They had always wanted to fly; John couldn’t fly; Nioke flew for him.
Since the day he was born, she’d rarely worn any other form. She was strong feathers and delicate bones, swooping, soaring, riding the wind. She was his beacon, going where he could not, as fast and as far and as high as she could until the pain called her back, called them back to each other.
There was never any doubt that when the time came, she would settle as a bird. The only question was what kind. Hawk, Eagle, Sparrow, Finch, Falcon... They whispered the names to each other in the dark.
Then John woke up a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday to discover that Nioke had ceased to be a bird for good.
John learned to fly planes.
Most people’s first impression of Rodney is that he is loud, and arrogant, and compensating for something. These people, as Rodney would be more than happy to tell you, are morons.
Rodney has nothing to be ashamed of.
“Well,” says Tykallita, and Rodney says, “Don’t start,” and sets her down next to his computer monitor so that she can watch him work and let him know if he makes any stupid mistakes. Sometimes she’ll even hit the shift key when his fingers get sore.
Nothing to be ashamed of at all.
John has a talent for forgetting his dreams, but he always knows when he’s dreamt about the Wraith because he’ll wake up with Nioke curled around his neck like a choke collar. She never squeezes, of course, but he’s had lovers who found this habit (back when the dreams were of other things, of smoke and sweat and screams cut off mid-gasp) so disturbing that, well...they weren’t lovers for long.
It doesn’t matter. John prefers the cool slide of Nioke’s scales to human hands and human touch any day.
Rodney remembers all his dreams, of course, in brilliant Technicolor detail. He’ll wake up panting and short of breath and, of all ridiculous things, hungry, so he’ll think on the lights and rip open yet another powerbar, taking big bites and fast swallows, pausing only to break off a few crumbs for Tyk. She eats daintily, but then, everything she does looks dainty; it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?
He mentions this theory to her and they talk it out. Tyk is a perfect sounding board: the only other creature in the world who’s as smart as he is.
“Don’t tell people you think that,” Tykallita reminds him.
“You think it, too!”
“Yes,” she says. “But I never tell.”
Getting ready for missions, it’s always the same routine. John straps on his guns and buckles his vest; Rodney grabs a few extra powerbars and tucks them away. He tucks Tyk away, too, usually in the front, right-hand pocket of his vest. Nioke curls herself around John’s wrist, under his sleeve.
Ronon’s dæmon is a huge wolf-like creature with titian fur; Teyla’s, a sleek, alien mongoose with spots instead of stripes. They walk beside, their humans’ hands uneasy on their backs as they pass through the rippling barrier of the event horizon.
John and Rodney do not envy them.
It’s nothing new: another planet devastated by the Wraith. Not much to see, just charred buildings and camps of terrified refugees. The Wraith are clean and efficient killers, for the most part; it’s not something Rodney ever thought he would be grateful for.
He longs for it now. Because this time the Wraith have not been so clean and efficient: one of their ships just couldn’t wait, it seems. They landed, and they fed, and worse, their eyes were apparently a bit too big for their stomachs.
Because there are leftovers.
At the SGC, Rodney heard reports of off-world teams discovering planets of humans--or humanoid creatures--who lived without dæmons; supposedly the quantum mirror had revealed whole universes where no one had a dæmon at all. Rodney tries to imagine life without Tyk...and God, it doesn’t even bear contemplation. He shudders and she senses it, crawling out of his pocket and down the length of his arm, into the palm of his hand. He pets her soft fur and yes, slowly, he can breathe again.
John walks away from the refugee camp and toward the hut, stony-faced and grim. His fingers are white where he clutches his P-90, and Rodney can see his dæmon’s iridescent head peeking out from beneath his sleeve. Rodney’s never met anyone as protective of his dæmon as John is of Nioke; they’d been teammates for weeks before he’d even found out that that was her name, and it’d required begging Tyk to ask for a solid twenty minutes. So what if it wasn’t proper protocol? John wasn’t going to volunteer the information, that was for sure.
Rodney likes to know things.
He doesn’t want to know what’s in that hut.
John walks across the scratchy, scorched grass--slowly, Rodney thinks, taking his time. “Pulling himself together,” Tykallita whispers. She’s on his shoulder now, right by his ear, her tiny claws holding tight to the fabric of his shirt.
“McKay,” John says, an acknowledgement that acknowledges nothing. Rodney steps forward, and suddenly John’s giving him all the acknowledgement he could want, blocking his path, stopping his body with a physical check. “Don’t go in there,” he says.
“We weren’t planning to.”
“Good,” John says, and moves off.
