And if the muse is fickle, then I am purely perverse, because what do I offer up? Gen. G rated Gen. Perhaps the smut mojo will come back now that this is exocised.
Rodney's yelp had John spinning around in time to see his teammate flail at the air and slide down the side of a gully and into the stream they'd been paralleling for the last two hours. He landed in the water with a splash and enough cursing that John didn't think he could be hurt.
Watching his own footing on the still rain-slick mud of the edge, he peered over and called, "You okay, there, Rodney?"
"Fantastic, Colonel, just wonderful," Rodney yelled back. "I always love these sudden surprise reintroductions to gravity!"
Despite himself, John grinned. Droplets of water glittered in Rodney's hair and the scruff of beard he hadn't shaved away in the last week. His face was red with fury and humiliation. He glared up at John, then began making his way clumsily to the shore with much splashing.
He was standing or treading water where the stream had dug a deep pool under the bank. A red-brown stain from the mud that had tumbled down along with Rodney colored what was otherwise crystal clear water. John grimaced, thinking they would need to dry Rodney's clothes and boots and everything in his pack, while at the same time thanking Lady Luck he hadn't broken anything in his tumble. They needed every supply they'd been able to carry away from the jumper, but they needed Rodney whole much, much more.
The stream shallowed out beyond the curve that formed Rodney's little swimming hole, skirting a patch of gray sand and dry gravel liberally salted with driftwood that had lodged against larger boulders when the spring melt subsided. Beyond the tiny stretch of flood plain the dense, tall trees arrowed skyward, sunlight gliding gold over long needles rather than leaves, but never penetrating down to the shadowed earth. Standing inside the shade of the tree line above, John felt enough chill to think that sunny spot by the stream looked damn good. The air smelled of peat and moisture and the curious, eucalyptus and cut-grass scent of the native trees.
Teyla joined him and looked down, smiling as Rodney finally scrambled out of the water. A wisp of hair was stuck to her cheek and she pushed it off absently.
"I could have drowned!" he shouted irately. "I could have broken bones! I may have swallowed some of this water and absorbed weird alien amoebas that will kill me and then where will you all be?"
"MREs would last three longer than four," Ronon commented, having turned back from scouting point.
"Hah!" Rodney replied. "I heard that, you man-mountain behemoth! With you as one of the three it would hardly make a difference and would one of you get down here and help me?"
"Sure, Rodney," John said.
Ronon touched his arm. "There's a four hour climb to the next possible camp and no water there," he said. "Sun will be down before we make it, too."
John nodded to the patch of sand where Rodney was sitting, having shrugged his pack off and started on getting out of his tac vest. "Why don't we make camp early and dry out Rodney's stuff?"
"I agree," Teyla said.
Ronon gave a grunt.
"Okay, Rodney, we're coming down," John shouted. "We're going to call it quits for the day, so you can relax and work on your tan."
"Very, very funny," Rodney grumbled. He stood aside as Teyla descended, nimble as a mountain goat, and caught John's arm when his boot slipped on some clay mud at the base of the incline, saving him from taking a dip himself. Ronon followed with no problems.
Ronon was eyeing the water. "What?" Rodney asked nervously, turning and looking at it, too.
John glanced at the water flashing and burbling over the stones with a little more interest, spotting the sudden shadow and silver flicker of a fish. It looked around ten inches long. "Hunh."
"We don't have any fishing gear," Rodney pointed out. His wet clothes sagged on him, dripping steadily.
"Line and hooks in the emergency kits," John corrected him.
"Well, don't expect me to – "
"Don't need 'em," Ronon interrupted and waded into the water, big hands outstretched, heading for a shadowed, deeper eddy next to a snag. "Just need you to shut up."
Rodney's mouth opened then closed with a snap. He stalked over the boulder where he'd abandoned his pack and began checking. "My laptop," he muttered disconsolately as he pulled it out. A stream of water ran from the case. John guessed that was bad. Even military issue, impact-resistant cases weren't proof against the kind of wear and tear fieldwork put on Rodney's equipment.
"Better the laptop drowned than you," he murmured.
Ronon bent over the snag, slipping his hands down into the water and holding still.
"Perhaps you should get out of those wet clothes and lay them out in the sun to dry," Teyla suggested to Rodney.
John bit back a ribald remark. Rodney justed frowned at Teyla. "Everything I've got is wet."
John shrugged off his own pack and opened it. "You can borrow some socks and a shirt from me."
"We're not exactly the same size, Colonel."
