Born in the Barrens
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Rating: T for occasional swearing and references to torture
Genre: AU, adventure, angst, h/c, gen
Characters: Initially only McKay and Sheppard (although he isn't named), plus assorted Genii. Others appear later
Warnings: There are mentions of torture. It's not immensely graphic, and most of it's seen in brief flashbacks, but it's still there. Also, AU alert!
Summary: While on a mission to the city of the Genii, Rodney McKay, master alchemist, is given a gift of a slave.
Note: In the wish fulfilment challenge on sgaflashfic, kriadydragon/Stealth Dragon wished for a story in which Sheppard was an abused slave. I took elements from the two different scenarios she suggested, merged them and mixed them up in a pot, and this emerged. At some 60,000 words, it clearly doesn't really merit the term "flashfic." Oops.
Thanks to ValleyA for reading it through in advance and giving such helpful comments.
"I will miss you," Kolya said, as he etched his mark with the tip of his knife. "You suffer so beautifully."
The slave stared rigidly straight ahead. The pain was hot and sharp, digging into him like barbed claws, but it was nothing, really. He had suffered far worse.
"There." Kolya took a step back, raising his knife to the light. Blood stained it half way to the hilt. "You never scream." Something sparked in his eyes that could have been interest.
The slave stared straight ahead.
Kolya walked around him in a slow semi-circle, tweaking the chains of quickened iron that bound him. "You never scream," he said, just a breath and a presence at the slave's back. "Why not?"
The slave did not know, but he would never say that; words did not come easily to him. He felt Kolya grab his hair; felt Kolya's finger ping against the thick metal collar around his neck.
"It is beautiful," he heard, "to watch you struggle so hard to keep it in. Your eyes say more than ever a scream could do." Then Kolya's voice changed. He slapped the slave on the shoulder, between healing scars and healed ones. "It's time to go. You have a new master now. Will you scream for him, I wonder?"
It was never truly dark in the city of the Genii. They were addicted to alchemy – not good at it, mind, but fascinated by it, gleefully producing simple, glittering toys. Discs of incandescent metal topped the towers and engine-houses, making it a sky of a hundred false moons. Their nights were silver and black, and their days were cold and gleaming.
Silver flowed in through the quickened glass of the windows. Rodney rolled over, pressing his forearm against his eyes. His fingertips smarted with the aftermath of late-night working, and his dreams were heavy with memories of places he would rather be. Home, he was home - or perhaps by the ocean, beneath pinnacles of crystal and carved stone. He was in a place with colour and with no--
"Adept McKay." The voice penetrated his dreaming.
"What…?" Rodney threw off his blanket, his heart already beating faster. "How… how did you…?" He scraped his hand through his hair; reminded himself of the role he was supposed to be playing. "What part of 'working' don't you people understand?"
The soldier's eyes flickered with something he was too well trained to show completely.
"I was thinking," Rodney said. "I was working until well after the chimes of three. I was resting my eyes and thinking…", in a high-backed chair, covered with a blanket woven in other, distant places; neck stiff and sore, eyes itching with fumes and memories; thinking...
"Of course, my lord Adept," the soldier said. "The High Lord Cowen has sent you a gift, as a gesture of thanks for all the work you have done for him." A muscle at the side of his mouth twitched. "The throne room has never been more bright or the war machines more gleaming."
"A gift?" Rodney's stomach rumbled despite himself. "Those fondant fancies he--"
"A slave, my lord Adept. One of General Kolya's own."
"A slave?" Rodney frowned. "Why ever would I want a slave? Does a slave know how to prepare an elementary fixing? Does a slave know the secret name of lead? Apprentices I can use, even if they do keep on opening the door and letting people in when I expressly asked not to be disturbed. A slave – and I've seen your slaves… No." He flapped his hand. "I don't want it. Take it away."
"And refuse the High Lord Cowen's gift?"
Rodney stopped; pressed his hands to his face. When he lowered them, the windows were still gleaming. "Stop it!" he shouted, striking the metal frame with his fist, then smoothing it out, jaggedly tracing the correct symbols, muttering the necessary words. The air was cold outside, and the street was grey in the early light of morning. "Of course I won't refuse the gift," he said stiffly, still not turning round. "Send the slave in – him, her, it. Tell the High Lord Cowen that I received it gratefully."
"Him, my lord Adept." When Rodney shifted position slightly, the glass beneath his fingers showed him the sight of the soldier smirking openly, thinking himself unobserved.
"I don't know why he thinks I need a slave," Rodney grumbled, reaching for his furred robe, grimacing at the latest burn marks from spilled alchemicals.
With a quick nod, and a crisp but almost insolent salute, the soldier departed. Rodney sank down on the chair, pressing his face into his stinging hands. What ever am I going to do? he thought. The slave was a complication. But it was only to be expected, of course. His work was dazzling, far more accomplished than anything Cowen's blundering neophytes could produce. It was inevitable that Cowen would one day feel the urge to thank him personally, and since they were Genii, who traded people the way more enlightened people traded cloth-of-gold and machine parts, this was the only way Cowen knew how to do it.
"After all," he said, looking up at his own unadorned, ungilded ceiling, "I do deserve it." He'd pat the slave on the head a few times, send him on a few menial errands, then sell him on when Cowen had lost interest, just as he did with the ridiculous capes and lap dogs that rich nobles tried to bribe him with.
The iron called to him from his work bench. With a sigh, he walked over to it, running his finger along its cold surface, feeling the potential of so many other things waiting to be set free. Food called louder, though. To get food he would have to leave his workroom, and where had they put the slave? Outside, perhaps, in the courtyard? He glanced at the window, where the lead lights whispered to him of ice crystals outside.
"Stupid," he berated himself. "Let's get it over with."
He hurled the door open. The slave was in the hallway, standing very still on the grey slate tiles. His wrists and his ankles were shackled with chains of… By the flame, Rodney thought, it's quickened iron! Not his own work, though, for its language was strange to him. But why bind a slave with quickened iron unless…?
"You." It came out as little more than a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Slave. What's your name?"
The slave looked at him. No, Rodney thought, the slave had been looking at him all the time, even though his head had been bowed. His long dark hair was loose around his neck, and his feet were bare. As Rodney watched, the slave opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.
Rodney frowned with irritation. "You're supposed to obey me, aren't you?" This was an inconvenience. This was something unplanned. He didn't like inconveniences, not when he was so close to…
"I don't…" The slave seemed to be struggling to produce the words. "I…" He swallowed, and Rodney could see his left fist clenching, tendons pressing against the quickened iron band. "…don't have a name," the slave said. "Each… master--" He said the word with a desperate emphasis. "--has c-called me… something different."
"Like what?" Rodney edged forward, drawn by the alien signature of the chains. Then his fingers brushed the metal, and he caught a sudden glimpse of this man dangling by his wrists from a hook on the ceiling, a lash falling on his back again and again and again. He recoiled, his mouth suddenly dry and foul-tasting.
"'You'," the slave said. "A number. A hound's name. One of my masters..." The other hand clenched, metals chains rippling, whispering more clearly with every moment that passed; Rodney saw cold – excruciating, biting cold – and blood gleaming on the tip of a knife. "He called me… Eagle because…" The slave frowned, his brow wrinkling into deeply-etched accustomed lines. "…I liked to look at… at the… birds flying across the… the sky, before he b-blinded me for a whole lunar cycle with… drugs."
"Oh." Rodney really had no idea what to say. Perhaps it was just that glimpse of metal-borne memory, but the slave looked cold, he thought. On the upper part of his body, he wore only a thin white shirt, open at the neck, showing eyelets where laces once had been.
The chains shifted again. Their voice was almost clear now, and Rodney saw a knife cutting into flesh, and saw a face, a face he knew. "He cut you," Rodney found himself saying. "General Kolya. Last night."
"Marked me." The slave was looking straight ahead. A small drop of blood had soaked through the shirt at his shoulder. "His… initial. They all did – all my… masters."
Rodney wanted to retreat back to his room, to bar the door, to lose himself in phials and quickenings, to hide in his work, to forget, to forget what had brought him here, to this cold cruel city on the far side of the north. "Have you had many?" He swallowed. "Many masters?" What carved letters would he find beneath that shirt? But the chains knew. The chains could show him every drop of blood, every carved inch of flesh, every scream, every scrap of suffering. They had been quickened for this purpose, by somebody who liked to relish pain.
The slave said nothing for a long time. "One there," he said at last, hand moving minutely towards his right shoulder, the chains whispering of things Rodney didn't want to know about. "One there." His other hand shivered upwards, scarred fingers indicating his left shoulder. "Two on the back. One… there," he said, and Rodney saw a silver scar on his breastbone – just the point of a jagged letter emerging from the low neck of his shirt.
Rodney felt sick. He had to keep on talking, he had to, because the chains… "Why--" He scraped his stinging hands across his eyes. "Why do they keep passing you on?"
"Because…" The line between the slave's brows grew deeper, and was that sweat beading on his brow? "Because I didn't submit at first. Because I don't scream."
The chains showed more, though. The chains showed this man held down by four others, and kicking, fighting, surging up and silently smashing the jaw of one of his attackers. He heard a bellow of fury. He saw a club falling again and again, and blood pooling outwards, feeding the hungry chains.
"No!" Rodney moaned. He retreated across the slate; found his door; backed through it; closed it. It wasn't meant to be like this! Had Cowen known? But of course he'd known, he thought, as he tottered to his work bench and clutched its edge with both hands. Stupid to think that this had been a reward. He deserved a reward, of course, because, well, he was the finest alchemist alive, but a man like Cowen would never give him his just reward. Cowen had given him a slave who had tried to kill a previous master. Cowen had given him somebody who would be no use to him at all. How they must have laughed!
Still, he thought, he couldn't hide here. He couldn't let this derail things, not so near the end. Grabbing the phial he needed, taking a deep breath, he headed back to the hall. The slave had moved, he noticed, just a few inches, although his posture and expression were unchanged.
"Stand still," Rodney commanded.
He saw the slave's muscles go rigid, his breathing fast and shallow at his throat. "Yes," the slave said, paused just for a moment, then said, "master." His eyes said something else, though.
Rodney ignored it. The chains had tales to tell of torment and suffering, and by the flame, they had to have been used to shackle more than one person, because there was no way one person could withstand that amount of abuse and still be able to stand there, still be able to look straight ahead, not a sound escaping their lips as they… "By the flame!" he swore, but he had to forget that, he had to, as he dropped the contents of the phial on the chains, as he closed his eyes, sought the names he needed, and traced them, patterns with his fingers, low syllables with his lips.
"What did you do," the slave asked quietly, "master?"
The light had changed, Rodney realised, the sun reaching the crystal skylight, falling in shards of colour on the cold slate floor. He heard the chimes strike, and counted ten.
"I unquickened them," he said. "I'm an alchemist – an Adept, highest rank there is. And, yes, I know they say that only the alchemist who performed the quickening can undo it, but normal rules don't apply to me, because, hello? Genius?" He let out a breath, suddenly deeply weary. "You won't be able to feel much difference – well, a little, perhaps, because they were cruel, those chains – but I…" He scraped his hand over his eyes, flashing on images of blood and torment. They were talking to me, he thought, but did not say it.
The slave looked at him, and there was something in those eyes that Rodney found unsettling. When he spoke, though, his voice was quiet, almost broken. "I thank you, master."
"Don't say that!" Rodney burst out. "By the flame, I…" The black metal of the collar caught his eyes suddenly, drawing his attention now that the chains were silent. "That isn't alchemist's work," he said, fascinated despite himself, "but it isn't base metal, either." He touched it, and recoiled, his skin burning. It was… Cold, grasping, parasitic… He brought his hand up, almost touching the collar, then curled it into an almost-fist, pulling it back. "How long have you…?"
"Always." As the slave spoke, it almost seemed to Rodney as if the collar was moving, darkness rippling through it, black on black.
"It isn't…" Rodney's mouth was dry. "It isn't Genii work."
"They found me in the barrens." Again there was that strange dark rippling. "I was… hurt. I don't remember… anything… before that."
It wasn't physical movement, Rodney realised, but power rippling beneath the surface – something that only someone with an alchemist's gift could see. "I think…" He dared to touch it again, but his hand trembled, his thumb accidentally brushing against the slave's skin. "Sorry," he murmured, "sorry. It's… Oh, Shadow, I think it's Wraith-wrought. I can't… I mean, not even I can… I know more about it than anybody else, of course, but it doesn't work the same as our alchemy. It should be comprehensible, but it somehow… isn't. Which is ridiculous, because this is me we're talking about, and…" He brought both hands to his mouth. "Does it hurt?" he asked, lowering them only slightly.
Blood had seeped through the fabric at the slave's shoulder, in a blurry, crimson K. "Everything hurts," the slave said simply, and there were things in his eyes that Rodney never wanted to understand – things he had silenced the chains so he wouldn't have to hear.
Focus, he thought. This was the language of metals. This was what he did. This was rare Wraith metal-magic landing almost literally in his lap. The acclaim they would give him if he mastered it! Bracing himself, he reached for the collar again. Touching it hurt, as alien magics stood obdurate in the face of his own. It was solid, and colder than it should have been for something in contact with living flesh. There was enough space between the collar and the slave's throat for him to slip a finger in.
At the back, though, there was no space at all. Rodney frowned. "It's…" He pushed the slave's head forward, allowing himself space to study it. "Get down," he commanded. "Down on your knees, so I can…"
The slave went down stiffly. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney saw his hand grip the loose links of chain tightly, holding onto them with whitened knuckles.
Rodney pushed the man's hair away. There were scars even here, he saw – small cuts as if made with a knife. The skin was pale at the hairline, but was reddened and bruised at the edge of the collar. Rodney touched that part experimentally. "It's attached to you," he realised. "Fused somehow, at the back of the neck." There was no space at all to get in. As he tried, running his finger along the edge, he heard the slave let out a soft breath.
There was nothing in that breath, no sound at all to tell Rodney that the slave was in pain, but suddenly he knew. Rodney recoiled, though part of him was already desperate to touch it again, to study it, to understand it. The slave's head was bowed, he saw, his fists clenched on the dead links of chain, his breathing rapid and taut.
"I'm sorry," Rodney found himself saying. "It's… I… I don't know what it is. It's attached to you somehow, and I think… I saw it move when you spoke – well, not really moving, but alchemy – not proper alchemy, of course, but Wraith magic. I've no idea what it's doing to you, but it's doing something, that's for sure."
"I can't…" The slave blinked, drops of moisture gleaming on his eyelashes, but he said nothing, only knelt there, bound in chains that could no longer tell his story.
The nameless slave had been born in the barrens; that was where memory started. He remembered dragging himself along on hands and knees, knowing only that he had to get away… No, that he had to get to somewhere, but he didn't know where. He remembered red blood on his hands, and raw circles at his wrists. He remembered sharp pain at the base of his neck, reaching into the back of his skull like clawed fingers, and there was hard metal at his throat, impossible to remove. His mouth had been dry, dry as the wilderness around him, and he had kept going step by step by step, until the Genii slavers had found him.
There was nothing before that. Nothing? No, there were fragments, but he thought they might be dreams, not memories. He saw snatched moments of pale-faced people stepping away from him, while he looked up at them, strapped to a table. He saw himself breaking free, smashing them with cold sharp metal. He saw himself in shining silver, racing fast. He saw…
Nothing. Only dreams. He had been born in the barrens. He had spent too long hoping that one day he would remember what came before that. He had been kept too long in places where he couldn't see the sky, but the cold told its own tale. He was always cold, but there had been three expanses of time when the cold had been excruciating. Three winters, and this was the third. One, two, three, counted in fingers on his hand. Four came next, and he had to concentrate to drag out the words for what came after that. Five, then six, then… The word vanished into the fog. It wasn't always worth fighting for things.
His new master was pacing excitedly, babbling words that made no sense. "It's doing something," he said, "that's for sure."
The man had touched the collar at the slave's neck. The slave had bent his neck for him. Once he would have fought; he knew that, he remembered that. Fighting only brought further pain. Fighting only brought extra guards and extra chains, and that was a hundred times worse than accepting the small pain, the small humiliation that had initially been offered. And so he obeyed now, but he refused to give them anything else that they wanted. He refused to beg and he refused to scream.
He still did not know why.
"I can't…" he began, but sometimes all words left him. Sometimes it was as if all possible words were in a room, while he stood on the other side of a locked door, unable to reach out to them. The images never left him, though. He was crawling in blood, curled around the pain of it. Jagged stripes of agony tore his back apart. He remembered harsh stone beneath his knees, and shards of ice on his naked flesh, and then those endless days when there had been nothing but darkness. He couldn't understand simple tasks, so they whipped him when he got them wrong, then gave him harder tasks, and whipped him because he still couldn't understand them.
"Can't… remember," he managed, feeling the sharp pain that came from snatching a word when all words wanted to stay hidden. "Can't… think, sometimes. Words… words…"
His new master frowned, perhaps not hearing him at all, probably not caring.
The slave knew better than to hope. At least he had seen the sky on the way from Kolya's dungeon, and he was warmer than he had been, and his chains hurt less than they normally did, though they still dragged heavy at his side.
"Wraith metal-magic!" Rodney exclaimed, as he pattered towards the kitchen. Wraith metal-magic in the flesh. They'd always known that Wraith alchemy had a blood component, but to see the power in the dark metal shimmering whenever the slave talked…! To see something akin to alchemy affecting someone's mind like that…!
Food first, though. His current ridiculous apprentice – what was the boy's name again? – was sitting at the table, stuffing himself full of white bread rolls. "What did I tell you about letting people in?" Rodney berated him, remembered anger taking the edge off his excitement. "I think it could be summed up as: don't."
The boy grabbed another roll. "But he came from the High Lord Cowen, my lord Adept."
"And I'm your master, and you obey me." Rodney flapped his hand sharply. "Get out. I never wanted you here, anyway. I never asked for rich papas to thrust their hopeless sons at me in the hope that I can shape them into something with even a fraction of my talent. Get out!" Of course, he reminded himself, keeping on the right side of all the rich papas was a good thing, but… "Get out!" he shouted. "Go!"
The boy ran, fumbling with the quickened lock at the back door. The world seemed quieter when he had gone, and the back of Rodney's neck quivered with a faint inkling of danger. You really shouldn't have done that, he thought. At least the other boys had left of their own accord, unable to cope with an honest day's work away from their doting mamas.
But Wraith metal-magic…! The excitement pricked again. Rodney scooped up a handful of rolls, grabbed a slab of spiced meat and a bunch of grapes, and loaded them on a plate. He cut a slice of seed cake, ate part of it before it could reach his plate, and cut another.
His plate was teetering with food when he returned to the hallway. The slave hadn't moved, still kneeling there with his hands taut at his side, though his head was no longer bowed.
"I…" Rodney swallowed. "I can't work here. Get up. I'm going to my workroom."
The slave was slow to stand, and seemed to waver a little before he was upright. Rodney felt a sudden urge to look away, but the collar drew him, dark and fascinating.
He cleared his throat. "Come on. Follow me."
It was warmer in the workroom. The slave stopped just inside the door, standing almost exactly where the soldier had stood. Rodney busied himself with his workbench, moving aside phials, clearing space for his plate. He grabbed a few grapes, munching them as he read labels. The sweet taste was welcome, removing the taste of whispered memories and dark, unpleasant things.
When he turned round, he saw that the slave was watching him, his face neutral, but his eyes anything but.
"You're no use there," Rodney snapped, covering other things that he might have said. "You're taller than me. I don't want to reach, you know. Sit down." He gestured sharply at a wooden chair.
"Yes," the slave said quietly, "master." He seemed to be watching something on the workbench, but then he frowned, that deep furrow between his eyes deepening. He sat down stiffly, perching on the edge.
"Good." Rodney's mouth was dry again. He ate another grape, then took a bite of the spiced meat. "Stay still." He moved to the back of the chair. "No," he said, when the slave's head began to turn ever so slightly. "Don't turn round. Bend your head forward."
The slave did, after only a fractional hesitation. He seemed tense, quivering beneath the skin, and Rodney could see the pulse in the side of his neck, fluttering fast.
"I'm…" Rodney pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, worrying at it. "I'm not going to hurt you."
The slave said nothing, perched on the chair, his head bowed. Wraith metal-magic! Rodney thought. The collar sat there, its power latent beneath its smooth surface. Had Cowen known what a gift he was handing him? Of course not, Rodney thought. Cowen had given him a malicious gift – something that outwardly had to be accepted as an honour, but had been meant as petty revenge for all those times Rodney had been scrupulously honest in stating his opinion of the glorious Genii. He had given Rodney an unintelligent, useless slave who was likely to turn on him. This was an insult disguised as a gift, but Rodney had the last laugh, didn't he, with a prize like this landing in his lap!
Rodney was prepared this time, and the wrongness of the collar struck him less painfully. He traced a few experimental patterns, without using a fixing for now, but nothing responded. He was in for a long morning's work. "Don't move," he said, as he returned to his bench, picking up his plate and a few phials of elementary fixings.
He worked one-handed for a while, working his way through all the simple patterns, and there it was, there – a glimmer. Metal was metal, after all, no matter what vile magic the Wraith infused it with. He wiped his fingers on his robe and grabbed another bread roll, following it up with a mouthful of meat and a few more grapes.
Outside, the chimes struck eleven. The slave's hair tangled in his fingers, marring his pattern. A drop of dark red fixing trickled down the slave's neck like blood. Tutting, Rodney leant forward, gripping the slave's shoulder to stop him from moving, though the slave wasn't showing any sign of it, sitting as still as a statue.
But, no, not still. Although his body wasn't moving, his breathing was shallow and tight, and his lips were parting slightly, then pressing together; parting slightly, then pressing together.
"You're hungry," Rodney realised suddenly. And he had been bending over his work, his face only a few inches from the slave's shoulder, breathing spiced meat… You should have asked, he almost snapped, but the dead chains mocked him with the stories they had told. "I'm sorry." It sounded limp. "Have some food. There's not much left, but…"
Rodney put the plate on the slave's lap, and the slave's hand closed on it, scarred fingers gripping the rim. The power in the collar moved minutely, the cold a dull spark against Rodney's hand. "Thank you," the slave said, "master."
"Don't call me that," Rodney said, suddenly hating the sound of it. It felt good coming from novices and apprentices, because it meant that they knew less than he did, that they were looking up to him for his knowledge. But this was a human being bought and sold, whose previous masters had tortured him and abused him. "I didn't buy you," he said. "I didn't want you. I don't want to hear that word, not unless…" Not unless I've earned it, he finished silently. It felt like a strange thing to think. Respect had never felt wrong before. He flapped his hand, covering all manner of emotions in impatience. "Eat. Go on. I've got work to do."
The slave ate silently, his throat moving beneath the collar as he chewed. Another strand of hair fell down, wiping away unfinished markings. "Hold your hair out of the way," Rodney snapped. The meat smelled doubly delicious now that he wasn't eating it.
The slave did, the chains whispering in the ordinary way of base metal. A grape slid off the untended plate, rolling halfway across the room before stopping. The chain-links trailed down from the slave's wrist, getting in the way, tainting Rodney's work with the presence of unrelated metal. The skin around the shackles was swollen and red.
"I can unchain you, of course," Rodney found himself saying. "It's simple work for an alchemist of my skill. I'm a master of metal in all its form. No locks can keep me out." He snapped his mouth shut, suddenly realising that this was an unwise thing to admit to anyone in the city of the Genii, even to a slave. He wiped suddenly-moist hands on his robe. "But if I unchain you, are you going to try to kill me?"
The slave said nothing. Another grape rolled off the plate, and Rodney was suddenly sure that the slave was following it hungrily with his eyes. The collar pulsed faintly with power that only Rodney could see. The slave made a faint sound such as someone would make if they had been about to speak, but had then thought better of it.
"Of course…" Rodney gave a nervous laugh. He could see the curve of the slave's spine beneath his thin shirt. "I expect you could kill me anyway, even with the chains on, if you wanted to." He remembered what the chains had showed him. It had taken four guards to hold this man down.
"I won't," the slave said quietly.
"But you'd run away." Rodney frowned. "And I'm going to have to be suitably grateful to Cowen for the gift, and it wouldn't do to… well, to lose you. You can't possibly understand how important it is that I don't annoy Cowen – any more than I already have, of course, but that's just my way – I don't suffer fools, you see. Not that you could get out of the house, of course. The locks are made with quickened steel that respond only to someone with the gift. With the idiot apprentice out of the way, the only person who can open them is, well, me."
The slave's left hand was pale on the plate, a recent scar standing out vivid and red. What other scars lay beneath the shirt, Rodney wondered. The chains had to be heavy, and even base metal could hurt.
"Just don't kill me," he said, as he reached for the phial of dark orange fixing. "That wouldn't be gratitude, now, would it? And I… I'm not a very courageous man. I'm not going to hurt you. Cowen gave me to you, you see – I don't know what game he's playing – and I'll just keep you long enough to satisfy him." Days? he thought. A whole month? The whole business could be over by then, and Cowen's goodwill an irrelevance. "I won't need you after I've taken the collar off."
It was simple work to persuade base iron to sunder itself, of course, especially as it still bore his touch from the unquickening. The chain parted from the slave's left wrist first, then Rodney moved on to the right. He had to kneel to work on the slave's bare ankles, and his flesh crept with the sudden vulnerability of it – kneeling at the feet of someone who had no reason to like him. He prattled as he worked – words he didn't remember any longer than it took to utter them.
The last of the chains slid to the floor. "There," Rodney said, standing up. He pressed his hand to his chest, feeling his fast-beating heart. "Now, hold your hair out of the way, and let me work."
The chimes struck many times and more times and lots of times. He tried to count them sometimes, but the words ran away from him after four.
His arm ached from holding his hair out of the way. His new master – 'Don't call me that' – was working on his collar, bent over him, fingers sometimes scraping against his skin. Memories blazed every time they did that: a knife, a touch of flame, a hand round his throat, robbing him of air. It was worse when you couldn't see their face. You never knew what was coming, then. You had to be prepared for things always.
Flame-iron gleamed in the grate, and the slave watched the light.
Why don't you scream? He didn't know. He went through the motions. He knelt when asked to, and he bent his head, and he called men 'master.' One by one he had yielded these things. One by one by one. They meant nothing, he told himself. It didn't affect what he was inside.
And what was he inside?
Nothing, the light told him, flickering with memory. You are nothing.
But still he didn't scream. Still he didn't beg or moan or react in any way. It meant that something was his. Your pain? asked the flame-iron, as the alchemist behind him muttered something sharply, and something clasped like a fist on the inside of his skull. Why cherish the pain? It's a sorry world if that's the only thing you have to call your own.
His lips moved, but he didn't say anything, just struggled to craft the words in his head.
But it is all that I have.
It was almost night. Rodney had worked through all the simple fixings, reaching deep into his memory for all the secret names he had ever known. It became a war, a duel. The collar shied away from him, but every time it reacted, every time it was obdurate, he took its measure a little bit more.
"There," he said, straightening his stiff back, scraping a scorched hand across his face. "I think…" He clenched his hand tight, closed his eyes for a moment, then placed both hands on the collar. "I think I have it."
He traced the pattern on the dark metal, weaving it with both fingers.
He had barely started when the slave's head snapped back. His spine arched, and his mouth opened in a desperate, silent scream of agony. Then he slid off the chair to lie on the ground, writhing and convulsing.
The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced before. It started at the back of his neck, but it shot like swift tongues of fire throughout his whole body. It was being burnt alive. It was being roasted. He was flayed, stripped, screaming, screaming…
"What's happening?" He heard it from far, far away, beyond the flames. "What's wrong?"
He lashed. He saw snatches of ceiling, and then his own fingers, clawing at his eyes. His body was nothing, charred into flame, charred, burnt… and Kolya with his knife, and a burning brand pressed to his stomach, and a whip on his shoulders, and it was crawling in the barrens, and being lifted up not by the hands of friends, but by the hands of slavers, and it was a whole cycle spent in darkness, and it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, but no words to say it, no words, and nothing even to think it with, just a burning wheel of fire, a circle that he was falling into, down, down and away.
"I'm sorry," said the distant voice, a shadow glimpsed through flames. "Did I… I didn't know. I'm sorry. Stay still, and I'll…"
…and something on his neck – a drop of water, burning, then fingers rasping like sandpaper, and a voice speaking loudly in syllables that made no sense, then cool, then cool.
He was nothing, his bones burned away to dust and ashes. He lay there, and even the crystal light above him was too bright, and he turned his head and saw a scattered plate of food impossibly far away, in another world beyond the barrens.
"I didn't know," the man said, his master, the alchemist, the stranger. "It had defences. I felt them. It… Shadow! Did I break you?"
He had no idea how to muster sound. Even blinking took an impossible effort, his eyelids scraping as if they were full of ash.
"But you're still alive." He felt a hand brush clumsily across his chest, trailing the memory of fire as it went. "Heartbeat still there. Still breathing."
The slave frowned, managing to focus on the alchemist, but the man was already moving, turning into a spirit and fading away.
The alchemist sighed. "I really thought I'd mastered it." He sounded irritated, more than anything else.
The slave moved his finger, then the one next to it. He felt his heart speed up with the effort of it.
"Next time…" the alchemist said.
"No," the slave moaned, hearing his own voice like ash on the wind. "Please." Don't beg, he thought. Never beg. "Please," he whispered, "don't do that again, please."
The alchemist moved again, his face coming into view, the lips pressed together. "I'm so close," he said. "Do you realise how important this is?" He let out a breath; pressed his lips together again. Beyond him, the slave saw crystal lights trailing silver fire. "No, no," the alchemist said. "I… Can you stand?"
He couldn't. He couldn't. "Yes," he said, and almost added a 'master' because it was something to anchor himself on. The crystal light broke into shards, reminding him of other times he had picked himself up, had stared straight ahead, had stayed there unwavering even as masters had screamed at him, saying, 'Why won't you break?'
The alchemist's hands danced over the slave's arm, faltering there, then moving away. They were darting tongues of fire. No, he thought, they were ice and cool water. "You don't look well. Where can you sleep? I know, the apprentice's room – what was his name? It's… well, I don't really know what it's like. I never really bothered to look, you know? But it's… By the flame! I don't know how to do this."
He managed to stand, and it wasn't right that he should be supported, it wasn't right that he was helped, and he would pay for it in time, but… but his limbs felt as weak and brittle as charred sticks… and he had never had a bed before, not since his birth in the barrens… and fire had scoured him from the inside, and he had nothing…
Slate beneath his feet, cold and grey, and he fell to his knees, hands sliding away from him, and he only distantly heard the grumbling, only distantly heard the torrent of words.
He struggled to his feet again, and then there was a door, and behind it a narrow bed draped in blankets. He couldn't collapse onto it, he couldn't, but then the alchemist's hands were on his shoulders, pushing him down, and that made it an order – an order from his new master – and you had to obey those, even as you kept everything else encased inside.
"Can I…?" the alchemist said. "Should I…? Is there anything I should…?"
"No," the slave managed, voice scraping in his throat. "Nothing, master, please."
And then he was alone. And then he could let himself shatter, the tears burning clefts down his cheeks.
The Genii were a people who liked to have mastery. Their cities were all stone and alchemy, all straight lines and angles. They built high towers towards the sky, then draped them with sparkling toys that swamped the light from the stars. Trees were allowed only in the right places, and were clipped and disciplined until they stood like a military honour guard. Base metal seemed to be an affront to them – a sign that nature was winning. They quickened everything that they could.
And they kept slaves. Rodney smiled bitterly as he leant on his balcony. They kept slaves; of course they did. He had always known that. He had always known.
But their attitude to alchemy had seemed like the worst affront.
He turned his head to look up at the sky. He counted four stars bright enough to penetrate the silver glow of Genii stupidity. He had no idea what their names were. Even after two years, the stars of the north were still strange to him.
The cold was fierce tonight, the Genii winters harsher than anything he had experienced before. Rodney pulled his robe tighter around his body, and traced the patterns needed to coax a little more heat from the iron railing. Warmth spread through his body from his hands, but he found himself shivering, unable to stop.
He had hurt a man. He had inflicted devastating agony on another person, and… and it wasn't fair! The collar was a chance of a lifetime, but it came with a man attached. Rodney's hands itched with the urge to work on it again, to pit his wits against it until it yielded, but apparently he couldn't do that without hurting the pitiful, unwanted slave who came as part of the deal.
Tomorrow, he thought, perhaps, when he's rested. Rodney McKay was never one to quit a project before he had mastered it; that was why he bore the title of Adept, after all. Well, that and his natural brilliance, of course.
His stomach rumbled, and he remembered quite how long it was since he had eaten, and part of that meal had gone to the slave, of course. Turning, he returned to the warmth of his workroom, closing the windows behind him. No, he realised as he saw the scattered plate, most of the meal had ended up on the floor, because I told him to hold his hair out of the way, and he thought that superseded the order to eat. He pressed his head into his hand, feeling the early throbbing of a headache. Why were people so complicated? You always knew where you were with metals. Once you knew the correct patterns and had the right fixing, metals responded in nice, predictable ways that made sense.
Rodney headed for the kitchen. Perhaps I should check on him, he thought. Make sure he hasn't gone and died. His feet made the decision for him, taking him to the door of the slave's room, but there he faltered, not sure whether to knock.
"Er…" His knuckles brushed faintly over the painted door. "There's…" Taking a deep breath, he opened the door. Silver light flooded in from the window, showing the slave lying on his side, his back to the door, with long dark shadows bleeding from his body almost to Rodney's feet. He was utterly still, and Rodney started forward, still gripping the door frame, but then he saw the quick, shallow movement of breathing. "There's…" Rodney cleared his throat. "There's food in the kitchen. Help yourself. You don't, uh… you don't have to ask permission. And drink, too, of course. Just don't touch anything in the red hamper, because they're my special… Gifts, you know, and…"
He trailed away. The slave was probably asleep, anyway. He closed the door quietly, stepped away, and stood for a moment on the slate tiles of the hallway, feeling suddenly small and alone in the vastness of the world, and so very far from home.
