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.
( Bearskin - Part One of Two )
John was tired of being on the road, sleeping in barns or outbuildings, or roughing it in the woods or fields. He was well into the fourth year of the bargain, with the last year spent mostly alone. He'd caught a glimpse of himself in a clear pool of water and had been horrified at the sight. He didn't know how Puddlejumper could stand him.
He managed to survive well enough by hunting and foraging, but he eventually had to go for supplies. At the very least, he needed to make sure Puddlejumper had grain, and hay in the winter. When the weather started turning cold, John would find an abandoned place, and hole up until the weather warmed, very much like the bear he was starting to look like.
It was nightfall, and John had crept into a small town, lurking in an alley, and keeping his eye on a dry goods store, waiting for it to empty out. He would get in before the place closed for the night, and get what he needed, then get back to where he'd left Puddlejumper as fast as he could.
Behind him, John heard someone cry out, then cursing, and the sound of a scuffle. John turned and rushed to the other end of the alley where there was a dark cross street, and found three men with clubs trying to subdue another man. The lone man was somehow managing to hold his own, but it was still three armed men against one.
John yelled, and charged into the fray. Standing back to back with the other man, they soon sent the thieves running, like dogs with their tails between their legs.
Before John could get a good look at the man he'd rescued, he said, "Well, damn. One of them had a knife." He pulled his hand away from his side revealing the spreading stain on his shirt, and the blood on his hand. John caught him before he hit the ground.
John had passed an inn on the way to the dry good store, so he carried the man there. When he entered, the innkeeper tried to bar his way. "You can't come in here like that, this is a civilized establishment."
Sighing, John set the man he'd rescued in a nearby chair, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a handful of coins. It was getting to be a habit, one that John didn't like very much. It would be nice to solve a problem with something other than money.
John flung the coins to the ground, and the innkeeper, being less than civilized, scrambled on the floor for every single one. "Send someone for a doctor. And he'll need a room. Hurry!"
"There's no doctor in this town except for me," said a man, coming from the dining room with a napkin still tucked into the front of his shirt. He pulled it off, and pressed it to the bleeding wound of the victim. "I'm Dr. Carson Beckett. What happened?"
John explained, while Dr. Beckett tended the wounded man.
"He already has a room here, we arrived together. Help me get him up the stairs."
John did, then flung a few more coins at the innkeeper to fetch bandages, clean water, and whatever else Dr. Beckett needed.
"Do you know who you rescued?" Dr. Beckett asked, as he pulled back the bed covers so John could set the man down. "General Jack O'Neill."
John was shocked. He admired the General greatly, but had only ever seen him from a distance. This slim, silver haired man didn't look like the great man who had been integral to winning the war.
"Hmm, a flesh wound," Dr. Beckett said. "I need to clean it, and stitch it up before he regains consciousness." He sent the innkeeper to get his bag from his room, then sent him away. The room was too small for so many people.
As Dr. Beckett worked, he sighed and fussed. "It wouldn't be so bad, but the General has been in bad health for the past few months. He's only just now recovering. This'll definitely set him back."
John waited until Dr. Beckett was done before trying to take his leave, he had no business inflicting himself on the cozy inn, or on the General. The doctor grabbed John and hauled him into the next room before he could leave.
"No, I can't let you leave just yet." The doctor looked him up and down. "You look a sight, but you saved the General, and that's the important part."
"I'm glad to have done it, but it's time for me to go."
Dr. Beckett blocked his way. "The General will want to thank you, and if I know him, he'll want to do right by you."
"I don't need a reward," John said.
"Yes, I did see all the money you were flinging around. But the General has a his own way of rewarding people. And he won't thank me if I let you leave before he wakes up."
"Look, I need to buy supplies, and get back to my horse, so if you'll-- "
"The store will be closed by now. And if you're worried about your horse, go and fetch it, and it can stay in the barn with our horses, at least for tonight."
"Right. I'll go get my horse."
The doctor gave him a shrewd look. "Promise you'll come back, and stay the night."
Reluctantly, John did so, and made his escape. He was all ready to ride away, but he'd made a promise, so he went back to the inn where a room (with the windows wide open) waited for him. The innkeeper sent up a simple, but delicious meal, and then John fell asleep in a bed for the first time in years.
John got up the next morning and started to leave, but the minute he stepped out of his room, Dr. Beckett opened the door across from his. Cheerfully, he hustled John into the General's room; he was sitting up against a mound of pillows, and was already tucking into breakfast.
"Beckett says I have you to thank for my life," O'Neill said, waving a fork at him. "Not that I couldn't handle those ruffians myself."
"Of course, sir," John said, trying not to smirk.
O'Neill gave him a sharp look, but let it go so he could get back to his bacon.
"I should be leaving, sir."
"Not until you've had breakfast." It was said mildly enough, but John knew an order when he heard one.
