May 26 2005 - April 1 2006

Disclaimer: not mine, and all that. Many thanks to elynross, Merry, synecdochic and Arduinna. Do not archive this story without permission.

The machinery of heaven

"We will gift it to you," the king said, stroking his beard, "if you succeed in realigning the machinery of heaven, and bring the fire of the stars back to my people."

"Yes, yes, of course," McKay said before John could stretch a leg out far enough to kick him. Sitting on a giant gold-embroidered pillow with his knees up around his ears was really interfering with his team-leader authority. "And then you'll give us the ZPM?"

"You will have great renown among us," the king said. "Your name will be written with those of the engineers of heaven if you succeed." He lifted a finger, and one of the bulky bodyguard types in the see-through shirts came up with another silver plate of flaky pastries and fruit carved to look like flowers. "My people will strew flowers for you to walk on."

McKay didn't look very comfortable on his pillow, either, but he was tenacious, John had to give him that. "And then you'll give us the ZPM."

The king smiled. "It is good to meet a humble man who does not strive for fame and riches," he said.

John still couldn't reach to kick McKay, but he could reach to kick Ford, so he did, and Ford closed his mouth again. Teyla didn't need kicking, of course; she said everything with a slight, diplomatic curve of her lips. "Dr. McKay knows that the ZPM is important to us," John said. "And I take it the machinery of heaven is important to you?"

The king nodded. "It will be a fair exchange. We will host you for the duration of the work. Dr. McKay, would you like a yashina from among my people, or will one of your companions serve you in that role?"

"A what?" McKay said.

Teyla leaned forward. "We are unfamiliar with your customs. Perhaps you could explain."

"There are dangers in working with the machinery of heaven." The king bit into a red fruit that looked like a rose. "An engineer must have a yashina, who will know what he does and what he needs."

McKay didn't look convinced. "If none of your people have been able to fix this machinery, I don't think having one of them for an assistant is going to be of any particular use to me."

John wondered if he could kick Ford and get him to kick Teyla and get Teyla to kick McKay. Maybe there was a Diplomacy for Scientists class he could send McKay to, a bit like Physics for Poets.

"The engineer must have a yashina." The king ate the rest of the fruit. "That is the law and the rule."

"One of us can do it," John said. "Right? We're used to working with Dr. McKay. There's no need to put your people to any trouble." McKay narrowed his eyes at John suspiciously. John raised an eyebrow back at him. "When do we start?"

"I have already sent for the sacred link." The king smiled at John. "Will you be yashina, then? It is an honorable position."

John had enough practice now that he didn't even need to look before he kicked Ford. "You think maybe you could explain a bit more to us about this, uh, yashina, what that is?"

"Yes, of course. The yashina is responsible for the life of the engineer. A true engineer of heaven is often removed from worldy matters, and the yashina is his connection to the life of the body."

"Mm hm." John picked up a piece of yellow fruit that was probably meant to look like some kind of orchid. Either that or the king's kitchen staff had a very suspect sense of humor.

"The yashina will be by the engineer's side while he works and guard him while he sleeps, unfailing in his presence, and will share in the glory of a work completed."

"Sounds like Kavanagh," McKay muttered. "Impossible to get rid of, and always wants more than his share of the credit."

The king looked up as someone approached, a woman this time, also in a see-through shirt. She carried a velvet cushion, and on it lay two silvery bracelets. John tried to keep his eyes on the velvet.

"These are the sacred links." The king picked up one of the bracelets and handed it to McKay. "Put this on."

McKay snapped the bracelet around his wrist and shrugged. "It's not uncomfortable."

The king looked at Sheppard, Ford, and Teyla in turn. "Which of you will be bound as yashina?"

"I'm already responsible for his life, I guess," John said slowly.

"And for the rest of the negotiations," Ford pointed out. They looked at each other, and Ford nodded. "I'll do it."

McKay frowned. "No offense, but you're not going to be of any use to me whatsoever. At least the major can do some rudimentary math."

"Tough." Ford took the second bracelet as the king held it out. "You'll just have to cope." He put the bracelet on.

The king frowned even worse than McKay. "I do not think—"

"Augh," Ford said, scrabbling to get the bracelet off. He held it gingerly between two fingers and stared at McKay. "Is that what it's like inside your head all the time? No offense right back at you, Dr. McKay, but no way."

"I do not think you are meant to be yashina," the king said. "This is not a duty to be undertaken lightly."

John looked at Ford, who was scratching at his wrist. "You were really in his head?"

Ford nodded. "Well, not his head exactly. More like I had two bodies, and one of them was really wired and cranky and," he shrugged, "going really fast, somehow."

John looked at McKay, who was sitting perfectly still. The cranky part was starting to show, though.

"I will do it," Teyla said. She picked the bracelet out of Ford's hand and put it on. After a moment, she raised an eyebrow. "Dr. McKay, you should eat something." She took a pastry from the silver plate. "Here."

"Huh." McKay accepted the pastry and looked at Teyla, and raised an eyebrow in his turn. "That's actually kind of soothing. I mean, you are."

Teyla smiled an almost invisible smile. "Thank you."

"She is yashina," the king said. "It is done. You will bring great honor to yourselves and your people, and great glory to my city."

"Well, great," John said, in the kind of voice that makes people think you're slapping them heartily on the back even when you're not. He had a lot of practice with that voice. "Better get started on the machinery of heaven, then."

The king nodded. "He shall labor all day, and at night, he will sleep safe in the arms of whichever of my wives that he desires." The king beamed. "Or all of them."

McKay dropped the pastry.

"No," Teyla said very firmly, "he will not." She picked the pastry up and pushed it back into McKay's hand. "Our customs do not permit it."

"It is uncommon for the engineers of heaven to be celibate." The king eyed McKay. "We will make allowances, since you are a stranger here. Usann will show you the way." He nodded at the woman in the see-through shirt, and she bowed to McKay and Teyla.

John looked at the king. "Is it all right if we go with them, to see where they'll be working?"

"Yes, by all means. Usann will show you all your lodgings, as well. And later, we will discuss matters of trade."

John tried to nod respectfully to the king and scramble up off his pillow at the same time. His team filed out behind Usann, and outside the king's opulent audience chamber with its gold-embroidered wall hangings, the air seemed lighter.

Usann led the way through a maze of palace hallways. John fell into step beside McKay. "Next time, could you think before you speak? I've got a question for you." They stepped through a doorway into an inner courtyard where the sun beat down on white flagstones. "Actually, I've got two questions."

"I really don't think you're the right person to call me impulsive," McKay said, finishing his pastry and licking crumbs from his fingers. "Or anyone. Pot, kettle. And for your information, it was a well-considered decision."

John ignored that, and also the licking. "First of all, do you even know what the machinery of heaven is, let alone how to fix it?"

"Of course I do," McKay said. "Ford and I saw it when we toured the city. It's some kind of primitive giant telescope. I'm an astrophysicist, if you remember. I do know how basic stargazing equipment works."

John squinted at McKay. "Yeah, I'm sure you built telescopes in your parents' basement. Just don't come complaining to me about primitive working conditions and primitive tools."

"I'm very motivated. They'll give us a ZPM, major. Under those circumstances, I think of it as my duty to Atlantis to perform a miracle of engineering under less than optimal conditions." They went through an archway on the other side, out of the glare of the sun. "And?"

"And, what?"

"Your second question," McKay said, trying to snap his still-sticky fingers and failing.

"Oh. Yeah." John blinked in the sudden shade. "Not really a question, but if that business about the king's wives comes up again while you're working—"

"You feel a need to point out to me again that I should say no?" McKay tilted his head back and gave John the kind of look he normally reserved for Genii invaders and incompetent labwork. "Well, thank you. It's nice to know what you think of me."

John rubbed at the back of his neck, which burned with residual sunlight. "That's not what I meant. It's just that—"

"Besides, did you miss the part where Teyla put that bracelet on? Maybe you could sleep with fifty-three strange women who didn't really want to, maybe you could even do it with Teyla in your head, but I'm not that insane."

"It's nice to know what you think of me," John said irritably. "What I was going to say was that if that comes up again you're probably better off just letting Teyla deal with it. Say you're working and can't be disturbed, that kind of thing."


"Are you going to be okay with this, having Teyla in your head?"

"Yes," McKay said, and then looked almost surprised. "It's not very intrusive — a sort of low-level monitoring." He studied the bracelet around his wrist. "If I could duplicate this, I could make a fortune selling it as a child-care product back on Earth."

"Maybe not," John said. "Production costs aside, just think how much the shipping would add to the price."

Usann led them around a corner and down a few shallow steps into a large hall, and John took the opportunity to move from McKay's side to Teyla's. He noticed that her bracelet fit as snugly around her wrist as McKay's did around his, although both had looked identical, lying on the velvet cushion. Teyla nodded at a large fresco on one of the walls. "That is the machinery of heaven."

John recognized the high tower in the painting as the one that stood not far from the palace, but the surrounding area looked different — fewer buildings, for one thing, and a lot of people gathered around a bonfire or a barbecue or something. He wondered just how long it had been since the machinery of heaven had actually worked. "Are you going to be okay with this?" he asked her, too. "McKay in your head?"

"Yes, of course," she said, as if he'd asked if she would be all right walking across the floor. "It is quite an interesting experience, and I believe I am not as bothered by Dr. McKay's," she sought for words, "restless qualities as Lieutenant Ford was."

"Well. That's good." They passed another fresco of a king cheered by his loyal subjects. John couldn't tell if it was the king they'd just met or one from centuries ago; the beard and headdress made them almost interchangeable. "Does the king really have fifty-three wives?"

"I'm not familiar with the exact number." Teyla flipped her hair back over her shoulders. "I trust Dr. McKay will not have to become familiar with the exact number, either."

John nodded. "I'm counting on you to keep it that way. Better to have you talking about cultural differences than McKay creating a diplomatic incident."

"I agree," Teyla said, but there was a certain look on her face, and after a moment, she added, "I would not antagonize the king or the people of Leuflet at this point, but I find this custom distasteful."

John held a heavy velvet drapery aside for her as they left the large hall for a series of smaller rooms. "I get that. But we're not here for social reform." He was starting to wonder if he'd have to hire a guide to find his way back. Everything looked the same, light brown wood, high ceilings, gold inlay.

At long last, they walked out through French doors that probably weren't called French doors here into a much larger courtyard, with wings of the palace stretching out left and right. Straight ahead, the fourth side of the courtyard was demarcated by a line of low trees with their dark green crowns trimmed into perfect circles. A path led between the trees into a park beyond, and John could see the tower in the park. Viewed from here, it didn't look too different from in the fresco; some trick of perspective made the trees cut off the view of the buildings he knew were there, made it seem as though the park spread out to the left as well as to the right.

"Look out," Teyla said, touching a hand to his arm, and John focused his attention closer to his feet and saw that the courtyard was split diagonally, its paving stones buckling up in scar-tissue ridges around a deep crack that ran nearly the full length from one end of the courtyard to the other and was wide enough at its center that a small bridge had been built across it, just a simple arch of stone, without railings.

Usann led them across the bridge and towards the park. "Maybe they should have asked if you could fix the sewers," John said quietly to McKay.

"What do you mean?"

"Something smells funny here. And by funny, I mean really bad."

"What do you expect? It's a primitive culture," McKay said, for once keeping his voice down. "I don't mind pretending to be an engineer of heaven, but I draw the line at digging sewers."

"Even if you could have a ZPM for it?" The smell was less noticeable once they got into the park. The path was unpaved, and the ground was dry with dust under their feet. Small white butterflies swirled through the air, all of them with that dead-drunk-and-not-giving-a-damn flight path of butterflies everywhere. "You're not prepared to make a few sacrifices?"

McKay sighed. "Is this conversation going to go on to the point where you ask me if I'd eat a worm for a ZPM, or something equally revolting? Because I have more useful things to do with my time than take a stand on theoretical humiliation."

"Whoa," John said, holding up a hand. "Bit of a leap there." A butterfly landed on his fingers. It furled and unfurled its wings, tickling his skin. "Anyway, you know we came here to trade for food and fabrics. The ZPM is a bonus, and yeah, it would be great if we could get it, but if you can't fix this machinery before we have to go back, don't worry about it. We'll think of something."

"I'm not worrying about it, major." McKay looked up at the tower, which John guessed was probably called the tower of heaven, extrapolating from the available evidence. "Try and find out if they have anything like coffee."

"Nobody ever does," John said. The butterfly took off again, zigzagging its way towards a clump of flowers.

Usann led them to one of the low buildings to one side of the tower and told them they would be housed there during their time in Leuflet. One of the guards had already brought their packs there, stacking them next to the broad padded bench that stood before the fireplace in the central room. Like all the other fireplaces John had seen in Leuflet, this one appeared to be purely ornamental, or at least not to have been used for a very long time. Considering the climate, that seemed just as well.

"The engineer of heaven will sleep here," Usann said, gesturing at the door to the right, "with his yashina, since he will take no other comfort. And the rahat will sleep here," she gestured at the door to the left, "with his advanet, and they will take whatever comfort they can find."

"I'm a what now?" Ford said to John out of the corner of his mouth. "And does comfort mean what I think it does?"

"Don't worry," John muttered back, "I promise I'll respect you in the morning." He took his pack into the assigned room and looked at the bed. It might not hold fifty-three wives, but probably at least a dozen.

Ford went back to the stargate to report back to Weir, and John tagged along as Usann showed McKay and Teyla into the tower, led them up narrow stairs with worn-down steps and gave them keys to the top level. What John could see of the machinery of heaven from the door looked very old and very large and very dusty. "Feryn will stay with you," Usann said, inclining her head at the guard, "and bring you whatever you need or desire. It is an honor to serve an engineer of heaven."

John put a hand on McKay's shoulder before McKay could vanish into the room. "Are you sure you can handle this?"

"Yes, major, for the last time. At least, I sincerely hope it's the last time. Now go and negotiate a good food trade agreement and let me do my job."

"Yeah, okay." John shoved his hand in his pocket, and saw Teyla rub at her shoulder. "I just. The king said there were dangers, remember? I have a bad feeling about this."

"You just wanted an excuse to use that line." McKay frowned and rubbed at that spot on his shoulder, too. "Remember about the coffee."

John shook his head and followed Usann down the stairs again. Falling behind her, he put a hand on his own shoulder, and felt nothing special.

She led him back the way they'd come, past the butterflies and the bad smell and the frescoes and the gold inlay, and left him in a room with another never-used fireplace decorated with mosaic tiles in blue and green and white, painted with tiny animals. John looked for butterflies, but didn't find any before the king came.

"Since you have brought me an engineer of heaven, you are worthy of the greatest respect," the king said. "I will do you great honor."

"Thank you," John said, bracing himself.

The king took him all over the palace on a personal guided tour: more frescoed halls, rooms with oddly vaulted ceilings, rooms with beds that made the ones in the guest building look small, rooms with carved wood panels, rooms lined with glass-topped cabinets full of old coins and seals and carvings in pale grey and pink stone and ribbons with gold thread woven into them. It was like the field trip to DC back in high school, when all he'd wanted to see was Air and Space and the teacher had insisted on dragging them through what felt like every single other museum on the Mall. John nodded and smiled and smiled and nodded and did his best to work the conversation around to beans and bed linens now and then.

Many hours later, when the sun stood low enough to get in John's eyes when they passed a window, the king led the way back to the room with the animal-tile fireplace and left John in the company of a tall, hawk-nosed woman called Ennif, who turned out to be some kind of procurement official and was only too happy to go into detail about the beans. In fact, after another two hours of going into detail about beans, John was starting to miss the curio cabinets and the frescoes.

"Thank you," he said when she finally wound down. "I think this is going to be a good agreement, for both of us."

Ennif nodded decisively. "We have needed something like these medicines of yours for a long time. And something to do with the surplus jeve harvest," she added with a brief flash of a smile.

"Well, then I'm glad we could help you out," John said, smiling back. "At least with the beans and medicines, and maybe with the machinery of heaven as well."

Her jaw tightened. "Yes." She hesitated visibly, her eyes cutting to him and away again several times as she gathered her notes together. "Allow me to escort you back to your lodgings."

"I'd appreciate that." John held the door for her. "I don't think I can find my way back through the palace without a guide, to be honest." But he recognized every room they passed through this time, counting in his mind the turns and doorways and collections of old swords on the walls.

When they came back to the courtyard with the bridge, Ennif stopped. "Major Sheppard."

"I can find my own way from here," John said, keeping his eyes on her face. "Don't worry about it."

"About the machinery of heaven," she said in a low voice, speaking faster. "It's not necessary — this trade agreement is quite enough, you understand?"

"Maybe I do," John said, slowing his words as much as she had speeded hers up. "I heard maybe it was dangerous somehow?"

She nodded. "The return of the fire of heaven would bring great glory to the king, of course. But we do very well without it."

"The thing is," John squinted towards the tower of heaven, backlit in gold and red by the setting sun, "we were promised something as a reward for fixing this machinery, one of the king's treasures, and the thing is, we could really use it. Maybe even more than the jeve beans."

She turned over the papers in her hands. "It's possible that we could come to some sort of agreement," she said. "Please," another swift look, "please tell your engineer not to do anything rash."

"I'll see what I can do, ma'am." One of the papers fluttered to the ground, and John picked it up for her. "Maybe we can talk more about this."

Ennif looked around, not exactly frightened, but very wary. There were some people at the far end of the courtyard, sitting and standing around a couple of benches by the row of trees, but they were too far away to hear anything. "I will see what I can arrange," she said, and walked back into the palace.

John stood for a while watching the bridge, then grimaced at the smell and crossed the courtyard. He stopped at the high point of the bridge and looked down into the crack; it was narrow, but very deep. Some of the people by the trees were looking at him, now, so he smiled and moved on.

No one else was in the guesthouse. John checked both rooms, and saw that the bed in the room assigned to McKay and Teyla was even bigger. He splashed some tepid water on his face and went out again. The door to the tower of heaven stood ajar, and John paused on the threshold and looked around. People were strolling by the trees, and in the little park past the tower. Everything looked peaceful.

Climbing up the stairs, John slowly became aware of noise. The higher up he got, the more clearly the noise resolved into McKay's voice and a lot of metal clanking and grating. John climbed faster, but when he came up into the topmost chamber, he found that McKay's running commentary was acerbic but cheerful, or what passed for cheerful with him. Teyla stood by with tools, and Feryn, who was supposed to stand guard, was wielding a hammer. "No, to the left," McKay said, and the metal rang again. "Would it have killed them to come up here and clean and oil things every now and then? Major, since you're here, you might as well make yourself useful and start scraping the rust off that handle over there."

John raised an eyebrow at Teyla, and she nodded with a small smile, so he got himself a glass of the tart, iced juice that was in a carafe on a table to one side, and got to work. The machinery really didn't seem that complicated, and also, now that he got a good look at it, it didn't exactly seem to be a telescope.

Ford radioed in after a while to say that he was back from the stargate. "I'm in the guesthouse. You need me to come up in the tower and help you, in case there's trouble?"

"Trouble?" John put his rag down. "What kind of trouble would that be, exactly?"

"There's a lot of people down here," Ford said. "And Usann's coming with some more guards. Doesn't look like anyone's armed, but they're all gathering around the door to the tower."

"I'm coming down," John said. "Teyla, you're with me." He started for the stairs, and Teyla went after him, and McKay went after her, and Feryn went after McKay. John looked back over his shoulder. "I think you two should stay up here."

McKay shook his head. "Teyla goes, I go." Feryn didn't bother to say anything, just gestured at McKay.

A hollow boom echoed up through the tower. "Someone is beating on the door," Teyla said. "Perhaps we should all go, and find out what they want."

"McKay, stay in the back, okay?" John started to run down the stairs. The same hollow boom came again; he hadn't even noticed that the door to the tower of heaven was made of metal, but clearly it was, and the echo rang on the bare stone walls.

He came down to the door, and felt vibrations in the metal when he put his hand to it. John opened the door and went out on the tower steps. Usann and three guards in floaty bronze shirts were at the foot of the steps, and all the people who had been sitting on the benches and walking in the shade were standing there, looking up at the tower. Ford was to one side of Usann, having apparently just removed the man who'd hammered on the door from the tower steps. He looked up. "Sir. I think you should keep McKay inside."

Teyla, McKay, and Feryn came out on the steps besides John. He shot McKay an irritated look, and McKay shot him an irritated look right back. "Okay, what is going on here?"

He stepped down, and Usann stepped up, and they met halfway. "These are the king's wives," she said.

John looked at the crowd. They were of all ages, all finely dressed in bright colors, slim young girls in their early teens and grey-bearded men, strapping youths with shoulders wide as barn doors and women who seemed to consist mainly of hips and breasts, and they were all looking at McKay like he was fresh meat and they had a barbecue going. "The king's wives. I see."

"The king is married to the land, and his wives are all of the land." Usann tucked a strand of hair back with a harried gesture. "We will—"

"Give him to us," a man said from the front of the crowd. "He is ours by right." Those standing around him nodded.

"Go back to your quarters." Usann crossed her arms. "You dishonor the guest-right."

"The engineer of heaven is ours to have," a woman said, and the crowd stirred and murmured agreement behind her. "Give him to us."

Behind John, McKay made a choked sound.

"He is not yours." Usann and the guards formed a line, and Ford seemed to have become part of that line as well.

There was a scrabbling sound that might be McKay's fingers against the stone wall of the tower.

"The engineer doth labor by day, and sleepeth by night in the arms of the king's wives." The man, who was quite tall, looked down sternly at Usann. "So is it written. He is ours, and we will have him."

"No," McKay said, though his voice didn't carry. "No, and no, and definitely not, and did I mention no?"

"He is ours," the woman agreed, "no matter who guards him now. He is ours, and who will gainsay us?" She put her hands on her hips, and the smooth lines of her dress turned into curves as she looked up at McKay and Feryn on the steps with challenging eyes.

"I will." Teyla pushed forward, past John, and started down the steps. "I am yashina to the engineer of heaven, and I say you shall not touch him."

The tall man looked at her with sharp assessment. "You challenge our right? You will fight for him?"

Teyla set her feet down firmly, raising small clouds of dust. In her boots, she came up to the man's chin. "I do, and I will."

A space cleared around the two of them, Teyla and the tall man, the rest of the king's wives forming up in a rough half-circle from one side of the steps to the other, with those nearest to Teyla and the man linking their arms together, as if to stop either of them from running away. Usann and the guards, at the foot of the steps, made no move to interfere. "Is this really necessary?" John said. "I mean—"

Usann looked up at him. "If the yashina wins, all other claims to the engineer of heaven are set aside. The yashina has better right and stronger claim than the king's wives."

John tried again. "If she's got a better right, do they really have to fight about it?"

But Teyla and the tall man were already circling each other slowly on the bare, dusty ground, and the king's wives stamped their feet in approval. McKay took a step forward and sat down heavily on the steps next to John. "Please tell me this isn't really happening."

"Teyla can do this," John said. "She'll be fine."

"Of course she'll be fine," McKay snapped. "She could beat that guy blindfolded. That's not the point. The point is, Teyla is fighting a duel to protect my virtue, and if you put that in the mission report, I'll do something really terrible to you that I can't think of right now because I'm too busy telling myself that this isn't really happening."

"Come on, it's not that bad," John said, sitting down next to McKay as Teyla's first kick made the tall man grunt and stagger back. "When was the last time people fought over who got to sleep with you?"

