Sandstorms by Mithreon [NC-17]
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Summary: The way back turned out to be longer than Rodney had imagined. AU from Trinity. Spoilers for Instinct and Aurora.

Updated: 07 Jul 2007; Published: 01 Jul 2007

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Story Notes:
Beta-ed by the most pregnant and the most evil person in the world: Sick-Gabby.

Part 1

It was a splendid dawn. Red and gold pouring over the horizon, making the sand glitter in the light and the air shimmer. Rodney had never been really one to enjoy beautiful sights. It was all just physics anyway, and on the whole pretty much unspectacular compared to the beauty of mathematical equations. Their simplicity. Their complexity. They were much more satisfying than the daily lights and colours of dusk and dawn.

Or so he'd thought. The Pegasus Galaxy had a tendency to change habits and preferences, though, which was why Rodney was actually enjoying the spectacle the rising desert sun was offering him now. Since they'd departed in the middle of the night, it was early yet, and while the others were discussing the best path to get to the city, he was sitting outside of the Puddlejumper and chewing on a powerbar. Thinking about absolutely nothing.

The next city was a few hours' walk ahead. They'd used the Puddlejumper to bridge the big canyon, and they would leave it here – cloaked, of course – in the shadows of the mountain. It was the last one in the rocky mountain range, and the terrain ahead of them was a dry, sandy plain. At least there would be no heights to climb.

Rodney was grateful to be here. It had taken quite a little bit of begging and cajoling from his part to be allowed to go on this mission. Elizabeth was still very angry, and, well, he didn't want to think about Sheppard. But the rumour of yet another lost city of the Ancients was too good to let pass. And he was their best scientist, of course. Well, the fact that Radek had proven to be quite skittish off-world, might have helped to convince them, too.

This was going to be a very, very long mission. The fact that they'd probably be gone for two or three weeks was definitely a first. Rodney didn't mind. The labs could do without him for a while, and he could certainly use a break. But their security and the security of Atlantis had been an issue, so he'd had to find something to make sure they would be able to return in the case of an emergency. He had prepared the Puddlejumper to dial the gate and boost their communication signals from wherever they'd be calling from. At the slightest sign of a problem Elizabeth would send in a rescue team.

"Okay, let's go," Sheppard said, emerging from the Puddlejumper, followed by Teyla and Ronon. Rodney, stuffing the rest of the powerbar into his mouth and the wrapper into his side pocket, stood and slung the laptop case over his shoulder. He only hoped that all the sand wouldn't ruin his equipment.

The walk was very quiet. It was... different. Teyla and Ronon had never been very talkative, but on any other mission there had been quite a bit of bantering between him and the colonel. Rodney tried to do some of his usual nagging this time, too, but Sheppard didn't join in, so after a while he gave up.

Anyway, he was glad to be here. The rumour had sounded very promising: an abandoned city of the Ancients, nestled in a valley deep inside a desert. Not that this was the first rumour of its kind, but some traders had sworn they'd seen it with their own eyes. Apparently no one was actually living there, it seemed dormant. Well, no wonder since it probably required the ATA gene to activate the technology, and Ata gene carriers were quite rare in the Pegasus Galaxy. Furthermore, and that was the most important thing, it appeared to be still completely intact.

They wouldn't get to the city right away, though. This was an inhabited planet, with three cities and more than a dozen settlements strewn across the desert, and nomads and caravans travelling between them. The city closest to the stargate was Ixyl. Since all off-world trade had to pass through there, it was the biggest and richest place on the planet – or so they'd been told. They'd find out soon enough.

After a while it got warmer, and Rodney started sweating profusely. Well, it *was* a desert after all. Thank God he'd applied his sunscreen. "I think, I prefer the tundra," he complained, panting. "Forget what I said about Siberia. *This* is hell."

No one commented on that. Just as well.

Okay, he knew he wasn't any good at friendships. Or any kind of relationship with people, to be exact. People were so goddamn complicated. One minute you thought you'd figured them out, you thought they... And the next... Well, he just didn't know what to *do* sometimes. What the hell did "if you really try" mean? He didn't dare ask.

Finally there it was: the outline of the city. It was beautiful. It seemed they were doing amazing things with their limited supply of water. Through his telescope he could see gardens full of palm trees and flowers. Really lovely.

