It was supposed to be a walk in the park. That was what the survey team said about PX5-629. They’d spent a weekend there during the height of summer, presumably sipping Pegasus style Mai Tais there and taking energy and atmosphere readings for the scientists back home. They came back with satchels of PX5-629 coin like money grew on trees there. According to the reports, the only slightly dicey thing on the planet was a research lab deep in the forest where the Ancients had looked into extremely promising plant-based energy sources once upon a time, and its database tab read like a harmless garden report. Supposedly, the villagers were friendly, the weather was good, food was cheap, and everything was paradise.
It didn’t look like paradise. John had figured it would be a nice hike through the woods with Rodney to an Ancient lab and they’d flip some light switches but it wasn’t looking all too cheery when they arrived in town.
The village was surrounded by farmland, whose borders seemed demarcated by twin rows of torches. The town square seemed to be deserted when John and Rodney made their way inside. They opted on the widest avenue, a cobblestone path lit by kerosene-like streetlamps with tall, thin buildings on either side, and ignored the winding paths splitting off into various directions. The day cycle was a half hour from breaking by the planet’s time, and yet the narrow windows on the narrow two story buildings on either side of the boulevard were unlit, staring darkly down on John and Rodney as they made their way out toward the center of town. John’s eyes passed over the windows for notched arrows or God knows what else, but nothing moved behind the windows. The friendly villagers they’d been told about were nowhere in sight.
“What, is it vacation season or something?” Rodney asked. He seemed a little uneasy. Sheppard rested his hand on the butt of his gun and knocked Rodney’s elbow with the other.
“Maybe they can give us some good travel recommendations,” John said drily. Up ahead, a woman draped in a long, filmy black cloak suddenly cut onto the street from a side outlet and disappeared through a large wooden door on the left side of the lane. The door creaked shut and in a shaded alcove above, a sign with Ancient lettering swung lightly on its chains. Even without reading the letters, it was clear that it was a storefront of some kind from the sandwich board propped up nearby.
John and Rodney looked at each other. John lifted his shoulder in a wan shrug and then walked forward, taking point while Rodney trailed after him with his hands folded over his TAC vest. Once they got to the door, John pulled it open and walked in.
As he soon as stepped in, warm, heady air hit him, a welcome exchange for the cool air outside. It smelled like someone was roasting meat and burning some kind of musky incense at the same time. A long wooden bar cleaved to one wall and round wooden tables were packed into the room with a scant foot or so between them. Candles guttered in glass cups on the tables, placed in large, generous groups, but they still barely lit the room. Behind the bar, a tall, thickly built man poured out amber liquor to the woman in the cloak at the far end of the room. She was the only patron besides John and Rodney. John glanced back at Rodney and raised his eyebrows. The man behind him gave him a subtle nod.
The bar was totally Fable III.
John strolled over to the bar and put his hands up on the red stained wood countertop. “Hey. Busy night?” John asked. The bartender walked over after a long, stilted pause.
His stare was stony, impassive. He didn’t seem to get the joke. “What can I get you?” he asked.
“How about two glasses of whatever you guys brew around here?” John played with the leather purse full of coins the last survey team had scored. The man looked at the bag and then walked over to the far side of the bar to retrieve a bottle without comment.
“What, did Lurch switch day jobs?” Rodney muttered, catching John’s eye as he settled on the bar stool beside him.
John gave a short bark of a laugh. Down at the end of bar, the bartender poured more drink into the woman’s cup as he passed and she drank half of her stein in one hasty swallow. Then the bartender headed back to them with a thick, wavy glassed bottle in hand.
“It’s late in the second-day to be travelling so far from harvest,” the bartender remarked as he poured thin liquor into a stein set before John.
“Yeah, well, by our count dawn’s pretty close to coming and we’ve got a lot of walking ahead of us if we’re going to get through the forest before the day cycle is over,” John replied, taking a swallow of the bitter swill the man had served. It looked like beer but it burned worse than vodka all the way the down.
A tremor shook the man’s hand as he poured Rodney a similar draught of what passed for liquor around there. Its acidic aftertaste stuck in the back of John throat disagreed that it could pass for anything but paint thinner. The reports of abundant, fruity Mai Tais must’ve been greatly exaggerated.
“You’re talking about the Forest of Voices,” the man said severely.
So it had a name and a reputation they had yet to hear about. “Sounds like…a nice place,” John said, arching an eyebrow at Rodney, who took a small drink from his stein and winced.
The barkeeper was unamused. The guy reminded John more than a little of their own giant. “It’s not,” he said. “It’s haunted by the Ancestors in the cool season. They confuse and hunt any stupid enough to wander there.” The woman at the end of the bar gulped the rest of her drink down in one unsteady swallow.
“So…ghosts,” Rodney interjected. He shot John a look somewhere closer to skepticism than caution, since they’d seen worse around this galaxy before.
The bartender stared hard at the two of them as though he could read their disbelief. “We can hear the cries of the spirits in the village when it’s deep into the night,” he told them.
The man seemed to be perfectly serious, but at the same time, more than one haunted person, place, or thing had turned out to be harmless over their explorations of Pegasus. “Like the ‘whooo whooo’ type?” John asked. At Rodney’s glance, John shrugged ambivalently. The bartender stared at them.
“You’re not believers,” the woman at the end of the bar cut in unexpectedly. John and Rodney turned to her and saw her disheveled hair and tense features for the first time as she sat forward and her hood inched back from her face. She stared into her empty glass. “I wasn’t either. We heard the stories about this place on the planet I came from. I never paid them mind. Yet last night, I merely walked out to the edge of the wood and the howls...” Her shoulders were tight and she took an expansive breath. “I wish I had heeded their warnings. If you want to remain among the living, don’t go into the wood. More taquin, please,” she ordered tersely, pushing her glass forward across the bar.
The bartender sent John and Rodney a long, flinty look so much as to say that they ought to listen and then walked over to the cloaked woman, bottle in hand.
“Thanks,” John called after him. “Perky bunch,” he said lowly.
Rodney stared at the bartender for a moment. Then he turned back to John. The bartender was far enough away for the two of them to speak quietly and not be overheard, so he dove right in. “So Ancients haunt the woods and, what? Eat trespassers? Remind me again how Ronon and Teyla got out of this?”
“Come on. That girl said she went in and she’s in one piece. She’s just a little shaken up,” John reasoned. “You read the database entry and it was your idea to come on out here. Anyway, I don’t think it’ll hurt the two of us to take one or two little demi-missions on our own.” John rolled the beer around in his stein and watched the bubbles within it crest and dissolve. “You’re not saying you’re afraid of the boogeyman, are you, Rodney?”
