He opens them on the infirmary ceiling. Never thought he’d consider that an improvement, but oh, it is, it is.
He tries to sit up, quickly discovers that that’s a very bad idea, and settles for turning his head to the side instead. Tyk is curled up on the pillow beside him, and beyond her, slumped in a chair, is John, Nioke a snug circle around his throat.
Which is just the way it should be. The only thing that would make it better would be if, oh, he didn’t have a frickin’ arrow wound in his chest.
“Carson!” Rodney bellows, causing John to start and come out of his sleep in an amusing fashion. “Oh my God, I need morphine. You are holding out on the good stuff, I know it!”
Beckett comes in looking rather ragged, his golden-eyed toad dæmon perched precariously on his shoulder. “Rodney,” he hisses, “Ronon is sleeping.”
“Not anymore,” says a gruff voice from behind the partition.
John stifles a laugh. “Well, you seem to be feeling better,” he tells Rodney. But there’s an edge to his voice, an echo of something right below the surface.
It makes Rodney uncomfortable, so he chooses to ignore it and focus instead on his physical discomfort. This is not difficult. “Better?” he says. “There’s a hole in my chest! A big hole where it doesn’t belong! How is that better?”
John’s jaw clenches up. For a moment there is no sound at all. Then, “You nearly died,” Nioke says. Nioke says, to him she says, “You almost died, Rodney.”
Dimly he is aware of Carson backing out of the room.
“I held you,” he says, remembering it very suddenly. “I--”
His eyes go wide. Sense-memory overwhelms him. He remembers the cool slide of Nioke’s scales, the weight of her, the intense jolt of...of something the second he picked her up. He’s afraid to look at John, terrified of what he might see.
What he did was a violation. There is none greater.
“Rodney.” Tyk’s voice, low and reassuring in his ear. “Rodney, look.”
He raises his eyes. John is watching him, but there’s no anger in his gaze, no hatred or disgust. “It was the right thing to do,” John says. “You saved my life.” Which isn’t quite what Rodney needs to hear.
It’s all he’s going to get, for now. John gets to his feet, a slow stretch of muscles. “We’ll come back and check on you later,” he says quietly. And then louder: “Try not to torture Ronon too much. He and Teyla saved both our lives.”
“Don’t they always,” mutters Rodney.
And Ronon, who has excellent hearing, says, “Yes. We do.”
“Run or fight?” John asks Nioke.
“You read my mind.”
They take off toward one of the quieter parts of the city. John’s feeling tense; he’s having a hard time wrapping his mind around having been in so much pain, only to walk away with no scars, no physical consequences at all. Well. None that he wears, anyway.
So tense he’s practically vibrating, so John decides to really push himself. There’s a spiral staircase that he knows about, big thick steps leading up to one of the city’s tallest towers, and he mounts it at a sprint. By the time he reaches the top, he’s barely maintaining a jog and his shirt is sticky with sweat. Even Nioke seems exhausted, hanging in loose coils around his forearm. Gasping, he thinks open a set of double doors and stumbles out onto the balcony.
The view takes what remains of his breath. It’s stunning.
He leans against the railing, watching through glazed eyes as Nioke uncurls herself from his arm and wraps around the rail instead. She hangs loosely, swaying slightly in the breeze. “That cannot be comfortable,” he tells her.
“Unlike running up forty flights of stairs,” she answers.
John has heard that there are dæmons who are not constantly sarcastic, but he doesn’t really believe it.
He watches the sky. It’s a brilliant sapphire blue, dotted with fluffy clouds, pink like cotton candy. Sometimes Atlantis is so beautiful, it borders on ridiculous. John thinks absently about getting permission to take one of the puddlejumpers out for a while; thinks about the glory of flight, of the world dropping away beneath him... He sees Nioke droop, and realizes that what he is contemplating must have shown on his face. He sags a bit himself. Sometimes their bond, their closeness, is not something for which he is grateful.