"Oh, it was a weekly event back in Russia." McKay stared at the crowd. His eyes showed a little too much white. "You don't think they, I mean, they can't all want to... that woman over there looks just like my grandmother."

"Let's not find out," John suggested. Teyla dodged and spun and kicked out again, and the tall man went down on one knee, swore, and got to his feet again. "In fact, if it turns out the rest of the king's wives aren't going to accept the outcome of this fight, you're going to go back inside this tower and lock the door and pretend you're in a fairytale until one of us comes and gets you, okay?"

"No, not okay," McKay said. He was still staring at the crowd. "But better than the alternative. For the record, yes, I would dig ditches for a ZPM if I had to, but I'm not sleeping with all the king's wives."

"Damn right you're not," John muttered. One of the tall man's blows connected, and a thin line of blood showed on Teyla's arm. John tightened his grip on his P-90.

"Don't worry, she's fine." McKay put a hand on his arm. "Watch this."

John watched, Teyla pulled a move he remembered from one of their training sessions, and then one he'd definitely never seen before, and the tall man went down, and stayed down even after the cloud of dust had settled. The crowd muttered, and Teyla crossed her arms and looked at them all. "There. He is not yours, he is mine, and you will not touch him."

The oldest woman in the crowd stepped up, pushing apart two of the linked people in the first row. "Is that the one who looks like your grandmother?" John asked.

"Yes, thank you for reminding me." McKay let go of John and brushed his fingers over his own arm, then did it again, and again. John looked at Teyla and then back at McKay; he was touching the place where the cut on her arm was still seeping a few drops of blood. John put his hand over McKay's fingers, there on his arm, and both McKay and Teyla turned their heads to look at him.

"He is yours," the old woman said, "and much comfort may he have of you. We would have bathed him in milk and honey and wrapped him in silk. But you are strangers to our ways." She turned and looked at the rest of the king's wives. "It is the king who should have known better. Whoso sleepeth with the fire, waketh with the ashes."

Several of the other wives nodded. "He acted wrongly," said the tall man, rising out of the dust at last and brushing off his knees.

"He has not given us proper consideration," a red-haired woman said, staring up at the steps. John wasn't sure if she was staring at McKay and him, or at something just above their heads. "He grows ever more willful."

The wives began to leave, slowly, talking among themselves, going in groups of two and three back towards the palace. Usann spoke to one of the guards and he walked off, too. Teyla came up to the steps and held her hand out and pulled McKay to his feet. "I think it would be best," she said, "if you could finish working on the machinery of heaven as soon as possible. I do not particularly wish to fight the king's wives every day."

"Yes, that's all very well, but if anyone so much as comes near me with milk and honey," McKay started to say, and Teyla smiled up at him and led him towards the guesthouse, still holding his hand, the silver of her bracelet lying against the silver of his.

John got to his feet, too, just as Ford came up to him. He looked around for Feryn, but the man seemed to have disappeared. "That was weird," Ford said.

John nodded. "I think the king's sleeping on the couch tonight." He looked towards the palace. The king's wives were walking up and down, talking, and they didn't look happy. "And I think as soon as those jeve beans are packed up, we're leaving, whether McKay's done with the machinery of heaven or not."

Ford frowned. "You really think there might be trouble? Over people not getting to sleep with Dr. McKay? I mean."

"Different strokes for different cultures," John said, and they followed Usann and the guards into the guesthouse. "These people are taking the whole engineer of heaven thing very, very seriously."

Inside the house, it was cooler, and easier to breathe.

"I have sent for food." Usann went around the large central room, brushing away invisible dust, plumping up cushions, lighting lamps. "I think perhaps," her swift tour of the room brought her to John's side, "it will be best if I post a pair of guards by your door during the night."

"Guards," McKay said. "Please tell me I'm not the only one who finds this entire situation ridiculous."

"They will likely not be needed." Usann crossed her arms, and John realized he'd gone at least twenty minutes without really noticing her see-through shirt. "But it would be discourteous to do less, to ensure the safety and comfort of an engineer of heaven."

The guard who'd left before came back with two more people and a lot of food: fresh bread, fruit carved in various geometric shapes, fried fish, roasted vegetables and several little bowls of sauces and dips. Teyla sniffed everything, ripped off a piece of bread, and tasted all the sauces in quick succession, and then nodded at McKay, finally letting go of his hand. "You should eat."

"Are the rest of us allowed to eat as well, even if we're not engineers of heaven?" Ford got himself some fish and poured a slightly greenish sauce over it.

"You may," McKay said grandly, waving a piece of bread at Ford before dipping it into the fish roe sauce. John tried it, too; it was good, but too salty. One of the roasted vegetables tasted almost like asparagus, and he settled down with that and fish and bread.

Usann had some fish and bread with them, and then she left, taking the kitchen servants with her and leaving two guards outside the guesthouse door. John looked out the window to see them stand there, large and bulky, their flimsy shirts fluttering in the evening breeze. It was getting late; nearly all the light had faded out of the sky. Over by the table, Teyla lit another lamp, and Ford was yawning over a plate of red fruit triangles.

John walked around the room, more restless than tired. He opened the door next to the fireplace and nodded to himself. That would probably hold another ten wives.

"Is that the bathroom?" McKay said, coming over to stand at John's side. "I think you were right about the plumbing. The facilities in the tower certainly aren't anything to—" He caught sight of the sunken tub and the tilework and the flowers. "Aren't anything compared to this. These people do have some good ideas about how to treat their engineers. Not that I'm precisely an engineer, strictly speaking, but I'm sure if they were advanced enough to actually have astrophysicists, they'd have good ideas about how to treat them, too."

"Before you get too carried away," John said, "I've got two words for you. King's. Wives."

"Yes." McKay looked on the giant tub with less enthusiasm, probably also picturing it filling up with people who looked like his grandmother. "Did you find out whether they have coffee? I think—"

"Excuse me," Teyla said, slipping in between them. "If all you're going to do is stand and talk, I would like to use this room."

"Sorry," John said, stepping back from the doorway.

"Oh." McKay looked down at her. "So you're the one who needs to — I mean, I thought that was me."

Teyla smiled. "I get to go first," she said and closed the door.

John eyed the door, and then looked at McKay. "Okay, now you're kind of freaking me out, here. She knows when you need to use the bathroom? Isn't that kind of embarrassing?"

"No." McKay shrugged. "At least, it wasn't until you just mentioned it, and now I think I'm going to have another piece of bread and think about something else until I forget you asked." He turned away, walking towards the table with the remains of dinner. John looked for Ford and saw that he'd fallen asleep on the padded bench, head cradled on his arm.

"I forgot to ask about coffee," John said, going over to pick up another of the pink cubes that tasted like melon.

"Coffee is a priority." McKay turned a piece of bread over between his fingers. "Not quite as important as the ZPM, of course, but—"

"Not quite as important as food, either. At least not to those of us who aren't that crazy about MREs." John put the piece of fruit down untasted and wiped his fingers on a napkin. "I can't believe that link thing isn't weirding you out."

McKay put the bread down and turned towards John. "Clearly, you think it should. It's weirding you out, isn't it?"

"Kind of," John admitted. He reached for McKay's wrist, brought it up so he could get a closer look at the silver bracelet. "It just seems so... intimate." The fine rope of silver links fit close to McKay's wrist, so close John couldn't even get a fingernail between skin and metal.

"I suppose it is," McKay said. John ran a fingertip along the edge of the bracelet and felt blood beat under the skin on the inside of McKay's wrist. He slowed, then stopped, and when he looked up he met McKay's eyes, sharply blue and wary. "Intimate." McKay didn't pull his hand away.

There was a clatter of something being dropped on a tile floor, and Teyla opened the bathroom door. John let go of McKay's wrist and turned to see her come out of the bathroom wrapped in a quilted robe that hung almost to the floor, carrying her clothes over her arm. "Your turn," she said, and gave McKay a long, searching look as he went past her.

"That really is quite a bathroom," John said, rubbing his fingertips against his sleeve to replace the sensation of skin on skin. "You think I should wake Ford, or leave him out here?"

Teyla came up to him, and the look she gave him was even more searching. "Do you wish you had said yes?" she said.

John blinked. "What?"

"Do you wish you had said yes to being yashina?" She held up her arm, and the sleeve of the quilted silk robe fell back, showing the silver about her wrist. "We can trade places." Her eyes were steady on him. "If you feel it would be best."

Lamplight cast a warm glow on Teyla's skin, but the bracelet glinted bright enough to hurt John's eyes. It was still easier to look at than meeting Teyla's eyes. "No," he said slowly. "I have to finish the negotiations I've started."

Teyla nodded and lowered her arm. "Then be careful," she said. John tried to think of a good way to reply. Fortunately, she continued, "Feryn told me today that the king and his wives have had many disagreements lately, and the last time it came to open enmity between the king and his wives, there were riots in the city, and people were killed."

"That would be bad." John looked out the window again, seeing the guards in a new light. "You think we should pull out? We don't need the beans badly enough that we have to start a civil war over people not getting to sleep with McKay."

"I don't think it will come to that," Teyla said, but she didn't look entirely happy. "I thought you had come to an agreement about the beans."

"We did, but there's still packing and transportation, and we haven't settled anything about cloth. And I promised McKay I'd ask if they've ever heard of coffee."

Teyla turned her head, and there came McKay, back from the bathroom, but not wearing a robe. "Did someone say coffee?"

"I'll ask tomorrow," John said, not looking at the bracelet. "Listen, McKay. The nice lady who's putting our bean deal together seemed a bit worried about this machinery of heaven. How soon do you think you'll have it fixed, and what does it actually do?"

"It's not even a telescope, just a swivel-mounted lens, and not a very good one, either. It's badly ground, and there are scratches—"

"Never mind the design flaws," John said.

"Everything about it is a design flaw," McKay said. "The main problem is the platform it's mounted on, and getting it to rise to the top of the tower. There's a set of controls that I can't get to work. I've had to make any number of shortcuts and changes, since apparently there are no spare parts, because the machinery of heaven is supposed to be one of a kind, and can I just take a moment to point out how deeply stupid that is? If these people spent half the time on caring for the equipment that they do on pursuing the engineers, they wouldn't have a problem in the first place."

"So how long do you think it'll take?" John prodded.

"Oh, we should have it done by tomorrow afternoon," McKay said. "Then we can pick up the ZPM and leave, if you've got the beans and the coffee."

"There isn't any coffee. There might not be any coffee. Don't get your hopes up."

"Aren't you usually telling me to be more optimistic, not less?"

John didn't remember McKay standing so close. "Yes. But not about this coffee."

Teyla cleared her throat. "Then I think we should go to bed," she said, and took McKay's hand again. McKay blinked slowly, looked away from John, and nodded.

The floor creaked ever so slightly under their feet as they went, hand in hand and wrist to wrist, into their bedroom and closed the door. John stood for a while, looking at the pattern of lamplight and moonlight on the floor, and then he went to get Ford into bed.

Even in the giant bed with its clean sheets and soft pillows, John had trouble sleeping. Ford was silent, barely breathing loud enough for John to hear that he was alive. John rose and went out into the main room, and stood there for a while and looked out the window at the guards. The night was quiet, the trees still and silent. At this hour, the late-evening breeze had died down, and not a rustle disturbed the leaves. He couldn't hear a sound.

John went back to bed and closed his eyes, and opened his eyes, and closed his eyes. He knew he'd slept; the squares of moonlight on the floor moved, and the sky grew lighter between one blink and the next. Wrapping his left hand around his right wrist in a tight grip, he finally fell into a deeper sleep just as the birds started to sing outside.

"If you sleep any longer, sir, McKay's going to drink all the coffee," Ford said in his ear.

John sat up before he could even get his eyes open. "There's coffee?"

"Sort of." The tone in Ford's voice nearly made John drop back down on his pillows again, but he could hear voices through the half-open door, and the clink of cutlery, and smell something freshly baked with sugar in it, so he swung his legs over the side of the bed and forced himself to be halfway alert.

He waved a hand at McKay and Teyla as he crossed the main room, but didn't speak to anyone until he'd washed and dressed and sneezed seven times from opening a jar he'd thought was soap that turned out to be some kind of heavily scented powder. John washed every trace of the powder off his hands and straightened his jacket before he left the bathroom again.

"Good morning, major," Teyla said, smiling up at him. She looked calm and happy.

McKay waved two fingers at John and handed him a bowl with something off-white and sludgy drizzled with something brownish and even sludgier. John raised an eyebrow. "Try it," McKay said, looking smug, so John tried it.

He didn't know what to expect, and the combination of tastes made him grimace. Some kind of honeyed yogurt, which he didn't much like, and the brown stuff was— John put his spoon down and grinned at McKay. "Mocha syrup."

McKay nodded. "Your mission today, should you choose to accept it. I can't absolutely promise that the people of Atlantis will strew flowers for you to walk on, but if you can get coffee beans, you'll be the most popular person in the city."

"I bet I could get extra desserts for a week," John agreed.

"At least until the next person smuggles in a cask from the mainland." McKay tilted his head to look at Teyla. "Why do you put all those herbs in? Makes the stuff taste like cough medicine."

"It is cough medicine," Teyla said. "We do not drink it for recreation."

"I'm not entirely surprised by that. Have you thought about trying to make it taste good?"

John tuned them out and got himself a freshly baked piece of something that mostly resembled a scone. The rest of their breakfast appeared to be more fruit, just plain slices this time, and something fried in a bowl that smelled vaguely unpleasant, so he didn't even try it. He looked out the window and saw that the guards from last night had been replaced by two others, and that it had rained a little, wetting down the dusty earth, putting a dark green gloss on the leaves.

Turning back, he looked at his team. Ford was eating the fried stuff on a not-scone; Teyla drizzled more mocha syrup on her yogurt. McKay looked nearly as calm and happy as Teyla, and John didn't think the coffee discovery had anything to do with it. They were standing close, shoulder to shoulder, or rather shoulder to arm. They looked good together.

John put down his half-empty bowl of yogurt. "Ford, you're with me," he said. "We've got to arrange transportation through the procurement office, and find out what they call coffee beans here and what they think they're worth."

Ford nodded. "Kitchen?"

"Good place to start." John looked at McKay and Teyla. "Listen, I'm not saying it won't be great if we get that ZPM. But I've got a feeling—"

The door opened and Usann came in, followed by Feryn. They wore the same kind of sheer bronze shirts the guards had worn yesterday. "I bid you good morning," Usann said, giving them all a small, courteous bow. "Is the engineer of heaven ready to be escorted to the tower?"

"He is ready," Teyla said with an equally courteous bow back.

"The engineer of heaven would really prefer not to be talked about as though he couldn't hear every word," McKay said, with a quick sideways glance at John, a little exasperated, a lot amused. "Did you find those tools I asked for?"

"Some of them," Usann said. "Follow me, please."

"Because we can't walk all the way over there on our own." McKay picked up another piece of not-scone. "Don't forget the coffee, major," he said over his shoulder as he walked out. "I can't promise you my first-born child, but I'll give you my Jell-O."

John and Ford geared up and left the house not long afterwards. The sun was already warm this early in the morning, and the ground was drying fast. Butterflies spun dizzily across the path, and the air smelled fresh, until they got to the courtyard and the bridge and the crack and the bad drains.

"I think the kitchen's this way," Ford said, gesturing at the entrance to the left. They crossed the bridge and went inside, and two rooms and three hallways later, they were lost. John didn't recognize any of the tapestries or inlaid tables or enamelled vases full of flowers, and he couldn't smell food.

In a hallway hung with paintings of trees, they met a woman with a feather duster, who told them to go back, down the stairs, left, through the library, and then ask someone again. They got lost for a second time and ended up in the wine cellar instead of the library, but from there, they could hear kitchen clatter, voices, the sound of running water and the rattle of cutlery. Ford found the right door on the first try.

The kitchen was large and surprisingly well lit for being more than half underground, with large half-circle windows high up on the walls, most of them propped open. Two women were cooking something on a black iron range that took up nearly half a wall, three boys were washing dishes in a sink about the size of a hipbath, and several people were working along a large wooden table in the middle of the room, some of them carving fruit, some of them kneading dough. The air was hot and damp.

"Excuse me," John said, feeling sweat break out along his hairline.

Most of the people working at the table turned their heads to look, and a woman in grey wiped her hands on her apron and took a few steps towards them. "You are the strangers who brought the engineer of heaven among us," she said, and John's hands almost went to his weapon at her tone of voice. "Have you come to make some complaint about your food?"

"No, ma'am," Ford said, making full use of his young-and-earnest face. "Breakfast was great, especially those, um." He glanced sideways at John.

"The yogurt with honey," John said, trying to look as earnest as Ford. "We have something like that where we come from, but we've never had it with that syrup you put on it. We were kinda wondering what that was."

"Oh." The cook crossed her arms and looked them up and down. "That was to your liking?"

John nodded. "How do you make it? If it's not a secret," he added with a smile.

The cook shook her head. "The beans were sent to us as tribute," she said. "Crates and crates of them, and so bitter no one will touch them. I have tried to give them a sweeter taste, but there aren't many who will have a second bite after the first."

"Well, we will," John said, keeping the smile on his face. "We just wanted to let you know."

She pushed a sweaty curl away from her forehead with the back of her wrist. "It is good to hear that someone does. Even if it is you. And I suppose your engineer likes it, too."

Ford opened his mouth to say something, and John kicked him. "Is there a problem?" John said. "With us and with our engineer?"

"We have been told you've come to trade us medicines for food," the cook said. "There's none of us would say no to that. But you should have refrained from bringing your engineer with you. We none of us want the fire back."

John frowned. "What fire?"

She brushed her hands off again. "I have work needs doing," she said, brushing her hands off. "And there's no business for you in my kitchen."

The cook turned back to the table. John took a step after her, but then he looked around, at the boys by the sink drying long sharp knives, at the man kneading dough, arm muscles rippling, at the young woman by his side hefting a rolling pin. After a quick look at Ford, John smiled again, and kept the smile plastered on his face as they walked back out again.

"You really think they'd've attacked us, sir?" Ford said as they wandered through the wine cellar again. "We're the king's guests. Aren't we supposed to get special treatment?"

"I think we don't want to put them or us in a situation where we'd find out just what kind of special treatment that would be." John walked too close to a wine rack and got cobwebs on his sleeve. "And I think if McKay keeps working on that machinery, he's in danger."

Ford was quiet for a while. Then he said, "I could go back to the jumper and get some MREs."

John nodded agreement with Ford's thought processes. "Might be a good idea. We're probably safe with the bread, though." They went up a narrow staircase and through a small door, stepping out into the large room with the frescoes. John stared for a moment at a painted king cupping his hand around a painted flame that seemed about to set his beard on fire. "I think I know the way from here." He nodded at the far wall and its three doors, and Ford followed him.

In the room with the flower tapestries, they met Ennif, who was coming down a flight of steps from the left, carrying a ledger. "Good morning," she said. "I was about to come in search of you. Am I right in thinking that you are interested in seeing what our weavers can produce?"

John nodded. "We're interested in bedsheets," he said. "Or the material to make our own. Blankets, too."

"Or material for that, too," Ford put in. "I saw this fabric yesterday that someone said was for a winter cloak. Something like that, or even heavier, if you have it."

Ennif looked a little startled. "Your home must be much colder than Leuflet."

"It gets pretty cold at night." John smiled. "Oh, and we talked to the cook about some other beans, kind of bitter? She said you had a lot of them, and we might be able to take some of those off your hands."

"Yes?" Ennif smiled back, eyes lighting up. "That could be arranged to our mutual satisfaction, I believe. But first, please come with me."

Wending their way through another series of long galleries full of intricately carved furniture and brocaded wall hangings, John and Ford managed to work in a few more casual references to coffee beans before they left the palace through a side door and crossed a paved terrace with a fountain, went down a few shallow steps and across an open space with gravel and a few trees and came to a row of timbered storage buildings. Ennif unlocked the door of the second building, escorted them in, and started showing them different types of fabric, different weaving techniques, different materials, different thread count.

John thought about picking up fitted sheets at Sears, and tried to look as though he understood at least half of what Ennif was saying about looms and how long the different materials took to make and what that might mean in terms of what they were worth. Some of the stuff was a bit like cotton, but scratchier; some was like linen, and John thought this was what the sheets were made of in the guesthouse, which probably meant it was pretty special stuff. He tried to make a mental note to ask someone else about the relative value of different fabrics, and then they got to the blankets. Rows and rows of blankets and heavier fabrics on endless shelves.

"Great stuff," John said, reaching out at random and patting something thick and greenish-grey and a bit scratchy. Then he grinned at Ford. "I'd swear this is military issue."

Ford patted the fabric, too, and nodded. "Maybe we should get something nicer, sir," he said, straight-faced. "I mean, for the civilians."

"It would be considerate of us, wouldn't it?" John turned to Ennif. "Maybe something just a little softer."

"We will strive to find something that pleases you." She nodded and led them deeper into the building. John lagged behind, running his hands over stacks of blankets and feeling the different textures, the weight of the wool, or wool-like substance, anyway. A thin strip of daylight caught his eye, and he saw that at the far end of this row of storage shelves, someone had opened a door. John squinted that way and saw a backlit figure beckoning him. Judging by the beard, it was probably the king. When he turned his head, John could see him a bit more clearly. He had a spectacular black eye.

John went around the row of shelves and tapped Ford's shoulder. "Something's come up," he said quietly. "Can you take it from here?"

"Yes, sir," Ford said just as quietly, and John wasn't surprised when his next word was, "Trouble?"

"Going to find that out." John looked up. Ahead of them, Ennif slowed, looked back, and turned around. John waved at her. "Tell her I got an upset stomach or something," he suggested to Ford, and slipped back around the shelves past stacks of heavy brown fabric with narrow red stripes.

The door still stood open, and John went outside to find the king standing in the shelter of some large bushes, half-hidden by swaying branches and dark green leaves. Crunching carefully across the gravel, John ducked in under a trailing branch and gave the king his best polite nod.

"I wish to speak with you," the king said, glancing towards the door where John had come out. "Will the others follow you?"

"No." John shook his head. "They're busy looking at blankets. Have you — did something happen to you?" The black eye was bad enough, but the king also had scratches on his face, above the beard, and the hint of a bruise that the soft shirt collar didn't quite hide.

The king shook his head. "It is of no consequence."

"Mm." When John held a couple of branches out of the way, the light fell more clearly on the king, and John could see more bruises through the thin shirt sleeves. "I couldn't help but notice that your, ah, the king's wives were pretty upset yesterday."

"It is necessary that the engineer of heaven complete his task," the king said. "If you can ensure this, I will have the kazap set in gold for you."

"That really won't be necessary." John was relatively sure that the kazap was the ZPM, and he suspected having it set in gold would annoy a number of people for a number of reasons, with McKay very nearly at the top of the list, and himself most definitely at the top of the list of people who'd be exposed to that annoyance, at length. "Our engineer is working as fast as he can."

"I know other people have spoken to you on this matter." After another glance towards the storage building, the king stepped closer, until his beard nearly brushed against John's shoulder. "Do not listen to them. I rule in Leuflet, and with the machinery of heaven, I will restore the glory of my ancestors."

"I'm sure you will," John said, nodding and trying not to stare too openly at those scratches — definitely fingernails, he thought. "In fact, I think I should go talk to our engineer right now, supervise him a bit, make sure everything is going as planned."

"Very good." The king inclined his head. "I have faith in you. It would be regrettable if you came to disappoint me."