Beckett nudged him toward a small table in the corner of the room, and John sat down with Beckett across from him. A few minutes of awkward silence later, the innkeeper and a maid arrived with trays of food. As John ate, he couldn't help but notice the way O'Neill watched him, even though he was pretending not to.
"So, is there a reason you're going around in that bearskin?"
"Yes, there's a reason," John said, and left it at that.
After a few minutes of silence, O'Neill said, "It seems to me you've gotten yourself into some trouble. Are you a troublemaker?"
"Yes, sir, I am." John stuffed a piece of bacon in his mouth. The sooner he finished, the sooner he could leave.
"Well, then, you may be exactly the kind of man I need."
John nearly choked. "Excuse me?"
"I have three children, Mr... ?"
"Bearskin," John filled in.
"Bearskin. I have three children, all adopted more or less, and I'm afraid I haven't done as right by them as I should have. I want you to meet them."
"Meet them? Me?" John gestured at himself. "Like this?"
"Like that," O'Neill said.
John looked at Beckett, who shrugged, and continued to eat. No help there.
"Do you mind if I ask why?"
O'Neill shrugged. "I guess we'll see," was all he said.
It took a week for Beckett to decide that O'Neill was recovered enough to travel home. John stayed at the inn the whole time, much to the irritation of the innkeeper. The innkeeper was clearly thrilled when John mounted Puddlejumper, and followed O'Neill's carriage away from the inn.
John didn't leave a tip.
It took a week to reach O'Neill's home where they were met at the door by two beautiful women. They were happy to see O'Neill, throwing their arms around him, and kissing his cheeks.
"Did you bring us gifts?" the one with the lighter hair asked.
"You know I did," O'Neill answered.
The dark haired one took O'Neill's hand. "You look unwell, father. Going to the doctors back east was supposed to make you better."
"I am better. Just had a little dust-up on the way home, that's all. Nothing for you to worry about."
"I'm not worried, father. I know you're going to be fine."
"That's good to know," O'Neill said.
John watched the family reunion unfold as the servants removed the luggage from the coach. O'Neill gestured John to come over.
"This is my daughter, Teer." John nodded a greeting. She stared at him intently, almost as if she could see his innermost thoughts.
"And this is my other daughter, Chaya."
Chaya had been directing the unloading of the coach, but when she looked at him, her nose wrinkled in disgust.
"Who is this," she paused, "man, father?"
"A friend. He saved my life."
John denied it. "I'm sure you could have handled things on your own," he said.
"I was doing all right, but it's always better to have someone at your back."
O'Neill started toward the door of the house.
"Wait," Chaya said. "You're not going to let that... that... creature into the house, are you?"
"As I said, he saved my life. But that's beside the point. He's a good man, and a friend. That's all that matters."
"But he's filthy. And he's only interested in your money, like all the other beggars."
"Unlike you," he said, giving her a wry look, that she ignored.
"I won't stay in the house while he's here. I'll be staying with a friend until he goes." She flounced into the house.
Teer was still staring at him. "I've been expecting you."
"Um... good?" John said.
"Your arrival is a sign."
O'Neill bowed his head, and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"A sign?" John asked. He wasn't sure which was worse, Chaya's rudeness or Teer's weirdness.
"I will also stay with friends while I decipher the meaning of your presence here." She seemed to glide as she followed Chaya into the house.
"That would be Rodney," O'Neill said, a smile quirking his lips.
A man came charging out the door. "Your housekeeper is a harridan! She refused to let me knock down a wall. I need that space, O'Neill."
"Nice to see you too, Rodney."
"Oh, well, uh... good to see you, O'Neill. You're looking better. Except, not really. Why aren't you better?" He turned on Dr. Beckett. "You were supposed to make him better, you horse doctor!"
"A horse would be lucky to get me," Beckett said. "And your father is better. He had a bit of a mishap on the road."
"Mishap? What does that mean?" Rodney continued to badger Beckett as they walked into the house, completely ignoring John and O'Neill.
"Is he always like that," John asked.
"He's usually worse."
He found out how much worse that evening. O'Neill had the housekeeper show John to his room. Later, he met the other men in the parlor before being called into dinner.
"Aren't you going to clean up?" Rodney asked, wrinkling his nose at him.
"Rodney!" O'Neill snapped.
"You should try our bathtub. The water is heated through a clever solar capture system that I invented myself. It's patented! I have the system installed in over a dozen house so far, and I expect to have it installed in half the city by the end of the year."
"Sounds interesting," John said.
Rodney's face fell. "In other words, you're bored to death, and you're counting the minutes until dinner is served."
John wasn't too pleased with that interpretation. "I say what I mean. I said your invention sounded interesting, and that's what I meant."
Rodney brightened up. "Really? Then I'll have to show you my laboratory, too. I've been doing some interesting things with acids lately."
O'Neill groaned. "You're not going to burn another hole through the floor, are you?"
