The Flower Song (Excerpt)
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.
-- Translated by M. V. Fox.
Rodney's first memories are of India, lush and yellow like the turmeric powder and saffron on his tongue, green and expansive with jungles and dry, scratchy with the rub of people in massive, brown-red crowds waving en masse by the Ganges River. Rodney remembers the stink of mules and elephants and the oriental spices permeating his skin, their strange, queer little house with its intricately carved windows, the rugs all red and patterned with things Rodney has only seen in dreams, feverish with wild deserts.
But they'd left India on a ship in a gray and rocking sea, traveled over roaring oceans the smelled like brine and tasted like tears on Rodney's tongue when he opened his mouth to catch the sea spray from the large window of their first class compartment.
England, when they finally reached it nearly a month and a half later, was dreary and cold and perpetually raining and Rodney wondered where the sun had gone, spent hours on the flat parts of the roof of the rambling stone country house into which they'd relocated their lives, pieces of India scattered around on bookshelves and hidden in coves. He squinted up into mostly-cloudy skies and looked for the constellation patterns he knew from his Ah-ya as a child and found they were in all the wrong places, mirror-images of what Rodney had learned like walking or shaping words out loud.
His mother dies in a trembling fever after his little sister is born, and it rains on her funeral day. The nanny--a cold, English one--is clutching Jeannie in her arms and Rodney is standing in the downpour, looking into the deep, earthy hole where his mother's casket is being lowered into the ground, like Hades rising, swallowing Persephone and Rodney nearly throws himself over it, drags her back to the Earth, wants to scream the top of his lungs and tell her not to eat anything, to resist the sweet and bitter burn of pomegranates.
And afterward, their house is haunted by the memory of her, so Rodney's father pulls out maps and diagrams and a bag of cartographer's tools, runs his fingers over the ridges of his topographical globe.
"How would you like to go to Egypt, Rodney?" he asks one day, leaning on Rodney's piano in the parlor, where Rodney is playing Chopin in the wrong key to irritate his music teacher.
E flat, C sharp, an arpeggio three beats too quickly with a slur at the end, like a drunk trying to dance, and Rodney stills his hands on the keys, looks up at his father and says, "Is there sun there?"
His father laughs, and tells Rodney about hieroglyphics and Ra, about pyramids and the scale of the place, of its rolling deserts like England's moors and all of it drenched in sunlight, shimmering and golden and dizzy with it and Rodney says, "When do we leave?" with a yearning impatience that makes his father laugh.
Rodney spends a lot of his time on the ship to Egypt boiling water and cleaning everything in their rooms, wiping down the banisters and snapping at Jeannie who is wont to touch everything and disregard Rodney's dire warnings about malaria and made-up diseases he claims will eat her hair ribbons and make her grow bits between her legs, which has the unfortunate side-effect of driving her to delirious tears and locking herself in their dresser. Rodney decides his father's wobble-mouthed punishment, choked out in between resisting laughter and over Jeannie's hiccupping sobs, is well-worth it.
And when they get there Rodney feels like he finally breathes in --soaks in the lavish, lustrous sun like golden water pouring from the blue, blue, cloudless sky, shining off of desert.
"I think I'll like it here," Rodney says, and his father smiles, palms Jeannie's pale, curling hair, and looks off into the blurry distance.
Time passes and passes and Rodney grows weary of the sandstorms and babbling rancor of the markets, the busybody old ladies with their shining eyes to peddle clothes and ask if Mister McKay has married yet or about the queer little boy who lives in the big, shadowy library, reading Plato and Kepler and of Brahe, about eight inches of arc. Egypt is more than it's golden waves, it's gritty and brown and tired, worn raggedy and edged with lacy Arabic, all scrolling, cursive shapes and sharp edges, whining horns and insistent voices, rising up in a cacophony beneath Rodney's window every morning starting in the misty blue dawn.
Jeannie goes away to a girls' school and comes back with big ideas and an even higher than ordinary intolerance for Rodney and they start World War II in their own household, driving their father and caretakers to their wits end and lobbing insults in English, French, German, and Arabic until they tire of yelling in their shared languages and Rodney starts roaring in Latin and Jeannie cusses in Italian.
This does not mean, however, that during high-society dances Rodney and Jeannie are forced by their father's social status to attend, that Winston Anthrope III should be anywhere near Jeannie's dance card. So if Rodney commandeers the piano during all of the dances were Jeannie is leaning away from Winston and Winston is leaning inward like a lovesick camel to play songs that require the sort of dancing that requires vast oceans of space between participants--then, well, Rodney will chalk it up to familial responsibility. And if Jeannie determinedly fills up all the empty spaces on Rodney's dance card when Samantha Helen Regina Nowland rolls her eyes at the prospect, then Rodney will chalk it up to her wanting to dance with somebody who won't step on her toes.
"You look terrible in that dress," Rodney says irritably as they waltz around the room, deftly avoiding the people they hate--everyone their own age--and ducking their father, who will most likely be bearing the horrible camera and it's hand-held powder flash he recently purchased and is all too in love with.
"And you're pale as death," Jeannie snaps back, frowning, "when was the last time you stepped outside of that library?"
"I hope father betrothes you to that lowing beast," Rodney mutters.
"I hope you have to marry yourself ," Jeannie hisses back, but spins beautiful, her skirts flaring out in what even Rodney has to admit is a very pretty way when Rodney extends an arm.
They understand one another in Egypt's strange and fractured paradise, and that is something.
Rodney goes to Cambridge to read math and astronomy and returns, craving the Egyptian sun, her petty and human gods and their generosity of light, he finds Jeannie wearing glasses and shelving books, murmuring to herself about Ramses and Alexander the Great, of great armies and past histories, in leatherbound life stories that Rodney spent his entire adolescence reading.
He puts his hands on the ladder Jeannie has leaned against a bookshelf and smiles up at her profile, studious and all the same distracted, her hair in wisps wreathing her round, rosy face, and he smiles, open and honest, when she sees him and her face melts into an expression of delight.
"You've come back," she says from her perch, so pleased her lower lip is shaking.
"We caught a good wind," Rodney says generously, and slips his hands into his pockets. "Now, my spinster sister, when did you go from society butterfly to book maven?"
"Oh, this is just comeuppance," Jeannie says dismissively, climbing down the ladder easily, and Rodney sees her bare feet beneath her skirts and smiles at the thought of her wandering through the mausoleum and the library like that, feet against the cool tiles. "Father invited the Anthrope's to have dinner with us the other week and I behaved myself terribly."
She passes over a stack of books to Rodney and he takes them automatically. She grins and says, "And now that you've come, you can take your old job back."
"By terribly," Rodney asks, smiling.
"I may have poured gravy in poor Winston's lap," Jeannie says, voice bright. "I'm such a blemish on proper English society in this wild, heathen land, Rodney."
Rodney bursts out laughing and wanders around, smoothing his forefinger down the spines of the books and starts putting them away in their proper places, feeling his whole body settle back into this life, of old books and new ones that still smell like tanned leather, of Bembridge Scholars coming to dinner and Egypt, dusty and hot and bare outside the windows.
"You'll never marry if you continue to assault all your suitors with food, Jeannie," Rodney chastises her, and slides the last book away, Plato's dialogues, where Rodney remembers he left one perfect, waxy red fingerprint by accident one night while reading his story of Atlantis into early morning, when the sky melted into pinks and oranges like rose gold.
Rodney feels Jeannie's round arms come around his middle and her cheek against his back all of a sudden, her soft cloud of hair on his shoulder and she says softly, "I did miss you, Rodney. Father, too. The house was too quiet--and nobody made the maids cry."
Rodney decides to take it as a compliment and turns himself round so he can press a kiss to Jeannie's pale brow. Neither of them will be children much longer, and when Jeannie does find someone onto whom she has no desire to pour food, Rodney will lose her forever.
"I'm glad to be home," he tells her, and it's true.
Dinner is lavish and Jeannie chatters the entire time while their father looks on indulgently. Rodney takes the chance when Jeannie is devastating a plate of trifle to tell his family about Cambridge, about nearly freezing to death and while trying to take astronomical measurements. But then Jeannie starts asking about Rodney's romantic exploits and Rodney reluctantly tells his father and sister about the time he attempted a midnight punting expedition that had ended in tragedy due to the combined wickedness of England's unrelentingly cold weather, the foulness of the Cam, and Rodney's perpetual and losing battle with gravity.
"Oh, Rodney ," Jeannie manages over her very unladylike laughter.
"Needless to say, paramour no longer," Rodney says with a sigh, and his father laughs, which Rodney assumes he wouldn't if only he knew said paramour was named Henry Hollins and rowed crew.
"Did you have any other exploits at Cambridge, Rodney?" Jeannie asks, eyes large and curious. "Or did you spend all of your time in the sunny observatory?"
"It's the Solar Physics Observatory and no," Rodney says haughtily. "Sometimes I went to the School of Pythagoras or stayed out far too late at the Cavendish Laboratories."
Jeannie rolls her eyes in a vaguely affectionate way and Rodney's father jokes, "Then I've nothing to worry about--angry girls in white lawn dresses demanding your presence in England to marry and make them honest women?"
Rodney chokes on his wine in a way that makes Jeannie narrow her eyes in suspicion, look at Rodney differently, and forces himself to say, "No, no women."
Later that night Jeannie sneaks into Rodney's room and traps him, brandishing a lit candle and wearing her most intimidating expression, which is, for a girl who had habitually burst into tears when her teachers at finishing school had instructed her to make soufflés, was actually very intimidating.
"You were lying," Jeannie accuses. "You've left something out." She shakes the candle at Rodney threateningly. "Tell me immediately."
"I've left nothing out," Rodney protests, feeling his face grow hot with embarrassment and dread and he tries to grab the candle away but only succeeds in burning his finger. "You--you harpy!"
"You have ," Jeannie insists, and her face is grim. "You've put somebody in a family way, haven't you? You've fallen in with the wrong crowd of alcoholics and opium addicts and smoked your tuition away, haven't you? You went with the wrong sort of girl and now you're an unwed father and have a strange burning sensation, haven't you?" Her mouth is small and tight and furious. "Oh, Rodney! How could you! How will father tell everyone you've gone mad from syphilis?"
"I do not have syphilis!" Rodney moans. "And I haven't become an unwed father!"
"Rodney, stop lying! There must be something!" Jeannie pleads. "Tell the truth--before it's too late and your bastard children come in the post!"
The situation is just hilarious enough that Rodney cannot help but collapse in his bedsheets gasping for oxygen, and when he finally does say, "Oh, Jeannie--children are the only thing father never has to worry about from me," that her eyes and mouth go huge and round and she says, "Oh!" before scowling and saying, "When everybody called you such a queer child I had no idea--"
Rodney muffles her with a pillow before she can finish the thought.
Jeannie wants to be an archeologist, possibly because she's suffered some mild version of sunstroke, but she's so earnest and cheerful about the whole thing Rodney can't help but to go along, since otherwise he seems fairly doomed to a life of teaching insufferable British schoolboys, lazy from Egyptian sunlight and lives of leisure.
And Egypt is stifling in a different way than Cambridge, where Rodney's professors skimmed over pieces of text that referenced the wicked vice of the Greeks. Egypt, for its vast deserts, is small and contained; there are no living secrets here, and far too many risks.
"If you should fall in love, Rodney," Jeannie says to him, because she's a very foolish twenty.
"That hardly looks feasible here, does it?" he says sharply, but Jeannie ignores him.
"If you should fall in love, who would it be? What would he be like?" she asks, pulling out the curtain ties around Rodney's bed until they are cloaked in near-darkness, the dancing orange light of torches outside Rodney's window casting strange shadows over their bedclothes.
Rodney leans back against the headboard of his bed and raises his eyebrows. "Don't you think I should marry well? Have children? Continue the McKay line?"
Jeannie waves her hand in annoyance. "Stop stalling, Rodney," she instructs him.
"Well I don't know, Jeannie," Rodney says sarcastically, "maybe he should be an adventurer or an explorer or an utterly ravishing socialite whose hair is combed a little too well and smiles too brightly at his manservant."
"I think you should marry a pirate," Jeannie tells him.
"I'm not marrying anybody," Rodney growls.
Jeannie laughs and she falls back in along Rodney's mattress, holding up her hand in the weak light and stares at her left hand thoughtfully, wiggles her fingers, her hair fanned out around her head. She says, "I wonder what it'd be like--to be married." She's silent for a long time, and finally whispers, "I wonder that it would be like to have a husband. To keep his bed."
Rodney shivers, because he's heard stories from his classmates, of women in brothels and conquests on break and he can't imagine Jeannie like the girls he's heard about, panting and lascivious, crying and confused.
He takes her wrist and frowns at her, "I think neither of us should marry," he says lightly.
"Don't be stupid, Rodney," Jeannie says with great conviction. "I'm going to have to marry and have dozens of children to compensate for your bachelor lifestyle." She stares at the canopy of the bed and looks starry. "I wonder what your husband will be like."
"Maybe he will be a pirate," Rodney allows, mostly to change the subject.
"He should have an eyepatch, and swashbuckle, and swill grog," Jeannie decides.
"You are a very, very foolish twenty," Rodney tells her, but after he excises Jeannie from his bedroom and drifts off to dreams he sees blue as far as the eye can see, like the ocean or maybe the sky, and when he squints into the shocking gold light it's at a dark profile with hair flying in the wind, and an extended hand, reaching out with an opened palm, and somebody saying, "Come on, Rodney--let's go."
Rodney is trying to convince twelve year olds that an intimate understanding of The Republic is important for their futures in society when Jeannie bursts into his classroom and says, "It's a lovely day! The sky is blue and the wind is blowing and that man who sells roast chestnuts is outside--class dismissed!" and all his students hoot and whoop and run from the classroom into the December air.
"Thank you," Rodney barks, slapping down his chalk, "for completely undermining my authority."
"We'll discuss your crushing inadequacies as an educator later, Rodney," Jeannie says, fluttering like a hummingbird or a butterfly, of which Rodney hasn't seen in years but still dreams about, thinks of their fast-moving wings like the thrum of blood beneath his skin.
She thrusts a letter in his face, in careful type and signed off with a spidery signature. It's an acceptance note from the Bembridge Scholars, with a small grant, wishing her luck and suggesting she choose appropriate male chaperones and not to stray far from civilization, which Rodney can tell from the way Jeannie's eyes are shining, is advice she hasn't even considered following.
"I'm going to be an Egyptologist!" Jeannie shrieks, throwing herself in Rodney's arms and thumping him on the back in excitement. "I'm going on a dig!"
When Rodney gets his wind back, he tells her how happy he is for her, and Jeannie telling Rodney her plans in agonizing detail as they weave through the open-air markets between the school house and their house. Jeannie is in high spirits, which means she badgers Rodney into buying her things, sweet and crumbling triangles of baklava, rich with honey and pistachios and a large white hat with an organza ribbon she ties jauntily beneath her left ear. She tells him how she has a plan to seek out the City of the Dead, where the pharaohs buried the lush wealth of ancient Egypt, poured her lapis gowns and emerald sashes, her golden rivers beneath the harsh golden sand. She babbles about the book of the dead, and drinks fizzy, coconut flavored drinks in the shade, and Rodney is attempting to structure an argument in his head that will convince their father he should let his foolishly twenty daughter run off on her own when he's broadsided by two foul-smelling prison guards and knocked off of his feet.
Jeannie helps him up and they shuffle off to the side, watching with wide eyes as the guards wrestle a man down into the dirt, hissing and moaning and cursing in fluid Arabic, pressing a knee into a dirty back--a white shirt all yellow with sweat and gray with dirt.
"Guys miss me already?" the man bites out, gasping for oxygen as the guards haul him to his feet, and Rodney blinks in surprise at the broad, rolling American accent, lazy and round, so out of place on this skinny, dirty prisoner with dark hair and sun-brown skin, a cut on his right cheekbone. And astonishing eyes, Rodney registers, for a single second,
"We will never miss you," one of the guards says bitterly. "We will rue the day you were caught."
"That's mean, Adnan--I missed you," the man says, pouting.
"I'm so happy you're being hanged today," the other guard says feelingly.
The man seems to notice Jeannie and Rodney staring then, with their white and out-of-place faces, flushed from surprise and from being noticed, and he has the audacity to wink at them, curl up the corner of his mouth and say, "Sorry about that, folks," and allows himself to be dragged away with only a minimum of struggle.
Jeannie and Rodney are frozen there in the road for a moment before Jeannie starts herself out of it, and rushes forward, closes her hands around an eight-sided box in the dust. She chases the fading profiles of the man and his two guards for a moment, saying, "Oh--you dropped this!" and "Hello?" and "Oh, it's such a shame--he seemed so nice, too."
Rodney rubs at his face. "Jeannie, he's being hanged today. Nobody being hanged is nice."
"I thought he was very nice," Jeannie says, and allows herself to linger there a moment more before she turns to the box again, frowning at it, and Rodney just sighs and steers her, one hand on the small of her back, toward their house.
They're in the entryway of their house, Rodney shedding his coat, and handing one of the maids his leather carrying case when he hears a faint click and he turns around to see Jeannie, her mouth open and her eyes enormous and brightly blue, and the eight-sided box has opened its geometric petals in Jeannie's palm.
"I am not taking you to a prison ," Rodney says stubbornly.
"But you know father won't do it!" Jeannie complains, and her eyes are enormous.
"Strangely, I find his anticipated logical reasons for it compelling," Rodney says sarcastically, banging through the house, running his hands over the spines of books that line their shelves and pointedly does not think about the prisoner and his hazel eyes, his rolling voice, another foreign and lovely and strange thing in the middle of the desert--a mirage.
"But this papyrus, Rodney," she waves it--delicately--in his face, "it's a map to the City of the Dead--it's a sign! It's fate! Please, Rodney? I have to go!" She clutches at his arm and whines terribly and stomps her feet and says things like, "Rodney, have I ever asked you for anything?" and "Rodney, this is so important to me!" and "Rodney McKay, I'm ashamed of you--standing in the way of my dreams!"
"Oh for God's sake ," Rodney finally says, throwing up his arms. "If you must go to a prison and visit a man who is being hanged then I suppose you must ."
"I really, really must," Jeannie insists, and rushes upstairs to change, despite Rodney yelling that if she'd like to see her soon-to-be-executed twist of fate then she'd better rush before his neck is snapped, and Rodney can't quite quell a sting of regret at the thought.
Jeannie is all excited blushing and smoothing her new dress when she returns and Rodney barely suppresses a groan when they load into the car and navigate the claustrophobic alleyways, honking at street vendors who fear no death or vehicles.
"Jeannie, tell me you haven't dressed up for this hooligan's sake," Rodney begs.
"I think it's only fair," Jeannie says primly, "that a dying man should have one final moment of beauty before he goes to meet his Creator." She settles and resettles the box in her lap, practically shaking with excitement. "Oh, but he was very lovely himself, wasn't he, Rodney?"
Rodney's hands tighten on the steering wheel of the car. "He was covered in filth and smelled rancid and his hair was a disaster and have you forgotten he's being hanged? "
Jeannie frowns. "I wish you would stop emphasizing the negative, Rodney."
