Sheppard blinked a little, and smiled cautiously. He wasn't the only one to be surprised. The Enandens were watchful, almost expressionless as they swiftly went from a scattered group of adults and children to a huddle of armed adults encircling their children. One of the men said something sharp and the children scattered and vanished into the undergrowth and the Enandens moved again, surrounding them. The weapons might be spears but the military response was near-perfect. This near to the Gate, it would have to be.
"They thought it was safe to bring the kids for a day out?" McKay stared after them, "What, the Wraith don't come through here?" until Sheppard nudged him, directing his attention to the chill on the faces around them. Clearly, interest in their children was not going to be a good thing.
"Fine, fine, I was just commenting..." he grumbled on, but Teyla ignored him.
"My name is Teyla Emmagen. We come in peace--" and McKay, irrepressible, muttered, "We should have come in a Jumper; more defensible--" "--as traders and explorers." She really did a magnificent line in ignoring McKay at times, John thought idly, his attention firmly on the people encircling them. They were shorter than any of the team, with what looked like Mongolian features; dark hair, broad, flat cheekbones, slanted eyes, golden skin. They had the pinched, hard look of most peoples that they had met in the Pegasus galaxy.
"Teyla Emmagen." An older man stepped forward. "I am R'taggre of the Caoshee." The locals had arranged themselves around them in a loose circle, and his back itched. Ronon was already standing facing the gate, John trusting him to be ready for whatever might come to pass. McKay's hands were moving in small, rapid twitches. Surrounded was not a good way to be. But calm, calm, they'd be fine. And if they weren't ...
"Ready to dial out?" he murmured to Rodney, who glanced at him, a little jerkily, then back down at the remote dialer in his hands. First use on a strange Gate... but field testing had looked good. It would be fine if they needed it, though it would be nice if they could keep it a surprise for as long as possible, but that's what edges were for: using in emergencies.
"No, I thought I'd just twiddle my thumbs. Got any cities you'd like to set fire to while we wait for the speed dial to kick in?"
Good enough. He nodded once, barely moving his head, waiting for the locals to find themselves a spokesperson and decide whether to talk or fight.
Teyla had stepped forward, moving a little so that Rodney's hands were obscured from the man she was speaking to. Not that it would make a huge difference, but sometimes a little was enough. She could stand so still, a complete contrast to Rodney, who never stood, sat, or slept still. Something was always in motion. Flying. The thought pleased him, but he didn't let it show. Letting his thoughts show could wait until they were safe, either here or back home. Thinking of Atlantis as home had stopped making him stutter long since. Now, it just was.
No one was moving, just low, steady voices as Teyla and R'tragg-whoever cautiously probed for intent -- are you safe, will you bring danger? Someone in the encircling group moved a spear from one hand to the other, and John noted it, didn't let himself be distracted, weight balanced just so, relaxed. No sudden moves. Rodney was still fidgeting with the remote, but more because he never could leave things alone than because there was a problem.
He shifted a little and felt Teyla's attention slide to him for a second, assessing, no, nothing different, just moving his weight from left to right and she turned her full attention back to her counterpart. The conversation went on. Rodney was looking around, staring unabashedly at the six foot spears, the hard faces, the remote in one hand, the other now drumming on the side of his P90.
"McKay," he warned, quietly. Rodney looked at him, irritated but already clasping his hands around the gun in proper position instead of tapping on it and making it useless if the situation boiled over and he needed a split second response. McKay wasn't bad as backup. He was a terrible soldier but he wasn't there to be a soldier.
More movement, familiar, caught the corner of his eye: Teyla's back was relaxing, he could see the pull in her cheeks that meant she was smiling and then -- yes, the slight, polite dip and turn of her head. First agreement reached.
He hated this wait and see, watch and wait. He switched feet again, canting his weight through his left hip. Ronon never moved. It was good to have a soldier he could trust at his back. He spared a second for a flicker of amusement; when he first met -- if met was the word -- Ronon, he'd've given low odds on ever handing him a weapon and turning his back on him. Or maybe not.
