torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
July 12-30, 2006

Disclaimer: it's all quantum in here. Written for pierson. Beta by Mary Crawford. Do not archive without permission.

Tastes like summer

After a week and a bit, Rodney and Ronon took ten of their soldiers and went off to, as they put it, talk some sense into the pava fruit growers. John wasn't sure what that meant and didn't ask. They left before dawn and there were good-bye blowjobs involved, although John wasn't more than about half awake, and he didn't think he even opened his eyes, and then he just swallowed and sighed and went back to dreamlessness.

When he woke up again he was alone in the giant bed and the sun was shining in through the window. John stretched slowly, and scratched his jaw and his ribs and his balls and the back of his left knee. Then he had to roll over twice to get to the edge of the bed. He stood up, one foot on the wooden floor and one on a greeny-gold rug, and stretched some more. There was a sticky patch on the floor that he thought might be related to the fruit preserves from last night.

John went over and opened the balcony door, and warm mid-morning air rolled in over him. Then he realized he was naked and the balcony was on the side of the house that faced the barracks, with a yard between them that was rarely empty of people. He'd never have described himself as particularly shy or modest, but all the same he took a couple of steps back into the room, and then he turned for the bathroom.

This was more familiar to him now, and he knew where to find the soap and the clean towels, but he'd never stopped to look at the fine green-glazed tiles around the door, or to study the really pretty clever system of pipes and pulleys that sluiced sun-heated water down from a tank on the roof. John suspected Rodney had come up with it. He got himself clean and dressed, and spent long enough looking for a razor that his hair got almost dry.

When he came downstairs, he met Elizabeth. Today her dress under the apron was a deep, rich blue, and she was carrying an enormous leather-bound ledger in the crook of her arm, its edge balanced against her hip. "Good morning," she said cheerfully. "You forgot to shave."

"I don't have anything to shave with," John said. "I guess they took the razor with them." And before that, Rodney and Ronon had taken turns shaving him, and the razor was so sharp, John had trembled every time it touched him.

"I see. Don't worry about it," Elizabeth said. "I'll take care of it while you have breakfast."

She went off down the hall, and John went into the kitchen. Arison the cook turned his head from where he was standing at the long worktable, chopping marrows. Arison always made John think of forests; he had eyes the color of clear water over a sandy-silty riverbed, and John always remembered his skin as a soft bronze-brown shading into green, although whenever he actually looked, he didn't see any green. And Arison's hair wasn't the color and texture of fine greenish-brown moss, either. It was probably the drugs, John thought. No leaves tangled in the collar of Arison's shirt, no bark caught under his nails.

Arison poked John in the chest with a thin finger until he sat down, and put fresh bread and butter and honey in front of him, and a little later, red tea, cheese, and large slices of pava fruit. The bread was still warm, and the butter and honey dripped down John's fingers. Pava fruit was one of the most delicious things he'd ever eaten, rich-tasting, almost spicy, a perfect blend of sweet and tart. John ate two huge pieces of bread, and then a wedge of cheese, and when he was done with the cheese Arison put a third piece of bread in front of him. John had no complaints. He was hungry.

By the time John had licked his fingers clean and was sipping the last of his tea, Elizabeth came into the kitchen. She'd put the ledger away, and now she was carrying a towel, a bowl, a brush, and a razor. John eyed her with a certain apprehension, but when she gestured, he sat back and let her shave him.

She was good at it, and strangely, he didn't tremble when she did it, maybe because he was less worried that she'd get distracted and start doing other things to him instead. "Thanks," he said when she was done, and she nodded approvingly.

Arison gave him a platter with more slices of pava, and John took it with him out into the garden and sat in the shade of a knobbly-looking tree with long, thin, feathery leaves. Far in the distance he could see mountains, bulky lines and blocks of blue and brown and green; kite-like birds were soaring over the grassland on stiff wings; he could hear, very faintly, the brisk shouts and stomps of soldiers, somewhere on the other side of the house and the barracks. John closed his eyes and drowsed.

* * *

Something heavyish dropped onto his legs, and he blinked awake to see Aiden-not-Ford leaning over him. "Try those on."

"What?" John looked at the stuff on his legs. Pile of cloth, other pile of cloth, and— "Boots?"

"We're going running. Just, not barefoot, or you won't have any feet left. Try those on."

John tried the boots on. The soles were very thick, and the inside was built up with several layers of thick felt. When he laced the boots up, they were a perfect fit. "Bit heavy for running," he said, standing up.

"Snakes and rocks," Aiden said. He bent and poked at John's toes through the leather uppers. "Thought so. I asked Ronon what size your feet were. And the rest of you." His grin was perfectly guileless.

