"You," the village elder said, pointing her long, crooked finger at John, who sighed and thought, yeah, of course, me.
Beside him, Rodney made a noisy sound of relief, but he looked guilty when John turned to glare at him. "Well, I'm not a strong swimmer!"
John looked down at the churning white rapids. "I don't think this is so much about swimming as it is about not drowning, Rodney." He grinned meanly at Rodney and added, "And when it comes to lung capacity, you can out-talk any of us."
Rodney looked momentarily frightened, but the villagers weren't going to change horses in midstream, so to speak. Two strong-looking men came to flank John and gestured for him to undress. Reluctantly, John stripped out of his flak vest, took off his belt, unbuckled his holster. The men reached out for these items, but John narrowed his eyes and pointedly handed his weapons to Ronon, who jerked a nod of understanding. Good man.
"You may also wish to remove your boots and other garments," the elderly woman said, and yeah, ditching the boots was probably a good idea, but John was keeping his damn clothes on, come hell or high water. It was worth a little extra weight to hold on to his dignity--or what was left of it. He took off his boots, his socks, his watch, and shoved them into Rodney's arms. Rodney bit his lip and clutched John's boots to his chest.
The old lady was looking at John with a kindly expression. "When you rise from the water, you will be new again," she explained. "Only then will you be welcomed into the Sacred Woods and the Temple of Athar, which are reserved for those with clean hearts."
It was hard to keep his face neutral; he was perfectly happy to go through this bullshit ritual in order to get his team through the sacred woods and into the temple, which had been built by the Ancients as a secondary command post in their war against the Wraith. But it was something else to be told that he was somehow unclean, that his heart was dirty or whatever. John didn't think he was any dirtier than the rest of them. But whatever: aliens were strange.
To his surprise, Rodney suddenly stepped in close. "You don't have to do this," he whispered. "I mean, we'll figure something out. Ronon and Teyla and--and me. I'll figure something out," but John just clamped his mouth shut and shook his head. He didn't think the villagers were trying to kill him or anything, and he was pretty sure that the big men would fish him out before he drowned, if he seemed to be drowning.
"S'alright," John muttered back. "Better to go through with it; you just work on figuring out what's in that temple," and then he was stepping forward, moving toward the elderly woman, and saying, "Okay, I'm ready. Let's get this show on the road."
Her heavily-wrinkled face was kind, but her words were terrifying. "Goodbye, John Sheppard," she said as the men grabbed him by the arms. "Your first life has now come to an end. We will mourn your passing and welcome you once again on the other side."
He hit the water hard, and the cold rapids sucked him down and under in a dizzying rush of speed. He flailed his arms and kicked his legs, frantically trying to surface, but he was being dragged and spun through the water like a rag doll, directionless and confused. The cold water pricked his face like needles, and his airless lungs began to scream.
John was suddenly sure that he would drown--he'd been underwater too long, he was being dragged along too fast!--and then suddenly his brain went calm and clear. Gravity, or what felt like gravity, was actually the flash-quick, downstream pull of the rapids. He wasn’t falling down; he was falling sideways, and with a wrench of effort he managed to push himself up at a 90 degree angle, and his head broke the surface. Blue sky!--thank you, God!--and he gasped and sucked for air as he hurtled downriver, inhaling foamy white water along with it. But at least he had his vertical bearings, now, even if he had no directional stability, the current twirling him round as it pulled him downstream, the brown and greens of the land whipping past--
The pain crashed into his left shoulder before he knew what had happened; the next blast hit his temple, and he blacked out and went under.
John hadn't drowned when he came to, which was its own kind of miracle, and maybe it was only his groggy limpness that saved him from being smashed to pieces against the rocks. Still, it was like being beaten, being tossed from stone to stone, the slick rocks banging into his limbs, scraping vicious grooves into his skin and shredding his clothes. He felt tears sting his eyes--this was it; this was what dying felt like--and suddenly he was possessed by an eerie feeling of distance, and everything was beautiful.
