Most times when they walk through the gate, John’s struck by how similar one planet is to the next. Moderate climate, similar vegetation, and it always reminds him of that one summer—before the Air Force, before he’d learned to march instead of walk—he hiked alone through Washington state, where it rained for thirteen days straight. Everything he carried was soaked through and he didn’t even care that he could’ve gone with his friends for a summer in Greece.
They’d coaxed him with pictures of sun-drenched beaches and tanned (topless) women that made him breathless and hard because he was nineteen and everything was an aphrodisiac. He’d almost given in when he’d seen pictures of the Aegean Sea, blue and endless as the sky, and he imagined he could’ve gotten lost there amid the olive trees and the rippling heat and the honey-soaked sweetness of life. But he chose to go it alone on not-quite-familiar ground, intent on making his own path through the heavy dark woods of Washington, carrying a fifty-pound weight on his back, while eagles circled overheard, too far away to be more than a harsh cry against the blue. It was the last time he remembers feeling totally free.
Rodney says it’s a lot like British Columbia, except what he really says is B.C., and then John’s the one trying to explain to Teyla and Ronon how Canada has provinces and America has states, and no, they’re not really that different, and yet they are. Completely. Rodney just rolls his eyes, shushes him with a wave, and launches into a full-blown lecture on differences between Canada and the U.S. that’s so adamant and detailed, John finds himself learning things he didn’t know either: about Canada, about Rodney, about his own damn country, although he’s still not convinced Rodney’s gleeful assessment of the Canadians burning the White House in the War of 1812 is entirely accurate. John’s fairly certain the Americans burned something first, and hey, Canada wasn’t even a country yet, so technically it was the British that did it.
“Semantics,” Rodney says, and goes back to his descriptions of flames rising into the night and the cheering of Canadians over infinitely better beer.
John watches for any sign of movement, any evidence of life, and he realizes all three of them are listening attentively to Rodney as they tramp through the valley along a well-worn path—John out front, Ronon on their six, and Teyla occasionally interrupting to ask intelligent questions about geography and boundaries and regional differences.
John doesn’t know when listening to Rodney’s unique take on Canada-U.S. relations became routine, but it’s comforting, the cadence of Rodney’s voice rises and falls with every step, and John can scan the horizon, listen for signs of danger, and still get in a barb about Mounties or polar bears, and never miss a step. He and Rodney debate capital punishment and the treatment of Indians—Aboriginals, Rodney corrects—and they argue about military spending and defense policies until the mile to the nearest settlement has passed in no time at all.
The houses are empty, fires long burned down to ash, and the chaotic tangle of footprints in the fine brown earth speaks of panic and running, the whine of Darts overhead and the sudden flare of light that signals the end of all life. John walks to the edge of the village, follows a set of footsteps that stop suddenly, without warning, and he leans down and traces the shape in the dirt—a bare foot the size of his palm, perfectly proportioned, every small toe a slender curve in the dust. There, then suddenly gone, and sometimes John wishes they’d never come to this galaxy.
Ronon and Teyla are doing orderly checks of the buildings—just in case. It’s not unheard of to find survivors, although it’s more and more rare these days. People seem to expect death from above, wait for it, living their lives in measured days, and John finds himself unexpectedly angry at that and he doesn’t know why. Rodney comes up behind him, telling him there’s nothing here—no technology, no ZPM, nothing worthwhile—and John scuffs out the small footprint and says, “Yeah, I already figured that out.”
Rodney doesn’t follow him as he walks back to the centre of the square, tells the others to head back, nothing to see here, but John can feel Rodney’s eyes on him the entire time and he doesn’t say a word when John pulls a lighter from his vest and sets the thatched edges of the first hut on fire. The mile back to the gate feels a lot longer than it did on the way out, and no one mentions the smell of burning grass and the heavy grey smoke spiraling into the air behind them.
He wishes they’d brought a jumper, if for no other reason than he wants to get off this dead brown world, wants to leave it behind and sail into clear blue air, rise above the smoke and the empty huts and the memory of footprints leading into nothing. But they don’t have a jumper and there’s nothing to do but walk every step back the way they came, back to Atlantis and into the obscene brightness of the gate room, clean and bustling with the noise of dozens of people.
The smell of smoke clings to his hair and his clothes, strong enough to make Elizabeth’s welcoming smile falter as she asks, “everything okay?” and John lets Rodney stumble out an answer because John’s already heading for his room and a shower. He knows Rodney’s watching him leave, and Elizabeth’s “Rodney, what happened out there?” is the only thing that stops Rodney from following, demanding to know what’s going on, although if John’s honest, Rodney’s the one person who never needs to ask.
He puts one foot in front of the other down familiar well-trod corridors, path laid out in front of him so he doesn’t have to think. His body knows where to go. He needs a break, a drink, a decent night’s sleep, and so many things he can’t begin to name. He pulls off his earpiece and tosses it on the bathroom sink, ignores the sound of Carson telling him to report to the infirmary for a post-mission check, ignores Elizabeth’s concern that filters through while he’s stripping off his clothes.