If John was perfectly honest, he’d admit that Rodney had mentioned the planet in passing, but it had been John’s idea to go there, just like it was his idea to go on the mission on their lonesome while Ronon and Teyla were going to some trade council thing. After Rodney’s break up with She Who Must Not Be Named, John felt a little entitled to some alone time with Rodney, and Atlantis wasn’t providing that. John got to see him about as much as he saw Dave back home whenever Rodney was dating (or at least it felt like that), and it got on his nerves in a big way. Not that he’d ever admit it to Rodney.
“Yes, well if Ancient ghosts eat me because we’re short on man power, I’m not going to be happy.”
“Hey, you’ve still got me,” John said wryly, looking up from his liquor. “And scaring people? That doesn’t sound like the Ancients. They’re usually so peaceable.”
“Everyone I’ve met has been anyway. Oh wait,” Rodney said.
John nodded once. “Sound like the Ancient lab’s acting up to you?” A spooky forest surrounding an Ancient lab sounded almost typical, actually. The more they talked about it, the more logical it sounded that any strange noises must be emanating from leaky Ancient pipes in the lab or something.
“It’s always a distinct possibility. All it takes is one troublemaker with a stronger ATA gene than reason turning random switches on. And, blam, calamity.” Rodney sniffed at his stein like he was thinking about taking another drink and then pushed it aside.
“That almost sounds pointed.”
“Oh, it did?” Rodney asked with a crooked smile.
“I don’t know, Rodney. Could be haunted,” John teased.
“Ancients have better things to do than haunt forests on backwater planets falling off the Ancient database from disuse,” Rodney said with a scoff.
John smiled briefly and checked his watch. “So what, do you want to start out now? It’s dark out, but we’ve got a couple hours daylight to burn pretty soon, right?”
The other man nodded and tapped his fingers over the countertop like he was operating an invisible tablet. “Well yes, if you read the dossier,” Rodney said somewhat pointedly. John had made sure to skim it. “You’ll remember that this planet has solar cycles of twenty-six hours darkness, twenty-three hours of light at this time of year, so yes, starting out now would be good.”
The lab was a two day walk from the gate and completely inaccessible by jumper due to the dense forestry surrounding it. John nodded his agreement and stood. “And I know how you like to stretch your legs. You just want to get your hands on all the cool Ancient tech without the Botany department getting the first stab at it,” he accused lightly.
“No,” Rodney disagreed out of gut instinct. “Okay, yes, I’d prefer real scientists get to the particularly cool ones first. Like me. It’s win-win in either situation. Now can we go?”
“Well then, get a move on. Let me settle the tab,” John said.
Rodney made his way over to the door. Meanwhile, John took his time ambling over to the bartender. While he walked, he poured out coins into his palm and rolled them between his fingers.
The bartender put his hands up when he drew near. “Keep your money,” he said. “Taking money from those who die within the day is unlucky.” His stare was wary. John stopped. It wasn’t his favorite thing to hear, no matter how many times he’d heard it.
“Okay, if that’s how you feel about it.” John put the money back into his pouch and tied it off on his belt. “Thanks, anyway.” The man didn’t respond and the cloaked woman stared at him with an unnervingly stoic expression. John tipped his head at the two, crossed the room and caught a curious Rodney by the elbow on their way out.
“What was that about?” Rodney asked.
“You don’t want to know,” John replied.
The sun had started rising into a gray, dim sky. Thin mist pervaded the village and in the opposite direction of the way they had entered, an expansive field of wheat grass stood between them and the wintry forest. After that, a wide margin of uncultivated land stretched out between the forest and the crop, the grass seemingly burned off at regular intervals. There, it looked darker under the canopy of the forest despite the bare limbs of the trees, and every bit as disturbing as the name suggested. Rodney and John gave each other a long, considering glance.
Then Rodney muscled out his tablet and consulted his readings. “There had better be some pretty damn excellent energy research in there,” Rodney warned and began down the avenue in front of them. Even after a few years of gaining confidence in the field from hunting space vampires, it was still sometimes surprising to John when he made the first move.
John drew up beside him in two long strides. “Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
The edge of the woods was marked by hundreds of torches sending long shadows into the tree line. When they came to the edge of the farmland, they stopped for a moment. The torches were in two staggered rows so that the second row filled the gaps of the first, the rows beginning at the very edge of the grasses they stood in. The spaces between them were tight and would barely permit them passing, another clear sign that whatever was in there, the villagers preferred not to meet up with face to face. Over the torches, the bare forest shot up, as though it would grow taller if spreading outward was impossible and mist spread out into the low grassland margin between the fields of grain and the forest, seeming thicker in the forest. It looked tangled, menacing and deeply still.
Even the typical stream of Rodney’s babble, embellished by their back-and-forth, trailed off as they got closer to the forest they’d heard so much about, Rodney’s wide blue eyes unhappy under the pucker of his brow. John knew the feeling. What the barkeep had said lingered in the back of his mind. He never liked it when people started betting on his demise, and it usually got him pretty motivated to prove them wrong.
John glanced sidelong at Rodney. He quirked a smile for the man’s benefit and shrugged off the irrational feeling of dread that arose in him.
“Well,” Rodney said from John’s side, “isn’t this creepy?”
Rodney had a way of saying what John was thinking and he’d always liked that about him. “It’s like a fixer-upper,” he said insincerely, looking up the twisted branches. The firelight from the torches made the shadows between them seem blacker, reflected off of the dense, low mist at ground level, and bleached the bare tree trunks of the nearby trees.
Rodney grimaced. “I’d suggest condemning it.”
“Come on,” John said, jostling Rodney. “Your Ancient lab’s waiting.”
“Mine,” Rodney parroted. “Okay, fine.”
They wound their way through the torches and headed into the forest.
Three long hours later, the forest had seemed to tangle around them, bare limbs knotted together overhead and at their sides. As they traveled into the forest, the way they’d come completely disappeared in the distance, blotted out by the knit tree limbs and coiling vines they had almost crawled through to get there.
John’s breath came out in lacy white clouds and became one with the mist drifting over the forest floor. When they’d started out, the temperature in the village had been cool but comfortable – John’s black t-shirt adequate protection from the elements, but in the shadow of the forest, it was almost ten degrees cooler and gooseflesh prickled all over his arms from the cold.
Beside him, Rodney winced and put his hand over his side, panting. “Okay, timeout. I need a minute,” he said.
John nodded, relieved he didn’t have to concede momentary defeat before someone else did. Getting through the initial tangle of overgrowth had been difficult enough. He sat down on the thick knee of a nearby tree, the makeshift bench rising up to about his mid-thigh. He turned his eyes in either direction and saw the mist that had lain on the forest was much thicker by then. It drifted like ghosts to the level of John’s knee – probably twice what it had been before. John closed his hands on his knees and swallowed. Catching his breath felt harder due to the thickness of the air. The mist seemed to grow denser the farther they went within the trees, making it difficult to pick their way through the vines and knitted roots lying across the forest floor. A break sounded like a pretty damn good idea.
