And – yes - that was the one he'd been waiting for: alarm number three, located approximately three feet from his head, pitched precisely to make his brain explode. He fumbled with the crystal in his hand, almost dropping it in his haste to shove it back into the console, swearing viciously and abruptly audibly as the alarm finally cut off.
And he could picture precisely the look on Elizabeth's face, the wide-eyed faux-shock at the indication that something in his world might be less than perfect right now. If he could just get five minutes peace to do his work in, maybe a little space away from all the questions and demands and blaring alarms – but no. No, this was Atlantis, someone always looking over his shoulder and using up air and patience in equal measure.
"Sorry," he managed, keeping his head under the console so his words weren't undermined by the expression on his face, "sorry. I didn't sleep particularly well last night."
(It had been a particularly long and difficult day, and yet it had still been easier to respond to the door chime than not. To shift his weight to one side of the mattress and make room for John's body, strangely insubstantial without the tight shirts, thigh holsters, insubordinate boots that held it together in the day time. To make room for John's mouth against the back of his neck, where they could pretend it didn't count at all.)
"Did the malfunction with the doors affect your quarters? I thought Zelenka assured me that it was limited to the science labs."
"No," he said, rubbing a hand over his face and taking a moment before crawling out from under the Ancient console, not quite managing to remove the tightness from his voice, "and remind me to kill Zelenka for not mentioning that to me this morning. No, just the usual insomnia."
(During one particularly stubborn bout of insomnia, Rodney had devised an elaborate scoring system for the routes John's lips took across his skin. As long as they'd been doing this, John was still managing to keep his score somewhere down in the early twenties.)
He got slowly to his feet, stretching a little and grimacing at the gritty feel of his shirt moving against his skin. Sometimes he though he'd prefer the honest dirt of oil-running Earth-based machinery, rather than the dry and faintly prickly dust of Atlantis, that gave only the uncomfortable feel of a hard morning's work rather than the appearance and excuse of it, the five minutes peace that a shower would offer him.
"…the easiest thing to find on Atlantis, I suppose. Alternatively I always find sleeping on the opposite side of the mattress works wonders," Elizabeth was saying, a small helpful smile on her face. "Change of scenery, I suppose."
"Yes," Rodney answered, more sarcasm in his voice than he'd really intended, "because the Ancients provided such roomy sleeping arrangements."
(There was never really mattress enough to hold him and John along with the expansive weight of Rodney's towering lack of sleep, but John was always considerate enough to leave the two of them alone before even the first vague threats of morning.)
"Maybe you should take a nap, Rodney," Elizabeth told him, eyes narrowed now and faintly accusing, to match the tone of voice which occupied some delightful area between annoyed and patronising.
Rodney cursed again – why not? The damage was done – and pointed at his ear.
"Much as I appreciate the suggestion, I have to go gear up." No peace for the wicked, or whatever the saying was.
A quick shower later, a few exaggerated watch taps from an annoyingly well-rested looking John, and Rodney was slapping futilely at Teyla's hands as she worked on the buckles of his vest.
"I only allow other people to undress me, these days," he grumbled, not allowing himself to notice the tense line of John's shoulders. "For god's – I am perfectly capable of – ow!" Teyla, imperturbed and imperturbable, went back to her buckling.
"And yet," she told him calmly, "when our mission is done we will all be waiting patiently in debriefing as you untangle yourself from the mess you have made of your fastenings. If Ronon is forced to make polite conversation with the botanists once more I fear there will be a diplomatic incident."
"Can you have a diplomatic incident between members of the same expedition?"
Heavy hands dropped onto Rodney's shoulders, and the scepticism in his tone might have been slightly undermined by his squeak.
"Try me," Ronon rumbled, directly into his ear, and Rodney – carefully making no sudden movements – took his hands away from his tac vest and let Teyla finish dressing him.
It had been a week since their last debacle – he'd taken to calling them that over 'missions' because there was a certain aesthetic appreciation to be gained from the faces John made – and Rodney hadn't caught up on his sleep, yet, though considering how little sleep he usually got it hadn't had the chance to get that far ahead of him. The headache in residence just behind his right eye helpfully took on the shape of Zelenka, who – as the team filed their bickering way into the Gateroom – was flapping pieces of paper in Rodney's direction and yammering something about fluctuations.
" – indication that the power drain is somewhere in the labs, and since there have been no explosions we can hope that is only – "
"Ow!" Rodney yelped, glaring at Teyla and pulling his fingers away from where he'd been absentmindedly fiddling with his buckles.
" – mistake, or an experiment left running, for which there will be yelling of course but - "
"You should be more careful with my hands," Rodney snapped, still glaring. "You never know when I might have to shoot someone to save your life," a snort from John had his glare changing focus, "or oh, I don't know, having to type at the speed of light to fix someone else's boneheaded mistake which of course never happens – "
"McKay!" Zelenka bellowed, too loud and directly into his ear, and that was seriously the last straw. Rodney had had it.
"I swear," he said in a quiet voice that still managed to carry, his team's voices falling quiet around him, "I swear if I don't manage to get any peace on this little day trip I will kill someone with my hands."
"Rodney – "
"What?" Rodney yelled, directly into Zelenka's face; Zelenka took off his glasses and polished them pointedly on the hem of his shirt.
"The readings –" he began, and Rodney cut him off with an impatient wave of his hand.
"Yes, yes, tackle as you will, although at the moment I'm having my doubts that you can deal with even something like this without my guidance, frankly."
"McKay," John drawled warningly, and the tension in Rodney's shoulders – already ratcheted up to somewhere around ear-level – increased approximately ten-fold.
"I don't ask for much," he muttered to no one in particular, "it's not like I'm being unreasonable. Just five minutes peace from the demands, and the pettiness, and the pervading stupidity…"
"Okay, how about this?" John's voice was low, and annoyed, and close enough to stir the hair behind Rodney's ear. Rodney swallowed hard. "How about we find some traders with a quiet little planet back home, and we leave you there with them?"
His betrayed glance went entirely unnoticed as John lifted a hand towards the control room.
"Dial it up, Sergeant."
As the blue wormhole fountained into being, as John and Ronon laughed gratingly about something Teyla said and Zelenka snuck close enough to push crumpled paper into Rodney's hand, he reflected that being left behind didn't sound like that bad a prospect, after all.
