John pushed his glasses up on his nose with one finger as the familiar whoosh of the wormhole settled back to the rippling blue watery effect of the event horizon. He glanced impatiently at Rod as the man exchanged one last friendly word with one of the marines on duty, resisting the urge to tap his foot in annoyance as he knew it wouldn't gain him anything more than a grin from Rod. The man was unflappable; coasting through life like it was his own personal fairground, ferris wheel included. The bright smile and twinkling blue eyes fell back on him and, if anything, that smile grew just a little wider, as if Rod could sense his irritation. John decided not to bother denying how he felt.
"If you've finished with today's social calendar, then maybe we can get this mission on the way."
"Hot date in the lab, Sheppard?"
The grin was broader than ever and John really, really hated him...except not really, and that was the main problem. He didn't hate Rod at all. What he hated was having to share Rod with all the others seeking Rod's attention on Atlantis. He hated being one of the fawning masses, and he bucked against every lustful, needy, craving thought that trickled through his mind and body. Let the others fawn over the man, he thought viciously, rolling his eyes in mock disdain.
"As it so happens... I do." Was that a twitch in the man's eye? It was gone so quickly that John would have missed it had he not been looking directly into those amazingly blue eyes at that very moment. "I have a theory on calibrating the Naquadah generators that could yield a two point eight increase in efficiency."
"Two point eight? Sounds...exciting." John narrowed his eyes at the teasing grin, shaking his head as Rod clapped his hands together. "Time's a-wasting, boys and girls," before turning away and striding towards the event horizon, waving jauntily to Elizabeth just before crossing the threshold. John followed, stepping into the wormhole with Teyla at his side and Ronon at his back.
The other side of the wormhole was not the usual green meadow surrounded, in the distance, by woodland. There were no coniferous pines stretching up into the sky, no long blades of grass swaying in the gentle breeze. Instead, the world as far as John could see was a barren wasteland of cracked red earth, exactly as they expected from the MALP images sent back an hour earlier. If there was anyone waiting in ambush then John had to admire their camouflage ability, though Ronon's posture did not seem to concur with his own opinion that this godforsaken place was uninhabited. However, as the Satedan rarely looked at ease off-world, as if anticipating the arrival of the Wraith at any moment, John ignored him. At least he tried to ignore Ronon, but nagging doubts began to crowd his head.
He knew the moment of unease was because it was theoretically possible. If the Wraith had a hive ship on the planet or in orbit, then the Stargate activity might attract their attention. He glanced nervously into the slightly orange-tinged sky but saw nothing.
The Stargate closed down behind him and John looked back over his shoulder as he heard the dialing sequence, turning fully to watch Rod send the MALP back through to Atlantis. Once the Stargate closed down for a second time, John sighed heavily, aware that there was no going back now. He pulled out his modified PDA and swung it in an arc, picking up faint energy readings that could be something - or nothing at all. All they had to go on was a gate address given to them by a ten thousand-year-old Elizabeth Weir, an address that might contain one of the ZPMs hidden across the galaxy before the Ancients fled the Pegasus galaxy.
John noticed that Rod had his own modified Ancient device in hand and was walking a slow circle, stopping abruptly when he found the same faint energy signal. John raised an eyebrow at the questioning look, confirming the direction, and he felt his lips twitch in response to the warm smile that played about Rod's lips and deepened the intensity of his blue eyes.
"Okay, let's get this show on the road," Rod called back and started moving, all of them falling into the familiar team pattern with Teyla taking point, followed by Rod, and John protected in the middle with Ronon at his back.
As the sun rose higher, the heat climbed with it, and John regretted his choice of clothing. The long sleeved t-shirt would protect his arms, but the jacket was heavy and stifling, with the TAC vest making it all the more uncomfortable. Rod, of course, had managed to correctly guess, wearing just a simple olive-green t-shirt under his TAC vest. He called a halt and offered some of his obnoxious-smelling SPF100 sunscreen to everyone, and John felt too annoyed and petty to accept, shaking his head and resettling his photochromatic glasses. Rod took the refusal with a smile and slathered the sunscreen onto his fair skin, hands trailing over biceps and forearms in long sweeping strokes that dragged a twitch of arousal from deep in John's belly. John swore under his breath and looked away, not wanting to watch those agile fingers caress the lines of cheek and forehead, not wanting to imagine following those teasing fingers with his own - or with his tongue and lips.
