The story starts here on LJ or you can read the entire story here in a single file.
Note: There is an amazingly long author's note at the end of this chapter, so the end will come sooner than you expect.
"Jasper!" his father was bellowing. A soldier had grabbed him by the arm, Jasper realised; realised also that he was desperately straining against it. "Get your hands off my son!"
He cares! It was a stupid thing to think; it was a wrong thing to think. Not when his friends were… "Let me go," he begged. "Please." He couldn't see. He couldn't tell…
"They shot me!" Rodney was screeching. "They shot me!" And the Basilis was shouting, too, commanding his men to stop shooting. "Right at me!" he was screaming. "You could have hit me!" and Rodney screamed, "They did hit me!", and Sheppard was still on the ground, with Ronon crouching over him, and Rodney had his hand clasped to his upper arm, and Teyla seemed caught between fierce protectiveness and care, his expression fierce when he looked outwards, but soft as she tried to pry Rodney's fingers away, saying, "I believe it is not too bad."
"Jasper!" his father bellowed again. "Look at me, boy. Look at me!"
Guns still surrounded his friends in a ring. Rodney was on his feet now, hunched over, with rivulets of blood running between the gaps in his fingers. "Sheppard," he said, pale and stricken. "Is he…? Oh God, is he…?"
"'m good." It was a mumble at first. Sheppard rolled onto his back – "easy," he said, to the guards who closed in on him – and sat up. Jasper couldn't see any blood, but sometimes these things were hidden. "You guys?"
"I'm--" Rodney visibly swallowed, once, then twice. "I think it's a flesh wound. Hurts like hell."
"It would," Sheppard said, but still he didn't stand. "That was spectacularly stupid, McKay."
"I know. I know." Rodney looked at the Basilis. "Impulsive reaction, you know? I stopped myself after a second, but they overreacted."
Kit was talking urgently to the Basilis, Jasper saw, saying things that were too quiet to hear. The guard released him, and Jasper edged forward, but still couldn't hear.
"Jasper!" his father commanded one more time. "If anyone lays a finger on my son, I swear I will burn your city to the ground." Something twisted inside Jasper at that. It wasn't care, of course it wasn't, but… "Jasper!" it came again. "Stand with me, boy." And, when Jasper turned mutely to look at him, he thought he understood the rest of it: People are watching.
Jasper didn't want to. Biting his lip, he looked back at his friends. Sheppard swayed as Ronon helped him to his feet, but Jasper was fairly sure he wasn't shot, just sick again. Teyla's hands were bloody as she tended to Rodney. Kit was gesturing sharply. "I'm allowed to change my mind," he told to Basilis.
"Jasper…" his father said again, his voice quiet now.
I want to stay with you, Jasper thought, but none of the others were looking at him. If he went over to stand by his father now, his father would think that he had won. His friends would think that he had betrayed them, just like Kit had done. It would be a defeat. He would be surrendering himself to a lifetime of servitude, robbed always of the light.
"You okay, junior?" Sheppard said. Teyla turned, hand still on Rodney's arm, and looked at Jasper, perhaps with pity in her eyes.
But it was what he had resolved, wasn't it? In that prison cell, when he alone had been unchained, he had resolved to face up to his duty. He would play his father's game enough to be kept on as heir. He would try to change things from within, and then, one day far in the future, perhaps get the chance to change things more.
His throat hurt, and he almost thought he was about to cry, but his eyes stayed dry as he went to stand at his father's side.
The others were no longer looking at him by then.
"Now that the screaming is over," his grandfather said, "can I have an explanation, please?"
So it was the turn of the bewildered mask, was it? "I've been trying to explain," Kit managed.
"Crazy explanations that would have made my head hurt--" His grandfather raised affronted fingers to his brow. "--had I been able to hear them over your noisy friends. So you're in league with assassins now, boy?"
"No." Kit shook his head. His palms were slick with sweat, but at least all four of them appeared to be alive and more or less well; too late now, far too late, to bother telling himself that he didn't care. "It was a misunderstanding."
"Misunderstandings don't usually involve impolite men lunging at me, or me almost getting shot by my own men."
"My uncle's men, actually." Stop it, Kit. Stop it. He scraped his hand on his coat, smearing sweat away with rain water.
"They were trying to protect me, of course, from your crazy assassin friends." The Basilis of Daryen frowned, almost pouted. "I don't think I like your present, after all."
It had always been so hard to remember that a masterful political mind lay beneath all this. Kit tried to compose himself, tried to focus; tried not to remember that so much rested on the next few moments… no, tried not to forget. "I believe," he said, rubbing his ear, "that Rodney was merely… I may be wrong, but you see that rather attractive diadem you're wearing – ancient badge of office, and all, with its rather impressive crystal? I believe that Rodney let himself get a little carried away when he saw it, on the grounds that it's the one thing these people need… well, in order to get home."
His grandfather frowned. "What nonsense is this?"
"What nonsense is this?" his father echoed, grasping Jasper's wrist. "First sensible thing that old fool's said all day." At least he had the sense to say it in a whisper.
