Silence is the genius of fools and one of the virtues of the wise. (Pope Boniface VIII)
The first time it happens is on M65-387. Sheppard isn't expecting it and it bothers him far more than he could have ever anticipated.
It isn't that he's not ready always for trouble of some sort or that he's taken by surprise when something goes wrong. These days the only thing that could surprise him when they walk through the Stargate would be to find they can skip hand in hand with their new-found friends through fields of flowers and butterflies and not have a gun/pitchfork/sword/spear/Wraith feeding hand shoved into his face within five minutes of arrival.
He's learning not to say so in briefing meetings, of course. Elizabeth's look of fond exasperation is bad enough, but Teyla... Teyla always looks at him with that grave, unflinching serenity that makes him feel that not only does she think he's a child but a dull-witted one at that. In such moments he's convinced that only Elizabeth's presence, and the respect Teyla has for her, stands between him and another lesson in Pegasean etiquette delivered with the help of Teyla's bantos rods.
Teyla could teach Dear Abby a thing or two about instilling good manners.
She looks a little reproving when Sheppard hints that this proposed visit to M65-387 will end in tears, as usual. "I do not think that you should be quite so pessimistic about our first contact missions, Major Sheppard. And in this case, I am certain that we have nothing to fear. The Cassians are a sophisticated and friendly people. They have survived repeated culling and rebuilt each time with courage and tenacity. They have been trading with my people for generations."
Sheppard doesn't know if it's the gravity or the serenity, but Wham! The spot between his shoulder blades is itching so bad that the only thing that would relieve it would be someone whacking it with a length of 2 by 4 and that, he knows, is an all-too-likely every day possibility in the Pegasus galaxy. He wonders if he's developing some sort of conditioning to her opening her mouth and saying something like "My people have traded with ". Because every time she says it, he gets a blast of adrenalin as strong as a nuke strike and grips his P90 hard enough to leave finger-shaped indentations in the gun butt.
Something like Pavlov's dogs, maybe, but with less in the way of drool and more in the way of ordnance.
He doesn't say anything in self justification, or even to promise to be a good boy. He settles for the expression that he thinks of as 'politely interested', but that McKay calls his-Uh-huh face. It's the one he's perfected for those plentiful occasions when the exercise of diplomacy in the Pegasus galaxy demands something from him that goes above and beyond.
You want to me hug your leader and rub noses with him and each and every one of his 37 wives and 164 children, all of whom have been using whale blubber as hair product ? Uh-huh. You want me to watch the shaman sacrifice that little sheepy-goat and... and, oh, you want me to hold those innards for you while you poke about in them until they tell you the future? Uh-huh. You want me to dance naked in the moonlight strumming that lute thing? Really? Uh-huh.
Yeah. That face. He's learnt to don it the second he walks through the gate, in readiness.
He doesn't blame Teyla for their adventures. That she was as disconcerted as the Atlanteans by the duplicity of the Genii or the treachery of the Manorians is obvious to everyone, except maybe Sergeant Bates. Sheppard knows that she isn't deliberately leading them astray.
Everything changes. People change. Priorities change. Politics change.
The Wraith change everything.
The Cassians welcome them as friends of Teyla and the Athosians and this time around, Sheppard doesn't have to rub noses, or hold prophetic animal entrails, or dance. He's long ago learnt not to offer to shake hands (it's not the thing to do, not in Pegasus) but stands relaxed and at ease at Teyla's side, his hands resting his P90, while Teyla does the diplomatic trader thing that she has going there.
She's very good at it.
She's so good at it that she usually covers for Sheppard's laconic Uh-huh face, Ford looking around for something to blow up, and McKay ranting away in the background about savages or the Ancestors or a power source or oh my God, is there lemon in this?
Sadly (but to Sheppard's mind, not unexpectedly) Teyla's diplomatic trader mojo has run out of batteries or something. The Cassians turn on them for some minor infraction of their rules that starts out with Sheppard causing offence by flirting with the leader's wife (analysing it later for the mission reports that he knows Elizabeth looks forward to as a regular source of side-splitting amusement, he thinks he raised an eyebrow in her direction and may even have smiled when the leader gestured towards her), escalates via Ford threatening to shoot the leader's wife's pet dog-thing as it snarls its way up to them, teeth showing and jaws snapping, and ends very badly with McKay defiling their holy temple by putting his besmirching alien foot on its threshold as he follows up the usual intriguing power fluctuation reading thingie on his scanner.