Ronon and Teyla had taken advantage of the short break, drawing a small mouthful of tepid water and yet, when he glanced her way, he noticed Teyla watching him carefully, one sculptured eyebrow rising. He felt a flush of heat that had little to do with the soaring temperature, and turned away. After over a year as a team, he still did not know what to make of her, uncertain if he saw approval or disdain in her beautiful features. She rarely spoke to any of them, even to Rod, who was an honorary member of the Athosian Council but John couldn't imagine going to any world without her as part of the team.
They carried on walking, following the strengthening energy readings, but seeing nothing ahead of them except for the cracked surface of a desert world as clear as the horizon. If the readings had not been growing stronger with each step taken then John might have tried to convince Rod that they needed a gateship. Instead, he stopped and stared in confusion. According to his readings, they were extremely close and yet there was nothing here, unless it was buried beneath the hard-baked surface. He groaned silently at the thought of digging beneath the hot sun with no shade as far as the eye could see.
A flash of sunlight against metal was all the warning they had as figures jumped up from nowhere, sending out ululating cries meant to confuse the enemy, the sheer numbers overpowering them in seconds. John's last sight before tumbling into blackness, was the look of shock and fear on Rod's so-expressive face as he was grabbed by several of their attackers and forced to the ground.
Rod kept his cool as the guards dragged him towards the long, jagged trench, which blended so perfectly into the landscape that it was almost impossible to see until you fell into it. It deepened rapidly, with the surface becoming just a jagged piece of sky above his head. He tried to roll his shoulders against the pain of having his wrists tied firmly behind his back, but the guards merely tightened their grip on him, fingers biting into biceps. He could feel the trickle of blood mingling with sweat down his temple, from a blow sustained during the brief but useless fight. Ahead, several of the guards were dragging an unconscious Ronon, while Teyla walked with her face bloodied but her cold dignity intact. He could not see Sheppard, and the one attempt to glance over his shoulder to check if the scientist was behind him, had only led to more pain. At least he could hear someone being dragged behind him, and he had to assume it was Sheppard. He'd seen Sheppard take a blow to the back of the head and hoped the man's skull was truly as thick as Rod had cause to accuse him of on occasion.
It was almost a relief to be taken through a doorway carved into the rock, the coolness of the interior relieving the pounding headache just a little. A long walk down a cool passageway finally opened out into a large chamber, where a man looked up from a seat behind a desk to study the four of them. Ronon had come round, angrily attempting to shake off his guards without success, but Sheppard was still out cold.
"Send the men to the mines, and the woman to the breeding pens."
"Wait!" Rod yelled. "You might want to reconsider--"
The pain flaring in his back sent Rod to his knees and he yelped as someone grabbed him around the jaw from behind and pulled his head backwards, exposing his throat. The man from behind the desk stood up and walked around until he was standing directly in front of Rod, a wicked blade in his hand glinting in the torchlight. He pressed the tip against Rod's throat, and Rod felt a sharp pain followed by the uncomfortable trickle of blood; he knew the man could cut his throat with the flick of his wrist. If life had taught Rod one thing, it was when to keep his mouth shut and act submissive, and when to fight back with everything he possessed. This was a time for inaction, and he barely blinked when the knife receded.
"If you do not pull your weight then you will die." The man looked to his guards. "Take them away."
They were dragged deeper into the rock through a system of narrow cuts and galleys but a fork in one passageway saw Ronon pulled off in another direction, his protesting shouts lost in the twists and turns.
"Ronon! I'll find you!" he cried out as sharp pain blossomed against the side of his head once more.
"Worry more for yourself and this other. If he cannot load two tarak then he will not eat, and then he will die."
