John pushed the heavy wooden door shut behind him, his face turned outward, breathing in. Shark sharp cold snapped at the smoke curl of his breath. He tucked his face deeper into his scarf and held in place until he felt the latch catch securely.
Hefting the lantern higher, he trudged toward the barn, encircled within its sphere of yellow light. Crisp snow crunched under his boots.
The dog that they'd never named, still long-legged and all feet though no longer a pup, paced him then bounded away impatiently. Its pale shape dissolved into the dark beyond the equipment sheds, the empty greenhouse and the deserted and crumbling fisherman's cottage.
Shadow and flame swung with the lantern, wild behind the chimney glass, while John put his shoulder to the barn's ice-locked door. The crack and creak were greeted eagerly inside. The mosken shook their great heads, shuffling in their stalls with soft snorts. Warmth folded round John as he hung the lantern on its iron hook, shed his heavy coat and gloves and began the morning routine of mucking stalls before he measured out the sweet hay and oats. The barn smelled like childhood to him and he worked, thinking to himself how strange it was to miss horses more than anything else, content in his labor.
When he'd finished, left the scents of wool and musk and levered the door shut, the dog joined him again, ears and brushy tail high. They made their careful way around and down to the boat house and dock. Toenails clicked on the wet steps carved out of the rocky outcrop that supported the lighthouse. John didn't hurry. Despite the warm current that cut through the sound between the mainland and Hæmírfara, a rime of ice always slicked the stone.
Icicles like witches' fingers clutched and caught at John's shoulders and head as he ducked under the low eaves to check that no wind or wanderer had flung open the shutters or door of the boathouse.
A knock to the big fuel tank rang it like a muffled bell. The generators had been chugging fuel hard all winter. Maybe the time had arrived to let Rodney switch the rest of the station to the tower's power source.
Like the old tower, the boat sang a little when John came near. Their second year on the island, they'd salvaged the installation's wrecked jumper and used its systems to refit the Hrafny with inertial dampeners. John had worried, but Rodney's improvements meant they could reach the mainland no matter how rough the sea, a risk they were all willing to run.
He went below deck and then up into the pilot house. The dog sat, leaning against John's knee, as he stroked his palms over the transplanted console, fairy-lit holograms winking on. There were stronger sensors in the tower, but the tower was Rodney's demesne. The boat belonged to John and he listened to what she told him before heading back to the station house.
Kanaan handed him a deep blue mug of honey-sweetened tea when John came into the kitchen. John wrapped his fingers around the smooth ceramic, inhaling the curl of steam from it, waiting for the heat to soak into his cold-achy fingers. He propped a shoulder against the door jamb and watched while Kanaan fried pan bread and fish cakes between stirring the big iron pot of oatmeal.
The footsteps behind him were too familiar to acknowledge, well known as the heat of the body they belonged to warming him, as Rodney pressed close and reached around him to pluck the mug from John's hands.
"Hey, I'd just got that cool enough to drink," John protested, but not hard, as Rodney slurped half the tea down.
"Yes, it was just right, Goldilocks," Rodney agreed. He leaned against John's back and let him steal the mug back. "It's still not coffee."
"There is more tea," Kanaan told them. "There is no need to squabble over it."
"Keeps us on our toes," John murmured. Rodney pushed past him into the kitchen proper. John finished his tea, filled his mug again, and poured another for Rodney.
"Speaking of toes," Rodney said as he seated himself at the eating nook, "if we don't want to lose some to frostbite before winter's over, we need to bring in another tank of fuel." He took the full mug from John and shifted over the bench so that they could sit together.
Kanaan pulled the iron pot off the heat, checked his other pans, and joined them.
"We can bring a tank back with us after Winterfair." John grinned at Kanaan. "Providing Torren leaves us enough room on the boat."
"I checked the sensors," Rodney commented, "after I topped up the generators. We're all set to leave; the light and the horn will keep going until we get back. Weather tracking looked good. "
Kanaan sipped his own tea. "So it will be clear for Winterfair?"
"Clear and cold and black as a...black thing," Rodney confirmed. "Ronon'll get to knock boots with his girlfriend, never fear."
"Where are the others?" John asked Kanaan.
"We are here," Teyla said, leading in a dressed but still sleepy-eyed Torren. "Kanaan, the bread will burn."
Kanaan went back to the stove, pressing a kiss to Teyla's temple as he passed her, and used a towel to grab the pan with the bread and lift it off the flame. John and Rodney silently made room for her at the nook. Torren fit neatly between his mother and John's side. Ronon arrived in time to help carry the food to the table.
