Chapter 1: Chapter 1
"CM to the PPP," said Rodney, setting down his breakfast tray.
"Sweet," said John, through his mouthful of oatmeal.
Ronon, working his way through a large pile of bacon and sausages, merely met Teyla's confused look with a raised eyebrow. Teyla sighed inwardly, hoping it wasn't going to be one of those days when half of her team was incomprehensible and the remaining member monosyllabic at best.
"I do not understand your abbreviations, Rodney," she stated calmly.
"Contact mission," informed Rodney. "To the Planet of Perfect Parenting."
Teyla, taking a lesson from Ronon, merely gazed in blank incomprehension.
"M3Z 528," said Rodney. "What do they call it? Paiana, the people are the Paianans, except we call it the PPP because they're just so... 'nice' to each other all the time." He grimaced and shuddered as if being nice were distasteful.
"Huh, yeah," John sniggered. "They hold hands and hug a lot. Even the men!" Rodney and John met each other's eyes, exchanging one of their trademark 'looks'. Teyla interpreted this one as conveying mutual embarrassment. Teyla herself remembered the Paianans as being particularly pleasant; kind and considerate in all their interactions and, importantly, particularly generous in their trade agreements.
"But why 'Perfect Parenting'?"
Rodney chewed rapidly and swallowed his mouthful of bacon. "Jeannie's spare room. Shelves full of parenting manuals. Couldn't sleep." His knife and fork, hovering over his plate, paused thoughtfully between pancakes and bacon. "Those things are full of stuff you shouldn't do to your kids, like ... slap 'em or shout at them," (he took a slurp of his coffee), "or lock them in cupboards or tell them they're not allowed to cry or humiliate them. All kinds of things!"
"Parents on Earth need to be told this?" asked Teyla incredulously.
"I wish someone'd told mine," Rodney said, looking at John, who said, with a casual smirk, "Yeah, me too! Shouldn't think my Dad would've listened, though."
"No! Too busy slapping you!"
"Ha! You got that right!"
Teyla shifted uncomfortably on her seat, wondering at her friends' ability to make light of such things. "The Paianans would never treat their children so!"
"No, exactly," continued Rodney, waving his knife for emphasis. "But not only that, their whole society is built on talking about their feelings all the time," (John shuddered and Rodney grimaced again in silent acknowledgement), "they only ever use first names, and!" he paused as if about to make a great revelation, "They don't understand sarcasm! Don't get it at all!"
"They have their own gentle humour, Rodney," Teyla said, "and they have been most generous in their dealings with us, exchanging a large amount of food for a small number of power cells and some medical items."
John nodded, licking the last of the oatmeal from his spoon. "Yeah, they're good guys. They just like us to come and touch base regularly, shoot the breeze and so on. Mission'll be a walk in the park, then home in time for movie night!"
Teyla closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. The air was fresh and clear and had a slight early morning chill, which would seem a distant memory when the sun rose properly. Summers on Paiana were hot and this one particularly so. But at the moment, the walking was pleasant, the gently rolling landscape easy to negotiate and the soft whisper of leaves on the trees soothing. They had walked several miles from the Gate and had already passed the 'Teaching House', a single-storey wooden building with a wide veranda set on the top of a low hill. The House served two purposes; firstly as a place of retreat and learning and secondly, and somewhat disconcertingly, as a deliberately obvious target should the wraith come culling. The village, several miles further on, was a different matter. John and Rodney called it Hobbiton and, having seen the movie of the Lord of the Rings, Teyla could see why. It was designed to be camouflaged from the air and so dwellings were dug into low grassy hills, spaced widely apart. Small stoves were used for heat, light and cooking to avoid smoke from fires. Crops were sown in irregular, natural-looking drifts and only a very few animals were kept in well-disguised enclosures. Teyla knew that they were privileged to have been chosen as trade partners. The Paianans were very careful who they traded with and insisted on regular contact, simply so that they could reassure themselves that they had chosen well.
The team had been silent for a while, steadily strolling in a relaxed manner, Ronon on point, Teyla on their six, John and Rodney in between.
"Gonna be hot, d'you bring your sunscreen, McKay?" John asked with what, to Teyla, sounded like studied nonchalance.
