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Two Bells

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The problem with eating off-world is that you never really know what you're eating. In John's experience, the food falls into two categories: weird and off-putting, or vaguely familiar. Obviously he doesn't trust the openly weird stuff, but the vaguely familiar is the real threat. John's learned the hard way that you have to be twice as careful when something looks familiar because that's when it gets you.

"What about that one?" he asks, pointing at a pie that's leaking a bright red gravy. "Sweet or savory?"

The toothless old woman behind the table just grins at him.

"C'mon, Martine, you can tell me."

"It's moon pie, Colonel Sheppard. You get what you get."

"That's exactly what I'm afraid of." He wrinkles his nose. "Last time I got eel."

Martine thinks this is hilarious. John gives up and takes another griddlecake. They're tough and chewy, but too flat to hide any surprises. He spreads some jam on top, rolls it up, and flips a coin into the tip jar.

He gnaws off his first bite and raises the rest to the night sky, toasting the full moon and dripping jam down his arm. Good thing Martine didn't see that. She might have fallen off her stool and hurt herself laughing.

There's a rowdy cheer from the edge of the courtyard and John looks over to see the latest couple returning from the woods. Jorue and his girl are holding hands, looking giddy and rumpled. They enter the square to the faint ringing of bells, but the sound gathers in strength, spreading like a wave through the crowd until the air is filled with the noise of a thousand tiny bells chiming.

John gives his bell a couple of rings and turns to Teyla. "So they're married now?"

"The couple may share a kiss or a bed," Teyla says, "but the true reward is being found in the darkness and brought back into the light. What happens after that is up to them."

Jorue and Laini run up onto the dais and give the rope hanging there two good yanks. Up in the tower, a shiny white bell swings out gracefully on its wheel, its high, sweet peal cutting through the night. Laini gives the rope an extra tug and Jorue's entire face turns red. He pulls her away from the bell and they hop down from the platform and into the bawdy cries of the audience.

"Who's next?" Aimi shouts. Behind her, a young temple novitiate struggles to lift a giant wooden mallet off the ground. The crowd hoots and jiggles, bells tinkling like fairy wings.

"I'll do it," John says, raising his hand. He's had just enough red berry wine that getting a few kisses in the woods sounds like a great idea.

Teyla's mouth drops open, an almost comical look of shock on her face. The last time he saw that look was three weeks ago when TJ grabbed the spoon out of her hand during breakfast and started feeding himself. Well, he tried to at least. His coordination wasn't quite up to the job, but his enthusiasm was unmatched, and Teyla didn't have the heart to take the spoon away from him as he smacked his chubby hands against the table top. Everybody got a taste of TJ's applesauce that morning.

"What?" John asks her.

The novitiate finally gets the mallet over his shoulder and strikes the big bronze bell that hangs in the courtyard. It makes a low, mournful sound that echoes like the groan of a foghorn.

The crowd hoots and the little bells start up again.

Aimi calls John up to the altar, a shallow metal basin set into a stone pedestal. Its hammered surface breaks the moonlight into hundreds of rippled sparks and the bowl glows like a second moon. He puts his bell inside. One at a time, his suitors will enter the woods to search for him. While they're in the woods, their bell will stand next to his.

"Into the woods!" Aimi says.

John looks around the courtyard, checking in with his team. Teyla's picked up a pastry. She still seems spooked, but that could easily be the moon pie. Ronon's at the tavern playing darts with the milliners; he was winning the last time John talked to him, so he should be okay for a while. McKay's over by the fountain, gazing adoringly at Theirn, village millwright and hunk. Rodney hasn't left his side all night.

"Let's go," John says to Aimi.

She leads him out of the courtyard and into the woods behind the Roy's estate. Away from the gas lamps of the village, the light becomes cool and silvery. It's not enough to read by, exactly, but even in the dense forest it's more enough to prevent him from walking into a tree. A curve in the path reveals a hole in the canopy, a shaft of dusty light reaching down to the forest floor, and John looks up to find the moon peeking at him through the gap.

The months are long on MX1-624 and every eleven weeks the a'Vigny greet the full moon like a long lost friend, plying it with food and drink in a celebration that, officially, lasts three nights, but can often stretch to four or five if the Roy is in a good mood. This is John's first festival, but he's heard stories.

