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Solving the Riddle

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“It’s been right under our noses the entire time!”

Rodney came awake suddenly to the sound of Daniel Jackson’s voice right next to his ear.

He flailed upright, panicking. “What? What?”

And then John was on his feet, buck naked, gun drawn.

Rodney blinked and saw that Daniel Jackson was - not quite in his room. Was standing on the other side of an open circular portal. Daniel was shirtless but looked like he was at least wearing boxer shorts.

Daniel blinked. “Major Sheppard?” He raised his hands slowly in a gesture of surrender.

All the color drained out of John’s face.

Rodney’s door banged open, and Evan and Dean, also completely naked, burst into Rodney’s room. Dean had his gun drawn and Evan had magic sparking on the palm of his hand, looked ready to throw it.

Dean snarled, “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”

Daniel swallowed hard. “It’s me, Dr. Jackson. And I wanted to tell Rodney that I found a homunculus. Or at least a start.”

Dean blinked, lowered his gun. “Oh, hey, Doc. Didn’t mean to threaten you. It’s just - Evan woke me up. Said he felt a massive breach of the wards.”

“Evan woke you up,” Daniel echoed slowly.

Dean was always careful to use Evan’s last name when they were around outsiders.

Dean turned just as pale as John.

And then an arm snaked around Daniel’s waist, and everyone in Rodney’s room heard General O’Neill murmur,

“C’mon back to bed, Danny.”

Dean blinked. Rodney blinked.

Daniel patted O’Neill’s wrist. “Yeah. Sure thing.” He smiled weakly at Rodney. “It just came to me. One of those eureka moments, you know? I’ll call back in the morning.”

He stepped back, and the portal vanished.

Evan closed his hand, and the magic vanished.

“Too many naked men in my room,” Rodney said.

Dean attempted to cover himself with his hands.

Evan rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, excuse us for putting your and John’s safety ahead of our modesty. C’mon, Dean. We’re going back to bed. I’ll see if there isn’t some way to work a kind of safety code so allies who bust through our wards don’t wake us up.” He caught Dean’s wrist, towed him out of the room, shut the door behind him.

Rodney heard Evan speaking to other people - it’s fine, false alarm - and then he turned to John.

John was still pale, breathing hard. He sank back down to the bed, set his gun on the night stand. “Did that really just happen?”

“Did Daniel Jackson just barge into our room in the middle of the night using magic? Yes.”

“But the thing - with O’Neill -”

“Also yes,” Rodney said, reaching out, putting a hand on John’s hip, grounding him. “So it’s safe to say that no matter what Daniel saw here tonight, your career is safe. Let’s go back to sleep.”

“Sleep,” John echoed, sounding dazed, and allowed Rodney to draw him back down between the sheets.

*

The next morning, Rodney shuffled into the main atrium, drawn by the scent of breakfast. Seeing Evan all sharply dressed, prim and buttoned up, was a bit of a cognitive dissonance, knowing that beneath his sharp suits and fashionable waistcoats and colorful bow ties he was covered in tattoos like some kind of Gothic Neo-pagan Siberian Prison Survivor.

But Evan set a place for Rodney, set a mug of coffee at his elbow, and bustled into the kitchen, reappeared with a fluffy egg-white omelet and sourdough toast.

Vala, sipping tea and finishing the last of what looked like French toast, raised her eyebrows at Rodney. “So. Last night. Too many naked men in your room. Do tell.”

“Gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell,” Evan said loftily and poured him some more tea.

“You think Rodney’s a gentleman?” Vala asked.

“When it comes to naked men, absolutely,” Evan said, and winked his glass eye, damn him.

Miko giggled, sobered when Rodney glared at her. “What actually happened last night?”

“Daniel Jackson opened a communication portal and let us know that he thinks he’s discovered the solution to the homunculus problem,” Rodney said. “And once again, it was right under our noses.”

“Did he say what the solution is?” Miko asked.

The Teams had been dispersed back to their outposts, the Atlantis Project on hold while Central Command tried to figure out what to do with a hundred kids.

Given that the Manticore children’s designations had gone up to almost eight hundred, it was either relieving or horrifying that there were only a hundred children in the X-5 series. Any people from the previous series - the so-called Nomlies - were being housed at Central Command for now.

But they weren’t done looking for Atlantis. Rodney was never done looking for Atlantis.

John cleared his throat. “Dr. Jackson was advised to contact us in the morning, at a more reasonable time.”

Miko nodded. “Fair enough.”

Evan finally sat down at the table beside Dean, digging into his own crepes, and a curious chiming sound filled the entire Bunker.

Sam, Dean, John, Vala, and Evan all went for their guns.

“What was that?” Miko asked.

Evan blinked, lowered his gun. “I think that was the Bunker’s doorbell.”

“The Bunker has a doorbell?” Rodney asked. His smartwatch buzzed. Incoming call. Daniel Jackson. He tapped the watchface to answer. “Hello?”

“Rodney. Will you let us in?”

“Us?” But Rodney was already rising out of his seat. “Us who?”

“Me and Sam and the rest of the team,” Daniel said, sounding very meek.

Rodney started toward the garage, paused. “Where’s the front door?”

Evan pointed toward the winding staircase that led to the upper floor of the atrium.

“Be right there,” Rodney said to Daniel, and he hurried up the stairs.

It was a very sheepish-looking Daniel Jackson who stood beside Samantha Carter at the Bunker’s front door. Rodney eyed the rest of Team Carter and wondered what, if anything, they knew. Jonas just smiled brightly at him and waved.

Carolyn sniffed the air. Then she wagged a finger at Rodney. “Are you sticking to the diet I gave you?”

“Yes, my omelet this morning was only egg whites.” Rodney rolled his eyes and opened the door wider. “Please, do come in. I’m sure Evan has extra pastries if anyone is hungry.”

Jennifer perked up at that.

Rodney turned and walked back down the stairs, and Team Carter followed him.

“You got here fast,” John drawled.

“Portal,” Daniel said, and hastened to add, “to a motel here in town.”

“Well, pull up a chair, and have some pastries,” Evan said, sailing out of the kitchen with a tray piled high with fresh-baked breakfast pastries.

