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I yearn for you as the southern wind
Yearns to touch the swirling sands.

O kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
You sweeten my days like wildflower honey.

Even were I exiled from the city of my youth
With you beside me I am forever home.

-- From "Verses to my beloved," Henok of the household Libi, 12th century of the common reckoning


1.


"Please, friend. Wake up."

The man's voice sounds like it's coming from a great distance, and it's not a voice Rodney recognizes. Slowly he becomes aware of himself: he's hot, sweat pooling everywhere that skin is touching fabric or touching skin, and his mouth is painfully dry. He doesn't want to open his eyes because he can tell through his eyelids that it's really bright out there. But someone is shaking his shoulder insistently, so he makes an effort.

The world swims a little. A veiled figure is kneeling in front of him, blocking the light, but even through the hazy clouds the sun is strong enough to make his dusty eyes water.

"Wh--" he croaks, meaning to ask "where am I" or "who are you" or "what the hell is going on," but his throat won't quite work.

The stranger helps him sit up, one hand steadying him, and gives him a canteen made from what he suspects is animal skin.

"Not so fast," the man cautions, "just a sip," but Rodney's already gulped half the container; he doesn't care if it makes him sick, it feels so good going down.

"Save some for your friend," the man says, gesturing to Rodney's left, and that stops him on a dime: Rodney's head whips around and he sees another guy in a yashmak helping a shaky-looking and sandy John to his feet. John's tac vest is missing, and his thigh holster. Rodney's is, too, and where the hell are Ronon and Teyla?

"John," Rodney says, urgent and suddenly afraid. "Are you okay?"

"'M fine," John manages, and Rodney shakes off his guy and wobbles over to John as fast as he can, pushing the canteen into his hands. John takes three small measured sips, breathes a little, takes three sips again.

"Okay, what the fuck is going on?" Rodney demands, turning to face the two veiled men who are standing together next to a small wagon hitched to two donkey-like beasts and watching them drink. "Who are you? Where are we, where are our friends, and how did we get here?"

"We were hoping you could tell us at least some of those things," the taller man says smoothly, stepping forward and bowing in greeting. "I'm Janam and this is my partner Sami, of the household Dibbah. I don't know how you got out here, but you're lucky we found you. Please come with us; we need to get you out of the sun."

"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and this is Dr. Rodney McKay. We're from Atlantis," John says, and how does he manage to stand up so straight and look so in-control when his hair is unkempt and he's covered with fine-grained sand?

"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," Sami says, and gestures to the covered wagon. "Please. After you."

*

"I assure you, if your friends were in the desert we would have seen them. And there were no tracks leading to or from your position," Janam says, sounding regretful. "I am sorry."

"Great," Rodney says. His mouth tastes like sand.

"The last thing I remember, we were with Ronon and Teyla," John says.

"On M34-L68," Rodney agrees. The wagon is bumping along the pebbled desert floor; Janam is with them inside the tent, Sami's driving the donkeys. The interior holds the three of them, but it's a tight squeeze; half of the cart is loaded with burlap sacks of something, lentils or rice, which Janam shifted around to make room for John and Rodney to sit on top. It's stiflingly hot without the desert breeze, but the shade makes up for it. Mostly.

"We stopped for a drink." John's voice is rueful.

"Goddamned Tyrithian ale," Rodney says, smiling a little despite himself. Teyla had insisted they stop. She hadn't indulged since the start of the pregnancy, and when they found out there was a Tyrithian brewhouse in town, well -- they figured they could be half an hour late back to the gate without Woolsey freaking out.

"And we woke up here," John says, spreading his hands.

"Hm." Janam sounds contemplative.

"'Hm'? Is that all you've got?" Rodney bursts out.

"McKay," John says quietly, laying a hand on Rodney's arm, and it works; Rodney shuts up. But he does not like this, not at all, and he shoots John a look to make sure he knows it.

"My best guess is, you're a gift from the Quartet," Janam says finally.

"A -- what?" Rodney's voice cracks. Must be the dryness.

"The gods do mysterious things," and Janam has spread his hands now, mimicking John's gesture of uncertainty.

"Okay, I don't know what kind of 'gods' you worship around here, but we're not a gift, we've been kidnapped," Rodney snaps, "and you'd better get us back to the stargate so we can get back to Atlantis stat."

"'Star...gate'?" Janam repeats, sounding confused.

"Oh, no," Rodney groans. He can feel himself shaking with what might be panic and might be laughter. "You have got to be kidding me." John leans against him for a second, hard and comforting.

"All I know," Janam says, "is that in the heat of the day, in those dark clothes? I'm glad you didn't fry your brains like eggs on a hot stone." Janam's tone has grown tarter. Rodney realizes he should probably try to be pleasanter, say thank you or something, but his head is spinning and he's trying not to panic; he can't spare the energy to be polite.

"Thank you for that extremely appetizing mental image," Rodney mutters.

"Given that we didn't fry our brains," John says, "we must not have been out there all that long. Maybe whoever did this to us is still out there."

Janam grimaces. "Highly unlikely. We didn't see any tracks at all; it's as though you were dropped from the sky."

"Perhaps by something that can fly," Rodney offered.

"Small craft," John agrees, but Janam looks confused.

"Anyway, it's almost the end of Seva," Janam says, "Shmonit begins at sundown, and there won't be any traffic in or outside the city all day tomorrow; you're lucky we found you."

"Lucky," John agrees drily. "Right."

The cart slows down and Rodney can hear the sound of iron scraping against iron: the opening of a gate, maybe? City walls?

"Report," a woman's voice says, from outside the fabric of their tent.

"Two members of the household Dibbah," Sami says from the driver's seat, "and two unarmed strangers we found in the desert. We accept responsibility."

"In the desert! Elements protect us. Open, please."

Janam unhooks the drapery and Rodney squints in the sudden light. A woman in a drab olive-colored robe and veil peers in at them and then, apparently satisfied, steps back and nods.

"A sweet Shmonit to you and yours," the woman says, and the curtain falls closed as they jolt into motion again.

"I would really like to know what the hell is going on," Rodney says, to no one in particular.

"Well, in the immediate sense, we're taking you home," Jannam says. "You'll spend Shmonit with the four of us, and then we'll see if we can ascertain what happened to you and how you came to be outside our city walls."

"Shmonit," John repeats, quizzically.

Janam blinks. "Day of rest?" When neither of them shows any sign of comprehension he gives a little shrug and recites, "'And on the eighth day the Quartet rested from the labors of creation. Earth and water, air and fire: having combined their forces to shape Alma, the elements rested one with the other and were content'?"

"That's not how I remember it," Rodney huffs. "The sabbath is the seventh day where we come from, and there are definitely no elements involved, though God knows I might have had an easier time buying the story if there had been--"

"Where are you from that you don't celebrate the eighth day?" Janam asks, sounding honestly baffled.

"Atlantis. Which we'd like to get back to, thank you very much," Rodney adds, unable to resist editorializing.

Janam shakes his head. "I'm sorry; I don't know Atlantis. How many days' journey is it across the sands?"

"Oh, this is so not good," Rodney says: to John, to Janam, to the universe.

"It's going to be fine," John murmurs back, putting a little extra english on the last word like he wants to give Rodney something to hold on to.

The cart's motion stops. "We're here," Sami calls.

"Home sweet home," Janam calls back, and above the veil Rodney can see the crinkles around his eyes that telegraph a smile.

2.


"Guest quarters" at Janam and Sami's house turns out to mean a whitewashed room with a single enormous bed -- far wider than a Terran king-sized bed but no shorter; Rodney has a fast flash of completely inappropriate fantasy when he sees it -- and a bathroom with plumbing that's premodern but bearable. There's a watering-can spout hung high, connected to coppery tubing that goes up through the ceiling; probably a rainwater cistern on the roof, or something. There's a stack of clean towels, thin but sizeable, striped in bright colors. Four white robes or cloaks hang on hooks on the wall.

John showers first, quick and efficient, and comes out with one of the striped towels wrapped around his waist. Rodney ignores the tantalizing droplets of water on his torso, the familiar scars on his back and neck, and ducks past him into the bathroom for his own turn at getting clean.

