Huge, huge thanks goes out to my betas, Patricia and Ellex, for suffering with me through my doubts.
It called to Malachi. It always called to him, pulling him to the center of the ocean. The sky was a deep, imperial blue, the stars shone brightly, but not as brightly as the moon, whose reflection glowed in the waves below. The white puddle seemed to spread with the movement of the sea, reaching out for him, then receding back into the tide.
He stood there, watching from the shore. The cliffs and trees behind him were dark. The sand glowed unnaturally. The patch of light on the water beckoned to him, and he knew he could not go, he did not dare. He was a wise man, but even the wise had their faults. His was giving in, listening. He was a caring man, but there were times when the caring ended in hurt. He was a noble man, and he was about to do the unthinkable.
He knelt down and reached out to the water.
Large, white hands were prominent against a shadowed background as thick, calloused fingers reached for him, then wrapped around Rodney's throat. Sensations flashed by in frames: the damp earth at his back, the smell of rotting leaves, a sharp stick poking into his spine. The cold, paralyzing fear and chest ripping panic. A dry, closed throat. The bite of cold steel. He was partially enclosed in the jacket of the man leaning over him, the dangling fabric blotting out his surroundings, making Rodney aware only of the attacker hovering over him, killing him.
He choked violently. He tried to scream as he clawed desperately at the hands. Images stabbed relentlessly at his mind, pictures much too vivid for reality, yet too startlingly clear for a dream.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he was, in actuality, lying on the floor of his room in Atlantis, the hard cold surface seeping into his bones as he wrapped his arms tight around himself and fought the unwelcome mental intrusion.
It had started, yet again, with a sense of dizziness, then suddenly Rodney found himself in another world, in another body, and this body belonged to some poor soul whose lot in life was to suffer. He saw the murderer looming over him and as usual he couldn't run, couldn't hide, pinned to the ground by the crushing weight of a terrified heart. In his mind, he tried to back away, to scurry through the mulch, but no movement came. There was no aid from his body to fuel the desire to just get up and run.
He was caught. Trapped. And forced to feel the savagery over and over again, the tearing pain, of being forced onto his back and seeing the attacker, but not really seeing him. Feeling the knife at his throat, and the blood dripping down his face from repeated blows, experiencing the pure dread of what was to come. And the knowledge that he wouldn't survive.
Stale breath invaded his nostrils. He breathed out forcefully, wanting no part of this person to join with him, and yet there was no choice. A knee pressed him into the earth, his tender ribs cracking underneath the pressure. And then there was the laughter, and a look from eyes so fierce – he was certain he had been captured by a monster. His clothing was ripped and his chest flayed, peeling back layers of skin, revealing a person that was best hidden. And he could do nothing but scream, yet his screams held no words, no sounds, just senseless, empty echoes in the cold night air. . . .
Rodney was drenched in sweat, his body curled tightly around itself, his head throbbing. The pressure eased, and his eyes refocused through the tears. A cock-eyed, sideways view of a table leg presented itself, and he blinked, then tilted his head, so that the image made sense in his own mind. That wooden leg provided more stability than he'd felt in a long time, and he focused on it with all his being, calming his frantic heart beat, filling his lungs with steady breaths, telling himself it wasn't real. It was just another dream brought on by a groggy mind, overworked and underplayed and needing rest. Although why his mind should choose this form of entertainment was beyond him, and yet he felt, no – he was certain of it. Certain. Without a doubt.
He hadn't been asleep.
A shaky hand reached out and took hold of the table leg. He held on tightly for several moments, his thumb working at the smooth grains, tracing the hand carved Athosian design. Slowly he pulled himself up, bracing his other hand against the floor, then sat back, still grasping the table. His grip relaxed as his breath finally evened out, and he stood, rubbing his palms on his jeans, then through his hair. His timer beeped. He turned an accusing eye to it, daring it to make another noise of normality in such a precarious situation. He sniffed loudly and checked on his MRE.. The flavor sucked, but he was tired of sandwiches, and quite frankly hadn't been in the right frame of mind to venture down to the mess. He poured a cup of coffee and sat at the small table that had acted as an anchor just moments earlier, and stared at his food. Just stared. His mind was still reeling despite the motions of everyday life he was forcing himself through. This was the third time Rodney had experienced a disturbing vision, each one different in nature, yet each one as violent as the last. And they were so real.