"Oh, absolutely," John said.

He ducked out through the other end of the shrubbery, went around another storage building, and paused in the shade to brush leaves and strands of spiderweb off his clothes and out of his hair. As he leaned back against the timbered wall and drew a few deep breaths, his radio headset crackled. "Major Sheppard?" Ford was speaking in a low voice, as if trying to keep someone else from overhearing.

"Sheppard here. Everything all right?"

"That's what I wanted to ask you, sir. Is there a problem?"

"Nothing immediate," John said, considering the situation, "but I'm going to check on Teyla and McKay, all the same. How are those blankets and sheets working out?"

"Pretty good," Ford said. "Looks like we can get everything we need here. I'll meet you back at the tower later. Ford out."

John pushed away from the wall and started to walk across the gravel. "Major, we are fine," Teyla said in his ear. "There is no need to check on us."

"I kinda think there is," John said. "I'll be there in a little while." He came up on the terrace and followed it along the palace wall, then turned and continued to walk around the palace on the outside, crossing a small topiary garden, a paved walk with stone benches, and more gravel. Turning the next corner, he went through a wrought-iron gate into a larger formal garden; at the far end of a crossing path he saw gardeners hard at work in a flowerbed, half-hidden by a wheelbarrow piled high with dirt.

More flowers, white and blue and green, grew to each side of the path he was walking on, and the ground was nearly covered with fallen petals. Past the next crossing path, the flowers were yellow and red and a particularly virulent shade of purple. John walked faster, past an ornamental pond with a few ornamental ducks and some ornamental duck shit, by a group of sculptures that might have been made by Henry Moore on acid, and took a short-cut through a grove of fruit trees and stepped on something overripe in the grass that squished under his boot and nearly made him skid into a tree trunk.

In the next slice of garden, the path was straight and shaded by creeping vines growing around and between elaborate wrought-iron arches. About halfway down, there was a wider gap between arches as a path branched off to the right; on the left side of the path, the gap was occupied by a rather overgrown statue that John identified, after pulling a couple of vines aside, as the king, or rather a king, with a very enthusiastically rendered beard, hand outstretched and holding an oddly-shaped lump of crumbling stone. A very small man and woman knelt adoringly to either side. Their faces had been almost completely worn away, and moss climbed up along the folds of the king's robes.

John stared at the lump the stone king was holding for a while, trying to remember what it reminded him of. A bird called overhead, and he let go of the vines, which fell back across the king's chest, and moved on. The next turn of the path took him around the corner of the palace, and when he came out from under the vines, he could see the tower of heaven above the treetops and the lower surrounding buildings. He caught only the faintest whiff of bad drains before finding a path that led into the park area around the tower. Walking too close to a flowering bush, he managed to raise a cloud of butterflies, and stopped while they swarmed around him, landing on his chest and shoulders and even on his face before moving on.

The metal door to the tower of heaven was unlocked and unguarded. John frowned. He checked for a bar on the inside of the door, but there wasn't one, and the lock had a keyhole on both sides. This time he didn't hear voices until he got almost to the top of the tower. The door stood open, and Feryn, Teyla, and McKay all had their backs to it — in McKay's case, more like the soles of his boots to it — and their hands full. John frowned some more. He closed the door with a slightly louder slam than necessary, and Teyla turned her head. "Major Sheppard. I told you, we are all fine."

"Those guards who were outside the guesthouse," John said. "Wasn't there a day shift?"

Feryn cleared his throat. "I am responsible for the safety of the engineer of heaven while the sun remains in the sky."

John looked at him. "You're holding a wrench, you're halfway under a metal platform, and you didn't hear me come into the room." And as far as he could tell, the man wasn't even armed. Then again, the only weapons he'd seen in Leuflet so far were the kitchen knives.

"And you're interrupting," McKay said from about seven-eights under the metal platform. "I'm trying to do my job here, you know. I'd like to get this finished today so we can get out of here."

"I'd like to make sure we all can get out of here."

Teyla put her hammer down on top of the platform and turned more fully towards John, her serious eyes mirroring the edge in his voice. "You believe we are in some degree of danger."

"Yeah. I do. And McKay, stop rolling your eyes. I'm trying to do my damn job here, too."

McKay crawled out from under the platform. "You couldn't possibly see me rolling my eyes through a foot of metal."

"I guess I'm just gifted that way. Look." John turned to Feryn. "Why don't you go get a couple more people and put them down by the tower door? Or find the key. This place is usually kept locked, isn't it?"

"Usann guards the key to the tower of heaven," Feryn said, laying the wrench on the platform. "I will find her."

"Good." John held the door open for Feryn and closed it again behind him. He looked at Teyla. "This yashina thing, it's a bit like being a bodyguard, isn't it?"

She nodded. "I will protect Dr. McKay to the best of my ability."

McKay sat down with a thump on the edge of the platform. "You seriously believe I'm in danger?" He looked around nervously. "You think the king's wives are coming back?"

"Don't eat the food," John said. "As soon as Feryn comes back, I'm going to go to the jumper and bring back some MREs. That was Ford's suggestion after we met the cook. I suspect the kitchen staff would be happy to give us all food poisoning or worse to keep McKay from fixing this machinery."

"But why?" Teyla wiped her oily hands on a rag. "It seems harmless."

"No idea. But I talked to the king just now, and he's got one hell of a black eye, and I don't think he got it walking into a door. He wants this machinery working, and a lot of other people don't want it working, and I think we're about to end up in the middle of a pretty hands-on kind of political battle."

"We could leave," Teyla said. "There are many other planets where we could trade for food."

"Yes, but how many of them have coffee and a ZPM?" McKay picked up the wrench Feryn had put down and turned it over and over. "You seriously believe I'm in danger? Are we talking actual danger of my life danger, or just nasty looks and pointed remarks danger? Because that really wouldn't be all that different from any other day of my life."

"How about getting passed around like a party favor danger," John said. "Or have you forgotten the king's wives?"

McKay shuddered. "Considering that they're probably going to feature in my nightmares for the next ten years or so, no, I haven't. You, uh, think that's likely?"

"I don't know what to think. I don't know what's going on here, but I think we need to be really careful. Did you say you were going to get done with this today?"

"We should be getting ready to test the platform-raising mechanism later this afternoon," McKay said.

"Don't." John rubbed at the back of his neck. "I mean, get it done, but don't test it, don't let anyone know you're done with it. Not until we've got the beans and the blankets loaded and we're ready to go. Then we can decide if it's worth it."

"ZPM, Major." McKay drummed his fingers against the platform. "The ZPM has to be our first priority."

"No. The safety, and safe return to Atlantis, of everyone on this mission is our first priority." John leaned back against the door. "Not that coffee and a ZPM wouldn't be a great bonus."

McKay stopped drumming his fingers. "You're saying I'm actually in danger." This time, he sounded as if he believed it.

"I'm saying we could all be in danger. But yeah, particularly you, McKay, so I'd appreciate it if you could take a few elementary precautions. Lock the door when you're working, don't go anywhere alone." John looked at Teyla. "I guess that's not an issue, really."

Teyla shook her head. "I will not leave his side. But from now on, I will stand guard rather than work."

"That'll put us behind schedule," McKay said. He got down on the floor and started to crawl in under the platform again. "Major, in the interest of getting out of here as soon as possible and preferrably before someone jumps me in a dark corner for whatever purpose, it would be good if you and Teyla could work it out so that at least one of you picked up that hammer and did something useful with it."

"I notice you're not exactly wielding a hammer yourself," John said, eyeing the half of McKay that was still visible with a certain appreciation.

"Amazingly enough, having me do the thinking and other people the hammering works better than the other way around." McKay crawled in further, and John was left with a less inspiring view of only his calves and feet. "Teyla, would you show him?"

"Yes, of course," Teyla said. "If you would look over here instead, Major."

John turned his head in time to catch something about her eyes and mouth that looked a lot like amusement, and then Ford's voice came over the radio. "Major Sheppard? I'm making arrangements to have the beans and blankets transported out to the stargate. Do we need anything from the jumper?"

"Bring back MREs," John said. "Enough for the next twelve hours, at least."

"I like the chicken with noodles," McKay said from under the platform. "And—"

"And try to see if you can strike up a conversation with the transport team about how people feel about the king, and about the king and the king's wives apparently needing marital counseling." John bounced the hammer against his palm.

"I'll do my best, sir. Ford out."

Even with all the windows open, it was hot in the room; the tower of heaven was high enough that it got no shade, only sunlight that moved slowly from window to window as the day passed. McKay and Teyla had already stripped off their uniform jackets, and it didn't take long for John to do the same. In addition, Teyla had taken off her boots, and went barefoot on the stone floor.

John and Teyla took turns with the hammer, and the work went smoothly, except for McKay's increasingly frequent complaints about being hungry. The first few times, Teyla merely poured him some iced water with little green leaves in, and went back to either hammering, or standing guard. But eventually, after another grumbled complaint, she nodded. "I must find something for Dr. McKay to eat," she said, reaching for her boots. "Lieutenant Ford will not be back from the jumper for some time yet."

"Wait." John picked up his jacket. "I'll go, I have an idea. You stay here, and stay on guard. I'll try to find out where Feryn disappeared to, too."

Teyla nodded, went to the door with him, and stayed there. John went down the tower stairs, dark except where thin bands of light fell in through narrow window-slits. He was starting to feel hungry, too. Coming down to the metal door, he flung it open, and nearly hit Feryn with it. "I have brought guards," Feryn said, and he had, two of them, standing at the foot of the steps outside the tower. "The key to the tower could not be found."

"Yeah?" John frowned. "I thought Usann had the key. Look, I'm just... going out to stretch my legs for a bit. The, uh, the engineer and the yashina are up in the tower."

"As they should be," Feryn said, bowing his head briefly. "I shall join them."

"Great. I'll catch up with you later." John smiled until his teeth started to feel dry, ran down the steps and walked off through another cloud of butterflies. He went back the same way he'd come before, around the palace and down the path with the wrought-iron arches, pausing to glance again at the statue of the king with the pointy lump of something in his palm before moving on.

Back in the orchard, John left the path and walked out on the grass among the trees. The fruit he'd slipped on before turned out to be something peachlike, and there were still plenty on the trees. He tried one, and it tasted pretty good, and not even remotely like citrus. Going deeper into the orchard, he found apples, or as near as made no difference, with thin yellow skin dotted with tiny grey spots. John put his jacket down on the grass, piled apples into it, and put the almost-peaches on top of the apples. He wrapped the fruit in the jacket and lifted the bundle very carefully; nothing fell out, but he felt like the least stealthy fruit thief ever as he walked at a decorous pace back to the path. With every step, he got another waft of the smell of sun-warm peaches.

The gardens were still quite empty. He could hear voices somewhere behind him, probably the gardeners, doing something or other with their wheelbarrow full of dirt, but the sound faded as he drew closer to the park area where the tower of heaven stood. Choosing a path a little closer to the palace, John saw someone standing on the bridge in the courtyard. From what he could see through the row of trees, it looked like the king. Someone came up behind him and started to cross the bridge, too, and John tensed when he saw that it was one of the king's wives, the tall man who had fought with Teyla yesterday. The king turned around, the tall man stopped, and they stood looking at each other, close enough that they could have reached out and touched hands.

Before John had quite decided to put the fruit down and walk over, the tall man made a small bow, backed slowly down from the bridge again, and gestured for the king to walk. The king squared his shoulders, walked down off the bridge, passing quite close, and went across the courtyard and into the palace. The tall man watched him go, then crossed the bridge and walked straight towards John. "What is your errand here?" he asked.

"We're just here to trade for food," John said.

"What is your errand here." The tall man gestured back at the courtyard. He was looking at John with the same expression he'd had looking at the king.

"Oh, nothing, really." John got a better grip on his bundled-up jacket. "I was just wondering about the smell. How long have the drains been giving you trouble?"

"It has been thus since before the bridge was built," the tall man said.

"That's got to be quite a while. You haven't thought about fixing it?" John tried a guileless smile.

The tall man frowned. "No. Not even the king would dare. It is a reminder of the dangers of the breath of the earth, and a reminder that we do not wish for the return of the fire of the stars, the fire of heaven."

"Ah." Squinting towards the bridge provided no clues. "And, uh, what exactly is the fire of heaven?"

The tall man stepped closer, staring down at John with stony eyes. "Take your engineer and leave this place," he said. "We understand that you are strangers, but we will only understand for so long. Soon, not even the yashina will be able to protect him."

"Now wait just a damn minute," John said, but the tall man turned around and left, walking back across the courtyard, over the bridge, and into the palace by the same door the king had gone through earlier.

John looked at the empty courtyard, at the palace and all its windows. He walked out to the crack and stood by the buckling paving stones, looking down. There was stone down there, and wood, but it was hard to get a good view. Going up onto the bridge, he stood for a while staring down into the darkness, trying to make out what was natural and what was constructed, and how deep the chasm really went, until the smell got to him and he went back across the courtyard, past the trees and into the butterfly park.

The guards at the foot of the tower steps looked at the bundle he was carrying, but didn't say anything. John elbowed the tower door open and shut and started up the stairs. The bundle in his arms was starting to feel unsteady, and he had to pause twice and wriggle it around a bit to keep the peaches from escaping. When he got to the top of the stairs, the door was closed; he kicked it until Teyla came and opened it.

One of McKay's feet stuck out under the platform. John looked around. "Where's Feryn?"

"He has gone to get us some more water and fruit juice," Teyla said.

"Maybe just as well." John put the bundle down on the platform and poked at McKay's foot with his own. "Get out from under there, McKay. I need to talk to you. And it's time for your afternoon snack."

McKay crawled out backwards, slowly, and sat back on his heels. John handed him a peach. Teyla leaned forward and took an apple. "You look troubled."

"Yeah." John took an apple, too. "I met one of the king's wives when I was coming back here, and he made some really pointed remarks," John looked at McKay, "and in case you were wondering, yeah, I really do think you're in danger." He looked back at Teyla. "The king's wives are going to do something to McKay if he doesn't stop working on the machinery, the king's all set to do something if he does stop."

"Oh, this is just great," McKay said through a mouthful of peach. "Is there going to be a mob with pitchforks and torches outside the tower? Don't these people have a middle ground? Yesterday it was all milk and honey and silk sheets and—" He broke off and wiped some peach juice from his chin, eyes widening in a way that John was starting to be pretty familiar with. "Of course, that's just what they said. Oh God, for all we know the king's wives were here yesterday to fight for the right to bury me at the back of the garden. What if they're coming back here right now? What if—"

"They will not touch you," Teyla said, putting a hand on McKay's shoulder. "I promise you that."

McKay touched Teyla's hand with peach-sticky fingers. "I know," he said, most of the panic fading from his voice. He glanced up at Sheppard. "But I've been thinking about what you said, and if these people can get away with beating up the king, they can probably get away with murder when it comes to some complete strangers, and I do mean that literally." McKay let go of Teyla's hand to lick at the peach juice that was starting to run down his wrist. "Can't we just tell the king we're done here, take the ZPM and go directly to the stargate without passing go? Ford's already out at the jumper, isn't he?"

"That might be the best idea," John said. "Are we done here? Have you figured out exactly what this thing does? And what if the king wants to test it before he lets you leave?"

"Actually, we're as done as it's possible to get under the circumstances," McKay said. "The panel that unlocks the controls requires an access code, and if we ask the king for the code, he'll know."

John eyed the platform and the lens. "I thought that was the control panel up there."

"Yes," McKay said. "And the panel that unlocks the controls, as I believe I just said, is under here. The code isn't numerical, it's a series of symbols. You might as well take a look."

He crawled in under the platform. John looked at Teyla, shrugged, dropped down on hands and knees and crawled in, too.

It was a tight fit for two, especially when one of the two was eating a peach and gesturing with a maglite. John tried to avoid McKay's elbows and the flying drops of peach juice and look where he was gesturing at the same time. "So what am I looking at here?"

"You're looking at the only sophisticated components of the machinery of heaven," McKay said indistinctly through another mouthful of peach. He pointed at something small and squiggly. "Presumably these symbols need to be entered in a certain order. The top one isn't part of the panel, it's cut into the metal."

John leaned closer, until his head was practically on McKay's shoulder, and squinted. The symbol that was cut into the metal was a hand holding a stylized—

"Flame. The fire of heaven." John turned his head and looked at McKay. "This is what the king wants. I bet he's the only one who has the access codes."

"Could be." McKay turned his head, too, and looked back at John from a distance of about four inches. His mouth was sticky and his breath smelled of peaches. "I think, um." McKay blinked slowly, and the flashlight-beam wobbled. John leaned a little closer. "Major?"

Teyla rapped sharply on the top of the platform. "Someone's coming."

John brushed his thumb over McKay's chin, swiping away a drop of peach juice. "I guess I should have tried to steal some napkins," he said and backed out, ducking his head so he wouldn't hit it on anything. He stood up a little too fast and caught himself on the edge of the platform. Just as McKay backed out, there was a rap on the door.

Teyla went to open, and Feryn came in, carrying two large pitchers. "I apologize for the length of my absence." He set the pitchers down on the table by the wall, turned around and gave Teyla a short, respectful nod. "My wife has made this fruit juice. No hands but hers have touched the fruit."

"Well, it's good to hear that someone is taking this seriously," John muttered. He ducked his head again to lick peach juice off his thumb and heard a clunk as McKay dropped the hammer.

Taking a clean mug from the table, Teyla poured a little juice, tasted it, and nodded to herself. She filled the mug and took it over to McKay. "Here. You should eat more, too."

Feryn walked over to the platform and looked down at John's jacket. "This is the king's fruit," he said in an oddly flat voice. "It is forbidden to everyone else."

He turned and looked at John. Teyla looked at John. McKay looked at something just over John's shoulder. "Hey, I didn't know that," John said. "There wasn't even a sign that said to keep off the grass."

Feryn looked a little wistful. "Even I have never had one."

John clapped Feryn on the shoulder, and the thin material of the see-through shirt clung to his hand when he pulled it away. "We're the last people who'd tell anyone about it."

Feryn picked up a peach, hesitated for a moment, and bit into it. McKay took an apple, John took another peach, and Teyla poured herself some fruit juice, and they stood around eating and drinking for a while, as the afternoon sun slowly became obscured by a haze of clouds and a breeze began to blow through the open windows.

John walked over to one of the windows, leaned over the windowsill, and craned his neck to look at the sky. "Does this mean we're going to get some rain again?"

"Perhaps," Feryn said. He went up to John and leaned out the window, too. "We do not get much rain at this season."

From inside the room, McKay said something about not having come to a whole different planet in a whole different galaxy to talk about the weather, and then his words grew indistinct and John turned back to see that Teyla had shut him up with another peach. The radio clicked. "Major Sheppard?"

"Sheppard here," he said, walking away from the window. "Go ahead."

"We're on our way back," Ford said. "Sir, about the ZPM. Ennif says if we stall the king about the machinery of heaven today, she'll sneak the ZPM into a crate of coffee beans and see to it that we can get out of here early tomorrow morning."

"She actually said that?" McKay said, once again not slowed down at all by having to talk through most of a peach. "In so many words?"

"No, the way she said it took about two hours, but I don't have two hours. Got the beans and blankets all loaded up. We should be back around sunset."

"All right," John said slowly. "Let her know as early as possible tomorrow morning would be a good idea. If there's a hitch in delivery, we're leaving anyway."


"Not yet." John looked consideringly at the platform, the lens, and the tools lying strewn across the floor. "Contact me if there's any kind of delay. Sheppard out." He turned his head and looked at Feryn. "Why don't you have another apple?"

The massing clouds grew darker and darker, and after a while, there were distant rumblings of thunder. Eventually McKay called a halt to even the pretense of work. "Because the next step is checking the platform-raising mechanism from the top down, and human lightning rod is not in my job description either as an astrophysicist or as an engineer of heaven."

"We should rest," Teyla said. "It has been a long day." She gestured Feryn out of the room, McKay followed Teyla, and John followed McKay.

On the way down, McKay looked back over his shoulder at John with an odd gleam in his eyes. "You stole peaches from the king's garden."

John shrugged. "Well, Teyla said you were hungry. And the king's already threatened me about the machinery of heaven, I don't think a few peaches will make any difference to how he feels about me."

McKay came to an abrupt halt, and John nearly walked into him. "He threatened you? With what?"

"It was a pretty non-specific kind of threat," John said, putting a hand on McKay's shoulder and pushing gently forward. "And lame. I think he probably has people who do his threatening for him most of the time."

"That's not funny," McKay said, steadying himself against the wall with one hand before moving on down the stairs. After a few steps, he looked back over his shoulder again. "Thanks. For the peaches." Two more steps. "The next time you feel like stealing something to feed me, see if you can find any chocolate."

It was raining by the time they walked out of the tower. Going down the steps, John could see the dark spots of individual drops hitting the ground, big ones; one landed on the back of his neck. Halfway to the guesthouse, he heard a rush of air and water, and it was like someone tipped over a bucket up in the clouds. They all ran for the guesthouse, Feryn stepping aside to make sure they all got inside before he did, Teyla propelling McKay forward with a hand in the small of his back. Inside, they didn't stop but went straight to the bathroom, and John handed out towels. He scrubbed at his face and hair and emerged from the towel to shake his head and grin at Feryn's shirt, which turned from see-through to opaque when it got wet. "Maybe you should go change," he suggested. "You can't sit around in wet clothes."

"Perhaps we could light a fire to allow Feryn to dry himself," Teyla said.

"No." Feryn shook his head and held up a hand as though Teyla were charging towards him and the fireplace rather than standing there wrapped in a giant towel, kicking off her boots. "It is not permitted."

"You're not allowed to get dry?" McKay had the oh-look-more-random-idiocies look on his face, at least the parts of his face that weren't hidden by a towel.

"It is not permitted to light a fire here. All the fireplaces in the king's house are for the king only, and the king may only light them with the fire of heaven. The fireplaces will remain empty until the fire of heaven burns again."

"Oh." John frowned. "Doesn't it get cold in winter?"

"This is winter," Feryn said with a faint hint of a smile. "I will find the guards who are responsible for your lives during the night. Do you wish to have food sent to you?"

"No," Teyla said at the same time as John said "Yes."

"Very well," Feryn said, and left.

"I thought we were not going to eat any of the food from the king's kitchen," Teyla said.

"Yeah, but we don't need to let everyone know about that." The towel was getting too wet to be of any use, and John put it down. "Not that Feryn doesn't seem to be a discreet kind of person."

"Especially now that we can blackmail him with peaches," McKay said. He picked up the last of the apples from where Teyla had put them, and bit into it. "Is that standard negotiation practice? Because I've never heard Elizabeth mention anything like that."

"Secret military peach technique," John said. "Don't tell anyone I told you."

Lightning flashed, white and black, light and shadow, just the briefest moment of Teyla's hands and McKay's eyelashes and the leaves on the vine outside the window outlined with sharp precision. John didn't even have time to draw another breath before the sonic boom of thunder followed. Teyla moved around the room, lighting lamps, and John went into the bedroom he shared with Ford to peel himself out of his wet BDUs.

Teyla strung a rope across the room, doorlintel to doorlintel, and they hung their clothes to dry and sat around wrapped in robes and towels, listening to the thunder. Two guards came by with dinner, water, and juice, then took up position outside the door, looking very wet and uncomfortable. After a while, the rain went from heavy to light, more of a drizzle, with larger drops falling from the trees and dripping from the roof of the house. Ford was still soaked to the skin when he finally came in, shivering a bit, but grinning at them as he dropped a bag on the floor. "Anyone getting hungry?"