It took them another hour to get there. Apparently their coming had been noticed. At the gates a small, very friendly group of soldiers was waiting to escort them to meet the powers that be.

It was a matriarchal society – not that you could tell from the first look. The guards were exclusively men after all. Men and women were equally dressed in long brown or grey tunics, going about their business.

The ruler of Ixyl, though, was definitely a woman; in fact, her title was 'Matriarch'. She was dark-skinned, tall and wiry, and wore her grey hair short. She had to be at least sixty years old – old for someone in the Pegasus Galaxy nowadays. Her two advisors were women, too, but they looked a lot younger than she did. Rodney supposed they were in their thirties. One of them had to be the Matriarch's daughter, because the similarity was uncanny: the same features, the same eyes. She wore her black hair in a tight braid. The other one, a brunette, was a little bit smaller. Both of them were quite attractive, even if not beautiful in a classical sense.

Rodney supposed it was a good thing that they had to negotiate with women. Either they would only talk to Teyla, who was still the only one capable of leading a mature conversation, or Sheppard could charm them. Maybe they could try both approaches. He suggested as much, but Teyla just shook her head.

The Matriarch – Miram – and her two advisors, Serem and Unna, sat on three high chairs around a semicircular table. Rodney and his companions stood in front of them like petitioners pleading their case. Thankfully, Teyla did all the talking. The three women didn't look as if they had a great sense of humour, so Rodney did his best to keep his mouth shut.

It took quite some time, and all the inconsequential small talk at the beginning was incredibly boring. Rodney didn't know how things actually worked there, but it seemed a little much to ask the ruler of the city for an escort. They were all traders here, weren't they? There had to be lots of caravans travelling through the desert on a daily basis. Surely they'd be able to find someone willing to lead them there. For a reasonable fee, of course.

Well, it couldn't hurt having the most powerful person on the planet on their side, he supposed.

Unna, the one who looked like a younger version of the Matriarch, seemed to have taken a liking to Ronon. Huh. That was different, but okay. Hey, would she challenge Teyla for him? That would definitely be a sight to behold.

Well, nothing of the sort happened. At the end of the meeting the Matriarch said she'd think about their request.

Afterwards they were invited to a fancy dinner. Nothing really interesting was discussed, and everyone was extremely polite. Since Rodney wasn't in the mood to chat, he left early to get some rest. He was exhausted anyway. The room in which he and his two male companions were supposed to sleep was quite spacious. It was nice for a change. He got rid of his gear and lay down on the bed closest to the window, only clad in boxers and T-shirt. It was hot and stuffy and no matter how much he tried to relax, sleep was elusive.

About an hour later Sheppard appeared. There was no Ronon in sight.

"Got snatched by Unna, did he?" Rodney whispered conspiratorially as he watched Sheppard's shape undress in the dark.


"Ronon. She had her eyes on him the whole evening."

Sheppard didn't respond for a moment. Then he said, "It's none of your business, McKay."

Well, no one could mistake that tone. Rodney turned around to face the wall below the window.

He had to wonder about himself sometimes. What was the point? It wasn't as if Sheppard was the... the only friend he had. He wasn't so special. Okay, he'd saved his life a couple of times, but that hadn't been *personal*, had it? Sheppard would do that for about anyone. He *had* done that for about everyone. Well, so had Rodney.

It was a long night. Ronon didn't show up until the early hours of the morning. Rodney didn't move when he lay down in the third bed for another couple of hours of sleep.

At dawn they were brought breakfast and some water to clean up. Not much though, this was the desert, after all. Oh, and how much Rodney hated chamber pots! And what about privacy? He didn't complain though. He figured it wouldn't go over too well.

Right after breakfast they were given the good news. The Matriarch would allow them to join one of her own caravans that was supposed to depart for the city of Tesil that very day. Since they weren't in a big hurry, they would make a detour to the place where the Ancient city was believed to be, and as payment for their effort they agreed on a supply of several tanks of desalinated water from Atlantis.