The man shoved him into another passageway that opened out into a large cave lined with skeletal figures with unkempt hair and ragged clothing. Some looked weak and sick, their eyes listless and ribs jutting through paper-thin skin. Sheppard was dropped to the hard ground, and the guards immediately scrabbled over his body, pulling off anything of value; equipment, clothing, even his boots, leaving him in a thin t-shirt and lurid boxers covered in Pi symbols that would have been ammunition for weeks of teasing. Rod prepared himself for the same, losing most of his possessions but managing to fight off the attempt to take his pants. He winced as the Ancient detector was shaken, considered broken and flung against a rock face.
"Two tarak a day, or you do not eat." The man indicated towards several large woven baskets before kicking Sheppard's foot. "The same for him. Two tarak, or he does not eat."
The work was back-breaking, taking the full strength of his arms and shoulders to chip out large chunks with the pickax, but Rod could not afford to take it easy. He could not assume that someone from Atlantis would find them quickly, not if they hadn't a clue where to start looking. Nothing of this underground complex had registered on either the Earth or Ancient scanners, and Rod had a feeling that something in the rock was responsible for that. At any other time he would have been intrigued enough to examine the rock closer but others watched him carefully from the corners of their eyes, seeking a moment when he was distracted so they could steal rocks from his taraks. If he had enough to spare then he would have handed them across willingly but Sheppard had remained unresponsive beside him for several hours, only starting to come round a short time earlier; his eyes were unevenly dilated with concussion, and though he tried to focus, Rod knew he would have trouble doing so without his glasses. He had lost them some time between the initial fight and this dank, underground mine shaft.
Keeping a close eye on his and Sheppard's taraks, Rod squatted down in front of him and offered him a sip of tepid water.
"How're you doing?"
The sudden sting of a whip reminded Rod that the overseers had no compassion for those who would not - or could not - work. He hissed anew as he covered Sheppard with his own body, sheltering the concussed man from the lashing even though it meant pain for himself. He felt the leather cut through his thin t-shirt and into his back, felt the slick of blood running freely as he earned fiercer strokes for his interference. Eventually, a meaty hand reached down and shoved him aside, his back hitting the unyielding rock face, and a snarling face pushing close to his own in an attempt to intimidate, but Rod had faced down worse bullies in his life.
"Do not waste your breath, your back, your water and your food on him. He is as good as dead in this place." Rod lunged forward as the man grabbed at Sheppard's wrist, holding back when he realized the man wasn't about to drag Sheppard away. The man turned the hand over, gripping firmer as Sheppard tried to pull away weakly, his callused fingers rubbing along Sheppard's palm. "Soft and weak. The hands of a dead man." He dropped Sheppard's hand and stared at Rod. "You are stronger. You might survive this place if you rid yourself of his dead weight."
Rod flinched as the whip rose again, blinking rapidly when he did not feel it bite into his flesh. Instead, another voice cried out in pain from behind him.
"Fill your own taraks," the guard spat at the potential thief. The guard looked to Rod again. "I give you this one but, next time, I will not stop a thief from taking from you."
Hours seemed to pass before Rod heard a warbling noise and noticed all the other workers putting down their tools. New men appeared, bigger, stronger men who hauled away each tarak. Pitiful cries rang out from those that had not met their quota, the snap of the whip quieting the cries of the most desperate beggars into whimpers of pain. His eyes widened as Ronon appeared, silent communication passing in the swift eye contact; words that said, 'I know where to find you now'. Rod had managed to fill only two and a half tarak during the long hours, and might have made the full amount if he had started with a whole day but that counted for nothing here. He made no comment as he took the food and water that was barely enough for one man, having already seen how harshly the guards dealt with those who begged for at least a small percentage of the food for what they had managed to collect that day. The guard moved on and Ronon leaned in as if trying to settle the heavy tarak. A chunk of bread fell into Rod's lap and he covered it quickly, nodding in gratitude but trying, at the same time, to warn Ronon not to give up too much food. One of them had to keep up their strength in case an opportunity for escape arose.
Rod noticed that the slaves slept where they had worked all day, gaining barely enough time to bolt down the meager food before the lights dimmed to near pitch black.
"Sheppard?" He whispered, and reached out to where he knew the man was lying. His fingers encountered the thin cotton of his black t-shirt. "You have to eat something." He pushed a crust of bread into Sheppard's hand, closing the man's fist around it and pushing the hand towards Sheppard's mouth when felt no movement. "Sheppard," he whispered harshly, almost giving in to the temptation to shake the man.
