Thank you Dasha, Kitty, and Salieri for listening to me natter on about this story for ... a little while, now, and then trying to save me from my own terminal carelessness as well.
John awoke from his drugged sleep to see smoke rolling across the low ceiling to the furthest, darkest reaches of the vault beneath the pyramid. Groaning, he turned over and eventually managed to rock his way up to his hands and knees. By the light of stinking lamps, mere scraps of wick floating in shallow bowls of animal fat, he saw Rodney McKay stretched upon a stone platform. The Night People were doing something appalling to him.
John closed his eyes and his arms gave out beneath him. If there was a moral to the story it had to be never listen to a man with a monkey on his back.
The stargate on the Night People's planet was located in an equatorial region, and the dense cover of plant life made jumper travel impossible. McKay complained more or less constantly, and even John had to agree conditions were less than ideal for a day hike. Under the canopy of trees the heat was stifling, the humidity so dense that sweat was running down their faces within minutes of beginning their trek.
The insect life was abundant, and all of it, apparently, attracted to their sweaty selves. Minute black gnats that traveled in stinging swarms to settle all over their faces, flies that buzzed around their heads and tried to crawl into their ears and up their noses. Furry little flying insects about the size and color of honey bees that landed on their faces and fed at the corners of their eyes. And then Rodney brought up the possibility of parasites laying eggs under the skin or in various orifices, and John didn't think he'd ever stop twitching again. Even Ford forgot himself enough to snap, "Damn it, Dr. McKay, did you have to say that?"
Even Teyla seemed twitchy and ill-at-ease, but in her case, John suspected it had less to do with bugs, and more with the people they were traveling to meet. There was little love and less trust between the Athosians and the Night People.
"This is an insane waste of an invaluable resource," Rodney was muttering. "Can you imagine Niels Bohr dying of intestinal parasites? Enrico Fermi eaten alive by tsetse flies?" Then he stopped dead in his tracks. "Do you smell that?"
"Smoke," Teyla confirmed, nodding. "We are drawing close to the Night People's settlement."
"Not just any kind of smoke," Rodney said. He turned in a slow circle, nose in the air, mouth opening and widening into a half-hopeful, half-incredulous grin.
"Cook fire," John suggested. The smoke was a sharp, welcome scent, cutting through the heavy smell of vegetation and rot. "Smells like something's burning."
"Oh no, no, no, no, no. I mean, yes, maybe, technically, but Major, we are the verge of a serious breakthrough here." And with that Rodney took off like there was a ZPM waiting for him at the end of the rainbow.
Damn it. "McKay! McKay, hold up." John ran after him. Rodney raised a hand and gestured forward without turning his head.
"This way," he shouted back towards John. "My god, do you smell that?" All John smelled was smoke. He glanced back at Teyla and Ford jogging along behind him. Ford shrugged back. Now that John thought about it, though, there was something almost half-familiar about the scent, under the strong, bitter smell of burning. Almost like --
They burst into the clearing together. It wasn't really much of a clearing -- the green canopy overhead was unbroken -- but the undergrowth was cut back for perhaps a kilometer all around, cook fires glowing red and smoking as far away as the steep hill at the far edge of the encampment. There were pens enclosing small herds of short-legged creatures like goats or sheep, and at least a hundred people or more, drawing together and regarding the intruders warily. They pulled their children to them and hushed their babies' cries against their shoulders. The children were naked, the women wearing only necklaces of beads and feathers, the men with leather strands around their waists, straw tassels hanging down in front.
A murmur began to rise and Teyla stepped forward hurriedly to call a greeting. Before John could stop him, Rodney darted past her to one of the fires.
"Excuse me," he said to the nervous men backing away at his approach. He held out his hands in what was probably supposed to be a placatory gesture. "Excuse me, please, we're not here to hurt you. We're here to trade with you. Trade. Teyla, will you please explain to them? Trade? They do understand the general concept, don't they?"
"McKay--" John warned. Rodney knelt by the fire. He was clumsy with a full pack still on his back. "Do you mind?" he said, pointing to the open, smoking pot on the fire, then to the men standing well back. "I just want to see--we can trade for this, right?" Then he reached into the low pot and plucked out something out.
"Ow! Hot, hot, hot," Rodney juggled his prize from hand to hand, and one of men who had been watching with apprehension suddenly burst into laughter. "Yes, very funny, go ahead and laugh it up." Rodney himself was grinning like a kid at Christmas. When he turned back, John saw he held a shiny black bean in the middle of his palm. He popped it into his mouth and crunched down, and his eyes fluttered shut in pleasure.
"Major," Rodney answered, his voice breaking with emotion. "They're roasting coffee beans."
Rodney pulled out all the stops for the post-mission debriefing, showing up with a thermos and half a dozen small cups, as well as Radek and Carson, an ethnobotanist, a biochemist, and the red-haired, no-nonsense anthropologist whose name John couldn't remember. Rodney set out the cups with a flourish and poured a demitasse for everyone at the table, save for Teyla, who shook her head with a smile, and the anthropologist who covered her cup with her hand and said, "No thank you. I've really never developed a taste for it."
Rodney looked at her in faint bewilderment, stung by the unexpected betrayal. "Fine," he recovered. "More for me."
Zelenka took the first sip with noisy formality, inhaling deeply first, then slurping coffee through his teeth and swallowing thoughtfully. John knew perfectly well that Rodney has been sharing his stash with Zelenka since his return from the Night People. "Sweet and clean in the cup," Zelenka pronounced. "I am reminded of a fine Oaxaca Pluma, yes? Light body, hints of maple, vanilla, hazelnut." Rodney only looked at him pityingly before slurping a first sip himself.
Elizabeth was drinking her own cup in silence, watching both men with a raised, amused eyebrow, and John was trying in vain to taste maple, vanilla or hazelnut. It just tasted like coffee to him. Not that he was complaining. After two months of drinking roasted not-quite-barley substitute for coffee, the real thing was pretty heady.
"Tragically, deprivation has utterly destroyed whatever skill you might have once had in cupping coffee," Rodney told Zelenka. "This is clearly like very good Java Government Estate, Balwan or Kayumas. Deep cup, subtle suggestion of bittersweet chocolate. Buttery thickness to the mouthfeel, and I'm sure it would blend beautifully with a good, floral Harar. Which is something to keep in mind should we ever contact Earth again. Oaxacan Pluma, I'm sure." He snorted in scorn and shook his head.
"It's pretty good." Ford put down his empty cup. "Got any more?"
"That is what we are now discussing," Radek said tightly, glaring across the table.
"So, Rodney," Elizabeth couldn't entirely wipe the smile off her face. "It would be your recommendation that we commence trade relations with these potentially dangerous people just because they can supply us with coffee? Are you sure that's an entirely prudent strategy?"
"Can you suggest a better one?" he shot back, still a little over-excited from the cupping argument with Radek. Then he crossed his hands, palms out, almost as if in apology. "No, the coffee is the least of it. Well, not the least of it, but there are other, equally compelling considerations here. Dr. Ngorny, if you'd tell Elizabeth about the rest of the plant samples we brought back." He even smiled and made a circling motion of encouragement with his hand.
Not very Rodney-like, John thought. He really wanted that coffee.
"The Night People are very knowledgeable about the medicinal properties of their local flora," Dr. Ngorny explained obligingly. "Of some three dozen leaf, stem and root samples they provided to our team, all appear to be pharmacologically active. Oxindole alkaloids, phytochemicals like lapachol and clerodane. Polyphenols with an inhibitory effect on both alpha-glucosidase and AGE formation. Dramatically effective anti-bacterials and anti-microbials, not to mention anti-fungals, analgesics, all the way up to MAO inhibitors --"
Elizabeth was frowning a little and Rodney broke in, "What Dr. Ngorny means --"
"Dr. Weir," Carson said, "The point is, the pharmaceuticals we could manufacture or extract from these plants could very well save our lives. Frankly, it's nothing but luck that no one's contracted an infection resistant to our antibiotics before now. Not to mention the fact that we're already rationing aspirin and acetaminophen. Antihistamines and decongestants are next, and frankly, considering the number of medical emergencies since our arrival, it's only a matter of time before I run out of the opiates and muscle relaxants that allow me to perform surgery under general anesthesia. I've got to tell you, I'm not looking forward to first time I have to operate without it, and I'm sure the patient isn't either."