The dog came in after him and curled up under the table at their feet to wait for the tidbits Torren and Rodney and Ronon slipped down not so secretly. His tail thumped lazily against the floor.
"You almost missed breakfast," Rodney teased Ronon. "It must be love if you'd risk that just to primp."
Ronon plucked a jam-smeared piece of bread from Rodney's fingers and ate it in three bites. "I don't primp," he said.
Kanaan handed the bread pan to Rodney. "Everyone cleans up for Winterfair."
Torren paused between spoonfuls of oatmeal. "Are we going? Please? All of us?" he asked. He bounced in place. "Please?"
John caught the spoon in his hand before its contents could plop out. "What do you think?" he asked Rodney.
"Well, I wouldn't want any of you to get into trouble in town with out me," Rodney replied.
Teyla hid her smile with her tea mug. "Nor would we want to get into trouble without you."
Torren looked confused. John laughed.
"Yes, we're all leaving for town after breakfast."
"And we're staying for the Winter Woman to give up her crown? For the bonfire?" Torren asked. The year before, one of the generators had failed and they'd all had to come back to the island early.
"Yes, I've got everything fixed this time," Rodney reassured him.
"You can fix anything," Torren declared. He began eating his fish cakes like that settled everything.
Rodney looked pleased, no longer bewildered by Torren's confidence and artless affection, but still pink-cheeked and made wordless. He added jam to another piece of pan bread and set it on the edge of Torren's plate.
John pressed his thigh against Rodney's and smiled at his own plate.
"Can we go now?" Torren asked a minute later.
"After breakfast," John told him.
Torren sat up straight and pushed his plate away. "I'm finished," he said.
"You should finish your oatmeal," Teyla murmured, "or you will hurt your father's feelings."
Torren looked at his father and very seriously declared, "I love oatmeal. It was very good." He patted his stomach. "It was so, so good. It filled me up like Uncle Rodney. Don't be sad."
"Like Uncle Rodney?" Ronon asked. He snagged the last fish cake. "You going to pop the buttons off your pants too?"
Rodney glared. "The thread on the button came loose."
"Are you done yet?" Torren asked them earnestly. "Uncle John? Are you done yet?"
John spooned up the last of his oatmeal ostentatiously before replying. "Done."
"Are we going to go now then?"
Teyla sighed reprovingly. "Torren, you are not the only one at this table. We will go when we are all finished and the dishes have been done."
Torren gave her a pouty look, then said, "I can help."
"Nope," Rodney said, "You know that's John and your mother's job." He grinned at John. "Since they can't cook."
"I think that's my cue," John told Teyla.
Teyla got up first, then Torren, and John slid out of the nook and began gathering up heavy stoneware dishes.
"Two years," Rodney said to Ronon. "When are you going to introduce her to the rest of us?"
"When she's so besotted with him she won't run screaming at the thought of moving out to Hæmírfara?" John suggested as he scooped up Rodney's empty plate.
"I'll know when it's right," Ronon said.
Kanaan tugged on one of Teyla's thick braids as she picked up his plate. "I had to wait until she knew it was right," he said. "It could be years."
Teyla kissed him, sweet and happy, then tossed her braids over her shoulders as she straightened up. Torren whispered to Rodney, "They're being mushy again."
"Good thing we're used to it, isn't it?" Rodney replied.
They left once the kitchen had been restored to Kanaan's specifications, the station house locked up tight, bundled in coats and boots and gloves, carrying bags of carved geegaws and the tiny, finger-cranked music boxes Rodney made over the winter months. Torren complained about the bright red life jacket they made him wear and the safety line attached to it despite the calm seas. He was ignored.
The dog stood on the dock and barked and John kept an eye on him until he trotted back up to the station. He'd jumped into the freezing water once as a pup, when they were taking the Hrafny out on a rescue. Rodney had gone in after him and both of them had nearly died of hypothermia.
Hrafny took them out and around the point, circling the hidden rocks that had holed and sunk many fishing vessels before Jöspe Cripplehand had scaled the Ancient tower on Hæmírfara and lit a dozen lanterns to warn the winter fisherfolk before they ran aground.
A weather-worn gray wooden stairway still spiraled around the tower like a wooden vine. No one born of Ljósver had ever stepped within in the memory of anyone from Kauko Bay until its doors sighed open for John and Rodney. None had ever operated such a light as Makke Lightkeeper built after they came there, one that reached across the sound under clear stars to touch the mainland town.
