The snowy basin of the valley was bounded in all directions by a ridge of silvered mountain tops and floored with unbroken snow over brush that stretched out to the valley's edges. A lone, funereal tree pierced the thin sheath of white ice near the middle of the valley, its limbs delicate and twisted, pale gray bark flaking like rust sheared from metal. The sky above the valley was cloudless, a pale expanse of blue closer to slate than cerulean, darkening as it came close to dusk. Night fell fast in the winter months; by three, the daylight was waning and blue shadows spread over the snow, long and cold.
Fifteen red wagons formed a caravan, their wheels groaning beneath their loads. The wagons swayed heavily back and forth, the wood crying like protesting stairs beneath the tread of footsteps as they bumped and creaked over uneven terrain, as yet worn smooth by the tread of travelers. Fading sunlight flashed over the thin, gold foil lettering spelling out "Sheppard Circus Co." emblazoned on their sides. Small black chimneys jutted out from their roofs, and vented thin trails of smoke into the air. Fairy tale figures and circus performers, intricately carved in relief on the wagons, detailed acts in Sheppard Circus Company's repertoire, as well as some things they'd never done but that made for good advertising.
Snow dusted the drivers' shoulders as well as the trunks packed high onto the roofs of the wagons. The red of the wagons was like the scarlet feathers of a cardinal and that was what they must have looked like from the distance of the mountain tops – a migration of red birds, following a straight course over a snowy plain.
The horses chuffed through their bits and shook their manes out, six horses to every wagon, expelling clouds of condensation on the icy air, their hooves breaking the crystalline bed of snow, turning the frost over like a plow.
John Sheppard sat on the bench of the first wagon in the caravan, clothed in a rough brown coat hung over his bent knees and buttoned up to the throat, a deep brown knit scarf pulled high over his mouth and his flushed nose. The wind carded through his tufted dark hair and chafed his face with a flush. He squinted as he looked across the field, the thin skin at the edges of his eyes creased beneath knit brows. His cheeks were shadowed with the beginnings of a beard because he hadn't had time to shave in the two days they'd traveled from Colquitt. They were supposed to have been in Arliss by nightfall but John had taken a wrong turn somewhere because the terrain was wholly unfamiliar to him though he'd crossed the continent more times than he could count. From the time he'd been a boy, he'd been traveling by wagon across the countryside. It seemed he'd been everywhere but where he was right then.
At length, John saw a wide river in the distance, white rushes coursing from the black ridge of a mountain top across the valley hollow, cutting a wide berth in the icy field. He curled a hand on the knit scarf over his lips and pulled the fabric from his face, scowling at the far mountains. Without a road, the steep course would be impassable. It would be too dangerous to try after dark. "Hey," he called lowly to the horses, pulling back on the reins. "Hey! Slow it down a little!" The bells jangled raucously as he pulled the reins, slowing the horses' momentum.
Their hooves crushed the frost, leaving a trail of turned snow and slushy prints in their wake. John looked over his shoulder, at the distant mountaintops and the thin shapes of barren trees courting the steep stone, then took up the slack of the reins, murmuring lightly.
He didn't know where they'd taken a wrong turn – maybe at the pecan tree grove they'd passed in the morning where the path cleaved to a lake and over the swell of a hill sloping eastward. John had been pretty sure he'd known where he was going before the road had disappeared. Getting lost was a dismayingly common theme to his navigation but he managed to get the troupe where they wanted to go. Usually.
Usually, he could recover his bearings and reroute a path bringing them where they needed to be but it was getting late. Two in the afternoon meant time to stop and make camp before nightfall. It was too late to set the right course.
John called out, his shout carrying down the line – over the snow covered roofs of the red lacquered wagons, the gray and white landscape into the distance beyond – the black mountain range like the rusted blade of a knife. The wagons swayed, yoked to strong horses that lifted their legs and pawed at the ground, over the black muddy tracks left by John's wagon. Carson's bears moved restlessly in their cages, rolling back onto their hindquarters and yawning expansively, their breath pluming out into the cold air.
At John's back, the thick shutters of a small window cracked back against the red painted wood; the sound sharp in the quiet. The curved black iron handle on the shutter was twisted beneath the thin fingers of a pale hand. "John."
Framed by the window, Elizabeth appeared in the dimness of the wagon interior, her thin face made pale by a mass of black curls. Her name was Weir, she was the ringmaster and the company's business manager. After his father had died, John wisely left most business to her.
Her pale eyes passed over the foreign land, her lips compressed. "This isn't Arliss," she said, her voice rising like a question.
John glanced at her over his shoulder. "Shortcut," he stated curtly.
Elizabeth's brows arched high. She blinked several times. "Are we going to make it to Arliss in time for the engagement?" she asked.
Over her shoulder, John could see Jennifer's face like the moon in the dark interior of the wagon, her blonde features drawn in mild apprehension. It was her cart but John always drove it. The wagon swayed forward before coming to rest. "Sure." John said, shrugging a shoulder. "Why not?"
"Can I get that in more certain terms?"
John laid the reins over the seat and shrugged, propping his hands on his hips as he avoided her eyes. "I'll take a look at a map," he replied evasively.
Jennifer sat up straighter. "Is everything all right?" she asked, rising from her seat at the tiny table by the wall in the wagon.
Elizabeth half turned back to her, laying a thin hand comfortingly on her shoulder. "It's fine," she said. "John's going to correct the route."
Jennifer looked to John and after a beat, John offered a lopsided smile. "It's fine," he lied confidently, feeling strangely lacking. He was supposed to allay her fears, wasn't he? He'd been her brother since he'd found her homeless in England ten years before – allaying her fears was supposed to be his job.
Jennifer smiled nervously but Elizabeth looked unconvinced, eyeing John reprovingly as she hooked her finger in the iron handle and pulled the shutter closed.
John came down from his seat, climbing down the steep steps off the bench to the ground, pulling his gloves off and tucking them into his pocket. Coming around the side of the wagon, he yanked at the thick ropes tethering their trunks to the roof, unbinding the knots they'd coiled in their length two days ago.
As he worked, the caravan creaked to a complete stop in the snow around them. John heard Ronon's low, guttural shout as he reined his horses in and stood up on the bench, stretching his arms over his head as Radek Zelenka blinked up at him blearily, cleaning the lenses of his glasses with a cream colored pocket square. One of Carson's brown bears stood on its back paws and whined plaintively, shoving its muzzle through the steel bars and huffing large white clouds of condensation. After a moment, everyone else appeared, climbing slowly out of the wagons, squinting and stretching their limbs – small figures on a colorless plain.
John's black boots crunched on the snow, compressing it in prints the size and dimension of his shoes. As he walked toward the end of the caravan, the door creaked open and Elizabeth's head appeared, her thin fingers pulling on her black woolen traveling cape, the furred hood thrown back. John ducked his head and moved faster. In his periphery, he could still see her with her hand on the railing. Her riding habit was as red as the wagons, embroidered with small gold fleur-de-lis on the jacket and full skirt. A modest bustle trailed past the end of her cape and fell just over her walking boots.
"So…," she said, narrowing her eyes as she scanned the distance, her lips thin and her chin high.
Her voice was clear and confident. John jerked his head up, his face half obscured by his rough scarf as he glanced over, furrowing his forehead. Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "A shortcut?" she asked.
John hesitated for a moment as he thought of which words would make him sound better. "Yeah…," he replied, his brows hiking up as he spread his hands out. "A shortcut."
Behind Elizabeth, the door opened once more and Jennifer came out, pale and pretty, pulling thin, white gloves on her hands. She smiled, which she did when she didn't know what else to do, her mouth making little dimples in her cheeks. It made her look younger than her twenty six years. They both looked at her. "And, did you say when we're getting to Arliss?" she asked, rubbing her hands together for warmth.
John frowned. "It's gonna be cold in Arliss, too, Jennifer."
Elizabeth smiled tolerantly as Jennifer's round blue eyes went from her, then back to John before rolling skyward. "I know that, John," Jennifer replied. "I just wanted to know." She schooled her features in an expression of neutrality at odds with the eagerness of her tone and John narrowed his hazel eyes.
His face communicated his disbelief and after a moment, Jennifer looked away, rubbing her arms through the sleeves of her jacket. "I just can't stand the cold," she muttered. "You know that."
Elizabeth smiled at her. "We'll probably be on the road again by morning, right?" she looked at John for confirmation. He'd always been a little put off by that expression – as if she didn't fully believe him but really wanted to.
The women looked at him expectantly. John propped his hands on his hips. "Yeah," he said and hoped that it wasn't a lie. Elizabeth's smiling nod was sign he was dismissed. John leaned back on his heels, then turned abruptly, beating a quick retreat to his wagon.
All around him, the members of the troupe and circus workers were climbing out of the wagons like plants revealed by the spring thaw. Teyla, the contortionist, spoke to Aiden Ford, a trick rider, from her seat on her bench as he stood beneath her on the ground and smiled brightly at something she'd said, his horses' reins looped loosely around his hand.
As John passed by Ronon's wagon, the strongman's boots crashed down to the snow beside him. John shot him a stormy glance that Ronon seemed unperturbed by. Over the horses' heads, Radek Zelenka's wild hair and weary eyes were visible as he peered over with interest.
"Hey," Ronon said, his voice gruff.
"Hey, yourself," John replied. Leaning forward, he asked, "You wanna take it easy there? You could've crushed me."
Ronon flipped his heavy dreadlocks over his shoulder and smirked. "Nah. I saw you down there." John frowned, dropping his eyes distractedly to Ronon's heavy Inverness coat. It was a leather great-coat that fell nearly to the ground with cape attached at the lapel that fell to Ronon's elbow. "That's encouraging," he muttered.
Ronon replied by grabbing Zelenka by the shoulders and towing him over in a brotherly embrace. "Radek wants to know if we're done traveling today," he said without preamble.
John looked into Zelenka's face, the smaller man's cheek crushed uncomfortably against the fabric of Ronon's coat as he adjusted his glasses. "You guys wanna stop for today?" he asked.
Ronon raised his brows and grinned over his scarf, his face darkened by the wind and the winter. "His ass is numb," he supplied with a smirk.
Zelenka unburdened himself of Ronon's arm and straightened his shoulders. "Would that it were true," he sighed ruefully. "Unfortunately, I feel my backside all too well. We have been traveling fourteen hours, no stopping. I am in pain. If you want to continue, you are out a clown," he finished decisively, gesturing dismissively with both hands.
Ronon laughed into his elbow, his breath escaping in plumes as Zelenka stared, owlish and obstinate, at John.
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that, buddy," John drawled teasingly. He pursed his lips and cocked his head from to the side as he spoke, playing it straight. "We're done for today so…," He frowned seriously. "Take a load off."
Zelenka stared at him through the fogged lenses of his glasses. His eyes were wide and dark like saucers of ink. "I take it that is a joke," he stated flatly. "I am unamused."
John knit his brows in facetious apology but before he could speak, Zelenka turned and walked away.
Ronon hung back against the wagon, laughing softly with his gloved hands clasped at the waist. "Clowns," John said, nodding at Zelenka's retreating form. "Too serious."
Ronon grinned. "Agreed."
John squinted at the larger man. "Don't you have something you should be doing?"
Ronon shrugged and John stared at him for a moment before shaking his head. "Can't you at least try to look busy?" he suggested. "It makes me look bad when I can't exert control over anyone in my troupe. Who do you think's going to take the heat for that with Elizabeth?"
Ronon shrugged his shoulders again. The fabric of his Inverness brushed the tops of his boots.
"Blame it on Ford."
John hooked a thumb at the gold lacquered letters on the wagon-side. "It's not Ford's name on the wagons."
Ronon pitched his thick brows up and seemed unmoved, his slow smile unchanged from before. Finally, John gave up. "Whatever," he said. With a small gesture, he made for the end of the caravan where his wagon was.
He moved through the loose crush of the troupe as they began to unpack their necessities, pulling down trunks and unyoking the horses from the carts. He passed Carson Beckett as he pushed his gloved hands through the bars of one of his large steel cages, speaking softly to his animals and stroking the plush brown fur between the ears of one of his bears. Nearby, Radek Zelenka took stock of his possessions, checking items from a list he kept hung on a nail beside his wagon door. He cursed in Czech beneath his breath as he kept coming up short of the twenty bottles of vodka he bought the last time they were in town. His cryptic expletives faded into mist on the air.
Next to Zelenka's cart, Ronon walked over and curled a hand on the neat trim like a sunburst in both corners on the roof of Teyla's wagon. He framed Teyla's small form with his greater build and she smiled up at him, stretching her limbs. Beside them, Aiden Ford led his mares to drink from a trough.
John's wagon was the last in the caravan, driven by someone else because John always drove Jennifer's cart. Jennifer was afraid doing it herself.
He climbed the back steps of his wagon and went in through the sturdy, narrow door. Inside, it was dim and cold. There were two small windows on the right wall, one square and one circular, both obscured by carved shutters inlaid with gold that, when shut, admitted no daylight. John struck a match on the wall and a spark flared, throwing illumination across the space. The wagons was small but adequate, tall enough for John to stand erect and long enough for him to pace, if need be. It was clean and orderly.
There was a narrow bed in one corner, piled with thick quilts, and a desk opposite that. Above the desk were oddly stacked shelves full of books, the edges fixed with gears upon which bars locked into place low across the spines to hold them into place. On the desk was an oil lamp, screwed onto the scarred wood top and atlases, a sheaf of worn maps and other odds and ends and over it. Hanging from the roof were three figurines of bird carved out of wood. On the right wall, near the door, was a small black coal-burning stove with four petite burners – a chimney opening up toward the desk and bed off the main vent like a twisted tree trunk, the grate blackened and cold.
John lit a sconce on the wall across from the stove with the match, then lifted the hurricane glass from the oil lamp, touching the flickering match to the wick. He set the glass back over the flame, then lit the stove next, and the room grew warm around him. He tossed his coat over the bed and sat in the chair at the desk in the corner, leaning forward to adjust the wick and brighten the light. He pushed aside the maps on the desk and drew out the one he'd charted their path on two days before.
The edges of the map were soft from years of use, the paper shot through with tea-dyed thread. The lines of longitude and latitude spread out on the map before him, over terrain demarcated in pale green and brown, labeled by name of country in scrolling red text like imaginary, funny-looking clouds over a flat landscape, and by continent in a bold black. The mountain range rose like a spine along the edge of the country, shadowed with sketchy dashes; and on the other side was the sea, a flat expanse colored lapis like a deep, clear stone. Their path was made with blue thread, tacked to the map by butterfly pins, crossing inland. The mountains at the edge of the valley suggested close proximity to the sea. John ran a finger over the route he'd charted and realized that they'd veered off course by more than twenty miles.
As John opened the top right desk drawer, a knock sounded on the door. "Yeah?" he called, leaning back in his chair, his bent legs sprawled out under the desk.
Through the wood of the door, Ronon's deep voice came. "There's something in the valley we thought you should take a look at."
When John opened the door, the warmth of the wagon dissipated in the cold air in the doorway. Ronon's left hand was propped on the trim of the wagon, his head hung but he looked up when John opened the door, his expression unreadable.
"Across the valley," he said, his voice deep and gravely. Then he pushed off the doorway and turned, springing away from the wagon, his steps crunching in the snow.
John tilted his chin up, scrutinizing the plain. "Which way?" he called out.
At a distance, Ronon pointed his gloved hand. "There."
John saw nothing. Pulling his great-coat on his shoulders, he grasped the ladder attached to the railing at the rear of the wagon. The cold metal stung his bare hands as he quickly climbed a few feet up. He was an acrobat; he wasn't afraid of heights – he'd liked being off the ground ever since he was a young boy and his father's best friend trained him on the high wire and trapeze. He loved the sky and flying through the air. It made his heart beat hard in his chest, a certain reminder that he had a pulse, that he was living and that he was free.
He pulled a spyglass from his coat pocket with his right hand and shook the telescope out. It was made of brass and glass and gears, with seven lenses. He pressed the first lens into place and held it up to his eye.
Framed by the little round lens, there was a distant shape traveling from the mountains across the valley; a fast approaching object from the east. John knit his brows. "What the hell?" he muttered. In the glass, there was a dull flash of light over metal.
"What is it?" Ronon asked. He looked askance as Jennifer came around the edge of John's wagon, hanging back against the side. "John," she said uncertainly.
John looked down at them without an answer.
Jennifer's pale, round face was open and concerned; the pearl buttons on her gloves caught the overcast light. John shook his head. "I don't know."
From the distance, the sound of a low rumble grew and the object became visible without the glass. It drove snow up at either side like a sledge so all they could see was a flurry of snowflakes, speeding toward the caravan. Even as purveyors of the unusual, the sight was unknown and a little alarming. The troupe narrowed their gaze into the distance or cupped hands over their eyes to glean a better look and the low rumble grew.
John jumped off the ladder as the object came into plain sight, slowing from the speed of a bird of prey to that of a team of work horses. As it came closer, it became apparent that it wasn't a wall of snow and shining metal – it was like a sleigh made out of steel, driving snow up from its path. John ducked his head, squinting hard into the distance from the edge of the balcony.
It was a vehicle.
It was constructed from metal and glass. It was like a sailboat though it wasn't made of wood. The sheets of metal were soldered together with crossbeams, studded by rivets and gears and winding mechanisms. John had seen similar machines in Vienna and Paris – tiny toys made of winding parts and shining baubles, moving by the pressure of water and steam – but he'd seen nothing in this grand scale.
It was little wider than a horse, longer but closer to the ground. Through the steamed glass, the shape of a man was visible. Dull chrome crossbeams punctuated by large bolts tapered smoothly into the vehicle's nose and small copper tubing and hoses clung like vines to the curvature of the machine, following its lines toward the rear where large brass gears and springs worked in tandem. It was carried on three wheels bound in chains, two in the front and one at the rear. John liked its look. A feeling of anticipation blossomed in his chest at its approach.
It decelerated further, traveling in a straight line, then an arc. On the edge of the plain, the shape of advancing horses became visible, following the machine. The snow shushed as the wheels of the sledge rolled over it. Then the vehicle was still and it was quiet save a low, monotone rumble which presently died.
John propped his hands on his hips, coming forward while the rest hung back.
Through the steamed glass, he could see the man moving without being able to make out his features. Then there was a click and the glass roof hinged back and a man climbed out, pulling a pair of copper plated goggles down beneath his chin, gesturing with both hands, authoritative and arrogant, arrayed in an attractive black suit and charcoal frock coat. "No, no, no, no, no," he said irritably without stopping to address anyone in particular. "This won't do."
He was solidly built, of medium height, with strong, wide shoulders. His face was wide, his jaw square and his eyebrows, thick, straight, and velvety. His eyes were pale blue with long, black eyelashes. His hair stuck up, ruffled by a sudden breeze, his hairline peaked and somewhat receding – his hair soft and dark blond.
He looked up and caught John's eyes, his gaze sharp and clear. "Who's your leader?" he asked bluntly.
As the man spoke, the horse-riders drew to a halt at a distance of fifty meters. The riders pulled back on the reins and their animals tossed their manes out, slowing to a trot.
Elizabeth had come up from behind John without his realizing it, and he was startled when she came into his periphery, her features trained in authoritative nicety as she extended her hand. "I'm the manager here. My name is Elizabeth Weir," she said. Her eyes flashed on the riders in the mid-distance, then back at the imposing newcomer. Gesturing to the rest of the troupe, she placed her right hand over her heart. "We're peaceful travelers – a circus troupe. We were making our way to Arliss when we got turned around. And you are…?"
As she spoke, the man grimaced distractedly, not reaching for her hand. He scrutinized their wagons in the middle distance, apparently uninterested in the riders queuing silently near his machine. "How did you get here?" he demanded. He crossed his arms over his chest, pursing his lips.
Elizabeth's fingers curled into her palm, her brows descending worriedly. "Excuse me?" she asked.
"How did you get here?" he repeated impatiently.
John scowled, stepping forward. "How do you think?" he broke in sarcastically, "We followed a road."
The man's blue eyes focused on him, his gaze irritated and extremely clear. "No," he snapped, "that's impossible."
John narrowed his eyes. "Why's that?" he drawled.
The man abruptly stepped back and stabbed his finger toward the edge of the valley – the direction that they'd come from, as though proving a point. "First," he snapped, "there's no road here. Second—"
"Are we trespassing?" Elizabeth asked, tilting her head to the side and frowning in an entirely reasonable fashion.
"Yes, you are," the man stated flatly.
A murmur rose from the troupe behind them. John caught Elizabeth's pale eyes. Silent communication passed between them as she knit her brows and shook her head. "Believe me," she said sincerely, "such was not our intention."
The man frowned, looking put upon, and John scrutinized his wide features.
The man's jaw tensed and his blue eyes wandered over Elizabeth's face. "Even so," he spoke petulantly under his breath, "you're here now and you're trespassing."
"It was not our intention," Elizabeth repeated firmly and the man straightened to his full height, opening his mouth to make a quick retort.
"And if you're reasonable, I think you can let it slide," John interrupted, "seeing as we didn't mean to trespass and seeing as this place isn't on the map it kind of makes it no one's fault." Once more the recipient of the man's clear, haughty gaze, John felt irritated. He leaned forward a half step, his body language relaxed yet dominant.
The other man bowed back in equal measure, giving pause to consider the silent threat in John's proximity. His eyes moved over John's features, settling somewhere around John's chin. A moment passed and he tilted his chin up and sniffed.
"So it was an accident?" he asked quietly.
One corner of John's mouth quirked up. "I'll say it was an accident," he said. He shot a look over his shoulder at Elizabeth and found her watching them carefully, her body tense. He shrugged and returned his hazel eyes to the other man. "Let's call it that," he said and shrugged once more.
The riders from the edge of the plain and the members of the troupe stirred uncomfortably, watching the two men interact. The tension between the machinist and the acrobat was mirrored in the posture of the opposing groups.
"Yes, well…," The other man's eyes passed over John's face thoughtfully, troubled by something he didn't say. "You shouldn't have found us at all but you did. I don't know if that speaks to a suggestion of inclusion or just criminally idiotic navigation."
"I'm curious," Elizabeth said slowly, "You say that we're trespassing, but this place isn't on any of our maps." Her skirt brushed the ground as she spread a hand in the air toward the valley, the wagons and the troupe. "It's hard for us to apologize when we don't know what we've done wrong, though we are sorry if our presence here is an unwelcome surprise. I wasn't aware that there was any settlement here. Just where is it that we've found ourselves?"
Abruptly, the man thrust out his hand. "Dr. Rodney McKay," he stated impatiently. "You're in Atlantis."
One rainy day in London while John was a student at the university, he'd sought respite from the rain in a basement bookstore. The wheels of light carriages and hansoms paced through the mud on the street at eye level outside the leaded glass of the fogged-up window beside him as he shook the rain from his damp hair.
He'd been looking out, waiting for the rain to subside when his hazel eyes had caught on the title of a book on the shelf with sudden curiosity, moved by something like magnetism. Fingers running over the embossed gilded letters, he read the words, Atlantis: City of the Ancients. He'd picked it up and cracked the spine, opening to a random page.
John liked to know a thing or two about everything of the remotest interest but he preferred to keep that fact close to the vest.
Illustrated on the title page was an ink sketch of a spired city, anchored in vast waters – what historians believed the legendary city may have looked like. It was something like Grecian ruins and something like a glass lantern. But, all the same, it was just a guess because any renderings of the city had been lost in the dark ages with everything else. What it had looked like, where it had been was a mystery. It was unknown, for certain, whether it had existed at all. But there were those who believed that before the fall of Greece and the rise of the Goths across Europe, Atlantis had existed. No evidence quantified the claim save rumor, which weakened in time like a whisper grew quiet and died away.
The legend was that Atlantis was a maritime city, anchored in the sea in the northern hemisphere. It had been a center of culture and higher learning; a bastion of innovation and thought. The inventions of the Lanteans were said to have been advanced past those of the Greeks but, like those of the Greeks and the Romans after them, were lost in the dark ages and the wars with the Goths. It was said that the Lanteans made an attempt to move the city to a safe haven on a foreign shore, far removed from the war, but in their efforts, the city was lost to the sea.
John had traveled to every continent by the time he was twenty. He'd already seen much of the civilized world by then. He'd never given the legend much thought because it had seemed far-fetched, even to a circus performer well used to seeing impossible feats performed every day. But the stories had been interesting, like fairy tales, like the Iliad – something larger and grander than real life.
He'd never expected that he would go there; that Atlantis had existed and still did.
"Atlantis," Elizabeth spoke quietly, casting a guarded look at McKay by the vehicle. It had been fifteen minutes since he'd appeared and five minutes since he'd asked the troupe to pick an ambassador to speak on their behalf before the Lantean Council. "Do you think it could really be—?"
Standing beside John's wagon, they spoke in low tones, casting guarded glances at the newcomers from across the plain. John put his hands on his hips. "You think he's telling the truth?" he asked incredulously.
Elizabeth's lips thinned as she ran a hand through her wind tousled hair. "I don't know," she said, "but isn't it possible? Historians haven't definitively established that Atlantis didn't exist."
"It being lost is a pretty convenient excuse for not finding it," John replied. His eyes were on the doctor as the man gave orders to the horsemen who'd arrived after him.
"This Atlantis could just be named after the ancient city," Elizabeth pointed out.
"Or it could be a lie," John put in.
Elizabeth lifted her brows, nodding in consideration, her pale eyes locked on the distant shape of the mountains. "But if it is true—" She hesitated and her silence drew John's wary gaze. "If it is true, and we've stumbled upon the lost city – if the city wasn't destroyed but hidden…. Think about what that would mean, John."
John shook his head, pointing to Elizabeth in warning. "Don't start writing your dissertation already, Elizabeth; it's pretty clear whoever these people are, they don't want the rest of the world to know about them."
Elizabeth chuckled at his reference to the past she'd left behind in academia. But John could recognize the expression on her face; she was hoping that it was true. More than anyone John had ever known, Elizabeth longed for discovery.
"Even so…if Dr. McKay is telling the truth and it is the city of the Ancients…it's a tremendous honor just to be here."
John pitched his brows. "I wouldn't exactly call this rolling out the red carpet," he said, gesturing to the riders and McKay.
Elizabeth looked at them at length and seemed untroubled but grave. "That's true but, as Dr. McKay pointed out, there's only room for two in his vehicle." The doctor had posted guards around the perimeter of the temporary encampment before asking the troupe to decide upon a member of their party to go with him back to the city as a delegate. The troupe had chosen Elizabeth as their representative with an overwhelming majority – she would be the one who would speak to the council of Lanteans in their favor. But it was just Elizabeth who would be going there. McKay was steadfast on that condition.
"And I'm not precisely the most diplomatic person around," John finished for her.
"I might be tempted to agree," Elizabeth said sportingly.
The wind rose from the north and numbed John's cheeks, ruffling the fabric of his wool coat and his dark hair. He nodded impatiently without paying much attention, distracted by the doctor's figure in the near distance.
McKay stood by the machine he'd driven, perturbed and short tempered, as Elizabeth and John spoke by John's wagon. His blue eyes were piercing as his gaze fell on John. His face was flushed from the cold.
"I'm not crazy about this, Elizabeth," John warned, his gaze lingering on the scientist.
"John, I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe it's for the best."
John shook his head dismissively, thinking that Weir might have been moved more by her love of mythology than her common sense when she'd agreed to go back with McKay. "Are you sure you don't need someone to come along with?" He asked again. "Ronon and I can follow you in one of the carts or—"
Elizabeth shook her head firmly. "No," she said, "I want to make it clear that we are peaceful and we pose no threat to their security."
John propped his hand on his hip. "We're not the ones being threatening here, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth smiled. "I'm aware of that, John."
John's brows shot up. "And that's okay with you?" he asked incredulously.
"Between you and me, McKay doesn't strike me as much of a threat." Elizabeth smiled more widely as she stepped back. "Set up camp for the night. I'll be back by tonight. Tomorrow, at the latest."
John disengaged, stepping backward through the snow. He leaned against the back of his wagon and folded his arms over his chest. "You want me to come and pay your bail if they lock you away?" he asked.
At the sound of John's voice, Rodney McKay made a sour face and Elizabeth hid her smile behind her hand, turning away.
John slouched back against the railing of his wagon, crossing his arms over his chest as Elizabeth walked across the distance to the vehicle. McKay pressed a button on the side of the sledge and the leaded glass hatch slid back.
John felt the warmth of Ronon's frame beside him as the taller man came up and leaned against the rail by him. John didn't bother moving as Ronon leaned closer and spoke lowly, under his breath, looking cagey and fierce. "Should we just let her go off with him?" he asked gruffly. John hooked the heel of his boot on the last step of the stairs on the rail of his wagon, not looking into Ronon's face as he spoke. He narrowed his eyes on McKay and Elizabeth by the vehicle as the doctor helped Weir into her seat.
"She knows what she's doing," he replied. Ronon ground his teeth.
By the vehicle, McKay lifted his chin and their eyes met. Heat rose in John's chest and his cold face. He watched the corner of McKay's mouth tighten as he frowned against the wind. John noticed the fraying hem of McKay's frock coat. Then McKay climbed into the sledge and closed the hatch down and a rumble rose as he turned it on.
The horsemen who'd come from the edge of the valley remained behind, having received their orders from McKay. The troupe cast wary glances at the strangers from among the wagons, not knowing yet what to make of this welcome.
"I don't like this," Ronon growled by John's shoulder as the sledge rolled into motion, carving a path in the snow.
"You don't have to like it," John replied, his eyes fixed on the vehicle crossing back toward the mountains. "Let's set up camp." He pushed off the rail and Ronon shook his shoulders out, following suit.
The sun was fading at the edge of the horizon, a cool swath of shadow made a bed at the base of the mountain range, stretching out across the field as night fell. The world looked washed in pale blue, fading from light into darkness. And overhead, the stars twinkled faintly in the sky.
Between cities, the troupe traveled until nightfall; only then, would they would set up camp and improvise a large kitchen for communal meals. Lunch on the road was a loaf of bread, hard farm cheese and water or wine from a leather flask or a stoppered bottle – whatever they could eat on the move. John drove Jennifer's wagon and in the winter she might pass him coffee she'd made on the stove top through the window (she could cook little else but John appreciated it anyway).
