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Title: Bearskin
Author: ozsaur
Recipient: goddess47
Pairing: John/Rodney preslash
Rating: PG-13 for violence, war, and the aftermath of war
Word Count: 15,859
Disclaimer: Not mine
Notes: This story is based on the fairytale Bearskin, but it sort of took off on its own!
Summary: Never gamble with the devil.

Like many soldiers at the end of the war, John had nothing to his name but his rifle, sidearm and faithful horse. There were men who had far less, and John often reminded himself to be grateful for what he had. It was hard, when only a few days ago, John had sold his coat to buy food for himself and Puddlejumper. It was high summer and he didn't need the coat anyway, but come winter, if he couldn't find work, he'd be shivering in the cold.

He was twenty-five years old with no skills but those of a soldier. There was no work for a man trained at nothing but how to kill, unless he wanted to become a bounty hunter, and he'd had enough of killing other men.

John was hungry. With no money in his pockets and no work to be had, John had resorted to trapping rabbits, and digging up roots in the woods along the road. It was enough to keep him alive, but not enough to fill the hollow ache in his belly.

As they passed an open field, John dismounted from Puddlejumper to give the horse a break. It wasn't until he passed a long abandoned farmhouse that he realized that the field had once been cropland. The war had devastated every strata of their society, from the wealthiest gentry, like his father, to the very poorest, who bore the brunt of the civil war.

John paused at the farmhouse long enough to raid the kitchen garden, finding a few greens struggling through the weeds. They were a bit bug chewed and more yellowish than green, but they would make a decent meal later once he made camp for the night. Too bad he didn't have a bit of salt pork to go in the pot, but beggars couldn't be choosers, as the saying went.

As the long summer dusk fell to evening, John entered a stand of trees just off the road. To his surprise, he found a bubbling spring, and next to it a fire pit encircled by stones with a stack of dried branches nearby. It was such an unexpected kindness to find along the lonely road that John set to building up a fire, and cooking the greens in much better spirits. In the morning, he would gather firewood for the next traveler, and maybe they would feel the same gladness of heart.

He used a small bit of salt left from his lean supplies to season the greens. John knew he was skirting far too close to desperation, but he refused to let go of the ease that he'd found in the small grove. He leaned back against his bedroll, watched the small fire, and listened to Puddlejumper go to town on the lush, green grass by the spring.

John was growing drowsy, and was about to bank the fire, and curl up to sleep when he heard footsteps approaching. The steps weren't coming from the direction of the road but from the empty fields instead. John stayed where he was, but loosened his pistol in the holster, and let his hand rest there.

Soon enough, a man appeared on the other side of the fire. He was tall with long silvery hair and strange markings on his face. He wore a long, black robe of some kind, like a priest's, but if this was a holy man, John would eat his hat.

John didn't like the look of the man, especially the way he lurked in the shadows outside the light cast by the fire, but John knew that hospitality was the coin of the road in these hard times and knew better than to turn someone away. He wasn't stupid, though, and kept his hand on his pistol.

"Welcome," John said, "make yourself at home." John gestured at the pot warming next to the fire. "It ain't much, but I have some greens left if you're hungry."

"I'm not here for food," the man said. "I'm here for you."

"Me?" John moved his finger to rest alongside the trigger of his pistol. "You don't know me, and I don't know you."

The man waved a hand. "It doesn't matter that we haven't been introduced. I know your kind, I heard your call, so I came."

"Mister, I don't remember calling anyone."

John didn't like the way the man hovered just outside of the firelight, so he slowly got to his feet, careful not to make any sudden moves. He kept his hand on his gun.

"You called," the man said with a confidence that rubbed John the wrong way. "You're a gambler, aren't you?"

"I like a game of cards now and then, but I don't consider myself much of a gambler."

This was true enough. John liked to play cards to wile away the time. Occasionally, he'd raced Puddlejumper to alleviate the tedium of a long campaign or out of general high spirits, but it had never been about the money, even though a little extra pocket money had been nice. Mostly it had been about winning. John definitely had a competitive streak.

"But you're an adventurer. You take chances. You've risked your life many times."