Then he remembers the pain as they dragged him away, and quickly changes his mind.
They both pause to watch a bird circle, some strange alien species whose name they never knew. “I do miss it,” he says after a moment. “But it wasn’t your fault. It was as much me as it was you.”
Snakes can’t roll their eyes; Nioke, nevertheless, makes an admirable effort. “I know that.”
“Okay,” he says, staring out at the infinite sky, “just wanted to make sure.”
“Do you want to know what it was like?” she asks him, some time later. “When he held me.”
John doesn’t say anything. Slowly, Nioke uncurls herself from the railing and glides across it, then up over John’s clenched knuckles, across his arm, and around his throat. Her tongue darts out, smells the sweat beading along the back of his neck, behind his ear.
“It was like this...”
“I’ve been thinking,” Rodney says.
Radek snorts. “Really,” he says, “that is a shock to me.”
Rodney takes another massive bite of Jell-o. “You know, I could always keep my brilliant--ow!” He glances down at Tyk, who is innocently washing her paws, and, of course, would never stoop so low as to bite someone. “Our brilliant theory to, er, ourselves.”
Geesa’s ears give a twitch. It’s the amused kind.
“No, no,” says Radek. “Please: share.”
“Okay.” Rodney pulls himself up straighter, which is somewhat difficult considering that he’s still in a narrow hospital bed with an, ahem, arrow wound in his chest. But he manages. “Tyk and I were talking, and we realized, there’s a whole field of scientific study that’s barely had its surface scratched! People study the human body, the human mind--they even study sociology, though God knows why. But nobody studies dæmons! Why don’t they? It’s a fantastic opportunity to...Radek? Stop looking at me like I just suggested reanimating corpses.”
“It is perhaps an apt comparison,” Radek says, after a moment. As Rodney’s eyes narrow, he holds up a hand. “No, listen to me. I believe, as you know I believe, in the inexhaustible value of knowledge, but there are some things--yes, Rodney--some things that maybe it is not for us to understand.” He murmurs something in Czech. “That is the realm of God.”
“God?” Rodney’s tray rattles and Geesa flinches. “Oh, don’t start with me about--”
Radek lays a hand on Rodney’s arm. “I misspoke,” he says, calm but firm. “Not God. But...the spirit, yes? The realm of the spirit. Not for us to know.”
“But--” Rodney starts. He and Tyk exchange a look. “But...”
“It cannot be quantified,” Radek says. “It is difficult to accept, I know.”
Rodney doesn’t answer. He wants Radek to leave. He’s relieved when he doesn’t.
“This doesn’t make you smarter than us,” he says finally.
Radek rests a hand on Geesa’s head to stop her ears from twitching. “We know.”
“You promised,” Nioke says.
“I didn’t promise. I...suggested that I might. It’s different.”
“What you said was, ‘We’ll come back and check on you later.’ You included me in that statement, so I’m feeling kind of obligated to stick to it.” She winds casually down the length of his leg. “If you really don’t want to come, you can always wait outside, and I can go in alone...”
“No!” John says sharply, and this is just great: he’s jealous of his own dæmon. “We’ll both go. Just...just let me change out of these clothes.”
When they get there, Zelenka is getting up to leave. Rodney’s expression is sour, and he keeps taking desultory pokes at a lump of purple Jell-o. “Having fun, kids?” John drawls.
Zelenka smiles. “We are men of learning,” he says. “We do not have fun, but deep, impenetrable discussions about the nature of the universe.”
Rodney stabs his spoon into the quivering purple mass. “Just leave already, okay?” he snaps.
Zelenka seems unperturbed. “We will come back tomorrow, and bring the magnetic chess set,” he says. He pushes past John, clasping tightly to his dæmon’s ears as he goes.
“Okay,” says John, “he either pointed out a flaw in one of your theories, or made a move on your Jell-o. And as I did not detect the scent of processed grapes and calf’s feet on his breath, but did think he seemed kind of cocky, I’m going to go with the former.” He flashes a big smile. “What do you think?”
