"You usin' that?"
Dr. Katie Brown looked up in surprise at the voice, unable to place it as anyone in the labs. When she saw the leader of Atlantis's military leaning lazily against the wall, she jumped and tried to stop herself from patting at her hair. The Colonel just had that effect on the civilian female population of the city.
"Colonel! I'm sorry; I didn't hear you there. I -- uh, what?" Belatedly she began to catch up with what he'd asked her.
"That." One long finger pointed at her desk. Surprise overcame her flustered shyness, when she saw that he was pointing at a scented candle perched in an ornate holder on the edge of her desk. It had been a Christmas present from Alison in Geology for her birthday, but she'd never actually burned it, having no desire to risk singeing her plants.
"Um ... no?"
"Can I have it?"
She couldn't imagine what on Earth -- or Atlantis, either -- a soldier would want with a faintly pink-colored, rose-scented candle, but it wasn't as if she ever planned to light it. "Just don't tell Alison Wyatt."
He smiled the lazy grin that made him the talk of the mostly-female botany wing. "Thanks." He nipped it lightly from its holder, then paused when he noticed her looking at him quizzically. "Uh ... what?"
"Won't you need something to put it in?"
"Oh." He looked down at it in surprise. "Really?"
"Unless you want to get wax all over."
He cleared his throat and looked at the holder. "Er ... so ..."
Katie laughed, starting to forget her shyness. She'd never had a conversation with John Sheppard that was longer than "Could you pass the salt?" but there was something loveably dorky about the man. Maybe the rumors about him -- the stories she'd heard of his marksmanship, of sixty Genii dead in less than an hour -- were just exaggeration. "It's not much good without the candle. Please, take it."
He nodded, smiled in a slightly embarrassed way, took the candleholder and beat a hasty retreat.
Katie smiled after him, shook her head and went back to compiling statistics on the flora of P3T-2YN. What a nice man. Someday she'd have to ask him what he wanted the candle for. Remembering his goofy grin, she smiled -- he was probably just too macho to admit that he thought candles were cool.
Simpson looked up in surprise and then annoyance as Atlantis's resident Don Juan oozed his way into her lab. She'd sized up John Sheppard the minute she laid eyes on him, and nothing she'd heard about him since then had changed her mind. She knew that type. She hated that type. Working in a male-dominated field, her entire career had been spent struggling against men who saw a woman like her as an attractive piece of meat in a lab coat. The absolute last thing she needed was a macho flyboy hanging around hitting on her and getting in the way. She couldn't stand the way that the younger lab techs swooned over him like he was a pop idol -- heck, even some of the older ones, who should know better.
"Can I help you?" she inquired with cool politeness.
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Chang in biology said you keep a box of candles around for emergency lighting."
Simpson stared at him for a moment. What in the world ...? "Cabinet on the right, top drawer."
"Thanks, Doc, I owe you one." He crossed the floor with a loose-limbed stride -- swagger was really the word for it. Simpson watched with a narrow-eyed glare as he carelessly shifted through the contents of the drawer until he came up with a box of white tapers.
"I'll replace these the next time the Daedalus comes in. Thanks again, Doc."
"You'd better," she muttered, watching him leave. She wondered what the heck he wanted the candles for. Probably trying to impress a girl with his sensitivity and New-Agey-ness. Men like him were all the same.
"Sir!" the young woman gasped, scrambling upright at her post in the control room. The equally young soldier next to her saluted, his spine so rigid that it looked as if it might snap.
Like most of the new Daedalus recruits, LaDonna Beaudreax regarded Colonel Sheppard as some sort of minor deity. She was intimidated enough by normal officers, let alone one whose eleventh-hour victories over Wraith and Genii were told and re-told in the barracks like the tales of a trickster hero.
"At ease, Corporal." Sheppard leaned on the railing and smiled at her, which did nothing for her nervous butterflies. "Hey, got a question for ya."
Part of the Colonel's near-legendary status was the fact that he neither looked nor acted like an officer. He was an ordinary guy, and this probably terrified the recruits more than anything else about him.
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Hey, hey. We're just all folks here, Beaudreax." Sheppard folded his arms on the railing. "Some of the guys in the barracks told me that you're into this Eastern meditation thing, and you've got some candles for that? Is that true?"
Beaudreax stared at him in terror. She'd taken some crap from the others for that, but had had no idea that it would make its way up the chain of command all the way to the Colonel's ears. "Sir, I had no idea -- Is there a regulation? I'll get rid of them immediately!"
"What? No! No, there's no regulation. I just wondered if I might have some of them. If you don't mind, of course."
Beaudreax had to force herself not to stare at him. She wondered if this was some sort of elaborate test. Maybe all the new soldiers had to go through something like this. "Sir, of course you can have them." She winced, then, wondering if she'd just broken some other regulation -- bribery, say. But the Colonel just smiled.