No, John wasn't a gambler, but he'd often been accused of being reckless. He winced, remembering the last dangerous incident that had nearly landed him in Leavenworth. Going against orders, John had taken a supply wagon and attempted to get to a unit trapped behind enemy lines. By the time John got there, it was already too late; the men were all dead, including his friend Holland. John ended up losing the wagon to the enemy and barely made it back to camp alive. The only reason he hadn't been sent to prison was that his 'reckless stunt' has served as a distraction, and the General had been smart enough to take advantage of it to capture an enemy stronghold.

Puddlejumper moved restlessly behind him, pawing the ground. John had learned the hard way to trust his own instincts, as well as Puddlejumper's. He was about to tell their visitor to move off when the man spoke again.

"I know a way for you to have all the money you could possibly want. You'd never lack for anything. You'll never go hungry or live without a roof over your head again."

So the man was some sort of snake oil salesman, or some other kind of conman. John decided to play along, at least for the moment. It was not like he had anything better to do.

"Well, I may not have money now, but I'm a hard worker, and I have ideas. I'll find a way to make a living."

"This is more than a living. You can have wealth beyond your wildest imaginings."

John tried to hide a smile. He'd grown up in a fine home, with all the finest things. A lot could be said for living in luxury, but John had turned his back on all that when he sided against his father in the war. John had done the right thing, no matter the cost. Maybe in a tangential way, he was a gambler, because after walking away from his childhood home, he hadn't known if he'd land on his feet, or land in a ditch.

"So, you're offering me wealth. What do I have to do, shoot someone?" John was only half joking.

"No, you'll do nothing that goes against your morals."

Getting a little tired of the conversation, John shrugged. "Look, whatever you're offering-- "

"Why don't I sweeten the pot? If you take this bargain, not only will you have wealth that even Midas couldn't imagine, you will find love, true and abiding."

"That sounds like my horse, Puddlejumper," John said, with a smirk.

Unfazed, the man laughed. The hissing sound of it raised John's hackles and caused Puddlejumper to whip his tail in irritation.

"Money and true love," the man said. "Many people only find one or the other. Still more find neither, and go through life with nothing to show for it. Is that what you want in life? An empty heart and empty pockets?"

"No, but I'm willing to find those things for myself."

"Maybe you'll find them, maybe you won't. Strike a bargain with me, and you'll have everything guaranteed."

It was getting late, and John was getting tired. Or maybe what the man said was making new thoughts churn in his mind. John was not afraid of hard work, but it would be nice to have enough money that he wouldn't have to labor all day for a wage. And true love? He'd never really thought about it except in a vague sort of way. He'd always thought of marrying some day, that's what a man did, except marriage had never been more to him than a passing thought. He couldn't even imagine the kind of woman he'd want to spend his life with. Being a soldier, there hadn't been too many opportunities to meet the marrying kind of woman anyway.

Now that the man had put the idea into his head, he couldn't get it out.

"Tell me about this bargain," John said, and felt a rush of excitement, like he got before a battle. Good or bad, he'd been hooked.

The man smiled, and even in through the shadows, it gleamed horribly.

"First, we need to see what kind of man you really are," the man said, pointing at something behind John.

John turned to see a bear running straight at him at top speed. In an instant, John had his gun out and shot the bear right between the eyes. It fell to the ground, dead. John took a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart at such an unexpected turn of events.

That awful, hissing laugh filled the clearing again. "You are brave, and resourceful. What else are you?"

"What do you think I am?" John asked, finally getting angry.

"We shall see. We shall see," the man said. "The bargain is this:"

In a blink, John found himself wearing a jacket, an ugly green thing with silver buttons like nothing he's seen before.

"Will you wear this jacket for seven years?"

"That's it? I have to wear an ugly jacket?"

"There's more."

"Of course there is," John muttered.

There was a sound like a rushing wind, even though there was no wind at all. He felt a thump against his shoulders as something landed on him and wrapped around his body. John reached up and felt the luxuriant fur of the bear he'd just killed. It hung on him like a cloak, the head of the bear resting on his shoulders like a hood.

"Will you wear this bearskin?"

