Un Ballo in Maschera(now with +70% more
John/Rodney, Elizabeth, Ronon.
Written for my enname's birthday (halfayearago). Original beta by crysothemis, omegad by me to twice its original size in the meantime, and repeatedly gamma-//delta-//epsyloned by the poor birthday girl herself.
When Sheppard's team heard that the cousin of a trusted trader's friend's sister's husband might have seen Teyla only a week ago, they breathed a cautious sigh of relief. The problem was that said cousin was a Manarian, as was the friend's sister's husband. In the end, Elizabeth agreed to meet them on their home-world, at a large public gathering, both to avoid suspicion and to follow up on any further leads.
It was early evening when they arrived at their Manarian liaison’s home, a rather large brick building. Sheppard and Elizabeth were hurried off to get changed into the clothes they had previously arranged for, leaving by the back door in a matter of minutes.
The sun sank fast on this planet, and Rodney got bored even faster. Ronon had already been bored the moment their team-mates left; nothing but the fact that an invite to the proctor's party was for a male-female couple only (and that nobody could find him a suit that fit) convinced him to stay behind. Barely. There had been stern looks from Sheppard and Elizabeth involved.
Their host had provided them with a nice dinner, his servants had lit a cosy fire, and while Ronon alternately paced the nice carpet to shreds and stared at the clock, Rodney played with his PDA and wished he hadn't agreed to come along (or at least had installed some new games on the device).
Two hours into the tedious waiting, the butler caught the eldest daughter of the house sneaking down the back staircase with her boyfriend, and that's how Rodney found out the big social event that Sheppard had gone to was a costume party.
In the meantime, Ronon hadn't found anything in the pantry to his liking and really, it was Sheppard's fault for taking them this far and then leaving them behind with nothing to do in a house that didn't even have electricity, and perhaps that cider Rodney had been sharing with Ronon wasn't quite non-alcoholic, but together they browbeat the kids into helping them dress up, claimed their forged invite and then hurried to the, well, ball.
Despite the short distance to the proctor's residence, they managed to get lost at least twice, although they also assured each other of the fine qualities they possessed and the eternal friendship between them. The lateness of the hour was in their favour, as they easily snuck into the residence alongside a few returning couples.
Rodney would later try to get Sheppard to see the humour of gate crashing an alien party, but when he spotted the colonel's slim figure in the crowd, recognisable even in the well-tailored jacket and the obligatory half-mask, he suddenly felt a bit silly and ducked behind Ronon. Which – again - wasn't one of Rodney’s smartest moves, considering Ronon was the tallest person in the building, but luckily Sheppard hadn't turned their way.
Luck stayed with the two gatecrashers, because a group of taller men wearing very high hats with their colourful costumes arrived shortly after them, and Ronon started to blend in a bit more.
Rodney's costume made him stand taller as well, and though it pinched a bit, he appreciated the camouflage it offered. It was ideal for keeping away others from his plate once he'd loaded it with goodies from the buffet table and started to carefully munch his way through them. The mounds of grilled meat, piles of stuffed fowl, lakes of mysterious liquids that could be salad dressing, gravy, soup or dessert, and acres of bread and cake distracted Rodney for a while, but he was used to multitasking and his curiosity took him to the edge of the dance floor.
When he saw the movement of a familiar black-clad back in the crowd, he sidled behind a large fern thing and watched Sheppard dance with some native woman. Rodney was surprised to see that she was at least middle-aged, but then he had to admit that while he wasn't above accusing Sheppard of flirting with her as well, privately he knew that Sheppard always thought of their mission first, so she must be relevant to their plan.
The moves of the dance brought them closer to his hiding place. Rodney stopped eating and stared a bit. He wondered if it was really his Sheppard or just someone with a wig, because the man seemed a stranger. He moved with precision unlike his usual, often dorky gait, he held himself very straight despite not having been forced into an uncomfortable contraption like Rodney, and the eyes behind the mask looked much too dark.
At that moment a turn brought Sheppard face to face with Rodney, or rather the palm thing, and Rodney couldn't stop himself from shrinking back from the glittering depths in the masked face. Maybe he shouldn't have left that little white crook behind.