Aimi glances at him over her shoulder, her dark hair shining in the moonlight. "Almost there," she says.

Aimi's a bit of a mystery. As far as they can tell, she isn't related to the Roy through blood or marriage, but if you want something done in Vigny, she's the person to talk to. Teyla sniffed this out early and cautioned them all to treat Aimi with respect.

"Yes, ma'am," John says.

The narrow path is clearly marked, usual for a planet that has no protection from the Wraith, and after a minute they reach a small clearing with a round metal brazier in the center. A fire glows in its open mouth.

John's less than a quarter mile away from the village, but he's starting to wonder if this really is a good idea, and that's before Aimi pulls out a strip of fabric the exact size and shape of a blindfold.

"Uh..."

"You're as safe here, Colonel, as any of us ever are," she says. "The blindfold is only for a short time, and you may remove it whenever you like, but you'll have to leave the woods alone."

She makes it sound terribly sad. He wonders if that's a standard part of the ritual, or something special just for him. He thinks of his bell, standing alone on the altar, and of Teyla's look of shock when he volunteered. He can't back out.

"Okay," he says.

Aimi leads him over to a fallen tree with a crude bench carved into its trunk. He sits down and lets her slip the blindfold over his eyes. She knots it and the dark is sudden and absolute. He throws his hands out, disoriented. Aimi catches one and gives it a squeeze.

"When the bells ring, your match has found you."

She lets go and steps away, her feet a quiet whisper in the fallen needles. Instead of doubling back the way they came, she moves past him and continues on, her footsteps growing fainter and fainter until he can't hear her at all.

He's alone.

He reaches up to inspect the blindfold. It's made out of a stretchy material that's digging into the bridge of his nose and probably doing terrible things to his hair, but except for the complete and utter darkness thing, it's like every other blindfold he's ever had the bad luck to encounter. He lifts up the edge to make sure he's still in the clearing and hasn't been teleported into a dungeon somewhere, and then lets it snap back into place.

The woods are quiet, just the wind rustling through the trees and the pop and hiss of the fire. He wonders if someone is already there, watching him in the dark. He touches the sidearm holstered at his thigh, the knife hanging off the back of his belt, the radio in his ear. He feels a little exposed in just his t-shirt, but his vest is in the jumper because the locals don't like the way they look. Vigny has a long and unhappy history with paramilitary groups and its citizens have been conditioned not to make eye contact with anyone wearing a brigandine, an armored vest that, unfortunately, resembles the expedition's tac vests. That first visit the villagers would only talk to Ronon, which was frustrating, but kind of funny to watch. These days they all leave their vests behind and John brings along a team of Marines to be ignored instead.

He tilts his head, trying to catch a stray sound.

There. A kicked stone, the slip of needles as someone moves toward him from the path into the clearing.

He wants to call out, ask who's there, but Aimi didn't say he could talk. Besides, there's just no cool way to ask that question.

"John," says a soft, female voice. She steps closer and he can smell the spice of her soap and the way she smells like oatmeal, even now, so long after breakfast, because it's Torren John's favorite food and he's still not too good with a spoon.

"Teyla," he says, realizing she must have made noise on purpose to warn him that she was approaching. "What are you doing here?"

"It is traditional for the first suitor to be someone who already has a partner."

John turns his head, orienting himself to her voice. "Priming the pump?"

There's a pause. "I am unfamiliar with that idiom."

Damn. Teyla's offended voice sounds exactly like her sarcastic voice -- and as soon as you realize Teyla has a wicked sense of humor, everything she says sounds sarcastic -- so it could go either way. He'd know which if he could see her face. It's all in the eyebrows with her.

He tries for honesty and hopes she's amused and not pissed off.

"It's got to do with hand-powered water pumps, I think. A lot of them need water in the pump before they're able to draw more water out of the ground." He sounds like an idiot. "Um, it's like what you said at Torren John's first month gathering, that you named him after your father and me to give him our strength and compassion. So," he says, scrambling to change the subject, "by sending someone who's married, it's like your marriedness rubs off on me and gives me a better chance of finding a mate." Fuck, put a blindfold on him and he can't shut up.

Teyla chuckles. So, amused, then. "Most of the a'Vigny live in family units with two or more adults. It is a great honor to be the first suitor down the path."