Nioke’s tongue flicks through the air.
They’ve seen some pretty bad things, John and his dæmon. Death. Destruction. Evil, he’d go as far as to say. They’ve looked into the abyss, and the abyss has gotten a pretty good gander at them, too.
But they’ve never seen anything like this.
Colonel Sumner had been military born and bred, his dæmon a well-groomed German Shepherd with soft paws and sharp teeth. A good soldier--both of them. And even though they don’t always get them, John knows that a good soldier deserves a good death. A quick bullet to the brain, a slight shimmer in the air, and nothing left behind but a single body on the ground. Alone--but empty.
They had watched the Wraith feed, Nioke winding tighter and tighter around John’s wrist. Sumner was on his knees. He wasn’t screaming.
His dæmon was.
John had never heard such a sound. A hollow, high-pitched whine, a soul-scream. He wanted to cover his ears, but his hands stayed steady on his gun. Below them, Sumner’s dæmon was writhing on the ground, her legs flailing even as they became more and more insubstantial. It was when John realized that he could see the texture of the floor through her skin that he revised the trajectory of his weapon.
“Do it,” Nioke whispered, and John pulled the trigger.
Sumner slumped to the ground and his dæmon winked out of existence.
The man on the pallet in front of them--what remains of the man on the pallet in front of them--is very still. He stares glassy-eyed up at the ceiling. The other members of the village found him, and laid him out, and left him here. John can’t really say he blames them.
The man isn’t dead--John can see the steady rise and fall of his chest, air in, air out. He’s not dead, but--
His dæmon is gone. His dæmon is gone and the man is not dead--and John has a terrified moment of wondering if the Wraith did this on purpose, took just enough to kill the dæmon and leave the man. John knows he would break under threat of such a torture. Would break in an instant.
John prays it was an accident. He knows how to deal with accidents.
A single shot is all it takes.
Elizabeth’s face is white as a sheet as she leaves the debriefing. Her dæmon, a small white-necked raven, murmurs something in her ear, and she nods in response, closing her eyes. Rodney watches her because it means not having to look at John. He doesn’t think he can take that right now.
“They shouldn’t be alone,” Tykallita says, and Rodney realizes that she is looking at John and Nioke--is staring quite openly, in fact. That’s okay, though. People would notice if he stared...but nobody notices Tyk.
“They shouldn’t be alone,” she says again. Rodney thinks for a moment that she’s berating him, calling him out, but she sounds as helpless and as frightened as he feels, and he knows she’s not going to suggest that they actually do something.
“They’re not alone,” Rodney says, “they have each other,” and so they don’t follow John on his steady, straight-backed walk down the corridor, but go straight to their own quarters, and to bed.
Then they lie together, man and mouse, and will the dreams away.
John wakes in the middle of the night with Nioke like a cool band around his throat. “Hey,” he says and she unwinds, slithering across the pillow and curling in on herself. “Run or fight?” he asks.
“I was thinking the same thing.”
He gets dressed and she returns to her accustomed place around his wrist. The corridors are dark and silent, a few marines stationed here and there. John nods to them, and they nod back. They’re used to each other.
The light’s on when they reach the gym, and John smiles to himself. He steps inside. “Ah,” he says, “just the person I wanted to see.”
Teyla rises from her stretch. Beside her, Keho pulls himself out of his own crouch and begins pacing back and forth around Teyla’s feet. He has a tendency to do that, John’s noticed, to be always in motion, as restless as his human is still.
“Colonel,” Teyla says.
John inclines his head. “Fellow insomniac. You up for a spar?”
“With, to start,” she says.
Nioke uncoils and smoothly makes her way down John’s body. Sliding across the floor, she’s a vivid line of green and blue and silver. She positions herself across from Keho. He towers over her, but her tongue darts out and she looks him in the eye.
John grips his sticks. He’s ready.
On Earth, in training, John was automatically excluded from classes that involved side-by-side combat, human and dæmon. “Too bad she’s not a rattler,” he was told more than once. And more than once, a tight squeeze from Nioke was the only thing that stopped John from punching some asshole drill instructor’s lights out.
Mostly, though, John saw his handicap as an advantage in disguise. Sure, Nioke couldn’t really get at anything bigger than a small rodent--but nothing could get at her, either.
Teyla, on the other hand, was appalled at the idea of keeping their training sessions strictly mano a mano. “I have known dæmons that were mere semani,” some sort of small lizard, apparently, “that nevertheless launched themselves bravely at their enemies in battle,” she told him. “Oh, well, if semani can do it,” John had said, perhaps a wee bit sarcastic. But Nioke never hesitated.