Perhaps this was the time. The two of them were linked, alone in a small island of space at the edge of the main group. "I didn't…" He cleared away the constriction in his throat. "They didn't abduct me. I went of my own accord. I shouldn't have. No, I'm glad. I'm glad I went. It's made me realise things I wouldn't have realised if I hadn't left, but… I was wrong." No, not that. He couldn't believe that. "I won't do it again."
His father didn't look angry, didn't shout at him, didn't say anything at all. The indifference was back. Of course he didn't care. Jasper was a possession, and his father had been furious to think of a possession in the hands of his enemy.
It didn't matter, he told himself. It shouldn't matter. It couldn't matter. "I've spent time in Daryen," he said. "The people aren't evil; they're just like us. There's no reason to fight them. I… I don't think they even caused the flood. Their river's rising just like ours did."
His father just looked at him. It was the sort of look you might give an idiot who had just realised the obvious. He might not have recognised it if he hadn't seen it so often on Rodney's face.
I can't do this, he thought. I can't. He looked at the ground, then at Sheppard and Teyla and the others, so near to him, yet so far away.
"You know, of course." He let out a breath. "You know they aren't evil, but you still want to fight them. Of course. I knew that." He raised his head, and this time refused to look away. "I will stand beside you, father," he said. "I will learn what you want me to learn. I will do what you want me to do. But I have my own opinions. I have my own interests--" Please, he thought, oh please… "--and you can't change that. I'm nearly a man now, and I'm my own man, but I will do my duty, and I don't…" He dug his nails into his palms. "I don't want you to fight."
His father still said nothing.
"Perhaps," Kit suggested quietly, "you might want to send these shiny guards away. Sensitive issues, you know. Flapping ears."
"So your assassin friends can stab me?" his grandfather said, but he waved his hand, and Kit's uncle translated that into an order: to move exactly six paces further away, but keep their weapons ready in a bristling circle.
On your own head be it, then, Kit thought. Don't say I didn't warn you. He surveyed the gathered crowd: Basilis, general, assorted commanders, a priest or two – Ah, this is going to be fun! – and, for the other team, Jasper's daddy, a Whisperer or two – even better! – and a scattering of generals and the like.
"Here's the thing," he began, "and believe me, it grieves me to interrupt your highly important bickering in the sandpit of our two little city states, but--" He rubbed his ear again, smiling apologetically. "--something's emerged, you see. Interesting truths."
Jasper's daddy and some of his commanders bristled gratifyingly at the sandpit reference. Kit looked away from them, at the farmhouse behind them all. Where had the farmer been banished to, he wondered.
"Interesting," he repeated, "like the fact that my new friends here apparently come from somewhere very far away, and were clearly expecting to be able to get back to wherever it was by stepping through the Circle."
What, no cries of heresy? he thought. He couldn't look at the priests, though; couldn't keep his eyes from drifting to Sheppard and Ronon and the others. Was this a second betrayal, he wondered? Perhaps it was.
"I believe they came here through the Circle, too," he told everyone. "This end of the world thing? The Gods coming back? Not gods. Them." He jerked his thumb at Sheppard. "He flew them in some flying machine, and crashed somewhere over in Myr. True?" He rounded on the king of Myr who, caught by surprise, gave it all away in his face, as transparent in his own way as Jasper was. "True," he said.
"This is ridiculous!" protested the priest. "It's blasphemy!"
"A flying machine came through the Circle, right?" Kit repeated it slowly, as if to an idiot. "It was them."
"Gods," someone breathed; Kit didn't know who. Rodney, he saw, was about to protest, but he shook his head slightly at him, and – fancy that! – Rodney actually obeyed him.
"Not gods," he said. "People. Not bad sorts, really. Moreover…" He could enjoy this, really, perhaps. "Moreover," he said again, "they call the gods Ancients, and talk as if they were little more than people themselves. Oh!" He snapped his fingers, and looked solicitously at Jasper's father. "I don't know if you're in on it, or if you're the victim of deception, but the Whisperers aren't half so scary as they make out. Two of my new friends here have their skills. That call it an ATA gene, whatever that is."
"It is a lie!" thundered the Whisperer, and Kit made no effort to hide his laughter at such predictability. "I will reach into your mind and--"
"And so on and so on." Kit waved his hand in a circle. "I can prove it," he said, turning to his grandfather. "I just need to borrow your diadem and, well, for us all to go to the Circle – with your permission, of course, because of course the priests all bow to your will – and, well…" He spread his hands, like a player on the stage. "And then we can watch these people step through the Circle and vanish back where they came from, which is somewhere beyond the stars, by the way, unless I'm very much mistaken."
"They lie!" thundered the priest. "They've corrupted your mind--"
"Actually," Kit said cheerfully, "they didn't tell me any of this. I overheard it all and put two and two together. They are quite ridiculously indiscreet, you know. After all, I never tried to hide how good I am at hearing things I'm not supposed to. Knew their names," he said confidingly to his grandfather, "before they'd told me."
