blue flamingos

A Journey Measured In Friends

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Slash, PG

Year/Length: 2009/~4868 words

Pairing: Ford, Keres (mild Ford/Keres)

Disclaimer: No, I don't own them, for which I should think they're profoundly grateful.

Summary: The nice thing about Pegasus is, when you manage to make friends, they'll come through for you (goes au somewhere after Runner)

Author's Notes: For the In Memoriam challenge challenge

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.

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Part One

Thanks to McKay extending the shield around the settlement, Markham has to drop Aiden a good hour's walk further away than last time he was on M7G 677. Not that Aiden minds the walk all that much, but he just knows Keres and the others have spies out, watching him approach, and it makes him nervous, without his team there.

Plus, he's really not all that sure what he's doing on the planet, other than that apparently Major Sheppard's joke about him teaching Keres about being twenty-five wasn't a joke at all. And that Sheppard hadn't been impressed when Aiden pointed out that his experience of being twenty-five has pretty much nothing in common with Keres' experience of it.

Starting with: he'd bet Keres never has to do something because he was told to, ritual suicide notwithstanding, and Aiden can't remember the last time he got to say no to something more important than whether he wanted peas at dinner.

Still, it gets him an afternoon out of the city, away from McKay, and a walk in the sun on an alien planet, which he doesn't think will ever stop being cool.

And Keres, at least, is pleased to see him, striding across the settlement to shake Aiden's hand. "Ford," he says, grinning, as Aiden tries to get over the surprise of having his hand shaken by a guy who grew up in a different galaxy to him. "We were not expecting you for some time."

"Sorry," Aiden says, since he's not sure if 'some time' means a couple of hours or a couple of weeks.

Keres waves his apology away. "No matter. Please, come in." He looks around at the rope ladders dropping down and smiles. "Or come up, rather."

Aiden follows him up the ladder and tries not to think about the last person who said that to him, or how that evening ended. He kind of suspects this visit won't end the same way.

Keres' hut – or is it some kind of central hut, meeting place; he needs Teyla for this stuff – is cool after a long walk in the early afternoon sun, and pleasantly dim. Keres pours them both mugs of something that tastes like iced tea left in the sun too long and gone from iced to nearly warm, and sits opposite him on the floor. "So," he says. "Tell me about your friends. Are they well?"

As relaxed and friendly as this feels, Aiden's not ready to tell him about the Genii, how Teyla still seems bruised by the revelation of their secret. "They're fine," he says. "Major Sheppard asked me to send his regards."

Keres smiles, covers it by taking a sip of his drink, and Aiden doesn't raise his eyebrows, even though that smile pretty much confirms what he thought, the first time they were here. "And I to him," he says. "He saved my life. All of our lives really, we owe him a great debt – we owe all of you a great debt."

Aiden looks down, not sure what to say. He can't imagine being in Keres' place, ready to die for his people until someone told him he didn't have to, that all the people who'd gone before him had given their lives for a magic trick that wasn't real. "I'm glad your arm's better," he says instead.

"As am I," Keres says. "Believe me, it is far from easy to climb a rope ladder with only one arm at your disposal."

"I bet," Aiden agrees. "I remember when I was – eight, I guess – I broke my arm trying to run up a wall –"

Keres' wide-eyed stare cuts him off. "Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?" he asks.

Aiden feels his face go warm. "I saw it on a music video," he says, then realizes he's turning into Sheppard, ferris wheels and football to a people who live in tents. "Um, it's kind of hard to explain."

He is, he and Keres agree, good at many things, but not at explaining a video to someone who doesn't even have mirrors. It hardly seems to matter, when the two of them are laughing over it, and he has to keep reminding himself that Keres isn't his friend, that he's on duty and he can only relax so far.

When he leaves, he promises to return with a video camera.

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Casta and Cleo meet him halfway to the settlement on his next visit, Cleo hugging his knees. "Keres said you were coming," she says, little face turned up to grin at him. "Did you bring chocolate?"