They begin. Teyla fights beautifully, as always; in the beginning, John’s losses had been due almost entirely to the fact that he couldn’t stop staring at her. He also hadn’t been able to stop casting nervous glances toward Nioke, and that had cost him, too. “You don’t trust her,” Teyla had said, surprised, after yet another skirmish ended with him sprawled flat on his back. “I trust her fine,” John said, and Teyla hadn’t mentioned it again.
John blocks a thrust, then blocks its follow-up in a manner that has Teyla stepping back. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see that their dæmons are still circling each other, Keho’s tail raised, his violet eyes glinting. John tears his gaze away in time to counter another blow. He can hear Keho growling, and an answering hiss from Nioke.
Suddenly: a flash of movement at the corner of his vision, and then a terrible clenching pain in his gut. Teyla stumbles a little, but she stays on her feet. John, though: John buckles to his knees. He slaps the floor once, decisive, and immediately the pain ebbs, dissipates, disappears. Keho lifts his paw and releases Nioke from where he’s pinned her. There’s blood on his leg from where she sank in her teeth.
Nioke slides back onto John’s wrist and it’s a relief for them both. “Sorry,” she says.
“That’s all right.” Teyla is politely giving them a moment to collect themselves. “Nobody expects you to be able to take Riki Tiki Tavi over there.”
“Not for that.” There’s a certain edge to her voice. “I bit him,” she says. “I made him bleed.”
In battle, it would be a simple case of doing what you have to do to survive.
This isn’t battle.
“I’m going to kill someone,” Rodney says. “I had a terrible night, and the last thing I need is to have to hold hands with a bunch of incompetent idiots while they try to blow us, not to mention several natural laws, to smithereens! Radek! Have you looked at this?”
Radek’s face is all innocence, but his dæmon’s ears are twitching, which Rodney knows means they are both extremely amused. “No,” he says, eyes wide behind his glasses, “you are Chief Science Officer. Is your responsibility to read reports. I would not want to infringe.”
Rodney has heard this excuse before. “Look, would it help if I made you a shiny little deputy’s star? You can pin it on your lab coat, show it off to all your friends. Just, for all that is holy, get this defamation of science out of my sight!”
Radek rolls his eyes, but he takes pity on him, wheeling his chair over and snatching the papers out of Rodney’s hand. He opens the report on the table in front of him and immediately groans. Geesa hops closer so that she can read it, too, and soon her ears are twitching for an entirely different reason.
Geesa is a European hare, Lepus europaeus. Rodney once made the mistake of referring to her as a bunny rabbit. Radek wouldn’t speak to him for a week.
They work in silence for a little while. Rodney refills his coffee cup three times, Radek twice. Rodney almost has a Truly Brilliant Idea, but Tyk points out that it would use up three-fourths of their available power supply. “Ahh,” Rodney mutters. “I knew that.”
Several times, Rodney catches Radek looking at him as if he wants to ask him a question. “Paranoia check?” Rodney murmurs, and following Tyk’s assurances that no, they really are staring, says, in a much louder voice, “For Christ’s sake, what already?”
“Nothing,” says Radek. Twitch go Geesa’s ears. “Really, it is nothing.”
Rodney’s hand cycles in an impatient out with it! motion.
Radek sighs and closes his computer. “The mission yesterday...” he starts, and Tyk’s claws tighten on Rodney’s shoulder.
They’re not the only ones made uneasy by this line of questioning. Geesa hops off the table and into Radek’s lap, and he absently strokes her back as he phrases his next thought. “There are rumors...” he says, and his eyes beg Rodney to tell him that they’re exaggerations, falsities, not true.
You really suck at lying, Rodney, John told him, and he can’t--he’s not even going to try.
“I didn’t see it,” he says instead. He saw Gaul, though. Saw him reach for his dæmon and have his fingers pass right through--
“Rodney,” Tykallita says. “Rodney.” And he pulls himself out of it.
“Sheppard,” Rodney says, focusing on Radek. “Sheppard took care of it.”
“But.” Geesa’s ears are no longer twitching; they’re flat against her skull, the world’s most inadequate helmet. “What people are saying...”
Rodney forces himself to nod. “It’s true.”
“It is an aberration, surely!”
“I hope so,” is all Rodney can say. Because if it is not, if it was done with intent, then the Wraith have figured out how to do something that is worse than killing. Far worse.
Rodney doesn’t need to say this. From the look in his eyes, from the way he clutches Geesa closely to him, it’s clear that Radek knows.
