Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: Born in the Barrens - part 6 of 11

Born in the Barrens – part 6 of 11

Chapter one and all header information is here


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Chapter six
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They were only minutes away when Rodney looked up and saw them. Even then, he had to grasp hold of his talisman before he could truly believe it. Almost here, it said, buzzing with the excitement of being reunited with its twin. Getting closer fast.

He had no idea what the slave heard to alert him, but the injured man stirred, trying to push himself up, trying to grope for the knife. "No," Rodney told him, "there's nothing to worry about. They're friends."

Friends? echoed a small voice inside of him, but Rodney was already standing up, waving his hand, saying, "Here, over here!"

The land-ships of Atlantis were far more elegant than the metal engines of the Genii, powered by the purest form of ancient alchemy, using secrets that not even Rodney had yet learnt how to reproduce. Rodney could see three figures through the sparkling glass window. "What took you so long?" he demanded, his hands on his hips.

The vehicle drifted silently to a halt. "What took you so long?" Radek clambered out of the back, grasping his own talisman in his hand. "A whole year I've had to wear your token on a chain around my neck, as if I'm your--" He finished it with some disgusted word in his own language; Rodney had never tried to learn it. "And not a word in all that time. I thought you were dead."

"I couldn't send word, you know that." Rodney flapped his hand; Radek always was complaining about something trivial. "It's only possible to send the vaguest message about location. If I'd triggered it earlier, you'd have come blundering out to retrieve me far too early and, oh yes, ruined everything."

"But you're here now," Radek said, wrenching the chain over his head, "and – look! – how your token goes away from me."

And as he stood there, with every moment that passed, Rodney felt things subtly slot back into their proper place. He'd missed this. Radek was irritable, nothing like as skilled as Rodney, infuriating, temperamental… and suddenly Rodney was feeling a ridiculous urge to shake his hand and say something quite stupid about how he'd missed him.

Even as he fought that urge, Radek clasped him on the arm. "You've got it?"

Rodney nodded. "I've got it." But he didn't pull the cylinder out. A general suffusion of goodwill towards his fellow alchemists could only go so far. The secrets were his own to unravel.

Teyla stepped forward then. "I am glad to have you back with us, Rodney." She took hold of him by both shoulders and pulled him in for that embarrassing head-touching thing she liked so much. This time Rodney didn't even fight it, but rather found himself leaning into it, almost letting her hold him up. Shadow, but he was tired!

"It's been quiet without you," Ronon said with a smile, slapping Rodney on the back.

Rodney pulled away at last. He cleared his throat, feeling a sudden wave of awkwardness. "So you're still… alive? Atlantis is…?"

"Still there." Teyla smiled.

"Good." Rodney tried to wipe some of the dust of his journey from his face. "That's, uh, good." Atlantis wasn't home. Home was his lost land far to the south. Atlantis was… "Yes," he said, smiling, "that's really good."

"Who's that?" Ronon was standing warily, looking down at the slave.

"A slave, would you believe," Rodney explained. "My slave. The chief Genii gave him to me, and I couldn't… they were hurting him, you know, really hurting him, and… there's Wraith metal-magic, Radek, on his neck. Look!"

Radek swore sharply in that strange tongue of his. Kneeling down beside the slave, he reached out towards the collar, then snatched his hand back, curling his fingers into his palm. "He's sick."

"Well, yes, obviously. Well done, Mr Let's-State-the-Obvious." Rodney let out a breath, and looked at Teyla. "Can you fix him?"

"People are not like your machines, Rodney," Teyla said gently, but she settled down beside the slave. The slave was lying on his side, curled loosely around the bullet wound, his long hair tangled and damp with sweat. "Can you hear me?" Teyla said quietly. "I am not going to hurt you. I am here to help." Her strong fingers combed through the slave's hair, pushing it off his face.

Rodney saw the very moment when her hand froze. "Oh, Shadow," he gasped. "He's dead. He's dead, isn't he?"

The shake of Teyla's head was fractional, as if she wasn't really aware of it. "Ronon," she said, her voice very different from anything Rodney had ever heard from her.

Ronon joined her, and swore sharply under his breath. "What?" Rodney asked. "What is it?" The two of them were blocking his view, like a wall between the slave and him. He is mine, he wanted to say, but that would be ridiculous. Instead he just twisted his hands together, and said, "What?" again.

"Can you hear me?" Teyla gently asked the slave, and then to Rodney, only slightly turning round, she said, "Did he tell you anything about himself?"

