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.
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.”