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Lay Me Down So

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Art by [ profile]mella68

Lay Me Down So - Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a while, Rodney nudged Sheppard, gently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"Kehks, out!"

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

"Over here, kehks, assemble!"

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

"In line, five by ten!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kehks, five by ten. Now!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"Kehks, line up for the count!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Silence, kehks! Who's talking?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kehk, down!"

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

"Pull up your shirt, kehk!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He snorted under his breath, thinking of it.

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

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

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

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

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

"And Weir?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

"Rodney? You alright?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kehks, food!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodney nodded.

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

"And that'll help how?"

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"Here, now."

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

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

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

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

"Kehk, work!"

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

So Rodney kept working.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kehk, drink!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I offer you sanctuary, kehk."

Rodney blinked. "Uh--"

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

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


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

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

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

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

"And attend me as I require it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kehk, work!"

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Okay," said Rodney.

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

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

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

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

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

"Another co-ed?" asked John.

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

"Aren't they all."

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

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

"Are you leaning against me?" asked John.

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

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

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

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

The guard skipped over John and handed Rodney the blanket.

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

"Yes, I am paying attention."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Let me see."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guard. Watching. Right.

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

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

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

"Colonel, here, take the--"

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

"Keep working, kehks!"

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," said John, dubious.

"You can't save everyone."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Now the other one," said John.

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


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

"You okay, Rodney?" asked John.

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

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

"I know," said John.

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

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

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

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

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

"You can stop that now," said John.

"Stop what."

"What you're doing."

Rodney blinked in the darkness.

"With your hand."

"I'm not doing anything."

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

"What are you--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

"You, kehk!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kehk, down."

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

"I said down."

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

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

Then the beating ended.

"Up, kehk."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

"Here," said John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Let me help you," said Rodney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You gotta go?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You want some water--here--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodney froze. "What? What is it?"

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

"Your hands are cool," said John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

"You, kehk, what are you doing?"

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

"Answer me, kehk!"

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

"I'm, uh, scooping gravel?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You, kehk!"

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

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

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

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

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

"Now, kehk!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was pointing at John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Cart!" yelled the second guard.

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

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

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

"What's the delay, here?"

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

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

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

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

"Kehk, look at me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you have someone for me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sounds good, Jud," said Jax.

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

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

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

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

"Wait! Please, let me--"

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

"Will do," said the guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Lay Me Down So - Part II

The guard marched Rodney around the brown buildings till they reached what looked like the back of them, almost up against the stockade on the other side of the compound. There was a pile of refuse that looked and smelled disgusting and smelled, and there was a pile of straw and a bundle of sacks and a stack of slatted, wooden boxes, and a little path that led off to where Rodney could see piles of cut wood. This was the kitchen then, though Rodney had only ever seen the grey glop that the Third Camp served, so he couldn't imagine what they cooked here, unless it was actually real food?

Then the guard opened the door, and shoved Rodney in.

"Henks," said the guard. "I have Ghent's new attendant for you. What is your name, kehk?"

"Rodney," he said, shocked at being asked.

The guard pushed Rodney to move forward, and Rodney kept his mouth shut while the guard left and slammed the door behind him, too much in a daze to do anything else but stand there.

Henks only had one eye (the other seemed sealed shut by what looked like a bad burn), but he looked at Rodney sharply, up and down, and then nodded.

He pointed to a long table under a bank of windows and Rodney walked to where he was pointed. Someone handed him a rough cottony apron that Rodney tied on without thinking about it. He was also shocked to find a knife in his hands and real, actual vegetables laid out in front of him. He didn't dare eat anything. He knew he should be hungry, but his mind was still reeling, from the shock of being without John, and perhaps, the shock of being warm. At the far end of the room was a huge fire, with two spits spinning round and round, with large hunks of meat on them, dripping fat into low pans that were arranged above the flames.

"This is your task," said Henks. "Cut vegetables now, and later, you will scrub and wash up. You might be an attendant, but you will still work, still do as you're told, understand?"

Rodney nodded, and looked at the knife in his hands. He felt hot all over, like he was sweating in a steambath. He could use the knife to kill Henks and kill anyone who got in his way, until he got to John's side. But the truth of it was, while he could do that (he was pretty sure he could do it), and while he could get John out of the healing house, by that time, the whole of the Second Camp would be alerted, and there was no way he could carry John far enough, fast enough, to make a clean break of it. He was stuck here, working for Henks, surrounded by all this food, until John was well. That is, if someone even bothered to tell him how John was doing.

"Start cutting," said Henks.

Rodney nodded and did as he was told.


What saved him from all out panic and a complete meltdown was the methodical nature of the work; it was straightforward and basic, and usually wouldn't have been able to occupy his mind in the slightest. But because it was so simple, he could concentrate on it and think of nothing else. He peeled vegetables that looked like carrots (slightly more red than orange, but basically the same shape), he was shown the stone sink and given a bucket of something that might be turnips (but could have been potatoes), and told to wash them. The delight he might have felt at any other point (if John were with him) of having an actual pump that pulled water from a spring instead of the roof felt dim and far away. So he worked.

He kept his head down and chopped and scrubbed vegetables with the cold water and little, rough, handless brush, and he kept at it, his head swimming, feeling numb all through his body, wanting to cry, wishing John were there to cheer him up or distract him. He missed John so badly, he almost couldn't understand it. Maybe part of his mind could tell him that after living hip to hip like they had been, it was natural to feel a sense of shock upon separation. Maybe.

He was on his feet for hours, shoulders hunched, and it took him a while to realize that he wasn't cold anymore, the air in the kitchen was damp from all the water boiling on pots on the metal stove on the other side of the grilling fire, but he was warm. And now he was hungry; his stomach told him, growling angrily, that it wanted some of the meat that was on the spits, it wanted sliced vegetables that were being boiled, and somewhere, behind him, he could swear he heard the sound of something being fried. If they fed him grey glop and crusty, shitty bread, he would come apart, he really would.

