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The Gamers of Ardann

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An evening breeze lifted the curtains, sending them billowing into the Consort's room. The sun was low and orange-heavy on the darkening horizon. The Game had already begun, but Havvia, the Holder he served, would not appear in the Great Hall until late in the evening, the serious hours when the master gamers made their moves. Still, the Consort had no time to waste. It was the opening of that month's Game, the first of three days, an important occasion. The Holder would expect him to make his best impression. Clothes lay strewn across the bed, tried and rejected. Havvia demanded perfection in all things, and her Consort was the most personal reflection of her.

"You look fine in that." The Dresser stood next to the mirror, arms crossed over his chest. "You've looked fine in everything you've had on."

The Consort studied his reflection, close-fitting black shirt, black pants, gray coat, his hair slicked back the way Havvia liked it, but still. "Something isn't right."

"Perhaps that's your vanity talking," the Dresser mocked him.

The Consort made no answer. The Dresser had never warmed to him, had never considered him worthy of the Holder's notice. The Consort hadn't taken naturally to this life. There was no arguing that point. Too restless and willful, the Dresser often criticized him. The things that were supposed to be important to a Consort were not important to him, his looks and clothes and how to make himself pleasing. But the Holder had taught him the power of her disappointment, and he'd come to understand what was expected, enough to do his job, even if he could never learn to care.

He remembered Havvia once taking his face in her hands, asking, without really asking, "Aren't you glad I saved you, took you in, made you something special?" There was no denying he would have died if she hadn't helped him. He still had the mark on his forehead from the accident to remind him of that. His first days in Havvia's household were a blur of pain. But then she'd come with a device that lit up in her hand, and waved it over him, and the pain had lessened until it finally went away.

"You'll never be able to repay the Holder for the mercy she's shown you," the Dresser liked to tell him.

When he was fully healed, Havvia had smiled and declared, "Now you're ready to serve me. Aren't you pleased to have this opportunity? Aren't you honored that I've made you something when you were nothing before?"

He'd tried to feel the gratitude she obviously expected, and felt guilty when that failed. But the past was a dark moon of memory, as if he'd appeared out of thin air, and he had nothing to measure anything against. Havvia assured him that forgetting was common enough when a person was elevated to a higher station. The old life was simply left behind, abandoned like a cocoon, as if it had never existed.

"What was I before?" he'd asked once when she was in an indulgent mood.

"Oh, property, of course. A farmhand of some sort." She'd given him a pointed look. "Not a life you'd ever want to return to."

He'd made the mistake of asking the Dresser later, "Is it bad being property? I can't remember."

The Dresser had laughed at him. "Oh, it's fine if you like being dirty all the time. Too cold in the winter. Too hot in the summer. Working hard with nothing to show for it. The only thing to look forward to three days off to celebrate the Game each month. Or maybe you really wouldn't mind it." He'd swept out his arm toward the window. "Maybe you'd like to go back where you came from. You've certainly never learned the proper appreciation for your life at the Holder's side."

The Consort knew there was truth in that, even if it wasn't prudent to admit it. He thought perhaps it was the pull of whatever he'd left behind that made him so restless. Sometimes there was a vague awareness tugging at the edge of his memory, something threatening to break through. He'd wonder then if he'd had a wife or children, someone. But no pictures ever took shape, just a faraway feeling of something else, and finally he made himself accept what Havvia was always quick to point out. That he was lucky to have this life now.

The doors opened to his room, and Havvia strode in, dressed in plum-colored silk, her red hair swept up architecturally in braids and curls, blood pearls at her pale throat, the train of her gown trailing across the carpet.

"Let's have a look at you." She adjusted the collar of his shirt. "Beautiful." She tilted her head. "The black jacket would suit you better, though." She snapped her fingers at the Dresser.

He bobbed his head. "Of course, Holder. Your taste is impeccable as always."

He hurried to fetch the jacket and helped the Consort into it.

Havvia smiled. "Perfect. I'll be the envy of everyone."

"You flatter me," the Consort murmured.

It was actually all the sashes that Havvia wore around her neck that everyone coveted, the official colors of her demesnes: dark red for cosmopolitan Mardoon, silvery green for the pasturelands of Erretria, gold for Langdoq with its coveted ruins of the Ancestors, and so many others, lilac, pink, sky blue, pale yellow. Havvia was the most decorated player of the moment, with more than half of Ardann under her control.

She waved her hand at the Dresser, dismissing him. When the doors closed, she leaned in for a kiss.

"For luck," she said.

His turn to flatter her, "You'll hardly need it."

Her smile was full of promises for the evening. When they returned home, she would celebrate her victory as she always did, taking him to her bed, and he would serve, if not gratefully, at least convincingly enough.

In the Great Hall, lights from the chandeliers shone off the stained glass, making patterns flicker on the walls. Havvia swept into the room, every gaze in the place following her across the floor. The Consort kept his back straight and avoided meeting anyone's eye. He reminded himself as he always did, they're staring at her, not you.

The Game dominated the center of the hall, a crystal maze four tiers high, with squares like stepping stones of different colors, and game pieces in the form of mythical animals, one set each for the two players. The object was simple—to be the first to get a game piece to the top—but the rules were infinitely complicated. The various pieces moved differently depending on the color of the space and the previous move. One wrong step could make a player's pieces disappear entirely, game over.

The Keeper of the Game, the ultimate authority on the rules, sat in a gallery high above the room, overlooking the board. Uniformed members of the security force patrolled the hall, detaining people for the slightest infraction. The more powerful gamers like Havvia all had their own personal bodyguards as well, to keep their property at a comfortable distance. Surveillance scanners swept the room, searching for weapons or unauthorized devices that might be used to cheat. The hall was a veritable fortress, no place on Ardann more difficult to break in to or out of.

