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Lay Me Down So

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Art by [archiveofourown.org profile]mella68

Lay Me Down So - Part I

The animals that pulled the cart up the slanted hillside, and the cart that they were chained in, seemed familiar. Almost earthlike, as so many things were on alien planets. Rodney fully expected that Colonel Sheppard would call the animals oxen and the cart a tumbrel, just to distract him, so that Rodney could correct him. Sheppard was like that, when things were bad like this, doing stuff just to get a rise out of Rodney, to get Rodney out of his daze. But if Sheppard had said anything in the last five minutes, Rodney wouldn't have heard him; his teeth were chattering so hard, his whole body shaking, setting the manacles around his wrists, and the chains that locked him to the cart, into a constant and unmusical clinking.

He'd been cold before, he'd been in Antarctica before, for chrissakes, but there, the hot coffee had never been any more than two minutes away, there'd been clean, fleece vests always on standby, and warm socks and thick boots were the uniform of the stay.

But here? But the guards had stripped them of their own sensible, weather-wise gear and replaced it with scratchy brown woolen clothes and clunky leather shoes that left too much space for the cold air to get in. He was so cold, his bones felt the ache, and his toes were beginning to lose all feeling.

Rodney looked through the trees, flecked with snow, grey and white lengths that cast no shadows in the sunless, cloudfilled sky. There were splotches of green, maybe evergreen, although there was no way had Scotch pines made it this far out into the universe, or maybe they were something else. At least it had stopped snowing. Mostly.

He lifted his head anyway, to bring it up and draw Sheppard's attention to it, so that Sheppard could say it, call it a pine tree, and Rodney could correct him. But when he looked at Sheppard, he was slumped over, with his knees up, hands unclenched fists against his knees. He was staring at manacles, and Rodney stared at them too, wishing he could unlock them both with his mind.

But as the cart jolted over the frozen ground, Sheppard didn't look up. He was utterly still, head bowed. And so silent that Rodney wondered if the smack Sheppard had taken to the head when they'd been jumped in the market had been harder than it looked. There was no miracle forthcoming, and Rodney knew he was on the verge of freaking out, and usually it was Sheppard's job to get Rodney to a place where he could make it through whatever was coming.

After a while, Rodney nudged Sheppard, gently.

"Hey, Rodney," said Sheppard, without looking up. His voice was low, presumably because he didn't want the guard driving the tumbrel, or the two guards marching behind, or the five other guys (also chained) in the cart to take offense. "Y'okay?"

"Not really," said Rodney. He felt white and tired and his mouth was sore because he'd been biting his lip to keep his mouth shut, and that on account of the last time he'd shot his mouth off, the guards had whapped them both in the head. He looked at Sheppard, who had a bruise the size of a fist, all dark and purple, along his temple.

But Sheppard had asked, and Rodney needed to vent. "This is your fault anyway, you realize that, don't you? It'll be safe, you said, no need to worry, ancient alien planet, nice little market. Go ahead, you said, I'll be right behind you, you said. And now look at us! Strung up like turkeys."

"You're the one who wanted a new source of coffee," said Sheppard, reasonably.

But it didn't matter who was wrong or right in this scenario, Rodney's throat felt like it had unlocked; if Sheppard wasn't concussed (if the bruise looked worse than it actually was) then between them they could figure a way out.

"Coffee?" asked Rodney. His voice reached a high pitch that seemed to snap in the cold air. "We're going to be roasted over a gibbet for the dining pleasure of these animals and you're thinking about coffee?"

He knew he had the most active imagination, but he knew that Sheppard thought (because Sheppard had once told him) that if his brain could think of the worst disasters ever (and it could), then it could also be counted on to come up with solutions and escape plans and vector paths.

"They're not going to eat us," said Sheppard, sounding very sure.

Rodney just looked at him, accusingly, and then jerked his gaze away to look at the trees and the snow, and the wind-wisps of fog that stirred in the bare branches. The oxen plodded on; steam rose off their backs. He could hear the clunk of the wheels, and the creak of leather harness. The guards were utterly silent, and Sheppard kept his eyes well away and down, as the other prisoners were doing. Silently, Rodney agreed with this practice; he'd already seen what a frank, full on stare would get you.

"It's cold," said Rodney, to Sheppard. "Your teeth are chattering so hard it's giving me a headache, so I wish you would stop."

Sheppard swallowed and tried, but he didn't have an extra layer of body fat to spare; he was whipcord thin, thanks to all the training with Teyla and morning jogs with Ronon. He was always on the move, never still, even in a puddlejumper. If this had been a desert environment, Rodney would be the one sweating and suffering, but his body was built for this, built for winter nights, even if, yes, the clothes were too thin. Rodney saw Sheppard shiver, a thin, almost unconscious shake as if to tell his body to knock it off.

He wanted Sheppard to tell him it would be okay, but Sheppard probably didn't want to tell Rodney that they would be okay, because he didn't know if they were. They had no gear, no radios, and notion of where in the galaxy they were. The stargate was a few miles back on the other side of town, so their subcutaneous transmitters wouldn't be doing any good where they were headed, so they might as well as not had them at all.

What did they have? Two brains, mostly unmuddled, two bodies, mostly unharmed (so far). They also had a culture that, while yet unknown, seemed to have a penchant for snatching people from just old anywhere, and taking them who knows where for who knows what. But if there was anything that Rodney knew, it was that bad news came quickly. They'd find out soon enough where they were headed and why they'd been taken.

*

It seemed a long time before the alien oxen plodded up the slanting muddy road to a tall wooden gate, and stopped, their backs steaming, mouths constantly moving over some imaginary cud. One of the guards shouted to the top of the gate, and something grated on the other side while the gate slowly opened.

The tumbrel lurched forward as the cart was pulled into a large lopsided compound, which was surrounded on all sides by a tall wall made of rough-hewn logs that were pointed at the top, much in the way of a stockade. Rodney tried to scan the compound to get a sense of things, but the guards were shouting, unlocking men and dragging them out of the cart. The ratio of guards to prisoners seemed quite high, one guards for every five prisoners.

"Kehks, out!"

They were kehks now, so it was probably best as they did what kehks did, which was follow orders, which Rodney told himself was the path of least resistance, and the better plan to keep them alive until Sheppard could figure a way out of there.

"Over here, kehks, assemble!"

There was a muddle of kehks trying to stand in the spot where the guard pointed.

"In line, five by ten!"

It started to rain, and now, to make matters worse, there was a swift wind racing through the compound and Rodney had just determined that the center of the five by ten lineup would be warmer when a low cry went up. All the kehks moved at once and away from the sound; Rodney thought for a second that a fight had broken out or something, and that a kehk had gotten hurt. But just as Sheppard was tugging on his tunic, trying to get him to move back, two guards came up and examined a kehk who had fallen into the mud.

As Rodney watched, the kehk reached up, his arm dripping with mud, and Rodney figured they'd haul him to his feet, maybe roughly, the way that guards did.

"This kehk is sick," said one guard, and the other gestured, flinging rain from his hand, and said, "Bring the cart."

That's when the kehk started to beg, his words running together so fast they were unintelligible. Another kehk stepped out from the group of kehks huddled together, trying to make themselves look small; he reached out for his fellow but was held back by the other kehks.

A cart, drawn by a single ox this time, lumbered close and stopped and the guards picked up the fallen man and tossed him into the cart, not even pausing to make sure his head missed one of the posts on the corner of the cart. It didn't, and his head hit it with a dreadful, wet smack.

"Take him through the ring," said the first guard to the guard driving the cart.

Everyone was still as the cart turned in a half circle and went out the way it came, through the gate, which shut slowly behind it.

"Kehks, five by ten. Now!"

Rodney stumbled as he followed Sheppard and tried to get into line. "What did they just do?" he asked Sheppard, knowing he should keep his voice down, but it rose in a half-shriek just the same.

Sheppard shook his head as the rain slipped into his eyes. "No idea."

"If you're sick, you can't work," said someone from behind them, speaking low as it seemed kehks tended to do to avoid any attention. "If you can't work, you're useless, and they toss you through the ring, to who knows where."

"Kehks, silence during the lineup! You are the property of the people of Skandar, and you will do as you are told!"

"Do they always have to shout?" asked Rodney, leaning sideways to mutter in Sheppard's ear.

"Shhh," said Sheppard hissing. "They're just playing control games."

Rodney stuck close behind Sheppard as they shuffled into place the pouring rain, trying not to look the guard in the eye as he passed, but unable to resist. The guard had hard eyes, and so blue, they looked like polished glass. But except for that, and the long ponytail of really glossy hair, he looked human.

When the guard saw Rodney looking right at him, he swung his strap and smacked Rodney across the back with it; the leather cracked loudly in the damp, windy air.

"Move!"

Rodney jumped and scurried, rubbing his shoulder. Then the answer was yes, the guards always shouted. It was going to get old quite soon, especially if he didn't get some food before he passed out.

"Kehks, line up for the count!"

He was about to open his mouth when he saw some kehks come straggling out from under the cover of what was essentially a tarp strung between three posts.

These pour souls, about twenty in all, looked soaked through, and they lined up with the kehks from cart and kehks from other parts of the compound, shivering and dripping, broken, like sodden autumn leaves. There was a ways to go to the bottom of the totem pole then, and he wondered what they'd done (or not done) to deserve that. Or maybe the Skander people didn't care?

"Line," snapped Sheppard, moving to his left, and judging the distance between them with his eyes.

Trust that the flyboy would know all about standing in formation, who would have thought such a plebian exercise would come in handy? Rodney copied his movements, and waited till the group of them had formed five lines of ten. The guards moved among them, counting, twitching their straps, and all the while the rain poured. Then they counted again, till Rodney wanted to scream with the stupidity of it. Only Sheppard's narrow glare kept him from doing exactly that.

He stood as still and as silent as he could and waited while the counting went on, but then Rodney's anger grew and he couldn't help himself.

"There's obviously no infirmary," he muttered, half to himself and half to Sheppard. "Which means, of course, that they hold no value on human life, or kehk life, or anything. They probably go around stealing able-bodied workers from all the planets around and then just throw them out like so much garbage."

He tried to catch Sheppard's eye to get him to agree, but though Sheppard did look at him for a second, he kept his mouth shut and his eyes front.

"And if it always rains like this, the likelihood of catching some horrible, camp-spawned disease is near 100%--it's like a swamp, an icy swamp, and we're both in for, at the very least, a head cold, if not a chest cold--or worse, or--"

"Silence, kehks! Who's talking?"

Just as Rodney was about to comment, at a much lower volume of course, about the contradiction that particular pair of statements presented, the kehks both in front and behind him moved away, leaving him and Sheppard to stand by themselves, like the cheese in the Farmer in the Dell. A silence fell so deep that Rodney could hear the rain splatting in the mud and racing along the rooftops.

Two guards came up, unhooking their straps as they came, right up to Rodney and Sheppard. They stopped hard, their boots kicking up mud.

"Which one of you spoke?" asked the guard on the left.

Rodney opened his mouth and was about to say that he was the one complaining, and that he'd give them another earful when Sheppard stepped forward.

"Me," Sheppard said. "I was talking."

Sputtering, Rodney tried to articulate that of course this was a bald-faced lie. He looked around to get a kehk to look up and agree with him, and point Sheppard out for the liar that he was. But nobody would catch his eye, and the guard took that as affirmation of a sort, and barked out an order.

"Kehk, down!"

Sheppard seemed to hesitate, and so the guard grabbed Sheppard by the shoulder and pushed him on his knees.

"Pull up your shirt, kehk!"

With one, quick motion, Sheppard curved his back forward and pulled up his brown tunic to his neck, baring his skin to the rain and the cold. The guard lifted the strap and without preamble, whipped Sheppard with it. It was so cold and wet that the strap raised welts and broke Sheppard's skin with thin little red lines. The blood stayed where it was, almost speckling like stars, cold in the open air.

Rodney stood there, open-mouthed, horrified, and completely not sure what he should do. But the whipping was quickly over, and when Sheppard had pulled his shirt down, the guard had yanked him to his feet. Sheppard staggered but managed to keep to his feet, and didn't look at Rodney.

Maybe he should keep his mouth shut, from now on. Yes, that was probably the best idea. Which is what he did as the guard shouted for them to move on and the kehks spun out in a single line. They all headed towards the lower edge of the compound where the land sloped down to the high wooden fence. There was a window-less, single-level building shimmied right up close to the fence. It had a single slanted roof that was dripping with rain, and a large, round tub on top. The kehks piled in the single door.

In short order, Rodney was inside and out of the rain, following close behind Sheppard, when the smell hit him. It was made up of wet kehks, and wet wool, and a funk from the channel of murky water running through the center of the room. As they got fully inside, Rodney could see where most of the dank smell came from. There was a lineup of wooden holes carved into a single wooden plank all the length of the wall that the kehks were using as toilets, all at the same time, without a single modicum of shame.

Rodney brought his hand to his face and tried to smell only the last traces of Atlantean soap. Tried to concentrate on the trough of water that several kehks were using at once to wash their hands. The source of the water looked like it was a pipe that came down from the ceiling, and that probably came from the open tub on the roof, a kind of alien cistern. The overflow simply spilled out and ran down the channel in the center of the room and out through a small pipe in the floor that led outside.

He felt Sheppard trying to catch his eye, but didn't want to say anything, lest he get Sheppard into trouble again. But Sheppard nudged him with an elbow as they shuffled forward with the mass of kehks all trying to get their turn at the toilets.

"It's disgusting," said Rodney. "It's a cesspit and I'm being kind when I say that. Do you have any idea what kinds of germs lurk in even the cleanest bathrooms? Oh, we are so screwed, do you have any idea how much?"

"Yes," said Sheppard, his voice mild. "E coli, salmonella, streptococcus--did I forget any?"

"Yes," said Rodney, not even slightly mollified that Sheppard knew even that many. "You forgot campylobacter!"

"Shhh," said Sheppard, and he didn't need to remind Rodney at all what happened the last time Rodney raised his voice. Besides, Sheppard's eyes said it all. Then Rodney realized they were in the front of the line to use the open toilets and he knew, he could not do it, just could not--

"Can we go home, now, please? There are so many nice bathrooms in Atlantis, just waiting--"

"Easy," said Sheppard. He touched Rodney's arm with the back of his fingers, just as two kehks stood up and pulled up their trousers on their way to the washing trough. Then Sheppard looked right at Rodney. It wasn't as if he'd been ignoring Rodney before, but now Rodney felt the full impact of his undivided attention.

"It's not the Ritz, right?" asked Sheppard, talking low and fast. "But then what is, so just close your eyes and pretend you're alone. Okay?"

No, it was not okay. It was never going to be okay, but as Sheppard stepped up to one of the holes and undid his trousers, Rodney snapped his eyes forward and stared and the moldy streaks on the brown wall and did not watch as Sheppard sat down. It was one thing to be looking at Sheppard's back as he stood peeing against a tree while also scanning for alien bears or alien poison ivy or whatnot. It was another to stand in this crowded room and see the flash of Sheppard's bare hip, so up close and personal. Rodney shut his eyes.

"C'mon, Rodney," said Sheppard in Rodney's darkness. "You'll regret it later if you don't."

"I'm not a toddler," said Rodney, trying to feel angry instead of completely freaked out.

"Well, I don't know," said Sheppard, in a slow way that bordered on a drawl and smacked of mockery. "I've kinda got the urge to ask you about how many times have I told you to go before we left the house. And then you say--"

"Alright, alright! It's okay for you military types, isn't it!" said Rodney, barking it out, the urge to laugh at Sheppard swallowed up by panic and the worst kind of bathroom stage fright. But he made himself use the toilet, keeping his eyes closed, the wood rough against the backs of his thighs as he mentally and physically shrank from the filth and lack of privacy, and the complete and utter lack of toilet paper.

He did his best to ignore all the sounds around him, but he heard Sheppard get up, so he got up, opening his eyes, and staring at the middle distance as he buttoned up his trousers. He followed Sheppard to the trough, shoving his way forward amongst the kehks, who were all using the cold murky water at the same time, with some abandon, which of course they were, since most of the cultures in the Pegasus galaxy had never heard of e coli or anything like it.

There wasn't any soap, but Rodney rolled up his sleeves and rubbed his hands together under the water, and watched as a kehk used his palm to catch the stream directly from the roof pipe, his open mouth all over it while the spillout splashed into the trough. It was hopeless, all hopeless, he was going to catch something within twenty-four hours at this rate, and there would be nothing he or Sheppard could do about it.

"It gets easier," said Sheppard almost in his ear and Rodney shivered from that and then wanted to gag as the door was opened and the wind blew the dark smell of human feces around the room.

"I don't want it to get easier," snapped Rodney, rolling down his sleeves. "I just want to go home."