Mission time. Guns, check. Vest, check. Powerbars, check check check. Routine.
But Rodney pauses as he picks Tyk up off the bench; pauses before slipping her not into his right-hand pocket, but instead into the left, over his heart.
They’re investigating yet another possible location for an Alpha site. As far as Teyla knows, M6K-728 is uninhabited, and from the look of things as they step through the gate, it boasts an amicable climate: lots of green grass, trees at the edge of a sloping valley, a fresh, spring-like smell that indicates a water source nearby. Keho darts out ahead, moving low to the ground, their special advance scout. Teyla and her dæmon can comfortably maintain a greater distance between them than anyone else Rodney has ever known; more than once, he’s wondered if it’s yet another subtle manifestation of the Wraith in her. He tries not to think it again.
They’ve been on the planet for less than ten minutes when suddenly Teyla gasps, her eyes going wide. Then Keho is tearing toward them through the grass, his tail bristled in fear. “Run!” Teyla shouts, and Rodney does. He stumbles and Ronon catches his arm; the contact startles them both, enough so that in tandem they turn back, in time to see that Keho is finally springing into Teyla’s waiting arms, and that, despite her repeated pleas for him to run, John has waited with her.
Ronon grunts, pretty much the equivalent of what Rodney is thinking: namely, Oh, shit.
There are people coming toward them, swooping down on John and Teyla like an angry wave. Heavily armed people. People...
People without dæmons.
Ronon, apparently to his own surprise as much as Rodney’s, turns around and throws up.
John and Teyla are fortunately built of stouter stuff; half a glance is all they need and they’re fleeing back up the hill, gesturing at Rodney and Ronon to keep moving. Rodney almost does, but from his slightly elevated position, he can see what they cannot. They’re not going to make it. The natives are closing in on three sides, and while Teyla alone might have a chance, John’s just a little bit slower, a little less graceful, and it’s not going to be enough.
“Shit,” Rodney says, aloud this time, and Ronon’s already unholstered his gun, running to provide cover with Imara fast at his side. After a moment’s hesitation, Rodney does the same.
Not enough. John goes down, caught in a net of all things, and the strange people--they look so much like ordinary people!--swarm all over him. Rodney sees a flash, like a bolt of white lightning, and one of John’s attackers stumbles back. Nioke, Rodney realizes, and sure enough, she’s dangling from the startled native’s neck, painting them both in a spattering of red. Then Rodney trips over the uneven ground, and when he manages to right himself, he almost stops moving altogether.
The man is touching John’s dæmon.
Rodney very nearly mimics Ronon’s recent purge. John is on the ground being held down by four or five of their attackers; he’s struggling violently, screaming, and another six are rounding on Teyla, keeping her away. Nioke still has a firm hold on the man’s throat, but his hand is clenched around her writhing body, and with a wrench that has Tyk burrowing tight against Rodney’s chest, he yanks her free and tosses her away, like a nuisance, like so much dirt.
Ronon opens fire. The man topples over as another hole appears in his body, joining the two that Nioke left. Arrows fly at them, and Rodney ducks behind a rock, clumsily firing his own gun. His heart feels like it’s beating a million times a minute; Tyk’s is moving even faster.
One of the men restraining Teyla elbows her sharply in the head; she goes down. Ronon has thinned the herd considerably, but he can’t fire at any of the ones that matter, can’t risk hitting John, who they’ve clasped by both arms and are dragging away. He seems to be unconscious. Feeling helpless, Rodney takes aim at one of the archers, surprising himself with a hit.
Then Ronon topples: arrow in his side followed almost immediately by an arrow to the shoulder. Imara, who’d been circling at the edge of the enemy lines, taking savage bites out of anyone stupid enough to get in range of her snapping teeth, lets out a yelp, and runs, somewhat unsteadily, to her human’s side. Rodney feels a horrible, panicked stab of alone alone all alone, but he forces it down. Because, shockingly, their attackers seem to be retreating. They have their quarry. They’re leaving.
Rodney feels a surge of hope: could they seriously be granting the rest of the team a chance to regroup and rescue John? His mind whirls. He’ll check on Teyla first, then he and she can patch up Ronon--he should be okay, hell, the man once ripped an arrow out of his ankle like it was no big deal...
Then John opens his eyes and starts to scream in earnest.
At first Rodney assumes it’s because John thinks they’re dead, or that they’re abandoning him. Then it comes to him in a flash, a blaze like the shimmer of sunlight on Nioke’s unmoving body.
She’s not dead. Rodney knows this even as that irrational spark of terror passes through. If she were dead, she would be gone. If she were dead, John wouldn’t be screaming. He wouldn’t be making any sound at all.
