Pairing: gen, team
Word Count: 8300
Spoilers: late season 4, but before "Kindred"
Summary: Ice worlds, drunken team snuggling, Athosian festivals and things of that nature. Gen, but maybe a teeny bit OT4-ish.
Author's Note: trekkim wanted friendship and team; I hope this suits! Thank you to sgatazmy for the beta.
John stepped through the gate into a blue winter dusk. He'd expected the sharp bite of cold, Antarctica style, nipping at his face through the ruff of his military-issue parka. He did not, however, expect the gate to wink out in a tremendous cascade of powder-fine snow, burying him up to his waist.
"What the hell!" Rodney flailed wildly as the miniature avalanche carried him into Ronon.
Teyla, who, like Ronon, had braced herself against the wash of snow, gave them both a pitying look. "It is common on worlds that experience severe winters -- snow will drift through the Ring, but the opening of a wormhole cuts away the snow on one side only."
"Makes sense," Rodney muttered, shaking out his gloves with both corners of his mouth twisted down. "Event horizon vaporizes the snow in front of the gate; when the wormhole collapses, the rest of the snow falls through. Warn a person next time?"
"More fun this way," Ronon said.
"Okay, guys ..." Looking around them, John saw that they were standing in a perfect oblong scooped out of the snow, just the exact length and width of the "kawhoosh" part of the gate (no, he was not going to waste perfectly good brain cells learning the terminology; that's what Rodney was for). The smooth snow-cliffs around them, faintly luminous in the blue twilight, stood higher than Ronon's head,.
Rodney had stopped struggling to stare, open-mouthed. "There must be ten feet of snow on the ground. Um ... guys ..."
"It is packed solid by the wind at this time of year. One can walk on it." Teyla slogged through the snow to the base of the gate, and John realized when she reached for the outside of the ring that there was actually some kind of freakin' rope ladder hooked to the top, draped down the gate's smooth curve.
"Uh, Teyla --" John protested when she grabbed hold of it and wrested her ungainly body out of the snow. Rope climbing couldn't possibly be on Keller's approved list of activities for pregnant women. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
Teyla didn't bother dignifying this with a response, instead clambering up the side of the gate and from there to the top of the snowpack. As snow crumbled under her feet, John thought for one horrifying moment that she and Teyla Jr. were going to come tumbling down into the trough carved out by the event horizon. But she got her footing and stepped away from the edge, then turned and waved to them.
Ronon was already going for the rope with gleeful abandon. Rodney made a little whimpering sound when John gave him a shove.
"How far did you say it was to the village?" John asked, looking up at Teyla's face peering down at him, framed by her parka hood.
"It is the Tunga's winter camp," she corrected him. "Not far -- I would say only an hour or two of brisk walking."
This time Rodney's whimper was a little louder, changing to a squeak as Ronon gave him a hand -- well, more of a yank, really -- from the rope ladder onto the snowpack. Rodney swung across with all the grace of a particularly unathletic sack of bricks. John waited for the snow to stop falling on his head and then, sighing, took hold of the rope.
Teyla and Carter had joined forces to talk him into this. As they had both pointed out, Teyla was well known to the people of M4T-031, who had been trading with the Athosians for years. The Tunga were not unfriendly to strangers, but would probably be more likely to open up and share any information they might have on the Athosians' whereabouts with someone who was known to them.
Carter also wanted to put out feelers for possibly trading with the Tunga -- and while she didn't come out and say so, John had the distinct impression that she didn't quite trust the three male members of his team to open trade negotiations on their own. Perhaps it was just his imagination, but he thought he'd noticed a distinct downturn in the number of first-contact missions they'd had since Teyla had been put on stand-down.
John figured the real issue at stake, though, was Teyla's growing and obvious case of cabin fever. She'd been very polite about it. Too polite about it, really; he and Ronon both had the sparring bruises to show for her emotional repression. When a pregnant woman could kick both their asses, it was probably time to let her blow off a little steam on a simple mission to a peaceful planet.
Which, John thought gloomily, was probably a surefire way to make things go horribly, horribly wrong.
But no blizzards came roaring down out of the soaring, jagged peaks around them. No wolves pounced from behind the sparse, pinelike trees and wind-sculpted crags. The dusk gradually deepened in the long, slow slide into night that John remembered from his time in Antarctica, and stars emerged to spangle the sky. There was no moon -- either this planet didn't have one, or it wasn't up yet -- but the starlight on the snow provided enough light that John didn't feel the need to break out a flashlight. The stars were thicker here than what he was used to, a sweeping wash of light across the sky. Rodney rambled about galactic cores and stellar clusters; John "mm-hmm'd" at appropriate intervals and kept a wary eye on the frozen wilderness around them.
And then they topped a rise, and his chest constricted -- a breathless feeling like dropping through a spacegate and having the whole universe spread out in a starry tapestry at his feet, with only the thin shell of the jumper between him and infinity. But here, the ground braced his feet and infinity was above, beside, all around him: a valley of mind-boggling proportions -- thirty, forty miles across; a long sweeping drop that must be five thousand sloping feet to the valley floor. Mountains towered around them to rake at the sky, probably ten or fifteen thousand feet of solid snow-crusted rock. He was perched on the edge of an inverted bowl of unspeakable size; he felt poised to fall forward, upward, into that great space.