“So,” Rodney said, sinking down at the table and resuming his omelet, “you said it’s been right under our noses the entire time.”

Daniel nodded, waved off the tray of pastries. Jennifer and Jonas pounced on it. “Yes. Miko, Samuel, Vala, and Lorne have all been working at making a digital version of the Bunker’s contents - scans of the books, and a digital catalogue of various artefacts, displays, and spell ingredients. I was poking around there the other night looking for anything similar to a homunculus, using broader search terms like manikin and small person.”

Just because Rodney and his team weren’t linguists didn’t mean they weren’t stupid. “We did the same thing.”

“Yes, well, I couldn’t sleep and I was trying to bore myself to sleep,” Daniel said. “Anyway, I veered away from the search terms and started going by descriptions, and what do you know, but there is stored away, as a spell component, a gingerbread man in a jar.”

Sam lit up. “A man in a jar. A homunculus!”

“Exactly,” Daniel said. “Not only is there the actual jar but also the recipe for it.”

“That gingerbread’s got to be pretty stale,” Dean said slowly.

“Not actually gingerbread,” Evan said, patting his wrist. “Probably mis-labeled by some well-meaning Men of Letters acolyte or initiate.”

“Someone scanned the catalog card for the entry,” Daniel said. “And guess who signed the jar out last?”

“Lewis,” Vala breathed, eyes wide.

“Exactly. So I figure we go find the jar, read the recipe, and then we can take a jaunt to Bonny Scotland.” Daniel beamed.

“Archive crawl!” Miko rubbed her hands together.

“After breakfast?” Jonas asked hopefully, croissant crumbs around his mouth.

“Yes, after breakfast.” Carolyn patted his arm gently.

While they ate, they talked. Alec, Zane, and Ben were living with Ma and Pa Mitchell, who also had about half a dozen other children awaiting new families. Clan Campbell and Bobby Singer had teamed up to help find hunter homes for any of the children who were interested in joining the fight - though they’d have to finish high school first and learn the lore, if not the combat skills. Zach and Rachel had used their extensive connections to find homes for any of the other children who wanted to have the most normal lives possible.

After breakfast, everyone helped pitch in with the clean-up, and then as one, both teams descended into the lower levels of the Bunker, into the heart of the archives.

“So,” Carter said, “I think we should make this interesting.”

“Interesting how?” Rodney asked.

“Whoever finds the homunculus first wins a prize.” Carter’s smile made Rodney very wary.

Jonas raised his eyebrows. “Their team has a clear advantage. Lorne knows these archives in and out, and Samuel probably knows them about as well.”

“Right,” Carter said, “but our team has had access to the catalogue reference ever since Daniel found it, and none of them have seen it.”

Rodney felt his watch buzz, glanced down. Text message from Evan. Catalogue reference. He looked back up at Carter. “What are your terms?”

“First one to find the homunculus gets to go to Atlantis,” Carter said. Her eyes gleamed.

Rodney felt his teammates shifting behind him. He had to stall, so they could look at the coordinates, formulate a plan of attack. “We have to set some ground rules. So no one gets injured, and so nothing gets damaged.”

Carter raised her eyebrows. “Does that mean you accept?”

Rodney hesitated.

Dean said, “Go for it, Doc.”

Rodney glanced over his shoulder. Dean was wearing his best devil-may-care grin. Rodney cleared his throat. “I’m not sure that now is the best time for your Marine bravado, Captain -”

“No, really,” Dean said. “Go for it.”

Rodney lifted his chin. “Fine. We accept. What are your terms?”

Daniel said, “Our terms -”

“Are irrelevant.” Evan pushed past Rodney and held out a giant cork-stoppered jar, dusty with age and containing a tiny clay figure splayed out and suspended in fading, sparking tendrils of magic, like a Vitruvian man.

Hailey blinked. “How did you do that?”

Evan smiled. “Like Jonas said, I know this place inside and out.”

“And he has magic,” Carolyn said, sighing.

“What about the recipe?” Daniel asked.

Evan held up a tiny, tightly-rolled scroll that was bound with a piece of string so old it was practically petrified. “It was attached to the jar.”

Rodney stared at it. Carter stared at it. Daniel stared at it.

Dean flicked one of his many knives open. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get this show on the road.” He reached for the scroll so as to cut the strung, but Daniel said,

“Wait! No, you can’t just - just cut it open like that. It’s an historical artefact. It needs to be handled carefully.”

“We need a specialized workspace,” Jennifer said.

It was Sam who said, “I know just the place.”

*

Sam hadn’t been kidding. Rodney had lived in the Bunker for how many years and hadn’t known there was an entire section of the second floor that was dedicated laboratory space for experiments.

“Magical experiments, mostly,” Evan said. “My grandfather conducted a lot of his research here.” He switched on the light and stepped into the room, and the rest of Team Magical Science followed behind him.

“What’s this?” Jonas asked, trailing his hands over what looked like part ammo reloading supplies, part crucible and distillation gear.

“That’s where Dean’s been working on making new ammo for The Colt.” Evan’s expression turned fond for a moment, but then he reached out, rapped his knuckles on the central workbench. “You should be able to find everything you need in here. Text me if you find something lacking.”

Jennifer and Miko made a beeline for the same cabinet.

Rodney set the homunculus jar own on the workbench.

Daniel and Sam carried the cases full of the ingredients both teams had spent months and months recovering.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Evan said, and started for the door.

Sam pulled on a pair of gloves and handed Daniel his work kit, all the tools an archaeologist needed to handle fragile artefacts. Daniel set the recipe scroll down on what looked like a cutting board, held out a hand. Sam placed a set of fine tweezers on his palm without a word.

“Where are you going?” Carter asked.

Evan looked puzzled. “To help everyone else make further arrangements for the Manticore children.”

“We need you here,” Carter said.

“But I’m not a scientist,” Evan said slowly.

“You’re a sorcerer, and the best one we’ve got,” Daniel said without looking up from his work. “Your magic will be invaluable.”

“We’re Team Magical Science, remember?” Miko beamed at Evan.

Evan sighed. “Dean is not allowed to name things anymore.”

Sam laughed.

But Evan shrugged off his jacket, draped it over one of the tall stools in the corner, and rolled up his sleeves. “Where should we begin?”