So none of this is unexpected. They do this sort of thing all the time, and Sheppard is pretty used to it. As usual, they're pushed and prodded into the local jail, have all their weapons confiscated, and Teyla is taken off to the Cassian Council to explain herself and get them out of trouble with her ninja negotiating skills.
Same old, same old.
Except this time, they get their hands cuffed before being pushed into their cell and having the metal door clanged shut on their heels.
"Well, this is different." Sheppard raises his cuffed hands and writhes his wrists, but there's no play on the cuffs and no way that he'll be able to slip his hands out.
Ford says nothing, looking at Sheppard with big, trusting eyes and waiting for orders. Sheppard is getting fond of his marines, but he does wish they wouldn't just stand there and expect him to tell them what to do. It's a worrisome responsibility. Still, Ford will just wait patiently until Sheppard can think of something. Sheppard doesn't need to worry about him just yet.
But McKay? McKay starts out in fine McKayesque fashion, with ranting words pouring from his lips like lava. He's in fine fettle. He starts with a savage review of the state of their prison room: 'warm and comfortable' converts in McKay-land to suspiciously humid, likely to encourage the breeding of vermin and in the name of Erwin Schr dinger, just look at the size of that cockroach, Major! Sheppard jumps uneasily, memories of the Iratus bug being evergreen and progresses to the interesting mould growing in one corner that would have Carson with dying from fear or delight or both, to... to...
And Sheppard, who's been filtering McKay into comfortingly familiar blah-blah-blah background noise, stops in his examination of the walls and door (no chance of burrowing out of this cell with a sharpened teaspoon) and turns in real surprise, because McKay's fallen silent.
McKay's frowning. He tries again, lifting his hands in a new pattern to wave them in the grandiloquent fashion that always accompanies his finest efforts. But as he raises his right hand to point menacingly at the mould patch, his left has to go with it, straining the cuffs to the utmost as it tries, but fails, to go in an entirely different direction to point at the large cockroach who's eyeing Sheppard like a banquet's been set before it, antennae quivering with excitement.
McKay tries again, moving his hands in a different counterpoint to this time, to balance the words tumbling from his slanted mouth. "Yes, well, and these primitive idiots who don't have any brain power higher than basic autonomic functions to keep them breathing "
Once again, his hands try to move, and once again he stops to look down at the cuffs. He raises his hands and touches his mouth, the finger moving across his bottom lip, smoothing over its crooked length. He's staring down at the other hand, hanging in its encircling metal cuff. He looks puzzled.
The cell is hushed and still. Ford stands wide-eyed at the barred window, Sheppard is at the door. They're both quiet and watchful. The cockroach may have made a small noise as it smacked its lips together in anticipation, although Sheppard can't be certain of that. The mould patch is totally silent, though; that he's sure of.
McKay tries moving his hands in a circle. "Hmmfph," he says, and settles back on the single bunk along one wall. His hands drop into his lap and he just sits, still and quiet.
Sheppard looks at Ford, but the lieutenant stares back, blank faced, waiting to be told what to think about it. No help there. He trades a look with the cockroach. It's definitely more interested in looking for the cruet. No help there either. The mould just sits.
"Well," says Sheppard, again, tilting his head when he hears Teyla's soothing tone as she comes into the jailhouse to spring them from durance vile. She's talking to the Cassian leader, he thinks, and her voice holds that determined serenity that has all of Atlantis whupped. She has the Cassians whupped too, then. As usual. "This is very different."
Same old stuff.
They've been here a long time now. More than four years. And for all of those four years the same old things keep happening. Year after year of meetings and negotiations, cullings and rescue missions, blowing up the odd wraith hive here and the odd wraith hive there, dealing with alliances in their support and dealing with alliances against them, bickering with Todd, ending up at the business end of spears or swords or guns and getting marched into another one of those small cells.
Same old, same old.
But getting their hands tied doesn't happen very often. That never gets old. The people of Pegasus don't like it, the way they don't like shaking hands. The Pegasus natives have a thing about hands. The psychologists and anthropologists mull over it for a long time; this aversion, this almost fetishisation of hands.