Havvia had not been present long when the first challenge came her way. The opponent proposed his small demesne rich in aranite ore against one of Havvia's lesser agricultural holdings. The man pulled at his sleeve, a nervous tic or simply impatience. Either way, this was clearly a gamer on a downward slide, drunk with hope that his luck was about to turn. The Consort had seen three tournaments in his months at the Holder's side, and if he recognized the signs of desperation, then Havvia surely did. She cheerfully accepted the challenge, and in a dozen moves had won.

The Keeper oversaw the transfer of the sash, the last the desperate gamer had. The man bowed his head as it was taken from him, going from owner to property in the space of seconds.

"I'll expect a full inventory by morning," Havvia told the unfortunate man before security escorted him away.

A stranger wearing a plain white sash signifying a new entrant to the Game stepped forward then. He had sharp features, a quick light in his blue eyes, a wide mouth made for sarcasm. Alongside him were two warriors, a man and woman. The Consort assumed they must be his bodyguards.

"Are you ready for a serious opponent?" the stranger addressed Havvia, with none of the deference she was accustomed to. "Or is it more profitable fleecing fools?"

Havvia regarded the stranger with a condescending smile. "You must be from offworld, or you'd know I never decline a worthy challenge,"

"Yes, yes, I'm not from around here. Rodney of At—" The warrior woman shot him a warning look. "Athos." The woman raised an eyebrow, but the man, Rodney, breezed on, "Word has spread of your fascinating game, and I am an adventurer who has come to try his luck."

"You possess the ability to play?" Havvia asked skeptically. It was rare for an offworlder to have the special power.

Rodney stared at the board with intent the way gamers did, and it surged to life with a quiet whoosh.

"Interesting." Havvia gave him an appraising look. "Still, I should warn you that those not raised to the Game find it difficult to master."

"I'm a quick study, trust me."

"If that's so, then you must know a gamer isn't obligated to recognize challenges from new entrants."

In fact, the Consort had never seen a new challenger allowed into the Game. The gamers preferred to keep the privilege of competition and ownership limited to a small circle.

"Perhaps I can make it worth your while." Rodney pulled out an artifact of the Ancestors. "It's quite elegant, actually." He demonstrated. "You can track any living thing in a particular area, even differentiate by species. Very handy for conducting inventory."

"It has its uses, I'm sure, but it's hardly the equal of property," Havvia said coolly, "even if I wagered my least valuable demesne."

Her apparent disinterest didn't fool the Consort. He knew she coveted anything left behind by the Ancestors. All gamers did. Certainly, there was nothing she loved more than being able to tally her holdings.

Rodney tapped his chin. "How about this? To prove my worthiness, we start with a bet where there's no real risk to you. My technology against one night with your— Consort, I believe the term is?"

Rodney looked at him questioningly, and it gave the Consort a jolt he felt in the pit of his stomach. Murmurs of astonishment passed through the crowd.

Havvia answered stiffly, "That would be highly unusual."

Rodney shrugged. "Consider it the whim of an offworlder. I believe you can accept any wager you see fit?"

Havvia gave the stranger a look down her nose. "You're just lucky I'm in a generous mood and in need of some novelty."

The Consort stared at her, unable to stop himself.

She winked at him. "Don't worry, pet. What chance does an offworlder have against me?"

Havvia and Rodney took their places on opposite sides of the board, and the Game began. Havvia made her moves briskly as usual, and Rodney kept up, even outpaced her. The Consort followed the action, but it was always difficult to tell who was winning. The Game was counter-intuitive and strangely non-linear given its straightforward objective. At the very least, though, Rodney didn't appear overmatched, as everyone no doubt had assumed he would be.

Rodney moved his Griffin to Blue 23, and Havvia pointed her finger. "That's a violation of color order."

The Consort didn't think the move was actually illegal, but he wasn't entirely sure. Most of the audience probably didn't know either. The official rules took up twelve volumes, and bluffing about them was part of the strategy.

Rodney could choose to make another move or refute the challenge. He quickly set Havvia straight, "Griffin to Blue 23 is perfectly allowable, since my last move involved a different piece and another primary color and 23 is a prime number."

The Keeper of the Game nodded, and Havvia's mouth tightened at the corners. A failed bluff meant she lost a turn.

It became clear after this that Rodney had the upper hand. He easily dodged the counter-offensives Havvia threw at him, and after a few more moves, his Hydra was sitting at the pinnacle.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest, smugness radiating off him. Havvia made a show of nonchalance, not all that convincingly. The Consort kept his own expression carefully blank.

"Come with me." Rodney held out his hand.

The Consort hesitantly took it.

"Don't disgrace me," Havvia hissed under her breath as he passed by on Rodney's arm.

They left the main floor, followed by the two warriors. Rodney's manner turned gentler once they were alone. "You don't have to worry. Nothing's going to happen to you. We just need to talk." He nodded toward the end of the hall. "My room's this way." When the Consort didn't budge, he added, "Please?"

There was a flash of uncertainty in Rodney's eyes for the first time all night, and the Consort could not have said why, but this was what made him continue down the hall, accepting his duty as the stranger's prize.

They stopped at a door, and the Consort found the warrior woman eyeing him. She smiled kindly. "All will soon be well," she assured him, and then turned to Rodney meaningfully, "If you need us, we will be ready."

The Consort had never been inside guest quarters before. He only left Havvia's household when she took him to the Game or one of her demesnes, always surrounded by an armed security detail. Even at home, he was constantly monitored.

"I can get food," Rodney offered. "Are you hungry?" The Consort didn't answer, and Rodney declared, "Well, I'm starving." He ducked outside and gave instructions to one of the pages.

