I. The Man in Black
He is always one step behind them.
In the villages where he trades for food and other small necessities, he will find the townspeople abuzz with talk of the strangers in their odd clothes, speaking of things no one understands, offering trade goods that no one has ever seen.
On the empty plains or forest highlands where he camps, he will find traces that the others have been there before him: a discarded candy wrapper, a flattened place in the grass where a puddlejumper might have landed.
He is not following them. He only wants to forget them. The galaxy is large, and he thought that he could leave them behind, the way they left him behind.
The way Sheppard left him behind.
No one who sees him now would recognize the boy he used to be. He is a hunter, lean and strong. As a child, he remembers reading an old short story, "The Most Dangerous Game." The dangerous game of which the title speaks are, of course, humans. This makes him smile. There are things in the universe much more dangerous than humans. Those are the things he hunts.
He thinks of himself not as a hero or savior, but as a man who performs a service, like a doctor or a plumber or, maybe, an exterminator. While this is obviously not something he could ever explain to his grandparents, his cousin and the rest of his once close-knit family, it is something that he might be able to justify to them.
He thinks it quite likely that, in his own way, he has saved at least as many lives as Sheppard's band of smug, self-styled heroes. Every Wraith he kills is one who will never take another life. Single-handedly, he has crashed darts and freed the prisoners dematerialized within. More than once, he has crept onto hiveships, freed prisoners and escaped.
He has begun to hear stories about himself on the worlds he visits, along with the usual stories of Sheppard's team. The villagers call him by different names, but the most common is the Man in Black. This made him grin, the first time he heard it. He couldn't help thinking of the Johnny Cash poster that used to hang in Sheppard's quarters. He wonders if it still does, if Sheppard is even still alive.
He would like to see his family again, before he dies, but he knows that he won't. He would also like to see Sheppard again, but he is not sure if he merely wants to talk to him, as one exterminator to another, or if he wants to kill him.
The knowledge rides in the back of his head that his time to do either is limited. He is building up a tolerance to the enzyme faster than he ever dreamed possible. Doses that would once have made him superhuman are now necessary merely to avoid the agony of withdrawal. Where once he might have needed to kill a Wraith every couple of weeks or less, now he needs to hunt almost every day. Like any wild predator, he spends most of his time on the prowl, driven by the never-ending need for prey. Unlike most predators, his prey is plentiful and he knows he will never run out, as long as he still has the strength to hunt.
Now that there is no chance of going back, he thinks that maybe he should have tried harder to find other solutions. Maybe Doc Beckett could have made him a synthetic substitute. He still balks at the idea of being weaned off the drug; even if not for the withdrawal symptoms, it is so much a part of him now that living without it is unfathomable. Intolerable. But he can recognize that the search for it will eventually kill him, and there is nothing like staring your own mortality in the face to make a man regret his life's choices.
II. The Baker's Daughter
The weather has been unseasonably beautiful this summer, but after the strangers' visit changes everything in town, the weather itself begins to change as well. Rain clouds roll in and for weeks a slow steady drizzle blankets the town. Slowly the seasons flow into autumn without the sun ever showing itself.
Bella's father was banished through the gate weeks ago. Some days Bella cares a great deal; on other days, she wonders why she cannot find it in her heart to care. She remembers loving her father so deeply that he was the sun in her sky. But when she tries to find that love now, there is only a vague resentment.
Maybe this is what it means to begin growing up.
Bella's mother is sick. After the mysterious illness and the strangers' medicine that banished it, everything was fine for a while, and then a few of the villagers fell ill again -- mostly those who had been in the closest contact with Bella's father. Her mother is the worst of them. Her face is pale, her eyes sunken, and she will not eat. Bella is ten years old, and she does the best she can to care for her two younger sisters and her ailing mother. Normally, if someone in the village is sick, all the women will come trooping by the house with hot dishes and pots of tea. But Bella's family is not well liked. Her mother was Lucius's first wife, the one he was required to marry by the usual parental arrangements, long before all that other unpleasantness happened. Bella cannot help thinking that the other women in the village think her mother should have stopped her father from doing the things that he did.
