Summary: John spins tales while awaiting his execution.
Notes: It's a quantum fairy tale: choose your own ending! Written for and reposted from the sga_flashfic fairy tale challenge.
John looked with growing apprehension at the young queen sitting regally in her chair by the fire.
“I will have you killed tomorrow for trespassing in the sacred gardens,” she said calmly. “And I will catch the people who were with you and have them killed as well.” She couldn’t have been more than twelve Earth years old. What was it with the Pegasus galaxy and child rulers?
“However,” she continued, “we get few travelers and little news here, so before I have my guards cut off your head and feed your remains to the lepra, I would hear of your world. Tonight you will tell me your stories, that I might learn and that you might be remembered.”
Annoying child rulers.
“Stories,” repeated John.
“Yes,” she said impatiently. “Why else would you have come to Chava but to trade news and tales?”
“How about trading goods?”
She looked at him blankly. “What could you have that we would want?” She waved a delicate hand, encompassing the room. “We have thick walls, warm clothing, fuel for our fires, and plenty of food. We need nothing from you.”
John looked around the room at the stone walls that let wind slip through the cracks, at the roughly woven tapestries with their dull, grey-hued dyes, at the clothing whose dyes were no brighter. He remembered the heavily-spiced, slightly rotting stew that he’d seen served at the queen’s table three days running, and the signs of poverty and illness he and his team had passed on their way through the village, before they had the bad luck of walking into the sacred gardens. And what was it with all the unmarked sacred gardens, anyway?
“Right,” he said dryly. “What could you possibly want from us?”
“I will listen to your stories,” she said. “I would not normally do so, but you are a stranger and did not know you were trespassing, and so you deserve that much mercy.”
“That’s very generous of you,” he drawled, “but what if I don’t feel like talking?”
“If you’d prefer to be alone to contemplate your impending death, I can have the guards take you back to the dungeon.”
John suppressed a shudder. It was winter on Chava, and the dungeons were not heated beyond a very small fire for the guards unfortunate enough to draw dungeon duty. And then there was the smell. “What kind of stories did you have mind?”
“The stories of your land, of course.”
“Of course,” he said. He looked around the room for a chair, but saw nothing. “Can I sit down?”
“If you wish.” The queen nodded toward one of the two dour-faced guards standing near the door leading to the corridor. Unfortunately for John’s chances at escaping, the guards seemed pretty dedicated to staying in the room, although at the queen’s signal, one of them did step out long enough to retrieve a rickety wooden stool. The guard set the stool, worn grey with age, on the floor; about four feet away from the queen, but still close enough to the fire to be warm. He glowered at John and then at the stool, before retreating to the door.
“Thanks,” said John, sitting down. He winced a little, feeling the fresh bruises.
“You would not be so sore if you had not tried to escape again today,” scolded the queen. “I would have thought the first two failed attempt would have taught you that escape is impossible. My guards are too well-trained.”
Or at least too big and numerous and rather dauntingly alert. Cudgels were amazingly effective against an opponent who had no gun. He was probably lucky they hadn’t resorted to swords.
“Right. So, a story from my land.” John contemplated this for a moment—what kind of story would appeal to a twelve-year-old queen from another planet? “Once up a time,” he began, “there was a princess who was ready to be married. But she was determined to only marry a real prince, and has it happened, there was a shortage of real princes at that time. She traveled the world, seeking a suitable prince, but eventually returned home alone. She threw herself into practicing with her Bantos sticks and her riding, but she each night she went to bed alone and lonely.
“Then, one day, a man rode up to her castle. He said that he had heard of her desire to only marry a real prince, and that he was such a prince, come to offer his hand in marriage. The princess and her parents invited him into the castle, but they were suspicious of his claims, because everyone knew that real princes were hard to find. So they decided to test him. That night, after feeding him a wonderful feast, they prepared a very soft bed for him, with twenty mattresses. But beneath all of the mattresses, they hid a small pebble.
“Then next morning, the princess asked the stranger at breakfast how he had slept. He replied that he’d barely slept at all—his bed had been too lumpy. The princess and her parents rejoiced to hear that, for it meant that he was indeed a real prince and a suitable husband for the princess. The princess and prince were married a month later, and lived happily ever after.”