The water feels so good, washing the grit away, that it takes a serious effort of will to limit himself...but who knows how infrequent rain might be in a place like this? When Rodney emerges, one of the hooks is missing its robe and John is nowhere to be seen, though his clothes are folded neatly in a pile on the floor.

Including his boxer briefs. Rodney swallows hard. John's out there in a robe with no underwear. Something to add to Rodney's list of kinks, apparently.

He considers his own pile of sandy clothing, and opts to follow John's example.

Fortunately, there's no trick to putting on the robe. It's off-white, made of something lightweight, with a stiff round embroidered collar and embroidery trailing down the front and the sleeves. There are two buttons at the neck, which Rodney stares at for a while but leaves unfastened; it's just too hot to think of being buttoned-up. It comes to just above his ankle.

"I look ridiculous," Rodney says to himself, and then takes a deep breath and pushes open the heavy wooden door.

*

The sound of voices lures Rodney through a curtain of hanging beads into what looks like a living room: a low square table surrounded by short couches and piles of floor pillows, in a room dominated by big arched windows screened with intricately carved stone. John's on one of the couches, talking with Sami and a woman who are sharing the couch across the table from him. He manages to make the robe look good, which is further evidence of the unfairness of the universe, though the fact that nobody's wearing a veil indoors makes Rodney feel slightly more at-ease.

There's a pitcher of water on the table between them, and six glasses. Thirst pricks the back of Rodney's throat again. Before he can figure out how to make his presence known, the woman spots him. "Oh!" she exclaims, standing up. "You must be Dr. McKay."

"Hey," John says.

"Yes, hello," Rodney reaches out his hand and then freezes, realizing he's not sure whether people shake hands here, or press foreheads, or what. The woman clasps his hand in both of hers and gives a little bow.

"I'm Rina," she says.

"Colonel Sheppard was just telling us about where you come from," Sami adds. He's already filling a glass of water for Rodney; it tastes faintly like mint.

"So," Rodney begins, looking at John for direction.

"There's no gate here, no space travel, no familarity with Ancient tech," John says crisply.

"It's possible they may know Ancient tech by some other name," Rodney points out. "Ring of the Ancestors? ZPMs -- these little cylindrical power sources," his hands sketching the shape and size instinctively. But Sami and Rina look regretful, which is not a good sign.

"Sorry," Rina says. She's sitting close to Sami, leaning on him a little in a way that -- okay, Rodney restructures his assumptions, because the way Janam had said "my partner" had led him to think they were...partners. But obviously that's not the case.

"On Ehd we'll take you to see the Council," Sami promises. "Nothing's open tomorrow, of course, but first thing Ehd morning--"

Rodney looks to John, who gives a microscopic shrug. Nothing they can do.

"Okay, fine," Rodney says, slumping back into the couch a little bit. A split second later a loud horn startles him almost out of his skin. One horn blast, and then another, and soon it sounds like they're coming from everywhere -- sharp and piercing, like someone's sounding the alarm all over the city. "What the hell is that?!"

John has snapped to alertness too, though Sami and Rina are still leaning against each other on the couch.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Sami says, "I should have warned you; that's the blast to let us know the sun has crossed the horizon and Shmonit has started. It's the official end to the work-week."

"Very relaxing," Rodney mutters, gulping down the rest of his glass of mint-water and feeling perturbed.

"Janam and Ani are putting dinner together," Rina offers. "For now," she bumps Sami's shoulder playfully, "I was thinking about opening some wine. Do you drink?"

"That's what got us into this mess." Rodney can't help being churlish; they were supposed to be home by now, not settling in for some obscure religious holiday on a world they've never heard of, wearing...dresses.

"Sure, why not," John drawls. When Rodney glances at him, he shrugs one shoulder elaborately, as if to say: it's Pegasus! Roll with it!

So Rodney does. "Yes, okay, I wouldn't mind a glass." It's not exactly gracious, but he's trying. How often does he get to have a drink, anyway? One night of vacation; they might as well enjoy it.

*

"So much water; it's almost inconceivable!" Janam sounds gobsmacked. It's bizarre: this place is lit by basically kerosene lamps, there's no Ancient tech, no space travel, no awareness of the gate system, and yet what these people find hardest to believe about their story is that New Lantea is comprised mostly of ocean.

"Yeah, it's nice," John agrees. "We don't really have the waves for surfing, but otherwise, it's just about perfect."

Janam blinks, but doesn't ask. Smart man, Rodney thinks.

"We have seen the largest body of water on our world -- the Sea of Tehom," Ani points out. "It's amazing."

"What a trip! We should do that again someday," Rina says.

"Mm, yes, and all we need to do is save our earnings for another four years!" Sami doesn't roll his eyes, but the vocal tone is there. Rodney respects that.

"That was right after we formed a quartet," Rina says, sounding wistful.

"It'll be a year at the water-drawing festival," Sami says, beaming at her. "More wine, dear?"

Without waiting for a response, he tops off Rina's glass, and Ani's, and Jamal's. He seems to be flirting with everybody. Rodney makes a mental note to ask John later whether he's seeing that too.

"A quartet," John repeats, as if he's trying the word out in his mouth.

"We'd been a pair from boyhood on," Jamal explains, jerking his head toward Sami and smiling fondly, "and we'd been wondering whether these two would want to make a household--"

"We'd been on the lookout for a second pair who wouldn't drive us insane," Ani adds tartly.

"So we were all hoping to balance the elements at midsummer," Rina finishes, beaming at all of them as though this conversation were actually making sense.

"Balance the elements? Is that some kind of euphemism?" Rodney asks, and John kicks him under the table. "Ow," he hisses, glaring at John for a second.

Sami and Janam exchange indulgent glances, and Ani giggles.

"So, the elements," John says, smiling winningly at Rina.

"You know, 'the elements gathered together to form creation out of a droplet of water, a spark of fire, a breath of wind, and a grain of sand,'" she says, in the tone of someone who's reciting childhood catechism.

"And they've ruled together ever since," Janam says drily, "the divine household on which all worldly households are based."

"Ladies and their consorts," Ani says, with satsfaction.

"I'd say Lords and their wives," Janam corrects her, though it sounds like a longstanding joke; all four of them look amused.

"But the women are always on top," Rina assures them, serving herself another helping of stew.

"Oh? We'll see about that!" There's high color in Sami's cheeks, and the look on his face makes Rodney glance away fast. John is eating his stew, not seeming fazed at all, and Rodney has the sudden horrible feeling that maybe John is missing this altogether.

"I'm sorry, are they embarrassing you?" Rina gives Rodney a sheepish smile. "We're not usually like this around guests, I apologize."

"It's just -- it's our first year as a household, and on Shmonit, no one has to wake early for work," Janam says, and yes, he's definitely blushing.

"Right, yes, you know what, this dinner has been delicious, thank you," Rodney says, aware that he's talking way too fast but really not giving a damn. "We've had a long day, I think it's probably time for us to turn in. Don't worry about us in the morning, I'm sure we can entertain ourselves--"

"There are some games in the wooden chest in the living room," Rina offers. "And a small collection of scrolls in the library. We'll be up by midday, I'm sure."

"There's bread in the kitchen, and olives, and cheese," Sami adds.

"I guess we're done with dinner," John says wryly, pushing back his chair and standing. "Thanks for your hospitality, Janam. Rina. Sami. Ani."

"Going now," Rodney mutters, grabbing John's wrist and making a beeline for the door. His fingers brush over the thin leather strap tied around John's wrist, which suddenly seems unbearably intimate; he lets go as if he's been burned, but John follows him anyway.

*

"Okay, does this not weird you out at all?"

John, who is lying at the far end of the bed (wearing boxers now, thankfully) shrugs.

Rodney sits on the edge of the bed. He can't stop thinking about what their four hosts might be doing right now, and it's making him...agitated. "I mean, how common is this kind of thing around here, anyway?"

"Ask Teyla tomorrow," John suggests.

Rodney snorts: like he's really going to bring this up with her?

Then a thought occurs to him that momentarily freezes him in a hot flash of mortification. "You don't think -- when we go places -- " He can't even get the words out.

John laughs. "Maybe people think we're a 'quartet'."