It was all very strange, but John lifted his chin in bravado. "That's all? You want me to wear this jacket and this bearskin?"

"You can't remove them, or wash them. You can neither cut your hair, nor your nails. Do this for seven years and you will have everything I promised you."

It was a stupid idea, but John had always been up for a challenge.

John grinned. "I'll do it!"

Another hissing laugh. "Reach into your pocket."

John did, and found himself with a handful of gold.

"Whenever you want, reach into your pocket and you'll have all the gold want."

John could only exclaim in surprise as the sheer amount of gold overflowed his hand and fell to the ground.

"Always remember that this is a private bargain between us. For the next seven years, you will be known as Bearskin. You mustn't tell anyone your true name or about our bargain, or you will forfeit."

"Wait, wait! Slow down. You never said what'll happen if I lose."

"Didn't I mention it? You'll lose your soul, Bearskin. You'll lose your soul."

This time, there wasn't the sound of footsteps to mark his passage. The man was simply gone, leaving John feeling very foolish for not getting all the details of the bargain before making it.

The man, or creature because John was beginning to think that he wasn't a man at all, left John with a carcase to take care of. It didn't sit right with him to leave all that meat to spoil, not when there were so many people going hungry.

John spent the rest of the evening dressing out the bear as best he could with the limited supplies he had on hand. He decided it would be best to take the meat back to the farmhouse they'd passed earlier that day. It took three trips to haul it, and Puddlejumper wasn't pleased to be working instead of getting his well deserved rest. They did get a few hours of sleep before John saddled Puddlejumper again to head into town.

Incongruously, the town was named Atlantis, in spite of being landlocked. The only water nearby was a small lake that probably fed the spring where they'd made camp the night before. At one time Atlantis might have been a prosperous town, but like so many others it had fallen on hard times. Many houses were empty, some with broken windows, and all in need of paint. Many businesses were boarded up with faded For Sale signs on them.

John got a few odd looks, but no one said anything to him as he made his way toward the center of town. He boarded Puddlejumper at the livery stable and headed to the dry goods store.

The woman behind the counter gave him a pleasant nod as he entered, but otherwise left him alone to browse. The place was neat and clean, but it was obvious that most of the items on the shelves had been there for a while. It seemed that no one had the money to buy even the simple things that made life easier.

The woman looked up as he approached the counter. "May I help you?"

"I have a list of things that I need, starting with coffee."

She smile apologetically. "I'm afraid I can't extend a line of credit."

"That's not a problem," he said, pulling a handful of gold out of his pocket. It was fun to see the reaction.

"Oh, my!" she said, her eyes very big. She probably hadn't seen that much money in a long time. "You can buy anything in the store, if you want it. There's a catalog on that table if you want to order something that I don't have on hand. Let me get that coffee for you."

She moved around the store with quick efficiency as John named off the items on his list - and several that weren't. He bought far more than he actually needed which he didn't realize until she began to wrap up the goods in paper. There was no way Puddlejumper could carry all that.

"Can I have this delivered to where I'm staying?"

"I'll have to make arrangements with Mr. Lorne at the livery stable. Where do you want this delivered?"

John described the farm.

"Ah, yes, the old Jackson place. They lost their farm during the war, like so many others. I'll have your order delivered tomorrow morning." She smiled and offered her hand. "I'm Miss Elizabeth Weir. And you are?"

John cleared his throat, suddenly remembering the bargain. "Just call me Bearskin."

Her eyes twinkled with amusement. "Very appropriate."

"There's one other thing I'd like to ask about. I have a large quantity of bear meat, and there's no way I can eat it all, and I won't be around long enough to preserve it properly. I need to give it out before it spoils. Do you know anyone who might want it?"

Miss Weir shook her head. "I don't know anyone who could afford-- "

"No, I'm giving it away."

"Oh! In that case, I know plenty of people who would appreciate the fresh meat. I'll see if Mr. Lorne can deliver your goods tonight and bring the meat back to give out."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"No, thank you! You have no idea what a boon that'll be for many people here."

John started to walk away when a thought occurred to him. "You mentioned that you don't give out credit."

"In your case, I think you're good for it," she said.

"Not for me, but I was wondering if there may be others who have lines of credit."

