September 2006

Hal's birthday story :). Many thanks to torch for beta feedback and encouragement, to Jintian for agreeing to read and comment on a very drafty and incomplete early version of this, and to Laura, Pares, Aral, and Trixiesfic for letting me whine about it to them :). I hug you all.

Atlantis is looking for allies. John's looking for something.

Before the Fall

by Kest

They still lived in trees, John saw, and the treehouse was pretty much how he remembered it -- hanging moss and branches woven crudely together, a sense of huddled, womb-like constriction that had reared up in his dreams a few times since, oddly enough. Seeing it again called up the same mix of envy and parental bemusement he'd felt before. Ten years younger, and he might have joined them. As it was, a chair would have been nice.

For a place that was the Pegasus version of Neverland, M7G-677 had gone through some changes. John didn't recognize the elder who now headed the council. He had yet to see her smile. That Aries wasn't there was a relief, considering the kid's hotheadedness and general idiocy, but Keras wasn't there, either, which was a little more disappointing.

"Your gift is generous," said the elder. Pelias, if he'd caught the name correctly. She sat cross-legged on the floor across from him, the braided headdress of the elders perched on her head like a ragged, pigtailed turban.

"Don't mention it." Negotiating with Atlantis's residents to give up their chocolate rations had been an experience he'd just as soon forget. The scientists had been close to rebellion.

And despite what she'd said, Pelias didn't sound bowled over by their generosity -- about as thrilled as John had been with the band of shaggy and leaf-strewn teenagers who'd met them at the perimeter with crossbows. He supposed any group so vulnerable to the world around them would have developed such a defensive posture, and he even admired their paranoia to a degree, but he found it sad. Kids were supposed to be kids. They were supposed to drink too much and crash the family car and sneak out of the house past curfew. They weren't supposed to guard villages with homemade bows and arrows, or make these kinds of decisions.

"But I am not certain that we can agree to your request."

Next to him, Ford shifted the P-90 to his other arm, and John gave him a look. Ford shrugged, still cranky from his own role in the great chocolate bar affair, and didn't relax his grip on the gun. Teyla sat quietly, eyes taking everything in, flicking to John periodically as if to check that they were on the same page, and most of the time John figured they were. He wasn't sure what she was thinking now.

"Any particular reason?"

"We're grateful to you, of course. But our territory is limited, even with the expansion of the protective circle. We don't know what your people would require or how many could live comfortably here."

"We're not talking long term here. We're not even talking short term. One hundred percent emergency situation."

One of the elders broke in, "So you don't even know how long your people would stay."

"Well, yeah," John said, edging toward irritation. Not that they'd all left best friends, but his team had increased the life span of these people by at least thirty years. "It's not exactly ideal for us, either. None of our equipment even works here. We're just looking at options. Once the crops on the mainland come in, we can set up some trade negotiations. We don't want to put your people out."

From what he could tell, however, Pelias and her people would as soon forego the benefits of trade to prevent outside interference. They'd shown a remarkable lack of curiosity about Atlantis and its people so far. Too far outside their range of experience, maybe, or else they just weren't interested.

Another elder conferred quietly with Pelias, and after a moment she turned back to John. "The council will discuss your request further and let you know our decision shortly."

"Well, that's something," Ford muttered, and John gave him another look.

"What he means is, thanks. We'll, uh, leave you to talk about it, then." He unwrapped his legs from the floor, ducked to avoid the lower branches, and followed Ford and Teyla back to the rope ladder. About to swing down behind them, John glanced at Pelias. "I don't suppose Keras is around?"

She hesitated a fraction, long enough for him to see that the question wasn't a comfortable one. "Keras is no longer the head of the elders, but he is still here in the village."

Perhaps the power transfer had been amicable, then; she wasn't exactly crowing about it. But there was a shift in the atmosphere of the treehouse as the other elders fell silent, as if he'd transgressed some unspoken taboo.

"Well, thanks," John said into the uncomfortable lull of the treehouse, and swung onto the rope ladder.

Ford was waiting for him at the bottom. "What now, sir?"

John shrugged his pack over his shoulder next to his gun, wishing half the stuff in it actually worked, and wondering why he hadn't left it all in the puddlejumper in the first place. "McKay should be done with his scans on the EM field. Pick him up and head back to the puddlejumper."

"Right," Ford said. "We'll meet you back there."