“What’s your tablet say? How far have we gotten anyway?” John asked and Rodney rolled his hand for more time.
After a moment, Rodney pressed his back into the trunk of a nearby tree and sat down on one of the knees ruffled out around it like a skirt. He unclipped his tablet from his vest and swiped tiredly at his the screen.
“Oh, great,” Rodney griped. “We’ve only walked four miles. We still have about two-thirds of the way to go before we hit the laboratory.”
It had seemed like they had to have gone farther. John nodded grimly, rubbing a dirt-streaked hand over his forehead. The farther that they made it into the forest, the more unsettled he became and he could tell from Rodney’s stiff, downturned mouth that the scientist felt the same way. John could pinpoint his disquiet like he hadn’t been able to in the clearing. He’d realized it about half an hour into their hike – the woods were entirely silent. The longer that they walked, the more that silence rang in his ears. And silence was never a good thing.
Silence was the sound of a newly culled planet. It wasn’t ordinary and it only brought to mind all the things that could have scared away the animals that usually filled that silence, and the kinds of things that would remain behind after they had left. John glanced at the tree limbs arching over them. The slender, bare branches tangled together like fingers. His gaze followed the lines down to smooth tapered trunks.
Then movement in the canopy above caught his eye just as Rodney gasped. He whipped back to check on the man, his hand automatically going to his P90. Rodney’s eyes were up at the spot where John had just seen something move and John raised his eyes there, too, dread tightening a knot in his stomach. “What the hell are those?” Rodney hissed.
Whatever it was moved again and when it did, John could focus on it in the tree, defining its shape more clearly. He could pick out the shape of a large blue creature camouflaged by the tree, its papery blue skin so thin that the ridges of its ribcage and every vertebra of its spine were outlined in stark relief. It was easily as large as an iguana, its head large and tapering into a sharp snout. The violet shadow stippling its back made it almost impossible to distinguish from the trees when it was standing still. Almost to prove such, it stopped and disappeared into the pattern of the bark it was lying on so that John could only see its large, yellow eyes snap open and shut again.
“They’re like baby dragons,” Rodney whispered insistently.
John looked over at the Rodney and found him hunched over his tablet, his head tucked between his shoulders like that would prevent an aerial attack. John looked back at where the lizard-thing had been. He’d lost track of it in the cold blue color of the tree branches. John glanced at Rodney and felt his understanding for him overriding his own fear. His hand loosened a little on the butt of his gun and he let his finger off the trigger. “They’re kind of cool,” he lied to keep Rodney going. They looked foreboding, actually. “Little wingless dragons. They’ve got to be a little cool.”
Rodney’s blue eyes were fixed on the canopy, his body rigid. “Dragons are never cool. Dragons are carnivorous. They eat people—”
“They don’t exist,” John put in.
“Well,” Rodney shot back, “that thing certainly does!”
John shot a glance up and then back to Rodney. “It’s gone now.”
“It is not!” Rodney protested. “It’s just blending in.”
John sighed, rubbing his hand over his damp face and neck. “What were you saying earlier about something interesting?”
For a moment, Rodney’s expression reflected only complete lack of comprehension. Then it clicked and he asked, “Right before the village—”
“And you said, ‘Hmm, this is interesting,’” John pitched his impression of Rodney particularly high, both to raise his mood and to send Rodney off the subject of the odd creature slithering overhead and the creepy forest around them. “And I said, ‘Your interesting or my interesting?’”
Rodney wrinkled his nose. “Oh yes, that. Well, I should remind you that what I find interesting tends to be highly beneficial to everyone involved.”
John gave a small, genuine smile. “Which means that it was your interesting instead of my interesting.”
When Rodney finally began relaxing, John could relax a little, too. Rodney only briefly glanced upward at the canopy before he rolled his eyes at John’s remark and dropped his gaze to the tablet on his knee. “Yes, yes,” he said. “It was something about the sample of the energy readings the botanists brought back from their last trip here. Something interesting about the energy levels and their signatures and—Hmm.”
John craned forward to try to catch a glimpse of the screen of the tablet. He told himself – but wasn’t entirely convinced – that it wasn’t because he was sitting farther away from the creepy baby dragon. “What?”
Rodney’s brow puckered in thought. “I’m picking up some interesting energy readings, too.”
“Are they coming from the Ancient laboratory?” John guessed.
Rodney shook his head. “No. That’s the interesting thing. It’s…” Rodney’s hands drifted around in broad circles as he tried to come up with the words he was looking for. “I don’t want to say ‘diffuse’ but – diffuse. Ambient.” He leaned over the screen, adjusting the readout. “I can’t pinpoint the origin precisely,” he muttered thoughtfully.
John cleared his throat, suddenly powerfully aware of how much noise they were making in the silence. He wondered where all the birds were. The insects. The lizard-dragons had to eat something – unless they really did fly, despite their wingless bodies. It wasn’t just the animals, John realized. The ground was bare too – as though the trees had choked out all the undergrowth. “Maybe it’s underground,” John offered absently.
“That could be it but I don’t think so.”
John scanned the nearby area, his stare moving over the blue-tinged tree trunks and bare branches, the dense carpet of fog, and he started. “Hey. This isn’t one of those nasty fog guy things, is it?” he asked. “Like from year one?”
Rodney snorted. “No way. That gave me energy readings that were through the roof. This – it’s like…there are two energy signatures overlaying each other. I’m getting small spikes over a diffuse, abundant background feed out. I could barely pick it up when we started out – into the woods, I mean – and it’s grown significantly stronger the farther we’ve gone.” He paused and the hair on the back of John’s neck stood up like he was being watched. It struck him that it might be the lizard—that there might be hundreds of lizards on the trees and he wouldn’t be able to see them if they weren’t moving.
“Okay, let’s get a move on,” John said, standing up. He heard Rodney getting up behind him, clipping his tablet back onto the hook on his TAC vest he’d gotten it from. They started out again in the direction of the laboratory, picking their way through the nest of roots tripping them up and the tight stands of trees rising like bars around the worn part that could generously be called a path. As they walked, Rodney plucked his tablet off his vest and consulted it, casting brief, cagey glances around as he talked about the anomalous energy readings he was picking up. They couldn’t have gone more than a half mile before John stopped short.
With his face practically glued to the glowing screen of his tablet, Rodney collided with him. He juggled his tablet back into the cradle of his chest and shot an impatient look at John. When he looked around, he stared forward instead of snapping, his eyes on the dense fog obscuring the way. “Where’d this come from? It’s like pea soup.”