"Yes, of course..." John's hand shot out and gave Rodney a swift slap to the back of the head; Ronon laughed and Rodney made his outrage clearly known. "Oh very funny, ha ha Sheppard! I thought we'd stopped playing."
"Never let your guard down, McKay," drawled John, his arms relaxed, cradling his P90, his eyes not leaving the road ahead.
They were playing the yes-no game, a particularly foolish example of their ever-expanding repertoire of foolish games, Teyla thought. Although, to give them their due, she mused, they only played their games on relaxed missions such as this... and in the mess hall... and in the rec room... and in the infirmary and in meetings and occasionally in the corridors late at night when people, namely herself, were trying to sleep. The yes-no game involved avoiding the use of the positive or negative, a penalty being incurred if the words were spoken. Or, as Ronon put it, "If you say yes or no, you get hit." Ronon was no help in such situations. He became like a worshipful younger brother, smirking, laughing and even outright congratulating when a particularly clever hit was dealt. The team lapsed into silence once more, but Teyla wasn't fooled; this was a favourite technique, to wait until the game was forgotten about, then spring a question out of the blue.
Despite his silence, Rodney's mind was busy. He was plotting the best way to provoke John into an unguarded answer while at the same time calculating the exact angle of approach and degree of force necessary to give John a satisfyingly resounding smack without actually causing any damage. Palm at thirty degrees from the vertical, he planned and wondered if his hand would describe a parabolic curve and would it help to mentally plot the point of impact on a graph? Rodney smiled sneakily.
"Jumper One's out of action again!"
John's instinctive, "No!" burst out in protest at the thought of damage to his favourite vehicle and Rodney triumphantly dealt his scientifically planned penalty to the back of John's head producing a gratifying thwack.
"Nice one, McKay!" approved Ronon.
Rodney grinned. Then he looked at Sheppard and his face fell. John's expression reminded him that his friend had once been involved in 'black ops': the narrow-eyed, calculating, on-your-head-be-it kind of look which promised unpleasant retribution.
"Rodney?" John said, with gentle innocence.
"That's my name," responded Rodney, nervously.
"How about..." John continued, and then spread his arms wide and puckered up his lips comically. "A big, sloppy kiss?" He launched himself at Rodney and the frantic, "No, no, no, no, no!" that burst forth resulted in a flurry of percussive slaps. Through the assault came Teyla's determinedly cheerful voice.
"Good morning, Arhal!"
Rodney straightened up and tried to look like a 'peaceful explorer'; he glared sidelong at John who was re-establishing his grip on his P90 and putting back on a mask of military efficiency. Arhal had become their unofficial liaison with the Paianans, so they had met before. He was unofficial because the society had no actual leaders; decisions were made through mutual consent and roles shared and taken on with a sense of dutiful obligation to the community. At the moment, Arhal looked like he would like to pass his obligation onto someone else.
"Good morning, Teyla!" he said, worriedly. "I am concerned that your team is experiencing some conflict! Please allow me to help you to resolve this situation peacefully!"
"Thank you, Arhal, but that will not be necessary," Teyla said with a smile. "John and Rodney are merely playing a game."
"Yeah, we're still buddies, Arhal," said John, grinning.
"Buddies, yeah," said Rodney with less enthusiasm, flattening down his hair.
"Oh, I ... do not really understand." Arhal smiled nervously. "John seemed to be hurting Rodney."
"Nah, he's fine!" John said, carelessly.
"Yeah, fine," said Rodney, unconvincingly. John hadn't really hurt him, but he considered the whole kissing threat to be an underhand tactic and thought a clarification of the rules was in order.
"Shall we proceed to the village?" said Teyla, taking Arhal's arm and shooting a quelling glance over her shoulder at John and Rodney. Ronon followed her, with an amused, "You guys are in so much trouble!" under his breath.
Arriving at the village the team were greeted in typical tactile fashion. Teyla found herself embraced, patted and stroked, her was hand taken and she was led to sit on a soft blanket and given fresh herbal tea.
She should have been able to relax; she could see Ronon a little way off, lying in a patch of longer grass, a small girl curled up asleep beside him and two toddlers playing with his hair. One of them was chewing it, but Ronon didn't seem to mind. Unfortunately she could also hear John and Rodney arguing about how best to calculate the yield of the irregularly-sown crops in a rapid back and forth of mathematical formulae and scathing sarcasm. Teyla knew they were thoroughly enjoying the intellectual challenge; the Paianans looked nervous.