None of the fishing boats that sailed the sound before venturing the open ocean to bring back their quicksilver catch were evident as they crossed; all had already returned to Kauko Bay for Winterfair. Every slip at the docks would hold a boat of some description, dinghies and cutters, ketches and iron ships, many greater than the Hrafny, and many never meant to sail beyond sight of land.
Welcoming lights twinkled from the bay, warm and yellow: spatter and scatter of coins silver and gold on indigo water and shining from each boat and up the steep hills; all the houses and shops that lined the harbor and the zigzag narrow streets lit bright and burning. Only the highest hill over the town remained dark, waiting for the hour when the bonfires would show the sun the way over the horizon.
John piloted them to anchor out beyond Kauko Bay's farthest dock, out where the dark-needled pines marched down to the shore, standing straight as guards round the harbor, and they took the rowboat to land. Ronon and John heaved their boat up over the pebbled shore, water worn gravel turning under their boots, to where the tide wouldn't reach it, once they had landed. Kanaan carried Torren while Teyla and Rodney carried their packs and bags, complaining when the the tide's edge caught and lapped at his feet.
They walked along the shore into town, their steps turning them to find the harbor master. Eija scratched a note into the wide book that he recorded all the comings and goings in and wished them good Winterfair. No one would bother the Hrafny where they'd anchored her. Everyone in Kauko Bay knew the Hrafny; everyone knew the mismatched family of Jouni, Onnin, Makke, Tuula, Kanne and Torre, refugees who had assumed local names when they passed through the hópursjór and took over Keeping duties. Eija's weathered face creased into a smile as he pressed a waxed paper twist of sticky candy and a tiny bell into Torren's hand.
They agreed to meet at the Three Crows Inn, where Teyla would try to get them rooms for the night. If she couldn't, they would still eat there and bunk on the Hrafny.
Rodney went off with Ronon, headed for the Singing Seal, claiming Päuvi Otsodir served the best beer in Kauko Bay, though he had more good sense than to sleep there. Rodney just didn't like Ronon going off alone.
Teyla asked Torren if he wanted to go with her or with Kanaan and John. Torren took her hand and solemnly told her he would look out for her.
That left Kanaan and John to visit Kyosti's storehouses and bargain for fuel oil and the other supplies they would need soon, more flour and smoked meats, sugar and lard and dried fruit. When the winter's end storms tore down from the north, they would trap the lighthouse in blinding snow and fog for weeks on end.
At the postmaster's, they picked up news fliers from the south to read for any fragments of news of events in the greater galaxy, Rodney's correspondence with the scholars at the College of the Learned, and small packages of odds and ends they'd ordered months before. Larger crates and boxes held items they had special ordered from the south, shipped on the weekly mail packet; parts no one in Kauko Bay could fabricate for Rodney, the narrow books printed in the capitol that John had taught himself to read, rare dyes Kanaan used on the mosken wool, seeds and glass intended for the greenhouse they were restoring next.
They carried away what they comfortably could after arranging with Mika to send the rest to Kyosti's dock the next afternoon, where they could load the crated glass and machine parts while the Hrafny's tanks were being filled instead of taking a scow out. By then news Makke had come to town would be out and there would be three or four people with something they hoped Rodney could take with him and fix before spring, easier brought aboard from there than winched from another deck.
The chimes hanging from the eaves of the post station sang as they passed. John pocketed one of the many bells for the taking set out in a basket at the door.
Teyla and Torren were waiting in the Three Crows front room for them, sitting by the great hearth of worked stone — the inn's namesakes perched there, feathers flaked from shining black flint — chatting with other guests, the weaver Kanaan bought his loom from and a woman who came to Hæmírfara each summer to gather the rarest flowers. Torren and the weaver's daughter played some complicated childhood game on the floor with tinder sticks and sea glass.
Ronon and Rodney arrived on their heels, hands filled with bags and their packs too. Rodney's fur-lined hat perched askew over one eyebrow, a crumble of snow stuck to the side. He dusted more snow from his knees while Ronon knocked clumps off his back. A finger-sized golden bell that had been pinned to Rodney's coat rang in delicate sympathy.
"What happened to you?" John asked, amused by the sour look Rodney aimed outside and then at him.
"Everyone's monsters are running loose in the streets. Don't parents here know better than to let their kids assault strangers?" Rodney complained.