As if the sheer, staggering hugeness of the place wasn't enough, a few blue-green glimmers of aurora had begun to emerge among the dense wash of stars overhead.
For a long moment, no one moved or spoke. Then Teyla shook herself. "The winter camp is very near," she said, and led the way along the rim of the rapidly dropping plunge to the far-off valley floor.
As John's brain began to adjust to the scale of the valley, he realized that the tiny sparks of light moving on the slopes were more than just artifacts of his light-starved eyes. "What are those?" he asked, pointing.
Teyla paused to look. "Tunga, I imagine, with lanterns, checking on their herds."
"Herds of what?"
"Madoxen," Teyla said, resuming a brisk, if slightly waddling pace. She barely seemed winded from the walk; Rodney, on the other hand, was huffing along behind them like a dying steam engine. "The herds move across the land in search of forage, while the Tunga follow along. This valley is one of several winter pastures that the Tunga use. Since it is near the Ring, they winter here every second year, and rotate through the other pastures in off years. I thought that this should be one of their trading years, as indeed, it seems to be."
Rodney caught up with them, panting. "I hate to sound like I'm complaining --"
"Since when?" John murmured, and caught the quick flash of Ronon's grin out of the corner of his eye.
"-- but," Rodney went on, steadfastly ignoring him, "I'm not seeing any sign of a village, and my feet are turning into solid blocks of ice here. Please tell me we're not going to be camping out in yak-hair tents."
"Some Canadian you are," John drawled. He felt lazy and relaxed and good, the world at peace around him, suspended in a fragile ice-locked stillness. With conscious determination, he did not probe deeper to find out whether the warm glow filling him had anything to do with Teyla's small, waddling figure, filling out their numbers from the unbalanced three to the familiar, comfortable four.
"Canada is not the frozen wasteland you Americans apparently believe it is. And, for your information, we have no yaks."
"Neither do the Tunga," Teyla began, and then she paused as a dark shape detached itself from the darker towers of snow-capped boulders around them.
John and Ronon were both already in motion, closing Teyla and Rodney between them, weapons out.
"Who is there?" a voice called -- high and light, the voice of a teenage boy or a woman. All Sheppard could really make out in the twilight was a blocky, shapeless dark figure, nearly as wide as it was tall.
"We are friends," Teyla said past John's shoulder. "I am Teyla of Athos, daughter of Tagan."
"Teyla Emmagan Tagansdaughter! Yes, we know you." The dark shape stepped forward, lowering a short recurved bow. "I am Lafi Solonsdaughter Janswife. I was just a girl when you last came to see us."
She was just a girl now, John thought when Lafi pushed back her furry hood to reveal a small, sleek dark head. He stepped out of the way, lowering his P90 to point at the snow and raising his finger to rest on the trigger guard as Teyla and the girl greeted each other with a lot of hand-clasping and smiling.
"Lafi, these are my friends John Sheppard, Ronon Dex and Rodney McKay. They are not of Athos; they come from another world that was unknown to us previously. We have come to talk trade and to visit."
They all fell into step with the girl; Teyla was still holding her hand, small gloved fingers clasped over Lafi's heavy woolen mitten. "Does Kovan Shenson still guide your herds?"
Lafi shook her head. "No, Ancestors keep him; we now look to Marian Kovansdaughter Benswife."
They turned down a narrow cleft in the rocks and the windswept snow gave way to a path trampled to rock-hardness by the passage of many feet. Looking up at the narrow stripe of sky above them, John saw that the aurora had erupted in full-fledged glory; curtains of green and gold light rippled in the space between the canyon walls.
"Watch where you're going," Rodney muttered when John stumbled into him, catching himself on the rock wall.
John didn't bother apologizing. "Check it out, McKay," he said, stabbing a finger upward.
"What could possibly be so fascinating that -- oh." Rodney's complaint trailed off in a soft sound of wonder. For a moment, neither of them moved or spoke, staring up at the ribbons of light unspooling across the sky.
The moment lasted until Ronon snaked a long arm across the space between them to seize hold of Rodney's coat and tug him forward. "Don't know if you've noticed, McKay, but it's cold out here."
"I thought you were immune to it," Rodney protested, stumbling forward a step or two before recovering.
Teyla twisted around awkwardly, pausing in mid-conversation with Lafi to shoot them both a "can't I take you anywhere?" sort of stare.
John grinned. As his team went ahead, he lingered a moment longer, gazing up at the brilliant sky.
"What's going on back there, Sheppard?" Rodney called back impatiently. "I smell food."
Grinning a little wider, John trotted to catch up. The cleft in the rocks had started out natural-seeming, but he was pretty sure that by now it was manmade, and positive when they turned a corner and he saw a long, straight alley dead-ending in a cliff. The sides of the alley were sparsely dotted with ground-level alcoves or doorways, slightly taller than a man, about ten or twelve of them on each side. Drapes hung across them, but most were pulled back and light streamed out into what basically amounted to a long, narrow courtyard, maybe thirty feet wide and a few hundred yards long.
