Actions

Work Header

And Hope

Work Text:

 

If you wish success in life, make perseverance your bosom friend, experience your wise counselor, caution your elder brother and hope your guardian genius.


  • Joseph Addison

 

 

 

 

 

"Hey, Colonel!  Heads up!"  Ford shouts from across the cluttered room, and it's a good thing John's reflexes are quick, because a small, metal . . . something lands in his hand a second before it would've beaned him.

 

"Ford . . . ."  John tries to hold onto his irritation, but can't.  Not with Ford.  Not after finally getting him back, getting him healthy.

 

Teyla smiles at them, not her long-suffering smile, which John's seen too much of recently, but her I-love-my-team smile.  She lifts a filigreed candelabrum from the table, brushes away cobwebs and studies it for a moment.  "This is my choice."  After a delicate cough, she heads to the door.  "I shall wait outside, and offer our thanks to the Nabarra for allowing us to choose our rewards."

 

Ronon ambles up, his bare arms striped with bars of sunlight, carrying a wooden box covered with dust and what look like carved figures.  "What've you got, Sheppard?"

 

"Dunno."  John hefts the . . . the thing, and it's heavy, for all that it fits in the curve of his palm and fingers as if it were made to order.  Under the filth of ages, sinuous lines snake across the oval's surface, and John quickly goes cross-eyed trying to follow them.  He almost tosses it back to Ford, but hesitates, then drops it into his vest pocket.  He could show it to Zelenka when they get back, maybe it would convince him to assign a scientist to every team, as John's been asking for the past four years.  When gadgets like this turn up, he wants -- no, he needs -- to know what they are, what they do; the teams can't rely on the informal exchange of information that's developed.  But although Zelenka seems cooperative on the surface, he's damned stubborn at times.  John's not going to hold his breath.  "You?"

 

"A box."  Ronon grins and blows dust off the top before carrying his prize outside.

 

"I can see that," John calls after him, coughing, then turns back to Ford.  "Find anything yet?"

 

Ford holds up a hammered metal mug.  "I like this.  Reminds me of a beer stein."

 

"Right."  John waits until Ford walks through the doorway, out into the bright sunshine, before he takes one last glance around the room.  Just stuff, lots of it, jumbled up in shadowed piles. Waiting to be claimed. Nothing to explain the feeling of eyes on his back, of something in the dark corners, waiting for him to turn away before venturing out . . . .

 

"Right," he says again, half to himself, and follows Ford, with only one last glance over his shoulder.

 

*

 

Their trophies cause snickers and comments when they return, but John doesn't have a chance to examine his thing until he's back in his room late that night.  He kicks off his boots and, after grabbing a damp washcloth, sits on his bed, cradling it in his hand.

 

The oval looks as if it's made of brass, or some similar alloy.  Half the deeply carved lines covering the surface are crusted with grime, so John gently wipes it with the cloth, working carefully.  He loses track of time, caught by the burnished gleam as the oval's original patina is slowly revealed.  Someone spent a long time crafting this, smoothing and polishing, then incising the intricate patterns.  He's never seen anything like it.

 

John places a fingertip against a small curlicue at one end and traces a line around the oval, his calluses gliding over the surface, around and around, until he ends up at another curlicue on the opposite end and stops. Reluctantly pulls his finger away.

 

The oval vibrates.

 

"Shit!"  He jumps up, dropping the shaking oval onto the bed.  "What the--"

 

His voice stops when the lines encircling the oval glow blue, and then, in a shimmer of light, like sunlit reflections on the ocean surface when viewed from below, a figure appears in front of him.

 

"Oh, God, not again," it -- he -- mutters.  Dressed in grey tunic and trousers, he's almost as tall as John but broader, with brown hair and a hairline that's heading north.  His generous mouth slants down at one corner and he blinks rapidly, glancing around the room. 

 

"Where the hell . . . ." he begins, then his gaze locks on John and his mouth snaps shut.  He closes his eyes, lashes brushing his cheeks, and sighs.  His eyes open again, as brilliant a blue as the glow from the oval.

 

"My name is Rodney, Master.  How may I serve you?"

 

And then he lets out a squawk and stumbles backward, startled by the gun John's pointing at him.

 

"Wait!"  He trips over John's boots and flails for a second before landing hard on his ass.  "Ow!  That hurt!"  With another wide-eyed look at John he freezes, pressing his lips together so tightly that the color bleeds from them, a white slash across his pale face.

 

John's gaze travels from the guy's terrified face to the gun still aimed at his heart.  Security protocols demand that he radio for backup, keep the intruder under guard until an investigation is completed . . . but he's never really been a by-the-book kind of guy.  He's used to making snap decisions, even if some of them backfire.  He doesn't see a threat here.  John lowers the gun, sets it down on the desk behind him -- he knows where it is if this guy isn't what he seems, but right now he looks about as far from threatening as you can get, pale as if he's going to pass out from fear -- then holds out both his hands, palms forward in the universal sign of I'm not armed.

 

"Hey, it's okay.  I'm not going to hurt you.  You just startled me." 

 

The guy rolls his eyes once before shifting on the floor and wincing.

 

John knows exactly what he's thinking: you're not the only one who was startled.  The floors on Atlantis are cold and unforgiving, and the guy probably bruised his tailbone.  John grimaces as the guy shifts again.

 

Yeah.  Ouch.

 

He sticks out his hand and takes a step forward, trying out an almost-friendly smile, one that usually works on skittish villagers.

 

The guy stares at John's hand blankly, as if he doesn't know what John expects.

 

"C'mon."  John flaps his hand a little.  "You landed pretty hard.  Lemme help you up."

 

Finally the guy gets it and his expression changes into one John doesn't quite understand, before settling back into cautious.  He stretches out his hand.  John grasps it and pulls him to his feet.

 

His hand is warm and dry, his grip strong.  He doesn't rise gracefully or easily, and when he's upright, he drops John's hand and carefully dusts off the seat of his trousers.

 

"Thank you."  He swallows hard.  "Master."

 

Now it's John's turn to stare.

 

Master?  He stops his thoughts slipping into a weird -- well, weirder -- place.  Probably just another freaky Pegasus cultural thing; something that will give the anthropologists a thrill.

 

"My name's John.  Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. Your name is?"

 

"Rodney."  He hesitates, as if he's going to say more, his brows knotted, but he remains silent.  His fingers tug on the bottom of his tunic.

 

"Good."  John's smile this time is more genuine.  He pulls out the desk chair, rolls it toward Rodney.  Props his hip on the desk, hiding the gun from Rodney's gaze, but keeping it close.  After all, he has been fooled before.  "Sit down.  What are you doing in that . . . that thing?"

 

"Sit?  But I . . . ."  Rodney's half-hearted protest dies away.  He bites his lower lip and gingerly perches on the chair.  "Your wish is my command, Mas--  Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."   He forces out the words, one by one, dropping them like stones at John's feet.

 

If Rodney wasn't obviously so frightened and miserable, if the whole situation wasn't obviously so awkward and ridiculous, John would give in to the sudden urge to laugh.  The Pegasus Galaxy throws him another curveball: his own personal genie.  Not from a lamp, admittedly, but from an alien hunk of metal.  And not a busty blonde decked out in Hollywood kitsch cooing "Colonel," but an ordinary looking guy in tunic and trousers.  Just his luck.

 

John raises an eyebrow and waits.

 

Rodney lifts his chin, almost as if he's preparing to argue or snap back, and really, for some reason John knows this conversation would be more comfortable for both of them if Rodney would argue or snap back.  Instead, Rodney's ears and cheeks darken, and he gaze drops to his clasped hands.

 

"I . . . transgressed certain laws."  A catch of breath, and his color deepens, spreads.  "My punishment is to serve whoever possesses my guardian."

 

John stares at him. He can't be serious.  "You mean, they stick you into this. . . thing and make you a slave instead of putting you in jail?"

 

Rodney winces.  "Imprisonment is for minor infractions of limited duration.  Use of the guardian is reserved for . . ." he takes a shaky breath, ". . . for criminals who are punished for lengthier terms."

 

Jesus.  John sucks in a lungful of air, pushes back the hot wave of outrage that crackles across his skin.  He's dealt with cultures that use slavery as part of their judicial systems, but to stick someone into a little device and make them the slave of whoever possesses it?  What kind of sicko society considers that just?

 

But Rodney implied this punishment is for the major offenders.  Maybe whatever he did was so horrific . . . .

 

"Let me get this straight."  John leans back, fingertips touching the gun.   Just in case: the most evil man he knows has the face of an angel.  "You broke some laws.  What did you do?"

 

Rodney's face crumples.  "I violated the Temple and caused the gods' displeasure.  I brought ruin to the city and dishonor to my family."  He sounds as if he's quoting.

 

"Ruin?"

 

"The city shields were failing!"  Rodney gestures broadly, hands flying. "I knew that if I replaced a few cracked crystals the shields would hold, and the Wraith wouldn't be able to enter.  But the priests interrupted me before I could finish, and then the shields failed, and the Wraith came . . . ."  His voice trails off, and he bows his head.

 

Damn.  Poor guy was punished just for trying to help.  John's been in that situation more often than he cares to remember.  "How long have you been in the . . .  What did you call it?  The guardian?"

 

Rodney lifts haunted eyes to John's face.  "I don't know."

 

"Okay.  How many . . . masters have you served?"

 

"One thousand seven hundred and fifty six."  He grimaces.  "Fifty seven.  Now."

 

John's stomach twists, and he swallows bile.  Jesus.  He was thinking maybe eight or nine.  A dozen.  But this?  It's obscene.

 

"Right."  He pushes himself to his feet.  Rodney blenches and leans back, as if awaiting a blow.  Fuck.  John shoves his fingers through his hair and takes a slow breath.  Calming.  No reason to spook the poor guy.  "Okay.  This ends here.  Now.  I'm not your master, okay?  You're free."

 

Rodney just blinks at him, so John speaks more slowly.  Enunciates.

 

"We'll destroy the guardian.  You can stay here, or go somewhere else.  Find a job, start a family."

 

Rodney starts to chuckle.  In a few seconds he's doubled over, his arms wrapped around his middle, laughing so hard that his face flushes bright red.  His laughter quickly moves to hysterics -- John doesn't want to smack him, but Rodney can hardly breathe.

 

"Hey!"  John grabs his shoulders, pulls him upright, gives him a brisk shake.  "Stop it!"

 

"Sorry . . . ." Rodney wheezes.  His cheeks are damp, his lashes clump together and sparkle from moisture.  He looks shockingly vulnerable.  "It's just . . . .  No one's ever said that to me.  I mean, you're my master, and -- no, it's not . . . ."  He sobers, looks bewildered.  "You're offering me my freedom?"

 

"Yeah."  John releases him and turns to the bed.  He picks up the guardian -- how had he ever found it intriguing? -- hefts it in his hand.  "We'll take it down to armaments, blow it up--"

 

"No!"  Rodney takes a hesitant step forward, his fingertips grazing John's shoulder before he jerks his hand away.  "Please, you can't."

 

"Why?  The damned thing's keeping you prisoner . . . ."

 

"It's also keeping me alive."  Rodney glances at the guardian, frowns.  "If you destroy it, I'll be killed as well.  And I . . . don't want to die."

 

John's fingers curl around the cool metal.  He wants to smash it against the wall, or throw it into the sea.  "There's no way to release you?  Fine.  Here."  He grabs Rodney's hand and pushes the guardian into his clasp.

 

Rodney drops it with a scream.  The guardian thuds to the floor, skitters across the room, banging into the far wall.

 

John's just about to go after it when Rodney whimpers.  He holds out his hands, and John's stomach turns.

 

Jesus.

 

The skin on Rodney's palms and fingers blisters as John watches, turning red then black, charring. 

 

"I'll get help."  John reaches for his radio -- Keller can be here in a minute or two at the most -- but Rodney's speaking, babbling between gasps, and John forces himself to listen.

 

"Send me back, back inside.  The guardian will heal me."

 

"How?"  John darts over to the guardian, hesitating only a second before grabbing it.  It doesn't burn him.

 

"Place a finger on the circles on either end, both at the same time."  Rodney squeezes his eyes shut, his face as pale as a Wraith.  His hands continue to blacken, the charring spreading toward his wrist. The smell of burning flesh makes John want to puke.

 

Must be agony.

 

"Okay.  I got you."  John finds the circles, places his fingers just so, and with a shimmer, Rodney disappears.

 

John takes a deep breath.  Regrets it immediately, because the burning stench is still stomach-churningly strong.  He drops the guardian onto his bed -- he can't face seeing Rodney right now.  He has to figure out what to do, who to tell . . . .

 

And then the alarm goes off.  His radio squawks half-a-second later, and he grabs his boots and runs from the room.

 

*

 

John's always been good with crutches.  After all, he's had enough practice over the years.  He finally convinces Keller to release him -- it's only a sprain, he can manage just fine -- and hobbles back to his room.  A sprained ankle is a small price to pay to keep the city and his people safe, and he wouldn't even have that injury if certain scientists had listened to him and evacuated when he'd told them to, instead of making excuses about sticking around to monitor so-called important experiments until they had to be rescued.

 

He'll have to talk to Zelenka about that.  Zelenka is a nice guy, sometimes too nice.  His people tend to take advantage of him.

 

John waves the door open with a sigh.  It's only been three days since he slept in his own bed, but it feels like forever.

 

Sunlight streams through the window.  Morning.  He's forgotten what time it is.  He's just about to unbuckle his holster and collapse onto the mattress when he sees it: the guardian.

 

Fuck.

 

He hasn't had time to spare a thought for Rodney.  Did the guardian fix him?  Or has Rodney spent the past three days slowly burning, wondering why John would offer to free him and then let him be tortured?

 

John quickly settles on the bed, propping his crutches beside him.  His fingers graze over his holster, but he leaves his gun in place.

 

He locates one circle and drags his finger over the lines, around and around the guardian until he reaches the other end.  A glow, a shimmer, and he watches closely as Rodney snaps into being beside the bed.

 

"Let me see your hands," John says, before Rodney can speak.

 

Rodney frowns, his gaze traveling from John on his bed over to the desk, but he obediently holds out his hands.

 

They are perfect and whole, with no trace of burning or scarring.  John sucks in a breath, the knot that has lodged in his gut slowly unraveling.

 

Rodney still looks confused, his eyes tracking between John, sprawled on the bed, and the desk.  John suddenly gets it: Rodney's looking at the place where John had been standing when he had returned Rodney to the guardian.

 

Rodney has no idea how much time has passed.

 

"There was an emergency," John explains.  "You've been in the guardian for three days."

 

"Oh."  Rodney nods, then his gaze sharpens.  "You're injured, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."

 

John shrugs.  "Nothing much.  Just a sprain."

 

"I can . . . ."  Rodney's hands go into free flight for a moment before he lowers them, his fingers twisting in the hem of his tunic.  "I can help you."

 

"Yeah, about that."  John rubs the back of his neck, wishes he could take a shower -- a sponge bath in the infirmary doesn't even come close to what he needs.  "Listen.  I know you're supposed to serve me, and that you can't get free of the guardian yet, but. . ."

 

He knows it's not possible -- Atlantis' air circulation system is very efficient -- but he smells burning flesh for a second.  From the look on Rodney's face, he's remembering the same incident. 

 

John continues. "But I have to tell our leader about you."

 

Rodney nods, his face flushed.

 

Might as well get it over with.  John slips the guardian into his shirt pocket and taps his radio.

 

"Mr. Woolsey, we need to talk."

 

*

 

John has to keep slowing down as they make their way to Woolsey's office, and not because he's hampered by his crutches.  Rodney stops and stares, eyes as wide as saucers, at the doors that open automatically, at the long, curving corridors.  He eagerly studies the transporter map and follows the coordinates John punches in, but when John turns to him with a smile, ready to explain, he shrinks back like a cowed puppy.

 

John really wants to hit Rodney's former masters.  All of them.  Line them up in a row and have a smack-down.

 

Despite the delay, Woolsey's office is empty when they arrive. John sinks gratefully into a chair, and Rodney stands a little behind John's right shoulder. 

 

"Rodney?" John twists around.

 

Rodney's settled into a position similar to at ease, feet apart, hands clasped at the small of his back.  His eyes are focused on the floor.

 

"Yes, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard?" he replies softly.

 

John can hear echoes of Master beneath his name, and his fingers dig into the arms of the chair.  God, he hates this.

 

"What are you doing?"  It's difficult to keep his voice steady, keep the snap of irritation out, but he manages.

 

"I . . . ."  Rodney darts a glance at John, then returns his gaze to the floor.  "Waiting for orders, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard.  Would you prefer me to kneel?"

 

Fuck.

 

"Okay."  John's finger shakes as he points to the chair next to him.  "Enough.  Enough of the slave shit, Rodney."  He's so damned mad that he can hardly think straight.  "No one kneels here.  Now sit down, and call me John.  Please."

 

Woolsey bustles in as Rodney sits.  When he sees Rodney, Woolsey does a double-take, and Rodney bounces back to his feet.

 

"Sit down, Rodney," John snaps.

 

Rodney sits.

 

John's explanation is short and to the point.  Maybe too short and to the point; Woolsey looks stunned.  He gapes at John, then at Rodney.

 

"You have got to be kidding, Colonel."

 

"No.  Wish I were."  John pulls the guardian from his pocket.  "We can give you a demonstration, if you like."

 

"That won't be necessary." 

 

Woolsey may be a bureaucrat, but he's not stupid.  He glances at Rodney, tries a smile on for size, and turns back to John.

 

"I am extremely uncomfortable with the implications of this, Colonel."

 

"You're not the only one."  John leans forward.  "But I'm not going to stick a man back into that," he gestures at the guardian, sitting on the table in front of them, "and leave him to be picked up by anyone.  I offered Rodney his freedom, but for right now, he's tied to the guardian."

 

Woolsey nods.  "I agree."  He turns to Rodney.  "We have some extremely intelligent scientists working here.  Of course I don't want to encourage false hopes, but they may be able to free you from the . . . the guardian.  We'll let them work on it and find something for you to do--"

 

"But--"  Rodney's mouth snaps closed, and he shakes his head.

 

"Is there a problem?"

 

"I can't stray farther than one hundred feet from the guardian.  If I do . . ."  Rodney's hands clench so tightly that his knuckles turn white.  "Lieut-- John saw what happens."

 

Jesus.  Woolsey looks queasy.  John glares at the guardian.

 

"Okay," John says.  "We'll give it to someone--"

 

Rodney shakes his head again.  "You called me, so you must keep it.  It won't work for anyone else."

 

"So you go back inside and we'll find someone trustworthy to call you."  Maybe Teyla . . . .

 

"I am bound to you," Rodney says, "and can only serve a new master if you haven't called me for a year."

 

"Crap."  John clenches his fist.  God, he'd love to smash it onto the table, but a lifetime of self-restraint holds him back.

 

"Indeed."  Woolsey folds his hands and looks slightly constipated. "However, I suggest you and Rodney consult Dr. Zelenka next.  He may be able to discover a way to free Rodney from the guardian, or at least mitigate some of the other restrictions."

 

John nods.  "Yeah.  That's what I had in mind."  He glances at Rodney, who still looks wary.  "I think we should keep quiet about the whole guardian thing, though.  Just tell Dr. Z. and my team."

 

Woolsey hesitates.  "Teyla and Ronon might have useful knowledge about the history and use of the guardians.  However . . . ."  He looks uncomfortable.

 

"Ford."  John stifles a sigh.  He had to fight hard to keep Ford on his team; Woolsey still doesn't trust him.  "I won't tell him unless there's no other choice."

 

"Fair enough."  Woolsey clasps his hands and contemplates Rodney for a moment.  "We can introduce Rodney as a . . . Thokanan?" He pauses, pursing his mouth in thought, then nods. "Yes, a Thokanan expert on Ancient technology, working with you on identifying various artifacts.  That would explain your close proximity, and provide you both with a reason to be in the labs." At John's nod, he continues.  "Rodney, would that be acceptable to you?"

 

"I--"  Rodney flashes a small smile.  "Yes.  Thank you."

 

Woolsey stands, and Rodney scrambles to his feet. 

 

"Rodney," Woolsey's voice is gentler than John has heard it before, "I hope we can free you soon.  In the meantime, Colonel Sheppard will ensure that you are comfortable.  Welcome to Atlantis."