"If he's earned himself a hanging I can't imagine it actually being carried out is much of a negative," Rodney soldiers on, though he can't help but wonder what the prisoner had done, and if it was negotiable, and what he'd look like, framed in sky.
She makes a huffing, disappointed noise and says, "Can't you drive any faster, Rodney? What if he's already dead when we get there?"
"You realize it should be an indication that this is not a very brilliant plan when you have to worry about your inquiry being unavailable on account of hanging ," Rodney mutters, but mostly to himself and under his breath and presses his foot more instantly on the gas pedal, avoiding pedestrians and finally pulling to a stop at the main doors of the prison complex. Weeping mothers and men of ill repute have congregated there and look at Rodney and Jeannie strangely as they pick their way through the ruffians and through the enormous wooden doors.
Jeannie keeps the box clutched in her hand and Rodney is close by her side, not because he could protect her if anything happened but there is strength in numbers, he consoles himself, and looks warily at the prisoners reaching their dirty hands from the bars of their cells.
Rodney makes a few nervous inquiries and Jeannie looks terribly fascinated by the morbidity of it all, exclaiming things like, "How astonishing! And you where do you urinate, then, if you have only one bucket?" to the prisoners nearby who have suddenly caught her attention.
The warden comes out to them in a whirl of hog fat and cheap liquor, arms open wide, saying "Welcome, welcome! I see you are here about my most favorite prisoner."
Jeannie's eyes go brightly hopeful. "Oh!" she says. "So you like him!"
"And I like best that he is dying in twenty minutes," he continues cheerfully, and waves them forward, ignoring Jeannie's crushed expression and Rodney's uncontrollable urge to giggle. "Come come--he is waiting to speak with you."
"Oh my God," Rodney says, horrified by the human filth around him, staring in naked interest while Jeannie nimbly picks her away around collapsed bodies in the prison yard and takes in all the details with cheerful curiosity. "We'll have to go to the doctor when we go home--we'll--our clothes, they'll need to be burned--alcohol, rubbing alcohol, ethanol--"
"Um, may I ask, Mister Warden, sir," Jeannie says, overly polite, "what exactly is the man in question in prison for?"
"I asked him that myself," the warden says, and smirks. "He said he was just looking for a good time."
"Oh, God," Rodney gasps as the man from the market stumbles out of a darkened doorway, flanked by the guards from earlier that day. He falls to his knees sloppily, wrapping his hands around the bars and managing to look completely and totally bored by everything around him, wincing at the direct sunlight.
"Oh, it's you guys again," he says finally.
Rodney resists the urge to cross himself and the warden excuses himself to shout at two of the prison guards setting up the gallows. And Jeannie, fearless as usual, rushes right up to the bars of the cell and beams into them, all loving cheer and curiosity.
"Hello--oh, hello," Jeannie says, and the man lifts on lazy brow at her before his smile goes low and easy and Rodney feels something in his stomach get tight and hot. "We picked up--" she looks left and right before shadowing her face with her wide-brimmed hat, newly pilfered from Rodney's teacher's salary "--your puzzle box, in the market earlier today and I was hoping--"
"What's your name, sweetheart?" the prisoner asks, and Jeannie goes shockingly red, mouth opening and closing in surprise.
"Now see here!" Rodney interrupts, scowling.
"Stay patient, now," the prisoner says to Rodney casually, and his eyes are very, very hazel, which for no good reason makes Rodney fall silent long enough for the man to lean forward against the bars, smile at Jeannie some more and say, "Now me--I'm John Sheppard. I like football and Ferris wheels and anything that goes really fast."
He grins again. "Now let's try this again. What's your name?"
"Jeannie," Jeannie says, with a bashful smile.
John grins. "It's very nice to meet you, Jeannie." He looks at Rodney. "And you?"
"Aren't you going to be hanged any minute now?" Rodney asks impatiently.
"And is that any reason to abandon civility?" John says with a smile that is so persuasive Rodney has a terrible, unconscionable urge to touch himself inappropriately.
"Rodney," Rodney finally says, and scowls. "Jeannie--will you ask your question already?"
"No need," John says smoothly, his smile wearing edges now as he raises his brows smoothly. "I assume this is about the half a map I left for you."
Jeannie's eyes go wide with delighted surprise and she clasps her hands together as she says, "Oh, how clever! It was a signal, wasn't it, to come save you?"
Rodney covers his face. "He's being hanged, Jeannie. He's being hanged ."
"Aren't you just Miss Mary Sunshine," John says lazily, and leans forward, conspiratorial, to whisper into Jeannie's ear in what is a completely and totally inappropriate for public, unmarried consumption way, "And I'd be happy to take you there--you just have to do me the tiny, tiny favor of getting me out of this hellhole."
He and Jeannie share a significant look and Rodney has this sinking feeling that Jeannie will not be spilling gravy on John.
The moment finally becomes so intolerable that Rodney marches over to pull Jeannie away just as the prison guards burst into the cell, gleefully dragging John Sheppard back into the building. Jeannie shouts, "Oh! Wait, where're you taking him?" and the guards say happily, "To be hanged!" and John says, with a note of what might actually be panic in his voice, "Your call, guys--see you at the gallows."
It's at this point when Jeannie bursts into tears and Rodney starts bargaining with the warden in a terribly undignified manner, but at the end of it all, Rodney's out 25% of the potential profits if they should discover the lost city of Hamunaptra, Jeannie is sopping up her tears and waving frantically at John, who is rubbing at the red rope-burn on his wrists and neck and smiling at them, shaky and bright and pale in the afternoon sun.
There's more undignified crying on Jeannie's part back at home where she campaigns with her typical underhanded gracefulness to be allowed to go on the her hard-earned dig, though God knows she makes a tactical error when she admits who her supposed guide is, which just elicits more crying on a timbre Rodney recognizes from a long childhood.
But before he can make his escape and go wandering through the dunes tonight, his father sticks his head out of his study, hair a mess and face red, shouting, "Rodney--Jeannie says you support this ridiculous endeavor!" and in the background Jeannie wails, "Will you let me go if he comes, too?"
"Father, I don't think--" Rodney tries.
"Oh for goodness sakes, Jeannie--fine! But only because Rodney's going," Rodney's father says, caving as always under pressure and Rodney can feel the entire house brighten as Jeannie's pitiful wails subside. "Though, honestly, Jeannie, you could have simply..." and his voice trails away as the door closes again.
Rodney sits down in one of the parlor chairs and puts his face in his hands.
Jeannie finds him there later that night, playing Wagner and sulking.
"Oh, stop it," she instructs him. "You hate it here, anyway--you never get to do anything."
"And there's a marked lack of pirates," Rodney says blandly.
"There is that," Jeannie agrees, and smiles brightly at him. "Rodney, I'm so excited. This could be one of the most exciting finds in decades, Rodney--the City of the Dead ." She pats his knee kindly and says, "Maybe we'll find you a nice desert pirate, too, along the way."
Rodney can't help but smile at that. "Not all of us can find love in strange prisons, Jeannie."
She flushes darkly red and pouts at him until Rodney bursts into laughter, fingers pressing an echoing, uneven melody on the piano keys.
Rodney had spent his time on the ship between Egypt and England and then England to Egypt teaching himself hieratic and hieroglyphics, partly out of nearly violent boredom and partly because he'd always wanted to share another language with Jeannie. She had only ever known Egypt, really, forgotten England like the mist over her moors and only had Rodney's stories of India, of the Taj Mahal and of elephants, of glittering, gemmed buildings with curving roofs like an upturned heart. Rodney had already been filled with places, with thousands of memories like the feeling of monsoon rains on his face, how his Ah-ya had leaned out the intricate, sandalwood windows of their curious house and raised her hands to it, smiled as her skin had beaded with water. Rodney remembered England, the severe faces of the lecturers at his all-boys' school, the grim grayness of London in winter, and how it melted away in a haze of orange Christmas candles, the roar of blue-hearted fires and snow, red bows and shimmering bells for Christmas, when the entire city was lifted out of its own gloom.
Jeannie's world is filled with the blistering, unforgiving white sun of Egypt, how the desert goes flat midmorning, shadows disappearing. She remembers the markets and the chanting prayers at dawn, the sounds of creaking carts over dirt streets and the smells of rich spices, salty and spicy and lemon in her nose, her sandalwood beads, in her dish necklaces on her vanity, that still smell like Nepal which she only knows from traders' stories. She remembers the strange incongruity of tea in the dunes, with the wind whipping her hair as the sun melted away, and how Rodney had cranked the gramophone and they had listened to an Indian woman's voice, singing high and sweet as night swallowed the desert and they huddled together under a blanket until their nanny had been sent to fetch them.
And their education has left them with exacting French verbs, with a sharpness Rodney and Jeannie can use to cut into fashionable salons in Paris; the strict, guttural sounds of German so Rodney can read great philosophers and dine with Bavarian royalty; singing, lacy Arabic, in sweet, rising and falling pitches, like a prayer-song. English, most of all, with all its oblique angles and polite deference, how Jeannie and Rodney talk around one another now, and no longer fight like they are children.
But Rodney is jealous sometimes of how Egypt has so seduced Jeannie, given her smiles and disintegrating poems, songs of lotus flowers and rich honey, thousands of years of history spread beneath her searching fingertips, the rough edges of sand and stone and mystery to fill in all the pieces of the romance she desperately wants to live.
Rodney learns Egyptian for the same reason Jeannie purchased a star map the last time they holidayed in Paris--they've always been so alone that any more distance is unbearable in these strange and beautiful places they have been.
"It's not too late to change your mind," Rodney says earnestly. "We could return these tickets right now. I see a line--someone would want them."
Jeannie glares at him from beneath the enormous brim of her sunhat, the pale straw and blue ribbon bringing out the darkness of her eyes the roundness of her sweet face. She's wearing a camel-colored skirt and neat brown shoes and a linen shirt, all new for her adventure, shaded by her white parasol and she look so incongruous on that dirty, hectic pier in Cairo Rodney wants to burst into laughter, ask what exactly she thinks she's doing.
"Rodney, I won't have this sort of negative attitude," she admonishes him, her voice crisp and precise, well-schooled, and Rodney wonders how she thinks she'll talk to her pirate, if she ever finds him, how they will understand one another. "We'll never accomplish anything if you're so terribly pessimistic."
"Can it really be called pessimism when our so-called guide had to be bought out of prison as he was about to be hanged?" Rodney asks, and has a flash of Sheppard's eyes again, green and brown and strange, like the edges of warm oceans Rodney has only seen in transit.
Jeannie waves her hand dismissively. "Mister Sheppard seems to me a perfect gentleman," she says diplomatically. "I'm sure whatever errors in judgment he's made in past are very much behind him."
"I would not be so sure of that," Rodney hears, and when he and Jeannie whirl around, it is to the burning smell of lard and cheap whiskey and the fat, sweating face of the prison warden, bright with greed. Jeannie's eyes round in dismay and Rodney says:
"Oh God--what are you doing here?"
The warden smiles and shows off a gold tooth, saying, "Protecting my investment," and he smirks, adding, "and if it does not pay--I will get to hang him again." He doesn't wait for Rodney or Jeannie to say anything before trundling off, making his way up the ramp onto their ship, singing loudly at the early sun.
"That man," Jeannie says decisively, "is completely vile."
"Oh, I don't know, he's got his good points, too."
And this time when Jeannie and Rodney whirl around it's with eyes rounded by surprise.
In the prison John was filthy and beaded by sweat, his clothes brown from the market dust and his hair ragged--although, Rodney thinks, that hasn't changed too terribly much--but there are still things that Rodney recognizes on the smooth, boyish face that has appeared before him. John's eyebrows and smooth forehead, his sunny smirk and his eyes are still olive and brown and undecided, shimmering and changing like the shape of a school of fish.
"Mister Sheppard," Jeannie breathes, and her face is glowing like a star.
When John smiles at her, tips his head graciously and Jeannie flutters to return a curtsey, and Rodney takes the time to look at John's narrow chest and how the white cambric shirt stretches across it, John's tan jacket and mill-colored trousers and neat brown boots, the flash of a clasp on leather suspenders. He looks respectable and still a little rumpled, hair a terrible mess like the jumble in his eyes.
"Miz McKay," he says lazily and when he turns to Rodney, he says, "I see you're as cheerful as ever, Rodney."
Rodney keeps the scowl on his face just to be contrary. "Why does she get 'miss'?"
Jeannie giggles, and John says, "Because she's a lady, Rodney--" raising his eyebrow "--unless of course, you are also--"
"Nevermind," Rodney says resolutely, and feels any desire to be polite vanish. "And to get down to business--are you sure about the Hamunaptra thing? Because I am warning you, Mister Sheppard, if this is just some sort of miserable excuse to con us and--"
Rodney cuts himself off, both from the fierceness of Jeannie's glare and the way that John is looking at him, eyes suddenly hard.
"--I just want to be sure," Rodney finishes feebly.
John's face softens a little, and hefting a bag onto his shoulder, he shrugs and says, "When we get there--I'll show you all the little bits of my plane in the desert."
Jeannie's eyes widen and her smile brightens and as John steps up the ramp onto the ship, she follows eagerly, her heels clicking on the wood, asking loudly, "Mister Sheppard--you flew planes? " and Rodney hears John say, "Long time ago, for the Royal Air Force. Obviously, didn't work out..." and if he says anything else, it's drowned out by a warning whistle from the ship, calling everybody on board.
The initial plan was to stow John away with the luggage, or at least that was the plan until Jeannie discovered the plan and brought down the fury of God on Rodney's head.
She said, how could you, John is a person just like you or I. She said, I've spoken with him about his so-called crime and I'm convinced that he's the victim here. She said, what was told to me was told in confidence and unlike some people, Rodney. She said, I am decent enough not to share that sort of information though you should probably know it was because he fell in love with the very beautiful daughter of a very rich merchant in Cairo and was punished for his passionate devotion to her but I am certainly not breaking a confidence to sate your curiosity!
Rodney isn't surprised to be less than comforted by Jeannie's revelation.
"You can relax," John tells him, smiling and lopsided, standing in their shared cabin. "I'm not a hardened criminal or anything."
Rodney clutches his bags closer to his chest. "Yes, of course, because they deign to hang everybody who isn't a hardened criminal. In fact my own undignified execution has been scheduled three months from now."
Sheppard has a look about him that makes Rodney think of dog and pony shows, circuses and fire-eaters. Rodney is curious, of course, like any good scientist as to the nature of Sheppard's smoke and mirrors, but he can't help but be wary, and he pulls his caution around himself like a cloak as he put away his coats and bags, watches Sheppard kick his own battered duffle underneath one of the beds.
"I'm sensing that you're uncomfortable with this situation," Sheppard says, and it sounds like he's laughing--like he's completely unconcerned with the fact that Rodney has procured a small but very lethal-looking knife and could potentially flail violently with it if provoked.
"You're amazingly perceptive, Sheppard," Rodney snaps.
He doesn't know why he's clutching the bag to his chest; it just feels like he should be protecting somebody's virtue--although all indications are suggesting John will easily compromise Jeannie's.
Sheppard raises one of his eyebrows and Rodney narrows his gaze. Rodney's about to make some complicated simile about being the wounded albeit most intelligent antelope in the herd when Sheppard says mildly, "I'm not going to attack you in your sleep, you know."
"You've clearly contemplated it, though," Rodney says stubbornly.
"I really, really haven't," Sheppard laughs. "Let me explain something here, McKay."
"Oh, like I need you to explain something me --"
Sheppard holds up a quelling hand, and the smile on his face doesn't waver. "I was in an Egyptian prison until a week ago," he says unnecessarily. "And now, I'm in a ship on the Nile. Granted, I'm sharing a cabin with possibly the most anal-retentive person alive--"
Rodney makes a high-pitched noise.
"--but to be fair, it's better than being dead," John finishes. "So it's probably okay to assume I'm not going to kill you in your sleep."
"I don't like assumptions," Rodney snaps, but he loosens his hold on his bag and finally sets it on his bunk, glaring hatefully. "Things unfounded in empirical evidence generally don't hold up under any sort of scrutiny."
John blinks lazily at him. "You're a scientist, then?"
"Yes," Rodney says. He points menacingly. "I'm keeping my eye on you."
"I'll be wary every time you jot down a little note," Sheppard promises.
John teaches Jeannie Morse code over the ship's first class dinner, and they send one another intensely coded messages like, "Hello!" and "You're learning," that make the raucous table of Americans next to them grin. Rodney tries to ignore the way Jeannie is shining at John like she's suddenly realized what she's spent her whole life looking for--she's not the one sharing a cabin with a recently-released convict.
But that night, as John and Rodney are turning in and Rodney is ignoring John, he hears John knocking out, "Good night. Sleep well," in Morse on the wall they share with Jeannie's cabin. Jeannie knocks back, "Sweet dreams. Tell Rodney good night," at which John says:
"Jeannie says night."
"I heard," Rodney bites out and extinguishes the lamp, pulling the covers over himself.
"You were paying attention at dinner," John says, pleased.
"I learned Morse code ages ago," Rodney says, meanly. "It's child's play, which of course is the reason you and my fool sister enjoy it so well."
"I can hear you through the wall , Rodney!" Jeannie snaps, and slams her palm against it warningly.
Rodney winces; it's a familiar sound, a memory from childhoods spent in adjoining nurseries. The year they'd lived in the townhouse in London where they'd been forced to share sleeping quarters had resulted in many occasions when the wall was not what Jeannie was slapping, and their father rushing into the bedroom at three in the morning to find them tearing at one another's hair.
"Go to sleep, you harpy," Rodney yells, and thumps his own hand against the wall, a sudden sunburst of pain on his palm making him hiss. When he looks up, John is biting his lip and staring at the ceiling, clearing trying not to laugh and shaking from the effort.
"Say nothing," Rodney warns.
"I'm already asleep," John lies.
"It's sleep talking," John assures him, and kicks his legs beneath the covers. "I won't remember any of this tomorrow morning."
"I don't believe you," Rodney says petulantly, and is about to talk about vast resources and many kinds of recourse at his fingertips should John hold this over his head, but stops when he realizes that John's breathing has fallen even and slow, quiet and deep on the other side of the room, and that it rolls to the same rhythm as the sea.
Rodney lies awake for hours after that, and he thinks about John and the ocean, John and the prison, John and Egypt. He thinks about John in his airplane, falling into the desert like a withering star, the bright burn of heat into the endless, shadowless white of the desert at noon
And when Rodney finally sleeps and dreams, he dreams in symphony with Morse code, knocking out secrets in the murky blue water at the bottom of the Nile, and Rodney runs his imagery fingers over the sandy bottom--unearths rubies and topaz and turquoise, perfectly tumbled and round like a promise in his hands.
He wakes up just before dawn, warm and melting, curled deep and warm in his blankets and glances across the room to see Sheppard, his eyes shut tightly and hands fisted into the sheets, mouth tight. He looks hurt and frightened and suddenly, shockingly vulnerable, and Rodney wants to reach over, to smooth his hand over Sheppard's face.
But the sun crests and the warm light of morning does it before he can, and all Rodney does is stare, watchful and strangely protective now, as Sheppard is painted gold like the shimmering image of an Egyptian god, cocooned in voluminous linen.
