Previous chapters start here
In which there is much talking, and an inequitable division of apple crumble
Why was it, Teyla wondered, that she noticed the most trivial things when her life was changing? She saw the dark red pattern on the hangings of the bed, and the coarse grain of the dark wood panels. She saw the way the wax dripped down from the nearest trio of candles, driven into stalactites by the breeze from the window. She saw the shrivelled leaf that lay on the counterpane.
She still remembered what song the caged bird had sung, the day she had left her mother's plantation and run away to sea.
Most of all, though, she saw John. She saw how he stood there, his face frozen, his jaw set, but with secrets in his eyes that she could not penetrate. Now that she knew what to look for, she saw the wet stain on his dark sleeve, and she saw his hands at his sides, clenched and empty.
He did not deny the charge. He did not deny it, but he was hurt. Her mind fluttered like the bird had fluttered that day, but at least this was something she could focus on.
She moved forward. "Let me…" she said, not really expecting him to let her, but knowing that she had to try. Let this at least remain normal – one last relic of the life that they had lived.
He was stiff, as he so often was, but she put the weeks of fruitless searching into her hands, and led him insistently to the bed. He sat down when she directed him to, and let her free him from the jacket. The shirt sleeve beneath it was soaked with blood from shoulder to elbow.
"A highwayman, Sheppard." McKay was pacing up and down behind her. "You came to England for a pardon! Couldn't you have stayed out of trouble long enough to actually get it? Are you trying to add every type of criminal activity to your repertoire? What next: smuggling? Regicide?"
John allowed her to gently pull his sleeve up. His upper arm was a mess, but there was too much blood for her to judge how severe the wound was. Her fingers brushed skin. She felt him flinch, but he remained still, allowing her tend him. Even on the Atlantis, he had seldom allowed this. It struck her suddenly that this was a concession. He was giving away what he could afford to lose, so he could concentrate on guarding those things he needed to keep.
"And all without a word!" McKay exclaimed. The light flickered as he walked past the candles, fading dark, then light; dark, then light. "Ronon and Teyla were worried sick. Have you any idea what they went through to find you? We were in daily danger of being arrested or torn apart by angry mobs, but we kept going because of you. We thought you were in trouble. We thought you needed us. And all along, you were swanning off, breaking female hearts across the southern counties, and, oh yes! robbing people on the king's highway. We cannot forget that little detail, can we?"
Teyla was leaning over John, her face close to his arm. His face was turned away, but she could see the bare skin at the base of his neck, and see how fast his pulse was racing. He was breathing fast, too, although he hid it well; it was only her proximity that allowed her to see it.
"By all means, throw away your own pardon," McKay raged, "but you have a whole ship-load of loyal crew whose pardons are tied in with your own. Do their lives mean nothing to you? And what about me? I was abducted a second time, and dragged on a wild goose chase across England. I was almost killed a dozen times, but I--"
Ronon smashed his fist into the wall. Teyla looked up to see the aftermath. Ronon was pulling his fist back as if to strike again, perhaps at John, perhaps at McKay. "Ronon," she said firmly. She said his name again, and then again until he looked at her. "Ronon. Will you go downstairs and get me water and some bandages? Please," she insisted, and saw Ronon look at John's arm, saw him let out a breath, saw his fist fall stiffly to his side. "Please," she said again, and Ronon left. The candles flickered as the door closed behind him.
"Sheppard…" McKay sat down in a high-backed wooden chair. There was a plate of bread and grapes on the table, and he picked up a hunk of bread and tore it in half. "Seriously, Sheppard, why?" Beneath his anger, he looked quite as stricken as Ronon.
"Perhaps," John said, "I realised that a life on the right side of the law didn't suit me. You saw how well crime paid."
She held his arm still with a tight grip at the elbow. Bunching up a loose piece of his sleeve, she began to wipe the blood away. John sucked in a sharp breath as she did so. Candlelight played on the back of his neck. Everyone was the same there, she thought, no matter what masks they wore. "I do not believe that the wound is very serious," she found herself saying. "I believe the pistol ball gouged a seam in your flesh, but nothing more." Still enough to kill, of course, if the wound became infected. Life was so very fragile.
McKay took a bite of bread; chewed it; swallowed. "I thought you were different." It was quiet, addressed to his hands.
Close as she was, she saw the way that John was quivering minutely, perhaps with pain, perhaps with something more. She wiped another smear of blood away. As she did so, she felt him strain a little against her grip, but she held on. The quietest of sounds escaped his throat, but he said nothing more.
Perhaps she would have spoken then, but Ronon returned with the water before she could do so. She concentrated on thanking him, and on doing what she needed to do to treat John's injury. Unbidden, Ronon had brought brandy. She wondered if it was for himself or for John.
With a wad of fabric soaked in water, she started to clean the wound. This time, John made no reaction at all. He was looking at the window, at the only place where none of them were. When Teyla glanced up, she saw that Ronon was watching fiercely, looking at the injury that he himself had made. Perhaps unconsciously, his hand was on his knife.
