Team One takes a brief, unscheduled vacation.
Their 91st mission took them to Selosia, where they were wined and dined like really hot intergalactic princes before one of the nobles propositioned Teyla and took her "It's not you, it's me," speech badly.
Fisticuffs were dealt and ultimatums issued in the ensuing fracas; someone busted up Ronon's shin, someone else cursed the spirits of John's ancestors back to his great-great-great-great grandmother (God rest her soul) and, as the cherry on top of the whipped cream spiral, Rodney stubbed a toe as they flew through the gate with rocks glancing off the backside of the puddlejumper.
The toe took a long time to heal.
John's first impression of M83-192 was that it was the Ancient equivalent of Barbados: three days, two nights, spa and club inclusive, traditional seafood buffet dinner, only $799 while offers last!
The beaches were in direct view of the Stargate and looked like something out of airline counter brochures, raw jewels in lush tropical settings, virgin territory, etc. etc. White sand, waters of real purple-prose turquoise. He'd been itching for them since he'd had his first chance to take a good look after establishing the region's security.
The only traces of Ancient handiwork they found in the area turned out to be:
(a) 1 mysterious blue cube
(b) 1 three-room sauna, and
(c) 1 combination speedboat/surfboard that John insisted on fashioning a way to lug back to Atlantis over Rodney's protests.
"Oh, this is just typical," said Rodney in between the huffing and puffing. "What are we now, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard's Traveling Entourage? Bellboy, bellydancer, handyman, check -- "
John stepped to the top of the ridge and looked down, at the long strip of beach below bitten by sea.
" -- let me tell you, I earn a lot more on my day job!" Rodney shouted after him.
"The language of your people is piquant, Dr. McKay," noted Teyla from the rear as they made their way down the slope single-file, her voice a smooth spill of honey. "Please, explain to me the duties of these bellydancers of which you speak?"
"Yeah, Rodney, help us bridge the culture gap," said John, advancing slowly, testing the terrain with his boots to find the steadiest path down.
Rodney was still sputtering by the time they touched sand, but he found time to interject a hasty "Hey, watch out for the poisonous alien scorpions, are those /bones/?" when John squatted down to sift the granules through his fingers. They were warm and heavy, fine as silk, flecks of gray and brown hidden among the white. It was early enough in the day that they hadn't yet become scorching hot.
"Ground silica just like Mother used to make. C'mon," he said, standing, "the wildlife has to push up daisies somewhere."
"Because it doesn't think!" Rodney stomped down in his boots, as if he could kick the potential nasties into disappearing if he just tried hard enough. "The humans, on the other hand, could choose very specifically to die in bed of old age instead of, say, insect bite on unfamiliar planet while playing offworld hooky."
"Feels nice," said Ronon. He'd already unlaced his boots and was wriggling his toes in, all stoic Satedan satisfaction, which meant he looked like he could kill you with a sneeze, but also like he'd purr if you stroked him.
When it didn't seem like he was going to turn black and keel over, John followed suit.
"Crazy people. I put my life in the hands of crazy people," Rodney was rolling his eyes. "I suppose if I told you it's stupid to stick peas up your nose, you'd do that in a heartbeat, too."
"Actually," said Teyla, in flawless I am the walking galactic encyclopedia, disregard these words at your peril form, "there is a ceremony on the planet of Naloo that -- "
"Oh no no no no no, I have seen through your cunning deception, you can't fool me anymore," said Rodney, backing away with a grimace of faint horror. "We call that yanking someone's chain, and it is not, /not/, behavior for civilized company."
"Lighten up, Doc," John flashed the grin he'd learned from the veterans at Rincon. "We're at the beach. Whoopee!" he added for good measure.
Rodney threw him a deeply offended look, and then drew back his leg to kick up a grumpy cloud of sand.
92 wasn't too bad, as long as you glossed over the stabbing stomach pains that took them down before the denizens of M5X-357 realized that, hey, their traditional dish of imposter spinach-and-tomato wasn't as kind to foreign anatomies as it was to their own.