His radio chirped. It seemed miles away rather than within arm's length, reminding him of just how tired he really was. He nodded a few times after his initial and somewhat terse response, forgetting that the person talking couldn't see his nod, then muttered an apology and a promise to leave ASAP. And with that he set down his mug and fixed the radio to his ear, then quickly reclaimed the mug for a long gulp. He ran out of his room, securing the door and his fears, locking them both firmly behind him.
"You sure you are okay?" Radek asked again, studying the pinched expression that was apparently brought on by pain, rather than intense concentration.
"What? Oh. I uh. . .headache. It's nothing." Rodney rubbed at his brow line and frowned at the text before him.
The dismissal worried Radek. "It is late. I should not have called you."
"Don't be stupid." Rodney tapped the screen before them. "You said these match the readings from last week?"
"Yes, yes, you can see for yourself." Radek spun in his chair and reached behind him, spinning back to place a large piece of film before McKay. He pointed to the colored lines on the transparency. "There. Compare it."
Rodney lifted the film and angled it in the light. "Amazing. It looks like it belongs in an art gallery."
"And what do you know of art galleries?"
"Hey, I'm worldly! Universal, even." Rodney tilted the image to him. "But this. . .I've never seen energy readings like this. I mean, this is huge."
"And yet you seem less than enthusiastic."
"Look, I already told you, I have a headache." Rodney tossed the film back to the desk and leaned back, rubbing his hands over his face.
"I should not have called you," Radek repeated.
"Radek. . ." Rodney growled.
"It's known you are worn out after the Wraith attack on Atlantis. It's known you have not slept much, which is normal, yes, but you have been. . ."
Rodney glared. "What? Well, spit it out! Ill? Out of it? Crazy?"
Radek looked sympathetic. "Exhausted."
Rodney conceded. "There's that."
"Which is why I should not have called you." Radek looked up as the door opened and Sheppard walked in, followed closely by Teyla.
John was shaking his head in disbelief. "I don't believe this. Rodney, what did Carson tell you?"
"Colonel. . ."
John's posture assumed the usual laid-back slouchiness, but Rodney could read the tense irritation in his friend's shoulders. "The Doc said to rest for forty-eight hours, until you're steady on your feet. Now was that too much to ask?"
"I AM back on my feet." His retort was cut short by the obvious fact that he was sitting in a chair.
"Since when do you have a medical degree on your wall?"
"This was my fault, actually," Radek said. "I called him here."
Sheppard was unrelenting. "Oh really? And I don't suppose this could've waited?"
"It probably could have, yes. It was a courtesy call, he was the one who decided to come here."
"Oh, nice defense, Radek, thanks." Rodney muttered, and ducked away from Radek's glare.
"Look, as much as I respect the work you two fine men are doing here, for future reference, Radek, leave the man alone on his off day, okay?" John cut the Czech a look of admonishment and walked around the desk to stand before the physicist. He knew grounding Rodney from his work was about as effective as telling the man not to eat. "But since you're here, you figure out anything?"
"Not without further experimentation, no." Rodney winced and pinched the bridge of his nose.
This time it was John's turn to show a bit of concern, in his subtle way. "You okay?"
He nodded. "Yep. You need to go see Carson."
"I. . .no! Don't you remember what happened last time?" The hand pulled away to reveal a stern expression. "I was laid up in bed for a full twenty hours wasting precious time for no reason! He found nothing wrong that certain Wraith extinction wouldn't cure."
John relented before the argument could begin. Rodney's collapse upon his return from their last mission had scared him, and Carson's diagnosis that he appeared on the brink of suffering a mild nervous breakdown hadn't helped. Could he help if the situation caused him to be a bit apprehensive toward his friend's health? Especially with the news he had just received. . .he started shifting the unidentifiable items strewn across Rodney's work area. "Don't you have any aspirin around here?"