Elizabeth looked pale. John felt pale. "And the drugs we need could be could be manufactured from these plants?" Elizabeth asked.
"Oh, aye, eventually. We should start working as soon as possible. Our preliminary analysis has already turned up any number of complex pharmokinetics, not to mention alkaloids that block the acetylcholine receptors on the post synaptic membrane of the neuromuscular membrane --"
"All right." Elizabeth crossed her hands to stop him. "Let's suppose I'm convinced the Night People could be valuable trading partners. What about Teyla's concerns?"
No one answered. Rodney flashed a slightly loopy grin around the table. He was bouncing the palms of his hands off the tabletop in excitement, fingers wide-spread. Teyla was scowling, but didn't speak.
Elizabeth tried again. "It's not a difficult question. Do the Night People worship the Wraith?"
Another short moment of silence before Rodney blurted, "Did we mention they're surprisingly sophisticated chemists? They actually use a crude form of distillation to extract compounds. Teyla helped me get across the concept of standardized measurements to them -- at least I think they got it -- and there's no question they'd be willing to trade with us for some Erlenmeyer flasks and rubber tubing. And when you get right down to it, what does 'worship' really mean anyway?"
"John?" Elizabeth cocked her head at him.
With his usual sledge-hammer subtlety, Rodney immediately reached across the table to empty the thermos into John's cup. "You should finish it up, Major. Drink it while it's still hot."
John smiled thinly across the table at Rodney, and answered Elizabeth with care.
"Honestly, I think we would need Doctor --" Damn. The red-haired anthropologist's name still hadn't come back to him. He kept wanting to say 'Darwin' but he was pretty sure that wasn't right.
"Dawson," she said, taking pity on him. "Right, of course. As I was saying, we would have needed Dr. Dawson along to tell if this really qualified as 'worship,' so all I can tell you is what we saw."
"That would be a start," Elizabeth said dryly.
Weirdly enough, the light had begun to fail before John finally noticed the hill at the end of the clearing wasn't really a hill at all, but an artificial structure. He looked back over his shoulder and caught Ford's attention. Teyla was still translating for Rodney, and the pile of stems, twigs, roots and leaves was growing between them. Ford nodded to indicate he would keep watch, and John walked closer to the ruined structure.
It was constructed of massive blocks of stone, rising as high as the lower branches of the forest, but many of the stones had broken free and rolled away, where they had been reclaimed by the jungle or incorporated into the lean-tos the Night People sheltered in. It might have been a step pyramid once, in the ages before the culling that destroyed their civilization, but over the centuries, shrubby plants had taken root between the blocks at the lower levels of the pyramid, distorting its shape, and vines thicker around than a man's body snaked their way up to the higher regions.
There seemed to be a doorway some ten feet up, black and opaque as the entrance to the cave. Or maybe it was just a hole where one of the building stones had fallen out.
The sun was setting beyond the canopy of the trees and the light had become dense and palpable, like a weight on John's shoulders. It was too late for them to make it back to the gate tonight. They needed to pack it up and find a place to set up camp a klick or two distant from the Night People's settlement.
And then he heard the murmur of voices from the ruined pyramid. He fell back quickly. Ford and Teyla both noticed his sudden movement and got up. A white figure appeared in the doorway, and then began to pick its way down the step-like blocks of the pyramid, maneuvering around the vines and roots with an ease born of long familiarity. Another figure soon followed. Then another, and another. The Night People fell silent and rose to their feet. Even the children were hushed. For a crazy instant, primed by Teyla's stories of Wraith-worship among the Night People, John brought his P-90 around, almost believing he was watching Wraith spill from the heart of building.
But then the first of the white figures reached the ground and John saw quite clearly it was simply one of Night People. She had the same stocky build and wide-set, heavily-lidded brown eyes. Her hair had been dyed a chalky white and allowed to grow long -- the rest of the Night People kept their thick, brown hair trimmed in a bowl-shape just over their ears -- and her skin had been covered with a white paint or clay. There were six of them, all women, and they had no more clothes than the rest, save for a headdress each wore constructed of bird skulls. The clearing was silent except for the steady thrum of insects. And Rodney's stage whispered, "Teyla, this starting to seriously freak me out. What the hell are they doing?"
John heard the short, sharp sibilance of her reply, but not the words. Easy enough to guess what she had said. Some of the children turned their heads to see, but the adults paid no attention to Rodney and Teyla, watching the progress of the not-Wraiths in their midst and ceremoniously turning their backs, arms crossed over their chests, when the white figures drew close, only to turn back again as they passed on. They finally stopped at a cook fire and squatted before it. The man who had been tending the fire turned a handful of coffee beans out onto a rock and crushed them with a wooden pestle. Then he scooped the crushed beans into his hands and dumped them into a large, beaten metal cup, and poured boiling water over the grounds. Another silence stretched out. When the cup was cool enough to handle, he picked it up and gave it to the first of the white figures, who drank with obvious appreciation before passing it to the next.
"No filters at all," Rodney sighed, his voice clearly audible across the clearing. "I can only admire that kind of purist."
"Anything else?" Dr. Dawson asked, after a pause. "They came out of the pyramid and shared a cup of coffee? What happened next?"
John glanced around the table and shrugged. "Nothing, really. People were cooking dinner. We, uh, left to set up camp. I think Dr. McKay mooched some more coffee."
"What happened to the people who looked like Wraith?"
"I'm not really sure," John frowned. "Had dinner with everyone else, I guess."
"Hm," said Dr. Dawson.
"Doesn't sound too scary to me." Rodney just couldn't help himself. "I mean if we're going hide from everyone who drinks coffee in this galaxy, here's the entire science team--"
"Yes," Zelenka said mildly. "Starting with you."
Rodney waved a dismissive hand across the table. "The point is --"
"The point is," Dr. Dawson overrode Rodney with surprising ease. "A ritual like the one you describe, Major Sheppard, doesn't really tell us much about how the Night People regard the Wraith. It tells us even less about the way they'll treat strangers, which is what I assume we want to determine before going forward with any sort of trade agreement."
"Worship of the Wraith is an abomination," Teyla announced suddenly and very seriously. "A perversion of humanity. Of life itself."
Dawson made a half-shrugging gesture in response, wrinkling her nose.
"Unfortunately, if you get right down to it, back on Earth mankind has a long history of worshiping deities no more admirable than the Wraith. Whether that's a consequence of early contact with the goa'uld or just an innate tendency to respect brute force --"
Teyla turned to Ford. "That is not the way you have described your god to me."
"People, I think we're getting off track here," Elizabeth interrupted. Maybe it was the coffee, John thought. First caffeine in six weeks, no wonder everyone was getting a little hyper.
Dawson continued, "Obviously, I can't talk responsibly about the semiotics of a ceremony I didn't see, performed by people I've never even met, but if I were going to take a guess, I'd say the ceremony you witnessed wasn't so much a worship service as a coping mechanism. The Night People are acting out the return of the Wraith, but instead of murder and destruction, it all ends in a nice cup of coffee. Think about it, Major, Dr. Weir. These are a people with no way to protect themselves. Retelling a happier version of the story every night allows them to go on with their lives, despite the inevitability of the culling. Not so different, perhaps, from Athosian children playing with Wraith fright masks. "
There was a moment of silence when she'd finished, and then Rodney said, "So we're going back for the coffee, right?"
But if he were honest, John thought during that bleak morning after their return, this hadn't happened because of Rodney's addiction to coffee.
(And, God, what he wouldn't give to hear Rodney launch into his "technically, caffeine isn't addictive" speech right about now.)
John looked at his watch and calculated one more time exactly how long it should take Teyla to get to the gate, pick up Carson and a handful of marines and get back here. He was still fuzzy-headed, though, and didn't really trust his math. "Just hang in there, McKay," he said anyway, "Beckett will be here any minute."
Rodney's eyes moved under half-closed lids, "If you tell me he's gonna fix me up better than new, I'll have to punch you in the nose," he said in a flat voice.
John couldn't help smiling in relief. He crawled around, half kneeling over Rodney, and laid his hand very, very gently on his forehead. "Hey, you're awake. You know this all happened because you're such a pitiful caffeine junkie, right?"
Rodney looked at him. The jungle was coming to life all around them as the sun rose. The Night People were keeping a careful distance, but their voices sounded sympathetic to John. He could smell coffee, and wondered if Rodney would ask for any. But Rodney just closed his eyes and said, "Please don't touch me, Major."