The grown-ups will not tell her what her father did that was so bad. She knows it must have been something awful, though, from the looks she receives when she goes out to tend the family's vegetable garden in the rain. After banishing her father, they burned his workshop to the ground, along with all his herbs. Bella stands in the ruins of it sometimes, and wonders if the drug to save her mother might lie beneath the ashes and blackened beams, if only the townsfolk had not been so hasty.
Between the vegetables and the flour from the mill, they have more than enough food to last until Mother is well. (If Mother gets well, Bella thinks -- traitorous, terrible thought.) But wood for the fire is a different story. In this chilly weather, with winter coming on and Mother so ill, they cannot afford not to have a fire. And so Bella watches the pile of firewood dwindle, stick by stick. Woodgathering is men's work, and usually widows and orphans find piles of wood by their door in the fall, brought by the boys of the town. But Bella's mother is not a widow in the strictest sense, and neither Bella nor her sisters are orphans.
Though we may soon be, at this rate, she thinks.
Bella Luvin does not have much, other than a surname and a generous helping of disgrace, to remind her of her father. However, she did inherit a certain sense of self-worth. She refuses to beg for help from her mother's distant relations, the ones who have apparently written her family off. And so she watches the woodpile dwindle stick by stick, until finally it is obvious that she will have no choice but to go into the woods, the domain of wild beasts and Wraith.
Clasping a heavy cloak about her shoulders, she tells her sisters to take care of their mother and each other, and steps out into the rain.
III. If You Go Out in the Woods Today
All the hills near to the village have been virtually denuded of firewood, and the undergrowth picked clean for much farther. Bella finds that she must range far afield to gather wood for her family.
It is terrifying at first, as well as hard work that leaves her feet sore and her hands raw and bleeding. But after a time, she starts to get the hang of it. The woods are not filled with fearsome monsters, after all. There are only wild birds and small, creeping rodents.
As the days go by, she grows comfortable with the task, and sometimes even takes her sisters along for the extra set of hands.
It is the comfort that proves her undoing. For there are, after all, predators in these woods.
On the day that she is attacked, Bella feels herself watched as she hunts for small, easily carried branches. She does not really trust the feeling, though. She isn't used to the woods. She finds herself jumpy, frequently looking over her shoulder. She does not know enough to trust her instincts, to tell true danger from the ever-present nervousness that haunts her under the trees.
The attack comes from nowhere. There is a sharp cry, splitting her ears, and a searing pain blazes up her leg. Screaming, she drops her armful of firewood, in time to catch sight of a long yellow body uncoiling quickly past her leg with another high, unearthly cry.
Wood-serpents rarely bite human beings. They usually make noise to frighten other animals away. This one must have been starting to sink into its autumn somnolence in preparation for the winter's sleep. Perhaps she stepped on it, by accident.
Whatever the cause, blood is dripping down her leg and the damage is done. Shaking, terrified, Bella kneels and rolls down her blood-soaked stocking to see torn flesh and deep puncture marks. The wound burns as if her flesh is on fire, but there is a soothing, spreading numbness at its center.
The venom of the wood-serpent is fatal. She has been told this many times. Perhaps her stocking absorbed some of the venom in its initial strike -- in this situation, that is the only hope she's got, because not even her father's potions could mend a wood-serpent bite.
She can't die. Her family depends on her.
Bella pushes herself upright and a wave of dizziness passes through her. Trembling, she leans against a tree.
I cannot die. Mother and the girls need me.
Through her pain and fear, she feels a chilling rush of resentment towards her father. This, in the end, is what gives her the strength to prop herself up on a stick of the discarded firewood and begin walking.
The forest is strange all around her. Head spinning, she cannot make sense of it. The familiar paths are gone. At one point she comes to herself, head tilted back with rainwater trickling down her face. It is soothing on her hot skin, and she does not know how long she has been standing like that.
She is very badly lost, but will not admit it to herself. As the poison turns her veins to liquid flame, she loses even that awareness.
A flicker through the trees catches her eye. In a world of rain and cold and growing darkness, it is warm and it draws her. Perhaps it is the lights of the village, calling her home.
She stumbles and falls with her hand outstretched to the light.
The last thing Ford expects is to have a delirious child stagger out of the woods and collapse at the edge of his campfire.