He looked at Sheppard, ready to start ranting, because he needed to explain, all over again, just exactly what was wrong with this planet. But Sheppard winced as he rolled down his own sleeves, and so Rodney relented and kept his mouth shut as they filed in line and followed the brown-clad back of the kehk in front of them out into the rainy compound. It wasn't Sheppard's fault that they were here.

"I'd just like to get as little used to it as I possibly can, okay?"

"I understand exactly how you feel, Rodney," said Sheppard.

He seemed perfectly calm and it was obvious that he wanted Rodney to be perfectly calm too, but while Rodney was perfect at most things, being calm in a bad situation wasn't one of them. But for Sheppard's sake he would try, even as they tromped out into the rain again, and headed for a low brown building that looked like it was constructed out of badly stained plywood and not much else. At least it was shelter.

As the kehks started piling through the doorway, Rodney stuck close to Sheppard, felt Sheppard bump into him and kept walking. They made it through the door, and there was a guard standing there, handing out thin, grey blankets. He handed one to Sheppard, skipped Rodney, and then handed it to the kehk behind him; it was obvious that the kehks were expected to share. Then the guard slammed the door behind them, and Rodney heard the sound of something being clanked hard.

There was a single lamp in the center of the walkway on the right. On the left were two layers of bunks supported by pillars spaced every three feet or so. Between each pillar was a grey pallet, which kehks were now scrambling on top of.

"Grab a pallet," said Sheppard and Rodney was about to grab one not so near the door, when he turned to ask Sheppard his opinion, and that's when he noticed Sheppard shivering. He was doing it in small, fragmented bits that stopped and started as if Sheppard was trying to stop doing it and couldn't, which was typical Sheppard, thinking he could fight the body's natural response to cold.

"Are--" Rodney stopped, and it occurred to him that Sheppard had taken a beating from one of the guards, on top of the smack to the head that had left a bruise. Usually Sheppard would shrug off any blows or smacks like a horse twitching off a fly. Except now, he wasn't. Rodney had only gotten the one whack with the belt and it still stung. Rodney's mind raced to figure out how he could fix any of it, even though there was no ibuprofen, or any first aid to be had. "Are you okay, is there anything I can do? That beating looked--"

"Just g-get us a pallet," said Sheppard, snapping when he saw Rodney watching him.

Rodney jumped into action, horrified at the pinched look on Sheppard's face, and the way his wet hair was still dripping down his neck.

He clutched the blanket and looked at the few remaining pallets and tried to judge which would be the thickest and driest and least bug-infested--but found he simply couldn't tell based on looks. So he picked one of the last open ones on the top bunk and not too close to the door. He climbed up, banging both of his knees, and reached down to help Sheppard up, and as he did so he grabbed a handful of damp sleeve. Of course, they were soaked through to the skin, but it was only out of the rain that he could really tell how wet they both were.

Once Sheppard was up and sitting beside him on the pallet, he realized he couldn't do anything but look at Sheppard with worry, not wanting to let himself start ranting on very nasty topic of lack of dry clothes or the fact that, now locked in for the night, there would be, apparently, no supper being served. He wouldn't let himself complain. Especially after what his prior ranting had already cost Sheppard. He didn't even have any ibuprofen or numbing cream for abraded skin. Nothing.

Someone pounded on the other side of the door, and a kehk jumped into the walkway and blew out the lamp, leaving the long, narrow barrack immersed in the darkness, with the rain echoing on the roof, and the smell of mud and too-closely packed bodies rising in front of Rodney like a fetid curtain.

"So," said Sheppard, moving around in the dark. "Here we are."

"That is so not helpful," said Rodney, even though he knew Sheppard was doing his best to keep Rodney calm. "How is your back, now, Colonel Take-the-Blame?" He knew it would be a long time before he got the image of the welts on Sheppard's back out of his mind.

"It's fine," said Sheppard. "Now, take off all your clothes and your shoes and your socks."

"What?"

"Just do it, Rodney. C'mon, we're soaking wet. You do know the dangers of hypothermia, don't you?"

"Of course I know it," said Rodney completely irritated that Sheppard would for even one minute assume--oh, well, of course Sheppard knew that and was just saying it to bug Rodney to get him revved up and distracted.

"Of course I know all about it," said Rodney, going along with Sheppard's attempt to distract him, but keeping his voice low, in case one of the guards was listening through the thin walls. "I also know that wet clothing pulls heat away from the body two hundred and forty times faster than dry clothing and--"

"So, go on and do it. Or do I need to make that an order?"

Sheppard would do that, if he had to. Rodney could hear kehks all around them, moving and shifting, and maybe they were doing the same thing. With all the rustling sounds, it was becoming more and more obvious that the pallets were filled with some kind of straw, which alien or not, was prime bed bug breeding territory.

"Do I have to?" he asked, because he didn't want his nether bits to be eaten by bugs, though he had a good idea as to what Sheppard would say.

"Yes," said Sheppard, and it sounded like he'd bent to take off his shoes and socks and was arranging them at the end of the bed, near their feet.

"Don't be shy, Rodney," said Sheppard, his voice muffled by what must be him taking off his brown tunic. "And remember," he said, his voice a little more clear in the dark, "it's just buddies trying to stop hypothermia and so if something happens, well, it just does."

"Something?" Rodney asked, his voice rising. "What something?"

Sheppard's body shifted on the pallet as he tugged and pulled on what must surely be his trousers, and Rodney realized that now Sheppard was without clothes and Rodney was still sitting there in his dripping wet garments like an idiot.

"Something like whatever," Sheppard said, tugging on the blanket to make Rodney get off of it. "It's just buddies."

Rodney moved, shifting on the pallet, and touched the damp toes of his shoes. Of course it was just buddies to Sheppard, but Rodney wasn't like that, wasn't trained in the military fashion to regard the naked human body as just another brick in the wall against the war on terror or whatever the slogan of the day was currently back on Earth. Only a military guy could strip with such casual nonchalance, even if Sheppard was reserved in so many other areas, if it came to survival, he would do it. Plus, Sheppard was not only right about the hypothermia, he was in charge and could and would order Rodney to do likewise.

So Rodney slipped off his boots and socks and draped the socks over the top of the opening, to help them dry a little during the night. Then he took off his shirt, his skin twitching in the cool air, and arranged that over his socks. Then, taking a breath, he slipped out of his trousers, and tried not to think about bed bugs crawling around on his bare skin.

Before he could think about it too much, Sheppard pulled him down on the pallet by his arm and spread the blanket over them both. It was scratchy, but at least it was a little warm. And of course there was no pillow, so as Rodney lay, straight as a board, next to Sheppard, his neck was at a horrible angle, just enough to give him a serious crick in the morning. But he was stark naked, and under the blanket, and that should make Sheppard happy. He would stay like this all night, too, no sense--

But then Sheppard shivered, in a fit and a start, and Rodney realized that this wasn't going to work unless they really matched up a whole lot of skin to skin.

"Do you want me to--" He stuck his hand out from under the blanket to wave his hand, connecting an invisible line between their bodies, but then realized it was too dark for Sheppard to see what he meant. "Should I, um--"

"Doesn't matter," said Sheppard, sounding like he was talking between clenched teeth. "This is better anyway."

Better than what? Rodney wanted to ask it, but then realized that it wasn't the point. Sheppard was still cold, and in order to get warm, they had to--and then one of Sheppard's toes brushed his toes and they were like tiny little ice cubes, and if Sheppard's toes were that cold, then it meant that the rest of him--it was hard, but Rodney knew it was necessary. And he had to do it because for all of Sheppard's do I have to make it an order statement earlier, it was clear he wasn't going to make Rodney do anything. Rodney was going to have to make himself.

So, rolling on his side, he did what needed to be done, reaching out his arms and tugged on Sheppard's shoulder to give him the message. Sheppard's skin was all goosepimply, and when Sheppard turned towards Rodney, he shuddered all over. Perhaps with the cold, or perhaps with relief that Rodney had finally given in to what was necessary, and Rodney hated himself for making Sheppard suffer even for a second.

"Here," he said, tucking Sheppard's chest against his own. He wrapped his arms around Sheppard's back (carefully) and pulled him close, pretending not to mind the tangle of feet and knees, or not to be shocked at the warmer heat of Sheppard's groin right up against his own. Sheppard wrapped his arms around Rodney, as well, looping them so that his arms came around Rodney's waist, pulling Rodney close, breathing against Rodney's chest. As Sheppard ducked his head, his hair tickled the bottom of Rodney's chin.

"Just buddies, you said?" Rodney asked, almost gasping at how warm he felt now, how fast. How he could feel Sheppard's pubic hair against his hip, and smell Sheppard's scent, up close, and salty, spiked with the remaining Atlantis smell, something more clean and slightly chemical than the Skandar environs had to offer.

"Yeah," said Sheppard, a little roughly. "Jesus, you're like a fucking oven, Rodney."

"Better now?" asked Rodney, not able to say much more, because it was completely strange to have Sheppard's chest hairs tickling up against him. He'd wager there were more than two dozen women (and maybe even a few men) on Atlantis who would give anything to be where he was right about now. Of course, they'd also have to watch Sheppard get beaten, and have to use the toilet with Sheppard right there, next to them, and then--

He snorted under his breath, thinking of it.

"What's so funny?" asked Sheppard. He was curved so low under the blankets that the top of his head tapped beneath Rodney's chin.

"I was thinking, what if Ronon were here instead of me and what he'd do--"

Sheppard picked up on it right away, his chest rumbling with a low laugh. "He'd say, Hypothermia, so strip, and that'd be that."

"Yeah," said Rodney. It was making him smile, in spite of everything. "And Teyla, what about her?"

"Oh," said Sheppard, drawing it out. "She'd probably tear all their legs off before they even got her this far."

"And Weir?"

"She'd negotiate her way out of this whole mess and would be home on Atlantis by now," said Sheppard. "Which means we suck at negotiation."

Rodney smiled and ducked his head, and thought about Atlantis, and everyone there, and whether they were missed, and thought that, yes, probably they were, when their hourly check-in had come and gone a dozen times or more. And how their mission reports would one day read, and whether he'd include the bathroom situation or not, and how sad Zalenka would be when he discovered their mission to find new sources off coffee had gone horribly awry.

"You warm enough?" asked Sheppard, his voice calm through the dark.

It turned Rodney's heart, pinching at him in a way he didn't expect. There he'd been, selfishly keeping his heat to himself, and all the while, Sheppard had been looking out for him. And was now checking up on him, when Rodney should have been the one doing that, seeing as how badly Sheppard had been shivering earlier.

"Yes, it's much better this way, you were right, I shouldn't have made you wait--"

"And you can quit wiggling and talking now and get some sleep. They're probably going to put us to work in the morning, and we need to scope the place out, figure out how many guards and what their pattern is, so we can get out of here. Okay?"

Rodney nodded, though in the darkness, Sheppard couldn't see him. But he could feel a nod, and then Sheppard patted Rodney's back and shifted, and yes, okay, that was Sheppard's penis bumping against his thigh, but Rodney took a breath and then took another, and made himself think about something else. This was obviously the reason for the just buddies warning that Sheppard had given him earlier, because Sheppard wasn't the type to come right out and say, yes, you're going to feel my dick against your leg, but it's not me humping you because it's just buddies.

"Quit thinking and sleep, Rodney," said Sheppard, his mouth moving warm puffs of air across Rodney's chest.

"I'm already asleep," said Rodney, "so why are you still talking to me?"

He felt Sheppard's smile against his skin, and it made him smile in return.

*

Before Rodney even opened his eyes, he could hear the rain and smell the damp and the funk of a badly ventilated room where too many kehks with too few manners had been sleeping. Everywhere, all over, he was cold, icy cold and stiff, like he sometimes got when they went planet-side and he'd been stupid enough to believe the idiots who said that he didn't need to bring thermal underwear or a thermal blanket or an extra fleece vest. He didn't want to move, or wake fully for behind him, all along his back, he felt warm. From neck to hip, it felt like a heat pack was pressed against him. It was a bony heat pack, yes, but it was warm.

Now, Rodney opened his eyes. He was curled on a thin, flocked mattress that pressed into his hip and shoulder, and had made them stiff overnight. He wiped the grit from his eyes, and tried to blink into life.

Next to him on the long bunk, or standing in the walkway, all the kehks were shivering from head to foot, as there wasn't any source of heat. All the kehks were getting dressed in the same brown tunic and pants that Rodney now had waiting for him to put on. The clothes were made of some kind of wool, he guessed, rough-woven, and loose, and not really any shelter against the weather. It made the kehks stand out, as if their skinny faces and haggard expressions weren't enough. You could tell a kehk from a guard as soon as you looked at them. Rodney figured he looked like one too, now, alive only to do the bidding of making Skandar a more wonderful planet to live on.

Behind him, something moved and he realized it was Sheppard, even before he spoke.

"Rodney? You alright?"

Rodney nodded, and then cleared his throat and tried to speak. But he needed coffee, and several pots of it. Black, with sugar or without, whatever, he wasn't going to be picky, not at this point. The rush from yesterday, adrenaline-burned in the name of being freaked out and trying to keep a lid on it so he didn't run in circles had left him exhausted, his bones tired and sore, and so yes, the only spot that felt nice was where Sheppard was pressing up against him.

But then Sheppard moved, and the warm feeling left him, like someone had suddenly turned off a nearby space heater.

"Colonel?" asked Rodney. He rolled on his back, as Sheppard stood up and stretched, as the other kehks were doing, trying to get awake. His hair stood up in angles all over his head, cowlicks on the rampage, so at least that was normal, even if nothing else was.

"Better stick with John," said Sheppard. He cast his eyes around the room, and to the door at the end of the barracks, which was just opening, letting in the rain and a gust of wind. "I don't know what they know, but the less we give away the better."

"Okay, that's a probably a good idea--John." As they got dressed, Rodney made himself consciously make the switch, because while they'd always been friends, he'd always thought of John by his military rank.

Rodney watched John climb down from the bunk and took the hand that John reached out and let himself be helped down. His shoulders, especially the right one, which he'd been lying on, felt like it had been pounded for hours with bricks.

"And don't go showing your smarts, either," said John. He stood close to Rodney as he said this, eyes moving, taking in the whole room without hardly turning his head. "Keep a low profile till I can figure us a way out of here."

"Low profile," said Rodney, feeling a little numb from seeing John's welts in the morning light, long, dark stripes that seemed to scare bare skin.

"And that means keeping your mouth shut, and that's an order."

Rodney nodded, feeling appropriately scolded, and very willing, at that point, to do exactly as he was told. Of course John would get them out of there, of course he'd find a means to rescue them safely, and all Rodney had to do was be ready when the moment came.

A guard came in, looking like the guards from last night, with his fur trimmed and warm looking coat and boots and hat. He had a strap in his hand, and a wooden box at his feet.

"Blankets!" he snapped, and one by one, the kehks started filing past him, with every other man putting a blanket in the box. "Outside, now!"

"And what's with the blankets, why do they--"

"Kehks, food!"

Rodney imagined, as he followed John into the muddy area outside of their barracks that in a place like this, the coffee (or the nearest facsimile thereof) was bound to be bad. The eggs would be overcooked and cold, probably, and the toast burnt. No butter would be available either. But at least there would be food.

The first line of kehks peeled out, and they all headed in a line towards the overhanging tarp that sheltered a cookstove, a bubbling pot of grey stew, and a pile of wooden bowls and spoons and hunks of bread. Rodney rose up on his toes as he waited, but there were no eggs, nor bacon, nor anything resembling a coffee pot.

"What about the Geneva convention?" he asked the back of John's head. "What about coffee?"

Without so much as turning around, John said, "Shut your damn mouth, Rodney."

He sounded really pissed, and for a second, Rodney felt a flare of temper about it. But then he saw a pair of guards coming towards their group. They looked a little different than the guards they'd been seeing, these guards were a little taller and wore coats that were un-muddied, and they had white fur on their hats and collars. They looked sharp and awake and angry. They even had leather gloves, and instead of straps, they carried what looked like short little whips with three corded strands. The guards of the Third Camp bowed their heads as the pair went by and Rodney did his best not to stare. Staring got you noticed, and being noticed got you in trouble.

The pair of guards came up and inspected the cookstove and the pot, and nodded at the guard behind the pot, who stood at attention, ladle in hand.

"Feed them," said one of the guards, and the guard behind the pot tipped his head and knocked his ladle against the stew pot to announce that the first kehk should step forward to receive his portion.

Groaning inwardly, Rodney shuffled forward when the line moved, doing his best not to complain out loud. Why on earth had he thought there would be real food in a place like this? Just stew for breakfast? Pizza he could understand, but not stew. He'd been starving last night, without supper, now he was more starving, his stomach was pressing against his backbone, and all he was going to get was grey glop and a hunk of sawdust stuck together with muddy glue?