The slave slept, or so he thought, but the silver from the window penetrated his dreams like the blade of a knife. When he opened his eyes, he saw memories even in the play of shadow.
His bed was soft. Softness invited him to dream.
He sat up, and the pain had solidified in his body, becoming a constant, savage ache. It was sharp on his shoulder, though, and he raised aching hands, trying to ease his shirt away from Kolya's mark, but the fabric had stuck. Even that movement felt strange. The chains had gone from his wrists. The chains had gone. The chains had gone.
Pain dragged him down as much as the chains had ever done. He stood up, groping for the support of the wall – and how strange it felt not to hear the metallic chink of chain-links accompanying every movement. He could lose himself in the silence, he thought.
His master – 'don't call me that' – had told him to help himself to food, and it was probably a trick, probably a trap, but you had to obey orders. If they wanted to hurt you, they'd hurt you anyway, no matter what you did. And hunger was a living, grasping thing, like a knife twisting in the belly, and he had always been thirsty, always been bleak and shrivelled and dry, ever since he had been born in the barrens, in a place that had never seen water.
The door opened at a touch, and he sagged against it for moment, his mind reeling with the fear and the possibility of an unlocked door. It was too vast to contemplate, and so he walked a familiar path, one foot in front of the other, managing to keep upright, his lips pressed tight against any sounds that might want to escape. The slate was cold against his feet, but he knew where to go; he had taken the measure of the place as soon as he had been brought in, looking at each door, forcing his mind to think, to think, until he had deduced their purpose.
It was darker in the kitchen, the window showing a square of near-black. The smells hurt, but he let his nose guide him, until his hand found a coarse round of spiced bread, its surface pitted with currants.
He held it in both cupped hands, and lowered his head over it, breathing in; and because he was alone, tears pricked his eyes as he inhaled one more time, and then started to eat.
Rodney woke to find himself in his chair again. Not even he could keep flame-iron radiating heat for a whole night without renewal, so the workroom was cold, his breath frosting a little in the air. Bread and grapes were scattered in front of the hearth, and the chains still lay where they had fallen, made of dead metal, but still bearing memories.
He stood up, stepping over the scattered detritus of long days of working. Books were spread out on the workbench, and he remembered working late into the night, struggling to unravel the secrets of the collar, fighting the urge to drag the slave from his bed, resisting the urge just to creep in and look at the collar one more time while the slave slept.
At least the slave hadn't killed him in his sleep, which was something. Rodney had dreamed of quiet movement in the night; had woken to find only silence, but had tumbled from his chair and hurled himself at the workroom door even so, to desperately trace the patterns that would lock it.
Those same patterns yielded instantly to his touch. The hallway was cold and bleak, decorated in the Genii way, all harsh lines of black. It felt achingly empty.
Rodney faltered at the slave's door, thought better of knocking, and headed for the kitchen.
"By the flame!" he gasped, his hand rising to his chest. His first thought was that the slave was dead, but already the slave was stirring, waking up with a gasp, only to freeze, utterly still. Rodney scraped his hand through his hair. "Why on earth would you sleep on the floor?"
The slave finally let out a slow, taut breath. "I'm sorry. I--"
"You're allowed to sleep on the floor." Rodney frowned sharply. "It's just… It's cold, and… and hard, and I gave you a bed." Though when had Rodney last slept in his own bed? "It's just…" He raked at his hair again. "Why would you want to do that? Did you faint? Is that it?"
"I could see stars from here," the slave said quietly. "It was too bright in there."
"Oh. Yes. The Genii with their sparklies," Rodney sneered. He still hadn't entered the room.
"I didn't mean to." The slave managed to push himself upright, his scarred hand gripping the edge of the table. "I came for food and I...." He faltered. "What do you want me to call you?"
"Adept," Rodney said. "'My lord Adept' if you're feeling particularly servile." He twitched his nose. The smells of the kitchen were as appetising as ever. "Now they've given me a slave, I guess I should be using you to cook my breakfast."
"I didn't…" The slave was staring straight ahead, and Rodney was suddenly reminded of actors who hid their true faces with masks. "I am sorry, my lord Adept, I--"
Rodney flapped his hand, stopping him. "I prefer cold food, anyway," he said – the sort of things you could grab without taking too long away from your work; the sort of stuff that could be put on one side and forgotten for hours while you worked. He went to the ice box, instinctively muttered a few words to renew the alchemy that kept it cold, and selected some sliced sausage. "Can you cook?" he found himself asking. "I thought the Genii used slaves for… well, for working around the house or for shovelling coal or for running errands or…" His words trailed away. "Not for…" He bit his lip, unable to say more.
"They set me to work like that at first." The slave's voice was flat and emotionless. "Then they noticed that I reacted a… certain way to punishment. They decided I was suitable for more… specialist purposes, and they sold me to masters who liked--"
"Hurting you." Suddenly the sausage seemed less appealing. Rodney looked at the dried blood at the slave's shoulder and at that sharp point of a scar that showed at the throat of his shirt. "You should…" He swallowed; tried again. "You can eat something yourself, you know." He pulled out some more sausage, putting several slices on a plate.
The slave took it, and Rodney could see his throat working against the collar. Then Rodney frowned, peering at the slave more closely. The collar was more dull today, no longer pulsing with power when the slave moved. "I weakened it!" Rodney cried in triumph. He lunged toward, touching it, but the magic was as strong as ever, cold and hostile against his fingers. "Weakened its hold on you, anyway. Say something." He snapped his fingers harshly. "Come on. Say something."
"What do you want me to say, my lord Adept?" The slave's voice was quiet and level. The plate trembled in his hand, clattering against the hard wood of the kitchen table.
"By the flame!" Rodney took a step back, scraping both hands across his face. "Talk about anything you like. The sky. The table. About what the sausage tastes like."
The slave blinked slowly. His eyes looked different when he opened them again. "One of my masters used to eat sausage like this," he said, as if he was reporting nothing more than the time of day. "I could smell it on his breath as he--"
"Stop it!" Rodney rasped. He was right, though, and he tried to clutch desperately to the excitement, despite the slave's attempts to ruin things. "It isn't working on you any more when you talk. By the flame, I did win the first round!"
The slave was still clutching the plate, but his other hand rose wonderingly almost to his throat, then fell again, gripping the edge of the table. "I hadn't noticed. I…" His smile was fragile and faltering, and it was something that Rodney suddenly couldn't bear to see.
"Well, more work is obviously required." Rodney gestured sharply. "I have to go out today – important work, you know, that no-one but me is skilled enough to attempt – but after I get back… You'll come to my workroom." His voice wavered, not sure whether to go up at the end in a question, or down as an order.
The slave was looking straight ahead again, all expression masked. "And before that, my lord Adept?"
"I've got to manage your day for you?" Rodney flapped his hand, then stopped himself, catching himself on the images the chains had told him. "Listen, I… Just do whatever you like. I'll lock my workroom so you can't get in and ruin my work, and you can't go outside, of course, but I haven't got anything special anywhere else. Do what you want. I…" He pressed his lips together; stopped with his hand on the door handle. "I didn't want you, you know. I haven't got any use for a slave."
The slave was silent, his face revealing nothing.
"Look," Rodney said, as his back twinged from another night spent sleeping in a chair. "Go to the washroom. Get cleaned up. Wash away that--" He waved his hand in an inarticulate circle. "Find some clean clothes." Just keep out of my way, he thought, but he didn't say that. "Just do what you want," he said. "I'll be back in the evening."
Then, grabbing some more food, Rodney returned to his workroom to ready himself for the day ahead. It had never felt quite so much like fleeing before.
Do whatever you like, his master had said, but he had never had time to himself, not since his birth in the barrens. He had spent whole days alone in chains before, locked in the darkness, with nothing to do but wait for the hours to pass. Sometimes he had been chained upright, days and nights passing in a blaze of agony. Once he had been left alone for a whole cycle, his wounds slowly turning to scabs and then to scars, food handed out to him only after the hounds had been fed.
Sometimes he had been put to work. Some masters hurt him hardly at all, only when their day at the palace had been particularly bad. He had spent two whole cycles building a pavilion with his own hands, out in the cold and the rain, to save his master the cost of oil for the engines. He had been set to work building machines, and he had served at dinner, well-wrapped so that nobody could see his scars.
He could think again. Words were no longer hidden from him. He could…
He broke that thought off; went to the washroom. It was cold and shiny, made of dark stone and metal. Silver sparkled faintly in the ceiling, and he had no idea what to do. Bathing was a cold pail of water thrown over his head in a freezing courtyard. Sometimes it was a lukewarm vat of water and a moment of privacy. Sometimes it came with clean clothes, when his masters said his smell offended them, but it had never been like this.
One corner of the room was speckled with drying water, and he headed over there, and pressed his hand experimentally against something that looked like a switch. Water started to cascade down from above, cold at first, but warming up, suffused with silver sparkles.
I should take my clothes off, he thought. He was alone, absolutely alone, and…
…and he had words, and didn't know what to do with them. His thoughts came quicker and easier than they had ever come before, but he had no idea how to use them. He had no idea what to do.
The water rained down on him, soaking his clothes to his skin. His shoulder screamed with the familiar pain of water on a fresh cut. Slowly the dried blood was melting, bleeding pink across his shirt. The water hissed slightly on his collar, as it always did. Then he legs buckled suddenly, still scoured by the events of the night before.
He ended up on his knees. No-one came. He began to lift the shirt over his head, biting his lip to keep from moaning when it eased fully free from the knife marks on his shoulder. The wall was inlaid with numerous patches of shining silver, and he saw patches of his own reflection a hundred times over. Many scars told a story that he could remember. Other scars, though, he had no memory of getting. Had the memories blurred into one, or were these the marks of life before the barrens? One in particular, low on his hip, was faint and white, and he touched it now, wondering…
No, it was not a good thing to wonder. There was nothing before the barrens. He had to believe that there was nothing, because it was better never to have possessed something, than to have had it once, and then lost it.
Rodney had not expected Cowen himself to appear behind him as he bent over his work. A fixing had spilled onto his hand, and he was cursing under his breath, simultaneously trying to wipe it off and trying to recover the pattern of the working.
"Adept McKay." Cowen spoke with his usual cold-edged humour – a smile on his lips, but never in his eyes. "I trust you received my gift?"
"Yes. Yes. I did. Yes. High Lord." Rodney wiped his hand on his robe. "Thank you. It was most generous of you."
"Enough to make your tongue less scathing today?" Cowen's mouth curled even more.
Answers were not always required. Rodney muttered something suitably servile. Did Cowen know, he wondered, how some of his richer citizens treated their slaves? Of course he did. The Genii way was built on cruelty, with everyone rigidly in their place.
"Perhaps the creature will be able to fetch and carry for you," Cowen said, "and help you to concentrate on your work. You were absent yesterday."
Rodney was very aware of his breathing, loud and fast in his ears. "It was the day of rest, High Lord."
"But not for those who truly want to please me." Cowen slapped him roughly on the back.
Rodney spluttered, caught by surprise, and Cowen left him there, coughing. He was still coughing when a menial came over and told him that he was to turn his attentions to the dining room today. "More sparklies?" Rodney asked, when he was able to. "What a surprise. When will you Genii realise that there's more to alchemy than glitter?"
They knew he came from far away, but they didn't know how far. He had wandered, he told them, his true home forgotten long ago during his lifelong search for wisdom. He had told them that he would only be in the city of the Genii for half a year, or perhaps even less. That had been almost a year ago. They couldn't get enough of his work. If he announced today that he was leaving, would they even let him?
The menial stayed with him, hovering nearby with the air of someone who had been ordered to help, but who entirely lacked the wit or the skill to do so. "Are you a slave?" Rodney found himself asking.
The menial stiffened angrily. "Certainly not."
"Oh." Rodney felt uncomfortable, his stomach clamped as if with nerves. "Where do you Genii get most of your slaves from?"
"Captured in war, my lord Adept."
Rodney was making the back of every chair shimmer as if they had been scattered with stardust. His hands began to ache. "And are they…?"
The door opened. Just a slave, Rodney thought, as someone came in with an enormous pile of plates.
Just a slave?
He gripped the back of the chair. How often had he seen them about the palace? Slavery was abhorrent, of course, and yet another sign that the Genii, for all their straight lines and engines, were little better than barbarians, and that Rodney was far better than them. But how often had he noticed them, had he really noticed them? Two more slaves came in, and when Rodney went to the window, unable to stop himself, he saw another slave labouring in the courtyard, clearing debris from a fountain, knee-deep in near-frozen water. They were like spirits, he thought – invisible until something changed inside you, and you noticed them.
How many of these slaves bore terrible scars beneath their clothes?
"My lord Adept?" the menial was saying. "Are you…?"
"I… didn't sleep well," Rodney managed, remembering how his own slave had slept on the kitchen floor; how he had gone for a whole day with barely a bite of food because Rodney hadn't thought to tell him he could eat.
It just went to show how right he was to be doing what he was doing, of course. The Genii deserved any punishment they could get. And he, Rodney McKay, stood head and shoulders above them, both in skill and in morality and…
By the flame! He resisted saying it out loud, but only just. "Captured in war?" he asked, keeping his voice as level as he could manage. "That's how you get all of them?"
"Or bought from slavers," the menial said, "though that's usually the girls. We've been at peace for four years, as you know. We had a good crop for a while before then." His voice was loud, filling the room, but the slaves gave no sign of hearing him. Their heads bent, they were working on the table. They had thick metal bands at their wrists, but none of them wore collars. They all had square jaws and fair hair, while his own slave was lean and dark-haired and tall.
What do you know of the Wraith? he almost asked, but that, too, he bit back just in time. He wasn't used to guarding his words. He had secrets – of course he did – but it didn't matter how rude he was to people as long as he did good work. Even so, it had taken him far longer than he had expected to come to the attention of High Lord Cowen and invited to work in the palace. Perhaps if he had guarded his tongue a little less in those first few days, he might have achieved his goal long ago.
Back to work, he thought, as he returned to his child's-play workings. His fingers itched with the urge to work on the collar again – just to walk out of here and go back to his cold, bleak lodgings, and do whatever he wanted, and not to toe the line of petulant, jumped-up lords.
He pulled another phial of fixing from his pocket, and concentrated on the chair. When the door opened again, he didn't look up – just another slave – but when he had finished, weary over the sparkling furniture, he saw General Kolya looking at him from the doorway.
Rodney froze, newly-quickened metal harsh against his palms. I saw what you did, he thought, as his thumb traced a K on the back of the chair.
And Kolya smiled, as if to say, I know you did.
He could do anything that he wanted to do.
The slave sat on the kitchen floor and watched the blue square of sky. Sometimes a bird flew past – a distant speck.
He lay down for a while, thinking that he might be able to sleep, but he wasn't able to. His mind felt full, frothing with thoughts that kept him from sleeping, but he couldn't pin down a single one of them.
He ate, but not much.
When the chimes sounded, he counted them. The space between the chimes seemed like an eternity. He imagined footsteps in the silence, and the rattling of chains. He strained towards those distant chimes, and he counted every one, every single chime.
He pressed his hand to the glass, and felt it cold.
His clothes dried slowly. He found a discarded coat in the room he had been given to sleep in, and put it on. Had he ever felt fabric that soft? He found a blanket, too. Was that what warmth felt like?
Moving slowly, falteringly, he touched the door, but withdrew his hand without doing anything more.
Slowly, slowly it became dark, and silver sparkled in through the windows.
He perched on the edge of a chair, clasped his hands tightly in his lap, and looked down at them, rocking gently. Silence crept like a knife-blade across his shoulders.
Water was cool. It was always there, no matter how often he went back for it. No-one ever came to snatch it away.
When he lost his grip on his blanket, it fell to the floor. He stooped to pick it up, but his limbs gave way and everything lurched with dizziness. It was darker by the time he found the strength to roll onto his back, to lie there looking up at the ceiling, blanket tangled between his fingers.
He ate some more bread, tearing off tiny chunks, feeling the coarseness of the crust and the softness of the inside, and when he had finished eating it, he licked every last crumb from his fingers.
His shoulder hurt, and he pressed his hand to it, curling his fingers inwards, but then it hurt even more.
He found a wall in a small back room, hard and firm at his back. Through it, brighter even than the leaking silver light, he saw a single star.
Rodney's lodgings in the city of the Genii had never felt like home. There was too much of the Genii about them, and sometimes they felt more like a prison than a place to live. Still, the house was his own, and when he locked the door behind him, nobody else could get in, not even General Kolya and his flint-eyed chosen men.
On the way back from the palace, Rodney had found himself gasping at every shadow. Even so, he paused outside the door for a moment before opening it. The slave was inside. He made the place feel more dangerous, as if a cleft had been opened in reality, letting in the danger of distant vistas. Written on his skin was a reminder of how merciless the Genii could be to those who crossed them. His bowed head made Rodney feel inadequate, as if every word that he said was wrong.
But around the slave's neck was a collar infused with Wraith metal-magic. After a day spent labouring on useless fripperies, this at last was work worthy of Rodney's skill.
He opened the door, then closed it quickly behind him, smoothing back the sundered patterns with a word. The silence was cold and expectant. "Are you…?" His voice trailed away. Rodney touched the switch that controlled the light. Like so much else in the city of the Genii, it was cold, clear silver.
The slave appeared from the small storeroom Rodney had never found a use for. "My lord Adept."
Was it just the silver light, that he looked so pale? Rodney half started a dozen different things to say, then settled on the slave's choice of clothes. "I thought I told you to get dressed."
"In your own clothes?" The slave blinked, his hand tightening on the door frame. "I found a blanket and a coat…"
"And your own filthy clothes underneath them." Rodney sighed. "Listen, I'll give you something to wear. This… I'm not used to this, you know?" He sighed again; tried to still the entirely ridiculous nervous fluttering that he felt inside. Normally he threw out words, never pausing to wonder what sort of effect they had on the person who heard them. "Why can't you react to things like a normal person?"
"Because--!" The slave's head came up, and there was a spark there in his eyes, just for a moment. Then he let out a breath, and the sharpness that had been there in that first word was gone, replaced with his usual quietness. "I am sorry, my lord Adept."
Rodney scraped his hands across his face. "Look. Come to my workroom. I want to see what progress I can make on that collar."
Turning his back on the slave, he walked briskly to his workroom. He could lose himself in the battle. He could lose himself in the rare challenge that came from doing work worthy of his skills. It was uncomplicated. Well, it was complicated, but in all the best ways. He wouldn't even have to look at the slave's face.
He heard the slave follow him in, but he didn't turn around to make sure of it. "Sit down." He snapped his fingers. "Where you were yesterday. Come on."
He heard not even the faintest sound of movement.
The leaf-green fixing, he thought, or the golden one? He had fresh ideas to try from his late night studying, although study was limited, of course, unless you had the object in question to hand. Holding both phials together in his left hand, he turned round. "Come on."
The slave was standing in the doorway, utterly still except for his breathing.
"You look stupid in that blanket." The words left him without him meaning them to. He felt a ridiculous urge to apologise for them, to say that he was always insulting people, that it was just his way. "I'm sorry, but..." He shook his head. His workroom had always felt safe before, like his own little kingdom. "Look, I know it hurt yesterday, but it was worth it. I made real progress. Now I just need to…" He gestured with the phials, waving them in a circle to fill in missing words.
The slave still didn't move. "I counted chimes today," he said, "all the way to twenty."
Which was a ridiculous thing to say, quite ridiculous, and Rodney didn't have time for this. He lunged for the slave, meaning to grab his arm and physically drag him into the workroom, but the slave made a sharp hissing noise under his breath, and recoiled, both hands coming up sharply, and his eyes, his eyes were blazing.
"I'm sorry," Rodney gasped, and the slave hadn't struck him, not quite, but only because Rodney had snatched his hand back just in time. "By the flame! I wasn't going to hurt you."
"You were." The slave was still breathing fast, the collar pulsing in and out of sight at the top of his bunched-up blanket. "I'm sorry, my lord Adept. I shouldn't have… I'm sorry." But he still looked dangerous, despite his quiet words, despite his bare feet and his ridiculous costume.
"Well, maybe it would have hurt you," Rodney had to admit, sinking back into his chair. The phials were still clutched in his left hand, and he hadn't spilled a drop. "But it's for the best, you know. I hope to get it off completely, and then… memory, you know? Your lost memory coming back?" I'm doing it for you, he tried to say, but he couldn't force the words out.
The slave seemed to shrink as Rodney watched, growing more dull, gathering his emotions inwards like a man gathering a coat around his body in a storm. "I apologise," he said. "Whatever you want."
The slave perched on the edge of the chair, and Rodney told himself that this was a triumph. The golden fixing first, he thought, as he stood up and went over to the slave. The slave had already prepared himself, bending his neck, lifting his hair up and out of the way.
Rodney stood over him, patterns and bindings already prepared and waiting on his tongue. This was his chance to master something that no human being had ever mastered. This was his chance to shine.
He placed his hand on the slave's back, just below the collar. The blanket slithered down as he did so, and he could feel the slave's taut breathing through the thin fabric of his bloodstained shirt. He remembered how the slave had writhed, clawing at his neck. He remembered how he had begged Rodney never to hurt him like that again. He hadn't begged like that in any of the glimpsed visions that Rodney had seen in the chains, even when… even when they…
"I can't," Rodney rasped, and he stepped back; gripped the phials so tightly that they almost crumbled. "By the flame!" he shouted. "I never wanted you, but you came with this, and now I can't even… I can't…"
The slave said nothing. Slowly, one by one, strands of dark hair slid back down over his neck, until the collar was completely hidden.
"I can't do it!" Rodney screamed, and then he snatched his hand back, curling the fist against his chest, because he had almost been about to hit the slave; he had almost been about to hit him.
The slave said nothing, but he straightened up a little, his head no longer bowed, as if he was staring straight ahead. Waiting, Rodney thought. Expecting punishment.
Rodney raked his hand through his hair, and the shadow-cursed phials were still in his hand, clutched and useless. "I don't know what to do," he found himself saying, and he meant far more than just this evening's work.
The slave shifted slightly, showing Rodney the side of his face. "Are you going to sell me?"
"With Wraith-work around your neck? Of course not. Besides, Cowen won't like it if I do. I still don't know why he gave you to me, but he did, and I'm stuck with it. I really can't afford to give him a reason to exile me, or something worse."
"General Kolya wanted to keep me," the slave said, his expression still hidden. "The High Lord Cowen thinks that Kolya's getting too powerful. Perhaps it was more a way of asserting his power over Kolya than anything to do with you."
And Rodney knew just what Kolya wanted the slave for. "No," he said, sinking down into his own large armchair, "I'm not going to sell you. But I still don't know what to do."
He wasn't sure if he was imagining it, but he thought the slave whispered, "Neither do I," immensely quiet, no more than a breath.
Food was delivered through standing orders with local traders, supplemented with gifts and bribes. Rodney McKay, Rodney had thought bitterly more than once, the master alchemist who will prostitute his talent for the promise of a fondant fancy. But there were no ornate boxes on the doorstep this morning. There was no tempting aroma of sugar… and say what you liked about the Genii, but they made the best sweets. They were a strange people – all hard lines and military mastery, but addicted to glittering alchemy and sugary concoctions crafted with exquisite care.
The air was like ice in the early morning. A small company of soldiers marched past, their breath frosting in the cold. Kolya wasn't leading them himself, of course, but they still acted as his eyes and his ears. Kolya was a powerful man. Cowen didn't like Kolya and thought he was getting too powerful. Who had said that? Oh, yes, the slave, and what did a slave know about anything?
But it was true, Rodney realised, as he locked the door and headed to the kitchen with his latest spoils. He had worked in the palace long enough to overhear a dozen interactions between the two most powerful men in the kingdom, and he hadn't really thought about them much at the time, but now, looking back…
The slave was already in the kitchen, just standing there, one hand resting lightly on the table. Rodney froze in the door; felt a sudden urge to retreat… but, no, this was his house. A slave was supposed to fit in unobtrusively, wasn't he? When they weren't issuing orders, Genii masters ignored their slaves, acting as if they were invisible.
Rodney lowered the piled-up boxes onto the table. "I guess I should tell you to do the unpacking." His voice was still rough from sleep.
"Of course," the slave said, "my lord--"
"Oh, stop it." Rodney snatched a long currant stick from the nearest box. "That's what the Genii call me. I'm more used to 'Adept', really, just that. Even more used to being called 'McKay', actually. The my lord' thing… It's just--" He snapped off the end of the stick, and breathed in the aroma. "--flattery, you know? It doesn't mean anything."
The slave looked at him, his eyes suddenly sharp. "It might not mean anything to you, my lord, but when a slave calls someone wrongly…"
He didn't finish it. He didn't need to finish it. Rodney had seen enough in the chains to be able to imagine how it would unfold: a master dishing out pain, using an imagined lack of respect as the pretext.
"Well…" Rodney cleared his throat. "I'm saying now that you can call me 'Adept McKay' or just 'Adept.'" He took a mouthful of soft currant bread. "I need to think of a name for you. I can't just think of you as 'the slave.'"
The slave's hand tightened on the edge of the table.
As Rodney chewed, he ran through possible names in his head. Something from a story? A sly joke at the expense of a rival? Something inspired by the slave's appearance? He was lean, dark-haired, and seemed inordinately fond of looking at the sky. Something to do with that, perhaps.
He looked up. The slave hadn't moved, but there was something about his expression… Rodney frowned. "You don't want a name?"
"Names are given, my lord-- Adept McKay," the slave said. "Given by masters."
Rodney swallowed, and pulled off another chunk. "Then tell me what you want me to call you." He waved the stick around to punctuate his words. "What name do you call yourself?"
The slave blinked. "I don't." The furrow was back between his eyes. "I don't need to. I'm me. I don't need a name to… to experience what I do."
"Oh." Suddenly the bread seemed far less appetising. Rodney chewed slower and slower, then retreated to his workroom for important work and preparation for another long day at the palace.
He was alone again. You can do anything you like.
He couldn't seem to stop counting the chimes, just because he could. When they reached twelve, and still nobody had come, he returned to the washroom, and spent so long in the sparkling shower of water that his skin wrinkled, pulling against the scars.
It was hard to drag himself around the house. His body felt heavy and his limbs ached, even though nobody had hurt him for an entire day and a half.
At least he managed to sleep a little, and the star was still there when he felt the call of night and the window. He dozed a little, and it was gone when he woke, but he remembered that stars moved across the sky with the passage of hours, and when he pressed himself close to the glass and looked up as high as he could, it was still there.
He heard Adept McKay arrive home, of course – heard the sound of the door opening, and started away from the window, his heart pounding. You had to be alert to every sound. You always had to expect… He pressed his face into his hands, wiped the day clean from his face, and headed out into the slate-grey hallway, where too many things echoed in the wide walls and beneath the high ceiling.
"I've been thinking," Adept McKay said, his eyes skittering away from looking properly at him, "about that collar of yours."
The slave's hand half rose to it, then fall down stiffly to his side, hand clenching into a fist. Don't, he thought. Don't. He could feel his heart racing. Don't touch it, he thought. Don't try. And he knew, oh, he knew, that he would fight before that happened again. Even if the alchemist could kill him with his powers, he would fight before he ever let that happen again.
"It's Wraith-work, obviously." McKay was still further away than an unarmed master needed to be to hurt him. "And you said that the slavers found you in the barrens. You don't remember anything before that?"
Should he say it? It was just dreams, but you obeyed a master, and you told him… No, no, you didn't. You didn't show him what was inside. You didn't let them see those things that had the power to break you. Some things you never said at all.
McKay snapped his fingers. "Come on. It's a simple question. Do you remember anything before that?"
He shook his head. His mouth was very dry. Dreams, he told himself, and dreams couldn't hurt him; dreams didn't reveal anything true. "Sometimes I think I might remember people, pale people, not… not like people at all. And I had to get away from them."
"I knew it!" McKay snapped his fingers triumphantly. "You were a prisoner of the Wraith. Of course you were. Then you escaped, but your brain was all… frazzled, because of the collar, so you ended up getting captured by the Genii."
He remembered the barrens, parched and bleak. He was still there, with cold grey beneath his feet, and an enormous sky above him, pressing down.
"But the real question is: why." The alchemist was pacing, fizzing with excitement. "Lots of people have been captured by the Wraith, but we've never seen a collar like that before. I know someone – know them quite well, actually – who was their prisoner for far too long – they hunted him, you know, for sport – and even he didn't have one. So why you? Unless it was experimental technology and you drew the short straw and became their test subject. But why scramble your memory? They don't normally care about things like that. With Ro-- With the person I mentioned… I think the memory was a plus to them. More... grief, you know?"
"I don't know, Adept McKay." His voice sounded strange to him, faint and distant. I don't want to ask, he thought. I don't want to know. I can't know.
Another day performing nonsense. Another day working as a glorified decorator. Under day spent under the falsely jovial eye of Cowen. Another day with Kolya stalking past, looking at him as if to say, What have you done with my slave? Once, Rodney had edged too close to a door and had heard Cowen shouting, and he had hurried away and busied himself with a light fitting, and had tried not to notice when the door had burst open and Kolya had come stalking out, smashing a passing slave to the ground in his fury.
This time, the slave was in the kitchen when Rodney finally returned home. The man was so still that Rodney thought for a moment that he wasn't aware of him. Then he realised that of course the slave was aware of him. His stillness was no different from the way that Rodney had fluttered over the light fighting when Kolya had stormed past. It was all just another way of watching.
"Can you hurt me?" the slave asked, but only after a very long time has passed, long enough for Rodney to pile a plate with the choicest delicacies that he could find. "With your power, I mean." Then, when Rodney didn't immediately answer, he bent his head, and said, "I'm sorry, Adept McKay. I shouldn't have spoken without--"
"No, no." Rodney flapped his hands. "What idiocy is this? Of course I can't hurt you. Alchemy isn't… Well, yes, I guess I can make things that other people could use to hurt you, and I can make metal hot – but anyone can do that, of course; that doesn't require alchemy – and… But, no, I can't… you know, cause pain with a touch – reach into your mind. No fireballs and zapping. Alchemy isn't like that."
"General Kolya…" The slave stood up and moved to the window, but not before Rodney could see how his hand rose almost to his injured shoulder. "He said you could. He said that if I disobeyed you, you would--"
"That's ridiculous!" Rodney cried. "That's just typical of the lack of understanding these Genii have for true alchemy. The sooner I can get away from this place, the better, back to where people at least understand something of the true nature of what I can do."
"I think," the slave said quietly, "that he knew it wasn't true." His hand curled slowly at his side. "It was just another way to control me." The hand became a fist. "But you did, Adept McKay. You did hurt me."
"By the flame!" The chair scraped loudly as Rodney sank down into it. "That was…" He rubbed his face. "Apart from that, which I won't do again, I can't do much to hurt you. I'm not a fighting man. I don't know how to defend myself from physical attack."
The slave turned round; looked at him.
"I shouldn't have told you that," Rodney said. "Stupid, McKay! I'm supposed to be clever! Yes, tell the slave just how incapable you are of defending yourself should he take it into his head to try to kill you."
"No, it wasn't," the slave said, and he tripped over the words as if they were new to him, "very clever." But he smiled, just the ghost of a smile, and Rodney almost smiled back.
The workroom, the kitchen, the washroom, the bedroom, and the small room that showed him his star. He added a sixth room on… was it the fourth day? He marked every hour and he counted every chime, but the days still ran away from him. Sometimes it seemed as long as a cycle between McKay leaving in the morning and coming back at night, while other times it passed in a blur.
The sixth room was set up for entertaining, with high-backed chairs facing in towards a large central space. The table at the edge of the room was thick with dust. The mirrors showed a face he didn't recognise. The chairs were empty, but he knew rooms like this. The next time he looked at the mirror, he saw a circle of men and women watching with rapt attention as he knelt chained on the carpet, his master circling him with a knife in his hand. He turned away from that, and saw another mirror – every mirror showing a scar, every scar showing a memory.
He was frozen, unable to move. The window was large, and he saw a war engine passing in the road outside, looming closer and closer and closer out of its cloak of steam.
The rest of the day passed in memory, lost in it, drowning in it.
The slave had prepared him a plate of food and poured him a drink. Rodney sat down heavily in the chair. "I think I could get used to having a slave," he said. It was exactly the sort of selection he would have chosen for himself, even down to the quantities being just right.
The slave said nothing.
Rodney tried to concentrate on his food, but it was just so hard with someone else standing there, watching him. He gathered up his meal, intending to take it to his workroom, then stopped, frowning. "Are you sick, or something? You don't look well."
But even as he said it, it was no longer true. The slave's face went blank, and he straightened up, clasping his hands in front of them, slipping them into his long sleeves.
"Sit down," Rodney found himself saying. "Eat something yourself. Just don't expect me to make polite conversation. I'm not good at talking. Well," he added, as he wiped the bloom off a grape with his thumb, "I am quite good, but not at small-talk over dinner. After all the prattling and noise I have to endure during the day, I need this time to think."
The slave said nothing.
"Of course," Rodney added, when the first few mouthfuls were gone, "nothing that I say can ever count as small-talk, really, on account of--" He bit off a mouthful of meat. "Knowledge to impart, and so on." Perhaps his voice rose slightly at the end.
"What is alchemy, Adept McKay?" the slave asked. He still hadn't made any move to gather food for himself.
Rodney stretched his legs out happily. "Alchemy is power over metals – glass, too, and crystals… anything with a strong metallic component. Every kind of metal has a secret name… Well, 'name' is what we call it, but that's anthropomorphising it, really. You need to know the right words to command it, and it's about saying those words, and making the right patterns." He mimed, tracing patterns in the air with food-stained fingers. "And you need the right fixing, too, or nothing responds. That's often our principal work – researching alchemical fixings, trying new mixtures."
"What is it used for, Adept McKay?" the slave asked dutifully.
"Well, the Genii use it mostly for decoration," Rodney told him. "When you have power over a metal, you can make it shine. But it's so much more than that. You can quicken metal to do virtually anything you want it to, within reason. You can use it for defence, of course. A-- Well, cities, I've seen cities with alchemy infused into every part of them. But I think it's cheapening it by asking what it can be used for. It's all about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It's about furthering your understanding. It's about mastery."
