"Well, this is just great," Rodney said out loud, because it was all very well and good for Master Yoda to go on about being calm and at peace and one with the Force, but personally, he felt that dangling by his legs in a snare trap made from a very small number of extremely fragile vines above a pit of Marlaggian swamp-vipers with his beloved lightsaber currently at the bottom of the pit, entwined around with baby vipers—and they were more venomous when they were freshly hatched, not to mention hungrier—with a Sith Lord somewhere nearby justified a little bit of dismay.
"Aagh!" Rodney yelled, flailing his arms wildly, trying to turn himself around. All he managed was to set himself spinning around slowly and gracefully, so he caught glimpses of the Sith Lord standing at the edge of the pit as he rotated. He'd put back his hood, revealing pale skin and a shock of black hair, and was now just standing and watching, looking vaguely bemused, his lightsaber held in his gloved hand but turned off.
"You're not a very good Jedi, are you?" the Sith Lord said.
"Oh, excuse me, I am an excellent Jedi," Rodney said. " I'm just—" he grabbed uselessly at a thicker vine as he went around again—"I'm just not at my best right now! I don't do this whole running around the wilderness, chasing dark Jedi thing—I like engines, you should see me with engines—"
"Hm," the Sith Lord said. "Can you repair hyperdrives?"
"What?" Rodney said, insulted. "Are you kidding me? I can build hyperdrives."
"Good answer," the Sith Lord said, and held out his hand. Rodney yelped as the vines suddenly all started writhing and moving around him. In a moment they had deposited him on his knees in the mucky ground at the Sith Lord's feet, tightly wrapped from shoulders to hips, his wrists pinned to the small of his back.
"Oh, nice," Rodney muttered, reaching for the Force, trying to cajole the vines into letting go, without any success. He'd known this was going to end in disaster.
His masters had always been puzzled at the way he didn't like to commune with nature. Most Jedi had the opposite problem—nature, living things, those were easy to connect with, to feel; making unliving metal and technology answer, connecting to them through the Force, that was the harder part, except Rodney had been born and raised by hyperdrive engineers on a deep-space freighter. The only plants he'd ever seen before his fifth birthday were the hydroponic greens on the dinner table, and then he'd been trained in the Jedi Academy on Coruscant, which had about as much in the way of open green space as your average asteroid. By the time anyone realized that the prodigy who could make hyperspace jumps without a nav computer and who built his first lightsaber at the age of seven couldn't tell a yaklak tree from a bruna vine with the lights on, he'd already been in advanced training, and the habits had been set.
Personally, Rodney didn't see why it even mattered. He was more valuable staying on Coruscant anyway; he'd been making real progress on starship control interfaces that amplified Force ability. It would mean more Jedi who didn't do well with electronics would be able to fly easily, and even those with minor Force ability, too weak to bother training, could still connect with their ships, unconsciously, on a deeper level.
But no, no, that wasn't good enough! He had to overcome this weakness or else he wasn't a real Jedi, so he'd been shipped off against all his protests to this horrible, wet, smelly, underdeveloped, vermin-infested excuse for a planet, to practice. The Wookie pilot had dropped him off in the one tiny spaceport, even that overgrown with vines, and taken off again with a wave and mean, barking laughter. And if that hadn't been enough, no sooner had he trudged into the one bar in the place than everyone had jumped on him right away to tell him about the Sith Lord out in the swamp—expectantly, like he knew anything about stopping Sith Lords! He liked to build lightsabers, not use them; he'd never killed anyone in his life, he'd never even destroyed a practice droid—stupid waste, and anyway he liked droids, more than people most days, droids were predictable and efficient and loyal—
But of course it turned out that the Sith Lord was doing something that was warping the whole balance of the planet's ecosystem, so vast swaths of the jungle were dying—small loss, if you asked Rodney, except the local wild animals were growing savage and dangerous and coming into the towns and killing people. He'd sent a frantic hasty message to Coruscant, but Master Yoda had said there were no other Jedi available less than a month away, and made some cryptic and vaguely encouraging remarks that Rodney hadn't paid much attention to, because a month? He'd just barely saved a five-year-old Tyndarian from getting eaten that morning, this couldn't wait a month—and so in the end he'd belted on his lightsaber and gone out.
It was entirely predictable that this was how it would end, with him being dragged along through a decomposing jungle behind a Sith Lord to what would undoubtedly be a grisly and painful death. He stumbled and went to his knees in the muck for the sixth time. "All right, look, will you just tie my hands in front already? I don't even have my lightsaber, and I think we've safely established that you're the one in charge, here."
The Sith Lord said over his shoulder, "Get up and keep moving."