The wagons were equipped with small stoves with three burners but for bread, meat and stew, they had to set up the canvas tent and unload a large ceramic stove from a flat car covered in brightly colored fabric. Evan Lorne took on the cooking willingly when he'd joined the troupe, eager to show his ableness and good use. He was farm raised in a large family and, after his mother died when he was young, much of the cooking was left to him.
When the troupe set up temporary camp, they brought out the stove and raised a large tent around it. Then they dug a fire pit in a clearing between the wagons, and fed and watered their livestock. Right then, as always, John saw to it, moving through the camp and giving instructions the troupe already expected, well used as they were to life on the road.
John had been in the business the longest; it had been years since he'd settled long enough to buy coffee from the same place twice. After his father had left the company to him, he'd performed and moved on like he had before he'd gone to the university. He and Aiden Ford were the only ones born to it – everyone else had come to it on their own later on.
Teyla Emmagan was a contortionist from the Mediterranean island of Athos off the northern coast of Africa. She climbed onto the flat car and pulled the cover back with Evan Lorne, rolling the fabric back into a bundle like a rug and knotting the four ties at its edge. And Radek Zelenka and Miko, a costumer, planted posts into the ground, Radek rubbing his tired eyes beneath his glasses and pointing to where he'd like Miko to ground her posts. On the posts, they hung lines for lanterns. In a clearing between the wagons, Ronon dug a pit for a fire. When they were done, the camp was blazing with illumination, warm enough for John to take his greatcoat off.
As John was unpacking a trunk from the roof of his wagon, Radek inched into his space, lifting his eyebrows and shrugging his shoulders. "If, perhaps, we could pitch the big top over the wagons it would be substantially warmer—" Sitting on the end of John's wagon, her feet dangling off the side, Jennifer looked over hopefully, pretending to be impartial. John leaned back and rubbed the back of his neck.
"For the last time, Zelenka," he said, pointing at the center of Radek's chest, "I'm not letting you set up camp in the big top."
"But, really, it wouldn't be that much trouble," Jennifer spoke up helpfully, leaning against John's arm. The pale fur at the edge of her hood shifted with the breeze.
John shrugged his shoulders, raising his hands. "I'm sorry, guys, it's not my decision—" he stopped short, affecting a look of surprise, "Oh, yeah, it is my decision. And the answer's still no."
Zelenka's mouth drooped disappointedly at John's words. "Hmm," he murmured pointedly. He met Jennifer's eyes as she crossed her arms over her blue basque. They seemed to silently agree about John.
"There's no need to be rude, John," Jennifer huffed. She pulled her cape tightly around her shoulders and looked across the camp.
John narrowed his eyes. "Don't you have something you're supposed to be doing?" he asked.
Jennifer made a face. "Like what?" she asked sarcastically, "Everything's nearly done."
John scowled. Beside him, Radek lifted his hands and shrugged his shoulders. "I leave the siblings to bicker," he said, shaking his head and turning to go.
"Who's bickering?" John called to his back as the smaller man walked away. "Get some work done!"
"Rude," Jennifer murmured pointedly under her breath at his side.
John cocked his head aside. "Just trying to get things done around here," he drawled sweetly. Jennifer gave him a bland look in reply.
"John," Teyla called, her boots crunching in the snow as she walked toward them, "the others would like to know if you'd like the stove brought down now." She strode over to Jennifer's side, smiling at the younger woman, and Jennifer smiled back at her. Teyla wore a polonaise in ivy green with gold embroidered detail beneath a weathered traveling coat of tan leather. Her coppery hair was loose over the hood.
"Right now's good," John said.
"I will pass that on," she nodded to John and then to Jennifer and, smiling, turned around.
John watched as she rejoined Lorne and Ronon around the flat car and they commenced unloading the stove. Their voices were muffled by distance. He raised his gaze to the horsemen from the mountains. He inspected the military costume of the dozen guards from afar, noticing, as he had before about McKay's coat, the wear on the edges of their collars.
As he stared at them, his mind returned to Elizabeth and McKay and the city in the mountains. He wasn't seriously concerned for Elizabeth's safety – if he had been, he wouldn't have consented to her going alone. Despite McKay's arrogance and posturing, he didn't seem dangerous to John. The guards he'd posted didn't display their weapons, though it was clear they possessed them, and simply stood watch silently with their hands clasped at their backs. But John wondered about the doctor, the lost city and the fantastical vehicle. It was like seeing snatches of an image without understanding the totality of the picture they made. The sentinels made it clear that McKay was not alone and that there was a city, just as the machine McKay had driven made it clear that their scientific endeavors far outpaced those in modern Europe.
"Is that it?" Jennifer's light voice jarred John from his thoughts and brought him back to the present. He looked into her face as she blinked her round eyes curiously.
He glanced over at the others – the burlap tent and Teyla, Ronon and Lorne coming out through the flap, wreathed in flickering fire light and laughing companionably, leaving boot prints in the snow.
"Yeah," he said, "That'll do it."
It was well after dark when Elizabeth returned. The camp was ablaze with light and the scent of fresh bread and salted meat lingered on the crisp air. The pale points of stars flickered on in the dark like the lighting of candles, one by one until every star was bright and shining.
Cold came in from the sea and rolled off the mountains. The small black chimneys in the wagons held off the chill and let off thin trails of smoke like furling, powder-colored banners against the dark sky.
The guards remained at their posts, their faces buried in scarves that matched their jackets. As they watched the camp, John watched them for a long time before going inside his wagon.
Despite the presence of the strangers, or maybe egged-on by their presence, the troupe was lively around the fire pit and in the mess. Their voices carried out over the valley toward the far reaches of the mountains and petered out before arriving there, quieted by the distance. The vodka Zelenka had found missing from his store had fallen somehow into Aiden Ford's hands though no one would cop to the theft and the five bottles poured like a fount of warmth and fond-wishing inebriation among the tired travelers until everyone's eyes were a little glazed and hazy.
John had seen it before and retired early, tracking back through the snow to his wagon as he cast one last look at the guards. His mind lingered on Weir's absence and the mystery of Dr. McKay.
He was at his desk inside his wagon, charting the course back the way they'd come, when he heard the approaching rumble of McKay's machine in the distance. He pulled his coat back on and went outside to meet them in the cold.
Outside, he struck a match on the back wall of his wagon and lit the lantern hanging on a hook by his door. The lamp threw light over his shoulders and the stubble-shadowed planes of his cheeks, illuminating his attractive features. Shadow hung on the heavy curve of his lower lip and defined the shape of his dark eyebrows, giving him a grave look. He shoved his hands into his pockets and waited for the sledge to appear from the dark.
It was near ten. By then, it was fully dark and the fire pit threw off showers of copper sparks and warm, orange light, sparkling on the snow like gems. From the clearing between the wagons, the voices and the laughter of the troupe was still audible. They'd be at it a while still though the day had been long. And beyond the illumination of the camp, the moon poured cool, blue moonlight over the crisp snow and fog-shrouded mountaintops and the mountain range was visible as a narrow margin of charcoal on the deep navy dark.
Coming from the mountain was a light approaching the camp, bobbing close to the ground like a small orb. John watched for a minute, scraping his rough cheek against the shoulder of his coat and shaking out his loose limbs. The shape of McKay's vehicle became visible as a dark outline against the snow, coming closer as quickly as it had before.
Then the vehicle was nearby, decelerating to a stop, and the hatch sprang back. The tops of McKay and Weir's heads were visible over the side of the machine, thirty or forty feet away. John took a step in its direction, the toes of his boots courting the edge of his wagon.
After a moment, Elizabeth climbed out, gathering her skirt in her hands when McKay stopped her with a hand on her forearm. Her hunting habit looked slate gray in the dark. She stopped, half in and half out of the machine and turned toward the scientist, her features curious as McKay spoke emphatically. John couldn't hear his words.
Then, nodding, Elizabeth said, "Of course. I understand that completely. You have nothing to fear." Her voice was barely audible.
John pulled his hand from his pocket and curved it around the ladder of his wagon – the flaking wrought iron scraping his palm as he narrowed his eyes watchfully.
McKay released Elizabeth's arm and she said something to him John couldn't pick out before climbing out and stepping back, out of the way. As the fogged panes of glass in the hatch slipped back into place, McKay glanced at John and their eyes met. McKay's brows were furrowed in an expression of concern.
John tilted his chin up and frowned. For a beat, McKay's eyes lingered on John in the lamp light, then he turned away, back down to the consoles of the machine and the copper gears and pumps visible at the back of the vehicle turned over with the sound of a growl. Steam escaped from the exhaust pipes of the sledge in wisps, carried off by the breeze. Then the machine eased forward at a crawl toward the mountains, its speed increasing until it was an outline in the dark and then it was gone from sight and the sound faded away.
The snow crunched beneath Elizabeth's boots as she came slowly forward. John turned his gaze from the path of the vehicle to his manager, bracing both hands on his hips. "So, how'd it go?" he called to her, rocking back on his heels.
Elizabeth smiled, tightening her cloak over her thin shoulders. "Let's talk in your wagon," she said – which meant that there was something to tell him and John wasn't sure he wanted to hear anything she had to say.
He hooked a thumb back at the tent in the middle of the camp, nodding his head toward it. "You sure you don't want to eat? Lorne made salted beef," he shrugged, rolling a hand in the air and pulling a face. "I've had better but it's still pretty good for month old dehydrated meat packed in sea salt."
"No," Elizabeth said. "No. I have a lot to tell you. I think you'll want to hear this."
John shrugged and stood aside as she climbed the steps to his wagon, the stairs creaking under her feet. "Whatever you say," he replied. He held the door open as Elizabeth went inside then he followed her in.
In his wagon, the sconce by the stove defined Elizabeth's cheekbones with shadowed wells and made the wagon warm and bright.
"I had, um, dinner at the city earlier," she explained briefly, pulling off a glove as she walked in.
John arched an eyebrow. "I'm sure that was…interesting," he replied. "Was the food…ancient-y?"
"Surprisingly…conventional, actually," Elizabeth replied, a tight smile on her face.
"For a lost city," John put in playfully.
"For a lost city," Elizabeth agreed.
John closed the door and went to the stove as Elizabeth sat in his desk chair. "You want some coffee? I put it on earlier," he offered. "Sorry – it's black. I don't have milk."
Elizabeth shook her head, holding a hand up. "No, thank you," she said. "Y'know, you should go and check in with the others," John told her, lifting the kettle from the heat. "Ronon was worried about you."
Elizabeth smoothed her skirt over her knee and, inspecting an open book on John's desk, fondly said, "Ronon worries about everyone."
"That may be true," John conceded. "But I didn't see everyone else leaving with the mad scientist."
"Mad scientist?" Elizabeth asked, arching an eyebrow.
"I just call them as I see them," John said and pulled a mug down from a hook over the stove top and set it on the range. "You sure you don't want coffee?" He squinted at Elizabeth, pointing to another mug over his head. Elizabeth shook her head. "It's late."
Gesturing to the open book trunk by John's desk, she said, "I see that you were doing some research."
John shrugged in reply. "Looking for my copy of Strange But True."
Elizabeth smiled, humoring him, and folded her hands on the edge of John's desk, peering up at John with a clear, piercing stare. The moment felt suspended by anticipation and John knew what she'd say before she said it. "McKay was telling the truth."
John went still, pouring the coffee into his chipped mug. He put the kettle down. Something like wariness blossomed in his chest and confirmed what some part of him had known before she'd said it – that what McKay had said was true.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and shook her head, her face flooding with an expression of happiness. John's brows knit as he frowned.
"It really is Atlantis," Elizabeth said, shaking her head thoughtfully, "The city of the ancients, like the legend says. It's really true."
Something in John stirred at the words and he suppressed the excited pulse of his heart. "You don't say," he muttered.
"I can barely believe it myself," Elizabeth replied calmly, leaning back in John's chair.
John braced a hand on the stovetop and gestured with the other, his head between pitched shoulder blades. "I don't see why," he joked.
Elizabeth shook her head, brushing off his facetiousness. "I don't think I would have before but having been there," she said, "and having seen it with my own eyes…. There's no doubt that it's the real thing."
Her lips thinned and her light eyes became clouded and through her demeanor, John could nearly see the city and his heart ached with ineffable longing. "So much history and possibility…. It was beautiful," she said softly.
John dropped his eyes to his coffee cup and felt flushed and frustrated. His reflection wavered on the surface of the coffee – his knit brows and stubbled cheeks.
His eyes were trained there when Elizabeth next spoke, her voice steady and clear as it was in the big top on opening nights. "John, it's the last remaining relic of the ancients, and it's vulnerable. They don't have the means to defend themselves against attack."
"Wait a minute, who's talking about attack?" John argued sarcastically. "A dozen circus wagons isn't exactly the Queen's armada. And, if you take a look outside, Elizabeth, they don't exactly look defenseless."
Elizabeth knit her fingers and shook her head patiently. "We, ourselves, aren't a threat to them, but if another nation decided to claim right to Atlantis and waged an attack, they couldn't survive the onslaught. The city barely withstood the Goths' siege – they were on the brink of collapse during the dark ages and they're only beginning to come back now. The threat of the Goths may be gone now but the threat of foreign invasion still exists for them. They're living in secrecy as a measure of defense."
John narrowed his eyes. "So we sign a contract to keep quiet or something, but it doesn't have anything to do with us—"
"We can't just leave," Elizabeth flatly replied. "They have strict codes on nondisclosure here and we betrayed those codes with our intrusion. They're willing to overlook that as a sign of good faith."
John waited for the other shoe to drop. "How generous of them," he said sarcastically.
"Given their history, I understand their wariness of strangers. They're the sole guardians of the legacy of the ancients. If their stronger neighboring nations stumbled upon the location of the lost city as we did, all of their efforts in restoring Atlantis could be lost." She paused and so did John.
"McKay said that?" John asked.
"He didn't have to." Elizabeth's stare was direct and compassionate.
John shook his head. A feeling of predestination swept through him. "So what does he want us to do about it? We can only promise that we're honest people – and honestly, there are two or three of us I wouldn't entirely categorize that way—" Todd, they both seemed to agree without saying it.
"A prolonged engagement." Elizabeth spoke like dropping a stone into a well.
John jerked back, shaking his head and spreading his hands out, palms up in denial. "No way!" he yelled.
Elizabeth's mouth tightened and she held up her hand in an attempt to pacify him. "We're miles off course – we'll never make the engagement in Arliss. McKay has agreed to give us tenure here during which the Lanteans will provide us with fair pay for our services and we'll put on our best shows. Dr. McKay promised me—"
"McKay?" John asked incredulously, "Why the hell is McKay promising us stuff?"
Elizabeth's thin, cold-reddened hand was flat over the cartographer's markers on the map. "Dr. McKay is the leader of the Lanteans," she said, frowning.
"The mad scientist?" John asked sarcastically.
"Mechanical engineer," Elizabeth corrected.
Of course that made sense; he'd just rolled up in the most sophisticated machine John had ever seen. John pulled a face, anyway. "So you want to stay here and put on a show for the Lanteans?"
"To put it simply: yes, I think we should."
John pulled out his table chair and sat, crossing his ankle over his knee and his arms across his chest. "Well, I don't agree," he retorted. "And are you sure this agreement isn't just a little bit about what you want, not the bottom line?"
Elizabeth steepled her thin fingers on John's desk and, looking down at her hands, she raised a brow. "I won't claim to be completely impartial on this, John." Her voice was measured. "But the bottom line is that this arrangement suits our needs – all of our needs." She looked up at him and John shook his head.
Elizabeth was an eloquent speaker, but in the eight years John had known her, she'd never used her eloquence as a tool against him; she'd always been unfailingly honest. And when Elizabeth made up her mind it was impossible to break her resolve.
"If it's all decided why are you asking me about it?" he asked. "You're in charge of the business side of things so I guess it's your call where we're booked."
"Then we'll stay," Elizabeth said and John grimaced at the wall.
He thought of Dr. McKay and his beautiful mechanized sledge and felt a note of warning in his blood, because Atlantis was at the end of the road.
The next day, Elizabeth announced that they were staying for six months, the longest engagement they'd ever had, and a wave of curiosity carried through the troupe like ripples in water; never mind that the guards McKay had posted would remain there as well. Ronon stretched his muscles and stared warily at the Lanteans. Zelenka wandered around, blinking in confusion and Todd, the albino, smiled and said, "Well, well." Some troupe members were actually pleased.
McKay arrived earlier that morning as John was on the small balcony off the end of his wagon, staring at the Lantean guards and talking to Teyla about the arrangement Weir had made. After the doctor's arrival, they sat down in Elizabeth's office and hammered out the details of the engagement. It was frustratingly unclear when, or even if, the troupe would be allowed into the city.
John kept his head low and his eyes open as he sat in on the meeting, his expression dour and contrary. He didn't bother saying that he didn't like what was going on, but he tried to reflect it in his face. Intermittently, McKay sent distracted, irritated looks in John's direction, and Elizabeth finally asked him to oversee the raising of the big top. John shrugged in reply and stood up to go.
The truth was that his heart pounded at the opportunity to visit the city even as he struggled not to admit to himself that it was so. The city lay frustratingly close, yet out of reach. Gossip about McKay and the city raced through the camp, enlivened in the collective imagination of the troupe. Until McKay deemed their presence an acceptable risk, they were exiled in the plain. So John immersed himself in posting camp in entirety.
They had to set up the high wire and the big top to practice. John didn't like to spend too much time on the ground, anyway, so he had it set up by noon.
He was setting up the costumer's tent when Jennifer came over. Her approach was announced by the heavy rustling sound of her periwinkle seersucker dress. The snow wicked into the fabric of her skirt and darkened the hem a deeper color.
John glanced back at her over his shoulder, crouched on the ground as he pounded a stake into the earth with a mallet. His brow shone with perspiration in the low light of the overcast sun, ruddy from the cold. Jennifer's hair was blonde like something precious, ruffled by the wind and shaped into careless curls, the ruffles of her dress swayed in the wind.
John tucked his hammer into his belt and stood up, hands outstretched for the cord Ford threw him. "Can't find something to do?" he asked Jennifer, squinting.
"Actually, I was wondering if you needed any help over here," she said brightly. Her eyes were like two small pools of unclouded water and her uplifted brows made her features open and wide. John's hazel eyes were like prismatic gems. They looked nothing alike but they weren't related by blood so they shouldn't have.
John glanced at her once more over his arm, his eyebrows knit. He knew from experience that if he accepted her help with the tents, the work would be just as hard with twice as much complaining from her quarter. "Go ask Elizabeth. I think Carson needed some help with the bears."
Jennifer paused for a moment, her face clouding, then she nodded, mouth curving as she shot an open glance at Ford, her thin hand furled at shoulder level as she turned to leave.
When she was out of earshot, Aiden spoke. "You sure about that, John? We could use the help."
John could see Ford's whiskey colored eyes over the slack fabric of the tent between them and nothing else of his face. He shrugged a shoulder. His dark, spiked hair swayed in the wind. "You know," he said lazily, "I think we've got it pretty well covered."
Ford grinned as the burlap flapped, caught in a sudden breeze. "Whatever you say, John," he replied cheerfully.
John frowned at him and thought that he was getting a little sarcastic lately. Maybe it was the company he kept.
A little after one o'clock, John heard the sound of McKay's sledge in the distance. He looked up from the trunk of stage lights he was inspecting and narrowed his eyes out over the field in the direction of the sound. Between two tents, he could see the machine parked beyond the wagons, and the shape of McKay's broad back as he surveyed the camp.
The wind carded John's tufted black hair and pulled off the white puffs of his breath as he opened his mouth. His cheeks were chapped from the cold and the breeze, flushed a deep pink like his lips were. He stared irritably at McKay, who continued peering around without noticing him.
John figured McKay was there to talk to Elizabeth. They got along well enough on their own, making all sorts of decisions John didn't agree with. Frankly, he didn't feel like being party to it so he looked back down and began unpacking the lamps. The time got away from him then; he had things to do.
An hour later, John was glancing over the trapeze rigging in the big top when Ronon came over and leant back on a box nearby. John twisted his head and eyed him with expectation, mostly for show.
Before he had a chance to say anything, Ronon pulled a flask from the inner pocket of his Inverness and said, "McKay's been here a while."
John barely suppressed an expression of surprise before shrugging it off and taking the flask with an air of goofy entitlement. "So?" he asked.
Ronon lifted his brows and John remembered how young he was. He only remembered it when Ronon deferred to him like a younger brother – it was a trait he shared with Aiden Ford. "Is he ever gonna leave?" he asked gruffly.
John lifted the flask to his mouth and swallowed the liquor inside. It was a trail of sweet tasting fire to his belly where it warmed him from the inside like a lamp. "He's talking to Elizabeth," he answered thickly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "It's administrative stuff."
He handed the flask back and Ronon took it, raising his eyebrows. "He wasn't talking to Elizabeth when I saw him," he said cryptically. The corners of his lips turned up.
John's brows knit. "Then what the hell's he doing?" he asked.
Ronon shrugged. "Talking to Jennifer."
John's features darkened warily, drawing back from the net. "What?" he asked.
"They've been talking a while."
"About what?" John demanded incredulously.
Again, Ronon shrugged. "Books, I think," he said, disinterested. "Couldn't tell. They were by the flat car."
John paused, thinking, and stepped back. It seemed likely enough. Reading was one of Jennifer's hobbies and McKay was clearly not a stranger to the written word but their getting along was unexpected. McKay was as acerbic as Jennifer was sweet. It was more than a little strange that they'd choose to talk. It was stranger still that they'd get along. John didn't know what to feel about that but the pinprick sharpness of jealousy bit at the back of his mind.
At length, John shrugged his shoulders and went back to the high wire. "So? They didn't ask you to join a book club or something, right?" He wrapped his hands around the rungs of the ladder and began to climb.
From above, he saw Ronon's upturned face and small, mischievous smile. "Looked like they were getting cozy," the tall man said.
John paused a moment before demanding, "Shouldn't you be doing something?"
Ronon shrugged and walked away and John climbed the ladder to the top.
McKay came to the camp every day for a week after that and every time he visited camp, he stayed for hours before he left. John figured that whatever the doctor did in Atlantis must have been unimportant enough that he could blow it off for most of the day, every day for a week. It didn't exactly say much about his influence there. The guards were intimidated by and respectful of him; their eyes followed him when the doctor was around.
John caught glimpses of him between jobs or in his periphery. He became a fact of the camp, like the distant snow-capped mountain range, the icy ground and the gray-white December sky, milky like the inside of a shell and low with the promise of snow it made good on.
John had to admit that the doctor wasn't useless to have around. The second day they were settled, McKay noticed Aiden Ford leading the horses to the river for water three times and suggested erecting irrigation canals so they wouldn't have to make the trip. Elizabeth had raised her brows expressively at John, smiling, and McKay had grimaced irritably. McKay got it done the same day and the river water had run through the pipes he'd arranged over the distance, pouring into a trough with a musical sound.
On his part, John made sure the troupe set up the tents right, checking in with everyone on their work according to a list he'd compiled. The first couple of days, they raised all of their tents and arranged the camp and after that, they practiced. They were always ready to perform but Elizabeth wanted the shows in Atlantis to be their best work.
The camp was alive with activity and preparation, Miko's tent host to a constant rotation of performers pulling on old costumes and getting fitted for new ones – costume trunks overflowing with brightly colored fabric, dazzling beads, metallic sequins, sprays of peacock feathers and intricately beaded slippers.
John submitted, as always, to the fittings, impatient with and bored by the ordeal. Zelenka went back and forth, half his face made up with grease paint, carrying clubs, knives and torches from his wagon to the big top. Carson Beckett plied his brown bears to stand on their feet, kissing their muzzles fondly for their obedience. Ronon arranged his bar bells in the snow by his cart, straining his muscles with their weight. After the first day, Elizabeth buried herself in paperwork at her desk in her wagon and John rarely saw her unless they met in the mess or at check-ins.
By comparison, he saw McKay more often than before – climbing out of his horseless carriage, loudly suggesting improvements on lighting rigging or sighing resignedly that he could fix this or that; talking to Jennifer, out of earshot, looking surprised and tentative. John didn't know what to make of that but recognized that Jennifer was a grown woman, capable of choosing to talk to arrogant and outspoken men. He wasn't entirely happy with it, either. If nothing else, Jennifer should have been practicing all she could.
John had her on the trapeze and the silks since he'd taken her in ten years ago. The silks and the trapeze were what John did best, which was why he'd tried to train her on them despite her reticence but his attempts met with stubborn opposition on her side. Even a decade later, she wouldn't perform the flying trapeze or walk the high wire but she didn't mind doing simple acrobatics on a static trapeze suspended close to the ground.
For his part, John liked the trapeze. He enjoyed being up in the air with the sound of his pulse swallowing the earth with its rhythm – the rhythm of John Sheppard, an acrobat. While John was up on the platform, he'd seen McKay down by the stands, looking around curiously, his frock coat folded over his arm. For a minute, taking the swing in his hands, John squinted his eyes down at the doctor, wondering why he'd come in there – what he was looking at.
From below, McKay's eyes lifted up to John's figure on the platform, bare-chested in a pair of close fitting pants, cropped at the knee, his skin shiny with perspiration. John's hazel eyes met his and the beating of his heart hastened, a thick pulse like a trembling line in his limbs. He swallowed and ran his hands over the bar, the grain of the wood beneath his fingers, smooth to the touch. He thought of nodding but didn't and, taking one step forward, he squared his body and pushed off the edge into the air.
His slender body swung in the shape of a curve, describing a perfect inverted arc in the air. Heat rose to the ceiling, warmer than it was on the hay-strewn ground but goose-flesh rose on John's bare skin with the whistling of the wind over his body. He executed his flips with mechanical excellence – the lean musculature of his form straining beautifully. His heart beat in his chest and he suppressed his awareness of what he wanted – for McKay to watch his performance, for McKay to be impressed.
His surroundings were flashes of brown burlap and the cobalt vaulted ceiling, the streak of gold foil stars sewn there and patterned on the back of his brain, McKay was beneath him, looking up, his pale eyes wide and his mouth open, anticipating John's next move. It made him feel defiant and alive. But he couldn't look down. That was just part of the act.
Too soon, the soles of his bare feet touched down on the opposite platform. His face and chest were flushed with exertion, glittering with sweat. He picked up a towel from where he'd left it on the platform and dried his face roughly. He draped the towel over his shoulder when he was done and glanced down to the ground where McKay had been.
The doctor was standing in the same place but he wasn't looking at John. Jennifer was beside him, her thin frame wrapped in a ruby costume ornamented with mirrors and beads. They were standing close, the doctor's hands awkwardly caught in the fabric of his coat. His smile was uncomfortable and Jennifer's was bright and wide.
John swallowed, his mouth feeling sticky, he narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing the posture of the two figures by the stands. He was suspicious more than curious and curious more than embarrassed but enough of each to feel confused at his reaction. He hadn't stopped feeling irritated by McKay. His feelings hadn't changed and for a long time, he'd left Jennifer to do as she'd wanted. It didn't involve him. He told himself he didn't mind.
He dropped the towel back on the platform and fell forward easily into the net spread below him, the air rushing past him and against him as he plummeted.
In his periphery, he saw Jennifer turn her eyes distractedly in his direction, her lips turning up to offer a small smile that meant she expected him to harass her. Her face was a blur of blonde and pale and a thin, pink smile and then the net caught John, springing beneath his weight like the waves of a synthetic ocean.
He rolled over, out of the net and onto his feet.
The following Tuesday, Weir made an announcement. Rumor of opening night or departure swept through the troupe. All the work was busier but less meaningful, jobs to pass the time but not to get things done. Their stores were beginning to run low and Elizabeth said that she would speak with McKay about an advance for the shows.
Before noon, Elizabeth climbed onto one of Beckett's trunks and called for everyone's attention. Gradually, the sounds of working died away and one by one, the troupe appeared from their tents, gathering around the cart.
John was by the mess, in the doorway, a small loaf of bread in one hand, the other holding the tent flap back. From there, he could easily see Elizabeth on the trunk over the heads of his compatriots, her mouth wide in a smile as she looked down at Zelenka and laughed at something he'd said.
John bit into the bread and fastened the buttons of his coat, his knit scarf looped around his neck. He released the flap of the tent and came out into the cold as Lorne appeared behind him, peering over his shoulder at the manager through the door.
The varicolored tents were set up close together and formed an alley, wide enough for a horse but too narrow for a cart to pass. The path was trodden to the soil, the snow churned into a muddy slush beneath too many boots. The tents opened out into the alley and through their doorways, their interiors were visible – revealing splendid costumes, show equipment, couches and props.
"D'you have any idea what she called an assembly for, sir?" Lorne asked, hurrying to keep pace with John.
Glancing over his shoulder at the younger man, John pulled his gloves from his pocket and arched an eyebrow. "Sure," he mumbled through the roll.
Lorne lifted his brows at him, his mouth curving up. "Are you going to tell me?" he asked.
John paused in the middle of pulling on his glove, turning to wryly gesture to the roll in his mouth. Lorne chuckled and John took the bread in hand once more, making a face. "Can't you wait a few minutes?" he whined.
Lorne shrugged, smiling. "Guess so," he admitted.
John lifted a shoulder, gesturing. "Well, then…," he muttered. Turning back ahead, he took a bite of the bread.
"But it'd be quicker if I just heard it from you," Lorne spoke from behind him. John waved him off without glancing back.
John came out into the clearing among the rest of the troupe, the small crowd making noise and getting restless. John settled against the edge of a book trunk, his arms crossed over his chest and his feet stuck out before him, crossed at the ankle. From a break in the crowd, Teyla came to his side, smiling confusedly at Lorne and then at John.
She nodded her head at them. "John," she replied, then leaning forward, smiled patiently as she asked, "Do you know what this is about?"
Lorne peered over John's shoulder at the small woman, seeming ready to speak.
"Delegation's going to shop for supplies in Atlantis," John said, taking a bite from the roll.
Lorne and Teyla's faces expressed surprise. After a moment, Lorne leaned over and said, "I thought we were going to wait a few minutes."
John shrugged. "Teyla asked," he replied dismissively.
Said woman smiled at the younger man, shaking her head at John. The light roll of a drum sounded from nearby Elizabeth and laughter rippled through the troupe at the affectation.