Ironically, McKay seemed to be the only one unaffected, and he ran around for a while accusing the natives of poison until the little girl who'd brought them their dishes started to wail. Then he made her a giraffe out of a few pieces of straw to shut her up before hauling them all back onto the puddlejumper and flying, or wobbling, back to Atlantis.
He gloated for a few hours about his unique health condition elevating him above the grunts for once, until the reaction hit him one day late and three times stronger.
" -- nothing in the databases to suggest this," Rodney was saying, sounding sulky. "It's supposed to be a technological outpost, a haven of science and research."
"Maybe the researchers assigned here knew the guys in charge of the database," John said. "Maybe they were the guys in charge of the database."
"Oh, please. Just because you skew your reports to Elizabeth in favor of the planets with all the loose women doesn't mean that the Ancients did the same; it's not a physiological trait that hitchhikes along with the Ancient gene."
"Yeah, because I wasn't the one who tried to convince her that -- what was it?" Boat, he thought to a blue shimmer, and the Ancient device lengthened, deepened. Board/, and it thinned into two dimensions again. /Boat. "A crucial scientific breakthrough relied on establishing frequent relations with that tribe that grows the pseudo coffee beans?"
"Coffee is science, Colonel," Rodney sniffed. "As you would have learned by now if you had the observation skills of a blind chimpan-- okay, there. Done."
He'd rigged a makeshift umbrella from the tarpaulin in the puddlejumper and some driftwood; in John's eyes, it resembled a bomb shelter more than umbrella by this point, but Rodney seemed happy with the result, darting underneath with a sigh, and it was kind of cute. "Now you guys can go do your juvenile water-bonding thing, and Teyla and I will keep watch. I brought a book," he added with the satisfaction of vindicated foresight.
"The water seems inviting," said Teyla, looking out towards the waves lapping at the shoreline, "and I have every confidence that Dr. McKay's sunscreen will prove equal to its task."
The sunscreen was a clever touch: Rodney looked torn between ego and desire for human company in a struggle that lasted for around a nanosecond. "Fine, fine, ditch me for the surfer boys. These could be shark-infested waters, you know."
"You told us the wildlife was relatively harmless, according to the database," but John was already making his way down the beach, lugging the Ancient surfboard after him.
"Yes, well, I think it's already been proven that the database can be extremely reticent when it suits itself. Just, y'know, don't come running to me to devise a wooden leg when you get one bitten off out there."
"Thanks, Rodney. Your concern helps us through the cold, dark nights." Mmm, waves.
The sand crunched under his bare feet. For once, Rodney was probably being realistic about the dangers involved, but they'd been taking every precaution for the past ten, twenty missions, and so far they'd had over five close shaves with that artificial limb, a few more with not needing any limbs at all. John figured it was time to give other strategies a shot.
He paused just below the demarcation line between wet sand and dry, waiting for the breaker, which came like a pet to swirl icily around his ankles and caused him to close his eyes in a moment of pure, sensuous pleasure.
They tried the speedboat first. Ronon and Teyla helped him shove it out far enough, and then they all clambered in, pressed arm-to-arm. There was no wheel or ignition; John thought, Go, and the boat zoomed out towards the skyline.
The thrum and buzz of motor he was accustomed to was missing, but the wind sang noisily enough, both to cover the lack and to discourage conversation, whipping Teyla's and Ronon's hair against the back of his neck: hers was softer, his stung a bit, and it was pretty nice.
Mission 93 was on the planet with the organic lightbulbs. They floated gracefully in midair, spheres of glowing incandescent light that seemed to levitate purely through force of will, odd at first but somehow comforting after you got used to the four dozen or so dotting the plain within sight at every point.
Then the butt of John's P90 brushed one as he turned and it twitched, shivering, before the outer layer of skin dropped down to reveal an eyeball.
"Holy shit," said Rodney.
They returned after acquiring the valuable knowledge that the lightbulbs didn't bite but could ram very, very hard into a forehead, and once one started playing, all the others joined in -- not lethal, lots of fun, just like a frat party, complete with splitting headaches the morning after.
When they returned to shore, Rodney was making a sand castle.