John had to take the boots off again so he could change into loose-fitting pants and a sleeveless top, similar to what Aiden and the other soldiers wore in training. As soon as he had the boots back on, Aiden grinned at him and started running, and John followed.

They ran along a hard path next to a dry irrigation ditch, at an easy pace. On the other side of the ditch was the grassland; it didn't look like much at first, just crumbling dirt and clumps of high reddish grass with little silvery bell-shaped seeds, but it went on and on; when John lifted his gaze he saw a line of dark olive, and past that, stands of brittle brown and lush orange and so many shades of green and subtle blue he could spend a week trying to count them. John had been told there were large swathes of grassland where the grass grew higher than his head.

He squinted towards the mountains. "Is that smoke?"

Aiden turned his head to look. "Nah, that's the pollen. Argyaro season."

They didn't come across any snakes, but on the way back, Aiden gestured across the ditch at a sun-dappled patch of red and green grass, and John blinked the sweat out of his eyes and saw an animal sitting there, watching them: a giant hare-like creature, fat and brindle-coated. John estimated the silvery tips of its ears probably came up to his hip. "Whoa."

The animal twitched its ears, turned and loped away into the grass.

"Argyaro season," Aiden said again, over his shoulder. "You done any hunting?"

John hesitated. "What kinds of weapons do you use?"

"Out here, sling. It's a waste of arrows trying to shoot anything in the grasslands. Stones are cheap."

"In that case, no."

"We'll teach you," Aiden said with a brief flash of a grin.

They came back to the house, slowed, and stopped in the garden again. John pulled up his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. "So," he said. "What's argyaro?"

Aiden was bent over, hands on his knees, but he straightened up when John spoke. "Mountain runoff," he said, pointing. "Every few years it's late in the year, and there's a lot, and that's when all the pollen releases at the same time. The animals are driven out to the edges of the grasslands." He wiped his face on his shirt, too. "Most of the rabbits and slokes end up down the valleys, eating pava tree bark."

"And then the pava growers get upset," John hazarded.

Aiden nodded. "That's argyaro season. Means trouble, but there's good eating on the slokes."

* * *

The soldiers cleaned up outside, along the short end of the barracks, the one that faced the grasslands. There was a grid of bricks and tiles, and a fanwork of furrows in the earth where the water drained off towards the irrigation ditch. A row of buckets stood by the wall, and there was an outside pipe coming down from the roof. Two women stick-fighting in the yard cat-called John and Aiden as they went around the corner, and Aiden made a hand gesture that would probably have been very rude if he hadn't been grinning. He was missing most of the last two fingers on his right hand.

One man was there ahead of them, pouring a bucket of water over his head. Aiden stopped at the edge of the tiled area and bent to unlace his boots. "You can stop posing, Jacob," he said. "Rinny and Jen aren't watching."

"Shut up," the man said, grinning.

John cleared his throat. Of course this wouldn't be Major Lorne, but still— "Your name is Jacob?"

Aiden started laughing. "No, we just call him that."

"For the fortunate second son in legend," not-Lorne — Jacob — said.

"From the song, you know the one," Aiden said, and started singing something about two old ladies and their troublesome rooster, who was named for the fortunate second son in legend. In the middle of the second chorus of how did that clever cock get in, in where no other cock's ever been, Jacob threw a bucket of water over Aiden. John got pretty thoroughly splashed, too, and stepped prudently aside as Aiden went to retaliate. When Jacob twisted to avoid Aiden's elbow, John saw that he had a long ugly scar across his hip. John stripped and flung his clothes out of range of the water-war and poured a bucket of water over his own head.

* * *

There was a covered plate next to John's boots. He lifted the top, and the smell nearly knocked him off his feet: thick slices of pava fruit, steaming hot, griddle marks half obscured by drizzled loops of dark honey. He tried to pick up a slice, dropped it because it was too hot, and sucked heat and honey off his fingertips.

"You'll share, right?" Jacob said, leaning in. "If Arison is trying to fatten you up, you'll need friends with healthy appetites."

Water from John's hair trickled down over his forehead, and he blinked it out of his eyes. "Is he?"

"Well, he's never brought me grilled pava fruit with nuts and honey for a mid-morning snack," Aiden said and tossed John a scrap of coarse cloth, a soldier's towel — a far cry from what was in the upstairs bathroom in the house. "Did your previous owners sell you because they couldn't afford to keep feeding you?"

John wiped his face with the towel. "Not exactly," he said.

