Summary: Eshba lets out an unsteady breath. "The virus has come more than once. Each time it changes, each time it takes more. We cannot let this knowledge die with us, yet we cannot find those to whom it must be passed."
There's a strange beauty to the settlement the Ga'gaan have made for themselves, gathered in beneath the canopy of the Tumlan trees, winding into the sheltering darkness of caves made warm by candlelight. In every dun-colored stone, faded shingle, artless pathway and plot of turned earth, John sees the Wraith, and a people's response – a quiet flourishing in shades of green that blend with mountain and grass and river. There are empty homes now, turned over to the use of schoolchildren for lessons and storerooms for grain; there are few Ga'gaan left to hold hands above the chantris flowers and exchange an oath; fewer yet who might bear children to learn their letters in a weathered lodge.
"There are more of us," Eshba tells them, passing a basket of lavat rolls to mop up the last of their stew. "We scattered, believing we would have the means to find each other again." She looks over her shoulder to the village behind her, wooden lodges climbing the hillside. "We did not anticipate so many would be culled, or that we would lose so much knowledge with those who fell." She smiles wistfully as she shifts the stoneware cup beside her plate. "We are all that are left to insist this is our homeland, to care for it as we have always done."
John shifts awkwardly, the bench beneath him groaning softly as he moves. It's peaceful here, quiet in a way that makes him angry, makes his trigger finger itch, as if he could shoot his way to crafting restitution for the Ga'gaan. They're sitting in the shade, but he's wearing his sunglasses, the better to hide his discomfort.
"Did you look?" Ronon asks. He has one elbow propped on the table, a cup of water in his hand.
"Yes. Often," Eshba replies. "There were planets where we expected to find our friends and family and yet . . ." She shakes her head. "We found traces, stories, pots left behind and talk of strangers who'd fled but . . ."
"They were pursued?" Teyla asks.
"We don't know." Eshba shakes back her hair, the beads at the end of her braids catching the sunlight that filters through the trees. "We no longer have the means to search, nor the people to spare. We could only search on foot – an impossible undertaking. Those with transportation would be better suited." She fixes her gaze on John, and he nods, a half-acknowledgment of what she's asking.
"We could help," Rodney says, frowning as he traces shapes on the table top with one finger. "If there's machinery you need fixed, I can . . ."
"It rusted many months ago," Eshba says. "Though I am grateful for the offer."
Rodney hmmphs, chewing on his lip. John shifts in his seat again. There's no good way to try and catch Teyla's eye.
"You just want to know?" Ronon asks. "Or what? Bring 'em here?"
Eshba shakes her head. "We have one thing they lack – Dashin, an elder, the keeper of our history. He knows the rites of our people, the stories that make us who we are. In his keeping are our customs, our values, our knowledge of years long past."
Teyla tilts her head. "No others know these things?"
"Many have tried," Eshba says. "We have herbs, medicines that help to fix the memory of each story in place in the mind, and we shall remember. But we fear – we know that if we cannot find our people, pass these things to their keeping . . ." She lets out an unsteady breath. "The virus has come more than once. Each time it changes, each time it takes more. We cannot let this knowledge die with us, yet we cannot find those to whom it must be passed." Her knuckles, John notices, have turned white where she holds her cup.
"So give us the stuff," Rodney says. "Some history books? I can throw those in my backpack and we'll . . ."
"Rodney," John says, low.
"What?" Rodney looks at him incredulously. "You're seriously suggesting we can't pick up a couple of books, keep them in case we run across these people? It's a big galaxy, we have a lot of ships."
"I don't think it's gonna be that simple," John says, taking off his shades and tucking them into his pocket. "Am I right?"
Eshba wets her lips. "There are no books."
"Right." John quells the urge to look at Rodney and offer some version of 'I told you so' with his eyebrows.
"You remember out loud," Ronon says, picking up a chanti fruit and tossing it between his hands.