When it was mentioned that it would take them about two weeks just to get there, Rodney was horrified. Of course, Elizabeth wasn't particularly pleased either when they told her. She'd agreed on a maximum of three weeks for the whole mission. In the end, however, she gave in, telling them to take care. This could be another Atlantis, after all – the dry version of it anyway – and they might be able form a very profitable alliance with the natives by spending an extended period of time with them for once. That had been one of the main reasons for not taking the Puddlejumper in the first place, next to the fact that the little ship would probably raise suspicions. That level of technology was rather difficult to explain, so they'd decided it would be best to take their time and gain their trust and friendship first. Besides, Atlantis had already survived Sheppard's and Rodney's prolonged absence when they'd gone back to Earth after the siege. At the slightest sign of the trouble on either side of the gate, Elizabeth would just send a Puddlejumper or two.

So it was a given thing that they would do this, no matter what Rodney thought about it – and he certainly didn't keep his opinion to himself. Not that it changed a single thing.

After the meeting they went shopping. Two weeks in the desert – or four actually, because it wasn't very clear if they would even find anything useful for survival in the Ancient city – required a few things that weren't part of their standard equipment. Besides, you never knew what you could discover in a bazaar on a foreign world.

Or so Teyla told him.

There was nothing, of course. Well, nothing that seemed particularly promising, at least. Rodney bought something that looked like a screwdriver made out of the same crystal the Ancients used to make the DHD crystals, and Ronon made him buy a mean looking knife as well as two grey hooded tunics. They used the money the Matriarch had given them in advance. She expected to be refunded in water afterwards.

They departed at noon. Not the best time to walk into a desert, but the caravan leader wasn't very happy she'd had to start with delay and didn't want to wait another day.

The caravan consisted of about fifty travellers, with two third of them warriors for their protection. They were all male – Rodney really had to revise his opinion on matriarchal societies. There were fifteen covered wagons and about twice as many animals that looked a little like Bactrian camels. Huge Bactrian camels. They were there as draught and pack animals, though, not as mounts. Rodney didn't know whether to be disappointed or relieved, because even though everyone went on foot, only a few of the women were allowed to sit in the wagons which were almost overloaded with merchandise. Unna, who was serving as eyes and ears of the Matriarch, was one of them. Lucky Ronon.

The caravan leader, Wenh, walked in front of the caravan, flanked by two warriors. She was a small wiry woman who, judging from her bronzed, wrinkled skin, had to have seen a lot of sun in her life. She was a stern, self-assured woman. Rodney supposed she had to be; after all, she'd been leading caravans for over twenty years. She was also prone to be a little bit hot-tempered. The first evening they witnessed her hitting one of the porters who'd made a mistake, causing her tent to collapse as he was trying to set it up. Two lashes across his back. Rodney winced and opened his mouth at the sight, but he was smart enough to shut it again. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Ronon hold Sheppard back with a hand on his forearm. Well. Rodney would definitely make sure to stay out of her way. He only hoped his companions would be just as smart.

Rodney didn't sleep well. It was incredibly cold at night, and the few tents were reserved for the women. Well, not for all of them – only the ones in charge were allowed to sleep inside. And the guest of honour, of course. Rodney could see how Teyla fought with herself the first night, wanting to be loyal to her team mates, but being afraid of angering their hosts. It was only after Sheppard gave her a slight nod that she went to sleep inside.

On the whole the Ixylians were a rather tolerant people. They probably had to be, being traders and getting in contact with not only foreign, but *alien* cultures on a fairly regular basis. They didn't question the Atlanteans' customs and the fact that a man was their team leader wasn't particularly extraordinary – even if they tended to look at Teyla for confirmation if one of the three males on the team said anything.

"I wonder what they'd do if one of us insulted them or their crazy customs," Rodney said the third evening when they were sitting around the fire, eating their meagre dinner. It had been a particularly strenuous day. The caravan was moving very fast, and Rodney was neither accustomed to the heat nor to the aridity. Not to mention that that his water ration just wasn't enough to quench his constant thirst. He was completely worn out.

"If I were you, I would keep my mouth shut, McKay," Sheppard said without much inflection. He looked up and lifted an eyebrow as Ronon grunted something unintelligible and left. The previous evenings the big guy had spent his time with Unna, too, coming over late at night to sleep with the rest of the men. To be honest, he'd spent the days in her company, too. Teyla didn't show whether she cared or not. For some reason those two didn't see eye to eye either right now. Rodney was dimly wondering about that. Well, Sheppard probably knew what was going on, since during the day he and Teyla spent a lot of time together, doing... whatever. Talking probably. Rodney used to walk alone.