"Of course," Aiden says, though it's pure coincidence that he has a bar tucked in his pocket, pilfered from their dwindling supply. "You want some?"

"Yes," Casta says, coming up to walk on Aiden's other side. He wants to take their hands, until he remembers that they're not, in their own minds, children.

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, please," Cleo says, and Aiden gives in, ruffles her hair like the kid she is.

When they reach the settlement, Keres doesn't look up until Casta points Aiden out. They're still far enough away from each other that Aiden might be mistaken, but he thinks he sees relief on Keres' face for a second.

"You are late," Keres says in greeting.

"We had some trouble at home," Aiden hedges. He'd love to tell someone – about the mist hallucinations, about the Genii, what Sheppard did to save Atlantis – but there are things you don't talk about when you only know the names of a couple of the people listening.

Keres nods, understanding in his eyes. "Come. A drink."

Keres serves him the same warm iced tea as on his last visit, watching him over the rim of his mug and talking of hunts and crops. Aiden holds his end of the conversation up as well as he can, considering those are topics he knows almost nothing about, and thinks that Keres, really, is the one who should be teaching him about being twenty-five, when he has the weight of his whole village on his shoulders.

"Are you sure everything is well?" Keres says eventually, refilling their mugs. "I won't speak of it to anyone else."

Aiden's not ready to try to explain the mist people, how in his hallucinations, Atlantis didn't want him any more. He says, "There was an attempted attack on our home."

"Is everyone – were any lost?"

"Two marines – two soldiers," Aiden corrects. "I wasn't there – we were evacuating our people from a storm. Major Sheppard fought them off, kept McKay and Dr Weir safe. Mostly safe."

"You think you should have been there," Keres says. He moves closer to Aiden, touches his arm. When Aiden looks up, he smiles, warmly, the way Aiden remembers him smiling at Sheppard.

"I should have," Aiden says. "If anything happens to him..."

"If anything were to happen to him, I believe you would take his place admirably, Ford," Keres says, and he sounds so certain that Aiden believes him.

"You should call me Aiden," he says, trying to change the subject.

"If you wish," Keres says, sounding confused. His hand is still resting on Aiden's arm, but Aiden doesn't want to say anything, in case he moves it. "May I ask why?"

"It's more – I guess it's strange that you're still calling me by my last name," Aiden says.

"And 'Aiden' is your new name," Keres says, still sounding confused. "Does it signify something?"

"My grandmother says it means fire," Aiden offers, not sure what Keres is asking. "But I don't think it really... signifies anything."

"I meant that change, from Ford to Aiden. Is it a marker of something, amongst your people?"

"No, it's – a sign of friendship, I guess, to ask someone to use your first name."

"Your first name..." Keres frowns, which Aiden kind of feels like doing back to him, wishing he'd never said anything. "So what is your new name, then, if it's not Aiden?"

"My –" Aiden stops, getting it. Such a small community, they probably don't bother with family names. "On my world, everyone has two names, one to show which family they belong to, and one just for them. Ford is my family name, Aiden is my name, my first name. It's a sign of friendship to ask someone to call you by it if they don't."

Keres laughs. "I understand. I had thought that was just for Dr McKay, some sort of special status."

Aiden's never telling McKay that. He'll never hear the end of it. "No. Sheppard's first name is John. Teyla's actually her first name, her family name is Emmagan."

"That sounds very confusing," Keres says. "But I thank you for your gesture. Aiden."

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"I have to go back to Atlantis," Aiden says, leaning heavily on Keres, who's leading him through the forest. It's his fifth – sixth? Maybe sixth – visit to Keres' planet, and it turns out they really know how to throw a party. "What're we celebrating again?"

Keres laughs warmly. "Our longest day," he says. "And I do not think Major Sheppard would take kindly to you returning in this state."