McKay got up, adjusting the belt of his robe. "Did you bring any of those chicken and noodle ones?"

"Why did I even ask," Ford said, unzipping the bag. "Trade you for a dry towel." He tossed out MREs to everyone like a Santa who's forgotten the good wrapping paper, then headed into the bathroom to get dry.

John put his MRE to one side and went to the window, checking on the presence of the guards again. Still present; still damp; still looking uncomfortable. Ford came back out of the bathroom, wrapped in two towels and carrying his wet gear. Teyla shifted to make room for him on the padded bench. John turned away from the window and went past the table, pouring glasses of fruit juice from the pitcher they'd brought along from the tower, the juice Feryn's wife had made. "Here." He handed a glass to Ford. "Now tell us what Ennif said about the ZPM and us getting out of here."

Ford drained the glass before answering. "She's packing the ZPM with the coffee beans tonight, and she'll come by here early tomorrow morning. We head for the gate, and she deals with the king, with some help from the king's wives."

"Coffee and a ZPM. This must be the Pegasus galaxy equivalent of Christmas," McKay said.

"If it's a fancy gift you want," John said, "you could ask the king to have the ZPM set in gold for you."

"What? Please tell me you're joking." McKay narrowed his eyes. "You are joking, aren't you?"

"Hey, he suggested it himself. Maybe you could even get him to throw in a few diamonds. Nothing's too good for an engineer of heaven, you know?"

"Major Sheppard," Teyla cut in firmly. "Please refrain from baiting Dr. McKay while I am wearing this bracelet."

John raised an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

"It is the duty of the yashina to protect the engineer. I am sure you wouldn't want me to take that duty too seriously." The gleam in her eyes made it impossible for John not to grin back at her.

McKay looked up. "Does anyone want to trade a fig bar for something that isn't a fig bar?"

"No," Ford said and turned back to John. "Look, sir, I tried to talk a bit about the king's wives, but I'm not sure I get the whole situation. The wives have power because they're married to the king, but the king can only rule with the support of the wives. Except in some kind of special situation that one guy on the shipping team was going to tell me about but Ennif cut him off pretty fast."

"I think I might be able to guess." John sipped at his own glass. "The king wants to get the machinery of heaven working, and the king's wives really don't. My theory is that something about getting that machinery operational again threatens their power base."

McKay frowned. "It's just a big lens and a moving platform." Teyla put a foil-wrapped package in his hand and he ripped it open. "Unless that locked access panel does something a lot more advanced than the technological level of this society would suggest, and much as it pains me to admit it, I don't have enough information to tell what that might be."

"Perhaps it is best that we don't find out," Teyla said. She turned her head and looked at John. "If we don't keep our bargain with the king, we will never be able to come back here."

"I know. But if we do keep it, the king's wives might make sure that we never leave. I think we just have to make the best of a bad situation here." John couldn't keep from looking out the window at the rain and the guards and the gathering darkness. "How early tomorrow morning, exactly?"

"I don't know." Ford got up, one hand on the towel around his waist and the other holding his glass. "Sounded to me like she was planning to work through the night."

"All right. So we pack up our stuff and we're ready to leave the minute she comes here."

McKay frowned and waved his foil-wrapped not-a-fig-bar in John's direction. "Does that mean we don't get to sleep? It sounds like we don't get to sleep, and I'd really like to. Sleep. Eventually." He looked more closely at John and sighed. "Do I at least get to keep my boots off?"

Rain pattered gently against the windows, and they sat on rugs and cushions on the floor, Teyla and McKay using the padded bench as a backrest, and played cards with the miniature deck Ford said he'd brought from Earth stuffed into the top of his boot. They started with Go Fish, until McKay said he was bored with always playing the same game and tried to teach everyone to play euchre, with limited success. No one wanted to play poker except for Teyla, and no one could remember how to play rummy. An attempt at Oh Hell led to a lengthy argument about scoring, since Ford, McKay, and John between them had played by five different sets of scoring rules, and eventually they went back to playing Go Fish again, until Ford said, "Well, maybe it's time to call it a night," and John looked up from shuffling to see that Teyla was asleep, leaning against McKay, her head on his shoulder.

McKay was yawning, too, and Ford made a beeline for the bathroom and brushed his teeth with the door open. Teyla, poked awake, rubbed at her neck until McKay started doing it for her, hands moving with the same absentminded assurance he used for typing or peeling the wrapper off a powerbar. John wasn't tired at all, but he turned away with a brief nod goodnight and went into the bedroom. He took the robe off and got dressed again, in everything but his boots, and lay on his back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Eventually Ford came in and lay down, too, and fell asleep, and his barely-audible breathing lulled John enough that his eyes closed.

He woke up when it stopped raining, and lay for a while staring at the ceiling again and listening to the silence. Ford had turned over in his sleep and buried his face in the pillow. After a while, John got up and went to the bathroom to take a leak, and when he was done he wandered around the main room, checking that nothing had been left unpacked. He looked out the window and saw the guards, heard them talking quietly. John yawned and went back to bed, curling up on his side this time, not quite asleep, far from awake.

Giant robots made of flowers were doing marching drills on a parquet floor, and their petals kept falling off, making their steps more and more muffled until eventually they stamped as hard as they could and didn't make a sound. John sat up abruptly. Everything was just as quiet as before. He checked that Ford was still alive and breathing, then got out of bed, tugged his boots on, and went into the main room. Soft light filtered in through the windows, and when he went over he could see the stars fading as the sun rose, its pale light like a spill of bleach across the sky.

John turned his head to look at the guards. They weren't there. He craned his neck to see if they'd moved closer to the wall or farther away, but saw no sign of them. Frowning, he took half a step back and was about to turn for the door when movement outside caught his eye.

Someone came walking through the butterfly park from the direction of the palace. John was about to step back up to the window and frown at a returning guard when he recognized the beard, the robes, the posture. The king walked fast, looking back over his shoulder and then hurrying forward. He disappeared behind a shrubbery, and John considered for at least half a second before going to the door and stepping outside. The cool morning air was bracing, and John lengthened his stride, going around the other side of the shrubbery in time to see the king go up the steps to the tower of heaven, glance back over his shoulder again, go inside, and close the door.

John waited for a while, but whoever the king thought might be following him didn't show up. He turned around and jogged back to the guesthouse, where the guards were still conspicuously missing, and went inside and woke up Ford. "Something's wrong. Get your boots on and I'll wake up Teyla and McKay."

He left Ford sitting on the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes with one hand and tugging at his boots with the other, went across the main room and rapped sharply on the other bedroom door, then opened it. McKay and Teyla were sleeping in matching curves, forehead to forehead, like two parenthesis marks with nothing between them. Teyla pushed herself up on one elbow and looked at John in the hazy light. "Is it time?"

"Time to get up," John said. "The guards are gone, Ennif hasn't come here, and the king's up to something."

Teyla took McKay by the shoulder, and he made a protesting sound. "Let me guess," he said into the pillow, "there's no breakfast, either," but then he sat up and began to tug his shirt straight. Teyla got out of bed and went to get her boots, and John turned from the door just as Ford came out into the main room.

"What's going on here, sir?"

"I'm not sure." John nodded at Teyla and McKay as they came out of their room. "Someone's called off the guards, and I just saw the king sneak into the tower of heaven like he was hiding from someone. I think there's been a change of plan somewhere, and in that case, we'd better change our own plans as well."

Ford looked thoughtful. "Could be that Ennif called off the guards so they wouldn't notice her bringing the coffee beans and ZPM to us."

"Well, she's not here yet, and I don't think we can wait much longer." The sun was coming up, and soon enough the palace and grounds would be alive with people. "I'll go see if I can find Ennif and the ZPM. Ford, you're with me. Teyla, McKay, you stay here and try to figure out what the king is up to. If we can't get hold of the ZPM, we're leaving anyway."

Outside, the air was still morning-fresh, but John could tell it was going to be another warm day. They walked through the butterfly park and met no one. The courtyard with the bridge was empty, too. "You think we should go into the palace?" Ford said.

John hesitated, then shook his head. "Better to go around to the storage buildings. If Ennif is packing coffee beans, that's where she ought to be."

The gardens were quiet; a few birds still sang, but most had fallen silent. The vines winding about the wrought-metal arches looked better after last night's rain, not so dusty any more. More vines had slipped down in front of the crumbling stone-king, almost hiding him from view. Fallen peaches had been turned into mush by the rain.

No one was working either in the orchard or in the formal garden. All the storage buildings were locked. John and Ford looked at each other, and John checked the angle of the rising sun. "Maybe we should just go," Ford said, and then turned his head sharply.

Raised voices came from the direction of the palace, a woman shouting what sounded like angry orders and a man arguing back, not quite as loudly. John strained to make out the words, but couldn't quite get them, until a door was flung open. "—were not supposed to leave his side for the space of a breath!" Ennif stepped outside. "May the fire of heaven burn your heart to a cinder!"

She slammed the door shut, turned, and saw them. Her shoulders slumped, and she ran the back of her hand across her forehead before straightening up and marching out across the gravel to meet them. "I am afraid," she said in a flat voice, "that matters are not progressing as we had hoped. There has been an upset in the order of things."

"You've mislaid the king," John said, and Ennif stiffened, staring at him. "I saw him not that long ago. He went into the tower of heaven."

The next moment, his ears were ringing; Ennif had slapped him across the face, hard. John grabbed her wrist, and she glared up at him, paying no attention to Ford, who was hefting his P-90 in her direction. "Your part in this was to control your engineer," she said in a harsh voice. "Did the king make you a sweeter promise? Was that why he finished the work?"

"This isn't about my engineer," John said. "Our engineer. We left the tower yesterday afternoon and we haven't talked to the king. Whatever he's doing, he's doing it on his own. And you were supposed to keep an eye on him, weren't you?" he added for good measure. His ears were still ringing, and his cheek burned. John rubbed his knuckles against his jaw, and then he toggled the radio. "Teyla?"

"Major Sheppard." He could hear more trouble in her voice. "The door to the tower of heaven is locked. There were odd noises—"

"It was probably the king raising the platform," McKay cut in. "I could hear the gears grinding."

"But what's he going to do on the platform?" John said, and Ennif's arm twitched in his grasp. "That lens is really just a big magnifying glass, isn't it? Not that useful for looking at the stars."

"Particularly not now that the sun is up," McKay. "Look, major, I don't know what's going on, and believe me, I wish I did—"

"I think we should move back," Teyla said, voice sharp and tense. "Look at the—"

The world exploded.

The ground shook under John's feet, and the sudden clap of sound was so low he felt it in his bones as much as heard it, a boom almost like explosives being set off underground. Birds startled into the sky, screeching and crying. Ennif fell against him, and Ford staggered; John tried to steady himself against both of them, and fell to one knee, then both knees. Ford's elbow took him just below the ribs, and he gasped for breath. When he looked up he could see the palace wall moving, sliding against itself and cracking, a long jagged gash slanting left to right from the roof to the foundation. All the windows had blown out. As John looked, a part of the roof collapsed inwards, and people began to scream.

"The fire of heaven," Ennif said, white about the mouth, swiping hair out of her face with palms rubbed bloody and raw from the gravel. "The fire of heaven. Thus are we punished."

"McKay! Teyla!" John clicked his radio headset. "Teyla!" He looked at Ford, who shook his head. John pushed himself upright again and dragged Ford along. The air smelled of dust and fire and cracked drains. Behind them, a tree had fallen on one of the storage buildings, crushing roof tiles and cracking branches.

"You have brought ruin upon us," Ennif said. She rocked back and forth where she sat.

"The hell we have." John took her hand and yanked her to her feet. "You've got wounded people in there. Get to work, goddammit."

"And what will you do, now that you have destroyed us?"

"I'm going to get my engineer and get the hell out of here." John turned his head. "Ford?"

"Yes, sir."

They ran. More trees had fallen in the gardens, some of them completely uprooted, others tilting drunkenly, and the wrought-iron arches had tumbled like dominoes, tearing the ground open. There was no fruit left on the trees in the orchard, and John slipped on crushed peaches, skidded, fell, got up again. Stones had fallen out of the stone walls, and to one side of one of the paths, the gardeners' wheelbarrow lay overturned, its wheel still spinning slowly.

Rounding the corner of the palace, John stopped short, and Ford stopped when he ran into John. Heat rolled against them. The fire of heaven burned, flames rising up from the crack in the ground; the bridge had crumbled, falling into the depths, and more paving stones had buckled up to either side. One of the doors into the palace swung open, and people ran out, shouting and pointing. Near the crack, just out of range of the fire, a body lay unmoving. John thought it might be one of the king's wives, the old woman who looked like McKay's grandmother, but the air was shimmery with heat and he couldn't be sure.

Ford tapped John's shoulder, and John turned around.

Trees had fallen in the butterfly park, too, though many still remained, and above them rose a cloud of dust, slowly settling, where the tower of heaven had stood.

They ran again. John's foot came down on a butterfly half-buried in the dust. Next to him, Ford coughed, then shouted, "Teyla! McKay!" and got a faint answering call in reply.

The tower of heaven had snapped like a candy-cane about twenty feet up and fallen towards the guest house, crushing everything in its way. The foot of the tower still stood, grey stone covered in pale earth and dust and surprisingly little rubble.

Teyla lay sprawled across the tower steps, raising herself up on one elbow as they drew closer. Blood trickled down her face from a cut just above the hairline, and she'd bitten through her lip. John ran to her, dropping to his knees by her side while Ford remained standing, keeping watch. "Major," Teyla gasped. "You must hurry."

"What happened?" John put a hand on her shoulder, supporting her until she could sit up. "Are you hurt?"

"My foot," she said, nodding at it. "I believe," she paused to cough and wince, "some bones may be broken. Major Sheppard, they have taken Dr. McKay — the guards from last night. Hurry."

"I'll get him back," John said, tightening his grip on her shoulder. "I promise." He looked up. "Ford, you get Teyla back to the jumper. I'll go after McKay."

He started to stand up, and Teyla grasped his arm and tugged him down again. "Wait," she said. "You will need this." She ripped the silver bracelet from her wrist and wrapped it around John's.

John could feel the metal moving against his skin, shifting and stretching as though Teyla had put a living creature on him; then the bracelet sealed around his wrist, skin-tight, and he staggered, overwhelmed by sensation. Fear, pain, anger, surprise, and a hum as of a very busy beehive, a thousand thoughts going a thousand miles a minute, not a single one in a straight line, all of them upset and unhappy.

Ford caught him by the shoulders and steadied him. "You all right, sir?"

Nodding, John wrenched himself upright. His head was spinning, but he clenched his hands and concentrated on his own body until he found his balance again. "I'll be fine. Teyla, which way did they go?"

She pointed past the fallen tower, but her eyes stayed on his face. "Follow the link. You will find him."

John ran. He jumped over debris and climbed over fallen trees. As he moved, he could feel another body moving, like a ghost, next to his. The link gave him direction; he knew where McKay was as surely as a carrier pigeon knows its way home. Unlike the bird, though, he couldn't go in a straight line. There was less damage the farther he got from the palace, but still a lot of fallen trees blocked his path. He didn't know this part of the park, and fought his way through flowering bushes, scaring more butterflies into flight, only to end up at a small ornamental lake. The link tugged at him to go straight into the water, but he held back and made his way along the water's edge, stumbling through the rushes. A pair of ducks took panicked flight almost beneath his feet.

There was a small pleasure-boat moored at the far end of the lake; it looked like a misplaced toy. John went up the ridge on the other side, skidding in pine needles. He guessed there had been a line of pine-like trees along the top of the ridge, before. Their shallow roots had torn loose from the soil, and nearly two thirds of them had fallen, crashing into each other at crazy angles like a giant game of pick-up-stix. John began to clamber across, putting his hands and feet down with care and trying not to think too hard about the risks of fallen timber that hadn't settled. Resin and flaky pieces of bark stuck to his palms.

One tree trunk rocked under his weight, and he felt a stab of fear, echoed by another ghostly stab that was McKay picking up on it. John swore under his breath, keeping up a steady stream of invective against trees, kings, explosions, and McKay-nappers as he slipped down between two tree trunks, ducked under one of them, and climbed through the crown of another tree, long needles brushing over his face and hair.

The other side of the ridge had a much steeper slope, covered in more dry pine needles. John took a couple of cautious steps, and then something slammed into his shoulder. He slipped, sat down, and skidded on his butt nearly all the way down, head whirling with doubled sensations. Not his shoulder, McKay's shoulder, probably slammed into a wall. John scrambled to his feet and breathed deeply; his own anger and McKay's looped together for a dizzying moment before he regained control.

On this side of the ridge, there was a path leading in roughly the right direction, and John ran along it, brushing pine needles out of his hair as he went. He crossed a flat open space with flowerbeds and low hedges growing in elaborate geometrical patterns, and followed the path into another wooded area, low trees and large bushes that hadn't taken as much damage from the underground explosion, shielded as they were by the ridge.

The path led to a small clearing where another statue of some king or other stood tilting to the right, as if weighed down by the stone flame burning on his stone palm. John trampled across another flowerbed and through the bushes behind the statue only to find himself at a brick wall, too high to climb and with metal spikes on top. He concentrated on McKay for a moment: tension and anger, frustration and worry, aching shoulder, something odd about the right leg, that way. Then he turned left, because it seemed like the best alternative, and followed the wall.

Here along the wall, away from the paths, the park wasn't nearly so well maintained, and it was slow going through high grass, tangled vines, and fallen branches. There was brick dust on the ground in places, but the wall looked steady enough. John jumped across a ditch, scrambled up an overgrown slope, and trampled through clumps of waist-high white lilies with thick stems and flowers bigger than a child's head. He came up on a broad path leading to a gate in the brick wall; the gate had probably been closed, but the top hinge had worked loose of the brick, and when John tugged at the gate with both hands, the second hinge popped out as well.

John left the park behind and walked out into the city of Leuflet. He found himself in a residential area, with broad, tree-lined boulevards, and houses set well back from the street in their own spacious gardens, and guessed that on any other day, it was probably peaceful and quiet. Leaves and seed pods had fallen from the trees, as well as a few dead or rotten branches, and John could see a lot of broken windows. People were rushing in and out of the houses, calling questions to their neighbors across neatly clipped hedges. John ran from tree to tree, looking for an intersection, an alley, anything that would get him out of the open. He didn't know if the people who lived here were supporters of the king, or of the king's wives, but either way, they were probably not going to like him much.

The link urged him to turn about twenty degrees right away from the street, but he wasn't about to cut across any of these gardens. Someone leaning out of a broken window towards the street saw him and shouted; John ran faster.

Finally, after about half a mile, he came to an opening in the well-kept hedges, a footpath leading in to the right. John went that way, and after a while the hedges rose higher and became less well-kept, growing tall and riotous and nearly meeting over his head across the narrow path. Slowing to a brisk walk, John peered through the hedges as best he could and saw more large houses, but they were run-down, the gardens overgrown, their glory faded.

John met no one, and in the quiet under the leafy boughs, he took a moment to check on McKay through the link, focusing on the sensations instead of trying to separate himself from them. As far as John could tell, McKay was sitting down now; his heartrate had slowed and his breathing was calmer. There was a deep ache in his shoulder from being slammed into the wall, and his jaw ached as well. John probed with his tongue before realizing that wouldn't help him find out if McKay had a loose tooth.

There was still something odd about McKay's right leg, something that was not-pain but still not-good, and John tried to pinpoint the sensation, but he was distracted by McKay's thoughts speeding up at an alarming rate. Teyla could probably have projected enough calm reassurance to quiet McKay in full panic mode, but John didn't think he could manage it, especially not under the current circumstances. He tried to get across a general sense of I'm coming and picked up his pace again.

The footpath finally ended at another street, and John paused in the shelter of the hedge and looked out. This street was unevenly paved and quite narrow, and he could see rows of cramped-looking two-story houses with scraps of kitchen gardens squeezed in between them, plain iron fences fighting a losing battle with rust, rows of vegetables instead of fancy flowerbeds. A few people were huddled on a corner up to the left, talking and gesticulating, and more and more were coming up to join them. John looked back over his shoulder at the footpath stretching back in under the hedges. On any ordinary morning, this must be where all the people in these cramped houses built of slowly crumbling bricks hurried off to work in the kitchens and gardens of those other, bigger houses.

John checked his bearings, slipped out into the street, and walked briskly to the right, in McKay's direction. He was getting closer to McKay now, he could feel it, like a second heartbeat getting louder and louder. Away from the shelter of the footpath and the hanging branches, he wished his uniform weren't quite so conspicuous. Even the poorer people of Leuflet preferred brighter colors and thinner fabrics, as odd as it was to think that something red and see-through would have made him stand out less.

The people behind him, back on the corner, had gone from talking to shouting, and as John glanced back as casually as he could manage, he saw that there were a lot more of them now. He picked up his pace a little, and at the same time, he felt McKay stir, getting to his feet, John thought, and walking back and forth, just a few paces either way. He was clearly agitated, and John wondered fleetingly about his blood pressure.

Louder shouts made John look back again, and now the crowd was moving, looking more and more like the beginnings of a mob. John slipped into the first space that opened up from the street, a narrow little strip of hard-packed dirt between two houses, and crouched down behind a couple of large wooden bins that smelled of vegetables going bad.

An enquiring cheep made him twist around to find himself knee to beak with a brown chicken with a purple crest. "I hope you know how to be quiet," John told it seriously, and turned his attention back to the street. He could make out individual voices now, shouting about the king and the palace and the fire of heaven, shouting that things were going to change. As the crowd went by, he saw that a few carried cudgels, but most were unarmed. One woman with an indigo cap and apron turned her head, and John tucked himself in deeper behind the bins and the chicken, but then she turned her head back and called out, "To Green Moon Square!"

The people around her took up the cry, and John could hear them for a long time, marching down the street and calling to others to come out of their houses and join in, until their voices finally faded in the distance.

John nodded at the chicken, and the chicken cheeped back at him. He stood up and dusted his knees off, and felt a thread of attention from McKay, wonder or worry or something in between; it made John grin to think that getting dirt off his BDUs of all things should catch McKay's attention. He turned towards the street, and the door on the other side of the crates opened and a little old lady looked out.

She barely came up to John's shoulder, her hair was white and fluffy and starting to go thin, her cheeks were hollow with lost teeth, and she was wearing a lime-green see-through shirt, which John tried very hard not to notice. She looked John up and down, taking in his uniform and his weapon and the fact that he was skulking behind her vegetable crates. "It would grieve me to think," she said finally, "that thou hadst affrighted the fowl."

"Yes, ma'am. I mean, no, ma'am." John glanced back and got a cheep in answer as the chicken came forward to peck at the toe of his boot. "Doesn't seem like I did, does it?"

She made a clucking sound. "Canst tell me about the ground shaking?"

John nodded, glancing swiftly into the quiet, sunlit street and back again. "The king has lit the fire of heaven. People are kinda upset about it."

"Hah." Her laugh was dry and not at all amused. "Should be. I never thought to see it in my lifetime." The old woman stepped across her threshold and up close to John, looking even more closely at him. "I did hear that an engineer of heaven was come among us." Her hand shot out, swifter than Teyla wielding a stick, and grabbed his wrist. "I did hear that he was chained, and that his yashina was a woman. Where is she, the brave soul?"

