It’s raining, they’re cut off from the Stargate by space buffalo, and Doctor Weir is mocking him. This mission is not going as planned.
“I don’t recall large game migration being one of the dangers listed in your report.”
“It’s not like they checked their schedule with me.” John can tell she’s joking, but still. He felt lucky today. He pulled out a lot of stops to get her to come on this mission, because he thought this was the final final choice for their Alpha Site and because Elizabeth hasn’t left her office in weeks and he was starting to feel stir-crazy on her behalf. When they got here, the sun was shining, he hadn’t even heard of space buffalo, and Elizabeth was congratulating him on a promising Alpha Site location. He’s been 0-for-4 on securing fallback planets so far, and this initially promising world looks like it’s going to make him 0-for-5.
Teyla is crouched at the edge of the ridge, studying the enormous herd below them with a keen eye. “They are not dangerous unless we startle them or attempt to cross their path.”
“So: dangerous,” McKay concludes. “Now we get to choose between being trampled and starving to death.”
Ford grins. “I hear there’s a special on space buffalo today.”
“They are called jahlaknor,” Teyla corrects. “It is possible to bring down a single animal, but it would require several hunters to separate one from the herd without causing a stampede.”
“Sir?” Ford looks eager. He always gets restless on missions where there’s nothing to blow up.
Teyla looks less than convinced about the hunting qualifications of her volunteer partner.
John decides that the last thing anyone needs is right now is for half the team to go off on an Athosian hunting lesson that might or might not result in a thousand jahlaknor charging all over the countryside. “We’re all going to stick together. We’ve got plenty of rations. How long can this last?”
His question was rhetorical, but Teyla has an answer: “It varies depending on the size and speed of the herd. The longest I have heard of was twelve days and nights.”
“Twelve days?” John glances over at Elizabeth, who’s probably already going into report withdrawal. She looks a little pale.
“That’s it,” McKay announces. “We’re all going to die.”
John sighs. They’re probably not going to die, but it’s not his lucky day.
Three hours later, they’ve set up a rain collector and a lean-to. Teyla and Ford are out with binoculars keeping an eye on the Stargate and planning Ford’s remedial Athosian hunting curriculum, McKay has staked out the driest corner of their camp for himself, and Elizabeth’s hanging around watching John not make fire. He’s usually much better at this, but the grasses and twigs and combustible sod are all soaked through and determined to make him look bad.
There’s a hopeful few seconds of flame before it settles back into a stubborn smolder. The smell reminds him of a few nights after basic training that he’d rather forget entirely. Definitely not his lucky day.
“I couldn’t do any better,” Elizabeth offers diplomatically. She’s obviously shivering, which really undercuts her attempt to make him feel better. “I used to go camping all the time, but it’s been years since I’ve done anything… rugged.”
“You like camping?”
“I used to, when I had time.”
It never occurred to him, but it probably should have. She volunteered to lead an expedition to another galaxy, after all, bravely marching into unknown dangers without any promise of amenities. He knows she’s tough, but he’s never pictured her with her hands dirty.
John actually has a rule about not picturing her at all in anything outside a strictly professional capacity. Six months ago, they were thrown together into the deep end of a galactic war. They’re partners. They're friends. His feelings about her from day to day are complicated enough without—
He doesn’t succeed very well—his subconscious likes to betray his best intentions while he’s asleep—but at least he’s trying to avoid thinking of Elizabeth naked.
And the fire goes out again while he’s busy not thinking about it. There are a lot of reasons he wishes Elizabeth weren’t here with them—mostly because then she would be warm and dry and still under the impression that her ranking military officer could earn the Pegasus version of a Boy Scout survival badge, but when there aren’t immediate dangers taking up his attention, Elizabeth can be distracting.
He really is trying to stop thinking about her.
“You could get Teyla to try the fire,” Elizabeth suggests. “She’s used to roughing it in this galaxy.”
She’s right, but it still stings his ego a little. “I can do this. It’ll just be more dramatic when I succeed.”
They’re in less danger here than in most places in this galaxy. The Stargate is surrounded by rock formations that prevent access by dart (and puddle-jumper, for that matter), and there are no indigenous humans here to attract the Wraith’s attention in the first place—two reasons why this planet was supposed to be a great choice for a new Alpha Site. Relative safety aside, he’s still glad she’s sticking close to him. There are enough dangers in this galaxy that he doesn’t take chances with her safety anymore.
Finally, finally, the fire takes. It might be a fluke or the alien tinder taking pity on him, but he’s taking the credit for it while he can. “See? I told you. I was just working up to it.”
Elizabeth’s laughing at him, but at least she’s laughing. “Very dramatic, I agree. Now move over.”
She crouches next to the fledgling fire, feeding it twigs. In the flickering light, her hair and clothes look soaked through, and a familiar guilt makes his stomach tense. The last time Elizabeth looked this wet and cold, a Genii commander almost killed her.