The Consort settled onto a chair. They would send wine with the meal. Perhaps if he was discreet about it, he could drink himself insensible before they…fulfilled the terms of the bet.

Rodney sat down across from him. "What's your name? What should I call you? 'Consort' seems so formal."

He was surprised that he had no answer, that he'd never even considered the question before. Havvia used pet names. Everyone else simply referred to him by his title.

"LS53489 is my reference in the inventory," he said uncertainly.

The man's—Rodney's— mouth twisted angrily. "That's just great. They gave you a serial number like you're a TV or a stereo. What a charming planet." He took a breath and went on more calmly, "I'll have to tell you your name then. Where I come from you'd be known as John."

It sounded okay. "If that's what you want."

There was an odd intensity in the man's gaze. "You have no idea how much."

John thought this must be his cue, and he leaned forward, his mouth fumbling for Rodney's, not sure what was expected. Sometimes Havvia wanted him to make her feel desired, sometimes she demanded submission. John often displeased her by reading the signs wrong.

Rodney, apparently, was open to possibilities. He let John kiss him, soft brushes of their lips that felt surprisingly good, his thumb stroking along John's jaw. Rodney pulled away first, but not as if he was angry.

"You don't have to do this," Rodney blurted out. "We can just talk. Get to know each other."

John lowered his eyes. "I can't bring dishonor to the Holder. I need to— I owe it to her."

Rodney's gaze cut through him. "You don't really believe that."

There was a knock at the door, the page bringing their meal. She sat the tray down on the table and left them.

"Well." Rodney clapped his hands together. "Go on. Dig in."

Rodney loaded up his own plate with a healthy serving of everything.

"Oh, this is good, whatever it is," he said around a forkful of hilla fruit salad. "Have some. Have a lot, actually. You're too skinny."

He kept insisting until John helped himself, and it was odd, but some instinct in him that usually stayed clenched actually relaxed a little. There didn't seem anything dangerous about Rodney, certainly. Maybe that was why it was suddenly so much easier to breathe.

They finished their food, and the page came to clear away the dishes. Rodney made no move toward the bed as John had expected. He just sat studying him.

He touched the scar on John's forehead, his fingers gentle. "How'd you get this?"

"A farm accident from…before."

Blue eyes fixed on him. "You remember that? The accident? Your life? Anything about it at all?"

John frowned, trying to bring that awareness at the edge of his memory into focus, but it remained stubborn. The only thing that was clear was Havvia telling him the story of himself.

"Think harder," Rodney ordered.

It was all a blank, a freefall in the dark, and he clung to what he knew. "The Holder says it's normal for people to lose touch with their past when they've been elevated to Consort."

Rodney snorted. "Maybe they forget to write their parents. They don't forget everything that's ever happened to them. Seriously, John. Does that make any sense at all?"

Even nonsense was better than nothing, and John pressed his lips against Rodney's, desperate to keep him from asking inconvenient questions. It surprised him how quickly expedience turned to hunger. He twined an arm around Rodney's neck, the sound of his own blood in his ears. Rodney opened his mouth, letting John in, letting him have that control. He stroked John's hair and pressed their foreheads together.

"You'd rather do anything than talk, wouldn't you?" He sounded affectionately exasperated.

"I'd rather do this." John kissed him again.

"I have things I need to tell you," Rodney said against his mouth. "It's really important—"

John pulled away. "And I need to honor the Holder's bet." He rose to his feet, shrugged out of his jacket, started to unbutton his shirt.

Rodney stared, as if he was a little shocked. "I wasn't going to do this."

Which, of course, made no sense, since this had always been the point, not useless talking that made John feel as if something was unraveling at the core of him. He let the last of his clothes fall to the floor and ran a hand over his chest. He always felt awkward doing this for Havvia, but it came surprisingly easily now.

"Don't you want me?" he asked, his voice low and throaty.

Rodney's eyes widened. "You know I do! It's just—"

John didn't wait for him to finish. He went to lie on the bed. On impulse, he spread his legs. He didn't know what Rodney would want to do to him, and that was far more thrilling than it had a right to be. He folded an arm beneath his head and stroked himself and watched for a reaction.

"God," Rodney's voice caught.

"Touch me," John begged softly.

Rodney knocked over the chair in his rush to get up. He sank down onto the bed, brushed John's hand away, and took over stroking him. John moaned and squeezed his eyes shut and pushed up into his grip.

"Is this what she does to you?" Rodney seemed genuinely angry. "Do you sound like this for her?"

John tangled his hand in Rodney's shirt and jerked him into a kiss to shut him up. He really didn't want to talk about Havvia right now.

Rodney kissed down his throat, over his collarbone, teasingly around his nipples. "You're so fucking gorgeous."

This made John harder, more demanding. "Get your clothes off." It wasn't the modest way a Consort was taught to speak. It tasted like freedom.

Rodney stood, fought his way out of his shirt, clumsy with urgency, shoved his pants down his legs, kicked off his shoes. Then he was back, and there was nothing but skin and heat between them, hard muscle and broad chest, Rodney's weight pressing him into the mattress. John curled his fingers into Rodney's shoulders. He had no idea if he'd ever been with a man before, but he liked it. Very much.

His cock pressed against Rodney's body, but he kept slipping on the smooth surface of the coverlet and groaned in frustration.

"Here." Rodney shifted positions, and John's cock slid handily against his belly.


Rodney smiled, kissed him in a pleased frenzy and started to move down his body. John ran his hands through Rodney's hair, and Rodney nudged his thighs apart, licking at the crease. He knelt between John's spread legs, and John clenched his hands in the sheets, tensing in anticipation.

"Relax. You're going to like this," Rodney told him, smugly amused.

