Woolsey had been having a good day, relatively speaking, until the damage reports came in. It was all downhill from there.
"So Waystation Keeper McKay is now a fae," he said with what he thought was reasonable calm. He'd wanted to have this meeting in his office, but Dr. Beckett claimed it was too full of iron, so they were on the balcony just outside.
"Sort of a magical mutation," Zelenka put in. Rodney was uncharacteristically quiet; he had the preoccupied look on his face that he normally wore when he was communing with whales.
"And he's obtained a wide variety of psychic and magical powers." Woolsey thought he was following along pretty well with this part.
"You're telling me," John said.
"And ... he's going to die? Or vanish in some fashion? I'm not sure I understand." The mutually conflicting emails he'd gotten all at once that morning from Zelenka, Sheppard, Beckett and Rodney hadn't made him any less confused, especially since Rodney's had apparently been sent without using a computer.
Woolsey noticed that at his words, John, Teyla and Ronon all clustered a bit closer around Rodney, who still hadn't said anything.
"Let me explain," Zelenka said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "We all know that the fae left this plane of existence many generations ago -- yes?" He looked around to make sure that his audience was listening. "We know that they came out of Faerie, and went back to Faerie, but we know nothing about Faerie itself, except snatches of information from old myths and legends. It is said that time passes differently there, that eating or drinking anything will cause you to be --"
"We've all had History 101, Radek," Rodney muttered. "Even me, and I was raised by whales. Get to the point."
"Yes. Right." The werewolf scrubbed at his wild hair with one hand. "In any case, my department has come to believe that the room which was triggered by Rodney's presence is a defunct or possibly incomplete portal to Faerie. The transition into Faerie is more of a state of mind than a physical journey; the legends speak of those who could make the transition passing through from our world to the other world in many different locations, under many circumstances. We believe that the power circle under the city had been slowly building up energy for many years. It discharged into Rodney and started a series of changes in his body that will eventually cause him to transition from this plane to the one that our legends call the land of Faerie."
The little cluster of people around Rodney had grown tighter.
"And ... then what?" Woolsey said.
"Well, we don't know for sure, do we?" Rodney snapped. "Because mortals who go to Faerie tend not to come back. I'm not quite as up on my faerie lore as the rest of you people, but I do know that it's a whole lot easier to get into Faerie than to get out -- and it isn't easy to get in! I'm not good at quests and, and I remember a lot of stories about people who thought they'd only been gone for a night or two but came back to find that generations had passed and everyone they'd known was dead --"
"That is not going to happen, Rodney," Teyla said firmly, placing her hand on his arm.
"How long do we have?" Woolsey asked.
Zelenka glanced nervously at Rodney. "We are ... not sure, but --"
"Oh, don't forget I can read your mind," Rodney said crossly. "He thinks it's probably no more than 24 hours at this point," he said to the balcony at large, and turned and stomped out.
The others eventually found him off the East Pier, lying on a whale.
John and Teyla both shucked off their outer clothes without saying anything and slipped into the water. Ronon came to perch on top of the nearest whale who was willing to hold still for him.
"Mage Woolsey is arranging to have a message sent to your sister on Earth," Teyla said, slipping out of the water with a mermaid's grace to sit next to Rodney on whaleback.
"Oh good," Rodney said miserably. "So she can cut her trip short and come back to watch me disappear."
"No one's going to disappear." From the tone of John's voice, it sounded as if any fae who showed up to drag Rodney away were going to have to contend with an extremely pissed-off mage.
Rodney rolled over onto his back and stared up at the sky. "Look, guys," he said after a moment. "It's not that I don't appreciate this. Really, I do. But ... the thing is, if it was easy to get to and from Faerie, people would do it all the time, to consult with the fae about all these idiot inventions that they left lying around if nothing else."
The auras limning everything around him had grown brighter and more intense over the last day or so. Rodney remembered his excitement at realizing that he could see physics; his own eagerness seemed childish to him now.
