John meets Ronnie Dexter hitchhiking up to a direct action camp in West Virginia. John's been on the road for four days, and he feels like his t-shirt could stand up by itself.
"Hop in," Ronnie rumbles. John shoots a dubious glance at Ronnie's biceps and has second thoughts about getting in his battered white pickup, but rides are pretty scarce in this part of the country, so he slings his backpack into the back and climbs into the cab.
It turns out they're going to the same place. "Yeah, the hippies up on the old Clairmore land?" Ronnie says, gesturing. Ronnie has short hair and is wearing camouflage pants and a wrestling shirt. "I'm headed up there myself. Got some stuff from down in town for 'em."
John is silent. One thing he's learned hitchhiking is that it doesn't take much to get someone's life story, once you're in their car.
"Your first time up here?" Ronnie says, shooting him a curious glance.
"Well, you'll see soon enough." Ronnie wheels the truck round a sharp pinturn and there it is, plain as day, stretched out in front of them.
"Jesus." John says, clutching at his pack. "It's like -"
"Like someone chopped the top off the mountain." Ronnie says. "Yep." and they drive in silence for a while. The mountain goes up and up and then - stops. Bare rock plain. No more hillside. In the distance, John hears the low rumble of machinery.
The truck rattles along, on narrow little roads with big headless hills to either side. "Almost there," Ronnie says, as they pass a gas station. The station - an old-fashioned little grocery with a torn red awning - is boarded up, the front windows covered with plywood. A sign out front says "Sateda, West Virginia".
"I'm from here," Ronnie says as they turn off the paved road. "Whole family, couple generations back. When they started bringing the mountain down, people started moving." He has been smoking a cigarette, and stubs it out against the dashboard. "Most of 'em after the flooding. All that rock's gotta go somewhere. Fill up the valley with coal shit, first good rainstorm floods you out. Crap you wouldn't believe in that water."
John's stomach lurches as they go over a bump and he puts a hand to the dashboard.
Ronnie glances at him, grins a little. "What about you? College boy?"
"Dropout." John answers. They've passed into a narrow valley, the tall green hills to either side shielding them from the scarred earth just beyond. "I was an army brat, I guess." John keeps his eyes out the window when he says it.
"No shit?" Ronnie has one hand on the steering wheel, navigating the dips and turns of the road with an ease that makes John's belly clench again. "Two cousins of mine're in the infantry. One in the marines." He makes yet another turn onto yet another gravel road. "None of them still from here, though." He grimaces at the boarded-up buildings they rattle past, old white farmhouses with broken windows, rusted-out trailers with trees growing through the roofs. "I'm the only one of 'em that stayed."
John nods, watching out the window as the empty town rolls by.
The camp is set up in the hollow of the valley, a ragtag bunch of tents and camper vans and a camp kitchen with two solar panels sticking up like antennae. Ronnie slings two sacks of vegetables over his shoulder and heads towards the kitchen; John picks up a milk crate and heads after him.
"Jello mix?" he asks, handing the crate of bright little boxes to the pink-haired woman in the ripped Carhartts who leaves off wrestling with the propane tank to accept their offerings.
"Dumpster food." Ronnie answers, fiddling with the stove.
"From the supermarket down in Manning. Or behind it, anyway. Hope you're not vegan." the woman says, taking a big stainless-steel pot down from the top kitchen shelf.
"Not when it's free." He sticks out his hand. "I'm John, I emailed Lorna down at the office about coming up -"
"Yeah." She balances the pot on one hip and returns the handshake. "From Willamette. Good to meet you."
They feed him red jello and black beans and baked potatoes, twenty kids in dirty clothes eating off battered plastic plates around the campfire. John rolls his eyes when the banjos come out, but he's had a couple of beers and it feels good, sitting by a fire in the cool mountain night. He watches Ronnie flirt with Crow - that's what pink-hair calls herself - and when Ronnie glances up and meets his eyes they grin at each other, conspiratorially. John takes another pull of beer and watches the sparks go up into the night.
John's not with the Sateda Direct Action Camp. Neither is Ronnie. This is important, because four nights later, black bandannas over their faces and monkey wrenches in their belts, they go up to the new mining plateau, and climb impatient over the dinosaur hulks of the machines in the night. The bulldozers are the size of houses; the shovels on the excavators are the size of pickup trucks. John doesn't see how anything they do can possibly hurt a machine this size, but when Ronnie finally comes slithering down the metal engine housing, he's got a grin on his face.
"That felt good," he says, peeling off a glove. And then he bends and picks up a rock, lobs it up into the air towards the empty driver's cab. The tinkle of glass is loud, too loud, echoing in the bare rock plain around them.
"Fuck you!" Ronnie yells, lobbing another rock. "Fuck you all to hell!"
John is frozen for a moment, and then he grabs Ronnie's arm. "C'mon." he says, pulling the man towards their truck. There's no one around to hear them, no security guard - there sure will be tomorrow - but Ronnie's voice echoes, and echoes, and echoes on the bare rock in the dark.