Rodney awkwardly knee-walked over to a dead tree and managed to turn around and flop back against it. "No!"
The Sith Lord turned around in a whirl of black robes, his lightsaber igniting fiery red, and put the tip right at Rodney's throat, gazing down with ice-green eyes. "How's this? Get up, or I'll leave your dismembered corpse here."
Rodney gulped but didn't move. "Oh, yes, and that will help fix your presumably broken hyperdrive, won't it? But hey, the scenery on this planet, it's really special, so I'm sure you won't mind being stuck here for a lot long—er!" he finished on a squeak, tipping his head up as the lightsaber nudged closer.
He squeezed his eyes shut and waited to die, but nothing happened for a long moment, and then the lightsaber swished and abruptly the vines around his torso parted. "Oh, ow, ow, ow," Rodney said, bringing his arms around and wincing as the rush of pins and needles started. "I don't suppose you have a med droid?" he said, rubbing his hands together. "Lost circulation can be dangerous—I could have some kind of nerve damage by now."
"Are you sure you're a Jedi?" the Sith Lord said. "You didn't just pick up that lightsaber from a bunch of Jawas—"
Rodney glared up at him. "I'll have you know I'm a senior Jedi Knight! I'm on track for Mastery in just a few years—"
"Wow, they've lowered the standards some," the Sith Lord said, and prodded him with a booted foot. "Get up. You'll be walking in front of me now."
"Oh, that's a brilliant plan," Rodney said, "I don't know where we're going!"
"If you take a wrong turn, I'll set you right," the Sith Lord said, and proceeded to demonstrate by whacking Rodney's leg with a stick. "That way."
Rodney paused, panting, to wipe his face clean again. A steady thin drizzle had been falling for the last hour, picking up black and green slime from the dying leaves as it came. "So you had me walk in front of you because you don't know where we're going either, is that it? Haven't we passed that tree before?"
The Sith Lord prodded him onward. "You know, I've met Snivvian beggars who didn't whine as much as you do. Shouldn't you be in better shape?"
"Oh, excuse me, we can't all spend our time running around in jungles," Rodney said. "You get less exercise when you're—oh sweet Force, what did you do to her?"
He broke into a run into the clearing and put his hands on the poor starship. She was a spectacular custom job, something between a shuttle and a starfighter, small but with beautiful clean lines, just right for atmosphere-to-space transitions, with a good balance for hyperjumps, fuel shunts perfectly placed, fusion core humming away at just the right temperature mix, and she was practically whimpering out loud about the horrible scars running across swaths of her circuitry and the half-melted hyperdrive boosters and the blown-out impulse drive.
"Hey, I brought her down in one piece when the engine crapped out on me," the Sith Lord said. "And if you think that was easy—"
"This is an Idrosian mark seven triple-braced engine! It wouldn't have crapped out on you unless you were doing something stupidly wrong," Rodney said, petting the ship.
The Sith Lord raised an eyebrow. "How do you know what kind of engine she has?"
"She told me," Rodney said absently. "Shut up now, I'm working." He was already exploring the circuits with the Force, seeing where the connections had been fried and torn.
He pulled out after a while and discovered that it had gotten dark—darker, anyway; it hadn't exactly been sunlight and roses before. The Sith Lord had made a fire and was roasting a small woodland creature of some kind, on a spit. Rodney winced and thought longingly of a nice tasty tray of compressed rations. He walked over to the fire.
The Sith looked up and said, "For your sake, I hope you actually made some progress."
"Drop the idiotic threats," Rodney said. "Not only do you not have a prayer of fixing her on your own—nice work on the launch circuits, by the way, it'll only take me a couple of days to undo the extra damage you did trying to patch them—but if I wasn't here, you wouldn't have a prayer of getting her fixed at all outside a shipyard. You damaged her hyperlift. I don't know how you managed to do that without skimming a black hole."
The Sith Lord looked vaguely embarrassed.
"You did skim a black hole?" Rodney said incredulously. "What are you, a moron?"
"I didn't do it on purpose," the Sith drawled, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "I was in just a little bit of a hurry at the time."
"Yes, of course, chop, chop, worlds to destroy, innocents to slaughter," Rodney said sarcastically.
"Enough," the Sith said, standing up; his lightsaber jumped into his hand. "I'm not interested in being judged by one of you," he said, advancing, the red humming blade pointing at Rodney thirstily. "Can you fix the Atlantis or not?"
"I can fix anything," Rodney said, swallowing nervously. "The question is will I."