At some point, he heard doors slamming, and feet stomping, and through the front of the kitchen, and when he dared turn around, he saw the large, open bay, and beyond that, the dining area, where brown clad kehks were moving and sitting at long tables with benches, while other kehks waited on them while bright lanterns hung burning on every wall. The kehks that were sitting had colored scarves around their necks, all kinds, blue, green, yellow, red, and it occurred to Rodney that if you had a scarf, you were another level of kehk. You were the kind that got waited on.

He opened his mouth before he could think that it would be wiser not to. "Who--what?"

One of the kehks who was taking away the leavings from Rodney's cuttings looked up. "Woodsmen," he said. "Cutters, trimmers, loggers. They all work in the woods, and we feed them."

"Yeah," said another kehk, not actually keeping his voice down. "Three times a day." He almost seemed like he was making a joke, but then, it did seem a little strange, as Rodney watched the prepared food being carried out to the tables, to think of the meager meals in the Third Camp, and to compare that to, wait--was that a roasted pig?

Food went out to the dining hall, and empty platters and bowls came back and then the scarf-wearing kehks stomped out and went wherever it was they were going, and then the dirty dishes started piling up on the low table next to the sink. Rodney fully expected to be told to start the washing up, but Henks nodded at one of his helpers, and someone grabbed Rodney's arm and pulled him to the table on the far wall of the crowded kitchen and since everyone was sitting down on the long bench next to the table, Rodney sat down, too.

It felt strange to be sitting, actually sitting on something that wasn't a rock or a bed. His mouth fell open when a bowl was shoved at him and it was full of something fluffy and white-ish that could have been mashed potatoes but could have been anything for all he cared. He used the spoon to serve himself some and passed the bowl. He took the next bowl (some kind of green tuber) and got some of that, and then Henks came around and put a large knife-full of some kind of meat that Rodney had seen turning on the spit and that's when his mouth started to water.

Someone else was pouring water from a pitcher into wooden cups in front of each kehk and Rodney didn't know whether to cry or drink, so he took a piece of the meat (it was a little pink, like pork), and brought it to his mouth and tasted the salt and the grease and felt his whole body sigh. Then a plate of what looked like Second Camp bread, all sliced and buttered, floated in front of him and Rodney grabbed a slice and crammed it in his mouth.

After a second of chewing, he thought about John, and felt guilty for enjoying his food so much. What if they didn't feed John properly? What if they didn't really look after him, what if they just let him linger all sick and feverish and just dumped his body through the ring instead of taking any trouble to really heal him?

Rodney squeezed his eyes shut; the bread and butter in his mouth suddenly didn't taste all that good. But then he made himself think. Jex and Jud were healers and, more importantly, they were also kehks. Kehks did what they were told. They would take care of John because they'd been told to, and the first chance Rodney got, he would sneak out and check up on them, and if John was conscious, he would talk to him, and reassure him, that Rodney had things all worked out, and as soon as John was better, and able to walk, they were getting the hell out of here.

He made himself finish eating, but it wasn't as good as the first bite.


It took hours to wash up, but there was plenty of cold, clean water, and even real soap, which was powder in a bowl that bubbled up when water hit it. Rodney washed and dried and helped sweep the floor while someone else banked the fire, and kehks hustled around the kitchen, looking pleased with themselves at the end of the working day. Which, even though they were kehks, why not? They had someplace warm and dry to be all day, and there was plenty of food. He'd not seen any kehk sneaking any bites, but he presumed, as healthy as they all looked, that Henks fed them regularly. So at least there was that. Rodney would work and be fed and John would get better--

"Done," said Henks. "Derk, show Rodney where to go."

A kehk came up, presumably Derk, and Rodney took off his soiled apron and laid it on the pile on the table for someone to wash and followed Derk and the other kehks out into the night.

It was raining, but after the heat and closeness of the kitchen, it almost felt good. They all hustled across the compound and into a barracks that was laid out exactly like the one in the Third Camp. But again, like the stockade, the barracks looked new and clean and the wooden floor was swept and the roof didn't seem to be leaking and right by the door as they came in was a small potbellied stove.

The air was warm, and Rodney opened his mouth in surprise and was about to start venting that if they treated the kehks of Third Camp this well, they'd get a whole lot more out of them, but maybe that was the point. The Third Camp seemed more like a prison for criminals, and this, well, maybe the kehks were just workers, and happy to be here rather than there.

"This is your bunk," said Derk. He let Rodney to the far end of the barracks and pointed at the lower bunk right up against the wall. "It's farthest from the heat, but then, you're new. You'll share it with your friend, when he is well."

Rodney nodded. It was still a hell of a lot warmer than any spot on any bunk in the Third Camp so he wasn't complaining.

"Washroom's through that door."

Derk pointed, and Rodney stuck his head in. It was a washroom/latrine, just like in the Third Camp, with three open holes in a plank of wood, but the smell didn't seem as bad, and, as well, there was a large metal sink with an actual pump to wash up with. There was no hot water, of course, but then, this was Skandar and they didn't seem to believe in that.

Derk went towards the front of the barracks and Rodney looked at his bunk and saw that there was the same, straw-stuffed pallet, but there were two (clean) woolen blankets and a pillow and he took a breath and tried to think positive thoughts. The extra blanket would be good for John, and he'd make John take the pillow. He'd insist on it.

All around him, kehks were lounging, some in front of the pot bellied stove, soaking in the heat as they chatted, others were sitting on the floor in front of the bunks, exchanging chips of wood as they rolled cubes on the floor and it took Rodney a second to realize they might be playing the Skandar version of dice. He didn't play dice himself, but he recognized the hand motions, and thought it was strange that while kehks suffered in the Third Camp in miserable conditions, these kehks were actually relaxing, chatting with each other, winding down from their day of work. It was still a prison, though, because they couldn't just leave. Just like Rodney couldn't leave.

He took his shoes and socks off and shoved them to the end of the bed, and thought that maybe he didn't need to take off his clothes to dry them. He pulled up his collar to sniff at it, and while it was smoky, it was dry. He thought about going into the washroom to wash up, take some of the day's sweat off, but he realized he just missed John, and while doing normal (well, more normal) things might make him feel normal, he just wanted John there beside him.

He made himself lay back on the pillow and pulled up the two blankets, which felt like an embarrassment of richness at this point, and closed his eyes.