John had been watching and it had come on suddenly. The hazy outline of nearby tree trunks was a vague rumor in the mist. John turned his gaze upward and saw the vaulted canopy rising up above them, the drifting fog thinning out high overhead. John pressed his lips into a thin line. “I don’t think we’re going to get much further without Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
Rodney regarded John, his face dirt-smudged and damp with sweat along his brow and his cheeks. “We’re taking a break?” he asked. He looked split on whether to take it as a good thing that they could rest or a bad thing where they were resting at. He cast a look around and John saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed hard. “This sucks.”
John’s chest tightened, looking at him. “We haven’t made great time so far but we can make it up tomorrow,” he said like that was the reason for Rodney’s misgivings. He patted Rodney’s shoulder before turning the flash of his P90 on the nearby area. “Let’s say we stop off here and move on when the fog’s burned off.”
“Oh great,” Rodney muttered. “This might top the time I went camping with my family in Saskatchewan in terms of blood-curdling creepiness.”
John found himself smiling though he felt the same way. There was something about the forest that felt distinctly wrong – too still, too tangled. It felt like danger.
A few yards from where they’d stopped, the beam of John’s light found the small dark opening of a cave in the sheer face of rock rising up nearby. When John moved his flash over the wall, he found it rose twenty-four or twenty-five feet up and spread out in either direction. It sloped in the direction toward town and leveled out in the direction of the laboratory – deeper into the woods. Small tendrils of vine crisscrossed over the flinty rockface, hanging down over the dark pit of the cave.
A shallow exploration found nothing living immediately inside the cave. Unlike in the foggy forest, the light from John’s P90 pierced cleanly through the darkness of the cave. It was small – no more than ten feet across – and low-roofed, the opening tapering to an end further inside.
They settled in and got out a couple MREs and their canteens out for a late lunch slash early dinner. Rodney ate voraciously and John’s appetite overtook his growing feeling of apprehension. By the time they’d finished eating, it was early evening so John grabbed an armful of twigs and branches from near the mouth of the cave and built a campfire.
The struggle through the thick forest had taken a physical toll and when John turned to crow about the kindling of flames in the little nest he’d made, he found that Rodney was leaning back against the wall of the cave with his arms wrapped around himself, his eyes shut but his forehead creased in thought. John studied the play of light on Rodney’s dirt-flecked brow and the flickering of the blond-tipped eyelashes against Rodney’s cheeks. It was only times like then that he could really look at Rodney and study his features to his heart’s content.
John liked looking at him. He’d always liked looking too much for his own good.
He saw the small well made by Rodney’s knit eyebrows and the downward slant of his mouth. Rodney’s hands were favorites of his and now they were wrapped around Rodney’s upper arms, rubbing skin splotchy from the cold.
John settled close to him against the cave wall. A glance out found the mist thicker than ever on the forest floor, unabated by the daylight]. Inside the cave, it was as dark as evening. Out in the forest, the light was a diffuse shroud hanging above the trees. John scooted closer, Rodney’s nearby heat warming his side. Just like always, whenever they were close, John’s body was hyperaware of him.
It wasn’t the worst thing had ever happened to John – not by a long shot – but his chest was still knotted up with apprehension and the air in the cave was mid-winter cold on his bare arms. “A nice walk in the park,” he said to himself.
“As if,” Rodney retorted into his shoulder. The words were expelled on a cloud of mist. “This feels a little better, anyway.”
John wasn’t sure if he was referring to the heat coming off the flickering campfire or if he was referring to John’s closeness. It did things to John’s heart anyway. He kind of felt sorry for dragging Rodney out there without the others. But now that Rodney was single again, John found himself jealously guarding Rodney’s time. If he was being honest with himself (something he rarely did) he could admit that at least part of that was due to the ugly heartsick feeling getting stuck with Rodney’s leftover time gave him when the guy was dating. He’d been patient enough then but now he just felt like he wanted back all the time that they’d missed.
John shifted, resettling closer to Rodney’s side. His body was a warm, solid and reassuring presence beside John in the midst of the eerie surroundings. When Rodney shifted back to accommodate him, moving to fit their sides together, John’s heart panged. It was warmer then, owing to their shared body heat and the fire that was catching in the kindling. John wrapped his arm around Rodney with a playful grimace and Rodney slipped his arm into the small of John’s back with a roll of his eyes.
“Could be worse,” Rodney conceded. “I’ve had to sleep on a futon before.”
John snorted and Rodney joined him with a chuckle. When they settled in, the rhythm of Rodney’s breath evened out before the hour was out. Those soft snores were what pulled John into sleep.
It was much later when John started awake. The campfire flickered at their feet, lighting the confines of the cave, and Rodney’s deep, even breath sounded from against John’s shoulder. Rodney’s breaths stirred the strands of hair at the nape of John’s neck. For a moment, he was disoriented like he was groping through the fog outside. As he took in a breath, he heard what had startled him – a scream sounded in the distance. John’s breath snagged. He straightened like a bolt, his lean muscles tight with readiness.
Rodney took a sharp breath, jerking up by John’s side. “What the hell was that?” he slurred, his voice still thick with drowsiness.
John glanced sidelong and saw his sudden alertness reflected on Rodney’s face at the next cry. “Sounds like someone’s calling for help.”
Rodney blinked. “Here?” he asked. “What is it? A villager?”
John pushed himself up and held his hand out for Rodney as the cry sounded again. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“Help me!” the voice screamed nearby. It was difficult to distinguish the gender of the speaker – a woman or a man, it just wasn’t clear. “Somebody help me!”
“Where’s it coming from?” Rodney asked, climbing to his feet. He reached for his TAC vest and John gestured for him to hurry up.
“No! Please, no!”
John’s heartbeat spiked, his pulse throbbing through him with immediacy. He grabbed his gun and charged out of the cave with Rodney hurrying to catch up. Outside, the mist was even thicker than it had been before they’d settled in camp. John turned his P90’s light on and the beam lit particles dancing in the mist. He swung it around, angling it toward the trees surrounding them. He furrowed his brow. He’d camped with his mom a lot when he was a kid and this was the toughest forest he’d ever navigated. It almost seemed different every time he looked around.
As Rodney crashed into John’s back, John grabbed his hand. It would be easy as hell to get separated in the fog. “Where’d it come from?” Rodney asked. John shook his head and looked around. Now that he looked around and listened, he realized that the trees were rustling with a soft breeze. The rustling was the first sound he’d heard that actually came from the forest. He pulled Rodney by the hand further into the trees in the direction of the Ancient lab. It was where the cries had seemed to come from.
“Help me! Somebody! Please, please help me!” the scream came up from the distance – it sounded like it was a couple hundred feet away.