"Well, she was — I'm kind of a stand-in," John said. The old woman turned his hand over and looked at the inside of his wrist, where the silver lay snugly against his pulse. Then he got it. "I mean, I'm not the engineer. I guess I'm the yashina now."

"Art an even braver soul, then." Her look at his face, down at the chicken, and back up again was eloquent. "Hast failed in thy duty?"

"I'm not planning on it, no." John tried to twist his arm free without hurting her. Her lumpy-knuckled fingers looked frail as dry twigs. "Ma'am, I have to go. I have an engineer to rescue. Are you going to be all right here? If there's a riot—"

"More than that," she said. "Change has come to Leuflet by what thy engineer hath wrought, and we shall never be the same now the fire of heaven burns once more."

John sighed. McKay paced in his head like a caged animal — one of those extremely grumpy overfed zoo bears. "No," he said, "I guess not. I'm sorry. But will you be all right, staying here?"

The old woman nodded. "Here is naught worth fighting over. I shall be at peace. Art chained to thy fate for now, so go thou and find it. Yashina." She let go of his wrist at last and stepped back inside, closing the door firmly.

John reflected that at least she hadn't slapped him. She might still decide to call the mob down on his head, though, so he went out into the street and followed the tug inside that told him where to find McKay. The mob had disappeared, and he saw almost no people — a man packing furniture onto a small cart, his movements jerky and frantic; a child peacefully weeding a patch of vegetables, wearing a necklace of blue glass beads that glinted against her copper skin in the morning sun. John lengthened his stride, and a plaintive cheep came from behind him. He turned around.

The purple-crested chicken struggled to catch up with him, flapping its wings for emphasis. John shook his head. "Go home." The chicken looked injured. "I'm serious. Go home. No offense, but you're not my first choice for a rescue mission." Cheep. "No, I'm not taking you with me. Do I look like Mel Gibson to you?" He walked on.

Looking more closely, John saw that even these grey houses were ornamented with patterned tiles over the door lintels, with some small scrollwork on their plain iron gates. The open spaces between houses were given over to kitchen gardens, but flowers grew round the doorsteps and along the fences. He saw no sign that the angry people who had stormed down this street had left any destruction in their wake. Probably the old woman was right, then, and if McKay was as close as John's senses believed, there might be a good chance that they could avoid the potential riots altogether, and circle back to the gate unseen. John paused to rub an aching thigh muscle before turning left at the next cross street.

He saw almost no sign here that the earth had trembled, but nearly all the apples had fallen from a small tree standing instead of a gatepost in front of one house, spilling in a shiny yellow tumble across the dusty brown and grey of street and gutter. John lengthened his stride to avoid stepping on one, and felt another twinge in his thigh. He paused. That was McKay's discomfort, not his. McKay was crouched down awkwardly, hands and mind working, all his attention focused on whatever he was doing. John could still feel a faint undercurrent of annoyed panic, or panicky annoyance, though.

It was odd to be so close to McKay's thoughts and still not be able to hear them, or to be able at least to hear the familiar rise and fall, and rise and rise, of his voice. There was something unnatural about it, and for one moment he pictured McKay as a mime, silent and white-faced, hands moving twice as fast to make up for it, and bit down on a laugh. He passed an empty lot, and some small businesses, all of which seemed closed. At the next corner stood several empty market stalls, their awnings rolled up and secured, though the corner of one had come loose and fluttered, a vivid scarlet banner, in the morning breeze.

He was very close now, and didn't know what kind of situation he might be walking into. John slowed down, walking into the faint cover afforded by the market stalls and the corner of the house, and looked down the street ahead. He stepped over a few loose slats, and pain shot through his ankle, and his leg folded under him. He went down hard, hip and shoulder hitting the ground in a huff of dust.

John rolled until he had his back to the wall, and coughed. Pain still shot through his ankle, but it wasn't his pain. "Dammit, McKay," he said quietly, blinked grit out of his lashes, and sat up. A soft cheep answered him, and the brown chicken with the purple crest jumped closer, looked at him out of one eye, turned its head and looked at him out of the other eye, then pecked at the ground at his feet. "Oh, this is just great."

The pain in his ankle was intense, but bearable, and fading. McKay was swearing and whimpering, but his mind was nearly as focused as before on whatever it was he was doing; whatever had happened, it hadn't slowed him down much. John eyed the chicken, drew breath to say something, then let it out again and just shook his head. He got back to his feet and looked down the street again. There was no cover, and past a row of sheds he saw a house where the windows were boarded up but the planks across the front door had been taken down. The scores in the paint on the doorframe showed fresh wood. His body told him to run to that door as fast as he could.

John frowned, then backed away, went past the market stalls and slipped into the narrow space between two buildings. Once he was past the corner house, a path ran between the rows of houses all the way down the block. Some houses had tiny back gardens, half-shielded from their neighbors by fences — wood here, not the showier wrought iron — and others were set all the way back in their little lot, with back doors opening directly onto the path John was walking.

He hurried along, and had to concentrate not to limp. The pain had only faded so much. McKay was hard at work again, twisting at something with his bare fingers, and John flexed his hands in response. In this narrow space between the houses, the air was perfectly still, and the sun beat down on his head. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck.

He reached the house. The windows on the ground floor were tightly boarded up, but one floor up, only a few planks had been nailed haphazardly across the windowframes. John looked up at the window to the left. Then he ran back along the path and out into the street, and the chicken flapped its wings reprovingly at him as he wrestled one of the market stands sideways and began to drag it in between the buildings. One of the legs kept banging into his knees.

Back at the house, he braced it upright, leaning against the wall, and clambered up. The wood creaked and shifted under his weight, but he came high enough to be able to look in the window, between the planks, and see McKay. McKay was crouched on the floor, scrabbling at the wall, pausing to yank at the chain, scrabbling again. The chain went from a bolt in the wall to a shackle around McKay's ankle. He was wearing his t-shirt and pants, but no tac vest and no boots. John drew a sharp breath, and McKay looked up. "Give me your knife."

"You knew I was coming," John said, starting to tug at the lowest plank.

"Of course I knew." McKay straightened up and took two steps closer to the window, and then the chain stopped him. "And I just want to say that it's lucky for you that the house is empty except for me, and I don't know how they thought they could possibly get away with just leaving me here, but apparently they felt it was necessary for both of them to negotiate with whichever of the king's wives they're planning to hand me off to, and I'd really like to be out of here before they come back." He paused for a deep breath. "How is Teyla?"

"She's going to be fine." The nails were slowly working loose from the windowframe. "She's hurt her foot, but Ford's with her, they're going to the jumper and we're going to meet them there."

"Good. Good, that's good. Give me your knife, Major." McKay held his hand out imperiously, and John saw that two of his nails were broken and his fingertips were bleeding, and as soon as he saw it, he felt it, too.

John yanked the lowest plank loose and started tugging at the next one. His makeshift ladder moved under his feet. "You think you can get that bolt out of the wall?"

"Yes, although I'd prefer not to have to use my nails to dig it out." McKay glared at the chain. "I'm an engineer of heaven. Chains and walls are not exactly too technologically advanced for me."

"You're an astrophysicist," John said, getting splinters in his palm. "A theoretical astrophysicist."

"At the moment, I feel like a very practical astrophysicist. How many times am I going to have to ask you to give me the knife? Ow," he added as John got another splinter.

"I have to clear a big enough opening that I can throw the knife to you, Rodney," John said, not very patiently. "Since you can't exactly come over here and get it."

McKay sniffed, but went back to trying to pull the bolt out of the wall with his fingers. John pulled hard at the second plank, and the nails on one side gave very suddenly and he tipped back, flung himself forward, and slammed into the wall, the windowsill hitting him just under the edge of his ribs. "Be careful," McKay snapped.

"Excuse me for trying to rescue you," John said.

"I'm trying to rescue me, too, and it's not going to be very helpful if you accidentally kill yourself doing it!" McKay wrapped both hands around the chain and pulled. He put his back into it, and more shoulder muscles than John had given him credit for. The bolt gave a little.

John twisted the second plank out of the way. He unhooked his knife and wriggled his arm in through the window. "Here," he said and tossed the knife. It landed by McKay's feet. John looked at McKay, and at the space between the third plank and the windowsill, and started to work on the next nail. He looked up after a minute to say, "That's not a screwdriver, you know."

McKay didn't even look around. "No, it's not. Do you have a screwdriver? No? Then please shut up." The knife-handle slipped in his sweaty palm, and he clenched his hand tighter. John shut up and used the second plank as a wedge to try to move the third. The market stall shifted under his feet again, and he scowled; if it could hold sacks of potatoes, or whatever they had here in Leuflet, it should be able to hold him.

McKay yanked at the chain again, muttered something about his back, did something with John's knife that would probably ruin the blade forever, and yanked harder. The bolt gave, and McKay fell backwards as the chain rattled on the floor.

"About damn time," John said. "Now get over here."

"I think I pulled a muscle in my back," McKay said, not moving.

"No, you didn't. I'd know if you did. You want to try to get out of here before those guys come back?" John slapped his palm on the windowsill for emphasis, and the splinters stung.

McKay stood up and picked up the chain, coiling it loosely around his hand and gripping the bolt, with the knife in his other hand. As he walked over to the window, John noticed that he was limping a bit, the same limp John's leg had tried to imitate. "I'm not going to be able to run."

"Well, you'd better be able to walk, cause there's no way I'm carrying you," John said, and finally wrenched the third plank away. He took the knife from McKay's outstretched hand and put it back in its sheath. "Let me just get out of your way and you can climb down." He dropped the plank down to one side and looked back over his shoulder, then crouched, gripped one of the legs of the market stall, and started to scramble back down. McKay stuck his head and shoulders out the window, looked down, made a face, pulled his head in again, stuck one leg out, stopped, pulled it back in, paused, and then stuck his leg out again and started to wriggle himself sideways through the window. "McKay," John said, shaking his head. He braced himself against the upright market stall just as McKay's foot came down on it, hard.

"I thought you had a ladder!" McKay said.

"Well, it's kind of like a ladder."

"It smells like raw potatoes." McKay clung to the windowsill and dragged his other leg out of the window. The chain rattled. John hoped all the neighbors were out rioting, because he and McKay were making enough noise to wake the dead. "And it seems very," McKay got both feet onto the small platform of the market stall's side, and the whole structure wobbled, "unsteady."

"Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking, trying to rescue you from kidnappers using substandard equipment. Would you just get down here?"

"You know, right now you're reminding me of every sadistic gym teacher I ever—" McKay broke off and made a high-pitched noise as the stall tilted to the left under his feet. John grabbed it and tried to drag it upright, and McKay lost his balance, starting to slide down. He grabbed onto one of the legs, and John let go of the wood and tried to get a grip on McKay's flailing legs before they kicked something vital, like his head, and then McKay hit John's head with the chain instead, and they both went down.

"Ow," John said quietly, from underneath the combined weight of McKay and the market stall.

"Is that your knee or my knee? Because if it's your knee, I'd just like to point out that I didn't intend to land on it, and if it's my knee, you are carrying me back to the jumper." McKay started to lever himself upright. It was his knee, as they both found out when he put his weight on it and fell flat on top of John again.

"Get up," John said, trying to squirm out from underneath McKay and the collapsed market stand. "Get up," he repeated and stopped squirming before anything happened that McKay might pick up on, because yes, the pain was distracting, but he wasn't dead or anything. "They could be back any—"

"Ow." McKay rolled to one side, started to get up on the same knee and fell down flat again. "Oh, this is bad."

John got to his feet. "It's not," he said, kicking the market stand away and grabbing McKay to haul him upright. Now that he had his own aches and bruises, it was easier to tell his own physical sensations apart from McKay's. "It's not as bad as it feels right now. Come on." He pulled McKay's arm across his shoulders and started to drag the man along.

"Easy enough for you to be all stoic and soldierly about my pain," McKay groused, but he kept up pretty well, despite the knee and the ankle and the bare feet. The path was really too narrow for two men abreast, and they had to walk at an angle, going as briskly as they could until McKay got the chain caught in the branches of a thorny, dark-leaved bush behind one of the sheds, and he was jerked to a halt.

"You couldn't have taken the chain off your ankle instead?" John asked, trying not to scratch his hands too badly as he tugged branches this way and that; this was a lot worse than his granny's gooseberries.

"I tried." McKay unhooked the chain link by link from the branch John was holding, and John remembered the pain shooting through his ankle. "I need better tools for that. I'd like to keep my foot, if it's all the same to you."

"Sounds good to me, then I definitely don't have to carry you," John said. "We just have to get the chain out of the way."

McKay nodded. "I'll wrap it around my leg." He crouched down. "I've never particularly enjoyed prison-break movies, you know."

"You'll rub your skin raw," John said. "Wait." He took off his jacket, pulled his t-shirt over his head, put the jacket back on and zipped it up carefully. Then he knelt down by McKay's feet and tugged his pant leg up to the knee, and started to tuck the t-shirt inside the iron shackle. John wrapped the chain, tucked the t-shirt, and finally shoved the bolt down through some links of the chain, careful to keep a layer of t-shirt fabric between the jagged metal and McKay's skin. He could feel the way his hands moved on McKay's calf — he wanted to say like an echo, but really there was no delay at all in how the sensation was transmitted. His touch was firm and neutral. "Better?"

"I suppose it might work," McKay said, looking down at John, and then the quick whir and spin of his thoughts stuttered, and John felt his shoulder muscles tense up. A moment later, there was a distant shout and the sound of a slamming door. "Did you hear that? This isn't good. This is very, very bad."

John straightened up, got a good hold of McKay again, and started to run. He only got a few steps before he felt the gravel on the path cutting into McKay's feet, not to mention the knee and the ankle, not to mention McKay's steady stream of ow, ow, ow in his ear. Headlong flight wasn't really going to work as an option, at least not unless he could get McKay another pair of boots. "In here," he said, yanking McKay with him into the thorny, leafy space between a couple of bushes and a brick shed wall. "And down," he yanked again until McKay crouched down next to him, "and shut up."

"Ow," McKay said, and John slapped a hand over his mouth.

Leaning forward cautiously, John tried to peer around the corner of the shed through a screen of dark green leaves. A thorn scratched at his jaw. He saw a man standing just outside the back door of the house, and another leaning out of the window underneath the two planks that were left. The two guards from last night, and still wearing the same shirts, too.

"He cannot have gone far," the man outside the door called up. "His boots are still here."

McKay muttered something uncomplimentary into John's palm. John distracted himself by pressing his knee harder against the thorn poking into it.

"Someone helped him," the man in the window called back, leaning out a bit more and shading his eyes against the sun as he looked along the path. "It is— Ebas! Movement!" He pointed straight at the bushes where John and McKay were crouching.

John stiffened, and his fingers pressed harder against McKay's face. He was acutely conscious of the splinters in his palm where McKay's lips pressed against them. He'd thought they were perfectly still. Maybe they could make a break for it along the shed wall and out into the street, unless there was a fence, unless they were already too trapped by thorny branches caught in their clothes. His P-90 was awkwardly wedged between them.

Then John saw the movement, too. He held his breath as branches and grass trembled, and then he heard a cheep, as the brown chicken with the purple crest hopped out of the grass and pecked at something on the path.

The man outside the door snorted. "I did not think even you would mistake a chicken for an engineer of heaven." He looked up at the man in the window. "Come — we must make haste to follow them."

When both the man in the window and the man outside the door had vanished, and the sound of the door slamming closed had well and truly died away, John relaxed. A moment later, McKay peeled John's hand off his face, drew a deep breath, and then unexpectedly let it out again without saying anything. John started to pick his way out of the bushes, pulling thorny branches away from himself and keeping as flat back against the wall of the shed as he could. Behind him, he could feel McKay doing the same thing.

Once he got free, John stepped out on the path and crouched down. "Thanks," he said. "I owe you one."

McKay was already cranky, and a particularly sharp thorn giving him a farewell gouge in the back of his left hand didn't improve matters. "We're in danger of our lives and you think this is a good moment to start having conversations with poultry?"

"You have to make time for the important things in life," John said as the chicken pecked at the toe of his boot. He stood up. "Stay right there. And you, too," he added, looking at McKay. "I'll be right back."

John jogged back along the path and went to the back door to the house. As he'd thought, the guard Ebas hadn't taken the time to lock it when he left. The door swung open under John's touch without so much as a creak, and he stepped inside cautiously. He came into an out-of-use kitchen where the air was heavy with dust. Going through it and into the front of the house, he found McKay's boots tossed in a corner next to the stairs. There was no sign of the uniform jacket, and John wondered if there were any point in going upstairs to look for it; for all he knew, McKay hadn't even been wearing it when the guards kidnapped him.

Then another thought occurred to him, and he turned and ran up the stairs. In the room next to the one where McKay had been shackled, he found what he was looking for. John made a face at the musty smell, but that was a minor consideration. He took a moment to tidy up after himself, in case the kidnappers came back and figured it out, and then he ran back down the stairs and went out through the back door.

McKay was crouching by the corner of the shed, eyeing the chicken. He turned his head when John approached, and his eyes widened as John dumped the bundle he was carrying on the grass. "What's that?"

"Clothes." John unzipped his jacket and started to tug it off. "Get changed."

McKay reached out and poked at the bundle. "You expect me to wear this?"

"We're conspicuous." John bent and picked up something floaty and dark red, and twisted it around in his hands until he could tell it was a shirt and where the sleeves were. "And extremely unpopular, and in the middle of a riot, and oh, yeah, escaping from kidnappers. Put on that blue thing, and that other orange thing."

John dragged the red shirt over his head and adjusted the cuffs. He turned his head to glare at McKay, and McKay glared back, and then sighed and pulled his t-shirt off. The bruises from where his shoulder had slammed into the wall were coming up nicely. John took his boots off and started to skin out of his pants.

"Don't you think you're taking this a bit far?" McKay asked from inside a peacock-blue swirl of fabric. His head popped out, and he quirked an eyebrow at John.

"Conspicuous," John said again. "You'd better keep those pants, though, or we'll have to fix the chain all over again." He stepped into a pair of green pants with decorative red and gold braiding down the side. A bit snug, but at least he could move in them. He bent to put his boots on again.

"Right, like your P-90 isn't a lot more conspicuous than your uniform." McKay squeezed his eyes shut, and John tried to feel if he had a headache. There was definitely tension involved, but given the kind of day they were having, that wasn't surprising.

"Which is why I'm going to wrap it up in my clothes and your t-shirt and pretend I'm carrying a bundle of rags with me." John looked up at Rodney, and thrust the final garment at him. "This, too."

"It's orange," Rodney said, but he slipped his arms through the armholes all the same.

"Yes, and it goes to your knees, so people won't notice the pants so much." The orange surcoat had a pattern of yellow and gold flowers woven into it, but John decided not to point that out. He reached out and tugged the cuff of the blue shirt down over McKay's wrist, hiding the silver bracelet. "Keep that out of sight, or we're toast. Ready?"

"Have I mentioned that my knee hurts?" McKay stuffed his t-shirt into the bundle in the crook of John's arm and started to walk, and John could feel that the only reason he wasn't limping was that it was difficult to limp with both legs at the same time. "Because it really hurts a lot, and I know you can feel it, so—"

"So you don't have to tell me all about it right now," John suggested. "Let's concentrate on getting back to the gate without being kidnapped again first, okay?"

McKay stopped at the exit to the street and tugged self-consciously at his surcoat. "Are you sure about this? For all we know, we're wearing women's clothes or something."

John snorted. "Have you even looked at the men here? And even if we are, I think these people are too busy fighting a civil war bare-handed to care about a couple of transvestites, as opposed to the engineer who fixed the machinery of heaven. Get moving." He put a hand between McKay's shoulderblades and shoved.

The street was deserted, and McKay made it all the way to the next corner before he got loud. "Ow. Ow, ow, ow. Ow."

John slowed, grabbed McKay's arm, and dragged it over his shoulder. "I'm not carrying you."

"I'll settle for being dragged along in a manly fashion," McKay said between clenched teeth.

"Possibly a manly transvestite fashion," John reminded him. "Try to flex your ankle a bit more when you walk, otherwise it'll give you even more trouble." He flexed his own in demonstration.

McKay glared sidelong at him. "It hurts when I do that."

"Yeah, well, it's gonna hurt even more later on if you don't do that." John winced a little as McKay demonstratively overdid it. Turning his head, he caught a glimpse in the corner of his eye of a group of people coming down the street, two of them dragging handcarts. "Do you have to be so damn contrary?"

"I'm not being contrary. I'm in pain," McKay said loftily. Then he, too, turned his head. "Major."

"Don't worry about it," John said. "We're blending in. Or we would if you'd just—"

"Major, your chicken is following us."

John turned his head the other way. The chicken was hopping along at their heels, its purple crest wagging. As John turned, it looked up at him and cheeped. "It's not my chicken." John looked stern. "Go home. That nice old lady's going to miss you."

"You stole an old lady's chicken? Is she going to come after us? Because I don't know if you've noticed, major, but I can't possibly run, and—"

"No, I didn't, no, she isn't, and yes, I know, McKay, so stop telling me."

The chicken cheeped again, unimpressed. The people with the handcarts passed by on the other side of the street, shooting the occasional look at John and McKay, but since it seemed to be the uh oh, crazy people who talk to chickens kind of look rather than the evil offworlders, kill kill kind of look, John decided not to worry about it. He shook his head at the chicken, turned back, and hitched McKay's arm up across his shoulders again.

McKay made a pretense at hobbling along in stoic silence for about two minutes. Then he said, "We should go past the palace on the way back. I'm sure with all the confusion, you could get in and check the storage rooms and see where they keep the beans."

John yanked again at McKay's arm, not gently. "And when you say all the confusion, you mean the roof falling in and people dying, right? I really don't think this is the right time to look for coffee beans, and I don't even want to know how you think we could carry them."

"Not coffee beans," McKay said. "The ZPM that Ennif was going to pack with them. And yes, I'm sorry people died because the king was being an idiot, but us not getting the ZPM that I worked for isn't going to make them any less dead."

"If you want to be more pragmatic than thou about things, why don't you try this: us going to look for the ZPM could make us a lot more dead." John looked down the next cross street. More small, cramped houses, more dusty little kitchen gardens. "We should go this way."

McKay frowned. "Is the gate really this way?"

"No, the gate's that way. And so is the palace."

"Then we should go that way." McKay made an attempt to change their direction.

John gripped McKay's arm hard enough to make him yelp, and held him still. "Look, McKay — Rodney. It's a riot. People are getting hurt. I'm not taking you in the middle of that when you can't even run."

McKay looked around. "Everything looks pretty quiet around here."

That was true enough. The streets were all but deserted, and the air was heavy with silence, only broken now and then by the humming of insects. But John saw faces at the windows here and there, and he thought on any other day many of the doors would stand open, and people would be outside, working. "That's kind of the point of being here and not at the palace or Green Moon Square, wherever that is. People are packing up their stuff and fleeing the city, you saw it yourself."

"Maybe they were just moving. ZPM, major. Are we going to just let that go?"

John narrowed his eyes. "So you're willing to just walk in there where people are fighting and the fire's probably spread and most of them on both sides probably blame you, personally, for what's happened? You're not even worried?"

"No, of course not." Which was true; John could feel it. There was a high-speed whirr of nervous tension, but that seemed to be McKay's baseline state. "And I really think we should get going, unless you have a particular fondness for arguing on street corners — actually, even if you do have a particular fondness for—"

"Why aren't you worried?"