"No, of course not. Well, probably not. Maybe? It's for science!"
"Holes in the name of science. I'll warn the cook. She wasn't too happy the last time you gave her a view of your lab through her ceiling."
It was the most unusual dinner John had ever been to. Rodney did most of the talking, but O'Neill got a few good quips in. Beckett and Rodney traded insults, some of them quite obscene, but neither of them meant a word of them. Any other two men John knew, and it would have been pistols at dawn.
They ended up in the library drinking brandy.
"So," Rodney said. "What's with the fur? Is it some kind of religious penance, like those people that used to walk around flogging themselves?"
John sipped his brandy. The sooner he finished it, the sooner he could get out of there. "Something like that."
"It's a penance?" Rodney persisted.
"Then what is it?"
"Can't you see he doesn't want to say, ya daft bugger," Carson said.
"Why not?" Rodney asked.
"Because I can't," John said, putting his brandy on a nearby table. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Now look what you've done," Beckett said.
"Hmph! I can't help it if he's a fragile, little flower disguised as a bear... "
Rodney's voice faded as John went upstairs to his room.
The bed was so comfortable, that John nearly missed breakfast the next morning. Rodney said bleary eyed at the table cradling coffee in the biggest mug John had ever seen. John helped himself to the food from the sideboard. Rodney joined him after his second mug of coffee.
When they were finished, Rodney stood up. "C'mon, I'll take you to see the solar capture system first." It turned out to be mounted on a platform on the roof.
It was fascinating stuff. By the time they ended up in the laboratory, John's head was in a whirl. He'd never had so much information thrown at him in such a short time. John understood most of it, but when he didn't, Rodney was more than happy to clarify. At length.
Rodney wasn't at all boring, but John felt his attention wandering a little. It was all a bit much for someone who spent weeks at a time alone with only a horse for company. When listening became too much, he simply sat back and watched. Either way, it was a good show.
In the laboratory, Rodney started to wind down after showing off several of his experiment, none of which left a hole in the floor. Though John couldn't give any of his own personal information, he decided to try to find out more about Rodney.
"Why do you call your father by his last name?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "He's not really my father, not even adopted. That's his idea of a joke. My last name is McKay, by the way."
He lifted his brows at John.
"Bearskin," was all he could offer.
"How strange. I never would have guessed."
It got quiet as Rodney unpacked some equipment for a new experiment. It felt kind of nice.
"If you're not adopted, then how did you end up here?"
Rodney sat down. "My last name is McKay. I'm related to O'Neill somehow. Distant cousins of some sort. My family was down here visiting when the first battles of the war broke out... hmmm, almost ten years ago? Of course, they had no idea the war had broken out when they started back to Canada."
"That's where I'm from. My parents thought it would be educational to travel to another country, and visit distant relatives. They had no idea they'd get caught in a skirmish on their way home."
John gave Rodney's shoulder a light squeeze. "I'm sorry."
"It was a long time ago."
Some hints suddenly came together for him. "You were there, weren't you."
"Yes, me and my sister were with them, but I'd rather not talk about it."
"You mean Chaya and Teer?"
"Those harpies? Do you really think I'm related to them by blood?" Rodney grimaced. "Not hardly!"
"Harpies, huh? So what are you?" John teased, trying to lighten the mood.
"Brilliant," Rodney said without hesitation.
John laughed, a weird, creaky sound that was startling. John couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed.
Rodney looked pleased. "At least I pull my weight around here. The house has hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, and a patented new cooking system in the kitchen. Would you like to see it?"
"I don't know, Rodney. I don't think the cook will appreciate having me in the kitchen."
John found himself being ushered into the kitchen where John's prediction proved to be right. While Rodney expounded on the wonders of his invention, the cook stood there glaring, arms folded across her chest. Rodney blithely ignored her, pointing out every feature of the oven, which looked like a metal box, and the cooktop with four burners that spouted blue flames, which indeed didn't look like anything John had seen before.
"... it's so innovative, that a famous chef came all the way from France to try it out."
"Famous chef, huh? What's his name?"
"Bordeaux, Bourdain, Bordink, who knows? He loved my invention so much, he took ten of my one of a kind, patented stoves back to France to revolutionize the art of cooking!"
"If he took ten of them with him, then how can it be one of a kind?"
Rodney was only momentarily stymied by the question, but finally grinned and jabbed a finger at John. "They were all identical. Now let me show you the water heating system... "
John spent the rest of the day following Rodney around listening to him expound on one subject, then another. They ended up in Rodney's laboratory where John spent the entire time fetching tools and implements, pouring mysterious liquids into glass tubing at Rodney's direction, and pretty much doing anything Rodney ordered him to do.
Rodney never stopped talking the entire time, and never seemed to notice when John's attention drifted a bit. It was invigorating to be at the center of such a whirlwind. But so much time spent with only Puddlejumper for company, the long days of never hearing another human voice, left him overwhelmed by the attention.
