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The Comfort of Strangers

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1. Music

The cell door opened with its usual grating squeal. Edric rolled over, stiffening, but the booted feet seemed set on ignoring him. New prisoner, he thought, hearing the predictable squeaks and squawks. Poor sods always did do that – 'I'm innocent!' and 'No! Please! Don't, I beg you! Please!' or grovelling to the guards, hoping to sweet-talk them into making this hell-hole a little less hellish. Sometimes they fought. That was the worst, because the poor bastards didn't have a hope in hell of winning, and when the guards took against you, your chance of surviving more than a ten-day was less than the chance of a dockside whore being clean. They liked to have their fun before they killed you, though.

This one chattered. Edric rolled back to the wall, and pressed his blanket over his exposed ear, deliberately not listening. Chatter chatter, went the poor sod, and it was the buzzing of insects and the twittering of birds and the squeaking of a door in the wind. It meant nothing. It meant nothing.

Faint through his wall of fabric, the guards left, and the door was locked again, key rattling against the metal. Edric relaxed, but just a little, muscles aching all the way down the back of his neck. Cold from the floor had seeped into his bones. He saw a cut on the back of his hand, but he didn't feel it; didn't really feel that it belonged to him.

Chatter chatter. The insect was buzzing. Fabric scraped over Edric's ear. "…chain means you can't reach me," the insect was saying, "which is, uh, good, as much as anything in this place can be good, because as brutal alien prisons go, this one would win prizes."

There was a smear of blood on the dirty floor. Beyond that, when he blinked, he saw the lines he had scraped low on the wall, when he had still been stupid enough to think that days were worth counting.

"…weren't even doing anything wrong," the chitter-chatter said, "and then suddenly – bam! I was all ready to plead for our lives – I had quite a speech ready – but…"

The whistling guard passed in the hallway, the tune broken, and no longer making him feel anything at all. "Oh God," said the chitter-chatter. "He's coming. He's… Oh."

It faded – a broken tune; three notes falling.

"And they won't tell me where Sheppard is." The chitter-chatter's voice echoed that falling refrain. "I don't even know if he's alive. Because he fought – of course he fought – and… and there was… blood, and, uh, he didn't… I saw him go down, and he doesn't… I mean, not like that. Not unless something's very wrong."

"Stop caring." Edric hadn't meant to say anything. He rolled over, ragged fabric tangling in his bleeding hand, and saw a man who was alive with movement, face and hands. "Stop caring, if you want to survive," he said.

The stupid bastard totally ignored him. "Sheppard!" he shouted. "Sheppard!" He paced to the limits of his chains. "Sheppard!" People shouted at him to be quiet. The man paced back again, pressing his face into a curled hand. Edric found his movements dizzying, hurting his eyes like a flickering lightstorm.

"If you've got a friend in here," Edric told him, "then forget him. It kills you, worrying." Just like hope does, said something slow and cold in his heart.

"I can't do that." The man gaped in outrage, innocent, stupid, trusting. He would learn, of course, unless his fire killed him first. It probably would. Fire did that, and this man was mercurial flame.

He remembered that; remembered being that; remembered using words like that. That man was dead. If he'd stayed as that man, he'd be dead now, too.

Edric sat up, pulling weary legs up, feeling the wall pressing hard against his vertebrae. "Whatever," he said. "Just don't talk to me. I don't like talkers."

The whistling guard came back, his tune lurching like a dying man.

"But I talk when I'm terrified," said the man, and Edric pressed his head against the wall, and closed his eyes. "I've got this thing. "

He heard it – chitter chatter ¬– through his walls. When he pressed fists to his ears, he heard it. Sometimes there was whistling mixed in with the chatter – old, popular dance tunes from when he was young. He let out a slow breath, and stared straight ahead. The man was pacing in a circle, and he saw him only as feet tracing a useless pattern.

The whistling returned. A door opened and closed, bringing in a rush of cold air. No light came, though, so night must have come.

"You'll be dead soon," he found himself saying, "if you don't learn when to shut up."