"All right, quiet please," Elizabeth called. Smiling, she signaled for silence with her hands. "Quiet."
Over the heads of the troupe, John caught sight of McKay's figure, his shoulders beneath the brown fur trim of his woolen frock coat. The scientist moved, restless and aware already of what Elizabeth was announcing, glancing around. John saw the side of his face and his pinched expression and McKay's eyes met his. John tilted his chin up but didn't look away. McKay's mouth sagged dejectedly and he seemed to sigh without sighing.
"So, are you aware of who is going with the delegation?" Teyla asked carefully by John's shoulder. Her voice was low and seemed far off.
John shrugged and took a bite of his roll. He broke the connection and looked away, at Teyla.
Her brows were high as she looked at him interestedly, then back at McKay with something like concern.
"Don't know," John said, flushing.
"Ah," Teyla replied. She didn't sound convinced.
"Whoever it is, I hope they can get some salted meat. Maybe some fish, seeing as we're by the ocean," Lorne said imperviously.
John shot him a look of skepticism that the younger man didn't register.
"You should take that up with Elizabeth," Teyla said helpfully, nodding her head.
John looked away, back at Elizabeth, but his eyes fell on McKay. The other man's arms were crossed over his chest, his hands tucked under his elbows, knitting his brows as he glanced at John. Then Jennifer stepped close beside him and he looked down at her as she opened her mouth. John couldn't hear across the distance. McKay leant closer to take it in.
"Dr. McKay, whom many of you know as the leader of Atlantis, has kindly offered for a group of us to come to his city to buy supplies and other necessities."
Elizabeth's clear voice wafted out over her captive audience as it did when she spoke to the crowds at their shows. At her words, a scattering of applause rang out over the troupe. John watched as Jennifer laid a hand on McKay's arm and, smiling, spoke privately in his ear. He frowned distractedly.
"Are Jennifer and Dr. McKay…involved?" Teyla asked from John's side, gesturing with the nod of her head.
John shrugged, chewing a bite of bread. He tucked the rest of the roll in the pocket of his coat. "Don't know," he replied flatly.
Teyla's eyes lingered on his face longer than John would have liked and he vaguely heard Elizabeth say, "Now, policy prohibits the admittance of the entire troupe at one time but…"
John ignored Teyla's lifted brows and focused on Elizabeth's thin form as Beckett called up to her about livestock dewormer over the sudden din of the crowd. John snorted, smiling as Elizabeth knit her brows in concern.
"If you write that down, I'm sure we can purchase some in Atlantis," she said and the Scotsman sympathetically expounded on the suffering of his bears ailing from roundworms.
"I should have some of that for Clarice," Aiden called impatiently. Looking at Ronon by his side, he reticently explained, "She's been a little—"
The taller man held up his hands. "Don't want to know," he growled.
The assembly dissolved into shouted requests and statements and John's eyes drifted back to McKay and Jennifer as Miko meekly asked for four yards of aquamarine fabric and silver beads. John saw McKay's stare shoot over as though in indignant protest at the request and John wondered how well stocked the Lanteans themselves were. He pushed off the trunk and caught McKay's eyes once more through the crowd as he walked toward the make shift dais where their manager stood. As he came over, Elizabeth glanced his way.
"We've got a list on my wagon door," he called out over the insistent voices of his fellows, waving a hand. "You want something, come over and write it down like always."
Elizabeth looked down at him as he maneuvered through the troupe to stand beside her, nodding her head. "Yes. Does anyone have any questions?"
Todd lifted his hand. "Yes, could you tell us why is admission into the city restricted?"
At the knife-thrower's words, McKay's eyes widened indignantly and John shrugged his shoulders at him. In his opinion, Todd had a point.
Elizabeth waved her hands for quiet. "For now, admission remains restricted, but in time we expect that the Lantean policy will change and allow for greater freedom." She sought the scientist in the crowd below and McKay responded with a terse nod.
John shoved his hands into his pockets and, looking over, caught McKay's gaze. He shrugged and the scientist flushed, looking irritated. As Jennifer left McKay's side and pushed through the crowd to Elizabeth, John sidled near the abandoned scientist.
McKay scowled at the lanky man. He stared at John and seemed to await his comment, his forehead creased with irritation. He was probably envisaging what John would say to him, which made baiting him far more entertaining for John.
The acrobat cocked his head. "Looks like we're stuck together," he drawled, hoping to raise the scientist's ire.
McKay's gaze flicked skyward and he folded his arms across his chest. "So it would seem," he intoned. "What? You're not happy? I thought you were anxious to come to the city."
"Oh, yeah," John said, sticking out his lower lip, "I've been dreaming about this day for a while now. I figure, if we're going to be prisoners of Atlantis, we might as well get cushy jail cells."
McKay hummed dismissively, casting his gaze over the surrounding troupe members as John smiled and rocked on the balls of his feet. "I think we could probably find something for you," the scientist replied, smirking.
"Agreed," McKay replied. He smiled as John raised an eyebrow and turned on his heel, walking back to where Elizabeth stood.
By noon, they hitched a team of four horses to a charabanc. The carriage had two benches beneath a canopy, built for the transport of eight in all to travel across the plain – it was the type of cart farmers used for hay rides in the country, Lorne said cheerfully as he climbed in. John arched an eyebrow at Aiden Ford, who smiled good-naturedly as he followed Lorne.
John took the driver's seat with Elizabeth and the others sat in the back under the tan canopy on bench seats across from each other. Elizabeth had chosen John, Lorne, Teyla, Beckett, Ronon, Ford and Miko to go and somehow, John turned to find Jennifer climbing into the wagon without his realizing that she was coming along.
She lifted her head and caught his eyes, knitting her eyebrows. She sat down and brushed dust from the sky blue skirt of her polonaise. "What?" she asked defensively, compressing her lips into a thin, pink line. She gestured to Beckett. "I'm helping Carson."
John shook his head severely and, as he turned away, Beckett smiled kindly at the younger woman and patted her arm affectionately.
John took the reins in his hands as Elizabeth climbed the steps onto the driver's seat, smoothing her skirt over her knee as she sat beside him. "Why is Jennifer going again?" John muttered pointedly into his scarf.
Elizabeth's pale eyes went back to Jennifer over her shoulder, turning at the waist, before she focused on him again. Shaking her head, she looked undisturbed by his query.
"She's been a valuable veterinary aid to Beckett for the last few months and a highly intelligent, diplomatic member of the troupe, all of which I think you agree with," she replied lowly.
John did but his hazel stare was unimpressed, anyway.
"And," Elizabeth continued, one corner of her mouth lifting, "she asked." Jennifer's volunteering was unexpected. There must have been another reason for her coming.
John narrowed his eyes and drew the reins into his hands, tipping his head back. In his peripheral vision, he caught the low flash of light over metal and McKay's sledge moving into the lead. "That's the truth, huh?" he muttered.
Elizabeth's smile was humoring as John snapped the reins and the horses strained, pulling forward. The cart's wheels creaked, turning as the horses broke into a slow trot. John turned his eyes away from her and drove the horses on wordlessly.
At midday, the valley seemed larger than at nightfall; a great expanse spread out around them as they started out, following the flurry of snow driven up by the sledge. The two vehicles made tracks in the ice in the shape of horse hooves, the deep grooves made by McKay's machine and narrow channels the width of the wheels of the cart. And all around them, the plain was a wide, flat bowl of snow with the black mountaintops at its rim like a glazed earthenware dish of watered-down milk. Off-focus light permeated the pale sky overhead, pushing through colorless clouds that overlaid it; a soft light that pierced the eye and made John narrow his as he snapped the reins lightly, following McKay. The cold struck their faces and dyed their skin soft pink. The riders pulled their coats closer and covered their faces in scarves or their coats or, as Ford did, blew into their cupped hands.
The camp receded in the distance behind them until it was a small scattering of tents and wagons like a child's discarded toys left out in the snow. John didn't bother to look back.
"Well, this is nice," he heard Beckett say brightly from the back seat. "It's a nice chance to get away from camp."
Aiden Ford's cheerful voice came in reply across the wagon from the other seat, "What're you going to get there, doc? Just the meds?" His smile was almost audible in his voice.
John tuned them out, fixing his eyes ahead on McKay's sledge as they moved forward. His chest was tight with anticipation – somewhat hoping, somewhat not. His mind was on the book in his wagon – the ancient city in the ink prints. It was impossible to know what to expect – maybe something like Vienna, something like the ruins of Greece, perhaps a sprawling city made of white stone.
The grooves left by McKay's sledge were like the lines on a map, guiding them onward. As the camp grew small in the distance, like something one could hold in their hand, the mountains rose up before them. The sound of the horse hooves in the frost was like the ticking of a metronome as they crossed toward the mountain range. What hadn't been visible before became clear – the copse at the foot of the mountains, gray in the winter like a bird's nest. The interwoven branches of the trees obscured a darkened path beneath them. It yawned ahead of them.
McKay's vehicle darted into the opening and was lost from sight. Beside John, Elizabeth's spine was rigid. The conversation from the back of the cart dwindled and died away. First, the shadows of the trees above them patterned the ground and shifted over the wagon, ever widening, until the darkness was solid and impenetrable by the sun above. The charabanc followed McKay's vehicle and plunged into inky darkness of the tunnel.
The sound of the horses' hooves on the ground changed, hollowing and sharpening and reverberating and John guessed that they were under the mountain, buried beneath hundreds of tons of stone. At his back, there was a muted whisper and Beckett softly said, "Now, now."
At a distance, a light bloomed and grew in size until the corridor around them was illuminated by torches hung at even distances on smooth, stone walls. Metal crossbeams arched over them like the ribs of a whale.
Ahead of them, McKay's sledge shot toward a slate colored light at the end of the tunnel. The charabanc passed beneath the measured beams and came out into fog in an enormous opening. The sky was in view overhead and the tunnel was behind them in the sloping face of the black stone. John pulled back on the reins as the shape of McKay's vehicle emerged in the vapor and the scientist stood beside it, his broad figure in a black suit and frock coat.
The horses pulled up short and pawed at the stone beneath their hooves. John draped the reins over the seat, climbing down as McKay came forward, withdrawing a gloved hand from his pocket.
"Atlantis," he said indifferently, gesturing to the expanse of brume.
The troupe drew up near him in a loose crowd, looking to the direction he'd indicated. Then, suddenly, through the mist, Atlantis was visible, its spires thrusting skyward from the body of a lake as reflective as a silver disc.
On every side, the black mountain range closed the water in – falls like thin, silvery threads tumbling through thick, white mist on the water. The towers were wrought of bronze and glass, welded together by thick beams of metal like corset boning, as though restraining something sentient, alive. The city was like a lily pad on the water, like something organic because metal had never looked so supple and cognizant. It gave off the feeling of a flower and a copper arachnid.
John's hazel eyes moved over the city, moving forward slowly. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his coat. His chest was tight as a trap around the pounding beat of his heart. The feeling of discovery was like flying.
His black leather boots slowed in shallow water, sending out thin wavelets that widened across the lake. Much bigger than Vienna, then.
His mouth slackened as he tugged his scarf from around his flushed face and, through the mist and the vapor of his breath on the frozen air, he peered up at the city. The magnitude of Atlantis was staggering and his astonishment suppressed the rhythm of his chest. His figure was a thin black blade in soft white fog and a sea of silver, tiny in the yawning space between them and the city and the magnitude of the city itself.
Elizabeth came forward to stand by McKay. "Thank you again for having us," she said, "We appreciate the gesture."
The scientist made a face, looking away awkwardly. "Right. It's, um, nothing."
As the others moved forward, John fell behind, staring up at the city.
McKay queued nearby, speaking to the other, when he turned and said, "Oh, of course." His pale gaze dropped over John's features briefly before he turned back to the city and said, "It does have that…effect, seeing it for the first time."
John stared at McKay's broad shoulders, shaking his surprise off. "It's all right," he said, offering a shrug.
The scientist scoffed. "It's the city of the ancients. It's a little more than all right." His irritable voice was muffled in the sound of the distant falls.
He turned and regarded Evan Lorne impatiently. "You can tie your horses off over there," he instructed, gesturing to a recessed shelf in the stone where a metal bar ran from side to side of the cavity.
He withdrew from inside his shirt a copper chain, hanging with three baubles. As he pulled the chain over his head, it was apparent that it was composed of three threads instead of a singular cable and that the baubles hung independently on each strand. The chain itself was woven in a complicated knot, the metal light and silky. The pendants were keys shaped like clovers, fashioned from copper and glass and engraved with a thin, intricate pattern.
"Move," McKay said, coming to stand by Miko. The thin woman appeared startled and obligingly stepped aside at McKay's impatient gesture. Then he crouched in the low water and pressed the first key into a hollow John hadn't noticed. From the ground, the scientist tossed the second key to Aiden and the young man caught it against his chest, looking curiously at McKay.
"Make yourself useful," McKay instructed. "Under your feet."
Aiden paused and looked to John, who shrugged then nodded. After a moment, the younger man knelt and pressed the key into a similar cleft. "It doesn't go in all the way," Ford said pragmatically, looking up at McKay.
The scientist rolled his eyes. "Well, obviously," he retorted. "Otherwise, you couldn't get them out." Despite the doctor's snarky tone, Ford nodded and looked earnestly interested.
"And the last key," McKay said, handing the chain to Teyla. "Right up there," he nodded to the place with his head.
Teyla lifted her brows, taking the key, she took a few slow steps backward and scanned the ground.
"No, right-yes, there," McKay instructed.
Suddenly, Teyla found the key hole and knelt, the water darkening the fabric of her pant leg. She pressed the key into the hollow with a small, narrow hand before looking up at McKay.
John was still, waiting, and on the ground McKay looked to the others. "On my word, turn the keys counterclockwise until you hear a click." His voice was like an orator's, expounding on an uninterested class. John's heartbeat seemed suspended for a moment. "Now," McKay said clearly.
The three of them turned the keys and three clicks sounded on the air. "And again," McKay said. Another click and John's heart pounded. "Once more."
On the final click, the surface of the water shivered and gave way as a wide walkway paved in stone rose from beneath the surface. Beckett's mouth fell open and Jennifer lifted a hand to hers. Their blue eyes were wide and amazed. Behind them, Elizabeth gazed up at the city with satisfaction.
"The walkways utilize water pressure, somewhat similar to a canal," McKay explained, standing up smoothly.
John pulled his eyes from the path and the city, looking at the other man. The scientist's stare was on the city, half turned from him. His features were suffused with pleasure. John said nothing but felt something stir in him he didn't identify.
After a moment, McKay walked past the troupe toward the city. His black shoes created ripples on the water as he walked out onto the path. "It's relatively simple but it gets the job done," he said dismissively. As he turned back to look at them, his stare fell on John. One side of his mouth turned up and John's chest was tight.
He arched an eyebrow at the scientist and frowned, walking forward. "Yeah, I see that," he replied. "Not bad," he said, passing McKay.
"Not bad," McKay repeated indignantly. "Oh, whatever."
A thin sheath of water overspread the path and the black stone from which it was made blended with the dark water, rendering the walkway nearly invisible. The paths themselves were wide enough for twelve to stand abreast with space between them and possibly twenty at once if they stood closely enough.
The troupe treaded cautiously on the stones and their boots sent ripples over the water. John walked ahead and stepped up to the edge of the stone path. The toes of his boots kissed the edge of empty space and he peered down into the water below the walk. The lake appeared clear and cold but the depths were as fathomless as the vaults of the misty sky above them, black as Indian ink. It might be hundreds of feet deep and the mechanisms lifting and submerging the walkways were hidden in the depths. For a moment, a glimmer of something like metal caught light like the lapping currents of the lake as it slid beneath the stone path. John narrowed his eyes and tried to fix his gaze on it but it was gone.
"Lake ever freeze?" Ronon asked gruffly from the back of the group, looking around. John glanced back over his shoulder to see McKay scowling at the taller man.
"Your first visit to the city of the ancients and you ask if we have to salt the paths," he announced sarcastically.
The taller man was expressionless. "Yeah," he replied flatly.
John grinned, looking askance from the two men as he started forward again.
They walked toward the city and it rose to unimaginable heights above them as they came nearer. It was spread out, six sided like a flower, sprawling over a massive space. Narrow, coiled beams, wires and ladders spread out from the city to the walls of the mountains around it like spider webs. There were six piers made of metal, hundreds of feet across and thousands of feet long. Clusters of towers pierced the sky above, hedged by wide paved walkways. Beyond those outcroppings, the city folded out and outward, stretching on beyond anything they'd ever seen. The piers were fifty to a hundred feet tall, building out of the water, and from the walkway below, John could see but little of the whole city.
As they came closer, the shape of wide, steep metal stairs became clear between two piers that rose like plateaus on either side. Clear, icy water cascaded from vents in the piers – maybe aqueducts, Sheppard wasn't sure.
On the stairs, a pale woman with fine, flaxen hair pulled into a knot was waiting. Her narrow frame was contoured in a cornflower skirt and matching day jacket with a high neckline and pearl buttons – a small, golden locket winked in the light, pinned over her right breast.
McKay climbed the steps toward her and half-turned, gesturing between the troupe and the blonde. John came to stop, looking up at them, one foot on the first step, the other on the pathway. Elizabeth and Aiden were on the step above him, the others on the path behind.
"This is my assistant, Nola," McKay said curtly.
The corners of the woman's lips turned up demurely and she said, "Sheppard Circus Company, welcome to Atlantis."
One step down, McKay rolled his eyes, smiling mockingly. "Yeah…. We've kind of been over that before," he announced airily.
The visit to Atlantis broke a dam of Lantean reserve and produced a flood of interest in their party. Though access to the city was still largely restricted and the guards remained at their posts around the camp, the Lantean Council agreed to allow members of the troupe to visit under the supervision of Elizabeth, John, McKay, or Nola.
Elizabeth put John in charge of subsequent visits to the city and curious bystanders began to cross the plain from the mountains to peer in on the troupe.
McKay was at the camp nearly every day, supposedly seeing to whatever the troupe needed. John thought it seemed more like a kidnap than an engagement but kidnappers were scarcely ever so accommodating.
Before they'd set out, Elizabeth had had four hundred posters sent ahead to Arliss for the canceled shows, the last of the posters they'd printed in Germany. The posters were lost by then, weathering in the elements, announcing a show that wasn't going to happen. So they needed more printed up.
Atlantis had a printing press. Apparently, they had a newsletter of some kind. So John and Teyla went to Atlantis with McKay (Rodney, actually, though he didn't mind being called by his first or surname) to print posters for the shows.
Lorne designed the original copy, hand drawn and inked, and the skilled Lantean printers reproduced it, painstakingly loyal to every detail rendered. The words "Sheppard Circus Co." arched over a panorama of exotic sights – Ronon Dex lifting a woman one-handed over head with his heavy dreadlocks falling over his bare shoulders, Teyla curved into a loop like a snake biting its tail and Zelenka juggling burning clubs high over his head in grease paint. Everyone was there, and over them were John and Jennifer, arms outspread as they soared on the trapeze. McKay snapped the first copy off the press, ignoring the printer's quiet warning about wet ink and his pale eyes scanned over the page thoughtfully.
John came close at his elbow, peering over his shoulder at the print. The machines hissed and soughed, large cogs turning. "Not bad," he conceded, his voice a cool drawl.
For a moment, McKay's gaze didn't leave the page then he looked up, narrowing his eyes as he smiled smugly. "Oh, please. Don't act like you're not impressed."
John returned his statement with a sarcastic smile. "It was my guy who actually designed it, you know."
McKay's pale eyes rolled skyward and he flicked the paper out to Teyla with a snap. "Details, details," he replied. Then, over his shoulder, he said, "Nola, I want these posted everywhere in Atlantis."
Nola straightened in the doorway and hurried over to take the copy from his hand. "I'll get it done," she said.
Teyla smiled, nodding to the other woman then to John. "Shall I go along?" she asked.
John waved a hand at her, leaning over the press as a printer pulled another copy out. The presses looked like looms. "Yeah. You go on," he said, propping an elbow on the tabletop. The printer eyed him with narrow curiosity and Teyla smiled, nodding to the blonde as she gestured to the door.
"After you," she said.
McKay watched them disinterestedly as they left before slowly saying, "About your lights…."
John glanced over. The gears of the printing press pumped smoothly behind him, black as the mountains that surrounded them. McKay's eyes were pale, blue like the sky in spring. "Yeah?" John asked leadingly.
McKay's hand curved around his elbow and he towed John toward the door. "I have some ideas," he said. John arched a brow and followed his lead.
They opened on a Friday. The troupe's varicolored tents were set up under the darkening heavens like a constellation of brightly colored points, a mirror reflection of the stars above. And the setting sun layered the sky with violet clouds on the mountain range over the horizon, brightest in the west where the sunlight faded slowly from sight. Daylight washed out from the landscape and nightfall bled into the sky. Lamps hung from cords arranged at the edge of every pathway, casting bright light and long shadows from tiny orbs shaped like fishbowls, flickering with fire.
Two dozen red and orange gates led to the fairground – wide, square Torii hung with panes of vibrant fabric that fluttered in the wind.
At dusk, the Lanteans began appearing at the edge of the plain, spilling sporadically from the mountain pass. Two ticket takers stood at the last gate, beneath the arch that read "Sheppard Circus Co." in gold leaf.
John got dressed in his wagon, glancing sidelong at his reflection in the small mirror he used to shave. The light from his stove limned the curves of his bare shoulders and black hair and shadow clung to his heavy lower lip and knit brows.
His mind went briefly to McKay and a feeling lingered, almost a fine tremor in his stomach and his fingertips. Rodney would be at the show as well – Jennifer had told John earlier that the scientist wanted to speak with him and the assertion could mean nothing good. She refused to mention what it was Rodney wanted to speak to him about, but some suspicion was filtering into his mind. Jennifer's nervousness around him bespoke impending unpleasantness. He tried not to think about it and turned to leave.
In Miko's tent, the last touches of his costume were applied. His reflection in the mirror was in his periphery as Miko carefully lined his eyes with metallic green liner and rouged his cheeks. In the doorway, he caught Jennifer's pale, narrow hand lifting the tent flap, the lamp light reflected on her golden curls and the silver mirrors sewn onto her leotard. Her thin, red ballet flats made no sound as she hurried out awkwardly.
In the distance, he could hear Elizabeth queuing up, her smooth voice like the touch of velvet, announcing marvel after marvel for a rapt audience. Occasionally, a burst of applause rent the air and consumed the quiet. The tension at the corners of Miko's eyes expressed how John was feeling.
Then Miko was sliding the straps of the feathered wings up his bare arms and John glanced sidelong at the mirror as he fastened the buckles across his chest. He was barely recognizable.
"All done," Miko said, searching his face for approval with a hopeful expression.
John's hazel eyes met hers and he nodded. "Thanks," he replied and followed the path by which Jennifer had fled.
Miko's tent let out into the narrow alley between the tents and the colored burlap was like the strangest alley wall erected, bright and beautiful. John followed it all the way to the end, to the flap in the back of the big top, where the performers were waiting quietly for their turn. A wide, tall partition concealed them from the view of the audience and they waited, seated on boxes, crates and trunks.
By the backdrop, Zelenka muttered nervously in Czech and, rolling his eyes up, took a drink from one of his bottles. Nearby, Teyla stretched her leg over her head, smiling tenderly at something Ronon said quietly, the green sequins on Teyla's leotard and braided in her hair flaring in the low light. John scanned the assemblage for Jennifer and at the edge of the backdrop, recognized Rodney's broad shoulders as the other man peered surreptitiously into the big top. The light filtered through the strands of his hair and gilded them a lighter hue.
For a moment, he wondered who was on when he heard Elizabeth's voice call out, "One more round of applause for Sheppard Circus Company's canary, the beautiful Jennifer on fixed trapeze!"
Over Rodney's shoulder, John caught sight of Jennifer seated on the trapeze. Her pale fingers were gracefully poised on the chains of the swing, one curved over her head like a fencer, the other light on the chain by her shoulder. Her skin shone, milk pale, in the lights, striking against the vibrant scarlet leotard, her legs crossed at the knee with her ankles hanging beneath her as she swung in a slow, wide arc over the ground. The golden strands of her hair flashed.
Something tightened in John's chest and he paused, his eyes returning to McKay before walking over. The scientist must have felt the heat from his body at his back because he looked over his shoulder, surprised at John's sudden appearance. "Oh," he began, "Hey, I wanted to speak with you—"
John pressed a finger to his own lips, knitting his brows severely.
Outside, in the big top, Jennifer flipped her body neatly from the trapeze and took a bow. Illuminated by a ray of light, Elizabeth stood on a dais in a scarlet riding habit, her tousled hair bound in a red ribbon that trailed over the lapel of her coat and a top hat perched on her head. She swept her arm out and announced John like a figure from legend. "An Icarus in Atlantis, John Sheppard!"
McKay's eyes met John's and John pushed past him into the light.
In the air, thirty minutes were nothing. John was like a planet in orbit and the shining eyes of the audience were satellites captured in his gravity. The weight of his lean, muscled frame and the pain in his calloused hands on the bar were a material connection tethering him to the earth. And far off, Rodney was peering out around the edge of the backdrop as John mounted the high wire, running up the grounding wire like a cat on a fence.
He spread his arms out against the bed of white feathered wings on his back and placed his feet carefully on the tightrope. The care was more for show than for his safety. Practice gave him ease and agility on the wire and when he was in the center of the line, he showed what he was capable of. On the high wire, he could execute tumbles, using the wire like a trampoline as the drums rolled thunderously over the thin whine of the violins.
His tufted black hair stood out against his lightly tanned complexion, mussed into odd angles and his chest was slick with shining perspiration. Beyond the smooth lineaments of his frame, a cascade of glitter showered down from a pinwheel near the ceiling, fixed among the foil stars pinned up, and refracted over the sweat on his chest and back.
John had no idea that he was beautiful but he felt exhilarated.
His show ended in a tumultuous wave of explosive applause and enthused shouting and John ran down the length of the wire to the floor. In the bank of shadow beyond the stage lights, the audience called out their applause. John's legs trembled as he came to a stop on the packed dirt floor and waved a hand lazily toward the stands. In the light and a shower of glitter like a deluge of sparks, his body was golden and shining. His chest rose and fell with each breath and gave the illusion of beating wings on his back.
"Sheppard Circus's very own winged Icarus, John!" Elizabeth's voice carried out over the crowd and the drumroll and the Lanteans beat their hands together, drowning out the sound of the music on the air.
The planes of John's cheeks and forehead shone with sweat as he breathed hard, nodding his head toward the audience. He fanned a hand over his heart and bowed at the waist briefly. His heart hammered beneath his fingertips. Then he turned on his heels and ran backstage.
As he ducked into the shadow, Zelenka streaked out at the end of a quartet of jugglers, the sweat on his cheeks gleaming in the brightness of the tent.
The backstage was dim, darkening even as the lights went low and Elizabeth called out, "Prepare to be amazed by feats found only in legend! Like the mystical salamander, Radek Zelenka is impervious to heat and flame! Watch as he tames the fiercest of elements!"
It took a moment for John's eyes to adjust to the gloom backstage and he found himself a few feet away from Rodney when his eyes focused once more. The other man's arms were crossed over his chest, dressed in a charcoal waistcoat and slacks, no cravat or flat tie. Then the lamps snuffed out and John was in the dark and it was just the two of them, alone.
"A winged Icarus, huh?" Rodney asked quietly.
John made a face. "Why not? I thought it sounded pretty good," he replied lazily.
"Oh, sure," Rodney's voice came confidently from the dark.
John's heart thundered in his chest and he acutely felt the pressure of thick black straps of the harness around his arms and across his chest, the weight of the wings on his back. They spread behind him, powder white and feathered, limned in gold as, in the big top, fire hissed as it ignited on the end of Zelenka's club.
The chafed, abused hue of John's skin beneath the straps was barely visible and Rodney could just barely make it out in the darkened channel between the back of the screen and the rough burlap fabric of the tent.
At John's back, the black grease paint spread beneath Zelenka's eyes caught light as he spat ninety proof vodka into his torch and nursed an inferno detached from the laws of gravity in midair. The darkness that followed sculpted the line of John's cheek, yielded an impression of solitude though Rodney was standing five feet away.
"So I wanted to ask you—" Rodney began.
The queuing silence spoke eloquently of John's reticence and he knew with certainty what McKay had come to ask. "My answer's no," he answered flatly.
His voice shook the thoughtful expression from Rodney's face and the scientist blinked. "What?" he asked. Obviously, John's response was a surprise.
"I said no," John replied. "The answer's no."
McKay's lips sagged open and his brows knit. "You don't even know what I was going to ask—" He protested.
John shifted his shoulders and the black straps scraped his bare skin. "Yeah but it doesn't take a genius to figure it out, McKay," he retorted.
"Jennifer and I want to marry," Rodney stated insistently.
John scowled. "Yeah," he said, "and my answer's no. You want my blessing and I'm not giving it." He spoke to the shape of Rodney's body in the dark and the other man released a soft sound of protest.
"Why?" he argued. "What reason could you possibly have—?"
"You're a jerk," John cut him off. "And I don't want Jennifer marrying a jerk."
An explosion of fire in the big top illuminated Rodney's face as he gaped, his face darkening with color. His expression was almost vulnerable and John shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably.
"But you don't even know me!" McKay contended lowly.
Again, John shrugged. "Yeah and I don't want to," he replied. "I know enough. I don't want you marrying Jennifer. That's it."
"That's it?" McKay echoed.
The light from Zelenka's torch flickered and went low and John shrugged in the ensuing darkness. "Yeah," he said.
"That's…," McKay began and heat flooded John's stomach with acid anger.
"I'm not budging," he growled.
McKay's pale eyes were shining as John shouldered past him to the flap of the tent. He left McKay standing alone in the dark.
He swept the bristles of the brush through paint the color of cornflowers, making the shape of an eight, the shape of infinity. The black earthenware pot on the desk was a dark rim around paint the color of the sky over the mountains. It was a mirror reflecting the plain outside.
A shaft of sunlight fell through the fogged window pane over his desk in his wagon, illuminating the dust motes spiraling in the air and the smooth planes of his stomach. In the afternoon, he didn't need to light the lamps and let the coals smolder on the grate. The coals warmed the room and suffused his skin with heat. A circular mirror on the edge of his desk reflected the movement of his hand.
