one was okay and all, but the sunspot activity made it a bit... too interesting.”

“No whales here, though.”

“Maybe there’ll be some giant squid or something. Actually I don’t know whether an ocean full of potential Cthulhu is better or worse.”

“Good news for the people who like sushi, I guess.”

“Yeah, see, if we were to be attacked by a giant squid, I somehow don’t think sashimi would be the first thing on people’s minds.”

They settle down on the pier, watching the three moons that are visible from their vantage point right now. It’s partially overcast, so you can’t see them that well, but the novelty of having thrice the number of moons as Earth makes up for it.

After a while in companionable silence John makes a confused face beside him. “What were you saying about you and Zelenka having a plan?”

Rodney snorts.“Of course we had a plan. For some reason we were less than convinced that the IOA wasn’t going to do something stupid, like decide to make the city into a permanent moon base or something. I was going to tell you,” he adds hastily. “If it ever looked like we were going to have to implement it, you’d be the first to know.”

He’d been tempted to just tell John anyway, during the second week, when Rodney had started to pick up on the perpetual worried tilt of his eyebrows and the way he’d occasionally gaze out at the skyline of San Francisco like it was at any minute gearing up for an attack.

(He’s promised more than he can keep before, though, and he’s not sure he can ever do it again, not like that, not when it comes down to the important things.)

“So if they decided we’d have to stay behind...”

“We were geared up and ready to flip them the bird and go.”

For a second Rodney feels like he’s every Christmas present ever given. It’s just that pure unadulterated glee that hardly ever graces John’s face when he’s not flying something that’s both lethal and indecently fast; it’s very rewarding. 

“But, well, now we’re back, so all of that doesn’t matter,” Rodney says, when he suspects the pause has become too long.

“Yup,” John says, taking a sip of his beer, looking away.

The ocean laps at the edge of the pier below with soothing clucking sounds. The wind is not quite as warm as Rodney had first thought, but John gives off some heat at his side and Rodney is wearing a jacket, so who cares.

Beside him John seems looser and more relaxed than he has in ages, and though the beer might have something to do with that but it might be that it has just finally sunk in with him that they’re back in Pegasus, they’re –

“We’re back,” Rodney suddenly realizes, his heels stopping their dangling for a minute as it washes in over him. “We’re actually home.” 

John doesn’t say anything this time, but when Rodney glances over at him he’s smiling, head slightly ducked.

And maybe it’s the smile, or maybe it’s the simplifying effects alcohol tend to have on the tangled mess of his mind he usually has to navigate through to get here, or maybe it’s just been right here all along, waiting to come out.

(Rodney can’t help thinking that they’ve been here before, somehow, and even though it was the same place and the same stars overhead, they weren’t the same people back then.)

He watches the upturned quirk of John’s lips spreading across his face until it crinkles his eyes like it never does, usually; his strong, long-fingered hands curled around the beer bottle, his dark hair starting to show streaks of grey at the temples.

It all falls into place like only the best theorems do: only after your mind has already worked at it behind the scenes for years, tearing it all to pieces and puzzling it together again, when you’ve loved it like only the need for order can love inconsistencies, like only the destination can love the journey.

If the universe doesn’t give you at least that much trouble, it probably isn’t worth it.

He may not be the man he was five, seven, even two years ago – he’s starting to get used to that – but there are some things that stay, even if their form is somehow converted along the way.

Helped along by the three bottles of beer Rodney says, “Hey,” and when John glances up at him he gathers all the courage in his body and says, “John.”

John quirks his mouth again and says: “Yeah?”, obviously thinking he’s drunk, drunker than what he’s ingested would warrant, indulgent like he only will be when he thinks Rodney is incapacitated somehow.

If Rodney were the kind of man to flip a coin over these things – which he obviously isn’t, that’s the lot of people who know less about probability theory and its relative usefulness when it comes to navigating that most random set of variables outside of quantum mechanics; the human being – he would have groped around in his jacket for a coin he knew wasn’t there. Instead he thinks about the warmth of John’s hand against his shoulder when it seemed like the only real thing in the ever-engulfing night of his mind; John’s nightmare world, an empty Atlantis with only his own crazy shadows as company, being sent away, being unwanted even here, in this of all places – he thinks of the impossible spill of stars tearing themselves out, away from the cold thin air of Antarctica, “Did I do that?”, long before Rodney even knew him.

And it’s not fifty-fifty – it might never be, and maybe that’s the tragedy of people, that they can never realize that – but Rodney has become a different man the past six years, and he’d never dared believe that, either.