"For someone with practice at memorization it would be no difficult thing," Eshba says. "And we would help, we would offer . . . "
"We're gonna need a minute," John says, and stands up, offering what he hopes is a helpful smile. "Talk it over."
Eshba nods. "Of course." And she stands herself, gathering her skirts, withdrawing to give them privacy, leaving the scattered remnants of their meal still close at hand.
"We should help them," Teyla says, once they have wandered a distance from eavesdroppers.
"Yeah," Ronon agrees. "It's important."
"Look," John says. "I get it, okay? What happened is . . ."
"This galaxy has lost enough," Teyla says. "We have opportunity to make sure nothing more can be counted a victory for the Wraith. If this culture dies, if these people die before they can pass along what others must know . . ."
"I got Wraith to worry about," John says, practicality warring with the basic want to do what's best for the Ga'gaan. "Wraith, the virus, goddamn Todd pulling shit whenever he pleases. We need intel on . . ."
"We can spare one team," Ronon says, unimpressed. "Rotate people."
"And start where?" John asks. "I'm all ears, buddy."
"Planets where they should've been."
"I agree," Teyla says. "We can more easily follow leads than the Ga'naan. One team in a 'jumper can cover many more miles, countless planets in the time it would take these people to walk from a stargate to the central town of Mata."
"Even if that's true," John offers, voice level, "who does the remembering?"
"Someone," Ronon offers helpfully.
"We have a large contingent of personnel on Atlantis," Teyla says patiently. "I find it hard to believe that . . ."
"I'll do it," Rodney throws in.
There's silence for a moment. "Huh?" John says.
Rodney tilts his chin, a familiar gesture of pride. "I have excellent recall. I spend a day or two listening to some . . ." He waves a hand. ". . . chatter, I commit it to memory, we're done. We find these people and I recite it. It certainly can't be worse that performing The Highwayman in Mrs. Sharpe's second-grade class for the gifted, and believe me, I could still bore you to tears with that horrifying excuse for poetry."
John squints at him, a hundred questions crowding in his throat, but he swallows every one. "You don't have the time to . . ."
"I'm not suggesting I go look," Rodney says witheringly. "You have any number of perfectly serviceable Marines who will think it high entertainment to fly around the galaxy on a treasure hunt. They find them, they call us in. Simple."
"Rodney . . ."
"Look, they're right, okay?" He gestures to Teyla and Ronon. "We spend all this time fighting the Wraith, and for what? This saves something – does what blowing up a Hive ship can't, and if we can't do this when we're asked? What the hell are we in this for?"
John blows out a breath, trying to make the pieces fit, to find some accommodation between the exigency of command and doing what seems right. "Say it's two days. You can be away that long?"
"Radek is perfectly capable of not blowing up the city for forty-eight hours," Rodney sniffs. "Though if you tell him I said so, I'll deny it."
John huffs a breath of laughter. "Jesus. All right. Let's go talk to Eshba."
Teyla squeezes his arm. "This is well done, John."
"Yeah," he says, wishing he felt more certain.
They all stay – John because he wants to keep an eye on Rodney, Teyla and Ronon because he figures they've earned some R&R. The peace of the settlement loosens them both, makes Ronon smile and Teyla laugh, and John's not so oblivious as to miss that there's healing in this for both of them, in helping a culture persist.
He's not allowed to follow when Rodney enters Dashin's lodge, but he takes up a post not far away, accepts the tea Eshba brings. He watches as the business of living goes on around him, accompanied by the distant shrieks of children at play, the call of birdsong, the rise and fall of Dashin's voice and the stumbling cadence of Rodney's recitation. Twice he thinks he dozes off, but there's no one to mock him if it's true.
Rodney comes out of the lodge at sundown, stretching and wincing as his spine cracks and pops. "Cushions," he says by way of explanation, seeing John. "Not a chair in the place." He rubs one eye.
"You okay?" John asks, eyeing him speculatively, assessing the signs of fatigue.
"Fine, fine," Rodney says dismissively, but he presses a hand against John's shoulder blade, fingers spread wide.