John had never been a good dancer, and the crash course taken before this mission hadn't really changed much about that, though it familiarised him with the local dances. He got through most of the ball without embarrassing himself or injuring his partners, mainly by treating it like any other physical exercise.Concentrate, put in your best effort, strain and endure. Don't think about what you must look like. Focus on making nice.
"How did you like that burning man in the garden?" Mastrema Plidan blinked up at him coquettishly.
"I'm afraid I must have missed that event." Slowly spinning around with her clinging to him, John scanned the ball room, seemingly careless. "So you enjoy watching acrobatics, or just fire-eaters?"
She chuckled as if he'd made the wittiest joke of the century. "I would say it was more a case of the fire eating man, but, hahaha, yes, I guess you could call him a fire-eater!"
John had been wary all evening, trying not to lose his edge in a crowd where he wasn't allowed to wear a gun, forced by the nature of the ball to actively seek body contact rather than take a tactical position. It took all his concentration to get the dance-steps right, keep up conversation that had to both lull his partner into false security and extract information at the same time, without ever getting inattentive to his surroundings or losing sight of Elizabeth. The last was the least of his worries, mostly because he couldn't help it, but it would have been comforting to know where his only ally in a throng of masked strangers was.
"Oh, that's a good one, fire as his last meal. I have to tell Henre."
While the mastrema prattled on, John's gaze quickly swept the room again. Elizabeth might be tall, but her slight figure wasn't easily discernible in the crowd - unlike the rather bigger lady who had seemed to have been watching John for the past few minutes and was now trying to ineffectively hide behind a palm frond.
"Hah, yes, dear Henre." Finally he seemed to be getting somewhere. "I've got an idea, Mastrema - maybe we can all get together some time, and I'll tell him myself?"
As John focused on his masked stalker ducking behind the greenery, trying to judge whether the strange woman posed a legitimate threat to their mission, her eyes grew large and panicked; they suddenly looked frighteningly familiar in all their blue, bug-eyed glory.
He couldn't help a "Ro-!" escaping his (promptly bitten) lips.
"Pardon me?" The mastrema's gaze had become alert and suspicious, and she was twisting her neck to see what John was looking at.
John felt the heat rise in his face, but he couldn't afford to dwell on whose fault his current predicament was, had to keep up appearances, had to stay cool. "Raw ... cucumbers! I just remembered having seen them at the buffet - they looked really interesting, very tasty, with that sauce?" He kept a firm grip on her, reluctant to take his eyes off what was definitely his - insane and wayward - team mate. In a dress.
"I don't know what you're talking about, I have never heard of these q-kumbahs before, Mr. Sheppard. You really are an odd one, aren't you." She slapped his shoulder in what was probably meant to be a playful manner, but made him flinch.
Before he could extricate himself, rush into the corner and beat Rodney to death with a miniature palm, the moves of the dance pattern carried John away again.
The little cucumber-thingies were stuffed with creamy blue gunk that both looked and tasted like avocado-Roquefort, and the fizzy purple drink nicely washed them down to make way for the giant roasted boar's crunchy shoulders. A great party indeed, thought -
“Rod-ney,” a voice hissed in a decidedly unfriendly manner.
Once he was sure he hadn't died from a heart attack, Rodney put down the remnants of his drink and turned around really slowly, glad that his mask was larger than Sheppard's and the frills covered the lower part of his face.
“Yes?” He thought he’d try wide-eyed innocence first, it couldn't hurt -
On the other hand, a look at Sheppard’s face made him think that perhaps hurt was still on the menu. Rodney gulped.
"What are you doing here, and more intriguingly -" Sheppard's voice turned deceptively sweet. "Why are you dressed as a shepherdess, McKay?"
Chin thrust forward, eyes and mouth narrowed; the colonel stared at him, obviously expecting some sort of reply. Rodney thought furiously about inventing a really convincing emergency necessitating his presence at the ball (dressed as a faux shepherdess), but failed at finding anything he might be able to pull off.
Rodney knew the precise moment Sheppard saw Ronon across the ballroom, because his thunderous mien turned thunderstruck. Before Rodney could seize the moment to escape, Sheppard had grabbed his hand.
“Ow, ow, ow, will you hmphhhh.”
“Is that Ronon in a monk’s costume?”
Rodney indicated with another "Hmph!" that since he had Sheppard's hand clamped over his mouth, he was unfortunately unable to reply.
Sheppard loosened his grip on Rodney's mouth.