Miss Weir tensed. "I'm afraid I can't discuss that with you."

John reached into his pocket and pulled out another handful of coins and set them on the counter. "Do you think this will cover it?"

She gasped. "Are you-- ? What-- ?" She seemed at a complete loss for words.

He pushed the coins toward her. "Cover the outstanding debt. Use what's left over to pay for food for the needier families."

As Miss Weir stood there sputtering in shock, John left the store with a big grin on his face. He felt very pleased with himself. If only one good thing came of the bargain, he could at least do some good in the world.

John started toward the saloon for a drink, but as he was crossing the street, he noticed a man sitting on the walkway. A lump formed in his throat when he realized the man was blind, and was wearing a threadbare uniform. That could have been John sitting there.

The man kept his head down, but there was still pride in the set of his shoulders, and in the neatness of his uniform. The tin cup he held only had a few pennies in the bottom.

It would have been easy enough to simply throw a few gold coins into the cup, but John paused.

"What kind of work do you do?" John asked.

"Man can't work with no eyes," the soldier said, keeping his head down.

"I guess it depends on the work," John said. "If I had a job for you, would you take it?"

The soldier finally tilted his head up and John could see the full extent of the damage to his eyes. "If you had work that a blind man could do, then yes sir, I would."

"I might have something for you, will you be here tomorrow?"

"I'm here every day."

John tossed a coin into his cup. "Get a hot meal, and some rest, and be prepared to work hard."

"Yes, sir! The name is Aiden Ford, sir. And you are?"

John hesitated. It was hard to remember to use his new name. "Just call me Bearskin."

He had no idea what he was going to do with Aiden Ford, but John knew he had to do something. A thought suddenly occurred to him, so instead of heading to the saloon, he veered to the other side of the street toward the bank.

The place appeared to be deserted, which didn't bode well for the bank, but a balding man peeked his head out of his office and beckoned John in. He didn't seem the least bit fazed by John's odd attire.

He offered his hand. "I'm Richard Woolsey. Please, have a seat."

They both sat down, Mr. Woolsey behind his desk, his hands steepled in front of him. "How may I help you, Mr... ?"

"Bearskin. Just call me Bearskin."

"Of course. How may I help you, Mr. Bearskin?"

John tried not to roll his eyes. "I'm thinking about buying a farm."

"I'm afraid that isn't advisable at this time. Most of the farms around here were foreclosed during the war, and they haven't any value. Farming just isn't-- "

"Mr. Woolsey, is the farm for sale or not?"

Mr. Woolsey leaned back in his chair. "Well, I suppose it depends on which farm you mean. The bank owns quite a few of them. As much as I'd like to see the farms around here thrive again, I'm afraid that farming is not a profitable business venture at this time."

John sighed, pulled out a handful of gold, and slapped it on Mr. Woolsey's desk. The sight of it always seemed to shut people up, and Mr. Woolsey was no exception.

"I have all the money I need. I'm not looking for a 'profitable business venture'. I just want a farm. For now, anyway."

"Well, why didn't you say so?"

And hour later, John walked out of the bank with not only the farm where he was staying, but two adjoining farms as well. He also had a fat, new bank account in his new name. To keep things legal, John wrote his real name on a piece of paper, and sealed it to be kept by Mr. Woolsey in the safe for the next seven years.

At the livery stable, John found Puddlejumper freshly groomed, and his saddle cleaned. Mr. Lorne had gone above and beyond what was required. And it looked like Puddlejumper was outside the bargain John has struck, and could be kept clean which was a relief. It had been careless of him to not even consider that to begin with.

Unexpectedly, Mr. Lorne already had his wagon, full of the things John had bought, hitched up and ready to go. Puddlejumper was happy enough to flirt with the mares pulling the wagon while John talked with Mr. Lorne. They shared a few stories about the war, but mostly they talked about Atlantis and the surrounding farms and ranches. John was grateful that Lorne never once asked about the bearskin.

Mr. Lorne helped bring in John's purchases and took the bear meat back into town. After putting everything away, John looked around the house to see what needed to be done. The house was sturdy enough, but years of neglect hadn't done it any favors. It would be a huge job to get the place back into shape again, and John had no doubt the other two farms would be the same. John smiled, because he suddenly had an idea for how he could help Aiden Ford.