"Oh, God," Rodney groans, and flops back on the bed and covers his eyes with one arm.

"Hey, we could do worse," John points out. "Ronon and Teyla are pretty hot." He doesn't, of course, say anything about Rodney.

"And yet women still throw themselves at you." There's a bitter taste in Rodney's mouth. There always is, when he thinks about the string of women who've made overtures to John. They're all excited about his cool smirk and his slinky hips, but they have no idea who he really is.

Not that Rodney has the right to claim real expertise. He knows how John races remote-controlled cars, what kind of movies John likes, how John looks when he's about to do something incredibly stupid and brave -- but he's never had the courage to tell John any of the things he really wants to say.

"Get some sleep, McKay," John says, and rolls over, turning away.

3.


Rodney can't help fidgeting with his yashmak, which is off his face and in his hands because they're indoors. He hadn't realized how often he reaches for a scanner, datapad, lifesigns device just to have something to do with his fingers.

They've been standing outside the carved wooden doors of the Council's chambers for fifteen minutes, and the walls are thick stone. He can't hear anything coming from inside. John is leaning against the wall at the opposite side of the hall, his veil folded and slung over one shoulder. He looks bored.

When the doors open, John stands up straight. Janam beckons them inside.

The Council -- four men and four women; it's only their second day in the Golden City, but already the gender balance is predictable -- are seated around a big square table. Janam and Rina are at the foot of the table, with two empty chairs between them.

"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard and Dr. Rodney McKay," says the tall dark-haired woman opposite them. "I'm Councilor Elef."

"Pleased to meetcha," John says.

"Likewise," Rodney adds belatedly.

Not for the first time, Rodney wishes Teyla were there. He's probably blown local ettiquete twenty times already today. He drags a chair away from the table and sits down next to John.

"Your hosts have apprised us of your situation, and we have given leave for you to be housed near the market for the time being."

"Housed?" The word bursts out of Rodney's mouth before he has the chance to stop himself, and now all eyes are on him. He stands up. "We don't have any intention of staying here long enough to be housed; we need to get home. Our people are going to be worried about us, and I realize these referents don't mean anything to you, but you really don't want to make Ronon and Teyla angry, not to mention Mr. Woolsey, and believe me, as much as I grouse about the IOA--"

"Doctor," the councilor says, with some force behind her voice, and Rodney shuts up.

"Please understand that we are not responsible for your...situation."

"We realize that," John cuts in smoothly, "and Councilor, we appreciate your hospitality tremendously."

Rodney sits down and fiddles some more with the increasingly-wrinkled veil crumpled in his hands.

"But Rodney's right, people are going to be worried about our disappearance."

"You suspect foul play," Elef says -- not really a question, but John nods.

"Suspect, like hell," Rodney murmurs under his breath.

"Our hosts have told us that some of the--" John considers, "technologies we're used to aren't a part of your lives."

"Indeed," the councilor agrees.

"There are legends of space travel," one of the men pipes up -- his hair is white, but he looks young. "But there is no record of such things anywhere in our library."

"Well, is there a bigger library?" Rodney demands.

"There is," Elef confirms, "at the Exegetical Academy."

Relief washes over Rodney like a cool breeze. If there's a library, then all is not lost. "Great; when can we go?"

The white-haired guy coughs. "It is a week's journey, and it is not our custom to allow those who are not ordained to enter the Great Library."

"Oh, come on," Rodney says, but it's for form's sake; he can tell from the audible capitalization of words (not to mention the posture of everybody in the room) that this is not going to be negotiable. "I have two PhDs! And the Colonel is extremely gifted; I'd put him up against your scholar-priests any day."

"We're already composing the missive to the head librarian," Elef continues, as if he hadn't spoken, "and if there are texts which will be helpful to you, they'll be brought in the next caravan."

"That's big of you," John says. Rodney sneaks a glance; his voice and posture seem comfortable, easy, but there's a tightness in the line of his jaw. He doesn't like this any more than Rodney does.

"If there is any other way we can be accomodating to you, we trust you won't hesitate to let us know." Elef rises, and the rest of the councilors follow suit.

"The elements bless you," Janam says, and Rina echoes him.

"And you as well," Elef says, and Rodney and John follow their hosts out the big wooden doors.

"'Extremely gifted'?" John murmurs to him as they exit, sounding amused.

"Yeah, at being a pain in the ass," Rodney retorts, but the low ache of anxiety in his chest seems just a tiny bit less intense than it was a second before.

*

As they walk to their apartment, as Janam shows them the food that's been stashed in their kitchen and the pile of metal squares and octagons he's lending them (obviously currency), Rodney is adding to his mental list of all the things he's not saying to John right now. He keeps a running tally. It usually features half a dozen variants on "I would really like to touch you in spectacularly inappropriate ways," but right now that category of unspoken thought has been pushed into the background by how badly he wants to ask John are you really okay?

It goes against their (equally unspoken) code. You don't say things like that, not unless the situation's really terrible, and Rodney's sure John would say this doesn't qualify. But that doesn't change him wanting to ask.

Maybe it's the experience of being adrift in the Pegasus galaxy without Teyla or Ronon, anyone who can interpret or contextualize. Maybe it's being on a planet where space travel is completely unknown. (Hell: the internal combustion engine appears to be completely unknown.) A planet where, if there's a stargate, no one in the Golden City seems to know about it. But there has to be a stargate; how else would they have gotten here? And who the fuck kidnapped them, and why?

"Ronon and Teyla are fine," John said yesterday. "They're probably back in Atlantis already. They've got Zelenka. We've got subcutaneous transmitters. They'll be able to figure out where we are. We just have to hang tight and wait."

It's a reasonable line of argument. Rodney's doing his best to bear it in mind.

But this feels weird, seriously weird. And he still isn't used to the sand, which gets everywhere as soon as you go outside -- he's not tying his yashmak right, so there's sand in his ears, sand between his teeth. He wants to ask John whether this is anything like being in Afghanistan, and then again he doesn't want to ask, because he doesn't want to talk about Earth. Earth is home once-removed. Jeannie and Madison and Schršdinger are pretty much the only things he cares about there, anymore.

Being away from Earth is normal. Being away from Atlantis -- being away from Ronon and Jennifer, from Teyla and Torran, from Zelenka, from the hum of their city -- just feels wrong.

Come on, Radek, he thinks. Find us, already.

A little voice in his head reminds him that tracking them via subcutaneous transmitter should have been instaneous -- a matter of keying in their transmitter codes and clicking "go," basically. Which means it's possible that their transmitters have been disabled or blocked somehow. Or that they're somewhere beyond even Atlantis' prodigious subspace sensor range. Or that things are truly FUBAR and the city has worse things to worry about than the reality that Rodney and John are missing.

He shuts down that line of thought as quickly as he can.

"So," John says, interrupting his reverie. "Guess we ought to walk around, see what we can see."

"Mmm, because what I want more than anything else in the world right now is to swallow another pint of sand."

"Here, let me --" And John's right in his space, hooking the cloth over his nose and mouth and giving a deft twist to the other piece of the yashmak. "Do it this way, it'll help."

"Thanks," Rodney says, through the cloth.

"Anytime," John says, already disappearing behind his own veil.

4.


"Any luck?"

"Nothing," Rodney says, rolling his neck and trying to make it crack. "God! I hate these fucking scrolls. There is no way to read these things that's even vaguely ergonomic."

John hands him a glass of mint-water wordlessly, and Rodney drinks it down.

"I spent three hours with Hinam trying to convince him that yes, in fact, I can actually read and he can trust me in his precious reading room."

John snorts.

"Their filing system is arcane, and it's obviously a zillion years since their version of Ancient branched from the one I know, but--"

"Zillion years; that's a scientific assessment."

Rodney flips him the bird. "The point is, at the end of the day I can tell you a lot more about their music -- unsurprisingly based on octaves -- and their math, which is in octal just like the Ancients' -- but not a damn thing about the location of this planet's stargate."

"It's got to be orbital," John says, not for the first time.

"Which would be fine and dandy, if we had a jumper, but in the absence of a jumper, or any rubber bands and paper clips out of which I could attempt to engineer one..." Rodney trails off. There's no point in completing that sentence.

There's a moment of silence.