"Because I know you'll protect me," McKay said promptly, and then he turned his head so fast John thought he'd get whiplash, and stared, wide-eyed. "Oh my God," he said, holding up his wrist and looking at the silver bracelet. "It's this thing, it's affecting my mind. Why isn't it affecting your mind?"

"I haven't strangled you yet, have I?" John started to walk again, his way, dragging McKay along willy-nilly. "We're going around. I don't care if it's me or if it's the link, going around is safe and sensible and—"

"Definitely the link," McKay muttered, but he stumbled along as best he could. "My God, it's like getting a personality transplant. Did I turn into Teyla while she wore the link? Because that would be... Oh, wait, do you think if we swapped bracelets, you'd have an irresistible urge to rescue the ZPM in some brainlessly daring way, and I'd have to go along with—"


It was impossible to move at a pace much above a quick hobble. John tried to take a bit more of McKay's weight, because that intermittent zing of pain in McKay's left knee was going to make John start limping, too, and that wouldn't exactly improve the situation. He was actually feeling McKay's various aches and pains more keenly than his own, and wondered if that was an effect of the link, or of subjective experience.

John chose the smallest, narrowest streets, trying to keep them away from people as much as possible, and twice, they reached a dead end and had to turn back. McKay kept up a steady litany of grumbles in his ear. The sun was high in the sky now, and McKay was no featherweight; John felt sweat trickle down his ribs. He got a better grip on the P-90 bundle under his arm and McKay's arm over his shoulders. At least the red shirt was airier and more comfortable than his uniform jacket, but the pants were clinging to his legs. Also, it was starting to occur to him that a red shirt might be a bad omen.

McKay wriggled and almost pushed the bundle out from under John's arm. "I'm not getting any blood to my hand. Shouldn't you be protecting me against that? And I'm—"

"—thirsty. I know." The street they were following started to slope down and curve to the right. The houses here were bigger, three, four, even five stories, crammed close together. John had tried to find a back street, but without any luck. He saw a few flowerbeds squeezed into narrow, irregularly shaped strips of dirt between the houses, but no more kitchen gardens. There were shops and businesses on the ground floors here. They passed some that were still closed, one shop with kitchenware that looked to be open, and a stall on one corner that sold food, skewers of roasted vegetables by the smell of it.

"And hungry," McKay added.

People were huddled around the stall in little groups, talking in low, tense voices, and it sounded like trouble to John. "Just keep moving," he said quietly. He could feel eyes on them as they went past, and forced himself to go slow and look like just your everyday possible transvestite who was dragging an injured friend along for a walk.

There was a gap between two houses to the left as the street turned even more sharply right, and John saw a surprising amount of sky, and other houses in the distance. When he looked down, he saw a river. A flight of uneven stone steps led down between the houses to a riverside walk. "Not thirsty enough to drink river water, though," McKay said.

John wished for even a crappy tourist map. Direction was one thing, he could navigate by the sun and he knew exactly where he wanted to go, but that didn't help with avoiding rivers and dead ends and the king's wives. "Let's go down and see if we can find a bridge."

"You want to cross the river?" McKay frowned and grabbed on to the iron railing on one side of the steps. "The road to the stargate is on this side of the river."

"Riot," John said.

"Yes, well, for all we know they're rioting over there in the suburbs too," McKay snapped, "and so far we've hardly met anyone, rioting or not, and you don't even know if there's a bridge back across to this side once we get outside the city."

John sighed. "Do me a favor, McKay, and try to act normal, and when I say normal, I actually mean with a bit more self-preservation than right now. You know this isn't you, right?"

"It's true that I might not usually be as recklessly daredevil as some people I might name, but I resent the implication that I'm entirely lacking in adventurous spirit." McKay hopped down another few steps. "I could always take off the bracelet, and then—"

"—and then we'd get separated and you'd get strung up by a lynch mob."

McKay hopped down another step and eyed John with something very close to concern. "Maybe you should take off the bracelet."

"No." John hoisted the P-90 bundle into a better grip. "Forget the lynch mobs, but as long as the radios aren't working, we have to have a way to find each other again if we do get separated." Looking past McKay, he saw the chicken hopping down a step in just the same graceless, inattentive way. John sighed. The chicken did have longer legs than its Earth counterparts, but still, the fact that it was able to keep up with them at all was a sign of how slowly they were going.

John stopped at the foot of the stairs and put his bundle down. He waited until McKay had made it down and then reached out and scooped up the chicken, which cheeped at him but didn't struggle. When John held it out to McKay, McKay just stared at him. "You want me to hold your chicken for you?"

"Carry it under your free arm, just be careful with it. If we carry a chicken and a bundle of clothes, we might look like we're evacuating."

McKay shook his head. "Your chicken. You carry it."

John shook his head right back. "One of us is going to be armed, and it's not going to be you. Don't tell me you're—"

"Don't even think about saying that," McKay said, and reached out and took the chicken. The chicken squawked wildly and pecked his hand. "Ow!"

"I said be careful," John said, adjusting McKay's grip and trying to smooth a few ruffled feathers.

"Your chicken hates me."

John picked up the bundle and settled the P-90 in the crook of his arm again. "Try to look like someone who's at least seen a chicken before, okay?" He dragged McKay's arm over his shoulder. "And no, Chicken McNuggets don't count."

They still walked slowly. Trees grew along the riverwalk, and while it wasn't exactly cover, John felt less exposed. He could see a bridge ahead, and he could probably drag McKay across it. There were other people walking in the same direction, but no one looked twice at them. The chicken made annoyed clucking noises, but it had stopped trying to wriggle out from under McKay's arm. To their right, the hill they'd come down from slowly planed out, the slope of the line of houses along its edge growing less and less steep.

It wasn't until John saw a couple of people carrying clubs that he realized they were in exactly the wrong place. He slowed down and glanced back over his shoulder. More and more people were coming up behind them, and the bridge was still pretty far away. He could hear voices up ahead.

"Okay, I think you should tell me what's wrong," McKay said. "And don't just say riot..." His voice trailed off, and he swallowed hard. They were coming up on an open space, a gap in the row of houses that was more than just a street leading away from the river. A crowd had gathered, and yes, that was where the voices came from. Smaller groups of people stood on the riverwalk, watching and talking.

"I think this might be Green Moon Square," John said. He slowed their pace even more and tried to plot a course. Looking to the right, he saw that the crowd in Green Moon Square was gathered around a podium with an overturned statue. Two people stood on the podium, shouting and gesticulating; one was the woman in the indigo apron.

John kept his head down and dragged McKay along. He wanted to stay as close to the river as possible, but people kept moving, most of the small groups shifting forward to join the larger crowd in the square, and John and McKay were carried along. By the time they made it clear of the press of people, they were standing at the wall of the house on the far end of the square, just on the corner. Everyone else pressed forward to hear and see better, which at least left them with some air and space, although—

A third person climbed onto the podium, a muscular woman with dark hair and the bronze-colored shirt of one of the king's guards. She turned to face the crowd, and then her eyes locked on to John's.

"Isn't that Usann?" McKay said.

John knew it wasn't going to work, but he had to say it anyway. "Run."

Usann flung her arm out and pointed to them, shouting. John dragged McKay around the corner as fast as he could. Turned out they could go a lot faster than a hobble when they really had to, when a whole mob of irate citizens started to run after them. At least no one had guns here, but a thrown rock hit John under his right shoulderblade just before he saw a narrow alley to the right. He yanked McKay into it, saying a silent prayer that it wouldn't turn out to be a dead end. Blank walls, no doors on either side, but there was another alley up ahead, and John had just decided to go left when someone grabbed hold of McKay and pulled from the right. The chicken squawked in outrage.

"Make haste," Feryn said, and John stared in shock. "In here!"

John hesitated for a split second, heard the mob shouting behind them, and nodded. In here turned out to be down some narrow steps and in through a basement-level door, then through a warren of dark corridors, passing locked storage rooms and ducking under pipes in the ceiling. Everything smelled musty, poorly cleaned and rarely used. Feryn walked ahead of them, fast, and looked back now and then to see that they were keeping up. His shirt was torn across one shoulder.

The floor was uneven, and McKay had wrenched his knee some more going down the steps. Even though the corridors were narrow, John kept McKay's arm around his shoulder. When Feryn finally stopped outside an unmarked door, McKay slumped against John's side. "Ow."

"In here," Feryn said again, opening the door to another storage room with empty shelves along the sides and a thick pile of old rugs and blankets by the back wall. There was a small window, high up, covered in grime but still letting in a bit of light. "Even disguised," he quirked an eyebrow at McKay's surcoat, "you cannot move safely through Leuflet in daylight. Rest here, and I will bring you word of when you can leave."

"Thank you," John said.

McKay nodded fervently. "Yes. Thank you. And on the subject of saving our lives and featuring in my bedtime prayers for the rest of my life, not that I've actually prayed at bedtime since I was four, but that's not really relevant, could we have some water?"

Feryn actually looked as if he were giving some serious thought to the idea of cracking a smile. "Yes. I will bring it to you." He gestured them into the room, and John hauled McKay inside and levered him down on the pile of rugs.

The chicken wriggled free and jumped down, pecked at the grit and dust on the stone floor, and flapped its wings in a disappointed way. John sat down next to McKay, and McKay promptly leaned against him. "Have I mentioned that my knee hurts?"

"Yeah, because I couldn't tell," John said dryly. He glanced at the window, trying to judge how many hours of daylight were left. Not that McKay couldn't use the rest — not that they couldn't both use the rest, John amended to himself, feeling his leg muscles twinge in a way he couldn't pretend was an echo from McKay — but Teyla needed to get back to Atlantis as soon as possible. The medical supplies in a jumper weren't up to dealing with broken bones.

"I hope he's really getting us water," McKay said. "And not out there trying to find out who'll pay the most to get to string up an engineer of heaven."

"What, you don't believe I'll protect you any more?"

"Yes," McKay said, very irritably, "but that doesn't mean my brain suddenly stopped working." He sighed and slumped more heavily against John. "And this seemed like such a good planet, too. They have coffee, they have a ZPM, why do they have to be the ones that want to kill me, instead of those terribly boring people with the gills last week who tried to get us to eat seaweed?"

John shifted enough to put an arm around McKay's shoulder. "You spent the whole time talking about how you were worried you were going to drown."

"Of course I was worried. We were underwater, and those glass walls were clearly structurally unsound, but that's not the point. The point is." McKay yawned. "The point is, I'd really like some coffee right now."

"Don't get your hopes up," John said, keeping his eyes on the chicken as it hopped over to peck at the dusty fringe of a blue-patterned rug.

Feryn came back before too long, carrying a wooden tray with some kind of inlaid pattern around the edge, and John couldn't remember if that was called intaglio or intarsia or whatever, but the tray looked like it should be in a museum, and so did the earthenware carafe with flowers around the rim and the delicate bowls with their fine blue-green glaze. The apples in one of the bowls looked kind of bruised, though, and the bread—

"I fear the bread is dry," Feryn said. "Here is water, and a little oil and salt." He put the tray down on the floor at their feet, and the chicken immediately hopped over to investigate. John stretched out a leg to block its way. "There is a laundry room two doors from here, if you wish to refresh yourselves, but do not go up into the house."

"All right." John looked up at Feryn. "Thank you. How long are you planning for us to stay put here?"

"Until sundown," Feryn said. "I can escort you out of the city, but first—" He rubbed at his forehead and looked suddenly very tired. "There is much that needs to be done, and while the fire of heaven still burns, I cannot leave my duties." Straightening again, he tugged at a frayed and bloodied shirt cuff. "You are safe here, truly, and I will return as soon as possible."

Feryn walked out, and McKay immediately leaned forward and grabbed a piece of bread, dunking it in the bowl of oil. "This looks at least marginally edible." He sprinkled salt on top of the bread. "Refresh ourselves?"

"He meant take a leak," John said. "At least, I really hope he did." He stood up slowly, stretching his legs. "In fact, I think it calls for a recon mission. Don't eat all the apples while I'm gone."

The hallway outside was very dark. John fumbled his way two doors down and went into the laundry room, which smelled of soap and bleach and dust. He found a pile of old washcloths and a square chunk of greenish soap, and there was water, of course, so he took the opportunity to clean up a little, as well. When he was done, he left the red see-through shirt untucked and went back along the hallway, hand to the wall.

McKay was drinking water, eyes closed in bliss. John could feel it in his own body, the cool wet slide across the tongue and down the throat, and he craved water himself; he knelt down and poured from the earthenware jug, hand almost slipping in the condensation on its smoothly rounded side. The water tasted as good as he'd thought it would. He picked up a piece of bread and dunked it in the oil, and McKay did the same and then put salt on both his own piece and John's. The bread took a lot of chewing, but it was worth the effort, and the apples were a bit mushy, but still okay.

"I suppose it's my turn," McKay said, wiping at his oil-shiny mouth with the back of his hand, and tried to stand up. "Ow."

John got to his feet, got a good grip on McKay's arm, and heaved. The splinters in his palm stung. "Still not going to carry you," he said, and then, "Come on, at least try putting some weight on your own two feet. I could just leave you sitting here, you know."

"No, you couldn't." McKay hobbled. "You have to protect me against a fate worse than Tycho Brahe's." He paused. "Okay, no, because that's just a really old urban legend, but still, the way things are now, you can't deny that you have a vested interest in the state of my bladder."

"Oh, yes, I can," John said, dragged McKay's arm more securely across his shoulders as they went into the hallway, and wondered idly how he had ended up hiding in a cellar in a distant galaxy talking about Tycho Brahe's bladder. "And I'm not going in with you, so try not to fall over or anything."

"I'm starting to think you don't take my well-being seriously," McKay said and hobbled into the laundry room under his own steam, wincing theatrically.

John closed the door, leaned against the wall, and waited, trying not to pay too much attention to what McKay was doing, although it was difficult when some of it felt as though it were happening to him, particularly when McKay washed a lot more of himself, and more thoroughly, than John had really expected. When McKay came hobbling back out again, less theatrically, he did look refreshed. They went back and found that the chicken had overturned the salt bowl and was pecking at the bread.

"I can't take you anywhere, can I," John said. He unloaded McKay on the pile of rugs and crouched down to see what he could salvage. The apples seemed untouched, so he handed one to McKay. John tossed the topmost piece of bread aside into a corner and shooed the chicken off after it.

He sat down on the rugs, and McKay promptly leaned on him again. John eyed the silver bracelet around his wrist and wondered if yashina really translated as backrest. McKay ate the apple in quick, greedy bites, even though he wasn't really hungry any more. He was a warm, relaxed weight against John's side, and smelled faintly of soap. John shifted back a little, and McKay followed, all but sprawling against his side and making a satisfied, I'm-comfortable-now-so-stay-like-this noise.

While they'd crossed the city, John had been busy thinking about survival, for the most part. Now he stared blindly at the bare shelves across the room and felt McKay, felt him warm and crowdingly close, felt the throb of pain in his ankle and the lingering ache in his shoulder, felt the clear bright taste of apple in his mouth. John pressed his tongue against his teeth, wanting that taste, too. He shifted his legs, and the pull of fabric turned his borrowed pants from snug to uncomfortable.

McKay dropped the apple core. It bounced on his thigh, rolled down the carpet and down to the floor. He twisted his head up at a painful angle to stare at John, and John tried to move away; McKay grabbed his arm. "Is that — oh my God, is that you? I thought it was me."

John stared back, trying to catalog what he felt, to sort it out, to get a grip, and then he reached down and rubbed his fingertips over McKay's chest until he could feel McKay's nipples harden through the thin shirt, and McKay drew a sharp breath and so did John. "I always wondered," he said, sliding down the pile of rugs until he could kneel between McKay's legs.

The orange and gold surcoat was heavy and stiff when John pushed against it, and McKay wriggled it off his shoulders. Touching McKay through the shirt was almost like touching his bare skin, but the fine fabric added a layer of sensation that made McKay shiver, and John could feel it all the way down his spine. John rubbed his face against McKay's chest and then licked him through the shirt, trying it out, finding out what it felt like. He thought the one whining in the back of his throat was McKay, but he wasn't entirely sure.

The zipper on McKay's pants gave John a bit of trouble until McKay slumped back on the carpets, propped up on his elbows but stretched out enough to make it easy for John to get his pants open. His eyes glittered, and John's hands shook. When John reached to curve his fingers around McKay's cock, the splinters in his palm stung. He put his hands loosely on McKay's hips, bent his head, and licked, instead.

It was the weirdest thing he'd ever felt, and it felt amazing. He went on licking, running his tongue around the head, finding out what worked best.

"Yes," McKay said, his voice thick, "yes, that's—"

—but John already knew that, he could feel it. He took just the head of McKay's cock in his mouth and sucked, and McKay's fingers dug into his shoulder, avoiding every single bruise. John smiled, feeling a little light-headed. He'd wanted the taste of apples in his mouth, but this was better.

He went slowly, teasing them both. Everything else came to him in snapshots of perception: the hard floor under his knees, the soft skin over McKay's hipbones against the pads of his thumbs, the room dim and comfortable around them. He bent his head and felt the slow glide against his tongue, felt it happen to McKay, felt it echo through his own body. It was impossible to hold back.

The slow reverb of sensation between them built and built. John could barely breathe, but McKay was panting hard enough for both of them. When the sensations crested, John squeezed his eyes shut; he could feel McKay's orgasm as though it were happening to him, and then it did happen to him, slamming into him like a punch to the gut, hard enough that he almost couldn't tell what was happening until it was over and he lay sprawled across McKay's legs, relearning how to breathe. One of his legs twitched a little and then grew heavier as the last tension left him.

The room seemed oddly quiet, and John had to focus for a moment before he realized that the constant high-speed whirr of McKay's thoughts had slowed to a contented hum. John smiled and rubbed his face against McKay's belly through the shirt, which rasped and caught on his stubble. "I have to go wash up," he said, words muffled by cloth and flesh.

"Mm." McKay didn't move a muscle, but then, there was no reason why he should. John breathed out and pushed himself upright, got to his feet, and started for the door on slightly shaky legs. He turned in the doorway and saw McKay lying completely limp across the pile of rugs, and the idea of sprawling next to him for a nap tempted him down to his bones, but he was sticky and uncomfortable, and already up and moving.

The laundry room echoed around him as he cleaned himself up, tile walls playing with the sound of each falling drop of water. John dried himself on a few rags that looked like ripped-up sheets, thin and a little stiff from over-washing. He turned for the door, and then stopped and went back for some of the still-clean rags.

McKay was still lying down, clothes all unfastened and messed up, shirt riding up over his belly. He opened his eyes when John came closer, and a certain softness was showing there, too. John had never really thought about McKay looking like that, at ease all the way from his skin down to his bones, although maybe some of the calm he'd shown when Teyla wore the silver bracelet—

John sat down and dropped the rags between them. He poured himself a mug of water, drank half of it, and held the mug out to McKay. "You might have to sit up."

A faint line appeared between McKay's eyebrows, but it didn't go all the way down inside him. He got himself buttoned and zipped and made a half-hearted effort to pull his shirt straight, but left the surcoat off. The water tasted slightly different in his mouth than it had in John's, more metallic. Before he could think too hard about it, John leaned forward and licked at McKay's lips, trying to experience both things at once. Then McKay kissed him back, and he forgot about the water.

They kissed slowly, shifting lazily back and forth until they were both comfortable, and John could stretch his legs out without knocking the water jug over. Maybe it was the timing, or the way the daylight faded through the dusty window, or the faint scent of apples in the air, but McKay kissed like he was building a new and better ZPM, and John smiled into the kiss.

The room grew darker. They didn't stop kissing until the chicken overturned the bowl of salt again. McKay was almost back up to full speed as he sat up and shooed the chicken away from the last piece of bread, and John wondered if maybe he really was building a better ZPM in the back of his mind. He ripped a chunk from the bread before McKay could get it all, stood up and stretched, and went over to the window. The small pane was so dirty, he couldn't see anything beyond the fact that the sun had almost set.

"Oh, don't even think about it," McKay said, and John looked back over his shoulder to see him dunk his bread in oil with one hand and hold off the chicken with the other.

John toggled his radio. "Teyla? Ford?" He got a lot of static back, nothing like a recognizable voice, but it was more promising than the blank silence of earlier. In case they could hear him, he went on, "I've got McKay, we're fine, but it'll be a while before we can get out of the city. If you can, maybe you should radio Atlantis and see if someone can come and pick you up. Sheppard out."

"I'm not fine," McKay said. "My knee is killing me." John made a show of tapping his bracelet. "Killing me very slowly. It's possible I have a few decades of life left, but I'm not sure I can stand up."

That was actually true, John felt when he flexed his own leg. The endorphins were definitely wearing off. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll get you out of here."

McKay looked up at him. "I know," he said.

A while later, when McKay's face was a close, pale blur in the dark and the chicken an occasional cheep somewhere just out of reach of their booted feet, Feryn came back. He pushed the door just barely open and said, from out in the corridor, "Please cover the window with this cloth, and I will bring the lamp in."

John fumbled a bit in the dark, but when Feryn came in with the light he saw that he'd made a good enough job of it. McKay sat up on the rugs, looking awake and alert. It was also extremely obvious, even in the soft light of the lamp, that he had a hickey on his neck. John wouldn't have minded if Feryn had stayed away for another hour or so. Instead he said, "So what's happening? Is it time for us to leave?"

"The situation is complicated," Feryn said. He didn't look in any shape to notice hickeys. His hair was dull with ash and dirt, his clothes were filthy and torn, and the scrape across his right cheek still had gravel in it. "I would go with you, for safety, but I dare not leave the palace for too long as matters stand at present."

"You don't have to go with us." John adjusted his thigh holster. "It's dark now, and if everyone's busy up at the palace, we shouldn't have that much trouble."

Feryn shook his head. "I am afraid not. The word has spread among the people on the streets that an old woman of the Ansan quarters met the new yashina and had words with him, and many are searching for you and for the engineer of heaven because of her tale."

"Great," John muttered. "Listen, if she says I stole her chicken, that's not true. It just... came along."

"No doubt," Feryn said, watching the chicken leave droppings all over the pile of carpets. Then he looked at John again, grave-eyed. "I cannot stay away long from the palace. The fire of heaven is still burning, and we cannot put it out." Soot and fatigue had drawn harsher lines across his face; he looked ten years older. "The device used in times past no longer functions as it should. It has been many generations since the fire of heaven was last extinguished, and the kings surrendered their absolute rule."

"What kind of device?" McKay started to get to his feet, and John took hold of his arm and steadied him. "What does it look like?"

"I cannot describe it very well. There is a metal covering, and symbols that should light up to the touch, but stay dark." Feryn's hands seemed to sketch out a console at waist-height. "We have forgotten many of the secrets of older days."

"You can't have had that many," McKay said, more wry than sharp. "Have you checked the power source?"

Feryn spread his hands. "We are not engineers. The eldest of the wives, who passes down the secrets, died when the fire shook the earth." John remembered the small, still body in the courtyard, half-hidden by uprooted paving stones. "We do not know what needs be done."

"Oh, all right," McKay said. "I'll fix it."

"You are most kind," Feryn said, bowing. "The absolute rule of the king is a chancy thing; better to maintain the custom as it is."

"You're out of your mind," John said. He tightened his fingers on McKay's arm. "I thought we already had this argument. The palace is probably the worst place for you right now, and that's if we can even get there." He lowered his voice, knowing full well that Feryn would still hear every word. "I don't know why you've suddenly been struck by some kind of do-gooder impulse, but what we need is—"

"—is a way to get out of the city," McKay said, "and Feryn can't help us until the fire's been put out, so clearly the most efficient thing to do is help him."