The next afternoon, John road into town once again and found Mr. Ford waiting at the same place he'd been the day before. He was standing instead of sitting, and the tin cup was nowhere around. He tilted his head as John walked up to him.

"So, how are you at organization and giving orders?" John asked.

"I was a Lieutenant in the Army, sir. I know how to give orders, and take'em too."

"Good! You're the new manager of my farms. Let's head on over to the bank and make the arrangements."

"Wait! But, sir! How can I manage your farms when I can't see?"

"That's your problem. But I might suggest that you start hiring people."

John turned and started walking toward the bank. A moment later, he heard Mr. Ford's steps behind him, his cane tapping the ground.

It was a lot harder than John expected, but by the end of the day, John had a new manager who had access to an account for repairing the farms to be overseen by Mr. Woolsey.

As they left the bank, Mr. Ford reached out and grabbed John by the arm, or at least tried to. He ended up with a big handful of fur, but that didn't faze Mr. Ford at all.

"Thank you, sir. You don't know what this means to me."

"I know you'll do a good job," John said, gruffly.

The next day, John was awakened bright and early by the sound of wagons pulling up to his house. He didn't even have time to put on the coffee pot before a large group of men and women were invading his house, most of them carrying tools and supplies for cleaning and repair.

Mr. Ford and Mr. Lorne stood in the middle of the chaos talking about what needed to be done, giving orders, and pitching in to help. Eventually, John got his cup of coffee and was shooed outside to sit on a hummock of grass while Puddlejumper showed off disgracefully for the other horses.

"You ought to be ashamed," John muttered. Puddlejumper showed him his tail, and went back to flirting with the mares, and nipping at the geldings.

At the end of the day, as everyone was packing up to leave, John caught up with Ford and Lorne.

"It's beginning to look good already," John said.

Both Ford and Lorne were practically glowing with an air of satisfaction. The entire group looked happy, and content with their accomplishment.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," Ford said. "We'll be back again first thing tomorrow."

John rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess now is the time to let you know I'll be on my way."

"You're leaving?" Lorne asked. Both men looked dismayed.

"That's why I need a manager," John said. "I never intended to stay. I have some plans that I need to see to."

John had only the vaguest idea of what those plans might be, but mouldering on a farm wasn't part of them.

"How long will you be gone?" Ford asked.

"I don't know. I'll come around every once in a while, and I'll make sure to send money to the bank for the farms, you don't have to worry about that."

"I'm not worried about the money," Ford said. "But don't you want to see how well the farms do?"

"Of course," John said. "And I'll expect a full report when I get back. For now, just keep doing what you think is necessary."

Ford and Lorne didn't seem entirely happy with John, but they finally left with the other wagons.

That night, John packed a few things, and went to bed wrapped in his bearskin. He was up early in the morning and was long gone by the time the wagons showed up.

The next year passed in a blur of new places and amusing companions. He'd only been eighteen when he'd left home, and spent the next seven years seeing the world as a series of battlegrounds, towns blasted and burned, and devastated landscapes.

It was exciting to walk into a saloon, tavern or inn, throw some money down, and have his every wish catered to. In the bigger cities, he acquired hangers-on who sang, and danced, and played games for his entertainment. He went to operas and plays, races and boxing matches.

He enjoyed fine foods and wines, and while he couldn't buy new clothes for himself, he didn't hesitate to buy a new suit, or boots, or a pretty dress for his companions.

He was having the time of his life until one night, while dancing with one of the ladies, he noticed another lady turn away, a look of disgust on her face, and a handkerchief pressed to her nose. It was like a bucket of cold water poured over his head. When the dance was over, John walked over to the lady, who smiled brilliantly at him and started to speak. John just shook his head, walked past her, and out the door.

Those people weren't his friends. They were nothing to him at all. They clung to him for the money he spread around; they danced and pretended like trained bears. If his money had ever run out, they would have run out, too.

John couldn't blame them or hate them. They'd done exactly as expected for the money he handed out. He'd spent a year seeing what money could buy him, and now he knew.

