Second Nature

By Kat Reitz and Perryvic

He was and he wasn't an impulse buyer.

The thing was, when he didn't pointedly want something, he'd very smartly say to himself, no, that can wait, and he'd put the item down. Instrument, book, curios from Alteran ruins, he could put them down and walk away. But when he *did* pointedly want something, he tended to never be able to find it again, and he wasn't really surprised that this decision was headed that way, too. He wanted a pet. He wanted a cat to keep him company because Sunlight was dead. Sunlight had lived a good, long life, and he hadn't wanted to introduce a young cat to Sunlight and add stress, but Rodney had had to have him put down three weeks ago.

Carson said normal people mourned their cats longer. Rodney had assured him that normal people tended not to own cats as steadily as Rodney did. Maybe he had a strange take on grief. Sunlight had been *exceedingly* old, though. 18 years. He'd had two brushes with death, a series of disgusting looking herbal medicines, and had survived his last year solely through persuading Carson to use his gift a little illicitly on an animal, until the Healer mage had declared him beyond his help. Rodney had mourned, grieved, and then enjoyed the extra time he'd had with a cat whom he'd had since before he'd left to train in the disciplines of a Maker. By the time he'd been put down, Rodney had moved on.

Which brought him to his third pet emporium in Castleton. Only a major city like Castleton would even have so many places to buy luxuries such as pets. No doubt there were more tucked away down mysterious alleys and districts, but he had kept to the sector deemed safe for nobles.

This store bore the sign of the 'By appointment to the Ori' seal prominently displayed, so it was possible he might find something more interesting, or at least something of quality befitting his status. It was a step above the last normal place at least. "If you don't get one here, then that's it for the day," Carson said beside him, looking around dubiously. "What was wrong with the longhair anyway?"

There were little balls of puff at the last place, and purebreds and just... nothing that reached out to Rodney and said 'own me and take care of me for the next decade and change'. "I don't know. He seemed mentally slow. And not even in the fun way. Copernicus, the cat I had before Sunlight, was stupid but an interesting stupid. He opened doors, relentlessly looking for food. Once, he chewed the bottom corner off of a bag of gravel because he thought it was dry food. I want an interactive cat."

"Sometimes a pet has to grow on you," Carson pointed out, for what had to be the tenth time on this particular trip. "I seem to remember a few times you swore about your cats."

The shop smelt of the odors of fresh sawdust, and fur. Odd trilling sounds from some of the exotic birds made it seem lively and everywhere was well lit and well appointed.

"Yes, but they'd already grown on me by the time I was swearing," Rodney countered. Carson let the door close behind him, and Rodney stood there for a moment, eyeing the shelves, stuffed with toys and food and leads and anything else you could need for a nobles pampered pet, before he let his eyes drift to the cages.

"Well if it is going to be up at the Castle with everyone, you need one with some restraint.” Carson advised. "My turtles don't exactly bother anyone. Possibly because they never get out and run riot."

"May I help you?" The shop assistant came over and then obviously saw the discrete slash insignia that denoted their noble status and bowed hurriedly. "My Lords."

"Your turtles bite," Rodney pointed out, because he was going to finish their conversation, helpful staff member there or *not*. He was a Maker, appointed to the Court of the Ori’s Regent and Carson was officially his chattel because of his Alteran blood abilities, but it still meant the both of them were not to be interrupted by a merchant of any standing. He gave it a moment and then turned to the shop server. "I'm looking for a cat with some personality."

"And he really means that," Carson added. "Something unusual."

"Is it a cat that specifically my Lord?" the assistant asked. "We do have shape-bonded pets here."

"Shape-bonded? I thought they had captured the last of the renegade magicians sometime ago?" Carson asked looking a little curious.

"These are some of the last that will be available my lord."

Shape-bonded. Now, that was interesting. Rodney didn't think much of the whole process, of course, because he was a scientific man, a Maker and the ‘mucking about with magic’ seemed a little too prone to chaos for his liking. "I'm not sure I want one, but I can look at them, can't I?"

"Of course. We have only three and I am told that a Lord Parrish has put a deposit on the shape-bonded squirrel Lorne. There is a sugar-glider Markham and..." The shop assistant hesitated. "Sheppard the cat."

"Sheppard the cat," Rodney repeated. That was oddly ominous, and he really didn't need someone trying to hint with vocal tones how he should perceive something. "Well, show me Sheppard the cat. I'm a cat owner. I've had nothing but cats."

"My Lord, Sheppard the cat has been… returned by two previous owners," the assistant said apologetically. He was obviously reluctant to sell them a pet that might have them bringing their wrath down upon his business."I feel I should tell you this. Perhaps you would like to see the sugar glider?"

"Small and cute and furry, yes, yes, but it's not a *cat*. You know, tail, pointy ears, about 12 pounds of fur, bottomless stomach and claws? I want to at least see." The urge to snap his fingers at the assistant was immense. "I mean, why mention Sheppard the cat to me at all?"

"Yes My Lord, I apologize." The assistant moved away hastily. "I shall fetch him immediately."

"He probably didn't tell you because he didn't want you to have him punished when he bit you," Carson said with a laugh. "It's not usual for shape-bonding to produce any sort of predator. The Priors try to force passive shapes."

Rodney shrugged, and wandered a little, picking up a knit purple ball from a basket. It jingled. That was very attractive in a cat toy, and he did need to buy new ones. That was completely not related to the fact that he may or may not have buried Sunlight with his old favorites.

"I know that technically they're predators, but they're not going to run fishing line across the hallway and take my head off, so the fight's a little unfair."

"Rodney, have you actually listened to any of the information about the shape-bonding?"Carson said. "It's a human mind in there... a human who was on the losing side against the Ori Empire and with the unfortunate luck to be a magician. You know I was only spared because I have the Healers oath. And then they made me a chattel of the Royal Court."

"Yes, and look how well you're doing here," Rodney pointed out, shrugging his shoulders at Carson. "So, it's a human mind in there. That's all the more reason to take it home, treat it well, and not have it sitting rotting in a cage."

Carson sighed. "A human mind that regards us as the enemy? I'm just saying, be careful."

The assistant was returning with a small carry cage and in it a very lacksidaisical looking cat. At first glance he looked like a normal cat, smoky grey, short haired but there was something about his eyes as they turned to focus on him. They were a hazel green around the slit cats eye pupil.

"Hey there, guy." Rodney waited for the assistant to set the cage on the counter, and crouched down to look eye to eye with the cat. His ears were short, or docked or something. Funny-looking, curled a little maybe. Rodney wanted to reach out to pet them, but he wasn't stupid enough to stick his fingers through the cage wire.

The cat stared back, not looking away even as his tail curled in a recognizable question mark. Rather unexpectedly a paw reached forward, soft and claws in as if Sheppard was wanting to reach out and pet *him* in curiosity.

Well, maybe he could touch that, stroke the tip of the paw that was pressed against the cage. "Hey. Really, Carson. He doesn't have opposable thumbs. What do you think he could do?"

"That would depend on how inventive he was," Carson replied, peering at the cat but hanging back a little.

"My Lord, he… never harmed anyone, but he did cause a great deal of mischief and ran away," the assistant said.

The cat gave him an irritated look and a rumbling growl before getting up and sniffing at Rodney's fingers.

"But... I have to say... he seems to be reacting well to you My Lord." The shop server seemed genuinely surprised by this.

"Maybe the cat in him knows a cat person when he sees one," Rodney remarked, holding his fingers still and letting Sheppard come close. He was really something else, and the smoky shades of his fur were healthy-looking, good and clean. "Hi there."

"Shall I open the cage my Lord?" the assistant asked even as Sheppard sniffed closely and then stretched.

"You might as well," Carson said. "Rodney always likes to hold the cats, and spoil them rotten."

The cage was opened and Sheppard looked at him reaching out his hand. Then he rather startlingly jumped and bounced up Rodney's arm up to his shoulder where his whiskers tickled in his ear. "Ow, ow, claws..." Rodney twisted, reaching up to steady the cat on his shoulder, glad that he had very wide, strong shoulders. "Hello to you, too."

Then Sheppard was making himself comfortable and reaching down into a shirt pocket and hooking the little snack he kept there for food emergencies out with a deft claw with very evident satisfaction.

"Oh, no...stop that!" The assistant reached to grab Sheppard and the shape-bonded cat hissed and swiped at him with unsheathed claws.

They weren't huge and impressive, but it was still enough to make the man jerk. "It's only jerky," Rodney chided, petting at Sheppard's back. "Cat's got good taste."

Carson was frowning as he petted the grey fur, with an expression that meant he was at least ‘listening’ to his gift, if not actively healing. "The cat is also... starving," he said. "Bloody hell, haven't you been feeding him?"

"He's been given plenty of food," the assistant protested and the grey cat stopped chewing the jerky long enough to make a disgusted noise.

"Aye, food spiked with a tranquilizer no doubt," Carson replied a little tersely. "Honestly, he is not an animal. He is going to realize what you did after the first time and avoid eating."

Rodney twisted, steadying Sheppard with one hand while he reached for the jerky. "No, I'm not taking it away from you, but I can hold it steady better than your claws and my shoulder. How much is he?"

"Seven thousand silver orishes my Lord. His price was lowered, but shapebonded are expensive and high status," the assistant said even as Sheppard accepted his help and ate the jerky with relish.

Seven thousand silver orishes was a price that made Rodney want to wince inside. "How long does a shape-bonded cat live?"

"As long as a human," Carson said. "I am the only person who reads any of these things aren't I? Look, Rodney if he takes to you you'll never have to buy another cat again, accidents permitting."

"Then that's perfectly cost effective," Rodney murmured, trying to peer at the cat who was sitting on his shoulder and eating jerky without dislocating his *neck*. "You know I don't read outside of my field. I’m a Maker, not a …mage."

"Does my lord wish to purchase the shape-bonded?" the assistant asked sucking on his finger where it had been swiped.

"It's not like you can't afford him Rodney," Carson said with a faint understanding smile. "I'm not even going to suggest looking any further. I can see you have found the one you are looking for."

"Well, I'm always told that I should act my status," Rodney murmured. Sheppard was still hungrily chewing the jerky. "Yes, I wish to purchase him. I guess you're not going to take too well to the dry food, will you?"

Sheppard looked at him and it was almost easy to read the 'You've got to be kidding me' look he gave him before he continued eating.

"I'll just put him in a travel case," the assistant said reaching for the cat again and like a blob of silver grey mercury slid away from a gripping hand using Rodney as his climbing post. He was incredibly agile and when pushed even jumped over onto Carson before jumping back into Rodney's arms and trying to hide in his coat.

"How about I put him in the travel case," Rodney suggested, letting Sheppard try to get into his coat. Yes, this was a smart one, and why not? He'd been human once. Rodney could appreciate that now when he said 'no', the cat really would be ignoring him.

"Very well my lord, I will process his purchase," the assistant replied and headed off to do paperwork.

Carson glanced at Rodney. "I don't think he wants to go in there Rodney. Remember he's a human mind, not a cat. He can be reasoned with and if I had been locked in a cage for however long, I wouldn't want to go back into another." He glanced meaningfully down at his hands and wrists, which sometimes had to be bound in cold iron for official functions.

"Right, well. We're just going to put you in it so we can carry you to where I live," Rodney offered, still holding him and not moving, yet, to try to stuff him into the cage.

Sheppard growled and looked at him. He obviously did not agree with that.

"Honestly, I never thought I would be giving you advice on dealing with a cat," Carson said. "Sheppard lad, it's not practical for Rodney here to carry you in his arms all the way home. He tends to wave them around when he starts talking. How about you go in but the door is not shut?"

The cat seemed to consider this and looked at Rodney before losing the tension in his body.

He petted fingers down Sheppard's back for a moment, enjoying the feeling of fur. "Okay, you ready to go in? Oh, hey. Are there any toys from here you want?"

If cats could shrug then that was what Sheppard did, even as he slipped into the carry case, deliberately poking his paws through the door so it couldn't shut.

"Here is the ownership papers and the details on keeping a shape-bonded," the assistant said. "Here is a bill of sale my Lord."

Rodney reached for the cage, and stood up a little more properly to sign the papers. "Thank you. I might be back later for a few other things, but we'll see what he does and doesn't like when we get home."

The assistant bowed evidently delighted with the sale and Carson sighed. "Now, can we go home? My feet are killing me and I have some work to do this afternoon."

"Yes, yes, you've humored me enough. I hate shopping." But he liked what he'd found. An intelligent cat with a healthy coat and curiosity. He might have run away on the others, but Rodney didn't think he'd have any such problem.

The problem with being a cat was there was a whole other set of instincts that became… well, second nature. John still had human thoughts and human intelligence, but he also had strong cat reflexes. Purring just, well rather embarrassingly, it just happened sometimes. Wanting to be stroked, that was pure cat. Urges to chase and pounce were hard to deny, but the urge to mischief...well, that was probably all him.

He had toyed with the idea of running away, as they carried him towards the Castle but hadn't because hey, they were going towards the Castle where he wanted to be and also, Rodney smelled right. That apparently was a cat thing, as well, judging people on the way they smelled to him.

They had apparently arrived, so he was looking around carefully before he exited his carrier. Rodney had just set the carrier down and closed the door to his room, and let John decide whether he wanted in or out of the carrier. The room smelled still, vaguely, like another cat. He didn't smell litter, though.

That was pretty humiliating but he'd gotten used to it. Being a cat was nowhere near as humiliating or painful as what they did to him before they shape-bonded him. He'd been good at magic, it ran in his blood so magical artifacts sang for him, danced in a way others even of their own resistance movement could not match, but that had not been enough to save him.

He tried every night to break the shape-bond but he couldn't do it. Apparently it was impossible, taking a whole circle of Priors to impose the curse and make it unbreakable. He didn't like to think that there was no hope. He often wondered why they didn’t just kill any of their captives and just be rid of them but the Ori were a law unto themselves.

Hmm, interesting room. He padded out of the carrier and started hunting around. Perimeters first of course - that was a different ingrained habit from his warrior days. Back and forth, looking around, trying to learn all the important and not so important places, trying to learn more about who in the *castle* owned him.

"Sheppard, I'm going to give you just some raw meat tonight. Seeing as you've been off food."

He wanted to say 'Yeah okay thanks, I want that,' but that translated to an urge to rub his head against Rodney's hand or leg. Not exactly dignified but that was the way the instincts worked.

He coped. He'd like a good steak, a nice pot pie, maybe. He wanted food that his body would hate, but he still knew what he liked that his body agreed with, and good meat was on the menu.

There was an orange puffball on the floor, under what seemed to be a sofa. Huh, well, time to scoop that out. He was hooking it out before he even thought hard about it. He poked it a bit as he considered what to do next.

Table. What did this Rodney guy actually do? Who was this man who had purchased an enemy of the Ori? Another one wanting to humiliate and punish him further?

The Castle was impressive, and what he did know was his new owner was a Lord. John squirmed onto his back, giving the puffball a few good kicks while he gripped it in his front paws. He had to let his instincts flow without fighting them, so he could think human thoughts while his body did cat things. It was a little more satisfying to savage something bigger, but still. And there was a non-Ori healer who was his friend. An Alteran-blood magician who hadn't had happen to him what happened to John. That could be good. He could use that.

Of course Healers had their own restrictions; the Healer oath of Do No Harm was punishingly literal but acted as a guarantee to their behavior. They may have survived the purges, and the cleansing fire, but they were generally property of powerful people.

He savaged the puffball and then got up, jumping up onto the table to look at the papers there.

Oh, huh. A Maker. Permitted to do good works of science in the name of the Ori no less, making principles of science into miracles for the credulous. The table was covered in wild drawings, and measuring tools. He had to get regrettably close to the pages to try to understand them.

Numbers. He liked numbers. He lay down on top of half the papers and stared at them , discovering that Rodney, his new lordly owner was in fact a goddamn genius. A real genius to rival anyone he had ever heard of in any history or pre-Origin tale. He was reading math and purring.

It was nice, going over the math, trying not to wrinkle the papers while he put a good effort into following the content. "Hey, psssst. Sheppard. I have meat for you, and water. But not on the table."

His tail twitched but he was hungry and sniffing at the meat carefully, he confirmed it was fine to eat and that was all he needed to fall on it ravenously. To his cats senses it tasted wonderful, and he gorged himself. It seemed like his best course of action was to cozy up to Lord Rodney. He could be charming as a cat or otherwise. If that meant sitting on a lap, then he could do that. This had to be the best random stranger to ask to look at him yet. Even if he did sit down on the floor by John, and stroke his back while he ate. He seemed enamored.

He had been right about something. Cat people did seem different to him, more approachable and Rodney was definitely one of those. He finished eating, licking himself clean and then decided that he was going to charm the pants off of his new keeper. First the rolling on the back for a belly stroke. Somewhat over the top, but it was usually a prelude to chewing on a hand.

Rodney was all sly smiles while he reached in to tickle under John's chin first. "Yeah, you're going to savage my hand, aren't you? Baiting me with your soft belly. I'll have you know that Sunlight was my last cat, and he lived to 18 with the help of the healers. I was sad when he died, but he lived a good, happy life."

Well, maybe he could hold back from the actual savaging. He arched his neck because there was something immensely satisfying about that. Something to do with the scent marking because Rodney was starting to smell like his. He mock pawed at Rodney's hand but exerted control to keep his claws in, and did not bite down when he reached for a finger.

"I wish I knew what you were thinking." He tapped John's nose gently, still smiling. "If you need more food later, bat my head or something. We'll get you on a regular schedule after a while, but." John looked up and paused in his game. Rodney genuinely *loved* having a cat - he was so cripplingly lonely he could practically smell it.

Rodney stretched his fingers, and seemed fascinated with stroking the ruff to the side of John's neck. John hadn't smelt lonely like that before.

Regular schedule? Well that would be a novelty. He bit absently at that finger and then climbed onto Rodney's lap. His best bet was to win over his new owner and he knew all about doing what needed to be done to get the right result. If that meant cozying up and all of that, then dignity was something that went out the window the first time he'd been picked up like a rag doll.

"Oh, you're affectionate, huh? A little food and no cage and you're all over me." There was more gentle scratching, and Rodney pulled some of his papers over towards him, off of the table-top. "Mmm, I worked with a lot of your people, back in the day."

He made a quizzical sort of sound and tilted his head, getting comfortable. Maybe Rodney was a magician himself. He must be something to be friends with a Healer. John had never worked with him, he knew that much. He would've remembered.

"I make things. I build the things that put non magicians up on their level. Running water, lights in shops and hallways that don't need to be lit with fire. Everything was more interesting when your people were wandering around." Still not helpful. Rodney toyed with the scruff at the back of his neck, and leaned in to start making marks on one drawing.

Your people. The magic users of Alteran blood. Some who could barely raise a flame and others who could were the ancient enemy of the Ori, and who had legendary wars, where the seas boiled and mountains toppled and world upon worlds were destroyed. Demons and Devils the Priors preached to the masses on all their conquered worlds. He was demonspawn incarnate, a tool of chaos and horror to the way of Origin. Seemed a little far fetched. He peered at what Rodney was doing.

Rodney had a charcoal in hand, and it looked simple -- a line here, a line there, and another one there. Maybe all he did was design. Maybe he had a workshop in another room. There was food to be had in this room, and a table, and a sofa to lounge on, but no bed. So there had to be a door he could fuss at, maybe a workshop?

One of the first things he was trained to do was to do recon, so first chance he had he would be exploring this castle, see what he could find out, see what the politics were and if there was anyway of unlocking this shape-bonding. He had to do it, none of these people knew what the Ori were planning and they were merrily serving them as if they weren't all in danger.

He'd get Rodney to do what he could convince him to do, with his limited communication abilities. He just had to get the guy in his hooks, and work out what kind of resistance to the Ori there still was in the world, and then maybe he could find a way to fight again.

While Rodney enjoyed the cute and cuddly act, he didn't *not* know what he was getting himself into. He'd brought home a hyper intelligent cat, which, for all he knew, was thinking in full sentences and planning his demise while he went to work the day after he'd brought him home.

So when he saw the faint suggestion of a smoky grey shadow moving through the workshop in the belly of the castle, he was less than surprised. "So, Radek, did I mention that I finally bought a cat yesterday?”

"Oh joy. Once again I will be subjected to the latest amusing thing that your feline protégé has done," Zelenka said gloomily. "Be still my beating heart."

"He savaged the orange fluff ball this morning," Rodney crowed, pitching it to over the top just because it was his favorite amusement to bait the other Maker. "He's Shape-bound."

That got Zelenka's attention. "Shape-bound? And a cat? I thought most were not predators. Only other who was not rabbit or cute ball of fluff is O'Neill dog. And the Noble Regent has him tamed."

“Well, he's my cat now. He comes with a name and everything. Sheppard. Does that ring any bells, or...?" Rodney waved his wrench a little knowing that Radek paid more attention to the news that filter through the city.

"Hmm. I will have to ask. They filter much of the official news. It is a ringing a bell though so you should be careful." Radek turned the diagram a little. "Only those of strength cause enough trouble that their names cannot be suppressed. Sheppard. Hmm."

The grey shadow was watching them closely.

"Mmm. Here, hand me that strip of metal. I think we're going to have to do a little forging today. Sheppard, you want to come out of there?" Rodney didn't quite suppress the urge to snap his fingers.

"You brought your cat to work?" Radek exclaimed looking around even as the grey cat slunk out of the shadows and sauntered over towards Rodney trying someone how to project that he had just been passing and had dropped in.

"No, my cat followed me to work when I thought he was in my rooms. Hi, Sheppard. You're not allowed to eat the little turtles if you happen to run into them. Or play with them." Rodney crouched down to pet him.

The cat made a strange sort've sound, rubbing against him and then jumped straight up onto the table, somehow avoiding their diagrams and lying down.

"No, no, he will be treading on instructions," Radek said and watched him with a faint expression of surprise. "...or not."

"I mean it about the turtles," Rodney warned the cat. "They're Carson's. So, uh. I've completely lost my train of thought." Sheppard lazily stretched out and patted over a small strip of metal toward Rodney to Radek’ astonishment. "That…You were asking for that metal. How..."

"Shape-bonded," Rodney reminded him, reaching for the piece of metal. "Brains and purrs, too."

"Well." Zelenka glanced at the cat. "As long as he does not interfere. We have a deadline and there will be people checking soon."

"He's sitting on the table," Rodney pointed out. "Let's just pretend he's not here." It was comparatively easy to do as Sheppard’s sprawl on the table was not apparently a prelude to attention seeking and pestering. Even Radek started to forget about the cat watching them both.

"Good. good. Fits now," Zelenka commented.

Rodney leaned back, eyeing his engine. It wasn't perfect, but it was... lovely, maybe. Lovely was a good word for machinery. "Mmm."

"Should work. We will not have to beg to the Priors for magic to work the mill to complete the harvest," Radek said with evident satisfaction. "Now, we have time for our own project.”

"Harvest assured now," Rodney murmured, letting his fingers rest on it. "Do you want to go install it, or should I?"

"Ah, you are wanting me out of the way," Radek said slyly. "Very well, I will be taking the hint. I shall install."

Rodney put his hands up. "I want ten minutes with the equipment, on my own. That's all."

"I shall not be seeing anything I shouldn't be seeing," Radek said. "Do not be doing something that will have the Priors here."

"No, no. They'd completely approve!" Rodney protested. "It's just that this could be a dead end. You know how theory is." Would it work or would it be completely malformed and a waste of resources?

Radek picked up the piece and headed towards the door. "Be having fun," he said and headed off.

On his worktop, Sheppard described lazy arcs with his tail, watching him intently.

"You know what I'm doing when I finish here? I'm getting you a *collar*," Rodney told him firmly. "I can't make you not run around, but I can make sure people know whose you are."

The tail lashed back and forth with displeasure. Obviously a collar was not well thought of, but Sheppard did not run away.

Rodney reached out to pet him. "I mean it. Think of it as a way to guarantee your own safety."

There was another one of those questioning sounds - not quite a meow but something with enough character behind it to be clearly interpreted as'Oh yeah really? How exactly?'

"Well, you're mine. No-one is going to mess with my stuff, or my cat. It kept Sunshine safe, and he got a little squirrely sometimes. Ran out, raced up and down the stairs a lot." Rodney waved a hand side to side.

The grey cat patted at his hand thoughtfully. "Mmrah," he replied and seemed to agree reluctantly.

"Right, so. Collar it is. And no eating the turtles," he reiterated, because it seemed like the kind of thing that needed to be said five or twenty times. "So, what do you think of the Castle?"

The grey tail gave a slightly dismissive flick, and Sheppard did not seem impressed. In fact he yawned exaggeratedly and seemed to be challenging Rodney to do something to interest him.

"Right, you just sit there and watch me work on my side project. Which is *not* something which the Ori would be pissed off by, even if Radek thinks I'm hiding something." It was ridiculous to justify himself to the cat, but. But he was doing it, and he knew the cat understood what he was saying.

Sheppard sprawled his attention apparently captured by a scrap of paper as Rodney worked. He hooked it in and seemed to be poking at it painstakingly for sometime, giving Rodney some peace and quiet.

There were measurements to be made. He and Radek made a great many generators, for things like crops, and lights, but there were more complicated things that had been powered by magic, once, and they needed power. Everything, the whole world needed power, and without magic, well, people had to make do. They would make do, but with technology.

He was sure he could replace a lot of magic with technology. Enough that the common people could benefit as well. In fact he was sure some of what the Ori called enemy magic was just advanced technology. The Alterans had been masters of combining the two, blending them until what was magic and technology could not be separated. Therefore it wasn't evil in nature, it was just a thing a tool to use, and just thinking this sort of thing near a Prior would have him bound to the fire for purification in the nearest place of communal worship.

Sheppard paused over the scrap of paper and then sprawled half looking at him upside down.

It was a picture. A bad picture that maybe a child would've drawn but it was recognizably a turtle scratched with an inky claw and wobbly writing underneath saying 'YUM'.

He caught himself staring hard at the picture, and then at John, and his satisfied, ears canted forwards look. "No. You didn't, you couldn't. How did you even get in their shells?"

And then it struck him that his cat could spell.

The hazel green cat eyes looked back at him and it looked all the world like Sheppard was smiling at him. He had a cat who was *joking* with him. Who could *spell*. He'd known that was possible but hadn't appreciated it. Intellectually he knew there was a person in there but he had just imagined a more intelligent cat.

How much of a human mind was in there was no longer in question, because it was enough to do *that*, to come up with an ingenious way to mar a piece of paper with rudimentary tools. Rodney stared a little longer, and then leaned in to John and scratched the top of his head. "Huh. You're amazing, but I bet you knew that already. We need to work out a system for you."

That got a loud purr and Sheppard rubbing his head against his hand and it had to be frustrating not being able to communicate. He seemed to be trying to find another piece of paper then, wanting to communicate more.

Rodney turned the poor maligned turtle over, and patted it flat for John. "There, that's good enough. Have at. I need to work on this more before Radek gets back."

That was enough to get the grey cat pawing at the paper again using his dipper of ink. It looked difficult and he had to think of a better communication method, but it would keep him occupied.

The latest offering was a basic badly drawn cat and then a wobbly 'JOHN' scratched under it. He'd seen his three year old niece do better. But then she was precocious.

He wasn't going to tell his *cat* that the ears weren't even, or the eyes, and that it was a good thing that Rodney was familiar with rudimentary childish drawings or else he'd never have known what it was supposed to represent. "John is your name, then. I mean, I'm assuming. Unless you want it to be your name and it never was before, which is a distinct possibility. Still, I'm having trouble imagining my cat as something with that level of subterfuge. On the other hand, you're a cat that can write."

John righted himself and purred his approval, leaving an inky paw print on the table, and then on Rodney as he half walked on him. He was obviously pleased with himself and then looked up at Rodney and then what he was working on and rubbed against it with his head which was obviously a way of expressing interest in what he was doing.

"Okay, come over here and I'll explain it," Rodney coaxed. "Though as a former magician I don't expect you to fully understand the concept of actual working machinery. Carson still has issues with the knobs that turn the lights on around here."

The smoky grey cat slinked closer and then peered closely and sat in a vaguely attentive fashion as if to say it was more interesting than what he was doing before, and was willing to give it a stab even if he didn't understand it.

He supposed that it *was* more interesting than sitting in a cage, and how had he withstood that? Rodney would've gone bonkers if he'd been in a small cell with nothing to do, and he knew it. "All right. If Radek walks in and finds me explaining conversion power generation to a cat... I will never live it down."

The only thing that would be better was if Sheppard...John, could talk back. Although he had to admit he was probably having a more civilized conversation with his cat than he had with most people. But then his cats filled the hole and need for affection. He'd always felt there was something honest about a cat. They had enough independence to make the fact they chose to be around something a little less slavish than the sort've devotion a dog gave. But now he had a cat who was part human what would that mean? Probably nothing different, he treated his cats probably better than he did most humans.