When they get back to the camp Crow is still sitting up by the fire. When the truck lurches into camp, she gets up to greet them. She hugs John wordlessly, and hands him her hip flask, and then takes Ronnie's hand and leads him away towards her tent.
John leaves the next day. It's really better for one of them to go, after a stunt like that, and he hopes - as he holds up his thumb by the highway Crow dropped him at - that Ronnie will be okay. That they all will.
The next time he sees Ronnie, at a conference in Tennessee five months later, the Sateda camp has been closed down after extended legal action.
"On accounts of we were squatting." Crow says. She's dyed her hair brown, and is wearing a cardigan. "Not for anything else." It's kind of her.
The mountain they were on is gone now too, he learns that afternoon. Ronnie has turned quiet, and started to grow his hair out. He asks John to call him Ronon.
Rodney McKay is an annoying little man - an economics major - who comes into the food co-op where John works with an armful of copies of the Campus Progressive Review and somehow never leaves.
He joins the co-op for the discount - "Neoliberalism's inadequate recognition of the value of pure academia," he mutters as he fills out the applications - and proceeds to make member meetings hell from that point forward. Rodney hasn't just read up on consensus procedure, Rodney has read more than anyone else on consensus procedure, and no one can get five words out without Rodney raising his hand and calling "point of order!" into the center of the circle. John kind of hates him, and cringes when he talks. But one day the back freezer breaks while Rodney's in the store, and in the thirty minutes Rodney spends under the refrigeration unit, snapping his fingers and calling out for tools, John figures out that he's a pretty good guy to have around. They convert the back generator to biodiesel the next day, and then Rodney starts fixing everyone's bikes and puts a solar panel on the roof. By the time Rodney starts coming around for a beer with the staff after the store closes, he's kind of grown on everyone. Or maybe just on John. Either way, when Rodney shows up and starts to talk about labor economics while John is stocking shelves, John hums and nods along. He's a little disturbed to find that he agrees, especially since Rodney is too busy discussing the fate of the proletariat to help him haul the heavy boxes.
By the next summer, evening beers with the staff have turned into political ranting hour, and the sentence of doom - why don't we do something about it? - has been uttered. John sighs and lists Thursday night direct action meetings in the co-op newsletter. The meetings are attended by people John knows, college students and 'full-time activists', i.e. waiters from around town. Some of them can even out-rant Rodney. John's been plenty busy - arrested and released at Oak Ridge in July and Fort Benning in November, on the staff of the Organized Resistance Summit in February, the Matolle River treesits in the spring - but he keeps his mouth shut in meetings. Rodney, on the other hand, glows. He waves his hands, and scribbles things on the back of pizza boxes. Rodney brings up obscure Russian philosophers. Rodney tries to make them read Empire and impugns the intelligence of the group when they do not cooperate. John thinks, watching him, that this is the best time the guy's had at anything all week.
Teyla scares the shit out of all of them when she first shows up at a meeting, because she's come straight from work - at the Lanta County Center for Environmental Law - and she is wearing a suit. Her hair is not just clean but styled, and she's got mascara on. In fact - John thinks, sniffing the air - she smells faintly of roses. She sits with great composure in the meeting room's only real chair, and listens without speaking. The next day, no matter how many campus Wiccans vouch for her, a sizable number of people are convinced she's from the FBI.
"Would the FBI really send someone in a suit?" asks Rodney dismissively, as he drops off this week's copies of the Campus Progressive. Only three copies are missing from last week's stack, but Rodney puts out twenty new ones anyway. "I mean, I doubt their competence as much as the next hippie, but that's a little much even for them." Rodney seems to enjoy thumbing his nose at the very important distinction between dirty kids in patchwork pants and dirty kids in black carhartts. He calls John a hippie, he calls random co-op shoppers hippies, he even calls himself a hippie, which John thinks is going a little far for a balding graduate student in an argyle sweater. It's started some arguments, but Rodney lives for arguments, and John rolls his eyes and turns away.
Ronon comes through town in his rattling white pickup, which now has a camper on the back, and he sleeps on the couch in John's two-room apartment. He comes out to have a beer with John's friends, in the grubby little bar across the street from the store. Someone's invited Teyla along. She sits beside Ronon at a rickety bar table, in a t-shirt and jeans for once. John is listening to Rodney verbally eviscerate his professors' textbook choices and can't hear what they're saying, but Ronon's telling a story, his face solemn, his head lowered and still a little bristly with the newness of his dreadlocks. He raises his head, says something into the air between him and Teyla. Teyla's eyes flash. John feels like he's just learned something about her, seeing that.
Everyone knows when a big protest is coming up, just like everyone knows when Thanksgiving is. But when it comes right down to it, only four people from the co-op volunteer.
"You, Teyla?" John asks when she raises her hand in the meeting.
"I was in Mumbai last year." she answers, raising her chin a little. "And Puerto Vallerto the year before that. With the Blue River Block, with Mirim Hartshell."