 

Rodney waits -- just -- until Woolsey leaves before turning to John.  "Atlantis?" he says, eyes as wide as a kid's on Christmas morning.   "The city that flies?  That's where we are?"

 

John grins.  "Yep."

 

"And you are . . ."  Rodney's excitement fades into disbelief.  "An Ancestor?"

 

"No." John laughs.  "We're explorers, scientists, from another . . . from a long way away.  We discovered Atlantis a couple years ago, and have been living here ever since. Now let's go see if Dr. Z. can help."

 

*

 

Zelenka accompanies John's explanation with a muttered counterpoint in Czech.  He stares at Rodney, sitting stiffly beside John, until Rodney flushes and ducks his head.  Beaming, Zelenka claps him on the shoulder.

 

"We will do this, Rodney.  On behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere, we will set you free."

 

"Great, Doc.  Just remember the cover story."  John grabs his crutches.  His ankle aches, and he still needs that shower, not to mention lunch.  "When do you want to get started?"

 

Zelenka frowns at John's bandaged foot.

 

"You should rest your ankle, or Dr. Keller will insist you return to the infirmary.  If Rodney does not mind staying with me, I could run some preliminary scans now."

 

Before John can reply, a loud rumble comes from the direction of Rodney's stomach.

 

"Sorry."  Rodney wraps his arms around his middle, curls in on himself.

 

John's laughter jerks his head up, his eyes wide.

 

"Don't apologize for being hungry."  John gets to his feet, balances on the crutches.  "Let's eat some lunch first.  Then we'll come back and get to work."  His shower can wait, and if Keller gives him any grief about not resting enough . . . .  Well, he'll deal with that if it happens.

 

*

 

John introduces Rodney to the mess staff, and points out -- discreetly, he's no fool -- which dishes are the tastiest.  He's still hampered by his crutches, so he lets Rodney fill a tray with food for them both; otherwise, no way would he ask Rodney to assume the role of servant.  Because Rodney looks spooked by all the people, John chooses a table away from the others and takes the seat facing the room.  He can glare a warning at anyone who tries to sit with them.

 

Rodney places the tray on the table, and John removes one of the plates and some cutlery before pushing the tray across the table.  He gestures for Rodney to take the seat facing him.  After sitting gingerly, Rodney pulls the tray closer and glances at his plate, then at John.

 

"Go ahead."  John picks up his fork.  "You don't have to wait for me."

 

Rodney hesitates, his gaze never leaving John's hand, then slowly he raises a forkful to his mouth.  His eyelids flutter closed as he chews, tension bleeding from his face.  He swallows, makes a soft noise.

 

John knows that look, that noise.  He's seen it in refugee camps.

 

"Good?"

 

Rodney's eyes fly open and he nods.

 

John focuses on his own lunch, and it takes him a while to realize that Rodney is matching his movements from plate to mouth.  John speeds up a little; so does Rodney.  He slows down.  Rodney slows, although between enormous bites he looks longingly at the food left on his plate.  John still hasn't finished when Rodney's plate is empty.  Rodney sets his fork down, his shoulders drooping.

 

"You know," John says, "you can have more, if you like."

 

"Oh."  Rodney smiles briefly.  It's as if, for a moment, a heavy curtain opens and lets sunlight stream into a dark room.

 

John's breath catches.

 

It takes two more tries, but he finally manages to convince Rodney to go back for seconds.  While he's gone, Teyla appears and settles beside John, despite his glare.

 

"Mr. Woolsey explained about our guest."

 

John leans toward her.  "Have you heard anything about this guardian thing?"

 

"I have heard it mentioned on other planets.  It was reserved as the ultimate punishment for those who committed great crimes, but I have never seen one used before."

 

"Great crimes?"  He didn't like the sound of that.

 

"Those crimes which involve a wanton disregard for life, ruthless butchery, or genocide."

 

John shakes his head.  "This guy doesn't seem to be a criminal mastermind.  Sounds more like he was trying to help and ended up with all the blame."

 

Teyla meets his gaze calmly. "If that is true, it would indeed be unfortunate."

 

"If?"  A few heads turn in their direction, and John lowers his voice.  "What do you mean, ‘if?'"

 

"John," she says, touching his hand briefly.  "We have only his word on the matter."

 

Before he can reply Rodney returns.  His steps check when he sees Teyla, and after a moment he approaches cautiously, his brow furrowed.

 

"It's okay," John says and then introduces Teyla.  "She knows the truth."

 

Rodney's mouth forms an ‘o,' and a faint wash of color darkens his cheeks.

 

"And she's a member of my team," John continues.

 

"Team?"

 

"We work together ," says John.

 

"We are as family," corrects Teyla.

 

Rodney nods once, still wary.  He sits, placing the tray on the table in front of him.  He looks at John.

 

"Go ahead," John whispers.

 

Teyla's gaze moves from John to Rodney, who is quickly demolishing his second helpings.

 

"I am glad you are enjoying your meal, Rodney."

 

Rodney nods, swallows.  "It's delicious.  I haven't tasted food in--"  He closes his mouth, his gaze traveling back to John.

 

Teyla leans forward.  "Yes?"

 

"In a long time."  Rodney ducks his head.

 

"Didn't your other--"  John can't say the word.  "You had to eat sometime."

 

"Not technically."  Rodney shrugs.  "I must return to the guardian every twelve hours, and my body is reset when I'm called again.  Most of my masters didn't want to waste food on me."

 

John's anger surfaces again, but he pushes it away.  "What do you mean, you have to return to the guardian every twelve hours?  You didn't mention that before."

 

"I'm sorry."  Rodney hunches and pokes at the last of the food on his plate.  "If my master doesn't send me back into the guardian after twelve hours, then I'm returned automatically.  Of course, you can call me back immediately . . . ."

 

"Only if you want me to."  John keeps his voice steady.

 

Rodney just blinks.

 

When they finish, Rodney insists on bussing their dishes.

 

"How can you walk with those," he nods at John's crutches, "and carry the tray at the same time?"  Before John can answer, he sniffs and hurries off with the tray piled high, while John exchanges a thoughtful glance with Teyla.

 

"You still think he's lying?"

 

She hesitates, her gaze following Rodney across the room.  "I only said it was a possibility."

 

John gets to his feet, balancing on his crutches.  "And it's possible he's telling the truth."

 

*

 

"Colonel, please."  Zelenka ushers John to one of the few comfortable chairs in the small auxiliary lab, where they can work with a measure of privacy, and produces a box with a flourish.  "For you to rest your foot."

 

John sighs.  No use arguing with Zelenka -- he will cheerfully ignore any protests -- so John sits down and props his foot on the box.  He gestures Rodney toward a lab stool.

 

But Rodney's glaring at Zelenka.  He blushes when he catches John's eye and sits, studying the floor.

 

"Good!"  Zelenka rubs his hands together and smiles.  "If you will entrust me with Rodney's guardian, I will begin analysis.  And while I work, you work, no?"  He hands John a tablet and ignores John's stifled groan.  "Please to double-check the jumper stats.  There are one or two results that concern me."

 

John hands over the guardian, then pokes at the tablet, scanning the test results.  Warmth blossoms along John's side as Rodney scoots the stool closer, peers over his shoulder.  John's three screens in when he sees it.  Rodney ‘hmmms' at the same time.

 

"What do you see?" John asks, turning his head.  Rodney's so close John almost bumps his cheek.

 

"What?" Rodney jumps back, stumbles on the stool, catches himself on a table.  "I--"  He tugs on the hem of his tunic.

 

"You noticed something.  What was it?"  John presses, he can't help himself.  Has he underestimated Rodney?

 

Rodney squares his shoulders and steps up to John.  "The energy output there."  His finger jabs at the tablet.  "It shouldn't spike like that."

 

"Yeah."  John pages through the rest of the results.  "Weird.  Seems to come out of the blue."

 

"If I knew more . . . ."  Rodney glances at John.  "What type of craft is a ‘jumper?'"

 

John spends the next half-hour explaining the jumpers, or at least as much as they know about them.  Rodney asks a lot of questions, some of which John can answer, many of which he can't, much to Rodney's increasingly obvious impatience. 

 

"How can you not know the stabilization ratio?  It's critical in these types of situations . . . ."  Rodney's arms describe sweeping circles, then bisect them in great slashing arcs.  His tone sharpens, his eyes glitter.

 

John hardly recognizes him.

 

"Of course, these figures are useless without more data.  I'll have to see the jumpers themselves before I can make any kind of accurate assessment."

 

"Tomorrow, okay?  I promise."  When had he lost control of the conversation?  "We'll take a look at the jumpers tomorrow."

 

With a glance at John's bandaged foot, Rodney huffs agreement, then plunges back into the data.

 

"Colonel?" Zelenka eventually says.

 

Rubbing his eyes, John welcomes the interruption.  He feels as if he's been bludgeoned mentally, but they -- well, Rodney -- have identified several promising paths to explore.  The guy's brilliant.

 

"Found anything, Dr. Z.?"  He sets the tablet on the table.

 

"The beaming and storage technology are similar to those used by the Wraith."  Zelenka's smile is tight as he holds up the guardian.  "However, there are significant differences.  And the power source puzzles me."

 

"Rodney?" John turns.

 

Hunched on the lab stool, Rodney looks as if the life has been drained from him.  John nudges his knee, catches his eye when he looks up.

 

"Dr. Z. wants to know about the guardian's power source.  You got any ideas?"

 

Rodney shakes his head.  "It was a closely guarded secret, known only to the Guild members who made them. I did a little preliminary research before . . . ." His voice trails off, and his throat works.  "I'm sorry."

 

"Never mind," Zelenka says. "We will continue our investigation."

 

Rodney nods without raising his gaze from the floor.

 

John frowns.  As overwhelming as the other Rodney is, John kind of likes him.  He hates this meek, frightened version, hates the guardian that holds Rodney captive.  No matter what it takes, he'll make sure Rodney is freed soon.

 

*

 

"Then what happened?"  Rodney leans forward, his laden fork poised half-way to his mouth, forgotten.

 

"Then Dr. Z. managed to get the shields up, and Atlantis--"

 

"Sheppard."

 

Ronon looms over the table, tray in hand.  He nods at Rodney, and doesn't seem to notice Rodney's startled yelp, or the way Rodney curls in on himself, as if he wants to slide under the table, out of sight.

 

Before John can say anything, like ‘get lost,' Ronon sits beside Rodney.  Ford follows in his wake, his "Colonel" a polite contrast to his narrow-eyed glance in Rodney's direction.

 

Giving in to the inevitable, John gestures toward them.  "Rodney, meet Ronon Dex and Lieutenant Aiden Ford.  They're also members of my team."

 

Rodney mumbles something that sounds like a greeting.

 

"So, you're Rodney, the Thokanan," Ronon says as Ford settles beside John.  "Teyla told us about you." He takes a bite of stew and chews thoughtfully, his gaze resting on Rodney.

 

"She said you're some kind of expert on Ancient tech." Ford's stare isn't friendly.

 

After a quick glance at John, Rodney nods.  "That's right."

 

When it's clear he's not going to offer more, John adds with a grin, "Yeah, Woolsey asked him to help Dr. Z.  With all the unidentified stuff they have piled up in the lab, he's worried one of the devices is going to blow up or turn toxic or something."

 

"But--" Ford stops when John leans forward.

 

"I was just telling Rodney about that time with the Genii, and how Dr. Z. pulled our asses out of the fire . . . ."

 

Half-an-hour later, they leave the mess.  John waits until Ford disappears down the corridor before jerking his head at Ronon, and hobbling to a quiet alcove.

 

"Did Teyla tell you . . . ." He raises his brows.

 

Ronon nods.  "Yeah.  Heard of people put into guardians, but never thought I'd meet one."

 

"Why not?" John asks.

 

" ‘Cause it's been a thousand years since anyone's been punished that way.  According to the Guild's records, all the prisoners were released long ago."

 

"A thousand years?"  John's gaze turns to Rodney, who echoes his words and stares blankly at the wall.

 

"How many ma-- people did you say you had worked for?" John asks.

 

"One thousand seven hundred and fifty seven, including you, John.  But . . . ."  His voice trails off, and he bows his head.

 

 "But?" John prompts.

 

"The last time I calculated the number of years I'd been in the guardian, it was still being used as a punishment."  Rodney's voice is so soft John can barely hear him.

 

"How many years then, Rodney?"

 

"Three thousand five hundred and eleven."

 

John gapes.  Rodney's been a prisoner for almost five thousand years?  That's not punishment; that's hell.

 

"Why weren't you released?" asks Ronon, leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest.

 

"I don't know!" Jaw set, Rodney inhales sharply and whirls around.  His palm smacks the wall and he cries out, but John can tell it's not from the physical pain.

 

"My previous master plotted to overthrow the government.  The last time I saw him, he was preparing to lead the rebellion.  The next thing I know, John calls me from the guardian over a thousand years later on a planet I've never heard of!"

 

"Sounds like the rebels didn't win," Ronon says.

 

"I tried to tell him," mutters Rodney.  "But he wouldn't listen."

 

"Tell him what?" John asks.

 

"That his plan was a disaster, his so-called co-conspirators were waiting to betray him at the first chance, and that the military would never follow a supercilious snob with a predilection for children."

 

Ronon grins.

 

"Did you tell him in those words?" John winces and rubs the back of his neck.

 

Rodney pauses, staring at him.  "Do you think I'm a complete moron?" he snaps.  "Of course I didn't say it like that!"

 

"Good." Ronon nods. "Sounds like you were overlooked somehow."

 

"Oh, thank you for pointing out the obvious." Rodney bows his head and sighs.  "I'm sorry. It's not your fault."

 

"No, it isn't." But Rodney's sarcasm doesn't seem to bother Ronon, who nods at John.  "See you later, Sheppard."

 

Rodney's shoulders droop as his gaze follows Ronon, striding down the corridor.

 

"I'm really not an idiot," he says plaintively.

 

"C'mon."  John pokes at Rodney's leg with a crutch.  "I need a shower, then maybe we can watch a movie or something."

 

*

 

The shower feels great, even if he has to stand on one foot while lathering up.  John pulls on a pair of sweats and a tee-shirt before grabbing his crutches and hobbling back into his bedroom.  He'll re-wrap his ankle and he and Rodney will . . . .

 

He stares.

 

Rodney's dusting his desk.

 

John turns, his gaze traveling around the room.  He's always been neat, the covers on his bed tight enough to bounce the proverbial quarter on.  But his bed's been re-made, the covers just as smooth, the corners pleated somehow before being tucked under.  His small collection of books, CDs and DVDs has been re-organized.  His boots are clean, neatly placed by the closet.

 

He hates this.

 

He doesn't want a houseboy.  Doesn't want Rodney doing this.

 

"Don't," he says, flopping down on the pristine bed, just to make it look more like his.

 

Rodney stops dusting, looks around with the air of a man who's lost his way.  "What shall I--"

 

"I thought we could watch a movie."  Anything to distract Rodney.  "Or maybe play chess, or checkers."

 

John stretches, reaching for the Ace bandage on his nightstand.  His shirt rides up, the air cool on his belly.  When he rolls over and sits up, Rodney's kneeling in front of him, his cheeks pink, his expression resolute.  He plucks the bandage from John's hand and clasps John's foot.

 

"Wha--?" begins John, his foot tingling, but Rodney's already winding the bandage around John's swollen ankle.

 

"I watched how you unwrapped it," he says, his fingers nimble and assured.  "It would be difficult for you to put it on; the angle's all wrong."

 

Leaning back on his elbows, John sighs.  He hates being out-maneuvered.  "So. Movie or game?"

 

"What's a movie?"  Rodney finishes wrapping the bandage and sits back on his heels.

 

"It's a . . . ."  John stares at him, shakes his head. He'll save that explanation for another time. "Okay, let's play checkers instead."

 

Rodney grasps the concept almost immediately, and John has to really concentrate after a couple of moves.  He wins -- just -- and by their third game, Rodney rubs his hands together and crows every time he takes one of John's pieces.  John can't even feel resentful; Rodney's delight pulls a grin from him.

 

The battle is tipping in Rodney's direction when Rodney's hand falters and he looks up, his eyes unfocused.

 

"It's almost time."

 

"Time for what?"  John frowns at the board.  He is so screwed . . . .

 

"For me to return to the guardian."  Rodney's voice is soft. 

 

John can hear his regret.  "Want me to call you back?  We can play longer."

 

"You're tired and need to rest.  Call me in the morning."  His mouth droops.  "After all, I won't know the difference."

 

"If you're sure . . . ."

 

"Yes." Rodney stands.  "Thank you, John."

 

"What for?  You're still tied to the guardian."

 

"This was the best day I've had for . . . in a very long time."  He smiles, just a little, and then he's gone.

 

John holds the guardian in his hand.  He's tempted to use it, call Rodney back, but instead he tosses it onto the nightstand.

 

He folds up the checkerboard, carefully stores the pieces.  Next time he'll teach Rodney to play chess.

 

*

 

John leans back in his desk chair and stares at his neatly bandaged foot, propped on the desk.  It's only been an hour since Rodney left, but he's so damned bored. Should he go to bed? Or call Rodney? Even though Rodney told him not to bother.

 

He can't imagine what it's like to be . . . trapped inside that hunk of metal for a day, much less thousands of years.  Is Rodney telling the truth?  That he doesn't feel the long years passing when he's in the guardian?

 

John hopes like hell that's the case.

 

After carefully lowering his foot to the floor, he stands.  What the fuck.  He limps over to the nightstand and picks up the guardian.  They could watch a movie -- maybe Batman . . . .

 

The door chimes.

 

"Yeah?"  He slips the metal cylinder into his trouser pocket, then goes to open the door.

 

Ford stands in the hall, his usually sunny expression somber.

 

"Colonel?  Sorry to bother you."

 

"What's up?"  John stands aside and motions Ford to enter.

 

Ford steps inside and glances around, narrow-eyed.  "Is the Thokanan here?"

 

"Rodney?  He's . . . in his quarters."  John can feel the weight of the guardian against his thigh.  He leans against his desk and crosses his arms over his chest.  "Why? Is there a problem?"

 

"No, no problem," Ford says, mirroring John's stance.  "But there's something . . . off about him."

 

"Off?  In what way?"

 

"I don't know, exactly." Ford frowns.  "But he's hiding something, that's for sure."

 

Guilt flares behind John's breastbone.  He hates keeping anything from Ford, but Rodney's situation isn't Ford's business.  Still, keeping Ford out of the loop makes him uncomfortable.

 

"Could be."  John has to give him that.  He shrugs.  "But we all have secrets."

 

Ford's eyes widen, and he looks as if John has slapped him before he turns away.  "You don't have to remind me, Colonel.  I remember." His tone is sharp.

 

"I didn't--" John begins.  Shit. He'd promised himself never to refer to Ford's lapse.  God knows the guy paid for his mistakes, and John doesn't think it's useful to rake up the past of anyone under his command unless it's absolutely necessary.  "I wasn't referring to you."  Not that Ford will believe him.

 

"Right."  Ford doesn't believe him, that's obvious.  "But I'd feel better if we kept a guard on this guy."

 

John almost laughs.  If Ford only knew . . . .  "Don't worry.  I'm not letting him roam around Atlantis on his own.  Anything else, Lieutenant?"

 

"No, sir."

 

Ford doesn't look happy as he leaves, but he doesn't press the issue.  Still, John better keep an eye on him.  Maybe ask Ronon or Teyla to, as well.

 

John reaches down and palms the guardian in his pocket.  A fragile container for a man's life.  He stares out the window, watching the moons and stars reflect off the shifting water.  What would it be like to be held captive -- enslaved -- for so many years?  How did Rodney stay sane through it all?  He has no idea.  After a few minutes, he shakes his head, and roots in his drawers for his chess set. 

 

He sets it on the desk before he gets ready for bed.

 

*

 

Rodney shimmers into existence, blinking, his expression blank.  His gaze immediately focuses on John, his tentative smile blossoming into a full-fledged grin.

 

"Morning, Rodney."  John can't help his answering smile.  "Ready to go up in a jumper?"

 

"Can't wait."  Rodney clasps his hands behind his back and bounces once on his toes.  "Are we going now?"  His eyes sparkle.