The Three Moons Market – named for the originating planet rather than any specific astronomical feature, since it was generally safer not to have these things at predictable places or times – was bigger than any Teyla had yet taken them to. Though it was a careful distance from the Stargate to allow for security of a sort (since even if the Wraith didn't show up there was always the possibility of raiders to consider), the brisk and industrious atmosphere was apparent as soon as they stepped through the 'Gate. Rodney, pausing out of habit to take an energy reading, was knocked sideways by an elderly woman bent almost double by a load of woven baskets; Ronon had to step smartly to one side to avoid tripping over a roped together line of huge almost-chickens that were being herded along the hard-packed dirt path by a boy of no more than five.
"You okay there, Rodney?" John asked, laughing eyes and the faintest pressure of a hand at the small of Rodney's back. He stopped rubbing his side where the old woman's quite unhealthily bony elbow had caught him and scowled.
"Nothing getting this over with and getting back to Atlantis won't cure," he snapped, and forged forward again through an inexplicable herd of sheep. Rodney hated sheep. And markets. And John, for that matter.
Long before they caught sight of the market itself – but long after Rodney had gotten heartily sick of Maven, she of the overly familiar sheep and spontaneously developing crush on a certain Lieutenant Colonel – they could hear the penetrating cries of the hawkers.
Each planet, Rodney had learned through trial and more than the occasional error, had different rules of conduct. This was where Teyla's expertise was invaluable to the team. Only the month before they had traded with a people who permitted only one of each trading party to speak, with vendors only communicating through nods and shakes of the head. Rodney had spent his time there attracting poisonous looks with his finger snapping, tongue clicking and knuckle cracking, but on reflection a return there would be a more attractive prospect than the apparent tradition of the Three Moons: to prove your worth as a trader through successful abuse of the customers' eardrums. Volume and duration seemed to be the most prized, although there was the occasional musical number – apparently without the requirement of talent or tune – to add variety to Rodney's own personal slice of hell.
Judging the quality of a man's carrot-esques by his lung capacity was a new one on Rodney, but it wasn't as though they hadn't done stupider things.
John tugged them to one side of the road, which had evolved from a rutted track to a full blown dirt highway peopled with all the weird and wonderful that Pegasus had to offer. Maven attempted to follow but was waved on by Teyla, who always managed to get her way even without the intimidation factor of Ronon or 'Crazy Eyes' Sheppard. Rodney really had to find out how she did that.
"Everyone clear on what we're after here?"
"Food," said Ronon.
Rodney snapped his fingers. "I'm behind that plan."
"We are looking for honest traders with whom we can potentially form mutually beneficial alliances," Teyla said firmly, with a stern look at them both.
"Right," said Ronon implacably, "long-term food."
"Also aspirin," Rodney put in, wincing at the volume a ninety pound grandmother could apparently produce, when it came to selling misshapen clay pots. "Aspirin would be appreciated."
"You're with Teyla then, McKay." John checked his gun nonchalantly. John had a habit of doing pretty much everything nonchalantly, Rodney had found. "I'll go with Ronon."
"So you can indulge your ridiculous love of archaic weaponry, no doubt," Rodney muttered.
"No, McKay, so your mouth doesn't cause a diplomatic incident," John shot back smoothly, a superior expression on his face that made a surprisingly tempting target. It was probably a good thing that Rodney wasn't a naturally physical man.
"Nice," Rodney said, more stung than he would have expected to be. John just arched an eyebrow, eyes distant, and Rodney turned gratefully when Teyla touched his arm.
"Come, Rodney. The Vendrani brew a tea with many healing properties; I am sure I see their colours in this direction."
Teyla had the knack of these places. Possibly it was the hours in the gym dodging John's ever less clumsy attempts with the bantos rods, or possibly it was some sort of innate grace that allowed her to skirt traders, sidestep browsers and avoid the children, merchandise and animals that were everywhere underfoot. That she could still keep her eye on her destination, the tri-coloured flag that proclaimed the booth's purpose, origin and level of expertise (and therefore expense) was kind of incredible. Rodney, on the other hand, was knocked, elbowed and tripped up by everyone going – some of them twice - and then glared at for having the temerity to put one foot more or less in front of the other.
Then suddenly, unexpectedly, Teyla was gone.
Perhaps not unexpectedly. Perhaps if he'd been watching, if he'd been paying attention to the way that the fingers she'd curled around his arm after the third time they'd been separated had tightened –
Rodney slowed and then stopped, carefully breathing through his mouth; the herbs burning in the small brass dish on the stall next to him were both hideous and penetrating, and he was trying desperately not to sneeze.
Teyla's voice, somewhere to the left of him.
Running with one hand curled around the butt of a gun was a skill that got picked up quickly as part of John's team. Usually there were less crowds, though, more elbow room - and Ronon's gun to back him up, of course. That always helped to increase Rodney's confidence.
"Teyla!" he yelled again, ducking around the corner of a heavily embroidered tent after the eye-corner-caught glimpse of the copper of her hair. He barely managed to hurdle the guide rope that stretched low across his path, stumbling awkwardly as he landed and swearing at the pain that flared in his knee. He wasn't – this wasn't what he'd trained for – bad enough running in a straight line without all these –
"Rodney." She was standing in the middle of a circular clearing between some of the less grand tents; stationary, barely even breathing hard and, incongruously, smiling widely. With her was a giant of a man, heavily bearded and dressed in a peculiar gray trouser suit, cut generously and without any discernable style. It looked like nothing so much as hospital scrubs or particularly comfortable pajamas. Rodney wondered where he could get some.
"This is Sandros," she said happily, and Rodney lifted a hand and waved limply.
"Hi," he gasped out, and allowed himself to slump into a small uncomfortable heap on the patchy grass.
"Forgive me, but this is of more importance than simply bartering for food!"
"Hey." John had raised his hands, palms out and expression wary in the face of Teyla's mulish expression, the hands she had fisted on her hips. "I'm not trying to be rude here, Teyla. I'm just saying that maybe, considering the time that's passed, there's a chance you – remembered it wrong."