Sleep. He needed to sleep, and get up in the morning and work, and find a way to visit John in the healing house. He did not need to panic or worry, because that wouldn't help either of them. He needed to keep his mind focused on doing what was necessary to get them out of there.

Okay then. Sleep first. And in the morning, everything else. Except it was difficult to just do this, to just fall alseep. In the warmth of the kitchen, his whole body had loosened up, and he'd moved around a lot, so now that he'd settled down, his welts were singing in a nasty, off-key way, and the blow to the head he'd gotten earlier throbbed and pounded, no matter which way he put his head on the pillow. Worst of all, he missed John more than he thought he would, probably more than he should.

It was more than having a warm body nearby, though that was nice. It was having John nearby that made the difference. Having someone who he knew and who knew him, someone who cared whether he suffered from caffeine withdrawal, or whether he had blisters or if he'd gotten smacked around that day.

And more than that, he knew it was the invisible energy that clicked between them, which when he looked at John and John looked at him, was there, a crackling thing that connected them, that now that John was gone, he missed so much, his whole body ached. It was as though, when the guard, rough and uncaring, had pulled John out of his arms, part of him had been hacked away. He could still feel himself bleeding, somewhere deep inside.


Rodney used the back of his hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead, and laid the knife down on the table next to the cutting board. He'd spent all morning scrubbing the dining room floor and hauling dirty water to throw in the ditch that ran alongside the stockade wall. He'd carried in wood from the woodlot and then he'd cut a mountain of everything, all the alien versions of tubers and onions and something that looked like a carrot but tasted like a radish. He wiped his hands on his apron, and checked for Henks.

He'd eaten breakfast with the kehks that morning, and worked, and then eaten lunch. It was surprising how much better he felt with only three good meals under his belt, but he felt up to it, to sneaking out, to finding John.

You didn't mess with Henks (he'd beaten a kehk that morning), and Rodney wasn't about draw attention to himself, but the prep work was done and things seemed to be slowing down. There was no time like this time. He edged towards the back door and slipped out.

Then he ran.

It was raining and cold, but he didn't care. The mud flew under his heels, and he raced across the compound and banged on the door to the healing house, looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was following him or watching.

No one answered his knock, so he opened the door and went in. The fire was lit, flames danced along the wooden walls, and there was a low desk next to it with what looked like an open journal on it that someone had been writing in.

Beyond that was a curtain made of thick wool, and as Rodney pulled it back, he saw John, shielded from the drafts by the curtain, and wrapped in blankets. There were lumps all around his body, and Rodney reached out to touch them and realized they were hot bricks or stones wrapped in more wool, keeping John warm while he slept. The bed had slightly raised sides, and it was all Rodney could do not to crawl in next to him, all that warmth, and lay his head down and just rest for a minute.

But that would look strange and Rodney didn't have the time to tarry, he had to check in on John and then hurry back to help with the washing up, and the sweeping of the floor and the mopping, all of which he was glad to do, and all on account of John opening his eyes, when he heard Rodney come in, when Rodney pulled back the curtain and tucked it back on a little nail.

"Hey, lazy," said Rodney, trying to sound scathing and critical, but it was so hard, when John, not dead, smiled at him with sleepy eyes. He stepped forward, and touched the edge of John's face, which was warm to the touch, but not sweaty. Then he pulled his hand away. "When are you going to get us out of here?"

"Any second now," said John, keeping his voice low, sounding tired. "I'll just jump out of bed and get right on that."

There was low croak when John talked, but it was so much better than it had been just yesterday, when they pulled John from his arms.

"Can you get me some water?" asked John and Rodney leaped to do it, his heart bursting with gladness to do it. He found a pitcher and one of those wooden cups and filled it and held it to John's mouth. He cupped his hand around the back of John's head and lifted it so John could drink.

"I'm not an invalid," said John, growling.

"Actually," said Rodney, "you are. So drink this and stop fussing. I'm only holding your head so you can keep your invalid hands beneath the blanket, and so that you don't spill." He bent close and watched John swallow a little at a time. "Then, when you get out, you can come up with a brilliant plan to get out of here. Did you know I have blisters on my blisters?"

John shook his head a little, but looked interested, though Rodney knew he was just being nice, letting Rodney continue in the same vein.

"I have dishpan hands and washerwoman's elbow. Did you know I scrubbed the floor this morning? On my hands and knees, thank you very much. Henks, the cook, keeps a clean kitchen, and it's all based on my sweat and backbreaking labor. But do I get a share in the credit? No, I do not, and though it may surprise you--"

John lifted his chin, and Rodney pulled the cup away.

"This is still half full," he said, keeping his mouth open for more complaining.

"Just taking a break to breathe," said John. There was a little flush to his cheeks now, with the warmth of the room.

"Well, that's fine," said Rodney. He balanced the cup on his palm and thought about the slave labor that had produced it, and thought about scrubbing floors, and how, being here, didn't seem so odd, but that it would seem odd, once they got home to Atlantis. For who would have figured that Rodney would have made such a fantastic kitchen assistant? "But when you're up and about, you can take over being team leader, because--"

"What do you mean, take over? I'm always the team leader, Rodney." John's brow furrowed.

"Well, you were pretty out of it," said Rodney, his mouth and his brain racing neck and neck, trying to figure out what he should say, and shouldn't say. "I had to make decisions for us both, and since you couldn't, and I could, that made me team lead, right? Well, I did what I thought you would do."

"What I would do?" asked John. His voice rose a little, and he seemed like he wanted to get out of bed, so Rodney brought the wooden cup to his mouth and tried to make him drink some water, but John jerked his chin away. "What did you do, Rodney?"

"Well, I got us here, didn't I?" Rodney asked, spreading his hand to indicate the healing house. "Got you the treatment you needed, right? So--"

"Yeah," said John. He drew the word out slowly, and Rodney could almost see the cells in his brain start to sit up and take notes. "About that. What did you--how did you get us here? I gave orders for you to let them take me, and last I remember, I was collapsing in a pile of mud, and you were--it didn't look pretty. Now it does. Care to explain?"

John had that look, the Commander of Everything look, the one that told Rodney that John felt he was owed something, like an explanation maybe, and that Rodney (or whomever it was aimed at) had just better come up with the goods.