"Thank you," the man said. "I know how screwed I am without you feeling the need to remind me." He swallowed. "But we'll be rescued by then. Both of us. Because Sheppard… He's survived worse, you know? He's like Ronon, that way: indestructible. How else can you explain the way he keeps surviving his ridiculous encounters with atomic weapons?"

Edric wrapped a hand round the cold chains. "Shut up," he said, voice wiped clean of feeling.

The guard's footsteps faded. The man said nothing for a long time, and from the corner of his eye, Edric could see that he had sat down, taut and miserable. The chain stayed cold in his touch, as he remembered the moment when he had finally accepted that this was it, that he was in this for life. He was very aware of his breathing; of the dirt that had almost filled in those pathetic scratched lines.

The guard returned, the whistling shrill and strident. The other man's head snapped up with a sharp inhalation. "Star Wars," he breathed, his voice very different from how it had been before. "The theme from Star Wars. And how would he know that unless… Sheppard… Sheppard's alive."

His smile was hard to look at. It hurt.


2. Insults

"I can't," his cell-mate was gasping. "I mean, I'm not in… not in bad physical condition – I work out, and there's… all this running for our life… that we have to do – but this…" He sagged over the shovel. "Can't they get machines to do it? This is a finely-honed mind – the best in two galaxies – and they've… put me to… digging… trenches."

Edric focused on his work. In went the shovel. Down. Dig. Wriggle it to get it past the pebbles. Heave out the combined earth and stone. Throw it into the cart. Do it fast enough not to earn the strap, and slow enough not to burn yourself out. Stay alive at all times. Never look at anything but the brown earth. Afterwards, you had bleeding palms and you couldn't straighten your back, but those didn't hurt you, not when you learnt how to push them away.

"If they… used my skills better… then they'd be able to benefit from…"

A strap cracked warningly in the earth not far behind him. Edric heard the man suck in a breath. "Working. Working." Edric could see his shovel wavering in the trench. The man himself he had very carefully not looked at since they had been marched out into the sun. Things always seemed too sharply alive in the sunlight, and too much to bear.

The guard moved away – not the whistling guard, this time, though for two nights that strident melody had tramped up and down the hallways of the cell block, and sometimes other tunes that had apparently meant something to his cell-mate. One had made him groan, but one had even made him laugh – a sharp, nervous laugh, but still a laugh, the sound twisting in Edric's heart like a knife.

It had been many moons since something had hurt him.

The cart became full, trickles of stone spilling over the edge. His cell-mate drooped over his shovel, breathing hard.

"Hey, you need to work out more," a voice said.

His cell-mate's head snapped up. His whole body came alive and his joy pierced like a blade. "Sheppard!"

Edric distanced himself. He went to that place where he could watch things, but not have anything touch him. He saw a dark-haired man, chained like him, raise the handles of the cart. "Are you…?" he heard, and, "Good. I'm good."

The guard paced towards them, strap raised. "Won't leave me alone," the dark-haired man said quietly, as he started to trudge away, straining against the weight of the cart. "Seems to think I'm dangerous."

Edric's cell-mate swallowed, clutching his shovel. "Last night's tune, Sheppard?" he called after the dark-haired man. "I always said you were Kirk."

"You're just jealous."

His cell-mate pressed one hand to his face, leaving streaks of mud and blood. "He always says he's good." He bit his lip, and started digging again. faster than Edric was going. Soon his breath was coming in great tearing gasps, and the cart was full.

"I'm not… impressed, colonel," he said, when the dark-haired man returned to take away the cart. "There's normally… the optimism… The escape bid…"

"Spent too long with you, McKay." The man called Sheppard steadied himself for a moment on the edge of the cart. "You know what they say about bad influences."

"Bad influences?" McKay squawked. "I'll have you know that until I met you…"

The strap landed on the cart, dislodging a rush of earth. It landed again, its very tip striking Sheppard on the arm. McKay swallowed. "You never know when to keep quiet," he said, as Sheppard once more struggled away, pulling a cart that should have been pulled by two. "You always bait the bad guys."

"Pot," he heard faintly. "Kettle."

"He can be quite infuriating," McKay said suddenly, quiet fiercely, at Edric.

Edric kept his face as blank as his heart. The guard moved them a dozen paces to the right, and their shovels struck fresh soil, impacted and stony. McKay fell forward onto his knees. "I can't," he gasped. "I can't."