"Rod?" The voice was weak and a little confused, the next words confirming that to Rod. "Where are we? Why's it so dark in here? I-I can't turn on the lights."
"It's okay. Just...eat the bread and rest."
The night passed too slowly and yet it still wasn't long enough. He had rested with his sore back against the cold rock, pulling Sheppard against his chest, his legs drawn up to brace the other man. He felt the weight of Sheppard's head lolling into the curve between neck and shoulder, the spiky hair soft against his cheek, and he wrapped his arms around the injured man, trying to keep them both warm. Rod tried to catch snatches of sleep, almost grateful though, to the unfamiliar sounds around him that awoke him at intervals. Each time, he let his body clock give him an idea of how long he had slept so he could decide whether or not to awaken Sheppard. Each time he tried, he gained a grumpy answer that relieved a little of his fear that Sheppard - that John - might die in his arms during the night.
Other times, a strange noise came a little too close for comfort, and he tightened his hand on the small pickax, prepared to defend John and himself.
A thud and a gurgled whimper came from ten feet over, followed by the scrabble of hands searching a body. A shadow loomed close by, barely discernible in the darkness, the meager light catching the faint glimmer across dulled metal as it arced towards him. Rod pushed John aside, the pickax striking rock behind his head, cursing his stupidity in reducing his freedom of movement with the weight of John's body against him. The movement awoke John, his annoyed words washing over Rod even as Rod hefted his pickax and swung it to where he sensed his attacker was standing, lips curling in a vicious smile as he struck flesh, tearing a cry of pain from his assailant. No longer hampered by John's weight, he pushed to a crouching position, using every sense to seek out his opponent, and striking again without remorse, knowing this man had sought to slay them in their sleep under cover of darkness, to steal whatever clothing or food they still had on them. Rod heard the death rattle on the man's last breath and, planting his feet against the body, he pushed it away, hearing the body roll several feet before being set upon by others hunting in the darkness.
Rod stayed awake for the rest of the night, guarding John. He felt the pull of exhaustion on his body as the lights came back on to a dull but steady glow, revealing the shadowed world around him. A body lay sprawled ahead of him, stripped of all clothing, a pool of blood seeping into the ground beneath. The guard arrived a few minutes later and kicked the body to see if he could gain any reaction but Rod knew the man was dead, meeting the guard's calculating eyes without regret, but the nod of respect almost turned his stomach. The look of horror in John's knowing eyes almost caused him a moment of regret, but he looked away from the accusation. He had killed because he had to, to survive, to protect John, and for no other reason.
The body was dragged away, and Rod had the nasty thought that maybe their next meal would be made from what meat remained on that dead man's bones. He decided not to mention it to John, just in case the fastidious mathematician refused to eat the next pathetic offering.
The second day passed much like the first, except John helped out as much as he could, picking up the rocks that Rod chipped from the face and placing them into the taraks. They worked in unnatural silence, and Rod caught John staring at him from time to time, his pale face unreadable for once but, eventually, John must have come to the same logical conclusion as Rod, that the death had been a necessary evil.
"My hands are getting blisters on top of blisters," John moaned, and though it wasn't the acerbic diatribe that Rod had come to expect from John, at least the man was willing to ignore the pool of blood that had dried near his feet, and all it implied.
Rod stopped and grabbed the hem of his t-shirt, using the pickax to force a tear. He ripped the t-shirt, tearing a strip from the bottom, and then tore that into two pieces.
"Here. Give me your hands."
John seemed confused at first, but he offered up his hands, palms up, his eyebrows rising as Rod wrapped the cloth around each in turn, securing it carefully. He ignored the blisters on his own hands from wielding the pickax for hours on end and, instead, he kept his eyes lowered as he worked on John's hands, not wanting him to see how such a simple touch affected him so deeply. Part of him wished John was not quite so oblivious to the social cues surrounding him, wishing he would pick up on the desire to turn a budding friendship into something more.