She dipped the fabric in the water for a second time, and started on the deepest part of the wound. "You should leave," John said, as if he had been surprised by pain into saying it.
"Is that what you want?" Her voice was close to his ear; her eyes on his wound and the pulse at his neck
His lips parted, then closed again. "Yes," he said. "Go away. I told you not to come."
"You don't want us here?" She felt Ronon at her back, but he was leaving the talking to her. McKay was munching bread.
The pause was shorter this time. "No."
She released his elbow, and grabbed him instead much closer to the wound. "Stay still," she told him, when his head snapped round. "I need to--"
"So it all ends here," McKay said. "Just like that, without a thank you."
"John," she commanded, using her whole hand to press the damp fabric on the wound, "please tell us the truth."
His gaze skittered away from her, always away. "I am."
"No." She shook her head, and for the first time was absolutely sure of it. "There is more to this than you want us to believe. You are acting under some coercion."
This time he just shook his head minutely.
"John," she said, still holding his arm, but giving up all pretence of working on the wound. "Please. It is us."
She felt him try to pull away. She saw his pulse racing at his throat.
"Do you believe we would be in danger if we stayed?" she asked. Behind her, she heard Ronon suck in a sharp breath. "You want to drive us away for our own protection." She relaxed her grip, but he did not pull away, letting her touch his arm with mild fingers.
She moved away first, knowing that even in his unguarded moments, it was best not to push things too far. She sat on the bed beside him, and Ronon crouched down at their feet, his eyes burning.
"Tell us," she said quietly. "If you are in trouble, let us help you."
"No, I…" John turned away from them again, his gaze returning to the open window. When he spoke again, his voice sounded almost defeated. "Very well. I went to the Admiralty like a good boy--"
"But you didn't!" McKay protested. "I enquired after you. They said you hadn't--" He broke off sharply. "Sorry. Being quiet." Perhaps Ronon had glared at him; Teyla had eyes only for John, feeling suddenly that he might fly away like thistledown through that open window if she stopped watching him.
"I was… intercepted," John said, and gave a harsh breath of laughter. "A certain… gentleman met me at the gate. His credentials were impossible to argue with. I was to perform a little service for him, he informed me, or the offer of a pardon would be withdrawn. He was most convincing." John turned round, voluntarily looking at them for the first time. "I tried to refuse, but it wasn't just me. It was everyone's pardons – everyone on the Atlantis. They had only been declared outlaw because of me. I couldn't--"
"You could have killed him," Ronon said.
John gave a mirthless smile. "That wasn't an option, believe me. So I agreed."
"He wanted you to turn highwayman?" McKay exclaimed. "What? Did he want you to recover a love token from a jilted sweetheart?"
"There's a certain merchant in Lymington." John stood up, went to the window, and tugged at the sash. The sounds of the street faded to nothing. "Apparently there are some suspicions about his loyalty." John remained at the window, but at least this time he turned to face them. "I've been charged to uncover proof that he's involved in certain enterprises that he shouldn't be involved in."
"And they couldn't just arrest him?" McKay asked.
John shook his head. "He has important connections – friends in high places. Hence my involvement. Either I return with the proof, or if everything goes spectacularly wrong, and I am discovered…"
"They'll wash their hands of you, and deny all knowledge," McKay finished for him. "Just a known traitor making mischief."
"You have it there," John said bitterly.
"But why turn highwayman?" McKay stood up, grapes trailing from his fingers. "Is criminal activity the first thing that springs to mind with you piratical types? We had Ronon stealing things left, right and centre across England, and now you. 'Prove a man's guilt' does not automatically equate to 'go a-robbing on the king's highway.'"
"I was trying to intercept his dispatches," John said, "until you so helpfully stopped me."
"I shot you." Ronon rose to his feet. "I'm sorry."
"Was it you?" John shrugged with his good arm, dismissing it as nothing. "I thought it was McKay, since I'm, well… alive." The glimmer of a smile looked almost genuine.
Teyla rose, too, and went towards the window, remembering all the times he had stood at the rail of the Atlantis, tolerating people beside him, but not too close. "Why were you trying to do it alone?" she asked.
He looked as if the question had surprised him. "Because…" He frowned. "He told me I had to go instantly, and go alone."
"As if you've ever done what you were told," Ronon snorted. He was wrong, of course. When the safety of his crew was at stake, John would do anything.
"You could have found a way to send word," Teyla said, but she knew the truth, of course. Once again, he was taking on the burden by himself. He seemed incapable of believing that people might want to share it. "If word had reached the Atlantis, everyone would have--"
"Because I'm the captain," John said harshly. "They would have taken it as an order. I can't--"
"No," she said, shaking her head, smiling sadly. "That would not have been the reason for their coming, just as it was not the reason with us. We want to help you, John. Please, let us help you."
"Yes," said McKay, "because, well, we're here now, and I'm good at finding proofs. Admittedly, I normally limit my attention to finding proofs of challenging mathematical theorems, but I'm sure I can apply my skills to the world of daring espionage. Every criminal gang needs brains. Er, not that you're a criminal, of course, but…"
"Don't send us away, Sheppard." Ronon moved to John's side, and clapped him on the back. "Any man fights better with comrades at his back." He lowered his voice a little. "You showed me that, Sheppard."