The pattern was set for the day; John and Rodney gave free rein to their unusual style of friendship, sniping and smirking at each other with what Teyla recognised as affection, but which simply confused the locals.
At lunchtime, taken outside in a shady spot, they snatched food off each other's plates, in what, Teyla knew, was their way of trading items to get all the things they liked, but to an outsider looked like simple bad manners.
Later on Rodney asked to examine one of the small stoves used for cooking and, taking it apart, spread the components out around him. John hovered, not particularly interested in the efficiency of the power output, and Rodney replied increasingly irritably to his chivvying and prodding. Teyla knew that John wanted to show off Rodney's quite remarkable prowess at skimming stones from the riverbank; to anyone else his impatience just looked rude.
By the time they gathered to return to the Gate, stone-skimming had led somehow to a lively discussion of the relative merits of flight methods employed by superheroes, John hotly defending Superman as being the more natural and instinctive flyer and Rodney arguing for Iron Man as being the more plausible.
"Thank you, Arhal, for allowing us to visit and for your continuing generosity," Teyla said.
"You are very welcome, Teyla." Arhal looked unusually uncertain. "I have a request to make, but I am uncertain of the correct protocol. I believe it would be best to address your leader?"
"You wish to speak to Colonel Carter? I'm sure that could be arranged."
A good day for the team, thought John, as they walked back to the Gate in the warm, late afternoon sun. He wondered what Arhal wanted to talk to Sam about. Permission having been granted for Arhal to visit, they stepped back into the coolness of Atlantis' Gateroom. Arhal talked privately with Colonel Carter for about ten minutes after which he came out smiling and John and Rodney were called into the office.
Sam's face wore a look of exasperation and she ran a hand through her hair, causing even more strands to break loose than usual. She looked at them and sighed, shaking her head. John wished she'd just spit out whatever was coming.
"Is there a problem, Sam?" Rodney asked.
"Yes, I'd say there's a problem, Rodney! I've just had to agree to my Military Commander and my Chief Science Officer going on a little vacation for the next few weeks!"
"Arhal tells me he and his people are 'upset by the discord' between you two and that they want to help you 'heal your relationship'! In fact, he insisted! What did you two do today?"
"Nothing!" John said. "We just had fun."
Sam put her head in her hands. "That explains it," she said. "I know exactly what your kind of fun involves. No doubt I'll get the full story from Teyla."
"You're not really going to make us go, are you?" Rodney asked. "I've got important work in progress!"
"I can't go, I've got... paperwork to do!" said John, weakly.
"The Paianans have been very generous in their trade agreement," said Sam, her direct gaze moving from John to Rodney. "They've kept us well supplied and asked for very little in return. So," her voice became steely and uncompromising, "you will do this. You will go with Arhal and do your best to fit into Paianan society, no matter what that may involve." Her voice lightened. "Anyway, it's been a while since either of you had a break. It'll be a chance for you to rest and relax!"
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
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.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
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.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
John had had enough. He sat on a bench in the herb garden in the early morning, surrounded by the rising scents of dew-damp leaves, but he felt no peace. The bittersweet scent of the ruisa herb did not calm him. His fingers twitched and one knee jogged up and down, ready for action, ready to run and fight and protect. He couldn't even run, he reflected; the flip-flop sandal things would probably fly off.
John wondered what was happening back on Atlantis; probably nothing or they would have heard. Lorne was very competent and no doubt things were fine, but that wasn't the point. It was his job and John wanted to do it, not sit contemplating his own existence. And as for his friendship with Rodney - it worked and that's all John needed to know. They were different but the same, opposites but equals, something like that. They struck sparks off each other, but that was a good thing, right? Oh, whatever, John thought grumpily, just don't make me put it into words!
Rodney's active mind began listing all the subjects on which he had thoughts to share as if he were flicking through a mental card index file. He felt John fidgeting next to him and noticed his face had taken on a set, closed-off expression.
"We will begin with something easy," said Arhal. "I would like you to share a pleasant childhood memory and tell us how you felt at the time and how it makes you feel now. Rodney, perhaps you could go first."