Feryn cleared his throat. "The kings of old were fearful," he said. "There are many secret ways into the palace, and out of it. I will not tell you there is no danger, but I must return, with or without the engineer to aid me, and as long as the fire burns, the danger is that much worse."

"I see," John said, a headache-like pressure building behind his eyes.

"I cannot stop you, but I would not advise you to take to the streets on your own. It would be foolhardy. There are blockades, and many who guard the city gates."

"So we go to the palace," McKay said.

"I guess we do, since I can't protect you against a whole city," John said painfully. "But Rodney, it's still not—" The pressure grew. "The palace isn't my first choice for a destination, either."

"I will be there also," Feryn said. "I am still bound by my word to preserve the life and safety of the engineer."

"Well, good." McKay touched his forehead, pressing his knuckles into that spot right between his eyebrows. He looked at Feryn. "Just give us a minute, here," he said, and dragged John with him into the far corner of the room. "Major, listen, I can tell something's wrong. Do you need, I mean, do you think we should take the links off? Because someone could notice them, up at the palace, and also, it seems to be hurting you."

John rubbed at his forehead, too, now that his back was to Feryn and the lamp. "No," he said finally. "I still think we should keep them on."

McKay frowned. "You really think it's safe?"

"We can keep them hidden. And I think if you take it off and you don't believe I'm going to protect you any more, you're going to freak out." McKay huffed, but didn't argue the point. "And if you get lost again, I want to be able to track you down."

"Why am I the one who's going to get lost?" McKay said. "What about when you take off somewhere without a word to anyone to do something patently insane?"

"Then you'll be able to find me," John said. He met McKay's eyes there in the near-dark, and then turned back quickly to face Feryn, before he did something stupid. "All right," he said, pitching his voice a little louder. "We'll go."

Feryn nodded. "It is well," he said. His face, under the grime and the graveness, showed relief. He took the lamp and went out into the corridor, with McKay putting on his surcoat and hobbling slowly after him, and John took the covering down from the window and hurried to catch up. Falling into step beside McKay, John tugged McKay's arm across his shoulders and pulled a little extra on it just to hear him grumble under his breath.

The lamp didn't give much light, but enough for them to follow Feryn down the corridor, through a couple of sharp turns, and to a flat, grey-painted metal door with a very large keyhole. Feryn had to give the lamp to McKay and use both hands to unlock it.

Cold air breathed from the open door, smelling of dirt, not dust. John could dimly make out brickwork walls, though a few of the bricks seemed to have crumbled or fallen out. Feryn reached for the lamp again, and McKay held it back out of his reach, frowning. "Is this where we suddenly find out about your secret nuclear fission research project?"

Feryn blinked. "I do not know what that is."

"Good," McKay said, and let him have the lamp.

"He had a bad experience with tunnels once," John said, ignoring McKay's muttered Oh, and yours was so much better? "Let's go."

The tunnel was narrow and uncomfortable and in serious need of maintenance, nothing at all like the underground facilities of the Genii. John shifted his grip on his bundle of clothes and weapon, and his elbow scraped against the sharp edge of a brick that stuck out at an angle. The explosion when the fire of heaven was ignited must have reached this tunnel, too. John glanced up at the ceiling, then looked down again and moved on. If McKay wasn't being Chicken Little, he wouldn't be, either.

Feryn might be tired after a day of riots and firefighting, but he set a brisk pace; they had to struggle to keep up. The tunnel was long, but the air stayed cool and fresh, and John amused himself with trying to spot the air vents; it distracted him from the pressure in his head. McKay was lost in thought, the bright whirr and chime of his mind next to John almost soothing in its steadiness.

After about twenty minutes, they came to a T junction — more like a Y junction, John amended, getting a better look at it as Feryn led them to the right. The tunnel to the left looked a bit damp, but not impassable.

Not that far into the right-hand tunnel, they began to smell smoke. John tensed up, and McKay made a weird snorting sound, as if trying to force the smoky air out of his nose.

"It is not much farther," Feryn said, looking back at them. He dug a bundle out of his pocket and peeled off two swatches of fabric, thin and see-through and looking like they'd come off someone's shirt. "Cover your faces with these."

John frowned. "It's that bad where we're going?"

Feryn made an indecipherable gesture with his free hand. "You will also be less recognizable." He took a third swatch and tied it across his own nose and mouth.

McKay looked at the swatches he'd taken from Feryn, then turned to John and tied one over his face with slow, competent movements, like someone who'd either done it before or spent way too much time thinking about it. The swatch McKay tied across his own face was purple and had a strip of gold woven in across one side. John grinned a little to himself. "Really getting into the local fashion, aren't you?"

McKay gave him a pointed look back. "Yours has more gold in it. You look like a very gay highwayman."

"We cannot tarry here," Feryn said, and they walked on.

The tunnel ended at another metal door, and once again, Feryn needed both hands to unlock it. When the door opened, the smell of smoke grew heavier and sharper. They stepped through and into the palace cellars, coming out between two large wooden casks. A third cask across the room had tilted and sprung a leak, and the floor was slippery with beer. They splashed their way across the room and into the next one, and through a few twists and turns, until John started to think he'd seen those particular storage bins and half-filled sacks before. The tension in him ratcheted up another step.

The next turn took them into the kitchen. John stopped in the doorway, as soon as he recognized the high ceiling and narrow windows, and the worktables in the center of the room. He shoved McKay back as soon as he saw that two people were standing over by the range. One of them looked a lot like the cook.

"Ow," McKay said when his bruised shoulder hit the wall, but he said it fairly quietly. John fought the urge to rub his own shoulder. The light was poor in the kitchen, most of it coming from Feryn's lamp, but he recognized the set of the cook's powerful shoulders and the curl of her hair.

Halfway across the kitchen, Feryn turned around and gestured at them. "Make haste!"

The cook turned. She hadn't covered her face, which was nearly black with soot; there was a painful-looking burn on her chest, just above the lacing of her shirt. When she saw John, she snatched up a cleaver. "You," she said, and came at him across the kitchen floor.

John ripped the jacket away from his P-90 and brought it to bear on her. "Okay," he said, eyes on the cleaver, "let's not do anything hasty, here."

"Osmar!" Feryn's voice was sharp. "We need their help." The cook looked over John's shoulder, and he could tell exactly when she saw McKay. Her upper lip pulled back off her teeth. "And that weapon will kill you where you stand. Do not attempt to harm them."

Osmar the cook held still, but her eyes shifted from John to McKay and back again, and the cleaver looked very comfortable in her hand.

"McKay," John said quietly. "Walk over to Feryn and go wherever it is he's taking us." McKay began to move one slow step at a time, and John moved with him, shifting slowly sideways, keeping his eyes on Osmar and his body between Osmar and McKay. She looked at him, and at McKay and Feryn behind him, and took a couple of slow steps backwards.

"In here," Feryn said, and John heard a door opening, and backed up until his back was against the lintel. His head felt as though the entire palace was pressing down on it. He watched Osmar back away, and shifted backwards himself, until he was through the door and following Feryn and McKay, but with his P-90 still pointing back the way they'd come.

They were in a narrow, cramped space, more like the secret tunnels under the city than the cellars and hallways of the palace, with the same kind of brickwork walls. The ceiling was even lower. More bricks had fallen and shattered here, but John glimpsed solid stone behind them. After about thirty feet, the tunnel turned sharply left, and they scrambled up a few steps and across a few more fallen bricks into a small room, not much larger than the puddlejumper cockpit, that was very different from the rest of the palace. Smooth metal panels covered the walls, and in the center of the room was a console with a curved metal cover sitting at an awkward angle, as if someone had tried unsuccessfully to wrench it off.

"No, no, no," McKay said. "This is not good." He tapped the cover with one finger, and the grating metal chime rang off the walls. Even Feryn flinched. "I need tools, do we have any tools?"

"I'll stand watch," John said. "Hurry."

He went back down the steps and stopped where the tunnel turned back towards the kitchen. The wall straight across from the steps wasn't brick, but wood, and there was an odd crack to one side where the wood was supposed to match up with the brickwork. John tried to tug at it with his fingers, and got another splinter. He got out his knife and wrenched instead, and the wood gave enough that he could see a latch at waist-level, and lift it with the blade. Not a wall, a door.

The hinges had been damaged by the explosion, and the door scraped against the floor when he tried to open it. Through the crack, he could see another brickwork tunnel. No way of knowing where it went, but at least they weren't completely cut off; all the same, John went back up the tunnel to the door into the kitchen and took up position there. Despite the cloth across his face, the sharp smell of fire and ashes was scratching at the back of his nose and throat.

Osmar and a man John didn't recognize were still over in the corner, and John squinted at them. They were doing something with pipes and a bucket, and John was just wondering if he could go over there and confiscate their very-nearly-a-wrench for McKay to use when water burst from one of the pipes in a hissing spray. Osmar stepped back with a curse, and the man hit the pipe with the nearly-a-wrench. The spray of water increased.

John rolled his stiff shoulder three times to ease it before he realized it was McKay's stiff shoulder. He scowled at Osmar and the man with the wrench as they filled the bucket and left the kitchen. The water pressure had lessened, and the spray of water turned into a steady trickle, spreading across the floor.

Someone tapped impatiently on the back of John's hand with a blunt fingertip. He stared blankly at his hands holding the P-90 for an embarrassingly long moment before backing down the corridor, eyes on the kitchen door, until he came to the sharp turn in the tunnel.

"I knew that would work," McKay said from inside the small room with the console. "Major, we need to find that ZPM."

John stopped in the doorway. "I thought," he said in an even voice, "we were repairing this machinery and leaving the city."

"Yes, well." McKay had a smear of grease across one temple. "As it turns out, this console isn't broken, apart from the entirely unnecessary damage done to some external parts," he patted the cover, which was now wrenched back at a crazy angle, "but it lacks power."

"This is Ancient technology? It will run off a ZPM?"

"It's not Ancient technology, but yes, like just about everything else in the known universe, it will run off a ZPM with the right wiring. Preferably as soon as possible, before there's a second explosion. Because that would not be good. At all. In fact, you could say it would be extremely bad."

John could feel the truth of that in the spin of McKay's thoughts and the jangle of his nervous system. "Okay," he said. He looked at Feryn. "Do you know where those bitter roasted beans are stored?"

Feryn's brows pulled down. "This would not seem to be the moment," he said.

"Ennif's hidden the," John's mind reached for the word, "kazap in with those beans."

"And we really need it," McKay put in, "or when the next pocket of gas is breached, this palace is going to blow up." John tensed. "And possibly part of the city as well." John felt as though someone had wrapped a wire around his head and started to pull it tight.

"Beans," John said. "Now. Are they in one of the storage buildings?"

"No," Feryn said, walking over to the doorway. John stepped back to make room. "We do not have very much left. This way."

The kitchen was still empty and dark; water covered the floor and glimmered deceptively in the light from Feryn's lamp. John could just barely hear voices in the distance, shouting. Feryn led them around the spreading pool of water from the breached pipe and out through another door, smaller than the one through which they'd entered the kitchen, though not as small as the one that led into the tunnel. They came into a small octagonal room with doors in all directions; the one Feryn opened led them into a dry, cool room that smelled of grain and, yes, of coffee, briefly, before the smoke-heavy air they brought with them overwhelmed everything else.

Shelves ran the length of the narrow room, filled with glass jars and other containers. At the far end, a square metal container was standing on the floor, its lid unfastened; a few dark spots on the floor by it could be coffee beans. John waited by the door while Feryn and McKay went to it; Feryn removed the lid, and McKay crouched down and plunged his hands into the beans, lifting the ZPM out like a gold-gleaming treasure.

"I hope she didn't break it," McKay said, swiping his sleeve across the top of the ZPM. "Major, can you tell?"

"Not from here, I can't," John said. "And we don't have time for you to stand around and pet it. Hurry."

McKay shifted and started to rise, and pain shot through his knee; his leg folded, and he went down hard. Feryn caught the ZPM before it hit the floor, and John was across the room before he knew it, hauling McKay to his feet. "Ow, ow, careful, ow," McKay muttered.

John kept a firm grip on him. The knee throbbed, and wasn't entirely steady. Feryn's attention was on the ZPM, and what John could see of his face looked a little bemused. John just hoped he wouldn't drop it.

McKay looked past John, and his eyes widened. And it wasn't as though John could see with McKay's eyes, but apparently his body thought so. He swung around, shoving McKay away and down with his free hand and bringing his P-90 up. Everything was perfectly sharp and precise, and John could have described the size and location of every object within visual and sensory range, the exact speed of the woman rushing into the room towards them. At the same time, all he could see was the gleam of fury in her eyes, the wicked metal shine on the edge of the weapon in her hand. John fired, a quick stuttery burst that was all but deafening in the small room. Osmar dropped the cleaver as she fell, and it clattered on the hard stone floor, followed a fraction of a second later by the wet thump of her body.

No one else came through the door, either following Osmar or drawn by the noise. She lay where she had fallen, and blood trickled across the flagstones; the smoke and grit in the air couldn't hide the smell. John reached his free hand back to McKay without looking. "We need to get back."

"Is she," McKay said, gripping John's hand hard as he slowly got to his feet again, and then, "That was such a stupid question, I'm going to forget I even asked it."

Feryn looked grim. "It is the yashina's right to defend the engineer of heaven," he said, his voice flat. "None would argue." He looked down at the ZPM in his hands again, eyes dark and worryingly opaque as he tilted it this way and that, as if considering his next action. McKay breathed deeper, and John could feel one of them begin to tense to take it from him, but then Feryn just gave a sharp nod and went to the door, not even bothering to avoid the blood. He left dark footprints all across the octagonal room, but the kitchen floor was wholly covered with water now, and there, he left no trace.

Above the hissing of the water, other sounds trickled in from other places in the palace cellars: shouts, running footsteps, the grate and clang of heavy objects being moved. John kept hold of McKay as they crossed the kitchen, pushing him ahead and looking back over his own shoulder for political dissidents, raving maniacs, and looters, although it seemed unlikely that looters would go for the food stores at this early stage. McKay hummed under John's hand like a hive of nervous bees, and he limped more heavily than before.

Water had begun to seep into the tunnel. John scooped his wet clothes up from the kitchen floor, and then he closed the door behind them and hurried McKay along towards the small control room; Feryn was already there. McKay pried off a panel beneath the console and started to kneel down on the floor, slowly and painfully. John offered his wet clothes, and after a certain hesitation, McKay accepted them. They did cushion his knee a bit, although the cold water wasn't exactly pleasant. John kept glancing down his own legs, expecting to see the spreading stains there.

"Is anything else required?" Feryn asked.

"Nothing you'd have around here," McKay said, "unless you've been hiding a stash of really good painkillers somewhere. Hold this for me." He became absorbed in what he was doing, and John stepped back, standing with his back to the wall so he could easily keep an eye on the kitchen door, the control room, and the door to the other tunnel. The water was still coming in under the kitchen door, slowly but steadily; John could just barely see it in the dim light, little glints here and there as Feryn held the lamp this way and that inside the control room to McKay's specifications.

John shifted his shoulders. Some of the aches he felt were his own, not McKay's. Recoil had driven the splinters deeper into his palms, and the cloth across his face was stuck to his cheek on one side with stubble and sweat. He wondered if the man who had been with Osmar in the kitchen was still down here somewhere, looking for her. He wondered how long it would take for him to find her.

"Nothing is happening," Feryn said.

"Yes, I can see that." McKay wasn't pleased. "Major!" He did that tapping thing again, fingers beating a swift and imperious tattoo against his hand, even though John was close enough to hear his every word. "Get in here."

John turned his head, so he could see McKay kneeling in front of the open panel instead of just feeling it. "If you can't fix it, I don't think I can fix it. I haven't been taking night classes in intergalactic engineering in my spare time, you know."

McKay huffed with impatience. "I just want you to come in here and touch it."

"You said it wasn't Ancient technology."

"Yes, well, it's got a ZPM in it. Just come in here and, and, tell it it's pretty, or something." John wasn't sure if he really heard the brittle undertone in McKay's voice, or just felt it, as if his own mouth shaped other words underneath. "Do I need to remind you that we're pressed for time here? Big explosion, palace in ruins, extremely painful death kind of thing?"

"I'm here," John said, and he was, crouching down next to McKay and peering into the guts of the console. The ZPM was wedged awkwardly into a narrow space to the right, and he could barely get his hand in there to reach it. He brushed his fingertips against the smooth, cool surface and tried to focus on an orderly sequence of events, stored energy being transmitted, the interface powering up. The ZPM began to glow against his skin, and his fingers became edged in translucent pink and orange. "I feel like a faith healer."

"Oh, please," McKay said, but absently, most of his attention on the console. "You're sure this is the right sequence?"

"It is as the eldest of the wives has said," Feryn said. "This button first, and once it has been pressed, this slider must move three notches to the right, very swiftly." He gestured McKay to step aside. "I will do it. It is my responsibility."

John got to his feet again.

"Yes, well," McKay said, "I would feel more comfortable if—"

John took hold of his shoulders and tugged him back. "Let's not argue about it," he said. "Let's just let the man do it, and then we can get out of here." McKay was steady under John's hands, not easily moved. He watched Feryn closely, but after a few moments he leaned back, just a little, into John's touch. John watched Feryn, too, and didn't slide his hands down the backs of McKay's arms, didn't rub his thumbs against the soft skin just above the elbow. Didn't press his face against the nape of McKay's neck and breathe in.

Feryn moved slowly and deliberately. He set the lamp on the edge of the console and looked at the controls as if comparing them with a memorized picture in his head. He rubbed the back of his hand against his forehead and only managed to smear the ash and dirt more evenly. The cloth across his face fluttered as he drew a deep breath, released it, breathed in again, and then his hands moved quickly across the console. The button lit up when he pressed it, and the slider resisted; John heard a faint grating sound as it moved.

But it did move. Feryn took his hand away; McKay was about to say something when he was forestalled by a deep, grinding rumble of machinery starting up, and the floor shook under their feet before settling into a thrumming vibration. John tightened his hands on McKay's shoulders.

"Is it supposed to sound like that?" McKay said.

Feryn shrugged. "No one has had reason to do this for years beyond counting. I do not know." He picked up the lamp. "You have done what you said you would do. Thank you. Perhaps some of the stories told about the engineers of heaven are indeed true."

"Just for the record," McKay said, "I'm—"

"And now you'll guide us out of Leuflet," John said, watching Feryn's eyes. He had to speak up to make himself heard. "That was the deal, right?"

"I cannot go with you," Feryn said. He pulled the cloth away from his face, and he didn't look quite the way John remembered him. "There is too much that needs be done here." He held up a hand before either of them could protest. "I have lost many things today. I have lost my king and my father. I will not lose my city."

"Ow," McKay said, and started to pry John's fingers away from his shoulders. "Also, not our city, and we'd really like to get out of here now, thank you very much." He froze, fingers tangled with John's. "Ah, and when you say your father, do you mean—"

"Come," Feryn said, striding across the room. He went out into the brick-walled hallway and stopped by the door John had worked to open earlier, pulling it across the stone floor until the gap was wide enough for a person to get through. "Follow this tunnel, and when it branches, go to the right. The way is marked with the sign of the king. It is a long walk, but you will reach a door."

"And?" John said.

Feryn held up the large key he had used to let them into the palace cellars. "And when you go through that door, you will be outside the city, and safe." He put the key in McKay's hand and folded McKay's fingers about it. "Do not come back."

"So much for the coffee," McKay said, and then he shuddered a little. John felt a little of the same chill; any coffee from the palace stores would taste like blood. Feryn's hand was warm against McKay's; McKay's hand was cold against Feryn's. John flexed his own fingers, reminding himself of what they felt like. "That's it? We can go now?"

"Unless you would lend me your weapon," Feryn said, looking at John.

A simple request deserved a simple answer. "No."

"I did not believe you would." Feryn released McKay's hand. "Then I will lend you mine." Feryn put the lamp in McKay's other hand. "Go."

McKay went first, struggling to put the key in his pocket while shuffling backwards, not taking his eyes off Feryn's face. He scraped his shoulder against the wood lintel of the door, and then the brick wall of the tunnel. John could feel the difference, scraping across his own skin. He followed McKay, backing into the tunnel, eyes on Feryn until Feryn gave him a grave nod and turned away, walking off towards the kitchen. Then he tugged the wooden door closed behind them as best he could.

"The air's better here," McKay said. He was shuffling deeper into the tunnel, one hand on the brick wall to steady himself, and his voice echoed hollowly.

John went after him. "Come here," he said, meaning wait up, and soon enough he had McKay's arm around his shoulders again. The close contact eased the pressure behind his eyes, and he indulged himself for a brief moment, turning his head so his face was close to McKay's. One of them drew a deeper breath, and then they started walking.

This tunnel looked newer than the others, and more well-kept; the brick paving underfoot was more even. The light from the lamp in McKay's hand only fell a short way in front of them, but John could see that the walls and ceiling had taken less damage from the explosion, too. He only stubbed his toes once on a fallen half-brick.

It didn't take them long to reach the place where the tunnel branched. John looked for what Feryn had called the sign of the king, and saw it almost at once, the same stylized flame he'd seen on the machinery of heaven, and painted and sculpted in the hands of the kings. The fire of heaven. Here it was set into the wall with bricks of a different, darker color. The square edges of the bricks gave it an odd, pixelated effect.

Turning to the right meant they were walking down a slight slope. The air really was better. After they had followed their new course for a while, John tugged down the cloth from his face. He tried to pull it off, but the knot at the back of his head was too tight.

"Get mine, too," McKay said. He tried to push it down by rubbing his face against John's shoulder, and they stumbled a bit.

"Hold still." John stopped, and so McKay stopped, too. He pulled the thin fabric away and brushed his thumb across McKay's cheek, then hooked one finger in the cloth and tugged uselessly. "I can't get these knots undone."

"Doesn't matter." McKay sounded breathless. He shivered against John's hands. "Look, can we just, we have to—"

"Yes," John said, because they had to. He laid his palm against the side of McKay's sweaty, gritty neck and kissed him. McKay's mouth was soft and warm and hungry, and his fingers twisted in the collar of John's shirt. The painful pressure inside John's head started to melt away. McKay took a shuffling side-step closer, and the lamp banged against the side of John's leg. "Ouch."

John took the lamp out of McKay's hand and set it down on the floor of the tunnel, and ran his hand up McKay's leg as he prepared to stand up again. Then he realized he was still holding his P-90 and had to stop and put it down, too, very carefully. He pressed his face against McKay's thigh and breathed into the coarse cloth of his pants, feeling a shiver run across his own skin. It felt so good.

"Oh, no," McKay said, and now he sounded irritated as well as breathless. "No, you don't get to— Come here — come up here." He tugged with clumsy, insistent hands at John's shoulders. "Here. Now."

"But you want this," John said, tilting his head to mouth at the hard outline of McKay's cock.

"No," McKay said, even though John could feel the deep shudder of yes that ran through him. "I want— Come up here." He yanked, hard, and John got up, putting one hand on McKay's hip and rubbing the other across his chest. McKay leaned back against the brick wall and pulled John in to lean against him. "I want to touch you," he said with his mouth against John's throat. His hands moved fast and with great precision, pinching John's nipples, stroking his sides, rubbing along the back seam of the tight green pants. John made a sound in the back of his throat and clung to McKay's shoulders. "Oh, yes." McKay did it again, more slowly, fingers lingering where it made John shiver the most. "Oh, that's good."