“That’s a stupid story,” said the young queen petulantly. “What princess would choose a husband because he couldn’t tolerate discomfort? Someone that weak wouldn’t be able to defend the people at all! A princess should marry to solidify treaties and to protect her people, not for her own pleasure and certainly not because of something as stupid as a pebble under a mattress.”
“Yeah,” said John, “I’ve often thought the same thing myself.”
“The rulers of your world are obviously incompetent,” said the queen.
“That’s just a story we tell,” said John. “I don’t think there are any real rulers who choose their spouses that way.”
“It’s still a stupid story. What helpful lesson could anyone learn from that?”
“We have other stories,” said John. “Better stories. I know another one about a princess bride who chooses her husband based on completely different criteria.”
“I’ll give you a second chance,” said the queen. “But this story had better be a good one.”
“Everyone loves The Princess Bride,” promised John. And he wove the tale deep into the night.
“And then Jabba ordered that Luke and Han be loaded onto the hovercraft for transport into the desert, where they were to be fed to the Sarlacc. The hovercraft was duly driven to the desert by Jabba’s men with Luke and Han on board, and once there, Jabba ordered Luke to walk the plank.”
“Majesty,” said a gentle voice. Both John and the queen looked over to see a middle-aged woman, dressed in court attire, standing just inside the door. “Majesty,” the woman repeated, “the sun is rising. You will be needed in Court soon.”
John looked over at the small, slitted window and saw that the sky had indeed lightened.
The queen yawned and stretched her red-clad arms. “I hadn’t realized it was so late.” Her gaze fell on John. “I suppose your world does have some good stories,” she admitted. “Tell me quickly how this one ends. I won’t be able to hear it once you’re dead.”
John shook his head. “There’s a long way to go yet.”
“Majesty,” interjected the woman again. “You must meet with the Duchess of Kosha very soon, and you have not yet dressed or eaten. Or slept.”
The queen sighed. “Very well.” She nodded at John. “I have no time to listen now, so I will give you one day’s reprieve, that I might hear the ending. Tonight you will return to tell me the end of the story, and tomorrow I will have you killed.” She stood up and looked over at her guards. “Don’t take him back to the dungeon today. Put him in one of the guest suites, with close guard. And see if you can arrange for a bath and some clean clothes—he stinks.”
The young queen yawned as she sat down by the fire.
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” asked John hopefully. “I could tell you the story tomorrow night, if you’re too tired tonight.” Which would give the cavalry one more day to get their act together and show up.
“No,” said the queen. “Tomorrow I am going to have you killed. You must tell me the story tonight. I slept this afternoon; I will stay awake.”
“Okay,” said John. And he returned to the saga of Luke and Han Solo and Princess Leia.
“You’ve told me many stories of your world,” said the queen when he was done, “but none about you. How can I properly remember you if I know nothing about you but other people’s stories? Tell me your own life.”
“My life isn’t very interesting,” said John. He stood up and stretched as well as he could with his still-bound hands, then leaned over, trying to ease the cramps in his back from sitting so long on the wobbly backless stool.
“It doesn’t matter,” said the queen, “as long as it’s true.” She looked at him curiously. “Are you unwell?”
“I’m fine.” He stretched again.
The queen frown looked over at the guards, surly tonight instead of dour. “Bring him a proper chair,” she ordered, “and a pitcher of watered wine. No one can speak so long without something to drink.” She turned back to John. “Begin your story.”
John sat down on the stool, hoping the chair would prove more comfortable. “Once upon a time there was a team of brave explorers who were determined to find the lost city of the Ancestors.” And the second night flowed past.
“And then Kolya in his wrath ordered that the wraith be allowed to take its fill from the prisoner.” He paused, looking at the girl across from him. The queen’s head had slumped to her chest, and her eyes had slid shut. The firelight glinted on her dark, unbound hair. For a moment, she looked like a little girl and not the terror who held his life in her hands. Then she straightened her head and opened her eyes.