It was just as hot when they returned, just as humid, and there were just as many insects, but Rodney was in such an extravagantly good mood he didn't seem to notice any of it. He pestered Dr. Dawson endlessly about the possibility that the Night People might decide not to enter into a trade agreement with Atlantis, because after all, who knew what crazy primitives might do? He wondered whether their community was sufficiently hierarchical to have a governing body with the authority to enter into such an agreement in the first place, and what they would do if the Night People weren't happy with Pyrex and copper tubing? and not once did he make a crack about fields like anthropology and ethnobotany calling themselves 'science.'
It wasn't merely good behavior. For Rodney McKay it was practically angelic.
"They'll remember us, won't they?" Rodney blurted out a new worry. "Do you think they will have forgotten all about wanting to trade with us by the time we get back?"
John waved his hand in front of his face, trying to disperse the insects. The extra application of mosquito spray didn't seem to be doing any good.
"It was the day before yesterday. They're just naked, McKay, not stupid."
Dawson laughed out loud. Rodney's determined smile got thin-lipped but ultimately held. And when they reached the settlement, it seemed the Night People remembered the Atlantis expedition perfectly well after all, bringing Rodney a wide, beaten metal bowl of coffee before the negotiations even began. Rodney accepted it with a deep bow of gratitude and looked happy enough to cry. John thought he really did shed a few tears later on, when the Night People guided them to a planting of cultivated coffee plants and gestured to the jungle beyond.
The cultivated plants were pruned low, barely two meters tall, but the untended plants in the forest were as tall as trees, their widely-spread branches heavy with the red berries. "We are welcome to this year's wild harvest," Teyla translated.
"They look just like coffea arabica," Rodney said softly, wandering out under the trees. "Oldest coffee varietal known on earth. An amazing case of parallel development, although given that mankind keeps evolving to look just like, well, us, I guess it's --"
His voice broke and he turned his head away, scrubbing his hand over his face. "Teyla, tell them this is a good thing. This is a very, very good thing. We'll take it."
"Way to drive a bargain, McKay," John grouched, but his heart wasn't in it. Rodney was just so damned happy.
It was late in the day before Dr. Ngorny decided he had gathered sufficient samples of all the pharmacologically active plants that they could lug back through the gate. With Ford and John's help (and John still wasn't sure how he had gotten roped into this) Rodney had gathered nearly thirty pounds of beans. John was sweating and sore, and just a little sick from the ever-present, jasmine scent of the coffee flowers, and when Teyla told him, her face as carefully neutral as it had been ever since their return to this planet, that the Night People had invited them to share their food in celebration of new kinship, it was on the tip of John's tongue to refuse.
But in the end it seemed rude to simply walk out on their new-found, naked kin. He reminded everyone to be careful what they ate and brought out their MREs to share with the Night People. The Night People tried a few polite bites just as tentatively as the members of the expedition picked over the roasted grasshoppers and mystery fruits. Then the Night People smiled in a slightly horrified way, and spat mouthfuls of mac-and-cheese on the ground.
John skipped the grasshoppers, but the mystery fruits were pretty good. He liked the bright red plantain-things, and the six-lobed yellow fruits with the consistency of plums weren't so bad either. They had a citrus-y tang, so he cautioned Rodney against them, and leaned his back against one of the fallen building stones from the pyramid.
As darkness fell, the clearing began to fill with people. John wondered vaguely where they were coming from, but they seemed friendly enough, so he didn't worry about them too much. He helped himself to another of the lobed fruits and felt smug about the mission. Pretty painless, all in all. Just the way these things were supposed to run, and so seldom did.
More of the Night People filled the clearing and moved closer to the fire. John waved, and the Night People waved back. They were less than a foot tall with white skin and hair, their teeth filed into fangs. They might have been alarming if they hadn't been so tiny. He waved again, and the itty-bitty Night People showed their teeth.
"Major Shepard." Dr. Dawson's voice. She sounded worried. Also a little drunk.
"What is it, Dawson?" When he turned his head, the jungle moved with him. Dawson was trying to stand up, but her legs crumpled beneath her and she sprawled flat. It was kind of funny, really. She didn't try to get up anymore, just rolled on her back and looked up at the canopy of branches above.
"Dawson?" "Oh." She sighed heavily. "Major Sheppard, I think we've been drugged."
"What?" John tried to sound concerned, but he was really more interested in the piece of fruit he was holding. His thumb stroked back and forth over a torn bit of peel. "Why would you think that?"
"Because I keep seeing little bitty people running around in the woods. Do you see them?"
The very small white people ran back into the trees, then peeked around the trunks at John. Some were grinning with their sharp teeth and some were laughing, but others looked fiercely at him. "They're -- " John tried to look away from them, but it was difficult. The fierce ones were beginning to unnerve him. "They're not real?"
"Oh my god." Rodney's voice. John finally dragged his attention away and found Rodney crouched on the ground beside him, his hands fisted in the front of John's shirt. "No, Major, there are no midgets in the woods. Dawson, you say you've been drugged? Do you know how? What the hell it is?"
"Probably an MAO inhibitor like yage. Little people are a common hallucination after ingestion. A number of the indigenous Central American --"
"Dr. Dawson? Dammit, Dr. Dawson!" He turned back to John. "Major, I really, really need for you to concentrate right now."
"You don't have to shout," John answered irritably. Rodney sputtered and then snatched John's piece of fruit out of his hand and examined it closely. "Hey," John said in protest, reaching to take it back.
"Look at this." Rodney showed him the stem of his yellow fruit, and the small round puncture in the skin. "Those sneaky goddamned bastards. Major, this is a real problem. I can't carry you all back to the gate. Can you get it together long enough to give me a clue how I'm supposed to get us out of here?"
Rodney smelled like coffee. It was a good, homey smell, making John think of leisurely Sunday morning breakfasts. Bacon and eggs, waffles with maple syrup. John smiled up at him happily and patted Rodney's hand. Rodney didn't smile back. He looked ready to belt John one.
"Calm down," John soothed. "You just go back to the Stargate and let Elizabeth know we're all right."
"Wow, what a great plan. Thank you for the command input, there. There are only two little problems with it."
"There are?" John felt hurt.
"I'm afraid so, Major," Rodney's voice was rising. "Number one, you're not all right. You and everyone else on the team have managed to get yourselves stoned out of your respective gourds."
"Shhh," John tried to quiet him, but Rodney just got louder and louder.
"And number two, if I leave you now, by the time I get back I'm probably going to find your freshly shrunken head hanging from somebody's belt! Are you starting to grasp the magnitude of the problem here?"
His shouting disturbed the little white people in the trees. The friendly ones melted away into the darkness, while the mean ones crept closer, showing their teeth. John was so absorbed in their ominous approach that he didn't even notice the regular-sized Night People who were advancing on Rodney, until Rodney was all but surrounded.
"Major--" Rodney began, when he saw what was happening.
"Watch out for the ones with teeth," John told him seriously. The little buggers were yanking on the cuffs of Rodney's pants, making evil-sounding chattering noises at him. One of the regular-sized Night People took Rodney's arm, and Rodney jerked away from him furiously and drew his 9 mm.
"Just back off," he roared. "I'm not afraid to use this thing."
"Aw, come on, Rodney," John said. He had just discovered that if he strobed his fingers in front of the closest campfire, its golden reddish light split into a thousand stripes and went floating off into the night sky. "You've gotta get Teyla to translate for you."
"Unfortunately Teyla's not exactly available right now," Rodney's voice was getting high and panicky-sounding. He raised his weapon and fired twice into the air. Birds took off in a tremendous rush of flapping wings and cries of avian protest. The Night People fell back, their hands clapped over their ears, but they didn't remain cowed for long. Rodney pointed his Beretta at the next man who approached him. "I will if I have to," he declared, his voice shaking. "Don't come any closer."
Of course they didn't understand. The closest took another step towards him and wrapped his hand around Rodney's gun. The muzzle pointed straight at his naked belly. "You ignorant pre-iron age moron!" Rodney shrieked, wrenching the gun free and holding it, two-handed, over his head, out of the reach of even the tallest of the Night People. "Do you all have the same death wish?" He fumbled frantically with the weapon as the Night People continued to tug at him, and finally the cartridge dropped out of the handle, just as the Night People pulled him down, and John lost sight of him altogether.