"They were great friends to the Athosians," Teyla insisted, "great friends to my father. When I was a girl of seven years old, Sandros invited us to a celebration of his sixty fifth year; by now he should have been long dead. Instead he looks as though he has not aged a day!"
"If anything he looks younger," Rodney put in. "By the time my grandfather was that age you could have stored a pack of cards in the lines on his face. He probably wouldn't have noticed, either; not senile, thank god for the lack of that particular genetic blemish, but the deepest sleeper I ever knew. In fact one time, he –"
Rodney trailed off when he saw the look John was shooting his way. Annoyed but with a degree of fondness was generally the default; the fondness was a little lacking.
"So you think it's worth investigating," he said slowly, faintly mockingly, face turned to Teyla but eyes slanted towards Rodney.
"I do," Teyla answered, and Rodney nodded.
"Absolutely. It suggests at the very least some pretty advanced health care; say, Canada? Rather than the good old US of A? Not to mention the possibility of technologies we haven't yet dreamed of."
"Like what?" Ronon asked, from the position he'd taken up on the ground, lounging comfortably next to a threadbare dog someone had tied up behind their tent.
"I don't know," Rodney said slowly. "Notice how I said 'things we haven't dreamed of'? But there's the potential there for some kind of stasis, or even a far-fetched bending of time we haven't come across, something in the Janus line; both of which argue –"
"Power," Teyla said.
"ZPM," John said.
"Knew you'd dreamed about it," Ronon said smugly.
"We will accept their invitation to visit their planet, then?" Teyla's smile spread as John nodded, and she continued, "it will be of interest to me also; after a culling on their planet they have moved to join a new people, one I haven't heard of before. There could be opportunities for –"
"I've said okay, Teyla," John said through a grin. "I'm not the one you have to convince."
"Oh, I'm fine with it," Rodney said, practically bouncing in place.
"By which I mean we're going to have to run it by Elizabeth," John said.
"She'll be fine," Rodney assured him. "Leave her to me."
Elizabeth's eventual agreement, dubiously given as the Stargate's light replaced that gradually fading from the sky, was secured more by Teyla's assurances than by Rodney's valuable insights about the Ancient tech that they might, possibly, but probably wouldn't have.
"You can stop talking, Rodney," she eventually told him, amusement clear in her voice. "So long as you are careful I see no reason we shouldn't see what these people have to offer us. Keep them safe, John."
"And report back every six hours."
"Will do," John said, his small smile disappearing in the change of light as the 'Gate shut off. "Right, kids," he said, swinging his pack back onto his back and rubbing his hands together, "we ready to go?"
"Ready," Ronon said, reholstering the gun he'd been playing with absently. It always unnerved Rodney, when he did that.
"I am eager to get started," Teyla said.
"Lead the way." A grunt forced itself out as Rodney slung his pack back onto his back, and he almost overbalanced as he gestured for John to go first.
When they made it back to the market place – and Rodney would prefer a little less caution and a little less walk, next time, in case anyone was paying attention to such things – Sandros and the younger men he was with, men Teyla said must be from his new planet since they were not of the family she had met, were loading merchandise and purchases and preparing to leave.
"Teyla!" Sandros called, spreading his arms wide. "You have decided to honor us with a visit, I see?"
"I – yes." For the first time, Teyla sounded hesitant. "That – you honor us more with your invitation," she said, rushed and stumbling over her words. The frown on her face was really not in any way reassuring.
"Yeah," John said, "really looking forward to checking out the homestead." He smiled his most charming smile. "Could you excuse us for a minute?"
He tugged Teyla to one side and Rodney followed; he kept his eyes firmly fixed on the life signs detector, for lack of anything else to do, but could still hear the faint tone of concern in John's voice.
"I'm – not sure." Teyla shifted her weight uneasily, and without thinking Rodney dropped his hand to rest on his sidearm. (On consideration, he wasn't sure if he was more surprised at how well-trained he'd become, or at how well he was able to read his team. People usually confused him.) "The nissak don't usually –"
"Nissak?" John repeated, after her voice tailed off. "I thought you hadn't met these guys before."
"Their beasts," she clarified, waving a hand towards the enormous yet oddly cow-like creatures that were being loaded with goods. The one nearest to Rodney was moving skittishly away from its handler, lowing uneasily, and Rodney backed up a couple of paces. Yes, he saw the sidelong look John sent him, but in his opinion there was no unjustified caution when it came to hooves the size of Zelenka's head.
"I have seen them on many worlds. They are – work animals," Teyla continued, her voice low and rapid. "Placid and – "
"Stupid," Ronon put in, and Rodney jumped. They should put a bell on him or something.
"Barely trainable," Teyla said more diplomatically, and Ronon grinned.
"Chewy," he added.
Rodney looked up.
"Hey, didn't we eat one of those once? On the planet with all the –" He made a vague curving gesture with one hand, then yelped as John smacked him around the back of the head. "Interesting architecture," he finished, accusingly.
"Sure," John drawled, inscrutable expression on his face.
"They are never this restless," Teyla went on, ignoring their interruption, a line between her eyebrows as she watched the traders. "When I was a child I saw a man beat a nissak harshly with a stick and it looked only confused. I have never seen them act so –"
"Frightened," Ronon said heavily. "I have. They act like this when there are Wraith."
"Oh," said Rodney. "This just cannot be good."
"But there's no Wraith here, right?" John's voice was low, matter of fact. "You wouldn't have spent all that time in the 'jumper while Teyla was talking to Elizabeth without checking something like that right, McKay?"
"Right." Rodney said, a little faintly. "I mean – right, of course. There were no indications on the long-distance – and the 'Gate hasn't – I mean, barring unforeseen space 'Gates in the vicinity, which I suspect the 'jumper's sensors would have brought to my attention – "
"Right," John said, satisfied. "So we're good to go." He clapped Rodney on the back – unnecessarily, thank you, that was probably adding up to long term damage – and moved over to Ronon's side. "With precautions."
Ronon's gun whined as John flicked the setting away from stun.