He had his eyes narrowed and forehead wrinkled the way he did when fussing over a newly-discovered device in the lab, and John wasn't surprised to see that the castle was in fact a detailed and exact replica of Atlantis, complete with piers and lightning rods. The excavation toolkit lay open beside him, looking content to be well-plumbed.
"Wow, Rodney, didn't know you had it in you." He dropped down in a spot far enough from the castle to forestall accusations of interference. Wet sand caked his feet and ankles, itchy and irritating, and it was the best feeling ever.
Rodney snorted without looking up. "Please. You build one nuclear bomb as a kid, and they start vetting every science fair project you enter in the next ten years. I had to stick with materials a doting mother would let her two-year-old play with, and that tended to narrow the options for a project down a little."
"This is beautiful, Dr. McKay," said Teyla, stepping up beside them. She poked fun at them all, and Rodney more than most -- sometimes John had to wonder if he was winding her up -- but when she went for impressed, she didn't do it halfway. "It is heartening to see Atlantis in the hands of one who cares for her so deeply."
Rodney looked a step from going "Aw, shucks," and scuffing his toe in the sand when Ronon pointed at one tower. "You messed that up," which brought secretly chuffed to profoundly nettled in under a second.
"What? No, I didn't."
It did seem fine -- a toothpick minaret attached to the south end of the city, and John was really going to have to ask Rodney how he'd managed the geometric precision of the windows.
"It's not so pretty anymore," said Ronon, and John understood.
So did Rodney, who scowled and waved his hands. "Well, there's no point in replicating imperfection, is there?"
Ronon shrugged. "I'm just saying."
"You people have no poetry in your souls," Rodney huffed, but he reached over and knocked off a bit of the sand from the crown; it scattered over the yard below, forlorn, like little bits of rubble. "There, now. Happy?"
Ronon shrugged again. "It's still beautiful," he said.
After a while, Rodney said, "Well, yes."
After the lightbulbs, they were all feeling pretty cranky, so John traded with Lorne's team for a routine trading mission with one of their established partners, the friendly and engaging Ta'alans.
As it turned out, the Ta'alans liked the medicines the Atlantians offered them, but they liked the weapons sent by the Genii even more.
"Are we cursed?" Rodney asked him afterwards, while he was getting his bicep daubed by an unsympathetic Beckett. Apparently doctors didn't like getting dragged from romantic dinners two out of every three nights to deal with cuts and scrapes any more than normal people did; who knew? "Seriously, Sheppard, did your Ancient girlfriend speak to someone up there and -- is this her idea of revenge?"
"No clue," he said glumly. Beckett glared at him, and pressed down harder on the cotton swab.
"So I guess we should start packing up," John said against the background splash of a very spectacular sunset, scrubbing water from his hair. Ronon had taken to surfing much better than utensils, and they'd taken turns riding the waves until the sun began to sink through the horizon.
He'd offered to teach Teyla, too, but she'd raised one of those eyebrows and pointed out that she didn't have a change of clothes, and whatever the rumors said, John didn't have enough of a death wish to propose skinny-dipping.
The shelter was a picnic blanket now, with Rodney sitting on it Indian-style, frowning at his laptop. Atlantis had been completed after John's fifth trip back; on his sixth trip, there were four little sand-figures sitting in a row in front of the gates. One of them was slightly bigger and more noble-looking than the others, and John had an idea that it wasn't Ronon.
"Aww, that's so cute," he'd said, which made Rodney flush defensively and blame it all on Teyla.
Now he looked up. "Ah, Colonel, actually I was thinking about that," he said, "and don't you suppose we could communicate with Elizabeth, tell her we need more time to, uh, fully explore and utilize the potential assets of this planet?"
"Sounds nice," said Ronon, sprawled out on the sand with his muscles glistening.
It was tempting, he had to admit; so far, M83-192 was like the universe's way of making up for the past two months of insanity. "And what happens when she finds out that the potential assets of the planet are, what, two jaccuzis and a surfboard?"
"I'll figure something out," said Rodney, glaring -- are you kidding me? "I'll fill you guys in tomorrow, we can compare stories."