Once he was partly under the flap of canvas, it was good to be out of the rain, but the smell of the stew and the heat of the fire hit him all at once. His head felt dizzy and he thought about his hypoglycemia and how he ought to save a portion of his bread for later. Except that he had no pockets, and--

John turned and shoved a wooden bowl and spoon in Rodney's hands, and Rodney took them. They were smooth, as though polished for years, and he wondered if the bowls ever even needed washing. It was a horrible thought, all those germs, though maybe they couldn't live very well in the damp. Or maybe they flourished.

Before he could figure it out, Rodney was in front of the stewpot and he held out his bowl, feeling a little like Oliver Twist, although that character never had to deal with alien guards in fur trimmed coats. The guard slopped some stew in his bowl and waved at the bin of bread, indicating that Rodney could take a piece. Rodney picked the biggest piece he could find, trying not to look like he was doing it on purpose, in case anyone felt that a beating should follow a hungry man trying to get enough to eat for breakfast. At that point, he was in real trouble.

He followed John over to the narrow benches under more tarp, and sat there with his bowl balanced on his knees and tried to figure out whether to eat his bread and then the stew, or to put the bread in to the stew to soften it. The bread wasn't hard as a rock, actually, but it was crumbling in his hand. So he put it in the stew and poked at it with his spoon, and saw that John had done the same.

John was bent over his bowl, to protect it from the gusts of wind that snuck up from between their feet, and he was eating slowly, like he was concentrating. Then he looked up at Rodney, like he wanted to say something.

Rodney leaned close, holding his bowl tight on his lap.

"At least it doesn't have worms in it," said John. He was all hunkered over his bowl. Rodney ducked his head down, about to ask what John had really said because it couldn't have been about worms in the food. That's the last thing Rodney needed to worry about.

"You know," said John. "All those prison movies, the food is really bad, you know? It's always riddled with worms and one of the inmates feeds this baby bird with it--"

"Are you talking about The Shawshank Redemption?" asked Rodney, his voice cracking in astonishment. "Because this is miles away from anything like that. We're not on Earth to begin with, and there is no Red with his sonorous voice-overs, and no magical cornfield with a magical lava rock with magical money to take us to Zihuatanejo or anywhere near it!" He lifted his spoon and was just about to shake it at John and continue in this vein, when he saw John peeping up through his eyelashes, a little smirk on his mouth, bruised and all.

Rodney subsided. It was like John, to make a joke, or to get Rodney riled up to forget his troubles. As the team leader, John probably thought it was his job to keep Rodney on an even keel, with little, distracting comments like this, and it was probably a full time job. Rodney knew he was difficult, even at the best of times. Poor John.

"Oh, you got me," said Rodney, pretending to be more insulted than he was. After all, John deserved someone who would respond to his team leader-y gestures. "Well and good there, yes, you got me. But I won't be able to get any more references because the only other prison movie I've seen is Birdman of Alcatraz, and that's only because I was trying to woo a young co-ed who was crazy about Burt Lancaster movies."

John stared at his bowl. "I think it is a worm," he said, poking at the stew with his spoon.

The hair on the back of Rodney's neck stood up before he realized John was doing it again, even showing his teeth a little as he smiled, tipping his head sideways towards Rodney, looking at him without really looking at him.

"Ha ha," said Rodney. "You're hysterical. You should be on the stage for the kehks; try the stew, folks, he'll be here all week."

That made John laugh, a little, and it lit Rodney up inside to see that smile, the one that told him that because John was here, everything would be alright.

"This is what I want you to do," said John, more serious now. "You listening?"

Rodney nodded.

"I want you to take notes, all day. With your eyes, always open, mouth shut, eyes open. Then, at the end of the day, if we make it, you tell me what you saw."

"And that'll help how?"

"You'll see what I don't," said John. "And I'll see what you don't, and then we can figure out what the weaknesses are in this place. Figure a way out of here."

Rodney nodded because John had said this the night before, and now it made more sense, now that it was daylight. He sat back up, and began to eat his stew. He felt better, somehow, that while he was worried about food or the lack of coffee, John was already thinking about the most important thing, how to get them out of there and back home, to Atlantis.

*

Breakfast was soon finished, followed by a swallow of water from a ladle for each man, as they shuffled past the water barrel. When it was his turn, Rodney stopped and looked at the barrel, and felt himself twitch all over. He tried not to think about backwash or the hundreds of thousands of pathogens that probably infested the barrel, let alone the rim of the ladle. But he knew what John would say, what he was probably thinking as he tipped his head back and drank his allotment of water, you had to stay hydrated, and that was just facts. So Rodney shut his eyes for a second, and took the ladle and drank from it, and swallowed without tasting it.

He stayed in the line, close behind John, and followed as it led him into the center of the compound. The sky overhead had turned into a dull grey, but the rain had let up, though there was no sunlight, no warmth in the air. Rodney made himself shiver all over, and saw John trying to do the same. His mind felt on overload already; the food was awful, the accommodations sparse, and what lay ahead? He had no idea.

But the guard marching up and down in front of them obviously did. He swung his strap and looked at them askance, and then nodded at another guard. Then he started shouting.

"Kehks! You will be assigned tasks. You will do the task until told to stop. You will not talk, you will not do anything that you are not told to do or you will be beaten. If you continue to resist, you will be tossed through the Ring."

One by one, a guard came up and took five kehks with him to other parts of the compound. It took Rodney a second to realize that John was with another group, and the group that Rodney was with was being led to somewhere else in the compound, away from John. Rodney could barely turn his head fast enough to see John go around the corner of a building.

It was an oversight by the camp guards, as Rodney felt pretty sure that no one would thin to split them up on purpose. But they'd made the mistake, him and John, of standing too near the middle of the group, so when one bunch of kehks went one way, and the other went the other--

"Wait!" he said to the nearest guard. "I'm with that group, the one that's going--" He pointed but he had no idea what or where John's group was headed, and stood there with his mouth open as the guard glared at him.

"Kehk, move!" The guard hit him with the strap, hard across his neck, making him yelp.

"Over there, kehk," said the guard and he gestured with the strap to the other group, which was headed downslope along the wooden wall. "Keep up, kehk, or I'll toss you through the ring."

Rodney hurried to do what he was told, clutching his neck and shoulder, and trying not to wince as he now felt two big fat welts under his fingers. It had been foolish not to pay more attention and when he and John had supper (or whatever would pass for it), they were going to have a nice little chat about not getting separated.

He caught up with the line of kehks in a corner of the compound and looked at the pile of wood and twigs and wondered what he was supposed to do with it.

"Kehk!"

Rodney snapped his head around, paying attention right away, because it was obvious to him that you had to pay attention, or pay the price. The Skander guards could teach Elizabeth Weir a thing or two about consequences and repercussions.

"Here, now."

The guard, warm in his wool and furs, gestured to Rodney.

"You will sort by size." The guard pointed.

Right away, Rodney could see what the task was. There was a pile of damp and dripping broken branches and sticks and twigs on the right. And on the left was a series of soggy bins, all in a line, made of wood. They were the same size, but in each one was wood of a different size. In his mind, he could see a way to create a filter, with screens of descending size, so that the largest pieces of wood went into the first bin, and on down the line, and only the smallest made it through to the last bin. It would be a matter of resizing the boxes and assembling them to--

In his mind he could hear John snapping at him not to help the enemy, that no prizes were given out for the cleverest prisoner, and that you didn't help the bad guys. And the Skander were bad guys. They had dragged him and John to this stupid, cold, damp planet, separated them, and on top of that, the hard, raw work was going to ruin Rodney's hands. His hands were his livelihood. He lived by them, talked with them, solved problems with them. Yes, he solved problems with his head, but his hands allowed the solving to get done.

"Kehk, work!"

Rodney nodded and grabbed a bunch of sticks in one fist, and began to sort. As the rain dripped down his neck, and trailed down the sides of his face, he grit his teeth and kept sorting. His tunic was soon soaked, and there was water in his shoes. Beside him, another kehk was breaking twigs off branches and chopping sticks and tossing them into Rodney's pile, so no matter how hard Rodney worked, his pile never got smaller. He wanted to kick the guy, but he was in prisoner mode and wouldn't look Rodney in the eye. Besides, someone was bringing wood to his pile, and there was nothing he could do about it either.

So Rodney kept working.

At mid-day there was a letup in the weather, with the clouds thinning in the sky overhead, with the light leaching through, and warming things up a little. That didn't help, everything just started to steam and feel clammy, so it was almost worse than if it hadn't gotten warm in the first place. But there was no one Rodney could explain the effects of heat on water (steam), let alone to complain about it, so he kept his mouth shut.

One of the guards shouted something and all the kehks stopped working, which allowed Rodney to stand up straight and put down the twigs he'd been holding. He settled his hands on his hips and arched back in a little stretch, ignoring the amazed stares of the kehks around him. Kehks just worked, it seemed, and didn't know anything about lumbago or sciatic pain, no, they just worked until they dropped.

A kehk came up, hauling two buckets on a wooden yoke across his shoulders, tottering under the weight. Any hope of it being buckets of hot soup or coffee was dashed as water splashed on the ground and a guard struck the kehk with a strap for his clumsiness.

One by one, each kehk took the dipper from the bucket and got a drink of water. As the buckets (and the yoked kehk) came closer, Rodney realized he was going to have to do it. Dehydration was never good for you, and he was terribly thirsty besides. But this meant drinking not only from a dipper that had touched who knows how many kehk mouths, he was also going to have to drink from a quantity of water that contained untold amounts of backwash.

He wanted John to be there, so John could see his panic and smirk and say something like it's a veritable witches brew or we're sure to catch the bubonic plague from it, or something equally overstated and ridiculous--so that Rodney could laugh at the situation and be able to gird his loins and simply drink the water that he needed so desperately.

The roofpipe in the washroom/latrine didn't look half so bad now because though dirty from the roof and who knows what residue lurked in the cistern, at least it was untouched by human hands.

Now it was his turn. The kehk stopped in front of Rodney and carefully set the buckets down. For a second Rodney looked at the exhaustion in the kehk's eyes and wondered why the guards didn't just set up a water station so that--

"Kehk, drink!"

Rodney shook his thoughts away and didn't look at the kehk as he reached for the dipper and pulled up a serving of water that didn't look too scummy. He brought the dipper to his mouth, closed his eyes, and drank the whole thing down. It tasted muddy and bitter, and maybe there were stones in the bottom of the buckets. At the water barrel that morning, he'd been too much in shock to really think about it, but he could think about it now, even as he drank.

When he handed the dipper back, the kehk took it and moved on and the whole thing felt rather anticlimactic. Anyone back on Atlantis who might have just witnessed what he'd done would have clasped their hands to their hearts in horror and demanded, shocked, where is Rodney and what have you done with him?

But even the knowledge of this and the fact that John would be proud (when Rodney told him, which he would), he quickly realized that the water was lunch. There was no food cart being trundled about, no assortment of sandwiches or fresh fruit, and most importantly, no coffee. Rodney's stomach growled unpleasantly and he put his hands on it to try and stop it. He could imagine, all too easily, the guards taking offence and demanding who said that before the beatings commenced.

It looked like lunch was over, so Rodney sighed and bent to start working on the twigs again.

Someone poked him in the back, and said, "Kehk."

Rodney straightened up, trying to remember if he'd said or done anything wrong. He hadn't right? He'd was working, right?

He turned around to face the guard. The man was tall, and pale, like all the Skanders, same blue eyes and glossy hair. He wore his woolen coat and furs with dignity, his chin held high, and it took Rodney a second to recognize him from the two guards that morning, the ones with the white and unmuddied fur. The guard looked at Rodney, looked down his nose at Rodney, actually, and then nodded.

"I offer you sanctuary, kehk."

Rodney blinked. "Uh--"

"You will be provided for, better lodgings, better food, easier work."

Rodney opened his mouth, but he couldn't even begin to figure out what type of question to ask. As in, why on earth would anyone offer him that? Then he realized that while yes the guard had something to offer Rodney, there was probably a price to be paid for it.

"For--"

"I am Ghent. If you accept sanctuary, you will move from Third Camp to Second Camp, and will wait on me and be my attendant."

"Attendant." Rodney's voice sounded flat in his own ears and he wondered what anyone on Atlantis (and John) might say if they encountered Rodney who actually had no words at the ready.

Ghent must have taken this as a question. "Yes, you will attend me as I require it. You will lay the fire and make tea. Brush my coat, and clean my boots."

"And that's it?" It was hard to believe his ears. Rodney could make tea, he was Canadian for crying out loud, Canadians lived for tea. As for laying fires, any idiot could figure that out. The deal sounded better and better, and yet--"Just lay fires and make tea and things like that?"

"And attend me as I require it."

There was that word again. He looked at Ghent. It wasn't as if he was expecting the meaning of Ghent's proposal to be written on the guard's face, but he didn't have anything else to go by. No guard had ever actually talked to Rodney like this, they usually just yelled and swung their straps and counted badly to fifty.

"This is our tradition," said Ghent. "You're not from Skander, I take it."

"Uh, no, actually. That is, we're from far away? Far, far away, and I really don't have any idea what you're talking about."

"So much the better." Ghent took a step closer, right up to Rodney, so they were almost toe to toe. Rodney didn't dare take a step back, the guards, as yet, had been predictably irritated by any untoward movements. Ghent's wool coat smelled like woodsmoke, felt like warmth so close that Rodney could almost touch it. "You will attend me. Service me. At night, a bedmate of sorts, but of course, with no rights, since you are merely a kehk."

Now Rodney did take a step back, stumbling against the pile of wood that he'd been sorting. He pinwheeled his arms, and Ghent reached out to grab him, to steady him, but Rodney jerked his arm free, and moved out of reach.

Now he understood, he understood completely. Well, mostly completely, since he had no idea why Ghent would pick him, but he knew exactly what Ghent wanted. And exactly what John Sheppard would do if prevailed upon to make the same sort of deal. He'd say no, flat out, unequivocally no. There was no way he'd take the deal and move to Second Camp and leave anyone from his team behind, let alone Rodney.

"Uh, can I say no, or will you kill me for saying that?" Rodney hunched his shoulders forward, readying himself for the blow, and the command to go down on his knees and take a beating, and wondered if he'd be able to keep from bellowing with pain.

"No?" Ghent's brow furrowed, deep, and his mouth twitched like someone unaccustomed to a bad flavor. "No one says no to sanctuary."

Rodney took a breath and lifted his chin. He felt his heart thumping in his chest. He wanted to say yes, of course he wanted to say yes. Who wouldn't say yes to making tea and building fires and a little light housekeeping, along with some nighttime dalliance? Not that Rodney had any experience having sex with men, but people did it, how bad could it be? And yet. In the John Sheppard Rulebook, saying yes, separating from the team without orders was a definite not-on-the-list. He couldn't leave John, besides, even if John ordered him to. Would John order him to go with Ghent? He wouldn't, if he didn't know about the offer. Rodney decided he wouldn't tell him.

"Well, I'm saying no," said Rodney. He pressed his mouth shut, felt defiant and strong, and sure that it would last all of a second if Ghent told him to go on his knees and started whaling with his strap. Which, come to think if it, he wasn't carrying; he wasn't carrying anything, not even a whip. "I don't, that is, I can't, and I have, well, I, I'm sorry. No."

He wanted to add please don't kill me, but then again, he didn't want to give Ghent any ideas. Ghent was already frowning and scowling down his nose and looked about as confused as Rodney felt to have actually been asked.

For once it was him the alien wanted to go to bed with and not John. Not that anyone on Atlantis would believe him if he told them. If he and John lived to escape. If they even lived to see tomorrow, for if Ghent wanted to, he could force Rodney to accept. Or, if he knew about John, then maybe Ghent would find a way to use John as leverage. Well, he wasn't going to get any information about John from Rodney. Not if Rodney could help it.

"No," said Rodney again, ready to stand his ground.

But it was unnecessary. Ghent turned on his heel and marched off and Rodney blinked, watching him go. One of the other guards appeared to have been watching all of this, and maybe he expected the usual outcome, that the kehk, happy to have been chosen, would have gone off with his protector-to-be. The guard shook his head at Rodney, and yes, Rodney realized he was an idiot for turning down all those things. He could be beside a warm fire within half an hour, and all he had to do was be willing to suck some guys cock--

Oh, hell no. He didn't care who swung that way, left or right, backways or sideways, but it wasn't him. He was right to say no. Just as he was right to commit himself to never telling John about any of this. Either John would scold him for not taking another way out, if he could find it, along with saying you could leave me and come back for me, easy. That or he would laugh his head off at the mere thought of an alien wanting Rodney--

"Kehk, work!"

Rodney didn't even look up to see who was shouting at him. He turned back to the soggy bins and dripping leaves and twigs and branches and kept sorting, stopping every once in a while to warm his hands by tucking them beneath his armpits.