As a matter of fact, he was a little bit angry. He didn't deserve this kind of treatment. He knew there had to be consequences for what he'd done on Doranda, but not *this*. Not this. This was clearly ostracism, and it was almost worse than what he'd experienced back in high school. What was the point of this? He'd learnt his lesson.

Okay, if truth be told, Sheppard's or Teyla's current behaviour wasn't particularly different from before Doranda, not really. The major difference was the disturbing underlying anger whenever Sheppard looked at him or actually talked to him. The avoidance and the distance, however, weren't new – except for the degree of it all, of course. He'd always been the odd one out. That was okay, he was unique, after all. Being the strange one in any group was to be expected, wasn't it? Yes, it was. And he didn't mind, because even though, when he'd been younger, he'd had more than his fair share of disappointment in the friends' department due to this fact, nowadays he understood.

Okay... To be honest, sometimes he didn't, and rejection still hurt. But not as much as before, because he was older and maybe a little bit wiser, too. So it was okay to be treated differently. He'd learnt to accept it.

And yet... And yet he couldn't help wondering if Sheppard would be acting like this now if Rodney were actually *one of the guys*.

Rodney wasn't sad. Or disappointed. No, he wasn't. It was just a little bit boring walking around alone all the time. He'd tried to talk to some of the (female) merchants who looked like they might be smarter than the average Pegasus native. Now he knew quite a few not really interesting things about their trading system, about their trading partners, about their goods and all the waterholes in the desert. Of course, they hadn't understood a thing about physics. Or math. So it had become clear the third day that there wasn't anything left to talk about. They really didn't have anything in common.

Well, talking used up too much of his energy anyway. It was scorchingly hot and dry, and even with his light tunic, he was sweating profusely. Breathing was extremely difficult, especially around midday. He'd stopped complaining the second day, when Sheppard had sent him an impatient look. It hadn't been quite disgust, but it had been close enough.

The fourth day however, Rodney started feeling so drained that he dared to say something to Teyla.

"Rodney," she said very patiently. "I can try to ask them if they will allow you to travel in one of the wagons. But they value strength and resilience more than anything, especially in men. I don't know if they'll listen."

"Please," he said calmly. "Just during the hours around noon." That was the worst time of the day even with the hooded tunic. They usually took a break around midday, but getting up afterwards was always an incredible effort. A few times he'd even been afraid he'd pass out.

Then he remembered. "Oh, and..." He could feel the flush on his face. He'd never felt so ashamed. "Do you think I could have a little more water?"

She looked at him evenly. That wasn't pity, was it? He didn't want to put up with pity from Teyla.

"I will try. I can't promise you anything, however. But if you feel poorly, I'll gladly sha ..."

No way.

"No! No, just... It's okay, Teyla. I'll manage, it's not that bad."

She frowned. "Dr. McKay..."

"No, really. It will be okay. It's nothing really." No way he would take away her water.

But that was what he'd asked her to do, wasn't it? To take away someone else's water. No one else seemed to have any problems, but he'd be damned if he deprived someone of his or her water. It just wasn't fair.

Teyla didn't look convinced but she didn't say anything.

That evening their healer called him to her tent. She was about fifty years old and wore her hair short as did most of the women who had come with them. She was almost never seen since she travelled in one of the wagons. Lucky, lucky woman. Smart woman, too. Sheppard sent him a level look as he got up from his place around their fire, but hell, he wouldn't want Rodney to make a complete ass of himself, keeling over some day, either, would he? No, he wouldn't.

"Teyla Emmagan gave me permission to touch you," the small, sturdy woman said as he sat down in front of her. Her grey eyes were kind, at least.

"Oh. Huh." He blinked. Of course. Matriarchal society and all that. "She did, didn't she? Well, it's okay. For you to touch me, I mean." She lifted her eyebrows. He couldn't help wondering at their culture. Had Unna asked Teyla to be allowed to touch Ronon, too? That had to have been a very, very strange conversation.

"Good," the healer said, moving closer. She looked into his eyes, felt his pulse, examined his hands. Then she made him take off his T-shirt. She touched his neck and the place under his ribs. Her touch was light and cool, and somehow soothing. Not quite like Carson's, but similar.