John met Rodney’s saucer-wide eyes and he nodded once for him to keep up. They dashed around. The sound of the trees rustling rose, drowning out the sound of their feet beating the path. Suddenly, Rodney’s hand jerked free of John’s – Rodney tumbling and falling in the mist as John skidded to a stop. He turned around but he couldn’t see Rodney in the fog choking the forest floor. John’s pulse peaked and its frenetic pace choked his breath. John went back in the direction they’d come from. The fog was completely opaque.
John turned the beam of his light across the area. He ran back a few steps but couldn’t find Rodney. “Rodney!” he called.
“Please, please help me!” the voice screamed. John gritted his teeth, indecisive. If he didn’t chase the sound, whatever the person in the woods was running from might catch up to them and if John chased the sound, it might be damn near impossible to track Rodney down in the fog.
“John, over here!” Rodney called. John peered into the haze and saw the indistinct shadow of Rodney’s figure, crouched on the ground and holding his ankle. “Oh, thank god!” Rodney said as they finally sighted each other. In the distance, the cries became a constant stream of entreaties for help pounding in his ears. John swallowed hard and looked out over the trees in the direction of the cries.
“Are you going after them or sticking with me?” Rodney asked breathlessly at John’s hesitation. He sounded like it was about the worst idea in the world, and like it also made perfect sense to him.
John slid onto his knees by Rodney’s side instead. “Going to have to wait. If we don’t keep track of each other in here, it might not be both of us that get out. Can you stand?”
Rodney swallowed grimly. “I have no idea. I doubt that you’ll be making any time with me alongside, anyway.”
“Yeah, well, splitting up doesn’t look too bright right now,” John said huskily as he bent on one knee beside Rodney. The back of his neck prickled with unease and in the distance, the cries continued without end. It felt as though any minute a Wraith’s hand would shoot out of the mist toward him or whoever was making the racket. The solidity of Rodney’s shoulders beneath his hands was a comfort more than John would ever cop to. “Damn, I thought I’d lost you in here,” he muttered.
“Not so lucky,” Rodney grimaced and turned back down to his ankle. His eyes looked dull from listening to the screams and being stuck on the ground ignoring them, like how John felt.
“You fall?” John asked. He stared as Rodney gingerly peeled back the leg of his pants.
“Understatement,” Rodney said. “I took the dive of the century. I’m pretty sure I qualified for the Olympic swim team. This really, really hurts. I think it’s twisted.”
John winced at the ugly mark circling Rodney’s shin at the top of his boot. The florid mark was already deepening into a bruise. He patted Rodney’s shoulder in soft-handed support. “How about you try standing on it?” he asked.
“It hurts like–” Rodney shook his head and reached out for help. “Hold on, let me try.”
Wordlessly, John slid his arm around Rodney’s back. He shivered at the sharp contrast of the frigid air around them and the warmth of Rodney’s body against his side. “Here. One, two…up,” he said as he straightened and took some of Rodney’s weight.
As Rodney straightened, his weight shifted from John’s shoulder to his injured leg. Just as suddenly as he’d fallen before, Rodney cried out and stumbled back into John. “Fuck!” he whimpered.
In the distance, the screaming went on without stopping – an endless cry for help echoing through the woods – and the rustling of the wind through the trees rose to a roar. The limbs clattering against each other like teeth.
John’s heart hammered. He considered again breaking off from Rodney to go after the person in the woods. Maybe they could come up with some way to track each other down in the mist. But he’d be abandoning an injured Rodney where something – whatever it was that scared the shit out of the villager or whoever was out there – would get to him before John could. “Shit,” John hissed. He turned to Rodney and already, Rodney’s eyes were wide blue terror, white showing all around the irises.
Suddenly, the rustling of wind through the trees stopped. The deadening of the woods chilled John and cut him off midsentence. At the same moment, the screaming abruptly stopped. A chill raced up John’s spine.
Their breaths were the lone sound in resounding silence. John swallowed hard and carefully released a breath. “Shit,” he repeated.
“I don’t want to know what just happened,” Rodney whispered.
When John turned his eyes around the forest, he saw the wall of mist thicken, choking their view of the trees around them completely. It was white as the inside of a shell – a formless, spectral luminosity. Only the interlocked branches of the trees arching overhead were visible in the gloom.
John realized that Rodney’s fingers were biting into his arms and that the reassuring hands he’d put on Rodney’s shoulders held Rodney tight. John cleared his throat. Rodney was a scientist. It wasn’t his job to be brave. Meanwhile, though, it was John’s. “Hello?” he called out into the mist.
In the distance, the voice called back, muted and cool. “Help.”
“This way,” John said, straightening his spine.
Then the voice rose from the trees nearby. “Help.”
It was taken up by a voice on the other side. That genderless voice was a calm sound in the silent woods. “Help.”
John whirled as it sounded from directly ahead. “Help,” it said. The trees overhead rustled. “Help.” Now even the movement of the trees looked alien to John, eerie. “Help. Help.” The rustling of the trees sounding like something nasty crawling through their branches, something sinister approaching from all angles in the mist – from where it could see them but where they couldn’t see it. Then it died away.
John recoiled and Rodney’s fingers dug into John’s arms. “What the hell is that?” Rodney whispered.
John ignored the question. It would freak him out more if he really had to address it. He tugged Rodney up, swaying as they distributed their weight. “Come on.” John pulled the barrel of his P90 up to pierce the mist with the beam of his light, intermittently scanning the forest and the canopy. As he painstakingly retraced his path to their cave, something crunched under the sole of his boot.
He rolled his boot sole off of it and shone the light on the ground. “Oh, crap,” he murmured. The light shone off something polished white in the dark brown dirt. A human bone.
Rodney fell down against the wall with a wince. He vigorously rubbed his arms. “Tell me that wasn’t a human bone out there,” he said, his voice thin with indignation.
“Looked that way,” John replied, feeding the fire. He kept his eyes on the forest but didn’t sight any movement. After the wind had dropped off and the voices had died, the forest was silent as the grave.
After a moment, John turned and returned to Rodney’s side, settling close by again. What it all added up to wasn’t certain yet. What John knew was that there was a human bone half buried out there and what had called out to them before probably wasn’t as innocent as it had sounded. And whatever it was, it had brought friends from the myriads of cries for help.
“And what the fuck was that anyway?” Rodney demanded. His face was splotchy with color and if John didn’t know him better, he’d think Rodney was about to pass out. He did know Rodney better though. “It sounded like—”
“Yeah, it did,” John agreed.
“It came from everywhere,” Rodney said with a shudder. It went through him and into John from where they were pressed together. The closeness was still reassuring.
“Yeah, it did,” John said. And that meant that whatever it was had either been out there all along or it moved too quickly and too quietly for them to hear. Suddenly, John flashed back on the violent quaking of the forest canopy – the clacking of smooth bare branches against each other like the sound of antlers locking.