"I--" Rodney stopped and tried not to look away from John for too long, but sick or not, that green glare was firmly in place. He had to make it look feasible, but not so easy that John's suspicions would be raised. He realized, and not for the first time, that John would not sanction what Rodney had signed up for, even if he, John, would have done the same thing in Rodney's place. "Evidently," he said, trying to sound casual and confused, as he usually was by local customs. "Evidently, it's quite the status symbol to have a houseboy of sorts, especially in the Second Camp."


"Someone to do, oh, house-wife things, like build fires and make tea, and generally make myself useful. I have the look," Rodney paused to wave at his face. "One of the guards liked the look of me and we made a deal. I make myself useful, and we get to be in the Second Camp. You got medical treatment, such as it was, and I'm going to be a houseboy."

"You'd make a great houseboy, I always thought," said John, trying on a smirk.

John's smirk faded and he looked thoughtful, but Rodney figured he was well and truly distracted by the thought of Rodney waiting on someone hand and foot, and so Rodney lifted John's head and tipped the cup so John could drink the rest of the water.

As John licked his lips, Rodney took his hand away from John's neck and put the empty wooden cup on the table next to the bed, and suddenly felt shaky. He didn't want to leave John here, but he had to get back before he got himself in trouble.


Rodney blinked and looked up, and tried to hold still but he was shaking so hard he was going to come apart.

"Hey." John slid his hand out from under the blankets and Rodney took it in both of his and hung on to it, leaning in close to catch the warmth of John's small smile and the light in his eyes.

"You did good, okay? I'm alive and you're alive, and we'll get out of here. Just--you gotta just hang in there. I heard Jax say he'd kick me out tomorrow on account of how disgustingly healthy I am."

"Okay," Rodney said, looking at John's face, seeing how pale he was. But John obviously wanted him to pull it together and not fall apart, so Rodney took a breath and straightened his shoulders and patted John's hand and made himself let go. "I have to go, but when you get released, if I'm not here, I'll be in the dining hall. It's the biggest building, all brown--"

"Everything's brown here," said John, interrupting.

"And ask for Henks or for me. Think you can remember all that?"

"Yes, Rodney, I can remember it." John must have been trying to sound annoyed, but a large jaw-cracking yawn interrupted it and Rodney smiled and tugged at the blanket a little, when John wasn't looking.

He took the curtain off of its nail and slipped out the door, patting himself on the back for a clean escape as he crossed the compound. John had barely wanted to know about Rodney's deal, and probably didn't suspect anything, and certainly wouldn't be curious to continue to pry or even to ask around. They were safe. Now, if only Rodney could manage, when the time came, to touch another man's dick without wanting to barf, they'd be home free in no time.

Although all of that fell apart as he got back to the kitchen. Henks was standing there, and saw Rodney come in.

"Get over here, kehk," said Henks, and a few nearby kehks scattered away, suddenly busy with other tasks around the kitchen.

Rodney did as he was told, swallowing the huge lump in his throat, fighting the terror racing around in his stomach.

"Did you go visit the other kehk in the healing house?" asked Henks.

Rodney was surprised that Henks even took the time to ask before laying into him. Plus there was no reason to lie (it wouldn't help), so he nodded. Henks came up close to him, and the kitchen was almost silent as Henks glared. It was all Rodney could do to stand his ground; running away wouldn't get him very far anyway.

"Attendant or no attendant," aid Henks, very slowly and clearly. "You pull another stunt like that and I will have you on your knees with your shirt up, you understand?"

Rodney nodded, hoping his surprise didn't show; he expected Henks to beat him just like he was any kehk, but apparently being Ghent's attendant brought with it some additional privileges.

Then Henks made a fist and clipped Rodney under the chin with it, hard enough to jolt Rodney's whole body and make his eyes water. Obviously there, the bruise wouldn't show, but Henks was pissed off enough to do it again, so Rodney nodded as fast as he could.

"Go clean pots," said Henks, growling, and Rodney leaped to grab an apron and do what he was told. Nobody spoke to him or looked him in the eye, and yes, being an attendant made you special, but he was all alone here.

And that night, with his jaw sore, Rodney curled up beneath the blankets, to shut out the light and the movement and the kehks resting after their day's labor and hugged himself and let himself miss John.


In the morning, Rodney made himself be attentive, made himself work hard, and not shirk any task. He jumped when commanded and watched the door with one eye to see when John would walk though it. But John never did.

During the mid-morning floor scrubbing, someone came up and tapped him on the shoulder. Rodney sat back on his heels, scrub brush in hand and looked up. It was Henks.

"Go get the other kehk. Show him the barracks, and then both of you come back here and get to work."

Henks looked like he didn't enjoy saying it, didn't enjoy offering Rodney permission to actually leave the kitchen when there was work to be done, but it seemed that this was part of the deal, that Rodney's position, and John's connection with Rodney, also offered John something.

Rodney stood up and hauled the bucket to one side and laid the brush on top and didn't say anything to Henks. What was there to say? But he nodded his thanks and raced out the door, not even stopping to take off his apron, which might make John laugh when he saw it.

It wasn't raining, but the ground was still a little muddy, but Rodney ran as fast as he could anyway and just halfway across the compound he spotted John coming out of the healing house, carrying a small bundle. He was pale and his hair stuck up all over his head as he looked down to close the door behind him and Rodney careened into him and wrapped his arms around John and hugged him tight. It was nothing they'd ever do on Atlantis, but Rodney didn't care.

"Hey, hey," said John, but he didn't pull away or stop Rodney. Instead his arms came up, and he hugged Rodney back. John's body felt so thin to him, but other than that, he wasn't burning with fever or shaking with chills. It was the best thing ever, having John in his arms.

Then John tugged away a little bit, still holding on, looking at Rodney, and Rodney knew he was just about to break down like a little kid, just a little bit, and he couldn't remember ever being so overwhelmed.

"I missed you," he said to John's unspoken question. "I missed sleeping with you." The last came out breathy and low, and he couldn't believe he'd said it, and waited, wincing, for John to give the little speech about it all being just buddies, but he couldn't help it. The world was a much bigger and colder place without John at his side.