The Sith Lord said softly, "Oh, I think I can be... persuasive."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Hello, I really am a Jedi, and you can't torture me all that much anyway, not and keep me in shape to work on the ship," he said. "However, I'm prepared to offer you a deal."
"A deal." The Sith made a thoughtful expression. "Okay, how about—you fix my ship, and I let you live?"
"And I'll just trust you on that, because Sith are so well known for keeping their word," Rodney said.
"Hey, you're the one who wanted to negotiate," the Sith said.
"I was thinking of something with a little more visual confirmation," Rodney said. "It's going to take at least a month for these repairs. In the meantime, I want you to fix whatever you've done to this planet."
"And when we're both done, you'll just let me fly away," the Sith said skeptically.
Rodney swallowed. "When we're both done, we'll—we'll fight it out like Jedi," he said. "Either way that turns out, I'll know that you'll be leaving this planet afterwards, so it'll be safe." More to the point, in a month the help he'd yelled for would arrive, and hopefully it wouldn't just be him, engineering specialist, against a vicious dark Jedi master warrior.
"Uh huh," the Sith said, eyeing him. "Okay, I guess I can go for that." Then he moved, like lightning, and Rodney was flat on his back, gasping, with the red saber humming in front of his face. "But just so we're clear," the Sith murmured, his eyes glowing red with the reflection of the blade as he bent low over Rodney, "if you try to sabotage my ship—"
"I'm not going to sabotage her! It's not her fault her owner is a corrupt servant of evil," Rodney said.
The Sith went on through clenched teeth, "Or if you try to take me out some night—"
"Yes, because we can all imagine just how well that would go—" Rodney said.
Even more tightly, "Or if you try to run—"
"Into the jungle that I can't find my way around in—"
The Sith yelled, "Shut up already!" and sat back on his heels, glaring.
"Look, can we just stipulate that I've been thoroughly threatened and I'm cowering in fear inside, and let me get up off this wet ground?" Rodney said. "I catch cold easily."
"You know, I think I'm changing my mind about letting you live," the Sith said.
"I'm not feeding you," said the Sith Lord. "You can hunt for yourself."
"Fine," Rodney said. "Let's increase the estimate on those repairs to two months, shall we?"
The Sith muttered under his breath—he was doing that a lot—but he started sharing dinner. Roasted bunny or whatever it was turned out to be delicious, at least when you had spent the day working like mad on rebuilding an entire hyperdrive. The Atlantis was warming up to Rodney, with the strong deep mental voice of a ship that hadn't had its main computers wiped for a long time, long enough to develop a permanent personality. That was accelerating now, too, since she had started talking to Rodney. It happened when he spent a lot of time on a machine, and he'd never really focused on just one in such an intense way before.
He didn't mention it to the Sith, obviously, but the real time frame for the repairs was getting smaller, because she was doing some work on herself during the nights while he slept. Nothing enormously complicated, of course, but she had robot arms in several places and several slaved mini-droids, and she was aware enough at this point to know when something was wrong and what to do about it.
Part of the reason he really was repairing her—aside from the fact that she was beautiful and hurt and deserved to be repaired—was that he'd assumed she would be an enormously powerful ally for him, when it came down to the final fight, but now he wasn't completely sure that's how it would go. Oddly, she liked the Sith Lord—she didn't seem to blame him for the damage, and her mental image towards him was warm and deeply, strangely possessive, like no ship he'd ever met towards its pilot, a connection he didn't quite understand.
"How long have you been flying her?" Rodney asked, wiping his hands clean as he sat down by the fire.
The Sith glanced up, eyes narrowing the way they always did when Rodney ventured to say anything, but apparently his suspicion couldn't find a reason not to answer this time. "Six years. And it's none of your business where I got her."
"You stole her from the House of Idros shipyards outside Coruscant," Rodney said, rolling his eyes as he yanked off a drumstick. "Duh."
"I didn't steal her," the Sith snapped.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Rodney said, mumbling around his drumstick. "At least you've got good taste, not that you deserve her. Do you have any idea how long it's been since she had a good valve cleaning? Not to mention there was a mynock cocoon on her undershaft—"
"What?" the Sith said, jerking up straight.
"Relax, I took it off!" Rodney said, rolling his eyes.
The Sith ignored him and went to the ship and crawled all over her and went inside, making low murmuring noises to her as he inspected and poked. "Hey," Rodney yelled, "don't you dare touch any of my work!" except banging and rummaging kept coming from inside, and after a longing look at the rest of the meat, he bit off as much as he could and put down his drumstick.
"Stop that!" he snapped, getting there just in time to slap the Sith Lord's hands away from the half-finished new circuitry board Rodney had been working on.