"Radek's searching the database for any information on the passage into Faerie," John said.
"Oh, Radek's on the job; I guess I'm as good as cured." Rodney continued to stare up at the sky.
Something whacked him on the arm. He looked up in shock, expecting John, but it was Teyla.
"You hit me!"
"I did indeed." Teyla folded her arms and stared down at him. "You are not going to die, Rodney, merely translate from one plane of existence to another. As long as you can still think, you can solve problems, correct?"
"Well, of course --"
"And aren't you always reminding us that you're the best one around at solving problems?" John said.
Yeah, and at the moment one of the problems was that he could easily read the fear and uncertainty behind the facade of confidence that they were all three trying to project at him. They wanted him to believe that he could figure a way out of this, which was touching in its own way, but not one of them actually, deep down, believed that he could.
He tried not to read too much of what they were projecting at him; it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic, because they couldn't turn it off and on, unlike the whales. But it was hard to avoid being aware of the palpable affection and worry in which they saturated him, without meaning to. He'd never noticed it before, not really -- but it really was obvious even without telepathy, wasn't it? At the moment, he was positively marinating in it: Teyla's sisterly concern, Ronon's fierce protectiveness, John's ... whatever the heck he was picking up from John, a weird mix of emotion with a bottomless pit of terror underneath it. The fact that he couldn't see any of John's emotional turmoil on his face made it all the weirder.
He's afraid I'm going to die -- or, if not die, then never come back, which might be worse. They're all afraid.
If he could figure out how to stop what was happening to him, he would. And yet ... a part of him wasn't really afraid at all, and that part grew more confident and serene as the inevitability of it began to set in. He might not be able to stop this, but was it really the worst thing that could possibly happen to him? He'd get a chance to see something that few humans had ever seen, and possibly none in ten thousand years.
He felt light, floating, not quite connected to the whale underneath him; he had to glance down to make sure that he wasn't drifting off her back. Time seemed to spread and slow. He was aware of each second slipping by, carrying him one instant closer to ... what?
His friends -- his human pod -- still watched him, unable to help or understand. He wished that he could explain to them that he wasn't afraid. Well ... maybe he could.
"Teyla," he said, and took her hand in his. She looked down at their linked hands, startled, and Rodney tried to remember if he'd ever touched her like that before. It was easy to touch the whales, who reciprocated in kind, but much harder to touch humans with the same abandon. This, too, seemed childish to him now.
I've always been between two worlds, he thought, and the realization was strangely freeing. This is no different than it's always been for me.
"Rodney," John said, with a sharp note of alarm in his voice. He sat up on the whale -- Rodney was aware of him doing so without looking at him. "Your aura --"
"I know," Rodney said; he couldn't see what John was seeing, but he could feel the difference in himself. He was changing, sliding ever closer to whatever waited for him.
Teyla's hands tightened on his. Though her face was serene as always, there were tears standing in her eyes. "We will find a way to stop this, Rodney," she said. "There must be a way."
"It's all right." He leaned forward and rubbed the side of his face against hers, whale-style.
There was a flutter of wings, and Ronon landed next to him, kneeling down. He laid a big hand on Rodney's back.
The whales really didn't understand; they were picking up on his distress, but couldn't comprehend the reasons behind it. Rodney could feel their confusion, and the deeply bizarre thought occurred to him that in some ways, he understood more than they did -- right now he could, in some sense, straddle his two worlds more ably than he'd ever been able to before. It was just a matter of being able to see.
He turned his head and dragged his cheek along the side of Ronon's face. At first Ronon flinched; Rodney could feel his startlement and confusion, but after the initial, automatic jerk backwards, he didn't try to pull away. His beard was softer than it looked.
John just watched, his green eyes dark. In the tangle of emotions that emanated from him, Rodney managed to tease out thin, bitter threads of jealousy, anger, isolation and hurt.