He went to bed soon after dinner, a little sorry to see Rodney's disappointment, but needing the time to settle himself. Rodney was fun but John just wasn't used to that kind of excitement any more.
The next morning, John found himself being bundled into a carriage before he could even think to protest. He didn't want to be out in public, but Rodney waved away his reluctance. There were too many things Rodney wanted to show him, and not enough time in the day.
That day, John discovered that the laboratory at O'Neill's house was only one of many. The first one they went to was a gigantic warehouse built on the river with it's own wharf. A small ship was docked and men were already unloading the cargo.
"Oh, it's here!" Rodney exclaimed, leaning out the window. The carriage had barely come to a halt when he jumped out and rushed into the building. John followed behind more slowly, bracing himself for the chaos, but also the stares and whispers. To his surprise, hardly anyone looked his way except to keep from running over him in their haste. He couldn't see Rodney, but he could hear him shouting orders. If the place had been busy before, it was now running at a speed that made his head spin.
John walked around, and it was he who stared and wondered. Everywhere he looked, men, and a few women too, gathered around huge, mysterious structures. Sparks flew as metal pieces were welded together. Forges sent out waves of heat as more metal was bent into strange shapes.
A loud bang echoed throughout the warehouse, and he heard Rodney bellow, "Someone put out that fire!"
No one seemed to be afraid, so John shrugged, and kept on with his tour.
Eventually, John found Rodney arguing vigorously with a man with wispy fly-away hair and spectacles perched on his nose. Both men were red faced, yelling, and waving their arms, but no one tried to break up the fight. Since everyone else was going about their business, John decided to lean against a support post, and watch the fun. Rodney finally noticed John, and waved him over.
"This is Zerinka," Rodney said.
"Zelenka," he corrected. "Radek Zelenka. You are the savior of Generals, yes?"
"Well, um... "
"Modest, I see." Zelenka cast a sideways glance at Rodney. "A very rare commodity around here."
"What do I have to be modest about? Modesty is overrated."
Zelenka rolled his eyes, and walked away with a muttered, "Pleasure to meet you Mr. Savior of Generals." Then he threw over his shoulder, "Some of us have to work around here."
He disappeared around a bank of machinery to the sound of Rodney's sputtered outrage.
"Why don't you tell me what some of these things are," John asked, distracting him.
It was another fun, but exhausting day. It was hard to take in the sheer scope of Rodney's inventiveness, not to mention that of some of the other people who were working on projects in the warehouse. It wasn't hard to grasp the concepts that Rodney and company was working on, but seeing the practical application of those ideas was wondrous.
When Rodney pointed out the drawings for a flying apparatus, John fell head over heels in love. Wings! Wings that could take a man into the sky!
John finally interrupted Rodney's monologue. "When will they be ready?"
"Ready? These are only the preliminary drawings. I haven't even fashioned a model yet. We have years of testing various materials before we even make the first pair."
Years? John's heart sank. Rodney must have seen his disappointment.
"I supposed I can make them a priority... "
"No! Don't. The farm machinery is more important. They'll make life easier for a lot of people."
"Yes, and end hunger," Rodney said. "I don't want other people to suffer the way my sister and I suffered."
"I thought you didn't have any sisters?"
"I have one," Rodney said, obviously reluctant. "She doesn't live with us." Changing the subject, Rodney began to roll up the designs, then shoved them into a nearby cylinder. "Take these. No, I insist. I have copies, and these won't be the final design anyway. There's something off in the dimensions."
Dinner that night was much quieter, everyone absorbed in their own thoughts. John couldn't stop thinking about the wing designs upstairs in his room.
When they started toward the library after dinner, Beckett stifled a yawn. "I need to make it an early night. I'll be leaving in the morning."
Rodney and O'Neill seemed to know what was going on, and headed to the library. John halted Beckett before he could go upstairs.
"Aye. I'm afraid so. As much as I'd like to stay, I have to get back to my practice back east." He didn't seem to happy at the prospect.
"You don't seem to want to go."
"No, I don't, but I have to make a living."
"You're a doctor, you can make a living anywhere."
"True, but... "
Beckett looked around to make sure no one was nearby. "When we opened our practice, my partners persuaded me to take at a loan to pay for my part in the clinic. They said I would be able to pay the loan back within a year, but it was all a lie." Beckett lowered his voice to a whisper. "They needed an honest face up front to hide the doings in back. The clinic is nothing but a hideout for criminals, a place for them to hole up when the law is after them. I'm also forced to stitch them up when their plans go bad. I don't even want to think of all the other things my partners are doing. I'm sure they've bilked poor widow Upton out of at least half her fortune!"
Beckett was so upset, that John had to shush him.
"Tell me what you need to get out of there."
"I appreciate the thought, but I doubt you can help."
Sighing, John did what he always did in these situations. Beckett gasped when he saw the gold.