"Oh," John says. "But what if you'd made the bells ring?"

"You are my dear friend, John; you have nothing to be concerned about."

Okay, he's pretty sure she's just fucking with him now. That sounded a lot like an Athosian version of as if.

"May I put my hands on your shoulders?" she says.

He nods. Her hands settle lightly on his shoulders and instinctively he bends his head. She brings her forehead to his and he breathes her in, oatmeal and sandalwood, and then feels her draw away.

"Good luck," she says, impish. He doesn't hear her go, but suddenly the clearing feels empty again. He tilts his head this way and that, imagining his ears are like satellite dishes, like a bat's, sending out pings and listening for their return. Then he stops because he probably looks like a particularly stupid dog. He slouches back in his wooden throne and tries to look appealing.

The next suitor isn't anywhere near as quiet as Teyla. He can hear them coming up the path, tramping through the needles, possibly bumping into one or more trees, giggling. Of course the path would have to be clearly marked; half these suitors have probably had more than their fair share of drink. The bells don't ring and John listens to the giggler stumble through the clearing and up the path to the village.

Another two suitors come and go, one with a disappointed sigh that does something funny to John's stomach. He wonders if it's a stranger or someone he knows. It's kind of exciting to think about.

Three more suitors and John starts to squirm in his tree seat. He's noticing how uncomfortable this log is, kind of wet and clammy where the wood is exposed; he can feel it seeping into his BDUs, making his ass numb. He wonders how much longer he has to sit here. He was sure it would have happened by now: Some wine-flushed villager steps into the clearing, bells sound, and he takes off this awful blindfold and maybe gets a kiss or two.

"You doin' okay?" a gruff voice asks.

John flinches, one hand grabbing his sidearm before he even thinks about it. Ronon.

"Teyla sent me to check on you," Ronon says.

John carefully reholsters his weapon. Not being able to see must be getting to him. Of course he hadn't counted on Ronon sneaking up on him from behind. That would scare the shit out of anybody.

"Wait," John says. "They let you in here?"

"Why not? I put my bell down."

"But you're a...guy," John says.

"They live in triads," Ronon says. "How do you figure that works without guys kissing each other?"

"I just, you know the rules, Ronon -- I can't."

John listens to Ronon's leathers creak as he vaults over the log to sit at John's left shoulder, close enough that John can feel the heat coming off his body. He smells like the tavern, like smoke and ale and fried food.

"Thought that was over."

"There's a time line," John says weakly.

"Whatever," Ronon says. "Kiss who you want. No one's gonna tell."

If only it were that easy. John sighs.

Ronon fiddles with something. "We good?"

"Yes?" John says. He can't imagine another answer to that question.

"Awesome," Ronon says, and, oh, isn't Rodney going to be thrilled that Ronon's picked up his least favorite word. Ronon slides off the log. "I'm gonna hug you."

John barely has time to process that before Ronon engulfs him in an enormous hug, brief and crushing, like he's trying to squeeze his affection for John straight down into his bones. Then he claps John on the shoulder and disappears.

That was weird, John thinks, dazed.

Somewhere overhead, a nocturnal bird calls out and is answered by another, further away.

John knew the a'Vigny didn't place the same social restrictions on relationships that his own people did. He knew when he put his bell down that some of his suitors would be men. He knew, but he was trying not to think about it. He's thinking about it now.

The woodsman, Noe, with his broad shoulders and shy smile. The milliners with their quick talk and swift, clever fingers. Theirn, dark and muscular and smart enough to earn McKay's unwavering attention, something that's usually only afforded to power sources derived from vacuum energy and movies with bad science, and, occasionally, if he's having a good day, John.

This time when he hears footsteps, he thinks of Martine saying you get what you get. Maybe it really is that simple. Maybe he just gets what he gets.

John's ass is really cold now and he's feeling uncomfortably exposed, sitting up here on his ridiculous tree throne where anybody could sneak up behind him and knife him in the ribs, or bears, there could be bears in these woods. Vicious, incredibly quiet bears with silvery white hair, rows of filthy teeth, and pink feeding mouths on their paws. So, he's just going to sit on the ground now, with his back to the log and forget he ever had that thought.