Rodney was so used to emerging from Stargates to find crude villages or open grassland, with the occasional ruins for variety, that he almost tripped over his own feet when he emerged onto a bustling thoroughfare. The buildings were stone and prosperous looking, without the evidence of rebuilding or scorch marks they had grown used to as signs of Wraith attack. For that matter there seemed to be altogether too many people about; it hadn't registered on his first glance about the place because they were, for the most part, unnervingly silent. Apart from the stamping and snorting of the nissak there was only the distant buzz of low conversation, and even that was rare. There was no shouting, no laughter; for the most part the people seemed intent on their destinations, the soft sounds of their movement lost among the tall buildings and perfectly trimmed shrubbery that lined the square. Rodney's headache, almost at critical mass after hours in the market, thanked them.
"Wow." John, sounding more bemused than impressed.
"This is – different from his previous home," Teyla answered. "It is not as I remember them living."
"There have been many improvements in our lifestyle," Sandros said, beard twitching as he smiled a little, the faintest trace of pride in his voice.
"I'm surprised the Wraith allowed it." Rodney's voice was at its normal level, not the deferential half whisper the others had automatically adopted, and John jumped and then glared at him.
"I assume you've heard of the Wraith," Rodney continued, uncowed. Un-nissaked, possibly. "Scourge of the galaxy, general bad guys, usually onto planets with technology or success like yours like flies on a –"
"Rodney," Teyla interrupted.
Rodney huffed. "You'll forgive me if I find it a little odd that they haven't been eaten by now," he said. "Considering their level of technological development, the numbers in this place alone; they're practically putting up a sign for an all-you-can-eat buffet and handing the Wraith the paper plates."
"McKay." John, this time.
"Your friend is not incorrect. My people have been very lucky."
The man who had spoken had been watching them from one side since they arrived through the 'Gate, his face entirely expressionless. Actually Rodney had never seen a less interesting face; he was notoriously bad with names, he accepted that, but at least he was generally good at recognising faces. This man – even if Rodney kept his eyes on him as others were gathered around him, he wasn't sure he could have picked him out of a crowd. There was something unnervingly generic about him, as if he'd been turned off a production line that morning, pristine and professionally bland. He was notable only for the sash of pale blue that cinched the waist of his robe, a sash which looked like something that would only be worn as an indication of office; other than the colours of the various people's hair and skin, it was the only variation aside from the hedges from the grey clothes, buildings, sky.
"I don't believe in luck," Rodney informed him snidely, pulling out a scanner and watching the scrolling text with satisfaction as it beeped happily in his hands. "There's at least one energy source, possibly more, in –" He pointed. "That direction."
"ZPM?" John asked swiftly.
"N-no. No, I don't think so. Actually I can't quite work out –"
"Teyla's friends are very curious," Sandros rumbled, a thin thread of disapproval running through his voice. He turned to the man that had addressed them. "Forgive them, Councillor."
"Yes, please. I am sorry for their impatience," Teyla said. She put her hand on the screen of Rodney's scanner and pushed it down, shaking her head slightly when his head automatically came up in protest. Turning to face the Councillor, she bowed her head a little.
"I am Teyla Emmagan, a friend of Sandros from long ago and far away. And these are my friends Ronon Dex, Colonel John Sheppard, and Dr Rodney McKay."
"We are pleased to make your acquaintance," the Councillor said, making the barest of nods in return. "It is not often that we are brought visitors from outside. I am Councillor Perem, and this is Laska," He gestured at the young woman beside him, "my daughter and assistant. She will be happy to act as guide, to answer any questions you might have."
Rodney scowled as John smiled at Laska; the sort of smile he always gave in situations like this, the one that was different to any of the many he'd ever shown Rodney.
"Don't get too close," he hissed at John under his breath, as Laska was giving the whole 'honored' spiel again, with her eyes apparently fixed very firmly on Ronon. "Assigning a 'guide' when we're already here with a native is never a good sign."
"Thanks, McKay, but I'm pretty sure I'm capable of working these things out for myself," John whispered back, leaning in close enough that the only response Rodney managed was to huff and bury his head back in the readings from the scanner.
"Fine," he muttered. "Fine. But don't come crying to me when – "
A man came hurrying across the square, not releasing enough control to run, but moving fast enough to attract at least a couple of wondering looks. It was actively frustrating, how little interest these people apparently had in their surroundings; what could be so important that they showed no interest in the newcomers at all? Not that Rodney was expecting feasts in their honor or anything – that happened far less often than he'd like – but some acknowledgement of their presence would be normal, surely?
John distracted him by moving away suddenly, apparently distracted by the murmured conversation going on.
"Something wrong?" he asked Laska casually.
"No," she answered, smiling a little, but with the faintest of frown lines marring her smooth forehead. "Simply unexpected. My father must go and prepare, and I will escort you to the place of the Ritual."
"Ritual?" Teyla asked.
"Ritual," Ronon said flatly.
"That's really, really never good," Rodney said unhappily.
The amphitheatre, the place of Ritual, had been sunk into the cliff-top – or no. No, not exactly, because on the really unnecessarily long walk over Laska had made much of the apparently sacrosanct nature of the land there, and the formation itself ended perhaps half a hundred meters from the top. Instead it seemed to coil up from the caverns below, formed of one continuously curving track rather than the stepped construction that the Ancients on Earth (and the ancients on Earth, and the Ancients off-Earth, and how ridiculous was it that Rodney managed to curse himself with a limited vocabulary?) had tended to use.
There appeared to be no means of access for those with the dubious honor of the topmost seats other than a long and arduously winding climb, and yet the place was slowly filling with what seemed like every person they had seen so far and hundreds more besides.
"Of course," Laska told them, when Teyla questioned this. "It is so rare that we have a Passing Ritual. Korvin is the first of us to Pass for some years, and it is rarely so unexpected. We have had barely enough time to gather firewood."
"Passing Ritual?" Rodney asked, trying not to let the worry show in his voice. "I'm really hoping that's what it sounds like, because firewood is rarely a good sign unless there are dead bodies involved."
"Of course," she answered, stopping for a moment as an ancient-looking woman carefully made her way to a seat. "What else would a Ritual involve?"
"You'd be surprised," Rodney muttered, scowling as Teyla hushed him.
"It is just that we are usually able to plan," Laska continued.
"I do not understand," Teyla said. "For the Athosians, knowing the time of your death is an honor, a rarity. It is not so with your people?"