“I’m sorry, John,” she said. “I just can’t stay awake anymore. You’ll have to finish your story tomorrow night. I’ll order that your execution be delayed one more day that I might hear the ending and remember you properly.” She stood up and began walking towards the door to her bedroom. “Take him back to his room,” she said over her shoulder to the guards. “Don’t forget to feed him.”
“And then they took the wraith to another world and set him free, telling him that this fulfilled their deal,” concluded John a bit hoarsely. He began coughing.
“Get him some wine,” ordered the queen.
The guard returned a moment later with a ceramic pitcher and a plain goblet. He poured out the watered wine and offered the goblet to John, who grasped the smooth metal clumsily with his bound hands. The goblet tilted as he brought it to his mouth, spilling wine down his tunic.
“Oh, untie his hands,” said the queen impatiently. “He’s not going to hurt me.”
“Majesty,” said the guard warningly.
“Untie him!” repeated the queen. The guard reluctantly complied, scowling at John as he did. The queen watched them with an odd expression, and then turned her head to look at the other guard. “You’re both dismissed,” she said.
“Majesty, we cannot leave you alone with this man!” protested the guard, still standing over John.
The queen drew herself up in her chair. “I have listened to this man’s tales for two nights now, and I promise you he is no threat to me. I am your ruler, and I am ordering you both to leave the room. You may stand outside the door if you wish, but you will not remain here. I wish to speak of things that no one else may hear.”
The two guards withdrew with stern looks at John that promised painful vengeance if he were to look the wrong way at the queen. He heard them loudly take up position outside the door.
The queen leaned forward in her chair conspiratorially. John felt a twinge of consternation, remembering the last time he had dealt with an adolescent monarch.
“You’ve told me many stories of adventure,” said the queen. “But what of romance? Your tales from the first night had both, but your own tales offer nothing. Is there no one who will remember you once you are dead?”
“I’m kinda hoping my whole team remembers me,” said John. He was also hoping they’d demonstrate their excellent memories by showing up very soon. He was running out of stories.
“Yes, but who do you tell your most secret stories to?”
“There isn’t a lot of time for story telling in Atlantis,” he said.
“There must be someone,” insisted the queen.
“Well,” said John, bemused, “who do you think I should tell my secret stories to?”
The queen pursed her lips and tilted her head, studying his face.
Choice A: “I think that you ought to be with the queen of Atlantis,” she said gravely. “Otherwise, you might be tempted to overthrow her. United leadership is strong leadership. And you seem to admire her greatly. Tell me that story.”
Choice B: “A warrior as strong you ought to be with an equally strong warrior,” she said at last in a serious tone. “You should share your secret stories with the warrior woman who fights by your side. She’ll understand your stories. And marrying her will bind your two peoples in closer alliance. Tell me that story.”
Choice C: “Military leaders, unlike rulers, are free to follow their hearts, as long as their swords stay strong” she said at last with a smile. “The person you speak of with the greatest affection is the wizard who has learned to fight. You would complement each other well; you should share your secret stories with him. Tell me that story.”
Choice D: “I cannot tell you who to share you your stories with,” she said at last, looking him directly in the eye. “You speak of these people with great affection and respect, but I do not hear love in your voice. Not the kind of love that leads to the sharing of secret stories. There must be someone else. Someone you haven’t spoken of before. Tell me that story.”
“Once upon a time,” began John obediently, “there was a soldier who lived a life of dreariness. The soldier had once dreamed of doing great deeds, but his dreams turned to dust the day he disobeyed the orders of his commanding officer in order to rescue two men who had been left behind in battle.”
“Your commanding officer ordered you not to rescue people?” said the queen. “That’s evil!”
“He didn’t think I could do it,” said John. “He was right, too. The people I was trying to rescue died.”
“But you escaped!” said the queen.