John shook his head. "I'm going to stick around until the council lets out. Take a look around. See if I can find Keras."

"We don't know that he will be able to help," Teyla said, calmly and quite correctly. John liked that about her, but it wasn't always convenient. "I did not sense that the council was sympathetic to our proposal."

"Yeah, I got that, too. But there's a distinctly weird vibe I wouldn't mind checking out." Teyla looked surprised; she and Ford had missed that back at the treehouse. "When you get to the puddlejumper, contact Atlantis. Tell Dr. Weir we'll know more when I meet you back there tonight."

"We will not be able to contact one another."

"I'll send up smoke signals if I get in any trouble," John said, and ignored Ford's snort. "Come on, they may not be ready to shower us with good will and flowers, but I don't think they'll try to stick arrows in us again, either."

Teyla still looked unconvinced, but she followed Ford out of the village with only a brief backward glance.

On his own, John took his time wandering through the village, reacquainting himself with its familiarities: the huge smoke pit that made the entire east end stink like salted beef; the clothing they wore, a strange mix of linen and shaggy wool sewn together in a patchwork of multi-colored rags. There was no evidence of domesticated animals, so perhaps they had wild sources for the wool. Wild goats, maybe. He was hardly a connoisseur of wool.

No one paid him any more attention than they would a stranger and a full-grown, which was to say, he got a lot of stares.

He wasn't even looking for Keras at first. He wanted to get a feel for the place again, test out its groove. Then he saw Keras in one of the square garden plots that lined the village perimeter, demonstrating to two grubby and dirt-covered children how to plant a root. An ideal job for the younger kids, John thought -- they got to play in the dirt, and the older villagers didn't have to worry about them being killed by a wild boar until they were at least thirteen.

"Sheppard," Keras said, when he saw John. He rocked back on his heels in surprise, and bits of dirt and compost clung to his shoes and the bottom of his trousers. He looked the same as John remembered -- a little older, maybe, though that was likely just a trick of perspective. It had only been a few months.

He took John's offered hand and gripped it tightly. The two children stared up at them with wide eyes. "See if the food is ready yet," Keras said to them. "Wash up first," he called after them. To John he said, "I didn't think your people would return so soon."

He did look surprised, but it was in that mild, wide-eyed way that John remembered, that took measure of everything and kept it in stride. He wondered what Keras's startlement point was. Even with an arrow sticking out of his chest, he'd only looked baffled that Aries had let it happen.

"I said I'd be back to check up on you, see how things were going. How's twenty-five treating you?"

If he hadn't been looking for it, John might have missed the hesitation. "Well enough. It is still a novelty for us."

"Any trouble so far?" John asked casually.

"Less than I expected." Keras brushed the dirt off his shoes and trousers and gestured for John to follow him back into the village center. There was more activity now, in and around the open-air tents and central fire where the Wraith bones still lay in their shrine.

"I imagine the twenty-four year-olds were more than a little relieved."

"Not all were," Keras said. John tried to wrap his mind around that as they circled around the central tents, and Keras must have seen something of it in his expression. "You must understand, the sacrifice was a powerful event in our lives. Too much change can be...unsettling." Keras did seem a little unsettled, but perhaps he'd just lost some of the confidence of leadership as well as the position of it. John knew how that could go. That Keras had been teaching two kids how to plant a root rather than sitting on the council of elders didn't say much for his current role, either.

"Most of the twenty-fives have gone to start new villages, thanks to the increase in the protective sphere. It's made the transition easier."

"So instead of sacrificing themselves, they're all just kicked out of their villages?"

Keras shook his head. "It's not like that at all," he said, but John thought it probably was a lot like that.

Keras ducked into one of the open-sided tents, reemerging a moment later with two bowls filled with strips of meat in a dark gravy, mixed in with chunks of cooked vegetables. He handed one to John. It looked like his grandmother's homemade stew. John tried a strip of meat. It didn't taste like it. The beef was heavily seasoned with something like curry and maybe a little ginger, and something else his taste buds found completely foreign. He took another bite in the spirit of good relations.

They sat on one of the benches while Keras ate. "Is that where Aries went? To one of the new villages?"

Keras nodded. "He turned twenty-five only a few days ago."

"Why didn't you go? Before, I mean."

"Perhaps I should have." Keras scraped his bowl free of gravy with the flat wooden utensil they used as a spoon. "Pelias asked me to stay, for a little while, at least. But I had thought to travel soon, to the village where my children are fostered."