"Kit," Sheppard said, in the way that he sometimes said 'McKay.' Kit dared to look at them – stupid, really, that it was their reaction that he worried about most, not the reaction of all those people whose world he was overturning – and saw that Rodney was the only one wearing his horror on his face.
His grandfather flapped his hand. "This is quite ridiculous."
"Please, grandfather." Kit took a step towards him. "I've never asked you for anything before."
"Yes, you have," his grandfather said tetchily. "You used to ask me for things all the time. But at least you made life interesting, unlike these bores." He ran his ink-stained fingers through his hair, clearly forgetting that he had his diadem on, and nearly pushed it off. "Very well." There was a chorus of protest from all the predictable parties. The Basilis turned to them. "Come now," he said. "The best way to silence a lie is to disprove it. Come along. The talks have been quite tedious. Mount up, then. Get a move on."
The predictable chorus went on – Jasper's father the loudest of all – but Kit, in a moment of quiet, found himself drifting towards Sheppard and his team. "You can go home," he said, and Sheppard nodded, and Teyla smiled, and Ronon's shoulders relaxed ever so slightly, and Rodney's eyes were alight with hope.
"Yes." It didn't really matter which of them said it. In every way that mattered, they all did.
"This is ridiculous!" Jasper's father protested. "Quite ridiculous! I've never heard such a pack of ridiculous nonsense in my life."
Jasper had just stood there frozen, unable to do anything but gape. It can't be true! It can't be! It can't… And then, as scraps of things he had overheard came together and reassembled themselves into a new form, he thought, It is. It is. And, How could I have been so stupid as to not work it out for myself? and Why is it always Kit? and Why didn't they tell me?
"Let them waste their time chasing after shadows and lies." His father waved his hand in angry dismissal. "I'm not following this crazy boy on whatever ridiculous game he's playing. That man--" He swung the hand round at Sheppard, finger pointing in denunciation. "--escaped from my custody. These others doubtless rescued him. Knocked out my men. Killed one of my trusted agents. They plant poison everywhere they touch. Refusing to work!" He snorted. "The labourers are refusing to work, demanding better pay, and it all started where he came to ground."
"No." Jasper shook his head. "No. No." He clenched his fist at his side. The Basilis and his commanders were mounting up, ready to ride to the Circle. There was much angry muttering, but the Basilis stilled it with a few words, sharper than anything he had said before. "The best way to silence a lie," Jasper quoted, "is to disprove it. And if it's true…" He lowered his voice. "If it's true, you don't want Daryen to get a monopoly of it. They will, if you don't go with them now. They'll keep it secret and use it to their advantage."
His father made a sound of possible grudging agreement. He was smaller than Jasper had ever realised, he noticed - perhaps a finger's-width shorter than Jasper was himself.
"Please." Jasper brought his hands up, entwining fingers at his chest. "Please, father, because I ask it."
"Hmph," he father grunted grudgingly. His hand fell briefly on Jasper's shoulder. "Just this once, boy. Just this once." He didn't add 'for you,' but Jasper felt the warmth of that touch, even so.
The party set off, the two halves of it glowering suspiciously at each other, and virtually everyone glowering at Kit. "Best send a message back to your respective armies," he said, smiling cheerfully at his uncle and Jasper's daddy. "'Be good and don't touch anything until daddy gets home.' It wouldn't do to have them start a war in your absence."
Perhaps not the best thing to say. He could feel his mask slipping, and jammed it back on his face. He was scared shitless, he realised, but also, in some strange and crazy way, he had never been happier.
Then he found that Sheppard and his friends seemed determined to ride alongside him. His mood faltered; looking at them was still hard.
"A heads-up would have been nice," Sheppard said neutrally.
"Sorry 'bout that." Kit shrugged. "You have to admit that it was fun, though. Did you see their faces?"
None of them smiled.
"Look..." Kit let out a breath. "I meant it, what I said back there. It's our world. This… It's pretty fucking vast, and you were planning on keeping it secret from us? We wouldn't have discovered it at all if I wasn't so good at hearing what I'm not supposed to hear, and if you weren't so fucking pathetic at keeping secrets. You were just going to up and vanish, leaving us all running around like headless chicks, panicking about the end of the world, and never knowing…" His voice was rising, he realised, and he made an effort to calm himself. "Never knowing that there's a whole world out there full of things we've never dreamed of. I call that pretty fucking arrogant, Sheppard."
"Arrogant?" Rodney echoed, struggling to ride one-handed. "Last week, apparently, we were arrogant if we told you. Teyla said – it was all Teyla's idea, not mine! – that it was wrong of us to judge what was right for another civilisation and that we… Although she's wrong, of course. There are lots of planets out there that have been overjoyed to have been on the receiving end of our--"
"Rodney," Teyla said stiffly, "I merely said that--"
"Arrogant," Kit repeated, and he meant it, he realised. "Like I said, it's our world. If you saw a child about to put his hand in a fire, you'd tell him not to, right? You wouldn't hoard your secret knowledge that fire could hurt you? Not that we're children…" He raked his hand through his hair. He had been in perfect control throughout the whole confrontation with the most important people in his world, and here he was getting rattled by the only four who were not. "Luckily," he said, managing a grin, "I don't bear grudges. I told you that right from the start."
