Normally, John will not step foot in or around anyplace with "extravaganza" in its name, but desperate times and blinding curiosity and all of that. The T'rg Extravaganza Emporium is the Pegasus equivalent of the super Wal-Marts that swath the U.S. from coast to coast. SGA-3 discovered it on M4L-627, a planet with continual daylight due to its four suns. It boasts a mild climate and ample protection for the marketplace under thousands of tall, leafy trees. The tents and stalls of the Emporium spring up for a week or more every couple of months, and it has quickly become the most requested destination for day passes.
Regardless of his initial distaste, after John's first visit, he comes away from the Trug laden with goods: a cashmere-soft blanket that retains body heat better than anything shipped to Atlantis from the United States Military; a wooden puzzle with slots and a rolling ball that keeps him busy for days, much to his consternation when Teyla remarks on its children's demographic; some kind of baked fruit that tastes like apricots; best of all, a superior whetstone that fits perfectly into a pocket on his vest and requires no oil for lubrication. He quickly returns all of his knives to their original razor sharpness.
Ronon approves of that purchase, arching an eyebrow to obtain permission before giving it a try during dinner, the zwip! of metal on stone effectively overriding every few words of Rodney's latest diatribe. An excellent find, really.
The high-end weaponry booths alone are well worth a return visit, and on John's second trip, he takes the time to appreciate the selection. There are the standard offerings of knives sized from awls to daggers, bows and crossbows, swords both long and short, and then there are the specialty items, which range from spiky maces to thick-chained bludgeons to thin-shafted hunting spears. Cleaning cloths, bottles of lubricant, carrying pouches and belts rest on low tables for his browsing pleasure, though the weapons are all displayed in rows behind the seller. Some bear intricate metal engraving, or have gorgeous woodworked handles that have been darkly stained and polished until they glow. Some have tiny nubs on the grips that cling to the wearer's gloves, making it more difficult to lose the weapon in the heat of battle, while others boast handles that can be heated to a certain temperature and then molded to the wielder's hand.
John tries to keep his tongue from lolling out in happy, panting pleasure as he peruses booth after booth of gleaming hardware. It's when he asks about guns that the merchants' expressions transform from welcoming to suspicious, and suddenly it's as if John is invisible, as the traders who've been this side of obsequious won't even meet John's eye, let alone converse with him.
"Oh-kay," John mutters. Maybe he's supposed to say please. Maybe there's a test he needs to pass. Readjusting the strap on his P90, he pulls his Para .45 from its holster and makes a show of checking that the clip's full. Even with his expert handling, he's still being ignored.
Whatever. He's meeting up with Ronon in fifteen minutes, with plenty of time to swing by the food court and pick up a paper cone of better-than peanut brittle.
Teeth rattling from sugar shock, John bounces to his feet when he sights Ronon approaching from the west. Ronon's wearing a new gun belt layered over his old one, and John's gaze lingers on the criss-cross of leather straps circling Ronon's hips.
John holds out the rest of the brittle. "Saved you some."
Ronon looks from John's face to the cone and back again. "Nah," he says. "I'm good."
"What did I just eat?" John asks warily, already crumpling up the paper, his stomach lurching.
Ronon laughs. "Something you hate."
There's a pause as John works his way to the answer and when it slaps him in the face he groans. "Crap. And, gross."
He's not above eating insects for survival, but it's just wrong to glop some caramel on top and call it a treat.
"Bet you could get McKay to finish the rest," Ronon says, a hint of a smile on his lips.
The thought perks John up. "That – that is an outstanding plan. Listen, I thought there'd be, you know, more guns. Not that knives aren't awesome," he tacks on hastily, well aware of Ronon's enduring love of easily hidden weapons, "but it would be cool to find a gunsmith, or maybe someone who could make me one of those." He shoots a covetous look at Ronon's blaster.
Ronon nods. "Guns and explosives aren't left out in the open," he says. "That stuff's behind the curtains."
John raises an eyebrow in silent question. "What, for safe-keeping?"