"No, you've used it all! Look, I'll be fine." He pushed John's hands away and looked over the colonel's shoulder, acknowledging Teyla's presence. "And as flattered as I am by all the attention, I'm not so gullible as to think you came down here for this." He gestured at the film then pinned them with a serious look. "So what's going on?"
"We just wanted to watch you work," Sheppard replied smugly, "so I can say 'told you so' when you collapse."
"Colonel, you're checking up on me and you know it. Now stop," Rodney snapped, and returned to his study of the graph.
"Your attitude isn't providing a good case for you not going to see Carson."
"Colonel, if you don't know me for the egotistical bastard that I am by now, then you are beyond hope." He picked up the film, then laid it back down in exasperation. "Are you still here?"
"Too bad you're in such a crappy mood," Sheppard leaned over his shoulder, "I actually had some news to tell you."
"I'm sure it isn't important."
"It has to do with that wonderful little planet we were booted from, BR549 or whatever." He straightened and walked behind Rodney, forcing the man to turn in his chair, thereby capturing his full attention. "We have to go back."
Rodney looked like someone had stubbed his toe. "Back? Why?"
"I believe we have some unfinished business to attend to," Ronon said. "I need to talk with the leader of the Arai people."
Rodney pulled himself to full attention. "Again. . .why?"
Ronon glanced at John, then replied, "Can't say. Not until I talk to Malachi."
"Okay, fine, leave us hanging." Rodney returned to his screen, his jaw set. "So, do we all have to go back? Because some of us have more important things to do, like analyze the readings from this power converter. . ."
"Dr. Weir thinks it best if we all go," Teyla said simply.
"Does she now." Rodney nodded slowly, his eyes fixed to his laptop. "Fine. Play games, cause it's obvious you know something I don't. No need to tell me, not like I'm used to being 'in the know' around here. Oh, wait, wait," his laugh was ironic, "I am 'the know' around here!" His eyes burned into theirs.
John decided to level with his friend. "Shut up and listen, will ya?" He sighed and knelt down in front of Rodney, seeing him tense at the proximity and the unexpected sincerity of the gesture. "Ronon and I have been talking. He mentioned something he can remember from his past. We think it has something to do with your dreams, Rodney, or whatever the hell they are. We need to talk to Malachi."
"My dreams, according to Carson, are due to the fact that I'm apparently no longer capable of handling any sort of stress. And doesn't he love that, because it gives him yet one more thing to hold over my head."
"Rodney . . ."
"Okay! Okay. Just what would this imaginary diagnosis be?" Rodney asked, then winced and put his palm to his forehead.
Teyla came up behind him, her long fingers curling over his shoulders, rubbing the tension away. Rodney leaned back into it despite himself. "Have you had any recent dreams that disturb you?" she asked softly.
Rodney looked up, all prepared to deny the very notion, but couldn't. Not looking at those dark, concerned eyes. "Yeah," he admitted. "Radek's rather timely page actually helped to bring me out of it."
"You mean you had one today? This evening?" Teyla's exclamation brought John upright. He took Rodney's arm, and immediately felt a protest as Rodney stiffened.
"What the – Colonel!" He dug his heels in.
"Rodney, don't argue with me."
"You have a damned strange definition of 'fine'! And for a hypochondriac to insist he's fine when he isn't is double the cause for worry. Now don't make me sic Teyla on you." The Athosian raised an amused eyebrow.
"I am not a hypochondriac!"
"Yeah, sure." John didn't rise to the bait.
Rodney regarded him and sighed. "Okay, all right. Fine. But I'll go myself, I don't need a damn babysitter." He snatched his arm from John's grip and stood. "When do we leave for this planet?"
"Well, pending your condition," John was careful to emphasize, "you'll need to be ready by oh-nine hundred tomorrow." He took a step back, and gestured toward the door. "Let's find out first if you're going anywhere."
"I think if this concerns me, I damn well better be going somewhere."
John stepped aside as Rodney pushed past. Teyla looked slightly annoyed at his abrupt behavior, but she passed it off with a shrug, and John returned one in response. They followed Rodney to the infirmary.