"We did not mean to--" Teyla began.
Kit stopped her with a wave of his hand "Like I said, no hard feelings. You meant well."
"Unlike some people," Rodney said pointedly.
"Harsh," Kit managed, but he couldn't quite bring himself to move away from them.
Jasper rode beside his father, not his friends. He clung to everything he had learnt, and tried not to feel afraid as they approached the Circle. Priests glowered from the grove, and there was a lot of shouting. The Basilis, he noticed, was just as effective as getting silence as his father was, although their methods were very different.
A branch reached out and tore at his head. He was busy untangling twigs and leaves from his hair when they arrived in the clearing. As his merrilyn faltered to a halt, Jasper's stomach rumbled, and he realised that he had eaten nothing since that brief stop in the darkness. It felt like a whole lifetime ago.
There were too many people, and he missed most of what happened next. A priest was thundering from in front of the Circle, but the Basilis flapped a dismissive hand at him, and said, "I do happen to be your master, you know. I believe you wrote the oaths? Though what was wrong with the old ones, I never knew." Jasper watched the priest's face for a moment, until someone walked past and blocked his view. When his father dismounted, so did he, edging forward, then continuing on after his father had stopped: one step, two, then three.
"Here you are," the Basilis said, handing over his diadem. "Remember when you stole your uncle's signet ring, lad? You're still after jewels, I see. But the lot of the ruler is ever one of sacrifice. I never did like it, anyway. Too heavy."
Rodney took it hungrily, holding it in both hands despite his injury. "Stand back." He jerked his chin, as if the Basilis of Daryen was a servant for him to give orders to. "Genius at work. I can't work when the masses are crowding me. Or talking," he added crossly, glaring at the priest.
His friends were allowed to crowd round him, though. They stood so close, a solid united wall, that Jasper couldn't see what Rodney was doing.
"It's a lie," someone said from behind Jasper. "A trick." "We should shoot them." "This is ridiculous. I'm stopping it right now…"
"No," Jasper breathed. "No." He whirled round, thundering at them to be quiet. "It's not a trick. Watch!"
"You," he heard Rodney call. "Whoever you are. Angry man in robes. You really don't want to stand there."
"How dare you--?" the priest began, but the Basilis waved him hand, and said, "Oh, just do what the man says. I want my dinner."
The priest stormed away, and Jasper strove to see Sheppard's face, to see if Teyla would turn around and notice him. So he missed that moment, too. He heard the gasps behind him – someone even screamed – but he missed the moment that the Circle came alive.
When he turned to it, his head moving slowly, stiffly, as if it knew that this was the end of things, it had become a beautiful blue pool, like the very essence of sky and water, like poetry, like everything that was beautiful and everything that was unknowable, all wrapped up into one perfect ring.
And his friends were moving towards it.
For a moment, Kit thought that they were actually going to do it – just walk away without a word, without even looking back. Then they paused – Sheppard and Teyla first, who were walking together, and then Ronon. Only Rodney carried on. "What?" he said, turning to look over his shoulder. "You're not coming now?"
"Of course they are," Kit found himself saying. Leaving behind the consternation at his back, he moved towards them, meeting them in front of that amazing, life-changing, soul-wrenching Circle. Jasper came too, so two faced four, with the blue pool behind them.
Sheppard seemed about to speak, but Kit stopped him. "You think you should stay," he said. "You don't want to leave us with all this on our plate: war, shouting… having suddenly had our entire view of the world changed in a single day. You want to fix it." He almost sneered the word, unable to stop himself. "But, like I said, it's not yours to fix."
"If we hadn't--"
Once again, Kit interrupted Sheppard. "It's not your responsibility," he said, remembering a talk on the bank of mountain stream. "I'm not one of 'your people'. None of us are. You know, I used to wonder about those hero types in those stories, about how they could be so noble and self-sacrificing, but I bet there was arrogance there, too, you know. 'Only I can do it,' and all that shit."
Ronon was looking at him fiercely, Kit saw, and that still hurt, just a little. He looked away from him, kept his hands steady at his sides. "You want to see the next move in the game," he told them. "You want to write the next verse in our story, or at least get to see it, but it's none of your business. So go. Chop chop. Home's waiting for you." He rolled his eyes. "You've been thinking of nothing else ever since Myr. It's what kept you going, riding through the night, staggering along when you should have been sleeping, rising from sickbeds before you were properly better. So go." He flapped his hand. "Go."
Rodney took several steps closer, but the others didn't move. "Uh, bleeding here?" Rodney said. "And Sheppard's just about dead on his feet. Uh, nice warm infirmary beds? Good drugs? Clean clothes? A shower? Because, not to be personal, or anything, but none of us are going to be winning any prizes for freshness right now."
Everyone else was stamping around, shouting, having a veritable revolution behind them. Kit had barely noticed it. He heard it for a moment, then pushed it aside again, focusing on these four in front of him.
"You'll be okay, junior?" Sheppard said, and of course the boy would get the concerned words, not him.