"Oh please," says McKay, rolling his eyes. "I know they don't get out much and the social sciences unit is the Lantean equivalent of still living in Mommy's basement, but they do know how the Wraith feed, don't they? Of course the Pegasus races are hung up about hands and anyone with the brain power of a gnat would see why..."
And he's off, the bit between his teeth. Words come like the Biblical Flood, pouring around Sheppard like rising water; unstoppable and insatiable. It's like being in a warm sea, buoyed up by each wave, feeling the limitless power of the ocean and waiting for The Wave, the one he'll ride to shore, arms outstretched, his balance perfect. The breeze blowing into his face will be so sharp with salt, he'll taste it on his lips as he laughs.
Sheppard leans one hip up against the edge of McKay's desk, folds his arms and lets it all wash over him. He smiles, content.
It doesn't happen when they find Ronon. There McKay gets hung upside down in a tree and Lorne says later that he could hear him from half a klick away. When Lorne gets there, McKay's hanging head down, rotating, and not even stopping for breath as he rants about the indignity, the savage who attacked him, the radiation levels, the disappearance of his team, the chafing of the rope around his ankles and is his face getting red? and my God, he's going to have a stroke isn't he?
"You know," says Lorne, "I think he was powering his own rotation by talking against the air, like wind resistance or something. Like a chopper blade." And he blows out a breath to demonstrate and rotates on the spot, arms outstretched.
So, tied feet don't do it, then. But all Sheppard says is that it looks like McKay's a Newtonian physicist, after all; and he laughs, delighted, at the look of confusion on Lorne's face.
It does happen when they go to M57-281. Ford's long gone by this time, if never forgotten and always regretted, and Ronon has found his own place in the team.
The people on M57-281 have been culled back into the stone age; a small wandering population of hunter gatherers. They gather up McKay and Sheppard, and hunt Teyla and Ronon. Naturally it doesn't quite work out the way they expect, and they get hunted right back. Which is just as well for Sheppard and McKay, all things considered. There would have been a fire-pit and pointy bits of sticks in the immediate future otherwise, and Sheppard's never been one for shish kebab.
While they're waiting for Teyla and Ronon to stop playing with the nice native people, Sheppard and McKay are inside a cave, tied up and with guards at the cave mouth. Sheppard still finds caves a bit hinky, and every slight noise, a skitter of tumbling pebbles maybe, and the scar on his neck itches. He raises stiff shoulders, hunching them around his ears the way a man turns his back to a cold wind to ward it off.
It's too quiet. He can hear all too many skitterings and chitterings. He wonders if the bite mark on his arm is turning blue.
McKay's eyes are wide in the gloom, so wide that there's only the faintest hint of blue around the pupils. He lifts his bound hands to eye-level and stares at them. They flop about, helpless, straining against the ropes before dropping again. He shakes his head, mute.
Sheppard's relieved when Teyla and Ronon arrive. He'd had very good reasons for persuading Elizabeth to keep Ronon around. Ronon has sharp knives for cutting though the thin ropes and releasing McKay's tongue. And only then does the cold wind drop, and Sheppard can lower his shoulders and let the tension bleed away in the warmth of McKay's voice and the endless stream of words.
Pegasus is all about losses and gains; about people coming and people going.
It's the nature of Pegasus. There's a core that remains, still and fixed in the centre, and everything around it is transitory. Sheppard can see this sometimes, almost as he can visualise the galaxy itself as great wisps of stars whirling like ghostly spokes of a wheel around the central galactic hub. The core isn't inviolate or perfect. It can be hurt and damaged, it can make mistakes and has to live with the consequences later. But essentially it will remain and the wisps of stars will be doing their spinning, coming and going, being gained and being lost.
They lose Ford, they gain Earth. Mind you, some days Sheppard would trade back without a second thought. Contact with Earth brings coffee and better rations and ammo and the hundreds of other things Atlantis needs to survive; and the SGA poking its nose in, and Landry, and the IOC and form-filling and the dozens of other things Atlantis doesn't need but can't get away from now.
They lose Elizabeth, and they gain Ronon Dex. Ronon used to be a wisp of a ghost, spinning and running; but now, inside himself, he's still and substantial. He's anchored while Elizabeth... is it Elizabeth? Well. Who knows. Still, Ronon's anchored while what may-be and possibly is Elizabeth floats between stars, frozen.
