John felt like an animal that had just been bought at a market and was being led home to face a life of drudgery. Arhal, walking ahead of him in the dusk, kept shooting encouraging glances over his shoulder; he reminded John of a young, innocent version of Walter Harriman, the SGC Gate technician. Nowadays, John thought, it would take a combined assault by the Goa'uld, Ori and Wraith to phase Walter, but at one time he must have been this nervously excited, wondering who or what would come through the Gate next. Arhal turned and gave John and Rodney another smile; at least someone was pleased with the situation. McKay hadn't stopped muttering and mumbling under his breath since they'd stepped through the Gate for the third time that day.
"You don't need to bring anything!" Arhal had said. "We will provide all you need!"
"Bet they won't provide antihistamines," had said Rodney, hurriedly checking the pack in one of his pockets. He was still grumbling as he trudged and John caught the words, "waste of time," and "heal our relationship - pah!"
"Give it a rest, McKay!"
"No, I won't give it a rest! There's nothing wrong with our 'relationship', well nothing that few cups of coffee and some really good chocolate cake wouldn't fix and I bet we won't get either of those here!"
John shrugged philosophically and followed Arhal up the winding path to the Teaching House. A group of about fifteen men and women sat on the floor of the veranda enjoying a communal meal in the warm summer evening. John realised he hadn't seen any chairs on Paiana and wondered if his joints would stand the strain. He and Rodney were welcomed eagerly and the group made room for them to sit down.
The meal was pleasant enough, although John would have appreciated a beer and he remembered, sadly, that it should have been movie night. When the meal was finished everything was cleared away and sleeping mats and blankets were brought out.
"In the summer we sleep out here on the verandah," said Arhal. "Men this side, women round there." He gestured to the back of the house. "Here," he said, handing bedding rolls to both men. "Choose a spot!"
Rodney stomped away and flung his roll down, grumbling about the thinness of the mat. "I'm going to wake up a cripple," he complained to John. "That's if I get to sleep. And no mosquito nets!"
"Maybe they don't have mosquitoes, Rodney."
Lying on his mat in the darkness, just one of a row of sleeping men, John pondered the day's events. He thought that he and Rodney could have toned it down a bit, but they were friends and that's how they did friendship. It worked for them. Anyway, here they were and John, being someone who had learnt to make the best of things, thought that maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
"Freezing cold water, how is that supposed to make you a nicer person?" Rodney complained.
They were given clothes in the Paianan style; a simple belted tunic and pants in shades of pale brown and sandals that were a bit like flip-flops. Rodney glared at John, daring him to comment. He looks good in anything, Rodney thought resentfully, I look like a cross between a waffle and a beach bum.
They were given breakfast, which Rodney shovelled in angrily, not really aware of what he was eating, then Arhal ushered them to the verandah to begin the day's teaching. The sleeping mats had been cleared away and three cushions set down in the middle of the broad, shady space. Rodney could see across the herb garden, down the valley, over the sun-bleached grass and the woodland and further, through the hot, still air to the hazy distance where the village and the river lay. He wished he was at home in his lab. Arhal sat down and directed John and Rodney to sit opposite him. They sat, cross-legged, which made Rodney's knees ache, while John looked like he had too many legs.
Arhal smiled and his eyes gleamed with anticipation. Rodney tried to think of Sam and Atlantis and that this was for a good cause.
"I noticed," Arhal began, "that you do not touch each other, unless it is to hurt."
"We don't really hurt each other," protested John.
"Sometimes we do. You do," said Rodney.
"You poked me yesterday. That hurt!"
"I wanted you to come down to the river! And you poked me back!"
"Please, John! Rodney! Touching should be done to reinforce the bonds of family and friendship with gentleness and kindness. We will try something simple. Turn and face each other. Good. Now, Rodney, place your hand on John's shoulder."
Rodney did and felt John's muscles tense beneath his hand.
"Now you, John." John, scowling, put just his fingertips on Rodney's shoulder. The movement brought them closer together and John squirmed and looked away.
"Good!" said Arhal. "How does that feel?"
"Awkward," said Rodney and, "Weird," said John simultaneously.
Arhal proceeded to enumerate the physiological and emotional benefits of touch.
Rodney, seeing John's discomfort, had an idea. He let his hand drop lower, continuing past the end of John's short sleeve, looking at John with a smirk. John's eyes narrowed, warningly. Rodney continued down to the sensitive skin at the inside of John's elbow, where he knew John was ticklish. Nothing happened. John's brows drew down in a determined frown. Rodney moved his fingers ever so slightly. The tension left John's body and he let out a great, snorting laugh which continued into uncontrollable giggles and at the same time he wormed his fingers under Rodney's arm. Rodney yelled, laughing at the same time. "No, Sheppard, no! I hate being tickled!"
