Whales can't see colors, not in the human-visible spectrum.
Rodney learned this long ago, as a child, the first time he pointed out a sunrise to his pod and was met with polite blankness. He knew, and he understood -- understood all the better, really, after eight long years at university, spending hour after hour in the library with books on Earth whales open in his lap and memory-retention amulets at his wrists and throat, trying to understand in the language of science and math what he'd already come to know in those endless summers, swimming at first with Jeannie at his side, and later, when their parents sent her away ... swimming alone, with an emptiness where she had been, an empty Jeannie-shaped spot that was slowly walled away. And then his parents retired to their original homeworld, Earth, leaving him entirely without the company of his own kind.
But not alone. Never alone.
And now, years later, he watched the rising Lantean sun skip off the waves while the rest of the pod watched it with him, a slow curious circle, wanting to know and understand what their smallest child saw in the incomprehensible sky, the sky that did not echo. And he tried to open his mind to them, to let them see what he saw.
Rodney didn't bother treading water. The runes that Teyla had inked on his sun-bronzed skin would keep him afloat, at least until they wore off -- and she'd just refreshed them on the Athosians' last trading trip, a few days ago. Instead, he spread his arms and sank deep in the waves, gazing across the ruffled surface of the ocean towards a sunrise painting the sky in shades of gold and crimson.
The whales circled him, jostling anxiously, prodding at his mind with their deep, ancient curiosity, a thrumming murmur at the back of his mind.
He wanted to make them understand, to show them a sky that dazzled him in yellow, red and salmon.
Polite bemusement greeted his efforts, and a kind of warm tolerance. He should have resented it, would have resented it bitterly if they'd been human. But there was no malice behind it. They couldn't see his sunrise and his stars any more than he could feel their world of pressure and and touch and deep silences.
Only at the surface could the two worlds intersect, a Venn diagram of water and sky. He'd learned astrophysics to show them the stars, learned fluid dynamics so they could show him the depths of their ocean, but he was continually frustrated by his inability to understand their math. They claimed it would drive him insane if they gave it to him all at once, so bit by tedious bit they spoon-fed it to him.
He thought he could happily spend the rest of his life here, adrift on the waves, learning what he was increasingly sure was an alien Grand Unified Theory of Everything.
But not today. A disturbance shivered through the pod, and Rodney kicked himself upright in the water. Sharks? Storm?
The portal in the City has been opened, the fluid dynamics whale told him.
"What?" Rodney snapped aloud, blinking water droplets off his eyelashes. The only people who ever used the portal were the Athosians, and they weren't due back for weeks.
For some reason, he had a brief, crazy thought that it might be Jeannie.
He caught hold of the nearest mathematician's dorsal fin and allowed himself to be towed at whalespeed, back towards the glittering spires shining on the horizon. As the City's towers drew nearer, he demanded information of the whales: Who was in the City? When? How?
It couldn't be Wraith. It couldn't be.
Humans, the differential-calculus whale told him. Lots of humans.
The whales didn't think so. They could always recognize Teyla, even from a distance, and she wasn't there. Rodney tried not to ask the next question that popped into his mind, but it was in his mind, at the very forefront of it, and the whales caught it effortlessly: no, it wasn't Jeannie -- they remembered her very well, and as much as they wished the little blond child would come back and play with them again, she was not with the strange humans.
The whales hadn't understood why Rodney's parents had sent Jeannie away; they'd kept asking him when she was coming back, for a long time, until finally they understood that he didn't want to talk about it anymore.
Rodney let them drop him off at the base of the South Pier; it was the nearest one to a transporter. He staggered momentarily, disconcerted as always to feel the weight of his body again on dry land.
Perhaps these new humans would be playmates for him in the dry, like Jeannie used to be, the whales suggested. Maybe they would like to swim, too.
Rodney didn't bother dignifying that with a response, beyond mentally giving them the finger as he jogged for the transporter. The whales worried about him, all alone in the City. For them, losing one's entire pod was the worst thing they could contemplate. Rodney had explained, repeatedly, that he liked being alone. He'd even spent two weeks writing up a mathematical proof of it on the East Pier. The whales still hadn't given up on the hopes of finding a human pod for him, though, despite Rodney's insistence that he was better off without one.
He tapped the portal chamber on the transporter map, as the doors slid shut behind him. Perhaps the Athosians had come through without Teyla. Had something happened to her, or to Ronon? Rodney felt his heart twist at the thought, in a way he couldn't quite explain. Teyla was ... well, useful, yes; no one else could paint runes quite like she could. Her magic was strong; she was tough, and brave. And Ronon -- no one could touch Ronon, between his natural strength and his magic gun.
They were both fine, he told himself as the transporter doors slid open --
-- onto chaos.
Early morning sunshine streamed through the stained glass windows of the portal chamber onto a crowd of strangers. Rodney involuntarily took a step backwards. He hadn't seen this many people here, ever. Even the Athosians, who liked traveling in groups, never came in these kind of numbers.
And they weren't just strangers. They were Earth strangers -- Earthers milling around in his portal chamber, wrestling bales of unfamiliar equipment around, talking in loud voices, touching things.
"Who the hell are you people?" Rodney demanded loudly.
The babble of conversation hushed, and everyone swung around to stare at him. Rodney was suddenly, acutely aware that he hadn't bothered to stop and put on pants -- he wore nothing but his swim trunks, and was leaving a trail of water on the floor. The idea of getting dressed hadn't even occurred to him. The Athosians didn't have nudity taboos, and living in the City alone, he'd gotten out of the habit. He wasn't even sure if he still owned shoes.
Well, no help for it. He crossed his arms and tilted his chin up, trying not to pay attention to the weapons bristling at the sides of many of the Earthers. "Well?"
The crowd shuffled aside to clear the way for a nervous-looking, apparently unarmed man in a black Magic Division uniform, with red command stripes. He was balding, bespectacled; everything about him screamed bureaucrat. He cleared his throat several times, fretfully, before speaking. "Are you Meredith McKay?"
Rodney's scowl darkened a few notches. "Meredith Rodney McKay. Doctor McKay to you. Who are you and what are you doing --" in my City, he almost said, but managed to switch verbal gears at the last minute. "... here," he finished, somewhat lamely.
"I'm Richard Woolsey, Mage First Class." Woolsey swept a hand around him to indicate the portal chamber, the crowd, the piles of crates and equipment everywhere ... the soldiers. "We appreciate the service you and your fellow waystation keepers have done for the Earth, keeping the city in good repair over the years, but I'm here to tell you that it won't be needed anymore." He cleared his throat again. "We've come to open the Atlantis waystation for business again, and reestablish trade between our galaxies, as it was before the War."
Rodney stared at them, and felt the bottom drop out of his world.
It had taken an entire circle of mages to open the portal to the Pegasus Galaxy. Even from the back of the crowd, John could feel the prickle of magic on his skin, raking an icy fingernail down nerves already flayed raw by the presence of so much cold iron around him.
He wondered how O'Neill could stand it without going crazy, if the rumors about O'Neill's Ancestral blood were true.
The portal chamber under Cheyenne Mountain was huge, a vast echoing empty space with the biggest pentagram that John had ever seen etched permanently into its concrete floor. Invisible to non-mages, but of course amply evident through his magesight, lines of force ran through the mountain itself, a silver web filling the air. John had realized quickly enough, the first time he'd come here, that the complex of passageways forming the Magic Division headquarters were, in fact, a giant three-dimensional matrix. It was built to focus and amplified stray, ambient magic to create a thrumming net of energy, with the portal chamber at its heart and the offices of the Directors at its apex.
It was a living fortress, a barrier between this world and whatever might come through the portal.
The chanting changed pitch and the silver filaments of magic shivered like a spiderweb in a morning breeze. John, rather pointedly, had not been asked to join the circle. He was probably as strong in raw talent as anyone up there, but they were all high-ranked mages -- Archmage Weir, O'Neill, Woolsey. All full-blooded humans, unless the rumors about O'Neill were true. If so, he didn't have any outward tells of his mixed heritage, unlike John.
Politicians, these days, said it didn't matter. Said it wasn't the Dark Ages any more; pointed to the centaur Senator from Nebraska, the allegedly part-fae governor of Massachusetts. Said it was a world of equal opportunity, where humanity no longer ruled and subjugated other species as they once had.
John had lived with his obvious fae heritage all his life. He knew better. Ironic that it had actually gotten him tapped for this mission, when it had held him back all his life. In the Pegasus Galaxy, so they said, Ancestral blood was a blessing rather than a curse.
He'd believe it when he saw it.
His palms were damp; John shoved them deep into the pockets of his Magic Division uniform -- plain black, befitting his status as a Third Class mage. The magic quivered in the air around him, and he tried to concentrate on the growing power and the flickering, many-colored auras of the people around him, rather than the bone-deep ache of metal weapons, metal machines, the metal bones of the Cheyenne Mountain infrastructure.
The modern world wasn't a good place for those of Ancestral descent. He knew some part-fae who got through it with painkillers, either finding sympathetic healers who would prescribe the heavy-duty stuff, or self-medicating with over-the-counter amulets or alcohol. John figured that he'd retreat to a desert island with no iron or steel anywhere near it before he'd choose to live his life in a medicated fog. He had simply learned to deal with it, same as you'd deal with an old war wound. Life hurt. He dealt.
By habit, John had tried to situate himself at the very back of the crowd, but he wasn't exactly alone, and as the chanting went on, the man in healers' yellow standing next to him leaned close to murmur, "If I'd known this would go on like a bloody Highland wedding, I'd have visited the loo first."
John turned to flash him a quick grin. The healer flinched back involuntarily, and John felt the grin drop off his face as he cursed inwardly. He'd taken off his sunglasses inside the Mountain, but when the chanting started he'd switched to magesight automatically, without putting them back on.
The pointed ears were enough of a giveaway of his fae heritage, but the green cats' eyes were worse.
He let his eyes revert to normal, expecting the damage to be done, but instead the healer just gave him a brief smile, and held out a hand. "Carson."
John stared at it briefly, then took it. "Sheppard."
"Oh, quit giving me that lost-puppy look," the healer murmured with an infectious smile. "Look around you." He nodded past John to a short man with glasses and flyaway hair, ears pointing forward as he strained to see over the crowd. A lot of hair. "You aren't the only person here who had an ancestor or two on the wrong side of the bedroom. Radek's a werewolf; I have two dryads in my division, and there are quite a few fae around here, too, including yours truly."
"You're fae?" John said, surprised.
"Not much," Carson admitted, "but enough to show up on the screening."
John frowned, looking around the room with renewed attention. Far from feeling more comfortable, as Carson had probably intended, his well-honed paranoia reared up. Fae, dryads, non-humans of all stripes as well as full-blooded humans in the room. Expendable, a small voice in his head whispered. We're not the best and brightest; we're the ones who they don't mind not coming back.
And more than anyone else here, he had an idea why that might be.
Even without his magesight, he caught a peripheral flash and felt an electric snap in the air as the portal took hold. Within its circle, it shimmered blue and silver, casting a wash of watery light over the assembled crowd.
As they'd practiced, team by team, they began to move through the portal. John braced himself and caught the handle of the nearest crate. The handle was coated in a veneer of plastic, but he could feel the steel underneath. Too long, and his skin would blister, but he could deal with it for a few minutes.
Goodbye, Earth, he thought without much regret, and then cold blue light swept him away.
He emerged into a wonderland of glass, and for a moment all he could do was stare up at the ceiling soaring high above him, the soft blue and amber striping the walls through stained glass windows. He'd seen pictures of Atlantis, but flat photographs hardly did justice to the real place. Then the burning of his palm drew him back to reality; he barely managed to put down his end of the crate without dropping it, and he pressed his throbbing hand against his thigh, while moving out of the way and continuing to look around. Behind him, the portal snapped out of existence with a pop he could feel in his chest. Without that cool glow, the light in the room was even warmer and softer -- a cathedral of copper and soft pastels.
And there was something else.
John staggered, pressing a hand to his head. The ache of metal here was less, much less than anything he was used to in cities on Earth, even with all the weapons and crates of equipment around him. But the icepick-like bolt of pain boring into his skull was new. As long as iron didn't touch him, it hurt in a dull, rotten-tooth kind of way, like the ache of cold in your bones. This was different, sharp, cutting, like a migraine. And under it, he thought he heard -- whispering, a maddening susurration of voices at the edge of hearing.
Without thinking, he switched to magesight, and gasped at what he saw -- every window, every line of the architecture limned with a faint amber glow, almost indistinguishable from the backlight of the sun. It was like no kind of magic he'd ever seen before.
As soon as he opened his magesight, the headache vanished as if it had never been. The faint whisper of voices remained, but maybe it was only echoes -- all the voices of the people around him, caught and thrown back by the towering empty space above him.
He snapped back to regular vision before anyone noticed his eyes. Maybe Carson was right, maybe people here wouldn't judge him by his fae blood, but a lifetime's bad experiences had taught him to avoid notice, to blend in. Even in the cases when they didn't draw hatred, his eyes and ears drew attention, and he loathed it.
"Who the hell are you people?" The voice rang out through the portal chamber.
John looked up, startled. There was a stranger at the top of the stairs leading down to the portal -- a deeply tanned stranger with broad shoulders, a swimmer's lean physique and long sun-bleached hair, wearing nothing but a pair of swim trunks. Deep red and purple markings, tattoos or body paint, circled his wrists and followed the lines of his veins up his arms to his throat. John knew they were magic without even invoking his magesight -- the stranger positively hummed with it, the same alien magic that filled the city and brushed its feather-light fingers against his mind.
Seeing everyone staring at him, the stranger blushed and quailed for just a moment, looking suddenly young and scared. Rallying, he folded his arms, his face settling into an angry mask. "Well?"
A long, ranting argument with Woolsey followed -- well, most of the ranting was taking place on the stranger's end. John picked up the gist of it quickly, though. This was the waystation keeper, McKay, and he wasn't expecting visitors, didn't want visitors and demanded that they all go back to Earth immediately.
McKay wasn't what John had expected, at all. He'd been envisioning someone like Woolsey, a Magic Division bureaucrat, or maybe a wild-eyed old prospector type, bearded and gruff in a yellow rain slicker.
McKay was wild-eyed, at least; John had gotten that part right. And he ranted so loud you could hear him all over the portal chamber. Finally Woolsey and Sumner took him aside; John caught a glimpse of fear on his sunburned face, quickly masked, as they herded him into a corner, and he felt a surge of sympathy for the guy. After all, McKay had probably been living here alone for years, when suddenly a horde of unexpected and well-armed guests had descended on him. No wonder he was having trouble coping.
"Sheppard?" a familiar brogue said, and he turned to find Carson at his elbow. "Give us a hand with this box, there's a good lad."
And John went, while the whispering settled into his bones and his blood, and wove itself through him until he could no longer hear it unless he stopped and concentrated.
He meant to ask McKay about it, if he could get him alone, if McKay would even speak to him given the burning anger in the man's blue eyes. But in the flurry of activity as they began to settle into the city, McKay was always busy with something, and so was John. It was easy enough to forget.
Rodney's home had been invaded by idiots. He had no idea how to cope with it.
Prior to attending university on Earth, his life had been bounded by the sea, his social interaction limited primarily to his parents, Jeannie and the whales. Every once in a while his parents had tried to arrange a playdate with the Athosian children, or taken the family back to Earth to associate with the odd second cousin or two. Even as a child, Rodney had deeply resented the implication that his life was somehow lacking because he didn't have what other Earth children had: school, playmates, television.
Children on Atlantis weren't common, the whales told him, and they had long memories -- they had watched the City change from a thriving center of commerce to a lonely outpost with a sole waystation keeper to maintain it. Most of the past keepers had been single people without ties on Earth, recruited by the Magic Division to while away their lives until they quit or died or married a Pegasus native and moved away. The McKays were unusual -- a couple who brought a young child to the outpost, and had a second one while on Atlantis. Rodney never knew the whole story behind their acceptance of the post, but from the many fights he'd overheard, he knew that both of them loathed the Pegasus Galaxy in different ways, and both of them blamed the other for their isolation at the edge of civilization.
He'd been on Earth, on the verge of getting his second degree in mathematics to go with his astrophysics degree, when he got the letter: Mom had left already, and Dad was retiring. Three days later, he was back at Cheyenne Mountain, demanding the post. He thought briefly about contacting Jeannie, seeing if she wanted to go back with him. But she hadn't made any effort to get in touch with him. Since his parents sent her away to live with relatives back on Earth, their adolescent attempts to stay in touch had been fraught with anger, bitterness and jealousy, until he figured it was up to her to come back if she ever wanted to. She was an adult and so was he.
Rodney had assumed he'd live out his life on Atlantis, as waystation keepers before him had, developing whale mathematics as his life's work and sending occasional reports to Earth, but otherwise untouched by its wars and bureaucracy and massive, massive stupidity.
Then the stupidity followed him, and suddenly the City was inundated by nearly two hundred people who couldn't do a single thing for themselves.
All day long, it was "Dr. McKay, what's that?" and "Dr. McKay, we can't find the bathrooms" and "Dr. McKay, Kavanagh and Kusanagi are trapped in the garbage compactor again." These people were capable of doing nothing for themselves. He'd chafed and railed at the idiocy of the people around him on Earth, but after ten years with no one to talk to except whales and the odd Athosian, he'd managed to forget how dense most people were. Every once in a while he'd catch a glimpse of an actual functioning brain cell -- the head of the Atlantis scientists in particular, a little fuzzy guy, was capable of holding an intelligent conversation for at least a short period of time. But in general, all he wanted to do was flee back to the whales, except he couldn't because the morons kept falling down garbage chutes and accidentally activating lethal machinery and turning themselves into hamsters and other common, easily avoided mishaps. Rodney had learned not to push strange buttons in Atlantis when he was a toddler.
The final straw was when he went out onto the South Pier after two days of Earther-induced hell, planning to watch a quiet movie with the whales, and discovered a spiky-haired guy in a Magic Division uniform throwing bread crumbs to his whales.
For a moment or two, all Rodney could do was squeak in apoplectic rage, until Spiky Head turned around and noticed him.
"Oh, hey," the Earther said cheerfully. "You know, these whales are really frien--"
Rodney pushed him off the edge of the pier.
It didn't produce the satisfying tumble and splash that he'd expected. Instead, the Earther arrested his tumble just above the waves, head down, with his shoulder-length tangle of dark hair hanging towards the tops of the whitecaps breaking against the pier. He righted himself with no particular speed and levitated back up to the pier.
The whales were very amused. Rodney, not so much.
The Earther wasn't wearing any jewelry, amulets, medicine bags or anything else Rodney could see, aside from an earring in his left ear that consisted of a single bright green stone. To the extent that Rodney understood Milky Way magic, this left just one possibility. "You're a mage," Rodney spat at him.
The mage raised his eyebrows, and pointed silently to the Magic Division uniform.
"Oh, shut up." Stupid Earthers and their stupid, labyrinthine magical regulations. During the years he'd spent on Earth, he'd had enough trouble trying to remember half the things that other people took for granted, like not sticking metal objects in the food-charmer while it was running (ow) or not combining different brands of headache amulets (double ow). The last thing he wanted to do was clutter his brain with that kind of nonsense, especially when he had no intention of going back to that cluttered, noisy, polluted, bureaucrat-infested world. Even the whales on Earth were idiots.
"I'm Sheppard," the mage said, sticking his hands in his pockets, his hair even wilder and stranger-looking than it had been before. "Since you asked."
"I didn't ask. Get off my pier." He knew he was being sulky and childish, but he didn't really care.
Sheppard studied him with a peculiar flat look. "Guess the more things change, the more they stay the same," he said, and strolled back towards the towers of the City, the wind whipping his long hair.
Rodney stared after him. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?" he demanded of Sheppard's back. There was no answer.
It beat the hell out of the whales, too, but then a lot of things about humans did.
Rodney decided to forget about mages and Earthers for a while, and marched down to the end of the pier where, years ago, he'd rigged up a DVD player and projector, along with a watertight bin of DVDs -- the one good thing that he'd brought back from Earth, aside from his astrophysics degree.
"Want to watch Star Trek IV again?"
If it made him happy, it made the whales happy, even if they couldn't really figure out what he saw in it.
Ever since he was a child, John had slept lightly and awakened quickly, aware of his surroundings before he'd blinked the last sleep from his eyes. But in Atlantis, the boundary between dreaming and waking had become fluid. Here he drifted awake slowly, always to a murmur more insistent and shifting than the distant white noise of wind and waves, with strange images of movement and light flickering and fading from his mind before he could grasp them. Not even the relief Atlantis offered him from cold iron was enough to make him relax into his warm sheets after that kind of awakening. It was different and disconcerting, and while portal-hopping between galaxies could probably explain a lot, he still didn't like it. Even in the dark, or with the light falling through his high window a translucent, pre-dawn gray, John would get up. Then he would wander through the sleeping city, ignoring the looks he got from the occasional patrolling soldier.
Theoretically John was supposed to be available to Dr. Zelenka and anyone else who might want him around to see what artifacts would react to the presence of fae blood, and tell them what he could make of them with his magesight. But even when the scientists remembered to call on him, they usually got so absorbed in discussing the finer theoretical points that he could slip away unnoticed. It left him with nothing much to do except explore the city on his own, but that suited him just fine. And if Sumner fixed him with that narrow glare of his when John showed up far from the labs he had been assigned to -- well, it wasn't like the Colonel could send him back to Earth. Not as long as John was doing the job he had been sent here to do -- and thoughts of what that work would entail brought a remarkable approximation of the deep, inescapable discomfort he felt when in iron-boned cities.
After a week of waking up at dawn, John decided to take advantage of the fact that the portal chamber was manned by a single young Apprentice Class mage to claim the balcony outside for a while. From here he might be able to spot the curious whales again, and catch a transporter over to them before that McKay guy showed up to rant at him. He breathed deeply of the salty breeze, and scanned the sea for any giant flippers or smooth gray backs breaking the surface. The waves were splashed in glowing colors from the sunrise, which reflected off the glass and the strange, light metal of the delicate towers, making the city sparkle with a golden brilliance.
It all made it very hard to spot anything at all, and he was reaching for his sunglasses when the communication pendant at the hollow of his throat flared to life.
"Offworld portal activation! We have portal activity!" It was the kid in the portal chamber, his excitement making the city-wide call ring loudly in John's ears.
Visitors to the city, already? John slipped his sunglasses on, switched to magesight, and ducked back inside. Nobody had ever suggested that they wanted him around for potential first contact situations, but -- tough. He was here, and Woolsey was probably still tucked in his bed, sleeping soundly.
John made his way over to the young portal mage, who grinned with nervous relief where he sat behind his crystal-covered dashboard. John assumed that his pleasure came from having someone out of their apprentice grays with him, even if it was himself. "Sir!"
"Are we expecting company?" John nodded at the portal, watching with interest as the glyphs engraved in it lit up, one after the next in an unpredictable pattern that repeated in the crystals before the apprentice.
"Dr. McKay said not for another couple of weeks," the kid said, then added, breathlessly, "You don't think it's hostiles, do you, sir?"
Unsurprisingly, the apprentices had been nervous and jumpy, feeding each other a steady diet of scare stories. John couldn't help a brief flare of relief that they didn't know what kind of horrors this galaxy really held. Forcing himself to keep his voice light, he said, "Can't be too hostile, if they have our number."
The silvery blue surface inside the portal shimmered to life with a release of energies that raised gooseflesh on his arms, but nothing strained against the powerful wards stretched across the opening, visible to plain sight as a single iridescent iris. Woolsey had insisted that they add their own protective magics to the Ancestors' work, but to John those spells looked nothing so much as rough planks nailed haphazardly across a beautifully carved door, despite that it had taken several days of painstaking labor to get them fitted just right. Before they arrived, anyone who knew the wards would have been able to come through -- now they would find themselves forced to ask permission to enter. Sumner and Woolsey talked about the need for their protection, but John couldn't help but feel that the whole thing was kind of rude.
A voice rang out from the portal, carrying clear above the sound of running feet approaching the chamber. "Atlantis, this is Teyla of Athos. We are friends, and wish to enter."
It was hard to tell, with a voice transmitted through the portal and then echoing through the spacious portal chamber, but John thought the woman's tone was clipped rather short. Considering that this generation of Athosians had spent a lot more time in the city than anyone from the Milky Way, John wasn't surprised.
"See?" he told the apprentice. "Friendlies." Teyla's name was familiar from the briefings on the city. John was about to suggest to the apprentice at his side that he drop the wards, when a gruff voice behind them barked his name.
"Sheppard! What do you think you're doing?"
John winced at the volume, and hoped briefly that all of this wouldn't carry through the other side, because wasn't the whole point to make a good first impression? Obviously Sumner was not a morning person. "I'm watching the portal, sir," he answered, dropping his magesight as he spread his hands innocently to turn and face the colonel.
"Get away from there." The colonel glared at him, and John obediently stepped aside to let Sumner stride over to stand behind the apprentice at the desk, surveying the portal, and the readouts printing on the display behind them.
The woman's voice rang out again. "Atlantis? This is Teyla of Athos. We have yet to receive confirmation that it is safe for us to step through the portal."
Since John hadn't been given any further orders, he decided to stay and observe the proceedings. He could already hear the sound of McKay's cursing, and the man didn't even have anyone to rage at yet. John smirked. This should prove interesting.
It did. McKay, with a rumpled blue sweatshirt pulled over his swim trunks, charged into the portal chamber with a bright red flush of fury under his tan. His hands flew in a wild language all their own, jabbing accusing fingers at Sumner and the poor, terrified apprentice and at John too, just for good measure.
"You can't even manage to use the bathrooms without my aid, but the minute I turn my back on you, you slap your half-assed magic all over the portal? What is wrong with you people?!"
Sumner, who had been impressively impassive under McKay's onslaught, raised an eyebrow. "As you can see, Doctor, the magic works. And now that you're here, could you verify that our guests are indeed who they say they are?"
McKay stuttered to a halt in mid-rant. "It's Teyla," he said, his voice tight. He thrust a hand in the direction of the readouts behind them. "It's Athos, they're already registered, can you not read?"
At Sumner's blank stare, John thought McKay might actually scream, Hulk-like. Instead he pressed a hand to his forehead -- possibly in an effort to keep his head from exploding. "Just lower the damn wards, will you?"
The apprentice looked at Sumner, who nodded. "Go ahead." The young man acknowledged the order, and pulled a medicine bag from under his jacket. He clutched it tightly in one hand while he closed his eyes, a look of fierce concentration on his face as he spoke the correct words to render the wards inactive. A wave of magic washed through the room, as tangible to John as the cold blast of air from an opened freezer, and his skin tingled with it.
"Done, sir," the apprentice said, sinking back into his chair.
McKay didn't even wait for Sumner to acknowledge him before taking off down the stairs. Not seeing any good reason to hang back, John followed.
Meanwhile, Sumner issued a welcome in the name of Atlantis. McKay turned around to glare at the colonel, starting slightly as he noticed John following him. "What are you doing here?"
John smiled. "I wanted to say hi to our new neighbors."
McKay's lips tightened, but he didn't have the time to say anything more before the watery surface of the portal's circle broke, and a woman stepped through. She was dressed in leathers and soft cloth in warm, earthy colors, and her hair shone like burnished copper in the rich light shafting from the stained glass windows. She radiated power. John could feel it rolling off her like heat from an Arizona highway. She must be Teyla.
Behind her followed half a dozen men and women and one young boy, all of them outfitted in the same manner as their leader. The exception was one really big guy who was wearing some kind of heavy longcoat. They looked at John and the other newcomers with expressions ranging from bewilderment to -- on the big guy in particular -- dark suspicion. Teyla wore a carefully composed expression that broke into a quick smile when she caught sight of McKay.
"Rodney. It is good to see you." She closed the distance between them, and briefly tipped her forehead to touch his.
McKay returned the gesture perfunctorily. "Yeah, you too. Listen, Teyla, I can explain -- uh, well, no, I can't really ..." He fell into an awkward silence, as Teyla's attention roved around the room and fixated on a point behind him.
John looked over his shoulder and saw Sumner flanking Woolsey down the stairs, the latter looking as crisp as if he'd just stepped out of his office rather than being roused from sleep. Bates and another officer -- John thought he ought to know the kid's name, but it escaped him -- followed a step behind, P90s at the ready. Teyla's people followed suit, closing ranks behind her in a silent knot of fear, worry and suspicion. The big guy in the sweeping coat and another man, equally tall, hovered just behind her, a threat that did not have to be spoken.
A hush had descended on the chamber, the tension as tangible as a spell.
"So, uh, Teyla -- the Earthers are back!" McKay's voice shattered the silence.
Teyla gave him the most perfectly level look John had ever seen.
McKay blinked. "What? I was going to tell you! Um, it's been kind of crazy here, and I wasn't expecting, I, I -- why are you here, anyway? My gods, it hasn't been -- weren't you just here?"
Teyla looked over her shoulder, at the boy, who quailed at being suddenly the center of attention. The symbols which, on the others, peeked out from sleeves or collars, were much more dramatic on him: elaborate curling patterns of red, purple and blue, covering most of his face and the backs of his hands. "Jinto wished to see the City of the Ancestors after his sight-finding day, Rodney." There was just a hint of censure in her even tones. "We agreed upon this. You said that it would not be a problem."
"Oh. I. Right." Rodney was pink all the way to the tips of his ears. "That was now?"
Woolsey, who along with everyone else had been looking back and forth between the two of them like a spectator at a ping-pong match, cleared his throat and stepped forward. After a moment's brief hesitation, he held out his hand. Teyla's brow furrowed slightly, but she took it, and shook it with slow deliberation.
Whatever else he might be, Woolsey played the diplomatic game well, and his tone was gracious. "It's a pleasure to meet you, miss -- Teyla? I am Richard Woolsey, Mage First Class."
Teyla inclined her head. "I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan."
"I apologize for the delay, and --" he cast a sharp look at McKay, who scowled "-- any misunderstandings. But you see, we have only just arrived, and we have certain security protocols we must follow to ensure the safety of this mission."
"Mission?" Teyla asked.
"Ah, yes. We were planning on contacting you, of course, bringing you up to date on the plans for the city -- the people of Earth value the Athosians' knowledge and skills very highly, and we are glad to finally be able to increase the contact between our two galaxies."
"We have likewise been pleased to make your people's acquaintance," Teyla said politely.
The tight lines around Woolsey's mouth relaxed into what might almost have been a smile. "It's good that you're here -- I have been looking forward to meeting you. We all have." He turned to introduce the men with him, who each gave a small nod as they were indicated. "This is Colonel Sumner, Lieutenant Ford, and Sergeant Bates."
John couldn't help noticing that the formal introductions did not extend to the Mage Third Class who was standing only a few feet away. On the other hand, he kind of liked being invisible.
Teyla's eyes roamed across the others and settled on him. Suddenly he'd never felt less invisible in his life. Her eyes were sharp and intense, and something in them -- he recognized something about her, even though he'd never met her, never met anyone from her galaxy. It was a sharp quick snap of familiarity, like finding a long-lost sibling, like coming home. He'd never felt anything like it.
It frightened him to his core.
"Oh, sorry," Woolsey said, and John was dragged back to reality to hear his own name and rank being given. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sumner's jaw tighten. Bastard didn't like him. John didn't much care. He didn't want to look back at Teyla, to feel her gaze stripping him down to the soul, so instead he looked around the room as the introductions went on, and met the eyes of the big guy in the coat lurking behind Teyla, the only one of them who bore no tattoos except for a small one on his neck. John offered him a smile.
The man didn't smile back.
The conversation seemed to have moved on -- Teyla and Woolsey were now drawn together and speaking intently, while McKay orbited them like an annoyed and flailing satellite -- so John sidled over a little closer to the big guy. "Cool gun," he said, nodding to the weapon holstered at the man's waist. He'd never seen anything like it, but of course -- new galaxy, new technology.
John tried again, holding out a hand. "John Sheppard."
The big guy just looked at it, and at him. "Specialist Ronon Dex," he said after a moment.
That sounded like a rank. "Military?"
There was a long pause before the other man's eyes -- remarkably light, almost green -- skated away from John's. "Was."
"Ah." Okay, awkwardsville. As Dex turned to orient on Teyla again, John found himself staring at the other man's heavy brown coat. It couldn't be right, but it looked as if the back of the coat was made of -- feathers?
John took a step back. Not a coat. Feathers, yes, but not a coat. On the guy's back, falling down far enough to brush the floor, framing his broad shoulders -- that wasn't a coat, those were wings. Dark brown, banded with gray and white, like a hawk's or an eagle's. Actual wings. For flying with.
This galaxy was seriously cool.
With everyone else ignoring him, John took a few more steps to the side and gave the kid with the tattoos a little wave to get his attention. "Hey, uh -- Jinto?"
"Sir?" the boy asked, hands clasped shyly behind his back.
"That guy there, Dex." He dropped his voice a bit more, even though between McKay's ranting and Sumner and Woolsey's interjections, the room was noisy enough to cover a little soft conversation. "Those are wings on his back, right?"
Jinto nodded eagerly, eyes bright, losing a little of his nervousness. "It's really cool. You ought to see him fly."
"I'd love to see that." John hesitated, then held out a hand. "So, kid, if your parents don't mind, want me to show you some whales?"
The old histories of the Athosian people told of the days when the City of the Ancestors had been a thriving trade hub, channeling people and goods between two galaxies, and the Athosians had occupied a favored spot in that bustling flow of trade. With the dark taint of the Wraith spreading further in every generation, the bustle dwindled to a trickle, and finally dried up, until only Teyla's people were left trading with the gatekeepers of the City as they always had. She vaguely remembered Rodney's parents -- brusque people, unfriendly; but perhaps that was only because she'd seen them through a child's eyes, and all the ways of adults are alien to children.
When she was a child, she'd sometimes imagined the echoing halls of the City as they must have been in those old days, filled with people laughing and haggling at bright stalls selling goods from a thousand worlds. She had imagined the biggest, most fantastic bazaar that she'd ever seen, a wonderland of strange sights and strange magics.
This wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind.
Surrounded by the graceful, soaring lines of the City's ancient architecture, the Earthers stood out like a single black feather in a snowfield. Their clothes were a drab contrast to the beauty around them, their technology angular and unlovely to Teyla's eyes. Even their magic was different -- not exactly bad, but a dissonance like the wrong note played in an otherwise harmonious composition. As a scientist of runes, Teyla recognized the strangeness of the alien magic, the way it did not quite mesh with the magic of her own galaxy.
Rather than stalls of silks and exotic animals, the halls were filled with stacks of crates and equipment; rather than the colorful dress of a thousand alien lands, these visitors wore sober uniforms, with their colors used for the prosaic purpose of separating them into department and rank.
She told herself that what was to be would be. Her people had known all along that sooner or later, the Earthers would make contact with their galaxy again. She had thought that it would not be during her own lifetime, or that if they came, they would be ... well, different. More like Rodney, with his curiosity and quick-moving hands, his open affection for the City and the ocean that surrounded it, and a sort of pathological honesty that she found endearing even though sometimes she wanted to smack him for it.
Instead there was Woolsey, whom she found kind but dull, and very bound to his people's rules; every other sentence out of his mouth was "We'll see" or "I'll have to check on that." And there was Sumner, who looked through her rather than at her, and Bates with his suspicious eyes that followed her everywhere.
Many of the Earthers had been kind to her, and many more were openly distrustful of her, but the one she could not figure out was the black-clad man, Sheppard, with his curling dark hair and watchful, shuttered eyes. She thought at first that he did not trust her, but that wasn't it -- she'd become more familiar than she wanted to be with that particular look as her negotiations with Woolsey and Sumner wore on. Or perhaps he did not like her -- but she'd seen no hatred in that one long look in the portal chamber, just an uncertainty and fear that she did not understand.
The opportunity to talk to him came unexpectedly, several days after her first meeting with the people from Earth. Since then, she'd been traveling back and forth between Atlantis and Athos, attempting to balance her duties to her own people with the need to hammer out a trade agreement with the Earthers and secure the Athosians' place as liaisons between Earth and the rest of the galaxy. It was tiring and stressful, and after a long afternoon of running in circles with Woolsey, she'd been glad of Lieutenant Ford's friendly offer to work out her stress in what he called "the gym".
He showed her to a series of large open rooms, their original purpose unknown, which had been taken over by exercise equipment and floor mats. She didn't recognize most of their equipment, but she had her bantos sticks with her, as always, so she found an unoccupied room and went through an easy set of exercises. One form led to another, and soon she was working through her advanced moves, sliding quickly from one to another until her breath came harsh and the room spun around her.
Pausing to catch her breath and take a drink of water, she nearly jumped when she turned to see Sheppard leaning in the doorway, watching her.
"Have you been there long?"
"Not long," he said, offering a slight, apologetic smile. "I was just going to get in a workout before dinner, but I didn't want to interrupt you. That's amazing -- some kind of martial arts?"
"It is a defensive form that my people use." Looking him up and down, noting his capable hands and the easy way he carried himself, she added, "I think you would be good at it. I can show you the beginning forms, if you would like."
He hesitated, and this time she saw it more clearly for what it was -- not fear or hatred of her as an outsider, but a simple, deeply ingrained reaction: You push, I pull away.
As the head of the Athosian council and also their foremost rune-scientist, Teyla had never truly been able to participate in the closeness that her people shared. She recognized that isolation in others, and was drawn to it. She had seen it in Rodney, a child growing up apart from his people; and in Ronon, last survivor of a shattered world, and it was why she'd argued fiercely to the elders to take him in, even with his unusual history.
As Sheppard drew away from her, Teyla tossed back her sweat-damp hair and allowed a peek of a triumphant smile to show. "Ah, you are not afraid to let a woman best you, I hope?"
He raised an eyebrow, and the corner of his lip lifted. "Well, if you put it that way ...."
He turned out to be a quick study, picking up the moves quickly as she showed them to him. At the end of the first set, Teyla smiled and moved into a cooling-down stretch. "We should probably stop, or you will be very sore tomorrow."
"As opposed to being sore in all the places you hit me?" he asked wryly. But he was looking at the bantos sticks in her hands with longing.
The awkwardness between them seemed to have dissolved into a sort of tentative warmth, and she liked the feeling. So many of the newcomers were so distrustful of her; the feeling of camaraderie warmed her. "If you like, I could bring some practice rods with me, the next time I return from Athos."
After a moment, hesitantly, he smiled. Unlike most of his smiles, this one touched his eyes. "I'd like that."
Home invaded by idiots, check. Fickle whales cheating on him, check. Athosians pissed at him, check. Rodney's mental checklist of woe just kept getting longer.
Still, over the next few weeks, things began to settle down into something vaguely approaching a routine. Teyla spent hours closeted with Woolsey; Rodney insisted at first on sitting in on their meetings, until he figured out that they were discussing trade arrangements to accommodate the City's new population -- "Rodney, you will be very bored," Teyla had said at the beginning, with an indulgent smile that he hated. While he certainly wouldn't stoop to calling it boredom, let alone admitting that she'd been in any way right, he did have better things to do than listen to the two of them trying to agree on how many bags of Athosian antiviral rune-charms equaled a case of computer motherboards.
Better things ... such as keeping the newcomers to the City from molesting his whales.
The marine biologists were the worst of the bunch -- treating the whales like dumb animals, recording their conversations and measuring their flukes with an utter lack of regard for the whales' personal space. (Not that they really had much of that anyway, but Rodney was indignant on their behalf.) After chasing them off a few times, the biologists looking at him as if he'd grown a second head before going to find quieter patches of ocean to record, Rodney had come to a startling conclusion -- most people couldn't hear the whales.
He'd thought maybe it was just the Athosians. Jeannie had been a mere child when their parents sent her away (why, Rodney still wondered sometimes, why her and not him -- their parents had never said, and how could he ask her?), and Rodney had figured that maybe she had simply been shy, but Teyla had once told him that all she could get from the whales was a slight headache and occasional visions. The more that Rodney was able to watch the newcomers' interaction with the pod, the more disturbed he got. They really couldn't hear them.
This didn't stop Sheppard from apparently finding them fascinating, though. And the whales loved him, the big aquatic traitors. It wasn't long before Rodney, to his horror, caught the mage swimming with them. The only thing that made him feel a little better about it was that Sheppard, for all his mage powers and chick-magnet hair and general obnoxious coolness, wasn't as graceful in the water as Rodney. It would have been a lot more surprising if he had been, since Rodney had been spending most of his time in the ocean since he was barely old enough to walk, but given the circumstances, he took petty satisfaction in his greater swimming prowess.
It wouldn't have been so bad if the whales had ignored Sheppard, but they seemed to think he was some sort of new, fancy toy. They bumped and jostled and played with him in a way that made Rodney faintly ill. Honestly, it was embarrassing, the way they fawned over him! They were fully grown mammals. No self-respect.
At one point he got so sick of it that he went off to the labs for three days -- not sulking, naturally not, just avoiding the ocean. Temporarily. He found that he actually enjoyed lurking over the scientists' shoulders, correcting their equations and generally terrifying them. Zelenka managed to work up the courage, several times, to kick him out -- Rodney had to give him props for that -- but he just found a new lab to terrorize. It was the most fun he'd had since the Earthers invaded his City.
This lasted until the third day, when a hush fell over the physics lab and he looked up from a whiteboard to see the thin, black-clad figure of John Sheppard lounging in the doorway, sunglasses firmly in place. The absolute last person he wanted to see, in other words -- the smarmy whale-thief.
"Your whales are tearing up the East Pier," Sheppard said in a conversational tone.
"What?" Rodney had been sensing an oncoming migraine all day; now he thought he might know why. The East Pier was the one most directly beneath the lab. He rushed to the window, and noticed the marine biologists were just visible on the next tower over. They were clustered on one of the balconies with video cameras and babbling in excitement. Gods, he hated them.
Tearing his gaze away from those nuisances, he stared down at the spectacular sight of seven or eight enraged whales using their flukes to wash miniature tidal waves over the long silver expanse of the pier.
"What's wrong with you people?" Rodney demanded loudly. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught flashes of motion as physicists scuttled for cover, apparently missing the fact that he wasn't talking to them. Of course, the whales couldn't really hear him from up here, either, but through long years alone he had gotten into the habit of speaking his thoughts out loud.
The destruction ceased immediately; the whales sank as a unit and then bobbed to the surface again, sleek gray backs formed up in a relaxed queue. They had been very concerned, they informed him. They thought he'd been kidnapped. He'd been separated from the pod. And in the dry, too! There was no worse fate.
"Oh, for ...! You remember the proof I showed you, right?"
The whales were unconvinced.
"I'll be down in a minute," Rodney groaned, and, turning around, nearly collided with Sheppard. "Hey! Personal space!"
"Sorry," Sheppard said, not sound especially sorry, and peered over his shoulder out the window in what continued to be a blatant personal space violation. "How did you do that?"
"Do what?" Rodney asked absently, already on his way out the door.
"Make them stop." The mage jogged to catch up. "Were you talking to them?"
"What?" Rodney demanded, angrily punching the destination in the transporter as Sheppard crowded in after him. "You're a mage, right? Don't you have ... familiars, and that sort of thing?"
Sheppard rolled his eyes as the transporter doors opened on a water-slick corridor. The doors at the end were hanging ajar, and puddles glistened on the floor. "You don't know much about the magical disciplines, do you?"
"I understand the basic theories perfectly well," Rodney said loftily, splashing through puddles. Oh right. Shoes. Crap. Well, they'd dry. He still wasn't used to being dressed most of the time. "Beyond that, it's all voodoo as far as I'm concerned."
"Which clearly shows you don't know as much as you think, since voodoo is an entirely different branch of the Art than the discipline I practice, McKay --"
They were still arguing as they emerged onto the pier. At the sight of the whales, all lined up eagerly with their heads out of the water like very large dolphins, Rodney left off in mid-rant and kicked off his sodden shoes. He sat down on the edge of the pier, dangling his bare feet over the edge and realizing just as his ass hit a lukewarm puddle that he was going to get his pants soaked this way, too. Oh well. Clothes. What a pain.
Sheppard squatted down next to him.
"Still here, are you?" Rodney demanded sullenly, leaning down to give the nearest whale a desultory pat on her nose.
"Er ... are you talking to them or me?"
"Anyone who wants to answer," he retorted.
Why don't you come swim?, the fluid dynamics whale asked him, and the others echoed her entreaty. Smart as they were, they'd never quite understood clothing, or the restrictions that it sometimes placed on human freedom of movement between the wet and the dry.
But there were a lot of things about humans that the whales didn't understand. Jobs. Responsibility. Economics. Politics. They could comprehend the general theories but not the why of it. For them, the ocean was filled with food, and they went where they wanted and did what they wanted. Rodney thought that life had been a lot simpler and more fulfilling when he'd more or less done the same.
In the corner of his peripheral vision, he was vaguely aware of Sheppard looking at him, and at the whales, and back again. He sensed that Sheppard was putting together some sort of equation, involving Rodney McKay and whales and the City and the mostly empty water-world, and could feel a dull resentful anger growing in him. As soon as he says a word, he thought bitterly, I'll pop him right in his lying, whale-stealing mouth. Never mind that he'd never hit anybody in his life and the mage probably had enough magic in his little finger to turn Rodney into a thin paste of physicist on the pier.
When Sheppard finally spoke, though, what he said was, "I saw your DVD setup on the South Pier."
"Oh really," Rodney said snippily, and patted the whale again; she kept lightly bumping the very tip of her nose against his leg, like an anxious dog the size of a house.
"We brought DVDs with us. You know, thinking we'd probably be here for awhile, and we'd need entertainment and ... stuff."
Despite his calculated disinterest, the idea of being able to show the whales a movie he hadn't already seen twelve times practically made him drool. "Oh really."
"We have Lord of the Rings."
"Feh," Rodney said. Wildly inaccurate historical epics weren't his thing.
"And the new season of Firefly."
Oh damn. "There's a new season of Firefly?"
Sheppard smirked. "Been out here for a while, haven't you?"
Sheppard was still a low-down, no-good, whale- and Athosian-stealing bastard, so Rodney was a little surprised when the mage did, in fact, show up for the next whale movie night, with Teyla in tow, no less. The current film of choice was Alien II, which he and the whales had already seen a half-dozen times, so his reflexive urge to throw Sheppard off the pier sputtered and died when he noticed that the mage carried a stack of DVDs. Leaning back to glance over the titles, Rodney demanded, "Where's Firefly?"
"The science division's rec lounge is monopolizing it. You'll just have to settle for the collected oeuvre of George Lucas," Sheppard said, and set down a bowl of popcorn between them, with just enough hesitation to speak volumes.
"Well, if I have to," Rodney said magnanimously, reaching into the bowl. Popcorn was something else he hadn't had since coming back from Earth, though the Athosians had a small tree nut that wasn't terribly different.
Sheppard leaned towards the DVD player and stopped, staring. "What did you do to this thing?"
"Built it from scratch. I think it used to be an Ancestral medical scanner or something." Rodney impatiently took the DVD and leaned around him.
"It is ... unusual," Teyla said, folding her legs under her on the pier and taking a handful of popcorn.
"So, you two seem to be getting along," Rodney said, a bit resentfully, as he put in the DVD. The sun had just set, and the ocean glowed faintly under a luminous purple sky. On the far side of the channel of water along the pier, the projector's huge, fuzzy images traced out the movie's credits in letters fifteen feet high on the blank side of one of the unused towers. The whales played beneath the projector's beam, water expelled from their blowholes glittering in the reflected light.
"Since Mage Sheppard cannot use most of your people's weapons, I am showing him the introductory martial arts disciplines of my people. He is taking to it very well."
"He can't use weapons?" Rodney fiddled with the focus on the projector; the letters blurred out and then sharpened against the darkening side of the tower. "Why not?"
"Teyla," Sheppard said shortly.
Rodney turned his head in time to see her give him a look of silent apology. Okay, those two were getting along way too well. "Your people's customs are very strange," Teyla said, and reached for another handful of popcorn.
Sheppard cleared his throat. "So. That Dex guy ... can he actually fly with those wings? And where'd he get them?"
"He's Satedan," Rodney said absently as he tinkered with the projector's color settings, then remembered that Sheppard was from Earth. "They all have wings. Used to have, I mean."
Sheppard looked delighted. "I love this galaxy."
"And yes," Teyla said, "Ronon can fly. But I do not think he would appreciate being discussed behind his back in this manner."
"Well, if he doesn't like it, then he should be here," Rodney retorted.
"Perhaps I will invite him the next time, then."
"What?" Life was so much simpler when all he had to worry about was the whales.
On paper, time is a discrete, linear thing, easily divided into measured, equal units. Calendars, clocks, appointment books all tell the same story: time is a stack of blocks, each like another, passing at a slow, measured rate -- an infinite series of equal beads sliding along a string.
But time to human beings, no matter how they might try to quantify it, is not quite like that. It jumps and lingers, starts and stops; it drags interminably through minutes, hours, days; only to bound forward and cross years in a single leap.
So did a year in the Pegasus Galaxy pass for John Sheppard.
On a small scale, of course, his days were busy -- busy with meetings and reports, with Athosian stick fighting practice and movie nights with whales (seriously ... whales?) and arguments with McKay (who at some point had stopped being McKay and become Rodney) over which James Bond was better or whether the Hulk could beat Batman in a fair fight. And, of course, busy with exploration of a new galaxy. But in his memory, weeks blended into months in a kind of endless golden afternoon, lit by the sun on the towers of Atlantis.