It took a moment to notice he was still holding John's hands, and then to realize that John was allowing him this touch, his green-hazel eyes locked onto Rod's face and reading every thought and emotion that Rod was too tired to conceal. Rod let go, his attempt to laugh off the last minute failing miserably as John continued to stare in what Rod could only assume was shock.
Rod glanced up at the uncharacteristic gentleness in John's voice, watching as John rubbed at his eyes with the side of one bandaged hand. He guessed John must have one hell of a headache after that crack on the back of his head, and cursed the guards for taking all of their possessions, otherwise he could have offered John some Tylenol at least.
"Just keep filling those baskets, or we'll get sent to bed without supper."
"I wouldn't want to deprive you of a meal, McKay."
The retort lacked any heat or real humor but Rod laughed anyway because stale bread and a watery stew were not exactly haute cuisine, and even his stomach turned a little at the thought of where the small chunks of meat might have come from - animal or human. They had to eat though. They needed to keep up their strength so they could be ready to escape the first time someone let down their guard. Yesterday had been out of the question because of John's condition. Even though John was pale and shaking from the less arduous task of placing rock in the taraks, and sweating a little more than Rod liked, at least he was on his feet today. It did not stop the sadistic guard from targeting John every time he passed by, and Rod braced himself as the man returned, ready to place himself in the path of the whip to spare John any more suffering.
"So he still lives, and you might even fill four tarak today...but what of tomorrow and the next day? What will you do when hunger saps the strength from your arms, and you can barely fill two tarak between you? Will you share your meager food and grow even weaker, until you cannot fill even one tarak?"
The guard loomed over Rod, who had pushed John behind his shorter but broader frame, ignoring John's protests.
"Perhaps I should do you a favor and kill him for you now." The guard removed a knife from his belt, the blade cruelly curved and recently sharpened. The guard struck out suddenly with the thick handle of the whip, a glancing blow to Rod on the temple, knocking him sideways to the ground, as he lunged towards John with the knife. Rod swung a foot around, connecting with the back of the guard's knee and knocking him backwards off his feet, the air forced out of the guard's lungs in an explosive grunt. Using the momentum, Rod followed through with the rest of his body, rolling onto the man, one hand grabbing for the wrist holding the knife and grinding fine bones together to force the guard's hand to release the weapon, while the other wrapped around the guard's throat. He felt a meaty fist punch him in the side of the head, spots of light dancing before his eyes, but he held on tight, squeezing down on the guard's windpipe, feeling it crush beneath his weight as life fled the dark eyes.
Rod rolled off the large, sweaty body, panting hard as he dragged in lungfuls of air. He pushed to his hands and knees, having to take several gulps of air to curb the desire to puke, before reaching over the guard to pick up the knife. He glanced sideways at John.
"Guess we might have outstayed our welcome now."
John had dropped to the ground beside him, with fear and something else unreadable darkening his eyes. He was even paler now, with dark smudges of exhaustion and pain shadowing his eyes, and he looked so vulnerable without his glasses that Rod reached out without thinking, cupping one side of John's face. As soon as he realized what he was doing, he tried to pull his hand away, hoping to pass it off as concern for a team member, but John grabbed his hand and held it there, rubbing his bristled cheek against Rod's blistered palm.
"Don't let me be wrong about this, McKay," John stated with a rough-edged, almost pleading voice.
Rod shook his head, for once at a loss for words, and almost let John draw him in for a leisurely first kiss before he came back to his senses. Instead, he plunged in and kissed John hard and fast on the mouth, using no finesse, aware that they had little time.
"Rain check," he stated, waiting for agreement from John before pushing to his feet and then helping John to stand.
Rod dragged the guard's body as far out of sight as possible, aware that it might be only a matter of minutes before someone either missed him or stumbled across him. They had to move fast, and that meant dealing with anyone they came across quickly and efficiently. Killing wasn't something that gave Rod any pleasure, not even scum like the guard who'd wanted to slice up John, but he could be ruthless when the situation required it, if only out of necessity.