"I don't know." Jasper sounded like a child, but then he drew himself up with a visible effort of will. "I've got to do this; I know that now. And my father…" He swallowed. "It's like you said. There's no reason why kings can't write poetry."
"What about you?" It was Teyla who turned to Kit first, not Sheppard, not Ronon.
"Oh, I always survive." Kit flapped his hand. "Things are going to be interesting round here, that's for sure. The priests are going to do everything they can to keep this secret – quite overthrows their religion, you know – but I see Cousin Jay there in the outraged audience. Biggest gossip in Daryen, that man is." Jay appeared to be trying to catch his eye, too, his expression as mischievous and gleeful as it had been in the most outrageous of their childhood japes. Kit gave him a quick smile back, and the coldness at the heart of him faded even more. "And there's all those guards that my uncle helpfully didn't send far enough away. There's no keeping this secret. It'll be hard to manage at first – people clinging to their old gods, not wanting to give them up. You can see that in Myr. They don't really believe in them, but they can't give up the superstitious fear."
Prattle prattle, he thought. He shifted position, scraping his hand through his hair.
"What about the war?" It was Jasper who asked it.
Kit shrugged. "Now they know that there's so much more out there than their own petty squabbles…"
"Don't count on it," Sheppard said. "Believe me, it doesn't work like that."
"No." Kit sighed. "The worst fights I ever had with my cousins was when we were at war – supposed to be patriotic and all as one, etcetera. Still," he said, shrugging, "it was worth a try. We won't stop trying, will we, Jasper-lad? And it was fun to stir things up. That lot are like a deck of cards: they need shuffling up every now and then."
"So that's why you did it?" Rodney asked. "For a game?"
"Hey, I never pretended to be anything other than a mean-hearted bastard." Kit found it hard to keep the hoarseness from his throat.
"And a liar," Ronon said, with a quick smile, and the hoarseness grew worse, not better.
"What will you do?" Teyla asked again, and this time there was no hiding from it.
Kit let himself hear the shouting again. It was a miracle, really, that no-one had dragged him off by the scruff of his neck by now. Probably too busy furiously pretending they weren't scared shitless by this whole affair.
"I don't know," he admitted. "But I've learnt one thing. It's fun being a mean-hearted bastard when you're manipulating the big picture. When it's people who deserve it, that is. Manipulating people who don't…" He'd learnt his lesson on that, but wasn't quite ready to say it. "And there's more potential up here than down in the Drowned Quarter, where it's all just done for handfuls of beads and a flagon of ale. I seem to be quite good at it. The stories they tell about my grandfather's youth…! Anyway…" Prattle prattle, he thought. He still found it hard to look at any of them. "The family's got the next Basilis lined up, and probably the one after that, but I doubt they've thought any further ahead than that. A vacancy, do you think? A chance for me to finally do my duty like a good boy?"
"Daryen won't know what's hit it." He even got a smile from Sheppard.
"Which is a bad thing, right," said Rodney, "but none of our business. Can we go now?"
"Look," Sheppard said. "Listen. This is important. Your people are going to have to decide what to do about this. You can go out to other worlds, travel amongst the stars… But there's some bad guys out there – seriously bad. You've stayed under the radar because you haven't been travelling off-world, and, well, because it's a big galaxy out there, and not even the Wraith can get everywhere. But if you use this thing, you might draw attention – the wrong sort of attention."
Jasper nodded eagerly. "We mean it," Teyla said fervently. "Whole worlds have been wiped out by the Wraith. My people are only a shadow of what they once were."
"The end of the world for real." Sheppard sighed. Ronon, Kit saw, was looking grimly away. "But there's good stuff, too," Sheppard went on. "You have to decide. It's like… Help me out, guys; I suck at metaphors. It's like… deciding whether to stay on the ground, where it's safe, or--"
"As if they'll understand that," Rodney said, his hand clasped to his arm. "It's like deciding whether to publish--"
"I get it," Kit interrupted. "We have to decide whether to stay safe at home, or go out into the outside where we might be torn to pieces by crebyn before we've taken four steps. But where we might find wonders." He had meant to say it lightly, but it didn't turn out the way he had planned.
"But if you do decide to use the Gate…" Sheppard held out his hand. "Something to write on?" Jasper took a moment to react, then pulled out his book and a pencil. Sheppard leafed to the back and wrote something down. "Don't press things randomly. Use the DHD over there to enter these symbols, and you'll get somewhere safe, somewhere where the people can get a message to us. We can bring you a list of safe places to go. We might even be able to tell you where the hell you are."
"Just him?" Kit tried to say it with an unconcerned smile. "I don't get a copy?"
"Then you'll have to play nice. Your guys get the Gate."
"I'm always nice." Kit's voice was thick.
"Well…" Sheppard shrugged. "Good luck, and, uh, goodbye."
Ronon stepped forward suddenly, clapping Kit on the shoulder, giving him a quick nod and a quicker smile.