John relaxes a fraction, offers Rodney a faint half-smile, all they can exchange in such a public place. "Hungry?"
"Mmmm, famished. We drank this . . . god, whatever it's called, tasted like coffee, coffee and berries which, surprisingly, is not as revolting as you'd think. It's the stuff that fixes . . ." He twirls a hand to suggest the workings of memory. "No food though."
"Sounds like there's dinner," John says, nodding toward the bottom of the hillside, tugging at Rodney's sleeve to pull him into step.
"Smells like there's dinner," Rodney agrees, and leaves his hand at John's back.
Dinner's served beneath the largest Tumlan, benches pushed together so that everyone might eat. There's lively conversation, soft music from an instrument John's never seen before, strings and a hammer, blocks of wood struck in concert with every note plucked. The Ga'naan seem contented, relaxed and happy, as if the mere recitation of their stories to a stranger has freed them somehow. "You did good," John whispers to Rodney as things wind down, as the smoky afha drink is poured and the children leave for bed.
Rodney smiles at him, tiredly. "So did you," he says with disarming honesty, and John ducks his head, studies his bowl of meena berries, and laughs softly when Rodney elbows him in the side.
All four of them bunk in a roomy, vacant lodge, warm and snug against the valley's nighttime breezes. There are thick blankets and woven sheets on each bed, and soft towels left beside a basin and pitcher. Teyla's picked up the melody the instruments played at dinner, and hums it as she unpacks her bag, laying aside her tac vest and jacket, pairing up her boots. Ronon falls asleep almost instantly, the luxury of a bed still not having grown old, and John finds he's more tired than he thought, climbing beneath hand-sewn covers. He blinks at Rodney stripping out of his jacket, and then he's dreaming, remembering the bright red bicycle he rode as a kid, the perfect curve of the handlebars and bright, crisp tone of the bell.
He wakes with a start in the darkest part of night, gun in his hand before thought kicks in. "Rodney?"
Rodney shuffles to a halt in the middle of the room. "Sorry," he whispers. "Can't sleep."
John stuffs his gun back beneath his pillow, and sits up as best he can. "What's going on?"
Rodney shakes his head. "Restless. My mind's just . . . everything I heard today, I can't . . ."
"You sleep at all?"
Rodney shakes his head. His whole body is bent, as though fatigue's a weight bearing down on his shoulders.
"C'mere," John mumbles, throwing back the covers. "C'mon."
"Don't be . . ."
"Rodney," John says with no small amount of exasperation.
"I can't just . . ."
"Yeah, you can, and it's not as if it's a secret from these guys, and you'll wake 'em if you keep this up, so would you just – "
Rodney sighs and shuffles over in his shorts and wrinkled t-shirt, climbing into bed and lying on his side. "I'm only doing this to shut you up," he mumbles, as if he's not already pressing back against John's body heat, covering John's hand with his own when it comes up to rest against his chest.
"Sure, buddy," John whispers, nose pressed to the back of Rodney's neck, and he's gratified when, moments later, Rodney whiffles his first snore.
The second day passes just like the first, right up until the end of their evening meal. Eshba stands, holds up her cup of afha, and proposes a toast. "To our friends, for accepting this burden," she says clearly, and something in her tone of voice makes the hairs at the back of John's neck stand on end. "And to Dr. McKay, most particularly, for becoming the Wakeful."
The Ga'gaan drink, but John doesn't. Teyla shifts her hand to the P-90 hooked to her tac vest. Ronon straightens his spine; Rodney splutters, confused. "Um . . . Wakeful?" he asks. His tone is flat and careful.
Eshba sets her cup down and folds her hands. "The elixir you drank to fix our stories in your mind – there is another consequence."
"Of course there is," John says softly. Ronon grumbles low in his throat and pulls his gun from its holster, spins it and rests it on the table, still snug in his hand.