The second time John awoke, morning had come. A few shards of early sunlight filtered painfully through the trees. He started to roll away, trying to shade his eyes, and his gut began to cramp like a furiously clenched fist. "Jesus," he muttered in miserable panic, trying to get his pants down with violently shaking hands. "Jesus-fucking-Christ--" when the nausea hit just as he yanked his underwear to his knees.
He doubled over on the ground, shaking and sweating, and he hoped he was dying, because that was the only excuse for this. He had a team on the ground here, three of them civilian, including Rodney, God knew where any of them were, and John was so sick he couldn't even get his head up.
Eventually there was nothing else left to purge from his belly or his bowels. He managed to crawl a few feet, but then exhaustion and shock hit him like a pile driver, and his elbows gave out beneath him. Though his face was burning, the sweat all over his body was as cold as ice, and he was pretty sure he was just about to faint. No manly passing out, Rodney, he thought vaguely. This is a goddamned dead faint.
"Sir." A hand touched his shoulder. "Sir, we've got a situation here. I need for you to answer me if you can."
It was Ford, bless the kid, calm and professional, nothing in his voice to betray what he thought about his commanding officer bare-assed and face down on the ground.
"Everyone accounted for?" John mumbled, not quite able to move yet.
"Not Dr. McKay."
Hell. John had begun shaking in reaction. "What do the Night People say?"
"I don't know, sir. Teyla recovered first, so I sent her to the gate for help."
"Everybody got sick?"
"Yessir. Getting better, though. Dawson says we were drugged. Sir, I brought you your kit and some water if you can get up."
Ford was getting tired of looking at him. Or tired of smelling him, one.
"That's all right, Lieutenant. Keep everyone else together and I'll be with you as soon as I can lift my head."
A snort from Ford. "You'll live, sir. It just doesn't feel like it yet."
John crawled to his knees and found the supplies Ford had left for him, cleaned up as well as he could and rinsed his mouth out, wincing. He still felt weak as a kitten, and McKay was missing.
Jesus, Rodney. He knew better than to go wandering off in the jungle by himself. He just wouldn't have done it, not with the rest of the team incapacitated, would he? No matter how badly he panicked.
John finally got to his feet and limped over to the half-dead fire where the rest of his team waited. They all looked just as bad as he felt, even Lt. Ford, now that John got a better look at him. Meanwhile, the Night People seemed to be going about their morning routines, feeding the goats, shoveling out their pens and setting out into the jungle with gathering baskets. They knew where Rodney was, John was certain. He couldn't fault Ford for sending Teyla for help as soon as possible, but damn, he would give anything right now to be able to ask the Night People where Rodney had gone.
"So OK," John said, leaning hard on a tree so he wouldn't fall over. "Everybody going to live?" He didn't wait for an answer. "The first order of business is finding Dr. McKay. Does anyone remember anything about last night that could help us out?"
Ford scowled in concentration. Dawson was still very green under her freckles, but her eyes darted towards the ruins of the pyramid at the end of the clearing.
"What is it?" John demanded.
"I don't --" She shook her head. "Were we in the pyramid last night?"
"I don't know," John snapped, but his hands started shaking again.
In a sharp, sudden flicker of memory he saw the inside of a cavernous vault, thick with smoke. The Night People were there, gathered around a stone table and when they shifted position, John could see what lay upon the altar.
"Lieutenant, stay with Ngorny and Dawson. I'm going up there."
Dr. Ngorny's thin, dark face folded into an expressive frown.
"Teyla should be back soon with help. Wouldn't it be a better idea to wait?"
"I don't think so." John checked his P-90 and slung it over his shoulder.
"Sir, with all due respect --" "Frankly, Lieutenant, I hate sentences that begin that way."
"I just mean you're still looking a little shaky. Let me back you up."
"You keep an eye on these two. I don't want to find any more scientists missing when I come back."
The Night People watched John cross the clearing. He tried to remember whether he had walked this way last night, but all that came back to him was a fragmentary memory of poor Rodney trying to convince him that the little people in the woods weren't real.
John looked up from the base of the pyramid. White smoke was trailing from the hole in the wall, almost invisible in the bright morning sunlight. For some reason it was entirely horrible to think about the six Wraith-like women he'd seen emerge from the rock three days ago. As he started to climb, he kept imagining one of those white-painted heads suddenly emerging from the hole in the rock to look down at him, and if that should happen, he thought maybe he would lose his mind on the spot.
Apparently, he was still a little wound up from last night.
Two more steps and John pulled himself over the lip of the opening and looked inside, shaking in exhaustion. The vault was so much darker than the bright morning he couldn't see a thing. He closed his eyes for just a moment, pretending he was listening for danger, although all he could really hear was the thunder of his pulse and the rasp of his own breath. His stomach was in knots, and he really hoped he wasn't going to be sick again.
When he finally opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was that the space was smaller than he had thought. There was a low stone platform in the middle of the room, a small fire blazing beside it, and steam rolling up out of the pot on the fire. Rodney was stretched upon the platform, struggling weakly against the Night People even now.
He had probably been here all night.
John ran clumsily to him, his P-90 cradled under his arm. Two of the Night People were holding Rodney's shoulders down, while a third used broad, tough leaves to scoop out the contents of the pot on the fire and dab the steaming stuff onto Rodney's chest. Rodney made a tired, hurt sound every time he was touched.
"Get away from him," John snapped. The Night People looked up, but didn't stop what they were doing until John grabbed the wrist of the man scooping the green-black mash out of the pot. "I said, get away."
Unblinking dark eyes stared back at John. The man said something very earnestly that John couldn't understand, and in frustration, John forcibly pushed him back. He turned to the men holding Rodney's shoulders.
"Let him go and get out of here."
The Night People spoke among themselves in mild voices.
John made an angry, sweeping motion with both arms. "Get away from him before I knock you away. You understand that, don't you?"
For another moment the Night People didn't move. John advanced angrily, and the man at Rodney's left shoulder suddenly slapped his own chest in annoyance and said something irritably to the others, and all three finally backed away. As soon as the Night People released him, Rodney went still. John came to his side and looked down at him.
"McKay." In the darkness of the cavern, John couldn't tell if his eyes were open, far less the extent of his injuries. He bent down and laid the back of his fingers against Rodney's throat to feel his pulse. "You ready to get out of here?"
A moment of silence. Then Rodney whispered, "What, now? Before my after-dinner espresso?"
That surprised a bark of laughter from John. "Jesus, Rodney, you scared the hell out of me."
He slid his arm behind Rodney's bare shoulders. "Can you sit up?" Rodney didn't answer, but he struggled to rise as John levered him up. John heard a deep sigh, but Rodney didn't complain, which worried him a little. When he'd maneuvered McKay to the end of the platform, leaving him sitting with his head bowed and his hands loosely crossed in his lap, John turned his head to track the position of the Night People. All three were crouched on their haunches a little way back, watching impassively
"Do you know if there's anyone else up here?" he asked Rodney.
Rodney shrugged, then hissed through his teeth.
"What did they do? Are you hurt?" Rodney's hands turned palm-up in his lap. John's eyes had adjusted in the darkness until he could see the smudges on Rodney's chest, but he assumed -- he hoped -- they were from the vegetable brew in the pot.
"Just get me out of here, Major," Rodney said tiredly.
"Already done," John said, drawing Rodney's arm around his shoulder and pulling him up. But when Rodney's foot touched the ground he jerked back with a sharp, miserable groan, and then fainted dead away at John's side.
He yanked Rodney over his shoulders in a fireman's carry and staggered to the entrance of the vault before falling, too hard, to his knees. Cursing to himself, he rolled McKay less gently than he had intended onto the rough stone floor.
"A little warning next time?" he muttered unreasonably, still exhausted from the aftermath of the drug. Then he lifted his head and actually saw Rodney in the morning light spilling through the low door.
John's stomach twisted. He crawled onto the narrow lip outside the pyramid and let the faint breeze cool the sweat on his face. Ford saw him from across the camp and waved both arms in the air. "Sir!" he shouted. "Have you found Dr. McKay?"
He lacked the strength to call back, so he made a broad get-your-ass-over-here gesture with his right hand. Then he ducked back inside to deal with Rodney, who was such a godawful mess John hardly knew where to begin. His chest was a battlefield, marks spreading over his shoulders, up under his chin and down under his arms as well. He could even see a smattering on Rodney's thighs through the rents in his pants. He checked Rodney's bare right foot, then his left, and there on his sole was another mark, particularly red and ugly-looking. Probably why Rodney had fainted when he' d tried to put weight on it.