“With the recipe,” Daniel said. “Sam?”

Sam arranged a magnifying glass on a stand on the workbench so Daniel could see what he was doing in finer detail.

Everyone gathered around and watched as Daniel manipulated two pairs of tweezers expertly and actually managed to untie the string holding the scroll closed. Jonas immediately secured the string in a magical preservation container, also using a pair of tweezers for handling, and then Daniel unrolled the scroll very carefully.

Jennifer had her laptop at the ready, poised to take notes.

The recipe wasn’t in English. It wasn’t in any language Rodney recognized, just a series of loops and swirls, risers and descenders.

“Can you read it?” Carter asked.

“We should take pictures and then store the recipe for safekeeping, work from there,” Jonas said.

Daniel nodded. “My thoughts exactly.”

Jennifer and Jonas moved like a well-oiled machine, fetching more of Daniel’s equipment, the kind that could take good photos without damaging the ink. Rodney, Carter, Miko, Evan, and Sam stood back, let them work.

Evan glanced at his watch. “Hey, the others need me to help coordinate with Central Command about flights to Scotland and probes to send through the portal and what kind of gear to back. Unless you need me to help translate -”

Daniel waved a dismissive hand. “Go.”

Evan smiled and left.

Once all the photos were taken, Jennifer helped Daniel upload them from his digital camera onto her computer, and then it was translation time.

Translation was not one of Rodney’s fortes. Neither was it Sam’s.

“Did Lorne say something about a probe?” Carter asked.

Rodney nodded.

“I bet we could design one,” Carter said. She waved Miko and Sam over. “Obviously we can’t just go through the portal willy-nilly, not without some way home. So we’ll have to pack supplies to activate a similar portal set-up on the other end - assuming there is one. And we’ll have to make sure there are no immediate hazards on the other side. To that end - a probe. What would an probe need?”

“Visual relay,” Miko said, “to make sure there are standing stones on the other side.”

“Audio relay, too, to check for threats or signs of civilization,” Sam said.

Carter started making notes on her own laptop. “What else?”

“Some kind of atmospheric analyzer,” Rodney said. “These aliens are apparently human-adjacent sufficient to breed with the humans, but they’re not human. What’s liveable to them could be toxic to us.”

Carter nodded. “Good. It’ll need to be remote-controlled from our end, which would require some kind of mobility system. Treads? Wheels?”

“Dean’s the mechanical engineer,” Sam said. “He might have a better sense of what to use.”

“We’ll ask him.” Carter made a note.

“We can probably work some magic sigils into the design too,” Miko said. “In case there are wards or traps the probe triggers.”

“Good, good.” Carter smiled distractedly. “How’s it coming, Daniel?”

“Better, now that I can actually read the recipe,” he said.

Carter looked up from her laptop. “What language is it in?”

“Latin, predictably, given that it was the lingua franca of alchemy,” Daniel said. “But written in mirror mode, Da Vinci Style, by someone who had rather questionable handwriting.”

Rodney prowled closer to where Daniel was hunched over Jennifer’s laptop. “So we’ve got it?”

Daniel was smiling. “We’ve got it. Jennifer, ready to take notes?”

“Ready,” Jennifer said, with perfect military promptness.

Carter abandoned her laptop, and everyone gathered around Daniel while he recited the recipe.

In true alchemical fashion, the recipe was straightforward - if one had an alchemical sense of poetry.

“Remember the note in Lewis’s journal,” Jonas said. “The lyrics of the song.”

Daniel, Jonas, Jennifer, Miko, and Sam all recited in disturbing unison.

Earth, water, fire, air
Met together in a garden fair
Put in a basket bound with skin
If you answer this riddle
You’ll never begin

“Obviously this breath of Vulcan is fire,” Daniel said.

Miko produced the jar of ever-burning ifrit fire. Daniel did a double take when he saw that the jar was decorated with a paper Batman costume.

Jonas scanned the text of the Latin transcription Daniel had whipped up. “The glorious Zephyr has to be air.”

“The human clay is, well, golem clay, in this case.” Daniel pushed his glasses further up his nose.

“At least there’s no weird euphemisms for water,” Sam murmured.

“Because water is basic. Pure,” Daniel said.

Rodney couldn’t help but hum the strange tune of the song that contained the homunculus recipe. “Does the recipe you have there match up with the song at all?”

“Everything but the basket of skin,” Jonas said.

Rodney shivered. A basket made of skin was macabre, to say the least.

“Maybe the basket of skin is metaphorical, too,” Carter offered.

“Yes, thankfully,” Jonas began, then made a face. “Maybe not so thankfully.”

“What’s wrong?” Miko asked. She peered at the laptop and also made a face.

Rodney leaned in, scanned the recipe. “We’re all adults here. Think of it as science. It’s not like we have to use hydrofluoric acid.”

Once the recipe was fully deciphered, it was quite simple: mix a set proportion of earth and water to form a clay, shape it into a humanoid figure - the description of a gingerbread man was quite apt, given how vaguely humanoid the figure could be. Air-dry the figurine with the magical air. Cover it in a “skin” - more properly like a ceramic glaze - made of ground sunstone, blood of a magician, and semen of a magician, and then fire it in a kiln using magical fire. Bury it in a magical garden - a terrarium with a plant growing in it, one bedded and nourished with yet more magical harvested ingredients, and after so many days, the homunculus could be dug up and set in its jar till it was ready to be used.

“Grow a plant,” Rodney echoed, when Daniel finished outlining the plan.

Daniel nodded.

Rodney sighed. “This is going to take forever.”

“Not necessarily,” Jonas said. “Certain plants - marigolds, cosmos, celosias, bachelor buttons, alyssums - sprout in five to seven days.”

“A week’s not that bad,” Rodney conceded. “So we figure out how long it’ll take to mix the homunculus paste and shape it, fire it, subtract that from seven days. If we plant a flower right away -”

“It’s not just arts and crafts,” Jennifer said. “Magical spells also have to be woven into every stage of construction.”

Rodney frowned. “Magical spells? That’s a tiny scroll! How many magical spells -”

“The recipe references a specific volume full of all the spells we need.” Jonas held out his tablet, showed Rodney a digital copy of the book, and all its contents.