*

It was finally the supper hour and the lines were starting to form underneath the cook tent. Rodney hung back. He was worried that they'd run out of food, and his stomach was screaming at him, but he was more worried because he couldn't find John, couldn't see his tousled dark head among the masses of kehks. What if Ghent had already figured it out and made his proposition to John, just to show Rodney who was in charge? But then, John never would say yes, never. Never leave Rodney behind. Would he? No, of course he wouldn't.

As kehks shuffled past him in a ragged, brown wave, Rodney finally spotted the head of wild dark hair he was looking for, and nearly called out, and stopped himself just in time. If anyone was watching, Ghent maybe, from a distance or from one of the wooden towers, he would see Rodney had a friend, someone to stay behind for, to delay eating for. Would see that John was important to Rodney, and then maybe do something--

That couldn't happen. Rodney kept his mouth shut and waited for John to come to him, horrified to see that John's mouth was swollen, exactly the way a backhanded blow would cause.

When John came close, Rodney asked, "What happened?"

John shrugged, his thin shoulders pushing up the tunic. "I wasn't fast enough, is all, nothing to worry about. I've been through worse."

Rodney sighed, and wished he could nag at John to behave or lay low. John wasn't like that, so there was nothing Rodney could do.

"Let's just get something to eat before they run out," said John. He brushed past Rodney, his shoulder bumping on purpose, and it was as good as a warm hand patting him. John was tough, he'd make it.

"Okay," said Rodney.

They stood in line and got their stew and coarse brown bread, and went to sit on the narrow benches beneath the rain flap. Rodney watched John warm his hands around the sides of the wooden bowl, though it wasn't much use, wood didn't conduct heat all that well. But maybe John was pretending it did, and he probably wouldn't be pleased if Rodney pointed out the difference between the heat conductivity of metal and of wood, so Rodney kept his mouth shut and ate his stew and his bread.

"Quit worrying, Rodney," said John, low, wiping his mouth carefully with his fingers. "Just eat your supper and keep your mouth shut. It'll be fine, and I'll have us out of here in no time, okay?

"Okay," said Rodney, hoping he sounded more convinced than he felt.

"And when we get back," said John, as though he were consoling a small child with the promise of ice cream, which was, as Rodney recalled, the way he talked to Rodney a lot of the time, "we can watch Shawshank Redemption together, wouldn't that be nice?"

"When we get back," said Rodney, biting off the words, "I think I'd rather watch something else if you don't mind; I'll have had enough of prison scenarios by then, so we can watch anything else, Gone With the Wind even."

"Another co-ed?" asked John.

"From Georgia," answered Rodney, hanging his head.

"Aren't they all."

It was horrible being taken prisoner, of course, and working like a dog and messing up his hands, making them stiff enough that he doubted he'd ever be able to type at a keyboard again. But he was with John Sheppard, and John was in charge, here, and aware of his surroundings, and he'd figure a way out, if anyone could. Rodney ate his stew and tried not to be glad that John was with him.

If Teyla were here in John's place, Rodney would currently be alone, because Teyla was so beautiful that she would have been given sanctuary whether she wanted it or not. As for Ronon, if he were here, both he and Rodney would both be dead because Ronon didn't believe in keeping his mouth shut and biding his time. Well, of course, yes, he believed in keeping his mouth shut, but not the biding his time part. Yes, indeed, they'd be dead. So he was lucky it was John, very lucky.

"Are you leaning against me?" asked John.

Rodney sat up, realizing that he had been leaning, because he was tired, so very tired, and he'd been staying close in case John said anything else that was both fun and funny. John was his lifeline, and he needed to be near in case that lifeline led to freedom. And to help in any way he could, of course. Whatever John asked of him, he would do it.

"A little," said Rodney, feeling like he'd been caught.

"Well, oaky," said John. "But just a little."

They finished their bowls of grey gruel, and when the guards started shouting that the meal was over, John stood up and got in the line and Rodney stood close behind him. They dropped their bowls off and trudged in the line behind the other kehks to visit the washroom/latrine and pick up their blankets at the door of the barracks.

The guard skipped over John and handed Rodney the blanket.

"Get a lower bunk," said Rodney, "so if the roof leaks we--are you paying attention?"

"Yes, I am paying attention."

"Yeah?" asked Rodney, more to be snarky than the fact that he didn't believe John.

"I always pay attention to you, Rodney," said John.

Which made Rodney smile a little; it was nice to be listened to, but if only people would do what he told them to do and heed his warnings, that would make life so much simpler.

John was smart, he got them a pallet in the middle of the room on the lower level and sat on it the second he got to it, no need for politeness here. He sat back with his hands on his knees, and followed Rodney with his eyes as Rodney sat next to him.

"I crushed rocks today, and I missed you," said John in that pseudo-caring tone he liked to use when he wanted to say something serious, but not be taken seriously. "It was lonely."

The door was shut and the smell of damp kehks and muddy shoes grew instantly stronger. There were probably only seconds before the lamp was doused, but over in the corner a scuffle was going on, probably about a blanket or a pallet, the only two things of value in the entire barracks. One of the guards went over and started whaling away, and Rodney turned his focus on John and only on John, because the beatings were starting to unnerve him.

"And I missed you, of course," said Rodney, trying to affect John's tone, though he could never quite match the way it so expertly straddled between mockery and sincerity. "I sorted wood, little twigs in one bin, larger twigs in another, and so on. In my head, I totally designed a way they could use descending bins with relational sized slots at the bottom, and then the biggest would fall out first…or would it be the smallest?"

"What did I tell you about helping the enemy?" Now John had that scowl-face he used when pretending to be mad.

"I know, I know, I knew you'd say that, it's like going behind enemy lines, and I won't do it, I promise you. But I had all day to stare at these bins, and all day to rip up my hands so unnecessarily, when a series of sorting slots would have saved so much time and effort. It kills me not to fix it, you know it kills me, don't you?"

"Yes, I know," said John. He looked at Rodney and tipped his head. "How bad are your hands really?"

"Oh," said Rodney, "not so bad." It was always disconcerting when John switched like this, and took Rodney's ills seriously. "A few blisters; what I wouldn't give for some nice, sturdy gloves."

"And some hand cream," said John, smirking. "You're such a girl."

"I am not!" Rodney's voice rose above the din, and made several kehks look at them. Then he realized John had baited him again, to distract him. "Ha ha."

"Let me see."

John held out his hand and Rodney placed his hand in John's palm, and waited a minute.

"See?" Rodney said. "Covered with blisters." The blisters were on his left hand, in the curved part between his thumb and forefinger.

"Two," said John. "You'll live." He brought Rodney's hand to his face and planted a little kiss, one for each blister. Then dropped Rodney's hand and looked up at Rodney, just as the lights went out, leaving Rodney with a flash of the green of John's eyes, and the dim outline of John sitting on the pallet next to him.

"What about you?" Rodney whispered. "What about your mouth? That's a nasty smack you got and if we were in Atlantis, Beckett would say to get some ice on that, get some ibuprofen to take the swelling down, to--"

"Knock it off Rodney, there's nothing we can do."

Of course John was right, but it made Rodney feel bad, guilty, about the whole thing. Of course, kisses for blisters didn't actually help the blisters feel better, all you could do was leave them alone till they dried up. But at least John had tried, so what could Rodney do in return? There was almost nothing.

"Are we going to--um, should I, do you want me to--?"

He felt John moving next to him, and realized that the answer was yes, even before John said anything.

"Yes, Rodney, nothing's changed; wet, damp clothes and constant cold are a sure bet for pneumonia. Being cold lowers your resistance to--"

"Yes, yes," said Rodney, irritated. "But I don't know that it helped; the second we step outside, we're wet all over again." He snapped this out even though he knew that getting warm for even a little while helped keep the body's core temperature high enough so that it could drop a bit and still survive.

He peeled off his shirt and laid it across the end of the pallet, and took off his shoes and socks and pants as fast as he could. He was shivering so hard his teeth were clacking, and then he lay down, and felt John's long legs against his as John pulled up the blanket. Waiting no time (John was shivering harder than he was), Rodney pulled John to him, and didn't think about John's groin or pubic hair or chest hair or anything. He just thought warm thoughts and gingerly hugged John's back, clasping both hands behind him.

"Is this okay, are you going to be okay, are you warm enough?"

"Swear to god," John said, sighing. "You're like a brick oven, you're just--" John shuddered all over, as if his body was giving in to the heat. He even shifted closer to Rodney, hooking his arms around Rodney's waist, so their legs were woven together, knees knocking, ankles and toes laced together.

"Well, then," said Rodney, trying to keep his voice light. "If I were an oven, I'd put a pizza in me and bake it for you."

"With tomatoes and garlic," said John, smacking his lips next to Rodney's ear.

"And fresh basil," added Rodney, almost smiling, though there was no basil to be had. Not for miles.

After a minute, Rodney felt John tip his head so that his hair brushed the underside of Rodney's chin. It felt so close and intimate, for who in Atlantis, or maybe even the whole galaxy, had ever had John Sheppard so close like this, so as to feel him nuzzling under their chin? Rodney was willing to bet the number was very few.

"So," said John, his voice somewhat muffled by Rodney's neck. "Did you see anything useful today?"

"No," said Rodney. He felt a little irritated having failed this simple task. "I sorted twigs and watched people get beaten and worried about where you were. So I had a little bit more on my mind, more like, oh, I don't know. Survival?"

"Okay, okay," said John, in tones Rodney was sure he thought were soothing. Rodney was about to open his mouth and go off about it, he needed a good rant pretty much more than he needed anything, except maybe something to eat, and to be miles from where they were. He opened his mouth to start it, to let off some steam, when, to his surprise, he felt John's hand on his face.

Then John patted his face, and moved his hand around to cup the back of Rodney's neck, and suddenly Rodney felt so much warmer where John's hands were touching. Felt his skin settle down, and then, as John petted his neck, his brain settled down, too. It was almost like magic, if you believed that sort of thing.

"Okay?" asked John. "You okay now?" As he spoke, John's breath puffed against Rodney's throat, and he nodded.

"Yes," he said. "Sorry. I'm just--" He shuddered all over.

"I know," said John. "We're miles from Atlantis and our nice warm beds. But we'll get back there, I promise. You just have to stay calm and alert. Right? Are you with me?"

"Of course I'm with you," said Rodney. As if he'd ever not be with John in this. "I'll do better tomorrow. I'll pay attention, and you, you better pay attention to, and stick close so we don't get separated again. I don't think I could--" He was about to say something about not wanting to have to face Ghent on his own again, but then he remembered he wasn't going to tell John about that, so he snapped his brain down on that and finished with, "I don't think I could make another full day without you."

John's hair nodded against Rodney's skin. "Yeah," said John, low. "Me too."

Rodney felt the need to do something, something to let John know how much better it was having him there, rather than being alone, which would have been awful, and Rodney felt pretty sure if he had been alone that he wouldn't have lasted even this long. So he slipped an arm up John's back, and circled it around John's neck, gently, to pull him even closer and petted him.

"Think warm thoughts," he whispered in John's ear.

He felt John huff under his breath, almost a laugh, and expected John to pull back a little bit. But John didn't.

"I don't have to," he said. "You're like a fire."

Rodney smiled in the dark. If he couldn't kiss blisters or get a cold cloth for John's face, at least he could keep John warm.

*

The next morning, after breakfast (or what passed for it), Rodney stuck to John's side, almost hanging on to his brown tunic, just to make sure that if they were to be taken off somewhere, they'd be taken off together. John had told him once about the military technique of holding on to the other man's shirt, so you never had to wonder where he was, so Rodney did that. John didn't seem to mind, though normally he'd be hissing at Rodney to let him go, not that Rodney did a lot of hanging on to John's clothes back in Atlantis.

A guard came and counted out five kehks, Rodney and John among them, but the tightness in Rodney's chest wouldn't ease. He was never very good at this sort of thing, being adaptable, keeping his mouth shut, not judging. Sometimes he wasn't sure why John wanted Rodney on his team. Yes, he was smart, give him a computer or a puzzle of some sort, and Rodney was right at home, figuring things out, but not so much in situations like this.

The guard led them to a corner of the compound where there was a large pile of rocks and stones littering the ground in front of the wall. There were three, long-handled sledgehammers, and two pairs of yoked buckets. It was obvious that the task would be rock breaking, and someone would haul away the results. Without asking, the guard picked up the tools and threw them at each kehk, in turn. John caught the yoke of buckets, almost by reflex, and that left Rodney with the sledgehammer.

He hefted it in his hands and looked at John, panic rising in his throat.

"I can't do this, I'm not built for this, I can't--"

"Rodney," said John, and he kept his voice low, probably on purpose, because the guard was still standing right there, shouting at the kehk who'd failed to catch his sledgehammer properly. "Just take it slow. Ease into it, your body will get used to it, you're tougher than you think."

Rodney wanted to argue, very badly, and he had several choice rejoinders in response to this ridiculous assumption, but the guard was coming towards them, so there was nothing for it but to start working. So he walked up to the pile of rocks and looked at them, the way he would look at a problem on Atlantis, just waiting for the solution to spill itself out before him.

Some of the rocks were huge, some were medium sized, and they all looked hard and unyielding. Although, yes, if he tipped his head a little, he could see where one of the rocks might have a fissure built into it, and if he hit it there, right there, then he could split the rock more easily. Perhaps all the other rocks had some weakness in them, some split or pre-existing crack in them that Rodney could use to his advantage. Although John was the stronger of them both, Rodney thought that maybe he could do this, and if he went slow, he was less likely to strain something, which was important, since he doubted that the guards would give a damn if anyone developed sore muscles.

He lifted the sledgehammer and tested the weight in both hands. Then, swinging it back over his shoulder, he brought it down on the rock with the fissure, and felt the resounding crack. The rock didn't look like he'd even touched it, let alone smashed it with a sledgehammer.

"Was that my shoulder?" he asked John, feeling the backlash of the sledgehammer hitting solid rock go rippling up his arms.

"No," said John. "But that was good. Just keep doing that, and you'll be fine."

He'd be fine, but at the end of the day he'd be a puddle of goo and there'd be no Beckett to hand out any liniment for soreness, no ibuprofen for aching muscles or bones.

Rodney was smart, the smartest man in two galaxies, but that was in his own environment, in his lab, on Atlantis, in Russia, anywhere indoors, where there were buttons to push and whiteboards to write on, and always with walls between him and the environment. Not like here, where hoarfrost greeted them that morning, and hadn't burned off yet, though it was surely almost noon; not here, where there were thin wooden buildings, closed-mouth guards, constant mist, endless work, horrible food, and no coffee.

His whole body sagged, but then he felt John poking him.

"Keep working, Rodney, the guard is watching."

Guard. Watching. Right.

Rodney lifted the sledgehammer again, and thought about his task. Made himself think of breaking rocks and nothing else. Not of hot coffee or rest breaks or glasses of ice water, even. Especially not ice water; it was funny how he could get so thirsty in the cold.

Rodney hefted the handle in his hand. It was smooth from eons of sweat and skin oil, and so thusly, no splinters. But it was thick and heavy, and his wrists weren't used to the weight. Nor were his shoulders, nor his hips, his legs, or his ankles. Everything from the neck down strained as he raised the sledgehammer back over his head and brought it to bear on the large rock.

His aim was good, and the rock shattered in a satisfactorily efficient manner, sending shards over his boots, onto the cold dusty ground. There were lots of shards and flakes and pea-sized bits that would be perfect for building a road. Or, that is, perfect for building whatever the Skander guards were going to do with it. Rodney preferred to imagine that they were going to do something with it, because that was better than the alternative, that he was forced to break rocks with a heavy sledgehammer as some sort of torture and punishment and the resultant gravel would simply be formed back into rocks again (somehow), and he would actually be breaking up the same boulders day after day after day. That would drive him crazy.

"Colonel, here, take the--"

John knelt at Rodney's feet and started scooping up handfuls of gravel and putting them in the buckets, the yoke draped on his shoulders, the ropes falling across his knees. The gravel was sharp and flinty and John's hands were going to be ripped to pieces in no time. But there was no help for it; John had no choice, and neither did Rodney. They either worked, or they died. And they had to live long enough to get home.

When the buckets were full, John shifted the yoke on his shoulders and steadied the two buckets with his hands on the ropes as he came over. "I told you, Rodney, call me John, they don't need to know I have a military rank."

It was almost a snap, like the kind John made when he was really pissed off but willing to give Rodney one more chance to shut up, or be polite, or come up with the right answer. Rodney felt he usually got a lot of leeway with John, but maybe it was their situation that was making John snappy.

"You don't have to be so damn efficient, either, you know," said John. His glance flicked over the pile of gravel that Rodney had created. "Have I mentioned that there is no prize here for the most hard-working prisoner? Except you do have to keep working."

