torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
September - November 2006

Disclaimer: They were never mine. This story was written for the Duet Press zine Surfacing. Editorial work by elynross and by Stormy of DP; all errors are, of course, mine. Do not archive without permission.

Heart of glass

The people of Lob Arabha were very friendly and very affectionate. The adults held hands or wrapped their arms around each other as they talked; the children expected hugs and pets from everyone as their due. Rodney, elbow-deep in the guts of an old library viewing console, bared his teeth at the little girl hanging off his right shoulder, and got his head patted. Her fingers were sticky. "You look funny," she said.

"Yes, well." So do you was probably not the right answer, particularly since it wasn't true; the people of Lob Arabha were beautiful as well as friendly, and this obnoxious little tot would undoubtedly grow up into a white-blonde, copper-skinned bombshell like her mother and aunt, both of whom were probably off being friendly and affectionate and beautiful in the vicinity of Colonel Sheppard. "I happen to be— Oh no, don't touch that."

"You need a hand here, McKay?" Ronon scooped up the little girl and tossed her into the air.

"Yes, thank you for noticing," Rodney said, not quite as caustically as he might have. Without the extra weight dragging on his arm, he could wriggle his right hand in behind the old battery stack and hook up the last wire. Then he wriggled his hand out again and got up, rubbing at the small of his back. He pushed the triangular button on the left side of the console, and the cracked screen flickered once, twice, and then lit up a soft orange. "It works. The rewards of persistence. And genius, of course."

Ronon tucked the happily squealing little girl under one arm and leaned over Rodney's shoulder. "So what is it?"

Rodney scrolled through the file structure. "How should I know? Books, records, what would you expect from a library— Hello."

"What?" Ronon leaned closer, and the little girl grabbed hold of Rodney's ear.

"This is different, this is something in Ancient — let go, you diminutive menace — and it's, well. Ancient." Rodney tapped another button. "I'll have to work out a way to get this on my laptop."

"You think it's something useful?"

Rodney shrugged. "Without reading the whole document, which appears to be longer than War and Peace, oh, never mind, but that's the word for Atlantis and that's the word for secret, so I think it would be irresponsible not to find out." His stomach rumbled. "What time is it? Didn't they say they were going to bring me some food?"

"I'm hungry," the little girl said, yanking at Ronon's hair instead.

"Yeah, me too," Ronon said. "Let's go get something to eat." He lifted the girl up onto his shoulder and walked off.

"Tell them to bring me something!" Rodney shouted after him. "And water!" He dug into his pocket for half a squished power bar and sat down to figure out how to hook up his laptop to a jury-rigged alien library console.

He was hoping for someone beautiful and friendly and curvy to bring him food, but what he got was Sheppard, who wasn't anyone's definition of curvy and looked cranky enough that the friendly part seemed mostly theoretical, too. Cranky was an unfairly good look on him, though. Sheppard plunked down a bottle and a waxed-paper package on the table next to Rodney's discarded tac vest. "Ronon said you found something."

Rodney picked up the bottle. The label was orange and had a picture of a mouse holding a pink flower. The drink inside was blue and fizzy-looking. When he opened the bottle, it fizzed out over his fingers. "Oh, great." Sheppard handed him a napkin. "I found some kind of text in Ancient. I'm not sure what it is, but I thought I might as well bring it back for Elizabeth to look at."

"Oh." Sheppard looked faintly disappointed.

Inside the waxed paper was a sloppy bread pocket stuffed full of grilled meat and half-melted cheese and fried wheat-like grain and something that looked a bit like sprouts, only purple. Rodney stared in awe and admiration for a moment, then took a big bite. Cheese and hot sauce dripped on his fingers. "This is amazing," he said indistinctly. "Can we trade for this?"

"Sure," Sheppard said, relaxing a little. "We'll ask them to set up a snack stall in the gateroom."

Rodney swallowed. "We could come here for lunch," he said. The purple things didn't taste like much, but they added a pleasant crunch. "I mean, now and then. Senior staff, business lunch kind of thing." He tried the blue fizzy drink next, but it was bland and a little perfumey, so clearly the local fast food industry still had a way to go.

"There you are, Colonel Sheppard!"

Rodney turned his head and saw that three of the beautiful, friendly people had arrived, but obviously they weren't here for his sake. Crof, the short woman who led the Lob Arabha council, came up to Sheppard and smiled blindingly, and her cousin Jerek, who apparently made up for not being curvy by being twice as beautiful and three times as friendly, put an arm around Sheppard's shoulders and started talking about close ties and long-term relations until Rodney made a mental note to check that Sheppard hadn't actually married anyone before they left, curvy or not. Not that Sheppard looked all that marriage-minded; he did one of those little non-stick-coating shrugs and slid away from that arm like he was made of Teflon.

Crof's taller sister Anf came over and leaned against Rodney's shoulder, though, and when he turned his head some very noticeable curves were practically in his face. He jerked back a little, and she wrapped her arm around his neck and leaned forward even more, looking at the library console screen. "Oh, it's the chronicle of Derni!"

"Is it?" Rodney tried to figure out what to do with his arm, which was squished in between them. "I mean, it is?" He drew a deep breath through his nose. "I mean, what's the chronicle of Derni?"

"This is," Anf said, reaching out and trailing a finger across the screen. "It almost seems meant to be."

"That's right, they're from the city of the Ancestors," Crof said. "It would only be right if—"

"It would be what she wanted," Jerek agreed.

Anf straightened up, unwinding herself from Rodney. He watched her go with regret; she'd felt so good, warm and soft and at ease in a way that made his palms sweat. It had been a long time since anyone had touched him for longer than a second or two, and he'd take what he could get, since it didn't seem likely he would get what he wanted. She went to rummage around in a glass-fronted display case, and then she turned around with something flat and rectangular and clear in her hand that looked like — no, that was a data storage crystal. "This is the chronicle of Derni," she said. "You should bring it back to the city of the Ancestors."

"Okay," Sheppard said slowly, in the kind of voice reserved for talking to telemarketers and Genii representatives. "And what exactly is the chronicle of Derni?"

"Derni was one of the Ancestors," Jerek said, putting a hand in the small of Sheppard's back to lead him over to where Rodney was sitting. Sheppard moved forward a bit more briskly, ahead of the touch. "The beloved of the founder of our society, Rabh. She ended her days here in Lob Arabha, and wrote down the tale of her life before she ascended."

"You should bring her words back to the city of her birth," Crof said, and then grinned and added, "It's not like we can use that disk in our readers, anyway. One of our librarians managed to import the text many years ago, but our system is completely different."

"Yes," Rodney agreed. "And not in the way where it's better, either. But at least now it works."

Anf handed Sheppard the crystal. He turned it over in his hands until it caught the light in a spark of bright refraction, and then passed it on to Rodney. Rodney pushed the crystal into a pocket of his tac vest, waited to see if Anf would lean up against him again, and then reached for the bread and meat and cheese instead.

They had to hunt for Ronon among the low white-washed and grey houses of Lob Arabha, and pry him loose from eleven children who all wanted him to swing them around or fly them above his head like birds. Teyla came back from her tour of the orchards and grazing meadows and cottage industries carrying a cloth bag full of sample boxes, an odd combination of metals and cheese and fresh fruit. Rodney brought his bottle of blue fizzy drink all the way into the debriefing and put it on the table, then picked it up again at Elizabeth's look and shoved a notebook underneath it as a coaster. "I take it everything went well?" she said.

"The people of Lob Arabha are very friendly," Teyla said, and Rodney snorted. She went on to talk about fruit and mining and trade concessions, and Rodney started outlining a plan in his laptop to improve the range of the long-range sensors, only looking up when he realized Elizabeth was talking to him, now.

"What? Yes, very friendly. Very friendly and," his hand sketched a curve in the air, "friendly." Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "Not very technologically advanced, though, compared to Atlantis," Rodney went on quickly. "I repaired a few things for them as a goodwill gesture, but they don't have anything much to offer us in that respect. They don't seem to be all that interested in complex technology. Oh, and I got you a present."

He pulled the data crystal out of his pocket and handed it to Elizabeth, who turned it over in her hands with a bemused expression. "That was nice of you, Rodney. I think."

"The locals called it the chronicle of Derni," Sheppard said.

"An Ancient who wrote about her life in Atlantis, apparently." Rodney sipped his fizzy drink and found it wasn't fizzy any more. "I thought you could take a look at it and see if there's anything useful in there. Maybe she made ZPMs in her spare time."

"I see. So by present, you mean work." But Elizabeth was smiling a little, and Rodney knew she wouldn't be able to resist. "Anything else?"

"No, that's pretty much it. I think Lorne and his team can take over the negotiations in Lob Arabha," Sheppard said. He looked less cranky now, leaning back in his chair with a relaxed air. It was a better look on him than cranky had been. "More their kind of thing, and you know Parrish is going to want to look at the orchards anyway."

Rodney spent the next couple of days in his lab, going over other people's reports and correcting Papadopolous's math and Simpson's abysmal grammar, and trying to fake an interest in anthropology long enough to see if the anthropologists were actually doing anything useful or just spending all that time with the Athosians on an extended camping trip. Wilson had left a bag of expensive equipment behind in the forest of blue-furred monkeys on M3R-438 and when he went back it wasn't there any more, surprise surprise, and someone who was apparently convinced that Rodney's official job title was janitor kept leaving him notes about the malfunctioning toilet next to the mess hall. He was considering falling off his chair and dying of either annoyance or boredom when Zelenka lifted his head from a console and said something that included the words "mysterious small power drain."

Rodney jumped up. "We should look into that. It could be something serious."

"It doesn't look very serious," Zelenka said, pointing to the console screen.

Rodney shook his head. "Yes, well. It could get serious. If we don't investigate. Come on. Where are we going?"

They were going to one of the highest towers, it turned out, and when they got there Rodney saw that it was one of the places that had taken more than a bit of damage when the Wraith attacked the city. Stepping out of the transporter, he felt a cold wind breathe around his neck and wrists, trying to climb in under his clothes. He tugged his sleeves down.

"Mind the broken glass," Zelenka said. "This way, I believe." They went up a half-flight of stairs, keeping a good distance from the blown-out windows. The walls were a dreary shade of pale blue that reminded Rodney of his least favorite dentist's office. At the top of the stairs they got to a set of large double doors that started to slide apart at their approach, then stuck with a grating noise.

Zelenka went to the door controls, but Rodney shook his head. "The frame's warped," he said. He gave the left half of the door an experimental push, and it moved a couple of inches. "Maybe we can get one of the larger marines to come up here."

"Maybe you can push a little harder," Zelenka suggested, coming up next to Rodney and putting his hands against the edge of the door, too.

They got the door to move, inch by screeching inch, until they had a gap wide enough for them to slip through. Zelenka went through first, and then he just stopped and stood there until Rodney shoved him out of the way. "Yes, yes, there's no need to..." Rodney trailed off and looked around.

He'd known from the schematics that this was a large semicircular hall, but actually seeing it was different. They were standing at the center of the room's only wall, a straight stretch of dark grey metal, and all the rest was windows — a long shining curve of colored glass, panes of pale blue and dark blue and deep green and smoky grey and milky white, and here and there a pane where the glass wasn't colored but wavy or frosted or filled with tiny bubbles. Five dark grey metal steps led from the doors down to the smooth black floor. On each side of the hall was a group of three slender pillars, floor to ceiling, made of some translucent material that also looked like glass.

"Extraordinary," Zelenka said, pushing his glasses up. "This must be very strong glass."

Only a few panes were broken, at the top right-hand corner. It was enough to let the cold breeze in, of course, and Rodney clapped his hands together briskly. "So, power drain," he said. "What's drawing the power?"

"The doors?" Zelenka looked back. "That seems unlikely."

Rodney started to scan the room for energy signatures. "I don't see anything. Are you sure we're in the right place?"