John looked at them, closed his eyes, and then she saw the moment when the tension flowed out of him. He opened his eyes again, but no words were necessary. The answer was already there.
Rodney McKay knew when an injustice had been committed. When faced with something contrary to all laws of justice and fairness, he was never one to keep silent. He would go to the correct authorities and make his complaint.
For now, though, he contented himself with complaining to Sheppard. "Your bowl is bigger than mine." He jabbed his spoon in Sheppard's direction. "We both paid exactly the same amount, but your helping is easily larger, at least five parts to my three. And," he said, waving the spoon with all the emphasis required by a concluding point, "she gave you more cream."
Sheppard raised one eyebrow. "I guess she likes me more than she likes you."
"I can't think why." Rodney snorted. "It was quite sickening. There were maidens swooning all across the southern countries. Why does the female of the species only see the veneer? They flutter and they swoon at foolish fops in pretty clothing, and they remain blind to true worth and intelligence. And now you're a highwayman. They sing ballads about highwaymen in the taverns. Low-down criminals, of course, but you wouldn't think so by the way the maidens press their hands together and sigh." He faltered; swallowed once or twice. "Which is not to say that you're a criminal or…" He recovered his decisive grip on his spoon. "Almost twice as much as me, Sheppard. It isn't fair. I intend to complain."
Sheppard pushed his bowl over, using his uninjured arm. "I've had all I want." Rodney was about to plunge his spoon into his plunder when Sheppard said, "But I am a fop? You're saying that?" His eyes glittered in that way that Rodney had learnt to recognise as a sign that he wasn't really angry, just pretending. At least, that's what he thought it meant. He knew how to read truths in the stars, but people were a thing far harder.
"No," Rodney stammered. "No. Not at all." He took an over-warm mouthful. Truth was, Sheppard had spent most of his time on deck in a loose shirt and breeches, and reserved his velvet for when he was playing a part. If only Rodney could work out how he managed to keep his hair in place!
His repast over, Sheppard seemed keen to return to business. The window was safely shut, the fire was bright and burning, and Ronon had taken a position near the door, as if he expected assassins to burst in at any moment. "His name is William Wheeler," Sheppard said, turning sideways in his chair, forearm resting along its back, "a respectable merchant who has chosen to built a sizeable residence in this small provincial port. He is quite the dabbler in natural philosophy, or so I understand."
Rodney snorted. He had no time for dabblers.
"Trouble is," Sheppard continued, "he is on visiting terms with the Duke of Montagu when his grace is resident at Beaulieu, and he corresponds with some of the greatest names in the land. Interestingly," he said, treacherously not looking at Rodney, "the Duke of Montagu is a Fellow of the Royal Society--"
Rodney snorted. He had no time for dabblers who used their money and influence to buy honours that should by rights have had his own name on.
"--and has recently been granted the islands of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent."
Ronon looked up. "Is that where we…?"
"Yes." Sheppard nodded. "So it would be better, all things considered, if said duke should stay well away from Lymington."
"Indeed," Teyla said, with apparent feeling.
"But…" Rodney raised his spoon again.
"Because we can't risk McKay blurting everything out to him in an attempt to show him that he, rather than the duke, deserves to that fellowship." Sheppard, treacherous pirate that he was, still refrained from looking at him. "I can see it now. 'I designed an ingenious machine for John Sheppard, that most notorious pirate. Beat that!'"
Rodney turned his attention to the last few mouthfuls of apple crumble. It seemed wiser, all things considered.
"So what's the plan?" Ronon asked. "Break into his house?"
"I tried, but there were people in almost every room, and ladies present." Sheppard looked rueful. "I've made contact socially, but he's not forthcoming. Robbing his courier seemed like the best option at the time."
"But you have us now," Teyla said. "Many things are open to three that are not--"
"Four," Rodney rasped, and nearly choked on his final mouthful. When he had finished coughing, he gripped the edge of the table. "There's four of us. I know you're an untutored savage and can't do advanced mathematics, but surely you can count to four. Unless you…" The crumble renewed its assault, and he coughed again. "Unless you're not including me."
He was sure they had been exchanging looks as he had contended with his streaming eyes, and the imminent danger of death! "You don't have to…" Sheppard began.
"I want to." Suddenly he was back on the deck after the departure of Lorne, so sure that everything was ending. "I thought it was all decided."
Sheppard rose from his chair; walked to that accursed window. "This isn't some far away place, some holiday from normal life. This is England. This is the laws of England. This is going against someone who moves in the same world that you do."
And that means? Rodney wanted to say, but he remembered, too, how he had instantly assumed the worst about Sheppard. Teyla had been the one to work out the truth, whereas Rodney had just denounced him. Worse, he realised, Sheppard had expected them to denounce him. This is so new to me, he thought, but this, too, he did not say. Dealing with people. Having friends.