"What is this?" the Sith Lord demanded, shoving him up against the wall. "That doesn't match what it looked like before—"
Rodney squirmed in embarrassment. Okay, so he'd put in a few upgrades, it wasn't like he was going to let the Sith fly off with her in the end, and really, they were minor, they wouldn't help him at all—
The Sith's eyes were getting bright and dangerous. "I told you what would happen if you tried to sabotage her," he said softly, pressing close.
"Don't be an idiot," Rodney said. "If I wanted to sabotage her, I'd plant a micro-vesicule on the primary fuel line and she'd blow up on your first attempt to enter hyperspace. You'd never find it without a deep scan by a grade R3 astromech droid. I just—did a little adjusting."
"Without asking me?" the Sith said, even more softly, and a micro-welder lifted itself off the console and floated up behind his shoulder, the blue-white flame igniting.
"Oh, like you would have an intelligent opinion to offer on the subject, mynock herder," Rodney said, and turned the micro-welder off with a flick of mental effort.
The Sith brought the welder closer to Rodney's face, then frowned as he noticed it was off. He looked at it. It didn't turn on again. He frowned harder. Then his face tightened up and he glared at it. It still didn't turn on.
"Yeah," Rodney said, folding his arms. "Want to try that some more?"
The Sith looked at him, surprised, and Rodney yanked the welder away from his control and turned it on full-throttle between them. The Sith gave a startled squawk and windmilled backwards, but since he'd been holding Rodney shoved up against the wall, Rodney fell down on top of him, barely managing to turn off the welder before it burned a nice hole in both of them. "Ow," Rodney said.
"You landed on me," the Sith wheezed, and then with a quick jerk he had them flipped over and had pinned Rodney to the floor. "You've been holding out on me, Jedi," he said, a kind of savage, sparkling grin on his face.
"What? No! Not really," Rodney said, cursing himself for being an idiot and showing off.
"Yeah, you really have," the Sith said. "So what other tricks do you have?"
"None!" Rodney said quickly. "I just—welders, you know—useful for—for working on engines—hydrospanners, okay, I wield a mean hydrospanner—ulp," he added, as the Sith pressed him down to the floor.
"I think I just need to give you the right incentive to show me what you've got," the Sith Lord purred, and pulled out a knife.
"No, really!" Rodney said. "I don't—"
The Sith Lord cut through his belt.
"Hey, I need my pants!" Rodney said. "Pants are important—"
The Sith Lord cut through the laces on his tunic and pushed it open. "Do you really want to wait for me to get to skin?" he said conversationally.
"I think I saw this in a confiscated holovid once," Rodney said faintly to the ceiling.
The Sith Lord sliced Rodney's shirt open straight down the chest, bared his skin to the air and gently ran the flat of the knife blade down his ribcage. "Look at all this nice pale skin," he said softly, almost crooning. "No scars, Jedi?"
"No, and, and, I would really prefer to keep it that way," Rodney said, "and please don't do—" but the Sith was bringing the knife down again, and Rodney couldn't help it, he convulsively yanked, cables and wires leaping into the air, low angry humming as all the tools turned on and rotated to target on the Sith, one loose cable snaking out to wrap around his knife-hand, holding it back as the blade disassembled itself into component atoms into the air.
The Sith stared at the empty hilt in his hand and then looked around at all the ominously hovering equipment. The Atlantis was lit up all around them, making low distressed anxious inquiries, the little slave-droids peeking out from their nooks with watchful, glowing optic sensors. "Right," the Sith Lord said cautiously, putting the hilt down.
"Yes, well," Rodney said, clearing his throat; he was going to call it a victory, because he'd managed not to ask the ship to help him; that was one advantage he didn't want the Sith Lord to know was even potentially in his pocket. He made a quick mental shrugging effort, and all the equipment tumbled to the floor, as if puppet-strings had been cut, even though he could easily have controlled their return to their proper places.
"That is a nice trick," the Sith Lord said, relaxing a little more as the tools collapsed. "You know, I'm starting to think you'd be kind of useful to have around in general."
"Um, what?" Rodney said.
The Sith Lord leaned in, eyes glittering. "What do you want to be a Jedi for, anyway? Following all their rules—doing what they tell you—"
"What?" Rodney repeated, baffled.
"Fix her and come with me," the Sith Lord said. "We can go anywhere in the galaxy—"
"Oh, of course," Rodney said. "Travel to fascinating exotic locations full of unidentifiable food and unknown dangers, hunted and despised by everyone, it sounds wonderful—"
"What does any of that matter when you have the power to do anything you want?" the Sith Lord said. "They've lied to you, you know. They tell you that the dark side isn't more powerful—they tell you that fear and anger and hate don't work. It's not true. You can't imagine the kind of power the dark emotions bring."