Rodney puffed out a long breath through pursed lips. This is the easy bit? he thought.
"Um... I remember I was, I dunno, ten? And I had a math textbook, from the university library, I think. And I turned the page and there it was!" He smiled dreamily. "Stokes' Theorem! All laid out in front of me! You know, the one about the integration of differential forms on manifolds? What a day that was!" He paused, then continued. "Oh, how did I feel? Erm... excited! Amazed! And how does it make me feel now? Nostalgic, I guess! Ah, vector calculus, my old friend! Ten-year-old me had such delights to come!"
Arhal was looking slightly stunned. "Did your family share your joy? Childhood memories usually involve family."
"Share my joy? Are you kidding? Mom and Dad didn't even remember my existence most of the time." He frowned. "I probably showed Jeannie, but she would have been, what, two? She probably drooled in a generally enthusiastic way, though."
John chortled quietly, then Rodney saw his expression harden once more as he realised it was his turn. His fingers flicked at the edge of his cushion and he fidgeted, head down, like a schoolboy who knows he can't do the work his teacher has set.
"John?" Arhal prompted.
John mumbled. "I remember going horseback riding with my Mom... I was happy, I guess." Then he was silent.
"Can you tell us how the memory makes you feel now?"
Rodney looked at his friend, unsure whether to intervene. This sharing thing just wasn't John's style and who was to say how he should handle his own feelings?
John sat, rigid, his arms folded across his body, tucked in tight. He chewed his lip, shook his head a little, took a breath, opened his mouth and then closed it again. His head dropped. "I can't," he said.
"Why do you think you can't tell us?"
John let out a huff of breath, a very slight self-deprecating smile flickering over one corner of his mouth and fading away instantly. He turned his head away, eyes closed, arms still tight against his chest, fingers hooking into the fabric of his tunic. He turned back to Arhal, then to Rodney.
"Because..." he began in a choked voice, then, as if the words were torn from him: "Because it hurts too much."
He got up and marched swiftly away, almost tripping down the steps from the verandah and then across the herb garden and away toward the woodland. Rodney watched him go and turned to Arhal, one accusing eyebrow raised.
"What...? I don't understand," floundered Arhal.
"No?" Rodney said, his tone scathing. "Well, fortunately, I do."
Deeren heard a sound, to her right; someone or something was hurtling noisily through the woodland. There was a cry, immediately followed by a crashing thud and she hurried toward the sound. John; he lay sprawled, full-length in the moist leaf mould. He made no effort to get up and Deeren was worried that he'd knocked himself unconscious. Then his head turned to one side so that his cheek rested on the forest floor. His eyes rolled up toward her, then he deliberately closed them, as if he wanted to be left alone. What have you done, Arhal? Deeren thought, but she said, "If you're going to go running, John, I'm sure we could find you some better shoes."
He actually smiled very slightly and began to push himself up from the ground.
"Yeah, I think I lost one," he said.
"Here." Deeren picked up the errant sandal from where it had been flung and handed it to John. He took it, but made no effort to put it on and sat, on the ground, leaning against a tree, regarding the sandal as if it held the secret to the mystery of life. He was covered in bits of twig and dirt. One pant leg was torn and Deeren could see his knee was bleeding and there were grazes on his hands. She said nothing; this was not a man who appreciated a fuss being made, at least not by her. She sat down nearby, but not too close.
"I don't want to talk," he said tightly.
She looked at him and merely smiled. "No."
A silence stretched between them.
"I'm not very good at... feelings... and stuff," he said.
"You are a man of action."
"Huh, yeah," he said sheepishly. "Even if the action involves running then falling over."
"You enjoyed the running?"
"Yeah," he nodded.
"But not the falling?" she teased.
He shrugged but said nothing. Her brows drew together in concern.
"The falling brought physical pain which distracted you from your emotional pain?"
"You don't want to talk," Deeren reminded herself.
A loud crashing through the brushwood thicket announced Rodney's arrival, red-faced, sweating and panting.
"Sheppard... couldn't... find you!" He gasped. "Didn't... know... which way you'd gone!" He bent over, put his hands on his knees and his breathing began to slow. Then he slumped down next to John. His eyes fell on John's torn pants.