Whatever the Night People had done, it must have gone on for hours. John couldn't guess what they had used on him. At the center of each wound was a ragged little cut, no more than three or four centimeters long. Each was crusted with a smear of dried blood. Harder to explain were the wide, uneven bruises that formed a corona around all the small slashes, as though each had been worked somehow after the initial incision.
Every scenario John could imagine to explain those wounds made him feel increasingly sick. He wondered if the Night People had been applying crude tools to extract Rodney's blood, or if they had brought in animals or insects. Vampire bats. Leeches. Or Jesus, maybe they'd had some kind of bugs lay their eggs under his skin.
"Rodney," John put his hand on his forehead, noting as he did, that his own fingers were shaking. "You awake? Because I could really use your help right about now."
"I'm awake," Rodney whispered. His voice was very hoarse.
"Hey," he whispered back, trying to sound cheerful, "How you feeling?"
"Like hell," Rodney said. He turned his face towards the sun without opening his eyes, revealing a Wraith-white complexion. His lips were the color of heavy cream. "What do you need?"
The question caught John off-guard. "Need? I don't - Rodney, you're not in great shape right now, but Teyla's gone to get Carson and as soon as--"
"Christ, Major, stop babbling," Rodney interrupted wearily.
"Carson will need to know what happened. How much do you remember?"
Rodney snorted, then began to cough. It sounded like it hurt him, and John tried to hold his shoulders, but there was no place to brace Rodney without aggravating his wounds. Finally the coughing stopped.
"Carson needs to screen the local population for blood-born pathogens," Rodney whispered when he could talk again. "There's no telling what they may have picked up from me last night. Not that they don't deserve a smallpox epidemic, of course. If only they didn't grow such good coffee."
"Rodney -" John's voice faltered. "What did they do?"
The silence went on for so long John thought he'd passed out again. Then Rodney whispered, "It's just what Dr. Dawson thought. The Night People like to play Wraith."
Memory was an open-handed slap. All at once, John saw the Night People clustered around Rodney. Pinning him to the alter. Rodney was shouting, his voice breaking as one of the older women bent over him. Then Rodney had shrieked. When the woman turned back, she had blood on her face. The tiny white people clustered under the eaves of the pyramid room chittered in ghoulish approval, sharp teeth gleaming in the firelight The old woman had cut his chest with a stone knife, then sucked blood from the wound as Rodney screamed.
John could still hear him, now that he'd remembered, shouting for John save him. Rodney had been so frightened, convinced he was going to die.
What the hell had been the matter with John? He must have been out of his mind, to watch Rodney methodically blooded and not done everything in his power to stop it. He ran his hand down Rodney's forearm and clasped his hand tightly. "You're going to be all right," he promised, knowing he was far too late. "I've got you."
Rodney pulled his hand free, as wearily apathetic as he'd been since John had found him. John swallowed hard. "You know it was the drug," he started to say, even though an apology was pointless.
"Major!" Ford's voice. John looked over the edge of the entrance to see Ford, Dawson and Ngorny all just a few feet below. The Night People were still going about their morning affairs with seemingly no interest all in the Atlantis team.
"Is Dr. McKay all right?" Ngorny wanted to know. Exactly the sort of question Ford had the experience not to to ask. What was John supposed to say with Rodney lying here under his hands? John looked down at him. Rodney had closed his eyes. His bruises were darkening as the sun rose, and his face was alabaster. John couldn't imagine how he could have let this happen, no matter how high he'd been.
"He's going to be OK," John said thickly. Ford was already most of the way up the face of the pyramid. A moment later and his head came over the rim. His smile vanished when he saw McKay.
"He's going to be just fine," John said.
Elizabeth didn't waste time apportioning blame. Not that John had expected her to. Hoped, maybe. As though an official reprimand would make him feel any better. Ngorny drew reasonable conjectures about the chemical makeup of the drug and Dawson talked about the known social and cultural effects of similar drugs in the Amazon. John supposed he had expected some sign of guilt from Dr. Dawson, but though she seemed sorry enough about what had happened to McKay, the anthropologist in her was unapologetically fascinated to find out that the Night People practiced actual blood sucking as part of their Wraith rituals.
There was a lot of talk about religion and ritual violence, mimesis and sympathetic magic before the Elizabeth cut her off, but she authorized the return of a medical team after Dawson opined that the Night People hadn't really intended to kill Rodney. His abstaining from the lobed yellow fruit had evidently been interpreted as a willingness to serve as the sacred victim, stalking goat for the entire group. The green goo whose application Sheppard had interrupted was probably used by Night People as an antiseptic or analgesic -- the plant had qualities of both.
No wonder they had been so bewildered by John. They had only been trying to ensure their victim survived.
John stopped by the infirmary on the way back to his quarters. Beckett waved him towards a screened alcove beyond one of the refrigeration units.
"I know you understand that Rodney needs his rest after the night he's had," he threatened John politely.
"How's he doing?"
"He's receiving his third unit of blood now, with no signs of reaction. Barring infection--still a possibility I'm afraid, despite the antibiotics--I'm counting on a strong recovery. He's a tough lad, when it comes right down to it, for all that he'd rather not admit it."
It was more or less the same report Carson had given at the post-mission debrief, save Rodney had been on his second transfusion then. John nodded, steeled himself, and stepped around the screen to Rodney's bedside.
A laptop was open on the bed, but Rodney's eyes were closed, his head tilted back at an uncomfortable-looking angle that exposed two black stitches holding together a cut on the underside of his jaw. The stitches were surrounded by a large and hideously vivid purple bruise.
Like a hickey gone seriously wrong, John thought, and felt a little sick to his stomach. The wounds on his chest were mostly hidden by his red scrubs. Joint bags of blood and saline hung above the bed, feeding into two lines embedded in the crook of Rodney's left elbow
Rodney was snoring softly, and Dr. Zelenka was sitting at the other side of the bed, his feet propped up in a second chair, his own computer open on his lap. He nodded to John, his fingers still moving over the keyboard.
"Should he be working?" John asked quietly, pointing to Rodney's open laptop.
Zelenka almost smiled. "Dr. Beckett couldn't get him to settle down until I brought his computer. Not so much working. More like a baby with a pacifier.
John made himself smile back. "OK."
"Do you have the coffee?"
John hesitated, because for pete's sake, to hell with the damned coffee already. He held his tongue because this was Radek Zelenka asking, not Rodney McKay, and in John's experience Dr. Zelenka was almost never selfish or tactless. Still, the coffee?
When John didn't answer, Dr. Zelenka finally took his hands off the keyboard, spreading his fingers. "You must understand. Rodney already wakes up once and tells me he spent many hours harvesting vast quantities of coffee. I want to avoid shouting and arm-waving when he wakes up next time and wants to know why it isn't here yet."
"Oh." That made sense. "We weren't able to bring the coffee at the same time we extracted McKay," he confessed, "but Elizabeth is sending in a medical team and the hope is that we'll be able to salvage the trade agreement. So, yes, I expect we'll eventually get the coffee."
Zelenka's eyes turned very gentle behind his glasses. "Ah, good. Then Rodney can be proud coffee martyr, yes? Bravely risking life and limb to return caffeine to the lost city of the Ancients. "
That night John dreamed that he and Rodney and a bunch of Athosians were all eating breakfast at that crappy Village Inn restaurant just off the freeway near Colorado Springs. The food was pretty bad, but the greasy omelets were made with chicken eggs, the bacon was smoked pork and nobody tried to ration the coffee.
Loud and happy, thoroughly obnoxious, Rodney was sitting next to John at the back of the circular booth, and when the waitress brought a new pitcher of coffee to the table, Rodney gave a bark of laughter and leaned over to kiss John's ear as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
In his dream, at least, John wasn't surprised. He turned his head and touched his lips to the corner of Rodney's mouth, which was sticky with artificially-flavored pancake syrup. Rodney put his hand in the center of John's chest and pushed him away. "Eating now!" he shouted cheerfully, and John couldn't resist the challenge. He didn't think he was supposed to.
He wrapped both arms around Rodney's shoulders and dragged him close enough to bury his face against the side of Rodney's neck, blowing a noisy raspberry while Rodney flailed and yelled in protest. If they weren't careful they were going to get themselves kicked out of the restaurant.