Everything was: the white water, the blue sky, the pain blooming like red roses all over his body; even the water scraping the inside of his lungs was beautiful, because in a few minutes he would lose even that. He was careening through the water at top speeds, and he tried to be really alive to it, because this might be his last wild ride, and there were worse ways to die. He'd always wanted to go out flying--doing barrel rolls at enough Gs that he'd black out before he crashed-- but this was pretty damn close. This was great, in fact: a better death than he deserved, and he was going numb and far away, awestruck with appreciation for--
The current slammed him onto the bank with enough force to dizzy him, and it was only by instinct that he slammed his palms down and dug his fingers in. It took a moment before John had the strength to claw his way up the incline and over the top onto solid ground where he collapsed, the long grasses tickling his face as he hugged the earth.
He heard the sound of people yelling; it felt very far away, though, and it took several moments before he managed to lift his head. Yes, off in the distance, people were shouting, waving, running toward him. John pushed himself up on his arms, then hauled himself up to his feet, only dimly aware of his tattered, bloody clothes. Now he saw that Ronon and the rest of his team were in the lead, with the strong village men right behind them and a crowd following fast, and John took two steps toward them before his rubbery legs gave way, and he crashed to his knees. Ronon was almost to him, but John couldn't keep himself upright and fell onto one palm, panting. A second later, Ronon skidded onto the grass beside him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and yanked him back up to his knees, hands roughly skimming his head, throat, heart, and abdomen.
"Say your name," Ronon growled, and John gasped, "John Sheppard. Lieutenant Colonel. Military commander of Atlantis," and Ronon muttered, "Okay," and got up, abandoning him so fast that John swayed and would have fallen onto his face if Teyla and Rodney hadn't suddenly been there to grab him, each taking hold of an arm. John didn't get what was happening until he heard the distinctive click of a P-90 and Ronon saying, "What the hell was that? You trying to kill my commander?"
"Ronon, no," John managed, and Teyla amplified his command by calling, "It is all right, Ronon; he is all right!"
"No, he's not." Rodney's voice was low and furious-sounding, and almost right in his ear; Rodney was bearing most of his weight now, holding him up, John's arm crooked tight around his neck. "No, he's not; Jesus, look at him," and suddenly the village elder was hobbling through the crowd, her face transfixed with joy, and then John felt it, too-- the sun on his face, the ground solid beneath his knees, and Teyla and Rodney warm on either side of him, their arms around him, and Ronon Dex ready to kill for him, and holy crap, he was in the Pegasus galaxy, he was the military commander of Atlantis and the luckiest man alive. He felt scraped raw, aching, but reborn somehow, and suddenly he was hiccupping and maybe crying a little, because he was alive, and still sort of young, and he could do anything he wanted, now; anything at all.
The old lady extended her wrinkled hands to him and said, "John Sheppard, we welcome you!" and the villagers obediently chanted, "We welcome you, John," and stupid ritual, stupid stupid ritual, but it had worked, and blindly, John kissed a surprised-looking Teyla, then turned around to kiss an even more surprised-looking Rodney before half-falling into the village elder's motherly embrace.
They fed him--John was starving--and dressed him in a white shirt and pants that fit loosely over his scraped and battered body. Rodney looked tight-lipped and angry when he saw the purple-yellow bruises mottling John's skin, and insisted on smearing a smelly antibiotic ointment on the worst of his scrapes before they set off for the temple.
John still felt the ache of newness in every nerve, and a kind of dizzy buzzing in his head. It felt like he was seeing everything for the first time--the clouds over the sacred forest, the twisted black branches of the trees, the worried faces of his teammates as they glanced back over their shoulders at him. He felt the breeze on his bruised skin, and enjoyed the pain as it prickled. He enjoyed the feel of his own thumping heartbeat as he hiked, the smell of his own clean sweat, the cawing sounds of the birds soaring overhead.
The Temple of Athar was at the top of the mountain and immediately recognizable as an Ancient structure; the Ancients had, John thought, a kind of genius for architecture. It was a small, bell-shaped building of pleasing proportions, topped by a characteristically ornate spire that probably served as a communications tower.