Footfalls on wood sounded the approach of another person. John fixed his hazel eyes on the mirror and felt the cold touch of the brush against his skin. Brush bristles slid over the curve of his hip bone, carefully reproducing the outline of clouds, the bright and shining vaults of heaven.
The hinges creaked lowly as the door swung open and John flicked a stormy gaze at Rodney as the other man stood in the doorway, framed by the mirror. "Hey, in or out! You're letting the cold in!" he shot over his shoulder.
In the mirror, Rodney's crooked mouth was drawn down in a determined frown. "I came here to convince you that you were totally unreasonable before," he announced as he pushed the door shut behind him. The brass knob rattled as the latch caught.
John snorted. "Yeah, well. Good luck with that."
"Yes… Well…." He trailed off, pushing his hands deeply into the pockets of his trousers, and looked at a loss for words and a little helpless, his brows pitched upward hopefully. His pale eyes passed over the cramped confines of John's wagon, taking in John's possessions as though seeing them for the first time. He paused and John met his eyes in the mirror, arching his eyebrow challengingly. McKay's mouth sagged downward and John felt something stir in his chest but kept his features trained in cool challenge.
After a moment, Rodney shook his head lightly and said as though he hadn't before noticed, "You're blue."
John's brows knit and formed a small well in his forehead as he cultivated a sarcastic expression, making a gesture that was neither a nod nor a dismissal. "Like the sky," he provided. When McKay shook his head, John gestured with the brush toward the big top. "For the show tonight."
"Oh. And you, uh…." McKay hesitated and his voice rose in pitch which John found weirdly endearing. "Did you do this yourself?"
John held the brush at rest between his thumb and forefinger like a calligrapher. He tried to look at McKay like McKay was as stupid as he was always saying everyone else was but the scientist seemed impervious to his expression. "Yeah," he replied.
Rodney's brows quirked upward. "Oh. Well." His eyes drifted over John's shoulders and the shape of his collarbone, his gaze settling near John's chin, around his mouth and recognition that he was being watched settled on John. McKay looked disappointed and John tried really hard not to want to cheer him up. "You're pretty good," the scientist finished finally.
John nodded his head in sarcastic appreciation of the compliment. "Thanks."
John turned his eyes back to his reflection and pressed the brush to his stomach, shaping the darker outline of a cloud, white paint crisp against the blue. He didn't watch McKay in the mirror but felt his eyes on his back as he painted. "You're welcome," Rodney said, his voice clipped and to the point.
"As I was saying before…," he began leadingly.
John scowled in quicksilver irritation and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck acutely, like the wire-brush spine of an angry cat. "Right," he muttered.
"Were you classically trained?" Rodney asked. His voice was light with absentminded curiosity.
John tucked his chin to his chest and leveled his eyes on McKay in the mirror from beneath furrowed brows. The skin at the edges of his eyes crinkled as he narrowed his eyes. "You came to ask me if I was a classically trained painter?" he asked sarcastically. It sounded as likely as sunstroke in December.
Rodney's pale eyes moved over the wall near the mirror. Shadow played at the corners of his lips and the place they parted. "Ah, no," he replied dismissively, shaking his head.
John snorted and shrugged a shoulder, one corner of his mouth lifting. "Huh. That's too bad," he drawled.
McKay met his eyes in the mirror, his forehead creasing as he frowned pragmatically. "Why?" he asked.
John shrugged. "I'm sick of hearing you ask me the same question."
Rodney narrowed his eyes, curling his lips irritably. "Oh, ha ha," he shot back.
John's chest vibrated as he chuckled lowly, turning his smile toward the desk and his pots of paint.
"Okay," Rodney said suddenly. He took a breath. "So, the reason you don't want Jennifer to marry me is this misguided notion you have that I'm a jerk."
John bobbed his head in agreement, consulting the earthenware dish as he lifted it from the table.
"So the only possible solution to our problem is to get you to get to know me better so you'll change your mind," he finished triumphantly and John set the dish down, his features darkening.
He half turned to regard the other man with open disbelief. "And that makes sense to you?" he asked.
Rodney snorted and grinned at John. He shook his head, eyes narrowed on John as though John were the one with bizarre notions. "Are you kidding?" he asked brightly. "Of course. It makes perfect sense."
John turned his eyes back to the mirror and dipped his brush into the paint again. "Yeah, well, I'm no genius but that doesn't seem…." He paused. "What's the word?" he asked.
Behind him, McKay offered no suggestions.
"Oh, yeah," John finished pointedly, glancing up at McKay's reflection with pitched eyebrows and feigned frown. "Logical."
Rodney scoffed. "Oh, please. Spend a few hours with me and you'll see I'm a lovable teddy bear," he retorted.
"Lovable teddy bear." John knit his brows. "Yeah, that seems likely," he replied sarcastically.
McKay nodded airily, his gaze wandering over the wall. "Yes, well…," he said, "I'm glad you see it my way." Then, looking hopeful, he asked: "So…when you're done…?"
John glanced at McKay, a little put off and Rodney lifted up a slim case he carried in his hand. "I brought my chessboard," McKay put in.
John paused, his eyes showing his confusion. "Chess," he said finally.
"You know how to play, right?" Rodney asked.
John had learned to play on the road when he was a boy. It took him five minutes to learn the basics. Two games and he put down admirable strategy. John had never lost a game but there was no sense telling McKay that. "Oh, I have an idea," he demurred cryptically.
The scientist surveyed his reflection with an optimistic expression, unaware of that fact. "So…?" he asked.
John shrugged a shoulder. "Sure, I guess. You're on."
A smile curved the corner of McKay's mouth and the scientist came further inside, twisting the chessboard between his hands to set it out on John's tabletop. John set his paintbrush down on the edge of the paint pot and turned, pulling a chair out across the floor across from McKay.
As they settled, McKay peered across the table at him. "So," he asked innocently, "Shall we play for stakes?"
Between five and eight that evening, John beat Rodney three out of five games – the second ending in stalemate and the last ending with Zelenka's rap on the door to let him know the show had begun. The chair legs scraped over the wood floor as John straightened his legs out and pushed it back. He stood up and the wooden birds hanging from the ceiling spun in lazy, oblong circles behind his shoulders. He turned, grabbing his coat and Rodney was on his feet at John's back, his mouth hanging open.
"Hey!" he protested. "We're in the middle of a game!"
John half turned and shrugged his shoulders. Zelenka blinked sluggishly, half of his body in the open doorway. "Sorry, McKay, you heard the man – show time," John said, hooking a thumb toward the big top. He bobbed on the balls of his feet.
"Oh, that's fair!" McKay called sarcastically from by John's table as the wagon door shut behind the two men. He leant back against the edge of the table, staring after them for a long moment as he heard John's boot treads fade off and away completely. Then he swept the chess pieces into the slim case he'd brought along with him and ran out the door. Tucking the case beneath his elbow, he chased John to the flap of the big top tent where the dark haired man lifted the fabric up and went in.
When John came back from his first act, slick with sweat and sky blue paint, McKay was in the waiting area with two crates set up on either side of a large book trunk. It looked like a bizarre dinner arrangement in the low light from behind the backdrop. McKay saw him and swept his hand out, gesturing to the chessboard and the little ivory and pewter pieces arranged on the tiles anew.
"So, best out of ten?" he asked hopefully.
John glanced at the board sidelong, arching an eyebrow dubiously. "Oh, yeah, we'll start all over again 'cause I was beating you," he said after a beat.
McKay grimaced. "Oh, what? Yeah, right. Can't you recognize a hustle when you see it? I was two turns from trashing you."
John took the bait and knew it, sitting down on his crate, he appraised the board. Then his brows knit and his features darkened. "Rodney, where's my queen?"
"Your queen?" Rodney asked helpfully, lifting his eyebrows. He cast a look at the board.
John narrowed his eyes at the other man, looking up from beneath his brows. "Yeah, my queen," he shot back. "Where's my queen, McKay?" he demanded. "I was about a move and a half from putting you in check mate."
The other man scowled. "You wish," he retorted. "I don't even think it was still on the board."
John narrowed his hazel eyes. "It was on the board; about a move and a half from checking your king, actually."
Rodney shrugged his shoulders, casting a disinterested look at the board. "I didn't see it before. Maybe it's still in your wagon."
The hue of John's green eyes were brighter in contrast with the blue paint on his face. "Why don't you go get it?" he suggested, theatrically threatening.
McKay's mouth sagged in a frown. "I already set it out," he complained.
John scowled at him silently and McKay sighed, pushing the crate out as he stood. "Fine," he groaned. "Just don't…." He made gestures like cartwheels with his hands. "Move until I get back."
"No," John replied sarcastically. "That's just what I was going to do." McKay lifted a hand and John cut him off, pointing to the flap in the tent. "Go," he ordered.
McKay's shoulders drooped and he sighed, rolling his eyes as he turned and left in the direction John pointed at.
At the table, John buried his smile in the shadow of his lifted shoulder and straightened the pieces on the board.
Chess became a Monday and Wednesday thing, then a Friday and a Saturday thing. Then it was almost every day. John didn't notice the time passing, just a series of shows, a series of practices. Life at the camp was pretty similar to how it always was, but there was an air of excitement that lay thick in the air. John tried to tell himself the visits weren't part of it but around three in the afternoon, his hazel eyes would scan the troupe for McKay's square face and thoughtful furrowed brows, maybe the light, mocking smile he sometimes wore.
Around three in the afternoon, the scientist always showed up. He knocked on John's door like clockwork, arrayed in his black coat and driving goggles, the chess board tucked under his elbow. John would open the door in his decisive manner, dressed in his shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a black vest, face to face with the other man. And McKay would pitch his eyebrows up hopefully, lifting the board up as he'd ask, "Ready to be trounced?"
"Born ready." Pointing at him, he'd say, "But you'll have to eat your words when you lose. Again."
The scientist would narrow his eyes at him and John would suppress the levity rising in his chest and fluttering with the quick step beat of his heart.
Day by day, John found himself forgetting the road. He wasn't alone in it. Teyla and Ronon's free smiles and Zelenka and Weir's engaged, fascinated expressions said more than anything else. Everyone liked it there. Atlantis felt like the place they'd been waiting for or like it had been waiting until they found their way there.
John wasn't surprised Jennifer wanted to stay but it planted an acid seed of resentment in his stomach because she wasn't the only one who wanted to be there – she just thought she was.
Atlantis was hard to say No to. It was a pearl citadel in silvery water – only it wasn't a piece of jewelry or a dead sculpture carved in bas relief. It was dynamic, a challenge.
There was also McKay.
There was a weird magnetism to the way he held his body that drew John's eyes when he was around. Like on a Sunday afternoon, outside of the big top, Rodney a hundred feet away and John by a light pole as Aiden Ford practiced with his horse.
The slow track of Ford's white mare obscured McKay from sight for a moment – Ford's lean muscles flexing under caramel colored skin as he held still, balanced on his outspread hand on the mare's flank. The silhouette of Ford and the horse fused into one blurry shape as John watched Rodney mangle his hat, smiling with uncharacteristic platitude at Jennifer by Carson's cages, Jennifer's face obscured by the lacy edge of her parasol, dragging the hem of her slate blue dress through the mud and John bit his tongue.
Rodney was easy to watch. It was easy for John to keep squinting his eyes at the curved corner of his heavy mouth. When Rodney felt his gaze and turned back briefly John glanced back at Ford, shot off a short directive. One minute, thirty seconds more before he chanced a look in Rodney's direction and by that time the other man had looked away.
Just like Atlantis – their being there wasn't supposed to happen but it did and now there was nothing he could do about it but watch and wait. John swallowed and turned back to Ford. He tried not to glance away.
"Ow. Ow," McKay hissed, tightly rewrapping a length of gauze around his palm. The old gauze was piled loosely on the tabletop, spotted with blood.
"Jesus, McKay – let me do that," John interrupted impetuously, grasping the scientist's slender wrist with strong, unyielding fingers. He leant partly over the desk in McKay's office in the main tower. His forehead was close to McKay's as he quickly finished wrapping Rodney's hand. The scientist winced but didn't complain as John finished, staring down at his hand in John's.
"What the hell happened?" John asked irritably. When he'd come into Rodney's office, the scientist had been turned to the bookcase behind the desk, wrapping his hand.
At John's question, McKay glanced up and shrugged. "The, uh, boilers. Sometimes they overheat. I don't have the materials yet to repair them."
He'd burnt his hand in sublevel six when a boiler overheated and threatened to explode. McKay had had no choice but to open the safety manually and override the system before a total meltdown. "It happens all the time," McKay said. "Not so much now as when we first come back."
"So, what? Are we sitting on a pile of dynamite here, McKay?" John asked, gesturing pragmatically.
The scientist rolled his eyes. "Oh, please," he retorted. "Nothing's exploding."
"Yet," John inserted.
"Ever, as long as I'm here," McKay huffed. "Thanks," he said tartly, pulling his hand back and inspecting the bandages.
John shrugged his shoulders and propped himself lazily against the edge of McKay's desk, folding his arms over his chest. "So what's the deal with that?" he asked.
McKay glanced over his shoulder as he picked up the old gauze on the table and rewound it with a disgusted expression. "It's water damage in the lower levels," he replied. "When we came back, a lot of the systems were barely working. What was working…." He paused and set his jaw and John read frustration in his features. "Our ancestors didn't leave us any guides. We've had to figure out how everything worked by trial and error. Some errors were more costly than others," he said grimly.
"When we came here, there was no guarantee what would or wouldn't work and for how long despite how far advanced the technology was."
"You've had casualties?" John guessed.
McKay shrugged his shoulders. "In the return voyage, crossing over the mountain. The first six months. The first year. We were relying on systems we didn't entirely understand that might fail at any time."
"So life was hard." It was difficult to believe that the city had been anything but perfect, standing in Rodney's office, but other facts began to make sense given his words. Namely, why the Lanteans so passionately guarded what they, themselves, had just taken back at great cost.
"Yeah, it was hard," McKay said, shrugging. Then, looking back at John, he said, "We left our homes to come here and some of our best people died, reestablishing the city."
The pioneers were descendents of the ancients, left with the city as inheritance but no maps or manuals from when the ancients had fled the city millennia ago. In the time that passed, the Lanteans made a home on an island off the coast of Europe. They lived on the periphery of society, more like a set of interworking townships than a structured government and over time, the secrets of Atlantis were lost – even to them.
A Lantean named Jackson, interested in the history of their people, was the one who rediscovered the location of the city based upon the un-translated histories left behind from their ancestors.
"Anyway, this was, what? Five years ago now?" McKay asked dismissively, shoving sheaves of paper into a leather attaché. "Yeah, about five years," he nodded. His expression was pinched, his blue eyes deep with memory beneath knit brows.
He'd been a scientist on the island, educated abroad in Europe in the principles of physics, an ancient discipline recovered from before the second dark ages. He could have been a luminary in the scientific field but instead he'd chosen Atlantis.
"Anyway…," McKay said. He looked back at John and lifted his brows. "Chess?" he asked hopefully.
What he'd said lingered with John as he shrugged his shoulders and frowned. "Anyone important?" he asked as McKay was turning to retrieve a board from the fourth shelf of his book case.
The scientist glanced at him with a cloudy, confused expression. "Excuse me?" he asked.
John shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. He propped his hands on his hips. "You lose anyone important to you?" he asked. He was prepared for McKay to brush him off or respond with irritation.
Instead, the scientist's pale eyes lingered on him thoughtfully. His crooked mouth drew down in a pained moue and his brow creased. Finally, he raised his eyes to John's and swallowed. He shrugged. "My sister," he admitted. "She had a family on the island. She was one of the descendants who refused to come along. She has kids; she didn't want to take the risk."
"What about now?" John asked, cocking his head and raising his eyebrows. "She still doesn't want to come to Atlantis?"
McKay swallowed and set the chessboard down. He fixed his eyes there and shrugged. "I haven't gotten in touch with her," he said, his voice muffled in his chest. There seemed to be something he wasn't mentioning.
A fight, John thought, and maybe McKay was too stubborn to admit he might have been wrong or maybe that no one had been wrong. He set the knowledge aside for future reference and pulled the chair in front of the desk out. The metal legs scraped on the floor and McKay opened his mouth irritably, looking offended. John cut him off, hoping to distract him.
"Ready for your daily dose of humility, doctor?" he asked.
McKay snorted. "Yeah, right. I don't think 'humility' is the word you're looking for," he retorted.
John pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Yeah, you're right," he said. "Because what I was really going for was 'humiliation.'"
The scientist scowled and arranged his pieces. "Now I get the typically laconic demeanor. It's not an unusual characteristic; it's poor vocabulary."
John scowled back at him. "Play," he demanded.
He leant on his elbows on the edge of McKay's desk, his face between his fists, and kept his features baitingly neutral. A fine trembling in his heart betrayed the kindling of tenderness in his chest. It felt like an electrical current except that it was both painful and pleasant to bear.
Maybe McKay was right about the teddy bear thing. The only problem the scientist had overlooked was John's opposition to his engagement to Jennifer strengthening as John liked him better. But, then, he was surprisingly the type to leap first, look later. John could identify with that.
A few days later, John was working in the camp when Teyla came to stand beside him.
"John, may I speak with you about something which has been troubling me?" Teyla asked as they stood outside the big top while John tightened the guide wires around the perimeter of the tent. John was kneeling on the ground, hammering stakes into the ground with a large wooden mallet. From nearby, Ronon glanced over with idle interest.
"Sure, go for it," John replied, fanning a hand over his eyes against the sun as he squinted up at her.
Teyla cocked her head aside and considered her words, clasping her hands in front of her. "All right, thank you," she said patiently. "This is it: some of the others have been talking." Her voice was a cool and measured beat against which one could counterpoint a metronome.
Her coppery hair took on the waning afternoon sun and the light from the lamps hung around the camp and on the caravan's doors. John spared an irritated look in her direction, winding a length of rope over the stake, the rope running over his gloved palm, around the rough wood…
He looked away.
"About how you have been treating Jennifer and Dr. McKay." Teyla's tone was diplomatic, totally nonjudgmental.
Aiden Ford stopped pounding stakes into the ground to pay attention, craning his neck to peer over the curve of Ronon's back.
"Some feel that you are being…biased…in your judgment of their relationship."
"It's not a relationship," John interrupted curtly. "To McKay, Jennifer's just a status symbol. He doesn't want a wife. He wants a trophy." He pounded the mallet onto the stake head twice and cut the length of the rope with a knife tucked into a sheath on his belt. The burnished and fading sunlight stained his skin a deeper hue.
Teyla looked askance and caught Ronon's eyes and the strongman shrugged. Aiden Ford dropped his eyes back to his work, beating stakes in respectful hush.
Teyla's eyes returned to John and narrowed, catching the light. "Some of the troupe feels that you are being…unreasonable." She tilted her chin high. The angle of her face was an open challenge.
John felt the weary weight of the exhausted day. He wrapped the cut rope around his hand, around his elbow and over his palm, a couple times and tied it in a lackadaisical knot. He tossed it on a pile of rope between himself and Ronon and stood. "Well, last time I checked, we weren't operating under a democracy," he said.
Teyla shook her head and seemed to want to say something else.
John didn't wait for her finish. He straightened his shoulders and cast a glance at her as he walked away.
"John," Teyla's voice followed him as he waved a hand dismissively and strode across the clearing in front of the big top, feeling the eyes of the others on his shoulders as he disappeared into the alley between the tents.
Rich, dark soil ran between McKay's fingertips as he knelt down and picked up a handful of earth. He looked up from beneath his eyebrows with clear, pale eyes and said, "Anything you can till, you can keep."
The east pier in Atlantis was made up of greenhouses. The misty shroud that hung over the mountain lake would have made growing difficult, but the structure itself rotated to capture sunlight. When the sunlight was too weak, rows of lamps and reflectors in the high ceilings gave off light for the crops.
The land the troupe had been allotted was a difficult plot on the fourth level the Lanteans had had trouble cultivating. It spread out in every discernible direction, seemingly limitless space. In reality, it was bordered by a wide, paved walkway and beyond the walkways were windows. The northern side opened out onto a wide, open balcony where the mist of a nearby waterfall hung on the air and the sound of the water crashing into the lake below was a thunderous roar.
Near Rodney, John curved his knobby hands over his hips and glanced sidelong at Ronon and Teyla. Teyla, Ronon, and Lorne had the most experience farming but as Lorne was busy in camp, John had asked Ronon and Teyla to come along when Elizabeth told him about Rodney's plan.
A grin spread over Ronon's face as he regarded the doctor then cast a look around the barren field. The far off windows framed swirling brume and pale sunlight. Teyla lifted an eyebrow and the corner of her lips quirked up.
"We get the whole level?" Ronon asked.
McKay narrowed his eyes at him as though the tall man were incomprehensible. "A deal's a deal," he replied indifferently as he brushed the dirt from his hands.
Ronon leant his weight back on one leg and grinned in turn at Teyla and John. John clapped his hands together. "Okay, guys, you heard the man. I'm putting you in charge on this one."
Teyla smiled, tilting her face up to Ronon as their shoulders brushed. "I believe I may have some ideas," she said pleasantly.
John nodded his head and gestured out with both hands. "By all means," he invited. Rodney came to stand at his side, using a white grease-stained handkerchief to clean the soil from his hand.
"My people have a…," Teyla squinted, shaking her head lightly as she found the words to concisely express herself, "A way with grain. I've nurtured some seedlings in our travels I believe would be most beneficial."
By her side, Ronon grinned. "Sateda was known for agriculture. My father was a farmer. I can manage a couple squares myself."
John knit his brows, nodding at them emphatically and behind him, Rodney gazed on them with a look of concentration and bemusement. "Then go on. Take twenty volunteers and get it done," he pointed and added impetuously, "You have my blessing."
Teyla and Ronon chuckled at his words and John thought he saw some lightness in the other man that hadn't previously been.
Nodding his head, Ronon's braids fell heavily over his shoulders and he turned a warm stare on Teyla. "Over here," he said, pointing. Then, when Teyla looked attentively to the place he'd indicated, he ran off at a lope to show her.
Shaking her head, Teyla shot a tolerant look at John and followed the larger man, a beat afterward.
John grinned, following them with his eyes as he stood in place. He could sense Rodney's proximity without looking at him. He watched Teyla and Ronon talking at a distance without turning to McKay.
Behind him, Rodney cleared his throat. John turned back and glanced at him over his shoulder as the other man tucked his kerchief back into the pocket of his coat. "Oh, there was something I wanted to show you."
John's heart stirred and redoubled its pace. "Oh, yeah?" he asked challengingly.
The scientist shrugged his shoulders. "If you want to," he replied leadingly.
John mirrored his gesture, plumping his bottom lip in feigned disinterest. "Depends on what it is."
McKay scoffed and waved a hand at him. "Oh, please. You so want to see what I'm going to show you."
"So show me already, McKay!" John chided. He swatted his shoulder and Rodney rubbed at the place he'd hit irritably. "Okay!"
"And you will be impressed," he swore, half-turning to regard him as he walked back toward the lift. John chuckled behind him, shaking his head.
"I began work on this…." McKay tilted his head aside and squinted one eye, reaching for the numbers. He curled his fingers expressively as he thought. "Five months ago?" He finished on the upraised intonation of a question mark.
Behind him, John stood in the doorway of a darkened room. The light came in through the doorway and lit up a path on the floor. As McKay walked into the cavernous work room, his steps reverberated on the floor and echoed against the darkened walls. "It's still not finished but I'm pretty close now."
John rolled his eyes at him, his lips curved. "C'mon, Rodney!" he complained. "While we're young."
"Okay. Right." The scientist went further into the room and loftily called out, "Lights up."
At his command, the bulbs hung on beams in the ceiling flickered on, row by row, illuminating a large, rather plain work room. The walls were sea green like much of Atlantis was, rising to great heights over head. Enormous book cases stood against a back wall, crammed with leather bound books, sheaves of loose papers and thin, bound notebooks. The books overflowed the shelves and were stacked in knee high piles nearby. An ancient console like a stone table illumed with petroglyphs was against the side of the bookcase.
Above the table was a mess of notes, schematics and blue prints neatly outlined on blue sheets. John's eyes were drawn there as he idly took in his surroundings. The soles of his boots shuffled on the floor as he walked in and the door slid shut behind him, closing the two of them in.
"This is your lab?" John surmised. He walked to the side of a desk cluttered with odd shaped technology and copper wires trailing like vines over the desk and idly touched a cylindrical object with five recessed buttons.
Rodney strolled up behind him and John felt the heat of his body against his back as he peered over John's shoulder. "Yes. Don't touch that." He reached for the machine and John pulled back, holding the object out of Rodney's reach.
"Hey! I'm still looking!" he protested.
"Would you just give that to me?" McKay demanded.
McKay shouldered into his space, his body between John and the desk, his arm outstretched. Their chests brushed and a shock ran up John's spine, his heart thundering. For a moment, Rodney's fingers curled around John's knobby wrist and John's face flushed with heat and color.
Suddenly, John was aware of Rodney with every inch of his body and his pulse pounded, like the refrain of a familiar song. He tried not to hold his breath as he cast his gaze over McKay's features, but he failed. His hazel eyes roved over Rodney's mouth, waiting for the other man to move.
McKay's pale eyes moved up and caught John's, his fingers still wrapped around John's wrist, and he hesitated, looking surprised. He swallowed and John saw his throat move. His mouth was dry, his lips parted as he breathed soft, subdued breaths. In and out.
John wanted Rodney to kiss him.
His lids were low over his green eyes. Rodney gazed at him and looked startled and John hesitated. A pang of longing was like a dart in his chest. A moment passed, and John remembered Jennifer. He remembered that he'd taken care of her since he'd found her when she was fifteen and that she trusted him more than anyone.
He swallowed and dropped the object into Rodney's palm. He mentally straightened. "All right already," he conceded in a drawl. His voice sounded incongruously normal to him.
McKay's mouth parted and John settled back, looking askance at the length of the desk behind McKay. There were five tables arranged evenly on the floor and at their ends were three black boards, set up against the wall adjacent to the bookcases.
"What'd you wanna show me?" John asked.
He turned and walked over to the chalk boards, half-looking at the equations scrawled over their surfaces, half-blank from the closeness of a moment before.
"Oh, uh, that," Rodney began haltingly. "Uh, I…" He seemed to want to ask something and John cut him off before he could say anything John would regret.
"C'mon, Rodney." He turned and caught McKay's eyes. "I've got stuff to do," he finished.
McKay compressed his lips into a frown and rolled his eyes. "Oh, right. You're really busy," he replied sarcastically.
"I'm plenty busy," John retorted.
"Over here." Rodney directed in a long suffering tone.
He walked over and skirted John's lean form, going to the long console. He took out a large rolled blue print and deftly pulled the twine tie binding it loose. His pale hands moved over the dark paper and spread it out across the surface of the table under the maps and blue prints pinned to the wall above it.
John came to his side and peered down at a design for something like the mechanized sledge. As he moved closer, the scientist stepped aside to make room for him. John's eyes moved over the lines drawn on the paper with mild interest. Then he recognized the shape of wings spread out on either side of the main body of a machine like a paper crane.
"Like I said, I've been working on it for…." Rodney cocked his head and squinted, his hand making a graceful rocking motion at level of his shoulder. "Five months now."
John glanced over his shoulder at the scientist before looking back at the plans, a feeling of heady excitement edging out any awkwardness or discomfiture he'd felt before. "This is ten meters across?" he asked.
Rodney sighed and ran his fingers down the edge of the page, looking pragmatic. "Well, scale is an issue," he said. "I've tried a few variations but so far the trial runs haven't been working out as well as I'd want them to."
John leant against his shoulder, peering down at the plans. He read equations scribbled on the corner of the page and stopped. "Well, here's your problem," he said.
He glanced around the table and saw a cup filled with mismatched, abused pens and pencils. He picked one with soft, white lead and scratched out a part of an equation. At his side, the scientist jerked as though burnt and grabbed for the pencil.
"Wait-wait-wait!" he cried.
John ignored him and mumbled confidently to himself as he scribbled, bouncing his head from side to side holding his body to the side, far enough away that McKay couldn't snatch the pencil from his hand. "There," he announced, pushing the sheet back with a satisfied expression.
"What are you doing?!" Rodney shouted. "That's sensitive work-it requires a level of mathematical comprehension beyond what's required of vagabond entertainers—"
John shot a put-off look at him as the scientist snatched the pencil from his hand and snapped the plans back across the table top. "Hey!" he complained. As Rodney read the equations, John shrugged, looking over the scientist's shoulder at his own scrawl in the margins of Rodney's intense, barbed writing.
"And-and— Oh, my God." McKay looked at John, his features blank with shock. "It's right," he announced.
John rolled his eyes and smiled. "Well, yeah, Rodney," he replied, "I don't go around messing up other people's equations without reason." He rolled his eyes a second time and felt pleased. It was a rare opportunity for John to engage in anything all that challenging. It was a bonus that Rodney was still gaping at him with a look of total loss.
"Yes, but…there's no one in this province, besides me, who can do work of this level," the scientist said. Then he looked back at John's work, checking a second and third time that everything worked out mathematically.
John shrugged his shoulder and rocked back on his heels, his palm flat on the tabletop. "I'm pretty good about stuff like that," he said lazily by way of explanation. "I took a couple years at the university."
"A couple?" Rodney repeated. He looked aghast.
"Yeah, Rodney," John replied. Then, scowling lightly at the other man, he said: "Try not to look too pleased about it."
His words didn't even seem to register with McKay. The other man just stared down at the blue print with a look of dismay. "I don't believe it," he complained. "Nine-tenths of the students finishing graduate school can't work these equations out…. Where the hell are they recruiting these incompetent…?"
Before he could finish his statement, John cut in, pulling the blue print out from beneath the scientist's hands. "This is pretty cool, Rodney," he said.
He put the paper down and pressed his palms to the table on either side of it, looking up at McKay from beneath his brows. "Think you can get it running?" he asked.
McKay snorted, taking John's bait. "Of course," he replied arrogantly. "I'm a genius. I can do anything I put my mind to."
John cocked his head from side to side, hiking his brows toward his hairline as he bowed his mouth around his words. "Oh, yeah?" he asked, cutely. "You can't marry Jennifer."