He sets his beer bottle aside with great purpose, feeling his palm tingle as he brings it up to hover just beside John’s face.

John’s eyes go wider, almost imperceptibly. Rodney touches the pad of his thumb to John’s cheek, just to feel the blood warmth of him alive under his fingers, right here, still right here, no matter how many times Rodney has seen him fly away.

The first touch of lips is dry and careful, just an open hand reaching out, punctuated by John’s belated intake of breath when they part. Rodney pulls back just a little, just enough to see John’s face properly, to gauge the reaction.

John’s face is blank in that almost reptilian way it gets when Things are Happening under the surface, dark eyes far away and unseeing, and Rodney feels a stab of horrible, horrible regret at the possibility that he was wrong after all as it blooms open in his stomach to mix with the three beers and everything else alive and receptive burning along his nerve endings. That he’s just been stupid the whole time and got it wrong.

And then John’s eyes fall shut and he makes a high, thin noise through his nose, his face turning towards Rodney’s even as his body stays stiffly turned away, mouth awkwardly searching for Rodney until Rodney leans forward to meet him.

 John’s neck strains under that conflict, his body still unable to yield and his lips clinging to Rodney’s, and Rodney strokes the side of his face, the back of his neck, his so-not-military-regulation hair, dizzy like he’s just looked up into the night sky until the stars started spiralling down against him, until it felt like he could reach out and touch. John’s breath is coming in irregular push-and-pull hitches, skating warm against Rodney’s cheek and chin. His lips are wet and clumsy and perfect, sliding against Rodney’s  with more eagerness than grace, and it’s the best fucking thing that has happened to any part of Rodney’s body ever.

For a while Rodney feels not even like himself but just a haphazard collection of hums and vibrations, music in its most basic form, which he’d never really understood back when he played but well out of him now with every haggard beat of his heart, pouring out into his body until he’s hardly a human being anymore, just a deep-rooted song of wanting.

Then he returns to himself between one breath and another, recognizing John’s face, his long lanky body and his eyebrows drawn together in some emotion Rodney can’t decode.

There’s desperation in the line of his turned-away shoulders, tight and unhappy, unnecessary.

Rodney pulls away to let his eyes trail over John’s stubbled jaw, his cheek, the slightly crooked line of his nose, probably broken in some way in some bar in some place Rodney is better off not knowing about.  

(It’s weird to think that they were all someone else, before they came here, before they had the city.)

John’s eyes slip open again. He blinks slowly, hands clenching and unclenching around the beer bottle still cradled in his lap, between his thighs, and god, Rodney really doesn’t need to think about his thighs right now, before he knows which side the coin has landed on for sure.

He still can’t stop himself from grinning at John, though. His mouth feels full and slick with it, and even with the tentativeness edging the air with waiting it’s different than it ever has been before, than he has learned to expect. It’s like finding the Jumpers, like going out to search for whales, like finding another person in the long vast snowdrifts of your mind you thought would always be doomed to isolation and starting the kind of snowball fight that leaves you wheezing with laughter too badly to do anything but meekly flip snow at each other.

“John – ” he begins, unable to find his voice after that but the excitement still echoes through that one word, like how lightning will always find the most direct route to earth.

John blinks at him some more, looking both weirdly young and weirdly calculating at the same time.

“Really?” he says finally, tone carefully reserved.

Rodney doesn’t have the time to check himself until his face reorders itself into the well-worn groove of “Well Duh”. To cover for this probably respectless gesture he presses another chaste kiss to John’s lips as he waits for him to catch on, groaning when the spell finally breaks and John’s hand comes up to hold him still as he twists his whole body into it, changing the chaste to deep with one tilt of his head.

John pulls him further up the pier with rough, demanding hands and Rodney complies, pretty much willing to follow those hands into hell if it meant he could come too. Then John’s callused hands are cupping his face and John’s tongue is in his mouth and there’s some careless rolling back and forth before they end up half on their sides, half with John pinning Rodney down in a move that is nowhere near military effectiveness.

The pier might be hard and cold and uncomfortable, the night might be uncomfortably chill, there might be all sorts of allergy-inducing sea particles clinging to him; Rodney doesn’t even notice, more than that, doesn’t care, because John’s hand is clumsily making its way up under his t-shirt, resting on his waist as he presses up close and oh god, John’s hard, John’s hard because of him, and Rodney’s hand tightens jerkily on John’s shoulder while his mind reels.