In the early weeks, Woolsey and Sumner organized teams of three or four people, each with an Athosian guide, to go forth and make contact with the different peoples of the galaxy. John himself was not permanently attached to any one team; he rotated through them -- membership in the teams, in general, was fairly loose -- and, often, he traveled with no company but Teyla.
He knew that Sumner resented the amount of autonomy he had. Relations between the mages and the military were strained, and only grew more tense as time went by. Sumner wanted all of the offworld teams to be predominantly military, to present a strong face for Earth, while Woolsey and the science division pushed for more of a diplomatic-scientific face to the expedition.
John himself was balanced on that uneasy fulcrum, owing little allegiance to either side -- and Sumner made no secret of the fact that he disliked the amount of time that John spent offworld on his own recognizance, at the Athosian settlement or traveling through alien marketplaces with Teyla and Ronon, or by himself. Neither did the colonel think much of John's friendship with Atlantis's resident loud-mouthed kook, which was all Rodney amounted to in Sumner's eyes. (The rest of the city was quietly grateful for the distraction John provided the irascible scientist, and he was pretty sure there were celebrations in the labs when he and the others managed to drag Rodney offworld with them.)
Woolsey didn't interfere, of course, because Woolsey, and Woolsey alone, knew what John was really doing in this galaxy -- and why John needed more autonomy than he could get on one of the regular portal teams.
Officially, it was a sop to the Athosians -- not presented in quite those terms, of course, but everyone who played the diplomatic game recognized it. John and Teyla had hit it off, and John was increasingly comfortable among the inhabitants of the other worlds, much moreso than the regular portal teams with their weapons and uniforms. John, an Athosian coat thrown over his black mage's dress and Athosian fighting sticks crossed on his shoulder, blended right in -- as well he should; he'd had a lifetime's practice and training at doing that very thing. So the inhabitants of the Pegasus Galaxy got a liaison that they trusted, and everyone at all levels remained happy. It wasn't a total lie. He did do what the paperwork said that he did. But that wasn't all he did -- and the reports he carried to Woolsey involved more than mere tava harvests.
He'd never expected to feel as guilty about it as he did.
Lying to people was something he'd gotten good at. Lying to Ronon, Teyla and Rodney, even if it was more of a sin of omission than an outright lie, turned out to be one of the hardest things he'd ever done in his life. He didn't know if it made things better or worse that these people he had first targeted as possible informants had somehow become his friends.
He was happy in the Pegasus Galaxy ... that was the true irony of it all. He sometimes thought that he could easily settle here, become part of the place as thoroughly as Rodney with his whales. But he could never forget -- never allowed himself to forget -- the unbreachable iron wall of duty, of responsibility, that stood between him and the things that were becoming increasingly more dear to him.
He told himself that his actions served them, too. He wasn't just acting on behalf of Earth, but for everyone in the Pegasus Galaxy. They just didn't know it yet.
And slowly, bit by bit, he began to put together the pieces of the puzzle he'd been sent to assemble.
On a planet called Darwya, the final puzzle piece fell into place with a resounding clang.
He'd been there before, first with Teyla, and then alone. It was a desert world -- at least, the area around the portal was desert, and no one had ventured beyond it to learn if the rest of the world was the same. However, a small town of adobe houses clung to an oasis near the portal, and over the years had developed a thriving trade in gemstones that the Darwyans mined from their infertile desert soils. As the Pegasus Galaxy went, it was a wealthy world.
John kept returning to Darwya because, alone of most of the worlds he'd visited, the locals were willing to discuss the Wraith -- for a price. Darwya was a place where anything could be bought, from drugs to sex to information so strictly taboo that it was nearly impossible anywhere else to so much as get anyone to admit that it existed.
He usually found opportunities to visit Darwya without Teyla, because he wouldn't have been able to get anywhere with her disapproving presence hovering over his shoulder. She was a tremendous asset to him -- she'd opened many doors that would have remained closed to a clueless stranger from beyond the stars -- but also a liability, since she found his questions vulgar at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
Through his contacts on Darwya, he'd gained a much better picture of the Wraith's activities in the Pegasus Galaxy -- and it was an ugly picture. The peoples of Pegasus, even intelligent and level-headed sorts like Teyla, believed that merely speaking the name "Wraith" would call the scourge down upon them. He didn't understand all the ins and outs of Pegasus-specific magic, so he couldn't have said for sure that it was completely impossible -- but one thing he did know: their deliberate and studied culture of silence had enabled the Wraith to make tremendous inroads throughout the galaxy.
Early on he had tried to ask Rodney about the Wraith. As an Earther brought up in the Pegasus Galaxy, McKay might possess the knowledge John sought, without being bound by taboos. Rodney had shrugged and casually referred to ghost stories and bogeymen. He was friends with Teyla, and he might know the Athosians, but it was soon clear that he wasn't one of them. This had been before John had realized that Rodney, for all his genius with science, was impressively bad at -- or maybe simply entirely uninterested in -- anything related to human interaction. After all, he wasn't exactly one of the Earthers, either.
By the time John had grasped how stupid it had been to ask Rodney about Athosian oral traditions, he also knew that Rodney was the one person who could find anything in Atlantis's database for him. All John had to do was ask -- ask, and get Rodney involved. John told himself that any information in the databases would be hopelessly out of date, and pushed the matter from his mind, never raising the subject with Rodney.
John had to gather hard, solid facts on exactly what the Wraith were, and what they were currently doing in the Pegasus Galaxy. His superiors could take it from there. And they would, if only he could find any reliable information at all. No one knew how many worlds had fallen, how many were contaminated; no one would speak of it. Even the huddled groups of refugees that he'd glimpsed on some of his solitary journeys were ignored, banned, shunned, forgotten -- obliterated from history.
The people of Pegasus believed that once the Wraith had touched your world, you were forever contaminated.
For all he knew they could be right.
But in the absence of true information, misinformation flourished. With survivors often rejected by the unaffected worlds, no one really seemed to know how the Wraith operated or how to stop them. On Darwya and the few other worlds that would even discuss rumors in general terms, John had heard extraordinary claims: that they could go through most wards like a hot knife through butter, and that they could travel between planets instantly, with no expenditure of energy. Some people said they were entirely bodiless, creatures of pure energy; others spoke in hushed whispers of the Wraith as a sort of demon, possessing friends and family members, turning them against one another.
On John's last trip to Darwya, one of his regular contacts and drinking buddies had promised to hook him up with that rarity, a survivor of an actual Wraith culling who was willing to talk about it. The only other person John had met who'd survived an all-out Wraith assault was Ronon, and he never spoke of it. Ever. John knew better than to push. He still had to swallow a surge of guilt, hot as bile, at forcing anyone to relive such an experience, no matter how noble the cause. But somehow it seemed less vile to interrogate a stranger than a friend.
With a small pouch of medical amulets and other gewgaws under his long, embroidered Athosian robe, he slipped through the portal on Athos, from a crisp morning redolent with the smells of the forest, into the clear, sharp air of a desert at twilight. As usual, the portal was not guarded; in a total turnaround from usual Milky Way procedures, the people of Pegasus apparently relied on their warding runes to keep out hostile magic and invading armies. John still could not understand how they reconciled this with the rumored ability of Wraith to pass through wards. Perhaps "out of sight" was truly "out of mind", as the old saying went.
The desert town had just begun to settle into its sleep. John couldn't help feeling a difference, though, as he walked down the streets that had become familiar to him. Many of the shops were permanently shuttered, with boards nailed across their windows. He would have expected to see many gemstone caravans in town, but the stock pens where they kept their huge wagon-pulling draft animals were nearly empty; only a handful of harness beasts could be seen munching placidly on fodder. The drinking houses should have had their doors thrown wide, spilling music and laughter into the night; instead, most of them were closed, only thin slats of light revealing that anyone dwelt within.
A worm of worry and fear crawled in John's belly, and his fingers curled involuntarily as he rehearsed the focus-words of some of his quicker offensive spells. It was in situations like these he wished he could keep some heavy-duty offense and detection spells hanging around at all times, but if he did that, he'd hardly have the energy to walk, let alone fight.
There were two ways to construct a spell -- one could do it on the fly, or prepare it beforehand and then unlock it with a word or gesture. The trouble with pre-built spells was that they decayed very quickly if they weren't maintained with a steady influx of energy, the amount proportionate to the power of the spell. John had once tried to explain it to Rodney as something vaguely akin to studying for a difficult test. It would be fantastic if you could memorize every piece of information that you'd need for the test and then keep it in the back of your brain forever, but the human mind doesn't work that way. Rodney had insisted that his did, but not everyone could be an obnoxious genius; and most people would agree that you spend the days before the test cramming the most likely topics, and that the knowledge fades quickly if it isn't used.
Besides, he was good at slinging raw energy; it might not be pretty or elegant, but since he could just throw a fireball at an enemy without any prep work to speak of, it was a lot more effective than putting a lot of time and energy into specialized spells he might not use.
The drinking house where he customarily met his contact, a hole-in-the-wall place called Jasta's, was one of those still open. He stepped cautiously through the door. An apathetic musician was playing a popular drinking song on the high-pitched pipes that the Darwyans favored, and locals huddled in small clumps around the tables, nursing their drinks. The crowd was very thin tonight.
Something was definitely wrong.
John stepped up to the bar. He recognized the bartender, a heavyset man with a scar on his cheek and both arms covered with tattoos, some magic and others not. Rather than the usual smile and joke, the bartender gave John a flat look as if he'd never seen him before.
Well -- this was Darwya, after all. John laid down a small square of silver. With interportal trade so common, most of the Pegasus worlds had given up on minting actual coins, and gone with solid metal or straight barter instead. "I'm looking for Kayenta. Is he here tonight?"
The bartender picked up the coin, bit it, spat on it and held it up to the light before answering. "Over there," he said, nodding towards one corner of the bar where a cloaked figure hunched over a bowl of the local dark beer.
John nodded thanks and picked his way between the tables. Kayenta glanced up at him as he approached. Normally his friend would have welcomed him with an effusive greeting, but this time Kayenta merely studied him with a small crease between his eyes.
"Nightlife's taken a definite downturn in this place," John said. Darwyan chairs were more like low benches without backs; he pulled one up to the table and straddled it in the local style.
Kayenta shrugged. "People are worried," he said.
Kayenta continued to study him, expressionless -- then one hand shot out, slapping down on John's. Reacting without thinking, John brought up a fist, green light flaring around it as he raised a shield. Kayenta was knocked backwards, almost falling off his stool.
The back of John's hand prickled and burned. Looking down, he saw the faint outline of a glyph, fading even as he looked at it -- though the sting remained. One of the most common pigments in Pegasus runic magic was red ochre: iron oxide. Kayenta must have had a symbol painted on his palm. Brief contact with a small, attenuated amount of iron wouldn't blister, but it stung.
Kayenta let out a sigh. "Sorry. I had to check."
"Check for what?" John demanded, letting his shield fall. Luckily for Kayenta, he'd gone for defense rather than offense; he could have blasted the guy through a wall.
"What do you think?" Kayenta's voice fell as he spoke, and his gaze darted around the room.
John could guess what he meant -- there was only one thing that Pegasus people meant when they talked like that -- but in the past, Kayenta had always been casual, even flippant when he spoke of Wraith. "What's going on?" John asked softly.
"The caravan trains aren't coming in on schedule anymore." Kayenta paused, looking around the room again, and then he said, "Some of the mines have shut down. I heard they sent some guys out to the quarry at Narrow Gulch and they found all the mine workers on the ground, their lives taken."
"Taken," Kayenta emphasized, and he made one of the common Pegasus evil-warding signs -- the fingers closed in a circle, echoing the portal. John could feel the very faint tingle of magic; it was a weak ward, but a true one. "They were all horribly aged, the lives drained from them. Only Wrai -- only one thing can do that."
John's heartbeat quickened, even as his stomach twisted with a visceral horror at the misfortune of the Darwyan people. Wraith, here. On Darwya. For over a year he'd sought them. And now, at last, his quarry was in sight.
"How --" he began, but broke off as the bartender approached their table with a shallow wooden half-bowl of beer in hand. John's usual. So the guy did remember him, even if his eyes still skated over John with disinterest or dislike. The bartender set the bowl down a little too hard, causing some of the beer to slop over onto the table.
"Thanks," John said, offering him his sweetest smile. As the bartender turned away, he picked it up and touched it to his lips.
There was an instant sting and burn. Startled, John lowered the bowl and stared at it. Like most spies, he had learned that the tiny drain of constantly activated anti-poison spells was worth it. The touch of poison to his lips would make them sting ... just like that.
"What is the matter?"
John shook his head and turned his face away from Kayenta, holding the bowl at arm's length while invoking his magesight. Wow. The bowl was livid with poison -- even if his wards hadn't reacted, he might have tasted it when he took a sip. Subtle poisons could sometimes make it through the wards anyway, but this ... this was using a sledgehammer to swat a bumblebee.
"John?" Kayenta pressed.
John let his eyes return to normal before looking up. "Sorry. I gotta talk to that guy."
With that, he was away from the table, striding towards the bartender and shifting again to magesight as he went. Damn it, there was no reason why a trading town should be poisoning outsiders on general principles, which meant the bartender had been after him, personally. From behind, at least, he could see absolutely no sign of any spells on the guy, beyond the usual low-level personal magic that most people in Pegasus had.
"Hey buddy. What did I do? Sleep with your wife?"
The bartender swung around. He didn't react at all at the sight of John's cat's eyes. All he did was stare back with that same flat, peculiar expression.
And yet, John couldn't see anything magically wrong with him. He tried to press deeper, turning up his magical acuity until his ears rang from the background awareness of all the minor wards in the room, and still he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. No spells, no amulets, no demons even. Nothing.
"You got a problem?" the bartender said at last.
"Damn straight I got a problem. You just tried to poison me."
The bartender's eyes narrowed, the first new expression that had shown on his face so far. And then he moved, quick as a striking snake. But John was ready for him -- as the bartender struck out at him, he flung up a shield and then reversed it, one quick movement, knocking the guy off his feet and throwing him backwards.
A big guy like the bartender shouldn't have been hurt -- stunned, at worst. But he didn't roll with it, like he didn't even know how to roll; he struck like a sack of potatoes at the worst possible angle, and there was an audible, horrible crack. His neck lolled back, flat eyes going still.
John stood rooted in place, hand upraised, magesight fading back to regular vision. I just killed that guy. It wouldn't quite sink in. He hated killing with magic, hated it to the core of him; he'd taken pains to learn non-lethal ways of disarming and disabling opponents. And he'd just killed a man with one of the most basic spells he knew.
A slow murmur had begun to circulate around the tavern. John kept his shield in place -- it should deflect any thrown weapons or blunt strikes, at least -- and slowly approached the crumpled body. He didn't know the bartender well, but the man had had a wife and daughters; John wondered if he should try to --
... what the fuck was that.
Something was rising off the body, rising like steam in the fields of Athos on a hot day. It was like a distortion in the air, like the mirages that John had sometimes seen on desert highways -- an illusory reflection in the road, vanishing as you approached. Only this had presence and substance, and it was approaching him.
Behind him, around him, the angry murmurs changed in an instant to screams of panic.
John, still more curious than terrified, switched back to magesight -- and staggered backward as malevolence struck him like a physical blow. It was like hatred personified -- an emotion uncoiled from a human body and made real, if not tangible.
If the sudden panic in the room around him didn't tell him already, he knew as he felt the bitter ice of its rage and hate, driving him back a step. This was a Wraith. It could be nothing else.
It had been inside the bartender -- and he hadn't felt it at all.
John took another step backwards. It took a lot to make him afraid, but he was afraid now, down to the center of his being. He still had his shield in place, but he couldn't help remembering the stories he'd heard, the rumors on a dozen worlds. Passed through the wards like they wasn't there at all. Stepped through the portal easy as ducks diving in a pond, there and gone ...
The Wraith had bested the Ancestors, driven them to Earth, because they did not operate under the principles of normal magic.
Too quick for the eye to follow, the Wraith moved -- rising and then diving, straight towards John. He jumped backwards and threw everything he had into his shields, but he could feel the Wraith go straight through them, and a sudden ice-cold film settled on his skin, clinging and horrible. His lungs went still -- from magic or terror, he didn't know, but he couldn't move, couldn't draw breath.
And then it was gone; he sensed a wash of disappointment and fury, and then it leapt away from him. He staggered and spun around, magesight gone again, but he could watch it with his naked eye as it dived at a man at the back of the panic-stricken crowd struggling in the tavern's doorway. This time he saw from the outside what had nearly happened to him -- the Wraith settled on the back of the hapless man like a soap bubble, spreading rapidly across his shirt in an oily sheen, and then sank beneath cloth and skin, and vanished in an instant.
John shifted back to magesight, focused intently, and was rewarded by an oily flicker through the man's aura, so brief it might have been an illusion. Then he blinked, and the Wraith -- if it had been a Wraith -- was gone, along with the icy horror that accompanied it. The crowd in the doorway managed to break through their logjam and spilled out into the night, shrieking. But the man at the back of the exodus stopped and turned around slowly, looking back at John, with a flat lack of expression that he now recognized all too well.
It sprang at him.
John cursed and leaped over the bar in a mad scramble. There was no back door to the tavern -- he'd been in here often enough to know -- so he made one, channeling power and pointing his finger at the back wall. He'd always loved this spell -- it was just so very dramatic, the magic of which afternoon melodramas were made. The wall disintegrated in a spectacular explosion of dust and bits of granite --
-- revealing a boudoir, and a middle-aged woman in the act of applying paint to her eyes with one finger. She wore nothing but a skimpy, revealing nightshirt.
Crap. The streets, and the houses that lined them, backed each other.
"Sorry!" John yelled, dashing through. He looked behind him to make sure the Wraith-possessed victim was following rather than stopping to bother the frozen, stunned housewife, and it was -- hot on his heels, in fact. He ran through a Darwyan sitting room and emerged into a street quite a lot more upscale than the one he'd left behind. This house had a courtyard, and a fancy iron fence at the front; John didn't bother trying to open it, just levitated himself over. In fact, being airborne seemed like a good idea at the moment. Leaving his pursuer struggling awkwardly over the fence, he glided towards the portal, heading around the corner and into a sudden mob scene.
The street was filled with people, screaming, struggling, hitting each other. The panic in the bar had spilled out into a full-fledged riot, everyone driven half insane with terror. John stopped, staring, shocked and horrified, still floating in midair.
The pause was his undoing. A bodiless Wraith -- maybe the same one, maybe different -- struck him from behind: a wet clinging cold thing, wrapping around him, driving the air from his lungs and the heat from his blood.
His shield and levitation-spell failed together; he plunged into the chaos of the street.
Spring had come again to Athos, the second since the Earthers returned to the City of the Ancestors. After more than a year of trade, some things were changing on Athos. Computers had begun to supplement bark-paper for rune analysis and cataloguing -- Teyla had pushed for them, clearly seeing the benefits to her chosen field of study, and was teaching others the basics of programming them. New crops had begun to appear in the fields. The children could be seen playing new games in addition to the traditional ones; Skywalker-and-Vader was very popular right now.
But some things would never change. The earth was soft under her feet, and birds twittered their challenges and warnings from every bush and tree, a sweet cacophony after winter's silence.
Teyla was humming the forest's song now, a tune all her people knew in their bones. She added words as they came to her, calling the dappled shadows to wrap around her, the wind to catch the rustle of a stirred leaf. Her quarry must not be alerted to her presence. Not like she was to his, now. The little blue-wings always nested close together, but next to her a male's bold chirping was going uncontested, with no answer from the dell across the brook. There, only wind and water stirred.
The sigils on the back of Teyla's neck prickled when her eyes passed over the giant, gnarled roots of a grandmother tree. The crook between the trunk and two roots formed a hollow which was large enough to hide a man, if he pressed close to the ground. She breathed silence. It would not do to frighten him now that she was so close.
Soft boots moved deftly over dry leaves, a soundless dance. Teyla approached the hiding place empty-handed, her bantos sticks still strapped to her back. The stink of fear made her nose wrinkle before she came close enough to see the ragged figure huddled by the tree. The first the man knew of her approach was when she rested her hands on either side of his neck.
"Sleep," Teyla said gently, and the swirling patterns on her wrists helped her pour power into the word, into the man. His eyes had barely widened with mindless panic before they drifted shut, and he sagged down against the root.
Teyla took a deep breath to steady herself, then she touched the pendant at her throat. "Ronon? I have found him."
After giving Ronon instructions on where to come get them, Teyla crouched by the man she had found, pressing a hand to his brow. It felt like touching a firestone. She sighed sadly. His body was reacting to the horrors his mind could not handle. It was only too common in the few people who managed to flee the Wraith. Most of them were broken in some way, beyond both Teyla's own people's or the Earther's medicine and magic to help. This one had not even been able to give them his name. He had woken among her people, but instead of talking he had screamed, and grabbed a knife and fled.
Surviving the Wraith did not always mean life. Even among those who lived, Ronon was the only survivor she had ever met who felt more whole than broken.
And now, the Wraith were stirring.
Sitting with their hands wrapped around mugs of hot tea to keep the morning chill away, her people would speak about how there were more survivors, now. It wasn't hopeful talk. More survivors meant more worlds stricken. More worlds they heard about. Nobody ever mentioned all the tales that they would never hear -- could never have repeated, even if there had been anyone left alive to tell them.
Charin, the oldest and wisest of Teyla's friends, spoke frankly about many things. She, whose memory had stretched further back than any living Athosian's, said that she had never in her life known so many worlds to fall in such a short time. That this was the worst darkness she had ever seen sweep the galaxy.
It made Teyla deeply uneasy. Not only because of the threat to her people, but because it seemed to her that the Wraith scourge had never been so bad before the Earthers came back. Not that any of her people accused them of anything. Not that she did, not out loud.
The Earthers were valuable trading partners, of course, and more than that -- some of them were friends. Friends as true and good as any she had ever known, but even Rodney never seemed to understand. Of course, she had learned that Rodney rarely seemed to understand his own people, either. That was just Rodney's way, and she would not wish to change him. Not if it would make him more like the others. But John -- a twinge of anger made her clench her jaw. John should understand. He had been told more than any other Earther, had been warned, and yet -- and yet he smiled when he spoke words which should never be spoken. At least his smile faded when she touched upon his own secrets.
Secrets they had, the Earthers, but no forbidden words. They had security protocols and hierarchies and orders, and it made them feel safe. Maybe it even made John feel safe, for all that he was so hopelessly snared in them. That might explain some of his recklessness, some of his aggravating willful ignorance.
Teyla could hear Ronon approaching from some distance away. He was all speed and no subtlety as he crashed through the underbrush, and she shook her head to clear them of her dark thoughts. John could wait. Now they had this man to deal with. They would bring him back to the camp -- the Athosians would never refuse care to a victim of the Wraith.
That certainty made her fiercely proud of her people. They were some of the last humans in the galaxy to refuse to give into fear and suspicion. Long generations ago, Teyla had been told, when the City of the Ancestors flourished, many others had been like the Athosians. Willing to band together, protect the weak, shine brightly in defiance of the Wraith.
But bright lights are easily found in the dark, and one by one, they were snuffed out. By the Wraith, by growing suspicion, by a loss of the old ways. The communities that remained were too often isolated, fearful, and weak.
Ronon came striding up through the dell, shaking leaves and twigs from his wings, and with a pang Teyla was reminded that few worlds had shone as brightly as Sateda. That few had been quite so mercilessly extinguished.
"He is sleeping," she said by way of greeting. "But his body is getting a fever."
"Good job." Ronon lifted the man into his arms. He didn't hoist the sleeping man in his stinking clothes over his shoulder, but cradled him to his chest. That tenderness might have surprised someone who didn't know the big Satedan as well as Teyla did -- someone who couldn't guess where Ronon's thoughts dwelled, every time he dealt with another survivor.
On the way back, they didn't speak. Teyla walked first, singing them a quick and easy path though the forest, and Ronon walked quietly in her footsteps.
They had barely seen the man bedded down by one of the Athosians' best healers when both of their pendants flared to life.
"Hey, Teyla?" It was John's voice, and Teyla froze, exchanging a look with Ronon. John had left from the Athos portal earlier the same day, secrets drawn tight as a shroud around him, and he had told them to expect him back in a few days. If he was here now...
"John! Where are you?"
"Oh, you're there -- I'm on Athos! That's great." He sounded surprised, and breathless. Ronon moved at the same time as Teyla did, ducking out of the healer's tent.
"John? Are you by the portal?"
"Yeah. Just came through. I think I scared Jinto." John's voice wasn't very strong at all.
"Please, stay there. We're coming."
Teyla heard a short laugh turn into a voiceless sound of pain. "Yeah, I'm staying all right."
Under the blue skies, Ronon spread his wings, and Teyla poured her magic into the ring of sigils around her ankles. Making herself light like this was harder than running, but Ronon could fly faster than she could run, even with the power of her symbols. With her hands around Ronon's wrists, and his hands wrapped around hers, Teyla could feel Ronon's magic surround her, as natural as the force that drove rivers to the sea, and as powerful.
They landed with a sweeping wind. John was sitting down, leaning against the portal. Jinto stood by him, and Teyla dispatched the boy to fetch a healer. Even before reaching his side, she could tell that John had been hurt. His hair was matted and tangled, his face stained with smudged blood, and his right eye was swelling shut.
"Hi." He raised a hand to wave, but the weak grin on his face turned into a grimace at the gesture.
"John." All at once, her anger was back. Anger and worry, indistinguishable from each other, causing an almost overwhelming urge to make John sleep, too, so that she wouldn't have to look at any more of his wounds, listen to any more of his excuses.
Ronon nudged her aside, and squatted next to John. "Are your legs broken?"
There was a brief pause. "No."
"Then why aren't you standing?"
John shot Ronon a dark look. "Because I prefer sitting here, smelling the beautiful spring flowers. What do you think?"
"That you're looking for a free ride?"
Ronon's unique beside manner evoked enough sympathy in Teyla that she managed to push her anger aside. Though as soon as he was well enough, she and John would have a long training session. Her eyes automatically went to the crossed sheathes on his back, and she was surprised to find one of them empty. She knelt by John's other side.
"You lost one of your sticks."
"I had to hit somebody with it. A few somebodies." His voice cracked on the last word. He didn't look the triumphant victor of a fair fight -- he looked broken, beaten in a way that hurt her to see.
"You look like crap," Ronon said bluntly. "You oughta get back to your people."
"I did -- you are..." The blurred sentence trailed off into nothing, and he pitched forward. Ronon was closer and quicker than Teyla, catching him.
"I will open a portal to Atlantis," she said, not daring to meet Ronon's eyes.
Where were you, John?
What demons have you unleashed on us?
"What do you mean you can't? You love fishing, you said so yourself!" Rodney was standing in the doorway, strategically blocking Carson's retreat to the lab where the healer worked on his weird things -- weird things that smelled.
"Aye, I love fishing." Carson set his hands on his hips. "Fishing. That is, getting the fish out of water, not having fish carry me through water!"
"The whales are mammals!"
"They're not a safe mode of transportation, Rodney!"
"Of course they are! They wouldn't drop you. And even if they did, they could fish you right out again."
"Ah!" Carson's hand flew up to wave in Rodney's face in a familiar gesture. "Fishing! The whales, fishing me! No, I'll have none of that."
"Oh, come on. Don't be such a baby. The mainland is where the good fishing is, and it would take forever to get there on one of the ridiculous little cockleshells that the Magic Division have decided pass for boats around here."
Noticing the way Carson hesitated, his eyes lighting up at the mention of good fishing, Rodney pounced. "I once got this kind of trout-fish the size of my leg. It had a little horn."
"A horn? Really? Have you told the marine -- uh." Rodney's eyes narrowed, and Carson cut himself off before he actually suggested that Rodney should cooperate with those public nuisances. Rodney was quite proud that his hatred for the marine biologists had become somewhat legendary.
"Really good fishing," Rodney reminded Carson, thinking of all the times he'd sat on the sun-warm cliffs over the rich waters at the ocean's edge, catching his own dinner while his pod browsed the local depths.
"Well," Carson said slowly, obviously weighing his next words carefully.
Rodney grinned. Next fishing trip, he'd have someone handy with the knife around to help him with all that infernal cleaning. He was about to suggest that Carson bring his best scalpels, when the healer's face shifted. Tentative anticipation gave way to startled worry, and his hand touched the pendant at his throat, acknowledging a call that hadn't gone out to Rodney.
"What -- has someone fallen into another hole?"
Carson ignored him to answer the call with short affirmatives. Then his eyes locked on Rodney. "He's here," he said. A short pause, and then "I'll tell him." He sounded far too serious, and the next words he spoke weren't directed at the pendant. "Rodney, it's John."
There was a moment when the weight of unthinkable possibilities bore down on Rodney with such terrible pressure that he reeled from it.
"He's been injured -- Teyla and Ronon just brought him in." Carson spoke the words like they were bad news, but Rodney found himself able to breathe again -- breathing was a good thing, too, because he needed the air to curse Sheppard for being the most accident-prone idiot in a whole City full of people constantly exploring new ways of experiencing bodily harm.
Thinking up new insults made him fall behind Carson when the healer took off with a swirl of his saffron coat, calling on his staff to prepare the scanner and then form a lesser circle. Carson positioned himself by the empty bed nearest to the door, and closed a hand over the twined snakes of his golden caduceus amulet.
In the midst of the urgent bustle, Carson was an island of calm and focus, his eyes distant as he spoke words that meant nothing to Rodney. This was the healer's way of preparing for high magic, and it took all of three seconds before it made Rodney snap. He made a passing nurse jump as he spun on her, demanding to know where Sheppard was and why Carson wasn't doing anything and why she wasn't in the circle with the others.
"Rodney." Carson's blue eyes bored into him from halfway across the room. "Don't make me toss you out of here."
He would do it, too, Rodney knew, and fought to swallow another outburst. He was extremely patient for the whole next minute, and his patience was rewarded when the tan-and-yellow emergency team wheeled in a stretcher holding one rumpled-looking Mage Third Class.
To Rodney's relief, Teyla and Ronon followed behind. Finally, someone he could talk to without getting rudely booted out of the infirmary. He rushed to meet them, and one of Carson's nurses herded them all into a quiet corner. "What happened?"
An odd emotion flickered across Teyla's face -- more than just worry, it resonated uncomfortably in Rodney. But her answer came with a tired sigh that held nothing out of the ordinary for this kind of situation. "As far as we know, he got into a fight."
"Again?" Rodney asked, incredulous. Really, Sheppard managed to antagonize more people than Rodney met. To be fair, if Rodney had been the one to wander the galaxy for the past year, they would probably have been in an all-out war with everyone by now.
Teyla and Ronon seemed to share his feelings, but after Rodney had fumed a little, and gotten the few details the other two could supply on what had happened to their friend, there wasn't much left for them to do. They took what seats were available to them, and waited. Sheppard's bed had been curtained off, so they couldn't see anything. Rodney didn't speak medicalese, but it appeared that while Sheppard seemed to be in need of a fair amount of poking and prodding and binding of amulets and muttering of spells, none of it caused any panic among the healers. Rodney took this to be a good sign.
Half an hour went by before Carson could break away from his swarm of talisman-wielding, herb-burning assistants and make Teyla stop suggesting that Rodney go take a walk. She had been using an increasingly firm tone, and Rodney was beginning to get quite annoyed with her weird fixation on his location.
"He'll be fine," was the first thing the healer told them. He looked a little tired, but his work was done -- his eyes had reverted to normal.
"That is good news," Teyla smiled, and Rodney and Ronon exchanged a look of pleased relief.
Carson nodded. "Mostly it was just scrapes and bruises, nothing out of the ordinary."
"But?" At Carson's confusion, Rodney elaborated, "He was passed out! It's Sheppard, he doesn't just go around fainting from bruises. There's got to be a 'but'."
"Well -- his collarbone was broken. We've managed to knit it, but he will be sore for a couple of weeks. No heavy exercise, nothing that could cause the seams to come apart." He said the last with a pointed look at Ronon and Teyla.
"That is what made him fall unconscious?" Teyla asked, obviously not convinced.
Carson hesitated, then shook his head. "You'll have to ask him when he wakes up, but I think it was magical exhaustion. He probably just overtaxed himself."
That was far less comforting than it should have been. Sure, beginners and those with weak talent would faint left and right when attempting even the most basic spells, but for all that he didn't really get magic, Rodney knew that Sheppard was both skilled and powerful -- much more powerful than he usually let on, and far too skilled to let himself get drained to the point of exhaustion in any normal situation. Rodney caught Ronon and Teyla exchanging a meaningful look. Obviously he wasn't the only one who felt Carson's diagnosis was cause for some alarm.
"Really?" Rodney asked. "Sheppard just -- did his thing, and then fainted from it?"
"Seems like it," Carson nodded.
Teyla took a step closer to him, and spoke in a low voice. "Are you sure that there was not ... something else, as well?"
A frown creased Carson's forehead. He glanced over his shoulder, where his team was still working on Sheppard behind the curtain, and then looked back at the little circle of people around him. His face smoothed into a practiced physician's smile. "No, lass," he said quietly. "He exerted himself, and collapsed."
"Fainted, you mean," Rodney said, sounding cheerful for the first time since Sheppard had been brought into the infirmary.
Teyla nodded, frowning a little. Carson studied her. "Did you look at him yourself, lass? You're more familiar with the magic of this galaxy than I am, and though your people don't have the magesight, I know that you have your own way of seeing."
She shook her head, a quick apology. "I did look at him briefly, before we brought him here. I was not even able to diagnose the broken bone. Healing magic is not my area of skill."
"Well, it was just a thought. We'll know more when he wakes up -- if it was magical exhaustion, he'll probably sleep through until morning, and wake up with no ill effects."
"Good!" Rodney hadn't made a new list of insults for nothing.
"Conscious and very tired, Rodney."
Strange how Carson had guessed exactly what had been on his mind. Rodney rocked back on his heels, anxious. "But we can still see him, right?"
Carson looked at him, then at Teyla and Ronon, and chuckled. Rodney had no idea what was so funny. "He'll be asleep for hours yet." As Rodney opened his mouth, arguments already marshaling themselves in his genius-caliber brain, Carson sighed, "Yes, you can stay for a while, but not the whole night through; there's no need for that, and it's not as if he's at death's door. The three of you need sleep, too. Try not to bother my staff too much, will you? I'll have them bring you something from the mess."
"Thank you," Teyla said, and then they were back to waiting. One of the supple, green-haired dryads working with Carson showed them to Sheppard's bed. The mage was so very inconsiderate, and annoying, and -- and really rather pale, looking downright sickly in the Healer's Guild yellow scrubs. Rodney didn't like that, at all -- it was all wrong. There were wooden amulets sewn into the scrub top, and into the bandages visible around his neck and right shoulder. Carson's work was top notch, but it still made Sheppard look like a very large wellness talisman.
Eating passed the time, as did chatting with Carson, whose infirmary grew empty of both staff and patients as the day wore on. Maybe it wasn't even day anymore -- Rodney hadn't really been keeping track when he came down here in the first place, having been busy working with Zelenka on adjusting the readings from the eastern observatory tower.
Time passed, and Sheppard slept on, oblivious to all the fuss his decision to get a new broken bone and then faint had caused. Rodney didn't approve, and he intended to tell Sheppard all about it, as soon as the messy-haired idiot woke up.
John came awake with a jerk, raising his magical defenses automatically and bunching his muscles to sit up. Pain shot through him, seemingly from everywhere; he fell back with a gasp.
"Easy there." A hand settled on his chest for a fraction of a second before jerking back with a startled, "Bloody hell!"
"Sorry," John said, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Carson was shaking his hand with an aggrieved expression. "Didn't mean to give you a shock. Reflexes." He let the gathered magic bleed out of him, back into the world. His thoughts were slow and foggy. "Infirmary?" he guessed.
"Aye, you were a bit of a mess -- looked like you'd gone ten rounds in the ring. We've got you on some light pain-killing spells to help you sleep." Carson reached out, a bit cautiously. "If you want to sit up a bit, I'll have Marie bring you a drink."
John nodded and let Carson help him to a sitting position and plump up the pillows behind him. His head was clearing a bit. The pretty nurse with long, leaf-colored hair brought him a cup of water, and he sipped gratefully. "So what's the damage, Doc?"
"Nothing serious," Carson said, dragging up a chair beside the bed. "Some deep bruising; we've healed the worst of it, but you'll be feeling it for a few days. Broken collarbone -- I'll thank you to keep away from vigorous activity for the next couple of weeks, until the bone-setting takes. I don't want to be seeing you back here until we unbind the spell!"
John smiled a little at the fond exasperation in Carson's tone. "I'll behave myself, Doc. Really."
Carson's answering smile fell away slowly, and he looked away, clasping his hands between his knees. "I won't be asking you what you were doing; I figure it isn't my business. But there's something else, something I found during the deep scans."
"Something medical?" John asked warily.
"I don't know." Carson looked back at him. "There was a -- it's not proper medical terminology, John, but the best way I can describe it is a sort of taint. I don't believe the attending nurses felt anything, but I felt it the moment I put my hands on you."
The memory of that cold, clammy touch rose up through the haze of painkillers and sleep; John tried to suppress a shudder. "A ... taint," he said carefully.
"As if you'd gone through a ward, or someone tried to put a spell on you and failed. But strange magic -- very strange. Nothing I've ever seen before." Carson raised his head, and the blue had expanded to fill the whites of his eyes, the pupils narrowed to slits. "I'd like to check again, see if it's gone. May I?"
Refusal would look suspicious; besides, Carson himself had admitted he didn't know what he was looking at. "Sure," John said, laying the empty cup aside carefully as Carson's cool hands settled on his arm, gently running across his skin. He could feel the slight tingle of the magic working on him, and had to exert a conscious effort not to repel it. Mages, especially combat-trained mages, were notoriously lousy patients; the urge to reject invading magic was deeply ingrained.
After a moment Carson drew his hands back, his eyes returned to normal. "I can't find anything now, but that doesn't mean there mightn't be side effects, especially if someone tried to hex you. This fight you were in -- I said I won't ask for details, and I don't plan to," he said quickly, as John stiffened. "As your doctor, I need to know if it was a magical duel. If I know what kind of magic was cast on you, I can check for interactions with the healing spells, or see if it might have gone to ground somewhere in your body."
"I don't think it would have done that." John wished for something to do with his hands; he hated these conversations, and it helped to have something to distract himself. Instead, all he could do was pluck at the blanket and look away from Carson's open, sympathetic face. "Did you -- does anyone else know about this?"
"Your friends, you mean?" Carson's voice was soft. Kind. "No. I felt you should be informed first. You ought to know, though, that I practically had to kick that lot out of here. Even so, Teyla and Ronon are spending the night in guest quarters on Atlantis. I'm sure they'll all be back first thing in the morning."
John could literally think of nothing to say. "Oh," he said at last.
Carson reached out and patted his leg through the blanket. "You have good friends here, John, whether you believe it or not. And I assure you that nothing between us will leave this infirmary. I'll be able to treat you better if you can tell me what happened, at least the magical side of things. I won't judge you; believe me, whatever happened to you, I'm sure I've seen worse."
John's hand knotted into the blanket. Force of habit told him do not trust. But now that he'd come face-to-face with the Wraith, seen what they could do, his stomach went cold at the idea of that malevolent presence attacking Teyla or Ronon or Rodney. He wasn't supposed to discuss his mission with anyone. But the Wraith were out there. If the rumors could be believed, there were a lot of them out there. The expedition was likely to come into contact with them sooner or later, no matter what John did. And Carson, as a healer, might be able to handle them in a way that most people couldn't.
"Have you heard of Wraith?" he asked cautiously.
Carson frowned at him. "Some kind of spook, isn't it? The Athosian children talk of them sometimes. I gather it's something the parents use to frighten them into behaving, keep them out of the woods, that sort of thing. Some sort of bogeyman, only imaginary, or a creature that's gone extinct."
John gave his head a short, sharp shake, then regretted it when his collarbone twinged. "No. They're real. I had a bit of a run-in with one."
Carson was silent for a moment; John didn't volunteer information, waiting to see what shape the questioning would take. Finally the healer said, "That's what roughed you up?"
"No. It was a mob that got me. Don't ask," he added with a sigh. "But what set them off was a Wraith -- well, there were more than one, I think, though I only saw the one. It tried to ..."
He paused, trailing off, replaying in his head how it had risen from the corpse and sailed towards him -- the cold, slimy soap-bubble sensation on his skin -- the way it had leapt to another body in the crowd. In all his magical studies, he'd never read of a creature on Earth that could possess a person instantaneously. Demons of all species needed an invitation to enter a living host; that was why demon lore was rife with stories of temptation. But this ...
No wonder the residents of the Pegasus Galaxy wouldn't talk about them. He tried to imagine living in the shadow of a creature that lived to spread pain and destruction, a creature that could leap from body to body. Maybe the stories of Wraith draining life from their victims were more than mere stories, too. This time he couldn't hold back the shudder.
Carson was still listening patiently. "It attacked me physically," John said at last. The details would have to be reserved for his superiors on the Council -- and he would need to report to them very soon, now that he had something concrete to report. How much could he reveal? "It touched me -- felt like ... like the way a poltergeist feels if you get too close to it, a little bit; have you ever experienced that?"
Carson shook his head.
John hesitated, and when he spoke, he spoke in a rush. "I think it was trying to possess me. I saw it take control of someone else. I'm still not sure why it couldn't -- or didn't. But it must have left some kind of psychic residue behind."
"They can possess people," Carson said slowly.
"Did you kill it?"
"No," John said. "And I don't know how many more are out there."
They looked at each other for a long moment. Finally Carson said quietly, "How much of this is to be public knowledge?"
"None of it," John said immediately. "Like you said, this doesn't leave the infirmary. I need to talk to my superiors before I do anything."
"Sumner and Woolsey?"
John just gave a non-committal shrug.
"I'm going to need to do some research on this, if I'm to treat it. Or ... exorcise it, as the case may be."
"No," John said sharply. At Carson's startled look, he clarified, "The data on the Wraith that we have on Earth is classified. Searching for it will flag you. Besides, there's nothing useful in there -- everything that we have pre-dates the closing of the Pegasus-to-Earth bridge, and it's mostly rumor and hearsay anyway."
Carson studied him before saying softly, "You know a lot about it."
"Yeah," John said. The acknowledgment hung in the air between them, a fragile promise of trust. It was more than he had extended to anyone in a very long time.
"What about the Ancestral computers here on Atlantis?" Carson said at last. "Most of the information is still inaccessible to us, but Rodney's been helping the science division decode it. Any particular reason why I couldn't search through what we've got for anything useful?"
John hesitated. Before, he had stayed away from the databases because he didn't want to get Rodney involved any more deeply than he had to. The latest developments might force him to seek new avenues of information, but it was bad enough that Carson knew. He tilted his head a little in lieu of shaking it. "I'd rather keep it between us, for now, Doc. Maybe there's something in the part of the database that you guys have already translated. Later--if things change --" if the Wraith spread, if their existence couldn't be kept a secret any longer "-- maybe we could revisit that."
Carson nodded, and rose. "Well, you ought to sleep. I imagine you won't have much opportunity for it once those hellions descend on you in the morning." He paused, and then turned, and gripped John's uninjured shoulder lightly. "It's a lot of weight you carry. I expect there are people who would help you carry it -- if you let them."
John just nodded.
"Can I get you anything before I go? Are you hungry?"
His stomach was far too knotted to eat. "No thanks, Doc. I'll just catch some sleep, like you said."
Carson gave his shoulder a soft pat, and helped him settle back into a reclining position before slipping out past the privacy curtain. John watched him go, unable to decide if he was afraid for Carson -- or of him.
On Earth, the mere existence of the Wraith was classified at the highest level. John was starting to see why -- now that he'd seen what they could do, he imagined that the portal to Atlantis would be closed and sealed in a heartbeat if word got out to the general public that the Pegasus Galaxy harbored monsters such as this. Sharing even as much information as he had with Carson could be considered treason, if the Magic Division found out about it.
John quietly set up a few small wards around himself: simple stuff, and he knew it was just a sop to his paranoia -- considering that the infirmary was the most heavily warded part of Atlantis, inside and out -- but it was easier to close his eyes once he had set a bit of protection. Despite the sedatives, sleep didn't come easily; he had never enjoyed meditation all that much, but he did know the basics, and managed to calm his taut nerves and tangled mind enough to drift away.
His dreams were uneasy, unrestful -- Atlantis with her halls dark, stalked by silent, gliding Wraith. Finally he gave up on sleep and lay awake, staring at the ceiling with gritty eyes, as tired and aching as if he'd never slept at all. The privacy curtain made his bed feel claustrophobic, and he tugged it aside, needing to be able to see out. The dimmed lights in the infirmary told him it was still very early. He tensed at the soft sound of footsteps, and even when he could see that it was just Marie coming to check up on him, it was difficult to relax.
The dryad listened sympathetically as he put on a rueful smile and explained that he always had trouble sleeping the first night in a new place. After he promised to be back at the infirmary for an examination first thing after he rested, she brought him a fresh uniform, changed a few of his amulets, and allowed him to head back to his own quarters.
John fully intended to take the shortest route to his room and let himself collapse into bed. The kind of beating he'd taken yesterday would take a while to get over, and the healing was still sending tiny tingles through his aura. But his mind was preoccupied with thoughts of a possible Wraith threat, and he wondered if maybe he should risk getting Rodney involved, if there would be anything useful in the mass of unprocessed information on the Atlantis databases.
Dawn was splashing warm colors through the windows he passed, but the night's dark dreams didn't fade with the coming of the light. And either he was more tired than he'd thought, or more restless, because the room he found himself outside was not his quarters. This was the lab that Rodney had largely taken over, where he liked to work on his own arcane project when the other scientists wasted their time on sleep and downtime.
John palmed the door open, and the smell of fresh coffee pulled him inside before he could collect his thoughts and consider his motivations in seeking Rodney out.
"What are you doing here?"
"Hi, Rodney." John peered around the lab. They were the only ones there, which allowed him to relax a little.
"Yes, hi -- weren't you just injured? And in the infirmary?" Rodney's brow drew down into a frown, and he was ignoring the three laptops he had been working at when John entered.
"Nurse signed me out," John said distractedly, his attention on Rodney's coffee.
Rodney sighed deeply, then went to get John a cup. "And she told you to go bother me in my lab at the crack of dawn?"
John shrugged a shoulder -- the one that wouldn't hurt.
"So, are you here for any other reason than to beg coffee off me?"
John stiffened. Rodney had given him the perfect opening. He could answer that there was something he needed help with. Could ask Rodney about databases. Could suggest that Rodney look for certain words -- or could explain everything to him, and have Rodney figure things out and give him the information he needed, the way Rodney always got things figured out. He could get all the knowledge the Ancestors had possessed -- if he got Rodney involved. If he told Rodney the truth about what he had been sent to Pegasus to do.
John's mouth had gone dry, and he had to swallow once before he could speak. "Nah."
"Thought so," Rodney said with a snort, and thrust a full, steaming cup at him.
John reached gratefully for it -- and Rodney snatched it away with a yelp. "Wait!"
John blinked. His hand had followed the cup, and was now curled around Rodney's fingers. They both froze like that before Rodney could spill any of the hot liquid.
"Um, I -- are you sure the caffeine won't mess with your healing?" Rodney stuttered, his eyes very wide, and very blue.
Like an idiot, John shook his head. It took a twinge of pain to remind him why that was a bad idea. "No, it's fine, Rodney. Just -- give me the cup."
Rodney did, carefully, and ordered John to sit. He looked like he thought John might fall over and spill the precious coffee all over his work. The way Rodney's hands fluttered nervously about John until he was safely seated made his mouth twitch in a smile. He wanted to say I'm fine, but a jolt of pain when he shifted brought the memory of Wraith, and would have made those words a lie. Wraith -- and he'd almost brought them to Rodney's attention. Entirely illogical though it was, he had the thought that doing so would have brought Rodney to the Wraith's attention. And illogical or not, he couldn't let that happen.
Rodney had stopped hovering, and was cheerfully typing away on one laptop while the other two crunched numbers. John watched him work, studying the planes and angles of Rodney's profile, and belatedly remember to sip at his coffee.
"Hey," he said, focusing his attention on the screens like he hadn't just been staring silently at Rodney. "Are you working on that whale math?"
"Your uneducated guess is surprisingly correct," Rodney said, frowning at something on the screen.
Since there was no further reaction, John decided to go for something that he knew would get Rodney's attention. "So -- are those Pam's equations? They look like hers to me."
Rodney went rigid, and he spun his chair around, flailing madly until he managed a single word.
John leaned back in his chair with a smirk.
"You -- I told you to stop naming them! They're whales, not dogs!"
Smirking a little wider, John lifted his shoulders in a tiny shrug, until a warning twinge of pain made him stop. "I gotta call them something."
"They have names," Rodney huffed. "Whale names. Telepathic concepts, utterly impossible to translate into human speech, which I've explained a dozen times, and you can't just go around giving brand-new names to people. It doesn't work that way! It's -- it's not respectful! How would you like to be called 'Bob'? Does she even look like a Pam to you? Wait ... which one are you calling Pam now, anyway?" He smacked himself in the forehead. "Now you've got me doing it! This is why you're never allowed to name anything, ever! And how do you think you can possibly recognize an individual whale's math? Your pathetic human brain can't even understand whale math!"