But John looked him right in the eye, mouth thinning a little bit, and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Me too." And for John, that was a lot, considering. In his eyes was something warm and still and it calmed Rodney just to see it there.

Then, as if to cover up this bit of sentiment, John gave him a smirk and looked him up and down and asked, "Is that an apron you're wearing? Are you, what, the cook now?"

"Chief Bottle Washer, actually," said Rodney, smiling. Yes, mocking was good, coming from John it was always good. "But we have to get back, what do you have there?"

They started walking to the barracks and John lifted the little bundle. "It's some rub for my chest that Jax used, like Vicks? Only it smells like swamp. And the other stuff is a drink, kvass, which tastes pretty bad, but it seems to be good for you."

Rodney took the bundle so that John wouldn't even have to carry that much, and led the way to the barracks.

"Our bunk is the furthest from the fire," he said as he opened the door and led the way to the back, "but it's still pretty--" He waved his hand over the room, because he knew that John would see it right away. It was a far cry from the Third Camp, much warmer and dryer, though. Still--"You can still get sicker of course, with all the filth and the lice, no doubt, and aliens who don't know how to cover their mouths when they cough, but at least--"

John took the bundle from him and looked at the room but he barely had a glance for it. His attention, after he checked out the single door to the washroom and the lack of windows, came right back on Rodney.

"It's swank, Rodney," said John, with a little smile. "Practically the Ritz Carlton in comparison to the other place."

Rodney opened his mouth, thinking for some reason that he wanted to apologize for the three-hole bench in the washroom that served as a toilet and emptied out onto the hillside below, the common washbasin and washcloth and towel (one each for ten kehks!) and to the fact that their bunk was at the other end of the room from the warm stove, but John lifted his hand.

"Will you relax?" said John. "It's fine, way better than the Third Camp, you did great, and while we're at it--"

Rodney was surprised when John bent low to take a little bottle out of the bundle. He was happy, so happy to have John there, whole and in one piece, but his mind ran rabbit-confused, thinking of Ghent and how he was going to explain--

"Here, try some," said John. He stood up, lifting a small jug in his hands. "It's kvass and here's some of that alien Vicks that smells like swamp gas."

Rodney took a sniff of the bottle as John opened it. It smelled like sauerkraut and pickles, and when he tasted it, it was like drinking thick pickle juice. It raced through his system and he could feel it giving him energy.

"So," said John, watching him. "Did you check out the gates, how many guards, what are their patterns?"

Rodney felt his shoulders hunch, and he shook his head. He'd been so busy being worried about doing what he thought John would do that he'd forgotten to do any reconnaissance work.

"Huh," said John, sounding stern. "I asked you to keep an eye out, but okay. You were probably busy staying alive and stuff."

He didn't sound too mad, but then he narrowed his eyes and tipped his head, casually.

"Let's get one thing straight here, Rodney."

Rodney nodded.

"I'm conscious now, back in team leader status, so you don't need to worry any more. Other than about working in an alien gulag, not of your own choosing. Okay?"

Rodney nodded. His throat was too full to say anything, but then John smiled and Rodney thought that it might be okay now.

"We really have to go, John," he said. "It's better than Third Camp, but they don't let you slack."

John nodded and put the lid back on the bottle of kvass and tucked everything under the pillow. He followed where Rodney led and when they got back to the kitchen, Henks took one look at him and put him to work, basting the meat on the spit. Which didn't bother Rodney at all.

There was a little seat by the fireplace, and the baster could sit sometimes, and still stay on task. Besides, it was warm, and from where Rodney was cutting vegetables (someone had finished with the floor scrubbing), he could keep his eye on John. Could look over every half minute, and catch John looking back at him and smile, and he knew that everything was going to be alright.


They worked all day like that, apart, but never too far, and Rodney felt his shoulders come down, and something in him lighten, especially when they sat down to eat their noonday meal together. John's hands were a little unsteady as he helped himself to alien mashed potatoes, but his expression when he looked at Rodney was like a little kid being allowed to have all the candy they wanted.

"Holy cow, Rodney," said John, under his breath. "You really do know how to swing a deal."

As Rodney watched John help himself to bread and butter, his heart sank. Yes, he was a good deal maker, but one day, John would find out, and even though it was exactly the kind of deal John would make, in his place, he knew that John would be very, very unhappy with him.

After the meal, the rest of the day flew by, and the work never seemed so easy. It was just as their supper was being laid out on the table against the wall, when Henks came up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Ghent wants you. His is the last apartment along on the second floor of the great hall."

Everything went cold and Rodney made himself not look at John, who he could feel was watching him. He'd not done a very good job not thinking about Ghent's deal and the terms, and now the time had come, and Henks was talking, but his voice came from far away.

"I don't know how to get there in the dark, and it's not even supper yet," said Rodney. "Maybe I just better go tomorrow, when it's light."

"Ghent has duties when it's light," said Henks. "And you have to go. You're his attendant."

It sounded much worse than houseboy did, and Rodney's armpits began to sweat.

"Derk," said Henks, over his shoulder. "Take Rodney to the great hall. Ghent wants him."

Derk was one of Henks' favorite kitchen hands, and by the way Henks treated him, Derk was next in line to inherit Henks knives, if Henks ever dropped dead, which wasn't likely. He nodded, and doffed his apron and handed it to a lesser kitchen hand and led Rodney outside without a word.

Rodney followed him and didn't look back to signal a goodbye with his eyes to John. He was just going to do this thing and then come back and pretend he had just been doing everyday, ordinary, unassuming houseboy tasks, and not--

Rodney stopped himself from thinking and followed Derk across the compound, to the large, grey stone structure, two stories tall, that he'd seen a lot of people, guards and kehks both, going into and coming out of. Some of the guards carried papers and ledgers, so maybe there were offices here; certainly the best food was always delivered here so the guards and all the higher ranks never even had to put a single toe in the rainy weather. So, like, not ever.

Derk led the way through the main hall, which was lined with wood and stone and clean as a whistle. Rodney knew exactly how much elbow grease went into keeping a place that clean, at least now he did, so he was careful to wipe his feet on the mat and to not scuff the floor before climbing the stone staircase one flight up. Being that careful also kept him from thinking too much about where he was going.

