"You know what today is, right?" Rodney asked. His mouth was mere inches from Daniel's, and the puffs of breath from each word caressed Daniel's mouth. A drop of sweat ran from behind Rodney's ear into the hollow of his collarbone as he shifted, the skin of his bare chest sliding against Daniel's and crushing the floral necklaces that hung around their neck, releasing their scent, somewhere between rose and lavender. Daniel knew his skin was flushing red from the heat surrounding him.
"It's your birthday," Daniel said, shifting his wrists slightly to try to take some of the pressure off his shoulders. It didn't hurt, quite, but there was a deep stretch going through his trapezius muscles and triceps. He had assumed the rope would chafe, but whatever the natives were using was made out of something like silk.
"Somehow I was hoping you'd forget," Rodney said. He looked up to where their wrists were tied together, with a cord suspended from the limb of the tree that stood on the cliff high overhead.
"I never forget your birthday," Daniel smiled at Rodney. Rodney glared back, and his mouth got thin and slanty in that way it always did when he was mad at Daniel. Daniel sighed and looked up again, trying to see the knot he was feeling with his fingers. Without his glasses, however, it was a forlorn hope, and he looked back at Rodney, trying to loosen their bonds by touch alone. "I brought a present for you."
"Like I'm ever going to see it," Rodney responded, as another blast of sweet-smelling steam erupted from the pit far below, enveloping them and the narrow wooden platform on which they stood. "We're going to wind up par-boiled here. Or dead of sun poisoning."
Another bead of sweat trickled down Rodney's throat, and Daniel followed its path down Rodney's chest for a moment, seeing the knot in his mind. If he could just get a different angle on it...
He tried to shift forward a little, pressing his chest against Rodney's. The flowers released another burst of scent, and Daniel sniffled, feeling a tickle in his sinuses. Rodney leaned back a little, and his frown deepened. "Hey!" he said. "What are you trying to do, shove me to my death?"
"They've got our wrists tied up," Daniel said. "If you slipped, you wouldn't fall."
"Great. Because the only thing that would be better than dying by geothermal eruption would be dying by geothermal eruption with my shoulders dislocated," Rodney snapped back. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and Daniel could feel the slippery slide of Rodney's thighs on his.
For a moment Daniel's thoughts drifted to other things. Then, with a blink, he concentrated as hard as he could on the knot above them. "Someone will come for us," he said confidently.
"Might I remind you of your last transmission to Weir? 'The people here are very friendly. No, we don't need backup. Rodney and I will be just fine. We'll contact you in fourteen hours.' You didn't mention this part of the native festivities!" The rope cut short his angry arm-waving, turning it into a little back-and-forth twitching.
"They said this was some sort of ritual preparation," Daniel responded.
"Ritual preparation? They trussed us up like a Christmas roast, and threw a whole lot of tasty herbs into the steam pit. We're in a giant crockpot. They're ritually preparing us for dinner!" Rodney said. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, and Daniel tried to ignore the way his angry motion rubbed bits of the two of them together. "I should have never let you bring me here. Why did you ask me? Why didn't you bring Pribusauskas, or one of the other cultural specialists?"
Daniel shrugged. "John said you've been spending all your time in the lab. I thought you needed to get off Atlantis for a little while. Besides, we've barely seen each other lately."
"Great. I get to spend my last birthday being steamed to death because you wanted to spend quality time together," Rodney said. "Seen enough of me yet?"
Daniel tried shifting back a little, to get more space, but could feel his heel hovering over the empty air at the edge of the platform. "You've lost weight. Have you been working out?"
"Self-defense every morning with Teyla," he said. "The sadist." He paused. "You think so?"
Daniel looked over Rodney's arms and shoulders; the position made the recently developed muscle definition more visible. He didn't look like the poster boy for Gold's Gym and probably never would, but functional strength looked good on him. "Yeah. I hadn't noticed before, but -"
"You're trying to distract me!" Rodney said, shaking his arms in their bonds and leaning forward slightly, pressing into Daniel, who could hear flute music, with a steady beat behind it, coming from down the hill. "We're about to die here, Daniel, and you..." His hips shifted a little, and he looked down, then back up at Daniel, whose cheeks had gone even redder. "I can't believe this. Even the thought of our imminent death doesn't stop you. No wonder you've got a thing with O'Neill. What, do you have a danger fetish?"