Atlantis regulates the temperature of the water, and John has to fight to get it hotter than the standard, but when he slams a hand against the smooth tile, Atlantis gives him what he needs, water still not hot enough, but better, and he stands under the spray, lets it hit him in the face like a slap, until he hears the bathroom door open and he knows there’s nowhere on Atlantis he can go to avoid talking about this. Rodney isn’t Heightmeyer, and he’s a hell of a lot more persistent when it comes to John.
He can see Rodney’s shape through the opaque glass, blue science shirt and grey BDUs, a two-tone blur against John’s bathroom sink, and he closes his eyes against the expectation of compliance. Rodney will wait him out if he can’t berate him into talking, and John assumes they’ll have this conversation over the rush of water, a glass wall between them to deaden the sound of Rodney shouting at him, telling him he’s an idiot for caring too much, and John really should know better after all these years in an organization that prides itself on being able to do the job and walk away.
What he doesn’t expect is the smooth slide of the shower door, a moment of cold air against his skin, Rodney’s big hands on his shoulders. He still calls him an idiot, but John can’t seem to care with Rodney’s fingers pressing knowingly into the muscles of his back, swirling soap over his heat-pink skin, and stretching John’s arms out to brace against the tile. They’ve done this before—maybe a half-dozen times—and John doesn’t care that Rodney’s fingers are a bit too rough, too fast, because a little pain tells him he’s alive. When Rodney slides inside, it’s a sharp, smooth unbearable ache, but it’s only for a moment before Rodney finds the angle and John grunts in time with Rodney’s thrusts, lets his rhythm go ragged, unsteady, because sometimes it’s better when life just happens, when it isn’t planned. His fingers curl against the square white tiles, brown earth trickling from under his nails, sand flushed from the lines of his palms, and John looks down at Rodney’s clever fingers stroking John’s hard red cock, watches the spurt of cum wash down the drain as he shudders under Rodney’s touch, still shaking as Rodney bites his shoulder and comes inside him.
John leans into the wall, Rodney’s warm weight against his back, arms tight around his waist, their breathing easing into a regular rise and fall like the beat of marching feet. John stares at the shower floor, his toes pink and perfect in the swirling water, and he closes his eyes and feels his heart start to ache again because no matter how good this is, how much Rodney wants to help, it isn’t really living and it isn’t enough.
It just isn’t enough.
They stand down from off-world missions for a week, but it doesn’t change anything because John’s always been good at showing the face his superiors need to see, and Elizabeth’s a little wary of his smile, probably suspects it’s not quite true, but there really isn’t anything she can do when he’s clearly fine and ready to do his job.
It’s his job to go out there day after day, survey the damage that waking up the Wraith has caused, look for survivors. More than his job, it’s something he has to do, the penance he owes the galaxy for his screw-up in the first place, and he hates it—hates every uninhabited world that used to carry the laughter of children on the wind, hates that silence feels like an atrocity—but it’s his job to bear witness, his responsibility, and it isn’t necessary that any of them knows that, although the way Rodney looks at him these days, John’s pretty sure it isn’t a secret that he’s carrying his guilt like a fifty-pound pack.
He’s waiting for the day Rodney tells him to stop feeling guilty about things he can’t control, things that probably weren’t his fault—Sumner, the Wraith—waiting for Rodney to tell him “but look at everyone you saved,” but so far Rodney’s only given him hands and mouth and cock without words, and that was something John never expected either. John tries to tell himself that sex doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t bring with it some magic key to understanding the other person, but Rodney’s always read him better than anyone else, even before they started this silent fucking. It isn’t forgiveness, but it’s as close to comfort as John’s had in a long time, and he’ll take it because he needs it, needs something so he can keep going, put one foot in front of the other, even when there’s nothing but ashes and dust to walk on.
But he can’t tell himself it’s anything other than getting by.
Everything changes the day they walk through the gate into the warm sea-damp air of P3X-167.
“It reminds me of Greece,” Rodney says, closing his eyes and breathing deep, and John looks at him because he didn’t know Rodney had been to Greece, can’t quite picture him barefoot and bronze on a Mediterranean beach, although there’s something in Rodney’s eyes that makes him think of the Aegean, that effortless blue John remembers from photos that spelled temptation so long ago. He wonders if his life would’ve been the same if he’d chosen beach-hopping in Greece instead of hiking through the wilds of Washington. He’s never given it much thought before.
Teyla and Ronon are both looking puzzled, and John suspects the Atlantis expedition has done far more damage to the galaxy through their unrestricted spread of pop culture references than anything else when Ronon kind of growls and says “Olivia Newton-John,” and Teyla insists on an explanation for why the air reminds Rodney of animal fat. Rodney stops and sputters, looking at John for help, and John finds himself bent over laughing like he hasn’t in a long time. The look of happy surprise on Rodney’s face is warm and honest, and John thinks maybe it isn’t too late to make a different choice.
He’s shocked to hear a voice call out, “Welcome, friends! Share the happy tale with us so we might laugh as well.”
That cuts his laugh abruptly and he brings his P-90 to bear on the intruders emerging from a thicket of trees, but there’s only a small group of men and women, all with dark-hair and sun-brown skin, smiles open and kind even in the face of a weapon. They’re dressed in linen tunics and breeches, rich wine colours and radiant blues, and they’re carrying baskets balanced easily against wide hips.
