torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
May 9-22, 2005

Disclaimer: I'm just waiting for season two. Originally intended for the voyeurism challenge on sga_flashfic. Do not archive without permission.

Open

The sky was overcast. Rodney thought it might rain.

"The alazen has assured us that the major will not be harmed," Teyla said. "He says—" She paused as the alazen came walking back to them, but he merely nodded at her to continue. "He says that we are permitted to watch, if this will reassure us."

"We're permitted to watch their secret holy ceremony?" Ford said. "They won't even let us inside the buildings until afterwards, but we can watch this?"

Teyla nodded. "By special dispensation. The major won't even know we are there."

"Yes, that makes the whole thing so much better," Rodney said. He narrowed his eyes at the alazen, who looked blandly back at him. "Well, let's get on with it, then."

The alazen gestured for them to follow him into the grove. His robes swept the muddy ground as he walked; the undyed wool hem was a dark reddish brown. Rodney caught a glimpse of bare, dirty feet and a gleam of gold around one ankle.

"You're the one who said we needed the ZPM." Ford fell into step beside Rodney.

"We do need the ZPM. That would be true even if I hadn't said it." Rodney stepped over a root that stretched halfway across the path. "I'm not the one who said Major Sheppard had to do whatever it is he'll have to do to prove our good intentions."

The trees grew high around them, closing them off from the sky. In the deeper shade, Rodney stumbled, and Ford caught him. Ahead of them, the alazen walked swiftly without looking back, and Teyla followed him with no hesitation. "I'm not sure I like this, either," Ford said. "But Teyla says they're honest people."

"So are the Wraith," Rodney pointed out. "They say they're going to eat us and they mean it."

He reached out to steady himself against a tree trunk, and the alazen turned around and spoke sharply. "Don't touch the trees."

Rodney lowered his arm. "This just gets better and better."

After some time, they came to the edge of a clearing, and the alazen stopped, holding up a hand. He gestured for them to sit on a grassy bank beneath a clump of bushes with heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers. Teyla sat at once, comfortably cross-legged, and after a moment, Ford and Rodney settled in on either side of her.

In the middle of the clearing, where silvery-green grass grew knee-high, stood a tree that was shorter than the others, and a bit twisted, with deeply furrowed greyish-black bark. It looked a little like a cherry tree, and all its twisted branches were covered with white and pink flowers. The alazen walked around the tree and disappeared on the other side.

"How is the major not going to see us here?" Ford said quietly.

Teyla shrugged.

Rodney looked up across the clearing. "Like that," he said. Two alazini were leading the major into the clearing; his eyes were covered by a blindfold of the same undyed cloth as the alazini's robes.

Ford frowned. "Really not sure I like this," he muttered.

The alazini guided Sheppard to stand next to the tree, released him, and said something. Sheppard stood unmoving for a moment, and then he nodded, and bent down to take his boots off. Socks as well, and then he straightened up and took off his jacket; one alazen took it from him and folded it neatly. Sheppard pulled his shirt off, careful of the blindfold, and the same alazen took that as well. He began to unfasten his pants, and the other alazen steadied him as he stripped them off, along with his underwear.

The first alazen took the pile of Sheppard's clothes and walked away from the tree. The other alazen said something to Sheppard, and Sheppard shook his head, tension gathering across his shoulders and down his back. When the alazen reached towards Sheppard's throat, Sheppard's hand shot up and grasped the alazen's wrist, and Sheppard said something back. Sheppard showed his teeth, not exactly smiling.

Teyla whispered something Rodney couldn't quite make out, but he heard Ford's quiet whispered answer. "Dog tags."

The alazen stared at Sheppard, and Sheppard's blindfolded eyes stared back. After a while, Sheppard's grip loosened, and the alazen lowered his hand and spoke again, ending with a commanding gesture that was wasted on Sheppard but made Rodney scowl and tilt his head back. A stone half buried in the grass was digging into his hip.

Sheppard stepped in close to the tree and turned, pressing his back against the tree trunk. He held his arms out from his sides and pressed his palms against the bark as well. The alazen nodded and walked away. Sheppard stood alone by the tree, naked, under the flat grey sky. Rodney wanted to look away, but he couldn't look at Teyla and Ford, either.

A faint breeze stirred the silvery grass. The furrowed bark rippled, pushing up between Sheppard's spread fingers. He jerked, once, his head pressing back against the tree, mouth set in a tight line. The crooked branches seemed to bend towards him. Fine cuts appeared across his chest, almost invisible until the seeping blood began to mat his chest hair.