He'd forgotten Keras had children. He wondered how old they were. The subject felt weirdly uncomfortable, and he poked at that, trying to figure out why. Maybe he just didn't want to know that Keras had been a father at an age John hadn't even been laid. "So how did you lose your job?" he asked instead. "Don't get me wrong, Pelias seems competent enough. But it was a little unexpected."

Keras looked surprised. "It is our custom that the leader of the council is the eldest of the twenty-fours."

"Well, sure." John stopped, backtracking through that, trying to figure out where the logic of it derailed. "That made sense then. But why keep to it now?"

Keras smiled in a way that made John feel like the slow kid in the back of the classroom. A side-effect of being the oldest of your people. "It's not a bad thing to change leaders, so that no one person can gain too much power."

John put aside his half-eaten bowl of stew. Apparently he'd just failed Democracy 101. "Okay, so it's not completely crazy."

He looked up at the bits of sun that made it through the forest's leafy overhang. It was a mild day. Late spring, he decided, and wondered what the seasons were like here. The village wasn't equipped for anything extreme. The pervasive suspicion of Keras's people seemed to have let up; no one was staring anymore, though he'd noticed some of that was to avoid looking at Keras, too.

"Why did you and your people come back here, Sheppard?"

John had hoped to raise the issue a little more subtly. "Actually, we were sort of hoping you could help."

He told Keras briefly what he'd already said to Pelias and the council: that they were looking to establish a few friendly-planet pacts in case the Wraith ever found Atlantis; that this planet with its EM field was ideal in case they ever needed to resettle. And Keras's people owed them one, John reminded him, though he left out that they'd tried to take their ZPM in the first place.

When John finished, Keras looked wry. "If it were only a matter of returning what was given to us, then of course your people would be welcome. But Pelias is right, also. If it would potentially impact our own people's survival, then it seems a high price to ask in return for friendship."

John didn't disagree with any of that. He didn't like being in this position, either, though he saw the sense behind Elizabeth's proposal. Atlantis wasn't exactly teeming in resources, and they needed allies in addition to an alpha site. Even teenagers whose survival still depended on hunting and gathering could be potentially useful ones.

"Well, it was worth a shot."

"I would still help you," Keras said. "At least to argue your case before the council. I haven't forgotten what our people owe you. But I'm afraid my support for your cause would only hurt it. Most of the council see me as an outsider."

"Now that I don't get," John said, but then all of a sudden he did get it, and saw Keras through the eyes of the other villagers: twenty-five and an outcast from his society. John tried to imagine how it might seem to those who had grown up knowing the sacrifice was the culminating moment of their lives, that everything else was only a build-up to it; only there wasn't an it anymore. And without it there was no...transition, he supposed, into whatever other world they believed in. So they didn't belong to either world. They might not have the sacrifice anymore, but John wasn't sure this wasn't worse.

"I'm sorry," Keras said. "But Pelias is a good leader. She's cautious, or at least more so than I was in her position, but she'll treat your request fairly."

"Good to hear," John said, but without conviction. Just as he was getting a handle on the place it all became alien again. He wondered when the differences would stop feeling so culturally mountainous. "So how do you feel about that? Losing your position, I mean. Being treated like you don't even exist."

"It isn't up to me to determine," Keras said. "The villages are managing the best they can."

"It doesn't seem that way to me," John began, then stopped as a shadow fell over them. Pelias. She had put aside the headdress, and dark, gently curling hair wisped around her face.

"The council would discuss your proposal further with you, Sheppard," she said, and John raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I believe we will be able to honor it," she added. "There are only a few remaining concerns."

"Sure," John said. "I'd be happy to help iron those out."

Pelias looked at Keras, and John was glad to see that while she obviously was aware of the village's antipathy to the over-twenty-fours, she didn't seem to share it. "Perhaps you would lend your advice to the council as well, Keras."

A smile lingered on Keras's face. "You know I'm no longer welcome there."

"When is the last time that you have tried?"

Keras shrugged. "It is not my doing," he said, and John wondered how anyone could be so accepting of his fate. Then again, they'd been willing to kill themselves to preserve the safety and well-being of their society. This was mild in comparison.

"It is not entirely of ours, either." Pelias turned back to John. "We will wait for you at the council circle," she said, and left them.