John nudged him as he lifted the buckets by the yoke on his shoulders, and Rodney realized that yes, he'd been standing there, doing nothing, and that was bound to attract the guards and their straps. Rodney blinked and lifted the sledgehammer in his hands again, and then John made a sound. It was a small sound, not like a sigh, or a humph, or any of those sounds John made when he was thinking. Then John made it again, and this time Rodney was listening. And watching.

John stood up, and, as polite as any cadet fresh out of the academy, covered his mouth with the back of his hand, and coughed. He dipped his head once to settle the yoke on his shoulders, and Rodney saw that there were beads of sweat along his hairline. Not sweat from exertion, that would be hard to do in cold weather, and it wasn't moisture from the air because for once it wasn't raining or snowing. John looked flushed and a little bit rosy across the cheeks and it was then that Rodney realized that John had a fever.

"John--"

"Knock it off, Rodney," said John. He put his hands near his neck and adjusted the curve of the yoke against it. "Don't worry, just work; I'll figure us a way out of here, but only if you can keep your damn mouth shut, you got it?"

Rodney nodded, and turned back to smashing rocks, and tried not to worry.

*

That night after the count, and after the nasty visit to the nasty washroom/latrine, Rodney stuck close to John's side and didn't say anything about it, though he kept his eye on John till John shrugged his shoulders to make Rodney stop it. Once in the barracks, Rodney got their blanket and as soon as the lamp went out, they stripped and pressed close and Rodney had never felt so tired. Everything throbbed all over his body, from the backs of his shoulders, to the tops of his thighs, and his wrists and forearms were on fire.

"You warm enough?" asked John in the dark, his hair tickling Rodney's chin.

The feel of that hair, alone, was enough to calm him down, so Rodney nodded. "Yes," he said.

"You're the only thing in this whole damn place that's warm," said John. He'd pushed smack up against Rodney's whole body like he wanted to become a part of it, shivering slightly as his body soaked up Rodney's warmth. Rodney let him do it and didn't say anything; at least he could give John this.

"I wish I had some ibuprofen. I wish I had hot milk with vanilla in it. I wish I had--"

"Yeah," said John. He patted the back of Rodney's neck, and stirred closer. "I know. Go to sleep now."

*

In the morning, there was no rain, but there was bad food for breakfast (again) and afterwards, a fight broke out amongst the kehks as they gathered to be assigned to their work details. Rodney got distracted, watching the guards storm in with their straps swinging, and the next thing he knew, John was going one way and he was going another. John looked pissed as he walked off, and Rodney felt like something had been ripped out of his chest, but with more guards coming close and barking out orders, there was nothing to do but to go where he was told.

He ended up sorting branches and twigs again, but at least time, the wood was a little dry and his hands had hardened up so that he didn't get any blisters. But his stomach knew, really knew, that there was no more food to be had, and so it was really screaming at him, loudly enough to be heard. The water at mid-day wasn't near enough, and Rodney really wanted a second dipper, and to hell with the germs. Except he didn't see anyone else getting seconds, so he figured that was out.

He remembered his promise to John, though, and didn't work as fast as he could and kept himself from speaking up about the various ways of increasing efficiency among the kehks. More food for one, and yes, those sorting boxes would be so very easy to make, it would be so easy. So useful. But he kept his mouth shut, and sorted twigs and missed John like crazy, even as it occurred to him to wonder where Ghent was and whether he could come by again and whether Rodney should say yes, maybe he could make some kind of deal. John sometimes made deals like that, although usually the people from Atlantis got the shaft at the end of it.

"Keep working, kehks!"

Rodney spared a glance over his shoulder, and kept sorting twigs. From time to time, he squatted down to spare his back, but that made the guards act all shifty and aggressive, so he would have to stand and sort, and feel the pain shooting down the backs of his legs from standing so much.

*

At the end of the day, it still hadn't rained, though it was chilly. It was some kind of miracle that he caught up with John right away too, so they could eat a terrible meal together, and stand next to each other for the count and visit the washroom/latrine, and it just made it better somehow, to be with John.

When they got back to the barracks, Rodney grabbed their blanket (it seemed to be his task, now), and found them a good bunk, in the middle on the bottom row. When he kicked off his shoes, he lay back on the pallet and watched John take off his shoes and socks, and tried to block out all the bustle around him.

John sat down next to him, for a minute in a way that told Rodney he was checking things out, maybe trying to see if there was a patch of light from the lanterns outside. When he lay down next to Rodney, he pulled up the blanket over them both and shifted till Rodney could feel John breathing against the side of his neck.

"Did you cough at all today?" Rodney asked.

"Well," said John, back to teasing, "I didn't have you kicking up rock dust with your Herculean efforts to break rocks. The kehk I was with today could barely swing the sledgehammer."

"Are you saying your cough is my--oh, never mind. What happened to the kehk?"

"They took him off," said John. His voice was perfectly flat in the near-dark, like this didn't matter to him at all, which told Rodney that it did matter, a lot.

"If you could have saved him, you would have."

"Yes," said John, dubious.

"You can't save everyone."

"I know," said John. "But I want to."

Now that they were laying still, the chill, damp air settled over Rodney's face, almost like a mask. The blanket wasn't much help, and he shifted, waiting for John to snap at him.

"C'mon, Rodney," said John, at last. "We don't have to take off all our clothes, but we can still get a little warmer."

"Okay," said Rodney, somehow comforted by obeying the order. Even if they were on an alien planet, you followed your team lead; it felt like if he did this, then all would be well.

He turned on his side, facing John and pulled John's lower hand to him and pushed it under his tunic. John's hand was a wedge of ice beneath Rodney's armpit, and Rodney clamped his mouth over a yelp of shock.

"What did you do, wash in ice water?"

"I hear it's good for the complexion," said John, teasing.

"Knock it off," said Rodney. "This is serious. Give me your other hand."

Rodney felt John's hand scoot up to rest against his chest. Tucking one arm down, to keep John's slowly warming hand in place, he took both of his hands and cupped it around John's free one. He rubbed it gently and then dipped his head to blow on it. John's fingers curled a little between Rodney's cupped palms, feeling a little like a trapped bird.

"I bet you do this for all the guys."

In the dark, Rodney rolled his eyes. "You don't have to keep my spirits up all the time, you know. I'm a grown man, I can have hope and keep a positive attitude as well as the next guy. So if you're trying to distract me, it only works so many times. I know our situation, I know it's serious. But you're going to find us a way out and back home, and that's all there is to it."

The rain started falling on the roof, finally, coming down with loud slaps. Somewhere, in the darkness, a kehk growled a curse and Rodney knew the roof was leaking. But not where they were, thank goodness. But still John didn't say anything.

"I don't blame you for our capture, if it's any consolation," said Rodney, keeping his voice low. The guards were liable to come in if they heard raised voices, and one kehk talking out of turn was enough.

"I don't either…blame me," said John, in a joking voice, but his heart didn't really seem to be into it. "So come one, warm your hands already. I'm getting old here."

"Just a minute," said Rodney. He rubbed John's hand a little bit more, enjoying the sensation of it, because back on Atlantis, this would never happen; if you needed to get warm, you took a hot shower or something. Then he released John's hand and tucked it down beneath his side.

"Okay," he said. "Cold hands here."

He reached for John in the dark, and when he brushed the rough wool of John's tunic, he lifted it with the back of his fingers. Then he slid his hand along John's side and up to his armpit, where it was warm, so warm, his fingers stared tingling. He should be used to this by now, they'd done it every night, but still, the sensation of skin on skin and feeling ribs move with breath, so slowly and evenly, was still new. Breathing wasn't anything he ever paid attention to, unless he was waiting for his turn to talk, and could hear his lungs struggling to burst into words.

"Now the other one," said John.

"No," said Rodney, "I'm good, I'm just going to--"

"McKay."

Rodney obediently put his hands on John's stomach, just to hear him yelp a little, though he felt bad right after, because this wasn't fun and it wasn't funny, and they were in serious trouble if John got sick, or if Rodney mouthed off and was beaten to death. Then all of a sudden, he remembered Ghent and his offer, and thought about telling John, and then decided not to, all in the space of a second.

"You okay, Rodney?" asked John.

His voice sounded very near, like he'd bent his head forward to ask Rodney this, his voice barely above a whisper. Rodney could feel John's breath on his throat.

"More or less," said Rodney. "I just realized I'm still hungry; lumpy stew and bad bread two times a day isn't going very far."

"I know," said John.

Now he scooted closer, shifting beneath Rodney's hands, dipping in close.

"I've checked the gate," said John, from right beneath Rodney's chin. "I've watched the guards, I've watched the kehks. The whole place has a routine and it's tighter than a nun. But something'll break loose, okay? I think the best we can do is make a run for it; when I give you the signal, we go, okay?"

"Make a run for it?" Rodney lowered his chin till he brushed the top of John's head with it. "A run for it, are you crazy? I never can do sprints, even on my best days, and you--"

"Shhhhh," said John. "Don't get frantic on me, I just want you to be ready. Don't let your guard down by dreaming up new ways to sort twigs, you hear me? Always be watching."

Rodney nodded against John's head, and settled his hand, now warm, lower on John's side. Into the slant of his waist, along his ribs. Idly, he counted John's breaths, figuring it was better than counting sheep.

"You can stop that now," said John.

"Stop what."

"What you're doing."

Rodney blinked in the darkness.

"With your hand."

"I'm not doing anything."

With a grunt, John pushed Rodney's hand off him, and then his arm brushed against Rodney as he reached down between them. Then he tugged on something, shifting a little away from Rodney as he did so.

"What are you--"

"It happens," said John. "Friction, and heat, and you're like a damn stove here."

Rodney snatched his hand back and pulled it tight against his chest. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to, of course, you know that--"

"Just buddies," said John. "It happens. Don't be squeamish."

"You must be really relaxed, then," said Rodney, feeling foolish and so very blatantly inexperienced.

"A little. I'm getting used to the routine."

Rodney nodded, and felt the cold air moving between their bodies. It made him shiver.

"Let's go back to back," said John. "You can conduct a lot of heat that way."

Without waiting for Rodney to answer, John withdrew his other hand and turned over. The pallet was narrow, so Rodney felt the knock of his knees, and an elbow. Then John settled and was still.

"Sorry," whispered Rodney, but John didn't answer. So Rodney turned on his side, facing the opposite way, and pushed back a little till he felt the press of John's shoulder blades.

"It'll be fine, Rodney," said John. "Just go to sleep. And stick near, tomorrow; I don't want you getting assigned off somewhere where I don't know where you are."

Rodney folded his arm beneath his head, and vowed that he would do that. Being apart from John during the day meant that strange aliens took it upon themselves to proposition Rodney, and though it was over a billion to one odds that it would happen again, Rodney didn't want to take any chances.

Along his spine, the heat from John's body was gradually soaking into him, and really this was a good way to go, simply based on the surface area of a human back. John's back was bony, but just the same, there was lots of warm there, spreading out, catching Rodney's own heat and building from there. It was better than a damn stove, any day.

He waited till he heard John start to snore. Before, in Atlantis, and his whole life, really, he was used to sleeping along. But it was amazing how fast he'd adapted to sleeping with John, listening to him snore, which was consistent, and somewhat comforting in the dark. Like white noise.

*

In the morning, Rodney understood what John had meant the night before. It was routine now, the horrible breakfast, the work assignments, getting led over to where the rock crushing happened. If you could see it coming, if you knew how bad it was going to get, then, oddly, it wasn't so bad. Rodney knew he could crush rocks; he had managed several days on bad food and not enough water. If he could make it this far, he could keep making it.

When they were led to their work site, Rodney hefted the sledgehammer and thought about rocks and buckets and weather. And about John, who, while Rodney smashed and pounded, crouched at his feet and scooped up the broken stone and hauled it away in buckets. There was enough of a mist to keep the dust down, but he'd heard John coughing, deep and low, and watched John try to tuck the cough into his elbow.

This happened several times, and by mid-day, the vague hope that it was just John clearing his throat vanished. Rodney realized what was going on when John tried to take a dipper of water and his hand shook. Then, when he probably thought no one was looking, he swallowed the water, and then coughed to clear his throat and then he hawked it up like a bark and spit on the ground, covering the mark with dirt.

He must have realized he was being watched. John looked at Rodney, then, his face tight, brows drawn together, as if he had a headache, and Rodney didn't know if it was really just a cough or if it was something worse, like pneumonia, the flu, or just a really bad cold. It didn't matter, any one of those could be a killer in an environment like this, and Rodney hated it that he knew exactly how any of those could kill John. A fever in any case would make him weak and stumbly and the guards would be pissed and beat him again, or, worse, take him to town and toss him through the ring.

When they'd arrived, they'd taken a man off to toss him through the ring because he was too sick to work. And on the other side of the ring, the man would be wraith-bait or eaten by animals or just expire and become dirt-fodder. If that happened to John, then John would be dead and Rodney would be all alone, and he'd never survive it and even if he did and somehow managed to get back to Atlantis in one piece, he'd never be forgiven for coming home alone.

"You, kehk!"

Rodney blinked and focused on where he was. A guard was standing there, strap in hand, right in front of his face.

"You working, kehk? Or do you want a beating?"

This didn't warrant an answer, you didn't answer the guards with words; instead you had to figure out what they wanted you to do and do it. So Rodney nodded, and lifted his sledgehammer and started smashing rocks. And kept smashing till the guard went away.

His hands started feeling like claws around the wooden handle and his fingers had grown into solid blisters. Secretaries and cashiers in the grocery store had nothing on the tendonitis he was developing. Tendinitis and carpel tunnel syndrome and probably a good case of plantar fasciitis while he was at it.

He kept smashing the rock into gravel, feeling himself grow warm as the sun moved towards evening behind the clouds, until John came back with empty buckets, which gave Rodney an excuse to put the sledgehammer down and help load the buckets.

"I can, you know, carry that for you," said Rodney, reaching out to tug the yoke from John's shoulders. "I wouldn't mind the walk, it gets so boring over here in this area, I can only see the top of the compound gate from here, and it would make a nice change--"

"No, Rodney," said John. "You know they don't like it when we switch positions."

"Um, right, but--" Then Rodney stopped. John was right, of course, but he had to do something to keep John from overdoing it. Everyone knew that with a bad cold, at the very least, you should be in bed, with a hot water bottle and plenty of chicken soup (with rice, if possible) to stave off the achy feeling, and if John could stay ahead of it by not doing too much--

To his horror he realized that John was already swaying on his feet, and had gone pale, and was shivering. Whatever it was that he had that was racing through him, so it probably was not a cold. Rodney just hoped it was the flu rather than pneumonia, because a case of the flu he could deal with, with hot drinks and warm blankets and a place for John to lie down, except he had none of those things. "But let me--"

He reached for the rope and tugged on it, and John let Rodney take it as he leaned to cough as quietly as he could and spit on the ground. This was alarming right there because John never would bow to the inevitable, even if it was as simple as this, as simple as Rodney taking his burden for him. And while Rodney carried the buckets of gravel over to the cart, John could pretend to smash rocks; there was plenty of gravel piled up to make it look good--

"Kehk, down."

Rodney turned to look. The guard was right there, strap in hand, and he glared at Rodney like Rodney had punched him in the stomach and spit in his eye. Rodney had done none of these things, it was ridiculous that--

"I said down."

The guard hefted the strap and Rodney went to his knees, feeling clumsy, feeling the cold dirt soak through his thin, woven pants, the dirt sift into his shoes. He tugged at his shirt, and pulled on the cloth over his shoulders to drag it up to expose his naked back to the chilly air. He'd seen it, seen John do it, and had seen what happened when you didn't do it, didn't let them beat you. They shoved you down in the dirt and beat you twice as hard, and Rodney didn't want that. Couldn't take it. Because if they beat him into a pulp, then who would look after John?

He pulled the shirt all the way up, and tucked his chin to his chest. And took a breath as the strap whistled in the air and landed on his bare skin with a smack. The blow made him lurch forward and he caught himself on his hands, feeling the bite of the gravel on his palms. The guard hit him and he took it, swaying with the blows, catching his breath to hold himself still for the next blow, and the next, and the one after that. It wouldn't kill him, just bang him up, and would end soon, if he just held still, very still, and let the pain go through him. But it hurt, like the leather was cutting him, and maybe it was, a little, but he grit his teeth and felt his eyes grow hot, and tried not to make a single sound.

Then the beating ended.

"Up, kehk."

Rodney yanked his shirt down and stood up, stumbling to catch his balance as the blood rushed through he welts on his back. He blinked at the guard, through flecks of tears on his eyelashes, and didn't wipe them off.

"You'll work at what you're assigned, until otherwise told, understand, kehk?"

Rodney nodded, and kept his mouth shut, and then cursed as an errant tear escaped from his eyelashes and made its way down his face. He could feel it there, glittering in the cold, and the guard saw it.

