After a day of first-contact greetings, trade talk, and a modest but delicious town barbecue, M9R-390 was inching its way up into John's Top Twenty Planets in Pegasus list. Nice people, nice weather, nice mountain view, no surprise abductions or secret underground lairs.
The wine had a nice kick to it, too. He nursed his second cup of the evening, leaned back on his rock bench by one of the crackling fire pits and took a slow, deep breath of the crisp air. The village children were playing tag in the lengthening shadows, shrieks of laughter echoing off the cliffs, and across the clearing it looked like some kind of music band was getting together.
A few brawny men gathered beside the ones with instruments. John kept an eye on them, but dressed as they were in ceremonial-looking belted tunics, leggings and sandals, distinct from the other villagers' simple vests and pants, he suspected they meant to perform and not to fight.
The Kordin's white-bearded leader, Kappas, came up to the team and inclined his head. "Did you enjoy your meal, friends?"
"Rrnph," McKay said around a mouthful of grilled meat.
"Very much so," Teyla translated with a smile.
"I am pleased to hear it. If you will, we are ready to continue our festivities." At John's nod, Kappas said, "In honor of our negotiations, tonight we will dance the balga." He pointed to the growing group of men John had been watching; they were leaning on one another now to stretch. "The balga comes down to us through many generations, from a time when the Wraith lay dormant and our arts flourished. It celebrates those who have, and do, and will, fight against our oppressors. It is a dance of warriors and of brothers."
"Sounds great," John said. He wondered if there were more maybe-yak skewers.
Kappas stepped back and made a formal bow. "Colonel Sheppard of Atlantis. Specialist Dex of Sateda. As representatives of your people, we wish you to join us in the performance."
Wait, what? "Uh." John shifted. "I'm not really much of a dance—"
"We'd be honored," Ronon cut in.
John gave him an Oh, we would, would we? look, but Ronon wasn't looking. Teyla was, though, and from raised eyebrow to quirked mouth, her expression said, Yes, you very much would.
John knew when he was outgunned. He asked Kappas, "What does this—balga involve, exactly?" There'd just better not be any body-checking or Klingon bloodletting rituals, or—Jesus—pirouettes.
"The dancers progress in a linked chain and take turns displaying their prowess. Each supports and is supported. The basics are not difficult. Of significance tonight is the demonstration of strength and trust."
John glanced uneasily at the loose knot of men limbering up on the other side of the fire. "Do I have to wear a skirt?"
Kappas laughed. "No, Colonel Sheppard, you will be fine as you are. Although you may wish to remove your armor, to better move and breathe."
John opened his mouth again, but he couldn't think of another protest before Kappas went on.
"Liaison Emmagan of Athos. I regret that this is a dance for men only." Teyla inclined her head, gracious as ever. "However, we would be honored if you would partner with Helgan in singing the tale that accompanies the dance."
"The honor would be mine, Kappas."
"Wonderful," said Kappas. "Come. Join the others when you are ready, and we will begin." With a less formal dip of his head, he made his way to the group on the next bench over.
"What am I, chopped liver?" McKay asked to Kappas' departing back. He flipped his empty skewer end over end between his fingers.
"You wanna dance, McKay?" Ronon asked.
"I have no idea whether that's an invitation or a threat, but either way, no thank you." McKay caught John's snort and glared. "You're going to have to tie your shoes for a change, Colonel. Wouldn't want to create an interplanetary incident when one flies off and hits someone in the nose while you dance the bagel."
"Balga," John corrected with a glare of his own. Dammit, McKay was right. He squatted and started lacing up his right boot.
"Besides, ankle support is important," Ronon said, and slapped him on the back before trotting off to join the warrior-dancers.
John sighed, tied a double-knot and switched to his left boot.
When he stood, Teyla smiled a smile that was both reassuring and amused. "You will be fine, John. The work we have done with the bantos rods on maintaining your balance will serve you well."
He unslung his P-90 and handed it to McKay. To Teyla, he said, "You gonna be okay out there?"
Her smile turned sweet. "I have loved to sing since I was a child. I look forward to learning something of the Kordin's style. Will you be all right on your own while we are participating, Rodney?"
John followed their conversation in the back of his mind as he continued disarming himself. Vest unbuckled and shrugged off; sidearm unholstered. Weapons to McKay for safekeeping. He patted his empty pockets, feeling exposed.
"Well, see you on the other side," he said. He trotted over to join Ronon, who was showing the tattoo on his forearm to a couple of the dancer guys.
Dancing. Jesus. He hadn't danced since… his wedding, maybe.
"Ah!" said Kappas when John arrived. "Yes, good. You have met some of our men during our talks today, I believe. They are among our best in strength and grace. We will place you near the end so you have time to learn the steps."
The men gathered in a vague circle.
"Specialist Dex." Kappas looked thoughtful, then decisive. "Come stand before Kaldar. He will be able to support you." Ronon followed Kappas' direction and stood to the right of a man as tall as he was and even more muscled. Ronon sized the guy up and seemed satisfied.