They start back toward the Emporium's center, ambling down a side lane shared with only a handful of people, in contrast to the busy main strip. John guesses that dried gourd arrangements and the large spools of rough-looking burlap they're passing aren't in high demand.
"Respected traders won't put all of the merchandise out at once. That's poor planning," Ronon says, and John flashes back to his sophomore economics professor railing on about procedural inventory management. "If you see a stall like that, the seller's probably trying to get rid of low-quality goods.
"Also," he continues, easily skirting a pack of grandmas clustered around a bin containing skeins of colorful yarns, "it's about your intent to buy. If there's something you have to ask for, they'll know you're serious about making a purchase; you're not just getting everything sticky." He smirks, glancing down at John's hand, where John's fingers are still wrapped around the cone of extra crunchy not-really-nut candy.
"Funny," John says derisively, wiping his hand on his pants self-consciously, then, folding the flaps of the cone inward, he tucks the leftovers into his pocket. "Okay, but I think I made it pretty obvious that I was looking for guns."
"Oh yeah," Ronon says. "And you need to know the password." A beat, and then he's choking back laughter.
"You're a jackass," John grumbles.
Ronon laughs. "I'll introduce you to my favorite apprentice."
"Apprentice doesn't sound too promising," John scoffs, faintly annoyed that he fell for a line about a password.
Ronon gives him a strange look. "Maybe the translation's off. Nevan mastered weapons for the Satedan army. He's renowned for his inventiveness and many people study under his tutelage."
"Oh, well then," John concedes. "Lead on."
They're almost to the end of the row when John's bootlace snaps. Hissing in annoyance, he crouches down to retie the ends as a temporary solution. Another step, and he about walks out of the boot, so he plunks down between tents to fish a new set of laces out of his tac vest.
Ronon wanders further down the lane. John keeps an eye on him while he's taking the old bootlace out, watches as Ronon glances over several bolts of fabric, then as he drifts back across the path to check out a trio of rolled-up rugs propped against a tent pole.
John can thread his boots in the dark, so he's on his feet and ready to go within a few minutes. It's habit to look over his shoulder and scan the road, and though they've taken the less-beaten path, it strikes him as strange that the whole area is cleared of people. Snapping his attention back to Ronon, he pauses, tilting his head.
It looks as though Ronon is talking with someone, his face close to one of the rolled-up carpets, which could be blocking the view of a person. The itch of uncertainty skitters up John's spine, and he lengthens his stride as he approaches Ronon.
"Hey, you feel that?" he says, and then something soft and heavy thunks him over the head. He crumples to his knees and face-plants in the dirt.
"Sheppard!" Ronon shouts. Then, quietly, "He's with me."
John rolls to his side, finger on the trigger of his P-90. Everything feels intact, and there's none of the tingling he associates with being hit by a stunner. Nothing actually hurts.
"That's different," John mumbles, and then Ronon's grabbing his arms and pulling him to his feet.
"You okay?" Ronon asks.
John rubs the back of his head. "Feel like I got whacked with a beanbag chair," he says, raising an eyebrow in question. "The hell was that?"
"Uh," Ronon says, eyes on his boots.
"Who were you talking to?" John asks tersely. He waits until Ronon meets his gaze, watching carefully; Ronon stands up straighter when he's about to lie.
Ronon sighs heavily, as though he's the victim. "I have something to tell you."
"Okay," John says.
Ronon looks at him.
"All ears," John says.
Ronon looks over John's shoulder with a thousand-yard stare. His left eyelid twitches.
John rubs his forehead. "Uh, look. You can tell me later, okay?" He looks around. "Seems like everyone's gone to lunch. Hope they're not -"
He's interrupted by the sharp retort of gunfire echoing in the woods east of their current position. John ducks behind a row of wooden crates lining the front of the carpet stall, then spins into a crouch.
In front of him, Ronon hesitates, scooping a rug up off of the ground, appearing oblivious to the threat.
"Ronon!" John yells. "Get your ass back here!" He scans the lane, gun up and on the offensive, covering Ronon, who moves slowly like he's been hit. John's chest tightens. "Are you hurt?"