John's words missed the mark and Rodney scoffed, the corners of his lips lifting. "Now," he corrected John, holding a finger up. "Right now, I can't marry Jennifer." He met John's gaze and his blue eyes shone radiantly. "When you finally buckle under my powers of persuasion, it'll be a different story," he finished confidently.
John's smile was like a twitch. "Don't hold your breath just yet, buddy," he replied. He looked back down at the blue print and clapped his hand on Rodney's shoulder with a sharp sound.
"Ow," Rodney complained, rubbing at the place John had hit.
John leant both hands on the console and narrowed his eyes sarcastically at McKay, shaking his head at him.
"It hurt," McKay said irritably and John shook his head once more, rolling his eyes.
"So when are we talking about getting it done?" he asked.
Rodney looked up from rubbing his sore shoulder. "Huh?" he asked. "Oh, what? A couple months, tops?" he guessed, shrugging.
John looked up at McKay and crossed his legs at the ankle, idly rocking his body back and forth as he leant on the console. "So," he asked, "you got anyone to test fly it?"
Rodney paused and John waited but they both knew what he was going to say. John was getting excited just thinking about it.
He could go only so high on the trapeze but with the limitless sky unfolding out beneath him, he could go further than he'd ever gone before. He couldn't wait for the next few months.
In the meantime, Teyla and Ronon vanished into the troupe's farm land. John gave a hand when he could, usually during late morning, after he'd managed morning activities in the camp and before he'd go with McKay to work on the flying machine.
McKay still came to the camp regularly but as time went on, the affairs of the troupe and the Lanteans mingled. John would come to Atlantis and see Elizabeth on the steps, talking about a trade agreement with Nola, or Radek Zelenka arguing with McKay about something in the main hall.
The Lanteans accepted the troupe with remarkable ease and as time went on, John felt both more and less comfortable with that. Everyone spent half their time at the camp and half their time in the city. Atlantis was open to them. More than any other city had ever been. It felt like home and the feeling was comforting and a little scary.
From John's experience, he knew it didn't work like that; they were circus and they moved on. No one came to a show they'd seen before. The spectacle became less enthralling when it was performed every night and when the audience stopped coming, the troupe's funds were low. That was how it was.
But no one seemed to share his misgivings. Everywhere John looked, the troupe and the Lanteans were getting along.
John didn't know if Rodney and he were part of that number.
They got along all right and John liked McKay. He'd call him a friend if he didn't have to admit it to the man himself. He liked playing chess with him and checking out the city. And the work on his flying machine was the most rewarding work John had ever done.
The truth was that John liked him too much. But he wouldn't admit that to anyone.
In Atlantis, they could plant at any time and simulate any season. Spring came with a wintry mantle of snow on the ground in the plain and the crop they'd planted at the beginning of winter began to bear fruit. Leafy green foliage pierced through the dark soil in long, mathematically precise rows. Teyla and Ronon spent more time there than not, when they weren't practicing.
The winter passed without John noticing and before he knew it, it was late February. He was surprised when Jennifer pointed out to him the crushed green grass revealed by his boot prints.
It was the twenty-first of February when Teyla and Ronon knocked on his wagon door. He was inside, playing chess with Rodney at his table. The smoldering coals on the grate warmed the room without it getting too hot and the scent of coffee, McKay's preferred beverage, permeated the wagon.
John looked up at the sound of the rap, his cheek on his fist as he idly regarded the board. McKay's fingers were positioned delicately on the plumed head of a knight, the piece throwing a soft, uncertain shadow on a white square. The scientist looked up distractedly.
"Yeah?" John called.
"You say 'Come in,' you know," McKay corrected him.
John pushed his chair back and pointed at the board. "Make the move, McKay. I'm going to put you in check as soon as you quit wasting time."
"What?" Rodney scoffed. "I'm not in check!"
John raised his eyebrows at the other man and Rodney dropped his blue eyes to the board, his brows knit in concentration as he pored over the pieces again. "Come on in, I said!" John called out, leaning back from the table.
The knob scraped in its casing and clicked as it unlatched and Teyla became visible in the doorway as she opened the door. "John, are you not busy?" she asked. Her hazel eyes went to Rodney beneath raised eyebrows as she came inside.
Ronon was visible behind her, his large body framing Teyla's small, slender form. He wrapped a large hand on the frame of the door and said, "We wanted to talk to you."
John leant back in his chair, crossing his ankles on a low shelf beneath the table, and waved them in. "Yeah, sure. C'mon in," he called. Then, as McKay set his rook down, he slid his queen over and said, "Check."
Teyla and Ronon came in and the large man closed the door behind them. Then he leaned back against the back wall and Teyla stood near him, looking with interest to John and Rodney's game.
"What?" Rodney exclaimed. "Oh, that's— That has to be illegal!"
"It's not illegal, Rodney," John corrected him. "I'm just beating you."
Teyla smiled and Ronon smirked. He pressed a hand flat to the ceiling over Teyla's head and the bend of his elbow framed the smaller woman's shoulder. "So what'd you wanna tell me?" John asked, turning to look at them. He clasped his hands lazily over his hips.
Teyla opened her mouth, smiling abstractly, and finding herself at a loss for words, turning to glance at Ronon over her shoulder. Their eyes met and John waited patiently. Rodney looked up from the board, his face open with interest. Ronon shrugged a shoulder and Teyla looked back at John.
"Ronon and I have decided to be married."
Rodney's jaw dropped and John grinned widely. "What? When'd you guys decide to do that?" he asked.
Teyla's smile was demure as she cast a glance at Ronon. "You know that we spent much of the winter working on the farm together," she said.
"Yeah and you guys did a great job. I mean that," John replied. He pointed in their direction.
Teyla nodded. "Things progressed from there," she stated. "Last week, Ronon proposed to me and…," she paused and Ronon nudged her foot with his own, "I accepted."
"Well, congratulations!" John said. "This calls for a celebration."
"When are you doing it?" Rodney asked from across the table.
Teyla raised her brows. "In Athosian culture, it is customary to marry according to the seasonal calendar so…it will be this spring."
John dropped his feet to the floor and the legs of his chair clattered on the wood. "This spring?" he asked incredulously. "I don't have to tell you guys it's February already."
"It's nearly March," Rodney inserted helpfully. John nodded.
"It is a good sign to marry in the spring," Teyla said.
"Ensures fertility," Ronon put in.
John guffawed and Teyla smilingly elbowed the larger man. "But that is true," she admitted.
"So you're going to have kids?" Rodney asked searchingly. There was an insistent and hedging tone in his voice.
"We will," Teyla assented.
"Soon," Ronon finished.
"So spring, as in…?" John asked.
"I have checked with Nola and apparently, the trees bordering the plain flower in March. It is said that the blossoms are quite beautiful…."
"We wanna get married quick," Ronon said gruffly.
John grinned. "Well, yeah, guys. March is kinda quick." The larger man smirked.
"Well, congratulations," John said. He dragged his lanky frame off his chair and shook hands with the two of them. At the table, Rodney lifted his eyebrows and looked thoughtful.
Teyla and Ronon were married in late March. The big top was emptied out for the reception in camp. Friends brought presents and piled them on a long table near the entrance.
Evan Lorne baked fragrant nut cakes topped with sliced berries from the fifth level of the Lantean greenhouses. The nut cakes were baked to a specified Athosian recipe and the wedding cake was a small, two tiered pistachio cake in the western style with ivory butter cream icing in small swags. "I'm not a baker," Lorne warned John beforehand. "But I've baked a couple cakes and I could probably handle it."
"Yeah. Just don't, y'know…mess it up," John advised. "I have faith in you. Kind of."
They collapsed the stands and rolled up the walls so the tent was open – more a canopy than an enclosed space. By then, the ice had mostly melted and the verdant grass was visible in the plain. Nola had promised that the trees would flower and in the first week of March small leaves unfurled on the thin gray branches. Then delicate white blossoms opened up in the green canopies and the black mountains rose from a cloud of perfumed flowers. The air was sweet with the scent.
Miko made a basque and full skirt for Teyla from Athosian fabric she'd kept in her trunk and Ronon wore a black waistcoat and trousers with a white shirt with his shirt sleeves rolled up. John was his best man and Elizabeth was Teyla's maid of honor.
The ceremony was simple, appropriate, Weir said approvingly. Radek and Ronon crafted an arch wound with flowers on the vine in the field under which the wedding party assembled and thirty benches for guests to sit. The Lanteans and circus intermingled in the audience and beneath the arch, Teyla and Ronon were married. The minister tied their hands at the wrist with a cream colored ribbon and, grinning widely, Ronon cupped his hand at Teyla's nape and leant down to kiss her lips.
John smiled lopsidedly, and clapped with everyone else as the minister said, "You are husband and wife." As he did, he glanced over the audience and found McKay sitting in the first row beside John's sister. He caught McKay's eyes as the scientist stared at him and heat welled in John's face and heart.
Oblivious, Jennifer pressed Rodney's hand and McKay looked down at her hand on his. John swallowed and looked away.
Once more, at the reception, John caught the scientist staring. Again, after that, outside by a May pole they'd erected for the wedding. His heart beat hard and his face flushed.
Before the ceremony, Jennifer had spoken to John a couple times about her belated engagement and each time, John had maintained his refusal to give his blessing to the union. Jennifer didn't seem to realize how little his blessing meant; that he wouldn't endorse their marrying but wouldn't stop it either. When he said 'No,' it didn't mean she couldn't marry, it meant he wouldn't give them his okay. John hoped she wouldn't realize that. He told himself that his reasons for opposing them weren't entirely selfish, but he knew that it wasn't more about his own wants than what he wanted for Jennifer. He was fine with being the villain; he just hoped they'd remain in stalemate a little longer, until he could finally give up.
The festivities continued until varicolored dusk fell on the mountain range and afterward. Radek Zelenka juggled flaming clubs with his sleeves rolled up in his pinstripe vest and Chinese lamps glowed, hung on strings around the camp.
Teyla and Ronon sat at the head of the banquet table and John sat across the Ronon, one seat down. Across the table top, Rodney stared at John as the wedding party raucously talked and passed decanters of wine hand to hand down the length of the table. Between Teyla and Rodney, Elizabeth Weir talked animatedly with a Lantean doctor called Grodin and beside Ronon, Beckett held a brown bear the size of a puppy in his lap as he fed it with a bottle.
"Poor thing, you were starved, weren't ye?" he cooed.
"Why didn't you feed him earlier?" Cadman admonished him lightly.
Beckett lifted his brows, mouth open with surprise as he gazed at the blonde woman. "I did, the greedy little bugger, right before the ceremony!" Cadman laughed happily.
John accepted a bottle of rich red wine from Miko and pulled the stopper out, filling his glass part way. The nights were still cool and gooseflesh crept up the length of John's bared arms between the thick leather cuff around his left arm and his rolled sleeves.
Across the table, Rodney's blue eyes were on him from beneath the fringe of his long eyelashes. John kept his eyes off him and felt his heart beating in his chest.
A circus musician played a Spanish song on his guitar near the end of the table, the soft sound of strings low under the thrum of human discourse.
"But how is that possible?" Elizabeth asked, resting her chin on the cradle of her clasped hands as Grodin said, "It's about redirecting the flow of the water. Once you accomplish that, the rest is easy." Elizabeth lifted her brows and pursed her lips, cocking her head in consideration. Beside John, a Lantean named Chuck complimented Lorne's baking.
"Thanks," Lorne was saying, "My grandmother taught me how to cook. You never realize how much you'll use those lessons until later…."
The dialogue was white noise to John. He realized, a little late, he'd probably had too much to drink already. His head was heavy like a half-full bottle and when he turned, the world turned with him, carried along by the motion of his head.
He leaned back into his chair and lifted his glass, looking at the wine beading at the bottom of the glass. He turned it back and forth and watched it roll around in a circle. Hurricane lamps nestled at even lengths on the table top threw light on the wedding guests' faces. Shadow and light cultivated the curve of his stubbled cheek and defined the heaviness of his bottom lip. He realized that he was frowning and lifted his head, looking down the length of the wedding party table with a friendly, neutral expression.
A few seats down, Beckett held the baby bear's paws in his hands and leant forward to look at the bride and groom. Carson cleared his throat but neither noticed, Ronon guffawing at something Aiden had said from beside Jennifer, and Teyla smiling at Elizabeth. He cleared his throat again and was, again, unnoticed.
John picked up his discarded fork and clinked it against the slick side of his empty glass. "Hey, hey!" he called.
Ronon glanced over, his hazel eyes narrowed against the lamps and his features a little hazy. Teyla's hand on the table brushed the side of his bare arm. John gestured sidelong with his head in Beckett's direction. "You've gotta question down here," he said, smiling.
Beside them, Rodney fixed a narrow gaze on John and frowned. John pretended not to notice, arching an eyebrow coolly.
"All right," Ronon said.
Beckett smiled, the flickering light of the candles casting a warm glow to his skin. Teyla cocked her head and smiled openly. Beckett cleared his throat once more and settled the bear in his lap as one would an infant. "So when can we expect a wee strongman in the family?" Beckett asked.
Laughter rippled down the length of the table. Beside Jennifer, Aiden Ford lifted his brows and grinned. Rodney turned his face from John to Ronon and Teyla, knitting his brows as he waited for their answer.
Teyla tilted her head back, mouth open as she shot a glance at Ronon and seemed to sink momentarily into her chair. Ronon laid his arm along the back of her chair and grinned down at her. John settled his body, crossing his ankle over his knee and knitting his fingers.
"Actually…," Teyla stated clearly, straightening. She pressed her fingertips to the sides of her glass of lemonade and ducked her head. Ronon leant forward and pressed a fleeting kiss to her temple. "Actually," Teyla said, lifting her eyes diplomatically to those of the people around her, "quite soon, we will be having a child."
John started. "What?" he asked. A chorus of responses rang up and down the table. Elizabeth placed her hand on the table and leaned forward. "Are you saying…?" she asked.
"Yes," Teyla replied, smiling, "We are expecting a child."
"But when?" John demanded, surprised by the sudden announcement.
"September," Ronon replied.
"What?" John asked incredulously. "You didn't say!"
Teyla and Ronon smiled. "We were waiting until the right time," Teyla replied evenly.
"Like at your wedding party?" John scoffed. He shook his head and smiled, the good-humor of his friends rubbing off on him.
"It's good luck," Ronon retorted.
"Yeah, it's cutting it kinda close is what it is," John shot back good-naturedly.
"Well," Elizabeth announced, "congratulations!" Then she added, "I can't think of a better time for such a joyous announcement."
Next to Elizabeth, Rodney furrowed his brow and asked, "Six months?"
John sobered, his hazel eyes on the scientist. He lifted his glass and peered over the rim at the other man.
Ronon and Teyla didn't seem to sense the unhappiness in his expression or the tightness around McKay's frowning mouth. "Yes," Teyla replied. Ronon shrugged and clasped an arm around her, kissing her head again.
"Well, congratulations are in order," Beckett said. "A toast—Oh, well, not for the mother-to-be—" The guests erupted into laughter and John stared over the rim of his glass into McKay's face, feeling watchful.
The felicity of Ronon and Teyla's wedding party washed over the next few days and no one got any work done unless they wanted to. John tried to maintain a sense of order but it only happened once that two of his best friends would marry and he was only partly serious when he called for a return to discipline.
Even two days afterward, the camp erupted into celebration after nightfall. It spilled out of the mess and into the clearing around the fire pit. The fires burned bright and high, tossing off copper sparks into the dark sky like fireflies or like flurries of snow and around them, members of the troupe sat around on crates they'd drug up, talking until it got late and their voices wafted through the camp.
John guessed he must have been riding the troupe too hard or something and let it go a little. He'd always felt it better to let his troupe get the devil out of their systems and bolster themselves for hard work to come than burn out after a time. So he left them to their own devices and practiced as he always did.
Two days after the wedding, Elizabeth stopped him outside the big top to speak with him. She called out as she fastened the silver buttons of her red jacket, tilting her head back as she saw him in the corner of her eye. "John. You're just the one I wanted to speak with."
John glanced over, slowing as he walked from his wagon to the big top. He eyed her warily. It never meant anything good when she greeted him that way – it meant that she'd been thinking of something she wanted him to do that he didn't want to.
"Yeah?" John hedged. Through the open flap in the tent at Elizabeth's back, John could see Teyla bend her spine back into a C-shape. Her bare arms were stretched out over her head as she shaped herself into a backward arch and grasped her ankles with her hands. Over and under, over and under, she made herself a human wheel. The mirrors on her green costume sparked and flared like scales on the sea and beyond the shape of her body, Carson was gently plying a bear to stand, its brown fur gilded by the lights overhead.
Elizabeth knit her brows and folded her arms over her chest. "Yes," she replied thoughtfully. "It's about Jennifer." Her smooth voice was all gentle leadership and tact. The afternoon light shone over the smooth, hard line of her cheekbone, her fine arched brow.
"Yeah? What about her?" John asked, trying not to sound sharp.
Elizabeth lifted the fingers of one hand on her other forearm, gesturing with her fingertips as though they both agreed. "John, you know that I want to keep Jennifer with us as much as you do."
John sagged, sighing expansively and Elizabeth tilted her head to the side. She shook her head and raised a hand in objection. "I know that Jennifer is your sister and you've taken care of her for a long time now. I realize that you only want what's best for her. But I think that you're being too hasty in your objections." John stared askance, narrowing his eyes against the sun, and felt impatient.
"Jennifer is a very intelligent, level headed woman. She's fully capable of making her own decisions, John," Elizabeth finished. Her tone was like a hand on his shoulder, reassuring him, pressuring him. John fisted his hands on his hips, his eyes narrowed on her.
"I think it's time that you accept that," Elizabeth said evenly. Her voice was always smooth and guiding. It became smoother and more leading the less John wanted to hear.
"Look, Elizabeth, I don't wanna talk with you about this. I've explained it already. We travel through," he said scathingly. "We don't leave our people behind."
Elizabeth's pale stare was penetrating, blue like the steely vaults of the cloudless sky. Light gilded the hard curve of her cheekbone and shadowed the hollow of her cheek. She narrowed her eyes at him as though trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. "John, you can't bind someone to you if they want to leave."
Of course John knew that but he'd never admit that it was true. He didn't know if that was what it was anymore, or if his objections to his sister marrying McKay had changed – had become something else.
"Look," John said, shooting a glance sidelong into the big top. He lifted a hand and gestured. "I gotta go practice."
Elizabeth nodded patiently. "Of course," she replied. As John moved past her, she turned to watch him and said, "Just think about what I said, okay?"
John spared her a glance as he walked under the shadow of the canopy.
The nights were still cold and the cold remained into the morning though the spring had broken the sheath of ice that overlaid the ground by then.
John let the fire in his stove burn down to smoldering coals and raked the embers with a poker as he sat at his desk, calculating the costs of supplies for the next month against the ticket revenues. The scarred surface of his desk was scattered with paperwork and open books, discarded maps lain carelessly over the wood. A map of the European coast overhung the edge of his desk, its corners soft with wear.
Night was apparent through the octagonal windows high on the right side of his wagon, a bright smattering of stars piercing through the dark. A record played on the phonograph and the silvery strumming of a guitar hung on the air.
A rap at his door sounded and John glanced up. "C'mon in," he called flatly.
The door opened and Jennifer poked her head inside. "Am I bothering you?" she asked. The light from John's lamp gilded her loose, wavy hair and her cheeks were pink from the cold outside.
John pursed his lips, pushing back from his desk. "No," he replied. "What do you need?"
It was the first time Jennifer had gone out of her way to speak to him since before Ronon and Teyla's wedding. For a week, Jennifer had stubbornly maintained her silence and John avoided the subject by not saying much at all. Again, John predicted that she'd argue for him to accept her engagement to Rodney and John swallowed back his bitter meditations.
Jennifer came into the room and shut the door behind her. Her sky blue skirt brushed the dusty floor, its hem already discolored from the ground outside. She sat on the edge of John's bed and when John turned his chair, their knees almost touched. Her nails shone as she rested her hands on the edge of the bed on either side of her. Her mouth turned down and created two small indentions at the edges of her lips as she lifted her eyebrows and regarded John evasively.
It was funny how they could both not want to talk about it and still end up talking. Finally, John sighed and leaned back, dropping his hand to the desktop. "Look, Jennifer…," he began.
Jennifer lifted her brows and looked at John, squaring her shoulders. "No," she replied evenly.
John shook his head, returning her stare. "Yeah?" he asked.
Jennifer widened her blue eyes. "I think it's time you tell me why you don't want me to marry Rodney."
John scowled and scratched the back of his neck. Outside, in the distance, thunder rumbled across the plain. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"All this time," Jennifer interjected, "You keep saying you're against it. And I've held off because I love you and…" She hesitated and lifted a hand, gesturing vaguely. "And I want your approval." She dropped her narrow hand into her lap and looked up at John beneath her brows. "And I know that after what you've done for me, I owe you that." Jennifer bit her lip and stared into John's eyes, asking for an answer. Her cornflower-colored eyes were bright in the firelight.
John swallowed, staring sidelong at Jennifer. The lamp hardened the line of his cheek with shadow. He frowned and the moment lengthened as he shifted uncomfortably.
"You don't owe me anything, Jennifer," he replied.
"Just tell me…." Jennifer shook her head and dropped her eyes to the knee of her dress as she plucked uncomfortably at the fabric. She lifted her chin and gazed directly at John. "Do you think that Rodney is too good for me?"
John dropped his hand to the table and straightened like a bolt. "What?" he shot back. "Why would you…?" His hazel eyes were fierce. Jennifer shook her head softly and John leaned forward, propping his elbow on his knee. "I don't think that, okay?" he said flatly. "That's not it. What you did in Vienna – we've talked about it, okay? I don't blame you. There's nothing wrong with trying to get by the best you could."
Jennifer nodded her head. "I know that." She took in a breath, and her gaze was on the furnace. "I know that you say that."
John set his jaw, pushing himself back in his chair. His forearm was slung over the papers on the edge of his desk and he swallowed uncomfortably. Before he'd taken Jennifer in, she'd stolen food and money to get by but John was far from puritanical. What she'd done back then was forgivable. It was Jennifer who couldn't let it go.
"It's not that," he said finally. "You know it's not that."
"Then what is it, John?" Jennifer replied. "I need to know."
John hesitated and a feeling of pain blossomed in his chest. He looked away and felt Jennifer's eyes on him. "It's not…," He began and realized that he had nothing he could say. His throat tightened around the words. He swore and Jennifer shook her head, dropping her eyes to her hands. "It's not that," John said. His hazel eyes were on the back of his chair at the table in front of the stove. "It's not."
Jennifer glanced at John attentively and heat rushed to John's face. He had a feeling like reaching the edge of a cliff, like there was no way to turn back. He set his jaw. "I don't want you to marry McKay," he finished finally. His voice was hoarse.
Jennifer's brows shot up. Her hand made a loose fist on her knee. "Why?" she asked passionately. "Why do you keep saying 'no' to us?"
"Because it's your choice," John retorted, shooting a dark look at the young woman. Jennifer stilled, watching John with consideration. "It's always been your choice," John said. He furrowed his brows and met her eyes. "And I think the fact that you haven't taken that into account says more about what you don't want than what you do."
Jennifer swallowed, looking carefully at John. "I want to marry Rodney," she replied.
John scoffed and turned his face toward the stove. The embers glowed amid the ashes. Outside the windows, a cloud passed over the face of the moon. John felt choked by the words he held back.
"I want you to be happy," Jennifer finished softly.
The music on the phonograph ended and faded into a low, static hiss. John looked away. "Then don't marry McKay."
He reticently turned his face toward her and met Jennifer's eyes. The woman's features were clouded with confusion and conflict. "Why?" she asked again. She sounded more patient than before. "I want to know why you oppose our engagement."
John swallowed and shook his head. "Look, I can't…."
He looked down and the shadow followed the creases in his forehead as he frowned. The stubble across his cheeks darkened the lineaments of his face. "Just…don't marry McKay."
Jennifer shook her head. "But Rodney wants—"
"I'm asking you…," John interrupted. He paused and was almost ponderous. "Call it off," he said. "You don't want to marry him; you just know you should."
Jennifer opened her mouth to argue, but John cut her off. "But you shouldn't."
He looked beseechingly at her and Jennifer was quiet, considering his words. "You-you can do better than McKay," he said, gesturing outward. "You should do better than McKay," he paused and felt the weight of his decision, what he was asking her to do though he had no right to. "So I'm asking you to tell him no."
"John," Jennifer replied quietly. She slowly shook her head. "I can't do that…." She peered up at him from beneath her brows and John swallowed. Jennifer pressed her pink lips into a thin line. John's heart thudded in his chest.
"Just do what you want," he said finally. "I won't stop you. If you want to marry him…." He couldn't say the words. "And if…you don't really want to…if that's not what you really want…. Call it off."
Jennifer's round eyes were grave as she looked down and John turned his eyes to the window, scarcely seeing the clouds forming outside through the glass.
The next day, it rained. John stayed in the camp and practiced in the big top. His mind worked on a constant loop, replaying his conversation with Jennifer. Any time he saw her, she was grim and pale. John thought of the words to say, "It's fine. You have my support. Marry McKay." But he couldn't say it. He wouldn't.
McKay didn't come to the camp until late afternoon, with the sun dropping beyond the horizon and creating a coppery halo on the edge of the visible world. The storm clouds from the previous evening had converged on the sky and passed restlessly, dropping rain on the plain.
The paths between the tents were muddy ruts and the bottoms of the walls were discolored by dirt splattered by the rainfall. The sound of the rain was a steady beat like the ticking of a second hand on a watch. John was watching the minutes, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Late in the evening, John stood in the doorway of the big top beneath the canopy and saw McKay walking up the alley, wearing his black frock coat per usual. His sandy brows were furrowed, his upturned lapel high against his cheek as he frowned severely. John swallowed, nervous, and set his jaw. McKay glanced at him and nodded as he passed and John waited until the other man disappeared into the mess before he walked back to his wagon on the edge of camp.
It was a half hour later, after dark, and John was at his desk, turning a protractor on its edge in a pirouette over and over again as he thought of what he'd said and McKay. The rain beat on the roof in a hushing rhythm and the coals on the fire crackled quietly against the grate.
All of a sudden, his door swung in and cracked against the back of his chair by the stove and Rodney came in with it. He glowered furiously at John. "You son of a bitch!" he cried thinly.
John straightened in his chair, dropping the protractor on the desktop as he looked at McKay.
McKay's strong, square body was framed by the doorway and behind him, rain poured off the eave of John's wagon, wavering like sea weed and blocking out sight. "You told Jennifer to break off the engagement!" McKay spat.
John swallowed and nodded. "…Yeah," he admitted evenly. "I did."
Rodney's brows met and his mouth sagged open. His face was damp from the rain. "Why?" he protested. He gestured with a hand, staring at John with a betrayed expression. "After we—" He shook his head, his hands moving in the air to express it. "We were getting along!" he shouted.
The legs of John's chair scraped against the floor as he stood and leant with his hip against the edge of his desk, folding his arms over his chest. "It's not because of that," he replied.
Rodney scowled angrily. Rain water dripped from the ends of his hair onto his forehead. "Then what is it?" he shouted.
John was silent and Rodney's face flushed deeply. His eyes were shiny. Pain tightened John's chest and he swallowed difficultly.
Rodney stared at John and seemed to see something else behind him. "You don't want me to marry Jennifer because you don't like me," he accused petulantly.
"Rodney…," John said warningly. The shake of his head was terse and minute. His hazel eyes were dark beneath furled brows.
"You don't want me to marry Jennifer because you don't think I'm good enough for her!" Rodney cried, glaring at John. His hands fisted at his sides. "That's it, isn't it?" His face was florid, beaded with rain water, and his pale eyes were bright and gleaming in the low light.
"That's not it, Rodney." The raised tone of John's low voice was a warning. Rodney pressed on because he didn't know how to stop when he was ahead.
"That's it! You don't think I deserve to marry Jennifer—!"
"She's a person, Rodney," John growled, scowling at the other man. "She's not a reward for a job well done."
Rodney glowered at the other man from across the space between them, defeated and furious. "Well, I deserve one, don't I?" he shouted, his voice going thin with outrage. His features darkened with blood and his pale eyes were radiant against his flushed skin. "And you just won't listen to reason because you don't think I deserve to marry your precious sister—!"
John shot a hard glare in his direction, his look cutting and Rodney steeled himself, tipping his chin stubbornly, prepared for John to lash out. He didn't really flinch when John reached out and caught him with both hands, his fingers curled on the lapel of Rodney's overcoat. It was a point of connection in the muggy dark.
Some deep, fierce feeling swelled up and overwhelmed John. It caught them both maybe and Rodney opened his mouth, weary and compelled to speak. Before he could, John towed him in and yanked him flush to his body. He fit their mouths together forcefully.
It was like a gear fitting into place; like a perfect mechanism. It made sense.
Rodney moaned softly against John's lips and felt anguish, his hand slipping over John's skin to cup his nape – the strands of John's dark hair soft and ticklish against his palm. He pulled him closer, their bodies touching. They fostered heat between them.
John's shoulders lifted, surging forward into Rodney's solid body. It was the same questing, stubborn pressure John exerted in everything else; it was what Rodney had come to like about him. It was endearing; it said so much Rodney wanted to hear, stuff John would never admit to. What John couldn't admit to anyone seemed suddenly clear.
"Do you get it now?" John breathed against his lips as they broke apart. Rodney's blue eyes moved over John's features, moist and conflicted. He made a soft sound and kissed John back, crowding him backward.
John's face was hot from the fire in the stove, the humid heat of the wagon, the close proximity of their bodies. His cheeks were burning up beneath Rodney's hands.
They opened their mouths, first Rodney then John, his lips a soft and hopeful pressure. Desire was a pinprick in Rodney's chest. "Oh, I knew it," he moaned against John's lips without stopping. "I knew it," he said as he kissed his lips.
John's knuckles ached, curled on the lapels of Rodney's damp coat. "No, you didn't," he replied and he sounded testy and weary.
He flirted with Rodney's bottom lip with the tip of his tongue and they both lost track of any arguments they might have had.