"He's lost his memory," Rodney said. "Effect of the Wraith collar. And really, Radek, you should--" He snapped his words off when Ronon surged to his feet. There was such a look on Ronon's face, and it wasn't fair, because Rodney had never been good at reading such things. "What is it?" Rodney asked. "What's happening?"

Ronon gestured to him to follow him, leading him a dozen steps away. Rodney followed, as Teyla spoke to the slave, her voice soft and tremulous, saying that he was safe, that he was with friends, that everything was going to be all right.

"What's happened?" Rodney asked, because Ronon's face looked as if it was about to crack open with emotion.

"It's Sheppard," Ronon said; just that.

******

"Can you hear me?"

The voice called him back from a place beyond the pain. He surfaced through a wave of fire, and saw a woman looking down at him, surrounded by shimmering air. He blinked, but the shimmering didn't go away. One of her hands was on the side of his face, and it was cool, so cool. The other worked on his side, as soft as water, but even the softness hurt. He tried to pull away, tried to curl away from her, because she was touching him, and… and he remembered a master pressing a hand to a bleeding wound, the touch soft at first, then digging in, twisting the flesh around the wound until…

"Hush," the woman said, "please, I am not going to hurt you. You are with friends."

"Friends?" His voice sounded cracked, just a fragile thread of a thing.

"Yes." Her eyes were spilling water down her face. Tears. Why was she crying for him?

The shimmering air twisted and swirled. "At- Atlantis?" he forced out.

"Yes." Her smile was brilliant, even as tears fell like rain. "You remember it?"

He didn't remember anything before the barrens. "McKay…said. Thought it… sounded nice." Just a lifetime spent like this. Nothing before this. Afterwards, perhaps? He'd dared, just for a moment, to imagine an afterwards: a knife in his hand; Kolya falling to the ground; a horizon seen through cracked glass; a story of a lovely city.

"Listen," the woman said, taking his face in both hands. "You are not lost. We have found you again. You are not lost. "

The pain was everywhere now – centred on his side, but everywhere. It left little room for anything else. It left little room for caution or for fear. "You know who I am?"

It was a stupid thing to say – stupid, stupid. Why should she…? He didn't want to know. If he knew… If he knew that he had once had something before this… Better not to have it. Better not to know. Better… not… But his lips moved, silently whispering something – perhaps a 'no' or a 'please', but coming out as no more than a broken breath.

"You prefer not to know?" Her eyes were spilling over.

The first memory he possessed was crawling across the barrens, knowing that he had to get to somewhere, but not knowing how to find it.

His first memory was of a life before the only life he knew.

"I want…" He closed his eyes, unable to say what came next; unable even to imagine it.

Her hand closed on his. "Your name is John Sheppard," she said, "and you are my friend."

"In Atlantis?" he breathed, and even the pain faded, leaving him pinned on the reality of those words.

"Yes," she said. "Atlantis is your home."

He opened his eyes. The sky above was fading into evening. "There's a place for me there?"

"More than a place," he heard McKay say, and the shimmering air around the woman swirled angrily, even though her hand on his face remained as firm and gentle as it had ever been. "You went missing a year before I even got to Atlantis, but it's still Sheppard this and Sheppard that, everywhere I go. A place there? You're only commander of their armies and their most powerful sorcerer – not that that's saying much, of course… and, oh! Radek! That's it!" He snapped his fingers excitedly. "The collar! It's to suppress sorcery. All the rest – memory loss, confusion… Those were side-effects. It--"

It was too much. Doors slammed shut in the slave's mind, and then there was just the soft and gentle darkness.

******

They had all been loaded into the land-ship of their annoyingly-enigmatic forefathers, and at least the ride was smooth, but they were still four days out of Atlantis.

Teyla was sitting with the slave – no, with Sheppard. Sheppard! The man had disappeared three years ago, taking the best hopes of Atlantis with him. Oh, they'd struggled on, of course – more than struggled on, because, well, with people of Rodney's calibre on the team, hope was most definitely not lost – but the way the people of Atlantis spoke, nothing had been the same since Sheppard's disappearance. Rodney had barely lived a month in the city before he had come almost to hate the name.

"Is he--?" Radek asked quietly, then muttered something in that native language of his. "--going to die?"

"How on earth should I know?" Rodney snapped.