"Thanks. If you get a chance, could you drop 'em off outside my quarters after your shift change? Just leave them at the door."
Beaudreax wet her dry lips and tried to imagine any way that obeying this order could be construed as improper, but it seemed fairly aboveboard. "Yes, sir. I'll do that."
The Colonel looked ... tired, Beaudreax thought, surprised, as he pushed off from the railing. The smile that he gave her was absent and a bit strained. "Appreciate it. Carry on."
As he strolled off, she noticed for the first time that he was carrying a bag, dangling casually from his hooked fingers. It was filled with something lumpy. Candles, she realized.
Once he was out of earshot, Corporal Larson asked softly, "What in the world do you suppose he's collecting candles for?"
"I have no idea." Thinking of all the stories she'd heard about Sheppard, she added, "But I bet it's something heroic ... something to do with the fate of the city."
"But ... candles."
"Maybe. Why not? You know there's a lot that goes on around here that no one tells us about."
If anyone could save the city with a bag of candles, Beaudreax thought with absolute conviction, Colonel Sheppard was probably that man.
A light tap on her office door roused Kate out of her contemplation of Private MacKenzie's records. The young man was making good progress on his PTSD and she still didn't feel that sending him home was warranted unless his symptoms worsened. Making a note in his file, she closed the laptop and called, "Come in."
She was surprised to see John Sheppard's spiky head appear around the corner of the doorway. Normally he avoided her office like the plague. "Good morning, Colonel! Or ..." She cast a glance at the angle of the sunlight slanting through her office windows. "Afternoon, rather. What can I do for you?"
"Actually ..." His gaze drifted from her, down to a small grouping of evergreen-scented votive candles on the edge of her desk. "You mind if I have some of those?"
Kate kept a professional smile on her face, but her analytical mind busily began rewriting her impressions of Sheppard. "Do you mind if I ask what you want them for?"
He gave a little shrug. "Yeah. I kind of do. Sorry, Doc. You don't have to --"
Kate raised a hand to forestall him. "No, no. I don't mind. They're only for ambiance anyway; you can have as many as you want."
Looking a bit like a guilty child in the principal's office, he approached her desk quickly and swept the candles into his hand. A white flash at his hip caught her eye; she realized that there was a box of taper candles sticking out of his pocket. Her eyes very nearly went wide, but she managed to maintain her professional demeanor.
"If you need to talk to me about anything, John, you know that my door is always open. You can always stop in whenever you like."
Sheppard dropped his eyes in the way that usually meant he was lying through his teeth. "Yeah, I'll do that. Thanks for the candles, Doc."
After he left, she stared at the shadow patterns on the wall for a moment, tapping a pencil against her desktop. Then she opened Sheppard's file and began typing. Subject's prankster tendencies are becoming slightly worrisome. Latent fire fetish, perhaps? Usually manifests in childhood -- need to check records. Possibly triggered by stress re: Rodney's condition. Note to self: discuss fire safety protocol w/Elizabeth. Also schedule stress assessment for Col. Sheppard.
There had been a time in her life when she would never have thought ill of the Ancestors. Now ... now, she thought, she had come to accept that the corporeal Ancestors had been all too human, with all the flaws and fallibility, the capability for greatness and courage, for pettiness and anger, as the people of her own time. And they, in their all-too-human fallibility, have done us a great disservice this time.
Turning the corner, she saw John standing in front of the door to her quarters, lowering a hand as he turned away. Seeing her, he froze.
Her eyes drifted down to the two bags he carried, both of them bristling with ... candles? She could feel her eyebrows go up.
"So, uh ..." Sheppard lifted one shoulder in a slightly embarrassed shrug. "Figured you weren't home."
Teyla raised one hand just a bit in the direction of her radio. John's smile turned sheepish. "It didn't really seem worth calling you if you were in the middle of something."
"I was merely going through some simple forms with the sticks." Teyla palmed her door open and set down her workout bag on a chair inside the door. "Will you come in?"
"Just for a minute. Got an appointment a little later." He followed her inside. "So, I came by earlier, but you were out. I was just going to borrow some candles, but since you weren't here, I decided to look elsewhere ..." He shrugged, hefting the bags.
Teyla glanced down at the bags he carried. "I did not know there were that many candles in all of Atlantis."
"Neither did I," John admitted. "We're a candle-happy bunch, apparently. I got kind of carried away."
Teyla scrubbed at her neck with the towel and laid it, folded, on the foot of her bed. His diffident body language, to her, bespoke but one thing; she wondered if it would be appropriate to ask him. "Does this involve Rodney?"
The way he averted his eyes from her was more of an answer than words could ever be. "Just a crazy idea Elizabeth had."