"But I-- I can't take that!"
"Yes, you can." John grabbed the bottom of Beckett's shirt, pulled it up a little, then spilled the gold into the fold. He dumped two more handfuls into it. "That should be enough to pay off the loan, and the interest. Make sure you take the Sheriff with you when you do so they don't get the idea to steal the money, and keep you anyway. Wait, is the Sheriff honest?"
"As the day is long," Beckett said. "Which is why they needed me in the first place."
"Good. Have your things packed and ready. As soon as you pay them off, get out of town, and don't stop until you reach Atlantis."
"Atlantis?" Beckett looked more than a little dazed.
"Yep, you'll like it there. It's a small town, lots of honest people. Before you leave tomorrow, I'll have a letter for you to give to the banker, Mr. Woolsey. Think you can do that?"
"Yes, yes, I think so."
He walked Beckett to his room, because he looked to shaken to make it on his own.
John then spent the next few hours after dinner pouring over the designs in his room. He found some paper, and the stub of a pencil in a drawer, and took notes. He could see what Rodney meant about the dimensions being off.
When John showed Rodney his notes the next day, Rodney looked them over, then smiled in delight. "I was right. There are some brains under all that fur."
They ended up back at the warehouse looking over the design for the wings, Rodney pulling a few people, including Zelenka, from other projects to look over John's notes. Rodney sketched out the new shape of the wings, as the others argued with him, and each other. John found himself right in the middle explaining his ideas, then defending them as the sketch formed.
As the days turned into weeks, John found himself being dragged all over the city. There were several more laboratories to tour, all of them much smaller, but all of them interesting. More often than not, they found themselves back at the warehouse pouring over the designs for the wings.
John found himself being pulled aside to work on projects other than the wings. No one ever asked about the bearskin, and John wondered if Rodney had warned them not to.
Nights were spent at O'Neill's house. As O'Neill recovered his health, he sometimes went with them to Rodney's labs. When he looked at John, his gaze was often speculative, but never unkind.
In the small lab at O'Neill's late one night, as they were waiting on the results of a test, Rodney leaned back in his chair, and stretched his arms above his head. A jolt went right through John as Rodney's shirt rode up, exposing the soft looking skin of his belly. He'd been around Rodney for weeks, and suddenly he was aware of him on an entirely different level.
His hands flexed as he forcefully kept himself from reaching out to touch Rodney. He wanted so badly to run his hands under Rodney's shirt, to feel with his own skin the pent up energy contained inside that body.
As Rodney brought his arms down, he must have caught the heat in John's eyes. Rodney was suddenly leaning towards him, his mouth lightly brushing John's. He started to press closer, but drew back, touching his reddened lips. "Ow," he said.
It was the beard. The horrible beard that he hadn't cut in years.
John got up, trying to leave.
"No, wait," Rodney said, grabbing his arm. "Don't go. Whatever the problem is, we can figure it out."
John took Rodney's hand, and gently pushed it away. "This isn't a problem we can fix. It can only be endured."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"I have almost three years to go, Rodney." John looked around to see if revealing even that much of the bargain would get him into trouble.
Puzzled, Rodney glanced around too. "There's no one else here. Just the two of us. Wait, are you in trouble? I already knew there was something wrong, but I figured you'd tell me in your own time."
"I will, Rodney. Some day I will."
"Some day?" Rodney asked, alarmed.
"I can't stay, Rodney. You're too much of a temptation."
"Listen to me, I won't touch you again. I won't ask any questions. Just stay. Please stay."
Oh, how he wanted to stay! He knew Rodney would keep his word and never ask him about his past or the bearskin. It was John who would slip up. Eventually, he would reveal too much, and all the years of misery would be for nothing.
John reached into his pocket to pull out a coin, thinking to leave it as a token, but to his surprise, he pulled out a gold band. They both stared at the ring for a long moment as the light seemed to make it glow.
Placing it on the table, John picked up a nearby knife, and cut it in half. He gave one piece to Rodney.
"When I return," he said, "this is how you'll know me." He held up his half of the ring against Rodney's.
He started to leave.
Rodney put his hands on John's shoulders, leaned in, and kissed him. The kiss was slow, and gentle, and nearly broke him. He pulled away, and all but ran to his room to grab his few belongings. The last thing he took was the cylinder with the original drawings for the wings.
Puddlejumper wasn't pleased to be roused out of his stall in the middle of the night, but John didn't dare wait until morning. He would take to the road again, and this time he'd make damn sure he didn't get involved in anybody else's troubles.
Wandering had been bad before but now that he had someone waiting for him, it was far worse. To add to the misery, John didn't even have the comfort of helping others. His appearance had deteriorated so much that he was genuinely frightening to look at. Occasionally going to the shops for beans, and coffee, and grain was now fraught with humiliation, and sometimes danger when the shopkeepers called for help. Sometimes, even money couldn't get him the necessities.