That’s another thing he tries not to think about. Losing Elizabeth did something to him, shook loose something ugly and vengeful and desperate. Even though she’s alive, even though she was alive the whole time, he still feels like it changed him.
“Getting warmer?” he asks her.
She’s close to him, close enough to bump his shoulder with hers. “Much better. Thank you.” As if it’s part of the same thought, she says, “I should never have left the city. One of us should be there.”
He’s worried about them too, but there’s nothing they can do from here. “They’ll be fine.” He thinks for a second about taking her hand like he’s comforting her or keeping her warm.
McKay chooses that moment to interrupt, and John jumps up to standing like he’s been caught out, when really, he was only thinking about doing something wrong.
“You finally make a fire, and you didn’t tell me!?”
John jerks awake from a confusing, rain-soaked dream, and it takes him a few minutes to calm his breathing. The jahlaknor in the distance sound like a persistent thunder, not loud enough to drown out Kolya’s voice ringing in his head.
It doesn’t help when he looks around their sleeping space and Elizabeth is gone.
He finds her outside, wrapped in a space blanket and keeping watch with Ford.
“Sir,” Ford acknowledges him. John should have known she wouldn’t go far. She’s not known for her reckless behavior—at least, not compared to the rest of them. “Is there a problem?”
His heart rate has slowed down to a sustainable pace, but he’s pretty sure he’s not going back to sleep. Besides, it’s his fault that Elizabeth’s stranded out here—well, his and whichever jahlaknor decided this was the day to migrate—so he should be the one to keep her company.
It sounds reasonable, anyway.
“I’ll take over. You can sack out early.”
Sometimes it’s nice that Ford always follows his orders without asking questions.
Elizabeth smiles at him. “That eager to watch the herd? There’s not much to see in the dark.”
They could really only see the dust cloud from here anyway. While Teyla and Ford might want to get as close to the action as possible, he’d rather camp at enough distance to get advance warning of any stampedes veering off course. “I always was a fan of the Discovery channel.”
At least the rain has slowed down to a misty drizzle and the receding cloud cover is letting some moonlight through. Still, the view is poor, and it’s not reason enough for Elizabeth to be awake.
“They’re fine,” he says again. “They would radio us if there was an emergency.” Atlantis dialed the Stargate when they were only ten minutes overdue—apparently Grodin is even more worried about Elizabeth being off-world than John is—and they reported everything fine back home. Grodin even told them to have fun.
“I know,” Elizabeth says. “It’s not that.”
He smirks. “Too rugged for you?”
She closes the blanket tighter around her. He’s starting to wish he brought his own out here—adrenaline got him up like a shot earlier, but now he feels stiff from napping on cold, hard ground.
“No. I think the rain was keeping me awake.” She winces, and that’s enough to tell him that they’re thinking of the same thing. “I used to like the rain.”
“I’m sorry I brought you out here.”
She shrugs. “This I can handle.”
He never really saw how she dealt with the immediate aftermath of being held hostage at gunpoint. He was eager to put it behind them as fast as possible. She thanked him for saving the city, saving their lives, saving her life, and it was all too much when he already felt shredded by rage and relief and a strange fear in the pit of his stomach that still hasn’t completely gone away.
Now, though, he can talk about it. Sort of. By metaphor. “They do say into every life some rain must fall.”
She gives him the same look she had when she found him reading War and Peace, before they were all hoodwinked by fog aliens. “Longfellow?”
That’s exactly what he was quoting, but he deflects: “Hallmark.”
She rolls her eyes like she’s on to him. Usually, when he drops esoteric quotes into conversation, he’s the only one who gets it. He’s surrounded by genius on all sides in Atlantis, but most of them are scientists and, to be honest, most of them don’t pay that much attention to what he’s saying if it’s not actually important.
Elizabeth is watching him, and it’s making him nervous. “What?”
She smiles. “You’re an interesting man.”
For a crazy, wild second, he wonders if he’ll ever kiss her.
“You’re… interesting too.”
His utterly awkward response sounds loud, and it takes a minute before he realizes why. The jahlaknor thunder is quieter, and he has to focus to hear it at all.
“Think they’re done?” Elizabeth asks.
He’s not confident enough to agree without either daylight vision or Teyla to back him up, but it’s still a good sign. One night is an entertaining story—twelve days and Ford would probably end up killed by a buffalo.
“So,” John asks, “Is this the last time you’re ever going off-world?”
“Atlantis is already another planet, you know. It’s not like I’m a shut in.”
He never actually said that. He might have implied it though, a little, when he was trying to drag her out of her office. “Well, now that I know you like camping…”
It sounds almost flirty, which isn’t his intention. It isn’t. Mostly.
This time, her look is a little bit wicked, like she knows he’s flirting with her and that he’s trying to pretend he isn’t. “I might let you convince me to rough it again someday. But next time…”
He’s a little nervous to ask. “Next time?”
“Next time, we’re bringing marshmallows.”