They hit rocky waters the second day and Jeannie spends most of the day in her room, clutching a basin and moaning miserably. There's a doctor on board the ship and he's pronounced her dehydrated but helpless to motion sickness, and gives her a balm of peppermint and aloe to rub on her temples--which Rodney finds among the other passengers and then has thrown at his head when he offers it to Jeannie.
"Your sister's a spitfire," John remarks casually when Rodney comes out of room, cradling the dented tin of salve and rubbing his newly-bruised forehead.
"That's one way to describe her," Rodney says, scowling.
"There's no real cure for seasickness," John says philosophically. "Maybe we can distract her."
Rodney glares. "Is that some sort of euphemistic request to have your wicked way with her?"
"Yes, McKay," John says patiently, "I'm going to savage your sister while she's vomiting every other breath."
"I meant like, checkers," John tells him, rolling his eyes hugely.
Later, Rodney is cross-legged at the foot of Jeannie's bed and after John had brought in hot water to wash away the sick-smell from her room. Jeannie is draped in her dressing gown and frowns at the chess board John liberated from the ship's parlor. John is sitting on the edge of her bed, and the board is on the blankets, Jeannie hunched over on the other side, biting her lip ferociously.
"You always do this," Rodney complains.
"Rodney, hush," Jeannie says, not taking her eyes off the board.
"You sit there, and you take hours to make a move," Rodney goes on.
"Let the lady think, McKay," John comments mildly, and Rodney feels a lurch of hate when Jeannie stares up at John, starry-eyed and adoring even through her pallor of sickness. Rodney imagines that this might be his punishment for the sin of Sodom but reconsiders after Jeannie finally-- finally-- edges a pawn forward because no amount of carnal wrong can justify such cruel torture. Even Dante would have only buffeted him with dreadful winds.
"You play a hard game, ma'am," John tells her, smiling, and there is a lazy curl to his voice that makes Rodney wish he was on the other side of the chessboard.
It's only that Rodney's never been the center of somebody attention so. Rodney has always been in the foreground, an element not to be ignored but hardly to be cherished: too prickly and contrary as a child and too arrogant and hard-headed as an adult; separate from his peers for his intellect and awkward around the fine ladies he's supposed to marry one day. It's not that Rodney doesn't fit, exactly, he just doesn't fit comfortably.
"My brother is a tyrant when it comes to chess," Jeannie confides, and Rodney colors, opening his mouth to protest when John nudges him with his arm, grinning.
"Is it true?" John asks, eyes shining.
Rodney can feel the muscle of John's arm beneath the thin cotton shirt, and he's glad he's already flushed with righteous anger, because the blood dashes to his face again at the realization. He crowds himself against the wall, feeling the sloshing water of the Nile and narrowing his eyes in the dim candlelight of the room before he snaps:
"It's hardly tyrannical to enforce the rules of the game."
"It is if you make them up!" Jeannie insists. She turns to John and says, "He did."
"I did no such thing!" Rodney yells, and he can see John biting his lip from the corner of his gaze. Rodney must be too long in the sun or too long in Egypt, because all he can think is how it'd feel to bite at John's mouth, flush and pink and probably sweetly simple: like apples or the crisp green skin of a pear.
"I'm declaring a truce between you," John informs them both, and he can't keep the smirk off of his face as he makes a generous motion of his hands and says, "in that spirit--I think you should finish off the game, McKay."
"Oh, wait!" Jeannie protests, coloring deeply and fisting her hands in the sheets.
"No, no," John says. "Far be it I get between siblings," he adds, and pushes himself to his feet, grinning and patting Rodney companionably on the shoulder. "I've got a few errands to run--"
"On the ship?" Rodney asks stupidly.
"--before I can get to sleep," John finishes easily, and raises his brows at Rodney before turning to Jeannie, taking her hand and kissing the back of her palm. It makes her giggle, high-pitched and utterly stupid, like she never does with wealthy young aristocrats, well-educated and smitten, attempting to charm her with Italian love poems, with jewelry, with flowers so rare and dear in Egypt they shine brighter than diamonds. "Good night, Miz McKay."
"Good night, Mister Sheppard," she says dutifully and flutters her hand as he steps out of the room. Rodney watches Sheppard's shadow in the frame of the doorway for a moment before he turns back to Jeannie and her thoughtful face, rosy now.
"He's such a dear man," she sighs.
"You aren't allowed to marry him," Rodney says immediately. "Father would die."
Jeannie rolls her eyes. "No more than he'd die once he knows you'll need a husband, too."
"I truly loathe you," Rodney promises her.
She pats his hand gently. "I, too, Rodney. I, too."
After Rodney has soundly trounced Jeannie no fewer than three times, and she's burst into manipulative and maddening tears no fewer than six, Rodney declares that he shall drown her in the Nile come dawn but that he's far too tired to do it today, so she'd better sleep soon and enjoy her dreaming before it becomes eternal slumber.
"A good brother wouldn't threaten his darling sister with death so frequently!" she argued.
"A good sister wouldn't induce murderous rages in her brother!" Rodney snapped back.
Then, she'd thrown a largish box at him, which was why Rodney was wandering back toward his quarters rubbing his arm and sulking and occasionally checking his upper shoulder area searching for signs of massive internal bleeding and accidentally finding Sheppard instead--
He's on his knees in the dark, near where the Americans have stowed away their travel packs and saddles, large hands splayed over somebody's sleek, male hips, mouthing the place between his legs, and Rodney freezes, his breath gone away. Sheppard is gilded by the barest tracery of candlelight from the crewman's quarters behind and he's smiling, lashes long and his mouth demonic and Rodney barely has a moment to think, "Oh" before he sees Sheppard's mouth, slick and red like a wound, closed around a stranger's cock.
Rodney watches the stranger fist his hand in the hair at the back of Sheppard's neck, listens to him mutter a litany of curses and praise under his breath. He listens to the creak of boots against the ship's wooden boards and John's wet exhalations, the obscene sound of his tongue on the man's dick and to the rubbing of cloth against cloth--a fist banged against a wall and bitten to keep the sound in.
And then there's a jerk and a gasp and Rodney can't tell if it's him or Sheppard or the man who's shoving his cock down Sheppard's throat, and he doesn't have time to, either, because it's that exact moment he hears Jeannie's high-pitched shriek, and a clatter of footsteps and swords.
Apparently, the duffle bag John is carrying contains guns . Great, heaping loads of guns , and the gentleman in Rodney wants to sigh and roll his eyes at the reckless, violent savagery of Americans but the largish coward in him is shrieking with gratitude as John shoots any and everything that moves.
Rodney is clinging to John in a completely undignified way, one hand firmly knotted in the fabric at the small of John's back, and they are making their way through a now-flaming ship to Jeannie's room, where John kicks open a door and shoots three people like he's ordering lemon with his tea.
"Are you all right?" John shouts at Jeannie over the roaring fire and a shrieking man in all black with a very threatening-looking hook. Rodney searches his pockets for his knife--which might come in handy in moments like these--but realizes depressingly he's not meant for a life of such excitement because he remembers he left it primly folded between the pages of a book on the life of Galileo.
"Man with a hook!" Rodney shrieks instead. "Man with a very large and sharp hook! "
"Oh, John!" Jeannie gasps in delight, and pulls a pair of nail scissors off of her vanity and stabs blindly backward at her assailant. Rodney and John share a wince together when she injures him gravely in the upper thigh--far, far too close to reproductive territory--and the man in black releases her with an agonized howl.
"Remind me not to tick you off," John says as Jeannie ducks behind him, hands clutched round her puzzle box with fierce possession. He yells something incoherent and combative as they back out into the hallway, choked with smoke and shimmering with heat, Rodney clutching John's duffle bag of wonderful, marvelous firearms.
"Oh, Mister Sheppard!" Jeannie says, flushing from either heat or embarrassment at such unladylike behavior in front of her beloved. "I--I'd never--!"
"I'm not worried about myself, sweetheart," John promises her, felling three men at a distance in an earsplitting shatter of gunpowder and booming overlaying the screaming, fleshy sounds of fistfights. "But I'm kind of worried about your brother here."
"Excuse me!" Rodney yells. "Is this exactly the right time to be insulting my manhood? "
"I'm just trying to keep the mood light, here, McKay," John chides him between huffing breaths and punching one of the cloaked men when he leaps out from behind a corner.
Jeannie tightens her hold on Rodney's arm, yelling over the din as they wind round the creaking wooden stairs, coughing in the smoke, "Is your hand all right, Mister Sheppard?"
"Oh my God! Oh my God! " Rodney yells. "Am I the only one concerned we're in a flaming deathtrap? "
John rolls his eyes hugely and shoots somebody else.
They finally reach the deck, the American travelers have overturned a table and are making noises like they've declared another World War, firing off pistols and cheering. John only raises his eyebrow at them for a moment before he turns to Rodney and Jeannie, face sweaty and dusted with ash from the fire--which is about when Rodney realizes Jeannie is still in her see-through chemise nightgown.
"Do you guys know how to swim?" he yells over the noise.
Rodney gapes at him. "I beg your pardon!" he says. "I am a proper English--!"
"Well, I do," Jeannie compromises, shooting Rodney a dirty look.
John sighs. "I guess that's good enough," he mutters, and says, "Look, swim left ," and shoves them both backward off the side of the boat.
The last thing Rodney hears before he hits the water with a bone-crunching slap of cold is John yelling over the railing, "Don't lose my guns!"
"I'm drowning!" Rodney yells, gulping vile, vile, vile Nile water filled with the detritus of fish and evil and flaming ship. "I'm drowning right now!"
"You're yelling just fine, Rodney McKay!" Jeannie huffs, jerking on the collar of his shirt. "And don't you dare drop that bag! Mister Sheppard would be so disappointed!"
She's dragging him up the sandy, sloping bank since Rodney had collapsed in the shallow marshes and said, "I can't go on. Tell father it was all your fault I died in such a hideously undignified way and that I was just about to propose marriage to a socially-acceptable woman of good standing who would have produced him many grandchildren." Then Jeannie had sighed and kicked him where she was standing beside him, and when Rodney continued to refuse to move, hands clutched like an iron band around the water-logged bag, she'd sighed and started dragging him up the last stretch of water to the beach.
"Did we swim left?" Rodney asks in alarm, staring up at the dark and sparkling night sky. "Have we gone in the wrong direction? Will John see that we're on the other side of the river and abandon us because he's been freed to continue a life of whoring and crime?"
And then John's wet, amused, dripping face is hanging over his, haloed in the enormous full moon. He says, "Don't worry about cramping my style, McKay. I'm sure there's plenty of whoring and crime to be had where we're going."
"Good to know," Rodney squeaks, taking Sheppard's outstretched hand and lurching to his feet, stumbling at the weight of the bag before John pulls it from his grasp--and their fingers touch briefly, cool and wet from water.
"Thanks," John says casually and turns to Jeannie, saying, "Impressive swimming, Miz McKay."
"Oh, thank you," she says, blushing prettily and ducking her head, dripping blond hairs sticking to her cheeks. If the nightgown was risky before, it's utterly scandalous now, and Rodney is about to wrap her in his dripping camelhair coat before he remembers in a shock of sensory memory the way his body had burned at the profile of John, on his knees in front of another man.
"Crap," John says suddenly, looking backward at the ship, breaking into pieces, burning and sinking into the water. "Oh well," he sighs.
"Did you leave something on board?" Jeannie asks, concerned. She sidles up to John.
Rodney should say something about how her nightdress is see-through, or how her soft, full breasts are not what John probably wants pressed against his arm in supportive concern, but he can't seem to wrap his mind around it. He's detoured at the image of John's mouth, stretched obscenely around another man's cock, wet and shining with saliva and come and how his cheeks had hollowed--how he'd probably moaned into it. Rodney moans into it, loves cock, misses it.
"Some one , really," John admits. "The warden."
"Oh," Jeannie says.
"He didn't--" Rodney starts, and looks around, at the opposite shore, where the Americans and their horses are making their way up the marshy bank. No signs of a rotund bastard, shouting threats in Arabic. "Oh," Rodney says, too.
John shrugs. "It's fine. I probably would have just killed him anyway."
"Well, I can't blame you," Jeannie says easily a beat later. Rodney gapes at her as she touches John's arm sympathetically, adding, "He was a terrible man, and his personal hygiene was deplorable."
Rodney feels a migraine coming on and says calmly, "Excuse me?"
Jeannie blinks at him and John says, "Yeah?"
"What the hell are we going to do?" Rodney explodes, waving his arms. "All of our things just went down on that death ship filled with people who--by the way, tried to kill my sister --we have no tools, no supplies." Rodney makes a vague gesture to Jeannie, still pasted at John's side. "And no clothes --and for God's sake , Jeannie, I can see through your dress!"
"Oh--oh goodness! " Jeannie squeaks, throwing her hands over her chest. "Rodney, you pervert! "
" Me? " Rodney balks. "Me the pervert!" he yells.
John, wisely, bites back his smile at the ensuing McKay theatrics, where Jeannie starts crying and attempting to peel Rodney's dripping-wet jacket off while Rodney slaps her hands away.
In the end, Jeannie is wrapped in Rodney's jacket like a burka, and Rodney has wrapped his arms around his chest, wary of the fact that his white shirt is also completely see-through and that the cooling water and chilly night winds have adversely affected his ability to appear unaffected, and walks a few steps behind and to the right of Sheppard.
"All right, let's go," John says, and his smile is--Rodney thinks stupidly--so sweet Rodney might follow him anywhere.
First loves never last, Rodney thinks to himself ruefully, laying down the framework of a violent mutiny in his mind as they creep endlessly over miniature dunes while the night stays deep and surprisingly cold around them. There is sand in his shoes and sand in his pants and his legs are tired from the agony of more physical activity than has been had in months--if not years.
Rodney huffs and plods forward more quickly, until he's on Sheppard's right side. He snaps:
"Do you actually know where you're going or are you just hoping to leave my sister and me dead and ravaged carcasses in the desert and escape with your freedom?"
"Rodney, I never! " Jeannie says disapprovingly.
John rolls his eyes. "You have an unnatural fixation with death and ravishment, you know," he tells Rodney. "And yes, I know where we're going."
"We've been wandering around for hours--!"
"It's been thirty minutes," John says reasonably.
Then Rodney says some undignified things and John rolls his eyes and Jeannie berates him and they keep walking, trudging, dragging through the desert until it's near sun-up and Rodney says:
"No, really. I'm going to die. Neither of you are allowed to eat my body, though, out of sheer spite I hope you both die miserably in the baking heat of the Sahara." He pauses. "Well, okay, no. Because if I died, you'd pretend to comfort my sister in her time of grieving over my tragic passing and seduce her with tricks you probably learned in Turkish brothels and that's utterly unacceptable so Jeannie should die first-- " Jeannie glares at him and John just rolls his eyes again "--and then I can die."
"I'm not going to die," Jeannie snarled. "And to spite you , I shall live to one hundred years old and join a Turkish brothel."
John says, "If you guys are done," and points in the distance, where white tents are edged by the deep blue of the desert night, and Jeannie says, "Oh, wonderful!" and then Rodney says, "Oh, thank God, finally-- finally ," at which point John shakes his head at them and says, "You two should take really your act on the road."
After John manages to get someone's attention, he flashes an awkward smile and murmurs a few words in stilted, broken Tamahaq and watches eyes widen around the camp at the novelty of it.
"You speak Tamahaq, too, Mister Sheppard?" Jeannie gushes, eyes growing round.
"Well, yeah, but only a little," Sheppard admits. He puts his thumb and forefinger very close together and smiles in a tragically, charmingly self-deprecating way. "When I crashed in the desert, the Bedouin and Tuareg saved my life."
"So they take in lost people?" Rodney asks urgently. "They feed you food and things?"
They're drawn into the camp with welcoming arms, laughing voices that rise in a hum around them. Rodney and Jeannie--not to be overshadowed by John's sudden cunning linguistics--chatter in Arabic and pantomime until they're all breathless with laughter.
Jeannie steals some of Rodney's money and disappears with a small caravan of women, and their sweet, high voices can be heard as the sun rises. Rodney and John hide in a tent, wrapping blue veils over their faces and watching the sand kick up like a dull golden tornado. The men around them have blue palms, blue fingertips, faintly blue arms and legs, dyed a passive indigo from the very-blue of their clothing, and Rodney stares at his own hands and wonders about wearing the truth of himself around like a color, and what it might be like.
Later, there's cold flatbread and thick, rich lentil curries, goat cheese with its pungent taste melting across Rodney's tongue, dried dates and currants, bursting of sweetness against the milky strong flavor of yogurt. There is fragrant rice and chickpeas, and Rodney eats with his hands and chews through the gritty bits of sand that end up in his mouth. Rodney tastes of saffron and the sticky honey of figs and like the desert: arid and dry and surprisingly clean.
"I can't tell if it's actually delicious or if I've just come so close to starved I just love everything," Rodney says, which is his way of complimenting the chef.
"I missed this stuff," John says, not rising to the bait, and puts a dried date on his tongue.
Rodney can't help but watch, stare at the slick red of the inside of John's mouth, like a heart all burst open, and he thinks again about John on his knees, John with his hands on a man's hips, John with some nameless sailor who is probably drowned now. Rodney wonders what he should do, if he should say anything. If he should say, "Maybe we could come to an agreement," and add "No one else will know," and "If Jeannie ever finds out, she'll forgive us."
Jeannie's gone and the tent is dark from dark cloth and quiet, outside there's the metallic sounds of smithing and the chattering hum of children running around and women talking, their bright, sun-golden faces bared to the world, their white teeth moon-shaped in their pink mouths. But inside, there's just John and Rodney and the inside of Rodney's mind, which is thinking about John and Rodney and the furious, fevered rub of flesh on flesh.
Rodney can imagine what it'd feel like to shove John to the ground, to these worn and ordinary carpets and grind into him, to slither down his lean body--smelling like sweat and spices--and mouth his balls, to suck him beneath the head of his cock, to tighten his hands on John's thighs. Rodney can imagine John's hands knotted in his hair, shoving Rodney down on his dick, head thrown back, throat bared. Rodney wants to reach up, then, to close one palm over the beating pulse of John's neck and listen to his heart as John comes and comes down Rodney's throat.
"You all right?" John asks.
Rodney blinks three times to resolve reality again, and says, "What? Yes. What?"
John raises his brows and Rodney colors deeply, grateful for the veil. "You looked a little out of it," John says, vaguely muffled by the cloth and still sounding amused. "Heat getting to you?"
"No. What? Yes," Rodney finally decides, and rubs his head. "God, where is Jeannie?"
"Getting some new clothes, I think," John says, and he sounds fondly affectionate. Rodney can't decide if he feels protective or hateful--he's finally found someone who might know and want the same things Rodney does and he wants Jeannie.
It's the heat and the food and the exhaustion from a long night, a combination of factors that makes Rodney irritable and blurry, detached and foolish. He's about to ask John if, look, given the situation and how they'll probably die in the desert and Rodney's been terribly chaste recently, could John give some consideration to some mutually beneficial expressions of homosexuality?