He also realized that he wasn't nearly as presentable as he had been when he started out. His hair and beard were as shaggy as the fur of the bearskin he wore. His clothes were disreputable, to say the least, and if he was completely honest with himself, he smelled so rank he even offended himself.

John left the city that very night, without a single glance back.

As John left the more prosperous cities of the east, guilt became a weight in the pit of his stomach. Certainly, he'd given out a coin or two when he'd seen someone in need, but for the most part he'd been shielded from seeing the worst by his own selfish search for pleasure. His companions had seen to it that he only saw things that would amuse him or appeal to his senses. He had allowed himself to be steered away from the uglier side of life.

Not any more.

As John traveled away from the more prosperous cities of the east, it didn't take long for him to see first hand all the horrors that he'd been ignoring for the past year. There were many people on the road, some traveling west, some to the north, and some didn't know where they were going, but they didn't have a home to go back to. So many of them traveled on foot, some pulling carts, others with all their worldly goods on their backs, and many with weary children following behind.

John gave gold to those whose pride could let them accept it, and for those who couldn't, he thought up ways for them to earn the money. Gold was all well and good for the time being, but what they really needed was work.

One night, while sitting around a fire, sharing a meager meal with the group he was with, they were attacked by bandits. The fight was brief, but vicious. They probably hadn't been expecting a well armed man, an experienced soldier, to be there. The camp panicked, but John and two other men fought off the bandits. In the morning, they found the bodies of three men they'd shot, all of them thin and more ragged than the group he was with.

Once he had the group settled in the nearest town, John rode into the hills and found the bandit camp. A sorrier bunch of men John had never seen. It took a couple of weeks and a lot of persuading of both the bandits and the townspeople, but eventually John got the bandits to take up honest work as escorts for travelers through the more dangerous parts of the countryside.

As the weeks turned into months, John realized he had become more notorious than he ever expected or wanted. Two men, intent on stealing the gold in his pockets, waylaid John where he was camping alone near a stream. Another attack occurred in an alley one night.

Worse still were the people who flocked to him when he entered a town, many expressing gratitude, but others with their hands out. John accepted the thanks as graciously as he could, and tried to fill the reaching hands to send them on their way.

The final straw for John was when he was stopped dead by a crowd of people, all shouting for his attention. The crowd became so frenzied that Puddlejumper went down under the mass of people. For the first time, John lost his temper, and pulled his gun, shooting into the air above their heads. The crowd scattered, and John got Puddlejumper up, and got out of there as fast as the horse could take them.

He was too distinctive, and he'd been flashing money around attracting all sorts of unwanted attention. He was going to have to lie low for a while, a good long while. Once he'd become less of a spectacle, he could find a more discreet way of doing good. It was a relief to come to that decision.

One afternoon, John approached a creek at the bottom of a shallow gully. It was narrow and only about knee deep, but it was fast moving enough that John decided to lead Puddlejumper across rather than ride.

In the middle of the creek, John's foot slipped and he plunged into the chilly water. He was swept downstream several yards before he could stop himself, and came up sputtering and swiping water from his face. Puddlejumper looked distinctly amused as he strolled to the other side.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm glad someone around here is having a laugh," John said.

John gave his face another swipe, then gasped as he saw his hands. The water on his hands was dirty; his dunking had taken at least a layer of filth off his face. He looked all around, but didn't see anyone.

His heart lifted as his brain began to work on the implications. A quick dunk in a creek wasn't a bath. He certainly hadn't used any soap, and the water hadn't been heated. And he was still fully clothed. But...

John made his way to shore and took his boots and socks off before he could think any more about it.

Nothing happened.

He set the socks out to dry, and emptied the boots of water, but made no other attempts to clean them. He'd let them dry in the sun, and they'd be the better for it.

The rest would be a lot trickier. The first dunking had been an accident; he couldn't say that what he was going to do next wasn't premeditated. He was simply going to sit in some cold water for a while, that's all. And anyway, the man only said he had to keep the bearskin on, right? He could take the rest of his clothes off and let them dry in the sun. As long as he left the bearskin on, he was upholding his part of the bargain. He reached for the top button of his shirt.