There was something satisfying about talking as he worked. He wasn't annoyed with ridiculous questions but thinking it through enough to explain it helped him solve one or two things. This was far and away above the level of technology that the normal common folk were used to. And the magic that the Priors bestowed was few and far between in beneficial effects for everyday life.

It was all very show, and very little purpose. Rodney tilted his head backwards after a moment, stretching because he heard the door at the far end of the work-room start to open. "I was wondering if you'd gotten lost, Radek!"

"And yes you can get to the other side of the castle and fit part in two seconds. I stand agape in awe and .." Radek peered at him. "Replaced by cat. My ego, it is inflated. The Regent is having a feast tonight. We are told to attend, there are allies from the Genii attending and we are to show all assets."

"Oh, nice." Rodney leaned back in to look at his generator. "Does this count as an asset at this point? I was just explaining it to John here. We should probably crank it up first to make sure it's at least... presentable." Assets. That irked Rodney to no end, like they *owed* the Genii a song and dance.

"John? Who is...ah, the Cat. Well we are expected to show something and the Regent is most proud of our advances." Radek said. "Carson is unhappy for he must wear marks of servitude."

"Given the situation, Carson should be happy he's not living off of mushed fruit, or shitting into a box of sand." Rodney reached to pet John, and then shifted to stand up. His legs had gotten stiff, sitting on the floor like that. "And hopefully none of us will piss any of them off tonight."

"Bah, their military prowess is what the Ori Empire wish," Radek answered. "All gleaming muscle. The Regent will send them many to serve desires. Perhaps to us too so we seem to have more status yes?"

"Is that your daydream, huh?" Rodney lifted his eyebrows at Radek. "Lots of oiled up women? When was the last time you got laid, huh?"

Radek sighed thoughtfully. "It was a Tuesday. Somewhere in the last decade."

And John snorted in an oddly delicate and ridiculous sound of feline amusement. It made Rodney bend over to scoop him up. "Laugh, hairy one. Laugh. Here, sit on the table with your art, while we put this through a test run."

Distraction or not, he had work to do and he had already taken enough time out that he was surprised the castle had not fallen apart without his constant intervention. But that of course was the price of genius.

John had not been expecting the agreed-to collar to be quite as ... glittery. It was apparently for show, for status and he had to admit, even Rodney was dressed up for this feast like a peacock and he was expected to go as well.

Rodney muttered that they all had to display themselves one way or another. Rodney smoothed his shirt and jacket down one more time, and then bent down to scoop John up. "You're lucky I'm not trying to put you on a leash."

Yeah well, he'd like to see him try that. He tried to scratch at the gaudy thing with a back foot, even as there was a knock on the door and he recognized the scent of the one that Rodney had called Carson.

"No, no, don't do that. You'll rip your own fur out," Rodney chided, carrying him carefully towards the door, and then juggling John to pull it open. "Is that -- oh."

"Yes, I know, I don't bloody well need any more comments, thank you," Carson said looking down at himself. His clothing and accessories were designed to one purpose; to make it obvious he was a chattel and little more than a slave to his Ori supported masters."I'm not sure what this proves exactly. That I know my place I suppose."

John sniffed at him, stretching forward in Rodney's arms. He could smell a hint of blood under pungent healer salves.

That was interesting. He wondered if Carson was hurt, or if that was someone else's blood he smelled on his hands. "Damn." Rodney reached his free hand out, and touched Carson's cuffed wrists. "This is, do you have to go?"

"Yes, I have to bloody well go, and someone has to be... in charge, so I've picked you," Carson said, sounding annoyed. "I think everyone else is worried I will bear a grudge and not work my magic on them if they need it."

John was starting to consider that maybe being in a catshape was a better option this time around.

"You'd heal me no matter what. Or I'd whine," Rodney offered, "And those are your words, not mine. All right, let me lock up and we'll get this insanity over with. Maybe we can sneak out early. Hide outside. 'Take In The Sights'."

"You know you'll want to eat all there is to eat," Carson replied. "I see Sheppard is coming along. Another decree? Probably so the Regent’s dog won't feel alone."

That could be interesting. John hadn't really had much contact with other shape bonded, and he might've known some of them. It was possible they could plan together, if they were all in the castle together. John wasn't sure yet what they were going to do, but he was damn well going to do something. "Oh, they want us to roll out our wealth, our show items. Radek's bringing the generator we've been working on. He's probably wrapped a bow around it."

"Well, I'll have to be one as well," Carson replied. "We best go. I have seen many people head towards the Great Hall and I don't want people to be looking at me like this.

"That's what they're going to do when we get there," Rodney pointed out, closing and locking his door. Mechanical, all mechanical. The man had probably been inclined that way before the wars, before everything had turned out that way. Accidentally on the winning side.

He didn't hate Rodney for that, although being carried around could be annoying.

"I know, I just don't want them getting grabby.," Carson answered with a sigh. “Someone usually tries something.”

He'd scouted down this corridor, but hadn't gone to more populated areas. It was like a small town within the Castle walls and he was hard pushed to remember all the turns. But then, he had the sense of a cat now and he would scent where things were.

He could smell, and he could smell food and metal and new people up ahead, a lot of them. "Yes, well. You're mine, too, I guess." Glittery collars all around, John wanted to say, and he couldn't. It didn't help that Carson had one. It did help that Carson's fingers drifted to pet John's fur.

There was a part of him telling him 'my kind' which was comforting. It was a different magic to the one he had wielded but the same in the end. Healers didn't fight though and their oath meant they treated any in need, friend or enemy alike.

As a warrior and a magician, he had had no such luxury.

His cat instincts did not like the noise and the large amounts of people. It made him twitch wanting to hide.

"Good of you to join us," a man said with a quirk of a smile that John interpreted to mean he wasn't taking this event as seriously as he could. "Oh and I see you have brought your new shape-bonded, that should impress the Genii when they make their suitably dramatic entrance. And it should mean Jack here won't get bored and start trying to mark his territory again. What's his name?"

The large dog sitting on the floor next to what could only be described as the throne fixed his canine eye on John who had to struggle to quash the feline instincts to fluff himself up and hiss.

"He's John." It was better, too, to go by his first name because then he wouldn't be immediately connectible to any *particular* Magician. Rodney sat down, and Carson moved to sit on a small stool to Rodney's right. "I thought about giving this a miss, but Radek prevailed."

"The Genii might be part of the Ori Empire but that does not mean we could not do without their support," the Regent said. "And can I remind you to call me Regent Daniel rather than ' you idiot' while they are here. I’m trying to cultivate a level of grandeur here."

John focused his eyes on the Regent. This was Daniel Jackson? Rebel converted to Prior by force and now Regent?

~Don't even think about it kid~ the large grizzled grey furred dog said to him. ~Things ain't the way they seem~

He nearly squeaked in surprise. ~You can talk?~

~No, you're hallucinating. Of course I can talk. So can you. Obviously. Stop bristling at Daniel. He's not the bad guy.~

John wasn’t so sure of that. He was after all the leader of a faction loyal to the Ori, who had done this to him. "Absolutely, *Regent* Daniel." Rodney petted his fur down, fingers lingering on top of John's head for a moment before he started to scratch. "Shhh, he's not going to eat you. He's a pretty good dog, for a dog. Carson, how about I make it your duty tonight to hold John if someone needs a technical demo?"

"Aye, I can do Lord," Carson said.

~Looks like he's on the wrong side to me~ John answered the dog. ~I recognize your name. You've changed allegiance.~

~That's simplifying it.~ The dog leaned in to John, and snuffled at his fur. Rodney held him very still, and felt horrified with tension. ~I knew him when he was a 'rebel'. Anyway, look at your situation. You're fluffy, kid and you got his smell all over you. You changed allegiances, too?~

~No~ John carefully sniffed back. Huh, he could find out a lot of information like that. ~McKay seems to be my best bet of getting back to being human again. There's...~ Maybe he should be cautious. He couldn't just go around telling people what was going to happen if their loyalties were elsewhere. ~things I have to do. If I were human and I could... do my thing...~

Then no Prior in the world would stand before him.

~You can't,~ he pointed out, leaning forwards to, oh, god, there was a mouth on his face, a mouth on his face, and Rodney was scooting his chair back.

"Regent! Your dog is *not* allowed to eat John!"

~I was just licking you, for crying out loud. It's not my fault your head's tiny!~

~Why...~ John was slightly stunned. ~Why would you *do* that? ~

"Relax Rodney, Jack won't eat him." Daniel said. "He just… does that. Some sort've dog instinct I believe. It means he likes him."

Jack sat back, and went back to staring at John. ~See? You'll get used to this Shape-bound thing. There's a lot going on that doesn't quite meet the eye. After all, is the Regent *acting* like a regent?~

~No~ John looked at him. ~No, but then McKay doesn't act like a Lord, Carson doesn't act like a slave and this is the craziest faction I've connected with.~

It was no good, it was driving the cat part of him crazy. He just had to give in and start washing himself which was a process he firmly tried to ignore with his human mind. He'd been *licked* on the head, and Rodney seemed content to hold him down around his feet, loosely, while he tried to get a paw clean enough to clean his head. Ugh.

"I wonder what they're saying to each other."

~Welcome to your new home, then. Sometimes the best way to submit is to play along. I fetch and everything,~ Jack said laconically.

"Probably 'Why the hell did you lick me on the head'" Carson said with a faint smile.

He was close enough that John paused and looked at him.

~Yeah well I know about playing along but you were... are Jack O’Neill. You can tear down mountains, you destroyed Priors, saved worlds...~

~Got caught, turned into a dog, yadda yadda. I'm still alive, and as long as you're alive, there's hope. Most people in this room remember that.~ He snuffed at John one last time. ~I'm going to go play the good lapdog now. Keep your head down tonight. These Genii are bad people, and the humans in this room know it.~

~Then why are they dealing with them?~ John asked but he could take a cue from someone who had been a legend to those who rebelled against the Ori.

~The Ori want us to. And as long as we do what the Ori want, we get left alone. They watch us. They check in on us. Anything we do is... very slow.~ And the implication was that slow was still better than nothing at all.

"I can tell tonight's just going to be *rousing* fun," Rodney muttered, twisting to look towards the main doors.

"Do not offend Chief Cowen," Daniel warned. "And most definitely do not offend Commander Kolya, the Military advisor. He has a great deal of power, Rodney, so no calling him idiot, or savage, or any of your other choice phrases."

His fur was nearly back in place and he decided to follow O’Neill’s lead and play nice. He deliberately snuggled into Rodney even as some ridiculous fanfare began to play.

"I wish I were in my rooms," Rodney sighed, looking over at Carson who probably wished the same. He seemed happy to keep petting John, though, and a little of the palpable loneliness wasn't so obvious. Still he had to resist the urge to flatten his ears at the cacophony and pomp surround the arrival of their visitors.

"My Lords, ladies and castlefolk, may I present Chief Cowen of the Genii Federation, Ladon Radim, First Advisor, Commander Acastus Kolya and their retinue. Bid them welcome in the name and glory of the Ori who we all serve!" the herald called out.

They stood up, and Rodney clutched John to his chest when he did so. So, one Regent level, and two lord-levels, he assumed. Somewhere in there. The standing up hug-clutch unsettled his freshly cleaned fur.

He aimed for some dignity at least even as the dignitaries were ushered to the top table opposite them and leveled them with a piercing cat-stare.

"Welcome Chief Cowen, First Advisor and Commander Kolya," Daniel said and it was like he had slipped on a mask. "We are honored by your presence. I hope you will find the hospitality of the Mountain Castle pleasing."

"We believe we will." He assumed the man with the reddish hair standing to the front of the group was Chief Cowen. "We look forward to your hospitality, Regent."

"We feast in your honor and for the honor of the Ori," Daniel answered and gestured and John nearly leapt instinctively in the air when another high pitched fanfare sounded to signal the beginning of the feast.

Rodney clutched tightly to him. "Hey, no, no panicking, watch the claws, John..." At least it seemed to indicate that they could sit, and the guests took chairs scattered in among the castle's residents.

He 'mrowed' in protest but settled down even as they sat down around him in some elaborate hierarchical manner.

~Is there some way of getting through this without dying of boredom?~ he asked Jack. ~Seriously.~

~Nope. Table scraps are good, and the petting is, too. Just enjoy it.~ Jack turned, and laid his head on the regent's knee, and John watched the other man's hand drop to Jack's head. Hell.

~Think you're a bit too fond of the petting~ he grumbled but settled down. It was good and the food did smell incredibly enticing.

He missed a lot of the polite dinner conversation as he sniffed the air hopefully. Food had *never* smelled like this before.

Sharp and fascinating, all of the layers -- the spices, the meat itself, the different things in each dish, even the grains had a smell that made him sit up a little, sniffing the air. There was a Genii sitting to one side of Rodney, and Carson had moved back out of the way, sticking close to Rodney despite it.

"Oh, yes. He's shape-bonded. It means he's very intelligent."

"Fascinating. I have heard of this but the Ori only do it to the powerful rebel magicians of Alteran descent," Ladon Radim was saying. "And you have... how many do you have Regent Jackson?"

"Personally?" The regent seemed to be smiling, and then he said, laughing, "Just Jack here. He's made a better dog than he ever made a man."

Jack hruffed a little grumpily but his tail wagged just a little.

"And this was the fearsome Jack O’Neill?" Acastus Kolya asked. "Impressive. I have heard tales of his prowess."

"He fetches sticks now, when I throw them." Jackson seemed so amused, fingers idling behind one of Jack's ears. John wanted to hiss at Jack that he was a traitor, and that urge wasn't going away.

Except that Rodney was petting him, smoothing his fur down. It was pretty damn soothing. Okay, it was pure indulgent pleasure and comfort and he shouldn't be swayed by that… But it felt good. He purred a little, almost embarrassed at himself for doing so.

"Of course it must be easier to train an animal to obedience than a human," Kolya added. "Although Lord McKay seems to have his chattel there well in hand. Is he of the blood of the Alterans?"

"Mmm?" Rodney sounded a little over-the-top not paying attention when he turned to look towards the Genii military officer. "He's a healer, yes. I have everything that's mine well in hand."

"Ah, a real healer magician? I can understand why you kept him with two feet so to speak," Chief Cowen said. "Perhaps, should it become necessary, we could prevail upon your good will and use his services should the occasion require?"

Everyone wanted a healer. Even among his fellow magicians hands on healers were revered even if they did not fight. John didn't know how good Carson was but he had to be reasonable to have been kept as he was.

"If we're in a situation where that's viable, I'm sure we could discuss it," the regent smiled. "But Lord McKay and his chattel's focus is on keeping our people well, and making our land viable again."

"Ah yes, you are the...growers and peacemakers of the Ori Empire," Kolya commented. "The Priors do not come to you for soldiers, but for supplies for those soldiers that such as we send to serve to their glory. Weapons, foods and so on. Is that to be the terms of our agreement Regent?"

"That would be the best terms of agreement we can offer," Jackson smiled. "Lord McKay, show off your power generator. He's building these to power our mills."

That meant John was meant to move, and he didn't want to be taken away by Carson so he moved to the arm of the chair as Carson handed the small device over. He balanced there scanning the table. Kolya was paying Rodney a great deal of attention. He had a distressing urge to rub his head again Rodney and reestablish possession.

"No, hey, stay back there, John," Rodney admonished, taking the small device. "What I've been working on is making our power generation portable. We do not wish to burden the priors with requests for aid when we need mills to run and such."

"And that will run a whole mill?" Ladon sounded intrigued.

John was also intrigued for all he had heard Rodney talking it through. He balanced on the arm of the chair.

"Well, the one that runs the mill now is a good deal bigger. About the size of two of John." Rodney lifted his demo piece carefully. "This is how big I want them. Imagine being able to go into an area, and *carry* your power needs in your pocket."

Useful, damn useful. A whole host of military applications leapt into his mind and he looked over at Kolya and could see that same thoughtful appraising look even as the next course was served.

"I would like to see it working," Chief Cowen said.

"Do you have any pure technology items on hand?" Rodney countered, and that was maybe as polite as John had heard him sound.

"Only a simple light source," Kolya replied putting it out on the table and John was pretty sure that was a lie.

"How are you powering it now?" Rodney asked before he reached to touch it.

"Basic battery," Ladon replied. "They do not last long but it is sufficient for emergencies."

John thought back to the light he had conjured for himself when he needed it. It had come so easily to him, but he was unusual. Basics like that would be of immeasurable help for any army. But Kolya was thinking about bombs, he knew it. He would be in the same situation.

There was no way he *wouldn't* be thinking about bombs. Rodney reached for the light on the table, and seemed to study it. "This is... not just a light, sir."

"No?" Kolya queried. "Our scientists determined that it was. I would be interested in your opinion."

John sniffed a little trying to determine what it was, see if it was dangerous.

"The thing is that if it carries a charge itself, if there's any lingering energy, it might interact with my generator here, and that could be bad. In a large scale, that won't happen, but there's not much room for the power to go right now. Do you mind if I uh..." Rodney twisted, looking around. "Radek! Pull one of the lights off the wall for me."

"Uh..yes Rodney," Radek answered and obeyed even as Carson cleared his throat behind him.

"My Lord, I would caution you from doing anything that might cause physical harm in the vicinity of our Regent and honored guests," he said in a meek tone completely unlike how he had spoken before.

"Yes, *obviously*. That's why we're going to use a light source I know the properties of, and not one I'm not sure of. I don't want to blow up anyone, least of all our honored guests or Regent Jackson. Or, *myself*."

John poked at him with a paw to remind him shapebonded cats should be in that list.

"I do hope you are having Lord Zelenka deface my Great Hall for some purpose," Daniel said dryly as Radek returned.

"Our guests want a demonstration," Rodney said firmly, reaching for the light fixture. "Now, with a little more knowledge of your item there, I could power it. But I don't want to take any risks right now. So, light fixture, not attached to anything. One generator, and a few wires. If you'll give me a moment..."

John decided this was a good time to steal some food while no one was looking at him. He might as well pretend to be authentically a cat.

"I confess myself to be intrigued," Ladon replied.

Rodney snorted, and ducked his head in, attaching wires quickly, and then sliding a switch on his generator, just a little.

The light lit up.

"Very good Lord McKay," Kolya said, "And how long would that power something like that light?"

A long time if John had understood the diagrams correctly. A very long time. "Years." Rodney held it up, and eyed it while he held the two connected items. "If I left the two configured like this, it would outlast us all."

That definitely got more of a reaction. John could *smell* Kolya's interest, and it was a sharp keen sort've scent.

"Most impressive and certainly an item we would like to trade for Regent." Chief Cowen said.

"Good. We will discuss that, then -- after you have enjoyed our hospitality, of course. Lord McKay, would you ... put that light back where it came from?"

"Not a problem, sir." He unhooked the generator as quickly as he'd hooked it together, and then carefully scooted his chair back, trying to maneuver around John and Carson.

John jumped on to Carson a moment then decided to do a little scouting about while Rodney was occupied.

Cats, it appeared, were stealthy in a way he'd wished to be. He picked his way under the table, looking to see if he was right about Kolya and weapons. He was military -- there'd be weapons, of course, but he was curious just how over-armed the guy was or wasn't. They were there to trade, but he had to wonder what exactly the Genii were *offering*.

If he could speak he'd be saying taking on soldiers for pay was a bad idea, because if the Genii turned, they would take their power structure apart. They'd be in and... John didn't want to think about it. He stretched out, and sniffed at the man's pants beneath the table, since Rodney was still off.

The bitter tang of gunpowder was there, the scent of gun oil. He recognized that and a faint hint of old blood and leather. Knife in a sheathe around his leg, gun somewhere, but definitely there.

Huh. Might just be a precaution.

He was tempted to claw his leg, but he had a feeling he might get kicked for his subversive effort, and John wasn’t into getting kicked. He wandered a little, deciding to check out the other two.

Nothing that smelled overtly threatening although John was slightly horrified to detect the scent of Castle women on them. Obviously they believed in exercising their power. It was an interesting thing now he thought of it. He could tell who had been sleeping with whom, and to a certain extent what sort've thing they had been doing. With Kolya it was a little more complex.

Cowen and Ladon had definitely been having... fun, John decided. It was very crotch centered, very much that they needed to get themselves acquainted with bathing and hygiene. Kolya, it was all over him -- men, women, blood, leather, metal. People.

How much of that was job related and how much of that was pleasure orientated, he didn't know. Still, the implications were there. Kolya was hands on.

~Careful~ Jack said to him from where he was lying completely at ease. ~They'll notice you missing.~

John slunk back to his side of the table claiming a scrap as cover for his little expedition. He dragged the bit of cooked meat up with him when he hopped up onto Rodney's lap, and Rodney peered down at him for a moment. "Oh, lovely. Yes, pretend I don't feed you, John. There's dirt on your food."

He meowed a little, because Rodney might understand how much of him existed inside a cat body, but he didn't want the Genii to know that. He could let the cat instincts take over for a bit.

"Oh, ugh." When it fell out of John's mouth, and onto Rodney's lap, Rodney picked it up and just held it. "Here, eat out of my fingers, you fuzz ball. No more getting dirty meat, you understand?" He cast a vaguely scandalized look towards Carson.

"Apologies My Lord, I lost track of him for a moment," Carson apologized.

John ate the meat happily, instinctively licking fingers. It wasn't distasteful at all. Rather...good actually.

“What a remarkable shapebound,” Ladon noted.

"We're lucky that he seemed to like us," Rodney went on, glancing over towards the Genii before he took a bit of food from his own plate to feed John. "Spoiled."

John rubbed his head against Rodney's hand without even thinking about it and was slightly embarrassed about the action but decided that it could just be part of the plan.

"He has taken to you well," Daniel commented.

"I'm a cat person," Rodney drawled. "I suppose it helps. Some people buy the shape bonded because they want a shape bonded. I want a cat that I'm not going to have to bury in ten years." He tickled his fingers to the side of John's head. "Yeah, you're a good boy. Here, sit on my lap so I can eat, huh?"

He did so obligingly. The food was pretty damn good and he hadn't eaten much for a long time. If this was the price he paid for something good to eat and a shot at getting back to normal, he'd willingly pay it.

There was just nothing flattering in the 'formal' attire Carson had endured all evening. It showed too much flesh, too much vulnerability and there was that crawling awareness that if someone suspected he was anything but a chattel he could blow the whole thing for the entire carefully selected folk of the Castle.

It had been a little bit of a surprise to discover he had pride lurking somewhere in his personality, that stung and prickled at the treatment even knowing it was for his protection.

Rodney was *good* at making a man feel like he was three feet tall, and they'd agreed that Carson needed to stick close by him -- so Rodney's usual personality could be seen in a context that the Genii were more familiar with. Lordliness, rather than just snippiness.

The Genii were solid supporters of the Ori Empire, but they were powerful in their own right. Daniel obviously knew that, and the Ori wanted more from them and he guessed Daniel wanted to test the waters. Or something. His oath made it difficult to balance politics.

Still it had gone well enough, even if they had 'guests' for a while. He was just relieved to be back in Rodney's chambers.

"Ugh." Rodney stretched his arms over his head, and then turned to close and bolt his bedroom door. "No-one wanders around tonight."

John the Cat who had been wandering along in front of them looked a little put out. Carson had to admit he certainly had a great deal of presence and personality.

"Aye, the Genii ...well, I certainly felt exposed." It looked like he was staying the night then.

"I'm sorry. It's..." Rodney lifted a hand slightly. "Stupid. Do you want me to go to your quarters and get you something normal to wear?"

"No, no it's fine. It's not like that wouldn't defeat the object slightly," Carson replied looking down at his cuffs that was deadening the natural flow of his healing magic. "Could we take these off though? This much iron around my wrists makes me feel a little like someone has amputated my hands."

"Sure. If anyone asks, I'm soft on you." Rodney fished into his pockets for keys, and he seemed sheepish. "I hate this. I can't wait for them to leave us all alone."

"Bloody stupid idea letting them come direct to the Castle. Daniel usually arranges to meet people like them away from here," Carson complained and almost sighed in relief as that 'other' sensation flooded back in full measure. Most Magicians of Alteran descent were inhibited to one level or another by the presence of iron when using their gift. Those who were strong were able to countermand it. He was strong enough so he could do something in an emergency but it would be unpleasant and very painful. Jack of course, according to rumor had been one of those few able to magic iron. It was hard to believe.

Now of course, Jack was a dog, and it seemed as if Rodney's honest search for a pet had brought another one of them into their midst. If it hadn't been so close to the Genii's visit, Carson would have started researching John. He wanted to know how Rodney even *knew* what his shape-bound cat's first name was.

God help him if the Priors or any of their allies ever found out that he was trying to research out to break the shape-bonding process and had been ever since Daniel had decided he could be trusted and called him to his quarters to make a request.

"John was well behaved tonight," he commented. "I've been meaning to ask do you know his name?"

"He draws. And writes. Now, my niece can do much better, but for a cat it was pretty understandable. He also drew a picture of a turtle with 'yum' under it." Rodney lifted his eyebrows as he took the cuffs away.

Carson looked around after the smoky grey cat in astonishment. It wasn't that common for those shape-bonded not to fight their animal instincts enough to let the human mind within to act so autonomously. "You're not having my wee turtles John," he admonished. "That is… impressive. That is not usual at all. Wait a minute, that would make him… John Sheppard right? I'm sure we've heard that name, in fact I know we have."

Rodney snorted, and ducked into his kitchen space. "I called Radek 'radish' for a month, and you expect me to remember names?"

"No, no, you remember, he was the magician who broke a lot of Alteran descendants who were being brainwashed into Priors out of an Ori base. And then there was some sort of pursuit following him and a group of others and I think they led them away from the others. They got away but he didn't. It was a fair while ago. Daniel thought they must've tried to turn him like they tried with Jack and, well..."

Rodney gave a soft ‘huh’. "Well, I guess I bought the right shape-bound cat, huh?"

Carson looked to the shadow colored cat that was flitting around the room. "Aye. I would take it then that he retains personality. Perhaps we should explain things to him?"

"I suspect he's started to put the pieces together." Still, Rodney sat down on the sofa, and patted his lap. "C'mon, John."

Carson shook out the pins and needles feelings in his fingers again and went to borrow a robe even as John bounced himself up onto the sofa and then Rodney's lap, before settling there just like an ordinary cat. It had to be strange being shape-bonded, all those instincts pulling in different ways, human and Cat constantly going different directions.

Carson wasn't sure how he'd deal with it, and Rodney seemed content to just treat the man like a cat. Of course, Carson had never seen Rodney yell and take a cat apart piece by piece like he had with human colleagues before everything had gone to hell.

He sat down so he could see them both and feeling a little self conscious said. "So, John... we probably need to talk about things. Uh...things are not exactly as they appear here."

"As you might have noticed, what with me cavorting with a magician here," Rodney drawled. "The people in this castle were all previously involved in the rebels. Different locations, different... jobs. A lot of those of us who are left were behind the scenes people. Never caught, never known for anything."

"Cavorting?" Carson smiled a little. "Well, maybe later. The rebels have not been succeeding with overt tactics… not even yours John,” he said as the cat looked a little affronted. "I'm sorry, it's the truth. The Priors had the populations in thrall and more were falling and turning in those of Alteran descent regardless of allegiance."

"So here we are. 'In thrall', such as it is. Trying to rebuild a population that, once it was enthralled, they didn't give a damn about, didn't bother to follow through on supporting. The best we can do right now is to create a stable area." Right now, being the key word. They all worked hard, all of them, titles be damned.

John made a definitely questioning mrow of a sound that Carson was pretty sure meant 'what about the Regent'.

"Daniel, the Regent, he was converted to a Prior as you know. He was a great coup for the Priors and the Ori. What they don't know is that Jack O’Neill managed to break that conditioning, before they caught him and shape-bound him. He has been very carefully selecting people, bringing them in and apparently rehabilitating them," Carson explained. "Including neutrals like Rodney here."

"You knew me before, Carson. I didn't know there was a side to be *on*," Rodney groused.

"It's true," Carson grinned a little. "I remember asking him one day what he thought of how the war had been going and he said, 'There's been a war?'"

The cat gave a snort at that, and then licked its own nose.

"I was busy. I was *working* for the same group Daniel and Jack had been with, same as Carson was. Then, well. I wasn't able to take ignore the war any longer. Everything fell apart." Rodney's fingers worried at John's fur.

Sheppard the cat flopped over, chewing vaguely at those fingers.

"That group became the Castle, and through Daniels efforts they believe his insistence on not fighting and subjugating is due to a true desire to serve the Ori by preserving precious worshippers," Carson explained. It was a testament to Daniel’s persuasiveness that it worked.

"We have a very output intensive area here." Rodney stroked the underside of John's chin, tickling him gently. "Food, crops, supplies -- generators. Wasting us on war, when we can provide the things an army marches on, well. That’s how the place survives."

"And in the mean time, we do that, and work on things in secret," Carson murmured. "Daniel usually tries to have diplomatic visits away from the Castle but in the event of visitors, we have to dress for the occasion."