 

"Thought we'd have breakfast first."  John raises an eyebrow.  "Unless you'd rather skip it."

 

"No!  No, no, no, no.  Breakfast is good."  Rodney rubs his hands together, follows John out the door.  "Will they have the almost-bacon and close-to-eggs?"

 

"Hope so."

 

Propping his crutches on the edge of the mess table, John sits as Rodney slides the tray crowded with heaping plates in front of him.  John hates to ask Rodney for another favor -- and he'll ask, even though he knows Rodney won't say no -- but he's missing one breakfast essential.  He points to the end of the steam line.

 

"We didn't have room for it on the tray, but see the pots with the dark liquid?  Would you mind bringing me a cup, please?"

 

Rodney rolls his eyes.  "Oh, for . . . .  Of course I will."  He hurries off, shaking his head.

 

John's tucking into his food when Rodney returns, both hands clasped around the cup he's holding under his chin.  Rodney inhales deeply before setting it down by John's plate.

 

"What is that?" Rodney asks, his gaze fixed on the steaming cup.

 

"Coffee." John grins.  "Want some?"

 

Rodney licks his lips.  "Please."

 

John hands him the cup, and after another sniff, Rodney takes a sip.

 

"You can put sugar and cream in it," John says, "if it's too bitter."

 

Rodney shakes his head, takes another sip.  "No, it's perfect . . . ."  His eyes glaze, and he stares dreamily at the ceiling.

 

"Just don't drink too much, or you'll be bouncing off the walls."

 

With a startled look, Rodney sets down the coffee.  "I'll be what?"

 

"Just an expression," John says with a laugh.  "Don't worry about it.  Now, mind getting me a cup?"

 

Rodney's questions about jumpers fill the empty space when he's not eating, and by the time they reach the bay he's practically vibrating with excitement.  And probably caffeine -- John's going to have to keep an eye on how much coffee Rodney downs.  They walk through the doors and Rodney stops dead, staring at the puddlejumpers.

 

"Oh," he says, his voice flat.  "I thought they'd be . . ."  His hands describe elegant curves and sleek lines.  "Beautiful." 

 

John stretches out a hand and runs it over the fuselage, stroking.  Only a tiny bit defensive.  "They may not be beautiful, but they fly like a dream."  Okay, maybe more than tiny.

 

Rodney cocks his head to one side, chews on his lower lip.  "So, what seems to be the problem?"

 

John hobbles over to a workstation.  "Dr. Z. left us a tablet with the--  Yeah, here it is."

 

Rodney's estimation of the jumpers skyrockets when John pulls up the HUD. He starts to ask questions (although he never listens to John's answers) and point and for a good five minutes John can't get any sense from him at all.  Then it's as if someone flips a switch and Rodney suddenly understands how the jumpers work and what the readouts mean and, most importantly, how to improve them.  They spend an hour tweaking the system, until both of them are satisfied with the results.

 

"Time for a test," John says, stowing his crutches before sliding into the pilot's seat.  "You ever flown before?"

 

Fingers clutching the co-pilot's armrests, Rodney nods.  "A few times.  Usually while I was in the guardian," he admits.  "So I don't remember.  Once with my then master, because he needed . . . servicing during the flight."  Rodney frowns.

 

John understands.  When he wasn't in the guardian, Rodney was probably stuck in the middle of some transport, like a sardine in a can.  Even though they won't go far, he wants this flight to knock Rodney's socks off -- give him another good day to remember.

 

"We'll only go sub-orbital today.  Make sure the systems are running okay."

 

"Right."  Rodney consults the tablet.  "Put the energy output on the display."  He compares the two sets of figures, crooning softly, as John takes the jumper up.

 

John grins and sets out.

 

They're well out over the water by the time Rodney focuses on something other than the readouts.

 

"You're sure this is safe?" he says, clutching the tablet with one hand, and the arm rest with the other.

 

"Rodney, you've seen the stats.  You know it's safe."  John speeds up -- just a little -- and the jumper swoops over the water.

 

"Well, there's knowing, and there's knowing."  Rodney gasps as the jumper climbs for a moment, then levels out. 

 

In the distance, a cluster of islands interrupts the rolling ocean, their jagged peaks like huge, roughly-hewn arrowheads emerging from the water, reminding John of the Na Pali cliffs on Kauai.

 

"I never . . . ." begins Rodney, but he seems to forget what he's going to say as they approach the islands.

 

John circles the islands once, then drops down between the peaks and slows enough so they can clearly see the landscape.

 

"Look!"  Rodney points to a barren ridge, where three creatures pause and regard the jumper for a moment, before leaping down the nearly-vertical slope and disappearing into the vegetation.  They look enough like mountain goats that John's never bothered calling them anything else, even though the zoologists have awarded them a tongue-twisting Latin name.

 

They crest the tip of the mountain, then slowly descend, following the path of a stream that suddenly plummets to the shoreline.  John hums a snatch of the theme to Jurassic Park and grins.  Maybe he should show it to Rodney.

 

"Amazing."  Rodney snatches up the tablet again, tapping the keys briskly.  "Okay.  So.  You said something about sub-orbital?"

 

*

 

While Rodney collects both their lunches, John joins Teyla, Ronon and Ford at their table.  He props his crutches on an empty chair and surveys his team's expressions.

 

"Is there a problem?"

 

"Not at all," says Teyla smoothly.

 

Ford closes his mouth with a snap, wincing a little, and John wonders whether it was Teyla or Ronon who kicked him under the table.

 

"Heard you and Rodney went up in a jumper this morning."  Ronon glances over his shoulder as Rodney hurries toward them with a heaping tray.

 

"Yeah.  We stabilized that energy output spike."  John scoots to one side and pulls over a chair, gesturing for Rodney to put the tray on the table between them.  "Rodney also increased the range of the sensors," he continues, taking his plate and utensils from the tray.  Rodney hands him a cup of coffee before sitting.

 

"Don't forget about the weapons."  Rodney glances at him.

 

John swallows his sigh. He's tried to convince Rodney that it's okay to just start eating, but Rodney's stubborn and won't make a move without John's go-ahead.  Ignoring Teyla's all-too-perceptive look, John nods. Rodney picks up his spoon and digs in.

 

"Oh, yeah."  John grins at Ford, still sitting stony-faced.  "You'll like this . . . ."

"What were you doing in the jumpers?  Isn't he," Ford points at Rodney, who freezes, his spoon half-way to his mouth, "supposed to be some sort of expert in Ancient technology?"

 

"In case you've forgotten," John says, setting down his fork with deliberation, "the jumpers are Ancient technology."

 

Ford mumbles something and ducks his head, but his jaw remains tight.  John can practically see the tension coiled in his muscles.

 

Rodney's spoon clatters on the plate, and he shrinks in on himself, as if trying to disappear under the chair.

 

"I'm going to say this one more time." John's gaze travels from Ronon to Teyla, and finally locks on Ford.  "Do any of you have a problem with Rodney being here?"

 

Teyla and Ronon exchange a glance; neither looks at Ford.

 

"Not me," says Ronon.

 

"I believe I already answered your question, Colonel."  Teyla continues her meal.

 

"Ford?"  John pauses.  He hates doing this -- knows it will hurt Ford more than anyone else -- but he can't let this continue. "Do I need to reassign you to another team?"

 

Ford's head jerks up, his expression stricken.  "No!"  He takes a shaky breath.  "I mean, no, sir.  That won't be necessary."

 

"Good."  John picks up his fork, glances to his left.  "Rodney, your food's getting cold."

 

"Did you enjoy your jumper trip, Rodney?" asks Teyla, her voice warm.

 

Rodney nods vigorously and swallows.  "I never realized that inertial dampeners could be fitted in such a small craft," he says, his enthusiasm infectious.  "The technical specifications must be incredibly complicated. And John performed some amazing maneuvers . . . ." 

 

John smiles and eats, and lets Rodney's excited words wash over him.  He definitely finds this Rodney more interesting than the cowed and meek version.

 

". . . and then we came screaming through the atmosphere, with Atlantis before us, and I've never seen anything as beautiful."

 

Rodney sighs, scooping up the last bite of pudding, and glances at John.  A little crease appears between his brows.

 

"I'm sorry." He glances around the table, bows his head.  "I've been talking too much."

 

"Nah," says Ronon, standing and grabbing his tray.  "But it was a close thing."

 

Rodney blinks at him, his mouth tilting unhappily.  Ronon winks and rumbles out a deep chuckle.  "See you around."

 

Teyla collects her plates and leaves with Ford a minute later, and Rodney turns worried eyes on John.

 

"They don't believe me.  They think I deserve to stay in--"

 

"They'll come ‘round, Rodney, once they get to know you."

 

"But Ford hates me, and he doesn't even know about--"

 

"Rodney!"  John leans forward and lowers his voice.  "Ford has his own problems.  And no," he says, as Rodney opens his mouth, "I'm not going to share them.  They're private, like yours."

 

After lunch, they return to the auxiliary lab, where Zelenka greets them both like long-lost relatives.

 

"So, you do great things with the jumpers, yes?"  He beams at them, pulling out the box for John's foot.  "And I, too, may have done a great thing for Rodney."

 

John sits up straight.  "You can free him?"  He looks over at Rodney, perched on a stool.  There's a gleam in Rodney's eyes -- hope, maybe? -- that John hasn't seen before.

 

"I make no promises." Zelenka wags his finger, but he's grinning.  "I have analyzed the beam, and compared it with that of the Wraith.  There are many similarities.  If we pass it through a filter, it should interrupt the physiological tags, and sever the connection between Rodney and the guardian."

 

"What do you think?" John asks Rodney.  "Worth a shot?"

 

Rodney's frowning, with that introspective expression that means he's thinking it through.  After a minute, he nods.  "It sounds reasonable."

 

"Good!"  Zelenka holds out his hand to John.  "If you entrust me with Rodney's guardian, I will ready the filters."

 

As Zelenka works, Rodney stands and looks over Zelenka's shoulder. His hands are firmly clasped behind his back.  John can't help but remember what happened when Rodney touched his guardian, and he forces himself to breathe steadily through his nose until the queasiness passes.

 

Zelenka makes a final adjustment and claps his hand on Rodney's back.  "You stand there," he points to a spot on the floor.  "And you, Colonel, will please send Rodney back into the guardian."

 

John hobbles over to the workbench, where the guardian is nestled in the middle of a complicated apparatus.  He looks at Rodney, whose cheeks are pale.  Rodney seems to notice that his hands are trembling at the same moment that John does, and crosses his arms over his chest, tucking his hands under his biceps.

 

"Rodney?"

 

"Just . . . ."  He clears his throat.  "Go ahead.  Please."

 

John touches the guardian, top and bottom.  The beam that captures Rodney is clearly visible after passing through the filters, and he's illuminated, glowing like some Renaissance angel.

 

Then he begins to scream.

 

His skin blackens along his arms, across his face, down his neck.  Rodney drops to the floor, writhing, his cries punctuated by gasping sobs and moans.

 

John tears the guardian from the filters, turns off the beam, now invisible.  Rodney's curled in on himself, his skin flaking off his flesh in dark sheets, and his voice is growing weak.  John's hands are shaking so hard that he fumbles the guardian for a moment.  Grasping it tightly, he touches each end, wills Rodney back inside, anything to stop that horrific burning.

 

Rodney disappears.

 

Slumping against the table, John gags at the stench of charred flesh.  He wipes one hand over his sweaty face, the guardian clenched tightly in the other.  The cool metal is a reminder and a rebuke; he wants to hurl it against the wall, blast it into dust, something, anything to release its hold on Rodney.

 

"Colonel?"

 

With a snarl, John raises his head and glares.  Zelenka presses himself against the far wall, his eyes enormous behind his glasses, his face as white as his coat.

 

"I didn't realize . . . .  I had no idea . . . ."  He sucks in a breath, then suddenly falls to his knees and vomits.

 

John waits until he's finished before stowing the guardian in his pocket, grabbing a bottle of water and a paper towel and limping over to him.

 

Zelenka rinses his mouth and peers up at John.

 

"I thought it would work."  An explanation and apology.

 

John remains silent.  He can't forgive Zelenka for putting Rodney through hell.  Not just yet.

 

Still looking queasy, Zelenka slowly gets to his feet.  "I will take more care next time, Colonel.  I do not wish to cause Rodney more pain."  He squeezes his eyes closed for a moment and shudders.  "I am so very sorry.  Very . . . ."

 

A stiff nod is the only acknowledgement John can give.  Zelenka can take care of the mess.  A heavy, greasy smell permeates the room, turning John's stomach.

 

"I do not understand . . . ."  Zelenka mutters, then catches John's eye.  "Please, Colonel, forgive me."

 

John snatches up his crutches.

 

When he gets back to his room, John splashes water on his face and drops onto his bed, his head bowed.  He's disappointed Zelenka's theory didn't work, but he can't even imagine how crushed Rodney will be.  Bad enough to have his hopes dashed, but then to burn like that . . . .

 

John surges to his feet.  He can't stand just sitting around, and he can't bear to look into Rodney's eyes -- not just yet.  At least he knows Rodney isn't in pain anymore.  He makes his way to his office, buries himself in paperwork for a few hours.

 

He's getting ready to leave, clearing the final few rosters and requisition forms off his desk, when a voice comes over his radio.

 

"Colonel Sheppard?"  Keller sounds puzzled.  "Can you drop by the infirmary?"

 

"Sure."  John makes his way down the corridor.  Maybe Keller will clear him for active duty soon.  He really won't miss the crutches.  "What's up?"

 

He has to wait until he reaches the infirmary before she'll say anything more, and then Keller ushers him into her tiny closet of an office.  By this point he's starting to quietly freak.

 

"So tell me," he says, wincing as he knocks his ankle against her desk.  "Is someone dead?  Going to die?"

 

"What?"  Her eyes widen as she sits.  "No.  No, I'm sorry, I just . . . ."  She folds her hands on the desk.  "No one's dead or dying, Colonel.  At least, not that I'm aware of.  I analyzed your blood work after your return from MI6-309, and there's something . . . odd."

 

His worst fears assuaged, John relaxes. He doesn't like the uncertainty in her voice, however, and frowns.  "Odd, how?"

 

"There's a compound in your blood that I've never seen before.  It doesn't appear to be harmful, but I want to know if you touched or were in contact with anything new while you were on the planet."

 

"I don't think so."  He pauses, trying to remember.  "We walked into town, checked it out.  Nothing new.  Got the botany team up and running with their experiments, then the Wraith showed up, and you know what happened from there."

 

She scans the readouts again, bites her lip.  "You haven't been into any unexplored areas of the city?  Eaten something unusual?"

 

"Nope and nope."

 

"Well, if you think of anything, let me know.  As I said, it doesn't look harmful, but I'd rather be safe than sorry."

 

"Yeah.  Me, too."

 

"And I'd like to take another sample.  It's just possible that the original one was contaminated."

 

After she places the small vial in a stand, John presses the gauze against the inside of his elbow and lifts his injured leg.  "While I'm here, want to take a look?  Maybe clear me for action?"

 

She laughs and puts a Tasmanian Devil band-aid on his arm.  "Not a chance, Colonel.  You need to be on those crutches for at least another two or three days."

 

With a sigh, he stands, grabs his crutches and maneuvers around the chair.  His stomach growls, and he glances at his watch.  Time for dinner.  But first he'll head back to his room and call Rodney.  Maybe food will help make up for what Rodney went through.

 

*

 

They're half-way through their meal when Ronon and Teyla join them.  Rodney looks okay, with no scars from Zelenka's fuck up -- John insisted on inspecting Rodney's face, hands and arms first thing after calling him from the guardian -- but there are new shadows in Rodney's eyes.  John apologizes, but can't quite bring himself to ask about what other torture Rodney's endured, and Rodney hasn't volunteered any specifics.  Still, John can't shake the feeling that Rodney's suffered worse at the hands of his masters over the years, and his appetite vanishes.

 

"Good evening, Colonel, Rodney."  Teyla nods and sits beside John.

 

"Hey."  Ronon takes the seat next to Rodney and nudges him.  "You get Sheppard to take you up again?"

 

Rodney shakes his head and continues to eat.  He doesn't meet John's gaze.

 

Ronon glances from Rodney to John.  He raises an eyebrow.

 

"Dr. Z. tried . . . ."  John clears his throat and his eyes travel to Rodney, who sets down his fork and bows his head.  "It didn't work."

 

Teyla's expression softens. "I am sorry."

 

Rodney glances up at her, seems to gain courage from what he sees.  "At least he's trying to help.  No one else ever has."

 

"He's a good man," Ronon says.  "So, Sheppard.  Movie night tonight?"

 

"Sure."  John smiles at Teyla.  "Your turn to choose."

 

Ronon huffs out a laugh.  "Three guesses, and the first two don't count."

 

"You cannot tell me that you do not enjoy the adventures of Indiana Jones and his father."  Teyla's eyes sparkle.  "Who is it among us who can quote all of the dialogue?"

 

"Okay, kids, play nice."  John grins.  "You'll like movie night, Rodney.  There's beer and popcorn, and Ronon goes all gooey-eyed over the tanks."

 

"You're welcome." Ronon snickers.

 

Rodney ventures a tentative smile.  "You are all out of your minds," he says with an air of innocent discovery that John doesn't believe for a moment.

 

"Yeah.  It's part of our charm."  John winks as Teyla and Ronon laugh.  Rodney's smile bursts into brilliance.

 

"I'll let Ford know," says Ronon.

 

"Where is he?"  John looks at the figures inching along the steam line.  No Ford.

 

"He indicated that he wished to dine with several friends." There's a bite to Teyla's words that only appears when, in her opinion, someone has stepped outside the bonds of friendship and good manners.

 

John slowly nods.  "It's good he wants to spread his wings."  Which is true; Ford has been hanging out with his teammates almost exclusively since his dramatic return.  John cranes his neck, catches sight of Ford in a corner with a group of marines.  "Those are his friends?"

 

Teyla meets his eyes.  She knows exactly what John's thinking.  "Indeed."

 

"Ford's a big boy." Ronon shrugs.  "You've got to let him stand on his own two feet."

 

"Yeah, but . . . ."  But not with them.  Troublemakers.  Bullies.  Guys as unlike Ford as Commissioner Gordon's unlike the Joker.  John has to admit that Ronon's right, but he doesn't have to like it.

 

"John?"  Rodney clasps his hands together and leans forward.  "What's beer-and-popcorn?"

 

*

 

By the time John and Rodney arrive at the cozy room they always use for movie nights, Ronon and Teyla are there, along with two huge bowls of steaming popcorn.  Rodney carries the DVD case and two six packs, and inhales deeply.

 

"Popcorn?"  He looks at John with the dreamy expression he often gets around food.

 

"Popcorn."  John grins, then glances around, his smile fading. "No Ford?"

 

"Said he has plans with his friends."  Ronon's countenance darkens for a moment.  He nods at Rodney.  "Help me move these couches."

 

"You going to say something to him?" John asks Teyla as he slides the DVD into the player.

 

"You are the team leader," she points out, working the remote like the professional she is.  "Any advice regarding his associates would be better coming from you."

 

"Wouldn't bet on it," he mutters, and swings over to a couch, settling into the corner, dumping his crutches on the floor beside him.  Ronon hands him a beer before sprawling on the other couch.

 

Rodney hurries up, clutching several large pillows.  "For your foot."

 

John rolls his eyes, but puts his bandaged foot on the stack of pillows to Ronon's mocking laughter.

 

"You are very thoughtful, Rodney." Teyla smiles and sits at the other end of John's couch.

 

After glancing at the three of them, Rodney lowers himself to the floor.

 

"Up here, Rodney," John snaps, pointing to the cushion beside him.  Damn it.  He thought he'd made it clear that there'd be no kneeling on his watch.

 

Rodney flinches as he stands, and John's annoyance evaporates.

 

He softens his voice, tries a little smile.  "It'll be easier for me to answer your questions if you're beside me."

 

With a nod, Rodney sits stiffly where John indicates.  He takes the beer that Teyla offers, tries a tentative sip, his eyes widening.

 

"Good?" asks Ronon, handing a bowl of popcorn to Teyla.

 

"I . . . ." Rodney considers, then nods.  "Yes."