And it bustled with activity. There was a huge bonfire going at the far end, throwing light onto the towering cliff face, and dark human shapes moved back and forth across the fire's glow. More people sat or lounged in the doorways: clusters of giggling teenagers, old men mending harness, women working handheld spindles while toddlers drowsed in their laps. Many people wore hide parkas like Lafi's, but they were unfastened, hanging open to reveal brightly-colored wool garments beneath. And quite a lot of them, especially the young people, wore no coats at all. John could see why: down here, sheltered from the wind, with heat baking off the fire and rolling out of the open doorways, it was almost comfortable -- at least compared to the cold outside. He unzipped his coat and let it fall open, noticing Ronon following suit.
Kids and scruffy, shaggy-coated little dogs ran about everywhere. As John followed Lafi and Teyla through the camp, village or whatever it should be called, he watched some little boys -- bare-armed in loose sleeveless shifts, wool breeches and boots -- playing tag with a gaggle of spotted puppies, shrieking with laughter. They passed a makeshift pen occupied by a couple of huge mounds of matted hair -- these, as he got a closer look, turned out to be a pair of massive animals, easily the size of buffaloes if not larger, both of them lying down with their huge heads resting in the snow. Two men knelt next to one of them, doing something to its foot with what looked like a gigantic pair of pliers, while a girl held a torch for them. Veterinary hospital, circa 4000 B.C., John thought. He wanted to go get a closer look, but Teyla called him over to the fire to introduce him to a square-jawed woman with steel-gray hair drawn back by ornately carved wooden combs.
"Marian Kovansdaughter Benswife," she introduced herself, seizing John's hands in a grip like iron. "I speak for the west-ranging Tunga."
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard." When she frowned, obviously trying to reason out the parts of the name, he added, "Call me John. I, uh, speak for my people."
"Teyla says that you came to trade." Marian ushered him towards the fire. In the better light, John could see that her face was marked with ornate tattoos, curving around the corners of her mouth and bracketing her cheeks and forehead in blue and red ink.
"Yeah, basically." John looked around for Ronon, who'd been carrying the trade stuff -- Teyla, as usual, had put together a bundle of samples showcasing what they had to offer, everything from aspirin to fresh fruit to books.
Marian laughed and slapped him on the back, nearly knocking him into the edge of the fire. Were all the people in this galaxy ridiculously buff? "I don't know how things are done among your people, but who talks business on an empty stomach? Sit! Teyla speaks highly of you, and we have long been friends of Athos. Let us show you the hospitality of the Tunga."
Which was how he found himself sitting on a rock draped in uncured furs, with his hands curled around a wooden bowl of stew , looking up at the dancing aurora past the flying sparks of the fire. A second bowl of dark, potent Tunga wine rested against his thigh. Marian had offered to store their gear for them; since Teyla didn't seem concerned, John had reluctantly gone along with it, but he kept his weapons with him. No one seemed to take offense at this, as most of them seemed to have weapons of their own.
Various Tunga dropped by to chat with him, including Lafi, who had taken off her parka to reveal that, underneath, she was almost as pregnant as Teyla. Her short bow was slung over one shoulder. "I have just gained Wolf level proficiency," she told him proudly, holding up her wrist to show him two stylized wooden charms that probably represented animals, amidst tiny, cunningly crafted mock arrows. "I was merely an Otter until last year."
John managed to swallow back a few highly inappropriate D&D jokes that she wouldn't have understood anyway. "Congratulations. You must be good with that thing."
Her cheeks pinked. "I shot a snarg last winter that was raiding the lambs. They are very fast, you know."
John was still trying to figure out if the nice fifteen-year-old pregnant lady was flirting with him when, thankfully, she got up and wandered off somewhere else. The Tunga didn't seem to begin or end conversations; they just dropped in and started talking, only to vanish again when the mood struck them. Kind of nice, actually. His least favorite part of small talk had always been trying to keep the conversation going when neither person had much to say. The Tunga appeared to deal with this by just going to find someone else to talk to. John wondered if it would be possible to export this particular custom back to Atlantis.
Even relaxed as he was, with the wine unfurling small tendrils of warmth through his limbs, he kept a wary eye on his team. Rodney was off in a corner with his laptop, rebuffing anyone's attempts to talk to him with an absent "Busy, busy, man working". Ronon, in contrast, seemed to be entirely in his element -- right now he was participating in some kind of knife-throwing contest with a rowdy crowd of young Tunga men. And Teyla -- Teyla looked happier than John had seen her in a long time, relaxed and laughing, surrounded by a group of Tunga women about her age, many of them pregnant or carrying babies slung at their sides.
He hadn't really thought about how isolated she was on Atlantis. With Kate dead, and Elizabeth .... gone, did she have friends? People to talk to? While he and the rest of the team were out doing their thing in the galaxy, what was Teyla doing at home? She'd never been the sort to sit around and -- good God, was she knitting? He squinted against the flames, and yes, Teyla, like the other women around her, appeared to have some sort of small handicraft in her lap.