"No," Ronon says, "but I have to tell you something." He's behind the crates on the other side of the stall, and John relaxes fractionally. At least Ronon's out of the road, though he acts like he's been smoking carpet fibers during the two minutes that John left him alone.
"Now?" John returns his attention to the lane and the forest behind it. He hears gunfire again, closer this time, not bursts from automatic weapons but individual rounds, so he's confident that they hold the advantage. Mostly. He'll be more confident when Ronon snaps out of it – he hasn't even drawn his gun. "Shoot now, ask questions later."
Ronon shrugs, grabs his blaster, and kneels up on the rescued rug that lays parallel to the crate. John's relieved that Ronon looks alert, finally.
A bit of color flashes in the woods to their left and Ronon sights a target, following it with the barrel of his gun. "Bandits," he says quietly. "They're desperate if they're trying to raid the Trug."
"Or everyone's in cahoots and cleared out of here so some assassins could take us down," John says. The words have no sooner left his mouth than he wants them back, if only because he sounds like McKay spinning paranoia theories each time they're attacked.
Ronon slants a look of amusement toward John. "It's always life or death with you," he says.
It's a well-worn joke between them, caged partly from innate, visceral understanding of war, and partly because most days everyone really is trying to kill them.
John narrows his eyes. He's a breath away from a zinger of a retort when they're forced to change position, as though the bandits know exactly where Ronon and John are hiding.
John's pretty sure his original assessment of the situation is correct when a loose half-circle of men holding guns surround them, but it's not as though he can crow about it, not when a quick glimpse over his shoulder shows a vine-covered ravine so deep that he can't see the bottom.
"Crap," he says. "Any ideas?" He's trying to keep an eye on the advancing bandits, noting how the one at two o'clock holds his gun, how another one favors his right leg.
"Shoot 'em all," Ronon says, grinning at him, waiting for the okay to flip his switch from defense to offense.
"We don't even know if they want us dead," John says. "Maybe it's a misunderstanding." He smiles charmingly at the guy on his three o'clock.
Someone yells out, "Kill them!"
"Thanks a lot, three o'clock guy," John mutters. Two more steps backwards and he'll be standing on air.
"Got a plan," Ronon says. The rolled-up carpet he's been carrying gets thrown down behind them, and then Ronon punches John.
John's head whips to the side and he tastes blood in his mouth from where he's bit his cheek. "I hate this plan," he says, as Ronon shoves John backwards.
John trips over the carpet and falls over the edge of the cliff. He hears gunshots and birds in the trees and the rushing sound of wind. John closes his eyes. He thinks that it's a shame his last meal was bugs. He wonders what will be left of him to scrape together at the bottom. He's definitely never letting Ronon plan anything ever again. And he sort of wonders what Ronon was going to tell him, because it sounded serious, and could have been something like Ronon saying that what they have going on is over, so he's glad he missed that. In fact --
Something catches him, plucks him from mid-air on a straight descent and holds him there. He hits hard enough to knock the breath from his lungs, and there's a soft, scratchy cloth covering his face. John struggles, trying to drag an arm up to lift it free. Suddenly the fabric's wrapping around him and it feels as though he's falling again, faster this time, even though the material isn't heavy. Every instinct tells him to thrash and fight, but he can't move.
Wrapped up and falling can't be too much worse than plain falling, but he still wishes he could make it stop, and preferably before he hits bottom. John wheezes, barely able to breathe, and abruptly the cloth unfurls, turning him over and over dizzyingly quickly. He squints, trying to regain some sense of direction, but all he sees is the white of the sky.
Ronon lands next to him with a thump and John readies himself for another immediate roll, but the material only absorbs the weight of Ronon's body and then sort of... stiffens under John's body.
Ronon groans. John ignores him in favor of peeking over the edge of the – the rug, it's the same stupid rug that Ronon fondled and pawed and made sure to grab even when they were under attack. Then again, maybe it's not a stupid rug, because the only things John sees when he looks down are sheer chest-clenching height and empty air, yet he's here, Ronon's here, and no one's splattered on rocks or shot full of holes. "Son of a bitch," he says slowly.