As they moved through the narrow passageways, ducking out of sight occasionally when they heard voices coming towards them, Rod was grateful that he had been the one conscious during the journey down into the mine. John's sense of direction was legendary for being incredibly bad, and if they'd had to rely on him then the chances were that they would find the core of the planet sooner than its surface. They came to a main tunnel, and any hope for continued stealth was lost due to the sheer number of grimy, almost skeletal men dragging taraks onto carts before pushing the carts towards the surface.
"Stay behind me," he warned John, stepping out with his head ducked down as if too exhausted to hold it high, and hoping the other workers were far too tired to notice them.
Far behind them, Rod heard the sound of raised voices and figured they'd found the guard. He saw other guards racing to the call and pushed John behind the next empty cart to hide him from view, lifting one of the heavy taraks onto the back of the cart, and only stopping when the guards ran past without even looking in his direction. He heard a soft shuffle of feet on the rocky gravel and continued the ruse by picking up the next tarak, only to have the weight lifted from him and the tarak thrown to the back of the cart with ease. Rod spun round, knife at the ready to defend him and John, only to have his wrist grasped and to see a grin on a very familiar face.
"Ronon!" He breathed out harshly.
"Come on, little man...and get Sheppard. Teyla's up ahead. She didn't like being called a breeder."
"No, I guess she wouldn't," he stated wryly even as he grabbed Sheppard's arm and pulled him along.
Rod cast aside his eyes when they came across another of the guards with a pickax sticking out of his belly, but he felt John stumble, eyes wide with shock. The sound of P90s echoed from further ahead, and Rod grinned. It looked like they had timed their escape to perfection.
His back looked a mess but Carson was positive that only a couple of the lash marks would actually scar. At the time it had not felt as if the guard was going easy on him, but maybe the lack of space in the tunnels had prevented him from getting a good swing - or maybe he was being a little economical with the blows because a dead worker couldn't fill a tarak. Whatever the reason, Rod doubted that it was out of the goodness of the guard's heart.
"I know you want to rest in your own room so I won't be trying to persuade you otherwise, but I do need a promise that you will stay on light duty for the next three days, and avoid any activity that could reopen those wounds. Else, you *will* be seeing more scarring."
Rod sat up gingerly and slapped Carson on the shoulder, letting his hand linger a moment to squeeze reassuringly. "Oh, I plan to stretch out on my bed, face down, and sleep the first day away."
Carson smiled warmly. "Well, here's the antibiotic cream, and you know to give me a call if you need help applying it to the ones out of reach."
Rod accepted the tube and the small bottle of painkillers pressed into his hand, grinning widely as he shrugged on a light cotton shirt that one of the nurses had rushed out to pick up from his quarters at his request. He took her hand and thanked her - enjoying the way she flushed with pleasure - before slowly walking through the infirmary, stopping at every occupied bed to offer a pleasantry or two until he reached the exit where John slouched in the doorway, watching him through his spare set of glasses.
Rod tipped his head to one side as he waited for John to acknowledge him, almost grinning at the way John bristled in that almost prissy way that Rod had come to adore over the years.
"Carson letting you go?"
John's face twitched in annoyance. "It's a mild concussion, and as I didn't have any problems on the planet..."
He let the words hang, letting Rod remember the long night of broken sleep, and John's irritable response whenever Rod awoke him and asked the usual inane questions of who are you and where are you? Of course, at any other time, Rod might have been tempted to ask John something stupid just to annoy him further, but the pain radiating from his abused back had sapped a lot of the fun out of him. Now, though, with the numbing agent in the antiseptic cream and a couple of Tylenol starting to take effect, Rod felt a little more like himself again.
He stepped out into the corridor, smiling when John followed a few steps behind, barely noticing the greetings of others passing by as he focused intently on the man walking half a step behind. When he reached the transporter, Rod selected the living quarters, and let John lead the way when they exited. They reached Rod's room first, the door opening with little more than a thought from Rod. He turned on the threshold, eyes widening as John stepped in after him, the door closing gently behind them, cutting them off from the rest of Atlantis.
The silence between them was broken when John stepped forward and framed Rod's face carefully between his newly bandaged hands. He leaned in and kissed Rod softly, the feather touch of his lips achingly sweet, leaving Rod desperate for more.
"I'm calling in that rain check," John stated, and when he leaned in again for another kiss, this time there was no holding back.