"He got caught in the cross fire of a snowball fight," Ronon explained. His rare grin flashed, sudden and white against the dark frame of his neatly trimmed beard.
"I was ambushed!"
Teyla patted his arm. "Come, I was able to secure two rooms for us to share. We can put our things away before we eat." She scooped up several string bags filled with bundles and boxes, each neatly wrapped in the yellow waxed paper used everywhere on Ljósver and tied up with red string.
"Two rooms?" Rodney asked. "What about...?"
"I'll stay with Päuvi," Ronon said.
John caught Rodney's eye and smiled. A room to themselves was no ordeal. They had shared beds and bedrolls, bedrooms and guestrooms and the backs of jumpers over the years. He'd shared cold floors and cold camps with his friends after they'd left Atlantis behind and never regretted the going. For all his carping and complaints, Rodney hadn't either, despite being the only one of them who could have stayed.
Teyla handed John a brass key before letting herself, Kanaan and Torren into the next room. Rodney went ahead of him when he opened the door and Ronon followed behind him.
A gas lamp burned from a sconce on the wall; its light left the corners of the rest of the room dim. Heavy woven hangings covered the walls to provide insulation against the cold and a banked fire waited in the hearth. The room smelled of cedar and smoke and the sweet grass and flower sachets everyone made up in summer. So close beside him, the scents mingled with the damp leather and wool scents of Rodney and Ronon.
Rodney busied himself stirring up the fire and feeding chunks of wood into the soft-edged flames.
Bright dyed wool blankets and gray furs piled high on the bed. John sat down on the edge, testing it. His hands closed on thick fur.
"Feather tick," he said.
"Really?" Rodney asked. He sat next to John. "It is." He laid back and sighed blissfully. "It's warm in here. Do we really need to go out again? I think I'm in love with this bed."
Ronon laughed at them both. "Buy one and take it back with us."
"Not a bad idea at all," Rodney agreed, "but that doesn't motivate me to get out of this one until it's time to go home."
"Dinner," Ronon said. "Come on."
"Yeah, no room service here, buddy," John told him.
"You both offer a compelling argument," Rodney conceded. He held out his hands. John and Ronon took one each and pulled him up as a firm knock at the room's door sounded, the rhythm telling them Kanaan stood on the other side before he spoke.
They ate a fine meal in the inn's crowded dining room, surrounded by others indulging just as they were, dressed in bright finery, rosy-cheeked with southern wine and good cheer. The Three Crows offered a menu of delicacies and rare fresh items from sunnier lands. John savored the greens and fruit for the treat they were.
Teyla glowed with color, bronzed hair swinging loose and longer than she'd worn it in Atlantis, the color rich as an autumn harvest, laughing quietly at their table antics.
A woman with a mandolin sat by the hearth and strummed wordless melodies as back ground to the shifting noise of the diners' voices, punctuated by shouts of laughter.
Rodney insisted they all six order different desserts and trade tastes and if he and Ronon and Torren ate more of all of them than the other three, no one complained.
They lingered longer than they would have at their own table, sipping from tiny cups of hot berry liquor, until Torren's impatience turned to fidgeting, his flickering glances toward the door and the festivities awaiting outside too blatant to ignore, along with the draw of his fine brows together and the pouting lower lip.
"Can't we go?" he asked finally, plaintively. "Please?"
Kanaan finished his drink. "Teyla?"
"We'll need to go upstairs and get our coats," she agreed.
Blown glass globes in a dozen bright colors hung at every door and in every window along the cobblestone streets, candles burning within, giving Kauko Bay a carnival shimmer. Snow clung in the gutters and on the roofs of the stone and timber buildings, reflecting the colors, but the streets and stoops were swept clean along the route from dock to Winterend Hill. Some houses boasted gas lamps like the Three Crows, but most still hung out lanterns and torches against the dark. The fine mist of moisture in the air haloed even the brightest lights in a softened glow.
They joined the merry-makers on the streets, accepting roasted nuts in front of one store and sticky sweets at the next. They contended for silly prizes: a ribbon for Teyla that Kanaan won tossing rings and a pair of red gloves for John when Rodney answered three riddles with scornful ease. "You could've figured those out," he told John. "They were all logic puzzles." They wandered along the streets from a trio of musicians warming up before the Belling and on to a southern woman bundled in many layers of sweaters and coats, her nose and cheeks pink with chill who offered to guess their weights and heights, how many children any of them had, how far anyone had come and from where, or what year they were born. She laughed when she got half her answers wrong, blaming the heavy coats and sweaters everyone wore, and passed over the bright trinkets and toys that were the only coin traded at Winterfair, sun disks and beads, bangles and buttons.