 

"Relax and enjoy the movie."  John pulls at Rodney's shoulder until he leans back.  Beneath the homespun material of Rodney's tunic, tight muscles loosen under his fingers as Rodney sinks into the cushions.  John rests his arm on the back of the couch, his hand still on Rodney's warm shoulder.  Feels good. Comfortable.

 

John nods at Teyla, and she hit the play button.  "Okay, you're gonna like this guy . . . ."

 

*

 

At the end of the closing credits Ronon stands, scattering popcorn crumbs onto the floor.  "‘Course I'd fuck Indy.  Or let him fuck me."  He shrugs.  "Guy's hot."

 

John grins at the long-standing discussion.  Teyla stretches on the couch, her eyelids fluttering shut for a moment.  "Mmmm," she agrees.  "As is his father."

 

Ronon tilts his head, considering.  "I liked him better as Bond, James Bond."

 

"Yeah," agrees John.  "He was hot and he had better gadgets."

 

"We all know what you find attractive, Colonel."  Teyla smiles and continues before John can protest.  "However, experience and age can be appealing, as well."

 

"As long as you don't care about stamina." Ronon gathers up the beer cans beside his seat and tosses them into the trash.

 

Teyla gets to her feet and stretches again.  "There are more important things than stamina."

 

"So." John turns to Rodney, who's been watching their exchange with wide eyes.  "What'd you think of your first movie?"

 

Rodney's gaze flickers over John's face, as if trying to discover the answer there.  "It was . . . entertaining?" he eventually says.  "Despite the theoretical and physical impossibilities."

 

"Remember what I told you about special effects?"  John waits until Rodney nods.  "I'll show you some ‘making of' scenes soon.  They'll explain it better."

 

Rodney blinks, obviously confused, but gets to his feet and helps Ronon and Teyla clear up.

 

John shivers.   His right side is cold now that Rodney isn't there beside him, radiating heat.  He wraps his arms across his chest and leans back.  His gaze never leaves Rodney, moving quietly around the room, occasionally rubbing his arm or hip or chest, the heavy fabric of his tunic and trousers pulling taut over . . . .

 

"Colonel?"  Teyla's voice rouses him.  "Do you need help returning to your room?"

 

"Nah.  I'm good."  John swings his foot off the cushions and grabs his crutches, then stands, wobbling slightly.

 

"Are you certain?"  Teyla looks dubious.

 

Ronon shifts the empty bowls from one arm to the other.  "I could carry you."

 

John grimaces.  "Thanks, but--"

 

"I'll make sure John gets back safely," Rodney says, eyes narrow, his jaw sticking out at a stubborn angle.

 

The image of a mother bear protecting her cubs flashes through John's mind.

 

"Yeah, we'll be fine."  John waves Teyla and Ronon ahead.  He's not drunk, but crutches are harder to control after a few beers, so he sets a decorous pace.  Rodney walks close by his side.  It's kind of nice knowing that Rodney's there in case he stumbles, so John doesn't say anything.

 

As they make their way through the corridors, Rodney's intermittent rubbing turns to the more-than-occasional scratch.  By the time they reach John's room, Rodney reminds John of a flea-ridden dog.

 

"Okay," he says, as they enter.  "What's the problem?"

 

Rodney looks at him blankly, his fingers digging into a spot on his ribs.

 

"The scratching."  John sits on his bed, frowns at Rodney.

 

Rodney's cheeks darken.  "I'm sorry."  He clasps his hands tightly.  "It's just that the fabric irritates my skin after a while.  Usually I can control . . . ."  His fingers tighten, and he presses his upper arm against his ribcage, shifting it back and forth, obviously trying to get some relief while not scratching.

 

"Damn it, Rodney!" 

 

Rodney flinches.

 

"I'm not angry with you," John says hastily, though he isn't sure Rodney understands that.  "Let's find you something more comfortable."  What does he have that's Rodney's size?  "Third drawer down, there are some grey sweatpants that should fit you.  And get a tee-shirt from the drawer above."

 

Rodney gapes at him.

 

"Go on."  John waves a hand and settles on his back.  "We'll find something better tomorrow.  You can change in the bathroom."

 

Rodney finds the sweatpants and tee-shirt, his gaze continually traveling to John.  His fingers stroke the soft material, then he clutches the clothes to his chest and darts into the bathroom.

 

John closes his eyes, then opens them and sits up.  He's wired again -- the warm lassitude that filled him after the movie is gone, burned away by anger.  Why hasn't he noticed that Rodney's clothes are uncomfortable?  Shit.  He isn't Rodney's master, but he's responsible for him being here, and he can't just let the poor guy flounder in a strange society.  Rodney needs some direction and guidance, at least until he finds his sea legs and learns to ask for what he needs, not just accept what he's given.  John's being a piss-poor mentor.

 

Rodney sidles out of the bathroom wearing John's sweats and tee-shirt and holding his old clothes.  His heavy boots look weird with the sweats, but John nods.

 

"You look more comfortable.  Leave your old stuff there," he points to the closet. 

 

Rodney deposits his tunic and trousers and smiles, his hands skimming over his new clothes.  "The cloth is so soft."

 

The wonder in his voice tugs at something hot and solid in John's chest.  "If you go . . . in the guardian with these clothes, you'll still have them when I call?" 

 

"Yes."  Rodney turns, touching his chest and then running his hands down his flanks. The soft material hugs his rounded ass, and when he turns to face John again . . . .

 

John squeezes his eyes shut.  Rodney's going to need underwear asap. There's going commando, and there's going commando, and Rodney's definitely doing the latter. 

 

The heat spreads from John's chest down to his groin, and his dick gives an interested twitch. 

 

"John?"

 

He opens his eyes, and Rodney's there, kneeling beside his bed, his hands hovering over John's groin.

 

"Shit!"  John scoots back, almost falling off the bed.  He flails for a second before Rodney grabs his arm and tugs him back to safety.

 

"What the hell?" he continues, shaking free of Rodney's hand as soon as he's got his ass on the bed again.

 

"I thought . . . ."  Rodney swallows, his gulp audible in the sudden silence.  "I'm not attractive like Indy, but some of my other . . . some of my masters required me to learn how to please them.  You could direct me and tell me what you like.  I would--"

 

"Are you," John stops and takes a deep breath, tries not to sound quite so shrill and, well, panicky.  "Are you offering to . . . ."  He really can't finish that sentence, and waves in the general direction of his dick.

 

Rodney huffs impatiently.  "Yes.  What did you think I meant?"

 

"What made you think I wanted . . . that?"

 

Now Rodney looks confused.  "Ronon and Teyla indicated--"

 

"Okay, I get it."  John raises his hand and wishes he could kill Ronon with his mind for introducing the subject.  "They were joking.  The characters in the movie aren't real, so there's no way anything could happen.  It's just . . ."  He shrugs.  "Letting off emotional steam.  Harmless.  Meaningless."

 

"Oh."  Rodney scrambles to his feet, his face painfully flushed.  "I didn't--"

 

"It's okay."  John tries a smile.  It's almost genuine.

 

"How can you say that?"  Rodney steps backward until he bumps into the desk.  He bows his head, his arms wrapped tightly around his chest.  "It's not okay.  I offended you, made you almost hurt yourself . . . ."

 

"Stop it, Rodney."

 

He looks so miserable, all hunched in on himself, and the sight dissolves the last of John's shock and annoyance.

 

Jesus.  The guy just misunderstood the situation.  Way to over-react, Sheppard.

 

"Listen."  He's not sure what to say -- words don't come easy to him -- but Rodney deserves a little understanding.  If he can make the guy feel less rejected . . . .  "You're plenty attractive, Rodney."

 

Rodney's shoulders lift, then settle.  "Not enough, obviously."  He doesn't look up.

 

Great.  Now he's made things worse.  John pushes his fingers through his hair.  Why the hell do these things happen to him?

 

"It's not that."  John slides his hand to the back of his neck and rubs hard.  "I'm not your master, but I'm responsible for you until we figure out how to set you free.  I can't let you do this.  It's against our rules." 

 

Rodney straightens, his expression slowly changing from hurt to mollified.  "You have strange rules."

 

"Tell me about it."   John's laugh is interrupted by a jaw-cracking yawn.

 

"You're tired."  Rodney suddenly bustles around the room, tidying away a few items.  "Send me back and get some sleep," he says when he's finished.

 

John meets his bright gaze, holds it for a moment.  "Are we all right?"

 

"Of course." Rodney rolls his eyes.  "I offered, you can't accept because of your rules.  That's the end of it."

 

After John sends Rodney into the guardian, he leans back on his bed and remembers the firm curves of Rodney's ass.  His dick twitches and he glares at it.

 

No, he suspects this isn't the end at all.

 

*

 

Before he calls Rodney the next morning, John cashes in some favors, and Rodney hums with satisfaction at his new wardrobe: cross-trainers and socks, chinos, a tee-shirt and over shirt, and -- most important of all for John's ease of mind -- underwear.

 

They start out the day with Zelenka, who apologizes to Rodney every five minutes until Rodney finally snaps.

 

"Is your breast-beating useful?"  He jabs a finger toward Zelenka.  "Because it's damned annoying if it isn't.  Yes, yes, fine, I got hurt, but only because you're trying to help me.  I forgive you, if that means anything in your ridiculous culture."

 

John sets the tablet they've been consulting on the table.  His gaze follows Rodney as he strides to the door and back.  He's been expecting something like this; he's seen the aftereffects of captivity too many times.

 

"Thank you, Rodney."  Zelenka removes his glasses and polishes them on the hem of his shirt.  His eyes look naked and vulnerable without them.  "I would never willingly cause you pain--"

 

Rodney barks out a humorless laugh.  "Pain?  That was nothing compared to what a few of my masters liked to do.  Believe me, you don't even come close to meriting inclusion on my list of sadistic morons who deserve a slow and agonizing death."

 

"I am glad to hear that." Zelenka frowns.  "But I am sorry that you were brutalized."

 

"Yeah, well, I'm grateful for your concern," he mutters, turning to glare at John.  "What are you staring at?"

 

John leans back, willing his tightening muscles into a semblance of relaxation. He was right.  Rodney's headed for a melt-down, and John hopes it won't be too messy.

 

"I'm just waiting until you're ready to get back to work."

 

"No, you're not."  Rodney clenches his hands into fists, shoves them into his trouser pockets.  "You're waiting for me to lose it completely.  Never fear, Colonel, I've had millennia to come to terms with my captivity.  A few days of kind treatment isn't enough to break me."

 

John rubs his chin.  "No one's trying to break you."

 

"Don't you think I know that?" He stares at John, pain and confusion written on his face, in his eyes.  "That's what makes it so damned hard! There's nothing to push against, no one to hate except me, for trying to stop the Wraith and not succeeding, for destroying my people, my family . . . ."

 

His voice breaks, but he doesn't cry.  John's not sure if Rodney can cry -- the pain runs too deep.  But he deserves some privacy.

 

"Dr. Z., would you mind?"  John tilts his head toward the door.  Zelenka's half-way there before he can blink.

 

Rodney turns his back to John and gasps as if he's run for a long time.

 

When Zelenka slips through the door, John picks up his crutches and gets to his feet.  "I'll be right outside."

 

"Don't."  Rodney's voice is muffled, but steady.

 

"You sure?"

 

Rodney nods, and John sits down.  Gets comfortable, because he suspects it might be a while before Rodney's ready to talk.  He's not looking forward to it -- he's known guys who, in these kinds of circumstances, say too much, and then resent the hell out of him for listening.  But he'll do it anyway.

 

After a few minutes, Rodney raises his head and faces John.  His complexion is blotchy, but his eyes are dry.

 

"I don't know how to do this," he says softly.  "I'm used to being grateful for a drink of water, or for a master who doesn't enjoy hurting me.  But kindness?  Sharing food and clothes," he runs his hands down the front of his shirt, lifts suspiciously shining eyes to meet John's.  "Using my intelligence, inviting me to movies, treating me like a man," he continues, his cheeks flushing.  "How can I accept your charity when I can't offer anything in return?"

 

"You've helped me out, getting food, bandaging my foot."

 

"True, but any flunky--"

 

"A flunky couldn't improve jumper performance.  You did."

 

Rodney brightens.  "I did, didn't I?"

 

"Yeah.  And if we go out again this afternoon, maybe we can tweak a few more systems."

 

Rodney hesitates, appearing to consider.  "I suppose . . . ."

 

"We could," John lifts his eyebrow, "check out atmospheric re-entry stats."

 

"Well." Rodney's smile is a little shaky, but it's good enough for John.  "If you insist."

 

*

 

Zelenka wants to collect data from the guardian when Rodney's automatically called back, so after dinner, they return to the lab.

 

"Hey, Dr. Z."  John grins and nods at the tablet Rodney carries.  "We boosted overall systems power three percent."

 

"Excellent!"  Zelenka reaches for the tablet, then glances at Rodney and hesitates.

 

"I'm sorry I behaved inappropriately," Rodney says, handing it over.  "I know you're . . . ."

 

Zelenka shrugs, already studying the screen.  "Is all right.  For you, everything is different now, I imagine. You must make difficult adjustment, no?"

 

Rodney's laugh rings hollow.  "I must make difficult adjustment, yes."

 

John makes his way to the chair and props his foot up before Zelenka or Rodney can complain, then checks his watch.

 

"You've got about ten minutes," he says to Zelenka, and fishes the guardian out of his pocket.

 

While Zelenka works, Rodney sits on the stool beside John.  "How's your ankle?" he asks.

 

"Better." John moves his foot.  The swelling's gone down, and there's no pain.  "I can't wait to get off those damned crutches." Plus, cabin fever's making him twitchy.  Maybe he'll stop by the infirmary after Rodney's called, see if he can't convince Keller to clear him for duty.

 

"Good!"  Zelenka points to a spot on the floor marked with a masking tape X.  "Rodney, please stand there, so I can adjust the sensors."

 

Rodney stands on the mark.  As the seconds pass, his head slowly bows and his shoulders slump, stillness settling over him like a cloak.

 

John's seen this before, and he can't help the cold shiver that travels up his spine.  The guardian is calling Rodney.

 

Finally, Rodney glances at John.  "It's time."

 

John concentrates, stares at Rodney.  He glimpses a quick halo of light surrounding Rodney before he disappears.

 

After a moment, John rubs his chest, as if to ease an ache.  "Did you get that?"

 

Zelenka's concentrating on his computer.  "Yes, yes.  Very interesting.  I think--"  He breaks off, blinks.  "Hmm."

 

"What?"  John heaves himself to his feet.

 

"A reading . . . ."  Zelenka runs his fingers through his already-disheveled hair.  "I am certain it is nothing."

 

"You sure?"

 

"I . . . .  Yes."  He nods once.  "Now, let me analyze data in peace."

 

John makes his way to the infirmary -- it's quiet for once -- and swings around the corner into Keller's office.

 

"Sorry!"

 

He looks away from the desk, where Ronon's wrapped around Keller, and backs out quickly.

 

"Colonel, wait!"  Keller calls.  "I'll be right . . . ." she giggles.

 

With a smirk, John leans against the wall.  There's a brief low-voiced conversation in the office, then Ronon passes him with a wink.  John laughs at his smug expression.

 

"What can I do for you, Colonel?"  Keller's cheeks are pink. She gives John's ankle a thorough examination before pronouncing him fit for light duty.  "And I mean no running or jumping or leaping down stairs."

 

"Sure, Doc."  John crosses his fingers behind his back.

 

"And that compound in your blood?"  Keller frowns at her computer screen.  "The concentrations are increasing."

 

"But you said it's not dangerous."

 

"I said that it doesn't look like it's harmful."  She sighs.  "I'll just have to keep monitoring it."

 

*

 

John sets his breakfast tray on the table next to Teyla, nods to Ronon as he takes his seat.

 

"I am glad to see that you are without your crutches."  Teyla turns toward the steam line.  "Is Rodney with you this morning?"

 

"I haven't called him yet."  John's fingers graze over the guardian in his pocket.  "Dr. Z. wants to take readings when I do."

 

"Speak of the devil," Ronon says.

 

"Colonel!"  Zelenka rushes up, holding a scanner.  "I must recalibrate the sensors, but need a baseline first.  Do you have the guardian with you?"

 

"Hi, Dr. Z.," John says softly.  "You want to keep your voice down?"

 

Zelenka winces.  "Of course.  My apologies."  His voice drops to a whisper.  "Do you have the guardian?"

 

John fishes it out of his pocket and places it on the table.  Zelenka immediately runs the scanner over it, humming as he works, his gaze fixed on the display.

 

"Hey, Colonel, Teyla, Ronon."

 

Ford stands by the table, holding his tray.  "Hi, Dr. Z.," he continues as he sets his tray on the table and pulls up a chair.  "I didn't see you."

 

They reply with a ragged chorus of greetings. 

 

John's hand hovers over the guardian, impatient for Zelenka to finish.

 

"What's that?"  Ford says between bites, and points at the guardian.

 

Zelenka turns to John, panic clearly written on his features.

 

"An Ancient artifact." John picks up the guardian, forcing himself not to snatch, and slips it back in his pocket.  It's the truth, in a way.

 

"So where's the Thokanan?  I thought he was the Ancient expert."

 

John shrugs and returns to his breakfast.  "In his quarters, I guess."  He stares at his toast, hates lying to Ford.

 

"Thank you, Colonel."  Zelenka steps back.  "I will see you soon?"

 

"Sure."

 

"Now that you no longer need to use crutches," says Teyla, "when will we go on our next mission?"

 

"Doc Keller cleared you?"  Ford grins.  "About time."

 

John chuckles.  "Light duty, she says."

 

They all echo his laugh.  There's no such thing as light duty in the Pegasus Galaxy.  John will try to be careful, but the universe has a way of throwing shit at them when they're down.

 

After breakfast, John meets Zelenka in the auxiliary lab.

 

"Good."  Zelenka points to a spot in front of a large machine. "Please stand there and hold the guardian in front of you before you call Rodney."

 

John complies, his fingers tracing the familiar pattern on the metal as Zelenka hovers, holding another scanner.  Rodney appears and quickly glances around the lab before turning to John.

 

"You're not using crutches," he says, his expression brightening.

 

"Yeah.  Doc cleared me for duty."

 

Zelenka coughs, a dry, dusty little sound.  "Excuse me, Colonel, but we have a problem."

 

John's good mood evaporates.  "What do you mean?"

 

Rodney steps close, his shoulder brushing John's.

 

His gaze traveling between the two of them, Zelenka's frown deepens.  "The guardian's power readings have dropped significantly over the past few days."

 

Rodney gasps, and John understands the implications of Zelenka's statement immediately.  He shoves his panic away, focuses on the practicalities.

 

"How long?"

 

Zelenka presses a few buttons, checks the readout.  He looks as if he wants to weep.  "A few months, if Rodney limits the number of his physical manifestations."

 

"Can we use an outside power source--"

 

"No." Rodney answers, his face pale.  "There's no way to augment the guardian's power.  When it runs out, I'll die."

 

Rage consumes John, as sudden as an unexpected explosion.

 

"Unacceptable," he rasps.  He will not lose Rodney.

 

"I will do all I can."  Zelenka runs his fingers through his hair.  "Perhaps it would be best if Rodney and I come up with a plan.  Then he can return to the guardian while I run the tests and simulations.  You can call him only when his presence is essential."

 

"Okay.  Good."  John tries to keep his head above the emotions flooding through him.  "Rodney?"

 

Rodney nods.  He wraps his arms around his chest, but John can see his hands shaking before he tucks them tightly under his arms.

 

John can't sit still.  While Rodney and Zelenka discuss their options, he paces along the back wall.  He can't believe it.  Instead of freeing Rodney from his captivity, he's going to cause Rodney's death.

 

The irony takes his breath away.

 

Finally Zelenka calls him over.  "We have plan," he says, his accent thick, his distress plain to see.  "Please return Rodney to guardian."

 

"Rodney?"  John wants to say more, wants to apologize, to tell him . . . .

 

"Please, John."  Rodney's voice wavers, but he lifts his chin, tries again.  "Dr. Zelenka's plan is good.  It might work.  Send me back."

 

John scowls.  Not at Rodney or even Zelenka.  At the whole damned fucked up situation.  He nods, takes the guardian from Zelenka.

 

"See you soon," he says, as Rodney winks out of existence.