"You guys make good beer," Aiden tells Keres seriously. He's just about sober enough to know that he's going to be embarrassed by this in the morning; it's not like he hasn't been warned.

"We do our best," Keres says. "Come this way. You can sleep in my house tonight."

"Hmm," Aiden says agreeably, resting his head against Keres' shoulder. Keres smells of wood smoke from the fire, and the spicy pipe he and the other elders were passing around earlier in the evening. He's a nice guy, Aiden thinks, safer than anyone on Atlantis, and his hands are warm against Aiden's hips, helping him up the rope ladder.

Aiden doesn't argue when Keres, laughing, helps him off with his boots, puts him to bed and climbs in beside him. He knows they do things differently in Pegasus, and it's nice, having someone beside him. He shifts until he's facing Keres, who's watching him, eyes bright in the moonlight.

Neither of them says anything when Aiden leans in and kisses him, and in the morning, Keres laughs at Aiden's hung-over state and neither of them mention it.

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On Aiden's last visit – not that he knows it's his last when he's making it, only later, when the Wraith are coming and no-one can leave the city – Keres and the elders are huddled together, and none of them come out to greet him.

"What's happening?" Aiden asks Nestri, one of the oldest, who sometimes talks to him.

"The elders of the other villages are here," she explains, putting down an armful of wood. "Now that we don't need to make the sacrifice any more, they're talking about finding another way to choose our leaders."

"Like a vote?" Aiden asks, surprised, and surprised that it never occurred to him. Of course Keres doesn't want to be leader for the next fifty years.

"I suppose so," Nestri says. She seems pleased, though she's always so serious, it's hard to tell. "For the first time, in the history of our people."

"Will you stand?" Aiden asks.

She shrugs. "I might. There's talk of sending parties through the well, to other worlds. No-one living here now has ever done that."

"It's amazing," Aiden tells her. He knows people – most people – do it, but he can't imagine what it would have been like to go his entire life without knowing any of this was out there.

"Will you stand, in the vote?" he asks Keres later, as they walk back to where he parked the jumper.

Keres shakes his head. "I've taken my turn," he says. "Let someone else have theirs. I think I'd like to travel – see what other worlds are out there."

"You could come to Atlantis," Aiden offers. It's not his place, but Sheppard and Weir trust Keres, he knows.

"I'd like that," Keres says, smiling, and Aiden's face goes hot, remembering their kiss.

"Me too," he says.

 

Part Two

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When Cleo comes running into the settlement, shouting about a bird from Atlantis, possibly the last person Keres expects to be walking into the settlement is Sheppard. It has been many months since anyone from Atlantis – since Aiden – visited, and many more than that since Sheppard did.

Sheppard looks troubled, but it is no longer Keres' place to approach him, with Peleus and Aries elected as joint leaders. He watches Sheppard speak with both of them for a moment, before they lead him away. Perhaps Sheppard comes on official business from Atlantis, and at least Keres will be able to ask after Aiden.

He's been at his task, stitching together coverings for new houses, for only a few minutes, when someone says his name behind him, and he turns, unsurprised this time to find Sheppard there.

"Is there somewhere we can talk?" Sheppard asks. "In private."

Keres nods, fighting the sudden apprehension he feels. It need not be anything too terrible. There is no need to assume the worst. "Walk with me," he offers, abandoning his work to lead Sheppard into the woods.

Sheppard says nothing until they're out of sight of the settlement. "A couple of months ago, our city was attacked by the Wraith," he says, finally. "We fought them off, but Lieutenant Ford was injected with a chemical – an enzyme – by a wraith. He survived nearly drowning, but he fled the city. We nearly caught him, but he let himself get taken by the wraith."

Keres looks away, overwhelmed by the sudden sense of loss. He's used, of course, to the loss of those he cares for, but it happens so rarely like this, unexpected and sudden. "He's dead?" he asks.