Teyla smiled and Ronon chuckled. He paused, holding his spare T-shirt in his hand and acknowledged that Rodney's shoulders would probably split the seams. Luckily his jacket was roomier. He stuffed the T-shirt back down and pulled off his jacket, offering it instead.
Rodney accepted it with the same enthusiasm he would have an offering of a dead cat. Then he shivered and snatched the jacket to him. "Fine, thank you, you're the soul of generosity, Colonel."
"I like to think so," John said.
"Would you shut up?" How Ronon managed to snarl in a low monotone bemused John, but he nodded.
Teyla and he began setting up their camp. Three weeks since the jumper crash following their desperate flight through the stargate following a blind dial and the dogfight with the last Wraith dart, and they had it down to a routine. The sand made a pleasant change from dirt and rocks, though. John swept an area smooth and stretched out the tarp they'd salvaged from the jumper's supplies. He weighted the edges with rocks scavenged from the water's edge and dumped his sleeping bag in the center, adding Teyla and Ronon's.
Rodney had stripped down to his boxers and spread out his sleeping bag, zipped open and weighed down. It wouldn't be dry enough to use any time soon. John resigned himself to sharing. John marked the way Rodney had thinned down in the last weeks. But they all had, and could only look forward to worse: they were rationing the supplies they'd carried from the jumper and supplementing from native plants and animals, but that was a gamble every time.
Teyla and he took turns playing guinea pig, on the theory that their lower body weights would result in any reactions hitting them faster anyway. Tonight, if Ronon was successful, they'd dine on fish, while Ronon and Rodney ate MREs. If they weren't sick by morning, then they'd add fish to their menu for the rest of their trek back to the stargate.
Rodney pulled something from his tac vest. The scent of cocoa butter reached John a moment later as Rodney began slathering his bared skin with his home-made sunscreen. John smirked despite himself.
"Don't laugh, Colonel, I'm not the one who will look like a wizened old walnut in twenty years," Rodney called out to him as John passed by.
Teyla had a fire pit dug by the time he'd finished, so he started gathering dry pieces of driftwood for the fire.
Rodney was taking everything out of his pack and laying it out to dry in the sun. He shivered once in a while, but hadn't pulled on John's jacket. That was draped over a boulder.
John dropped another armful of wood next to the fire pit and joined Rodney. "You'll need to clean your sidearm," he mentioned. The holstered Beretta sat next to Rodney's pants.
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney said testily. He set down a life signs detector and rubbed at his arms.
John glanced longingly at the stream. Ronon stood still has a rock, waist deep in the water, bent with his hands under the surface. His pulse pistol lay on the shore, within reach. Birds trilled, a good sign nothing was sneaking up on them. Teyla had disappeared into the trees on a personal errand. She had her sticks and a P90 with her; she could take care of herself. He flexed his feet in his boots. His socks felt stiff and gritty. The water was tempting.
John stripped off his tac vest, then knelt and unlaced his boots. Next, he stripped off his socks. The sand was silty and warm under his feet, though he had to step carefully. There were larger pieces of gravel scattered through it. He didn't want to cut up his soles or even bruise anything; they had a long walk ahead of them the next day and days after that. Weeks. They'd been more than halfway across the continent when the jumper went down. It felt incredible to get his feet out of his boots, though.
"What are you doing?"
"Taking my boots off," John replied. He set them next the tarp with the sleeping bags, next to his pack.
Rodney looked at him like he'd lost him mind. "Why?"
"Because I want to wash my socks since there will be time for them to dry before tomorrow. You've got to take care of your feet, McKay. Every soldier learns that."
"You're Air Force."
John decided not to mention Bosnia and being shot down. He'd walked out of that and nearly died of an infection from the blisters his less than well-fitting boots had given him.
Rodney puffed out a exasperated non-word and followed John over to the stream. They picked their way downstream from Ronon, until John found the perfect spot to just sit and rest. He did rinse out his socks though and set them on a rock far enough from the stream they'd be safe, after weighing each down with a rock in the toe – he learned not to trust that a stone set on something would stay there. Then he sat down and dangled his bare feet in the water, enjoying the feel of the current rippling between his toes. They had had some luck: the northern continent they were on was in the middle of summer. The days were long and the nights were mild and the stream was shallow enough that the sun had warmed the water to a comfortable temperature.
After starting and stopping several times, but never quite managing to find some reason to object to John's excuse, Rodney settled down next to him with a sigh.