This world is a safe place for him. He has camped here several times. The people rarely use their Stargate or venture far from their village, so he feels comfortable in using their forest for the occasional stopover en route to somewhere else. He traded with them once, but they were a strange bunch and he didn't like their headman, that Lucius guy. Something about them seemed very, very off to him, and Ford is a man who has more than a passing acquaintance with off. However, he does not hold this against them and simply chooses to stay far away from their village. They are not the strangest people he's encountered since he began his long flight through the Stargate, not by a long shot.
On this particular occasion, he has come to this world to recover from a recent fight with a Wraith, one in which he was a bit careless. He broke a number of ribs and his wrist. Even with his enzyme-enhanced healing abilities, everything is sore and it hurts to move. This is the sort of carelessness that he cannot afford, the sort that may eventually undo him. His supply of enzyme is running low; he is already feeling the early pangs of withdrawal, but he has only one good dose left, and he will need this for the hunt he faces in the morning.
He becomes aware of the crashing in the bushes while it is still quite far from him. With a knife in one hand and a Wraith stunner in the other, he rises and slips quietly behind a tree. He could douse his campfire, but clearly whatever is thrashing around out there has seen his light, because it is coming closer. If it's intelligent, he doesn't want to let it know he is aware of it. If it's not, then dousing the fire will do little good.
So he is crouched, watching, when the little girl in the mud-stained cloak reels out of the woods and crumples into a heap, as if getting here has taken her last dregs of energy.
He approaches her cautiously. That which appears small and innocent is not always so; he knows this well. He uses the tip of the stunner to prod her, gently at first and then with a hard poke that might leave a bruise. She does not stir.
Ford sighs. He doesn't need this. He wonders what in the world a child is doing this far from the village, alone and ill. Surely someone will come looking for her before too long.
At least contagion is not an issue. With as much enzyme as he carries in his system, he is able to heal almost anything. It took him a while to be entirely certain of this, but with all the traveling that he's done, he has been exposed to more kinds of Pegasus Galaxy plagues than he can name, and none of them have harmed him. No matter what has made this girl ill, it will not infect him.
Still, he uses the tip of the stunner to nudge her over. She rolls onto her back, flopping bonelessly on the wet ground. Her face is flushed, her hair falling across it in a damp and snarled mass.
Ford considers himself one of the good guys, but he is an exterminator, not a savior, not a hero. Rescuing damsels and children in distress is a problem for Sheppard's bunch. Ford does not get involved with these people. The most he should do for this child, the most he can do, is to carry her back to her village and leave her on someone's doorstep.
He bends and touches her face with hands that are hard and callused from countless battles. She is burning with fever, and shivering in her wet clothes. She would probably not survive a long trek through the woods. Ford sighs and drags her, roughly, closer to the fire. Looking for the source of her injury, he finally notices the blood soaking her stocking and peels it carefully down. A soft hiss escapes him at the sight of the swollen puncture marks. She was bitten by something, and from the look of it, something nasty.
Ford remembers some of the villagers warning him about the deadly poisonous snakes in the woods. He has since seen and killed a few. Presumably this girl has been bitten by one, in which case, if what they told him is true, she is already dead.
Her breathing is labored. Ford pushes her a little closer to the fire. There is nothing he can do for her.
Without thinking, his hand slips to the small case at his side.
Foolishness. There is no telling if a dose of enzyme would give her weakened body enough of a boost to enable it to fight off the effects of the poison. And even if so, he would have to keep supplying it to her, or she would go through withdrawal.
And he has only the one dose. Already his hands have begun to tremble, just a bit.
She is dying. He can see that.
Quickly, before he can allow himself to think, he opens the metal case and draws out the pre-loaded syringe. Pushing up her sleeve, he plunges it into her arm.
Stupidity. He should be past this. If the lack of enzyme gets him killed, then all the future good that he could do, all the people whose lives he could have saved, the Wraith he could have killed, will have been thrown away for the life of one small, shivering girl.
It is not a good trade. One life for many. Ford is not a man of math, not like Doc McKay and that bunch, but he knows that simple equation.
He thinks of Sheppard going onto the hiveship for Sumner without hesitation. Sheppard would have done it in a heartbeat.
Ford does not want to be Sheppard.