"I got a job today," John says brightly, and Rodney almost chokes on his water.

"You what?"

John shrugs. "I went down to the market to get some groceries, and I ran into Sami and that guy Rechem from next door."

A dozen of their neighbors have come, two by two, bearing little cakes and bottles of ale as housewarming gifts. Rodney's starting to suspect that this is the couples' district: where people live when they're young, paired, just starting out, maybe looking for another couple to make a happy foursome. (He glares at all of them, just to make sure nobody's getting the wrong idea.)

"So?"

"Rechem's got two stalls to manage, one selling cloth and one selling knives."

"Let me guess."

"I'm going to pick a few of these to give to Ronon," John says. "The steel's good, and the handles have a nice feel."

Neither one of them says anything about when, and how, they're going to see Teyla and Ronon again.

"So you're a knife-seller now."

"Pretty much everybody in town wants to meet the new guys, so I shouldn't have any trouble making sales."

"Great," Rodney says.

"If you get bored at the library tomorrow, come down to the market in the late afternoon," John suggests. "It's kind of cool."

"You don't have to pretend we're on vacation," Rodney says. It comes out sounding pissier than he meant it to, and he winces a little.

"They're going to find us," John says. "Look: last time I got trapped somewhere with no hope of rescue, it took six months before you guys showed up--"

"Which was not my fault in any way, shape, or form! We were working as fast as we could!"

"My point," John says, "is that you do not get to bitch about how nobody's come to get us until we've been stuck here for at least a week."

"Fine," Rodney says. "Next Shtayn, I get to bitch as much as I want." When John looks confused, he clarifies, "Tuesday. Basically."

"Ehd," John says, "Shtayn...?"

"Thulat, Arba, Khames, Shesh, Seva, Shmonit."

"They're numbers, aren't they? Not osbcure references to gods," John muses.

"Somebody really ought to write a paper about pidgins and creoles and variants on the English language in Pegasus."

John raises an eyebrow, leaning back on his couch. "Take you away from your computers for 36 hours and you're already coming up with research ideas in the soft sciences."

"Oh, don't even," Rodney snaps back. "Just for that, I'm not going to share my beer with you."

"I'll pour my own, then." John stands. "I got some kind of red dumpling soup at the market, and some kind of grain-thing, and some carroty things with raisins."

"Cool," Rodney says. Now that John's mentioned food, Rodney's stomach growls. "Let's eat."

*


Living with John feels strangely normal. They were pretty much in each other's back pockets on Atlantis anyway, but if someone had asked Rodney whether they would make good housemates, he's not sure he would have answered in the affirmative.

But they do. It probably helps that they're not doing much cooking: John brings dinner home from the market, and otherwise they mostly eat fruit and bread and cheese. Some of the food is pretty weird, but Rodney hasn't seen any sign of citrus fruit on this planet, which is a saving grace.

They play Go at night, for hours, with a grid board and two bowls of pebbles they find in a livingroom cupboard. Between the game itself and the trash-talking, it's actually pretty fun.

Sharing a bed is more challenging. This one isn't as big as the one at Janam and Sami's place -- it's built for two rather than for four -- but it's still easily as spacious as a Terran king-sized mattress, and after four years of sleeping on Atlantis' narrow twin beds, it feels luxurious. The mattress is solid, too, so Rodney's back isn't complaining.

They have plenty of space. They sleep in their boxers, back to back, with an acre or two between them. It's fine.

The hard part is when he wakes up in the middle of the night and sees John sleeping, limned with moonlight, and it's all he can do not to reach out and touch. When John comes out of the shower in the morning, thin towel tucked around his hips. But so far, John hasn't caught him staring.

That everybody they meet assumes they're a couple is either hilariously funny or some kind of sick joke the universe is playing on Rodney and his impossible fantasies. He tries not to think about that either.

*

Rodney thought the library was disorganized: scrolls rolled tight and tied with different colored ribbons, packed into cylinders, cylinders on shelves and on the floor and everywhere except suspended from the goddamned ceiling. But it's nothing on the market.

Even through his yashmak he can smell it from a block away: strong spices, and a dozen different kinds of stew, and leather. It's mostly covered (you'd hate to be outdoors during the heat of the day if there weren't shade) but that means it's noisier and the smells are stronger. By the time Rodney makes it to the entrance he's half-considering just going home. But a woman veiled in chartreuse smiles at him with her eyes, and calls, "You're looking for the other offworlder?"

Amazing that "offworlder" has already entered their vocabulary. That's got to be John's fault.

"Good guess," Rodney says, shading his eyes with one hand.

"This way," the woman says, and Rodney follows her into the throng.

It's chaos in here. One guy's got bolts of fabric in every imaginable color, stacked all the way to the roof. The next guy has bags of spices, big open burlap sacks on the ground and on shelves, each one overflowing with some kind of leaf or powder. Olives in every shade of purple and green. Dates still on their stems. Green pyramid-shaped fruits that might be some kind of fig. Women selling beads. Men calling out the names of their wares. Kids darting this way and that, underfoot. One's got a goat on a leash. It's completely insane.

And as they get deeper into the market, the press of people gets tighter. Less like a shopping mall, more like swimming upstream at a hockey stadium. A guy comes by with a wooden pallet on his head, piled high with oval breads, and Rodney winces and ducks even though it seems clear that the guy has good spatial skills and isn't ramming his cargo into anyone's forehead.

Just as Rodney's reflecting on the hope that the woman in chartreuse is actually leading him to John, not to some unknown terror in a market back alley, they emerge out of the crowd and into a square. It's still market on all sides -- people selling bells, bolts of shiny silk, drums -- but he can breathe again.

And there's John, sitting lazily in front of his stall. "Rodney!"

"Thanks," Rodney says to the woman, and they clasp hands and bow and she goes on her way. "Jesus," he says to John, "how do you ever find your way here?"

John grins. "Gets easier with practice."

"Hm."

"Also, there's a back way." John beckons to a boy from the next stall, who looks about eleven. "Hey, would you grab us a few coffees?"

Rodney reaches for his purse, but John shakes his head; the kid's already gone. "They bring free coffee here for all the customers. I send customers to their shop for beans. It's a win-win."

"I had no idea you had such business acumen."

"I just do what Sami tells me."

The kid's back wth the coffee already, steaming and fragrant in little ornamented glasses, and they lift their veils out of the way to drink. It's almost too hot, it's thick as mud, and it's spiced with something Rodney can't name. It's incredible.

"Oh, I think I love you," Rodney groans, too blissed-out to care quite how dorky he sounds.

"Way to a man's heart," John agrees, sipping his own.

*

When Tuesday rolls around again -- Shteyn, Rodney corrects himself; too soon to have heard back from the scholars at the Academy, but it's been a full week without rescue -- John leaves his earpiece by his side of the bed.

Rodney's pretty sure that if he asked, John would say something about conserving battery life. He's also pretty sure John would know it was a bogus explanation. The batteries in these things last for years. That he's not wearing his earpiece means he doesn't think anyone's coming for them. Not soon, anyway. Maybe not ever.

At the last second before he leaves for the library, Rodney tears his earpiece off and leaves it by his side of the bed, too. It seems forlorn there, somehow. He doesn't look back.


5.


Some people go to the baths on Seva afternoon. It's a sign of piety -- preparing oneself spiritually for Shmonit -- though given the way Janam swoons when he mentions it, Rodney suspects the experience is more sybaritic than he's letting on.

The solar-heated shower in their apartment works well enough, but it's nothing special, and Rodney feels guilty about showering for more than the few minutes it takes to soap up and rinse clean. "Besides," Sami wheedles, "tonight's the Festival of the Water-Drawing. You haven't lived until you've seen that!"

"You have to come to the baths," Ani urges them. "It's traditional to enjoy the waters before giving thanks."

Rodney's pretty sure they're talking about actual baths, not some kind of demented orgy, but it's always hard to be sure.

"C'mon, Rodney," John says, and of course once he turns that smile on Rodney, Rodney's willpower is toast. "Let's go have a soak."

And that's how they come to be standing in front of the public baths on the north side of the city. The big steps leading to the ornate doorway are thronged with veiled figures talking and laughing.