After a while he runs out of breath and has to pull back, burying his face in John’s neck and shuddering as John makes a raw, protesting sound. He gets an answering shudder when he starts pressing kisses into the skin under his mouth, paying careful attention to which spots elicit the best responses and zoning in on one that makes John scrabble at his waist and moan. It’s so good to hear it that at first he doesn’t register the hand pushing gently at his shoulder.

“What?” Rodney mutters, distracted, still occupied with that spot on John’s neck.

His work is cut short as John extricates himself carefully and pushes to his feet.

Rodney looks up at him to try and read his expression, but John is just a dark outline against the city lights.

“Uh, I’m – ”

“Call me crazy, but I don’t think this is the best place for anything fancy,” John says, and okay, that’s a smile in his voice, thank god. He reaches a hand down and Rodney takes it, scrambling up.

For a moment they just stand there, and Rodney can see the city lights reflected in the ocean, the two of them just thin wavering shadows tucked in among them.

 

He just wants to go home.

 

“Doctor McKay?” A light touch to his arm; when he opens his eyes there is light all around him and it makes his head ache.

“Mhm,” he says, squinting around him. Janus is standing over him, that tiny ever-present smile on his lips. The Jumper chair isn’t doing anything for Rodney’s back.

“You must have dozed off. Not to worry, though, I found them. We are ready to go.”

“I think I remembered something.”

“Of course. Are you ready?”

Rodney glances out the window, seeing the Asgard ship hovering out there like the inconspicuous beginnings of a nightmare. “Sure. Fire it up.”

 

The world flickers and changes and turns.

 

-----

 

 

“Now, let’s have a proper look at you. Hm, yes, that’s nice. Though I still think your hair would look better if you let me – ”

 

“Mama,” Faith groans, pulling her head back slightly as her mother straightens the high collar of her shirt and the lapels of her jacket.

 

“Sorry, sorry, I know I said no fussing, but you try to keep it together when your daughter’s about to become a grown woman and see how well you do. It’s like it was only yesterday you ran around in the palace gardens in just a – ”

 

Faith splutters and scouts around to make sure no one is within hearing distance. Thankfully it’s too early for many people to be around. There are only some enterprising souls already out in the dewy grass to set up their market stalls in the best places and a couple of kids so excited at the thought of eating as much cake as their tiny stomachs can muster to be able to sleep into the morning.

 

“Mhm. Turn around so I can see if... yes, yes, that’s good.” Her mother brushes off some – very likely imaginary – lint from Faith’s back and shoulders with brisk movements, then swivels her back around, grabbing her by shoulders and looking her up and down critically. “Perhaps I should go and find the buckles anyway, I hear that’s what’s fashionable these days – ” she catches Faith’s look and holds her hands up in defeat. “I’ll stop, I promise.”

 

Belying this immediately she buttons up Faith’s jacket a little further, looks at it long and hard, and then apparently changes her mind and unbuttons it again. Faith rolls her eyes, but discreetly. Sometimes you have to let people be who they are and love them despite the fact that the collar of your shirt is scratching annoyingly against the underside of your chin and you feel kind of hot and stuffy and overdressed and it was only through extremely persuasive claims that you were going to die of heat stroke that you avoided getting settled with a red cape, too.

 

“There,” her mother says, taking a final step back and resting her hands on her hips.

 

“Ta-da,” Faith intones, holding her arms a little out to the sides to invite inspection.

 

“Very good,” says her mother, with that slight collapsing of the face that means someone is going to be emotional at you any minute. “You look very... you’re very... By the Old Ones, you’re all grown up.”

 

“I’m thirteen,” Faith says awkwardly. “I plan to do a lot more growing up before I’m a, you know, actual grown-up.”

 

“Mrs Lumsbred!” One of the castle’s kitchen staff, wild-eyed and out of breath, trots up to them. “The second batch of bread got a bit, ah, it’s a little bit – I think it’s too scorched to serve, Ma’am. I mean, we might use it for coal, but – ”

 

Her mother’s eyebrows rise in a way Faith has, through the years, been taught to respect. It’s a bit like having a nice goofy dog suddenly bare its teeth at you and you realize that it’s only a few meals and a squeaky toy away from being a wolf. “I thought I heard at least three of you swear that you’d keep an eye on it.”

 

“Yes, well, but see, Delmond fell down the cellar stairs and twisted his ankle something mean, and I had to help him and then Milly had to run because a flock of those damned hens had managed to find their way into the storeroom, and – ” the boy sounds very nearly on the edge of tears.