The whales didn't know jealousy. It was something that Rodney had first encountered among humans, and he still understood it only vaguely. It made no sense to him. But it was hurting John, hurting him as much as the impending awareness of separation, and that was all he needed to know. Like so much of what he'd done lately, his response was instinctive and something that he didn't fully understand -- he reached, and something wrapped around John, something only visible to Rodney through the second sight that he'd developed. Rodney was so startled that he let it evaporate, and John sprawled on the whale's pebbly skin.
The whale sternly wanted to know what in the ocean everyone was doing up there. Sorry, Rodney said to her, and to John, a bit plaintively, "What did I just do?" He'd let go of Ronon and Teyla in surprise.
John blinked at him, and then picked himself up carefully. "You're manipulating energy directly," he said. "Same way I fly. Except, I use spells and control stones to guide it. Pure energy control, without any technological assistance, is ... it's incredibly difficult and complicated, and it wears you out quickly. Only the most talented and experienced mages can do it."
"Huh," Rodney said. "Like this?" And he picked John up the same way he'd done before, but more carefully this time, very carefully, setting him down close enough that Rodney could touch him --
-- or at any rate, that was the plan, except that as soon as his feet left the whale, John went into full "struggle and fight" mode. He broke free immediately and dropped a couple of feet to land barefoot on the whale's back. He was panting, color rising in his cheeks. He looked startled and shaken and kind of pissed.
Teyla and Ronon were looking back and forth between him and Rodney as if they didn't know which of the two of them they'd rather stare at.
"What?" Rodney said, confused. "I'm just trying to figure out how it works." It was weird -- though technically he could read John's mind, it was like being handed a book in a completely unfamiliar language that kept shifting on him. Knowing what John was thinking, and knowing why John was thinking it, were two completely different things. Right now John was mad at him and getting madder, but Rodney had no idea why.
"What?" Rodney said again, as John continued to glare at him.
"You're dying," John said, as if that explained everything.
"You're dying and all you can do is -- is try to take this apart, like it's a goddamn jigsaw puzzle, this thing that --"
John finished the sentence in his head, This thing that I've spent my whole life learning, and Rodney said cautiously, "Is that what's upset you? That I'm better at it than you are now?" Human emotions were confusing as hell, even now.
For a moment John just stared at him, utter disbelief radiating from him on the psychic level, then "No!" he snapped, and lifted off the whale. His aura flared bright green in Rodney's new magesight and dwindled above them like a little green spark, until he lit on a very high balcony.
"That was weird," Rodney said, appealing to Teyla, but she was giving him a soft, sympathetic look.
"Rodney," she said sadly, "you really have no clue sometimes, do you?"
Rodney looked back and forth between the two of them. One would think telepathy would help at times like this. "I'm ... not sure what you're talking about."
Ronon tapped him firmly on the back. "Rodney. Go to him."
"I don't know how much time I --"
"Go now, then!"
Rodney stared at them, and then wildly, desperately, clutched at whatever part of them was near enough -- Teyla's shoulder and a handful of Ronon's feathers. Letting go, he did that thing he'd done to pull John closer, only backwards. It lifted him into the air.
John actually liked to fly, which was completely insane. Rodney's main thought was Oh dear god, I'm flying, and he would have grabbed at anything handy if there'd been anything other than empty air to grab. Instead, he flailed wildly for a moment before managing to launch himself upwards. John flew like a falcon; Rodney felt more like an ungainly parade float.
John was perched on a little tiny balcony encircling a spire, high above the city. "Uh, Rodney?" he said, looking boggled when Rodney sank down next to him.
"Oh thank heaven." Rodney clutched at the decking. "I may be dying, but this is not how I want to go." He looked up at John, and fumbled for words. What came out was, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to -- I don't know what I did, but -- Are we good?"
John started to sit down. Somewhere along the way, it crumbled into a controlled fall that ended with him in a jumble of limbs next to Rodney. "It's not about the damn powers, all right?" he said, and hooked an arm around Rodney, pulled him in.