McKay pulled John against his body and their legs tangled. They tried to fit their frames together from head to heel. They fell against the edge of John's desk and John reached back blindly, still gripping Rodney's coat with his other hand.
Papers fell off the edge of the table and fluttered to the floor. Rodney whimpered and pressed against John, curving a hand around his shoulder with a little too much pressure. It was fine.
John tilted his jaw upward and curved his spine, pulling McKay close. He could feel McKay getting hard against his leg and he nipped at his jaw, rubbing his leg against him. The scientist strained against John, moaning in frustration. His breath was hot against John's neck as he pressed his lips against his long throat.
John's lids went low, heavy over his hazel eyes, and he encouraged McKay to press him back with his hands. He dropped one boot to the seat of his chair, and spread his legs to admit McKay between them.
As he leaned back, his books crashed to the floor from the desk top, and landed fanned out flat on the floor. "Fuck," John cursed lowly, glancing back to where they lay.
McKay tightened his hand on John's shirt, pressing his face into John's skin. "Oh, no, please don't stop now," he complained against his collarbone. "I want…."
John shook his head and pressed the heel of his palm to Rodney's length through his trousers. "I'm not stopping," he replied.
McKay jerked and whimpered, surging forward against John's hand. He could feel him through his trousers and Rodney's hardness was a compelling shock. John drew back and, as he did, he felt the strands of McKay's hair against his cheek. They were soft and burnished by the fire light.
Rodney was flushed, his lids low and rosy. John ran one hand up McKay's length and felt McKay press against him, chasing his touch. With his other hand, he grasped the lapel of Rodney's coat at his nape and pulled it down his arms. The fabric bunched at McKay's elbows, low on his back.
John's breath was hard but quiet. He remembered Jennifer and he avoided McKay's gaze. Frustration surged up in him and he swallowed, steeling himself. "I'm gonna suck you, McKay," he said, tugging the scientist forward.
Rodney swayed against him, slapping a hand down on the desk against the outside of John's thigh. "Oh?" he asked helplessly.
John pushed back against the edge of his desk, nodding. He roughly unbuckled McKay's belt with one hand. "You're good with that?" he asked. His heartbeat was a thick, thrumming pulse in his body, synchronized with the ache of his cock.
"Oh, Christ, yes," Rodney replied weakly. His lifted his face to the ceiling and closed his eyes. "Do that." His fingers pressed into John's shoulder leadingly and, for a moment, John thought he was an asshole to forget Jennifer so easily even as he was glad to be the only one on his mind.
He swallowed and slunk down to his knees on the floor, pulling Rodney's belt free from his belt loops. He tossed it on the floor behind him and the buckle clattered on the hardwood. Rodney's hand came down on the edge of John's desk and he exhaled shakily.
It had been a long time since John had done it; even longer since he'd wanted to. But all he wanted then was for McKay to fuck him before he had time for second thoughts.
McKay murmured above him, stroking his hair. John opened his pants and licked him once before swallowed his length. "Ah," McKay mewled, "Oh, God." Then, whimpering thinly, said, "Oh, God."
John inhaled through his nose and closed his eyes, loosening his throat to allow Rodney in. Rodney's length filled his mouth, pressed against the back of his throat, and John could taste salt and skin. The tightness of his chest had nothing to do with lack of oxygen. He fanned a hand on McKay's hip and urged him closer, sucking him hard.
His face was burning and his body was fever-hot. He was a phial of magma. He was a salamander in a jar.
He pressed a hand flat to his crotch and tasted salt on his tongue, rocking his hips as he licked McKay. He wanted to ask him, Is it good? But there was no point to asking. Rodney's quiet whimpers and tense fingers in his hair told him enough.
"Oh, my God," McKay moaned. He jerked his hips and choked John without realizing.
John's eyes watered and pride surged up irrepressibly in his chest. Good? he asked mentally and drew off, running his tongue up Rodney's length. His eyes were narrow as he focused on McKay's cock.
Rodney's fingers tightened in his hair. "Jesus. I want…," he breathed. "Can I just…?"
John pressed the heel of his palm into his crotch until he felt pain and the urgency of his desire had somewhat abated. "Wha?" he asked around the head of McKay's member.
Rodney's coat pooled on the floor as he dropped his hand to John's shoulder. He panted dazedly. "Can I fuck you?" he asked breathlessly.
John sat back on his heels and looked up at him, one hand between his legs, the other on McKay's hip. His heart beat in his ears.
McKay grimaced, jerking his hips softly. His weeping length nearly brushed John's cheek. John licked him once more impetuously and Rodney gasped, biting his lip.
"Yeah," John assented.
McKay raised his eyebrows in surprise and urged John up to his feet. As John stood and looked into his face, he found Rodney's features full of naked surprise and arousal. He kissed his lips and Rodney could taste his salty come on John's tongue.
McKay dropped his coat to the floor and pushed both hands under John's black vest. He ran his palms up over John's shoulders and pushed his waistcoat off. John pulled his shirt up over his head and let it fall to the floor, toeing off his boots. The black leather cord he wore tangled up in the fabric of his shirt and fell back onto his chest in its absence.
"I can't believe we're doing this," McKay said softly.
Again, the memory of Jennifer flirted on the edge of John's consciousness. He resolutely pushed it out of his mind. "Believe it," he replied, hoarsely.
He pushed his pants down, and turned to the desk, leaning down on the tabletop. "Fuck me," he said.
He could hear Rodney's shaky breath and the rustling of clothes then McKay leaned over him. John's fingertips overlapped each other, his weight on his elbows. He dropped his forehead to the smooth wood in the shelter of his bent arms and spread his legs apart. He felt McKay's warm breath against his shoulder then the soft pressure of his lips there.
"C'mon, aren't you going to fuck me?" John urged. It didn't sound as demanding as he'd intended. It bothered him.
"God, yes, I'm going to fuck you," McKay replied gently. He laid his hand lightly on the curve of John's waist.
John bit his lip and closed his eyes. "So fuck me." Heat flooded his face and his eyelashes trembled against his arm like the flickering of a flame in a hurricane lamp.
McKay spread his hands out on John's back, running his calloused palms down the length of John's spine. He pressed his lips to the nape of John's neck and John could feel the thickness of his cock against his ass. He pressed his fingers between John's legs and John stilled, his cock throbbing. He pressed his palm into the surface of his desk at chest level, tightening the fingers of his other hand against his brow.
Rodney stroked inside him lightly, then harder and when the tips of his fingers spread him, John bit his lip. "Come on," he demanded. "I can take it a little rough."
It had been a while but Rodney didn't need to know that. He could feel the other man shudder against his back and the pressure of his fingers in John became insistent. Rodney was emboldened by his words.
John pushed back against his fingers, and the hairs on his arms rose. It felt good. His heart pounded. "I want it a little rough," he said.
"Oh, Jesus," Rodney gasped. He dropped his head into the cradle of John's nape and pushed harder, stroking John.
John didn't believe in taking it slow. He didn't like limits. He pressed back and took McKay's fingers, steady and urgently. "Harder," he gasped. McKay obliged, opening him up.
The feeling was one of surrender. John was giving in and giving himself. There was tension in his shoulders as he propped himself up on his elbows and thrust back against McKay's fingers, feeling McKay inside him. He groaned and pressed back. The slick tip of Rodney's cock brushed his ass and John rocked against Rodney's fingers. The sensation was compelling, almost painful.
The scientist gasped lightly and, moaning, fucked John with his fingertips. "Harder," John ground out. "Hurry up, McKay," he worked his hips against his fingers, taking him in deeply, loosening his body up. "Fuck me, fuck me."
This would be the only time.
McKay swallowed and whimpered, flexing his fingers, pressing deep. John hoped he was watching. He could feel how hard he was. "Wait just a…. Are you ready? Can I actually…?"
"Yeah, yeah," John replied. He groaned and the head of his cock brushed the edge of his table as he moved his hips. "Come on."
"God, of course," Rodney babbled. He withdrew his fingers and John made a soft sound of complaint, looking over his shoulder at McKay. McKay's dark, ash hair was almost gold in the firelight. The crown of his head was all John could see. McKay grasped his member and the head of his cock kissed John's opening.
John held his breath as Rodney spread him with his fingers and pushed his cock between his legs. John moaned softly. There was a twinge of pain and of sharp, compelling desire. He pressed back and Rodney whimpered, thrusting forward into him. "All the way," John bit out against his forearm. "I'll take it all."
"Oh," Rodney moaned against his nape. "Oh, Christ." His teeth scored John's neck and his fingers bit into his hips, holding on tightly. He filled him; John's ass rested in the cradle of his pelvis. Their bodies shook and John's cock dripped on the tabletop. He panted, trembling.
"Don't stop. Keep going," John instructed. His voice was strained, tight and rough. Beneath Rodney, the muscles in John's back and shoulders were knotted. The sinewy curve of his spine was an elegant expression of longing.
Rodney buried his flushed face in his shoulder, mapped John's body with his hands. His fingers spread like wings across the span of his shoulders and John shuddered beneath his touch. He pressed deeper and strangled his moan in the bend of John's shoulder, his eyelids falling shut.
"Oh, God, John," Rodney exclaimed.
John jerked back against him, sliding his hand down between his legs.
"Can you feel me?" Rodney panted against his ear.
John's cheek was flushed, half-hidden in his arm. The muffled sound of his agreement was lost in the hitching cadence of their breath.
"Oh, my God," Rodney whimpered. He guided John's hips with his hands, and John thrust back against him, arching his back as he moved his hips. McKay bit his lip and pushed John into the tabletop, rocking into him. "Oh, God, you're so hot." He shook his head. John's fingers flexed, opening and tensing helplessly on the table top over his head.
Rodney gasped and covered John's body with his own.
Little drops of John's come fell on the tabletop, dampening his papers. John's breath hitched and he moaned out loud, surging back against McKay. "Fuck," he gasped and shuddered, pressing his palm over the hood of his cock to stifle his release.
McKay shivered against his back. "Did you come?" he whimpered, blearily gazing at the flushed curve of John's cheek against his arm. "Oh, God." His fingers spasmed on John's hips and he thrust into him, hard and fast and almost helpless, until John felt him come inside him.
Afterward, McKay caught his breath, laying on John's back. He was heavy but John didn't mind.
Too soon, he withdrew and John felt a twinge of pain as he pulled out. He bit his lip and reticently settled back on his elbow. His shoulders were tight as he straightened them out. He half turned and Rodney swallowed, staring wide-eyed at John's naked back.
They didn't know what to say. John had expected that. He bent and picked up his pants, leaning against the desk as he pulled them on.
"I didn't, uh…," Rodney hesitated and, his eyes moving over John's naked body, asked, "I wasn't too rough?"
For a reason he couldn't identify, the words were like a pinprick in John's chest. He shrugged. "I like it rough." John tried not to meet his eyes as he zipped his pants up. He leaned back against the desk with his belt loose and his chest bare.
McKay's blue eyes surveyed him beneath pitched brows as though what he'd said was fascinating, his helpless stare lingering on John's naked skin and the pink, flushed places he'd sucked before. "You're, um…." McKay hesitated.
John swallowed and lay down in his bed, affecting a look of nonchalance. When he moved, he acutely felt the tenderness of his ass, that same desirous ache as he felt after he touched himself, a little roughly because that's how he imagined Rodney would fuck him.
"I have, um," Rodney gestured vaguely toward the door, his gaze drifting over John's bare chest.
John retrieved a book from the floor beside his bed and opened it. He felt his pulse in his fingertips as he pressed them to the cover. "Yeah, I got it," he replied.
Once more, McKay nodded and his face was blank with shock, his brows furrowed.
"See you," John said as Rodney opened the door. The sound of falling rain invaded the dim confines of the wagon.
Rodney looked over his shoulder and frowned. Color rose in his cheeks. "See you," he repeated. He closed the door at his back.
John dropped the book onto his chest and grimaced, throwing an arm across his eyes.
It didn't turn out to be the last time as John had thought it would be. The next day, McKay ended up at his door. He was flushed and damp from the cold and the rain, his features tight with restraint. His radiant blue eyes fixed on John as the acrobat opened the door, swallowing hard.
John stood in the doorway, with his hand on the knob, staring at him with what he hoped was casual indifference. He lifted a brow severely. Before he could say anything, Rodney was slamming the door shut at his back and his body was against John's, urgently kissing his lips.
"Oh, my God, I've been thinking about this all day," he swore against his open mouth. "I'm so hard."
His words sent a sudden jolt of longing through John. When the tip of his tongue pressed to the edge John's lower lip, John's resolve broke; he towed him in, his heart beating in his ears as he shoved his hands up Rodney's shirt.
"Oh, Jesus, yes," the scientist moaned.
They fell into the down quilts on John's bed, yanking at each other's clothes. "One more time," John growled into the curve of Rodney's throat. "That's it." If the scientist heard him, he didn't give sign of it; he ran his hands over John's back, making a soft, choked sound as John touched him through his pants.
Then, the day after that, he was on his knees with Rodney's hands in his hair, sucking Rodney as he shoved a hand between his legs. The day after that, Rodney didn't show in camp. But the following day, he was again at John's door. Over a week, John got used to the taste of Rodney's come and the feeling of his dick in his mouth. He waited for McKay at his desk, or on his bed, or by the window.
When he was on his knees with Rodney's cock in his mouth or against the desk with Rodney over his back, John thought of the trapeze. He thought of falling with no net. This free-fall was inevitable – he'd fallen for McKay before he'd known what was happening.
A week afterward, John was on his bed, catching his breath, his body tingling from his release. A sheen of sweat gleamed on his bare chest, his skin flushed across his collarbone, hip, and nipple from Rodney's kisses. An ebbing throb pulsed through his body, his limbs relaxed on the quilt. His heart pounded, a dull ache that filled his chest. The rain beat on the roof.
"I should be going," Rodney mumbled, sitting up. He swallowed, his eyes moving slowly over John's naked body. He turned away abruptly and placed his feet to the floor.
John watched him from the bed, pretending he wasn't looking. His heart throbbed as he watched Rodney's back from the corner of his eye. Their bodies were still touching; Rodney's hip against John's thigh as the scientist pulled his pants on. He tapped Rodney's arm with the back of his hand, gesturing downward. "You wanna hand me my pants?" he asked.
McKay looked at him over his shoulder as though surprised. "Do I want to hand you your pants?" he asked. He lifted his eyebrows as if he was considering the question. John smacked his arm again and he shrugged. "Fine." He bent over and picked up John's crumpled trousers from the floor, his loose belt buckle glinting in the firelight. He handed them to John and watched wistfully as he lifted his hips off the bed and pulled them up.
John arched an eyebrow, settling back in bed. "Enjoying the view?" he asked. As McKay opened his mouth to reply, a rap sounded on the door and the men started.
John leapt up, stepping forward while Rodney remained by the bedside, his blue eyes wide with shock and fixed on the door. "Hey, wait a—" John began, but no sooner had he found his voice than the door opened. "Hey, hey!" he called out too late. When he called out the first time, the rain outside had drowned out his voice and when he called out the second time, the door was already open.
A pale hand wrapped around the edge of the door and Jennifer's round face became apparent in the doorway. "John," she said, "I need to talk to you—"
Her blue eyes found the two men in the dim interior of the wagon and she stilled. She looked from John at the desk to Rodney by the table, her stare on their bare chests and hastily fastened trousers. Her gaze dropped to the rumpled clothes discarded on the floor of the wagon and dawning realization filled her features and drained the color from her face.
"John…Rodney, what's going on here?" she whispered.
John raised a hand, shaking his head, and Jennifer released a shuddering breath as her eyes filled. "Hey," he began, gesturing for calm with his hands.
Jennifer stared at him blindly, her eyes round and shocked. "Are you…?" she asked helplessly, "What are you doing, John…?"
"Jennifer, this is not how it looks," John said firmly, knowing that his defense was ridiculous. It was exactly how it looked; there was no other way it could be. He swallowed and shook his head nonetheless, shooting a glance at McKay's frozen figure. As he approached her, Jennifer turned and flung the door open; it crashed against the wall and stood open to the pouring rain outside as Jennifer dashed outside.
John darted after her and, as he did, McKay seized him by the elbow. He fell off balance and looked back angrily at the other man. "What the hell, McKay?" he demanded. As his stare fell on McKay, he found the scientist's face florid and enraged.
"You," he snarled furiously. "You planned this?" His voice was thin and reedy.
John's heart skipped, staring blankly at McKay for a moment. Then cold fury filled his body. "What the fuck?" he shot back. "Yeah, McKay! That makes a hell of a lot of sense!"
"So you expect me to believe all of this was a coincidence?" McKay shouted. His fingers tightened on his arm and his face was dark with blood. "You son of a bitch!"
John jerked free of his bruising grasp and advanced on him with menace. McKay held his ground, glowering at John. "I don't care if you believe it," he growled. "Get it together." Then he turned and grabbed his greatcoat from the hook by the door as he ran out into the cold deluge.
The rain was blinding, obscuring John's surroundings as he dashed off his balcony into the downpour. Raindrops struck his shoulders as he quickly fastened the buttons of his coat. His naked skin was patterned with goose-bumps across his shoulders and chest. He realized belatedly that his feet were bare; the mud was frigid beneath the soles of his feet and between his toes.
He ran down the narrow alley between the circus tents. The varicolored fabric flashed by at the edges of his vision, the colors dark with rain and the night. He lost his footing in front of the big top and smashed into Aiden Ford. He ran on without stopping to apologize until he was across the camp, on the back steps of Jennifer's wagon. The stairs creaked under his weight as he climbed them. His muddy feet left prints on the slick wood of the small balcony. As he laid his hand on the door knob, the door flew back.
Light poured through the open doorway and splashed out onto the balcony and John's drenched frame. Jennifer stood in the door, her hand on the door knob. The candlelight gilded the strands of her hair as the shadow outside darkened her features. Her face shone with wetness.
"Jennifer," John said. He wanted to say more but her expression robbed him of his ability to speak. His heart pounded painfully and his throat was tight. "Look, I…." He swallowed and couldn't think of anything he could possibly say to her. There was no excuse for what he'd done.
As John's silence drew on, Jennifer's rigid expression changed into one of sorrow. "Why?" she asked. "I don't understand."
John's heart pained him. He bit his lip and looked away, his forehead creased. For a moment, he couldn't force himself to speak. "I can't…," he murmured finally.
Jennifer shook her head and raindrops fell from the ends of her damp curls. "Can't what?" she asked. "Please…tell me."
As though his words broke dam of restraint in her, Jennifer's face crumbled and her eyes filled with tears. "How could you do this to me, John?" she demanded. "I trusted you implicitly. You've always helped me and protected me." The tears in her eyes spilled over her cheeks and she shuddered. "You're my brother. How could you betray me like this?"
John shook his head helplessly, his chest tight. He swallowed the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry, Jennifer. I can't say…." He cast his gaze aside and fisted his hand. "I can't say how sorry."
"Because—" Jennifer gasped and buried her chin in her chest, wrapping her arms around her. She raised her head and looked out over John's shoulder, lifting her brows. "Were you trying to hurt me? To prove a point about Rodney?"
"No!" John exclaimed. "I didn't…." He gritted his teeth. "I didn't mean for this to happen." His stubbled cheeks were flushed dark with blood. The muscle in his jaw tensed. "I didn't mean for it to happen," he repeated. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I just…." His voice faltered and he stopped. He thought of Rodney and knew that he couldn't tell her the truth – that he wanted him, that he'd wanted Rodney from the start. He shook his head.
John swallowed. "Jennifer—"
"Please leave," Jennifer repeated. "I want to be alone."
John was silent for a several seconds, the corded muscles in his shoulders tight as he stared across the threshold at the damp face of his sister in the dim candlelight from inside. The rain beat on the roof and seemed to rise between them. Finally, John nodded his head and Jennifer shut the door. For a long time, he remained there, the heat dissipating from his frame as he stared at the door.
As he descended from the steps of his sister's wagon, he saw Aiden Ford by the tent poles of the big top canopy, the young man's face concerned. "Is everything okay, John?" he called out over the rainfall.
John passed him without a second glance, walking back to his abandoned wagon. The rain swallowed the sight of the guards posted at the edge of the camp. The door to his wagon was closed. When he went inside, Rodney was already gone.
Jennifer didn't want to see him. The rest of the shows that week were rained out, so John didn't bother practicing. He spent the morning in his wagon after a breakfast of coffee and fresh bread in the mess.
The memory of McKay's body against his suffused his thoughts and wouldn't abandon him. When he woke up, he'd found the kiss marks Rodney had left on him had deepened on the side of his throat and his collarbone. He wore a white shirt with a black vest, a coarse, dark scarf knotted around his throat. The short trim of its ends splayed out over his vest and shirt. His features were darker in the dim cast of the hurricane lamp, which he needed even at midday because of the rain.
He spent the early part of the day balancing books. Elizabeth came by for an hour at ten and Aiden came to ask him about reinforcement against the rains for the big top but everyone else maintained their distance. Ronon and Teyla spent much of their time in Teyla's wagon and Jennifer was as intent on avoiding John as he was avoiding her.
The brass hands of the clock on John's desk read eleven thirty two when a quiet knock sounded on John's door. He looked up and called out. "Yeah, come in." He used the end of a pen to scratch the nape of his neck at the edge of his black scarf.
The knob rattled and the open door admitted a thin woman with curly dark hair. John recognized her as one of the Lanteans, a scientist named Esposito. She was pretty, with a small frame, an olive complexion and an attractive smile.
John frowned, tilting his head back thoughtfully.
"Sorry to trouble you, Mr. Sheppard," Esposito said, coming inside. She pushed the hood of her coat back and arranged her hair absently. "I have a message from Dr. McKay."
John swallowed and shrugged belatedly. "What's he want with me?" he asked.
"He asked you to come to Atlantis."
John dropped his eyes to the ledger on his desk and he remembered his come dripping on the desktop, McKay's length penetrating him. He bit his lip and released it, glancing back up. "He say what this is about?" he asked.
Esposito shook her head. She squinted her eyes. "Something about an air ship?" she asked.
John scowled briefly. That bastard. He knew just the way to get him where he wanted him.
John sighed, edging his pen tip under the cover of his ledger, he flipped the book shut.
"You wanted me?" John asked, coming into the observation room.
The observation room was a large space at the topmost chamber of the central tower in Atlantis. The walls were floor to ceiling windows, admitting a full panorama of the outlying area. The only furnishings were four heavy telescopes set at the north, south, east and west quarters. Pale sunlight passed through the windows and shone in paths on the paved floor like moonlight on water. At such a great altitude, mist shifted before the windows and over the mountain tops, the coast on the far side of the mountains was visible.
Rodney had shown John where sheer black rock gave way to sandy beaches and the blue gray sea beat against the shore through the telescopes.
It was from there that McKay had seen their arrival in the valley.
McKay was by the window overlooking the direction of the camp. John, who came in by the only entrance in the southeastern quarter, could see his profile in the dim light. Rodney's features were downcast and moody. John suppressed a twinge of pain and recognition at his appearance.
He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and came in. His footsteps echoed in the empty space. His cuffs were rolled up to his forearms and on one wrist he wore a thick black cuff, on the other a watch with a leather band.
McKay turned at the sound of his approach. His pale eyes wandered on John's frame morosely. His face flushed. "Oh." His voice was dull. "I ran a few simulations…."
"And…?" John asked.
"It seems ready."
John's brow creased. His heart leapt and he swallowed, rubbing the corner of his mouth with his thumb. "Ready? For real?" he asked.
McKay followed the movement of his thumb over his lips with his eyes and John's face flushed.
"Yeah," McKay replied. "Any time you're ready, you know, after the…." He gestured around him with one hand, the other in the pocket of his charcoal slacks.
John frowned. "Seriously?" he asked. After what had happened between them, to say that he was shocked would be a vast understatement. It seemed wrong.
"We collaborated on it, didn't we?" Rodney asked tightly. Color rose in his cheeks and mouth and his eyes glittered in the low light as he stared at John. "Who else would test it?" A note of bitterness was audible in his voice.
John met his gaze and set his jaw, uncomfortable. "Cool," he said. "Was that it?"
Rodney paused before shrugging. He nodded tersely. "That's it."
John nodded, a feeling of frustration rising in his chest. He smothered the emotion and swallowed hard. He knew better than to expect an apology from McKay. "Great. I'll see you—"
"What we did," Rodney interrupted.
John halted in the midst of his statement. A flush warmed his face and he stared at McKay sharply, almost warningly. "We don't need to talk about it," he said.
McKay grimaced and looked sidelong, out the window, his forehead creasing as he frowned. His shoulders were rounded and tense. "How's Jennifer?" he asked.
John set his jaw and shook his head. "How should I know?" he asked sharply. "She won't talk to me."
McKay glanced at John and flushed. "So is that it?" he asked. His voice was thin and hard.
John didn't know what he was talking about. He shook his head, scowling at McKay. "What am I supposed to say to her?" he snapped. "You want me to talk to her for you?"
"That's not what I was saying," McKay shot back hotly.
"What were you saying?" John's eyes were hard.
Rodney's face burned with color, his lips tight. "Us," he spat. "What happened—"
John stalked forward and withdrew his hand from his pocket to point at the scientist. McKay tensed and John could tell from his body that he was angry. "What do you want me to say, McKay?" John demanded. McKay's blue eyes were level on him, narrow and watchful.
John's heartbeat was a trembling pulse that spread through his arms and legs and left him numb and breathless. "We fucked. A couple times."
"So it's no big deal. That's it?" Rodney retorted.
John's hazel eyes glittered in the low light. "Yeah, it was a big deal. Jennifer hates us. It was a mistake. It was a big mistake."
McKay's brows knit and his face was splotchy with color. "You're in love with me," he accused.
John went cold at his words. He shook his head. "I'm not in love with you," he said emphatically.
Rodney's throat moved as he swallowed, glaring at John. Blood darkened his cheeks. John's eyes moved over his features and he felt confused and furious. "Jesus Christ, McKay," he growled, "you're in love with my sister! I'm not in love with you." The way he said it, it almost sounded convincing.
"Now you say that," McKay snarled in a strangled voice. "After you blocked us at every turn! After there's no way she'll marry me! You weren't convinced before that I love Jennifer."
John's heart hammered in his chest and his fingertips tingled. "I'm fucking convinced, all right?" he growled. "You convinced me."
"Oh, yeah!" Rodney shouted, "I totally convinced you I'm in love with Jennifer by fucking your ass!"
John balled his fists and leaned in toward him. "Hey!" he hissed, "You wanna fucking quiet down there?" McKay trembled, glowering wrathfully at him. John returned his glare, narrowing his eyes beneath furled brows. "You think you're the only guy I've fucked?" he asked scornfully. "I don't love you just because I let you fuck me."
The shake of McKay's head was small and jerky, his glossy blue eyes fixed on John.
"I don't love you," John repeated. "We don't love each other. You're getting married to my sister, for God's sake."
"Am I?" Rodney asked angrily.
John gritted his teeth. "She'll marry you," he shot back, aiming at natural. "She wants to marry you. The only thing stopping her was me." He pressed a hand to his chest.
"And now you have no problem with us marrying?" Rodney asked shrilly.
"Why not?" John asked tightly, "It's not up to me. You don't need my blessing." Rodney turned away from him and pressed his hand to the window.
John regarded him narrowly, drawing in a shaky breath. "Go back and ask her again, jackass. Apologize and she'll accept your proposal. You can put the blame on me. I came onto you, anyway." He swallowed and fixed a hard stare on McKay. "Make my sister happy."
"Right. I'll really make her happy. I've only fucked her brother."
John set his jaw and color flooded his cheeks beneath dark stubble. "When you put it that way, you don't sound all that excited, buddy," he replied sarcastically.
McKay shot him a warning look.
"I'm not standing in your way anymore," John asserted hotly. "I'm telling you – she'll marry you…. Marry my sister."
"You're fine with that?" Rodney demanded.
John swallowed around painful constriction in his throat. He shrugged one shoulder. "It's your life," he replied nonchalantly.
Rodney returned his eyes to the window and his sandy brows furrowed. "I guess there's nothing stopping us now," he said bitterly.
John scowled. "Yeah," he agreed. "Have at it."
"Maybe we'll even name our first kid after you," Rodney added sarcastically. "Seeing as you've been so helpful so far." His voice rose, almost hysterically.
John gritted his teeth and shook his head. He narrowed his eyes on the other man. "Gee, that'd be an honor."
"So what is it, John or maybe we should name him Icarus?" Rodney's voice was thin and high.
"Whatever you want," John shot back. "I'm not particular about top billing."
Rodney turned his cheek toward him and glowered furiously. His face was dark with blood. "Great," he said.
John's chest rose jerkily and he nodded tersely. The muscle in his jaw worked as he gritted his teeth. "Yeah," he replied thickly. "Congratulations."
McKay's eyes were radiant and pale. He made a sound of agreement in his throat and glared at John.
"That's it, I guess," John said, blinking. His face burned.
"I guess," Rodney said.
John shoved his hands into his pockets and turned on his heel. His body was rigid with fury and embarrassment. He walked back across the room and his footfalls filled the silence.
"Oh, yeah," Rodney called out. His voice was clipped and angry.
John half-turned and lifted his brows, tilting his chin up. He looked to the other man and found Rodney in the gloom by the window. His frame was outlined by the pearl-gray sky outside. "Yeah?" John asked.
Rodney gestured tersely with his chin toward the window. "I wanted to tell you it's the beginning of the rainy season."
John furrowed his brows. "Rainy season?" he asked tightly.
Rodney lifted a shoulder and his lip curled. "It starts mid-spring and lasts until the end of April. You should expect some mild flooding in the plain."
John dropped his hand from his pocket. "How mild is mild?" he demanded.
Rodney shrugged. The rain outside made his shoulders look like they were shaking. "A couple feet. You're far enough from the river that it shouldn't matter."
John fisted the fingers of his free hand. "Great," he replied sarcastically. "Thanks for the heads-up."
Rodney nodded sharply. "Don't mention it."
For a moment, John stared at McKay as Rodney regarded him with a cold and furious expression. "Thanks," he said again and McKay turned away, nodding his head.
John came back to camp to tell Elizabeth about the rainy season but she wasn't in her wagon when he returned. He looked around and couldn't find her. It was in the big top, with the rain on the roof, that Teyla told him Weir had gone to Atlantis with Peter Grodin to look at something he'd wanted to show her.