And--thank God--before Rodney says anything that will force him to flee the tent and die disgraced and uncomfortably hot in the desert alone, there is a cloud of faint voices and Jeannie's familiar laughter, so John says, "Hey, I think she's back," and Rodney says, " Finally . Christ."
They meet her in the dusty walkway between tents, and Rodney is taken aback by the sight of her. Jeannie has always been lovely: shorter than he and just as round-faced and rosy, with blond hair and bright eyes. She was always very pretty, if not beautiful.
But the Tuareg women have draped her in dark, silver-embroidered robes, with beautiful, intricate patterns stitched into the breast and high waist, breezy cloth swishing down her hips and her legs. They've painted dark lines round her eyes and she looks stunning like that, a gauzy veil over her hair to keep the sand out of her curls, her slim, white fingers pushing a few ringlets out of her face as she beams at them.
Rodney is speechless but John laughs, takes Jeannie's outstretched hand when she nears them and presses a kiss to the back of it, saying over her giggle, "You're a vision, Miz McKay."
"You say the loveliest things, Mister Sheppard," Jeannie sighs.
"Not nearly as lovely as you," Sheppard laughs.
And Rodney has a frozen image in his head, like a colored photograph mounted against the back of his mind of John leaning over Jeannie to straighten her veil, mouth curved up into an indulgent smile. Jeannie is looking up at John with a soft and very sweet affection that Rodney hasn't seen very much on her usually very contrary face, and they're so unbearably lovely together that Rodney catalogues this as another strange and wonderful thing in the desert. Another mirage: like Sheppard's curious eyes and his red, slick mouth on another man.
"Are you all right?" Jeannie asks, stepping away from John to frown into Rodney's slack face. "You look like you've actually caught one of those diseases you're constantly complaining about and imaging."
Rodney says, "You--it's all artifice! You're still a harpy! Just a very pretty one."
Jeannie is so pleased she flushes completely red and takes Rodney's hand into her own, saying, "Oh, Rodney, do you really think I'm pretty?"
Rodney frowns. "It's very hard to be angry with you when you're irrationally happy about things like this, you know," he says, irate.
"Isn't it very wonderful? I look like a desert princess," she murmurs conspiratorially and smiles.
"Well, you already had the pirate," Rodney tells her, and manages to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He's mostly never begrudged Jeannie: she has always wanted for such different things than Rodney and is so happy when she receives them it's impossible to stay angry with her effervescent gratitude, her seemingly limitless joy. But Rodney cannot help but wonder what Jeannie would do if she knew about her desert pirate and his sailor.
Jeannie blushes and John gives them both a strange look before asking if everyone was ready to go, to which Rodney replied he was certainly not ready to go, especially not if the Tuareg had such wonderful food and shelter and no undignified death in the desert from exhaustion and heatstroke. After which Jeannie sighed and accused Rodney of being a pitiful coward and made an overt reference to his true colors shining through before Rodney managed to silence her with a glare that might have put a mummy four levels deeper into a pyramid without much effort, and John said, "I meant we could buy some camels."
"Oh, the camels are adorable!" Jeannie exclaims when the breeder brings three for their inspection. They have large, brown eyes and deep lashes, round and fuzzy snouts and their knobby, awkward-looking legs bend gracefully as they slide down to the ground, settling in and blinking lazily as John examines them from many apparently-meaningless angles.
Eventually, there's some bargaining and hand-waving before John says, "McKay, I will cheerfully sell you in exchange for the camels if you don't just pay the man," which brings up all sorts of horrifying possibilities of Rodney in human bondage as he complains valiantly and pulls out his damp wallet.
"Finally," John says, rolling his eyes.
Rodney glares. "These beasts were atrociously overpriced, I'll have you know!"
John smiles at him. "Have you priced a lot of camels, then?"
"I--well--have you?" Rodney demands.
"No," John admits easily, "but considering you still have that big wad of bills in your pocket and the fact that we don't have to, in your own words, engage in a death march across a boundless desert filled with a crushing expanse of nothing to invite the most agonizing of deaths--"
Rodney can't help but be a little impressed by John's recall.
"--I think the expense is worth it."
"They're absolutely wonderful," Jeannie agrees, and strokes her hands over one of the camel's ears, large and fuzzy and warm. It leans into her touch and makes a friendly lowing noise, which makes Jeannie's eyes widen in delight. "Oh! This one's mine! She likes me."
John grins and strokes his hand over the neck of another camel, laughing as it nudges his shoulder in return. "I guess this one's mine," he says and adds, "How's the name Steve for a camel?"
Rodney might be suffering from a rage blackout, but he can't be sure.
When he comes to, he's still upright but he's saying, "Oh--oh my God . Why are you--you're naming it? Also, how come you chose before me?" He glares at Jeannie and John accusingly before he glances at the last camel, which is--
Which is knocking its head systematically against a tentpost, much to the displeasure of an old woman heating a meal underneath it, and who is attempting to bat at it with a pot. When she manages to land a blow, the camel makes a wounded, honking noise and looks at Rodney reproachfully, as if he's realized who his default master is.
Rodney turns on John and Jeannie, who are covering their mouths, eyes wide in an effort not to burst out laughing.
"No," Rodney protests.
John moves his hand. He's biting his lip. Rodney wishes terribly for his knife.
" No ," he emphasizes.
Jeannie glances away as her camel nuzzles her again, and she coos sweet nothings to it as she coaxes it to its feet, saying in a hushed voice, "Tse-tse-tse," the way the breeder had.
"No!" Rodney shouts.
But John is already saying, "All right, come on, Steve," who--bastard!--responds immediately and allows John to clamber onto the large and elaborate saddle on his back, making a slight grunting noise as he stands again. Rodney has never hated anyone so much as he hates John, sitting on the back of the camel, giving Jeannie patient instructions on how to mount her own hateful beast.
Which leaves Rodney to turn back to his camel and find it bashing its head against the tent post again. Rodney covers his face and groans because he remembers learning to ride at boarding school and the hilarious (for others) and painful (for himself) consequences, and though events like these are exactly what disprove the concept of a benevolent God to him, he mutters a prayer anyway, and makes his approach.
Rodney injures himself gravely in his three separate attempts to get onto the camel--which John names Bob because he insists he cannot continue to refer to it as 'it'; which just encourages Jeannie to name her camel Winifred--and complains about his aching back, his sore and bruised-black-and-blue bottom.
"Oh, Rodney ," Jeannie chastises, sighing. "Honestly, as if you have any reason to complain about sore bottoms after your --"
"Jeanine Constance McKay, you will cease to speak now or I shall do it for you!" Rodney hisses, pointing his riding crop at her so that a few tufts of leather at the end slap at the tip of her nose and she shrieks, "Rodney!" and slaps him mercilessly with her own until Rodney is yelling, "Ow! Ow! Ow ow ow! Harpy! Medusa! Crazed woman!"
John just says, "You two are a real piece of work," and then, "Wait--McKay--!"
But of course it's too late and suddenly Rodney is staring at the blinding sky over the desert in the roasting heat of late evening as the sky is turning orange and red and blue at the edges and the dunes are going black in the distance. Of course Rodney has fallen off of his God forsaken camel and of course now Jeannie crying in regret and saying that she can't believe she's killed her brother--what will father say?
"Hey, McKay, you all right?" John asks worriedly, closing his hand around Rodney's wrist and Rodney cannot help but find the touch strangely tender before he closes his eyes and croaks:
"No. I've died. Tell Jeannie I'll hate her for all eternity from beyond the grave."
"Oh, if that's all," John huffs, relief coloring his tone.
"It's not fratricide if it's unintentional!" Jeannie sniffs at him, and strokes his forehead.
"Any sharp pain anywhere?" John asks, pulling his hand away from Rodney's wrist. And Rodney only has a fraction of a second to linger in regret before he feels John's palms again, warm through the cloth of his pants and strong on his knees, his--oh, God--thighs and on his chest, feeling his shoulders and checking his arms. "How's your neck?"
Rodney shakes his head and he can feel the sand burning against his hair. "Fine. But I'm reasonably convinced that I'm paralyzed anyway."
"That's real sad, McKay," John says sympathetically. There's a pause when Rodney feels John's hand on the back of his neck--fingers curling around his skin and Rodney feels a shiver of electricity run through him at the contact: shockingly cold and hot in the baking desert.
"You're fine, McKay," John decides. "Lucky fall. Sand's soft."
Rodney stares at the sky some more before he says, "You know, however much I loathed teaching, it's really starting to look like a very pleasing line of work, all things considered."
"Where is your sense of adventure, Rodney?" Jeannie says, and pinches his cheek, saying, "Now get up. I'll not have you whining and ruining my dig. John says we're halfway there and I want to reach the city before dawn tomorrow."
Rodney pushes himself to a sitting position in the sand and stares hatefully after Jeannie, who makes a beeline for her camel, waiting politely for her return. (Rodney's own stupid beast, of course, is attempting to bury its face in a nearby dune. Rodney almost wishes it would succeed and he could steal Winifred.) John is crouched next to him, and they share a thoughtful silence before John says fondly:
"She's really something, isn't she?"
Rodney sneers, saying, "You haven't even begun to scratch the surface," and snarls, "Help me up. If I'm crippled for life, I'll see you both in hell."
"Man," John reflects, extending his hand, "you're a charmer, too."
When later they reach the last lolling dune where John says, "It's here," it's two hours before sunrise. The sky is pale and purple and undecided, shivering between a reflected ocean of colors and Rodney sits on the cool sand and watches the clouds overhead, wishing he could still see the stars to orient himself. He forgot how cold the desert got at night and Rodney's grateful for the deep blue cloth wrapping him now--waits for the first fingers of warmth to come.
Jeannie is murmuring softly, writing feverishly in a journal she bought at the Tuareg camp, hand flashing across the page as her mouth shapes the words out, lengthening vowels so her fingers can catch up. Winifred has decided to take a rest, and Jeannie is leaning against the camel's side for support, shaking her head left to right slowly as she writes. Rodney has no idea where she picked up the habit, only that he sees himself most clearly in her when she's like this: studying, on the precipice. She's nearly trembling out of her skin with excitement and to see her so happy almost makes the insult and injury of this entire trip worth it--almost.
Sheppard wanders off briefly in all directions, staying well-within hearing range of Rodney's panicked accusations that he's leaving them to die in the desert before coming back and lying back in the sand.
"Feel free to perish now," John says sarcastically.
"No thank you, I believe I shall wait," Rodney snaps back, blushing hard.
John rolls his eyes and pillows his hands under the back of his head and stares upward; Rodney wonders which constellations Sheppard knew best--which ones he watched at night as he was growing up somewhere across the Atlantic ocean.
"So we just...sit here," Rodney says. He stares at John, and he flashes suddenly to the image of a man with his hand in John's hair, John's mouth dark and slick and secret between his legs.
John raises one animated brow and pulls the blue cloth away from his mouth to agree. "We just sit here."
Rodney scowls. "Is there any reason we just sit here?"
John grins at him, and Rodney decides that it is John's least fetching expression yet.
"Well, given the way you were carrying on the last mile of the trip I figured you might want a rest for your delicate constitution," John says easily, smiling and leaning back on his hands.
"I was born and raised a gentleman, Sheppard," Rodney snarls, pinking, "not some heathen, unlawful vagabond who treks through deserts and crashes airplanes into dunes and gets thrown in jails for seducing women and--"
"Rodney," John says, looking like he's repressing hysterical laughter and snapping Rodney out of his diatribe, " breathe ."
Rodney is really very bothered by the frequency with which he elicits this sort of reaction in attractive men; sometimes he's amazed he ever managed to become a full-fledged sodomite at all.
"--All right yes, I can do that," Rodney says quickly and looks away only to catch a Jeannie giving them a suspicious glance before dismissing them with a roll of her eyes. Rodney plucks at the dusky and sand-worn khaki of his pants and asks again, "So we just sit here?"
John actually laughs out loud at that, a surprised burst of it, like he'd forgotten he could do that.
"You're like a dog with a bone," Sheppard tells him, voice fond. "The sunrise is going to lead the way--so yes, we just sit here and wait for it."
Rodney stares and John only looks back, gaze even and brows raised.
"Oh my God," Rodney moans, covering his face. "We've taken up with a madman--of all the unshaven, disease-ridden wretches in that prison we had to do the charitable thing for you and then come out into the desert to die watching the sun rise --"
"Mister Sheppard!" Jeannie's voice sings out, cutting into Rodney's bemoaning of their obviously imminent deaths. "There're people--just there, over the dune!"
John pushes up to his feet, face smoothly impassive in stark contrast to the smile that had almost curled around his mouth earlier, and Rodney scrambles up to stand beside him, peering out into the bare predawn to see blurry travelers in the distance.
"Are they bandits?" Rodney squeaks.
John shrugs. "Maybe." He winks at Rodney. "Good thing you didn't lose my guns, right?"
Rodney flushes deeply and is about to sneer something in reply when one of the people in the distance breaks into a run, rushing forward with great speed, waving his arms and yelling:
"Sir! Sir! You left us on the opposite bank!"
Rodney watches John's eyes round, huge and astonished, and John says, "Ford?" like he can't believe it, just as Jeannie pressed her hand to the curtain of her veil and points over to where the waking sun has melted the vast rolling body of the desert into a watery mirage.
It looks like mottled glass, clarified petroleum jelly, like a curtain of water with bubbles rushing to the surface--overlaying a crumbling city in the distance, all jutting, fractured walls and small statues, and Rodney and Jeannie say, at the same time:
"Oh my God--we've found it."
When the British dispatched five hundred soldiers to take South Africa in 1899, Ford was just a boy playing at his mother's feet in the large, rosy-tiled kitchen of the wealthiest uitlanders in the country--who had a bristly large moustache and a queer collection of stuffed beasts he kept scattered about the house.
The uitlander, Mr. Shaw, Ford recalls, had a fascination with motor vehicles, and indeed liked them so well he had three altogether: two in black and one in silvery white. Ford was nicknamed after his love affair with them.
Ford remembers when the uitlander brought back a box of curious things for him once, and how the pine needles had been his favorite among the smoky chips of bark that smelled nothing like the trees Ford knew, the glossy, beautifully-colored booklet of letters, the tin horn. The needles faded eventually into a tired copper, brittle like the crusted red earth near the back of the complex where Ford had played games and built toys out of wires, built fires out of pine needles the uitlander brought back--watched them sizzle upward in a burst of outward sparks.
"Yeah, he's always been obsessed with fire," John reproaches, but he's still smiling.
"You make fun now," Ford laughs, "but you were grateful when we were nearly dead in the desert."
"I will concede that point," John says graciously.
The Americans, all thirteen of them covered in crusted mud and much more put out than even Rodney, had arrived on Ford's heels, and they'd made a friendly bet as to whether their horses or John's camels would reach the city first.
"Are you insane?" Rodney had hissed. "These beasts can barely walk straight!"
John had given Bob one firm thwap with a crop in answer.
Rodney is still recovering from Bob's sudden investment in seeking victory, which had come very nearly with the dire expense of Rodney's life, had Rodney not been so terribly invested in clutching the reigns so dearly. The only good that had come out of nearly suffering the most undignified death by over-eager camel possible to imagine was that he'd single-handedly won $500 and that both Jeannie and John had captured him in laughing, shouting embraces when Rodney had all-but-fallen off of Bob's back, trembling with adrenaline and still seeing the sweet glow of the white light of eternity.
And after an utterly unproductive first day where John traded their winnings--"But they're mine!" Rodney had argued; "But your sister needs tools to work and I'd rather not starve," John had said reasonably--and a lot of measuring and planning for which John and Rodney were ordered to move heavy objects--they are sitting around the fire, eating and trading stories in the deepening dark.
But the story of how John Sheppard, a major in the Royal Flying Corps and Ford, a South African enthusiastic of model-T's and large explosion is still, for the most part, shielded in mystery. Rodney suspects that if either of them reveal the truth they shall both be called to an international tribunal.
"Oh, what a lovely story, Ford," Jeannie says. "Where is your mother now?"
John clears his throat and changes the subject to Ford's miraculous reappearance--reappearance? Rodney wonders--in the desert, and Rodney is grateful Sheppard does. He remembers reading of the South African war in the papers--about twenty-five thousand dead in concentration camps. He thinks Ford's mother must have perished there, too, among the sickly bodies and stench of desperation.
"What brings you to Egypt again, Ford?" John asks, and Jeannie only spares a moment to pout.
"American tourists," Ford admits. "With an interest in the City of the Dead."
John raises his brows meaningfully. "Do they now."
Ford purses his mouth. "You're leading your own misguided treasure hunters there as well."
"Oh, you misunderstand, Mr. Ford," Jeannie interrupts, color rising to her cheeks. "My brother and I--we are not treasure hunters. I'm an Egyptologist. I'm here actually to find the book of Amun-Ra, it's said to hold all the incantations from the Old Kingdom--"
"And that the book is made of gold never crossed your mind?" John quips suddenly.
Jeannie looks thrilled. "You know your history, Mr. Sheppard!"
"I know the stories," John corrects.
"I hope you find history, then," Ford intones solemnly. "All we ever found was sand and blood." He gives John a look. "I leave in the morning."
Rodney frowns and turns to John at this, who conveniently looks away--out the lip of the makeshift tent they've constructed in the dusty basin of the dig site.
Ford is a fascinating, deep brown color, like molasses and good, rich chocolate, and Jeannie is fascinated by his large, almond eyes and beautiful voice, curling around South African vowels and consonants. It's one of the few colonial posts Rodney and Jeannie have never been, and now Jeannie listens, rapt, as Ford talks about the bungalows and plains, the brittle gold of the skies. Rodney feels plunged into the Serengeti, listening to descriptions of heat that moved in waves like burning water, and how the sky had almost crackled with flame.
And it keeps him warm until he blinks once, twice hard, and looks upward, to the endless desert sky, so deep and blue and like a spread of perfect China silk, dotted with the stars and interrupted by absent brushstrokes of paler blues and grays. Rodney leans back, bracing on his hands, and thinks about the desert at night, thinks about the stars and swallowing hugeness of it, and thinks about being weightless between all of these things.
"Per Ardua ad Astra," Rodney says suddenly and mostly to himself, and startles when John says:
"Through struggles to the stars." John smiles. "Poetic, isn't it?"
"For a motto of the armed forces, I suppose," Rodney concedes, almost shyly. "You can't have been in the Royal Flying Corps very long ago--it wasn't formed but seven years ago. Before the Great War."
Rodney knows John must have fought in it, but is too polite to ask. It is 1919, and everybody still wakes, sometimes, with nightmares.
"I'm told time can feel like a thing of relative lengths," John says, too lightly.
"Nonsense," Rodney replies and lays back in the sand, feeling the licking heat of the fire near his arm, along his left side, and John's presence heavy and warm and comforting to the right.
He falls asleep thinking about the slow ambulating movement of the universe, about the fixed nature of time, and of the horn of Africa, searing hot and golden, melting into the endless Egyptian night.
The first time Rodney wakes, it's to the sound of John's voice, murmuring quietly his goodbyes, Ford's "thank you--you, too" in response, and Rodney blinks twice before he slides into dreams again. The second time Rodney wakes up hot and disagreeable and horrified as he realizes that one of the consequences of both interacting on a direct level with nature and with nature that is as flat and unfettered with plant life as the unforgiving, murderous desert is that he will be forced to urinate with an audience.