He hated pain, everyone on Atlantis knew that, and they sometimes made fun of him for it, but they never stared. Like the guard was doing, like Rodney was somehow new and amazing because he could cry from pain. He would rather cry from laughter, though he seldom got a chance to do that, to laugh so hard that tears would roll down his cheeks and his stomach would hurt, and then he could collapse in a boneless pile and enjoy the exhausted feeling.

Another tear followed, full of woe, after its brother. Rodney slammed his eyes shut, hard, and wished them away. He calculated the effects of the air against the salinity of his tears, and figured it would only be seconds now, volubility of so many air molecules against tension of so many grams of saline solution equals--

"Back to work, kehk," said the guard.

Rodney heard footsteps walking away, and opened his eyes. There was John, standing there, looking at Rodney. He wasn't staring, John never stared, he was just as likely to look away from you as at you, but he looked and he saw and Rodney frowned, feeling his mouth pull down, because soldiers didn't cry, and neither did scientists or grown men, for that matter. And yes, John was pissed.

"Don't ever do that again, McKay, you got me?" John glared at him, cheeks flushed again, eyes cloudy as though he'd been drinking just a little too much, which he really never did. It was the very bad cough and fever that simply couldn't be seen to. It was going to grab him and take him away, unless Rodney could do something about it.

Rodney nodded; John said his name like that, McKay, like a snap, when he was really mad, but Rodney figured it was the flu (and it was the flu, only that, it had to be) getting to him, the fever cooking his brain a little, and how was Rodney going to take care of him. Not that John would consider himself needing care, even though were only days into the Skander version of a Russian gulag, and already John was crumbling around the edges.

Normally a cold was a cold, and easily gotten over. Or a fever, with care. John seldom took care, but then, in Atlantis, the infirmary and Beckett's attentive care was never far away. Here, none of the things they needed were at hand. There was only the cold, damp air, the work, and the guards. Later there would be bad food, not enough water, and a hard pallet to lie on with only one blanket between them. At least there was a roof and walls around them at night.

*

They stood under a flap of canvas as the light, evening rain pattered over their heads. Rodney shuffled after John, holding a wooden bowl and spoon in his hand. With his free hand, he held on to the edge of John's shirt. He was freaking out, but he had John, and if he and John stayed together, they would be okay, and John would figure out a way for them to get free, if only Rodney could figure out a way to take care of him long enough for John to have time to figure it out.

The smell of the cooking pot wafted closer, and the heat of the small flames stirred smoke into the air. The stew would be tasteless and lumpy, the bread would be nasty, but it would be something to eat and besides, if they went slowly, they could stand next to the fire for a minute, and then maybe a minute after that. Rodney planned on making sure that John got more minutes next to the warmth than himself; he wasn't as cold as John nor was he sick. Not to mention that it was a very bad sign that John wasn't telling him to let go, damnit.

The line shuffled forward, and Rodney shuffled with it, keeping close to John, shifting a bit to block the gust of damp wind that snatched at their clothes. The toes of his loose shoes bumped the heels of John's, and still John didn't say anything.

John held up his bowl and the cook ladled a mess of stew into it, then he took a hunk of bread. Rodney dropped his bowl and pretended to fumble for it. His tunic rubbed up against his welts, but the line didn't move, which meant that John was able to stand right next to the fire. Rodney fumbled for it a good long minute until the guy behind him bumped into his back, and Rodney winced and stood up, figuring it was better than nothing. He held up his bowl and received his stew and his bread and shoved into John to get him to walk. There were rows of benches under another flap of tent, but no tables, so they sat on the benches and held their bowls on their knees. Carefully because if you spilled there were no second servings.

"Here," said John.

He was holding out his hunk of bread and right away Rodney could see it wasn't the ordinary bread. In the Third Camp, which is where they were, the bread was brown and coarse and tasted like wood, but in the Second Camp, there had been rumors that the bread was whole grain and evenly cooked all over and looked like it tasted like bread. Rodney had seen some of it come through like it was an accident, and the bread had wandered off on its own, seeking a new home. The bread was valuable and could be traded for more stew (which had protein), or Rodney, imagined, other things, though he couldn't think of what. Or you could simply eat it.

"Why?" asked Rodney. He didn't take the bread.

"Because I like the way your eyes light up when you're eating something nice."

Rodney didn't know what to say. He liked to eat, it was true, and sometimes Atlantis had nice things, and people shared, sometimes, and he remembered John bringing in some pastries from an Athosean woman he'd met, and he'd handed all the pastries out, to him, and Teyla, and Ronon and anyone else who had been nearby. And then he'd smiled as he'd watched them eat, taking none for himself.

"I don't like that bread," said Rodney. No way was he going to take that good, healthy bread from John, even if his mouth started to water at the thought of it.

"Bullshit," said John. "You know you want it."

"I only like white bread," said Rodney, making it sound prim. "Toasted with butter."

"Well you're not going to get any of that around here," said John. His eyes were steady, but Rodney wasn't going to budge either.

"You just eat that," said Rodney. "Next time, it'll be my turn, okay? Next time, I'll get the good bread, if there is any, because, after all, it will be my turn." This was easy to say because the odds against any good Second Camp bread being given to them two days in a row was breathtaking as well as staggering.

John frowned, and then looked at his bread. He dunked it in his stew and brought it to his mouth and ate it.

"Quit watching me eat," he said, his voice rough.

Rodney looked away. He dunked his coarse brown bread in his stew, and then, balancing the bowl on his knees, pushed the bread in with his spoon. He liked airline food and institutional food, and MREs just fine, but the stew was like eating vomit. He was just going to close his eyes and eat and pretend it was tasty, so John wouldn't have anything to worry about.

*

After supper, the guards hustled them into lines of ten by five in the middle of the compound. That's when the rain started to really come down. It was a curtain of wet, with heavy, thick, cold drops that trickled down his head and the back of his neck, setting his welts on fire.

Rodney wanted to scream out loud, it's ten times five, you idiots, that's 50, we're all here, are you blind? But screaming got you in trouble, speaking your mind got you in trouble, speaking at all wasn't encouraged, and besides, if they pulled Rodney out of line to beat him, after that they would only start at the beginning again, with the counting, and it would be even longer till John was under shelter.

Rodney flicked a glance over at John. The rain was plastering his dark hair to his head, and was running down the sides of his face. He was shivering again, and staring straight ahead, jaw clenched as if willing himself not to shake, not to be sick. A night of sleep would do John good, and Rodney could use part of the blanket to dry John's hair, and--

John coughed, and the guard froze, and Rodney closed his eyes and willed the counting to continue, the damn counting, and that the guard wouldn't demand which kehk made that noise, and continue demanding it till John stepped forward. John struggled not to cough again, but Rodney could hear his breath whistling high in his throat. No one could do that, when you had to cough, you coughed, it was an ingrained reflex, you had to--but John held on to the cough and the counting continued, and the ground beneath their feet grew wet and slippery.

"Fifty kehks," said one of the guards. "All clear."

Rodney rolled his eyes, but he kept his comments to himself. After all, where was there to go? If you could make it through the wooden gates (barred and guarded), then you had at least five miles of muddy, rough track into town. In the rain. Then you had to get through town to the stargate on the other side. Anyone could spot a kehk at a mile off, and there surely were rewards posted for bringing in a runaway? That's how they did it, places like this, based on forced labor and slavery, and lack of human rights, and the lack of common human decency. And never mind that they were all aliens; on any planet, someone was an alien; Rodney and John were now aliens on Skandar. It didn't matter; common human decency and hot coffee should prevail everywhere--

He felt a tug on his shirt, and opened his eyes. It was John, holding on to the bottom of Rodney's tunic, shivering and wet, looking drowned and feverish.

"Yes, yes, let's go, sorry, so sorry," said Rodney, panic rising along with the guilt, "I was just, well, never mind--are you cold? We need to get you warm."

He tugged on John's tunic right back, and they shuffled along with the group of kehks towards the thin-walled, wooden barracks. Rodney took a blanket at the door from the guard, and then made a beeline to a spot in the middle of the lower bunk. He was thinking that at least there, the heat from other bodies might make the air a little warmer, away from the roughly-hewn walls and the whistling wind and the damp that crept up from the wide-planked floor.

Rodney found the right spot, and hoped that the pallet was dry all the way through, and glared at anyone who came close. He thumped down on his knees, and pulled John with him. Then he picked up the blanket and tried to dry John's hair.

"Quit fussing, you're not my mother," said John, snapping white teeth. "Besides, you'll just get it soaked--"

"Well, you do have a lot of hair," said Rodney, trying to be funny. He patted John's hair a few more times and then let the blanket drop. "If you shook like a dog, you'd drench everyone in the place, so let's just keep all that water between us, okay? 'Cause I don't want an uprising from the masses here, they're already giving me the stinkeye for taking the best pallet. It's the thickest one around, did you see? The one with holes that we slept on the first night is over in the corner, where it's dripping, but I don't think--"

John didn't stop him talking, but Rodney let his words trail off just the same. There were circles of exhaustion beneath John's eyes, and while the flush of fever had trailed off from John's skin, now he looked pale, scary pale.

"You can cough now," said Rodney. "The guards have locked the door."

He nodded, to show he meant it, and John sagged forward to bury his head against Rodney's shoulder. He coughed right into the cloth, and the cloth was so thin that Rodney felt the mist of John's warm breath, the force of the cough against his skin.

On their first day there (an eternity ago, it seemed) when the kehk had collapsed, and Rodney had been close enough to hear the kehk's breath wheezing in his chest. On to the wagon he'd gone, taken away as the alien oxen hefted the wheels into motion, and they never saw the man again. If you were sick, you were gone, and that was it. The guards couldn't hear John cough or they'd come to take him away.

Rodney cupped his hand around the back of John's damp head, and nodded, though John's eyes were closed.

"Go ahead," said Rodney. "Just cough if up, and if there's gunk, it'll dry, mucus dries in a second, and it'll flake off--

John coughed two or three times more. The coughs shook his whole frame. Then he swallowed. "Not going to get my snot on you," he said. "Might make you sick." He kept his head there, forehead pressed hot, against Rodney's shoulder.

"Actually," said Rodney, grimacing a little, "the color of your sputum is a good indicator of what's wrong with you, whether it's white or green or red, and if we--"

"It's green," said John, as he sat up.

Rodney thought how odd it felt to be thinking of the color of John's spit, and having John tell him, and how John probably wouldn't do this with anyone else. Beckett, maybe, if he were here, but Beckett would probably be thinking less of self-survival and more about the Geneva Convention and demanding antibiotics for all the kehks, and all with no thought to his own safety. Except that would get Beckett killed quicker than anything, and leave no one to look after John. Rodney would keep his head down and make sure they both survived.

"If we use the blanket as a pillow and you prop your head up on it--" said Rodney, meaning to suggest this quite forcefully; John would sleep easier if his head were elevated, even if only a little.

"Then we have no blanket. We need the blanket."

Someone doused the lamps, and they were in darkness and the smell of thick damp, but Rodney knew the expression that would be on John's face, just from the sound of his voice. It'd be all straight lines and narrowed eyes and mouth, and that stare that told you to back down, or else.

"You need to take your clothes off," said Rodney, to the darkness.

"Yeah," said John. But he wasn't moving.

Rodney wanted to say that his hands were too cold, that John was shivering, and that he should hurry up already, and he knew John knew this--

"Let me help you," said Rodney.

"I can do it, McKay," said John.

Now John was getting irritated, but there was nothing Rodney could do, but go ahead with it, as they had the past nights, in order to survive. At least he could do this part, at least he could pull off of his clothes, and drape them, and warm his hands under his armpits before he helped John.

"Here, let me," said Rodney. He took off John's clothes, and laid them out. Then he lay down on the pallet and tugged John to him, bare skin on bare skin, feeling normal and good and right. But this time, he pulled John a little on top of him, because the least he could do was be more insulation between John and the floor, and the cold air that circulated up from the damp ground beneath the foundation.

John flopped down, half on top of Rodney, as if he couldn't help himself, or hold himself upright one more minute, and that made it worse somehow. John sprawled, a lot, actually, but he never flopped. He was always more like a cat who arranged himself as he wanted to be, and then relaxed. The flopping was a sure sign of John's exhaustion.

As John settled against him, his weight pressed Rodney into the pallet, which made his back sting and itch like crazy, but he didn't say anything about it because there was nothing anyone could do. Also, he was distracted by John's chest hairs as they scratched against Rodney, and his leg hairs tickled, and his dick, yeah, bumping Rodney's hip, but that was okay, he was used to it now. Then Rodney heard him sigh.

He pulled John's hands to his skin, taking John's ice cold fingers and shoving them into his armpit, and warmed John up, before warming himself on John.

When John had first given the lecture about just buddies, John had looked at him hard and steady, and Rodney got the feeling that John thought that Rodney didn't like to be touched and was getting him ready for a whole lot of touching. Nothing could be further from the truth, Rodney loved to be touched. That's why he'd gotten a cat, because sex for him was rare, and usually awkward, and he got a charge out of Max rubbing up against him, even if it was only for some gushy food. He figured he'd like to be touched all over, but no one seemed to want to, so he usually held himself stiff and away, and untouchable. It was just easier.

But John had looked so stern about it, and so worried for Rodney, that Rodney didn't have the heart to tell him that it would be no problem. And yes, he'd read about the dangers of hypothermia and understood the need to stay warm, and how to stay warm, and in fact, he could explain exactly how skin-on-skin worked, and how the molecules in the skin itself reacted to the temperature of what was touching it, and when that was other skin, it would reach towards the comfort of warmth.

John wasn't up for discussion, at that point, so Rodney had nodded and kept his mouth shut and figured it wouldn't be that bad.

"C'mon, McKay," muttered John now, against Rodney's shoulder. "Just do it already."

"Okay," said Rodney, blowing on his fingers. "It'll only be cold for a second, right? You know, it's amazing how skin reacts to something cold, it shuts down, but when it's cold skin, it reaches out, like it knows, somehow, that it's touching more skin, someone else's skin, usually, but it's not like skin is sentient, so how do the molecules know?"

"Rodney."

Rodney took John's hand in his hand, and warmed John's fingers against his own palm, but there was really nothing else to do but put John's fingers against his own side and slide them up to his armpit. Rodney yelped in his throat, but the heat-sensing thing that skin did quickly jumpstarted into action. Then Rodney curved his fingers along John's side, and up to his armpits, being careful to keep from yanking on John's armpit hair, and felt the warmth seep into his hand; he'd not realized that he'd been so cold, so John was right, this would help. John was usually right about these sorts of things, having been in places where these kinds of things were commonplace, soldiers in foxholes keeping each other alive.

He pulled John close till their chests were touching. John had ribs that Rodney could feel, and his heart thumped beneath those ribs, and his breath rattled somewhere near Rodney's ear, in the darkness. Chest to chest always seemed to work, with John's chin tucked against Rodney's shoulder, and their hands on each other's skin. It had worked for the last few nights, and would keep working for however many more it would take John to get better and figure a way for them to escape. To get better was the key part of that equation, although Rodney figured he could carry John if it came to that, if only John could come up with a plan.

"Are you coming up with a plan?" he whispered, ducking his chin till it brushed against John's face.

"Every single minute," said John. He sounded raspy and phlegmy, but at least he wasn't coughing now.

"Quit talking," said Rodney, pretending he was more irritated than he was. "If I'm going to keep breaking enough tons of rock to recreate the Great Wall of China, then I need my rest and your talking is just going to keep me awake. So. Just. Sleep now."

Rodney straightened his fingers, and reached to cup them around John's side, feeling his ribs and the rattle in his lungs, and the heat of his skin. Heat was better than cold, heat would burn off a fever, which would help, at least a little.

He felt John's breath against his skin, and tried counting backwards from a hundred. If he relaxed, then John would relax and then they both could sleep. Sleep was restorative, sleep was good, and they would need it if they were to keep on going. And they had to. Rodney counted on being back in Atlantis inside of a week, coffee mug in hand, regaling his subordinates with tales of struggle and hardship, and of Colonel John Sheppard rescuing them singlehandedly. He smiled a little, thinking of it. John was the rescuing type; he'd find them a way out of this mess, easy.

*

With his shoulders sagging after another long day of breaking rocks, Rodney's worry about John had grown in alarming proportions. But John had growled any time that Rodney had fussed, so instead of doing that, Rodney had smashed rocks so hard he'd created a din that John could cough in. He did his best to block the guard's view of John spitting on the ground, and tried not to let his frantic, frantic worry show.

They stood for the count and then ate the bad food, side by side, their thighs touching. Under the brown clothes, John's skin felt like it was on fire and he was shivering, all the time. Afterward, Rodney dumped his bowl and John's bowl into the pile and tried not to think about how they would never be washed. At most someone might dunk them in cold, nasty roof water and call it good.

As they walked towards the washroom/latrine, John bumped into Rodney's shoulder. For a second, Rodney thought of bumping him back, just to be friendly, but then he realized that John had stumbled.