It just couldn't be possible! Sometimes, in alchemy, you saw an expanse of dull base metal overlaid with a shimmering impression of what it had the potential of becoming. Rodney saw only a broken slave. He saw the man who had bowed his head and let Rodney work on the collar. He saw a man who had quivered with fear as if he had stood in the kitchen, and a man who hadn't helped himself to a pair of shoes, because he hadn't been told to. The name of Sheppard conjured up images of a heroic leader, a powerful sorcerer, a man whose absence still caused sadness three years on. In alchemy, the correct patterns could quicken the base metal, and could bring the dull reality and the shining potential together in the same form. It didn't work that way with people. This couldn't be Sheppard! It couldn't be!

Teyla joined them on the bench, weariness etched in her face. "He is very gravely injured. It is more than just the bullet wound. I think his body is just… tired. There are more scars than I would have thought possible."

"Welcome to slavery, Genii-style," Rodney said. "Had a bad day at the palace? Go home and torture your pet slave – make yourself feel better by hurting someone who can't escape." He swallowed, suddenly feeling sick; the chains had shown him far more of that than he had ever wanted to see. "Radek here wants to know if he's going to die."

Teyla stood up, steadying herself on the back of the driver's seat. "I fear he cannot survive the journey."

Ronon shouted something, smashing his hand into the middle of the console, which Rodney took to mean that he was already driving the ship as fast as he possibly could. Four days. Maybe three if they didn't stop for rests?

"Can't your--" Rodney waved his hand vaguely; he had never felt comfortable with Teyla's particular brand of magic. "--friends…?"

"Healing is not their strength," Teyla told him. "Most of the people who pass through the barrens are… desperate, hating the Wraith. If it comes to a fight, they will serve me."

"It isn't going to come to a fight, is it?" Radek asked nervously, which was good, because it allowed Rodney to sneer at him for being a coward, and when someone else was more terrified than you were, it… well, it helped, sometimes.

"I hope not," Teyla said, "but the Wraith are not far away, although they are unaware of us at present."

"And your friends told you that, too?" Rodney said it harshly. Teyla had told him again and again that the spirits that she could command weren't the spirits of dead people. Intense experiences left an echo. If she came back to the broken-down engine in years to come, would a spirit version of Rodney himself be there, shimmering in the air around her?

"They did," Teyla said calmly, and returned to the slave-- to Sheppard. He looked deeply unconscious. No, he looked dead.

The stars were beginning to show through the failing light of the winter evening. He was rescued, Rodney realised. Teyla would take care of the slave and Ronon was handling the driving. Rodney had performed his task. He'd done the part that nobody else could do, and now it was time to relax. Resting his head against the cushioned side, he closed his eyes.

Words wove around him: Teyla talking to the slave; Ronon asking questions; Radek breathing fast and nervously beside him.

"We can use the portal." Rodney's eyes snapped open. "There's one… what? A few hours' journey from here? Even less?"

"Portal is dead," Radek said. "We don't know how to quicken it."

"Hello? Reason for me being away for the last year?" Rodney pulled the silver cylinder from his pocket. "Secrets of our secretive forefathers?" He made the patterns that opened the cylinder, and pulled out the pristine paper inside. It faded visibly the moment it was removed from the protective alchemies of its container. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me!" Rodney cried. "One of those 'read once and then it will destroy itself' deals? What's with these people and secrecy?"

"But the chance to learn the secrets of the portals!" Radek's eyes were gleaming.

Mine! Rodney thought. I found it! "Of course," he said, "the portal they found back home in the south was already quickened, but even then it needed a huge amount of sorcery to actually open it, so even if we can quicken it… And we might not have the right ingredients to make the correct fixing…"

"And," Radek said, "we might not be skilled enough to perform the workings."

"Of course I'm skilled enough." The papers trembled in Rodney's hands, the edges of them already curling and crumbling. "Now, go away," he commanded, "and let me read."

The slave moaned faintly, a shuddering breath. "Hush," Teyla whispered, soothing him. "We are here, John."

Rodney closed his eyes just for a moment. Secrets were fast fading away in his hand, and the slave would die if they didn't get him back to Atlantis. "No," he said. "Radek, you read it, too." And he held it between them, and sank into the written word.

******

He had a name. It shone like the single star that he had watched from the small back room, and he used it as a beacon to drag himself out of the darkness. John Sheppard. It was a thing to grasp. It was a rope to hold on to, to cling to with all his strength.

For so long he hadn't wanted to know. For so long he had feared knowing. He hadn't been thinking clearly. He'd turned his back on knowledge because he hadn't thought he could bear to know.

But now that he teetered on the brink, it was the only thing that was keeping him there. "What's your name?" he asked, his eyelids fluttering open.