"I am sorry – it is so long since we have had outsiders I had forgotten how strange this must seem," Laska answered. "You must understand first that my people have been fortunate enough to have recovered an Ancient cure."
"Cure for what?" Ronon asked.
"For – I suppose it is for almost everything. There have been accidents, of course, and once in a generation there will be a sickness, but – my people do not sicken often, and we do not age as others do."
"Hah!" said Rodney, loudly. John looked at him.
"Hah, I knew there was something weird about this place."
"You mean Teyla knew."
"Yes but I – backed her up?"
John rolled his eyes and turned back to Laska, who was watching them with a vague air of curiosity.
"Your people do not speak as we do," she said.
"Pretty much no one speaks as McKay does," he told her solemnly. Rodney, accustomed to the giggles John tended to inspire – usually at his expense – was a little confused by the lack of a smile.
"Excuse me," Teyla said, distracting him. "You will excuse me, but – how old are you?"
Now, Laska allowed herself a small smile. "I have seen fifty three summers," she said. "My father is not long ninety seven years."
"Wow," John said, this time sounding genuinely startled. "I mean – you look good."
"Kirk," Rodney interjected, not quite far enough under his breath to avoid John's head slap.
"How about you save your breath for walking, McKay."
"But – seriously, I need to know everything there is to know about this 'cure'," Rodney said, speaking to Laska instead.
"And I will speak to you of it once the Ritual is complete," she answered. "And no sooner, Dr McKay. Your Colonel is right – there is still a distance to go."
With all their technology, sacred cliffs or not, there really ought to have been a more convenient way of getting to their seats, situated as they were at the very top of the spiralling amphitheatre. When Rodney dared to protest this John snorted.
"You want to brave their gods, McKay, I've got a rope you're welcome to hang yourself from the top with."
"You may well laugh, Colonel," Rodney snapped back, hissing the words with about as much scorn as it's possible to convey in a whisper without excessive sibilants, "but what are we supposed to do if anything goes wrong? Or if there's a fire, like there might be at, oh I don't know, a cremation."
He was reassured, then, that John's eyes were scanning the area as they ascended, looking at the seating placements, the distance from the top, all the sort of things that vaguely suggested planning an escape route in that subtle, military way. Rodney looked over his shoulder to see whether Ronon was carrying out his half of the usual routine, but Ronon seemed more interested in the potted history being provided by their short, beautiful guide. He was bent at a ridiculous angle to catch the words that were being formed around her practised smile, and Rodney couldn't help feeling faintly unnerved at the sight; hot she may well be, but she was still nearly twice Ronon's age. He turned to share his thoughts with Teyla, but blinked and turned his eyes forward again once he saw the expression on her face, how tightly she'd folded her arms against her chest.
Since Ronon had apparently taken on diplomatic duties in place of Teyla, it probably fell to Rodney to assess the threat level or something, count the people with concealed weapons or pick up violent body language or whatever it was that Ronon did. He was more concerned, though, with what was immediately before him; he dropped to one knee, running his palm across the floor.
"Hmm?" There was a scuffle, the muffled thud of bodies colliding, and when Rodney raised his head again it was to see his team arrayed around him, poses casual but eyes sharp, all with their hands held close to their weapons. Their guide was close against Ronon's side, still smiling but beginning to look wary; Rodney dusted his hands off briskly and got back to his feet.
"Nothing important." Nods all around and their party moved on, John's eyes narrowed; it wasn't more than a minute before he'd managed to slow his pace enough that he was level with Rodney again, his voice barely audible when he spoke.
"Anything I should worry about?"
"No, no. Just – does this place seem odd to you?"
John gave him a sidelong look, and Rodney was ready for him.
"What doesn't –"
" – seem odd, yes, I know, I know. Just –" he reached out to let his fingers run across the wall next to him. "I think this place is hand-made."
It was difficult to know precisely what you were looking for, in a situation like this, so John's quick sideways glance probably didn't tell him all that much. It wasn't even as though Rodney was entirely sure what had tipped him off, just subtle irregularities in the gradient and the walls; a certain lack of starkness in the lines of the place that couldn't entirely be explained away by its age. It was too natural looking to be machine-made, and yet entirely too regular to be natural, with the pale curves of the walls and floors resembling the inside of a shell without nearly the same geometry.
"Guess there're advantages to living practically forever," John said dryly, reaching over to clap Rodney's shoulder quickly, and Rodney attempted a smile but wasn't quite as successful as he'd like.
"It's – unnerving what they're capable of," he whispered, hearing more awe in his voice than he'd like.
"Something to keep in mind," John replied tersely, his hand dropping again to cover the weapon at his side as casually as he was able.
Their seats, when they finally reached them, were obviously supposed to be some sort of honor; they were draped in fine material that Teyla praised – albeit with more evident reluctance than usual – to their guide. Despite the gradual climb, though, they managed to be vertiginous enough that Rodney had to keep both his feet planted firmly on the floor, his hands holding tightly to the sides of his chair seat, just to prevent himself from throwing up. John seemed unmoved; but when didn't he? Rodney thought bitterly. John didn't have moods, he had varying degrees of laconic, and watching him slouch comfortably and exchange joking comments with Ronon was almost annoying enough to distract Rodney from how damned high he was.
"My people, my friends, my honored guests, I bid you welcome!"
The world spun sickeningly around Rodney as he registered quite how small the Councillor looked from here. He clung to his chair and closed his eyes, almost jumping out of his skin when John's hand – Rodney was stupidly familiar with the patterns of calluses – closed around his wrist.
"You okay, buddy?"
"Oh just peachy," Rodney gritted out, and focused his attention on the speeches, the acoustic perfection of the arena, rather than give any thought at all to where he was.
John's hand didn't move. It was embarrassingly reassuring.
" – to witness the Changing of Korvin. May his transition be easy," Councillor Perem intoned.
"And his welcome be great," the crowd around them answered, their voices flat.
"For a group that apparently tries so hard to live forever," Rodney said quietly, without opening his eyes, "I wouldn't have thought they'd be so big on an afterlife."