He bent his head and trailed his tongue along John's shaft, and John's hips came off the bed. It was that good, that unexpected. Rodney smiled, told you so, and took John's cock in his mouth. John closed his eyes and thrust. He couldn't help it, and Rodney let him, wanted it even, and John couldn't possibly last long knowing that.

Rodney pulled back, bright-eyed and triumphant, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. John smiled softly up at him and opened his thighs, inviting him to take whatever he wanted. In the short life he could remember, no one else had ever cared what he liked, and he wanted to give Rodney something, everything, for that.

Rodney blinked, sweetly stunned. "That's— you're—" His voice went suddenly scratchy. "I missed you so much."

John didn't understand, but he rubbed his hand over Rodney's thigh. "Show me."

Rodney drew in an audible breath. John kept his hand moving in circles on Rodney's leg, and Rodney rocked forward into his own fist.

"Yes," John whispered, "like that."

The look on Rodney's face was raw, like he'd waited for this too long. He started to pant, and his mouth tightened at the corners, his hips jerking desperately, and then his come fell softly onto John's belly. He slumped onto the bed, and John stroked his fingers absently over Rodney's arm, listening as his breathing slowly returned to normal. He felt heavy-limbed and comfortable, ready to fall asleep, until it occurred to him. Maybe Rodney had had enough of him. Havvia certainly never liked him to linger in her bed.

"I can—" He sat up. "If you want—"

Rodney reached for him. "We have the night. Um," he took his hand away, "unless you don't—"

"No. This is—"

Rodney pulled him down, flopped an arm over his waist. "Good."

At first light, John woke with a start, not sure where he was. This happened most every morning. Today, though, his body seemed perfectly at home, legs tangled with Rodney's, cock half hard, nudging Rodney's thigh. As he'd fallen asleep last night, he'd tried to understand his reaction, why duty had had so little to do with. Maybe it was just a fluke, or the novelty of being with a man, or he was simply a slut. This morning, he didn't care about reasons. He traced his fingertips lightly over Rodney's biceps until he opened his eyes, lifted his head and demanded "coffee!"

When he saw John, he turned onto his side, his erection poking John's belly. "You're still here."

John kissed "yes," and they started moved against each other as if it was the only natural thing. By the time John finally got up to dress, late morning sun was spilling across the floor. The old feeling of resistance had come surging back, and notions he really couldn't afford darted insistently through his head. Maybe Rodney would take him with him if he asked. Maybe they could go to his world. Maybe John could—

"You don't have to go back to her," Rodney said, as if reading his thoughts.

John froze. It occurred to him a little belatedly that this whole thing might be a test.

"I belong to the Holder," he said carefully.

Rodney's face reddened. "Like hell you do."

His anger seemed too real to be a trick, and that left John hopelessly confused. He mumbled "goodbye." He'd already stayed too long.

Rodney scrambled to get up. "Wait. Just listen, okay? You were supposed to have been a farmer, right? That's hard work. So why don't you have more calluses? Why just that one on your index finger? Coincidentally right where you'd squeeze a trigger? Because you're not a farmer, John, you're a soldier."

"I have to go." He yanked the door open, making it shake on its hinges. Everything felt too precarious, like he was walking the edge of…he didn't even know what.

Rodney called after him, "Why is that woman lying to you? What's the real reason you can't remember anything? Ask yourself that, John!"

The Holder's security team was waiting, and they escorted him back to the house. He found Havvia in her study, going over the inventory of her newly acquired demesne.

She glanced up. "Back so soon? I would have thought he'd try to keep you longer."

"The time was up, Holder," he said simply, looking past her shoulder.

She rose from her desk and came around to him. "I trust you fulfilled the terms of the bet satisfactorily." There was a slyness in her smile that made his skin feel wrong. "Did you please him, my dove?"

"I did what he wanted." Funny that it was Havvia who made him feel like a whore, not the man who'd won him.

Some part of this must have registered in his expression, because Havvia took his face in her hands and kissed him, the bitter taste of her lipstick in his mouth. "You know how precious you are to me, my angel."

He forced a smile. "Yes."

It took an effort of will not to cringe away from her touch, and Rodney would not be quiet in his head. Why is she lying to you ?

"I think I remembered something about my life. From before, I mean." He hadn't planned this. It just came tumbling out, this impulse toward rebellion.

"Oh?" It sounded careless enough, but John didn't miss the flicker in her eyes.

"Just a fuzzy picture, an older couple, my parents maybe. The man had gray hair, and the woman wore a black dress with a flowered apron over it," he threw in whatever details came to mind, "and there's something in the background, maybe a barn, and rolling hills in the distance."

He expected her to laugh, to tease him about his wild imagination.

But she nodded. "That's precisely where I found you, half dead from the accident. On some dirt pile of a farm where you'd slaved away your whole life." She pinched his cheek. "So you see why you'd want to forget all that. You've grown spoiled to the good life. Speaking of which, you'd better go see about your wardrobe for tonight."

"Of course." He endured another kiss and left, glad to have the excuse to shut himself up in his room. His thoughts were wild with possibilities. Who was he really? How had he gotten here?

By the time they arrived at the Great Hall that night, Rodney had already won a round, luring in another gamer with the shiny promise of the Ancestors' device, a Holder foolish enough to believe the skill Rodney demonstrated the evening before was merely beginner's luck. Rodney had acquired a small demesne, a dull brown sash that represented Aviria, better known as "the rock pile." Still, property was property, and that gave Rodney standing in the Game. His challenges could no longer be refused out of hand.

He approached Havvia before she'd even taken off her cloak. "How about a rematch? Aviria against your smallest holding. I believe they are roughly equivalent in value?"

"Plus the Ancestors' technology," Havvia bargained sharply.

"Plus another night with your Consort," Rodney countered.

Havvia's eyes went cold with calculation. "Deal."