Zelenka huffed with indignation, and eventually radioed to the lab to get Kusanagi to double-check the monitor. "I don't see anything," Kusanagi said, and Zelenka huffed again.

"Well." Rodney squinted at the pillars. Delicate sigils were etched in a spiraling pattern from floor to ceiling on each of them, like a fall of jagged little snowflakes. "Clearly disaster isn't about to strike at the moment."

"I told you it wasn't very serious," Zelenka said.

"Maybe what we have is a glitch in the system." Rodney walked back towards the door. "You should check for that."

"Oh, thank you, because I have nothing else to do." Zelenka went sideways through the gap in the door, Rodney followed him, and they headed down to the transporter, glass crunching under their feet, arguing cheerfully about whose turn it was to go get the coffee.

When they came back, they ran into Elizabeth, who had been talking to Carson and the botanists, and was eating one of the Lob Arabha fruits and probably didn't expect anyone to see her doing it. "Full of vitamins," she said, wiping her chin apologetically with the back of her hand, and Zelenka smiled fatuously and fished a crumpled cotton handkerchief out of his pocket. "Or so they tell me. Thank you. Oh, and Rodney, I was just reading about your Derni this morning."

"Yes?" Rodney decided to go past botany later and see if they had any more fruit to hand out. "Does she have anything interesting to say about naquadah deposits, or maybe why the toilet by the mess hall keeps backing up?"

Elizabeth wiped her mouth more daintily. "Not so far, no. Mostly what I've made out is that she seems to have felt that Rabh and his people were entirely too touchy-feely for her taste."

"Well, she might have a point there," Sheppard said, coming up behind Zelenka. "I thought for a minute they were going to make us all link arms and have a sing-along before we could leave."

"Huh." Rodney rubbed his fingers together; they still felt cold. "I thought she was Rabh's girlfriend, the way they kept calling her his beloved."

"Maybe she didn't belove him back." Sheppard turned to Elizabeth. "I'm going to the mainland to get the anthropologists, and Teyla's coming along to stay there for a while and talk to Halling about the new Athosian trading ventures. Do you want to come, too, and set up the schedule for when they'll be using the gate?"

"I suppose Teyla could take care of it," Elizabeth said, twisting the fruit pit into a corner of Zelenka's handkerchief.

Sheppard grinned at her. It was a really, really good look on him. "Come on, you need to get out of the city now and then," he said. "If anything blows up, Rodney can handle it — right?" He cocked an eyebrow at Rodney.

"Right," Rodney said, a bit hollowly. "Yes, of course, no problem."

"If anything blows up, Rodney might be behind it," Elizabeth said, but she grinned back. "All right, I'm coming." She and Sheppard took two steps towards the transporter, and then she stopped and came back and handed the handkerchief to Zelenka. "Thank you."

Zelenka looked at the closing transporter doors, and down at the handkerchief and fruit pit in his hand. "Life is entirely unfair," he said. He turned towards the lab. "Let us find out why the monitoring system is inventing power drains, then."

"Some of us don't have time to run off to the mainland all the time," Rodney agreed. "I'm just going to have a word with botany first."

Botany gave Rodney three pieces of guaranteed non-citrus fruit to talk him out of sitting on Parrish's desk and making himself at home for the rest of the afternoon. He felt magnanimous enough to pass one of the fruits on to Radek after they failed, separately and together, to find anything wrong with the energy-level monitoring subroutines. When the anthropologists came back, two of them were wearing Athosian shirts and one had a beard. Rodney didn't even get halfway through everything he had to say about that before they slunk off to change.

"I thought Meyer looked good in beige, with the, the embroidered things, ruffles," Zelenka said. "Very—" He lifted a hand to his radio. "Yes, what?"

Sheppard thought some of the jumper's responses were "kinda sluggish, if you know what I mean," so Zelenka trotted off to the jumper bay, waving off all offers of assistance, and Rodney went to have an early dinner. He met Teyla in the mess hall, and got her perspective on what the Athosians thought of the anthropologists, as opposed to the other way around, which pretty much confirmed the camping trip theory, as far as Rodney was concerned. Leaving the mess hall, he stopped to put an OUT OF ORDER sign on the bathroom door.

Back in the lab, he stared at the logs for a while, thinking about power drains and error messages and not at all about unnecessary and frivolous mainland trips, and then he had an idea about a better way of sorting through the information from all the city-wide monitoring processes, and the next time he looked up he had three empty coffee mugs by his elbow and everyone else had left. Rodney leaned back in his chair and stretched, feeling the pull in his stomach muscles. His spine felt at least an inch shorter than it had been that morning, and since no one was there to see, he got up and bent in half, slumping forward and feeling the tug on his vertebrae, poking idly at his toes through his shoes. He straightened up again slowly to avoid the head rush, looked at his computer screen, and then shook his head decisively.

Atlantis was very quiet at this time of night. Rodney knew there was a skeleton staff in the gateroom, a few soldiers and a few civilians, not so much a night shift as a human alarm system, since the galaxy never slept and neither did the Wraith, but elsewhere the hallways were empty and silent, the lights dim. He put his brain on autopilot and headed for his quarters.

The living quarters area felt cold, and Rodney made a mental note to check the environmental controls in the morning. Everything in Atlantis was a patch job, with so many parts of the city sealed off for various reasons, ruined by the sea or bombed by the Wraith — it was like living in a very pretty, high-tech war zone. He turned a corner and caught a glimpse of something moving, a shadow hiding in a shadow. Rodney dropped his notebooks before he saw and recognized the stance, that particular set of shoulders and cocked hips, that line of jaw and, well, and so on. "Don't do that," he snapped, scrambling to pick his things up again. "You could scare someone, sneaking up on them in the dark like that, not that I was scared, but—" Rodney paused. "Colonel?"

When he didn't get an answer, he marched over into the shadowy half of the hallway where some of the lights seemed to have gone out, yet another thing for his mental to-do list. Sheppard was walking slowly, close to the wall, heading deeper into the darkness. Rodney stopped him by the simple expedient of prodding him in the small of the back with a pencil; Sheppard looked back over his shoulder, and for a moment his eyes were all shadow, too. Then he blinked and said, "Hey, Rodney."

"Your quarters are the other way," Rodney said.

"Yeah. I just." Sheppard scrubbed at his hair. "I was just going for a walk." He turned around. "What are you doing up so late?"

"I was working," Rodney said. "Keeping the city running, keeping us all alive, that kind of thing. You know Carson would probably give you a sleeping pill if you asked, right?"

Sheppard stared at him blankly for a moment. Then he said, "I don't have trouble sleeping."

"Oh, right, of course not, you're just going for a walk in the middle of the night for absolutely no reason," Rodney said, and then a possible reason hit him, like wet snow falling off a roof. "Unless you do have a reason, and that really wouldn't be any of my business, even if you really are sleeping with Elizabeth the way Radek worries you are, and how about we just forget this conversation and I'm going to go off to bed now. Alone."

"Jesus, Rodney," Sheppard said, staring at him some more, looking fully alert now. He turned around and started walking Rodney back along the hallway. "Yeah, I think you should definitely go to bed." He escorted Rodney all the way to his door, and watched him palm it open. "Get some sleep," he said, turning away, as if Rodney was the one who'd been found wandering around shadowy hallways, acting strange. The door started to close, and Rodney barely caught the next few words: "And I'm not sleeping with Elizabeth."

Rodney put an extra blanket on his bed and slept like the dead for six hours. He dreamed that all the keys on his laptop were made of glass, blue and green.

The next morning, while they were leaning on the railings in the gateroom, waiting, Elizabeth said, "I've been reading some more about Derni. It's quite interesting, actually. I'm hoping this narrative will throw some light on Ascension."

"Very funny," Rodney said. "When you say interesting, is there any hope that there's something I would find interesting?"

Elizabeth smiled, and then the gate activated and Lorne's team came back from Lob Arabha, all of them carrying bags full of fruit and vegetables, like they'd just been on a shopping trip to the farmers' market. Apparently the people of Lob Arabha were still being very, very friendly. "They really want Colonel Sheppard to come back, though," Lorne said. "They like him. And they had something they wanted him to touch."

"I just bet they did," Rodney said, not quite under his breath. It wasn't an uncommon reaction.

Lorne flashed him a grin so fast it was almost subliminal, and went on, "And the kids were asking for Ronon."

"Well, I don't see why not," Elizabeth said. "I'll talk to the colonel after he gets back."

Rodney frowned. "Back?"

"He's giving flying lessons to Martinez and Bohr." Lorne offered Elizabeth a fruit from the bag at his feet. Rodney cleared his throat pointedly, and Lorne pulled out a bottle of the blue fizzy drink with the mouse on the label. "They said you liked this. Oh, and they want the empties back for recycling."

Elizabeth walked with Rodney towards the lab. "Are you very busy this morning?"

"I'm always very busy," Rodney said cautiously.

"I was hoping we could take a look at Derni's," Elizabeth hesitated, "laboratory. Or art gallery."

"Oh, I think I'm definitely too busy for an art gallery," Rodney said. "But a lab, that has potential. Unless it's the kind with lethal nanoviruses just lying around. What was she working on?"

"It's the same place. At least, I think it's the same place, it's just the way she refers to it that changes. Derni worked on a number of things during her time in Atlantis, including the stasis pods, but she also took an interest in art, especially right before she left the city. I thought it might be interesting to see what she left behind."

When they stepped into the lab, Zelenka was leaning over the same console as the day before, frowning. He leaned forward close enough that his nose was almost touching the screen. Rodney hurried over. "You're not resetting anything, are you? I made some changes to the system last night."

"There was another power drain this morning." Zelenka caught sight of Elizabeth behind Rodney and pushed his glasses up. "In the same place."

"But there's nothing there," Rodney said, pushing in so he could see the screen, too. "Maybe we really were looking in the wrong place to start with. All these towers look the same, it would be just my luck."

Elizabeth cleared her throat and leaned in next to Rodney. "There's a power drain here?" She pointed at the schematic on the screen. "F 184-16? I think that might be my fault."

Rodney and Zelenka both turned to look at her; Zelenka said it. "How?"

"This is Derni's lab, or art gallery. I looked it up in the database when I started reading about it, because I wanted to know where it was."

"Yesterday," Rodney said. "Before you went to the mainland. You said you'd been reading about her."

Elizabeth nodded. "And again this morning, because I was planning to ask you to come with me and look at it."

"That explains it." Rodney frowned. "Actually, that doesn't explain it. You didn't tell the system to do anything, did you?"

"No."

"It could be automated," Zelenka put in. "If it is an art gallery, perhaps there is a, a routine to prepare for visitors."

Rodney frowned harder. "But we went there and there was nothing, I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but there was absolutely nothing interesting there."

Zelenka looked thoughtful. "We don't know what it looked like before. And now there has been a second power surge. I think perhaps we should find out if anything has changed."

The stairs up from the transporter were still covered in broken glass. Elizabeth shivered and zipped up her jacket. "The view is beautiful," she said, picking her way carefully to one of the shattered windows, "but it doesn't feel like a very welcoming place, does it?"

"Don't fall out," Rodney suggested, and then, as Zelenka trailed after Elizabeth, "either one of you. Come on, this way." The double doors were still stuck halfway, just as far as Rodney and Zelenka had shouldered them open yesterday. Rodney pushed some more, then slipped through the gap. "Everything's still the same."

"So it is," Zelenka said, coming in behind him. "Dr. Weir, perhaps you were mistaken."

"Gentlemen, please," Elizabeth said, giving them each a firm push. She stepped through the doors and stopped at the edge of the topmost step, looking out over the semicircular hall and the sunlight trickling through the colored glass windows, quilting the floor with green and blue. "What a beautiful place."