Instantly, Rodney slid his arm around John's waist and pulled him close, keeping him upright. It was amazing to think that just a short week ago, John's constant touch-me-not demeanor would have kept everyone at bay. Here, though, all bets were off and with pretty much night after night of complete nakedness, he know a lot more about the contours of John's body, almost better than his own. Enough to realize how hot John was, even through woolen cloth he was hot and yet he was shaking.

He reached up to push back John's hair from his forehead; John looked up with glazed eyes but didn't protest as he normally would have, back on Atlantis. His skin was on fire beneath Rodney's fingers. Rodney dropped his hand to trail it along the side of John's face, making John look at him.

"Stay with me, okay?" Rodney gave John's waist a small squeeze. "We'll use the facilities and I'll get you a drink of water and have you tucked in bed in no time." As if bed was a warm spot of comfort for a good night's rest.

John nodded against Rodney's hand, but didn't say yes or no or even quit fussing, which was almost worse than everything put together.

They shuffled together in line and when they got up close and stood in front of the open toilets. John staggered and clutched at Rodney's shoulder, making Rodney's heart rise in his throat.

"Can you stand, John? Can you use the--"

"Yeah," said John, low, tipping his head towards Rodney. "But can you just stand there, I gotta--"

Rodney wasn't sure what John wanted, but when John leaned into him, Rodney stiffened his legs and stood firm, keeping his arm wrapped around John. And watched as John unbuttoned his trousers and pulled himself out. But there was nothing else to do but stand there and hold John while he peed, because if he let go, then John would fall and the guards might come in and--

John finished and shook himself off and tucked himself away and wiped his fingers on the front of his trousers.

"You gotta go?" he asked.

Rodney nodded. He had to pee even though neither of them had drunk a lot of water during the day, there just wasn't the opportunity. But still the kidneys kept on processing and soon they'd start shutting down on account of the lack of water and proper food--

"Go on, Rodney," said John, unlacing Rodney's arm from around his waist. "I won't watch, I promise."

John linked both of his arms around Rodney's arm and pressed his hot forehead against Rodney's shoulders. He rolled it a little, as though to wipe the sweat away. But maybe he was also doing that to make good on his promise not to watch, even though, by this point, it was almost moot. Rodney clenched his jaw and pulled himself out and tried to pee but he was shaking and nervous and couldn't do it.

"Just close your eyes, and pretend you're alone," said John, softly.

Rodney closed his eyes and tried to pretend that John wasn't right there, hanging on him, but he knew that after days of this it just didn't matter, what hadn't John seen of him? So he held his breath and peed and then put himself away and did up the button.

Then without another word he led John to the head of the line of kehks, shoving his way up so they could stand next to the roofpipe and wash their hands directly under the stream of water. The kehks didn't protest this, but then, they seldom protested anything.

He watched anxiously while John rubbed his hands together, slow and exhausted. Then he realized that John was licking his lips, which were chapped and dry.

"You want some water--here--"

John batted Rodney's hands away and lifted his palm up under the stream, but his hand jigged and the water splashed (it was barely more than a trickle, without any rain that day), and Rodney realized that although the kehks didn't tend to complain, they certainly were jostling close, wanting their turn at the fresh water before the guards hustled them back to the barracks.

"Here, John, let me--" He circled his arm around John and held him close and steady and then put his palm under the slight stream water, to let it pool in his hand. John shot him a look, sharp and hard, as if trying to focus clearly enough to protest.

"Look," said Rodney. "I practically held your dick for you while you peed. The least you can do is hurry up and take a drink before the kehks trample us. Besides, my hand is cleaner than yours, so go on. Take a drink."

That got him a slight scowl as John shook his head and bent forward to put his mouth in the cup of Rodney's hand.

Beneath the run of water, Rodney could feel the slight suck of John's mouth in the center of his palm. He drank steadily for a few seconds and then Rodney felt the round pad of John's tongue on his skin so delicate and tender amidst the roughness of the latrine that it made Rodney shiver all over.

Then John pushed up and tipped his head. Rodney bent and drank from his palm and tried not to think about the water sparkling on John's lips. It wasn't useful and it wouldn't help.

When he was done, he held on to John and walked them out the door.

"You ever gonna let me go?" asked John.

Rodney shook his head, feeling the grimness of the situation land squarely on his shoulders. If he let go, John would fall. "Not until they pry my cold, dead hands away," he said. His heart thudded with misery. For without John, he could not survive.

"You say the sweetest things, Rodney," said John, but in a whisper meant only for Rodney.

Yes, definitely, without John, he could not go on. So Rodney made no effort to hide the fact that he was practically carrying John as he pushed John ahead of him, he didn't care who was watching. The last thing John needed was to get even more drenched; where Rodney's hand was on his back, the tunic was dripping.

"I'm going, I'm going," muttered John, in that low, soft way he did when he felt like no one could hear, because he was really talking to himself.

As they went through the door, Rodney snatched the blanket from the guard, and kept pushing through the noise of their fellow kehks, who were stirred up by the ever-changing weather, or by the long count, or whatever other alien thing got people to talking at the end of the day. Their voices buzzed in Rodney's ears, but he only had his eye on one thing.

"In the center of the room," said Rodney.

"You know, I know this," said John, sounding faint, even if the words were snotty.

When they reached their spot, Rodney snapped, "And take off your shoes, and socks, right now. I'll take care of them."

As John did as he was told, Rodney hid his alarm at John's obedience by looking around the room. Maybe there was a kehk would taken a blanket and then had suddenly died. The room was freezing and damp and Rodney needed an extra blanket. He needed to warm John's skin with his own and then wrap John up with that blanket, and he needed it badly. But although the kehks all moved slowly and tiredly, none of them was dead. Thus, no spare blankets.

Rodney stood there and let John lean against his thigh, with his mouth open, practically in Rodney's crotch as he coughed, long, jagged coughs. Rodney used his body like a shield while he draped their socks and arranged the shoes at the end of the bunk. Then he stretched to peel off his tunic.

As he leaned over to drape the tunic over the shoes, John's hands tightened on Rodney's thighs, gripping them tight.

Rodney froze. "What? What is it?"

When John didn't say anything, Rodney bent close, taking John's face in his hands, looking at him. John tipped his head back and let Rodney touch him.

"Your hands are cool," said John.

"Oh, then I'll--" Rodney jerked back to take his hands away, but John placed his hands on top of Rodney's hands to keep them in place.

"Leave them," said John, sounding like fog was moving though his lungs. "I'm all hot, and your hands are cool, like a cool cloth, I--"

Then he broke away with a series of barking coughs, his mouth open, shoulders hunched. He sank to the pallet, all curled up and Rodney rushed to hover over him and block the sounds and rub John's back with the flat of his hand, feeling John's ribs beneath the damp tunic. It was going to get worse before it got better, and it wouldn't matter how much Rodney tried to shield John because soon he wouldn't be able to stand up, and then they'd catch him and toss him through the ring--

Finally John leaned over and spat on the floor and Rodney used his foot to smear it, warm and slimy beneath his toes, but he didn't want anyone to see it and report back, though he knew this was ridiculous, as the lights were just about to go out.

"You're soaked through, here, let me take off--"

"You just want to see me naked, don't you," John said, with a rasp. His hair flopped on his forehead, and he had his arms crossed over his chest, and was shaking so hard Rodney almost couldn't get a grip on him.

"Yes, naked, suddenly now I want to see you naked, and all sweaty and filthy, just like you are now, because I've not seen you naked at all since we've arrived, and I'm dying to get a look at your--oh, shut up, just please shut up and breathe." He forced John's tunic off and spread it over his own, and rubbed John's bare back with his hand, up and down, leaning close. Willing it to be okay.

He took off John's trousers, and tucked John's naked body under the blanket. John reached for him, just as the lights went out and Rodney hurried to take of his trousers and drape them, and scoot under the blankets. Everything was sopping; they'd be barely dry by morning.

He hauled John to him, feeling the rattle in John's chest as clearly as if it were in his own.

"Just keep breathing, okay?" His voice broke as he said this, and he tucked John's head against his chest, and dipped down to kiss John's temple, tasting sweat and dust and sickness.

John coughed in response, his hands moving under the blanket to circle around Rodney's waist; nothing they hadn't done before, but John's hands felt so light and weak that Rodney found his throat closing up and his face grew hot. He tried to scrub at his face, but John's hand reached up to capture his.

"You cryin', Rodney"? John asked, his voice rising like he was preparing for the biggest mock-fest ever. "Nobody cries over me."

That just made it worse and Rodney found himself pressed against John, as hard as he could, shaking from it, and John pulled him down and close, so Rodney could hide his face against John's neck.

"Don't cry over me, buddy, you just get yourself out of here--"

"And don't you talk like that, ever," said Rodney, hissing into John's skin. "I'm not crying, I'm a grown man, a scientist, for god's sake, the smartest man in two galaxies."

He took a breath and willed himself to calm down, for the hot, burning feeling in his eyes to go away. But it didn't, and he felt the dampness on his cheeks mixing with John's sweat. "And I'm not leaving you. Not ever. If they toss you through the ring, then they're going to have to toss me too."

For a moment, John was perfectly still, and then he moved, shifting down, so their shoulders were level. Everywhere John's bare skin touched him burned with fever. He felt John's hands on his face, hot, calloused hands, but they were gentle, fingers along his cheekbone, his jaw. It was so dark, Rodney couldn't see John's expression, though he could feel the stillness in John's body, the kind that wanted Rodney to pay attention and listen.

"I felt what you did there," said John. "Were you kissing me goodbye?"

Rodney felt the frantic need to take John's hands off his face, but even when he put his hands on John's hands, he couldn't. John leaned in close, one thumb brushing the tears from the line of Rodney's cheekbone. Then he touched his mouth beneath Rodney's eye, kissing the tears away like he had kissed Rodney's blisters after Rodney's first day of smashing rocks. Rodney hung on to John's hands, letting his grip slip down to John's wrists, feeling the heat of fever there, the bones beneath John's skin.

"That's okay," whispered John, his chapped lips brushing against Rodney's temple. "'cause here's me kissing you goodbye." He kissed the corner of Rodney's eye, and then brushed his mouth across Rodney's forehead, and then rested his forehead against Rodney's forehand, breathing against Rodney's skin.

"And I want you to listen to me. You listening?"

Rodney nodded, tears drying like streaks on his face, his whole body tightening; he didn't like goodbyes at the best of times, and this was the worst. He knew what was coming. His whole body knew it.

"When the guards take me through the ring, you don't get to follow, and that's an order."

"No," said Rodney, his voice coming out like a frog's croak. "No."

"It's an order, Dr. McKay," said John, using his full title for the first time in days. "I'm the team leader and what I say goes."

"No!" Rodney said it loud enough to rouse the guards but he didn't care. "There's no way--no way I'm standing by and doing that!" He tried to push John away, hands batting in the dark, but John managed to capture both of Rodney's hands, and pressed them against John's chest, and Rodney realized that John was heaving with the effort not to cough.

Then, John's other hand snaked around the back of Rodney's neck, and John pulled him close and kissed him on the mouth. "Colonel John Sheppard orders you to stay behind and survive. You got that?"

"I'm not military," said Rodney, feeling stubborn and ready for a fight. But then he realized that John's hand had gone slack, and John's head was resting heavily against his shoulder. So he wrapped his arms around John and pushed his hair off his forehead, and smelled John's sweat and his sickness, and resolved himself to hang on, no matter what John said.

*

In the morning, John acted like he felt a little better. He almost managed a full-fledged smirk at Rodney as they stood in line for lumpy stew and bad bread. As they sat side by side on the benches and ate, Rodney noticed there was a large tear in the flap over the benches, so it was lucky that it hadn't started raining. The clouds hung low, but there were patches where yellow was trying to break through, like an old bruise bleeding pus.

"It's a miracle," said John, trying to keep his voice low as the guard pointed them towards their task of breaking stones and hauling gravel.

"No talking, kehk," said the closest guard with a snap.

When they were taken to the rock crushing area, Rodney grabbed the sledgehammer before John could suggest they switch off tasks, because although the buckets were heavy, swinging the sledgehammer was harder to do. John started scooping up the gravel that was there from the day before, using his bare hands. As he squatted down next to the buckets, he turned his head to keep from breathing in the dust, which hung thickly in the damp air, which seemed to set John to coughing.

But John didn't say anything about it or complain, he just wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Shit, c'mon McKay, don't stare. Just help me fill the buckets up."

Rodney bent down, and started using his hands to scoop up the gravel to put it in the buckets. The flinty gravel was sharp, and he knew his hands would be torn up completely by the end of the day, but he had to help John because--

"You, kehk, what are you doing?"

Rodney looked, and a guard was pointing a strap right at him. And there, just beyond the guard, stood Ghent, talking with another guard, and looking at them, with an expression that seemed like it wanted to indicate that he had no interest whatsoever in the small drama that lay before him.

"Answer me, kehk!"

Distracted, Rodney stood up, and John stood beside him/ Rodney's mouth opened, while his mind did a frantic, but completely unproductive, churn.

"I'm, uh, scooping gravel?"

"You'll do the task assigned to you, until told to stop." The guard raised the strap over his head. "Down, kehk."

John moved forward, and Rodney could tell he meant to stand between Rodney and the guard, to offer himself up like a whipping boy in Rodney's stead. But the guard merely shoved John hard enough to push him to the ground, and then the guard turned to Rodney, eyes glittering beneath the fur of his hat.

"Down now, kehk, or I'll ship you through the ring."

Rodney fell to his knees and pulled up his tunic as fast as his shaking hands would let him. One glance told him that John was still down, pushing up on his elbows, grimacing like something hurt him. Rodney almost got up and went to help him up, but the guard started beating him, with hurried sharp strokes that cut into his skin, feeling like razor wire. Then came five hard blows, all in a row, slamming down hard enough to rock Rodney off his knees and into the cold dust.

"Now, get back to work, kehk," said the guard, hitting Rodney one more time for good measure.

Rodney lay on his side, trying to catch his breath, trying not to think about the dirt getting into the newly opened skin on his back.

"Get up, Rodney," said John, with a hiss.

Rodney watched John struggle to his feet, breath wheezing in his lungs, and then he held out a hand for Rodney.

"Just get up," he said, eyes blazing. "If you stay down, you're dead."

Rodney wasn't sure if that wasn't the better option right at the moment, but John stood there, insistent, so Rodney took the held-out hand, and tried not to pull John back down with him as he stood up.

"Why do you always do that," asked John, close, teeth bared.

"I wasn't taking a beating for you again," said Rodney. "But he was pointing at me--"

"God damn it, Rodney." John's breath rasped in his chest.

"I'm sorry, I said I was sorry, I didn't mean to help you, I just forgot--"

"No trading tasks, you got it?" John could bellow quietly when he wanted to. But then he started coughing, deep in his lungs. He covered the coughs with his the back of his hand, and bent to loading gravel in the buckets with his other hand.

"Just start working," said John. "It'll go away, and I'll make it go away."

Rodney stood there for a second, wanting to do something, but just across the compound, Ghent was watching him. If he reached out to help John, then Ghent might see this and take them as friends. Then he might take it upon himself to use John as leverage, to make Rodney accept his so-called sanctuary. Rodney would rather not help John ever again, if it meant he'd be taken away.

So he kept his hands close to his own body, and moved past John without even looking at him. Then he picked up the sledgehammer and started breaking rocks with it. Lots of rocks and boulders and stones, all into millions of tiny, little, gritty pieces. He imagined they were the heads of all the guards, and the biggest one was Ghent's.

*

It was afternoon, and the sky actually continued to look like it might forget to rain. Supper was far away, and would be as awful as ever, and though Rodney was still (always) hungry when he hefted the sledgehammer, he felt like he could keep doing this today. Even though his back ached when he moved it a certain way, and the blood thumped in a low, irritating way beneath the multiple welts, he rolled his shoulders to loosen them up. His muscles had adapted to the work, even his hands no longer felt tender against the slick wooden handle.

His only worry was John, who'd gotten worse. He was flushed with fever and hunkered on his heels at Rodney's feet. John's shoulders sagged, his head drooped. His skin was paper grey and dry; he shivered and looked up at Rodney with a flash of red-rimmed eyes just before he crossed his arms over his knees and ducked his head to cough.

This tugged at Rodney's insides, hard. If only John could rest, even for a day, and Rodney could ply him with vitamin C and lots of Jello, whatever it was that John needed. But there was none of that; they couldn't stop, not even for a second. John would never get better if they didn't and if John never got better, then who would rescue Rodney?

John raised his head and unfolded his arms to reach for the pile of gravel, the remains of Rodney's efforts from the morning. His hands shook, even before John lifted so much as a single grey flake.

"John," said Rodney. He bent low, pretending to adjust the non-existent cuffs on his pants. "Just let me do it. You rest, as much as you can--just. Just sit there."