"Collar and all," Rodney agreed, touching the puffed up edge of fur around John's faintly loose collar. "We're doing what we can. We don't have the all powerful magicians anymore."

John gave a plaintive meow that very clearly said to Carson that they would if they had stopped them being shapebonded. "Look lad, shape-bonding saved your life. I'm guessing that you were a powerful magician so you know... there's still hope." He exhaled. "That is my task. I am trying to find a way to break it. It may well be easier if I can count on your help."

"The rest of you are dead," Rodney pointed out gently. He was still tickling at John's fur, seemingly content. Carson had watched Rodney repeat those same gestures with his last cat. "And a lot of us."

At least John as a cat seemed willing to go along with it.

"So, there you are. We could do with working a system for you to communicate with us," Carson looked at Rodney. "One meow for yes, two for no?"

"Claw scratches on paper for anything else?" Rodney mused. "Alphabet... tiles, maybe?"

"Or something where he can pat out the letters?" Carson suggested. "Even if they were written on a piece of paper and he could pat at it...but then we would have to be watching."

"Better than nothing. What do you think, John?" Rodney seemed deeply invested, interested.

John gave a loud meow in response and that made Carson smile. "Good lad," he said. "I'm sure Rodney can work something out for you."

"I'm sure I can. So, uh..." Rodney tickled John's head again. "Carson, do you want to turn in, or...?"

"Can I..." He hesitated from asking to sleep with him because it seemed a little difficult to just assume that, so he gestured. He never knew if Rodney was inviting him to be together or just if he wanted to sleep on the couch.

"If..." Rodney looked down at John, incredibly, and laughed. "I hate this system. I hate that things can't be the way they were before. I hate that you're supposed to be in cold iron."

"I know Rodney," Carson replied. "I'm not too fond of it myself. But if you are looking for company... I am more than willing."

Always had been but they had to be careful.

"I hate this because they *expect* it of me." But Rodney still leaned forwards, reaching for Carson's shoulders.

"It's not a case of expectation." But Rodney could not get the hang of that, never had worked it out. "You know that." He thought it was all phrases and words to make him feel better.

John slipped off his lap giving them room.

It was nice of John to do that, for a cat, and Carson appreciated it. They moved in closer, and he could feel how much Rodney wanted him, fingers just a little to the side of unsteady. "I know."

He leaned in and kissed him, the food and wine from the feast still lingering on their lips. He wanted Rodney but right now he could never be seen to have a relationship in the real sense of the word with him. To the outside world he was little more than a slave to any who the Regent wanted to gift him.

For now it was Rodney, and as long as the outside world was watching, he was a slave for Rodney, to serve him, and he knew that made Rodney feel strange, not quite able to process it through. But Rodney wanted him, and that was the harder part. Rodney kissed him back hard, mouth firm, motions passionate.

Yes, yes it would be one of those nights of need and passion, then waking curled around each other in a comfort so precious Carson treasured each time it had happened in his memory. Just a handful, but a gift nonetheless. "Yes Rodney," he murmured against his lips. "I want you."

"Good. I want you, too." Rodney's voice fell quieter, and he started to stand up. "We should go to uh, bed. It's warmer there and you have to be cold after having to wear that all night..."

"Yes," Carson murmured standing with him. "Yes, I could use some warming up." And so could Rodney. He wouldn't feel so alone, not tonight.

He wanted it, they both *wanted* it, and maybe sometime, circumstances would be different for them and there wouldn't be any worrying about who was seeing what and how. Rodney slid an arm over Carson's shoulders, and together they walked into the bedroom.

The problem with this human /cat mind thing was that the human mind was finding the scene playing out very attractive and tantalizing while his cat instincts were going, 'hey, exposed skin ripe to sink claws into.'

It caused a little tension. Just a tiny bit.

Rodney had closed the door, but he'd had to stick his nose into the space between the door and the jam wiggling it open with pressure until it slowly creaked open and he could slip his whole body in there. It was *warmer* in the bedroom, what with the fire burning in the corner, and he wanted to partake of that warmth. He'd slept there the night before, after all, and it had been good, tucking himself behind the crook of Rodney's knees for shared heat.

He could smell the pheromones rolling off the pair of them, and slunk over near the fire to watch. It was the nearest he was going to get to sex for...well the rest of his life.

Huh, it wasn't immediately obvious who as on top. No, no wait... looked like Rodney was getting a blowjob.

Getting and enjoying it. He sat as close to the fire as he dared to as long as he wasn't *watching* the embers pop around, as long as he was watching the bed instead, covers haphazardly shifting and being pulled back into place, the two of them seamlessly fighting the thick bedding.

His cat ears could hear everything, every strained inhalation and half gasp, the sound of lips on skin and half chuckling sounds of murmured amusement.

He felt like he should be aroused, but evidently wasn't. Nothing. The human part of his brain was all for it, but his body wasn't there, and that was all right. John didn't know how he'd handle it when he inevitably got turned on by another cat flicking its tail at him. Caught between all in and *bored*, it was watch or hop up there and ruin their fun.

He wasn’t rude enough to do that...yet. Maybe later. His mind remembered what it was like to feel lips on his cock, and warm hands sliding over skin as Carson was doing to Rodney . He remembered it all, wanted it. The covers slipped a little and bare flesh was visible in the firelight.

They were moving, and Carson was sitting up. Rodney's hands were on his side, no, ass, pulling him in closer, moving him, and then Rodney reached for the jars of things he had stacked on the table beside the bed. Jars and vials. John could still smell the jerky that Rodney kept in one of those jars.

He hoped it wasn't jerky he was going to, no one of the slick oils. Dammit he was half jealous. He was going up on that bed when they had finished.

Until then, he was going to keep peeking, and lean in closer. It was probably good that he couldn't see everything, because the urge to run up and bite Rodney, nip him or something was huge. Cats got jealous of attention not being sent their way and he was just jealous himself. They were moving together, pushing hard into each other by now and he was wondering what it would be like to do that, to join in. Oh god yeah, he wanted that as well.

Just, back in his old body. He liked the way Carson hunched in close to Rodney, like they could get any more intimate if the space between them went away, too.

He could smell the want, the salt of sweat and the deep undertones of human male musk. He shuddered a little as he heard them climb to orgasm. As a cat, it was a bizarre, rich smell, that he wanted to cover up with dirt, and as a human, that kind of moment had been hotter than anything. He heard Carson gasp out "Rodney!" and pricked up his ears at that. He could hear the urgent movements and the sharp tang of salt in the air.

Damn it all, why? They were guys on his side, the type he needed and then he got turned into a cat.

Good guys, a magician and a magic friendly, or tolerant, or something, someone he could have used when he was out there all on his own. And now the best he could do was scratch letters on paper and meow.

It was fucking unfair, and enough to get his tail twitching in lazy arcs as he listened to them murmur soft secrets to each other, thank you's and jokes about the sex they'd just had. They tugged the covers up over themselves and John contemplated. The cat part of him was saying Rodney was his and any pettings going on were his by right.

Still, he managed to hold on for a while as the fire died down, but then the lure of warm bodies proved too much.

He was cold and they smelled interesting and he wanted to be there as a human, so it was all right, sort of, to be there was a cat, looking for warmth. Or something. John wasn't going to worry about the rationalizations that finally led him to hop up onto the bed.

He picked his way over the covers looking for a spot to sleep. Rodney was half out of the covers, sleeping on his back with Carson half curled into his side. That meant his stomach and chest was exposed and likely to get cold.

He'd thank him for it. Bound to, when he realized.

Soft paws walked up onto Rodney, settling to curl on his warm torso.

"Mmph?" Rodney didn't really wake up. He opened his eyes, and peered at John, and then fished down at his side for the covers, and pulled them up, half-covering John, too. Then his arm slid under the thick quilts, and he went still and quiet again.

And though it was loud to his ears, the steady thump of Rodney's heartbeat was comforting enough to lull him into a contented type sleep that he hadn't experienced for a long time, not even before being a cat. He was safe and warm and he could rest, and that satisfied both parts of him.

Telling Carson that he was allowed to leave the infirmary *not at all* until Rodney came to get him to escort him back to Rodney's quarters before dinner that night had been hard. It had been part of the show, as well, but he possibly hadn't needed to tell Carson that Rodney didn't care if a mill fell on a family of orphans, he wasn't allowed to leave the infirmary, well.

That never went down well, and some of Carson's goofy good humor had evaporated as be bowed appropriately and muttered 'Yes milord' under his breath.

Even John seemed mildly disapproving as he accompanied him.

"What?" He was talking to his cat, of course, but John w as at least walking at his side while he headed down to the workroom. "I want him to be safe."

John made an odd sort've blarting noise that indicated he obviously thought there were better ways to do that. The smoky grey cat had a very expressive vocal range.

It ranged from endearing to obnoxious, and then back again, and everything in between. The angry baleful noise was novel, though. "Safety! There are other people in our home! Why am I even trying to rationalize with you?"

John flicked his tail at him and then darted under his feet as if he was trying to get him to stop and then arced his back and hissed in the direction of his work lab.

Rodney stopped, and bent down to pick John up. He had the most bizarre urge to ask John what it was, but there was no way for John to *tell* him. "Is Radek there?"

Two meows. Huh, a no but someone was there and from the way John rubbed his head against him and then kept looking over his shoulder there was something there.

"It's my workroom, and we still have to investigate," Rodney pointed out, and then he realized he was still rationalizing. With a cat.

Apparently this was enough to get John clambering and shoulder perching, albeit spread across them both and with his claws anchoring him in such a way that said he wouldn't be moving.

"You make a lovely shawl," Rodney muttered as he absently reached a hand up to steady John regardless of what he thought, and used his other hand to push the door open.

The Genii commander was standing there, poking around in his lab and John gave a low pitched rumbled that he could more feel than here, obviously not happy to see the man.

"Ah, Lord McKay, I was told you would arrive here. I have been shown many of your inventions and decided I should talk with you further."

"Have you seen my assistant today?" Rodney moved in, closing the door slowly behind him.

"Oh, I am sure he will be along shortly," Kolya replied. "He said something about fine-tuning a mill installation." The soldier leaned against the table. "I must say, I am impressed with your work Lord McKay. You are a fine Maker."

"You are? Well, you should be. I mean, I'm one of the best at what I do." The best, but he was trying to be modest. Radek had run out on him, the shit. Left him alone with one of the Genii.

"Let me see, do you ever extend that talent to ...weaponry?" Kolya asked as John watched his every move.

"It can. It doesn't suit the needs of the state at the moment. We're production based. We're in recovery. The war was won. We won, and I shifted gears to power generation." He walked further into the room, still trying to seem casual and easy.

"Hmm. I'm a military man and anything that gives us an advantage is good. Would you tell me what you have created in the past?"

"You remember the way a magician could hurt pure energy? I can do that with a rod of a particular quality of metal. You can take a building out with it. It's like a pistol, but it's... better, bigger."

"Magician-less magic," Kolya mused and stepped close. "An interesting concept."

John rumbled around his neck again, possessively.

Rodney petted at John, as if that was the source of the rumble. "Well, it's all energy. All generators and carefully built, refined, tested and re-tested machinery."

"I see," he answered leaning forward. "It would be a lot more... useful to the Empire.”

"The war is over, though..." Rodney shrugged and tried to appear indifferent. "If the Empire wishes me to make them, I will."

Kolya seemed to muse. "So I should appeal to your Regent. Perhaps you will enjoy some Genii hospitality if you are given leave to respond to our demands."

"Oh, I uh... I'm very tied to the land here. I think I can best serve the empire here, from the castle..." He most certainly did not want to go anywhere with the Genii. They were militaristic, all about discipline, obedience and being crazy enough to take our some other civilization.

Kolya chuckled a little. "If you fear for your comfort, your every whim would be catered for. Perhaps even that of your pet magician."

Rodney forced himself to smile while he walked further into his labs. "That's all right. I really do think I can best serve the empire from right here, regardless of my comfort."

"The Genii are favored by the Priors. We have facilities that I'm sure you could put to good use," Kolya was smiling at him, but John's tail was curling and twitching at the edges of his peripheral vision and he could feel rather than hear the rumbling growl the cat was making.

"I'm sure the Noble Regent will discuss it with you further. Your people's ways are not... our ways," Rodney said carefully. "Is there anything you'd like a demonstration of?

"Not now," Kolya answered. "I wanted you to be aware of our...regard for your work. Sometimes it is a sad fact that people are not rewarded for their talent and ability."

"No, I'm well rewarded here," Rodney assured him. "I have everything I could want here. A quality lab space, good quarters, companionship when I want it."

"That is...good to hear," Kolya said with a twist of a smile. "I will not interrupt your labors further Lord McKay. You are a busy man."

"Thank you. If there is anything you decide you want a demonstration of... Please let me know." Instead of barging into his labs like he owned the place.

"I may well take you up on the offer. Good day," the commander said and turned and left with a swagger in his step that indicated a level of arrogance that even Rodney was unfamiliar with.

It was then that John let a hiss escape as if he had been bottling it up.

"You and me both." He didn't *like* people in his rooms, in his lab, when they weren't supposed to be there.

Then John rather disturbingly licked his ear with a tongue like miniature sand paper and decided this was the time to stop being a shawl and thump down onto the table where he seemed to be trying to forcibly unkink his back from wanting to arch and get fluffed up fur to settle down. He 'mrowed' in a complaining tone as he did so.

"Mm. I wonder what he's wrecked." And what he was doing there in the first place. And if Daniel *knew* they were wandering about at will instead of acting like good guests.

John looked around and appeared to be sniffing the items on Rodney's desk. With great deliberation he patted a paw on some papers in the pile and one of the items there. Apparently this was his means of telling him what he had been touching and he wanted recognition for it from the way he rubbed against him as well.

There was no way that he wasn't going to go over there and see what John was trying to show him -- but even then, what could he do? Report it to the regent? That wasn't much, but they needed to know that maybe something was going wrong.

The papers were some speculative notes on potential yields on the next generation of generators and the part was some sort of trigger mechanism he had been dissecting.

John was diligently trying to scratch something on the paper erratically that looked like a wobbly stick figure with a genii cap and another wobbly stick figure with a cat and the word "wants" under it.

"Yes, well. He doesn't get to take me. He can want my brilliance all he... wants." Rodney paused and seemed to feel that while the words themselves were wanting, he was still talking to his cat. John seemed to agree, from the way he unsheathed his claws and shredded the picture of Kolya before settling down to watch him work.

It caught Rodney off guard, how quite... human John was. All the time, every day so far. He watched John settle in on the table, and then started to go around the room, meticulously checking that things were where he'd left them.

It seemed in order, but it was difficult to tell. John seemed to be so much like a cat one moment and then very human the next. What could he make of a human who *snuggled* on him and purred with contentment. Maybe John Sheppard had been that type of man after all.

It just felt a bit of a stretch, and Rodney wasn't sure why. Possibly due to his dangerous reputation as a renegade mage. But he did settle in, determined not to touch anything in case it had been sabotaged. He could wait for Radek to get back, and then he'd do more than poke through his own papers.

Carson wasn't meant to be going anywhere alone with the Genii in the Castle, but he felt he had little choice. He needed to get to speak to Daniel because over the last couple of weeks things had progressed from mildly annoying to putting the hairs up on the back of his neck.

It seemed Kolya was making a hobby of stalking Rodney. Every time they turned around there was the pock-faced Commander, or another written missive, or a gift. It was like he was trying to seduce Rodney, who had been saying no with increasing volume as the days went by.

The man had no interest in listening to 'no' but Rodney kept trying, trying to handle the situation on his own. The Regent *was* busy, but Rodney never knew how best to approach him, and Carson did.

The problem was being in full chattel mode pretty much meant he was fair game if a visiting dignitary got the wrong idea. It would be awkward to explain but there was no real punishment in the Ori Law for anything except say, killing a slave and that would be compensation at worse. He had heard of Lords who had been commended for harsh treatment of anyone suspected of Alteran connections.

So it took him time because he had to duck in and out of corridors and rooms just to get there. Rodney would have a fit if he knew he was here.

Jack was lying in front of the Regents door and his tail wagged slowly as he approached.

"Evening lad, I need to speak to the Regent urgently," he said to the dog in a low voice. "It is important."

Jack's tail whapped back and forth, fast, for a moment, and then he stood up, and moved to sit by the door. That was... permission, Carson supposed.

"Thank you lad," he said and still knocked on the door before entering. Jack decided he was coming in as well by the feel of him pushing against his legs.

"Regent? Daniel?" Carson looked around.

It took a moment to find him, hiding as it seemed to be, deeper in his quarters. He was stretched out on a sofa, and sat up with a book in hand. "Carson. Hello, I didn't hear you come in."

"Jack let me in," Carson said as he stepped into the room. "I assumed you didn't have company and I really need to speak to you about the Genii and Rodney."

"You've got my attention." He closed his book, and the hand-spread gesture was a little showy but it was nice to see that the Regent was still acting like himself. The last two weeks had left Carson feeling on edge.

"They've been showing an unhealthy interest in Rodney," he said trying to report it in a calm sensible fashion. It was an understatement really. "It started normally enough with job offers and 'how unappreciated your genius is My Lord McKay'. All of that. But since then, its been escalating. John is reacting badly to it. I think he makes nightly trips to cough up hair balls in Kolya's shoes or something."

It at least made the regent smile at him. "Yeah? That can't be helping things. Sit down, Carson. I want to hear what 'escalating' is."

He sat, fiddling with the 'working' cuffs which were leather so he could use his magic but symbolically demonstrated his position. "He keeps turning up, letting himself into the labs. Sending letters, sending gifts making promises of how much better his life would be if he went with them," Carson reported.

The regent sat up a little more, as that had apparently gotten his attention. "Gifts and letters now, is a little beyond the pale. And Rodney is reacting to this how...?"

"Trying to rebuff them carefully," Carson answered. "They are pushing hard. And I'm concerned they won't take no for an answer."

"They might not." Daniel closed his book, and at least the thoughtful look on his face was something that gave Carson a little hope that he had an answer. He probably didn't, though. "On one hand, they're our 'allies' allies. On the other hand, we can't let them have McKay."

"No, we can't. From the paperwork and items John keeps identifying as having been handled, it's very clear the Genii are after someone to make high yield weaponry, not generators. Bombs even. Rodney keeps trying to brush it off, but it's worrying him. He’s the finest Maker I’ve ever heard of in the Ori Empire and I’m sure if he was pressured to make weapons, the Genii would have little competition if they went on a rampage."

Carson watched the Regent look down at his book, and then over to Jack. "I'm going to send you, and Rodney on a humanitarian mission tomorrow. Early, before the rest of the castle is awake."

Carson exhaled with relief. "Thank you Daniel. There is something about them that is making my instincts prickle. I don’t think the Commander in particular is used not to getting what he wants. John will come with us... well, he won't leave Rodney alone I think."

"Taking a shape bound pet with him won't look suspicious at all. I want you to go back to your workplace, and I'll have McKay sent for to tell him the plan. I'd rather have him bored, than kidnapped."

"Aye, " Carson nodded. "I won't take up any more of your valuable time." Daniel was in charge so he did give him a short bow as a mark of respect. He couldn't forget his character too much. If a Genii came to see him now, Carson would most likely have to pretend to be summoned for something more than a chat.

He could deal with that if and when it happened, and as it was he was grateful to hurry towards the door. "Good luck, Carson. Be safe."

"You too, lad," he replied and patted Jack almost instinctively as he returned to the door. Jack did not tolerate many touching him, but after a couple of close calls for Daniel that he had healed he'd accepted Carson.

It was nice to be accepted by the local creatures who might one day become magicians again. And if that day came, well, there'd be no parading around in cold iron when people were watching, no more humiliation. It was one of those things he day dreamed about, that distant 'One day'. But with the Priors in control, it looked unlikely to ever come.

It was good to be outside the Castle. It was a place of metal and stone and both John's human and cat instincts reveled in fresh air and the myriad sights and sounds of nature. He'd been glad because he was a cat’s whisker from clawing Kolya's eye out. The Genii had started touching Rodney in a overly friendly way and thank god Carson had enough sense to ignore Rodney's insistence that he was fine and it wasn't a problem and get them sent off a couple of days away from the City to a local town that had some sort of genuine energy problem and medical needs.

It was convenient, John figured, even if he was riding along in Rodney's open knapsack. Rodney had actually taken great care making it comfortable for him -- it was full of clothes to squish down, and it was wide. He could stand up and pop his head out, without feeling like he was going to end up on his ass.

There was a lot of complaining going on between Rodney and Carson about the act of riding a horse and the terrible, terrible vengeance it was going to wreak on Rodney's ass but they were making good time and not far from their destination.

He could smell smoke on the breeze and he sniffed a little more and poked his way out of the knapsack and climbed out even as they trotted along, resting his forelegs on Rodney's shoulder.

"Hmn? Hello there, I thought you were sleeping." Rodney shifted, restless in the saddle, but he reached one hand up to tickle under John's chin. "We're almost there."

He meowed once in agreement. He wasn't sure if the fierce possessive feelings he had was him, or the cat part of him, but he felt good being there, close to Rodney.

"I can see the town," Carson called out. "I think we are meant to see the squire of this town and prevail upon his hospitality. Only one beer for you Rodney, after last time."

"Oh, it wasn't *that* bad." Rodney moved his hand back to the reins, but he looked sideways at Carson's horse. "I might run off at the mouth a little, that's all."

John absently chewed on Rodney's hair and mentally tried to imagine that. The speed Rodney spoke on an ordinary day made him wonder if running off at the mouth was even possible.

"He called the daughter of one local squire less attractive than a horse and that he would lose brain cells if he slept with her."

"Well, he was trying to pass her off on me," Rodney excused, half-explaining himself to John. "And she really was. I mean, she might have been unconventionally pretty if I was *interested* in women."

John snorted as they headed down the hill. He hadn't smelled anyone following them and that was good. No overly touchy feely Genii after *his* Rodney .


"Looks like we have a wee welcoming committee," Carson said shielding his eyes against the sun and peering ahead.

"What, no trumpets?" Rodney leaned forward a little, but he didn't tip John out of the knapsack. He stuck his hand up and waved. It looked like more people, standing around to receive them as they trotted down the slope and came to a halt.

"My Lords, welcome to Athos," a teenage youth approached them, showing maximum deference. "You are Lord Maker McKay and Lord Healer Beckett?"

John decided that he was genuinely in awe, not dissembling. "Aye lad, we are," Carson answered. "And who are you?"

"Jelsing, son of Halling. Welcome to Athos my Lord. You are most welcome to our hospitality."

"Thank you. We were told you had people in need of healing, and equipment to be repaired...?" There had been a conversation while they walked that Rodney needed to stick to business, as well as stay sober.

"We do, and we are most privileged to be sent those who attend to the Noble Regent himself," Jelsing replied bowing again. "My brother Jinto will stable your horses. Teyla Emmagen will attend to give you more information while you take refreshment after your journey."

"This is a definite improvement over the last one," Rodney decided, shifting to slide off of his horse carefully. John wasn't willing to call it a dismount as it resembled more of a controlled fall.

Even so, it was time for a little scouting around so he extricated himself and then jumped to the ground once Rodney was steady on his feet. He could hear them both talking and he wandered around, looking for the places where he would ambush someone given the chance.

There was a lot of nice underbrush to be found, and he poked through some of that, smelling small creatures. There was an urge there to hunt, to stalk and pounce and it made it hard to completely focus on his original intention. Still, it worked out some kinks, and he relaxed enough so that he pounced on a few flickering leaves as he skittered around the perimeter.

By the time he moved back, Carson and Rodney were sitting having some sort of ceremonial tea with what could only be the Squire and the one called Teyla. He clambered up onto a roof to get a good view and to incidentally drop from a great height on to Rodney or Carson for fun.

He was going to stay up on the roof for a little bit, but he was already plotting the fall while he eavesdropped.

"We're looking forward to making the most of our time here," Rodney was telling them.

"Our town will benefit greatly from your expertise Lord Maker McKay," the woman was saying. She was, to John's human side, very attractive. "Our productivity will increase tenfold and this will bring prosperity to the town. And if the Lord Healer can find the source of the Malaise, we will be truly blessed."

"I'm sure he'll make great headway on it." Rodney was looking over to Carson, and John could smell the discomfort off of him. Rodney didn't like social situations like that.

"I will do my best, but I make no guarantees Lady Emmagen, Squire Halling," Carson said inclining his head.

John was actually vaguely interested in seeing Carson perform his magic. So far it had not come up, and Carson did a lot the 'scientific way' because he apparently believed that was accessible to everyone and medicine should be not the province of magic only.

It was nice, but John couldn't ever see himself making that argument and getting up to his elbows in what Rodney did every day rather than just *doing* it. If it was an option, that was. He leaned into the small hole in the roof a little more, considering the best place to land when he did jump.

"But the Lord Healer here is quite good at what he does."

It was entirely possible that Rodney would scream in a humiliating fashion, which while temporarily amusing might be more trouble than it was worth.

"Why thank you for your effusive praise Lord McKay," Carson answered wryly.

His tail twitched as he hunkered down to pounce.

"Not a problem." Rodney smirked a little, and sat back. Oh, he could see his *lap*. "Is there a list of what you would like me to tackle first?

"We would be most grateful if you could look at the generator that runs the main irrigation pump. For over a month now it has not been functioning, and it has caused it great difficulty." Halling replied and he was definitely eager for that to happen. No lie there. John quite liked the enhanced sense of smell.

Time to make an appearance. He settled for dropping out of the sky onto Rodney's folded travel coat that was next to him.

He really hadn't guessed that Rodney would jerk and startle and *shout* like that at the same time. "Dammit, John!"

It made him automatically leap up and away and he half somersaulted and skittered onto Carson who nearly threw his tea everywhere.

"Ow! Claws in John! Claws in!"

Oops. He steadied himself and tried to look innocent.

"Where the, where did you *come* from?" Rodney was reaching for him before he felt steady, and he twisted for a moment in big hands that clutched him tight. He just about remembered not to bite Rodney's hand and forced himself lax in his grip. Being picked up was a bit weird so he settled meowed in a vaguely sheepish tone before trying to shoulder wrap again.

"I think the wee bugger was up on the roof somewhere," Carson said wincing a little as he rubbed at his leg. "Lady Teyla, Squire Halling, this is John, Rodney's shape-bonded cat."

"I'm going to apologize for him in advance," Rodney murmured, petting John and trying to settle him on his shoulders. "Scared the crap out of me. Don't *do* that. You could have broken a leg."

John snorted, which didn't sound impressive while he was a cat. As if. Flying had been a part of him, he'd known how to drop and use the air. To weave it into wings that would life and let him soar for as long as he could hold the magic.

"He is truly shape-bonded?" Teyla leaned forward. "I have heard tales of such things. The powers of the Priors are indeed great."

John hissed at that, couldn't help himself. If only they knew. "He's shape-bonded," Rodney agreed blandly. "He's generally a good pet, but a little mischievous."

"I can see this," Teyla replied with a smile. "He is a skilled hunter."

"I think he delights in surprising Rodney," Carson added.

"I hope your accommodations will suit him as well as yourselves. It is too late to start your work now," Halling answered. "After so long an arduous journey."

Ha, yeah right. Couple of days ride was not arduous. John yawned as sarcastically as he dared.

Rodney was making agreeing noises while he reached for a little of the food. "Thank you. They'll suit him well or he'll find himself back in my knapsack."

John poked him with his paw. "Mrow," he said reproachfully and watched Teyla and Halling smile.

"I believe he will like to explore a wee bit," Carson said. "I hope that is all right?"

"We promise that he's well..." Rodney paused obviously reconsidering the fact that he could guarantee John would not get into trouble, and then patted at John's head. "He won't cause any more trouble than eating a few rats."

John looked at him horrified. He might *catch* the occasional rat but he didn't go around eating them unless it was absolutely necessary. And the catching was mainly accidental as well. Rodney stood up, still petting at him, still holding him steady like John couldn't balance. Hah! "Really. If we could go to our quarters and secure him..."

"I will show you your chambers immediately," Teyla offered.

Secure him? Yeah right. Tonight John was determined to go on the prowl, Rodney's paranoia or not. This was the sort've place he might actually hear news and he didn't intend to miss out on that.

People travelled there, guard down, traded and shared information and there was a lot to learn in a mid-sized town like Athos. John let himself be carried, but he was waiting, plotting to make his escape.

There were worse ways to spend a day. He was glad he hadn't brought much by way of lordly clothes, because he was down on his knees in the dirt, and up to his elbows in muck. It was no wonder the pumping station was dead -- the thing was neglected. Fixing it wasn't going to be a problem at all, but teaching someone basic care and cleaning would be.

He had Jelsing and some other kid looking over his shoulder as he fixed it, bringing him drinks and whatever he requested and John was marauding around amusing himself by pouncing out at his helpers every now and then. It really wasn't that urgent and he could've done it in a fraction of the time if he had really wanted to get it over with.