Edric said nothing as the guard approached. He hissed no warning. He said nothing to coax McKay back onto his feet, to make him dig at least when the guard was watching. He said nothing as the strap fell, and McKay cowered in on himself with a cry. It had just been a warning blow. This was the nice guard. Less cold-hearted than the other bastards, anyway.

He saw blood from burst blisters on the metal handle. "McKay?" he heard Sheppard say. "After Ronon and Teyla've rescued us, I'll get the big guy to come up with a training programme for you. Looks like you need it."

"Just because I'm not--" McKay struggled to his feet. "--not G.I. Joe like you. I have other skills. Tell me, colonel: how often have you…" He almost dropped his shovel; flailed, and caught it. "…have you come close to solving…?"

"Hey." Sheppard shrugged. "Could have been Mensa."

"So you say, Kirk."

"Drama queen."


Sheppard lurched away. Edric happened to glance up when he was halfway back to the rubble pile, and saw him stumble and almost fall. McKay missed it, digging with his jaw set, slowly, methodically, determined. He looked close to collapse, but in some strange way, he looked almost happier than Edric had ever seen him.

But he hadn't meant to look, not out here in the sunlight. The memory of words exchanged twisted in his heart. He and his wife had once…


3. Warmth

Chatter chatter was the relentless dripping of water against stone. It never ceased, and it was harder and harder to push it away. Words kept slipping through his armour, making him bleed.

The whistling continued. "But there's been no new tune for two days," McKay worried. They'd been confined inside, unravelling rope, and hadn't seen Sheppard since two days before that. "It can mean anything, of course, but…" He bit his lip.

Edric wrapped his arms around his body. This was one of the Cold Nights, with the external doors deliberately left open, but cold was one of the easiest things to keep out.

"I don't know if he's trying to signal to me," McKay said. "Does the military have codes for this? The Batman theme means get ready for an escape; The X-Files means a file's hidden in the bread?" His waving hand clanked metal. "It's too much to expect me to know the language."

Edric studied a bead of moisture on the wall. The guard approached again, his whistling faint in the fresh air, but Edric didn't know the tune. From the pattern of McKay's breathing, he didn't, either. Not that Edric was the sort of person to notice such things, of course. Not that he cared. Not that he…

"He always expects you to perform miracles, you know," he heard McKay say, with a sigh.

He wrapped his arms tighter. McKay was chatter that he could not listen to. He had to keep out the cold, but embrace a different sort of cold. That was the only way to survive.

McKay kept on talking. He was moving around, too, his hands constantly active, and his head reacting to every sound. Edric bit back the urge to notice. He resisted the urge to ask.

The whistling faded to nothing. Then came the heavy sound of the cold-hearted guard, and the quick step of the one who liked to make poor bastards scream. Metal rattled. Edric refused to let the sudden scent of spice transport him back a time when he'd been free. Stupid, he thought. Stupid, and moved his head sluggishly, blinking at the wall.

"So cold," he heard McKay say. "Food's essential for the maintenance of body temperature, you know. They aren't giving us enough. We should have been rescued by now, or launched… reckless… escape." His teeth were rattling, breaking up his words. Their cell was the coldest of all, nearest to the door, but Edric had endured this, and more. When you let the ice into your heart, no outside cold could touch you.

Boots passed. "Cold," McKay murmured. "Cold…"

Then nothing, not for a very long time. Edric rolled over very slowly, feeling the faint burst of warmth that came with every muscle that was forced into movement. McKay was curled miserably on the floor, no longer talking. If he hadn't been shivering, Edric might have thought that he'd gone and died.

Edric watched. Blinked. Watched again.

Feet sounded. He closed his eyes. They came louder and louder, then stopped. The door opened. He didn't care, he didn't care, he didn't care. He didn't hear McKay gasp, "Sheppard!" He didn't hear the guards snarl threats and warnings. He didn't hear the sound of fresh chains being pulled tight. He didn't hear McKay's fast breathing – the sound of a man desperate to speak, but scared to.

He heard the door close again, though, and felt the tiniest cracking of the ice.