John knows his big name protesters and tries not to be impressed. "All right." he says. "Teyla's in." Ronon is going, of course, and Rodney tentatively signs on once they discover that the trade summit they're protesting just happens to be over fall break. "This is a nonviolent protest," he says, and Ronon nods, and Rodney clutches his copy of Gene Sharp to his chest.
They argue about how to get there - Teyla can afford to fly, and John wants to hop trains.
"If you want to lose a leg, maybe," Rodney splutters.
"Come on," John says. "Easy as jumping over a puddle."
"You just like things that go fast," Rodney huffs. John passes by him on his bicycle all the time in town; Rodney likes to yell, "Get a helmet!" out of the window of his battered Subaru compact.
In the end, they decide on the Subaru compact, to Rodney's dismay. Rodney prints long packing lists - "But what flavor of Maalox?" he protests when they get to the 'pepper spray treatment' section. "And what kind of vinegar? Are there no double-blind studies of this anywhere?" The day comes; they load the back with canned goods and camping gear and head out.
It's two days south, and it's like every car trip John's taken since he quit school, eating out of the trunk and sleeping on the lawns of filling stations. Rodney's trick is to keep a jar of peanut butter in his backpack and eat it with a spoon at mealtime; Ronon unpacks the camping stove and makes tomato bean stew, and they sop it up with bread from a Panera's dumpster. They talk about their childhoods. They find out Teyla went to Columbia Law. They argue over the cd player. "Johnny Cash!" John insists. Rodney has a serious thing for Ani DiFranco, and after the third run-through of Fellow Worker - and Ronon's attempt to make them like Against Me! - Teyla seizes control of the cd player and puts on Dances of Universal Peace until they shut up about it.
They crash out on a lawn, sleeping in the open air in the orange light of a streetlamp, cars whizzing past on the highway beyond the gas station fence. John wakes up at first light, to make sure they're out of there before anyone catches them. He looks at his three traveling companions, lumps in their sleeping bags, and feels a weird sort of affection. Then he starts up the car and puts in Ronon's best punk cd to jolt them awake.
Neither Teyla nor Rodney slept well (though Rodney lets them know a lot more often than Teyla does), so Ronon and John take turns driving the second leg. Rodney made a run on terrible gas-station coffee, but halfway through the morning he's asleep, Teyla's asleep on his shoulder, and Ronon's sacked out against the window. John grins, and turns the music down, and they speed on through the rolling farmland.
They make the city by mid-afternoon. It's already eerily quiet, cop cars at every corner. "From all over the state," Teyla says calmly. She has been following the news assiduously. "Nine million dollars for security over the next four days."
"Looks like they're going to use it," Ronon replies, peering out the window. From this far out they can see a police helicopter looping over the towers of downtown.
"Never mind that," Rodney snaps, map open in his lap. "The question is where we are, not where they are. Has anyone seen a street sign in the last, I don't know, ten blocks?"
Protest headquarters is like every other protest headquarters John's ever been in, a dingy warehouse in a bad part of town with a field kitchen in the parking lot and a row of internet terminals in the front office. There's one bathroom for eight hundred people. There is a circle of women drumming in a corner, teenagers painting banners with tempra paint, and a harried man with a clipboard directing a group of people carrying a ten-foot-tall puppet through the door. Teyla cries out a greeting to a solidly-built woman with many necklaces and goes to hug her; Ronon ducks back out, headed for the kitchen tent.
"So," Rodney says awkwardly. He shifts from one foot to the other. "You've done this thing before, right?"
John looks around, absorbing the smell of dirt and people and paint and oil. "Not since the trade summit two years ago," he replies. "The big one." He isn't looking at Rodney when he says it.
"None since?" Rodney asks. His voice is suspiciously sympathetic. John fingers his wristband and exhales, pushing the familiar paint-dirt-sweat smell of the convergence center out of his lungs.
"Come meet Elk!" Teyla calls, bringing the woman over to them. John snaps back to the present, and reaches out a hand, is swept into a powerful, lavender-scented embrace.
They sleep that night on a church floor, after another meal of beans and tomatoes in the kitchen tent. Teyla goes off with the pagans for dinner in a real restaurant, and Rodney complains about nonfat vegans and finishes John's plate too. Ronon is already back in the kitchen chopping celery, talking to a woman with eggplants tattooed up her arms. He's got a smug grin on his face by the time he comes out to eat with them. "She likes my hair," he says as he thuds down on the bench.
"Everyone here likes your hair," Rodney says, rolling his eyes. "This is your hair's natural habitat."
Ronon grins, tearing off a hunk of bread with his teeth, and looks back at Eggplant Lady. She's hefting crates out of the back of a parked semi truck; John notes, incuriously, that she has prodigious biceps. By the time Teyla comes back - with leftovers in a tupperware - he's ready to be out of there, away from the thrum of the refrigerator truck and the incessant smoke from the Black Bloc bonfire. Ronon and Rodney squabble over the leftovers on the train back out to the church; John and Teyla are quiet, looking out at the city. Shops are already boarded up, and there are high metal mesh fences around the central business district. There's a private security guard in their train car, and John shifts, aware of his own griminess, wishing Teyla had thought to sit with Rodney, away from Ronon's suspicious hair. Maybe they should get the guy a hat.