 

Faith’s mother sighs, rolling up the sleeves of her practical green dress in much the same manner as a general might don his hat and sword. “Right, right, I’m coming, don’t go all bubbery on me here. Nothing that can’t be fixed, I’m sure. Darling, I’m sorry,” she adds to Faith, suddenly sounding as meek and soft as usual, “I have to go. Will you be okay to be alone for a while before your brothers get here?”

 

Faith rolls her eyes. “Oh, because this wide open field with food and wine and a hundred people is so more daunting than the three days I spent alone in the woods this week.” She hesitates. “The doctor – is she still...”

 

Around the edges her mother’s face hardens a bit again, but her eyes are crumbling. “She’s still with him, yeah. It won’t be... he’d want you to be here, honey. Life’s for the living and the dead can take care of themselves, huh?”


Faith shrugs. Then she gathers herself a bit and steps forward to quickly hug her mother. “Thanks for, you know, helping out. With the clothes and everything.” She’s about to pull back, but then her mother’s arms wrap around her and she’s rocked gently from side to side. Her world is briefly filled with the smell of pastry and soft, comforting warmth. “Don’t mention it, honey. Anyway,” her mother says, extricating herself as the kitchen boy jumps desperately from foot to foot and makes small distressed noises, “I’ll see you later, take care, buy something nice for yourself, for a change.” She bustles off, trailing the nervously twitching kitchen boy in her wake.

 

As soon as they get out of sight Faith scrabbles at the bright red... tie? scarf? itchy torture device? that her mother had deemed necessary to ‘add some colour’ to her otherwise blandly shades-of-brown outfit. She folds it and stuffs it in a pocket where it’ll be convenient for easy extraction and reapplication the next time she meets her mother.

 

Then, having nothing better to do, she walks around the grounds for a bit, watching the industrious activity that’s increasing as the morning strides on. The main food tent – the largest stand by far – is already teeming with busy workers, carrying all the food that can be served cold. Her mother has, like every year, been asked to help with the food and baked goods, and Faith can’t help but feel a swell of pride as she sees the people running up and down the banquet table with stupidly intricate cakes and plates heaped with all kinds of foodstuffs Faith only has a fleeting idea have long and intricate names. You can say what you want about her mother, but she sure is a woman to whom even the most arcane and complicated recipe holds no fear.

 

After spending three days alone in the wilderness for her hunting test, even the most modest of spectacles take on an unwarranted amount of entertainment value. She spends at least ten minutes amusing herself by watching one of the rich lords from further up the coast running after a dog who’s gotten hold of one of his exquisite silk gloves and is having the time of its life pretending to stop and consider putting it down and then bolting when the man or one of his servants get close enough. The giant starched collars that are apparently all the rage among the higher nobility repeatedly obscures their lines of vision, giving the dog an edge it didn’t even need to begin with. She comes away from that feeling comfortably reassured in her family’s comparatively humble status. She thinks her grandfather would have laughed himself silly, if he were here.

 

For a while she chats with some of the artisans who are getting ready to present their wares, agreeing on all the prudent points about the weather that are raised and nodding sagely when predictions for the weather for the next few days are put forth with certainty as complete as it is unfounded. This socializing thing is starting to go smoothly, she thinks.

 

She takes a look at some of the jewelry at one stall, turning a simple leather cord with a beautiful long-necked bird in gold dangling from it over and over in her hand, noticing that it warms so quickly to her skin, and she thinks that maybe... but under the circumstances it seems a bit... insufficient. But maybe that’d be the point, and...

 

She spends a long time deciding.

 

The ceremony isn’t before midday – tradition demands that it’s to start when the sun is positioned directly over the sundial that was built in remembrance of the Ancestors many thousands of years ago. This does make overcast days a bit awkward, but it’s the general consensus that midday isn’t as much an astronomical event as the moment the queen decides to be midday. People are already trickling into the field in a steady stream, though, all the guests from other cities who’ve come here to celebrate under the queen’s blessing – which, for some reason, seems to make it all holier than if they did so under the queen’s blessing somewhere else, as if divine grace has a limited reach – are emerging from all the local taverns and inns. Not being one for crowds, Faith stays in the outskirts, circling the field, she realizes, rather like a nervous sheep dog. She stops, slightly embarrassed, keeping to the side of the field facing towards the castle after that since that’s probably where the rest of her family is going to come from eventually.