"I don't think so," Sheppard says. "I think he's out there, but – the enzyme's making him crazy, he thinks he can fight off the wraith alone, and we've got no way of tracking him."

"So you've given him up for dead," Keres says.

Sheppard shakes his head in frustration. "No. But I don't have the resources to search the whole galaxy for him. I don't even know where to start."

Keres thinks of Aiden, showing him moving pictures of people Keres has never met; charming their young ones with chocolate; uncertain and friendly and explaining his name. Kissing Keres in the darkness.

He thinks that he's the oldest of his people, and that this should come with some privileges.

"Perhaps you do not have to," he says.

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Peleus, to his surprise, is the hardest to convince. She argues about the risk to those Keres would take with him, points out that he has been outside their world only once, and is hardly skilled to know how to find someone, with more worlds than they can count to search.

"If it was one of us, and we had gone to them for help," Keres argues, "They would do this for us." He doesn't add that he can go alone – he is not so brave that he wishes to do so, though he would. Aiden was one of the first visitors from another world to set foot on theirs in thousands of years, one of those who saved Keres' life, the lives of all their people. Keres owes him this much.

"And if you cannot find him?" Peleus asks.

"Then I will return," Keres says.

She and Aries agree to him taking three others of their people, from those who have been to other worlds before. Cleo asks to go with him, every day until they depart, and Keres is sorely tempted, but for his growing realization that, in the rest of the galaxy, she is still a child, something which could put her in great danger.

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Sheppard gave them dialing codes for several worlds they thought might have been in the path of the wraith ship that took Aiden, and so that's where Keres and the others start. It's not, in a way, all that different to trying to find one of their own after they go missing – asking the right questions, following the signs, even when they're near invisible. The trouble comes in working out what the signs are – they can hardly ask strangers if they've seen a possibly crazy man with a black eye, chasing wraith – and in the way that the people on other worlds look at them.

"They treat us like children," Farna says one evening, tucked in the corner of a tavern with him, a handful of days into their search.

"I suppose that we are, to them." Not all worlds are this way, but Keres is already starting to be able to see which will – those that are advanced far beyond anything that they have are the worst. He's always been good at going with the flow, but there come several times when he wants to shout that he was the leader of his village for a year.

"I wonder if we'll be the same one day," Farna says, twirling a strand of dark hair around her finger.

"Probably," Keres says, and the thought makes him horribly sad.

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They get good at working out the signs – dead wraith, a mysterious stranger – and it's easier on the smaller worlds, the less populated ones that feel like home, where people notice something out of the ordinary.

"Two men," an older woman tells Keres one day, when he asks. "One with a strange eye. They were..." She shakes her head. "I think they were ill. So young."

It can't be anyone but Aiden, though the second person is new. Keres can't think who that might be, unless Aiden's found a helper, somehow. "How long ago?" he asks.

"Three moonrises," she says. She touches Keres' hair, the way he remembers one of the elders, Maia, doing, when he was still very young. "So young," she says again. "Younger than you."

"Thank you," Keres says politely, going to tell the others. He wonders if it says something about him or something about Aiden, that he seems older. Whatever it is, he doesn't like the idea of Aiden being in charge of anything, not now.

When they pass through a market, he buys a sedative, and dips all their arrow tips in it. If what everyone says is true, the only way that arrows will work without it will be to kill Aiden, and he doesn't want that.

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They've been gone for two weeks, which he thinks is probably not that long for tracking someone across a whole galaxy, with only four of them. It's certainly an adventure; one of the worlds they went to had a story-teller, and Keres imagines, some nights, putting this into a story for those left at home.

Other nights, he imagines that he's back home, in his house in the tree, feeling safe. He's not sure he wants to go back, although he doesn't want to wander the worlds forever either. He remembers Aiden, half-offering to let him come to Atlantis. He wonders if he could work for them, like Teyla, if they'd have any use for him. If he could leave his people behind.