Okay, the hormones had to be doing something to her brain, and it couldn't be healthy.
The furs rustled next to him as Marian sat down. "Are you enjoying the Ancestor's lanterns? It is a particularly fine display tonight."
She might be nearly twenty years his senior, but John liked her husky voice; in another world, another galaxy, she might have been a kick-ass blues singer. It took him a moment to focus and realize that she was talking about the aurora. "Oh, yeah. It's really something."
"Though it can be seen everywhere, I have often thought that it is most beautiful near the Ring." She took his nearly-empty bowl of stew and refilled his wine bowl from a leather bag she carried.
"You don't have to wait on me," John said, embarrassed.
Marian smiled at him. A web of fine lines crinkled around her eyes -- legacy of many years' squinting against sun on snow, he supposed. "You're a guest; it's my duty as your host to serve you."
Well, they'd met people who had stranger customs. "Thanks," he said, and sipped from the bowl to cover his awkwardness. The wine had a rich, spicy flavor that made him think of cinnamon. One of the Tunga had told him it was made from a local berry that grew in carpets on the alpine slopes.
A burst of laughter from the women at the fire made him glance quickly in that direction, an urge so strong it was pure instinct -- checking on Teyla, making sure all was well. His eyes wandered from her to Rodney, off in his own corner.
"You keep a close vigil," Marian said.
She smiled again. "I have guarded the herds since I could walk, and have kept watch over my own people for nearly ten years now. I know a fellow guardian when I see one. Teyla explained to me the meaning of your name: Sheppard, one who protects."
"Well, sort of." He really hoped Teyla hadn't gone ahead and explained what John meant. Ronon and Teyla hadn't stopped snickering in his presence for a week after learning that particular bit of Earth slang.
"There is no shame in it. As I said, I understand." Marian rose with grace that belied her age. John couldn't help noticing the knife she wore at her belt, a heavy bronze thing about the size of a small machete. He definitely wouldn't want to tangle with her in a dark alley.
The wine didn't taste especially alcoholic, but it packed a kick, and John could feel himself relaxing into the thick furs beneath him. He propped his chin in his hand and amused himself watching Rodney attempt to fend off the unwanted attention of several small children. The kids were daring each other to dash in and touch his foot or leg, then running away squealing with laughter at his disgruntled yelps of "Stop it! Brats! Where are your parents?"
The amusement value -- for John, at least -- began to wear off when Rodney's face started turning purple and he looked on the verge of an actual fit. John went to rescue him, armed with a package of Skittles, part of his emergency first-contact kit for dealing with all sorts of diplomatic situations. While the kids giggled over the bright colors and cautiously tasted each one, John plunked down beside his teammate. "Hey, Rodney, have you thought about a second career as a kindergarten teacher?"
"Are you drunk?" Rodney countered, leaning away from him and rescuing his own bowl of wine before it spilled.
"Only a little. Not much." John leaned back on his elbows and looked up at the sky. The aurora was beginning to fade, breaking up into blobs and whorls of muted green and white. "Nice planet they've got here."
"Could use DSL," Rodney grumbled. "And indoor plumbing." But he closed the laptop with a snap, and lay back to join John in contemplation of the sky.
"See that cluster of bright stars right there?"
Rodney followed his pointing finger. "Yeah. What about it?"
"Doesn't it look exactly like Yoda with a lightsaber?"
"What?" There was a long, disgusted silence before Rodney said, "One of his legs is a lot longer than the other. At least I hope that's a leg and not --"
"That's a robe," John protested.
"And he has three arms."
"You're determined to suck the fun out of Name the Constellation tonight, aren't you, Rodney?"
"Only because you're clearly wrong," Rodney said loftily. "Besides, I already found two Bat-Signals and an Enterprise up there, so I'm winning."
They went through at least another bowl of wine each, and were arguing over whether an X-wing with only one and a half wings -- such as the one just to the left of the Enterprise overhead -- could really be dignified with the term X-wing when Ronon flopped down on John's other side and reached over him to ruffle Rodney's hair.
Rodney flailed wildly. "Hey! What? What was that for?"
"You just looked fluffy," Ronon said cheerfully, and John realized that while he might be a little bit drunk, Ronon was a lot drunk.
"This is probably not the greatest way to start out a first contact situation," John said, only realizing that he was speaking aloud when the words left his mouth.
"I'm having fun," Ronon reported, and ruffled John's hair, too.
"Fun's not really the point here." John batted Ronon's hands away from his head, trying to salvage at least a little bit of dignity.
"True," Ronon agreed. "Need some more of that wine. You guys want any?"
Teyla showed up an hour or so later. By this point, John was sitting propped up on the fire-warmed rock wall of the canyon, trying to remember why it was a bad idea to get drunk on off-world missions. (He knew there was a reason, actually quite a lot of them, but somehow it was strangely difficult to think of them at the moment.) Ronon and Rodney appeared to be having some kind of dirty limerick competition, but it was hard to tell since both of them were nearly incoherent with ... oh god, yes, they were giggling. John had already told them that they looked like the world's biggest teenage girls, but all that happened was Rodney threw a pair of balled-up gloves at his head (which missed him completely) and Ronon said, "That's pretty cool. All the girls could kick my ass when I was a kid." John had resolved at that point to never, ever date Satedan women.