 

At one point she hears a voice she knows - though she wouldn’t have imagined that the voice’s owner would know half of the... colorful phrases it deploys. It’s coming from a small grove of trees, a tiny sheltered space by the side of the castle road where you can watch the field without being seen yourself. On one dry tree stump Faith finds an open notebook and a couple of charcoal sticks in exceedingly fancy carved wooden holders, so you can use them without staining your fingers.

 

Behind another tree stumps she finds a backside only barely covered by a very expensive dress that’s gotten rucked up due to its owner’s current position on hands and knees, and it’s from this general direction the swearing is coming. Faith makes sure to make some extra noise and clear her throat loudly as she moves closer. Flora’s head shoots up, and she looks around like she’s been caught doing something unspeakable before she sees who it is.

 

“Hi,” Faith says, hands automatically moving to her pockets. “You need help over there?”

 

“Hello,” Flora says slowly, red faced and breathing heavily.  “I... did not think anyone would find me here.”

 

“I heard you from the road. Is there a problem?”

 

“I lost something, and now...” Flora waves a despairing hand at the forest floor.

 

“What kind of thing are we talking about?” Faith asks, scanning the ground quickly just in case she can spot it at once.

 

Flora makes an irritated grumbling sound and looks down at the ground between her hands again. “It is an earring, about this big,” she measures out a small space between her fingers, “and my mother has done little this morning but remind me of how valuable it is and how I must not under any circumstance lose it. There was a lot of talk about, uh, super-special historical events associated with it, that kind of thing.”

 

“Ouch.” The corners of Faith’s mouth pull up a little, unbidden, at the ‘super-special’. It never stops being endearing to her how Flora keeps trying to drop the more casual phrases her schoolmates use into her own incredibly formal speech.

 

“My thoughts exactly. I was sitting about here – no, wait, here, when I noticed it had gone missing.”

 

“Okay, let’s have a look.”

 

They crawl around each other for a while, subjecting the moss to a level of scrutiny it does not strictly speaking deserve. After a while some strange noises start coming from Flora. It turns out to be giggles, and it also turns out it’s eminently contagious. For a minute nothing matters except the fact that they’re crawling around on the forest floor in their finest clothes on the day they’re supposed to declare to the world that they are ready to step into the adult world.

 

Flora has freckles across the bridge of her nose and her cheeks from sitting outside and drawing this summer. They weren’t there three months ago, when Faith started to visit the castle more regularly.

 

When the uncontrollable laughter finally fades, Faith notices a hard nub sunk into the moss under her fingers, and right enough, there is the delicate pearl earring. “Found it!” she exclaims triumphantly, holding it up.

 

“Oh thank goodness,” Flora sighs. “Could you put it back? It is a bit tricky without a mirror.”

 

Faith figures out how the locking mechanism works and scoots closer to slip the earring back in. “There.”

 

“Thank you.” After a long crowded moment Flora gets to her feet, brushing dry moss from her dress. “I think I should make my way back to the castle before they notice I am gone. Do you want to join me?”

 

“Sure,” Faith says, waiting for Flora to pick up the sketchbook and then following her out between the branches and towards the road. Then they move away from the road, along a forest path that leads to the east side of the castle.“What were you doing out here, anyway? I’d guess you guys spend ages getting ready for stuff like this.”

 

Flora sighs. “It is just that the castle has been a smidge crowded, the last week or so. I take my private time where I can get it.”

 

“Lots of guests this year?” Faith asks, pushing a branch out of Flora’s way. They’re right on the edge of the palace garden now, heading for a side entrance. With a hollow laugh Flora hitches up the hem of her dress to better traverse a ditch, sketchbook tucked under her arm.

 

“Oh, I am used to the castle having many visitors around this time of year. Usually it does not disturb the pace of court life, except, I suppose, for the servants. This year, however...”

 

As if rushing to prove her point, one of the castle’s downstairs windows blows out spectacularly, in a shower of glass splinters. Faith stops, blinking, but Flora only gives another heavy sigh and keeps trudging up towards the castle. As they close in on the broken window Faith can hear a voice she distantly recognizes coming from the room beyond.

 

“– can’t just go around tinkering with Ancient tech just because you wanted to know how it works! Yes, I know, but we’re not in Atlantis right now, young lady. Half the stuff in here is old or damaged anyway, there’s no reason it’s not going to blow up in your faces even if you don’t – well, of course I can do it, because I know what I’m doing! No, no, I suppose it isn’t, but this would be an ideal time to realize that life isn’t fair, Nialan Dex.”