The tirade went on, but John wasn't listening to the words. He simply grinned, and watched Rodney's hands and Rodney's mouth. For a while, the familiar sound of Rodney's railing could almost make him believe that everything would be fine.
Ronon liked the sky in Atlantis. It was almost always clear. Blue, with a bright sun that scattered its light across the waves and the shining towers. He had been to the City in the middle of the Athos winter, and in the humid height of its summer, and always found Atlantis to be cool in the shade and warm in the sun. Constant. And the winds here -- lively and strong, dancing around the tall spires, tasting of salty spray when they shot up from the waves, and of the vastness of clean air when they came sweeping down from the places where the high winds lived.
Atlantis was a good place for someone like him, with its tall, slender towers sporting balconies and windows -- places you could come to feel the sky without even taking flight. The kind of place he needed right now, to escape the cramped feeling of the artificially lit spaces he had left behind. Like the room where Teyla was discussing the terms of her peoples' service as guides, where Woolsey would be trying to negotiate her down to a smaller payment than last year, and she would refuse, and they would circle around each other in a complicated dance he had never cared to learn the steps to.
Usually, he would have sought Sheppard out to do some sparring, or gone to see if Rodney had any new movies in his collection. He would have felt at ease in their company. But ever since Sheppard had come stumbling through the Athos portal a couple of weeks past, something had changed.
The next day they had met up in the infirmary. Teyla had tried to get Sheppard to share the tale of what had happened to him, but he had shrugged her off. They were not in the habit of pushing each other to talk, so Ronon had been surprised when Teyla simply found another way to ask whatever question she seemed to need answered. He had been even more surprised when Sheppard shook his head and pleaded exhaustion -- clearly an excuse to avoid any further questions, even though Carson came running to scold them for tiring his patient.
That had been weird. The days after Sheppard came back from reporting back to Earth were even weirder. Sheppard hadn't been back to Athos once since his trip to the Milky Way, and in Atlantis he used his injury as an excuse to avoid any kind of sparring. That wasn't like the man Ronon had grown to respect over the years. First running out of power, and now this -- slinking away? Whatever had happened to him through the portal, it was bad. Worse than a beating, worse than being forced to use a spell too many.
Teyla knew it, too, even if she wasn't talking to Ronon about it. Ever since the infirmary, Sheppard and Teyla had danced around each other in a completely different dance from what Teyla did with Woolsey, or any other of their trading partners. Different because here Ronon didn't have the faintest idea what their motives were. That, at least, was usually easy to understand, but here he wasn't even sure the dancers themselves knew what they were doing -- if they knew that they were doing anything at all. If it was anyone else, he might have thought it a symptom of repressed attraction, of hidden feelings bubbling to the surface, but -- there was nothing positive about the undercurrents of tension he could pick up the few times the two of them were together. Nothing happy.
Even Rodney had noticed that something was up. He had confronted Ronon and Teyla and ordered them to stop traumatizing Sheppard in training, because he didn't want to have to wait for someone to find a cure for testosterone for them to be able to catch up on the new episodes of Firefly. While Rodney had been gratified to know that neither of them had been doing any traumatizing, it was clear that he thought that Sheppard's behavior was strange.
Over the past year, Ronon had found himself able to relax in the company of the three of them. Whatever had changed now, being together with Sheppard and Teyla put him on edge, and he hated the feeling, viciously. The lack of that comfortable ease with which they fit into his life -- that was more than just unsettling. It brought thoughts more claustrophobic than even the windowless chamber the Earthers used for their negotiations. Which was why he had come up here, to breathe the wind and feel the sun on his face.
Ronon spun on his heel, wings thrown wide and gun in hand before the word resolved into anything more meaningful than an unexpected noise behind his back.
"Sheppard," he growled, seeing the mage slouching in the doorway.
"Yeah. Sorry for startling you." Sheppard disentangled himself from the shadows spilling out from the corridor behind him, and wandered over to lean on the balustrade. He tilted his head into the wind -- a casual motion, but Ronon could sense the tension under that studied looseness. Something about the set of Sheppard's shoulders, the way his hands flexed around the edge of the rail -- if this had been a stranger, Ronon would have been preparing for a fight.
Since it was Sheppard, Ronon put his gun away. He didn't fold his wings. "What do you want?"
A small smile quirked the edge of Sheppard's lip. "Maybe I just want to enjoy the view," he suggested mildly.
"No." Ronon didn't know what kind of game Sheppard was playing, but the man's presence here was no coincidence, and Ronon didn't do games.
"But it's a nice day," Sheppard protested. He gave Ronon a sidelong glance. "It's what you're doing."
"I'm getting air," Ronon explained, while he debated the merits of picking Sheppard up to see if the mage would make more sense upside down. For two weeks Sheppard had avoided their company, and now he had found Ronon to -- discuss the view?
"Yeah, well -- so am I. Getting air, just like you." Still all casual and relaxed -- still with tension written between every line.
"No." Ronon crossed his arms. If Sheppard wouldn't say what he wanted to say, what was the point in listening?
"What?" Sheppard blinked.
"Not just like me."
"No," Ronon said with a smirk, and with a single beat of his wings he'd leapt up on the balustrade. He was still facing Sheppard, and saw surprise flicker into amused understanding as Ronon took a step over the edge, and fell.
There was a giddy rush of speed. Ronon folded his wings tightly along his back, plummeting along the tower like a bird of prey diving for the kill. But he wasn't chasing anything waiting in the waves below -- what he sought was coming, rushing up to meet him. He caught the gust of wind in the wide span of his wings, rode it as it crashed into the tower and was forced up and up, and he beat his wings, racing the wind and winning.
The balcony he'd recently vacated dropped below him, and he let the wind slide over him, wings working to keep him hovering in place as he looked for Sheppard.
Ronon threw his body into a corkscrew, coming out of it with a few ruffled feathers and his gun out, again, to find Sheppard standing on top of the tower above him. No -- hovering. Levitating, with a smirk of his own.
"You know, I think I like your way of getting air," Sheppard said in conversational tones.
Ronon put his gun away with a disgusted sigh. "Fine." He rose in the air, finding another updraft to lift him until he was higher than Sheppard -- higher than the portal tower. The sun beat down on him, and the sound of the surf carried faintly from below. The whales of Rodney's pod looked like minnows where they were circling the South Pier.
Sheppard followed him up, gliding through the air with a complete disregard for gusts and currents that Ronon had always found a bit disconcerting. Ronon rode on the living, ever-changing wind, while Sheppard slipped through it like a blade; the mage couldn't match Ronon's speed, but he flew with steadiness and grace, drawing level with Ronon on the high air far above the City's gleaming towers.
Up here, it was as if the wind had stripped all artifice from Sheppard. There was no lazy smile, no empty words, just a tired sort of tension, as if his body had forgotten how to relax. His dark hair whipped around his face, first revealing, then concealing the mirror of his eyes.
And Ronon suddenly knew that, whatever Sheppard had come up here to say, he did not want to hear it. The life that he had tentatively begun to rebuild around himself, after Sateda's fall, seemed as fragile as a shell of glass. One false touch would shatter it.
"Race you," he said, and folded his wings into a dive.
It was the ultimate adrenaline rush. His ears popped and the wind screamed through his hair; he plunged towards the growing sea, towards the circling, curious whales, until he spread his wings with a thunderclap and felt the shock through sinew, muscle and bone. His feet clipped the tops of the waves as he pulled out of the dive and skimmed through an archipelago of sleek gray bodies before landing atop the nearest whale; it obligingly spread out its flukes and held itself rock-steady for him.
"I really hate you!" Rodney yelled, surfacing not too far away in the middle of the pod. "Both of you! Where's my laptop? Oh ... thanks ..." One of the whales popped to the surface with Rodney's specially reconfigured, waterproof laptop balanced on its nose.
Rodney had a habit of lying on top of a sunbathing whale to do his coding. He tended to become oblivious to the world when he did that. The whales looked out for him, but they didn't consider being dive-bombed by your friends to be a threat on the same order as, say, sharks. It was exactly the way the whales played with each other, after all. Sheppard and Ronon had both taken advantage of this on more than one occasion.
"It would be less tempting if you weren't such an easy target, Rodney," Sheppard drawled. Ronon looked around to see the mage hovering a few feet above the waves. Only Sheppard could manage to lean on thin air and look natural doing it.
"Go away, both of you," Rodney snapped, scrambling back onto the nearest whale. "Man working."
Ronon flashed Sheppard a grin, and was pleased to get a small, answering grin back. "Fly to the mainland?" he asked. "Good day for it."
"I could use the exercise." Sheppard threw Rodney a jaunty salute as he rose above the pod. "Stay dry, McKay!"
"With no help from you," Rodney muttered, settling back down with his laptop on his knees.
Ronon leapt off from his whale, spreading his wings and taking off in a long slow glide. This time it was his turn to catch up to Sheppard, but it was more easy, more companionable, without the tension that had hung between them earlier. Ronon set a slow pace that he knew they'd both be able to keep up for hours. Below them, the sun glittered on the ruffled sea, handfuls of diamonds scattered to the horizon.
"I didn't want to talk on Atlantis," Sheppard said suddenly.
They were several wingspans apart, but Ronon could hear him clearly through the communications pendant. "Yeah?"
"I'm doing you a favor here," Sheppard muttered, going confusing again. "If you decide to kill me, they'll never find my body -- you could say it was a freak magic accident or something."
Ronon blinked. "What?"
"I mean ..." Sheppard's eyes were hooded, his mouth an unhappy line. "Did you know that Carson thinks the Wraith are a story made up to frighten children?"
At the mention of Wraith, Ronon swept himself in the moment like he would sweep his wings around himself on cold nights. There was the sun on his face, good and warm and alive even when he closed his eyes, when it danced red sparks behind his eyelids. He could feel the open sky above him, and hear the safe ocean beneath him, and smell the salt on the strong wind all around him. There was nothing but this, now, here. Sheppard's words were just words. Curious words, too. Ronon opened his eyes, and found that Sheppard had casually allowed himself to drift closer to Ronon, close enough that he could have reached out a hand to touch an extended wingtip.
When he spoke, Ronon's voice was rough, but puzzlement was the only emotion in the now, so puzzlement was all anyone could hear in it. "Made up?"
There was still something wary about Sheppard's stance, but a little of the tension drained from the lines around his mouth. "Yeah."
Ronon tilted his head quizzically. "Why?"
Sheppard shook his head. "Because -- it's how we are." His voice was tight with some emotion -- frustration or apprehension, Ronon couldn't tell through the pendant. "We've come here, and we don't listen. Most people don't even think there is anything to listen to --"
"But you do." It was not a question.
"Yes. I do."
Ronon buried himself in the sensation of his sun-soaked skin cooling in the breeze. Outside this patch of light there was a chilling darkness, one he would not allow inside, but he had to know -- "How?"
Sheppard's jaw worked, his lips pressed together. "I can't say," he said finally.
Ronon was beginning to see why Teyla had been annoyed with Sheppard lately. "Why?"
"I can't, because if I do ... " Ronon frowned. Sheppard's voice wasn't coming through the pendant right now -- the words he heard were spoken over the sound of waves and wings. They were close enough that he even heard Sheppard sigh. "It's not safe. Even out here ..." He spread his hands. "I've taken an oath, Ronon. I can't. I'm sorry."
Ronon nodded, slowly. Oaths, he could understand.
"Well," Sheppard had gone back to using the pendant, and he was speaking in a light tone. "It's an interesting cultural difference, don't you think?"
"Yeah," Ronon said, his eyes narrowed on Sheppard as he ignored most of the thoughts about lies and subterfuge and orders that might have flitted through his mind. "Interesting."
"Maybe Teyla would be interested in discussing it?" Sheppard suggested.
Maybe Teyla would finally punch Sheppard's lights out for being such a pushy pain -- even if his motives were decent enough, from what Ronon could gather. "If you think so," he said with a snort. Besides, wouldn't that oath Sheppard had mentioned keep him from explaining everything to Teyla? If it was something that meant that he couldn't talk to any outsiders -- "Maybe you should talk to McKay about it."
Sheppard dipped sharply for a second, like someone caught in a downdraft. But Sheppard's magic wasn't affected by the winds; and even if it had been, there had been no such current there. Ronon raised an eyebrow.
"No," Sheppard said shortly, jaw tightening as he dismissed Ronon's suggestion out of hand. He was flying steady again, but his lips were an unhappy line. "No," he said again, more slowly. "McKay doesn't have clearance; if he found out there was something going on it'd be impossible to keep him out of the databases, and then he'd get flagged."
Ronon thought the explanation was only partially for his benefit. "Right."
Sheppard accepted Ronon's reply for the change of subject that it was, and shook his head ruefully. "I think the only discussing Teyla wants to do right now includes sticks."
"Yeah." Ronon paused. "But she'd listen to you while she beat you," he offered.
Sheppard's head dipped in a little nod, and the corners of his eyes crinkled with a smile, a quick flash of happy satisfaction, just like any other time they shared some private joke.
They spent the afternoon in the shallow waters along the mainland, fishing as Ronon's people had traditionally done for sport -- dropping from the sky, knife in hand, to stab the fish that leaped on the waves. On Sateda, they'd used a sickle-shaped weapon as long as a man's arm, but the fish had been much bigger and spinier. Here, the smooth Lantean fish were easy enough to stab with the knife; it was just a matter of coordination and speed. Ronon caught two fish, Sheppard caught one, and Ronon blamed it on Sheppard's sad excuse for a knife -- a glossy ceramic thing that didn't burn his skin as regular metal did.
They built a towering, wastefully huge bonfire on the sand, and roasted their catch as the wind turned cool and fingers of color began to creep up the western horizon.
"It's a nice planet," Sheppard said out of the blue, as they lay in the warm sand under the purpling sky and picked the finger-thick fishbones clean.
"Yeah." Ronon had spread his tired wings in the sand, letting the warmth seep into weary, aching muscles.
Sheppard looked as if he wanted to say more, but this time, bit it off and sat up. He gestured along the beach; the mountains came down to the sea here, thrusting thousand-foot-high rolls of basalt out into the waves. "Rodney says there are caves along the cliffs here; he's seen 'em from the sea, but couldn't climb up to them. Want to go look?"
Ronon gathered in his sprawled wings; he might be worn out from the day's flight, but there was a spark of friendly challenge in Sheppard's glinting eyes, and damned if he'd be the one to back down. "Sure."
They were both tired, and flew slowly up over the foothills of the mountains, looking down at the thin white line of the surf beating itself endlessly on the cliffs. Sheppard pointed suddenly. "There."
The caves were impressive, all right -- a series of huge gaps in the cliff face. Some were nothing more than narrow clefts in the rocks; others had arching ceilings and floors soft with sand left over from eons past, when the sea had been higher or the mountains lower. Some of the caves sheltered hanging gardens of opportunistic mosses, grasses and even trees; others held the nests of squawking shorebirds that fled before them; others were empty and barren.
"This is seriously cool," Sheppard said, balancing on the lip of a cave so wide that an entire division of Satedan wingsmen could have landed without losing a feather. "We need to show Rodney and Teyla this place. I bet some of these caves are low enough that they could climb up to them, or you and I could fly them up here. And no one knows about them, no one but us."
Ronon eyed him suspiciously in the growing darkness, but Sheppard's face was turned away. "It's always good to have a place to go," he said finally. "If you need a place."
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "It is."
Nightfall curtailed their explorations, and they flew back under a crystalline blanket of stars. Ronon ached down to his bones with the pure sweet pain of a long day's hard work. At his side, Sheppard skated silently on the wind, slicing through the warm updrafts from the ocean -- in the world, but not of it, just a little bit apart.
"Sheppard," Ronon said.
In the starlight, Sheppard's head cocked, just enough that Ronon knew he was listening. They couldn't see each other's faces. It was better that way.
"In the old days," Ronon said at last, "my people used to hold burnings -- we'd round up folks we thought were ... well, we called it 'taken'. Throw 'em on a bonfire. We quit doing it long ago. Not civilized. Lots of planets still do."
They flew in silence for a time, before he spoke again. "Point is, you can't tell. Who's been taken, who hasn't. We live with it, in this galaxy, because you can't -- can't go around thinking about it. But it's always somewhere in the back of your head. You don't know. Your people ..." He hesitated and pushed on, admitting with a rare and naked honesty, "I can't imagine a world where that isn't true."
"I don't want to see it happen to my world," Sheppard said quietly.
The lights of Atlantis were just visible on the horizon when Ronon spoke again, his voice quick and harsh, a stranger's voice speaking words without meaning. He had never spoken of this to anyone, never meant to speak of it -- he'd pushed it down into a dark place in his mind, and wrapped it around with the eternal, ever-present now. But Sheppard had to know -- had to know what his quest, whatever its purpose, could cost them all. "Nobody talks about what happens when they -- when a lot of them crowd together in one place. That's when worlds fall, Sheppard. Something happens. Everything living ... dies. Nothing grows on a world after that, not for generations. If you want to understand this galaxy, understand us, understand them -- you need to see what it's like, after."
He always carried a small sketchpad and pencil in his pocket, a habit he used to keep before the fall of Sateda and had slowly picked back up again. Banking in the air, he made a slow sweeping circle around Atlantis while he quickly wrote the symbols of a portal address with hard strokes that tore the paper. Symbols he would never forget; symbols he hadn't visualized since his world was lost to him, along with all that he'd ever loved.
Sheppard came up from beneath, soft and stealthy on the air, matching velocities and gently taking the paper from him. He didn't say thank you, didn't say anything at all, but his fingers brushed Ronon's as he took it.
They parted on a balcony, still with no word spoken, but Sheppard slapped Ronon on the shoulder, smelling of woodsmoke and fish and salt.
Ronon expected nightmares, but they never came -- his sleep was the deep sleep of exhaustion, and nothing more.
It took John four days to find an opportunity to check out the portal address Ronon had given him. He was used to having near-total freedom of movement around the galaxy. Sumner didn't like it much, but Woolsey knew that John needed to be on a long leash to pursue his mission, and under the guise of forging peaceful relations and exploring the galaxy, he was given much more autonomy than the official portal teams.
But ever since his encounter with the Wraith on Darwya, people had started acting funny around him. Teyla, Rodney, even Carson were ... well, clingy didn't seem the right word, especially as applied to Rodney, but it was difficult to shake them off, particularly without raising suspicions.
And Woolsey wasn't helping matters, sending him on a variety of small makework trips, insisting that he use his downtime to catch up on the paperwork that he habitually tried to avoid, hedging over re-authorizing John for field work. If he didn't know better, he would almost think Woolsey was deliberately trying to throw roadblocks in his path.
He finally got an opportunity, though: paperwork done and neatly piled on Woolsey's desk, he headed off to Athos for (officially) a day of R&R to let his broken collarbone finish mending before Carson cleared him to resume his normal activities. But as soon as he got there, he turned right around, laid his palm across the portal stone and visualized the address for an uninhabited forest planet where he'd sometimes gone hunting with Ronon.
Teyla and Ronon were back at the Athosian village, and, so far as he knew, not due to check in with Atlantis in the near future. Rodney thought he was on Athos. He should easily be able to vanish for a couple of hours, long enough to do some poking around, before moseying down to the Athosian village. It wasn't like they were actually comparing notes on his whereabouts -- at least, he didn't think so.
In the still green solitude of the forest, John checked his gear. He was kitted out in his usual traveling clothes: black mage's uniform with his favorite Athosian coat over it (neatly patched and cleaned by Teyla, despite his insistence that the rips and stains made him look more badass). He wore his favorite ceramic knife at his hip, and a smaller one in his boot; his pockets contained sundry small items for minor spellwork. Many mages used a staff or other object of power as a focus for their spells, but John had long since found that he worked better without. He did, however, have a set of bantos rods in their crossed sheaths on his back -- one of the pair that Teyla had made for him, balanced and spelled to sit lightly in his hand and his hand only, and to replace its lost mate, a temporary one that she'd given him from the village. It might just be his imagination, but John fancied he could feel the difference between them, one lighter than air and tailored just to him, the other a blunt and ordinary stick of wood.
He slid a pair of shades over his eyes, and the forest took on a dusky cast. Slipping briefly into magesight, he centered himself on the steady aqua-green auras of the trees' ancient lives, their slow deep heartbeats thrumming on the edge of his awareness. Through magesight, the portal ring was a nexus of glimmering lines of force, running off into the forest in all directions. Even inactive, it hummed with energy.
John laid his hand on the portal stone and visualized the address Ronon had given him, the address he assumed was for Sateda. He felt the usual slight twinge as the portal drew a negligible amount of power from his own life energy to open; for mages, who were used to channeling and controlling energy, such a drain could be quickly and easily replaced from the ambient life around them. Normal people found the portals slow and tiring to operate, though John had never heard of anyone having enough of their life drained to be injured or killed. The Ancestors -- My ancestors, he thought with a touch of wry humor -- had built the portal rings well, and built them to last.
The portal winked to life in front of him, almost blinding in magesight even through the shades. John drew a breath, and prodded lightly through the portal, feeling out the environment on the other side. Farsight and other forms of distance probing had never been his thing, but this was worse than usual; he couldn't see a thing, and the most he was able to ascertain was that there was breathable atmosphere and nothing actively exploding.
And there was something else, too. He'd never felt anything quite like it -- a sense of numbness, of deadening, as if the invisible eyes and ears of his farsight were wrapped in a wet, clammy layer of cotton ... and it was getting wetter, clammier and heavier, moment by moment.
John yanked back quickly, breathing hard. For an instant, he thought about leaving. Stepping through the portal back to Athos. Coming back with Ronon, Teyla and about fifty soldiers -- or, maybe, not coming back at all.
But to do that felt like a betrayal of Ronon's trust in him, and of his own duty to his homeworld and to Atlantis. He'd come here for information, not to fight, and he could learn a lot more as one man, alone, than he could if he came through the portal with a small army.
Still, letting the portal close, he took the time to prepare a small spell that he called "speed dial" in his head; he'd perfected it over the past couple of years in the Pegasus Galaxy. He imbued it with the portal address of the world where he stood, and poured enough energy into it to open a portal and to maintain its own substance for a few hours, carefully weaving it around the fingers of his right hand. It would enable him to instantly open a portal away from Sateda, back to this world, without the usual concentration and preparation time.
Back on Atlantis, he'd taken advantage of his downtime to prepare a couple of fairly complex spells, meant to allow him rapid movement and a low chance of detection. In order to make them invisible to magesight (giving him away both to Woolsey and to anything he might encounter in the field) he'd taken the extra time and effort to hide them; he could feel them gently tingling away under his skin, drawing trace amounts of energy that he had to continually replenish to shore up the cracks in the gently unraveling spells.
Letting the magesight drop -- he'd learned the hard way that it could be more of a distraction than a help if he was going to walk into a combat zone -- he opened a new portal to Sateda, and stepped through.
The transition was instantaneous, as always. One moment his booted foot left the springy carpet of pine needles on the forest floor, then a burst of cold and vertigo assailed him, and his boot came down on rough gravel. He dropped immediately to a crouch, his Athosian coat billowing around him, his magic shields glittering faintly green. Nothing moved, though, nothing but the flickering light of the portal, and that died when he released his control over it and let it wink out.
John straightened slowly, and looked around himself at Ronon's homeworld.
The first things that struck him were the flat gray light and the absolute silence. The day appeared to be heavily overcast, and in the distance a dull mist obscured some of the far towers of the city, though no rain fell. And it was quiet, beyond quiet -- the utter stillness was like nothing John had experienced before. Even in the quietest places he'd been (Antarctica, the desert, the underground offices of the Magic Division) there had still been an assortment of faint and distant sounds. Here, no water ran, no wind blew, no snow or sand shifted. Nothing moved or spoke, flew or sang. He had never seen a place so utterly dead. Even the air had no smell, beyond an odd, metallic tang that lay heavily on the back of his tongue.
The Satedan portal was located in the middle of a small flagstone plaza, only about a hundred feet across. Once, it appeared that a grand stone arch had dominated the portal, but now it lay in huge chunks of masonry around him. John's feet crunched on bits of broken stone -- even that sound seemed muffled in the still, dead air -- as he walked to the edge of the plaza and looked down into a chasm so deep that its bottom vanished in shadow. It must have been a couple hundred yards wide, and it encircled the plaza, a barricade that would have stopped anything that came through the portal on foot.
Of course, the Satedans could fly. Such a barrier would keep out their enemies while posing no hindrance to them.
John looked across the chasm at a city that clearly had not been designed or built by landbound beings. It reminded him of Atlantis, a little, in the airy grace of its architecture, the spires and platforms, the high, dainty bridges. But many of the high spires, like the arch over the portal, lay in pieces; the far-off, fog-draped towers of the city were ragged and full of gaps, like broken teeth. Just visible to John's left, a huge glass dome that must once have been as lovely as a giant Christmas ornament now showed jagged holes, nothing within but darkness, its luster gone dead in the gray, directionless light.
John realized that he was holding his breath. He let it out slowly, and with it, his shields; there was no point in draining his energy when there was nothing to protect himself against.
And yet he couldn't shake the creeping sense that he wasn't alone. He found himself casting glances towards the portal, over his shoulder. The light here held an odd quality that he associated with oncoming thunderstorms and cloudy winter days -- diffuse, shadowless, deceptive. He couldn't judge distances accurately, and he kept thinking he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, only to turn his head and see nothing but fallen chunks of stone.
Stepping back from the edge, his foot crunched on the gravel with a little pop -- and, bending down to look, he realized that what he was stepping on ... wasn't just gravel.
It was bone. Tiny fragments of grayish bone, scattered across the plaza like sand.
John's stomach lurched and he instinctively flinched away, but there was nowhere to step that wasn't on top of something that might once have been a friend or classmate or mother or sister of Ronon's.
"You need to see what it's like, after," Ronon had said.
I've seen, Ronon, John thought, looking around him as a shiver ran over his shoulders. It hadn't felt cold when he'd first stepped through the portal, but the longer he stayed here, the chillier he became, as if the dead world was reaching for his living heat. I've seen. Can I leave now?
But he couldn't. Not yet. This was the first world he'd visited that had been truly touched by the Wraith. Somewhere on this planet, there had to be answers -- answers to what the Wraith were, why they spread, how they could be reasoned with, or stopped if treaties weren't possible. That was why he'd come here, after all: to this place, to this galaxy.
John reached out for magical energy, gathering it to him to fly across the chasm. It came, but sluggishly, weakly, the normal flood attenuated to a trickle. That wasn't too surprising. Everything had a little energy in it, even rocks and mountains and, of course, the roiling heart of a planet. But the most easily accessible energy was that of a living ecosystem. Even deserts teemed with life, most of it invisible to the casual observer, but still pumping off little bits of their lifeforce into the environment around them, their auras flaming away gently as their metabolism replenished it. This was what John and other mages of different types relied upon for their magic. Here, though, nothing lived, nothing grew. He'd expected that he'd have to reach deeper for energy to work his spells, down to the very bones of the land.
But there was more to it than that. As the magic came, in slow reluctant eddies, it felt -- strange. John's gut roiled, and he had to swallow hard to keep his breakfast down. It was like drinking warm, brackish water to sate a desperate thirst -- the first gulp was all right, but each additional one tasted worse. He hadn't know it was possible for magic to be tainted, but this magic felt bad.
Carefully wrapping himself in just enough energy to get airborne, John wafted across the chasm, glancing down as he went over. Heights had never bothered him at all, but the phenomenal depth was something new. He had to blink his eyes several times to dispel the illusion of movement in the shadowy depths.
On the other side of the chasm, John touched down on a balcony atop a spire, obviously designed for that purpose. Dead plants curled around the ornamental railing, so brittle that they shivered to dust where his leg brushed them. Looking back at the portal, he shifted briefly to magesight to examine the magical currents of the place.
What he saw was -- beyond description.
One of the tenets of magical theory was that powerful emotions leave a psychic footprint on the landscape. He'd seen it for himself on battlefields, the distortion and darkening of the magical threads that wove the warp and weft of his world. An old friend of his who worked as a police psychic -- she had the sight, but not John's ability to manipulate energy -- had told him that she could identify a crime scene by the traces that a murder or rape leave on the aura of a place. A feeling of wrongness, she'd said, and John, from what he'd seen, had to agree. It was one reason why many of the more sensitive mages disliked being in large cities; there was simply too much bad energy about.
John had been in killing fields and torture chambers, but he'd never seen anything like this.
Every surface in sight glistened with a rippling, oily sheen. It clung tackily to walls, buildings, dead trees and time-eroded bones, glistening with a peculiar not-light. It hurt to look at, vibrating in his vision like the shaky no man's land between two bright colors on a badly designed sign.
And it wasn't just visually repugnant. One thing he'd never successfully managed to explain to non-mages was that magesight didn't just encompass sight. He wasn't sure if it was some weird kind of synesthesia, or something else, but looking at the world through faery eyes changed more than just what he saw. On Atlantis, for example, he sometimes heard the clear, distant strains of alien music or smelled a scent that made him think of stones after a summer rain. And he felt safe there, content, in more ways than could be explained simply by the presence of people he liked and trusted.
This -- this was the discord of music played out of tune; it was the reek of rotting corpses burst open in a hot desert sun; it was the cloying taste of spoiled food that you had to eat or starve; it was a friend's voice raised in hatred, a mother's hand raised in anger. A feeling of wrongness, his psychic friend had said, talking of the shuddering taint she'd felt in a room where a child had been raped -- but this was wrongness pure and distilled, wrongness that didn't just warp the magical world, but pulled the physical world slowly after it.
In some places it clung in a thin film; in others it pooled, dark and deep and shining, and in those places it moved, a horrible slow rippling that could only be seen when he didn't look directly at it.
There was nothing to look at, nowhere to rest his burning, stinging eyes; his gaze dropped to his hand resting on the railing, to see hungry tendrils of the slimy film crawling over his fingers. It was already on him, all over him, a dark oily taint barely visible except in the way it made his skin and clothing oddly reflective, making light that cast no shade and shadows where there should be none.
He gave a hoarse yell and yanked his hand away, choking on nausea and horror, letting the magesight fall away. The cold slimy feeling remained, though he couldn't tell if it was psychological or not; all he knew was that he was chilled to the bone and trembling.
He used his own life aura to summon up a palmful of magefire. Even that flickering green light seemed subdued, guttering wanly under the gray shadowless sky. John let it crawl over him, licking away the taint, warming him despite its lack of heat.
Again using his own energy, though he knew it would tire him quickly, he rose from the balcony, unwilling to allow himself to touch anything in this dead city for a moment longer. The air itself was probably tainted as well, but he should be all right for the brief time he had planned to stay.
He remembered the words of an old-timer in a farming village where he'd managed to find a few locals willing to talk about Wraith. "They ruin the land," the old man had said, chewing with his few remaining teeth on a leaf of the local coca-like drug of choice. "Won't nothing grow and herd-beasts get spooky, get sick. Babies born dead. You can't live in a place after the Wraith have been. Don't take nothing with you from a place like that, neither. It'll only bring trouble."
Silent as the dead buildings, John drifted past once-lovely towers and aeries, over desiccated rooftop gardens. Flying on his own power was as tiring as a fast jog, and he felt himself growing wearier. But the longer he stayed, the more his stomach twisted at the ever-growing slick sensation on his skin -- which he was more and more positive wasn't just his imagination -- and the more sure he was that he'd never manage to work up the courage or foolhardiness to come back here.
There had to be answers here somewhere.
He saw more bone fragments, here and there, gleaming dully on perches and porches hundreds of feet above the ground. There were no whole bodies that he could find, only bits and pieces, broken bones and scraps of cloth so decayed that they might have been laying here for centuries rather than a few years.
Looking up towards the horizon, he was startled to see that the fog -- which he'd thought was just a weird atmospheric effect -- had begun creeping closer while he explored. The edges of the city were gone in soft kitten-gray all around him. Slowly it had begun to fill the canyons between the high buildings.
John had a strong feeling that it wouldn't be a good idea to still be in the city when the fog reached his part of it.
As he flew low over one of the rooftop gardens -- the plants crumbled and their fragments strewn about in disarray, much like the dismembered and destroyed bodies elsewhere -- a sound reached him: a dry rustling, very soft, something he might not have even noticed if it hadn't been the only sound he'd heard since stepping through the portal, besides his own.
Curiosity warred with caution. He could see nothing from the air. Circling again, he touched down lightly, one hand in front of him. He gathered the pre-hung movement spell around him and visualized the Satedan portal in its plaza, preparing for the force that would tug him instantly straight back there if anything threatened or attacked.
The roof garden was larger than it had looked from the air. He'd flown over a few more-or-less intact gardens, but most were like this one: ceramic plant holders shattered into shards, dirt scattered in swathes and dried to dust, plants ripped to shreds. The whole city looked like a tornado had hit it.
Picking his way carefully among broken crockery and around waist-high stone walls, John found a two-tiered fountain at the garden's heart, long since run dry as the magic or technology that had powered it no longer operated. The central figure of the fountain was a sculpture of a slender, athletic-looking woman with her wings half-spread, holding a pitcher that would once have poured water into a large basin drifted with dust.
From behind the fountain, the dry rustling came again. It might have only been the sound of wind scattering the plant fragments, except that here, there was no wind.
And John could smell something -- something new. It was a faint sickly reek, vaguely familiar.
He drew the bantos rod that Teyla had carved for him, and kept his other hand up and out, reading to hurl a fireball or jump back to the portal -- whichever the situation should require.
On the other side of the fountain, he found more of the same mess that he'd seen elsewhere: broken crockery, fallen walls, scattered gardening tools and the odd personal effect -- a child-sized shoe, a pendant stone from a necklace. And, in the middle of it, lay a Satedan, the first one besides Ronon that he'd ever seen.
It was clearly dead, and long dead at that. It lay facedown in the wreckage, the half-skeletized remnants of its wings arching over a body clad in rags. The flesh had withered and fallen off its bones, clinging here and there, especially where it was partly held together by the remains of its clothing. The nearest outflung arm reminded John horribly of an over-cooked turkey leg; the protruding bones that he could see were thinner and lighter than he would have expected for a person of that height. Ronon had once told him, in a rare burst of openness, that Satedans had evolved a lighter, stronger bone structure than most humans to go along with their aerial lifestyle.
Maybe the sound he'd heard had been the rotted wing-feathers rustling, or something.
When one of the outflung hands moved, John almost zipped back to the portal on his movement spell in a reflexive flinch. He did jump backwards, putting more distance between himself and the corpse as it gathered its arm under its torso, shedding more partially-mummified bits of flesh as it raised its head.
All that John could do was stare.
Its face was a ruin, and patches of skull showed through sparse wisps of once-pale hair on its scalp. There were no eyes in its sockets anymore, but he could see the twitching of the muscles that had once moved them. Its jaws opened and closed, and a rasping, guttural sound emerged from its throat.
It was trying to talk.
All that John wanted to do was run, or fly, as fast as he could, as far as he could. Instead, he switched to magesight, bracing himself.
There was no telltale living aura flickering around the corpse. It was truly dead. But inside it, visible in flashes through the gaps in the withered skin, spilling out like the oozing fluids of decay, he could see and feel a presence. He'd felt its like once before, in Darwya. There was a Wraith animating the corpse.
The only thing that kept John from immediately taking flight was the obvious fact, clearly visible through his magesight, that the Wraith was as bound to the corpse it wore as John's own soul was bound to his body. Unlike the Wraith on Darwya, which had floated in and out of its host, this one was laced through the rotting bones and decaying muscle of the dead Satedan it had possessed. Whether it had simply gone too deeply, or whether there were ways to kill the host body and trap the Wraith, John couldn't guess -- but his fertile imagination rendered up images that were all too clear. And dreadful.
Letting go of the magesight, he fell to his knees as his stomach finally rebelled and brought up what little he'd eaten that morning. Shuddering, he started to bring up his hand to wipe his mouth, only to stop with revulsion and stare at his fingers, which had been in full contact with the tainted ground.
Staring at him blankly from empty sockets, the Wraith-possessed corpse slowly dragged itself nearer to him, one weak and clumsy movement at a time. Now that he knew what it was, he could feel the cold pull of its hunger even without the sight.
"No," John said hoarsely, and he gathered the oily, taint-slick magic from around him, forming it into a ball in the palm of his hand, releasing it at the corpse with all of his horror behind it -- and, maybe, just a little pity.
The green magefire washed over the body, burning it quickly and cleanly until it shivered into ash, forming the dark outline of a human being with wings outspread to the sides. John shifted very quickly to magesight, but the Wraith was gone as well, burned up with the corpse it had inhabited. The place where it had been looked very bright through his faery eyes, a single clean spot in a corrupted world, though the taint was already starting to creep back to reclaim it.
Well, at least they could die.
John couldn't stop shivering. Looking up, he saw that the fog had come much closer while he'd been preoccupied with the Wraith. It lay in an impenetrable gray wall, its nearest edge cloaking the buildings only a few hundred yards in front of him.
It might just be normal fog, maybe heralding an oncoming storm front that might begin to wash the city clean. But he wasn't about to take that chance. Unwilling to spend the time or energy flying back to the portal, he loosed the movement spell; the garden blurred around him as he skimmed over the ground, a train engine steaming along invisible rails until he arrived at the stone plaza of the portal.
Turning around swiftly, John saw that the fog was even closer here -- tendrils were already creeping into the chasm with implacable, glacial persistence. He started to reach for the portal stone, then paused and reached down inside himself, dredging up more of his own clean life energy with a wrench of effort.
"Don't take nothing with you from a place like that, neither. It'll only bring trouble," the old man had said. Maybe it was just a superstition, but he'd touched far too many things here, and he wasn't about to be responsible for introducing this taint of horror to the living forest he'd left.
Green magefire licked swiftly over his body, enveloping him from head to toe. The effort left him so exhausted he could barely release his "speed dial" spell. The portal sprang to life, too bright by far in this dead gray place. As the leading edge of the fog reached the rim of the plaza, John stepped through, and away.
He stumbled out into the forest, and fell to one knee, trembling. He went to magesight without even thinking, and examined his hands, his arms and legs and chest, looking for traces of that oily gleam. There was nothing, but he gathered energy from the forest around him, and did another cleansing, and another. His skin tingled as if it had been scrubbed with a wire brush, but still he didn't feel clean, and he knew that if he tried to eat anything it would come right back up.
John knew from his trips with Ronon that there was a stream and pool not too far from the portal. Picking up Teyla's bantos rod, he walked swiftly, letting the energy of the forest soak into him and replenish what he'd lost. He still felt sick and shaky, like he'd had a bad bout of the flu, but after a quick bath in the icy mountain stream, he at least didn't feel as if he'd been rolling in dogshit.
Still stripped to the waist, he sat on a rock by the stream and allowed himself to relax and center. It wasn't exactly meditation, more of a way of getting in tune with his own energies and rearranging anything that was out of kilter -- a sort of magic chiropracty. Some mages could heal themselves or others that way, even those who weren't healing-gifted like Carson. John couldn't do that, but he could at least smooth and align his own aura, like stroking scattered iron filings with a magnet until they all pointed the same way.
He felt a little better when he was done.
"Now what," he said aloud to the forest.
The more he learned about Wraith, the less he wanted to know about them. One thing he was starting to realize, though: the Council's naive hopes of negotiating with them, achieving some sort of peace treaty that would allow Earth to trade and colonize in this galaxy, were so much smoke on the wind. No wonder the people of the Pegasus Galaxy looked upon the Wraith as a sort of natural disaster, a force of destruction that could not be mitigated or stopped -- only avoided. John hoped to do a little better than that, but the same weapons and strategies that had been effective during the War back in the Milky Way were clearly not useful here. Any attempt to treat this war the same way was going to end in disaster.
He hadn't wanted to report to Woolsey about his trip to Sateda; he owed Ronon better than that. But if nothing else, he needed to travel back to Earth again, and see if he could have a word with Archmage Weir. He trusted her more than anyone else on the Council -- which honestly wasn't saying a whole lot, but she'd always dealt straight with him in the past, and he thought she might listen.
Rising, he gathered his things and walked swiftly back towards the portal.
It was late afternoon in Atlantis, warm sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. The difference could not have been more startling, and for a moment John just stood still at the bottom of the portal chamber stairway, letting the peace of the place sink into him.
Then he climbed the stairs and gave small nods to the apprentices on portal duty as he headed for Woolsey's office.
The small, balding mage glanced up from his computer when John paused in the doorway. "Oh. Sheppard," he said briskly. "Just wait a minute, would you? Have a seat."
John found a chair in silence, and waited for the other mage to finish whatever he was working on. Later, he could not have said why he slipped into magesight. Maybe it was general paranoia, maybe some deep flash of intuition that he didn't know to credit. But he did it without thinking, and around him the walls of Atlantis developed their characteristic traceries of light, and Woolsey's aura flamed gold and orange around him.
If John hadn't just been to Sateda, if the deep-rooted horror hadn't been fresh in his mind, he might never have noticed the oily sheen glissading across the edges of Woolsey's aura. It was so subtle that he probably would not have seen it, if he hadn't just witnessed the thing in its full-blown manifestation.
Woolsey raised his head, and John had never been so glad of his shades as he switched back to regular eyesight, had never been so glad of the lifetime's practice at hiding his emotions that kept his face smooth, his mouth straight.
Woolsey's lips curved in a slight smile. If there was a Wraith moving those lips, it was a whole lot better at play-acting than the Wraith on Darwya. Or maybe it was just a fast learner.
It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. Not here on Atlantis. But after Sateda, he could not mistake that weird soap-bubble gleam.
"What can I do for you, Sheppard?" Woolsey asked -- or the thing wearing Woolsey's face.
John's thoughts scurried around his head on little mouse feet, and what came out was: "I wondered if it would be a problem if I took a couple more days, sir. Teyla and I did some training on Athos just now, and I'm not feeling a hundred percent. I know I've been pushing to get back to field work, but I think you and Carson are right -- I'm not quite ready yet."
Woolsey looked -- pleased? "That's fine, Sheppard. Take all the time you need."
"Thank you, sir." John rose, his body moving on autopilot, then paused. "It wouldn't be a problem if I spend that time on Athos, would it? I'd like to get back into bantos practice, and I can't keep Teyla from her duties with her people. Also, I heal more quickly without so much iron around." The latter wasn't exactly a lie; it was technically true, but Atlantis was so iron-free compared to most Earth cities that it didn't make much difference. However, he'd found that invoking his fae heritage made an excellent excuse for almost anything; most people were uncomfortable enough with the topic that they didn't push the issue.
Woolsey waved a hand and went back to his paperwork ... or whatever he was doing with the computer. "Yes, yes. That's fine."
John didn't dare risk another glimpse at Woolsey with magesight. However, as he left Woolsey's office, shades firmly in place, he couldn't help looking around a little. And there it was, the last thing on Earth or Atlantis that he wanted to see: a slight dark ripple on the surface of one of the portal mage's auras.
Maybe there was another explanation. Maybe a few people had come in contact with places that were contaminated as Sateda had been; there could be many places throughout the trading worlds with that sort of contamination. But ... no ... Woolsey and the portal apprentices never left Atlantis. Unless it could be transmitted from person to person by touch, that wasn't possible.
On his way to his quarters to gather a few things, John passed one more person, a soldier, who also had the weird, oily sheen. It was stronger on him, and easier to see, though John still wasn't sure if anyone who didn't know what to look for could spot it. The soldier didn't acknowledge him, but walked straight by; John had to step out of the way so as not to touch him.
He blindly opened the door to his quarters, closed and locked it, then sank onto his bed and rested his head in his hands.
There were Wraith on Atlantis. And, for all he knew, on Earth as well -- and he had no idea how long it had been this way.
The terrible, guilty thought assailed him that maybe they'd followed him back through the portal from Darwya. If that was true, then Athos would be tainted as well. But maybe not -- maybe one of the portal teams had encountered them, and come back with a Wraith riding shotgun in someone's head.
There was no way to know. And he didn't have a single idea of what he was going to do about it.
Rodney had been an official consultant to the Atlantis expedition ever since he promptly hacked into his file in the database and made himself one, a few weeks after the expedition invaded his City. It just seemed utterly senseless that he was doing half the work of the science division while not technically having clearance for any of it, and he'd quickly gotten tired of Woolsey or Zelenka (in a rare assertive mood) trying to keep him off interesting projects for stupid little reasons like not having clearance to work on them.
After a couple of months, it had somehow propagated itself up the chain of command -- he wasn't precisely sure how, but he suspected Sheppard had been involved -- and he'd been reassigned from lighthouse keeper to "science consultant". It didn't pay very well, but he'd never cared about the money. He could publish papers on Earth now, and he'd been doing just that, in between keeping the idiots on Atlantis from sinking the City or blowing themselves up.
And when he wasn't doing that, he worked on the project that was going to make him the most famous scientist since Newton, Nostradamus or Tesla. In his heavily encrypted notes, it was codenamed the Whale Project. He had hidden it in a little-used subdirectory of the biologists' branch of the file tree, nicely protected by a safe defensive coating of squishy pseudosciences. He figured it was the least they could do for him and the whales, after being a persistent thorn in his pod's side ever since arriving in the City.
He would never admit it, but the vaguely abstract idea of winning the Nobel Prize (and wiping the smug looks off the faces of everyone who thought a home-schooled kid from another galaxy couldn't even finish his freshman year of college -- ha!) paled in comparison to the thrill of finally beginning to reach the point where he could discuss mathematics as an equal with his pod. The elders in particular were impressed with his progress, and with the new uses that he'd found for some of their more esoteric equations. Math, to them, was an entertaining thing to do with their giant brains while they swam through the depths, and not something that had any real-world applications beyond the obvious utility of fluid dynamics and so forth. (Even the dullest fluid dynamicist among the whales made Earth's brightest physicists look like barnyard animals.)
But Rodney was finding things to do with it. Oh, was he ever. He wasn't sure if the whales had originally learned the fundamentals of math from the Ancestors, or if it was the other way around, or if maybe they'd both reached similar findings on their own. But whale math, he was positive, was the key to unlocking the secrets of the portal network, a mystery that had baffled the greatest mages and mathematicians in all of human history. Only, the McKay-Whale Portal was going to be better. He was pretty sure that he was on the verge of developing a working prototype that could open a stable wormhole without a portal on the other end. Once he went public with the Whale Project, forget the Nobel Prize; they'd give him the keys to the --
"Ack!" Rodney almost faceplanted in his keyboard. He whirled around and glared at the mage. "Working here!"
Sheppard didn't offer his usual lazy grin. Instead, he grabbed Rodney by the shoulders in a viselike grip, and leaned so close that Rodney could see Sheppard's eyes, behind his dark glasses, doing that weird catlike thing.
"What the hell, Sheppard?" he demanded, but at a fraction of his usual volume, because Sheppard looked drawn and exhausted and just a little bit panicked. He was wearing what Rodney thought of as his "road clothes" -- the Athosian coat was over his uniform, and there was assorted crap hanging from his belt: a first-aid kit, a couple of knives, and various little satchels. He looked like he was expecting to go on a trip.
After a little more staring, Sheppard visibly relaxed and let him go, and, almost as an afterthought, patted him lightly on the shoulder. This just made Rodney more suspicious than ever. Something was clearly up.
"What's going on?"
Sheppard leaned a hip on the edge of Rodney's worktable and looked around the lab. It was almost dinnertime, and everyone had vanished to the cafeteria except for one tired-looking botanist typing up her notes in the corner. She could not possibly have heard them, but Sheppard dropped his voice anyway -- which was strange, especially considering that all he said was, "Just got back from Athos with Teyla."
"And this is worth pulling me away from my work, why?" Belatedly, Rodney remembered why Sheppard had gone to Athos in the first place -- supposedly he wasn't healing up properly from being hurt, or something. Ronon and Teyla had both sworn that they didn't have anything to do with it, but he wasn't sure about that -- they'd all been acting weird. "Uh, I mean, how are you doing?"
"I'm pretty good." Sheppard looked around again, then with an air of almost calculated normalcy, he leaned over Rodney's shoulder, as he often did. "More whale math?"
"Yes," Rodney said shortly. He'd spent a couple of frustrating evenings trying to explain the McKay-Whale Theory of Matter Transportability to Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon, only to decide that humans still weren't as smart as whales. The one person he could probably have discussed it with was Zelenka, who also happened to be the one person he absolutely wasn't going to discuss it with. Zelenka might be able to understand enough of it to steal his notes and win the Nobel instead.
"Looks interesting," Sheppard said, squinting at the screen. His head was so close to Rodney's that his long hair tickled Rodney's neck. Rodney could smell him -- a warm spicy smell, with hints of dust and soap. It was very distracting.
"Sorry," Sheppard said, and then, very soft, his breath ghosting against Rodney's skin, "Do you remember that place Ronon and I told you about, with the caves? Just nod."
Rodney, rather stiffly, nodded. "What's going on?" he asked out of the corner of his mouth. "You've been very strange lately. This, by the way, is also very strange."
"I'll tell you everything," Sheppard said, sotto voce. "Tonight. After dinner, I want you to take Teyla out there on the whales. Ronon's already going. I'll meet you guys there."
