The theater was not unlike ones he'd seen on Earth for summer stock productions of Shakespeare in the Park. It looked like it had been hewn out of the mountain, so that the cave they made would amplify and reflect the sound back to the audience. To soften up the rock where they'd cut benches for the patrons, they'd strewn embroidered throw pillows all over the place. It was a little odd, but welcoming.
"The Vefin are very well known for their skilled orations. They tell elaborate stories while wearing many styles of clothing. It is something like your movies, I believe. Although the experience is perhaps... more intense." Teyla's eyes were fairly twinkling, and John figured he could nod along to a couple hundred lines of iambic pentameter if it made her happy.
"Does that mean that they have popcorn?" It never hurt to ask, John figured.
Teyla's smile was enigmatic. "They do not. But they are also famed for a spiced liquor, in addition to their love of art and beauty. It is served at all their social gatherings." She patted the cushioned bench beside her, and John gave her a raffish grin. Drinkin' at the drive-in. Now that was entertainment.
"What about hot dogs? Peanuts, maybe. Any sort of concessions?" Rodney seemed to be asking out of idle habit, as he was in the middle of ripping open a packet of beef jerky.
"It is considered rude to dine before the feast," Teyla said evenly. "After every story, the players join the audience at a communal table beside the platform, there."
She motioned towards a heavily carved table, already laden with fruit and huge platters of fish. There was a reason this village was called Three Rivers.
Rodney, his mouth already full of jerky, paused and hunched his eyebrows a bit before chewing twice and gulping audibly. His eyes were a little wet, and his muttered, "Sorry. Didn't know." was slightly breathless and pained. "What?" He glared at Zelenka, beside him on the bench, coughing into his fist. "How could I possibly have known that?"
"This is what cultural exchange is for, Rodney," Elizabeth said. As the leader, she was seated at the end of the bench, in a large, throne-like easy chair, heavily embroidered, with some sort of frame set above it hung with tiny glass lanterns that swung gently in the warm evening breeze. Several large white moth-things floated over her head, looking more like silk handkerchiefs than anything else. "To learn new things about new people."
Rodney probably had something snippy lined up, but instead he just resettled himself on the bench, elbowing John's ribs in the process and not bothering to apologize.
"Just try to be a bit more genteel," John admonished, and Rodney curled his lip in John's direction; a quarter-sneer.
A kid in a bonnet showed up with a long rectangular tray soldiered with tiny silver goblets.
"Please. We drink to the senses," he smiled. He had one green eye and one blue one, and a lot of hair.
"Do not drink until the players toast the guests," Teyla explained softly.
John nodded, and Rodney practically dipped his pointy little nose in the cup.
"Smells like... icicles. And... and... what is that?"
Taking a sniff himself, John shrugged. "Probably not citrus."
"Anise," Zelenka said with some certainty.
"Ugh. Licorice?" Rodney grimaced at the light pink liquid.
"Suck it up, Rodney. We don't want to insult these guys before the curtain's even called."
"So, how badly would I torpedo diplomatic relations if I threw up on the people sitting in front us? No, seriously." Rodney tipped an anxious look at Teyla.
"Relax, would you? How bad can it be?" John said reasonably. "It's just a shot. Knock it back. It'll put hair on your chest."
"I've got plenty of hair already, thank you," Rodney said, haughtily ignoring John's pointed look at his hairline, "It's just, there was a certain youthful indiscretion concerning a roller rink and a bottle of Sambuca and--"
"A roller rink?" John snorted. Rodney on rollerskates. There was an image.
"What do you want from me? I was fourteen!"
"What is a 'roller rink'?" Teyla looked wholly interested.
Rodney broke off his glaring at John to explain, one fingertip making concentric circles in the air.
"It's, like, first there's these little wheeled carts you wear on your feet--"
"Feet," Teyla said doubtfully.
"Yes, yes, they're called skates, and you wear them in these big boxy rooms with polished floors, and you roll around on them while listening to organ music." Teyla raised her eyebrows. "Inchworm, mostly," Rodney continued. "Or that disco version of Night on Bald Mountain."
Zelenka was shaking his head slightly, and Elizabeth was smiling.
"Your people are truly as inventive as the Ancestors."
"Well. We have our moments," Rodney allowed.
"Teyla, believe me when I say that roller rinks are not what our planet is generally known for." John said.
"I will try," Teyla answered. "It begins."
The heavy curtain, made of narrow shell tiles lashed together with twine, parted and admitted a man and a woman into view. The man had his hair combed into six long locks tied at the ends with black ribbons, and wore a long shiny black robe. His sleeves were red and white, and his shoulders were exposed: they were heavily tattooed (or simply painted) in black and yellow.