Torren giggled when she declared he must be eight, no, nine, no ten to be so tall and handsome, and tore away clutching a tiny wooden bow too small for him but destined to join all his other childhood treasures. He joined three other boys, all oblivious to any fear they could be lost, playing in the street. All oblivious to any fear of the Wraith, too.
Ljósver hadn't been truly culled in a thousand years, too cold and distant from the starways the hiveships roamed, spinning at the edge of the galaxy, where one quarter of each year the night skies faced the Great Dark between.
The woman nodded to Teyla and asked if she'd chance anything, but Teyla shook her head. Her hand twined in Kanaan's and they walked closer together than ever, sharing secretive glances.
"Any of you? Give me your hand and I'll give you a truth or a treasure?" she teased.
Ronon elbowed John. "Go ahead."
"Because I'm not taking my gloves off, of course," Rodney said. "And Mr. Stickyfingers here has honey all over his. You're the one who loves fairs anyway." Rodney's 'over' sounded more like 'oafer' because he had a mouthful of something almost like chocolate that had been handed out in front of the bakery. John knew they'd be visiting again to buy more before they sailed the next day.
John rolled his eyes, murmuring, "Pot, kettle," then tugged off one glove, giving his hand over for examination.
"You come from far away," she said.
"Not really," Rodney contradicted her immediately, moving close to examine John's palm himself. "Just the next island over."
She didn't look at John's hand, didn't trace her fingertips over the scars and calluses left by his life, just held it and looked into his eyes. "No," she said, "you come from very far away, from the hópursjór."
"You could tell that from our accents," Rodney scoffed.
She grinned at him. "Of course I could. I'm not a seer, I just see." She laughed. "And listen."
John chuckled and pulled one of the tiny music boxes Rodney had made out of his coat pocket and gave it to her. She turned the handle and laughed at the tinny melody it produced. She tucked it away, while John pulled on his glove again.
Facing Rodney she said, "And you are Makke Maker, I think."
"Is that what they're calling me now?" Rodney appeared torn between delight in any sort of renown and a hint of worry. They tried to keep a low profile, even so far off the galactic beaten path. Rumor of the strangers who had come through the hópursjór could run back like the tide through the Circle Sea and reach those still interested in finding them.
They drifted away, keeping Torren in sight, and sipped little cups of honey-sweetened tea handed out in front of Otso's leather goods store, where they knew Ronon well.
Ronon hung back and spoke quietly. "Are we going south this summer?"
John finished his tea and crumbled the waxed, yellow paper cup. "I'm not." There were baskets set out in front each store front for trash. He dropped it in.
They'd discussed going back through the hópursjór the year before, finding a world where they could trust someone to take a message to the Athosians or one of Atlantis' other allies.
"Thought I might take a job with the machine shop here for a few months."
John glanced at him and grinned. "You could see a lot of Päuvi."
Ronon shifted his shoulders in a liquid shrug. "Yeah."
Up ahead of them, Kanaan and Teyla snuck a kiss in the light from a lantern.
"Teyla's pregnant," Ronon observed.
She wouldn't be traveling, he meant. It would be a summer baby. Torren's cradle had been left behind. John thought he might try making something for her this time. Rodney would enjoy designing it.
A bell sounded from down at the docks, and the great iron one in the town hall answered it. The procession would begin from the oldest stone pier and through the heart of Kauko Bay. The bells tolled steadily as the Winter Woman with her crown of ice, and her anonymous daughters all dressed in robes of ice-white furs and white veils sewn with crystal beads, started their way up to Winterend Hill. Children ran through the crowd, shouting in excitement. Adults brought out all sorts of bells and began ringing them; tiny finger bells and hand bells and the cylindrical bells they hung from the necks of the mosken, a golden-tongued clangor mixing with laughter.
John brought his bell out from his pocket. Rodney had a much larger bell he'd brought from the island. Teyla handed Torren a sweet sounding hand bell that he swung enthusiastically. Kanaan took Teyla's hand and they rang their bell together, while Ronon accepted an iron mosken bell from the man next to him and made it clank jerkily. Each of them joined the noise-making, any faint sense of self-consciousness dissolving easily as the people of Kauko Bay made a joyous noise meant to call the sun back for another year from its long winter sleep.