Eshba lifts her chin. "In the normal order of things it is enough, when knowledge is spoken aloud, to encourage the mind to accept it and adapt. But you are not the first we have had to trust become a carrier, to take these words and supply them to others – a courier for who we are."
"Uh-huh," Rodney says, and there's a hint of anger in his voice.
"We cannot risk that any courier will take the task lightly. And so we add iimak to our medicines, to the memory cordial that you drank, that you may not sleep until your task is done."
"Okay, now wait a goddamn minute," John says, leaning across the table, pointing a finger. "You telling me he's not gonna sleep until he – until we find your people?"
"Yes," Eshba says.
Rodney shakes his head, lips pressed firmly together. "And you just thought to tell us this now," he deadpans. "How convenient."
"We could not risk you changing your mind."
"Yeah?" John stands up, reaches for his backpack. "Well we're changing our mind. We'll go home, record your stories, file them away, and forget we were ever here." Ronon stands up beside him.
"Recitation alone will not ease things," Eshba says, standing also. "There are herbs that only our people can supply, an elixir to be consumed that only they will know how to brew."
John's thankful that Teyla stands and speaks – his own jaw has dropped and shows no signs of closing.
"We offered to help you," Teyla says icily. "We gave of our time and goodwill, and this is how you answer? You would hurt one of us out of some fear that we would . . ."
"He will not be hurt," Eshba says.
"He will not sleep," Teyla snaps back. "Do you know what that will do?"
"Then you must find our people swiftly," Eshba says, so nonchalant John wants to punch something. "I make no apology for asking this of those who woke the Wraith."
John's breath hisses through his teeth. "Screw you," he says quietly, and jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "Teyla, take point." And he holds Eshba's gaze as his team heads into the forest, toward the waiting stargate; doesn't say another word as he turns on his heel at their six.
"I'll be fine," Rodney hisses as John follows him to his quarters. There's a band-aid at the crook of his arm where Keller took blood, but she has no answers yet. "Are you kidding me? This is an opportunity. Do you know how much work I can get done with the labs completely empty and no one awake to page me unless the end of the galaxy gets scheduled for the middle of the night?"
"Yeah, well, talk to me when you can't think straight because you haven't slept in four days," John says through gritted teeth.
"Hello?" Rodney shoots back. "Graduate school? Four days is nothing. Hell, I built you a nuclear bomb on four days without sleep. I'll dose up on stimulants, build you a better bomb, how's that?"
"Not at all comforting," John mutters.
Rodney swipes his hand over the console outside his door, barreling inside without waiting to see if John follows. "Look, I'll make it my first priority to start whittling down our list of planets to visit to find the rest of these people, okay? Use the night hours to do a little homework, brief you over breakfast."
"Rodney . . ."
"Can't be hard – track trade goods, monitor communication; there's a chance I can modify the stargates to collect information on . . ."
Rodney turns and folds his arms across his chest. "What?"
"This isn't some . . ." John looks around the room, trying to find inspiration for the words that are tangled on his tongue. "What if we can't . . ."
"You will," Rodney says firmly.
John looks at his boots; they're scuffed and need blacking. "You're gonna take care of yourself." He looks up. "Eat right and rest, even if you can't sleep, and if I hear you're making mistakes, if Radek tells me you're . . ."
Rodney arches an eyebrow. "Bribing my staff to snitch on me?"
"Yeah," John says, taking a step closer. "Yeah, I am, because I'm about to go break every metaphorical neck I have to in order to find these people, and you're not getting sick on my watch, okay?"
Rodney clenches his jaw, stares him down, then sighs and reaches to hook a hand around the back of John's neck. "Just – we're not talking about this," he says softly, and pulls John in close. "I'm not talking about this." And it's only when John lifts a hand to Rodney's back that he feels the fine tremors racing over his skin.