* * *

Aiden and John went running every day. Mostly they went along the edge of the grassland, like the first time, following the path along the irrigation ditch. John saw two more slokes, a rabbit, and a brown and red speckled snake that Aiden said had a bite that would kill a man before he took three breaths. They went past fields with horses and fields with crops, past outlying farms, and in a couple of places, John could see the village in the distance.

One time they went along the road instead, not towards the village but the other way, running between fields of unripe grain. They stopped when they came to a crossroad with a tall tree, blackened and scored by lightning all down one side.

John shaded his eyes with one hand and looked to the right. "That's towards the valleys and the pava growers?"

Aiden nodded. "And that way's the river. Isn't that the way you came here?"

John shrugged. Aiden slapped his shoulder, and they started back again.

Jacob started teaching John how to use a sling, and after a few days John could, in fact, hit the broad side of a barn, if the barn wasn't moving. Sometimes after he was done practicing, some of the soldiers would do a bit of a demonstration and friendly competition. The woman whose name wasn't Simpson here usually won.

John ate so much pava fruit, he thought he could smell it on his skin. Elizabeth shaved him every morning, and at night, he slept alone in the giant bed.

* * *

"Boots," Jacob said, and John laced them up all the way.

"Gloves," Aiden said, handing John a pair. "Some of the grasses out there can cut your hands to the bone."

John started to understand why so many people wore leathers around here. It was hot, though. The sun hung low over the mountains, and the haze of pollen out over the grassland glowed an unreal shade of pink with dusty edges. Elizabeth stood in the open back door to the house and waved to them as they left.

Aiden carried a long walking stick. He led the way down through the garden, and turned left instead of right. They followed the dried-out irrigation ditch, and John kept bringing up a hand to shade his eyes so he could see better. He wished he had his sunglasses.

They crossed the ditch on a broad plank that shifted on the dry earth but didn't bend under their weight. Aiden flashed John a quick grin over his shoulder, John nodded, and they went in silent single file along an animal trail straight into the grassland.

The ground was more uneven here. The trail meandered this way and that around clumps and tufts of grass, little hillocks, the occasional scrubby brush. A grey-winged insect landed on John's leg and bit him through two layers of clothes. John swatted at it and cursed, and Aiden made a shushing gesture. John fell back a couple of steps so he could rub his leg and mouth a few choice words under his breath. When he looked back over his shoulder, he saw Jacob crush another grey insect between his gloved fingers.

They reached the edge of a patch of shorter, softer grass, and Aiden crouched down, and so did John and Jacob, mostly shielded behind a stand of high dry reeds. John could feel something tickling his nose, and wondered if it was the pollen. He grimaced to keep from sneezing. Jacob put a hand on his arm to tell him to stay put, and Aiden started edging around to the other side of the reeds. Over on the other side of the little clearing, two slokes were grazing in the shade, tipping forward with their massive rumps in the air and then straightening up to look around, ears flicking this way and that. One was brindled, like the first one John had seen, and the other was a solid brown, with grey paws.

The brown sloke twitched its nose, and there was a dull thwocking sound, and it fell down. The brindled one was gone so fast, John didn't see it move, just the tuft of grass trembling behind it. Aiden went up to the dead sloke, tucking his sling away. "I guess now we know what's for dinner tomorrow."

"The other one was bigger," Jacob said. He and John straightened up, too, and John surreptitiously flexed his knees a couple of times before walking over.

"Oh, shut up." Aiden turned to John. "You carry it."

John looked down at the sloke. "Me? I'm the donkey here?"

"We didn't exactly bring you for your hunting skills," Jacob said, very kindly. He did help John heave the sloke carcass up and showed him how to carry it slung over his shoulder, with the back legs in a firm grip. John made a face when the matted fur brushed his ear.

They moved on, Jacob taking the lead now and Aiden falling in behind John. John tried to look around as best he could without unbalancing the sloke. The grass came up to their waists here, to their shoulders in places, but he got glimpses of the mountains to his right, and figured they were walking more or less in the direction of the pava valleys — less, since it was a couple of days' hard riding to get there. John tried to map it out in his head, the mountain range and the valleys and the grassland, the roads, the village, the river. He wished he could see it from above.

Jacob got another sloke, the biggest John had seen so far, with brindled fur going white around the nose and one ragged ear. "That one's a grandfather," Aiden said. "It'll be tough as old boots."

"Bigger than yours," Jacob said, hoisting it up on John's other shoulder. John dug his heels in and didn't stagger.

Then he looked down and said, "Uh, guys." There was a snake wound around his left boot like a coral anklet, three slim rings of gleaming scales, and the long narrow head resting just over his toes.

"Don't move." Jacob's words were so quiet and so intent that John froze completely in place, didn't even breathe until Jacob went on, "We'll just stand here and talk about the weather for a while."