Rodney turned a demanding stare on John. “What was it?” he asked. His lips curled in dismay. “Robin Hood’s band of not-so-Merry Men?”
John shook his head. “Don’t know.” He studied Rodney’s face for a long moment and felt his chest warm with the reassurance of his nearness. They were out there alone together, they were unsettled, the woods were damn creepy, and it looked like whatever or whoever had called out to them had them surrounded. But things had looked bleaker. “Whatever it is, it’s fishy,” he said finally. “It sounds like we’re outnumbered. Things’ll look better when we have light.” He tried to sound convinced but he didn’t have to look at his watch to know it was midday and the fog would’ve burned off by then if it was ever going to. “It’ll give us a better chance.”
Another shiver rolled through Rodney’s body. “I hate being surrounded. I hate being attacked,” he muttered. “On occasion, this job completely sucks.”
John snorted. The corners of his mouth curved up in a soft smile as he looked at Rodney. “How’s the ankle?” he asked.
Rodney sighed and shrugged. “Aside from ‘painful’?” he asked. John nodded. “Okay, I guess. I’ll live.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what happened. It was like the root hooked me.” He raised his eyebrows emphatically, pointing warningly at John even as a smile spread over John’s face at the words. Leave it to Rodney to blame his balance issues on the foliage.
“Sure,” John said gamely. “It’s the root’s fault.”
Rodney made a face. “At least we’re in agreement,” he muttered. Then his features pinched as he drew his knees up. “Fuck.”
It sobered John considerably. He mentally inventoried the times he’d been outnumbered and surrounded. They’d taken Wraith hive ships out together – Rodney and he – most of the time with Ronon and Teyla’s help but that still counted for something. Afghanistan, John remembered. Holland. John scooted closer to Rodney.
“You okay?” he asked.
Rodney glanced at him as though surprised by the question. He considered it for a moment. “For one thing,” he said finally, “it may come as a surprise to you, but since the whole sinking puddlejumper death trap thing, I’m not the best with dark, tight spaces, caves surprisingly included. The last time I was stuck in a tight spot – literally – at least I had a distraction.” He shook his head and John rolled his eyes. He’d heard it too many times already. “It was almost worth the head trauma for the make-out fantasy with Sam. If nothing else, the whole delusion thing helped to take my mind off things.”
“Sam the whale?” John asked, feigning ignorance.
If Rodney got that John was fucking with him, he didn’t let on. John thought that he was probably just listening to himself speak and enjoying the memory. “The woman. Blonde, closely cropped hair.” He abruptly stopped and snorted, and John suppressed the strong urge to give him a pinch in the side. “It’s kind of funny, actually, that my subconscious chose her over any other possible candidates, given the fact that my tastes have skewed strongly toward a masculine aesthetic over a feminine one over the last whenever.” John started in surprise and Rodney blinked at John. His mouth really had gotten away from him. “Oh. I mean—”
John shook his head. “I get it,” he cut in. “You want a distraction.”
“Are you offering to make out with me?” Rodney blurted.
John’s forehead creased. “What?” he asked. He could feel his face heat up despite the coolness of the cave. “No. No.”
“Oh.” Color rose in Rodney’s face, too, a bright pink in his cheeks. “Uh, nevermind.”
John didn’t answer. Instead, he just stared at Rodney, wondering if it was his imagination that Rodney looked somewhat crestfallen.
Rodney forged on. “You know, when I used to consider how I might die, death by poltergeist didn’t rank as a strong possibility.”
“Don’t count us out yet,” John said. “It could be worse. We’re not that far gone yet, so I wouldn’t start rewriting my will if I were you.”
For a moment, Rodney was silent, staring at John. “You have a will?” he asked.
John laughed at the unexpectedness of his question. “Why? Do you want to know if you might come into possession of Sheppard Industries shares someday?”
The skin around Rodney’s eyes crinkled charmingly as he smiled and shook his head. “You’re so ludicrously dumb. Anyway, isn’t it inefficient to put me in your will? Let’s face it – if we go out, we both go out together, more likely than not.”
“Very optimistic,” John teased. He could almost forget what was going on and what Rodney had said about his taste in partners in the sheer normalcy of joking around. “You should be a therapist.”
“Considered it,” Rodney said, “briefly. A phase in my undergrad years.” He shook his head. “Of course I abandoned it—”
“Of course,” John echoed.
“—psychotherapy is such an imprecise science.”
John pointed at Rodney triumphantly. “There. You called it a science. The other guys in your shop will be pleased at your progress.”
When he sobered, John passed a glance out at the mouth of the cave and felt his body turn icy even in the easy warmth of the fire-lit cave. He remembered the blinding glare of light off the sand in Afghanistan and Holland bleeding out by his side. Every muscle in his body tightened like a rubber band.
“You know, it just,” Rodney gestured beside John, “something like this, something absurd and idiotic, it would figure if that was the way I’d go. Something that no obituary on the planet could make sound anything but ridiculous and abysmal. Eaten by ghosts.”
John almost agreed. It was always something unexpected. “We’re going strong,” he said for Rodney’s benefit. “Besides…,” he pursed his lips in punk rock defiance, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost.”
Rodney laughed. It was a nice sound. It made the whole place feel less terrible. John smiled. Looking at Rodney’s profile, his heartbeat was like the squeeze of a fist. He’d spent so many years wanting this guy. It burned him up from the inside out.
“You know,” John said, “I was, uh, glad we came out here anyway. In the first place.” He forced the words out one by one. “Back when we were on Earth, you know, with—” Rodney’s stare was distractingly keen on John’s face. John ducked his head on the pretense of brushing dirt off his boot. “With everything there, we didn’t get a hell of a lot of chances to hang out together.” In John’s periphery, he caught Rodney’s nod. “And you are my – we are….” John winced and gestured so Rodney would get it without John having to say it.
“Friends,” Rodney finished for him.
“Right,” John agreed. He almost felt weak with relief at hearing it come out of someone else’s mouth.
“I missed you, too,” Rodney said.
John made a face – he felt like he was on fire but the little blaze on the other side of the cave was modest and contained. His heart was convulsed with emotion it was too hard to deal with. He’d never been good at things like this.
“That was part of the reason I broke up with her,” Rodney added. John lifted his head and met Rodney’s keen, curious gaze. “Because I was spending too much time with her, not enough time with you. And the others, of course.”
“Sure,” John said, his voice stale.
“And because I thought maybe—” Rodney broke off, turning his eyes to the wall as he thought. His brows met like he was on the verge of saying something really stupid or important, and John felt like he was being pulled open, like he’d been shucked like a clam.