"Yes, because just what I would like is to spend my life deliberately being angry and miserable," Rodney said. "It's a wrench to pass it up."
The Sith Lord eyed him narrowly. "There's got to be something you want," he said, musing out loud. "Something you can't have—that's what all those stupid Jedi rules are about, denying yourself—" He leaned down and Rodney swallowed hard as the Sith Lord slid his hand slowly up Rodney's chest.
"I've never really felt denied," Rodney said, halfheartedly trying to sit up, because the Sith Lord was actually quite attractive, in a kind of evil way, and he was doing something—something really interesting with his hands, and no, sex wasn't exactly denied to Jedi, but you weren't encouraged to go out there either, and there was so much other work and training to do, and Rodney had never gotten around to—"oh," he said, in a small, startled voice.
The Sith Lord smiled, and pushed him back down.
"I don't think this is a very good idea," Rodney babbled, while his clothing started to peel itself off—convenient that the Sith had already cut most of it away—"I mean—there's this whole—not that you're not, but—and I'm supposed to stop you—we're going to fight, and this doesn't seem entirely appropriate—"
"Look, Jedi," the Sith Lord said, "for just this once, just for a little bit, will you be quiet?"
Rodney swallowed and said, "My name's Rodney."
The Sith Lord paused. "Rodney," he said, oddly, staring down at Rodney's face. He hesitated and said, "I'm—I'm Darth—"
"Oh, not a chance," Rodney interrupted. "I am not saying Darth anything in the heat of passion. Tell me your name, not your pretentious call sign."
The Sith Lord glared at him. "Do you want sex or not?"
"Hey, this was your idea!" Rodney said. "I could go for the rest of my dinner instead, and frankly that would be significantly less disturbing—"
"Sheppard," the Sith Lord said. "You can call me Sheppard," and then he bent down and kissed Rodney into silence.
"Oh, oh, fine!" Rodney yelled. "Is that how it's going to be, you pathetic, useless excuse for a—"
"Now, now," Sheppard said, mildly, coming back into the clearing with another pair of skinned bunnies. "You know, Rodney, anger leads to the dark side."
"Frustration, however, is perfectly acceptable," Rodney said defensively, putting down the vibra-wrench and pretending he hadn't been about to throw it at the engine block.
The Sith put up his eyebrows. "Huh, really? How about pique?"
Rodney refused to dignify that with an answer.
"Oh, shut up," Rodney said.
But with only a few exceptions, the repairs were coming along easily, quickly; meanwhile the Sith Lord actually did seem to be keeping his side of the bargain, because the heavy grey clouds were dissipating once in a while now, and even though the trees hadn't come back to life, they were at least dying in a decently natural way, and even a few new green shoots were poking up out of the black dirt here and there.
Rodney still didn't quite trust it, so he spent an hour each afternoon sitting in meditation at the end of the clearing, trying to reach the earth, the roots, the plants, trying to get some sense of whether they were really recovering and healthy. He thought that maybe he was beginning to get the hang of it, a whisper of slow, creeping life, utterly unlike the quicksilver fierce Force-energy of technology, and the Sith Lord himself like an odd, negatively-charged combination of the two, a black hole pulsing quietly in their small clearing.
Rodney was a little uneasy about the sex. He was pretty sure that he shouldn't be enjoying it as much as he was or just, well, liking Sheppard as much as he did, and the Sith Lord really did seem to be convinced this was somehow going to lead to him turning to the dark side. Rodney hadn't yet seen fit to mention that Yoda had told him he was safer from the temptations of the dark side than most Jedi—he didn't quite know why, but if anyone would know, Yoda would. But on the other hand, Yoda probably hadn't known that Rodney was going to end up doing this sort of thing with a dark Jedi, and relying overconfidently on Yoda's pronouncement could be exactly what ended up with him really falling to the dark side after all and spending the rest of his undoubtedly abbreviated life in a deeply miserable existence.
He hadn't figured out a lot more about Sheppard. The Academy was the most likely place for him to have learned his Jedi skills before his fall, since he didn't seem to have a Sith master hanging around anywhere, and the Atlantis had undoubtedly been stolen from the Coruscant shipyards, no matter what Sheppard said. But Rodney was sure he would have remembered Sheppard if they'd been at the Academy together, and he certainly would have remembered hearing about someone turning to the dark side.
"Look, why don't you just tell me?" Rodney said, exasperated, one night as they licked their fingers clean over the fire.
"That part of my life is over," Sheppard said distantly. "It doesn't matter anymore."