“Some of us will have to wield the magic while other people do the actual making,” Daniel said.

“So it’s all hands on deck,” Rodney said. He scanned the recipe some more. “We’re definitely going to need Evan. He’s done ceramics work before.”

“Of course he has,” Jennifer said.

It was Miko who started to sing The Unchained Melody. Daniel joined in. He had a surprisingly nice singing voice. Carter and Jonas joined in as well.

It took Rodney a moment to figure out the allusion. He sighed. “Really? Can we try to be professional about this?”

“Come on,” Miko said. “As soon as we mentioned ceramics, everyone was thinking it.”

“Thinking what?” Jonas asked. He’d led a bit of a sheltered life. “It’s a nice song. That’s why we were singing it, right?”

“No,” Jennifer said. “Miko was referring to the old movie Ghost. There’s a scene in the movie, involving ceramics. And that song.”

Rodney stared at him. “Why do I know this and you don’t?”

Jonas shrugged. “I have a photographic memory for books, not movies. Never cared much for movies.”

“If Evan ever heard you singing that, he’d be terribly embarrassed,” Rodney said.

Sam said, “Yeah, but you know Dean would totally sing the song too.”

So Evan and Dean’s thing was an open secret, then. Had Daniel and O’Neill’s thing been an open secret on their team? Carter seemed amused.

“Well, let’s get started,” Rodney said. “Measure out the ingredients in separate bundles - some for the garden, some for the homunculi themselves. We need seeds. How about - Bachelors Buttons, for the whole theme of a man in a jar?”

“Noted,” Miko said.

“Also,” Sam said, “we need a kiln.”

Unsurprisingly, the Bunker also had its own kiln, so the Men of Letters could manufacture their own blessed and warded containers. Evan did indeed have extensive experience with ceramics - all kinds of visual art, short of movies - and he was willing to help with the sculpting of the homunculi.

Teldy had arranged for open-ended tickets for both teams to Scotland, and she was looking into lodgings for them while they were there.

“A bed and breakfast?” Teal’c asked.

Daniel explained what it was.

“But we are capable of preparing our own food,” Teal’c said. “Anything Evan Lorne prepared would be far superior to what a local resident could prepare.”

“I’m flattered you think so,” Evan said.

Carolyn and John had been dispatched to acquire some Bachelors Button seeds, and they were coordinating with Miko via text message about local nurseries, home improvement stores, and ag supply stories.

Vala said, “If we’re going over there, we might as well enjoy ourselves.”

“It’d be about the same price to rent RVs and park them up there,” Teldy said, “once you factor in fuel and cooking supplies and buying our own food.”

“It’s a holiday tradition, in the British Isles,” Vala insisted, and Teal’c inclined his head, acknowledging her cultural wisdom.

“So, how are we going to do this?” Dean asked. “You guys plant the seeds, wait three days, then Evan starts making little clay gingerbread men while everyone takes turn chanting all the magic, and then we bury the gingerbread men, and after twelve days, we have magical batteries to power intergalactic Stonehenge portals.”

Carter nodded. “That’s about the size of it.”

“And for one of the ingredients you need me and Evan to, you know -” Dean hummed some of The Unchained Melody.

Evan blushed.

Jonas looked confused.

“Well, we need the one ingredient from Evan, but given that you two are magically linked, it’s probably best if you - help,” Jennifer said as diplomatically as possible.

Evan blushed more.

Dean waggled his eyebrows and hummed the song some more. “Hey, does this place have a jukebox?”

“Yes,” Evan said, “and under no circumstances are you to put your hands anywhere near me or the clay while I’m working with it.”

“Spoilsport,” Dean muttered.

Rodney couldn’t help but smile indulgently when Evan sighed and pressed a kiss to Dean’s brow in apology, because they had a plan. They were going to Atlantis.

*

Rodney had wanted to get started as soon as John and Carolyn returned with the seeds and three fancy glass terrarium globes. While they were out, Evan and Teldy had drawn up a schedule for the homunculus-making process. It was a wonder any one person had ever managed it before. They’d put as much flexibility into the process as possible, but it was a good thing everyone had smart phones that were synchronized, because everyone’s lives were about to get turned upside down as people were subject to timers and sleep schedules going awry.

John set the shopping bags down on the lab workbench. “For extra symbolism, we got seeds that are of the Blue Boy variety.”

Rodney reached into the nearest bag. “Let’s do this.”

Sam put a hand on his arm. “Hey, this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. We can’t just - we need to prepare. Remember the time I cured Qetesh?”

“That was only eight hours,” Rodney said.

“Right. And I was exhausted afterward. We’re talking about a process that will take several weeks. Let’s give ourselves a chance to rest up first, all right? Just twenty-four hours.”

“But -”

“Atlantis has been waiting for millennia,” Daniel said. “It can wait for a few more hours.”

Rodney frowned, but John said, “Yeah. We all need to make sure we’re in the right frame of mind. So - let’s make sure we have everything laid out, step by step, which spells need to be said when, and by whom. Have backups of backups, copies and spare copies of everything. And once that’s done, twenty-four hours of leave. That’s my command decision for my team. Colonel?”

Carter nodded. “I agree.”

“But - you only command the military,” Rodney protested.

John tugged Rodney around to face him, looked into his eyes. “Give yourself a break. Give us a break, too. Two weeks ago we went on a mass-scale raid on a covert government facility. For months we’ve been searching for a way to unlock the gate to Atlantis. We have hundreds of children and prisoners to deal with, not to mention the fact that we’ve poked the hornet’s nest on an international, centuries-old conspiracy led by a Prince of Hell.”

“When you put it that way - fine. Final prep, then a break.” Rodney went to lean in and kiss away John’s little triumphant smirk; just because the man was right didn’t mean he needed to gloat.

And then he remembered they weren’t alone.

And then he remembered that they didn’t have to hide anymore, so he pressed a kiss to the corner of John’s mouth.

John’s smirk turned into a bright smile, and then he was barking orders, and Sam, Dean, and Evan were scrambling to obey.

