John's hand was warm and firm, long calloussed fingers wrapped around his own. Rodney looked at John, who just shrugged, jerking Rodney's arm slightly.
"Shall we?" Rodney gestured toward the village.
"I'd be delighted, kind sir!" John mocked, with a courtly bow and a flutter of his free hand.
"Hold hands for a day," Arhal had said, provoking sidelong glances of shuffling embarrassment. Inevitably, both had immediately demanded clarification of the rules.
"No, you don't have to hold hands when you go to the bathroom and yes, you can swap hands if you need to and no, I'm not going to tie you together." Arhal had rolled his eyes which Rodney was sure Paianans didn't normally do. Maybe he could even be taught sarcasm...
It was a bit tricky to begin with. Their strides were different lengths and John seemed to be aiming for a lazy stroll, whereas Rodney couldn't help adopting a nervous scuttle. Rodney knew he was jerking John's arm repeatedly and John kept pulling Rodney to stop him charging ahead. After a while, though, they got into a rhythm and by the time they'd reached the village they'd almost forgotten they were holding hands.
Hand-holding was going on everywhere, Rodney noticed. If hands weren't occupied with something else, they were being held. He wondered if Paianans had fewer sweat glands; his hand was uncomfortably damp. Even so, he felt a bit silly wandering around like this and he wondered what they could do with only one hand free each. The coolness of the river beckoned and Rodney tugged John along, down the slope, toward the sound of laughing and splashing.
A group of men and women were washing clothes and John and Rodney kicked off their sandals and joined in, bashing the clothes against the rocks and getting far wetter than anyone else. They worked together to spread the clothes over nearby bushes to dry and then sat down on the riverbank in the sun. Rodney pulled the fabric of his damp tunic away from his body and flapped it a bit to encourage it to dry. Then he set his hand on the sun-baked earth and leant back with a sigh.
"We should get out of the sun. I'm going to burn."
"Give it a minute. My pants are soaked."
Rodney looked down at their entwined hands. "This is weird," he said.
John shrugged. "Could be worse. At least no-one's making us talk about stuff."
"Yeah." They were silent for a moment, watching the steady flow of the brown river water. "Do you think we need to talk? About stuff?"
"No," John replied swiftly.
"Oh." Another silence. "Because, you know, we've been through a hell of a lot of tough times, I mean you especially what with bugs and wraith and so on and whatever you used to do in Afghanistan or Iraq or both, so..."
"No. Should we go find something to eat?"
Rodney felt John's tension through his hand. "Yeah, okay."
"How did you feel holding Rodney's hand, John?"
John frowned and chewed his lower lip. "Um... Yeah... I suppose I kinda forgot I was doing it, so, pretty normal I guess."
Arhal's expression remained blank and he continued to gaze expectantly at John.
"I guess we laughed a bit more, like when McKay..."
"Rodney," corrected Arhal.
"Yeah, when Rodney went one way and I went the other, but, you know, pretty... normal, really."
"Normal," repeated Arhal.
John shrugged and his eyebrows climbed towards his hairline in a "What you gonna do?" expression.
Arhal paused, not sure what to make of this.
"Rodney, how did you feel holding John's hand?"
"Well, I've been thinking, and it's like this: we spend quite a lot of time in close proximity on an ongoing, everyday kind of basis, so, once I'd got over the whole, 'Oh my God, I'm holding hands with another guy!' thing," (Rodney made air quotes with one hand), "then, yeah, I'd say... normal. Pretty average... normal. You know?"
The two men shook their heads.
"You didn't have to negotiate, or compromise?"
John shrugged. Rodney said, "It's not like we had to save the planet or anything. I mean, if there'd been some kind of Ancient device that was about to explode and I had five minutes to fix it or something, because that could happen... Anyway, then, yeah, that would have been 'frustrating'."
"Oh." Arhal sighed, audibly. "You can let go now."
They stared at him.
"Hands," he said.
Deeren put down the bunch of herbs she'd been tying up ready to dry. Once more she took Arhal's hands in her own.
"You are frustrated, Arhal."
"Yes, I'm frustrated! I thought they'd learn peaceful compromise! Instead, they learned nothing!"
"What did John and Rodney say?"
"They said they felt 'normal'."
Deeren suppressed a smile. "They are not Paianan," she said once more. "Their lives have been different from ours and they have had to develop different ways of being." She looked kindly at Arhal. "You say they learnt nothing. Did it occur to you, they may have nothing to learn?"
"I don't see..." he began. "But surely..." He let out a frustrated huff of breath. "I will think on what you have said."
"If you will permit, Arhal, I will give you a small piece of advice."
He nodded assent.
"Relax. Let your thoughts settle. Go watch the children at play.
Arhal frowned in thought, not sure what had just happened; no words had been spoken, an apology neither made nor accepted, no excuse or explanation given. It occurred to Arhal that Deeren had had good reason to send him to watch the children. He had thought John and Rodney's behaviour childish, which occasionally it definitely was; now Arhal wondered at the naturalness of their relationship, the way they didn't need words to communicate but simply knew they were friends... perhaps they were child-like, and to be childlike in what could be a very harsh world ... that was something precious.