"Sheppard," McKay hissed, in tight whisper. "What did they…? How…? Seriously, why would they do this? Why would they let us… you know… together?"

"I guess I asked them politely. Didn't take no for an answer."

He wasn't looking, but he knew that McKay was reaching out to touch Sheppard's shoulder, and that he snatched his hand back again, curling it nervously at his chest. Without even looking, he knew what expression McKay's face wore. "And they gave in why?"

"Think it's supposed to be a 'careful what you ask for' thing."

"Oh." He heard McKay swallow. "God, Sheppard, you're bleeding. What did they do to you?"

There was the sound of scraping fabric, and the faint chink of chains. "I'm good."

"I wish you wouldn't keep saying that." McKay sounded miserable. "God, Sheppard, a whipping. You don't realise… in the books, you know, that it's so… that there's so much blood."

"It got me here, though."

McKay gasped. "Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no. Tell me you didn't set this up deliberately. Tell me you didn't… Not even you would… That's a stupid plan, even for you."

"Not a plan," Sheppard said. Edric heard nothing but those two voices. "Not as such. I thought… Knew you'd be cold. Took the measure of the guards. Pushed some buttons. Crossed my fingers and hoped to hell…"

"That they'd beat the crap out of you? Sheppard, that's the craziest plan I've ever heard. Though I guess it's only to be expected from someone whose usual solution to things involves strapping himself to a nuclear bomb."

"I did that once."

"I only destroyed part of a solar system once, and will you let me forget it?" McKay snapped. "No, stay still, Sheppard. If you're going to play a martyr with a death wish, at least let me do the, uh, medical stuff, and…"

"No water. Nothing clean."

Edric looked at the cold stone, at his fists, at the beads of breath in front of his face. He bit his lip hard enough for it to bleed. Somewhere, outside the open door, a bird cried, just like the birds of home.

"Sheppard! What are you doing?"

"Make the best of it, McKay. It's a survival situation. We have to keep each other warm."

"But you don't…! I mean, you never… Sheppard. God. It's embarrassing."

"Better than being dead." Sheppard's voice was hard yet soft, both at the same time. "Move over, McKay."

It was half way to morning before Edric could roll over. The movement felt like ice cracking across his whole body. Rodney, he saw, was asleep, with Sheppard's arms around him from behind. Sheppard was awake, though, his eyes glittering.

The ice cracked elsewhere, and melted out through his eyes.


4. Need

"I can't do this." McKay dropped his shovel, pressing trembling hands to his face. "I'm tired. I hurt. I'm hungry. I can't… I just can't…"

Edric watched. You can. Words whispered in his mind, faint as memory. His throat felt clogged. He ran his tongue over his lips. He tightened his grip on his shovel, and jabbed it into the earth.

"You can." Sheppard spoke the words, though, and something that could even have been shame twisted in Edric's chest. "Rodney, you can. You have to." He lowered the handles of the cart, and took a step forward, stopping with his hand on McKay's back. "They'll come for us soon. We'll be out of here, and--"

"They aren't coming." McKay looked at his hands, thick with blood-stained blisters. "It's been ten days. They haven't come yet, and we… we have to face it, colonel: even your luck had to run out one day."

"Then we escape."

Escape. Edric remembered that word, too. He remembered scraping at the floor until his nails bled, trying to make a tunnel. He remembered memorising the routes of all the patrols, before concluding that there was no way he could get to the gate. He remembered tightening his grip on his shovel, but realising that although he could take one guard down, the others would kill him. He remembered hearing nighthounds howling on the perimeter when the air was clear.

He remembered the day he had stopped looking for such things.

"How?" McKay asked miserably.

And Sheppard, who must have noticed the same things and reached the same conclusions, said, "We'll find a way."

McKay tried to pick up his shovel again. "I'm so tired," he said, his voice broken. "I'm not made for this. I can't… I don't think I can…"

The guard raced up, bellowing commands. Give him a moment, Edric thought, words pushing harshly at his constricted throat. Don't… But he said nothing as the strap landed on Sheppard's shoulder's, on McKay's arm. They fell together, and something was said between them, but Edric didn't hear what it was; didn't care, of course. Then they stood up. If you hit him again… Sheppard posture said, and McKay's said, I'm trying. I'm trying.