He tries not to remember Aiden kissing him, the feeling of potential. He still knows little of the ways of the Atlanteans – it doesn't have to mean what he thinks it does.

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Farna and Relet come back through the well – the ring, as everyone seems to call it – one evening, looking ready to burst, faces lit up and excited. They've been camping on what seems like a deserted world for the last two days, growing short of money to always stay somewhere, slowly growing used to the realty of being able to press a few symbols and go home, go wherever they choose, rather that having to walk for miles.

"We think we know where he is," Farna says, throwing herself down next to Keres and Alus and reaching for her mug.

Relet nods. "He and his people have a base – we met a woman, a full-grown, who knew all about it."

"How did she know?" Alus asks, and Relet flushes, shy as always.

Farna rolls her eyes. "She met one of his people – apparently he had much to say when she was finished with him."

Keres sighs, a little. Still, there are worse people to be getting information from than post-coital women. Assuming she truly has it; he's not quite ready to hope. "Does she know where?"

Relet hands over a piece of paper with seven symbols on it. He's still blushing, high-lighted on his unusually pale skin. "She had a personal invitation."

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It seems, at first, as though it will be easy. Keres scouts ahead, finds Aiden's base. Two guards, and sounds of movement inside. Two people more, perhaps three. Under cover of darkness, it should be easy.

He remembers Sheppard's warning of the effects of the enzyme, unnatural strength, and Aiden's refusal to be taken by Sheppard. He wonders if Aiden longs for home, beneath all of that. If he remembers that he has people who care for him.

He can be reminded; Keres has a tiny machine hung on a cord around his neck, to give him entrance to Atlantis. All he has to do is dial, press the button, wait a count of twenty, and walk through.

With Aiden.

He takes one last look at the base, and creeps away through the trees back to his friends. His team.

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The enzyme, it turns out, does not keep people awake – when they return, even the guards are asleep. It seems cruel to shoot them, so Alus touches a drop of the sedative to their lips, and Farna ties their hands, while Relet and Keres slip into the building to do the same for those inside – four, not the three that Keres thought he counted.

Even so, it is quickly clear that one person is still missing.

"Are you sure this is the place?" Keres asks Farna and Relet. He wants to check their slumbering captives again, as though one of them might have turned into Aiden while he wasn't looking, or he might have forgotten so well what Aiden looks like.

"I suppose it's possible they have no connection to Ford," Farna says hesitantly. "But she talked about a chemical from the wraith, that her partner said made him strong, and about a man who worked out how to use it."

Keres shakes his head. He doesn't want her to be wrong; he has no idea where they might start looking again if she is. "Maybe he's gone out," he suggests. "One of us should wait."

They all look at each other, then at their captives. They must have come from somewhere, have people who miss them. The sedative should work for twelve hours, long enough to ask Sheppard for help in getting them home, if they can go, or medical treatment, if they need it.

Keres thinks that his life used to be far less strange, but that this is a small price to pay for getting to live this part of it.

"I'll go to the well and wait for him there," he says.

Alus nods. "He may feel safer in the open," he agrees. Alus is nineteen, still young, even by their standards, but wise. A teacher, until he chose to become an explorer, a rescuer, with Keres. People make strange choices, when they can.

"I'll return at sunrise," Keres says, gathering his bow. "If they waken, give them more sedative."

Farna stands up and embraces him. "Good luck," she says.

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Keres doesn't sleep, sitting with his back against a tree, in the direct path of the well. He watches the sky instead, the clouds scudding across unfamiliar patterns of stars. Aiden told him once that they're the same stars, they just look different, tracing out a pattern of worlds around a single sun with his finger in the dirt.

"Are those worlds in Pegasus?" Keres asked.

Aiden shook his head, hand hesitating. "No. They're another galaxy. Actually, just a small part of it, one solar system, because they all rotate around the same sun."

"Can you get there from here?" Keres asked.

"No," Aiden said, sounding infinitely sad. "Not any more, anyway."