“No?” Rodney couldn’t help adding, “He’s supposed to be a sort of friar.”
Sheppard seemed to have lost the power of speech for a moment, and then made an obscene looking circling gesture with his hand. “Did they ... has he ... did he have to-?”
“What? Oh my god no, they didn’t circumcise him! And anyway, since when are monks cut and how come you know Ronon wasn’t, or isn’t?”
Rodney freaking out always forced Sheppard to become the calm one, and the danger of discovery prevented him from the little head-slap that usually brought with it. He merely glowered at Rodney, which actually was a good look for him in the elegant, dark costume and hissed, “Tonsure! I meant to ask if they shaved his head.”
“Oh! That.” And then Rodney started snickering. Obviously the alcohol hadn’t been quite burned out of his system.
“That is so - you; to worry about his hair.” He reached out to pet Sheppard’s, but the colonel was a bit too tall for that. Maybe Rodney shouldn’t have balked at wearing heels after all.
They were in front of a floor-length mirror, Rodney trying to explain why stealing a costume, forging an invitation, dressing up as a woman and gate-crashing the alien planet's leader's party wasn't actually as bad as it sounded, when John saw Rodney's eyes comically widening. He had just enough time to quickly raise his hand and press Rodney's head against his collar to slightly muffle his horrified "Oh my god, I look so old" squawk.
Having looked around to make sure they hadn't been observed, John slowly let go of Rodney.
"Are you quite finished now? Or would you like to arouse some more attention?"
"...'said, I could be your mother," Rodney glumly pouted.
There was a definite air of Why Me and What Have I Ever Done To Deserve This around John, possibly tinged with wistful thoughts about being a stern, respected colonel whose team members wouldn't dream of pulling stunts like this one. Or could be shot if they did. But he wasn't, so John just sighed. Not very quietly, though.
"No, Mckay, you couldn't." Steering the cross-dressing troublemaker towards a more secluded corner, John added absentmindedly. "She was much taller than you."
"And stop hissing."
John had successfully stifled the amusement bubbling up his throat at the flushed face of his companion, earnestly bemoaning his lack of feminine beauty; but despite the mask Rodney must have sensed John's mirth, because he stepped on John's toe in what definitely was not an accident and flounced towards the nearest exit.
With increasing panic, John saw that Mastrema Plidan was one of the people Rodney bumped against in his flight. He hurried to her side, seeing their chances of finding Teyla, hell, their chances of getting out of here in one piece, dwindle with each flounce of McKay's.
"Please excuse us, Mastrema, my ... cousin has just had some very upsetting news, " he said with as much calm as he could muster, and was rewarded with an indulgent smile, and a reminder to call at the lady's house in the next couple of days.
Relieved, John went in pursuit of his "cousin". Thanks to his voluminous skirts, Rodney had got stuck in the throng for a moment, which was all the time John needed to catch up with him.
He expected him to feel at least a little bit guilty, if not mortified then at least sorry to have endangered them all, but this was Rodney, and everything about him radiated Hurt Feelings.
Sheppard was probably glowering at him behind his mask. His tiny tiny advantage in height over Rodney suddenly seemed more pronounced, the cut of his costume,and the black mask over his eyes transforming him into a stranger.
“You do make a rather ugly woman.”
“Yes? ... oh, well. Ok.”
Rodney thought he didn't really couldn't care less what Sheppard thought of his looks, let alone in a dress, but something else must have shown in his face, because Sheppard got that little line between his eyebrows and suddenly looked serious.
"You’re a man, McKay.”
“Yes, Colonel, thank you, obviously my big brain couldn’t cope with this costume and had already forgotten that for the past fou- ... thirty years I have, indeed, been a man.”
“What I meant to say, Rodney, was that you’re not meant to look pretty as a woman, okay?”
“Yes, I understood you the first time.” He might have sniffed.
“Oh for –“ Sheppard raked his hand through his hair and stared at Rodney for a moment, and then moved into a deep bow, which made Rodney look around in alarm for any approaching royalty he’d have to hide from to not risk their new deal.
When he turned back, Sheppard had straightened up and held out a hand.
Rodney decided gulping was a good option again.
Sheppard wasn’t inclined to wait forever, though, and simply grabbed his arm and dragged him onto the dance floor.