He had never set out to be liked, Kit reminded himself. From the start, he had gone out of his way to be objectionable. When you were planning to betray someone, it was far easier to live with yourself if the people weren't friends. It really didn't matter if they distrusted him now. It really didn't matter if they forgave him, if they smiled at him, if they said their goodbyes as warmly to him as to Jasper. It didn't matter at all.
"Yes, yes." Rodney was almost hopping up and down. "Goodbye. Now can we go before someone changes their mind and tries to stop us?"
Kit really had no idea why he said it; he definitely hadn't meant to. "It's not true," he blurted out, "what I said about it being nothing to do with you. You did make a difference. None of this would have happened if it wasn't for you."
"Yes," Rodney said bitterly. "Because we were 'indiscreet' and you spied on us."
"No." Kit could feel himself blushing – he who never felt shame. "Not that." He couldn't say any more; Rodney would be quite insufferable if he told them. His uncle and his tutors had been trying to teach him things for years, droning away with their lessons, but these people, perhaps without even realising it, had demonstrated… To the flood with it, he thought. He couldn't even think it. Jasper had learnt far more, anyway, being transformed from an idiot brat into… well, still into an idiot brat, really, but at least one with potential for being something more.
As for him, he told himself quite firmly, he hadn't learnt a thing.
Mean-hearted bastard, he thought, and a bare-faced bloody liar.
It was time for them to go. "They're fighting about it," Rodney said urgently, "but I think they're about to conclude that we're enemies of both states and that we need to be detained."
So no long farewells after all, then. Teyla took him by the shoulders, and briefly touched her brow to his, then did the same with Kit. Sheppard clapped him on the shoulder just once, nodding, and calling him 'junior.' And then that was it. "You know where to find us," Sheppard said, and then they turned and walked towards the Circle.
They had lived for this, he realised. All the time, all the way, while Jasper was dreaming of finding himself and Kit was plotting betrayal, they had longed only for this moment. As soon as they turned away, Jasper thought, he and Kit were forgotten. It had only ever been them: four friends trying to find a way home. Jasper had experienced things more intense than he had ever experienced before, but to them he was just a brief companion, already half-forgotten.
Don't go! he wanted to cry. Come back! Please don't leave me!
He was following them, he realised; his feet tottering after them, as if drawn to them by a string. The blue called to him. It was everything he had ever longed for when he had sat at his window in a dark-walled citadel and gazed at the stars. Don't, he thought. Don't…
A hand closed on his arm. "Don't, Jasper-lad," Kit said softly.
Another step, straining at that arm. "Jasper!" It was his father's voice. Jasper turned round. His father had broken away from the others and stood at the edge of the clearing, reaching towards him. "Jasper," he said. "My boy. Don't go." It sounded closer to a plea than to command.
And so he missed the moment of their going, though Kit told him afterwards that all four had turned at the last moment, some to wave, some to nod, and some just to look. By the time he turned back, his father's plea held cherished in the cupped hands of his heart, they were gone.
"They won't remember us," Kit said. He remembered other things he had overheard – all the things he had pieced together on the journey. "They have desperately exciting lives. This was just a tiny adventure for them. Changed our world, but they're already thinking of other things. Before the year's over, they'll have forgotten our names."
"No!" Jasper rounded on him, eyes bright with unshed tears.
"No." Kit brought the heel of his hand to his own eyes. "I'm being too harsh. Mean-hearted bastard, etcetera etcetera. They'll remember us, but it meant something different to them than it did to us."
"It doesn't matter!" Jasper blazed. "It doesn't matter!"
"No," Kit had to agree. Whether deliberately or accidentally, they'd made their mark on both of them. It was not just Kit's vocabulary that was forever marked by them. He knew that he could talk like Rodney, when he wanted to avoid talking about what really mattered. Ronon had shown him that working alone was good, but working with someone else… well, that sometimes, perhaps, occasionally, it might be… well, actually, uh, better. Sheppard had shown him-- Enough of that! Whatever else they had shown him, he was still Kit, and he was not sentimental.
"No," he said again. "It doesn't really matter. It's what they left behind that counts. And that's you and me, Jasper-lad. And that screaming mob over there, course." He clapped his hand on Jasper's shoulder, and looked at the trees on the far side of the glade, visible through the empty Circle. And that's me, he thought.
"You're quiet," Kit said. "What's on your mind, lad?"
Jasper had been staring so fiercely through the Circle that his vision was wavering. His mind, though, was full of other things. He pulled himself back enough to answer, "About stories."
"Stories, huh?" Kit sounded painfully like Sheppard. "Yeah, you came on this adventure because you wanted to live a story, didn't you? Not like you expected, huh?"
Jasper remembered how he had been pulling leaves out of his hair when the Circle had turned into a pool of blue. He remembered being terrified in places where he should have been nobly defiant. He remembered damp and pain and misery in places that the stories made glorious.
"No," he said, but then he smiled. "But you're wrong."
The days of heroes were over. Sheppard and the others were not like the heroes of stories, because the stories were flat and shallow things, not real. But Sheppard had walked wounded from Myr and Daryen, and had begged his friends to go on without him. Teyla and the others had risked their freedom and their lives in order to rescue him from the Citadel. Kit had betrayed them all, but then had risked everything to undo his mistake. They were not gods, but they lived in a world where the stars lay open to them. They were not heroes, but humans. Not heroes, but better than that.