"I should go," Keras said. "The festival is tonight." He saw John's quizzical look. "The celebration of our liberation from the Wraith, five hundred years ago. It is a significant day for us. We're short on fish."

John hoped Keras meant for food, and not for any weird Wraith-defying ritual.

"Will you stay?" Keras asked.

John hesitated. "It depends on how welcoming your council is."

Keras nodded and stood up from the bench. "If not, then farewell. I'm glad to have seen you again," he said, with a sincerity John would have found disconcerting had it come from anyone in Atlantis.

John shook his hand, and Keras accepted the cultural gesture bemusedly. "Take care of yourself," John said, and Keras smiled. He turned and followed the path Pelias had taken to the treehouse, and felt Keras's eyes on his back. He thought his smile had been a little wistful.


They didn't stay for the festival, but the council agreed to open up further negotiations into the possibility of providing Atlantis with safe harbor. They'd phrased it more like, "You can come if you need to, but you'll have to hunt your own food," and the idea of Zelenka with a crossbow was alarming, but positive relations in the Pegasus galaxy were a scarcer commodity than ZPMs. John was happy to take his windfalls where he found them.

Elizabeth was pleased, too. John tried not to notice how rarely she smiled these days, though her optimism continued to remain at heroic, if unrealistic, levels. She came into his quarters one day when he was off-duty, reading the same paragraph for the fifth time because his brain was too fried to process anything more challenging, and asked him what he thought of Atlantis's chances of withstanding a Wraith attack. To which he replied that unless McKay had discovered how to re-power the city's shield without a ZPM, they had a greater chance of finding out who'd won the Superbowl. He didn't tell her he figured they'd run out of food first, but she already knew that, just as she'd known about their lack of defenses. She'd just been searching for reassurance. John wished he'd been able to give it to her.

Then there was M5S-224 and a week spent recovering from an Earth that wasn't real and aliens who'd been able to manipulate their minds without a blink of their figurative eyes. Dex and Mitch had cameos in his dreams for a while, though it wasn't them and it wasn't home. Even the walls of Atlantis looked strange to him for a few days, like a changeling city.

When Elizabeth asked him to go back to the kids' planet to scout out the territory beneath the shield, he went in search of a surveyor among Atlantis's personnel. Apparently no one had thought it was a useful enough skill to include in the expedition or else the other teams had beaten him to it. In the end, he took Ford.

The elders were friendlier this time, perhaps because he gave them a few bags of grain Atlantis had recently traded for. The city couldn't really spare them, but Elizabeth argued that they needed the good will of their allies more. John couldn't dispute that. In return the council sent two guides with them on the scouting trip: teenagers who'd painted their bows the same designs as on their faces, and who periodically halted to shoot a small, rabbit-like game that they tied to their belts by the tips of sinewy feet.

Two days later they returned to the village, and John vowed never to eat small, rabbit-like creatures again. But Ford had a neat hand for map-making, he'd discovered, and the teenagers had been more helpful than expected in pointing out some of the better places for Atlantis's people to potentially settle.

He sent Ford back to the puddlejumper to scan in the maps, found Pelias, and briefly outlined what they were thinking in terms of size and territory. She nodded as if able to picture exactly which areas he was talking about, and considering that it wasn't that large a territory to begin with, she probably was. She said she thought the council would agree to that, but she would confer with them and let John know, if he was willing to wait.

John was willing enough. He wandered back through the village and stopped the first person he recognized -- one of the kids McKay still muttered about occasionally, usually as his default analogy for small, persistent annoyances. John thought her name was Cleo. "Is Keras around?"

Cleo looked at him as if he'd asked where the sky was currently located. "He's fishing."

John supposed there were worse tasks for someone who was no longer at home in his own village, and whose society wasn't particularly comfortable with him, either. Still, he wondered if fishing was all Keras did. "Can you show me where?"

Cleo pointed. "The river's that way."

"Sure, okay," John said good-naturedly. He reached into the pocket of his jacket for the chocolate bar he'd stashed there.

She eyed it with some disappointment. "Do you have anything else? I'm tired of chocolate."

Apparently kids were the same throughout the universe. John left her the chocolate, anyway, and started down the path to the river.

He had to cross through what felt like several miles of tall yellow grass but was probably only a mile at most. He was just tired to start with, and would have turned back if he hadn't spotted the river and what looked like a prime fishing location in a copse of trees clustered around a sharp bend in the river. Keras was standing just under the shade of a huge elm-like tree with water up to his knees and a net in his hands.