"But you're so strong," Rodney said. "You could be a great Jedi—"
"If I wanted to grovel to the Council and serve them, sure," Sheppard said. "No. I have my ship and my freedom and my power."
"A stolen ship, the freedom to murder people, and dark power," Rodney said. "What more could anyone want!"
"The Atlantis is mine," the Sith said, glaring.
"Will you give it up already?" Rodney said. "She's got an active subdural transceiver that says otherwise, loud and clear."
"I didn't steal her! They owed her to me, and—wait, she's marked?" the Sith said.
"What did you do for the House of Idros that made them owe you a billion-credit ship?" Rodney said. "And no, I'm not turning it off for you!"
The Sith dropped his half of the roast bunny and lunged across the fire, shoving Rodney down into the dirt, his hands clenching in Rodney's vest; his eyes were glittering and furious and mad. "I want it out of her. She's mine," the Sith hissed, shaking him. Rodney froze, staring up at him, his heart pounding. "She's mine. They promised her to me. They promised me—"
And the dark side was suddenly there, like a black thing alive and crawling behind the Sith Lord's eyes, the low smothering cloud of it clammy and dreadful on Rodney's skin, and he could feel it. And this was what Yoda had meant, maybe, because Rodney knew with perfect and utter clarity that there was nothing in that darkness he wanted even a little; if it came to a choice between letting that touch him, come into him, he would let go and become one with the Force without hesitation—
And then the real horror hit, because he could do that, he could escape, but that thing had Sheppard, was laced through his soul and spirit like black spiderwebs, draped everywhere with only small gleams of light still showing through. And if—if Sheppard killed him now, he'd be lost forever; the dark side would anchor itself even deeper into him with that act, and in less than two weeks a real Jedi warrior was going to get here, someone who'd come after him and just kill him, and all those last faint glimmers would be blown out like a mist-lamp.
Rodney reached out slowly, put his hand on Sheppard's taut and shivering arm. "I'll take it out," he said softly, miserably, the only kind of comfort he had any idea how to offer. "I'll take out the transceiver. It's all right. She's yours."
Sheppard stayed poised over him, trembling, madness still vivid and hot in his eyes; they looked almost yellow in the firelight, for a moment. And then all at once it passed; he relaxed, his grip softened, and he smirked as if nothing had just happened. "I knew you'd see it my way," he said, and kissed Rodney, his lips salty and grease-slick from the food, and Rodney kissed him back desperately, holding on tight, trying to pretend he didn't taste the faint miasma of corruption, lingering at the back of Sheppard's throat.
"Do you remember?" Rodney asked, his hand on the circuit board, slowly and carefully erasing the pathways the transceiver used, without allowing any interruption to the rest of the ship's systems. "How did he become your pilot?"
Atlantis, peering over his shoulder with one of the small micro-droids, seemed confused by the question; he had always been her pilot, she suggested. She had only vague and partial memories of the late stages of her construction; she hadn't been herself yet, and they'd been wiping her memory banks regularly during the process. But Sheppard had been there, even then, already hers in some way she didn't know how to explain because it was so integral.
Rodney frowned and went to look at the control interface; it was one of the few parts of the ship that hadn't been damaged, so he hadn't inspected it before. Usually it was just one of a few dozen standard plug-in modules; pilots didn't want to have to train on a million different interfaces, so all the shipbuilders used the same ones. And the surface did look the same, but when he lifted away the physical controls, underneath there were twenty interconnected boards descending down into the guts of the console, glittering with platinum circuitry and chips made of diamond.
He stared; it looked like nothing more than his own work on trying to give pilots the equivalent of enhanced Force sensitivity, only oddly more convoluted. He put his hand on the circuit and slid mentally along the pathways. They felt strange, oddly resistant and counterintuitive, as though—as though, he realized, they had been designed specifically to the pattern of one mind. And not just to suit the pattern of one mind—
He climbed out. They'd been trying to build Force-sensitivity into the ship—they'd built the Atlantis around Sheppard, mimicking his mind. Except it didn't work that way, as Rodney could have told them; they'd put in too much detail. Sheppard could undoubtedly fly her like a dream, all of his native ability amplified by an order of magnitude, but as soon as they'd tried to put another pilot in, the ship wouldn't have functioned properly. Even another full Jedi would have trouble flying this ship.
The cost of building her must have been astronomical. Rodney had called her a billion-credit ship; she'd probably cost more like a quadrillion—at least as much as a brand-new military cruiser design, if not more. He wasn't sure how they'd even done it. He wrote his own circuitry patterns directly, by hand, guided by the Force; they would have had to lay them down with machines. Sheppard must have let them—let them plant sensors in his brain, let them invade his mind and self—Rodney cringed, sickened by the thought of that kind of intrusion, worse than rape.