Perhaps Sheppard took his silence as acceptance. "Wheeler has a wife," he said, moving on, "and a daughter of seventeen. It is possible that a woman might be able to obtain information by that route, if she were respectable enough to gain admittance to their circle."
It was Teyla's turn to looked pinned. "You want me to… You want…" Her hand fluttered to her men's clothing. "No. I…"
"You said you wanted to help," Sheppard said, his back to them, with ice in his voice, that old, familiar tone. "If you can't, then go. Please. Out of danger. If you stay…" The ice fragmented. His hand came up to the elbow of his injured arm, holding it tight.
"Yes. Yes." Teyla sounded dazed. "Of course. If that is what is needed."
"I want to help, too." The words came bursting out with all the force of several minutes silence. "I don't care if it's England. I didn't have to come all the way here. I didn't have to put myself through the humiliation – and it was humiliating – of watching maidens gush over you without noticing me. Yes, yes, I know they abducted me, but I could have un-abducted myself; they were quite clear about that. I… I don't really know why, just that I was happier on the Atlantis on the voyage home than I've ever been in my life, and I think… I've never really had a friend before, and I don't know if… but I don't want to walk away." He sniffed, reaching for his handkerchief. "Besides," he said, grasping desperately for lost dignity, and gaining it, even if he did say so himself, "you'd be lost without me. I can't walk away and leave you. You'd blunder your way onto the gallows."
Sheppard said nothing, just breathed in and out, his hand on that thrice-cursed window. But when Rodney moved, he caught a glimpse of the reflection there. Perhaps it was just that the glass was warped, that it looked like that.
"Yes," Rodney said, suddenly desperate for there not to be silence, "I'm your last chance to get out of this alive. And with nice, shiny pardons, of course, which is rather the whole point."
"Oh, so everything's all right." Sheppard turned around again, and whatever Rodney had seen in the reflection was gone, hidden behind his usual calm. "Rodney McKay's on the case." He raised a mild eyebrow. "So what's your plan?"
Rodney scraped his bowl, searching for the very last dregs of cream. Then he brushed some dust from his cuff, stretched his legs towards the fire, and decided that it was imperative that he educate Ronon and Teyla forthwith about the principles of combustion that made it burn so warmly.
end of chapter three
Drawing of a masked highwayman by Jane Crossley of Boldre
Jane Crossley was seventeen in 1721, when – according to her memoirs written in 1780 – she saw a masked man riding out past her mother's cottage in Boldre in the New Forest. "All I could see of him was his eyes above his mask," she said, "but it was enough to set my maiden's heart a-fluttering." She drew this picture the following day, but kept it secret, fearing that her mother would hand it to the militia who would use it as a means to identify this most interesting robber. Jane later married a justice, but she seems to have kept her romantic fondness for gentlemen of the road, frequently knitting them mufflers and delivering them to the sorry wretches in their gaol cells. What the condemned men through of these gifts has not been recorded.
In which Rodney and the captain are finally introduced
Rodney decided that it was best not to analyse the chemical composition of the dark puddle at his feet. Holding his breath, he stepped over it, and carried on his way, weaving around coils of rope, and deftly avoiding the treacherous pitfalls of wet, slippery patches. Reaching a bollard, he wiped it clean of dew and raindrops, and perched on it, looking out at the water.
It was early morning, not long after dawn, but Rodney had found his sleep most troubled. Highwaymen had lurked in bushes and jumped out at him, and there had been such a dreadful noise from the street. Rumbling cart wheels had become the drums of an execution guard, as Sheppard swung dying from a gibbet. Then Rodney had had his hands lashed behind his back, and was led to the same fate. It had been hard to sleep after that.
Outside, everywhere had the soft greyness of early morning. The water was dull silver, and the salt marshes on the far side of the river mouth stretched out like a smear of shadow on the surface of the sea. Boats were everywhere, anchored on both sides of the river, and a few were already moving, heading out through the narrow channel through the marshes. Boats of all types were found here, ranging from… boats, to, er, big boats, and small boats, and, er… large boats. Some of them were inhabited, too, with muscular savages hauling on lines and shouting to each other in quaint nautical dialect.
I'm really here, Rodney thought. It seemed like a strange thing to think, but everything was shimmering, as if caught somewhere half in a dream. There was prettiness, but there was brutality, too. He was here alone, but he had companions sleeping back at the inn. He was dabbling with danger, this time not because he had been coerced, but because he had chosen to.
And he could turn around now and ride away, and nobody would come after him. He could return to his father's house, take up the threads of his old life, and never dream again.
Or maybe never wake up.
He stood up sharply, and was about to return to the inn, when he saw another figure far ahead of him, also standing a morning vigil at the edge of the sea. He knew instantly that it was Sheppard, although he had not known that he could recognise the man so easily, half-faded into the morning gloom as he was. As Rodney hesitated, his feet took matters into their own hands, and began to walk him towards Sheppard. He would have words with them afterwards, he thought, as he closed the final few steps.