"Shouldn't'a done it to me, should you?"
They carried on, Arhal forgotten, until they came to a breathless, hiccuping truce, eying each other warily.
"That wasn't quite what I had in mind," said Arhal, with a forced smile. Behind him, Rodney saw a grey-haired woman cross the veranda, briefly acknowledge his gaze with a nod and a smile and continue into the garden.
"John, say something complimentary to Rodney."
"Um..." John's eyes wandered away over the fields. He knew he liked Rodney in the way that he knew he liked football; putting what he knew into words might be a problem. Arhal allowed the silence to continue. Rodney began to look concerned, his mouth drooping a little, so John blurted, "You're good at science and math and stuff!" then flushed red at his own inarticulacy. Rodney looked like he was forcibly biting back a sarcastic response. John could practically hear him saying: "Way to state the obvious, Sheppard!" and smirked as if he had. He could tell Rodney knew precisely what the smirk meant by the way his lips quirked in response and his eyes crinkled slightly.
Arhal said, "Now you, Rodney."
Rodney's head tipped slightly to one side and he tapped his chin with one finger, staring at John intently. John shuffled uneasily; his skin prickled as if he could feel the force of thought directed at him. Rodney took a deep breath and began to babble.
"Well, let me see, there's the ATA gene but that's just the luck of the draw, isn't it? And I don't think you want to be complimented on your good looks, at least not by me, or hey, who knows? No, forget I said that, no, so, erm, oh yes, shooting! You can shoot really well! Small things! From a long way away! People! Well, wraith... Although they're not small and they're not usually far away, they're usually pretty much in your face!" Here, Rodney waved both his hands near John's face and John leant back suddenly, nearly losing his balance. "Sorry! That didn't go too well, did it?"
"It is a place to begin," said Arhal, patiently. "Rodney, perhaps you could use fewer words and John, maybe you could find more? Please, try again."
John mumbled, "You're good at fixing things," to which Rodney responded, "Your mental math skills are pretty amazing."
They continued until Rodney said, tactlessly, "You're good at killing people with your bare hands ... or a knife ... or the Gate shield."
John didn't particularly want to be reminded of his wholesale slaughter of the Genii forces, so he drawlingly countered with, "You're great at insulting people!"
Rodney's eyes widened and he spluttered, "Flirting with alien women!"
"Blowing up solar systems!" came sharply back and then Rodney exploded into, "Waking the wraith!"
They both stopped, breathing hard, teeth gritted together. John shook his head and bit his lip. This wasn't who they were, raking up past mistakes in order to hurt each other. He looked at Rodney, whose eyes mirrored his own distress.
"Sorry," Rodney whispered.
"Me too," John replied.
"I think we'll finish there for today!" squeaked Arhal.
And here, if she was not mistaken, came one who was much in need of space to reflect. Deeren straightened up from her contemplation of the ruisa herb (not time to harvest yet) and pushed the brim of her sunhat up to regard the approaching figure. Arhal had always been one who thought he knew what was best for others - in the nicest possible way. Deeren suspected that this time he'd taken a larger mouthful than he could swallow. Still, he would no doubt gain wisdom from the experience.
He crunched along the gravel path toward her, came to an abrupt halt and waved his arms a couple of times, his mouth opening and shutting soundlessly. Deeren took his arm and led him to a bench in the shade. They sat down and she enfolded both of his hands in hers and said calmly "Tell me what is in your heart, Arhal."
"Confusion!" he spluttered. "Confusion is in my heart, such as I have never known before!"
"You are confused about John and Rodney."
Arhal rubbed a hand through his thinning hair. "I don't understand them... and they don't understand themselves!"
Deeren said nothing.
"They seem incapable of giving each other the comfort of touch and ... the things they say! They cut each other with their words as if they hold knives!"
Deeren watched Arhal closely. "That is not all that is disturbing you."
"No." Arhal paused. "Some of their accusations... were wild, outrageous, and yet they had the ring of truth."
"They are different from us, Arhal. They fight and strive against what is wrong in the whole galaxy, whereas we simply try to live a good life on our home planet. Both ways of living are important and yet their way is ... hard." Deeren smiled sadly. "Their voices laugh and yet their eyes reveal remembered pain."
"They should share their pain and ask for help to heal!"
"They are not Paianan and they have not been brought up to our ways," she said gently.
"No," Arhal said, thoughtfully, looking down at their linked hands. "Thank you, Deeren. I will try to be more patient."
Arhal remembered his words to Deeren: They seem incapable of giving each other the comfort of touch. He lay down again and fell asleep thinking about what he had seen.