"What have you done to yourself now?" He knelt up and grabbed John's hands, turning them over to regard the scrapes. "These are full of dirt, probably lots of germs and bacteria and you'll catch something because that would be typical of you!
"I'm fine, Rodney," John said, but Deeren noticed he tolerated Rodney's fussing calmly enough.
"Yes, well, maybe you are fine," Rodney said, releasing John's hands. "Maybe not, who knows?"
"McKay!" John growled, warningly.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to force you to talk." Rodney stood up. "I think I kind of need you to listen, though."
"You know, when someone runs away, it's usually because they want some time alone?" John began to get to his feet.
"No, wait," Rodney said. "John, please?"
John sighed and sat down again. "Go on, then, spit it out. I'm not guaranteeing to listen, though."
"No, but I am," said Rodney. "Because, well, here's how I see it! You know the saying, 'A trouble shared is a trouble halved'?" John snorted bad-temperedly. "Well, if you look at it another way, 'A trouble shared is a trouble made real.' You talk about something and there it is, hanging in the air between you, out in the open and you can't pack it away any more. And then you have to deal with other people's reactions; the sympathy, the pity and, God help us, the well- meaning advice. So, I get it, I really do, I get why you isolate yourself inside your own head." John grunted in possible acknowledgement. "The thing is, you can only go like that for so long before it gets to you. The guilt, the anger, the grief, whatever, it builds up inside you. So here's my offer: you ever want to just say something? Anything? I'm here. Not a one-time-only offer, just... whenever. I guarantee no sympathy, no pity, no judgement and definitely no advice. Yes. That's all. So... I'll stop now."
As Rodney was speaking Deeren had watched John's expression change from defensive, to neutral and finally to pensive. She had also noticed Arhal come through the trees and stop at the edge of the clearing, listening. When Rodney had finished, Deeren silently stood, took Arhal's arm and led him away.
They regained the path and walked together arm-in-arm until Arhal stopped. He seemed to be struggling to find words.
"Speak your heart, Arhal."
"I'm... I was... wrong," he said, surprise in his voice and expression. "I misjudged that which I didn't understand. I don't suppose I ever will understand, but... What they have is special, isn't it?"
"I shouldn't have interfered."
Deeren, uncharacteristically, shrugged. "Their friendship has weathered more storms than your interference." Arhal flinched at her use of the word. "And it has made them think. And talk. Just a little."
She smiled again and they continued to walk back to the Teaching House together.
John cleared his throat. "Um... that memory? Of my Mom? Riding?" His eyes flicked down and then back up and he realised he was chewing his lip again. He released it and continued, staring at his hands. "It... erm... it makes me sad... cos..." He cleared his throat again. "I still miss her."
"Okay," Rodney said, no inflection in his voice at all.
"You hungry?" John asked.
Rodney nodded eagerly. "Let's eat!" he said.
John climbed stiffly to his feet. Rodney picked some bits of twig and leaf out of John's hair and brushed down his clothes, tutting. They left the woodland together.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
They could have gone straight home; they both wanted to get back to Atlantis. But it was Midsummer and that meant a celebration and a celebration meant (and Rodney had this confirmed before making his final decision), a feast. And a feast was one thing Rodney McKay never passed up lightly. So they stayed, just one more night.
The feast was held in the village, although not on the flat area by the river which would have been ideal, because, as Arhal pointed out, that area was a floodplain and, although it hadn't flooded yet, the water lapped high at its edge and the swift brown river continued to rise as the summer sun melted the snow in the mountains.
The celebration was joyful and the food plentiful and as the sun set late in the evening the wind rose, causing the strings of fairy lights hanging between trees to be set dancing and bobbing like fireflies. A few spots of rain began to fall and Rodney found himself invited into one of the cosy hobbit holes where he was plied with yet more food and drink. John came in a little later shaking drops of rain from his hair.
"The water's risen. It's covering the floodplain now."
"Are we in danger? Should we evacuate?"
John shrugged, doubtfully. "The villagers say we should be okay. It hasn't risen past the floodplain for longer than most folks remember."