Sheppard made no sign of being aware of his approach. Rodney's feet stopped their morning course just behind him, and Rodney almost cleared his throat, then decided not to. Sheppard looked quite remote and strange, standing there with the wind stirring the tails of his long coat, like some figurehead carved of wood. Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again. Perhaps he would go away - urgent business, and all that. His feet had made him do it, anyway. Of course Sheppard wouldn't want to talk to him.
"Are you going to say your piece," Sheppard said, without turning round, "or do you intend to hover there until the sun rises?"
Rodney made an inarticulate sound by accident. He tried again. "I couldn't sleep. The street was disgracefully noisy."
"Smugglers," Sheppard said, "moving their wares. Best call them Free Traders round here, though. It's wiser."
"Oh." Rodney eyed the nearest bollard, and decided to make a play for it. Sheppard did not contest it. "Oh," he said again. His hand fluttered towards his throat. "Will they, uh, kill me if I call them…? It seems harsh. You never killed me when I called you a bloodthirsty p--" He stopped that, too, remembering his resolve not to say that word rashly in strange places.
"Was tempted to sometimes."
Rodney let the comment pass with dignity. "How do you recognise a smug-- free trader?" He looked from boat to boat, from sailor to sailor, and then back at the quay, where people were already moving, heading down to the water. One particular rascally fellow caught his eye. "Is he--?" He jerked his chin subtly at him. "--you know?"
"Very probably." Sheppard sat down, not on a bollard, but on the edge of the quay itself, one leg dangling over the water. It seemed quite a precarious pose, but Rodney supposed the man knew what he was doing, and refrained from offering advice on stability and centres of mass. "Most everyone is around here, it seems."
"Oh." Rodney seemed to be saying that a lot. He converted it into a sound far more triumphant. "Oh!" He snapped his fingers. "Perhaps that's Wheeler's dastardly secret! He's in league with the smugglers. Traders. Free Traders." He said it quite loudly. A gull screamed in answer.
"Very probably." Sheppard smiled ruefully. "Unfortunately, that appears to be the default status in these parts." He twisted round, studying the people on the quay. "That man there isn't in league with them, as far as I have been able to determine." Then, before Rodney could manage a disconsolate 'oh', he carried on. "The landlord of the Angel is hand in glove with them. There's a tunnel, you know, running from the cellar all the way to the river. I began to explore it a few nights back, before discretion paid me a rare visit and urged me to stop."
"A secret tunnel," Rodney gasped. "In England?" He drew his coat tighter, and the morning felt suddenly colder, as if the breeze held the knives of a thousand dastardly rogues.
"Yes, in England." Sheppard's eyes glittered. "You don't have to travel to the far side of the world to find dastardly rogues, huh? Our kind are everywhere."
I didn't mean what I said last night! Rodney wanted to protest. Yes, so he'd instantly assumed that Sheppard had reverted to wicked ways, but he had been provoked. Sheppard himself had expected them to think the worse of him; that was why he had played the part in the first place, acting so cold, telling them to go away.
Sheppard expected us to think the worst. He thought it again more slowly, and for a moment he felt as if he was teetering on the brink of understanding so many things.
"Why?" The question tore itself free from his lips without him intending it. Sheppard looked at him, and his eyes said don't ask, and Rodney looked instead at a dark boat heading out to the river mouth, white gulls circling it. "It won't be for long," he said. "Once you complete your task and find the proof – and how can you fail, with me on your team? And Ronon's useful, too, of course, and Teyla… But once that happens, you'll get your pardon. The slate will be wiped clean. Everyone will know you were always innocent."
Sheppard turned away from him, looking out to sea, but Rodney found himself on his feet, closing the last few steps to the edge of the quay, and then found himself sitting down beside Sheppard, despite the watery grave that glittered at the foot of the precipice.
"They won't let me go that easily," Sheppard said quietly. He looked at Rodney, a rare honesty in his eyes. "If I give them what they want, there'll be other requests. There'll always be other requests. They'll dangle this pardon in front of me, and I'll have no choice but to do what they demand, because… it's my crew, McKay. They're good men. They're only in this because of me. And it will keep going. One more task, and then one more task, and it will never end."
"You might be killed first." Rodney meant it quite genuinely as a consolation, but the moment he said it, he realised that it might not have come across that way. "I mean…" He tried to soften it, tried to explain. "If this Wheeler really is embroiled in something serious, he might be prepared to kill…" He stopped himself just in time – or perhaps, he thought, just a fraction too late.
"Slavery or death," Sheppard said. "Have you ever considered a career in inspirational speaking, McKay?"
The sun broke free from the trees on the far side of the river, and the water melted into liquid gold. "Then we'll just have to ensure that neither of those futures come to pass, then." Rodney felt fresh air play around his ankles, and coarse ground underneath his hands. "You're not doing it by yourself any more," he said. "There's four of us now. How can we fail?"
"How can we fail, indeed?" Sheppard said, but at least he was smiling.
But they walked back to the town each one of them alone.