“Nice work, Sherlock,” Rodney says. “Why don’t you go bother Ronon? He sounds lonely.”
Ronon grunts something that they take to be an answer in the negative. “So,” John says. “What was this theory of yours?”
Rodney sighs, absently stroking his dæmon’s back. “It was nothing,” he says, “just a proposal that would have revolutionized human thought!”
“In other words, it was insanely dangerous, and/or unethical,” John says.
“Well,” says Rodney. “Maybe.”
He sighs again, his head thunking back against the pillow. “It’s just...” He pauses; seems to, miraculously, think about what he’s about to say. “No matter how advanced we become, how far we stretch the borders of human comprehension, when it comes right down to it, there’s an inherent vulnerability to everything we are! It goes against logic, it goes against reason--hell, it pretty much flips the bird directly in Darwin’s face... How can we continue to survive like this? If...if our weaknesses allow us to be taken down by creatures--by people armed with nothing more than nets and crossbows, then we don’t stand a chance against the Wraith! We don’t deserve to.”
He pauses, then looks guiltily at the little ball of grey fur curled against his chest. He lowers his voice. “Sorry, Tyk.”
John stares at him. Rodney must sense it, because he looks up, ready with a glare. “What?”
“I...I just...” He swallows. “I just realized something. I gotta go. I’ll try to come back later, but...”
He gets to his feet, standing too fast, dizzy. “You’re right, by the way,” he calls over his shoulder. “Totally wrong, too. But right.”
“What?” bellows Rodney, but John’s off again. Flying.
John knocks on Elizabeth’s door and hears her call, “Come in,” in a distracted sort of way that makes him want to do something really outrageous just to see if she’ll notice. Nioke’s grip tightens around his wrist and John suppresses the urge. “John,” Elizabeth says, breaking her gaze away from the computer screen. Klovac, her raven dæmon, flies across the room and settles on her shoulder, and just like that, she’s moved from absent to attentive. “What can I do for you?”
Another gentle squeeze from Nioke, urging him onward. “I wanted to talk to you.”
Her concern is evident. “About the last mission?”
He hesitates. “No. About the one before.”
She pales slightly, so slightly it could be a trick of the light, and sinks back into her chair. But, “Yes?” she says, and her voice doesn’t tremble.
“I’ve been thinking about the man we found.” Thinking--more like dreaming, obsessing, failing to forget. To repress. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it was an accident, and not a deliberate act on the part of the Wraith.”
Elizabeth lets out a long breath. “I’m glad to hear you say that, Colonel. Could you tell me why?”
He nods. “It was the...the inhabitants of M6K-728 that convinced me, actually. They didn’t understand.”
“Dæmons,” he says. “What they are to us. What they mean.”
Elizabeth doesn’t say anything, but her hand reaches up and brushes lightly against Klovac’s foot.
“When they took me, it wasn’t out of any malicious intent. I mean, probably what they actually wanted me for was--those crossbows didn’t look too friendly--but when they separated me from Nioke. They didn’t know what they were doing. They just wanted me away.”
“And the Wraith?”
John swallows. “If the people on M6K-728--and they were people, as much as I really, violently dislike them, and in spite of... They were. But if they didn’t understand what a dæmon is, the Wraith most certainly don’t.” He runs a hand through his hair. “To put it crudely, you and I don’t spend too much time philosophizing about our lunchmeat.”
Klovac lets out an indignant squawk. “Sorry,” John says. “No, I do see your point,” says Elizabeth. “And it’s true that the Wraith don’t seem as interested in hurting us as they do in...eating us. All of us.”
Elizabeth echoes the motion. “I appreciate your telling me this,” she says. “And I agree with your reasoning. I’ll pass on the word that the general consensus is that what happened, happened accidentally.” She looks him in the eye. “They’ll be relieved, John.”