 

*

 

Every morning for the next week, John stops by Zelenka's lab and reluctantly -- as if he's cutting off a part of himself -- hands over the guardian while Zelenka takes a complete set of readings.  Zelenka's expression grows more gloomy each time.  He asks John to call Rodney twice, their few minutes together a frantic discussion, words tumbling over each other, ideas tossed around like a boat in a stormy sea.

 

When they finish, Rodney turns to John.  He doesn't speak, just stares at John for a few seconds before nodding.  His time is up.

 

John meets Rodney's eyes, and hopes his own gaze reflects nothing more than his determination not to let Rodney die.  But he's silent, as well -- he can't trust his voice not to betray the rest.

 

After Rodney returns to the guardian, John slips it into his pocket.  The weight against his thigh comforts him, as if Rodney's there beside him.

 

He's just leaving the lab when Keller calls him in for another blood test.

 

"I don't understand," she says, tapping her fingers on her desk as she frowns at the results.  "The levels have risen again."

 

Before he can answer -- which is just as well, since his first reaction is "who gives a flying fuck?" -- he receives a comm from the gate room.

 

"Colonel, Sergeant Miller has returned from M3Y-539 and reports trouble."

 

"I'll be right there."  He nods to Keller as he jogs out the door.

 

*

 

Miller looks like shit.  Whatever bits of him that aren't covered in mud are scratched and bruised.  He salutes when John arrives, then lists to one side.

 

John catches him before he topples over and settles him on the floor.  He doesn't look seriously injured, but John needs to know what's going on before Keller gets hold of him.

 

"Report, Sergeant."  John squats beside Miller.  "What happened?"

 

"A trap, sir."  Miller's panting heavily.  "Wraith worshippers captured Major Lorne and the rest of the team.  Put them in a cave with the villagers.  I hid, watched where they went, then came back."

 

A cave?  That doesn't sound too difficult to deal with. 

 

"Describe where they're being held."

 

"The cave's been turned into a bunker," says Miller.  "Heavily fortified entrance, with a guard room on the right. Narrow, slit windows.  Controls for the doors inside."  Miller shakes his head.  "Can't blow it -- the rock overhang above the entrance would fall, bury them all."  He slumps forward.

 

"Okay, Sergeant."  John stands, lets Keller's team take a look at Miller.

 

Grim-faced, Ford is at his elbow.  "Wraith worshippers," he mutters, and passes a shaky hand over his face.

 

John gestures him to one side.  "Is this going to be a problem?"

 

"No, sir.  How many teams do you want assigned to the rescue?"

 

"Hold on.  We need more intel, first.  Get everyone together in," he checks his watch, "thirty minutes."

 

Ford nods and hurries away, already talking on his radio.

 

John waits until the medical team gives Miller the all-clear before returning to his side.  "We need you on the rescue," he says.  "You've got twenty-five minutes to clean up and get something to eat before your debrief."

 

John suits up and arrives a few minutes early.  He's been mentally cataloging possible rescue scenarios, knows which ones he favors and which ones are last resort.  Ford's already there, along with Teyla and Ronon, and half-a-dozen marines.  Miller walks in on time, his hair damp but clean, and stuffs the last of his powerbar into his mouth before taking a seat.

 

Ten minutes later, John's list of possibilities has dwindled to none.

 

"I still think we should blow the place."  Ford's expression is as sulky as a teenager's, and it's all John can do not to lose his temper.

 

"The likely number of casualties among the captives is unacceptable." John bites out the words, looks at the faces around the table.  Desperation claws at his back.  "Any other ideas?"

 

"If someone could get inside the guard room," says Teyla slowly, as if thinking aloud, "they could open the bunker door."

 

Ford and several of the marines roll their eyes.

 

"How?"  John ignores their muttered derision.

 

"Sergeant Miller said that the window slits on the guard room are approximately twenty centimeters wide."  She turns to Miller.  "Is that correct?"

 

"Yes, ma'am.  And about two meters tall."

 

"Is there any cover around the area?"

 

"Not directly in front of the bunker, but there's heavy vegetation almost up to the guard room.  Maybe a meter of open space."

 

"Thank you."  She turns to John.  "Colonel, I do not believe we have any other option."

 

John stares.  She can't mean . . . .  Impossible.  It'll never work.

 

But maybe it will.

 

"He has to agree of his own free will.  I won't try to coerce him."

 

Now everyone save Teyla and Ronon looks confused.  John doesn't want to think about how they'll react when they understand.

 

Teyla nods.  "Of course."

 

"Wait here," he orders.  He's not going to do this in public.  Not yet.  "I'll be in my office for a few minutes."

 

He closes the door behind him and grips the guardian tightly.  Decides what to say, how he'll present his case, what he'll do if Rodney refuses.  Then he calls Rodney.

 

It takes almost two seconds for Rodney to materialize now, and he glances around John's office once he's solid again.

 

"Where's Dr. Zelenka?" he asks.  "Has he--"

 

"Rodney."  John sets down the guardian, leans against his desk.  "We need your help."

 

*

 

They enter the briefing room and everyone turns to face them.  With a small sound of distress, Rodney shies back.  John rests his hand on Rodney's back, not pressing, just there.  Rodney trembles for a moment under John's touch, then moves forward with John to the front of the room.

 

"I'd like to introduce Rodney.  He's going to save the day . . . ."

 

John raises his voice as he explains Rodney's situation and describes his limitations, until the comments and questions become too loud to ignore and Rodney looks as if he wants to sink into the floor.

 

"Quiet!" John snarls and raises his hands, waiting until the hubbub dies down before continuing.  "Remember that Rodney's a civilian, and has freely agreed to join the rescue.  If anyone has a problem with this, bring it to me -- after we free the captives.  Any questions?" His glare dares anyone to answer.

 

Ford stands, barks orders to the marines.  John wants to call him back, apologize for keeping him in the dark, but there's no time.  Ford's expression had moved from surprise to disbelief to hurt understanding -- John lied to him, his team lied to him -- but now all that is hidden behind brusque competence.  John promises himself that he'll deal with it once this is over, make it right with Ford.  It's the best he can do at the moment, but it doesn't absolve his feeling of guilt.

 

The teams scatter.  John finds a tac vest for Rodney, helps him put it on, fingers swift and sure as he adjusts straps, checks the fit.  As he works, Miller describes what he could see of the guard room to Rodney, who nods continuously, always two steps ahead.

 

"Right, right, got it," he says as Miller repeats himself.  "Shouldn't be too difficult."

 

Before returning Rodney to the guardian, John goes over the plan again.  "I'll wait until the diversion clears the guard room, then call you.  Get that bunker door open as fast as possible, then give me a shout and I'll return you."  He hesitates.  What the hell.  "Thanks, Rodney.  I owe you."

 

*

 

John chances a quick look from the underbrush.  Across the clearing, his marines should be in place by now, ready to begin the diversion on his signal.  On his right, the stone guard room stands squat and long, pierced by narrow openings.  Beyond that is the cave, the entrance blocked by massive steel doors.  

 

He shifts cautiously toward a far window slit.  There are small animals living nearby, so the guards are probably used to the intermittent sounds of them moving through the forest.  As long as he doesn't thrash around, they should ignore any noise he makes.

 

Glancing into the room, he spots two guards.  According to Miller there should be four or five, so the others are out of his line of sight.  He ventures another glance, sees two more guards.

 

Time to get this show on the road.

 

He unholsters his sidearm and taps his radio -- "Let ‘er rip, boys" -- then counts down fifteen seconds.

 

The explosion makes him grin.  Lots of noise and smoke.  The guards shout, and three of them tumble out the door, head across the clearing toward the site of the explosion.  John peers into the guard room.  One guard has stayed behind. His back is to John, and it sounds as if he's trying to raise someone on a radio.  Carefully taking aim, John fires once, twice.  The guard goes down, the radio still silent.

 

Smoke drifts toward the cave entrance.  There's shouting in the distance, occasional gunfire.

 

John holds the guardian by the window slit, aiming inside, and calls Rodney.

 

As soon as he's solid, Rodney wastes no time.  He dashes over to the control panel, stepping over the fallen guard without a glance.  He presses a few buttons on the panel, curses.

 

"They're using a security code," he says, then dives under the panel with a grunt.

 

John splits his attention between the distant battle and Rodney, who's making cajoling noises to the equipment.

 

More voices sound in the distance.  Reinforcements?  Damn.  He looks in the window.  Rodney's still under the panel. 

 

"What's taking so long?"

 

"Do these idiots have any idea how to--"

 

The guard room door opens with a crash, and a Wraith worshipper stands on the threshold, scanning the room.  His eyes, black as night, meet John's.  With a snarl the guard raises his weapon.

 

John shoots him through the heart.

 

"Got it!" Rodney shouts, and crawls out from under the panel.  He grimaces when he sees the dead guard at the doorstep, but runs out the room before John can return him to the guardian.

 

John dashes along the building, meeting Rodney half-way.

 

"You were supposed to wait and let me return you," he barks.

 

Rodney crosses his arms over his chest.  "I can help," he says, steel in his voice.

 

There isn't time to argue.  "Stay close behind me."  John heads toward the mouth of the cave, the heavy doors now gaping open.

 

Rodney proves his worth when they reach the cells, dank, smelly alcoves carved from the living rock, their locking mechanisms protected by a meter of granite.  As John peers, one by one, through the narrow slot in each door, trying to calm the panicky captives, Rodney locates and disables a master switch, unlocking all the doors at once.  Lorne and his team are in rough shape, but the villagers are worse.  John and Rodney carry the children out into the fresh air before returning to support the adults as they make their painful way from the cave.

 

Shortly afterward they're joined by the rest of John's team and most of the marines.  Mopping up is fast, since the majority of the Wraith worshippers were killed immediately after the diversion.  John's pleased that they suffered no casualties, and they return to Atlantis with the former captives.

 

As soon as they walk into the gate room, John asks if Rodney wants to return now, but Rodney shrugs, looks away.

 

"I'd like to stay until it calls me." He glances at John through his lashes.

 

"Sure."  John helps Rodney out of his tac vest, then clasps Rodney's shoulder and they follow the stretchers to the infirmary.

 

Keller and her staff will have their hands full for a while; some of the villagers' wounds have become infected, and Lorne and his team are battered and bloody.  John listens to Lorne's report at his bedside, while Rodney stands silent against the wall.

 

After Keller assures him that Lorne and his team will be back on active duty in a few days and insists on taking blood samples from both John and Rodney, John relaxes a little and realizes just how hungry he is.

 

He rests his hand on Rodney's shoulder as they leave the infirmary.  "How about some dinner?"

 

"Gods, yes, I'm starving."

 

Teyla stops them outside the mess.  "You did well, Rodney."  She gently cups her hands on his temples and draws his head down until their foreheads touch.  "Thank you."

 

When Rodney lifts his head, his cheeks are pink.

 

The mess is half-full, and when the three of them enter, the buzz of conversation builds as everyone turns to look.  Rodney shivers and hesitates, but John squeezes his shoulder and heads for the steam line.

 

"Stew or macaroni and cheese?" he asks, which sparks a Rodney-monologue on the merits of each, and John keeps ducking his head to hide his grin.  By the time their trays are full, Rodney appears calm again, and they join Ronon and Ford at their table across the room.

 

Ronon glances up as they slide their trays onto the table and nods at Rodney.  "Good job."

 

"Yeah."  Ford glances at John, his hurt clearly visible. "What a secret weapon."

 

"Rodney's circumstances were on a need-to-know basis."  John meets his eyes, holding his gaze until Ford looks away.  "Woolsey and I agreed."

 

"Even for team?" Ford asks softly.

 

"Even for team."

 

Maybe it wasn't the best idea to exclude Ford, but John isn't going to second-guess the decision now.  However, he can do some damage control.

 

"Look around," he continues.  "Everyone's talking about it, and those who aren't are staring.  The guy's tied to the guardian, and it's losing power. Rodney's situation is hard enough without us making it worse."

 

A group of marines in the corner burst into noisy laughter.  John catches the words "genie," and "slave."  He glances at Rodney, who is stirring his stew with a blank expression.  He doesn't lift the spoon, just continues stirring; John suspects he heard those same words.

 

John sets down his fork, and turns, glaring at the marines.  One of them looks up -- Sanchez -- then speaks quickly to the others.  Heads together, they lower their voices until another, Rosetti, stands and raises his arm.

 

"Hey, Miller!"

 

Sergeant Miller has limped into the mess.  He acknowledges Rosetti with a wave, and heads toward the steam line, his gaze traveling over the room.  Suddenly, Miller pivots on his heel and makes his way through the tables toward them.

 

"Colonel, Lieutenant."  Miller snaps off a salute, nods to Teyla and Ronon, then turns to Rodney.  "I know you didn't have to help, but thanks."

 

Before Rodney can reply, he limps back to the steam line and joins those waiting.

 

Miller's visit seems to spark others, and for the next half-hour, both military and civilian personnel drop by their table with a word of thanks for Rodney.  By the time John suggests they leave, Rodney's ears are bright red and he bites his lower lip, although his pleasure seeps through the discomfort of being singled out.

 

They stop by the lab so Zelenka can take more readings -- might as well, John says, since Rodney's out and about -- and even Zelenka and his staff have heard about the rescue.

 

"Rodney!"  Zelenka beams and claps him on the shoulder.  "You are hero, yes?"

 

Rodney grins and bounces on his toes.  "Yes, yes, I am."  His hair's ruffled, his eyes shine, and he looks solid and permanent and so very pleased with himself.

 

The small knot of warmth in John's chest bursts, sending heat racing along his nerves, across his skin.

 

What the fuck?  He feels . . . Jesus, he feels like . . . .

 

His whole body buzzes with newfound knowledge, and he slumps against a table, stunned.

 

Oh, God, he's in love with Rodney.

 

No, no, not possible.  He's just feeling protective, or sympathetic, or something other than love.  John takes a deep breath, his gaze fixed on Rodney, and knows he's lying to himself.

 

With an effort, he pushes his revelation to the back of his mind, pays attention to Rodney and Zelenka's conversation.

 

"--time to help make those adjustments on power nodes that we discussed a few days ago?  Is filthy job, but no one else understands the circuitry the way you do.  I would be glad of your assistance."  Zelenka glances at John.  "Colonel?"

 

"That's . . ."  The word comes out as a rusty croak.  John clears his throat.  "That's up to Rodney."

 

Rodney stares at John and his smile falters for a second.  Then he blinks.  

 

"I, yes, of course I can help," he says.

 

So for the next hour John stands in an enormous room, handing tools to Rodney and Zelenka and trying not to touch anything.  The nodes bulge from the wall and are evenly spaced around the room, each with its own control panel underneath.  Fewer than half of them appear operational, and those that pulse with power and light occasionally flash and spark -- these are the ones they are working on today.  Zelenka and Rodney move quickly from node to node, bending over open control panels, half-buried in wires and crystals, covered in something that closely resembles powdered graphite, and communicating in brief, unintelligible snatches.

 

The almost-graphite clings to everything, leaving dark smudges on hands, clothes and tools.  According to Zelenka, it's attracted by the power in the nodes, like iron filings to a magnet, and if it builds up, it can interfere with the nodes' operation.  John tries to wipe it off the tools and reminds himself not to scratch his nose or rub his forehead when he sees Zelenka's grimy face.

 

In between responding to brusque demands for a screwdriver or scanner, John has plenty of time to admire Rodney's ass and to think.  How could he fall in love with Rodney?  Sure, John enjoys being with him, and he's happier when Rodney's around. John loves the intellectual give and take that he and Rodney have developed.  Even though it's only been a few weeks, Rodney's become an integral part of his life: a fact John has just realized.

 

It isn't about conventional attractiveness, although John finds those intelligent blue eyes incredibly beautiful.  Rodney's body is built for strength more than grace, but John's always admired strength.  God knows Rodney's had to be strong to survive this long and still keep parts of himself intact, although because of his situation, Rodney's probably the one person who's more fucked up than John.  Rodney's already made it clear that he wouldn't mind getting physical with John, but how much of that is gratitude, and how much honest desire?  If he encouraged Rodney now, John could never be sure.

 

And then there's the elephant in the room -- how long does Rodney have?  Unless Rodney and Zelenka can find a way to augment the guardian's power, or free Rodney entirely, all this will be moot, and John will only be able to mourn Rodney.  Panic keeps snatching at the edges of his thoughts, sending them spiraling out of control, careening between hope and despair.

 

By the end of the hour, John can't stand still.  As soon as Zelenka finishes thanking Rodney, John hustles him off, striding down corridors until he can lead Rodney outside into the fresh air, onto a small balcony that overlooks the west pier.

 

John grasps the railing, fingers tight on the chilly metal.  He stares over the dark water, shattered moonlight reflecting off the undulating surface.

 

"John?"  Rodney sounds tentative and confused, in stark contrast to his confident assertions of the past hour.  "Do you want--"

 

"How much time do you have left?"

 

"Now?"  Rodney pauses.  "A few minutes."

 

He steps to the rail beside John and half-turns, rubbing his hand over his sleeve.  "I know we agreed that I should stay in the guardian as much as possible to conserve power," he says, his voice as soft as the breeze, "but I've changed my mind.  I want to be here, with you -- all of you -- for as long as I can.  Until the power's gone."

 

John's throat closes, and he takes several deep breaths before he can force out one word.  "Okay."

 

Rodney sighs.  "Thank you."

 

John opens his mouth.  Closes it.  What the hell can he say?

 

Nothing.

 

Rodney stands beside him, face drained of color in the moonlight, looking out over the water.  Within a couple of weeks -- probably sooner -- John will stand on the balcony alone.

 

John spins and grabs Rodney by the shoulders, twisting him until they are face-to-face.

 

"What are--"

 

"I--"  John shakes his head.  He has no words.

 

John pulls him close, wraps his arms around Rodney's back.  He pauses, waiting for Rodney to protest or shake free.  Instead, Rodney sighs again, slides his arms around John's waist, presses his lips to the soft skin below John's ear, along the curve of his jaw.

 

All it takes is a quarter turn of his head and his lips meet Rodney's, gentle, careful.  John closes his eyes, licks a question along Rodney's lower lip.  Rodney whimpers and opens his mouth to John's explorations.

 

Time passes, second by second, unrelenting, but John forces himself not to rush.  He kisses Rodney as thoroughly as he can, focusing on the feel of warm flesh and muscle beneath his hands, on the rhythmic pressure of Rodney's chest as he pants and gasps, on the rigid length of Rodney's erection against John's matching one . . . .

 

A pulsing tingle shimmers down his body, and Rodney is gone.

 

*

 

On his way to breakfast, John stops by the infirmary at Keller's request.  He hasn't called Rodney yet.  What can he say to Rodney after his moment of weakness last night?  How can they regain their equilibrium?  Yeah, okay, last night he jerked off thinking of Rodney, of blow jobs and fucking and sleeping curled around Rodney's warm body.  It's a fantasy, he knows that, but he wants it with a deep ache that threatens to bring him to his knees when he remembers the fact that Rodney's going to die very soon, and he can't face that right now.  He can't.

 

Keller's in the process of releasing Lorne when John arrives.

 

"Can you wait a minute, Colonel?"  She finishes her instructions to Lorne, who nods dutifully, and rolls his eyes at John the second her back is turned.  John grins.

 

"Sure."  He leans against the door frame and allows the bustle of the infirmary to wash around him.  Maybe he should wait and call Rodney in the lab, where Zelenka can distract him.  Or just outside the mess, with the promise of a meal . . . .

 

"Colonel?"  Keller looks at him expectantly, with the air of someone who's repeated his name more than once.

 

"What's up?"  He follows her to her office.

 

"It's that compound in your blood."  She gestures to a hard, plastic chair and he sits, stretches out his legs.  "I've been trying to analyze it, and it appears to have some of the properties of a psychotropic drug."

 

He straightens and shivers, as if an icy finger traces his spine.  "You mean it's affecting my behavior?"  How could that be?  He doesn't feel any different, hasn't done anything odd or unusual lately.

 

"I'm not certain, but it's possible."  She studies the computer screen for a moment and chews on her lower lip.  "There are similarities with drugs that act on the emotions, especially the libido."

 

John slumps back, feels as if the breath's squeezed from his lungs.

 

Oh, fuck.

 

Keller coughs delicately.  "I take it you've experienced something that could be related to this?"