They waited until the procession passed them on the street then fell in behind it with the rest of the people, still ringing their bells, shouting and singing and laughing with cold-reddened faces, up the zigzag street to the heights where they could look to the southeast horizon.
All of Kauko Bay's people, all the hunters from inland and the fisherfolk from the sea, gathered around the unlit bonfire at the top of the hill in circle that left room for the Winter Woman and her daughters to pace in a circle around it. Around the perimeter of the hill torches burned on long poles, but they only obscured the stars. The darkness felt thicker in contrast, running with black shadows, above the comforting walls of the town.
Smoke and the scent of the traditional spiced oils used to prime the bonfire wood so that it would light swiftly permeated the air and mixed with the perfume of pine boughs. Below, the town hall's bell still pealed the measure of each minute. Slowly, inevitably, all the other bells fell into step with it.
Unseen, a woman lifted her voice in a song to the sun, calling her back to the land, naming the minutes to the midday morning. One by one, others took up the words too, the harmony shivering through all of them.
Teyla sang and her voice was high and lovely as the first singer's. Kanaan supported her with his voice and Torren's sweet piping followed. Ronon rumbled out the words and Rodney sang too, a hint of embarrassment coloring his inflections, but hitting every note.
John kept his croaking as soft as he could, but was unwilling not to take part, buoyed up with the sound, the thrumming connection between everyone on Winterend Hill.
On the horizon, a pale line promised sunrise and dawns to come. The crowd held its breath, then let loose with a wild cheer as the thinnest incandescent crescent rose above the black eastern steppes.
The Winter Woman lifted her crown off her head, leaving the beaded hat she'd worn under it dark with melt water, and threw it to the top of the bonfire. A dozen boys and girls ran forward from the crowd carrying torches and set them to the bonfire. They shrieked in fear and delight as it sprang into flame. In minutes sparks were showering high into the sky above them.
The Winter Woman's daughters all pulled off their veils and their robes, revealing that they wore silk-supple leather pants dyed the green of the spring grass and blouses embroidered with brilliant flowers. The musicians from earlier began playing something fast and loud. The girls danced around the bonfire, alone at first, then began pulling partners from the crowd.
Torren clapped in time with the crowd and laughed in delight as fireworks were set off above them. "I could do better than that," Rodney yelled into John's ear, barely audible against the crowd urging the dancers on.
"Of course you could!" John shouted back, certain of it.
"We could get Ronon to help make them! I think he misses blowing things up!"
The shriek of another firecracker shooting into the sky and exploding saved John from needing to answer. Green and gold sparks briefly outshone the ocean of stars overhead.
Without discussing it, Rodney and John took charge of Torren, while Kanaan and Teyla danced with each other.
Ronon left them when he spotted Päuvi among crowd. She was tall and raw-boned, but she'd braided red ribbons into her long black braids and wore a beaded skirt over red leather leggings. She grabbed Ronon's hand when he reached her and drew him into the dancing with an amused smile at his reluctance.
"So that's the widow with the tavern?" John asked Rodney. Her skin had the color of autumn oak leaves, naturally the color John had turned after a summer spent out in the sun as a boy.
The celebration went on until the bonfire began dying down. By then Torren was asleep in John's arms. John's feet were numb with cold in his boots, no matter how hard he stomped them, and even several swigs from the flasks of liquor being handed around couldn't warm him up. Teyla and Kanaan danced until the end, though many others were already leaving.
As the last fiddle notes faded away, Ronon and Päuvi joined them briefly. He hugged Rodney fiercely, then Kanaan, and lifted Teyla off her feet, making her laugh and hit him on the shoulder.
"Put me down, put me down!"
He just laughed and spun her in a circle, so that she shrieked.
Torren blinked his eyes open and asked, "What's Ronon doing?"
"Showing off," John told him.
His arms were tired. Torren was really too big to carry for so long, but they'd all carried him, sleeping and awake, during that first year on the run. The habit had stuck. They'd been too wary to stay anywhere more than a day or two for a long time, afraid their pursuers would find them, before they'd found their way to Ljósver and safety on Hæmírfara. John hefted Torren higher, tightening his hold him. All worth it, he thought, everything they'd sacrificed.
Rodney wrapped an arm around John's waist and pulled him close enough to lean his weight against him. It hadn't all been sacrifices.
"You must come to the island after the Thaw," Teyla told Päuvi.