They lose Carson, and defying everything they know about, well, everything, they get him back again. Except it's not really him. Except it is. Sort of. Maybe. It makes Sheppard's head hurt and for a time he keeps himself a little distant from Clone-Carson. Not until he's sure because he's never sure but until the doubt and uncertainty become familiar enough to live with.
They gain Sam for a time, and, most terribly, they lose Teyla. Luckily also only for a time and when she comes back, baby makes five (or three or six, depending on what you're counting).
They even lose Atlantis for a few weeks, but manage to get her back, too. There's something significant in that, if Sheppard can be bothered to think about it. He can't. He just allows himself to feel at home, instead.
Life is little more than a careless egotism that puts a man at the centre of his existence, makes him the core. The trick is to know who of the men and women in Atlantis are with him here in the still centre, and who's a wispy ghost..
So. McKay being silenced. It happens.
M62-441 with the desert nomads. The sight of McKay careening about the desert on a camel-llama sort of beast is almost enough to unman Sheppard for life. For months after, the mere mention of camels or sand, and he's reduced to helpless giggles. The day after they get back to Atlantis he schedules a movie night and makes the team watch Dune. The uncut version. McKay hates him then and hates him even more when a sneaky fluffy-haired Czech bastard is given copies of Lorne's photographs of the scene and posts them onto the Atlantis servers.
M39-207, with a rebellious Genii faction doing more risky nuclear research. Sheppard doesn't trust Radim's explanation, not one iota. But Ladon's look of chagrin when he hears that McKay's blown up the research facility keeps Sheppard amused for days.
And M74-388 with the Wraith worshippers. That doesn't amuse Sheppard at all, because this time Ronon and Lorne are almost too late, and it's three long days spent silent and still in the Infirmary before McKay opens his eyes. McKay's subdued for weeks after. Sheppard has to allow him to win their chess tournament and remote-control car races, and even virtual golf, before McKay's confidence returns. He endures McKay's victorious crowing with as much grace as he can muster and when McKay demands to know if his inane grin is a sign of mental regression, Sheppard just lets his smile widen until McKay's eyes look huge and almost scared and the tips of his ears go red, and they both have to look away.
So, it's proved. If McKay has a superpower, it's that he can talk.
If he puts his mind to it, McKay can talk the seas dry and talk the stars out of falling. He can talk until he can warp space and change the course of time. He can talk until every last great, shining secret is his and the universe bends to his will. And all the time he talks, his hands are in motion. They shape the form that the words describe, they map out the universe in every movement and every expressive wave, they set the world afire with every vivid gesture. McKay's hands are the instruments of an eloquence so potent that it takes the breath away.
McKay's hands are his second voice.
But handcuff the man, and there's no need for a gag.
And then there's Keller.
Sheppard is never quite sure what he feels about Keller.
No, that's not exactly true.
He wishes harm to no-one except the Wraith, Michael, and the Replicators. And to Lucius Lavin, because the man sort of oozes, like a snail. Sometimes to Ladon Radim because the man can't be trusted and always to Kolya because he's as mad as a moose. Oh, and to Landry, on principle.
It seems a little unfair to add Jennifer Keller to the list. She doesn't really compare to that stellar collection of psychopaths, politicians and skeevy manipulators. She's dedicated, professional and seems to want to do what's right. She's sweet and genuine. He doesn't want her harmed.
Still, if he gets one wish granted to him in Pegasus then be damned to asking for world peace and the end of hunger and misery. All he wants is for Jennifer Keller to be one of the wisps, thank you very much, that come and go. Well, make that go. As soon as you like.
He never so much as hints at this to McKay or anyone else. Ronon knows, he thinks, if the sly grins are anything to go by and Teyla too, given the calm, sorrowful and almost reproving looks she gives him sometimes. But he doesn't speak about it. His hands are tied by regulations and discipline and the military code. Deeper than that, living in the Sheppard household taught him the value of silence about the thing he really, really wants. That way, no one can know enough about it to take it away from him.
The strategy worked when it came to Katie Brown, anyway. Sheppard likes to think of that as a precedent..
Here, they end up being tied back to back in two chairs in a room that looks so much like a brothel parlour from some cheesy 1930s detective film noir that Sheppard expects to see Dick Tracy slouch through the door. They're each tied to the other: Sheppard's right hand to McKay's left; McKay's right to Sheppard's left.