John could hear Halling chuckling and on a whim, John gently sucked a little fold of flesh below Rodney's chin between his teeth. Then he bit down hard.
The skin on Rodney's throat tore like paper, and blood that tasted like grape jelly gushed into his mouth. When he let Rodney go, he fell back without a sound. Purplish blood was pumping steadily from the wound, soaking through Rodney's gray CalTech T-shirt with its arrogant motto ("the truth shall make you free"), and Rodney put his hand to the wound, then looked expressionlessly at the blood on his palm.
The tiny, pale Night People were all around the table, whispering instructions in their delicious, secret language. John wished Rodney could hear them.
"It'll be all right," he said, and lowered his mouth once more to Rodney's torn throat.
John came awake in a flash, the taste of blood thick and metallic in his mouth, so vivid he thought he'd bitten his tongue. He spat in disgust, and at the sight of his clear spittle he finally realized the taste of blood was a memory. He dragged on his clothes, shaking, and half-ran to the infirmary.
The night tech on duty waved him in with hardly a glance. Dr. Zelenka wasn't there, although his laptop was still on the chair. Rodney was awake, sitting up in bed with his broad, blunt fingers moving across the keypad of his own computer. He was still receiving blood from the IV drip--fourth unit by now?-- and his face was no longer dead white.
"Major," he said, elaborately casual. "Dr. Zelenka tells me after all this, you still haven't managed to bring the coffee home."
"God damn you, Rodney. Were you even going to tell me?"
Rodney's face twisted. Then he glanced away, and his expression turned stony and cold. "I'm sorry. Is something the matter?"
"Were you planning on telling anyone that your own team leader helped the Night People torture you?"
Rodney started to cross his arms over his chest, but he was thwarted by the IV lines. He settled for glaring back at John with his mouth set in a hard line. His eyes still looked sunken, dark blue circles under them like the bruises on his chest and neck.
"Did anyone else do it?" John demanded. Rodney's brow wrinkled for a moment.
"Ford or Teyla," John elaborated. "Or the other two scientists. Did anyone else cut you like I did and -- " John was so angry and disgusted he choked on his words, "--and drink your blood like a goddamned vampire, like the fucking Wraith, for Christ's sake."
"You don't even remember," Rodney spat back. "Major, you were stoned out of your mind. It doesn't matter anymore."
John leaned over him, planting his fists on the bed.
"That is not your call to make, McKay. Now answer the question."
"Not my call? I'm the one depleting the infirmary's supply of AB negative this evening. In what version of reality would this not be my decision?"
"Oh, don't hand me that. You've been working for the military for ten years now. You know damn well you don't get to pick and choose your orders."
"Right, unlike you," Rodney snapped back.
"For God's sake, Rodney, just tell me what happened. Did anyone else on the team hurt you?"
Rodney stared back mulishly. "The Night People had you all higher than puddlejumpers. It doesn't matter what you did, because you clearly weren't responsible."
John had a sudden, fragmentary memory of kneeling over Rodney, holding one of his legs pinned hard against John's own chest. Rodney had been fighting, trying to kick, but John clutched him tightly by the knee and ankle and the Night People were singing, and it was so close to being so perfect and so good--
Without stopping to think about it, John lifted Rodney's laptop away and pulled down the sheet.
He ignored Rodney's furious protests, gently pushing his arm away when Rodney tried to stop him. He loosened the tie at the waistband of Rodney's scrubs and rolled and tugged them down. Rodney stopped fighting as John finally bared his groin, and he lay very still, though his eyes were incandescent with rage.
"Seen enough, Major?"
John breathed, "Jesus, Rodney."
The bruise in the crease of Rodney's thigh was small and dark purple, exactly where John's treacherous memory placed it. He remembered Rodney on the stone table, struggling against him despite the soothing blandishments of the Night People and his own serene certainty that Rodney would be so much happier if he would only stop panicking. He had finally jabbed his fingers into the bundle of nerves inside Rodney's left thigh. Not hard enough to cripple him. He had just wanted Rodney to calm down.
With a grunt of shock and pain Rodney had stopped fighting. John's memories after that were like knife slashes in his consciousness, so vicious and hot John couldn't understand how he ever could have forgotten. He remembered his calm satisfaction as he folded Rodney's knee back to his bloodied chest. He remembered Rodney so sweetly pliant in John's arms that he was able to secure his ankle one-handed and hold the Night People's haftless stone knife in the other.
"Major, don't. John, please don't do this to me." Rodney had been begging, tears in his eyes, no pride, no shame, and John had been so moved he'd kissed Rodney's naked foot.
Then when John used the blade to draw a red line across Rodney's soft, winkled sole, Rodney had screamed and tried to buck up, but by then he had been too weak to break free. The Night People held him firmly as John bent his head to suck hard from the wound. The Wraith would never taste the sweetness of Rodney's blood, not like this. It had all made such perfect sense at the time.
John wanted to vomit. He pulled up Rodney's scrubs and smoothed the sheet down.
"Rodney--" he began with no idea what he could possibly say.
"I think you will not visit Dr. McKay again," Zelenka said, insinuating himself between John and the bedside.
"Radek, I'm all right."
"Rodney," John tried again, stepping around Dr. Zelenka,
"I just need --"
Zelenka laid his small hand in the center of John's chest. "Please leave now. I believe Dr. Beckett will not hesitate to assign security."
"Ford and Dawson were there, but they didn't -- " Rodney's voice hitched. He resumed in a harsh whisper. "-- they didn't touch me. I didn't see Teyla and Ngorny so I don't know if they were even in the cave. Is that what you need to hear, Major?"
"Please, Major," Zelenka said, polite and immovable. "I would prefer not to create a spectacle."
John raised his hands. "I'm going. I won't trouble Dr. McKay again." An apology would have been obscene, so John didn't say anything else as he left the infirmary.
John didn't wake up Elizabeth, although it was his first impulse. Instead, he returned to his quarters and wrote out instructions for convening a court martial. Then he detailed the charges against himself. He couldn't remember most of the night, only those short, harsh flashes. The sound of Rodney weeping in terror. The taste of his blood. Rodney no doubt could have filled in the rest, but John wouldn't approach him again. He had enough to take to Elizabeth.
She saw him an hour after breakfast in her office. She was sympathetic, and entirely unconvinced.
"I'm not going to court martial you, John."
"Have you read the charges? It's your clear duty to timely--"
"I've read them. The facts haven't changed since yesterday's debriefing. Drs. Ngorny and Beckett agree you were surreptitiously dosed with neurally active alkaloids which interacted with neurotransmitter inhibitions in your brain."
John made an impatient gesture.
"In short," Elizabeth continued calmly, "At the most basic, at the cellular level, John, you were no more responsible for your failure to assist Dr. McKay--" she raised her voice and talked over his attempt to interrupt, "--nor for harming him, than you were for your hallucinations. Believe me, I sympathize with your regret over what occurred, but there are simply no grounds for disciplinary action here."
"Have you asked McKay?"
"I'm sorry -- have I asked Dr. McKay what, exactly?"
"He's the one whose commanding officer attacked him. Have you asked him how he feels about the entire issue being summarily dismissed?"
Elizabeth's eyebrow went up. "Do you have some reason to believe Rodney wants you prosecuted for this?"
"He was seriously injured as a result of my actions. I strongly believe at the very least Dr. McKay should have a say in any further proceedings. Or the lack thereof."
Elizabeth studied him for a long moment. "I'll speak to Rodney," she said at length. "But in the meantime, I need to know if you're able to accompany the medical team back to the Night People's village. Teyla believes they won't object to receiving inoculations if we continue trade negotiations at the same time, and given your familiarity with the terrain and the people--"
"Of course I'll go," John snapped gruffly.
"Are you sure? You walked in my door not two minutes ago asking me to remove you from duty. "
"I can still do my job."
Elizabeth didn't smile. Didn't come close to it. But there was a subliminal, utterly sub rosa satisfaction in her expression, as though she'd proven some sort of point here. "Very well."
John felt like putting his fist into the wall.
The bitter, smoky reek of roasting coffee beans hung over the Night People's settlement like a pall, and did nothing to improve John's mood. When the wind shifted, he picked up the musk from the goat pens and the even thicker smell of the Night People themselves, and John thought he might be sick. If it weren't for the medical benefits of trade with the Night People, John would be doing everything in his power to make sure they never came near this place again, coffee be damned. But even he could admit it would be foolish to turn their backs on a medical treasure trove.