“You see, I’ve been laboring under this-this huge—” Rodney blinked and John saw shine on his blue eyes, “huge crush and I thought it was stupid and hopeless and absolutely typical, so I tamped it down and I ignored it and I hoped that it would go away – though I didn’t want it to go away because it’s just, it’s like nothing I’ve felt before and I don’t want…”
John’s pulse vibrated through his body. It rattled around in his brain. “On Keller,” he said.
“What?” Rodney scowled in confusion. “No. Though, interesting story – it was the mutually unrequited torches we were carrying for other people that led to us getting together. We both tried with that but it was… No.” He shook his head. “It was in San Francisco, that someone told me something that made me think maybe it might not have been completely hopeless. And ever since then, it’s been like a mallet banging me on the head. The idea that I’d stupidly tried to ignore this but if I was persistent, and possibly better looking, and maybe a little bit less opinionated—”
“—fine, less rude, then maybe he’d – I might stand a chance with him. At least better than I’d ever imagined before. And when I realized that, I realized that I was lying to myself. That he, that you, are–” Rodney’s Adam’s apple bobbed and he shrugged. John’s eyes prickled and burned, and it had nothing at all to do with the smoke. “That you’re my best friend and that I-I love you.”
For a moment, it was like falling. John’s whole body was a raw nerve and he ached. He swallowed the lump in his throat and blinked a couple times to clear the film from his eyes. “Yeah?” he asked. His voice was embarrassingly rough.
Rodney nodded. If John felt gutted, Rodney looked it. “Yeah. It’s stupid, but with the way tonight is going, it occurred to me that I might not get the chance to say it.”
John took a deep breath, and he rushed up onto his knees and into Rodney’s space. “It’s not stupid,” he said against Rodney’s mouth. He pressed his lips to Rodney’s, cocking his head and sliding forward, fluid-like, over Rodney’s body. John could feel Rodney’s heartbeat through the palm pressed to his chest. Rodney’s mouth opened to him with a murmur, his tongue hot and electric against the corner of John’s mouth. He tilted his head back and they ended up lying flat on the cave floor, trading heated kisses as Rodney’s fingers flirted with the skin under John’s shirt.
“Still need a distraction?” John asked when they finally broke apart for air.
Rodney’s hair was a mess, tufted up almost as wildly as John’s was and his mouth was flushed with rough kisses. “What are you—? Are you offering?” he asked.
John knotted his fingers in Rodney’s fine, sandy hair and covered his mouth again, sucking on Rodney’s lower lip and tracing Rodney’s upper lip with his tongue. He rolled his hips and gasped at the shock that ran through him. He was going to come like a damn novice or something. He pulled back and cooled down. “We’ve got a couple hours until first light,” he said. And besides, it would keep their minds off the crap outside – whatever the hell it was – it wasn’t fucking up what John had spent years wanting. Especially since it might be their last night on not-Earth.
Rodney’s blue eyes were heated but collected as he looked into John’s face. Then he slid his fingers down the inside of John’s forearm, slipping them into the hollow of John’s palm and pulling them to his mouth. He pressed a kiss to John’s thumb. John shivered at the sensation and let Rodney roll them over. Then Rodney leaned over and lightly put his lips to the hollow of John’s jaw.
John dropped his head to the cave floor and bucked up beneath him, closing his eyes. Any thought of the forest outside faded as Rodney trailed his mouth over John’s and began to kiss him.
By then, John had rolled onto his feet and shot out in pursuit, grabbing his P90 with one hand and the burning branch that remained of the smoldering fire. He came into the small clearing outside the cave and found his surroundings obliterated by the fog. The trees rocked in a gale. It was thinner then, dawn tingeing it a light pink against the deep blue trunks of the trees. John picked up the sound of Rodney’s screaming in the near distance and John sprinted in that direction.
He grimaced. It was like the forest had changed again and all the paths he’d noted the night before were different. He darted out against the scratching, clawing branches and hurtled after the sound of Rodney’s screams.
He broke through a web of vines into an alee flanked by bare blue trees. The branches hung over his head like a ceiling and down to his shoulders like fingers, slashing him when he ran beneath them. “Rodney!” John screamed. “Rodney!”
“No, no, no, no, no!” It was Rodney’s voice nearby. John felt his body aching with panic as he put on speed and raced toward him.
He caught the blur of something in his periphery right as it shot toward him. John dropped down and rolled, losing his makeshift torch. The thing slammed into the ground where he’d been standing. John glanced back and saw the slender limb of a tree smashed deep into the ground in his place. Then he watched it skirt away from the embers of his torch. “What the fuck?” John panted.
“John!” Rodney screamed and John shot to his feet, calling on all the times he’d tried to keep up with Ronon around the city as he hurtled toward Rodney.
“Rodney!” John shouted to keep Rodney on his radar.
“John!” Rodney’s voice was strained, desperate. “John! John!”
From every corner of the clearing, the forest resounded with the cry: “John! John! John!” It was the same, atonal, sexless voice that had called to them earlier. The canopy shook with the echoes. “John! John!”
“Rodney!” John shouted as he stumbled through a copse into another avenue where bare, blue trees were planted at odd intervals. They were the kind they’d seen more and more coming into the forest. The hanging limbs scratched and slashed at John, slicing through his black t-shirt and cutting his left arm. At the end of the avenue, John caught sight of Rodney as Rodney flew through the air and slammed into the trunk of a giant blue tree. John’s mouth fell open.
Rodney’s arms, legs, and stomach were trapped by thin blue limbs pulling him tight against the trunk of an enormous tree. The tree trunk undulated like the belly of a large man. “John!” Rodney called. His muscles corded as he strained against the restraints. “Get off of me, you homicidal houseplant!”
“Jesus,” John gasped.
Suddenly, a limb sliced through the air toward John’s head and John dropped to avoid it. He rolled into a crouch and fired on it with his P90. The limb splintered, chips of wood flying off, and deep red sap splattering all over the ground. It recoiled.
“John—” Rodney’s voice broke off with an ugly choking sound as a branch coiled around his throat.
John followed the branch around Rodney’s neck to the side of the tree and he took aim. He fired and the branch slackened, slipping off of Rodney’s neck. John laid down suppressive fire behind him and ran to Rodney’s side. John hurriedly unsheathed his field knife and stabbed it into the vine holding Rodney’s right wrist. He followed it with the left wrist and both limbs snaked away.