"You're soft," she said eventually, sighing as she sat back on her heels. "Not used to the sun. It's rare to see a man who's so pale." She shook her head and motioned him to get dressed again. "This journey must be difficult for you."

"Oh, well, it's just, you know..."

"You're not a warrior. And you're not used to hard work."

What the hell? "Hey, I'm a scientist! And I *do* work very hard, but it's mostly my brain that... But I'd really like to point out that I'm not *soft*. I participate in the ridiculous combat training and I do exercises, not to mention that I go on missions all the..."

She lifted her eyebrows.

"Okay, maybe I'm not as wiry or... accustomed to march through deserts as your people, but where I come from I'm pretty much as fit as you can get." Of course, he was talking about Canada, not about Atlantis where about half of the residents were military.

She looked doubtful though.

"If you say so," she remarked. After a short pause she added, "Well, I can't judge your people's decision to send you on this mission. Now you're here." She sighed again. "You can rest in my wagon during the hours around midday. The caravan leader won't like it since it will set a bad example for her men. But don't worry, I'll convince her."

"Oh. That's good," he stammered and then remembered to say, "And thank you. Uhm. Healer."

She sent him a wry smile and shooed him out.

He walked over to where his team minus Ronon was still sitting and talking. He sighed and sat down again.

Teyla looked at him expectantly.

"She'll let me rest in her wagon for a few hours a day," he said, avoiding to look at Sheppard.

"Well, that must go over well with the others," the colonel said flatly.

"John," Teyla admonished.

"Excuse me, Colonel," Rodney said rather loudly, completely fed up now. "But not all of us are big strapping soldiers, custom-made for extended hikes through deserts!"


"Nonono," he cut him off and got up. "I've had enough of this shit. I'm going to sleep."

But it wasn't that easy. Sheppard followed him and grabbed his arm, whirling him around. "This is not a holiday, McKay," he hissed. "Whatever crawled up your ass, get your act together!" Rodney pulled his arm free.

"You'd better look yourself in the mirror, Colonel," he said, inexplicably angry now, and walked away.

Sheppard let him go.


The following days he felt a little better. The heat was still unbearable and he was still thirsty all the time, but in the afternoons, after his rest in the healer's wagon he didn't feel as drained anymore, and he managed to keep up without threatening to keel over any minute.

During his daily hours with the old woman, whenever he didn't nap, they talked. She was quite an interesting person – for a voodoo-witch from a backwater planet – and very curious, too. She was fascinated by his tales about other worlds, about his outlook on science and the workings of the universe. He should have sought her out sooner.

Of course, now he spent the evenings alone instead. The caravan leader had asked Teyla to dinner one day and that was where she was spending her evenings now. Rodney didn't know if she genuinely liked the company or if she just didn't want to be impolite. Sheppard, of course, had no intention of sitting alone with Rodney and had started eating with the warriors, which was why – since no one else wanted to have anything to do with the healer's wuss – Rodney now sat all by himself after dark. It was worse than when he'd been in school. Well, Rodney was constantly tired anyway, even with his afternoon nap. No point in wasting time making stupid small-talk with the natives when he could be resting instead. He only wished his scanner would detect some interesting signals so he'd be able to start doing something useful, like analyzing data. But he wasn't that lucky. If he hadn't been so exhausted, he would have been bored out of his mind.

Unsurprisingly, Ronon the Stud was still Unna's favourite. Everyone could hear them at night. Or watch their shadows if they felt like it. Rodney found their antics very embarrassing, but apparently he was the only one who thought so.

Eight days after their departure they reached the first waterhole. Finally. Rodney couldn't believe his luck. Water. A lot of water from the look of it. And Wenh, the caravan leader, even decided to take a day of rest there. Life didn't get any better than that.

They put up their tents and refilled their supplies. Rodney tried to keep his dignity and hold back, but when it was his turn he drank and drank and drank. As much as he could. Slowly, of course, because he wasn't stupid. He could hear the others talk about his greed, though. Well, he didn't care, what did they know?

He took his canteen and his backpack and then walked away from the others. When he was far enough that he could pretend he had some privacy, he built himself a small tent with his second tunic and a few items from his backpack, and then lay down underneath it with his fresh water. It was still hot and his legs were lying outside in the sun, but it was wonderful. Absolutely fantastic.

"Dr. McKay," he heard mid-nap.