The villagers had adapted the inside as a temple, putting in an altar and strewing the ground with flowers and other offerings. Rodney didn't seem to notice any of this; instead, he went straight to the ring of command consoles and began investigating, eventually recovering, to his obvious delight, a military log, a food-preparation device, a cache of Wraith-stunner weapons and several portable generators. John wandered around the building in a daze, examining various inscriptions and half-scaring Rodney to death when he reached out helplessly to caress a milky-smooth stone and accidentally produced a ten-foot-high holographic communications screen.
Their guides made a camp for them in the sacred woods halfway back to the village, complete with fire and a ring of teepee-like tents. They grilled some meat, and produced fruits and nuts and caskets of sweet wine, and John licked fat off his fingers and ate berries until he was nearly sick, loving the way their thick skins burst like grapes in his mouth. He chased the fruit down with a couple of glasses of wine, and then lay back on the mats strewn around the fire, pleasure singing up and down his nerves.
The sky above him was amazing; he felt like he'd never really seen stars before.
Dimly, he heard Rodney questioning one of the guides. "How come Colonel Sheppard was the only one who had to endure your damned ritual? These woods can't be so special; you let the rest of us in without question."
The young man sounded surprised. "Why, these are Athar's woods, untouched and reserved only for those with pure bodies and clean hearts. No one who is not chaste is permitted to traverse them; Athar is our goddess of virginity, you see. Colonel Sheppard was the only one of you who required the cleansing; the rest of you were acceptable."
Rodney flinched, his fair skin reddening in embarrassed blotches, and then he shot a surprised glance back at Ronon and Teyla. They looked back at him calmly.
The young man shifted nervously, apparently reading Rodney's mood. "It is a very, very great compliment," he ventured, and Rodney snapped, "Yes, yes, I'm sure," before stomping away to sit with his back to the fire.
That might have been the end of it, except Teyla found it interesting, and didn't have an Earth-girl's sense of tact on the subject. "If it is true that we are all chaste," she said thoughtfully, "that seems a highly curious circumstance to me. There are many myths of warrior tribes practicing sexual abstinence. It is said to be a great advantage in battle."
"I wouldn't say I'm practicing abstinence so much as perfecting it," Rodney grumbled, and then there was a thudding crash, like maybe Rodney'd thrown a rock. "Besides, it's not true--Sheppard's certainly no virgin."
"He is now," Teyla replied seriously. "That is the whole point of the ritual."
Rodney made a scoffing sound. "There's no 'undo' switch on virginity. You either are or you aren't," and yesterday, John would have agreed with him. But now, he lay there under the stars idly stroking his fingertips up his arm, and it didn't feel like his skin anymore. He was somebody else, and no one had touched him before.
Teyla said, "Perhaps, but there must be many paths to chastity," and John rolled his head to look at his team-mates: Teyla sitting composedly with a glass of wine, Ronon carefully sharpening his knife against a strap, Rodney hunched miserably on the far side of the fire.
"When I was very young, I was consecrated to a goddess very like Athar," Teyla explained, "only we called her Talia, and she was a warrior and a leader, both. My name is a variation of hers, and she was meant to stand as my model in all things."
Ronon glanced up from his knife and shrugged. "Military for three years, running for seven--not a lot of time to meet girls. Wraith'd kill anybody I was with, anyway."
John glanced over at Rodney, but his back was to them, and he said nothing. The woods grew silent except for the crackling of the fire, the whisk-whisk of Ronon's knife against the strap, and John tucked his arms behind his head and lay back thoughtfully.
Teyla set her glass down and seemed just about to speak when Rodney said, in a low, hurried-sounding voice, "I went to university at fourteen." John thought that sounded like the beginning of a story, but Rodney looked away and didn't say anything else.
"That must've been tough," John offered finally. "Being younger. Hard to get a date."