But the weather was nice, and it was a relief to get out of the castle. He usually loved his rooms, his workshop, but not as long as that Genii was lurking around eyeballing him, invading his privacy. It felt like invaded territory, and sometimes the best tactic was to run.

And things had been pleasant so far. Carson had not objected to sharing with him and there was John as well who had decided that any sleeping that went on involved him as a feline blanket. He'd missed that. He'd missed having a cat in general, so he felt John more than worth it.

Right now he was making changes to the efficiency of the pumping system. No magic involved just the use of brains and simple maker principles. He kept trying to tell his assistants that.

After all, the longer the generator ran, the more self sufficient the better, so the pump needed to be smoother, and if that meant taking it apart and re-assembling it so it ran better, too, well, he'd have it done by the time he lost sunlight, and he'd have time to check for leaks as well.

He was humming under his breath when John who was watching him work suddenly looked up alert and narrowing eyes and a twitching tail tip.

Hurrying footsteps came their way. "My Lord McKay?" Jinto burst in looking harassed. "My Lord, I have been sent for you. We need your help at the mill!"

That was how things always worked. He set the wrench down, and started to stand up. "What happened?"

"We do not know my Lord," Jinto replied. "There was an explosion! People were injured. We have sent for the Lord Healer, and ...they are worried we are going to lose the whole place. We cannot afford that, everyone knows we’ll never make it through a winter without it -- please hurry!"

Rodney staggered up to his feet, and started to run to the mill. If the place was on *fire*, which usually went with explosions, then they were in trouble. He could smell the burning charred smell, so hopefully it had self contained, and if it hadn't *already* involved his generator, then there was a chance he could get it out before the generator was involved, and they all died in the horrifying explosion, the likes of which those peasants would only see once.

John was bounding along in front of him, even as drifting smoke started to hinder his vision. There really was a lot of smoke, and he could hear Carson shout orders as he was literally finding people by sensing them. He just needed to get to the mill generator...

Which was inside the building, but if he didn't get that thing *out* of there, they were all going to die, and so was half of the county. He kept going forward, towards where he remembered the door was.

The smoke was think in there, thick enough to make his eyes water when there was suddenly someone grabbing him from behind, trying to get something over his mouth and nose and he was dimly aware of John giving a blood curdling snarling yowl and leaping at someone.

"What the hell? Let go of me, I'm trying to get this generator away from the fire, you can't--" Shit, fingers in his mouth, over his mouth, trying to silence him.

"I have McKay," a rough voice said. "Fuck, someone get over here with the drugs, before I shoot the damn cat!"

"Idos, shooting the cat is not in your orders," came a more familiar voice.

Rodney bit hard on those fingers, and tried to twist away. Drugs, no, no drugs, and he still had to get the generator, or did he? "Ow! Fuck!" A blow caught him to the side of the face and he was being pushed down even as something smelling of chloroform.

"I think you need a little sleep doctor McKay, like your magician pet and your furry friend." Kolya's unmistakable accent was in his ear, warm breath on the side of his face.

"You're going to regret this," Rodney mumbled. The cloth was being brought up over his mouth, and he knew he was going to regret breathing, but he had to. He had to breathe, so he might as well go out cussing.

Almost immediately the fumes were in his mouth and making his head swim. It was only a matter of moment before he collapsed, victim of the very thing he had been sent here to avoid.

Last thing he remembered was running through the smoke, tracking people by sense and magic rather that sight which was unreliable with the swirling atmosphere. He'd located what he thought was a body and when he touched them realized there was nothing wrong with them a split second after the chloroform was heading towards his face.

He didn't have the instincts of a soldier and his resistance had been shouting and flailing a little and realizing this had been one big set up before he dropped. Now... well, now he seemed to be in a tent, and securely tied to someone else.

He moved, leaned forwards a little to test the tightness of the ties, and decided there was enough wiggle room that he could twist and probably work out who he was tied to.

There was metal on his wrists, otherwise he would've known at a touch. He was willing to bet though that it might be Rodney. After all, in the kidnapping stakes Rodney was higher up in desirability. No one else around... Okay then.

"Rodney?" It was a hoarse whisper, but he didn't want to attract attention. "Rodney is that you?"

"Huhn?" Rodney's familiar mumble, and then the body behind him jerked upright and tense. "Oh shit. They set us up."

"Aye," Carson said. "Real enough explosion. Wasn't the Athosians, they had real enough injuries. There was a lot of smoke. Are you okay? Are you injured? I've been metal locked."

"Just feel groggy." Rodney tried pulling at the ropes again, which was a sure sign he was groggy, all right. "Hmn, we need to get out of here."

"No kidding," Carson winced a little. "It's the Genii isn't it? Is…John around?"

Not that he was sure what John could do, but the shapebonded had proven resourceful and he’d known Jack to do some amazing things too.

"I don't know." And Rodney sounded worried then, still trying to wiggle out of the ropes. "It's the Genii though. Kolya was there."

"Dammit. Ow, careful there," Carson said. "Are your hands tied as well?" Maybe they could get each other loose if they got coordinated. He tried fumbling to find Rodney's hands behind him.

He did manage to find Rodney's fingers. "Oh, like they'd leave me anywhere without tying my hands up."

"Well, they might've been sloppy about it," Carson said, even if he doubted it. He shifted, trying to get closer to pick, pick, pick at the rope. It as difficult because his hands were shaking because he was, for all his normal tone, scared witless. He was the chattel here, property, to be used as any of them willed and that prospect terrified him.

He didn't want to be used. He'd been treated well, fantastically, in the castle, because it was home and there were people he trusted there, but there had been darker days before he had found his way to Daniel’s protection that he didn't like to think about.

He hadn't always belonged to Daniel and his Regency, and he suspected one of the reasons Daniel had managed to get him or was so generous to him was because of Jack and the whole common blood of the Magicians. Maybe he had even treated Jack as human, but he didn't remember but when the Priors came he had been healing and healing, exhausted from the combat and...

No, he didn't want to go back to that sort of life and he didn't want Rodney there either.

"I'm not getting very far here," he muttered under his breath. "I wonder how long were out?"

"No idea. I don't happen to have a clock, either." Rodney pulled hard, uselessly, and Carson felt the tension in the motion. "We need to get out of here. We need to get out, we need to get out..."

"Easy Rodney, we'll get out," he replied, quashing his own panic. "Let's do this rationally and calmly otherwise we won't get anywhere."

Not that it looked like they were going anywhere. The Genii knew their business, and they weren't likely to be anywhere near the Castle, and from the looks of it, they were in some sort've mobile encampment, so they wouldn't be staying around long. Possibly they were waiting for transport because it would be two days before word would reach the Castle of their abduction, assuming there were people to report it. And only a Magician could get from place to place immediately, or a Prior.

They were pretty much on their own, though...

"Awake I see. Good."

"Not good," Rodney blurted. Carson could feel Rodney twist in the ropes. "Oh! Surprise, it's Kolya. I suppose 'No' wasn't good enough for you."

"Persistence tends to get what I want," Kolya replied. "And I truly believe you are wasted in these... peaceful endeavors. There is great potential for you and your work to make rapid and immediate impact on the Empire. None of this piece meal advancement."

"His work improves people’s lives," Carson spoke out. "Saves them. That's got to be better in the long run."

"We don't have an empire without people." And whether Rodney believed that or not, he knew it was the castle's *line* to everyone who asked, as if they were a bunch of peaceful, happy to serve people.

"But the military protect those people," Kolya replied sardonically. "And embrace all people to the wonders of Origin." Carson knew he wasn't a devout believer just from his tone. He suspected that the man was in it for the power. He did not doubt that there was a lot there for him personally and wondered how far his ambition stretched.

"Aye, well belief born from fear is not as strong," Carson said.

"Beware chattel, your master might allow you leeway but I do not tolerate a lack of discipline from anyone," Kolya replied. "You will both comply or there will be repercussions."

Rodney clenched his teeth, and twisted, scooting around like he could hide Carson behind him. "And what about repercussions for *you*? You kidnapped me!"

"You think the Priors would create a major incident if they could not prove we had you? Anyone who saw us is dead," Kolya assured them. "The mill is burned down and you will be listed among those heroically perishing with it."

Carson grimaced. If Daniel thought they were dead there would be no pursuit, no point calling in Priors or anything. It hadn't been that big a risk for the Genii after all as they were obviously ready to sacrifice innocents who were technically on their side to get what they wanted.

"Do you really think people won't recognize my handy work?" Rodney half-demanded. "When the Genii weaponry suddenly takes a turn for, oh, *improvement* over your crude black powder guns?"

"We do have our own capable scientists," Kolya drawled. "Now, are you going to cooperate?"

Carson tried to stay quiet. Rodney found it hard to cooperate with someone when he liked them. He could feel Rodney go still, stay still.

"I suppose I don't have much choice in the matter now."

"That is correct Lord McKay," Kolya said beckoning in two guards. "I believe an object lesson might be appropriate though, just to drive the point home. Bring them."

Carson half struggled as the soldiers manhandled them both up to their feet, nearly dragging them along and outside, blinking in the sunlight.

"We're camped in an old farm. It looks like this particular farmer had a little sideline in animal baiting and there's a well designed pit here. I promised the dog-handlers who were tracking you a little sport for their trouble." Kolya said with a smirk.

"Oh, no, no, no, no, there's no reason to do this..." Carson didn't know what 'this' was, but Rodney started to struggle hard.

"What are you doing?" Carson did the same. It could be one of them going in there, he didn't know. "We won't be any good to you if you throw us to the dogs!"

Kolya laughed as he entered the building ahead of them, one of the few structures in the area.

"You are safe for now."

There were dogs barking, echoing some as they milled around in a sheer pit that had a bit of a wooden over hang, presumably where a cover could be brought across if the floor space was needed.

Who the bloody hell kept dogs in a sheer pit like that, and how they get the poor buggers in and out, well. It was no wonder that they were jumping up towards the wooden overhang, while Rodney dug his heels in.

"Relax Lord McKay, you won't be going in the pit," Kolya soothed with fake charm. "But a close friend of yours will."

Oh bloody hell. Carson started struggling in earnest then even as the man gestured but to his surprise, another soldier approach with a sack that was wriggling and making some very angry cat noises.

"No..." Rodney's no was weaker, more shocked than it had been when he'd thought that one or both of them was going to find themselves in that pit. "No, he's just a cat, you can't be serious..."

"Precisely because he is just a cat, I can make this demonstration," Kolya said taking the sack. "Shape-bonded or not, he is a cat and the next time I have to do this Lord McKay it will be your other pet magician, do you understand?"

He loosened the rope at the top of the sack and held it over the pit.

"No, no, dammit, jump, John, jump!" Rodney twisted, and because he was looking, Carson really couldn't. It was almost for the best.

He caught a glimpse of the bag being hurled down and then there was the most god-awful noise, howling and screeching and snarling, then ripping and tearing noises. An animal screaming sound was simply terrible and he wanted to block his ears desperately. "Oh… John..." It was a low bare whisper.

Rodney was quiet, and tied back to back with him, Carson couldn't see, but he could guess, because Rodney took one deep breath, and then another that hitched. "You, you..."

"Just a cat, Lord McKay. I will ensure you have another if you comply," Kolya said and Carson could feel Rodney's reaction even through the constraints of iron. "They were hungry, it seems."

All Carson could glimpse in the depths was a mass of dogs, milling around and ripping sounds that made him feel sick.

"He was shape-bonded! He was probably smarter than you were!" Angry, snarling words, but there was a hysterical undercurrent. No-one knew they were missing, that they *weren’t* dead. No-one would look for them.

"Whatever he was, he is no more," Kolya said and Carson could feel him bending near. "Do I need to give you further lessons Lord McKay?"

"No." Rodney still sounded unsteady, but he was firm in that. "No, you don't."

"Then you and your chattel will be untied. You cannot escape, you will be guarded, and if you run, then we will come after you, understand?" Kolya say even as he gave the signal to have the ropes cut.

"We understand," Carson said. Untied was definitely better.

"Yeah." Rodney pulled his hands to the front when he had the chance, and Carson could finally turn around, though it was probably safer to stay behind Rodney.

He turned anyway so he could finally look into Rodney's eyes and couldn't help reaching for him. It wasn't much but he could try and comfort him, even if Kolya was looking at him with veiled contempt.

"Take them back," he ordered.

Rodney was quiet, and he moved slowly, still rubbing at his wrists, mostly watching the ground. One foot in front of the other. Carson waited until they were back in the tent, left alone presumably to contemplate their fate and what had happened. Even then it was difficult to know what to say. "Rodney...I...I'm so sorry."

"Wasn't your fault." Rodney finally rubbed at his face, and moved to sit cross-legged on the floor. "Just. How do I fix this? I can't."

"I know... I just," Carson sat next to him. "If I had guessed maybe I could've done something."

"Guessed what?" Rodney slouched in on himself, looking over at Carson. "That we were set up?"

"What they were going to do," Carson answered. "For a moment there I thought it was going to me going down there." He couldn't believe that just like that John was gone. They hadn't known him that long, but in the way of cats he had taken over Rodney's life.

Rodney did that with his pets, and it didn't make the loss, sudden and sharp, any easier. "I thought it was one or both of us, yeah. I thought he would've gotten away."

"He was with you when they caught us," Carson said heavily.

"Maybe... maybe he didn't want to leave you. Or perhaps they drugged him too.." It was scant comfort really, but he couldn't see John running away from anything.

"He should have run." But it was moot, and Carson and Rodney both knew it. "We have to work on getting out of here. First chance you have to run, I want you to take it."

Carson looked at him. "Are you crazy?" he asked. "Do you think I will get any sort of chance? Are you likely to get a chance and run for it?"

"I think that if you get a chance, they won't *kill* me, while if I run for it, you're *dead*, Carson," Rodney snapped.

"If you hadn’t noticed, they are using me as leverage," Carson snapped back. "I am likely to be more closely watched than you!"

"It still doesn't invalidate the fact that, yes, you're the leverage. I run, you die. You run, they don't kill me." Rodney twisted a little, giving him a miserable look.

"I run, I die," Carson replied firmly. "I'm not going anywhere without you Rodney. I'm not even going to discuss it."

"No, you run, you get back to the Castle," Rodney countered. "I want you safe."

"How far are we from the Castle? This would involve horses and out-riding trained military troops. I don't have that level of expertise. Without my hands in action I have no form of defense either," Carson said. "Stop being a bloody martyr Rodney."

"They didn't want you *or* John," Rodney snapped, folding his arms over his chest. "They wanted me."

"Well, they could've left me behind," Carson answered and exhaled. "This is getting us nowhere. Right now, I'm not going anywhere, because they will be guarding us closely. If you want me to do anything figure a way I can get these damn things off."

"Oh, because they won't notice that you don't have them on." Still, Rodney reached for the band around his left wrist, feeling over the metal.

"Well, perhaps a means of getting them off, " Carson said. "With them off maybe then we can talk about getting away. I can do magic, I can't kill or anything but... I can send people to sleep. Mainly with a touch, but if I try really hard sometimes with a bit of distance as well."

"Okay." Rodney was looking at them, running his fingers over the seems. "It might take time."

"I know lo..lad," Carson had to hastily alter the endearment. "But if you really want me to run anywhere, it's only going to happen like that."

"We'll work on that," Rodney promised, still looking at him, still watching his face. "I thought we were safe."

"So did I," Carson said moving a little closer. "We’re going to be okay Rodney."

But after what had happened to John, that just sounded like empty words.

The cat instinct had been nearly overpowering as he had been in the sack, drowning out many of his human thoughts. He'd been hoping Kolya would try to take him out of the sack before dropping him, but no such luck and in the first fraught seconds where all he could hear was snarling, ripping and howling around him, he was caught on the side with a nasty bite. The first shock of it cleared his mind and then he barely noticed it as adrenalin kicked in, and his human side and cat instincts lined up with a common goal of survival.

In the melee of teeth and biting, he managed not to panic and scrabble at the sides, but instead rolled under a hound and sank claws in, clinging to its balls and belly. It went into a complete screaming frenzy, and so did the other dogs, trying to bite at him and hitting the dog instead. It was a wild and terrifying ride and at a point where the dog started to scrabble as far up the wall as it could to get away from him, he saw his chance and with amazing agility, used him as a springboard, and bounced up the wall defying gravity to cling to the underside of the wooden overhang.

John had had to hold on, claws latched in tightly to the wooden board. He was glad it was soft, soft and humid enough that he could keep his grip tight long enough for John to wait for Kolya and his flunkies to leave.

Even so by the time he scrabbled his way precariously over the edge, his sides were heaving with effort and he was aware of aches and pain from the bite. He needed somewhere to hole up and get his bearings. Fuck, it shouldn't be this hard to just find somewhere safe.

He limpingly skittered over towards the shadows, resolving to poke around. If this was a farm then surely there would be storage lofts where a cat could get but others could not. That was an idea.

He could rest up there, safely. It was just a matter of finding something to jump up to so he could then jump up to the loft. In the end it was a dangling set of ropes on the wall that gave him something to grip on to and then he was up in comparative dark and safety and his cat ears twitched at the rustle of straw and hay.

John lay down and started licking to clean the blood from his smoky gray fur. Not all of it was his, and still he had to plan what to do next.

He needed to keep his safe spot safe, to start with. And his. He was definitely in enemy territory, though they seemed comfortable setting up camp, so possibly it was a repeat camp for the Genii? Perhaps they had been here before. If so they would have some sort've established military route. They couldn't have too many here, they were in Castle sworn territory.

Ow. Damn bite hurt. Okay, this was what he did, what he was good at. He needed to... what rescue Rodney and Carson? There was something ironic about a cat rescuing anyone, but if he got some supplies up together, stored it and then made a diversion… Hard, but doable.

And then what? Try and get back to the Castle? That's what the Genii would expect and there was the possibility that Rodney might be the very person they had been looking for.

They'd guess that they'd head for the Castle, and why wouldn't they head there again, distraction or no?

What if, what if they headed away? To the Alteran ruins that seemed broken, the one he had found and hadn’t given up despite the immense pressure when he had been captured. The one that didn't work, and they didn't have the expertise to fix.

But now he knew someone who could.

Maybe now it was worth going back there, risking being found. It wasn't like they weren't going to be pursued, because they were -- maybe. He needed to think about it, and what better place to think about it than a quiet loft in a barn? While he was bleeding, and a little hungry.

Mouse wasn't exactly gourmet but he would deal. He'd rest up and then see if he could finagle a way to steal a few essentials then see if he could sneak in to Rodney and Carson. Yeah, that would work.

He was going to manage... a rescue, John decided. He was just the cat for the job.

If he'd said yes back at the Castle, they could have possibly mounted a rescue. It was the one thing he kept thinking, over and over, in a repeating loop, that if he'd gone with it, it would have been easier to get out of their the flee the castle to work in a distant village trick, which had just gotten him and Carson both trapped and hurt.

And John killed.

He couldn't let go of that. He'd barely had John a week but he'd connected with him. And here he was making the Genii weapons while they waited to be whisked away forever.

Once they were on the other continent, the pieces of land the Genii controlled and probably ran right into the ground, there was no escaping, there was no mode of transportation or getting back that wouldn't be heavily guarded and controlled.

They were pretty much doomed. Carson was quieter day by day since they had been there, Kolya smirked more frequently and dismissed his suggestions that his leaders would be horrified at the kidnapping.

So here he was, working late and the odds of the airship turning up increasing moment by moment and he couldn't see a way out. There had to *be* a way out, but there didn't seem to be. He was surrounded by weapons, and there was no way out because Carson was being held as the Grand Hostage. So even with a gun in his hand that he was making *better*, it didn't matter.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he caught sight of a movement on the floor and flinched. He hoped it wasn't the damn rats. They'd had some in the tent where he and Carson stayed over night and he'd yelped in shock the first time one ran over him. Carson said it had been more of a shriek but...

There was a sort've lopsided thump and something landed on the table in front of him.

He was lucky he hadn't screamed, because it would have brought guards in. He still sucked in a horrified breath, because it looked... like John. Except John was dead, which made this officially the strangest hallucination he'd had in years.

The cat looked up at him and seemed to be waiting for something, and as he froze in shock, a grey feline paw patted at him to get his attention.

He exhaled, and then leaned in to hug him briefly, setting the gun barrel down. "You're supposed to be dead. We watched you die."

John purred in his ear, rubbing his head against him and then meowed twice presumably to deny the fact of his death. He seemed to want to stay close but did flinch away from a touch on his side.

Alive but hurt. That wasn’t good, because cats were delicate creatures in their own way, but he was alive, which was... "You have to hide before someone comes in and sees you."

John made a noise that was dismissive and stepped away to jump from the table and then after a moment jump back up and dropping a piece of paper on it where he had apparently laboriously scratched out a message.


Sometimes, he forgot that John was human in there. Alive, and scheming, and all he could think of was to ask, "What distraction?" But if they were making their one shot, he could get Carson's bands off. Break them, yes, but get them off. All he'd need was to sneak a chisel out.

"Mrow," John replied in a way that implied the distraction would be self evident. He patted himself with his paw to emphasis the point.

"Okay." Rodney reached for the piece of paper, and started to shred it. He was just going to have to eat it, because if he was caught with it on him, there would be no escape. "I don't know what to say, John..."

The smoky grey cat rubbed against him again and then glanced around and before he could say anything else, had darted away even as the tent flap opened up. He had the paper mostly swallowed by then, and he wasn't going to be caught. He hunched over the gunstock, just waiting to see who it was coming in the tent.

"Time to return to your... companion Lord McKay," Kolya said as he entered. "I wanted you to know this will be the last night you will have to endure such basic accommodation."

"Oh? Are we being let go?" He set the gun barrel down, and started to stand up.

"A sense of humor as well as intelligence," Kolya smiled ferally. "Our transport will be arriving early in the morning. You can say farewell to your homeland."

"You can't possibly expect me to be happy about that," Rodney muttered. He stood up, near the table, swallowing the last remnants of the note.

"You will be," Kolya replied. "The Priors will support us when we show how useful you can be and then it will not matter. Come. You must sleep and get your rest."

He snorted again, and started towards Kolya and the door. "Fine. I'm coming. How kind of you to think of my future happiness."

"I could be the best ally and friend you could have in the Genii federation," Kolya said seriously as he ushered him out of the tent and across to where they had been staying. It was a short walk and for once he had something to look forward to as e entered the holding tent.

"This says very little for the Genii federation." Rodney held himself stiffly, looking around. Yes, everyone was moving, bustling around. Getting ready to go the next day.

"One jibe I will let go, but if you insult my honor or the Genii again you will regret it," Kolya said coldly. "Goodnight. Sleep well."

Left to let himself into the tent. Rodney stood outside of it for a moment, and then lifted the flap to step inside.

Carson was there sitting looking miserable in a corner. "Hello Rodney," he said glancing up wearily.

He wasn't good at... comfort, at trying to say the placating things that made everything feel better, because there wasn't anything that could fix where they were. Rodney moved towards the corner. "How was your day?"

"Oh... it's been fine. Same as before. I just love it. I think my hands are going to fall off."

He reached for Carson's hands in particular. "We're getting your bands off tonight," Rodney whispered.

"What?" Carson blinked. "I thought you said... I thought you couldn't?" The healer looked at him astonished. "I thought you said they would notice?"

"John's alive. He has a plan." Rodney crouched in close enough that it might look like he was forcing Carson to service him, if someone stuck their head into the tent.

"What?" Carson lowered his voice. "What, but, he's alive?" Suddenly his voice was sounding stronger.

"Shhh." Rodney nodded, though. "There's going to be a distraction. I'd rather be ready for that. He's apparently put together a stockpile."

"We are talking about a cat here, right?" Carson asked "It seems...a wee bit far fetched."

“John," Rodney reiterated. "There was a note he had with him, but I, uh, ate it actually." He dug his fingers in to where the release of the left band was.

"Ow...ow, that's..." Carson complained a little under his breath. "What's he going to do?"

"No idea. At this point, I'm just going to trust the cat," Rodney decided.

"That was possibly one of the most surreal things anyone has said to me," Carson answered. "Do you think he needs me to do anything? I mean, this can act a little like a dam and I think this is the longest time I've been bottled up for... well since I started manifesting. I'm a wee bit scared about what might happen."

"We'll do what we have to." Rodney was just happy to get the right one off, first. The left one looked like a shoddier build.

"Oh thank god, " Carson said shaking out his right hand, wincing little. "Look, I'm all for escaping, but won't all the same problems apply? Them chasing us? All of that?"

"I'm willing to take it. The airship arrives tomorrow. It's now or never," Rodney pointed out.

"How's that coming?" Carson asked urgently looking around. "I don't know what sort of distraction a cat could do though?"

"We'll find out. He said 'we'd notice'." Rodney shrugged, and pulled hard at the catch on the left one. Now that they were off, there was no sliding them off for a more opportune moment.

Carson looked at his hands as if they were growing back before his eyes and was about to say something else when there the crack of an almighty explosion somewhere close by enough to make them jump.

"Bloody Hell!"

"That's John." Rodney stood up, and then reached to grab Carson's hand. "We're going *now*."

A grey shape shot into the tent even as they stood up. John immediately glanced at them and headed for the back of the tent, looking over his shoulder to indicate that they were going out the back of the tent. Okay, that was better than going blindly out of the front, and Rodney held tight to Carson's hand, holding onto him.

When they got out, it seemed like the whole camp was on fire, but their guards were still out of the front of the tent. The noise of confusion covered their running away, following the cat and ducking down instinctively. Their route lead them out into the woods and rather bizarrely, two horses and a pack that was visible when John scratched over the leaf litter covering it.

He'd buried that there? Rodney stared hard at the pack, and he pulled it out. "Okay, let's go. Let's get out of here. Carson, get on that horse..."

"I'm getting, I'm getting!" Carson was getting on the horse and John was pawing at what looked like a pepper pot and mewed at him in an impatient tone to do something.

The hell? Rodney reached for it, and then started to unscrew the pepper pot.

It was, surprisingly, full of pepper. John sneezed a little theatrically, which he suspected was the point. The cat tried to knock the pepper over.

Ah. Rodney turned it sideways, and started to scatter it everywhere over the ground behind him, laying out a layer of it. "Get up on the horse with Carson."

John actually seemed to listen to him for once; he jumped up, clambering up Carson with urgency in every move. "Time to go Rodney," Carson hissed.

Rodney moved to clamber up onto his own horse, gripping it tightly while it started to take off from under him. They were free. They were really, really free. The trick was going to be staying that way.

The escape through the woods overnight was not an experience he ever wanted to repeat. How anyone ever managed to gallop through woods in stories he never knew because branches were whipping around all over the place. They found some game trails and used them, getting some speed up them and guided by John's insistent directions.

They kept going, using tricks John insisted upon by making them trot down river beds, cover tracks for most of the next day and eventually they found another spot to camp for the following night, exhausted.

By then, Carson could feel his body prickling with a need to let his power loose. His hands were practically throbbing even as they set a small fire.

Rodney was complaining about his ass, the weather, the ride, everything. Everything at all, but Carson could feel the frisson of delight from him because they were free.

"Do we have any more food?" Carson asked. There had been a surprising amount of supplies that John had somehow managed to steal from the Genii. Some he was not sure a cat should've been able to drag easily. "I need to heal John as well. He has a nasty bite on his side here."

"We have some bread, and jerky. I'm going to have to build a trap to catch something to eat, soon. These won't last but maybe another day or two." Even with careful rationing, which Carson was over-seeing. Rodney didn't trust himself to divvy up the food. John was flopped by the fire momentarily and Carson sat down. "Bread and jerky it is then." He sat down next to John. "Okay lad... time for you to get that seen too. I'm going to pick you up." John grumbled a little but let him. He could feel the injuries on John, the wound at his side. While it was clean, it wasn't healing fast enough for Carson's taste. The dog saliva was possibly contributing to a low level infection that was slowly the healing process.

"Here we go, lad," Carson said and closed his eyes. What he wasn't expecting was the surge of energy that poured out of him, resulting from the abnormal confinement in iron. It was far and above what he needed to heal the bite. He tried to rein it in but it just kept going and going, pouring into the cat. He could feel the magic like chains around the shape and he panicked a bit, tearing himself free with a yelp and nearly falling over the log he had been sitting on.

It scared him, because he'd never done that in his life, he'd never ran into magic wound like that, chains that were keyed to a specific power frequency that he was sure he never could break himself.


"Just a moment". He'd tried with Jack, never got a grip in it but he'd felt something *give* and a whiplash back. Something had happened during that healing process. Not a breaking but a bending perhaps of the shape-bond magic.

~What the hell was that? At least the pain has gone...~

A voice. Carson looked around wildly. A male voice, distinctive and...

"Did you hear that?" he asked Rodney who was also looking around.

"Oh. Oh, god." Rodney's mouth was open, and he looked hard at John. "John? Is that you?"

~What?~ John's head turned, twitching a grey ear. ~You guys can hear me?~

"We can," Carson assured. "I had a build up of magic and something happened. I felt something... well, snap, mentally speaking.