"Will you teach me how you always know where the fish are?" Päuvi asked. "People say you have witch-sight."
"People are unmitigated idiots," Rodney said. "There's nothing magical about what Teyla does. The sensors are more than sensitive enough to track schools of fish for hundreds of miles."
Päuvi raised an eyebrow at him.
"Don't scare her off, McKay," Ronon grumbled.
"Makke doesn't scare me," Päuvi said.
"Well, I should," Rodney complained.
"She's tough," Ronon said approvingly.
Torren snuffled against John's cheek.
"This big guy's getting too heavy for me," he said. "Just make sure Ronon doesn't miss the boat tomorrow."
"I can take him now," Kanaan offered.
John transferred Torren into Kanaan's arms and ignored Ronon's smirk and taunting, "Getting old and tired?"
John looked at Päuvi. "I've changed my mind. You can keep him."
"He doesn't mean it," Rodney confided, the alcohol on his breath confirming that he'd had more than a few swallows from one of those flasks. "We're a matched set. Can't break us up."
"Päuvi, I am pleased we have finally met," Teyla said formally.
"Yes," Päuvi said, flashing a smile as bright as Ronon's. "I'm glad too. I was beginning to think he was ashamed or embarrassed."
Teyla eyed Rodney and then John, then burst out in laughter, proving she'd had more than her share of liquor too. Päuvi hooted with her, while the men pretended they weren't all the butt of their laughter.
"Let's get back to our nice warm room at the inn," John said to Rodney, who was listing against him now instead of supporting John.
"'night, Ronon," Rodney called.
Kanaan, still carrying Torren, flanked Teyla, who wobbled once or twice but stayed on her feet as they made their way down the hill. John kept a bracing hand on Rodney's arm, skirting other stragglers, half afraid one of them would slip on the icy cobblestones and break something. The bells were finally silent, the last music faded away, and all the world seemed still and content to come to rest.
The front room of the inn folded so warm around them that John staggered and considered sitting down and staying in front of the big hearth for an hour or two. But Rodney tugged him toward the stairs, mumbling, "Bed, bed," and he went since he still had the key.
He parked Rodney on the bench at the foot of the bed and rebuilt the fire after lighting one lamp. Rodney sat and hummed one of the tunes they'd heard. The room felt warm in contrast to the air outside, but still cooler than Rodney kept their tower on Hæmírfara.
"My John, my Jouni," Rodney murmured and John looked over his shoulder to find him watching with a lopsided smile. "My Jo." It warmed John to his toes and he ducked his face away. He fed another chunk of wood into the fire.
"It was a good night," Rodney said.
"Yes, it was," John agreed. When he had the fire burning to his satisfaction, he stripped off his own outwear and then Rodney's.
"This is a good place." Rodney cooperated as John got his boots off and set them where they would dry. The toes of his wool socks were cold, but still dry. He wiggled his toes under John's fingers and added thoughtfully, "Don't you think so?"
"Yeah." He ran his fingers along Rodney's instep lightly.
Rodney jerked his foot away. "Hey!" he protested. "Ticklish here, remember?"
John eyed him, considering tackling him onto the bed and finding all his other ticklish places, but a yawn and a shiver interrupted the half-formed intention.
"Come on, let's get in this nice bed under all these nice blankets," Rodney said. He stood and drew John up too, pulling him into a loose hug. "Once you start shivering, it's like sleeping with a full body vibrator. Which frankly sounds a lot better than it turns out to be."
John snorted, trying not to laugh, and finished undressing himself, blowing out the lamp before diving between the sheets with Rodney. They pressed close and closer, tangling arms and legs, breath brushing against each other's lips. The bed warmed fast, wrapping them in snug nest.
"I could kiss you," John murmured. The fire's light showed him Rodney's cheekbone as a gilded curve beneath the fan of his lashes.
Rodney stroked his hand up the valley of John's spine until it rested broad and hot between his shoulder blades.
"You could," he said.
John touched his lips to Rodney's softly. Rodney's eyelids fluttered shut and John smiled into the kiss. Rodney's mouth was always warm, always sweet, always sweeter than John remembered from kiss to kiss, drawing him back for more. They could be urgent and hungry or comfortable and drowsy and everything in between. S ometimes, those kisses were all he wanted, all he needed: the slow caress of Rodney's lips and tongue, his hand on John's cheek, knowing each other.