"These baths are for adults only," Sami explains as they follow him through marble hallways to a vast co-ed changing room. Rodney has time for a moment of panic -- fuck, it's a bathhouse bathhouse! -- before Sami continues, "the southern baths allow children, so they tend to be noisy and chaotic, especially on the eve of a festival. This one is more serene." Rodney's so relieved he almost trips over his sandals: serene almost certainly doesn't mean orgy.

Not that an orgy with John would be such a terrible thing, but Rodney's pretty sure John wouldn't see it that way.

Wrapped in thin blue towels, they emerge into an enormous echoing hall where the steam washes over Rodney like a caress. After a few weeks in the desert, humidity is the most incredible sensation ever. In front of them are low octagonal marble tables where people sit in groups of twos and threes, ladling hot water over one another from copper buckets. At the far end there's what looks like a massage parlor, and in the middle: an octagonal pool, tiled in blue, steaming.

"Oh my God," Rodney murmurs, because this is amazing. "This is amazing. We should be coming here all the time."

"This doesn't suck," John agrees.

"There's Rina," Sami says, pointing, and leads them to the pool, where Rina is sitting on a low ledge and luxuriating. He drops his towel and climbs in. Taking a deep breath, Rodney follows suit. As John descends the steps, Rodney finds an excuse to glance in the other direction; he desperately wants to look, but just as desperately doesn't want to get caught looking, and discretion seems the better part of valor. Barely.

The water's almost too hot to bear, which means it's perfect. Rodney closes his eyes, leans back against the tiled wall of the pool, and tries not to think for a while.

*

Eventually they move to one of the low marble octagons, and Sami brings over a pair of buckets of hot water. He takes one ladle and spoons the water slowly over his partners, which is sensuous and oddly mesmerizing; for all that the room is at 100% humidity, Rodney's mouth is suddenly dry.

"Want to do me?" John asks him, and okay, Rodney's a strong man, he can resist anything, even the combination of attractiveness and incredibly lame (surely unintentional) innuendo.

"Sure," Rodney manages, and moves to stand behind John so he can slowly pour the water over John's shoulders and down his chest. John bends his head forward, which is probably just to give Rodney better access but feels like a gesture of submission.

Rodney's saved from the purgatory of his own impure thoughts when yet another pair of towel-wrapped women stops in front of them, looking them up and down. "Welcome to the Golden City," one says flirtatiously.

"Been here a while already, thanks," Rodney says.

John gives a little twitch: trying not to laugh?

"I'm Lital and this is Harbia," the other woman says. "Will we see you at the Festival of the Water-Drawing tonight?"

"We'll be there," John says.

"Wonderful," Harbia gushes. She flicks a glance up at Rodney, grins, and then turns to walk away.

"Everyone wants to meet the strangers in town," Ani notes, sounding amused.

"I think they'd be in-demand even if they were locally grown," Rina quips.

Rodney's face flames hot with new understanding: they're being scoped. "I thought this wasn't that kind of bathhouse!"

The reference completely escapes their hosts, of course, but John reaches over and pats him on the ankle. "I don't think anyone's going to directly proposition us, if that helps any."

As if to put the lie to that, a man stops in front of them. He's tall, at least as tall as Ronon, which means he doesn't have to crane his neck much to look at Rodney even though Rodney's standing a couple of steps up. "I'm Aban," he says.

"Hi," John says. "I'm John; this is Rodney."

"Hi," Rodney echoes tightly. But Aban and John don't break eye contact.

"Adela and I would be honored if you would join us for a drink this evening." He gestures toward the pool. "She's still in the water; I thought I'd come say hello."

"Thanks for the invitation." John's voice is mild and noncommittal, but Aban grins, a flash of white teeth.

"Be well," he says. Rodney can't help staring as he walks away; even through his low-slung towel, his legs and the curve of his ass are completely spectacular. And the slope of his back and shoulders.

"Finished with that ladle?" John's voice startles him into looking down; he's been standing there with an empty ladle in one hand, watching Aban go. John's leaning back on his hands, looking up at him, wry amusement all over his face.

"I was just, ah --" Rodney fumbles for something, anything, he can say.

"You'd have to be dead not to notice Aban of the House Numan," Janam says, a note of wistful admiration in his voice.

"Here, let's trade places," John says, his voice light, and Rodney hands him the ladle and climbs down to sit. The first splash of water on the back of his shoulders feels really good -- and it means he can face the floor, doesn't have to look John in the eye. He's pretty sure he just came out to John, completely by accident, and he has no idea what John is thinking at all.

*

The music is audible from blocks away. There are bands of people playing stringed instruments that sound vaguely lute-like, though their tuning isn't exactly like anything Rodney knows. Boys tap at hand-drums and little girls are running around with tambourines.

The octagonal plaza in the center of town is packed with people, everyone in their finest robes and brightest veils. It's after dark, but the plaza is bright as day, lit with lanterns. There's a guy riding a unicycle, and another guy juggling flaming torches, and in the throngs some people are dancing.

"This is crazy," Rodney shouts to John, leaning close to cup his hand over John's ear.

John just nods.

The music is temporarily drowned-out by the sounds of the horns Rodney recognizes from the start of Shmonit. A hush falls over the crowd, and at the far end of the plaza people are moving to make way for a phalanx of tall figures, all robed and veiled in silver and grey. Two by two, they're carrying lidded buckets of water, eight in total, and they form a circle around the middle of the plaza.

Four figures veiled in white emerge with enormous crowbars, and slowly they pry the paving-stones away. Rodney cranes his neck to see what's below the street, but he can't make it out. A loud blast from what seems to be every horn in town, and the pairs who carried the water up from the spring raise their buckets and one by one pour their water into the middle of the plaza at the center of the city. A cheer goes up, and the music starts again -- drums, bells, lutes, and now people are singing something Rodney can't make out.

"Found you!" It's Ani, standing to their right, and she grabs John's arm. "Come on -- we're saving you seats at the weavers' banquet."

John shrugs to Rodney and they follow her through the crowd and out one of the streets that acts as a spoke of the plaza's wheel.

*

The weavers -- among whose number Ani is counted -- throw a pretty swank party. Ani takes them to a warehouse space Rodney's never seen, lined with rich carpets and piled with pillows where guests recline. Servers are making the rounds with platters of lamb on enormous beds of rice, tureens of stew, and bottles upon bottles of wine.

"We're so glad to have you here," Janam says warmly. His arm is around Sami, and Rina and Ani are leaning together beside them.

"What's the story with the water ceremony?" John asks.

"The water's brought up from the spring in the valley -- the same one that feeds us," Sami explains.

"And under the plaza there's, what, pipes?" Rodney asks.

Sami's nodding. "The water's sluiced back to the spring."

"It's our way of offering thanks to the Elements for the sustenance they provide," Ani says seriously. "And it ensures that there will continue to be water in the year to come."

"It's like a hard reboot of the water system," John muses.

As usual, their hosts just blink, not sure how to respond to the unfamiliar reference. And then Rina adds, "and of course, it's an auspicious time for new beginnings." She's blushing a little. Ani clasps her hand; Sami and Janam exchange a quick kiss.

Rodney feels a familiar melancholy creeping in around the edges.

The people here have been generous and welcoming -- more so than the Terrans (are they now Lanteans?) would have been if the situation were reversed, much as Rodney hates to admit it. And he actually likes these people. So why is he feeling so out-of-sorts?

Maybe it's the realization that this is basically their wedding anniversary, Janam and Sami and Ani and Rina. All of a sudden Rodney misses Teyla and Ronon with an ache so fierce it makes him lightheaded. Not that they were ever this kind of family, but they're family all the same.

"You okay?" John asks quietly.

"I'm--" Rodney stops himself. "I don't know how I am. I miss Teyla and Ronon."

"Yeah," John agrees.

As if by mutual agreement, this is a subject they mostly avoid. Too painful, too many unknowns. But right now Rodney can't help thinking about them. Wondering how they would respond to all of this.

Also as if by mutual agreement, they haven't talked about their bathhouse adventure. Which is a relief, because it means they're going to pretend John didn't notice Rodney checking that guy out. Which means, in turn, that they don't have to talk about whether John's now uncomfortable sharing Rodney's bed, or whether John thinks Rodney's an asshole for not coming out to him sooner.