"Argyaro season," Aiden said, and he and Jacob grinned at each other. "It means luck if a dust-nose snake likes you."

"It does?" John looked down again, concentrating on not dropping the slokes. The head of the snake was sort of dirt-colored, nothing like the gleaming coral of the body. "And what if it bites you?"

"Just hold still and it won't." Aiden and Jacob stood very still, too, for all their easy talk. The dust-nose just lay there like John's foot was a warm rock in the sun. A couple of rabbits came out and grazed a few feet away.

"My nose itches," John said. The dust-nose started to move, coiling and uncoiling, as two slokes hopped out of the tall brown grass behind Aiden. When one of them lumbered closer, the dust-nose hissed and slithered down from John's boot, vanishing into the grass. It left a fine sheen on the leather, like pink glitter dust.

"Lucky," Aiden said. "Really lucky."

"Okay." John turned his head and scratched his nose against dusty sloke fur. "Lucky how, exactly?"

"Lucky in the way that it didn't bite you and you're not dead," Jacob explained. He looked at the sloke sitting two feet from him and rolled a sling-stone between his fingers. "Sometimes they just take all the fun out of it."

"I'm not carrying another one," John said, and when he shifted his weight and the grass rustled, that did what their voices hadn't and the slokes and rabbits took off.

* * *

Arison told them to skin and butcher the slokes before bringing them into the kitchen. Aiden and Jacob told John to skin and butcher the slokes before bringing them into the kitchen, and then they walked away, so he did, getting blood on his shirt. Arison told John he'd sell the skins for him and give him the money.

John shook his head. "I didn't kill them."

"No, but you skinned them. Whoever gives me the skins gets the money," Arison said. "Wash your hands and I'll bring you something to eat."

John shook his head again, but he washed his hands and sat at the kitchen table and ate dry little spice-cookies dunked in sweet, gritty wine. He dipped a fingertip in the wine and tried to draw a map on the smooth wood of the tabletop, but it dried up and disappeared.

* * *

John woke up and lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. He rolled over and stretched and got up, and shook his head slightly. It was as though a thin hazy veil had lifted, and his mind and the world around him both felt perfectly clear. When he breathed deep, the air was sharp and real in his lungs. He went into the bathroom and washed himself very thoroughly; he got soap in his eyes when he rinsed out his hair. Everything was vivid and immediate; even the towels felt more there against his skin.

He got dressed and went down and met Elizabeth at the foot of the stairs. She was wearing her red dress again, and her apron was clean and freshly ironed. "I've set up an account for you," she said. "We can talk about how you want to invest your money later." John blinked at her, and she raised an eyebrow. "Unless you prefer to keep it under your mattress, but frankly, I wouldn't recommend it."

"I don't have a mattress," John said slowly.

"No, exactly." Elizabeth patted his cheek. "I'll come by and shave you later."

The kitchen was empty, but there was fresh bread on the counter. John ate it with cold meat and sauce from the night before and thought he'd never tasted anything better. He cut himself a slice of pava fruit and took it out into the garden, wandering around and nibbling it while he looked at the trees and the vista of grassland and the bright blue distance of mountains and sky as though he'd never seen them before. The raptors were calling to each other as they circled over the grass, their cries high and wire-thin and sharp.

John finished his pava fruit and wandered off towards the barracks, licking his fingers. The air was heating up. Aiden was sitting astride the rickety bench outside the barrack door, partly shaded by a nut tree, punching holes in an old piece of leather armor. He looked up at John and nodded. "You ready for a run?"

"I can wait till you're done here." John leaned back against the tree and watched Aiden work. After a while, he said, "Why did you let me have those furs? Arison told me they're worth money."

Aiden punched another hole and shifted the piece he was working on to lie sideways along the bench. "Oh, we just figured you could use them. I mean, do you even own anything else?

"No." He'd been stripped of everything, down to the skin.

"Well, then." Aiden tried one of the holes with a leather cord. "I'm almost done here. Could you just give me a hand, help me hold this flat—"

A bell clanged above, bright and loud, and John nearly jumped out of his skin. His hand dropped to his leg, where there was no thigh holster. "What the hell is that?"

Aiden hadn't jumped, but he was suddenly much more alert, and he got up and picked up the leather and tucked it under his arm. "I'd better make sure everything's in order. We'll get back to the running later, don't worry about it."

John didn't have time to answer that before Aiden went into the barracks and the door to the house opened across the yard. "John!" Elizabeth leaned out, beckoning with her free hand. "John, hurry up."