“You have nothing to fear,” one woman says, spreading her palms outward, and John can see she is wearing rings on her fingers, gold catching the light of the late afternoon sun. “You look tired from your journey. Come join us. The havra have been harvested and we celebrate.”
Without waiting to see what the Atlanteans will do, the group continues down the path they were on, and John doesn’t care if they’re being led into an ambush, he wants to follow them, wants to believe these people are really this happy and it isn’t some kind of ploy to lull them into a false sense of security before dragging them off to the Wraith. John wants this to be nothing more than celebration and life; he can feel the energy radiating from them like the heat of the sun, and he can’t quite bring himself to consider the risks, the possibility that this will melt away like wax, and the fall will crush them all.
“I do not believe we are in any danger,” Teyla says, catching up to walk beside him. “I sense no Wraith here, and nothing except goodwill and generosity.” Her voice drops, a touch of wistfulness evident in her tone: “They remind me of what my people were like before—before too many cullings, before fear shaped us into something else.”
“Is it possible they don’t know about the Wraith?” John doesn’t want to be the one to tell yet another civilization that their days are numbered, that they have to trade happiness and hope for fear and hiding.
“We will ask,” Teyla says, laying a hand gently on his arm. She squeezes once, then falls back to walk with the others, Rodney’s voice hopeful with the prospects of food and friendship. The planets where that happens are far too few, and John concentrates on taking one step and then another, watching for signs of danger, letting the laughter roll off his back like rain.
They are shown to a small house, constructed of wood and rock, and John’s amazed that the whole village seems to be built like this, solid structures that speak of permanence, stability, arranged in circles that move out from a central gathering place around a communal water source. He’s used to the nomadic tents of the Athosians, animal pelts and willowy branches laced together with vegetable twine. He likes Teyla’s people, genuinely admires their ability to survive, to adapt to their surroundings, but he’s always thought of them as shadows, brown and earthy, fading into the trees in order to hide. They grow root vegetables and tubers, things that grow deep and close to the ground, that can be plucked up in a moment’s notice, or left in the ground until they return. Teyla wears leather and skins, the fabrics dark against her own dark skin, and he knows all of her people are like this. The only time they wear bright colours is when they celebrate or mourn, when there is nothing left to prevent them from stripping away the protective coverings and showing what they are underneath, when the risk is minimal.
The Tarvosians don’t seem to understand the concept, and the entire village is alive with bright colours, as if a flock of tropical birds had alighted there. Everywhere the air is full of voices and laughter, the shouts of children, and John stares out the window of the house, watching bare feet kick up clouds of dust as youngsters chase each other through the centre of the town. He swallows around the knot in his chest.
Their hostess, the woman with all the rings, brings them cool water in a blue basin and linen towels that smell like they’ve been dried in the sun. John puts one to his face and breathes in the fresh clean scent, embarrassed for a moment by Teyla’s raised eyebrow, but only until he sees Rodney’s doing the exact same thing.
“My grandparents lived in B.C.,” Rodney says, voice partly muffled by the cloth against his face, “and my parents would ship Jeannie and I out there in the summer sometimes. My grandmother hung the sheets to dry outside on a line. They smelled just like this.”
They wash away the thin layer of grime from their faces. Mira, hair pulled back with a woven band, pours them tall glasses of something that looks ominously like lemonade, and John’s throat ripples around the tart taste even as he feels a little sorry that Rodney can’t share in this. The drink is sweet and cold, and Mira’s refilling his glass without him having to ask, her scarlet dress rippling around her feet with every graceful movement.
“They’ve mastered glass blowing,” Rodney murmurs, holding the drinking glass up to catch the light from the window. John thinks he’s stumbled into heaven, even as Rodney smiles and politely asks for just water, and Mira pours it without question, pushing a plate of bread and cheese and fruit towards them, asking if there’s anything they need.
Teyla’s the one who pulls John back to reality, and he wishes they didn’t have to ask these questions.
“You have been most generous, Mira, and we are grateful,” Teyla says. “But tell me, do your people not know of the Wraith? Do you not fear them?”
John sets his glass on the table and watches Mira’s face, waits for the inevitable shadow to cross it, the moment when her happiness will fade away.
“Of course, we know the Wraith. There is not a world in this galaxy untouched by them.” She smiles at John and fills his glass again. He doesn’t understand how she can be so casual. Ronon looks skeptical too, long legs stretched out under the simple wooden table, and his hand hasn’t strayed from the gun at his side.
“But perhaps you do not know they have re-awakened?” Teyla presses, careful not to look at John. She has never said she blames him for activating the pendant that called the Wraith to her world, for killing the Keeper that woke the rest of the hives, but John knows Teyla would have gratefully died on that ship if the Wraith would have continued sleeping for at least another few generations. She would’ve considered it a noble sacrifice.
“We know,” Mira says, and gets up to refill the pitcher with water pulled from a hole in the ground. It explains the coolness, John thinks, even as her fingers make short work of slicing the small green fruits she uses for the juice, squeezing them between a levered press made from two pieces of wood. She uses a knife to cut a seam down a tall reedy plant that looks like bamboo, then stirs the water and juice with it. John can see small rivers of white pulp oozing from the seam.
“Syra,” she says, noticing his gaze. “It makes the drink sweet.”
“Do you have some kind of shield, some protection from the Wraith?” Rodney asks, shoving another piece of bread into his mouth.