"We're sweaty, naked and pressed together," Daniel said through gritted teeth, as the flutes got louder. "It's biological." The tension on his wrists suddenly slackened, and he looked up to see the rope which had been looped over the tree falling toward them. They both lowered their arms. As the rope fell past them into the pit, the knot suddenly untied, and with a last caress, their bonds slipped away and slid off the platform.
Daniel and Rodney looked to the side to see the tribe's headman, his entourage trailing behind, lowering a plank to connect the platform to the land they stood on. With a broad smile, he waved the two men toward him.
"Maybe we weren't so tasty after all," Rodney said, stepping along the plank to the hillside. He rolled both his shoulders. "Hey, my backache is gone. I wish I was going to be around to enjoy it." He looked over his shoulder. Daniel didn't move. "Coming?" Rodney asked impatiently.
Daniel looked down at the plank, and at the huge drop below. "You know I'm not good with heights," he muttered, wishing he had the rope back.
Rodney rolled his eyes, then stepped back on the plank, holding out a hand. "Come on, wonder boy. You sleep with O'Neill every night. What are you afraid of? It's three steps," Rodney said. "Three steps, no more steam-cleaning. Come on."
Daniel looked into Rodney's eyes and stepped across to take his hand, holding his breath until he'd made it to the other side. When he had, burly members of the tribe grabbed each of his arm and began marching him, in a stately fashion, down the path. The headman trailed behind, and Daniel tried to figure out whether the order they walked in was due to ascribed status of the individual, or the function of each person. Was the rear of the group considered the honored place among this tribe?
"You know what I did for my birthday for the last six years?" Rodney asked from behind him. "I stayed home, ate a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk, rented movies, and celebrated the fact that you weren't there to make my birthday a living example of chaos theory like you had every year since I was 19."
"What was wrong with your nineteenth birthday?" Daniel asked.
The were pulled to a halt in front of a black, glossy pool, and their captors removed the crushed leis from their necks. Rodney glared at him around the behemoth that stood between them. "Let's see. Was it the part where I got my jacket stolen on the Tube? Or the part where I wound up puking from alcohol poisoning in a back alley in SoHo? Or - wait, I know. Maybe it was the part where we had to spend the entire night huddled in a park sharing your jacket because we'd missed the last train home!"
The woman at Daniel's elbow uttered a few mellifluous syllables. "Close your eyes. And hold your breath," Daniel said.
"What?" Rodney said, just before the man behind him shoved him into the dark pool.
Daniel felt the hands on his back. "I get the idea," he said, and jumped in, splashing Rodney as the other man came up for air.
The greasy mud blocked all sound for a moment. When Daniel came up again, wiping the mud from his eyes, Rodney was continuing his rant. Daniel wondered if he'd even stopped when he was under the mud. "And I got to end that one lying in a hospital bed!" Rodney said, the gray-blue of his eyes standing out against the black of the mud.
"You thanked me for that one," Daniel pointed out. "Your parents didn't speak to you for five years after that. They just sent you checks."
"Which you," Rodney said, as the burly men lifted him out of the mud pit, "had the brilliant idea to use next year on a trip to Greece."
"What was wrong with Greece?" Daniel asked indignantly as a muscular man reached down to help him out. He wasn't sure if the hand on his ass was meant as an assist, or a come-on. "We went swimming in October! I even played translator for you."
"Yeah, whenever you weren't picking up a new guy at a bar to bring back to the hostel!" Rodney said.
"I shared." They were guided to a small grassy clearing. Daniel noticed as he walked that the mud was drying, flaking off and leaving a trail behind them.
"One word, Daniel," Rodney said. "Crabs. Oh, wait, here's another - Cyprus."
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Daniel sighed.
"'Let's go to Cyprus, Rodney! It'll be cheap!' Of course, because war zones are always cheap!" Rodney spat.
"There hadn't been open hostilities there since 1974," Daniel said.
The group moved toward a large stone platform in the center of the clearing. The flute and drum accompaniment was joined by a chorus of voices that began a low, rhythmic chant.
"Yeah, until you decided you'd found the perfect beach."
"It was beautiful!" Daniel said.
"It was on the demilitarized zone between Greece and Turkey!" Rodney shouted back, an explosion of dried mud flakes falling from his face. "You and me in the water - naked, I might add, which started a trend for my birthdays - surrounded by fifty black-clad Turks with machine guns."
The headman cleared his throat. Rodney rounded on him. "Fine!" he said. "You've got us at the altar. What is this, ritual sacrifice time?"