"Oh," Rodney said, very quietly.
Somehow the disconnected feeling was less when John held him -- like John was holding him down, a lifeline connecting him to the world. "I can't stop it," he said into John's neck, and then, the hardest thing: "I don't know how to stop it."
"Do the whales know anything?" John asked, into his hair.
"I -- I've asked; they're just confused. This doesn't have any meaning for them." The whales didn't even understand death, not in the way that Rodney (and, he presumed, other humans) thought of it. For them, it wasn't an end, just a passage to another, deeper ocean. They saw nothing wrong with that. It wasn't that they didn't want to help their littlest pod member, but it was entirely outside their comprehension. A drylander thing.
He had never perceived how limited they were, in their way.
"How long?" John asked quietly.
"I don't know. Not very long at all." He tingled in every limb, a gentle fizzy feeling. He could barely feel John holding on to him.
John pulled back, looked at him for a moment, then leaned in and kissed him quickly. "You know what I've always wanted to do?"
Rodney blinked at him in shock, looked down at the tiny white wakes of the whales far below and then back at John. "If you have some kind of height fetish, Sheppard ..."
"What? No." John laughed, a small weak laugh, but a genuine one. "You can fly now, right? I want to fly with you, Rodney."
He took Rodney's hand, and climbed onto the railing of the balcony.
"Oh, no way," Rodney managed faintly.
John tugged on his hand -- and they fell.
It was terrifying and horrible and -- and heady, thrilling; the wind tearing at his clothes, bringing tears to his eyes, and John was grinning crazily -- Rodney thought someone might have screamed, possibly himself, but then they were leveling off over the ocean, their bare toes grazing the waves. Rodney gasped until his pounding heart returned to something near normal. "You are insane," he choked out.
"And you," John said, "are flying."
He was, wasn't he? They rose a little, the ocean below them, the spires of Atlantis behind. After a few moments Ronon joined them, flying with long slow wingbeats, carrying Teyla in his arms; with typical Teyla foresight, she was also carrying the bundle of clothing that they'd shed on the pier. The whales swam below, keeping pace.
Rodney wasn't sure where they were going. Somehow it didn't matter. They just flew, the four of them, soaring over the waves into the setting sun, with the whales trailing in a ragged V behind them. John's fingers were warm in Rodney's, the only thing he could feel.
The sun set; color bled out of the sky, and the stars began to come out above them. Rodney thought, in a distant part of his mind, that he should probably be getting tired, but he wasn't, not at all.
"Look," Teyla whispered, leaning against Ronon's leather-clad chest.
In the afternoon sunshine it had seemed only a trick of the slanting golden light, but as dusk gathered around them, it became clear that it was no optical illusion at all. Rodney's body was glowing, and getting brighter, streamers of light trailing off him in the wake of their flight.
Teyla wondered if he was aware of it. John certainly must be, but he didn't falter, didn't slow.
She became aware of the dark line of the mainland on the horizon, breaking the moonpath on the water.
"Are you tired?" she asked Ronon, leaning her head back so that she could see the side of his face and his wings, above them, silvered in the moonlight. "I can ride on a whale for a time to give you a chance to rest." The whale pod had been keeping pace with them, long gray backs breaching and disappearing beneath their feet.
"I'm not tired."
Well, it wasn't as if she could argue with him. And if he dropped her, they weren't terribly high. Teyla tried to relax and enjoy the ride, but she couldn't, not with Rodney as bright as a glowfish in front of them.
She'd been just a child when she first met Meredith Rodney McKay, the waystation keeper's son. She'd thought him ill-mannered and rude, just a little brat of a boy, more interested in his whales than in playing with a stranger's daughter. And, well ... He was, she thought, smiling sadly to herself. He is.