 

Once you’d heard that voice in full rant mode, it kind of stuck in the mind.“The delegation from Atlantis is here this year?” Faith asks, standing on tiptoes to try and glance in through the closest window. Flora’s sighs are getting successively heavier and more long-suffering.

 

Snatches of conversation still make their way down to them, though Doctor McKay has lowered his voice considerably. “... everyone okay? I suppose... important part. Honestly, though, you can’t... You scared the cra – life out of me.”

 

“It is not that I do not like them,” Flora says glumly. “They are good people, and we owe them a lot. I just...”

 

“I think I see what you mean,” Faith says, noticing that a couple of glass shards have embedded themselves in the trunk of a nearby tree.

 

“Yesterday it was a small fire in the library, the day before that the head gardener almost had a heart attack because he found a fish in his boot... Also my mother is working on setting me up with Torren Emmagan.”

 

Faith’s natural liking for the people of Atlantis cools. Their visits had always been bright spots of excitement and activity in her childhood, but she’s open to new evidence. “Isn’t he a bit... old?”

 

“Well, I think so. Besides he is not interested to move beyond friendship, not any more than I am, but somehow I have found myself being placed beside him at every single meal. I had a talk with her, but it has only made her more subtle.” Faith’s Atlantis sympathies return.

 

“Weren’t you guys friends growing up, too?”

 

“Which adds the extra level of awkwardness of being asked to court someone who feels like your cousin. Could you please – thank you.” Faith holds the door as Flora gets inside, brushing off her shoes on the doormat. Then Flora holds the door for her, so she figures she’s supposed to follow.

 

Before too long she hears two voices closing in on them from a nearby corridor.

 

“They’re kids, Rodney, relax. As if you didn’t blow things up at that age.”

 

“No, I didn’t, because when I got my first chemistry set I presumed that the instructions not to mix up ingredients that would explode or produce toxic gas were there for a reason. Beside, I knew what I was doing, it’s not the same thing at all.”

 

“I have four fifths of a solar system ready to argue with you on that point.”

 

“...you’re really never going to let me forget about that, are you.”

 

“I really think it’s my duty as – oh, hi, girls.”

 

“Hello,” Flora says with commendable brightness, as Doctor McKay and another man – Colonel Sheppard – round the corner. Like a lot of girls Faith had been oddly charmed by Sheppard when she was younger, even though he’s practically the same age as her grandfather – maybe it’s the hair (still marvellously plentiful and unruly if greyed) or the weirdly coy smile, or how he slouches even when standing up straight, giving him the air of a boy of fifteen even during important diplomatic meetings – but most of all she’d been fascinated to realize that he used to be the highest ranking military officer of Atlantis. This had always seemed strange to her, as she’s never seen him do anything more violent than surreptitiously elbowing McKay in the ribs whenever he’s overtly rude, but apparently it’s true.

 

“Hey, Flora, I think your mom was looking for you,” Sheppard says as they pass, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the corridor they’d just come down. “We’re moving out any moment, she’s probably going to want to have a talk with you before the ceremony.”

 

“She said something ominous about earrings,” McKay supplies, his attention noticeably shifting a second later. “Oooh, wait, do you think they’re going to have those cinnamon rolls with the not-really-egg cream this year?”

 

“If it’s going to stop you from waxing poetic about them every time they serve lemon tart for dessert in the mess I’ll bake some for you personally, Rodney.”

 

“My mother made a whole batch of them last night,” Faith calls after them. McKay’s face reappears from behind the corner, looking like she just made all his wishes come true.

 

“Your mother is a good woman,” he says sincerely, before being pulled back by a hand clutching  his jacket front.

 

Once the queen manages to track down her daughter, Faith is sent out to the gardens to wait for them while Flora gets a complete rundown of what’s supposed to happen during the ceremonies and just which one of the ambassadors from other worlds she needs to be especially courteous towards. It’s the first year that Flora gets to preside over the main ceremony all by herself; the queen is going to the next town over this time since it’s closer to the ocean and thus more accessible to people coming from far away.

 

The few of the castle staff who aren’t working down at the field today are standing in an excited huddle, wearing the customarily light colorful clothes of people who, against every precedent, hold on to the optimistic view that it’s going to be pleasantly warm and sunny the whole day. A little to the side of them is the group from Atlantis, an exceedingly excited Prince John whirring around them. The kids – ranging in age from Torren Emmagan at a full-grown twenty five to Richard Dex, who’s a few years younger than Faith – are mingling together more like one big group of siblings than anything, with Teyla Emmagen’s inconspicuous, mild mannered husband keeping an eye on them. Teyla herself is chatting with the head housekeeper with some interest, showing yet again that she knows who to befriend to get some clout in a household. The queen might rule the country, but the housekeeper knows where all the towels are and how to unclog the castle’s plumbing if it backs up.