"Mastery?" the slave echoed, and there it was, exposed.
"But different from…" he began, because of course it was; he was nothing like the Genii, nothing at all.
"Is it like sorcery?" the slave asked.
"What?" Rodney frowned sharply. "What do you know about sorcery?"
"Nothing." The slave's hand closed on the back of the empty chair. "I heard the other slaves talking about it once. They made it sound like a story, but--"
"Alchemy's nothing remotely like sorcery," Rodney snapped. "Sorcery's about showing off, with all that control of the elements nonsense – fireballs and flying and the like. It doesn't have anything like the depth of alchemy. You're born a sorcerer, you know – born with your gift, don't have to lift a finger to get it, just have to wait until it decides to manifest itself. Alchemy… Well, you're born with the gift, too, but well over half of it comes from study. You…" His voice trailed off. He took a sip of his drink, and saw that his hand was shaking. "Of course…" His voice sounded thin, and not like his own voice at all. "Sorcerers are little more than a myth nowadays. The last sorcerers left this part of the world thousands of years ago, and went south across the sea. You shouldn't listen to stories."
"No," the slave said, but he helped himself to a small plate of food, and started eating, and perhaps he was a tiny bit less pale than when Rodney had first entered the kitchen.
"Make sure that you don't," Rodney said. It was probably best not to say anything else, he thought.
The knife marks at his shoulder had long-since scabbed over. As he stood in the washroom beneath the sparkling water, he saw that the scab was already falling off in places, revealing the dark pink smoothness of freshly-healed skin.
Healed, he thought, because he thought that as many as seven days might have passed, and nobody had hurt him.
He didn't know what to do. Life was about surviving what his masters did to him. It was about that foolish, that desperately important refusal to let them break him all the way. It was about being prepared for pain. It was about struggling for every thought and fighting for every word.
Days now were things of endless emptiness. His thoughts came without him having to fight for them, but he had no idea what to apply them to. He was tiny in a vast room of possibility, and had no idea how to take the first step.
By his reflection in the fragments of metal on the washroom wall, he thought that he might look different already, less wounded and less thin. But if he was changing, what would be become?
Healed, he thought. He touched the marks on his chest; the mark on his shoulder that he would never lose. But still scarred. Always that.
There was one door in the palace that Rodney had never been allowed through. "The relic room," they told him, when he finally dared to ask.
He gathered his phials and his fixings, cleared his throat, and pretended not to care at all. "Is the High Lord Cowen likely to--"
"Am I likely to what?" Cowen asked.
By the flame! Rodney almost said it aloud. He bit his lip, and struggled to keep hold of his armful of phials. A black one slipped free and shattered, spilling a pool of black almost to Cowen's toes.
"I'm sorry." Rodney almost lost a second phial to his natural inclination to gesture with his hands while talking. "I didn't mean--"
Cowen took a deliberate, fastidious step back. "A slave will clear it up. With his tongue." His serious look held for longer than necessary before he laughed, as if to indicate that it was a joke. "What were you wondering about my intentions?"
"I… I'd noticed a room I hadn't gone into," Rodney said. The sun was slanting in through the windows behind Cowen, and the alchemy was dazzling, alive not just with light but with eager, glittering power. "I was just wondering if you were going to ask me to… well, to go in. Enhance the relics? Give them a setting worthy of them?"
"Perhaps I will," Cowen said. Did he always go round with a guard of very large soldiers, or were they a new development? "But I have a few days' of work to get out of you in the parade room first."
Parade room. Rodney swallowed. Kolya's kingdom. "Yes, High Lord," he said.
Cowen turned and began to walk away. Rodney sagged with relief, then jerked himself upright again when Cowen turned. "And my gift still pleases you?" It was spoken with his usual mildness, steel wrapped in silk.
"It does," Rodney rasped. "I mean, he does."
"Good," Cowen said, "because I would hate to displease my most accomplished alchemist."
His tone, Rodney thought, said something else entirely.
Time went faster when Adept McKay was talking. It gave him something to anchor himself on, and made the world smaller and less suffused with choice. McKay liked talking, and his eyes and his hands became like living things when he lectured about alchemy. All the slave had to do was ask, and then concentrate on making the right reactions.
"What do you do," he asked one night, "when you're out of the house?" That was on a day when outside was cold and white, when his star was lost behind clouds, and when McKay had come in stamping and slapping at himself, with snow sprinkled on his shoulders.
"I'm working in the palace," McKay said, "at High Lord Cowen's special request."
They only ever talked in the kitchen. After the meal, and sometimes half way through it, McKay vanished into his workroom, and the slave spent the rest of the evening in the same way that he spent the days. Sometimes it made things worse to know that someone else was there, separated only by an unlocked door. Sometimes, though, it made things feel better. Once, he had stood outside the workroom door for the whole time between one chiming and the next, listening to McKay mutter under his breath as he worked.
"I'm a glorified decorator," McKay said bitterly. "And, of course, I had to work for months doing exactly the same in the nobles' houses before Cowen even noticed me and thought to summon me to the palace. A whole year of it." He rubbed his hand over his eyes as if he had a headache.
"Is it hard work?" the slave asked.
"The work itself isn't difficult," McKay said, "but it just goes on and on. And any sustained work requires concentration. And they just keep on watching me all the time. These Genii… They're so suspicious."
The slave wondered if he could sit down without being asked. He pulled out a chair, gripped it tightly, and lowered himself tentatively into it. McKay didn't even look up. The slave thought that it might even hurt a bit, the small curl of feeling that he felt at that.
"You aren't Genii?" he asked, the chair stiff at his back.
"By the flame, no!" McKay looked angry, and the slave stiffened, but McKay just carried on, waving his hand jerkily. "I've been here nearly a year. The worst thing is having to guard my tongue all the time. I'm not very good at it, really. They know I'm not Genii, of course, but they don't know…" He stopped – a sharp gesture with his hand, and his lips pressed firmly together.
McKay was often angry, but it came out in words and in gesticulations, and it was always forgotten a moment later. It wouldn't last, the slave thought. He just hadn't yet found what would drive McKay to violence. It was best to be cautious, not to push. No, no, it was best to push, because at least then he'd know. It was better to know than to limp around in this endless uncertainty. He didn't know what the rules were any more.
"You're keeping secrets from the Genii," he said. He looked at the grain of the wooden table, running his finger along its curves. "You came here deliberately with a very particular purpose."
McKay picked up a bunch of grapes and started plucking them off one by one, dropping them to his plate but not eating them. "I told them I wasn't good at undercover work. I've always been one to say what I mean, without minding too much about the consequences. Why on earth they chose me, I don't know. I mean, yes, an alchemist of some skill was required, but nothing that most of the others couldn't have done. I think…" He plucked off the last grape, and frowned at the bare stem. "I think they might have been wanting to get rid of me, you know?"
The slave didn't even want to breathe. There was nothing in the world but this. "Are you close to finding it," he asked, "what you came here for?"
"Perhaps." McKay scraped his hand across his face. "There's just too many of them, watching all the time. It would be a simple thing to force my way through the locks, of course, but they just won't stop watching."
"Does--" the slave began, but McKay interrupted him.
"I shouldn't have said any of that." His voice was quiet, rather than angry. "It's just… it's been a whole year and I haven't been able to… And you asked, and… And it's not as if you've got any reason to feel any loyalty to the Genii yourself, after what they did to you… And you never see anybody but me, but I might have visitors one day, and then…" He rubbed his brow again, fingers digging deep. "I told them I wasn't good at this. So now you know. My life in your hands, and all that. It feels…"
He trailed off. The slave moistened dry lips. "I know how it feels," he said.
"Oh." McKay cleared his throat. "Yes."
And dinner was over for another night, but the slave didn't move from the table, not for a very long time after that.
Another morning, another day, another night.
Rodney worked on the parade room, and every time he looked up, one or other of Kolya's men was watching him. Sometimes Kolya was there, too. Once Kolya disappeared into his office with his closest officers, but Rodney moved to the far end of the hall, to work on the trophies there, so when they all emerged, it would never even cross their mind to remember that he had quickened the locks on Kolya's door, and that metal had memory.
Soon, the metal whispered, long after Kolya had gone. We will move soon.
"I think Kolya's planning a coup," Rodney told the slave that evening.
The slave nodded, a hint of that old furrow forming between his brows. "I think he might be," was all he said.
"Well, I don't want to be here when it happens," Rodney said. "It's bound to be messy."
"I don't…" the slave began, then stopped. Of course, Rodney thought, if Kolya displaced Cowen, then he would be free to rule that Cowen's gift to Rodney was null and void.
Rodney ate in silence for a while. Cowen had spoken to him again, hinting that he might be allowed into the relic room within a couple of days. He had no idea who would accompany him, of course. He had no idea how big the room was, and how many relics there were inside.
"I'm not a thief," he said, suddenly feeling the need to justify himself. "It's something the Genii don't know what to do with. They won't miss it. They don't even recognise it for what it is. But it's something that might make all the difference to us."
"Us?" the slave asked.
Rodney shook his head. He had said far too much already. The crazy thing was, of course, that it actually felt good to have somebody who knew part of his secret. But this…? This wasn't his secret to tell.
But he wanted to tell it, he found, and that was probably the most crazy thing of all.
"What do you do all day?"
The question stopped him breathing. Clenching his hands into fists, the slave forced himself to let out a slow breath.
"I should have asked before." Clutching his robe around him with one hand, McKay looked angry, his face jagged with frowns. "It's been… what? Sixteen days? You can't go out. There's precious little housework to do. I told you not to cook. Can you read? It doesn't matter if you can, though, does it, because I told you not to go into my workroom, and that's where most of the books are. So what do you do?"
He had no idea how to answer. He had no idea what the answer was. Sometimes he spent the days quaking with memories. Sometimes he traced his own scars. He counted the chimes, and he counted imaginary chimes in the spaces between them. Whenever the star was visible, he watched it, but where his mind went when he did so, he did not know.
Days passed in silence. The only times he remembered clearly were the times when McKay was at home, when then there was variety to the long slow hours.
"I don't…" He tugged his own robe tight. "I don't know. Things."
"By the flame, I didn't think!" McKay was pacing, all sharp gestures. "I've kept you locked in a cage." His anger was bright sparks. He's angry at himself, the slave realised. "I should have…"
"It doesn't matter, Adept McKay," the slave managed to say.
"My people disapprove of slavery," McKay said, still pacing. "It's just that I'm not… not very good with people. I don't think. I'm an arrogant man. I say things, and people… They might feel bad for a minute or two, and snivel a bit, but it doesn't have a real effect. I'm just… not used to this."
The slave shook his head. "It doesn't matter." He could feel his heart thudding in his chest. He didn't want questions. He just wanted… He wanted…
"But it does," McKay said, his hands finally falling still.
"Tomorrow," Cowen said, "or maybe the day after," but then he asked Rodney to create hanging stalactites of silver in his garden, and it was cold outside, so cold.
Kolya was everywhere in the palace, his back erect, steps loud and brisk. Soon, his eyes said. Perhaps even tomorrow.
It was a simple thing that evening to craft what he wanted to craft. Rodney left his workroom an hour after dinner and headed across the hallway.
He found the slave still in the kitchen, still sitting at the table, his posture stiff in a way that reminded Rodney of the earliest days. "Is something…?" the slave asked, then swallowed. "You don't normally leave your room after dinner."
Of course. Rodney shook his head. "Nothing's wrong. I've just been thinking… I shouldn't keep you inside. I'm not a Genii, to condone slavery. But…" He wondered how honest to be. "I don't want to you to run away," he said, "not with that collar on you. That makes you immeasurably valuable to me."
"I won't run away," the slave said.
"But I made this." Rodney uncurled his fist, showing the two halves of the silver talisman. "It's simple alchemy, really. You wear one half, and I wear the other. They're two halves of the same thing, and the metal knows that, so if ever I wanted to find you… Of course, if you were another alchemist we'd even be able to have a degree of rudimentary communication, but since you're not… It will at least tell me which direction to look."
"You're…" The slave swallowed. "Marking me?"
"Of course not," Rodney snapped. "It's just… Hold out your hand."
The slave was slow to obey. When he did so, he did it with the guardedness of someone who was ready to snatch it away at the slightest provocation.
"It won't hurt you," Rodney said, hearing the sharp edge of irritation in his voice. "It's a bracelet, see? Not even tight." The slave's wrists were healed, leaving only pink scars. "There," Rodney said, sealing it with a pattern and a word. "And now I need to put on mine." He had fastened his to a long silver chain, and he put it over his head, tucking the talisman in behind his robe along with the other one. "There," he said again, with a smile. "I'll change the locks tomorrow so they don't depend on alchemy, and that's that. You can go out during the day."
Rodney smiled. The slave was staring at his wrist, and didn't smile back.
"You know secrets about me," Rodney said, "things that could get me into a lot of trouble, but I'm letting you go out. It's… it's a gesture of trust. I'm trusting you, and you won't go betraying that, now, will you, because I didn't have to do it. I did it because it's the right thing to do, and, huh, I can do selfless, after all, despite what certain people say."
The slave's smile was fleeting. "Thank you, Adept McKay."
Outside, he thought. He could go outside. He could unlock the door, and step outside.
The stars were outside, and the night's sky. The sun was outside, and sometimes birds swept down, before soaring up into the scattered clouds.
He stood with his hand on the door, then leant forward so that his head was resting on the door, too.
The hallway was vast, echoing with possibilities. Outside was vaster.
I don't want you to run away, McKay had said, but what was the point of running away? You had to have somewhere to run to. You had to believe that somewhere, beyond this place, life was better. He had run from these Wraith, McKay had said, and had ended up with the Genii. If he ran from the Genii, would he end up somewhere worse?
The hallway was vast, but suddenly it felt almost small. Outside was worse.
Outside had Kolya. Outside had all his other masters. Outside had people who had watched him suffer and wanted him to scream. Outside had…
Cold bled in through the door. You're free, McKay's eyes had said, but of course he wasn't. The world outside was the prison. Here, inside here, perhaps, just perhaps, was a small patch of safety.
"I can't," he said, "I can't," as he heard footsteps, loud outside the door.
"They're old things," Cowen said, "and of little interest to me. The focus of the Genii should be on the future, not the past. But I'm sure there are some who will appreciate you working your magic on them."
A servant opened the door to the relic room, and Rodney followed him in. He felt detached from his body, not really there at all. After a whole year of drudgery and exile, the moment had come.
The door was barely closed behind him when the screaming started.
Someone was hammering at the door, striking it with slow, harsh thuds: one, two, three… and the slave counted them, counted them the way he counted the chimes, but he backed away, too, edging slowly across the cavernous hall.
A harsh voice shouted something. What was it saying?
Ten, he counted. Eleven. The knocking changed rhythm, becoming more urgent. Slate was cold beneath his feet.
Probably a trader, he told himself, or someone trying to engage McKay's services. Smiling, bland faces. Soft words and flattery. People who looked mild and respectable, but who kept a slave chained up at home, and wore a terrifying face beneath that outward mask.
You're afraid, he told himself, and of course he was, because only a fool wasn't afraid of dreadful things.
There was a break in the knocking. The slave stopped his retreat, one hand rising jerkily to his chest. He could feel his heartbeat racing there.
Probably just a trader, he thought again, and if he didn't go out, then he would never be free of the barrens. If he didn't go out, then he would become his own jailer. How his masters would laugh if they found out that they had created someone who didn't know how to be free, even when freedom was offered to him. Stupid, he thought of his fear. Stupid. He'd never cowered beneath the whip, and had never screamed. He had never let them own every part of him.
The knocking started again, harsher this time, more like hammering. He gasped, and then there was a wall behind him, and he couldn't retreat any further.
But self-preservation isn't stupid, he thought, and there was an echo of McKay in that internal voice. It isn't stupid to want to keep yourself safe.
The knocking became heavy and metallic, and the door started trembling.
The slave ran.
"What…?" Rodney's mouth was suddenly dry. "What's happening?"
The servant looked at the door, and bit his lip, his hands clasping and unclasping at his side. Not just a servant, Rodney realised – not just a menial who reported to Cowen – but a man, who was afraid. "I'll check," the servant said.
The screaming grew louder, then was cut off abruptly. Firearms sounded, and people were shouting. The door was thick, though, lined with ancient quickened bronze. Sound was deadened.
"Yes." Rodney swallowed. "You do that."
The relic room was dark, lit only by a slant of sunlight from a small barred window, high on the wall. A few of the relics were emitting a faint glow of their own, speaking to Rodney of strong but long-neglected alchemy. Most were covered with white cloth and sacking. The Genii were not a people who prized the past. They took trophies from conquered civilisations and dumped them here to rot, surrounded by the relics of their own past. There were hundreds of the things, all piled together with no evidence of any organisation, but one of them, if the books and the reports were right, was the object Rodney had undertaken this whole charade to obtain.
"Go," he snapped, as the servant faltered at the door. "I'll… er… get to work."
The servant opened the door a crack, then gasped and rushed out. The door swung shut behind him, but not all the way. The shouting was louder with the door open, but the implications of what had happened were louder still; they had to be. The servant had gone. No-one was watching Rodney. For the first time since he had been invited into the palace, he was unwatched. He had to start searching now.
A firearm sounded, horribly close. Rodney scurried behind a draped suit of antique armour, and crouched down, trembling.
A bread knife and a carving knife. The slave pulled out drawers and scattered things from shelves, then ran to other rooms, holding the knives together in one hand, in case the other rooms held things that could be better used a weapon. Knives worked well in close quarters, but he wanted something with a longer reach. No, he wanted a firearm, but he had never seen any evidence that McKay possessed one.
The hammering grew louder. He came to a halt in the middle of the receiving room, watching by a dozen mirrors. The drapes were open, and he saw the street outside, with steam and smoke rising up beyond the towers.
He heard the door splintering. Too little cover here, he thought, and too open to the street. He ran back to the small store room, the room that was his refuge, the room that gave him a glimpse of the star in the evening. With a knife in each hand, he waited.
With a crash, the door gave way, and the slave could hear the familiar clicking of military boots on a hard slate floor.
It meant guards. It meant pain.
It meant Kolya.
Light flowed into the room as someone pushed the door open.
Rodney kept very still, his shoulders hunched and his head bowed, his hand pressed to his mouth. His lips moved rapidly, soundlessly whispering meaningless words: a plea for help, but who was going to help him?
"I thought the alchemist came in here," someone said. "Adept McKay." The title was sneered. "Thinks he's so much better than us and doesn't care who knows it."
"You know what the general thinks about alchemy." The second voice seemed nearer, or perhaps it was just louder. "Come on. There's more important things to do than worry about a jumped-up conjurer."
The door began to edge shut, the darkness spreading. Rodney let out a slow, shuddering breath.
"Look at this stuff!" the first voice exclaimed, and Rodney gasped – surely they must have heard the gasp! "What a load of useless trash. We should burn it."
No, Rodney thought. No, please, no. He would show himself, laugh, and the whole thing would be revealed to be just a silly misunderstanding. They
were servants coming to take him to dinner. The gunshots and the shouting were only a drill. Everything was still going according to plan.
"Wait until we're ordered to," said the other man.
The door closed properly this time, the key turning in the lock. Rodney blinked as his eyes slowly became accustomed to the gloom. What was happening? But he knew what was happening. Kolya was staging his coup, and he, Rodney McKay, the most skilled alchemist of his day, was caught up in it.
And there was nothing he could do but roll up his sleeves and get to work, because he was close, so close, even as he teetered on the edge of losing everything.
"There's no-one here," the slave heard someone say, as he stood behind the half-open door.
"He's here," said a lower voice. "Hiding under the bed, probably. Slaves are spineless creatures, you know."
"Or chained to it." The first soldier laughed. "You know what they say about foreigners."
The slave tightened his grip on the carving knife, and concentrated on keeping his breathing steady. The clicking of boots on the floor was Kolya approaching him as he hung from chains. It was favoured officers allowed in to watch. It was knotted whips and a knife.
"Come out, come out," they called. "Come out, slave. Obey me!"
Not Kolya, but the same tone of voice, snapping an order. You had to obey commands. Fighting them only brought more pain. You obeyed, but you kept the most important part of yourself locked away inside, and you didn't let them make you scream.
"Come out, come out," they said, closer now, closer.
The slave looked down at the carving knife, watching it glint in the light from the window. Right from the start, McKay had let him had access to the kitchen knives. Right… from… the… start.
"Come out!" they commanded, in a voice that no-one born in the barrens could ever disobey.
The slave his lip. He could feel his shoulders trembling; see the knife blades quivering in his hands, gripped in his white knuckles. One set of footsteps was going away, heading towards McKay's workroom. The other was getting closer and closer…
You'll never escape, the slave told himself. Surrender now; it might make them hurt you less. Submit. Choose the time that it happens. Stay in control of yourself. Stay in control.
He heard a fist thud against the workroom's metal door. "This one's locked," the first soldier said. "I bet the alchemist has locked him in here."
The nearer feet stopped, and then began to walk away.
Surrender, the slave thought. No, hide. He looked down at the knives. He thought of Kolya and a whole lifetime of pain. He thought of McKay, who had unlocked the door, waved his hand, and told him to do whatever he liked.
No, he thought. No.
He was through the door in a heartbeat, driving the knife into the soldier's back. But the soldier turned at the last minute, the knife only scraping a line across his shoulders, and there was another soldier, a third one, with soft shoes that made no sound.
Something struck the slave hard across the back of the head, and then--
Was that smoke? Rodney clambered over the relics until he reached the door, and spread his fingers on the old bronze. Is that smoke? he wondered, but the patterns were ancient and tired, and the bronze spoke only of endless years of watching over forgotten relics.
Rodney wrinkled his nose. He was sure it was smoke. They were going to trap him here and smoke him out. They were going to roast him along with the object he was searching for. They were going to…
No, he thought, maybe not smoke. Maybe it was just his imagination. He scraped both hands down his robe, smearing sweat and dust. He couldn't hear any noises from outside the door. Whatever bad things were happening had gone away and were happening somewhere else. He was still alone, still unwatched, and safely out of the way of men who liked to wave blades and firearms around.
He clambered back to the centre of the room and resumed his search. There were stone tablets carved with words in languages he could not understand. There were antique weapons, some of them quickened and some of them base. There was armour and caskets and the fading banners of conquered peoples. There were statues, perhaps of gods and spirits that the Genii no longer believed in, but the largest statue seemed to show a captured sorcerer bound in chains, his hand outstretched as he prepared to unleash fiery vengeance on his captors. "Which isn't Genii work," Rodney muttered, "that's for sure."
The light changed slowly outside, heading through afternoon into evening. Rodney's stomach rumbled, and he realised that he hadn't eaten all day. His hands were growing clumsy with the cold, too, so he pulled a simple fixing out of his pocket and set to work on a bronze statue of a primitive king, making it radiate heat.
What would it look like, the thing he was looking for? The scholars, for all their much-vaunted knowledge, had coughed and fidgeted and tried to change the subject, before admitting that they didn't really know. Probably small, probably decorated with stars, and probably made of silver – "which doesn't really narrow it down much, does it," Rodney muttered now, "since the Genii are addicted to the stuff."
He had to try each and every item – and was that fire, glowing there in the distance, giving the evening a tinge of orange? He rubbed his eyes, and carried on.
He found a sword, still sharp enough to cut his finger. As he sucked the blood away, he rummaged through a pile of decaying fabric with his other hand.
And it was there that he found the object that he had given up a whole year for.
The slave awoke to find himself bound. His head throbbed horribly, and he could feel the familiar stiffness of dried blood at the back of his head. When he moved, pain stabbed through his skull, like a clamp around his brow. He pressed his lips together, though, and made no sound.
He rolled onto his side. His hands were bound in front of him with ropes, and his body told him that he had been thrown down heavily, perhaps from the height of one or two steps; it was a pattern of pain that he recognised. He hadn't been beaten, though. Beyond the injury at the back of his head, nobody had drawn blood.
It would come, though. He was alone for now, but he knew this place.
They had brought him back to Kolya.
It was small – a cylinder no longer than his forearm, made of silver and decorated with constellations from the southern sky. The alchemy in the silver was weak with age, only dimly suggesting a keep out. There was no visible way in. To those without the alchemical gift, it would look like nothing more than a decorative baton, perhaps one that a military officer would carry.
Open, Rodney thought, tracing the patterns in a smear of fixing. The old power surged briefly, and melted before him. The cylinder opened in the middle, revealing a rolled-up scroll of paper, still looking as crisp and white as if it were new.
There was no time to read it. He had it now. His goal was achieved, and now nothing at all mattered except getting out of here, and heading back home as fast as he could.
They had locked the door, but locks were no barrier to an alchemist of Rodney's level of skill. When the door was unlocked, he opened it just a crack, but the door had been quickened to protect, not to tell a story. He opened it wider, peeking out as much as he dared.
There was no-one there. Thank the flame! Rodney sighed, and hurried out.
He almost tripped over the body; almost fell flat on his face in the pool of blood. He recovered his balance just in time, flailing his arms. "Shadow!" he gasped, tottering backwards. It was the servant. It was the servant he had sent out of the room. He had been cut down on the very doorstep, and had died there while Rodney…
A firearm sounded. Rodney snapped his head up, gasping. One hand flew to his mouth, and the other to his pocket, where the silver cylinder lay between phials of fixing. There were other patches of blood, too. Red footprints led to the door on the far side of the room, and there was a thick smear, as if somebody had been dragged.
"I've got to get out," he said. "I'm so close. Shadow, I'm so close." But the palace was large, lit with silver alchemy, with no place to hide. The main gates were well guarded, and… and if this really was a coup, then Kolya would want to secure the palace. There would be no way in and no way out. Rodney was trapped. Trapped.
He scurried back into the relic room, and fumbled the door shut, leaning on it with his forehead.
Time passed, and still no-one came to him. The slave counted the chimes, looked at all the familiar marks on the floor, and remembered. Whenever footsteps sounded from the floor above, he stiffened, waiting for the creak that the top step always made. Far away, too far away for him to hear the words, people were shouting.
It was worse, he thought, now that his mind was working properly. He knew exactly what was going to happen to him, his mind fizzing with the possibilities. Kolya had never wanted to hand him over. For Kolya to risk taking him back like this, Cowen must either have been overthrown, or have agreed to grant concessions to Kolya to keep him under his command. There was no getting out of this until Kolya grew tired of him and sold him on to someone worse.
There was no getting out of this.
All he knew was slavery and pain. The last seventeen days had been a respite, but now life was back on its normal course. It had been inevitable, really, just as the short winter days always yielded to night.
This was normal. He was normal. He had faced this all before.
And he would not scream.
Of course, Rodney thought, it was possible that no-one would bat an eyelid if he just tried to stroll right out of the palace. Killing visiting alchemists couldn't be top of the list of priorities when you were staging a palace coup. That would be things like killing the previous top man and getting rid of all his supporters. One little alchemist was a harmless irrelevance. They'd be too busy running around doing scary soldierly things to really notice him.
"But it isn't just one little alchemist," Rodney said. "It's… well, me." Kolya had never shown any sign of noticing him before, but now there was the business of the slave between them. Kolya had looked quite menacingly at Rodney several times. He was bound to have issued orders that Rodney should be killed on sight.
"I have to get out," he said. "I have to… Oh! The window!" The window was high and barred, but bars were no obstacle to an alchemist. Getting up there would be more of a challenge, but plenty of the relics were big and climbable on.
"Which is why," he gasped, some time later, as he struggled to drag a large crate towards the window, "people with my sort of skill… ought to have bodyguards and… strong soldiers to do… this sort of thing… for them. I guess this… this would be a… good use… for a… slave."
Even when the crate was in place, he still couldn't reach the window. He had to drag a small lumpy something up to the crate, and use it as a step to help him clamber up onto it. Then he had to tumble down again and grab yet another something to put on top, to give himself even more height. "And I never liked heights," he said, and the relic room looked very different from above, like a graveyard of dead, unwanted things. "My skills lie elsewhere. You can't be good at everything."
The bars parted at his touch, yielding to the patterns he traced on them with his fingers. Standing on tiptoe, he peered out, and, yes, the window appeared to be just large enough to let him through, if he wriggled. But, "Oh, Shadow!" he cursed, because of course the drop was just as far on the outside as it was on the inside, and there were no crates out there, and unlike certain showing-off enchanters, he couldn't fly.
I'm going to die, he thought. It was either falling to his doom, or getting hacked to pieces by Kolya's vengeful soldiers. Nobody at home would know that he'd actually achieved his task His body would lie here in the city of the Genii, and…
"Oh!" He snapped his fingers. "A rope." It worked in the stories, anyway, although Rodney had never climbed down a rope himself. How difficult could it be, though, if brainless soldierly types could do it?
He clambered down the pile of crates again, and snatched up a fading banner proclaiming the glories of a long-dead incarnation of the Genii state. It was harder to tear it into strips than he had expected it to be, and he had to use his teeth, and then he almost gagged, wondering what filthy hands had held the banner over the years. There's no time for this, he reminded himself. This was his heroic escape. This was the sort of colourful detail that would make his story timeless when he returned with his prize.
With the banner knotted into a rope, he struggled back up the pile of crates, where he coaxed one of the parted iron bars into a ring, then firmly knotted the rope to it. "Don't let the knot slip," he urged the iron, as he made the patterns for an enduring hold.
Then there was nothing left to do but squeeze through the window – "Ow!" he gasped, as stone scraped against his stomach, and phials of fixing shattered in his pocket – catch hold of the rope, and… Oh! He was coming through head first. How on earth was he supposed to grasp hold of the rope and climb down in a sensible, feet-first fashion? How was he supposed to turn round?
"The things I do," he gasped, "for duty." Well, for survival, too, of course, though it seemed more and more likely that his days were going to end here, in a splatter on a Genii lawn. But he hauled the rope through, and shook it out below it; he could see its bottom just brushing the grass. Then he reached as far down the rope as he could, and grabbed hold of it as tightly as he could.
"Oh, Shadow!" he breathed. "I'm going to die. I'm going to die." But he carried on moving, pushing himself through the window until his weight dragged him forward, and he was no longer able to support himself on the narrow windowsill.
And then he was falling.
The top step creaked. The slave stiffened, feeling his heart start to race. As long as you don't scream, he told himself. What was going to happen would happen, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. All he could control was the way he reacted to it.
The door opened. "Good evening," Kolya said, with a bright smile. "I have missed you."
Don't say anything, the slave thought, but already he could feel something inside him cracking. "That's funny," he heard his voice saying, "because I haven't missed you."
Kolya's smile vanished. "I find myself rather busy today." He drew a baton from his belt. "I have places I should be, but fortunately I also have trusted deputies. My position is secure. I can be spared for a while."
"You've launched a coup, then?" the slave asked.
"Silence!" Kolya smashed him across the shoulders with the baton. Pain exploded in the slave's head.
"Is Cowen dead?" the slave asked. The second blow sent him sprawling onto his back, and he tried to sit up, but his bound hands robbed him of leverage. Rolling onto his side, his face away from Kolya, he closed his eyes briefly against the pain.
"I lost men today." Kolya struck again, but the baton was nothing; the slave knew the touch of the baton, and knew that other weapons were far worse. "Good men. Dead because that fool Cowen had paid people to be loyal to him." He struck again, and then the slave heard the gentle whisper of a knife being drawn out of its sheath.
He shouldn't say it; he really shouldn't say it. The slave moistened his lips. "Hurting me won't bring them back."
"But it makes me feel better," Kolya hissed, his voice close, and the knife blade pressed to the slave's back.
There was silence for a while, only breathing. He didn't mean to say that, the slave thought. I pushed him, and it came out. I did that. That was me.
He had learnt to lie still and endure. Fighting only led to worse pain. He made no sound, and he let them do whatever they wanted to do. It was better that way. It was better.
"What about the alchemist?" he found himself asking. "What about Adept McKay?"
"Cowen did love his glittery things," Kolya sneered. "I have no use for alchemy. Apart from anything else, he's a foreigner."
The blade was still there on his back, its point beginning to dig into his flesh. The slave clenched his bound hands together. "Are you going to kill him?"
The knife withdrew. Kolya grabbed his shoulders, and dragged him around, and slammed his back against the floor. "You've changed." His voice was different from normal.
The slave shook his head. He was still a slave. He had been scared to go out. He wouldn't scream. Memories of past tortures still haunted him. No different; no different at all. He would never be different. He would always be what he was.
"Yes," Kolya hissed, and then his eyes narrowed, the light gleaming on his blade. "But I can change you back. I can make you what I need you to be."
"Oh, Shadow!" Rodney gasped, as his fall was arrested, his full weight dangling from his hands. His make-shift rope twisted in his awkwardly-positioned hands, and by the flame, he'd broken his wrist – no, he'd broken both wrists – and he had to climb down, but how, but how? He'd have to let go with one hand, and…
Oh! Legs! He was supposed to do something with his legs, wasn't he? He waved them madly, and managed to wrap them around the rope, so that he was almost sitting on one of the knots, and then – I'm going to die! I'm going to die! – he unclenched his right hand from the rope, snatched it down towards his chest, and grabbed the rope again, breathing in fast, sobbing gasps. He did the same with his left hand, and felt the rope pull sharply between his legs, the knot sliding upwards.
"I'm doing it," he gasped. "I'm really doing it."
He edged down a little further. But what if someone had seen him? What if someone was aiming a firearm at him even now? He twisted his head round, trying to peer into the dark garden. As he did so, he lost his grip. He flailed for the rope, and caught it briefly, the skin burning on his palm, then lost it completely.
He hit the ground hard.
"Shadow!" he moaned. Was he dead? Was anything broken? You could break your back with falls like that. He had to lie here. He couldn't move. He had to…
Someone shouted, not too far away.
Moaning, his breath catching in his throat, Rodney rolled onto his front. At least he could move, and when he stood up, both legs consented to hold him. He ached right through, though, and his back and his shoulders were throbbing, and there was a sharp pain where-- "The cylinder!" He patted his pocket, and it was still there, intact in a mass of broken glass and leaking fixing.