"Thank you," Teyla was doing that odd semi-formal nod cum bow thing again. No forehead touching, one day he'd remember to ask what it meant that she kept it just for the Athosians and her team. It was vaguely oriental, without the wary martial arts style of always watching your opponent when bowing to them. Not regal enough to be a gesture of power; not subservient or submissive in the least, oddly intimate as you touched forehead to forehead, close enough to kiss. No wonder she and Elizabeth circled each other like infinitely patient lionesses.
"Colonel?" She was smiling at him.
"We are invited to bring our wares for trade, and to discuss our respective needs."
"Okay." Good enough. Not that they'd brought any wares really, but it was a quick enough thing to bring stuff through the Gate. "What do they have?" They headed towards the woods -- always woods and forests, he thought absently, how about a nice warm beach, a tropical island or two? Would it've killed the Ancients to park their Gates somewhere with a little surf?
"Nothing of any interest," McKay muttered, the remote slid out of sight and he was yanking at the scanner, pulling it from the slightly too tight pocket on his vest. He shrugged in response to John's look. "Nothing's changed since the last time I looked, Colonel." Five *seconds* ago, his tone implied, and Sheppard allowed a small smile through, watching as it pulled a deeper irritation from McKay.
"Thank you, Rodney, I was actually thinking about food. A subject dear to your heart." A snort from Ronon might have been a laugh. Could just have been a sniffle.
"If you're coming down with a cold, you can just stay away from me!" McKay suited the action to the words and moved away, out of the middle of their protective triangle. John tensed a little, re-drawing the mental lines of defense and attack. Ronon stepped at the same time as he did, and McKay was still in the middle, still complaining about intergalactic Typhoid Marys, oblivious. Probably.
"He's not the one who switched galaxies, McKay," John pointed out cheerfully. "You did. That would make you the--"
"Yes, yes, very funny." He jabbed at the scanner and switched it off. "If there's nothing else to talk about then why don't we go investigate the food?"
Teyla was already getting ahead of them; her trust granted for the time being. They followed, listening to her talking in that slow, thoughtful way that she was so good at.
They might not have much civilization in the Pegasus Galaxy, but they sure knew how to be polite.
By dark, Teyla and R'taggre were still being beautifully polite. The Atlanteans admitted to no lacks; the Enandens had no needs. This dance could go on for far longer than it already had. Weeks, sometimes. Maybe they should go home and get Elizabeth in on it. If she could negotiate fissionable materials out of the Genii she could pretty much do anything.
Dinner was served, mystery meat in a bowl with baked vegetables and a thin sort of paste that he might have called gravy if it hadn't smelled of goat's cheese. The guests to one side of a central fire, the villagers, male and female alike seated in a loose semi circle away from them.
"Barely Iron Age." Rodney sounded unimpressed.
"Be nice," John said softly, then: "Teyla, perhaps we could offer R'Taggre and his friends a token of our gratitude for tonight's hospitality?"
Teyla smiled at him as though this were not as scripted as everything else. He reached into his pack, moving slow and easy as around them the Enandens tensed. In their shoes, when every visitor through the Gate probably had greater firepower than theirs, he'd be tense too.
It was only a shallow bowl, the glass mostly clear with a thick swirl of white coiling around it. He passed it to Teyla who smiled at him, took it and stood to formally present it to R'Taggre.
"May we offer you this, a small token of our earnest and friendship."
R'Taggre stood, examined it without touching it. Touching was acceptance, and he wasn't really looking at the bowl, he was looking at his people. This was crunch time. They might have eaten together, but that amnesty -- unspoken, integral to Pegasus' Gate culture no matter how primitive or advanced -- only lasted until the table was cleared. Guest gifts could extend that. Where it went after that would be a matter for more negotiation.