"You let John's mind out," Rodney murmured, moving away from the fire he'd been starting, to sit beside Carson so he could better eye John. "This just got easier than scratching things on paper."

~Too damn right. You have no idea how difficult it was to coordinate writing. Took me as long to write the note as it did to steal most of the things.~ John's voice drawled in his head. He rubbed up against him affectionately, though John's voice sounded a little embarrassed when he said, ~Thanks for fixing the bite. It was slowing me down. Might be able to catch you something to eat now.~

"No problem John. It just makes me wonder if..." Carson stopped, not wanting to even speculate out loud about whether a big enough buildup of magic would break the whole bonding, or whether it would cause irreparable damage. "Well, it's a relief to talk to you."

"This never stops being surreal," Rodney murmured, reaching fingers out to scratch the top of John's head. "I'd always guessed there was more than a little human in you.

~Yeah well there's a whole lot of cat too,~ John replied purring automatically. ~It gets hard to stop the reflexes like purring so I sort of separate my mind out and let the feline instincts respond otherwise I can't think properly. Sorry in advance for that~

"At least it explains how you have managed to stay so coherent." Carson commented. "I think most shape bonded fight their imposed form and don't work with it."

"I like the purring," Rodney mused, still scratching and rubbing at John's head. It was sort of amusing, because Rodney meant his love for cats, and John's cat-form. "Still, it's good to hear you. You did a hell of a job getting us out of there."

~That was what I did,~ John replied and decided this was the point to clamber up into Rodney's lap. ~Before the whole cat thing. Look... there is something I need to talk to you guys about. I was going to scratch a very long message but this makes it easier. You might've noticed that we're heading away from the Castle. I have a... plan.~

Carson looked at Rodney. "What type of plan? Surely we should be heading for safety?"

"Pfft, and if we head for the castle, they'll follow us. They're probably already heading *to* the castle, where they will look for us. I'd rather not be there to be found," Rodney murmured, sliding an arm around John and idly petting him. The fire seemed to be starting to catch by itself, as Rodney had lit enough dry kindling.

~I wasn't sure who I could trust before but, way I see it, this is pretty much the only chance we've got. We're off the map and have a legitimate reason to be that way, and that works for Priors as well as the genii,~ John said, even as he bit playfully at Rodney's hand. ~I found out about something before I was captured. Something that could change everything. An Alteran artifact... but it wasn’t working and we didn't have the expertise to fix it. We tried to find out how, and it. Fell apart.~

Carson looked at him "A weapon?" He wasn't sure how he felt about that.

~In a way,~ John replied.

"What was it supposed to do?" Rodney had always been able to fix things, but his attitude by itself was reason enough for most Alterans to avoid him like the plague.

~Break the equivalent of brainwashing fields. The Prior’s staffs emit them to convince people that the Ori are gods. They're not. They were the equivalent of the Alterans but drew power from belief and worship. We fix the Ark, activate it near a Prior, then the whole thing of burning people alive and the Empire’s stranglehold is broken.~ John’s tail flicked back and forth as he told them.

"They definitely wouldn't want that," Carson murmured. Every Lord and Regent had to make obeisance to the Priors because of their divine intercession with the Ori.

Rodney curled fingers under John's chin. "Then, I'll make it work. If you know where it is, I'll make it work."

~It's a rough journey,~ John warned. ~I figured once we get far enough away we can do earn a little money, get supplies, that sort've thing.~

"But I won't be able to use my magic will I?" Carson asked. "Not unless I impersonate a Prior and I don't think I could pull that off."

He wasn't sure he wanted to try to pull it off, and it wasn't as if he had a range of magical abilities. He was a healer -- he fixed people, but he couldn't make the skies light up with fire.

"No. But we can camp outside of town and I can go in and do odd repair jobs as we go." Rodney scratched at the side of John's head, looking thoughtful.

"I do know remedies that don't involve magic," Carson said thoughtfully.

~I'd offer to do tricks, but that might attract attention,~ John said. ~Worse comes to worse, I can hunt food, and when something gets taken by a cat, that's bad luck, not stealing.~

"I'd rather avoid that if possible. People have it tough enough without losing things to us,” Carson replied.

~I promise to steal from the rich and give to the poor, how about that?~ John quipped with a happy purr.

"Purrs and a sense of humor," Rodney mused. "All right. So, what city are we headed to that this item is hidden?"

~There are ruins of an Alteran Temple up in the mountains near the Ori Shrine in the Land of Grace. The fact it is such a pilgrimage site can make it easy to infiltrate, but there are Priors all over the place. They can sense strong warrior magic being used...I didn't know that. Screwed up and was caught some ways away from the place.~ John explained with a yawn.

Carson got the impression John knew a lot of things, but also realized this information was dangerous. He wondered if that was the whole story.

Rodney shifted John gently off of his lap. "So we need to be sure it's working before they sense anyone using magic. The Land of Grace is... so ways away."

"Weeks of travel time," Carson said a little worried by that. "Possibly with the Genii after us."

~They can't track us with dogs, and an airship will mean they have to go within a few days before someone gets news to the Regent.~

"They might just give up," Rodney suggested. "Or wait for us to show up somewhere else."

"More than likely if we stay under cover for a while." Carson smiled. "But we should get some rest."

"Food, first? I'm going to go set a trap on the perimeter and hope something stumbles in in the night." Rodney started to stand up, getting a little of the food from the packs.

"That's a good idea. I'll fetch a wee bit more wood. I hope this is sheltered enough for tonight," Carson said.

~Doesn't smell like bad weather,~ John said, relaxing in front of the fire.

"You can smell rain?" Rodney asked, digging in their pack. There were some smallish tools, but Rodney was quick with small tools. "Here, bread."

~Cats are pretty sensitive to that sort've thing,~ John answered in a lazy drawl. ~Whole other level of senses here.~

Carson got up and started a little piling up of wood near their fire. "Not such a stretch. Plenty of people can sense weather and storms."

"It all seems strange to me," Rodney mused, "But then again, I'm having a conversation with my cat."

~Your very intelligent cat,~ John put in. ~Look, if you want something caught, I'll go catch something. ~

"Might work better than a trap," Carson added.

"I feel like I'm exploiting you, John. You even got horses for us." Rodney made a vague gesture.

~Amazing what you can do if you drag a bag of horse nuts along after biting through a tether,~ John said. ~I'll sleep when we ride as long as you go in the right direction.~

The cat stood up and stretched. ~Rabbit or game it is, then.~ And with that he bounded off into the undergrowth.

~Amazing what you can do if you drag a bag of feed along after biting through a tether~ John said. ~I'll sleep when we ride as long as you go in the right direction.~

The cat stood up and stretched. ~Rabbit or game it is then~

And with that he bounded off into the undergrowth.

Rodney sighed, and moved to help Carson with the fire. "At least he seems happy doing it."

"Aye, I think he's happy he can communicate properly. I don't blame him," Carson answered. He looked at Rodney. "This is... not going to be easy Rodney."

“Which part of it?" Rodney deadpanned.

"Any of it," Carson smiled at him. "Think we can do it?" He hoped so, he really did. not to live as little more than property, to be able not to flinch in fear all the time...

"I think we're going to try." Rodney added a little wood to the fire. "It's the most I've done for anything in years, if we get it done and right. And you, John, O'Neill, that squirrel thing... Everything would be okay for you."

"No-one has ever been released from a shape bond. Or come close to doing anything, until today," Carson said. "I shouldn't've been able to break it, but I did. Maybe it is a degree of power."

"Who's left to break the shape-bonding? No-one. Healers are few and far between, and maybe you're all assumed not to be strong enough," Rodney shrugged. "You chipped away at it, and I'm glad you did."

"Apparently I am one of the strongest," Carson admitted. Modesty forbade him from actually claiming to be the strongest but he was of the ones he’d come across. Stronger on healing than any Prior, but they were using amplifiers in their staff of some sort.

Rodney shifted closer, shoulder to shoulder with Carson for a moment. "That... wouldn't surprise me."

Carson was faintly surprised at that. It was almost a compliment and Rodney was usually scathing about magic. "I wouldn't've thought it would impress you at all."

"Talking cat," Rodney deadpanned, stirring the fire a little to get some of the larger pieces to catch. "Sometimes I wonder what I'd do if I could do magic. What you do is... impressive." And illegal.

"Compared to the rumours of what some of the Magicians and the Alterans could do on their path to Ascension, it isn't much," Carson replied. "And you are right about magic; I am only one man. There is a finite amount of people I can treat with my ability before I am exhausted. However, things learned through science can be taught to anyone and can match pace with the need." He stirred the fire a little. "In some ways what you do is like magic Rodney...Something impossible for everyone else."

"And useless without tools," Rodney pointed out. "And supplies. I was very well supplied at the castle... I've got nothing now."

"Except for your brain," Carson pointed out. "Which is a formidable advantage." He grinned a little. "Even if the pair of us will forever more have to admit to being rescued by a cat."

"It makes it a little less humiliating that he's a talking, well, thinking, magical cat," Rodney murmured, starting to stand up again. "And who knows. We might actually save the eventual day."

"I'll make up somewhere to sleep.” Carson was happy they were free even if it might rain or bugs might drop on them. It was worth it just to be away from the crushing realization of the Genii and their oppression.

Rain and bugs seemed so much more bearable in light of that.

They stuck to the woods where they could. It made for slower but safer travel and didn't exhaust the horses too much. Besides, John was getting pretty good at hunting rabbit, game birds, tracking down eggs and edible plants.

In fact, now he could talk directly to Rodney and Carson, he was feeling pretty good. Hopeful. even. Rodney and Carson slept together and he slept on top of them using their warmth.

It was comfortable, and better now that he could talk to them or not as he wanted on their trip. Rodney had said that they were going to run out of forests to stick to, that when they came to flatter land, it was *flat*, flat and wide and so open that it made John's mind ache to remember. He missed having two legs, missed running, missed the *power* he'd had before.

On a good day he could weave wings from magic and soar in the sky, but now he had four feet instead. He'd had power that seemed limitless when fuelled by adrenalin, but it wasn't, because they'd kicked his ass. None of that mattered now. The only powers he had were feline ones. Extra sensitivities, instincts that his human mind could use.

They were usually adept at avoiding large creatures as he could smell them coming although there had been that cougar.

Rodney wasn't really the best of defenders, but he had lobbed a tree branch at a wild cat’s head and then run up to it to stab it repeatedly in the eyes with a knife while it was out for the count. John would have slit its throat, but the end effect had been the same, and they were still eating that meat. It had been worth stopping for a day and a bit to smoke the meat, meat that could keep them travelling for a long time.

Carson and Rodney bickered randomly as they travelled. When they rested the horses by walking the,m as opposed to riding, Rodney complained, Carson was sarcastic and John took great delight in tweaking at the both of them.

Right now, there had been a long running rambling discussion about some entertainer they had known in the Castle and John was half listening even as he rearranged himself on the horse and sniffed the air. Smoke.

~I can smell smoke. Wood smoke.~

"Is there a fire, or it is camp-fire...?" Rodney kept walking the horse, but he was looking forwards, towards the clearer areas they were coming up on.

~Either a camp or a town,~ John replied sitting up, twitching his ears. Voices. ~Maybe both. Someone is close.~

"Do we avoid them?" Carson said.

"How *can* we. Horses!" Rodney gestured to the big creatures. Yeah, running wasn't going to work.

~No need to panic. You've got the cover story right?~

"Working our way across country to attend the Fall festival," Carson repeated in a low voice.

~And I'm just a cat, remember,~ John cautioned them.

"A cat who needs a hug." Rodney leaned over, and slung an arm over John, getting cat hair on himself. "Up on my shoulders."

~Gonna eat your hair for that,~ John replied settling into scarf mode.~Someone up ahead~

He could hear them approaching carefully, talking. And given how under-armed Rodney and Carson were, it was no question why they went quiet as they walked, sort of shying away from the noise, but going on.

"Hold there!" a voice called out and a man appeared from the undergrowth. "You were lucky you’re not being picked off for dinner, mistaken for a deer."

"I don't think we look like deer..." Rodney wrapped his fingers tightly around the reins of his horse.

"Movement in the trees, a trigger happy kid," the man seemed to be relaxing a little. "We've got a few of those. We've got a town feast on tonight and we need a few deer, so everyone's out looking.

~And no doubt stomping around scaring them all,~ John whispered mentally.

"Huh. What's the town? We're heading towards the Land of Grace for the Fall festival." Asking for a landmark on the travel was pretty normal.

"BlackStone," he answered. "You headed all they way there? That's a helluva journey."

"Aye, I feel like I'm welded to this saddle," Carson said

"It has been," Rodney confirmed, trying to muster a casual sort of smile. His casual seemed strained to John. "Blackstone, wow. We've made it further than I though we had."

"Then you should come to the feast," the man invited them "You would be more than welcome, particularly if you are any good at hunting. Our tally is down and I'm afraid that the youngster will come up empty."

John mused on this. ~Tell him yes. We could use supplies and I smelled wild turkey we could get pretty easily. Carson can do his waving hand send them to sleep trick.~

"We managed to take out a wild cat back before we left the mountains," Rodney offered. "I, we'd be honored to help." It was probably some holy day in honor of the priors, but a party was a party with or without origin.

"My name is Arran Smithson," the man said smiling in relief. "Visitors would be most welcome. Particularly those with hunted game. What are your names so I may tell others to expect you?"

"Carn Bithson," Rodney introduced, gesturing to Carson, and then to himself with an utterance of, "And Rod Kays."

~Cool aliases,~ John smirked, tickling Rodney with the tip of his tail. ~Do I get one?~

"A pleasure to meet you. I will stable your horses when you get to town. You shall have the hospitality of our household," the local man supplied. "We will be blessed by your presence."

"We hope to add to your hunt." Rodney reached up and batted down John's tail. A few days to resupply would help their trip. Food that wasn't dead big cat would be *good* as the meat was strong and a bit bitter.

"Then when you are done, come to the town centre and ask for me, I shall be expecting you." Arran replied and then gave a courteous bow. "I must continue. Good hunting to you."

John waited a moment as he headed off. ~ Well then Rod and Carn...maybe we should work out what we need. Obviously we've hit a celebration and that means story telling and people can be generous for a good story or news.~

"What news would they want to hear?" Anything. The Castle had been an obvious hub of it, from the stories Rodney and Carson told him.

"Odds are that we might've stopped in Castletown even if as travelers we never went to the castle and there could be gossip there," Carson said.

~Tell tales of Daniel. He's got a good reputation. Tame magician is good as well. Ever seen the Doci? Or heard anything about the Orici?~ John asked.

"The Doci... a long time ago, yes," Rodney murmured, looking sideways at Carson.

"It was a close call."

~What happened?~ John asked glancing at the two of them but Carson was carefully looking away and busying himself

"Nothing much," the healer replied.

Rodney's mouth compressed tightly. "It's not a light story."

~Look, they might be signing the praises of the Doci down there. Might be useful to know about it while we hunt~ John asked curiously.

"Let’s just say ... we had to do some method acting," Carson said. "And Rodney nearly got in trouble because of his opinions."

"They wrote me off as being soft on Carson, personally, rather than taking it the way they could have." Rodney reached up to steady John. "Do you smell anything tasty?"

~Turkeys, south west of here,~ John walked down Rodney and jumped to the ground. Whatever had happened hadn't been good. ~Should be able to get a couple. That should allow you to trade. You need some changes of clothes. We could use some basic travel things and tools for Rodney.~

"Hopefully we'll need the tools eventually. What do you need, Carson? You're probably a better barterer than I am."

"That's because calling people idiots generally doesn't help," Carson said tartly. "We need clothes, we need proper travelling equipment. A decent knife and hoof pick for the horses. Some salt and spices as well. Plenty of things. Perhaps we can suggest some trades."

"Then let's hunt what we can to blend in, and worst case we can trade some of the smoked meat we've got." Rodney turned to reach into the pack, looking for his knife.

"Aye," Carson agreed. "Lead on John. We've got a dinner to catch."

John stretched an bounded off into the grass and trees. It was worth the risk in his opinion. They would look like proper travelers and pilgrims by the end of it and that would make a difference. People might look at those travelling light, but with the festival looming, no one would think twice about travelers hiding in plain sight.

Hunting wild turkeys when it was all trickery was easier than Rodney had suspected.

It was how they'd all stayed fed, of course, but as someone who'd never hunted, he possibly hadn't grasped how awesome what they were doing so simply had been to the locals.

They had simply followed John doing his cat thing, crept up close to the turkeys and then Carson had raised his hands, concentrated for a few minutes and there had been the soft sounds of the large birds falling over one by one.

He'd left the melodramatic story of their capture to Carson, because Rodney had a feeling that when he lied too much, he'd get caught. And he'd let Carson do the bartering, because making new enemies wasn't their goal. New clothes were... nice.

Carson had insisted that they bathe before they wore them and the difference that made was noticeable. They no longer looked half like fugitives on the run but real travelers. Their horses would benefit from the rest as well and even John had smartened himself up in preparation for the feat. There had been a fairly standard ceremony honoring the Ori, and apparently the founding day of BlackStone and it was a little like one of the Fairs they had in the Castletown with entertainments.

John apparently couldn't be bothered to walk at the moment and was around his shoulders again. He was getting used to having his cat on his shoulders, but John abused it. Really, really abused it. "At least keep your tail down," Rodney murmured, glancing at one of the stalls they were slowly passing, and then back to Carson.

~If I've gotta be a cat, then I get the perks of being a cat,~ John replied. ~You know, why don’t you play some of the games. You can win some money.~

"He has a point," Carson said with a smile. "Could be fun as well... We could use a bit of that."

"Peer pressure," Rodney scoffed. "Fine, let's look at the games." There'd been a ring toss which was all skill that the local hunters would expect them to have in *spades* if they tried it.

~Try for one of the hidden things~ John suggested. ~I can probably smell where it is~

Carson smirked at that. "My aim isn't really that good. Maybe we should... or puzzle games?"

"Let's find a puzzle game," Rodney agreed, reaching up to pat John. They could find the whatever under a cup later.

Carson started leading them all on a merry wander around the fair, and Rodney had to give him credit. He knew how to pick the games and how to play so the winning seemed like luck. They lost enough and bantered enough that no one realized they were winning more than losing and making a tidy bit here and there mainly because John would whisper instructions to whoever was playing.

They were arguing over a version of the shell game that was played with Goblets and purporting to be magic.

~It's in the left cup,~ John said with a yawn. ~But if you lose this, then he'll double the next time around and you can buy feed for the horses.~

"Middle, Rod," Carson proclaimed. "That'll be were the wee gem is."

"I swear I saw it in the right cup." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest, and then reached fingers out towards the right cup. "Damn, I'm not sure. Middle it is."

The cup was turned over. "Bad luck sirs," the stall holder said with a false commiserating tone. "Double or nothing?"

"I tell you, you keep wasting our money on these foolish games Rod," Carson affected to be irritated. "Let's just cut our losses. They will be serving food soon anyway." He was actually pretty convincing.

"Just one more. We won't see civilization again for weeks, and we can't spend anything in the woods, Carn..." At least wheedling was natural for Rodney.

"Well..." Carson sighed. "Fine. Even when you lose it'll be better than listening to how you would've definitely won if only I'd let you for the next few weeks."

John was half purring a little smugly into his ear.

Rod grinned at the stall holder. "Okay, I'm ready."

Round and round they went until they came to a rest after a lengthy flashy showmanship display.

~The right this time. Thought he was going to palm it but it's there,~ John whispered confidently. ~You owe me a present from your winnings. ~

"I can't bear to look," Carson said hamming it up.

Rodney reached out, and wiggled his fingers over the middle goblet, and then the left, and then the right, like he was hesitating over which one he wanted. "I, uh... the right one?"

The stall owner looked chagrinned as he turned over the cup and the bead gem was there, glinting unmistakably. "Play again sir?" he asked hopefully.

"If you play again, you're on your own," Carson said. "I'm hungry and I want to see how well they've cooked the turkey we brought in."

"Uh..." Rodney stood there and waffled visibly for a moment before he declared, "Maybe later. I'll take the winnings and be back after the feast, maybe."

"Good luck to you sirs," the man said with a nod and the two of them headed off.

"Well done," Carson said as they walked away into the crowds. "I think we've got more than enough now and we don't want to draw too much attention to ourselves. We should relax for the rest of the evening, Eat a lot. I'm pretty tired of beef jerky."

"Fresh meat, Carn. Fresh meat and *bread*," Rodney stressed, leaning into him. If John wanted, he could hop shoulders, they were close enough.

~Is that a hint Rodney?~ John asked. ~Thought you liked your neck being warm.~

He did shift and move though over to Carson. John was a pretty solid cat and heavy enough to make his shoulders ache if he was there for a long time.

"Oh...bread! And we should try and get some decent greens as well. It's good for your health." Carson’s arm slipped around him easily. Apparently it was okay here to be with another man.

It was all right in the Castle, but he knew in some places it wasn't okay. "Greens that haven't been pissed on by deer, you mean?"

Carson laughed. "Aye, that's about the size of it." He hadn't heard Carson laugh for sometime and it surprised him a little.

"My friends!" Arran pushed his way through the crowd to find them. "I hope you are enjoying our Feast Day to honor the founding of Black Stone. Here, sit... the servers will bring you what you desire. I have wine or beer... here, take one. Your contribution has been much admired."

"It was our pleasure," Carson said pleasantly. "Your hospitality has been wonderful."

"The market here has been wonderful," Rodney agreed, looking around and oh, there were nice places to sit. Not chairs, but curved, carved logs clearly made for sitting on. "Thank you. The founders of Black Stone certainly got it right."

It was the right thing to say, because Arran beamed passing them tankards of some drink and gestured for them to sit."I do hope you will give us the gift of a new story. We are always eager for new tales from beyond the townsfolk’s old favorites."

"Oh, uh... I'm sure we'll have something to share, though we are not story tellers by trade,” Carson explained even as he sat down,

Rodney sat down, and took a sip. It was definitely woodsy, but it wasn't knock someone on their ass strong. "We were at Castletown on our way here, though."

"Wonderful! News from Castletown is always wanted. News of the Regent himself and the Empire," Arran replied enthusiastically. "But first eat…there is plenty."

~And feed your starving cat.~

"Thank you." Rodney needed to come up with a story about the Regent, then, one that told nothing while being good enough to pass on.

The food was brought around on platters and served up generously to them both. Thick cuts of meat, roasted turkey, vegetables, savory stuffings, bread and everything they could possibly have dreamed off. John was practically *in* his dinner the moment it arrived.

Rodney kept John at bay by giving him pieces, pieces big enough that John wouldn't come back immediately for another, but small enough that he didn't drop them on the ground. ~Better than turtles.”

"This is wonderful," Carson said with his mouthful. "You thought of a story? We could tell them the latest marriages."

"What were they?" Rodney deadpanned, chewing on a biscuit. He'd been craving biscuits, soft and savory, for days.

"I see this is not going to be your strong point. Not that we've got a lot of choice...I used to sing in my youth. Not sure we could pull off singing," Carson said closing his eyes in ecstasy as he swallowed the fresh food.

"Can you still sing?" There was an idea, tickling at the back of his brain. "I used to play the guitar."

"You did?" Carson asked in surprise. "I didn't know that... Were you any good? I haven't sung publicly for some time."

~I used to play guitar. Badly,~John said chewing on the meat happily.

"Know anything good?" Rodney snorted, taking a sip of the local brew. "We'd need to borrow a guitar."

"What can you play?"Carson asked. "I'm sure that they'll lend you something and we used to have to improvise ballads. My brothers and sisters were nigh on a choir in themselves."

"I know dirty ballads and old classics, and nothing in between," Rodney grimaced. It was raunchy or dull, because that had been the nature of his lessons.

"I can probably work with that," Carson said with a smile. "A wee bit of singing will be good. Everyone likes the old classics but if necessary I can take a classic tune and make a story about it. Something laudatory about the Regent."

"Right. Let me finish stuffing my face, and I'll find someone to loan me a guitar." He really wanted to put away enough food to throw up if someone poked him in the stomach.

It was some time before they finished eating. Every time they thought it was done, something else was brought to them ranging from meet to pie, cake and sweets. He very nearly did reach that stage and John was purring happily as the torches were lit to illuminate the square. Almost immediately Arran turned to them. "My friends we have visitors who had agreed to join the entertainments. Rod and Carn, traveler who have passed but recently through Castletown."

"Does someone have a guitar I can borrow?" Rodney asked the gatherers. "We have news of a few marriages, but we can also play a little."

"That would be wonderful," Arran said. "We will find one for you. In the mean time, please tell us news of Castletown."

"Ah, well..." Carson cleared his throat, glancing at Rodney. "Castletown is a thriving place. The streets are clean and busy with citizens at all times of the day or night and ever over it, the mountain looms in watchful splendor, with the Castle of the Regent built into the living rock. It is a marvel in itself, a wonder of the unseen forces that guide our lives, but there it lies, another city built in stone of levels and corridors, wondrous chambers. It is here that the Lords and Ladies of this realm gather at the court of the regent. So bright is their finery that they are like a flock of birds of paradise preening and admiring of their reflections.”

Half the time Rodney showed up to dinner in a dirty shirt and dirtier hands, but that wouldn't fly. "The regent has a wizard as a *dog*. They walked through the market once while we were there. It was amazing to see."

"One of the Old blood?" one of the towns folk asked even as there was an excited murmur.

"Aye, shape bound by the gods themselves," Carson added. "Ever faithful, though, he pads at the side of the Regent, grizzled grey with wisdom and with a wolf-like shape but the dark eyes of the man he must've been. The Castle is filled with such wonders and the Temple of the Priors stands gilded in gold blazing in the sun."

Carson did have a knack of describing things that made them sound like a fairytale place of wonder. In the Castle town he conjured with his words, people were tall, beautiful and noble in thought and deed. There were magical wonders around every corner, and decisions that shaped the world were made in hallowed halls.

He supposed it was true up to a point.

Except for the hallowed halls point of the story. "It was an amazing place, and it was a shame we had to keep travelling," Rodney said as Carson wrapped up his story.

There was some enthusiastic applause and then a guitar was passed to him. "Wonderful," Arran said enthusiastically. "What will you play for us?"

"Carn?" Rodney reached for it, and pulled the strap over his head, shifting until he was in a comfortable position, one leg stretched out in front of him. "He sings, I just strum along."

"We'll try for something upbeat shall we? Let's start off with a well known one. The Lord of West’s Daughter," Carson suggested.

~Preferred the darker songs myself,~ John said as Rodney tuned up.

Well, and Rodney preferred the ones that made six year olds snicker, so the three of them were just going to have to agree to disagree on the music. "Lord of West’s Daughter it is."

Considering he hadn't played for years, it came back to him soon enough. The tune was a simple one and he suspected that Carson had chosen it for that reason. It was an upbeat song full of the trials and tribulations of a suitor for the titular Lord of West's Daughter. What surprised him was the fact that Carson actually had a very good voice, a good rich tenor with a very expressive tone that made the necessary 'conversations' within the piece full of the contrast and comedy that the song needed. By the end of the song, Rodney had regained his confidence enough to improvise much to the delight of the crowd singing alone with the choruses.

Playing was a lot like anything else -- his arm remembered the motions, and his brain caught up to his muscle memory after a while, enough to add in the playful flourishes. It was a shame that the song ended just when he was getting into it, so he kept playing, slower and more quietly while Carson took a drink.

~You're both pretty good. If I'd known that I would've suggested you become travelling musicians as your cover,~ John said as Carson asked for any requests, and waited for Rodney to nod to any he wanted to do.

Someone threw out the one about the ship full of magicians, and he nodded to it, starting to move into the tune. It was horrible, and it involved a poor cabin boy, but it was always a *good* one. Maybe once upon a time the song hadn't involved magicians at all.

Sung by Carson though, there was a depth to it he hadn't heard before. Sometimes he didn't really think about his friend being a magician, being one of the Old Blood, Alteran born. He wasn't anything like the dire figures they were often painted, or the distant lost souls. Carson was kind and compassionate and absolutely nothing ethereal about him at all though he conjured the misty unearthly sea with his voice.

John... now John he could imagine as something more out of the stories, possibly because he hadn't seen him. John was a talking cat, where as Carson had been his good friend for years. There wasn't much splitting of hairs to be done about what made a person seem real and grounded for Rodney, but Carson sang the song as if he'd been there.

Maybe he had metaphorically. Like the poor cabin boy, he was the last. Left behind. He kept thinking of him as the lucky one not to be shapebonded but perhaps it wasn't such a mercy to be the last one left behind. When the song finished, there was a pause as the audience shook of the spell and then loud applause. It seemed they were a success.

They took more requests until Carson had to plead tiredness from their journey to stop the demand for more. But he was smiling as he sat down.

Rodney slowly shifted the Guitar, looking for its owner in the crowd to offer it back. "We could do that from city to city, you know, Carn."

"I had forgotten how much I enjoy singing," Carson replied. "It comes back after a while doesn't it? You play brilliantly."