The woman was no longer shimmering. She looked tired, with dried blood and dirt scraped on her face. "Are you--?"

"Tell me your name," he rasped, and he was hungry for it, desperate for it.

"My name is Teyla," she said, "and that is Ronon, and the person next to Rodney is Radek."

"Teyla." He echoed it quietly. Names were safe. Names were like stars in the sky. You didn't have to look beyond them.

She touched his side, fingers gently probing. Pain surged like fire from the heart of him, and darkness almost took him again, and there were fears stalking in the darkness, just as there always were. These people were lying. They were just pretending to be his friends. They hadn't even chained him, but he was still their prisoner, too weak to break away from them. They had bound him with trust. If they chose to chain him and hurt him, then it was only because he had come with them willingly.

Atlantis, he thought. Just a story. Words were so often lies.

"Lie still, John," Teyla said, and he realised that he had been writhing, arching against the pain.

You obeyed commands from your masters. You kept your pain inside and you didn't…

His thoughts trailed away. He was on fire with pain, and he didn't know what to do. He had a name; he was nameless. He was a slave; he was… what?

He shaped his lips to say something, then let it go. His breath caught on a quiet sound, and he was powerless to stop it. He tried again. "What…?"

But Teyla was already looking away, standing up and walking away from him. "The Wraith," she said. "They are coming."

******

The paper crumbled to dust in Rodney's hands.

"The Wraith!" Rodney gasped. "Oh, that's just marvellous. And thanks to our super-suspicious, all-knowing ancestors of ours, there's nothing left of their wonderful secret. Even if a rescue party comes and find our bodies, there's nothing but dust for them to find. This...? It was all for nothing."

Teyla and Ronon were conferring, their voices low and jagged. The slave had pushed himself up onto a trembling elbow, and was watching them all, his eyes glittering with fever, probably not understanding a word.

"Can write it down," Radek offered, one finger raised.

"Oh, yes, write it down," Rodney sneered, "because, oh yes, I forgot, we have plenty of spare time to write a book. On what?" he demanded. "My leg? With blood?"

"I just thought…"

"We shouldn't have opened it." Rodney clenched his fist, still feeling the echo of secrets. "Why did you make me open it? It would have lasted for millennia if we hadn't opened it."

Ronon wrenched the vehicle sharply to the left. Rodney almost slid off the bench, and the slave slumped down again, his face set tightly against the pain. Rodney looked at him for as long as he could bear, then looked away.

"And they'll never know," he said. "Back in Atlantis, they'll never know. The Wraith will hunt us down, and… and they don't always kill people straightaway, but that's even worse, isn't it? They'll never know."

"Rodney." Teyla said it sharply. She was standing over him, holding her balance perfectly despite the swaying of the craft.

Rodney looked up at her, and the last of the anger trickled away from him. "It's not all that difficult a secret, really. It just comes down to knowledge of a name. The portals are made of an incredibly rare metal, you see, and none of us knew the patterns needed to command it. The fixing… It's not a difficult one – both Radek and I could make it in an instant from phials we always carry. Even the working won't take long now we know the name, and we know our destination well, enough to prime the portal to seek the right place."

Teyla's head snapped round. Was she even listening to him? "They are closer," she said. "They are many."

Rodney swallowed; looked at his useless hands. "But it needs sorcery. The alchemy… Radek and I can handle that easily – well, I could do it easily; Radek would find it harder, I guess – but all that does is quicken the ring so that it can hold the portal and stop it from vaporising everyone within a hundred square miles. The portal itself… That's sorcery, and not just your common kind. I doubt that anyone on Atlantis has that kind of strength."

Radek raised his hand. Ronon swerved the vehicle to the right, and Teyla dropped to her knees, steadying the slave with a hand.

"Or in other words," Rodney said, scraping a hand across his face, "we're totally screwed."

******

The slave – John Sheppard. My name is John Sheppard – could only see a small patch of sky. He tried to focus on a single star, but it grew bigger and bigger, falling from the sky, streaking across it like a silver blade.

"They're sending in darts," Ronon gasped.

Teyla's hand tightened then eased on the slave's shoulder. "Darts only have a limited range."

"We can go faster?" said the man called Radek.

The slave had memories – memories that he had thought nothing more than dreams. He had raced through the sky in something pointed and silver. He had tumbled. Pale-faced creatures had reached out for him.

Captured by the Wraith, McKay had said. "If you really are…" He couldn't finish it; pain swallowed the words. He clenched his fist, and tried again. "If you're really my friends, why didn't you come looking for me?"