He shuffles around until he's comfortable. The needles make a warmer place for his butt, at least, and now that he's on the ground he can feel the heat of the fire on his face. The wood gives off a sharp scent as it burns and he listens to it sizzle and pop and wishes he could sit back and watch the sparks drift up into the sky like fireworks. Marshmallows would be good. A graham cracker and some chocolate and he's sure he could get Rodney down here on the ground with him.

More footsteps. John must have missed the other suitor leaving. Things are starting to run together. He has no idea how long he's been sitting in this clearing. Twenty minutes? An hour?

The footsteps stop right in front of him and John's hand is on his knife, just in case.

"Thank you for stopping my husband," a soft voice says. "No one has ever stood up to him like that."

Before John can say anything, the suitor rushes off into the woods. So probably not an approved visit.

Earlier that day, John broke up a fight in the tavern. He still doesn't know what it was about, but he figured the guy choking the other guy against the wall was most likely in the wrong. Unfortunately, the guy John grabbed and put in a sleeper hold was some minor muckety-muck in the Roy's cabinet and while the tavern's patrons were happy enough to see the guy unconscious on the floor, no one was willing to explain to the sheriff what had happened, including the guy who had been getting choked against the wall. John wasn't planning on getting involved in local politics, but now that there's a chance this bully's wife or husband or other husband or wife are getting bullied as well, he'll mention to Aimi that she might want to keep an eye on the vice-minister of wheelbarrows or whatever the fuck his title was.

John's done with this whole blindfolded in the forest thing. It's not fun anymore, if it ever was; the wine's worn off, and the time for friendly, meaningless kisses has passed, but it seems the blindfold didn't get the memo. When he tries to push it off over his head it doesn't even move, and the knot's just a solid mass with no discernible edges. He hears someone approaching and forces himself to stop. He wants out of this blindfold, but not enough to let some random stranger know he wants out. He sits back against the log and crosses his arms over his chest, trying to look so surly no one would dare ring his bell.

The suitor passes harmlessly and John sits up and gets back to untying the blindfold. It's like trying to pick a knot out of saran wrap. What is this stuff?

"Okay, time's up," Rodney says, crashing through the undergrowth with all the subtlety of a hungry rhino. "Half the village has come through here. Some of them twice. I caught Zelda--"

"Zenaide," John corrects.

"--Zenaide lining up for a third try and you better believe I shut that down. We're not giving it away for free over here."

It's such a relief to hear Rodney's voice that John doesn't even mind that Rodney seems to have appointed himself John's pimp.

"Get me out of this blindfold," John says.

"There's a blindfold?" Rodney says, coming to a complete halt somewhere in the underbrush. "You're blindfolded?"

John tries to look cool. "It's no big deal."

"Blindfolded, alone, in the woods," Rodney mutters. "Why not trussed up like a Christmas ham? Ouch! Who put that rock there? And these vines! Whoever heard of vines growing in the forest? It just isn't safe. Wait, these aren't--"

John hears him stumble and then the sweet ringing of bells fills the woods and Rodney falls into his lap.

"There's a goddamned trip wire under here!" Rodney's complaining, wiggling around, probably kicking one leg to free himself of the wire, but it only makes the bells jingle merrily. John's never heard such a beautiful sound.

The bells and Rodney both trail off. "...oh."

John's hands are on Rodney's chest and side, just resting there, the rise and fall of his chest under one hand, the surprising heat of his armpit under the other.

"Me?" Rodney says.

"Sounds like it."

"But I thought it was a matchmaking device!" Rodney says, struggling again. "The way Theirn explained it, you get the suitor you deserve. But there's no science to it at all. It's just a randomized event, something you trip over."

"No one else tripped on it," John says, discouraged by the mention of Theirn, "and according to you half the village came through here."

Rodney sits up, the bells tinkling as he moves. "Well, maybe not half."

With Rodney no longer lying on him, John's hands fall uselessly to his empty lap. He has to curl them into fists to stop himself from reaching out to make sure Rodney's still there, that he hasn't disappeared like Ronon did, that he hasn't left John alone in the dark. John reaches up to tug at the blindfold, but he can't even separate it from his skin. It's like he's been shrink wrapped and that's when he flips out and starts clawing at his face.