But Rodney was still groping in the dark, trying to understand what had made Sheppard turn, and he didn't have a lot of time left. All the real repairs were done, and he was just holding off on the final connections. A week or so until his backup arrived, and then—
Yoda would probably have something meaningful and illuminating to tell him right about now about attachment leading to suffering, which Rodney was fairly sure would make him want to punch the Jedi Master in his little green head.
He climbed out of the Atlantis and went to sit by the firepit and meditate some more, tiredly. In a way, he was starting to like it. He'd never feel the same kind of connection, but he was prepared to admit it was just a little bit restful to feel the slower pace of the natural world, to sink into the greenness and life, to feel—He frowned without opening his eyes. To feel something strangely wrong, beneath, a deep, deep fault line that he hadn't sensed before, drawing energy and strength subtly away from all that lived and breathed. Subtle and slow, but no less destructive, and he jerked to his feet and opened his eyes to find Sheppard—to find the Sith Lord standing on the other side of the clearing, looking at him.
"You didn't fix the damage," Rodney said, his voice breaking. "You just hid it."
The Sith Lord didn't say anything for a moment, then shrugged with one shoulder, lightly, as if it didn't matter. "I figured what you didn't know wouldn't hurt you," he said. "We've both been hiding some things, haven't we? Like the extra help that's supposed to arrive in a week or so." He smiled without mirth, advancing slowly across the clearing. "Lucky for me those repairs are just about done already, aren't they? I'm figuring even someone who doesn't know much about ships can figure out whatever's left."
"Not enough time," Rodney whispered, miserably. "I didn't have enough time."
"Aw, don't say that, Rodney," the Sith Lord said, mockingly, drawing out his lightsaber. "We've had a pretty good run. Besides, I've almost been looking forward to this. I bet you've got a few extra tricks up your sleeve, more than I've seen. Let's have a look."
The lightsaber ignited, and Rodney stood there, agonized. He had to stop the Sith—except that meant he had to stop Sheppard, had to destroy him, the bright, desperate strength of him, the way his eyes went soft and very green when Rodney pressed into him, the quick spark of humor that not even the dark side had wholly erased, and Rodney said, wretchedly, "I can't. Master Yoda, I'm sorry, I can't—"
"There's only one other way, Rodney," Sheppard said softly, coaxing. "Give in to the dark side—"
"No," Rodney said, less to him than to the presence, the dark miasma that he sensed all around him, pressing in and asking for admittance, poking at his despair with cold fingers.
"Come on, Rodney, don't make me kill you," Sheppard said, and Rodney felt a sudden brilliant flash of understanding.
"I won't," he said, gently. "I won't, Sheppard," speaking not to the Sith but to the man underneath, the Jedi who might have been, and then Rodney reached out to the Atlantis and said, Help me. Help me save this world.
She quivered, uncertainly, and he added, It's the only chance to save him, too, and he knew she felt his conviction. All at once she snapped the final connections into place, and her fusion core came online, power building up like a thousand thunderstorms, the power of a small sun. He felt it when Sheppard tried to reach for her and was kept out; Rodney couldn't have done it alone, but she was with him now, in this. He reached down to that thick black fault line and tapped into it, and opened himself to the power.
He felt more than saw Sheppard stumbling to the ground as the power arced across the clearing, white coruscating beams that pounded into Rodney like hammer-blows, driving him to his knees. He tried to hold on through the agony; he'd never done anything like this, never for so long, and he'd never tried to use the energy from a power core this way, filtering it through his own body, easing it down to the slow creep of the organic world, so it could fill in those gutted, empty spaces and replace the power the Sith Lord had drained away.
And then it was over, done, and he fell to the ground hollowed out and boneless, his heart fluttering like a bird in a cage, every breath a sharp pain. But there were fresh shoots of grass creeping up underneath him, tickling his neck, and above him the sunlight was shining down through the bright healthy leaves of the trees.
Sheppard staggered to his knees next to Rodney's head, the lightsaber still clenched in his fist, staring down at him. "How—"
"It's all right," Rodney said, drowsily. He felt the Force all around him, strong and welcoming and clean, the fullness of it, so much more beautiful and vast than he'd ever imagined before. "You don't need to kill me. I'll be gone in a moment."
"What?" Sheppard said. "You—you're—"
"Atlantis is fixed," Rodney said. "She's ready to fly again. You have to—you have to leave now, before the other Jedi arrives. She's close," he added, because she was; Rodney could feel her now, Teyla, already on the planet, running easily through the jungle, both of her light-sabers swinging by her sides and her head-tails streaming out behind her. She'd felt the disturbance in the Force, the renewal of the planet, and she was hurrying towards them, a bright shining martial presence.