In return, the headman smiled again, bowed his head, and gestured to the stone platform, speaking a rush of liquid syllables.
"He says this is the final part of the preparation," Daniel said, "and that we will be tended to when we lie down on the stone."
"Care to vague that up for me a little more?" Rodney asked as they climbed onto the stone platform. Two burly men, including the one who'd felt Daniel up at the mud pit, climbed up after them, and guided them onto their stomachs. Rodney turned his head to look at Daniel, his cheek pressed against the warm stone. "If this ends with public sex, I'm going to tell Carson you've been infected with an alien tapeworm."
The music slowed to a low, quiet, meditative drone. Daniel's view of Rodney was blocked by a big, gnarled foot. Suddenly, he felt a column of pressure on his back, and his arm was lifted behind him. The wedge of muscles on the inside of his shoulder blade, the ones Jack had been trying for weeks to work the kinks out of, suddenly twisted and relaxed, the constant background pain suddenly disappearing.
"Hey!" he heard Rodney yell. Craning his neck, he could see the other guard had one foot planted firmly on Rodney's butt, and was reaching down to lift him up by the shoulders. "Oh God. This is like being drawn and quartered, only slower."
The burly man working on Daniel lowered Daniel's arm back to the stone, and Daniel felt the weight leave the center of his back. Then he felt a heavy pressure above both his hips, shifting back and forth as the man moved his knees. Two large hands planted themselves in the middle of Daniel's back, and for a moment Daniel felt like the man was trying to push Daniel's body into the stone. The air went out of him with a grunt, and he felt a couple more vertebrae pop into place. The man released the pressure on his back, and Daniel breathed in quickly. When he pushed down again, Daniel said with a whoosh, "Rodney, I have a theory."
"What?" Rodney said tightly. The man working on him had slipped both of his arms under Rodney's shoulders, and was pulling back first with one arm, and then with the other.
"Have you ever had Thai massage?" Daniel asked, as he felt more muscles through his back loosen.
"No. Why?" Rodney moaned as he was shaken like a doll.
"There's a great deal of similarity between this and traditional Thai methods of muscle work," Daniel said. "It involves a great deal of body contact on the part of the masseuse, and the use of the knees, elbows - the weight of the body - in order to remove the tension stored in the limbs."
Rodney groaned wordlessly as the muscular bodywork expert placed an elbow along either side of his spine and slid both of them up toward Rodney's neck.
Daniel's masseuse pushed Daniel's legs apart. Daniel felt him sit in between him, and then felt pressure on his buttocks as the man began pushing against them with his heels. "Steam is a traditional element of ritual bathing and relaxation for many cultures," Daniel said. "The rope may have been there largely as a safety measure. Mud baths were used as a skin-clarifying technique even in ancient Egypt."
Rodney let out a little "whuff" as he was lowered back to the stone. "I can't believe this. For my birthday you brought me to Spa Planet."
Daniel moaned as his masseur applied a little more pressure, and his entire spinal column seemed to snap into place.
After several more minutes of chanting, moaning, pummeling and strange, occasionally obscene body positions, Daniel and Rodney were robed in bright silk sarongs, given floral crowns, and carried in an ornate palanquin to the shore. They pulled back the curtains and emerged to discover the party had begun long ago; a feast was piled on a table, something that looked like a cross between a chicken and a rhino was roasting over an open fire, and the people of the village were laughing, talking and dancing.
"Your birthdays have been boring for the past six years, haven't they?" Daniel asked Rodney as they walked through the crowd, greeted with smiles and flower necklaces.
"You have no idea," Rodney said, shaking his head. A woman walking by placed a chain of nearly fluorescent bright-pink flowers to the pile around his neck; the hair on his chest peeked out between the riot of blossoms that rested there. "Do you think these are like Mardi Gras beads?" he asked, fingering the petals.
Another passerby handed Daniel a cup full of warm brown liquid. He sniffed cautiously, then sipped at it. "Oh my God," he said, shocked.
"What?" Rodney said, an anxious look in his eyes. Wordlessly, Daniel handed him the cup. Rodney took a sip. A huge smile broke out on his face. "Chocolate?" he asked.
"Happy birthday," Daniel grinned back, then leaned close to bump him gently with a shoulder. "Let's make sure you don't eat any citrus. I'll be your food-taster."
As they walked toward the buffet table, Rodney said, "You've got presents for me back at the tent, right?"
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