She led him into the kitchen; the basin, soap, and razor were on the table. John frowned. "Okay, what's going on? What was all that bell-ringing about?"

"They're coming back," Elizabeth said, putting a hand on his shoulder and pushing him down on a chair. "We have a signal system — I'm sure Rodney will tell you all about it one of these days. Now, hold still."

John held still, because the razor was in her hand already. She had a light, deft touch, and it seemed to John that she was taking even more care than usual. He pressed his lips together and closed his eyes until she was finished. He heard quiet footsteps in the background, and the clink of pots and crockery.

"I'll just put it down here," Arison said, and John opened his eyes again just as Elizabeth wiped the razor clean for the final time and laid it aside. There was a mug on the table now, with a delicate curl of steam rising from it.

Elizabeth looked him up and down. "You should go and change your clothes. Just drink up first." She handed him the mug. It was full of what looked like just plain hot water, and John could feel the smell rising from it, something faintly sweet and something faintly bitter.

He looked up at Elizabeth, but she'd already turned away to say something to Arison, and the line of her throat and jaw was smooth and lovely. The razor was lying on the table by John's elbow.

Ronon and Rodney were coming down from the crossroad with ten soldiers on horseback, and they would be here soon.

John took a deep breath and drank from the mug, felt the yara tea hot on his tongue, swallowed it all down.

* * *

He started to feel it when he was going up the stairs. His skin prickled as though someone were breathing against it, blowing soft hot air all over his body. When he steadied himself against the wall, the wood felt alive under his hand. Everything was still crisp and sharp, and now it turned him on, too.

John stripped naked, and he kind of wanted to stay naked, it felt so good. He found the tunic in the bathroom and pulled it on, shivering as the cloth slid over his skin. The leggings were on a chair in the bedroom, underneath a cushion and a cracked leather bracer. He had a little trouble doing the laces up; it was difficult to reach the backs of his thighs, and every time he felt the laces pull tight, he shivered.

While he was doing up the final knot, he heard them ride in, and he saw them through the window. Everyone dismounted, people came out of the barracks and up from the stables, and then John heard the door slam open downstairs, heard heavy footsteps and voices raised in greeting. Rodney was talking non-stop, sounding loud and annoyed and happy. Drawn by that sound, John went towards the stairs.

* * *

Even the hard, smooth stone of the kitchen floor under his knees was a sensual pleasure. "Too long," Rodney said indistinctly through a mouthful of bread and honey, fumbling his pants open one-handed. "I told you we should have brought him, but no, you had to be all stoic warrior about it."

"Better for him to stay here." Ronon had both hands free, so he'd already yanked his pants open, and John leaned forward and licked at the head of Ronon's cock, tasting leather. "He needed to learn a few things."

A hand caught his jaw, smearing him with honey, and urged him to move, and there was Rodney's cock instead, pushing into his mouth, and John was hungry for it, he was so damn—

He opened his mouth wider, feeling the head of Rodney's cock slide against his palate as he worked his tongue along the underside, and then Ronon grabbed him by the hair. They each had a hand on his head, turning him this way and that, taking turns to fuck his mouth.

At first they tasted different, and then everything started to blur. John was hot, he was molten, loose and pliable and easy under their touch. He wanted this, he wanted everything, he wanted them both at the same time — no, he couldn't fit more than the heads of their cocks into his mouth at the same time, but it made his hips twist, made him fuck air and the smooth weave of his tunic.

The blood pounded in John's ears, and he could barely hear Ronon cursing, low and fierce, and the soft everyday rattle and chop of Arison starting to prepare dinner over by the stove, calling for Elizabeth to bring something from the back store room. Some of the honey smeared on John's cheek got in his mouth, and the sudden sweetness made him moan around Rodney's cock, and then Rodney made a choked sound and shoved in hard and fast and flooded John's tongue with salt. Ronon pushed in right after, rocking slow and deep at first and then John sucked hard, swallowed, fucked his mouth on Ronon's cock until the air tightened hot and sweet around him and he came with a muffled scream.

"Holy blistering hell," Rodney said, a thousand miles away, and Ronon shot all over John's face.

* * *

"...wine?" Arison asked.

"Yeah, wine and water," Ronon said, while Rodney wiped John's face with the wettened corner of a kitchen towel. "And more pava fruit for after. He likes pava fruit, doesn't he?"

"Of course."

Ronon and Rodney sat down at the kitchen table, and John stayed on the floor, leaning his head against Rodney's leg. Now and then one of them reached down and fed him: a small chunk of bread, a mouthful of pava, a sip of wine. John licked his lips, pressed his mouth against the seam of Rodney's leather pants. He still wanted more.

* * *

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