Teyla pushed her hair off her face, and kept her hand there, half hiding her eyes. "We thought you were dead. We looked – never think that we did not look. We found your skimmer, and it was shattered. And then we started losing people in the search…"

Words. It was only words. Something struck the side of the vehicle, and McKay gave a hoarse cry of terror. "We won't make it!" he shouted. "There's too many of them!"

This was his master. This was the person who owned him, and he was terrified and irritable and arrogant and cowardly… and human. Just another human, just as he was himself.

The vehicle jerked to the right. Ronon shouted something, and the slave could see the back of his shoulders heaving as he struggled for control. Glass cracked, but didn't break. The slave thought of a knife in his own hand, and of Kolya going down beneath it. He looked at his own empty hand now, and watched it tremble.

"Take my collar off," he said.

"What?" McKay's head snapped up. "It almost killed you last time."

"You said I was a sorcerer," he said, and perhaps it was true and perhaps it was a lie, but at least he'd know. He was tired of not knowing. He had based his life on so many things that now seemed wrong. For his whole remembered life, he had been thinking with only half a mind.

"Yes, but…" McKay waved his hand, then lunged for the seat when the vehicle juddered and almost stopped. "That was three years ago. So I remove the collar and - poof! – your sorcery comes back? You'll be rusty. You're…"

Broken, said his eyes and the silence.

The slave managed to sit up, leaning heavily against the side of the vehicle. "I just want it gone." Whether they were telling the truth or not, these people had been kind to him, and if there was any chance at all that he could save them, then he would take it.

McKay looked pale and stricken, swallowing again and again. "It might kill you."

"Then I'll die knowing who I am," he said, because he was tired, so tired, and perhaps that was the best thing, the only thing, that he could wish for.

******

They were almost at the portal, but there was no hope, there was no hope at all. The Wraith circled them in their darts, hurling balls of their ice-magic at the side of the vehicle, and Ronon was steering with his whole body, flinging the tiller from side to side, but it wasn't enough.

"Faster!" Rodney commanded. "Work faster!" His hair wild about his face, Radek was clambering from side to side, strengthening the metal, repairing cracks, but not even alchemy could entirely withstand the magic of the Wraith.

They had minutes, he thought, just minutes.

"Are you sure about this?" Rodney asked the slave. "Because if I'm about to be horribly killed, I don't want my last minutes to have been spent inflicting hideous pain on… well, someone who isn't a Wraith."

"I'm sure," the slave said, but he couldn't even sit up by himself, and Teyla had to raise him up and support him. The slave bent his head and held his own hair out of the way, but his hand was shaking as if even that was almost more effort than his body could endure.

I can't, Rodney thought, but if there was a chance – if there was any chance at all… He remembered how eager he had been to do it again that second day. It felt like months ago now – the actions of a different man.

"Do it," the slave whispered, and Teyla moved so that his head was resting on her shoulder, and wove her hand in his, through the tendrils of his dark hair.

Rodney's hands felt clumsy. Surely he couldn't get this right! The vehicle was shuddering around him, and it had taken him hours, that first time, even to get as far as he had.

"McKay!" Ronon rasped. Rodney glanced flutteringly to the side and saw that the window was cracked in a dozen places, cold air coming through too many holes for Radek to repair all at once.

Taking a deep breath, Rodney touched the collar. It knew him, and it recoiled, kicking back at him, but Rodney bit his lip and persisted, starting from the point he had left off the previous time. His thumbs traced patterns…

…and the slave went boneless, his whole weight falling onto Teyla. Rodney saw it only dimly, though, focused on his workings, because the faster he did it… oh, by the flame, the faster he did it, the quicker the torture would be over… and the slave moaned, gripping Teyla's sleeve with fingers as white as bone. "Please," Rodney heard Teyla beg, sounding as if she was in tears, "please, John, let it out," and the slave writhed against her, and the tiny glimpse that Rodney got of his face was almost enough to make him lose control of his working, almost enough to make him lose the fight.

I can't, he thought, letting the words slip through his lips, but he held on, returning to the battle. The slave was shuddering, and there was fresh blood on Teyla's hand as she held him, and Rodney had never seen Teyla crying quite like that – had never thought that she was capable of it.

The collar was strong, pulsing with power in time with the impacts of ice-magic on their weakening metal cage. Radek gasped something in that language of his, and Rodney hissed at him through gritted teeth, but then Radek reached out, rubbing his thumb in the last trace of the fixing, and touched the collar himself.