Rodney looked over in relief, like he was grateful that John understood. "Yes, exactly. Nobody wants to sleep with a kid," and John was nodding when Rodney surprised him by adding, "and those who do? You don't want those who do," and John felt a sudden sick twinge; it hadn't occurred to him that a child prodigy at a university would be a magnet for every pederast and pervert in the place. "Better to just--do your research, focus on your experiments, stay out of trouble," Rodney said, biting his lip. "And then the years pass and--you know. The years pass."
Teyla stretched with slow grace, rolled to her feet, and then seemed to surprise Rodney by going to stand behind the log he was sitting on and putting her arms around his shoulders. "I still think it must mean something," she said with a smile, and then she kissed Rodney's cheek and gave his shoulders another small squeeze. "Good night."
Rodney's face was strangely naked as he turned to watch her go. "Good night, Teyla," he said, and John and Ronon both added their goodnights as Teyla ducked into a tent.
After a moment, Rodney stood up and jerked his thumb back toward another tent. "Me too," he said, and began awkwardly backing up out of the clearing. "I'm going to call it a night, try to get some sleep," and Rodney was almost at the flap of his tent when John rolled to his knees and said, "Rodney--wait."
John's peripheral vision was excellent, and he saw Ronon lazily stretch out his legs toward the fire and shoot an amused glance in his direction as he ran to catch up with Rodney. Rodney, on the other hand, was waiting for him outside the small tent wearing an expression that showed he had absolutely no idea what John could possibly want with him--and that made things hard. John found himself slowing, then stopping, then fidgeting under Rodney's blank inquisitive gaze, and some part of him wanted to say, "Uh, nothing, never mind," and go drink wine with Ronon. Except his heart was pounding, and he was hard, and he wanted to be touched, God, he wanted to be touched. This wasn't the Air Force, this was Pegasus, and he could have this now: he was really pretty sure of it.
"Everything okay?" Rodney finally asked, and John said, "Yeah. Yeah. Just, I wanted--" and how the hell did you say this? "I want to come with you," John said, swallowing.
Rodney's eyebrows shot up. "What, to bed?"
"Yeah," John said. "I mean--"
Rodney's mouth was working. "You mean--"
"Yeah," John said, and nodded quickly.
"To bed or to sleep?" Rodney asked, apparently attempting to clarify.
"To bed," John answered. "Let me come to bed with you," and then he stepped in closer, his new skin tingling with all the blood thrumming through it, and whispered, "I want you to touch me. Kiss me. God, put your dick in--"
"Christ, yes," Rodney breathed, and dragged John into the tent.
Years of memories seemed to be slipping away--some vague flash of losing his virginity on a basement sofa, fading snapshots of three-day-pass love affairs, the back seats of cars, grimy men's room doors. Now, there was only the cramped, dark tent, Rodney's hands tenderly sliding over his bruised and scraped skin, Rodney's mouth, wet and soft against his. Rodney was a full-body kisser, his arms coming to wrap around John's waist and shoulders, and John fell into the kiss and let Rodney tug him down to the soft bedding that lined the bottom of the tent. John sprawled out beneath him, and opened his mouth, and they made out for a long time, gently sucking each other's tongues and fingers, exploring each other's bodies with rough and callused hands. Rodney's skin was soft and smooth, stretching thickly over the hard muscles of his forearms, his biceps, his thighs. John discovered that he liked Rodney's hand stroking the soft, hairy part of his belly, and that Rodney's thumb fit perfectly into the hollow of his hip.
John felt almost hypnotized, drawn into exploring Rodney's mouth, but Rodney was suddenly impatient, half-rolling on top of him and blindly undoing the drawstring of his pants. John felt a spike of hard arousal, and jerked his hips up, wanting to push his cock into Rodney's fist. But Rodney's hand slid down low to cup his balls, and John broke off their kiss, panting, as Rodney squeezed him, gently first, and then harder.
"Yeah. Yeah. Yes," John gasped, and Rodney opened his hand and slid it loosely up John's cock, only tightening it at the tip. John bucked helplessly, pushing his swollen cockhead hard against Rodney's palm, and Rodney began to roughly grope John's shaft. "God," Rodney whispered, already breathing hard, "you feel so--" and John smothered the words against his lips. The world contracted to his dick in Rodney's hand, the rough-slick feel of Rodney's tongue in his mouth. Rodney's breath hitched as he tightened his hand and jerked John off with long pulls. John's eyes rolled back, and he felt his face go pleasure-slack, too far gone even to whisper yes or do me or please; he was so close; almost there; there.