At the top of the staircase, Derk pointed to the end, where a single lamp was lit. "It's the one at the end," said Derk. "Just knock, he's expecting you."

Then Derk left Rodney alone in the half-darkness, the silence of the hallway filled with the pounding of Rodney's heart. Ghent was expecting Rodney, and Rodney didn't know what to expect.

Rodney didn't like the unknown, he liked adventure sure, and discovering strange new worlds, but he didn't like going in unprepared. Jeannie was still teasing him over stories of his frantic night before first grade, when he was sure he was going to fail and stayed up way too late trying to memorize the little speller and the little math book, even though his parents had tried to assure him he was going to do just fine. And he had, but it was, he had been sure, due entirely to the fact of his pre-preparedness.

But here? There was no book to study, no online reference guide for him to browse through, while drinking cup after cup of coffee to assuage his nerves. There was just the door to Ghent's room that Rodney now stood in front of, his hand raised, ready to knock, except that he couldn't make himself do it.

The door opened anyway, and Ghent stood there, still broad shouldered in spite of the fact that he'd doffed his heavy great coat. He was still miles tall and looked down his nose at Rodney as Rodney tried not to start talking nervously. Then Ghent stepped back, and gestured for Rodney to come in, and when Rodney did, he shut the door and locked it.

The room was made of stone walls and a wooden floor. The ceiling was wood as well, and Rodney made himself think of the hours of polishing and dusting that went into its upkeep. Then he looked at the fireplace at the far end, with the clean, black grate, and the bright flames, and the narrow stone hearth and the glossy elbow high mantle. Well, elbow high if you were Ghent, that is.

Next to the fireplace was a low table with the tea things. Adjacent to it was a desk, with a journal and pens and ink, that looked like Ghent had been sitting at it, working, when Rodney had somehow announced that he was at the door. Next to the desk was a tall wardrobe, and a rack to hang things on. And on the opposite wall, taking up the whole thing, was the bed. Rodney didn't look at it, not once.

"What would you like me to do first?" asked Rodney. His throat felt scratchy and he thought he sounded like he was yelling to overcome it, but Ghent didn't seem alarmed by it.

"Tend the fire," said Ghent, "and make some tea."

Rodney tried to breathe slowly in and out; maybe that's all Ghent wanted, all he ever wanted and Rodney had mistaken the word attendant, which maybe didn't mean anything other than the obvious thing.

Rodney went over to the fireplace and knelt down, and thought, not for the first time, just how much kneeling there was and how much the aliens of Skandar seemed to enjoy the submission of another. And just how much his knees hated doing it. Or maybe it was just the hearthstone, hard and polished, that made them ache so much.

He tried to convince himself he wasn't shaking, hard, just like someone had put him in a medical agitator and pressed the on button. It made him clumsy as he tried to re-arrange the logs that didn't, at this point, really need re-arranging. As the sparks flew around his hand, he jerked it back and felt Ghent watching, probably enjoying, him struggle before the final pounce.

Rodney concentrated. He was good at that, could squeeze out the clamor of the lab, even at the noisiest of times, and focus on what was ostensibly (always) the most important work: his. And so, now to the fire, he applied the same.

He moved the logs, shoved the ashes away with the small iron shovel and then laid more logs on. The fire sparked prettily; it would have relaxed even Teyla, who had once admitted to Rodney that she sometimes missed, in Atlantis's cool, clean halls, the act of sitting in the dirt next to a fire ringed with stones.

"Tea," said Ghent, so yes he was watching, checking Rodney's progress, which so did not help. Why didn't Ghent just get it over with already?

Rodney moved to the small table and found the pitcher of water and filled the fire-blackened kettle on the hob with it and thought this might be more peaceful, entirely more pleasant, if this was all he had to do. While the water boiled, Rodney fussed with the fire some more, keeping his back to Ghent the entire time. Knowing that if he turned to look and found Ghent staring, he was going to shake so hard, he would come apart.

He concentrated instead on putting the tea leaves from the small box in the pot and then the boiling water. When it came time to pour, he was surprised to find a tall ceramic cup instead of a wooden one, that he almost dropped it and wouldn't that be a funny story to tell back on Atlantis - McKay McFumbleFingers gets himself beaten because he can't hold a cup with two hands.

He couldn't find a filter for the leaves, so he improvised with a cloth napkin (that some kehk had scrubbed, no doubt) and poured the tea through that. Then he added the brown sugar and white cream and stood up fast enough to make himself dizzy. But there was no help for it; it didn't take forever to make tea, and Ghent knew that.

When he walked over and handed the cup to Ghent, Ghent took it as his due, as if Rodney being there, waiting on him hand and foot, was an everyday event.

Ghent took a sip then jerked his head back to look at the tea.

"What did you do to this tea?"

Rodney froze. "I don't--I just--" Had he fucked up already?

"Where are the leaves?" Ghent was looking at the tea as though there were something missing, and Rodney looked at it too. Now the reason for the lack of filter became clear.

"I took them out, that's how we do it where I'm from--look--I can put them back in if you want me to--"

Ghent took another swallow of the tea and smiled at Rodney. "No, I like it this way. You shall always make my tea and I shall set a new trend." Ghent almost smacked his lips with pleasure. Then he set the cup on the desk with a click and grabbed Rodney by the arm.

Rodney choked on his own breath, and tried not to pull away, but didn't quite make it.

Ghent's eyes narrowed and Rodney looked away.

"You said you were willing."

Rodney nodded, gulping, trying not to pull. "Willing, yes, very willing, never welsched on a deal in my life, I'm an honorable man, you see, so yes."

Ghent looked at him for a second, mouth open as though we were trying to catch up with all this.

"But not…" Rodney waved at the room, an empty gesture that Ghent probably wouldn't understand, so he added, "Not experienced."

"Ah," said Ghent, not at all displeased. "A virgin."

"With men," Rodney added, to clarify, though it didn't really make any difference whether Ghent was male or female, whether Rodney had zero real-life experience, or whether he was a grade A tramp who'd had all the boys in Atlantis.