She went down the steps and out on the black floor, and Zelenka followed her, of course. Rodney watched them go towards the curved glass window-wall, Zelenka gesturing about something or other and Elizabeth nodding, smiling a little. Zelenka turned back towards Rodney. "Are you just going to stand there?"

When Rodney stepped off the metal stairs and onto the smooth black floor, there was the faintest hiss of compressed air. Parts of the floor began to move, square and rectangular blocks rising from what had seemed to be a seamless surface; Zelenka had to jump out of the way as one piece rose right under his feet.

This was glass, too, large blocks of glass, some of them nearly two meters high, some of them nearly that wide. Clear, frosted, milky white and smoky grey and black, malachite, indigo, verdigris, lapis lazuli, cobalt blue and cobalt green, and viridian, as cold as the ice at the heart of a glacier. Rodney looked at the nearest block and saw a tree, the suggestion of a trunk and branches deep inside the opaque grey glass, some of the leaves reaching the surface and breaking free along one slightly concave side.

"It really is an art gallery," Elizabeth said, sounding delighted. "Look, this one's a bird."

"These are people," Zelenka said from behind a milk-white cube. "I think."

They all walked around and looked. Rodney touched the edges of a three-pointed leaf, a cat's claws, and wondered at the durability of this glass, unchipped, not so much as a scratch after ten thousand years. Most of the blocks showed plants, some showed animals, and only a few people; most of the people seemed to be moving deeper into the glass, disappearing in its depths, and a few were turned sideways as if caught in the steps of some slow and elaborate dance. In one block there was just the suggestion of an arm and a hand reaching out, fingertips barely pushing through the smooth, sea-green surface.

"Extraordinary work," Elizabeth said, tugging her sleeves down over her wrists. "If we can fix the broken windows to keep the wind out, I don't see any reason why we couldn't clear this gallery for everyone to visit. I haven't seen anything else like this — I didn't think the Ancients valued representational art."

Zelenka laid his hand against the one reaching out of the glass. "They remind me of Michelangelo's Prisoners," he said.

"Really?" Elizabeth tilted her head to one side. "Those always made me think of frustration, all that chained power. Everything in here is so calm."

"Trapped," Zelenka argued. "It is true there is no struggle here, but the sense of something locked down, unable to, to be..."

Rodney tuned them out and started looking for the mechanism that raised and presumably lowered the blocks. Air didn't compress itself, after all. Elizabeth must have primed the machinery earlier, and Rodney's ATA gene had triggered it when he stepped down on the floor. Probably the control mechanism was underneath, in a gap between two blocks. He went toward the back wall to see if he could get a better view from up on the steps, but as soon as he stepped off the floor the glass blocks sank down again as soundlessly as they had risen.

"Rodney," Elizabeth said reproachfully.

Zelenka crouched down and brushed his fingers along the floor. "If I didn't know, I wouldn't be able to see it," he said. "Amazing, after ten thousand years — no dust, no sand. Can you bring them up again?"

"This gallery seems to be ATA-gene operated only, no exceptions," Rodney said. "Look out." He stepped back down on the floor, and the blocks rose again in slow smooth silence. "I don't think there's any point in clearing this place for general access unless we can rig an on switch for the artwork."

"I suppose you're right," Elizabeth said. She brushed her fingers across the nearest block of glass, following a trail of fallen flower petals. "I'd appreciate it if you could come up with something—" She held her hand up before Rodney could speak. "Yes, I know you have more important things to do. Just keep it in mind for when you do have time. I think people would appreciate seeing a more personal side of the Ancients."

"We will work on it," Zelenka said. He looked sideways. "And perhaps the windows could be mended."

Rodney shook his head. "We can't even keep up with repairs in the areas we're actually using. And this glass isn't like anything I've ever seen before. I'm not sure we can fix it with our current technology." He turned to Elizabeth. "Although if Derni turns out to have written anything about the process, any actual lab notes—"

"I'll keep reading." Elizabeth smiled a little wryly. "When I have the time. Right now, I should probably get back to my office."

All three of them went back up the steps, and the blocks of glass vanished into the floor behind them. At the door, Zelenka stopped. "Wait," he said, and hurried back down and over to the far right, where he bent and picked something up. When he came back, he held a few shards of the glass from the windows in the palm of his hand. "For studying."

Sheppard came into the lab in the afternoon and propped one hip on Rodney's desk; he still wasn't curvy, but he looked mostly friendly, and Rodney resigned himself to the fact that he might be able to write a ten-page paper, with illustrations, on all the ways in which Sheppard's features deviated from common standards of regularity and beauty, but that didn't change anything about what he saw when he looked at the man. He would probably always think Sheppard was beautiful.

"Congratulations, you can fly in a straight line," Sheppard said.

Rodney kept his eyes on his laptop screen. "I can?"

"Well, compared to Martinez." Sheppard ran a hand through his hair. "I think I'll get someone else to do the driver's ed next time."

Rodney tipped back in his chair and cracked his neck; when he turned his head he caught sight of what Simpson was writing on the whiteboard. "No, no. No, for the love of — you can't just pretend the planetary gravity field doesn't exist—"

Simpson glared over her shoulder. "I'm not! I'm just saying, if we posit a constant—"

"Yes, but that's not going to work—"

"Yes, it is! Give that back!"

After a spirited tussle for the red marker, Rodney turned back to his desk to see Sheppard playing with something, turning it over and over between his fingers; when it caught the light, almost dazzling Rodney with a blue reflex, he saw that it was one of the pieces of glass Zelenka had brought back from the art gallery. "Listen," Rodney said, "about Lob Arabha—"

Sheppard stood up and dropped the piece of glass on the desk. His face turned stark and sculptural, stripped of all human warmth. "I have to go," he said, and did.

Rodney glared at the place where Sheppard wasn't any longer, just on general principle, and then he turned to pick up the piece of glass. There was a spider web of white across its smooth blue surface, and if it had cracked from being dropped onto the desk, this glass wasn't anywhere near as interesting as Zelenka had hoped. Rodney bent to get a closer look. Those fine white lines didn't look like cracks, exactly. He touched the glass with one finger and felt chilled to the bone. When he lifted his hand again, his fingertip looked white.

"Radek!" he said, then turned around. Zelenka was at the other end of the lab. Rodney stuck his hand in his armpit and looked around for something, anything, to take power readings with. He turned back towards the shard of glass, and the frost was gone as though it had never been there.

Rodney reached out again. This time, the glass felt no cooler than glass always did at room temperature.

"Yes?" Zelenka popped up next to him. "You shouted?"

"I think we should take a closer look at this glass," Rodney said.

Six hours later, the sum total of their knowledge about the piece of blue glass was pretty much that it was a piece of blue glass, and when Zelenka made it clear that he was leaving the lab and not planning on coming back until he'd slept at least once and eaten at least twice, Rodney just nodded. Zelenka headed for the mess hall, and Rodney went along. The OUT OF ORDER sign on the bathroom was still there, but had picked up some additional graffiti. Rodney scribbled a threatening comment of his own before going into the mess hall and getting a plate of reheated yellow and orange root veggie casserole with roasted nuts and onions on top, and some of the fresh fruit from Lob Arabha.

They sat down with Elizabeth, who was nursing a mug of coffee in a back corner. She nodded a welcome to them both, and then her eyes sharpened on Rodney. "Nine tomorrow morning, remember?"

"Yes, I remember," Rodney said, picking up his fork. "Possibly because you radioed me about it twice." He stabbed at the casserole. "And sent an email."

"Well, sometimes I'm not quite sure you're paying attention." Elizabeth's mouth curled up on one side.

Zelenka looked from Rodney to Elizabeth and back again. "You're going back to Lob Arabha?"

"Yes," Rodney said through a mouthful of overcooked orange goop. "Tomorrow morning at nine Atlantis time, which is noon in Lob Arabha, two teams, one jumper, to pick up more fruit and watch the locals try to be touchy-feely with the colonel again."

"I don't think I put it quite like that," Elizabeth said, but she was still smiling. "And weren't you the one who wanted to do a more in-depth investigation of their fast food industry?"

"Not really," Rodney said, and put more salt on his orange goop. "I just wanted to go there for lunch again."

After dinner, Rodney went back to his quarters and thought about writing a paper that would revolutionize Earth physics and blow the minds of all Earth scientists. While he thought about it, he played seventeen games of four-suit spider solitaire. When he was about to start the eighteenth game, he had an urge to go and take another look at the piece of blue glass instead. There had to be something there, something he was missing.

He closed his laptop and got up. Leaving his quarters, he realized that he'd forgotten to look into the broken lights. Some parts of the hallway were definitely darker than they should be. Rodney walked on towards the transporter until he felt a prickling at the back of his neck, a shiver, like a cold breath.

When he turned around he saw Sheppard leaning against the wall, in the shadows, all in black limned with white.

Rodney waved an accusing hand at him. "You have to stop this," he said, "this, this sneaking up on people and, and lounging at them. What are you doing here, anyway?"

"I live here."

"You don't live out here in the hallway." Rodney looked around. "Although, if you do, can't you get the lights to work properly?"

"I've just been for a walk," Sheppard said, his voice like a snowfall in the dark.

"What, to the north pole?"

Sheppard stared at him. "No. Around Atlantis. Look, are you feeling a bit overworked or something? Maybe you should talk to Heightmeyer."

Rodney stepped closer and tried to look at things rationally. The air wasn't any colder here. He couldn't see any frost in Sheppard's hair, no white ice crystals caught in the seams of his black shirt. Rodney reached out to touch Sheppard's arm, but Sheppard was already moving away, saying over his shoulder, "Don't forget about the mission tomorrow."

Rodney went back to his quarters and played another fifteen games of solitaire. When he went to bed, he put two extra blankets on his bed. He dreamed that his laptop keys were made of glass and splintered when he touched them, cutting his fingers to the bone.

The next morning, after breakfast and a game of steal-the-French-toast that Ronon won through unfair intimidation tactics, Rodney went into Elizabeth's office and rapped his knuckles on the inside of the glass wall. "About Lob Arabha," he said.

Elizabeth looked up. "Aren't you supposed to be in the jumper bay? I thought we agreed it wasn't necessary to have a mission briefing this time, since you've all been there before."

"Yes, yes." Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "I just wanted to ask you if you'd been reading more, and if there's anything in Derni's text that talks about why she and Rabh left Atlantis."

"No, not so far," Elizabeth said, but she did sit back and give Rodney a second, sharper look. "Do you think it could be important?"

"I don't know. No." Rodney sighed. "Yes."

"Pick one," Elizabeth suggested, but her eyes were taking him seriously. "By all reports, the people of Lob Arabha seem to be genuinely friendly."

"Yes. Very, very friendly." Rodney paced across the room. "Extremely friendly, which isn't really the point, and also they live in a society that was founded by an Ancient, and where one other Ancient who was known for her technological inventions lived, but they have almost no advanced technology."

"You think they're lying about Rabh and Derni? They did have the data crystal."

"I'd like to know why Rabh and Derni ended up there," Rodney said. "Everyone in Atlantis is working on ascension like eager little Ancient beavers, and those two, what, just pack up and move to their summer home? It doesn't make sense."

"Maybe you can ask the locals about it," Elizabeth suggested. "I'll look into things here, if I have the time. And now I think you should hurry."

Rodney didn't exactly hurry, he walked at a brisk but dignified pace, but he checked the pockets of his tac vest on the way to the jumper bay, and he was ready to go the moment he walked in. Lorne and his team were geared up and ready, and so were Teyla and Ronon, standing by the open jumper. "Good, you are here. Now we are merely waiting for Colonel Sheppard," Teyla said.

"Well, maybe someone should tell him to hurry up and not keep people waiting for him," Rodney said and tapped his radio. "Colonel? Could you stop admiring your hair in the bathroom mirror and join the rest of us?"