Others murmured softly and Teyla tilted the bowl. It glinted in the firelight, and R'Taggre reached for it, lifted it carefully, turning it in the firelight, a frown on his face, then he smiled, snaggle teeth showing bright against the dark.
"Thank you, Teyla Emmagen. Men of Tau'ra." He held the bowl out to one side, and one of the men took it, while a young woman stepped up close to his side and handed him a similar bowl.
McKay groaned almost soundlessly. "Not another one."
John elbowed him sharply. "Smile, Rodney," he ordered under his breath. McKay smiled, and John winced. "Okay, stop it, you're scaring people."
"Make your mind up, Colonel."
Teyla in the meantime had accepted the black and red glazed bowl with a smile and what sounded like genuine admiration for the craftsmanship.
"It is most beautiful." She turned to the three of them and her eyes were flinty as she showed off their newly acquired bowl. Maybe that telepathy thing wasn't just good with Wraith, because her thoughts were coming over loud and clear.
"Yes, wonderful, very bowl-like, never seen one like it."
"It's very attractive. Thank you." John broke out his most sincere smile, looking first at the bowl, and then at R'Taggre, and the girl who'd brought the bowl for good measure.
Ronon nodded and bit into a drumstick, a mute exemplar of 'yeah, what they said'.
"My daughter, Tanagi," R'Taggre said, and John could feel Rodney's eyes roll. An arm slipped around his waist and he froze. McKay was -- was McKay actually cuddling up to him? R'Taggre looked at them impassively for a long moment, then of all things, he nodded to McKay, and said, as though the daughter thing had never come up, "Eat! We will talk in the morning!"
"What the hell--"
"Shut up, Colonel. I was merely saving your dubious virtue from the perils of stone age matrimony."
"You -- how you make these leaps -- McKay!" And apparently his tone did manage to convey 'get off of me!'. He didn't miss the warmth of his arm in the least; or Rodney's body leaning against him.
"You know, this could actually have been a decent meal if they'd only stop talking long enough to serve it," McKay grumbled quietly. At least he wasn't faking gay relationships to ward off nubile virgins any more, and if he were honest, John had to agree about the food, but did so with only a quick look, trusting to the bright intelligence to catch his amusement even without a smile.
They were warm and dry, but it didn't really rate as one of their better meals al fresco or otherwise. "Hey, you remember the --" he tried to remember their name then gave up -- "P7X-51Q?"
McKay blinked up from a momentary abstraction. John wondered what he had been thinking about. It could have been anything but now he was thinking about P7X-51Q. He could tell because Rodney's face brightened then dropped again.
"Yes," Rodney sighed, eyes vague with reminiscence, and John grinned at him. He was thinking about that candy-dessert thing that they'd served after dinner, the one that everyone else had tiny portions of, and McKay kept on eating, initial ecstasy smoothing into sugar-fuelled bliss. And they'd kept on bringing him more, delighted that he liked it. For once, McKay's bottomless appetite for sugar had worked out as a trading advantage.
The crash hadn't been pretty of course, but he hadn't really minded. It wasn't all that different to early morning Rodney.
"We could go back," Rodney said, and John glanced at him. There were no technical wonders, no ZPMs or Ancient artifacts there to catch his attention. "If you liked it."
"We're the first contact people, not the go back for thirds people." He paused a second, and added, "Oh, wait--" Rodney's eyes were already crinkling with amusement even if what he said was,
"Shut up, Major."
He didn't even comment, just raised an eyebrow, and got a roll of the eyes; they'd got the entire conversation down to its essentials. It made him smile again, and Rodney's mouth twitched up in response before settling back to a line that probably looked like a scowl.
People were standing up, and the two of them rose, a split second after Teyla, Ronon moving with them in uncanny sync.
"We will speak again in the morning," Teyla said, smiling, and R'whatsis smiled back.
"Of course. Tanagi will show you to a safe place to sleep."
Which suggested it wasn't going to be inside. Well, maybe they could sneak off back home for five or so hours.