Clearly insanity was contagious, because Rodney muttered without moving his lips, "And you can't tell me now, why?" Actually it emerged as something more like, "And oo can't tell ee naaa, hyy?" but he thought Sheppard was smart enough to get the idea. Not whale-caliber, obviously, but bright for a human.
The botanist was clearly watching them now, over the top of her computer, her hands absently pecking the keys every once in a while. For some reason, Rodney felt a quick chill shiver down his spine. There was no logical reason, and yet ... he'd been getting a lot of creepy stares lately, come to think of it. Like people on Atlantis had nothing better to do with their precious worktime than gawk at the people who were actually working. He needed to talk to Radek about discipline in the labs. And maybe change his deodorant.
"I just can't." Sheppard sounded exhausted and frustrated at once. "Not on Atlantis. Tonight." A little louder, he added, "And you've got a misplaced variable there."
"I do not, and your degree is in what, Doctor Sheppard?" Rodney demanded. He turned around just in time to see Sheppard disappear out the door, his coat flaring behind him.
"Yes, fine, I'll be down to dinner in a minute!" Rodney snapped after him. He wasn't sure what made him say it; maybe it was the way the botanist's eyes continued to linger on him, and followed him as he folded up his computer and followed Sheppard out the door.
There was no sign of Sheppard at dinner, but Teyla was there, at a table by herself in the corner. Rodney joined her with a loaded tray. She looked up and gave him a quick smile.
"Sheppard's gone insane," Rodney said conversationally, shoveling food into his mouth.
"I almost hope so." Teyla picked at her roll.
"What's that mean?"
She shook her head. Neither of them talked much after that; Rodney brought out the computer and continued to work on his notes, while Teyla dissected another roll and a helpless muffin.
When there was no more food to distract him, he looked across the table at her. "So, uh."
Teyla left off vivisecting her dessert and reached across the table to clasp her small, callused hand over his. Rodney was instantly suspicious. "It has been a long time since I have been swimming with the whales," she said.
Great. Everyone had gone insane except for him. "Okay."
"May we tonight?" she prompted after a moment.
It turned out to be almost an hour before he could get free -- some of the geologists wanted to ask him if he could have the whales examine a particularly interesting seafloor vent north of the City (the answer was no); Zelenka wanted his advice on the newest sewage routing protocols, which were supposed to prevent a repeat of the Incident We Do Not Speak Of last January; and when he'd almost made his getaway, the portal mages wanted his advice on some sort of weird energy fluctuations in the shield.
By the time he made it down to the East Pier, Teyla was waiting for him, sitting fully clothed on top of a whale that was sunning itself in the evening's last rays. "The entire City would fall apart in about ten minutes without me," Rodney said testily, as he skinned out of his too-constricting clothing -- except for the swim trunks; there was, after all, a woman present, even if it was only Teyla -- and slid into the water. The whales bumped him affectionately, with painstaking gentleness.
"Has the City not been afloat for ten thousand years without you?" Teyla teased, lying down on the back of her whale.
"Which doesn't mean it couldn't sink at any moment, especially if someone pushes the wrong button!" He swung up onto the set-theory whale with the waterproof laptop tucked under his arm, made himself comfortable and opened it.
"I hope that you know where we are going," Teyla said.
"They do." Rodney jerked a thumb at the whales. With his mind open to them, relaying Sheppard's imprecise instructions, he was assured that they knew precisely the part of the coast he was talking about.
The pod cruised in silence through waters blazing with sunset's ruddy light. The trip to the mainland took about an hour at whalespeed; Rodney worked on his portal theory, while the mathematicians around him cheerfully corrected his equations with a great deal more accuracy than Sheppard.
For some reason, he was distracted tonight, and not even the whales could engage him. After making a series of amateur mistakes, he folded the laptop and stared up at the stars slowly emerging from the purpling dusk. Finally he said, "So, do you have any idea what Sheppard wants to talk to us about?"
"I have a theory," Teyla said, with a sigh.
When she didn't elaborate, he prompted, "Well?"
"It is ... vulgar, to speak of."
Ah, right. Them. The Athosians didn't have many hang-ups about bodily functions or sex, but their one giant taboo was discussing the Wraith. As a child, playing with the Athosian children on their trading visits to the City, Rodney had learned of the Wraith from them -- stories told and retold in hushed whispers, filled with the lure of the forbidden. As an adult, Teyla wouldn't talk about it anymore, and now she had that look in her eyes.
But he'd also learned that trying to push her just made her clam up, so he said, "Oh."
Tonight, though, Teyla seemed to be in a chatty mood. She rolled over onto her side on the broad, stable back of the whale, tucking a hand under her cheek. "I believe that John has been avoiding Athos." She heaved a sigh. "He wanted to discuss something with me, but every time he tried to broach the subject, I made it clear that I did not wish to speak of it. I fear that I was rather rude to him."
Rodney tried to imagine Teyla being rude to anyone. "I'm sure he ... uh, understands."
"He is afraid," Teyla said, so quietly that he could barely hear her above the waves slapping the whales' broad sides.
Sheppard. Afraid. The whole idea was bizarre. And yet, in the lab tonight -- yeah. Something had been wrong.
The low murmur of surf alerted them to the nearby coast. The whales turned and swam along the low silver line of the beach until it began to rise in a rugged series of cliffs. Then they threaded their way delicately through reefs glittering under the new-risen moon, and let their passengers off onto a thin strand of rocks jutting out into the sea.
"Be careful!" Rodney fretted as he slid down into waist-deep, warm water. "Don't beach yourselves!"
The whales assured him that they were well aware of the depth of the water, and also perfectly capable of unbeaching if they did get temporarily stranded. The tide was coming in.
"Well, whatever. Just be careful."
A muted thunder of wings alerted Rodney seconds before a low-flying Satedan nearly clipped his head and landed on the pebble beach next to Teyla. "There's a trail up that way," Ronon said without preamble.
"Great," Rodney snapped, mincing over the rocks in his bare feet. "A trail where?"
"A trail to the caves." Ronon pointed, and then leapt into the air and took off again.
It actually turned out to be an easy climb, and the warm breeze dried the salt water on his skin. At the top of the trail, they emerged into a wide cave with an arched ceiling and a soft, sandy floor. A soft blue glow on the floor turned out to be a can of Sterno with Ronon kneeling over it, his wings folded in a shapeless dark lump above his shoulders as he stirred something that smelled fishy and good.
"Thought you two might be hungry," Ronon said.
"We ate." Rodney started to sit down on the sand next to the Sterno fire, then discovered a camp stool, and sat on that, instead.
"I could eat, thank you," Teyla said politely, and began to poke around the cave. "What is this place?"
"It's a bolt hole," Ronon said shortly.
"A what?" Rodney asked. Looking over at Teyla, he saw that she was kneeling beside a stack of boxes, curiously holding up a can to the moonlight. The more he looked around, the more stuff he saw: sleeping bags, tarpaulins, a folded tent, a couple of boxes with the Healers' caduceus on them.
"It's a place to go," Ronon said, "for people that need somewhere to go."
Teyla joined them. Even in the dim light, her face looked wary. "Where did these things come from?"
"Unused supplies. There's a lot of spare stuff the expedition's not using," Ronon said. "Sheppard and I have been bringing it out here, when we get the chance."
Ronon lifted a shoulder, his dreadlocks whispering against his open-backed shirt. "I don't think so. Sheppard handles that end, mostly."
"Why?" Rodney asked simply. It seemed best to start with the easy questions.
"I don't know. There's something Sheppard's scared of. He wanted to have a place where people could go, in case things got bad on Atlantis."
Teyla looked around. "Is Sheppard here?"
Rodney raised his head, in the act of opening his laptop. "Yeah, he's supposed to meet us here, right?"
"I was expecting him already," Ronon said, and dipped a spoon in the soup. "Food's done."
They ate metal bowls of fish stew and bars of Earth chocolate, talking little, while, far out under the glittering moonlight, the playful whales broached the sea. Eventually Teyla rolled out three sleeping bags, and the three of them lay at the lip of the cliff. Teyla and Ronon talked quietly while Rodney worked on his math and, when the equations started to turn to meaningless symbols, played Battleship against himself until he started losing.
But Sheppard never came.
Teyla did not mean to sleep, but she finally dropped off near dawn, and woke with her face mashed against her arm, her hair clinging to her skin in sticky whorls. Raising her head, she blinked away the cobwebs of sleep, and looked down at the shadow of the cliffs stretching long and dark across the glittering sea. On the other side of the mountains, the sun had risen.
Rodney was asleep in an awkward sprawl on top of his sleeping bag, with one arm curled protectively around his laptop. Teyla stretched, then went and got a blanket from John's boxes of supplies, and draped it over him.
Ronon was awake, sitting in the mouth of the cave with his legs hanging down over the edge. Teyla joined him, stretching out the stiffness from her impromptu nap.
"Sheppard didn't show," Ronon said eventually. Stating the obvious wasn't like him; Teyla read the worry between the lines of the words.
"No," she said quietly.
He turned and looked at her, his golden eyes shadowed. "I shouldn't have sent him."
"Sent him where?" Teyla combed her hair with her fingers, arranging it into some semblance of order.
"Sateda?" she repeated, more loudly than she intended, and Rodney woke with a snort and sat up, his hair sticking off in odd directions.
"Complex-valued Lebesgue integrable functions! Uh. What?" He squinted at them and flailed around blindly for a moment, almost cracking his laptop on the cave floor. "Coffee! Where!"
Ronon rose, predator-silent, and quietly heated water while Rodney stumbled around in the cave, mumbling under his breath and hunting through the boxes. "What the hell? There's Spam but no cornflakes?"
"We had to take food that wasn't going to be missed," Ronon said, stirring instant coffee into the heating water. "Suck it up, McKay."
"I'm not having Spam for breakfast." He stomped over to the mouth of the cave with a small sack of Athosian tree nuts and munched on them while staring blearily out at the horizon. Rodney was not a morning person.
No one said much until they were sipping coffee -- or, in Teyla's case, tea -- and sitting in a row at the cave mouth while the shadow of the cliffs slowly shortened across the waves. Below them, a sleek gray back broke the surface of the ocean and then slowly subsided. "Yeah, everything's fine up here," Rodney said, flicking nutshells over the side. Teyla glanced at him before realizing that he was talking aloud to the whales, as usual.
The shadow of the cliffs continued to shorten as the sun mounted the sky. "I don't think he's coming," Ronon said, shifting his wings with a soft rustling of feathers.
The idea that something might have happened to John sent a cold spike through her stomach. They had all three known each other before he had come into their world. When had he become such an integral part of their lives?
"Ronon," she said, forcing the words past her reluctance. "You spoke of Sateda, earlier."
He gave a short, jerky nod.
"Much as I'd love storytime," Rodney said sharply, "we've got this little problem, with, oh, a missing Sheppard --"
"I gave him the portal address for Sateda," Ronon said.
That brought Rodney up short. He was still stammering when Teyla said, quietly, "Why?"
"You and I both know he asks questions," Ronon said, with characteristic bluntness. "Questions about things that shouldn't be spoken. I needed to show him the consequences of those sorts of questions."
Teyla nodded slowly. "I see."
"Well, I don't!" Rodney's voice rose on a petulant note. "He never asked me any questions."
Teyla reached out and patted his knee. "Rodney, you and I have known each other since we were children. Like all children, we told each other frightening stories when we were young. Do you remember those stories?"
He glowered at her. "Of course I do, and I fail to see what that has to do with the present situation unless you seriously believe that Sheppard was stolen by the Wr--"
Teyla raised a hand quickly, laying her finger across his lips. He looked down cross-eyed, trying to see it.
"There are many kinds of magic in the world," Teyla reminded him gently. "Some say that to speak a thing's name is to call it. Children do not know better. Adults do."
Rodney drew his head back to evade her hand. "Okay -- first of all, you know the whales have no idea what you're talking about."
Teyla did. Rodney had mentioned it when they were children -- the whales knew something had driven the Ancestors away from the galaxy, but in all their memory, no whale had ever encountered any of the fabled enemy. She had been shocked at the whales' opinion that the Ancestors had run from some kind of disaster of their own making. Later she had speculated with her teachers that it was possible that the whales' deep world lay somehow outside of the ancient evil's sphere of influence. But now was not the time to discuss the finer points of cross-species magical spectra, and she let Rodney move on to his next point.
"Second -- I know you guys believe in the whole naming is calling thing, but that's not how magic works. I mean, sure, there's sympathetic magic where you have hair or fingernail clippings of the --"
Again she silenced him with a hand. "Rodney. You have lived in this galaxy for most of your life, but you are not truly of it, and you studied on a very different world. I am a scientist; I've studied the runes most of my life."
Rodney's jaw assumed a stubborn angle. "Yeah, but you're talking about a kind of sympathetic magic that's not even --"
Ronon reached around Teyla to smack him upside the head. "Listen to the lady, McKay."
"Ow! I need my brains, you big ox!"
Teyla loved Rodney McKay like her own kin, but there were times when she wished very much for a handy bucket of water to pour over his head. "Rodney, ever since John has been in this galaxy, he has violated the deepest law that we know -- asking questions that should not be asked, speaking the name that should not be spoken. I have tried to control it as best I can, but I know that when he is by himself, he continues to pursue this line of questioning despite my efforts to convince him of its lack of wisdom. I thought at first it was merely naive curiosity, coming from a different world where things are not the same as for us. But he is so persistent, even in the face of danger."
Rodney left off rubbing his head where Ronon had hit him, and folded his arms. "So he's been running around asking questions, has he? And you think someone might have --" He paused, his mouth twisting as if he had to force out the words. "Er, disappeared him, because he's asking the wrong questions?"
That was honestly not what she'd been thinking at all. Teyla paused, startled. Perhaps Rodney was right; maybe it was just a human agency at work, after all.
But Ronon spoke up. "I think she's more worried that he might have found what he was looking for. Or they found him."
"Oh, come on," Rodney scoffed. "You're talking about Sheppard like he's some kind of -- of superspy or something, sneaking around in the shadows and falling victim to mysterious plots. He's just John Sheppard, Mage at Large." Then he paused. "Of course, he's been acting pretty weird lately, hasn't he?"
Ronon let out a sigh. "Glad it's not just me that thinks so."
"Nor I," Teyla added.
"Paranoid, right?" Rodney said.
Ronon nodded. "Scared, almost."
Teyla set her teacup aside; if she kept toying with it, she was likely to break off the handle. "I would not say that, exactly, but certainly as if something --"
"-- spooked him," Rodney finished for her. "He didn't want to talk on Atlantis; that's why he told us to meet him here. And he was totally freaked out about something last night -- "
"Lay you odds he went to Sateda," Ronon said.
"And you think he found the, uh --" Rodney paused, and looked nervously at Teyla. "Them," he finished lamely.
"Those who hunt," Teyla said quietly, using one of the many old epithets for the Wraith. Even those were usually spoken in hushed whispers; if you use a false name for a thing too many times, it becomes imbued with the power of its real name.
"Doesn't explain why he was freaking out on Atlantis," Rodney said.
It didn't. Teyla could think of a single thing that would. The cold dread that followed that thought didn't simply stab through her. It enveloped her with the kind of chill that froze the breath in winter, for all that it was a mild dawn. Her fingers went numb with it, and she struggled to master her fear. "What if he had reason to fear?" Her question -- or maybe the way her voice nearly wavered as she spoke it -- got their immediate attention.
"Fear what?" Rodney asked.
"The enemy." Speaking these thoughts was like summoning a phantom winter wind, one that raised goosebumps on her arms.
"What, on Atlantis?" Rodney was all incredulity. "We don't have anything like that in the City!"
Ronon's wings rustled. He didn't snap them open, but they were waiting, ready. Tense.
"Do we?" Rodney looked questioningly at Teyla.
"Maybe." Ronon's voice was even. "But it could be. It's the way it works -- you can't know, not for sure. Not until it's too late."
Teyla glanced over at the Satedan. He was looking at the sea stretching to the golden haze of the horizon. Calm, though he had never before spoken of exactly how his world had fallen.
"But we can't --" Rodney's head had come up, and there was something a little wild in his eyes. "If this all means that there is some kind of enemy on Atlantis -- I don't fight scary monsters! It's not what I do, I'm a scientist!"
"We don't need to fight anything right now, Rodney," Teyla said, hoping fervently that her words would prove true. "We only need to find John."
"Then let's go find him." Ronon stood up, the glossy feathers of his outstretched wings catching the sunlight.
"What? Now? But we don't know--"
"We don't know anything, but we're not going to find out more sitting around here."
Teyla nodded slowly. "We should at least return to Atlantis, and make certain that he has not simply been delayed, for some reason."
"But if he's not there?"
She fixed her eyes on each of them in turn. "Then we will search for him, and we will find him. No matter where he is."
Several hours later, Teyla was frightened -- and furious.
"He is missing," she insisted to Woolsey, across the gleaming expanse of his tidy desk. "He is not on Athos, he is not here -- he is not anywhere!"
Woolsey folded his hands and regarded her calmly. "How can you be so sure? He has a history of going off by himself; he's always been somewhat ... how would I put it? Unreliable?"
Teyla drew a deep breath, centered her energies, composed herself. "We had arranged to -- spend the day together. He would not fail to at least send word."
"Then he's never gone anywhere without consulting you?" Woolsey's eyes glinted behind his glasses.
There was nothing she could say that would not either be a lie, or confirm his slander of her friend. "For John's sake, I can only hope that you are correct, though I do not think you are," she said tartly, and pushed herself away from the desk without excusing herself.
Later, pacing through high-ceilinged corridors lit with afternoon sun, she discussed it with Rodney while they both munched on rolls from the dining hall -- for reasons neither of them could articulate, they'd both been uncomfortable in the noisy, crowded room. Ronon was gone; all he'd said was "I need to check out some places I know." One of those places, she suspected, was Sateda, but she hadn't been able to get him to admit to it or to take anyone with him.
"I have been unable to impress any sense of urgency on either Mage Woolsey or Colonel Sumner." Angrily, she tore a bite from the piece of bread in her hand, barely noticing the taste.
"Told you," Rodney said through a mouthful of muffin. "I've been wrangling with those idiots on a near-daily basis for more than a year. John's the red-headed stepchild of the Atlantis expedition -- er, that's a figure of speech," he added, at her startled look. "We don't really believe -- okay, listen, the point is that he comes and goes anyway, and nobody around here pays that much attention to it."
"And now we know why. He seeks information on the shadow walkers," Teyla said quietly. "It has been true since the beginning. The question I must ask you is -- who is driving this exploration? It must be his leaders, do you not agree?"
"You think the Magic Division sent Sheppard out to gather information on the you-know-whats?"
"Unless it is merely personal curiosity," Teyla said. They paused on a balcony, leaning on the railing in the slanting late-afternoon sun. The pod were not visible at the moment, but a lone seabird wheeled against the distant horizon. "Do you believe that, Rodney?"
"No," Rodney sighed. "He's obviously been following orders. He's so damned secretive, you know."
They watched the ocean for a while as the sunset's blaze of colors climbed the sky. And, for a change, it was Teyla who broke the silence, speaking softly with her chin resting in her hand. "I wonder sometimes what your parents' world was like, the world that shaped John and his people."
Rodney glanced at her, haloed by the sunset's light. She hadn't included him in the Earthers' group; she never had; and he felt a strange warmth. He wasn't Athosian, but she didn't think of him as other for all of that, and he'd never thought about it before.
Maybe because of all the unaccustomed squishy feelings, he couldn't get his thoughts wrapped around a coherent answer. "Different," he said at last, lamely.
She nodded, a slight smile quirking her lips. "So I understand. You do not speak of it often."
Rodney glowered at her resentfully. He wasn't happy about people trying to analyze him, even when "people" meant Teyla. Especially if she was right. "Sure I do."
"You have mentioned that the people there are not very intelligent." A teasing light danced in her eyes. "But you also say that about the people here."
"Well, it's true," he said sullenly.
Teyla smiled and touched his arm. "I do not mean to upset you. I know that your family lives on Earth, now. Do you ever miss them?"
Rodney shrugged, looked away, at the darkening sky and the dusk gathering over the water. "Not much."
They stayed up late that night, Rodney sprawled on his bed and Teyla lying on an afghan on the floor, throwing out and discarding theories, each one more terrifying and paranoid than the last, until they fell asleep where they lay. As he drifted off to sleep, Rodney realized that Teyla hadn't mentioned his family again; she did know when not to pry.
That night, for the first time in years, he dreamed of Jeannie.
"Do you ever think about your brother?"
Jeannie McKay raised her head. She'd been gazing out the window, away from the therapist, at the play of light on the Vancouver ocean. "We never got along."
Kate nodded with a smile. "In all our sessions, you've rarely talked about him."
Jeannie shrugged, glad that Kate would be content with her silence, and turned her eyes to the window again. There it was again, that elusive slant of light over the harbor, striking gold off the ocean and making her think of things best forgotten.
She liked Vancouver. Really, she did. Sure, there were things about it she didn't like. She hated the crowds, and the noise, and the stench of auto fumes and people that still got to her even after twenty years on Earth -- she'd moved to Vancouver because it was one of the cleaner and more open cities on the North American continent, and while it didn't bother her as much as, say, Chicago (and the less said about those two years the better), she still found herself seeking out lonely beaches along the emerald coast, and yearning for a little cabin in the middle of nowhere.
But she was content with her life. She liked the consulting work she did for UBC. Okay, true, she hated the idiots she had to work with. No one could keep up with her; she got tired of dumbing down her theories so that the scientific establishment would accept them, but they still wouldn't put her in charge of her own lab -- too many questions about her education and background, even if they wouldn't admit it.
And then, there was that stupid, annoying thing the sun did sometimes, when it broke through the clouds over the harbor, a certain slant of light hitting the waves a certain way. Sometimes when it did that, she saw the ghostly echo of a city's shining towers, and felt the weight of unshed tears behind her eyes, and that ... that she hated most of all.
"Well, in any case, it looks like our time is almost up," Kate said warmly, and Jeannie dragged her eyes away from the window. "I'll be out of town next week, so I'll see you again in two weeks?"
"Sure, that'll be fine." Jeannie smiled; she really liked Kate Heightmeyer, and the empath's office was suffused with an almost-physical warmth that gave her a glowing sense of well-being the minute she walked through the door. Even though Jeannie knew that Kate deliberately projected that comforting glow to calm her clients, the effect was very real. The important thing with finding a therapist, she'd discovered, was finding one whose aura meshed nicely with your own -- all the words in the world couldn't heal you if you kept trying to battle back against the gently healing waves of magic lapping against your psyche.
Of course, Kate didn't really understand, but no one did. Jeannie had been coming to see Kate Heightmeyer once a week for three years, and before that, it had been other therapists in other cities, going all the way back to her childhood. She told them everything, and then they said what she expected them to say, explaining why the things she'd seen and felt were not possible according to current theories of magic. She'd been tested for psychic potential until she was positive that if there was something, anything, they'd have found it. She wasn't a mage, a precog, a touch-reader, an empath, or anything else.
Whales had never sung to her, and she did not know a city filled with light, a city that called to her across the gulf between galaxies and whispered terrible, wondrous secrets into her ears.
"I'll see you in two weeks," Jeannie promised, and accepted Kate's brief hug, feeling the therapist's gentle hands smooth down her back and align the discordant energies of her aura.
Relaxed and comfortable as always after a session with the empath, she left Kate's tenth-floor office and caught a bus on the street, letting herself off a few blocks from her apartment for the familiar walk home through the park. She'd deliberately chosen her apartment building for its proximity to several of the many greenbelts that laced the city in a lovely patchwork quilt of grass, flowers and trees.
"Morning," said a dryad on her knees beside one of the trees, gently tending it with deft green fingers.
"Good morning, Willow."
The park was nearly deserted; it was an hour or so before noon, and most people were at work, most children at school. Jeannie liked that about her consulting job -- since she didn't keep to a normal schedule, she could come and go at hours when few people would be about.
The doorman at her building was, of course, a troll; they loved that kind of work (security guards, toll keepers at bridges, and so forth) and Canada had long been far more open about hiring non-humans than the U.S. to the south, another thing she liked about living here. Jeannie nodded to him and he nodded back. Her apartment was on the third floor; she laid her hand on the spellplate on the door, murmured the cantrip to unlock it, and stepped inside.
Her apartment wasn't big, but its layout was light and airy, and she had a view of the sea. But even though she had painted her walls a gentle green, it would never be the place she still longed to come home to. It was strewn with odds and ends -- crystals and circuits and a miniature portal gathering dust in a corner. These were bits and pieces of the thaumaturgical architecture projects she'd worked on. There were stacks of papers all over the floor -- ones she'd written and ones she'd read. Her meeting with Kate had left her feeling mellow, and she neatly sidestepped the messy piles. Sometimes when she wasn't so at peace, she just wanted to kick them all over for failing her. Even her own research had failed to provide her with the answers that she had turned to science to find.
She still couldn't explain Atlantis.
Ronon came back the next morning, exhausted and dirty with his pinions dragging as he stumbled through the Atlantis portal. The portal mage took one look at him and called Rodney, who showed up with Teyla in tow and marched him off to the infirmary, over his protests.
"Bloody hell, lad, what happened to you?" Carson ran his gentle healer's hands over Ronon's broken pinfeathers. Ronon rarely even allowed Teyla near his wings, but he relaxed into the touch after a moment's tense stiffness.
"Ran into some trouble. No big deal."
"I'll be the judge of that." Carson's eyes closed as he entered a light diagnostic trance, and snapped open again a moment later. "What did you say happened to you?" There was an odd, sharp note in his voice; Rodney and Teyla, both strung out and on edge from too little sleep, perked up and took notice.
Ronon just cocked his head and studied the doctor in silence, and finally asked, "Why?"
Carson didn't answer immediately; he rubbed his hands together, looking back and forth between them, and finally said, "Where's Sheppard? I'd expect he'd be here. Thick as thieves, the lot of you."
"He's not here," Rodney said.
"I can see that, yes."
On top of the frustration and worry of the last couple of days, having Carson suddenly refuse to give him a straight answer was more than Rodney could take. "Okay, so now you're Mister Mysterious all of a sudden? What the hell, Carson? Sheppard's gone, we don't know where he is --" Teyla was waving at him frantically, trying to shush him, but he trailed off on his own, because he could be pretty obtuse about people a lot of the time (well, most of the time), but sometimes he got it, and right now, he'd just realized that Carson Beckett looked as exhausted and stressed as Rodney himself felt. Carson's eyes were shadowed, and he looked as if he hadn't slept in days. Rodney stuttered to an awkward halt. "Carson, what the hell...?" he finished lamely, and waved his hands in a useless attempt to encompass the whole concept of What the hell's wrong with you, what's wrong with Sheppard, what's wrong with the whole world?
Carson looked back and forth between them, let out a deep breath and rubbed his hand across his face. "Bloody hell," he sighed. "He's gone, you said? Sheppard?"
"Yeah," Ronon said.
Carson sighed again, and laid careful hands on Ronon's damaged wings. "Let me fix you up, and ... we'll talk."
Atlantis being what it was, it took until that evening before Carson could join them. He tracked them down in Rodney's quarters, bearing a bottle of the kind of whisky only real Scots could get hold of.
"I thought we could all use a drink," he said after Rodney let him in. "Though I didn't bring any glasses. Sorry."
"No problem." Rodney went to grab a couple of small cups from his ceremonial Athosian tea set. Teyla looked as she was about to protest, but settled for a reproachful look. She was sitting cross-legged on Rodney's bed, but shifted over to make room for Carson, who sank down with a grateful sigh.
Carson filled the cups Rodney held out, and they sipped silently at their whisky, exchanging uncomfortable glances. Rodney was sitting in the room's one chair, while Ronon leaned against the door, casually on guard.
"So," Teyla interrupted their collective brooding, putting her cup aside. "I believe that you had something you wanted to discuss, Carson?"
Carson nodded. "I see Sheppard is still missing?"
"No, we had simply misplaced him behind the couch -- of course he's still missing!"
"There's no need to be like that, Rodney," Carson said, but he sounded distracted.
Teyla, too, ignored Rodney's outburst. "We were supposed to meet two nights ago. He did not come, and no one has seen him since the afternoon of that day."
Carson took a deep breath. "Right. I'm going to ask a question that might sound a little daft, but -- does this have anything to do with the Wra--"
They all interrupted him at the same time, though Ronon was by far the most effective of them, extending a wing full in Carson's face. The healer gave a strange shudder at the touch, and stared at them. "What was all that about?" he asked, indignant.
"We don't say their names, " Rodney explained with a shrug and an eyeroll that was aborted when Teyla shot him a quick, flat stare. What, did the woman have eyes in the back of her head?
"Names have power," Teyla added quietly.
"All right, then." Carson still didn't seem quite convinced by the name-ban. At the same time, he didn't seem as surprised as Rodney thought he should have been. He definitely knew something. "So is it fair to assume that your reaction right now counts as a rousing 'yes' to my question?"
"It's fair," Ronon said at once.
Carson eyed them all for another couple of moments, then he threw back his head and knocked back the contents of his entire cup in one go, shuddered, and poured himself another shot.
The others stared at him.
Carson shuddered, and gave them all a weak smile. "Figured, if things are as bad as I think they are, I'd need some fortification before we get down to brass tacks."
With a heroic effort, Rodney kept himself from smashing the cup down on his bedside table -- mostly because Teyla would kill him if he broke it. "Carson, by the First Whale, what the hell do you know?"
Carson gave him an odd look -- for some reason -- and then let out a long sigh, folded his hands around the glass, and began to speak. His voice sounded haunted as he told them what he knew about John's encounter with the Wraith, and how he had seen something wrong on him. Then he shook himself, and looked at Ronon. "I felt the same thing on you, when you came in today."
"Huh." Ronon shifted. "You felt it?"
"Yes. Examining you -- and now again, when you touched me. Thankfully I would say it's fading, though. It seemed fainter now."
Teyla was giving Ronon a disapproving look; he just ruffled his wings and didn't meet her eyes. "Good," he said finally.
"Well," Carson said, twisting the glass between his hands. He looked wretched, scared, his shoulders hunched up. "There's more. Besides John, besides you, I've felt it on other patients here. Several of them."
Rodney felt his heart catch. The room had gone utterly still. Carson's words fell into the silence like stones into a motionless pond.
"On John, on Ronon, it was a surface taint -- like something had touched them. And I've felt that on some of my patients here. But that's not all I've felt. Had a young soldier in a few days ago for a burn -- poor lad, second-degree burns from a scalding pipe down in the heating ducts, all up and down his arm. He must have been in terrible pain, but never said a word, hardly even --"
"Carson, do we really need a case history here?" Rodney interrupted.
Carson glanced at him, and Rodney backed down instantly at the look on his face. Carson was pale. "It was like he didn't feel a damned thing, Rodney. And I've certainly seen that before -- shock, or nerves too traumatized to work correctly. We gave him a local numbing amulet and I set to work. And what I felt then ..." He shuddered, took another sip of whisky. "It was the same thing as with John, but deep. It wasn't on the surface, it was all throughout his ... throughout his bloody soul. Like mold, the way it gets down into bread, till you have to toss the loaf."
"For gods' sake, Carson, you didn't say anything --"
"What, do you think I'm daft? Of course not. I set the healing on its way, gave the poor lad some ointment to finish the process, and then went into the loo and had a good freak out."
Rodney had been too absorbed with Carson to even notice his other friends' reactions, until he looked up to see them both still as statues, leaning in Carson's direction as if the intensity of their interest had become a weird kind of magnetic attraction.
"They cannot be ..." Teyla breathed, and her eyes darted around the room before settling on Carson. Idle speculation on the mainland were one thing, but to have their suspicions confirmed -- her face had gone gray. "They cannot be here."
Carson let out a long, shuddering sigh. "Lass, believe me, I've spent the last week or two trying to convince myself of that." He raised his cup, found it dry, started to reach for the bottle and then let his hand fall, helplessly, into his lap. "You know, as a healer, I've always wondered what I'd do if I were faced with certain kinds of ... moral dilemmas. I've known colleagues who looked the other way on child abuse, on spousal abuse. I always told myself I wouldn't do such a thing, if I ever found myself in that situation. But I understand now, I understand how such things happen -- because I've spent the last week trying to convince myself that I'm wrong, that I don't understand what I've been feeling, that it's nerves, stress." His fingers tightened around the cup until Rodney had to restrain himself from reaching out to rescue it. "Bloody coward, is what I've been."
Surprisingly, it was Ronon who spoke up, his voice a low rumble. "Stronger men and women than any of us have fallen to them."
"Right, philosophical and all of that, but --" Rodney could hear his own voice starting to rise to a screech.
"Be still, Rodney," Teyla said, and the abrupt note of command in her voice was such that he fell automatically quiet. No one else could do that to him. "Are your quarters safe from electronic intrusion?"
"Hello, it's me. Of course. Nobody spies on me."
Teyla nodded and rose silently. From a concealed pocket of her skirt she withdrew a small handful of --
"Hey," Rodney said. "Are those salt packets from the mess?"
Teyla nodded. Ripping open several of the paper packets with her teeth, she carefully poured the salt in a line across the sill of his closed door. Ronon obligingly moved to allow her to do it. She crossed the room and repeated the process on the windowsill. Then she used the remainder of the salt to draw a small series of runes on the floor around them.
"You're just thinking to do this now?" Rodney demanded.
"This is, I fear to say, more superstition than magic, Rodney." Teyla emptied the last of the salt packets and tidily tucked away the wrappers in her pocket. "It has never been proven to work, that I know of. However, the shadow walkers have not been known on Athos in our history, so perhaps the very oldest ways, passed down from mother to child, are not superstition after all."
Ronon nodded. Moving silently, he detached a small charm from his hair -- it was shaped like a falcon with claws extended -- and laid it just within the line of salt across the doorsill. He touched his thumb to his lips, and then, ceremonially, pressed it to the charm. "There. That's all I know to do. I was always kind of a washout in my magic classes."
To his utter shock, Rodney realized that Ronon was -- holy shit -- trembling. It wasn't very obvious, but the big man's muscles were knotted like tightly wound cord.
Teyla rested her hand very briefly on his shoulder and squeezed before returning to her seat next to Carson. Lacing her hands lightly across her knees, she said, "I believe we can assume that John's disappearance is related to this."
Carson nodded in silence, and upended the bottle into his cup. He offered Rodney the last of it; Rodney hesitated only a moment before accepting. He didn't like drinking in general, didn't like being out of control, but some things were worth getting drunk over.
"He was investigating," Teyla said. "Asking questions. He has been doing so since he has been in this galaxy." In short, clipped sentences, she told Carson of their meeting on the mainland, of John's paranoia on Atlantis, of his promise to meet them which was not fulfilled.
"You've been lookin' for him, then," Carson said, glancing back and forth between them, and Ronon nodded. "How long did you say he's been gone?"
"Two days," Rodney said, and worry knotted his guts into a ball of hot wire. They couldn't have killed Sheppard, not so quietly or easily. He couldn't believe it, wouldn't believe it. At the very least, if Sheppard went down, people would know. He definitely seemed like the sort who'd go out in a stupidly heroic fireball and take a bunch of the enemy with him.
... Okay, still not comforting. He couldn't stop thinking of Sheppard the last time he'd seen him, wound up with inexplicable tension, the way he'd grabbed Rodney by the --
"Hey!" Rodney burst out, and got another disapproving look from Teyla. "Sorry, sorry, stealth and all of that, but -- I just realized something. The last time I saw --" Oh gods, bad turn of phrase. He amended it hastily -- "I mean, the most recent time I saw Sheppard, he got up close and --" And for some reason the memory of Sheppard's scent came back to him with such force that it was all he could think of for a moment, the way it had been warm and spicy and alive --
"He looked at you very intently," Teyla supplied, snapping him back to the discussion at hand.
Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed at her. "Exactly! Carson can feel them, but Sheppard can see them. That's how he knew they were here!"
"Probably something to do with Ancestral blood," Carson said thoughtfully. "I've got it, but not as strong as John."
Rodney's face fell. "That's not going to help us non-mages, though," he said. "I'm trying really hard not to think about this, but who can we trust?"
They looked around the room at each other, and no one said anything.
"In fact," he added, paranoia spiraling outward from his gut -- no wonder John has been acting so weird -- "I don't even know if I can trust any of you."
Teyla rolled her eyes at that, and Ronon rocked forward onto his knees to deliver a not-entirely-unexpected slap to the back of his head.
"If it would make you feel better," Carson said, without a trace of humor, "I can see if I feel it on any of you. I know Ronon's clean; I got the surface taint, but nothing underneath."
"This only works if we can trust you," Rodney grumbled, but he watched as Teyla submitted quietly to Carson laying his hands on her bare shoulders. Then it was Rodney's turn. He'd never liked healing -- the invasiveness of it, the feeling that he was being stripped bare to his soul. Even with Carson, who he liked and -- loathe though he was to admit it -- trusted, he still had to force himself to remain still and not reject the warmth that quietly seeped into his bones, a heat more pure and gentle than that of the alcohol.
When Carson withdrew his touch, Rodney realized that his lingering fatigue headache had vanished, along with the sting of a minor muscle strain in his shoulder from spending too much time hunched over a console he'd been helping Zelenka fix. Even his indigestion was gone. "You sneaky Scottish bastard, you did that on purpose."
"Would a Wr -- one of -- what the bloody hell did you people call them?" He seemed startled at his own outburst, but Rodney had to choke on a laugh that even he knew was inappropriate.
Teyla put a soothing hand on Carson's arm. "Among my people, they are sometimes called shadow walkers," she said quietly. "It is one of many terms that is used."
"Right. Would a shadow walker worry about your health, Rodney?" Carson smiled a bit as he sat back down.
"If it was trying to trick me, it might," Rodney mumbled, but he realized that the healing was a two-way street. Even without the bit of Ancestral blood that Sheppard or Carson carried, he doubted if he would have been able to share such an intimate connection with a Wraith and not notice. "All right, fine. We can trust each other, but no one else."
Comparing notes, observations and Carson's experiences in the infirmary, they came up with a short list of about a dozen known or suspected Wraith, including Woolsey -- Carson wasn't positive on that one, as he hadn't had a chance to lay his hands on the man, but that in itself was suspicious. "Without throwing words like 'hypochondriac' around -- over the last few years I've become quite familiar with his habits. If I had no reason to be concerned, I'd think he'd just been unusually busy the last couple of weeks, and maybe that's true."
"But why now," Rodney said, and Carson nodded.
"Carson, do you think that Woolsey knows that you can ..." Teyla paused, making a gesture. "Feel them?"
"I don't see how he would," Rodney said.
"I agree with Rodney -- don't let it go to your head, Rodney, not likely to happen again anytime soon. I've hardly known myself until tonight. A simple change in habits, that's all."
"As if learning the ways of Atlantis anew," Teyla whispered.
"Okay, this is all very enlightening, guys," Rodney said, "but what the hell do we do about it?"
"Warn Earth," Carson said immediately.
"That's just lovely, Carson, except for one thing. If they've been on Atlantis for weeks, at least, then --"
Carson's face went white. "Earth's already compromised."
The look of the two Pegasus natives was politely sympathetic -- after all, their worlds had been under such threat ever since they'd been alive. But Rodney's hearing was temporarily washed out in a flood of white noise as the enormity of the situation swept over him.
He'd never particularly thought of himself as a native of Earth. The Pegasus Galaxy was the only home he'd ever known; his time on Earth, studying physics and math, had been an unpleasant interlude and not something he looked back on fondly. He did not think of Earth as home.
But still ... Earth had always been there. He'd checked in with it occasionally. His parents had been there. Jeannie lived there. His ancestors were buried there. And, in a way he'd never actually realized until this very moment, Earth had always been a sort of ace-in-the-hole, an emergency backup, a bolt hole like Sheppard's cave on the mainland. Naturally, he had no intention of leaving the whales, but ... if things ever did go really, horribly wrong, if he lost everything here, there was always Earth to retreat to. And, though he'd never consciously realized it, he discovered that he'd always assumed if anything bad did happen, Earth would come to the rescue of Atlantis, his home, his world.
Earth's already compromised.
"We need John," Rodney said. He didn't even realize that he'd called Sheppard by his first name for the first time ever until the words were already out of his mouth. "We need John, dammit. He knows what's going on, and we know there's a whole lot more to it than we've figured out; I don't even know how much more, but he does. We don't know why he was here in this galaxy, we don't know who back on Earth knows what -- hell, for all I know, maybe Earth's had -- had them on it ever since contact with the Pegasus Galaxy was severed the first time, and he found out about it and that's why he's -- How could the bastard disappear when we needed him!"
"He probably didn't have a choice, Rodney," Carson said gently. He still looked pale and shaken.
"That's no excuse," Rodney snapped.
Teyla placed a restraining hand on his arm. "I think we can agree that resolving the matter of John's disappearance should be a priority. However, we must also take measures to contain the shadow walkers within Atlantis."
Rodney glared at her. His genius-sized brain was a churning mess of possibilities, all of them equally unpleasant. "What are you talking about?" He'd never felt so overwhelmed, so out of control.
"Wards," Teyla said simply. "The skill of warding is a highly developed science among my people -- do not look at me that way, Rodney, you know it is true."
"Hardly a science," Rodney grumbled. It was a long-standing, friendly argument between them, and it made him feel a tiny fraction better to have something familiar to complain about.
"In any case," Teyla said firmly. "We must proceed under the assumption that the infiltration has only begun and can still be contained."
"How you figure that?" Ronon wanted to know.
She looked at him. "Because otherwise, there is no point in trying."
There was a moment of silence.
"In any case," Teyla said, "I have already done a small amount of warding to Atlantis as it is, since friends and allies dwell here. I can begin to strengthen those wards and interlace them with new ones, but it will take time."
Carson cleared his throat. "I hate to be the one asking daft questions, but Pegasus magic is still largely unfamiliar to me. Do you plan to trap the Wr-- sorry, trap the shadow walkers in Atlantis, or keep them out?"
"I can't do either, Healer," Teyla said. "My existing wards are not enough to hold them out, obviously, but would create an uncomfortable environment for them, which may explain in part why they have infiltrated us slowly. I haven't the skill to protect everyone here -- no one does -- but I can make it more difficult for them. I can also ward individuals, to make it more difficult for the shadow walkers to walk into their minds. Rodney, you and Ronon are already as protected as I can make you, but perhaps I should ward you, Healer."
She brought out the small set of paints that she kept in Rodney's room for touching up his runes -- little jars of pigment, oil, fine-tipped brushes. It took time. Ronon slipped out halfway through; when Rodney asked where he was going, all he said was, "Look for Sheppard".
"That's great, Chewie. Where?"
Ronon left without speaking. Great, Rodney thought, flopping back on his bed and pulling his laptop onto his knees. The conspiracy is falling apart already. Some rebellion we are.
He'd hacked into the portal logs the previous night, and found a record of Sheppard leaving for Athos about an hour after he'd gone to see Rodney in the labs. That was no surprise; Athos was Sheppard's usual staging ground for his trips around the Pegasus Galaxy, and the portal staff were used to him coming and going to and from that world. And that was the last anyone had seen him. There was no way to recall a portal's last destination; Sheppard could have traveled anywhere in the galaxy from there, and no one would be the wiser. The one thing he hadn't done was come back to Atlantis.
Rodney lay back on his bed, listening absently to Teyla and Carson's murmured conversation -- Teyla's quiet instructions to bend or turn, Carson's questions about the theory underlying what she was doing -- and thinking about portals, and John, and wondering if what he was contemplating was really as crazy as he thought.
The McKay-Whale Portal, according to his theories, wouldn't work quite like a normal portal. It didn't require a corresponding portal on the other end, so if he could combine it with a locator spell, they could open it directly to Sheppard. He began typing swiftly, laying out his thoughts. It was all theoretical, of course, especially since he hadn't actually built his portal yet, but there was nothing in his theories to rule it out. He needed to talk to the whales ...
"Rodney?" Carson said. Rodney looked up, just in time to see the healer rolling down a sleeve to cover up a twisting set of runes. "You have an idea?" the healer asked, sitting on the edge of Rodney's bed.
"What makes you say that?"
Carson smiled slightly. "I know that look."
"Maybe." Rodney looked back at the text window, already half-full of notes in his own personal shorthand. "I might -- might -- be able to contact Sheppard. But I need to do some tests first."
Carson nodded. "I'm thinking I'll start combing the database for information on Wrai-- on possession. If it can be done, it can be undone, and I'm a healer. Undoing it is going to fall to my department." He nodded to Teyla. "The lass here thinks that if we put our heads together, we can come up with a way to untangle the possessed person's brains."
"Really? Great," Rodney said absently, already deep in another round of note-taking.
Teyla leaned over him to pat his shoulder, drawing his attention. She looked drained and tired, as she always did after working on her runes. He wondered, uneasily, how much of her energy it was going to take to ward Atlantis; he had no idea she'd even been working on it.
"Good night, Rodney," she said. "Please try to get some sleep."
"Yes, yes. Taking care of myself, it's the one thing I'm good at. Try not to trip over Woolsey between here and the labs."
Teyla frowned at his laptop screen, but the notes would mean nothing to her. "Are you working on a way to find John?"
"Maybe," Rodney said shortly. He didn't want to admit to it until he was more sure that his theory would work.
"You are very worried about him."
"No I'm not," Rodney said, more or less on autopilot.
As always, her soft brown eyes seemed to see more than he wanted. She smiled a little. "We will find him, Rodney."
She didn't add If he can be found, but Rodney heard it.
Like being blind. Like being dead. A smothering darkness that pressed on him from all sides, a hot oppressive weight, choking him, bearing him down, down, and he found himself fighting back as hard as he could, forcing his eyes open even in the impenetrable darkness, because if he dared to blink --
The garden path was long and winding, the grass a green so brilliant it blinded him for an instant. John raised one small fist and rubbed his eyes. The sun was so bright, the colors of the flowers so vivid. For an instant he'd thought --
"What are you doing?" The voice was furious, and a moment later his nanny appeared around the corner of a tall clump of hollyhocks, accompanied by the clopping of hooves.
"I don't know," John said, and he didn't.
"Come on, come on. Your mother is beside herself." The centaur grabbed him under the arms, hoisting him unceremoniously onto her back. John grabbed hold of the glossy mane that bristled down her spine, gripping it gently so as not to hurt her. He liked riding on Marcie; it was so much better than riding the ordinary horses in the paddock.
When he was littler, he'd asked Marcie once if he could keep her when he grew up, so that he could ride her all the time. He hadn't understood why her face had gone white, her lips compressed to a hard line, and she'd looked away and hadn't spoken to him except in terse half-sentences for the rest of the day. But that night at dinner, in the fine dining room where the nonhuman servants were not allowed, John's father had made a joke about what a fine beast Marcie was, so much cheaper than the other servants because if you needed to save money, you could simply keep her with the horses in the paddock. John's mother had pursed her lips and looked away distastefully, and John had writhed inside.
Marcie trotted past the horse paddock, where two satyr groundsmen were mucking out the stables. One of them started to wave to Marcie, then saw John and dropped his arm, looking away.
They don't like me, John thought. They don't like me because of how my father treats them ... less than human. He'd never realized that before, and some small part of his brain kept telling him that he shouldn't be realizing it now -- it had taken him years at boarding school, making the acquaintances of children outside his parents' privileged circle of friends, to understand why his parents' servants had been so distant and polite to him, rebuffing his earnest attempts at friendship. He had sometimes played with the gardeners' children -- two little satyrs and one very small naiad -- but their parents always separated them when they were caught playing together, as if it was something dirty and wrong.
Marcie stopped at the servants' door -- this was the only part of the house where she was allowed, in the kitchens and the little hallway to John's room -- and slid her hooves into the soft slippers that she wore indoors so as not to damage the floors. "Your mother told you to stay in your room. Why were you outside?"
"I wanted to say goodbye," John said helplessly.
"Not to people," he protested. Generally ignored by his parents, and not allowed to leave the grounds by himself, he'd spent many happy hours playing in the garden, and learning to read the books his private tutors had brought him.
"Children," Marcie snorted. She trotted down the hall and into John's room; she barely had to duck her head to get through the door, it was so large. John's room had its own bathroom and a huge bay window overlooking the gardens.
"Why do I have to leave, Marcie?" John asked plaintively as she swung him down onto the bed. "Do my parents hate me?"
"No, no. Oh, look at the state of your suit." She wet a cloth at the sink and began to dab at the smudges of dirt on his shirt and knees. "Your parents feel that you deserve the excellent education that you'll get at your new boarding school, that's all."
"Dave doesn't have to go to boarding schools," John sulked.
"Dave is younger than you are. I'm sure he'll be sent away too, when he's older. Tip up your chin."
John obediently tilted his head back, screwing up his eyes as she dabbed at his face and tried to slick down his stubbornly sticking-up hair. "They're sending me away because they're ashamed of me."
The brisk hands paused for a moment, then resumed their task. "I'm sure that isn't so," Marcie said.
"It is so so." He wasn't supposed to argue with adults, even with servants, but he couldn't help himself. "When Daddy's business guests come to the house, they make me stay in my room. Dave gets to go along and meet interesting people, but I don't, even though he's just a baby. It's because of my stupid ears and my weird eyes, isn't it?" Speaking to the red-tinged darkness behind his eyelids, he lashed out in a child's helpless and impotent anger, driven by a deep and ancient hurt and loneliness. "My parents don't want me because I'm like you people!"