“No,” Mira says, “we are as we appear. Farmers, mostly. We grow havra and draven, we make oil and wine. We raise animals for meat and clothing, grow food to trade for some of the things we cannot produce, but mainly we are self-sufficient.”
“But the Wraith—” John says, breaking off when he realizes he doesn’t know how to demand a reason for her apparent lack of concern. He doesn’t know when he started thinking people had to justify being happy.
“The Wraith will come no matter what we do,” she says, and there it is, the inevitability he’s been waiting for, but it isn’t the same somehow and he looks at her for an explanation. She smiles at him, and it’s understanding and not at all unkind. “They hunger and they seek to destroy, but that is their choice, not ours. We cannot live our lives by what they have chosen. We still need to eat and live and love one another, dance and make music and laugh. Raise our children, harvest our crops. Celebrate every day we have.”
Mira glances out the window and John can still hear the children’s voices and somewhere else the sound of music. “We have spent the day picking havra in the fields, and tonight we press it into oil. There is also the first crop of draven although the wine from their pressings will not be ready for months. Still, we always have something to celebrate with.” She is not boasting, nor is she putting on a brave face. She believes what she is telling them, the way she has chosen to live, and John feels a little of the weight slide off his shoulders.
A booming voice sounds at the window, and a deeply tanned face leans in. One of the men they had met near the gate.
“Mira, are you keeping them all to yourself?”
“You know me too well, Tavros!”
“Such a selfish woman you are!” His laughter is rich and melodious, and John rises, helping Mira settle the dishes back along the counter. “Come, come, you must learn to share! Everyone wants to meet them, and I’ll bet they’ve never had havra so fresh.”
“Havra?” Rodney asks, and Mira reaches towards a blue bowl set on a shelf above her head. When she brings it closer, they can see it’s piled high with small dark fruit, plump ovals of green and purple—Rodney’s practically drooling when he says, “oh, God, they’re olives.”
Mira laughs and nods at Rodney until he tentatively takes one and slips it into his mouth, eyes closing with satisfaction and soft murmurs of pleasure, and John’s never been a fan of olives, but right now, they’re the best-looking things he’s ever seen. They smell sweet and warm, and everything about this place feels lush and healthy … and alive.
John watches Ronon and Teyla exchange smiles, hears Mira giggle over Rodney’s obvious delight, and John breathes deep wondering how long this kind of joy can possibly last.
Elizabeth encourages them to stay and enjoy the festival. She doesn’t remind him of the forced week-off not that long ago, the lingering smell of smoke and questions he never did answer. She’s not a stupid woman.
“You deserve a night off. Check in every four hours, and see if they’re willing to trade. Perhaps we can offer them medical supplies or better agricultural methods.”
“I don’t know, Elizabeth,” John says, looking across an orchard of olive trees to the twisting grapevines beyond, “I think maybe they can teach us something.” He doesn’t entirely mean the lush fields of fruits, but it’s part of it.
Mira puts them to work helping haul tables and chairs into the square. John’s given up trying to work in the heat with his vest and all his weapons, but he’s kept his side arm and a knife, taken the bullets out of the P-90. Rodney’s down to his shirt sleeves, sweating as he helps roll promising-looking barrels towards the centre of town, and Teyla and Ronon have disappeared with Tavros to set up tents for visitors along the edge of the fields. They’ve still got their radios on and John’s insisting on half-hour check-ins just to be safe, but he hasn’t felt this relaxed on a planet in a long time, and it’s good to be working up a sweat just by moving his body in ways that don’t involve running for his life.
“So, I guess we just lucked out, arriving in time for your celebrations,” John says to a woman with straight black hair as he helps her with an overly large basket of olives.
“Oh, no,” she says. “We celebrate every night.”
John doesn’t understand and it shows on his face. She laughs at him, and pats his arm. “We work during the day—in the fields, with the animals. We all have jobs to do, but when the sun goes down, there is little that can be done, so we come together in the square.”
“Every night,” she repeats. “Some days we are more tired, there is less dancing, but mostly the children play and run until they are asleep, and we sing songs and share stories and break our fasts together.”
Together the two of them wrestle the huge basket of olives to the ground, setting it beside another group of baskets brimming with fruit.
“You will see,” the girl says. “You’ll have fun, and maybe even save me a dance.”
John smiles and watches her dash off to do something else, her blue skirt bouncing behind her like a wave, and it’s a long moment before he realizes Rodney’s standing at his elbow, not saying a word. He braces himself for the Captain Kirk comment, the warning to keep his ego in his pants, but as usual, Rodney does what he doesn’t expect.
“It makes me wish I could go back and do things differently,” he says.
“Yeah,” John agrees, thinking about Greece, about opportunity and happiness and sea-blue eyes. “Me too.”
He didn’t know Ronon could dance, but there he is in the middle of the square, sweat glistening on his bare chest, hips swaying in time to the clap of hands, exuberant music played on something with strings and the reedy voice of a pipe. He almost wishes he’d brought his guitar. This may be the only planet where his enthusiasm would actually be appreciated more than his talent, and he wonders if Tavros can teach him something uplifting instead of the sad, slow country songs he tends to play when he’s alone.