Tanagi was the daughter. Sure enough the sleeping space was outside, away from the animal enclosure, inside the fences, but none the less, indisputably outside. She handed Teyla and Ronon mats and rugs, and scurried away, after a look at John and Rodney that John first thought was nervous, and then suspected to be speculative. Especially when she nearly tripped over a stray sheep-like thing watching them as she was walking away.
"Does it look like rain to you, Colonel?"
"No," Ronon answered tersely while John was still eyeing the clear night sky with its utterly alien constellations and the three tiny moons hanging like illuminated polka dots against the rest of the stars. Where did he get this stuff from anyway?
"You've got waterproofs, McKay."
"You keep saying that --"
"--because you never listen!"
"--and it keeps not being true." McKay sniffed wetly, and scratched at his nose absently. "Okay. Because I still keep waking up wet."
"Well," he smirked, couldn't help it, "is it our fault if you're just a wet kind of guy?"
Teyla and Ronon simply started laying out their sleeping bags, long experience had inured them to McKay's protests. McKay glowered at the ground, clutching his pack in his hands, then sighed.
"If I'd wanted to go camping, I'd've brought some marshmallows," he grumbled softly, then crouched to get his things out. John pulled the tightly packed tarp, spread it, added a couple of mats, sleeping bag, rugs, hauled the other half of the tarp over the whole thing, and sat on it, unlacing his boots. He wiped them down, then stuffed them into the sleeping bag, followed by his jacket, wrapped around the P-90, and his pants. A cold breeze wound around his knees; he shivered and followed his clothing into the bed. Not comfortable, but it guaranteed that nothing went missing in the middle of the night, and kept the dew -- and any frost, snow or other weather -- off the clothes and weapons.
"It could be worse," he offered. Rodney was still futzing around. The pop of plastic as Rodney self-medicated for some ailment or other -- he'd long since given up asking -- told him why, and he shook his head and slid deeper. If it was serious you'd never be able to shut him up. It was pretty warm. For now.
Ronon and Teyla were already dim heaps of rugs on the other side of Rodney. "Go to sleep already."
"Just as soon as I've finished -- swallowing these things dry isn't easy, you know," but the grumbling was more like a background track to their life than a complaint, and John didn't even answer it, his mind sliding instead to suggesting that maybe he needed to lubricate his throat. Which wasn't helping matters, actually.
Another wet sniff, and he was finally struggling into his sleeping bag. "If I can't move in the morning, Sheppard--"
"Mmm. I'll get Ronon to walk up and down your back a couple of times. Fix you right up."
"You will not!"
"Is this a common technique for aching backs, Colonel?" Teyla asked, deep laughter lurking in her calm question.
His "Yeah," was overshadowed by McKay's: "Over my dead body!"
"That can be arranged," Ronon spoke up from the far side of them, and John huffed a near silent laugh out.
"Oh, very helpful, yes, we'll keep you in mind for Mindless Violence of the Year when it comes around. Of course, the competition is pretty tough." John grinned as Rodney's glare seared through the darkness.
"There's a massage method that includes walking -- carefully -- on people's backs. It's great." Especially if the masseuse was willing to offer ... full body service ... He shifted uncomfortably. Thinking about these things never did any good. Now he was facing an itch, with no chance of scratching it unless he wanted to mess up his clothes and a sleeping bag he'd probably be getting back into the next night. "Ronon--"
"I'll wake Teyla in three hours," Ronon said briefly. He hadn't really needed to ask, but it was a habit. A good one. The Enandens would be insulted if they sat watch as though they didn't trust their hosts, especially after the whole bowl-exchange deal. But to him -- to all of them -- it seemed stupid to just sleep like fat, stupid rabbits waiting for a hawk looking for a free meal. The Genii hadn't obeyed salt or gift right. To Teyla that had been the worst part of it; guest right violated.