"Mmm," said Teyla, which should have sounded noncommital, but somehow carried her full and definite approval instead, so he thought for a moment and said, "Fine, since you've already proven that you can turn the tarp into a shield against all elements short of a hailstorm, we'll give it a shot."
"Splendid." Glaring Rodney morphed immediately into beaming Rodney, clapping his hands together. "You, contact Elizabeth; you, go get some wood and make us a fire. Oh, stop that," this at Ronon's eyebrow, which spoke volumes -- he must've been taking lessons from Teyla -- "I promise I'll make it worth your while. All of you, actually, as long as you promise you won't faint with gratitude when it starts."
"I believe we may safely brave that danger," said Teyla gravely.
Mission 95 was the one with the giant Venus Flytraps. 96 went to the planet that held nothing but a natural booby trap that brought Lorne's team through the gate with rope ladders and overly impassive faces, and there was a tiny party of Wraith on M9X-200 of Mission 98 who looked even more surprised than the Atlantians were to have company.
The carcasses mollified Beckett a bit, and he patted John's arm after bandaging up his chest, telling him to take it easy on the bruised ribs, you never knew when they'd get another pounding.
Elizabeth turned out to be surprisingly amenable, until John remembered that there was ice cream on the menu tonight, and four more people offworld meant four more desserts to go around the mess.
The sky was dimming into violet by the time his boots touched sand again. Rodney had rebuilt the shelter while Ronon was fanning a goodly fire next to the miniature Atlantis.
His teammates sat on logs dragged around the fire, and he set out towards the remaining empty spot between Rodney and Teyla that faced the ocean. Five paces from the campsite, he stopped. Sniffed. Sniffed again, and then broke into a jog, demanding: "Is that what I think it is?"
"Only if you think it's one of the Seven Wonders of Terran cuisine," said Rodney, gleeful as a kid, a skewer in both hands. "Take a seat, Sheppard, and you have the entire night to extoll my virtues if you so wish. Here's a hint: it'll get you a bigger share of the chocolate bars."
"You're a good man, Rodney McKay." He accepted one of the skewers and held it over the fire. This was so not going into the report; it would create a stampede of applications for offworld positions if it leaked out. "How'd you know we'd have the time to do this properly?"
"I know everything," Rodney sounded so smug that John gave into temptation and clacked his skewer against Rodney's in a mock duel. "God, stop that, you medieval -- fine, fine, so I always carry a candy bar or two around for my hypoglycemia, and with the odds for rather than against our getting thrown into a dungeon prison with no food and water for a week, I've been augmenting the usual regimen with a few goodies from the Daedalus. We just lucked out this time with the combo."
If this was what their luck was saving itself up for, it was almost worth it. "S'mores," he said, hearing the awe in his own voice. "This better not be another alien pipe dream."
They didn't talk about Mission 99.
"We could play a game," he said to the stars. The sand was cool and comfortable underneath his back; he had his uniform jacket pillowed under his head and his stomach full with sugar and cocoa. For the moment, life was good.
"Sure," said Rodney, equally dazed -- too many pauses, a little sluggish, like he'd just been run over by heaven. Then: "But you, you get to explain to Mr. I'm-too-tough-for-higher-mathematics the difference between prime and not-prime. I'm too full of fuzzy feelings right now to be suitably derogatory."
"You, McKay? Fuzzy feelings? I never," and he paused, considering.
Rodney threw a skewer at him that landed three inches short. "Oh, no. No way. I never played I Never since puberty decided it'd had its fun; we might be camping out but we're not in high school anymore, thank God."
"You played I Never in high school?"
"Yes, /John/, I 'hung out' and went to parties and did all the usual boring social dance routines while trapped in secondary school hell." He paused. "My company, I may add, was much sought-after, and in my senior year I was even nominated for Spring Fling King."
John had a mental picture of young Rodney with a makeshift crown on his head and blonde cheerleader on his arm, waving to the masses. The degree of smugness radiating from his smile was rated illegally toxic in thirty-seven states.
"I do not understand this argument," and even Teyla sounded like she was mellow enough to be living purely in the moment. Probably not, though; Teyla didn't have off hours.