He sits cross-legged beside the fire and pulls a blanket over the shivering girl in her wet clothes. The flames crackle and hiss as raindrops strike them. Despite the chill in the air, Ford feels a trickle of sweat down his back. The tremors in his limbs have nothing to do with cold.
Withdrawal is starting in earnest, and very soon he will have to go and kill another Wraith without the benefit of an extra dose of enzyme.
Softly he curses himself for a fool.
Heat and cold, fire and ice. Bella dies many deaths, burning to death and then freezing to death. She feels hands touch her -- rough with work, like her mother's hands. But when she opens her eyes, it is a stranger's face that bends over her, a face out of nightmare.
Bella thinks she might have screamed, but sleep or delirium claims her. When next she wakes, it is because water is spilling down her chin, cold against her neck.
"Drink," an unfamiliar voice tells her.
She does, and then she is sobbing with thirst, and drinks greedily until the cup is taken away. Her eyes snap open in protest, and she sees that face again, the one she thought she dreamed. Two eyes are fixed on her -- one normal, one blank and inhuman.
Bella realizes that her body is thrumming with tension. She feels terrible, worse than the worst sickness she has ever had. And yet she also feels as if she could jump up and run in circles around the campfire; only lethargy holds her back. It is a strange and terrible feeling.
"Are you hungry?" the stranger asks her.
Her stomach wrenches at the thought. She shakes her head wordlessly, closing her eyes against a brief surge of dizziness.
The stranger begins to pace and Bella opens her eyes again to watch him. He wears black leather and metal. It creaks when he moves, and water rolls off his shoulders onto the ground. There is a pantherlike grace to him, a sense of great strength uncoiling beneath his skin. He is like nothing she has ever seen before.
But he is also sick. She can sense in him the same fidgety energy that is in her. Under the dark tone of his skin, he is far too pale, and she watches as he moves his hands up and down his arms in a repetitive, involuntary gesture.
"Who are you?" Her voice is low, hoarse and strange to her ears.
He stops and looks at her. For a long moment she does not think he will answer. Finally he says, "Aiden. Go to sleep."
She does not think she can sleep; her body hums with energy. Yet her eyes are already drifting shut.
"If I'm not here when you wake up ..." The stranger -- Aiden -- hesitates, then speaks with quick urgency. "There's something I have to do. But I'll come back."
Bella's eyes close and she is washed away on a sea of fever dreams.
She comes back to herself a few times and then drifts away again. On one of these occasions, she notices that the fire has died down to coals, and she pushes herself upright long enough to add some more sticks from the pile someone has thoughtfully left near her hand. There is a canteen of water as well. She drinks, then immediately doubles over and throws up. After breathing through the nausea for a few minutes, she tries another sip, and a few more when that stays down.
She is startled and a little frightened to see that it is daylight. Her sisters must be out of their minds with worry. She wonders if they have remembered to feed and tend Mother. She wants to go to them, but her body is like stone, dragging her down into the storm-tossed seas of her subconscious again.
When she wakes the next time, it is to the unexpected warmth of a shaft of sun. Bella looks up at the sky, amazed to see patches of blue where the clouds have broken up.
"Thought it was going to rain forever on your world," Aiden's voice says.
Bella turns her head, not sure whether she is frightened or glad to see him. He is sitting cross-legged nearby, meticulously cleaning a knife with a cloth and a small jar of oil.
He looks much better than when she saw him before. Whatever illness he had is healed now. And, she realizes, she feels better herself. She is still not fully recovered, but she pushes herself up on her elbows without too much trouble.
Aiden nods to a leather satchel lying open beside the fire. "You want food, there's some bread and cheese in there. Help yourself."
She is hungry, but when she moves to reach for the food, a cramp seizes her and she doubles over with a gasp. Her body trembles violently, and she feels the cold prickling of sweat on her back and arms.
Aiden is there before she sees him move, pushing her back down without gentleness. "You're still sick. Food's probably not a good idea at this point. Just sleep it off."
"It hurts..." she moans, shaking. She had thought she was recovering from the poison. This feels different. "Please help me. I ... I need ..." And she breaks off, because it seems as if there is something she needs, but she doesn't know what.
"I can't help you." There is a roughness in his voice that she does not understand. "Sleep it off."