The church is dark, people already asleep all over the sanctuary floor. Ronon flops straight down on his mat and starts to snore; Teyla takes off her shoes and goes to meditate in a corner. Rodney and John put their sleeping bags down next to each other's, and lie whispering in the dark.
"I don't want to get arrested," Rodney murmurs, his eyes a pale reflection of streetlight. "I have student loans."
"We'll be careful," John promises, shifting the spare sweatshirt he's using as a pillow.
Rodney blinks at him in the dark. "What was it like?" he asks. "The big one, two years ago."
John is silent for a moment. "Noisy," he says. Like the whole world had broken open, he thinks.
The next day is all trainings and meetings. They designate Teyla for the meetings, which she accepts gracefully, inclining her head like it's an honor and not a huge chore. John makes Rodney and Ronon come to the nonviolence trainings in the warehouse with him. Rodney, it turns out, is really really good at making himself too heavy to drag away, and really really bad at practicing verbal nonviolence when someone's trying to drag him away. John already knows these drills in his bones: how to sit with all his weight under him, his face quiet and calm. And Ronon gets it, John sees, understands it in body, though John is still worried about putting someone that big and intimidating in front of a riot cop.
"Ow! Ow! My arm!" Rodney yelps, and his training partner, who is supposed to be playing the arresting officer, backs away, abashed.
"Rodney." John goes and kneels by him. "You don't have to do this, you know. There're plenty of things you can do from here - you can work on the legal hotline, you can help the medics -"
Rodney rubs his elbow, his blue eyes wide. "No," he says, "no, let me try it again."
John pauses, and then pats him on the back. "Okay," he says. "Just - deep breaths, okay?"
Ronon is watching them from the side of the room. "You're really going to take him out there?"
"He wants to do it," John says, leaning against the wall beside them. "Better with us than alone."
Ronon looks sideways at him. "I'm buddying up with Teyla. That okay?"
John watches as Rodney gets a fresh group of volunteers to haul him away, mouth firmly shut this time. "Yeah," he says to Ronon, "your call."
That afternoon they go back to the church to get their gear and move to the staging site, a motel room close to town. Teyla has negotiated them a place with some of her friends.
"Is it those Wiccans?" Rodney asks, dubious. "Because just so we're clear, I'm an atheist."
"I would expect nothing less from you," Teyla replies, smiling sweetly. It is even harder to navigate the city today; more and more roads are blocked off, and if anything it's even more eerily quiet than before. Except - John looks up, hearing a thrum in the distance through the open window - yes, there they are, the black helicopters circling above the downtown skyline. He sighs, glad Teyla, the respectable-looking one, is driving.
Rodney is looking too. "You think those are news helicopters?"
Ronon grins in that disconcerting, teeth-baring way. "One of them is."
"They are just surveillance," Teyla says from the driver's seat. "Do not let them worry you."
There's a sort of creeping tension at headquarters, no matter how much Teyla tries to convince them to visualize against it. The building is absolutely packed with last-minute arrivals, the kids who came in on the morning trains, dirty young people in dyed-black rags and co-op boys with bright hair and brighter tattoos and fresh-faced organizers in button-front shirts and square glasses. Teyla goes, calmly, to sit in the meeting circle, where a man in a black hoodie and a woman in a broomstick skirt are arguing over a city map. John listens to them for a moment: the pacifists and the anarchists, the Catholics, the Wiccans, the union reps, the Women for Democracy, arguing tactics slowly, heatedly, and courteously, sitting crosslegged on a concrete floor. He turns away from the circle and goes outside, where the trainhoppers, their faces covered with bandannas in deference to the news crew by the gate, are smoking hand-rolled cigarettes around their oil-drum fire. Rodney is in the internet center, and Ronon is cooking, probably, or off with Eggplant Girl anyway, and so John sits out there until dusk, when the helicopter roaring close overhead turns its spotlight on the courtyard. It's like a bad prison movie, the ceaseless spotlight shining down on them, and he is relieved when Teyla finally emerges with Rodney in tow.
"I believe I would like to go back to the hotel," she says briefly. It's been hours, and there are circles under her eyes. "And we should talk, before tomorrow."
They sit in a circle on the hotel room balcony, knee to knee, their kits open before them. It's a ritual of John's, going through his bag the night before a street protest - eye wash, bandannas in baggies of vinegar, bottled water, power bars. A flashlight. Some duct tape. Rodney has packed and repacked his, and Teyla has settled her gear with the ease of long practice. Then there is the second ritual, after the kits are stowed away: the setting of limits.
"By marching with the Blue River Block, we agree not to commit any sort of willful property damage," Teyla says. "We discussed this before, but if anyone has concerns about that, now is when we need to know."