She could barely remember a time when he hadn't been in her life. Though they had never slept together, she had learned his body as well as any lover in the course of painting and renewing her protective symbols. As the most accomplished rune-scientist of her generation, Teyla supplied runes of protection to most of the people, houses, weapons and technology in her village. But Rodney, she thought, had probably never realized that her best and most careful work was what she'd done on him. No one else had spent so much time under her rune-brush; no one else had so much of her own care and attention and energy worked into their skin, their soul.
If Rodney died, a piece of her would die with him.
There must be something we can do. There must be a way.
The dark bulk of the mainland humped up against the stars, distant hills rising like the spine of some ancient sea monster. A beach unrolled like a silver string against the dark continent. The bright spark that marked John and Rodney descended towards it, and Ronon banked and followed in a long, slow, curving glide.
The whales could not come closer without risking themselves in the shallows, so they circled at sea, their paths marked by criss-crossing luminescent trails and an occasional silver splash.
Ronon set her down gently on the beach. Teyla's feet touched sand, still warm from the day's heat. The susurration of the surf was much louder at ground level, a low hollow roar.
John and Rodney were in the very edge of the water's reach. Waves foamed around their feet as Teyla walked towards them, sinking to her ankles in soft sand. No, she realized -- waves were lapping at John's feet. Rodney wasn't quite touching the ground, and she could faintly see the lines of sea and land through his body. He was like a ghost, a mirage. There was nothing to him; it seemed that the wind could blow him away.
Snaky trails of light spun out slowly from his body, curled around John, brushed the tops of the waves. Teyla could see his face -- he didn't look sad or scared, just serene and a little blank. He was looking at the sky.
She started to run. And because she was running, she didn't see exactly what happened -- if he faded away gradually, or vanished in an instant, or took a step through a visible portal. By the time she got there, with Ronon a step behind her, John's arms were empty.
The three of them were alone on the beach in the moonlight.
Teyla thought she heard an echo of distant music, like faerie bells. But perhaps it was only the muttering of the waves farther down the beach.
John sank to his knees on the wet sand. Water swamped his legs; he didn't seem to notice. Teyla knelt beside him, Ronon on the other side. The water was just cool enough to be pleasant after the warmth of the afternoon.
"I saw ..." John began, and then fell silent. It must be sea spray that glistened on his cheeks, because his face was composed, blank of expression. He was staring out to sea, but Teyla didn't think he was seeing it. "There was light, bright light, and I thought I heard music. It felt -- welcoming. It felt like going home. And I tried to follow, but --" He turned his face towards her, and for a moment the mask slipped; she saw his anguish, a mirror echo of her own. "I couldn't," he finished in a whisper. "There was no door for me."
"Oh, John." Teyla put her arms around him, let his wet face sink into her shoulder, and buried her tears in his damp hair. With her face hidden, she felt Ronon's wings, still trembling from the strain of the flight, close around them both. "It's all right," she found herself whispering into John's hair, but it wasn't all right, it would never be all right again.
He hadn't been sure what to expect, but whatever he'd imagined, it hadn't been this: a road, long and curving gently between groves of pale-barked, winter-dead trees. The sky overhead was flat and gray, like an overcast day that hid the sun without blocking too much of its light.
The only color anywhere in the white and gray landscape were roses: bright splashes of red, gold and salmon on dark, leafless bushes. Rodney had no idea how the roses could be blooming when everything else seemed to have been blighted or frosted. The air wasn't cold, though, and it smelled just slightly of ash.
He started to take a step off the path, onto the colorless straw, to get a better look at the roses.
"Don't leave the road," a female voice said behind him, sharp with alarm.
He jumped and spun around. The speaker was leaning against one of the dead-looking, bone-colored trees. She was tall and stately, with pale hair and charcoal-and-white robes that rippled around her as if moved by invisible currents in the air. She would have been beautiful if not for the grayish tint to her skin, and her utterly inhuman eyes: dark liquid pools without irises or whites. But she was familiar. Rodney could swear he'd seen her somewhere before.
"You're off the road," Rodney pointed out.