From the other half of the carpet, Ronon says John's name, but John can't look at him, hands still fisted in the surprisingly thick weave of the rug, unwilling to trust a freaking flying carpet not to drop him. The thing may not even be sentient, though he suspects it is, and the thought prompts a burble of hysterical laughter.
"John," Ronon says again, and John turns his head. Ronon's sitting up, watching him calmly.
He manages what he hopes is a reassuring smile, tamping down on another rising laugh. Carefully, he lets go of the rug, rolling closer and taking Ronon's outstretched hand. Once they're seated, knees touching as they face each other, everything feels so off-balance and delicate that John thinks there should be crustless sandwiches and tiny silver spoons and maybe a rabbit in a top hat serving tea.
The carpet's not moving, but this far up John expects wind disturbance, and there isn't any, not even a breeze. Ronon's studying John's face, and without warning, they're falling again, a short drop this time, stopping before John can even grab hold. No big deal, because he didn't lose his seat or even rise up off the carpet, as though the thing has some kind of inertia negation. "Cool," he says, drawing out the vowels. "You're controlling it, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Ronon says, shrugging. "It's kind of a gift in my family."
Questions pop into John's mind, so he asks them, knowing that Ronon thinks he's done with the explanation.
"You're going to have to give me more than that," John says. "Can I fly it? How do you control it? Does it understand you when you speak? How come you never told me? Where can we get more?" Gingerly, he touches his sore jaw. "And why'd you punch me?"
"It's not a real day off-world if you don't get hurt," Ronon teases, but then he sobers. "I haven't seen one of these in years," he says, rubbing the flat of his hand over the carpet nubs. "Figured they'd all been destroyed, which is partly why I didn't tell you." He flashes a small smile at John. "Atlantis doesn't even have carpets and anyway, people think it's weird."
"Can't imagine why," John says.
"Aeryfs were woven with strong magic thousands of years ago," Ronon says, as though he's reciting a lesson. "They're not dangerous. They respond to some people better than others, and if they're matched well to someone with experience, their first priority is safety. When you met me at the stall, I'd just made something like an imprint. We called it talking to the loom."
"So you have like, the ATA gene for carpets," John muses, trying not to smile.
"Go ahead and laugh," Ronon says. "Remember you're sitting on the one thing you can't fly."
John wants to stick his tongue out at Ronon. Instead, he says, "Back to you making me bleed..."
Ronon's lips twist. "We'll have to rush you to the infirmary." He relents at the look on John's face. "After the imprint, the aeryf protected me, supposedly from you, when you came up from behind. There wasn't time to get you imprinted, so I had to create circumstances where it was bound to protect you first."
"Falling off a cliff's not enough?" John frowns.
"I wasn't sure," Ronon says. "Safety first." His fingers close around the knob of John's knee.
"It worked," John says, enjoying the thrill of Ronon's touch. He lowers his eyes, looking up at Ronon through his lashes. "Wait, so if I'm imprinted, that means I can control it? 'Cause I wanna go for a ride."
Ronon tightens his grip on John's leg. "Sorry," he says. "You'll have to take me with you."
The aeryf moves forward gently, somehow slicing through air currents, and the fringe along one side flutters even though there's no rush of wind on John's face.
"Hardship," John says. "Make it go faster."
The carpet buckles and sways underneath them; John grabs Ronon's wrist to ride it out.
"Say aeryf," Ronon says, amused. "They're not alive, they don't have sense perception, so they can't tell right from wrong or how they're feeling. But aeryfs do have something like a personality. That's part of what makes controlling them a challenge. A good challenge," he adds.
John tries out the pronunciation. "Ronon, please make the aeryf go faster. Please," he says, voice husky. He bites at his bottom lip, knowing how much Ronon likes seeing that, knows that Ronon's thinking about soft skin and the feel of John's body beneath his, and he'll be unable to deny John's request.
After picking up speed, the aeryf maxes out at maybe twenty-five miles an hour. They hover below the cloud bank, high enough that John feels the suns' heat emanating in the atmosphere. Pushing up to his knees, John spreads his arms wide. The light, tickling breeze has as much effect as the wind on his face during a slow canter on horseback.