He sends Ronon back the next morning, with whatever Marines he wants, armed with vague orders to get the elixir and undo whatever's been done. John doesn't think too closely about the scope of what he's unleashing – he's faith enough in Ronon to know no one'll get too badly hurt – but he's disappointed when Ronon shows up empty handed, grim-faced and taciturn, ticked off and using curse words only Satedans understand. Teyla brings the healers in from New Athos with baskets of plants and three sets of kind hands, leads them to Keller's lab where they work with wooden pestles and mortars, pitting leaves against chaos, weaving folklore between the drugs Keller can supply.
Rodney drinks a pot of coffee every four hours or so, complains of headaches, and has bags under his eyes.
The science team narrows the search field, and John sends out Marines every three or four hours, goes out himself when a lead seems promising. Every rumor is pursued, every sighting followed up, yet the scattered Ga'gaan are as elusive as mist, specters heard but never seen, and the hours become days.
At first Rodney's louder, his movements frenetic, sending him flying from project to project, idea to idea. His curses become more creative, his invective more fluent – his knee bounces, his fingers tap out syncopated rhythms, his laughter becomes stretched-thin and frequent, his moods turn on a dime. But hour-by-hour the weight of sleeplessness reduces him, and he shrinks in temper and in being. John swears he seems smaller, as if tiredness is stealing inches from his height.
"It's not fair," Rodney says, barging into John's quarters on night six. He's strung out and shaking, eyes bloodshot, hair on end, and John's gut twists – there's nothing he can do, and the knowledge burns. "Do you know, do you know what this feels like, how my head is – how my thoughts are . . ." Rodney raises his hands as if to clap them over his ears, but they hover, trembling, and he looks at John as though he's hunted. "I can't think," he whispers, as if confessing some sort of failing. "I can't think, I can't calculate, words are . . . letters don't . . ." He drops his head and whimpers quietly – John's sure he's no idea he's doing it.
"C'mere," John murmurs, pummeling anger and helplessness until they recede, guiding Rodney toward his bed. "Let me . . ."
"I can't sleep, don't you get it?" Rodney asks, twisting his body away from John's touch. "A change of scenery isn't going to help! We've tried this. Everyone's tried this! Couches, tables, chairs, other beds . . ."
"Just sit, buddy" John says patiently, rubbing a hand up and down Rodney's spine. "We're just gonna sit." He shifts around him, sits himself, back against the wall and legs sprawled on the bed. "C'mon," he insists, and maneuvers Rodney by word and gesture to sit against him, back to chest. Rodney twitches – there's a muscle in his neck that leaps to some internal command, and John presses dry lips there, as though they can make it quit. "Ask me something," he says quietly.
"Huh?" Rodney says, chafing his hands up and down his own arms.
"Ask me anything," John says, weaving his fingers between Rodney's own, holding him steady, coaxing him to relax.
"Now I know I'm ill," Rodney mumbles. "You're offering to talk."
John smiles and pokes him. "Don't look a gift horse in the . . ."
"Oh, and now you're a horse. Lovely. That puts our nocturnal activities in a whole new light . . ."
"Ask me," John says, hooking his chin over Rodney's shoulder, and Rodney shudders, lets his head tip back.
"Tell me . . . tell me about your . . . something good; you were a kid – "
John turns his face into Rodney's neck, breathes in the stale scent of sweat and fear for a second. "Seventh birthday," he says at last. "Got my first bike – bright red."
Rodney's confined to the infirmary by day ten. He's hallucinating now and again – swears he sees Jeannie and she's come to steal his work, or she's making him cookies, standing by his bed. John comes by every minute he has spare, and by unspoken agreement, when they're not off-world, so does the rest of the team, sitting in shifts, slowly aided and abetted by Lorne, Radek, Amelia, Chuck. Rodney sweats through his scrubs, swears he's freezing, has bursts of creativity when he gleefully tells everyone he's figured out the meaning of . . . and then it fades, leaving him confused and vacant, snatches of Ga'gaan history resting heavy on his tongue.
"Just want to sleep," he mumbles when John comes to see him. "Let me sleep, please just let me sleep . . ." as if John's the one withholding the thing he wants; as if John has the power to turn this around.