John called to him, stepping carefully down the bank to a beach-like pile of shoal that squished alarmingly under his feet.

Keras looked up and his expression lifted, as if a few minutes ago he'd been frowning or else just lost in the monotony of the activity. Next to him a basket floated just under the surface of the water, tied to the base of the tree and half-filled with what looked like thin, blue-silver fish. Keras began to wade up to the bank; John stopped him.

"I'm going to wash up," John said, nodding downstream. It had been a dusty couple of days. Keras tilted his head in acknowledgment and John climbed back up the bank, following it down the river.

He found a likely spot and left his pack on the bank, keeping his gun with him out of the remembered recriminations of his staff sergeant. He dipped his hands in the water, unzipped his jacket and shirt to splash water on his neck and face. It was cold. His hands were already numb. But the last two days of hiking through a mix of forest, fields, and near-jungle had left him more than a little begrimed. He'd be glad of a shower back in Atlantis.

At the fishing hole, Keras was sitting on the bank with the net spread out over his knees, tracing the surface of it carefully with his fingers. "One got away," Keras said in explanation.

John sat down. Beneath the net, Keras's legs were wrapped to mid-thigh in oiled leather, drops of water still clinging to it. He smelled like fish and clean water, and whatever animal by-product had been used to treat the leather, which was as much as John wanted to know about it. He stretched out on the bank while Keras examined the net with a patience that would have driven John mad if there was anywhere he needed to be. But it was cool under the trees, and the sound of the river made him wish he'd done this at home, just to have an excuse to hang out and listen to the water.

"Did you find a place for your people to settle?"

John nodded. "Not beachfront, but it'll do. Just waiting on your council's okay before we can set up something more substantial."

Keras looked at him curiously. "Will your people live here permanently?"

"God, I hope not," John said without thinking, imagining in a horror-filled second what it would be like to live here, trapped beneath the EM field while the Wraith terrorized the rest of the galaxy. Not to mention the monotony of daily life on this planet. "I mean," he amended, though Keras didn't appear particularly offended by his planet's lack of appeal, "that I hope it won't be necessary. I'm not a big fan of retreat."

Keras nodded, then his hands paused over the net. John could see where the hemp had torn and become unraveled. "It's not a bad tear," Keras said, more to himself than John, and took a needle and a ball of thick thread from a bag at his waist.

John leaned over and took the needle from him. It was made of bone, its head marked with etched lines that might have been a decorative pattern or just an oddly symmetrical pattern of wear. He handed it back and watched as Keras pushed the needle through just above the frayed ends and methodically stitched them back together.

"Been doing a lot of fishing?"

Keras gave John a look as if to say he wasn't fooled by the casual tone. "It's a necessary task. And if I do it, the hunters are released for other work."

"Hey, I'm not disputing that. I'm just wondering if you're happy."

Keras seemed taken aback by the question, and John was suddenly annoyed. Weren't they allowed to be happy? What kind of screwed-up culture did this to kids?

"It would be the same if I left to join the other over-twenty-fours," Keras said. "There aren't enough of us yet to form full villages." He smiled a little. "They'd need someone to fish for them, too."

"I wasn't saying you had to leave," John said. "I'm just concerned."

"Concerned," Keras repeated back. He was suddenly very busy with the net, smoothing it over his knee, testing the repairs with fingers that fumbled over the new stitching.

John sat up. "Well, yeah," he said. "I mean, we're friends, right?"

Keras didn't answer immediately, and John was beginning to wonder if that wasn't true after all when Keras turned to him with a bland, friendly smile, and said, "Of course."

John looked away, out over the river. He should get back, check to see what Pelias and the council had to say about the territory they'd mapped out. He'd become painfully acquainted with five species of bug just in the short time he'd been sitting there. No wonder he never went fishing at home.

Keras glanced at him as if sensing his sudden restlessness. "The other worlds you visit, are they like this one?"

"I didn't think your people were interested."

"I'm interested," Keras said mildly.

John thought about the dozens that had been pretty much exactly like this one. Less peaceful, maybe, though circumstance had a lot to do with that. "Yes," he said. "And no. Some are more...different than others."

"Is our world like that?"