Her mouth quirked. There was something about that expression -- warm, affectionate. He definitely knew her from somewhere. "I know the area well. And even I -- we -- get lost sometimes. This is not a safe place, little one."
She pointed; Rodney followed her long, grayish finger to a skeleton tangled in one of the rosebushes. It wasn't human, or even close; it looked like something that might have been dug up in a cave somewhere -- a lean fishlike form with a long sawblade for a snout. Something very old, something extinct.
"Where am I, anyway?"
"This is one of the roads to Faerie," the curiously familiar woman said.
"So this isn't Faerie itself," he said, frowning at her.
"No, just an in-between place on the way to it." She smiled and stepped away from the tree. Despite the weird eyes and her overall mysterious manner, Rodney found himself unafraid of her, though he wondered if he ought to be worried by that. Still, he'd died, hadn't he? What else was there to worry about after you were dead?
"Normally you would have a guide," she said. "Drylanders don't usually cross over into Faerie by themselves. It's very easy to get lost. That's why I came, to help you. A number of us did, but I'm the only one on this particular road ..."
It was drylanders that gave it away.
"You're a whale," he said in disbelief, squinting at her. "I know you."
She smiled -- quick, affectionate and sweet. "I'm the one you call fluid dynamics whale, in your words."
"Oh no." His eyes went wide as he worked through the implications. "Are you dead? You bunch didn't -- didn't beach yourself to follow me, or anything like that, did you?"
The whale-woman laughed, but it wasn't cruel or mocking laughter. "Oh, poor podling; no, we're all right. It isn't easy to get here -- the math is very complicated, far beyond anything we've been able to show you -- but we sometimes do. The ones you call Ancestors helped us the first time, long ago. We were all fellow intelligent beings, after all, and we used to converse frequently with the fae who lived in Atlantis. Not me personally, of course -- my own ancestors, long ago. But it is very good to see you safe and well, little podling. I was worried I wouldn't get here in time."
As she spoke, she'd stepped onto the road; now she placed her hands gently on his shoulders and rubbed her face against his. Rodney had to stifle a startled flinch, but she smelled like a whale -- salt and sea brine -- and though her gray skin looked cold, she was very warm. She rested her cheek against his for a moment. Finally he was the one to pull back.
"So you can come and go? You guys just -- cross over into Faerie whenever you want? I didn't know that was possible."
"We can't go all the way." The fluid dynamics whale drew back and looked at him with her dark deep eyes, her head tilted to one side. Rodney was reminded of the way that the whales, especially the younger ones, sometimes swam upside down to get another look at something that was puzzling them. "The fae opened a door into Faerie for us, and invited us in. We looked and decided that it wasn't for us. We like being alive -- swimming, and playing, and having sex and raising children. Faerie is very beautiful, and there's lots and lots of new math to learn, but nothing ever really changes there. Nothing is born, nothing dies. We -- my ancestors -- chose the living world with all its uncertainty and imperfection, over Faerie where they like everything perfect and neat with tidy answers." The smile that flickered on her lips was a little bit sad. "The fae closed the door and haven't spoken to us since."
Rodney had fixated on one phrase in that whole speech. "New math?"
The whale nodded, her seafoam hair shifting on her shoulders. "Faerie is a place of knowledge, little podling. You might like it there very much. They have no true bodies to distract them from the pursuit of knowledge -- no need to eat or sleep, no worries, no attempt to concern themselves with love or hate."
"Can you show me how to get there? Guide me?"
"If it's what you want, little one."
Rodney looked back over his shoulder, though there was nothing behind him but more miles of blank, empty road. "If I go on, I'll never see them again, will I? Teyla and Ronon and ... and John."
The whale shook her head. "No, little podling. They will age and die in the blink of an eye while time crawls by in Faerie. And eventually you will forget them."
"Never," Rodney said darkly.
The whale's smile was soft and sad. "Everyone does. That's how Faerie works."
"What about you?" he asked, hesitant. "You whales. Would you be able to visit me there?"