Since nobody would have believed he was doing this to avoid unpleasantness or to be polite, Rodney reasoned to himself that he was obviously too weak to put up a fight.
As Sheppard took one of Rodney's hands in his, relief and trepidation warred inside Rodney.
"It's some sort of waltz," Sheppard hissed into Rodney's ear. "Okay with that?" He slung his arm around Rodney's waist, the hard muscles pressing against his back.
"Oh yay," he mumbled, only half-mockingly. "The only dance I ever bothered to learn."
But for the very same reason, Rodney promptly started sweating, because he’d certainly never waltzed with a man before, and his bulky costume necessitated more than the usual pressing together of bodies.
"Forward, rise, down, forw-"
"Rodney, you're the lady, here, so I think -"
"Yes, yes ... backwards, rise, down, backwards, rise, down."
Whilst Rodney counted under his breath, he is absently noticing that Sheppard’s coat-sleeves had moved up to expose the frilled cuffs of his shirt. The soft lace kept falling back to reveal his slim wrist, skin too tanned to fit into a ballroom, though the contrast of the wiry joint to the white material bunching around it only made the sight more appealing.
Someone had gotten Sheppard to lose the wristband, only logical in the circumstances, but the unfamiliarity of his exposed wrists made the framing even more exotic. The skinwasn't noticeably paler than on his fingers or arm, which confused Rodney, who thought he'd never seen him go anywhere without that piece of terry-cloth , and had a very secret pet theory that Sheppard might take off his dog-tags at night, but showered with that silly wristband, and if he ever sunbathed in the nude -
"What are you doing?" Sheppard hissed. "Not there, your hand goes onto my shoulder - up, up!"
Rodney had tried to squeeze his arm under Sheppard's, where it lay on his hip, to mirror the gesture on Sheppard's waist.
Rodney tried to slip his hand onto Sheppard's shoulder - from behind, his arm still between Sheppard's arm and torso - until he realised he was basically hugging the other man too tightly for them to actually move. He did finally figure out that he had to untangle himself and put his own arm on top of Sheppard's in order to place his hand where it was meant to go. Rodney felt the hard bones of his shoulder girdle under his fingertips, his palm curved over the muscle of Sheppard's should, not big enough to span it. It seemed an achievement when all their limbs were in their proper, decent places, but some people always had to criticise -
"Ngh, not the Vulcan death grip, just - let it lie there."
He'd been unable to resist pressing down - it was an instinct! Scientists clicked and pressed what was under their fingers.
"People were starting to notice us, McKay." A slight press of Sheppard's hand against his ribs signalled a turn. "Really, what were you thinking!"
"Hm?" Still distracted, Rodney had been able to move into the dance without freezing up or stumbling over either of their feet. Pleased with himself, he grinned at Sheppard, who probably rolled his eyes at him, if the momentary absence of reflection behind his mask was anything to go by.
"Try to behave nat- ... just try to behave."
Rodney opened and closed his mouth, realising even in his pleasantly inebriated state that he didn't have a leg to stand on. Metaphorically, he quickly added to his mental ledger, but it was already too late, mind and body conspiring against him again, and only Sheppard's quick reaction and hard grasp kept him from stumbling.
"Let me rephrase that, in case I wasn't clear: don't endanger the mission, Mckay. At least not any further than you already have." Sheppard's grave tone was belied by the flash of white teeth in his shadowed face as he solemnly added, "Think womanly thoughts or something."
Rodney pondered stepping on Sheppard's toes (again), but that would just make him look clumsy and arouse unwanted attention. So far, the crush on the dance floor had hidden their rather peculiar style of "waltzing".
To his surprise, they moved quite easily through the other dancers. Perhaps it only felt that way because Rodney was still nicely tipsy, but the swaying of his body was controlled and harmonious, nothing like a drunk stumble. The lines their movement created within the shifting circles of other pairs, confined by the walls of the rectangular room, made a strange sort of sense. Sheppard's arm in his back, his body pressing against Rodney's, their fingers entwined, it all felt natural. Even the music, though unfamiliar, dovetailed nicely.
A slight twitch of the long fingers wrapped around his own pulled Rodney back into his body and onto the dance floor. "What did you say?"
Sheppard's face was unreadable. "I just said that the cap suits you."
"Perhaps not all those frills? You're not the lacy type; but otherwise it's rather fetching."