At the end of four hours of scanning, transcribing, photocopying, and Miko and Jennifer having far too much fun messing with everyone’s phones, every flat surface in the lab that wasn’t covered with homunculi-making supplies was covered in paper. And colored labels. Evan and Teldy had assigned everyone label colors, and everyone’s copies of the schedule and spells were labeled neatly in specific colors. There was a set arrangement for who cast which spells when, and backups for each spellcaster, and a thousand other redundancies that made Rodney’s head spin but made Evan and Teldy happy, bless their anal retentive little hearts.

Evan got it into his head to make some kind of fancy dinner to celebrate their being done with preparations, and he even made it as far as the kitchen to get his pasta maker before Dean caught up to him and convinced him to join everyone for dinner at a nice restaurant in town.

“How nice is nice?” Evan asked warily.

“Nice enough that you will be impressed with their cooking and they’ll take Rodney’s allergy seriously,” Carolyn said, though she tucked an epi pen into her pocket as she said it.

Evan eyed Dean. “You promise?”

“I promise. We all promise. Put the pasta maker down.”

Evan set the pasta maker down slowly, as if he were setting down his weapon so as not to startle a cornered target. “Fine. But - let’s get all dressed up.”

Dean immediately looked alarmed, but Miko and Vala lit up like Christmas had come early, so Dean said, “Okay. Just - no wild colors.”

Evan nodded, and everyone dispersed.

Dressing up usually meant throwing on a Fed suit. Rodney hoped his had been cleaned recently. He headed back to his room, dug around in his closet till he found his nicer suit, the one he used for giving science presentations at conferences and conventions. It still fit, because he was making an effort to stay in shape, and he found one of the dark colored shirts Evan had bought for him in a random spree of Shopping for Rodney (he went on random sprees with everyone on the team but hadn’t had a chance to do it for John yet).

Rodney showered, shaved, combed his hair. He contemplated cologne, decided against it, and headed back to his room to dress. He’d just about gotten his tie right when he heard footsteps and he turned. John stood in the doorway, wearing a sleek dark suit and button-down shirt so white it almost glowed. It was unbuttoned at the collar, because of course he wasn’t wearing a tie. Even though his hair was as unruly as ever, it somehow looked perfectly coiffed, as if a team of stylists had spent an hour arranging it just so.

John looked - beautiful.

Rodney was torn between demanding Evan photograph him for posterity and dragging him into the room and carefully peeling him out of his suit (so it could be worn again, if only briefly).

John’s eyes widened slightly, and he said, “You look amazing.”

“Oh. Thank you. I just - my tie -” Rodney gestured to himself vaguely.

John crossed the room, reached up, finished tying Rodney’s tie. “There. Perfect.”

“I’m hardly perfect,” Rodney began, but John pressed a finger to his lips.

“Perfect,” he said again, and before Rodney could protest, leaned in and kissed him.

They assembled in the Bunker’s garage with plans to carpool in Dean’s Baby, Rodney’s car, and Carter’s car. Everyone was dressed up in their finest. Of course the men had packed suits, because one never knew when one would have to impersonate a federal officer or someone else respectable. Teal’c was wearing a fedora to cover the gold mark on his forehead. The women were all stunning. Miko was wearing some kind of ultra-modern kimono in pinks and blacks. It had a plunging neckline and beads strung along the obi and fell just short of her knees. Jennifer’s hair was piled up in ornate golden curls - she was so very blonde - and Vala was wearing an ornate lace choker that was studded with crystals. Teldy wore a sleek, dark blue floor-length dress that made her look like she was all legs. Carolyn wore a black and white dress that might have belonged at Ascot. Carter was wearing a black backless dress that flared around her knees and had red straps that tied around her neck.

Before Rodney could say something stupid, like I remember why I had a crush on you, Carter smiled at him and said, “You clean up nice, Rodney.”

So he said, “Thank you.”

Then they piled into their cars and hit the town.

Dean hadn’t lied. Between him, Sam, and Teldy, they’d found a restaurant that would meet Evan’s exacting cooking standards and respect Rodney’s health concerns. Cafe Beautiful boasted a master chef whose specialty was Asian fusion, and she had a reputation for respecting her guests’ dietary restrictions. Apparently the menu was different every time. How they’d managed to get in on such short notice was beyond Rodney, though he suspected Teldy’s hand in it, because she was possibly more of a planner than Evan.

The restaurant was aptly named - lit soft and golden with classy wooden furniture, Asian-themed decorations, pale white dishes and tea candles on the table.

The chef was a lovely woman with short hair and an intricate tattoo on her left arm. She greeted them warmly, seated them, and then presented the first course. While they sampled it, she talked to them. Evan was effusive with his praise, and when the chef - Mel - realized he was an amateur chef himself, their conversation turned both lively and technical.

Apparently Mel was the restaurant’s only employee, so when she was in the back cooking, Rodney and the others were left to converse quietly with each other. They didn’t talk about work. Instead they talked about how both Carter and Sam were learning to play the cello, and how Rodney’s entire team had their own Knight Hunters guild. Teal’c discussed his love of all things Star Wars, and Carolyn explained the complicated timeshare arrangement she had with Carson Beckett over his pet turtles, because she traveled too much to have pets of her own. Daniel and Jonas had a timeshare in a fish tank that Bill Lee took care of.

Jennifer was looking to get her masters in astrophysics just like Carter. Teldy had just finished her masters in engineering and hoped to make Major in the next round of promotions. Dean was working on restoring one of the other cars he’d found in the garage at the Bunker. Evan was trying to learn how to knit, but it wasn’t going so well, and he expected to have produced a scarf by next winter. Rodney solicited input from the team about what to get Madison for her next birthday. Miko explained that she’d learned from her nieces that Monster High dolls were popular with girls these days.

Everyone at the table gave a collective shudder at the thought of the creatures they hunted being presented as cute and friendly to children.

Legos were always a good option - fun and educational, and Madison was old enough not to try to swallow them. Miko reported that Zoobles and Squinkies were also popular.

“Now you’re just making words up,” Daniel said.

“I’m not,” Miko said. She tried to explain how the toys worked - Squinkies were tiny and kids could change their hair. Zoobles were colored balls but when placed on magnetic pedestals they sprang open and became cute animals.