John doesn't touch him – says he's sorry, reads an abandoned physics journal aloud.
Teyla's with Rodney when they hear, when Ronon sends a message through the 'gate and the city seems to jolt as though electrified. "He's found them," John radios the infirmary. "PY8-922. Get him ready." He pounds up the stairs from control room to 'jumper bay, picks 'jumper six, the last Rodney worked on, waits impatiently for Keller to wheel Rodney to the bay and yells for people to get a goddamn move on when they don't move as fast as he'd like.
Matrah, the village of the lost Ga'gaan, is larger than Eshba's settlement, but the homes, the footpaths, the meeting places look the same. When John walks into their midst, supporting Rodney, insisting he walk, he's gratified to see Ronon has at least three people under the watch of his gun. "Howdy," he says, addressing the Ga'gaan as a whole. "You sons-of-bitches want to help us out?"
There's bewilderment, resistance – sons-of-bitches probably wasn't, John reflects, the best way to go in terms of greetings, but Rodney's unraveling minute by minute, heavy at his side, and when two elders approach, attempt to pull Rodney from him, there's a moment where John can't process what he's meant to do. It's Teyla who touches his arm, whispers reassurance, nods at the elders and helps them guide Rodney away. John's not allowed to follow, and when someone brings him tea this time around he won't let himself drink it. There's no chance he'll doze as he takes up his post at the elders' door.
It's night when Rodney reappears, standing unassisted, leaning heavily against the doorway of the elders' lodge. "Done," he manages, voice rough and broken, and John ducks beneath his arm, steadies him, pulls him tight against his side.
"We're going home," he says, Ronon and Teyla materializing out of the darkness. If he squints, he thinks he can see Marines stationed along the footpath – he didn't order it; he wonders who did.
"Sleep now," Rodney says, and takes the first step, jolting John to attention, to the fact that they're walking away.
It's Keller who insists Rodney check back into the infirmary, that he climb into a narrow hospital bed instead of his own. John's ready to beat down a wall or two, hot with frustration, at the fact that Rodney's eyes are heavy but he's still not asleep, and it's Teyla, again, who leads him to his own quarters, who suggests that he sleep if he wants to help. There's wisdom in her suggestion – there always is – but John can't help the guilt that burns behind his sternum, at the worry that's taken up residence in the small bones of his wrists.
But he's fast asleep when Rodney shows up, when the door opens and Rodney shuffles inside, hands balled, knuckles turned white. "I can't sleep," he says, and his tone is desperate. "I can't – that place, infirmary, the machines, they – "
John hauls him into bed.
There's comfort in pulling him close, in feeling Rodney surrender to the idea that maybe, just maybe, he can sleep now the words in his brain have been released. John tucks his knees behind Rodney's own, splays his fingers against Rodney's chest.
"I've missed this," Rodney whispers, and he sounds so old. "You smell so – and you're warm, and we can't – it's not always . . . this is . . . you're close," he says at last, an exhale, a sigh.
"I know, buddy," John murmurs, nose pressed to the back of Rodney's neck.
"I'm glad, you know," Rodney says. "That we saved their stories." John flinches, holds him tighter, can't bring himself to say the same. "I'm glad - they're glad, and they can go through the stargate and they can find each other and they can . . ." He yawns, his jaw cracking. "I didn't think I'd – but I am. You know? Glad."
John closes his eyes, the selfish wish to have Rodney well and vital and living too big to easily make room for gratitude. "Sure," he says.
"I missed this," Rodney whispers again, and he covers John's hand, shivers once, hard. "Tell me . . . tell me something. Talk. Teenager. What did you. . .?"
John swallows, clears his throat. "Germany. My dad got a contract to – shit, it's complicated. But we lived on base for six months. Me, thirteen and everything changing, and I'd stand by the fences, watch the planes take off." He pulls in a breath, releases it again, orients himself to build a history of who he is, to find the stories that make up a life. "And I knew, right then, more than anything."
As if mended by words of remembrance, Rodney gently begins to snore.