But right now Rodney really wishes he could lean into John the way Rina's leaning into Ani -- not just because he wants to jump John's bones (because really, who doesn't?) but because he feels lonely, and far from home, and it's starting to sink in that this may be the way things are now. They may never find out what happened to Ronon and Teyla. They may never make it back.

Feeling isolated and alone when you're alone is bad enough. Feeling isolated and alone at a big party, surrounded by flirting and wine and conversation, Rodney thinks: that sucks beyond the telling.

"Good evening." There's a woman at the edge of their carpet who Rodney recognizes but can't place. She's tall and beautiful and wearing a magenta robe that makes her look like a Bollywood star.

"Adela," Ani says brightly. "Will you and Aban join us?" Right: last time he saw her, she was in a giant swimming pool, no wonder he couldn't put a name to her face.

"We were hoping your guests might join us," she says, turning the full force of her smile on Rodney and then on John. "Aban and I are over there," pointing toward a carpet maybe thirty meters away.

"That's a great invitation, but -- I think we might head home early, actually," John says.

Rodney breathes out a sigh of relief. Not that he's not attracted to Aban and Adela -- he has eyes, thank you -- but the prospect of negotiating...whatever this is...with them and with John was tying his insides in knots.

"Oh, you're going so soon?" That's Janam, disappointed.

"Yes, sorry, I'm not feeling very well," Rodney lies. It's almost true. "It's a beautiful party; thank you for including us. Thanks for the invitation, Adela."

"Another time, maybe," she says, shrugging a little, and bows in farewell.

"We miss our friends," John says quietly, and their four new friends make understanding noises.

"It must be difficult to be separated from your family," Janam says.

That brings a lump to Rodney's throat for sure. "Goodnight," he manages, standing up, and John follows him out of the pavilion and into the quiet streets.

*

They've just let themselves into their apartment -- Rodney's lighting the kerosene lantern -- when John speaks.

"Were you ever going to tell me?"

Rodney feels his shoulders tensing. "I thought we weren't going to talk about this."

"What gave you that idea?"

"Well, we hadn't talked about it yet! I figured that was working pretty well."

"Is it?"

Ouch. Rodney folds his arms. "Okay, yes, I like men." The words hang in the air, stark and irretrievable. "Is that a problem for you?"

John looks wounded. "Of course it's not a problem for me. Do you really think I'm that kind of jerk?"

Rodney leans against the wall, all the fight draining out of him. "No," he admits, fidgeting with the edge of his robe. "I think I'm a jerk for not coming out to you in the first place."

"Hey," and now John's voice is quiet and filled with concern. "I don't mean to make it -- look, there was nobody you were interested in, there was no reason for it to come up."

John's offering him a way off the hook, but he can't take it. Because what John's saying isn't true either, and if he's coming clean, he's really going to come clean. Rodney squares his shoulders, feels his mouth tightening.

"You're giving me the benefit of the doubt, but..." He has to swallow hard. "There is someone I've been interested in, and I should have said something to you a long time ago."

Suddenly John is standing a lot closer than Rodney thought he was. "You gonna tell me who it is, or do I have to guess?"

"It's you," Rodney says, helpless, because saying this is the wrong idea, he knows it is. It always has been. And it's really the wrong idea here and now, because all they have here is each other and he's just said the one thing that's guaranteed to make John uncomfortable, maybe even to push John out of their apartment. Despite the ambient heat, Rodney feels numb.

And then John's hands come up to cradle his face, and John's pushing him against the wall, and John's kissing him hot and desperate like something out of one of Rodney's fantasies, like nothing Rodney ever imagined at all.

*

They roll over and over on their bed, clothing discarded in a haphazard trail across the floor. Rodney's on top now, and he kneels up, pinning John to the bed. John's mouth is wet and his eyes are dark and he looks younger; he looks happy.

"God," Rodney says thickly, because this is almost too much: John Sheppard spread beneath him like a feast. John thrusts up a little, his hands moving restless over Rodney's hips. "I can't believe we --"

There are a hundred different ways he wants to end that sentence: waited this long, never said anything, haven't done this until today. Sudden anxiety rises in him -- what if this is only happening now because they're far from home, because he's the only person John has left who shares John's context? The only one who knows what Earth means, what Atlantis means?

"Stop thinking," John says."Unless you're contemplating what we have on hand that we could use for lube."

"'Stop thinking'? Hi, have you met me?"

John grins. "Think about this, then." He pulls Rodney down for a kiss and then gives a sinuous jujitsu twist that pushes Rodney onto his back, John above him now.

"Oh, so that's how it's going to be," Rodney says, aiming for irritable but sounding ridiculously pleased instead.

"Yep," John confirms, and shimmies down his body and sucks Rodney's cock into his mouth.

Something in Rodney's brain short-circuits. All he can process is hot, wet, good, John, fuck. John pulls back, his cock popping free, and murmurs "keep talking," which is when Rodney realizes he's saying all of this out loud. Which would ordinarily be embarrassing, but John circles the base of his dick with one hand and palms his balls with the other and Rodney can't help his whimper. His hands clench the bedcovers.

"Tell me what you like," John says -- it's almost an order -- and sucks him back in, this time with just the lightest scrape of teeth. That's positive reinforcement: Rodney lets himself babble, praise interspersed with gasps. When he comes, he stuffs his hand into his mouth to muffle his groan.

John slides up the bed and they kiss some more, John's mouth slightly bitter now which makes Rodney's cock want to stir again. When Rodney pulls him close John gasps, his dick hot against Rodney's thigh. Rodney reaches down and takes hold, almost giddy at the sensation of John's erection pressing into his hand. "John," he murmurs, and John twitches, as if he's yearning toward Rodney even in Rodney's arms. As if hearing his name is doing something to him.

Saying it is definitely doing something for Rodney, so he says it again, right into John's ear. And again, mouthing his way along John's jaw. When he whispers it and bites gently at the exposed line of John's neck, John comes apart, inhaling hard as if he's surprised by his own orgasm.

They sleep within arm's reach. Every time John's knee brushes his thigh, Rodney wakes for a second, and remembers, and falls asleep grinning at the ceiling.

6.


"P19-R43," Rodney says when John opens his eyes.

"Good morning to you too," John says, and his boyish smile is almost enough to distract Rodney from what he's just figured out.

"The couple we caught working with the Wraith."

John rolls over and scrubs one hand over his face. "The ones who were selling people from the next village over. What about 'em?"

Just remembering them makes Rodney's insides twist with anger again. Wraith-worshippers are bad enough, creepy and power-hungry and apparently perfectly content to sell out their fellow humans if it means they can feel immortal for a while. But these people were worse...and he'd never seen Teyla or Ronon half as angry as they were when they figured this one out.

"They were exiled," Rodney prompts.

"Yeah," John says, sounding slightly puzzled. He's just woken up; he's not getting it yet. "That's what they do on that planet when you commit an unforgivable crime."

After Rodney and Teyla made the case to the local authorities, and John and Ronon brought them in, the perpetrators were sent to prison camps on another world, fitted with ankle bracelets that won't ever let them step through a stargate again. They're bound to the prison world now. Never able to come home. "Their son," Rodney says triumphantly, "is who did this to us."

He can see the gears turning in John's mind. "We separated him from his family," John realizes aloud.

"So he separated us from ours." Rodney remembers him shouting threats as his parents were taken away by the authorities. Remembers the villagers holding him back, giving apologetic looks to Teyla and Ronon and Rodney and John as the guy ranted and raved about how he'd make them pay for breaking his family apart. As if his parents' wrongdoings had been the Lanteans' fault.

John lets his head thunk back against the pillow. "I knew he was dangerous, I just didn't--"

"You couldn't have predicted something like this."

"I should have." John's face is set; he's angry.

"Hey," Rodney says, and crawls across the bed. "You're supposed to be impressed with my deductive abilities, not sulking because you didn't magically intuit that that asshole was going to kidnap us."

John's mouth quirks slightly. "Oh?"

"Get with the program," Rodney says.

John takes a deep breath, then blows it out. "Okay."

Rodney rolls out of bed.