Marcie's hands stopped completely, then withdrew. "Well, you're cleaned up now, and your mother will be in shortly to say goodbye," she said in a cold and brittle voice. "Your things are already in the car. Tom will drive you to the shuttleport."
"Marcie! Wait!" John's eyes snapped open. "I didn't mean it -- Marcie, please come back!"
But she was already gone. She never said goodbye.
Your parents didn't like you. No one who knew you as a child liked you.
The voice was strange, a bleak toneless thing, curling into the corners of his soul. It shouldn't be here, in this sunlit room. It hadn't been here.
What was wrong with you?
"Go away," John whispered, and wrapped his arms around his thin shoulders, hugging himself.
John raised his head from his textbook. For a minute there had been -- but it was gone now. All he saw around him was the familiar setting of the school library, his favorite retreat. Outside the windows, dusk was creeping across the grounds of the school.
He rose from the desk and tucked the book back into his bag. At the front desk, the librarian gave him a friendly nod; he smiled back and went out into the warm dusk to walk back to his dormitory.
It was nearly dark under the big old trees that arched over the path to the dorm. John's eyes shifted automatically, becoming more sensitive to the low light.
When he saw who had spoken his name, he gritted his teeth. Older boys, seniors, four or five of them, circling around them in the dark. One of them reached to sling a casual arm over John's shoulders; he tried to duck away, but there wasn't really anywhere to go, and the meaty arm settled over his shoulders. At this uncomfortable proximity, he could smell alcohol. The other boy had been drinking.
"Whatcha doing, fairy boy? Don't you know there's a dance tonight?"
John felt his hands ball instinctively into fists and tried to relax. "I'm just not interested." Actually, he hadn't been able to work up the nerve to ask any of the girls to go with him. The answer to such an invitation, from the quiet boy with the pointed ears, was usually "No".
"Maybe he doesn't dance unless it's in a fairy ring," another of the boys said, and everyone laughed.
"Why aren't you there?" John tried to remember their names. The one with his arm around John's shoulders -- Stanley? Steve? "Couldn't find anyone to go with a troll like you?"
The other boy gave him a hard shove, sending him staggering. "What -- you think I'm a half-human freak like you?"
"I think he needs to learn some manners," one of the others said.
John was usually able to hold his own in schoolyard fights -- he'd certainly had the practice -- and he had the advantage of being able to see them better than they could see him, but he was badly outnumbered and all of them were bigger. He glanced around quickly, but there was no sign of anyone else; all the other students must be at the dance. Even most of the windows of the dorm were dark.
Steve or Stefan or whatever his name was threw the first punch. John ducked -- he'd always been quick -- but nearly ran into one of the others, who clouted the side of his head so hard he saw stars. He staggered and someone else punched him in the stomach, sending him to his knees.
He didn't really remember what happened after that -- retching, barely able to breathe, terrified out of his mind. Someone kicked him, and it seemed like the whole world was full of fists and feet and anger, and he lashed out, a deep primal urge to protect himself, to escape --
-- and then someone was screaming, but not him. Coughing, John staggered to his feet. Steve was the one on his knees now, screaming and beating out bright-green mageflame that had flared up his arm, setting his sleeve on fire. All the other boys were frozen, staring at him in shock and fear.
Later, much later, when he'd finally cut all ties to his family and enrolled in the Magic Division's academy over their wishes, he was told that most people who were naturally talented had their magic come out spontaneously -- knocking a glass off the table and catching it with a gust of air; healing a pet or another child on the playground; falling overboard on a boating trip and finding that they could breathe underwater. John would later learn that he was especially talented at fire magic, offensive magic -- a relatively rare gift, and one that highly sought after by governments the world over.
But all he remembered for years afterward was the look of fear and horror on the other boys' faces, as if he'd sprouted horns and claws and tried to tear them apart. He limped home to his dorm and cleaned himself up in the bathroom, not wanting to go to the nurse or try to explain what had happened. And as he stared at himself in the mirror, his unnaturally bright green eyes and narrow face and pointed ears, all he could hear was a silent litany of Monster. Monster. Monster.
He spoke aloud, or thought he did. The sound was swallowed by the clinging, cloying darkness.
Your self-loathing is sweet, voices whispered to him out of the void. Your fear even more so. Who in your life has ever appreciated you for who you are?
"I have friends," he said, shaping the words, wanting to be heard even though he couldn't hear himself. "They'll come for me. They'll get me out of--"
And here he had to stop, because he didn't know where he was, didn't remember what had happened to him. Could not, at the moment, remember his own name.
Who in your life has ever come for you? Who had ever helped you? Who has ever wanted you for who you are?
We haven't had one such as you in a long, long time. Not since the Old Ones left this galaxy. Let us in, our new, sweet, young Old One. Let us in, and no one will ever dare laugh at you again. Let us in, or we will continue to play, and we will make it last a very long time.
He might have screamed, but that sound, like everything else, was swallowed by the darkness.
Over the next few days, Rodney was too busy to worry. Well, at least too busy to worry as much; like eating and insulting people, worrying was something he could never be too busy or too tired to do.
What got to him about the whole situation more than anything else, he mused as he sorted electrical components in one of the engineering labs, was the feeling of utter helplessness, of being caught up in events he couldn't change or even understand. They didn't have any evidence for their suspicions, at least not the sort that would stand up in a formal proof; they were going on a lot of speculation and some kind of feeling that Carson had. Rodney didn't like that -- he liked solid evidence and firm, yes-or-no answers, the kind that the hard sciences gave him. This sort of vague supposition and guesswork was the kind of thing that he dismissed to the realm of the squishy sciences.
Right now, they were all doing what they did best. Ronon was offworld somewhere, looking for Sheppard, following leads and talking to Teyla's contacts. Rodney was not entirely sure what Teyla was up to -- something to do with the wards, obviously, and he kept seeing her around Atlantis, looking more tired every time she turned up. He just hoped that she didn't get herself caught and "disappeared" too. Carson had been holed up in his lab -- he'd sworn he was being discreet with his inquiries on possession, and Rodney, having seen Carson's version of discreet, could only hope that he didn't end up as a conspiracy of one.
And as for Rodney himself...
"Where are you going with those, Rodney?"
He jumped, nearly dropping the box as he was toting it out of the lab. "Damn it, Zelenka, must you sneak up on people!"
"I am a werewolf; I can't help moving quietly." Zelenka squinted at the box through his glasses. "Are those the new capacitors from the last shipment of Earth goods?"
"Some of them," Rodney said evasively. "Experiment on the mainland. Very important."
Zelenka's stare turned penetrating. "Is this anything to do with your whale project?"
"No, no, it's --" Rodney dropped into "lying mode" automatically before his brain caught up with the situation. "Wait, how do you know about that? Sneaky werewolf bastard, you've been snooping in my files!"
"It is my lab, Rodney. I would not have to snoop if you were not so secretive."
"So..." He was caught between righteous indignation at having his privacy invaded, and respect, because he'd had a lifetime to learn his way around the Atlantis mainframe and still Zelenka had found him out. "Did you, uh. Read them?"
"I tried." Zelenka pushed up his glasses, and smiled ruefully. "I cannot understand half of the math."
"It's whale math," Rodney said loftily. "Of course you can't."
Zelenka stared at him for a moment. "You know, in the labs, Rodney, you are widely considered brilliant, but quite mad."
"All the greatest mathematicians and scientific theoreticians were considered mad in their time. Nostradamus, Newton, Rasputin, Tesla ..."
"Rodney, most of them were mad."
"Which does not in any way disprove my point," Rodney snapped.
Zelenka sighed, and waved a hand. "Very well; please leave a list on my desk of whatever you are taking from the labs, so I will know what to add to the requisitions. And try to not blow up the planet."
Rodney found himself oddly touched. "Thanks," he said, and beat a retreat for the East Pier and his waiting pod, who had cheerfully volunteered to ferry his equipment to the mainland.
The cave that Sheppard and Ronon had found was the place he'd decided to build his machine. He hadn't expected to be ready for a serious trial for months yet, but the remaining obstacles shouldn't be too difficult to overcome with the whales' help.
The whales were still a little puzzled by Rodney's insistence on building a practical model of his, and their, theories, but they'd been happy to assist once he explained what was at stake.
One possibility that had not been voiced, by Rodney or anyone else including the whales, was the possibility that Sheppard might be dead. Rodney suspected they were all thinking it, but even he hadn't been crass enough to say so.
The first day became two; two became four. Rodney plunged into his work body and soul, living on caffeine, coming up to eat only when the whales reminded him. When he stopped to think about something other than the portal (which wasn't often) a small and self-reflective part of his mind told him how slim were the odds of the device actually working; in his darker and more pessimistic moments, he wondered if it wasn't simply a way of escaping from the muddled situation on Atlantis into the pure world of numbers, where all the answers were simple and easy, and no one ever got hurt.
Even raising his head from his screen and looking around the cave reminded him of what he was missing -- what he tried not to think that he might have lost forever. This was the cave Sheppard had wanted them to meet in -- a place Sheppard had sought so that they would all have a bolt hole. It felt terribly unfair that Sheppard himself had never gotten to show it to Rodney. Using it all by himself -- it wasn't right. Not when he had gotten used to having Sheppard show up at his side to annoy him with questions or distract him with games or movies. And no matter how much Rodney hated to admit it, the lack of those interruptions made it harder to concentrate than ever before.
Ronon flew out to the mainland two days into his project -- or was it three? Despite the awful sense of urgency pushing him, Rodney broke off to sit at the mouth of the cave and share a quick meal of roasted fish.
"Nothing," Ronon said, tossing his fishbones over the edge, where sea birds caught them in midair. "Teyla's still doing her thing, and the doc, I don't know. Seems like we're all just running in place right now."
Ronon looked awful -- exhausted, drawn and gray. Rodney wondered if he'd slept at all since Sheppard's disappearance. Which was probably why he found himself saying, "Do you have to go back to the City right away? I mean, I'm sure it's an imposition but -- I've grown quite used to working in the labs, and having people around, and I'd like to show you what I've been building, if you don't mind."
Ronon looked, if anything, even more exhausted at this prospect. "McKay --"
"No, just -- it'll only take a minute --" Rodney was still babbling as he led the way back to the ever-growing assemblage of wires and spare parts that was taking shape at one end of the cave. On the way, he grabbed a sleeping bag from one of the piles of random survival stuff, and dropped it next to the machine, giving it a kick to unroll it. "Here, I can talk to you just fine while you're laying there. Now, the basic structure is the same as some of Earth's early attempts at reverse-engineering the portals, except -- what?"
He broke off, because Ronon was giving him an odd, half-amused look. "Nothing." Ronon grinned with one side of his mouth, shook his head and flopped down on the sleeping bag in a flurry of feathers.
He was asleep before Rodney even got to explaining the vortex transtabilizers.
Zelenka might have been on Rodney's side; Woolsey was decidedly not. Him being possessed by a Wraith and all, that should not have come as a surprise. Those who hunt were not known for their general helpfulness. They weren't feared across a galaxy for their uncanny ability to smother people in red tape, either, but they should be.
Woolsey wielded bureaucracy like a great sword of astrophysicist-smiting. He smiled apologetically and nodded his head in all the right places, but refused to allow Rodney's latest requisitions through to Earth due to clause this and paragraph that and a scattering of errors that had absolutely nothing to do with how valid his project was. Woolsey had always been a stickler for rules, but Wraith-Woolsey turned the rules into a horrifying force of unholy terror.
The failed attempt to negotiate with the expedition's leader left Rodney dispirited and more aware of his exhaustion than he was comfortable with. He decided to crash in his room on Atlantis for the night, and then return to the mainland early in the morning. But once in his bed, he couldn't sleep. He twisted and turned on his mattress, but not even the soothing smell of his Athosian grass pillow could calm his mind.
Rodney started to sit up, to reach for his laptop, but it wouldn't do any good. There was nothing more for him to do with it now. The portal wasn't just theories anymore. With the whales' help, he had always known that he could get the theories right. The problem was that the circumstances were all wrong. Because while the whales were all brilliant at the theoretical stuff, it was slightly more difficult for them to help him build the prototype. As in, whales never built anything, and even if they did -- the whales were mathematicians, not engineers. Very, very big mathematicians. With flukes.
It was maddening. Even if he was fully capable of building the whole thing himself, he still needed materials -- better materials than what they could scavenge from the expedition's supplies. But with Woolsey failing to approve his requisitions -- well, Rodney couldn't exactly hop over to the nearest Home and Magic Depot for the kind of things he needed.
Rodney groaned. He hated this time of night, hated the way he couldn't rid his mind of those horrible thoughts that kept sneaking up on him like evil imps. Except that imps, a trained professional could have handled for him. These troubles he could share with no one.
Just like he didn't have anyone at all to help him with the portal, with the actual building of it, with procuring the material.
Rodney decided to give up on sleep for now. Maybe he would feel better after some exertion -- he had spent too much time exercising nothing but his brain, lately. He didn't bother with clothes other than his usual swim trunks as he wandered the deserted hallways out to the pier.
When he returned to Atlantis from his years on Earth, he had chosen quarters that were closer to the water than the chambers where his family had lived, before. At the time, it had been more convenient. He might have moved back up, now that the City was full of people arranging meetings and preparing meals and working in labs in the central parts of the City, but he had never gotten around to that.
This way, he didn't have to put up with any staring guards or frazzled scientists stopping him for "Just one last question" as he headed out for a quiet swim with the whales. Only Teyla and Ronon ever came all the way here to look for him -- everyone else used the pendants. At least until Sheppard had figured out where Rodney lived, at which point Rodney had somehow started getting used to having occasional company down here.
The night was very silent around him, and very dark. Rodney threw a nervous glance over his shoulder. There shouldn't be anyone else here, but -- there were a lot of things about the City that weren't as they should be, now. Relieved to find himself alone, he stepped out on a small balcony. Without any ceremony he hoisted himself up on the railing, and dove into the black waters below.
He plunged into a burst of phosphorescent plankton, the tiny organisms glowing with alarm as he brushed against them, and blinking out in his wake. As children, he and Jeannie had played in the sea for hours after dark. They made believe that the pinpricks of light were stars, and that the two of them were flying through space and time.
Rodney surfaced, gasping for air as if he could exchange the unwanted memories for fresh oxygen. The way his lungs felt fit to burst -- it had been too long since he had let Teyla renew his runes. He needed to breathe, needed to make an effort to stay afloat.
He started swimming, looking for the whales -- waiting for them to find him. Above him, the vast sky was strewn with glittering stars. Below it, the City of Atlantis stood out against the night as a beautiful patchwork of inky shadows and soft, warm light.
The first whale who came to meet him was the fluid dynamics whale -- young, curious, always wanting to explore, she would sometimes disappear on solitary journeys and return with tales of places far and deep, and she loved watching the humans going about their daily lives. She took up a position next to Rodney, matching his long, powerful strokes with tiny movements of her tail, offering the companionship she could sense that Rodney needed.
"It's so stupid," Rodney told the whale, and spat out a mouthful of water. "I've got everything I need -- everything I thought I needed, and now..." He trailed off, letting himself drift closer to the whale.
"Sheppard needs us. Needs me. I'm the only one who can find him, and I just -- if I can't, then he..."
The whale's fluke came up under Rodney, gentle pressure sweeping him up against her side. Rodney in turn bumped his head against her. "I know. It's not my fault that he's missing, but -- I keep thinking, if I hadn't kept this project to myself, I could have had funding already. Could have had funding and material and people. Now I have polite suggestions on how to improve my requisitions, and none of the material I need, and -- as much as I hate to admit this, I'm just not working fast enough."
Others in his pod where gathering around them. They stirred the phosphorescence to life, forming black islands in a sea of stars.
"It would probably go faster if I didn't have to waste so much time checking all of the calculations," Rodney grumbled at them. "You guys never have to learn all of this from scratch -- you get it dumped into your head as little podlings! Why can't you just give me what you have on this?"
The whales reacted with a collected burst of dismay, and then individual admonishments flooded Rodney's mind. They didn't want to hurt him. They trusted him, and wanted to help him, but they knew how fragile human minds could be, and they refused to put his at risk.
"All right, all right," he calmed them. "It was just an idea." A really bad one, apparently. It took the pod a while to simmer down. When they did, it was to start pondering the problem he laid out for him -- one all their knowledge couldn't solve. Not until the one he was pressed against splashed her tail excitedly.
Rodney needed people. Rodney had explained that the people the whales knew couldn't help him with what he had to do -- that nobody could. But the whale pointed out that he was wrong. The whales did know someone who could help -- Rodney knew someone who could help.
The whale's suggestion made Rodney inhale a mouthful of water in shock, and he had to stop swimming and hang onto his friend's fluke as he coughed before he finally managed to splutter "Jeannie?!"
The whales were quite enthusiastic about the proposal, waves washing over Rodney as they gestured excitedly.
"My little sister? Really?" For the whales, it hadn't been very long at all since Jeannie was almost like a part of the pod. Rodney tried to explain that it was more complicated than that, much, much more complicated. It didn't work. Apparently, screwed-up family relationship were a human thing.
When the whales insisted, he grudgingly conceded that Jeannie was very smart. A genius, even. And that last publication of hers, on the Kirlian aspects of advanced Tesla equations -- that really had been quite good, even if it wasn't as groundbreaking as the hyperactive science scribes back on Earth made it out to be.
Rodney heaved himself on top of the fluid dynamics whale, who settled herself lower in the water to make a stable surface for him. "Now see what you've done," he grumbled. The pod had settled on a logical solution to Rodney's problem, and nothing he said could convince them give it up for a bad idea. He sighed. Of course. He had presented them with a problem -- they had responded with a solution. A solution that would need to be realized before the next part of the plan could be put into motion. "And there's no way I can convince you guys that this is a really, really bad idea?"
Apparently not. The whales had broken out the family album, and were happily trading moments of the time when there had been two human children living between the dry and the wet. There was the image of a small, tow-headed human child following being lead into the ocean by their adopted human, clinging to him as she first learned to swim. And there was a little girl with pink ribbons in her hair, sitting all alone on the pier, staring up at the tall towers with a smile on her face.
Rodney shook his head to clear it of the memories the whales' chatter conjured. That was all a long time ago, as humans saw time. It wasn't that simple anymore. It hadn't been simple since their parents sent Jeannie back to live on Earth -- to get to know her relatives, to get a good education... Rodney didn't know what their reason had been, exactly. Their parents had never spoken to their children of why they decided to separate them -- why Jeannie was banished from Atlantis, but Rodney was allowed to stay.
It was something that had hung heavily between them, the few times they had met when Rodney was back on Earth. And when they talked -- well, they hadn't really talked, not for years.
Rodney flopped over on his back, gazing moodily at the brilliant stars above. Each one of them a sun in some alien sky, and Sheppard could be anywhere. All Rodney wanted to do was find their lost mage. Use his science to save the day, and then get back to business as usual -- the whales, the labs, their movie nights.
He had never expected that he would have to go digging through his past in order to find Sheppard. He'd never expected that he would ever have remember the last conversation he'd had with his little sister again. The whale below him dipped her tail low in the water, causing a phosphorescent wave to lap at Rodney's feet. It felt cold -- colder than he was used to.
The whale bounced Rodney lightly.
"Yes, I'll have you know it really is that much of a problem! Hm? No, not -- not like a math problem. Sorry."
The whale settled down, and Rodney stretched out on his stomach, lacing his fingers under his chin. "I might have said some things I shouldn't have to Jeannie. The last time we spoke -- it was right after the expedition came here. And I thought ..." Rodney didn't really know what he had been thinking. But he had arranged a consultant position with the scientists, and then called her to offer it to her.
Jeannie's reply had been scathing, as she went to great lengths to explain exactly what was wrong with the MD, the expedition, and anyone stupid enough to be working for either of them.
After that, Rodney might have made a few pointed comments regarding sore losers and credit-hungry theoreticians. "And that's the last time we spoke."
The whales had stilled all around him, full of concern and confusion. "What? No, she's still my family. I told you, it's complicated."
Rodney had kept an eye out for her new publications -- out of a purely academic interest, of course. In doing so, he might have noticed that she currently had a much higher citation ranking than he did. And while it was always good to see the McKay name in print, it rankled a little that her theories were front page news in the world of scientific journals, when those very same journals were utterly disinterested in how many times Rodney saved the priceless City of the Ancestors from destruction and stupidity every single week.
"So, you see. Jeannie would be useful, except she's on Earth. And also, not talking to me."
The whales all looked pointedly towards the distant City, glimmering over the waves.
"Yes, yes, we can call Earth through the portal, but..."
The whales didn't see what the problem was.
"It's not that easy, damn it! I haven't talked to her in years --"
But you need her, the whales nudged gently. Pod always answers pod.
Something in the apartment was beeping.
Jeannie opened her eyes and squinted blearily into her pillow, then transfered her glare to her clock. Not even 8 a.m. It wasn't her alarm, then.
"Oh, now what?" she mumbled into her pillow. It had to be the university -- was she supposed to be covering someone's classes this week? She snatched up the speaking pendant, and cleared her throat before answering. "This is McKay."
There was such a long silence on the other end that she thought perhaps it was a misdial, before a voice she hadn't heard in years said, almost shyly, "Jeannie?"
In a stiff wind off the gray, ruffled ocean, Jeannie hunched in her windbreaker and shivered. She was still bleary with lack of sleep, and she'd been waiting for hours for Mer to show up, sipping coffee and slowly deconstructing a veggie wrap that she'd ordered from the little harborside restaurant. The morning had started off with hints of sunshine but Vancouver's mercurial weather had quickly blown a storm system in from the sea, and she was glad for the umbrella sheltering her outdoor table, though it didn't do much about the sting of ocean spray and the odd drop of rain that slanted sideways into her face.
She was surprised that he was coming all the way to Vancouver, even though the seven-league shuttle could get a person across the continent in just a couple of hours. She was even more surprised that he was here on Earth at all. The waystation keepers' contract with the MD allowed them to come and go from their planet of origin, but with Meredith, there was always a lot of going and very little coming. Maybe he'd changed in the years since she'd seen him. Maybe he wasn't even still on Atlantis, since things were so different now. Perhaps he'd listened to her warnings about the rapacious, power-hungry Magic Division, but she wasn't holding her breath for it.
If I were a little younger and a lot more naive, I'd be out there actually trying to stop them, Jeannie thought wearily, resting her chin in her palm. There had been a lot of protests around the world as the Pegasus Free Trade agreements were pushed closer to ratification, opening up the other galaxy to exploitation and Earth to an influx of cheap magical and exotic goods that Jeannie was positive would wreak havoc on the local economy. But try explaining concepts like that to Mer. Well ... she had tried, and look how far it had gotten them.
She guessed that the small dark figure that appeared at the end of the pier must be Mer; there was no one else out here, on a weekday afternoon with the sky beginning to spit a wan drizzle. As he approached, she saw how long his hair had grown -- Mom had always kept it trimmed, and he'd worn it almost aggressively short in college, but now it brushed his shoulders in sun-bleached wisps, although it was growing thin on top.
Somehow in her head, he'd gotten stuck in his early twenties, which was how old he'd been the last time she'd seen him in person. But there was a web of fine lines at the corners of his eyes, and he paused at her table and looked at her for a long moment as she must be looking at him -- like a stranger.
"Oh, sit, please," she said finally, when she realized what he was waiting for.
Awkwardly, he sat. The waiter brought him a menu and a glass of water. When he took it, Jeannie noticed the curling purple runes peeking out of the cuff of his jacket. Vaguely, she remembered his friend, the painter girl from Athos -- did they still know each other, after all this time?
"So," he said, and cleared his throat, studying the menu with exaggerated attention.
"The black bean burger is good," Jeannie said after a moment. "So is the Caesar salad."
"But is there any actual food?" her brother demanded petulantly, and ordered the shrimp basket after changing his mind three times and thoroughly quizzing the waiter about possible citrus in the shrimp sauce.
Same old Mer.
They could wait for the food in awkward silence, make equally awkward small talk -- or they could cut to the chase. Jeannie knew which she preferred. "So, why are you here, Mer?"
He fidgeted guiltily. "What, a brother can't come say hi to his little sister?"
Jeannie narrowed her eyes. "Not across two galaxies. And not you, Mer."
"Um. Well. How have you been?"
So it was to be small talk, then. Jeannie leaned back a little, crossing her arms. "Busy. And you?"
"Well. You know. Um -- busy." Mer's hands were systematically shredding a paper napkin.
"You're still with the MD?" Jeannie tried to keep the accusation out of her voice, but her brother shifted uncomfortably, as if the words stung.
Instead of returning a barb if his own, though, he simply shrugged. "Someone's got to keep them from breaking the City."
"I'd be more worried about the galaxy," The words were out of Jeannie's mouth before she could stop them. Mer's face clouded over, and Jeannie winced. She really didn't want to have this fight again.
"I am," he said, shortly.
"What?" That was not at all what Jeannie had expected to hear.
"What? Oh, nothing, nothing, really." He was distractedly rolling the shredded pieces of paper into little pellets. Ammunition for the homemade blowguns of their childhood.
"The whales say hi, by the way." Mer said it so casually that the words took a little while to sink in.
She swallowed hard, a complex knot of emotions tightening in her chest. "That's not funny," she managed to breathe.
Mer looked sharply at her. "Jeannie? What -- are you okay? What do you mean?"
"We're not kids anymore, Mer! That's all gone, and you can't pretend like it's still the same."
"Like what is the same?" Confusion battled with concern in his blue eyes, still so familiar, so easy to read, even after all this time.
"The stupid games! I left the city -- I had to grow up, and I expected that you would've done the same, but apparently I was wrong about that!" Jeannie's hands gripped the edge of the table, her weight shifted aggressively forward. At Mer's wide-eyed look, she sunk back in her chair, not quite trembling.
"Jeannie..." Mer's hand twitched toward her, but stopped before he touched her. "Look -- I'm sorry. If I've done something -- I'm not here to fight, okay?"
Jeannie drew strength from the remembered calm of Kate's office, from a life of finding her balance in alien, overwhelming situations. "No, it's all right."
Mer lowered his outstretched hand, a little jerkily, as if he was not quite sure what he wanted to do with it. "Oh. Okay. Good."
Jeannie drew a deep breath. "So. What do you want?"
Her brother smiled his most insincere smile. Jeannie braced herself. "Remember that, uh. That consultant position I mentioned, a while back?"
"No way." Her response was automatic.
"Jeannie, you haven't even heard what I have to say!"
"I'm not working for the MD!"
Mer drew breath to argue. Then, with visible effort, he clamped down on what he had been about to say, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "That's what I said," he mumbled cryptically.
She would have pressed him for an explanation, but right then Mer's order arrived. The interruption gave Jeannie a chance to calm down a little. She watched her brother shovel shrimp into his mouth like a starving man, and noticed how tired he seemed. Even at the height of his sleep-deprived university days, she had never seen smudges that dark under his eyes, and the added years could not quite explain those deep lines around his mouth and between his brows.
"This is good," Mer informed her when he came up for breath. "Not as good as those little blue ones we used to net back home on Atlantis, but..." He shot her an uncertain look, clearly waiting to see if the mention of home would set her off. Her brother was a very smart man -- almost as smart as Jeannie herself, even -- but he had absolutely no grasp of subtlety.
He was making an effort, though. Jeannie ignored the pang she felt, hearing the city's name spoken by her brother, and offered him a smile. "Mom always thought they were disgusting."
"It was their eyes, I think." Mer returned her smile, and in that smile she could see the boy he'd been, back before everything changed for them.
"Which might have been why I was convinced that the eyes were the best part," Jeannie admitted, and they shared a grin. That was one potentially explosive situation neatly defused. Mer really was trying. Maybe he had grown up a little, after all. Relief mixed with emotions she couldn't even identify, and Jeannie allowed herself to relax, just a little. "Okay, I'll bite," she offered.
Jeannie shrugged. "You came all the way here. I listen, you pick up the tab?"
She could tell the exact moment when her brother decided that he trusted her not to empty her glass over his head and storm out. His face lit up, and there was a new intensity in his eyes. Jeannie wasn't sure she had ever seen Mer like this before.
"Okay." He drew a deep breath. "Okay. I -- it's not the MD. Not really. They'll pay, but... I need your help."
"You need my help?" Jeannie would have laughed at that, but something about the way Mer said it gave her pause. She still couldn't completely hide her incredulity at the whole concept of her big brother asking for anything, much less help
"I'm not stupid, Mer. Explain."
He stuffed a couple more shrimp into his mouth, transparently buying time to think before answering. Talking with his mouth full was one of the many bad habits their mother had never managed to break him of. He swallowed, and shoved the food aside. "I've seen your publications -- you've been doing some interesting stuff with theoretical thaumaturgical engineering."
Jeannie felt surprisingly pleased that her brother had noticed what she had been working on, but she wasn't about to tell him that. "Yes. So?"
"So, how would you feel about working on a real-world application of those theories?"
"Mer -- don't be ridiculous. We're nowhere near advanced enough to be able to do anything practical with my calculations."
A smug smile crossed her brother's face. "Ah, yes. If you by 'we' you mean your stunningly mediocre colleagues at the UBC, then you're absolutely correct."
"I was talking about Earth, Mer."
"Whatever." Her brother made a quick gesture, dismissing the scientific elite of an entire planet. "They haven't had access to the kind of theories I've been working with."
Jeannie cocked her head skeptically. "Wait. You're saying you've somehow managed to do -- what?"
Mer looked around, checking the drizzly pier for listeners. There was nobody around, but he leaned forward and lowered his voice when he spoke. "A bidirectional portal. No need for a receiving portal at the destination -- just one, fixing a point in space-time through which travel is possible in both directions."
Jeannie stared at him. "You're serious? Mer -- not even the Ancestors ever managed to build anything like that! And we haven't even come to the point where we can construct our own portals. I mean, my theories definitely cover the potential to do what you're describing, but the reality of it is just -- it's impossible."
Mer shook his head. "It's not. I can show you -- well. Show you some of it." He withdrew a folded piece of charmed paper from his jacket pocket, and muttered the cantrip to make it reveal the first page of its contents. "Here. Just -- look at it."
Jeannie took it. She skimmed the first page, hesitantly. Then she called up the next page of contents, and the next. As always when she lost herself in mathematics, she forgot about the world around her, totally absorbed in what she was reading. When she finally looked up at her brother, he had finished his shrimp, and was watching her intently over a cup of coffee. "Mer..."
"I got you some, too." He nodded at a steaming cup by her elbow. Black, the way she liked it.
"Mer -- this, these calculations, the theories--" Jeannie waved her hands at him, trying to get her thoughts in order.
Her brother grinned. "I know. I told you."
"Meredith, it makes no sense at all! This is completely insane. Have you gone crazy out there? Have you forgotten everything you ever knew about mathematics?"
The smile grew more smug, embedding itself firmly in his face. "I know. It's whale math."
"It's utter nonsense," Jeannie said flatly.
"Ha! That's what Zelenka said too, and what does he know?"
Mer waved away the question. "Doesn't matter. The point is, I'm this close--" he held thumb and forefinger together "-- to creating a working portal prototype. I just came here because I-- That is, because I n-- n--" He appeared to get stuck on the word.
"Need my help, yes, you said so already. But, Mer, if you want me to help you with this -- I mean, the only way I could fix this math is by setting it on fire. I don't see how you could build anything from this, let alone a working portal."
Meredith waved his hands. "No, not with that." But she couldn't help getting the feeling that he was a little disappointed -- like he'd expected her to understand his crazy, nonsensical, utterly wrong math. "It's the practical side of things that I really need help with. Jeannie, I hate to admit it, but you're one of the -- I mean, quite possibly the -- maybe one of -- Come on, help me out here."
"Not a chance," Jeannie said, leaning forward with a big smile on her face. If she'd been able to swivel her ears like a werewolf, they would be pointed straight forward right now.
"Probably the foremost expert in the world on portal physics," Mer sighed. "There, happy now? And you have contacts at most of the major universities. There are components I need that I haven't been able to get on Atlantis."
Some of her elation in hearing Mer admit to her expertise was swept aside by confusion. "I can't possibly have any connections that the MD doesn't."
"Er, yeah." Mer toyed with his napkin. "The Magic Division doesn't really know about this."
Now she really wished she could do the attentive-wolf-ears thing. "Meredith, what in the world have you gotten yourself into?"
For a long moment, he hesitated, poised on the verge of getting up from his chair -- of, she thought, walking out of her life again, maybe forever. When he finally looked up at her, she was once again struck by how very tired he looked. Dragging a hand through his tousled hair, he sighed deeply. "I think we're going to need more coffee."
Teyla was starting to feel slightly abandoned. Also, uncharacteristically for her, she found herself at a loss for what to do, even while her friends seemed to be sure of themselves and focused on their own goals.
Ronon had become obsessed with hunting down Sheppard (and the Wraith) offworld. As near as Teyla could tell, he seemed to consider it some sort of personal failing that the Wraith had been able to infiltrate Atlantis and (so they assumed) cause Sheppard's disappearance in some fashion, all without Ronon's knowledge. As the only person on Atlantis with first-hand experience with the Wraith, he seemed to believe that it should have been his responsibility to prevent such a disaster, and Teyla had no idea how to convince him otherwise. She only hoped that he would not end up getting himself killed in the attempt to alleviate a guilt that should never have been his to carry.
Rodney was off on the mainland; she'd even heard a rumor that he'd gone back to Earth, but was not sure how much to credit it -- she knew that Rodney hated Earth, and it seemed unlikely that he'd run off to a former homeland that he hated in the middle of a crisis. And Carson, in addition to carrying on with his healers' duties, had plunged into an equally deep obsession with finding a way to undo Wraith possession. Here, Teyla had been able to offer some help; she gave him all the information that she could on the various exorcism rituals that she knew about. But none of them were very effective, and she'd never known anyone who had actually practiced one of the rituals on a genuine Wraith victim.
For a couple of days, she went back to her people; Woolsey had begun giving her suspicious glances when they passed in the halls, as if even he had begun to catch on that she had no legitimate reason to stay in the City with all her close friends elsewhere. So she returned to Athos to shore up the village's magical defenses, and ruthlessly quashed her fear that the Athosians might have become infected with the Wraith taint as well. Not us. Not here. Surely not here.
She spoke quietly to the elders and Halling, explaining what she knew of how the situation had developed. She suggested that they cut off relations with Atlantis for the time being. After dealing with the Earthers, it was a relief to have her words accepted quickly and without suspicion by her own people. Sadly, they'd had all too much experience with this sort of thing.
"So it has come to this," Halling said quietly, walking the boundaries of the village's protective hearth-circle with her as the two of them worked on strengthening and renewing the magic. "All of the rumors, the stories that the shadow walkers have become more bold, that their nests are spreading more widely throughout the galaxy. And now they even walk in the halls of the Ancestors. We enter a dark time."
Teyla was silent, considering his words, as she carefully traced the delicate lines of a protective rune carved into a tree, checking for any damage or weakness. Unlike the way that John described his magesight, she did not see the magic so much as feel it, gently woven throughout the living aura of the tree, harmless to humans but prepared to repulse mankind's most ancient enemy -- she hoped.
"The Earthers may be able to aid us this time," she said finally.
Halling was too polite to exhibit his skepticism, but she could sense it, as he carefully turned the conversation to other matters. And really, she couldn't blame him. The Earthers came from a galaxy that did not know the Wraith, and their magic was fundamentally incompatible with this galaxy. Yet she hoped that this might turn out to be a point in humankind's favor.
It was quite unlike the Wraith, as she understood them, to hold back and observe without invading full-force once they had gained a toehold in a new feeding ground. She wondered if they might be taking a cautious approach because the Earthers were so strange to them. If so, maybe that strangeness could be used to the defenders' own advantage ... somehow. Carson seemed to be confident that he could find a way to rid the victim of its Wraith invader, which Teyla had only known to be done successfully in a handful of old stories. They were very confident, these Earth people -- perhaps only because they did not understand their enemy. But maybe their confidence was based in genuine capability, after all.
Of course, that hadn't saved John from whatever had befallen him.
Thinking of John cast a pall across her day, and when her duties among her people were done, she found herself unexpectedly eager to get back to Atlantis. As much as she longed to stay here, in the peaceful forest and the sanctity of the hearth-circle, it didn't seem right to take shelter while her foreign friends were in danger. Her people were as safe as she could make them, and John's absence was like a thorn in her shoe -- a constant pricking that she could not forget or avoid for very long.
John, where are you?
He was in a box.
At least, he was pretty sure he was in a box. It was pitch dark, but his hands met resistance above his head and to the sides. There was an ache in his bones, and his arms throbbed with pain. His own breathing sounded loud in his ears -- the only sound that he could hear.
How long can I breathe in here? he thought, and heard his breathing quicken, growing harsh. He tried to gather his magic, but it kept slipping away, like handfuls of water through his fingers. How long have I been here? How did I get here?
And then, the most terrifying question of all: Who am I?
He swallowed hard, his heart pounding in his ears. "John," he said aloud, hearing his own voice rough and rasping. "My name is John. I'm -- I'm in a place called --"
There was the sudden, distinctive whisper of a door opening, and light streamed over him, making him gasp and blink. As he squinted his eyes against the glare, he made out blue and gold and violet, a kaleidoscope of cathedral colors, and he knew where he was. "Atlantis," he said, breathless and dizzy with relief.
"Sheppard, quit fooling around and come over here. I haven't got all day."
John stood up shakily, supporting himself on the wall of his prison, and stepped over the threshold into the dazzling light. When he looked over his shoulder, he had a moment's disorientation when he saw nothing but a corridor stretching behind him, curving out of sight around the corner of the tower.
The tower. Yes. Rodney had brought him up here because he wanted to show him -- something?
Rodney stuck his head out of a doorway. "Sheppard, what are you doing back there?"
"I, uh ..." John's mouth was dry and his head hurt, a dull spike of pain bearing into his temple. He remembered this with a weird, vivid sense of deja vu. He'd been on Atlantis for a couple of months at this point, and Rodney had begun to warm up to the idea of exploring the city with him, showing John all of the many odd or interesting things that he'd found during his many years alone. At this point, John remembered, Rodney had still been very prickly and occasionally hostile, but his facade of resentment -- which he'd nurtured for long after having "his" city invaded -- had begun to crack, revealing an endearingly shy and eager delight when John turned out to share his enthusiasm for the city's sunshine-bathed corridors and windswept balconies.
"Coming," John said, and followed him. As he passed through the doorway, he trailed his fingertips against the cool surface of the doorframe. Everything seemed so real, from the feel of the smooth floor under his boots, to the salt tang on the air.
He stepped out into sunshine. Rodney was waiting for him, tapping a foot impatiently, on a balcony that ran the entire length of the tower, with the city spread out at their feet. John recognized the place immediately -- it was one of his favorite balconies, and one where he often landed when he'd been flying with Ronon. Of course, this was the first time that Rodney had showed it to him, and again he felt the spine-chilling sense that all was not right.
"Finally," Rodney said, heaving a sigh. "You know, I'm supposed to meet Zelenka in the labs in half an hour, and it's a long walk back."
"Sorry." John rubbed at his aching temples, and tried to remember if this conversation had happened before. Would he have lingered behind if he hadn't been ... what? "I could fly us down," he added, and yes, he had said that before, and suddenly the memory of this day was so vivid that he could hardly breathe.
Rodney was squinting at him in the sunshine, brows furrowed with a little crease between them. "What's with you?"
"Nothing," John said, automatically, and for a moment he thought about running away from the balcony, back to the cool shadows inside the tower. What would he find, he wondered -- the ordinary curving corridors of Atlantis, or a dark cell like a tomb?
Instead, he allowed himself to go with the memory, joining Rodney at the balcony. The sea glittered in the sun, and far out near the horizon, one of the whales broached the surface. John couldn't help noticing how Rodney's eyes automatically went to the little whalespout, far out across the waves -- drawn like iron filings to a magnet. He didn't say anything; neither did John; and for a moment they just stood at the railing, lost in a companionable sort of silence. Rodney studied the horizon and the whales with a little quirky smile on his face, and John --
John looked at Rodney.
With Rodney's attention on the whales, John could study him without being noticed. Rodney never seemed to realize how striking he was, with his fluffy sun-bleached hair tapering down his neck, and the tattoos in their rich jewel colors painting an organic tracery across his tanned, honey-dark skin. He'd taken to wearing clothes on Atlantis, but he didn't bother to conform to SGC dress codes. At the moment, he was dressed more or less normally from the waist down, in the same BDU pants and boots that the expedition members wore. But the borrowed and slightly ill-fitting science expedition jacket stretched across his broad shoulders gapped open to reveal that he hadn't bothered putting on a shirt underneath it.
John had thought a lot of things about Rodney since first seeing him that day in the portal chamber. He'd thought Rodney was conspicuous, and exotic, and annoying, and bitter and lonely and obnoxiously smart; and, as time went on, funny and kind of nice to spend time with. But it wasn't until this day, seeing Rodney in the sunshine with his hair like a halo and his face so relaxed and peaceful as he watched the whales, that John had realized something else about Rodney.
He was gorgeous.
"What?" Rodney demanded waspishly, and John jerked his eyes guiltily away from Rodney's chest. "Do I have a bee on me, or something? Because I'm allergic."
"No, no bees. I was just ... thinking," he finished lamely.
Rodney's eyes narrowed at him suspiciously, and for a gut-clenching instant John was absolutely positive that every half-formed, betraying thought in his head was written across his face, plain to see. Fortunately, he'd temporarily forgotten that Rodney had all the emotional sensitivity and perceptive ability of a plastic lawn flamingo.
"Yes. Well, best of luck with that. I need to get back to the labs."
"I can fly you down," John offered again, but he remembered Rodney's answer, so he wasn't surprised when Rodney looked over the railing and shuddered.
"I'll leave that kind of insanity to you and the Birdman of Atlantis, thanks a lot."
And if John couldn't help a twinge of disappointment somewhere under his breastbone, he also felt relief, because that refusal was what enabled him to take a step back from an emotional precipice of his own -- to take a step away, and get some perspective again, and put everything under his skin back into place.
The thought wasn't his own. The pain in his head spiked, and he staggered, starting to sit down on the smooth coppery tiles of the balcony. Rodney, startled, moved to catch him --
... and he was sitting with his bare feet hanging off the side of the pier, watching Rodney sitting cross-legged on the back of a lounging whale, a tool kit open beside him on the whale's pebbly skin while he dug at the innards of his laptop. John blinked rapidly; his mouth tasted like metal, and he raised his hands to press the palms against his aching forehead. It was a sharp, dry spike, like an ice-cream headache.
He must have made a sound, because Rodney looked up, blue eyes fastening onto him with curiosity, irritation and maybe a bit of worry. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," John said, before he folded up and started to slide into the water, while Rodney made a sharp noise of alarm --
-- lying on a couch on the East Pier, with the stars overhead, and Wash piloting the Serenity in a 20-foot-high projection on the side of the nearest tower; turning his head as Rodney made a crack about unrealistic technology, and he meant to say, "It's just a TV show, Rodney," but a spike of pain shot up his neck, and --
-- watching Teyla and Rodney swaying in the firelight, to the tune of the skirling flutes at the Athosian Festival of Renewal, Teyla pulling Rodney through the moves of the dance even though he obviously knew them by heart. John could hear Rodney's grumbling even from here, but he could also see the light in Rodney's eyes, the half-hidden smile on Rodney's face, the impish grin on Teyla's -- and something too big, too powerful to contain swelled inside him. Not jealousy or anything so base as that, but an all-encompassing happiness just because they were so happy; and with it, a fierce and powerful urge to wrap his arms around them and shelter them and keep the world away, because they should always be like they were now, and if anyone ever hurt them he'd rip them apart with his bare hands --
-- Ronon dodged Teyla's swinging stick, half-spreading his wings instinctively to balance himself, and John took advantage of his moment of distraction to move in with his own sticks, one blow glancing off Ronon's quick defensive pose, the other countering Teyla's swing -- there was grass under his feet in the sunny training ring on Athos, and he was breathing hard and full of adrenaline, and, for one of the first times in his life, laughing aloud --
-- and Ronon folded his wings and dived towards the glittering sea --
-- turned to see Rodney rolling his eyes at him across the conference table, a conspiratorial look as Woolsey droned on about --
It was like having someone flip through a mental Rolodex of memories, and it had been going on for a long, long time. They were starting to bleed into each other -- Ronon stepping into a conference room meeting where he'd never been, Teyla lying on a whale, Rodney turning around with sticks in his hands; he couldn't tell what was real anymore. A white-hot spike of pain bored into the base of his skull, and John realized that the metallic taste in his mouth was the taste of blood.
You tried very hard to keep us out of these memories.
John spat blood into the darkness and raised a shaking hand to touch his face. His cheeks were rough with stubble, and cold iron bit into his wrists. "Go to hell," he rasped.
The cold, oily taint caressed his face in a mockery of gentleness. He was bathed in their corruption, inside and out, so that he would never be clean again.
Open up and let us in, wretched human, beloved of the City. They will not be coming for you, but if you give yourself to us, we need not hurt them.
New visions now, lurid against the utter darkness behind his eyelids -- Teyla with blood tracing new runes on her twisted limbs, Ronon with his wings a mess of broken feathers and jutting bone, Rodney with his eyes, his vibrant blue eyes, open and staring and flat --
"Go to hell," John said again, his voice cracking from thirst and exhaustion, and he realized to his own horror that he was crying, his eyes open in the darkness, the tears hot on his face. He reached out blindly and touched the walls of his prison, grounding himself, trying to focus on the fact that he was somewhere real and the hallucinations were only shades in the dark ...
Those are memories too, you know. They are already dead; you made your choice and they paid for it. You may as well let us in now; there is nothing left to lose.
"Go to hell," he said, over and over, until the words dissolved into meaningless syllables, and he pressed his wet face against his hands in the darkness.
"I still say this is a bad idea."
"Mer, shut up."
In the end, Mer had spilled everything to Jeannie -- he'd never been able to keep secrets from her. The situation he described was so unbelievable that she wondered if he could be lying to her, or if perhaps he'd completely lost his mind, living all alone for all those years in the Ancestors' city.
But she was certain of one thing: Mer was building a device that could revolutionize interplanetary travel (not to mention making him famous), and he was so stuck that he had come to her for help, and there was absolutely no way she wasn't getting involved in this. How could she ever justify it to herself, if she helped Mer obtain a few supplies and rework an equation or two, and then went on about her business, only to turn on the TV to see him giving his Nobel acceptance speech? Her professional pride would never allow it.
She wasn't surprised that Mer whined about it. He'd always had to be first and best at everything, and Jeannie won this argument just as she'd won every argument they'd ever had -- by going ahead and doing exactly what she wanted without listening to him. But what did surprise her was that under all of his bluster and complaints, he seemed to be genuinely afraid -- afraid for the missing friend that he was building the portal to find, afraid for Atlantis, afraid for her. While Mer getting scared wasn't exactly a new experience, Mer being scared for other people ... she didn't know how to deal with it.
So she dealt by throwing a change of clothes into a suitcase, taking a leave of absence from the university and heading off to Magic Mountain on a seven-league shuttle.
"Magic Mountain?" Mer had demanded in disbelief when she'd so referred to the Magic Division's Cheyenne Mountain headquarters.
Jeannie had just rolled her eyes. Many of her colleagues at the university, who shared her opinions about the U.S.-based organization's warlike ways and its hegemony over Earth's only interplanetary portal, derisively called it that. Mer could be a catspaw of the Establishment if he wanted to, but it didn't mean she had to duck her head and pretend to like them.
She couldn't help being impressed by the Mountain, though. She'd seen it on TV, of course, but small moving pictures could hardly do justice to the sheer size and grandeur of the thing, let alone the constant thrumming hum of magical energy moving through its halls. Jeannie herself was not magically gifted, and even she could feel it, lifting the hairs on her arms and stirring her hair in a non-existent breeze.
And she also couldn't help being impressed -- against her will -- by how quickly and respectfully the MD bureaucracy dealt with Mer; there were no delays to approve his request for passage back to Atlantis (her parents, she remembered, had sometimes faced months-long delays to get approval for their occasional trips back to visit relatives) and no one raised an eyebrow at the crates of rare and arcane ingredients that she'd helped him obtain. Nor did anyone question her own right to be there; the security clearance that Mer had already obtained for her appeared to be sufficient. It was more than a little scary -- her big brother seemed to be an important man in the eyes of the Magic Division, and that frightened her even more than all his talk of invisible enemies in the halls of Atlantis.
And now, here she stood in the huge portal chamber under the Mountain, feeling her hair stand on end as the MD opened the shimmering portal to a place she hadn't been since she was a child. Jeannie swallowed, and repressed the childish urge to reach out and grab her brother's hand. She had been through portals before -- she understood their workings better than almost anyone in two galaxies. Seeing the silvery surface before her shouldn't fill her with an unreasoning, childish dread.
"Right," she said, as much to herself as to Mer. "Let's do this."
The portal worked its magic quickly, Jeannie knew. She also knew that there was no way the human mind could process anything that happened in those two point nine seven two (rounded down) seconds a person was between -- not physically present on either side of the portal. But all that knowledge didn't change the wide array of emotions she experienced in a very, very short time.