John looked up at the gunmetal sky and felt a few heavy raindrops strike his skin. The rain had almost stopped, but the wind still blew strongly, increasingly strongly, he thought. It was a strange, warm wind that pushed and pulled at him angrily; he watched it whip up spray from the surface of the threatening brown water. He and Rodney stood at the flood's edge, watching the fast flow and wondering if it would rise further.
"It flooded once when I was very young," said Deeren, moving to stand beside them. "I don't recall it rising this high, though."
Arhal skidded down the bank behind John and John stretched out his arm to slow his descent.
"Thank you! I don't think I'd enjoy swimming in that!" Arhal said. "And thank you for your help this morning, John, Rodney. You intend to return to Atlantis? Will you allow me to escort you?"
John vaguely heard Rodney reply to Arhal, but his eye was caught by two small boys, further up the bank. They were dangerously close to the edge and John saw the smaller, curly haired one had a branch that he was using to poke at the surface of the water. John began to move toward them but before he had taken two steps, the boy had leant out too far and, with a shriek, fell and with shocking suddenness slipped beneath the surface and was gone. The other boy looked like he was about to leap in after his friend but John yelled, "No!" and, kicking off his sandals and searching for a glimpse of the boy in the sinister brown water, dived.
The water was cold, but not shockingly so; it was the power with which John was swept along that was shocking, features in the riverbank sliding past with astonishing speed. John had caught a glimpse of hair and a splashing hand as he had dived and aimed with powerful strokes in a direction that he hoped would intercept the boy. He felt nothing but the sweep of the water and turned his head this way and that, trying to raise himself above the surface to see further. A splash, a hand, a choking high-pitched cry; John snatched the hand, pulled hard, grasped the boy's clothes and pulled him close, one arm around his flailing arms, feeling kicks from the little feet.
"Keep still!" he gasped. "I've got you."
The boy's movements slowly stilled and John managed to hold him so their heads were close and he knew the boy would be able to breathe. John looked around to see which bank was nearer. He could feel the water sapping his strength and knew he needed to get to land soon. He turned on his back, encouraging the boy to lie against him and kicked hard with both legs and paddled with one arm and very gradually began to make some headway.
The sound of the water appeared to change and John looked upstream with dread; a huge churning torrent of a wave was bearing down on them, branches and debris caught in its grasp. John suddenly flashed back to his surfing days; he'd had some pretty spectacular wipeouts in his time and he was no stranger to the power of wild water. He curled his body around the boy and held him close, tucking their heads together and wrapping one arm over the boy's head.
He whispered once more into the small ear, "I've got you," and then the wave hit. John tried to stay calm, hoping the wave would pass over them both, but the world became a confusing maelstrom of sound and movement. He was thrown over and over, something struck his elbow causing a flash of pain and John struggled to keep his arm in place, desperate to protect the little boy's head. He swallowed water and then water was all around him and he couldn't breathe, couldn't even tell which way was up. His heart pounded a frenzied rhythm in his ears and his only thought was to cling to the boy, to protect him even at the cost of his own life.
They stood on the soaking wet grass and Rodney could hear a small boy sobbing in his mother's arms and another young woman crying her distress and running from one group of shocked neighbours to the next, desperate for someone to tell her that it was not her child that was lost.
Rodney felt something inside him harden and his shock and horror hid in a small corner of his mind. He turned to Arhal.
"Run to the Gate. Now," he said, his voice flat, cold, unfamiliar. "Contact Atlantis. Tell them we need a Search and Rescue immediately. Do you understand?" Arhal nodded. "Go!" ordered Rodney and Arhal turned and ran, skidding and slipping at first, then running swiftly over the dryer ground.
Rodney's eyes flashed over the riverbank, finding the small boats where they had been drawn up away from the flood. He marched toward them, picked a boat that he thought he could move and dragged it toward the water's edge.
"Rodney, the river is too dangerous," he heard Deeren say, the panic in her voice barely suppressed. "Wait for help!"
"No," he said, uncompromisingly. "If I wait it could be too late."
"Rodney... the wave...," she said with sorrow. "I do not believe anyone could..."