“Like Pokemon?” Jonas asked.

“No,” Miko said. “Like - Zoobles.”

Vala was working her way through the collected works of Charles Dickens. Everyone chimed in with which Dickens books they’d had to read in school, plus did anyone remember the Oliver Twist musical that was super disturbing when poor Nancy got beaten to death? Jonas had read not only the collected works of Dickens but also a series of literary analysis journal articles about them, if Vala was interested in further insight into Dickens’s common themes and leitmotifs.

“What did you major in?” Rodney asked.

“General studies,” Jonas said.

“Which pretty much means everything,” Carolyn said.

The food was delicious, and Evan made Dean promise to bring him there again. Between the food and the conversation and the fine wine, the evening was relaxing, pleasant, full of laughter and good humor. Afterward, they all headed back to the Bunker.

Daniel was opening a portal to wherever O’Neill was as soon as he was out of the car, promised to be back at the end of his leave. Evan was already unfastening Dean’s tie. Rodney led John back to his room (Rodney’s bed was bigger and his mattress nicer) and the rest barely had time to say good night.

Rodney closed the door. John locked it and, for good measure, cast a soundproofing spell.

“Trick I learned from Evan,” he said, and started to shrug off his jacket.

Rodney reached out, stilled him. “Allow me.” He caught John’s gaze, held it.

Heat flared in John’s gaze. “Anything you want.”

Rodney wanted all right, and tonight they could really take their time. He leaned in, kissed John on the mouth, peeled the jacket off of him, set it aside carefully. “I want you,” he said.

John reached up, loosened Rodney’s tie. “Then have me.”

So Rodney did.

*

Their day off included time off for Evan, so when Rodney and John stumbled into the atrium in their pajamas, they heard a teenage boy saying,

“I never knew anyone lived here.”

“We’re on the road a lot for our research,” Evan said, “so we’re not here often, and usually we cook, but we’re about to start some pretty intense science experiments, so we’ll be having a lot of food delivered.”

“Rock on,” the boy said. “Good luck with your science.”

The upper door closed, and then Evan descended the stairs with a box from a local bakery. “Breakfast time.”

John fixed coffee for Rodney and hot cocoa for himself, and they each ate a couple of pastries. Other people wandered in and out for food. Vala grabbed a plate full of pastries, thanked Evan, and then spoke into her headset. She was gaming online. In addition to the team’s Knight Hunters guild, she was part of another, and she tended to binge-play with them. Rodney suspected most of her other guild was teenagers, and they didn’t notice when Vala missed cultural allusions that her same-age peers understood. She wandered out, discussing dungeon raid strategies.

Evan had obligingly fixed portals for most of Carter’s team to go and hang out with their families for an afternoon. Carter was in Denver visiting her brother and niece and nephew. Teldy was in New York seeing her sister. Jennifer was back in Connecticut with her parents. Carolyn was in DC as well, visiting her father. Miko was also back in California visiting her sister. Teal’c, Daniel, and Jonas were on some kind of cultural quest in town, in search of the ultimate Country Breakfast from a local diner. Dean had given them some starting advice, and they’d set out, Jonas with car keys in hand, Daniel with one of his ubiquitous pocket-sized leather-bound journals, and Teal’c wearing a very stylish fedora.

“What about you?” Dean asked. He was shirtless and wearing drawstring pajama bottoms, barefoot beside Evan at the table. “You not going back to visit your Mom and Nan and Tally?”

“No,” Evan said. “I’m staying here with you.”

Dean’s expression softened. He scratched the back of his neck. “Oh. I - I’m glad.”

Rodney tactfully didn’t mention the kiss-shaped bruise on Dean’s jaw just below his ear.

“What about Sam?” Evan handed Dean a plate with a couple of his favorite pastries.

Dean huffed. “He’s sealed away in his room with every volume of The Wheel of Time ever.”

“Don’t knock it,” Sam said, breezing into the room, open book in hand. He was like a giant, male version of what’s-her-face from the Disney Beauty and the Beast cartoon, nose constantly in a book. “We wouldn’t have found the way to Atlantis if not for a children’s fantasy series. I did a crawl through the Men of Letters registries and I’m cross-referencing it with published fantasy writers. In addition to Frank L. Baum -”

“From the Wizard of Oz?” John asked.

Sam nodded.

Rodney perked up. “Who else have you found?”

“His name is Brandon Sanderson. A legacy a couple of generations removed.” Sam smiled, grabbed a couple of pastries - not nearly as many as a man his size needed - and breezed back out of the room.

He hadn’t looked up from his book the entire time.

John blinked. “That was -”

“Been like that ever since he was a kid,” Dean said. “So unfair he got all the tall genes. If I were his size -”

“You’re just the right size,” Evan said, and kissed Dean’s bare shoulder. Then he hooked a finger into the waistband of Dean’s pants and tugged him toward their room. “Just for today, I won’t complain if you get crumbs in the bed.”

“They’re like a pair of teenagers,” Rodney said, watching them go.”

John shrugged. “Well, Evan’s not all human.”

Rodney eyed him speculatively. “Neither are you.”

“And all I have is The Sight and these ears to show for it.”

Rodney said, “I like your ears.”

John ducked his head, blushed.

They finished their coffee and pastries, and back to their room they went.

It was the perfect day off, leisurely rounds of making love, then curling up nude in bed together and reading, occasionally dragging on just enough clothing to be decent for their teammates and colleagues and venturing into the kitchen for food.

For a while, after one particularly long and sensuous round of lovemaking, they lay side by side and stared up at the ceiling.

“What do you think Atlantis will be like?” John asked.

“Beautiful,” Rodney said. “Possibly terrible.”

“Do you think it’ll be like that pendant Jackson had?”

Rodney turned to look at him. “Like that pendant how?”

John’s head was pillowed on his arms, his gaze distant and thoughtful. “I could feel it, in the back of my mind. Like - when you’re envisioning one of your own limbs doing something, or imagining it. Only when I imagined it doing something, something actually happened.”

“You think you’ll be able to talk to the city or something? With your mind?” Rodney asked.

John snorted. “No. Cities don’t talk. But I wonder if it’ll have more mind-controlled technology. Could be pretty cool.”