He was riding Puddlejumper through a wild area, far from any settlements, when he spotted a clear pool of water. It was still too early to set up camp, but then again, it wasn't like he was headed anywhere. He settled Puddlejumper by the water, then went searching around the trees for a place to set a rabbit trap.
John's foot came down on a branch. With a loud snap, John's legs were swept out from under him. John went flying up into the treetops, but without any wings. Instead, he had a rope looped around his ankles, and he was left to dangle in mid-air.
"Well, don't that beat all," John said. There was something very wrong that he hadn't noticed the mantrap.
John tried to get to the knife in his boot, but that only set him to spinning. He stopped trying when he came around, and found himself facing a man, probably the one who'd set the trap.
"Howdy," John said. "Nice weather we're having."
The man grinned, but just stood there studying John.
"Don't suppose you have any coffee," John said. The man snorted, then walked out of John's line of sight. "Where are you going?"
The question was answered by John landing on the ground in an undignified heap. As soon as John kicked off the rope, the man started to reset the trap.
"Are you a bounty hunter?" John asked.
"Sometimes," he answered.
It looked like Mr. Talkative wasn't going to clarify anything, so John got up, and headed toward the water. "I'll be setting up camp here. I won't be falling into any more of your traps, will I?"
John sighed, and decided to keep himself, and Puddlejumper, close to the water.
As soon as the trap was set, the man just seemed to disappear. John set up camp, and pretended he was alone, which wasn't hard since he didn't see the man again until late that night. He just appeared out of the dark, and made himself at home by John's fire. He had two rabbits that he set to cooking.
He didn't know this man at all, but the silence around the campfire was companionable enough. John shared his beans, and the man shared his rabbits. It was only after they were finished eating that the man spoke.
"The name is Ronon. Ronon Dex."
"Call me Bearskin."
And that seemed to be that.
For all Ronon's silence, he was a decent enough travel companion. Ronon would sometimes disappear for a few days, but he would always find John again no matter where he ended up. He didn't mind that Ronon rarely talked; John didn't want to talk much himself. His quiet presence made the last few months of John's misery bearable.
John tried hard not to think about it, but as the year turned toward summer, a sort of countdown started ticking in his head. It was almost time. His stomach churned almost constantly with nerves because this was the most dangerous time when it came to waiting. With only a short time left to go on the bargain, he could easily ruin the whole thing by letting something slip or by getting cocky. There was far too much at stake to mess up now.
Puddlejumper sensed his tension, and responded by acting like a young colt. He danced, and frisked around, and was a constant irritant to Ronon's horse. It was fortunate that the animal was just as taciturn as his rider or Puddlejumper might have gotten a few kicks for all his antics. Once, John had asked Ronon the name of his horse. Ronon had answered like it was the most obvious thing in the world: "Horse."
A few days out from Atlantis, John started looking, really looking, and was startled out of his own problems by what he saw. The last time he'd been through, the area had seemed deserted, homes left to ruin. Now, the land was ripe with crops ripening in the sun, the farmhouses cozy and neat, and fences in good repair.
Atlantis was an even bigger revelation. Houses were freshly painted, windows sparkling. There were so many storefronts, John nearly passed Miss Weir's establishment before recognizing it. The dusty, little bank was also nearly unrecognizable. It was almost twice as big with people going in and out. The livery stable was now two big barns with a blacksmith nearby.
The farmhouse that he'd bought was another shock. Before, it had been a cottage, big enough for one family. Now, it was as big as some inns or hotels John had stayed in. A second story had been added, and additions onto both sides, probably in back, too, but he'd wouldn't know until he looked. The only reason he knew it was his was that Halling and Teyla were standing in front with a group of children, swinging sticks.
Halling and Teyla broke into smiles as John and Ronon rode up. The minute he dismounted, Teyla pulled his head down for a forehead touch; Halling did the same, neither of them seeming to care about his condition.
"It is good to see you," Teyla say. "We have so much to show you." Teyla called out, "Jinto, take the horses to the barn. Elanor, run to the kitchen, and let them know we will be feasting tonight. We're celebrating. Our friend has come home."
When Teyla said they'd be a feast, she wasn't joking. In spite of the short notice, tables were groaning with food by nightfall. A stage was set up in one of the larger rooms, and everything from drums to harmonicas to fiddles were represented.
John introduced Ronon, but he didn't know half the people who came up to him with a smile, and to shake his hand or pat his shoulder. There was one face he expected to see, but didn't.
Teyla's smile disappeared. The crowd dispersed, suddenly more somber.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Aiden disappeared nearly four years ago."
"What happened? Was there an attack?"
"No, nothing like that. We've been welcomed here, and we haven't had many problems with bandits or raiders after the first few months."
"Then what happened?"
She was obviously reluctant to talk about it. "It's difficult to explain. Do you remember Dr. Beckett?"