"Yes they could!" Rodney interrupted. "Sheppard could survive. He could! He did!" Rodney had dragged the boat to the water's edge. He balanced it on the bank stepped in and sat down. He had seen kayakers do this, so he'd do it too. He brought his weight forward and felt the boat slide. Another jerk and he was in the water, the little boat turning in circles, wildly out of control. Rodney took the oars and gritted his teeth. He was going in the right direction. He would find John and the child. And they would be alive.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
It was too windy for a Jumper, so they walked: Ronon, Teyla, Jennifer, Lorne and his team, through the tearing wind and harsh slaps of intermittent rain. Teyla thought the whole character of Paiana had changed. No longer did they stroll lazily through summer-warm fields, laughing and breathing in the soft, sweet scents; the sky was a blank, grey slate, the wind buffeted with rough gusts that drained the energy of those trying to walk through it. The mood of the team was grimly urgent and Arhal, beside them, just kept his head down and tried to keep up. He had been distraught and barely comprehensible when he had contacted Atlantis but had then become silent, speaking only once, to apologise for having insisted on John and Rodney's visit. Teyla had waved his apology away, saying, "Such an accident could have occurred anywhere."
They reached the village. And found Rodney lost too.
Deeren, her face grey and gaunt, took Teyla's hands. "I couldn't stop Rodney. He wouldn't wait. And then there was another wave."
Teyla closed her eyes and squeezed Deeren's hands in shared sorrow. Then she opened her eyes and looked at Ronon, whose face was stony and closed-off. Teyla released Deeren's hands and waved Major Lorne over. Lorne held a datapad and was studying the display. He met Teyla's eyes and shook his head.
Deeren looked questioningly.
"We each have a subcutaneous implant so that our lifesigns and location may be tracked," Teyla told Deeren. She took a deep breath. "When we arrived on Paiana, apart from our own trackers, we only registered one other. So we assumed John was already lost."
Deeren pressed a hand to her lips and tears filled her eyes once more.
"Now...," Teyla shook her head. "A malfunction is always a possibility, but..." She fought to bring her voice under control. "We will search and we will bring them home."
While Teyla was speaking, Lorne had been assessing the area and directing his men and Ronon had already set off down the river bank, his great, determined strides making short work of the waterlogged ground. Teyla followed, ushering Jennifer to come with her.
"It's about four klicks downriver," said Lorne, gesturing with the datapad.
She nodded, tightly, unwilling to allow her emotions free rein until she knew for certain what had happened.
He opened his eyes and through mud-encrusted lashes saw a little boy, plastered with brown sludge, one filthy thumb in his mouth, the tear tracks on his face the only part of him free of dirt. John tried to sit up and felt the mud unwilling to let him go. He tried again and felt a sharp pain in his left elbow. His back was one big, aching bruise and, when he finally gained a slumped, but upright position, he nearly passed out again from the pain in his head. He raised a hand and tentatively touched the area, through his mud-slick hair, wincing. Squinting at his fingers, he thought the dirt was mixed with blood, but it was difficult to tell.
He looked at the little boy. "Hey, you okay?" he croaked. He coughed and spat out mud. The child said nothing. "My name's John."
"Daney," said the boy, softly.
"Daney." John blinked and swallowed as his head spun. "You hurt?"
The boy looked at his wrist, which he held close to his body; John thought it looked sprained or maybe broken.
"Okay, buddy, we need to get you home, don't we?"
John looked past Daney, toward the river, where he could see the deep, erratic tracks through the thick mud where he had carried the boy out of the water. He could only remember doing it vaguely and wondered how he'd managed, not even sure he could stand now.
"Gonna try getting up," he said, gathering his determination. John slowly rose to his feet, trembling still with exhaustion and breathing hard. His breathing sped up as he came upright and he stumbled away a few steps, fell to all fours and vomited. His breathing slower, he wiped his mouth with the back of a shaking hand and pushed himself up to standing once more.
"Okay..." he said, carrying out a quick assessment. His elbow was throbbing, and his headache felt like someone was drilling a hole in his skull. He thought he must have some deep bruising on his back, maybe even cracked ribs where things had hit him. Could be worse, he thought, fighting another surge of nausea.
"C'mon, then little fella." He held out his hand to Daney and the little boy got to his feet, wobbled a bit and took John's hand. They began to walk, both with tottering steps, along the riverbank.
"You need me to carry you?"