Rodney sat on the bed in the infirmary, waiting. Lately it seemed that if he were conscious, the time was spent waiting. Only when unconscious could he enjoy the pleasantries the infirmary had to offer, such as wonderful drugged slumber. Not that he enjoyed having his brain turned to Jell-O, but it did help to take the edge off. Of course there was the other notion that, if unconscious, could one really enjoy anything? His legs swung impatiently as he tapped a distorted rhythm on the thin mattress. His thoughts eventually drifted to Malachi, and the planet they had visited the previous week.
While McKay was anything but a people person, he did have instincts, and they proved to be surprisingly accurate when he let his head give in to what his gut told him. He had sensed that Malachi was normally a personable man. He could see the warmth in the older eyes, masked by something, some cloud of discontent. At the time he had dismissed it as yet another world suffering hardship. But the fact that they had emerged through the gate only to be shoved back through with barely an exchange of names, and the promise never to return, held as much of a pull for him as any mathematical puzzle. And now they were going back? Absurd.
He wasn't sure how their return would be treated. He was even less convinced that Ronon was telling him the whole story. He knew something, but he was keeping it to herself, and that angered him, especially since it apparently had something to do with the nightmares he had been experiencing since their return. Horrible, vicious visions. He still wasn't sure if they were real. But on the other hand, he'd take their imaginary explanation over a diagnosis of a nervous breakdown any day.
"What's the news, Carson?" John's voice startled him from his thoughts, and Rodney turned to the Scotsman.
"I can see nothing abnormal, other than the usual lack of sleep. But with Rodney that's practically normal, I'm beginning to think his system actually works better with little rest."
"Puts more energy into other things," Rodney remarked distractedly.
"And I'm not touching that comment." Carson's mouth quirked. "There is nothing to keep him from going off world." He sighed and slapped a few sheets of paper into John's upturned palm. "He has my clearance, against my better judgment. Just do be careful and keep me informed, okay? Last thing I want is to have to gate to that world and track you guys down."
"Perish the thought," Rodney muttered as he hopped down from the bed.
"I dare say you'll perish the consequences if your idle-brainedness lands you on this bed again."
"Idle-brained? Me? Your concern for my mental state is overwhelming." Rodney stared at Carson in disbelief.
"Out with you, before I change my mind." The doctor shoved the men towards the door. "I have patients with legitimate concerns to deal with."
"Ouch!" John exclaimed as they headed out. "First it's idle-brained, now he says you aren't legit."
"OUT!" Carson shooed them away.
Even the briefing with Elizabeth did little to enlighten Rodney. It was as if they had already discussed the pertinent points of their return, and called him in just to make sure he knew when the bus was leaving and to make certain he had clean underwear. Never before had he felt so out of the loop. He shuffled through the pockets of his field vest with increasing irritation, thrusting in small scanners he knew he wouldn't need, looking for his PDA pen. He grabbed a few power bars. Snatched a packet of instant coffee. Wondered if he should have thrown another change of underwear into his duffle. Hell, he had no clue how long he'd be on the planet, or why they were going back. If it wasn't for the fact that deep down, he knew his friends had his best interests at heart, he'd be pissed off indeed. And as someone who wasn't used to depending on others for his own well-being, that thought was disconcerting enough.
They said little as they met in the gate room. Rodney made it a point not to look at the others as he adjusted and readjusted the buckles on his vest, but he could feel their glances toward him, and knew they were sharing the secret looks that he didn't want to witness. They said nothing as they emerged on the other side in the bright sun to be greeted by a somber Malachi. He merely held up his hand for silence, his head cocked to the side as he listened, then signaled for the team to follow him. Rodney noticed that Teyla and John were on high guard, and Ronon the Barbarian didn't leave his side for a moment.
This was doubly unnerving. Ronon was protective, yes, he had come to realize that. He was known to stick beside Rodney in a firefight, because Rodney was the one with the least military experience. So for him to stick close wasn't totally unexpected, but this protective stance was almost predatory, like he was expecting something to jump from the thick brush and engulf them both. He walked as close to shoulder-to-shoulder with Rodney as he could get while passing through open fields and into sparse woods. There was no need for the proximity, especially since the two weren't exactly friends. Rodney felt himself growing more and more tense, wanting to tell the big oaf to back the fuck off, and half expecting to be thrown to the ground at the sound of a weapon. But only birdcall greeted them, that and the wind turning the leaves in the trees. The forest thickened as they started to ascend, the sun mottled on the ground below them.