"It's not as fast as you're used to," Ronon apologizes.
"Don't care," John says, and he doesn't. It's the closest feeling to flying that he can imagine. Nothing contains him. There's nothing to control or even think except yes, yes, free. Riding an upward spiral and straining for the sky always burns him from the inside out, but it's now, in the immediacy of Ronon's smile and his own wide, wondering eyes that he gets it, why Icarus couldn't come back down.
Ronon traces lines of the aeryf's pattern. "They were designed as travelling companions, especially for people who didn't raise guard or pack animals. There were several aeryfs still around when I was younger, but interest in making more ceased as technology evolved." He looks sad. "No one could think of how they could be used to fight the Wraith."
It's all lightness and meringue in John's head, with no room for thoughts of Wraith. "Enjoy," he croons. "Just enjoy." Sinking down, he flips over onto his back, with one ear at the edge of the aeryf where he can hear the sh-sh of the wind.
"Wow," Ronon says. "I never thought I'd see you like this. You look wrecked."
John leans up, balancing on his elbows. "Hey!" He says, pretending affront. "Happy place!"
"I've seen you happier," Ronon says, shifting closer, heat in his eyes.
Holding back proves unsuccessful and John snorts out a laugh. "Make it so," he says, gesturing grandly, dropping flat on the aeryf.
Ronon cups his hand to John's face. "Sorry I punched you when you weren't expecting it," he says. He kisses John's cheekbone, then his jaw, his ear.
Wrapping his arms around Ronon's neck, John pulls him closer. "It's always life or death with you," he says, both teasing and serious, whispering the words into Ronon's eyebrow. John sucks in a hard breath when Ronon's hand slips up under his T-shirt, while the other's busy unbuckling the straps on John's vest.
Sex in an airplane is fun, hot; sex in a 'jumper is awesome. Sex in the open sky is going to be incredible. Idly, John wonders what sort of imprint they'll leave on the aeryf, if it will change speeds based on how they're moving, if their actions impact its personality, if –
"Sheppard," Ronon interrupts.
They grin at one another. Ronon's feeding off John's energy; John's mainlining it from the sky. It's not the altitude that's making his brain spin. Clutching at Ronon's shoulders, he kisses Ronon, their tongues sliding, a groan climbing up from deep in John's chest.
"'M ready," he says, licking his lips.
"Aeryf, spiral," Ronon orders, and it's the best piece of freefall in two galaxies, and John wants to do it again, now, please, twenty times in a row.
Ronon wrenches up John's vest, throwing a leg between John's thighs. John locks his ankles around Ronon's calf, pressing tight, pushing against Ronon.
"Aeryf, up," Ronon says, and John hears the command as though from far away. They're rocketing upwards, and John thinks maybe the aeryf's twisting around, too. The sex and the flying twine together as Ronon pins John to the carpet on the upswings, with John rubbing his cock against Ronon's hard thigh. Ronon straddles him as they go down again, pressing a kiss to the palm of John's hand and sucking John's fingers into his mouth.
"Oh, fuck," John says, staring up at Ronon, loving the intensity in his eyes, the concentration showing on his face. That his hands tremble when he reaches for the top button on John's pants.
Ronon opens John's zipper to free his cock, stroking, batting away John's hands. He's got an evil glint in his eye, so he knows how close John is already, the heady combination of three of John's favorite things practically forcing out his orgasm. John thrusts forward into the tight, warm circle of Ronon's hand, his back arching up off the aeryf, and his shout of dazzled pleasure is cut short by Ronon's mouth on his, kissing and kissing as Ronon jerks and shudders against him.
The aeryf spins slowly downward, and several minutes pass before John sees the flags and spires of the Trug. He gives the back of Ronon's hand one final lick, rubbing the taste of come around the roof of his mouth. Rolling onto his stomach, John reaches out, catching the breeze with his fingertips. He laughs, suffused with happiness, before sitting up, letting his legs dangle over the side.
"Now let's see about getting me one of those blasters," he says, looking back over his shoulder at Ronon.
"You want it all, Sheppard," Ronon says.
"Yeah, I do," John says. "Seize the day."