He had to get out of here. He had to get home. He started to run, heading for the shelter of the ruthlessly-pruned bushes. Shadows loomed on either side of him, and, "No!" he begged, "please, don't," before realising that it was just the shadow of a tree, not a man with a firearm coming to kill him.
Of course, he thought, he was still trapped in the palace grounds, and he still had exactly the same problem that he had faced in the palace: how to get out past the dozens of guards all armed to the teeth.
"I'm going to die," he panted, as he tripped over his own feet and fell onto his hands and knees, looking down at locked a metal grille. "Oh!" he gasped. "Yes! Of course!"
He grabbed hold of his robe and squeezed out a few drops of fixing, then gasped the words that made the lock part. The smell was foul on the other side of the grille, and Rodney turned his head away, sucking in a lungful of clean air, and then descended the narrow ladder.
He was in the sewers. To think that he was in the sewers! The things that he was enduring to carry out this mission! This was devotion above and beyond the call of duty. They'd have to take back everything they'd ever said about him now. They would have to admit that he, Rodney McKay, could do what nobody else could do…
His thoughts trailed away. "I hope I can," he whispered. He felt his way along the stinking tunnel by keeping a hand on the foul and slimy wall. His other hand he kept pressed to his mouth. Light was faint, slanting in from other grilles, and thank to flame for the Genii and their silver sparklies, because without them it would be pitch black.
He had to leave the city. He had to get out. Just go now and run… But, no, he had to go back to his lodgings first. He needed more fixings, and wanted to take at least some of his books. Food would be good for the journey, and there was no way on earth he was abandoning the slave with his Wraith-wrought collar.
I really am very scared, he thought, as he paused for breath for a moment, his head sagging. He hadn't really had time to realise it, too busy trying to stay alive.
Then on, on. When he was absolutely sure that he must have left the palace grounds, he stopped, frowned, and walked a hundred more paces, then a hundred more. Only then did he climb up and emerge into the city.
He was barely two hundred paces from his lodgings. The streets were quiet, with no sign of any additional military presence. Perhaps the disturbance was confined to the palace. Perhaps everything could go back to normal now – well, apart from the whole running for his life thing. Or perhaps just strolling. He'd taken a tiny little something that none of the Genii knew they had possessed. Nobody would have any particular cause to search for him. Nobody… Nobody…
His steps grew slower and slower. His hands rose to his chest, where his heart was suddenly beating very fast.
His front door was smashed in. Rodney stood frozen at the bottom of the steps, wanting to shrink away into the shadow, because what if the attackers were still there inside, still waiting for him? But they wouldn't be, would they? It wasn't much a trap to leave the place so openly broken. And what about the slave? What about…?
No, no, he needed his fixings. He needed food. He had to go in. His heart fluttering in his throat, he edged through the doorway. "Er…I can hurt you!" he shouted tentatively, remembering that Kolya had told the slave as much. "I can… er… zap you with my mighty power. But I won't," he added, "if you leave now."
He heard only silence. Reaching round the open door, he slapped at the wall several times until he found the light switch. Apart from the shattered door, nothing seemed disturbed, but when he edged forward, he saw drops of blood near the storeroom door, and a pair of discarded kitchen knives.
"Er…" It came out as little more than a croak. Rodney cleared his throat. "Uh, slave? Are you there?" But even as he spoke, his fingers found the talisman. Gripping it tightly, he whispered the words that would activate its power. Where is he? he thought, and he felt the warm tingle in his mind that told him the answer: on the far side of the city, in the west.
He had run away, or perhaps Kolya had taken him. And the city was dark and full of dangers, and what Rodney should be doing right now was getting as far away from it as possible. He had to give up the Wraith collar as lost, and take his prize back home, where he would bask in the warmth of his reward.
He had to leave now, no looking back.
Kolya's knife was stained with blood to the hilt.
"I really don't have time for this," Kolya said. "I have business to attend to." He grabbed the slave by the hair, his thumb brushing against the wound at the back of his head. "But, no, I think I can spare a little while longer."
Leaning in with his knife, he began again.
The slave stared straight ahead, and said nothing.
So many things came down to accidents of timing. You did something a moment too early or too late, and the whole course of your life could change.
If only Cowen had let Rodney into the relic room one day earlier! Rodney could have sauntered out of the palace with the cylinder in his pocket, and no-one would have been any the wiser. Then he could have strolled back to his lodgings, collected his things and the slave, and headed off to do a quiet bit of engine-stealing, and so back home. But, no, Cowen had wanted him to labour in every other room in the palace first, so now Rodney stood here, his triumph all tainted because he was returning with just one prize, and not two.
Of course, he still had to get home, and the journey was long, and riddled with its own kind of dangers.
Rodney shrugged off his robe, careful of the broken glass in the pocket, and picked up a new one – well, almost new, and only slightly stained – from the back of a chair. Grabbing a bag, he scooped as many fixings and documents into it as possible, then ran to the kitchen and filled another bag with water and smoked meat and dried food, good for a journey.
He took nothing else. As he left the house, he looked back, but only once. How long, he wondered, before the looters came? How angry the nobles would be when they heard that he had left behind all their expensive bribes and gifts! Well, if they weren't busy falling from grace in the new regime, that is.
The city was changing. Kolya was military through and through, and… and I don't care, Rodney told himself, because he was leaving it all behind. All he had to do was find an untended steam engine, work his magic on the locks, and head off. It was hardly a discreet way of travelling, but there was no way on earth he was walking all the way back home on foot.
The city was quieter than normal, but he still met several people on the street, and he stiffened each time until he had passed them. "Er… good evening," he tried on the last of them. "Pleasant evening. Nice… er… sparklies." The woman frowned. When Rodney dared look back over his shoulder, she was still frowning after him.
Rodney pressed his lips together. He knew where steam engines were stationed, parked in their shiny metal stables. The nearest one, he thought, belonged to the father of the most recent of his pathetic apprentices. That seemed like the best option; there was no reason to walk further than he had to, after all.
There were no security guards present. They'd probably deserted, Rodney thought, afraid that their noble master was about to fall foul of Kolya. Either that, or they'd been called into the house to guard a nervous family. In dangerous times, even the rich preferred to leave their possessions unguarded than risk being bloodily murdered. Still, the reason didn't matter. It meant that no-one tried to stop him as he worked his way effortlessly through the lock, and there it was, his way out of this mess.
Without the slave, he thought, as he ran his hand across the brass panels of the engine. Without the collar. He brushed his fingers over the talisman again, but nothing had changed. On the far side of the city, in the west.
Where Kolya lived.
Of course the slave hadn't run away; of course he hadn't.
"I really shouldn't go without the collar," he said, because, well, hello? Instant glory! A huge advancement in their understanding of Wraith technology, too, of course. Oh, and it would help save countless innocents, because the more they understood about the Wraith, the better they could fight them, and…
"And Kolya's taken him back," he said, and although the unquickened brass of the engine told no stories at all, Rodney still remembered everything that the chains had shown him. That was the existence that the slave had been returned to. He was probably in pain even now, and as Rodney returned home in glory, he would still be in pain, and would continue in pain for years and years, until he died.
And he had made Rodney dinner, and he had sat at the table with him and asked sensible questions, and sometimes, just sometimes, he had smiled.
"I'm going to rescue him," Rodney said, and he said it wonderingly, because it wasn't the sort of thing that Rodney McKay normally said. If people got themselves into difficulties, it was their own stupid fault, and Rodney would run the other way. Physical danger really wasn't his thing, and…
"I'm going to rescue him," he said, as he turned and headed back the way he had come.
When his masters were hurting him, the slave had learnt to think of nothing much at all. He concentrated on staring straight ahead, and he gave up struggling for words. The most important thing was not letting them know how much they were hurting him. He didn't even like to look at what they were doing. His body would tell him afterwards, as he lay in the darkness, wrapped around his pain.
It had never been more difficult. Kolya was taunting him with his knife, making tiny cuts, then smearing his thumb in the blood. Not again! the slave thought. Not again! But being back here was inevitable. Being hurt was inevitable. This was just how life was – but, oh, by the flame, it hurt! He couldn't live like this again. He couldn't--
Because you've changed. Kolya had said it. But he hadn't. Of course he hadn't.
Because you escaped it for a little while, and it might have been forever.
Kolya stepped back, breathing fast. "That fool Cowen died too quickly. I didn't have chance for proper justice."
"This isn't justice." The words came out of him without him intending them to.
Kolya smashed him across the jaw with his fist. The slave tasted blood.
His time with McKay hadn't been freedom, of course, because he had still been a slave, but every day there had been a tiny step away from an existence like this. He had words again, and his thoughts were clear. He'd said things that had made McKay snap angrily, but McKay had never hit him, and so he had dared say such things again. He'd chosen when to wash, and he'd sat down unbidden at his master's table and initiated a conversation. Tiny things, he thought; tiny things, but…
Kolya grimaced down at his knuckles, and slipped on a black leather glove. "I don't like having my possessions taken away from me," he said. "I hadn't finished with you. I mean to break you." The next blow sent the slave sprawling onto his side.
Perhaps, the slave thought… and he almost stopped it there, because it was something too big, too impossible to contemplate.
Kolya dragged him up again, harsh fingers on his chin.
Perhaps… Perhaps the decision to endure everything silently had been nothing more than the product of his confused mind. And now that the effects of the collar were eased…
Kolya's eyes were glittering like silver alchemy, but the slave saw a sudden image of McKay flustering anxiously as he realised that he'd forgotten to let the slave go outside.
"No!" the slave cried, and it wasn't a scream, not really, but as he shouted, he lashed out with his feet and managed to hook Kolya's legs. He surged upwards, pushing himself up with his bound hands, and smashed his entire body's weight into Kolya, then brought his hands up, his fingers groping and clutching at the knife. Kolya bellowed in fury, but the slave lashed and twisted, his knee gouging in between Kolya's legs, and Kolya tried to get the knife back again, but the slave sawed his hands up and down, and felt the knife dig into his hands, felt the blood pour down his wrists and his arms, but then the rope was severed and his hands were free.
His left hand found Kolya's throat, and his right hand found the knife. By the time he arose, reeling, Kolya was the still one, lying broken on the floor, and the slave stepped around him, slumped heavily against the door, then managed to claw it open.
How did you actually launch a rescue mission? Kolya's men had firearms, and there were… well, there were a lot of them, tall and upright and organised in their crisp grey uniforms. But they were also busy sweeping their master to power in a military coup, which might mean that they had other things on their mind. They might not see a solitary alchemist as a threat.
Which he wasn't, not really. McKay's power was immense, but there really wasn't very much he could do when faced with a horde of soldiers who wanted to kill him. With apprentices and irritating lesser alchemists, insults and shouting usually sufficed, but he doubted soldiers would be that impressed with even the choicest of insults. He could break through any metal lock, but first he had to reach it. He could prevent firearms from working, but only if he could touch them, and the whole point of firearms was to kill you before you got to that point, which did tend to present something of an obstacle.
I'm going to die, he thought, but he kept on walking forward, clinging to shadows. There was a growing patch of darkness in the direction of the palace, where silver discs had always sparkled particularly thickly. He thought he could smell smoke, but there was no sign of flickering flames or wholesale destruction. In a quiet square, where he stood as the only person, he felt suddenly as if the whole city was watching him. His bag of phials clanked on his shoulder, even when he tried to move silently, raising his feet and bringing them down on just the toes, in the way he had seen sneaky people tip-toeing on the stage.
I really shouldn't, he thought. What can I do?
The talisman told him that he was getting closer. His fingers tingled with the thrum of it as he walked onwards, sometimes trying to look nonchalant, sometimes trying to move stealthily, sometimes pressing his back into a doorway and just standing there, frozen, breathing fast.
They'll cut me down, he thought, but maybe there were other ways in. Quickened metal could be used as a shield, and quickened glass could distract people with illusions, and could even make the person who stood behind it invisible. He could wait until the dead of night and infiltrate his enemy's lair all by himself…
He thought of bullets tearing into him. Gasping, muttering "no, oh no, oh no," he scurried to the tall railings that edged the square, sloshing too much fixing over them as he fumbled with the right patterns to uproot them, and then to weave them into a lattice. "Shield me," he begged them, coaxing the pliant metal until it covered the gaps.
That's the thing, he thought, and then he murmured it aloud, because it was harder to be terrified when you had someone else to impart your wisdom to. "The Genii think of alchemy as a purely decorative thing, but that just shows how stupid they are. They're obsessed with war, but it's never crossed their mind that, well, mastery of metals? Armour, war engines and metal firearms? I mean, it's hardly a difficult connection to make."
He fell silent. Was that shouting up ahead? Clutching his quickened shield with both hands, he shrank behind it, then reminded himself that he was too far away from Kolya's residence to do the defensive thing. Inconspicuous probably worked best for now, and…
Firearms sounded, loud and close. The shouting grew louder.
Rodney pressed himself back against a wall. Movement flickered on the far side of the railings as someone ran towards him.
"No," Rodney whispered. "No." He was just a normal, non-suspicious citizen going about his business. He was…
The person came into view, and Rodney didn't believe it at first; closed his hand on the talisman to make sure that it really was. The talisman thrummed excitedly with proximity.
Rodney stepped forward, and the slave reacted, skidding to a halt, swinging round with a knife bloody in his hand. "It's…" Rodney cleared his throat. "It's me. I, uh, came to rescue you."
The slave just looked at him, eyes gleaming in the darkness.
"Are they…?" Rodney shrank inwards as the firearms continued to sound. "Are they chasing you?"
The slave nodded.
"Then we should run." Rodney looked down at the knife, then his eyes flickered away again.
But he wasn't good at running, not really. His shield slowed him down, but he wasn't going to throw it away, not when there were actual bullets being fired at him from behind. The slave seemed faster, even underweight and abused as he was, and… He's running in bare feet, Rodney thought. I never thought to give him shoes. I never thought.
Fresh shouting started up from the right, as a second party tried to cut them off. What happened? Rodney wanted to ask, but his hand was pressed to his heaving chest, and his bag was thudding against his back, and the metal shield was trailing on the ground as he tried to hold it behind him. He saw lights appear from far above him as people looked down from high towers. The towers were lurching with the rhythm of his steps, and the stars… there were stars away to his left, shining over the newly-dark palace.
"We're going to die," he gasped. A bullet smashed into the wall to his right, only half a dozen paces away from him. What if they split up? Would the pursuers follow the slave and leave him…? No, no. He grabbed the slave's arm, perhaps to drag him on, perhaps to beg him not to leave him. The slave's sleeve was damp, and Rodney recoiled and almost fell.
"What did you do?" he panted, but the slave was veering to the left, heading for Rodney's lodgings, and Rodney had to grab him again, even though that was actual blood smearing on his hands, and gasp, "No, no, this way. I've got us a way out of the city."
The slave obeyed, but the pursuers were getting closer, and Rodney's legs were burning, and it felt as if the bones in them were melting, his legs threatening to crumple into nothing. Bullets flew past them, and one struck him in the middle of the back, where the quickened metal of the shield absorbed its energy and kept him safe.
They passed through a belt of dark shadow, where the slave gasped and almost fell, but Rodney dragged him up. "Almost… there," he managed, as he hauled the slave into the metal stable, then gasped, "Shut the doors! Help me shut the doors!" and bullets struck the metal as Rodney took one door and the slave took the other, and Rodney hurled a whole bottle of fixing at the lock and sealed it shut.
Fists hammered at the door. Bullets struck the lock. "What did you do?" Rodney gasped. Getting the words out was an effort; saying nothing was worse.
"Stabbed Kolya," the slave said.
"I don't think so."
"Oh. Well, no wonder they…" Rodney gestured with his hand in breathless circles, but there was no time for this. He had to start up the engine. "It runs on steam--" He heaved in a breath. "--from burning oil. It's limited by the… pressure… the tank can… withstand without... exploding." He opened up the casing. "Fortunately, it's all metal. A little… quickening…" He had to clear his mind a little to focus on the workings. "There," he said. "We'll go faster than they can manage, and if I quicken… the exterior of the carriage… we'll…" He steadied himself with a hand on the brass surface. "They shouldn't be able to shoot us," he finished.
The shouting grew louder. Rodney tried not to listen to the specific words; they were promising hideous tortures, and he didn't really want to hear any more than that.
Rodney snapped his fingers, suddenly barely able to stay on his feet. "Jump in," he commanded. It was only a surface quickening, but it would be enough to keep out the bullets until they'd outrun pursuit.
"What do you want me to do?" the slave asked quietly.
"Nothing," Rodney said with a sigh. "As usual, everything rests on my shoulders." Then he frowned, because having an uncatchable engine was worse than useless when you were trapped inside a metal stable little bigger than the engine itself. Biting his lip, he darted to the stable doors again and made the patterns that would make them yield to pressure from inside. "Get in." He snapped his fingers.
The slave climbed inside, and Rodney followed him, clambering into the driver's seat. He'd never actually driven an engine like this, but the Genii could drive them, so how hard could it be? A spark to light the oil, a touch of alchemy to fan the spark, and then they were moving, lumbering forward, the stable doors parting to let them out. Soldiers scrambled out of the way, and bullets smashed into the carriage and the window, but none of them could harm him. His alchemy had triumphed, and he was home and free.
And it was then, of course, that the slave chose to crumple sideways, his hand clasped to the bleeding wound in his side.
Hours passed hazily, punctuated with jagged stabs of pain. Whenever he surfaced through it, he could hear McKay talking, words pouring out of him without any breaks.
"And I can't…" the alchemist was saying. "I'll need to renew the workings soon, and you'd think they'd get tired of trying to shoot us, although we are going faster than them, and road blocks! What's the point of setting up a barrier to stop people leaving your city? Surely it would be more sensible to-- Oh, Shadow! The bumps! Haven't these people heard of springs?"
The slave stirred, struggling to raise himself up. His head throbbed with dizziness, and there was a deep core of burning in his side – a pain that went deeper into him than anything any of his masters had ever inflicted upon him.
"And you're no help." He caught a glimpse of McKay's face, etched with strain and nervousness. "You got shot. When did that happen?"
"When…" He was accustomed to having to fight for words. He cleared his throat, curling around the pain in his side, and tried again. "When… running. Just before we… reached the… engine."
"When you stumbled." McKay hauled at the lever, jerking them to the right. "And you didn't think to say anything?"
Things came to a halt again, teetering between one breath and the next. It had never occurred to him to say anything. Masters knew when you were hurt, because they were the ones who had hurt you. To say 'it hurts' was the same as to scream.
"And I don't know how to treat an injury like that." McKay frowned, looking angry. "But…" He swallowed, his knuckles white on the lever. "I would have tried, back there in the stable. I'm still going to try when we're… when we're safe-- Oh, Shadow!"
Something thudded into the side of the carriage. McKay was muttering under his breath, his voice getting higher and higher – "no, no, no, no, no" – and the slave knew that he could sink into the jagged red darkness, or he could do something. He'd taken a knife to Kolya. He'd taken control.
"What can I do?" He forced himself up into a sitting position.
"Drive," McKay said. "Use the lever – forward, back, right and left. I need to renew the workings. They can only take so many hits before they get worn out."
The slave clambered onto the bench beside him. Pain was something you couldn't show. The masters got angry if you fainted. Then he saw the bloody knife on the floor where he had first fallen. This was a world after he had attacked Kolya. He could do this. He could do this.
There were hardly any towers here, and no silver alchemy. The window in front of him was covered with cobwebs of fine cracks, and everything was distorted, but he could see the road and the open horizon.
"We're almost out of the city," McKay said, and then his voice changed and he muttered his strange syllables, fingers tracing patterns on the edge of the glass.
Out of the city, the slave thought. Away from Kolya. Away from the masters. Away from the place where he had been bought and sold. Away from the only life he had ever known. "And what's ahead of us?" he asked, his voice floating high above the sea of burning pain in his side.
"The barrens," McKay said, wriggling past him to work his magic somewhere else, "and then--"
They were trundling through the conquered villages on the fringes of the glorious Genii state. People watched them from shadows and doorways.
The slave was gripping the lever with white fingers, as if it was the only thing holding him up. The lower part of his shirt was drenched with blood, and Rodney was sure he had seen drops of the stuff occasionally fall down into the darkness beneath the bench. His own head throbbed with the weariness of too much alchemy performed too fast. But ahead was the first glimmering of morning. He was almost sure that no-one was pursuing them. Nothing he had seen had given him cause to believe that the Genii had mastered remote communication, but he would feel happier once they were beyond the territory that the Genii called their own.
"It hasn't been safe to stop yet." He settled down on the bench next to the slave. He had managed to smooth out the cracks, and the glass showed the last gleaming of the winter stars. "I haven't forgotten your… injury. But there isn't really anything I can do. Treated or untreated…" He let the words trail away.
The slave was staring straight ahead, and his only movement came with his shuddering breathing.
Rodney's mouth had never felt so dry, food and drink a distant memory. "But I'll try." If the slave was dead, of course, the collar would be easy to remove and study-- He snapped off that thought, horrified at himself for even thinking it. Was this the sort of person he was? "I… don't want to you die," he stammered, but it seemed like a stupid thing to say, inadequate against the awfulness of his thoughts.
He didn't, though. It would be a horrible journey for one. He wasn't somebody who needed other people, but time went faster when there was someone to talk to. Rodney had never been close to a dead person. He didn't know what comfort to give to the dying. The slave had suffered so much, and it wasn't right that he would die like this, shot by Kolya's men just as he had finally dared to strike out against the people who had hurt him. Rodney didn't want him to die like this.
Slowly the sun rose ahead of them. The villages grew sparser, and the roads grew ever more bumpy. "How long?" the slave asked at last, his lips barely moving.
Rodney let out a breath. "At least eight days." His hand gripped his older, darker talisman. "Unless my friends meet me on the way, in which case it'll be quicker." Then he thought of the silver cylinder in his pocket. "And perhaps quicker still."
The slave managed three steps in the midday sunshine, then folded to the ground in the shadow of the carriage. "Drink this," McKay said, passing him water. Hands tugged at his clothes, and the slave batted them away, flashing back to memories of pain. "No," McKay said, "don't. I'm trying to help you. I need… I've got to look at the wound."
He felt air on his side, harsh with dust. He was burning up beneath the midday sun, even though the air was like ice. He turned his head from side to side, and there was nothing he could see but the broad horizon. It was as flat as the barrens, but speckled with green grass and patches of snow. He saw no towers. "Are they…?" His voice sounded fragile, like the voice inside him that always whimpered silently for them to stop, to stop hurting him. "…chasing us?"
"No," McKay said, shaking his head from side to side. "Leastways, if they are, they're too far away. My plan worked, you see. And to think that Kolya dismissed me as a mere gilder! Fast as the wind, we are. Fast as the wind."
Fingers pressed into his side. The slave gasped, and pressed his lips together to keep the sound from escaping him.
"I… I don't know anything about wounds," McKay said, "but I think it's bad. Shall I wrap it up? It's not bleeding much any more. Is it supposed to look puffy?"
A bird passed above him, moving on rapid wings. It spoke of freedom as it flew across the blue, dwindling away to a dot.
"But it's no use sitting here," McKay said. "You can get better or worse in the carriage just as well as here. And the faster we move…" He looked away, looking the same way the slave had been looking, following the path of the bird. "They'll be able to treat you back home."
Dried food was quite disgusting, but it was still food. Rodney swallowed some strange, amorphous mass of something, then bit off a chunk of some leathery smoked meat.
The slave was sitting in the foot well beside him, his head resting against the door. Sometimes a particularly bad jolt would make his head bounce against the metal, but even that made him stir only slightly. "I need to cushion that," Rodney said, but he had forgotten to bring a spare robe along with him. All he had was the clothes he was wearing, for a journey that might last for days, and winters were cold here in the north, and burning oil and clouds of steam only worked so well as ways to keep away the chill of the night.
He gripped the talisman again, steering them one-handed into the night. Far away, it whispered, but moving.
"But help is on the way," he said. "They probably won't get here for days, though."
The slave raised his head; blinked his fever-bright eyes. "Who?"
And there was no need to keep it secret any more, of course. "I come from a place called Atlantis," he said. "It's a city – not like the city of the Genii, with all its brutal straight lines, but with pinnacles and windows and… and water, everywhere there's water. I was sent on a mission to the Genii because our scholars found out about something very important that was located in one of the territories the Genii overran some years back. We thought it was probably stashed away somewhere in the palace… But you know all that."
"Tell me," the slave breathed, "about Atlantis."
How could he begin? It was beautiful, that was for sure, but it hadn't really felt like home, not until he had been forced to spend so long away from it. "I came from the south," he said, "from a place so far away that you can't travel there by normal means. It was a one way trip, and I… Well, I don't make friends easily; I don't try to. But…"
He thought of the reflection of the towers on the water. He thought of all those people who had worked so hard to wake up the dormant city, and he thought of them dying at the hands of the Wraith.
"Our ancestors abandoned Atlantis thousands of years ago," he said, "and sealed the city behind a wall of alchemy and sorcery. It was only five years ago that we found a way to come back. An expedition was sent out, and then, three years later, they sent out a second wave of vital expertise, because they knew that the first party was bound to be floundering…" He found himself incapable of finishing. It hadn't been meant as an honour, of course, but as banishment; this was a truth he could no longer avoid. Every one of them in Atlantis was one of the brilliant, troublesome people who were an inconvenience in their placidly-run homeland in the south. They were a collection of misfits and exiles, every one of them, and McKay had never loved them for it; it had never even crossed his mind to love them for it, not until he had been a whole year away.
Not until a slave had asked.
"But things aren't going well," he said, staring into the night, seeing, perhaps, an echo of those beautiful towers. "The Wraith know about Atlantis now and they want to destroy it. We're fighting a war, and we're missing vital weapons. This--" He could feel the cylinder pressing against his thigh. "This could provide us with a vital breakthrough." But nothing could bring back the dead, of course. They had lost far too many vital people. "We haven't got any really powerful sorcerers left and--"
The slave's eyes were still open. "Thought you said sorcerers were just stories."
For some reason, that seemed to shatter whatever mood Rodney had been in. "I was lying," he said harshly, "because I had to," and he turned his attention back to driving.
He thought it was another morning. Were they in the barrens? But the barrens didn't burn like this, like a rod of fire impaling him to the ground.
A round disc of a face was dancing to and fro above him. "Drink," a voice said. "It might help." Cool water dribbled down his chin.
Something was tangled in his fingers, and when he brought his hand up, he saw short green blades of grass, and smelled fresh earth.
When he closed his eyes, he could see a shining city surrounded by water. Atlantis. McKay's words had kept him anchored through the night. You couldn't run away unless you knew where you were going to. A city of exiles and outcasts. Maybe it would have a place for him. Maybe--
And then a muscle twitched, and the agony dragged him down into the fire again.
The slave was dying. Come quickly, Rodney thought, gripping the talisman, but the only message it could report was, coming, and still far away.
He dragged the slave bodily out of the carriage, setting him down on the frost-covered ground. His fingers were stained with blood and worse things.
"I need to get the bullet out," he said. "I think I should probably have done that days ago, but I didn't know." His fist clenched uselessly. "I'm not used to situations like this."
He thought the slave was semi-conscious, but only just. Rodney grabbed his head, one hand on each cheek, and turned it towards him. "Listen to me," he said, "I think this will probably hurt, but--"
"Said you wouldn't hurt me," the slave mumbled.
Shadow, how he hated this! The sun baked down on his back, but the air was cold as ice, his breath condensing in terrified puffs. "I know," he said, "I know, but I think… I don't think you'll survive this if I don't try something."
The bullet was lead; he could feel a faint echo of it when he gently probed the edge of the wound. He pulled out the right fixing, and poured a few drops of it into the wound. It fizzled, unused to contact with raw flesh. "Steady," Rodney urged himself. "Steady." It was much harder to perform alchemy when you couldn't touch the metal in question, of course, but he could feel it in there, barely a hand-breadth away. Tracing patterns on the slave's skin, he coaxed the bullet towards him, and felt it coming, slowly, slowly…
It was a tiny thing, really, to cause such damage. Rodney caught it between his fingers, then turned his palm so it rested there, ugly and blood-stained. "I did it," he said quietly, sagging with weariness.
It was then that he saw the slave's face. His shoulders were off the ground, his neck arched back, his head pressing into the ground. His face was set as solid as stone, etched deeply with lines of agony.
"Why don't you scream?" The words left him without him intending them to. Rodney scraped a blood-stained hand across his face. "You're allowed to make a noise," he said. "Why wouldn't you, if it's hurting you? I would. You can say it in front of me. I won't… tell." The slave relaxed ever so slightly, but the lines of pain didn't leave his face. Rodney almost touched his shoulder, then curled his useless fingers in on themselves. "You can scream, you know," he said, but he didn't have a name to call the slave by, to give his words more impact.
Another day. Another night. Maybe there were two, or maybe there were ten of them. He surfaced only in snatches now.
They were in the barrens; he knew that.
The carriage was failing, its engine stuttering and fading. McKay was ranting about oil, berating himself as stupid, stupid, stupid.
The slave had the name of a place to run to, but he thought that he would die before he reached it. It was probably better that way. The towers of the Genii had shone, too, but they had been closed to him.
On the fourth day, the engine failed completely and no amount of alchemy could make it start. The slave was so quiet that several times Rodney had to check his pulse to make sure that he was still alive.
Not that it mattered. They would both be dead soon, stranded in the barrens, far closer to Wraith territory than to Atlantis.
Still coming, the talisman told him. Not here yet. He wanted to tear it from his neck and throw it away, cursing it as a useless, useless waste of alchemy. At the same time, though, he wanted to clutch it and never let go.
"At least they'll know where to find my body," he said. "They'll find the cylinder. They might even put up a statue."
At least the slave was too far gone to be aware of their fate. He was curled loosely on his side, and Rodney sat close to him, as if to shield him from some as yet unidentified evil that was going to try to finish him off.
If he hadn't gone back for the slave, would things have been different? No, Rodney realised, because the engine would still have failed; he'd been so focused on the brilliance of his alchemy that he'd quite forgotten that these machines only carried a finite amount of fuel. In fact… No, things were different with the slave here, because it was a miserable thing to journey alone, and a terrible thing to die in the barrens without anybody beside you.
"If only I'd known your name," he said sadly, remembering all those people whose names he had pretended to forget, and all those others one that he hadn't bothered to remember. It had never seemed important before. People had never seemed important. But the slave was shoeless because Rodney hadn't thought. The slave was dying because Rodney hadn't stopped earlier to try to fix him. Rodney had spent his life doing a thousand thoughtless deeds, and never before had he been forced to see the human cost.
"I wish…" he said, but he didn't complete it, and they were still there hours later, side by side against the broken carriage, when shapes crested the distant horizon, heading fast across the barrens to where they sat.
They were only minutes away when Rodney looked up and saw them. Even then, he had to grasp hold of his talisman before he could truly believe it. Almost here, it said, buzzing with the excitement of being reunited with its twin. Getting closer fast.
He had no idea what the slave heard to alert him, but the injured man stirred, trying to push himself up, trying to grope for the knife. "No," Rodney told him, "there's nothing to worry about. They're friends."
Friends? echoed a small voice inside of him, but Rodney was already standing up, waving his hand, saying, "Here, over here!"
The land-ships of Atlantis were far more elegant than the metal engines of the Genii, powered by the purest form of ancient alchemy, using secrets that not even Rodney had yet learnt how to reproduce. Rodney could see three figures through the sparkling glass window. "What took you so long?" he demanded, his hands on his hips.
The vehicle drifted silently to a halt. "What took you so long?" Radek clambered out of the back, grasping his own talisman in his hand. "A whole year I've had to wear your token on a chain around my neck, as if I'm your--" He finished it with some disgusted word in his own language; Rodney had never tried to learn it. "And not a word in all that time. I thought you were dead."
"I couldn't send word, you know that." Rodney flapped his hand; Radek always was complaining about something trivial. "It's only possible to send the vaguest message about location. If I'd triggered it earlier, you'd have come blundering out to retrieve me far too early and, oh yes, ruined everything."
"But you're here now," Radek said, wrenching the chain over his head, "and – look! – how your token goes away from me."
And as he stood there, with every moment that passed, Rodney felt things subtly slot back into their proper place. He'd missed this. Radek was irritable, nothing like as skilled as Rodney, infuriating, temperamental… and suddenly Rodney was feeling a ridiculous urge to shake his hand and say something quite stupid about how he'd missed him.
Even as he fought that urge, Radek clasped him on the arm. "You've got it?"
Rodney nodded. "I've got it." But he didn't pull the cylinder out. A general suffusion of goodwill towards his fellow alchemists could only go so far. The secrets were his own to unravel.
Teyla stepped forward then. "I am glad to have you back with us, Rodney." She took hold of him by both shoulders and pulled him in for that embarrassing head-touching thing she liked so much. This time Rodney didn't even fight it, but rather found himself leaning into it, almost letting her hold him up. Shadow, but he was tired!
"It's been quiet without you," Ronon said with a smile, slapping Rodney on the back.
Rodney pulled away at last. He cleared his throat, feeling a sudden wave of awkwardness. "So you're still… alive? Atlantis is…?"
"Still there." Teyla smiled.
"Good." Rodney tried to wipe some of the dust of his journey from his face. "That's, uh, good." Atlantis wasn't home. Home was his lost land far to the south. Atlantis was… "Yes," he said, smiling, "that's really good."
"Who's that?" Ronon was standing warily, looking down at the slave.
"A slave, would you believe," Rodney explained. "My slave. The chief Genii gave him to me, and I couldn't… they were hurting him, you know, really hurting him, and… there's Wraith metal-magic, Radek, on his neck. Look!"
Radek swore sharply in that strange tongue of his. Kneeling down beside the slave, he reached out towards the collar, then snatched his hand back, curling his fingers into his palm. "He's sick."
"Well, yes, obviously. Well done, Mr Let's-State-the-Obvious." Rodney let out a breath, and looked at Teyla. "Can you fix him?"