"You're getting perilously close to losing your soul, Bearskin."

John spun around. He hadn't noticed that deep pocket of shadows screened by weeds and shrubs against the wall of the gully. Standing there, was the white haired man.

"How did you get there?" he demanded.

"That's none of your concern. The only thing you should be concerned about it keeping your side of the bargain."

"I have!" John said. "It's been over two years, almost three, and I haven't cut my nails," John held up his hands revealing the dirty, yellowed claw-like things his nails had turned into, "or my hair and beard," John tugged at his beard and sent droplets of grayish water flying, "or washed my clothes or body," he pulled a fold of his shirt from his chest to show the permanent stains. "And I'm still wearing this damned bearskin. What more do you want?"

"Your soul. But I want it fair and square, not because you were tempted to cheat."

John started to reply, but the shadows were suddenly empty, and it seemed like that spot wasn't as dark as John had first thought. He shivered, and not from being soaked. Nothing could have hidden in that spot, not even a rabbit.

Sighing, John sat down on a flat rock, spread the bearskin out to dry, and felt more forlorn than he ever had. He sat there for a long time, defiantly letting his feet rest in the water, and left his socks and boots lying on the shore to dry. Let the man come and get is soul if he couldn't have even this small bit of comfort.

It was getting close to dusk, and John might have sat there all night, when he heard a racket in the distance that grew louder and louder. Curiosity had always been one of his worst faults; his mother had told him so many times when he was a boy.

He pulled his socks on, which were dry, and his boots, which were still damp, grabbed Puddlejumper, who wasn't at all happy about leaving that berry bush behind, and found a path out of the gully.

About a quarter of a mile away was a meandering path through the tall grass, and on it was a line of the sorriest looking wagons John had ever seen. They looked like they'd been cobbled together from warped scraps, and leftover bits of wood. Every wagon wheel was missing at least one spoke. They were drawn by the meanest looking mules that snapped and kicked at each other which was making at least half the racket.

Most of the people with the wagons walked alongside. There were a couple of horses, but they were the most mangy, swaybacked, spaddle-legged creatures that had ever been dignified with the name horse. It was an insult to Puddlejumper to even consider them in the same family.

As John walked toward the wagons, slowly so as not to spook anyone, there was a sharp whistle and the whole band rattled to a stop. A very tall man, and a very short woman broke away from the crowd and approached John.

They halted and stood for a moment studying John with a great deal of interest, but no recognition. That was a nice change from what he'd been experiencing not too long ago.

"How do you do," John said.

Gravely, they bowed their heads.

"I'm Halling. This is Teyla. We weren't sure what kind of creature you might be, but it appears that you are a man."

"Yep. I'm a man." John spread his arms to show the clothes he wore underneath the bearskin.

"What is your name, sir?" Teyla asked.

"Just call me Bearskin."

"I've heard of men wearing the skins of bears before, but they live in the mountains far away from here," Teyla said. "Are you such a man? One who sells the skins of animals?"

"No, no, I'm not a mountain man. I can't really tell you the story of why I wear this bearskin. I'm sorry."

Halling nodded. "Perhaps you have other stories you can tell if you choose to travel with us."

"You mean you don't mind if I come along with you?"

"Of course not," Teyla said. "The more friends we have, the more all burdens are shared."

And so John found himself traveling with these strange people. He didn't get to speak with anyone again until later that night when they set up camp. John was surprised to find himself feeling very relaxed and comfortable with his new friends; that's exactly what they were even though they had only met a few hours ago.

John found himself by a fire, lounging against Puddlejumper's saddle, cushioned by his bedroll. There were other fires scattered around with people talking, and cooking, and setting up camp. He shared his fire with Teyla and Halling, an older woman named Charon who was doing most of the cooking, and two boys, one of whom was introduced as Halling's son.

Charon patiently explained her cooking process to an attentive Teyla who was not allowed to actually touch anything. Halling leaned toward John and murmured, "Teyla understands the theory of cooking. Her practical understanding-- "

Halling was cut off by a fierce glare from Teyla. Charon pressed her lips together to hide a smile. The boys snickered but were also silenced by a look. John found himself both pleased and humbled that he'd been so easily welcomed into their circle.