There is silence. John feels Ronon, a great solid bulk beside him, and reaches out and squeezes his shoulder.
"We will stay nonviolent," Teyla adds. "And if any of us are having trouble sticking to that, we agree to disengage from the protest. For everyone's safety."
"We wouldn't stop the meetings either way," Ronon says darkly. "They've been behind that fence for days now, all of them."
"So we'll go right up to the fence," John answers. "And try real hard to let them know we're pissed. Within limits." He wraps his other hand around Rodney's shoulder, the four of them in a circle in the bright air of the city. "And try not to get Mr. McKay here arrested. Okay?"
They sleep in a row on the floor, since all the surfaces are already covered with wiccans. One of the women, sharp-faced, with-chin length brown hair, sits by Rodney and rubs chamomile oil onto his wrists to help him sleep. He grumbles a bit about his headache and then subsides. John grins at her, thanking her silently, and she pats Rodney's hand and smiles back. John doesn't expect to sleep, but Teyla is solid on one side of him and Ronon's on the other, and just before he drifts off he hears Rodney's breath turn snuffly, and then slow. He drifts into the dark with them breathing around him, feeling a strange sense of safety against the thud of the helicopter outside.
Morning dawns bright and blue and terrifying. The trains aren't running; the Blue Rivers run a van downtown, and drop them in a street blocks from the fence. The street is a swirl of color - the pink of the feminists and radical queers, the green of the Eco Block, the yellow of the unions. And everywhere, threaded among them, are the kids in black hoodies, t-shirts tied over their faces. John is wearing blue, like the people he's marching with, and he glances at the nearest cluster of raggedy masked teenagers and fingers his wristband again.
"Okay?" Rodney asks, coming up beside him.
John remembers exactly how you tie a t-shirt to make a mask. John remembers, suddenly, Hollister's hard, bright eyes peering at him, and Hollister's arm around his shoulder in the street. Rodney is pale, his mouth pulled nervously to the side. John lifts an eyebrow back.
'We're going to head up Mendson Avenue towards the fence," Rodney shouts in his ear. Already the drummers have started, and John can feel it in the ground under his feet.
John nods. "Got your gear?" he says in Rodney's ear, and Rodney pats his messenger bag.
"Okay." John grins. "Let's do this thing."
They step out into the carless city.
John's got a high tolerance for drums and chanting, thank god, because the Blue Bloc are chanters. He's always been good at this part, the part where the crowd worms and sways and spirals down the blocked-off roads, music bright in the air around them. It's not something he expected, the first time: he's a loner, and yet it's like being one person with two hundred feet, and it feels good. When Teyla catches his hand and draws him into the dance, he goes with her, laughing, Rodney complaining beside him. And for a little while it's perfect, the dance and the drums and the high, strong protest songs while the buzzards and the helicopters wheel over the overpass above them. There is no one to see them - the office buildings are empty, the stores are closed - but they are dancing in the streets in the city, and it feels right. He tightens his hand in Rodney's, and feels Rodney squeeze back.
It breaks, of course. It has always been going to break, the circle flying open. Someone touches the fence, or gets too close to the fence, or one of the people in riot gear behind the fence gets skittish. It is the loudest sound John has ever heard, every time, the bang that breaks out across the crowd, and then there are thick trails of smoke in the air. "Tear gas!" someone yells, unnecessarily. John's eyes start to burn. Beside him Rodney is turning red, and probably starting to panic, and John pulls his bandanna up across his own face, slaps his spare across Rodney's mouth. Rodney's eyes widen, and then he sucks a breath in, and in again, and raises his hands to tie the cloth.
When John was a teenager, an angry kid in black pants, a woman at a protest once told him, remember, you can still breathe. You might not want to, but you can. How could he have forgotten this? he wonders, as his heart pounds, as his throat tries to close. The gas stings like he's rubbed hot sauce into his eyes; when he breathes in his mouth is full of vinegar. The unceasing beat of the drums behind him is matched by the clatter of riot shields in front of him.
"You can breathe!" he yells in Rodney's ear. Rodney nods, grabs for his hand. They head for the sidewalk, and John looks for Teyla and Ronon, who are following close behind him. By the time they make it to the clear pavement someone's called the all-clear, and John pulls his bandanna down from his face. It's only then that he realizes he's laughing.
Rodney is shaking like a leaf. "Are you insane?" he hisses, eyes still tearing. "I think you enjoyed that!"
John slings an arm around Rodney's shoulders and pulls his bandanna down too. Ronon and Teyla are rinsing their mouths with water, spitting on the curb, but Ronon gives John the thumbs-up, and he turns back to Rodney. "You can sit this next part out, you know," he says. "Teyla's going to get out of here if things get too hot. Ronon and I can stay."
Rodney shakes his head, though he's leaning into John's arm like he needs the support. "I'm staying," he says.
"Rodney." Teyla's with them now. Her hair is up and she's wearing a t-shirt with a panda on it. Her bandanna is tie-dyed. "There is no shame in protecting yourself."