The play was just as fast-paced as it had been the previous night. Rodney's gaze raked over the board, his mouth pursed in concentration, and then he broke into a sudden smile. There was a hopeful flutter in John's stomach as Rodney started to bark out his moves with even more rapid-fire certainty. Havvia's pride was clearly tweaked, and she pushed herself to keep pace. She actually started to make a comeback, and Rodney's self-satisfaction faded a little. Havvia laid a trap for him, her specialty, and he barely scraped out of it. John had no particular faith in mind over matter, but just in case, he focused all his energy, "lose, Havvia, lose."

Three turns later, she made a critical mistake, and Rodney capitalized on it to win.

"Good game," Havvia said sourly as she pulled off the lilac sash and shoved it at Rodney.

"Why, thank you." He took clear delight in arranging and rearranging it around his neck. "I'll expect the inventory in the morning," he said cheerfully and moved past her to claim John.

"Are you all right?" Rodney asked as soon as they were out of earshot. "She didn't do anything to you, did she?"

John shook his head. "I'm fine."

Rodney took him to his room. "Are you sure? I mean, I didn't want to let you go back to her, but you wouldn't listen, and I thought it would be too dangerous if—"

John reeled Rodney in by the sash and kissed him. "Thanks for winning."

Rodney smoothed his fingers through John's hair. "I had a lot of motivation. Also, I am a genius."

John brushed his lips over Rodney's neck. "You were right about Havvia. She is lying to me."

Rodney stilled. "Wait. How do you know that? What do you know?"

"Not much. Actually, nothing. But I made up some stuff about my past, said I'd remembered it, and she went right along with it."

John pushed their hips together, ready to stop talking now.

Rodney had other ideas. "We really need to work on your memory."

"We have all night." He steered Rodney over to the bed and tugged impatiently at their clothes.

It was even better than it had been the night before, Rodney lying over him, kissing and touching, fingers finding every sensitive place, teasing at erotic tripwires, letting John in on the secrets of his own body. At the first hopeful glance, Rodney went down, with a bemused smile and a murmured, "some things never change." John was shaking by the time he came in Rodney's mouth, hands fisted tightly in the sheets, the same sense of something unraveling that he'd had the night before. He thought it might be Havvia's lies. He certainly wasn't fighting it.

Rodney knelt over him, messy-mouthed, eyes unfocused with lust, cock standing out from his body like a plea, his nipples hard, penny-dark points. John felt the tightening low in his belly even though he'd just come. He drew his knees back, let his thighs fall open. "Fuck me." His own certainty surprised him.

Apparently it took Rodney off guard too, because there was a lightning flash of yearning before caution took over. "You don't even remember if you like that."

John's voice went soft, "Rodney."

"God." Rodney closed his eyes tight. "It's been so long since you said my—"


Rodney yanked open the bedside drawer, too hard, knick-knacks skidding off the table. The moment splintered for John, the here now, other places other times, Rodney kneeling between his legs, touching slick-fingered, taking him over, making him burn, Rodney playful impatient tender needy frantic fierce.

Afterwards, John stared up at the ceiling, while Rodney sprawled contentedly next to him.

"Hey," Rodney rubbed his arm, "you okay? I didn't hurt you, did I?"

John shook his head. He could feel pieces coming together, not there yet, but soon.

"I really don't belong here, do I?" he said after quiet consideration.

"No, and I can't tell you how appallingly brainwashed you are that you'd even need to ask me that question."

John turned to look at him. "Do I belong to you?"

Rodney smiled softly. "With me. I like to think that. Do you— are you remembering things?"

"Sort of."

"Enough to come with me?" Rodney fiddled idly with the lace trim of the pillowcase, but John could feel his urgency.

"Yes. But we'll never make it out of here. Havvia's guards are waiting in the hall, and if we try to run for it, they'll call security. They take property pretty seriously around here. The hall is filled with devices of the Ancestors that can track us down, and from what I've seen, the guards are pretty trigger-happy."

"I noticed that too," Rodney said thoughtfully. "But there are four of us, and if you remembered Ronon and Teyla, you'd know they make it more like six."

"Even if we did manage to get out of here, there'll be more security waiting at the gate. We won't make it through."

Rodney cursed under his breath. "If only we could have brought a ship."

John shook his head. "Wouldn't help. Planetary defenses. They can even jam a cloak. They'd take out a ship before it left the atmosphere, easy."

Rodney glanced at him sharply. John was startled himself. He had no idea where that had come from. It wasn't like he and Havvia ever talked about…anything.

"There has to be some way to get you out of this nightmare!" Rodney's voice ratcheted up a few decibels in frustration.

John smiled wryly. "You could win me."

Rodney snapped his fingers. "That's it!" He grabbed John's face and kissed him. "I know exactly how to play it, and the best part is I get to fuck over that bitch in the process. The only problem—" The pleased light disappeared. "I won't be able to do anything until tomorrow night's Game, so you'd have to—"

John touched his arm. "I'll be fine."

"I don't want her to— not ever again." Rodney clenched his jaw.

"She never wants company after she's lost at the Game. I'll throw myself into picking out an outfit for the final night." He rolled his eyes. "No one's going to bother me when I'm busy making myself pretty."

"Make yourself pretty?" Rodney sounded mortally offended. "How much more beautiful could you possibly be? The people on this planet aren't just stupid. They're blind!"

John grinned and kissed him, and they slept. In the morning they made love again before John got up reluctantly to leave.

"Good luck tonight." He kissed Rodney, and then smiled. "Not that you'll need it."

It wasn't idle flattery, he felt certain of that.