They stare at each other for a minute. He can feel Elizabeth trying to slip beneath the surface, as she has tried many times before. He has nothing to fear from her, however. She hasn’t ever--
--held his dæmon--
--seen anything he didn’t allow her to see.
“John?” she asks. “Is there something else?”
He takes a deep breath. “Yes,” he says. “If any of the off-world teams ever discover a person in the same condition as the one we found, I want your permission to make it standard procedure that we shoot on sight.”
Elizabeth’s eyes go wide. It’s only for a second; she quickly composes herself. “Of course,” she says. “See to it.”
“I will,” he says.
He already has.
“So?” she says. “Are you going to go back?”
He shakes his head. “I need some time to think about this.”
She looks at him. “You’re scared,” she says.
“Yes. I am.”
Pressing close, “I’m scared, too.”
He nods. Then he says, “Tell me. Tell me again how it was.”
A week later, and Rodney is released from the infirmary. “You stiffed me on the drugs, Carson,” he says as he leaves. “Don’t think I’ll forget that.”
“Yes, I’m sure your list of petty personal grudges spans volumes by now,” Carson says. On his shoulder, Soelle rumbles something that Rodney can’t hear. Carson sighs. “Remember not to roll over onto your stomach during the night,” he says. “Barricade yourself with pillows if you have to.”
Rodney rolls his eyes. “Right, I’ll build a fort.”
Sarcasm aside, he does end up making himself a pair of fluffy walls the first time a slight shift to the side causes his body to strenuously object. “Oh, I am just so happy to be alive,” he grumbles.
“You are,” Tykallita points out.
In a completely different tone of voice, “I really am.”
He and John and Teyla and Ford are walking through an underground temple. The halls are narrow and maze-like, lit by low torches that flicker and flare, casting strange shadows on the walls. Rodney walks in front, carrying his scanner. Only he’s not looking at energy readings, but playing an endless game of Pong, chewing on his lip as he tries not to drop the ball, to lose it for good.
Not energy readings; still he says, “This way!” and turns a corner. When he glances back--quickly, carefully, mustn’t drop it, lose it, let it go--only John and Teyla are still following. “Where’s Ford?” he asks.
John jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “He went another way.”
And elsewhere: Ford’s dæmon’s eyes, sightless black discs in the dark.
“You should follow him, Teyla,” John continues.
She shakes her head. “My path is a different one. But still it diverges.” She steps aside--up, onto the wall. “Even cobras fall, John.” Then she is gone.
“Yeah, so what was that about?” Rodney asks, staring down at his screen. There’s no response. “John?” he says, spinning around, the ball dropped, forgotten in the fear that John has left him, too.
But John is standing right behind him, watching his shadow play across the wall. His dæmon’s shadow, Rodney realizes, seeing the twists and curves, like lines of black smoke. Then the shape changes, folds in on itself, takes flight. “You could have been a lion, Rodney,” John says. “You ever think of that?”
He can feel Tyk though he can’t see her, feel her tiny heart beating against his breast. “Yeah,” he says, “and I could’ve been a real considerate guy, too. What’s your point?”
The shadows circle, a widening gyre. “It doesn’t bother you?”
“What doesn’t bother me?”
John licks his lips with his long, thin tongue. “They eat the bessst partsss of usss,” he says. “But we do it, too. Erode what’sss good...or sssimply ssstrangle it.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Rodney says. Like he’s realizing it for the first time.
“Oh no?” John’s eyes are narrow slits in the dim light. “Well. We’ll sssee.”
He can’t breathe.
He swallows convulsively, and his throat constricts but cannot expand. There’s something around his throat. “Tyk!” he cries, his hands moving up and feeling...
...cool and slightly rough, like pebbles wrapped in silk...the body electric...
He gasps. “John?”
“Rodney? Nioke, not so hard! He’s not...”