John slowly relaxed as the sun settled warmth through his black shirt and into his bones. He turned his face up to the light and let his eyes close. The gurgle and rush of the stream blended with the steady rhythm of Rodney's breathing, the little noises of birds and bugs going about their lives, and eventually the crackle and hiss-snap of the fire Teyla lit. He heard her soft steps on the sand as she walked down the shoreline to where they sat, but didn't open his eyes, even when he felt her settle at his other shoulder.
"You know, I think we're just a little too clo – "
The splash and shout snapped John's eyes open in time to see Ronon erupt from the water. A flip sent water splattering from his dreadlocks and right into John's face, along with Rodney and Teyla.
" – ose – Damn it!" Rodney finished.
Ronon shook himself like a big dog and John blinked water out of his eyelashes, while Rodney exploded into a series of curses and scrambled away from the stream. The water had been a shock against his sun-warmed face, but it felt almost good. Ronon clutched a shining, brown-speckled fish that shone like iridescent platinum as it twisted and flipped in his big hands. A huge white grin split his usually stoic face.
"Keep that slimy thing away from me!" Rodney shuddered and dodged back from another flickering spray of water as Ronon came out of the stream and deliberately flipped his dreadlocks over his shoulders.
John leaned back on his elbows. "You want to watch it," he called, "or you're going to lose that fish."
"I'm not eating it, so I'm not cleaning it," Rodney declared.
John grimaced. Fish guts. Crap.
Teyla nudged his shoulder. "I will clean it," she said.
He turned and gave her a hopeful smile. "Yeah?"
"You will cook it."
John considered the last 'soup' Teyla had made. They hadn't actually been sick from it, but even Ronon had shown some difficulty swallowing.
"Deal." He could fry a fish. It seemed like a fair enough division of labor.
Teyla rose with her usual grace and followed Ronon back to their little campsite. John leaned back again. For now he was going to relax in the sun.
A few minutes later, Ronon waded back into the stream and Rodney began lecturing Teyla on how absolutely disgusting what she was doing was. John wiggled his toes in the water and shifted one elbow off a sharpish stone. The sky above was a deep, eye-searing blue, cloudless and infinite, without a focus point.
Rodney wandered back, dropping John's jacket onto the sand and seating himself. After heaving a theatrical sigh, he dipped his feet into the water beside John's.
"Hmn. That actually does feel rather good," Rodney conceded
"Mmn," John agreed, half-drowsing. The sun was so warm and there was nothing more for him to do for the moment. "Just like a vacation."
"If your idea of a vacation is the Bataan Death March," Rodney said.
John snorted. "More like Lewis and Clark crossing North America."
"Does that make Teyla Sacajawea?"
"Dunno." John was almost asleep, drifting, whimsical images of Teyla in a fringed doeskin dress making him smirk.
Another splash rained water onto them. John flinched briefly under the spatter of cold droplets, but didn't bother to even crack open his eyes.
"God, he's disgustingly good at that," Rodney commented, not sounding particularly disgusted at all. "He's Tarzan and Davy Crockett and Clint Eastwood all rolled together."
John chuckled. "I'm taking a nap here, McKay."
"I can see that." Rodney didn't say anything else, though, and John let himself slip into a warm, restful doze. He woke with a jolt, to Teyla waving her very fishy smelling fingers under his nose and Rodney muttering about Kentucky-fried colonels and skin cancer.
"The fish are cleaned," Teyla told him and proceeded to kneel and wash her hands in the stream. She was careful and frugal with the soap. What they had was all they would have until they reached the stargate and returned to Atlantis; they had weeks, maybe even months, of walking ahead of them. John was hoping they'd find a river flowing in the right direction. They could rig up a raft or even a canoe and use the current to transport them.
"One fish fry coming up then," he said and rose, brushing sand from his pants. He gave Rodney a hand up, too. A glance at the sun told him they had another two hours before the sun set. There would be a long, blue fading into gray, dusk after that, before the stars of Pegasus shone forth in the sky above them, so close and brilliant it felt like you could reach up and catch the glittering light in your hand. He retrieved his socks and headed back to the campsite.
Ronon was sitting cross-legged at the camp, feeding wood into the fire pit. Except for his dreadlocks and his pants, he was dry again. His mouth quirked up in a half-smile as John set about fixing the fish in their one pan.
The fish sizzled in the pan. It was blackening at the edges, little flakes sticking to the bottom, since they had no oil or anything else to fry it in. John was feeling a lot more sympathy for the pioneers than he had as a kid in school. Living off the land wasn't so damn easy. Movies never showed all the little things that you took for granted and suddenly didn't have, stuck on an uninhabited planet, in the middle of another galaxy. He used the sleeve of his jacket to insulate his hand when he pulled the pan off the fire.