John spent the rest of the day driving the Dresser utterly crazy, being a miserable diva about every tiny detail of his ensemble. When the time came, he threw on the most comfortable thing he could find in the closet and let his hair do whatever the hell it wanted. The Dresser's shocked dismay was the best entertainment. He met Havvia in the foyer with a careless "hey, ready to do this thing?" She took in the new look and the change of attitude with a quick flick of her eyes, but said nothing, already focused on the Game. No doubt she thought she'd have plenty of time later to correct his impudence. John smiled, knowing that later would never come.

When they arrived at the Great Hall, the buzz of the crowd made it clear that something big had happened. It didn't take long to get the story. Rodney had staged a coup, challenging each Holder in turn to all or nothing, crushing them in rapid succession. He and Havvia were the only two players left. Between them they controlled all of Ardann.

Rodney didn't lose any time issuing the final challenge. "All or nothing."

An audible gasp went up.

"You're insane!" Havvia shouted at him.

The Keeper of the Game mediated, "Perhaps you are not aware, Holder, but the rules stipulate that if only a single gamer remains the Game is reset. Half your holdings will be taken and divided among five new entrants. There's more to gain from a regular wager."

"I know the rules," Rodney snapped, "and this is the way I want to play it."

"Tell him he can't," Havvia demanded.

The Keeper shook his head apologetically. "I'm afraid he's within his rights, and the rules require you to accept any all-or-nothing challenges. We'll begin in five minutes." He went to take his place in the gallery.

Havvia crowded Rodney, trying to intimidate him. "You've made a big mistake. Do you honestly think you can defeat me three nights in a row?" She laughed, unpleasantly. "I'm going to ruin you, and I'm going to enjoy it. By the time this night is over, you and everything you own are going to be my property."

A corner of Rodney's mouth turned down harshly. "You couldn't strategize your way out of a paper bag. I'm not just going to win. I'm going to humiliate you. And I'm going to enjoy that."

Havvia grabbed John by the wrist, her fingers digging in, and pulled him away with her.

"I don't know who he is or what you've worked out between you," Havvia warned, "but he's never going to have you. Do you understand that? You're going to serve in my bed tonight and every night until I'm through with you." She forced her mouth onto his.

He wrenched away and wiped her spit off with the back of his hand. "I doubt a kiss that lousy is going to bring you much luck, and you're going to need a lot more than voodoo to beat Rodney tonight."

The Keeper of the Game declared time to begin, and from the opening salvo it was clear that Rodney was on a tear, firing off moves, each word clipped and precise.

"Hydra to Yellow 49."

"Griffin to Orange 76," Havvia countered.

"Chaemera to Blue 9." Rodney never missed a beat.

After the first few volleys, Havvia's survival instincts stirred to life. She couldn't win playing Rodney's game. That much was plain. So she fell back to a more defensive position.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest as Havvia thought out her next move. "Any time this decade."

"Don't rush me!"

"Wasting time isn't going to make you any smarter."

There was something about that…John couldn't stop staring, a sense of familiarity, sudden and intense, and then it all clicked into place. Rodney. Memories started to return like quick-flowing water: the girl he took to his senior prom, the way the dust tasted in Afghanistan, the white dazzle of Antarctica, Atlantis, his friends, all of it. He searched the crowd, and Teyla went instantly alert when she noticed. She whispered to Ronon, and they started toward his position. Then he caught Rodney's attention, smiling that one smile that was just between them. Rodney's expression broke open with relief, but there was a stubborn determination there, too. John knew it well. Just let me finish this.

Havvia was still studying the board. There was a sheen of sweat on her forehead. John had never seen her panicked. Rodney was his hero all over again.

"Weren't you supposed to be teaching me a lesson?" Rodney goaded her. "Hey, it is a hard game to master. For morons, anyway."

Havvia glared pure venom at him. "Basilisk to Green 12," she called out, offended dignity making her hasty.

Her game pieces vanished instantly, and she stared, her expression like disbelieving stone. There was utter silence in the hall.

The Keeper of the Game came down from the gallery. "I must ask for your sashes now."

The blood rushed to Havvia's face, and her hands flew to her neck, clutching at the strips of silk. "No! He cheated. He must have!"

The Keeper shook his head. "The match was carefully monitored. There was no evidence of anything improper." He held out his hand. "Your sashes."

Havvia broke away, made it a few feet before two security guards caught her under the arms and hauled her back.

The Keeper stripped her of the sashes and held them out to Rodney. "Holder, they're yours until next month's Game, at which time there will be a lottery to choose the new entrants. We can discuss how you'd like to divide your holdings when we get closer to the time."

"Actually, no," Rodney said. "That's not what we're going to do."

The Keeper insisted, "But the rules—"

"Yes, yes," Rodney interrupted impatiently, "the rules are perfectly clear. Volume 9, Section 512, subparagraph 14b, 'If a single gamer should have eliminated all other opponents, the Game shall be reset or disbanded at the discretion of the sole remaining player'."

The Keeper's eyes widened. "Surely you can't mean—"

Rodney gave him a hard smile. "I mean exactly that. I declare the Game officially over."

"I told you he's crazy!" Havvia struggled against the grip of the security guards.

The reaction from the audience was quick and earsplitting, an outpouring of confusion and panic that rattled the walls. Occasionally an individual voice would break through the uproar, "you can't do this" and "offworlders should never have been allowed to play in the first place" and "what are we going to do now?"

Security teams in black riot gear double-timed it into the hall, weapons drawn. Most concentrated on controlling the crowd, but a few trained their guns on Rodney. John, Teyla and Ronon moved quickly to surround him. Ronon retrieved two knives from his hair, tossed one to John. It appeared to be made of plastic.

"Scanners couldn't pick them up," Ronon said.

John tested the blade, even sharper than metal. "Cool."