"No." Rodney straightens up. "I'm staying."
Teyla pats him on the shoulder and goes back to Ronon, and Rodney and John re-wet their bandannas and wait for something to happen.
Soon there's the clatter of cop feet, and people are calling to them to come form the line to hold the plaza. Sure, the plaza, John thinks, looking dubiously at Rodney, but Rodney grabs his hand and goes, and they join the press of people. The beetle black riot cops with their riot shields and their riot helmets are in front of them, a line four deep, and John takes a moment to feel bad for them, in that heavy gear on a day like today with a bunch of kids chanting slogans at them. He works on that. It doesn't help. He sees the first girl fall, a slight teenager in a blue bandanna, her hands over her face - taser? he wonders, stepping a little in front of Rodney. And then he sees the clear stream of pepper spray, hanging like a line of glass in the air, and then his entire body is on fire.
He should be better at this, he thinks blindly, feeling people press up in front of him to take his place in the line. Rodney is tugging at him, his voice low at his shoulder.
"Come on, we'll find a medic, we'll get your eyes washed, you'll be okay. God, John, this stuff really stings." Rodney's hand is broad and heavy on his arm; the street is black around him, and he barely finds his feet, hearing the boom and pulse of the crowd all around them.
And then there's the blessed cool of a water bottle, and the chalky smell of maalox. He panics, his eyes still closed, and scrabbles at the hands holding him. "Rodney?" he calls. "Rodney! Are you okay?"
"Hey." One of the hands on him tightens. "I'm here. I'm fine."
The medic, all latex gloves and efficiency, swabs a dry cloth across John's face and John can see again. The side of Rodney's face is red, and one eye is squinty, but he's looking back at John as the medic swabs his face with mineral oil and alcohol.
"Rodney -" John starts again, and then spits on the ground, pepper spray burning at his lips.
"There you are!" the medic says in an improbable Scottish brogue. There is a black cross on his red hoodie, and he smiles at them over his bandanna. "Be careful out there." And then he is gone.
John wraps his arms around Rodney's shoulders again, careful not to touch skin to pepper-spray-soaked cloth. "First time they get you is always the worst," he says. "You'll be okay."
"Never mind me, I was behind you," Rodney blurts, his voice muffled.
John looks around for Teyla and Ronon - there they are, well-back in the crowd. Teyla's cheeks bear the telltale tracks of eyewash, but Ronon waves at him, and grins. "Well," John says, turning back to Rodney, "that's one meaning of solidarity." Rodney laughs, hollowly, and they go back to the line.
It's a strange dance they do all morning - five feet this way, six feet that way, but the cops aren't out to arrest anyone yet, and it's clear no one's getting near the fence for a while, and so they get through the morning with a few more applications of vinegar to their bandannas and no real trauma.
"We're breaking for lunch?" Rodney asks, incredulous.
"Riot gear is heavy, Rodney," John answers. Rodney sputters. "And we agreed with the scheduled marchers to let the air clear out before they got started. Tear gas is bad for senior citizens holding signs."
They eat lunch in a little sandwich shop, served by a single unbudgeable woman who wants them to know that everyone told her not to come in to work today because of the protesters. "Protesters've gotta eat!" she says, showing them the half-empty refrigerator. "Protesters eat like it's going out of style." John laughs, and orders the fries, and relearns to eat with traces of pepper spray on his hands: carefully, and with a fork.
Rodney is watching him. "No, really," he says, finally, after he's downed a milkshake and most of John's sandwich. "What was it like? Two years ago, the big protest."
John glances around. "This is really not the time to talk about it, Rodney."
Rodney snorts. "Like there're undercover cops in the sandwich shop?"
"Yeah, and then they'll arrest me, and you'll wonder why we had to have this little chat." John spears another fry with his fork. "I was young. It was big. It was actually in the newspapers, so you probably know more about it than I do."
"Did you notice how there weren't any riot cops in front of the Starbucks this morning?" Rodney asks. They'd passed a big, wide Starbucks window on the way up Mendson, a single glass window with all the shops around it shuttered and boarded up.
John snorts. "It was kind of obvious, wasn't it?" He could see it in his head when he passed it, the cascade of falling glass, the sound of the burglar alarm. He'd been sort of glad Rodney and Teyla were on either side of him, right then.
Teyla sits down beside them, with some sort of chicken-and-lettuce thing on her tray. "This cafe seems to be sold out of menu items." she says, twisting the top off a bottle of soda. "It is lucky I am flexible." She takes a long sip, and John is suddenly faintly sorry he's boycotting Coca-Cola products.
"Are you marching this afternoon?"
"Do they have a sign I can carry that says 'my years and years of research say this is a really terrible plan?'" Rodney asks. "No? I might sit it out."
"C'mon." Ronnie - Ronon, John corrects himself - is holding an entirely predictable burger when he sits down. "It'll be fun. You march a little, you yell a little, without the tear gas. For a while, at least."