The person in the looking glass was a stranger, Teyla told herself. The stranger was wearing a gown that touched the floor, and her waist was hugged by a tight bodice. A frippery of lacy drape clung to the stranger's shoulders, and there was a jewel at her throat. Her hair was piled up high, and fell down to her shoulders in soft curls and ringlets. Her face looked stiff. Her body looked imprisoned.
Teyla moved, bringing her hand up to her chest, and the stranger moved too. It was not a stranger, of course. Her own hands had known how to pin her hair just so, moving as deftly and as swiftly as they moved when priming a pistol. Her own hands knew how to pull and fasten laces, and she knew how to stand like a lady, and she knew how to walk, and she knew how to act.
For five years, she had lived on the Atlantis, wearing men's clothing, and fighting as one of them for the life of her friends and the hopes of her captain. It felt as if those years had meant nothing. She was in a gown again, and it ought to feel strange and unfamiliar and horrible, but it did not. That life had ended, she had told herself gleefully, again and again and again. The looking glass told her otherwise. That life had never gone away, and the last five years had been nothing more than a dream.
She wanted to tear it off. A gown like this was not just a gown, but a prison, binding her to things that she had thought to have escaped forever.
There was a knock at her door. Old habits took over, and she prepared herself to receive her visitor, stiff and polite. "You may enter." There was no need even to disguise her natural voice.
McKay managed two steps before faltering to a halt. "You look…" He swallowed, his hand fluttering as if he wanted to snatch the errant word from the air. "Female," he settled on at last.
She smiled; it was either that, or weep. "I always have been."
"Yes. Yes." He looked flustered, and his eyes were skittering away from looking too closely at her. "I… I've never been good at talking to ladies," he said. "They like to talk about clothes and… and about the doings of the prominent figures in the neighbourhood, and I never know what to say. They…" He took another step, and closed the door behind him. "Sometimes they laugh at me," he confessed, "behind their handkerchiefs."
"I am still the same person I was yesterday," Teyla assured him, as the figure in the looking glass stared back at her, and told her the truth of that statement. "Talk to me the same way you always do. Though not in society," she added, after a moment's thought. "Remember the part we are playing."
"Of course." McKay gathered himself enough to offer her his arm.
It was a part, Teyla reminded herself. It was just a part. And it was done for John's sake, because he needed this sacrifice from her. If he had asked her to risk her life to save him, she would have done so without a thought, and this was no different. Just a part, she told herself. Just a part.
Stage one of Sheppard's plan, it seemed to Rodney, consisted of nothing but walking. It offered no chance to exercise anything at all, except for his poor, abused feet. His intellect languished, unwanted and uncalled-for. There were no opportunities to use stealth and guile and to reveal himself as a master of espionage of the first order.
It did, though, take him past numerous hat shops.
On their third course of the High Street, he tried to talk to Teyla about lace bonnets.
Teyla, it seemed, did not want to talk about lace bonnets. "I am still me," she hissed, holding onto his arm with a touch that looked light and elegant, but somehow managed to hurt him very much.
"Oh. Yes. Sorry." But you couldn't say 'sorry' to a beautiful lady in an expensive gown, even if it was one that hadn't been made for her, but had been bought hastily from a fleeing widow, no questions asked. "I apologise."
He wasn't sure how it was possible for her grip to become even more painful, but she managed it.
"Perhaps the hat shops are a cover for the activity of smug-- free traders," he said, lowering his voice. "Although I believe that brandy is their principal import, and it would be hard to imagine how one could hide brandy in a--" It ended in a squawk. Teyla, it seemed, had given up all pretence at gripping him like a lady would grip her gallant escort.
They headed down the steep slope that curved to the quay. Now that the light was better, Rodney could see that a large ship was being built on the far end of the quay, near the mouth of the river. The tide was high, and the channel was broader, although the salt marshes still reached out far into the sea.
A puddle was approaching. The only way to avoid it was to force Teyla to go through it, and you couldn't do that to a lady – his mother had been quite insistent about that fact, after Charlotte Dauncey had treacherously blabbed – even if she was the sort of lady who could put a pistol ball through your sizeable brain at twenty paces. Cold water splashed unpleasantly onto his stockings.
"How much longer do we have to do this?" he hissed through the side of his mouth. Teyla tightened her grip. "What?" Rodney protested. "I didn't say anything wrong this time."
The grip tightened even harder – he was going to have bruises come morning! – and Teyla said quietly, casually, "I believe that may be our man."
"Oh." He swallowed. "How do we--?"
"John confirms it," Teyla said.
"What? How did you--?" Rodney turned round as fully as he could with a lady on his arm, but saw no sign of Sheppard anywhere. That was part of the plan. Rodney and the others were supposed to pretend that they didn't know Sheppard. That way, Sheppard said, if something went spectacularly wrong with one prong of the attack, the other prong could continue to strike home. 'He wants to keep us from going down with him, should it all fall apart,' Teyla had explained sadly, after they had left him. They were even staying in different inns. The only people who had seen them together were a few serving wenches and stable boys and a scattering of early morning smugglers, and there was no reason for them to talk.