"Colonel Sheppard," Kappas said, indicating the spot to Ronon's right. John stepped into place. "And… Kassan, yes," and a man a few feet from John took the next spot. He had thick, curly reddish hair, a beard like most of the Kordin men, and warm brown eyes.
John held out his hand. Kassan clasped it to his chest in his people's customary greeting.
When the other dancers had arranged themselves, Kappas spoke again. "The dance alternates between line and circle. The line is for following the single warrior performing. The circle is for the beginning and the end and for regrouping between leaders. Yes?" John nodded. Beside him, Ronon grunted.
"Now. The position to your right is kopha-na, he who will be supported." John turned to Kassan, who nodded and smiled. "To your left is kopha-da, he who will support." John glanced at Ronon, but Ronon had turned to the guy on his other side.
"Now we will begin, and you will soon see how it is done."
With that, Kappas walked over to the band.
The music began as a beat: hand-struck skin drums with a complicated rhythm, accompanied by something like a tambourine. Before John could catch the pattern, the last band member began blowing into a woodwind that let out a deep, hoarse note like a clarinet or an oboe. Nearby, a heavyset woman with braided salt-and-pepper hair was talking to Teyla.
Then Kassan took John's hand, and the circle started to move.
Ronon took his other hand a moment later.
This part of the dance seemed to consist of walking, sideways skipping motions, stomps, and knee kicks. The Kordin men had bells strapped to their shins to make noise when they stomped. John squirmed a little at the fact that he and a bunch of guys were holding hands and skipping in public. Fortunately for intercultural relations, he had to focus the majority of his attention on the steps. He did his best to follow, but he mostly had to walk through the first few repetitions as he watched the others. At least they didn't seem bothered by his learning curve.
It didn't help his ego, though, that Ronon was picking it up fast.
After maybe a minute, the circle split open between two of the men and everyone stopped skipping. The clarinet faded, and the woman who'd been talking to Teyla started to sing in a rich contralto. John didn't recognize the language of the song—he guessed it was ancient Kordin—but it was as haunting as the not-clarinet's melody.
The man at the front of the line began some kind of solo performance involving jumps, twirls, kicks and complicated-looking footwork. At one point, he squatted and arched completely backwards, held up only by his toes and the man at his left, who still held his hand. John noticed that their hands were bound together by a strip of brown leather. The man slapped his chest, the ground, his chest again, and then using his partner's hand for leverage, he pulled himself slowly back to his feet. The crowd cheered and clapped.
Then he was done. The woman finished her lines, the circle closed, and they started the refrain again.
John only tripped over himself once as he tried to keep up. Skip, skip, walk, skip, skip, walk, reverse direction, repeat, reverse again. Skip, skip, stomp, sk—no, knee, stomp, knee, stomp stomp. The skip thing again, and a new leader took over. Okay. He could do this. He was doing this.
The solo dancers, meanwhile, moved with a fluidity and confidence that John probably wouldn't have appreciated half as much if he hadn't been waiting in line to do what they were doing. One guy kicked high and around with one leg, and before he'd even landed, followed with the other leg. He did that a few more times before executing a flip on one hand, finishing with the same arch and chest/ground slap as the first dancer. Many of the moves were repeated from one dancer to the next. All of them relied on the next guy in line for support.
When the third dancer stepped up, a high, sweet voice rang out in the clearing. John turned to find that Teyla was singing instead of the Kordin woman. He'd heard Teyla sing soft lullabies before, but he hadn't realized how beautiful her voice was. Judging from the whistles of the onlookers and his fellow dancers, he wasn't the only one who appreciated her talent.
After that, Teyla and the other woman alternated verses. As the men danced and the women sang and the drums beat their relentless pattern, the whole thing actually started to make sense. John was watching warriors fight beside their brothers; wives and families sending them strength and love; a village joined in remembrance, mourning and celebration. Chest slaps started to look like Wraith attacks. Falling and rising took on a somber symbolism. He thought he recognized a word or two of Athosian when Teyla stepped up again. The drums beat on.
Then it was Kassan's turn. Quickly, he helped John wrap the leather strap around their hands and wrists, and then he launched into his solo.
It took more concentration than John had expected to anticipate Kassan's moves and brace himself accordingly. More than once, he stumbled and thought he was going to drop the guy. When Kassan did that thing where he all but lay on the ground, John's arm shook as he clutched the strap and took most of Kassan's weight.
But John didn't let Kassan hit the ground, Kassan very intelligently did not attempt to do any flips, nobody got kicked in the face, and after what felt like an hour Kassan sprang back to his feet and grinned at him while the audience applauded. John gave him the best smile he could in return, considering his right arm felt like Jell-O and he hadn't gotten circulation back yet in his fingers from the strap. Lantean-Kordin relations hadn't been symbolically breached on the dance floor, and they started the refrain again.
Which meant—oh, crap, it was his turn.