"It's an Earth game you play when you're young, drunk and dumb enough to think that spilling all your embarrassing sexual exploits to a room of unsympathetic listeners is the greatest party ever," said Rodney. "Oh, huh. I guess you might catch the Marines at it sometime if you hang around the rec room often enough."
"Nah, everyone gave that up when they realized they could be playing Spin the Bottle instead," said John, scratching lazily at his stomach. There were a few howls in the darkness, but they didn't sound close enough to be trouble, and Ronon was keeping watch. "Maybe Teyla and Ronon could share their games," because it was just too easy for him and Rodney to monopolize the conversation. "What did you do on Sateda when nobody remembered to bring the cards?"
"Wasn't much time for fun." Ronon's voice from across the campfire was a low, satiated rumble. He'd really taken to the marshmallows. After a while, he said, "We played Double Gate when a new unit was formed or someone joined."
"Bonding rituals; how predictable and primitive," Rodney sniffed, and then yelped when Ronon tossed his skewer over with much more accurate aim. "Hey! Biting the hand that feeds you is a really mature way to show civilization, yes indeed."
"I haven't bitten you yet, Mckay," said Ronon, grinning and showing off his teeth, which were were very white and very sharp in the firelight.
Rodney must have noticed, since he hurried to plop out the McKay conciliatory gesture: "All right, fine, I may have overstated the case a little, you're not completely Stone Age. So, uh. How does that game you mentioned go?"
There was a pause where Ronon was probably calculating whether or not he was too gorged to mess with Rodney further, and then he said, "You pick a guy," and John knew the marshmallows had won out. "Ask him if he chooses the gate of honesty, or the gate of bravery. Honesty means answering a question, bravery means performing a feat of courage. The questioner has to assign the question or act."
A beat. "Jesus," said John, startled into laughter. "Are you saying that you played Truth or Dare on Sateda?"
"Oh my god," said Rodney at the same time. "Armies really do manage to attract the puerile adolescents everywhere."
Fortunately, Teyla murmured "We have something similar among our people as well," before Ronon could decide that marshmallows didn't cancel out everything, and John was short a scientist for his team. "It is a good way for warriors to became acquainted with the backgrounds of their companions, and to -- compare prowess," which John supposed was her polite way of saying 'smear testosterone all over the room'.
"Whaddya know, Rodney," he said, sliding his fingers into the sand until he felt the trapped moisture underneath. "Here's a game we all know how to play."
"Remove the coordinates, nobody's going back to that place," he was ordering when Elizabeth hurried up to greet them in the control room, medics already posted by the gate in anticipation of Team One's return. Ronon was limping and Teyla had four slashes across her shoulderblades, bleeding sluggishly, but all in all, they'd come back looking worse.
Except that none of them were smiling, and Rodney wasn't talking, even to bitch about the rough handling of the nurse checking him over, which only made the guy twice as nervous. John thought of making an effort before deciding that it was pointless, with nobody to play off of; Teyla was usually game, but now she looked like she was wishing she'd never left Athos.
"What happened? Everything sounded fine on the comm half an hour ago -- "
"There's nothing left to go back to," he cut her off, and Elizabeth didn't say anything else except, "We'll talk later, then."
The debriefing went quickly; when it ended they all left in separate directions, which was a neat trick, since the hallway only went two ways.
Three days after, they flew through the gate towards M83-192 bantering as usual, just as they had the ninety-nine times before.
"Truth or dare, Dr. McKay?"
"Why do you still waste your breath /asking/?"
"There's not much point to the game if you're going to go for truth every time," he pointed out, to which Rodney just stared and said, "You've met me, right?"
Which, well, point. He didn't get it himself, but this was Rodney, a pudgier and more skeptical version of Mulder, who'd followed the truth through nine increasingly torturous seasons of TV, and Rodney had even found his aliens.
So far John had done the Parapara dance, tickled Rodney speechless ("Make McKay shut up,") insisted that he'd never even thought of sleeping with Elizabeth, and related the origin of his love of flying ("When I was in high school, we visited this aviation museum that had a retired Black Hawk, and it was /really cool/.")