"Smells good," Ronon commented eventually. He reached for the fish, only to be slapped away by Rodney.
"Leave that alone."
"It's not going to poison them," Ronon said.
John deftly slid one fish onto Teyla's plate, then the other onto his. The empty pan he set in the sand next to the fire pit. He'd need some of the sand to use to scrub it out once it cooled enough water wouldn't make it crack.
"You don't know that," Rodney snapped as John tried the first bite of the fish. He waved at the smoke from the fire. "Why, no matter where I sit, does the smoke always get in my face?"
"It likes you," John offered. Rodney sneered at him. Ronon shrugged at him and started on his own MRE. He used his fingers unselfconsciously. Ronon didn't have much use for table manners, even back in Atlantis.
Teyla tried a bit of the fish. "It is good," she said. John grinned at her.
"Well, maybe," Rodney admitted. He sniffed delicately. "At least I wouldn't have to worry about some idiot garnishing it with lemon. We'll see in the morning... if Sheppard doesn't go into convulsions or something over night."
"Aw, it's nice to know you care, Rodney." John grinned at him and went back to eating. The fish tasted a little like trout and a little like catfish, and would have benefited from some butter and salt, but it was good, especially after days of eating MREs. "What about Teyla?"
Rodney sputtered. "What? No, of course, Teyla too. That is, not that I want her to get sick too, but it's actually much less likely than you having some bizarre reaction, since you aren't even from this galaxy...."
Teyla inclined her head, a smile tipping up the corners of her mouth, the fire burnishing her face with copper light. "I know you would not wish either of us to suffer, Rodney."
Rodney nodded emphatically. John chuckled and went back to eating.
The fire hissed and flickered, slowly becoming the only light until the first moon rose, pale and distant as a dream, over the silhouettes of the trees. The flames shivered like gauze curtains in the small breeze that hushed through the long needles. John shifted where he sat, thinking that the night was never really silent. A bird piped a high, pure note and a piece of wood in the fire shifted and snapped with a shower of sparks, brief and bright. Ronon stretched and stood, shadows chased over his features.
"Going for a walk," he said.
Rodney poked at the fire with a stick. "Don't get lost." John bit back an admonishment to not go far. Ronon knew what he was doing.
Ronon's chuckle lingered after he left.
John rubbed his chin, rasping over his whiskers and decided he'd take the time and opportunity to shave in the morning. The damned scruff itched. He'd have to borrow one of Ronon's knives, though.
He took his own trip into the trees after Ronon returned, then fed a few more pieces of wood to the fire. The coals there glowed cherry-red through the dusting of white ash, the warmth from them pressing against his face, a contrast to the crisper air beyond their little circle of light.
Without discussion, Teyla zipped the three dry sleeping bags together. She gestured for Rodney to join her and then Ronon. John raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. They hadn't done this before, but it seemed as natural as breathing.
"I'll take first watch," he said. "I got some sleep earlier."
Rodney looked stiff and uncomfortable for a moment, then he went with it, wrapping himself around Teyla and shifting until they were both comfortable. Ronon draped himself on the other side with a low grunt of agreement and fell asleep immediately. Teyla's breaths evened out a moment or two later. John could see the liquid glisten of Rodney's eyes, though, for much longer.
He slipped into the warm spot left by Ronon hours later, fitting next to Teyla easily, as though they'd all always shared sleeping bags. The soft shuff of Rodney's not-quite snores was familiar and soothing and he quickly acclimated to the warm shape of Teyla next to him. It amused John to no end when he shifted and realized Rodney had his hand wrapped around Teyla's wrist, as though to monitor her pulse in his sleep. It was touching that Rodney had expanded his hypochondria to include the rest of the team.
"Go to sleep, John," Teyla murmured, revealing she was awake.
John closed his eyes.
Ronon was out there, watching over them. Everything was fine, even if they were marooned forever here. If he had to spend the rest of his life here, he had the people he needed with him. It made going to sleep easy.
In the morning, they headed west, up a trail that steadily climbed into the mountains, with the sun behind them and the stargate somewhere ahead.
A/N: This has some connection to a ficlet I wrote for eretria – Passage Home.
Post Season Two
Summary: Watching his own footing on the still rain-slick mud of the edge, he peered over and called, "You okay, there, Rodney?"
*Stargate: Atlantis and the characters here in are not mine. Written for Mona and eretria's entertainment alone, not profit.