That made John smile. "You're pretty tame in comparison. The one I'm thinking of, well." How to explain non-corporeal mist-creatures who invaded other beings' consciousness to someone who'd never seen anything more sophisticated than inoperative Wraith armor? And the Stargate, of course, which they understood only in the most basic way.

That last bit made him sound so much like McKay, even inside his own head, that he decided it was a stupid way to think and trudged on. It wasn't the deception that had bothered him, or that the aliens only got it partly right -- and that was because he'd wanted to believe that kind of life was still possible. That was what fucked with a guy's head, and he was usually a pretty good judge of the line between reality and fantasy, but he'd wanted that at one time and now it seemed like a cheap copy of a life, and he felt vaguely ashamed for wanting it and pissed-off he'd never gotten it for real.

Eventually he stopped talking. The sound of the river was so constant in the background it could have been in his head.

"What was your life instead, if the pictures they had shown you were false?"

"Flying helicopters over Antarctica. In other words, the wasteland of our planet."

"Were you in exile?" Keras asked, and John knew the question didn't come from simple curiosity. He'd liked that wasteland, the great icy expanse of it, but exile had a lot of different faces, and Keras had to be familiar with at least one of them.

"Yeah, in a way," John said, and thought about why he'd gone to Antarctica in the first place.

Footsteps sounded in the grass and undergrowth behind them. One of the villagers. The council had agreed to the proposed territory. John took the pole and net while Keras retrieved the basket from the river, transferring the fish into a smaller basket up on the bank. Keras paused once to say, "We should have gutted them here," which made John just as glad they'd been interrupted.

"Will you stay for the evening meal?" Keras asked when they reached the village, waiting for John's answer with an interest that seemed to extend beyond mere hospitality.

John looked up at the sky. There were maybe two more hours before dark, the puddlejumper half that distance from the village. Ford would be waiting. "I should get back to Atlantis," he said, and Keras nodded.

"Goodbye, then," Keras said. They shook hands, Keras almost getting the heft of it right this time, and John walked back out of the village.


The next festival they were all invited. It was summer now on M7G-677. Elizabeth declined on her behalf gracefully, and John saw her hunkered down in the belly and heart of Atlantis's corridors like a protective parent, unwilling to leave for any length of time; it was her city. But she encouraged John and the others to go. "Consider it R&R," she told him, and John couldn't quite take the sympathy in her eyes.

McKay just laughed at the invitation. "So that's a no," John said, and McKay looked bewildered that there was even a question. "You've got to be kidding," he said. John said he'd pass along his regards.

Ford and Teyla were characteristically quiet on the ride over, but today it felt like a reproof. "I know what you're thinking," he'd said to Elizabeth when he got back from Proculus, but she'd just given him that look, the one that said he was once again pushing the boundaries of her trust. Most of the time he didn't know why she trusted him at all. "I wasn't thinking anything about it, Major." But if that was true there wouldn't have been an it there, and he wouldn't feel as if he'd somehow betrayed them just by wanting more out of their situation than a constant negotiation with survival.

He wondered if he could have made a life on Proculus, even if Chaya's compatriots in the celestial spheres had allowed it. He thought he might have. Life would have been a bit slow, sure, and Zarah's piety would have grated, but it wasn't beyond the realm of reason that he would have been happy. And Chaya was there, which made the possibility that much more acute.

"We should probably cloak it, sir," Ford said, when John landed the puddlejumper just outside the EM field.

"Already on it, Ford," John said, because he should have thought of it first. They were all just a little on edge, Teyla looking quietly unhappy, Ford with the impassive face of a subordinate officer mentally checkmarking everything he'd like to say but wouldn't, out of loyalty or just military pragmatism. And John felt like his memories of every summer day since he was eight had been stripped away and used for kindling.

It was dusk when they reached the village, and John decided they were a sorry group in light of the buoyant atmosphere that greeted them. The kids had a bonfire going already, bright and smoky and taller than he was. Torches dotted the treehouses above them like strings of Christmas lights. Ford was immediately set-upon by two kids -- John recognized Cleo as one of them -- who demanded to know where the chocolate was. Apparently they were back on that wagon. And a girl who couldn't have been more than sixteen gave John a necklace of painted bone. He hoped it didn't mean they were married.

Someone else offered him a bowl filled with strips of meat and some kind of yam, which he ate about half of, and it wasn't until the pitcher made its way to John that he realized beer truly was an intergalactic constant, which made him happier than he'd been in a month.