"Have you lost your mind?" Rodney says, knocking John's hands away.

"This thing won't come off!"

"Let me see."

The bells chime as Rodney finds the blindfold's knot and gives it a sharp tug, but all that does is yank on John's hair.

"I already tried that."

"Well, I could walk back to--"

"No!" John says, and it comes out much louder than he intended. A hand drops onto John's knee and he jerks away before he can stop himself.

"Sorry, sorry, I should have warned you." Rodney rustles around and there's the sound of his pants rubbing together and the twinkle of the bells. It sounds like he's right in front of John. John pulls his feet in to sit cross legged and Rodney scoots around some more before finally settling down. John slides his hands down his thighs to his knees and, there, just brushing against his fingertips is Rodney's bent knee.

"Gimme plan B," John says, feeling more grounded.

"Okay," Rodney says. "How about I call Teyla and she asks Aimi how we get the blindfold off?"

It's a completely reasonable solution to John's problem, except he's not feeling very reasonable. It's what got him into this mess in the first place. Too stubborn to back out and let Teyla be right about him, that he couldn't handle sitting blindfolded in the woods, or having feelings, or whatever it was she thought he couldn't do.

John's not going to actually forbid Rodney from calling Teyla, but he can imply it, heavily, with his face.

"Right, I can see you're not loving that idea either," Rodney says briskly. "No matter. I'll figure it out myself. Can't be too complicated." He clears his throat. "So, uh, I'm just going to take a look?"

"Whatever," John says.

Rodney takes John's head and examines the blindfold, feeling it all over, rubbing and pinching and scratching at it, his hands seemingly everywhere at once. It's too much, sensory overload. John has no way of knowing where the next touch is going to land and he tries to hold still but he can't stop the shiver of excitement that runs up his spine.

Rodney lets go of him immediately. "I'm sorry! Is this horrible for you? Should I be telling you everything I'm doing or, or, asking for permission or something?"

Fuck, just the thought of Rodney narrating the way he's touching him makes John have to fight another shudder. He wins this time, but it's something to think about later, when he's safely back in Atlantis.

"Just go slower," John says.

Rodney does. This time his touch is more deliberate. His fingers slide down the bridge of John's nose, over his cheek, up to his temple, easy, predictable, slow, slow torture. John tries to keep his breathing even, his shoulders relaxed, his hands over his crotch.

"Is this okay?" Rodney asks.

It definitely isn't the best idea John's ever had, but either he lets Rodney touch his face in increasingly intimate ways or he goes back to the village a failure and gets a big dose of Teyla's sadly disappointed look.

"It's fine," he says.

Rodney's hands falter. "Is that like normal person fine, or John Sheppard My Head is Cracked Open But I Only Lost Consciousness a Little fine?"

John aims a slap where he thinks Rodney's knee should be but gets a big meaty handful of thigh instead. They both jump.

"Whoops," John says, lazily.

"Please, let's wait until you can see again before you start slapping me around," Rodney says, sounding flustered. John would give anything to see his face right now.

Rodney falls quiet and John listens to him breathe, to the faint chime of the bells. Rodney's probably jiggling his leg while he thinks. Even asleep he burns with restless energy. John's seen him in the field, muttering into his pillow, arms and legs churning against the sheets. Put him in a sleeping bag and he'll wake up several feet away from where he went to bed, slowly inching along in his sleep. There's a long-standing team rule that the person on watch is responsible for making sure McKay doesn't roll himself into the fire.

"So," Rodney says, tilting John's head, so close John can feel Rodney's breath against his cheek. "I think this blindfold's made out of a branched polymer. It would explain why it's acting like plastic wrap."

"Aimi said I could take it off whenever I wanted," John says. "I don't think she was lying. It was loose when she put it on, but it must have tightened while I was sitting here."

"There must be a trick to getting it off," Rodney says. "Something Aimi just assumed we'd know."

Rodney shifts so that he's holding John's head in both his hands and starts running his fingers over the boundary between the blindfold and John's face. His fingers slip back to curl around John's ears, one thumb brushing gently over his cheek, testing the edge of the blindfold and trying to slip beneath it. John's heart pounds and the blindfold is suddenly a blessing. There's no way he could hide the way he's feeling if he were looking at Rodney right now. This is too close to the things John thinks about late at night when he can't sleep. Rodney running his hands through John's hair as they lie together, Rodney holding him down with long, slow, impossible kisses.