Mer worried about terrible, invisible enemies. What Jeannie really feared was the silence. She had spent her adult life trying to find answers to what had never been a mystery when she was still on Atlantis, but which defied explanations back in the real world. The city couldn't have spoken to her, could not have sung her asleep. That was a scientific fact. So far, even Jeannie's own research into three-dimensional magical constructs and the symmetry of Ancestral architecture had confirmed that. The city was just that -- a city. A collection of buildings. Special only because it floated in the sea of an alien planet and had been built by the Ancestors. There were no dreams there; no lullabies. Just waves and wind and the very active imagination of a lonely little girl.
But even silent, Atlantis was still home. Home in a way that Vancouver could never be. The warm sun and endless ocean and glittering spires -- she was going to see it all again, smell the salt air and the sweet Athosian grass of her pillow. She was going home. Finally, after all this time, she was going home.
Jeannie stepped from the portal to be bathed in light. It was late morning on Atlantis, and bright sunlight streamed through the colored windows of the portal chamber. The difference between the Magic Division's underground bunker and the airy halls of the Ancestors was as great as the distance between the two galaxies.
She strained her ears to listen for -- for the wind, the waves. She heard nothing but the polite chatter around her as people came up to greet them. Jeannie was used to dealing with academic receptions, and that experience told her that most of the small crowd that had gathered here were nothing but curious onlookers. She was not in the least bit surprised to find that her brother was quite the draw. A rumpled werewolf with a Slavic accent appeared next to them, and even if he hadn't been the head scientist, Jeannie would have known there was something to the man from the way Mer introduced them without any prompting at all.
Mer must have mentioned him before, but Jeannie forgot his name before she had even finished shaking his hand. There were others after him, but it was all she could do to keep smiling and nodding, when all she wanted to do was stand there and stare -- or maybe run away from all the noise. All those voices; the bustle of activity -- she had known that there were people here, of course. But it was one thing to know, and a totally different thing to find the empty halls of her memory filled by strangers.
Her head was still spinning when a female officer took Jeannie's bag, and they left the Portal Chamber. Meredith was gesturing emphatically at the soldier, explaining that they didn't need an escort, but the young woman was notably unimpressed. "I don't care how well you can find your way around here -- this isn't about you. This is about making Dr. McKay feel welcome." And if the sentence technically ended there, the look she shot Mer clearly said you twit.
But she smiled warmly at Jeannie, who smiled back. It was partially a reflex, but mostly she was just amused to have found someone who refused to be bullied by her brother.
Someone giggled, high and clear, and Mer walked into Jeannie when she stopped dead in her tracks. There was nobody else in the hallway -- definitely nobody with a voice like a child's. If it had been a voice at all. Jeannie cast about for the source of that sound, but saw nothing. Saw nothing, but felt ... something. If emotions could echo, this would be the echo of her own amusement, caught in a quivering moment -- and then it disappeared.
A touch on her shoulder, and Jeannie looked up to find the soldier steadying her, all professional worry now. "Dr. McKay? Are you okay?"
Mer hovered on Jeannie's other side, looking nervously up and down the empty corridor, as if he were expecting to catch sight of some imagined assailant.
"Yeah," Jeannie breathed, and then added a little more firmly. "I'm fine, it's just -- it's been a long trip." She gave a little laugh, and that seemed to satisfy the soldier.
It didn't do much for Mer, who looked frazzled and desperate to say something. Incredibly, he managed to keep his mouth shut until they were left alone in Jeannie's assigned quarters. The effort of it meant that the moment the door closed behind the soldier, he practically exploded with questions. "What was that? In the hall, just now? Did you feel something -- do you think it was ... something?" He hissed the last word in what passed for a whisper among McKays.
Jeannie shook her head. "I just thought I heard something."
"Something like what? Something dangerous? Something I should get Cadman back in here to shoot for us? Because she could do that, you know. I knew I shouldn't have brought you here, knew it was a mistake --"
Jeannie stared at her brother. "What? Mer, don't be ridiculous! I'm not going to have anyone shoot anything! I must have imagined it." He gave her a long look, and she added a very firm, "Really."
Really. She turned away from him. There had been nothing but human voices and silence. Only Mer's voice, now, and the faint murmur of the sea. Nothing else. What she thought she heard -- she must have imagined it. The truth of those words shouldn't hurt -- really, it shouldn't, because it had been so long, and she was an adult now. But it did. It hurt like a promise betrayed; like the absence of family. Emotions she had struggled to lock away or leave behind were returning like the feeling in a numb limb, creeping back with enough pain to make her eyes prickle with unshed tears. She exhaled harshly, her chest aching.
With her next breath, something changed.
It was a sensation so faint it was hardly pressure at all, but if it had been, it would have been the pressure of a delicate green shoot pushing through frozen earth. The soft exhalation of a mother's breath, carrying a lullaby to her baby. It was here, in this room. The city was talking to her.
Rodney couldn't remember the last time he had seen his sister cry. Maybe when she had been sent back to Earth, but she had been just a kid then. She had also been so coldly furious that he wouldn't have sworn that she had been crying. He knew she hadn't been talking, because for all that he had tried very hard not to remember any of this, he could never forget the way his little sister's last days on Atlantis had passed in absolute silence. After that last, painfully loud argument with their parents that Jeannie didn't win, she simply stopped talking.
Jeannie wasn't talking now, either, but mostly because she was too busy sniffling. The lack of those icy glares that had driven Rodney to seek the company of his whales was nice, of course, but the crying was downright disconcerting. She was hugging herself so hard it looked as if she was trying to hold herself together where she stood in the middle of her room, suitcase forgotten on the bed in front of her.
Rodney would be the first to admit that he wasn't very good at dealing with emotions -- especially other people's emotions, and now there was crying, and it wasn't just people, but his little sister. Which made it both easier and infinitely more difficult. Rodney drew a deep breath, and closed the distance between them. He didn't understand what was happening to Jeannie, but this time he had learned enough to know what a big brother should do in a situation like this. He put a hand on her shoulder, gently, as if she were a sensitive bank of particularly volatile circuits.
Jeannie started, looking up at him with wide blue eyes full of -- well, emotions, a whole host of them, but more importantly, there were tears. Which distracted him from trying to decipher their cause. It seemed to be the kind of moment where he should say something comforting and supportive, but the only thing he could think of to say was, "I'm sorry -- was it something I did?"
Which made Jeannie laugh, even though it came out strangled in a sob, and then both her arms were around his neck, squeezing him tight for a moment. Before Rodney managed to get his own arms sorted out, she pulled back, wiping at her eyes with the back of one hand. "No. No, Mer, it's -- it's not like that."
"Okay?" Rodney had no idea what to make of this, but at least she didn't seem mad. That was good. He liked it when Jeannie wasn't mad at him.
He liked it even better when she stopped crying altogether, and went to the window, looking out across the ocean with her emotions hidden behind a cool mask. This was more like the Jeannie he knew.
"Would you like to, uh, take a shower or get something to eat or --"
"Mer." Jeannie turned around, the mask firmly back on. "I thought you said we had work to do?"
Work. Work was good, better than dealing with inexplicably tearful sisters. The supplies they'd brought back with them had been delivered to the labs; Rodney and Jeannie set about breaking them down and dividing them up for transport to the mainland.
Zelenka wandered in halfway through the process and stood watching for a moment with folded arms. "You must be on the trail of something big, Rodney," he said eventually.
"Huh? What are you going on about? And move, you're in the way."
Zelenka obligingly shifted to one side. "You aren't discussing your whale project. Normally, the problem is getting you to shut up about the things you're working on. Also, you have not insulted my intelligence in days."
"You make me sound like a raging egomaniac," Rodney retorted, sorting through a box of electronics.
There was a loud snort from Jeannie's direction.
"No one asked the peanut gallery! Where are my Tesla coils? And the burdock root? Damn it, Jeannie, did we forget the burdock?"
Zelenka smiled to himself and leaned over Rodney's shoulder, peering into the box. "I do not remember signing for those supplies. The last I heard, this was my lab, wasn't it?"
"I'm an independent consultant," Rodney said impatiently. "Move, I need to put this box there."
Zelenka slid gracefully out of the way. "Your absence from the city has been noted; I've fielded quite a few questions, you know."
"Noted?" Rodney repeated, absently, not looking up from his repacking. "By who?"
"By me," a voice said crisply from the doorway, and Rodney stiffened and straightened, looking across the room at Woolsey.
Jeannie saw the change in her brother's body language, and looked over in surprise, expecting to see someone menacing in the doorway. Instead, she saw a slight, balding man who did not look at all threatening.
"Woolsey," Meredith said, and the sharp note in his voice made Jeannie frown.
"McKay," Woolsey returned in a brisk tone. "And this must be Dr. Jean McKay. We've been trying to woo her here to Atlantis for some time; I'm impressed that you managed to do it."
"I'm here in a consultant capacity only, to help my brother with a project," Jeannie said sharply. "I don't plan to stay long."
"Well, allow me to welcome you to Atlantis." He crossed the room -- moving remarkably quickly for someone so unathletic-looking -- and clasped her hand. "I do apologize for not welcoming you to Atlantis. Dr. McKay -- the other one -- is a bit of a maverick, as you've no doubt noticed; if I'd known you were coming, I'd have given you a tour."
This was precisely what she hadn't wanted: Magic Division bureaucrats courting her on their home territory. "My brother has already shown me around." She extricated her hand with just enough grace not to be rude. "If you don't mind, I'm only going to be here for a few days, and we're quite busy; we need to get back to work."
"Experiment in progress?" Woolsey inquired, looking around at the wires and capacitors and packets of herbs scattered about the floor.
"Yes, very important, like she said, and progress waits for no man." Mer was practically babbling -- which was, admittedly, not unusual behavior for Mer, but Jeannie could see that he was ... distressed? Afraid? Woolsey's appearance had obviously upset him badly.
Woolsey nodded politely and left them to it, but he didn't leave -- he drew Zelenka aside and they began talking about inventory manifests and employee evaluations. Every once in a while, Woolsey's eyes went past Zelenka's shoulder to Jeannie. She wished he wouldn't do that; it was creepy.
"Come on, let's get this stuff ready to go on the whales and get out of here," Mer hissed at her.
Jeannie bent over to reach for the same cable he was picking up, bringing her head so close to his that her hair brushed his ear. "What's wrong with you?
"He's one of them," Meredith whispered in what he probably thought was a conspiratorial tone, but Jeannie was sure it must have carried to the whole lab.
"Really?" She started to peek past his shoulder, but Mer grabbed holding of her swinging blond hair and yanked on it, pulling her head back down. She clapped a hand to her abused scalp. "Ow! Meredith!" Same old Mer. Her pigtails had never been safe.
"Stealth mode," her brother whispered loudly, making air quotes.
Jeannie rolled her eyes and picked up a box. Stealth mode, indeed. As they passed Woolsey and Zelenka, heading out into the hall, she offered them a smile to make up for her brother's rudeness.
It wasn't until they were in the corridor heading down to the docks that she realized Atlantis had been entirely quiet the whole time Woolsey had been in the lab. She hadn't heard a peep out of it.
Maybe Mer wasn't crazy after all.
She quickly forgot about it when she was re-introduced to the whales, however. They were delighted to see her and every one of them wanted to come up and nudge her gently with its giant nose, but she soon had a splitting headache from, she assumed, their unsuccessful attempts to talk to her, remembering similar issues from her childhood. Still, it was hard not to just shuck off her skirt and dive into the water with them.
Home, she thought.
Another couple of trips up to the lab, and they had all the supplies locked up in waterproof bins and strapped to the whales' broad backs. "Don't they mind this?" Jeannie asked; she'd given up on trying to talk directly to them and was using Mer as a translator. "Isn't it exploiting them?"
He waved a hand airily. "They think it's fun. They like being useful."
"If you say so." She clambered onto the nearest whale's back; it was moist and slippery. She found it difficult to get purchase with her shoes, and ended up slipping them off and clinging with her toes. Mer, she saw, had stripped down to nothing but swim trunks with a look of relief.
"Look," he said suddenly, lifting his chin. Jeannie looked over her shoulder. It took her a moment to spot a small figure standing on a balcony high above them, watching them.
"Is that Woolsey?"
"I think so." Mer swung up onto the nearest whale's back. "Damn it. I didn't want him to know that we're -- but let's not talk about this here."
Jeannie couldn't resist twisting around to look back over her shoulder as the towers of Atlantis receded behind them. Her stomach clenched with a strange combination of regret, foreboding and fear, and she couldn't quite shake the feeling that the city had been trying to tell her something.
The sun was high in the sky when Teyla stepped out of the portal, and light streamed through every window of the great portal chamber. She nodded at the young man on duty, a casual smile hiding her sudden unease. She had been coming here for most of her life, and never before had the bright, open space of this room made her feel so exposed. So like prey. Woolsey's office overlooked the entire floor, and it took an effort of will not to keep it in her line of sight as she walked out.
Safely in the corridors away from the portal chamber, she set a brisk pace, moving the way people on important business often do. In the time the expedition had been in the City of the Ancestors, Teyla had made friends with several of the Earthers interested in her people and their ways, and she did not want to stop and talk. After several days away, she had a goal in mind.
The infirmary smelled of sweet dried herbs and bitter antiseptic. She walked softly past empty beds and arcane equipment. A feeling of mellow warmth that had noting to do with the temperature in the room brushed against her, going deeper than skin and bones. The wards she had left for Carson and his people were still strong. That eased her mind a little, and she relaxed further when she picked up the murmur of familiar voices coming from the healer's office.
"I don't know what you're doing to yourself, son, but I know you will not be healing properly if you don't give your body time to recuperate." Carson was busy applying ointment on Ronon's shoulder along with the scolding.
Ronon looked up at Teyla, his face rueful under a fresh bruise. "Thought you were already here," he said by way of greeting.
"Oh, hello, Teyla," Carson said, his attention on his patient.
"Healer," she nodded, and closed the doors behind her. Then she answered Ronon, "I returned to Athos. Woolsey was beginning to question my presence here, and I needed to talk to the elders." Teyla didn't ask Ronon how he had come to let Carson tend to his injuries, but she was pleased that he had.
"He bugged me, too. I told him I needed to see the healer," Ronon explained, twitching his wings in a shrug. Obviously her thoughts had been easy for him to read. "Didn't know Rodney was back."
Carson straightened and nodded. "He went to Earth. Apparently he has a sister there? He brought her over to help him -- she's quite the scientist, or so Zelenka says."
"Jeannie?" Teyla remembered Rodney's sister as a young girl, fond of ribbons and tiny, squirming sea creatures, always eager to join in their games. To imagine her as a woman grown was strange. And that Rodney, who was so unwilling to speak of her, should go to her for help? That was stranger still, and more than a little alarming.
"You just missed her, I'm afraid. They left for the mainland already." Carson patted Ronon's shoulder lightly. "There you go. It should help speed up the healing, and ease the pain. But what you really need is rest."
Ronon made a noncommittal noise, and set to lacing his shirt. Carson let the lack of respect for physicians' orders pass without comment. He was looking just as drained as Ronon, if a little less battered. This search, the threat hanging over them all -- it was taking its toll, and they were no nearer a solution to any of their problems than they had been the night John vanished. The peace Teyla had briefly felt here with her friends in this safe place was as false as the concerned facade of a Wraith in human form. The need for action weighted heavily on her.
"Ronon, could you fly to the mainland and speak with Rodney and his sister?"
"Sure. I'll go now."
Carson frowned, but didn't protest. Instead he reached for the small bottle of ointment he had placed on his desk, and passed it to Ronon. "Here. You keep it."
"Thanks." Ronon stood, and stretched his wings. "Got a message?"
Teyla hesitated. What could she tell Rodney? Her wards were holding, but they couldn't do more than what they already were. Couldn't do anything about the Wraith already in the City, or about their missing friend. She shook her head. "Just see how he's doing."
Ronon acknowledged more than just her words with a quick squeeze of her shoulder as he passed her on the way out. "We should stay out of the City," he cautioned her.
"Let's meet on Athos tomorrow," she agreed, and then he was gone.
Teyla stayed to talk with Carson for a little while. He was sure that he was on the right track with his Wraith exorcism work, but the research was still all theoretical. There was nothing more she could do to assist him with that, and when a biologist came to the infirmary complaining of an odd, blue rash, she left the healer to his work.
Moving through the City, her instinct was to stay away from people. The dark hunters would no doubt be moving where their prey gathered. But that would do little good for all those who lived in vulnerable ignorance of the threat that walked among them. Instead, Teyla chose to wander through the most populated corridors, and stopped here and there in busy halls and chambers. She ran her fingers delicately in nearly invisible patterns of ochre dust on a wall here, murmured encouragement to a decorative plant there. The City didn't react to her magic in the same way the forests and fields of Athos did, but it was much more receptive to it than anything constructed by man. When she offered it her power, the City accepted, and her protection seemed to seep into its very walls.
It was a small comfort, this warding, and more taxing than she would have admitted to anyone who asked, but it felt better than hiding in the safety of her home. She walked familiar paths through the City, tracing and retracing her own magic. The repetitive nature of the task was absorbing, and it took several distracted whiffs of air heavy with the delicious smell of fresh tava bean soup for her to realize that it was getting late.
Teyla looked around. She had moved out from the corridor, and was standing on a balcony. Her fingertips were smudged deep red from the powdered ochre she had been using instead of her regular paint, and she had just finished winding a rune around the railing. The sun was molten gold dripping into the ocean on the horizon. From the rich scents carried on the wind that whipped her hair around her face, she knew that she must be somewhere over the chambers the Earthers had converted to a quite magnificent kitchen. It was supper time.
The shortest way to the mess hall would take her through an area she had already covered today. To be more efficient, she could go the long way around, and do some ward work on the way. Her stomach chose that moment to rumble, and for the space of a heartbeat she found herself expecting to hear a laugh or a joke about it. But she was alone here. The jab of hunger made her realize that she had not eaten anything anything since morning tea, and it would already be night on Athos. That settled it. She would take the shortcut to mess, and replenish the energy she badly needed for her magic.
The windows here glinted red from the sunset outside, and the purple shadows of dusk were gathering in the corners. Teyla was busy considering what she could tell Woolsey if he or one of his cohorts questioned her, when something like an absence of air struck her. She gasped out loud with the shock of it -- it was like walking down stairs, and finding a step missing. But there was air in her lungs, and the ground was solid beneath her feet -- what was missing was her magic. It was wrong -- she had been through here, right here only hours before. It had been strong and vibrant then, the ward she had laid down. Now it wasn't just faded, like it would be if she had done a sloppy job. It was gone. And no Earther could have done that. No -- it had been erased by the Wraith.
Teyla's first instinct was to act, to repair the damage instantly, because she couldn't bear the terrible, hollow feeling where the steady presence of magic should be. Her red-stained fingers were a mere hairbreadth from the wall when she stopped. If she changed this, if she acted now, the dark ones would know. Would know that she knew, and that might force them to act. Whatever was causing them to stay their immediate attack on all living things in the City might not count for much if she challenged them openly now. Or it might still protect the Earthers, but draw the enemy's attention to herself and her people.
She swallowed against a sick feeling in her stomach, her guts twisting in revulsion. She couldn't see or feel the taint that Carson had spoken about, but she knew it was there. It had devoured her magic, and she had almost touched it with her bare hands. She tucked them both under her arms -- to protect herself or keep from doing something rash, she couldn't have said. Then she steeled herself, and turned her back on that jarring emptiness.
The smell of food emanating from the mess hall was no longer tempting. Teyla turned down a side corridor, into one of the Ancestor's inviting, open hallways with seats scattered around a handful of liquid pillar-sculptures. It was mercifully empty, and she could sit down and calm her internal turmoil.
The lack of warding stretched even here, as much as a negative of something could be said to have a presence. But magic was more than skill, more than the physical form of the runes or the sounds that formed her words. Teyla knew her magic ought to be here, and it was not. It meant another ward had been broken, another thread of protection through the City unraveled.
And it was the first sign she herself could read of the shadow walkers' presence. It should have been terrifying, to know beyond any doubt that they were indeed stalking the halls of the Ancestors. But she had never doubted her friends' certainty that the ancient threat was already present, and now that she reflected on this latest development, she found that she was oddly relieved. If she could notice their presence, that was something she could do. Something immediate. She could choose to attempt to reform the wards that they had tore down -- or she could wait, and watch, and consider why this was happening right here, right now.
None of her other wards had been disturbed before. Worn out, yes, as they soon got in a place where so many people dwelled, but not obliterated. And today had been the first time she had attempted to put a ward down in this particular corridor. Teyla rose to her feet. Something had caused the Wraith to move, to use their dark powers on the City itself, after keeping so quiet that she would never have suspected they were there if it wasn't for the warnings her friends had given.
When she turned to walk back to the corridor, she flowed into the silent, alert motions she used on all her hunts. Her neck prickled with the sense of danger -- this was not her hunting ground, and those who sought their prey here were far deadlier than anything clawed or fanged. Which is why they would never expect her to be stalking them.
Outside, the sun had gone down. The corridors were lit by the Ancestor's crystals, and by the blue luminescence of a twilight sea and sky. This time Teyla could almost feel a chill deadening the air where her ward should have been. It was the absence of her magic's comforting warmth -- which wasn't warmth at all, as little as the lack of it would feel cold to anyone else who passed. But as she accustomed herself to the sensation, she could tell that it spilled down a different corridor, away from the large windows, clinging to the polished jade walls inside.
Ronon would be back on Athos, waiting for her -- but after so much fruitless searching and worrying, she finally had something. Something the shadow hunters had taken great pains to protect by erasing her interfering magic. This place lay deep inside the central spire, away from the main laboratories and offices. The expedition had been storing superfluous supplies here for years, and few people ever had cause to come this way. She only knew about the warren of abandoned chambers because she and Rodney had played hide and seek here as children.
What were the Wraith hiding? Her heart beat faster with anxious anticipation, and hope too fragile to cling to. The reports said John had gone through the portal to Athos. Nobody had seen him return to the City -- but reports could be altered, and if people were not who they seemed, how could they truly believe what they had been told?
A noise made her snap out of her thoughts, and duck around a corner. She realized that she was hearing footsteps just in time to keep from throwing herself back the way she had come. This part of the corridor was full of crates and shadows, and if Teyla had been following a single spider thread of Wraith taint, what she had just walked into was a web. More present than absent, brushing against her with a foul, near tangible oiliness that wrenched a shudder from her.
Nobody should be coming here. No Earther. Teyla crouched between the walls and those ugly, square boxes. The corridor behind her led to more tiny rooms and twisting passages -- the only way out was ahead. She was trapped. Teyla held her breath, and her magic, as the footsteps echoed down the hall, moving steadily closer. She clenched her firsts and cursed herself for leaving Rodney's quarters without her bantos sticks. The chill she had felt earlier intensified, seeping through her clothes and skin and straight to her bones.
The Wraith stopped. Teyla didn't dare raise her head to look at it. She couldn't make a sound. If her presence had been detected, if it was searching for her now-- Her heart was frantically pumping adrenaline into her system, wanting her to run or fight, to do anything but sit here waiting for the predator to corner her.
A door hissed open. The hunter stepped through, and the hallway was empty. Teyla breathed deeply, drawing oxygen into her burning lungs. It seemed to her that the sound of it bounced off the walls like the echo of a shout, calling for the Wraith to notice her. If it came back out -- but it was gone, for now. And she should leave, too. Should run while she could.
Except she couldn't, of course. Not when she didn't know where the Wraith had disappeared to, or why it had come here. She pushed aside the uncomfortable thought that this Wraith might be but one representative of a larger gathering, and stood up warily. Her own rapid pulse and shallow breathing were the only sounds she could hear. No footsteps -- though those who hunt didn't always wear bodies. Yet another unpleasant thought.
Where had it gone? Teyla studied the plain walls in undersea hues visible through the irregular stacks of gray boxes. She passed close enough to touch the door, and didn't see it. She felt it, though -- something pressing her away, urging her eyes to see other things, like brushing the wrong ends of magnets together. It drove her a couple of steps away, but she dug in with her will, and stared at that one spot in the wall, in a gap between boxes -- and saw the door as it opened. She had attracted the attention of the hunter at last.
The door was already shutting behind the Wraith wearing a man's face, but not before she caught a glimpse of something on the floor -- pale skin and unmistakably messy black hair. John.
Fierce joy pierced through her terror and panic, and she grabbed that spike of feeling and wove it into words. Moving as she spoke, her words called on the strength of herself and her runes -- all of her runes, worked into her own skin and that of the City.
Her enemy was ready. He waited in the doorway, expressionless, with magefire crackling over his fists -- but she was moving with runes and words and the need to get to her friend. Teyla drew on the strength of the runes she had spent the day inscribing on the City's skin -- a desperate measure, depleting them to give herself the power she needed for a strike. Her ochre-stained fingertips rested lightly against his temples before he knew she was there.
The man screamed, and the Wraith screamed with him. Fighting for its life, it was terribly strong, and fast, and she was forced to block blows she could not avoid. One clipped her on the side of her head, and threw her against a pile of boxes. The breath was knocked from her lungs, and she had the time to think I should have told Rodney -- but the killing strike she expected didn't come.
Teyla scrambled to her feet. The Wraith was still screaming, a sound of pain and madness, and it was clutching at its own head. Convulsions wracked the stolen body, and her fingers twitched, missing the solid feeling of her bantos rods. With them, she might have been able to do more. As it was, she ducked past the writhing Wraith where it staggered blindly from side to side, and threw herself at the door.
It didn't open. Teyla couldn't even see it, and she had lost the tread of tainted magic -- she knew it had been there, but now she couldn't see it, and couldn't feel it, and the Wraith was still screaming. She scrabbled frantically at the smooth surface of the wall, pounding it with her rune-charged fists, but it didn't appear.
The Wraith was making a burbling keen that no living throat should have been able to make. It had collapsed to the floor, but it was still moving, and it sounded very, very angry.
Teyla made one last, desperate attempt to force the door open. She might as well have tried to wring water from a stone. She leaned her forehead against the smooth surface for a second she couldn't really afford, pressed her palms to it. I'm sorry, John. Her ribcage felt too tight for her heart. She couldn't speak.
As she tore herself away from the sealed chamber, and turned her back on her friend, every breath she drew was a promise to come back. She would come back for him, and he would still be alive, and then they would all be safe. But first she had to live, and to live, she had to run. So she ran -- deeper into the City's still green and gold corridors, desperately seeking safety.
Rodney led the way up the path from the sea to the cave. "It's really lovely out here," Jeannie said from below him, picking her way with a box of electrical components in her arms.
"Is it? I hadn't really noticed."
Jeannie stopped at the top of the path. She slowly set down the box and then walked over to the structure taking shape in the middle of the cave. "Wow. That's impressive."
The mostly-finished portal wasn't pretty, but then, he wasn't looking to win any art-show awards. Rodney had cobbled it together out of anything he could find in the labs that had the right thaumaturgical properties and would be able to withstand the magical forces it would be subjected to. The result was one part absurdist sculpture and one part junkpile, but it was vaguely ring-shaped. Cables snaked across the cave floor, connecting the portal to an ambient-magic generator and a ring of power circles spaced at regular intervals around the cave, as well as every laptop and piece of monitoring equipment that Rodney had been able to sneak out of the labs. He had promised not to blow up the planet, after all.
Jeannie walked around the room, studying readouts, bending to look at cables. Rodney could see her putting it all together in her mind, click click click, the finished machine taking shape in her brain. He recognized the look because he knew what it felt like when he did it. He'd been poised to explain it to her, but instead, he went back down for another box.
By the time he'd finished hauling up the supplies (by himself, but of course he'd done the rest of it by himself as well) Jeannie had begun to talk: "Why are these two cables spliced when separate cables would provide a more direct energy pathway?" and "Shouldn't this power circle be placed three inches to the left? According to Tesla's Fifth Law ..." and "You need a backup power source here, or you'll completely destabilize the whole thing if this fuse blows ..." It would be really annoying if she weren't right about most of it -- well, okay, that actually made it even more annoying, but the whales had clearly known what they were doing when they pointed him in Jeannie's direction. She might not be able to understand the math at all, but she knew what a finished portal ought to look like, even if it didn't work quite the same as the ones she was used to.
He didn't come up for air from his argument with Jeannie until a fluttering of wings at the mouth of the cave broke up their vociferous back-and-forth over the machine. Rodney was amazed to discover it was already dusk; where had the day gone? The machine was partly disassembled -- thanks to Jeannie's troubleshooting (though of course he'd never admit it) they'd already diagnosed and fixed several major problems with his design.
"Interesting," Ronon said, folding his wings and studying the parts spread out on the floor.
Jeannie made a small squeaky sound.
Rodney waved a hand impatiently between them. "Jeannie, Ronon; Ronon, Jeannie. Why are you here and not out there doing, I don't know, something useful?"
"Teyla thought I should check up on you." Ronon wandered around the cave, peering at the machine from different angles, reaching out a long finger to poke at a cable.
"Check up on me? What do you think I'm doing out here, having a picnic? -- Stop touching things!
Jeannie was following Ronon around the cave, peering at his wings with the same fascination that he was showing for the machine. "Are those real?" she asked.
Ronon fluffed them self-consciously. "Is your hair real?"
"Food," Rodney said loudly. "I'm starving. Stay for dinner, if spellcanned beans are your thing."
"Give me five minutes and we'll have fresh fish," Ronon said, and did a back flip off the edge of the cave.
Jeannie stared after him. "Is that a friend of yours?"
"I guess you could call him that," Rodney admitted, reluctantly, and began rummaging in the crates.
They ate roasted fish and canned beans, sitting at the edge of the cave with their legs dangling. By habit, Rodney checked on the whales; they were around, swimming in the depths on the very edges of his perception.
As was usually the case these days, Ronon looked exhausted and slightly roughed up -- there was a bruise on his cheekbone that Rodney didn't think had been there before. As usual, he didn't bother asking about it. "What's Teyla doing?"
"Keeping out of Woolsey's way, mostly."
"I remember Teyla," Jeannie said, swinging her legs over the edge of the cave. "She was your friend, wasn't she, Mer? The red-haired girl? The two of you used to go swimming and leave me behind."
Ronon cocked an eyebrow. "Mer?"
Rodney had managed to train Teyla out of calling him Meredith many years ago, so Ronon had never heard his real name. "Never mind, looking for Sheppard, much more interesting," he said shortly. "You found anything?"
"The shadow walkers are on the move." Ronon flicked a fishbone over the edge. "Everywhere we go, we hear rumors, stories told in whispers."
"But you haven't found any kind of a -- a base of operations? A homeworld? A top-secret prison? A--" He gulped, and stopped short of saying body.
"McKay," Ronon said, "you do your job, I'll do mine."
He declined their offer to stay the night, and winged off again, vanishing into the dark sky. Rodney shivered a little after he'd gone; only because the wind was getting cold. Still, he felt so much safer when Ronon was there.
Jeannie knelt next to the machine, picked up a small transistor and toyed with it. "You're very determined," she said. "To get your friend back."
"It's an excellent opportunity to try out the portal," Rodney said, but his heart wasn't in it. So easy to be self-assured during the day, on Atlantis -- Dr. Rodney McKay, who didn't need anyone (except for his pod, obviously, which went without saying). It was harder to hide with the truth all around him, like the shadows gathered in the corners of the cave.
Jeannie looked up at him, still playing with the transistor between her graceful fingers. When she spoke again, her voice was cautious, hesitant. "And this person, this Sheppard person -- is just a friend?"
"Uh ... what?" Honestly baffled, he looked away from the dark sky, to her face. What else would Sheppard be? If he was even a friend; Rodney had no idea how Sheppard really felt about him. He'd learned on Earth how readily people -- human-type people -- could pretend to be your friend just to get something out of you. He didn't think Sheppard was capable of that ... but you never really knew, did you?
"Nothing. Never mind." Jeannie pressed her lips together, her eyes shadowed in the spell-lights illuminating the cave. "Oh, Mer, how did you get involved in something like this? Vanishing friends and ... and a war with an enemy you can't even see." She frowned at him, looking, really looking; the directness of her stare made him look away.
"I hate to break it to you, Jeannie, but we don't exactly get to pick and choose how our lives turn out." He meant it to come out brisk and assured, the voice of an older sibling lecturing a younger one. Instead, his voice sounded shaky and small even to himself. Stupid cave acoustics.
"I know," Jeannie said, quietly, and she laid down the transistor and stood up, brushing her hands on her hips. "Well, we have work to do, don't we?"
"You can, uh. Sleep. If you want to."
"Mer." She turned to him, and her face was set, determined. "Work to do."
They worked through the night and into the next day, until the sun lay low across the glittering sea. At times, Rodney found Jeannie more of a hindrance than a help, because she kept making him stop to try to explain one set of equations or another. It frustrated her utterly to try to build a machine when she couldn't understand the math behind it; this was, obviously, not an experience she was familiar with. Rodney didn't want to admit that even he had trouble with it sometimes, and had to go to the whales for explanation.
But after working alone for so long, working in tandem with another scientist, one who could (almost) keep up with him, was its own kind of joy. Caught up on a wave of creative energy, Rodney barely noticed the passage of time until another flutter of wings heralded Ronon's return.
"Brought you this from the cafeteria," he said, setting down a box that turned out to contain sandwiches. Rodney and Jeannie fell on it like starving hyenas.
"That's very considerate of you -- Ronon?" Jeannie smiled at him, stretched and rubbed her eyes. Taking her sandwich, she wandered to the mouth of the cave to stare out at the jewel-bright sky.
"Thing looks just about done," Ronon said, studying the portal.
"That's because it is just about done." Rodney rolled his shoulders, trying to stretch out some of the aches.
"Good," Ronon said, and then, matter-of-factly, in the same breath, "Teyla's missing."
Rodney looked up at him, forgetting to chew until he tried to inhale and nearly choked on the bite of sandwich in his mouth. When he'd stopped coughing, he croaked out, "You lost Teyla?!"
"She didn't show up to our rendezvous." Ronon's eyes were distant and dark with worry.
"Oh great. That's just great." Rodney sat down, suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. When was the last time he'd managed a full night's sleep? His eyes felt like they were full of sand.
"Beckett said he thinks they're getting suspicious," Ronon added. "Woolsey's been hanging around the infirmary, asking questions."
"About what?" Rodney crammed the last of the sandwich into his mouth and bent down to fix a scuffed-out corner of one of the power circles.
"You. Wants to know where you are, what you're doing."
"What'd you tell him?"
"Told him I don't know. Don't understand any of what you do."
Rodney glanced up at him, but Ronon's face gave nothing away. "Great," Rodney muttered, tracing the fresh lines of the circle in white chalk. "The wolfpack is closing in on us."
"But we're about ready for a test run, aren't we?" Jeannie asked, wandering back over as she fastidiously brushed the crumbs off her skirt. "I mean, we fixed the power drain and I think we've got the targeting figured out."
"This is Sheppard's life we're talking about here! We don't want to ... to splinch him, or something!"
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "Harry Potter is fantasy, Rodney; there's no such thing as splinching in real life."
"How do you know? No one since the Ancestors has ever built a functional portal, either!"
Jeannie turned to Ronon just as he turned to her, and they shared a perfectly comprehensible look. Rodney glared at them both. "Stop talking about me behind my back!"
"Nobody said anything, McKay."
Rodney heaved a sigh and, muttering, returned to checking the power circles. It was better than thinking about Teyla. They couldn't have taken Teyla. She's too smart, too fast, too strong.
They're alive. They're both alive. There's no other option.
"I think we actually are ready for a test run," Jeannie said, and smiled smugly at him. "No need to thank me. I knew you couldn't have done it without me."
"Certainly I could've. It simply would have taken longer." He gave the power circles one final once-over.
Ronon sighed. Arms crossed, he sat at one side of the cave and watched them go through their portal-opening checklist.
"North cables!" Rodney barked, ticking off items on a tablet computer.
"North cables, green light, sir!" Jeannie bellowed back, and added in a more normal voice, "I'm standing twenty feet away from you, Mer. I can hear you fine."
"This gonna take much longer?" Ronon wanted to know. "Teyla --"
"-- is the First Whale only knows where, and it's not like an extra half hour is going to make the slightest bit of difference if you go flying off looking for her. If this works, we'll get her next." Rodney felt like a jerk, but damn it, it was true. Wherever Teyla was, they had to assume she could handle herself until they could open a portal to her. "South cables!"
"Power circle one!"
"Green! I swear to goodness, Mer, if you don't stop yelling at me like a drill sergeant --"
Somehow they managed to get through the checklist without killing each other. Rodney gently, very gently, added the final line to each of the power circles. Even without magesight, even without checking his instruments as the gauges and digital readouts began to tick upwards, he could feel it -- a tension in the air, like the electricity that heralded an oncoming storm.
"Power is flowing," Jeannie reported. "Mer, should we try for Sheppard or Teyla first?"
Good question. He patted his pockets, turned to Ronon. "Hey, you got anything of Teyla's?"
"What, on me?" Ronon said, startled. "No."
"Sheppard it is, then." Back on Atlantis, near the beginning of this whole thing, he'd slipped into Sheppard's quarters and stripped some coarse black hairs out of the man's hairbrush. They'd been in a small plastic baggie in his pocket ever since. Now he slipped it out and laid it in the middle of the empty circle in front of the portal, then poked two wire leads into the ground at each side of the circle and hooked up his laptop. He could feel the fine hairs on his forearms bristling as the power in the cave ticked up another notch. "Ready?"
"And waiting," Jeannie said impatiently.
"Right." His finger poised over the key that would execute his hastily-written program, throwing open the power conduits and attempting to establish a lock on Sheppard. "Executing ... now."
He tapped the enter key.
For a moment, nothing visible happened; the only change was a sudden spike in the power readings.
"Oh, no --" Then sparks cascaded from the hastily-constructed portal ring, little bolts of lightning chasing each other around the circle. The power readings began to flare wildly.
"Jeannie -- the fourth ring -- I've got the first --"
His fingers flew across the keyboard, manually balancing the power load as the portal sizzled and a sudden beam of blue light stabbed out from it, streaking across the water to be joined by another, and another. Rodney smelled the sharp scent of ozone and, more ominously, burning electrical insulation.
"It's drawing more power than we estimated," Jeannie gasped.
Rodney felt a sick, sharp twist in his stomach -- not just nerves, but the power circles sucking down ambient energy, including their own.
"We've almost got it," he breathed. "Just give it a minute more, let it establish a lock --"
Something in the ring gave a sharp, ominous pop and Rodney smelled smoke.
"I don't understand," Jeannie said, frowning at the readouts. "It won't lock."
"Damn it!" His theories, the whales' theories, couldn't be that wrong. Where had he failed? Rodney was dizzy with the power that the portal was drawing from him, dizzy with anger and dismay.
"Mer!" Jeannie cried, as there was another loud, metallic pop from the ring. "We're losing power containment -- we have to shut it down!"
"Wait! We can make it work --"
"If we don't shut it down now, we'll have no way to dissipate the power!" Jeannie snapped at him. "All this power with nowhere to go --"
The cave reeked of electrical smoke. She was right, and he turned his back on her. "Yeah. Shut it down."
There was a sudden, weird feeling that Rodney could only describe as a rush, like cold wind blowing over and through him, as the residual power was released into the environment. He spun around as the ring gave another loud popping sound and part of it burst into flames.
Jeannie shrieked and grabbed a fire extinguisher; Rodney joined her after a frozen instant, using his jacket to beat out a flaming cable. Even the sad little wad of Sheppard's hair was smoldering. Rodney stomped on it.
"That was ..." Jeannie trailed off. There were smudges of soot on her face and her hair askew. "It's not a total failure, Mer; we know that it's possible, we just got something wrong. Maybe Sheppard, maybe he couldn't ..." Again, she trailed off, her excitement dying.
Rodney didn't answer, too disappointed and furious -- at himself, at Jeannie, and, maybe for the first time in his life, at the whales.
"Mer, we have to face the possibility that maybe it couldn't lock onto your friend because --"
"No," Rodney said sharply.
Ronon had observed the whole thing, staying out of the way and occasionally patting out a spark in his feathers. Now he raised his wings in a mantle over his shoulders. "Sheppard's not dead," he said.
Jeannie threw her hair back, glaring at her brother and Ronon. "I'm sorry to be blunt, but it certainly looks that way, and we've set ourselves back days with all the damage to the portal that we'll have to fix. It was trying to lock, but it just couldn't do it."
"There are other things that could have prevented a portal lock," Rodney snapped. He was a scientist, damn it, and so was she, and picking one hypothesis while discounting all others wasn't a scientific thing to do. It had nothing to do with personal feelings. "Don't make me explain elemental portal theory to you! It could be a -- an error in our calculations, or any number of problems with our technological setup or materials, or maybe someone's put a spell on him to confound tracking --"
He broke off at a sudden burst of alarm from the whales. "Oh, now what?" Rodney snapped -- a measure of his general upset, since he had almost never yelled at his pod.
Someone's coming, the whales informed him, just as Ronon ruffled his wings and looked up sharply, alerting to who knew what subtle clues.
Rodney could see them now, small dark shapes, speeding across the ocean and rapidly growing larger. Oh, crap. Flying carpets.
"How'd they find us?" Ronon demanded, glaring at the McKay siblings. "It's because of that portal thing you just did, isn't it?"
"They certainly could have picked up the magical surge, but they couldn't possibly have gotten here from the city already," Jeannie protested.
Rodney stared out of the cave at the rapidly growing shapes, sweeping unerringly towards the cave. "They didn't have to. They were out here already. The portal just gave them a way to find us." It made an unpleasant kind of sense -- Woolsey obviously knew that Rodney had been up to something on the mainland, so he must have had people out searching. The surge of magic from the portal would have been like a Batsignal to them.
Ronon drew his gun. There was a whine as it powered up.
"Oh, put that away," Rodney said.
Ronon muscled in front of the two scientists, his wings half-spread and arching over them. "They're Wraith," he said simply.
"Hello! Wraith with people wrapped around them! And we don't even know how many are actually possessed and how many are -- uh -- Ronon?" He gave up -- Ronon clearly wasn't listening -- and looked wildly around for something, anything, that he could use to defend himself. Sheppard being Sheppard, there probably were weapons in one of those boxes, but it wasn't like he could ask the Wraith to stop and wait while he rifled through crates of canned goods in search of a P90.
The carpets landed lightly in the mouth of the cave. Rodney was not comforted to see a mixed group of Magic Division goons in their black uniforms, and soldiers with P90s in front of them -- not pointed at anyone, yet, but with the definite impression that they would do so at the slightest provocation. The leading carpet contained both Woolsey and Colonel Sumner, to Rodney's dismay.
Seeing that he had their full attention, Woolsey stepped off his carpet with a slight smile. "Now, now," he said to Ronon. "Let's not do anything foolish."
"You first," Ronon said between his teeth.
"Guys," Jeannie protested, peeking out from under Ronon's pinions. "I'm sure we can settle this like adults."
"Well, isn't this cozy." Woolsey ignored her and peered around the cave, his eyes drifting over the boxes and piles of supplies. Behind him, Sumner was silent and stone-faced, the assault rifle resting against his chest in unspoken threat. "This looks suspiciously like some sort of little terrorist hideout, don't you think?" Woolsey said to him, over his shoulder.
"Terrorist?!" Rodney sputtered, pushing wing-feathers out of his way. "What are you babbling about, you -- you shark?"
Woolsey just smiled that slight, smug smile. "Three people, none of whom are under MD authority or more than very loosely affiliated with this expedition, performing unauthorized magic at the same time as an inexplicable portal shutdown in Atlantis -- fairly incriminating, wouldn't you say?" A hint of irritation crossed his face. "I'd just like to know what you hoped to accomplish."
Rodney stared at him; so did Jeannie. "Portal shutdown?" Rodney said in a small voice.
Woolsey snorted. "Don't play dumb. At least we picked up the energy spike out here at the same time the Atlantis portal collapsed -- oh, yes, we knew you were up to something out here, even if we didn't know exactly what." He nodded to Sumner. "Take them into custody, Colonel."
As Sumner started to step forward, Ronon's muscular arm came up, pointing the gun at his chest. "No further," Ronon said in a low, threatening rumble.
Sumner stopped, his hands tense on the P90 with the weapon half unslung and pointing at the ceiling. Behind him, the soldiers and mages alike were frozen, awaiting instructions. Rodney could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. After a moment, Sumner glanced at Woolsey.
The smug smile widened just a little. "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot -- you're not a citizen of Earth, are you? We haven't signed any Geneva Conventions or any other treaties here. Colonel, kill the barbarian, and bring the other two."
Jeannie gave an outraged shriek, and Rodney heard his own voice erupt in protest, while Ronon growled, "Try it."
Sumner took another step towards them -- and then turned around, raising his gun to point not at them, but at Woolsey. "I'm sorry, sir," he said calmly. "I cannot ethically carry out that order."
Rodney stopped in mid-squawk, staring so hard he thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head.
"There's something wrong with you, sir," Sumner continued. "I don't know what it is, but I do know that the Richard Woolsey I've served under for over a year would never have given that order. Something's wrong, and it's getting worse. I'm taking control of this expedition, effective now."
"Oh really," Woolsey said.
A huge green ball of magefire slammed into Sumner's chest. Rodney's head snapped around in shock; Woolsey hadn't thrown that. It was two of the other mages, working in perfect synchrony, their faces flat and dead.
The cave exploded into action. Almost superhumanly fast, Ronon fired at one of the mages, and red light danced over his black uniform, as Sumner crumpled in a haze of green-tinted smoke. Rodney lunged for Jeannie with some half-formed idea of throwing her to the floor or something, just as she did the same thing in his direction; they bashed foreheads and went down in an inglorious heap, while P90 fire stuttered above them and someone threw another ball of magefire that blew a chunk out of the side of the cave.
"What are you doing?" Jeannie hissed at Rodney furiously, glaring at him from six inches away with her chin in the dirt.
"What's it look like? Trying to stop you from getting your stupid head blown off!"
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "Oh, great job, Mer!"
Deciding that he didn't feel the least bit responsible if she did get her head blown off, Rodney rolled to the side and ran smack into a polished boot. "Oh crap," he murmured, rolling onto his back and looking up at Woolsey from a decidedly non-superior position.
"I suppose there's really no point in pretending anymore, is there?" Woolsey said, still smiling that creepy smile as he spread out the fingers of his hand above Rodney's head.
The world dissolved in blue fire and white-hot pain. Rodney screamed, dimly aware of his spine arching, his head slamming into the floor of the cave. He heard Jeannie shout something and then she was screaming, too. The next thing he knew, he was blinking up at Woolsey through a prism of pained tears, his throat raw and aching. The whales' worry beat a tattoo against the back of his brain.
"Oh yes, that was quite tasty," Woolsey said in a soft and sated voice, smiling down at him. "I like this body. It knows lots of interesting magic."
Kneeling, he briskly rolled Rodney over and twisted his hands behind his back, binding them painfully tight. Rodney's muscles were still twitching and quivering from the pain-spell; he couldn't do more than feebly try to jerk away as Woolsey yanked him to his feet, and then his entire concentration was taken up with stumbling across the cave floor and trying not to pitch onto his face. I'm fine, I'm fine, he thought blearily at the whales, which was obviously quite inaccurate, but they were giving him a headache.
Little one, we felt your pain! What is happening?
The idea of trying to explain the situation to the whales made his headache worse. "Uh," he managed intelligently, and then almost bit his tongue when Woolsey shoved him onto a parked carpet.
"Jeannie..." he rasped, and then raised his head just in time to see one of the soldiers flinging her down onto the carpet next to him. Her hands were tied like his, but she was twitching feebly. Looking around, he saw two soldiers and one mage lying on the ground, still and twisted. There was no sign of Ronon.
Seeing him looking around, Woolsey smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "Your friend was shot and dumped in the ocean; he won't be helping you."
Rage and an unexpected, tearing grief made Rodney temporarily forget his own discomfort.
We have him, little one, the whales said unexpectedly. We do not think he will die.
Which was a far cry from "He's fine", but Rodney still slumped in relief. And the Wraith didn't seem to know about the whales -- which was one advantage they hadn't lost.
Thank you, he thought at them.
Woolsey knelt on the carpet behind him, and it jolted as it lifted into the air. Rodney had a brief, crazy thought of trying to jump off, but then he caught a glimpse of the dizzying drop to the ocean and decided that wouldn't be a good idea. The whales couldn't scrape him back together if he splattered himself all over the surface of the water.
Below him, a gray set of flukes flashed briefly before vanishing again. The whales were following ... for all the good that would do.
Woolsey leaned forward until the side of his face brushed Rodney's -- not at all a pleasant feeling -- so that he could speak without the wind snatching his words away. "It's nice that we ran into each other, Dr. McKay. We have plans for you."
Deep in a part of Atlantis where she'd never been before, Teyla crouched between two girders, peering down through the slats of a catwalk to the floor some twenty or thirty feet below. Nothing moved, but that didn't mean nothing was searching for her.
She'd been avoiding the Wraith on Atlantis for almost twenty-four hours now. To her own surprise, her woodcraft and tracking skills translated very well to the City's maze of towers and corridors. She'd fed herself from the contents of a storeroom, silently apologizing to the IOA bureaucrats who would have to account for the cans of spell-sealed beans and meat that she'd taken from a crate. Right now, her main concern was getting some sleep -- she'd been able to use her magic and simple stealth to avoid detection, but she had to keep moving; they were very actively hunting her.