The land became rocky and unstable. Soon they weren't so much hiking as climbing, with Ronon remaining as close as possible, occasionally guiding Rodney along by the scruff of his neck. Rodney questioned the sanity of assisting one up a steep slope by the neck, but said nothing. He needed his breath for the climb, and deep inside, he was grateful for what help he could get. John and Teyla had to give up their alert stances due to the climb, but their eyes were keen, and they took in everything. Rodney still had no clue what was going on, and again was annoyed, but said nothing. They cleared the summit and started down a steep slope. A half hour's walk later they stumbled tiredly into a settlement.
The houses were rudimentary, but nice. Not quite log cabins, but not huts, they graced the walkways with a simple presence. Each was well lived in, and quaint. Plants and flowers lightly decorated the front, pots hung on wires slung from the low hanging eaves. The rough wooden chairs that were set outside looked homey. And in the distance, children were playing, some with handmade toys, others with a small ball of sorts. It was here that Malachi finally turned with a smile. "You may speak now. Welcome to the home of the Arai."
Rodney took a step forward and was stopped by Ronon as John nodded, and panted, "I assume you'll explain everything, maybe after a drink?"
Malachi nodded. "Of course. You will be guests at Sanara's, where you may rest and take refreshment." He held his hand toward Rodney. "Doctor McKay, you will be my guest."
"Uh, actually," John said hurriedly, "don't you think it would be best if one of us stayed close to Rodney?" This earned a look of astonishment from the man in question.
"I believe we would rather stay together, all of us, if that is possible," Teyla added.
Malachi shook his head in apprehension. "Everyone, no, not possible, I do not have the room, and I need Doctor McKay with me. I may, however, make accommodations for just one more." He looked at John. "Since you are their leader, you may stay. Would this be satisfactory?"
John could read between the lines. It wasn't so much the lack of sleep space, they'd be happy on the floor. It was lack of food. Malachi himself couldn't feed them all, and had persuaded a neighbor to help. "Suits me. And in exchange, maybe you can tell us how you caught that." He pointed to a deer-looking creature turning slowly on a spit.
Malachi smiled. "You have come on our moon festival. We eat as a community when the moon is at its fullest. A hearty moon is a sign to feast and enjoy the abundance, as the moon has. I would be more than happy to share our gathering with you." A woman approached him, and he put his hand to her back. "This is Sanara. She is a fair sister of mine, and has consented to be your host." Malachi leaned in. "Her sweet bread is the best around, and I'm not just saying that," he muttered.
Sanara just smiled, apparently used to the compliment. She was an attractive yet plain woman, one who was very at ease with herself. She reached out for Ronon and Teyla, saying, "May my humble abode please you," and pulled them to a small house across from what was obviously Malachi's, for he was leading John and Rodney to it.
"We don't have much here," he said as they entered, "but we enjoy what we have. Many a day is a struggle," he walked right to the hearth and dipped water from a pot, "but we must enjoy ourselves to make up for the struggle, or the struggle is pointless." He touched a moist thumb to his forehead, then did the same to John and Rodney, lingering for a moment in front of the latter. "You are most welcome," he said solemnly. "Please make yourselves comfortable. I must leave for a while, it is my turn to work the spit, and I have a conversation to hold. I will be back in plenty of time to prepare for the gathering. There is Sanara's sweet bread there," he pointed to a basket, "and wine in the cask. I'll return as soon as I can, please, rest yourselves." He nodded and hurried out. In the distance he could be seen running to the spit, talking for a moment with the man turning it, then taking over as the man hurried to the next task.
John was content to take his rest after such a long travel. Rodney wasn't. John had hardly shrugged out of his vest when he was spun around and nearly backed into the wall by an furious mass of pissed off physicist. "You wanna tell me what the HELL is going on here?" Fury had nothing on Rodney. "Why are we here? What's with all the damn secrecy? And why are they suddenly allowing us on the planet when they chased us off the last time? Why isn't anyone saying anything?" He stared at John. "Dammit, why aren't YOU saying anything?"