Her hold loosens, and Rodney sits up as she slides away, down the length of his body, across the sheets, back to John. John’s sitting to the left of one of Rodney’s pillow pillars, barefoot, in a t-shirt and boxer shorts. Tyk is perched on top of the pillows, glaring at him and Nioke both.
Rodney should be afraid. Should be terrified, in fact. And yet, strangely--he’s not.
He swallows. “Either you just tried to kill me, or this is the weirdest proposition ever.”
John’s eyes go wide. In response, Rodney’s, if anything, go wider still. “I was kidding!” he says, but John’s face is back to its usual mask, and he’s moving steadily forward, pushing pillows away. Tyk scampers down and positions herself on his chest--inadequate protection, but it’s nice of her to try. “Rodney,” John says, voice a low growl, almost a hiss. The word vibrates, rippling across his tendons like ivory-handled hammers coaxing strings, and when John inclines his head, Rodney surprises himself by lifting his own to meet it.
Warm: John’s mouth is wonderfully warm, and his tongue (though not forked) is clever still. He reaches forward to caress the back of Rodney’s neck, and Rodney can feel Nioke’s body flush against his jugular, like the press of an electric coil. Not allowed to touch, he thinks, but he is. He is.
“So, yeah,” John says, when they break apart. “Weirdest proposition ever, basically.”
“I can do weird,” Rodney says. “Weird and I are very well acquainted.”
He looks around Rodney’s little nest. “So I’d imagine.”
Tykallita is still nestled on the curve of Rodney’s belly. She gives a mousy little cough. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Rodney says, “was I supposed to ask for your approval first?”
“It’s my fault,” says John, looking hesitant and, oddly, a little freaked out. “We, uh, haven’t been formally introduced.”
He’s looking at Rodney, and there’s something strangely vulnerable in his eyes. Rodney realizes with a start that he’s asking for permission to talk to Tyk. Rodney clears his throat. “Uh, this is Tykallita. And Tyk, this is--”
“John,” she says, “we all know he’s John, and thank you very much, I can speak for myself.”
John laughs. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s just...” He trails off.
“You can pick me up if you want,” Tyk says.
Wow, thinks Rodney, lying back against the pillow, so this is John Sheppard, completely disarmed. It’s quite a thing to see.
But not for long. “Okay,” John says. And gently, gently, he scoops Tyk into his hands.
Something races through Rodney, a magnetic thrill. It’s like the electric shock he felt when he first touched Nioke, only now the current’s reversed, flowing into him instead of out, coursing inside his body, his blood. All John’s doing is lightly stroking Tyk’s back, but it feels like his hands are everywhere, all over Rodney, in him, one with him. “Oh,” says Rodney, “oh! This is taboo why?”
John smiles. “All the best things are.”
“You--” He gropes at the air. “Okay, put her down, I need--you, you, I need you, just come here--”
John sets Tyk down beside them on the bed, where she collapses in a little spent heap. John leans forward and Rodney falls into him, desperate for it, for the weight of him, the taste, the shape of his shoulders his arms his hands, for every last foreign and familiar piece.
“Did it feel like this?” he asks. “When I...?”
“Well, I was kind of in unbearable pain at the time,” John says, disturbingly cheerful. “But there was a glimmer...”
“Then I owe you,” Rodney says.
He almost said: I know you.
“Yes, you do,” says John, grinning broadly. He extends his hand, palm up, and Nioke slithers over it, into Rodney’s.
John goes very still.
“Hi,” says Rodney, “we’ve sort of already met. Erm. Twice.”
She stares up at him through strange, pearlescent eyes slashed with narrow rings of black. Her tongue darts out, flicks lazily across the head of his thumb, smelling, tasting.
John makes a low noise, deep in his throat.
Encouraged, Rodney slowly runs a finger along the length of her back, taking care to move with the scales, not against. They ripple underneath his touch, green and silver and blue. Beautiful.
“She’s beautiful,” he says, an awed whisper. “John. She’s the color of the sky.”