The guard watched them until Sheppard left, dragging the cart behind him. Edric turned his head to watch him go, seeing the bloody mess visible through the tears in his shirt. He saw him miss a step, and then another. "He's not well." Words broke past the constriction. McKay said nothing, though. Perhaps he had just imagined speaking.

They dug side by side. Soon they were sharing the same rhythm, the same in and out. Edric remembered tending his father's field, his brother working alongside him. For the first time in years, he didn't push the memory away.

"I can't," McKay moaned under his breath. "This isn't what I'm good at. I'm not good with the… the optimism thing, and the… physical labour, and…"

Sheppard had almost reached them again when he collapsed, falling to his knees in the mud. McKay dropped his shovel and started forward, and Edric was dragged there, too, hauled by the chains, but his legs had already been moving him there, anyway. "Sheppard!" McKay gasped. "Oh God, I knew it. I knew it."

McKay grabbed at Sheppard's shoulder. Sheppard blinked up at him, dazed, his hand half rising, then falling heavily to his side. "'m good," he murmured. "'ll be okay."

The guard stamped, studded boots trampling the mud. "Get up!" they demanded. The strap landed on the handles of the cart. "Get up now!"

"Getting up," Sheppard murmured. Setting his jaw, he pushed himself to his feet, McKay fluttering over him like the wings of a terrified bird. He took one step, then groped for the handles of the cart. His first attempt missed, but his second found it.

He managed half a dozen more steps before his feet slithered in the mud, and he fell down again. When the strap landed on his injured back, he threw his head back in agony, but made no sound.

"Stop it," Edric breathed – a tiny thread of a sound. McKay said it louder. "Stop it!" he screamed. "Stop it!" He wrapped himself around Sheppard, and took the strap on his own back. "Can't you see you're killing him?" he screamed. "He--" The scream turned wordless as the strap hit again. "Barbarians!" he forced out. "You can't… force people… to work… when they're sick."

"McKay," Edric heard. "Rodney. Stop." He saw Sheppard's hand close on Rodney's shoulder, then saw it tighten further, gripping a handful of fabric. He saw Sheppard stand up, saw him waver over to the cart again.

He didn't fall again for the rest of the afternoon, and McKay, who watched him whenever he could, didn't flag, but worked solidly beside Edric, just as his brother had done.

That night, the whistling guard picked up a new tune.


5. Choice

"Of all the places to die…"

"Not gonna die, McKay."

"Oh, excuse me while I believe the man with the raging fever and the infected back and the terminal case of optimism, because, hello? still in prison, and medical supplies don't come with room service round here."

"Not gonna die."

"The optimism is getting old. No, correction: it got old like four years ago. At least grant me the dignity of freaking out the way I see fit."

Edric was sitting up, arms wrapped around his knees. Sometimes the guard passed, whistling the cradle-song Edric had sung to his first-born daughter. It hurt terribly, but perhaps… perhaps… perhaps when you didn't hurt, he thought, it meant you weren't really alive.

"Guess the escape plan's off, then, colonel?"

"'ll think of something."

"Too late for that."

Sheppard was lying curled on his side. Sometimes, drifting towards unconsciousness, he rolled unthinkingly onto his back, and started up, gasping with the pain of it. Edric had lost count of the number of times he had seen him struggle to his feet. He had watched McKay bite his lip, looking stricken, and then had watched him whisper repeated words to himself, breathing deeply, before turning back to Sheppard. Locking it all away, he told himself, though he no longer believed it. Stopping himself from caring. Like me.

"They'll come," Sheppard said.

McKay's hands had fluttered uselessly over Sheppard's shoulders, but now they touched him, gripping his shoulder. "Even if they do come, which I seriously doubt now, because it's been twelve days, it's going to be too late for you."

"Think you need to work on your bedside manner."

"But I don't know what to do!"

Don't give up hope. Edric almost said the words out loud. He tore his gaze away from them, looking at the filled-in strokes on the wall. There was a small pebble on the floor, fallen from the tread of his boot. He closed his hand around it, feeling its point. Perhaps he would start to count the days again.