 

"Maybe."  He shrugs, trying for casual, but he can tell Keller's not buying it.  "What else do you know about it?"

 

"Not much about the substance itself, but Rodney's also affected."

 

"Rodney?"  He touches the guardian in his pocket as his mind races, puts two and two together: times, places, reactions.  The bite of cold is replaced by scorching heat.

 

"Yes, there's a similar compound in his--"

 

"That son of a bitch!"  John's up and across the room.  "He set me up!"

 

"Colonel, calm down."  Keller's using her therapist voice, and that pisses off John even more.  "What do you mean?" she continues.

 

"I mean," he grits out, "this all started after I called him the first time.  Must be something to make the . . . the master feel protective."  Jesus, Rodney's played him for a fool, made him feel . . . .

 

"Find a way to counteract it," he flings over his shoulder as he barrels out of the infirmary.

 

"Colonel, wait!"

 

He heads down the corridor, no particular direction in mind.  He has to move, make his body run at the same breakneck pace as his mind, so he breaks into a jog.  The pounding is more than his newly-healed ankle can bear -- the ache spreads, turns into shards slicing into his flesh.  He snarls a laugh; the pain in his ankle is still less than that gripping his heart.

 

Rounding a corner, he almost crashes into Ford.

 

"Colonel!"  Ford reaches out, steadies him when his ankle threatens to give way.  Gaze skittering over John's face, Ford frowns.  "What's wrong?"

 

"Bastard," John pants, hands on his knees.  He needs air but the tight bands around his chest won't let him draw a deep breath.  He hangs his head, stares at the floor.

 

"Who?" 

 

John shakes his head.  He doesn't trust his voice. 

 

Ford grips his shoulder.  "Let me help. Please."

 

"Damn him."  John straightens.  "I try to help, and he uses me . . . ."  He rubs his hand over his chest.  He should feel a hole there; why can't he feel the hole?

 

"Rodney."  Ford's voice is flat.

 

"I have to go."  The words echo inside, in the place where his heart used to be.  John shakes off Ford's hand.  "I have to . . . ."

 

He starts back to his room, but branches off half-way there, bursts through balcony doors into the sunlight.  Outside, he has to be outside in the fresh air before he can bear to confront Rodney.

 

John pulls the guardian from his pocket.  Light glints off the metal, cool in his palm.  Such a fragile container for the man who . . . .

 

God damn him.

 

Holding onto his anger like a rodeo rider hanging onto a bronco, he traces the line, watches as Rodney flickers, then slowly solidifies.

 

Rodney squints in the glare, glances around.  When he turns to John, his face lights up and he reaches out.

 

"John," he says, his voice tender.

 

"Stop." John steps back.

 

Rodney's smile falters as he looks around more warily.  He obviously thinks they're not alone.

 

John drops the guardian into his pocket and folds his arms over his chest.  "Were you ever going to tell me?"

 

"Tell you what?"  Rodney's blank look shatters John's calm.

 

"About drugging me!  About forcing me to lo-- to care about you!" he shouts, crossing to the balcony rail and back.

 

Rodney ducks his head, hunches his shoulders, backs up until he's pressed against the smooth, silver wall.  He doesn't meet John's eyes.

 

"Well?" John demands.  "Is this what you do to all your masters?  To protect yourself?"  He stalks over to Rodney, grasps his chin and tugs until Rodney raises his head.  "Is it?"

 

But Rodney won't look up, and John releases his chin and grabs his shoulders, shakes him.

 

"Answer me!"

 

His fingers tighten, pressing hard into Rodney's shoulders.  Rodney closes his eyes and makes a tiny noise, quickly silenced.

 

"Fuck!" John pushes Rodney into the wall and releases him, watches Rodney stumble and sink to his knees.

 

Rodney trembles, head bowed.  "Believe me, I have never, would never do anything to harm you," he whispers.  "I don't know anything about a drug."

 

"That's bullshit, and you know it.  Don't lie to me."

 

Curling in on himself, Rodney takes a shuddering breath.  "I've never lied to you, John.  I can't.  I . . . ."

 

The urge to touch Rodney, to comfort him, is almost unbearable.  John shoves his hands into his pockets, locks his knees.  He's damned well going to get to the bottom of this.  But he can't bear the sight of Rodney, cowering on the floor.  If Rodney's telling the truth . . . .

 

What a God damned mess.

 

"Get up," he says, suddenly weary.  "I have to tell Woolsey I could be compromised."

 

Rodney scrambles to his feet, the pain in his expression so raw that John turns away.

 

"What will he do?"

 

With a shrug, John heads for the door.  "Until Dr. Keller can find a way to neutralize the compound, I might have to step down as commander of Atlantis."

 

He doesn't look back -- John can feel Rodney following behind him.  He radios Woolsey, asks to meet him in his office.

 

As soon as Woolsey disconnects, Ford calls.

 

"Colonel, I need to talk with you."

 

"I'm on my way to see Woolsey.  Can it wait?"

 

"Is Rodney with you?"

 

John sighs.  "Yes.  Why?"

 

"I'll tell you when I see you.  Ford out."

 

John takes the long way around; he has to steel himself before he can get into a transporter with Rodney.

 

What if he's telling the truth?

 

He pushes the thought away, focuses on the immediate future: report Keller's findings to Woolsey and discuss what to do next.  Lorne should be fit enough to assume temporary command, if necessary.

 

They meet more personnel as they near the tower, and John overhears several people greet Rodney, ask how he's doing.  He's still a dozen steps behind John, hasn't tried to speak to John since they left the balcony.

 

Just as well.

 

"Colonel!"  Ford jogs toward him.

 

"It'll have to wait, Lieutenant." John tries to step around him, but Ford blocks his path.

 

"It's important," Ford says.

 

Before he can continue, there's a commotion behind John.  A babble of voices, the sound of a scuffle.

 

"John!"

 

Rodney.

 

Ford grabs his arms, holds him.  "Let him go, Colonel.  We'll find out what the hell he's done--"

 

Panic claws at John's chest.  They're taking Rodney away, they don't understand what will happen.

 

Oh, God . . . .

 

No time for finesse. John knees Ford in the groin and twists, breaking his hold.  "You can't --  He'll die!"

 

Ford clutches at John's arms, tries to catch his shirt, but John shoves hard, sends Ford sprawling.  He hears Rodney yelling his name; he has to find him, has to protect him.

 

John takes two steps and his ankle buckles.  He staggers, ignores the pain.

 

There's a shout down the corridor, then Rodney screams. 

 

Hell must sound like this.

 

The screams don't stop.

 

The sound scrapes down every nerve, so sharp it feels as if he's being slowly flayed.  Every step is agony, but John dashes around people hurrying toward the screams, rounds the corner.

 

Face and hands already blackened and peeling, Rodney writhes on the floor. The stench of burning flesh strikes John with an almost physical force.

 

Fighting nausea, he pulls out the guardian, touches it with trembling fingers.  Still screaming, Rodney fades slowly, until he finally vanishes and the sound stops.

 

John's ears ring in the sudden silence.

 

Adrenaline burns through his veins, revs his heartbeat and bursts into his brain.  He lifts his head. Rosetti, Chin, de Groot and Sanchez -- Ford's Marine friends -- stand in front of him; de Groot takes a cautious step back.  John narrows his eyes and the man freezes.

 

"All of you: my office.  Now."

 

He ignores the concerned faces and constant stream of questions as he returns to Ford, still standing outside the mess.  Ford looks as if he's going to be sick, but John doesn't care.

 

"Colonel, I--"

 

"Wait in my office with the others." John brushes past without looking at him.  "I'll be there in ten minutes."

 

By the time he reaches Zelenka's lab, he's limping, sweat trickling down his forehead, dripping into his eyes.

 

Zelenka looks up as he enters and hurries forward, catching his arm.  "What has happened?"

 

With a shake of his head, John holds up the guardian, calls Rodney.

 

Two seconds.  Three seconds.  Four seconds.

 

John can't breathe.  The power can't be gone.  Not yet.  Not before he . . . .

 

Rodney stands before him.

 

Pulling free from Zelenka, John grabs Rodney's hand, pushes up his shirt sleeve.  Scars form heavy ridges across the back of his hand and up his forearm.

 

John wants to puke.

 

He sets his jaw and raises his gaze.  More scars cross Rodney's cheeks, continue down his throat.  Rodney trembles.

 

John releases his hand. 

 

"Dr. Z., keep him safe."  He hands the guardian to Zelenka, who is watching them with his mouth agape.  "I have some asses to kick."

 

He's almost at the door when Rodney speaks.

 

"John, I didn't lie to you."

 

He doesn't turn, can't.  Can't let Rodney see the truth in his face, the truth he's too shattered to hide.

 

"I know."

 

*

 

John strides into his office, wishing -- not for the first time -- that he had a door he could slam behind him.

 

Ford and the others leap to attention.

 

Ignoring them, John goes straight to his desk, glad there's some barrier between him and the men who almost killed Rodney.

 

He sits, spreads his hands flat on his desktop, and stares at the smooth surface.  He can hear the rasp of breath, but no one moves.

 

Good.

 

John raises his head.  Ford, as well as Sanchez, Chin, and Rosetti, remain immobile.  De Groot flinches.  Sweat drips down his temples, and his normally fair skin is flushed.  The kid's probably only twenty.

 

Fixing de Groot with a cold gaze, John stands.  "Explain."

 

De Groot's eyes slew in Ford's direction.  John bangs his fist on his desk and they all start.  He continues to stare at de Groot.

 

"Did I ask Lieutenant Ford to explain?"

 

"No, sir."

 

John waits.  "Well?"

 

De Groot swallows, the sound loud in the stillness.  "We just wanted to interro-- talk to the alien, sir."

 

"And who assigned you that responsibility?"

 

Another swallow.  "No one, sir."

 

John looks at them, one by one.  The others are sweating now.

 

These are the faces of attempted murderers.

 

He folds his hands on the desk to hide the tremors.

 

"Before the mission to M3Y-539, you all heard me explain what would happen if Rodney was separated from the guardian.  Was my explanation unclear?"  No one moves.  "Lieutenant?"

 

"No, sir."  Ford glances at John, then returns his gaze to the wall.  "If I may speak, sir?"

 

John leans back.  "Go ahead."

 

"I'm responsible for what happened, sir.  The others followed my lead.  I had my doubts about the alien's story, and wanted to investigate further."

 

Rage sweeps through John, scalds his skin, sears his lungs until he can barely breathe.

 

"And these doubts led you to almost kill a man?"

 

That breaks their stillness. The men shift, then return to attention.  Ford's mouth hangs open for a second, then snaps shut.  He looks stunned, as if John backhanded him.

 

"That was never our intention, sir!"

 

John weighs his options, tempted to ship them all back to SGC for courtmartial.  He studies their faces, sees fear and shame in every expression.  He can't do it. 

 

"You're all confined to quarters until I decide what to do with you."

 

He dismisses the men when guards arrive to escort them to their quarters.  Ford is the last to leave his office, hesitating before John's desk as if he's gathering up the courage to speak.

 

John taps his radio.  "Mr. Woolsey, I'd like a word with you."

 

Ford leaves.

 

After the door closes and he's alone, John rests his head in his hands.  What a fucking mess.  And it's not entirely Ford's fault.  John's the one who failed Rodney, Ford, and the other men.

 

With a deep breath he gathers his scattered thoughts.

 

Time to set things right.

 

*

 

Of course he can't just walk -- limp, really -- to Woolsey's office without being sidetracked on the way.

 

"Colonel."  Teyla hurries up to him.  "I heard what happened.  Is Rodney . . . ."

 

"Still with us."  He doesn't stop.  "And scarred, thanks to Ford and his friends."

 

The hand Teyla rests on his forearm looks fragile, but she can snap his bones if she wants.  She draws him into a small alcove.

 

"John, there is no excuse for what Aiden has done, but--"

 

"You didn't hear Rodney's screams, or gag as his flesh was burning."  He shakes off her hand.  "You're right.  There's no excuse."

 

"However," she continues, expression daring him to interrupt again, "you should mitigate his punishment, and that of the others, with understanding.  Aiden is still trying to regain the trust and confidence of his friends and colleagues--"

 

John snorts.

 

Teyla's narrowed eyes flash, and John nods once.

 

"Go on."  He sighs, leans against the wall to take some of his weight off his tender ankle.  Might as well let Teyla have her say, because he won't be going anywhere until she finishes.

 

"Until Rodney came along, who did he spend much of his free time with?"  Her smile's gentle.  "You rescued him, brought him home, and continue to defend him to those who still harbor doubts.  You are his hero, and his excessive zeal is a symptom of his jealousy."

 

Crossing his arms over his chest, he grimaces.  Hero.  He doesn't want to be anyone's hero, not if it means people will get hurt when he can't live up to expectations.

 

But, as usual, Teyla has a good point.  Damn her.  And if he'd just paid more attention to Ford, not allowed his interest in Rodney to blind him . . . .

 

Which brings him back to where he started: how did the drug get into John's system, is Rodney responsible, and is it affecting his ability to make decisions?

 

"I'll keep it in mind," he says, meeting her gaze until she nods, apparently satisfied, and lets him proceed.

 

Woolsey's waiting, but instead of hiding behind the formality of his desk, he motions John to the corner with two club chairs, settles into one with a soft sigh. It doesn't take John long to bring him up to speed, and John's surprised -- but shouldn't be -- that he seems to have tapped into a couple of the gossip networks.  Something to remember, especially if John decides to keep him in the dark about any non-regulation activities.

 

Woolsey collects two glasses from a shelf and pours a generous finger of Scotch into each.  He hands John one, then raises his own.

 

"It's unconscionably early, but you look as if you could use this," he says, the tight line of his lips relaxing a little as he sits.

 

They drink in silence for a minute.  John's not really a Scotch drinker; he prefers beer, even cheap beer, to liquor, but this slides down his throat as smooth as a perfect landing.

 

"Although I deplore the methods employed," Woolsey finally says, "I understand Lieutenant Ford's concerns.  I agree that their punishment should be handled internally, and while memorable, it shouldn't be excessive."  He crosses his legs and sighs.  "Justice tempered with kindness -- an important lesson I have learned at some cost."

 

His gaze travels around the room, ends up on John.  It's entirely too discerning, and John shifts in his seat, pretends to be interested in his drink.

 

"I believe the same kindness should be extended to you, as well."

 

John's head jerks up.  What?

 

"Colonel, I see no evidence that your judgment is impaired. I'd like to ask Dr. Keller about the long-term effects of the change in your blood chemistry, but unless she indicates otherwise, in my opinion you're fit for duty."

 

John taps his radio, requests that Keller join them.  When she arrives and gazes at their refreshed drinks, she lifts one eyebrow but doesn't comment.

 

"Colonel Sheppard has informed me about the psychotropic drug that appeared in his blood system after interacting with Rodney and the guardian," says Woolsey, settling Keller in another chair.  She refuses a drink.

 

Keller folds her hands in her lap.  "First, it's not actually a psychotropic, although the compound is similar in structure to that class of drugs, as I told Colonel Sheppard this morning."

 

John nods.  "Yeah.  And you said it could affect my emotions."

 

"I said it was a possibility."  Keller frowns at him, taps her finger on the chair arm.  "You left before I could continue.  I was going to say that I want to run more tests, because there were certain anomalies in the initial results."

 

"Did you run those tests?" Woolsey asks.

 

"I did, and they show pretty conclusively that it has no influence on the emotions."

 

Slumping back in his chair, John feels as if he's been reprieved.  Although -- guilt squirms in his belly -- he judged Rodney as unfairly as did Ford and his friends.  If he hadn't jumped the gun, if he'd waited for Keller to finish . . . .

 

"Then what does it do?"

 

John's grateful when Woolsey's question interrupts his introspection.

 

"I honestly don't know," Keller says with a shrug.

 

"Please keep Colonel Sheppard and me informed of any progress."  Setting down his empty glass, Woolsey stands.  John gulps down the rest of his drink, breath catching as it burns behind his breastbone, and gets to his feet as Woolsey sees Keller out the door.

 

"Thank you." John means it.

 

Woolsey nods and crosses to his desk, his movements brisk.

 

"I'd like to speak with Rodney privately," Woolsey says, sitting and taking a file folder from a pile, "if that's possible."

 

"Dr. Zelenka has the guardian. I'll ask him if he can escort Rodney here."  A rumble from his middle reminds John that he hasn't eaten anything since last night.  "If you'll radio me when you're done, I'll come back for Rodney and the guardian."

 

John contacts Zelenka on his way to the mess.

 

"Of course I will see Rodney to Mr. Woolsey's office, Colonel," he says to John's request.  "And after, I will join you for coffee and a word or two, yes?"

 

John agrees, adding another danish to his tray.  Zelenka's "word or two" usually end up being considerably more.

 

Zelenka joins him in a few minutes, coffee in hand.  Steam curls from the cup, wreaths his face, turns his glasses into opaque disks.

 

"Rodney insists I tell you," he begins, even before taking the chair across from John, "that his captors wanted to ask him questions, yes, but assured him they would not harm him.  He did not have time to explain about the guardian before he . . . ."  Zelenka's voice trails off, and he drops his gaze to the cup cradled in his hands.

 

John pushes away his tray.  He's not hungry any more.

 

"They were at the briefing.  They knew what would happen."

 

"As Rodney says, knowing is different from knowing."  Zelenka sips his coffee and grimaces.  "I myself still find it difficult to believe that Rodney has been contained within that small device for such a long period of time."

 

"So I should just ignore the situation?"

 

"I do not say that.  They acted hastily and without care, and for that they should be punished."  Zelenka raps his knuckles on the table.  "But do not forget to make the punishment fit the crime."

 

John scrubs his hands through his hair.  "Teyla and Woolsey said the same thing."

 

"If you receive good advice, listen."

 

John stretches his arms over his head until the stiffness in his joints eases.  Rolling his shoulders, he frowns.  "What's your idea of an appropriate punishment?"

 

Zelenka's eyebrows lift, and the corners of his mouth curl.  He looks like a mischievous elf.  "I am glad you ask."

 

*

 

"Thank you for clarifying the matter, Rodney."  Woolsey ushers him out his office door and glances at John as he hands over the guardian.  His gaze sharpens.  "You look very pleased with yourself, Colonel."

 

Slipping the guardian into his pocket, John allows more than a hint of satisfaction to show on his face.  "Dr. Zelenka suggested that our troublemakers could spend the next month of their free time cleaning the power node chamber."

 

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

 

"The power node chamber attracts something similar to dust, except it's black and full of static. It reduces the power flow, and has to be cleaned by hand." John grins.  "It'll take a lot of elbow grease to get rid of it."

 

"Filthy, difficult, and yet necessary."  Woolsey's smug smile mirrors John's.  "An excellent choice."

 

"Glad you agree."  John pulls a napkin-wrapped package from his pocket.  It's slightly squashed, but he hands it to Rodney anyway.  Hopes it won't be shoved back into his hands, or worse, his face.

 

With a flash of blue eyes, Rodney opens the napkin, blinks.  "Cherry danish?"

 

"Yeah."  John winces, tries to look as if he's just thinking hard about something.

 

Rodney suddenly smiles -- he gets it, understands John's apology, thank God -- and breaks off a piece of the pastry.  The noise he makes when he pops it into his mouth sends trickles of warmth down John's chest.

 

John rests his hand on Rodney's shoulder.  "Let's go."

 

"Where?"  The word's muffled by danish.

 

"Back to Dr. Z.'s lab."

 

They haven't gone far before Rodney looks down at John's feet and frowns.

 

"You've reinjured your ankle."

 

"It'll be okay."

 

"But--"  Rodney's mouth snaps shut and he slows his steps, ignores John's attempt to hurry him along.

 

John sighs, gives in.

 

With a smile, Rodney finishes the pastry, licks his fingers.  John tightens his grip on Rodney's shoulder, solid under his fingers, and feels the tension uncoil from his muscles.  This is how it should be, how he wants it to be.  He glances over at Rodney, sees the livid scars on his face and neck. John's sense of satisfaction evaporates.  They're running out of time.

 

After commandeering a workstation in the lab, John's just started on paperwork when Zelenka runs a scanner over the guardian.

 

"Rodney?  What have you done?"

 

Rodney looks up from the tablet he's reading, glances at John before staring at Zelenka. 

