Chapter 32 – Parting
John looked out of the jumper's viewscreen and, from high above the river could see its slow, lazy sweep stretching into the blue distance, punctuated by the mottled patches of white water that marked the cataracts. Following its blue line bordered by green reeds, they came to the tranquillity of a villa on the riverbank, white walls gleaming in the sun and when they landed, a warm welcome from V'stet.
V'stet's parents had not been found and when John told her, she stood quietly for a moment and nodded slightly to herself as if setting aside the finality of her loss to deal with later. She visibly pulled on a mask of brightness and her eyes skimmed her visitors with interest and lingered on Ronon with speculation in one raised eyebrow. John thought it was a good thing they weren't staying the night.
As they followed the line of the river further north toward the broad delta, both Net and Rodney grew quiet. Net sat closer to Rodney on the bench seat and tucked her hand in his in a way that had become familiar. She sighed.
"You do want to go home, don't you?" Rodney suddenly had visions of an abusive family who had thought themselves well rid of their mischievous daughter.
"Of course I want to go home!" she said hotly. "It's just... It's been so long and everything's changed and I've changed." She paused and frowned. "I want Ma and Pa and my gang but I want Arboris too. And you." She sighed again. "It's confusing."
Having reached the delta they flew East along the the coast until Net pointed excitedly to a small seaside village. They set the jumper down on a broad sandy beach and made their way up steep stairways that wound through white-washed buildings, curious eyes following their progress through narrow windows. They came to an open space at the centre of the village where there was a water pump and several market stalls, but no sign of the inhabitants.
"They probably think we're a patrol, come to take people away!" said Net.
Net marched up to the largest house in the square and, having tried the door and found it locked, began hammering and shouting, "Let me in!"
"Subtle," commented John.
The door opened and a man appeared, blonde-haired, blue-eyed and Net shrieked, "Pa!" and flung her arms about him, her casted arm breaking free of its sling. He bent down and held her tight, straightening up until her legs dangled off the ground. Then a dark-haired woman came out, followed by what, to Rodney, seemed a hoard of children of varying shapes and sizes.
Their reunion was noisy and joyful and became even more lively when the rest of the village, realising there was nothing to fear, emerged from their houses to join in. Net hadn't told Rodney much about her family, other than the list of their names, which seemed to go on forever. When the initial fuss had died down and Net introduced them, it became apparent that Net's father was the headman of the village. Although in colouring he was similar to Net, it was her mother she most resembled in manner and the Atlanteans found themselves welcomed and agreeing to stay the night amid a flurry of her questions and comments and frank fascination.
The villagers lit a large barbecue which stood in the middle of the square and was obviously regularly used for communal gatherings, and chairs and tables were set out. Food and drink in large quantities began to arrive and Net's mother kept Rodney particularly well supplied.
Watching Net and her hoard of siblings, cousins and friends, John said, "So, Rodney, you like children now?"
"No. That would be stupid. That would be like saying 'I like adults'. I just like individual children. Well, I like Net, anyway."
Net, busily reasserting her authority over her gang, began dividing them into teams of four. She had a face-to-face confrontation with one boy, older and taller than she was who was loud in his objections to being told he was the scientist on his team.
"You fix things and save the world and you still get to carry a gun and shoot people!" she roared. "What's your problem?"
The boy, seeing sense, backed down.
John turned to Rodney. "Sounds like she read your job description!"
They left in the morning, flying further north and, sitting in the jumper with just his team and the two sergeants, Rodney thought about his and Net's farewell.
She had clung to him, awkwardly, her casted arm getting in the way and he felt a convulsive movement which could have been a sob. When she had stepped back, however, although her eyes were tear-filled, her expression was firm and she raised her chin and set her smile with the stoicism he had come to expect.
"Thank you, Net," he had said.
"Just..." he had shrugged and waved a hand, embarrassed. "For being you... For being a friend."
They found the Seadragon way out in the ocean, white sails billowing against the deep blue. John wished he were the one flying the jumper, sending it skimming over the waves alongside the ship, looping round the masts and then matching the ship's progress so that they could wave to the sailors and John could point out the topsails and the spindly-looking yards on which he'd loved to balance.
Ronon raised both eyebrows and said, "Cool!" and John knew that, if ever the opportunity arose to sail a tall ship, he'd certainly have one willing crewman.
And then further North to where sea ended and land began, Erransport a wisp of smoke on the coast, the long, tedious road that had taken two months of traveling a mere handful of minutes by jumper.
They landed at the foot of the hill on which Geran's Hall stood and walked up to the palisade to be greeted initially by firmly closed gates and a bristle of spears over the parapet. When Rodney and John were recognised, however, Sir Geran himself threw the gates wide and welcomed them in with a beaming face and open arms.
Rodney had brought a generator and was soon standing in the centre of a swarm of activity, organising the installation of electric light and a hot water tank. Even the Lady Tarva's forced smiles became genuine when Teyla presented her with a selection of dress fabrics.
A hastily organised feast followed, with much conviviality and calls for stories. John, whose head was beginning to hurt again, was glad he'd brought along some comics to give out so that he didn't have to fulfil the role of storyteller. The noise level in the hall dropped considerably as small clusters formed, fascinated by the colourful pictures of superheroes and villains.
They left before the sun rose in the morning and headed still further north.
Rodney didn't want anything to do with the hill folk and kept rubbing his head where the stone had hit him. John remembered the mother with the baby, how frightened she'd been of him. He didn't want to scare the simple people again, but the furs and peat blocks and fish he'd stolen had kept him and Rodney alive and it felt like a debt that needed repaying.
They landed the jumper, cloaked, by the shore, just as the sun was rising. Ronon and Teyla helped John carry out some wooden boxes and set them by the path that the people used regularly. The boxes contained some soft, new furs, some warm colourful fabrics, some simple wooden children's toys and some picture books. The picture books were Teyla's idea and had been made showing very simple images of the planet's history so that the people would at least know they were now safe from the wraith.
They took off before they could be discovered and hovered, still cloaked, until the village began to come to life and the fishermen, heading for their rafts, discovered the boxes. The men carried them up to the village and there was much scurrying around and excitement as the contents were investigated. John smiled.
The jumper touched down and the ramp was lowered. John was tired. His shoulder was hurting and he had another headache, but both he and Rodney felt they needed to make one last stop. They all trooped out onto the patchy snow and brittle, frozen grass which crunched underfoot. The icy wind cut through even their winter gear and John shuddered at the thought of how they'd been dressed when he and Rodney set out on their journey.
The clouds were low, grey and threatening, obscuring the mountain tops and emphasizing the harsh, unforgiving nature of the landscape. The pod sat, as they had left it, near the stream, a solitary manmade feature in the wilderness.
John looked around at Rodney, Teyla, Ronon, Sergeants Chen and Johnson. All the faces were solemn, imagining or remembering what it would be like to be stranded here, in this bleak, remote part of the world, so far from help, knowing rescue was impossible, an immense distance to be crossed. John's eyes met Rodney's. He gave a half-smile, half-grimace in acknowledgement of their achievement, their endurance, their survival. Rodney's chin jerked up in his characteristic subtle mixture of uncertainty, defensiveness, pride and absolute loyalty, and John knew that, with no words, there was understanding.
Teyla turned from her contemplation of the tiny pod and the hardships her friends had endured. She smiled.
"It is time to go home," she said and they gladly returned to the warmth of the jumper and set course for the Stargate and Atlantis.
A/N: Thank you very much for reading! Please review if you have a spare moment - reviews make me happy!