“He underestimated me a little,” said John. “Not the first person to do so. I tend to invite it.” He offered a twisted smile. “So the commander exiled the soldier to a very cold place where he worked long hours with little appreciation and no chance that anything would improve. Then one day, it was announced that there was going to be an expedition, headed by a wise and beautiful woman. Invitations were sent out to many people, both soldiers and wizards. The exiled soldier, however, was not invited. Then, one day, his fairy general swept in and arranged for him to meet the woman who was leading the expedition. They spoke only briefly, but the woman was so taken by the soldier that she immediately invited him to join the expedition. Once the expedition was underway, the soldier and the leader began spending more and more time together, searching for joint solutions to problems and finding ways to survive. Gradually, they found themselves seeking each other out even when there were no problems that needed to be solved, just because they wanted to see each other. One day, the soldier finally admitted to the leader that he’d come to value her as more than a friend, and she admitted the same to him. Having finally admitted their love, the solider and the leader—who was also a wizard—were able to unite the two halves of the expedition, and everyone lived happily until the next wraith attack.”
“That’s a good story,” said the queen. She sat quietly for a moment, hands folded in her lap. “I think that’s the last story, John.”
John felt his heart drop. “I know more,” he insisted.
“There’s something I haven’t told you,” said the queen. “Your leader contacted us a few days ago to negotiate for your release. We were going to refuse, but…my younger sister has been very ill for some time. Your leader said she would give us medication that would cure my sister in return for your release. The priests consulted the Goddess and said that she approved the exchange—a life for a life—and that you would be forgiven for trespassing if my sister lived. Your people delivered the medication a few days ago, and my sister is nearly better now. I have promised Elizabeth that I will return you to her tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” said John. He didn’t know what else to say.
The queen stood. “I have enjoyed your stories, John. Be happy with Elizabeth.” She slipped through the door to the other room, skirts trailing behind her.
“Welcome home,” said Elizabeth as John came through the gate, Teyla and Ronon hovering protectively on either side of him. She turned to Dr. Keller, who had stepped through the gate behind them.
“How’s the princess?”
“She’ll be fine in a few days as long as they finish the course of antibiotics,” said Keller cheerfully. “I just need to make sure the colonel’s okay….”
“I’m fine,” protested John. “They treated me very well for a man they planned to execute.” He began heading for the exit.
“Go get checked out anyway,” said Elizabeth. She leaned in closer as he approached her and added in a low tone, “And stop by my quarters tonight, so that I can welcome you home properly.”
“Once upon a time,” began John obediently, “there was a woman who lived a happy life. She was strong and brave, a leader among her people; in all ways satisfied with her lot. Then, one day, she caught a glimpse of another world: a world where people flew instead of walked, fought instead of fleeing, and knew no fear of the wraith. And among the strangers was one man who spoke to her of things she had never heard of, of football and ferris wheels, and she felt herself drawn to him. The woman began to develop a longing to join these people, that she too might have the ability to fight the wraith rather than running before them, and that she might see the man again. But the ways of the strangers were not the ways of her own people, and she knew that by joining the strangers, she would be set apart from her own people, never able to fully return to the world in which she was raised. Still, she thought the sacrifice might be worthwhile, and so she came to the strangers’ world and learned to read and shoot and fly, and all the other skills of the strangers. And so it went that when she was with the strangers, she was reminded at all times that their ways were not her ways, and when she went home, she found that she had become a stranger of sorts there too. But her heart was lightened by the battles won against the wraith, and by the man of the strangers who stayed by her side, and so she endured in-between the two worlds, and she and the man overcame the differences of strangers to live happily.”
There came a loud crash from outside. The princess jumped, startled, and leapt to her feet. “What’s going on?” she demanded.
“I don’t know,” said John, standing. The door swung open to the room swung open, revealing Teyla, P-90 in hand.
“Colonel,” she said, smiling. “It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you guys too,” said John, spotting Ronon and Rodney in the corridor behind Teyla. “I was beginning to wonder when you were going to show up.”
“I am sorry it took us so long,” said Teyla. “We had to hide in the woods for two days before we were able to gain access to the stargate.”
“We wanted to come back earlier,” added Rodney, “but we were nearly caught the two times we tried to approach the castle.”
“We decided we could not successfully rescue you without reinforcements,” said Teyla. The sounds of gunfire and explosions rang out below them.
“This is your team,” said the queen from where she’d been standing still and silent during this exchange.
“Yes,” agreed John. “This is my team. I’m sorry, but I think that’s the end of the stories. I have to go.” He strode through the door with his team, out toward the jumpers, and the Stargate, and freedom.