She’s stunned, Rodney thinks: stunned, lying limp and still where she was thrown. John’s dæmon is hurt...and John is being taken away from her.
No. God, no.
Rodney is a scientist. He loves to experiment, in fact finds it virtually impossible to get out of the mindset of If I try this, then maybe... But even he, who one summer re-built his transistor radio five times in an effort to improve its reception, only tried to separate himself from Tyk once.
Once was more than enough.
John is screaming. The distance is growing. And Rodney thinks: No.
He gets to his feet and barrels down the hill. His voice rises to meet John’s, a wordless, animalistic cry, but he’s barely even aware of it. All he knows is that sliver of blue amongst the red and green, and he’s so glad he made Tyk ask for her name, because now he can repeat it to himself, a mantra: Nioke, Nioke, Nioke.
John, John, John.
He skids to a halt above her. She looks so tiny, even though he knows she’s nearly fifty centimeters long. John was willing to tell him that, if not her name.
He reaches down. His hand so close he imagines he can feel the heat off her skin...and he hesitates.
Tykallita raises her head and looks him in the eye. “Do it,” she says.
And Rodney picks up John’s dæmon.
He feels a jolt, like a shock of electricity. Some protocol exists for a reason, he thinks, more terrified now than when he first saw that these people had no dæmons, than when he was standing outside that hut... But John--John needs her, needs him, and that’s something for which it’s worth breaking all the rules.
They’re not even moving that quickly, John’s captors, so confident are they that the threat John presented has been neutralized, and that Rodney poses none at all. Which is kind of insulting, really, but Rodney’s pride has taken enough hits to feel this as only a minor twinge. Besides, the closer he gets, the less pained John’s screams become.
His lungs feel like they’re about to escape through his esophagus when Nioke comes awake in his hands. “John,” she says weakly, then violently recoils when she realizes that the person holding her is very much not him. She tries to squirm away, and Rodney flounders, nearly falls. “Hey!” he yelps, but the dæmon continues to struggle in his grasp. “Nioke!” Tykallita says firmly. “Nioke, be still! We’re taking you to him! We’re taking you to him as fast as we can!” The word of another dæmon apparently holds more weight than Rodney’s own, because she stops struggling, though Rodney is convinced she is glaring at him with her slit snake’s eyes.
Another hundred meters, and John’s almost within tackling range. He’s stopped screaming. His captors--half a dozen of them, the others must have gone on ahead--are speaking in a strange language, casting glances back in Rodney’s direction. Clearly debating whether they should bother taking out the crazy, unarmed man who’s running after them with a mouse in his pocket and an unhappy snake slung over his arm. Not a threat, not a threat, Rodney thinks, his mouth twisting. Yeah, I’m not a threat at all.
“John!” Rodney shouts, and John’s eyes are damp with tears, his arms hanging limp and his hands shaking with pain, but he’s there. He nods.
Tyk has been whispering with Nioke, and now she cries, “Go!” in a voice too big for her body. Rodney throws up his arms so that when Nioke leaps, she gets the full force of his momentum. She rockets forward, fast and graceful like a striking cobra, and collides neatly with the center of John’s chest.
The second they touch, it’s like an explosion going off. John wrenches free of his captors’ grasp, already moving for the knife in his boot. Rodney, too, pulls his gun from the back of his waistband, and this time, surprise is on their side, the threat that had been dismissed, neutralized, suddenly more of a threat than ever. John’s blade arcs upward; Rodney starts to aim at the last man to his right, the one closest to him, but then Tyk shouts, “No! Left!” and he gets an archer just before the man can fire his bow.
They’ve almost done it, almost evened the odds, when Rodney feels something like a firm pinch below his left shoulder. It blossoms, suddenly, into a white-hot pain, and he looks down in shock: there’s an arrow sticking out of his chest, just below his collarbone. Tyk! he thinks wildly, but she’s there with him, a tiny warm weight. He hears her voice as he falls, and maybe another, too. Screaming his name.
The sky is very blue. Rodney stares at it, gulping for air. Tyk has crawled out of his pocket; he can feel the brush of soft fur against the side of his neck. “Sorry,” he says, struggling to form the word and not really sure what he’s apologizing for, or to whom. Maybe to Tyk--after all, he’s just gotten her killed. “Didn’t mean...I’m sorry...”
“No, no!” she says.
“Did the right thing?” he asks. “Nioke? John?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
“Good,” he says. A strange thought comes over him. “This...a good death...”
The sky is very blue. He closes his eyes on it.