There was an unexpectedly long pause. Then Sheppard's voice came over the radio. "Doesn't look like it, no."

"What?"

"I have a bit of a problem," Sheppard said. "My bathroom door won't open."

Rodney blinked. "You locked yourself in the bathroom? Every piece of technology in the city rolls over for you, and you locked yourself in the bathroom? How did you even manage to do that? I thought the bathrooms in Atlantis were almost completely idiot-proof. Did you wake up on the stupid side of the bed this morning?"

"I didn't do anything! The door just won't — look, do you want to mock me about this, or do you want to get me out of here?"

"Both, of course," Rodney said, surprised. He started to walk towards the jumper bay doors. "I'll be there in five minutes."

"Wait," Elizabeth broke in over the radio. "Rodney, wait. I don't think Colonel Sheppard is in any immediate danger in the bathroom—" There was a muffled sound behind Rodney, and when he looked back over his shoulder, he saw a suspicious twitch at the corner of Lorne's mouth. "—and I'm sure someone else will be able to get him out. But since we don't know how long that will take, I think the mission to Lob Arabha should go ahead as planned, and the colonel can join you later."

Rodney turned around and started back again. "So we just tell the nice people that the colonel is taking a really long potty break?"

"I'm sure you'll think of something," Elizabeth said firmly, over Sheppard's indignant protests and threats.

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne said, and they all trooped into the jumper. There was a bit of a scuffle over who got to ride shotgun, which Rodney won by virtue of mission seniority and better elbow technique, and then they were off.

The people of Lob Arabha were as friendly and beautiful as ever, but they looked a bit disappointed, counting the seven people coming out of the jumper and looking for the eighth. "Colonel Sheppard isn't with you?" Crof said.

"No, he had some personal business to take care of," Lorne said, at the same time as Rodney said, "No, he locked himself in the— Ow!"

Teyla glared at them both impartially, and then smiled at Crof. "The colonel is a little delayed," she said. "He will join us later."

Lorne supervised the loading of the jumper, Parrish drifted off with Anf in the direction of the orchards, and Crof's daughter attached herself to Ronon. Rodney went up to Jerek and grabbed him by the arm before he could vanish on some errand or other. "Look, I need to ask you a couple of questions."

Lob Arabha culture being what it was, Jerek's reaction to being grabbed was to put his arm around Rodney's shoulders and fall into step beside him. "Whatever I can do to help," he said. "Is this about the price of the ilim fruit? I know it's a bit steep, but—"

"No. I mean, yes, it is, but no, that's not it," Rodney said. "It's about Derni." Jerek looked surprised. "When you gave us that crystal to take back to the city of the Ancestors, you said it was what she would have wanted." Jerek nodded. "Well, if she wanted to live in Atlantis, why was she here?"

"She came to live with Rabh," Jerek said. "She was his beloved. We have songs about the passion of Rabh for Derni, and everything he did to win her. And everything he did after he won her." Jerek chuckled; there was a slightly dirty edge to it. "All the games they played are celebrated among us."

"Yes, well. If you mean what I think you mean, I really don't want to hear about it." Rodney stopped by a low wall and looked out over a vista of fruit orchards and canals. "Why did Rabh live here in the first place? Why didn't he just stay in the city of the Ancestors with Derni, and try to win her there instead? It's got to be easier to get a date if you're at least on the same planet."

Jerek gave Rodney a sidelong look. "You have a questioning mind," he said. Rodney was just wondering if the secret underground hatch was about to open under his feet when he realized Jerek was smiling a little. "Not a lot of people study the history or ask the questions any more, but I did when I was a boy."

"Good for you," Rodney said. "So what's the answer?"

Jerek leaned in more comfortably, resting more of his weight on Rodney's shoulders. "Rabh disagreed with the other Ancestors about the path to ascension. He thought their way was too cold and full of renunciation, and eventually he came here to make his own studies and investigations. And when Derni came here, she studied the pillar of Rabh, and eventually she became convinced that he was right."

"But if she didn't think he was right to start with, why did she— Wait, wait. Pillar of Rabh. That's an actual object, something Rabh made?"

Jerek grinned. "Oh, yes." The tone of his voice was unmistakable as he went on, "That's what we wanted to show Colonel Sheppard, why we wanted him to come back. We thought perhaps he'd appreciate it properly."

"Well, now you can show it to me," Rodney said. At the look on Jerek's face, he went on, "Yes, yes, and to the colonel when he comes here, I'm sure it will be a cultural exchange highlight for him. Now tell me where it is."

"This way," Jerek said, tugging Rodney away from the wall and leading him down the road. "I'll show it to you." He gave Rodney another sideways look, in a considering sort of way, and Rodney almost stumbled over his own feet. "Yes. Why not?"

Rodney scanned for energy signatures on the way, but just as on his initial visit, he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. The road turned into more of a path, leading out through a gate in the boundary walls that Jerek shut very carefully behind them, and around the back of some very mundane warehouse-looking buildings, to a circle of stone columns that stood all by themselves in the short grass. A few sheep grazed around one column. "I thought you said pillar, not pillars," Rodney said.

Jerek slipped his arm from Rodney's shoulders and took him by the hand instead, and tugged him along through a gap between the columns, into the circle. "This is the pillar of Rabh," he said.

"Oh." Rodney looked up at it. The pillar of Rabh was made of red glass, a bright vermilion with deeper shades lurking just under the surface. It was about twice Rodney's height, and he doubted he and Jerek together could get their arms around it; the base was thick and sloped slightly outward. The pillar was smoothly made, but not quite symmetrical. The tip was thickly rounded but slightly uneven, flatter on one side, slightly flared on the other.

"What do you think?"

"The word over-compensation springs to mind," Rodney said. "This is what you wanted Colonel Sheppard to look at? Were you trying to give him a — not that I'm intimidated, of course, but there are many men who would—"

Jerek looked amused. "People who go to meditate by the pillar of Rabh are usually hoping for inspiration, not intimidation," he said.

Rodney rolled his eyes. He let go of Jerek's hand and checked for power signatures again: still nothing. "So Derni studied the pillar of Rabh, did she?"

"Very closely," Jerek assured him.

"Oh, that's just great," Rodney said. He took a couple of steps closer. "You know, I'm getting a whole new view of the Ancients— Hmmm."

From this distance, he could see that there were marks in the red glass, small sigils etched in spirals, very like those marks etched on the glass pillars in Derni's exhibition hall. Intrigued, Rodney went even closer. He thought he recognized some of the marks, but he hadn't made any notation of them.

When he was close enough, he put a hand out and traced the nearest curving line of sigils with his fingertips. There was a faint buzz, as if a bee were trapped inside the glass. The marks began to glow, at first just the sigil against his hand, and then all of them, one by one, lighting up like gate symbols.

The glow spread along every swirling line, suffusing the entire pillar with a red and orange glow that built and built, and the sigils began to wind in spirals around Rodney's fingers and up his arm and all along his body, fire and electricity. Far away and faintly he could hear Jerek shout something. His hair stood on end, his heart beat like a giant drum, he got painfully hard, and the intense buildup finally culminated in a blast of concussive force that sent him flying.

The grassy ground in the circle was pretty hard, too.

Rodney stared up at the sky, which was a shade more violet than he was used to. "Ow," he said. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, Teyla was bending over him.

"How do you feel?" she asked, putting one hand on his shoulder.

"I'm fine," Rodney said, although he probably said it a bit too loud, because his ears were still ringing. He tried to sit up and fell over to the right; Teyla caught him and steadied him. His ears were ringing, his skin was buzzing, and he turned his hands over curiously, looking for marks. "Where did they go?"

"Jerek came and told us that you had touched the pillar of Rabh and something strange had happened." Teyla looked more grave than usual. "Were there more people here?" She tucked her hair back behind her ears. "Was this an accident?"

"Yes." Rodney tapped the side of his head to see if the ringing would stop; it didn't. "Yes, and it wasn't even my accident. I think they meant it for the colonel."

"Can you stand up?" Teyla got to her feet and gave Rodney her hand, and tugged him upright; he swayed a bit. "I think we should return to Atlantis. Dr. Beckett will want to see you." She toggled her radio. "Major Lorne?"

Rodney looked at the pillar of Rabh. The glow had faded, and the sigils were barely visible. He staggered a couple of steps in that direction. Apart from being about to fall over, he felt like he could fly. And he was still really hard. "No wonder they wanted him to touch it," he muttered.

Teyla broke off her conference with Lorne and caught Rodney by one arm just before he went over face-first in the grass and the sheep droppings. "We are going back to the jumper," she said, slinging his arm around her shoulders and steering him out of the circle and onto the path.

"Okay," Rodney said. "Really, I feel fine." Then he passed out in an extremely tough and manly fashion.

The rest of their short time in Lob Arabha went by in swiftly whirling kaleidoscope glimpses: Teyla ordering people around, Crof and Jerek looking worried, more violet-tinged sky, Parrish with a basket of something green, a sheep trying to walk up the jumper ramp, Ronon pushing the sheep out and heaving Rodney inside. Rodney's head cleared a bit when the jumper lifted, and he tried to sit up on the bench.

"No, please, just lie down and rest," Teyla said, next to him.

"But I feel fine," Rodney said again, and then he tipped over, going face-first into Teyla's breasts. "Oh, God. You know I didn't mean to do that, right?"

Teyla laid him down on the bench again and quirked an eyebrow at him. "Under the circumstances, I believe you," she said. "Nevertheless, you will remain lying down until we get to Atlantis." Her eyes swept over him, and her eyebrow quirked even more; Rodney had a strong feeling his pants were a bit more revealing than they should be in places, but he couldn't really bring himself to care.

Beckett met them in the jumper bay with two nurses and a stretcher. "Now, Rodney, I'm sure we'll have you right as rain in no time."

Rodney eyed the stretcher and shook his head. "Really, Carson, you don't need that. Or maybe I mean that I don't need that. I feel fine."

"He keeps on saying that," Ronon said. "Then he falls over." He looked assessingly at Rodney. "Maybe he's got brain damage."

"I do not have brain damage," Rodney said, incensed. "My brain is a precision instrument. Trust me, I'd know if it were damaged. I'm just a little dizzy." Probably from all the blood in his body being busy somewhere other than his brain, but he wasn't about to go into that.

Beckett traded what he probably thought was a secret and significant look with Teyla, and the nurses pressed Rodney down on the stretcher and swept him off to the infirmary. Rodney started looking for sigils on his hands again. He felt as though the marks should still be there somewhere, but his hands and arms looked just like they always did. Once he got to the infirmary and was unloaded onto a bed, he sat up and tugged at the legs of his pants to see his calves.

Beckett cleared his throat. "Rodney?"

Rodney looked up. "Yes?"

"What are you doing?"

Rodney tugged his pants leg down again. "Nothing, nothing. Did I mention that I feel fine?"

"Aye, you did. I think we'll run a few tests just to be on the safe side."

The next few minutes were all nurses and needles and blood-pressure cuffs and test tubes and things being put on him and yanked off him. When the air cleared a bit around the bed, Rodney saw that Teyla had come to the infirmary, too, and was talking to Beckett. "The people of Lob Arabha said that touching the pillar had never harmed any of them," she said. "I do not believe they did this maliciously."

"I see. But they don't have the gene, do they?"

"Actually," Rodney said, sitting up on his bed and dangling his legs, "some of them probably do. I don't think celibacy was exactly one of Rabh's strong points."

"Perhaps not," Teyla agreed, straight-faced. "Did you say that Jerek had planned for Colonel Sheppard to touch the pillar?"

Rodney nodded. "That's what he told me. I think some of the friendly people of Lob Arabha were planning on being extra friendly with the colonel." He looked around. "Where is he, anyway? Shouldn't he have followed us? Don't tell me you haven't managed to get him out of the bathroom yet."