Rodney made the whole thing moot by pushing past them. "Touching, but not necessary." He stared down the security team. "Hey, they're your rules. Get over it."

"I'm afraid he's right," the Keeper grudgingly admitted. "Lower your weapons."

The security guards obeyed the order, although with obvious hesitation.

"The fact that you have the right to do this," the Keeper said coldly, "doesn't make it any less irresponsible. Who will govern? How will Ardann function? Have you stopped to consider that?"

"Oh, I don't know," Rodney's words bled sarcasm. "How about if people are just that, people, not property? And, hey, what if they actually have some say in their lives and, here's a crazy notion, decide for themselves how their world should be run? Why don't we start there?"

Teyla wisely intervened, "What Dr. McKay means to suggest is that our people will naturally help see you through this transition. There are many forms of government, examples from other cultures that you can study and build on. We will send experts in such matters to work with your people. Change is difficult, but it can also be most beneficial. We believe you will ultimately find a better way to order your society, one that brings great prosperity and happiness to all Ardannians."

John nodded. "Exactly. What she said."

The crowd settled down a little at this, the voices more questioning now than angry.

Ronon nodded toward the exit. "Might be a good time to get out of here."

"Just what I was thinking." John put a hand on Rodney's back. "Come on. Let's get to the gate before they decide change sucks."

Havvia stood her ground, right in their path. "You've ruined everything! You had no right!"

Rodney looked at her as if she were crazy. "Please. This is entirely your own fault. Did you think you could just take what didn't belong to you and nothing would happen?"

John moved her out of the way with his arm. "I'd say it's been nice knowing you, but I'm tired of lies."

Ronon took point, Teyla their six, and John stayed at Rodney's side as they made their way through the crowd.

"The gate is not far." Teyla pointed to a path.

As they walked, Rodney asked, "Are you okay? Nothing— happened, did it?"

John shook his head. "I'm good." He touched Rodney lightly on the arm. "Thanks for coming to get me."

Rodney pressed his mouth into an unhappy line. "I should have figured it out sooner."

Teyla glanced back over her shoulder. "If it were not for Dr. McKay, we would not have found you at all. We would not even have known to keep looking."

"We thought you were dead," Ronon said bluntly.

"So…what did happen?" John asked. "I remember that I had some free time, took out a jumper to do some scouting for gates to harvest."

"I should have gone with you," Rodney muttered under his breath. "Never would have happened."

"Flew too close to the planet," Ronon told him. "Got shot down."

"Oh, come on," Rodney snapped. "There's so much more to it than—"

Ronon gave McKay that stone-eyed looked of his.

"Fine," Rodney sighed. "Flew too close, got shot down. From what we can find in the Ancient database, this planet served as a training base for their military. It's cloaked, which is why the Wraith haven't been here, and apparently it has defensive systems that activate automatically whenever a ship enters its air space or comes through the gate, unless you transmit the security code, which of course we don't have."

"So that's why you didn't bring a jumper," John said.

Rodney nodded. "The Ancients left behind all sorts of weapons here. The Game itself was probably designed as an exercise in strategy. The Ardannians understand just enough about all of it to be dangerous, and as you yourself noted, take property rights very seriously. You must have crash-landed on Havvia's land. That made you hers, as far as their insane laws are concerned. So we couldn't just grab without all hell breaking loose, especially if you weren't going to cooperate. Hence the bet."

They arrived at the gate and happily there was no armed contingent waiting as John half feared. Rodney dialed Atlantis, and they wasted no time stepping into the event horizon. John couldn't help one last, paranoid glance back over his shoulder.

The gate room was packed with people who'd come to welcome him home. Elizabeth was the first to hug him, no surprise there, but then Cadman threw her arms around him. That was a bit more startling. Zelenka pumped his hand, grinning like mad. Lorne clapped him on the back and added the predictable wisecrack, "Should have known you'd be harder to kill than that."

"It really is good to see you, John," Elizabeth summed up the sentiment for all of them.

He glanced around the group, meeting everyone's eye. "It's really, really good to be here." Then he figured he owed it to Elizabeth to come clean about the other thing. "We did, uh, leave something of a situation back on the planet, though."

Elizabeth's smile faded. She knew too much about his team and their situations. "I'm listening."

"We might have caused just a little bit of…anarchy."

Her eyebrows shot up in alarm.

Teyla took up the explanation, "As you know, the Game of the Ardannians functioned as a sort of governing structure, and in order to secure Colonel Sheppard's release, Dr. McKay had to become one of the players. He performed very well, managed to gain control of the planet and then disbanded the Game."

Elizabeth shot an amazed look at Rodney. "You took charge of an entire planet in just three days?"

"Oh, don't sound so surprised!" Rodney huffed.

"Rodney used their rules to get us out of there," John said, "but it has left the Ardannians in kind of a tricky spot."

"Winning the colonel back was the only solution that didn't endanger all our lives," Rodney asserted, "and it's not like I can run a planet in my spare time. Also, in case no one noticed, the Ardannians' notion of government is seriously screwed up."

John smiled hopefully at Elizabeth. "So...done much nation-building back on Earth?"

Her expression turned thoughtful. "Some. Of course, it's generally easier when you haven't created the mess in the first place. Still, I'm sure there are ways we can help. I'll put together a team, and we'll head out as soon as possible."

"Take a military escort," John advised. "Things seemed to have settled down by the time we left, but—"

"Understood," Elizabeth said.

Rodney told Radek. "You should go, too. There's a lot of Ancient technology on the planet and at least one functioning ZPM. I didn't get much of a chance to look around. You should see what we might be able to salvage."

"You mean negotiate for," Elizabeth corrected.

Rodney waved his hand. "Whatever."

"First things first," Elizabeth said firmly. "John, you need to report to the infirmary, let Carson check you out." She hugged him again. "We're just so—"

John cleared his throat. "Yeah. Me too."