Again, a small shake of her head. "We can't go into Faerie. We aren't welcome there. We made our choice, long ago -- and when we die the true death, it's a different ocean where we swim."
Rodney turned to look up the road. A soft breeze had risen; he could smell the hinted fragrance of roses, and, very faintly, he thought he could hear the distant strains of alien music. "I'll probably never get another chance to do this, will I? Most people never come anywhere near Faerie in their entire lifetimes." A thought occurred to him and he looked at her. "Can you help me come back here someday? If I want to?"
"No," the whale said firmly. "Translating you back into the world will be hard enough, if you want to come, and it's only possible because of your current higher-energy state. All the math in the world couldn't get you to this place under normal circumstances."
"So I have to decide now."
"Yes, podling." The whale smiled at him. "You must choose. As we did, long ago."
They knelt in the sand, the three of them, until the moon was high, until Teyla's knees hurt and the deeper, longer waves had begun to come up to their chests, making Ronon's wingfeathers float out around them like a dancer's skirts.
It was Teyla and Ronon, finally, who half-led and half-dragged John up the beach to the soft, dry sand beyond the water's reach. They all collapsed in the sand and watched the waves roll in. No one spoke. There were no words for this.
The whales had apparently gotten tired of waiting, or mourning, or whatever they had been doing; the water was still and flat, all the way out to the horizon, unbroken by the gray breaching backs that had become so much a part of Teyla's life. She wondered if they would stay around Atlantis, or if they'd swim somewhere else on this world, never to be seen again.
"What's that?" Ronon said suddenly, leaning forward.
Something had broken the pale line of the surf. Teyla rose to her feet. What her eyes were telling her was simply not possible -- but how often had her teachers insisted that not possible just meant a thing had yet to be fully understood?
Rodney was walking out of the surf, naked of clothing or runes, water streaming down his tanned body.
Teyla's breath caught in her throat. The group of them stumbled down to the water's edge, and John was the first to get there.
"The whales brought me home," Rodney said. There was a little catch in his voice.
He looked -- ordinary, whole, alive. His bare skin without its runes seemed more fragile than normal, and when Teyla's hand hesitantly clasped his arm, his skin was cool and damp.
"You must be freezing," John said brusquely. The night wasn't especially cold, but he quickly stripped off his jacket and slung it around Rodney's bare shoulders. His hands hesitated on the jacket's collar, then slid up into Rodney's long wet hair. Teyla saw his eyes flicker to cats' eyes and then back to normal with a blink. "You're -- you," John said, his voice low and hoarse.
"Who else would I be?" Rodney demanded, a bit shakily.
Ronon laughed. It was catching; Teyla found herself laughing with him, and even John was laughing too, though there seemed to be a sob in the middle of it.
Rodney opened his mouth to say something indignant, judging by the look on his face. John silenced him with a kiss, deep and hungry and so nakedly raw that Teyla had to look away, though she didn't take her hand off Rodney's arm.
"Don't know about the rest of you, but my feet are getting wet," Ronon said, and then there was more laughing and they all stumbled out of the water, arm in arm or hand in hand, up the beach to the place where three of them had kept vigil.
They didn't have to talk about it, but no one had the slightest desire to fly back to Atlantis that night. John started a fire, and Ronon went spear-fishing in the edge of the sea, dropping like a great eagle with knives in both hands. Teyla went to gather soft rushes and broad leaves at the edge of the forest to make a comfortable nest beside the fire. She traced a small rune in her palm and whispered, "Water," then followed its firefly gleam as it rose in front of her and led her to a tiny stream trickling in a nest of moss.
When they had eaten, Teyla went to wash her hands in the edge of the sea. Ronon joined her, his feet bare and pants legs rolled up. "Want to explore a little, or too tired?"
Teyla cast a glance over her shoulder at the two remaining figures at the fire -- heads close together against the dying flames, one dark spiky head and one gleaming blond in the ruddy firelight.