"No one is looking, Rodney," John says with a sigh.
"Are you quite certain?" Rodney asks, mortified. "Are you certain we can't erect some sort of privacy barrier? There must be stones and mortars--look, we can build a small lavatory with those unused--"
Rodney's pointing hopefully at small but relatively secluded area of toppled-together stones across in the distance when Jeannie walks purposefully toward it and waves, yelling, "We'll start digging here in an hour!"
And then Rodney is torn between burning hate or burning, unbearable hate as John bites his lip very hard and makes a concerted effort to look everywhere but at Rodney or former lavatory-to-be.
"I should have drowned her at birth," Rodney curses.
"And also, now everybody is looking," John reports faithfully, too-bright.
"I'll have her killed for this," Rodney swears, trudging toward another wall. "Killed."
Eventually, Rodney constructs a temporary privy by carefully maneuvering his camel, a torn tent, and several large stones--though he still forces John to keep watch.
"This isn't really what I signed on for, Rodney," John calls through the cloth as Rodney fumbles with his pants.
"Your opinions and feelings mean nothing to me!" Rodney snaps back, stepping out of the lavatory and scowling.
Before the conversation gets any further, Jeannie recruits them both to jump into a hole in the ground, for which Rodney casts what he views are very obvious aspersions to her mental facilities, at which John shrugs and disappears to find a rope. Rodney's feeling increasingly hopeless; nobody is on his side and his traveling companions are bent on insane conquest of the British museum and have sodomite harlot tendencies, respectively.
"Oh Rodney, would you give your internal monologue a rest and help me position this mirror," Jeannie berates him, and Rodney sighs but does, grunting and shoving in a manner unbefitting of a proper English gentleman until there is a shaft of watery light pooling at the bottom of a very steep drop, showing broken pieces of ceramic, mountains of dust, trailing, lingering memories of former lives along grainy floors.
John--after instructing Rodney to physically stop his sister from attempting to go first--weights down the rope and checks its tensile strength before climbing down. Rodney watches the top of his brown head disappear into the dark, wavering in and out of the shaft of light before he hears a dusty thud of boots against the stone floors.
Jeannie takes Rodney's momentary distraction to dig her nails into his arms, and when he's nursing his horrible wounds, she rushes forward to the edge of the pit and hikes up her skirt, all but leaping onto the rope and sliding down with a whoop.
And by the time Rodney scrambles over, heart thrashing in his throat, he hears Jeannie's jubilant laughter, soft and breathy and the rustle of cloth overlaying Jeannie and John's voices, soft and amused down below in the sepia dark.
"Miz McKay, I never," John laughs.
"I'm sorry--I was just so excited," she says sheepishly.
"Don't apologize," John answers, still grinning. "Any man worth his salt likes that in a woman."
"Mister Sheppard!" Jeannie exclaims, delighted.
Rodney feels a sudden lurch of nausea when there's a shriek of laughter and a shift, and John and Jeannie appear in the puddle of light: John's hands strong and protective around her waist, the cloth of her skirt tangled up between them, and her small, white hands looped around his neck. They look very dashing together--exactly as two people should when they're falling in love, and Rodney can barely swallow around the unfairness of it.
So Rodney throws rocks down into the pit. They bounce dangerously close to where Jeannie and John are still wrapped into one another, and he shouts:
"Excuse me very much but I'll have you know I don't plan on dying of exposure after being abandoned in the desert!"
In their bungalow in India, with its enormous carved windows with no glass, Rodney remembered holding up a piece of sea glass--"It's from Brighton, Rodney, in England," his mother had told him--into the light to see the way it had bent and melted on their floors. It was gray and indistinct and had a shivery nature different than the light that beamed in through the opened doors, from the flaming sun.
It had surprised Rodney, the first time, when he'd looked out the window of their home in Cairo and seen the same light: filtered and watery and densely gray. It looked like water, like monsoon, and from the other side of the house--from Jeannie's room, all Rodney could see was the endless desert, flat and unbroken at high noon, so hot the air melted, rolled downward and wayward.
Egypt breathed in and out with her river, her long and flowing heart, cataracts cutting a line through the geography and an entire people fell to their knees in worship, flanked on sides by mountains and the sprawling, unforgiving desert. Egypt, his history tutors once said, had developed alone, grown and changed into itself alone--and Rodney had loved Egypt for knowing so well what Rodney and Jeannie felt, to be walled from the rest of the world, kept away from the tangling intersections of other languages, other histories.
And the Nile, at the tip of its stem at Sakkara shattered into long and longing fingers, reaching to the Mediterranean Sea where Rodney had been sailing once, when he'd been very young, and still remembered the water like glass and the piercing white of the sun flaking off of its ever-changing surface.
Their house in Egypt had been--curiously--built on the dividing line between the rich black silt of the kehmet and the golden rolling mystery of the des'ret, and from Jeannie's gable, Rodney could see the shadows of mastaba burials, of collapsed mortuary palaces, so small and old and ill-preserved that the names of those kings--those divine sons of Osiris--had been lost.
He'd gone, once, in a fit of ill-temperament into the desert to find Ozymandias and returned, long after dinner to a furious father and with no stories of forgotten tyrants. In his bedroom, after he'd been scrubbed raw by the angry Moroccan housewoman, he'd found Jeannie curled at the foot of his bed, tears tracking down her cheeks, her whole face closed in distress. She has always loved him best, and in his moments of honesty--when no one is watching--he has loved her well, too.
Jeannie has been, in her foolish and short twenty years, a nuisance, an inconvenience, a gift, a mercy, and she has been there, for almost all of the moments that have mattered. If there is anybody with whom Rodney shares a common language, it is with Jeannie, who can translate the way Rodney turns the pages of his books--can hear his distress in the space where he says nothing at all. Theirs is a dialect of almost-orphans, of children who grow up without frames of references and who are reared by the love stories about death, about divine kingship, whispered in the hoarse voice of the beggar-woman near the south wall of the school who had once called Rodney and Jeannie Isis and Nepthys--long before either of them knew what it meant. (Long before Rodney had known that both were names of women, and had been retroactively furious.)
So of course, a little later, as they're clearing cobwebs from the mirrors and Rodney is resisting fiercely the urge to watch John--his eyes large with wonder as his hands ghost over the walls of the antechamber, the torchlight making his face softer and younger and something known only to the mystery cults, buried in their delighted, divine silence--she would say, "Oh, Rodney ," and he would be found out.
Later, after John has been occupied with liberating a few heavier tools from the American explorers and it is only Jeannie and Rodney in the familiar, comfortable dark of the antechamber, the silence finally breaks when Jeannie says, "What will we do, Rodney?"
"What do you, what will we do? " Rodney demands, baffled. He's grateful it's dark, all the blood in his body is rushing to his face in humiliation.
"We can't share a person , Rodney," Jeannie says, horrified, eyes enormous.
"I'm not asking you to--I don't even know what you're talking about!" Rodney hisses.
Jeannie narrows her eyes, dirt smudging her cheekbones and a scratch on her forehead. She looks young and silly and bruised by this, and she says, "Rodney--I--what will we do? What can we do?" She wrings her hands. "Do you love him? I don't think I do yet. If you do, then it would be more fair if--"
Which is when Rodney throws down the chisel he's holding and the heavy wood mallet, scarred from use and dusty in his sweaty palms and listens to them thump in the sand floor of the antechamber, listens to them echo in the silence, abandoned by Jeannie's miserable voice.
"There is nothing to discuss," Rodney says quiet and firm.
"Rodney, if you love him I can't just take him away from you," Jeannie says, in that tone of voice that reminds Rodney that Jeannie has always has always charmed others, has always been well-loved and will be well-loved by Sheppard and who is so lucky .
Rodney sneers. "What makes you think he loves you, either?" he says.
And the moment it is out of his mouth he regrets it, because Jeannie's face freezes in a moment of crystallized devastation. Before Rodney can even say, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have," the sound of her slapping him is reverberating through the antechamber.
It takes a moment before the shock wears away and realization seeps in, and by then the pain is throbbing and Rodney is holding his cheek in shock, looking at fat, ugly tears rolling down Jeannie's face.
Later, after Jeannie has swallowed all her hiccuping sobs and Rodney is sullenly brushing dust off of the shallow reliefs on the wall, John comes back in with a leather satchel of finer tools and a smear of dirt on his cheek, a sudden, awkward pause in their deeply miserable silence.
That night, Rodney decides that if Jeannie wants to parcel out her virtue he's happy to help her, and sleeps clear on the other side of John, who looks bewildered and a little frightened, perfectly still in the pallet between them all through the night. Rodney lies there, eyes hooded and staring sullenly into the fire until he slips, slips, accidentally slips into dreams.
It's like a plunge into dark water, like the Nile when it had been swallowing him like Wadjet, its long and flexing throat hugely black, suffocating and venomous until Rodney claws his way back from wordless dreams to stare, breathless and heart racing into the midnight blue of the sky long before morning, when the Earth is breathing softly in and out and the day is forgotten.
Rodney lies there and watches the stars glitter overhead and the soft, listens to the rustling noises of the American camp on the other side of the city, the pale orange light from the dying embers of their fire, gilding the line of John's nose, his mouth, in faint gold tracery.
The next three days of excavating are the type of miserable Rodney has only really read about in Greek tragedy; he feels as if he's a few moments away at any moment from clawing out his own eyes. It would have the dual benefits of no longer allowing them to stray to wherever Sheppard is standing, dusty and worn-in and comfortable, the kind of ragged that makes Rodney want to press his face into John's shoulder and inhale deeply; and also so Rodney wouldn't have to look at Jeannie's drawn, accusing face anymore.
Where normal people would try to talk and fill in the silences where Jeannie and Rodney usually argued, John just gets quiet with them, working with gentler-than-expected hands as he carefully clears walls, scrapes away thousands of years of silt and dust and detritus. He is good at following directions and seems perfectly at ease in the absence of sound, just the quiet clatter of tools on stone, the soft soughing noises of shoes in sand.
The near-peaceful near-silent of it is about to drive Rodney completely insane until John asks, finally, on the fourth day, "Have you guys figured out what this chamber was for, exactly?"
It startles Jeannie and Rodney so much that they catch one another's eyes first as a reference point, before they remember they're never speaking again, before they turn to John.
" Sa'net'che --it's a preparation room," Jeannie finally says, and her voice sounds a little brittle, disused. Rodney can't remember the last time Jeannie had managed so much silence for such a long time, and it makes him ache to think that even after all these years, they can still make each other this miserable; he thought they'd grown out of this.
"Preparation room," Sheppard says, brows furrowing.
"Mummies, Sheppard," Rodney interrupts. "This is where they made the mummies."
"I see," John says evenly. "And we're poking around here because...?"
"Because the reliefs on these walls could provide utterly invaluable information about Old Kingdom and pre-dynastic Egyptian mortuary rituals," Jeannie exclaims, eyes huge and cheeks flushed. "Why, we've only begun to understand Egypt's rich mythology and whatever we uncover here could answer so many questions! We could--!"
"Ah, I get it," John interrupts, a smile on his face. "I wondered what a girl like you was doing in a place like this--but I get it now."
The color in Jeannie's cheeks goes from exhilarated to a little abashed, shy, but John only meets her eyes with a softly-indulgent expression, a lopsided smile. And when he turns to Rodney, it's all challenge and wry grins, John's eyes shining as he asks, "Now--why are you here, Rodney?"
Rodney stares at him for a long moment before he sputters, "I beg your pardon?"
"Miz McKay here is clearly enamored of the history of the place. I get why she's here. But you?" John says easily, leaning easily against a wall, raising his brows. "You've spent the entire time complaining about sand, complaining about the Bob--"
"The camel's name is not Bob ," Rodney tries.
"--complaining about lack of bathroom facilities. And you couldn't care less about treasure," John continues, but his eyes are shining and Rodney can't hear anything but mirth in his voice, nothing cruel at all. "What brings you to here then? This far into the desert?"
And when he finishes the question Rodney flushes, because the answer is easy. The answer is on the tip of his tongue, and he can't help but flick his eyes to Jeannie, who is watching large-eyed and curious, for the first time in days neither hurt nor angry or tired, and Rodney hears himself saying, halting and shy, "Well, I wasn't going to let my sister wander around the dunes with a savage like you alone."
"You could have said no," Jeannie says strangely. "You could have stayed in Cairo."
"Like I've ever said no to you," Rodney snaps, and realizes only a moment later he's given himself away, eyes widening in embarrassment.
But John only smiles, sweet and subtle, and turns back to the wall he was painstakingly brushing, and Jeannie's eyes round and darken gray-blue as she says, " Oh ," like it's a revelation, as if Rodney hasn't spent his life trying to create an oasis around the two of them.
By nightfall, Jeannie and Rodney are thick as thieves again, half-bickering half-endearments, and they share a glance over the flickering fire, listening to the distant voices of the Americans, Ford's sweet laughter. And on the other side of their small camp, John and his capable hands cleaning his small arsenal of guns, face serene and untroubled, mouth curled up at the corner in a crooked smile.
"So it's like cricket," Rodney decides.
John frowns. "It's not like cricket at all," he replies, irate, holding up a long, slender standard, its head chipped and finery deteriorated--but apparently nearly the same shape as a golf club. "Does this look like a bat to you?"
Rodney crosses his arms over his chest. They've been trapped in this conversation for more than an hour, ever since Jeannie stepped out to consult with the American archeologist.
"That looks like something that will cause Jeannie to fly into a fevered rage as soon as she returns and finds you hitting rocks with it," he retorts, imagining the incandescent rage on Jeannie's face when she sees John using artifacts for sport.
John glances at the standard skeptically. "This thing? Are you sure?"
"You'd be surprised," Rodney laughs, because John sounds so genuinely baffled by the idea, by the entire business of Hamunaptra--like it's out of his depth and none of his business.
Rodney's never known anybody who felt the promise of riches beyond imagination was none of their business, although he's known that the definition of wealth changes with personality. The Americans are obviously treasure hunters, loud and laughing, eyes gleaming at the thought of bone and ivory canopic jars, the shine of gold and silver and the lush blue of lapis, of garnets pressed into chiming bracelets. Jeannie sees the sand and sun and the pieces left behind all as gold, a tapestry that she dearly wants to collect, to preserve.
"You asked us why we were here," Rodney says, suddenly brave and curious, watching John bend at the waist, setting up a shot, eyes darting between the rock and the head of the standard, gauging distance. "May I ask you something?"
"Go nuts," John invites and takes a swing.
But Rodney's "Who was that man? On the ship?" is lost in the thunderous sound of a stone sarcophagus falling, the rain of debris and the enormous dusts of sand and dirt--swirled away .
Sheppard is yelling, "Rodney? Rodney! Are you okay?" It overlaps with his own panicked replies, pleas that John can hear him, and Rodney reaching out blindly until his fingers caught on John's wrist, and he felt himself pulled in, pulled away as he coughs and spits and his eyes water. But before the panic can wear away entirely, he feels John's palms warm on his cheeks, John making hushing noises, wiping away the grime as he murmurs, "You're fine. Hey, hey, stay with me--you're okay."
And for a long moment before Rodney manages to open his eyes, wet and aching, when John's warm, wide thumbs are smoothing away the tears leaking out, whispering reassurances close to his ear--"Hey, come on, open up, Rodney, let's just make sure nothing got in there, come on, just like that."--it feels like time slows down. Like the languorous ripple of honey, just as golden, dizzyingly sweet to feel John's breath and arms and hands, to be half-blind but still so aware: of proximity and the smell of John's sweat, the dusty secret smell of Egypt.
When Rodney finally manages to blink his eyes open, it's to John's face, lined with grit and worry, and another long moment before a grin breaks out, and the thumb John has on Rodney's temple strokes his cheekbone affectionately.
"Looks good," John says softly, lightly, still smiling.
"Does it?" Rodney breathes. He knows he's wide-eyed, that Jeannie's always chided he gives himself away when he stares so.
But John's smile only grows a little sweeter, a little rougher at the edges when he gives Rodney's shoulder a last squeeze and tips his head back--just a little--but enough to break the moment, enough for Rodney to exhale, finally.
"You'll live, McKay," John laughs.
Rodney wonders if John wasn't right in his earlier foolishness, about the inconstancy of time, because he hears Jeannie's distressed voice finally, and it shifts everything, speeds it up until Rodney thinks he's almost living a blur of Jeannie appearing, finally, face drawn and frightened, hands touching Rodney's face and shoulders and wrists. And things move in fits and starts while John's hands smooth over the surface of the sarcophagus, while Jeannie strokes Rodney's face and coos endearments, until her eyes are drawn away and she is suddenly silent--staring at the forbidding, flat gray of the stone coffin, unadorned, buried at the base of Anubis, looming overhead the chamber.
"Do you find it interesting that she's only defiant of a woman's place in learned society when it doesn't involve hard manual labor?" Rodney gasps, feeling sweat roll down his back and his shoulder wrench as he and John finally manage to tilt the sarcophagus onto its end, lean it against a wall.
"I think it's just nice to feel useful," Sheppard says easily, wry smile in place. He's got cuts and scrapes on his hands and so does Rodney--another first, another strange thing in the desert, Rodney can't help but to think.
Rodney frowns. "Well, maybe you don't mind taking orders from a woman, but I-- "
A slap to the back of his head cuts Rodney off mid-sentence, and he turns around in horror to find Jeannie smiling serenely at him, saying, "I think John's willingness to listen to better wisdom is one of his most admirable traits."
John grins. "I agree."
" Traitor ," Rodney hisses, and John only tilts his head, grinning, and asks:
"So tell me why we're in such a fuss over a big gray rock box."
"It's a sarcophagus," Jeannie answers, sweeping in between them and looking at the face of the coffin with naked longing, curiosity burning so brightly Rodney thinks he can see a little of their mother in her face--a little of their father's love for cartography, the edges of the Earth. "An Egyptian coffin," she went on, and fingers tracing along the stone, she murmured, "This should be covered in protective charms, sacred spells--they've all been chipped off."
"And that's bad," John says, a question in his voice.
"That's bad," Rodney confirms.
Looking up, Jeannie says, voice distant, "And buried at the base of Anubis."
John raises his brows. "And that's extra bad."
Rodney nods. "Oh, definitely extra bad."
The Egypt Rodney knows is anecdotal, overheard from stories that Jeannie has babbled over dinner or read in absent boredom in the libraries. Rodney looks at its smooth, wordless sides: no hieroglyphs, no hieratic, and all the apotropeics carved into it damning, warning, to keep in instead of keep out. It's still solemn gray, oppressive in its blankness against the riotous canvas of Egyptian funerary art--the blue gold and rubies, the silver and clean white linen, lush like the alluvium. Rodney thinks we should leave it and it's been buried here for a reason and Jeannie always wants more than she should have .
And he's still thinking it after Jeannie has unlocked the sarcophagus with their puzzle-box key, when he constructs a lever and they pry the thing open, find scratches on the inside and a mummy still decomposing, body slick with effluvia--when Jeannie traces her thin fingers over scratched-deep words on the inside of the coffin and murmurs aloud, "Death is only the beginning."