The woman's chin length blonde hair was knotted with what looked like small bones; she wore a simple woven band of cloth around her hips, like a bikini with a little fringe, and nothing else.
Rodney elbowed him again and mugged a bit, obviously pleased with the costume choices.
The woman smiled and waved at the audience, and the crowed crowed back at her, calling "Jilan! Jilan!" which John figured was her name.
"Good evening, fair folk. It's lovely of so many to come so far to see... so little." She slapped her own hip and struck a pose, holding her arms up in a cheerful parody of grace, and the crowd giggled appreciatively.
"We are greatly honored to have our friends from Atlantis in attendance," she said, when the noise died down, "Aren't we, Dandin?"
The guy next to her bowed deeply, and produced a wreathe of flowers from one of his billowing sleeves.
"We are. We hope our performance pleases you, good friends." And he tossed the wreath to Elizabeth, who plucked it out of the air and inclined her head graciously. "So we raise our glasses!"
And all the women in the audience lifted the little silver cups, and Teyla and Elizabeth followed suit.
"To Atlantis," Dandin said, and slugged back his drink. All the women cheered back, "To Atlantis!" and slammed their drinks, too. John could hear Elizabeth gasp a little.
"And to our senses!" and all the men lifted their glasses to toast Jilan.
"Our senses," John agreed gamely.
Beside him, Rodney added, "Down the hatch," and with a little frown, he screwed his eyes shut and tipped his head back. Then he blinked. "Huh. Not bad."
John swallowed his own drink, and it raced down his throat, strangely thick and almost hot, more like soup than liquor. It left a friendly little wave of heat in its wake, all the way down to his belly, where it flared a little and then seeped into his bones like sunlight. He and Rodney sagged a moment, shoulder to shoulder, and grinned doofily at one another.
"That's some sweet stuff," John commented.
Even Teyla looked slit-eyed with contentment.
"Fimor is a very fine thing," she agreed.
John folded his arms and settled back against the carved rock of the amphitheater sighing richly, admiring the cunning set design: the shiny blue cloth that waved on the floor, meant to simulate the sea, the little pink clouds that hung from the ceiling, the two orange lanterns that signaled the planet's moons.
And then Dandin began to sing. Well, it was more like a plainsong chant, but he, too, was setting the scene:
We are in the years before, when there were no cities, only the ships and the shore, and the people lived only by the sea, to hunt and trade and swim. Hisa was the leader of her clansmen, the finest weaver of nets, the longest eye with a bow, and many men and women sought her favor.
A few new actors entered, wearing little more than loincloths and smiles. Jilan (as Hisa) stroked the cheek of one pretty young thing and beside him, Rodney said,
"Lesbians? Pinch me!"
So John did.
"Hey! That smarts," Rodney hissed, rubbing his arm.
"Behave yourself," John warned.
And he returned his attention to the stage.
The days were long, then, and Hisa spent her days by the sea, waiting for the red ships to bring her sisters to her, gone now these two seasons to Seru, to trade for spices and cloth.
After a minute, he realized that he could hear the distant surf, and he wondered what the Vefin technological equivalent of Foley was, because they were doing a pretty darned good job with the stifled hush and roar of the fluttering curtain that was the ocean. And hell, they must have some pretty intricate lighting systems back there to make the sea sparkle like that-- it was almost eerily realistic.
The day's work done, Hisa would take to the centerfires and feast with her people, choosing one or another to lay with her under the billion stars--
The yellow moons dimmed and the sky became a black ocean, so thickly spangled with stars that it cast a speckled twilight over Hisa and her companions. Dandin, in his black, was become a floating head, the yellow of his tattoos standing out like the flames of Hisa's campfire. The stars were reflected in the sea below, and John lifted his head and saw the same stars in the planet's sky above.
Hisa chose a young actress and ran a hand through her long, loose hair. John blinked and looked at his own hand, which had just felt cool silk strands slide across its palm.
"Teyla, just what the hell was in those drinks?" he whispered harshly.
Teyla held up a hand, leaning forward in her seat, "Save your questions for the table, Major Sheppard. You have not been harmed."
John glanced over at Rodney who was frowning absently and rubbing his palm against one trousered knee.
When Hisa brushed lips with her little girlfriend, the soft saline tang of sunkissed beach bunny flooded John's own mouth.
He and Rodney locked eyes; Rodney looked like someone had slapped him. His mouth was slightly open and his eyes were huge.