Teyla nudged his leg with the toe of her boot. "Hello, John."
"Hi," he said cheerfully, squinting up at her.
Even in the dim light, he could tell that she was grinning unrepentantly. "Marian Kovansdaughter has shown me our quarters for the night. She would like to know if you need anything further."
Looking around, John realized that the evening socializing had largely broken up. The fire was dying back to a bed of coals, and most of the Tunga had drifted away. "I'm pretty comfortable here, actually."
"I can see that," Teyla sighed, and gripped his arm, hoisting him to his feet. John, who wasn't really sure if he wanted to get up, thought about going limp for deadweight purposes, but he couldn't do that to the pregnant woman. Instead, he accidentally overbalanced, catching himself on her and nearly sending the two of them sprawling on the ground.
"Hi," he said, smiling at her. Teyla was very soft, even when she was bracing him with her pointy little shoulder. And the world had begun gently spinning around him. He hadn't realized how drunk he was until he stood up. "I hope the Tunga don't all think we're hopeless lushes," he added, speaking to a lock of coppery hair above her ear.
"The Tunga found you very entertaining, and told me that you seem a happy people, and a good prospect for trading." Teyla let go of him when she seemed to be confident that he could stand on his own. "Would you like to help me with our teammates?"
Said teammates were pliable and happy, even Rodney; alcohol seemed to strip away several layers of prickles, leaving him cheerful and mellow, though he didn't forget to grab his laptop before lurching away from the fire. Occasionally running into each other, the three male members of the team followed Teyla to one of the alcoves in the wall. When she pulled back the heavy hide curtain, warm air rolled out, brushing John's face and stirring his hair.
Behind the curtain was a corridor lined with guttering oil lamps and more curtained-off alcoves. Some had light shining through gaps in the curtains, and John heard the low murmurs of families settling down for the night. A baby cried somewhere and then was hushed. From another of the alcoves came sounds that distinctly indicated some people were finding other entertainments more diverting than sleep. Occupied alcoves, John realized, were marked by rows of boots lined up outside. The thought occurred to him that this custom would make a handy way to keep tabs on the comings, goings and trysts of your neighbors; the gossip mill must run rife.
"How do they keep it so warm in here?" Rodney wanted to know. His parka was already unzipped from the heat of the fire; he tried to peel it off as he walked, and ended up staggering into Ronon in a failed attempt to coordinate hands and feet simultaneously.
"There are channels in the rock, conducting heat from the fire to the tunnel network," Teyla said as Ronon caught Rodney and set him upright again. "By morning it will have cooled off considerably, but the tunnels are very warm in the early part of the night, when everyone is going to bed."
Rodney frowned up at the ceiling. "They have central heating? Seriously?"
"The people of this galaxy somehow survived for ten thousand years before you arrived," Teyla chided gently.
"The Romans had central heating," John said, attempting to nudge Rodney in the ribs with his elbow. He missed entirely and managed to shove Teyla into the wall; she gave him a long-suffering look. "Hey," he added as a worrisome thought penetrated his slightly pickled brain, "what are we gonna say in the mission report?"
"I am sure you've had much practice at inventing creative explanations for our ... less heroic missions." Teyla tried to lean down to pick up one of the oil lamps, frowned at her inability to do so, and leaned on the wall so that she could squat. John's clumsy attempt to do it for her was met with a glare; he withdrew his hand quickly.
"Yeah," Ronon said, "like that planet with all those really sticky bushes that got the gluey stuff all over our --"
"I thought we agreed that mission never happened," Rodney snapped.
Teyla reluctantly accepted John's helping hand to get back to her feet. "Ever wonder why you put up with us?" he asked her, grinning, as she gestured him ahead of her to one of the unoccupied alcoves.
Her only answer was a slight smirk.
The alcove was slightly larger than a king-size bed, the floor piled with soft, dried moss and supple, cured furs. There were shelves at chest- and head-height, recessed into the walls; some of these already held their gear, aside from the sidearms John and, of course, Ronon had insisted on keeping with them. Teyla set the lamp on an empty shelf.
"I take it privacy is a foreign concept here," Rodney muttered, sitting down heavily and struggling with his frozen boot laces.
"Boots off the blankets, Rodney." John gave Rodney's feet a kick, shoving them out into the hall. Ronon had already slipped out of his own boots, lining them neatly native-style against the wall, and flopped down onto the pile of furs.
"We have plenty of privacy." Teyla waited until her teammates had unshod themselves and then, after placing her own boots next to theirs, let the heavy hide curtain fall across the opening, closing them off in a small private bubble.
"I basically meant from each other. Can I be next to the door? I'm claustrophobic, you know." Rodney's eyes were wide in the lamplight, and a bit panicky. "Oh God, Ronon's taking off his pants! Stop him!"
"You'll be fine. No one's getting buck-naked tonight -- including you, Ronon." John shed his coat and tac vest. It was chilly, but not horribly cold. A guy wouldn't exactly want to lounge around on top of the covers in his underwear, but with four people's body heat and all these furs, they might actually get uncomfortably hot by morning.