She slips back into sleep, but not before she sees the terrible sadness in his one human eye.
The little girl sleeps all day and through the night. It is a very restless sleep, and sometimes she wakes up screaming. But mostly, she sleeps.
No one has come looking for her, or if so, they must be looking in entirely the wrong part of the forest. And he is starting to get restless. Sick and weak as he was, his last hunt did not go well, and he is already running low on his new supply of enzyme. His wrist is mostly healed. He needs to move on.
Giving her back to her people before she is through the worst of withdrawal is asking for trouble, though.
The injury on her leg is entirely healed, as he thought it might be. There is nothing but a tiny pale scar, visible only if you know where to look.
He offers her water when she rouses enough to be able to drink, and he passes the rest of the time by cleaning all his weapons a dozen times. Then he lies on his back, staring up at the sky. It is near dawn and the stars are beginning to vanish in a swell of pink and gold.
One of the side effects of the enzyme is that he doesn't sleep very much. This is a good thing more often than not, since it means that he has to spend little of his time in that vulnerable state. On the other hand, it means that he has a lot of time to think, which is not always a good thing -- particularly as the enzyme makes his brain run considerably faster than normal. He used to think that he could probably keep up with Dr. McKay now ... until he and his men captured Dr. McKay and the others, and he discovered that just thinking faster didn't necessarily make him better at thinking around corners.
For the first time in a very long time, he is surprised to find himself thinking of his former teammates without rancor. He wonders if they have ever been to this world. He'll be gone tomorrow, so it doesn't matter, but still he wonders.
The sun slips above the rim of the world, a wink of light through the trees, and he realizes that tomorrow has become today. The clouds have all blown away; the sky is more clear than he has ever seen it on this world. Reaching out, he nudges the little girl with the toe of one booted foot.
She stirs, makes a snorting sound and half sits up. Her color is a lot better. He suspects, based on past experience, that she's not entirely past the withdrawal, but she is probably feeling well enough to get herself home.
"Breakfast if you want it." He nods towards the open satchel.
She is very quick this time, lunging and digging out a loaf of bread. She does not need to know that he took this food from the house of a family of Wraith victims. Ford long ago got over any qualms he might have once had about living on the spoils of the dead. His work is important enough to make up for any slight transgressions of that nature.
"Better eat slow," he warns her. "It's been a while since you had anything solid."
After a few bites, she deliberately slows herself down, and pauses to get out a hunk of cheese. She pauses. "You want anything?"
"I ate," he lies. With the enzyme, he only needs to eat once a day or so, if that. The food is mainly for nutrients; the enzyme seems capable of supplying his energy needs. One reason why she is so ravenously hungry is because her body is trying to cannibalize itself for energy, but he thinks she probably doesn't need to know that, either.
She eats a light breakfast of bread and cheese, washes it down with water from his canteen, and Ford finds it all strangely companionable. Since his one disastrous attempt at building a strike force, he has taken on the mantle of the lone crusader instead. He finds that it sits more easily on his shoulders than the burden of a leader's responsibilities.
He is an army of one -- swift, lethal, moving from world to world and leaving no traces. He knows that he cannot defeat the Wraith by himself, but he has abandoned that ambitious dream in favor of one more easily realized. Grand schemes have given way to the more realistic goal of cleaning up the galaxy one Wraith at a time.
A slight quiver in his muscles, and the presence of the small box he carries at his side, remind him that the predator-prey relationship is, as always, a symbiotic one.
And it is at times like this that he sometimes thinks about the things he's left behind. Companionship. Conversation. Affection.
The girl stands, holding his blanket awkwardly around her shoulders. She realizes this, and puts it down, folding it carefully. Her clothes have dried on her, looking stiff and uncomfortable. She tugs at her rumpled stocking, matted with dried blood.
"Thank you," she says, and holds out her hands in the manner of her people for greeting or farewell. "My name is --"
"Don't want to know your name," he interrupts.
She gives him a look of surprise. He can see the fear under it. At heart, she is still afraid of him, and he is glad. Fear is much easier for him to deal with than gratitude. It is better to be feared than loved, he thinks, and then wonders where he read that; it's certainly a quote from somewhere.
"Better for you if I don't," he adds in a moment of honesty.