"Yes, I sent him. He didn't want to go back east to his old practice, and I figured he could do some good here."
"And he did. He's done a great deal of good, for both the town, and for my people. He's a good man."
"But something happened."
"Yes. It was a great thing that he did for Aiden. He came up with a treatment for Aiden's eyes, and after a few weeks he could see again, as long as he wore darkened spectacles. He will always be sensitive to the light, but his vision was returned."
"That's great! I'm happy for him. You said he disappeared. Are you sure he didn't leave because he had better prospects."
"I'm absolutely sure. He worked very hard for you, and the farms are prospering because of his hard work. He was so proud of what he'd accomplished here. But after a time, he started acting very strangely. He became quiet, and secretive. Sometimes, we'd hear him talking, but when we entered the room, he'd be alone. He'd then accuse us of sneaking up on him or spying. Several times he became enraged for no reason, and we became fearful that he would hurt someone."
John had only known Ford for a short time, but this didn't seem like the young man he'd met at all.
"Do you think this might have been a side effect of the treatment?" John asked.
"Dr. Beckett thought so for a time, but I'm not so sure. You see, his odd behavior started soon after he entered a grove at the edge of the farm."
Ronon leaned forward, suddenly intent. "A grove? With a natural spring?"
"Why yes, do you know of it?"
"I know of such places."
John had a sick feeling in his gut. It sounded like the place where he'd met the silver haired man.
"When we first arrived here, we were warned, several times, not to enter the grove. Many people have disappeared there, including the son of the couple who used to own this farm. Other people that entered the grove came out again, but they were always changed. Some even died later under mysterious circumstances."
"Ford didn't disappear in the grove. He disappeared later," John said, making sure he understood what happened.
"Yes. One morning he didn't show up for breakfast. When I went to his room, he was gone, and most of his belongings that could fit into a pack with him."
Guilt swept through him. It was his fault. He should have warned Ford, as well as the Athosians, about the grove, but it had never occurred to him that it might be a dangerous place for others.
John excused himself, and went outside. Light spilled through the windows, and he could hear the musicians going through a few practice runs. John moved away as more people arrived for the party. He had thought to wait until the party was in full swing before heading to the grove, but there was no way he could wait any longer. A few lanterns had been placed near the door of the farmhouse to guide people in. John took one, and started toward the grove.
Like before, there was a fire pit, and firewood waiting when he got there. It was a warm night, and he didn't need to cook, but he made a fire anyway. He had come full circle, might as well go full out.
The wait seemed to take forever, but eventually, John heard footsteps. Even though he was looking in the exact spot, he was still surprised when the silver hair man seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
"I won," John said, not feeling the least triumphant. The years had been too hard, and losing Ford a bitter dose to swallow. "Give me back my name."
"I agree, you won. But I have another proposition for you."
"You've got to be out of your mind," John said. "Take this thing off me, and let me go."
"Don't you want to hear what I have to say? Or perhaps you don't really care about your dear friend Aiden Ford."
His fists clenched. "You took him, didn't you?"
"Now, now, that would be telling."
"You'll tell me what happened to him if you know what's good for you."
"He's a grown man, Bearskin. He made his own decision, just like you did. What I promised him is between the two of us. But you can help him if you make a new bargain with me."
He was about to reply when there was a shotgun blast that nearly scared the next seven years out of him. John spun around, pistol in hand to find Ronon standing in the shadows of the trees, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel of his shotgun.
"What the hell, Ronon!"
"You already paid enough. It's time you were free."
"That wasn't your choice to make! I could have helped Ford!"
Ronon stepped into the light. "Ford made his choice, and he'll have to live with it, just like you. Any bargain you made with that thing would only have made you suffer longer, and it wouldn't have truly helped your friend."
"You don't know that."
Ronon shrugged. He walked over to the place where the creature had been. John joined him. There was nothing there.
It was all very bewildering, and somewhat anticlimactic, until there was a fierce wind that snatched the bearskin right off his shoulders, the green jacket with it. He stumbled back several feet, and nearly stepped into the fire.
He finally gathered his wits about him, and realized that he felt as light as a feather, like a full sized bear had been taken off his back. Lifting his arms, John stared at the sleeves of his shirt, now gray and threadbare from age and filth. His anger evaporated under a wave of delight so great, that he danced a little jig right there by the fire.
The shirt easily peeled away, and was tossed in the fire. The rest soon followed. Then naked as a fresh plucked Sunday chicken, John jumped into the spring.
John felt like a boy again as he jumped and splashed, whooped his head off, and dived again and again. He grabbed handfuls of sand to scrub at his skin, but it didn't seem to be enough, not with his hair halfway down his back, and his beard almost down to his waist. He stayed in the water for as long as he could, even floating on his back for an hour, gazing up at the moon through the tree branches.
"I thought you might need this," Ronon said. He had a bar of soap in one hand, and a straight razor in the other.