"Hey," John says, reaching for him.

It's hard to fight the temptation to just lean toward him, like a plant toward the light. "Hang on." John looks slightly pouty. "Let me brush my teeth," Rodney insists, "be right back."

Given everything that's wrong in their lives, it's amazing how good it feels to climb back into bed with John for the first time. Back into bed with John -- it makes Rodney's heart do somersaults. They've been sharing the bed for weeks, but not like this. This is something wild and new.

*

They've been in the Golden City for just over three weeks on the day the return letter comes from the Exegetical Academy.

It arrives on Khames afternoon, and Hinam brings it to the back room where Rodney is poring over a scientific-philosophical treatise written eight hundred years ago. Hinam hands it to him, uncharacteristically silent, and Rodney realizes what he's holding.

His heart is beating doubletime as he takes the brocaded box and unfurls the scroll inside.


Dear Doctor McKay, Visitor to the City of Gold:

We read with great interest the Council's missive about your predicament, and understand wholly your desire to return to your family and to your native air, fire, water, and soil.

Although no one in our halls could call to mind any writings about the ability to transmit voices or images across the aether, nor about the miracle of flight, we had hoped that on the rarefied shelves of our restricted section we might find word of something which would be of use to you.

It is with the greatest regret...


 

He reads it fast, skimming to the end. Then, his heart having plummeted, he reads it again. And then he rolls it back up, hands it to Hinam without a word, and walks out of the library.

He walks to the city walls, nods to the guard at the bottom of the parapet, and climbs to the top. The next few hours pass in a haze: Rodney walks the perimeter of the city from the top of the walls, staring out over the tawny sands. When the light starts to fade, he starts slowly home, though his feet are dragging; he doesn't want to return to their apartment. Doesn't want to have to break the news to John.

When Rodney walks in the door and sees John there -- feet up, working a little wrought-iron puzzle he brought home from the market a few days ago -- all of his carefully-prepared speeches fly right out of his head.

"It's no use," Rodney blurts.

John looks up. "Huh?"

Rodney shuffles over and sits heavily on the other couch, staring at his hands.

"Got the letter from the Academy today."

John doesn't say anything. It's obvious that he's intuited from Rodney's tone of voice that the news isn't good.

"There's nothing in their grand library about flight, or radio communications, or anything," Rodney says. He's near tears again, and that just makes him angrier. "There's a section of the library they thought might hold something like what we were looking for, but when the librarians got there, the scrolls were water damaged. Water damage, in this climate, can you believe it?"

"So, what, it's a setback," John begins.

"The Exegetical Academy is the biggest library on this world," Rodney says quietly. "If they don't have data, the data doesn't exist here to be had."

There's a moment of silence.

"We really can't phone home," John says.

Rodney can't quite laugh, but he gives John a wavery smile; it was a good line. "We really can't."

Neither one of them says what they're both thinking, which is that unless Zelenka finds them here, which seems increasingly unlikely with every passing day, this is home now. They can't count on making it back to Atlantis. They have to be home for each other.

*

Seeing John spread naked for him on their bed -- this time lying on his stomach, his face turned to one side and pillowed on his folded arms -- still takes Rodney's breath away.

"Tell me if you don't like it," Rodney says, slightly anxious but trying not to show it.

"I like everything," John promises, his eyes closed. There's a temptation to touch his entire body: to run his hands up and down John's calves and the backs of his thighs, to press his thumbs along the ridge of John's spine, to cup his shoulderblades, to map every mark and scar. But Rodney has a plan tonight, so he knee-walks his way between John's spread legs, cups his ass in both hands, and bends to take a first tentative lick.

John gasps, but Rodney was prepared for that; he holds John still, holds him open. They both got massages this afternoon at the bathhouse, because Rodney knows that after the massage the attendants wash you like a kitten. Every inch of them has been thoroughly scrubbed, not a speck of desert sand anywhere. After a massage and a scrub Rodney's skin tingles all over, sensations magnified, which means John is experiencing this kiss with a body that feels new.

"Rodney, fuck," John moans. He's twitching under Rodney's hands in a way that means he's getting hard, his dick trapped beneath his body and rubbing against the bed.

"Good, hm?" It's a rhetorical question; Rodney licks again.

John lets out a desperate, breathy little moan. Right now Rodney is as hard as he can ever remember being in his entire life. Doing this to John, imagining how good it has to feel, has him this close to coming even without being touched.

"Please," John manages.

"Hm?" Rodney's busy using his tongue to take John apart.

"Fuck me," John says, his voice low and breathy. "Will you--"

Rodney slides a finger inside and John convulses around him, groaning. They haven't done this yet, but God, Rodney wants to; wants it so badly. He pulls out and licks at him one more time and John chokes out a cry, stiffening.

Rodney makes it as far as wrapping his hand around his cock before he loses it, striping John's thigh with come. He collapses next to John on the bed, grinning stupidly into the pillow. After a second John rolls over and burrows his nose into Rodney's shoulder, throwing an arm over him. They laze that way for a long while.

*

John starts training with the local garrison a few evenings a week. Nothing intense, just light sparring, but he comes home sweaty and grinning like a maniac.

"They do really clean swordwork here," he says. "I'm going to ask Nilofa to teach me the basics."

Rodney shudders, imagining John sliced open like a gourd, but he keeps his mouth shut. He's not about to take away one of the few pleasures this world has to offer a man who can no longer fly.

Since the news came, Hinam has been friendlier to Rodney. And lately he's been making awkward hints about library work. He seems to be working up to offering Rodney some kind of paid scholar position. The scholar-philosopher-librarian seems to be the closest thing this culture has to honest-to-God scientists, so it's not a bad fit, all things considered.

Rodney wishes every day he'd paid more attention to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, or to one of any number of science fiction novels he's read which share the basic premise (technologically advanced guy gets stuck in primitive culture; has to reinvent science) because there are a million innovations he wants to implement here and he can't quite figure out how.

The first thing he'll need if he's going to do anything useful is establishing reliable power. Sami tells him that the sandstorms that kick up during the second season of the year are pretty powerful. Harnessing wind is the obvious project to take on; he makes an appointment to see the Council about it after new moon.

John and Rodney start mentioning people from home again. Not a lot, not dwelling, but just saying their names, working them into conversation. "He thinks he's tough, but he's no Ronon," John says of one of the men he spars with. Rodney describes one of the scholars in residence as "smart and gorgeous -- a regular Teyla."

Saying their names hurts, but in a good way. It would hurt a lot worse if they let themselves forget.

7.


"Dr. Rodney," Tavar calls, almost tripping over her feet in her haste to reach what's become Rodney's unofficial reading room. "Dr. Rodney!"

"I'm here, what is it?" Irritable; how many times does he have to tell these people not to interrupt him when the door is closed?

"There's someone -- you have to come -- quickly!"

Panic flares along ever nerve in his body. "What's the matter? What's happened?" Oh, God, is it John -- has something happened to John? A fist of steel clenches around his heart.

She's shaking her head, out of breath; she must have run all the way from the market, or the plaza. "There are people here to see you. At the south gate. They say they're from your world."

He drops everything, doesn't even stop for his veil, just runs as fast as he can.

*

It's like being in a dream. Rodney rounds the corner and there they are: Ronon, Teyla, and half a dozen Marines.

Ronon spots him first and breaks into the fiercest grin Rodney has ever seen. He pulls Rodney into a bear hug and won't let go; they cling like that, and if there are tears on Rodney's face, well, they're soaking into the leather of Ronon's vest.

"We thought we'd never see you again," Rodney manages.

"Should've known better." Ronon's voice is gruff.

Rodney hears footfalls, sandals skidding at a breakneck pace. Teyla cries out, and he knows it's John.

When he and Ronon finally let each other go, John and Teyla are embracing, foreheads pressed together. And yeah, okay, they're all crying.

And Rodney has to hug Teyla, and Ronon lifts John off the ground. The Marines just stand there, grinning like idiots. By the time they all break, there's a circle of people standing around them. There's a moment of disjunction when Rodney wonders what this must look like to them -- and what these strangers in their colorful veils must look like to Ronon and Teyla, and to the soldiers from Earth. Janam is standing in the circle, watching them, and his eyes look suspiciously bright.