So far Ronon had stripped to his trousers, described Sateda before the arrival of the Wraith, confessed to eating Rodney's cookie, and given Teyla a piggyback ride; Teyla had sung a dirty Athosian ditty that gave them a whole new appreciation of the Athosian mind, and traded shirts with Rodney at John's behest.
So far, all Rodney had done was share most of his personal history, every piece of which somehow managed to be as dry as burnt toast. By this point, John figured they were continuing the game just to get him to cough up at least one spicy detail.
"Describe to us your first love," and Teyla's eyes brightened as Rodney's grew dreamy, which lasted as long as it took him to start speaking.
"Age five, for each action an equal and opposite reaction," said Rodney, hands coming together to jump apart again like springs. "Newton's laws of motion -- even Sheppard should know the drill, unless your American schools are even worse than your beer, which, actually, I wouldn't bet against, but that's beside the point." He did look lovelorn, so far gone that even the America-bashing sounded affectionate, and for a moment John almost envied him. "So simple, while they explain so much about the world until, well, until they don't anymore. But you don't realize that until later. God, I couldn't think about anything else for ages."
"You're weird, McKay," said Ronon sadly, like he'd just realized that McKay wasn't responsible for his own personality, a victim of fate as much as everyone around him.
John wondered if he'd be slipping Rodney jello tomorrow, and that reminded him about tomorrow.
He creaked to his feet; his bones weren't what they'd been. "On that note, guys," he said, "let's call it a night, because we're gonna need to look bright and fresh-faced for Elizabeth in the morning. I'll take first watch," he added, still feeling keyed up from the dance.
There were the usual shufflings and good-nights, Teyla and Rodney switching shirts again with a lot of muttering on Rodney's part and a sigh or two on Teyla's, and then the others were piling into the shelter, leaving John alone with the sea's company.
He spent some time banking the fire, before he settled down and just enjoyed the sound of the waves breaking against the shore, the wind on his face, the temporary absence of anything that wanted to eat, shoot or embarrass them.
Later, Rodney dropped down beside him.
"It's not your watch yet," he said, keeping his voice low.
Rodney shrugged. In the darkness it wasn't quite as easy to read him, though his voice was still expressive. "Couldn't sleep. It was a passable night, compared to what we've been having lately."
"Yeah," he said, because god, so true, and he still wasn't completely sure it wasn't an elaborate hallucination. "You know, you might be more tired if you'd gone for a dare instead of convincing Ronon that you're just about as alien as the Wraith."
Somehow it was always possible to tell when Rodney was rolling his eyes, even when you couldn't see them. "Oh, please; like you have room to talk." There was a sigh from the beach as he slid his fingers into sand. "I had to make up for your spectacular avoidance of truth, didn't I?"
"Hey, I picked truth."
Rodney snorted. "Sheppard, I've read your file; you were taking the family jet out on secret joy rides before you graduated junior high."
He didn't hesitate for more than a fraction of a second before he said, "I got the year wrong, I guess, and who the hell authorized you to -- " but Rodney ignored him, steamrollering on:
"I also saw you looking at Elizabeth during the Athosian spring whatever ceremony, when she was wearing that little glittery black number cut down to whoa, and seriously, I don't know why you bother with these things when it's just me, Ronon and Teyla."
"McKay -- "
"Look, Colonel," Rodney didn't sound anything more than lightly exasperated, "I don't have to play a game to discover what kind of person you are. This, this is my dare," he said, gesturing around him, and John knew that he wasn't taking in the scenery but missions one through ninety-nine, Atlantis, the Wraith, everything they'd seen and experienced up to now. "It could be your truth, I guess, if you want. Maybe even if you don't," he tacked on like an afterthought, "seeing that you're in such close proximity to genius."
"I think," John said slowly, "that that's actually worse than the game."
"Yes, well, life's like that." Rodney leaned back on his elbows, and John thought of turning over the watch, telling Rodney to take advantage of his wakefulness and leaving him out here, but there didn't seem to be a point.
"I guess," he said, lapsing into a silence that Rodney didn't try to break. When he glanced over five minutes later, he realized that Rodney had fallen asleep out there on the sand, so he stayed there and watched over his team until Teyla came out to relieve him.