Any answer that might have been made was derailed by the sudden explosion of white hot flame from the central platform, where Korvin's shroud-wrapped body had been. Whatever they used for an accelerant was incredibly effective; within minutes the body had been reduced entirely to ashes. Rodney made a mental note to ask Laska about the accelerant at a time that was slightly more appropriate – or at least, slightly less likely to earn him a slap around the back of the head from John or Teyla, whichever of them reached him first.
They were still blinking away afterimages when the Councillor reappeared in the centre, holding up his arms for a silence that hadn't had the chance to get far away.
"In the fire renewed," he said, his sonorous voice echoing around the amphitheatre.
"And in the ashes reborn," was the mumbled reply. The crowd sounded even less enthused than before in this response, and Rodney was reminded of endless church services with Grandmere, Jeannie's whispered comments breathed hotly in his ear the only thing that made them vaguely bearable.
"The time has come to select those who must participate in the Ritual," came next, and oh crap, were there ever words more ominous? Even the crowd around them seemed to have been disturbed from their torpor.
"Never like it when they say that," Ronon commented.
"That's just because it's your turn," Rodney answered smugly.
"We would not ask outsiders to participate," Laska told them in a low voice coloured by shock. "It is not our way."
"Of course," John said, layering on the sincerity with a trowel. "We just have a bad track record with these things, is all."
Laska leaned over Rodney so that she could talk to John. Because obviously he was furniture, here.
"A man and a woman are chosen from amongst our own people for the Ritual. It is not with us as it is with those outside."
"A man and a woman?" Teyla asked, voice low and taut.
"You mean they're going to –" Ronon continued, a little pink along the cheekbones. Running apparently hadn't left him as much time as he could have had to find out the sorts of weird and wonderful things that people could –
"Do you have any idea how much people pay for this sort of – "
This time, if Rodney was honest, John's slap was probably warranted.
"Wow," Rodney said blankly, a few minutes later. "This is probably the least erotic thing I've ever seen." He shifted in his chair uncomfortably, the squeak of the wood loud and grating. "And I've seen some bad porn. I mean, seriously; you have no idea what becomes acceptable after months in the Siberian -"
"McKay," John said, low but perfectly audible above the complete silence of the crowd and the – the participants. "I will kill you."
"I will kill you," Teyla said from the other side of John, her tone leaving no doubt of the fact. Rodney whimpered faintly and turned to the other side.
"I'm fine," Ronon said.
After a few more minutes in which Rodney didn't really dare to comment, or even turn to the left or right – although good god did he want to – there was a sharp stuttering cry from amongst the ashes still on the central platform, and then the participants extricated themselves and dressed with solemn ceremony. It was all done mechanically, with no celebratory attitude at all; again Rodney was reminded of the churches of his childhood, which – well that was just going to affect his memories of Grandmere forever, thank you Pegasus.
"The Ritual is complete," the Councillor's ringing voice announced from below them, amplified to perfection by the arena. "The Sacrifice has been made." He leaned forward, a tiny figure without distinguishable feature, and placed his hand on the woman's abdomen. "Welcome, Korvin."
And around them, the crowd rumbled, "Your welcome is great."
"So let me get this straight," John said slowly, as the amphitheatre below them slowly emptied, "your people believe that the dead guy is somehow – brought back to life?"
"Like a phoenix," said Rodney snidely, since mythical beasts were about the same level of ridiculous – and to think he'd thought there might be something helpful he could learn from these people, instead of the usual Ancient tech and fairy stories he had to put up with.
"It is – a belief," Laska answered, with a certain amount of discomfort. "Not all of us – it is more a way of maintaining our population."
"The sacrifice," Teyla said. She was standing stiffly a small distance from them, her posture about as unfriendly as it was possible to be without actual weaponry. "The sacrifice you speak of is - having children?"
"It is most inconvenient," Laska agreed, apparently not noticing the subtle indications that Teyla was more than a little bit pissed. "The couple must leave off their work and care for a helpless being, raise it in our ways; valuable years can be lost."
"That's what I said," Rodney said, then stepped quickly behind Ronon. Teyla was beyond arm's length, but she moved fast.
Laska sighed. "But how else are we to maintain?"
"You will excuse me," Teyla said, ice in her voice, and set off down the endless coils of the amphitheatre at a near run, Ronon loping along behind her after a wordless look from John.
"Y'know, McKay, you're kind of a dick."
Rodney raised his chin, defensive and angry with himself. "Yes? But that's been true as long as you've known me, so I don't see why it's worth commenting on now."
There was an approximation of a grin on John's face, probably for Laska's benefit, but his jaw was tight.
"No. You wouldn't," he said, and headed off down the ramp after Teyla.
John found him again just when he had got himself comfortable, waiting for Laska to return with – so long as the universe didn't hate him again – permission to access their labs, energy source, and whatever this cure thing was. It honestly didn't seem worth the effort to move himself again. Instead he watched, smirking occasionally, John trying to find a patch of ground not covered with rocks, vicious tree roots, or really quite worrying fungus and when he couldn't, leaning nonchalantly against a tree trunk as though that had been what he'd intended all along.
Once John had stopped shuffling, the gentle sounds of the stream Rodney had settled beside filled the silence between them, somehow managing to be nowhere near as satisfying as the gentle lapping of the ocean at home. Rodney waited until John opened his mouth and looked ready to speak before interrupting.
"It was what my sister and I argued about."
"Yeah?" More of a monotone than usual; John hadn't forgiven him yet.
"The small parasite thing, the waste of potential thing, the inconvenience. I didn't put it exactly like that – actually, I might have put it very much like that." He frowned. "Possibly there was a little more in Jeannie's argument than I thought."
"So you agree with them."
"I – no. Not agree exactly. I just – there are certain aspects of their point of view which strike a chord."
"Not for Teyla."
"No. I see that." Rodney heaved out a breath and then scrambled to his feet. It was always easier to talk in motion. "It's just – have you any idea what these people – their archaic belief system aside, they have a pared down emotional lifestyle which just makes logical sense. Those things are distracting, they cause practically all of life's problems. I always thought the Vulcans had a point."
"'Those things?'" John used unnecessarily emphasised finger quotes. "You mean emotions?"
"Right. They're no use to anyone, as this planet proves. It's certainly the most peaceful place I've been in a long time."