Or actually, maybe he didn't admit that at all. Even after the attack on Rodney, Weir and Dawson apparently weren't prepared to admit the depth of the Night People's perversion. Dawson even speculated that Rodney's survival had been the whole point of the cruel ritual, which would imply it had been about defiance of the Wraith, not worship at all.
John watched Teyla negotiate with the Night People, helped Ford and Carson distribute half a dozen 50-ml Pyrex bottles into their eager hands, and watched with some surprise as all the Night People, young and old, submitted to Carson's inoculations. It was the first off-world trip for the nurse accompanying Carson, and up until now he had been regarding his surroundings with big, worried eyes. Probably wondering if he was going to be sliced up like Rodney McKay had been. As the children clutched curiously and fearlessly at his sleeves, though, John could see him relaxing. Everyone was perfectly willing to forgive the Night People. They hadn't meant any harm.
John turned away and found himself studying the broken pyramid through the trees. A light, misting rain was coming down, so although the ruins weren't very high, the peak was still lost in the fog. Just like John's memories. He had promised himself he would leave Rodney alone -- the man shouldn't be forced to dredge up unpleasant memories just for the sake of John's peace of mind -- but John couldn't shake a nagging suspicion that there had been something else. Something he really ought to remember.
In particular, he had no memory of the six Wraith women who had emerged for a cup of coffee during his team's first visit to this planet. Dawson had pressed him on the point, and he understood what she was thinking. Not having their own mock-Wraith make an appearance during the sacrifice didn't make any sense. John thought they probably had shown up at the climactic moment. He just couldn't remember what that might have been. And he couldn't help wondering if he had a good reason for not really wanting to remember.
He had a sudden, urgent desire to climb into the pyramid one more time. Just to see if any more stray memories were jogged free. He was on the verge of asking Ford to keep an eye on things here for him, when he came to his senses. He'd already let his guard down once on this planet. Did he really want to see what would happen a second time?
They hiked back to the stargate carrying two bushels of promising plant specimens, and fifty pounds of raw coffee beans.
In exchange for coffee, Radek Zelenka was evidently willing to forgive John quite a lot. Of course, Dr. Zelenka was one of Rodney's scientists, so his forgiveness took the form of assuming John and his genes would be available to help him run tests on the puddlejumpers' inertial dampening fields all afternoon and well into the evening hours.
John didn't mind. Zelenka spent most of the time hunched over his laptop, muttering to himself and gesticulating in tight, contained gestures, so different from Rodney, before attacking his keyboard with random bursts of furious typing that did remind John of Rodney.
Every twenty minutes or so he'd ask John to power up or down the jumper, then resume his muttering. John sat in the pilot's chair and thought about flying to avoid thinking about anything else. The only distraction was the pervasive smell of coffee--Zelenka had brought a bunson burner and his shiny aluminum moka pot up to the bay, and after a couple of hours he took a break to ceremoniously brew himself an espresso. To his credit, he offered to split his cup with John, but he couldn't hide the grin that spread across his face when John refused.
"Say what you like about the Night People," Zelenka mused after finishing his coffee in two long, appreciative swallows. "They grow fine, fine beans."
"That appears to be the general consensus," John agreed tightly. This wasn't a discussion he wanted to get in to right now. Or, thank you, ever. He saw Zelenka's eyes flicker sharply in his direction though, and braced himself.
But Dr. Zelenka simply put aside his cup with a final, satisfied smack of his lips and said, "Rodney McKay is the most stubborn man in the Pegasus Galaxy. If we figure out way to expand inertial dampening across Atlantis' crucial systems, we drastically increase time we could hope to survive a direct bombardment, heaven forfend such thing ever happens. Still, he refuses to even consider benefits until I can isolate dampening system in the jumpers."
"He doesn't think that system can be pinpointed?" John asked carefully.
"He would probably say that, wouldn't he?" Zelenka growled. "The truth is, gravity is Rodney's least favorite force."
"You guys have favorite fundamental forces?" John said, boggling a little.
"Rodney doesn't believe M-theory actually provides a consistent explanation of quantum gravity. It's been standing in the way of his unified field theory for several years now, and just between you and me, I think he is starting to lose his sense of perspective."
"Major!" Rodney's voice came from outside the jumper, as though summoned by Zelenka's irreverent comments. John looked up in surprise. He had no idea Beckett had released Rodney yet.
"Major, I can't believe you're going to make me go crawling through puddlejumpers to find you."
"Here, McKay," John called back. "Hang on."
"Go," Zelenka mouthed, barely looking up from the keyboard. "I do not need interruption now."
John walked out the back to find Rodney hunched irritably in a wheelchair being pushed by the same nurse who'd accompanied Beckett to the Night People's settlement. Just now, the man appeared supremely uncomfortable, which led John to believe Rodney hadn't exactly been released yet after all.
"Does Dr. Beckett know you two are up here?"
The nurse gave John a weak smile, and looked like he'd rather be back with the Night People, or really, anywhere but here.
"Do you mind telling me what you were thinking -- or wait, is it too much to assume you were thinking at all? Yes, apparently it is -- when you told Elizabeth I wanted to have you court-martialed for, Christ, I don't even know what. Crimes against humanity I suppose. "
John crossed his arms and leaned against the jumper. "You snuck out. Carson doesn't even know you're here, does he?"
Rodney looked better than he had three days ago, in that he was sitting upright and had regained enough energy to throw a tantrum, but the bruises had darkened dramatically against his fragile white skin, and the cuts had scabbed over, puckering his stitches.
"And frankly, I'm relatively certain no one said anything about crimes against humanity."
Rodney swept away that minor point with a quick, irritated wave of his hand. "Let me first of all express my heartfelt appreciation to you for so cheerfully sharing your opinion that I'm such a petty and vindictive son-of-a-bitch that I would insist on a court martial for the man who's saved everyone in Atlantis on more than --"
"Now just hold on, McKay," John tried to interrupt, "I know damn well Elizabeth didn't--"
Rodney steam-rollered right over him. "Yes, well, it may have escaped your notice, Major, but I'm not, in point of fact, a complete moron. The incontestable truth of the matter is you were drugged without your knowledge, and nothing you did on that planet makes any difference now."
A hectic flush bloomed high on Rodney's cheeks. "I'm covering very simple, extremely basic concepts here, so do me the courtesy of paying attention so I don't have to repeat myself. You were not responsible. It does not matter anymore. In fact, it never did." Rodney's hands began to shake, so he stopped gesturing and clamped them around the arms of the wheelchair. A tendon in his throat stood out beneath the bruised and stitched cut under his jaw. The bruise itself had darkened to an angry purple, and an inch or two to the right, that cut would have sliced open his carotid artery.
On an impulse, John reached out and very, very gently touched the tips of his fingers to Rodney's stitches. "This was me too, wasn't it?" The truth seemed very simple and obvious once he said the words out loud.
Rodney jerked back furiously. "Christ, Major. Have you even noticed that my lips are moving? Much less the sound waves bouncing off your frightening thick ear drums? Wait, you know what? This is ridiculous." He wheeled backwards, his head resolutely turned away.
"I'm sorry," the nurse told John quietly, helping Rodney back away. " I was ... led to understand Dr. McKay had been called up here on an emergency."
"I'm sitting right here," Rodney snapped.
"Rodney, I just didn't want you to think I was letting myself off the hook. You have every right --"
"Save it, Major. Or better yet, let it fucking go already." His voice sounded frightening close to breaking, and after he was gone John stood outside in the bay wondering if going to the workout room and slamming the stuffing out of a punching bag would help anything.
"Major Sheppard," Zelenka eventually called, "Would you please power up the secondary systems for me?" John walked back and took his seat again in the pilot's chair. His shoulders hunched against the expected comment -- Dr. Zelenka must have heard everything -- but it never came. Half an hour later Zelenka asked John to power the primary systems, and he started a little. Apparently he'd been on the verge of falling asleep.
"On second thought," Dr Zelenka said kindly, "Why don't you go back to your quarters. The hour is late."
"No," John said. "I'm good. Finish your work."
Dr. Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose and regarded John, unblinking. Then he sighed and closed his laptop. "I am finished, too. Good night, Major Sheppard."
And that, apparently, was that. John stood up and Zelenka watched him go. He was half way across the bay when Zelenka called, "Major! One thing, please." He was standing outside the jumper, his moka pot in his hand. "Would you please give this to Rodney next time you see him?" he asked when John reached him.