"Nn," John said. Every touch of McKay's hands tormented and eased him, cool relief for the pressure in his head and heated sparks shooting up and down his spine. He licked McKay's throat and sucked on the tender spot just beneath his ear, tasting sweat and ashes. McKay tugged at John's shirt, then slid a hand around to rub between his legs, curving around his cock, hot even through the fabric. John grunted, and McKay started to unfasten the green pants until he could work his hand inside.

The angle was awkward for McKay, a bit of a strain on his wrist, but John could barely feel that, because McKay's hand on his cock was firm and confident and just right. "So good," McKay said in his ear, and all the unsteadiness was in his voice. "God, you feel so good, John—"

John's eyes rolled back in his head. He panted against McKay's shoulder, and of course McKay knew just which ragged breath meant slower and which one meant yes, more, now; there was no teasing, just one perfect touch after another, until John's hips jerked and he buried his face in McKay's neck and came and came, and then McKay came, a second ghost orgasm that rushed through John and left him wrung out and gasping.

There was a little airflow down here in the tunnel, John realized when a breath of cool air made his shirt flutter against his sweaty back. He shivered and pressed closer to McKay, who mumbled something and rubbed one hand across the small of John's back. John could feel the bricks pressing into McKay's shoulders, McKay's breath against his throat, and the sticky warmth between them.

Moving very slowly and carefully, he reached for his knife and brought it up to McKay's neck. "Hold still," he said, and sliced through the fabric next to the stubborn knot. Then he cut through the gold-spangled fabric around his own neck, as well. The pieces of fabric were stiff with grit and smoke as well as gold threads, but John scrunched them up and tried to wipe the stickiness off himself, and off McKay's fingers.

McKay pushed himself away from the wall and made a face. He dug into a pocket and got out a wad of extremely crumpled and dusty tissue. "I was saving this," he said mournfully as he unzipped and started to clean himself up as best he could.

"For what, retirement?" John eyed the scraps of cloth, then dropped them on the tunnel floor and picked up his P-90 and the lamp. He was starting to feel cold, but the wet jacket he'd left behind in the room with the machinery controls wouldn't have been of much use to him here. Instead, he waited until McKay had done what he could with the wad of tissue, and then tugged McKay's arm across his shoulder again. The warmth of McKay's body steadied him.

They went on down the tunnel. The lamp made a pool of light around them, swaying to the rhythm of their steps. McKay was limping more heavily now, but he didn't say anything about the pain in his knee, so John didn't, either. In a while, they came to another juncture, with a narrower tunnel branching off to the left, but the stylized flame was set in the wall of the tunnel that went straight ahead.

A few steps past the flame, though, McKay stopped. John stumbled and swung around, and McKay said, "You know, we left the chicken in the cellar."

"I knew you were starting to like it. But we're not going back for a chicken," John said.

McKay gave him an exasperated look. "No, of course not. I just remembered because..." His voice trailed off.

"You're thirsty." John was, too. The smoky air back at the palace had left his throat sore and dry. His tongue remembered the cool water in the jug, the taste of slightly mushy apples. The taste of McKay's mouth, skin, come. "Come on, we can't stop here."

They started moving again. John set the pace as fast as he thought McKay's knee would take. The tunnel sloped slightly downwards; the walls were getting a bit damp, here, and the glint of water beading on the dark bricks made him thirstier.

"Maybe," McKay said, a speculative tone in his voice. "Maybe we can come back later. Not for the chicken," he added with a sideways glare at John. "For coffee. They don't even appreciate it. We'd be doing them a favor."

John shook his head. "I'm pretty sure when Feryn said don't come back, he meant it. No coffee exemption clause."

"Hmm." McKay limped on. "He might not be the one who ends up in charge, though."

"Yeah, and the king's wives would love to have us back if they win the civil war, I'm sure," John said. "Especially you."

"They might," McKay argued. "If it hadn't been for me—" He broke off and grimaced.

The air really was a lot colder now. McKay shivered against John, abruptly silent. John wrapped his hand more securely around McKay's wrist and rubbed his thumb along the inside, feeling the pulse beat under the thin skin and the vertigo swirl of McKay's thoughts. "We're not going back," he said. McKay shivered again, and John pulled him closer. "You're not going back."

The tunnel began to slope up again. A drop of water fell on John's head, seeping through to the scalp. They were probably passing under the river. John eyed the bricks overhead; only one or two were working loose of the mortar, and he could see almost no traces of the explosion. All the same, he urged McKay to walk a little faster. A few steps later, when the upslope grew more pronounced, McKay stumbled and stopped, and John stumbled and stopped with him. "Ow, ow, ow, ow."

John crouched down. "Let me see," he said, folding up the pant leg over McKay's ankle. His t-shirt had worked loose from around the shackle, and links of the chain were sliding down on the inside, with the bolt caught in them, rubbing McKay's skin raw. John tugged the t-shirt loose and started to re-wrap the shackle. He tried to coil the chain so it was out of the way and wouldn't lie directly against McKay's leg. The touch of his fingers tickled on his own leg, and he shifted position to get a firmer grip, putting one knee down on the floor and then regretting it, since the bricks were cold and damp.

"Ugh," McKay said. "And there's a pebble digging in, too, in case you hadn't noticed."

"You want to try doing this for yourself, just let me know." John tucked the last link in securely and smoothed the pants down. He stroked his hand up the inside of McKay's leg and down again, pressing his thumb gently against sore muscles. "Better?"

"I, uh, yes. You know it is." McKay looked down at John and flushed slowly, then cleared his throat. "Did it break the skin? I could get an infection. Given how clean your t-shirt probably isn't, I could get gangrene."

John sat back on his heels, steadying himself by resting both palms against McKay's thighs. "You don't sound all that worried."

"Obviously not, since I know you'll—" McKay broke off. He lifted his hand and stared at the bracelet around his wrist, and then down at John again. "It's entirely possible that this is doing unspeakable things to my brain. I'm gibbering already."

"Then we'd better hurry," John said, standing up with a certain reluctance. "Come on, give me your hand."

McKay sighed. "At least I'm not carrying a chicken any more." They settled into the same slow, steady pace as before. When the tunnel leveled out, John guessed that they were past the river. They reached a crossing and paused, looking for the sign of the king; McKay spotted it laid into the bricks of the tunnel floor this time, worn-down and smudged with mud, straight ahead.

The bricks were dry here, and the air less damp and a little warmer. McKay still had his long orange surcoat on, so he was warmer than John, but he still pressed as close as he could, and John didn't do anything to discourage him. He tried to take a bit more of McKay's weight; his own knee was throbbing, too. The tunnel curved slowly right, and John tried to gauge how far they'd come. McKay told him he was wrong, and they argued about it for a while. One of them was starting to feel a little lightheaded, and John thought it was probably not him.

"Look," John said, breaking into something about the metric system that he hadn't been following too closely. Some kind of short grass or herb grew between the bricks on one side of the tunnel. "Can't be far now." He tipped his head back and tried to see the air vents. At least a little light had to come in during the day, for the grass to thrive.

"Look out yourself," McKay said, tugging at John's shirt to slow him down. Ahead, the tunnel seemed to vanish; when they came closer, they saw that it went sharply down, a drop of ten or twelve steep brick steps. McKay stopped and peered down. "That's stone down there, not brick."

"City wall," John said. That meant he was mostly right about how far they'd come. He looked down, too. "So, you want me to try to lower you down, or go down first so you can land on me?" He didn't wait for an answer, but took the lamp out of McKay's hand and scrambled down the steps. "Go down backwards," he said. "Mind your knee."

"Yes, that would never have occurred to me." McKay turned around and lowered himself awkwardly on his good knee. "And not being able to see what I'm doing makes this so much easier." He started to lower himself, step by step.

"It's just stairs, Rodney." John stood at the bottom, reaching up; he could just touch McKay's ankles, and felt the bulk of the shackle around the left one.

"More like a ladder," McKay muttered, and then he put his weight on the wrong leg. His knee folded painfully and he clung to the higher steps, trying to hold himself up with his hands. John stepped up on the lowest step, then the next one, running his hands up over McKay's legs and back and leaning into him to keep him from falling. "Major!"

"Relax," John said with his face full of orange surcoat. "Move your left hand down. Right, like that. And your right hand." He wrapped one arm around McKay's chest. "Now move your left leg down to the next step. I've got you."

McKay snorted, but he did move his leg. He wobbled, but John flexed his knees and leaned forward, keeping their weight leaning against the steps. John coaxed him down the next step, and McKay relaxed a little, and then John's foot skidded on some brick dust. He flailed and tried to let go of McKay, but McKay was leaning on him, and they both went tumbling backwards down the last step, John landing heavily on his butt and McKay like a sack of wet laundry on top of him.

"Ow," McKay said. "Ow, ow, my— no, your elbow." John shoved at him, and he wriggled slowly to one side until John could breathe again. "At least we didn't fall on the lamp. Don't worry, major, you can make something up."

John sat up and checked on his elbow — a bloody scrape full of gravel and brick dust, and the shirt was torn, but there was no real damage. "Make something up?"

"Falling down the last step of a staircase is hardly the most glamorous way to get injured."

"I'm not injured," John said. He got up and brushed himself off a little, then reached a hand down to McKay. "But you could always tell people you hurt your knee trying to stop a runaway cart of orphaned nuns."

It took three tries to get McKay to his feet; every time McKay's knee flashed with pain, John lost his balance, too. "Runaway cart?"

"Not a lot of buses here in Leuflet." John steadied himself against the wall.

"Not a lot of nuns, either."

They looked at each other in the lamplight, hands still clasped, and neither one said anything about orphans. John picked up the lamp and gave it to McKay, and they settled into walking position; John tried to keep his bloodied elbow from rubbing against McKay's side. "Of course," John said thoughtfully, "we might have to go up again on the other side of the wall."

The tunnel was lower here; apparently whoever had built it hadn't bothered to dig quite so deep under the city wall, and the heavy grey stone blocks were almost directly over their heads. They limped along as best they could, until the stone turned into brick again, shored up with a couple of planks. There was no staircase here, no upslope; the tunnel just continued in a straight line at the same depth. There was more dirt on the tunnel floor, and some kind of pale grey lichen growing up along the mortar in lacy patterns, almost obscuring the sign of the king set into the wall.

McKay lifted the lamp higher. "Look."

They had reached the end of the tunnel. Ahead was an iron door, like the one under the palace, and to the left of it, an alcove with some boxes and an odd handle sticking out at waist-height. John slipped out from under McKay's arm and went to check things out. The boxes were tightly sealed; when he managed to break one open, he found dried fruit that looked fairly edible, a clean shirt, and two empty water bottles.

McKay elbowed him aside and yanked on the metal handle. Water rushed from a low metal spout and hit John's knees.

"Thanks." John handed over one of the empty water bottles and unstoppered the other one. "Want to try that again with me standing over here?"

They filled the bottles and drank. The water was icy cold, and John could feel it all the way down; after a few deep swallows, he shivered. McKay stuffed the pockets of his orange surcoat full of dried fruit and rattled the other boxes experimentally. "You don't suppose—"

"No," John said. "I really don't think there's coffee in any of them." He broke them open one after the other and found dry crackers, more dried fruit, and some kind of dried meat, hard enough to break a tooth on. McKay took a cracker, but sniffed and refused the meat, which John figured was a sign they might as well leave it. John wrapped everything that seemed worth taking in the clean shirt and was trying to figure out which arm to tuck it under when McKay lifted a leather bag with a long shoulder strap out of the last box and held it out to him.

They packed and picked everything up: leather bag, P-90, water bottles, lamp. McKay got the large key Feryn had given him out of his pocket and tried it in the lock. It turned easily, and the door swung open a crack. John stepped cautiously ahead, then gestured for McKay to follow him. They were in a small shed with no windows, and a latched door ahead. There was a bench with traces of dirt to one side, half-filled sacks by another wall, and shovels and rakes leaning in a corner, their handles cracked with age and the metal parts rusty.

McKay closed the iron door behind them. They crossed the abandoned-looking gardening shed, and John lifted the latch on the door. Outside, the sky was brightening towards dawn, and they were in the gardens that sloped down from the city walls, well away from the main road. A path led off more or less in the right direction, winding between flowering bushes and high stands of something that looked like rushes or reeds, although there was no water nearby that John could see.

"We should stop there," McKay said, nodding at the nearest clump of bushes. The small white flowers looked like ghosts of butterflies. "You need a break." John looked at him. "Yes, yes, I do, too. But you really need a break."

"I do?" John didn't feel tired: he was in that lucid, surreal state past tired, and everything seemed very clear to him, and easy to handle. He'd already mapped out their way back to the jumper inside his head; he felt as though he could have detailed every single step required to take them there.

The exasperated look McKay gave him was very familiar. "Major, try to remember that I can feel the state of your bladder."

The reason behind the look was less familiar. John made a face. "I was trying not to think too hard about that kind of thing."

"Well, I think you should think about it before you have a little accident." McKay aimed them at the bushes, and John, accepting the necessity, went with him. Closer up, the small white flowers were less beautiful. Some of the petals were edged in brown, limp and starting to droop. John wondered if they needed more rain, or less rain, or if it was just the season changing.

Before they moved on, John stuck the lamp in the middle of the bush, wedging it in behind some of the thicker leaves and more wicked-looking spikes. He hung the water bottles around McKay's neck, and McKay's arm around his own neck. The fresh air seemed to clear their heads, and the path was even enough underfoot. "I think we should stay off the main road," John said.

"Oh, joy."

McKay kept walking, though, in a steady limping rhythm, even when they left the gardens and the path behind and started walking through the woods, close enough to the road to catch a glimpse of it now and then. There wasn't a lot of undergrowth, but the trees had shallow, gnarled roots, and the grass grew just high enough to hide them. John could feel McKay's fatigue every time he stumbled on a root or ducked under a low branch, the dull stiffness creeping into his muscles. They stayed mostly silent now, and birds sang all around. The sun rose, and rose higher, bringing a promise of heat.

When they came to the river, they stopped and looked at the clear running water. It was fairly narrow and slow-moving, but deep. The banks were steep, and there were no large rocks, or any sign that there had been a ford anywhere close by. "I am not wading across when there's a perfectly good bridge," McKay said. "We could—"

"Get eaten by piranhas," John said, anticipating him. "Or get bilharzia."

"We could go up to the road," McKay said in a slow, pointed tone of voice, "and cross the bridge."

John hadn't seen anyone on the road so far, either going towards Leuflet or coming from the city to overtake them. He looked at the river again, and then he nodded. "Or we could do that."

The ditch was full of mud, but they got across and onto the smooth, hard-packed, sandy dirt of the road. John let go of McKay for a moment to readjust the leather bag so it didn't slam into the bruised part of his leg with every step, and then they went out on the bridge, a solid structure of dark stone that had been mended in at least two places with something lighter and more reddish. The view wasn't much, just the river meandering off through the woods, and far off some hazy mountains, but the water sparkled in the early morning light, and dragonflies as big as John's hand were hovering over it on papery diamond wings.

John turned around and looked back towards Leuflet. He couldn't see anything, and decided, cautiously, that not seeing a column of rising smoke was probably a good sign. Turning back to take one of the water bottles from McKay, he tensed up. A cart was coming down the road towards the bridge, a small two-wheeled thing, pulled by a very small donkey. A woman walked next to the donkey, with a hand on its neck. She looked curiously at the pair of them.

"Major," McKay said.

"Let's get off the bridge," John suggested, tugging his by now fairly tattered see-through red sleeve down over the silver bracelet, "give the lady some room."

McKay abruptly started jerking at his sleeve, too, and John thought this woman would definitely remember the two strange men she met on the road who were so obsessed with their clothes. They went forward, off the bridge, and stopped at the side of the road to let the cart go past. The woman, who wore a fancy saffron-yellow see-through shirt but a long sturdy skirt of a much coarser dark red cloth, nodded at them but didn't say anything. John tried a friendly smile, and her eyes softened a little before she turned away and walked closer to her donkey. Packed onto the cart were baskets of green beans and purple carrots.

"Well," McKay said quietly, watching the cart rattle across the bridge. "Somehow I don't think there'll be much of a market in Leuflet today."

"At least they'll have carrots?" John unlooped one of the water bottles from around McKay's neck and took a long drink, then pushed the bottle into McKay's hand. "You need water. Then we'd better get going, before the lady with the carrots meets someone in the road."

John tasted the water in McKay's mouth and the calm, tired spin of McKay's thoughts. He put a hand on McKay's shoulder just to feel it better, the hum of life and awareness next to him, and McKay gave him a small smile, warm and real and trusting. He stoppered the water bottle and hung it around his neck again, and John moved the strap so it wouldn't chafe half a mile down the road, and they started walking again.

John winkled out some dried fruit from the bundle in the leather bag, and they chewed as they went along. It was easier going here, along the road, and McKay's knee didn't send up the same little flares of pain. McKay held out his hand for more fruit, and then looked sideways at John. "Should we get off the road again?"

"Up there." John nodded ahead. The road curved up along the side of a ridge, rising steadily but not too sharply; someone had shored it up with blocks of stone here and there. As they got higher, they saw fewer trees and more underbrush, tall grass, tangled bushes with small thorns and green, unripe berries. "When we get to the top, the road goes straight ahead to the stargate, and the jumper's down and to the left." He paused and frowned. "Do I have a blister on my heel, or do you?"

"I hope it's you," McKay muttered. He leaned a bit more of his weight on John. The shackle around his leg seemed to grow heavier and heavier with every step.

John pushed a slice of dried fruit into his mouth and slogged on. He looked back over his shoulder now and then as they went up the ridge, but no one was following them, and they didn't meet anyone else, either.

Once they reached the top, they stopped again. The top of the ridge had no vegetation that was more than knee-high, and they could see for miles in all directions, most of it trees. Far in the distance was Leuflet; John could just barely make out the dark bulk of it, the spike of a tower that hadn't fallen when the earth shook. Ahead, the road went on towards the stargate, but the gate was hidden from view behind the trees. John squinted towards it, then shook his head, and they turned off the road and started going down to the left. They walked across a patch of flowering herbs, and the crushed leaves smelled rich and warm. The slope on this side was flatter, but going down was more trouble for McKay's knee than going up had been.

"The jumper's just through there," John said to encourage him, gesturing ahead. "Ten minutes, tops. You want more water?"

"No. Wait," McKay said, and stopped right by another patch of herbs, next to one of those bushes with the small white butterfly flowers. He reached out and took John's hand, and before John had realized what he was up to, he'd unfastened the silver bracelet, and it fell to the ground. Then McKay unfastened his own bracelet and dropped that, too. He went abruptly white, and his legs gave out.

John dropped to his knees and put his hands on McKay's shoulders. The tangy scent of crushed herbs rose up around them. "Hey, you okay?"

McKay looked up. His eyes were wide, and bluer than the morning sky. "We could have died," he said.

"Now you know how I felt," John said, but his heart wasn't in it. He felt suddenly hollow, and when he looked around at the ground and the grass and the flowers and the sky, it all looked empty, flat as a postcard. He gripped harder at McKay's shoulders, but nothing happened.

McKay was frowning deeply, and rubbing at his ankle. "It hurts more now."

John nodded, because he hurt less; his knee just felt as if he'd walked far on hard roads, and knelt too long on hard floors, and had a fully grown man weighted down with a metal shackle and chain fall on top of him a couple of times. He pried his fingers slowly and reluctantly away from McKay's shoulders and sat back on the ground, rubbing at his bare wrist. His skin wasn't even marked where the bracelet had been.

A butterfly came between them, fluttered this way and that and almost settled on the sleeve of John's red shirt, but when McKay shifted his weight to sit on his hip, turned towards John, it weaved its way off down the slope. McKay drew a deep breath, and let it out again. He looked at John, and looked away. His mouth twisted a little, and John tried to read the curve of it, feeling fumbling and unsure about it. Then McKay squared his shoulders and leaned in and pushed John back, down, to lie in the grass with that rich smell rising up all around him, and braced himself on an elbow wedged in between John's arm and body, and kissed him.

It was the same, and it was very different. John brought up his free arm and twisted his fingers into the back of McKay's orange surcoat. All his own sensation now, the warm pressure of McKay's mouth, slick glide of tongue, sunshine all along the side of his body and a rock digging into the back of his thigh. John closed his eyes and smiled into the kiss.

He had no idea how much time had passed when McKay pulled back. John blinked his eyes open, squinting against the bright sky, to find McKay looking down at him, eyes clear and confident, mouth a little uncertain. "All right?"

John smiled again. "All right." He lifted his head for another brief kiss and released a cloud of scent from the crushed herbs under his shoulders. McKay pulled back out of the kiss to sneeze. John sat up and bumped his shoulder against McKay's, and got to his feet so he could haul McKay up, but McKay resisted the tug of his hand.

"Wait," he said, and scrabbled in the grass. He picked up the silver links and blew the dirt off them before putting them in his pocket. Then he looked up and met John's eyes. "Well. We might want them. For something."

"We might," John agreed gravely.

"Besides," McKay said, holding his hand up for John to take, "there could be something in the Ancient database — I mean, this is evidence of another culture than the one we've seen here. These bracelets are much more advanced technology than anything else in Leuflet, except for the controls in that room under the palace. If we can identify who made them, we might be able to find more, and potentially more useful, items."

"I thought these were pretty useful," John said. He steadied McKay as he got up, and fell into position next to him, leaning in so McKay could easily put his arm around John's shoulders.

They had to make their way through a tangle of those berry-bushes, and the small thorns stuck in their clothes, thin, whippy branches pulled along and then ripping free with nearly every step. The sun was growing hot on the back of John's neck, and it was a relief to walk into the shade of a narrow belt of trees, even though they had to splash through a narrow little stream coming down from some wellspring higher on the ridge.

On the other side of the belt of trees was an open, nearly flat meadow, featureless except for a cairn of stones off to the left. It looked empty save for butterflies and droning bees, and then Ford stepped out of thin air not ten feet away to wave and grin at them. "Good to see you again, sir," he said. "And Dr. McKay. Teyla was starting to worry about you."

"I was not," Teyla said, and John put his hand on the jumper and told it to uncloak, because hearing her disembodied voice was a little eerie. She sat on one of the benches right inside the open hatch, with her leg stretched out along the seat and her injured foot bandaged. "But it is good to see you both here, and not seriously injured."

"Yes, my knee is in fact excruciatingly painful, thank you for asking," McKay said, but he walked straight into the jumper and bent over Teyla, touching his forehead to hers in solemn greeting, and when he pulled back, she was looking at him fondly, touching his hand. "Major, some of us really should be in the infirmary, so if you could—"

"Yeah, yeah," John said, stepping away from the hatch as it rose, taking a last breath of fresh air. He had another lurching moment of near-vertigo, a feeling of being hollowed out and empty and missing something vital, but then he went up to the front compartment and sat in the pilot seat and touched the jumper controls, and it faded.

"All right, let's go home," he said, and he could feel the jumper humming in agreement under his hands. When he glanced back over his shoulder, McKay was looking at him, and smiling just a little with the corner of his mouth. Even without the link, John knew what that smile meant. John brushed a few stray leaves off his shoulder, getting a brief waft of that wild, tangy smell again, and then the jumper rose into the air and headed towards the stargate. They were going home.

* * *

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