"We could cut it off," John says, though he's no longer sure that's what he wants. "I've got my knife."

Rodney moves even closer, his legs bumping against John's knees. His touch has changed again, from businesslike to -- there's just no other word for it -- tender. Caressing. John wants to reach out for Rodney in return, but maybe John's reading this wrong. Maybe Rodney touches everything like this, like he wants to unwrap it and see what's inside. Maybe he sees John as just another piece of malfunctioning technology.

"I volunteered to do this before I knew about the blindfold," John says, unsettled by Rodney's protracted silence. Either the polymers are going to eat his face and Rodney can't find a good way to tell him, or Rodney's about to kiss him. John has no clue what's going on. "I thought it might be nice," John says. "The kissing, not the blindfold. I wouldn't have done it if I'd known about the blindfold."

"You volunteered?" Rodney sounds odd. "Normally you run the other way when faced with ritualized social engineering. Did someone spike your drink?"

"You were off with Theirn and I was bored," John says. Jealous, he means. Lonely.

Rodney makes a tsk sound. "I told Teyla we should have packed you a coloring book."

It's classic McKay, biting and dismissive, but for John there's always a fond smile to temper the sting. Without it, it just cuts.

"I was jealous, okay?" John says, actually admits out loud. Jesus Christ. He's going to spill every secret he has if they can't get this thing off him. He braces his hands on the ground, just in case he needs to leap up and stagger off into the woods to die of embarrassment.

Rodney tightens his grip on John's head. "What are you talking about?"

John thought he'd been pretty clear. He glares at Rodney through the blindfold.

"This is about Theirn?" Rodney says. "He's got a workshop full of Ancient junk. The kids find it in the river bed every summer. He has a substantial pile of it and he was talking about giving me all I could carry. And, I mean, I live in a flying city, so I can carry quite a lot."

"You were with him all day," John grits out.

Rodney's quiet. This is usually the part where his eyes flick around without ever settling on a target, following information no one else can see. Sometimes he'll chew on the inside of his cheek or drag his hands through his hair backwards. In extreme cases he'll sit perfectly still for hours and freak people out with his unrelenting forty-yard stare. Rodney was made for figuring things out and this isn't even that hard.

"Me?" Rodney says.

Rodney's still touching John's face, fingertips absently tracing over the blindfold, but now one thumb slides down to rest at the corner of John's mouth. John smiles and soaks it in, Rodney's callused fingers, the broad heat of his palms, the possibility that he gets to have this.

"I'm not even going to ask you why you didn't say anything earlier," Rodney says. "Because I realize that would be futile. But that doesn't mean you aren't going to make my head explode one day. Ah," he says, sounding pleased. "I think the pressure from my hands released the seal. Close your eyes."

John squeezes his eyes shut and feels the blindfold peel away from his face.

"Okay," Rodney says. "It's off."

The first thing he sees is Rodney's big, blurry face. John blinks a few times and rubs his eyes.

"Good?" Rodney asks.

The world slowly comes into focus. Rodney is still right there, waiting for John to answer. John just looks at him, his face so familiar John can read their entire history in the curious lift of his eyebrows, his worried blue eyes, the soft, hopeful slant of his mouth. You get what you get, Martine said.

"Yeah," John says. He leans in and Rodney meets him halfway, taking John's head in his hands again, gentle and sweet, and kisses him.

John closes his eyes and slides his hands up Rodney's shoulders to cup the bare promise of his neck. There are days John can't get a single thing done because he's daydreaming about the back of Rodney's neck, the way he looks peering down at his scanner out in the field, face pink with sunburn, or the time he fell asleep in the jumper, his head tipped against the seat, hair a little too long and curling against his collar. John's never going to get anything done again now that he knows exactly what it feels like to have those soft curls underneath his fingertips.

Rodney's got a hand in the small of John's back and the strength to shove him around, but his kisses are endearingly restrained, like he's trying hard to be polite. John wants to know what it would take to make him lose it. Judging by the way Rodney's fingers are pressing into John's back, probably not much more than a dirty kiss or two. Unfortunately this isn't the place to test that theory.