"Zelenka got him out." Beckett was frowning at something on a chart. "Then why did he not go to Lob Arabha?" Teyla looked around the infirmary with a new level of wariness. "Is there something wrong?"

Beckett looked up from the chart. "The gate wouldn't open."

"What?" Rodney slid off the bed and staggered drunkenly across the floor towards Beckett and Teyla. "I'm gone for two hours and you break the stargate! Carson, you have enough of my blood to bathe in, you don't need me here for that. Let me get back to the gateroom, and—"

"Rodney, sit down," Beckett said, catching Rodney by the arms and walking him backwards. "The gate's not broken. You just came through it ten minutes ago."

The bed hit Rodney mid-thigh, and he slumped down on it, almost taking Beckett down with him. "Oh. Yes, of course, right, so we did. But if the gate's not broken, why didn't Sheppard go?"

"The gate wouldn't open for Colonel Sheppard," Beckett clarified.

"That seems very odd," Teyla said.

Rodney made another attempt to stand up, and Beckett put a hand in the middle of his chest and tipped him over so he was half-lying on the bed. "You're abusing your position," Rodney said. "And I'd like to reiterate that I feel fine, apart from the minor balance issue, and would I really say that if I were secretly in terrible pain?"

"I'm not worried that you're secretly in terrible pain," Beckett said. "That's actually one of the few things I've never had to worry about in this galaxy." He frowned. "You do feel very hot, though. We should take your temperature again."

Elizabeth came into the infirmary, walking at a brisk pace. She had her jacket on, zipped all the way up to her throat. "Rodney," she said, coming over to the side of the bed. "What happened?"

"I touched a piece of Ancient," Rodney grimaced, "technology. Loosely speaking." He rubbed his fingers together. He could still feel the slick glass, the heat. "I think Rabh had some philosophical differences with the other Ancients."

"I see," Elizabeth said, and Rodney was about to say that he hoped she didn't when she went on, "I did some more research in the database after our conversation. As it turns out, Derni didn't leave of her own free will. She was exiled from Atlantis, into Rabh's custody."

"Into — what? Why?" Rodney put his hands on the edge of the bed and rocked back and forth, which was as close as he could get to standing up and walking around, under Beckett's moderately watchful eye. "Oh, this can't be good. Considering everything we know the Ancients got up to, what did she have to do to get thrown out of the city?"

"They didn't like the way her work was going," Elizabeth said. She was hugging herself, rubbing her hands against her upper arms. "I couldn't find any details, but there was something about the ways she wanted to combine stasis technology with her glass art."

"I don't see the connection," Beckett said.

"I do." Rodney swallowed, hard. "And I really hope those pieces we saw yesterday were made before she started thinking about putting actual people into her designs."

Elizabeth was clutching her arms so hard, her knuckles were white. "So do I. And it makes sense now that the Ancients exiled her to a low-tech world."

"Rabh must have already left then," Rodney deduced. "Why did the other Ancients agree to send her to him, to someone who'd broken from them and their goals?"

"Perhaps because they knew he would take her in," Teyla put in unexpectedly. "Because he loved her." In sharp contrast to Elizabeth, Teyla had taken her jacket off and unzipped the neck of her shirt, and now she pulled it free from her pants and up over her stomach, drawing the hem together just below her ribs and twisting the loose material into a knot to keep it in place.

Rodney stared at Teyla's bare stomach for a moment. Then he looked at Beckett, who had also taken his jacket off. "Elizabeth," he said, "did you happen to touch Sheppard, before?"

Elizabeth looked at him blankly. "Touch Sheppard?"

Rodney nodded. "It's just that you seem to be very cold, and—"

"Dr. Weir," Teyla said, and now she had that wary look back again. "Where is the colonel? He never fails to come to the infirmary if one of us is injured."

Beckett looked around as though he expected to see Sheppard pop up from behind the nearest bed. "Ah. I haven't seen him since the gate wouldn't open."

"Neither have I." Elizabeth frowned.

Rodney lifted a hand to his ear, then realized the nurses had taken his radio away. Teyla still had hers, though, and was already on it. "Colonel Sheppard? Colonel Sheppard, are you there?"

When Teyla didn't get an answer, Beckett tried, too, as though Sheppard would respond to him if he wasn't responding to Teyla; Rodney considered explaining how ridiculous that idea was, but round about then everyone seemed to realize at the same time that no one had seen or talked to Sheppard for hours, and they all had to radio each other and tell each other about it. Carson went to chivvy his staff into a state of high alert, which Rodney had to admit was only sensible under the circumstances, and Elizabeth and Teyla took off for the gateroom.

Rodney hitched himself up on the bed and turned his head this way and that, testing to see how dizzy he was. He felt fine; he felt better than fine, he felt like a fully charged ZPM; he felt like he was about to burst out of his skin. Especially in some places. The nurses had taken his radio and his boots and his tac vest, but other than that, he was still fully dressed.

While everyone seemed to be busy at the other end of the infirmary, Rodney slipped off the bed and weaved his way in as direct a line as he could manage to the exit. He misjudged the last turn and hit his shoulder on the wall, but then he was outside. Rodney steadied himself with one arm against the wall and went towards the transporter.

The transporter doors opened just as he got there, and Ronon stepped out. "McKay." Ronon looked him swiftly up and down. "You feeling better? You're not wearing any shoes."

"Yes, I'm aware of that, and would you please keep your voice down?" Rodney glanced back over his shoulder, but no one had come after him yet. He turned back to Ronon, lifting his chin. "Listen, I'm going to go get Sheppard."

Ronon gave him a longer, slower look, and then he nodded. "Then I'm going with you." He stepped back into the transporter with Rodney. "Where are we going?"

"Here." Rodney pressed his hot fingertip against the cool surface of the transporter map. Nothing happened. He tried again. "Oh, that's just—" He heard voices from the direction of the infirmary. It sounded like Beckett and the nurses, coming to find their lost sheep, probably armed to the teeth with thermometers and sedatives. "Stall them," Rodney said to Ronon.

"Okay." Ronon stepped out of the transporter. As soon as he was clear, the doors closed, and Rodney felt that brief moment of intense stillness that meant he was going somewhere.

When the doors opened again, Rodney was looking out at broken glass and empty window frames, and the sun was setting over the sea. A cold wind was blowing. He went over to one of the windows and looked out; the sunset glowed in gold and orange, lighting the sky with deep shades of crimson and vermilion, shading the sea with purple and indigo. Rodney lifted his hands, palm up, and saw the first faint sigils glimmering on his skin.

He turned towards the stairs and started up. His steps weren't entirely steady, but he didn't fall over; he was starting to get the hang of how to balance in the middle of this powerful energy and let it sweep him along to where he needed to go.

With every step he took, the cold grew, filling the air around him. His breath puffed out in short bursts of steam by the time he was halfway up the stairs. The cold couldn't touch him, though; he was filled with heat, glowing with it like iron just drawn from the fire.

The doors to Derni's gallery and laboratory still stood wedged partially open. There was frost on the doorframe. Rodney walked up and put his hand to one of the doors, pushed a little more, unsurprised when the door shifted another few inches at his touch. He walked through and stopped at the top of the metal steps.

Inside, it was snowing.

All the glass blocks with their trapped sculptures of trees and flowers, animals and people, were raised up out of the floor. Rodney thought there were more of them now, closer together, but it was difficult to see them clearly; an icy mist threaded between them, almost hiding the black floor. And snow fell through the air in tiny, hard, perfect flakes.

Rodney took a first step down towards the floor, and a snowflake landed on his skin and evaporated with a hiss. It felt like being pricked with a burningly cold needle, and he hissed, too, realizing that he wasn't as immune to the cold as he had thought at first. The sigils on his skin were shining bright and clear now, vividly red and gold; when he looked down he saw them wrapped in spirals around his wrists and arms, around his fingers, swirling in tight loops across his palms.

When he stepped down on the floor, there was another hiss as the thin covering of snow melted around his feet. Rodney drew a deep breath, feeling the air bite all the way down into his lungs, and walked into the maze of glass and ice.

The snow kept falling, and after a while Rodney stopped saying "ow" at every pinprick of biting cold. He thought he remembered pretty clearly how big the half-circle of the room was, and the pattern of the glass blocks, but though he kept walking forward he never reached the far wall with its colored glass panes. Rodney turned around to try to see how far he'd come from the metal steps, and there was a dark cube of glass blocking his way, although he'd been walking in a straight line. He knew the blocks moved almost soundlessly up and down, but it was disconcerting to know that he was trying to find his way on a shifting map, and when he turned back the way he'd been heading and found himself face to face with the sleek coils of a snake inside another block of glass not a hand's-breadth away, he flinched.

Rodney went left instead, edging carefully around the snake. He counted his steps in his head, tracking his own course, making allowance for all the detours as he had to go to one side around this block and to the other side around another. When he'd walked a distance that should have brought him to the far wall, he was still wandering around the maze of glass, each block just too tall for him to see across to chart his own progress. Rodney sighed and steadied himself with one hand against the nearest block.

The glass warmed under his hand and slowly grew clear, the milky white color draining away. The leaves that trailed along the side of the cube turned green, and Rodney was looking at a small tree with silvery-brown bark and sloping branches, reaching towards him. A spark leaped from his fingers into the glass, and he shivered and pulled his hand back. As soon as he wasn't touching the glass any more it began to cloud over, until the whole cube was white again and all that was left of the tree was the few delicately carved leaves that managed to break the surface of the glass.

Breathing in deep, Rodney thought the air felt colder. He flexed his fingers and saw that the sigils were pulsing in time to his heartbeats. A flurry of snowflakes fell on him, each one a sharper sting. Rodney closed his eyes and concentrated, letting the heat fill him again, feeling the sigils move across his skin like a flock of birds darting across the sky, turning and wheeling; they tugged at him, and he followed.

Rodney knew the setting sun was still shining on the wall of colored glass panes; he could see different shades in the light inside, more green here, more blue there, but he couldn't see the wall itself. When he tilted his head back, he couldn't see the ceiling, only the snow, and when one of the snowflakes landed on his face, it really hurt. And when he stood at the center of the room, or what he thought might be the center, it was dark, and the stripes of bottle-green and deep violet light only made it seem darker.

The block of glass that stood here was a dark smoky grey, taller than Rodney, but narrow. Up against the edge of the glass was a hand, long fingers, a smooth palm and the inside of a wrist, and around that wrist the hair grew more sparsely, as though it were normally covered by a broad wristband. Rodney's stomach turned over. It wasn't that he stared at Sheppard, not really, but he'd know that hand anywhere, wristband or no wristband. He swallowed hard and raised his own hands, seeing the glowing sigils bunch together like chains of liquid gold.

Rodney put his hand against the hand in the glass, fingertips to fingertips and palm to palm, licked his lips and drew his eyebrows together and pushed.

The glass changed. The opaque grey color rolled back and faded like smoke, and Rodney was facing a block of translucent glass so perfectly clear he could barely tell it was there. Inside the glass Sheppard stood with his eyes closed, one arm lifted, the other held out a little lower, as if he waited for someone to step in and hold him. He was naked, not even wearing his dog tags.

Rodney swallowed against a flutter of rising panic and concentrated as hard as he could. He kept his right hand pressed to Sheppard's and lifted his left hand, feeling the sigils gather in his left palm, a ball of burning air, and when they shone so white-hot he couldn't even look at them any more, he slammed his left hand against the glass as hard as he could, and heard the block crack and shatter.

Glass shards rained down around them, and a rumble like thunder went through the glass floor. Rodney was standing face to face with Sheppard now, nothing but air and falling snow between them, and Sheppard's eyes were still closed; he was very pale, his mouth almost colorless. Tiny white and silver sigils looped over his skin, across his cheekbones, down around his neck.

"I hope this is the right story," Rodney said and pressed his mouth to Sheppard's.