"These, ah, these are our friends," Rodney says, finally. "Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagen, and -- " he fumbles for names and comes up blank. "I'm sorry, I don't remember--"

"Driver and Briggs," John says, his voice a little shaky, "and Esack, and Kliegman, and Kuo."

"I am Janam of the House Dibbah," Janam says, stepping forward. "My household took responsibility for Rodney McKay and John Sheppard when they first arrived."

"Then we must thank you," Teyla says smoothly. "From the bottom of our hearts."

"Oh my God," Rodney says, to no one in particular. "I can't believe you're -- you're really here. I don't --" His knees feel shaky.

"We've come," Teyla says, "to bring you home."

"Jumper's cloaked about a ten minute walk from here," Ronon adds.

"We have...things," Rodney says inanely. "There are some scrolls I've been working on; John wanted to give you a knife," he says to Ronon, "and we have clothes--"

"Is this place easy to get to?" John asks.

Ronon shrugs. "Now that we know how to find it, yeah."

"You have to go through a gate the Ancients said was broken," Teyla adds, "and fly through an...ion cloud, I believe it was?"

Rodney's snapping his fingers. "That's why the Wraith haven't come here," he realizes, aloud. "Depending on the composition of the cloud, their scanners might not even show that there's a planet inside!"

"Flying down here was a little bit harrowing," Briggs pipes up. "Sir."

"If we can come back here at will," John says, "we should head back to Atlantis now; I'm guessing Woolsey's jonesing for a report."

"More importantly, he has missed you both." Teyla's eyes are bright, and the tone of chiding affection in her voice makes Rodney's heart feel too big for his chest.

"We'll come back for our things, and to check in with you guys," John turns to Janam, "if that's okay with you...?"

"Of course." Janam steps forward and clasps John's hands, bending over them in a deeper bow than Rodney's ever seen. John returns the gesture, and then pulls him into an embrace.

Rodney follows suit. Janam's arms are strong and his body is firm against Rodney's. "Tell your wives we'll see them soon," Rodney murmurs into his ear, and Janam nods: yes, of course.

"Thank you all," John says, loudly, to the growing crowd. "We appreciate your hospitality more than we can say. We'll be back soon."

And then they follow Ronon and Teyla out of the city gates, the Marines taking their six, and walk toward the invisible jumper that's going to carry them home.

8.

Everything feels strange and new. The jumper, the hyperspace window, the cheering that welcomes them back into the gateroom. Zelenka hugs him so hard his back cracks; there are tears pouring down his face, which Rodney elects not to mention for the simple reason that he's in the same boat.

"Gentlemen, I am very glad to see you," Woolsey says, pumping John's hand.

"Likewise," John says, "believe me."

"I'm sure you have a great deal to report." Woolsey beams at them. "Shall we say tomorrow, oh-eight-hundred?"

"Sounds great," John says. "We'll be there."

"I wasn't sure you would find us," Rodney says to Radek, quietly.

"Neither was I," Radek admits, "but we were not going to give up. You must know this."

"Leave no man behind," Ronon says. "Right, Sheppard?"

"Right," John agrees.

During the pause that follows, exhaustion hits Rodney like the proverbial ton of bricks. Teyla seems to see it in his posture or his face. "Our friends are tired. They have come a long way."

"Yes, of course," Woolsey says, and claps his hands twice. "Okay, everyone! Give Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay some space."

And just like that, the crowd disperses. Rodney walks out without looking at anyone, making a beeline for his room.

*

Everything looks exactly as he left it. In the hypoallergenic atmosphere of Atlantis there isn't any dust, though Rodney feels like there should be. Everything should be draped with sheets, covered in cobwebs, something to show that it's almost six weeks since he was here last. But instead his quarters are their usual state of comfortable chaos, books and papers stacked haphazardly beside the tablet computer on his desk.

There's an enormous welcome-home card standing on top of the closed computer. He lifts it idly and looks inside: seems like pretty much everyone in town signed their names. John probably has one just like it.

The thought sends a spike of melancholy right into Rodney's heart. He sits down on his impossibly narrow bed, wishing to God he at least had a cat here, someone to come home to.

He has his earpiece in. He could tap his radio and call, see how John's doing. But he shouldn't. The right thing to do is to give John some space, Rodney knows that. These last weeks, the only time they were apart was when they were working; John's probably glad to have his own quarters back. Like Rodney ought to be. He's always been a man who enjoys solitude! But that old mantra has lost its efficacy. Maybe because now he knows what it's like to live with someone, and wow, it hurts to have to give that up.

This is the real reason he shouldn't have said anything about being into John. Because he got used to having something that he can't have anymore.

It's not as though John isn't in his life here. They'll still work together, eat together, watch movies together, play chess together. All of the things they usually do. The things they did, before. But John can't risk a gay relationship, that's obvious. And besides, John has a lot of options now. Almost everyone in Atlantis understands John's Earth references. He doesn't have to settle. He can do better.

Rodney lies down and tries to curl up, though the bed isn't quite wide enough to fit his knees. If he's going to be this pathetic, he might as well wallow in it, right? Some part of him wants to scoot back until he encounters John's warm body, John's open arms. It's like having a phantom limb: he has a phantom partner. He'll just have to get used to not having him anymore, and after a while, the pain will go away.

"Sheppard to McKay," John says in his ear. It's almost like intimacy, only not.

Rodney takes a deep breath to make sure he won't sound quite as lame as he feels. "McKay here."

"I'm...right outside your door," John says, and now his voice sounds a little tentative. "Can I come in?"

Rodney's out of bed and waving the door open in a heartbeat.

John has changed into BDUs, combat boots half-unlaced, a black t-shirt: his usual wardrobe. The wristband is back on, covering the bracelet Rodney's spent so many hours staring at. He looks like John Sheppard, Lieutenant Colonel and military commander of Atlantis, again.

Rodney feels sheepish still wearing his robe. Suddenly it seems like a symbol of who he was on Alma -- who they were, together -- who they can't be, anymore. He wishes he were wearing Atlantis clothes, something snug to help hold him together. The door whooshes shut behind John, and after a long second Rodney steps back and gestures into the room. "Home sweet home," he says, aiming for light-hearted.

"It's weird being back, huh?" John walks over to his desk and picks up the card, then puts it back down.

"I don't even know who all of those people are," Rodney admits.

John grimaces. "Yeah."

There's a pause, and then Rodney can't help himself: the words come spilling out. "So I guess we're going back to the way things were before, right? I mean, I know you can't afford to risk -- which is not to say that you would necessarily want to, even if the risk were reasonable, I do recognize that, so clearly the thing to do is--"

John looks tired then, and older, and sad. "Is that what you want?"

"Me?" Rodney squares his shoulders and raises his chin a little, trying to project the aura of a man who has the courage of his convictions. "It's obviously the smart thing to do."

"That's not what I asked." John's voice is husky, as if he's been shouting.

Rodney just stares at him, everything he wants to say hammering at the inside of his lips. No, he thinks. No, it is not what I want. It is not what I would ever want. But I'm trying. Don't make this harder than it already is.

John takes a breath. "Because I'll tell you..." The pause feels like it goes on forever. "That wouldn't be my preference."

It feels like Rodney's heart has stopped. "It wouldn't?"

"Hell no," John says, then amends it to "fuck no."

Just like that, the oppressive feeling in the room modulates into something different and new. "Oh," Rodney says, like an idiot.

John's smiling a little, wryly. "I guess it wouldn't be yours, either."

"Not so much," Rodney confirms. His exhaustion is gone, replaced by an eagerness that sings through his body.

"We have to tell Ronon and Teyla," John says, as Rodney walks over to him. "I don't want to keep this a secret from them."

"They're family," Rodney agrees. John's right there, barely an inch away, but it feels like they've crossed a mile when Rodney kisses him. The kiss is tender. How can it be so familiar and so new at the same time? But it is. Their first kiss in Atlantis. All of their explorations of one another's bodies, they're going to get to do again, here, a first time for everything all over again.

When they break the kiss, they grin at each other like they just won every lottery in the galaxy all at once.

"John," Rodney murmurs gratefully, and kisses him again, just because he can. "Welcome home."