"Caravan Leader Wenh asks you to join her." One of the warriors.


"What? Really? Oh, well, if it must... Okay."

Groaning, he got up. The warrior accompanied him to the leader's newly set up tent and motioned him inside.

She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking up at him.

"Sit down," she said impassively, and he did.

She scrutinized him for a while, but before he could start squirming under her gaze, she said, "Teyla Emmagan mentioned to me that you're a brilliant man, Dr. McKay. A scholar, well versed in the workings of the earth and the sky... And the technology of the Ancestors."

"Oh, yes, that's quite true, in fact, I..."

"Because I wondered. You had to be very valuable if they took you on a journey you were so clearly not fit for."

"Uhm. As I told your healer already, I'm not as unfit as everyone here seems to think..."

"I've come to understand that your world is quite different from ours."

"Yes. Yes, it is. It's definitely not as warm and there's a lot more water..."

"There are very few scholars among our men," she interrupted him. "Men are usually too impatient and they tend to focus on all the wrong things. They tend to be ... my sister calls it 'one-dimensional'." She tilted her head. "They don't understand the vast responsibility that comes with knowledge. Or power."

"Uh." What was she trying to tell him?

"I'm not saying this is the case with you. Teyla speaks of you in highest terms. But I want to understand what kind of man we are risking delay for."

"Delay?" he asked, bewildered.

"We are two days late, Dr. McKay. We had to adapt our speed to your slower one, and, needless to say, I don't like it." Shit. He hadn't known that. Why didn't anyone tell him these things? He could feel the flush on his face.

"Besides, it's difficult to explain to my men why you're lying in the healer's wagon when you're clearly neither sick nor injured. You're making my task a lot more complicated, and I'd like to know that it's worth it."

That *he's* worth it. Oh fuck!

"Or what? You're leaving me behind?" She wouldn't do that, would she?

She didn't say anything for a moment.

"No," she said eventually. "You're the Matriarch's guest, and I don't intend to go against her will." Not happy.

"So why are you even asking me this? I mean, what's the use?"

"I like to know what I'm dealing with."

Rodney frowned. "Well, what you're dealing with is probably the most brilliant man in two galaxies," he said. "Not to mention the only one who might be able to make the technology in the city work. Well, Sheppard might be able to *activate* it a little faster with his special magic gene, but I'll be the one who'll know what it's for, how to repair it if something's broken or malfunctioning or threatening to kill us all, and of course how to use it without blo... without killing ourselves with it."

He wasn't thinking about Doranda, not at all.

"So I'm afraid that, if you and your Matriarch want to have your fair share of the Ancients' – the Ancestors' – cake, you'll have to stick with me."

She didn't reply. He really didn't like her gaze as she continued to study him for a very long time. What was she trying to see in his face? Tell-tale signs of a lie? She'd end up disappointed, then.

"Just as well," the harpy said at last. "I hope you've spoken the truth. For your sake. For the sake of all of us."

Well, that was an unmistakable threat, wasn't it? Unbelievable.

"Listen. I don't know what we'll find there. It's quite possible that there's nothing at all to be found, and that certainly won't be my fault. Besides, I'm not carrying any batteries with me that could power the kind of Ancient technology we've encountered so far. So, no power, no treasure." He paused. "All I can say, is that I am the one who can tell you if *what* we find is worth it or not."

"Just as well," she repeated, completely unmoved. She folded her hands in her lap. "I believe this conversation is over, Dr. McKay."


Without another word he got up and left.


That night the healer called him to her tent. "I have talked to Teyla Emmagan," she told him, looking at him expectantly.

"Oh?" he said, cautiously.

"Didn't she tell you?" she asked, puzzled.

"No," he said slowly. He hadn't seen her all day. In fact, he'd mostly slept through it. "What was she supposed to tell me?"

She smiled self-deprecatingly. "I should have known. She said something about not being her team mates' keeper."


"I completely forgot that you have such different customs."

"Ah. Well, she isn't. Our keeper, I mean." He refrained from snorting, because, really.

"In that case I'll just say what I have to say." She sighed and lifted her hands before laying them down on her knees again. "It's strange to do it this way, but... Well."

He waited. Women were even stranger in this part of the galaxy than on Earth. Who would have thought?

"Since Wenh has a few problems with you, I thought you could help me with my duties as healer."