Keres realizes, now, that Aiden was talking about his real home, the one he had before he came to Atlantis. From the little Sheppard said, it seems like they can go now, and he wonders if Aiden will. If he'll be sent; Aiden sometimes said 'orders,' with a reluctant sigh.

Time enough to worry about that. Take him to Atlantis first.

The sky is just beginning to lighten when the well bursts into blue life, bringing Keres to his feet, arrow in hand. He doesn't want to shoot Aiden, but if he needs to, he will. His aim is good, and he knows how to treat a wound before Aiden dies from it.

Aiden walks easily through the well, careless as he used to be, and for a moment, the pre-dawn light of an unknown world is replaced by the bright sun of Keres' home, Aiden coming to visit.

He blinks, and Aiden is standing in front of the now-dark well, a weapon in his hand, unlike anything Keres saw him carry before. "What are you doing here?" Aiden demands.

"Looking for you," Keres says truthfully.

"Why?"

"I missed you," Keres says. Aiden's not quite close enough to read his face properly, not without the light of the well. He seems so normal, other than the weapon. "And Cleo misses your chocolate."

"I don't have any," Aiden says, half-defiant.

Keres shrugs, trying to stay relaxed. "I'm sure she will be glad to see you anyway. I know that I am." He's not sure if Aiden can see better in the gloom than he can, so he smiles, just in case. It feels like a long time since he's done that.

"How did you find me?" Aiden asks.

"That is a story for many hours," Keres says. "And with a drink, or several."

He watches Aiden raise his free hand to his face, rubbing his eyes. "You're really here?" he asks, sounding almost confused.

"Yes," Keres says softly. "I'm really here." He thinks for a moment that it will be this easy, that Aiden will surrender and come with him.

It isn't, of course. "Sheppard sent you," Aiden snaps, suddenly harsh like Keres has never seen him. "He sent you to spy on me, didn't he, he doesn't trust me."

"Sheppard did not send me," Keres says. He lays his arrow against his bow, ready. He doesn't want it to come to this, but he is beginning to think he has little choice. "I came with three others from my village, to look for you."

"Why? What do you want with me? You want to make me go back, back to what I was before –"

"I don't wish to make you do anything," Keres says. "I only wish to speak with you, to see that you're well."

"You're lying," Aiden snaps, but he sounds less sure than he did a moment ago. Maybe his weapon wavers. Maybe. "You can't stand that I'm out here killing the wraith while you're hiding under your shields."

"I think you're doing an admirable thing," Keres says truthfully. "I only wished to see that you were well. You left us without saying goodbye."

"I –" Aiden hesitates, and his weapon definitely wavers this time, though it doesn't lower. Keres takes aim, though it will be awkward at this angle. He doesn't dare raise his bow. "I didn't mean to just leave."

"I know you didn't," Keres says gently. "It doesn't matter."

"Keres," Aiden says, and Keres shoots him before he can say anything further.

The arrow embeds itself in his shoulder, a mirror image of Keres' wound the first time they met. Aiden shouts, tries to aim his weapon again, but Keres hit his shooting arm, and it drops, unable to bear the weight of the weapon. Aiden drops the weapon with a startled curse, and then his head lolls and he collapses.

Keres takes a moment to breathe, lowers his bow. Aiden doesn't move.

When Keres crouches at his side to check he's breathing and bind the wound, slowly seeping blood around the arrow tip, he looks terribly young. Keres has no trouble at all in believing that the old woman would think Keres the oldest.

He takes Aiden's weapon, drags him into the underbush and ties his hands, then, just in case, his ankles. The sedative should keep him under well past the time it will take him to collect the others and return to the well, but it seems best to be careful. He doesn't want to return to find that it burned through Aiden too fast and he's gone.

He touches Aiden's face very lightly, feeling his cool skin. "Time to go home, Aiden," he says, and goes to find the others, to take everyone back to where they belong.


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