None of that mattered, because this was non-consensual sex, at best, and rape when you got right down to it, which they were, apparently, just about to do. Rodney was a scientist, and far too much of a gentleman besides, to condone anything that smacked of it. Except here he was, about to do just that and all for the care of one man who was, incidentally, not himself.

Ghent stood up and reached for Rodney and grabbed him by the arm and pulled hard, bringing Rodney close enough to smell that Ghent had washed some of the day's sweat off him. Rodney squawked and tried not to pull away, but that just made Ghent's grip circle tighter on his arm.

"You said willing," said Ghent.

"Y-yes," said Rodney. "Willing, that's what I said."

"Then why do you act like a child? Even children know how to attend better than this."

Rodney felt his whole body freeze, and he looked up at Ghent, right into his eyes, all the venom he felt, right at that moment, pouring out as he opened his mouth. "You use kids for this? You've got to be kidding me, and you think I'll let you--" He tried to yank his arm free, but Ghent, well fed, well rested, was in charge, and his fingers were iron on Rodney's arm.

"What strange thoughts you have. Not our own; only children of kehks," said Ghent. "But of course you are not from around here, otherwise you would know that."

He used his other hand to press on Rodney's shoulder, and Rodney couldn't do anything but fall to his knees, knocking them hard against the stone. He felt hot all over, and the pounding of his heart fought with the leaping in his stomach. He kept his eyes down, stared at the floor, his eyes burning.

"You will service me know, kehk."

Rodney shook his head. "I don't service pedophiles," he said, snapping.

"You will service me," said Ghent in exactly the same tone. "Or your friend will. I have a report from Jax, that even though he was released from the healing house, his breathing is still labored from camp fever, so it would not be good for him to strain his lungs in the least bit."

He felt like a spear had pierced right through him at the thought of it, of John being dragged in here for this. Not only would it kill John to attend Ghent, he would then know what Rodney was going to be doing, and he'd be furious.

But this was the kind of thing that John did. He'd mentioned it once, off-handedly, that he'd done some horrible thing in order to keep Rodney (or Teyla or Ronon) from having to suffer that horrible thing, and he'd done it more than once, the self-sacrificing, insufferable--but how did he manage to live with the feeling, that someone would get hurt because of what he'd done or not done? The very thought of it was breaking Rodney's heart.

"I can call for him now," said Ghent, actually letting Rodney go.

"No!" Rodney shouted and he reached up blindly to grab the end of Ghent's shirt. "I'll do it. Whatever, I will. Just tell me what--"

"You will service me, kehk." It almost sounded ceremonial, the way Ghent kept saying it, and Rodney looked up and tried to decipher the look on Ghent's face. It looked pleased and calm, and then Ghent made a little motion towards his trousers, trying to be helpful, Rodney supposed, though it only meant one thing, that Ghent wanted a blow job. Which was probably far lower on the totem pole of nasty things Rodney'd done ever to save a life. Or would it? Lots of people gave blow jobs, though not to an alien with a penis of unknown size and proportion and what if the semen burned like acid--

"Now, kehk."

With numb fingers, Rodney gathered the front of Ghent's trousers and started undoing the buttons. Buttons, of course, not a zipper in sight, nothing to make this easy. He pushed the ends of Ghent's shirt out of the way and rose up on his knees. He'd gotten a blow job in his time, one or two, along the way through some fumblingly bad sex, so he knew the mechanics of it, how it worked.

Ghent's penis was hot and large in Rodney's palm, smelling no more and no less like clean sweat and skin. He focused on it for a second, thankfully seeing what looked like a human penis. Rodney gave it a rub, trying to get used to being on his knees like this when Ghent grabbed the back of Rodney's head and yanked him forward; Rodney nose buried deep in Ghent's alien pubic hair that didn't feel so alien.

"When I said service, kehk," said Ghent, his voice dangerously low, "I meant service."

Rodney opened his mouth and shoved the penis in it, making his tongue touch the hot, hard, curved surface of it, squinting his eyes tight till they were almost shut, and gripping the root with his fist. He wasn't going to be good at this, he hated it already, and the only thing keeping him going was the thought of John never ever having to do this, and never, ever finding out.

He forced saliva into his mouth, and tried to moisten the surface, and closed his mouth around it, creating a seal. That's what girls (two) had done to him in the past, their motions hesitant and light, and he remembered wanting more force, more pressure, so that's what he gave Ghent. Up and down, wet and hot and sloppy, and he had no idea what alien scorecard Ghent might use, though, being Ghent, he was likely to tell Rodney right away if he was displeased.

"Better," said Ghent. "You have a hot mouth, kehk."

A hot mouth? What the hell did that mean? Didn't matter, it meant that he was probably doing it right, and yes, Ghent was rocking back and forth a little now, making low-pitched noises that floated into Rodney's ears like badly played music; Ghent was enjoying it, sure, but it was a blow job bought and paid for with threats and fear, and Rodney couldn't imagine how it could bring any real pleasure.

"Faster, kehk," said Ghent, barely audible. "Faster."

Rodney leaned into it and went faster, ripping Ghent's penis in and out of his mouth, squeezing the root, trying to catch his breath. Women did this, and men too, for thousands of years, although most of them had some feelings for the person they were doing it to. Or maybe they didn't. He was thinking too much and slowing down, so he sped up and sucked and squeezed, and kept his eyes shut, and all of a sudden he felt Ghent's penis coiling back like a tube of fuel about to blow, and at the first pulse of semen against the back of his throat, he yanked his head back, and felt the hot string shoot past his face.

"No!" said Ghent. He smacked Rodney across the face hard enough to send him to the floor, and looked ridiculous while his penis pulsed and shot into the open air to spill on the gleaming stones. "You are to swallow when you service me. Always!"

Rodney glared, his face on fire, and leaned over to clear his throat and spit on the stones. The spalt landed all red and white and Rodney figured the inside of his mouth had cut open at Ghent's blow.