The kiss ends and Rodney gives him a shy, lopsided smile. "That was nice."

"Yep," John says.

They stare at each other, neither of them moving.

"Again?" John asks.

"I'm sorry, but I have to know what this means," Rodney blurts out. "Are we a thing now, or this one of those embarrassing incidents that gets left off the mission report and we never mention again? Because Jennifer and I dated for a year, but it took me a week to realize she'd broken up with me. I think we all know I don't deal well with nuance, and you're basically nothing but nuance held together by innuendo and sarcasm. You're a communication nightmare. And I...struggle, with being an attentive listener, but just this once can you...?"

"Gee, Rodney," John says. "Of course I'll be your date to the prom."

Rodney's entire face squeezes into an angry knot and then abruptly smoothes out as he laughs, resigned. "God, okay, yes, I'll pick you up in my 1979 Honda Civic and afterwards we can go to Tim Horton's, but you have to promise to put out."

"It's a date," John says. It's just that easy.

John leans in for another kiss and Rodney's not so polite this time, nudging at John's mouth until he opens up, bossing him around with kisses, hands grabby and kind of rough. John feels like purring, like falling backwards into the bed of moss and needles and pulling Rodney on top of him.

Rodney seems to be thinking along the same lines. He's drawing his legs up, possibly in preparation for laying John down, but Rodney's boot is still tangled in the trip wire and the bells start chiming wildly overhead. John looks up and sees several strings of them hanging in the trees, swinging on their line and glinting in the moonlight.

John feels wrung out from all the talking he's done tonight, but it got him here. He thinks about the complete darkness of the blindfold, the way the isolation made him want to reach out, to connect. He remembers what Teyla said about returning to the light.

"We better get back," John says. "Teyla's going to send the Marines after us."

"She already sent me," Rodney mutters, trying to bend himself into a shape that will let him see the bottom of his boot. He slowly tips over onto his side and lies there for a second, arms and legs knotted up, before violently unfolding in a shower of evergreen needles. "This isn't working."

The cord looks like it's partially fused to the sole of Rodney's boot. John pokes at it with the tip of his knife. He considers just cutting the line, but going into the woods is a big part of the festival and he doesn't want to ruin it for anyone.

"Push against the cord," Rodney says, flat on his back, his boot in John's lap. "Don't try to pull on it."

"More polymers?"

"The a'Vigny probably use them in everything. I can't believe this is the way we found out about it, though."

"Remind me not to try on any pants while we're here," John says, trying to get the cord to release its grip on Rodney's boot.

Rodney groans. "Let's hope Ronon's new hat doesn't bond to his head."

"Ronon's got a hat?" He wasn't wearing one the last time John saw him, but, technically speaking, John couldn't see the last time he saw Ronon.

"A stingy brim porkpie. He won it in a dart game."

"Awesome," John says.

"Totally awesome," Rodney says, mocking him.

John runs the flat of his knife along the line one more time and it suddenly expands and lets go. It snaps back across the path, bells jumping and ringing, and buries itself in the leaf litter again. John crawls up Rodney's body and drops a kiss on his tired face. It's one of John's oldest, most innocent fantasies, and being able to do it is even better than he imagined. Rodney lights up and pulls John in and they roll around on the ground, kissing and groping each other until they roll off the beaten path and Rodney lands on a rock and loses all sensation in his lower limbs.

"It's a mushroom," John tells him.

"Help me up," Rodney moans.

Together they get Rodney to his feet. John picks a few needles out of Rodney's hair and brushes off his back, lingering on his ass. Rodney returns the favor and with one last critical look -- everybody's pants are buttoned? no one is smiling like they're about to get laid? -- they head up the path back to the village. On the way, Rodney describes the work he did on his first car, the way he stroked the little 1.2L motor up to 1.4L in the auto shop after school, and John develops a new appreciation for things that go less than 200 mph as long as they involve Rodney up to his elbows in engine grease.

They stumble back into the village, rumpled, partially unbuttoned after all, laughing. Teyla is the first to spot them and her bell rings out, causing heads to turn. Ronon, looking sharp in his new hat, is next, shaking his bell and grinning, and one by one the whole village joins in, yelling and cheering, ringing John and Rodney home with the sound of a thousand bells.