"I'd play more-brilliantly with regular practice," Rodney mused, smiling at the man who'd loaned him the guitar. "Thank you."

"A pleasure," the man replied and Carson leaned forward.

"We are in the market for a guitar if there is one to be sold in this town. Would you know of such?" he asked hopefully.

"We have a crafter of instruments. He will be honored to serve you both," the man replied.

"Then we will visit him before we have to leave."

The man waved, and wandered off into the party. Rodney sat back a little, and leaned on his hands. His fingers hurt, but that would fade. It wasn't that he didn't have calluses there, they just weren't in exactly the right places. "I'm glad we almost got shot in the forest today."

"I am too." Carson's hand was somehow resting on his leg now and he was leaning in close.

~You two should get a room,~ John said lazily. ~You stink of pheromones.~

Rodney snorted, and reached over to pet John. "Oh, yeah? We should get a room. It's been too long since we slept in a bed."

John rolled lazily a little, obviously full and happy.

"Oh yes?" Carson perked up. "Sounds like a wonderful idea."

~I can make myself scarce if you want privacy.~

"And John here can sleep on the end of the bed," Rodney offered, like he wasn't having a conversation with his cat. "Let's go find the inn where our horses are."

Carson was more than eager to stand and set off in that direction. There was something intoxicating about the evening, more so than the local alcohol had to answer for.

Arran showed them where he had stabled the horses and the room he had set aside for them both which was comparatively luxurious with a full bed and goose down covers that were light but warming.

It was almost like being home, just for a night, back in his luxurious quarters. He wanted to turn around and go there just then, but if he lost sight of the bigger goal...

Well. He was allowed to lose sight, just for a little while, and enjoy the comfort of time with Carson, and no-one but John knowing the dynamic between them.

Carson was almost enjoying himself. When they were travelling through the woods he and Rodney worked on songs together and he discovered that Rodney had even composed a few in his youth which meant they could legitimately sing their own work.

It made things a lot easier for them, almost comfortable. They stayed in Inns and played overnight, sometimes for just the tavern folk, sometimes for the public as they followed the pilgrimage route towards the Land of Grace and the Fall festival.

It kept them closer to the towns, but closer to the towns meant that they were closer to the normal travel routes and they looked less suspicious than two men and a cat crashing blindly through the woods.

John kept a bit of a low profile because he was more memorable, but that led to him dozing in the backpack while they worked. Right then he was off somewhere poking around.

Carson was just having a drink from their last set of songs when he caught a hint of alarm from the presence he was associating with John's voice in his head.

~Guys, we've got a problem~ his voice came, tense and worried. ~Got Genii in town.~

Damn. He couldn't talk to John, ask him questions and grill him because he had no mind voice to reach back to John with. But he could tell that it was urgent.

Rodney had been tuning again, post-play, and he went still when John said that.

~Shit... coming your way,~ John warned. ~Too late to get out of there. Go for the musician thing. Hope that works.~

Carson cleared his throat and said in a low voice. "I don't have an accent when I'm singing. Let's uh... start something lengthy."

"You pick the longest thing you know and I'll play it." They'd had time to work on a lot of the tunes that one of them knew and the other didn't -- when they finally got back to the castle, they were going to have an impressive story. If they ever made it back.

What was the longest thing he knew? Probably the Ballad of the Sons of Night and Morning. It was a bit heavy material but it did have a stirring chorus and lots of battles.

"Next, for those of you wanting a break from the bustle, we will entertain you with the Sons of Night and Morning," Carson said careful to keep his accent bland.

All they had to do was keep playing, like normal, like they didn't care one way or the other that the Genii were there. If they didn't act suspicious... Then what was there to suspect of them?

He started singing, the saga finding familiar patterns so he could listen to John’s commentary at the same time. Both of them looked pretty different. They were wearing rustic clothing, their hair was longer and they sported beards now. Rodney was wearing a hat to keep the sun from his eyes.

~They are working the Square. Heading around your way.~

Working the square -- he wanted to ask John what he meant by that. Were they causing trouble, hassling people? Carson preferred not to attract any undue attention at all. At least Rodney's fingers were steady on the strings.

They just carried on, tuning it out. It was a bit of a shock to look up and light on the faces of a couple of Genii. He managed to keep a smile on his face and gesture hopefully to the guitar case they were using to collect money. If he was going to look them in the eye and bluff he was going to do it in style.

And get his ‘putting to sleep skill’ up together.

He was ready if they had to pack it and run for their lives, but he wanted to bluff through it. Rodney was playing, and the ballad was deep in battle between the Sons who would soon find out their brotherhood.

It was all deeply symbolic and he wasn't really doing the tragedy of brothers on opposing sides the emotional justice that it deserved, but right now he was one step shy of shaking with anxiety.

The damn Genii weren't moving on; why the hell were they just staying there?

There was quite a crowd around them now and he launched into the battle sequences

Rodney was adding a few flourishes to the battle sequences, playing with his strums, and it put Carson back in the music a little more, concentrating on his singing.

It was about blood, family, honor and the bond of brothers where despite differing sides, the Sons did what was right rather than what was easy and in the absence of honor from their leader, created their own Kingdom.

It might not have been his best performance, but when it ended, Rodney cleared his throat, and started to crack his knuckles.

Carson almost flinched when the Genii stepped forward in the general applause and tensed, ready to blanket the area, but to his surprise all that happened was the man applauded and tossed some coins into their case.

"A fine rendition of one of my favorites," the Genii officer said. "You have been travelling, yes? I wonder if you might've come across tales of a Lord and a Magician travelling unaccompanied anywhere you have stopped. Or stories of miraculous recoveries or devices?"

"No, sir. We do have a fine tale of a hunt in Blackstone, and the feast to celebrate its founding," Rodney offered, fingers starting towards the first light chords of a new song intro.

Carson was trying not to speak. He might slip and his brogue was distinctive and uncommon enough that it would be picked up on. He covered his silence with another lengthy drink.

"Pity. Please continue. And if you should ever feel the need to travel to distant climes, be assured your talent would be appreciated by the Genii."

"We might head your way after the Fall Festival, sir." Rodney tipped his head slightly, and then tipped his head down to start working on his fingering again, starting into a familiar song for Carson.

The Genii soldier nodded, inclining his head to them even as Carson started singing again.

~Good work. Keep going, I'll track them to make sure they are out of town,~ murmured John in their heads. ~Make sure they are on the wrong trail.~

They were lucky that John hadn't been there just then, because that would make the description so much more possible. Then again, the Genii thought that John was dead. It could be a blessing in disguise to have one more part of their description fail to match the reality.

Carson just sang, trying not to let his attention drift too much in case he started singing 'Genii' by accident or something. Nevertheless it seemed a long time before John wandered back to them openly and climbed up Rodney's back like he was a tree to mew plaintively at him

~Time for lunch guys. We ought to consider bugging out as well,~ John said playing the insistent cat. ~They've headed out of town to the west.~

Rodney fussed around John until the song ended. "I think that's our show, Carn. Let's get something to eat."

"I could go for that," Carson replied, smiling."Thank you everyone, hope you enjoyed it." He got up then, helping Rodney up as well.

Rodney closed up the guitar case, and shouldered John while still holding his guitar. "So, pub, and then see if we can make another town by nightfall?" And get out, mostly. Not so fast that they lapped the Genii and ran into them again, but they couldn't stay there in case the Genii thought hard about them and turned back around.

"Sounds like a plan to me," Carson said and he was actually rather shaky as he stepped forward. That had been too close, too damn close. If they caught them again, healer or not he would not be spared. They wouldn't tolerate any defiance.

Rodney seemed to be steadier, or at least calmer with the plan. He didn't have any hands free, but he led the way back to the pub where the horses were stabled.

Carson glanced around, seeing no one around, said, "That was too close, too damn close. Why are they looking this way anyway?"

"Maybe they've checked the Castle and decided that since we're not there, we have to be somewhere..." But the way to the castle would probably be well searched now.

"They can't have left many behind. The Regent would know and not be happy," Carson murmured.

~Sounded like they had been searching and that the Regent has been making threatening noises to the Genii,~ John said.

"Four or five? Six?" Rodney shrugged his shoulders. "We can keep avoiding, that's the best we can do."

~If it's four or five of them they can be dealt with if it comes to that,~ John said thoughtfully.

"I'd rather avoid trouble. Let’s get our food to go," Carson encouraged.

Rodney looked like he was going to protest, but didn't. "Okay. You order, and I'll put the guitar away and get the money out."

Carson couldn't help but think they had gotten away with it more due to luck rather than judgment. It left him shaken and brought him back down to earth with a bump. They had been carrying on as if this was a pleasure jaunt but he had been inches away from incarceration and pain and most likely eventual death and that had brought the whole thing back.

Whatever else was the case, he was sure that this wasn't going to be easy.

Back on the road and John was considering their options. Before he hadn't really believed that it was possible to free him without getting the Ori involved, and he had...okay, he admitted it, he had underestimated Carson's ability. The alteration of the shape-binding and Carson's comment about perhaps it being a matter of power to break the spell changed the possibilities. Still, he gave it due consideration, because he had kept this secret under the tortures the Prior's could devise before they shape-bound him so he did not give it up lightly.

It was late, when he was sitting on Rodney, who was strumming and scowling at the guitar for being flat when he finally said something.

~Rodney, what do you know about Alteran magics?~

“Not enough,” Rodney shrugged. “The basics, I suppose.” And he probably stopped at the cusp of intellectual curiosity, and no further, because Rodney was a maker at his heart.

He clambered onto Rodney’s chest, making himself comfortable. ~You know there are those with the Alteran gifts yes? Like myself and Carson, and the other mages.~ He let his cat instincts get comfortable, as a deep purr rumbled in his throat.

"It is blood born, aye," Carson said poking at the fire. "Gift or curse depending on your point of view."

~The Alterans were makers as well Rodney. Not everything they did was magic. They made things and places that would... either enhance magic, or mean it was not needed.~

“I’m listening.” Rodney set the guitar aside, so he could run his hands over John’s fur, rub behind his ears, which his cat side liked. “I know they built. They built technological wonders, but the problem was always that the best things were triggered by their blo—ah. Yes.”

~I found…a legend~ John said arching for the touch having the fleeting thought of what it would be like to be human and feel that. ~Or the gateway to a legend at these ruins I spoke of, but something there was broken. I'm a mage warrior, not a maker Rodney, and I could feel them closing and led them away for fear the Priors would find it as well because I believe it is more than just another bit left over past. But you...maybe you could fix it. It would make it easier to get to the Ark, eventually.~

“Maybe. Carson, what do you think?” He glanced over at Carson, and he was Rodney’s Azimuth check for all things magical.

"If there is anyone alive that can fix it, Rodney is that person," Carson answered immediately. "You managed to conceal knowledge of an Alteran ruin from the Priors? I didn't think that was possible."

His claws came out unconsciously as he kneaded at Rodney's shoulder. ~It very nearly wasn't.~

“Mmhm, claws, John, tiny little claws that you won’t let me cut, ow…” He slid them back in, consciously, while Rodney kept petting at him. “Was that how you were apprehended?”

~There was a group of us, only four,~ John replied trying to stop the instinct. ~ Mitch and Dex... they were killed in a battle trying to get there. Holland... they used him. When we were running, they caught him and used him knowing I would go back. I did, and they killed him in front of me. And then I made them regret it before they brought me down.~

He still felt a grim satisfaction at that. He had set the air on fire, split the earth, called down lightning in his rage, but there had been more and more and they kept hitting him with a shot here and a shot there.

Rodney ran a hand down to the base of his tail, looking thoughtful. "How close are we to the facility?"

~I believe it will take between four to seven days depending. I had no horse, and it is difficult to judge~ John said. ~We've been heading roughly towards it, but now we would have to bear north towards the mountains~

"The mountains? I hoped you were joking about that. Bloody hell," Carson said with a groan. "I grew up near there before..." He shrugged a little.

“What's so bad about the mountains?" Another week of travel didn't seem bad, as long as they were moving, and Rodney only griped half of every day about how much he hated all that riding.

"They are snowy, cold, steep, liable to drop rocks on your head and filled with mysterious ways to do yourself an injury," Carson said a little gloomily.

Rodney inhaled, and John could only guess what horrors he was imagining. "Yes, but. This could be *it*." And he'd whine every step once they got up into the mountains, but that was Rodney for you.

~We'll survive,~ John said and butted his head against Rodney's chin ~I'll keep you warm. I just didn't know if you had other plans.~

"No, our plan was..." Rodney inhaled, and John tried not to be unsettled. "Our plan was pretty vague. Go overthrow the enemy. Somehow. With an Ark? Keep moving. Look for a way to change you human. This could be it."

"Aye, I mean, if the stories are true and there are enhancers, it might be enough for me to break the shape-bond," Carson said. "Although...well, that’s stupid, because I am renegade now regardless if I get caught. They will assume I have taken Rodney hostage or something."

It was probably true, John knew that. Mages, even Healers with their Healers Oath, were automatically to blame. Rodney snorted. "I think it's the other way around. You'd still be safe at the Castle if Kolya hadn't been pursuing me."

"Not with Kolya and his men around. I know damn well if he thought me unaccounted for he would have made his mark, " Carson said with a shudder. "So, do we steer clear of towns?"

~As much as we can from now,~ John agreed. ~But we will need some supplies, especially going up there. You don't have the right gear to go trekking in snow.~

"We'll make a list of the right gear. Get it in two or three towns not to draw suspicion," Rodney decided. "And then we get up there and I see if I can fix it. I'm going to need more information."

~I'm good at information,~ John said sprawling on Rodney even more. There were some advantages to being a cat after all.

"Aye, that you are," Carson said. "Well it seems like we have a plan, and if we are heading back to the old homeland we'll need our rest. Time to turn in."

Time to turn in. John shifted, and Rodney grunted and moved to start to settle in for the night, trying not to unseat John.

He shifted enough, deciding he could stand watch just as easily lying on top of Rodney as anywhere else. Tomorrow he could nap as they travelled, but right now his cat senses would keep them alive tonight at least.

The mountains were less bearable than Rodney had tried to build them up in his head.

He'd decided it couldn't be so bad, but once he got a feel for the equipment they were going to need, and the fact that the horses were only going with them but so far, the real work they faced started to set in. A little.

Possibly because he was carrying John.

John had a habit of lying around his neck and shoulder which was warm to start with but in the damp mists of the highlands, it was remarkably like having a wet furry cloth sitting there.

Carson was looking conflicted about being back in his homeland and had been unaccountably reticent about it. Usually Carson would just talk, but not this time apparently. Still, he did have the accent and knew which of the food were marginally edible and where the major towns were.

Right now he'd kill for a proper tavern. John had been insisting otherwise.

And it seemed smart, yes, so they kept walking, trudging onwards with only sporadic breaks. They kept the hike pace enough that Rodney wasn't out of breath, too much, too often, and it was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

"We're going to have to stop in Cairnston," Carson muttered. "We're nearly above the snowline now and this late in the season, aye well..asking for trouble if we don't get supplies."

~That will take us out of our way,~ John argued.

"What do we need?" And okay, maybe he asked it in a 'what ELSE' tone of voice, because he was already a human pack mule.

"We need proper food, warmer clothes. Medical supplies," Carson said. "If we're going into the mountains themselves we will need mountain boots for grip on snow, and a tent of sorts. We have money enough."

"We'll make it quick, then." He could feel John's tension, the anticipation of being captured, and it was contagious as far as Rodney was concerned. "Which way?"

"We head over there, join the main road in," Carson gestured.

~I don't like it,~ John said. ~If this is the only place to get gear, then the Genii would be fools not to be here. I managed before.~

"But you are a warrior mage John, and no doubt your abilities made it so you could resist the elements," Carson said in a low voice. "Rodney and I are not so fortunate, and neither are you in a cat form. We'll have to play entertainers again."

"How many days travel do we have in the mountains?" He had a feeling that cold at night was going to be very cold indeed.

"Outside the walls of Cairnston is the wilds," Carson said. "It's the last of civilization out here. After that you get a few trappers, few prospectors after River Cairn gold but..."

~Couple of night tops, ~ John said. ~It's not that far from here. We do tend to build close to the old ruins.~

"Mmm. See, but I remember O'Neill before he was turned into a dog, John. He was crazy. "Oh, it's just a little ice and frozen water' or 'oh, it's just a little desert'. So, maybe Carson has a point."

"I grew up in this area," Carson said. "You didn't even go half a mile without taking supplies for a few days in case a storm blew up. Let’s get this over with. Sooner we get in, and out the better."

He started heading off at a fair speed and John sniffed a little. ~Wonder what's up with him~

"He's home," Rodney murmured. "And it's bothering him for whatever reason. This is where he's from."

~Wouldn't that be a good thing?~John asked as they followed. ~Carson's usually the stable one~

But he was also a sensitive as well, had to be for his role as a Healer and even as they hit the road and walking became easier, maybe it was just that.

"Stable one. What, does that mean I'm the *unstable* one?" Rodney moved a little faster, caught up with Carson and gave him a sideways look.

~Where would you get that idea from?~ John sounded innocent and shifted to clamber into one of the packs. ~I'll just be hiding out as we are getting near town~

"What?" Carson said glancing at Rodney. "We're nearly there, it's just a wee bit further down this hill into the valley."

"Right. So where's your hometown in relation to this place?" It was either going to get him pleasant conversation or snapped at and Rodney was willing for either.

Carson sighed a little. "You could get here in few hours on a wagon on the main road," he admitted. "We used to come down for the markets and big festivals."

"Sometime, we'll come back and see the place properly." Sometime. If there was anyone left and Rodney was glad he hadn't said 'them'. because, well. Wizarding lineage.

"It's just...a wee bit unsettling for me," Carson said as they approached the stone walls nestled in the valley. "The Mage blood is strong in the Highland folk and… the Priors came here first. The memories are not all good."

"Were... what happened to all the mages out this way?" Rodney kept his voice quiet.

"Most of them were killed," Carson said looking away. "In the first battles. Then there were executions but... there were a couple of the elders legends say ascended when the Priors tried to kill them. That’s when they started shapebinding powerful mages."

He'd often wondered why. It seemed a bit ludicrous not to kill a prisoner who was technically dangerous but if they effectively added to the ranks of the devils and demons that opposed them he could understand that…

"Couldn't lose them to release, could they?" And why hadn't the ascended helped? Why hadn't they *done* anything for their people?

"Aye," Carson replied. " I'm a seventh son Rodney...and possibly now, an only son. I don't know how many of them survived. I was only spared because I was already Healer Oath bound."

"Maybe there are others shapebound. We'll... find out, sometime." When they'd won, not that they could do much now that they were on the run.

"Well, here we are," Carson said. "I'll go get supplies, and well... you might as well see if you can get us a room at the White Bear. It's comfortable enough and we are not going trekking in the middle of the night. That would draw more attention than anything."

"White Bear, right. Do you want to take John with you?" Not that he was giving John a say in the matter, but it seemed better if the two of them were together.

"Sure, C'mon lad," he said and John jumped to the ground. "We won't be long. Just keep your head down Rodney, and we'll be right back. If anyone asks, we're heading out to Kiltern to try and get a spot in the Household for the winter as entertainers."

"Kiltern," Rodney repeated, nodding as he started to break away from Carson, trying to keep an eye out for the White Bear. There was usually a sign with a picture on it for those who didn't read, so it couldn't be *too* hard to find.

Cairnstown was vaguely impressive with some of it's buildings carved into the mountain and extensive use made of granite making imposing features, but it was no where near as civilized as Castleston. There was still a roughness to it that possibly came from the harsh conditions around them. Rodney was glad to be getting out of the biting wind when he did locate the tavern. It was rough but wholesome, and there seemed enough travelers there that he didn't seem out of place and there was no awkward silence at the outsider entering.

It had, occasionally, happened. Rodney put n a smile e wasn't really feeling as he approached the bartender. "Good afternoon. Are there rooms free tonight?"

"Aye, we've got some free. Just the one you looking for?" the bartender replied in a stronger brogue than Carson but familiar nevertheless.

"Just one. How much...?" He had a little coin on pocket, and Carson had the rest.

"5 silvers, and an extra silver for dinner if you want it," the bartender said. "You a southlander then? Up here for the Fire Dances? Or on business?"

"Business -- I'm heading out to Kiltern to try for a spot with the Household for the winter, with another entertainer." It was easy, easy to lie and know that he was backed up by the guitar he was carrying.

"Aye, it's good paying work up there if you can get a place. A wee bit of competition. The Court of Kiltern are renowned, we get all sorts heading up there this time of year. Not so many from the South though," the bartender said and smiled. "Mind you, when the airship comes in today we might get a few more up for the Fire Dances. Already had some up a couple of days back, but they wouldn't stay here. Not good enough for them and their bloody soldier bodyguards."

"Airship?" It was hard not to sound surprised, and that was all right, because, well, *airships* were impressive for anyone, and anyone not impressed by them was seriously... well, probably deep in with the empire to start with.

The barkeeper laughed. "Aye lad, we're not so backwards as not to be on an airship route. If you had enough money or could pick up a patron here, you could take it on to Kiltern. Better than trying the Pass when the snows could come early. You might want to think on that if you are any good with that wee instrument there of yours."

"Well, I will play a little here, but we're buying supplies to get through the Pass, too." Airships. "Have you had any big names come up for the firedances?"

"A few from Castleton itself, a few nobles. Not every year," he said. "You want a drink?"

Castleton was good and bad because if he spotted Daniel, he could get help; then again, if anyone from the empire spotted him, he was fucked, he was past fucked, they'd probably been labeled renegade, Carson would end up dead.

The barkeeper took his hesitance as a reluctance to part with money. "You could play for a pint if you're trying to save coin."

Rodney offered him the money for the room. "I think I'll work the room a little and come back for that pint in a bit."

"Sure, lad. Through there, second on the right," he said handing over a key.

"Thank you." He palmed the key, and moved to let himself into the room, and then thought second about it because... because. Because airship, and he wondered if anyone from Castleton was there yet.

He got out his guitar and looked for a place to sit where he could listen in. Looked like the locals were pretty interested in new guys in the area and he might just pick up some gossip.

It was worth listening while he tuned and started his first quiet strummings, which was all but an advertisement for willingness to play.

At first all he could hear was some local scandal about one of the young nobles sons and a girl from the wrong side of town. But then as he picked out a few other concerning snippets.

", I saw some of the foreigners off the last airship. Standoffish bastards..." said one old-timer.

It was hard to guess what they'd consider either foreign or standoffish, but Rodney kept his mild strumming, one eye on the door. Once Carson joined him, they'd start in earnest.

"Aye, weren't the Southlanders though. Nor the Prior folk...I dinna recognize the uniforms," the other replied.

"The fair-haired lad was fine looking though, not like that older one. Looked scarred."

Scarred. Rodney kept his facial expression neutral while he tweaked through a few chords. Scarred and came in on an airship -- did Kolya know where they were, were they were headed, or were they just throwing stones?

"Heard they spent good coin down at Kavanaugh's," the first man said enviously.

"He puts his reputation out there well enough but he don't know everything," the old-timer said slurping at his beer.

Rodney would kill to know everything, even a little of everything, a little of anything about *why* Kolya was there in the town. Hopefully he hadn't spotted Carson and John shopping. He wasn't sure which of them stood out more to the Genii.

"They ain't Southlanders, they're from overseas or something," the man said. "Maybe come to see the Regent at Castleton."

"Do either of you two gentlemen have a tune you'd like to hear?" He was the worse eavesdropper of all time.

"Know any of the Fire dance songs? We could get some practice in," one suggested.

"A Southlander like him? Hah!"

"Oh, I could manage it. Could be practice for us all," Rodney smiled, starting up with the few chords of one he did know.

It wasn't long before he had an audience and some raucous singing along from a group around him which was just as well as it was at the height of the song that a Genii soldier walked in.

He kept singing, kept going forward despite it, and he kept hoping that Carson wasn't coming, that the Genii soldier just rolled on past him, that he could make his leave and bolt from the city now now now.

It wasn't one who he seen up close. They looked some different now from the journey and the beards they had cultivated and some really bad hair dye as well. He was banking on the fact that no one would think he would be singing in a tavern.

Unfortunately, his plan was serving to trap him as the audience started making requests.

Which was fine. Bolting as soon as the soldier came in was as suspicious as drawing attention, and he needed to just blend into the scenery, albeit he was doing it loudly and his heart was trying to beat out of his chest. Fuck, where was Carson?

He nearly jumped out of his skin when something brushed against his ankle, soft and furry.

~Hey buddy, we've got a problem, but I guess you figure that. We nearly ran head first into Kolya - there's posters up all over town in the higher class quarter. You able to get out ? Cough once for yes, twice for no.~

He coughed once, patting his chest almost apologetically to he audience, while he started to wind up towards a finish for his song. He knew it had been the right choice not to leave his stuff in the room just yet.

He got a round of applause as he got up, and noticed John had slipped himself into his pack... again.

~Carson's in an alley around back with gear. But he thinks someone might have recognized him. We're going to have to go tonight, so grab what you can, make some excuse about promising a lady a private song or something and lets get out of here.~

He reshouldered his pack, and headed back towards the barman to slide the key onto the bar. "Hold that for me. I might be back, but I think I got a decent offer from a lady for the night."

“Playing like that lad, I can see why," the barkeeper said. "Here, got me wife to do you a supper, we owe you for that. They've drunk twice as much as normal, singing along with you." He winked and push over a bundle and thank god the soldier was looking away from him.

"Thank you. You have a good night." They were boisterous and talkative now and that would keep the beer flowing. Rodney moved fast towards the alley John had said.

Carson was lurking there, now wrapped in one of the enormous furlined coats he'd seen out of towners in as they walked the streets. "Rodney," he whispered looking furtive. "You need to change. We've got to get out of here."

"I know." It was a returned hiss, while he hurried over to Carson. "Change into what, and we need to go now, yesterday."

"Put on the snow gear," Carson said in low voice. "No one will see it's you. Let me help." He started to hand him the clothes.

"Right." Right, fine, and he lowered the bag carefully to start shucking on the clothes Carson was handing him, huge hideous coat.

~I picked up Kolya's scent,~ John said peeking from the sack. ~They haven't picked up on us. Did you get enough food Carson?~

"Not as much as I would like to have but aye, " Carson said. "Right, we'll go out the back road direct to the mountain trail. I hope you can find this place John."

Rodney struggled into thick boot covers, picking the bag up again. "Keep your head down."

They headed towards the back end of the town, circumventing the crowds that were still loitering around the airship field. They managed to get out but the light was already starting to dim and Rodney realized Carson had not been exaggerating about it going straight into wilderness. When they were over a hill, John hopped out of his pack and started up one of the minor trails.

"We'll go a ways, and pitch for the night. No surer way of asking for trouble than tramping in the darkness."

"Better to hunker down and act like the local woodsfolk?" Rodney was keeping his voice quiet, still tense, still worried, because Kolya was *in* that village and oh, oh fuck, that was too close.

"Aye, there's snow on the wind too. I'd like to see them try and come after us," Carson said as they made a swift exit. John was a grey shadow slipping in the lengthening shadows. "Bloody hell Rodney, that was too damn close."

"I got us a room at the inn but didn't put my bags in the room. I just... was nervous, waiting for you." Bad feeling, he'd had a bad feeling and John had, too, and what if Kolya managed to get on their trail?

"Truth is, I've been like a cat in a room of rocking chairs since we got here," Carson replied.

~Hey,~ John protested. ~Let’s get a couple of hours between us and the town huh?~

Deep in the mountains and the conditions were as bad as he feared. Snow was deep here, cold, and they weren't exactly coordinated in their traipsing through snow. John would sometimes skitter over the top of snow as they slogged on, and then every now and then he would hit powder and sink through.

He would come out flailing, powder balling over his fur and very disgruntled. It was sort of funny to start with but John's body was smaller and it didn't take much to reduce him to near hypothermia. Or Rodney for that matter.

Of course just when they were getting close - apparently - a storm came up, and they were pitched in the middle of a blizzard trying to ride it out.

It wasn't bad. They had a tent, which had been hastily, and with a great deal of cussing, thrown up, and once inside the three of them could use the snow packed against the sides as insulation from the wind.

And now they were bored to tears.

~Right now I hope Kolya turns up,~ John said. ~If we spend another day in this tent I may have to shred something.~

"Cats are supposed to sleep." Rodney reached a hand out to try to haul John onto his lap, almost reflexively. Carson had seen him do it a hundred times before with his last cat.

What was surprising was the way John let him.

~I thought I was too wet and cold to sit on you,~ John replied stretching out on Rodney.

"Aye, well you've dried off some now. Snows getting high again. Hope we don't have to dig our way out again," Carson said trying to brew up some tea. "This is where I could have done with some of your training."

"I was going to ask whatever did you mean and then I realized of course you meant John's training. Is it *safe* to light a fire in here?"