"People are not like your machines, Rodney," Teyla said gently, but she settled down beside the slave. The slave was lying on his side, curled loosely around the bullet wound, his long hair tangled and damp with sweat. "Can you hear me?" Teyla said quietly. "I am not going to hurt you. I am here to help." Her strong fingers combed through the slave's hair, pushing it off his face.
Rodney saw the very moment when her hand froze. "Oh, Shadow," he gasped. "He's dead. He's dead, isn't he?"
The shake of Teyla's head was fractional, as if she wasn't really aware of it. "Ronon," she said, her voice very different from anything Rodney had ever heard from her.
Ronon joined her, and swore sharply under his breath. "What?" Rodney asked. "What is it?" The two of them were blocking his view, like a wall between the slave and him. He is mine, he wanted to say, but that would be ridiculous. Instead he just twisted his hands together, and said, "What?" again.
"Can you hear me?" Teyla gently asked the slave, and then to Rodney, only slightly turning round, she said, "Did he tell you anything about himself?"
"He's lost his memory," Rodney said. "Effect of the Wraith collar. And really, Radek, you should--" He snapped his words off when Ronon surged to his feet. There was such a look on Ronon's face, and it wasn't fair, because Rodney had never been good at reading such things. "What is it?" Rodney asked. "What's happening?"
Ronon gestured to him to follow him, leading him a dozen steps away. Rodney followed, as Teyla spoke to the slave, her voice soft and tremulous, saying that he was safe, that he was with friends, that everything was going to be all right.
"What's happened?" Rodney asked, because Ronon's face looked as if it was about to crack open with emotion.
"It's Sheppard," Ronon said; just that.
"Can you hear me?"
The voice called him back from a place beyond the pain. He surfaced through a wave of fire, and saw a woman looking down at him, surrounded by shimmering air. He blinked, but the shimmering didn't go away. One of her hands was on the side of his face, and it was cool, so cool. The other worked on his side, as soft as water, but even the softness hurt. He tried to pull away, tried to curl away from her, because she was touching him, and… and he remembered a master pressing a hand to a bleeding wound, the touch soft at first, then digging in, twisting the flesh around the wound until…
"Hush," the woman said, "please, I am not going to hurt you. You are with friends."
"Friends?" His voice sounded cracked, just a fragile thread of a thing.
"Yes." Her eyes were spilling water down her face. Tears. Why was she crying for him?
The shimmering air twisted and swirled. "At- Atlantis?" he forced out.
"Yes." Her smile was brilliant, even as tears fell like rain. "You remember it?"
He didn't remember anything before the barrens. "McKay…said. Thought it… sounded nice." Just a lifetime spent like this. Nothing before this. Afterwards, perhaps? He'd dared, just for a moment, to imagine an afterwards: a knife in his hand; Kolya falling to the ground; a horizon seen through cracked glass; a story of a lovely city.
"Listen," the woman said, taking his face in both hands. "You are not lost. We have found you again. You are not lost."
The pain was everywhere now – centred on his side, but everywhere. It left little room for anything else. It left little room for caution or for fear. "You know who I am?"
It was a stupid thing to say – stupid, stupid. Why should she…? He didn't want to know. If he knew… If he knew that he had once had something before this… Better not to have it. Better not to know. Better… not… But his lips moved, silently whispering something – perhaps a 'no' or a 'please', but coming out as no more than a broken breath.
"You prefer not to know?" Her eyes were spilling over.
The first memory he possessed was crawling across the barrens, knowing that he had to get to somewhere, but not knowing how to find it.
His first memory was of a life before the only life he knew.
"I want…" He closed his eyes, unable to say what came next; unable even to imagine it.
Her hand closed on his. "Your name is John Sheppard," she said, "and you are my friend."
"In Atlantis?" he breathed, and even the pain faded, leaving him pinned on the reality of those words.
"Yes," she said. "Atlantis is your home."
He opened his eyes. The sky above was fading into evening. "There's a place for me there?"
"More than a place," he heard McKay say, and the shimmering air around the woman swirled angrily, even though her hand on his face remained as firm and gentle as it had ever been. "You went missing a year before I even got to Atlantis, but it's still Sheppard this and Sheppard that, everywhere I go. A place there? You're only commander of their armies and their most powerful sorcerer – not that that's saying much, of course… and, oh! Radek! That's it!" He snapped his fingers excitedly. "The collar! It's to suppress sorcery. All the rest – memory loss, confusion… Those were side-effects. It--"
It was too much. Doors slammed shut in the slave's mind, and then there was just the soft and gentle darkness.
They had all been loaded into the land-ship of their annoyingly-enigmatic forefathers, and at least the ride was smooth, but they were still four days out of Atlantis.
Teyla was sitting with the slave – no, with Sheppard. Sheppard! The man had disappeared three years ago, taking the best hopes of Atlantis with him. Oh, they'd struggled on, of course – more than struggled on, because, well, with people of Rodney's calibre on the team, hope was most definitely not lost – but the way the people of Atlantis spoke, nothing had been the same since Sheppard's disappearance. Rodney had barely lived a month in the city before he had come almost to hate the name.
"Is he--?" Radek asked quietly, then muttered something in that native language of his. "--going to die?"
"How on earth should I know?" Rodney snapped.
It just couldn't be possible! Sometimes, in alchemy, you saw an expanse of dull base metal overlaid with a shimmering impression of what it had the potential of becoming. Rodney saw only a broken slave. He saw the man who had bowed his head and let Rodney work on the collar. He saw a man who had quivered with fear as if he had stood in the kitchen, and a man who hadn't helped himself to a pair of shoes, because he hadn't been told to. The name of Sheppard conjured up images of a heroic leader, a powerful sorcerer, a man whose absence still caused sadness three years on. In alchemy, the correct patterns could quicken the base metal, and could bring the dull reality and the shining potential together in the same form. It didn't work that way with people. This couldn't be Sheppard! It couldn't be!
Teyla joined them on the bench, weariness etched in her face. "He is very gravely injured. It is more than just the bullet wound. I think his body is just… tired. There are more scars than I would have thought possible."
"Welcome to slavery, Genii-style," Rodney said. "Had a bad day at the palace? Go home and torture your pet slave – make yourself feel better by hurting someone who can't escape." He swallowed, suddenly feeling sick; the chains had shown him far more of that than he had ever wanted to see. "Radek here wants to know if he's going to die."
Teyla stood up, steadying herself on the back of the driver's seat. "I fear he cannot survive the journey."
Ronon shouted something, smashing his hand into the middle of the console, which Rodney took to mean that he was already driving the ship as fast as he possibly could. Four days. Maybe three if they didn't stop for rests?
"Can't your--" Rodney waved his hand vaguely; he had never felt comfortable with Teyla's particular brand of magic. "--friends…?"
"Healing is not their strength," Teyla told him. "Most of the people who pass through the barrens are… desperate; hating the Wraith. If it comes to a fight, they will serve me."
"It isn't going to come to a fight, is it?" Radek asked nervously, which was good, because it allowed Rodney to sneer at him for being a coward, and when someone else was more terrified than you were, it… well, it helped, sometimes.
"I hope not," Teyla said, "but the Wraith are not far away, although they are unaware of us at present."
"And your friends told you that, too?" Rodney said it harshly. Teyla had told him again and again that the spirits that she could command weren't the spirits of dead people. Intense experiences left an echo. If she came back to the broken-down engine in years to come, would a spirit version of Rodney himself be there, shimmering in the air around her?
"They did," Teyla said calmly, and returned to the slave-- to Sheppard. He looked deeply unconscious. No, he looked dead.
The stars were beginning to show through the failing light of the winter evening. He was rescued, Rodney realised. Teyla would take care of the slave and Ronon was handling the driving. Rodney had performed his task. He'd done the part that nobody else could do, and now it was time to relax. Resting his head against the cushioned side, he closed his eyes.
Words wove around him: Teyla talking to the slave; Ronon asking questions; Radek breathing fast and nervously beside him.
"We can use the portal." Rodney's eyes snapped open. "There's one… what? A few hours' journey from here? Even less?"
"Portal is dead," Radek said. "We don't know how to quicken it."
"Hello? Reason for me being away for the last year?" Rodney pulled the silver cylinder from his pocket. "Secrets of our secretive forefathers?" He made the patterns that opened the cylinder, and pulled out the pristine paper inside. It faded visibly the moment it was removed from the protective alchemies of its container. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me!" Rodney cried. "One of those 'read once and then it will destroy itself' deals? What's with these people and secrecy?"
"But the chance to learn the secrets of the portals!" Radek's eyes were gleaming.
Mine! Rodney thought. I found it! "Of course," he said, "the portal they found back home in the south was already quickened, but even then it needed a huge amount of sorcery to actually open it, so even if we can quicken it… And we might not have the right ingredients to make the correct fixing…"
"And," Radek said, "we might not be skilled enough to perform the workings."
"Of course I'm skilled enough." The papers trembled in Rodney's hands, the edges of them already curling and crumbling. "Now, go away," he commanded, "and let me read."
The slave moaned faintly, a shuddering breath. "Hush," Teyla whispered, soothing him. "We are here, John."
Rodney closed his eyes just for a moment. Secrets were fast fading away in his hand, and the slave would die if they didn't get him back to Atlantis. "No," he said. "Radek, you read it, too." And he held it between them, and sank into the written word.
He had a name. It shone like the single star that he had watched from the small back room, and he used it as a beacon to drag himself out of the darkness. John Sheppard. It was a thing to grasp. It was a rope to hold on to, to cling to with all his strength.
For so long he hadn't wanted to know. For so long he had feared knowing. He hadn't been thinking clearly. He'd turned his back on knowledge because he hadn't thought he could bear to know.
But now that he teetered on the brink, it was the only thing that was keeping him there. "What's your name?" he asked, his eyelids fluttering open.
The woman was no longer shimmering. She looked tired, with dried blood and dirt scraped on her face. "Are you--?"
"Tell me your name," he rasped, and he was hungry for it, desperate for it.
"My name is Teyla," she said, "and that is Ronon, and the person next to Rodney is Radek."
"Teyla." He echoed it quietly. Names were safe. Names were like stars in the sky. You didn't have to look beyond them.
She touched his side, fingers gently probing. Pain surged like fire from the heart of him, and darkness almost took him again, and there were fears stalking in the darkness, just as there always were. These people were lying. They were just pretending to be his friends. They hadn't even chained him, but he was still their prisoner, too weak to break away from them. They had bound him with trust. If they chose to chain him and hurt him, then it was only because he had come with them willingly.
Atlantis, he thought. Just a story. Words were so often lies.
"Lie still, John," Teyla said, and he realised that he had been writhing, arching against the pain.
You obeyed commands from your masters. You kept your pain inside and you didn't…
His thoughts trailed away. He was on fire with pain, and he didn't know what to do. He had a name; he was nameless. He was a slave; he was… what?
He shaped his lips to say something, then let it go. His breath caught on a quiet sound, and he was powerless to stop it. He tried again. "What…?"
But Teyla was already looking away, standing up and walking away from him. "The Wraith," she said. "They are coming."
The paper crumbled to dust in Rodney's hands.
"The Wraith!" Rodney gasped. "Oh, that's just marvellous. And thanks to our super-suspicious, all-knowing ancestors of ours, there's nothing left of their wonderful secret. Even if a rescue party comes and find our bodies, there's nothing but dust for them to find. This...? It was all for nothing."
Teyla and Ronon were conferring, their voices low and jagged. The slave had pushed himself up onto a trembling elbow, and was watching them all, his eyes glittering with fever, probably not understanding a word.
"Can write it down," Radek offered, one finger raised.
"Oh, yes, write it down," Rodney sneered, "because, oh yes, I forgot, we have plenty of spare time to write a book. On what?" he demanded. "My leg? With blood?"
"I just thought…"
"We shouldn't have opened it." Rodney clenched his fist, still feeling the echo of secrets. "Why did you make me open it? It would have lasted for millennia if we hadn't opened it."
Ronon wrenched the vehicle sharply to the left. Rodney almost slid off the bench, and the slave slumped down again, his face set tightly against the pain. Rodney looked at him for as long as he could bear, then looked away.
"And they'll never know," he said. "Back in Atlantis, they'll never know. The Wraith will hunt us down, and… and they don't always kill people straightaway, but that's even worse, isn't it? They'll never know."
"Rodney." Teyla said it sharply. She was standing over him, holding her balance perfectly despite the swaying of the craft.
Rodney looked up at her, and the last of the anger trickled away from him. "It's not all that difficult a secret, really. It just comes down to knowledge of a name. The portals are made of an incredibly rare metal, you see, and none of us knew the patterns needed to command it. The fixing… It's not a difficult one – both Radek and I could make it in an instant from phials we always carry. Even the working won't take long now we know the name, and we know our destination well, enough to prime the portal to seek the right place."
Teyla's head snapped round. Was she even listening to him? "They are closer," she said. "They are many."
Rodney swallowed; looked at his useless hands. "But it needs sorcery. The alchemy… Radek and I can handle that easily – well, I could do it easily; Radek would find it harder, I guess – but all that does is quicken the ring so that it can hold the portal and stop it from vaporising everyone within a hundred square miles. The portal itself… That's sorcery, and not just your common kind. I doubt that anyone on Atlantis has that kind of strength."
Radek raised his hand. Ronon swerved the vehicle to the right, and Teyla dropped to her knees, steadying the slave with a hand.
"Or in other words," Rodney said, scraping a hand across his face, "we're totally screwed."
The slave – John Sheppard. My name is John Sheppard – could only see a small patch of sky. He tried to focus on a single star, but it grew bigger and bigger, falling from the sky, streaking across it like a silver blade.
"They're sending in darts," Ronon gasped.
Teyla's hand tightened then eased on the slave's shoulder. "Darts only have a limited range."
"We can go faster?" said the man called Radek.
The slave had memories – memories that he had thought nothing more than dreams. He had raced through the sky in something pointed and silver. He had tumbled. Pale-faced creatures had reached out for him.
Captured by the Wraith, McKay had said. "If you really are…" He couldn't finish it; pain swallowed the words. He clenched his fist, and tried again. "If you're really my friends, why didn't you come looking for me?"
Teyla pushed her hair off her face, and kept her hand there, half hiding her eyes. "We thought you were dead. We looked – never think that we did not look. We found your skimmer, and it was shattered. And then we started losing people in the search…"
Words. It was only words. Something struck the side of the vehicle, and McKay gave a hoarse cry of terror. "We won't make it!" he shouted. "There's too many of them!"
This was his master. This was the person who owned him, and he was terrified and irritable and arrogant and cowardly… and human. Just another human, just as he was himself.
The vehicle jerked to the right. Ronon shouted something, and the slave could see the back of his shoulders heaving as he struggled for control. Glass cracked, but didn't break. The slave thought of a knife in his own hand, and of Kolya going down beneath it. He looked at his own empty hand now, and watched it tremble.
"Take my collar off," he said.
"What?" McKay's head snapped up. "It almost killed you last time."
"You said I was a sorcerer," he said, and perhaps it was true and perhaps it was a lie, but at least he'd know. He was tired of not knowing. He had based his life on so many things that now seemed wrong. For his whole remembered life, he had been thinking with only half a mind.
"Yes, but…" McKay waved his hand, then lunged for the seat when the vehicle juddered and almost stopped. "That was three years ago. So I remove the collar and - poof! – your sorcery comes back? You'll be rusty. You're…"
Broken, said his eyes and the silence.
The slave managed to sit up, leaning heavily against the side of the vehicle. "I just want it gone." Whether they were telling the truth or not, these people had been kind to him, and if there was any chance at all that he could save them, then he would take it.
McKay looked pale and stricken, swallowing again and again. "It might kill you."
"Then I'll die knowing who I am," he said, because he was tired, so tired, and perhaps that was the best thing, the only thing, that he could wish for.
They were almost at the portal, but there was no hope, there was no hope at all. The Wraith circled them in their darts, hurling balls of their ice-magic at the side of the vehicle, and Ronon was steering with his whole body, flinging the tiller from side to side, but it wasn't enough.
"Faster!" Rodney commanded. "Work faster!" His hair wild about his face, Radek was clambering from side to side, strengthening the metal, repairing cracks, but not even alchemy could entirely withstand the magic of the Wraith.
They had minutes, he thought, just minutes.
"Are you sure about this?" Rodney asked the slave. "Because if I'm about to be horribly killed, I don't want my last minutes to have been spent inflicting hideous pain on… well, someone who isn't a Wraith."
"I'm sure," the slave said, but he couldn't even sit up by himself, and Teyla had to raise him up and support him. The slave bent his head and held his own hair out of the way, but his hand was shaking as if even that was almost more effort than his body could endure.
I can't, Rodney thought, but if there was a chance – if there was any chance at all… He remembered how eager he had been to do it again that second day. It felt like months ago now – the actions of a different man.
"Do it," the slave whispered, and Teyla moved so that his head was resting on her shoulder, and wove her hand in his, through the tendrils of his dark hair.
Rodney's hands felt clumsy. Surely he couldn't get this right! The vehicle was shuddering around him, and it had taken him hours, that first time, even to get as far as he had.
"McKay!" Ronon rasped. Rodney glanced flutteringly to the side and saw that the window was cracked in a dozen places, cold air coming through too many holes for Radek to repair all at once.
Taking a deep breath, Rodney touched the collar. It knew him, and it recoiled, kicking back at him, but Rodney bit his lip and persisted, starting from the point he had left off the previous time. His thumbs traced patterns…
…and the slave went boneless, his whole weight falling onto Teyla. Rodney saw it only dimly, though, focused on his workings, because the faster he did it… oh, by the flame, the faster he did it, the quicker the torture would be over… and the slave moaned, gripping Teyla's sleeve with fingers as white as bone. "Please," Rodney heard Teyla beg, sounding as if she was in tears, "please, John, let it out," and the slave writhed against her, and the tiny glimpse that Rodney got of his face was almost enough to make him lose control of his working, almost enough to make him lose the fight.
I can't, he thought, letting the words slip through his lips, but he held on, returning to the battle. The slave was shuddering, and there was fresh blood on Teyla's hand as she held him, and Rodney had never seen Teyla crying quite like that – had never thought that she was capable of it.
The collar was strong, pulsing with power in time with the impacts of ice-magic on their weakening metal cage. Radek gasped something in that language of his, and Rodney hissed at him through gritted teeth, but then Radek reached out, rubbing his thumb in the last trace of the fixing, and touched the collar himself.
The slave screamed, the sound muffled in Teyla's shoulder…
…and the collar came off.
He saw so many things.
He saw Kolya, and his first master, and McKay, airily waving to him to sit down at the table. He saw his hand clenched on Teyla's shoulder. He saw a collar broken on the ground in front of him. He saw blood. He saw waves of darkness crashing over his head, dragging him deeper and deeper each time.
He saw Atlantis waking up as he walked through it… No, as a stranger walked through it… No, as he did. He saw memories like hearing stories, but they slotted clumsily into place and became his own. He saw Ronon saying that yes, maybe he would come to live in Atlantis. He saw Teyla walking over from her city of glass, spirits shining around her as she walked.
He saw fragments – a yes, a no, a fierce argument; "I won't leave them behind"; stars on the ocean; "I'm doing it alone"; Ronon grinning as he rode a skimmer across the waves; his first taste of Athosian wine; his last glimpse of the city as he flew into the blue.
He remembered pale-faced Wraith, but that was a dream. No, it was memory: Wraith dragging him from the wreckage of his skimmer; Wraith screaming as he struck out with fire; a weight on his body, and a collar being forced around his neck as he bucked and kicked…
And then nothing; nothing. Everything faded against the enormousness of his pain. Memories retreated, lurking out of reach.
Teyla gently laid him down, then sprang to her feet, snatching up her sticks. Someone was pounding at the side of the land-ship, and McKay was shouting something, and Ronon was leaping over the back of the driver's seat, pulling out his knife and his gun. "Seal it! Seal it!" McKay shouted, but Radek shouted that he couldn't, that it was too much – Wraith magic against alchemy, and there were too many of them, far too many.
He tried to push himself up, but he couldn't, he couldn't stand. Teyla's sticks whirled, and the air sparkled around her. The Wraith in the lead dropped down dead before any physical weapons could touch him. Ronon took the second. Teyla struck down the third, and McKay traced patterns on the wall, not backing down even though he was pale with terror.
This mattered. Only this. Only this moment.
Teyla cried out, almost dropping her stick. A Wraith-blade scored a seam across Ronon's arm.
"Where's the portal?" John whispered, but pain had scoured away his voice and left him with nothing. He reached out; tried again; managed to grab the trailing edge of McKay's robe. "Where's the portal?"
McKay didn't hear him, but John knew the answer; could hear it thrumming in his veins. He used that knowledge to find the strength to push himself up to his knees. Don't think. Don't remember. Just now. Just this.
"We need to get to the portal." His voice was a broken wisp of a thing, but McKay heard him, opened his mouth as if to protest, then just nodded.
Things were said. John sagged, and barely heard them.
He was walking down a tightrope, struggling to stay balanced when the void stretched on either side of him. Don't think, can't think, just…
Ronon grabbed him, hauling him up, and he screamed; he couldn't help it. "Help him," Ronon commanded, and John was passed to Radek and McKay, and then it became not just about walking the tightrope, but just about standing. His legs were liquid fire, his head was split apart, and… and Ronon and Teyla were fighting, and Wraith were falling, but there were more of them to fill the gap, always more of them…
One step in front of the other. One step, then two.
The portal shone silver, framing stars. "I have to, uh, put you down now," McKay said, and John crumpled to the ground; tried to catch himself with an outstretched hand, but failed. The world tilted, and he saw Ronon and Teyla fighting better than in even the fiercest memory. Ronon was down on one knee, and came up roaring.
"…together," he heard McKay say, but he hadn't heard the start of it. He blinked, and perhaps lost time, because the next time he saw anything, Ronon and Teyla had backed up until they were almost standing on him, and McKay and Radek, crouched beneath the portal with their hands reaching up, were weaving patterns with their fingers, and the ring was beginning to glow.
It needs sorcery, McKay had said, but that meant stepping off the tightrope. That meant coming down on one side or the other…
That meant bringing his team back home.
He couldn't stand, only push himself up onto his hands and knees, then slump back into tumbled kneeling. He reached out one hand…
…and it was there. It was always there. It had never required thought. It had always been inside him, as natural as breathing… and to be without it was like being without breathing, just dead inside, worse than dead.
The portal opened in a blaze of gold and silver. McKay went through first, looking back at the last minute, his mouth opening as if to say, 'Are you sure this is safe?' Radek followed, and then Ronon hauled John up, but was gentle as he carried him through the portal and back home.
Elizabeth Weir could still remember the day she had realised that the Atlantis expedition had been meant to fail.
Two years ago, it had been, on a bright spring morning, when the portal had shimmered into existence and a crowd of people had come through, smelling of autumn and of home. She remembered rushing to the portal chamber, thinking that at last, after two difficult years, they had finally been sent the reinforcements that would transform everything. No-one could replace the dead and the missing, of course, but with new soldiers and healers and sorcerers, they could at least have a chance of winning their deadly impasse with the Wraith.
Instead, she had received yet more alchemists and scholars – people with prickly personalities; people who didn't like working with others; people with controversial opinions; people who refused to take orders.
She had been sent the unwanted. She had been sent outcasts. Perhaps that was all they had ever been – that first expedition that had departed in such a blaze of hope five years before. Perhaps her battle-weary, experience-scarred band of survivors had been bundled off through the portal because they were an inconvenience.
After three years in Atlantis, she had realised that she would very probably never return home again. After four years, she had realised that she no longer wanted to. The north had been abandoned by their ancestors thousands of years before, and those in power wanted it to stay abandoned. When the portal had been discovered, still quickened with ancient alchemy, an expedition had been prepared, and she had been thrilled and honoured to be asked to lead it.
They had been the sacrifice. How could you call a place home when it had sent you away to strive, to struggle, to grieve, to suffer… to die?
Her people were dwindling. That single wave of unwanted reinforcements was to be the last, or so she had been told. "The quickening weakened markedly after you all went through," one of the newcomers had told her, "and none of those jumped-up idiots has worked out how to renew it. It'll be completely spent by now. We're all you're getting." He had said it in a way that implied that he alone was enough.
Alchemists, when they already had alchemists. Historians, when the north had changed beyond recognition. Linguists who knew languages no-one spoke any more. No soldiers, no healers, no sorcerers. No-one who could save lives or keep the injured from dying. No-one who could take the fight to the Wraith.
But, two years on, they still endured. Two years on, they still had… perhaps not hope, but a dogged determination that they would survive. Two years on, and many of those unwanted reinforcements – those prickly, awkward outcasts – had become friends, who loved Atlantis the way she did.
She stood on the balcony now, looking down at the ripples on the silver canal. The air was colder here than it ever was in the south, and she was wrapped entirely in clothes bought from local cities with the salvaged ancient treasures of Atlantis. There was little of the south about her now, except perhaps the cold, harsh taste of bitterness because they had been abandoned.
Far below, she saw a small group of her people returning from the bay, poling their boat towards the deserted plaza. Frost still clung to the shadows of the towers, and the air was crisp on her face, the wind trying to drag her hair out of the tail she had twisted it into. Light dazzled her as the sun caught on a flapping window on the far side of the canal, but daylight was already fading, the shadows turning long and dark.
How long, she thought, would they survive? How long really? A leader had to ask herself those questions when she was alone, although she no longer had anyone she could voice them to. How long--?
"E--Elizabeth?" She heard footsteps behind her on the balcony.
She smiled to herself; it had taken her years to cure Chuck of his habit of addressing her as 'Ambassador Weir,' and he still hesitated before saying her name. "What is it, Chuck?"
"The portal's active."
Her smile faded. Tightening her grip on the balustrade just for a second, she hurried to the portal chamber. By the flame, was it more reinforcements, after all? "It feels… different," Stackhouse was saying, surveying the shimmering ring with the dark-flooded eyes of a sorcerer. "It's strong, though. It just… it doesn't feel so distant as it did last time. It's almost…" He frowned, shaking his head. "No..."
"What?" she asked, because she had learnt the hard way that it was always good to chase the half-finished thoughts of those who had power.
"Familiar," he breathed.
Should that have been her warning? All she did, though, was wait, and ask Chuck to summon some soldiers to the portal chamber just in case. As far as they knew, no-one in the north had mastery of the portals, but the Wraith were constantly surprising them, constantly one step ahead.
But it was not a Wraith that came through first. "Oh, thank the flame," the man gasped, looking desperately from side to side, "I haven't been vaporised. I'm back on Atlantis."
McKay. It was Adept McKay. Elizabeth took a step forward. "What--?"
"No time!" he snapped. "Fighting for lives. Deadly danger. Where--?"
Adept Zelenka staggered through, terror and joy warring on his face. "McKay," he gasped, "we--"
"Down!" McKay shouted, throwing himself down on the floor. "Wraith," he hissed. "They can--"
Something struck the wall behind her. Elizabeth stifled her gasp, pressing her hand to his chest. "Stackhouse," she said, "be ready if--"
Teyla came next, already looking back desperately the way she had come, as if the shimmering golden portal could show her what she had just left. A shadow darkened the golden glow, and Ronon burst through, half-dragging, half-carrying someone else. The moment they were clear, Teyla moved to help, and the two of them closed around their stranger, as if nothing else and nobody else existed in that moment but the three of them.
"Yes, it's a touching homecoming," McKay said, looking up from the floor, "but the portal's still open. Wraith? Rampaging? Need to stop them?"
Zelenka was on his knees. "I can't…"
"Sorcery!" McKay all but screamed. "Now!"
Elizabeth stood there, looking from one to the other, and in that instant felt completely lost, as if Atlantis was spiralling away from her in chaos. Stackhouse's eyes were flooded with black, and his hand was outstretched, but, "I don't know how to," he was saying. "I can't…"
Something smashed into a window, shattering it. Elizabeth turned instinctively to look at the damage, so she missed the moment when the man in Ronon's arms reached his blood-stained hand towards the portal. By the time she turned back, the portal was already fading, and she dimly heard a scream; dimly saw a faint impression of a pale hand being snatched back on the other side. Then the portal winked away, becoming just a ring of cold, dead metal. The stranger's arm slowly fell back to his side. His other hand was gripping a fistful of Ronon's coat, holding onto it as if it was the only thing keeping him up.
His hair was shoulder-length, covering his face. It was only when he collapsed – only when Ronon gently eased him to the floor; only when Teyla followed him down to cup his cheek softly, and then to urgently, so desperately call for a healer – that Elizabeth saw his face.
Rodney had been waiting for a ridiculous amount of time, but still nobody had come and worked their primitive healing magic on him and eased away all the pains he had accumulated in his desperate escape, not to mention the hideous diseases he had picked up in the Genii sewers and in the barrens. He had fallen out of a window, for crying out loud!
Somebody had brought him tea, though, which was a start. It was hot, and that was good, because he found himself suddenly unaccountably cold, cold right through, almost shivering with it as he sat on the edge of the bed, quite alone.
The tea was almost gone, bleeding the last of its heat into his trembling fingers, when Ambassador Weir appeared. She looked older than the last time he had seen her, as if three or four years had passed, rather than just one.
Rodney cleared his throat. Weir started, as if she hadn't noticed him there, as if she had been about to walk past him, oblivious to his presence. She covered her surprise in a rather fragile smile. "By the way that you returned to Atlantis," she said, "I take it that your mission was successful."
"More than successful." Rodney put the mug down; its warmth remained on his hands. "I discovered the secret of the portals, as you've already seen. I need to write it down, of course – maybe I should turn it into a book. But there's something even better than that." He waited for her to prompt him to continue, interest shining in her eyes, then continued anyway, without it. "I mastered a piece of Wraith metal-magic."
She nodded, but was slow to do so. "That's good news, Adept. We need all the weapons we can get."
She looked deeply tired, he thought, and he knew, too, that he would never have noticed such a thing just a year before. Sheppard, of course, was still being treated. Urgent shouts sometimes echoed through the walls, from the inner sanctums of the healers' wards.
"Is he…?" Weir asked, looking suddenly younger, for all that her face was etched with lines of worry. "Have you heard…?"
No need to ask who 'he' was, of course. Rodney shook his head. "Nothing."
Weir leant against the adjacent bed, not quite sitting on it, but not fully standing, either. "How did you find him?"
"He was a slave," Rodney told her. "He'd lost his memory. I was given him as a reward for making the Genii leader's throne room sparkle. And here's a funny thing: it kind of indirectly… uh, sparked a coup. The slave – Sheppard, I mean Sheppard – was shot when we were escaping the city. They'd used him as their plaything – their outlet for all their anger and frustration – and he… well, I guess he finally had enough. He stabbed Kolya – that's their new leader – and we ran. I… I didn't know he was Sheppard, of course. I just thought…"
Weir made a low noise in her throat. Rodney stopped and looked at her, but her face was perfectly composed. Her hand was gripping the blanket, though, with knuckles as white as bone.
The rest of his words died, leaving him with nothing. He swallowed hard. "I didn't actually treat him as a slave, you know? I didn't… order him around. I didn't hurt him. He…" He bit his lip. "He's going to be all right. He's got his memory back now."
But Weir was no longer listening to him. She pushed herself off the bed and hurried forward. "Carson," she said, "is he…?"
The chief healer looked exhausted, barely able to stand. "Still alive." He scraped his hand across his face. "It's… By the flame, Elizabeth, I'm seeing so much injury here. It's…" He sighed, his shoulders slumping. "Terrible," he finished. "Shocking. What in the name of Shadow were they doing to him?"
"He was a slave," Rodney offered. Neither of them seemed to hear him.
Weir's hands were clenched tightly at her side. "Will he live?"
"I hope so," Beckett said, but his face was bleak and shattered. "Most of his injuries are old ones. The fresh one was critical when he was brought to me, but I think I've finally gained mastery. Of course, when you have continuous trauma like that, you have to worry that one day the body will just say 'enough.'"
"John wouldn't give up," Weir said, her hand tightening.
Beckett touched her arm, perhaps offering comfort, perhaps receiving it. "A body tells only part of a tale. He has been… I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but the lad's been tortured for three years. Even if he recovers, he won't be the same John Sheppard. He can't be. I… Normally, when you perform a healing, you get a sense of the patient's spirit, even if they're unconscious. John was always a cautious fellow, and it was always hard to reach him, but this time… This time I felt nothing, just walls."
"Then we will help him," Weir said, "in every way that we can."
"Why?" Beckett asked. Then, when Weir made as if to respond angrily, he held up his hand. "Forgive me, Elizabeth, but is it Commander Sheppard that you want to help? Do you want your military leader back? Do you want your strongest sorcerer leading an attack on the Wraith? Do you want the person who helped you make decisions – the person you could confide in? Do you want this for Atlantis? For yourself?"
Rodney found his mouth opening as if to say something, though he had no idea at all what to say. He snapped his mouth shut again, and lowered the hand that had drifted up.
"Atlantis needs him as he was," Weir said, "and forgive me, Carson, but I'm leader of a failing expedition, and I have to think like that. But if that can't happen… If he's been too badly hurt… We take care of our own, Carson. Quite apart from anything he was to Atlantis, he was my friend."
And her words made Rodney feel obscurely sad, for some reason.
The healers tried to stop him, of course, fluttering around him with shrill prohibitions, but Ronon strode straight on through. He only stopped when he was in the central chamber, where white drapes floated in the warmth of alchemical fans. His steps grew slower then. Sheppard, this was Sheppard. Ronon edged forward, and saw a scarred hand resting on the sheets. Another step, and he saw an arm. He pushed the gauzy drapes aside, and saw Sheppard lying on white pillows, surrounded by healers' filaments. Was he breathing? Ronon's hand looked so large next to Sheppard's as he checked the pulse at his wrist.
There were scars even there.
"We try to keep people out for a reason, you know," he heard Beckett say from behind him.
Ronon didn't turn round. His hand closed on Sheppard's wrist. "But I--"
"Needed to come in for a reason, yes. I understand." Beckett sounded tired. "There's been a whole string of you. Our reassurances are meaningless, I know. You need to see how things start with your own eyes. You need to see him with your own eyes."