"You know," Rodney starts, poking morbidly at the fire, "it's how Christianity won favor, too."
John's eyes flick over to Rodney for a moment before turning back to tracking Jeannie's movements on the far side of the excavation site, meandering and stopping to poke her dirty hands through the sand. Rodney's been watching her, too. Hamunaptra has swallowed her like snake and Rodney feels like he's been talking to her through the veil of a dream for days in the desert, like the smoke from their fire is a permanent obfuscation--as if she is drifting away deeper into the necropolis.
"How's that?" John asks, lying back on his pallet, gaze turning to Rodney once more. John is golden and supernatural in the firelight, and Rodney thinks crazily that John must look like a boy king, wearing the wealth of Egypt--gilded in the orange firelight, eyes smoky and green and secretive.
"The promise of life after death," Rodney goes on.
He remembers the ramblings of preachers and bishops, the mandatory masses and lessons on Biblical history, the lengthy meaningless gossip of thousands of years of transcribed faith, and how he has never believed--even when he'd wanted to.
"Life as a pagan was short and brutal and without any promises, and when Christianity started to rise with promises of universality and the value of each person and the gold-lined streets of heaven, sacrificing to finicky gods of wine and olives seemed less and less attractive." Rodney shrugs. "Death is only the beginning."
John smiles. "Maybe our wet mummy is an early convert."
Glaring, Rodney says, "Please. Christ hadn't even been born yet when our wet mummy was entombed--if he was ever born at all."
"You're not a Christian, Rodney?" John asks, but there's no reproach in his words, just curiosity. He's turned onto his stomach now, eyes half-lidded but still aware, and they seem nearly-black in the light, gleaming like the surface of the Thames.
"Faith is the evidence of things unseen," Rodney recites, rolling his eyes. "There's no such thing as unseen evidence."
John glances back over at the distant sound of Jeannie's laughter, high and sweet and faint in the night, and pleased by what he sees, turns back to Rodney. "What do you believe in?"
Rodney opens his mouth to say that he believes in science. He believes in math. He believes in the physical and the logical and what can be touched and known, tasted and felt. Rodney believes in sand and water and the blue of the sky, the smell of smoke and fire and how cumin tastes on the tip of his tongue. But he stops, mouth open, shocked in sudden honesty because he realizes this isn't true, either.
Rodney has never believed in Egypt, not her myths, her gods--although he has lived them his entire life. But he is steeped in her secrets, knows all of her stories and histories. Over the years she's flowed over him like her floodwaters over the delta and Rodney is rich in her memory.
"I believe in science," he says, finally, after a pause. "Things that can be proven. Observed."
"Fair enough," John says, smiling. "I respect a rational man."
Rodney snorts and waves as Jeannie picks her way over the rubble back to their encampment, her skirts swishing as she settles onto the makeshift mud-brick bench--warm and close to Rodney's side.
"Look what I've found," she says, holding out her hands--black shells cupped in her palm. "They're scarab shells; they were in the sarcophagus."
Rodney holds one up between his thumb and forefinger. "They do feed on dead flesh."
John sighs from his sprawl on the ground.
"Actually," Jeannie says, eyes fever-bright and dancing, "I think they started to eat him before he was dead--if the fingernail scratches on the inside of the coffin are any indication."
"I wonder how long it took them to eat him," Rodney says distantly, narrowing his eyes at the scarab shell: small and hard like a stone now, fossilized after thousands of years in the dank dark of the sarcophagus. "I can't imagine death by beetle could be quick."
"There's something wrong with you two," John says from the ground, aggrieved. "This is not appropriate after-dinner discussion."
Ignoring them both, Jeannie goes on:
"In fact--in my research I've come cross a mention of something like this: a curse, so terrible the Egyptians were afraid to use it, the hum-dai ." She drops the scarabs in her lap, motioning widely with her hands. "It's said that if somebody under the hum-dai were ever to awaken, they'd bring with them the ten plagues of Egypt," she finishes, delighted.
John frowns, pushing himself up on his elbows. "Did these people have any happy myths?"
"Oh," Jeannie says, pausing to think for a moment before saying, "well, there's the story of how Horus was conceived by Isis although his father Osiris had been rent to pieces by Seth because Isis--"
"Jeannie, that is not a happy myth" Rodney interrupts, pained, and turns to catch John's eyes for a long-suffering gaze only to see John pushing himself to his feet, looking alert, his mouth in a terrifyingly flat line. "Sheppard?"
John holds out his hand for silence and narrows his eyes off into the distance, his shoulders tightening and all of the languor wrung out of his body. "Be quiet," he says, soft but firm, reaching for a Winchester rifle and pulling on his holster, two pistols at the ready. "Stay here."
Rodney's eyes widen and he feels Jeannie's hands tighten around his arm.
"Sheppard?" he says again, and knows his voice is low and scared now. Rodney has only known John for a month, but he's known that despite the threat of hanging and the prospect of dying in the desert and all other things--John has never been so lean and dark-eyed and dangerous before.
John stops and turns to give Rodney a faint smile, to drop a hand to Jeannie's shoulder in reassurance and say, "I'll be right back--just stay here for me, all right?" before he goes, loping near-silently over the ruins toward the Americans' camp.
"Oh my God," Rodney chokes out, watching John's silhouette against the bonfire, orange and bright, in the distance, the hard geometric edge of the gun startling. "He's left us here to die."
Jeannie scowls at him. "Honestly, Rodney, you--!"
And that's when they're both interrupted by the first gunshot, the bang of it echoing in the night for a long moment before it's followed by a shatter of rifle fire and pistols, the whinny and thud of horses. When Rodney rushes to his feet, stares wide-eyed off to the growing insanity, he realizes he can't see John, that the silhouette disappeared into a melee of bodies and burning tents, shouts and the sound of explosions. It's part old-fashioned fist-fight and part American Western: the cowboy archeologists versus men in black--Rodney read a dime novel like this once, with trains criss-crossing the enormous flatness of the American prairie and bandits.
But all he can think now, eyes desperately searching the crowd and listening to Jeannie say, increasingly frightened, "I don't see him--Rodney, I can't see him," into his ear is that John's somewhere in that fight, and they've lost him.
And it must be reflexive, it must be totally unintentional, but Rodney shoves Jeannie away and starts toward the fray. He knows--distantly--that Jeannie has followed suit, and that both of them are stumbling toward danger without any real concept of how to ward it off--Rodney doesn't want to win or lose a fight: he just wants John back where Rodney and Jeannie can see him, can know that he's all right. They've snatched him from the gallows once and he'd prefer not to have to do it again.
The entire camp smells like a hearth, burning and ashen, hot from the leaping flames against the coolness of the night, and Rodney searches through the firelight to see the American professor, the archeologist in his curious round lenses, the former general--looking bored as he fires off round after round, one hand firm on the archeologist's collar, holding him back from a field journal just out of his reach and in the way of the fight.
And in the center of it all, John is holding a pistol and a stick of lit dynamite, both arms still and steady and all tensile strength, warding away a man in dark robes bearing a curved blade, glinting in the firelight--and Rodney hears Jeannie release a shuddering breath, murmur, "Oh, no."
"I think you remember what this does, Ronon," John shouts, less angry than annoyed.
Rodney is waiting for something terrible to happen--for John to move too slowly or fire too quickly, and for there to be a spray of blood and Jeannie's scream at his side, but--
"I remember I considered that cheating," the man--Ronon, Rodney repeats to himself, John knew him, knew his name--grumbles, lowering his sword as John lowered his weapons, pulling the fuse from the head of the dynamite and tossing it aside. There's a sudden piece in the clearing, both sides lowering their weapons in confusion and turning toward the center. "And I still consider it cheating."
"Forgive me if I don't feel terrible about it," John snaps, "considering your calling card."
Ronon makes a rumbling noise that might be laughter. "Didn't know it was you."
John makes a face.
And finally Rodney can't help it anymore, can't hold it in--all the fear and breathlessness of earlier melting away into bafflement and not a little betrayal, although he can't understand why--just stalks forward and waves his arms around and yells, "What the hell is going on?"
What's going on, apparently, is that while John had not been lying when he'd told Jeannie he'd once crash-landed a plane in the desert--he'd conveniently neglected to mention he'd been rescued by the Medjai.
"Pharaoh's guard," Jeannie says instantly, and Ronon's large, dark eyes are drawn to her, amused. Jeannie is--if possible--even more starry-eyed than when she first met John: Ronon Dex looks truly like a desert pirate, bedecked with heavy braids of wild, dark hair and draped in black linens, a falcon tattoo on his thick, sun-brown neck. Rodney has to fight an instinctive desire to throw a burqa over his sister's head.
This entire trip has been a nightmare of inappropriate behavior, Rodney mourns: sodomy and scandal and now this--sitting at the edge of a smoldering camp and trying to engage in intelligent conversation with a man who'd set half of Hamunaptra on fire.
"Right," Ronon agrees and turns to grin at John slyly. "Teyla will be glad to know you've brought along travel companions who can direct you this time."
Glaring, John says, "I directed myself fine last time."
"We found this one wandering out in the middle of nowhere, nearly walking in circles," Ronon explains, grinning wide and unrepentant.
John frowns. "I was headed north."
"He was going west," Ronon assures them.
Rodney gives John a baleful look. "We entrusted our lives to your sense of direction," he says.
"Fifteen minutes ago you were calling Ronon an unwashed man-beast," John argues, scowling.
"Fifteen minutes ago I wasn't aware we were truly playing Russian Roulette following you into the sand dunes," Rodney lies, since he's felt this entire trip was cursed since the very start.
Ronon grins, fierce and friendly, all his teeth showing. He pushes himself to his feet and clasps John's hand, brotherly, saying, "As good as it is to see you again, Sheppard--it's better if you leave."
Rodney can feel the exact moment Jeannie stops imagining her wedding to Ronon.
"Leave?" she asks, alarmed. "Why? The site is only a little on fire now."
"This land is cursed," Ronon tells her, flat and solemn and cold. He glances at John from beneath his lashes, part warning and part appeal. "You know this."
"I know you think so," John says diplomatically. "We'll take that into consideration."
Ronon frowns, all brief impressions of warmth disappearing. "It's not for you to consider." And before Jeannie can open her mouth to offer a spirited argument for why Ronon is utterly ridiculous and how the fires will all be out by morning and there's so much to learn and how could he even suggest it, Ronon is turning away, mounting his horse and saying: "You'll leave--by morning."
Rodney doesn't really pay attention to the ensuing discussion between John and Jeannie, just hears snatches of it: Jeannie pleading to John for more time at the site, insisting there's no such thing as curses, that good-natured though they might be, the Medjai were desert people, superstitious and bereft of the absolutes of science.
"Miz McKay--they've been in this desert as long as there's been a desert," John tries. "If there's something under this sand then they've probably watched it go in."
"And if there's something under this sand I'm determined to find it," Jeannie protests.
John rubs his face tiredly, sits down heavily on his pallet. "Ronon's never steered me wrong--he saved my life, Miz McKay. If he's warning us off, it's for good reason."
"Just one more week," Jeannie insists, eyes huge. Rodney's never known how to say 'no' to that expression and he doubts John will know either, so Rodney just keeps his mouth sealed in an angry line and lies down on his bedding, stares up at the dark and listens to the Americans in the distance, his sister and John nearby. He tries, very hard, not to hear the low murmur, the smoky whisper in the back of his mind that says leave and you must leave and there's something here--just beneath the surface .
But he doesn't know the why and why so desperate of the murmuring wariness until later, when he wakes up in the deep of night, their fire burned away to smoldering ashes, and John jerking him up by the arm and yelling as a cloud of humming black locusts melt away the blue of the night.
All Rodney really remembers of their terrified run through the winding subterranean chambers of the mastaba are the hissing, chattering sounds of the scarab beetles, biting fiercely at their heels--the way he saw one of the diggers reduced to bones, pieces of skin and blood in a heartbeat. How Jeannie had disappeared and appeared again and her wide-eyed, silent scream as their mummy loomed over her, walking as a barely-collected grouping of bones, of rotting tissue, firelight glimmering through the emptiness of him until John had muttered, "Okay, I definitely did not sign up for this," and filled him with buckshot.
"I told you not to mess with that thing!" John had been yelling. "Didn't I tell you not to mess around with that thing?"
"It was only a book!" Jeannie had yelled right back, face red and huffing for breath.
John had shoved Rodney viciously around a corner, calling ahead to Jeannie, "A book you stole! It had a lock on it! It was a locked book! "
"Well, clearly we had the key for a reason!" she'd huffed back.
"What book?" Rodney had asked, horrified.
All around Rodney had been able to hear the echoes of voices, the Americans, running through the same tunnels, the hush and murmur of something else--something Rodney didn't believe, doesn't want to--but outside he had still heard the shriek of the locusts like a thundercloud.
"How was I supposed to know you aren't supposed to read from the book!" Jeannie had protested between panting breaths, turning a corner abruptly, black dress gauzy and flying out behind her. "How could any harm come from reading a book!"
"Then where the hell did these locusts come from!" John had snarled.
"Well, how would I know!" Jeannie had screamed back, and they'd all turn a corner and collapsed against a wall, gasping. "The Book of the Dead is--!"
"Oh my God ," Rodney had moaned. "You read from something called the Book of the Dead? "
But what he sees the most vividly, remembers best, is the fierce ache where John's hand had been a vice-like grip around his wrist the entire night, warm and sweaty and relentlessly tight, jerking him through the sand, away from the beetles, apart from the walking monster--and then up, up the crumbling steps and toward the camels. Jeannie's voice whispering, "John--John, did you see Mr. Burns? Did you see what that--did you see Mr. Burns?" and John saying, "Don't think about it. We have to get out of here, God damn it--Rodney get moving!"
And John only let go when they were finally tearing through the desert, all the stars shining warily overhead as the locusts dissipated--the Americans trailing behind, a riot of voices and screams, a sudden, frightened escape.
Rodney looks over his shoulder as his camel races through the dunes in a huffing, terrified pace--because knowledge is irresistible to him, he has always wanted to know--and sees something hovering over the ruins like a promise.
When they reach Fort Brydon--a day and a half later--parched and near-delirious, Rodney manages to help Jeannie up to her room before he stumbles out, closing the door and then stopping there in the hallway like a puppet with his strings suddenly cut. Rodney doesn't know how much time passes before he looks up, when he feels a hand land gently on his left wrist--there'll be a bruise, Rodney thinks, from the press of John's fingers there as they were running, over the curve of the bone.
"Hey, you all right?" John asks, hazel eyes dark and tired. He's still covered in dirt, gritty and scratched, a scrape on his cheek and a tear at the collar of his dusty white shirt.
Rodney blinks, tries to shake off the stares that are keeping his eyes focused on the wall right over John's shoulder--dimly lit and shadowed, the entire fort ghostly and quiet again, after the uproar of their return. He feels disconnected, untethered in a dream.
"I--what?" Rodney manages, finally, blinking again, hard, to refocus, and sees John's crooked smile, his wryly amused expression, and realizes he's being tugged gently down the hall, away from Jeannie's door. "What?"
"I asked if you were all right," John says patiently, and Rodney hears the click and creak of an opening door. "But I think that just answered my question."
Rodney frowns, but lets himself get hustled gently through the door, footsteps softening on a rug, suddenly muted, and he looks down to see the rich whorls of color on the carpet, looks at the plain, battered furniture--it's cool and quiet and still, musty and untouched. And when he looks up again, it's at a wall of sepia photographs: a woman in a wide field, a hand holding down her sunhat, laughing sweetly; a man standing beside a Ford model-T; a small, pale house perched near a lighthouse, on a cliff at the edge of a sea. He reaches out to trail a hand over the edge of a table, fingertips skimming the leather cover of a book, gold gilded, and murmurs, "Where is this?"
"Somewhere for you to sleep," John tells him and gives Rodney another gentle push. "Come on, McKay."
Rodney's too tired to fight it when John helps him tug of his dirt-crusted jacket, pulls away his shirt--brown and stiff with dried sweat--makes a hushing noise and helps Rodney stumble out of his trousers, hands easy on his arms and elbows and hips as John eases him back into a soft bed, pulls a sheet over him, murmurs, "Get some rest, McKay," into the swallowing dark.
He dreams of water, ocean, the shimmering fabric of sea--nearly luminous, his memory of it so faded from time that he has started to fill in words from stories, images from his own longing.
When he wakes, it's to the long fingers of white sun cast across the bed, to blink awake to dust shimmering in the light, the morning sounds of voices in the market place, people singing prayers and songs and the clatter and bang of carts and horses in the street--muffled through the walls of the fort.
He still feels far away, disconnected, like he'd scattered in pieces as they'd run, as if in their haste he'd forgotten himself in the dunes--and so the feel of his heels skidding across the sheets, his hands on the pillow as he pushes himself up, and it's a sudden shock of reality to see John--asleep--arms and legs languid, stretched out on a couch across the room.
Rodney freezes--and it's like a wave crashing over him, the enormity of memory that makes him fist his fingers in the comforter, in the sheet--and stares wide-eyed at the lazy sprawl of John's arms and legs, the dusting of whiskers on his cheek, the scrape along his chin.
It's all real, Rodney tells himself, all of it has been real: from the slow crawl down the Nile to the dizzying march through the desert, Hamnupatra and all her secrets. Rodney remembers the mummy, creeping after them, its inhuman shrieks, its toothless mouth hissing in angry, longing Egyptian, reaching out to Jeannie across the dark of the tomb--John's eyes dark and deep and wild, his hand on Rodney's arm, dragging them through the desert, unbuttoning Rodney's shirt.
"Oh, my God," Rodney says, feeling his body flush all over in sudden, shocked awareness, the snatches of sensory memory: the rough pads of John's fingers, warm and foreign on the skin of Rodney's collarbone, John's thumb, the press of it on the hollow Rodney's hip as they'd untangled Rodney from his trousers. Now he's hyperaware: the feel of the sheets on his skin of his belly, the inside of his thighs.
Rodney covers his face, puts it back in the pillows, says, "Oh my God ," again, horrified.
"You're up," Rodney hears, hazards a glance upward, sees John peering over at him, blurry from sleep.
"I'm up," he says awkwardly, and forces himself to a sitting position, sheet clutched around his shoulders, looks stiffly around the room. "Where exactly are we? Where's Jeannie?"
Yawning, John swings his legs off of the couch, heads for the washstand, pours water over his hands and splashes his face, rubs away the grit and dust of their escape.
"Fort Sumner--in Cairo. Jeannie bunked down with one of the officer's daughters," John says, finally, reaching for a towel , water tracing the line of his mouth, his nose, the curve of his cheek, catching the light as he turns to give Rodney a mild look. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm perfectly fine," Rodney says, high-pitched but reasonably confident he hasn't accidentally said something overly-revealing.
"The Americans all made it back all right," John tells him, giving Rodney an uncertain look over his shoulder. "I think they're all staying with Dr. Beckett in his quarters."