When the not-clarinet stopped and Kassan let go of his hand to break the circle, leaving him with the strap, John froze. The singing started. Teyla was up again, and knowing she was watching—McKay was watching—everyone in the village was watching—didn't help him move.
"Sheppard," came Ronon's voice, deep and familiar beside him. "Hey." He took the strap and helped him bind their hands. "Go. I've got you."
John took a deep breath. Right. Here went nothing.
He'd missed his cue, but he figured the Kordin would give him a pass on account of him not knowing what the hell he was doing. He tried a couple of the easier-looking knee kicks the other guys had done, and when that didn't go badly, he turned under Ronon's arm—crap, so much for no pirouettes—and followed with some moves he used in hand-to-hand training. The audience clapped to the beat and urged him on. Suckers for a lost cause.
Teyla kept singing. Her voice gave John an idea; he went through a few of the more athletic katas she'd taught him. He wobbled as he tried to hold the harder positions, knew his face showed the strain, clutched instinctively at his only anchor, but Ronon held steady. Between him and the familiar exercises, John started to loosen up. After the katas he did a couple of deep knee bends, psyching himself up, and then he went for it—arched back, balanced on the balls of his feet and let Ronon take his weight.
He was pretty sure he was giving the audience a nice view of his boxers and stomach, but somehow that faded to the background. He let Teyla's voice wash over him. He listened to the drums and his heart pounding. He felt the audience's gaze on him and knew that among them was Rodney, bearing witness. He slapped his chest and slapped the ground, gripping Ronon for dear life with his other hand, trusting him to hold him up, suspended in this moment.
And then he was done. The crowd cheered and whistled as he got to his feet and tried to catch his breath. Ronon was grinning at him, and Kassan returned to close the circle.
The refrain went by in a blur as the adrenaline cleared from his system. Before he knew it, Ronon was letting go of his hand and starting his own solo.
They'd both been introduced to this dance less than half an hour ago, but Ronon looked like he'd been doing it for years. His style was wilder than the Kordin's, his movements bigger and more expressive, but he had the same confidence and skill. Some of the moves he echoed from the Kordin, while others John had seen him use in the field and in the training room. Kicks, head butts, what looked like a knee-to-groin crunch, and there, John was pretty sure that's what it looked like when Ronon took two guys out at a time with his elbows. He had to hand it to the guy assigned as Ronon's kopha-whatever, too; biceps bulging, he didn't so much as lean to one side to keep Ronon supported.
Ronon didn't do the arching thing, but several times he slapped his chest hard enough that it looked like it hurt, drawing cheers from the crowd, and then John let out a whoop of his own when Ronon did a flying leap and punch combo. He finished by throwing one of his knives—God knew where he'd hidden that one, John hadn't even seen him take it out—into the dirt, where it stuck a good inch into the packed earth.
When he straightened and shook his hair free of his face, the crowd went wild. John swore one of the whistles came from McKay.
They danced the last refrain in the firelit clearing with the audience before them, the drums beating as the not-clarinet fluttered and soared, Ronon warm and solid at his side, Teyla at their six, Rodney watching rapt from the stone bench, the cliffs rising around them, giving way to a cloudless sky with its twin crescent moons.
And then it was over. The dancers bowed and clasped one another's hands. Kassan congratulated him, followed by half a dozen others. Kappas came over to thank him and Ronon—well, mostly Ronon, but he was polite about it—for a fine performance. Someone handed John a flask of water, cold and fresh from the mountain springs, which he gratefully accepted and promptly downed.
A new song started, and a mix of women and men gathered for what looked like a new dance. When John and Ronon made their way back to the rock bench, Teyla and McKay were there to meet them. John felt strangely energized, like he'd taken a jumper out for a joyride or been tube riding without wiping out.
Teyla pressed her forehead to Ronon's and John's in turn. "That was wonderful."
"We had something like it on Sateda," Ronon said, and finished drinking from his own flask. "Mo kekai. Performance martial-arts. Took years to master."
Rodney had stood as well. "That was—you were—all of you. I—wow."
"Didn't know you could sing like that," Ronon added. "You should sing more."
"Thank you, Ronon," Teyla said with a surprised smile. "I was impressed with your performance as well. And yours, John. Truly, this was a special night for all of us."
"Next time, we'll do a physics dance so you can join," John offered McKay as he reached to get his vest back.
"Yes yes, we'll do the ZPM and shake it all night long." But he looked pleased.
Put together again, they kicked back and took in the sights and sounds of the night's festivities until the fire died down. Then good nights were exchanged by all, the Kordin headed back to their homes, and the four of them made their way to the guest house they'd been assigned for the night.
Later, they lay in their sleeping bags with moonlight shining pale through the window. John looked at his team around him: Teyla settling in for her pre-bedtime meditation, Ronon inventorying his knives with his back to the wall, Rodney grumbling about the accommodations before dropping off faster than any of them and starting to snore. All of them at ease in one another's company, yet poised to wake and act at any sign of danger. Kopha-na and kopha-da. Supporting and supported.
John closed his eyes and slept.