"Gonna be comfortable," Ronon retorted, unlacing his pants. "You guys can sleep in your clothes if you want to." He tossed pants and shirt to join his coat in a heap at the entrance to the alcove, and burrowed under the furs.
"Well, the fact that I've now been stricken blind by that gratuitous display should help with my claustrophobia." Rodney shrugged out of his tac vest and added it to the heap of gear by the door before pulling an armload of furs over himself, still mostly dressed.
"Ronon's probably got the right idea, Rodney." It wasn't as if they'd never shared a tent or a room offworld, but usually there was either more elbow room than this, or a lot less Teyla -- most places were a little more squeamish about putting a single woman up with three guys. The uncomfortable thought occurred to John that he wasn't sure how Teyla had explained her condition to the Tunga; perhaps they thought that one of her teammates was the father. Well, it wasn't like they could do anything about it now. Resolutely pretending this was just another camping situation with the guys, John wriggled out of his pants, but left his T-shirt on for at least a scrap of dignity.
A whole lot of grunting and struggling ensued as the four of them jockeyed for position in the too-small space under the furs. John got clocked in the ear with someone's elbow, and Rodney started yelling about inappropriate touching from something Ronon had apparently done, which prompted a flurry of struggling and Rodney shrieking, "Tickling! Tickling! Personal space violation! Hands off! Sheppard, make him stop!"
"Ronon, stop annoying Rodney. Though I know it's kind of irresistible," John added, and since he could later blame it on the alcohol, he poked a finger in that direction himself, contacting what felt like Rodney's apparently ticklish ribs.
Rodney squeaked indignantly and curled up like a hedgehog. "Hate you! Hate you all!"
"People around us are trying to sleep, you know." Teyla sounded as if she were choking back laughter. She still hadn't joined them in bed; she was standing up on top of the furs, her sock-clad feet braced on either side of John's legs, rummaging through the pack of stuff they'd brought to trade.
"Whaddya looking for? Need help?" John propped himself up on his elbows. He wondered if she'd forgotten something when she'd put the pack of trade samples together.
"No; I have found what I was looking for." Teyla sat down with care and pulled one of the furs over her lap before depositing some bundles in it. "Rodney, please come out; I wish to speak to all of you."
Rodney's tousled head poked up out of the covers, while Ronon stretched and sat up with a languid, "This gonna take long?"
"No, no, it should not." Teyla shook her head, and though her face was placid, her hands betrayed a concealed agitation, flickering nervously over the bundles. Each was a little smaller than a football, and they were various colors.
"Oh great, this is a cultural thing, isn't it?" Rodney said, and John's hand darted out under the covers to pinch him on the leg, hard, ignoring his yelp. Teyla was obviously struggling with something, and Mr. Sensitivity's running commentary surely wouldn't help.
But Teyla just smiled a little. "Yes, Rodney. Today is the third and final day of the Festival of Shora. Have I spoken of this before?"
"Sure you have," John said promptly, then squinted and tried to remember just what, exactly, she'd said about it. "Uh, Athosian holiday, right? Some kind of religious thing. You normally go home for it. ... oh," he said softly. Because she didn't have a home, or a people, to go to anymore.
Teyla's head inclined in a small, sad nod. "It is the most important holiday of the year. I have never asked any of you to accompany me because it is -- well, I really do not think you would be interested. It is largely a religious observance, spent in prayer, purification and releasing the year's sins. One contemplates the teachings of the Ancestors and one's own failings."
She fell silent, and after a moment Rodney spoke up -- just as nature abhors a vacuum, Rodney McKay had never met a silence he couldn't fill. "See, we used to have a lot of holidays like that, but then we added candy and that improved things a lot."
Teyla's lips quirked, but then her smile fell away. "We are much the same. On the third day, it is time to celebrate all of the blessings that the Ancestors have given us. We feast, and dance, and exchange gifts. It is much like your Christmas, I think -- a religious holiday and a feast."
"Depends on who you ask," John said, but she looked so sad that any desire he had to indulge in culturally-specific custom sharing died unspoken. He just wished he had someone to shoot, to get that look off her face.
Ronon reached out one long arm and gently tweaked one of her sock-covered toes where it peeked temptingly out from under the furs. "You already did the purification and stuff? That's why you've been kind of scarce, the last couple of days."
"Yes; I have been in my quarters, for the most part, doing what I can to seek the Ancestors' guidance. But ..."
Guilt hit John full-force. He'd noticed that Teyla had been a bit quiet and withdrawn over the last few days, but that was pretty much par for the course with her lately. "That's why you wanted to come offworld with us." He might be a little clueless, but he got there eventually. "Rather than just sitting alone tonight -- God, Teyla, why didn't you say something? We'd have thrown you a party!"
"With cake," Rodney said. "We could have had the mess make cake -- I mean, we still could, when we get back. I don't think anybody would mind having a feast. We haven't had a good feast in a while."
"Feasts're the best part of a holiday anyway," Ronon chimed in, lightly tweaking her toe again.