"So what's on your mind?" Kit asked again, this time with a strange smile.
Jasper saw his father watching him, an empty merrilyn at his side, his expression nothing that Jasper had ever seen before on him. He thought of the future that lay ahead of him, and knew that he could face it. His companions might one day forget him, but he would never forget them, and that was what mattered. And perhaps there would be other companions, too. Here was Kit at his side, and there were others, too – people his own age back in Myr. He thought they had scorned him, but, really, he had been scorning them, wrapped up in his poetry and his unique gift. Perhaps if he laid that aside… No, he had already laid that aside. He had entirely deserved scorn back then, but he was changed now; changed utterly, because of them.
He smiled, feeling it suffuse his whole face, though there were tears in there, too. "I'm trying to think of rhymes for all their names," he said.
Kit gave a genuine laugh, perhaps the first Jasper had ever heard from him. "Come on, lad," he said, "we've got a world to change, you and I. Let's go write the next verse."
But Jasper remained standing for a moment, gazing at the Circle. "No," he said. "Let's write a whole new song."
Very long author's note:
I have included my idea of what happens next to Kit and Jasper. I've put it at near the end of these ridiculously long notes, though, because I don't want to limit people's own imagination by forcing an "official" version on you.
This story came from several different ideas coming together:
1. Outsider viewpoint: I love outsider viewpoints. It all started with a poem by Auden – Musee des Beaux Arts – which was inspired by Breughel's picture of the fall of Icarus, in which Icarus is a tiny pair of feet disappearing into the ocean in the background, while peasants get on with peasanty things in the foreground, totally ignoring him. This led me to write an X-Files fanfic from the viewpoint of several clueless bystanders, who each saw fragments of a larger tale – one that they didn't understand or care about, but which the readers understood. I did similar things in several other fandoms, but I wanted to write something longer, in which the outsider viewpoint character actually got to know the canon characters and interacted with them in a more direct way.
2. Flawed narrators. Most of my favourite books make use of flawed narrators in one way or another – usually narrators who tell the truth to the best of their ability, but whose judgement is flawed by bias or lack of perceptiveness etc. I love playing with these techniques myself, but I've learnt the hard way that it's easy to mislead readers this way. I felt that an outsider viewpoint fanfic would be an ideal way to explore this. In an original story, for example, if Jasper had looked at a new prisoner and judged him an obviously unrepentant rogue, readers may well have believed him, but in an outsider viewpoint fanfic, when the readers know Sheppard, readers will see this for what it is: a sign that Jasper isn't a good judge of people.
Then, of course, we come to Kit and his big secret. I've been wanting to write a narrator with a big secret for ages, but it is, of course, a very hard thing to do. Narrators should never lie to readers, so it's a case of subtle misdirection, broken-off thoughts, and clues that won't be noticed on a first reading, even as they look obvious on a second. And there were lots and lots of clues. (Annis realising that Kit had had a good riding teacher. Kit almost letting slip to Ronon that he'd only been four years in Myr, then biting it back. Sheppard noticing that Kit knew the way to Daryen very well. Kit being catapulted back to his childhood by the smell of Daryen cooking. All the many, many occasions when Kit's out-loud reaction was carefully faked. Kit thinking of the whole journey as a "game" that he'd got into by choice – when, of course, if his cover story was true, he'd never had a choice. And many more.) However, the biggest fear I had about this story was that readers would feel cheated and lied to.
3. Fantasy quests: I've been tempted for a while to stick Team Sheppard in a fantasy novel, either in a proper AU, in which they belong in Fantasyland, or by having them go to a planet that's a Stargate-compatible version of Fantasyland. The idea was very much watered down in the finished story, but you can see elements of it, both in the "walking from A to B" structure, and the main original characters, who owe quite a lot to some fairly standard fantasy character types.
4. World building: Most of my longer fics so far have been inwards-looking, either taking place in Atlantis or in closed rooms off-world, or being character pieces in pretty scenery, but no more. I fancied creating a world in a little more detail.
5. The morality of Atlantis' involvement in "primitive" cultures: In the show, we sometimes get the "primitive planet of the week", which gets totally overturned by the SGA characters… and then never mentioned again. I wanted to see things from their viewpoint for a change. From the very start, I was adamant that the SGA characters wouldn't play a very active role in the final denouement. As Kit says, it's not their world. I really hope no-one feels cheated by this.
Fictional inspirations and credits:
Firstly, I have to credit The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. Certain elements of Kit's storyline were strongly inspired by this book, but I won't say more for spoiler reasons.
Honesty also compels me to admit that the water cell owes a lot of George RR Martin's sky cell.
The title comes from the folk song "Over the hills and far away," which viewers of the TV series "Sharpe" might remember. In fact, the quote is "along the road to come what may", but I preferred "on."
I also want to thank my husband, who read much of the story, and helped me thrash out certain plot issues.