She looks at him, frowning, her head cocked to one side. Then she looks past him, at the forest. "I, um ... I don't know where my ..."
Ford points. "The village is down the hill that way. Probably about four or five miles." The blank look on her face reminds him, with a surprising twinge of pain, that he has once again used another galaxy's units of measurement. These moments are coming fewer now, but he sometimes slips up even so. He is not entirely a creature of this place yet. "Start walking now, you'll be home by noon," he clarifies.
"Oh. Good. My family will be frantic." She looks at him. "Would you like to stay with us for a while, Aiden?"
This so completely floors him that it takes him a long moment to find words. "Why?" he asks, more harshly than he intends, his voice cracking just a bit.
"Well, because you saved my life by taking care of me, and I can see you used some kind of medicine on my leg because it doesn't hardly hurt at all." If she only knew, he thinks darkly. "We have food in plenty, for now at least. You could sleep in a real bed for a couple of days. Have a bath." And she smiles at him.
The smile makes him think of his cousin. For just an instant, his breath is stolen by a rush of memories: his grandmother's pot roast on the table, his grandfather reading the Bible to him in a pool of lamplight, the games with his cousins; kitchens and backyards, houses and homes.
He reminds himself of who he is, what he is, by laying his hand on the familiar sharp corners of the case at his side. He cannot stay with this well-meaning little girl for even a day, because he would want to stay forever, and he can't. There is no going back for him.
"No," he says shortly.
Her smile falters, and she draws up her chin. "Well, then," she says, her bearing that of a woman much older than her handful of years. "Good journey to you, sir."
"You too," he says.
He expects her to leave then, but instead she crosses the space between them and traps his hands between her small ones -- his callused, killer's hands. She squeezes his hands and he feels the warmth and softness of her skin. Her eyes look up at him, pleading, hopeful.
"I imagine that you must have used some kind of powerful medicine on me, because no one ever gets better from a wood-serpent bite. My mother is ill, and has been for some time. I have nothing to give you, Aiden, but if you could --" Her face falters, the adult facade cracking to show the scared child underneath. "I would give you anything that my family has, all that we have, if you could use your medicines to make my mother well again."
His breath is tight in his throat. He speaks quickly, harshly, before he can be tempted to actually do it. He is not a healer and the Wraith enzyme is not a magic cure for every ailment that afflicts anyone in the Pegasus Galaxy. "There was no medicine. You must not've gotten much of the venom in you. You got better on your own."
"Oh." She presses her lips together, and he sees how disappointment makes her smaller. He waits for her to turn from him in hate. Instead her soft child's hands press his more tightly, a kind of touch that he has not felt in a very long time. "Still, you kept me safe while I was sick, and I am in your debt for that. I will tell my mother what you have done for me. If you ever come back this way, our house is open to you, Aiden."
If he could find the words, he would tell her that he is the Man in Black, not Aiden. He should never have told her his name. He should tell her that he does not want her invitation, because if he comes looking for refuge, it will most likely be with something very nasty on his trail -- and he knows that he is not a good enough man to resist the temptation of a hiding place if he is in desperate need. He has been the cause of other deaths before. He is not a man that this child wants to owe a debt to.
He should tell her. But instead, he lets her hold his hands until she is the one to pull away. Not looking back, she turns and runs quickly into the forest in the direction of the village.
He suppresses the unexpected urge to call out to her to be careful. Children in this galaxy learn caution quickly enough
Kneeling, Ford roughly gathers up his scattered belongings. He has spent too long on this world already. It is time for the Man in Black to travel again.
Time to save someone else, somewhere else.
And -- because hell, the only person around here to fool is himself, and you can only do that for so long -- time to get another fix.
He slings the bundle over his shoulder, takes a moment to scatter the ashes of his campfire and cover, as best he can, the signs that anyone has been here. He understands that he has no particular reason for doing this, no need to hide the signs of his presence on this world. It is merely habit now. Something he does without thinking.
His life is spent crossing back and forth over the border between running towards and running away. At the moment he suspects that he has swung back to away, and may continue so for some time.
As the Man in Black begins his walk to the Ring of the Ancestors, he reflects that he has yet to see any sign on this world of the presence of Sheppard's team. He can always take comfort from that.