Mira is a twirling circle of red beside Ronon, not touching him, but circling him like an orbiting moon, hair unbound and wild. Teyla is dancing too, men and women surrounding her with admiring looks, as she weaves in and out with graceful steps and fluid arms, so much like when she fights, but somehow even more beautiful. There’s nothing predatory or threatening in any of the glances, just open appreciation, and John slips into an empty chair and steals an olive off Rodney’s abandoned plate.
“Everything okay at home?” Teyla calls, and John nods. He wants to ask where Rodney’s gone, knows he has no reason to be worried and no right to be jealous if he’s wandered off with one of the beautiful women who’ve been asking him to dance all night. Rodney’s been flushed with happiness since the evening began, women pulling him to his feet and into the sway of bodies, and sometimes he hears Rodney’s laughter over the music and thinks it’s a sound he doesn’t hear nearly enough. John’s had his share of offers, has worked out the stiffness in his muscles with learning new steps to strangely familiar music, and he senses that no one expects more than dancing, and that too is a relief. He sips the wine they’ve given him, and feels a warm flush rise in his cheeks as he realizes he’s happy.
There’s a small break in the music and a chorus of male voices rise into song, and Teyla comes and sits beside him, smiling and relaxed in a way he hasn’t seen her since before the Wraith came.
John gives in to the temptation to ask about Rodney, deciding to be happy for his friend no matter what happens, and follows Teyla’s finger towards the edge of the activity where a number of half-barrels have been set up in a row. Young men are pouring baskets of what look like grapes into each of the barrels.
Rodney’s balanced precariously on the edge of one of the barrels, being hoisted inside by a pair of beaming young men. Someone’s given him new clothes, deep blue linen pants that cut-off around his knees, and a blue linen shirt that matches his eyes. John feels something in his chest tighten, but it’s a good kind of ache. He finds himself standing up, and when Rodney catches his eyes, the smile that follows is pure sunlight.
“I always wanted to do this,” Rodney says, bare feet sinking into the barrel of grapes, and the young men standing beside him are laughing and trying to help him keep his balance.
“Your friend should help; it’s better with two,” one of them says, and before John can protest he’s being given new clothes, dark red, and Mira’s appeared from nowhere with a basin and a cloth to wash his feet. Then he’s hustled back to the vat where Rodney’s standing impatiently with his hands on his hips, streaks of red already staining the bottoms of his pants. John tries to argue as he’s hoisted unceremoniously over the side of the barrel, but Rodney grabs hold of his hips and John sways on the uneven mound of fruit, and they end up pressed against one another, laughing themselves hoarse as the young men wash their own feet and climb into the barrel next to theirs, trying to demonstrate how to hold each other steady and press the draven at the same time.
In the end, they wind up getting a sort of rhythm worked out, Rodney’s hands on John’s hips, and John’s hands on Rodney’s broad shoulders, almost like they’re dancing, and they move their feet up and down on the shifting wet slide of fruit, feeling it shift between their toes and under their soles, juice colouring their feet and their hastily borrowed clothes. The fruit is a pulpy mess beneath their heels before John realizes he has no idea where his gun is. He must look stricken because Mira appears and says, “your things are as you left them,” and points toward the table where Teyla and Ronon are sitting. John wishes for one night he could forget about being Colonel Sheppard and just be himself.
“Hey!” Rodney snaps his fingers in front of John’s face, forcing John to look at him, and Rodney shakes his head and says, “stop worrying, live a little,” and before John can react Rodney’s scooped a handful of the squashed fruit out of the vat and smeared it across John’s chest, under his shirt. Rodney’s looking smug, laughing hard enough to set both of them off balance, and when someone dumps another load of fruit onto their feet, it’s no surprise they both go down in a messy tumble of laughter. The Tarvosians don’t seem to care that they’re awkward and clumsy, and when they get back on their feet, clinging crazily to one another as their feet scrabble for balance, John sees Rodney’s juice-spattered face, his blue eyes, and decides he shouldn’t have to justify being happy. He reaches out with wine-red hands, grasps Rodney’s face and kisses him, ignoring the stuttered sound of surprise because it quickly gives way to Rodney’s hands fisted tightly in his shirt and an open mouth that tastes like honey and wine. John kisses him recklessly, trying to taste everything Rodney can give him, sweet and hungry, and they’re doing just fine until John overbalances and they end up covered in squashed fruit, juice streaking their faces.
“You are the worst grape-stomper ever,” Rodney chides, licking juice off John’s chin, and Tavros roars with laughter from the edge of the barrel and declares, “This wine will be even sweeter because it has been blessed with love,” and he manages to make love sound dirty and beautiful all at the same time. Mira comes and rescues them, staying a safe distance from their flailing arms even as she directs someone to help them out of the barrel—the draven are adequately stomped, or at least they’ve done as much damage as they can do, and they’re spirited off to separate huts and allowed to wash up and change into more borrowed clothes before they meet up back in the square where Tavros is telling a story about how “the best wine is always made by lovers.” Rodney flushes dark red in the firelight, and John slings an arm around his shoulders and refuses to let go.
“We have much to celebrate,” Tavros continues. “We have new friends among us, good food, music, drink! As we do with every harvest, the first pressing of the havra is something we all share in. We take pleasure from the work of so many. No matter what the future brings, what storms or darkness awaits, we have tonight, now, each other.”