"I'm not good with sick people," McKay said miserably.

"'m not sick people."

"I'm not good with people. And you're dying by inches, and I can't do anything. There's always something to do – equations, you know? I don't know what to do."

But when Sheppard fell asleep, McKay let out a shuddering breath, and his posture really did become that of someone who didn't know what to do. It hadn't before, not really.

The stone was digging into Edric's palm. "I think you're helping him," he managed to say, "by being there."

You were always alone in prison. Always alone. Always alone.

The whistling passed, high and jaunty. Sheppard started awake with a gasp, and McKay grabbed his shoulder again, soothing him with broken sentences and meaningless words.

"Not leaving you here," Sheppard said, his eyes unfocused. "Not leaving you."

McKay opened his mouth, closed it, then tried again. "Sometimes you don't have a choice."

"Always," Sheppard said, hand closing on McKay's sleeve, "have choice."

"That's not true." But McKay moved closer to Sheppard, and his posture defied all comers, and said Yes. Yes, it is.

Edric dropped the pebble. "What can I do to help?" he asked.


6. Life

The external door crashed open. The footsteps were new. Edric crouched on his haunches, and eyed the grille fiercely, to see what shapes flickered past it.

The steps halted. Keys rattled, and he exchanged a look with McKay as the door opened.

"Ronon!" McKay let out a shuddering breath. "Teyla! What kept you?"

"We had to negotiate," said the woman – the first woman Edric had seen in years, and that hurt, too, pricking his eyes, but in the way that cold water would hurt after a lifetime of drought. "We--"

"No," McKay said. "Don't. Sheppard needs…"

The large man went down fluidly onto his knees. "What did they--?"

"Just get us out of here." McKay's hands were trembling – trembling more and more with each breath. "Just get us out of here. Please."

Sheppard opened his eyes. "Hey, buddy," he murmured. "Knew you'd come."

"Course we came."

The woman was on her knees beside him, too, touching his cheek with the back of one hand. The big man helped Sheppard up, and Sheppard co-operated for a moment, then sagged, his head pressed against Ronon's shoulder. The woman's hand moved to Sheppard's arm, and Edric's throat ached at the sight of him caught between the two of them, blanketed by care. Sheppard's head moved a little, but he didn't pull away – a strong man giving himself entirely over to the care of others. You only let people see you like that when you trusted them utterly, Edric thought. You only looked like that when you were…

He bit his lip, and swallowed hard. The wall was cold at his back, and, bracing himself behind him, he found the faint mark of long-ago scratches.

McKay made a small sound, and the woman turned towards him, opening up space. Still trembling, Rodney filled it, and Edric saw how her hand came out and took his; saw how his trembling slowly ceased.

He felt his chains cold at his wrist. He felt the night air make streams of ice from the tears that were pouring down his cheeks.

"Home," Sheppard murmured, and they rose as one – all awkward arms and legs, with McKay stumbling, and Sheppard staggering, but with not one of them standing alone.

He watched them go. The cold hurt. Loneliness twisted like a knife. The ice had cracked, and he'd awakened, and there was no going back. He could do it once, but not a second time. Oh, please, not a second time.

Sheppard said something, his hand moving weakly. The woman questioned him. The big man snapped something. The guard looked at somebody else, and it was the governor, it was the governor, glowering stiffly, as if he wanted to kill somebody, but didn't dare. And then a guard was walking over to Edric, releasing him from his chains. He stood up, and his first step was silent. His second was faltering. His third was…

"'cause you didn't hurt him." Sheppard raised his head from Ronon's shoulder, the woman's hand protective on his back. But it wasn't true, Edric realised. He'd pushed McKay away, ignored his chattering, refused to talk, told him to give up on life.

"Huh," McKay said grudgingly. "I guess he tried to help sometimes."

They didn't know his name. He'd never told them his name.

"Not right," Sheppard said, "to leave him… to leave people behind."

"Even criminals?"

"We're criminals."

The sun was shining outside, and he let himself see things in their every detail in the sunlight. He let himself think of his family, and the shining route that lay to his own front door. He turned his face up to the sky, and this time the knife twisting in his heart was not painful, not at all.

And his next step…?

His next step was free.