"Oh, yeah?" John asked wearily.
"Is there something urgent you need to speak with her about?"
John sighed and shrugged a shoulder, rubbing his eye. He thought about what McKay had said, that it wouldn't be a big deal, and shook his head. "Nah," he replied. "Just let her know I want to see her when she shows up."
As he left the big top, he saw Jennifer with Aiden Ford by the fire under a make-shift canopy. They were sitting on two crates, playing a game. Jennifer smiled wanly at Aiden, the buttons of her jacket loose part-way over a boned corset. She held a hand of cards in her lap and regarded Aiden. As she looked up and saw John, her smile faltered. John swallowed, nodding as heat rose to his face and he remembered McKay's body against him, inside him, and felt guilty.
They were playing some variation of war Aiden had invented that involved a cup, a small silver ball, a deck of cards and a tarnished thimble. Jennifer faltered, her blue eyes following John as he frowned and clenched his fist in his pocket. At her side, Aiden peered at John with an unreadable look, laying his hand on Jennifer's shoulder.
John pulled his black scarf up on his neck and dove out into the rain, trudging up the muddy path back to his wagon.
Rodney was right about the rainy season; the rain persisted through the entirety of the next week. The tributaries overran the banks in the mountaintops and the rushes thundered into the rivers below. At the edges of the river, small marshes formed on either side.
The deluge continued, unabated. It was a constant drumbeat on the roofs of the wagons and poured off the eaves of their balconies in heavy white curtains that obscured the landscape beyond.
The circus packed up what was possible and, when John told her about it, Elizabeth sighed and cancelled future performances until the end of the season. In the big top, they collapsed the stands and the show lights were dark. The tent was filled with the sound of the falling rain in lieu of applause.
Outside, around camp, boot prints left deep impressions that filled with water and sucked at the feet that left them. The paths to the big top and the mess were muddy trenches deeply rutted in the ground.
A week passed sluggishly. The troupe kept like a tortoise in its shell, sheltered in itself. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, they drifted in and out of the mess, shoulders dark with rain water, holding slick umbrellas overhead as they came from and went back to their wagons between meals or whenever they craved social interaction.
Lorne peered out the flap of the mess and looked resigned. Giving up on his vigil, he turned back to the stove top and continued making food. Rain fell down the chimney and sizzled on the fire as he made coffee and soup, wiping his hands on his black apron as he tested the base.
John settled in the mess for breakfast with his ledger and balanced the books, feeling sick of himself. There was only so long he could stew in his wagon.
After two weeks, Jennifer still looked distracted though she kept company with Aiden. The color was returning to her cheeks when Ford commented on her damp hair as she came in, plucking carefully at a golden lock and smiling. John brooded silently, eyes on the entrance.
On a bench at a table far from the doorway, John sat across from Zelenka and Ronon. His empty tin cup was pushed back into the center of the tabletop, a banner of steam issuing forth from the rim. His books were laid open and untouched before him, pinned beneath his elbow. He stared at Aiden and Jennifer by the opening in the tent as Ford talked animatedly and Jennifer smiled. He thought of McKay.
The scientist hadn't come to the camp since Jennifer had walked in on them and John hadn't sought him out in Atlantis either. He didn't know what was taking him so long to talk to Jennifer.
The long tables, arranged in even rows across the mess, were crowded with circus and crew, their varicolored coats like a flowerbed with the rain and dark outside. Their murmurs were a low rumble underscored by the rain.
"I cannot stand this," Zelenka sighed as he pushed his tray away from him. He pulled his glasses from his face and cleaned the lenses on his red sweater. His thin fingertips were pink from the cold. "This rain is…." He gestured and cast a glance about, cursing in Czech.
John nodded, his chin in his fist. "Yeah," he mumbled through his hand.
The juggler furrowed his brows at John and shook his head, offended. John lifted his brows. "What?" he asked after a moment.
Radek shook his head, gesturing impatiently. "Why bother talking if I'm speaking only to myself?" he asked.
John scoffed and looked up at him as Zelenka stood, picking his tray up. "I'm going," Radek announced tersely.
"I was listening!" John protested in vain. The small man shook his head and walked away, mumbling to himself.
Ronon smirked and John narrowed his eyes on him. "What's eating him?" he asked, jerking his head toward Zelenka's retreating figure.
The strongman shrugged. "You'd been listening you would've known," he suggested mildly.
John shook his head. "What? You, too?" he asked. Again, Ronon shrugged, smiling.
At the oven, Lorne withdrew loaves of bread from the fire, his face flushed and gleaming with sweat. Across from John, Ronon propped his feet up in the place Radek had abandoned, rolling a cigarette on the table top.
John's eyes passed disinterestedly over the heads of the congregation inside and fell on the flap to the door as it fluttered and admitted the sight of the downpour outside. A thin, caramel colored hand slid over the edge of the burlap and spread it open. John lifted his head with muted interest as Teyla ducked inside, shaking the water from her hair as she pulled the evergreen hood of her coat back over her shoulders.
Her eyes fell on John and Ronon from by the door. John nodded in recognition, feeling a mild pang of disappointment that it wasn't McKay.
The contortionist cast a glance around the tent as she made a path to their table. She stopped beside Ronon and sighed, lifting a limp hand in the direction of the doorway. She asked exasperatedly, "Will this rain never end?"
John shrugged his shoulder and guessed there was no need to reply.
Ronon glanced up, arching a brow at his wife and Teyla pulled her jacket from her shoulders, draping it over the bench at Ronon's feet. Looking pointedly at the strongman's feet, she shook her head.
"What?" Ronon asked gruffly. Teyla narrowed her eyes and shook her head at his incomprehensibility.
Ronon grinned and dropped his feet to the floor with a thud. Teyla sat and looked with vague curiosity at John's papers as she sat. Beside her, Ronon picked up his cigarette paper to lick its edge, and Teyla placed her hand on his. "Do not," she said, sighing. "I am sick already."
The strongman cast a questioning look in her direction and Teyla settled her body on the bench, placing her hands on her flat belly.
"The baby?" John asked.
The contortionist arched a brow. "It would seem. I have been sick every morning." She shook her head in exasperation.
"It'll be a boy," Ronon stated, beside her. Teyla regarded him and nodded her head.
John leant over his books and pointed at Ronon. "Forget the gender. It's because of this guy," he suggested.
Ronon eyed John evenly and Teyla smiled. "I have considered that possibility."
John pursed his lips and sat back, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Satedan women carried heavy," Ronon offered by way of explanation. Teyla lifted an eyebrow and Ronon grinned, picking a piece of bread up from his tray. "Big babies," he said, popping the bread into his mouth.
John slid his eyes to Teyla and he shrugged. "That explains you," he replied, glancing downward. He pulled his books closer to the edge of the table top.
"We should hope so," Teyla said, running a hand over her stomach. She wasn't showing much yet. Ronon laid his hand over hers and John looked away respectfully.
The tent flap opened with a rustle lost in the din of the mess hall. John leaned back and craned his neck to see over the heads of the crowd.
McKay stood inside the doorway. The shoulders of his black coat were sodden with rainwater, heaving lightly as he breathed. His brows was creased, his mouth curled in a grimace as he scanned the assemblage for someone in particular.
John's heart pounded and he struggled to neutralize his expression. His brows went low over his hazel eyes and his gaze went from McKay to Jennifer nearby him, sitting with Aiden Ford near the door. Jennifer's round blue eyes were lifted to the scientist and Aiden looked troubled, from Jennifer to McKay.
John swallowed. But Rodney nodded uncomfortably at Jennifer and moved past her, cringing as he caught sight of John. He walked quickly between the tables toward John. From ten meters way, John could see the rain drops clinging to his hair and face.
McKay came to a stop behind Teyla and Ronon, across the table from John. Teyla and Ronon turned their shoulders to inspect the scientist's face. John hunched his shoulders, looking up at him from over the curve of his fist against his lips.
McKay's shoulders were tense as he fixed his blue eyes on John. "We have a problem," he said.
"What the hell do you mean, a fucking squall?" John demanded hotly, clenching his fingers on his hips. "I thought you said the rainy season was no big deal!"
"Well, there's no need to shout!" Rodney cried. He stood in front of the stove in John's wagon, his face tense and sanguine. "How was I supposed to guess there was a tropical storm at sea? In all the years we've been here, the rainy season's been very mild and predictable up until now. Nothing like this has happened before."
"So now it decides to change?" John snapped, glaring at McKay, who shrugged uncomfortably.
"Meteorology is not an exact science," he sniffed arrogantly.
John scowled. "Apparently it's exact enough to predict a storm you couldn't."
"It's not my field," Rodney replied defensively, shrugging his shoulder. John rolled his eyes. "Anyway…about…," McKay hesitated and John knit his brows. "Look, things haven't exactly been great between us; we have our problems, but this isn't about that."
"Why would it be about us?" John asked.
McKay flushed and the drumbeat of the rain on the roof rose on the air between them. John frowned, his eyes moving over the scientist's features as Rodney set his jaw and lifted a shoulder.
"Before, we had our own issues going on. Right now, it's about our people – your troupe, my city." He met John's eyes. "We have to put it aside and act in the best interest of the people depending on us. No matter how we feel about each other."
John considered his words silently before nodding. "Sounds good," he said finally. "How do you propose we do that?"
Rodney made a face and waved a hand vaguely as though it was a simple question. "We have to move the circus to Atlantis and go from there."
"Go from there?" John repeated.
Rodney knit his brows and looked anxious. "Yeah," he said.
"What d'you mean, yeah?" John asked warningly. "What are you not telling me, McKay?"
Rodney waved his hand and dropped his head, grimacing at John's raised voice. "There's just the minor issue of flooding in the sublevels of the northwestern pier."
John's body jerked as he dropped his shoulders and flung out an arm. "It doesn't sound very minor, McKay!" he shouted. "That sounds pretty fucking major! I don't know if a sinking city's somewhere I feel comfortable!"
Rodney shook his head distractedly, perspiration beading at his brow. "Oh, come on! It's not sinking!" he shot back. "It's anchored in place with a myriad of support beams! The leaks are just…probably something to consider."
"So we cross that bridge when we get there," John suggested. His gaze was narrow on McKay.
The scientist compressed his lips and gestured with one hand. "Something like that. I've got my own concerns, too." His jaw tensed and he appeared briefly lost in thought. "Atlantis is our home. After everything we've gone through, I won't allow anything to happen to her."
John bit his lip and looked away, leaning back against the edge of his table. He folded his arms across his vest and frowned. He felt the impact of Rodney's words in the throbbing of his heart. "Okay," he said finally.
McKay nodded, his eyes abstract and low. He lifted them to John's face and John straightened to his full height.
"All right, right now we tell Elizabeth," he said. He met Rodney's grim eyes and when the other man nodded, he turned and opened the door.
A gust of wind flung run-off from his roof into his eyes and John squinted into the deluge, raindrops flecking his cheeks. He paused under the canopy of his balcony and felt Rodney's solid body against him at his back as the scientist followed him through the door. John pulled his scarf up around his neck and leapt out into the rain, making for Elizabeth's wagon.
They crossed the muddy track to Elizabeth's wagon and the rain struck their shoulders and dampened their coats. It was ten meters away at most, but they were soaked by the time John climbed the back steps of Elizabeth's wagon and banged on the door. McKay crowded onto the balcony behind John. His breath fanned on the back of John's neck as they waited.
From inside, Elizabeth called out, "Come in."
She looked at them with surprise as John opened the door and they filed in breathlessly. "I take it this isn't a social visit?" she asked after a pause.
"That's a way to put it," John agreed. Then, hooking a thumb at Elizabeth, John looked at Rodney and said, "You tell her."
Elizabeth furrowed her brows. "John, Rodney…what is this about?"
Rodney cast a sidelong glance at John as the other man settled his lanky frame against Elizabeth's door. He turned his eyes back to Elizabeth and lifted his hands. "There's a problem."
Elizabeth listened Rodney speak and when Rodney came to the end of his explanation, she folded her hands on the edge of her desk and gravely asked, "How long do we have?"
Rodney's blue eyes went from John to Elizabeth and he grimaced. "Not long," he replied. He gestured with both hands as he spoke. "The off-sea sensors were badly damaged hundreds of years ago and they only picked up the storm this afternoon. I came as quickly as I could."
"What does that mean?" Elizabeth asked.
Rodney furled his brows. "The storm makes landfall in two hours."
"Two hours?" Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "We've already had rains. How will the storm differ?" She lifted her eyebrows and cocked her head, opening her hand to indicate the window high on the wall. "Who's to say that the worst hasn't passed?"
John leaned into the back of her door and crossed his arms over his chest, listening attentively. Water dripped from his boots onto her floor.
"It hasn't," Rodney replied passionately. "It will only get worse. You can expect high winds, torrential downpour and flash floods."
John surveyed Elizabeth's expression with his chin tucked into his chest.
"I'm asking you as a friend," Rodney spoke lowly and imperatively, "seek shelter in the city."
Weir lifted her eyes to John's and Rodney half turned to regard him by the door. The scientist's features were tense. "What do you think, John?" Weir asked.
John lifted a shoulder. "Better safe than sorry," he replied. "I've seen some squalls before. I wouldn't want to be out in the open when it hits."
At length, Elizabeth nodded her head. She closed the open book beneath her clasped hands and looked up at the men. "I want camp packed by then. I'll make the announcement."
An hour later, the camp was abuzz with activity. Everyone raced from one tent to another, towing trunks in the pouring rain. John and Rodney walked side by side, overseeing the packing. As they passed the wardrobe tent, Beckett turned from speaking to Miko and grabbed Rodney's arm, launching into a discussion about his cages. "The right axle on my lead cage is broken. If I don't have it fixed, I'll have to walk Patricia on a lead or carry her in my wagon."
Rodney grimaced, halting to listen to the Scotsman. "Can you put…uh, her…in your wagon?"
Beckett pursed his lips and lifted his brows. "Have ye ever invited a five hundred pound bear into your bedroom?" Rodney gestured vaguely as though he didn't care.
John glanced back at the two of them before moving forward. He passed through the throng, helping where he could and directing the movement of the troupe.
He stopped by Ford and Ronon in front of the big top as they pulled back on the support beams holding the structure up. The fabric of the tent billowed in the wind like a scarlet banner. John leaned close to Aiden's ear and pointed up to the beams. Rain ran off his face and arms in sheets and dripped from the sodden fabric of his wool coat. "Be careful with that! I don't want it toppling over."
Ronon peered over the guide wire, gripping the rope with his gloved hands. "We've got it," he replied.
John blinked the water from his eyes and clapped a hand on Aiden's shoulder. "I want all of this packed up and moved out!" he shouted to them over the rainfall.
Aiden turned his hazel eyes toward him, the edge of his black hood flapping against his rain-flecked cheek. He nodded his head. "Yes, sir."
"Good." John paused, scanning the area for his sister. He turned back to Ford and the young man afforded him his distracted attention. John set his jaw. "Listen, I want you to drive Jennifer's wagon, okay?" John asserted. "Can you?"
An unreadable expression entered Aiden's eyes, and he nodded suddenly. "I can," he replied. Ronon looked at Ford over the taut guide line, as though understanding the look in Aiden's eyes when John had said his sister's name.
John nodded his head at Aiden and headed off through camp.
The storm sent the deluge before it. Lakes of mud formed around the camp and wicked into the pant legs and skirts of the troupe as they raced back and forth, trying to prepare. Wind rose from the sea and the mountains and rolled across the prairie in gusts. At the edge of the plain, the trees twisted and writhed in the wind.
John stopped in the clearing near the fire pit and turned in a circle in the rain, scanning the rows of tents around him. In a radial pattern, he saw the tents collapsing, pulled down by troupe members. The fabric fluttered into the mud and the crew rolled them up hastily and stuffed them into large trunks.
John lifted his eyes from the piebald collage of the tents to the horizon and set his jaw. Enormous, slate hued clouds rolled over on the mountaintops, colossal and dark. The storm was like a second mountain range built on the first against the gray sky. Lightning flickered in the dark clouds and the rainfall across the plain was so heavy as to appear as a white sheet hung from the storm clouds.
In the distance, Evan Lorne was helping lift the oven onto the flatbed with a system of pulleys. Nearby, Teyla knelt on the ground and quickly folded a tent with Elizabeth Weir. As they finished, Weir looked around and nodded, rain streaming over the hard planes of her cheeks.
From the alley between the collapsing tents, Rodney approached John, blinking the rain from his eyes. "What next?" he asked.
John scanned the camp as the crew finished with the tents and began towing the trunks back to their wagons and the flatbed. "Wagons," he replied shortly. "They already know what to do."
Rodney squinted at John, brushing the water from his eyes. "Okay."
The mud puddles around the camp had spread while they'd worked and, by then, the slow-rising water overlaid the ground entirely. The run off was up to the ankle of John's boots. The driving rain pelted their shoulders and saturated their clothes. John and Rodney hunched their shoulders against the cold downpour.
Through a sheet of rain hung like a filmy curtain, the deep violet color of Jennifer's dress appeared before the shape of her thin body was apparent. The rain plastered her blonde hair to her head and ran in rivulets down her face as she worked her way through the mud. "John."
John stopped and turned to look at her, blinking the water from his eyes. Rain ran from his chin and the tips of his dark hair into his eyes. "Jennifer," he said thickly. His hazel eyes passed over the frightened features of his sister. He clasped her arms comfortingly. Emotion choked him. "It's going to be okay," he assured her. "Aiden's going to drive your wagon, all right?" He shook his head hard and flipping water from his face. At John's side, Rodney knit his brows, staring at Jennifer awkwardly.
Jennifer nodded her head. "Okay," she replied nervously. Her voice was almost lost in the rushing sound of the shower. "Just tell me what to do," she called out. She looked at John and, at John's other side, Rodney shared the same expectant expression.
John pointed tersely, flinging water from his hand as he gestured to the caravan forming as the troupe packed up. "Go help out Beckett with Patty!" he yelled over the rain.
Jennifer's brows arched upward and she compressed her lips determinedly. "Okay," she replied. Then she disappeared beyond the veil of rain.
For a moment, John stared after her, surprised by the sudden act of reconciliation. Then he shook himself and returned to work. He waited until the other wagons were packed before he headed back to his own. Rodney went with him, keeping close to his side. John ran up the back steps and tossed loose items into drawers. He folded the table up against the wall and bolted the chairs down.
At his back, Rodney shut the door. "We have to hurry," he said urgently. "We don't have long."
"Yeah, I know," John mumbled.
He picked up the book on Atlantis and shoved it into his trunk. Giving the small room a cursory glance, he found everything as he'd have it. He turned and ran into Rodney in front of his stove. The scientist backed up and flattened himself against the wall to let John pass. John glanced askance at him and, as he opened the door, grasped the front of Rodney's shirt, towing him out.
Up ahead, beyond the scarlet side of John's wagon, the caravan was moving, drivers reining the horses in. The teams pawed the ground and whinnied anxiously, biting at the bit.
"John!" Elizabeth called out, seated on the bench of her wagon beside Grodin. "We're ready!"
John climbed off the back steps and his boots splashed at they met the ground. He started, looking down to see that the water had risen and it lapped around the calves of his black boots, where John wrapped the laces around twice. He waved to Elizabeth as Rodney came out on the balcony, his hand on the door. "Don't wait for me!" he shouted. "Go on!"
Elizabeth nodded and laid her hand on Grodin's arm, gesturing forward. Grodin snapped the reins and the horses started at a trot. The other wagons followed behind Elizabeth's and John climbed the steps to the bench as they passed. As he settled on the seat, Rodney climbed up behind him.
"Okay?" The scientist asked.
John nodded and gathered the reins in his hands. He snapped the reins and the horses moved forward. The wagon lurched and rolled forward before stopping short. Rodney looked around, alarmed and John frowned, snapping the reins again. The horses strained, their hooves splashed in the water and slipped in the mud.
"Shit," John cursed.
"What?" McKay asked.
The rain ran down their faces and struck their shoulders. John tried once more to spur the horses and the wagon didn't budge. "Fuck!" he hissed.
"What is it?" McKay asked. "Are we stuck?"
"We're stuck," John repeated after him, standing up.
McKay stared up at him, his blue eyes bright and clear in the gloom. John smacked his knee lightly and skirted his legs. He laid a hand on one side of the ladder and leapt down.
The water sloshed around his feet and wet his pants, tucked into the tops of his boots. It was rising much faster than before. "Fuck," he cursed.
Rodney looked down, climbing down from the box. "We have to push it out," McKay called over the rain.
John glanced sidelong, from half-buried wheels of his wagon to the caravan, his hands curved on his hips. His shoulders were high and tense against the rain. "Yeah," he agreed.
Rodney climbed down and rejoined John, inspecting the wheels momentarily. The water was rising rapidly and John swallowed, feeling determined and hopeless in equal measures. "C'mon," he instructed, striking Rodney's shoulder as he rushed to the back of the wagon.
McKay shook his head but didn't argue, slapping his hands down on the edge of the balcony next to John's.
"When I say the word, push," John shouted.
The scientist nodded.
John and McKay heaved against the wagon, shoving as hard as possible. The caravan receded in the distance, twenty then thirty feet away. John and Rodney worked side by side, panting raggedly as they rocked the wagon back and forth with little effect.
"This is…," Rodney shouted hopelessly. John didn't turn to look at him.
John's muscles corded in his back and shoulders. He gritted his teeth. "Stop!" he shouted. McKay's body slackened beside him, the scientist's chest rising and falling as he panted. John swallowed and regrouped, blinking the rain from his eyes hard. He inhaled. "Push!" he shouted again.
Again, they strained against the immobile vehicle.
Around them, the wagons had already gone. The camp was empty save for what had been too heavy or too unwieldy to go. The horses whined and emitted plumes of steam as they splashed in the low flood water around their legs.
"Stop a minute!" John panted.
Rodney looked at him desperately, his mouth twisted in a grimace. They panted, resting against the wagon for a few fleeting breaths. John gritted his teeth and propped his hands against the edge of the balcony, placing his feet far apart. "Okay, push!" he cried.
They shoved, McKay's face flushing dark with color as he grunted, wedging his elbow against the back of the wagon.
"Push, God damn it!" John shouted.
"I know!" As he spoke, John dropped his hands and leant against the balcony, wrapping a hand around the rail. "Fuck." He steeled himself and, pressing his hands on the back, yelled, "Push! Push!"
The water rose around their knees, lapping noisily beneath the shushing roar of the rain. Their boots slipped in the mud and John's ankle twisted, bringing him low. He brought himself up and his knee was dark with mud.
"This isn't working!" McKay wailed. His voice was almost lost in the pounding rain.
John settled back and the mud gave way under his foot. He swayed and found his footing, propping his hands on his hips. Their eyes met and Rodney bowed closer, knitting his brows. The rain ran off his chin and into his eyes from the flattened tips of his hair over his forehead. John panted and water ran into his mouth. "Yeah," he admitted finally.
"Look, the mud's too soft," McKay shouted, pointing at the half-buried wheels of the wagon. "We've got to find something to wedge under the wheels."
Far off, the wagons through the flood waters, wavering and uncertain in the growing distance. John focused his eyes there through the dark and downpour. He shook his head. "It's too late," he said finally. Turning back to McKay, he found the scientist's face soft with shock.
"What?" Rodney asked.
"It's too late, McKay," John repeated tersely. The muscle tensed in his jaw as he stepped back and looked away.
"What? You're just leaving it?" McKay called.
"No choice. Water's rising. We've gotta go."
Rodney's blue eyes were soft and unreadable. "But that's your stuff," he protested.
John swallowed hard and shrugged his shoulder. "Can always get more stuff." His answer was swallowed in the sound of the rain. "Come on. Got to unhitch the horses," he said, turning away.
McKay's hand shot out and clasped John's arm, just over the elbow. "It's your home," he insisted. "We've got to at least try."
John gritted his teeth and grasped the lapel of Rodney's traveling coat. "Look, McKay, there's no damn time now. We've gotta unhitch the horses and catch up with the caravan," he snapped. "No more conversation about it – that's what we're gonna do."
McKay hesitated and his eyes were thoughtful, fixed on John's face. His fingers slipped from John's arm and he nodded at length. "All right," he replied. A pause and John turned, making his way back around the wagon and Rodney followed him.
They worked quickly, unhitching the horses. "You don't happen to know how to ride?" John asked as Rodney queued beside him.
"Ride?" Rodney asked skeptically. John shook his head. "Just climb up, I'll lead yours."
John had ridden since he was a kid, taught by a bareback rider from the troupe. It had only come in handy right then.
Rodney climbed onto a horse's back with some difficulty and a little help from John and John followed suit, climbing onto the back of another animal. He gathered the reins in his hands and guided the animal toward the distant caravan. "What time is it?" he shouted to McKay as he prodded his horse to a trot.
McKay shook his head, gripping the horse's mane. "It'll make landfall any minute now."
John cursed and shook his head. "We've gotta hurry then," he said and prodded his horse into a run.
The prairie passed in a blur of verdant green and steel gray. The horses crashed through the flood waters and closed in on the retreating caravan at the edge of the copse. The tree line bobbed and careened toward them as John urged the animals faster. Lightning lit up in the clouds over the black mountaintops and thunder rolled.
McKay gripped the horse's hair and hung close to its neck, his brows low.
The horses raced into the underbrush as the back of the last wagon disappeared into the tunnel to Atlantis. John ducked low as the branches of the trees whipped over their heads in the wind.
They ran into the tunnel and the rain and the sound of downpour ceased. In the dark tunnel, light disappeared and John could hear the creaking of the wagon wheels and the splashing of water. John urged the horses onward and came into the artificial light. The tunnel was filled with the wagons, sloshing through a foot of water.
John maneuvered the horses around the wagons, slowing to a trot. The drivers looked to him with interest and John nodded to them in recognition, moving up to the front of the line. Elizabeth's wagon was up ahead. John pushed the horses onward, through the tunnel into the rain.
Through the mist, the figures of Lanteans were visible, directing the wagons over the bridge to the city in the rain. John scanned the crowd and found Elizabeth far ahead, on the stairs of the city. The wagons were being drawn into a room off the platform below. John hadn't noticed the doorway before and was surprised at its magnitude.
Rodney looked to him then slid off his horse. John turned as the scientist gestured to a nearby Lantean.
"Hurry, hurry!" he shouted. "We need the wagons inside a lot faster than this!"
"Right," the man replied and, turning ahead, shouted to a compatriot on the bridge, "faster!"
John handed the reins off to the man McKay had addressed and grasped Rodney's lapel. He ran up the pathway toward the city with Rodney at his heels. The paths were wide enough for three wagons but they went two by two because there were no guardrails to hedge in their progress.
As John ran the distance, the rain battered his face and shoulders. Beneath the bridge, the scales of a huge fish caught light and flashed as it dove below, perhaps six meters from the creaking wheels of the wagons on the pathway.
John and Rodney ran breathlessly up to the steps of the city and Elizabeth walked down to meet them, the wet strands of her hair plastered to her face. "John?" she called. "Where's your wagon?"
John shook his head and water flipped off his chin with the motion of his head.
"We had to leave it," Rodney stated ruefully.
John glanced at him at the distraught tone of his voice. He turned his eyes to Elizabeth and shrugged, trying not to think about what they'd left behind. "Is Jennifer inside already?" he asked.
Elizabeth nodded, casting her stare toward the main tower. "She was one of the first to arrive with Ford," she replied.
The tension in John's chest eased at the news. He nodded. "Good," he said. "We've got to get the rest of these people inside. The plain's flooding fast."
Elizabeth gestured to the end of the line, partway up the path to Atlantis. Rain dripped from the ends of her hair into her face. "We're nearly done," she called.
They turned to watch the progress of the caravan bracketed by Lantean volunteers. John rested with one boot on the first step of the stairs, Rodney a couple steps above him. As the last person stepped onto the platform, Rodney tilted his chin high.
A volunteer waved their hand in the air and Rodney nodded. As their feet left the pathway, water rose over the edge and spilled into the platform beneath the stairs.
"Close it up!" Rodney shouted as the wagons disappeared into the door off the platform.
Water swirled up to the first step and John climbed to the third. As the door shut, the waters rose, slapping against the shut door and closed over John's boots. "Shit," he cursed.
McKay looked down at the rising water, distracted and displeased.
"Let's get inside," Elizabeth suggested.
The flood waters swirled around the midpoint of the piers. The piers provided a clear marker of depth – fifty feet. The water had swallowed the mountain entrance, and continued to rise as the hours passed. John went out to the door of the main hall and surveyed the rising water with a spy glass. The water lapped at the thirty-third step. It wasn't much comfort that there were thirty-five in all.
He walked through the assemblage of the circus, where they were placed temporarily in the great hall. They hung partitions of fabric and set mats out on the floor. Meals were provided by the Lanteans in their mess.
The storm stalled off the coast and dumped rain on the mountains. The floodwaters filled the basin up and where the paths had once been overlain by a thin sheet of water, the depth was fifty feet.
Upstairs, rain beat on the glass and ran in thick, pulsing rivulets down the window in the observation tower.
The boiling slate gray clouds and drifting mist outside cut the darkened shape of Rodney's back and shoulders in stark relief against the lighter hue. Low light came in through the windows and shone on the floor.
John's steps echoed in the empty space – on the high floor and far walls and Rodney glanced over his shoulder as the other man approached.
"Any sign it'll stop?" John asked.
The motion of Rodney's head as he shook it was minute. As John stopped at his side, his hazel eyes passed over McKay's tight features, his crooked mouth in something between a grimace and a frown.
"No," he replied curtly. "No sign."
He sounded helpless and John's chest tightened as he glanced at the window and looked through the glass. "So what're we going to do about it, genius?"
McKay tilted his chin and met John's gaze, his blue eyes almost colorless and tense. "What can we do?" he asked irritably. "I can't do anything about the storm."
The corners of John's lips tightened. "Well, something's gotta be done," he snapped. "In case you haven't noticed, McKay, we're in a bowl that's half full already. If this rain keeps up, we're going to be up to our necks in it."
McKay's features hardened. "How was I supposed to know we were on a hundred year flood plain?" he shot back. "There was no way we could have known this! There are no records of flooding! This has never happened before!"