Rodney swallows hard, searches around for his clothes-- any clothes. His state of almost nudity beneath the sheets is utterly unacceptable, and he tries not to watch the lean bronze line of the back of John's neck, not to make any noise as John strides over to a wardrobe on near the washbasin and fetches another shirt, peels the dirty one from the night before from his--oh God , Rodney thinks--sun-gold shoulders.
"And us?" Rodney says nervously, winding the sheet more tightly around his chest. "Where are we?"
John gives him a sideways glance. "My room," he says strangely and frowns. "Are you sure all right?"
Rodney tries not to have some sort of embarrassing reaction at the idea of that--that he's in John's bed, of his skin sliding across John's sheets, and he has to stop thinking about it immediately, clamp down any urge to elaborate on the visual imagery.
"You have a room?" Rodney says, feeling foolishly stunned. "Here?"
John smirks. "Well, I have to live somewhere when I'm not in Turkish brothels or strange prisons."
Rodney stares, baffled. "You were going to be hanged ."
John sighs, rolling his eyes and reaching for his belt. "You really need to get over that."
"Right," Rodney says, eyes firmly shut. He tries not to think of John's mouth, the red heat of it, open and slick and wet, the obscene stretch of it around another man, so he just clenches his fist harder in the sheet and says, letting out a shaking breath and asking, "Right then. Would you happen to know where my trousers are?"
Armed again with trousers and a shirt, Rodney starts to feel optimistic, further away from whatever they'd left in the desert, riddled with John's shotgun pellets and the Americans' bullets, lost in the dunes and to be forgotten, filed away, put apart from his memory.
It's only when he reaches for the pitcher and starts to pour a fresh basin of water that he sees: the thick and violent red of blood, pouring into the white basin--the first drops blooming like pink roses in the water until it's all red, all blood, and Rodney drops the pitcher, barely notices the ceramic shatter of it on the floor, blood across the wooden beams.
"Oh my God," Rodney whispers, horrified, watching the scarlet rivulets roll down the warping boards. "Oh my God ."
"Son of a bitch," John murmurs. "And all the waters of Egypt were as blood."
It's Jeannie who finds them, a moment later, comes rushing into the room in misfit clothes with wild hair and wilder eyes, bursting through John's door and seeing Rodney's shock-broken face, John's grim expression, and points past them--through the opened window--and whispers in a hush, " Look ."
The sky's boiling red, flame hailing out of the sky even as the sun is being overlapped by an eclipse, and Rodney has just enough time to say, "Don't look directly at it," before it's darkness--total darkness in all of Egypt, punctuated only by the shriek and orange light of flames eating up the city streets, the lush valley, the buildings and mosques, prayer songs fragmenting into screams.
And when Rodney and John and Jeannie edge closer to the window, to look down in the hush-dark marketplace, it's to wailing women, crying and tearing at their clothes, children and men and little girls charred from the flames, homes and market stalls crumbling--smoke rising like an omen, like a snapshot from the end of the world.
And then somebody kicks down John's door.
"Well," Ronon says, staring at John with a foul expression, still draped in his dark clothes and seemingly unconcerned about the two different pistols John was pointing at him, eyes huge in shock, "you didn't listen to me and now he's gone and eaten your friends."
"Oh for fuck's sake, Ronon!" John shouts, voice shaking and holstering his guns with shaking hands. "You could have knocked!"
Ronon dismisses it with a shrug and turns his foul look to Jeannie, who is conspicuously trying to hide behind Sheppard--a strategic retreat in the face of the Medjai's poisonous scowl. "Imhotep has risen--there's no much time," he intones, turning back to glare at John.
"Oh my God," Rodney says, choked, trying to force his heart back down his throat and into his chest. "Eaten what? Who did?"
"Then the curse is real," Jeannie says, finally, eyes rounding, voice hushed. "It's all real?"
Ronon points out the window--at the fireballs screaming from the sky, knocking down the minarets of mosques and tears up the streets, tearing into the Nile delta. "Yeah," he growls, baring his teeth. "It's all real."
"Then we must find the Americans," Jeannie says in a rush of fear, turning round to close her hands around Sheppard's wrist, imploring. "We've--Dr. Jackson and Mr. Mitchell and Mr. O'Neill--"
"Don't you get it?" Ronon interrupts, growling. "They're all dead . They're husks. It's the curse."
" Oh no ," Jeannie moans, and she feels around for a chair, slumps against it going pale. "They opened the box--the canopic jars--it's assimilating their organs and fluids and--"
"Yes," Ronon cuts her off, looking to Sheppard. "To regenerate. You've woken up something we've been guarding for thousands of years."
"I didn't read from the book!" John shouts, aggrieved. "And also, this wasn't in my contract! And he ate the Americans--why is this our problem?"
"He's going to destroy the world," Ronon supplies, rolling his eyes. "It's everybody's problem."
Rodney, for no resaon, turns to look out the window again, staying a step behind Sheppard, keeping John between himself and Ronon and the kicked-open door, and looks past the delicately carved shutters, thrown askew now, to stare off into the carnage of the city, the fragmenting of Cairo, and murmurs, half in a dream, "But you shot it." He blinks and turns back. "Sheppard--but you shot it, I saw you, in the tomb, when it was reaching for Jeannie."
Nodding his head, John points at Rodney, saying, "I agree. I shot it. A lot."
Finally losing his patience, Ronon shouts, "Don't you get it? Mortal weapons can't kill this thing! The blood, the locusts, the fire--it's just the beginning and now that he's been fully regenerated it's only a matter of time!"
"Oh, well ," John says sarcastically, a note of fear tinging his voice, "if no mortal weapons can kill this thing, I guess we'll need some immortal ones."
It's right then that Rodney catches Jeannie's gaze and it's like an electrical current just ran through them, small lightning trailing along the floor. Rodney is struck by a sense memory of a worn-black obelisk so vivid he can feel the texture of the hieratic beneath his fingers, under his skin--the coolness of the smooth, dark floors in the museum, the many afternoons he'd been sent to look after Jeannie when she disappeared into the displays. "Do you think--?" Rodney starts, but gets cut off when Jeannie says, breathless, "Oh! When the Bembridge scholars wrote about the Book of the Dead they said it was--" and Rodney snaps his fingers, cutting in and saying, "Yes! Yes exactly! You thought it would be the gold book but--!"
In the background, Rodney hears John say to Ronon, "Give them a second. This usually generates an answer."
"--But it's the black book," Jeannie says, feverish, eyes bright. "Which would mean the Bembridge scholars mixed it up! Mixed up the books!" She claps her hands together. "Rodney, do you know what this means?" she all but squeals in excitement.
John interrupts them to say, pointing out the window, "Guys? If you could speed it up? There're now zombies out there."
"Boils and sores," Rodney says in disgust, and tells Jeannie, "It means we may be able to kill it with the gold book."
"Exactly!" Jeannie crows, and proud of herself, turns to Ronon. "See," she tells him, "you needn't be so angry with me anymore."
Ronon responds by saying, "I think I'll stay mad until you find the damn thing," which loses its impact when John sighs and reaches for his one of his pistols again, saying, "Fantastic--they're coming into the building."
Rodney is charged with the task of stealing a car and his hands shake the entire time.
"I'll be sent to jail," Rodney moans, pressing wires together and waiting for the purr of a motor in the night, over the hum of thousands of voices changing "Imhotep!" in the background, the high mournful shriek of the wind--artificial night pressing down around them. "I can't believe I'm going to be sent to jail for stealing a car because my defective younger sister stole and read a book out loud and now a mummy is eating people," he adds miserably.
"Rodney, everybody's a zombie ," John says. "Nobody cares that you're stealing a car."
"I can't believe everybody's a zombie ," Rodney hisses, but he doubts John hears it over the sound of the engine rolling over, and he drops the wires, shutting the hood of the car and hisses as loudly as he can bear, "My God! Hurry! Hurry and get in the car before they find us and we're killed and eaten!"
Rolling her eyes, Jeannie climbs into the car, one hand in John's as he helps her up the side--leaving Rodney to scramble into the driver's seat on his own. She says, "To be completely fair, Rodney, the mummy doesn't actually want us killed and eaten--oh, thank you, John. Ronon, please it in the vehicle," she adds, frowning as Ronon considers the trunk intently.
"Oh my God," Rodney hears himself saying as he sees the crowd of moaning zombies come round the side of the fort, come blindly toward the car. "We're going to die."
"Yeah, probably," John admits. "You might want to hit the gas now."
The streets are eerily quiet--except for the hum, low and constant and rolling over the city, like the prayers Rodney has known so well, but ugly, wrong --and all the houses have been abandoned: lights on and pooling out of opened windows, opened doorways, spilling onto the street. It's as if the other two were wrong and the Rapture's happened, and Rodney and Jeannie and John and Ronon are the only heathens left in the world, waiting for the demons to come.
"Well," Jeannie says cheerfully, voice soft in the stillness, "it could be worse--they could be upon us already."
Rodney scowls, glaring straight ahead into the street, the endless, nearly unbroken white noise of feet and voices rising up behind them, around the edges of Cairo. His knuckles are white on the steering wheel when he promises her, "After this, I shall never speak with you again."
"Perfect," Jeannie hisses back. "I've never wanted to speak with you anyway but there was dreadful little choice in companions!"
"And when Father finally decides to marry you to some rich, filthy, foul-smelling beast," Rodney grinds out warningly, "I shall encourage him and being immediately to invite guests for your wedding."
Jeannie's still in the process of telling him the many distressingly creative ways she plans on poisoning him--poisoning his clothes--his inks--his papers--his food--when Rodney slows to a halt in front of the museum and they all clamber out with varying stages of gracelessness. It's Jeannie who points the way, tells Ronon which doors to kick in and which locks to break and they're suddenly in the upper corridor, a vaulted space of enormous basalt pillars with flowering colonnades that fan out like the flower of the Nile Delta melts into the sea.
Rodney watches Jeannie, watches the tense expressions on John and Ronon's faces as they stare out the enormous window--into the dark where shimmering orange torches are drawing nearer and nearer with every moment, with every lengthening minute Jeannie trails her fingers along the slab, along the hieractic, murmuring under her breath, voice hitching as she finally says: "If we found the black book under Anubis, then the gold book...then the gold book is at Hamunaptra at--it's at Hamunaptra--buried under the statue of Horus!"
There's a moment of elation, wild smiles on all of their faces, even Ronon, whose mouth Rodney would swear only turned one way--and they all stream, reckless, into the night, giddy with knowledge and John says, "So I'm thinking we should probably get there fast."
"Fast is good," Ronon grunts in agreement, and John spares him a fond expression.
"More quickly is better," Jeannie breathes in agreement, climbing into the car on her own this time, hands shaking with excitement.
Rodney gives John a wary look. "What am I going to have to steal now?" he asks.
"Rodney!" Jeannie cries, scandalized. Ronon makes what Rodney is beginning to recognize as an amused sound.
"No," John says easily, eyes gleaming, "he's right."
"My life is an abyss," Rodney mourns--but he doesn't recognize how truly deep a chasm of pain it is until their car winds to the Royal Air Force base in Cairo, dark and unmanned, abandoned.
"You're joking ," Rodney chokes out, horrified. "How am I supposed to steal an airplane? "
John shrugs eloquently and Jeannie and Ronon just give him blank looks until Rodney shouts, "Look, I don't know where you've managed to get this idea that I'm capable of stealing any and all manner of things mechanical but this is ridiculous!" He waves his hands for emphasis. "And besides: I've already stolen you a perfectly functioning car. I don't see any reason we can't drive into Hamunaptra--it'd be far faster than manning more deranged animals!"
Rodney tries to ignore John's pout, but before he can start stuttering and cave, Ronon makes a noise, pointing off into the distance where--oh sweet God , Rodney thinks--all the people of Cairo are stumbling, blank-eyed and following into the dunes, the hollow roar of "Imhotep" still on their tongues. It's like a moving carpet--a slow, slow stampede, fanning out across for miles over the sand.
"I don't think you can drive through that," Ronon points out.
Rodney has had an intimate relationship with fear his entire life, having gained a rational sense of it very early on in his childhood: that first smear of blood, shockingly red against the white of his skin; the horrible coldness of his mother's skin, after so long burning beneath Rodney's touch. The worst had been the first time Jeannie had disappeared, into the teeming bodies of a marketplace in Istanbul, when Rodney was still small and all he could do was retrace his steps, go over and over again until he found her crouched over a collection of carved sandalwood bracelets, laughing in delight--unharmed, perfectly all right--and when he'd clutched her close with his shaking arms his vision had blurred with relief.
Rodney thinks, bitterly and a little abstractly, that before this day, he never understood fear.
"You all right?" John calls to him, shouts over his shoulder, over the roar of the plane.
"Do I look all right?" Rodney screams back hysterically.
He doesn't know how this has happened, but he's been strapped--against his will, Ronon had held him down and his traitor of a sister had helped John tighten the leather bindings--onto the wing of an airplane, having repetitive, devastating heart attacks. Rodney tries not to think about how high they are, how very far the ground is, the dizzy, airless feeling of being so high, so deep into the blue-black bruise of the sky--starless in the artificial night. He tries not to hear anything but the drone of the airplane and how in the hugeness of the noise, he can close his eyes behind the goggles John had attached, helpfully, to his face and imagine he's anywhere but the air, feeling his whole body fly apart in sheer, unbroken terror.
He can hear--I must be imagining it, I hope I am, Rodney thinks darkly--he thinks, from the other wing of the plane, Ronon's hysterical laughter, his voice bright and happy and thrilled, the way Jeannie sounds, safer and ensconced into the body of the plane, in the backseat, wordless with happiness.
And John, when Rodney can break out of the fear long enough to look at him, is preternaturally calm, breathing, hands steady on the controls of the plane. Illogically enough, it helps Rodney's heart to slow, for him to breathe in, to know that John is in a state Rodney's seen monks, seen those in the ecstasy of prayer--untouched by reality--suspended.
"You're doing great," John assures him. "All right--hold on, everybody."
Rodney tries to make a violent hand motion, but the plane chooses that moment to take a heart-stopping dip, to tip slightly sideways and begin to spiral down, and whatever response Rodney might have had is lost into his scream.
"Landing's going to be a little rough!" John yells, and one of Rodney's screams melts seamlessly into another, and another until the ground is rushing up to meet them with devastating speed--till the nose of plane pulls up and out of disaster's way by miracle alone. And just as Rodney imagines he can see the individual grains of sand they're so close to the ground, to flaming, terrible, painful death, he lets his vision go black as the air around them.
He comes to with John's hand on his face, his voice close.
"Hey there," John says, smiling, and Rodney blinks three times before he realizes he's opened his eyes. He sees Jeannie and Ronon shaking sand off of themselves, sees the grit and dirt lined on John's face again--their plane smoking by their side, half-buried in the sand. "Thought I'd lost you for a moment there," John adds, and he sounds hoarse as he says it.
Rodney blinks again before he gathers himself enough to say, voice trembling nearly as bad as his hands, as his entire body as he tries to push himself up, "Well, I thought you'd killed us all."
"That would have been bad," John tells him. His hand is warm and huge on the back of Rodney's neck, thumb stroking in circles along the curve where Rodney's shoulder melts into his back, beneath the dirty collar of his shirt. "I don't read Ancient Egyptian."
Rodney's breath catches when John's fingers trail over his collarbone--as John takes his hand away, lingering too long, still, where Rodney's skin is fever-hot now from a sudden rush of blood.
"You don't read any Egyptian," Rodney says, finally.
"True." John smiles at him, wry and warm, pushes himself to his feet, and offers Rodney his hand, stretching out his arm as he says:
"Come on, Rodney--let's go."
And Rodney freezes for a moment--his hand in John's, the sky dark--freezes in a sunburst of memory so bright and burning it's like someone's knocked all the breath from his chest--like the first time he saw the desert, knew its vastness.
When John finally frowns, finally pulls Rodney up out of the sand, his voice is soft as he says, uncertain, "You all right?"
Rodney shakes his head. "Yes. I mean, yes, I'm fine."
"Good," John says, and the smile is back, sweet and crooked as John tilts his head toward the necropolis. "Come on then--let's go, before Jeannie and Ronon leave us behind."
Hamunaptra at night looks cursed, and Rodney and Jeannie and Ronon rush through their destroyed camp, past the black and burned fire, the tents in torn pieces, the tins of fruit and potted meat and things they'd left behind in terror--in their flight from the desert.
Rodney can't believe he ever thought this place looked like a ruin, like any of a thousand other broken temples and old mortuary palaces he's seen, that he hadn't known from the start, that he'd missed the whispering shadows everywhere--fingers creeping out to grab them. He keeps a hand fisted in John's sleeve, knotted into the cambric. He keeps pulling John away from where it's too dark, away from where something is waiting to drag him away. Ford had said all they found the first time was sand and blood--Rodney has found sand and blood and ghosts and a sky full of swallows, like Egyptian love songs, here, and there is one that he's not willing to lose.
Rodney tries not to look at the American side, not to think how the shaving mirror and shoe wax has no owner, now, that they've disappeared into the monster they've brought, that Rodney has only seen in half-forgotten moments of breathless terror, seen shadows here of ghosts--and believed .
"Come along," Jeannie says, creeping over a dilapidated wall and stumbling down into the rock, into the brick, into the sand--and it's Ronon this time who helps her up, looks at her with an amused expression as she brushes his hand away, presses forward.
"Do all your women lead like this?" Ronon asks John, breaking the supernatural quiet, the absence of sound they're listening to carefully, waiting for the first notes of voices, the first thud of footsteps--thousands in motion together.
Rodney can see John's grin from the side, reckless and bright. "Don't say you don't like it--I've met Teyla and she definitely doesn't take directions from you."
Ronon made a disgruntled noise. "Teyla takes direction from no one."
" Least of all you," John crows, and putting a hand on Rodney's elbow, rushes them ahead, to walk alongside Jeannie in the sliding, slipping sand.
Rodney can't remember having been so tired before. He doesn't remember how long it's been since he woke this morning, lying in the white linen of John's bed at the fort, and now, here, morning seems so far away he can barely imagine the light of it.
"The Horus statue," Jeannie says immediately, stepping into the complex, through a heavy doorway into the sudden, swallowing dark. "It should be here--down this corridor, past the terminal chambers."
She stops long enough to let Ronon and John fetch torches--find them among the scattered things on the floor: a pair of broken glasses, a field notebook, somebody's watch--and light them, to throw more shadows on the walls.
And in the midst of all the sandstone and brown, Rodney sees flashes, sometimes, occasional snatches of colors: faience in searing blue, bleached papyrus white, the color of Egyptian cotton, the soft pink of morning skies and the lush green of the valley--paintings and words, holy texts and prayers and apotropeics written into every square inch of the buildings, worn mostly away. Rodney wonders what's the use of beauty if its to hide this, whatever the Egyptians had made, buried beneath this sand, what they've woken.
The halls are narrowing and they keep turning round and round among the terminal hallways and chambers and corridors that go no where, and Rodney hears, in snatches, Jeannie telling John and Ronon absently that all Egyptian funerary complexes are like this: labyrinthine with no reason. That instead of recreating their livelihoods underground like some other cultures, they'd created mazes for the three parts of their souls, for all the mysticism and cult that would grow around their names.