 

"I haven't done anything."

 

Zelenka runs his fingers through his hair, fluffing it up like the feathers of a downy chick.  "But the guardian's power . . . ."

 

Heart stuttering, John shoots to his feet.  "Is there a problem?  What's the matter?"

 

"No problem."  Zelenka runs the scanner again.  He lifts his head, wonder in his eyes.  "The guardian's power has increased 27.36 percent.  But I have no idea how."

 

In a second, both John and Rodney are beside him, their gaze fixed on the guardian.  It doesn't look different to John, but he reaches out and pokes it with his forefinger.  It rolls a quarter turn on the table.

 

Zelenka smacks his hand.  "Colonel, please."

 

"I don't understand," says Rodney, his hands clasped behind his back, his attention focused on the guardian.  "The power was draining at a steady rate . . . ."

 

"Exactly!  The question is, what has increased the power now?"

 

Rodney snorts his best ‘well, duh,' snort, and hope sparks in his eyes.

 

"I have no idea."

 

"When was the last time you took a power reading?" John asks.

 

Zelenka hesitates and it's Rodney who answers.  "Yesterday, after we returned from M3Y-539.  But whatever has replenished the power must have happened since . . . ."  His hand lifts, brushes the ridges on his throat.  "Must be very recent."

 

John scowls at the memory, at the sight of Rodney's scars.  "After I left you with Dr. Zelenka, what did you do?"

 

Rodney and Zelenka look at each other, shrug in unison.

 

"Nothing," says Zelenka.  "We talked.  Rodney explained the . . . misunderstanding with Lieutenant Ford."  His gaze travels between John and Rodney, as if seeking more information.

 

"You didn't try anything new?"

 

Zelenka looks shocked.  "Without you here to call Rodney in case of problem?  I am not so foolish as that."

 

"Sorry."  John scrubs his hands over his face.  They're overlooking something, but he's damned if he can figure out what.

 

"Colonel?" comes over his radio.  "Lorne here."

 

Catching Zelenka's eye, John nods apologetically.  "Go ahead, Major."

 

"Our band of delinquents is ready for their first work detail, once Dr. Z.'s given them the safety lecture."

 

"Thanks.  I'll ask him to meet you there now.  Sheppard out."

 

"It will be pleasant to work in a clean environment." Zelenka sounds as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

 

"And not so pleasant making the environment clean," John adds.  "Are you sure you don't want me there?"

 

Zelenka's grin matches his smug tone.  "Is no need.  I have been frightening young minds for many years."

 

*

 

Ronon stops by the lab before Zelenka returns, rumbling a greeting as he leans against the wall with his arms folded across his chest.

 

"What's up?"  John stretches his arms high over his head, feels his spine crack.  God, he hates administrivia.

 

"Teyla wants you and Rodney to come to dinner."

 

"Dinner?"  Rodney looks up from where he's hunched over a tablet as John checks his watch.  It's only mid-afternoon.

 

"Not now."

 

John doesn't have to look at Ronon to know he's rolling his eyes.

 

"Twenty hundred," Ronon continues.  "Her rooms."

 

Teyla's rooms?  That sparks his weird-shit-o-meter.  Teyla's never invited them to dinner in her rooms.  What's going on? 

 

"That okay with you, Rodney?" John asks.

 

"Me?"  Rodney's gaze darts around the room, as if he's looking for another Rodney in the corner somewhere.  He swallows hard, nods.  "Yes."

 

"Good.  See you."  Ronon peels himself from the wall, lifts his arm in farewell, and disappears out the door.

 

John stares after him.  "Huh."

 

"Yeah," Rodney mutters.

 

Glancing at Rodney, John breaks into a grin.  Just another bizarre thing the Pegasus Galaxy's thrown at him.

 

"I figure if we can survive Wraith worshippers in caves, we can make it through dinner at Teyla's."  He winks.

 

Rodney looks startled for a moment, then slowly mirrors John's smile.

 

"You think she'll have pudding?"

 

*

 

They arrive at Teyla's door at twenty hundred exactly.  John's changed into jeans and a button-down, and Rodney insisted on putting on clean chinos and a fresh shirt.  Despite the increase in the guardian's power, Zelenka frowned and tutted and didn't think it was a good idea to send Rodney back just to clean up, so John gave Rodney a comb and toothbrush and set him loose in the bathroom.  Rodney rubbed his hand over his stubble and asked John to give him a shave, but John nixed that idea after another look at Rodney's scars.  All Rodney needed now was for John to accidentally slice his face to ribbons.

 

The door slides open, and Teyla stands on the threshold, dressed in something that clings in certain places and flows in others.  John's glad they both made an effort to look neat, if not presentable.

 

"Welcome, John, Rodney."

 

No rank -- this is personal time.  And she invited Rodney, thinks of him as a part of their family, as John does.  That thought pleases John.

 

 She insists on performing what John privately thinks of as the Athosian head bump: first with him, then Rodney, who rests his forehead on hers, eyes closed, as if concentrating.  After releasing Rodney she steps aside, gestures them into the candle-lit room.  She's made the room cozy, warm and intimate, the hard floor and walls covered with rugs and draped with fabric.  A low table stands in the center, surrounded by thick, brightly colored cushions.  On the table, a covered platter and stemmed glasses gleam in the flickering light.

 

"Hey."  Ronon lounges on a cushion on the far side.

 

"Thanks for inviting us," says John, and hands Teyla a small box.  He may be out of practice with the social niceties, but he knows better than to show up at a dinner party without a hostess gift.

 

"Chocolates!" she exclaims, opening the box.  "How thoughtful."

 

He nudges Rodney's shoulder.  Rodney nudges back.  The chocolates were Rodney's idea -- John held out for flowers until Rodney pointed out that Teyla might share the chocolates.

 

"Please, sit down," she says as the door chimes.

 

It's only then that John understands why there are five cushions around the table, and five glasses on the table top.

 

She has a lot of nerve.

 

Muscles tightening, he steps between Rodney and the door as it slides open.

 

"Aiden, welcome."

 

Ford hesitates on the threshold.  He glances at John, drops his gaze to the floor.  "I'll just--"

 

"Nonsense."  Teyla takes his arm and pulls him into the room, practically wrestles him into touching foreheads.  "You are all my guests," she meets John's eyes for a moment, "and I expect you will all behave as such."

 

John lifts his chin, crosses his arms.  Rodney's still behind him -- John can hear his breathing grow more rapid, feels him huddling closer.

 

"Maybe another time," he says, trying to check his rising anger.  "Rodney and I will--"

 

"Sit down." Teyla sweeps across the room to the table and fixes John with a steely gaze.  "Please.  Rodney to my right, John between Rodney and Ronon, Aiden on my left."

 

John doesn't move.  Ford remains by the door, tensed as if ready to run.

 

Rodney clears his throat, steps away from John.

 

"Thank you, Teyla."  He lowers himself to the pillow at her side.  "This smells delicious."

 

Teyla sits and arranges herself gracefully, smiles at Rodney.  Both of them ignore John and Ford.

 

Ronon gives them a look of disgust.  "Get your asses over here.  I'm hungry."

 

John opens his mouth to protest, but Rodney's smiling at Teyla, complimenting her efforts, trying to be a gracious guest.

 

Well, shit.  John sighs.  If Rodney can sit at the same table as Ford, so can he.

 

Ford's wearing civvies, a neat shirt and jeans.  His hair is damp -- he must've hit the shower as soon as he finished his first session cleaning the power node room.  John hopes he had to scrub hard.  When they reach the table, Ford gets a good look at Rodney's face.  He flinches, bows his head.

 

He's rattled.  Good.

 

Once they're seated, Teyla lifts her glass, briefly catches their eyes, one after the other.  They follow suit, holding their glasses high.

 

"This is a traditional meal of reconciliation," she says.  "When there is disharmony among family and friends, we gather together to renew those bonds by sharing sustenance."

 

Oh, God.  John tilts his glass toward his mouth.  He needs a drink, now.

 

"No, John.  You do not drink from your glass, or eat from your own hand."

 

John sets his glass on the table.  "Okay, I'll bite.  How does this work?"

 

"You feed the table-mate to your right."  She holds her glass to Rodney's lips.  His eyebrows lift, but he takes a sip.  Teyla nods. "Exactly.  And you do not speak."

 

The glitter in Teyla's eyes warns John that he better keep any comments about this particular tradition to himself.

 

They all manage to share their wine -- light and fruity, and John wishes for a damned yeasty beer with a good head -- without spilling.  His knee presses against Rodney's thigh as they shift around, getting comfortable, and Rodney doesn't pull away.  Neither does John. Then Teyla whisks the lid off the platter, and John breathes a sigh of relief.  The meat and vegetables are cut in bite-sized pieces and there's just enough sauce to hold it together but not so much that it'll drip down his sleeve.  Rounds of flat bread will help coax the food onto fingers.  He can do this.

 

He scoops some meat and vegetables onto a piece of bread, lifts it toward Ronon.  Hopes he doesn't lose a finger as Ronon gives him a fierce grin before neatly eating the morsel.

 

On the whole though, it's awkward and messy and, John has to admit, an excellent way to break through the tension that's been strangling the team ever since Rodney showed up.

 

Ronon and Teyla manage well; they've done something like this before.  John's not surprised.  Rodney's neat, too, as if he's had a lot of practice feeding other people.  John shies away from that thought, focuses on Rodney's technique.  He balances the bit of meat or vegetable on his fingertips and lets John nibble it, rather than shoving it into John's mouth like wedding cake at one of those receptions where there's green punch with fruit floating in the bowl and hors d'oeuvres made of layers of bologna and cream cheese cut into geometric shapes and skewered with plastic toothpicks in primary colors.

 

John sways slightly on his cushion as Teyla refills Rodney's glass again.  How many glasses of wine has he had?  He touches his numb lips.  More than one.

 

Ford giggles -- he's obviously had more than one glass, as well -- and Ronon flicks a piece of bread at him.

 

Teyla covers the almost-empty platter before Ford can retaliate, and rises.  John scrambles to his feet, Rodney, Ronon and Ford follow a heartbeat behind.

 

"Thank you, my friends, my family," Teyla says.  Her words have the cadence of a blessing.  "We are fortunate to have each other to rely upon, to share our lives and our hearts.  Let us remember this, even when there are misunderstandings and conflict between us, and the road ahead appears dark."

 

John mutters "Amen," echoed by Ford, but he doesn't catch what Rodney and Ronon whisper in reply.  He's too busy trying to stay upright.  Rodney steps close, clasps John's upper arm in a strong grip that doesn't ease as they make their way through quiet hallways to John's quarters.

 

He lets Rodney pull off his shoes, remove his shirt and trousers before he tumbles into bed.  His ankle throbs dully.  John blinks up at Rodney, now leaning over him.  Frowning, he lifts his hand, gently touches the scars on Rodney's jaw.

 

"How much time?" he asks, letting his hand fall.

 

"Not long.  Sleep."  Rodney pulls up the blankets.  He hesitates, his gaze inward, shuttered.  Then he leans down and brushes his lips over John's.

 

Before John can react, Rodney flickers, disappears.

 

John closes his eyes, pretends his heart isn't breaking.

 

*

 

When Zelenka radios the next morning, John's in the middle of approving a stack of requisition forms, nursing his hangover.  He's had worse -- there was a weekend in Colorado Springs that will forever live in infamy -- but he's always been careful on Atlantis.  Can't take the risk of not be prepared for . . . anything.

 

"Colonel, have you called Rodney yet?"

 

John cradles his head in his hands, wishes the damned radios weren't so damned loud.  "Nope."

 

"I'd like to take more readings before you do."

 

"I'll stop by later, okay?"  When his head stops throbbing.

 

"Very good.  Zelenka out."

 

Ford appears half-an-hour later, a cup of coffee in each hand. After handing one to John without a word, he sits in the chair on the other side of John's desk. Ford looks as rough as he feels.

 

Taking a sip, John closes his eyes, breathes in the rich smell.  "Marry me."

 

Ford laughs.  "Not even for a bet."

 

Setting down the coffee, John folds his hands on the desktop, regards Ford solemnly.

 

"We good?"

 

"I don't know, sir."  Ford shifts, scrubs his hand over his face.  "Are we?"

 

"Depends.  You planning on going off half-cocked again?"

 

Leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, Ford talks to the floor.

 

"Listen, Colonel, it was all my fault.  I was . . .  I don't know.  Angry.  Worried."

 

Jealous.  Feeling betrayed, cast aside.

 

Easy for John to fill in the blanks, harder for him to let Ford and the others off the hook.

 

"I'm not the one you should apologize to."

 

"Tell me when and where, and I'll be there."  Ford looks up, his expression as resolute and sincere as that of a young martyr.

 

John sighs.  Was he ever that naïve?  A flood of memories answers that question, and he stifles his self-deprecating chuckle because he doesn't want Ford to think it's directed at him.

 

"Okay.  But your punishment stands."

 

Ford flashes a smile.  "Damn."

 

Now John can laugh.  His stomach settles, his headache disappears.  He'll drop by Zelenka's lab and then he and Rodney can get something to eat.

 

*

 

"How're the power levels holding up?" John leans against a lab bench as Zelenka scans the guardian.

 

Eyes fixed on the scanner, Zelenka nods slowly.  "A small drop, but nothing dramatic."

 

"Still no idea why the power increased?"

 

"No.  I will discuss with Rodney.  Please call him now."

 

What if Zelenka's wrong and the power's running out?  What if he can't call Rodney?  Shaking off his worry, John cradles the guardian in his hands for a moment before tracing the line.  Rodney appears almost immediately, and John can't stop his sound of satisfaction.  Then he takes a good look at Rodney.

 

"Hey, the scars are gone!"

 

Rodney lifts his hand, studies it, then brushes his fingers over his cheeks.  Breaks into a wide smile.  John wants to grab Rodney, run his own hands over Rodney's smooth skin, continue Rodney's kiss from last night.  Instead, he returns Rodney's smile and tucks his hands behind him, settling back against the cold metal of the bench.

 

"It must be a function of the restored power." Rodney bounces once on his toes, radiating enthusiasm.  Turning to Zelenka, he continues, "Has there been any change?"

 

Zelenka grins.  "As I told the Colonel, only a small drop."

 

"Okay.  We'll have to monitor it, but that's good news." He rubs his hands together, grabs the tablet he's been using. "So listen, I had a thought about the power nodes yesterday . . . ."

 

The room that houses the power nodes is cleaner than before, but it doesn't take long for all three of them to sport dark smudges on their hands and faces.  John's pleased to note that it's going to take Ford and the others at least a week's more work to get it to a state that satisfies Zelenka.  After half-an-hour of standing around like a third wheel, John ends up sitting in a corner with a laptop, killing email, while Zelenka and Rodney ‘discuss' their options for increasing power flow at the top of their voices, accompanied by the occasional crack of an electrical arc, or a shower of sparks, when power surges unchecked through one of the nodes.

 

An hour after that, Rodney looms over him, wiping his hands on his filthy trousers. Zelenka heads out the door, muttering.

 

John cranes his head to look up at Rodney. "You done?"

 

"For now." He takes the laptop John gives him, and extends his hand, pulling John to his feet.  He lowers his voice, even though they're alone.  "I wish Dr. Zelenka would . . . ."

 

"Would what?"

 

Rodney runs his fingers through his hair, leaving a dark streak.  "I wish he'd listen to me!  We need to stabilize the circuits for each node, but he says that'll take too much time. I just . . . ."  Rodney shakes his head.  "Sloppy."

 

John can sympathize.  "Can you do it on your own, or with my help?"

 

"Unfortunately, it's not a one man job, and unless you're intimately acquainted with the circuitry, you won't be of any use."

 

"Well, maybe we can convince him to reconsider," John says.  He rubs his belly -- he's so hungry his navel feels like it's kissing his spine.  "But first let's get something to eat."

 

They stop by John's quarters for a quick clean up, Rodney grumbling that it would be easier and quicker just to return him to the guardian and call him back.  John shakes his head and hands Rodney a damp washcloth.  The memory of the guardian's almost catastrophic power loss sends a chill right up John's spine; he'll play it safe.

 

It's mid-afternoon and the mess is nearly deserted.  They both grab sandwiches and fruit and settle at a table that overlooks the ocean.  Rodney chews slowly, his expression wistful as he stares at the horizon.

 

John finishes his sandwich, polishes his apple on his shirt.  Wonders what Rodney's thinking about.

 

Before he can ask, his radio crackles into life.

 

"Colonel, we've had a message from Lieutenant DeSoto."

 

John frowns.  What was DeSoto's assignment?  Right.  Escorting a group of xenobiologists to that atoll in the southern hemisphere.

 

"Go ahead."

 

"They experienced some damage to their jumper on landing, and were starting back when the Lieutenant realized their stabilizers aren't working.  He's asking for assistance."

 

"Patch him through."  John waits for the static to clear.  "DeSoto, what the hell have you been doing to my jumpers?"

 

"Nothing, sir."  DeSoto sounds irritated as well as embarrassed.

 

"How can it be nothing if you don't have stabilizers?"

 

"It . . .  It was the fault of a large reptile and a small mammal, sir."

 

John looks to the heavens and silently asks for strength.  "Explain."

 

"They were . . ." DeSoto coughs.   "Interacting at the landing site.  All of the scientists," and really, John's startled by the amount of venom DeSoto injects into that word, "decide to rush to the front to take a look, and there was a . . . scuffle."

John rests his head in his hand and tries not to whine.  "Lieutenant . . . ."

 

"Someone accidentally opened a panel, and a few wires were pulled out, but I managed to repair that while they were off observing things," he says in a rush.  "But on takeoff I noticed that the stabilizers aren't working, so obviously more damage occurred, and I'm not qualified to repair the jumper."

 

"And none of the others--"

 

"It's getting ugly, sir," he whispers, his words popping and hissing over the radio.  "We brought supplies for the day, but now they're getting hungry, and one group wants to kill and cook the reptile, and the others are calling the first group barbarians and murderers, and I'm about ready to leave them here and take my chances with the jumper over the ocean!"  He clears his throat.  "Sir."

 

"Understood."  John stands, motions to Rodney.  "It's what -- three hours to you?"  Rodney looks at him questioningly as they leave the mess.

 

"Just over two, sir."

 

"Okay.  Please refrain from inflicting violence on the civilians for the next just over two hours, DeSoto.  I'm on my way with someone who can fix your jumper.  Sheppard out."  He turns to Rodney.  "Ready for another mission?"

 

"Mission?  Oh, you mean . . . ."  Rodney's eyes sparkle, his smile grows smug.  "Well, of course you need me.  Just show me the jumper, and I can fix it."

 

John bumps his shoulder.  "Yeah.  You can save the day again."

 

*

 

John doesn't talk much on the journey; he's content to be with Rodney and enjoys listening to Rodney's half-unconscious monologue.  Once they reach the atoll, Rodney only needs twenty minutes to identify the cracked crystal in the jumper console and replace it. 

 

"Ha!" he mutters as he works.  "Good thing you brought me along, hmm?"

 

John absolutely refuses to transport any of the scientists or the dead reptile back in his jumper -- that thing reeks like nothing he's ever smelled before, or wants to smell again.

 

They follow DeSoto and his charges across the ocean.  Less than an hour into their return, John's so tired of listening to DeSoto's radioed complaints that he's ready to shut down all communications until they reach Atlantis, just to have some peace and quiet.

 

"Colonel Sheppard, come in."  The thready voice crackles over the jumper speakers.

 

"Sheppard here."  He tries to think the voice clearer.  "I'm having trouble receiving your signal, Atlantis."

 

"The trouble is on our end, sir.  We're experiencing power fluctuations . . . ."

 

The signal drops out for a moment.

 

"Atlantis?"  John switches channels.  "DeSoto, there's a problem back at the base.  We're going to see if we can help.  Will you be okay on your own?"

 

"We'll be fine, sir.  Go."

 

"Atlantis?"  John accelerates and they pass DeSoto's jumper.  "What's your status?"

 

"Dr. Zelenka's working on it, sir."  The signal fades, returns.  ". . . requests that you get Rodney back here as fast as possible."

 

"Roger, Atlantis.  Our ETA is . . ."  He checks the display.  "Forty minutes.  Keep me updated."

 

Rodney frowns.  "I don't understand.  There was no sign of trouble when we left."