John swallows and tightens his hand on Rodney’s shoulder just a little, and this time Rodney sighs and leans closer, the warmth of his side pressing against John.
“Come and join us,” Mira says, and they gather in a long line around the baskets of olives. John can see that the baskets are emptier than they were before, and he realizes now that people have been working all evening, taking turns dancing and eating and entertaining others. The draven, the grapes, have been strained and set aside to make wine; the olives have been laid between great flat stones to press them into paste, and now the paste is layered between sheets of some kind of wood or fibre, and everyone takes a turn at the press, squeezing until the oily green liquid slides into the spillway to gather in a smooth stone basin. In the flickering firelight, the oil is golden as it drips steadily into the bowls at the foot of each press.
Everyone has a turn. Ronon gets a rousing cheer as a steady stream of oil pulses out between the sheets of his press, and John grins when he sees the oil start to gather from his own turn at the machine. It’s not as much oil as Ronon managed, but John’s okay with that. Teyla seems mesmerized by the entire process, and he catches her talking to Mira about what kind of conditions they need to grow the havra and he suspects the Athosians will be planting olive trees soon. Rodney sneaks off to grab a screwdriver from his pack and manages to adjust the machine to get greater leverage, and sure, it’s partly because he wants to show up Ronon, but it’s mostly because he’s feeling good about the world and he wants to give something back to these people who’ve given them so much. John smiles proudly at him and doesn’t even tease him when Mira hugs him tightly, making him promise to teach them how to achieve the same results.
The music starts up again, and bread warm from the ovens is brought out and sliced up, fresh plates of oil brought to each table, and John dips the grainy bread into the glistening oil and thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever tasted.
“Jesus,” Rodney murmurs around a mouthful. “I think we’ve died and gone to heaven. This planet’s too good to be real.” Then suddenly he looks around as if he’s jinxed them. “Tell me it’s not too good to be real,” he whispers, and John shakes his head and answers him the only way he knows how, with oil-slick lips and hunger and kisses that say he wants this, and much, much more.
“Okay,” Rodney says, licking his lips when John pulls away, “but if this is all gone tomorrow—”
“—at least you will have had tonight,” Mira says simply, setting a small corked bottle of oil on the table in front of them. “We have learned to live in the moment. I am sure there is much we can learn from you as well, but I think this is perhaps what we do best. Living.”
She leans in and kisses Rodney on both cheeks, then moves and does the same to John.
“Thank you,” he whispers, and she smiles at him.
“I am staying with Tavros tonight. My house is your house,” she says, and John doesn’t hesitate for a moment before gathering up their things. Teyla nods at them once, and John’s so grateful he never has to explain. She’ll keep Ronon close by, keep watch over everything, and John trusts her. He can have this and not worry.
“Come on, Rodney,” he says, and he’s surprised how ragged his own voice sounds as he grabs Rodney’s hand and hauls him back to Mira’s house.
“What? What?” Rodney’s eyes are wide and blue as John pulls him inside. Mira’s left a candle burning for them on the counter, and John can see their shadows merge into one as he presses Rodney back against the wooden door and kisses him once, firm and deep and full of promises.
“I want you, want this,” John says, and it’s the first time he’s ever said it, first time he’s ever looked Rodney in the face when they’ve done this, and he sees understanding settle into Rodney’s eyes, and he nods, pulling the thin strings at the neck of his shirt.
John remembers the woven mats on the floor of the room where they washed up, takes Rodney’s hand and leads him there, lays him down gently on the soft mat, stripping away Rodney’s clothes and his own. It’s the first time he’s really looked at Rodney, seen the person who’s been there when John had nothing to offer anyone, and he’s grateful to get the chance to finally look. Pale skin stained dark purple with draven juice, swirls of hair down his chest, a thick cock nestled in a thatch of dark blond hair. He skims his fingers lightly along Rodney’s arms, down his chest, over full hips and muscular thighs, down to bare feet and back up again, enjoying the tiny shivers, the moans Rodney makes, the places where goose bumps raise beneath his fingertips.
“You’re freaking me out a little,” Rodney says, propping himself up on his elbows, but he’s smiling, and John leans in and kisses him, unhurried, lies alongside Rodney and lets his fingers map out the lines of his body. Lazy kisses that feel so familiar, even though they’ve never done this before—fucking yes, but nothing as intimate as mouths and tongues mingling with one another—and John’s skin feels like a thousand nerve endings come to life as Rodney brushes his nails lightly over John’s nipples, rubbing and flicking before tracing the rosy circles with his tongue. They kiss everywhere—hips and stomachs, the soft inside of elbows and wrists, and when John rolls Rodney onto his stomach there’s no hesitation, even though all John wants is to paint a wet stripe down the line of Rodney’s spine, let his tongue taste the hollow of his lower back, press kisses along his shoulder blades, the backs of his knees, fingers tracing the perfect curve of ass before letting his tongue linger there as well.