“Limited in its usefulness, though, if only a fraction of our population can use it,” Rodney said.

John rolled onto his side, looked at Rodney. “Maybe Carolyn and Beckett could rig up some kind of gene therapy. So more people could use it.”

Rodney’s eyes lit up. “Hey, that’s a good idea.”

“I may not be a genius, but I occasionally have good ideas,” John said.

Rodney hushed his self-deprecation with a kiss.

Then they both rolled onto their backs, returned to their study of the ceiling once more.

John asked, “Why Atlantis?”

“What do you mean?”

“What’s your obsession with Atlantis? I mean - you’re a physicist. Atlantis is a myth, a legend. How did you even come to be interested in magic and the supernatural?”

Rodney frowned. Surely he and John had talked about - but then he and John had never talked about Holland or what really went down in Afghanistan or even much about John’s ex-wife. Rodney’s team had somehow come up with the theory that Jeannie had died in a magical experiment gone wrong, and he’d let them believe that, hadn’t told them the whole truth.

“I grew up with magic,” he said. “Not the way Evan, Sam, and Dean did. My family was neither hunters nor Men of Letters, nor were they witches. But they were Men of Letters adjacent, I think. Grandpa McKay knew some measure of magic, and he passed it on to my father, who passed it on to me and Jeannie. Grandma McKay was the scientist in the family, and she taught Jeannie and I to love science as just another form of magic. We could do small things - minor illusions, minor elemental control. We started researching other things - minor elemental creation, minor time spells. We learned to measure the energy input and output of our small spells. And then Jeannie met Kaleb.”

“Madison’s father.”

“He was a Neo-pagan white witch wannabe English major. He and Jeannie were at the library looking for a book of magic, reached for the same book at the same time, it was all very romantic comedy. But they fell in love and got married and she abandoned college to be a housewife. She taught him real magic, though, and eventually they both came back to me to keep studying and learning. And they started experimenting with bigger, scarier magic. Jeannie was brighter than me, so she tended to reach for things that were beyond even my grasp.”

“Brighter than you?” John asked softly. “That - wow.”

“Well, brighter at some things, because a spell went awry and Kaleb nearly died, and she performed soul magic to save him. Madison was on the way and - I understand where she was coming from. At the time none of us understood the gravity of what she had done.”

“And then?”

“Then she and Kaleb moved from soul magic to spirit magic.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Soul magic involves using souls to power spells and tying souls together. Spirit magic involves summoning spirits.”

“You mean demons.”

“Demon rode Kaleb to death.”

“I’m sorry,” John said softly.

“Hindsight is twenty-twenty and all that,” Rodney said. “I went looking for a way to save her, to bring her back, to sever the soul bond, something. Nearly made a deal with a crossroads demon. Daniel, O’Neill, and Carter put a quick stop to that. Taught me more about hunting. So I studied up on lore, and I discovered Atlantis.”

“What about it?”

“There are multiple lost continents and cities, not just Atlantis. Lemuria, Mu, Hyperborea, Thule, Rutas, Kumari Kandam, Avalon, Shambala and Shangri-La, Lyonesse, El Dorado. They share similar themes: advanced magic and/or technology, the source of great wisdom taught by superhuman beings, and power over life and death.”

“And if we find Atlantis -”

“I can ask its denizens to help me save Jeannie, or at least be sure she’s at peace.”

John curled his hand over Rodney’s arm. “Sam and Dean know angels, though, right? Couldn’t they ask?”

“That was - before. Apart from the fact that Dean can occasionally be prayed to like an angel, angels are just - gone. Like most demons.”

“My very first hunt was a demon.”

“Ba’al. Prince of Hell. Sent him back down below. He’ll claw his way out eventually, I’m sure.” Rodney closed his eyes, swallowed. Then he opened his eyes and looked at John. “I understand now that trying to reverse what nature has wrought, like Jeannie’s death, is a spectacularly poor choice. Even so, I want to learn more. Know more. To protect Madison. And you.”

John gazed at him for a long moment. Then he said, “Rodney McKay, you might not know this, but you’re an incredibly kind person.”

Rodney huffed. “I’m a scientist. Knowledge is what I thirst for, hunger for.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” John insisted. He edged closer to Rodney. “I’ll be there every step of the way, all right? You and me against the world, to get to Atlantis.”

“Madison is all I have left of Jeannie,” Rodney said. And then he realized. “If I lose you - what will I have left of you?”

“You won’t lose me,” John said.

Rodney frowned. “You can’t promise me that. You -”

John silenced him with a kiss. That turned into another kiss, and another, and another, and Rodney let John case his worries away with lips and hands and body.

After that, they drifted off to sleep, tangled around each other, the two of them against the world.

*

Preparing to engage in about a fortnight’s worth of constant magic was like preparing to go onstage for a live performance. Rodney hadn’t acted seriously since high school, when he’d won an award for his monologue at the Sears Drama Festival, but it felt the same, the build of tension, the checking and re-checking. Reviewing his share of the spells felt like reviewing his lines. When he was assembled with the rest of his teammates and colleagues in the Bunker’s aboveground greenhouse, waiting for the clock to strike eleven so they could begin mixing the planting components so Evan could plant the seeds in the terrarium right at noon, was like waiting in the wings for the curtain to rise.

They had to begin and end as a team, all fourteen of them. Rodney felt his watch buzz.

Curtain rise.

He inhaled, and then he began to chant, ancient syllables twisting off of the tip of his tongue as Dean helped Evan lay living earth in the bottom of three glass globes, helped him prepare the soil with water purified with living air and living fire. There was a spell for each glass globe, to give it strength and protection. There were spells for the soil, to make it rich and life-giving. There were spells for the water, to make it pure and refreshing. There was a spell for when the soil went into the globes, and spells for when the water was added.

And then there was that interminable three-minute wait before the clock struck noon, like an in-drawn breath before the next line.

The next magical utterances were sighs of relief as Dean dug little divots into the soil, and Evan lay in the seeds and covered them over, and Dean covered Evan’s hand with his.

Carolyn, Jennifer, and Teldy were the ones who cradled the globes close to their bellies while the others chanted fertility spells, life-giving spells, blessings from the All Mother and Goddess and Universal She to make the seeds take deep root in the soil and receive much nourishment.