Teyla had bowed her head so that her hair hid her face. John had a horrified moment when he thought she might be crying. Given the choice between facing down a hiveship of Wraith or a crying Teyla, he'd take the Wraith any day. But when she raised her head, her smile was wide and bright, though her eyes glistened suspiciously.
"The important part of the Festival of Shora is not the feasting or the gifts," she said, "though I used to mistake it for such when I was a child. The important thing is to spend time with one's friends and family -- to be surrounded by those that one loves. That is why I always returned to my people for the festival, year after year, knowing that no matter how far I wandered, I would always come back to those who loved me best."
"Teyla --" John began, sick with guilt -- she had lost that, and he'd done it, however indirectly ... he, and the rest of the Atlantis expedition. If they'd never come to this galaxy, she'd still be with her people this year, and every year.
But she was still talking, and she didn't look angry at all. "All those years, and it has taken this, the loss of all I thought I had, to open my eyes to my own blindness. I will always love my people, my childhood friends, my aunts and cousins, and Kanaan -- I fear greatly for them, and I pray nightly to find them safe and well. But my heart has not truly dwelt in the village of my people for some time now. And that is why," and her smile brightened even more, "I have Shora presents for all of you."
John had had a terrible, sinking feeling that's where she was going with all of that. "Now, wait --" he began desperately, because he didn't have anything for her and this was how team-destroying feuds got started and damn it, this was why he hated trying to navigate the whitewater of interpersonal --
Ronon reached around Rodney and punched John in the shoulder. "On Sateda, it's not polite to interrupt a lady when she's talking, Sheppard."
"Thank you, Ronon," Teyla said brightly, and stretching awkwardly forward, encumbered by her heavy stomach, she tossed a bundle into each of the men's laps.
There was a frozen pause when none of them could figure out where to put their hands, until Teyla glared at all of them. "Surely you have not forgotten what one does with gifts," she said sternly, and they all hastily reached for their own package, picked it up, shook it out.
The bundles were rolled-up fabric -- no, it was a knitted something-or-other, and John recognized now what he'd seen in her lap at the fire. Unrolling it, he realized that it was a scarf, made of some kind of soft, fine woolen yarn. A row of tassels dangled from each end. John's scarf was black, the tassels shot through with green and red. Ronon had been given brown, tasseled in gold and a darker hue of brown; Rodney's was gray, with tassels in different shades of blue.
"Oh, wow," John said, running it through his hands. He'd had a pretty good grounding in expensive fabrics as a kid -- he couldn't remember the names of most of them, especially when slightly drunk on another planet, but this was as soft and fine as any of his mother's costly, imported wool scarves.
"Did you make this?" Rodney asked, and then backpedaled wildly: "Not that you couldn't! Of course you could, a monkey could learn to knit -- actually Jeannie taught me how, which does not, I swear, go beyond this room -- but, okay, that sounded less condescending in my head, I swear --"
"Rodney ..." Teyla reached over to grip his leg through its fur covering. "Yes, I made them. The wool was Charin's; she was always a connoisseur of such things, and when she died, she wished me to have the best of the yarns and fabrics she had collected. And I can think of no better use for them than this."
Ronon had thrown his scarf around his neck, the tassels dangling over his bare shoulders, blending with the beads in his hair. "It's pretty. Really pretty. Come over here." He held out an arm; Teyla hesitated briefly, then crawled across to nestle in between Ronon and Rodney. Ronon wrapped his arm around her body and tucked her head against his shoulder.
Rodney's attempt to scoot away from the cuddling was met by an immovable object in the form of John, who was absolutely not being shoved out of bed just because two of his teammates had decided to turn into a puppy-pile. In fact, he shoved back, pressing Rodney into Teyla whether he liked it or not, because John needed to get close enough that he could reach her. John had a Plan. He unbuckled his watch and, reaching around Rodney ("What, am I Switzerland now?") dropped it into her hand.
"What is this?"
"It's a watch," John said.
"I can see that ... but, John, I have a watch."
"Not like this one." After going through a ton of cheap, crappy watches that ticked their last tock at the slightest hint of mud or stray bullets, he'd hunted down the most expensive and indestructible-looking watch that money could buy. "It's good to 500 feet underwater, can tell time in twenty different programmable locations -- useful for trading, right? -- and so far I've crushed it twice and totally soaked it at least six different times, and it's barely even scratched. Uh, happy Shora."
Teyla stared at him for a moment, then smiled. She unclasped the plain, military-issue watch around her wrist, and buckled John's in its place. "This is a very nice watch, John. I think it will be very useful."
"Know what else is useful?" Ronon reached behind his head and, from somewhere, came up with a fine, thin blade, set in a slender handle that looked like bone. "This was made by the knifesmiths of Bakata. Perfectly balanced for throwing. It's got me out of a few tight places." He pressed it into her palm. "Hope it'll do the same for you."
Teyla tilted her head back to look up at him. Her lashes fluttered as she blinked rapidly, but her eyes remained dry, and she stretched to give him a light kiss on the cheek.