"Oh, shut up already," Rodney griped without any real malice. He tried to concentrate on the music and the unfamiliar moves, although they kept doing surprisingly well - nothing to win them any prizes, but neither did they draw undue attention to themselves.
The fizzy purple stuff might have helped by loosening Rodney up sufficiently; he started to enjoy spinning around, skirts billowing slightly around his legs if Sheppard whirled properly, which he didn't do often enough.
Rodney might have hummed a bit; he started drumming the fingers of his free hand absentmindedly to the music, until Sheppard pointedly said, "Ow."
Even then it took Rodney a while to figure out that he'd once more used the endpoint of Sheppard's shoulder girdle to play on, and that the conveniently hard surface under the fancy jacket was really a sensitive joint.
He couldn't move his hand away, locked in position as they were, and he was uncomfortably, inexorably aware that underneath all the stiff fabric, there was a man of flesh and bone - whom he had been fondling. There was enough fabric between them, but Rodney still felt Sheppard's bony knee bumping into his leg from time to time, and the fact that that was oddly reassuring started to worry him.Once again Rodney was glad his mask covered his cheeks as well, and that Sheppard broke the odd silence.
"You still haven't told me why you're in this dress. Although after seeing Ronon in his ..."
"He's wearing a frock, Colonel."
"My point exactly." Sheppard's lips twitched. He shifted the pressure of his hand, and they executed a neat turn.
Rodney thought it was a good time to change the subject. "So, does anybody here know about Teyla? Did you find out anything - without alerting them to us, I hope?"
"Glad to see you haven't completely forgotten why we're here."
"I'll apologise when I'm sober." Rodney noticed how Sheppard's mouth mirrored his own for a moment. "Well, ok, I probably won't, but tell me your news anyway."
"No direct confirmation yet, but I've got a few leads, and I don't think the proctor noticed which party we came with, so our contacts are in the clear."
"That's good, good." He managed to refrain from patting Sheppard's shoulder, just squeezed the firm curve under his fingers this time.
"Not really; I'm still hoping Elizabeth had more luck." Sheppard's lips flattened into a grim line, fine creases gathering in its corners. As if he'd already spent too much time looking at Rodney, his eyes flickered left and right, scanning their surroundings.
Hypnotised by their quiet conversation, the closeness and the way they moved together, Rodney felt the urge to say something else before the dance ended, before he sobered up again, but it was already too late. He felt hard muscles tense under his hands; the arm pressed against his back tightened minutely.
"Sheppard. Trouble." Ronon had managed to appear next to them silent as always, Elizabeth on his side.
She was uncharacteristically short spoken, too, throwing a, "We have to leave. Now!" over her shoulder as she followed Ronon's retreat to the nearest exit.
Rodney felt frozen for a moment, like he was ensconed in molasses and someone tried to drag him out of it. Then time sped up again, snapping him out of wherever he'd been and into sobriety. Rodney and Sheppard turned as one to hurry after their team, hindered by broad shoulders and bulky skirts, ignoring the outraged whispers of the people whose dance they interrupted. They made it down the stairs and across the large entrance hall before anybody tried to halt them.
At the door, Ronon knocked down a liveried man that might have been a butler or a guard, then jumped down the steps three at a time, sandals slapping loudly against the stone. Elizabeth didn't bat an eyelid and ran after him as fast as her shorter stride allowed.
"Now would be a great time to tear off those skirts," Rodney huffed, ripping off his mask while trying to catch up with her.
"Tried it. Harder than it looks in the movies."
Rodney had to concede she was right, since he didn't even manage to get a single hook open, and the material was definitely tear-proof.
Sheppard grabbed his elbow, nearly dislocating his shoulder as he tugged him along. "Hurry, no time for that now." Of course he wasn't even out of breath.
"You know," huff. "You should," huff. "Really. Carry me."
They had fallen behind Ronon, and Rodney could hear their pursuers getting closer, but that actually slowed Sheppard for a moment. Rodney could see one eyebrow arch over the top of Sheppard's mask as he turned his head.
"I was only kidd-"
But Sheppard had already moved his vice-like grip from Rodney's elbow, to sling his arm around Rodney's cinched waist again, much like only a few minutes ago in decidedly friendlier (if not necessarily more relaxed) circumstances.