Rodney whimpers, pressing his hips into the mat beneath him, and John says, “can’t have that,” and rolls him back over until they’re facing. He licks his palm and reaches down to touch Rodney’s cock, letting it bounce into his hand at the first touch, rubbing his palm over the head and slicking it with pre-come, fingers sliding down the shaft and making it wetter with every stroke. He keeps up a smooth rhythm, watching Rodney’s face change in the candlelight, pleasure softening his features, and John licks his mouth until Rodney opens for him, lets John explore with clever tongue until Rodney’s back is arching off the mat, cock thrusting into his hand and John’s sucking Rodney’s tongue into his mouth with a matching rhythm. It doesn’t take long until Rodney comes hard, breathing out in great gasps of air, and John kisses him through it, his own cock hard against Rodney’s hip, waiting.
“John,” Rodney says, breathless, and they’re smiling at each other, stupidly, not unlike the way they smiled at each other when John first pushed Rodney off a balcony, and even though he wasn’t the one that fell that day, John thinks maybe they both did. He’s always wanted to fly, but he’s been just as scared of falling out of the sky, and he’s held himself back more times than he wants to admit.
“Hey,” John says, their lips soft and languid on one another. They kiss and stroke smooth skin while the light burns lower and the music and voices outside slowly begin to fade.
Rodney’s drowsing a little, satisfied smile on his face, and his fingers move lazily up John’s spine until John’s so hard he thinks he’s going to come just from Rodney’s casual strokes. It shouldn’t be this easy, John thinks. Nothing in his life has ever been easy.
“Hey, you didn’t,” Rodney murmurs, nuzzling at John’s neck, and John knows he smells like heat and a day of being in the sun because that’s what Rodney smells like. Like hard work and honest sweat, and John traces the edge of Rodney’s ear with his tongue, hands stroking the rough line of his jaw.
“I want to—” John starts, unsure how to finish it. He kisses Rodney’s throat, pressing his nose against the pulse point, feeling the beat underneath warm skin.
“I’m not objecting, John.”
John smiles, struggling with how to say it, how to find words that won’t diminish how important this time is, how it’s more than fucking. He needs Rodney to know that, and he still can’t bring himself to call it ‘making love,’—that phrase has been ruined for him by too many girlfriends in his life—but for the first time in forever he doesn’t want it to be quick and meaningless. He wants more than that, and maybe he deserves it. Maybe they both do.
“I mean, I want—Rodney, God, I just want—”
“Still not objecting.” Rodney’s touch firms up then, hands stretching down to stroke John’s cock. John groans and pushes into his hand once, twice, before forcing himself to pull back. He’s not ready for this to be over.
“God, you’re pretty, but not so much with the talking.” Rodney kisses him hard and rolls them both over until John’s got soft grass mat beneath his back, and a sticky physicist on top of him. Rodney’s not a lightweight and when he grabs John’s hands and pins them down beside his head, John can’t help but thrust up against him, sending a spike of pleasure up his spine. “Listen to me, Sheppard. I get it. I’ve always gotten it, you moron, and it doesn’t matter what you call it, or how many times we do it, or whether you look in my eyes or not, what matters is us, you and me, and that’s the only damn thing that matters.”
Rodney’s heat against his groin is making John forget what he was going to say, and Rodney keeps going. “It’s the only thing that’s ever mattered, and you should know that, so stop carrying the weight of the damn world already. Come here and fuck me.”
Rodney kisses him hard and John lifts his head off the ground trying to give back as good as he gets. Tongue sliding wet and heated into Rodney’s mouth, John shifts his hips, thrusting hard enough to destabilize Rodney’s weight, and then he’s back on top, grinding down, and it feels so good he really doesn’t want to stop.
“Come on,” Rodney says, “come on, what are you waiting for?”
A large hand swats John on the ass, and he glares and nips Rodney’s shoulder. “Stop that! I want this to be good. We haven’t—I haven’t—”
A classic eye-roll, and John wonders when he lost control of this seduction. “Oh, for God’s sakes, neither of us is a virgin, and so what if it’s been a while, grab something and fuck me already!” Rodney yells, and somewhere outside John hears laughter, and hopes to God it isn’t Teyla and Ronon. He bites at the skin on Rodney’s shoulder, sucks hard enough to bruise, and Rodney just laughs and pushes at his hair and wiggles underneath him in a way that’s more about trying to get John off than trying to get him off.
“Shut up, Rodney!”
“Fuck me!” Rodney shouts back, and man, Rodney’s voice can carry when he wants it too, and now John’s kissing him just to shut him up, laughing even as their mouths clash, teeth scraping lips and cheeks, and there’s no way he’s going to find the lube when he’s laughing like this, Rodney wiggling underneath him and making whispery little moans that sound way too dirty to be anything but fake, but they’re still having an effect on John’s cock.
“Hang on,” John says, kissing him once more as he rolls off and jogs back to the kitchen, cock bobbing with every step, and he’d feel ridiculous if he wasn’t certain the look in Rodney’s eyes is pure lust. When he kneels between Rodney’s legs and spreads his thighs, Rodney’s looking at him suspiciously, like he doesn’t really believe John’s finally going to fuck him.
“What?” Rodney says, a hand tight on John’s wrist, and John holds up the bottle of oil, grinning like the idiot Rodney calls him half the time.
“What do I look like, salad?” Rodney sounds indignant, but he’s looking at the bottle with a kind of reverent fascination, and there’s something magical about the fact that they’re responsible for that golden liquid, and the thought of drizzling it over Rodney’s skin and slicking his own cock with it suddenly seem like the best ideas John’s ever had.