 

Sheppard and McKay are sitting on the stone stairs up to the main entrance from this side, McKay busily tapping on one of those strange rectangular machines she remembers him dragging with him everywhere, Sheppard just lounging back on the sharp steps like it’s the most comfortable perch in the world. His hand is resting on McKay’s thigh, quietly proprietary. Every now and then he’ll nod sagely to something McKay’s saying, quite blatantly not paying attention even when the gesticulating gets indignant enough that he almost gets a hand to the nose.

 

It doesn’t take long before Flora and her mother turn up, and the servants stand up properly and get ready to go.

 

“Okay?” Faith asks Flora once she’s in earshot.

 

“Okay,” Flora says. “Let us go and build some public relations.”

 

“I got this for you,” Faith says suddenly, horrified to hear it fall so bluntly from her mouth. She holds out the leather pouch and Flora takes it, looking confused but pleased. “You don’t have to open it now or anything. Actually you should probably wait a bit. Until... later.”

 

“Okay,” Flora says, gently tucking the small pouch away.

 

“It’s not really...”

 

“Okay,” Flora repeats, dimples appearing in her cheeks as she starts after the rest of the group, trailing Faith behind her.

 

 

-----

 

 

Faith’s palms are getting sweaty as she watches the Guild of Scribes finish up on the wooden platform that serves as a stage, the newly initiated Guild members bowing to accept the applause. Up next are the blacksmiths and metal workers, and after them it’s the hunters.

 

The final feast days are just as much public displays of bureaucracy as celebrations, showing to all the world who has been accepted to practice their trade in the following year. It’s a tradition that originated in the court’s quality testing of brewers – no one liked to find that they’d bought ten barrels of bad beer, and so it was profitable for a brewer to be able to stand up and say that the crown had vouched for their wares. As the tradition had become common on several other worlds and set a standard for trade, others had followed, and by now the ceremony takes about two hours every year, including every line of work from mill workers to miners to the court alchemists. People from other worlds will invariably be watching, taking notes on people to approach after the ceremony to offer employment.

 

Her mother is nowhere to be seen – or rather her spirit is readily apparent in every immaculate dish on the banquet table while her body resides elsewhere, probably in the castle kitchen where it’s banging out cinnamon rolls with brute efficiency – and her brothers had run off to their own Guilds right after arriving in a flurry of brotherly hugs and shoulder-claps, so Faith clumps together with the other hunting apprentices as the big, bulky woman who is head of the Blacksmiths’ Guild steps to the front of the stage. She starts barking out the names of the apprentices who have passed their last tests and are to be accepted fully into the guild. Paddick, who still has at least four years of apprenticeship left, meets Faith’s eyes half-way through and smiles bashfully, hulking awkwardly over the other blacksmiths-to-be. Fatih smiles back, giving an encouraging wave. Paddick may not be in possession of the quickest of intellects but he has the care and patience to bend metal to his will, and one day he’s probably going to stand there showing off his final work as an apprentice to great applause.

 

As soon as the blacksmiths file down off the stage old master Howen, leader of the Hunter’s Guild, springs up the steps, trailing the rest of them after him. The people who are already guild members stand behind him in orderly rows while Faith and the others wait at the side of the stage, jittering nervously as he extricates the parchment roll and squints down at it. Master Howen is a small, wiry man who moves like he’s made up entirely by springs; Faith knows him quite well, since he’s an old friend of her grandfather. The two of them could spend entire evenings in complete yet companionable silence, sitting on bar stools and cradling a glass of beer each.

 

Master Howen clears his throat loudly and brandishes the parchment. “Poter Ammen,” he calls, waiting for the tall, gangly boy to come up to him before handing him his crest and other guild tokens. Faith’s heart is loud in her ears; she hadn’t thought she’d be nervous, but the crowd filling the field seems a lot bigger than she’d imagined. She searches the crowd for a while before she finally finds Flora’s face up at the royal stand.

 

Flora smiles, nodding at her. Then she reaches down to her chest and holds something up – Faith feels heat rise to her cheeks as she recognizes the shape on the leather cord, glinting gold in the sparse sunlight. Flora’s grin is wide enough to crinkle her eyes visibly even at this distance, though, and that had been the whole point, hadn’t it?