Teyla wondered just what exactly, by the Twelve Forgotten Heroes, Elizabeth could have suggested that involved Rodney and candles. Her imagination boggled. Still, it obviously meant a lot to John. "And do you ..." Her look encompassed the bags. "... have enough candles?"
"Maybe just a few more ..." His eyes drifted to the half-melted candles on her bedside table.
Those were the common ones, the everyday kind. Teyla had better, and she went to her closet, reaching up for a wooden box with inlaid velvet. This contained the ceremonial candles: sandflower and bird tallow for remembrance, and ironwood scented candles for the Day of the Dead; slim candles made from the fat of the first-killed calf in the autumn harvest, to be burned for hope in the spring; broad candles with embedded kihascha petals, traded for at great cost, which would chase away evil dreams in the very sick and summon the Ancestors near.
Every Athosian family had such a box. Without the proper candles, some of the most important ceremonies in a person's life could not be conducted. A few of them were nearly irreplaceable, the worlds they had come from culled by the Wraith.
Teyla gathered them in handfuls, gently and reverently placed them into John's overflowing bags.
"Uh, hey, you don't have to give me all of them --"
"I have many more -- see?" She indicated with her head the cloth bags of cheap tallow candles on a lower shelf of the closet.
"Well, yeah, that's true."
Closing the empty box, Teyla laid it back in its place, then picked up the slim metal firelighter that always lay beside it. We mastered fire long ago, she had said to John once, when he was but a stranger from one of the many far-off peoples with whom the Athosians did not trade. As she had used it then, it had been a gimmick, a cheap trick to impress a stranger from beyond the stars.
Carefully she tucked the firelighter into his pocket.
Her eyes met his, serious and searching. "Whatever you are planning, John ... I pray that it works."
Elizabeth saw him jump guiltily in the corridor and turn around, nearly dropping the heavy-looking bags he was carrying. When she got closer, she found herself staring. The bags appeared to be full of ... candles?
Despite the seriousness of the situation and her worry about Rodney, Elizabeth found herself grinning. "What are you doing?"
She could see the blood rush to his face. He looked away, then back. "Just doing what I do, Elizabeth."
"And that would be?"
The conversation in the cafeteria came back to her, and she could only infer that whatever he planned with the candles, it had something to do with Rodney. What that something might be ... she was almost afraid to guess. And speaking of whom ... "I asked Rodney to come by your quarters at about nineteen hundred tonight. I hope that's all right, but I couldn't find you to ask."
An eyebrow went up, as he neatly sidestepped the question of where he'd been all day. "Asked?"
She felt a smile tug gently at the corners of her mouth. "Perhaps it would be more like 'ordered'."
"Well, in that case ..." He glanced down the corridor, at the very low angle of the sun outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. "I'd better get moving. Got some things to do first."
And she wanted so much ask him about it. If he thought he'd found something that might help, she wanted to know what it was -- to weigh its risks and benefits against the other shreds of hope that they'd managed to scavenge. But seeing his obvious discomfort, she realized that the last thing she wanted was to add a burden of performance anxiety to his stress. Whatever he had in mind would either work or it wouldn't; nothing she could do was likely to change that.
"Good luck, then."
As soon as he turned from her, the smile fell away from her face. She wondered if Rodney really knew how far his friends were willing to go for him. How much he was loved here.
He dumped the bags on his bed and then emptied handfuls of candles from his pockets. It was a waxen sea, all colors and shapes and sizes, some melted down to nubs, others fresh and whole.
Picking up a random handful of candles, he began placing them on the available surfaces around the room. Remembering what Katie had said, he used all the various holders and jars that had come with the candles, then scrounged containers for the others: a soap dish, a water glass that he'd forgotten to return to the cafeteria, an empty cracker box. He dumped his guitar picks out of their case into a random drawer and stuck a candle in it.
It was dumb and silly and girly, but there really was something calming about it. In fact, the knot in his gut was a lot less tightly wound than it had been before the whole candle-hunting incident. At the very least, it had given him something to do.
He knew he wasn't good at this whole meditating, navel-contemplating thing. In fact, he was pretty sure that he was very bad at it. But candles seemed generally integral to the whole process, and by God, if he was going to do it, he was going to do it right.
Monster-slaying with a gun or knife: he was good at that. Slaying monsters with candles -- really not his thing. But for Rodney's sake, he'd try.
He used Teyla's lamp-lighter on the first candle, and watched it flare. "Cool," he murmured, grinning despite himself. He'd always wanted one of these things.
He had just finished lighting the last of them when a soft tap came at his door. He could tell by the cadence that it was Rodney; he wasn't even sure how he knew.
John took a deep breath, stepped back and stared at the candles for a moment. Peaceful thoughts. Blue skies. Ferris wheels. You kill scary monsters, John: it's what you DO.
And he opened the door.