John nodded, not looking at Rodney, looking away and as he folded his arms across his knees and rested his chin there, Rodney realized how bad it really was. John hadn't even protested, didn't have the energy to do that much. Rodney would have to work for the both of them, then. He lifted the sledgehammer and started breaking rocks. Any old way, not looking at the clefts or shears to make the pieces uniform. That wasn't important now. All he could do was break the rock, and then carry it, for John.

He broke stones, hefting the sledgehammer over his head, for a good hour, until he had a pile of gravel. He helped John stand up and gave him the handle of the sledgehammer to prop himself up on while Rodney bent to scoop the gravel into the buckets with his bare hands.

John rested, still breathing hard, but it looked, or at least Rodney hoped it did, that John had just stopped breaking rocks with the sledgehammer and was resting while Rodney did his part. The guards were very picky about who did what, each man was to tend to their own talks, and if you couldn't work you got tossed through the ring. Rodney could still hear the screams of the man from that first awful day, as he'd been carted across the grounds and thrown through the ring. Rodney couldn't even remember if the guards had even looked at the DHD when they'd dialed.

Rodney managed two rounds of breaking stones, then filling the buckets, then hoisting the gritty, wooden yoke on his shoulders, to carry the buckets to the waiting cart. By the time he came back for the third go-round, he was sheened with sweat and almost warm all over. Still hungry, yes, starving, but there was nothing that could be done about that.

He reached to take the handle of the sledgehammer from John, but John gripped the handle, his fingers going white.

"John, no--let me--I'm telling you--"

"And I'm telling you," said John low, "I'm fine. Got my second wind and everything."

"You never even got your first wind," said Rodney, not letting go even as John tugged. John had only the strength of a child so it was easier than it should have been.

"C'mon, Rodney, you're making me feel like I'm a 90 pound weakling here. It's not good for my ego, being team leader and all."

"Your ego is the least of my worries and isn't it just like you to be more concerned about your manly pride rather than, oh, I don't know, that cough of yours that won't go away?" Rodney wanted to add a litany about the host of other things he could see that were wrong with John, the glazed eyes, the paperwhite skin, and most alarming, that the head of normally looking jaunty hair was now flat and lifeless against John's head.

"When your hands stop shaking, then I'll let you hold the sledgehammer. But for now--" Rodney nodded firmly to show he meant it and then pushed down on John's shoulders to get him to hunker down on his heels and rest. John did as Rodney directed and the worry sprang up in Rodney's chest all over again.

He lifted the sledgehammer, determined to smash his allotment of rocks in his pile, and was willing to do the pile of the guy working next to him, if only John didn't have to move, if only John could rest.

"You, kehk!"

Rodney jumped and turned around. One of the guards was walking towards them. John tried to get up but Rodney moved fast, shielding John from the guard's gaze as best he could. But at the same time, he unbalanced John so that the only thing he could do was clasp a fold of Rodney's brown pants and hold on tight.

"You, kehk! You're supposed to do your work."

"I was," said Rodney, trying to keep his voice steady. "Just picking up the sledgehammer now, as you see, yes, just picking it up to--"

"You were crushing rock and then carrying it, kehk, and that is strictly forbidden. Down, kehk!"

As he watched the guard unhook the strap from his belt, Rodney's heart raced, making him gasp out loud. This was going so badly, so quickly; two beatings in one day was simply too much. He gripped the handle of the sledgehammer and thought very briefly and fiercely about using it to smash the guard's head in. Then he would throw John over his shoulder and run as fast as he could down the mountainside into town, and dial the gate, thus bringing both John and himself safely home to Atlantis.

"Now, kehk!"

He didn't have the strength, and even if he could bolster his quickly fading courage, there were anywhere from seven to ten guards between him and the compound gate, which was locked and guarded, and had pointy wooden stakes on the top. The battle was lost before he could even fight it.

He knelt at the guard's feet, keeping his body between the guard's and John's.

"Rodney," said John. His voice was almost a whisper.

"Shut up," said Rodney, hissing as rudely and annoyedly as he knew how. "It'll go quicker if you would just shut up."

Rodney pushed his knees into the hard, damp mud and bent his neck to pull up his shirt, exposing his skin to the chill air. At least it wasn't raining, at least there was that. Even though that didn't help much when the guard started whipping him; his skin felt thin beneath the leather, each blow breaking him open, making him want to scream, making his eyes water. He was no match for pain, not like this, constant, constant, repeating. He counted twenty-five blows when they finally stopped.

He got to his feet, pulling his shirt down, swaying. Wondering why the line of the trees beyond the tops of the compound fence was undulating, where was his sledgehammer? Where was John?

Another guard had come up to join the first. "That one hasn't worked all morning," said the second guard, pointing.

He was pointing at John.

"Better get the cart," said the first guard. He attached the strap back on his belt, not even looking at John; it was obvious which was more important to him.

Rodney found the sledgehammer in his hand. He didn't even know how it got there, but just as the second guard made to yank John to his feet, Rodney moved to intercept him. He shoved his own body in the way, and smacked the guard's hand away. Then he swung the sledgehammer in front of him, in a half circle in the air, marking the line.

"No," said Rodney. His voice shook already. "He's fine, he can work--John, get up. Show them."

The guards, both of them, were shocked into silence, but it wouldn't last. Especially if John didn't move. Which he wasn't.

"John." Rodney almost cried saying it. John had to get up on his own.

Rodney could feel John, right behind him, bracing one hand on Rodney's calf, and he could feel John's trembling muscles as he tried to stand up. It wasn't going to work if John couldn't do it. Rodney switched the sledgehammer to his left hand and reached back to snag John with his right hand. Without looking, keeping his eyes on the guards, he caught John under the arm and pulled. He must have pulled hard because John flew up, smashing into Rodney, a hot, trembling mess, but he was standing. Rodney hooked his arm around John's waist, held him close, felt John's hot, ragged breath across his throat.

"See?" said Rodney. His voice cracked like broken glass. "He's fine. He's standing. He's going to carry buckets of gravel all afternoon. I won't be able to keep up. No one will, because he's like Superman--or is it Batman, I can never tell--"

John's weight suddenly became much heavier and as Rodney dropped the sledgehammer, and turned, he struggled to catch John's body against his as John leaned in to cough, deep and hard and rattling. They couldn't pass the cough off as anything other than what it was but worse than that, John couldn't stand on his own. He could only sag against Rodney, not even holding on, until one of the guards reached to grab Rodney and jarred him, making him let go. John slithered down to the mud.

"Cart!" yelled the second guard.

"NO!" Rodney bellowed right back, right into the guard's face. He knelt in the mud and pulled John to him, sock-monkey limp, and hot as a tea kettle. Something broke in Rodney's mind as he held John in his arms, bigger than a snap, like a slab of granite cracking. John was sick, too sick to rescue anyone, not Rodney, not himself. Rodney was in charge now, he was the team leader, his team of one. It was his job to do the mission and then bring the team home in one piece. The cost to the team leader didn't matter. That was the way John always did it, so that was what Rodney knew he had to do.

Only he'd never felt more alone in his life. And he had no idea what to do next.

The guards didn't either, though in a second they would figure out that they had the upper hand in strength and numbers and could easily pry John from Rodney's arms and there wouldn't be anything Rodney could to but beg to go with John, because maybe escape could be found that way. But the odds of survival in that direction were low, so Rodney clung to John and glared and saw the guards come to the appropriate conclusion and just as they were about to reach for John, at the same time, and yank him away, Rodney hard footsteps and a voice come up behind him.

"What's the delay, here?"

Rodney ducked his head and closed his eyes. He knew that voice. It was Ghent.

"This kehk is sick," said the first guard. "That kehk threatened us with a sledgehammer and now--"

Ghent actually sighed. "That's what straps are for, and isn't there more strength in you than in them?"

The guard made an affronted sound. "We were just about to--" he started but Rodney felt something brush up against him and he opened his eyes to look down and see Ghent's boot kick him in the thigh.

"Kehk, look at me."

Rodney looked up and focused on Ghent's fur-trimmed hat. He stroked the damp hair from John's forehead, stick with sweat. Then he opened his mouth and words came out, words he didn't even realize he was prepared to say.

"I'll do it," he said, nodding, blinking fast so he didn't have time to stop and think about what he was saying. "I'll tend your fires and make your tea and brush the mud from your coat and I'll…attend you. Anything you want. Willingly."

Rodney allowed himself to focus, just for one second, to make sure Ghent was listening, to make sure Ghent was still interested, because he only wanted to say any of this once. It was freaking him out badly enough as it was, to have to say it again, to make himself any more clearer than he already was, would send him over the edge.

Ghent's eyebrows were raised and his eyes sparked, so yes, interested. Rodney took a breath and stuck out his chin and continued.

"But here's the deal. You take him to the Second Camp. Get him a fire and a bed and plenty of rest. Hot broth and whatever passes for medicine around here; I'm sure he'll be alright in a few days. Then give him easy work to do. As for me--I don't care what you do to me, after that. I'll do anything and you can feed me scraps and make me sleep in the rain--whatever--I can take it. But you must help him, or the deal is off."

There was a heavy, damp silence when Rodney stopped speaking and Rodney could just bet that there was an unspoken rule against any kehk making demands, let alone any deals. He was seconds away from getting tossed on the cart, the one that was slowly but surely rumbling towards them, but if they got tossed through the ring, at least they would be together. Plus, in spite of John's order the night before, Rodney planned to adhere to John's credo of never leaving a man behind. As team leader, which is what he now was, that's just what you did, so Rodney knew he had to do it. Even though he felt like, any second now, he was going to start peeing down his own leg in terror.

The cart came through the open gates, and lumbered over to them. It was small and narrow, and the wooden wheels were muddy, and the single ox in the harness chomped lazily as the cart came to a stop. Rodney looked at it. He wasn't going to let go of John, wasn't going to allow him to be taken, end of story. He clasped John's head to his chest and ducked his head. He could smell the lank sweat in John's hair, old sweat from John's fever, feel the heat banking off John's skin. If this was it, he was ready, as long as he was with John.

Ghent gestured to the guard to come close. The way he looked down his nose had as much to do with his height as with his assured air of being instantly obeyed.

"Take this one," he pointed to John on the ground, in Rodney's arms. "Take him to the healer's house and this one," he pointed to Rodney, making Rodney twitch, "he's to work in the dining hall in the Second Camp. Tell Henks he is to be my attendant. When the other one is well, he will work in the dining hall, also."

The guard's reaction would have been comical in another time, and place but as it was he raised his eyebrows and tipped his head in Rodney's direction. It wasn't quite a bow, more of an acknowledgement of the change in Rodney's status, none of which Rodney cared to dwell on.

"Can we just--" He bent to gather John to him, not sure how much he could say before feeling Ghent's temper. "Go?"

"You may take them to the Second Camp now," said Ghent to the guard. And then to Rodney he said, "When I send for you, you will come." Ghent turned and walked away with a small coterie of Third Camp guards in attendance.

Rodney looked at the single guard; the guard's fingers twitched near his strap but he didn't unhook it.

"Help me put him on the cart, kehk," said the guard, for the first time in Rodney's sojourn on Skandar, not shouting.

Rodney held on to John's shoulder and the guard lifted his legs and together they laid him in the bed of straw.

"You may sit, kehk," said the guard as he walked to stand next to the ox. "Make sure he doesn't roll out."

Rodney gratefully sank into the straw, pushing his legs out straight and gathered John to him. John's head lolled against Rodney's chest, feverish and damp, mouth open, his breathing rattled. But when the ox moved and the cart lurched forward, John came out of his stupor.

"What the fuck, Rodney?" asked John, almost clearly. "Didja check the inertial dampners?"

"Right on it, Colonel," said Rodney. He tipped his head forward and petted John's face as John sank back into a half-sleep in Rodney's arms.

As two other guards opened it for them and let them through, the guard and the ox and the cart actually went out of the gate. Rodney kept alert and tracked where they were going because when John was well, he was going to want to know the layout of the land.

The cart turned left to go up the mountain; Rodney looked right, down the road as it went down the mountainside, wending through the trees. That was the way they'd come when they'd arrived. It had been snowing, and he remembered how confused he'd been, and how calm John had been. Well, now it was his turn to be calm for John.

The road they were on now, as they went up the mountain, was hemmed in on both sides by enormously tall trees that still looked like Scotch pines; they were huge and so thick that no light streamed through their branches, leaving the forest floor completely dark.

While John slept in his arms and the ox and guard plodded on, Rodney estimated the mileage going slowly past, it seemed to take forever before the cart pulled up to another structure that looked a whole lot like the Third Camp. Except the wood of the stockade was clean and well tended and the gate was already wide open.

As the ox and cart went in, two other carts, and a huddle of kehks was coming out. All the guards did was nod and let them pass. It was strange to see this, and something loosened in his chest, watching them, watching the flow of people, so much less controlled here, it seemed, it was like he could breathe again

"Hep!" said the guard to the ox and they kept going all the way in, circling to the right to stop in front of a small low roofed structure, standing by itself near the wall of the stockade.

Rodney tightened his hold on John as the door opened and the guard came around to make come here, get out gestures at Rodney. But Rodney felt frozen there; he most certainly didn't want to let go.

A man wearing a mostly white apron came out of the little house; he was wearing kehk brown, of course, but with the clean apron and the lack of mud, he looked comfortable and well rested. He looked at Rodney and John and then at the guard.

"Do you have someone for me?"

"This kehk is to attend Ghent," said the guard, pointing. "And this one is to be healed. Both will work under Henks in the kitchens."

Rodney watched with wide eyes as the man turned to say something over his shoulder; another man came out of the house and both of them came up to the cart.

"He's been very sick," Rodney said, knowing he was blathering, knowing no one cared to hear what he had to say. "He's got a bad cold, and a cough, too, and I think it's turned into something worse, maybe the flu, I don't know, maybe--"

"You need to hand him over," said the first man.

"Yes," said the guard, in the barking tone that Rodney was all too familiar with. "And then you need to get to work. We don't have all day, kehk."

"Here, Jax," said the second man who had come out of the building. "I'll take his feet."

"Sounds good, Jud," said Jax.

John's feet were closest to Jud and Rodney debated the wisest course, which was to let them take John and heal him, but he simply couldn't let go.

"No," said Rodney, feeling his mouth wobble a bit. "No, I need to--he needs--"

"Out, kehk!" said the guard, which started the other two kehks. Apparently, guards didn't shout as much in the Second Camp as in the Third one. But it didn't make any difference.

Jud started pulling on John's feet, and as Rodney felt him slipping away, out of his arms, he scrambled across the straw, trying to grab at John's shoulders, trying to get his arms around John. But Jud was fast and Jax was right there, taking John, hefting him up too roughly as John's head flopped forward. Rodney slithered to the ground and was reaching, trying to get to John, when the guard came up and grabbed him from behind.

"Wait! Please, let me--"

"Get him out of here," said Jax. "I've got work to do."

"Will do," said the guard.

The guard was strong, and he had his arms around Rodney, and even though Rodney struggled and kicked, his heart pounding, his head getting dizzy because they couldn't take John, they just couldn't take him away, Rodney knew he'd never survive it, never be able to sleep, or work, or anything. He simply couldn't make it without John in this horrible place.

But the guard held him and Jax and Jud disappeared into the little building, carrying John between them, none too gently. And then the brown wooden door shut behind them.

Rodney found himself making a sound in his throat that felt like a roar that came up from deep inside him and he turned in the guard's grasp and slammed his clenched fists down anywhere he could make them land. This startled the guard, but only for a second. He shoved Rodney to the ground, and kicked him to make him stay and stood over him, teeth bared while Rodney shook and curved his body forward in case the guard wanted to kick him again.

"Attendant or no attendant," said the guard. "Kehks must obey the rules, you understand?"

Rodney nodded. His eyes were watering and he tried rubbing them, but the guard hauled him up by one arm and shoved him in the direction of a cluster of large brown buildings, away from the little one where John now was, unconscious, sick, maybe dying from some Skandar disease that his body would not be able to fight off, and Rodney was pretty sure that no one would bother to tell him whether John would get better, or whether he died. Panic set in and he pulled, trying to get free, but the guard just smashed the side of Rodney's head with his fist.

"Keep walking, or I'll make it impossible for you to walk," said the guard.

He was walking fast so Rodney hustled to keep up, his throat dry, something in his heart pinching down hard. But the guard's grip was so tight, there was no way he could get free, and so he tried to make himself calm down, to take deep breaths and think about what John would do at this point.

If he were John, and he'd gotten medical care for one of his teammates, then he would keep his head low and keep his wits sharp and take a look around and figure out a way to stay alive till they could figure out an escape. Then he'd figure out a way to find out about his teammate, and how he'd fared. He wouldn't make useless attempts to escape until he had the facts. So that's what Rodney had to do, think like John, act like John, and above all, stay calm. Even though being without John made him want to throw up.