She was deeply frustrated by her inability to warn anyone or inform her co-conspirators of John's location. Both the infirmary and the portal were inaccessible to her, the corridors far too crowded for her to dare venturing near. So far, the Wraith didn't seem to have raised any kind of official alarm, and the last thing she wanted to do was force them into a public confrontation. Her actions at John's prison had been desperate, and foolish; pushing the Wraith until they played their hand in public would probably result in civilian casualties.
As the day wore on, though, she became more desperate to contact someone, somehow. She even thought of trying to leave a message with Rodney's whales, but they were nowhere to be seen -- probably with Rodney at the mainland, she guessed.
Her hand touched her throat where the communication pendant ought to be. She'd taken it off and left it in a hallway, since Rodney had told her that they could be used within the City to identify and locate a person. There was still so much she did not know, really, about the Earthers' technology, and the ways in which they had merged it with the Ancestors'.
Her head came up, and she cast about for the source of the jolt she'd just felt. One of her wards had been tripped. She didn't have the energy to continually ward herself against attack, but it didn't take much power to create small wards that would alert her to approaching danger -- all her people learned that cantrip as children, very useful when picking berries or hunting in the forest.
Drawing a deep breath, she rose and dropped lightly to the catwalk beneath her, running lightly to the end. Over the last couple of hours, she'd become aware that they were closing a net around her. Unlike her, they had access to Atlantis's schematics, and she was fairly sure that they could track her in some fashion. She had also nearly stumbled into a few magical traps -- the ranks of the possessed in Atlantis appeared to include a not-inconsiderable number of mages.
Passing a tall, narrow window, Teyla stopped to look out over the ocean, ruddy in the light of a setting sun. It had been almost a full day, and she'd missed the check-in with Ronon; he'd be frantic by now. She couldn't get back to John's prison, and she couldn't go to the portal chamber and didn't dare try for the infirmary to talk to Carson, but running around the corridors of Atlantis was doing no one any good.
She would have to trust someone else. The decision was hard; she had only a casual acquaintance with most people on Atlantis outside her small circle of true friends. Not only was there no one else that she knew well enough to tell if they were harboring a Wraith, but she had no idea if they would believe her; she was very much afraid that most Earthers would react to her wild story by calling Woolsey.
Who could she trust? And most importantly, who could she trust that she might be able to reach without being seen?
A sudden smile touched her lips, and she took off running down the corridor.
It took her an hour or so to work her way to the area of Atlantis that she wanted. It was still too populated for comfort, but this part of the City, at least, was frequented only by essential personnel, and at this time of evening, most people would be in the mess hall. And, of all the places in Atlantis, this was the one she knew the best -- she'd been visiting Rodney here since they were children.
Crouching behind a pillar, expending magical energy that she could hardly spare to make herself hard to notice, she waited and watched two scientists leaving the labs, talking together. Behind them, she saw that the lab appeared to be empty. Once they had turned the corner, she darted swiftly to the doors, and inside.
There was only one person besides Rodney who habitually paid little attention to the expedition's timekeeping, working late and through meals. And Teyla was lucky: he was still there, and a quick glance around indicated no one else was in the lab. Teyla used her thumb to rub out a rune on the back of her hand, and felt relief as the circle of illusion was broken and her quasi-invisible state dropped away; such high-level mysteries drained energy that she could ill afford, especially since she didn't know what else the night would hold.
"Dr. Zelenka," she called softly.
The werewolf started violently and straightened up, staring at her, his hair even wilder than normal.
"Please," she added quickly, "I need your help."
Zelenka stared at her for a moment, then removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily. "They are searching for you, you know," he said. "The Magic Division and the soldiers. It has been put about that you are involved in Sheppard's disappearance and the failure of the portal."
Teyla was suddenly, deeply glad she had tried to avoid her pursuers rather than attacking them. There was no telling how many of them were innocent people who had been duped by the Wraith in their chain of command. "Portal failure?" she asked.
Zelenka nodded. "It shut down earlier. The MD is trying to get it back online; I have requested to help, but they have shut out the science division except for a couple of scientists, and did not give me a voice in their selection." He sounded bitter.
Teyla would lay odds that those few trusted scientists were Wraith-possessed. "Do you plan to call them?" she asked cautiously.
Zelenka heaved a sigh and put his glasses back on, still not looking at her. "There is something strange happening in the city," he said.
"Yes," Teyla said. Very cautiously, she sat on a lab stool, positioning herself so that she could drop out of sight behind a lab counter if anyone opened the door. "I am sorry that we have not --"
She broke off at the sound of Woolsey's voice. For an instant she was poised to flee, before realizing that he spoke over the City's speakers.
"Attention, all Atlantis personnel. As some of you may already be aware, this city has recently suffered a terrorist attack on our portal. We are working to restore portal service, and have apprehended several suspects; others, however, are still at large in the city. You are instructed to return to your quarters, unless your position is mission-critical; only essential personnel may remain at their workstations. I repeat -- there are terrorists at large in the city. Please proceed to your quarters, lock your doors and await further instructions."
Teyla's breath caught in her throat. It's beginning, she thought, heartsick. What else could this be, but an attempt by the Wraith to divide and isolate their prey? And we played right into their hands. She wondered if Woolsey had truly "apprehended" anyone, and if so, whom. Was Rodney still free? Was Ronon?
"This way," Zelenka said softly. Lost in her thoughts, Teyla nearly jumped at his voice. He waited for her to follow, and led her into an adjoining lab. There was only one entrance, and computer equipment everywhere.
"This is where we conduct high-security experiments. The door is normally open if there is not an experiment in progress, but the only people with the combination to the security override are myself, Rodney, and Dr. Coleman, and she is on Earth on leave at the moment. You will be safe here ... assuming Rodney is not a terrorist." A smile glimmered around the edges of his mouth at the idea.
"No," Teyla said, her heart brimming with relief. "There are no terrorists at all."
Zelenka looked her up and down curiously. "Have you eaten?"
Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food, and she felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment as she smiled. "I suppose that answers your question."
"Wait here, then. I will bring you something from the mess, and we can talk as we eat."
Involuntarily, she started to move forward as he swung the door closed. "No!"
He paused, and gave a rueful shrug. "I'm sorry," he said. "You will be safe in here. I promise that you can trust me."
"I know," she said. "It is not that; I think it would be unwise for us to separate before I tell you what I know. I can remain hungry for a little while longer."
He paused; then, "All right," he said, and took out one of his people's brightly foil-wrapped chocolate bars, passing it to her. "This should keep you from starving, at least," he said, and closed the door, shutting them both in the small room with the softly humming computer equipment. He sat crosslegged on the floor with a quick grace that was not entirely human -- but then, he himself was not entirely human, something that Teyla still found wondrous.
She joined him on the floor, forcing herself to eat the chocolate slowly, rather than gulping it. "To begin," she said, "an ancient enemy has always hunted my people ..."
She spoke without stopping for perhaps a quarter of an hour, describing succinctly everything from John's disappearance onward. Zelenka listened quietly, his ears pricked forward, stopping her only when he had a question. He was an attentive and uncritical audience.
When she was done, he sat in contemplation for a moment, staring at his own hands clasped in his lap, before raising his green-gold eyes to hers. "Sheppard's being held here on Atlantis?"
Teyla nodded. "The place is hidden with magic, but I could find it again. They have not given me an opportunity to get close. Also, they may be the only ones who can open the door to the hidden chamber."
"Why?" Zelenka said.
Teyla raised an eyebrow. "Because they were the ones who crafted the enchantment --"
"No, no, not that. Sorry. I wonder why they're keeping him a prisoner? And why here? That seems kind of risky, and from the way you describe them, it doesn't seem to fit with how they normally -- uh, hunt."
"Nothing they are doing here is normal," Teyla said grimly. "None of the old stories can explain what they are doing here. We know that they walk among ordinary people in their borrowed bodies, but only to sow seeds of distress and pain. Normally, when they arrive, disaster is not far behind. And yet, here, they have kept up their pretense for weeks, perhaps even longer. I do not understand it."
"There must be something here that they want."
Teyla stood and began to pace; the movement eased her nerves a bit, helped her think. "Rodney and Healer Beckett are afraid that they want Earth. Of course, Earth is your homeworld; it only makes sense that your people should fear for it. But I do not think it could be so simple. There are many, many worlds in this galaxy. Why should they risk so much for one more planet?"
Zelenka watched her pacing, tracking her with green eyes and alert ears. "So ... there's something here they want? On Atlantis?"
Teyla stopped in her tracks. "Perhaps it is Atlantis itself that they want."
"Why?" Zelenka asked. "It's just a city. A large, beautiful, floating city, but only a city."
Teyla shook her head vigorously. "No. It is more than just that. There are many stories about the Ancestors' City; I never knew how much to believe, for stories often inflate in the telling of them, but such stories rarely begin without a kernel of truth to seed them."
"What sort of stories?"
"The City is ascribed many different powers," Teyla said. "Some say it used to speak; some say it sleeps and will someday awaken. There are many tales that it flew here from far away, and will fly again one day. Some say that it is our salvation from the dark stalkers."
She could see different emotions pass over Zelenka's face; clearly, he did not quite believe her, but was too polite to show his cynicism openly. "Well, I can see why they would want to get their hands on it," he said at last. "Maybe they've heard the stories, too. Do you think they're planning to destroy it?"
Teyla chewed her lip. "I do not know. That seems too simple; surely they would have done so already, if that was their plan."
"And what's our plan?" Zelenka asked. "Do we have any way of identifying who's been, uh, possessed, or whatever the word is?"
"No. Healer Beckett can often tell, but he has to touch them. We are nearly certain of Woolsey, and about a dozen others, but beyond that, we do not know."
"Well..." Zelenka looked up at the banks of computer equipment. "Since they've sent everyone to their quarters, obviously their plans are entering a new phase."
"I fear so."
He looked from the computers to her, and a devilish glint danced in his wolf's eyes. "Since they've so conveniently cleared the corridors for us, I suggest that we take the fight to them."
Jeannie woke with a splitting headache and a deep fear twisting her stomach that was not, she began to realize, entirely her own.
Somewhere near her, she heard a voice she recognized as Woolsey's; someone else answered. Her face was pressed to a smooth tile floor, and she could tell even with her eyes closed that she was back on Atlantis. Around her, people were moving about -- even the footsteps seemed too loud, sending spikes of pain through her aching head. Still, she kept her eyes shut, trying to focus on that elusive presence at the back of her mind.
Meredith heard whales, but Jeannie had grown up with the song of the city in her head -- grown up with it, until her parents, convinced that she was suffering from some sort of psychosis, sent her away to live with her relatives. That they had sent her away, and not Mer, had struck her as the deepest sort of unfairness, but she had realized much later that it was only because Meredith, even at that age, had been far better at concealing his activities from the adults. Even as a child he'd had a deep paranoia that eventually served him well. Jeannie had been an open child, very trusting of the adults in her life. She'd learned a hard and bitter lesson that had lasted her for twenty years.
And now here she was, back again -- and the city where she had been conceived had begun to sing for her again. Except this time, it was a discordant song. Fear was probably too simple a word for what the city "felt"; it was not a person, no matter how she'd anthropomorphized it as a child. Now that she saw it through an adult's eyes, she felt tiny beside its huge and alien presence. It was aware of her, in a way that left her feeling like a grain of sand dwarfed by the ocean.
"Jeannie!" Meredith's voice hissed at her from somewhere nearby, in that annoying, too-loud stage whisper that he had. At least he was all right; something inside her relaxed a little bit. "Jeannie! Hey!"
"Be quiet over there," someone said in a flat, emotionless voice that sent shivers through her.
"You be quiet," Mer snapped in return. "I can't wake her up. Shouldn't she be awake by now? Hey!"
It was unexpectedly sweet that Mer was worried about her, but did his timing always have to be so awful? Jeannie risked cracking an eye open. She saw floor, and people's feet, and a glimpse of a broad back that had to be Meredith's. He was tied up like herself, but had managed to wriggle himself into a half-sitting position, propped up with an elbow tucked under him. Right now, he was looking away from her, presumably towards the Wraith.
A pair black boots approached them. The newcomer squatted down and Jeannie saw, through her half-lowered lashes, that it was one of the mages. The woman backhanded Mer across the face, and Jeannie squeezed her eyes shut, desperately trying not to give herself away. When she risked another peek, the possessed mage had laid her hand on Mer's head, and there was a look of bliss on her face.
They feed on pain and fear, Jeannie thought. The almost orgasmic delight on the woman's face made Jeannie's stomach churn, especially knowing that the Wraith was wearing the stolen body of an innocent person. She wondered if the original consciousness was still in there, looking out through a stranger's eyes.
"We don't need the girl," Woolsey said from out of Jeannie's field of vision, and she didn't realize that he was talking about her until Mer twisted around with a look of terror on his face.
"Jeannie! No! Don't hurt her!"
Pretending to be unconscious obviously wasn't working anymore, so Jeannie scowled up at her captors as she was dragged upright. Now that she could see more of the room, she realized that they were in a large chamber she hadn't seen before. The flying carpets were rolled up neatly against the wall.
"Can you do anything special?" the female Wraith-mage asked, drawing her fingers down Jeannie's face and chin. The fingertips tingled where they had touched, and Jeannie felt a strange, cold sensation, like little tendrils of ice crawling through her veins.
So this is what it feels like to have your fear eaten, she thought, with a strange calm beyond terror.
"No," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "There's nothing special about me."
"Jeannie!" Mer's snap rose to a half-scream. "Don't listen to her! She's -- smart! Very smart! Almost as smart as me!"
Jeannie lost a little of her terror in irritation. "Oh, thanks a lot, Mer!"
"What? It's a compliment!"
The Wraith looked at each other. "She ought to be questioned, at least," said one of them, who was wearing the body of a soldier. "She might know how to restore the portal."
"Questioned? What do you mean, questioned?" Mer's voice had reached that unique cracking note that made him sound five years old when he was scared. In that distant part of her brain that wasn't blank with terror, she couldn't help being slightly amused that he still hadn't lost that after all these years. "Are you going to torture her? She doesn't know anything! You should question me instead! And, uh," he added when the Wraith turned to look at him, "when I say 'question', I actually mean 'ask', politely. Over a nice cup of coffee. You know what would really get me talking? A cup of coff--"
"Shut up or we'll cut out your tongue," the Wraith said.
"Shutting up." His voice went very small.
"I'll question her," the Wraith in the soldier said, and suddenly his eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled. No one made a move to catch him; his head made a hideous crack when it hit the floor. But Jeannie couldn't look away from the spot where he'd been standing, because there was something there.
She couldn't quite see it -- that was the worst part of all. It was like a heat-shimmer on hot asphalt, like a smear of color at the edge of the retina after looking at a bright light; it vibrated unpleasantly and made her a little sick when she tried to look at it. Mer made a squeaking sound of fear or dismay, but Jeannie couldn't look at him -- she didn't dare look away from that horrible thing in the air.
And then it moved, swooping towards her. For just an instant, she felt a horrible, bitter, bone-chilling cold -- it hurt, like slapping a hand on a frozen flagpole in the winter. Jeannie squeezed her eyes shut ... and then opened them again, cautiously, when the pain receded.
The Wraith slid around her, slipping over her skin like water in the shower, and then it flitted back to the soldier and settled over his body, fading and vanishing. A moment later, he sat up, blood dripping down his face where he'd struck his head on the floor. He didn't make any move to wipe it away, just studied her with a flat, cold expression.
"What happened?" the female Wraith-mage asked.
"I don't know. I couldn't take her -- just like the fae."
"You think she has the taint, too?" Woolsey demanded, striding over. "Maybe she'll be more cooperative than the one we have now."
"No, my queen," the soldier said. "It's not the same. With her, it feels more as if something is blocking her from us. You could feel it yourself, if you wish."
Woolsey made a hissing sound, a noise that was so utterly inhuman Jeannie couldn't believe he had used a human throat and lips to produce it. "They've created some kind of defense against us. I might have known these ones were canny." His face went momentarily blank, his eyes going out of focus, and then he shook his head. "I do not think this host body knows of any magic that can do it, which must mean that these two are very powerful."
Jeannie shared a look with Mer. He looked very confused. She was confused too, but thought she might have an inkling what had gone wrong.
Somehow, the city was protecting her.
Woolsey took three quick strides towards her and smacked her across the face; her head snapped to the side and, through her ringing ears, she heard Mer yelling.
"What is your secret?" Woolsey demanded. "What were you building on the mainland? We are trapped in this city without the portal. How can it be restored?"
"It doesn't matter; it didn't work," Jeannie said, licking her lips and tasting blood. "We're no threat to you." Which, she thought, was sadly true.
"You lie," Woolsey snapped, and he drew back his hand to hit her again, then paused and spun around when the door slammed shut. "Who did that?"
All the Wraith looked as confused as Jeannie felt. Woolsey slapped her again. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything!" she cried, her voice escalating Meredith-style in frustration and fear.
One of the other Wraith was doing something to the crystals by the door, but nothing happened. "We're locked in. I can't get it open, my queen, and this body does not know enough about the city to open it."
Woolsey's eyes closed briefly, then flickered open again; for a moment, Jeannie thought she glimpsed other colors in their depths, wavering behind his glasses. "Others of my children around the city are trapped also. What is happening?" He directed this last to Jeannie.
"Ha!" Meredith crowed. "Someone's put the City in a security lockdown, and obviously it's not you."
"Mer, shut up!" Jeannie cried, but it was too late, as Woolsey turned around to look at him.
"So this is your plan, is it?"
Mer paled slightly, but stood his ground. "No, but with any luck, it's a top-level quarantine lockdown. Even Woolsey doesn't have the codes to override that. You'll be stuck here until Atlantis detects that the threat is gone."
"Surely there is a way out." Woolsey snapped his fingers at the soldier-Wraith. "Find out what he knows."
"Uh ..." Mer snapped his mouth shut and started trying to press himself into the wall.
"No!" Jeannie snapped, trying to wriggle in her bonds.
"I don't have enough energy yet," the Wraith whined. "I need to --"
"I will do it," the female Wraith-mage said impatiently, and once again, the host body folded up, its hands going slack on Jeannie's bonds and almost pulling Jeannie to the floor with it.
She felt the wave of cold as the Wraith flitted past her, settling upon a terrified, quailing Meredith. It paused for a moment; the runes of protection that Teyla had placed on Mer's body flared up brightly, and then, as the Wraith unraveled them, faded away to dull, flaking paint on his skin.
Jeannie could only stare in horror as her brother's face went slack. He blinked, looked around the room and opened his mouth for a moment with no sound emerging, before he said hoarsely, "Untie me."
The soldier-Wraith cut his bonds. Jeannie watched, appalled beyond all reason, as the Wraith moved its arms and legs, testing out its new body. "The other host was much nicer," it said in Mer's voice. "This one is nearly useless. Magically, at least."
"Not fae?" Woolsey asked impatiently.
"Not even a drop. But ... a very interesting mind, this one has. It will take some time to sort it all out, but this one knows a lot about the city. A lot." The Wraith touched its hands briefly to Mer's forehead, its eyes half-closed with the long lashes concealing the blue.
Woolsey glared at Mer's body, radiating menace despite his unassuming appearance. "Well, hurry it up. Do you think that one can open the door?"
Meredith turned his head to look at Jeannie. Her stomach froze into a pit of ice when Mer's crooked mouth tilted in a bitter, cruel smile. "I think this one can open many doors for us," the Wraith said, in Mer's voice.
It wasn't overly pleasant to be on a whale's back when the whales suddenly went insane.
Ronon was binding up an injury on his arm when suddenly the smooth whaleskin underneath him tilted and he nearly slid into the water. Looking around him, he saw the pod in a sudden frenzy -- thrashing their flukes, some of them diving or splashing up to the surface.
"Kinda rough up here," Ronon said mildly as he finished patching up his arm, leaning halfway over the whale's back to stay on.
As he switched from binding his arm to checking over his wings for loose feathers and cracked bones, an oppressive headache began gathering behind his temples. Ronon hadn't known Rodney for as long as he had without picking up a few things. "Yeah. Can't hear you guys, sorry. Head hurts, though."
The headache receded, and then Ronon looked down as a small, slim whale -- which, by their standards, meant that she resembled a light Satedan passenger liner -- nudged up next to his current seating whale. "Hi," he said.
After a brief pause, a very cautious, very tentative "Hello" materialized inside his brain, in Satedan script.
"Hey," Ronon said, very surprised. Rodney and Teyla had both given him the idea that whales talking to ordinary humans would make their brains explode or something. This whale, he contemplated, must be some kind of genius at talking to humans, or something.
The whale stared at him, and the thought occurred to Ronon that he was somehow entirely aware that she was a woman whale without even having to ask. Kinda weird, this whole telepathy thing.
"Rodney is in trouble," she informed him, in very careful, slowly scrolling Satedan text.
"Sorry, yeah, we all are," he told her. "In trouble, that is."
There was a pause, she blinked slowly at him, and then, one word at a time, "Rodney has another mind in his head."
Okay. That was different. Also, a problem. "Yeah?"
"Yes," she said.
"What do you want me to do about it?"
There was a pause, and then she said simply, "Help him."
Very straightforward. He liked that in a whale. Though ... not very helpful. "All right," Ronon said, standing up on the back of his current whale and spreading his wings, cautiously stretching injured muscles. His wings hurt, as did everything else. But he was pretty sure he could fly. "Just point me at 'em."
"Done," Zelenka said, leaning back from the computer and looking up at Teyla leaning over his shoulder. "The city's locked down, and I've put in a custom override code, so even Woolsey's command codes won't work. Rodney could probably find a way around it, but I doubt if the Wraith can."
"So they are trapped."
Zelenka nodded, and typed briskly, bringing up another screen. Teyla recognized the schematic view of the City, with little dots where lifesigns were located. A few of them were drifting around in the corridors, but most were clustered in little clumps or individually isolated in the residential parts of the City.
"There is no way to tell which ones are Wraith?" Teyla asked.
"Sadly, no. The life signs seem to register the same in either case." He typed some more; the City view rotated and text appeared, scrolling rapidly by the larger clusters of dots. "It appears that many people are trapped in the cafeteria; there is another large group in the gym. I am puzzled by this one, however."
Teyla looked. "That is the flying carpet hangar." The original purpose of the room was unknown, but it had a ceiling that irised open, and the mages had immediately taken it over for storage of their various flying devices -- carpets, brooms and so forth.
"A rather strange place to find so many people, with Mage Woolsey ordering everyone back to their quarters. I presume we should avoid that area." Zelenka zoomed out again. "Can you show me where they are keeping Mage Sheppard?"
Teyla frowned at the screen. It was difficult to relate the skeletal 3D structure of the map to the real corridors. "I believe it is somewhere in this region," she said, touching the map. There were no life signs in the area -- at least none that were registering on the sensors.
Zelenka brought up more text. "Hmm. We have not explored that area -- at least not very well. Some parts of the city were damaged over the years, by storms and so on; this is one of the damaged areas, and we had not found much that was interesting."
Teyla squinted at the little text labels. John was hidden in one of those rooms, but it was extremely difficult to determine which one just from looking at the schematic. "Chair room?" she read.
"One of many rooms for which we cannot find a purpose," Zelenka explained. "It is a room with a chair in it, and nothing else. There was some speculation that it may have been medical equipment."
"There are old stories among my people of the Ancestors sitting in a chair to talk to the City. Perhaps the Wraith are interested in it for that reason."
"Hmm." Zelenka studied the map for a moment more, then murmured a soft curse in his Earth language. Following his gaze, Teyla saw that the cluster of presumably-Wraith life signs in the flying carpet hangar had spilled out into the hallway.
"How did they get out?"
"I don't know." His fingers flew over the keys. "They appear to have hacked the system somehow and overridden that door. I didn't think anyone but Rodney can do that, but he is on the mainland."
Teyla's fingers itched for her bantos rods. "We had best move quickly, then, if your lockdown will not hold them for long. Do you have any weapons?"
Zelenka shook his head. "Not here in the lab. And -- I would not be able to use them in any case."
"Why not?" she asked, surprised.
He gave her a disbelieving look, then shook his head with a small laugh. "I forget, you are not from Earth. I am a werewolf; we are not legally permitted to possess firearms or to attack a human, even in self-defense."
Teyla stared at him. She had never heard anything so ridiculous. "Why not?"
His eyebrows went up. "Well, the rationale behind the law, as I understand it, is that we're naturally violent and mentally unstable; we can't be trusted to use a weapon responsibly or to judge a situation accurately."
"You do not seem violent to me, and you are obviously quite intelligent," Teyla said flatly. "That is a stupid law."
Zelenka blushed. "Many non-humans have physical advantages over humans in a fight. They're afraid of us. I don't like it, but I understand it. At least we have citizenship now. But ... I am not sure how much help I'll be to you; even baring my claws against a human is a felony."
"But we are not trying to harm the humans -- it is the Wraith inside them who are our enemies." Teyla felt a slight smile curving her lips. "My people's bantos rods are spelled to damage Wraith. I left my set in Rodney's quarters. Let us go there, and then find John as quickly as possible."
Hell. Rodney was in Hell.
Literally, in fact.
He was chained to a set of twin pillars, far enough apart that his arms were stretched out at an angle that felt as if it was going to twist his shoulders out of their sockets. The pillars and chains were the only thing that wasn't on fire. The ground itself was burning, and small flames licked gently at his bare feet. It didn't seem to help to remind himself that it wasn't real, any of it. The ache in his shoulders, growing slowly into agony, wasn't real, and neither was the searing in his lungs whenever he drew a breath.
There was no sky above him, only darkness. He couldn't tell how far the plain of fire stretched; it did something weird with perspective, and he couldn't look at it for very long before his eyeballs started feeling like they were turning inside out.
Unfortunately, the only other thing to look at was about twenty feet in front of him, overlaid on the dancing flames: a Rodney's-eye view of the inside of the flying carpet hangar. Or, more accurately, what he was seeing right now was his own hands working swiftly and deftly on the door controls. The Wraith had been clumsy at first, but as it gained more familiarity with his body, and rifled through his memories, it grew faster and more confident.
All that he remembered of the Wraith breaking through the defenses that Teyla had woven around him was blinding pain. Things were disjointed; time kept moving weirdly, in stops and starts. He wished that he could make his thoughts cooperate, but they kept scattering; he was laced through with a bone-deep ache, like the pain of a sore tooth or the way that Rodney imagined it might feel to have a foreign object embedded in your body. He wanted to curl up in a ball and whimper, but his arms and legs were locked in place, and no matter how much he tried to insist to himself that this wasn't real, he couldn't budge an inch.
"You're not fighting very hard," said a voice that he recognized, somewhat belatedly, as his own. After another moment's lag, he collected his scattered thoughts enough to realize that the voice wasn't coming from the external world; everything outside his body had a sort of muffled quality to it, as if the sensations were being relayed through another mind to his own.
The speaker strolled around the side of the pillars, coming into view. It was himself, of course -- naked to the waist, his skin gleaming in the light of the flames, and his eyes alight with an unearthly fire.
"I hate you," Rodney said. "Let me tell you all the ways I hate you."
The Wraith smiled, drawing Rodney's lips back from Rodney's teeth. "That's more like it. So much more satisfying a meal, if dinner puts up a bit of a fight."
"For one thing, you have absolutely no taste whatsoever. I mean, a plain of fire? Could we get any more clichéd than that? I'm just amazed that you decided to forgo the horned devils cracking whips." Rodney tried to focus on his own voice, and not on the fact that, out in the real world, the Wraith appeared to have gotten the door open.
"It's nothing more than a metaphor, the first thing I could seize from your mind," the Wraith said. "Although quite a satisfying one. I like this. Your people are very creative at hurting each other. The other one, the woman I inhabited before you -- I held her fast in a wall of thorns, unable to move without piercing her flesh, and each thorn slowly growing longer, growing into her body."
"It's not real," Rodney said doggedly. "I'm in my mind. Nothing that happens to me here can actually hurt me."
"Nothing can hurt your body," the Wraith agreed, circling around to study him from a new angle. "Your mind, however, and the part of you that might be euphemistically termed your soul -- that's a different matter, isn't it?"
Raising a hand, it snapped Rodney's fingers.
"Oh, now what?" Rodney demanded, trying desperately for anger but only managing to sound high-pitched and terrified. "Calling down a bolt of lightning or -- what is that?"
There was movement among the flames -- very different from the flickering and leaping of the fire, this was an erratic, skittering sort of movement. Rodney got a good look, and then really wished he hadn't, when sleek, dark-bodied insects began pouring out of the fire, each one at least the size of his hand. They swarmed up the pillars, chittering and clicking their mandibles.
"What the hell?" Rodney shrieked, writhing his body and trying to avoid the brush of their chitinous bodies. "Torture by insects? Are you completely insane?"
"No," the Wraith said, steepling Rodney's fingers together in a grotesque mockery of a B-movie villain. "But you will be, and I'll drink every drop of your terror and pain. It will be very sweet."
"I really hate you," Rodney said again, more of a whimper this time, and then a pair of razor-sharp insect jaws pierced his wrist, and he screamed.
Teyla and Zelenka met no one in the corridors on the way to Rodney's quarters. Teyla stood back while Zelenka typed his override code, but Rodney's door refused to open. "He's locked it," Zelenka said, frustrated.
"Just his ordinary locks? I can open them, if you do not mind."
Bemused, Zelenka stood aside and watched as she quickly entered Rodney's locking codes. "I have know him a long time, and he is very predictable," she explained, smiling at the werewolf.
Her bantos rods were leaning against the wall under the window, just where she had left them. Teyla hefted them, feeling much more comfortable with weapons in her hands. Looking over at Zelenka, she saw that he was standing awkwardly in the doorway.
"Here," she said firmly, pressing one of the two sticks into his hands and curving his fingers around it. His claws were retracted, like a cat's; nothing showed but their very tips, clicking against the wood.
"I told you," he protested, trying to give it back to her. "I can't do this. I'll get a one-way trip back to Earth and a jail cell just for touching a weapon."
"This is not a weapon," Teyla pointed out with a smile. "It is a stick with protective charms on it. Surely you are permitted to carry a stick!"
"It would be more useful to you. I don't even know how to use it properly."
Reluctantly, she accepted it back. "You cannot go against the Wraith unarmed."
Zelenka smiled briefly and a bit shyly, flashing his canine teeth, and raised his hands with the claws partly unsheathed. "I am never truly unarmed."
She returned his smile, but privately, she wondered what he could really do in a fight -- she was sure that he would be as reluctant to injure an innocent human host as she was. "With luck," she said, "we will not have to fight."
"With luck," Zelenka echoed.
Teyla closed the door behind them and locked it again. Together, the silent werewolf and the almost-as-silent Athosian rune-scientist ghosted deeper into the City, towards the place where Teyla had last seen John.
"Are we having fun yet?" the Wraith asked conversationally. It was sitting cross-legged at the foot of the pillars, ignoring the smoke and the flames around it.
Rodney raised his head, panting. He could feel something warm and wet dripping into his eyes. The insects had retreated for the moment -- thank the First Whale -- but he couldn't stop his limbs from flinching and quivering at the ghostly echo of their skittering legs on his skin. His throat was raw from screaming. "Is this what you've been doing to Sheppard?" he asked shakily, trying to shore himself up with anger.
"Why don't you see for yourself," the Wraith said, and turning around, it gestured at the life-size rendition of what was happening outside the Hell in Rodney's head.
He hadn't thought it was possible to be any more terrified and angry. He was wrong.
The corridors of Atlantis were eerily deserted. Jeannie put up token resistance as the Wraith hustled her along, but she really didn't know what to do -- not with Mer entirely under their power.
They stopped several times so that Mer could open doors for them. Once, they encountered a scientist in the hallway -- someone that Jeannie didn't know, looking freaked out and trapped. "Oh, thank gods," he said when he saw them, starting in their direction.
Woolsey pointed a finger at the man, and a ball of green magefire slammed into his chest and knocked him against the wall. He crumpled and didn't move. Jeannie couldn't help noticing Wraith-Mer turning his head to watch the horrific scene, his blue eyes flat and blank.
"I'm tired of playing games here," Woolsey snapped. "We will get what we came for or we'll feast on this city, force its portal open, and move on. I'm tired of walking among these sheep."
The Wraith stepped over the fallen man's body without glancing at it. Swallowing hard, Jeannie walked around it.
I have to warn everyone, she thought. But how? Her connection to the city didn't work like Rodney's ability to talk to whales. The whales were people -- albeit big people with flukes. The city, though, was a vast alien entity that she couldn't even comprehend. She wasn't even entirely sure if it was intelligent as humans understand intelligence. One thing was for certain: the city, not Jeannie, controlled the connection between them. She couldn't call out to it for help. It had saved her from the Wraith's invasion of her mind, but, she thought, for its own reasons, not hers.
In its own way, it frightened her as much as the Wraith did.
They had entered a part of Atlantis that was fairly utilitarian in appearance; they passed crates stacked against the walls, turning briskly down seemingly identical corridors with obvious purpose. Finally, Wraith-Woolsey stopped at what appeared to Jeannie to be an ordinary blank wall, and ran his hand down it.
The wall parted, a hitherto unseen door springing open. Jeannie took an involuntary step backwards, then bumped into the Wraith behind her and shrank away; she knew it was irrational, but she felt as if their touch could pollute her somehow.
From the dark space behind the wall, the Wraith dragged a man. Jeannie's heart lurched in pity. He was thin and pale, his hair a dark unruly mop; he wore a rumpled black Magic Division uniform that made him look every more alarmingly white. When the Wraith let go of him, he fell to his knees on the ground, blinking and squinting in the light. He didn't seem entirely aware of his surroundings.
"Sheppard!" Wraith-Mer said, and then Jeannie realized that this was the mysterious, missing Sheppard, and a number of things tumbled into place in her mind. This is why the portal wouldn't lock. He was here, on Atlantis; the proximity to the other portal blocked it. Mer had said that they'd found records of Sheppard leaving the city, but obviously, records could be faked; with Wraith all the way up the chain of command, nothing could be trusted.
"Sheppard," Wraith-Mer said again, going down to his knees beside the shaking, huddled shape.
Sheppard's head came up slowly. As far as Jeannie could tell, he was uninjured -- the only part of him that seemed to be hurt in any way were his wrists, each of which had a metal band clasped around it; the skin on either side of the bands was red and blistered. But his eyes were wide and confused, focusing slowly on Mer. "Rodney?" he said in a hoarse rasp that hurt Jeannie's throat to hear.
"Yeah, time to get out of here." Wraith-Mer gripped Sheppard's shirt in a passable imitation of concern, helping him to his feet.
Jeannie saw how Sheppard started to pull away and then gave up, melting bonelessly against Mer, who staggered slightly as he took more of Sheppard's weight than he (or the Wraith) appeared to be expecting. The side of Sheppard's face dropped against Mer's chest. It was perfectly chaste, and yet one of the most intimate things that Jeannie had ever seen in her life.
As Mer steered him away from the hidden room, Sheppard's eyelashes fluttered, dark against his pale skin, and he raised his head enough to see the other people around them in the hallway. His body, weak though it was, tensed against Mer's.
Jeannie's captors were holding her near their queen, so she had a good view of Sheppard's face when he raised his head and saw Woolsey. His eyes, she found, were a startling green, and almost as expressive as Mer's; a whole kaleidoscope of emotions flickered through them, settling on a kind of dazed horror before turning towards Mer. Lingered. Stared. And then the emotions went away, like a shutter slamming down.
Sheppard brought up his hands and planted them on Mer's chest, shoving him hard, pushing away and staggering back until he caught himself on the wall. "Oh gods, Rodney," he said, and maybe it was just weakness from his captivity that made his voice break like that.
Wraith-Mer frowned at him, and tilted his head curiously to the side, a pose so utterly unlike Meredith that it sent cold chills crawling down Jeannie's spine. "You can see us."
"Yes -- gods --" Sheppard scrubbed at his face with his hands, and looked up again; the expression on his thin, stubble-scruffy face broke Jeannie's heart. "This is another dream, right? This is you guys screwing with my head."
"How interesting. You are a very intriguing individual, very much a child of the Old Ones who built this place." Mer leaned into Sheppard's space; weak, shaking, Sheppard leaned away, and shuddered when Mer reached out and laid a hand on his cheek -- shuddered, but let it rest there for just an instant before pushing it away.
"Don't touch me."
"I don't think you have a choice in that." Wraith-Mer had him pinned up against the wall; there was nowhere he could go. Jeannie was reminded of a mouse at the mercy of a cat. Very gently, with a mockery of affection, Mer traced Sheppard's jaw with his fingertips.
Jeannie couldn't take it anymore. "This is sick. Stop it." Her voice rang out in the hallway, much louder than she'd intended.
The Wraith all turned to look at her in sync -- wow, that was eerie. And Woolsey laughed -- actually laughed, a low cruel sound. "Oh, how wonderful. I think we've just discovered your purpose, my dear. John, do you know who this is?"
"I don't know," Sheppard said, and added with a slight twist of his lips, "but she obviously doesn't want to be here."
Woolsey laughed again. It wasn't any more pleasant the second time around. "This little girl is Rodney McKay's baby sister." He nodded to one of the soldiers, who drew his sidearm -- and then handed it to Wraith-Mer. "Kill her."
Jeannie felt as if she'd had a bucket of ice water dumped over her head. The world kept moving around her, but she was frozen -- she couldn't speak, couldn't even breathe, her heart and lungs frozen with the rest of her. Mer turned towards her, raising the gun -- and it was Mer, sweet annoying Meredith, the brother who taught her to swim and teased her and played in the ocean with her -- but there was nothing of Meredith behind those flat blue eyes.
Jeannie was as startled as anyone else when Sheppard moved, with a speed she hadn't expected -- wrapped his thin hands around the gun in Mer's hands. Mer kicked him in the stomach; he staggered back, coughing, and then straightened with a hand still curled around his chest. He drew himself up stiffly, rigid as a board, and Jeannie could see the effort that it cost him in the shaking of his narrow shoulders -- but he stood between her and the gun.
"How sweet," Woolsey said. "Yes, I think as leverage, these two do nicely."
Jeannie sucked in a gasp of pure horror as the gun in Mer's hands shifted away from herself and Sheppard, and came to rest against Mer's chin.
"You," Sheppard hissed, a sound of pure rage. His fingers curled, green sparks sputtering around the fingertips, but melting away as they jumped from his skin.
"You can't do anything, can you?" Woolsey sneered. "Not locked in cold iron. Fortunately the rest of us are not similarly helpless. With two hostages, we have a spare, so we don't have to be especially careful -- how many of her fingers do you think we should break?"
Jeannie locked her jaw as her hand was forced up behind her. Don't scream, she told herself bitterly, even as tears sprang to her eyes from the pain as her finger was bent backwards.
Sheppard's face was a pale mask, all emotions out of sight; his eyes glittered. "Maybe if you'd tell me what you want."
"I thought you'd never ask." Woolsey crooked a finger, and Jeannie gasped in relief as the pressure on her hand eased. "Come on," the Wraith-possessed mage added, and turned on his heel, striding down the hall.
Wraith-Mer lowered the gun from beneath his chin, and Jeannie couldn't help noticing a very slight slump of Sheppard's brittle shoulders, before Wraith-Mer shoved the gun into the small of his back. Sheppard flinched forward from contact with the metal. "I'm coming," he muttered.
Woolsey led them down the corridor and through some branching passages. They were fairly deep now, and the temperature had dropped noticeably, with a dank chill. Jeannie was reminded of one time that she'd gone spelunking with some friends at a cave in New Mexico -- the feeling of stepping from sunshine into the cool refrigerator chill of the rock. They passed another of Atlantis's tall, stained-glass windows, but rather than shafts of sun, Jeannie was startled to see rippling curtains of deep blue-green water. We're below the waterline, she thought, amazed despite her fear and revulsion.
She kept glancing at Sheppard; he stumbled, now and then, and caught himself on the wall. Sometimes it seemed to Jeannie that he would zone out, his eyes going unfocused, only the pressure of the gun in his back keeping him moving in a straight line.
Another door opened under Woolsey's deft fingers, but this one led not to another corridor, but into a round room that lit up at their entrance. There was only one thing in the room: a chair on a raised dais, reminding Jeannie vaguely of a high-tech dentist's chair.
Sheppard kept walking for a few steps before he stumbled against the dais and stopped, blinking around like a man coming out of a dream. "Nice place you got here. A few pictures, a vase of flowers or two, that'll really fix it up." His voice cracked on the quip.
Woolsey snorted. "Amusing," he said, in a voice that did not sound at all amused. "This entire process would have been so much simpler, and less painful for you, if you'd simply opened up to us and let us in of your own free will. Like your friend did." Woolsey cocked his head at Wraith-Mer. "He didn't fight; he welcomed his new master."
"He's lying, John!" Jeannie said quickly, trying to ignore the pain as the Wraith holding her gave her bound arms a hard, vicious twist. "He did fight back -- they just ... took him over. Ow!"
"But I'm different," Sheppard said, taking a step backwards. "You can't take me over like you can other people. Because I'm part fae?"
"You're the closest thing to the Old Ones that we've seen in a very long time." Woolsey's lips curved in a small smile. "My nest was very pleased to discover your kind, and through you, the long-hidden city of the Old Ones. It is very powerful, this city. We could not possibly allow such power to be possessed by mere cattle. Please, do step into the chair. Don't make us force you."
Sheppard divided his attention between the Wraith and the chair, staring at both as if he thought they would bite him.
"I won't ask again," Woolsey said, and a low note of menace had crept into his voice.
Ronon circled Atlantis, looking down at it from the air. The whales had given him an idea of where he could find Rodney, but the whales were also extremely single-minded in their concern for their adopted pod-child. Not that they didn't care about the other "drylanders" at all -- but at the moment, it was mostly Rodney's fate they were concerned with.
He ran his palm across the leather-wrapped grip of his gun. The familiar sensation was comforting, driving away fear. Folding his wings, Ronon landed lightly on a balcony above where the whales had pinpointed as Rodney's location.
The mages had only clipped him with their spells, but he still felt as if he'd been beaten, and the bullet wound in his right arm made it difficult to bend. He transfered the gun to his left hand -- he was a good shot with either arm -- and pried open the doors.
He found himself in a corridor lit only by the sunset light filtered through the stained glass windows. It was eerily still; normally he'd expect people bustling around in the halls, but there was a hushed, waiting silence lying over the place like a shroud. Memories of Sateda assailed him -- he pushed them away, swallowed them down with many years' practice.
Wings tucked behind him, he trotted swiftly down the corridor to a set of stairs. He was about to start down when a distant, hoarse scream made him whip around.
The scream came from the opposite direction. Ronon cast a look down the stairs, and then, hoping Rodney could wait a little longer, turned and ran the other way.
Around a sharp bend in the hall, he came upon a scene like a tableau from a painting, bathed in the ruddy light falling through the windows. A woman, wearing the uniform of an acolyte healer, was struggling with a much larger man in scientist's garb. It only took a second's observation for Ronon to realize that the woman was the aggressor; the man bore bloody streaks down his face where she'd clawed him.
Ronon shot her in the back. Red light flared over her body; she stiffened and gave a shriek that died away in a gurgle as she slumped forward. The soldier caught her, staring from her to Ronon in shock and dismay. "Is she dead?"
"No. She's fine." Ronon glanced down at his gun. The runes on its barrel were glowing brightly now, painting fiery traceries of blue and gold, but even as he looked, they began to fade, leaving only after-images behind. The gun had done as its unknown makers had designed it -- the Wraith in the woman's body was dead, leaving her unharmed.
"She just went crazy," the man said shakily. "I mean, we've been seeing each other for weeks now and she never so much as raised her voice, and then I swear I didn't do anything and all of a sudden she was trying to claw my --"
"You hurt?" Ronon interrupted impatiently.
"She tried to claw my eyes out!"
"Yeah, but looks to me like you've still got both of 'em." He didn't have time for this.
The man raised a hand to his face, groped it hesitantly. "Well, I think I'm -- mostly okay --"
"Good enough." Ronon pointed at the woman, slumped against him. "She's gonna be pretty shocky when she wakes up. It takes a lot out of 'em. Get some food in her and make sure she lays down."
With that, he turned and broke into a jog, ignoring the man's plaintive question: "What takes a lot out of who?"
The jog became a run, and he took the stairs two at a time. The Wraith were here, the City was infested with them, and they were abandoning their pretense of stealth and beginning to feed.
He remembered all too clearly what would happen next, and he'd rot in the Ancestors' seven hells before he'd let it happen here.
The first Wraith that Radek saw -- at least, the first that he recognized as such -- occupied the body of a pleasant-looking thirty-something female soldier, who stepped out of the shadows with a smile, and then tried to rip Teyla's head off.
Teyla moved with incredible speed for a human, though not quite on the werewolf level -- ducking backwards and swinging her sticks. Zelenka, at least partly by habit, dodged out of the way and stepped back; he cursed himself for his cowardice, but realized a moment later that Teyla really didn't need him.
He had sometimes watched her practice her stick-fighting moves in the gym. It had always seemed very stylized, like a dance more than an art designed to do harm to anyone.
But now, he could see what it was for. Teyla's sticks did not make actual contact with her opponent; they skimmed the surface of the woman's skin, or swung below her arm without grazing her, but each time that the sticks came near her, the woman staggered as if she'd been struck.
Teyla was doing battle not with the woman, but with the Wraith inside her.
It came as a complete shock to Radek -- and he saw Teyla freeze for a moment, too -- when the woman's body folded up and crumpled like a sack of old laundry. Pouring out of her like smoke, Radek saw a ... presence. His heightened werewolf senses could see it clearly: a dark aura, like smoke or a spreading oil slick in the air. It flowed towards Teyla and then shied away as she made a swing for it -- her strike was not as sure now, and Radek realized that the human woman could not see it as clearly as he could. Diverting its substance in midair, the Wraith flowed around Teyla like water, parting around her to merge seamlessly on the other side, and poured itself at Radek.
His claws came out with no conscious direction. All his life, he'd held himself back, controlled his anger, spoken softly and kept his head down -- equally terrified of hurting someone, and of being unjustly accused of hurting someone and sent to prison. But against the Wraith, there was no need to hold back, and for the first time in his life, he could use his body's weapons as they were intended.
"Zelenka, no!" he heard Teyla shout. "Don't touch it!"
But it was too late; his claws were already in midstrike, and they tore through the Wraith like a knife through wet paper. It was a shocking sensation, ice-cold and also disgusting in some indefinable way, like sinking his claws into rotten garbage.
The Wraith let out an unearthly shriek that made Radek's hackles stand on end. Snarling, he clawed it again, swinging around his other hand. He'd spent a lifetime denying and burying his fighters' instincts, but they were still there, under the cultured manners and the university education. He clawed the Wraith again and again, shredding it, until it dissolved and blew away like the smoke it resembled.
Radek rubbed his hands on his pants leg, claws fully sheathed once more. His fingers felt greasy, though he could neither see nor smell any physical taint; it felt as if he'd never be able to get his hands clean.
Looking up, he saw Teyla staring at him. Horror and self-loathing washed over him -- she'd seen the predator part of him; surely she must hate him now. He opened his mouth to beg her forgiveness when he realized that she was staring at him not with fear or disgust, but with awe.
"I have never heard of anyone killing a Wraith with their bare hands before."
Radek lifted a shoulder in a small shrug, embarrassed. "I only did what seemed appropriate."
"That was more than merely appropriate," she said. "It is an honor to fight with you, Dr. Zelenka."
Radek hoped that the dim corridor hid his flaming blush.
Kneeling, Teyla checked the woman's pulse. "She ought to have medical attention. Wraith refugees often come to us very weak and disoriented, sometimes mad. It is not right to leave her lying here; she may die. But John ...."
For answer, Radek swept the woman up into his arms. Another thing about humans: they were pretty weak compared to werewolves. "I will take her to the infirmary. You have seen me open the doors; do you think you can do it?"
Teyla nodded. "Be careful," she said, and gave his arm a quick squeeze.
"I will join you if I can." He didn't dare look back at her; instead he took off, swiftly, towards the Healers' wing of the city. He allowed his lower body to shift slightly towards full wolf-form, the muscles growing lean and long and more suited to running. Too bad he couldn't change completely while carrying the soldier, but at least this way he could get her there as quickly as possible -- and also warn Carson what was going on.
Carson had his own problems.
The healer and several of his acolytes and assistants had their hands full defending their infirmary from two patients who had simply climbed out of their beds and started attacking the others.
Carson wasn't sure if his staff entirely believed him when he'd explained, breathlessly, that the patients were probably possessed by these bizarre Pegasus Galaxy demons, but at least they'd joined him in throwing up every kind of ward that they could muster. Luckily, if there was ever a good place to muster an impromptu protection-circle, the well-stocked infirmary was definitely that place. Carson didn't know offensive magic, but pre-set healing spells were his specialty, and they had managed to successfully drive the Wraith out of one of the two young men by nearly burying him under healing charms and salt.
Unfortunately, it leaped into a nurse -- after shying away from a dryad, which Carson filed away for future reference in the part of his brain that wasn't panicking: since the Pegasus Galaxy didn't seem to have humanoid non-humans, as the Milky Way Galaxy did, perhaps the Wraith couldn't possess them. However, this didn't help now, and he wasn't about to risk Jennifer or Marie on the chance that he was right.