Their lips parted and Rodney rested his forehead against John's temple. John settled one hand on Rodney's hip, circling his thumb over the fine skin there, his thoughts wandering as aimlessly. He smiled when Rodney kissed the corner of his eye.
"Tired?" he asked.
"It's a nice bed."
Rodney patted his back. "So is ours. Aren't you sleepy?"
John nodded, but he wasn't quite ready to sleep. He turned his head and pressed another kiss to the tender spot just under Rodney's ear. "Remember that bed on Cereddin?"
Rodney's soft chuff of laughter stirred John's forelock. He tightened his hold on John. "That was no bed."
"I remember it fondly."
"For what?" Rodney demanded in a fond tone. "The straw that poked through our one blanket or the way those cow things in the barn with us snored all night?"
"You were complaining how cold you were and insisted we sleep together."
"There was a draft."
John drifted his hand up to rest on Rodney's breast bone between them, riding the reassuring rise and fall each breath he took. Rodney hadn't demanded to share Ronon's blanket or huddle close with Teyla and Kanaan and Torren. John hadn't wanted him to, either.
"You kissed me, too," John added.
"You were never going to," Rodney murmured. "Even though those stupid rules didn't matter anymore."
"I did want to, though, you know."
Rodney's was the voice he would always listen for and the face he would always find in every crowd.
"We could have sex now," John pointed out, rocking lazily against Rodney, tired and only half aroused himself, but willing.
"Later," Rodney replied drowsily. "When I'm awake."
Rodney was quiet then, his arms warm around John, just holding on. A chunk of wood in the fireplace shifted with a crackle and a soft hiss from the flames.
John shifted and sighed. "I wish you could go home."
He felt Rodney shake his head. "It stopped being home. Even if Woolsey made them change their minds...I wouldn't have stayed, not after."
After, John echoed silently. They'd shaped this new life after. He said, "You could have, though." He squeezed his eyes shut as the memories pushed forward.
Atlantis had switched to war footing, Woolsey had gone back to Earth, and John had been replaced as commander. The new order and the new military commander weren't SGC or even from the IOA; no one knew what had really happened back on Earth. John had been confined to his quarters, under guard and denied contact with anyone within hours after the change of command. There had been no explanation.
John hadn't known Ronon had been locked in the brig as a security threat or that Teyla and Kanaan had been taken into custody as well. Rodney had been the only one of them, including Torren, not slated for 'study' back on Earth.
"You needed me to escape."
"Keller was the one who made sure we got away."
Keller, who had never loved Pegasus, who wanted something smaller, someone tame, but helped them anyway. John reminded Rodney because he always had to remind himself. Without her, they would never have been able to stop running.
Keller had been assigned to care for Torren until they were all shunted back to Earth. Maybe she'd guessed the rest despite the gag orders. Nothing else explained why she had removed their subcutaneous transmitters during the last post-mission exam — before Rodney had uncovered the plans for John and anyone with a taint of Wraith DNA. But she had refused when Rodney asked her to come with them, standing before the water-blue flicker of the event horizon, with everyone else in the control and gate rooms stunned into unconsciousness.
She'd asked Rodney to stay, instead.
"I wonder if they ever cleaned out all those viruses and booby-traps I left behind?" Rodney murmured.
"It's been almost six years," John pointed out.
"So probably not," Rodney said, sounding pleased.
Rodney pinched his arm, then rubbed the sting away. John settled closer to him, an arm looped over Rodney's waist. The liquor, the food, the cold, and the dancing combined to loosen his tongue enough to say, "Glad you didn't."
"Stay behind." He thought of Ronon asking if they would go through the stargate come summer. "Don't go back."
"Mmm. I wouldn't now, even if things have gotten better back there," Rodney said. His fingers combed through John's hair gently.
"This isn't what you wanted."
"I'd rather have what I've got."
"A lighthouse at the end of the world?"
John opened his eyes and lifted himself high enough to stare into Rodney's face, his arms straight and braced on either side of Rodney's chest. "Oh," he breathed wonderingly.
They could never have been together in Atlantis, nor shared these nights together, nor had this life; he hadn't even let himself know then and had never guessed Rodney had.
John bent and pressed his lips to Rodney's once more. Rodney's hands closed on the back of his arms, steadying him and drawing him down at the same time into another sweet-tasting kiss.
"Yes. Now go to sleep," Rodney told him between one and the next, breathless and fond and exasperated. "I don't want you steering us into a waterspout or over the edge of the world tomorrow."
"I've got a light to steer by, remember?"