"It's either that or die of cold," Carson said. "We're banking it up with stone and this is smokeless. If I could manipulate elements, we wouldn't need to.” Healers tend to manipulate bodies and those energies. John no doubt could have done it in his sleep.

~Pretty much. I was good with fire,~ John admitted purring loudly. ~And air...though, pretty much all of the elements was my thing.~

"Fire," Rodney sighed, rubbing fingers behind John's ear. "I sometimes wonder if they did it to you all out of envy of your power."

~It wasn't without cost,~ John replied purring and Carson couldn't help a smile at that. It seemed so incongruous. ~I mean. It takes strength, and focus.~

"And a natural ability that so many people didn't have. And they lacked the will-power to... augment themselves with learning." He stretched his and a little, still kneading over John's fur.

"People do seem to think that the mage ability is just a case of waving hands and wishing," Carson said. "If only! It used to be common before the Priors that young mages coming into their powers would over stretch themselves. It could be dangerous."

~Ha, yeah... I tried to fly straight off. That went well,~ John said rolling on his back and playing with Rodney's fingers.

"What happened?" Watching them interact was interesting to Carson, because he kept imagining what John would be doing if he weren't a cat.

~Oh I jumped from the top of the house,~ John said ruefully. ~I managed a hover and burnt out and... apparently I bounced. I don't remember.~

Carson chuckled a little. "I have to ask, what's it like being a cat?"

"I've been trying not to ask that. It might take some of the mystery out of it."

John's mental voice chuckled ~Weird? I guess... when I try to fight being a cat, I end up losing myself. So, it's hard but I let myself flow with the cat instinct.~

"So you're more you when you become one with the fur?" Rodney tried to tickle under John's chin, and got teeth nipping at his fingers,

~Oddly yes. I think the instinct is to fight it,~ John said. ~Like now, I'm kinda embarrassed that I'm enjoying the hell out of this but if I stop it, it would be like carrying on a conversation while wrestling a... panther or something.~

"Huh, that makes a strange sense John," Carson considered. "Perhaps that is why the healing energies helped to free your mind... They concentrated the cat side of things and pulled you a little more separate."

"Wait, how does that make more sense?" Rodney pressed.

"Well, part of the standard thing to do when healing a human who is conscious is to effectively lift the mind out of direct contact with the body," Carson said. "I'm not explaining it well. You hold the mind separate to the body and it acts as a painkiller while you work on the body. And you feed energy into both, so in effect I reinforced John's mind I think."

"I wonder if you could do it... more so. If you could break the bonds," Rodney suggested. "Or the lock on his power. Maybe there'll be a way to do that at this base we're headed to."

Carson nodded. "Aye well, from the feel of it, it was like pushing at something hard and I felt it move, but... I honestly feel it is a matter of strength. If there is something that could enhance this... Well, we might get to see John in the flesh."

He had to admit that he was intrigued. He was trying to imagine John from the way his voice sounded in his mind but it was difficult.

~You're not missing much. I think Rodney would prefer to have a cat.~

Be that as it may, it didn't mean John was obligated to stay a cat if there was another way. "Well, I do like cats, but if you're human... I'll just get another cat."

~To be replaced so easily,~ John replied and then broke off, ears twitching and sitting up.

"What?" Carson asked.

~Shh,~ John said twitching with alertness.

Rodney half followed, kneeling up as if that would help him, too, hear the noise, eyes a little wider in anticipation.

"Genii?" Carson whispered. Couldn't be, the storm had been too bad, surely.

~Smells like... a bear,~ John admitted.

"Shhh." As if shhing would be any sort of strong silence to avoid drawing the attention of a *bear*.

Carson was straining his ears, but the wind was there. John was getting up and prowling towards the entrance to their very cozy tent.

"What do you think you are doing?" he hissed in a low whisper.

~Thought I might take a look~ John said.

"Don't be bloody ridiculous!"

John was *prey* to bears. Had to be, there was no way that slender grey cats weren't some kind of light snack to a bear, and Carson's snapping voice stopped him in his tracks.

And then they heard the moaning sort of growl.

It sounded remarkably close and Carson shuffled tight in towards Rodney. He wasn't sure how close he would be to maybe use his abilities to send the creature to sleep. If it was large and annoyed that might not be a possibility.

"John!" Rodney hissed it, gesturing John back towards him. They had the fire between them and the small, sealed down flap, but there was nothing except packed snow and ice and trees behind them to discourage a curious bear if it wanted to, oh *not* use the door.

~I can draw him away,~ John said. ~It can probably smell our food. I'm going out~

Carson raised his hand. He could put John out but... would he ever trust him again? "John… Just stay here, maybe I can send it to sleep if it gets closer.”

"You're fast, but you're not living bait," Rodney murmured, still gesturing at John.

John did stop, but his tail was lashing backwards and forwards with tension. ~I've got to do something... this drives me crazy!~

"Easy lad," Carson said starting to focus his mind on raising the energies to send a creature to sleep.

He caught onto it with his mind, feeling it so close, so frighteningly close to them. When he started to work sleep onto it, he felt it stagger away, almost startled.

"Shit..." he hissed trying harder. Pushing harder. Thoughts of sleep, thoughts of a warm den, a cozy space to curl up in not this cold mountainside. If he couldn't send it to sleep maybe he could encourage it to go elsewhere, back home.

Maybe that would work, lull it into wanting to be elsewhere, which was better than sleep because then they wouldn’t have to relocate in a snowstorm around a sleeping bear.

It seemed to be doing the trick. The bear grunted a bit and shuffled off and Carson eventually let out an explosive breath. That had taken a surprising amount of effort.

~I think it's gone,~ John said.

"And you almost went in as *bait*," Rodney hissed, latching onto John hard. "What were you thinking?"

He hissed back at Rodney, teeth biting at him and only not pressing into skin by obvious focus of will. ~It was a worthwhile risk!~ John said. ~I could have out run it~

"Not if you had hit the powder snow," Carson said equally alarmed at the thought of the cat versus a bear.

"You're not serving as bear bait," Rodney told him firmly, petting down John's back despite the hissing.

~I am a warrior mage, a fighter!~ John answered and he sounded angry but Carson felt he had to point something out.

"No, John you're not. You're a cat. One swat from a bear and you would be dead."

"And until we get you out of that body, you're useless against a bear." Rodney edged his tone down, but Carson could still see him frowning.

~Excuse me, who managed to help you all escape... While being a useless cat?~ John was making a low rumbling growl.

"We're just worried about you," Carson tried to soothe the agitated cat. "We don't want to lose you."

"I didn't say 'useless'," Rodney groused. "Just, that wasn't the fight for you."

~I don't get to choose my fights,~ John grumbled but his cat side gave him away as he relaxed a little.

"Well the storm is dying back so we should be able to get to this Alteran temple soon. Then with any luck...we'll be done," Carson suggested.

"Done. Except the Genii are still looking for us and we're still on the run," Rodney groused quietly, petting John still firmly.

John's tail twitched, slowing the sweeping arcs.

"But if we have a means of reversing shape bonding, we can release the Alteran mages and ...well, there's a force right there," Carson pointed out. "Now, who's for a nice cup of tea?"

Rodney was so tired, he was so tired of this walking, of this trekking, of snow, of more snow, of ice, of his nose running snot down his face, of his nerves running high because Kolya was going to kill them all and they were marching towards old snowed in ruins.

Carson had been right. It took a hell of a lot longer on foot to get anywhere in these mountains, and if it weren't for Carson keeping him warm and doing his thing, he was sure he would have lost toes or fingers.

~Nearly there guys,~ John said bounding over the snow drifts lightly. ~Just over here~

Then, if there was relief from the wind, an interior to hide inside, there'd still be cold and cold and cold to deal with. If his fingers didn't fall off, there might even be tech for him to fix, if it were possible.

He just hoped it was. He'd seen a few of the Alteran pieces. They were very rare and usually taken by the Priors when they came but he picked through what he could, tried to learn from something that seemed like magic but was maker science too advanced for most.

They eventually hauled themselves up in front of an entrance that was half obscured by snow.

~Carson, you'll have to open it,~ John said.

"Oh... Right, right okay..." Carson said putting a hand to the door. It did slide open and a dim glow started in the passage way beyond.

"The building won't try to kill me if I go inside, will it?" He had to ask, had to, because he was hesitating forward because there was no snow inside.

~You'll be fine Rodney,~ John said as he trotted off down the corridor, tail high and arced in a question mark shape.

"I'm pretty sure there is no defense system here," Carson added as he stepped in. "Not at the moment."

"Not until I find and fix it." Rodney stepped in cautiously behind Carson, and hauled the door shut behind them. "So glad to be out of the wind."

"Aye, it's bloody freezing. I'll be glad to get back to civilization with a nice warm bath and a hot meal," Carson said as they followed John down the corridor.

~C'mon, it's through here~ John called out from a room ahead of them.

"Coming." Rodney hefted his pack, and started doggedly after John, trying not to feel tired. They weren't done yet, and they couldn't *rest* yet.

The room lit up in clean white light as they entered, illuminating strange glyphs on the walls, and surfaces. It meant that there was power, which was good, but it was by far and away the most complicated set of Alteran artifacts he had seen.

~I got this far,~ John said. ~Figured out that the throne there was where I was meant to sit, that it somehow controlled things but I sat in it and ...well it tried, but it didn't get anywhere. Something is wrong.~

Rodney exhaled hard. "Well, that's the most articulate problem I've ever seen. Have you ever used this before...?" Of course not, but Rodney set his pack down and started to consider the walls.

~No, but Carson should be able to help you. I think having a cat body confuses it somehow,~ John answered and jumped up on the chair. ~Lit up like festival fireworks when I did this last time~

"I'll be rubbish at this, I know it," Carson muttered. "I don't mix well with metals."

"Just sit down. This was built by your people," Rodney pointed out, pulling out a few tools from the bottom of his pack.

"My ancestors you mean," Carson said and sat down on the strange throne. Immediately he yelped in surprise as it tilted back and lit up. John clambered on top of him.

~Yep, that's about where I got to.~

"Okay, stay there," Rodney murmured. "Don't move, just... stay relaxed." He needed to strip it down to everything, or he could talk Carson through using the technology.

"I'm relaxed. I have no idea how you know all of this stuff Rodney. It's a wee bit beyond re-engineering mills," Carson said obviously trying to relax.

"Yes, yes, that's just what I had to do to keep the priors happy," Rodney groused, crouching down beside the chair. "And it did, didn't it? Now, think of where we are."

"We're on top of a bloody mountain, Carson said but he screwed up his eyes and concentrated. "It's like I can't quite....reach it. It seems to understand what I want but..."

"What's it telling you? Just listen to it." Rodney wished he could hear, that he could work it out.

"It's telling me that..." Carson was frowning and wincing as if he was probing around a tooth ache. "Something about a broken crystal somewhere?"

"Okay, that's bad. I mean, that's like patching glass, and we all know how well that works. Can you give me an area? Is it near?"

Carson exhaled. "You know, this isn't that easy," he said. "John, walking on my chest isn't helping either."

John paused and hopped off. ~Sorry. Thought you could use the encouragement.~

"Well, it's like trying to find one voice speaking in a language you understand in a hall of a thousand people talking irrelevant rubbish all at once," Carson said and closed his eyes again. "So shush."

~Guess that told me,~ John said as he jumped down and rubbed against Rodney this time, as Carson went into contortions of facial expressions as he concentrated.

Rodney lightly scritched at John's back, still watching the chair, feeling the chair, hoping because something had to click in his mind. How did he fix a broken crystal?

Carson was certainly taking his time about it. So much for the effortless magical talismans of legend. If you believed the stories, people would pick them up and that would be that.

~Well, if it is taking this long,~ John said ~I didn't stand a chance. The Priors were pretty much a couple of hours behind me. I wouldn't have been able to get it to work. I always wondered, y'know, if I'd stayed maybe I could have saved Dex, and Holland from here.~

"It's broken,” Rodney murmured. "And while I think I can fix it... If we can narrow down where the needle is in the haystack."

John's tail was twitching a little ~I hate waiting,~ he admitted. ~I think maybe the connection was stronger for me than it is for Carson. ~

"And yet, you're a cat," Rodney murmured, starting to search for an access panel on the side.

~Gee thanks Rodney,~ John answered.

Carson moved a little. "Oo my head. There's something about a panel in the throne here… on the left and in the other room are stores of spare crystal things apparently."

"Hah! This is do-able, then." Rodney stood up, heading immediately for the door on the other side of the room.

John padded along with him, anxious to be doing something and Carson called out, "I'll just lie here shall I?"

"Yes! And don't think!" The next room was hardly lit up at all, and he started to feel along the walls for drawers.

"How can you say don't think?" Carson said. "Isn't it a wee bit dark in there?"

Oh and there were the lights. That was something. Drawers were at least visible now which was a good thing.

He carefully opened one, peering inside with a hope that something in there would make sense to him.

There were racks of different shaped crystals, different colors all securely stowed. Perhaps it was just a case of finding which one was broken and matching it with a replacement.

John sniffed at them. ~Shiny.~

"Don't touch." He was going to leave that drawer open, and started back towards the chair, quickly locating the panel he needed to pull off.

When he opened it, any hopes of there being a really obvious crack to indicate the broken crystal were dashed. This was not going to be a quick fix - he was going to have to methodically replace each one, or possibly combinations of them. But that was just a matter of patience. He could do that. That was easy if tedious.

Tedious and annoying. "Any chance you can indicate which one it is?"

"No?" Carson replied after a pause. "How can I do that?"

John was sniffing at the crystal in the tray. ~This one smells different~ He said looking up at Rodney with his strange eyes.

"That's as scientific a measure as we're going to get," Rodney decided, reaching down to pull out the crystal John had indicated. "First swap."

"Oh. That feels... different."

"Different how?" Rodney asked as he seated the crystal at last.

"Tingly," Carson answered after a moments thought. "Like...pins and needles if something numbed is coming back to life."

~That's a good start,~ John said hopefully.

"Do any other smell strange to you, John?" Rodney moved back, letting John get in towards the panel.

He sniffed again, taking his time. ~Here, this one,~ he said. ~Try this one.~

They went like that for a while, a long while --testing crystal by crystal, waiting for Carson to react or not react, swapping in a broken crystal for a broken crystal at one point, which Rodney thought was priceless.

Engineering by cat. Who would have thought it? There were three apparently broken crystals in the end, before Carson said in a strange tense voice "That's it Rodney, that's got it..." and lights appeared floating above them.

Lights. Lights were interesting, Rodney decided as he put the panel back into lace. "Let's figure out how to get John human again."

"Right." He closed his eyes again and a representation of John appeared floating above him and then, a pared back internal map of energies, and this was, it seemed, something that Carson understood because the images were flowing fast and shifting, focusing inwards, drawing outwards, twisted as spiral shapes sprang up, rotating like bizarre ladders.

~I have no idea what he's doing,~ John said as he watched the light show, mesmerized by the swirling shapes.

"That's because you're a warrior mage," Rodney drawled. "I don’t think this has anything to do with blowing things up."

~Well you don't look like you have any more of an idea.~

He was interrupted by Carson going, "Oh, well... Rodney? Can I try something on you?"

"That depends on what you want to try." If it got things moving, though, Rodney was interested. He hated feeling so useless, helpless.

"Well, it's been showing me the...well, I suppose you would call it the plans for how people are put together and how to change it and well, give me your hand a moment."

Rodney stood up, steadying himself on the chair. "Just tell me what you need done."

"Absolutely nothing," Carson said as he took his hand. He could feel the warmth that came from Carson using his healing ability and then Carson smiled. "There you are you wee little bugger..."

There was a faint tingling sensation that swept through him just shy of being painful, and then he became aware of new things, Alteran things, impinging on his consciousness.

"Carson, what've you done?" That was strange, like someone had pulled a blindfold off, because the entire place seemed to light up for him now, not literally, but sense-wise.

"You have Alteran blood in you, but it was locked away," Carson said smiling with satisfaction. "I've woken it up. You might not be able to do much mage wise but you should be able to talk to the Alteran artifacts."

Alteran artifacts. Well, if he was going to be hunted as a traitor, he might as well get something out of it, for as short lived a time as he was going to have. "You just want me to take over in the chair, don't you?"

"Well, I know how to do it, but I need to have something to give me more strength to do it," Carson said.

"So you're looking for... energy?" Rodney looked around, considering what his options were. The Chair wouldn't feed energy to someone who was in it, he was sure of that.

"I need something to boost me up a power level," Carson said. "It takes a lot to break and reform a shape."

~But you can do it?~ John sounded alert, excited.

"Aye," he said. "With the power. If Rodney can figure that bit out."

"Scoot over and I'll get it done," Rodney promised. He wasn't sure how, but he'd figure it out.

Carson shifted off to allow him to get on, and suddenly Rodney was full of information and it was just there in his mind. Patterns and numbers and calculations flowing backwards and forwards.

There, there, pressing for his attention, rallying for more and oh god, Rodney was open to it, seeking power points, seeking a way to get Carson fed the extra energy he’d need to repair John.

He wasn't sure how long he was immersed in the information but his mind leapt at the chance to finally have the tools that suited the way he thought. Revelations occurred every second and the main problem was concentrating on a specific task with so many possibilities out there.

And there is was, a solution. A device in this tower that was used as a boost in combat for those with abilities, but would do just as well. He knew now how to configure it, to change it so it would work. It wasn't without risk, but then none of this was.

"We need to go down a few floors," Rodney said, pulling a map up with his mind. There was a chance some of the stairs were a little worse for wear, so he picked out alternate routes as well as he did so.

"You've got something?" Carson asked looking at the map and John was practically manic with anticipation running around, rubbing up against them both as if he was a cat trying to hurry up his dinner.

Rodney started to lever himself out of the chair, and it deactivated. "Yes, we've got something. Let's go."

They picked their way through the Alteran ruin, the place lighting as they walked along - lighting for him now, as well, Rodney realized. John scouted ahead making snarky comments and they picked their way around a few tricky spots until they reached the room

"I just need you to stand there in the center," Rodney directed, moving towards one old looking console. All he had to do was get it functioning, and attune it, and shift the power over to Carson. "Be ready. I'll warn you before I activate it."

“Alright," Carson said looking determined and a little anxious as he went and stood in the centre of the room. "I hope I don't screw this up."

"You won't. You just... un-cat John. John, get over by Carson and please hold still." Rodney brought the system up slowly, and he could feel it singing under his touch. It was madness to deny people that right, that interaction level. The whole world could've been transformed for the better, instead of knocked backwards fifty years or more.

~Right,~ John said and stepped near to Carson. ~I appreciate this, both of you.~

"I'm sure it will all be fine."Carson said

"If we can get you human again, John, we might actually have a chance..." Rodney bend his head in, and just worked, focused on what he was doing and muttered to himself only a little while he swapped connectors to override what felt like a silly safety setting. "All right, Carson. Starting now..."

Almost immediately a brilliant light transfixed Carson who went rigid and almost shaking for a moment before he reached out a shaking hand towards, John who lay down as well. "Rodney... gods above... I'm not sure I can..."

"You can." Rodney said it softly, but firmly. "I know how much of a natural you are at it, Carson. Just. Let it flow."

Carson dropped unsteadily to his knees and placed his hands on John, and Rodney could see when Carson began his healing as there was so much energy it manifested in light from his hands, leaching the color out of John's body.

The feline shape yowled in protest. ~Oh...fuck, fuck it burns...~

And all Rodney could do was watch while John twisted and arched, dark spot on bright bright energy that seemed colorless, shifting, moving along the spectrum in a haze. He couldn’t help, he could just supply Carson until it as done, and then cut the machine.

Somehow in his mind he'd thought it would be instantaneous, but no, it wasn't. They seemed to be locked into the process, and of course it was around then that another console started feeding him information that there were life signs approaching the Alteran Ruins. The Genii, Rodney didn't doubt. They'd find a way inside and they'd find he three of them and John had to become human again, it as going to be their only chance. Once Kolya got his hands on them this time...

Well he would be lucky if slavery was the least of his problems.

The blob at the centre of the light was shifting somehow and he wished he knew how long this was going to take. Something was happening but was it happening fast enough? The cat yowl now was different, sounded like it was mixed with a cry of pain somehow and holy shit, it was actually working.

He was shifting, stretching, moving, becoming something closer to human, bigger, and god, Carson was breaking the spell, he was shattering the work of who knew how many priors who'd bound John down into cat-form. Rodney eyed the panel, and started to lock doors between them and the Intruders, just to buy time.

The next sound was one of a more human yell, a man's yell and it wasn't Carson because Carson had lowered his hands and practically fell over as he tried to signal feebly for the energy boost to be turned off.

Rodney flipped the controls, sliding the power down, quickly, and then off, before crossing over towards them both. "Are you all right?"

Carson waved a hand and shuddered again as he tried to speak. "I... think... it worked."

There was John, naked on the floor, still making noise. Rodney was willing to bet it had worked, too, and he knelt down beside John to carefully prod his arm. "John?" No fur in sight.

No clothes in sight and he just hoped that they were close enough fit for some of their clothes to be suitable.John uncurled a little, showing a lean form, and a mop of untidy dark hair. But the eyes, they were the same hazel he was used to. "Hey...nRodney."

"You sound like you did in my head." He pulled back a little, enough to snag his back. "There are life signs coming into the tower. I've put down blockades, but I don't know how long that will hold them."

Instantly John was pushing himself up, oblivious to his naked state. "How many?"

Behind him, Carson was still practically panting, with his eyes closed. Whatever he had done had really taken it out of him and running away was not likely to be an option. They could stand and fight, then. Rodney crouched down over by Carson, sliding hands up under his arms. "Six.

John shook himself off and grabbed the pack, pulling out a rumpled looking shirt and pant that he struggled to put it on rapidly. They were loose on his thinner frame but that didn't seem to worry him. "Well... let’s make sure they get a good welcome huh?" "Yes." He was going to drag Carson behind the console with him, and at least from there he could... work the systems that were available. It was their best option. "I'd hate to get you human again just to get you killed."

"I hope I've still got the knack, otherwise this is going to be a difficult take down. Can you tell me where they are now?" John said shaking out his hands as if unsteady.

He set Carson down carefully, and brought up the system again. "They're still on the first level, in the chair room.

John nodded and looked around. "Mmm. Right, stay here. And don't... get...well, don't get in their way."

"I'm not helpless, John." Just, nearly helpless. He started testing controls, though, looking for more weapons systems. A *gun* would've been nice just then.

It was strange looking at John as a human not a cat, but he had to admit that when John moved it was with a form of feline grace as he headed out barefoot along the corridor. Rodney followed quickly. "Do you want to give me a heads up of what you're doing?"

"Well I'm kinda going to make that bit up on my own. I'm going to knock them on their asses."

"And that's your backup plan? Oh god." A creaky magician, and okay, attacking before they were pinning in that room again was probably tactically sane, *but*.

"Unless they've got a mage in their group, I've got them covered,” John said. "I specialize in elemental forces, so....yeah."

He slowed down as they approached the first floor. "Stay behind me."

Stay behind him and just... watch? Non interference, stay down, out of the way? "Fine."

Stupid of him to think he could take on a crack team of one of the Priors’ designated soldier and warrior subject races. John might think he was hot stuff, but this was like seven elite soldiers and John was just apparently strolling up to them. Well, sneaking in around the door.

He could hear them up ahead, and John positioned himself by the door and peered around in a glance.

"Kolya...” he whispered and flexed his hands. They must have spotted a movement because Kolya called out.

"There you are McKay. After all this time. Give yourself up now and your bonding to the Genii could be most pleasant."

"Still not really interested in the offer," Rodney called out. Good, let them think it was just him there.

John was giving him thumbs up and then went about focusing on something, some sort of internal mantra he guessed until he could see a glow of energy building in his hands, cackling.

"We'll even let the Healer live. You'll have to make sure he performs all the slave services, but I'm sure that won't be a problem for you. He's Alteran blood."

Yeah like he'd let Carson become a sex object for any freeman Genii. "There's a little glitch in that plan. I apparently have Alteran blood, too. I can't *do* anything with it, but... so I'm a little reluctant to leave myself in your hands."

"Well..." Kolya's voice sounded all the more interested. "Then perhaps our working relationship will be very intimate McKay, very intimate. You'll learn to like it."

"Like hell he will.” John stepped out, hurling arcs of electrical energy in balls into the room.

Rodney stayed back, out of the way, though he was ready to grab John and *run* if he had to, and never mind that as all he was really prepared to do just then.

In an ideal world that strike would have knocked out everyone in the room but of course they weren't that lucky. The Genii started to return fire and no matter how crude their guns, the sound of bullets pinging surfaces near him was more than a little startling.

John was swearing and building another charge, but the Genii were moving closer. Rodney shifted, stayed close to the wall, but thought maybe it was better if he managed to retreat back towards Carson, mount a defense from there where he might not be entirely helpless.

On the other hand moving was proving to be difficult with bullets flying. Another crackle and a burst of electricity, and swearing from the other room.

"Alteran!" Kolya yelled at them. "How do they have an Alteran? Fall back...regroup, we'll deal with him."

Fall back? There's no way they would fall back unless they believed they could get reinforcements. And the only reinforcements who could do anything against an Alteran mage were the Priors. John had to stop them now!

"You regroup, and we'll be gone," Rodney called out, still moving towards the other door, crouched down and wincing every time a shot was fired.

"They're moving outside," John hissed in a whisper. "That's good... I'm gonna follow. Get Carson if you can, we'll have to move quickly."

Why was them going outside good news? IT should be bad but John had a feral grin on his face.

"We'll be there." Carson had to be conscious now, so Rodney moved as fast as he could back to the room where John had finally be turned human again. "Carson!"

Carson groaned as he entered the room. "Bloody Hell, keep it down... What's going on?"

"The genii are here. Get up." He thrust his hand down at Carson, grabbing hard at his arm. "We need to go."

Carson staggered upright. "And I'm not a lot of use...uhn...Where's John? Did I...did it really work? With John?"

"Yes, it worked. It worked. Now come on, before they get the priors!" He pulled at Carson, got him moving, just hoping they caught up with John before he did something stupid.

The room with the Throne was empty when they got there, and as they headed up towards the exit tunnel they could feel massive explosions from out on the mountainside. The reason soon became apparent. John had wanted them out on the mountainside because it meant he had a lot more to work with. Earth, rock, snow, winds...inside he had been surrounded by metals and very few mages in history could magic metals. But out on the mountain, John had created knives of ice, and tidal waves of snow, hurling boulders at high speed.

There was no question, Rodney decided as he stood in the doorway, still halfway holding Carson up, that the Genii were going to die.

"He...he can't do that..." Carson seemed shocked. "The energy involved...John...he can't..."

But it seemed he could. Kolya was still alive, and turned his sights on them and just for a moment Rodney was looking down the sights of a gun and...

John sent an ice dagger straight through the Genii Commander's heart.

"He can." He had, and that, watching Kolya fall, wasn’t as satisfying as Rodney had hoped it would be after all of their running, quick and simple.

Silence reigned a moment and John was just standing there breath rising as steam in bare feet in the snow.

"Looks like I still got it..." he said a little unevenly surveying the corpses around him.

Rodney started forward. "We have to get you inside. And... Maybe fake an avalanche when we leave," he offered, unsure, quite, of what they were going to do next. Strip the tower for things that were useful? Disable the chair? See what other places there were to find and fix using the chair?

"The Prior will have picked that up if the Genii had them close," John said. "I need to take them out...but if I do, we should be able to use their power to get us back...and..."

"No, no John, we take out Priors, we’re on the run and they will catch us," Carson said. "We need to think this through... need to find another way."

"We need to get out of here," Rodney countered, taking John towards the door, because they at least needed a moment to regroup.

"I know, but...if we can...if I can alter their memories somehow, if John subdues them so they think that everything is resolved, we can go back to Castleton and free the other shapebound, and organize a rebellion that has an actual chance of working," Carson said vehemently.

Rodney looked between them. "Can you really do that?" If they could, if they could just... stop running for a while.

"Mind magic not my thing," John said. "But I could fight them to a standstill... Carson, you reckon you can do that?"

" Now after the session inside?" Carson looked at him. "It's permanently opened my power up, Rodney, that wasn't just a top up. I believe I can." It seemed as much a surprise to him as anyone else.

"What do I need to do?" He had to ask -- whether it was just to get out of their way, or he could help somehow, he needed to know.

"If we can get something that might stop them from just channeling themselves out when we start fighting?" John said. "We need to stop that up until the memory modifications can take place."

"A... a block on their abilities? Can we bait them inside again?" He wouldn't need to get them far inside, just near the throne room would be enough.

"I fight them better out here...more elements at my disposal," John said shaking his head. "Something portable? Something out here?"

"At least close the door and come inside while we wait," Rodney coaxed, going back inside towards the throne. "And I'll see what I can do."

"And let’s get you some bloody shoes," Carson said as they ushered John back in. "And something to eat."

They'd all need that before the Priors came.