It was like kissing ice, like kissing glass. Sheppard's lips against his own stole breath and heat from him. Rodney pulled back and saw that Sheppard's lips were tinged with color now, a little, but not enough. Clearly it was going to take more than just a kiss. He put one hand to Sheppard's face, and the skin he touched began to warm and lose its pallor; under his fingertips, the sigils on Sheppard's cheekbone began to fade. Rodney kissed Sheppard again, and again, and again; he breathed against Sheppard's eyelids and wrapped his hand around the back of Sheppard's neck.

One eyelid fluttered, and Rodney kissed it, and then kissed the other one for good measure. Sheppard blinked, very slowly, and Rodney was almost transfixed by the movement of his eyelashes, the way they swept down and then up again. His pupils were blown, huge and dark like the room around them. "Cold," Sheppard said, voice barely more than a whisper.

"Yes, very astute observation," Rodney said and stepped closer. He wrapped his arms around Sheppard and tried not to flinch. "God, you're like ice all over."

"I can't move." Sheppard sounded drugged, barely interested in his own words, but his eyelids fluttered.

Rodney brushed his hands slowly over Sheppard's face, chasing the sigils away; he ran his fingers through Sheppard's hair, over and behind his ears, down the back of his neck and then along the sides of his throat, up underneath his jaw, down into the hollow of his throat and out across his collarbones. The silvery sigils looked like scars, and Rodney pressed the heat of his hands into Sheppard's skin as hard as he could.

To distract himself, Rodney tried to name all the muscles he touched, but he'd never paid all that much attention, and after the trapezius and the deltoids he gave up and just stroked his hands down Sheppard's back, walking around him to be sure he touched everywhere and didn't leave any patches of pale skin and white marks behind. There was frost in the hair on Sheppard's legs, but it melted and evaporated at Rodney's touch. Rodney closed his eyes self-consciously while he touched Sheppard's ass, but then he opened them again, to make sure he wasn't missing anything.

He kissed the back of Sheppard's left knee, just because Sheppard had a mole there. Sheppard's feet were unexpectedly vulnerable from the back, with the taut line of the Achilles tendon and the bony lump of the ankle, which Rodney touched a little longer than strictly necessary. He supported Sheppard with one hand in the small of his back and ran his fingers carefully in under the soles of Sheppard's feet, one at a time, and between his toes. Sheppard had hair on his toes, and despite this, his feet were attractive. That seemed unfair somehow. Rodney kissed Sheppard's knobbly knees, too.

The front was trickier. Rodney spent quite a bit of time on Sheppard's arms, because the fingers and the bits around the elbow were very fiddly, and also this might be his only opportunity to lick Sheppard's biceps. He kissed the center of Sheppard's chest, right over the breastbone, and bit down on the sigils gathered there; it was like crunching ice cubes between his teeth.

Down on his knees, he pressed his face into Sheppard's belly for a while before he went back to touching methodically, hips, hipbones, upper thighs. Rodney drew a calming breath and worked his hand in between Sheppard's legs, cupping his scrotum and flinching a little because some places just should not be cold, but it grew heated, cradled in the palm of Rodney's hand.

Sheppard's cock grew hard when Rodney touched it, but stayed cold. White loops of sigils wrapped around it, almost completely covering the skin. Rodney breathed out, and his breath barely had any effect.

"Sorry about this," he said, and started licking. The sigils tasted metallic and sharp, very like chains. The cold numbed his tongue. He opened his mouth and sucked instead, trying to take Sheppard in as deep as possible and give him all the heat that still burned in Rodney's body.

A flurry of snow fell, whirling around them, and Sheppard flinched. That had to be a good sign, Rodney thought, if Sheppard could feel the sharp, cold pain of those snowflakes. Rodney sucked harder. It was probably the worst blowjob he'd ever given. He wasn't trying to make it good; he felt like he was trying to suck poison out of Sheppard's body, desperately, his jaw aching.

The air seemed darker around them. Sheppard's legs trembled. Rodney gripped Sheppard's hips, hard, and closed his eyes, squeezed them shut until sparks of red and orange and gold danced on the inside of his eyelids. Sheppard trembled again, slumping forward, his hands heavy and awkward on Rodney's shoulders, his cock pushing deeper into Rodney's mouth. When Sheppard came, it took Rodney completely by surprise, and he gasped and nearly choked as he swallowed something that felt like a jagged lump of ice. Sheppard slumped even more, and Rodney wrapped his arms around Sheppard's hips to keep him steady and leaned his forehead against Sheppard's hipbone for a moment.

Sheppard mumbled something, and Rodney, after a brief look to make sure all the sigils were gone, stood up, just about climbing up Sheppard's body to get to his feet. His knees were screaming. Sheppard looked alive now, tired and in need of a shave, but his skin was warm and his eyes were clear. "Rodney?" he said, brows drawing together. "Where are we?"

A breath of fresh air blew in, rippling Sheppard's skin with goose bumps. They were standing in the middle of Derni's art gallery, surrounded by blocks of glass, blue and green and grey and white. They were standing on the smooth, even black floor, and there wasn't a grain of sand on it, or any shards of glass, or any snow. The setting sun shone in through the glass wall, patching the floor with violet and viridian, and with gold and red through the clear glass panes.

Rodney pressed a hand to his sternum. He could still feel that cold lump inside. "F 184-16," he said. "I think you should go, we should go to the infirmary, get you checked out. Carson's waiting for us." That was probably a bit of an understatement, come to think of it.

Sheppard nodded slowly, and when Rodney tugged at him, he came along, walking slowly. When they got to the metal steps, he asked, "Why am I naked?"

Rodney breathed out through his nose. "I, I don't know. You were naked when I got here. I suppose it says something about Derni's otherwise completely terrible taste in art, and I really wouldn't count on getting those clothes back again."

"Okay," Sheppard said, and then his voice changed. "Hell, Rodney, your feet are bleeding."

Rodney looked down. Then he looked up again. "I'm not going to think about that right now," he said. He focused on the unpleasant numbness of the lump in his stomach instead, although when they went down the stairs he started to feel the pain every time he put his feet down, and he saw his own bloody footprints going up and he couldn't help flinching a bit. "Ow. Ow, ow, ow."

"Infirmary," Sheppard reminded him, but there was a new note in Sheppard's voice, and he was looking around a bit more sharply, and giving Rodney thoughtful sideways glances that made the cold lump even colder.

The transporter responded without any hesitation this time. Rodney drew breath to say something, but he didn't know what, and then the doors opened again and they stepped out to be met by a growling Ronon, Zelenka with a toolbox, two nurses, three marines, and Beckett. There was a brief pause. "Oh, stop staring and bring him a blanket," Rodney snapped. "Carson, why don't you have a stretcher waiting when I really need one? My feet could turn black and fall off before you did anything—"

Ronon grabbed Rodney's shoulder. "You got him back."

Rodney jerked his head back so he could look Ronon in the face. "Of course I did. I said I would, didn't I?" He blinked rapidly under Ronon's determined eyes. "I don't know why the transporter wouldn't work when you were in it. I suspect there was some kind of override protocol at work."

"Yes," Zelenka said from somewhere behind Ronon's shoulder. "I was just about to disable it."

Beckett had gotten a blanket from somewhere and wrapped it around Sheppard, looking him up and down as if unable to believe that there wasn't anything wrong with him. "You're sure you feel all right?" He looked down again. "Rodney! Rodney, lad, your feet!"

"I'm sorry, were you not listening to me before? Yes, my feet!" Rodney shifted his weight to turn, and that was all it took: he could feel every cut, and it hurt like hell. He started to crumple, and Ronon caught him under the armpits and hauled him up, then heaved him into a fireman's carry and started for the infirmary. "Ow. Ow. Embarrassing and painful, how could it get any better? Ow!"

Ronon dumped him on an infirmary bed, and Rodney managed to give Ronon's arm an awkward squeeze before closing his eyes and breathing through his teeth as Beckett peeled his socks off and started to numb his soles. "This looks worse than it is, but it's not good. There are a few nasty wee shards left in here. What possessed you to go walking on broken glass?"

"Oh, I don't know, I was bored! Ow!" Rodney squinted through nearly closed eyelids to see Elizabeth and Teyla burst in and join Ronon in hovering over Sheppard, who was sipping water from a plastic cup and having his temperature taken. Since no frantic shouting followed, Rodney supposed everything had to be back to normal.

He put a hand on his sternum again. He could still feel something cold inside. It seemed unlikely to be a solid object, or Sheppard would be in need of some very intimate surgery right now. Rodney couldn't quite convince himself it was his imagination, though. Sheppard was talking earnestly to Elizabeth, complete with aw-shucks grin. Rodney closed his eyes and listened to the soft clink as Beckett extracted the last piece of glass from his feet and dropped it in a basin, then began to bandage his feet.

"I want you to stay here overnight," Beckett said. "These cuts were fairly shallow, but I want someone to monitor you in case you pick up an infection. You won't be walking for a few days, either." Rodney opened his mouth. "Yes, there's nothing to stop you from working. I'll ask Dr. Zelenka to bring your laptop, shall I?"

"I was going to ask for painkillers," Rodney said.

"Just give a shout when the local wears off," Beckett said and went off with basin and forceps. A little later, Rodney saw him join the crowd around Sheppard's bed and exchange a comment with Elizabeth, who stood up and came over to Rodney instead.

She sat down by his bedside and put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, about as awkwardly as Rodney had done with Ronon. "How are your feet? Carson says the cuts were mostly superficial, but they bled a lot."

"He said I could get an infection." Rodney stared down his body at his neatly bandaged toes. "There's ten thousand years' worth of bacteria in Atlantis. I could have picked up any number of them."

"Then you'll get antibiotics." Elizabeth smiled, and then she looked serious again. "And it was in a good cause, wasn't it? John says you rescued him in the nick of time from becoming one of Derni's sculptures."

"Yes, I did," Rodney said, preening a little.

"So can you explain what happened?"

"Yes, of course." His bandaged toes twitched a little. "Sheppard didn't tell you?"

"He said he couldn't remember very much. Carson's doing a few tests. Rodney, I need you to tell me what happened. Do we still have an ongoing security risk?"

"I think— Yes, possibly," Rodney said. "Where's Radek? I'm not sure how much of a risk it is, but we should seal off F 184 and block it as a transporter destination. And the data crystal — put it away somewhere, lock it up." Zelenka appeared at the foot of the bed. "And we have to disable all the subroutines connected to Derni's laboratory. Did you bring my laptop?"

"Yes. Pardon me, Dr. Weir." Zelenka leaned forward and dumped the laptop on Rodney's legs. "I have already cut off power to F 184-16. Perhaps we should physically disable the circuits as well."

"Yes, of course." Rodney opened the laptop. "And about the gate—"

"Rodney," Elizabeth said. "Tell me what happened."

Rodney started typing and talking at the same time. "When I touched the pillar of Rabh it left a sort of residue, a charge, that I think Rabh must have designed to counter the effects of Derni's experiments. He probably didn't want to get turned into a glass sculpture himself, no matter how fond he was of her. I suspect it was a kind of defense or protection on his part. Anyway, I was able to use that to get Sheppard free."

"I see." Elizabeth frowned. "Actually, I don't see. How did you know that he would be in Derni's art gallery, and why was he in Derni's art gallery?"

"Oh, come on," Rodney said and typed faster, "a mysterious Ancient woman picks Sheppard as her favorite Earthling, how unusual is that? It's like that gene of his is catnip. Ancient-nip. She must have imprinted on him somehow as suitable material, possibly even back in Lob Arabha."

"You're making it sound as if— Rodney, do you mean she was actually here? In Atlantis?"

Rodney stopped typing and looked up. "I don't know. But Sheppard was locked in the bathroom, and then the gate wouldn't open for him. That's a bit beyond an art gallery subroutine, and I think we can rule out unrelated accidents, so if you don't mind I'd like to go over the data and see what happened. The city isn't exactly Ancient-proof. Radek?"