"Oh my God," Rodney said, starting to scramble to his feet. "Ford, Teyla, we've got to stop this!" He turned towards them and found that they were sitting as before, relaxed, calm-faced, as though they hadn't heard a word. He stared. "You're just going to sit and watch this?" Rodney looked towards the tree to see that a deep gash had appeared in the center of Sheppard's chest, as though a giant claw had tried to slice him open. "Oh, God." He tried to rise again.

"Calm yourself." The alazen was suddenly next to Rodney, putting a heavy hand on his shoulder, though Rodney hadn't seen him approach. "There is no cause for alarm."

"You mean apart from the fact that you're torturing our team leader over there?" Rodney waved his arm towards the tree and Sheppard's still, bound form.

The alazen shook his head. "Our apologies. We had not thought that any of you could see." He pushed on Rodney's shoulder, hard, and sat down himself in the same movement. "Particularly not you," he added, eyeing Rodney more closely. "We might have expected it of Teyla Emmagen."

"Huh." Rodney turned his head to see that Teyla and Ford were still sitting there, as unconcerned as if nothing had happened, as if they couldn't hear or see either Rodney or the alazen. He looked back, and saw that John Sheppard's chest was slowly cracking open. "You're killing him."

"No." The alazen was calm. "What you're seeing is a representation, a translation of what is happening, which is only visible here in the between, where you," once again he looked at Rodney a bit too closely for comfort, "should not be able to walk."

"I'm not particularly happy about it, either," Rodney snapped. "And if it turns out that you're lying to me, if this is killing him — if this is even hurting him—"

"Have no fear." The alazen turned from Rodney to watch Sheppard. "No matter the outcome, he will be returned to you unharmed."

"Great." Rodney looked at Sheppard, whose ribcage was split open like the shell of a cracked walnut, and concentrated on not throwing up. Blood and bone and a fist-sized lump of muscle, a living, beating heart. Rodney closed his eyes and swallowed, hard, and when he opened his eyes again he saw a deep shadowy darkness, and it occurred to Rodney that a man's chest, broken open, should not be dark and hollow inside.

Sheppard still had his hands pressed to the tree trunk, and the bark had pushed up between and around his fingers and over his wrists, binding him, bark flowing up over his elbows and down over his shoulders, weaving into his hair. He looked tense, mouth set in a tight line, but not in pain.

A spark lit the darkness within Sheppard, steadying into a glow. Muddy red at first, burning with the unsteady smolder of an ember, and Rodney lifted a hand as though he could cup his palm around it, breathe it stronger. The red glow brightened, growing stronger and clearer, and when it shone steadily, as big as a heart and pulsing in the same rhythm, the alazen made some tiny motion next to Rodney, a nod, perhaps.

Then the red glow grew brighter still, lighter, shading into orange, and yellow, warm and then hot as firelight, and finally shone white and sharp and powerful until Rodney had to look away and blink his tearing eyes, feeling as though he'd been staring at the sun.

By the time he could see again, what he saw was two alazini by the tree with Sheppard, speaking quietly to him and leading him away, still blindfolded. There was no blood. When Sheppard turned around, Rodney could see a small red scratch on his shoulder from the tree; he couldn't make out any other marks anywhere.

Teyla shifted, and Rodney abruptly switched to staring at something else. She got to her feet and offered Rodney a hand up as Ford scrambled up, too. "We should return," she said.

They found their way back through the forest on their own, and Rodney kept to the middle of the path, well away from the tree trunks, lifting his feet an extra few centimeters whenever he had to step over a root. The way back seemed shorter; Teyla set a brisker pace than the alazen's.

When they came out of the grove, the first raindrops fell, and before they made it all the way back to the temple, Teyla's hair lay flat against her head and rain dripped off the tip of Rodney's nose, and even the bill of Ford's cap was beginning to wilt a little.

The alazini were waiting for them, a group of four, all of them as solemn as before. The one who had sat next to Rodney in the grove held the ZPM, tucked rather casually under one arm. He stepped forward. "Your leader has," he hesitated for a moment, "demonstrated the purity of your intentions. You may take the fireheart with our blessings." He held the ZPM out, and Rodney took it.

Teyla looked around. "Where is Major Sheppard?"

"He is here," the alazen said, just as the major came up to them, in the company of the two alazini who had attended him in the grove.

Wearing his clothes, stripped of his blindfold, he looked naked. Rodney looked away.

As they walked towards the gate and the waiting jumper, the rain fell more heavily, and the path turned to mud under their feet. Rodney shifted his grip on the ZPM, trying to hold it steady. Slick with water under his fingers, warming to his touch, it felt like a living, beating heart.

* * *

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