"Peaceful?" John snapped, more heat in his voice than was really warranted. "It's practically in stasis."
"That's as may be. It's beside the point. I've been talking to Laska; do you realise these people have only the fuzziest of notions what 'war' might mean?"
"And where does that leave me?" John rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "I guess there could be advantages to a place this peaceful," he went on, before Rodney could speak. "Wouldn't have to spend my time worrying about you – getting your oversized head blown off."
It was the barest of hesitations, so slight that Rodney wasn't entirely sure he hadn't imagined it. That didn't stop him from reaching out, touching the fragile skin of John's wrist just below where his wristband ended.
How quickly John snatched his hand away was a slap in the face.
"Another advantage I hadn't thought of," Rodney said stiffly after a moment, deliberately abrasive. "No military. No ridiculous outdated restrictions to abide by." John looked at him, expression pained, but Rodney was on a roll. "It's actually looking more and more tempting to stay here. Imagine what I could achieve if I had that many extra years to work in."
"Maybe you should stay here," John said, his tone thick with sarcasm. "You've got the emotionally inept thing down already."
"Oh look in a mirror, Narnia boy," Rodney snarled.
John pointed at him for a couple of long, wordless seconds, his mouth working furiously. And then he just deflated.
"Maybe you're right, McKay. Maybe their way is easier." He pushed himself upright, straightening his tac vest and carefully pulling the role of team leader on like a well-worn suit. "You go find out about whatever it is that makes their technology run; I'll report back to Elizabeth."
"John, I didn't – "
"Right," Rodney said, quietly and a little hopelessly, really not sure at all precisely what they'd even been fighting about. "Right."
While Rodney had been talking to Laska and John talking to Elizabeth, Ronon had apparently found the local equivalent of the mess. It was a safe bet – either there or whatever passed for an armoury – but it wasn't as usual to see Teyla sitting beside him, pale and silent, rather than making conversation with whoever was in charge of whatever group of people they were visiting that week. And not always to apologise for what the rest of her team might have done, either; it was a natural extension of a genuine interest in people that Rodney generally couldn't work out.
Sometimes he caught glimpses of the why of it, though.
Ronon's plate was piled high but unimaginatively; Teyla was picking at the same pallid substance. The chair Rodney dragged across the floor to the table they'd chosen was the only sound in the room.
"This is what, precisely?" Rodney asked, as soon as he was settled, aiming for cheerful and falling rather short.
"They call it sustenance," Ronon told him.
Ronon grinned. "No flavour. You should like it."
Rodney took a couple of dutiful mouthfuls, then cleared his throat.
"You're – not hungry?"
"I am fine, Rodney," Teyla answered tightly. "You may finish my portion if you wish."
"No, that wasn't what I –" Rodney let out a breath and put down his cutlery. "Look, Teyla, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to –"
"My people – Understand, Rodney, that our life has not been easy."
"No, I realise that, I understand – ow!" He glared at Ronon and rubbed his leg, and Ronon stared back implacably.
"You really don't," he said.
"Ronon is correct." Teyla smiled slightly. "Although the kick was perhaps excessive." She poked at her plate again and then made a face, pushed it away violently enough that some of it slopped onto the table. "This meal illustrates my point well enough. The Athosians – Rodney, my people have fought so long and so hard to maintain everything that we are, to make our lives as good as they could possibly be while living under threat of the Wraith. We teach our children to be afraid of the Wraith, but we also teach them the parts of life that warrant celebration. We teach them the importance of family, and of love, and to find a culture that has so thoroughly rejected the pleasures that their lives can bring them –" She shook her head, apparently unable to find the words for it. "It is not children that are the sacrifice; it is every aspect of what they call 'life'."
"But the things that could be achieved with the time span these people have!" Rodney protested.
"What could they achieve? What possible drive could they have, as they are?" Teyla arched an eyebrow at him. "You do your best work, do you not, when you are angry? Or scared?"
"Or trying to prove Zelenka wrong," Ronon said.
"We are not meant to have peace like this, Rodney."
"Wow." Rodney blinked. "I never thought I would find you arguing against peace, Teyla."
"Like this?" Teyla shot a dismissive look around the large hall, the few quiet people who dotted the other tables, with their unvarying meals, and clothes, and expressions. "This peace is the opposite of war, certainly. But it is also the opposite of celebration. Of life."
"Huh." Rodney thought for a moment, his legs tucked safely behind the legs of his chair. "I hadn't thought about it like that." He looked up and met Teyla's eyes frankly. "I'm sorry, Teyla."
Rodney shrieked and almost fell out of his chair as John clapped him on the shoulder, appearing from nowhere to pull a chair up and join them.
"I guess," he said, rubbing accusingly at his chest, "that means you owe me one, Sheppard."
"I guess," John said.
This was why Rodney hated time zones. If that was even what you could call them, when it came to galactic travel. They'd left Atlantis in the reasonably early morning and arrived at the market mid-afternoon, staying until the light had started to fade. Then they'd come to this planet somewhere in the morning again (Rodney wasn't even sure which lunch he was on now) and the shadows were creeping across the floor of the lab Laska had guided him to, playing tricks on his eyes until he was having trouble focusing on the screen of his PDA. And as if that wasn't bad enough, people kept coming to bother him, asking him questions and offering him things and it was supposed to be peaceful here, dammit.
He almost threw something as the door clicked open again.
" – not going to actually bite you. At least, I'm pretty sure." John's nasal drawl echoed through the large room, and Rodney let his head fall forward onto the table. This was just exactly what he needed.
"I do not understand how I have offended her." Laska's voice was faintly curious, showing about as much emotion as these people ever did.
"It's just, y'know, the Athosians don't see the universe the same way you do. They don't think it's worth giving up so much to get a few extra years."
"You mean the Sacrifice?"
Standard issue boots squeaked on the shiny lab floor; John sounded more than a little uncomfortable.
"See, she thinks you've got wrong the part you're sacrificing. She thinks it's all the other stuff. The love, and families, and –"
"And sex?" Laska asked. Apparently even the emotionally stunted were trying to get into John's pants.
(Rodney thought about that for a second, and then scowled deeply.)
"Right," John said. Rodney pictured the way he'd be ducking his head, rubbing the back of his neck; the way his ears would slowly be flushing a deep red. He cleared his throat and looked back at his PDA.