Rodney sighs, and they go. John holds a sign. He dislikes permitted marches as much as he loves protests. They feel futile. John hates futile. No one is on the street except protesters; the buildings around them are empty, except for security, and a few brave souls who made the early commute. There aren't even any news crews, not when it's a civil gathering with no chance for exciting footage. Still, Teyla is happy to be there with her friends from the Blue River. Rodney walks beside him, rolling his eyes at the sillier chants; Ronon is to their other side, and John walks in the middle of the heaving crowd, holding his sign. His feet hurt. He looks around again at the boarded-up buildings; at least he's getting a good look at downtown. And he'll be in the official headcount, maybe. He supposes that counts for something.
The march peters out back at the plaza, with some rapid-fire speeches, and then the retirees hop back on their bus and speed out of there as fast as they can go. The cops are tired and sweaty and have a look in their eye, a look that makes John remember stories about Air Force amphetamines from his childhood living on base. He grips Teyla's hand on one side, and Rodney's on the other, and they step into the plaza, again.
It's bad. It's really bad. Within thirty minutes the air is a persistent cloud of tear gas, thick and yellow over the plaza, and all of them are soaked with pepper spray. John knows it's just a question of how long they can hold out, and how long they can stay here before things get really ugly and the cops move in with those goddamn plastic handcuffs. He rubs his wrist reflexively. John knows, and it's when the rubber bullets start flying - and he hears Ronon oof and curse behind him - that he knows their time is up.
"John!" Teyla calls from behind him. Rodney turns to go to Ronon, and John lets him go.
There is a hiss, and a bang, and a fresh cascade of tear gas canisters around them, sizzling hot against the ground. It's just him and the kids in the black hoodies, now, and one of them runs out in front of John, scoops the tear gas canister up in his gloved hand, and lobs it back over the line of riot cops. That single image hangs in front of John's burning eyes: the skinny man in black, smoke streaming from the path of his outreached hand, his back arched into the force of the throw. His face is covered, his head is hooded, but there's something uncontainable about him, in that moment. His feet are barely touching the ground.
"John!" Teyla calls again. John glances at her. She has Ronon's arm slung over her shoulder, and her voice is urgent through her bandanna. He glances back at the line of riot cops, and the line of people in black.
John closes his burning eyes and turns away, to where Rodney is watching him, eyes running, blue, blue and bloodshot.
"Let's get out of here," he says to his team, and takes Ronon's arm. Slowly, at Ronon's pace, they walk away.
The sun is low, and it's slow going. The streets are deserted and eerie, and Ronon is limping, his lungs working hard. They stop a few blocks off and roll up Ronon's pants leg; there is a lump like a tangerine rising under the skin, and the skin is bruised and livid.
"Just one?" John asks. Teyla nods. John would trade all the train-hopping in the world right now for a taxi, but they pass through the city blocks stopping and starting, avoiding police barriers. The helicopters have never stopped, overhead, and John feels himself cringe illogically when they go by.
Finally, a quarter-mile out, they stop in an open convenience store and buy bottled water, and put ice on Ronon's bruise. Teyla goes to pay. The clerk watches them sympathetically.
"It was bad, downtown today?" he asks. There is something gentle in his heavily-accented voice, and John's throat suddenly hurts. He pats Ronon's shoulder.
"Yes," Teyla answers. "It was bad."
The little man goes to the little shelf of groceries, and puts four pastries in a bag for her. When she tries to hand him her money he waves her away. When they leave he looks out the door after them, into the city in the dusk.
It is an hour walk back to the hotel, other protesters walking silently by them for a little ways, and then splitting off - John hopes - to their own safe havens. He barely remembers most of it, and he hopes Ronon won't remember any of it. When they finally sneak back into the pagan suite, Teyla starts to strip down before they're even in the door.
"Pepper spray." she says. "We need to wash these clothes before they touch anything else."
John nods and follows suit, and they take turns using the shower, which makes the pain of the spray flare up again and then, sweet relief, fade under the cold water. John considers it a point of pride that he goes last, and when he emerges in his backup pair of sweatpants Rodney has the tv on. He's watching FOX news. Ronon is sprawled on the other side of the fold-out, wearing a towel with ice packs up his leg.
"There is nothing on any of the other stations." Teyla says. She clearly packed a bathrobe just for such an event, and is lying on Rodney's other side with an aromatherapy cloth over her face. "The president, however, had a great deal to say about drunk driving prevention."
"There." Ronon says, pointing. There it is on the scrollbar: "Police and protesters clash outside of trade talks." Then it's gone.
"That's it?" Rodney splutters. His boxers, John notes, have tiny hammers and sickles on them. John wishes he had the energy to make fun of that. "A hundred thousand people protesting, twenty-four hour helicopter surveillance, teargassing respectable citizens in public streets, and we get one line on the scrollbar?"
Ronon grunts and hands him an ice pack. "This one's getting warm," he says.