The whole flood/Drowned Quarter thing has been over 15 years in the making. Back then, I remember watching the annual flood waters rising over the meadows in Oxford, and imagining what Oxford would be like if they rose a few feet higher… and stayed there. I had an image of makeshift bridges slung from the top floors of quads, and students scurrying across rooftops. I don't see the city of Myr as being particularly Oxford-like in its architecture, but the inspiration was there. Besides, it's traditional for me to destroy Oxford in my fanfics.
The other locations include bits and pieces of places I've been to lately, although I was a bit fed up with the mist rolled in and obscured the guest appearance by the Quiraing, on the Isle of Skye.
The Debateable Land is not made up. Well, actually the Debateable Land itself was only a very small and specific part of the England/Scotland border, but my fictional version of the border between Myr and Daryen owes an awful lot to the real sixteenth century world of Border reivers, ballads and family feuds. I spent a week last year in an old fortified manor house in the Debateable Land itself – model for Stone Hall.
I can talk about my own stories until the cows come home – I so could do a DVD commentary for this one! – so I'll try to shut up soon. Suffice it to say that I did enjoy this one a lot, but it was also a huge challenge. It was a real challenge trying to convey what I needed to convey about the team, all the while seeing them through the eyes of people who didn't understand what they were seeing. Additionally, I had to whole fact of Kit's big secret, which was a further restriction on writing the Kit scenes. Writing it was slow work, and I ended up planning this story out on paper more than anything I've ever written in the past.
For a long time, I toyed with the idea of adding extras – songs, poems, pictures, historical documents etc. - as I did with The Pirate's Prisoner. I considered doing portraits of the characters as they appear in King Jasper's art gallery; the hero poems that are being sung about them in a hundred years; pages from Jasper's poetry book etc. I never entirely laid aside this idea, but somehow it never seemed quite to crystallise. It felt a bit like jumping on the Pirate's Prisoner bandwagon.
I was also very tempted at times to write little missing scenes from the viewpoint of the SGA characters, which would not be part of the main story – they would have totally undermined the concept – but would appear as "DVD extras", but I decided that even that way, it undermined the concept. Still, I offer the whole story up should anyone else feel like writing Sheppard's viewpoint of the water cell, Rodney's view of Stone Hall, or whatever.
What happens next:
Some of the "extras" that I didn't write would have contained hints about what happened after the end of the story. If you have your own ideas on what happens to Kit and Jasper and the others after the story ends, please don't read on.
Ferris successfully led his fellow labourers in a campaign for better conditions. It got off to a very shaky start, but once the staggering news of life on other planets hit, everything was pretty much turned upside-down, anyway. After the Whisperers' power was weakened, and also as a result of Jasper's intervention, conditions were greatly improved. Many years later, Ferris can usually be found in the ale-house, regaling the young folk with the stories of his glory days, chief amongst which is his account of the night a man fell from the sky and landed in his charvil patch.
Annis and Gavin got married and lived for many happy years at Three Towers, while Hewkin took over the running of Stone Hall. A year after the events of this story, Annis was surprised and overjoyed to find Sheppard on her doorstep, this time in perfect health. Their conversation was brief, but few words were needed to say what really mattered.
Jasper went home to Myr, where – slowly and falteringly at first – he made friends with other people of his own age. He studied attentively under his father and his tutors, although he kept to his resolve of challenging things that he didn't agree with. He continued to write poetry. Long after his death, he will be remembered as the great reforming king of the Time of Change. Four There Were, the epic song he wrote about the four strangers who came to the world and changed everything, is sung wherever people have voices to sing, but, with that, he was always content to be anonymous.
Kit managed to settle into life in Daryen without throwing too many bowls of broth at passing dignitaries, although for the rest of his life, he continued to occasionally sneak out on late-night adventures, sometimes with his cousin Jay, sometimes with one or other of his new friends, and sometimes alone. He soon learnt that many of his other cousins weren't too bad, after all, when he stopped trying to provoke them all the time, and his nephews instantly adored him. The revelation about the Stargate eroded the power of the priests, and soon the right to elect the Basilis was extended to all property-owning adult men over twenty. Even though he refused to capitalise on his family connections, Kit won the first new-style election, becoming the youngest ever Basilis of Daryen. Daryen would never be the same again.
As for the four strangers… Both Kit and Jasper met them again several times, because the decision was indeed taken to take the chance and step out amongst the stars. Fortunately, the Wraith were weakened by then, and although there were a few unwelcome incursions through the Gate from other unsavoury parties, there was nothing too bad. As for what adventures, if any, Kit and Jasper had with Sheppard and his team on these encounters, I leave it up to the reader to imagine.
But every year, without fail, Kit and Jasper meet up to talk about old times, to look to the future... and to reminisce about the four people whose lives they shared during the tail-end of one summer.
The whole business of posting it was rendered quite emotional by happenings in the fandom, but the routine of editing and posting one part a day helped me through it. I always knew this would be a story with limited appeal, because of the OCs, so I'm hugely grateful to everyone who's stuck with it, and especially to those who've left comments. Thanks so much!
The story is available here in a single file.