 

"Weren't you worried about the node circuits?"

 

"Yes, but that shouldn't have anything to do with power fluctuations, unless . . . ."  His frown deepens, and he taps furiously on his laptop.  "Wait, wait, it's just possible . . . ."

 

John tries to eke out more speed as Rodney mutters.

 

"Okay, yes, I think I may know what's happened, and if I'm right -- well, let's hope I'm not, but I know I am -- I have to speak with Dr. Zelenka immediately," Rodney says a few minutes later.  "This is bad . . . ."

 

John's already on the radio.  ". . . get Dr. Z. on now, it's critical."  He doesn't pay much attention to Rodney's conversation with Zelenka; he's concentrating on getting back to Atlantis as quickly as possible.

 

As they approach the city, John can see the tower lights brighten, then dim. Rodney mutters something that sounds like a curse. They land as close to the power node room as possible, and Rodney jitters and waits by the hatch while John powers down the systems, then they set off at a run.  Half of the corridor lights are out, the other half flicker intermittently.  It smells as if plastic is burning somewhere.

 

They don't dare use the transporters. Rodney slows and starts to pant; John catches his arm, pulls him along.  "Dr. Zelenka, report."

 

"Colonel, tell Rodney the grid feedback is--"

 

They stumble as an explosion jolts the floor, shakes the city.

 

"Dr. Zelenka!"  Rodney puts on a burst of speed.

 

John matches his pace.  Acrid smoke catches in his lungs.  "It's from the east pier, behind us.  The power nodes--"

 

They round a corner and barely avoid barreling headlong into half-a-dozen marines stationed in the smoke-filled hall.  Lights shine in their faces.  John's almost blinded before he can raise his hand to shield his eyes.

 

"Stand down!" John snarls, and they lower their flashlights.

 

"Thank God!" one of them says as John hurries Rodney through the group.

 

The smoke grows thicker.  Blurred shapes briefly appear as they run past, dim figures ghostly in the gloom.  Rodney begins to cough, deep, hacking barks that don't stop.  He doubles over as he struggles for breath.  John wraps his arm across Rodney's shoulders, hauls him upright.

 

"Here."  Someone pushes a breathing mask with a small oxygen tank into John's hand.  He claps the mask over Rodney's nose and mouth, holds it firm as Rodney tries to twist away.  After a minute Rodney's coughs subside and he takes a couple of deep breaths before nodding at John.  He removes the mask.

 

John takes a shot of the oxygen before turning, ready to hand it back.  Ford's there, soot-streaked and singed.  He grabs the apparatus and gives John a heartfelt grin.

 

"Damn, but we're glad to see both of you, Colonel."

 

"Status, Lieutenant," John says as he and Rodney continue down the hall.

 

Ford lopes alongside.  "Dr. Zelenka's working on fixing the power, sir."

 

"Any injuries?"

 

"Corporal Sanchez burned his hands and face when the fire started and is in the infirmary."

 

"Damn."  Remembering Rodney's burns, John spares a glance in his direction.  Face pale, he's pressed his lips tightly together.  John hopes he isn't going to puke.

 

"What did he do?" Rodney's voice is raspy, raw.

 

"What?"  Ford looks away.

 

He's hiding something, John's sure of it.

 

Rodney wheezes.  "What did Corporal Sanchez do just before this started?"

 

Before John can demand that Ford answer, Ford's shoulders slump.

 

"He was messing around, showing off what he said were ninja staff moves, when he hit one of the power nodes with the handle of his mop.  It sparked and flared, which is when he got burned.  Then other nodes began to spark, and . . . ."  He shrugs.

 

"As soon as he's released from the infirmary," John grates out, "I'm going to have his ass for this."

 

"You'll have to get in line," Ford mutters.

 

Rodney flinches at a loud, crackling noise, and the stench of burning plastic increases.  Smoke thickens, rolling down the corridor in dirty grey billows, stinging John's eyes.

 

Rodney's coughing again when they reach the power node room.  John grabs the oxygen mask from Ford and puts it on Rodney.  He can barely breathe himself, his lungs rattling and wheezing.

 

Zelenka suddenly appears out of the murk, oxygen mask obscuring the lower half of his face, glasses smudged, hair wild.  He grabs Rodney's arm, tugs him forward as electricity arcs from a node on the far wall, cracking like lightning.  John follows close on Rodney's heels.

 

Across the room, flames shoot up the wall, then fire extinguishers hiss asthmatically and the fire dies back.  Chin, Rosetti and de Groot are barely visible; all three wield heavy canisters and wear oxygen masks.  Ronon and Teyla join them, eyes glittering above their masks.  Ronon hefts an axe, Teyla holds a fire blanket.

 

Ford taps John's shoulder, hands him another mask.  John slips it on with relief, taking a cautious breath.  He doesn't want to set off a coughing jag.

 

A shout -- Ronon and Teyla rush toward new flames.  Then Rodney and Zelenka are back, Rodney's eyes luminous with worry.  He takes off his oxygen mask.

 

"Get the jumper.  Take Dr. Zelenka to the east pier," he gasps.

 

Zelenka turns to him.  "Rodney--"

 

"No!" John can't believe Rodney understands what he's saying -- he must be suffering from oxygen deprivation.  He grabs Rodney's arm. "I'll take you instead."

 

"We agreed this is the only way," Rodney says to Zelenka.  He turns to John, shakes his head, pulls away.  "He knows the transmission room circuitry better than I do.  John, there's no time to argue!"

 

"But your guardian . . . ."  John stares at him helplessly.

 

"Give it to . . ." Rodney looks around.  "Lieutenant Ford."  Rodney gazes at John for a long moment, as if memorizing his face, then turns away and disappears into the smoke.

 

John fishes the guardian out of his pocket, hands it to a wide-eyed Ford.  He feels as if he's cutting off a limb.

 

"Keep him safe," he says, then he nods to Zelenka and they take off at a run.

 

The trip to the far end of the east pier seems to take forever, although it's only fifteen minutes by John's watch.  He has to stop himself from asking for reports every few minutes.  Rodney was never issued a radio, so John doesn't even have the comfort of hearing his voice.  He has to trust that Ford will watch out for him.

 

Or John will have his head.

 

The transmission circuits spark and flash when they arrive, but Zelenka -- hands moving as fast as a conjuror -- gets things quickly under control.

 

John's racing heart begins to slow; it looks as if they'll be able to contain the damage.  Thank God.

 

"Colonel Sheppard, come in!"  Ford sounds frantic, even over the wash of the radio's static.

 

"Sheppard here.  What's--"

 

"We need Dr. Zelenka back here!  Rodney can't--"  A hiss covers the next few words.  ". . . lock it down!  No one else knows--"

 

"We're on our way."  John grabs Zelenka's arm and they tear back to the jumper.

 

John keeps the channel open on their return, raging impotently at the helm as Ford relays Rodney's assessments of the deteriorating situation, as well as his own observations.

 

Despite his need to be there, on the spot, John drops off Zelenka as near to the power node room as possible, hovering beside a balcony while Zelenka clambers out the open hatch, cursing John in at least six different languages.

 

By the time John settles the jumper on an almost-too-small platform, Zelenka's shouts and curses are coming through his earpiece loud and clear.

 

He's rounding the last corner, shoving past marines too slow to get out of his way, when Zelenka screams.

 

"Rodney!  No!"

 

The flash of light is so bright John throws up his arms, but he doesn't slow his pounding feet.

 

Ghostly afterimages on his retinas confuse the scene before him.  He blinks, turns his head, ignores the shadows floating across his vision.  Lights flicker, steady, strengthen.  The fires are out, nothing sparks.  Several areas on the far wall are blackened, melted, but the other nodes appear undamaged.  He takes a shaky breath.  Where's Rodney?

 

"Colonel!"

 

Wreathed in thinning tendrils of smoke, Ford kneels by the wall below the damaged nodes, flanked by Teyla.  He lifts his head, his expression . . . .

 

John dives for the shape huddled on the floor, feels the jolt up his spine as his knees hit the hard surface.  Doesn't care.

 

Rodney's curled on his side, eyes closed, body limp.  No movement in his chest.  No movement anywhere.

 

No.

 

"Where's the guardian?"  John yells at Ford, his hands out, reaching, demanding.  "Give it to me!"

 

"Colonel."  Zelenka rests a hand on his shoulder.  "John."  He holds a charred lump in front of John's face.

 

It takes him a moment to recognize it.

 

"What did you do?"  He launches himself at Ford, but strong hands hold him at bay.  He twists, almost frees himself before Zelenka steps between them.

 

"Lieutenant Ford is not responsible."  Zelenka looks down at Rodney's body.  "Rodney used the guardian to redirect the power surges and stop the feedback.  We did not have time to prevent him."

 

John sags, but the hands that had stopped him hold him upright.  He locks his knees, glances up at Ronon.  Ronon releases him, steps back.

 

"Dr. Zelenka, what's the status?"  His voice sounds odd to his ears, echoing and ringing as if he's hollow inside.

 

"The fires are out.  Power is stable again."  Zelenka removes his glasses, swipes at his eyes with the back of his hand.

 

John nods, taps his earpiece.  "Mr. Woolsey, Sheppard here.  The situation is under control."

 

"Thank you, Colonel," Woolsey says.  "Are there any casualties?"

 

John's gaze rests on Rodney.  "Only one.  Sheppard out."

 

He stands, unmoving, barely aware of the bustle around him, until Ford steps close.

 

"Sir.  They would like to . . . take the body, now."

 

John looks up, meets Ford's gaze.  Ford takes a step back, then snaps to attention.

 

"I'll tell them to wait."

 

John shakes his head, once, twice, then has to force himself to stop.  What's done is done.  He broke his promise to Rodney, to himself.  They never freed Rodney from the guardian, never gave him a chance at the life Rodney deserved.

 

His hands tremble.  He balls them into fists, drops to his knees.

 

"Sorry," he whispers, as he slides his arms under Rodney's shoulders and knees.  "I'm sorry."

 

John struggles to his feet.  Even in death, Rodney's a heavy weight, but not a burden.  No, never that.

 

They don't help him.  After one look at John's face, Ford, Zelenka, Ronon, Teyla, the recovery team, all stand at attention as he carries Rodney's body out the door.

 

He has no idea where he's headed, he just moves.  Down the corridor, past murmuring groups, away, away from those who didn't know, who could never understand . . . .

 

At some point he realizes that Ronon and Teyla flank him, an honor guard.  They don't speak; they don't have to.

 

At last he stumbles through a door onto a wide terrace.  The night is clear, stars bright sparks in the indigo sky.  He carries Rodney to the center of the terrace, where he can see the ocean, the sky, and Atlantis.  Then his shaking knees fold and he sinks to the ground.

 

Teyla and Ronon are there, catching him, holding Rodney, lowering them slowly.  John can't let go of Rodney, not yet.  Once he's settled, they stand, step back, let him see their concern, but do not intrude.

 

Voices on the radio clamor for his attention.  He pulls the earpiece out, drops it on the ground.

 

He knows he can't stay there for long.  Responsibilities tug at him, duty can't be ignored.  He bargains with himself: just a minute or two longer.  Just one minute more with Rodney.  His arms tighten around Rodney's shoulders and his skin prickles, like he's suddenly running a fever.

 

"Did it . . . ." A cough.  "Did it work?"

 

Stunned, he stares into Rodney's open eyes.  Rodney's bright, intelligent, beautiful eyes.

 

"Rod . . .  Rodney?"

 

He's hallucinating, dreaming.  Rodney is dead; he has no pulse, no breath.

 

Rodney blinks, looks around.

 

"My guardian suppressed the power surges, didn't it?  I was right, wasn't I?"

 

It is Rodney.  The sheer Rodney-ness of the statement is what finally convinces John he's not imagining this.

 

"Yeah."  John exhales in relief and can't help his blossoming grin.  "You were right."  And even though Ronon and Teyla are there, he bends his head and silences Rodney's further questions with a kiss.

 

*

 

John leans against the infirmary door, waiting until Keller looks up from the computer screen.  He's eaten, showered, and slept for ten hours, and now he feels pretty damned good.

 

"Colonel, is there a problem?  Are you feeling all right?"  Her gaze keeps flickering back to the screen.  Poor Ronon.  Looks as if he's going to have stiff competition for her attention for a while.

 

"I'm fine."  He pushes away from the door.  "You figure out how Rodney came back to life yet?"

 

She grins and points to the screen.  "It's amazing!  Remember the compound that kept building up in your blood?  I think it was generated by your ATA gene--"

 

"My gene?"  He scratches his arm, frowns at his hand.  "Okay.  But . . . .  Generated how?"

 

"I'm not certain.  Dr. Zelenka thinks it has to do with Rodney's guardian.  Maybe an element in the guardian triggered your body to create the compound, or maybe it was something in Rodney himself.  But," she continues, "what's important is that when you touched Rodney, somehow the compound passed from you to him, renewing the guardian's power when it was running low."

 

"Wow.  So I re-charged the guardian's batteries?"

 

"Exactly."

 

"And after he was . . . ."  John really doesn't want to dredge up the memories of Rodney, still and limp in his arms, but he's curious now.

 

Her expression grows gentle.  "When you held him after his heart stopped, the compound in your blood . . . well, it chemically jump-started him, in essence bringing him back to life."

 

"Wow."  If that's the case, John has never been so grateful to have the gene.  "Cool."

 

"Very cool," Keller agrees.  "Dr. Zelenka's already looking into practical applications, and my findings could lead to potentially revolutionary treatments for . . . ."  She blushes.  "Well, it's very exciting."

 

"I get that."

 

She glances at the screen again.  "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

 

"I just came to find out when you're releasing Rodney."

 

"Well, I wanted to . . . ."  She hesitates, then smiles.  "It can wait.  Are Rodney's new quarters ready?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Rodney's more than ready to be released -- he's good, he's fine, thank you very much -- and he follows on John's heels as they leave the infirmary.   John doesn't have to say a word; Rodney's all "Mr. Woolsey's invited me to stay as an official member of the expedition," and "Radek wants me to join his staff, which I might add, I believe I have earned."  He trails along as John heads in the direction of his room.  Rodney only closes his mouth and looks around, bewildered, when John stops outside a door down the hall from his quarters.

 

"Why are we stopping here?  Your room is--"

 

"Open the door, Rodney."  John can't quite hide his grin.

 

Rodney waves his hand, and appears startled when the door opens.  He steps inside, looks around the room.  John knows what's there: a desk and chair, a bed covered with a blanket from Teyla, a sofa and shelves holding books donated by Ford and Zelenka and Woolsey, a wall hanging from Corporal Chin, and Ronon's small carving of something -- John thinks it's a dragon -- emerging from an egg.

 

Rodney turns to John, his expression lost.

 

"I don't understand."

 

John's smile fades.  "It's yours, Rodney.  Your own room.  I thought you'd like it."

 

"Mine?"  Rodney's gaze travels around the room again.  "My own?"

 

"Yeah."  John hesitates.  Is this the right time?  "May I come in?"

 

"May you . . . ."  Rodney gazes around the room again, the corners of his mouth slowly rising.  He turns to John, sweeps his arm in a polite gesture.  "Yes.  Please."

 

John steps inside, the door closes behind him.  He reaches out, cups his hand around Rodney's cheek.  Rodney leans forward, eyes closing, as John brings their lips together.

 

Several minutes later, Rodney sways, breaking their kiss.

 

"We can do this now?" he asks, fingers plucking at John's shirt.  "You're not responsible for me anymore.  And your ridiculous code of conduct no long applies, although I suppose I can't complain about the part where you insisted on setting me free, even though you stumbled on the actual method by sheer accident."

 

John laughs.  "Yeah, we can do it."

 

"When Teyla came by the infirmary, she told me nobody else can know you kissed me."  Rodney unbuttons John's shirt, his fingers trembling.  "John, I won't tell. I can be discreet. Oh, I just want to touch you . . . ."

 

John falls back onto the bed and lets Rodney do exactly that.  For an instant John is blindsided by jealousy. Who taught Rodney these particular skills? Who did he practice on? But as he takes a shuddering breath, he pushes that train of thought out of his mind. It doesn't matter. Not now, when he's receiving a blow job that threatens to melt his brain.

 

All too soon Rodney slips his mouth off John's spent dick, swallowing and smiling, a look of such tenderness in his eyes that John has to study the ceiling for a minute or else he'll embarrass himself.

 

"Rodney," John says when he can trust his voice again, and waves his hand weakly, "c'mere."

 

John barely has time to open Rodney's trousers and grasp his dick before Rodney's shaking and crying out, coming all over John's hand.  John grins and, to Rodney's obvious surprise, licks his fingers.  Rodney groans, his dick twitching against John's hip, and buries his face in John's shoulder.

 

"Been a while?" John settles himself more comfortably.

 

Rodney snorts.  "You have no idea."

 

John drifts for a while, relaxed and content, until Rodney's wandering fingers meander down his chest and stroke his dick.

 

He lifts his hips and Rodney's clasp firms, brings him to full hardness.  John groans.

 

Rodney's strokes speed up.  "What do you want?" he whispers.  "My mouth?  My ass?"

 

At the thought of Rodney's ass, John groans again, then tries to rein in his excitement.  "No lube.  Maybe later."

 

John never suspected that Rodney is capable of such a filthy laugh.  Grinning, Rodney pulls a small packet out of his pocket.  "Courtesy of the infirmary.  It didn't take a genius to figure out where they were kept."

 

John flops back on the bed and laughs until his belly hurts.  God, he's going to have to run full-tilt to keep up with Rodney.

 

Then he rolls over, pinning Rodney to the bed, leans down and kisses him until they're both dizzy.  Panting, he straddles Rodney's hips, shrugs off his shirt, unbuttons Rodney's.  Realizes at this rate it's going to take forever.  With a huff of impatience, John jumps off the bed, kicks off his boots, shimmies out of his trousers.   Rodney stares at him for a second.

 

"You're brilliant," he says.  He squirms and flails on the bed, shucking his clothes, until at last he's naked and hard, watching John with eager eyes.  Rodney lifts his hand, waves the packet.

 

John plucks it from his fingers, breathless.  Rodney scrambles to his elbows and knees, wiggles his ass.

 

"What are you waiting for," Rodney snaps, "an invitation?"

 

John sits back on his heels, takes a shuddering breath.  Jesus, he was just going to . . . .

 

"Yeah, I am."

 

Rodney frowns and half-turns toward him.  After a moment, he rolls his eyes and sighs.  "John, you're not my master, and I'm not doing this out of a sense of obligation.  I want you.  I . . ."  He hesitates, his chin firming, and gazes at John resolutely.  "I love you.  Next time we can reverse things, but for now, would you please get over here and--"

 

John pounces.

 

He'll slow down next time -- they'll have a lot of next times, if John has anything to say about it -- and he'll take hours to enjoy exploring every inch of Rodney's body, but not now.  Now he slicks up his dick, grabs Rodney's hips and presses firmly, steadily, into Rodney's body.

 

Rodney trembles, gasps, opens up so sweetly that John slides home as smooth as silk, the warm swell of Rodney's ass pressing against his hips.  John squeezes his eyes shut.  He's inside Rodney.  Every nerve tingles, heat and cold race across his skin and he shudders with the immensity of it all.

 

"Hello?  Did you fall asleep?" Rodney pants, pushing back against him.  "Forget what you're in the middle of?"

 

"No, Rodney," John smiles, tightens his hold.  "I know exactly what I'm doing."

 

And he proceeds to prove it.

 

*

 

"Go to sleep."  John rolls off the bed and stretches his arms over his head. His skin is damp, and certain muscles are tender and well-used.  He hasn't felt this good in years.

 

Face squashed into the pillow, Rodney clumsily pats the bit of mattress John just vacated. 

 

"Stay.  Please."

 

John hates to say it.  "I can't."  He picks up his shirt.

 

With a sound of disgust, Rodney levers himself upright.  His hair sticks up in tufts, his face is pink.   "You can.  Your room's only two doors down."

 

"Rodney."  John rubs the back of his neck.  He wants to stay, but . . . .

 

"You know," Rodney bows his head, his voice soft, "I haven't been alone in almost five thousand years. I'm . . . ."

 

John drops his shirt, climbs back into bed.

 

Rodney grins and opens his arms in welcome.

 

###