Rodney fell in beside him as he headed off to the infirmary.

"I can probably handle this on my own."

Rodney didn't actually say shut up, but he made it clear he was thinking it.

"Colonel, welcome home," Carson greeted him. "You've been sorely missed. Now, if you'll hop up on the table, we'll have a look and get you on your way. I'm sure you have a lot of catching up to do."

Rodney hovered near the exam table, and Carson bumped into him twice as he moved around gathering supplies. He put his hands on his hips. "I can't work in an obstacle course, Rodney. And you shouldn't be here, anyway. The Colonel has the right to some privacy."

Rodney planted his feet, crossed his arms over his chest. John knew that stance. Just try to make me.

"It's okay, doc. He can stay."

Carson sighed. "Fine." He pointed Rodney to a spot near the wall. "Budge from there, and it's off to the waiting room."

He gave John a thorough examination, took blood, did a CT scan and other tests. He looked pleased as he reviewed the results. "There seems to be no lasting effects from your head injury, with the exception of some localized memory loss right around the time of the accident, which isn't unusual. It's possible those memories could still come back. It's also possible they never will."

"I probably wouldn't mind that, actually."

Carson nodded sympathetically. "Aye, lad. Understandable. Well, you seem fit enough, all things considered. I'm prescribing a few days of rest, and then you can return to duty."

Rodney piped up, "A few days means more than one, right, Carson? Just so the Colonel's clear."

"Indeed it does," Carson agreed, ignoring John's pleading look.

John threw up his hands. "Okay, okay."

"And you should go see Kate," Rodney added stubbornly.

John challenged him, "I will if you will."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "You were personal property!"

"You thought I was dead!"

"A visit to Dr. Heightmeyer is a good idea for both of you." Carson gave them a stern look.

John and Rodney grumbled at each other about it all the way back to their quarters. Once inside, though, John went quiet, drifting around the living room, picking up his guitar, touching the spines of Rodney's physics journals on the bookshelf, straightening a throw pillow on the couch, reestablishing connection.

"I didn't leave my underwear on the floor while you were gone."

John smiled, understanding the translation from Rodney-speak, I never gave up on you. He went over, put his hands on Rodney, the right kind of ownership, and kissed like he never planned to stop. He was hungry for everything, the way Rodney tasted, of chocolate and hilla fruit, the eager, animal noise he made when John slipped his fingers under his shirt, the little chapped place at the corner of his mouth. John had wanted him even when he hadn't known him, but this was so much better, because it was them, and he understood what that meant.

Rodney stayed put in John's arms, his breath warm against John's shoulder. "You are never allowed to scare me like that again. I'm serious. That's it. You've used up your quota for the rest of your life. There will be no more close calls. So don't even think about it."

John smiled softly. Only Rodney. "I'll do my best to steer clear of it." He kissed Rodney again. "So how did you find me?"

"When you didn't report in, we went to look for you at your last recorded position. We found some debris from the jumper, but not enough to believe it had broken up in space."

John gave him a questioning look.

"Okay," Rodney admitted, "not enough for me to believe it. Besides, there were some mathematical anomalies, and I finally worked out that there must be a cloaked planet, and I figured you'd crashed on it. The only people we've ever known who could cloak something that large are the Ancients. So we searched the database—that took forever—and finally found the gate address and the information about the military base. It took a while to track you down on Ardann, and then that woman had you, and there was security everywhere, and we couldn't just take you and—" Rodney stirred uncomfortably. "Do we really need to keep talking about this?"

John shook his head. "I think I'm clear."

Rodney hesitated. "Are we okay?"

John pulled back to look at him. "Why wouldn't we be?"

"I wouldn't have had sex with you if you hadn't really, really seemed to want it, a lot," Rodney said without a breath.

John smiled, rubbed a hand up his arm. "Yeah. I know. But I did really want it."

Rodney turned his gaze down at the floor. "How many other people did she lose you to?"

John shook his head. "Ardannians are a lot more interested in assets than ass."

Rodney's gaze flicked up, challenging him. "That bitch seemed pretty taken with yours."

John frowned, trying to explain, "She was fascinated by anything that had to do with the Ancients. All the gamers were. They must have found me in the wrecked jumper. They would have known it was Ancient technology. I think Havvia saw me as— another sort of artifact to collect. That's why she went to so much trouble to try to keep me."

"What did she make you—"

"Hey." John took Rodney by the shoulders. "Let's not think about her, huh? Let's just concentrate on us."

Rodney might never believe it, but there really was some information he didn't need to have.

"You know what I'd like?" He put his arm around Rodney and moved him toward the door. "Dinner. Then you can fill me in on everything that's happened while I've been away."

Rodney gave him a suspicious look, but he went along with it, "Well, Kavanaugh has been insufferable as ever. And Parsons still has an unaccountable knack for blowing things up. The latest casualty was the mass spectrometer. Honestly, if he'd gone into demolitions, he probably would have been brilliant. Okay, maybe not brilliant, or even particularly bright, but at least his super power would be good for something—"

John nodded as Rodney catalogued the science team's varying degrees of incompetence. He could feel his life unspooling before him. In the dining hall, they'd have the scintillating choice of tarrot root stew or tarrot root casserole. They'd sit at the same table with its hard-backed chairs, because the Ancients weren't much on indulgence, and when they slept that night, they'd tangle around each other in a bed that was too small for two people because apparently the Ancients were even less on love. They'd wake up in the morning, and they'd work, and they'd fight, and at some point there'd probably be someone shooting at them. The next day, they'd get up and do it all again.

John smiled as Rodney launched into a story about the botanists and their continuing uselessness. He was so damned grateful to be home.