Ronon was not a fanciful man, but he had come to fear that the whole thing had been a dream. Even as he stood with Sheppard's hand in his, it still felt like a dream. Sheppard strode through his memories, confident and full of hope and always in control. Sheppard was many things, but this scarred and traumatised unmoving figure was not him. Ronon had recognised him in the barrens, feeling a jolt of recognition so intense that it had hurt, but there was too much dissonance between memory and reality.
It was inevitable, of course.
"And now you have," Beckett said, "so go, please. There'll be a time for you later, but the healing's at a delicate stage right now."
Ronon squeezed Sheppard's hand, and walked away, because sometimes you had to. But he moved to the nearest balcony, where he smashed his fist into the stone, then leant out into the night, letting the wind scour his face, chasing away tears that he felt no shame for shedding.
McKay found him as he was leaving. "Are you…?" McKay faltered, his hand curling back against his chest.
"I'm not the alchemists' guard-dog any more." Ronon's voice sounded harsh. It didn't matter.
"Oh." McKay pressed his lips together, then tried again. "Are you…?" He stopped; walked a few steps in silence. "It never crossed my mind that it was Sheppard, you know. If I'd known…" He stopped again; Ronon had never known McKay so tongue-tied. "Was he…? I mean, I get this whole hero-worship thing that everyone's got going, but was he… for you…?"
Could McKay see the mark of tears on his face? It didn't matter if he did. There were more important things in life than worrying about hiding your feelings. He was my friend, he could have said, but was more than that, wasn't it? "He found me," he said, remembering Sheppard as a black-clad stranger who appeared from the fog to cut down the Wraith that had cornered Ronon. 'I could have taken them,' had been Ronon's first breathless words to Sheppard, and Sheppard had just looked at him, and said, 'I know,' and then had shrugged, but said quite seriously, 'but I couldn't stand and watch that. You could have done it by yourself, but it's easier with two, you know?'
It went far further than that, of course. Ronon remembered those early days in Atlantis, when he had startled at every noise, had attacked people who approached him too silently, and had slept on the floor rather than in the bed he had been given. He remembered the way people had looked at him. He remembered packing his bag and preparing to walk away.
"He saw me for what I was," he said to McKay now. Everyone else had seen a barbarian, but Sheppard had seen what he had been. Sheppard had seen what he could be.
"Oh." McKay looked away. "He…" He cleared his throat, changing the subject. "So you're not guarding…"
Ronon shook his head. "I'm Commander Ford's second in command now," he said, and that was another legacy of Sheppard's treatment of him. The untamed barbarian, brutalised by his years on the run, had once been an officer in a disciplined army. Sheppard had found that out, and had made sure that those under his command had known it, too. Sheppard had extended a hand of trust to someone who might have lived his entire life as a savage outcast, and that was something that was impossible to forget.
"Oh." McKay stopped walking, and turned to face Ronon. "Sheppard… Is he…? I… I saw what they did to him – bits of it, anyway. I didn't know how to treat him, out there in the barrens. No-one will tell me anything, because I didn't know him. Is he…? I mean, I know he's probably going to be fine physically – if you can trust anything a healer says, with his primitive magic – but…" He blinked, his hands working convulsively at his side. "He was a slave. He was so… traumatised. But he's got his memory back now, thanks to me. That's going to make a difference, right? He's going to be…"
"No," Ronon said harshly. McKay's eyes widened, and he looked stricken, but Ronon didn't soften it. "He's never going to be the same again."
Experience always changed you. Experience had changed him. He wore a uniform again, and he issued orders and obeyed them. He slept in a bed again, and he ate with a knife and fork, but he had spent four years alone in the barrens, struggling to survive as the Wraith had hunted him for sport, and he had seen everyone he loved wiped out by the Wraith. Sheppard had seen what Ronon once had been, and what he could be, but those two were not the same. Ronon would never be that eager young officer again.
But neither would he be that broken, half-wild survivor, who clung to life only because he was too damn stubborn to admit defeat. Sheppard had seen to that.
And now Ronon would do everything he could to repay the favour.
There were very few spirits in Atlantis. Atlantis had once been a thriving city, but it had been abandoned so long ago that the old spirits from that time were little more than a comforting murmur. New spirits were always being born, of course, but the city was vast and the expedition was small, and five years were not enough to create any more spirits than a sprinkling of pebbles on the floor of the ocean.
It was, perhaps, one of the reasons why Teyla loved the city so.
Her own birthplace – Athos, with its shining towers of glass – was ancient, its streets and buildings thick with spirits. It was hard to rest there. It was hard to be still. It was hard for her to find a place where her mind was truly her own. Teyla's people revered her as someone in touch with the wisdom of their forefathers, but they feared her, too, because they thought that someone who could see spirits could see too deeply into the hearts and minds of the living.
None of it was true. She knew no ancient wisdom, and people's hearts and minds were as closed to her as they were to anyone. But preconceived notions were impossible to overturn. She had lived in honourable isolation until a small group of men and women had wandered into the marketplace, bearing ancient treasures and looking for allies.
On their third visit, she had asked if she could return with them as an envoy.
She had never left.
It was quiet in Atlantis. Even after five years, there were distant towers where not a single living soul had walked in ten thousand years; where even the soft murmur of ancient spirits had faded to silence. It was an old place, a relic of the distant past, but to Teyla it was shining and new. There was no weight of past generations. The here and now mattered. Every spirit in Atlantis had been left by somebody she knew. With each year, it built up its own roll of the dead, but it was still a place where the weight of the now was heavier than the weight of the past.
If the distant towers were silent, the healers' wards were thick with spirits. When a person experienced intense emotion, they left behind an echo of themselves. I hope he lives, the echoes whispered. Please don't let her die. I hope…and Please, please…and joy unparalleled as good news was delivered, and grief and despair when a healer said 'I'm sorry.'
I hope he lives, she thought herself, and wondered what echo of her own was bleeding out into the air, to appear as a spirit to anyone with the gift who came after her. The spirits came whispering back, bringing an impression of white pillows and a pale face upon them; of a healer with his head bowed, his face carved deep with weariness.
"Is it true?" a voice asked – a young soldier, daring to approach. She banished the spirits, leaving only the faintest echo of those that spoke of hope.
There was no need to ask what the question meant, of course. "It is," she told him. "Commander Sheppard has returned, but he is badly hurt. Healer Beckett and his circle are taking good care of him."
Simple words, so easy to say. Curiosity and hope made spirits, too, of course; she felt them stirring throughout Atlantis as the rumours flew.
I hope he lives, the spirit whispered, and she let even that one go, letting it become just a wistful stirring in the back of her mind. She had too many fears of her own to bear the echo of others' hopes.
She started to walk, heading for places that were more silent. The air shimmered around her. Watch, she begged them. Let me know if he…
Dies? they whispered, rippling with shadow, and Wakes up? they shouted, sparking silver. The healers had left echoes of their own, and she asked those spirits to strengthen Carson's hand and to ease his exhaustion, and to watch John, always to watch.
"The air's shimmering. You're talking to spirits again." Rodney emerged from a doorway. He looked almost as shattered as Carson. "It's freaky," he said. "Is it… Do you know which one's which? Am I one of them?"
She shook her head. "They are not traceable to any individual. The…" It was hard to express it. "The emotion takes on a life of its own," was the nearest she could manage to frame it in words.
"Oh." Rodney bit his lip. "So it isn't like… like speaking to someone after they've… gone?"
"No." But she had wondered, sometimes – of course she had wondered – if any of the young spirits in Atlantis had originally flowed from John, and if, in a way, he was with them still.
It was foolish to wonder, of course. Her power was one that nobody fully understood, and only a few accepted. Even John had been wary of her at first, until she had convinced him that she was incapable of eavesdropping on those emotions that he kept so tightly hidden behind his smooth façade.
Rodney walked along beside her for a while, his hands twisting nervously in front of him. It took no special powers for her to know that he was nervous, wrestling with something. Her mind was overflowing with thoughts of John – still sleeping, the spirits whispered, surging back to her. Still no change – but she stopped and turned to Rodney as gently as she could manage to.
"Rodney, are you…?" Rodney had never known John, of course. "…well?" she finished.
Rodney sighed, his hands falling heavily to his sides. "I realised something," he said, "and you know how hard it is for me to realise things? Alchemical insights are easy, of course, but…" He sighed, as if whatever was troubling him had eaten his usual scathing fluency with words. "Anyway, it's the usual thing: you only realise what you've got when you've not got it. I missed Atlantis, and I… I didn't really tried very hard to fit in, did I? But it felt like coming home, earlier, but now…"
He moved! the spirits whispered, and some of them soothed him, and some despaired at the glimpses of scars on his chest.
She thanked them and told them to go, but by then Rodney was already walking away.
It really wasn't fair, Rodney thought. He'd come back to Atlantis with the secret of the portals, which could well be the turning point in their deadly impasse with the Wraith, and he'd mastered a piece of Wraith metal-magic, which could turn the turning point even further, but far from honouring him, nobody really seemed to have noticed.
It was Sheppard, all Sheppard, his name whispered through the corridors, and shouted by people who shouldered past Rodney to stand in doorways, to lean in and breathlessly shout that Sheppard had been found. It was quiet anxious whispers – a stream of people who made their way to the healers' wards to ask if there was any news.
Rodney understood that; of course he did. He was restless himself, a knife twisting in his chest at the thought that Sheppard would die.
It was just so difficult. He'd come to realisations out there in the barrens. Sometimes, perhaps, he was a little inconsiderate of other people's feelings, and sometimes this had actual consequences. Atlantis was his home. Radek and the others were more competent than he liked to think them. He'd never really tried hard to be liked, but now, perhaps, he'd try to fit in. He'd come home with his precious discovery in his hand, and everything would instantly be different.
But nothing was the way he had dreamed it. He couldn't find Radek. Weir had barely acknowledged him. He had been away for a whole year, but people pushed past him without seeing him, in their haste to tell the news of Sheppard's return. Everything was Sheppard, Sheppard, Sheppard… and how was that even possible? The slave had been timid, tremulous, obedient, softly-spoken, and yet it was his return, and not Rodney's, that had set Atlantis into a flurry of hope and anxiety. It was as if the whole city had subtly shifted on its axis, focusing inwards on just one man.
And Rodney understood it. Of course he understood it. It was just…
He sighed, and entered his own dust-shrouded quarters. His lodgings in the city of the Genii had never felt like home, of course, but this… now this, too, felt cold and alien and dark.
He woke up to pain. His master must have hurt him worse than normal because…
He stopped. His thoughts jolted and reshaped themselves. Atlantis, he was in Atlantis. He was home. He was John Sheppard. He was free. Power flowed through his veins. If Kolya approached him now, he could blast him with fire. No-one would touch him unless he wanted them to.
He saw white sheets with filaments soft against his skin. "John," he heard a voice say, and a moment later recognised it as Elizabeth's. "John, can you hear me?"
He had screamed into Teyla's shoulder. Ronon had carried him home.
He had been away for three years.
He tried to speak, but only a quiet moan came out. No, he thought, and tightened his fist on a handful of blanket, refusing to let himself moan again.
"John," Elizabeth said. She sounded as if she had been crying.
His eyes found her face, but she wasn't quite how he had remembered her. Then he had to tighten his grip even further, fighting a sudden ridiculous fear that this was all a dream, that he wasn't home, that he had come to somewhere else entirely. Her smile was the same, though, even if the lines on her face were deeper.
Her hand took his wrist – chains, he had worn chains there. "You're safe, John," she said. "You're home."
Home. He was home. He turned his head with an enormous effort, and saw Carson hovering nearby, looking scoured by exhaustion. He knew he ought to say something to them, but all words flew from his mind, leaving him only with echoing emptiness.
"Can you speak, John?" Elizabeth's grip tightened.
He felt iron on his wrist. She wanted him to say something; her need spilled over from her eyes and flooded over her face.
Whatever you want me to do, master. He knew what a nameless slave would say, pretending to be submissive, but he had no idea what to say when playing the part of John Sheppard.
"He was very gravely injured," he heard Carson say. "There mere fact that he's opened his eyes is a positive sign."
Darkness swirled, and it wanted him. Elizabeth gripped him with her chain of iron, and wanted him to speak. She wanted to know that he was still John Sheppard. She wanted to know that he wasn't broken.
And sorcery flowed through his veins, and he knew who he was, and those three years with no memory would fade like a nightmare faded. They had to. They would.
He moistened his lips, finding them cracked and hurting. "Elizabeth."
She smiled, her eyes glittering with joy and tears. "You remember me."
"Of course I do." He managed a smile of his own. He pushed himself up against the pillows, and pain impaled him, but the nameless slave knew how to keep agony from showing on his face.
"It's been so long…"
"Yeah." He managed a shrug. "They put a collar on me. I can't remem--" He couldn't complete it. Kolya stalked in circles in his mind, and the slave bowed his head before him. "I can't remember much," he said. Even his voice sounded different now. "Not clearly. You don't have to worry about…" That, too, trailed away. He swallowed hard, gripping the blanket so tightly beside him that his hand was shaking. "I want to resume active duty as soon as possible," he said. "Don't worry about me. I'm good. Everything's going to go back to normal."
Just a nightmare. He hadn't been himself. It hadn't been real. He hadn't known his name. It had happened to someone else, not to him.
Just a nightmare.
And you forgot nightmares and you carried on, staring straight ahead of you as you walked out into the day.
Life went on, because life had to. On his first morning back in Atlantis, Rodney awoke to a bleak room, and stood for a while looking at possessions that he had forgotten that he owned. He dressed in his old uniform, and found it looser in places than he remembered it, but tighter in others. He found a small phial of fixing in a pocket, turned brown with wasted potential. The mirror was thick with dust, but when he wiped it, he didn't think he looked any different from the way he had looked in the city of the Genii. It was just that the clothes and the backdrop had changed.
He made his way to the alchemists' communal workroom, and nodded at people whose names he had forgotten, or perhaps had never known. Radek was already there, surrounded by a crowd. "Rodney." The man's eyes were shining. "It's good to see you. I've told them what I can. It's safer, now that they know, but we need to write it down."
An alchemical textbook, with Rodney's name inscribed on the cover. Vital wisdom that would make a difference for centuries to come. "We do," Rodney said, suddenly lacking the inclination to say anything more.
He followed Radek into the study, where pale drapes covered the windows, filling the entire room with a warm golden glow. "Is dangerous, of course," Radek said, "now that we have the secret. The Wraith know that we have it."
The drapes stirred with sudden cold. The Wraith had seen them disappear through the portal, and they had to have realised the scale of the advantage that mastery of the portals had bestowed on their enemy. They would be seeking to renew their offensive now – to strike decisively before the people of Atlantis had chance to capitalise on their new ability.
"We've doomed ourselves, haven't we?" Rodney gasped. "We shouldn't have done it." Obtain the secret, yes, but perfect the skill back in Atlantis, then use it to launch a stealthy infiltration of the Wraith's heartlands. By the flame, he hadn't realised! They'd waved their half-developed weapon under the very noses of the Wraith, like an invitation for them to attack.
"If we hadn't," Radek said, "we would have died there, and the secret would have been lost."
And Sheppard would have died, too – couldn't forget the most important part. Couldn't risk losing their precious Sheppard.
Rodney let out a breath. He hadn't slept well, and tiredness scraped at his eyes. Coming home was supposed to be easy, wasn't it? It was a triumphant return, and then a happy slotting back into a place that, yes, he had missed. It wasn't like this. He had come here ready to embrace Atlantis as his home, but Atlantis refused to embrace him.
"It might not happen," Radek said, "but we all need to have mastery of the portals, just in case."
All of which was useless without someone like Sheppard to open them. Rodney passed a weary hand across his face, and picked up his pen. "Let's get to work, then. There's still plenty that we don't know." He flapped an angry hand. "No, go away. I work better alone."
He had been alone in the city of the Genii. The light changed outside, growing brighter, then fading towards afternoon. When he moved to the window and pulled the drapes aside, he saw sunlight sparkling on the canals, and beautiful pale pinnacles, a hundred times more lovely than the Genii's harsh lines.
Hunger drove him from the study at last, when he had written everything that he needed to write, but not as much as he could. Out in the communal workroom, people fell silent as he approached. They hadn't been talking about him, though, he thought, but about Sheppard; he caught the tail-end of the man's name, a last falling syllable.
How is he? he wanted to ask. Have you heard?
Something twisted inside him when they talked about Sheppard, but it felt worse when they didn't. He walked through the hallways, but overheard nothing that gave him any news.
The refectory only had a handful of people, scattered across the room in twos and threes. He thought they watched him as he came in, and a few of them might have smiled at him, but he didn't know their names.
He sat down alone, and tore apart a crusty white roll, spreading it with butter and covering it with thick spicy meat.
The smell struck a chord. He was in his kitchen in his home in the city of the Genii, and Sheppard sat opposite him, asking questions in that quiet voice of his, and Rodney had his legs stretched out in happy contentment, imparting knowledge, and sometimes, very occasionally, Sheppard had smiled.
And sometimes – moments just as rare – Rodney had smiled, too.
His master had carved his mark with a knife, then rubbed salt in the open wound. The pain blazed, and the slave knelt there with his head bowed, fingers digging into his thighs. Don't scream. Don't make a sound. But no-one was watching. That meant… No. When you were alone, you could let yourself fall apart, but not often, not often. Do it too often, and it became habit. Every time you did it, it was harder to gather yourself back together. Every time…
Something touched him. Light flooded into the darkness. "I'm sorry, laddie." Carson snatched his hand back, looking mortified. "I didn't think." And the slave was staring up at him, heart racing, breath rasping in his throat, hands gripping the sheets…
"You startled me," he managed to say. He. The slave. John Sheppard. John. Names shuffled in his mind like cards. Who was he? No, he knew who he was. He was John Sheppard. The rest belonged only to the realms of nightmare.
"You…" Carson seemed to be standing carefully back from him. "How are you, er… feeling?"
"Fine," he said. "You've been busy with your magic, I can tell."
Carson opened his mouth as if to say something, but no sound came out. He would always argue fiercely that his healing gifts weren't magic, but came from talent and 'bloody hard work'. John had enjoyed baiting him about it, and Carson had always responded.
The things from the nightmare shambled forward. You're not really back, they said.
He looked at the square of light that was the window. "What time is it?"
Late afternoon of what day? He couldn't remember it getting from evening to morning or from morning to afternoon. Time marched on, and he couldn't remember it. You woke up in the barrens one day, and your whole life had gone. Days passed in blur and confusion. The collar, that had been the collar. The collar was gone. It was safe to sleep. He wouldn't forget anything ever again. He knew who he was – a slave, dangling from a hook on the ceiling. No, no, John Sheppard, and this was the bright afternoon after the nightmare.
"When're you going to let me out of here, doc?" His face managed a smile.
"A few days yet, and that's if you're good."
Carson looked awkward. John had awakened in the healers' wards three times before, and Carson had been stern and lecturing, and soft and kind and competent, but never awkward… and that scar on John's hip came from crashing a skimmer, and the line across his upper arm came from their first encounter with the Wraith, and the mark on his chest came from the day that Carson had brought him back from the dead, and… and scars told stories, and the missing pages were now filled in. End of story, and time to wake up.
He smiled. "Hey, doc, when am I anything other than good?"
Kolya stalked in the shadows behind Carson. The slave closed his eyes, and memory stole another chunk of the day. He woke to the fiery red of sunset. Stupid, he told himself, when he had managed to stop shaking. The collar had dulled his thoughts. The memories weren't even coherent ones, just vivid impressions in a mass of fog. If you didn't know your own name when something happened to you, then it didn't really happen. In the nightmare, a slave had submitted, but John Sheppard had slept for three years.
Footsteps sounded, clicking like Kolya's. Ford paused nervously in the doorway. He smiled when he saw John looking at him, then stood to attention, saluting.
"Ford." John's voice sounded rusty, as if it hadn't been used for three years. As he cleared his throat, he saw the badge on Ford's chest, quickened steel sparkling in the shape of a flame. "Commander Ford," he corrected himself.
"Yes, sir," Ford said, and the slave almost laughed to hear himself called 'sir', and John…? John felt a ridiculous urge to weep, because it was familiar, and it hurt. "I hope you will be pleased with the job I've done, sir."
John's hand was aching beneath the sheet, and he realised that once again he was gripping a handful of fabric in a trembling fist. He released it; managed a smile. "Atlantis is still standing. That's a miracle in itself – testament to--"
"Testament to many things, sir," Ford said firmly, "and to many people." There was a chair beside the bed, but he didn't sit down.
"What's our status?" John asked.
"Difficult," Ford said, "but holding on." He flashed a brief smile. "Just as we always do."
"Just as we always do," John echoed.
The fell into silence for a while. Eventually Ford shifted awkwardly, clearing his throat. "The healers said… only a few minutes, you know, sir. I have to…"
"Yes." John concentrated hard, and managed to uncurl his hand. He waved it with a smile. "Go do your… commanderly things."
Ford stopped in the doorway, his hand on the frame. "Sir…"
Nothing after that, though. The slave slept, and the nightmare came out to play.
For the first time in many days, Ronon dreamed of his time on the run.
He woke long before dawn and pressed his face into his hands, accepting the memories. Then he put on his clothes and ran to the far edge of the city and back. His route took him over narrow bridges and through frosty, forgotten plazas, and he remembered running through wilder places, with the Wraith at his tail, and he remembered early training runs with his first platoon. He remembered running this route with Sheppard in his early days in Atlantis, and he remembered how they had stopped on a bridge – on this bridge here – and how they had stood side by side looking out over the canal, hardly saying a single word.
By the time he returned to his room, the sun had fully risen. He washed and dressed, then headed to the healers' wards.
He found Sheppard on the terrace outside, propped up with cushions and looking out at the city below him. Ronon approached loudly, because he thought that a slave and a hunted man might have the same reaction to people who tried to approach quietly.
"I hear you've been promoted," Sheppard said, turning round only slightly. His voice sounded no different from the way Ronon remembered it.
Ronon nodded. "Yeah." Too many people had died, and there were vacancies. He had been in the city long enough, Ford had implied, for any lingering doubts about his loyalty to have disappeared.
But Ronon had known all along where his loyalty lay.
"Congratulations," Sheppard said, "I guess."
Below them, a boatload of alchemists went by, presumably heading off to gather fresh raw materials for their fixings. Their voices were audible, but their words were not.
"McKay," Sheppard said. "He…" Ronon saw his hand clench, before it disappeared behind the cushions. "He's new. There were reinforcements?"
"Only a few," Ronon said. "No soldiers or sorcerers."
"Huh. Stands to reason."
The silence stretched between them. It was fragile, in a way that silence between the two of them had never been fragile before.
"The healers let you go?" Ronon asked.
Sheppard shook his head. "They've still got their eye on me." He gestured towards the thin filaments that emerged from his clothes. His robe was open at the neck, showing the edge of jagged scars. "It won't be long," Sheppard said, "before I'm ordered back in." There was the faintest hesitation before the penultimate word.
Ronon said nothing. Sunlight sparkled on windows, and a flag hung limply in the cold, still air. The flag was new in the past year, Ronon realised. He saw Sheppard watching it. Sheppard's pulse was beating fast, visible at the open throat of his robe.
"Atlantis hasn't changed," Sheppard said, as a stray gust of wind took the flag and raised it, the quickened metallic threads blazing in the sun. "A few things are different, but mostly it's the same."
"Been too busy," Ronon said, "to spare any time for decorating and refurbishment."
"Yeah." There was a faint wisp of a smile. Sheppard's pulse raced even faster, but perhaps Sheppard became aware of it, for he pulled his robe closed, hiding pulse and scars alike.
Ronon leant on the railing, deliberately turning his back on Sheppard. Sometimes, he thought, it was better not to think too hard, but just to say what felt right. "I still remember my first sight of the city," he said, "after you brought me in. I was wild, then – crazy. I'd lost everything – didn't know how to live."
And Sheppard had helped him, not by talking to him about what had happened, but by treating him as if he was whole in every way. Perhaps Sheppard had known that this was what Ronon had needed, or perhaps he had just been afraid to say anything that might lead to messy talk about feelings.
"And now I'm here," Ronon said, "second-in-command of Atlantis' military," with all his old comrades and subordinates dead on a field of ice, not forgotten, never forgotten, but… moved on from, he thought. Changed into a scar that he would always bear, but which didn't stop him from walking tall.
He meant to say more, but words were not his strength, and how could he preach a lesson about survival to a man who had been tortured for three years as a slave?
Perhaps Sheppard understood the gist of it, even though Ronon did not say it. When Ronon turned back, Sheppard was staring straight ahead, his face a rigid mask. "Sheppard…" Ronon said, and the mask shattered, but only a bit.
"It isn't the same," Sheppard said, forcing the words through lips that barely opened. "You… By the flame, Ronon, you lost everything. I… It wasn't even me. The scars are on my body, yes, but it wasn't me. It wasn't--" He touched his brow, jabbing it hard with two fingers. "--me."
"It was," Ronon said quietly, hating the fact that he had to.
Sheppard whirled on him, almost screaming his retort, but at the last moment he snatched it back, his hand rising to the fabric at his chest. "It wasn't me," he said, as his clenched fist twisted his robe, showing scars at his throat.
It was, Ronon thought, but he knew that to say so again would be too cruel.
"Nothing's really changed," Sheppard said, looking out at the sparkling city. "I… don't want your pity, Ronon."
"You're not going to get it," Ronon said with utmost honesty. One scarred warrior knew another. But Sheppard… His weren't scars yet, but bleeding wounds.
But even the worst wounds turned to scars in the end.
Another night passed in stalking nightmare.
His bed was like chains. The watchful eyes of the healers were the eyes of his masters, refusing to let him go. People walked by on silent feet, checking on him, and every time he heard that first whisper of approaching footsteps, he instinctively stiffened, readying himself for pain.
He needed to get away. John Sheppard had never liked to be inactive in the healers' wards. "Can I…?" he asked, when he thought that his voice could manage it. "You know, doc. It's boring in here."
Watched. Imprisoned. Subjected to rules. The nightmare would go away once he was free. He'd pick up his old life again and this…? All this would fade. John Sheppard knew how to deal with nightmares.
"I don't see why not," Carson said. "I've had you here for three days, and physically you're doing well." But shadow remained in his expression, and he still looked tired. "I want you back in a few hours. I still want to keep on eye on you at night. And no doing anything stupid, mind. No running with Ronon. No joy-rides on the skimmers. But I'd be happier if someone else went with you. Shall I send for--?"
"I'll be fine," he said, managing a smile.
Back in a few hours. Back for the night. Orders. Prohibitions. Kneeling when a master commanded him to, lowering his head to receive the knife. But John Sheppard was a soldier, and soldiers had to follow orders, too. Not that he had ever been very good at it, of course. Not that he had ever…
Feet stirred behind him. Carson cleared his throat. "I'll be fine," John said, as he headed for the infinite possibilities of the open door.
Nothing special, he thought, just Atlantis. Just home. He had walked these hallways a thousand times before. Every step would banish the nightmare. Every step would bring him closer to the past. Every step would make him become more thoroughly John Sheppard.
He could do anything that he wanted. Do what you like, his last master had said. Do what you like.
His steps faltered.
John Sheppard had always known exactly what to do.
Teyla did not need spirits to tell her when John entered the refectory. His presence was like a drop of dye in clear water, spreading everywhere until it filled the bowl. People halted their conversations, then carried on, stiff and self-conscious. Some openly stared. Others whispered.
Teyla fought the urge to rush over to him and physically help him to her table. Instead, she caught his eye and smiled, letting him see the empty chair beside her. He smiled back, and the smile at least was the same as it had often been – John Sheppard in cautious mode, hiding things behind a smile. His gait was unrecognisable, though. He moved as if he was in pain. He moved as if he did not want anyone to notice him.
"Carson let you out, I see," she said, when he was sitting beside her.
"Only for a few hours." His hands were stiff on his lap, long sleeves covering his wrists.
She wondered what to say. He looked thin and pale, and his hair was longer than he usually wore it, hiding many things. "I missed you, John," she said, settling for honesty. Atlantis had lost its military commander, its strongest sorcerer, its chief purveyor of optimism and hope, but Teyla had lost the first person who had made her feel welcome, after she had taken the enormous step of leaving the only home she had ever known.
"Well…" He shrugged, his hands uncurling, fingers digging into his thighs. "I'm back now."
She blinked back sudden tears. "Yes. You are back."
He looked at her sharply, hungrily. "You see it? Because the others… Carson… He's tiptoeing around me; thinks I'm going to break. Just because I… It wasn't me, Teyla. I didn't know who I was. I can't even remember it clearly. There's no reason why it should affect me."
"No reason," she echoed. The spirits here were quiet and content, enjoying sunlight and good company, but she kept them distant. Too many people were watching John, most of them trying to pretend that they were not.
"I'm going to carry on," John said, "just as I was when I left. I don't know why people expect me to be different. It wasn't me, any more than a dream is me. There's no reason why it should affect me. It shouldn't affect me. It can't affect me."
She could almost see the emotions bleeding off him. "I understand," she said, because she really did. "But if it does affect you," she said carefully, "there is no shame in that."
"It won't," he said, pulse racing beneath his high-buttoned tunic. Even the most contented of spirits were stirring now. "It's… hard right now, you know – stuck in bed, still seeing people for the first time, but in a few days…"
She managed to keep the tears from falling. "We will always be here for you, John."
"In a few days," he said, brightly, desperately, "Carson will let me return to active duty. Ford's got my job now, and it looks like he's doing it well, and I won't fight him for that. I always liked the sorcery stuff more than the paperwork, anyway. I want to help protect Atlantis. And all this… Everything… It didn't happen."
But it did, she thought, but she smiled and she nodded, because she knew that there was a time to argue, and there was a time just to be there, a trusted friend.
"You let him go." Elizabeth stared at the empty bed. "Carson, you--"
"How can I confine someone who's been a slave for three years?" Carson's eyes were ringed with shadow. "Elizabeth, the things I…" He passed his hand across his face, rubbing his eyes. "I don't know if anyone's ever told you this, but when you treat an injury as a healer, you learn everything about it: how bad it is, how to treat it… and how it was caused."
"And he has scars." Any anger she might have felt trickled away, and she reached out to steady herself against the empty bed.
"Aye, he has scars. And I examined every one, as a good healer must. The things I saw… I can't sleep at night, Elizabeth."
"He says he can't remember it," she said. "Not clearly, anyway. Surely that's going to help."
"Perhaps," Carson said, "if it's true. It… Don't get me wrong. The wound from the Wraith collar was nasty. It had put tendrils all the way into his brain, and it undoubtedly had an effect. In a very real sense, the person who lived as a slave wasn't John Sheppard. He wasn't thinking the same way, and he didn't have any memories of who he was. But he… he dreams, Elizabeth, and the body still remembers."
Sometimes she hated being a leader. "How long," she had to ask, "before he is in a state to resume his duties? And yes, Carson, I do care, but…" But minor Wraith raids were ongoing, and a large assault was likely to come soon. She was woefully understaffed, and the sight of John Sheppard back at the head of the cadre of sorcerers would be just the morale boost that everybody needed. She would only ask it of him when he was ready, of course, but the John Sheppard that she knew would want to be there, back in the thick of things. He had always hated to sit back and watch.
"I don't know," Carson said. "He's clinging on right now, but…" He scraped at his face again. "John always was a stubborn lad when he was hurting. He pushes things inside and tells himself that he's coping, and he thinks that if he tells himself loudly enough and often enough, it'll come true. And the thing is: it's always worked in the past."
She let out a breath. "But not this time."
"Maybe this time, too, but I fear not. Even if the memories are only faint, he… By the flame, Elizabeth, I only got a glimpse of them, and I can't sleep at night."
She stood firm. A leader always had to think about what to do next, about how to proceed. "What can we do," she asked, "to help him?"
Perhaps unconsciously, Carson shook his head minutely, as if the true answer he wanted to give was I don't know. What he said, though, was, "Be there. And wait."
Sheppard was leaning on the railing of the bridge ahead of him, and the only way that Rodney could get to his destination was by going past him.
Rodney carried on walking – one step, two steps… hands sweaty at his sides. This was the lost hero, a man larger than life, according to all the stories. This was his slave, who had bent his head when Rodney had commanded him to. This was the man who had gone without shoes for three weeks, because Rodney had forgotten to tell him to put them on.
What on earth could Rodney say? Perhaps wait until Sheppard spoke first. Perhaps slip back quietly and hope that Sheppard didn't notice him. But Sheppard had already seen him; Rodney could tell that. His body language was just like the slave's: taut and tense as he stared straight ahead, but at the same time intensely aware of the person who was approaching him.
"Uh…" It came out as a croak. Rodney cleared his throat and tried again. "I've been working on the portals. That's what the whole charade was about, you know. It was an incredible breakthrough, but…" The air was cold. Rodney shivered, and touched the metal railing, almost recoiling at the cold of it. "There are still many more things to understand, of course. How do you determine which portal you want to travel to? We need to learn how to add that element to the alchemy. The other day… It worked the first time, because Radek and I were both thinking so strongly of Atlantis, and we'd both spent weeks poring over the portal here, trying to get it to work. But we don't yet know how to go outwards to any other portal. At the moment it's just a 'ooh, help, we're under attack, let's get home quick' sort of thing. We're beginning to think that we might need to send out expeditions to each one, to… anchor it, as it were."
Sheppard was completely still; it was only because he had lived for three weeks with his unwanted slave that Rodney was able to tell that he was listening, and that he was afraid.
"But we'll master it," Rodney said firmly. "I…" He stopped and corrected himself. "We… By which I mean Radek and myself… and the others… I guess the others aren't that unskilled, either, at least when compared to the Genii…"
"You'll be able to quicken a portal so we can go home?" Sheppard asked.
Rodney remembered meal times spent at the table in the kitchen, the slave obediently asking questions to indulge Rodney's desire to talk. "Eventually, maybe," he said, "but it's a long way. The alchemy's different. We knew that all along. I was looking for a weapon against the Wraith, not a way to go home. We hoped, of course, and we still might…" A sea-bird screamed above him. Even the birds were different here. Metals were fused with a sense of the north, drawn to the distant magnetic pole. Like called to like. The secret of how to break through to a different continent was still hidden from them. Not even boats could get there, because the walls of ancient sorcery were too strong. "We still might go home one day," he finished, though where was home? He was drifting through his days. The only sure thing was his work.