Sheppard, being Sheppard, tests his theory under these new experimental conditions.
"With one bound, they were free," he says, in an encouraging tone.
He waits for McKay to berate him for the cliche and argue about the great detective heroes from the 30s. Instead, he gets a sad little Hmmfph, and McKay's fingers writhing and pushing against his own as they struggle to be free. McKay's touch makes his breath catch in his throat and the blood pounds in his ears. McKay's fingers, trembling, move against his and slide between them, and stay.
Sheppard doesn't say anything. He sits so stiffly that his back hurts. He lets his fingers stay clasped in McKay's.
MacKay's fingers against his are warm and a little bit dry.
They're still sitting there, quiet, rigid, when Lorne arrives with the marines. Neither of them say much to Lorne and all the way home in the puddlejumper, McKay won't look Sheppard in the eye. McKay sits with his head bent, face downcast, looking at the hands resting in his lap. He and his hands are still mute.
Hours later, in the warm darkness of the Atlantean night, McKay's fingers touch Sheppard's again, and Sheppard can relax tense muscles at last.
"It's just a bit of fun," says John. He waves a hand, going for negligent.
"But pink?" Rodney rolls his eyes. "Pink fake fur?"
"It's a good colour on you."
"Who am I? Barbie?" Rodney sighs, and holds out his hands. "This had better be worth it."
"It will be." John snaps the handcuffs around Rodney's right wrist, and reaches for the left, but Rodney, reluctant, swings it away out of reach.
"I'll give you a blow-job without the handcuffs, you know. You only have to ask."
"I know," says John. "I know. Like last night. But you see, the thing is this." He taps on Rodney's cuffed hand with the key and then presses it against Rodney's lips. "You talk a lot, Rodney."
"I have very important things to say," says Rodney, on his dignity. Which when you think about it, is a bit lacking when he's naked and kneeling in front of John. "There should be someone always there to gather every last syllable falling from my lips. Future generations will canonise me for it."
John doesn't disagree, but there's a point to all of this. "The other thing is, Rodney, that I've been watching what happens about you talking. I've been collecting empirical data on the subject for years "
"My cold, scientist's heart is proud of you." And actually, Rodney did look a little bit proud.
John grins. "I have other uses for your mouth, Rodney, and this " John touches the handcuffs. "This will stop you talking. This always stops you talking."
Rodney frowns as he thinks it through. He nods, slowly. "I see. So all you want is for my hands to be still, so I don't talk?"
"You got it, Rodney."
Rodney nods again. "You've got this all wrong," he says. "You don't need handcuffs. You just need something else for my hands to do."
He tugs John down until they're kneeling opposite each other. He's smiling now as he raises his hands and puts them against the sides of John's face. He pivots his hands from the thumbs, reaching up to knead his fingers through John's hair while the thumbs smooth down each side of John's nose and across his cheekbones. He's gentle and careful.
Rodney has big hands. So when he lets them flow down the side of John's neck and out across his shoulders, John sighs, his eyes closing. John tilts his head back when those hands sweep back up the sides of his neck.
The little bones curving around the hollow of John's throat are hard, the skin stretched and tight over them. Rodney's fingers trace their shapes, smoothing up over the bone and sinking, gentle, into the warm hollow; up and round and down and round again, over and over, until John is purring like a cat and he isn't ashamed, can't ever be ashamed, of the soft noise he makes when Rodney's lips follow the course that Rodney's hands have mapped out. Rodney's strong hands smooth back out to grasp John hard at the shoulders, while Rodney's tongue sweeps down John's throat and out along the bone, tongue taking the same route as his fingers had: up and round and down and round again, over and over.
He licks up over John's chin, takes one swipe along John's lips and licks his way into a kiss that would burn out suns. John's eyes are closed, there's a buzzing in his ears, and the whole world comes to an end in the very clever things that Rodney does with that mouth of his.
"See?" Rodney pulls back, cupping John's face with his hands. "I told you that you didn't need handcuffs. I didn't say a word."
He's smiling. And John smiles back.
"Oh yes, you did," says John, and he turns his head to press his cheek against Rodney's hands.
Rodney's hands, so eloquent in their silence..