"Why?" Sheppard said. "Why would you—I was going to kill you. I'd have raped this planet dry and killed you and walked away—"
"Listen to me," Rodney said, "there's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing. It's all one—" and really, it was just as well he was about to die, because this being a Master thing would obviously be unbelivably frustrating; he knew he wasn't making any sense at all, except it was the only remotely accurate way to say it, which wasn't at all, and he sighed irritably. "Oh, never mind, will you just go and not die and stop being evil? Just stay out in space with Atlantis, fly as far as you can—she'll help you if you let her," and hopefully even if he didn't let her; in one corner of his head, Rodney was giving her instructions—to keep Sheppard mostly out of inhabited systems, to jump away from fights, to drag flights out if he came up with some plan in a fit of temper.
"You'll find your way back," he added. "You can find your way back, you just have to want to try."
"Shut up, what the hell do you know," Sheppard said. "I can't find my way back to something I never was. I was never a Jedi. I wasn't good enough—I was too old, I was too angry, they wouldn't take me. They wouldn't teach me how to fly—"
Of course not, because the Jedi wouldn't teach someone who wanted only to escape from others, and Rodney ached for the glimpses he could see through the Force of the things that had been done to a boy to make him want that isolation. So Sheppard had stayed on Coruscant, teaching himself in secret and piecemeal, until he was good enough to hand himself over to the Idrosians to build their master ship with. Good enough, but also friendless enough to be taken advantage of and betrayed when the expensive ship proved to be useless, fit only to be melted down—
"Don't be an idiot," Rodney said. "They didn't refuse because you weren't strong enough, they refused because it was dangerous for you. And for everyone that you would hurt, if you fell to the dark side. Which, I might point out, is exactly what has happened. But that doesn't mean it has to keep happen—happening," he finished, gasping; his last strength was slipping away. "Will you go already? I've gone to a not inconsiderable amount of effort here, in case you haven't n-noticed, and the least you could do is not—not get yourself killed—"
His eyes were drifting shut, involuntarily.
"Rodney—" Sheppard said, raggedly. "Rodney, no, don't. Don't."
"S'okay, it's, it's, this whole cycle of life thing." Rodney twitched a finger in a circle towards the trees. "Needed to fill it back up from somewhere."
Sheppard was tight and clenched and motionless above him, for a moment, and then he put his hand on Rodney's chest and pushed, and abruptly life-force was pouring into him, all the stolen power, the slow green tide of energy cool and soothing after the scorching heat of the fusion core, running into all the parched, hollow spaces, renewing him and running over, and Rodney sat up and said hurriedly, "Okay, okay, that's enough!" and put his hands on Sheppard's shoulders and kissed him, and they went tumbling over the fresh green grass together.
Teyla burst into the clearing five minutes later with one immense bound, both lightsabers leaping ignited into her hands, and stopped, staring.
"Um," Rodney panted, lifting his head up from the ground, flailing an arm at her feebly. "Sorry, false alarm! Never—nevermind. Go away?"
She said, "Is that the Sith Lord?" doubtfully, eyeing Sheppard, who was busy and not looking up at the moment.
"No," Rodney said, "well, yes, but no, he's not anymore, and—and would you mind?"
She sighed and put her lightsabers away. "You humans are such prudes. Is there anything to eat?"
"nngh," Rodney said.
"In that case, I'm going hunting," she said, and walked off into the woods.
"Oh, yeah," Sheppard said, rolling off onto his back, wiping his mouth.
"Mm," Rodney said, dazedly.
Sheppard picked himself up and crawled over so he could pillow his head on Rodney's stomach. Rodney petted his thick, dark hair as they lay there staring up at the sky. "Rodney," Sheppard said softly, after a moment.
"Yes, yes, you're welcome," Rodney said magnanimously, waving a hand. "See, I told you I was a powerful Jedi. Actually, I'm quite impressed with myself. I think I might be the youngest Jedi Master in the last thousand years—"
"Actually," Sheppard broke in, "I was just going to ask if you thought maybe we could get her to find something else instead of rabbit. I've been getting kind of sick of it."
Rodney lifted his head and glared indignantly. "You were not! You were about to express your sincere and overwhelming gratitude."
"I thought I already did that," Sheppard said blandly.
Rodney blushed. "That was a mutually satisfying—"
"When I saved your life," Sheppard added.
"Oh, yes, right," Rodney said, coughing.
= End =
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