A hand rested on his shoulder. John looked up, and Keras looked back, wide-eyed and friendly. "Hey," John said warmly, and waved his hand at the empty spot next to him.

"The korevos," Keras said, leaning across John to indicate the group of dancers on the other side of the bonfire. "It gives luck for the summer hunts."

It didn't look much like dancing to John. He wasn't sure how everyone was keeping their balance in those positions, and it looked closer to painful than fun, but then he saw that Ford was making out okay.

Keras smiled at him curiously, though the smile drifted a little at the corners, and his gaze drifted, too, out over the dancers. John followed it and saw Pelias sitting next to a group of other villagers. She was with them but also apart, her back very straight as if pressed against a glass wall.

"She turned twenty-five two days ago," Keras said, and John noticed that Pelias's dark head was empty of its headdress. "She's leaving the village soon."

"Really," John said, unable to quell a familiar surge of anger. Elizabeth had been predictably prime directive about it when he'd mentioned what was happening here -- cultural relativism and the wisdom of letting them work their own issues out, all the same crap she'd dished out for a dozen other planets -- and on a theoretical level, John didn't disagree with that, only people didn't live by theory.

Keras pointed out another group sitting more prominently by the fire. "Doran is the head of the council now. He is...more like Aries. But the elders still support our relationship with your people."

"Glad to hear it," John said, thinking at the least they could be in for some interesting future negotiations. It wasn't a problem he felt like tackling tonight. The beer was beginning to kick in, rapidly now as if to make up for its previous pleasant lull. They were close to the fire; flames flicked up to the sky, warming his feet and making his back feel cold in contrast. Drums and a xylophone-like instrument beat out a rhythm for the dancers. When Keras showed signs of leaving, perhaps sensing that John was about to fall asleep, John said, "No, hang out for a while."

He watched the fire and then the dancers, and wondered if it would have been like this on Proculus. Nights of bonfires and beer. He thought he might have dozed off for a while, then he heard Keras saying, "If you'd prefer privacy while you sleep, my house is there." He pointed to a dark blotch of trees presumably hosting more treehouses. "If you stay by the fire, there will be some who see it as an...invitation."

"Well, if that's all," John said, but he stood and looped his pack over his shoulder. The party seemed to be dying down, anyway. There were only about half the previous number of villagers around the fire, and the dancing and music had broken up into smaller, quieter parties. He glanced around for Ford and Teyla, decided they could take care of themselves, and followed Keras outside the range of the fire.

Cold air descended in a vacuum that did more than a slap on the face to wake him. He felt wide awake, in fact; like stepping through the Stargate for the first time or flying, which seemed a strange thing to feel here in the midst of thick trees and solid, heavy earth.

Keras had halted and was ascending a rope ladder into the leafy tangle above.

"Definitely the coolest part about this place," John said, when he climbed up after him. The house was smaller than the one used by the council, but it smelled pleasantly of wood and growing things. Light from the torches outside seeped in through the cracks.

"Most share their sleeping spaces. But this was one of the benefits of heading the council." Keras shrugged. "No one asked me to leave, after."

"Nice," John said, but the word fell flat. He didn't think much of the council's idea of a pay-off. He dropped his pack in one corner. "If you don't mind, then, I'll bed down here for a few hours."

Keras stepped up behind him and put his hands on John's shoulders. The weight of them felt odd. "I had thought -- " Keras said, then stopped.

John gently disengaged Keras's hands and turned around. "What?"

Keras smiled a little uncertainly, looked at John with wide and questioning eyes, and maybe it was the loneliness there that made John reach down and hug him like he would have hugged a brother or a close friend he hadn't seen in a while. Keras was at least that. "It's okay," John said, and said it again.

They stood there too long. John knew it, but he didn't pull away. He felt as rooted as the tree. He turned his head a little and Keras's mouth was there, and John kissed him, the taste of beer still in his mouth.

Keras's hands dropped to his sides. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean -- I was curious."

John looked at him. "Curious." That was...a loaded word.

Keras flushed. It took some of the sting out of apparently being viewed as an interesting specimen inspiring curiosity. "It's just that -- before your people came -- none of us had ever seen anyone...older."

John preferred the more ambiguous curious. "Okay," he said firmly. "I am not that old. I'm still pretty sprightly. Most would consider me to be in the prime of my life. Pre-prime. I still have a lot of prime to go, in fact."