John had to admit, it was disorientating being an adult human again. Inside his head there was still the lurking presence of feline thought and it made him wonder if he could just slip back into that shape if he wanted to. But right now, he didn't dare risk it. Carson was still looking shaky even after their impromptu feast because they had both burned up an excessive amount of food and were expecting to do more very shortly.

Carson had been right though - he should have thought of that but the need to cut loose had been overwhelming. The Genii really hadn't stood a chance.

The Priors might be more difficult, and here they were relying on Rodney to do something with technology he had only seen hours before or this was doomed from the start.

"How's it going?" he asked stretching again.

"Faster the less you ask me 'how's it going'." Rodney had alternated between the chair and a small pile of equipment he'd pulled together, the chair and back, the chair and back, planning... something, John supposed. Something was coming out of that pile, and hopefully it was going to save their asses.

"He get's a wee bit tetchy when you interrupt his work,” Carson said, chewing on a piece of jerky. "How are your energy levels John?"

"Getting there," John said. "What are you aiming for Rodney?"

"To disrupt the frequency they use to teleport." His head was bowed in, and it looked as if he were tying wires together.

John was impressed. When he'd thrown that out as a suggestion it had been the best case scenario. "You seriously can do that?" That was one hell of an advantage. Alteran mages had firepower but when the enemy could pop out for reinforcements in the blink of an eye things became difficult. He always wondered where that bit of ability had come from. He knew it wasn't a mage talent so it had to be in their staffs.

Rodney glanced up at him. "Well, yes. I mean, your magic, it has a scientific parallel, even if no one appreciates it, and your tech was ages beyond what we've managed..."

"I'm not an actual Alteran," John reminded him. "Just got the talents and the bloodline, but I'm not the real deal."

"Closest I've ever seen," Carson said from where he was resting his eyes.

"How are you *not* Alteran?" Rodney asked, glancing up for a moment before he ducked his head back down again.

"Well, I was born to a normal family. Alterans Ascended, left the world...I can't do that," John said. "I'm not sure I want to. I mean, do you think of yourself as Alteran now?"

"Of course not. I've been a Maker all of my life. My family were all makers." Rodney seemed content to carry it on, even though it was just another tech.

"Yet, you've got Alteran blood now... and abilities. It's just a matter of degree."

"He has a point," Carson said. "We are not the same as the Alterans themselves, though some have more of their abilities than others."

"I always wonder why the bastards never came back to defend their own. The priors committed genocide, subjugated the people, and just... nothing." Except for John's people, except they weren't even full Alterans.

"I know. But you go around thinking someone is going to pull your butt out of the fire and you're going to get cooked," John said.

"Not everyone can work alone," Carson pointed out.

"Yes, well, fighting back is necessary." John watched Rodney shrug. "I'm not suggesting that you all should've waited for someone to save you. Just that the Alterans... ran away."

"I know." John had thought about it a lot, and it did seem wrong that his ancestors were pretty much these demi-gods who apparently didn't give a rat's ass about anyone else.

"I guess it's down to us," Carson said. "Although it would be nice if when I said down to us, I didn't literally mean just us."

"Well, if we can get back to the Castle...." Rodney gave a hiss, and stuck his hand out for a moment, shaking it before hunching back in. "You can fix O'Neill. And the others."

"Aye, if Daniel is sure of everyone there. I believe he's been building up quite a power base on the sly," Carson commented and John would have to take him at his word there. He did know that perhaps it was the highest concentration of shape-bound mages anywhere. And if they knew they had a cure, then Daniel could develop a hobby of collecting them.

He watched Rodney. The man was just playing about with the technology as if it was second nature.

It seemed easy for him, and he wondered... how, how was it so easy for him? What had Rodney done when he'd been in the chair to *have* such ease with it. There was no telling if what Rodney was planning to do as going to work, yet...

He knew Rodney was smart but, this was so far beyond the normal Maker abilities.

"So I'm going to get a chance to take them down without them vanishing on me?"

"Yes. I suspect they'll realize quickly that it's *me* and this device, and they may change their frequency, so I'll need to stay with it."

"How wide an area will it cover?" John asked trying to calculate it in his head. It wouldn't help if they just ran out of range. He could call up an ice wall but the Priors could get pretty kick ass as well sometimes.

"Wide enough. Wide enough to keep them confused." He was pretty sure Rodney had no idea.

"Okay." What else could he say? He'd just have to wing it. "They'll be here pretty soon. We've got to assume the Genii got a message out."

"Or if they didn't, that they've picked up on this level of disturbance." Well, that was assuming, but yeah, John was willing to bet that they might've. It'd been so long since there was someone out there, throwing their weight around like that.

He had been one of the last, he'd known that. He was half proud he'd caused them a lot of problems. "Right, I'm going outside. Carson you might want to hover between here and outside," John said flexing his stiff muscles. "When you hear things exploding you know they've arrived."

"No, I'm going to need to move this almost outside." Back to the doorway again. "If you want the appropriate range."

"Sure," John nodded. Which meant it had to be a pretty tight range after all. "You need something carried?"

"We can do that," Carson offered as well. "While I'm standing around watching you both do the hard work."

"Just, stay ready." Rodney stood up, awkwardly lifting it up with him. "Okay, I think we're ready to go."

It was just as well because John was getting that vaguely anxious feeling that had him on edge. Priors...Priors could beat him. They had before, but if they did this time Rodney and Carson would suffer too. Death would be the least of it - the torture that would happen when they realized they had somehow managed to break the unbreakable, and essentially 'make' an Alteran would make what he had endured look like some sort of vacation.

He couldn't let that happen. Especially now his human attraction was starting to kick in.

He liked them, and he wanted to keep them safe and maybe keep working with them, and that all hinged on them being alive still. "See, I need to turn the switch on the moment they get here and not sooner."

"Got it," John said as they headed back out to the cold mountainside. "That's going to be a useful bit of maker-tech for any base if it can stop Priors dropping in."

"I think I can replicate it again and again." Rodney seemed thoughtful as he repositioned it, maybe too close to the scattered corpses.

"That's...pretty handy," John said. The snow was crisp now the storm was passed and the corpses were obvious against the snow. He had a sudden feeling like his feline side wanted to come to the fore. Threat approaching, something on the cusp of hearing.

"Out of sight, both of you!" he hissed.

They moved, obediently getting around the turn of the door. Rodney was just clinging to his machine, and all John could do was turn away and focus. They were coming, and he needed to look like the crazed maniac they expected of an Alteran.

It wasn't that hard really, he was looking a little crazed around the eyes and his hair was up on end and mussed. Show time.

The priors came over the rise, and fuck, there were six of them. He'd thought three. Three was normal. Okay six... six he might manage.

"You are an abomination against Origin! Stand and face the justice of the Ori!" one announced and John squinted at them.

"Y'know, I don't think so," he drawled hoping Rodney was ready to go. "You are trespassing on Alteran ground.”

"There is no Alteran Ground to trespass on. All is Origin! You will face Justice, Warbringer!" They started towards him, and proximity always negated skill, and power and everything else in the world.

John narrowed his eyes a moment and then kicked off with a shower of ice blades to test their defenses. They were momentarily surprised but from their reactions they were good. Fires shields from their staffs and rapid enough return fire to get him moving.

Time for something more momentous then, and John called up a whirlwind with a bellow and laced it with lightning and the priors disappear through its bulk as he followed up rapidly with a strong ice block to try and catch and hold the unwary. He got two in that shock attack but he was being flanked by several of the priors and they were trying a linked up attack. One of the elder priors slammed his staff down with a burst of light and it ripped the tornado apart.

Shit, shit, that wasn't meant to happen. He ducked and rolled as balls of lightning sizzled in the snow, and push up...right into the path of several missiles. With an instinctive reaction he raised a shield but the force kicked him back on his ass, breath knocked from him.

They would be on him in seconds, he knew that and instead of leaping up immediately, he gripped the rock beneath the snow and called his strength to bring a quake that would unbalance them and then a whirling wall of snow to hide him.

His blood was pumping now as he clambered up and he felt the sudden drain of one of them trying something big, something deadly that would encompass the entire area and he caught the air under him and rose up into the sky so he could see which it was.

A fire spell that would blast everything here, including his own men. Rodney would die, Carson would die and he wasn't going to lose anyone else.

He hurled down rock and ice blocks but the other Priors deflected him and he saw the terrible inferno blossom forth.... and he took it.

He drew the fire towards him, wrapping himself in whirlwind and fire, letting it flair up around him like the wings of some avenging mythical phoenix. The fire was his now, and he sculpted it and sent it down to explode near them. He could kill them now, kill all of them in revenge because the fire was there and everyone he had known had suffered at the hands of these bastards but...

He had to think...he had to stay focused. They were trying to magic their way out and thought he was responsible. It was better to keep that way.

"You will pay!" he shouted out, amplifying his words and punctuating them with blasts. "I call the justice of my Ancestors down upon you!"

It was over dramatic he knew but he was fast running out of strength. One last big effort and he was done. He had never managed this much before.

He went the electric route and blanketed the entire area with electricity as hard as he could, toasting those Priors enough to knock them out.

And then without any more fuss, he dropped out of the sky and landed hard on the snow below.

Rodney was out there, hurrying Carson forward, and he hadn't expected that, or that Rodney would be carrying his device under his arm. "Just stay where you are, John. Rest for a minute, because after this we have to flee."

"It...won't keep them out long..." he gasped feeling like he had winded himself.

"Aye lad, I think you've pushed yourself right beyond your limits with that display," Carson said. "Rodney and I will take care of it." His hand was over him and his breathing was difficult like... like he didn't have enough to run a body this large.

And just like that his second nature came into play. He had an option, one his mind and body remembered and with no effort, he slipped back into the cat-shape.

It didn't feel tight, restrictive, and squished down like that again he could shake snow off of his paws and start after them so he could at least pace them while they went from Prior to Prior, starting with the elders.

"Okay lads, I can put them under for a period of time and give them a false memory. What are we going for? Genii lured them into an ambush and then an avalanche. We are already dead? Or we were never missing?"

"Never missing," Rodney suggested. "And the Genii lured them into an ambush. I'd like to go home and pretend and continue to subvert, if possible."

Carson nodded. "Keep an eye on them," he said as he bent over the first Prior. "This may take a wee bit of time."

John decided he wanted to get close to Rodney again. Funny how his cat instincts reverted to that. "Great. If one of them twitches, I'll just drop this on its head." Rodney stood up tall, though, surveying the mess around them. "And you, John -- oh. You can go back to a cat?"

~I kinda ran out of strength to keep a full size me going~ he admitted. ~But I guess my body decided it had another option now. Pretty cool huh?~

"That's... very cool. And very handy if we want to keep this charade up." Go back to the castle, pretend to still be shape-bonded, and... fight from there? It seemed like a perfect plan.

~I'm hoping I can do this at will~ John said. ~Then if we get inspected before we are ready to move the shapebonded can slip back into animal form.~

"That would be nice." Rodney exhaled hard. "I can't believe this is almost over."

~If Carson can pull this off it will be. We’ve got to get back to Castleton though. You reckon you can figure out one of their staffs?~

Rodney set the disrupter down on the ground, and reached for one of the staffs. "Shouldn't be... too hard?"

John purred at him, rubbing his head against his arm. ~That's because you are the best damn Maker in the world.~

Rodney laughed. "We'll see if you say that when I can't get this to work, or I electrocute us with it."

~Well I'll look forward to that~ John said. ~How's Carson doing? You think he can really pt a clear memory in their heads?~

"We have to trust that he can," Rodney shrugged, "there really isn't any other option, and Carson doesn't exaggerate."

Probably the opposite John considered as he turned and watched for a moment. He could shake mountains but what was more impressive? Being able to shove earth around or change a mind?

~ I think Daniel Jackson is going to be a little surprised, and Jack,~ he commented.

"A little John happy, as well." Rodney reached down, scooping up with only a little indignity to the motion.

"Mrow," he vocalized aloud and then mischievously licked him. "You taste good Rodney."

Rodney shuddered, even as he tucked John inside of his coat for warmth while he worked on the staff. "Hit on me when you're not covered in grey fur."

~You better believe it~ John said snuggling in. He was pretty tired and there wasn’t much he could do right now. Maybe he could just have a little nap.

Nap, warm and safe against Rodney's chest and trust that Rodney would let him know if things got bad instead of better. He'd done his share of the work.

It had been a very long day, one of surprises. Carson felt like everything he had known to be incontrovertible facts had been turned on its head. The Alteran Throne or Chair or whatever it was had talked to him. It was all he could do not to run away and then the power pouring though him from the booster...well normal folk would call it a talisman but Rodney used it as any other Maker device.

It had changed him, he knew that. He had information in his head now and then suddenly, like a block had been broken inside of him, he had the power to do things.

Like unlocking John from his shape-binding. And what a man he had turned out to be... Rodney seemed to be oblivious to the fact John was drop dead gorgeous but that might have been the allure of the Alteran Maker’s mysteries. His friend and lover was practically glowing with excitement as they prepared to transport.

"Are you sure this will work?" he asked nervously.

"I'm sure. Well, I'm mostly sure, which is good enough. I mean, I expect we'll get there. Put your and around the staff."

"Is John still asleep?" Carson asked as he nervously took the staff with one hand.

"Exhausted." Rodney was leaning into the staff a little, because he had an arm curled under the blob that was John to support him, while his other hand twisted the controls carefully with is thumb. "What a dumb interface. I know it's to make them look impressive, but I wonder how many of them have dialed up fish falling from the sky when they meant lightning."

"They seemed competent enough," Carson replied. "Mind you, I'm not even sure the stories about O'Neill match what I saw John do earlier."

He'd look like an avenging phoenix, or angel of some kind floating in the sky with wings of fire.

"I prefer to imagine our enemies screwing up, not being wildly competent." Rodney closed his eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath. "Okay, hang on."

What happened next, Carson really hoped he imagined because surely it wasn't possibly to actually feel yourself disintegrate, and swirl off into a brilliant light and then come back together again. His knees went immediately shaky and he found himself gripping them to see if they were there. "Bloody hellfire!"

Rodney staggered, stumbled, and fell forward, but they were within the grounds of their home, Carson could tell. Some exterior area. Close enough.

"What are we going to say?" Carson said when they righted themselves. The walls of Castleton were ahead of them and people were milling around.

"That it's a long story and we need to talk to the Regent. Urgently," Rodney murmured, hauling himself up a little straighter. They needed to do something with the staff.

"Let's get home then, I'm dying for a good bath, a hot meal and a comfortable bed," Carson answered heading down the familiar road. "I've never done this much mage work in a day since the Prior wars."

"Daniel first, then we can rest." He was still carrying John inside of his heavy coat, and he and Carson probably looked like mountain men, not men who lived *inside* the mountain.

They did attract a few peculiar looks as they headed into the town and then made their way through the familiar, twisty streets to the massive castle which was like a town in itself.

At least the guards recognized them even if they did get some spluttering disbelief from one of the housekeepers and valets.

"My Lord McKay! We believed you and your vassal slain or abducted in the attack on Athos..." the valet gushed at them gesturing them in and obviously sending messages on ahead to Daniel.

"We would like to speak with the regent, if we can. If he's free. It's urgent," Rodney intoned, taking the lead, and Carson was damn glad to let him posture and do just that.

"Of course my Lord, I have notified him of your arrival," the man said bowing. "Please go straight up to his rooms."

Carson was not surprised. "Thank you." John seemed to still be resting, and Rodney glanced sideways at Carson, just to check either how he was or what he was thinking. It was hard to guess, and they had been away for... so long.

Carson kept his head down as they went up the stairs and hallways and was grateful when they finally reached the Regents quarters where they were ushered in immediately. Jack was immediately sniffing around them and Carson felt a sudden oddness not to be hearing a voice from a shapebound. He had gotten used to that from John.

"Rodney! Carson!" Daniel looked genuinely pleased to see them. "I nearly didn't believe it when I heard the message. We thought you were dead or the Genii had you."

Rodney looked behind him, like he was checking that the door was shut. "That's... a very long story, sir. But we did make it."

"Are we clear to talk sir? Carson asked deferentially in a quiet voice, just in case.

"Yes, yes, I believe so ... Jack?" Daniel queried his shapebound who hruffed once in a clear affirmative. "Please tell me what happened. Is John... is he alive?"

"He's alive, but very tired." Rodney hefted him up a little higher, still supported by his arm, and peeled back his coat. "He just stunned six priors. After killing the Genii who were after us. He's earned a long nap."

"Six Priors? ...Wait, How?" Daniel asked alert and leaning forward.

John blinked a little blearily at the sudden light. ~Ow...I feel like I have a hang over,~ John said stretching a little. ~We're home?~

"Aye lad. Do you think you can do a party trick?" Carson suggested.

Rodney plucked carefully at John's paws while he stretched his claws against Rodney's shirt. "Yes, we're home. I'm going to set you down if you tell me you're feeling up to it."

~Sure. I feel better for a nap,~ he said.

"Wait...” Daniel said. "Are you talking to him directly?"

"Aye, we can do that...I started a process when I healed him," Carson said. "But that is not the whole of it. John, you feel up to showing them what you can do?”

~Sure...though I might drop back into this shape is easier to conserve energy.~ John said as Rodney put him down.

"You just want to sleep on a pillow." Rodney stepped back, though, and took the opportunity to put his pack down, looking between Daniel and John to see his reaction.

"What is it that you want to show us?" Daniel asked and Carson could feel John prepare himself. This time he got to watch rather than feel overwhelmed as John stretched and...well, kept on stretching with only a brief moment between Cat and fully naked human.

It was a little beautiful to behold, watching John standing there, casually, normally, *naked*, while he crossed his arms over his chest. "Carson broke the shape lock on John."

Daniel looked stunned. "You've broken the shape-lock? That's meant to be impossible, we've had people researching it for..."

"Aye well we had a wee bit of help from an Alteran ruin that John had come across but had been broken until Rodney could fix it." He looked over at the maker and smiled. He deserved his reputation.

"Hey, I'm standing here, aren't I?" John asked, arms still crossed. "And I was just a cat. So, impossible is a little harsh of a word, given what we just pulled off."

"He then fought off 6 Priors," Carson pointed out. "I've never seen anything like it."

"And then you *brainwashed six priors*," John countered, twisting a little to look back at Carson. "And Rodney blocked them from teleporting with a machine he cobbled together out of scraps."

"Is that your 'don't be modest' tone?"

"Aye well, you go around telling too many people what you can do as a mage and you end up in cold iron shackles," Carson said. "But in the interests of full disclosure, the Alteran ruins showed me how to...waken the Alteran blood in others."

"Which Carson did to me," Rodney volunteered, crossing his arms as well. "I can now interface with their systems. No mage ability, but it's fascinating."

Daniel looked stunned. "So you can unlock other shape-bound?" he asked as Jack nosed at Carson hopefully.

"Not until I've had something to eat and sleep but, I believe so yes," Carson admitted.

"So. Full debrief in the morning then? If it's all right, I'd like to go eat and sleep, too, and I think John is pretty drained..."

"If it is convenient with you sir," Carson addded. "We spent a long time in the mountains and truth be told, I don't think I could heal much more than bruises right now."

"We've been on the run... every day since the attack." And Carson had mostly lost track of time.

Daniel nodded, still staring at John as he started to shift back, quickly, to a cat. "Of course. I think it's best for John to stay... a cat when he's outside of locked doors."

"I think I can manage that," John said. And just like that he was shrinking back to to his feline form.

"Are Rodney's quarters still...vacant?" Carson asked thinking of the bath longingly.

"Yes. We weren't sure what had happened..." Daniel trailed off. "Losing both of you was a blow."

That was one way to put it. "It was the Genii, they were after Rodney...I was convenient and well, they thought they used John as an example but he survived and effectively rescued us."

"Commander Kolya is dead now," Rodney offered, bending down to scoop John up off the floor. Whether eh wanted to go or not. "I'm sure you'll learn it through official channels. Or... not."

Daniel still looked a little wild around the eyes. "The Genii are dead and you fought off 6 Priors and have come back here? Are we going to have Priors on our doorstep demanding the renegades?" he asked looking at them all.

"No, no... As Rodney said, the Alteran ruins gave me greater abilities," Carson reminded him. "John stunned them all, and I altered their memories so they believe they were led into a trap by the Genii who were after their Prior technology... their staffs. They believe that one of them possibly got away with one of their staffs, and that they killed the rest. They will be looking for a renegade Genii Mage."

"Good luck finding him," Rodney murmured, snorting a little as he cradled John as a cat close to his chest. "We need to play things quietly, however. Going forward."

"Aye, if you can get all the shape-bound here, we can get them unlocked," Carson put in. "And then effectively you have a secret army. The Alteran ruin has a lot of information in it and Rodney...well, I don't think there is another who could understand it like he does. But even he had to be changed to access it. And once that has happened, you are effectively by default on our side."

"I was already *on* your side. Our side." Rodney glanced at Daniel. "Anything else you need to know?"

"Right now this is a lot to absorb," Daniel said. "As long as we are not in immediate danger, we can take a bit of time over it, mull it over. I wish I could talk to Jack."

The dog whined a little and Carson. "I'll do that tomorrow first thing, but right now I think if I do one more thing today I will pass out completely." He was barely standing upright.

Rodney petted John's head, perhaps a little too firmly, and Daniel sighed. "In the morning, then. Get some rest, both of you."

Carson bowed a little, as Daniel did deserve some respect and said "Thank you" as they left the room. Now the end was in sight, his legs felt like lead and he felt like his eyes would drop shut at any moment. He reasoned that Rodney would know were they were going.

It was easier to just follow him, trudge along with him. In the morning, he needed a shave and a haircut, desperately, along with a long hot bath, and to never spend so many days out in the wilderness again.

He was still unbearably tired, even after having washed and eaten breakfast in his quarters with Carson, still a little sequester by choice because, well. Because. Because Rodney was un sociable at the best of times, and he'd been away from home for *so* long, and the threat of imminent doom had been there for quite so long he’d forgotten how to relax.

It was bliss to have real food brought to them, all they could eat. John had eaten a ridiculous quantity as a human and then gone back to sleeping as a cat the night before. He wasn't sure how that worked exactly but John said something about cats really knowing how to sleep. Carson had done likewise, and also soaked in the bath until he was practically wrinkled before falling into bed. He had half dozed through breakfast as well, but there was a definite gleam in his eye now.

An awake, well rested gleam. Rodney halfway knew they needed to finish talking to Daniel, except... except. He was tired of talking and didn't want to explain himself again, let alone the half a dozen times more he knew he'd have to do it.

"You still look tired love," Carson murmured shifting closer. "Did you not sleep well?"

"I need about five more days of sleep before I'm caught up." Rodney rubbed at the side of his face. "It doesn't... really feel real. That we're home again."

"I know. The bed is almost too comfortable...aside from John sticking his claws in like normal," Carson said lancing at the sprawled cat.

~I heard that~ John said lazily.

"I could go back to sleep," Rodney agreed, eyeing the bed, before glancing back at Carson. "Did Daniel give you any idea of a time he wanted to see us again...?"

"Not particularly," Carson answered. "We could just...lie down again."

He wasn't being particularly subtle about his intent.

"Mmhmm?" Lay down with him again, that sounded good and relaxing.

"Mmm." Carson tugged him gently towards the bed. "Rodney, I'm sure I can think of things to relax you."

"Oh?" That was interesting, even if John the Cat was staring at them curiously, a little intrigued.

"Mmm...perhaps a massage to start with," Carson cajoled.

~To start with...~ John's voice sounded amused ~If it get's interesting I'm changing shape~

"Are you interested in it getting interested?" Rodney moved towards the bed, stopping beside it. Their quarters were nice and warm -- well, his, but it felt very much like a 'they' just then.

~Are you kidding? When was the last time I had sex?~ John said jumping on the bed ~I'll give you a clue...we're talking years.~

Well, yes. At least, if he'd been a celibate cat, and Rodney wasn't really going to ask John if he had been or not.

"Well, we'll see what happens. I know with my luck, someone's going to knock the moment I take my shirt off..."

"If you can hear them knocking, we won't be doing our job properly," Carson said with a wicked grin.

Rodney shifted, started to pull his shirt off. "Okay. John, get human."

There was that peculiar disturbance and there he was, John lying sprawled out on his bed, Carson raising his eyebrows and looking impressed.

"Very nice," Carson commented. "I didn't have time to appreciate it before."

Rodney exhaled slowly, peering at John. He was gorgeous, and he knew it, *and* he was comfortable with it, which was a formidable mixture. "There were Genii to kill. Now..."

"Now I'm ready willing and able," John said stretching.

Carson smiled. "C'mon love...”

Just like that, just that easy. With Carson, there had always been that divide, that feeling that they weren't allowed to quite be together because of the structure of their society, but now... Now things hadn't changed. He'd changed.

They shared the same blood now. He had Alteran heritage and who knew what he could do now?

"So...three of us?" John said half as a statement half as a query.

"Why not?" Rodney checked, looking at Carson while the other man seemed to be content to strip off just as quickly as Rodney was. It made him wonder why they'd even gotten dressed, except for propriety's sake for the servants.

"Technically you're a pet and I'm a...well, a chattel," Carson said easily "So does that really count as three?"

"I'm not trying to put anyone off," John said. "I just didn't want a freak out."

"Mmm, and going by that, what does that make me? A lord facing treason charges?" Rodney stretched a little, and decided to just undress after all. "I don't think anything can freak me out at his point."

"Well if a cat turning into a man didn't do it you are proven unflappable," Carson said looking John up and down.

"Have you always been this ...thin?"

"Pretty close." John flexed an arm, patting himself. "Doesn't feel that bad."

"You look underweight," he said raising his eyebrows. "Although that might just be in comparison. Mind you Rodney, we've definitely lost weight... you are looking svelte."

Rodney snorted, dropping his shirt on the floor. "Flattery. Scoot back, we should make use of the size of the bed."

Carson shifted over as did John who looked a little unsettled as he tried to figure out where to go. "Okay, this was easier when I was cat. You want me in the middle here or...uh...”

"Here." Rodney had a knee on the bed, and leaned into John, sliding n arm around him. He'd wanted to kiss him since he'd taken out the priors, since before that, maybe, but now was the time to see if he tasted of fur or not.

Fortunately no, he tasted fine. More than fine, he could kiss like fire and passion all wrapped up in one bundle.

It was very obvious that he was very much wanting more than just a kiss

Now the question was how to get here. Rodney twisted a little, pulling back only to look over towards Carson.

"Oh you carry on," Carson said. "I'm enjoying the view."

HE grinned and John looked at him. "Like I'm gonna last any time at all with kissing like that."

"Well, let's see how long you can last." Rodney pulled John in closer, and started to kiss him again, slow, lingering contact while trying to get him to settle on the bed.

John was very responsive to him and relaxed even as Carson stroked a hand over them both.

"I admit it, the two of you together would be sufficient for any mans fantasy."

"Mmm," Carson commented as he smoothed his hands over Rodney's skin and then on to John. John stretched in a way that seemed one step away from purring

"I think I could do this for ours," Rodney sighed, leaning in to kiss Carson, too, now that they were all close. "Definitely won't last," John mumbled into his skin. "Mmm."

It was a languorous surprisingly easy movement between them all. Carson's kisses were familiar but somehow felt freer.

"Definitely won't last," John mumbled into his skin. "Mmm."

They were on the same path now, whether Rodney wanted to be there or not and really, he wanted to be there. He needed to be there. He had always been there, but now there really was no more standing off to one side.

He couldn't claim neutrality any more and he couldn't deny that somehow he had become very attached to John despite barely knowing him as human. Perhaps that was the reason. He always was open emotionally with his cats where it took heroic efforts for a person to get through his emotional armor. Carson had struggled, and he was the nearest thing to a living saint that he knew... though no saint would be doing *that*.

Carson was ensuring that all parts of his body were getting attention even as John nuzzled at his neck.

Rodney exhaled hard, and stretched a hand out, trying to grasp hard onto John, Carson, whoever would hold still.

"Mmm, hold on, trying to get traction."

"I could keep this up forever..." John murmured against his skin, licking at him as if some of the cat instincts had carried across.

"Here let me hold you both, Carson said in a low voice, wrapping around them both as best he could. It was getting a little tight for space.

That was all right, as far as Rodney was concerned. He could deal with tight for space, because t meant skin on skin on skin, and he wasn't quite sure who as grinding against his hip.

"Bloody hell, you are both gorgeous," Carson groaned and he was definitely thrusting against someone.

John had a very talented mouth and he was roaming over his chest now making low satisfied noises.

"Can I, I'd like to reciprocate..." Other than just pet and stroke and hope he managed to find the right bit

"I'm right behind that idea," John murmured and Carson seconded it with a grin.

Right here and now he had all he ever wanted. People who cared for him, passionate and brilliant in their own ways looking to do something important. The fight with the Ori was a long way from being won but with the mages on their side, and his new access to Alteran technology, Rodney was confident that they at least stood a chance.

There was only one downside to this new arrangement.

He was probably going to have to get another cat.