“Extra virgin,” John murmurs, pulling the stopper from the bottle.
Rodney snorts, “oh, please, as if,” but he reaches out a hand and stops John from tilting the bottle. “You shouldn’t … waste it.”
John leans in, balancing on one hand, and kisses Rodney with slow precision. “Not wasting it, Rodney. Living.” He sits back on his heels and lets the golden oil drip onto his fingers. It smells like sunshine and it shimmers in the candlelight as he lets a few drops spill onto Rodney’s stomach.
“Stop that,” Rodney murmurs, but he’s breathless as John works two fingers inside him, slick with oil, and when John leans down to lick the droplets from his belly, Rodney moans and arches completely into John’s touch, relaxing around the stretching fingers until John can fit three, then four. Finally he pours a spoonful of slickness into his palm and slicks his cock, surprised by the smooth slide, how good it feels even with only the touch of his own hand.
“Oh, Jesus,” Rodney says, hips rising into the long slow slide of John’s cock, warm oil dripping down against his skin, and all John can feel is the easy push into heat. He’s sliding deeper than he’s ever thought possible, balls tight against Rodney’s ass, and it’s impossible to think about anything except how easy, how effortless this is, and Rodney’s a few strokes away from being hard again. John lets oil-slick fingers stroke the length of Rodney’s cock and Rodney’s fingers join his, soaking up the oil from John’s hands as they move together, Rodney moaning with every touch until John needs both hands back. Bracing himself against Rodney’s hips, he angles for solid, weighty thrusts, deep and long, and Rodney’s eyes are closed, head back and every sound he’s making goes straight to John’s cock until they’re both muttering breathlessly, come on, yes, come on, fuck, fuck, and Rodney yells John’s name loud enough to make him think he’s gone deaf in one ear, but John keeps thrusting, pushing as hard and fast as he can, rough and ragged and desperate for something more, wanting to crawl inside Rodney so deep he’ll never get out, and Rodney’s encouraging him, hands rubbing his own nipples and smoothing oil and semen into sweaty wine-stained skin. Those blue eyes are wild as the Aegean sea, and Rodney says John like it’s the only word that matters, voice straining even as his hips push up to meet John’s, saying “come on, fuck me, harder, harder, I know you can do better than that, fuck!” until John throws himself into one last push, knees raw and spine tensing, thighs quivering with strain, and he comes so hard he shoves them both up the mat. Rodney’s griping about grass burns on his ass, but his arms are wrapped around John’s waist like he’ll never let go.
John thinks he might’ve broken something with that last thrust.
“You okay?” Rodney murmurs, mouth against his ear, and John can feel Rodney stretching and unstretching his legs. Something pops ominously and John thinks maybe they should both remember they’re closer to forty than twenty and no matter how good this is, they’re going to be paying for it in the morning. He thinks he can live with that, though.
“Yeah, I’m good,” John says against Rodney’s chest, sweaty and tired, and he can feel a muscle in his thigh spasming as he lifts himself off and rolls onto his side. “You?”
“Good doesn’t begin to describe it.”
John can hear the smile in the exhaustion, and yeah, that’s about right. He’s had good, great even, but this is something completely different, more than he ever hoped for, and he thinks, finally, maybe it’s enough.
“We’re going to have to think of something to tell Carson before our medicals,” Rodney says, easing onto his side with a groan. “I’ve got bruises on my hips, bite marks on my shoulder, and I’m pretty sure you rearranged some internal organs with that last thrust.”
That sobers John up quickly enough. He’s half-way to a sitting position, “are you okay?” already rolling out of his mouth when Rodney whaps him on the chest and pushes him back down.
“That wasn’t a criticism. I’m just saying, Carson’s going to notice if he does a complete, and I should know what to tell him. I’m okay with lying, John,” Rodney says, and it’s clear he’s already accepted that’s the likely consequence of continuing this relationship. “I just need to know what you want me to do.”
John tucks Rodney’s cast-off shirt under his head like a makeshift pillow, and rolls over to face him. He slides one finger across Rodney’s bottom lip, making it shine with oil. “Tell him the truth.”
Rodney raises an eyebrow, and John’s pretty sure he’s only started doing that since they’ve known one another. “That we were overcome by the lustful nature of the olive harvest?”
“That you always wanted to go to Greece and missed your chance to seduce a beautiful young man by the sea, so you opted for me instead?”
John grins at him, wondering how Rodney would feel if he realized there was an element of truth in that, and says “yes.” Someday he’ll tell him, when he’s sure Rodney will understand he’s not the consolation prize, or any kind of second choice.
“Or that sometimes we fuck because it’s nice to know we’re both alive, and—” Rodney’s eyes are focused on the ceiling, and John refuses to let anything spoil this moment for either of them.
“No,” he says, shaking his head firmly. He reaches out and cups Rodney’s jaw with one hand, ignores the defiant little chin thrust, and runs a finger along the line of stubble. “The truth, Rodney.”
“That we’ve decided to live?” Rodney whispers, and John leans in to kiss him the way he’s always been afraid to, eyes open and deliberate, face hiding nothing at all.
“Yes,” he says, and he knows it’s absolutely true. “Yes.”