"If you're not a prince, than I don't know what you are," John said.
"Just a soldier," Ronon said. "I'm just a soldier."
Much later, after soaping every inch of his skin four or five times over, and getting the beard off, John emerged from the water. To say he felt like a new man would have been an understatement.
Ronon picked up a small bundle, and tossed it to him. John dried off with the towel, and put on the clean clothes, then sat by the fire to eat the food Ronon had brought. At least one of them had been prepared.
"I guess you knew that thing was going to be here," John said.
John thought back. "The one you just killed, was it the same one you were hunting when we met?"
"I don't know. It could have been the same one, or it could have been a different one."
"But you know they hang around places like this."
Ronon tossed a stick on the fire. "There are different ones."
"What the hell are they?"
Ronon stared into the fire for a long time. "Do you know of Sateda?"
John nodded. "I think everyone has heard of it."
"But not everyone knows what really happened." Rage and sorrow were clear on Ronon's face. "One of our leaders, a man I knew well, and respected, betrayed Sateda to the enemy for money, and the safety of his own family. We fought, but they knew our plans, and cut through our defenses like they weren't even there. We might have been defeated, but we still could have saved Sateda if they hadn't set the arsenal on fire. Sateda burned to the ground around us. Hardly anyone got out alive."
This was the most Ronon had ever said to him. He'd heard the stories, but this is the first time he'd heard that the city had been turned over to the enemy.
"How do you know about this leader," John asked.
"Because he told me, right before I shot him."
John took a moment to absorb that. "Not for any bounty."
"No. I just knew something was wrong when I found out that he'd survived. Him, and his family, and a bunch of his friends. How were they alive when so many others had died."
John made the connection. "He told you he made a bargain."
"Yes. He'd been on a mission to gather information. He took shelter in a place like this. One month later, Sateda was gone."
"But why? Why do they do it? What are they?"
"I don't understand them, I just hunt them. All I know about them is that they show up when there's war, and famine, and chaos, then disappear when the world rights itself again. They'll be going into hiding again soon. I've been finding fewer and fewer of them this last year or so."
"So you won't be staying?"
John thought about another promise that he'd made. "Not right now. I have something I need to do first."
John considered buying the finest carriage, and horses, and arriving at O'Neill's in grand old style, but in the end, he rode up on Puddlejumper. He'd still rented a mighty fine carriage to haul his luggage.
John took a deep breath, and steeled his nerves as he handed Puddlejumper over to a stable boy. The housekeeper didn't recognize him, but she knew quality, so she ushered him into the parlor to wait.
A few minutes later the door opened and Chaya and Teer flew in, Chaya rushing to stand right in front of him. John stepped back, but Chaya seemed determined to stand too close.
"I'm Chaya Sar. I saw your carriage. Are you here to see father?"
He cleared his throat. "Yes and no."
"I'm sorry to say that he isn't here. Perhaps I, I mean we, can help you."
"I don't think so," he said, moving past her. He gave Teer a nod as he left the room. Chaya said something nasty behind him, but he didn't care. He couldn't wait any longer. He took the stairs two at a time; he knew the way.
John paused at the laboratory door, and checked his clothes, then brushed at his hair. This was as good as it got. He opened the door.
"Is it lunch time already? Put the tray on the table. I'll get to it later, I'm busy."
Seeing Rodney was as satisfying as that first plunge into the spring after losing the bearskin. It was a joy, and a relief, and so many other emotions tangled together.
Rodney's head snapped up. "Who are you? What are you doing in my laboratory?"
John moved slowly and carefully until he was standing in front of Rodney. "Do you recognize me?"
Rodney's breath caught. "Your voice. You sound like someone I know. Who are you?"
John reached into the pouch that hung from his belt. None of his new clothes had pockets in them, he'd made sure of it.
He held up his half of the gold ring.
"It's you!" Rodney stared and stared. He would probably never be shocked into silence like this ever again. As usual, Rodney soon rallied. "Where the hell have you been? You're late! You said three years. It's been longer than that."
"Actually, it hasn't."
"Are you going to argue with me after abandoning me like... like.. some seducer?"
John threw his head back and laughed. He couldn't help it. He stopped when he realized Rodney wasn't laughing with him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I couldn't stay, Rodney. I couldn't."
"Are you ever going to tell me why?"
"Yes, I'm going to tell you everything. I promise. You're going to think I'm an idiot."
"I already think you're an idiot. You don't make someone fall in love with you then run away."
"I'm sorry," he said again.
"Your voice," Rodney said. "Your eyes." He reached up to touch John's clean shaven cheek. "The rest of you is all new to me." He ran his fingers through John's hair. "Whoever cut your hair butchered it."
"That's the way it grows."
John wrapped his arms around Rodney, and pulled him close.
"My name is John Sheppard. It's nice to meet you."
"John," Rodney said. It was the sweetest sound John had ever heard.