Keras touched John's cheek, just below his left eye, and traced the skin along the bone, sliding up his temple, curving back to the corner of his eye.

"Don't tell me you're counting wrinkles," John said.

Keras's eyes came back to John's from where they had followed the path of his fingers. "No," he said, and stepped forward and angled his mouth against John's.

Keras's hands on him were young, strong, and callused. It wasn't anything like Chaya. John pulled his shirt over his head, helped Keras with his shirt and ran his hands over Keras's bare shoulders once it was gone. Keras was shorter by a few inches and his hands fit comfortably there, the skin beneath them smooth and pale, broken by a few faded marks -- hunting scars, John figured -- and a newer scar, still red and raised at the edges. He traced the outline of it with his thumb.

"Does that bother you?" Keras asked, and John's eyes flicked up to his.

"No, it doesn't bother me," he said, but it was an easier thing to do for other people than to have it done for you.

Apparently Keras took that as an invitation, because his eyes darkened, noticeable even in the dim light. His hands were on John's belt, figuring out the clasp with a little help from John, whose own hands were shaking as he toed off his shoes, pants following, and then Keras knelt down and took John's dick in his mouth.

"Jesus," John said, but all he could think was thank god this was the same.

Keras's fingers were on his balls and the crease of his groin, pressing and touching in areas John wouldn't have figured for erogenous, except apparently they were. Then Keras's hands were on his ass, fingers sliding along the crease, and an image flashed through his head of being fucked there, Keras's dick in him, and something tightened in his chest as his hand tightened on Keras's shoulder, and he was sure he heard bones creaking as everything else blanked out around him.

The dark lumpy shape in the corner turned out to be a bed. John tripped toward it, sat down heavily on its edge. "Give me a second," he said, when he could think clearly again. Keras sat back on his heels and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, entirely unselfconscious.

"Hey," John said finally. He leaned forward to pull Keras up on the bed next to him.

Their shoulders brushed, skin against skin. The heat was almost startling. The blanket on the bed was made of the same cotton-wool weave of their clothes, and John wondered if it would itch later. When he kissed Keras their jaws moved together in a way that definitely was itchy, but in a raw, untroubling way.

He worked at the ties of Keras's pants until he finally had to just let Keras do it. Reaching for him once they were off, he wrapped his hand around Keras's dick and pushed him back on the bed until Keras kissed him hard, making sounds deep in his throat that shook through John's body and lips like the stuttering hum of an engine. He liked that he was the cause of it, and the way Keras arched up suddenly, almost violently, when he came in John's hand.

He wiped his hand on the bedcover. The walls of the treehouse were close around them. A homemade adolescent space so foreign to anything John had experienced yet familiar, like an unearthed memory.

"Sheppard," Keras said, and that made John smile.

"Call me John."

Keras paused a beat, as if taking that in. "I'm leaving the village. Pelias asked me to leave with her when she goes."

John's thoughts had been moving in a different direction, and he had to take a moment to catch up. "Good," he said. "I'm glad."

He wondered if anything would change; if it would all change. If Keras's world could survive the circumscription of an EM field and all its less tangible effects. He had an image of Keras by the river, caught in that bubble of trees and water and fish, static and perfectly enclosed, even the quick-moving river endlessly repetitious.

"You'll let us know," John said. "Where you end up, I mean."

Keras didn't answer, but only because he'd fallen asleep.

It was dark when John woke. The treehouse didn't let in much light. He could see daylight through the wooden boards and branches, striped patterns on the floor and bed, and his inner clock told him it was probably mid-morning.

The space next to him was empty. John stretched. He itched all over from the blanket. He found his clothes, ran a hand through hair that had no hope of becoming presentable, and was just about to sling his pack over his shoulder when the trapdoor opened and Keras's head appeared.

"Your friends are below, waiting," Keras said.

"Good," he said. "I mean...great." He didn't know what he was even saying, but Keras didn't seem to mind or even notice as he ducked below the trapdoor again. He'd looked happy. Something tightened in John's chest that had nothing to do with sex.

Teyla and Ford were in the village center, already geared up. John nodded in greeting and didn't quite meet their eyes, but then he noticed that they weren't quite meeting his eyes, either. He reached over to pluck a stray twig from Teyla's hair. She tilted her chin and refused to blush. "Dr. Weir will be waiting for us to return," she said.

"Sure," John said. "Let's go home."