"Rodney, I don't have my gun, and we really, really have to run, so you have to keep up."
And with that they sped up again hip-to-hip. in what should have been an awkward three-legged race, except somehow the strength from Sheppard's body seeped into Rodney, who no longer felt as out of breath or constricted by his costume.
The leg-room under his skirts helped where the tightness of Sheppard's pants had to be a hindrance. Rodney kept his eyes down, trusting Sheppard to steer them in the right direction, and was fascinatedby the way his long thigh-muscles bunched at every step.
For once they didn't have to run over fields or through thickets, and while the streets provided less shelter, Rodney vastly preferred their hard, level surface to treacherous soil. They soon galloped in perfect sync, rounding the corner behind the last town-house and nearly crashing into Ronon, who had the gall to grin at them in such dire circumstances.
Rodney still had enough breath to snap, "What!"
"Nothing." He easily fell into step with them, pointing ahead into thin air. "Jumper's ready."
"Yes, I know where we parked it."
A minute later, the four of them were safely hidden in the cloaked jumper, which Sheppard levitated quickly above the tree line to make sure no eager search party ran into it in the dark.
"We should wait for them to settle down again before we activate the gate," Elizabeth suggested, and he nodded and stalled the jumper again.
"Hah, these guys aren't smart enough to check there." Oddly enough, Rodney felt rather good. All the exercise, the dancing and the running, had burned off the alcohol, and adrenalin was coursing through his veins. He was going to go into a happy recap - what lesser people might call a rant - when he noticed the black looks Elizabeth was shooting him, and remembered their little party crashing.
"So, um, did you manage to get any info about Teyla?" he asked her meekly.
Elizabeth's face lost its threatening look, but remained tense. "No. The moment they realised who we were looking for, people clammed up or got suspicious."
"Which means we're definitely on the right track."
"Yes, John - but thanks to Rodney and Ronon and their idea of fun in the middle of a mission, we won't be able to pursue it any further."
"Hey, that's not fair, you ... we ... they didn't even notice us!"
Ronon grumbled wordlessly in support of Rodney's protest.
Elizabeth deflated and looked small and lost in the middle of her crinolines. "Well, either way we won't get any more information out of these people."
"Chin up, Mademoiselle." Sheppard put on a fake French accent and briefly squeezed Elizabeth's shoulder. For a split-second, Rodney missed the warmth of his arm, then promptly forgot the feeling.
"The last lady I had the pleasure of dancing with was more forthcoming. We'll just wait another day or two and get in contact with them again." Sheppard gave each of them his earnest pep-talk look. "We'll find her."
Rodney opened his mouth to add his comments on "lady" and "pleasure", but Sheppard's eyes were still on his face, and Rodney remembered who else Sheppard had been dancing with and just said, "You've still got your mask on."
Sheppard started fumbling at the back of his head. "I couldn't get if off earlier." He fingered the tightly knotted cloth to no avail. "I - don't know -"
Elizabeth had her eyes closed, her head against the back wall for a brief rest, and Ronon was likely to pull out a knife, so Rodney pushed Sheppard's fingers out of the way and got to work.
The thin strings of the silk mask must have gotten tangled with Sheppard's hair when he'd first tied it, so Rodney moved him directly under one of the jumper's lights, made him sit down and bend his head while Rodney carefully picked the small knots apart.
Sheppard was surprisingly quiescent - not that Rodney expected the sort of yelps and griping he'd have emitted if someone were pulling at his hair, or that Rodney was doing a lot of pulling, but in the normal order of things Sheppard might be whining or teasing him while Rodney would be insulting his brains, grooming and/or looks.
Instead they got through the untangling process quietly, peacefully, until Ronon grumbled, "I want my coat back."
"Yes, Ronon, I told you - we'll come back. Later!"
"Also that whole sackcloth-and-ashes is a good look on you. Might want to change your style from time to time," Rodney had to add.
Ronon glowered at him, then proclaimed, "You two are, like, a Sheppard and his shepherdess!"
Sheppard snorted into his ruffles. Rodney, who'd been about to utter a devastating repartee, watched his little head-duck smile and decided to be a bigger man, and ignore the caveman.
The oddly serene mood was broken, though. They quickly helped each other out of the bulk of their costumes, checked that the coast (or orchard, to be precise) was clear and flew home.
ETA: another illustration/cover art