"Are you sure?" John took the pot reluctantly. Its hexagonal design reminded John of an inside-out rocket ship. "Why would you-- you don't really want to give this to McKay."
"Rodney has coveted my moka pot since the first time he saw it. Now that we have coffee worthy of brewing in it, I think perhaps he has earned it."
John tried to hand the pot back. "Dr. Zelenka, you should give this to Rodney, then."
Zelenka smiled. "But I can talk to Rodney whenever I want," he said, which was not the non sequitur John would have wished it was.
John took the moka pot back to his quarters and left it sitting by the sink, intending to wash out the cold coffee grounds before he gave it to Rodney, and somehow one day passed and then another. He heard from Elizabeth that Beckett had released McKay, and thought he should probably carry the little pot over to McKay's quarters that evening. But then he convinced himself it wouldn't be a good idea to drop in on Rodney during his first night in his own room, and somehow a couple more days passed before John saw him again in a meeting of department heads.
Rodney looked good. The stitches were gone, the bruises fading to streaks of green and yellow, and the way he said, "Major," distractedly to John, before bustling over to pour himself a cup of coffee from the pot in Elizabeth's office made John think Zelenka must not have mentioned the treasured moka pot to him.
Tonight. John really had to go see him tonight.
The niggling guilt over Dr. Zelenka's gift let John ignore the lowering gloom of his own failure, at least temporarily. This was something he could do. It might even make Rodney grin.
He stopped by the lab before dinner to see if there were any late night projects in the works, and Dr Simpson told him Rodney had been looking a little peaked, and had gone to try and work in his quarters. Personally, she hoped he would get in a nap before dinner.
"You'd think ensuring a caffeine supply would have helped McKay's temper, " Dr. Kavanaugh put in. "I haven't noticed any improvement."
"And what's your excuse?" Simpson snapped back, with a pointed look at Kavanaugh's own insulated coffee mug. John was already halfway out the door. He could catch Rodney before dinner and get the moka pot handed over before Dr Zelenka came after him. Stopping by his own room he grabbed up the aluminum pot where it was still sitting by the sink and headed over to McKay's quarters, carefully thinking about nothing at all except the mild satisfaction of discharging a responsibility.
Rodney looked like he probably had been napping, despite the open laptop. He waved in John from the side of the bed. His hair was standing up on one side and his eyelids looked heavy.
"Major." He stifled a yawn. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Sorry to bother you," John said. "Did I wake you up?"
"Is that Radek's moka pot?" Rodney demanded, suddenly keen-eyed. He got up and took it out of John's hands. "This is Radek's," he pronounced, beginning to unscrew it, and John belatedly remembered he had never emptied the old grounds.
"Careful--" he started, but Rodney was on top of it, catching the inner filter and carefully knocking free the wet, tightly-packed, molding coffee.
"Where did you find this? Radek must have been going crazy without it. I wonder why he didn't say anything? Do you think he'd mind if I brewed just one pot before we give it back? That's not an unreasonable finder's fee, is it?"
"I didn't find it. Dr. Zelenka gave it to me."
Rodney was already rinsing out the pot in his bathroom sink, but he stepped out again to stare at John. "He gave it to you? Why would he do that? Oh my god--is he dying? And why in the world would he give it to you instead of me? I'm the one who--"
"Rodney, stop. Zelenka's fine, and he gave me his moka pot to give to you. So -- there you go. Have a moka pot."
Rodney came out of the bathroom again, this time polishing the outside of the pot on his sleeve. "Wait. I'm missing something. I still don't understand why Radek would give me his most treasured possession. Are you sure he's not dying?"
"I think it has something to do with you finding coffee. He said you'd earned it."
"Radek said that?" Rodney looked down at the pot, and seemed very close to smiling. "He probably thinks I'll let him borrow it back whenever he wants," he growled then, clutching it possessively, but he was unquestionably smiling when he looked up at John again. Then a puzzled expression crossed his face. "And where do you come in?"
"Zelenka gave me --"
"Yes, yes, Radek gave you his moka pot to give to me," John noticed Rodney wasn't loosening his possessive grip. "Why wouldn't he give it to me himself?"
"He said -- well, he said you and I never talk anymore."
It was supposed to come out as a joke, but John's voice twisted in his throat, and for an awful second or two, he couldn't meet Rodney's eyes.
Rodney swore, and then with obvious reluctance set the pot aside. "I have been talking," he said, but there was no edge to his voice. "You're just such a ridiculous damned head case, Major, you haven't listened to a word I've been saying." And then Rodney put his arms around John's tensed and miserable shoulders.
It wasn't a graceful hug -- Rodney felt as stiff and uncomfortable as John, but Rodney held on stubbornly all the same, squeezing hard and then loosening his embrace slightly, but not letting go. "Dammit, John, I've already forgiven you, and it's just possible that you'll find a person or two on this station who might tell you that I don't have the most forgiving of natures. So for chissakes, would you do us both a favor and let yourself off the hook already?"
John snorted, and then carefully, tentatively, let himself relax just a little. He felt Rodney's chest rise in a brief huff of almost-laughter, and John put his own arms around Rodney's back. It was such a relief to touch McKay, to hold him, warm and unflinching and yeah, a little exasperated, but not really angry with John. Not afraid. Not hurt. If John had been the sort of man who let himself cry, he thought he might have shed a tear or two in sheer, surprised gratitude. He squeezed harder, intending to let Rodney go, but the weight of Rodney's warm solidity suddenly stirred memories.
With an abrupt jolt, he could remember the feel of Rodney's body in other circumstances. Trembling and blood-streaked as John knelt over him on the Night People's stone altar. The Wraith had come, but John was strong and certain and this was Rodney, and there was no sacrifice John wouldn't make to protect him, no price he wouldn't pay. Rodney was frightened, struggling and pleading, so John bent down very low and brushed his lips over Rodney's forehead. He tasted of salty sweat and blood.
"It's OK," John murmured, "I know the Wraith are here, but I'll protect you. Rodney, I promise."
"Major," Rodney gasped, "Those aren't the Wraith, those are the Night People in clown face and bird skulls. For the love of heaven, try think about what you're doing here."
Rodney was weaker than he'd been earlier in the evening, but when he saw the stone knife in John's hand he convulsed so violently he nearly pushed John off, so John stretched out full length to hold him down. With his free hand he turned Rodney's head to the right to bare his throat.
"Please, Major, please please please don't do this," Rodney was talking so quickly his words came out in an undifferentiated, hoarse babble. "I promise you in the morning you're really going to regret it. God, Major, is there any part of you that can hear me?"
The haftless stone knife was crude, so John cut him very carefully. To his relief, Rodney went deathly still as the first drops of blood welled up behind the blade.
"John, I can't tell," he said, then, in a very different tone of voice. He sounded almost calm. "Did you nick the artery? Because if you did, I don't have a whole lot of time left."
John lowered his head and sucked from the wound as hard as he could, smoothing his hands down Rodney's sides and touching his face. Rodney made a gasping sort of sound that was almost like laugh. "If you remember any of this in the morning, tell Zelenka he needs to check the power conservation notes I left on my backup laptop. I was going to transfer them over when we got back from this mission."
Rodney slowly went limp beneath him, and the Night People let him go. John could feel Rodney's hand clumsily patting the back of his head. "Oh, hell, you're not going to remember any of this, are you?" Rodney's voice was very quiet, almost resigned. "Of all the ways I never thought I'd die in the Pegasus Galaxy. I can't feel my fingers and toes anymore, so either I'm bleeding out or I'm about to throw up from shock. In case it's the former, John, it's been an honor and a privilege."
He tugged at John's hair until he lifted his face, then pressed his lips to John's blood-stained mouth.
He wanted to let Rodney go, but McKay was hanging on with a kind of bulldog determination by this point, so John left his arms loose around Rodney's back. He also wanted to apologize, but he thought Rodney would probably knock his block off if he tried, so instead he lowered his head and kissed the fading bruise on Rodney's throat, feeling beard stubble against his lips and the puckered skin where the stitches had been.
Rodney laughed like he was choking and his shoulders began to shake. John thought Rodney might be crying, and he braced Rodney's body more securely against his own, and wondered wistfully if Rodney would teach him how to taste maple, vanilla, and hazelnut in a cup of plain black coffee.