"So…" Rodney drew himself up, smoothing the front of his coat. This particular prong lay entirely in his hands. "Mister Wheeler?" He hurried forward, heedless of puddles. "Mister Wheeler!"
The man turned round. He was younger than Rodney had expected, or perhaps he just wore his years well. His eyes were keen in a lean face, and he was distressingly tall. It was never good to commence an offensive when you had to look up at your enemy. "Do I know you, sir?" he said, his voice polite but far from friendly.
"Rodney McKay." Rodney fumbled one-handed in his pocket. "I came to these parts some years ago on business from my father, Robert McKay of Bristol. You were…" He covered the lie in a more frenzied searching of his pocket. "I have a letter of introduction, but I… I seem to have mislaid it."
"How regrettable." Wheeler stood with his hands folded in front of him. Rodney decided that he was most definitely a rogue.
"My father is interested in branching out into your line of trade – not in competition, or anything," he added hastily, suddenly realising the flaw in that little part of the story, that had seemed so inspired as he had walked past his third hat shop.
"They have salt in Bristol?"
Rodney felt himself growing flustered. It would not do, he told himself. It would not do. He tried a new prong. "I have also heard great things of you at the Royal Society." He waved his hand in a self-deprecating fashion. "I was taught by Sir Edmond Halley, you know. I'm not a Fellow yet… Paperwork, you know. Administration…"
His voice trailed away. Wheeler seemed to be waiting for him to say something else. What obvious social nicety had he forgotten? Oh yes. Introduce the lady. He had designed astronomical clocks in his head during that particular childhood lesson. Who would have thought that knowledge of polite behaviour would actually be useful one day?
"Oh," he said. "This is my cousin, Miss Beckett." It was assumed names all round, Sheppard had insisted, except for Rodney, the only one of them whose name didn't appear on some ledger in the Admiralty with the word 'pirate' next to it, underlined thrice. "My aunt settled in the Indies," he explained, "and married--" Teyla's grip tightened again, right on the tender point from the previous half dozen occurrences. Keep it simple, Rodney remembered. Sheppard had been most insistent about that. If in doubt, say nothing. So he pressed his lips together, and waited for the prong to strike home.
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Beckett." Wheeler bowed, oily customer that he was. "Is this your first visit to Lymington?"
They talked for a little while, saying polite nothings. Rodney's mind started to race down cunning paths. Sheppard had tried to rob Wheeler's personal courier, who was doubtless carrying incriminating dispatches full of evil intent. The courier must surely have said something about his close encounter with doom.
"We had a terrible journey," he said, when there was a pause in polite admiration of the sparkling nature of the water. "The weather yesterday was quite abominable, and we were almost set upon by a highwayman, but my man fired a pistol and scared him away."
"There have indeed been reports of a highwayman in the forest," Wheeler said smoothly, with never a guilty start. "He will be brought to justice soon enough." He smiled thinly. "If you will excuse me…" He nodded at someone Rodney couldn't yet see, then turned back to Rodney, smiling. "Do you know Captain Ford?"
"No," Rodney said, then he remembered. Sheppard. He meant Sheppard. What was Sheppard doing here, and…? "No," he said again, his voice a little higher than it should have been. "I don't. We haven't met. Never."
Teyla was gripping him tightly again, but this time he thought it wasn't deliberate. He could feel her hand trembling through his sleeve.
"Captain Ford." Wheeler did the introductions. "Miss Beckett. Mister McKay." Hands were shaken. Hats were doffed. Nods were given. "Captain Ford is a former officer of His Britannic Majesty's Navy," Wheeler told Rodney. "He is a brave man to come so openly to a place like this, where, I regret to say, there is much lawlessness, and valiant officers like Captain Ford are not always viewed as the stalwart heroes that you and I know them to be. We must admire him."
Rodney stammered something that might have been an 'indeed.' Sheppard smiled smoothly. "I am here purely on private business. I wish to purchase a property by the sea, far away from the hustle and bustle of city life."
"Then you and I shall be neighbours, eh, Ford?" Wheeler clapped Sheppard on the arm. When Teyla's fingers dug in warningly, Rodney realised that Wheeler was striking Sheppard exactly where he had been shot.
Sheppard, though, gave no sign of it. "Indeed we will," he said.
Someone shouted something further down the quay. Wheeler turned round, indicated something with his hand, and turned back to them. "Business calls me, I'm afraid. It was a pleasure to meet you."
The proper goodbyes were said. Rodney watched Wheeler walk away, and tried to ascertain whether that was the gait of an inveterate villain. He decided that it probably was.
"Why did you show yourself?" Teyla hissed sharply, though outwardly she looked as composed as ever, the beautiful lady on his arm.
"So we can be seen together socially," Sheppard said. He looked tired, Rodney noticed suddenly, now that he was caught in the full afternoon light. "After all, Wheeler himself made the introductions."
Etiquette made everything so very difficult, Rodney thought. But he thought he had walked through its minefield and emerged safely on the other side. His prong had gone in nicely. Now all the had to do was wait until they could prod a little deeper. He just hoped that the next part of the offensive was kinder on his feet.