"You've tried?" Sheppard asked.
"Of course I've tried," Rodney snapped. "It didn't work. So we're stuck here, and, oh! the Wraith are probably going to attack, and that might happen in mere days, or maybe not for week, and… and the work I did on your collar helps us immensely, of course, but…"
The bird returned, circled once, and flew away. A gust of wind stirred the surface of the water, and Rodney shivered, suddenly unable to bear the cold a moment longer.
"Well…" he said, peeling his hand from the metal railing. "Important work calls."
Sheppard said nothing, just stared straight ahead. Throughout it all, Rodney hadn't once seen his face.
He hadn't tried to, either, he realised.
Atlantis was the only place that mattered. This life was the only life he had. McKay had said that they couldn't go home again. Well, that suited John Sheppard just fine. Right from the start, coming to Atlantis had felt like coming home. Everything else was nothing more than a dream.
He was numb with cold when he left the bridge, even the nightmares frozen and encased in ice. He had no idea how much time had passed, or whether Carson would be searching for him. It was hard to follow the passage of time without chimes to count.
The city was large, and they had only ever used a fraction of the towers available to them. Was his own room still there? His feet took him towards it, and the door opened, creaking into shadowed darkness. He touched the light switch, but the light glowed only dully, its alchemy faded with the passage of time.
The bed was still there, and the chest of drawers and the dresser. The picture over his bed was gone, though, and his clothes were no longer there. The surfaces were thick with dust, but patches of it were smeared clean, as if people had come in here recently, perhaps to sit down for a while in the darkness.
It didn't look like the room of someone who had gone away for just a few days. It looked like the room of somebody who had died.
He sat down on the edge of the bed, and the height was different from how he remembered it. His own face stared back at him from the mirror on the wall. He really didn't want to do it – didn't mean to do it, and fought the urge to do it – but he unfastened the top few buttons, so that the person looking back at him had a body full of scars.
His hair was too long, but when he pulled it back and twisted it into a knot, his face was too thin. Kolya's mark was on his shoulder, and the back of his neck throbbed where the Wraith collar had been ripped from his flesh.
"It was just a dream," he said, but his body gave the lie to that. "Just a dream…" but he had spoken to McKay. McKay was a figure from the nightmare, who lived and breathed and talked. McKay had been his master. McKay had seen him submit. It can't affect you, John told himself, but McKay's presence screamed otherwise. John Sheppard had spoken to the man, finding words to say as he had leant on the rail beside him beside him. The slave had gripped the edge of the bridge, stared straight ahead, and stopped himself from screaming. The slave knew how to do that.
John Sheppard didn't need to.
"Just a nightmare," he said, but he didn't even recognise the person who looked back at him from the mirror.
He smashed the mirror with a single blow of his fist, and then he was bleeding, fresh scars on his clenched right hand.
Sheppard had been back for seven days.
"You've got the same room," Ronon told him. "We didn't like to give it to anyone else."
Sheppard said nothing. In the past, they had often walked along together like this, in silence. Sheppard was subtly different, though. Ronon watched him with the eyes of a hunted man, and saw how he stiffened whenever anyone passed. Too many people were still staring at him. Too many rumours were flying.
Ronon well remembered what it was like to be stared at wherever he went; to sense the weight of whispers about him.
"Here," Ronon said. He opened the door. Zelenka had renewed the alchemy in the light fitting, and Ronon had ensured that the bed was freshly made. Weir had returned the picture over the bed and Teyla and Ronon had returned the small keepsakes they had taken from Sheppard's room to remember him by. Teyla had dusted the surfaces, and the two of them had cleared away the shattered glass together. They had both seen the fresh blood on the shards, had looked at each other across their fragmented reflections, and had resolved in silence not to say a word.
Ronon remembered the first time he had looked into a mirror and seen a wild creature looking back at him. He, too, had almost smashed the glass.
"You…" Sheppard stopped in the doorway, then took a few steps into the centre of the room. "It's the same."
"Course it is." Ronon sat on the wooden chair, stretching his legs out.
Sheppard hesitated for a moment, then sat stiffly on the bed. His body was still, but his eyes were moving like the eyes of a hunted man.
Ronon had replaced the mirror, but only with a small one, hung high on the wall.
"Want to come for a run tomorrow?" Ronon asked.
"If you…" Sheppard began, then stopped. "Doc says I shouldn't."
"When did you ever let that stop you?" Ronon smiled. "We can take things slow."
"Good." Sheppard's hand found the edge of the blanket, and closed on it. "That's good."
"And tonight, we can go to the tavern," Ronon said. "Teyla says she might sing."
"I…" Sheppard's voice cracked, his words disappearing into a croak. He turned his face away, his hair falling down and hiding it. "Sounds good," he said.
"Good," Ronon said, and he carried on talking, talking about little things.
He found a place where a gap between the towers gave him a view of the same star he had watched from the small back room. When it passed out of sight, he stayed there, wrapped in cold.
"It was too noisy in the tavern," Teyla said, speaking from far enough behind him that he had time to gather himself before she approached. "Even in the winter, I find it good to spend time outside."
"We could go to the pier and ride skimmers," Ronon said. John turned in time to see him smile.
"Carson'll never forgive me if I take you out on a skimmer in the dark," he heard himself say, the voice not quite seeming to belong to him. "You know what happened last time."
"Yes, you got hurt."
John looked up at the darkness. He remembered the feel of sorcery blazing in his veins and the air racing past his face, as the city was spread out beneath him as he swooped and soared, flying anywhere he wanted, anywhere he liked.
"Do you remember when…?" Teyla began, and he listened to her words, and he did, he did remember. Not so long ago, really. Scenes from a life he had laid aside for a while, and which he was going to resume.
Remember… and he saw them fighting the Wraith, the three of them side by side. He saw Elizabeth screaming to him as he fell. He saw himself circling the topmost pinnacle of the highest tower, with everyone else just dots below him. He remembered the first sight of Ronon, fighting Wraith. He remembered Teyla running out of her city of glass, saying that she wanted to come back with them to Atlantis. He saw laughter in the refectory. He saw meals left unfinished as he rushed off to deal with this crisis and that crisis, as he went to protect his people, as he went to be useful.
And, "Do you remember…?" he said, as he offered back just some of those memories.
He saw them smile. In the darkness that had no mirrors, he even smiled himself.
Rodney still had no idea how to talk to Sheppard. "There you are," he said, as he came across Sheppard outside the refectory. "Come and be useful. I need your sorcery. If you're, uh, up to it, that is."
Of course, the Rodney McKay he had always been had never worried too much about how to talk to someone. He just opened his mouth and the words came out, and how people reacted to them wasn't Rodney's problem, as long as they didn't try to do anything uncomfortable, like kill him.
Sheppard smiled. "I'm up to it."
Perhaps he was entirely better. The magic of the collar had been strong stuff; no-one knew that better than Rodney. Rodney had been the one who had fought it, after all, pitting his wits against it and coming out on top. It had turned Commander Sheppard into a completely different person, one who could barely string two words together. The collar came off, the old John Sheppard reappeared; end of story, everything back to normal. He probably didn't even remember most of what had happened to him. Rodney had had the worst of it, really, with the images from the quickened chains still surfacing sometimes, late at night.
"Well, then," Rodney said, "don't just stand there." He snapped his fingers. "Follow me."
This was just somebody who happened to look like the slave Rodney had possessed in the city of the Genii. The stories weren't anything to put much credence in, either – the heroic myth of Commander Sheppard. He was just an ordinary person, to be treated in ordinary ways. He wasn't even an alchemist. He was a soldier, with a soldier's rigid thinking. He was a sorcerer, who thought he was so clever and special with his super-mysterious power, and… Well, sorcerers were quite scary, sometimes, with their black-flooded eyes and all that fireball stuff, but it wasn't a proper field of knowledge, not like alchemy.
Just an ordinary person, he thought. Treat him like an ordinary person.
"I'm working on the portals," he said, "and, no, before you ask, there's still no possibility of going home, not for any time soon. No, I'm trying to find a way of opening a portal out the other way, so we can actually go places, which was kind of the point – secret missions into the Wraith heartlands, and all. A portal I've never been to is a closed book, of course, but I think I might have quickened our portal so it's in contact with the one we used in the barrens."
They entered the portal chamber. The ring was shining, sparkling with potential. Rodney snapped his fingers again. "So come on, Sheppard. Jump to it. Do your bit." Sheppard just stood there, looking at the ring. "It's just typical," Rodney said. "I do all the research and the hard work, and in comes a sorcerer to act as a glorified light switch, and I bet the sorcerer will get the credit, while we alchemists labour for hours behind the scenes."
Sheppard took a step forward. Rodney picked up his phial of fixing and knelt beside the ring, ready to adjust his workings. Nothing happened for a while, but when Rodney looked up, meaning to snap a complaint, he saw that Sheppard's eyes were slowly flooding with black, and his expression… His expression made Rodney turn away suddenly, to grumble under his breath, to touch the eager metal that was the one thing in the world that worked according to proper, easy-to-understand rules.
This time the portal blossomed into life slowly, but it blazed, if anything, even brighter than before. "It worked!" Rodney felt himself grinning. "It worked!"
"Yeah." Sheppard lowered his hand slowly. His eyes were slow to lose their sorcerer's freakiness, but then he, too, was smiling. "Thanks to me."
"What do you mean: thanks to you?" Rodney snorted in disgust. "That's just typical of you sorcerers. You… uh…" He swallowed hard, edging away from the portal. "I suppose we need to test that we opened it up to the right place. So what are you waiting for? Go on through. It works in both directions – ought to, anyway – so it's just a case of hopping through, taking a look, and hopping back."
Sheppard looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "Why me? Why not you?"
"Because, uh… important work to do back here, to, uh, stabilise the portal. And I haven't got the right shoes for the barrens."
Sheppard didn't move. Something screeched, and Rodney was looking over his shoulder, his eyes darting nervously around the portal room, when he realised that the sound had come from the far side of the portal. A shadow moved beyond the gold. Something smashed through, impacting on the far wall. Rodney cowered, bringing both hands up to cover his head. Sheppard just stood there.
"Wraith!" Rodney hissed. The shadow lurched closer, with two long arms and a pale smear for a face. "Seriously, they're still there, after nine days, and-- Close the portal, you idiot! Close it now! Close it!"
"Yes, master," Sheppard said. The portal faded, becoming no more than an empty ring of quickened metal. By the time Rodney had suppressed his terror enough to uncurl from the floor, Sheppard had gone.
You could limp through the days, but it only took one word to show how wrong you had been.
It wasn't me, he had told himself again and again. It was just a nightmare. It had happened to his body, but not to the part of him that really mattered. There was no reason why it should affect him. He knew how to push nightmares to the side. Carry on, be John Sheppard again, and the nightmare would fade.
He wasn't the slave. He wasn't the slave. He wasn't the slave.
He ran with Ronon, and that was good. He reminisced with Teyla, and that was good. He and McKay… and that was a strange one, because McKay's very presence set the doors of nightmare creaking open, but for a moment, when they had worked together on the portal… For a moment, it had felt good. John had been useful, and McKay had talked to him as if it hadn't even crossed his mind that John would shatter.
Small steps, tiny steps, and the nightmare was banished. It was locked behind doors of fragile glass. Nothing had changed. Nothing had changed…
Words betrayed him. They slipped out when he wasn't thinking, when he'd lowered his guard.
They told the truth.
The nightmare was real. He was the slave. The nightmare owned him.
He was shattered.
Teyla called out to him, emerging from her building as he neared it, in a way that made him think that she had been waiting for him. "I'm good," he managed to say. "Good. I'm just going for, uh, a rest, you know. I don't need… I'm good."
Sunlight sparkled on glass, and he saw his reflection. His hair was still long because he was hiding his face from the truth. The high-buttoned clothes were a pathetic attempt to cover a body that was a mass of scars. The veneer was torn away. He was broken. He would never be the same again.
Fresh scabs pulled on his fist when he tightened it. He saw Ford walking back from the harbour, unclipping weapons from his belt. "Are we under attack?" the slave managed to ask, clinging to faint memories of how to play a part.
"No, sir." Ford shook his head. "A Wraith raiding party was sighted this morning, but they've been dealt with now. I had two injured, but neither of them seriously."
Ford called him 'sir'. Ford condoned the lie. But they hadn't told him when the party was sighted. They hadn't asked him to join the team that was sent out to deal with them. That told more truth than any mere 'sir' could tell.
They thought that he was broken.
They were right.
Not long after sunset, it started to rain. Teyla found Ronon in the middle of the southern plaza. "Have you seen John?"
Ronon shook his head. "I was looking for him."
There were few spirits outside. Teyla pulled her coat tightly around her, and headed for a sheltering doorway. A spirit hovered just inside, trembling with anxiety. It's been two days since his team went out, it whispered, worrying desperately about some unknown person that had been dear to it. I do hope he's safe. Its emotions fed her anxiety. The spirit had no idea where John had gone.
"He said he was going to his room," she told Ronon, "but that was many hours ago."
"You spoke to him?" Ronon was drenched, his long hair plastered to his neck. "How did he seem?"
Teyla let out a breath. "The same," she said, by which she meant taut and fragile, desperately clinging on to the pretence that everything was normal. Emotions bled off him, evident in his tight-clenched hands. In places that he frequented, the spirits were darker and more desperate.
There were times when he smiled and almost seemed normal, but he had endured too much, far more than his usual strategies could cope with. The spirits quivered with anxiety, and hated the way he walked among them, bleeding desperation, but saying so little.
"Are we doing the right thing?" she asked now, drawing closer to Ronon in the dark.
"What else can we do?" Ronon said, and that… that was true, too. They could not coerce him. They could not force him to talk about things that he wanted to pretend had never happened. All they could do was be there in the way that he wanted them to be there – as friends, who did not judge.
But it was hard, so hard. He looked different, his hair longer and his face thinner. The spirits moved differently around him, reacting to his pain. Although he hid them, it was impossible to forget the scars that were beneath his clothes. He was marked with brands of ownership, with the initials of owners carved into his flesh, and she wanted to hurt the people who had done that to him, and she wanted to help him heal from them, and she wanted to forget all that, and just see John.
She just felt so useless, and now they had lost him.
"What?" Rodney demanded, when someone came far too noisily into his workroom. "You're interrupting--"
"Chuck says you were with Sheppard earlier," Ronon said. "Did he say where he was going?"
"Why, have you lost him?" Rodney said, then took a rapid shuffle back when it really looked for a moment as if Ronon was going to hit him, really hit him. "I… I'm sorry." His hand fluttered up to his face. "We were working on the portal – or, rather, I was working and he…" He stopped; shook his head. "He just… left."
Ronon nodded once, then left the room. It felt cold and empty after he had gone, and rain pounded at the windows. Rodney leafed through his pages slower and slower. Everyone else had already gone. Where did the other alchemists go in the evening, he wondered suddenly. Shirking their work – that's what he'd always thought. Lacking the intellectual stamina to work late into the night – that's what he'd always told them. Lacking the true gift that allowed you to lose yourself in your work, no longer even aware of time passing.
But where did they go, and why didn't they… ? Why didn't they invite me? something small and unhappy said inside him, but that was stupid because the opinions of other people didn't matter. But he'd come back from the city of the Genii thinking himself changed, and he'd realised that he'd missed these people, stupid as it might seem.
Atlantis was like base metal: full of potential, but somehow refusing to shine properly for him.
He left the room and headed down the stairs, out into the rain. Lights shone in the distant towers, and he thought he could hear a mass of people talking, but perhaps it was just the pounding of the rain. As he headed into a dark archway, he caught himself thinking how wrong it seemed to have a night time that wasn't lit by gleaming silver discs. When he imagined himself back at home, in out of the rain, it was his workroom in the city of the Genii that he pictured.
How stupid he was. Home was always somewhere else. He didn't seem to know how to talk to people in a way that would make them into his friends, and it didn't matter, of course it didn't matter, but…
He darted out into the rain again, over the bridge where he had met Sheppard a few days earlier, and then to the doorway of the residence hall. So Ronon had lost Sheppard. It made sense, really. Sheppard had been a slave, so of course he would want to spend some time by himself, going wherever he liked. He'd come back when he was good and ready. Maybe Rodney would be able to put the man's sorcery to good use again and achieve yet another breakthrough in his revolutionary work with the portals.
Of course, he thought, as he paused at his door, Sheppard as a slave hadn't seemed to know what to do with himself when he was left alone. If Sheppard really was missing… And last time he had gone missing, Kolya had gotten his hands on him, but Rodney had bravely and boldly gone to rescue him, and if he hadn't done that…
Oh! His hand rose to the talismans at his throat; he had grown so used to wearing them there that it had never occurred to him to remove them. Did Sheppard still wear Rodney's bracelet? Rodney frowned, struggling to remember. It had been sealed with his own alchemy, though only with a weak working, so any of the other alchemists could have removed it. Still, it was customary etiquette to ask the alchemist who had a done a working to undo it, and no-one had asked Rodney to take the talisman off, so that meant… It probably meant nothing at all, but there was no harm in trying it.
His fingers brushed it. On the far side of the city, it said, and not moving anywhere. Still, so very still. Not moved for a very long time.
He should tell Ronon about it, Rodney thought. But his hand closed on the talisman, as he thought about a solitary meal in the refectory, eaten to the backdrop of other people's laughter. He thought of meals with the slave in the kitchen, and the disaster that had almost ensued the last time he had delayed before answering the call of the talisman.
Stupid, he thought, as he headed off into the rain.
The slave had always liked to look at the stars. The slave didn't know what it was to dream of freedom, but he had always known that the stars and the night sky represented something that he couldn't have. Time passed when he gazed up at the black. Sometimes he seemed to leave all the pains of his body behind, and fly there, dreaming.
Now he was able to walk free beneath the sky. The rain sheeted down on him, cold and free. He wasn't tethered in a small dark room, but outside, with no walls and borders…
But still chained. Still locked behind walls. His body was marked. His memory was worse. He couldn't forget. He couldn't step free from the things that hadn't even happened to him. Not to him. Yes, to him. He was carved with scars, deep into his soul. Marked. The nightmare walked free, and he couldn't forget it.
His knees were up towards his chest, and he held them there, making chains of his own arms. If he didn't, he thought he would just bleed out into the night; would lose himself, scattered so far that he wouldn't know how to bring himself back.
Maybe that was for the best. He was too badly broken. The nightmare couldn't be confined to the places that nightmares should live. He saw Kolya stalking through the empty hallways of Atlantis. Old scars hurt, as if he was still hanging by his wrists from a hook in a pitch-dark room. When people approached him, he readied himself for them to hurt him. He looked for the trap in every simple word.
He couldn't… He couldn't…
"There you are," someone said, and then his heart was pounding desperately, because he hadn't heard McKay approach, the man's clumsy footsteps obscured by the drumming of the rain. "I, uh… the talisman, you know? I thought I… By the flame, it's wet! You're drenched."
"Yeah." Old habit allowed him to produce a smile. "That's because it's raining."
"Are you--" McKay stood over him, close enough to hurt him, if he wanted to. John concentrated on breathing. "--well?" McKay finished, "because…" His voice trailed away.
Sometimes the slave could still feel the Wraith tendrils going from the back of his neck into his brain. They twisted, hurting him. He wanted to ask, what do you want me to say, master? "Did you come looking for me?" he asked. It was fitting. McKay was the nightmare made flesh. He had followed John home from the city of the Genii, so even if John hadn't been quite so broken, he would never be able to forget.
"I… Shadow!" McKay swore. "Can't you at least sit underneath an archway, or something? I've never been this far out. Is it a disused dock?"
It was a good place to watch the stars from, on nights when it wasn't raining. He and Ronon had flown skimmers here, once, long ago, in another life.
"I…" McKay wrapped his arms around his body, pulling his coat tight. "I miss those dinners we had together," he said, "and, yes, I know, don't tell me: I'm being blind and inconsiderate, because they can't have been much fun for you, but I… I've always eaten alone. I… I never thought of you as a slave. Well, okay, admittedly I did, but only because of the aforementioned blind and inconsiderate thing. I'm like that with everyone."
"But I was a slave." He said it quietly. Wind stirred the dark water. "I still am."
"What idiocy is this?" McKay snapped. "Of course you're not. In case you haven't noticed: Atlantis? Your home? All your adoring friends and fan club? At least they wanted you back."
And all they'd gotten was a broken shell – someone hurt too badly to pick up the threads of his old life. He wrapped his arms more tightly around his legs, and stared out into the darkness, gazing straight ahead, letting the rain scour his face.
McKay said something; he didn't even hear what it was. McKay knew the truth. McKay had seen him.
"I submitted," he said, words ripping free from his throat like barbs. "I didn't at first, but in the end… They hurt me less if I didn't fight. I held my arm out for the knife. I presented my wrists for the manacles so they could whip me. You saw it. I held my hair out of the way so you could… with the collar…" He dug his fingers into his legs. "I can't forget that. I'm not who I should be. And Ford calls me 'sir', but I let my masters do all that to me. I told myself that I wasn't really submitting, not really, if I didn't let them make me scream. How fucked-up is that? I didn't scream, and I can't… I can't…"
Words left him. He was alone in the dark, and the nightmare was real. McKay was part of it; that's why the slave could say these things. Not to anyone else. It would break Teyla's heart if she knew how broken he really was. It was a betrayal of Ronon, who had been through so much more, and survived.
"I can't forget it," he forced out. "I can't."
"Of course you can't." McKay knelt down beside him, but his eyes were flickering all over the place, as if he was desperate to be somewhere else. "I saw just a bit of it, and I can't forget it, either, and I can't even begin to imagine…" He let out a breath, and seemed to look at John properly. "So you submitted. Very sensible, because that's why you're, well, not dead. And you survived for three years, and as for the not screaming thing… You know, I didn't believe the stories when I first came here – tales of the long-lost Commander Sheppard – but you survived all that, and you didn't scream. I couldn't have done it. I couldn't have survived five minutes of it. I do have other strengths, of course, and this whole courage thing is over-rated, and is just another word for stupidity and… Not helping. I know. Don't say it. I say these things, and… I'm sorry. I should go away."
He stood up to go – a man from the realms of nightmare. If McKay wasn't here, then John could forget… No, of course he couldn't forget. He was marked, changed, broken. McKay had been there. McKay had never known him as anything other than a shattered man. McKay perhaps, in a way, understood. McKay had no expectations that John could betray.
"No," John said, the word escaping him little louder than a breath. "Don't go."
McKay stopped and turned. "Really?" He looked shocked, scared… delighted.
John leant his head back against the wall, suddenly lacking the energy even to keep his eyes open. "And you did stab Kolya," he heard McKay say, "and that was good, right? Isn't it one of those symbolic things? Triumphing over the bad memories – striking a blow against…? Or not. I'm not good at this sort of thing."
"No." John opened his eyes. The smile was fragile, but it held. "You're not."
McKay edged closer. "And you… Oh, Shadow, you're bleeding! Your hand…"
John looked down. He must have ripped off one of the scabs from when he had punched the mirror. The blood looked dark in the faint alchemical light from across the water.
"You hurt yourself deliberately," McKay gasped. "Oh, Shadow, they made you think that you deserved it. And now you're back on Atlantis, and no-one's passing the time of day by torturing you, you're doing it to yourself and… where's Ronon when you need him? I'm not good at this."
He thought of the mirror shattering because it told him a truth he didn't want to hear. "It wasn't like that."
"Of course you didn't deserve it," McKay said. "Nobody alive deserves treatment like that, except perhaps for the people who did it to you, but you, Sheppard… They did it because they couldn't break you. They did it because you're strong – because you never broke, no matter what they did to you. It was a compliment in a way… and that didn't come out right. Stupid thing to say. I'm sorry. I'm making things worse."
"I was captured by the Wraith," John said, spitting the words out like stones, remembering every last detail of the last mission before he had entered another life. "There were too many of them. They shot me, pinned me down, put the collar on me…" And memory broke off sharply then. It resumed afterwards, but on a different line. One line was clear and crisp, one was blurry and shadowed, but both were real. "I escaped, but I didn't know where to go. The Genii found me--"
"And enslaved you and tortured you. I know." McKay started pacing, his voice getting quieter and then louder again. "But it wasn't really you. I mean, I should know. I have an intimate knowledge of how that collar worked, and it was a hideous thing. How much of a person's personality comes from memory? Most of it, I'd say, and you… you didn't know you had friends, or a home to stay alive for. You didn't know anything. Even your way of thinking was scrambled. So if you did things you're not proud of – and, really, I don't think you did… It wasn't really you."
"It was," he said, because he had played this game. He had tried this path of denial, but the scars and the memories said otherwise.
"Well, yes, it was, but… but you didn't break and… and you were a pathetic slave when I had you, and only made me dinner once, and… and you stabbed Kolya, and that's something to be proud of – not that violence is a good thing, of course, but.... No matter what they did you to, you survived, and… and I think I've just contradicted myself. I'm not good at this. Why are you making me do this? I'm cold and I'm wet and I'm making things worse. Please can we go inside?"
Ever so slowly, John relaxed his arms, and lowered his legs, stretching them out on the ground in front of him. This time, when shapes came out of the gloom towards him, he was ready for them, turning to face them before they could speak, putting the expression on his face that they would expect to see there.
"John." Teyla crouched down beside him. "We were worried about you."
"I'm good," he said automatically. He managed a smile, and kept it there when Ronon came to join her. McKay hovered in the background, slowly fading out of sight.
John opened his mouth to say something – what, he did not know – when Teyla stood up sharply. "Wraith!" The air sparkled urgently around here. "Wraith in Atlantis, not far away."
John stood up. Atlantis was in danger, and even scarred and altered as he was, he could still protect his people. It was something, at least.
No, he thought, as he raised his head and looked into the night, perhaps it was everything.
"Wraith?" Rodney looked desperately from side to side. The Wraith here, in Atlantis! Pale faces and long fingers. A whole race that fed on fear, leaving their victims wrung dry, just an empty shell, unable to feel.
"How many?" Sheppard asked.
Teyla shook her head. "I do not know. Perhaps ten? There are only a few spirits out here, and they are lonely and homesick. They do not like the Wraith, but they cannot help me fight them."
Sheppard frowned. "There was a raiding party earlier. It must have been a decoy while these guys snuck in."
"Only ten?" Ronon drew his quickened pistol from his belt.
"Only ten?" Rodney echoed, pressing himself back into the shadows. "Ten is quite enough. Remind me why we aren't we running away?"
Sheppard raised his hand to his lips, as if to hush Rodney, even though Rodney wasn't shouting very loudly, all things considered, and nothing like as loudly as the situation warranted. "Because we've found them by accident, and we don't want to lose them," Sheppard said quietly. "The city's too big and we don't have any way to track intruders. If there are Wraith here, I want to know exactly where they are."
"By fighting them?" Rodney looked at them – rain-drenched, determined, crazy. "Three of you? Because I can't… Don't expect me to… And Sheppard hasn't even got a weapon." And Sheppard had been sitting broken on the ground only minutes before, and… "Oh!" Cold swept through him, setting his heart pounding. "It's a heroic last stand thing. Go down fighting."
"I hope not," Sheppard said, but Rodney saw how Ronon and Teyla both looked at him sharply. "Reinforcements would be good right now. If you can't fight, McKay…"
"What?" Rodney exclaimed. "Me? You want me to send for reinforcements? What part of 'deserted dock' don't you understand? We're way off the communications network here."
"They you'll have to go the old-fashioned way." Sheppard wasn't looking at him. "By which I mean walk," he said, when Rodney didn't move. "Preferably run. Bring us at least twenty of Ford's finest." He seemed to falter a little before saying Ford's name.
"Oh." Rodney swallowed. "Okay. I can do that." He stood unmoving for a while, until Ronon started towards him, flapping his hand in a way that implied 'please go away', but somewhat less politely. "You'll still be here when the heroic reinforcements get here? You won't be, uh, dead?"
"The aim is not to engage them," Sheppard said, "but to contain the threat until reinforcements arrive."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Yes. Of course." He turned and trotted away into the darkness, lashed by rain, and very, very cold. When he turned to look over his shoulder, he couldn't see any of them, as if they had been swallowed by the darkness whole.
"Contain the threat?" Ronon echoed, when McKay had gone.
"Of course," John said.
He remembered battles fought side by side with Ronon, Ronon's pistol-work and his own sorcery weaving together to create a swathe of death. He remembered Teyla fighting in a swirl of sparkling light, glowing with the fury of spirits who hated the Wraith. He remembered standing in the middle of a cloud of clearing smoke, shouting orders.
He remembered going up against the Wraith that final time, his skimmer shot from the sky, cold metal embedded in his shoulder. He remembered rising up to try to fight, but there were too many of them, just too many of them to fight.
He remembered feeling the fear that he had always felt before battle. He remembered asking Ronon once if he, too, felt afraid, and Ronon saying yes, every warrior felt fear, and if they didn't, they were stupid, and wouldn't last for many days.
He remembered his Genii masters coming to hurt him, and how his addled mind had decided that the best thing to do was to accept whatever they did to him, but not to let them see his pain. He remembered standing there staring straight ahead, and he had never cracked, not even once.
"We're not going to fight?" Ronon said.
And Kolya had fallen to his knife. And John had been chained and powerless for so long, and the sorcery was in his blood, desperate to break free, and all he needed to do was to let it out, to strike a blow, to take a stand, to kill…
He shook his head, anchoring himself with a hand on the wall behind him. Atlantis came first. If they engaged too early, they would probably take out a few, but there was a risk that the other Wraith would disappear into the depths of Atlantis, to places where even Teyla's spirits couldn't find them. "We'll fight if we have to, but for now… For now, we wait."
They had to stand and let them come. And he was John Sheppard on the brink of a battle… and he was the slave sitting utterly still in a dark room, waiting for his masters to come.
But this time… This time, it was right.
It wasn't fair. He wasn't good at running; you didn't have to do things like that as an alchemist. His feet splashed in puddles, and he was already soaked right through to the skin, but the extra drenching of mud-stained water was horrible. The wind drove the rain horizontally into his eyes, and he took a wrong turn, coming to a panting halt in the middle of a bridge, then turned round, his breath heaving in his chest as the wind made his coat lash around him.
Wraith, he thought. Wraith, and Sheppard and the others were out there in the darkness, facing them alone. Ronon and Teyla knew how to take care of themselves, of course, but Sheppard was a slave, who had trembled in taut fear just because Rodney had said the wrong word at the dinner table. No, no, Sheppard was a military leader, a hero. He'd been through some tough times, yes, but nothing really changed you. No matter how much Rodney resolved to think more before he spoke, the wrong words came out and people were hurt by what he said, and you couldn't really change. People wouldn't let you.
Were they dead yet, killed by the Wraith?
Even they hadn't wanted him to stay. No, that was a stupid thing to think. Rodney certainly didn't want to stay there, thank you very much. When the Wraith were around, you ran away as fast as you could. At least when you didn't have any close friends, no-one expected you to do stupid things like stick around and die with them. He was better away from them. He'd be the heroic messenger who went to fetch help. He'd be…
He slipped and almost fell, keeping himself up only by a desperate lunge for the railing. He couldn't run any more, he couldn't. He couldn't breathe. Pressing his hand to his chest, he carried on, lurching forward, half walking, half running. There had to be nearly a mile still to go… and what had possessed Sheppard to go out so far? What on earth had possessed Rodney to follow him? He'd probably made things worse, and now Sheppard and the others were going to…
Oh! The communications network! He didn't have to find reinforcements in the flesh, just call for them. How far out had they laid the communication filaments? They were slowly spreading them throughout the city, radiating them out from the centre like the threads in a spider's web. They'd reached the towers of the southern plaza… but that had been a year ago. Maybe they'd reached further since then.
He tore open the nearest door, and it was dry – oh, thank the flame, it was dry! He grabbed hold of the balustrade, hauling himself up the few wide steps that led to the hallway. He groped across the wall until he found the switch, and the light responded, muted with workings at least a few months old. And there – oh thank the flame, yes! Yes! He lurched towards it; propped himself up against the wall, leaning with one hand, slapping at the switch with the other.
"Help," he gasped. "Help."
"Who is this?" a voice responded.
"McKay," he panted. "Adept McKay. The Wraith. Not here. Further… further south. An old dock. Sheppard… Sheppard's there, and Ronon and Teyla. They need help. At least twenty, he said. Help. Please help."
And that was that – duty done. He sank down onto the floor, and let his head sink forward, as he struggled to draw enough breath into his lungs. He could rest now. The soldiers would take care of it. They'd get there in time and they would stop Sheppard and the others from being horribly killed at the hands of the Wraith.
Of course, he thought, the soldiers were twice as far away as he was, and they'd have to go to the armoury first and load themselves with firearms and armoured jerkins. That would delay them… what? Ten minutes? And a lot could happen in that time.
He thought of Sheppard asking questions over dinner, and sitting broken in the rain. He thought of Teyla pressing her forehead to his in the barrens, and of Ronon… And Ronon was quite scary at times, but quite comforting, too, and it really wouldn't be fair if he was killed by the Wraith in the safety of Atlantis, when he'd managed to survive for so long out in the wilds.
Rodney wasn't aware that he had made a decision, but suddenly he was outside in the rain again, heading back as fast as he could.
When you concentrated on the creak of your master's footsteps on the floor above you, there was no room inside you for anything else. Only the waiting existed. Everything else you packaged up inside. You readied yourself to do what you had to do, and not to let a single scrap of your fear and your pain spill out.
His master's footsteps approached: one, two, three…
"They are coming," Teyla said.
He couldn't be the slave again, not now. "The important thing," he said, "is to stop them from going to ground in Atlantis."
There were ways, of course. A single sorcerer, outnumbered by enemies, could open himself fully to the elements. He could raze everything around him to a smoking ruin, and burn himself out from within, leaving just dust and ashes. It was the final stand, the final sacrifice. Many of the most powerful sorcerers in the stories had gone out like that, giving their own lives in a final, desperate act.