"Yes, I am working," Zelenka said distantly; he'd pulled up a chair and was sitting on the opposite side of Rodney's bed from where Elizabeth was perched. "It could be a virus. A malicious sequence on the data crystal."

"It's too complex." Rodney drummed his fingers against the side of the screen. "Too much self-determination, too good a sense of timing. And even an Ancient-designed computer virus couldn't make Sheppard wander around the city like a meek little sacrificial lamb and offer himself up to become Derni's latest masterpiece."

"You have a point." Zelenka looked up at him. "And what about your own actions? I notice there are gaps in your story. Was Rabh here too, as well as Derni?"

"No!" Rodney said. "Don't you think I'd notice if I had someone else in my head?"

"I think that's a very good question." Elizabeth stood up decisively. "One that we need to try to get an answer to. Carson!"

"Now look what you've done," Rodney said to Zelenka in a furious undervoice. "How am I supposed to get any work done now?"

"Simpson and I will take care of it," Zelenka said, unperturbed. "You can assist us later, when we know you are not possessed."

The next few hours were very, very boring. Rodney was scanned with Earth equipment, scanned with Ancient equipment, fitted with electrodes, poked, prodded, and stood over and talked around. Every time he passed by Sheppard somewhere on the medical roundabout, he couldn't decide if he wanted to try to catch Sheppard's eye or not; when he finally made up his mind that yes, he did, he turned his head and looked only to find that Sheppard was apparently asleep, with one excessively-gelled electrode sliding down his forehead. Every time he caught sight of Zelenka, he tried to get a situation update, but Zelenka just waved a busy hand at him and said everything was under control.

Beckett finally declared Rodney free of detectable Ancient brainwashing, and Rodney closed his eyes in exasperated relief as a nurse wheeled his bed back to its original position. From a slight distance, he could hear Zelenka talking to Elizabeth, telling her that Derni's gallery was completely shut down, that there was no evidence of a virus in the system, and that there were no signs, currently, of any Ancients playing hide-and-seek in the city. Rodney thought about saying that there could be a hundred ascended Ancients hovering around them right that minute and they'd never know, and then he started thinking about ways of detecting it, and then he fell asleep.

When he woke up again, the infirmary was almost dark. There was a pool of golden light at the nurses' station, and a soft blue glow coming from somewhere outside. Rodney shifted and felt his back twinge. He shifted some more and felt his feet do more than just twinge. The local anesthetic had definitely worn off, yes. He was just about to signal the nurse when a movement caught his attention. Rodney subsided into his bed again and peeked through barely-open eyes at the next infirmary bed over, where Sheppard was stirring.

Sheppard sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His face was distant; he looked almost asleep, or drugged, and then he got off the bed and started to walk away.

"Hey!" Rodney said, sitting up. He squinted at Sheppard in the poor light, trying to see if there was frost in his hair again. "Hey, stop! You can't go back anyway, that place has been shut down, I should have known Carson couldn't see if you were still brainwashed, just hold it right there—"

Sheppard turned his head. No frost, but there was a definite chill in his eyes. "I was going to the bathroom," he said.

"Oh." Rodney dropped back down on one elbow. "Um."

The nurse came over, drawn by the noise. "Is everything all right here?"

While Sheppard went to the bathroom, Rodney asked the nurse for painkillers, and he was lying back and waiting for them to kick in when Sheppard came back. Sheppard got into bed without looking at Rodney and started mashing his pillow into an uncomfortable-looking lump under his head.

"But I'm right, right?" Rodney said. "Those late-night walks when you were wandering around looking all weird and, and cold, you went to the gallery, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did," Sheppard said.

"And, um." Rodney got a strong impulse to start fiddling with his own pillow. "So you don't remember what happened, um. Elizabeth said you didn't remember. What happened."

"I remember a few things," Sheppard said in the same flat, almost affect-less drawl. "What about you?"

"Um." Rodney remembered quite a lot of things. He was pretty sure he remembered everything, and he couldn't make himself answer.

The silence dragged on and on, and then Sheppard nodded, briefly. "Thought so." He rolled over and lay with his back to Rodney. "Good night."

When Rodney woke up the next morning, Sheppard's bed was empty. The nurse who descended on him with a bedpan said Sheppard had been released about an hour earlier. Rodney complained about the indignity of the bedpan until the nurse allowed him to try to stand up; he put one foot on the floor, whimpered, and reached for the pan. After breakfast, though, he got fresh dressings on his feet, a completely unnecessary lecture on how to manage his personal hygiene without getting said dressings wet, a wheelchair, and his freedom. Rodney wheeled himself out of the infirmary and snapped his fingers at the nearest marine, because the chair was heavy and awkward, and he was going to have to do something about that.

He got the marine to take him to the workshop behind the jumper bay and drag out a couple of toolboxes, and then he slid out of the chair and down on the floor, popped the wheels off, and went to work. Zelenka tracked him down after a while and came in and made a full report on everything he'd done the day before to check on Derni's presence, or absence, and how power to the gallery-cum-laboratory had been manually disabled. Rodney asked a lot of questions. It kept his mind busy.

The next few days went by very, very slowly. Beckett said Rodney's feet were healing quickly and well, but it didn't feel all that quick from the inside, especially when Beckett would only give him low-grade painkillers. Rodney figured out what was wrong with the toilet next to the mess hall and got Niemi to fix it. He sat in his chair and pointed as Simpson climbed the ladder to pop loose one panel after another and fix the connections until all the lights worked again in the living-quarters area. The sensation of something small and cold and hard lodged just under his ribs faded completely.

Sheppard avoided him, which was pretty easy since Rodney wasn't used to the wheelchair, and the learning curve for how to take a corner at high speed was steeper than he'd imagined, and also he wasn't going to chase Sheppard around.

At night he slept naked, with just a thin sheet instead of blankets. He dreamed that everything he touched was made of molten red glass and changed shape under his hands. When he woke up in the mornings, there was a glowing gold sigil in the palm of his right hand, but it always faded before he got out of bed.

Eventually, though, Beckett looked at the soles of Rodney's feet and nodded approvingly and told him to stand up, and Rodney could actually do it without whining and sitting right back down again. He got crutches instead, and a soft extra inner sole for his shoes. "You're still not cleared to go on missions, mind," Beckett said.

"And here I was looking forward to running for my life like this." Rodney poked one of Beckett's legs with a crutch and went to the mess hall for lunch. Sheppard was there, sitting in a corner by himself, but in the time it took Rodney to figure out how to manage crutches and a tray full of food at the same time (the solution turned out to be getting Niemi to take the tray for him), Sheppard left.

Elizabeth came and hovered next to him when he was halfway through his jello. "Rodney, I'm glad you're feeling better. But you haven't been cleared for missions yet, right?"

"No, why?" Rodney tipped his head back. "Do I act like what I want to do most of all is go skippety-hopping through the gate? Because you and Carson make it sound as if I'd have to be physically restrained. I can assure you that I'm not planning—"

"Oh, that's right, I haven't talked to you about this yet," Elizabeth said and sat down at the table. "Dr. Zelenka thinks, and I agree with him, that the data crystal with Derni's research on it should be sent back to Lob Arabha. I know you may not agree, but—"

"No, no!" Rodney put his spoon down. "I mean, I completely agree."

Elizabeth tucked her hair back behind one ear. "You do? I'm glad to hear it."

"Yes, well, it seems clear that whatever she might have to teach us isn't particularly safe to learn," Rodney said. "Unless our plans for this expedition is to turn each other into big chunks of artwork until there's only one of us left."

"No, that isn't part of my short-term planning," Elizabeth said. "Or my long-term planning," she added after a moment. "That was a joke, Rodney. But I think the Ancients had the right idea."

Rodney snorted. "Yes. Derni's diary should be kept on a low-tech planet, and the people of Lob Arabha are probably protected by Rabh, one way or another." He flexed his right hand a little. "I think I should take it back."

Elizabeth's mouth quirked up. "But you haven't been cleared for missions yet, right?"

"Right! No! Wrong!" Rodney eyed her. "The people of Lob Arabha are very friendly," he said. "I don't have to be able to run. I think I should go."

"Talk to Carson about it," Elizabeth said. "I agree with you about the potential danger, or lack of danger, but I don't think you should go against medical advice. This isn't an urgent matter, after all."

"Not until Derni picks out her next nude model." Rodney drummed his fingers on the table. "I'll talk to Carson."

Carson shook his head and said no and absolutely not, and then he sighed and told Rodney to come back tomorrow. Rodney went back to work, but the lab was full of distractions, and eventually he told Zelenka to supervise whatever needed supervising and took himself off to an outside balcony. The silence was wonderful, and he got in a few solid hours of work before the afternoon sun came around to shine on him. Rodney lifted an arm to shield his eyes, and when the sun hit the palm of his hand, he felt a buzz, a soft vibration.

Turning his hand over revealed that the sigil on his palm was shining like a golden brand. Rodney frowned at it. He couldn't feel the sigil urging him on, or driving him towards anything, but he did feel the buzz move across his skin like a teasing caress. Thoughts about work were overlaid with far more vivid and enticing images of John Sheppard naked, not fantasy but memory, every part of him as he had been traced by Rodney's hands and mouth. When Rodney rubbed his palm against the back of his neck the buzz doubled, skin to skin.

That would feel very good on other parts of his body. Rodney stood up. Regardless of what Rabh's lingering influence was doing to him, he wasn't going to jerk off on a public balcony. He went inside and headed for the nearest transporter.

When Rodney came back to the living quarters area and turned the corner into his hallway, the first thing he saw was Sheppard, not slouching in the shadows, because the lights were fixed now, just leaning against the wall like this hallway was a perfectly normal place to hang out. "Hey, Rodney," he said.

Rodney lost control of one of his crutches, and it clattered to the floor with the sound of a thousand avalanches. "Oh. Um. Hello."

They bent down to pick up the crutch at the same time, and Rodney banged his head against the point of Sheppard's shoulder. Sheppard got hold of the crutch and tried to shove it awkwardly under Rodney's arm, and Rodney clamped his arm down at the wrong moment and the crutch fell to the floor again. "Listen," Sheppard said.

Rodney kept a wary eye on Sheppard as he bent down to pick the crutch up. At least his erection didn't feel quite so urgent any more. "Yes?"

"I, ah." Sheppard was leaning against the wall so hard, it was a miracle he wasn't falling right through it. "I just wanted to say something."

Rodney busied himself with the crutches for a minute, adjusting them and adjusting his weight and shifting his feet. His feet felt pretty good, actually. He might not need the crutches much longer, and then Carson would have to clear him to go to Lob Arabha.

Then he glanced up at Sheppard, who was just standing there, or rather, just slouching there. "Yes? Did you change your mind? Because I wasn't planning on standing here in the hallway all evening."

"No. I just wanted to say." Sheppard stared at something in the empty air above Rodney's shoulder. "I appreciate it. That you came to get me. Even if you don't remember it and it was actually Rabh."

Rodney felt his face grow hot. He stared at something in the empty air above Sheppard's shoulder. "Well. No. That was mostly me." He looked down at his hands. The sigil in his palm seemed dormant once again, an outline so faint it could have been just a random shadow. "I mean, obviously it wasn't just me. That pillar added a, well, something."

"Yeah." Sheppard's eyes cut to Rodney and away again so fast, Rodney almost missed it. "I guess you wouldn't have done anything like that if you hadn't been possessed."

Rodney rocked back on his heels. It turned out his left heel hadn't actually healed as well as he thought, and he winced a bit. "Wait, wait, so that's what this is all about? You've been avoiding me because, what, you're worried I'm going to," Rodney waved his hand in a way that meant yank you out of a block of glass and give you a really bad blowjob, "again?"