"Maybe you couldn't have known it before but now you do, and we've gotta do something about it!" John hissed. "Otherwise, we get wet and I don't feel like swimming."
Rodney's blue eyes darted to John's mouth then back to his eyes and color flooded his cheeks. "That's—" His voice was thin and angry. "There's nothing—!"
John thrust an arm out and smacked the flat of his hand against the glass. The sound of his skin against the window echoed back. McKay's eyes followed his hand and his lips curled into a tight and furious frown.
"This is happening now, McKay!" John hissed. "You're the genius, now fucking think about it! Find a way!"
"You can say it a hundred times," McKay snarled, "and it won't change a thing! We're trapped here, the sublevels are flooding and—"
Suddenly, his eyes were clouded and clear at once. His mouth sagged open and his eyes passed back and forth over John's collarbone, chasing the thoughts in his head. "Wait a…" He breathed. "Atlantis is an amphibious city. It's constructed on a weighted pier with retractable anchorage."
John followed Rodney's words closely, nodding his head. "And…?" he asked after a pause.
The scientist looked up at him and his face was blank with shock and wonder. "So how'd they get it over the mountains?" he asked.
"Over the mountains?" John asked.
"Yeah," Rodney said, gesturing with a hand. "It used to be in the ocean and the legend says that when the Ancients were under siege, they moved the city. I'd assumed it was partially a colorful metaphor for the exodus but if it was an aquatic city…."
"Then why the hell is it in a lake in the middle of the mountains?" John finished for him.
"The support beams," Rodney said suddenly. He met John's eyes. "They're not support beams." John's pulse pounded in his ears and his hands. "They're legs."
"Oh, my God," Rodney breathed. "We're not trapped. We can move the city," he turned and ran for the door with John at his heels.
They ran out the door and into a short hall. The lift was at the end. They ran into it and Rodney flattened himself against the back wall as John slammed the grate into place.
"First floor," Rodney instructed, shouldering beside him. He took hold of the operating lever and pulled it down.
The cables groaned at the elevator descended into the shaft. The levels passed quickly on the other side of the grate. Two lifts carried passengers up the length of the observation tower. At the second floor in the first shaft, Rodney tapped John's arm. The lights flickered and went out, the lift swaying, a foot from level with the second floor. Rodney looked around the lift, alarmed, and John knit his eyebrows.
Through the mesh, Radek Zelenka was visible as he skidded to a stop at the end of the long hallway outside. "Wait! Wait!" he called. "Don't try the lifts!"
John unlatched the lock on the grate and jerked it back. The metal shrieked as it ratcheted back.
Radek peered at them gravely through the grate. "The electricity is out in the main tower. I don't know about the other sectors. We've lost the communication systems. What do we do?"
John wrapped his fingers around the metal grate and peered out through the bars at the smaller man with a hard stare. "What?" he demanded as Rodney shouted, "That's unheard of!"
Zelenka hustled forward and left wet footprints on the shining floor. "The power is completely down. The lifts are malfunctioning."
"Is there anyone trapped?" John demanded, sliding the grate back completely with a clang.
"The blond assistant—" Zelenka began.
"Nola!" Rodney exclaimed.
John glanced at him and found Rodney's face was flushed and worried. "Okay," John asserted, turning back to Radek. "I want you to find any lever you can and jam it open. Get Ronon. I don't want anyone hurt here. Got it?" The smaller man nodded and tentatively turned, dashing off in the direction he'd come.
"It'll be fine," John assured Rodney, looking his way. He laid a hand on the scientist's arm.
The other man swallowed and said, "The control room," he gestured to the doorway at the end of the hall. "We'll take the stairs."
John nodded tersely and broke into a lope. They hurried to the door and crashed through it into a stairwell.
The stairs led down one flight to a second hallway, off that hallway was a second set of stairs that descended to the base of the tower. Their steps echoed in the small space as they raced down the flight. John took the steps two at a time and leapt over the last three, the smooth metal banister sliding beneath his hand as he grabbed it and rounded down to the door.
"We're going down to the sublevels!" Rodney directed breathlessly. "This stairwell only takes us down to the twentieth floor!"
"You know the way, take the lead," John shot back. Rodney did.
On the tenth floor, they ran through a door into a darkened hallway. John was at Rodney's back as he shot off down the hall and through another door on the other wall. His breaths were quick and ragged and ahead, he could hear Rodney breathing hard, as well.
The second stairwell was darker than the first – back up lights dim in the bank of shadow. John chased Rodney to the bottom floor and splashed down into frigid water swirling around the ankles of his boots.
"What?" Rodney cried. "It's flooded!"
His body was an outline in the dark. John placed his hands on him like a reminder that they were there together. Their bodies brushed. He felt the fabric of Rodney's shirt beneath his palms. "So we don't have a lot of time!" he reminded him.
"Yeah, yeah, okay," Rodney breathed and turned, sloshing through the water. "This would be a lot easier if the lights were up."
"I thought it was only the main tower where the power was down," John called over the sound of splashing.
"The generators are on the bottom floor. They must have shorted out," Rodney shouted from ahead. He ran down the length of the hall and peered into an open doorway.
John stopped at his back. His chest rose and fell against Rodney's spine. "Where is it?" he demanded.
"Uh," Rodney began uncertainly.
John's eyes snapped back to him, his brows descending stormily. "Don't tell me you don't know where it is, Rodney," he growled warningly.
"No, no!" Rodney shouted back. "I know where it is! I just…," He trailed off, looking in either direction, "haven't, you know, been there in person before."
"What?" John shouted furiously.
"It'll be okay!" McKay yelled over his shoulder. "Worst case scenario, we just…you know…drown to death down here."
"Because that sounds great," John growled, breaking away from his side.
He walked out across the hall and looked through the open doorways on either wall. At the end of the hall was a ladder descending into a lower level. He went over the maps he'd seen in his head, wondering where in the city they were at the moment, where the control room was likely to be.
He laid a hand on the wall and ran down the length of the hallway to the ladder and stopped short. The ladder led down to an expansive room with sea green walls. John grasped the top rungs and swung his body onto the ladder. The water from the floor above splashed over his shoulders as he climbed down. He came to the sixth rung and dropped down to the floor. The water splashed around his sodden boots. He turned in a circle, looking around him.
The room was cavernous, three walls decorated with ornate patterns and the third wall made entirely of glass. Low back-up lights lent some illumination, their light weak and low.
John staggered forward, his fingers dropping from the ladder as he lifted his brows and took in the sight. The window looked out into the lake on which Atlantis was weighted – fathomless depths crystal blue like a diamond at the surface, graduating to inky black below. An enormous fish swam through the pool by the window, its black and golden scales flashing radiantly. Out, far beyond it, John could see a metal bar shoot through from the wall of the city to the mountain side beneath the lake. In the hazy water, the structure on which the platforms rose and sank was just barely visible.
In the center of the room was a chair.
It was more of a throne than a chair. It was thick, made of metal like nickel and silver, embossed with strange designs. Suspended over the control chair and spread out like a desk around it was a metal console with dozens of levers, dials and buttons.
Rodney's voice issued from above John on the ladder in the aperture upstairs. "There," he said, pointing. "That's the control chair."
John started and half turned, looking at him in the dim light. "It's off," he said. "How do we…?"
Rodney climbed off the ladder and moved past him, bending over the consoles. His face was suffused with distraction and suffering. "I don't know," he mumbled, his voice muffled in his chest. "It's never come up. I've been focusing on the generators in the southern section of the city. I hadn't gotten around to this yet."
John sloshed through the water and stopped by the chair, staring at it intently. "Well, come up with something soon, McKay," he suggested in a growl. "I don't want to drown on solid land." McKay tsked and bent over to look more closely at the chair. John glanced at it distractedly and sat down.
As he sat, the grooves in the chair flickered with light and the lights in the console blinked on.
The two men started and John's eyes slid to Rodney's face, his frown cautious and warning. "Why'd it do that?" he demanded. "And don't say you don't know!"
"I don't know," Rodney shot back almost immediately. Then, bending to look closer, he ran a hand over the console. It was inlaid with small characters and gauges. "I think it knows you," he breathed with wonder.
"What are you talking about?" John snapped. "It's the first time I've ever been down here. How could it know me?"
The scientist didn't seem to register John's tone and just shook his head, his chest rising and falling rapidly. The sheen of sweat on his brow caught the light from the console. "Some Ancient technology seems to recognize Lantean descendants. It's how the barrier around the city works. This," He gestured to the chair. "It must know that you're a Lantean."
"A descendant?" John repeated dully.
Rodney's eyes lifted to meet his and he nodded, amazed. "It explains how you broke through the barrier on the edge of the prairie. If you weren't a descendant, you wouldn't have even seen the road to the city." A smile broke across his face and the lights on the console glittered on the sweat on his brow. "You really do belong here."
John's heart pounded and he swallowed hard. He paused, the words impacting him again like ripples, before he nodded back to the machine. "So how do I operate it?" he asked.
"Oh." Rodney leant down and scanned the buttons and dials on the curved console spread out superjacent to the chair, the outside of his arm resting against John's as he pressed in close.
As the scientist murmured to himself, John caught sight of something leather just visible behind the edge of the chair. He shifted to see better and found a leather hat in something like a Russian fashion – with long fur lined flaps over the ears and a rectangular swath of fur tucked back against the forehead. In the bed of fur was a pair of thick goggles on a tooled leather strap adjusted with a thick nickel buckle. The lenses of the goggles were bottle green, set into telescoping copper fixtures. A tangled mess of wires and tubes ran from a large round grommet in the back panel of the hat.
John held it in his hands, staring down at it with curiosity and, across his lap, McKay was bent over, scrutinizing the board and muttering softly.
A feeling of portend stirred in John's chest as he ran his fingers over the tubes running from the hat to the chair and the ceiling. The cables undulated, sloping from the ceiling to the hat in his hands.
"Any time this millennium, McKay," John suggested tightly.
"Yeah, yeah!" McKay snapped back. "I'm just…."
John lifted the hat and glanced inside at a network of circuits mapped on the inside of the leather. He put it on and the hairs rose on his forearms.
The sound of rushing water was white noise in the background. John pulled the goggles down over his eyes and started as schematics folded out across his field of vision like the unfurling of a banner in the breeze. "Oh, whoa," he breathed.
Ancient text ran across the width and length of the room which was emerald green through the lenses.
"What?" McKay asked by his side. Then impatiently: "What are you doing?"
John swung his head toward him and the lettering bled out over what was before him. The read-out was like a film over his vision and as he thought of it, a table unfolded on the upper-right corner of his vision: a map of Atlantis on the lake. "I can see where we are," John said smugly.
"What?" McKay asked. "You have schematics?"
"What does it say? Can you read it?"
John shook his head and the lettering fluttered with his vision. "It's in Ancient."
McKay bit his lip. "The support beams. Can you see them?"
As soon as John thought of it, the diagram of the city tumbled on an axis, the figures of the sublevels fading as the upper levels of the city became clear. The support beams, the legs, were outlined on the map – a hundred stilt-like protrusions from the pier of the city, buried in the mountains around them.
"I can see them," John said.
"Can you move them?"
John lifted his hands, narrowing his eyes on the scientist. He opened his mouth to complain but as he did, he felt certain that he could. "Hold on a minute," he said.
"Why not?" McKay asked sarcastically. "We're only in the bottom-most sublevel of the city as the chamber fills with water around us."
"Gimme a minute," John drawled.
Superimposed on the goggle lenses, he could see the city as though it were a tiny miniature in hand. The clover shape of the platform spread out beneath the spired city and what was hidden by the water was clear – the sub-aquatic chambers, protruding from the bottom of the pier and the pathways, leading out to the shelf around the lake. "I think we're anchored."
"By the legs," McKay put in.
"And the bridges around the city; they're holding us in place. Otherwise, the city would float on the surface."
"Can you retract them?" McKay asked impatiently. On the edge of John's vision, he held one hand loosely at shoulder level as he crossed the other over his chest. The water swirled around his knees.
John thought about it and paused. "Hold on," he said.
Before, when he'd thought of something, the chair had responded. John figured the concept might be the same.
He focused on the mechanized walkways and brought up the schematics of the tracks they ran on in the mountain-side. Beneath the model of Atlantis in his goggles, the lake descended into fathomless depths. John grinned. Whatever else might be said of them, the Ancients were amazing engineers.
He envisioned the pathways themselves and the corresponding visualization opened out in the goggles.
"Are you doing it?" McKay asked impatiently.
John narrowed his eyes at him through the lenses. "I'm thinking as hard as I can," he retorted. "Well, think harder!"
John rolled his eyes and brought up the tracks in the sides of the pathways. The path extended and contracted on the tracks. A separate set allowed the pathways to rise and sink beneath the surface of the lake.
Move, John thought at it. C'mon.
"Anything—?" As McKay spoke, John saw the something like a bolt disengage on the tracks on the sides of the bridges. The city shuddered and the walls groaned.
McKay ducked down by the chair, his hand on John's arm as he looked around. "What the hell was that?" he cried. "What, are you trying to kill us?"
John scowled, looking at the other man through the lenses and the diagram of the pathways. "Yeah, McKay. That's why I'm down here. Actually, that's the exact opposite of why I'm down here."
"Yeah, well, try to show it a little!" McKay shouted.
John flicked his eyes to the ceiling and thought: Gently, at the city. He envisioned the pathways retracting slowly, gently. On the lenses of his goggles, he saw the machinery work.
McKay sloshed through the water to the window and pressed a hand to the glass. "It's working," he said.
John saw him in a field of bottle green. As he stood, a fish streaked by the glass, as big as a whale and golden as a necklace. McKay turned and looked at John with the water around his legs.
On the lenses, John saw the pathways slip into runners in the sublevels of the city. He swallowed and flipped the model of the city, bringing up the legs anchoring the city to the mountain walls around the lake. He imagined them retracting as well, breaking free from the pins binding them to the mountains.
He swallowed and focused, thinking at the city. As he thought, the legs protracted, stretching out and shifting like the legs of a spider. They withdrew, one by one, from the mountainside.
Rodney paced the length of the room, coming back to peer down at the console around John. "Yes, yes," he murmured.
John focused and the legs withdrew, gently coming to rest on the platform around Atlantis. As the last four broke free, the city surged up.
Rodney crouched down, exclaiming in surprise as the city shook beneath their feet, rushing to the surface of the lake. He hooked his elbow onto the arm of the chair and looked down at the displays on the console, reading the text on the screens. "See if you can do anything about the breeches in the walls," he instructed.
John would've nodded but it would have broken his concentration. He brought up the outer walls of the sublevels and found the source of the flooding. "It's coming in from the north-eastern section, sublevel, what is that? Six?" John said.
Rodney nodded. "There was significant water damage in that sector. We had to close it off right after we arrived."
"The level started filling with water again when the flood levels rose," John murmured, examining the pictures folding out across his vision. "I can't do anything about it but shut the level off."
"Do that," McKay said. "We've got to stop this water from coming in."
The water lapped around the seat of the chair and wet John's legs where they rested. "Yeah. I'll do that." He imagined it, envisioned the storm doors and emergency seals. Close, he thought at it.
The doors remained ajar.
John knit his brows, inspecting the mechanics of the doors more clearly. He could see the locks and sliding mechanisms. Close, he thought again, more forcefully. Nothing happened.
"It's not working. I think they're jammed," John reported.
Leaning over him, Rodney ran a hand through his hair and said, "I can see that." The water was up to his thighs. He swallowed and looked intently at the console. "See if you can move it," he said lowly.
John turned to look at him through the goggles. "Are you nuts?" he asked.
McKay shook his head. "It's our only option here. Either we let the sublevels flood and take out our power permanently or we do what the Ancients did…," He knit his brows as he frowned. "We move the city."
John shook his head and laughed softly. One corner of his mouth turned up. "If you're good with it," he said leadingly.
McKay shook his head. "It's our only option. If we stay here any longer, we will be up to our necks."
John grinned and thought of the trapeze – of all the feats he'd undertaken, this was the greatest risk. "All right. But hold on," he said.
"Right," McKay replied sarcastically, waving a hand. "Because I was planning on waiting until now to start my work requiring fine detail and a steady hand."
As he spoke, John thought of the legs, spreading them out as far as possible.
The legs unfolded at his behest and landed in the black mountainside. One by one, the legs unfurled and smashed down into the rock. "C'mon," John muttered. He bit his lip and thought, Stand up.
A low, metallic groan filled the air.
"What was that?" McKay shouted.
John shrugged, concentrating. Beads of sweat broke out on his brow. "Guess they're a little out of shape," he muttered.
McKay nodded, swallowing. The water slipped up over the edge of the chair and wet the back of John's legs. "Hurry up," the scientist urged.
"Trying," John replied tightly.
The legs extended to almost impossible lengths and bent at angles. "C'mon," John murmured. "Do it."
The floor beneath them shifted at an angle and the water washed over John's lap, rushing to the back to the room.
Rodney grabbed the arms of the chair and held himself in place. "C'mon!" he shouted furiously. "Do a little better than that!"
John narrowed his eyes but didn't reply, focusing on the legs and city walls. He swallowed and concentrated, streamlining his thoughts and instructions. Responsive to his unspoken command, the city shifted once more and settled straight. Then, slowly, it began to rise.
He had a percentage of the legs maintain the city's balance as the other legs arranged themselves to make the next move. He laughed and Rodney gasped, staring out the window as the water rushed beyond the glass. It went from black to navy, a bruised blue and then pale cerulean. Outside, the surface of the lake was visible from below as the rain pelted it and gave it the texture of pounded copper.
"Oh, my God," McKay murmured. He clung to the arms of the chair.
"Better?" John asked.
The water ran off the glass at the city rose above it. "Solves the rising water problem," John said smugly.
"But not the storm," McKay put in.
John nodded and changed the view of the city in his lenses. "You said there was a barrier?" he asked.
"Yes. Right now it's only fulfilling a secondary, cloaking function."
"Like sleight of hand?" John guessed.
McKay rolled his eyes. "Sleight of hand," he scoffed. "Yes, actually, basically. It camouflages the city from outsiders. Clearly, once you're inside, it loses its effect." John nodded his head.
The sides of the mountains slipped past the window and rain smattered the glass. "Lemme see," John mumbled. He thought on it, like a bubble surrounding the city. He envisioned a glass dome. As he did, some radiant force swept out around Atlantis, creating a sphere. The rain drumming on the window ceased abruptly and ran off in sheets.
McKay sloshed over to the window and peered out. Through the glass, they could see the rain pelted an invisible barrier. McKay pressed a hand to the window and looked out, shaking his head in heady disbelief.
John pushed the goggles up onto the top of his head and regarded Rodney by the window. "So where do you want it?" he jested.
McKay turned to stare at John as he regained his bearings. A long moment passed as the two men stared at one another. Rodney folded his arms over his chest. "First, drain the sublevels. Next, we consider where we move."
John leant back in the chair and pulled the goggles down over his eyes. "Sure thing," he replied.
It was a month before it stopped raining, and two months after that that the flood waters began to recede. In the end, the valley had become a swollen lake on which, they'd planted Atlantis. The city perched on its spider-like stilts. By the time the rainy season was over, the engagement was also at an end.
In the office Grodin had acquired for Elizabeth in the main tower, Weir had clasped her hands on the edge of her desk and had told John: "It's nearly time,"
John had understood and swallowed. His heart hammered in his fists as he'd clenched them in his pockets and nodded his head.
The week before the troupe packed up was bright and sunny. A breeze rose from the east and rolled across the prairie. The sky was a clear blue overhead, dotted with radiant clouds as white as clean linens that caught the sunlight. The troupe spread trunks and crates out on the black soil and inspected the cargo that had gone so long without sun.
John spread the tents out on the ground, and sunned the mildewed fabric. Across the field, the crew was doing the same as he was, and the prairie looked like a patchwork quilt with the many-colored tents spread out.
Sweat beaded on his brow and his bare back as he worked, wearing just black trousers tucked into his black boots and work gloves. The wind rustled over the fabric and as John and Teyla unrolled the cobalt-colored wardrobe tent, the fabric caught the breeze and billowed in the air.
The corners of Teyla's eyes wrinkled as she laughed aloud, shaking her head and John chuckled, weighting the edges down with rocks.
As John knelt on the cobalt fabric, Teyla's eyes seized on something behind him, and her smile mellowed. John, focused on the tent beneath him, didn't notice. "I think I will get some water for myself and…." She laid a hand on the modest curve of her stomach, smiling.
John looked up at her and squinted against the light. "Okay."
Teyla nodded and took a step back. Turning on her heel, she walked back to the mess, the only tent left standing upright.
A soft footfall sounded on the crushed grass behind John. "Do you ever wear clothes?" Rodney's voice issued from behind.
John turned his head and shielded his eyes from the sun. It had been a week since he'd seen the scientist. He paused, calming the rising beat of his heart as he shrugged a shoulder. He dropped his hand onto the tent beneath him and looked up at McKay with furled eyebrows.
Rodney stood with the sun at his back in a light gray waistcoat and matching trousers. His white shirt sleeves were rolled to the elbow. He had his hands in his pockets as he looked down at John on the ground. The fabric of his pants rippled in the wind.
"I mean," He lifted his eyes to the horizon and idly scratched his crinkled brow. "Is this a practicality thing or is it an aesthetic choice? Because the other people in your troupe don't have this problem—"
John settled back onto the ground and scowled playfully. "I'm not feeling friendly, Rodney."
McKay hummed lowly in his throat and cast a glance at John's bare chest. "Too bad."
John swallowed his surprise and squinted up at the scientist, flicking a shoot of grass from his knee.
"So…." McKay cast a look around the wide field and the tents arranged around. His sandy hair fluttered in the breeze. "Moving out…?"
John's heart fell and he nodded, resting his hands on his bent knees. "Elizabeth wants us to head out day after tomorrow."
McKay turned his face to John and his brows met. His mouth curved down in a grimace. He paused and John swallowed, keeping his eyes on Rodney.
"Doesn't take long, does it?" The scientist asked finally.
John shrugged his shoulders and stood. "Not too long," he agreed. He walked around the edge of the tent and skirted its perimeter, coming to a large trunk nearby.
McKay paused then followed at his back. "And what are you going to do?" he asked.
John's throat felt tight and his heart was low. "Same as always," he said, "move on." He opened the trunk and shuffled through the contents. Beside him, McKay shifted restlessly.
"Look, wait," Rodney said. He laid his hand flat on the lid of the trunk and closed it, shouldering into John's view. His blue eyes passed over John's features and John furled his brows, cocking his head aside impatiently. His heartbeat hastened at the closeness of Rodney's frame. He could smell the scent of soap on Rodney's skin and he remembered the contours of his body beneath his clothing. "Yeah?" he asked.
"You can't go," Rodney said.
John shook his head, narrowing his eyes on the other man. "I've gotta go, Rodney. It's my name on the sign."
Rodney's mouth sagged, and he looked helpless. "So what?" he asked, "Isn't Jennifer going?"
At his sister's name, John's head lifted and he stared intently at McKay. "Yeah."
McKay gestured with one hand before dropping it back to the lid of the trunk. "It's her name, too." John stared at him silently for a long moment before laughing into his chest.
Rodney's eyes moved over John's profile. "Anyway, you can't leave," he finished decisively.
John shook his head, lifting his hazel eyes to Rodney. "Yeah?" he asked. "Why's that?" The pressure in his chest abated as he looked at McKay.
"Who else is going to test-fly the air ship?"
Again, John chuckled in surprise. He scanned the horizon, where the members of his troupe unfurled the tents in the breeze and beyond them, where the red-orange Torii stood, lopsided and muddy from the flood. "It's really simple for you, huh?" he asked.
McKay shifted, shaking his head vaguely, and John sobered. "I'm part of the troupe," he said.
At his words, McKay looked up. "You're Lantean," he argued.
John shook his head and propped his hands on his sweat-slick hips. He raised his face to the sky and thought of what had brought them there – he thought of McKay and Jennifer, of the time Rodney and he had spent together, how they'd fought. Despite how hard he'd pushed him, McKay had always pushed back. John's heart pained him as he contemplated the road away from Atlantis and McKay.
"And…," McKay began lowly.
"And?" John asked.
McKay shook his head dismissively and impulsively wrapped his hand around the inside of John's elbow, pulling him in. John nearly stumbled and found Rodney's hand on the side of his face. Their bodies brushed, from chest to hip bone, and John narrowed his eyes, his gaze moving over McKay's face. Heat flooded his skin and suffused his features with color. Rodney's eyes were bright and emotive.
"This," he said.
He pressed their lips together.
John lifted his hand to push Rodney away, but when he touched his shoulder he found the impulse had passed. He opened his mouth to Rodney's kiss and slid his hand up the scientist's neck, holding him fast. A pang of desire ran through John's body as he pressed closer, holding onto McKay.
When they broke apart, John was short of breath. He swallowed. "Pretty compelling argument," he muttered, wetting his lips with his tongue.
McKay shrugged, his hand still lightly wrapped around John's arm. "I'm really convincing when I need to be," he replied.
John ran a hand through his hair, glancing sidelong around the plain for open observers.
"So?" Rodney asked expectantly.
John's heartbeat filled his body and heat filled his face. "Sure. Maybe. We'll see how it works out."
When he turned back, McKay grinned and John rubbed the back of his gloved hand over his mouth to conceal his smile.
The troupe moved out early on a Sunday; the sky was pale blue with large white clouds like sails spread out. A cool breeze came from the South. Ronon and Teyla, like John, had decided to stay in Atlantis. Unexpectedly, Esposito and Grodin had decided to move on with the troupe. It was Elizabeth who most surprised John with her decision to move on, but she wouldn't take leave of her duty until she'd made sure that her troupe returned to Europe safely.
The Lanteans and circus assembled in the field among the packed wagons to say good-bye. John and Rodney were among them.
Jennifer had come to speak with him in Atlantis after Rodney had kissed him in the field. He hadn't needed to tell her about them – it was clear from her expression that she'd already heard. Gossip had passed through the city like an electrical current and by that evening, everyone had known. Though the look in her eyes was equal parts understanding and pain, she didn't want to talk about it anymore than John did.
She'd pressed her lips and lifted her round blue eyes to her brother. "I have to distinguish myself as an individual," she'd said. "And I feel like I can't do that here."
John tried to convince her to stay but Jennifer was steadfast. He had laid a hand on her arm and swallowed hard. "If that's what you need to do…if you're sure," he'd said.
As she spoke, John felt a sharp pang of regret. He didn't know if he could right what had happened between them. But Jennifer didn't seem angry with him anymore; she seemed, in part, to understand. John let it go.
Jennifer clasped his hand as they packed up, and at her shoulder Aiden Ford looked down. John embraced both of them and watched as they boarded Jennifer's wagon (Jennifer inside and Ford on the box). For a long time, Jennifer stood at the railing on the small balcony and the siblings talked before Jennifer's eyes filled with tears and she said, "I have to put some things away before we get underway."
John nodded his head and watched as she closed the door behind her, casting a last glance at John.
Nearby, Ronon and Teyla were embracing Weir, talking lowly. Weir's features conveyed confidence and happiness despite the situation. She laid a hand on Teyla's stomach and smiled at the parents-to-be.
John turned as she moved on from saying good-bye to Teyla and Ronon and stopped beside him. Her tall, thin frame was swathed in a long red coat.
"John," she said, smiling. John nodded and Elizabeth sighed. "I don't know what I'll do without you around," she said.
John nodded to Aiden. "Ford knows what to do. He can get the job done." The man in question ducked his head and looked touched.
"I know he will," Elizabeth replied, "but we'll miss you."
John shrugged uncomfortably. His chest was tight with emotion. At length, he nodded his head. "Us, too," he admitted quietly.
Weir nodded, smiling and John blinked, sighing. "Can you do me a favor while you're in Europe?" he asked.
Elizabeth nodded. "Of course," she replied. "What is it?"
John cast an indecisive glance at Rodney where he stood ten meters away. He turned back to Elizabeth and pulled a letter from inside his black vest. "Can you deliver this for me?" he asked.
John held out a white envelope. Its edge flickered in the low breeze. Elizabeth cocked her head, looking at John curiously as she took it. Her blue eyes ran over the address and her brows knit. She looked up at John.
"Jeannie Miller?" she asked curiously.
John lifted a shoulder, pursing his lips cryptically.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes, the corners of her lips rising. "Okay, John," she replied, "If you can't give me answers, I'll find out on my own."
John smirked and, rising on the balls of his feet, he pulled a hand from his pocket to point at the letter. By the assembly of wagons, Rodney was frowning, nodding grimly to Carson Beckett. The Scotsman's eyes gleamed with tears. John caught their figures in the corner of his eye and grinned. "Make sure you get that to her," he said.
Elizabeth tucked the envelope into the inner pocket of her riding jacket and suppressed a smile. "Aye, aye," she replied playfully, frowning severely. Then she met John's eyes and her features lightened. "I will."
John nodded. "All right," he said. His voice was grainy and low.
Elizabeth smiled at him, decisively nodding her head. She seemed to understand his silence. "I won't say good-bye," she said cleverly, "but I will say, 'Until next time.'"
John's throat tightened and he swallowed, nodding his head. "Take care of my guys," he told her.
"I will," Elizabeth promised.
John could see in her expression that she would. He nodded and pushed his hands into his pockets, frowning into the sun.
After Beckett and Miko and the others had climbed into their wagons and were settling on their seats, Elizabeth looked around the assemblage with clear blue eyes and yelled, "Head out!"
Rodney ambled over to John's side and stood at an angle. In his periphery, John could see the early sunlight gild the line of his cheekbone as he looked out at the wagons.
"Hmm," Rodney murmured and hooked his hand into his pocket. As he did, the side of his palm brushed John's and his long, thin fingers slipped briefly into the cup of John's hand.
John ducked his head and smiled. The breeze carded through the tufted stands of his dark hair.
Elizabeth climbed onto the back steps of her wagon and stood beneath the awning, her hand curved on the rail. She swayed and kept her bearing as the wagon lurched beneath her, and began to roll. "Look for us next summer," she called.
Rodney and John nodded, John smiling and Rodney frowning wistfully. Elizabeth's stare lingered on them then rose to the east where Atlantis gleamed in the sunlight. She took in a breath and nodded her head, opening the door behind her. She slipped inside and disappeared from sight.
"See you then," John said.