"Oh my god. This is... this is like, a shared sensory hallucination. Jilan must be some kind of psychic porn star!"
"Keep your voice down," John ordered. In the soft light of the little hanging lanterns, he could see that Elizabeth had flushed a delicate pink, but looked otherwise composed. Zelenka was utterly rapt, his hand resting gently on the arm of Elizabeth's royal LaZBoy.
"What are you talking about? Can't you see? We're watching this in Sex-O-Vision!"
John had to fight an impulse to slap Rodney upside the head; instead he clamped a hand around Rodney's wrist and fixed him with his best, "Don't make me turn this thing around" stare.
"Just. Enjoy. The show."
After a long moment, Rodney pressed his lips together and turned his head back to the stage.
Hisa kissed her girlfriend (rather chastely, John thought with some relief-- only Hisa's hands on the girl's face, her tongue slipping gently between the other girl's lips) until the stage's sun rose, bringing with it the rising tide, and Hisa's two sisters on their red ships. There was a lot of dancing then, Hisa sweating freely, and John feeling it roll down his back.
By the stage's second sundown, Hisa had tired of mortal companionship and now called on the gods to provide her with a partner worthy of her prowess.
About this time, Dandin shed his robes and stood before her, vivid with tattoos and rather impressively naked. Maybe even intimidatingly naked. John shifted warily on his embroidered cushion.
The players shot arrows at the sun, they sailed on little skiffs, they frolicked in the surf, and Hisa surpassed the naked god guy at every task; and the audience felt every sandy footprint, every refreshing splash, every brush of the naked god guy's skin against her shoulder when he leaned close. Then Hisa sank her hands into Dandin's hair and Dandin undid the little belt she wore and sweet holy Jesus, John could feel Dandin's hot mouth, his hard, smooth chest, the stiff weight of--
He still had his hand cuffed around Rodney's wrist, and he suddenly noticed every wiry hair under his palm, the bone and sinew under the skin. Rodney turned to look at him, face unguarded, his mouth soft, and John dropped his wrist like it was something sharp.
Note to self, John thought: no more cultural exchanges that involve actual culture.
Then, as Dandin hitched one of Hisa's thighs against his hip, the stage went dark, and Dandin's voice flowed over them:
And so it was that Hisa was bound with Ginn. He lifted her to his palace of stars and together they rule still.
The audience didn't clap, but they whistled liked birds and called the actors' names.
Teyla lounged beside him, so obviously post-coital that he could almost see the cigarette, and gave him a creamy smile.
"You knew this was gonna happen," he accused.
Teyla looked strangely unconcerned. "Dandin and I are... old friends. I have enjoyed many of his performances."
I just bet you have, John thought. If he hadn't felt so... riled up, he would have laughed. Even so, he could appreciate a prank, Athosian style.
Elizabeth and Zelenka were already standing, Elizabeth rolling her shoulders a bit and saying she could do with some dinner. Zelenka was casting her looks under his lashes, and nodding agreement, escorting her down the stone steps, one hand hovering at her elbow. John noted with some envy that Zelenka's light spring jacket was folded over his other arm and held in front of him like a Maitre D's napkin. John thought a little wistfully of the jacket he'd left on the jumper; Rodney hadn't brought one at all.
Teyla sprang up and raised her arms over her head in a luxurious stretch.
"I will see you at the table," she said lightly, and strode away, a sashay to her hips that John found hard to look away from. When the crowd finally obscured her, John looked over to see Rodney still seated, face pale, mouth tight.
"Rodney? You okay?" It looked like Rodney hadn't been kidding about losing his lunch.
"I'm gonna... need a minute. You, you go on ahead."
"Nah. I could, uh, use some downtime myself."
Rodney gave a mirthless laugh.
"What, are we bonding over this now? Thanks, but no thanks."
"Aw, can it, McKay, it happens to everybody. Every guy, anyway." He paused a moment. "Well, maybe not every guy," he amended.
"Oh, please." Rodney snapped, one hand chopping the air. "Homoeroticism, it's the new black."
That was so not where I was going with this, John wanted to say, and Rodney seemed to see that in his face, and his own closed up in response.
"That Jilan, she's something else, huh?" Rodney's voice was bright and a little manic. He'd leaned forward slightly, hands clasped so hard that John could see his knuckles whiten.
"Tell me about it," John agreed, in what he hoped was an easy tone.
They sat there a while, in the soft evening air, the amphitheater throwing the murmur of the crowd over their shoulders, and didn't mention Dandin at all.