Ronon hated England. He hated Lymington. He hated this plan.
He hated not being allowed to follow Sheppard everywhere, his guard and shadow. He hated being banished to a different inn, forced to pass in public as McKay's man. He hated not being able to force answers at the point of his sword.
He hated this inn, this Nag's Head, where men came in in groups, and sat together and laughed together in that tight, inward-looking way that came from facing danger together. He hated their songs. He hated the ale.
"The brandy's good, though," McKay said, swirling a rounded glass, "and surprisingly cheap. Of course, that's probably because it's been brought in by…" He took a large mouthful. "By shining examples of the enterprise of free trade," he said loudly. Someone at the next table looked up.
He hated McKay. He hated the fact that Teyla was trapped in her room upstairs, because she was a lady now, and could not descend to the tap room. He hated the fact that Sheppard was out somewhere in the night alone, and that he would return to a cold room in another inn. Ronon had watched from the quay-side as Sheppard and the others had met this Wheeler, but watching was all he had been able to do. Sheppard had commanded him to scout out the town and its environs, and that much he could do, but Sheppard had also told him to sound out the stable boys and boatmen, and that was something Ronon didn't know how to do.
He was sure that a trap was closing in around them. Everyone in this place knew each other, and they were the strangers.
He pushed his chair back harshly, wanting nothing more to get out. "Wait!" McKay waved his knife. "I… er… I don't think you're supposed to do that, not without permission." His eyes flickered from side to side. "You are my servant, after all." Ronon heard a low sound come out of his throat, almost like an animal. McKay cleared his throat. "Not that these people seem over-addicted to etiquette."
The music changed. People thumped on the table, shouting out a name. It sounded like 'Captain Ford.' Captain Ford. That was Sheppard! Ronon gripped the back of the chair, but then the song started, about a pirate called Captain Ward. He had heard the words before, far away on the Atlantis, but the tune was unfamiliar.
"Go, then." McKay's voice was rendered almost silent by the song. "I've finished here, anyway. I'll retire to my room, and think… and do… and plan…"
Ronon took in a taut breath, and breathed out again. He wanted to bellow at the singers to be quiet. He wanted to haul Sheppard free from these snares and drag him back to the Atlantis, to go where no treachery could ever catch them ever again.
He hated this. He hated what it had made him. He had betrayed Sheppard the night before, by being so quick to doubt him. He had had two years of exposure to Sheppard's masks, and he should have known. He should have known that Sheppard would never have left them without good cause. He should have known that Sheppard was only pushing them away to protect them.
This country was making a savage of him, and he hated it, hated it.
The song was drawing to its conclusion. Flushed with ale, the singer reached the defiant climax:
"Go home, go home," says Captain Ward,
"And tell your king from me,
If he reigns king of all dry land,
Then I reign king of the sea."
But it was never as simple as that in real life. The dry land's king had reached always into the Atlantis, and he still did.
He sat down again, knowing that a room upstairs would feel just as much of a prison as this crowded tap room. As he did so, he noticed someone approaching their table, weaving through the crowd with an air of purpose. He reached for his knife, gripping it under the table.
"Mister McKay?" the newcomer said. McKay nodded, looking like a hunted beast brought to bay. The stranger presented him with a folded note. "From Mister Wheeler," he said.
He was probably taking his life into his hands by venturing out into the streets at night, but Rodney had to see Sheppard. It felt cool outside, and the clouds were racing in from the sea, promising more rain. Songs faded behind him, but as he crossed the road, he caught snatches of different songs from the various taverns and private houses that lined the way.
He paused outside the Angel, wondering whether to go in. Standing there in the street, he turned the letter over and over in his hands. It was an invitation. Wheeler had invited him and Teyla to his house for dinner upon the morrow night. I don't know what to say, he thought. A whole evening of it, leading the offensive. A whole evening with the prong gripped firmly in his own hands. A whole evening with Sheppard's future resting not on the fruits of his intelligence, but on his ability to say the right thing in a social situation.
I can't, he thought. I can't… You could lie to yourself for your entire life, but when the moment of truth loomed on the horizon, you could lie no more.
Someone hurried past him in the darkness, heading for an unknown rendezvous. Rodney looked up, but even the stars were gone. There was nothing here to anchor him to anything he had ever known.
Something moved against a high window – a shape passing in front of a golden bloom of light. Rodney took a step back to see it better, and realised that it was Sheppard, standing in his window, looking down.
Rodney raised the letter, then saw the self-same gesture performed by Sheppard's hand. Sheppard had received his own invitation. Sheppard was going, too.
Of course, Rodney thought, as he hurried back to the dubious safety of a room in a haunt of smugglers, that wasn't necessarily a good thing. Wheeler might have invited them all with evil intent. It could well be a trap, and they would all be caught in it, all together, with no-one left on the outside to rescue them from certain doom.
But it felt better, knowing that Sheppard would be there. It really shouldn't, he thought, but it did.
end of chapter four
Towards Lymington Quay, November 2008, but without hat shops
On to part the third