"Okay, how're we gonna do this?" John only had one arm that could take any weight and didn't fancy carrying the child on his back. He was about to squat down and try to pick Daney up, when he heard a distant, but very distinct curse. The river was obscured by a tangle of small willow-like trees, but the sound had come from that direction.
"You sit there, just for minute!" John directed. He turned and parting the branches with one hand, forced his way through toward the river. He heard another curse, this one attached to a small sob and, pushing his way through the last of the willows, found himself once more at the edge of a sloping expanse of fresh mud. He also found Rodney, sitting, half-buried in the sludge, one arm holding the other, trying to release himself from the suction, with what looked like frustratingly little success.
Rodney looked up, a weak smile appearing. "Sheppard!"
"Wait a minute," John said, and began tearing off small branches and throwing them on the ground between himself and Rodney. He then knelt down on the sticks and held out a sturdy branch which Rodney awkwardly grasped. The task was not accomplished easily, Rodney gasping in pain and John gritting his teeth, but eventually both were on solid ground.
They leant against each other weakly for a minute, neither speaking, absorbing each other's presence. Then they slowly sat up.
“D’you jump in after me?”
“I took a boat.”
"Your arm's broken?"
Rodney nodded slightly, as if every movement hurt. "Upper arm," he said, looking green. "Yours?"
"No, just bruised, I think," said John. A small cry came from beyond the bushes. "Daney," said John. "C'mon, let's get you up. Get the kid back to his Mom, get us back to Atlantis."
Ronon was at the water's edge, slogging through the mud and when he stopped, dread rose in Teyla's heart as she thought she saw a lifeless body half in half out of the water; it moved and was pulled away by the current and she realised it was just a log.
Teyla saw movement on the path ahead and squinted into the downpour. The rain obscured outlines, making them waver and blend into the grey-green half-light. She moved forward more quickly. There was a figure, no, two figures, moving slowly with halting, laboured steps. One of them stopped and sank down and Teyla ran. She cried out as she ran, slipping, unheeding of the waterlogged ground and as she came through the veiling rain, she saw Rodney, pale but whole, his right arm gripped tight by his left. And slumped on his knees with head bent, a little boy tugging at his hand, was John.
John wasn't aware that his eyes had closed until he opened them again to a soft glow and the interior of one of the hobbit homes. Jennifer's face appeared above him.
"'Lantis?" he whispered.
Jennifer shook her head. "It's still too windy for a Jumper and I don't want either of you moved any more today." Jennifer checked the IV that was hanging from the low ceiling.
Jennifer glanced behind her and John could dimly see another bed and Rodney's still, blanket-covered form.
"I've set and splinted his arm, and he wasn't too happy about that, but he's okay. Must have messed up his tracker when he broke it."
"We thought we'd lost you," she said quietly. "Or lost one of you."
"Not getting rid of us that easily," said John, changing his position and wincing.
"Try to lie still, you've got some nasty bruising. And I think you've chipped your elbow. And obviously you have a concussion - so lie still!"
John did as he was told, just turning his head slightly to see the little stove which, turned down low, gave out a gentle flickering light. The warm, red-brown colours of the bedding and rugs on the floor gave the room a cosy feel and John felt himself drifting into sleep. His eyes snapped open, causing a flare of pain in his skull.
"The boy? Daney?"
"Is fine and back with his Mom. Just a sprained wrist. Go to sleep."
Deeren got up and moved softly into the back room, hovering just inside the door. She too felt the need for reassurance. Both men slept, both were still pale, although they had lost the awful greyness of cold and pain and exhaustion. In sleep Rodney's face was relaxed and childlike and Deeren had trouble picturing that same face hardened into grim determination as he set out to rescue his friend, come what may, without any regard to his own safety.
John, too, looked peaceful and Deeren hoped he truly was, although having seen a glimpse of his internal struggle, she had her doubts. She was glad he had a friend who seemed to understand him without words of any consequence being spoken. She wished John could find a way to be more open, to allow himself to heal from past hurts, but if he released his burdens, would he still be the same person? Would he still be driven to fight? Would he still strive tirelessly to protect?
John murmured slightly in his sleep and his lips twitched into a flash of a smile. Rodney grimaced and snorted as if in response. Deeren smiled and turned to leave.
It was a different kind of friendship; but it worked.