When the food was done, John nearly attacked his portion of beans and cornbread. It wasn't an empty belly that made the food taste so delicious, and he said so to Charon. He didn't want to ask for seconds, but his plate was filled again and again until he couldn't eat any more.

For the past few months he'd stayed away from towns except to sneak in for supplies. He didn't miss the irony that he was living mostly off the land now, hunting and scavenging just like before he'd made the bargain. He had plenty of money, but in most ways that counted, he was worse off than before. Sitting by the fire, he felt more like his old self than he had in months.

John felt a bit drowsy, but he was curious, too. "Where are you headed, if you don't mind my asking," John said.

"West," Halling said. "We'll keep heading west until we find a place that welcomes us."

"There are a lot of nice places around here. Why wouldn't you be welcome?"

Halling and Teyla shared a long look. It was Teyla who explained. "Our spiritual beliefs are different. That's why we were driven from our home. When raiders came, none of our neighbors stood beside us to help defend our homes." Teyla gestured at the wagons. "This is all we have left."

"And ourselves," Halling added. Teyla nodded. "We were fortunate that we only lost a few of us."

"I'm sorry you got run off your land," John said.

Charon shrugged as she put the kettle on the fire for tea. "It wasn't the first time our people have been driven from our homes, nor will it be the last."

"Your people," John asked.

"We are Athosians," Teyla said. "We revere the Ancestors, the ones who brought us here. We do not worship them, though. Nor do we worship any god."

John didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing. He didn't think he'd ever met anyone who didn't worship god in some fashion. At least, anyone who would admit to it.

"It doesn't frighten you? Or make you angry?" Teyla asked.

"There's not much in the world that frightens me. Having a gun pointed at me is scarier than people who don't worship god. Who you worship or don't worship is none of my concern."

Teyla and Halling shared a smile, and John realized that they must have been waiting to see his reaction to their confession. They talked for a while, but eventually the fires were banked, and everyone bedded down for the night.

John woke up with a new idea, and waited until breakfast to run it past Teyla and Halling.

"I have some farmland near a town called Atlantis. You're welcome to set up there for as long as you want. It's a long way from here, but you'll be safe enough once you get there. You can stay for as long as you want. If you don't like it, you can leave, but it's worth taking a chance on."

Word of John's offer spread, and soon the entire band was involved in the discussion. It was soon decided that they would travel to Atlantis.

"You're doing me a favor," John said. "I need to send money to my banker, and it's been a long time since I've trusted anyone to take it there."

John went to his saddlebags and filled a sack with money. He handed it to Teyla, then pulled another handful of coins from his pocket, and gave it to Halling. Halling tried to give it back, but John waved it off.

"Those wagons aren't going to make it to Atlantis. And you'll need better horses, too. Once you get there, you'll need to buy seed and other things for the farm. If you grow low on funds, just take what you need from the sack."

"Thank you," Halling said. "I don't know how we'll repay you."

John snorted. "I have all the money I need. There's no need to repay me."

Teyla stepped forward, and put her hands on John's shoulders. He tried to pull away; the bearskin was looking pretty ratty, and even he didn't want to touch it, and he was wearing it.

She refused to let him get away, and soon had him bending down so that she could touch her forehead to his. It was an odd, but pleasant gesture. Halling, then Charon also shared a head touch with him.

John reluctantly chose not to go with the Athosians to the farm he'd bought. In the past few months, he'd crossed his own path a few times, but he'd never stayed anywhere longer than three days, and he never stayed anywhere twice. Eventually, he'd end up breaking that rule; he still had years of wandering ahead of him. By the time he did, no one would remember him, and if they did, he would be so awful, they'd leave him alone.

( Bearskin - Part Two of Two )


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2013 09:23 pm (UTC)
SGA Newsletter - December 21 & 22, 2013
User neevebrody referenced to your post from SGA Newsletter - December 21 & 22, 2013 saying: [...] : Bearskin (McKay/Sheppard pre-slash, PG13) [Part 1 of 2] [...]
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