 

“Faith Lumsbred,” master Howen says, in the tones of a man who has had to repeat himself. Faith startles, tearing her eyes away from Flora and almost tripping over her own feet in her haste to make her way over to him.

 

“Sorry, sorry,” she mumbles, bowing slightly like she’s supposed to. Howen chuckles, holding up the guild crest and other equipment – stamps, seals, sheets of paper with her guild membership information on it – all things that make sure that she’ll never be out of a job on another world as long as it has the same traditions and standards, should she ever be forced to uproot from this place. It’s a handy system, especially in the times before Faith was born, when the Wraith were stronger than they are now.

 

As she takes it she notices that there’s something more too, something apart from the ordinary package. It’s a leather pouch, not unlike the one she’d given Flora a couple of hours ago. When she looks up at Howen he smiles, a bit sadly, patting her shoulder briefly. “Your grandfather asked me to give you this, once you finished your test. You did very well, by the way. He’d be proud.”  

 

Faith wonders why people keep wanting to remind her of that all the time.

 

“Thank you,” she says, bowing again and joining the guild members behind him, watching as the other apprentices get their crests and do the same. She doesn’t even mind the collective stares of the crowd pushing down on her anymore, too set on finding out what her grandfather had waited so long to tell her.

 

When they have shuffled off the stage and spread out, Faith finds a quiet place behind a stall and opens the drawstring on the pouch. Something heavy wrapped in cloth falls into her hand, and then a note on a sturdy piece of paper.

 

The note reads, in her grandfather’s severe scrawl of a handwriting:

 

Faith.

 

You no I’m not a man for reading and riting and such, but it might be this is the last chanse I get to tell you anything before I get too ill, so I’ll try to rite it neatly, so you can make sense of it.

 

I have asked the queen for a family crest and she says okay if I don’t pick something ‘stupid’. So I picked the one you’ll be holding in your hand rite about now. Which didn’t seem stupid to me. It’s for the hole family – your grandma always wanted a family crest, for style, like – but I thot thout thought of you when I chose it.

 

You were always such a serious childe. I was always afraid I didn’t let you play because you were so eager to learn from me and I forget some times, how young you are. I will always be proud of you no matter what so you should do what makes you happy, not what you think I’d want for you.

 

 

Your grandfather

N. Lumbsbred”

 

 

Faith looks at the crest in her hand. It shows a dragon on a red background. She trails her fingers over the dragon’s sharp, angular face, its big eyes, swallowing as the metal warms to her skin.

 

There’s a touch to her shoulder and Flora beams at her. “See, that went fine. I told you this was nothing to worry about.”

 

“I told you that in confidence,” Faith accuses automatically, slipping the note and the dragon back into the pouch. She’s not quite ready to discuss it yet.

 

“I do not see anyone else listening in, do you? Anyway, I just... I wanted to say thank you,” Flora says, slender fingers playing with the leather cord around her neck. “It is very nice.”

 

“That’s... good. Good. Uh,” Faith says. “I wasn’t sure if you’d.. I mean, you’ve got a lot of jewelry, of course. Most of it a lot posher than that one.”

 

“Most of them originally intended for other people. You picked this one for me. I like it.” When Flora’s ear becomes visible as she ducks her head and her hair moves with the movement, Faith says, “I think you lost your earring again.”

 

In almost the same moment the voice of John Sheppard comes from nearby, calling: “Hey, Flora, isn’t this your -” He breaks off as a bright, intense light flashes through the field, making people shout out in surprise and shade their eyes. When it fades Sheppard is standing there with Flora’s earring between his fingers, except that now it’s glowing with a pearly white light that makes his face a stark contrast of light and shadow.

 

“...did I do that?” he asks faintly, as McKay elbows his way through the crowd to get to him.

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” McKay barks, “again?

 

“I didn’t do anything,” Sheppard protests, though he lets himself be manhandled as McKay pushes him around to get a better look at the glowing earring. “I picked it up, and then it just...” 

 

Then the whole crowd turns as a matching bright light to the one they’ve just seen appears on a distant mountain ridge, burning there like a beacon. 

 

“Oh dear,” Flora says, grabbing onto Faith’s arm as the lights spread to the next mountain top and then the next and the next. “My mother is going to kill me.”

 

“I’ll distract her while you run,” Faith promises, as the horizon fills with shimmering light and McKay says, “You’re lucky you’re cute, Sheppard, because I officially retired from this saving-the-world business five years ago and – oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”