And to make matters worse, that bloody Woolsey had sealed them all into the infirmary; they couldn't escape. At least he assumed it was Woolsey -- shortly after the announcement to return to their quarters, the doors had sealed tight, just as Carson had been in the process of rearranging the duty rosters so that his non-essential personnel could obey the order. He'd had a very bad feeling about it, knowing what he knew about Woolsey, and now that feeling was borne out in full.
"Healer!" Jennifer gasped, stumbling back as the possessed nurse went after her with a scalpel.
"What's going on in here?" a new voice asked, and Carson risked a glance over his shoulder to see Zelenka. Somehow, the scientist had apparently managed to get the door open (thank gods, Carson thought) and had stepped inside with an unconscious woman over his shoulder.
The other possessed patient took advantage of his hesitation -- the human body collapsed, and Carson barely had time to throw up his arms in a pathetic self-defense before the Wraith sprang towards him, a heat-shimmer in the air. Apparently, they'd realized who was leading the defense against them -- who they had to neutralize.
He didn't even see Zelenka move, but suddenly the werewolf was there between him and the Wraith, somehow managing simultaneously to be the most terrifying and the most beautiful sight Carson had ever seen. With fully extended claws, Zelenka slashed at apparently empty air; Carson couldn't really make out what was happening, except that the heat-shimmer that had been curling towards him suddenly wasn't there anymore.
"Where did it go?" Zelenka panted, spinning around and searching the room. Then he leaped, again with that unearthly speed, and slashed his claws past the nose of one of the nurses. She recoiled with a gasp, and Zelenka dropped into a crouch, pinning the Wraith to the floor with his claws.
Jennifer ran up and dumped an entire box of anti-depression charms on it. The Wraith writhed and smoked and faded away -- apparently that was more than it could take.
Meanwhile, several of the other members of the infirmary staff had managed to restrain the possessed nurse. Carson approached her cautiously as she spit and frothed and struggled. "It's all right, Gail. We'll fix you up." He laid his hands on Gail's shoulders, dropping into a healing trance.
It was not too different, really, from a cancer or other disease. He could feel the wrongness of the Wraith, woven into every cell of her body, and feel how the creature's presence was already beginning to sap her vitality. He concentrated, pouring healing energy into her body, and felt a burning snap as the Wraith fled, releasing its victim.
A small flurry of activity behind him, punctuated by a growl from Zelenka, let him know that the disembodied Wraith was being dealt with. Carson staggered and had to sit down. The long hours spent intensely researching every possible theoretical aspect of possession and expulsion had paid off -- his intellectual understanding of what he was up against allowed his instincts to strike true -- but using no tools but raw power to work the banishing had taken a lot out of him.
Gail's lashes fluttered and she opened her eyes with a soft gasp. "Healer," she cried, somewhere between a sob and a whimper.
"It's all right, lass. You're safe now." As Marie moved in to take care of the trembling nurse, Carson climbed shakily to his feet. He'd felt the damage that the Wraith had done to the nurse just in a few minutes of possession; the other victims would be needing his skills.
He spared a moment's pity for Woolsey and the others who had been possessed for weeks. Hopefully his skills would be enough to put them back together again.
Teyla ran through a City plunged into darkness. As night fell outside, the lights in the hallways and chambers of the Ancestors failed to bring their usual warm glow. In the absence of light, shadows and nightmares ruled. Teyla swiped at disembodied enemies that she could not see clearly, but that made her runes burn in warning. Time and time again, her own defenses repulsed them. In the distance, she could hear the terrible sounds of those who were proving to be easier prey. Screams and gunfire echoed through the abandoned hallways. Teyla had no way to pinpoint their source, no choice but to keep running in the direction of the chair room.
She vaulted over an odd collection of debris -- a makeshift barricade; charred pieces of a door resting precariously on top of it. The lingering smell of acrid smoke brought tears to her eyes. On the other side of the obstacle, she froze. She had to swallow hard against the bile rising at the sight of what was left of the defenders. It was impossible to tell how many of them there had been, but they were all dead. Hideously dead.
The floor was slick under her feet, and she walked slowly, heartsick with horror and pity. She felt a surge of selfish gratitude at the lack of harsh light, which could have transformed the corpses of strangers to murdered friends. Even without knowing their identities, leaving the Wraith-killed behind, alone and unsung, felt like a betrayal. As if being too late to help them had not been betrayal enough -- but she had move on. The dead would have to wait, so that the living might be saved.
Her footsteps rang out too loudly on the narrow staircase down to the level she sought. The only other sounds were her own breathing, and as far away as she was, the distant cries of panic and despair. Maybe the Wraith were feeding those sounds through the City's speakers, she thought. It made her angry enough to wish that one of the filthy monsters would challenge her right then, thinking about the Ancestor's City used thus by the Wraith. Turning their gift and legacy against their human inheritors, using it to hurt and destroy -- her impotent fury at the violation almost caused her to miss the other sound.
Reigning in her violent emotions, she listened. There it was again. Someone was coming. Someone was walking the corridor below. Walking fast, like they had nothing to fear in a City full of feeding shadow hunters. She tensed and crouched. Waited one breath, then two, before falling on the enemy.
Teyla saw the wings a fraction of a second before she landed. She pulled her strike just as he swung the muzzle of his gun away. "Ronon!"
An expression of relief lightened his grim and battered features. "Teyla."
There was no time for questions. "This way -- they have John," Teyla said, and took the lead.
Ronon nodded as he followed. "And McKay."
"What?" The word squeezed past a sudden tightness in Teyla's chest before she could stop herself.
"Woolsey took them." Ronon's voice was level, but Teyla could feel the weight of unspoken guilt in his words.
"Through here," was all said, but she let her shoulder brush against his as they broke into a run.
John's muscles were locked tight, tension grinding his teeth together, sweat stinging his eyes. The deep ache of iron pressed into his bones, pumped with the blood through his veins. He thought the pain might be real. Thinking was difficult, sluggish, his head at once dizzyingly light and weighed down with a leaden vise.
Woolsey -- no, not Woolsey, a Wraith wearing his face -- leaned forwards. "You don't want to hold back on us now."
The chair was cold -- or maybe it was John who was cold. He shivered, a helpless spasm of too-tense muscles. He twisted cracked lips, summoned a reply. "I'm not holding anything back." His fingers curled around the armrest of the cold, hard chair, as unresponsive as any piece of office furniture.
"He's completely useless," Rodney snapped, somewhere out of sight, the tone cold and cutting. No, he told himself not Rodney, a Wraith in Rodney and then in the next breath, not real, I'm still dreaming, this isn't real...
"Look at me!" Woolsey barked into John's face, slamming his -- its -- fist into the side of the chair.
John flinched away, blinking. The room was too bright and then too dark, and the iron hurt all through him and nothing made sense. Rodney was there, Rodney could make sense of it for him -- that was what Rodney did. John tried to say his name, but it came out a whisper.
Rodney stepped forward, as if in answer to John's entreaty, but the words he spoke made no more sense than anything else. "If you'll pardon my presumption, my queen, it was a mistake to pin our hopes on this worthless herd-beast. He can't even understand what you're saying to him; we spent much too long trying to break him, and now he's useless."
Woolsey growled -- literally growled, like an animal. "His fae blood is the strongest in hive memory, since the Old Ones left this plane of existence. We need him. If anyone can unlock their secrets, it's him."
"Let me see if I can get through to him," Rodney said, his voice dropping a few registers, becoming seductive -- a tone that was all wrong on him.
John tried to quail back, pressing himself into the chair. Rodney leaned forward until their foreheads were nearly touching, and John could feel the taint in him, a stomach-churning veneer of wrongness laid over his skin.
"He's screaming in his own head, John," Rodney said quietly. "He's at my mercy. I can do whatever I want to him."
John closed his eyes to shut away the sight of Rodney's face. Not real. It isn't real, just like the rest of it. If he tried, he could even feel the room spinning away from him, the arms of the chair going insubstantial under his curled fingers. Not real.
Rodney's lips brushed his forehead. The touch was electric, jerking him rudely out of his dream fugue. The Wraith taint was stronger now; he kept his eyes shut, not daring to look, afraid of what he'd see in Rodney's eyes.
"What is he to you? What would you do for him?" the Wraith whispered, and with his eyes closed, John could almost make himself believe that it was nothing more than a monster, a bogeyman, the thing hiding in the closet or under the bed -- not a demon with Rodney's face. The taint curled around every word, turning the familiar voice alien and strange.
Rodney's lips moved against his forehead; John shivered as Rodney's breath stirred the fine hairs on his skin. "I can destroy him utterly, John. I can ruin him so thoroughly that, even if you somehow chase me out, there will be nothing left but a shell. In fact, I'm starting now."
Not real. Not real.
"Do you want to see?" the Wraith whispered, and its forehead pressed against John's, skin and flesh and bone and wrong, wrong, wrong.
And for just an instant, he did see -- Rodney, his face contorted in agony and fury, chained to twin pillars of stone, with fire climbing his legs and blood dripping from his fingers, writhing, screaming --
John's eyes snapped open. Rodney's face was nothing but a dark blur from this close. "I can't," he gasped, Rodney's scream still ringing in his ears.
"Can't?" the Wraith purred in Rodney's voice. "Or won't?"
"Can't! Whatever you want me to do, I can't do it!" His voice broke in the middle; he was ashamed and horrified and haunted by a growing fear that this wasn't another dream -- it was real, all too real.
The Wraith jerked away with an angry hiss. "Then you are useless!"
John flinched, the words landing like a physical blow. If this was real -- it wasn't Rodney, the thing in front of him, but it was in Rodney, and John could do nothing to help him. To help any of them.
"Although..." The Wraith leaned forward again, face twisting in a smile. "You are still a rare find, child of the Old Ones." Its warm breath curled a snail's trail of taint over the shell of John's ear. "You, we will save until the end. You will watch as they die, one by one. You will watch them be destroyed, and your suffering will be so sweet."
It was the obscene pleasure in Rodney's voice as much as the words it spoke that made John shake his head in mute denial.
"Oh, yes," the Wraith argued, eyes heavy-lidded with pleasure as it ran its fingertips from John's temple to his jaw. "They will die, because you couldn't save them." It turned to look at Jeannie, who was white-faced with terror. "Come over here, little girl. Let's persuade him together."
Nightmare was too mild a word for what was going on outside Rodney's mind. Nightmares faded, nightmares you could forget, and nightmares weren't real.
What was happening in his mind -- that was a nightmare. An excruciatingly painful and horrible one, but still just a nightmare. What was happening outside was worse. In his own personal hell, Rodney could at least use his words to try and hang on to -- to everything, to time and space and actions, as long as he didn't run out of things to call the Wraith controlling him.
"You have more strength than I thought," the Wraith remarked, dividing its attention effortlessly between the events outside and the spectacle inside.
"I'm thrilled to hear that. I've always longed to have a monster in my head approve of --" Blood trickled down Rodney's arm, and his evil double stepped forward to wipe it away with a thumb, distracting him for a second before he could wrench his mouth back on line "--of my efforts in life."
"I will wring it from you drop by drop." Rodney's evil double was actually licking blood from its fingers with the relish of an R-rated movie vampire, and Rodney was about to gather enough breath to tell it so when it continued, "And I will make him watch."
"Don't," Rodney said. "Please."
The Wraith liked that, he could feel it -- the noxious pleasure wrapped around him like a cloying pall of smoke.
Outside, Woolsey talked to Sheppard, the words a meaningless hum. The Wraith had moved Rodney's body close enough that he could clearly see the pallor of Sheppard's skin, the dark smudges like bruises under his eyes. Could see the confusion in his green eyes -- and for a moment it was as if Sheppard had looked right at him, not at the Wraith in his eyes but at him, and -- oh, gods. Sheppard needed him. Needed answers -- needed more than that, but Rodney knew that look, and he was the one supposed to be thinking, supposed to be fixing things.
I'm the one who fixes things.
He let his head drop for a second, blocking everything but the flames from sight. His mind worked furiously through the burning ache of protesting muscles in his back and stinging sweat in his eyes and everything else that didn't matter, because he was so close, now. There was the chair and the City and oh, it was so simple, he could see it now. But with the Wraith in his head ignoring his words to feed on his pain, Rodney couldn't tell anyone.
Jeannie could hardly hear for her heart pounding in her ears. She'd never been so terrified in her life.
The Wraith slit her bonds and forced her forward, to the chair. They drove her to her knees, facing Sheppard, who offered her a small, apologetic smile. Up close, he looked even worse -- stark white, his lips dry and cracked beneath a few days' worth of stubble. "Sorry about all of this," he said, his voice a low, hoarse rasp.
For some reason, this startled a small, broken laugh out of her. "Next time Mer asks me for help, I think I might have an unavoidable conference on the other side of the country."
"He asked you for help?"
"He brought me here to help him find you," Jeannie said, and was rewarded by a softening in his green eyes -- a reflexive response she didn't think he was aware of.
"Oh," he said softly.
"I didn't bring you over here to chat," Woolsey snarled, and made a sharp gesture to Wraith-Mer. Jeannie didn't see his foot coming until pain burst across the backs of her shins; gasping, she went down to her knees, gripping the arm of the chair.
Sheppard was leaning forward now. "Leave her alone."
Wraith-Mer knelt, bringing his face close to Jeannie's. "You're supposed to be some kind of scientist. You tell me why he can't use the chair."
"How am I supposed to do that?" Her protest emerged as a helpless wail. "I don't know anything about this technology!"
"You'd better figure it out," Wraith-Mer sneered. "I don't know how long your brother can hold out."
I can do this, Rodney thought, one tiny thing, and he tried to shut out the pain, and the sound of the laughing Wraith; he tried to summon all the whales' teachings of mental discipline, and get control over himself. Somehow.
The room swam in front of Jeannie as hot, unwanted tears sprang to her eyes. Kneeling in front of Sheppard, she placed her hands over his on the arms of the chair. He flinched at her touch, and she winced at the sight of the raw, blistered skin on his wrists where the metal bands touched. "Sorry," she whispered.
" 'Sokay," he whispered back. "Guess you don't know why I can't get it to work, huh?"
Jeannie shook her head, blond hair swishing back and forth. Through her prism of tears, Sheppard wavered and seemed to split into a kaleidoscope of small images of himself. "I used to be able to talk to the city," she whispered, her voice breaking. "But it's been years, and I never really had control over it -- I'm trying, but nothing's happening. I don't know how any of this works -- and -- I can't ..."
It broke her to admit it -- that a lifetime of trying to understand the laws of nature and magic had come to this: trapped in a situation she couldn't control, run by rules she couldn't fathom. It was real, all of it, the long-ago memories that she'd spent a lifetime denying -- things that could not be explained by any science she knew, even the magical sciences. She had spent her life trying to understand, and now she had to throw it all away for the madness of the unknown. But watching the Wraith destroying Mer, and shredding the sanity of the wild-eyed ghost of a man in the chair -- she couldn't let it happen, she just couldn't.
But the city would not respond.
Wraith-Mer's hand settled on her shoulder, and she shuddered at the touch, especially when his fingers tightened, curling into flesh and pressing towards bone. As if he wanted to take possession of her.
Rodney could move his hand.
It was a little thing, a tiny thing, but ... huge, all the same. Just as the whales had taught him to block certain parts of his mind from their well-meaning inquiries, so he could wall off some tiny parts of himself -- keep a few little things back from the Wraith. Such as the ability to move his right hand.
He could feel Jeannie's soft hair brushing his fingers, and the shoulder of her pink sweater. It was real, more real than the feeling of the illusory manacles digging into his dream-wrists, the insects' mandibles tearing at his flesh. Feeling Jeannie squirm, Rodney realized that he might be hurting her, and released the pressure, sliding his hand down her arm to her wrist. Here, he squeezed to get her attention, and then uncurled one finger very carefully, pointing at the iron shackle on John's wrist.
He couldn't tilt his head to see her face, but he caught a glimpse of her expression out of the corner of his eye. She was frowning, looking puzzled.
Oh, come on! Rodney wanted to scream. It's not that complicated! He tapped his finger against the iron cuff on John's wrist, lightly, insistently.
A stinging slap across his face caused him to drop his control; his fingers twitched spasmodically, and his awareness of his hand slipped away. Groggily, he blinked at the Wraith's face, his own face, twisted in anger.
"What are you doing?" the Wraith demanded furiously.
Rodney spat out blood before he could answer. "Just hanging around," he said casually, and had about half a second to be proud of himself for being snarky and lying to the Wraith on sheer principle before the insects swarmed over him, and all he could do was scream.
Wraith-Mer's finger tapped on John's iron shackle, then twitched and pulled back. Jeannie's arm felt cold where his hand had been.
Jeannie sucked in her breath. That wasn't the Wraith, it was Mer. Trying to tell them something. Something about the bonds on Sheppard's wrists.
Sheppard was fae, wasn't he? The ears made it pretty obvious, and that must be what the iron was for, which meant --
"It's the cuffs," she said, the words tumbling over one another. "They're blocking your magic, right? They must be blocking your connection to the city as well."
Sheppard blinked and nodded, focusing on her with an obvious effort. "My damned fae blood. I can't do a thing with -- oh." His face went suddenly reflective. "Damn. I should've thought of that myself."
Jeannie twisted her head to look over her shoulder at Wraith-Mer and the others behind him. "You have to take the bracelets off. He can't do whatever you want him to do with them on."
Woolsey snorted. "Nice try. That's the only thing keeping him from frying us all. Stop wasting time."
"You guys are idiots," Sheppard drawled, looking up at the Wraith with a grin that managed to be insolent despite his obvious exhaustion. "We got your solution right here, and you're too scared of me to try it."
Woolsey's face darkened like a thundercloud. "I think we've wasted enough time. This isn't going to work; whatever powers the city has, it can keep." His lips twisted upward in a brutal smile. "My other hive-children have already begun to feed on the inhabitants of this cursed city. I think it's time for the rest of you to do the same."
"Finally," Wraith-Mer sighed, and Meredith's big hands came to rest on either side of Jeannie's throat, holding her from behind. She looked up at Sheppard and saw her own horror, anger and fear reflected on his pale face. And then -- then his face changed, just as someone started yelling behind her.
John knew he was dreaming when Ronon and Teyla burst into the room -- Teyla swinging her sticks, Ronon with that big gun of his.
The nearest Wraith started to draw their guns and both of them went down as Ronon fired twice in rapid succession, red light flaring over them.
"Don't!" Jeannie cried, still frozen with Rodney's hands around her neck -- but loose, not squeezing; he was staring at the newcomers. "They're innocent people; don't kill them!"
"Doesn't hurt them, just the Wraith," Ronon said shortly, and then rolled out of the way of a fireball and fired, not at the mage who had just attacked him, but at Rodney, who stiffened and then went limp on top of Jeannie.
The room had devolved into a firefight: mages throwing fireballs, Teyla locked in combat with a soldier -- she had managed to disarm him, but he moved with inhuman speed, and she couldn't get close enough to land a blow. Jeannie was trying to drag Rodney to safety behind the chair, and John finally managed to get his wits about him.
This wasn't a dream; it was real, and suddenly he was deathly terrified for Ronon, for Teyla -- for Rodney -- for everyone in this room. He surged to his feet, almost pitched over again as the blood rushed from his head, and switched to magesight by pure instinct, even as the iron shook his concentration and pain spiked through his temples.
Through magesight, the room was alive with energy -- spiking from Ronon's gun, from Teyla's bantos rods; flickering baleful black and red around the Wraith; limning the chair and walls in blue fire. He'd forgotten how overwhelming magesight could be on Atlantis. A ball of magefire burst across one of the walls, nearly blinding to his heightened senses.
And all around them -- Wraith, free of their hosts, swooping and diving. John thought at first that they were being forced out by Ronon and Teyla's actions -- and maybe some of them were, but then he saw a woman crumple to the ground as the Wraith possessing her rose, shrieking, without anyone having laid a finger on it.
"Sheppard!" Ronon bellowed. He crossed the room in two long wing-assisted leaps, taking out another mage with his gun in mid-leap. Gripping John's shoulder, Ronon steadied him. "You okay?"
"I'm peachy." John tried to resist the urge to lean into the offered support. "Whole damn room's filling up with Wraith."
"I can feel it," Ronon said, and John could, too -- the pervasive feeling of perversion and badness, the same bad aura that filled up a place when a crime had happened. He'd felt it on Sateda, and it was growing stronger here.
"This is what they do," Ronon added, and when John looked at him, he saw something he'd never expected to see on his friend's face -- fear.
"What do you mean?"
"When they cull a world." Ronon seemed to be forcing out each word. "They -- go crazy, somehow. Do you have anhetha on your world? Predator fish, very vicious? Blood in the water makes 'em go crazy?"
"We have something similar, yeah. Sharks. Piranhas."
"That's Wraith," Ronon said bitterly. "That's what a culling is. It's not Wraith killing people one by one. It's ... they go crazy, kill every living thing. Nothing will grow, after."
John remembered all too well the hideous taint on Sateda. "And it's happening here," he breathed, looking around just as Woolsey, protected behind a magical shield, turned to give him a cruel smile.
"Your death will be very sweet, John Sheppard," Woolsey said, and then he folded up, the shield flickering and vanishing. John sucked in his breath -- the Wraith that rose from Woolsey's unconscious body was the biggest one he'd ever seen, twice the size of the others and practically vibrating with a horrible, overwhelming sense of power that scraped at his nerves like nails on a blackboard.
The giant Wraith curled towards him like fast-moving smoke, and he tried to pull away, but it made no move to possess him -- instead, it flicked past him, and he felt a sharp pain burn across the side of his face. Raising his hand slowly, dazedly, he touched his cheek, and his fingers came away wet with blood.
"John!" Teyla cried. She was dragging the body of one of the unconscious mages. "I think I can ward us, for a short time, at least! But we must be together."
John's knees tried to fold up when he took a step forward. Ronon put an arm around him, taking his weight, and dumped him into a heap beside Jeannie and Rodney, behind the chair -- then vanished, off into the maelstrom of Wraith to drag more people to what dubious safety they could offer.
Teyla had laid aside her sticks; there was a piece of crumbling ochre in one hand, and nothing in the other, but through John's magesight he could see that both hands were leaving rune-trails of fire as she threw up a hasty protection circle around them. He couldn't help her with the damn iron still binding him -- the bracelets were seamless, welded around his wrists by Woolsey's stolen magic. It would take another mage to get them off.
Instead he crawled to Jeannie, who had Rodney's head in her lap, carding her fingers through his hair. Rodney was entirely limp. "How is he?" John asked; he had to raise his voice to be heard above a growing keening sound, the wail of the enraged, hunting Wraith, growing louder by the moment.
"I don't know," Jeannie said shakily. Rodney's face was very white. Through John's magesight, his aura appeared muted and pale -- not strong and bright and beautifully blue-green like Rodney's aura normally looked to him.
John tore his eyes away from Rodney and looked around him. Ronon was just dumping two unconscious Wraith victims next to Teyla -- he was filthy, tattered, bleeding from a dozen shallow cuts around his face and head. Teyla, pouring all of her energy into keeping the wards up, looked as if she was about to collapse at any minute. Outside their tiny bubble of safety, a maelstrom of Wraith shrieked and raged, waiting for the inevitable moment when the circle failed.
John wondered what was happening in the rest of the city. For an instant he could see it, a hallucination brought on by stress and pain and exhaustion: the beautiful city that he'd come to love, empty and lifeless with bodies littering the corridors, its lovely jewel colors gone gray, its towers shattered.
Would they kill Rodney's whales, too? John wondered. The plants and animals on the mainland? He thought the answer was probably yes. When the Wraith were done with this world, it would be as gray and dead and polluted as Sateda had been.
And he couldn't let that happen.
Because this was his home.
"You searched for me," he said to Jeannie, and he wasn't sure why he needed that confirmation, in the middle of all of this, but somehow, he did.
She nodded. "Mer and I, and your friends, Teyla and Ronon and Carson. We've all been searching for you."
Home. He'd never had it on Earth. He'd had to cross a bridge between galaxies to find this place, and these people.
And he'd be damned if he was about to let the Wraith destroy it all.
"Can you really talk to the city?" he asked Jeannie.
She gave him a squint-eyed, "why are you talking about this now?" expression that was shockingly, painfully Rodney. "Yes, I can, but I don't have much control over it."
"The Wraith believed that the city is powerful enough they were willing to go to great lengths to possess it." John held up his hands, with the iron cuffs and the raw, burning flesh. "Whatever it can do, I think iron is as damaging to it as it is to me. Maybe more so. That's what Rodney was trying to tell us. Atlantis was built by Ancestors, after all. But the Wraith think that I have enough fae blood for it to respond to me -- I need to see if you can convince it to take me in, despite the iron."
"But I don't know how," Jeannie said, calm and controlled despite the slight tremor in her voice.
"You're a McKay." John couldn't help grinning a little. "You'll find a way."
Jeannie returned his smile briefly, but it fell away as she looked at the chair, outside Teyla's protective circle. "You can't go out there. They'll tear you apart."
"I've got a feeling that all I have to do is make it to the chair. If this works, then I don't think it'll matter once I get there." Which, he thought, could be taken more than one way. "And you have to get the city to talk to me by the time I get there. That's your job."
She drew a deep breath, and her chin tilted up proudly, another Rodney expression. "I'll do my best."
John nodded, and looked over his shoulder at Teyla and Ronon -- Teyla with her copper head bowed over the runes, her slim body trembling with strain; Ronon standing over her, wings curled protectively around her, shooting Wraith one by one as they tried to break through the circle. John had a feeling he probably wouldn't be coming back from this, one way or another, but he didn't dare break their concentration to let them know what he was doing, let alone to say goodbye.
Besides, anything he could say, he suspected they already knew.
And Rodney ... Rodney was still unconscious, like the other Wraith victims, his long lashes curving gently against his bloodless cheeks. John didn't know what he was going to do until he did it -- bowing his head to let his forehead rest against Rodney's, and then, very gently, brushing Rodney's soft, dry lips with his own.
He didn't look at Jeannie as he stood, exhausted and hurting, with the iron a great weight dragging him down. But he heard her say, "Good luck, John," very softly.
"You too," he said, and gathered his nerve, his strength, and whatever shreds of power the iron had left to him.
Then he leapt across the circle, and hit the ground running.
It was like stepping into a hurricane. He covered his face with his arms, plunging through resistance that was not quite physical. Dark emotions assailed him -- despair, rage, hatred, terror; he plowed through, barely aware of the pounding of his feet hitting the floor.
Please, Jeannie thought, her head tilted back and eyes closed, her lips framing the words. When I was a child, a lonely child, you came to me, because I needed you.
I need you now. We need you now. Please.
John knew he'd reached the chair only when he stumbled into it, barking his shins. He turned around and sat down heavily, still using his arms to guard his face. Warm wetness dripped off his fingers into his hair.
Lowering his arms, and lying back, and baring his face to the maelstrom took more courage than he'd known he'd possessed. But he did it, and the chair, unexpectedly, moved, tilting him back and turning his face to the hidden sky.
John looked up into the heart of the Wraithstorm.
It was dark and swirling, seething and alive. Half the Wraith in Atlantis must be congregated here, he realized; it was almost flattering, in a really freaky kind of way. And, for the moment, he was still alive -- there wasn't a part of him that didn't hurt, but he was still alive. For now.
His fingers curled on the handrests of the chair. Earlier, it had been nothing more than an inanimate hunk of blue-veined metal; now, he sensed something else: a great, waiting presence. It reminded him of nothing so much as the ominous sense of expectation that often precedes a powerful thunderstorm.
Hi, he thought in its direction.
There was no change that he could detect, no sense that it was aware of him in any way.
I know you don't know me, but we've got kind of a problem here. You could really help us out.
Still no response. John could feel the dark presence of the Wraith pressing down on him, but none of them had attacked. Why, he couldn't begin to guess.
You remember the Ancestors, right? The fae? The ones who made you? Hello? Anybody home?
He wasn't quite sure how to define it, but there was a change, a shifting, like the air displaced as a building begins to topple. For a frozen moment it tickled at the edge of his mind, almost familiar -- a strange susurration, like voices at the edge of hearing. Then a great unspeakable something roared into his mind with the power of a freight train, and the world went white.
"John," Rodney said in a breathless whisper. In Jeannie's lap, his eyes snapped open.
As the strands of her rune-weaving began to separate, Teyla threw more and more of herself into keeping it together -- until, when the final thread broke, she felt it all throughout her body, a rending and tearing that nearly took her apart.
Soft wings caught and cradled her. She came back to herself leaning against Ronon, her head resting on his shoulder. "Easy," he said as she tried to push away and nearly overbalanced. His wings were wrapped around both of them in a protective feathery wall.
"The Wraith," Teyla gasped, struggling to get up.
"Easy. Something's happening."
Looking up, she saw that he was right. The room was flooded with light, brilliant and omnidirectional. There was a dazzling white pillar of light in the middle of the room, and it took Teyla a moment to remember what had been there: the chair.
"John!" she gasped, swiveling to look around, seeking him. Rodney was sitting up, pale and shaky, leaning on Jeannie, and some of the other Wraith victims were beginning to stir, but of John there was no sign.
Now panting hard, Radek spared a moment's thought for a silent apology to Teyla. He hoped that she would find John -- hoped that they both would be safe on their own, because he would never be able to join her. Not with the infirmary under siege, its defenders fighting a battle that they were too few and too slow to win.
He swiped grimly at another of the nauseating monstrosities diving for Carson, lips drawn back in a warning snarl. There were too many of them for him to pounce individual Wraith -- he was afraid to leave the healer open to attack even for the moment it would take to snatch the foul creatures from the air and rend them to shreds. So far, none of the non-humans in the room had been taken, but Radek didn't know if the healer's dash of fae blood would be enough to keep the Wraith out of his mind, and he was not going to allow them to find out.
Carson himself was still hunched over the latest poor bastard to have been possessed -- since Laura Cadman and her small group of soldiers had burst in with the intention of protecting them all, anyone who got a Wraith in their head was unceremoniously wrestled to the ground and expertly restrained. The healer had been a little shocked at the brutality of her approach, but Radek was glad not to have to face down any more grinning, scalpel-wielding Wraith-puppets on his own.
Teeth bared and claws extended, Radek stood protectively over the huddle of working healer and soldiers piled on a howling patient. The Wraith came from behind this time, and he twisted, striking out in a fluid motion, though he still couldn't help stiffening with disgust as his blow connected. The Wraith whipped around in a fury, and Radek had to let it flee as another one had slipped close enough that it was almost touching Carson's bowed head with its greedy tendrils when Radek punched through it.
The patient's hoarse cries fell abruptly silent, and Radek bent to snap his jaws in an unbreakable grip around the pulsing, revolting mass of Wraith spilling out from him. He would have to destroy this one fast -- others were already closing in, too many others.
Only the hardiness of the wolf form kept Radek from throwing up when he was done, and his lungs were beginning to burn. His heart raced. The room had grown perceptibly darker -- he thought even the humans must be able to see the roiling Wraith gathering around them, drawn by the screams or the magic or a dark amusement at their puny resistance.
By Carson's side, Jennifer helped the drained healer stand. Her eyes flickered to the lights, and went wide with horror as she realized what was happening. But she kept one arm around Carson, and stood up very straight, putting her free arm around Marie's shoulders when the other dryad slumped against her. "It'll be okay," Radek heard her say, but from the way her voice wavered he could tell that she knew that she was lying.
The Wraith descended in a deranged flutter, grabbing greedily for the available humans, draping themselves like sickening shrouds over those they couldn't force themselves inside. There was no breath for thought or snarl, not even when the soldiers started turning weapons on each other. Everything was about the next slash, the next bite managing to keep the monsters away for one more moment -- and then there was light.
A wave of brilliant, blinding white pulsed through Radek -- warm, tingling, spangling his fur in silver for a brief instant. There should be thunder, his mind stuttered, because thunder followed lightning, but there was no sharp clap, no rumble. No pressure of ozone-tinged rain on his fur, but he was clean.
The Wraith were gone. He knew it before his vision cleared, because everything smelled the way the world did when it sparkled brightly with the first sunlight after a storm.
Radek blinked and looked around. There were no more predatory shadows. The shaky Wraith victims stirred, unmolested.
"They did it," he breathed, awed and jubilant.
Beside him, Carson smiled brilliantly. "They did."
An electric tingling filled Radek's chest, and for the first time in his life he raised his head in a victory howl.
"John's there," Jeannie said softly, and raised an arm to point at the pillar of light.
Rodney immediately tried to scramble to his feet only to topple on Jeannie. "Stop that, Mer," she snapped, steadying him.
"Feel that?" Ronon asked, and his wings lifted away from Teyla, arching over them both.
She started to ask "Feel what?" but the words did not leave her tongue, because he was right. The sickening burden of the Wraith taint had lifted. Teyla felt nothing but the clean sense of clarity and peace that she always felt in Atlantis.
"They're gone," Jeannie said, her voice soft, wondering.
Ronon helped Teyla to her feet, and Jeannie helped Rodney. As the other Wraith victims began to wake up and look around, together the four of them approached the glowing pillar. It was dazzling to Teyla's eyes, but threw off no heat; they were able to approach until they were nearly close enough to touch it.
"What's it doing to him?" Rodney demanded of Jeannie.
She shook her head. "I don't know, Mer, really I don't. I'm not feeling anything from --"
Jeannie broke off sharply as the pillar of light, with no warning, winked out, leaving vivid after-images blotting out Teyla's eyes. As her vision began to clear, she saw bright lines of fire chasing each other up and down the chair, over John's limp body, eventually trickling away into the floor and fading completely.
They all had their hands on him then, pulling him off the chair onto the floor. Blood matted his hair and his ragged uniform and pooled under him, but Teyla thought the damage looked mostly superficial. His face, though, was cold to the touch, and his skin was an awful bluish-gray.
Rodney's hands fluttered all over John's head and torso, patting him down with little furtive touches, brushing his hair, his cheeks. "He's not breathing," he said in a high, breathy voice. "Not breathing -- oh gods, he's --"
Ronon took John's head in his big hands, fingers slipping down to touch his throat. "Heart's still beating. He's not dead. Yet."
"Oh gods," Rodney said again, and he knelt to put his lips over John's slack mouth, with Ronon's hands holding his head still.
Teyla curled her fingers around John's poor, damaged wrist, feeling the soft birdlike flittering beneath the metal band. They were all clustered around him, as close as they could get, even Jeannie, who knelt with one hand on Rodney's shoulder and the other wrapped around John's limp hand. Rodney breathed for him, slowly and steadily, and Rodney's hands were still in motion, stroking his hair, touching his face, as if the little touches could call John back from wherever he'd gone. All of them were doing it, Teyla realized; her own hand curved down John's arm, as if she could infuse her own warmth into his cold skin; Ronon's broad, solid hands curled around John's face, fingers buried in his hair, holding John's head steady against his own thigh.
At first Teyla thought the flush of color in John's lips was her own wishful thinking, but it spread out slowly, a blush of pink driving away the ice-blue. His eyelids fluttered; he blinked; and he coughed harshly, as Ronon lifted John's head onto his lap, and Rodney raised his own hands to cover his face.
"Wow," John said after a moment, his voice a weak, shaky rattle. "That was -- wow."
"Wow?" Rodney echoed, lowering his hands from his face; he wasn't actually crying, but looked as if he might burst into tears, or maybe hysterical laughter, at any minute. "That's all you have to say for yourself? Wow?"
John looked up at him, at all of them, and a slight smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "It was cool," he said. "You guys shoulda been there."
And that, somehow, broke the spell of stillness over them. Teyla laughed, and laced her fingers through John's; Ronon bent his head to kiss John lightly on the forehead and then on each eyelid, a Satedan custom for greeting a friend thought dead. Rodney seemed frozen for a moment; then he made a little sound in his throat, and put his head down, brushing his cheek along John's, rubbing their faces together. It took Teyla a moment to remember that the whales showed affection in that way, and for most of his life, the only physical affection Rodney had received had come from his pod. Her throat hurt.
It seemed that John understood, though, because his free hand came up to curl around the back of Rodney's head and pull it down until he could get his lips on Rodney's. With Jeannie leaning against his back, Rodney couldn't pull away, and after a moment's stiffness, he melted, leaning into John, into all of them.
Then John's hands tightened on Teyla's and his arm jerked, and he said, "Ow," into Rodney's mouth. Rodney yanked his head back as if he'd been burned, narrowly avoiding clonking his head on Jeannie's.
"What? What? Did I hurt you?"
"No, no, it's just ..." John helplessly held up his hand, with the metal band still in place. His arm trembled as if just holding his hand in the air took more strength than he could give. The damaged skin oozed pus and blood. "Bumped it on something," he added, but there were fine lines of strain and hurt around his mouth.
"I might be able to remove these," Teyla said, very gently cupping his hand in her own. She'd used up almost all of her inner resources keeping the protection circle running, but she reached deep down inside herself and mustered a little more, tracing charms on the surface of the wretched thing until it sprang open with a soft click. It was so embedded in John's swollen flesh that she and Jeannie had to very carefully pry it loose; John gasped softly as it came free, but didn't cry out. They repeated the process on the other hand.
John closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the corners were damp.
"Better?" Teyla asked quietly, curling her fingers around his.
"Better," he whispered, and when Rodney cautiously, shyly, laid a hand against his cheek, John closed his eyes and leaned into the touch.
The crimson and gold light of sunset painted Atlantis's towers in a thousand molten jewel-tones when Rodney, walking softly, came to the East Pier to find John.
The whales had let him know that John was out here. Rodney hadn't seen much of them lately, aside from a brief and enthusiastic reunion; in the past three days, he'd been kept busy night and day, trying to get the portal back online and, when he wasn't doing that, going through Atlantis's database and trying to ferret out and repair the damage the Wraith had done.
At least it spared him the grisly duty of cleaning up the corridors. At the last count he'd heard, twenty-three people had been confirmed dead, and a number were still missing. Nearly everyone in the City had been injured, at least in some small way. The infirmary staff had been working until they were ready to drop, and everyone who was healthy enough to help in any way was pitching in wherever they could.
Carson had made Rodney lie down for a healing treatment and drained a bag of glucose into his arm, but other than that, he'd hardly seen a bed in three days. The few times that he'd tried to sleep, he'd bolted awake from nightmares of fire and insects. Everyone else he'd seen around the City had been walking with the same haunted, exhausted look that Rodney had no doubt he himself bore.
With Woolsey and half the other mages completely incapacitated in the infirmary, Bates in a coma and Sumner dead, the next person in the City's hierarchy who was physically capable of running the place was a young lieutenant named Ford. Rodney didn't really know him at all, but he had to grudgingly admit that the kid wasn't doing a bad job. Also, adding another few points in Ford's favor, Rodney had actually managed to convince him that shutting down the portal, trapping the Wraith in the City, had been intentional -- to stop them from getting to Earth. The few people who knew otherwise (Ronon and Jeannie) had had the decency to keep their mouths shut, though he'd caught them exchanging a pointed look. In fact, they'd been exchanging a lot of looks lately, and he thought he'd actually caught Jeannie blushing, though she claimed it was sunburn.
Today, finally, he and Jeannie had certified the portal safe to use, so they'd opened it to Earth and let Ford contact the Earth hierarchy to bring much-needed reinforcements through. Everyone who'd been in the City when the Wraith had besieged it was currently on stand-down to get some rest, and many of them were going back to Earth for psychiatric treatment.
Rodney knew that he ought to head back to his quarters and try to see if he was tired enough yet to sleep too deeply for the nightmares to find him. It might be possible -- his entire body ached, his eyes felt as dried out as two raisins, and the corridor kept undulating around him in a very disturbing way.
But instead, here he was, on the East Pier, looking for John without the foggiest clue what he was going to say to him. A number of things came to mind, like, Are you okay? and That was just the excitement talking when you kissed me, right? and maybe The whales think I'm in love with you -- which was very sad but true; the whales had picked up on most of what had happened in the chair room through their connection to Rodney, and once they'd got the "Oh, little podling, we thought you were dead" stuff out of the way, they'd gone into a fit of matchmaking joy. He was pretty sure they were planning the wedding by now. Yet another reason why he'd managed to successfully avoid both the whales and John for the last three days.
And, joy. There they all were: not just John, not just the whales, but also Ronon and Teyla. Delightful. Rodney wondered if he could sneak back into Atlantis, but then Ronon waved at him, and he sighed, and slouched over.
"Did your sister go back to Earth?" Teyla asked him. She was sitting crosslegged on the end of the pier, backlit by the setting sun.
"Just to wrap up her affairs in Vancouver," Rodney said, and sighed again. His life was so over.
"She's coming here?" Ronon asked. He looked more than just casually interested in that idea.
"Stay away from my sister, Birdman," Rodney snapped. "Besides, she'll be busy. She's got a job in the Atlantis science division. Radek better watch out."
He hadn't quite managed to figure out if he was sitting down or leaving; instead, he just hovered awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot, until Ronon heaved a sigh and moved over, making a space for him next to John. Still reluctant, but having very little choice now, Rodney sat down and let his feet dangle off the edge of the pier.
"Hey," he said, because he didn't know what else to say.
"Hey," John said, with a quick smile. He looked a little better, Rodney thought; his eyes weren't quite so shadowed, but he was still thin and pale.
"So, what about the ... and then there's the, you know ..." Rodney trailed off into silence, flapping his hand around uselessly. He was no good at small talk, never had been. For a few minutes, the only sound was the slapping of waves on the pier, and the rustling of Ronon's wings as he shifted in place. Finally Rodney couldn't take it anymore.
"What was it like? Being all -- glowy with Atlantis, and everyth -- ow!"
Ronon had swatted him in the head. Rodney helplessly batted at him.
"Stop that! Genius! Brain cells!"
Ronon effortlessly breached Rodney's defenses and seized him by the back of the neck, giving him a little shake. "You get any sleep, genius?"
"Yes, yes, lots of sleep," Rodney snapped, looking away from him. Unfortunately, this meant he was now looking at John, who was wearing a little grin, watching the interplay. "Something funny, Sheppard?"
"Oh, just you."
Their eyes held a little too long, before they broke the stare at the same time and looked away from each other. Now Rodney's eyes fell on Ronon and Teyla sharing a pointed look over their heads. "Okay, what is with you people, anyway?!"
"It's a weapon," John said.
Rodney's quick mind had already moved on to plotting revenge against Ronon, so it took him a moment to catch up. "What, who, the -- are you threatening me? Oh, wait, you're talking about Atlantis?"
When John nodded, Rodney stole another quick look at Ronon and Teyla to see if this was news to them, too. Both of them were looking intently at John, so, apparently so. "I am not sure I am following you, John," Teyla said cautiously.
"Atlantis." John looked away, staring out at the water as the sun slipped below the waves. "The Ancestors built it as a weapon against the Wraith. I don't understand exactly how it works. I don't know if it can be understood. Either it outstripped its creators' intentions, or it's kind of evolved on its own, over all those years. Anyway, it was ... happy, I guess, to finally be able to fulfill its purpose."
John spoke in a low monotone, one word at a time. When he fell silent, Rodney stared at him for a long moment before he finally managed, "Are you telling me you wiped them all out with that little stunt?"
"What?" John gave him a startled look. "Oh, no, no. Just the ones here. There are still a lot of them out there, and at least some of them probably know about Atlantis now."
"I do not know how I feel about this." Teyla wrapped her arms around her legs, and joined John in staring off at the distant horizon. "All my life, I have believed this was a sacred City. It is ... disturbing, to think that it might have had a practical purpose."
"Seems like a good thing to me," Ronon said, flashing a quick grin. "We can fight 'em now, like we couldn't before. You saw what it did to 'em."
"You saw what it did to John," Teyla retorted tartly, and Ronon's triumphant grin fell away.
"Guys," John said impatiently. "Quit it. I'm not a ... a fragile hothouse flower. I think I can make my own decisions about this, right?"
"Unless the Magic Division takes it out of your hands," Rodney said, and then, seeing the slight sideways shift of John's eyes, "Uh, I'm getting the distinct impression that you haven't actually told the MD."
"I haven't even told you guys until, well, now." John looked down at the waves rolling beneath his feet. "I don't know what I'm going to do with this. As far as the MD knows, the Wraith all just ... left, on their own, somehow. And that's what's in my report -- that I don't remember anything. Which is kinda true. There's still an awful lot I don't remember ... a lot of holes in my memory." He didn't meet Rodney's eyes.
Teyla slid closer to him, and placed her hand on his shoulder. "I am sure we can find other ways to use this newfound power, John. You do not have to be our savior; no one expects it of you. You are not even of our galaxy."
John hesitated; then he slowly raised a hand and covered hers with it. "I am now," was all he said.
They sat in silence for a little while longer, the four of them, as the sun's last rays traveled slowly up the towers of Atlantis, and the sky darkened to a bruised purple. The whales frisked in the glittering water and occasionally gave Rodney a mental poke. Talk to him!
No one asked you, Rodney retorted. Big matchmakers with flukes, that's all they were. Stupid whales. I'm not speaking to any of you.
You just did, the whales pointed out cheerfully. The fluid dynamics whale swam up to the edge of the pier, and gave Ronon a long, significant look. Ronon stared back at her for a moment, then ruffled his wings and stood up.
"Think I'm gonna go for a flight, maybe do some night fishing. Teyla, you want to come?"
"Not ver -- oh." Teyla stood and brushed herself off. "Actually, I think I will do some swimming."
"Hey," Rodney began helplessly, "wait ..."
But Teyla was shucking her long skirt, revealing one of the body-hugging Athosian bathing suits beneath, and Ronon had spread his wings. "Catch a movie with you guys later tonight?" he asked.
John raised his head; he'd been staring at his feet again. A smile flickered briefly on his face. "Sounds like a plan, big guy. I think the new batch of folks from Earth brought some new flicks; I'll see if I can get my hands on the Dark Phoenix movie."
Ronon nodded, spread his wings and kicked off, while Teyla slipped silently into the water in a ring of spreading light.
"Swimming," Rodney said, a bit desperately, and kicked off his shoes. "Yeah. That sounds wonderful. Very refreshing."
"Hey," John said, "Rodney ..."
But Rodney was already sliding off the pier into the pleasantly cool water. The whales immediately surrounded him with disapproving glares. Teyla, Rodney noticed with annoyance, had found herself a spot to lie on the back of the eigenspace whale, and was giving him a similar look.
"What?" Then he looked back at the pier, at John sitting alone, watching them. "Oh, for pete's sake ..." He paddled back over, and John watched him come. Rodney scooped up a handful of water and splashed it at John's foot. "Oh, get on down here, you idiot. Don't make me send the whales to get you."
The grin that spread across John's face was infectious and boyish. He slipped out of his shirt, revealing that his lean body had become downright skinny, and was still marked with healing cuts and bruises, visible even in the growing dusk. It made Rodney's chest hurt. And then John hit the water with a cannonball splash, sending up a fountain of water that splashed over Rodney and left him blinking it out of his eyes.
"Oh, for -- who taught you to swim, anyway?"
John stroked lazily around him, his motions becoming more smooth and graceful as he stretched out and limbered up. "So I'm doing it wrong? I thought the whole objective was, very simply, not to drown."
"There is such a thing as style, you know," Rodney sniffed, and was hit full force in the face with a scoop of water.
After a vigorous water fight that left them both breathless and laughing, they clambered aboard a whale that obligingly made himself available for the purpose. Teyla had vanished, and Rodney caught a glimpse of a long-winged shape crossing the moon. Above them, the lights of Atlantis glimmered in the deepening darkness.
Stretched out on the back of the whale, Rodney found himself unexpectedly drowsy, the exhaustion and lack of sleep from the last few days catching up to him. His eyes were drifting shut when John said softly, "You okay?"
Rodney blinked his eyes open and propped himself up on one elbow, annoyed for no particular reason. "Am I okay? You're the one who was captured and ... and who knows what they did to you, not that we were any help, being utterly useless at finding you and -- and everything." His voice trailed away, crushed by the memory of the fear and uncertainty of those days, of the loss and desolation when he'd thought John had died.
"Hey," John said softly, and punched him in the shoulder. "I'm here. I'm ... okay."
The slight hesitation on the last word didn't go unnoticed. Rodney glared at him, and John ducked his head and looked away, his hair falling to hide his face. "Well, all right. Getting there."
"Yeah," Rodney said. "Me too."
He sat up, no longer quite so sleepy as before. John, beside him, crossed his arms across his knees.
"You and Jeannie gonna finish the portal thingie?"
"Jeannie has very little to do with it," Rodney retorted. "She merely -- helped. And, yes. I'm writing up a proposal for MD funding." There was no hope of keeping the thing a secret now that half the MD on Atlantis had seen it, even if they'd been under control of Wraith at the time.
"You'll do it," John said.
He sounded perfectly sincere, but Rodney still had to look over at him to make sure John wasn't making fun of him. The green eyes looking back at him were faintly luminescent in the dusk, and suddenly Rodney found that all he could manage to say was a small, soft, "Oh."
"Oh?" John echoed, and now he did sound amused, the bastard. "You sound like you just had one of those patented McKay breakthroughs."
"Yeah," Rodney said, still staring at him. "I did, actually." Strange how the last couple of weeks -- heck, the whole last year had seemed so confusing at the time, and yet, in retrospect, with all the variables slotted into place, made perfect sense.
"Care to share?" John asked, his voice still light and teasing.
This would be an excellent time to kiss him, the whales chorused.
"Shut up, I know," Rodney said, and leaning across to bridge the space between them, he did.