He drifted off to the sound of McKay's remarkably accurate mutterings about John's interest in massage, wishing that he had a proper bed, and watching the dark lump that was McKay's completely buried body.
Tomorrow, there'd be more negotiations, and still no privacy. He huddled down deeper, and slept.
Teyla shook his shoulder some six hours later. He looked into her quiet eyes, fully alert, poised for action. Satisfied he was awake she smiled at him, and murmured, "All is well," then slid back into her covers, falling asleep in seconds.
He was on his side, back to back with Rodney, and he laughed at himself. Keep McKay in the middle to keep him safe. Funny how they somehow never ended up with him between Teyla and Ronon. Or Teyla and Ford, back when--
He carefully shifted away from Rodney's warmth and sat up, still in the sleeping bag. His pants were easy enough to pull on, and the rest was the work of a couple of minutes once he'd retrieved all of it from the bottom of the sleeping bag. He crawled out of the warmth and grimaced at the cold wind cutting through his t-shirt. He dragged his jacket and vest on, yawned, stretched and headed off to relieve himself. The cesspit was off behind the animal enclosure and he tried hard not to breathe too deep as he pissed behind the wattle screen that they'd been shown the day before.
Coming back, he took the other route, which conveniently allowed him to make a complete circuit of the village. He settled back on the bedding, hauling a blanket around himself, his P-90 under it, cradled in his lap. Not a comfortable night's sleep, but good enough, with the smell of Rodney's skin inches away, even if he couldn't touch.
He shifted until he was sitting against Rodney's back. A little innocuous contact. He laughed softly. "Rescuer of colonels in distress," he said under his breath, and rested an arm on Rodney's side.
The sun rose slowly. The sky yesterday had been shades of reddish blue. If he'd asked, Rodney probably could have told him the atmospheric composition that created the particular colors, but he was asleep, and really, sometimes he liked a little mystery. Or possibly he just enjoyed the peace and quiet. The weirdly green hued dawn was kind of pretty -- in a fuck me, I'm on an alien planet millions of light years from home kind of way.
The sky lightened through from a dull khaki to a kind of orange, the clouds low and scudding briskly overhead.
"Should have brought a kite," he whispered, and Rodney mumbled something vaguely interrogative.
"Go back to sleep." Contrarily, McKay shifted again, and groaned. Of course he wasn't going to do what he was told. The apocalypse wasn't upon them yet.
"I hate sleeping on the ground," he said dismally. "Help me up."
John grinned and after a confused moment when the bad angle looked like knocking John onto the ground instead of hoisting Rodney up, they were sitting next to each other. "God, is it even tomorrow yet?" He rubbed at his face, his hair flattened on one side and sticking out on the other.
"Nearly. You could probably get another couple of hours."
"Yes, if I wanted permanent spinal trauma." He twisted, rolled his shoulders, and sighed.
"That would require a qualified chiropractor, and more talented hands than you possess."
"My hands are plenty talented."
There was a long pause, where John didn't quite dare look at McKay and kept a watch on the fence. It could attack at any time.
"Oh? Is that right, Colonel?"
There was another long pause, and finally Rodney sighed. "We can't dance around this forever."
He slid a sideways look at Rodney. "Sure we can."
"No. Not possible. Two left feet, Colonel. Sooner or later I will step on your toes."
"You do that anyway."
Rodney smiled. Somehow the sideways look had segued to a steady one. His eyes looked gray in the dawn light. Gray and expectant.
"We shouldn't." It wasn't even a whisper. Wasn't even an attempt to stop Rodney's hand from wrapping around his upper arm or their bodies from leaning in a little closer.
"In case you haven't noticed, we're the only people stupid enough to be awake right now. If anyone asks, you're an insomniac and I was only keeping you company out of the good of my heart."
It's odd, kissing someone and laughing at the same time. John sort of thought he could get used to it.
Summary: Step by step, patience and readiness in all things.
A/N: Originally written for mboyd in the SGA Santa gift fic exchange 2005.