Rodney breathed something rushed and unintelligible that John couldn't make out over the roar of blood in his ears and his own soft, ecstatic gasps. He came in long, body-wracking pulses and felt Rodney's hands sliding through the splashes of come on his belly and chest, and then his mind, unbidden, rewound Rodney's low, desperate words and heard, John. God. I love you.
John went still for a long moment, caught in that terrible, wonderful moment of almost drowning. Then he lurched upward and rolled a surprised-sounding Rodney onto his back, sprawling messily on top of him and kissing him hard and deep. Rodney's hands landed on him with clumsy eagerness, groping hungrily down his back--and God, Rodney loved him, Rodney would have sex with him and still give a damn about him tomorrow--and that thought drove him to lift his mouth off Rodney's and fumble blindly for his wrists.
John pinned them down on either side of Rodney's startled face, stared down at him, and said, "I want you, too. I love you, too, okay?"-- and God, that sounded almost hostile, but he had no experience when it came to saying things like this. "I really mean it," he added fervently, and sort of cringed inside.
"Uh, okay," Rodney said, blinking up at him in the darkness. "I, uh--I mean, I'm stunned, and really kind of confused, but I'm pleased--I mean, like, really, really pleased--and uh, also very horny at the moment, so maybe--" and John roughly kissed his throat, sucking and biting a little before licking a long stripe down to Rodney's tiny, hard nipples. Rodney hissed softly, and, God, yes, the years had passed while Rodney had been working; the stream of time had dragged Rodney down and battered him against its own sort of rocks, and now it had brought him to John, gasping for breath and brand new.
Rodney's dick was hard and hot and leaking steadily, and John closed his eyes and slowly ran his tongue over the head to hear what kind of sounds Rodney made--and was not disappointed by the ragged and desperate-sounding sobs that came from up above him. Beautiful--and John greedily dragged the flat of his tongue up the shaft a few times before pulling back to lick his palm. He fitted his slick hand around Rodney's cock and lodged it firmly at the base, and Rodney was gasping in a gratifyingly broken way by the time John took it in his mouth.
He tried to slow it down, to make it good, rubbing slow, reassuring circles on Rodney's pale thigh while he tightened his fist, trying to signal to Rodney's surging body that there was no rush, take it easy; hey, kick back and enjoy. But he could tell from Rodney's increasingly jagged gasps that there was no stopping this train, and so he let his mouth go slack, let Rodney thrust up and fuck his face and he was going, going, gone, and John slurped off and wiped his mouth with the back of one hand while he finished Rodney off with the other. He was kissing Rodney helplessly before Rodney had really even finished coming, and Rodney was panting something like "thank you." John leaned in to murmur against his lips, "I love you, Rodney," and it sounded a lot less stupid this time.
After that, they lay there together, limbs entwined in the dark.
"Teyla's gonna be mad," Rodney said finally, and John couldn't contain a smirk of satisfaction. "This is gonna ruin her whole abstinent-warrior thing."
"She'll get over it," John said, and buried his face against Rodney's neck.
"Meanwhile, you were a virgin for, like, three hours," Rodney said.
"More like ten," John said, thinking it over. "Before you deflowered me," and Rodney's mouth shut with an audible snap. "In the sacred forest of Athar, yet," John added in a tone of mock-piety.
"Oh, please! You were a virgin for ten minutes; I'm ending a life-long dry-spell!"
"Hey, I was certified a virgin this morning by professionals. Compared to that, your credentials are sketchy." Rodney opened his mouth to protest this, but before he could say anything, John slung an arm across his chest and softly added: "Still, I don't think you've quite debauched me yet. I'm pretty sure I have a couple more virginities burning a hole in my pocket. You know--if you want them," and Rodney didn't need to be asked twice.