Rodney dropped to the ground, still hacking, and John fell into a crouch beside him, spraying the forest with a hail of gunfire. He helped Rodney sit up with one hand, and he cradled the back of Rodney’s head with the other. When Rodney had disappeared into the fog, he’d thought of Holland. He’d imagined for a moment that he was losing Rodney, too. Now, even as adrenaline was coursing through him, his relief was almost palpable. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Christ! What the hell is this crap?” Rodney cried thinly. “Walking trees? What am I in, Lord of the Rings? What the hell, Pegasus Galaxy! What the hell! I thought you were fucked up before and now—”
“You’re good now,” John said urgently. A tree limb darted at them and John sprayed gunfire in its direction, sending splinters and blood colored sap flying. “Well, they don’t like the gun.”
“I feel like I’m living a scene from Little Shop of Horrors.”
“Rodney, can you stand?” John asked. The trees around them shook and now John could see that it wasn’t the whole canopy at all but the blue trees shaking the others, branches wrapped around the trunks of the normal, non-sentient trees and yanking them around as though they could bring the sky down.
“No,” Rodney said. “Maybe. Let me check.” He stood and his injured ankle buckled under his weight, sending him crashing back down. “Holy crap, that hurts!”
John slid his arm around him and pulled him up. “Hold onto me.” He wasn’t Ronon. He couldn’t carry Rodney out of there but he could support him.
John turned his P90 on the forest around him and sprayed it with bullets as they limped back the way they’d come. Overhead, the limbs snapped at them like whips and coiled into snares. John shot with extreme prejudice.
The sound of snapping, clattering, and roaring resounded through the forest, a wave of noise always at their heels. They broke into the clearing and wound their way through the
torches at the perimeter of the forest. Torches that were still burning throughout the day. Abruptly, silence fell over the forest behind them. John chanced a glance back and saw the last of the thin blue limbs snake back into the shadow of the wood.
They didn’t stop until they were halfway through the field and when they did, it was to look back. Aside from their injuries, it was as though the whole thing hadn’t happened. The edge of the wood was as still and as disquieting as it had been when they’d gone in. The rippling of the distant canopy was the only sign that life existed in the forest.
“What the hell,” Rodney panted, dropping down onto his backside in the long, golden grain.
“Looks like they don’t like fire either,” John said. He looked again at the torches burning bright at the edge of the clearing and thought back on the villagers’ warnings. They probably kept them burning all day and all night long throughout the fall and the winter. John would just torch the whole damn place. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“Imminently doable,” Rodney said.
John turned back to look at Rodney and a small smile broke out on his face. Now that his pulse was settling back into its regular tempo, it was exactly as ridiculous as Rodney had said. John dropped down beside Rodney in the grass like a ton of bricks, stretching out on the ground by him. The ground and the air were cool but the sun warmed his arms a little. He’d lost his vest, damn it. But at least he hadn’t lost Rodney.
When John sat up, Rodney was staring at him, his cheeks steeped in color. John couldn’t help the palpitation at the sight. “Hey,” he said intelligently.
“Just to clarify, last night, I told you that I—” Rodney flushed a deeper red, his chin lifted almost obstinately, “—I have feelings for you.”
“That you’re fucking crazy about me,” John corrected. He remembered the awesome, terrible awesomeness of Rodney’s confession trembling through John’s body as though he’d touched a live wire. He tried not to get all doe-ish about it, but he turned his chin down and looked up at Rodney through his lashes anyway without realizing it.
Rodney swallowed and briefly pressed the heel of his palm to his crotch. The not-so-little guy was paying attention. “Please, not that look when I’m trying to focus.” John snorted and Rodney shook his head disapprovingly. “I told you that and you – what is – I mean…”
“Then I rocked your world,” John told him. The memory was almost convincing him that it wasn’t totally clammy out there in the field.
Rodney made a face like that answered positively nothing. “Yes, Marky Mark, you rocked my world. There’s no reason to act so proud of it.”
John shook his head and towed Rodney over by the collar of his shirt. “You idiot.” He drug his mouth over Rodney’s before pressing in for a kiss. When they broke apart, they were both breathless and John’s lips were slick. “You’re always telling me I’m crazy.”
“Because you are,” Rodney pointed out.
“About you, maybe.” John’s face warmed, his neck hot and his skin prickly. He saw Rodney staring at him in his periphery and John scratched the back of his neck. “I always said you drive me crazy, Rodney. So…”
Rodney shook his head, the corner of his mouth tugged up in a goofy, uneven grin. John knew he was grinning back in the same stupid way. “Let’s just…not near the violent monster trees,” Rodney suggested.
John pressed forward and gave him another quick kiss before getting to his feet. “Probably a sane idea.” He rolled his shoulders and his spine popped. Crappy cave walls never provided good back support. “I think I deserve a drink for this one.”
Rodney laughed and John helped him to his feet. They walked back toward the village, the Gate, and home. As they came closer to the village and farther from the forest, the temperature rose from chilly to cool. The few villagers hurrying back and forth through town shot them wary looks as they passed. When John saw his reflection in the panes of a window as they passed it, he saw why – hair stuck up in every direction, face streaked with dirt. His shirt was sliced across the chest, hanging open to reveal a cut across his pectorals to match the one on his left arm. He looked like hell but the expression on his reflection was smug, unsurprisingly so considering he’d just won a tussle with Audrey II. That was more than he could say for Seymour in the original ending.
When they walked into the empty bar, the place was exactly as empty as it had been the last time they’d come there. From behind the counter, the bartender looked up, blinking at them in surprise.
“You’re not dead,” he observed.
John helped Rodney up to the counter and dropped out a couple coins from his pocket. “Not today,” he said levelly. “And I’m not planning on it anytime soon, so two drinks.”
After they’d returned alive, the bartender proved much more verbose than he had at the beginning. It turned out that the villagers kept the deadly trees at bay in cooler months with the torches surrounding their settlement. In the summer months, the trees seemed to hibernate and the villagers cut them down for wood (like the barkeep’s countertop), fuel, and, John’s best guess, revenge for being such assholes. Never mind that that was kind of creepy itself since they could kind of talk. John wasn’t particularly inclined to sympathize with the things after they’d nearly taken off his head and taken off with his brand new boyfriend.
After that, they limped back to the Gate to head home ahead of schedule. The botanists were even a little too sorry for what had happened, but then maybe they were just trying to duck the SGA-1 team’s anger for having written a pretty shabby field report in the first place. Ronon and Teyla, anyway, were in agreement that solo missions were probably not the wisest idea for the two Earthers. John didn’t take their perceived field superiority too seriously, though. Ronon and Teyla were worriers and once they got it out of their systems, they’d cool back down. John just snagged Rodney after their check-up, check-in, and round of contrite Sorrys from the botany lab.
He hooked his collar and they hobbled up to John’s bedroom together, where John showed Rodney just how creative he could be with all the accoutrements they hadn’t had camping out in a cave. As for camping itself, they both agreed that they could do without that anytime in the near future. It was all for the best, John guessed, since it looked like Ronon and Teyla had grounded them.