Oh God.

"Our conversations have shown me that you know a lot about the Art already." He really hoped his horror wouldn't show on his face. "And you're a very intelligent man. I could teach you some of the things you haven't learned yet, and no one will have any reason to think you're not useful to the caravan anymore."

Typical. He let his head drop and sighed tiredly. Then he lifted it again.

"Tell me one thing. What about Ronon and Sheppard and Teyla? They don't do anything special, either, do they? Why does everyone think I'm a freeloader here?"

She sighed. "You're different, Dr. McKay. You're unlike any man we've ever seen, including the travellers from off-world." No kidding.

"Well, while I might agree if you'd said that referring to my undoubtedly unique brilliance, I really can't believe everyone is fixating so much on my physique."

"It is not only your body, Dr. McKay. It's also your unusual behaviour."

"Behaviour," he repeated, frowning. He really hadn't done a thing here. He'd been quiet and polite and reserved – admittedly that had been because of the heat that was relentlessly stealing his breath.

"It's difficult to explain. There is a... streak of rebellion in you that's quite unusual for someone your age."

"Rebellion?" he asked incredulously. What the fuck was she talking about now?

She shook her head. "As I said, it is difficult to tell. It's not really... tangible."

Inconceivable. "Listen. Whatever you might think, I..." He shook his head, too. "Jesus, this is just plain stupid, and I'm really not going into that right now, but I am *not* a teenager."

She placed a hand on his. "You are right. You should not bother yourself with it." She removed her hand. "But will you consider what I proposed? I have already talked to Wenh, and she has nothing against you staying in my wagon for the rest of the day if you're my apprentice."

Oh. He mulled over it. No more walking around in the sun.

"But that might not go over well with her men, will it?" And he didn't want to think what Sheppard would have to say to that. Well, it wasn't as if they were talking much these days. Most likely he wouldn't even notice.

She smiled. "It's not up to them to decide on these things."

Of course, it wasn't. They were *men*, after all. Huh, if only Elizabeth could see this. She'd love these people's view on things.

The idea was not too bad, though. Even if... It was voodoo, for heaven's sake. But okay. He liked her company, and it wasn't as if he had better things to do right now.

"Hm, in that case, I... You know, medicine has never been... I mean, it's all just... But okay, I guess it would be okay."

She nodded, smiling. "I'm glad you think so."

"But I'll have to do my normal job, too. You know, if my scanner shows me something interesting, I..."

She held up a hand. "Of course, Dr. McKay. I would not interfere with your work."

"Oh," he said. "That's good, then."

She didn't say anything more after that. When her gaze became too uncomfortable, he said, "Well, if that's all...?"

She placed her hand on his again. Frowning, he looked down.

"No," she said calmly, her voice very soft.

"No?" He lifted his head. Was that nervousness? He hadn't pegged her for the nervous type.

"It's been a long time since I did this, so I hope you'll forgive my clumsiness." She smiled almost shyly.

He snorted. "Believe me, I know all about being clumsy, so uh, just spit it out."

She hesitated for a second, but then – not clumsy at all – she placed the other hand on his cheek, and said, "I would like to kiss you, Rodney. Will you allow me?"

Allow her... Oh. Oh! This was... Jesus!

"Well, I..."

She removed both of her hands, and there was no mistaking the disappointment in her eyes. "I'm sorry if I offended you, Dr. McKay..."

No, what... That was just not right. "Nononono," he protested hastily. "I didn't mean that... I meant... Hey, you surprised me!" And what a surprise it had been.

He took one of her hands. "This doesn't happen to me all that often, you know? I mean, I mean, it should! Of course, it should! But women back home aren't just..."

She shut him up by kissing him. Thank God. Who knew what else would have come out of his mouth?

So he kissed her back. She was very gentle with him, as if he were something infinitely precious. Softly framing his lips, lightly stroking his hair. It was... huh, it was nice! Definitely nice for a change. She wasn't what men on Earth would have called beautiful, with her wrinkles and her sun-weathered skin and her small, stocky frame, but Rodney found her attractive anyway. Not that he'd been thinking about her that way before she'd made her bold move, but she was a warm-hearted woman, intelligent and wise. What was not to like?

After a while he pushed her back on the blanket. She looked a little bit surprised. Had he done something wrong? But no, she pulled him on top of her and went back to kissing him. Softly. He didn't complain.