The slave screamed, the sound muffled in Teyla's shoulder…

…and the collar came off.

******

He saw so many things.

He saw Kolya, and his first master, and McKay, airily waving to him to sit down at the table. He saw his hand clenched on Teyla's shoulder. He saw a collar broken on the ground in front of him. He saw blood. He saw waves of darkness crashing over his head, dragging him deeper and deeper each time.

He saw Atlantis waking up as he walked through it… No, as a stranger walked through it… No, as he did. He saw memories like hearing stories, but they slotted clumsily into place and became his own. He saw Ronon saying that yes, maybe he would come to live in Atlantis. He saw Teyla walking over from her city of glass, spirits shining around her as she walked.

He saw fragments – a yes, a no, a fierce argument; "I won't leave them behind"; stars on the ocean; "I'm doing it alone"; Ronon grinning as he rode a skimmer across the waves; his first taste of Athosian wine; his last glimpse of the city as he flew into the blue.

He remembered pale-faced Wraith, but that was a dream. No, it was memory: Wraith dragging him from the wreckage of his skimmer; Wraith screaming as he struck out with fire; a weight on his body, and a collar being forced around his neck as he bucked and kicked…

And then nothing; nothing. Everything faded against the enormousness of his pain. Memories retreated, lurking out of reach.

Teyla gently laid him down, then sprang to her feet, snatching up her sticks. Someone was pounding at the side of the land-ship, and McKay was shouting something, and Ronon was leaping over the back of the driver's seat, pulling out his knife and his gun. "Seal it! Seal it!" McKay shouted, but Radek shouted that he couldn't, that it was too much – Wraith magic against alchemy, and there were too many of them, far too many.

He tried to push himself up, but he couldn't, he couldn't stand. Teyla's sticks whirled, and the air sparkled around her. The Wraith in the lead dropped down dead before any physical weapons could touch him. Ronon took the second. Teyla struck down the third, and McKay traced patterns on the wall, not backing down even though he was pale with terror.

This mattered. Only this. Only this moment.

Teyla cried out, almost dropping her stick. A Wraith-blade scored a seam across Ronon's arm.

"Where's the portal?" John whispered, but pain had scoured away his voice and left him with nothing. He reached out; tried again; managed to grab the trailing edge of McKay's robe. "Where's the portal?"

McKay didn't hear him, but John knew the answer; could hear it thrumming in his veins. He used that knowledge to find the strength to push himself up to his knees. Don't think. Don't remember. Just now. Just this.

"We need to get to the portal." His voice was a broken wisp of a thing, but McKay heard him, opened his mouth as if to protest, then just nodded.

Things were said. John sagged, and barely heard them.

He was walking down a tightrope, struggling to stay balanced when the void stretched on either side of him. Don't think, can't think, just…

Ronon grabbed him, hauling him up, and he screamed; he couldn't help it. "Help him," Ronon commanded, and John was passed to Radek and McKay, and then it became not just about walking the tightrope, but just about standing. His legs were liquid fire, his head was split apart, and… and Ronon and Teyla were fighting, and Wraith were falling, but there were more of them to fill the gap, always more of them…

One step in front of the other. One step, then two.

The portal shone silver, framing stars. "I have to, uh, put you down now," McKay said, and John crumpled to the ground; tried to catch himself with an outstretched hand, but failed. The world tilted, and he saw Ronon and Teyla fighting better than in even the fiercest memory. Ronon was down on one knee, and came up roaring.

"…together," he heard McKay say, but he hadn't heard the start of it. He blinked, and perhaps lost time, because the next time he saw anything, Ronon and Teyla had backed up until they were almost standing on him, and McKay and Radek, crouched beneath the portal with their hands reaching up, were weaving patterns with their fingers, and the ring was beginning to glow.

It needs sorcery, McKay had said, but that meant stepping off the tightrope. That meant coming down on one side or the other…

That meant bringing his team back home.

He couldn't stand, only push himself up onto his hands and knees, then slump back into tumbled kneeling. He reached out one hand…

…and it was there. It was always there. It had never required thought. It had always been inside him, as natural as breathing… and to be without it was like being without breathing, just dead inside, worse than dead.

The portal opened in a blaze of gold and silver. McKay went through first, looking back at the last minute, his mouth opening as if to say, 'Are you sure this is safe?' Radek followed, and then Ronon hauled John up, but was gentle as he carried him through the portal and back home.

Home.

******

end of chapter six

end of part one of the story

On to chapter seven
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