"John," Teyla gasped, catching hold of his wrist, as he realised that he had stepped away from them. He saw things too clearly, and he knew that his eyes were flooded with sorcery, his body ready to act.
"It's not worth it," Ronon said, "not for ten."
"It is never worth it," Teyla said fiercely. "Not you."
He tried to spread his hands. He tried to shrug, to say, 'hey, guys, I wasn't serious.' But he couldn't quite bring himself to do so. He was tired, so tired. He had been powerless for so very long… He was scarred, broken, and that would never go away.
But Teyla and Ronon were with him, just as they had been before the nightmare had started, and he would do anything in his power to keep them safe. He had looked at the stars and dreamed of flying, but the skimmers were still there, waiting for him to fly them. And there were late-night discussions with Elizabeth, and meals with his friends, and missions to undertake out in the wilds, that brought back intelligence that Atlantis desperately needed. And they couldn't go home again, and they had always been desperately short of sorcerers, and every single one was needed. Even if he was broken, he could still do good.
Teyla was holding onto his wrist, as if she was afraid that he would turn into dust and disappear. Ronon had planted himself in the archway, as if he planned to grab John bodily and hold him here. Rain streaked across their faces like tears.
John let out a breath he hadn't realised he had been holding. "The important thing…" he began, was not to throw their lives away in a doomed attempt to fight ten Wraith. He wouldn't risk the others like that. He wouldn't risk…
Myself? he thought. He would give his own life if he had to, but that had always been true. Nothing had changed, except… except that he had found his home again, and although he was broken, he wanted to live.
The slave had submitted to save his own life, not to end it.
"The important thing," he said at last, "is to eliminate the threat. If we can, we'll draw them back to where McKay's reinforcements will be able to take them on."
"They have seen us," Teyla said.
He smiled grimly. "Then we run."
Was the rain easing? It was. Oh, thank the flame, it was. Too late, of course. Rodney was already drenched, and likely to catch his death of cold. If the Wraith didn't kill him first, of course, as a result of the quite ridiculous and stupid fact that he was apparently running directly at them.
Perhaps his time with the Genii had turned him completely insane, because he kept on running into danger, and Sheppard was always involved in it somehow. Yes, it was Sheppard's fault. The man was a bad influence. If it wasn't for Sheppard, Rodney would be nice and dry, inside with his feet up, reading through books beside an open fire, safe, content, alone.
Where were those reinforcements? He wasn't a fast runner, and his muscles would be screaming at him tomorrow – if he was still alive, that is. They were strapping young soldiers with nothing in their heads but the desire to exercise and become big and strong and brainless – the sort of people you could point towards an enemy and say, 'kill it, please,' and they would. They should have overtaken him by now, because he wasn't… he couldn't…
Oh, Shadow, and there were people ahead of him, and how did you get ahead of me? he almost said, but they were tall and pale. They were Wraith, and he skidded to a halt, and looked over his shoulder, his breath tearing in his chest, and tried another way, but another one was coming out of the darkness, its pale hand outstretched, reaching for his throat.
Rodney fell to his knees. All he had at his belt was a small alchemist's knife, good for sharpening pencils, for cutting paper, for slicing off the leaves of the herbs that went into the more primitive fixings. It was tiny in his hand, no longer than his finger, and it was trembling. "Go back," he begged them. "Go away! Shoo!"
What did the Wraith do to you? They had to touch you to eat your fear, and people said that it hurt, it hurt terribly, although it shouldn't, really, since having terror like this ripped away from you sounded like a good thing. If they let you live, you were broken forever, unable to do anything but smile inanely. More often they killed you. If they were really intrigued by you, they took you as a captive, like Sheppard, like Ronon…
"…and I'm a really important person, actually," he told them. Their eyes were cold stones. Their expression was always the same, as if the only mode they came in was 'terrifying killer.' "I'm the most talented alchemist in the north. I can make things for you." His mouth was dry. The rain started up again, soft at first, cold upon cold. "Uh, not that I would, of course," he said, "because you're, uh, enemies, but… Help!" he screamed. "Help! Somebody help me!"
And somebody did. The nearest Wraith jolted back, struck in the chest with a bolt of flame. Rodney heard a repeated crack – Ronon, he thought, with his pistol – and then the second Wraith was rising up, silver ice-magic surging through the cracks in its palms. Another one whirled in a swirl of black clothing, and drew firearms from its belt, both of them glowing with Wraith metal-magic.
"McKay!" he heard Sheppard shout, and Rodney scrabbled to his feet and followed the sound of his voice, but ice-magic crackled over his head, and a shard struck him on the shoulder, sending him tumbling down heavily onto his side. Water splashed, blinding him, and he coughed, choking on it. Dark shadows wreathed around him, and he saw a light, a light so bright that it seemed to scour through his eyelids and freeze the image of the Wraith in place like statues.
"Rodney!" Teyla scooted over to him, crouching low, her stick held above her like a shield. When ice-magic struck the patch of air above her, it melted, falling like hot tears. Teyla grabbed his arm, and, "It hurts," he told her, his hand clutching his shoulder, but she was pulling him up, and sorcery surged above them, and a Wraith screamed.
Ronon and Sheppard were standing shoulder to shoulder, their arms outstretched as if they were mirrors of each other. The air rippled around them, with the wind and the rain and even the stones of Atlantis responding to Sheppard's sorcery. "To the right," Ronon gasped, and Sheppard turned, and the two of them struck together, a bullet hitting the Wraith's chest and a shimmering fist of rain and air closing on its throat.
"That's seven left," Rodney breathed, collapsing heavily into the shelter of a doorway. "Or eight." Wraith were notoriously hard to kill.
"What are you doing here, McKay?" Sheppard's voice was strained. He didn't look round. "Did you get my reinforcements?"
"They're on their way." Rodney dug his fingers into the flesh around his wound. "I came back. I… I thought you might need some help."
"Huh. Good call," Sheppard said.
"Oh." Rodney relaxed his grip just a fraction. Was that blood on his hand, or just rain? "Sarcasm. How nice."
"John!" Teyla gasped.
"I'm on it." There was another blaze of light. Rodney cowered in his paltry shelter of stone. Sorcerers were supposed to get drained, weren't they? It was yet another reason why they were inferior to alchemists. Extensive alchemy was tiring, but it was possible to carry on. Too much sorcery left you pale and drained, unable to stand.
He thought of the slave dying in his arms in the barrens. "Ronon," he heard Sheppard say, his voice sounding strained. "You see that one…?"
"Trying to get away?" Ronon fired his pistol again and again and again. "Not any more."
"Thanks, buddy," Sheppard said. Rodney twisted his neck, but he couldn't see them. "I couldn't…"
"It'll be back soon," Ronon said.
"And so will I. I just need a minute."
Everything was dark. For a moment there was total silence. Then something struck the wall above him, and stone dust rained down on him. Rodney hauled his legs in, and curled himself over them. All he had was a knife. He was wounded, for crying out loud. He was…
"John!" Teyla screamed.
"I'm fine," Sheppard said. "It's good. I'm--"
Rodney peered round the doorway, his fingers clutching the edge of the wall. Still firing his pistol, Ronon was lowering Sheppard to the ground with one arm. Teyla threw herself down beside him, touched his chest briefly, then rose up fiercely, stick whirling. The Wraith… Rodney couldn't see them, but he heard one screaming not far away, getting closer by the second.
He crawled out, keeping himself low. "What is it? What's happened?"
Sheppard was struggling to sit up. "Wraith tendril-bullet," he rasped. His hand rose to his shoulder, then fell down stiffly to his side, his fists clenched in a way that Rodney knew only too well. "Help me sit up. I can--"
"No, you can't." Rodney shook his head. Ronon's pistol was sounding over and over again, and Rodney's own shoulder was throbbing in time with the pounding of his heart. Wraith tendril-bullets were a death sentence. The living metal grew like a branching plant, strangling its victim from the inside, crushing the organs one by one. Within minutes, Sheppard would be in agony. Within a few minutes more, he would be dead.
"McKay!" Sheppard snapped. His hand found Rodney's arm, gripping tight. "Yes, I know, I've only got minutes, but--"
"No," Rodney breathed. "No." He tore his hand from Sheppard's grip, snapping his fingers. "It's Wraith metal-magic. I know how to counter that. Leastways, I managed to remove your collar and this… this can't be anything like as complex. Let me…"
He dug into his pocket, looking for his phials, and oh Shadow, they weren't there! No, the other pocket! He fumbled there, pulled out the wrong one, then found the right one, less than half full of dark liquid.
Sheppard's head snapped back. His fists were clenched, one at his side, one at the fabric at his chest. No screaming, though. Of course he wouldn't scream. Ronon and Teyla were retreating back towards them, standing one near Sheppard's head and one near his feet, guarding him. Ronon grunted as a dart of glowing ice struck him on the arm. Teyla was smooth and fluid, her stick whirling so fast that Rodney couldn't see it properly… and Rodney was fumbling with the stopper, and when he pulled it out, his hand shook so much that most of the contents of the phial came out, flooding over his hands.
"I'll have to…" he said, pulling at the opening of Sheppard's tunic.
Sheppard looked at him, his expression completely different from any expression Rodney had ever seen on the slave's face, but his eyes the same. "Do it," he said. "And do it quickly, so I can…"
Teyla gasped in pain, falling down to one knee, then rising up again, but slower, more clumsily. Rodney struggled with the buttons, and Sheppard helped him, his fingers managing to work steadily even as his back was arching in pain. "Do it," he said again. It was not a plea, but a command.
Rodney touched the place where the bullet had entered, blood and fixing and rain smearing on his hands. The metal of the bullet had left a trace, and like called to like. He made the patterns that he had made in his workroom in the city of the Genii, and desperately pleaded the words of command that he had discovered then. The bullet hadn't gone in far, but the tendrils were already as long as his fingers, and twice as many. They hissed and moved away from him. He could see them burrowing through flesh, reaching for Sheppard's heart and lungs.
"Come on," he begged. "Come on." He could sense Sheppard's breathing faltering and his heartbeat stuttering. His pain was almost palpable. I'm not one of your masters, Rodney wanted to say. Let it out, please. And there it was – a faint whimper, a low moan – and Rodney traced the patterns desperately, his thumb smearing in blood.
The longest tendril froze. "Back," Rodney commanded it. "Draw back." Nothing else existed but Sheppard and himself. Were the others still alive? His concentration flickered as he tried to take a look, and the tendril broke free from his control. Sheppard moaned, his back arching, his heartbeat faltering…
"No," Rodney moaned. This was a battle. He had to lose himself in the fight. He had to forget that the Wraith were very probably going to kill him in a minute. "Please," he muttered, "please," as he whispered the words that he had to whisper, and traced the patterns, and slowly, slowly, the tendrils receded, until he just had a small, flat silver bullet held tight between his shaking fingers.
"I've done this before," he whispered. "By the flame, Sheppard, I never want to do this again."
Sheppard was pushing himself up, but he swayed, and Rodney instinctively grabbed him, steadying him with a hand on the upper arm. "Stick around," Sheppard rasped, "and you might have to. You saved my life again. Thanks."
"Thanks?" Rodney said. "Just thanks?" But he found himself rising, too, still supporting Sheppard as the man found the strength from somewhere – and, seriously, where did he find the strength? – to send a wave of rippling sorcery in the direction of the Wraith.
Rodney pulled out his knife, and Teyla stood closer to him, almost shoulder to shoulder, and Ronon was on the other side, a fierce grin on his face.
"John," Teyla said, and she, too, was smiling. Rodney frowned, because he was surrounded by idiots, who smiled even as they were about to be hideously killed by the Wraith, but for some reason he found himself smiling, too.
"There are only five Wraith left," Teyla said.
Sheppard nodded. "And four of us. Think we can take them?"
Ronon squeezed his shoulder. "Of course we can."
Then the square was suddenly full of people, and Rodney stiffened, fearing it was the Wraith, that more Wraith had come. But Sheppard took a step forward, shouting commands, calling to people by name, and Rodney realised that the reinforcements had arrived – nice, strong, welcome, brainless soldiers. Then he realised that he was still holding Sheppard up, standing in far too exposed a position. Then he realised how much his shoulder hurt.
Teyla caught him, he thought, before he hit the ground. After that there was just darkness, soft and blessedly dry.
Rodney opened his eyes to find himself in a place of warmth and golden light. When he moved, he found soft sheets below him. Fine filaments were draped over the side of the bed. "Oh," he said. "I was wounded. Huh. Fancy that. I was wounded in battle."
"You fainted," Ronon said.
"I did not," Rodney protested. "Well, maybe I did, but with good justification. There were Wraith! I extracted one of their tendril-bullets, and no-one's ever done that before, I'll have you know. I was hurt." His shoulder was numb, though, wrapped in bandages. "If I ended up passing out for a few minutes, then it's hardly a character failing on my part."
"Didn't say it was." Ronon clapped him on the shoulder.
"Ow!" Rodney protested. "Wounded man!"
"Other shoulder." Ronon looked outrageously unrepentant. "You fainted. It happens. I fainted myself once. Mind you, I was eight."
Ronon's arm was bandaged, Rodney saw, with healers' filaments trailing out of his torn-off sleeve. There was no sign of Teyla and Sheppard. "The others…" Rodney asked. "They're okay, aren't they? I mean, the reinforcements came, didn't they? And that was because of me, too. I saved everyone's lives. I did, didn't I? They're not dead?"
"Sheppard's asleep," Ronon said. "Teyla's with him."
"And you're with me." Rodney swallowed. He wanted to smile, his face twitching nervously. "Are you… uh, are you sure Sheppard's all right?" It was hard to forget those tendrils reaching towards his heart. And before that, even before the Wraith had come… Sheppard had been traumatised and alone out in the rain. That sort of thing didn't magically go away just because you zapped a few Wraith. Rodney might have believed that one day, but things didn't work like that.
Ronon stood up. "I'll go check on him."
"You'll…" Rodney raised one hand, then lowered it again. "You'll come back again?"
Ronon said nothing, just grinned.
And here she was again in the healers' wards, worrying herself sick about the same man. "He'll recover from this?" Elizabeth asked.
Carson removed his outer robe, throwing it over the back of a chair. He looked less like a healer without it, and more like a soldier. They were all soldiers, after all, even those who never held a gun. "He will," he said, "thanks to Adept McKay – and it looks as if I'll have to start employing an alchemist on my staff."
"Oh, by the flame, no!" Carson shook his head rapidly. "The man's skilled, that's for sure, but can you imagine what he'd be like with delicate patients in need of gentle handling?"
Elizabeth smiled for form's sake. McKay had done excellent work, and she would give him every credit for that, but John was the person who caused her most concern. "Are you sure John will recover?"
"Physically," Carson said, "yes. Emotionally? I don't know. He's proved to himself that he can still fight. By all accounts, he was his old self out there, issuing orders as if he'd never been away. I've treated soldiers before, of course, and these things matter to them. They matter to all of us. To know that we can still do our job – that we are still capable…" He shook his head, sighing. "It might help. But there's no magic wand. He has been very badly hurt here," he said, touching first his chest and then his brow, two fingers pressed between his eyes. The fingers stayed there, massaging as if Carson had a headache. "I can heal his body," he said, "and with time and hard work, I'll be able to remove many of his scars, but that's as far as my power goes. I wish…" He trailed away.
"So do I," said Elizabeth quietly. She moved to the window, looking out at a city that was beginning to sparkle in the early light of dawn. All the bridges and plazas were shiny with rain, but low in the east, the clouds were parting. "There were Wraith in Atlantis," she said. "Is this the start of it?"
"And all those Wraith have been killed or captured," Carson said, "thanks to Commander Sheppard and his team."
Commander Sheppard, she thought, because even that was something that required a decision, perhaps not too far away along the road. "But they got in," she said, "and it was only sheer chance that allowed us to know about it." No-one had told her quite why John had been out there on the deserted dock, but she thought she knew. He had been out there alone and hurting, and quite by chance had thwarted an attack by the Wraith. As his friend, she hated the fact that he had been out there, but as the leader of Atlantis… oh, by the flame, as the leader of Atlantis she had to be glad.
What is this place doing to me? she thought.
"But more Wraith will come," she said.
She knew what John would have said – her old friend John Sheppard, her second in command. Then we will be ready for them. He would have smiled, refusing to contemplate any ending that was not a happy one, and often he would have swept her along with the force of his optimism.
Carson, though, was a healer, and didn't know the right words. "But we will be ready for them," she said herself, clinging three years on to the memory of the man they had lost.
And perhaps it would even be true. They had lived this long, after all, and even now few days passed without a smile.
He woke up to the sound of his name being called. Teyla's hand closed around his own. "How do you feel, John?"
He shifted position. "Like I've been shot."
Her face slowly came into focus. She was smiling, and spirits shimmered in the air around her. "The healers say you will make a full recovery."
"Real healers," he asked, "or… you know?"
Her smile deepened. "Both."
He tried to sit up, and his body obeyed him rather better than it usually did when he woke up to find himself in the healers' wards. "We beat the Wraith?"
"We beat the Wraith," she said.
His memories of the end of it were hazy. "Were there any casualties?"
"Ronon suffered a glancing blow to his arm," Teyla said, "and I took some fire to my leg. Rodney hurt his shoulder, and… the whole thing was too much for him, I believe, but the healers say he will be fine. No-one else was hurt."
"Good." He settled back into the pillows, feeling the flow of healing run through the filaments, pulling him down. "That's good."
And it was only there, on the very brink of sleep, that he remembered that he was no longer Commander John Sheppard, but a broken slave.
"What?" Rodney demanded, when he heard someone moving beside his bed. "I've been wounded. Go away. I need my sleep."
He heard someone clearing his throat. Radek, he thought, by the sound of it. He opened his eyes to see Radek leaving.
Rodney opened his mouth to say one thing; stopped and thought, and said something else entirely. "No. Come back. I'm sorry. It's the pain, you know - making me… irritable."
Radek perched awkwardly on the chair beside the bed. "You fought Wraith." He pushed his spectacles up his nose. "Everyone's talking about it."
"Yes, I did." Rodney pushed himself up against the pillows. "I was very brave."
"You removed a Wraith tendril-bullet," Radek said. "I've been studying Commander Sheppard's collar and…" He cleared his throat. "Maybe we can work on the Wraith metal-magic together?"
I work best alone. Rodney almost said it; had to bite the words back. Radek had wanted to work with him on the portals, he remembered, but Rodney had refused to let him. Again and again, during his year in Atlantis, he had pushed people away and had loudly criticised the weaknesses of others. If he had spent his days feeling lost and lonely, at least part of it was his own fault. Habits were so hard to break. He wanted things to be different, but…
"Yes," he said gruffly. "Yes, we can. After I've recovered from my life-threatening injury. I fought the Wraith, you know." He stopped, moistening his lips. "Everyone's talking about it? Really? About, uh, me, and not just about Sheppard?"
"About all of you," he heard Weir say from the door. Radek shifted nervously as she approached. "I owe you an apology, Adept McKay. When Commander Sheppard came back to us so badly injured… And we had the possibility of a Wraith attack to deal with…" She stepped closer, her hand touching the bed not far from his hand. "That explains things, but doesn't excuse them. I didn't give you the thanks you deserve. You did excellent work, McKay. You came back with everything we hoped for, and with so much more."
"You mean Sheppard," Rodney said, and there was very little jealousy there, not any more.
"Yes." She smiled, and he couldn't even resent that, either, not when she looked so happy. "If it wasn't for you, he would still be there."
And still be tortured; still be lost and afraid, not knowing his name. Because of Rodney, he was home. But it didn't feel like a triumph, not really. It wasn't something to boast about. Sheppard wasn't a trophy, but a real person, and he was still hurting. Real people were far more complicated than any metal.
"Well done, Rodney." This time Weir did touch his hand, squeezing it once.
Rodney watched her go. A smile he couldn't suppress spread over his face.
Radek stood up, raking a hand through his hair. "Has been quiet without you, Rodney. I missed you."
"I…" Rodney fought the urge to cover his confusion with a sharp retort. He looked down at his hands, busy on the sheets beside him. "I missed you, all of you, even though you're…" He cleared his throat. "I missed Atlantis."
And now, only now, perhaps, was he home.
Ronon found Sheppard on the same balcony he had found him on many days before. Sheppard looked stronger than he had looked then, with more flesh on his bones. His hair was still longer than he had always worn it, but he had clipped it back at the base of his neck, using a clip marked with the shining phoenix sigil of Atlantis.
Ronon slotted in beside him. They had never needed many words between them – never needed a greeting or words of farewell. Perhaps they spoke too little, Ronon thought. He had never said goodbye to Sheppard on that final day three years before; merely waved, and said, 'Sparring later, when you get back?'
Sheppard was looking out at the shining bridges far below. "I can't forget," he said. "I do sometimes, for a few minutes, when I first wake up, but that's all. I can't forget."
Ronon leant his forearms on the railing. "Of course you can't."
"McKay says I wasn't myself, and that… helps. The memories feel different. But they're still real. I can't forget. I thought I could, you know?"
Side by side, they looked out at the bridges across the water. "It's only been fourteen days," Ronon said. "Of course you can't forget it. You wouldn't be human if you could."
"And it's been four years for you." Sheppard began to turn towards him – Ronon saw it through his peripheral vision – then turned away again, face turned towards the impersonal things below. "How did you survive it?"
"With scars," Ronon said, "but scars don't have to be bleeding wounds. Some days… some days are bad."
"Still?" Sheppard asked.
Ronon nodded. "Still. But some days are good – more days. Most days." Especially now that Sheppard was back, but he didn't say that. It wasn't fair to make Sheppard bear the weight of his friends' happiness.
"How--?" Sheppard began, then snapped it off, retreating into silence.
Ronon still didn't look at him. "Being changed," he said, "doesn't have to mean being broken. There's things I did and said, back before the Wraith took me… There's ways I felt… I'm not like that any more, but things are still good."
He saw Sheppard's hand grip the railing. "It's just… hard, you know?"
"Of course it is," Ronon said. He thought of his own scars, visible whenever he looked in the mirror.
Sheppard said nothing. Ronon watched a bird wheeling high above the towers, its wings gleaming white in the sunshine.
"We can't change what's happened," he said.
"No." Sheppard let out a slow breath. "But we have to live with it. Is that what you're saying?"
"No." Ronon shook his head, and smiled, draping his arm around Sheppard's shoulder; it was either that or weep, perhaps. "It's more than just live with it. It's more than that."
The phoenix shone on the banner, glorious in the sun.
The spirits were quiet, dreaming of home. When the sun shone at just the right angle, the towers of Atlantis reminded Teyla of the towers of her own home. Sometimes, even now, she yearned for it, even though she had been an outcast there, condemned to be friendless because people had misunderstood the power she had no choice over possessing.
She was slow to notice John approaching her. When she did, she let the spirits go, and turned to him just as herself, seeing him with no eyes other than her own.
"Isn't it too cold to sit out here?" John asked.
"Perhaps," she said with a smile, "but why are you here?"
"Busted." He smiled guiltily, and sat down beside her. He seemed less tense than he had been only days before, but she did not like to look too closely. It was too tempting to follow him everywhere, but she knew John Sheppard, and knew that he hated to be the object of anyone else's concern.
"Healer Beckett," she said, "says that I need to take it easy for a few days. I found myself here." She wondered whether to say the rest, and then said it, anyway. "It reminds me of home," she said, although 'home' was perhaps not the word to use for that distant city of glass.
John said nothing. He had swung his feet over the edge of the quay, and was looking down at the water, at his own fractured reflection there. "John…" she said, and he looked up at her, his eyes uncharacteristically naked.
"Your… spirits," he said. "Can they see how I feel?"
She shook her head. "You know that they cannot."
He looked down at the water, then up at the fading sun, low in the sky. "I don't know how I feel," he confessed.
She weighed her answer for a moment. "Then that is very normal," she said.
"What is normal?" He was still looking away from her. Long shadows fell across his face. "I wanted things to go back to normal, but…"
"We can never go back," she said, when it became clear that he was not going to say anything else. She thought of her own birthplace, and the family ties now completely severed. She thought of those early days in Atlantis, and how every day was different, different from anything she might expect. "But that does not mean that we cannot go forward. It is not always easy, but what else can we do?"
"What else?" he said quietly, as the spirits stirred across the water, content in the warmth of the setting sun.
Rodney found them one evening, all gathered around a table in the refectory. Ronon said something that Rodney didn't catch, and Teyla laughed at it, throwing back her head and laughing with a complete lack of reserve. Even Sheppard was smiling, his pose relaxed in a way that Rodney had never seen in him before. He had cut his hair, making him look less and less like the slave Rodney had begun to get to know in the city of the Genii.
Rodney hesitated, clutching his tray with both hands. He had to walk past them to get to his usual table, solitary against the window.
Sheppard looked up and saw him. "Hey, McKay," he said, gesturing towards the empty chair.
Not so long ago, Rodney thought, he had been the one commanding Sheppard to sit. By the stiffening of Sheppard's shoulders, he thought that Sheppard remembered it, too.
He sat down, covering any confusion in the clearing of his throat. "Are you…?" he asked, when he had finished. It was five days since their battle with the Wraith.
"Fine," Sheppard said. "Thanks for saving my life, by the way."
His voice was too light, the words too easy. Rodney suddenly had no idea what to say. Sheppard had seemed so disconsolate on the dock in the rain. So all you had to do was kill a few Wraith and all that went away? Rodney wanted to believe that, but he'd been wrong so many times before with this man. It had to have left a shadow – it had to have.
"And you're…" Rodney cleared his throat again. Ronon rose and left the table, and Teyla followed him, and there was just the two of them, sitting across a table from each other, just as they had done in the city of the Genii. "…better?" Rodney said, although it must have been almost a minute since he had started the sentence.
"No." Sheppard shook his head. "But… getting there, perhaps."
Rodney could still remember how Sheppard had arched in agony when he had worked on the collar. "I've made things worse all along," he said. "I… I don't know how to talk to people. I shouldn't have tried to find you the other night. I should have sent Ronon or Teyla to do it. They're your friends, and I'm… I'm just me. I'm… not good at these things, you know? Like when we worked on the portal that day… I gave you orders. You should have told me not to."
Sheppard said nothing. He had been tracing patterns in salt on the table, Rodney realised, but now his finger was still.
"It doesn't mean anything," Rodney said. "I'm like this with everyone."
"I keep trying not to be," Rodney said. "I--"
"Don't." Sheppard started tracing again, perhaps the pattern of chains. "It… helped. You were the only person not tiptoeing around me. It was hard, because you'd been there, but in the end, that helped. You were the only one without… expectations. That time we were working together on the portal… You made me feel normal. It was the first time since I got back that I'd been allowed to be useful. Being useful… It… matters. It matters a lot."
"I…" Rodney's mouth gaped. He snapped it shut, but couldn't think of any words to say.
"And you saved my life," Sheppard said.
"Well, yes, I did," Rodney agreed. "You've already thanked me for that."
"Not just then. Not just with the Wraith bullet." Sheppard was looking at him steadily. "Before that, back with the Genii, when--"
"You don't owe me anything," Rodney blurted out, but when had he felt uncomfortable about receiving thanks before? "I mean, you saved my life, too, when the Wraith were trying to kill me, so that makes us quits, doesn't it?"
And Sheppard would agree, Rodney thought. The obligation had been fulfilled. Sheppard would wave him away, and Rodney would return to his own solitary table and that would be it – the end of their association.
"Have you ever ridden skimmers, McKay?" Sheppard asked. "We were going there after lunch. You want to come along?"
An inarticulate sound escaped Rodney's throat. He closed his mouth, moistened his lips, and tried again. "Skimmers," he said, "are a death trap, and why you sorcerers persist in… in joy-riding on them, I will never understand. It's because you're more style than substance. It's about fireballs and going really fast, and there's no subtlety and no hard work."
Sheppard arched one eyebrow. "That's a yes?"
And it was, of course.
He could never forget. He could never go back to the way he was before. Some days were terrible, but some days – some moments in some days… Some days were almost good.
He dreamed of being hung up in chains, but he dreamed, too, of escaping them. He dreamed of being captured, but he dreamed of his return to Atlantis. He dreamed of torture without end, but he knew that he had survived it without breaking utterly.
The collar muted the memories, and that helped, too. He could no longer escape and pretend that those things hadn't happened to him, but McKay was right, in a way, in that he hadn't been in his right mind. If he had cowered and submitted then, it didn't reflect on the person that he really was.
And if he hadn't submitted, he wouldn't be here now.
"So what's happening," McKay asked one evening, "about… you know?"
About whether he would take his old job back? Ford still called him 'sir', but Ford had done a good job. It was hard to demote a man, and the more tedious parts of leadership had never appealed to John, anyway. And it would be a long time, he thought, before he could trust himself with the safety of an entire city; too large a part of him still thought of himself as a slave. Days went by, and still Elizabeth said nothing about it, but the night before, they had spent hours discussing all her concerns about the city, and he had offered suggestions, just as he had done in the old days.
She had been smiling as he left her.
"I have a plan about that, actually," he said now, just as he had said to Elizabeth the night before. "We haven't seen any Wraith since that night, but they're bound to come. We need to master the portals."
McKay's head snapped up. "Uh, hello? The very important work I've spent my entire waking life working on these last few weeks?"
There was something almost comforting about McKay's predictable outrage, but John held up his hand, urging patience. On his other side, Ronon and Teyla watched in expectant silence. "You said you can't open a portal to somewhere unless you've already been to the portal at the other end," John said, "and… done your… alchemical stuff."
"Alchemical stuff?" McKay echoed in outrage, then he let out a breath. "Well, yes, it's true, but… alchemical stuff?"
"So we need to find the portals," John said. "Journey the old-fashioned way. Find them, mark them in whatever way we need to mark them… That's what I intend to do." Being useful mattered more than anything. No matter how much he had endured, he could still make a difference. He could still take control. He could still save lives.
"But some of the portals are in Wraith territory," McKay protested. "And you'll need an alchemist."
John just looked at him.
"Oh." McKay frowned, fluttering his hands. "You mean me. You mean me and you. Me and all of you?"
"A team." John looked at the others; saw them smiling. Ronon and Teyla he had worked with before. McKay… McKay was a strange one. McKay had seen him as a slave, and that should have been a barrier between the two of them, but it seemed to work the other way. John didn't have to pretend in front of McKay. McKay treated everybody the same, and it was almost restful, in a way.
"You really mean it?" McKay asked again.
John kept it casual, managing a shrug. "Unless you don't want to."
"Oh." McKay bit his lip. "Yes. I mean… But it's hideously dangerous. I'll probably die horribly… but, then, you'll need me there. What if you get shot again? Not that… I mean… You're sure? You really want…? Yes. Yes. Oh, I'm so going to regret this."
The others drew closer. The sun set slowly beyond the towers, but later, he thought, than it had set just days before. The worst of winter was over, and spring was coming. He had seldom seen Atlantis in snow. Maybe next winter, or the winter after. Or maybe he would be dead by then, or maybe he would be back home.
No, he was already home. McKay said it was unlikely that they would ever open the portal back to their home in the south, and of all the things that had happened to him, this was the one that affected John the least. He had never had much of a life back home. None of them had. Right from the start, it had been an expedition of outcasts and exiles, and John had always known that, even if Elizabeth had not. This was their home now. Teyla had left her city of glass for Atlantis, not for a land away to the south that she had never seen. Ronon had found his home here, with them. Atlantis was what John would fight for. Atlantis was more important than any scars that he bore, and any pains that he had suffered.
He would keep going, for his city, for his friends. He would keep going, because if he didn't, the Wraith had won. If he didn't, then his masters had won.
"So when do we start?" Ronon asked, loosening the top button of his formal uniform.
They were all broken, John realised. Ronon had lost everything he had ever loved, and had come to Atlantis half shattered from his life in the wilds. Teyla had walked away from a people who had given her only awe and fear. McKay was a lonely man, who wanted to have friends, but had never known how to get them.
Atlantis was a city of the broken, but when the broken came together, they could shine.
"Let's start tomorrow," John said, looking not up at the sky, but at every one of them. "But first…" The skimmers called to him, and there was just enough light left in the day, and just enough wind. "But first," he said, "let's fly."
My long stories normally come from ideas that I sit on for months. This story, like my historical pirate AU, leapt fully formed into my mind, and went from initial spark of idea to writing the first chapter in a mere 24 hours. The first six chapters wrote themselves. Chapters 7 and 8 were tough, with all the new viewpoints to explore, and the sheer weight of pain that the characters were dealing with, but things picked up again in chapter 9. Overall, though, it was… well, I can't really say "fun," since there's a lot of pain here for everyone, but really immersing and satisfying. Huge thanks to kriadydragon for providing the prompt, since I doubt I would ever have written a story like this without it.
And now for the S word: sequel. During chapter 8, I realised that the story could very easily turn into an epic, with an all-out Wraith attack, a war, sieges, counter-attacks etc. I realised almost immediately that this wasn't what the story needed. The focus of the story is on the Slave Sheppard storyline and on Rodney's character arc, and I really didn't want the first six chapters of this story to seem like a mere prologue to the "real" story.
However, there are undoubtedly stories still to be told. We have our team in place now, on a mission to track down portals, and the Wraith are mustering for an attack. How will Rodney settle in with his new team? How will Sheppard's recovery proceed? I also realise that it could be seen as a bit of dropped plot thread that the Genii disappear from the story half way through. Since the Genii don't know about Atlantis and can't use the portals, there was no way that they could follow our heroes back to the city, but Genii might, of course, be encountered by Team Sheppard on one of their missions…
Now, I have a rule never to start writing a sequel immediately, unless the story was always planned as a two-parter. I don't want to write a "rebound story", written only because I'm clinging to the world I've created. I need a degree of distance while I muse on whether I have a story that really needs to be told and that will enhance the original. However, I thought it was very unlikely that I'd write a sequel to my pirate AU, and I ended up doing so, so… well, all I can say right now is: perhaps.