"No." Sheppard glared at him.

"Because I'm not." Rodney raised his chin and tried his best to glare back. "Just so we're clear on that." Not that the idea wasn't tempting in its way, leaving out the Ancient possession and threat of death and walking on glass splinters. The naked Sheppard part, that had been good.

Rodney clenched his hand as the sigil stirred again.

"Crystal," Sheppard said, and looked a bit pained. "Now that we've got that cleared up, I'm just going to..." He pushed away from the wall.

"Wait," Rodney said. Then he dropped one of his crutches again. He scrabbled for it as Sheppard stood there, poised for flight. "You know we're taking Derni back?"

Sheppard tensed up even more. "You mean you found her? She's here?"

"No, no." Rodney paused. "Not that we could really tell if she were," and he'd finally found something that was not a good look on Sheppard, and he wanted to make Sheppard not look like that, "but I really don't think so. No, what I'm talking about is the data crystal, all the programming for the gallery. We're taking it back to Lob Arabha."

"Oh." When Sheppard was like this, the silences between his words seemed denser and heavier than plutonium. "And by we you mean..."

"I'm definitely going. And I'm sure you could come," Rodney was suddenly presented with another very vivid sense-memory, "I mean, if you wanted to. Come. Go. There."

"I just want to know that she's gone. I don't like having my head messed with."

"Does anyone?" Rodney flexed his hand around the heated spot on his palm. "Did you know that you were, I mean, while it was happening?"

"Of course I knew," Sheppard said, exasperated. "You think it was coincidence that I kept turning up where you were? I was hoping you'd notice that something was wrong, figure it out."

"Oh. Well." Rodney felt amazingly pleased, and rocked back on his heels again even though it hurt. "I did eventually," he pointed out. "Anyway, your signals might have been clearer."

Sheppard raised an eyebrow at him. "Right, I'll try to remember that next time some ascended Ancient makes me into her science project."

"See that you do," Rodney said. "It might take more than a bad blowjob to save the day next time." Then he dropped both his crutches. "Can we pretend I didn't say that? Because I say a lot of things, and statistically speaking, just a few stray words shouldn't be all that significant, I mean, if you consider them in proportion to everything I've ever said during the whole of our, um. Acquaintance. Friendship," he added hopefully.

"Relax, Rodney," Sheppard said, but it didn't come across as all that convincing. Even though he was still slouching, he gave the impression he'd twang like a banjo string at the lightest touch. "I get that it was Rabh doing it, not you. I'm not going to get weird about it."

Rodney stared at him. "And what do you call this?" He bent to pick up his crutches one more time, and Sheppard leaned down to help him. "And besides, it was—" Their hands brushed. "—me. Or mostly me." The soft buzz grew and spread all through Rodney's body, a golden haze of arousal. "Oh, God."

"Rodney." Sheppard's eyes were suddenly huge and dark, and the sound of his voice did terrible things to Rodney's breath control. "Damn." He brushed his hand against Rodney's again, slowly and deliberately. "So it was you, huh?"

Rodney seriously considered coming in his pants. Instead he lost his balance and tumbled backwards, landing heavily on his ass. "Ow. Yes, it was. Is." He reached for Sheppard, who was reaching for him. Then he saw the glowing sigil in the palm of his hand. "Oh, no. Oh, this is just— Wait, wait."

Sheppard shut down like Rodney had pressed a button. He looked at Rodney's palm, and then at Rodney's face. "I see. So this isn't you. Glad we got that straight before we—"

"Of course it's me," Rodney said. He scrambled around awkwardly on the floor until he could get to his knees and use one crutch to drag himself upright. "Much as I hate to say this, do you really think an Ancient would fall over on his ass because someone touched his hand?" Rodney turned his hand palm up. "I don't know why I still have this. And maybe it's doing something to you because it thinks you're still Derni."

"Well, trust me, I'm not." Sheppard still looked distant, though. "And maybe it's doing something to you." He picked up the second crutch and handed it to Rodney once again. "I think it's time for us to go to Lob Arabha and ask a few questions."

It wasn't that simple, of course. When Sheppard went to Elizabeth and said he and Rodney were going to Lob Arabha, she said Rodney was welcome to go as soon as Beckett cleared him. When Sheppard went to Beckett and said he and Rodney were going to Lob Arabha, Beckett pointed out that Rodney's feet hadn't changed that much in the past six or seven hours, and then he caught sight of Rodney's glowing palm and wanted to start all over with the MRIs and EEGs and everything else he could think of. Rodney held him off at the point of a horizontally wielded crutch. "Carson, back off. You're not going to see anything now that you didn't see before. And I can walk just fine, see, this is me, walking." Rodney tried not to hobble.

"You can't go now, though, in any case," Elizabeth pointed out; she'd followed them to the infirmary and leaned against the foot of a bed with her arms crossed. "It's the middle of the night there. Carson, why don't you keep Rodney for observation overnight, and if he still seems fine tomorrow morning," Elizabeth nodded to Sheppard, "you have a go for the mission."

"These beds really aren't good for my back," Rodney said, but Elizabeth ignored him, Sheppard glowered wordlessly at him, and Beckett told him to get over there and lie down, now, Rodney, don't be difficult, so he slumped down on the bed and played solitaire for a while. One of the nurses brought him food, at least, and later Ronon came by with some extra jello.

"Back to Lob Arabha tomorrow, right?" he said, sitting on the foot of the bed, and almost on Rodney's foot, too.

"Hey! Convalescent here!"

"Only if he seems to be feeling all right," Beckett said.

"I'll look after him," Ronon said, and Rodney huffed, but he finished the jello.

Rodney thought he would have trouble sleeping, but he dropped off pretty early. He dreamed about having sex with Sheppard, and woke up very early in the morning, extremely horny and with his hand glowing like a perverse nightlight, but not quite far enough gone to try to jerk off with a nurse within coughing distance.

"I feel fine," he said as soon as Beckett came to look at him. He stuck his feet out and wiggled them. "See? Fine. And why isn't Lermann letting me have any coffee?"

"Well, your feet look fine," Beckett admitted. "Let me see your hand." Rodney thought about boiled cabbage and held up his hand. Fortunately, Sheppard wasn't in the infirmary now. "All right, then. You can go and have breakfast, and go on your mission."

"Thank you for your gracious permission," Rodney said and left. He was halfway to the mess hall when he realized that he'd only brought one crutch, but he didn't think he needed the other one. Staring down at the palm of his hand where the sigil lay dormant and invisible, he wondered if Rabh's influence made him heal faster. That would be a useful thing, something worth keeping, and maybe the part where it messed with Sheppard's mind in some way would fade.

Or not. Rodney went into the mess hall and had a lot of coffee.

Everyone met up in the jumper bay at nine: Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon and Rodney and Lorne and Samarikoff and Parrish and Weichl. Zelenka had put the chronicle of Derni in a lead-lined box, which Rodney tucked under his free arm. They packed themselves into the jumper with only minor mishaps (Weichl wouldn't have stumbled on Rodney's crutch if Ronon hadn't looked at him like that), and Elizabeth wished them luck.

The people of Lob Arabha were very friendly. This wasn't a regularly scheduled trading mission, but as soon as Anf saw Parrish, she came up and told him that the second harvest of ilim was very nearly ripe and he could come and choose which trees the Atlantis shipment would be picked from, and Crof came up to Teyla and greeted her Athosian fashion, forehead to forehead.

"We have brought Derni back," Teyla said.

Crof blinked. "Was there something wrong with the disk?"

"Not so much the disk," Sheppard said, "but there was definitely something wrong with her."

"She belongs here," Teyla said. "Where Rabh is."

Rodney thrust the box into Crof's hands. "Yes, this is definitely the right place for her. Here." He looked around. "I want to talk to Jerek."

Crof linked arms with Teyla and smiled up at Rodney. "He's studying the pillar of Rabh. I think you revived his interest in it." She smiled as her daughter came running and crashed into Ronon's legs. "You remember the way?"

Rodney definitely remembered the way. Sheppard came with him, and they walked along the smooth, unpaved roads, past houses with open doors where people sat in the sun, working or resting, past orchards and warehouses. The sheep still grazed in the meadow around the circle of stone columns, and inside the circle Jerek was sitting on a backless folding chair, writing something and looking up now and then to squint at the pillar. He turned around when he heard them coming. "You've come back!" Jerek smiled up at them, too. "It's good to see you both again. Have you come to touch the pillar of Rabh, too, Colonel Sheppard?"

"I wasn't planning on that, no." Sheppard crossed his arms and studied the pillar, thrusting into the air in all its thick, red glory. "Rabh wasn't exactly the subtle type, was he?"

Rodney snorted. "You only just now noticed that?" He turned to Jerek. "Look, since you say you know things about the pillar, can you tell me about this?" Rodney held up his hand, where the sigil was just visible, like see-through gold paint. "Since I got it from the pillar of Rabh, can I... give it back, somehow?"

"Oh, no," Jerek said. "No, you can't do that." He smiled hugely. "It's been a long time since that happened."

Sheppard turned around, frowning. "You mean Rabh's marked Rodney permanently, somehow? I don't like the sound of that."

"It's not harmful," Jerek assured them. He flipped a couple of pages in his notebook and held up a sketch of a woman with a glowing sigil on one shoulder, smiling fatuously up at a man who looked like he should be on the cover of a bodice-ripper. "It's a sign of Rabh's favor, and shines in the presence of mutual desire." Rodney stared at him blankly. "It detects compatible pheromone emissions, among other things."

Rodney stared at his hand instead, where the sigil was, yes, clearly visible. "It does?"

Jerek nodded. "And to touch or be touched by this sign is said to be very special." He winked. "Although I only know about that from hearsay. Would you mind if I...?" He reached out a hand.

"Yes," Rodney said, sticking his hand behind his back. "Yes, I would mind."

"Well, it was worth a try," Jerek said philosophically. He picked up his folding chair. "Look me up in case you change your mind. Either one of you."

As Jerek walked away, Rodney turned to Sheppard. "So it's just me," he said, lifting his chin. "And the pheromones. Half of which I assume are yours."

"Yeah." Sheppard pulled Rodney's arm from behind his back, unfolded his fingers, and rubbed a thumb against the warm glow in his palm. Rodney sucked in a sharp breath and his knees wobbled. Sheppard looked pleased. "This could be fun."

Rodney nodded. "Yes. Yes, absolutely. A lot of fun." He paused. "And, you know, if that was partly Rabh back in the gallery, that would explain why it was such a bad blowjob. I mean, I'm pretty sure he was straight. I mean, I wouldn't want you to think that I, that I'm—"

Sheppard leaned in and kissed him, and Rodney forgot how to breathe for a while. Then Sheppard pulled back and looked at Rodney. "I don't think we should rush into anything, though."

"I do," Rodney said fervently. He laid his hand against the side of Sheppard's neck and saw Sheppard's eyelids droop languidly, felt him shiver.

"We haven't even been on a date," Sheppard said, a bit too hoarsely for the light-hearted words.

"We went to an art gallery," Rodney said. "It wasn't a very good date and we ended up in the emergency room, but it was still a date."

Sheppard frowned. "More like the worst double date in history."

"That's — yes, okay, you have a point." Rodney kissed Sheppard, who pulled away much too soon. "We could have dinner. Back in Atlantis. And sex," he added.

"Dinner first." Sheppard grinned at him. "Your feet feeling okay?"

"My what?"

"Glad to hear it," Sheppard said, and they kissed some more, glowing with gold in the bright midday sunshine, and Rodney thought he saw the pillar of Rabh glow a little, too, though perhaps it was just a reflection. The sheep didn't seem to take any notice of it.

They walked out of the circle hand in hand, and didn't let go until the children came running out of one of the orchards, laughing and hugging them and giving them fruit.

* * *

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