"So for your people it is used for more than procreation?"
John coughed, sounding strangled. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm not the – er – procreation type."
"For pleasure, then."
"Not – just that." John's voice was scratchy and low, but perfectly audible. (Rodney may possibly have stopped breathing for a moment, but that wasn't something anyone needed to know.) "Not for a while, now. I guess Pegasus is getting to me."
"I am not sure I understand your people," Laska said.
"Yeah," John answered. "We get that a lot." And then there were footsteps against the noisy lab floor, and of course they were aware he was here, which just added a whole layer to the conversation that Rodney wasn't mentally equipped to deal with right now.
"You get anything, McKay?"
"Yes," he admitted, inserting the same casualness carefully into his tone. "But you're not going to like it."
"No. From what I can tell – and while that's more than anyone else could, it's still not quite enough - this so-called 'cure' is actually a synthesised version of the Wraith enzyme."
"Wraith," John said, flat and dangerous.
"Apparently so. It's – there are differences in the make up that, I presume, account for the lack of euphoria and excessive dollops of crazy that Ford experienced, but it's not something I'm qualified to examine."
"You're saying you don't understand it?"
"Dammit, John, I'm a doctor, not a doctor."
John looked at him, laughter playing at the corners of his eyes.
"You know what I mean."
"So an artificially produced Wraith enzyme that extends life but also manages to remove any and all emotions. Sound about right?"
Rodney nodded. "I'm not sure it's worth the sacrifice," he said briskly.
"This is – it is Wraith?" Laska asked, with the first approaching real emotion in her voice. "You are certain?"
"One hundred percent."
The woman paled, suddenly looking rather closer to her real age. "No. Our history books say that the cure was discovered by one of the Founders. That it had been left to us by the Ancients. You must be mistaken."
"I'm not mistaken," Rodney argued. "I've seen more Wraith technology than you've had hot and satisfying meals, although that wouldn't be saying a heck of a lot."
"Then your equipment is reading it wrong!"
"Our equipment is just fine, Laska." John's voice was sympathetic but implacable. "Looks like your history books might not be as accurate as you thought."
"I must – my father must be informed," she muttered, looking like she was going to faint. "Excuse me." She nodded to both of them and hurried out, the door sighing to a close behind her.
"Any ideas why the Wraith haven't targeted this planet then, Rodney?" John's voice was suddenly closer, the warmth of him against Rodney's left shoulder.
"I – er – that's very distracting, you know."
"Yeah, I know." A smile in John's voice. Rodney huffed out an impatient breath but made no effort to move.
"Fine. I've managed to establish that the power source they're using is Wraith at least in origin, although it's been patched up with technology mismatched enough to have disguised the power signature, that's why it took me this long to work it out. How that would affect the Wraith's feeding patterns I have absolutely no idea. We're going to have to bring a team of scientists – and apparently medics, although how much use they'll be is debatable – and look into this with the proper tools. I didn't exactly come prepared for this, it's not like I can use my PDA like a crystal ball and did you mean what you said to her?"
John stiffened against his back, and part of the reason Rodney'd asked at precisely this moment was so he didn't have to see the expression on his face. He was pretty sure he wouldn't find it particularly flattering. After a moment, though, John relaxed enough to answer.
"Guess so," he said.
"Right," Rodney said, his stomach tying itself into ridiculous knots. "Good."
"How about you, McKay?" John finally came around from behind him, resting his weight on the desk Rodney was sitting at. "You still thinking about staying here?"
"Don't be ridiculous," he snapped, and only caught John's smile from the corner of his eye.
"Right," John said. "Good."
There was nothing that needed Rodney's immediate attention, and he hadn't slept in almost two days, so once he had sufficiently threatened the lives, reputations and positions on Atlantis of the small team of scientists that Elizabeth had sent to replace them, Rodney felt comfortable enough to follow John, Teyla and Ronon back through the 'Gate.
"Rodney!" cried Zelenka, hurrying down the stairs towards them, "I am glad you have returned."
"What?" Rodney asked, struggling out of his vest with a lot less difficulty than usual, actually. "What is it now?"
"The fluctuations have not ceased; and now alarm in lab five is giving the whole department a headache."
"Aren't you supposed to be getting some rest now, McKay?"
"You'd think, Sheppard, wouldn't you." He set off after Zelenka, calling back over his shoulder, "Still, I'm told I do my best work when I'm annoyed."
And annoying it was; fiddly but dull, with just enough complexity to it that Radek - as far as he had progressed in Rodney's absence, which annoyingly eliminated the possibility of one of his more splendid rants – hadn't quite been able to finish the repair himself. By the time it was done Rodney was starving, half asleep and his eyesight was pulsing in time with the blasting of the alarm.
"You done, McKay?"
"I'm done," he answered, crawling out from under the console in the direction of John's shout, his eyes closed.
"Shouldn't that thing have shut off then?"
"I don't know," he moaned faintly, barely audible over the noise. "Don't know and don't care." Then his nose twitched. "…coffee?"
Long fingers with embarrassingly familiar calluses wrapped his fingers around an insulated cup, and Rodney inhaled with a smile on his face.
"You brought me the good stuff," he said rapturously, taking a sip that almost burned his tongue.
"Of course." John's voice, closer than it should be, and then the darkness behind Rodney's eyelids dimmed further as something blocked out the light – and his eyes flew open when soft lips brushed his own.
It was only for a second; barely that, with John's eyes flicking straight to the doorway as the alarm in the corridor cut off abruptly, the sound almost louder in its absence. Rodney licked his lips, dazed, dumbfounded (according to Rodney's painstakingly devised system John's score had leapt from early twenties to somewhere over a hundred, just now, just with that), as Ronon poked his head around the door.
"Killed the alarm," he said.
"Good work," Rodney said, distracted. And then, his mind racing to catch up, "that was a metaphor, right?"
"Right?" Rodney hollered, scrambling to his feet.
"Ronon!" Teyla, from the corridor outside.
"I'm going to kill him," Rodney told John, who was laughing at the sincerity he hadn't managed to get into his tone; much as he ought to be angry, he couldn't help but be grateful for the peace.