“I am glad you are okay,” said Teyla quietly beside him in back of the jumper. “I was not sure…I was scared we would not reach you in time. If we’d come too late….”
“It’s okay,” said John. “You got there in time.” He leaned over and kissed her. “Let’s go home.”
“Once upon a time,” began John obediently, “there was a wizard with hair as brown as sand, eyes as blue as the sea, and a mind that could that could calculate differential equations while running from Genii soldiers. The wizard provoked great jealousy, sometimes intentionally, and this jealousy eventually led to many attempts to sabotage his career. Eventually, one attempt succeeded and the wizard found himself trapped in a distant, cold land, frozen in exile while time passed. After many years he moved from exile in one cold land to another. And in this second cold land, he encountered a soldier who fell in love with him at first sight and warmed him with a kiss, and together they found a way to travel further still into exile and thus attain freedom in a new land. And they lived happily in this new land, side by side, wizard and soldier.”
“That was a good story,” said the queen. “I’m sorry that the new land proved so dangerous to you. But at least he will remember you.”
“Yes, he will,” agreed John as the room dissolved around him.
“It was really quite simple,” said Rodney, resting his head on John’s chest. “I just routed the Daedalus’s teleportation system through the jumper controls, and then used the jumper’s sensors to pick up your subcutaneous transmitter. The close proximity of the jumper negated the effect of the atmospheric interference—by the way, I think I’ve figured out what was causing that interference. It wasn’t Ancient technology after all; it was a rare mineral that. I got Lorne to grab a sample, in case there’s something interesting we can do with it besides block scanners.”
“I’m glad you made it in time,” said John, wrapping his arm tightly around Rodney, pulling him into half a hug.
“Sorry it took so long,” said Rodney, snuggling closer. “We had to hide out in the woods for a couple of days before we could make it to the gate. They had that thing well guarded.”
“I played for time,” said John. “I knew you’d come.”
“Once upon a time,” began John obediently, “there was a man who was walking through his life, trying out various things along the way. He dated many people, but there was something wrong with his relationship with each: some were too demanding, some were too giving, some talked too much, and some were too quiet. None of them understood his job and why he couldn’t take about it, and why it mattered. Then, one day, he met a man who was neither too demanding nor too giving, who talked just the right amount, who did the same job he did, and who kissed like no one he had ever met. And though the two of them lived in different galaxies, he discovered that with the right person, light years could be bridged with a word. And so the two of them lived as happily as any two people can reasonably expect to be.”
As he told the story, John gradually softened his voice until he was almost whispering. By the time he was done, the queen had once again fallen asleep, her head resting on one slender hand. Quietly, he slid out of his chair and stole softly toward the door leading into the queen’s bedroom. Unlike the sitting room, her bedroom contained a proper window. The window was narrow, but big enough for a lean man to slip through. John pushed open the shutters, praying they wouldn’t squeak, and looked down. The wall was rough hewn rock. There was no one in sight. Silently, John pulled himself onto the window sill and began carefully climbing down the wall, moving as quickly as he dared.
Once down, he began to run, glad the bruises had had time to heal, desperately hoping that he wouldn’t encounter any of the ubiquitous guards. He was nearly to the Stargate when the first guard came into view, running fast toward him. John cursed under his breath and slid to a stop, looking around for something he could use as a weapon. The field was discouragingly bare.
The guard was less than ten feet away now, cudgel firmly in hand. John began to run again, this time away from the Stargate. Behind him, he heard the familiar whoosh indicating the formation of a wormhole. The guard stopped and turned. John kept running. A shadow appeared on the ground in front of him, and then the shadow was replaced by the jumper that had cast it. A door opened head of him, and John ran for it.
“Welcome home,” said Elizabeth.
“I am glad you returned safely,” said Teyla, smiling warmly.
“Sorry about leaving you out there so long,” said Rodney awkwardly. “We had to hide in the woods for a couple of days.”
Ronon just nodded at him.
“It’s okay,” said John. “I knew you’d come eventually. I’m glad to be back.”
That evening, between his mandatory visit to the infirmary and nearly-mandatory team-movie night, John sat down at his desk, opened his email, and started a new message.
Subject: stories from pegasus