"Oh fine," Rodney groused, "you guys are a great act to follow, let me tell you. Sheppard, give me my laptop."
John leaned out of bed to pick it up from their pile of gear; he was too curious to object to being ordered around like one of Rodney's lab peons.
"No, I'm not giving you this. There's no point. You could have a dozen if you wanted; we've got a million of them and they're all pretty much underpowered and totally useless for everything we do anyway. This, however, is ..." He unclipped the stylus and scribbled quickly on the touch-sensitive screen, then held it up in front of her. John craned his neck to read: "IOU - PERSONAL COMPUTER LESSONS. - R. MCKAY"
"If you want to, of course ," Rodney went on, softer, his bravado wilting like a punctured balloon. "This isn't to be taken as a criticism of any computer skills you may already have, but it just seemed like -- I mean, you pick it up quick, really you do; I wish half my so-called scientists were as quick on the uptake as you are. That's not a compliment, just a fact. So, anytime you want to come down to the labs -- if you want to, of course."
"It is a lovely gift, Rodney." Teyla was still anchored to Ronon by his half-hug, but she leaned in Rodney's direction to press her shoulder against his, and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek, as well. Rodney's blush flamed all the way up to his eyebrows.
"And now I believe you should accept your thanks like a big boy, John," Teyla said around Rodney, and was she smirking at him? John wondered whatever had happened to the quiet, reserved Athosian woman he'd met four years ago. Probably the Marines; they could do that to anyone. Was it too late to flee? The look on Ronon's face indicated that if John tried, he'd probably be hunted down, rubbed in a snowbank and then dragged back to face the music. Besides, there were far worse things that being kissed by a pretty woman.
Leaning over Rodney, who made unhappy squashed-physicist noises, he felt Teyla's light butterfly kiss wing its way across his jaw.
Rodney squirmed until John retreated to his side of the bed. "And now," Rodney said, "I'd like to fall asleep before the alcohol wears off and I come to my senses and die of embarrassment."
Ronon rose to his knees and reached up to the lamp, pinching it out with his fingers.
There was a short, pitch-dark silence, then, "God, I can't believe you just did that," from Rodney.
"Didn't hurt," Ronon said. "Much."
"I should probably be on the outside," said Teyla's voice from the darkness.
"Why?" John asked.
"Because I will surely need to rise for frequent trips outside. I am sure none of you want me to climb over you in the night. Dr. Keller says that as my baby grows, he presses on my bladder and --"
"Too much information!" Rodney wailed, and then grunted as little shuffling noises and ripples in the bedcovers let John know that someone, probably Teyla, was moving around. A moment later, he experienced the Pregnant Lady Shuffle himself as she crawled over him. John tried to block her progress with his arm.
"No way. You stay on the inside. What if something happens?"
"John, I will be climbing over you twenty times during the night. In fact, I believe I must take a trip before sleeping." The edge of the curtain lifted, and dim light revealed the charcoal-colored lumps of their other teammates as Teyla groped for her boots.
"Did no one hear me say 'too much information' earlier?"
"Quiet, McKay, or I'll start tickling you again."
"Weren't both of you going to sleep now?" John asked, rolling over and listening for Teyla's soft steps proceeding down the hall.
"Ronon's stealing the covers," Rodney said sulkily.
John swatted at where he supposed Rodney's head was, but all he got was wall. "So help me, Rodney, the next noise I hear out of you better be snoring."
"That's well and good, but I'm telling you, if any groping happens, it'd better be Teyla," Rodney hissed back.
"Don't worry, McKay," Ronon said, and John could hear the grin in his voice. "I'll keep it below the belt."
"That's what I'm afraid of!"
John lay awake in the darkness as his teammates' quiet bickering slowly yielded to Ronon's deep snores and Rodney's lighter, staccato snorts. He realized that he'd forgotten to put Teyla's gift on one of the shelves, but it seemed too much effort to sit up now -- and besides, he was pretty sure Ronon and Rodney were sleeping with theirs, too. He shifted a little bit to tuck the scarf under his cheek. Soft, so soft. Knitted, he thought; seamless, and to his drunken, tired brain, this actually seemed to make sense. Indivisible. Seamless.
Just when he was about to go after her, Teyla's light footsteps came tapping back down the hall and stopped outside their alcove. A brief wash of light, and then someone was crawling under the covers next to John.
"I should be on the outside," he mumbled.
"If there is any danger," Teyla whispered back, "I shall be sure and give you the first chance at it. I will even hand you your gun."
"It is my pleasure," she said, patting him on the shoulder.
Yeah, definitely too much time with the Marines.
"Good festival day?" he asked quietly into the dark.
There was a silence, and then a hand groped for his, and squeezed it. "The best one that I have had since I was a little girl." Teyla laughed softly. "Festivals are always better for children than adults, you know."
"Can't argue with you there."
Her breathing grew slow and even, tickling the hairs on the back of his neck. Not sure if she was asleep, or even whether he was talking to her or to himself, John murmured, "We'll find them, you know. I won't stop looking until we find them."
After a sleepy pause, she whispered, "I know."
She was still holding his hand when, lulled by the soft snoring of his team, he drifted into sleep.