"And this," Jeannie is saying, trailing her fingers along a shallow relief as she turns a corner, "this figure of Horus is a mark of kings--this scepter and flail, it all marks divinity."
They're too far below ground now--the air cold and surprisingly damp--to be able to hear voices or feet until the mummy will be already upon them, and the tightness on John's face tells Rodney that John knows this, too. So he keeps his silence, stays close and near Ronon, near John, near the false comfort of their orange torches, walking after the sound of Jeannie's voice, rising and falling as she tells a story of Egypt, of all that she's left behind and all her decoded secrets, her interpreted stories.
They wind deeper and deeper until they're struggling against false walls, false doors, breaking through crumbling passages, until their voices are murmuring echoes in the hugeness of the rooms they find--filled with sarcophagi and reed boats for floating down rivers in the afterlife. Filled with riches that pile to the ceiling, glimmer in the torchlight, that shock them wordless; Rodney's never seen so much wealth in his life, never known the names for all the precious metals and jewels and things so dear they don't exist any longer.
"I suppose it'd be terrible for me to say we should stop and hoard before this all inevitably disappears into the sand," Rodney says.
"Yes," John and Jeannie and Ronon all agree, frowning.
"It was just a thought," Rodney sulks, and follows them through to another room where Jeannie says--finally, finally--voice tired but glad, "It's here! This is the statue, right here!"
"If we're all dead it's going to be kind of pointless to have it," John scolds him, finally stepping away from him, going to the towering statue, the stiff arms and legs of Horus out in geometric lines, his falcon head staring out to a blank wall opposite, and Rodney wonders what it's seen in its thousands of years here.
Jeannie and Rodney watch as John and Ronon work at the base of the statue, struggling and cursing in English and Latin and Arabic and Tuareg to coax open the stone. And a few tense moments, Jeannie leans over to say, "Rodney--doesn't this--well, doesn't this all feel too easy?"
Before Rodney hiss she should keep quiet for fear of inviting fate to intervene a hand punches its way through the floor: fingers broken, flesh rotted and wrapped, loosely in cheap linen bandages, a scream audible and sharp and terrifying--joined soon by others--from beneath the floor.
"Oh, fantastic work, Jean!" Rodney shouts at her, rushing forward with her, to help Ronon and John as their muscles bulge, as they ease the stone covering away.
"It was just a question!" Jeannie huffs in argument, and Rodney sees the skin of her hands tear, blood smearing on stone as it finally-- finally-- comes away, and Jeannie dives for it, takes the first open space and reaches in--searching. "Whatever harm came from asking a question!"
"Okay, I've already hear this one before," John growls, tired, helping Ronon push the stone aside as Jeannie pulls out a book--shimmering, golden, like every story Rodney's heard--wrapped in disintegrating linen bindings.
"The gold book," Jeannie breathes. "The Book of Life."
He barely has time to admire it before John's shouting, "Rodney!" and pulling out a gun, aiming for Rodney's leg.
Before Rodney can protest he wasn't planning on acting on his sodomite tendencies unless John felt obliged himself, he registers the boney hand, the rough linen closed around his ankle. Kicking violently, he hears the brittle snap and takes a great leap away, seeing more hands burst out of the floor, scrabbling at his leg until the bones fall away, gasping for breath.
But as soon as John shoots one or Ronon cuts another down with his enormous, curved sword, more appear, swarming them, until the noise in the corridors is one long, sustained shriek--they're running blind now, running frightened, and Rodney can tell from Jeannie's eyes: wild with desperation as she scans the pages, hands shaking as she touches the raised, cut text.
Rodney watches as the mummies--creeping out of their holes in the ground, their broken bodies limping forward, moaning--shatter apart at the gunfire, the sword, spray linen and sand and bone.
"Go!" Ronon tells them, bracing himself in the doorway--his torch abandoned on the stone floor. "Kill the creature--I'll watch this path," he added, and turned again to face the mummies closing in on him, coming nearer. And Rodney sees John spare him a long moment of worry, a look that lingers before he turns back to Jeannie, to Rodney.
"Who the hell are these guys?" John shouts, shoving at them, pushing them to an open corridor, Jeannie running as she tries to flip through the book, shouting over her shoulder:
"Imhotep's priests! He must be here if they're waking!"
"Great," John mutters, and pushes Rodney past him before stopping to tug out one of his endless supply of pistols, firing three shots at the crumbling priests coming toward them. "Really fantastic."
And it's not until he's actually falling down the steps to the ceremony chamber--to the room where the opening of the mouth ceremony must have been completed that Rodney realizes how far they've come, how they've ruined themselves by coming to the heart of the complex.
When she was very young, Jeannie was terribly in love with the idea of death. She used to lie still and silent and hold her breath--but instead of going pale and lovely and frozen like paintings of ravished maidens and Roman women, she went red and gasping for breath. Death was romantic to her.
And now, standing here together on these dark stones, staring huge-eyed and upward, at the priest mummies as they part, bowing with their broken spines--Rodney wonders if she still feels the same way. If, once they are dead, Jeannie will see their bodies, still and silent and as pale as she'd felt was tragically beautiful. If she might not be so angry with the man coming down the steps, his smooth, brown skin, the dark kohl lining his dark eyes, the deep blue of his robes--and his aristocratic hands, reaching out to Jeannie, to the book as he says in a voice composed of a thousand voices:
"The book, my princess--and I shall spare you the torment of the others."
Rodney doesn't know how he became brave, likely by accident, or maybe it's just always that Jeannie has inspired things in him he could never see on his own. Either way, he finds himself pushing his way in front of her, chin jutting out in challenge--and John in front of him, two guns leveled as he says, flatly calm:
"I have no idea what you just said, but no, anyway."
Imotep is beautiful, Rodney thinks distantly, the way the Kritian boy was, canting hips and smooth, supernatural skin, golden and flawless--and he smiles at John, mouth curving up in challenge as he raises a hand, easy--the jewels thick on his fingers, heavy on his wrists--
And John makes a choking noise, body going loose and limbless and guns falling to the floor with a clatter, as his legs go soft and he falls to his knees with a thud--and Rodney pushes Jeannie further behind himself. He thinks that if they die here he won't want to watch her leave him, that he doesn't want to see John die, that this was never intended, that this wasn't what he'd hoped to find in the desert--
And Imhotep is still smiling when he opens his palm, holds it over John's head, suspended in the air, the opal in his palm glowing, going bright--as white as his eyes are glowing--
Just as Jeannie says, "I've found it--I've-- kadeesh mal, kadeesh mal! Pared oos! Pared oos! "
Later, when Rodney is telling this as a story to Jeannie's children, their eyes shining with fear and anticipation and wonder, he will tell them that it was like a blinding light--like God reached down and closed his fist around them, that the complex had exploded into sheer, unending white. That when they woke, that all there was there was stone and sand and the last pieces of a necropolis--no creature at all. They will cheer, and Rodney will know that it is true, mostly, that they needn't know the way Imohep had screamed, the wideness of his eyes: finally human. And they are children, so Rodney won't tell them how, with his concentration broken, the mummy won't notice John scrabbling for a gun--won't say what it looked like to see blood sprayed against the floor of the complex, the sound of it echoing for hours as they all lay there, huddled together, gasping and gasping--but most of all, alive .
The desert is burning white by the time they climbed out of the necropolis, out of its guts and onto the surface again, collapsing into the sand and bathing in the searing heat. And Ronon is a dark shadow in it, cheek bleeding and slashed but smiling, looming over them and saying:
"Nice immortal weapon."
"Thank you," Jeannie says, breathless, lying in the sand between Rodney and John. "It was all very exciting."
"Exciting?" Rodney chokes out, turning to her, sand in his hair, sand on his clothes, sand everywhere—he'll be covered in sand until he dies. "Exciting?"
"All right," John says, pushing himself up and frowning down at them, "both of you shut up."
Jeannie sets to tending Ronon's wounds then, allowing her to fuss over his very large and manly gashes, the many injuries he sustained clearing them a path. Rodney realizes the trek through the desert has done something to him, ruined him, because his sister is touching the nude flesh of a savage and all he can think is that he desperately needs a toilet, and someone else to dig it for him. John says, "No," even before Rodney gets near enough to ask.
"Well at least you could offer to shield me from prying eyes!" Rodney hisses, but it's lost in the sound of hooves from the distance, the blurry image of a band of black, riding through the gleaming desert toward them, resolving into more solid lines. And Ronon, standing near them, lets out a whoop and calls them forward, waves at the moving mass and waves until Rodney recognizes it for a caravan of riders—cloaked figures on horses tearing through the sand, and he thinks it's like John and Hamunaptra and morning over the Sahara, another mirage.
Then suddenly John is standing at his side, near enough that Rodney can feel him—just behind.
"I'd wondered if you'd called for reinforcements," John says to Ronon mildly.
Shrugging, Ronon says, "I rode out ahead."
"Good of you to finally show up!" John calls out to the rider far ahead of the others, curved sword held at the side—glinting in the sun.
And despite the words, the smile on John's face is wide and plainly happy, and grows even brighter when the rider stops the bay with a shout and leaps from it, calling out joyfully as—the hood of the cloak flies away and Rodney sees the face of a beautiful woman, her russet-brown hair flying in the wind—she pulls John to her, presses their foreheads together.
"It has been many days, John," she tells him, breathy, pulling away to inspect him.
"Too many," John laughs, and squeezes her tips their foreheads together again, affectionate in a way Rodney's hasn't seen yet—easy. "When I saw Ronon, I knew you wouldn't be far behind."
The woman scowls past John's shoulder at Ronon, who—Rodney's astonished to see—actually appears rather disturbed by this, slides a few steps behind Jeannie, who has frozen, wide-eyed with surprise. "Yes," she says with a sigh, "he has yet to learn the wisdom of patience."
"I'm glad for it," John says gently, drawing her attention back. "He saved our lives."
And when she smiles at John, Rodney feels a sudden tightness in his chest. And it's like the half-dream in which he's hovered since their first flight from the desert, in the deep of the night and trailed by the scream of a living ghost is finally shattered in realization.
The Medjai offer them food and camels and water, escort them through the deep of the desert and regale them with stories and song as they caravan through the dunes for three days—slow and unhurried. The tents are enormous and at night, they sleep on richly-woven carpets and drift on the sound of voices, the beautiful singing of the Tuareg voices, the crackle of the fires.
Rodney learns the woman's name is Teyla, that she—not Ronon—is the leader of the sacred guard, and Jeannie seems instantly to forgive Teyla for how she touches John so frequently and with such familiarity at this, and peppers Teyla with questions. She asks what it's like to lead men, and how she makes them listen, and says, "Now that the creature is gone, I would love to study the ruins and I wonder if you'd help—you know so much I can barely imagine."
"There is much history there," Teyla answers, benevolent and fond. "I have heard many stories since I was a girl, but it has been many years since I have practiced my storytelling."
Teyla is a warrior, with a scar marring her high cheek and the catlike grace of a fighter and Rodney wonders if Jeannie's obliviousness to this isn't what is charming Teyla—to be released from what she's been for so long. Jeannie wants a friend, a storyteller, to know, is starving for it, and even as they leave this place that's nearly killed them, Rodney knows she'll come back. Not for gold or silver or jewels but the crumbling paintings on the wall, the history, the stories buried into the City of the Dead.
"Would you tell me?" Jeannie asks, imploring. "There's so much I'd love to know."
So Teyla talks long into the night, tells a story about the high priest Imhotep and his ill-fated love for Anaksunamun, the pharoh's favored, and how he'd risked everything for their love. In the firelight Rodney sees it's more than Jeannie who's spellbound and he cannot help but to lok to John surreptitiously, to see the corner of John's mouth curve up as he watches Teyla, watches Jeannie, with soft eyes.
They reach Cairo on the third day and they all stare, for a moment, at the rebuilding. They stare at the bustling marketplace, already filled with people and food and wares, arguing merchants, their voices carrying—all the people wandered back from the desert unharmed, as if nothing had changed at all, another exhalation of the Nile disappeared.
"It's like none of it happened," Jeannie says, voice small, after the Medjai leave them, with best wishes and promises of friendship.
Rodney tastes bitterness at the back of his throat to think that none of this has left a mark of any kind. That all of it—from the first moment to the last, to the moment they stepped back into Cairo—has been a fever dream and none of it will last. That he and Jeannie will return to their quiet lives and John will leave them.
At the door to their house, Jeannie stands on the tips of her toes and presses a kiss to John's filthy cheek, tears in her eyes as she thanks him. Jeannie says she hopes she'll see him again; Jeannie says John is so dear; Jeannie says John is her favorite—a declaration that draws out one of John's rare and genuine smiles, makes him say, "Why, Miz McKay." Rodney tries to say a great many things, wants to tell John about his dream, about the blueness of the sky as he'd been sleeping. He wants to say that he thinks that the ghosts of Egypt—those spirits Rodney doesn't see and doesn't believe—have been trying to tell him something, that John should stay, that John should stay and be loved well, by Jeannie, by Rodney.
In the end, all he can manage is a creaking, "Don't get hung again," but he can hear what the desert has done to his voice: made it scratched and thin and burned out.
The smile John gives him is just as sweet, as if he knew what Rodney was really trying to say.
But just as Rodney thought, John says his goodbyes and disappears—dissolving from their lives with the suddenness of a summer storm, and when he tries to tell Jeannie this, she stares at him, uncomprehending as Rodney remembers she's never seen a summer storm. That after all, no matter how close, there is still a distance between them that can never truly be bridged.
Jeannie only makes time to be kissed and squeezed and slapped in maternal fury and then seized again in apologetic concern by their housewomen before she begins to wage a war of wills with the Bembridge Scholars.
She shows them what she has found and refuses to say where she has found it, demands funding and her own team to manage; Jeannie will have her own dig or no one else will have Hamunaptra. Dr. Schroeder, a graying man with a slight German accent, rushes up to Rodney oftentimes at the library and begs, "Mr. McKay—can't you please speak with your sister? Explain why she couldn't possibly head a dig on her own? We are not trying to take the credit for her marvelous work but she is but a girl." He stops after Rodney tells him how Jeannie met a Tuareg warrior in the desert—a woman who commanded an army of thousands.
It takes six months, but Jeannie wins.
The first thing done—far before Jeannie engages assistants and diggers or starts planning for necessary provisions—Rodney hires a man to build a toilet for when they reach the site. He explains what his requirements are in exhaustive detail, and ignoring the somewhat skeptical expression on the man's face, says, "Am I being clear? It's to have four walls for privacy—and some sort of door. A roof is also important. Am I clear? I can also explain this in French, German, Latin, or Arabic if need be."
Although most of the lingering memories of what have passed, the creature and Cairo in flames, Imhotep leading thousands into the desert—an army—Rodney sees them in nightmares with a vividness that astonishes him, leaves him waking up shaking. The week before they plan to return to Hamunaptra, ready themselves to go again into the desert, Rodney has no nightmares—just closes his eyes and sees the sky again, infinite and blue and cloudless, and John's face this time, bright with a smile as he reaches a hand to Rodney and says, over and again, every night, "Come on, Rodney—let's go."
And every time Rodney wakes up to find himself staring at the ceiling, he asks, "Go where?"
The morning they head to the dock to board a ship, Rodney divides his time on the journey between being sullen and complaining loudly—between which Jeannie makes it clear the first is preferable if only so she won't be forced to waste precious time holding him down and choking the life from him. Rodney can't help but think it's Jeannie's brief but damaging association with Teyla that has inspired this dangerous streak in her personality—although to be completely honest, Rodney has always privately suspected his sister was a beast.
"Rodney, I don't know why you've come if it's so deeply against your will," Jeannie finally says, the car making slow progress against the crowds.
He tightens his hands on the wheel. "You could hardly wander around the desert—again—on your own," he lies. Jeannie would excel at wandering around in the desert on her own.
"I would hardly be alone," Jeannie protests. "There're at least two other archeologists coming along and a handful of assistants—not to mention the diggers."
"All of whom could be savages," Rodney points out.
He was wrong, after all. For all his years of fearing to lose her to a marriage, to a man, he hadn't noticed that he'd lost Jeannie to Egypt; and if he wants still to have his sister, he must share.
Jeannie smiles at him. "Teyla will come," she says confidently. "She's promised that if she sees us at Hamunaptra, she will come and help us explore." And suddenly forgetting that she's angry with him and trying to leave him, Jeannie claps her hands in excitement. "Oh, Rodney—won't it be wonderful to see them again? Teyla and Ronon? To hear more of their stories?"
Rodney throat tightens—at the absence of John in her memories; Jeannie loves well and honestly, but fast-burning, and Rodney wonders if she has ever longed for another person the way she longs for Hamunaptra, or if her dreams are all of dead and crumbling places, the lives others have already lead.
"Ronon's stories all end with, ‘and then I killed him with my sword,'" he snaps.
"It's true," Jeannie agrees, frowning mildly. "He is a terribly severe man."
Rodney gives her a sideways glance. "Yes," he agrees strangely. "That is one way to characterize it."
He spends some time earnestly debating whether or not to mow down the massive numbers of people crowding round the dock, but decides the inevitable drama of being beaten to death by the slippers of angry Egyptian mothers isn't worth it, so they inch forward and forward. Unlike the last time, it is not a group of four mismatching personalities, but rather Jeannie's small and cowed army that is ordered about, forced to carry and heft boxes, assigned rooms and shouted at loudly.
Rodney—wisely—hides near the ramp and stares past the shifting crowds of people, of travelers talking in tongues to the blue of the Nile, and how it stretches, seeming endless, through the heart of Egypt. He gets the stares, eyes drawn helplessly down and down and down, by the hugeness of things and the dock around him, the busy port, fades out to a blur of mumbling, like the babble of a brook at a great distance.
So it's a shock when something finally penetrates, breaks through the fog, and when Rodney jerks his head, shakes himself out of the waking dream he looks up straight into the blinding disk of the sun. And hissing, he shades his eyes, blinking hard before hazarding another look up, finally, and he sees—
He sees John, smiling, eyes bright, perched on the ship's ramp, saying, "Hey, Rodney!"
"Oh, it's you," Rodney says, voice faint.
"It's me," John agrees. "I have to say, I didn't think I'd be playing tour guide twice."
Rodney opens his mouth, but nothing comes out, and he spares a second to think of the treachery of younger siblings, the smile that must be curving Jeannie's mouth right now.
"Did you miss me?" John asks, grinning.
Stuttering, Rodney nearly says ‘every day, all the time, more than I should,' but says instead, "Why—did you miss me?"
John's smile is as mysterious as ever. "I didn't think I would," he says mildly, teasing.
Rodney swallows around the shock, tries to ignore the hope that wells up in his chest. "Nor I," he admits, because it can't be—it couldn't. There's no way.
"Ship's leaving," John tells him, still grinning. "Miz McKay's waiting, and she looks angry."
"She's always angry now," Rodney grumbles, coming round the side, legs shaking and standing at the foot of the ramp. "That she-general you introduced has turned her into an Amazon."
But John only laughs, green eyes shining as he reaches out to Rodney, as he says:
"Come on, Rodney—let's go."
So Rodney does the only thing he can do—he takes John's hand, and in the bright blue overhead, Rodney thinks he sees a sky full of swallows.