"I think that I would like to explore," she said, and then gave a little cry as Ronon scooped her into his arms and took off with a powerful downbeat, scattering sand and dried bits of seaweed. "And perhaps some warning would be appreciated next time," she scolded, getting her breath back high above the beach.
Ronon's deep chuckle vibrated against her body. He circled in a lazy spiral; the fire shrank beneath them. Teyla turned her head to look out to sea. The whales were back as if they'd never been gone, and they seemed full of joy tonight -- cavorting under the moon, flinging themselves out of the water to fall back in a shower of silver coins.
"Where do you want to go?" Ronon asked her.
And she had an answer ready for him. "I've been to the mainland many times, but I have always wanted to see if there are mountains farther inland."
"Mountains it is," and with a snap of his great powerful wings, they left the sea behind, sweeping across the dark forest.
"So," Teyla said, nestling down against his chest. "About you and Jeannie ..."
Anything else that she would have said was cut off in a shriek as Ronon folded his wings and dropped a hundred feet or so before leveling out again.
"So," he said, once they were leveled off and climbing on a thermal updraft, while she was still catching her breath. "About you and this Kanaan guy..."
Once it was fairly evident that Teyla and Ronon weren't coming back, John and Rodney made love slowly and gently, and then lay in a nest of leaves with John's jacket over the top of them, watching the bonfire die down to coals.
"Some people have godparents," John said, propping up his head on one hand. "You apparently have godwhales."
"Matchmaking godwhales," Rodney murmured sleepily. The whales were back to their usual comforting murmur in the back of his mind; he couldn't pick out individual voices at this distance, but he could tell that they were happy.
John looked down at him, his mouth curved in the soft, gentle smile that Rodney had only seen when they were alone and on a few occasions with Teyla and Ronon. There was a leaf in his tousled hair. "You know, we're going to have to come up with some kind of explanation for Woolsey."
"Oh no. That reminds me. Jeannie ... she probably thinks I'm dead."
He tried to sit up. John pushed him back down. "Even if Woolsey sent her a message, there's nothing you can do in the middle of the night. We'd have to wait for morning in any case. And that still doesn't answer the question of what we're going to tell everyone who wasn't here."
"I'm not sure how I can explain it to anyone else when I can't even explain it to myself."
John's smile faded to something more thoughtful and inward-looking. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I ... don't think I can." Rodney groped for words. "It's not that I don't want to, it's just -- I think this is something you're not supposed to talk about. That's the best way I can describe it. I barely remember it anyway -- I mean, I remember Fluid Dynamics Whale coming for me, and a ... a road and a forest, but the details are kind of a blur." He frowned. "And I feel like that really should bother me more than it does. I mean, normally I'd be wanting to know everything about how the process works, but this time ... I don't even want to poke at it, you know?" His hands flailed in the leaves, illustrating his thought processes as usual. "It feels like if I tug at the wrong string, it could unravel everything and I'd be right back where I started."
John's hands caught and pinned his own, trapping them in the leaves. "Then don't," John said, and bent down to kiss him again. He pulled back and looked down at Rodney with the fire's dying glow in his eyes. "Just ... stay."
Rodney's heart hurt in a way he'd never felt before. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Good," John said, and squirmed around in the leaves. "Make room. My arms are getting tired."
Rodney scooted over, and made a spot for John to wriggle down beside him, where he proceeded to tuck his head into the space between Rodney's neck and shoulder. "We are going to be so sore in the morning," Rodney complained.
John made an "mmm" noise into his neck. His breath tickled the soft growth of golden hair above Rodney's collarbone.
"I mean, seriously. We're not nineteen anymore. My arm is already falling asleep ..."
John's only answer this time was a faint snore.
"... and so are you," Rodney sighed, and squirmed around very carefully, trying not to jar John enough to wake him up, until he could rest his face in John's hair. He closed his eyes and drifted in a warm haze of contentment and afterglow, falling asleep at last to the lullaby of distant whalesong.