Teyla raises her head and lifts her handkerchief. "Rodney, if the protest had not happened, they would never have mentioned the summit at all."
"Bet they would have said a lot more if we'd broken some windows," Rodney mutters.
Teyla and Ronon pretend not to hear him. John goes to the kitchenette and starts pulling sandwich makings out of the minifridge. He tries not to make eye contact with Rodney, just then. The knife snicks into the cutting board; Ronon lies shirtless, his leg twisted. John thinks about Ronnie Dexter from West Virginia putting a rock through a bulldozer window. He remembers the windows breaking, two years ago - not him, he swore, though he thinks maybe he can remember the rock in his hand. He remembers the roar of fire hoses. He remembers the snick of plastic handcuffs.
Rodney is watching him, and John doesn't look up. Finally Rodney looks away.
The next morning they thank the pagans profusely, and are hugged by so many people that the car smells like sandalwood and lavender the whole way home.
"I kind of liked those people," Ronon says, with a grin.
"The tall guy in the miniskirt was sort of handsy, though," Rodney grumbles.
It is quiet in the car, and John pulls off the highway and pays for a real campsite while there's still light in the sky. The mosquitoes are out, and they set up the tents this time. Rodney clambers into John's without asking. John has been expecting awkwardness - feelings running high is kind of par for the post-protest course - but Rodney just pulls his sleeping bag up around him and closes his eyes. John watches him, befuddled, for a second, and then follows suit.
They jerk awake, hearts pounding, in the middle of the night.
"Car backfiring," John finally says, through a mouth gone dry.
"You too, huh?" Rodney answers, voice shaking. It is pitch-dark, but they roll towards each other, instinctively going towards warmth.
"It'll get you for a little while," John mutters back, ruefully. Their bags are right up against each other's, now, and he can smell Rodney's toothpaste, and the heavy sleeping-person scent of his sleeping bag. John has been around dirty people in carhartts long enough to like that smell, and the tang of sweat he smells under it.
"John," Rodney says, in the dark. There is a pause. "Two years ago. When the protests stopped the trade talks. What was it like?"
John closes his eyes. His memory is a flash of falling glass, the roar of fire hoses, yellow tear gas over the water of the Sound. He remembers Hollister's eyes, bloodshot with teargas; Hollister's mouth warm against his, hand in hand in the street under the banners. The memory is bright, and hard, and loud. The world has never been that bright again. He puts out a hand, blindly, and finds the line of Rodney's jaw, warm in the dark. "It was amazing," he says, voice raw and soft against the thin walls of the tent. "And really fucking scary. And it worked. Just for a little while."
"It's never going to happen again." Rodney has turned his cheek into John's hand, and John can feel the puff of Rodney's breath against his wrist. "They really hurt Ronon, John. There are hundreds of people in jail. No one-" Rodney's voice falters. John slides his thumb along the line of Rodney's cheekbone, warmth slicing through him. "I didn't know they could do that to us. Not like that. And it didn't make any difference -"
John puts his mouth against Rodney's, knowing the words as he stops them, and the words turn into a shuddering sigh as Rodney slides both hands into John's hair and holds on, and holds on, and holds on.
Later, when they are lying between unzipped sleeping bags, Rodney's breath is deep and slow against John's neck. John strokes his hand down Rodney's sleepy back. "We did change it," he says softly.
Rodney lifts his head, and John smiles, a little flattered at Rodney's slow and dazed blink.
"We did." John draws Rodney back down, both arms wrapped around him. "The world changed yesterday, Rodney McKay. And we were there." There are crickets outside, and a suspicious rustling is coming from the other tent, and John smiles into Rodney's temple, tangles their legs together under the sleeping bag. "At least we were there to see it."
"I'm thinking of renting a house next year," John says casually, a month or two later, as the four of them are eating their now-customary Saturday breakfast at the rickety spool table in John's front room. Ronon's gear is still all over the front room, and he's been making pasta sauce on John's two-burner stove and gotten it all over the cabinets, but it's nothing next to the stacks of journals and piles of very important, untouchable notebooks Rodney's been leaving everywhere. Some of those journals will kill a fellow if he's trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night and isn't careful where he puts his feet. "Somewhere in town. Maybe with a garden."
Ronon grunts. "It'd be nice not to sleep in the truck when you've got company." He's been working in the printshop downtown, paying John real rent for his couch, which John thinks is sort of weird of him.
"My lease over in University Village is up in May." Rodney says, carefully not making eye contact with John. He is, however, wearing John's old Earth First! t-shirt.
Teyla nods. "I would need space for an office, of course," she says, reaching out for another piece of eggless french toast. "And we could not be having punk bands staying in the garage when I have to be in court in the morning."
Then she smiles at him, and Ronon hands John the last muffin on the plate, and Rodney goes to find the classified ads. The sun is shining through the little window, and Ronon is thumping around gathering the dishes. Rodney comes back, his hair messy, his grin goofy. He sits beside Teyla, and opens the newspaper, and John smiles into his coffee.