It was good. The gentleness was new, but he found he loved it. Not to mention that she was very inventive. He hadn't known how much he'd craved to be with someone who genuinely liked him. Who liked his *company*. He hadn't even known he'd missed it.

The next morning it was a very satisfied man who crawled out of the healer's tent in search of his own private mini-tent. He went to take a leak, then cleaned up a little and refilled his canteen. He ate a powerbar before breakfast. Well, he was starving.

They broke camp after noon, and Rodney was on the healer's – Ghenna's – wagon when they departed. There hadn't been time to chat with anyone of his team. Ronon and Teyla had been nowhere in sight, and Sheppard had been training with the warriors the whole morning. Rodney didn't complain, he wasn't particularly keen on explaining himself.

The following days his mood lifted considerably. He practically spent day and night with Ghenna, who'd started to call him 'my apprentice', even in bed. Well, he didn't mind. She was really funny and her teasing was good-natured. Besides, he also managed to teach *her* a thing or two, and not only between the sheets. He *was* an intelligent man after all, and he'd always tried to dabble in other fields too, even if they didn't have much to do with real science. Okay, he'd tried to stay out of the social sciences for the most part, but the medical art was something in between, and you never knew when it would turn out useful.

He didn't pay attention to what happened outside. He'd seen enough. Everyone of his team had started to play with other kids, and Rodney did his best not to think about how all this would turn out in the long run. He was mostly happy spending his time with the healer who didn't judge him and seemed to like him just the way he was.

His third day as an apprentice he had to come and help bandage a superficial wound for the first time. Everyone stared. Apparently men rarely were healers in this part of the world. Well, Ghenna was right there with him, and he really couldn't do anything wrong with this one. He'd done it enough times when one of his team mates had been injured.

Afterwards, Teyla caught him on his way back to the wagon. "Can I have a word with you, please?" she asked politely, nodding to the healer. Ghenna just smiled and shooed them away.

Rodney and Teyla walked a few steps until they were out of hearing range.

"How are you, Dr. McKay," she asked.

"Fine! I'm fine. How are you?"

She just looked at him.

"Colonel Sheppard is worried, Dr. McKay." Oh, she really cut to the chase. "We're all going our separate ways now. He's... afraid the team is falling apart. And as much as it pains me to say this, I agree."

Oh, for ...

"And you're telling *me*? I've been the one who had to walk alone for miles on end because every single one of you found more important friends to spend your time with."

Her eyes widened, but he wasn't really ready to discuss this. Not yet. He shook his head.

"Anyway, what happened to our motto – you know, the one where making friends is a *good* thing?"

That distracted her for a moment. "It is a good thing, but not at the cost of losing sight of..." She sighed. "Colonel Sheppard..."

"Oh, yes, I can imagine," he interrupted her tiredly. "Why hasn't Colonel Sheppard come to tell me in person if he thinks it's so important?"

She looked up at him, and when she spoke, her voice was very sympathetic. "I know this is a difficult time. For the team. For all of us. More the reason for us to stick together."

He shook his head. "So what do you expect me to do?"

"Dr. McKay..."

"No, really. What do you expect me to do? I'm definitely not Sheppard's favourite person right now. And even if... I'm the last person to talk to when it comes to team building stuff. Don't tell me you don't know that. Actually I'm surprised that you're even here."

She looked down and took a deep breath. When she looked up again, she said, "We're all part of this team, Doctor."

"Oh, please!"

She shook her head and placed a hand on his forearm. He pulled it away.

"No. If Sheppard is so worried, he can do something about it. Don't make this my responsibility."

She was always so perceptive... And then again she wasn't. He just turned around and left her standing there.

Ghenna didn't ask what had been so important. Rodney told her anyway. "My team mates think we spend too much time apart from each other," he sighed as he put the kit away and sat down in front of her. "They'll probably try to schedule a daily meeting or something like that."

She smiled at him. "I'm glad. I hope you'll find a way to heal this rift."

"Rift?" He frowned. "Huh. I suppose you could call it that. Not that any of it is my fault." Okay, that was not quite true, but he'd rather kill himself than tell her that. She could probably guess anyway.

Gently patting his knee, she said, "Friends are important, my apprentice."

Well, judgement was still out on that.