John had never seen the man so angry, and could only assume it was days of tension and lack of sleeping fueling the attack. "Are you finished?" He kept his voice calm.
Rodney found he was holding onto John's shirt, and let go, smoothing the crease he had made, not that it would show. "Yeah."
"We came here because we think this place has something to do with what's happening to you."
"Yeah, look, I got that much." He was backing away, almost shaking like someone who needed a fix. "Wanna give me more information?"
"Oh, for GOD'S sake!"
"Rodney," John sighed and grabbed Rodney's arm as he started to walk away, "Listen to me! I can't. I don't know much, but I know that whatever this thing is that's happening, Malachi is aware of it, and he knows what to do. But part of that is contingent on keeping you in the dark." He made another grab as Rodney pulled away. "Hey, it sucks, I know. I hate doing it. But it's for your own safety." He tightened his grip. "You once told me I had to trust you. I said I could do that. Now the question here is, can you trust me?"
Rodney's gaze met John's, still not happy. "Don't see much choice in the matter. Do you?"
"Okay, I'll take that as a yes." John's voice softened. "We're not ganging up on you, we're not deliberately trying to keep you in the dark. We're trying to help. Hell, you heard Teyla, she didn't want to leave you at all."
"Neither did you, for that matter," Rodney admitted grudgingly. "And Ronon, god, he was walking so close I thought he was going to become permanently attached to me, and that was not a pleasant feeling." Again Rodney grew frustrated. "Look, it's me, okay? You know me. I may be prone to panic on occasion but I can handle this, with all the crap we've been through surely I've proven that! Just tell me what's going on!"
"If I tell you, we may not be able to help you," John said quietly, painfully.
"Well that's a. . ." Rodney tore his arm from John's grip. "Wait." He paled. "Shit. I-I'm dying, aren't I? That's why no one's talking, why. . .I have this thing, and this voodoo guy's the only one who can cure me. I have some alien ailment, all my important bits are going to fall off." He slumped, turning away, lost in his thoughts. "My brain will disintegrate, look, there is this procedure where a person can have their brain cryogenically frozen, and maybe years down the road I can be thawed and my knowledge will be useful again, provided they can get the synapses to fire. . ."
John grabbed him again, this time in exasperation. "RODNEY! You're not dying, get a grip! Is that your reaction to everything the least bit traumatic?"
"What's that supposed to mean? You think death isn't traumatic?"
"It means you have a habit of thwarting bad news with the assumption that you won't have to be around to cope with it!"
Rodney shook his head mildly in confusion. "That statement leaves a lot to be desired. So . . .not dying. Okay, good to know. Now the pending bad news I'm not so keen on."
"So what is it with you and this death thing, huh?"
Rodney's eyes were on the floor. "It's a knee-jerk reaction caused by an intense desire for self-preservation, okay?"
John nodded, a faint smile playing on his lips, but kept serious eyes on Rodney. "So you're okay with this?"
"Right." John started eyeing the small shelves and found two large cups. He grabbed a handle and dipped a cup into a large vessel, and passed it to Rodney. "Here, drink up."
Rodney raised the cup to his mouth, and jerked his head back in shock. "Wait! Don't . . ." He raised a finger, staring into the cup.
"He blessed himself and us with water, like he's using some hoodoo protection or something. . ."
"And. . .that water was over there." Rodney pointed without looking up. "I don't think you meant to dip this."
John frowned and raised his own cup of liquid to his nose. "Crap!" He immediately flung it out the open window. It landed on a soft patch of grass and rolled.
Rodney nodded and carefully set his down. "Crap wouldn't be the word of choice, but close enough. Apparently someone forgot to empty the chamber pot."
"Ugh. . .god!" John vigorously wiped his hands on his pants. "Like a person can tell. Place smells like a. . ."
" . . .we better boil these cups."
". . .cleaning wouldn't hurt. The guy's obviously a bachelor." John straightened at his remark, and he and Rodney exchanged an odd look. Without another word, they set some water to boil.