Miko, Vala, and Carter were the ones who held the globes toward the noonday sun while the others recited the poems and songs for steady growth, strength, length, height, and blooming.

And then it was back down to the lab, where terrariums were set in the middle of the work bench with sun lamps arranged around them just so and then wards and protective spells were raised around them to protect them from tipping or rolling or breaking or other accidental or deliberate harm.

From there, the full cast dispersed, and it was parts. Rodney kissed John on the cheek and departed from him, went back to their room to get in a nap. It took him a bit to fall asleep, because he was sure he could feel all the raw magic thrumming in the air, but then he was opening his eyes because his watch was buzzing and beeping with his alarm.

“That’s my cue,” he said, and headed for the lab. John kissed him on the cheek, and Rodney stepped into the spell-casting circle to relieve him.

Miko, who had steady hands, had relieved Evan in his mixing of the ingredients to make the clay they needed to shape the homunculi.

One shaped the clay, five chanted, one fetched food and drink and spelled the others when they needed bathroom breaks. Shifts of seven, rotating in three new people every four hours. Seven was such a powerful number.

Carter had steady hands, as did Daniel and Jonas and Sam. After a certain point, Evan had to go it alone. Because Evan was Evan and did nothing by half measures, he wasn’t content with shaping a crude clay gingerbread man. Once the clay was mixed, he went to work with his tools and shaped tiny Vitruvian men, in perfect anatomical detail, every muscle and joint and bone, every curl of hair, every facial feature.

Everyone assisted with the grinding of the sunstones, which had to be done by hand and with additional spells incanted over them, imbuing the powder with the power of the sun and life and growth and warmth. Everyone who’d ever used magic - which was the entirety of both teams - constituted magicians for the purposes of the recipe, and so they all contributed blood, which Carolyn acquired with her top-notch phlebotomy skills.

When the time came for Dean and Evan to procure the final ingredient of the glaze, Evan laid a circle of tea lights around the workbench, set up a comfy mattress below the work bench, cast some strengthening spells on the workbench so it wouldn’t be jostled or moved, and then the five spellcasters were sent out of the room, arranged in pentagon and chanting, focusing their energy on the room.

Evan and Dean closed the door, and Evan incanted a soundproofing spell, and then Rodney focused on delivering his lines, saying the spells.

Acting was about commitment, about energy. A performance required emotion and soul from an actor. Magic, too, required commitment - of willpower, of emotion and energy. So Rodney closed his eyes and reached out, felt the others, matched his voice with theirs, and focused on the magic in the air around them. Was this what it had felt like, for John? When he activated the Atlantean pendant?

Rodney opened his eyes but didn’t waver from his spellcasting when he heard the lab door open. Dean and Evan stood there, shirtless, skin rosy-gold in the soft candlelight, hair mussed, chests heaving.

“It’s done,” Evan said, and the spellcasters moved back into the lab. All three homunculi were painted in glaze and glittered ominously.

They had to wait till midnight to bury to homunculi in the terrariums. Thankfully, all three plants were sprouting on schedule. All fourteen of them were present for the planting of the homunculi, and then it was back to their strict shift rotation. Spellcasting on this scale was part dance, part play. Know your steps, know your words.

Then it was twelve days of constant spellcasting, day and night, the same spells over and over again, to give the little men breath and life. People also had to take turns watering the nurturing the plants. By the end of the twelve days, Rodney could’ve recited the spells in his sleep. Sometimes he felt like he was sleep-casting. Evan actually did sleep-cast one night.

But at the end of twelve days, the terrariums were taken back up to the greenhouse, and the three homunculi were unearthed under the noonday sun while both teams looked on.

Miko and Sam, Jonas and Jennifer, Vala and Teal’c were given the honor of welcoming each new little man into the world. Vala smoothed the soil away very carefully and scooped up the little homunculus. She dusted the dirt off of him with her fingertip. Rodney leaned in to peer at the little man - spread-eagled, lifelessly still.

And then he moved.

“Quick, quick!” Daniel said.

It was Evan who captured the man, placed him into an ensorcelled jar that looked like a replica of the one they’d found their original homunculus in. The other three were unearthed and captured in short order. Rodney stared, awed and a little disturbed, when all three men lay on their backs on the bottom of their jars, like they were going to sleep. Their movement was smooth and too graceful to be human.

And then they were lifeless and still once more.

“What does that mean?” Vala asked. “Are they broken?”

“No,” Daniel said. “That means they’re saving their energy and are ready to be used. We have four now - one to open the gate on our end and a spare, and one to open the gate in Atlantis so you can come back, and a spare.”

“Open the gate,” Rodney echoed faintly. His heart thumped oddly.

Carter nodded. “Open the gate.”

John glanced at his watch. “Well, what are we waiting for? We have open-ended tickets to Scotland. Let’s go.”

“Dean and I are already packed,” Evan said.

“So am I,” Teldy said.

Vala huffed, amused. “Of course you are.”

“We need to pack the scientific equipment, though,” Carter said.

“Anne and I can take care of that,” Evan said.

Sam swayed on his feet, stumbled. Miko and Jennifer both leaped to steady him, which was hilarious, as both of them barely came to his shoulders.

“You need to rest, Lieutenant Winchester,” Teal’c said, reaching out and taking Sam’s weight from Miko and Jennifer.

Sam blinked. “What? No, I’m fine -”

“Rest, Lieutenant,” John said, and Sam snapped to some semblance of attention, blinking tiredly.

“We should all rest,” Carter agreed.

Rodney would have protested, but John yawned as well, and Rodney realized he, too, was exhausted. Atlantis had waited millennia. It could wait a few hours longer. So he nodded, and he started to guide John back to his room. Behind him, Evan was offering to open a portal to Central Command so Daniel could see O’Neill.

Rodney and John stripped down to their underwear and tumbled into Rodney’s bed together.

“Tomorrow,” Rodney said. “We go to open the gates of Atlantis.”

John nodded, his face buried against Rodney’s neck where he was spooned up behind him. “Tomorrow. Tonight, though. You and me.” He kissed Rodney softly, and together they tumbled into dreams.