But he didn't care; he was sick of it already, and opened his mouth to start yelling, when Ghent did up his trousers and marched to the fireplace, to unhook a curl of leather that had been hanging there. Rodney'd assumed it was some type of decoration, but no, it was a strap, like the guards wore, and he almost fell back on his ass trying to make it to the door, scrabbling across the floor on his hands and heels till he could turn and grab for the doorknob. But Ghent was on his feet, and angry, and much faster, and shoved Rodney back from the door.

"Down, kehk," he said.

Rodney was already down, but he knew what it meant, what Ghent was ordering him to do. He'd just submitted to giving Ghent a blow job, so he'd be damned if he was going to submit to this--

Ghent kicked him in the stomach, and when Rodney curled on his side, gasping, Ghent pulled up his shirt, leaving Rodney's skin to prickle in the warm air. Then the strap whistled in the air, and Rodney thought he heard the cutting into his skin before he felt it, icy cold and then burning hot, and it took all the breath out of his lungs.

The strap was nasty, leaving trails like electric shocks, the kind the crystals could give you if you inserted them wrong, a jolt right up his spine. And Ghent was mad, too, Rodney could hear him growling with his rage, it could only get worse, so Rodney stayed curled on the floor and didn't try to get away anymore and let himself be whipped. Just held on to his sides and twitched with each blow and ducked his head and counted the blows and felt the heat behind his eyes, and under his skin, and everywhere.

Then he heard a sound and a thunk and thought that maybe the whipping was over, and that Ghent had thrown the strap in the corner. He opened his eyes, squinting. That's what had happened, and now Ghent stood over him, panting.

"You are the worst attendant, kehk!" shouted Ghent, and Rodney agreed, thinking that maybe it would be over now, that Ghent would go get John instead and leave Rodney in peace, though he hated himself for even thinking it. "Tell me why I should keep you, why I shouldn't toss your mate through the Ring!!"

It was like being hit in the heart with an iron ball, heavy and sharp, and Rodney took a breath and tried to speak, but his eyes were watering and his hands shook. He couldn't even sit up.

"Because I'll keep trying," he said, hurrying. "I'll keep trying till I get it right, over and over, as many times as you want, only please--"

John would never collapse into crying, not like this. No. He'd sit up, whipping or no whipping, and spit right into Ghent's face and tell him to go fuck himself. Then he'd run out of the room and grab Rodney and head for the gate. So that's what Rodney should do.

Only he couldn't catch his breath, and couldn't resist as Ghent pulled him to his feet, one hand clamped to the back of Rodney's head. He was close enough to kiss, and Rodney almost hoped he would, then Rodney could give him a taste of what it tasted like to try and swallow spit and semen and blood all mixed together. It was making his stomach churn. But Ghent only looked at Rodney with narrowed eyes.

"I'll give you plenty of practice at servicing me, I think, kehk," said Ghent. "Only now, I'm spent for the evening, so you are dismissed."

He flung Rodney away from him, as though Rodney suddenly disgusted him, and Rodney stumbled to the door and opened it and fled down the hall as fast as he could. He hoped it was raining buckets by the time he got outside, because then the rain would wash him clean of all the semen and fear and sweat and he'd pretend his back didn't hurt and John would never know. I will do this so you won't have to suffer that. Which is what John would do.

It wasn't raining, but the air hung damp and chill like a pall, and Rodney pushed through it as fast as he could, lungs straining, heart pounding, and how was he going to look John in the eye after this? But even as he struggled with this idea, he saw the kehks come pilling out of the kitchen on their way to the barracks as night fell. He saw John in the line, his dark hair standing out among the brown-haired kehks, and he stayed where he was and watched John walk up to him and thought, okay, yes, because this was right. He'd done what he had to do and would keep on doing it till they got out of there, and John didn't need to be bothered with any of it.

"How was the houseboy stuff?" John asked, and Rodney nodded, making himself relax as he started walking next to John. It was dark enough so that maybe John wouldn't see the bruise forming alongside Rodney's face.

"Oh, you know," he said, waving his had. "I just made myself useful. There's tea and toast on the fire, and all kinds of stressful stuff."

"Stressful," said John, his eyebrows rising as he looked at Rodney. "Sure, making tea, very stressful. If you say so."

They followed the line of kehks into the barracks and Rodney watched John's face. He looked tired, but he looked okay, and his eyebrows rose as they passed the glowing pot bellied stove on the way to their bunk.

"I thought that was just for show," John said.

"Nope," said Rodney. "It's nice and cozy in here at night." He led John to the back of the washroom, and opened the door. "It's a little better than Third Camp, but still no--"

"It's fine, Rodney," said John. He walked right up to one of the wooden holes and pulled himself out to pee, only a little unsteady, and Rodney followed suit, staring at the wooden walls and took a deep breath and tried not to think about it.

He and John washed up. Rodney demonstrated the pump, while John waggled his eyebrows, being all impressed, and then cupped his hand under the clean stream of water to drink while Rodney pumped. Then he pumped for Rodney to drink. Rodney swished the water in his mouth before he swallowed but the taste of Ghent was mostly gone and really, it was over now, and he wasn't going to think about it any more. Not when he had John near him and they had this minute to themselves.

Then they went back out to the main room, and Rodney kept close to John as they returned to their bunk.

"So," asked John. "Is there anything you'd like to tell me?"

John sat down on the edge of the bunk to take off his dusty shoes as if he'd not just asked what he'd asked. Rodney didn't know what to say. Of course, he had a lot on his mind, John's health for one and Ghent for another, and their hopefully imminent escape. There. He'd use that.

He sat next to John, his back curved forward to avoid cracking the back of his head on the bunk above. He copied John's movements, relaxing a little now that John was here.

"You seem--" John poked Rodney's side with his elbow. "Worried. And you got a bruise, there, like somebody smacked you."

Rodney used that to launch in, being as distracting as he knew how. "Me worried? No, of course not. No. I'm only miles from my home, on an alien planet in some unknown location that I can't determine, on account of not having seen a single star or orbital body for weeks. Not to mention the foul weather, damp quarters, bad food, grueling labor that's ruining my hands, and on top of it all, you almost got thrown through the stargate. So yes, I'm worried!"

His voice rose enough so that several kehks in the barracks looked at them, but kehks tended to ignore anything that didn't have to do directly with their own personal survival. Still, loud voices might bring guards, already weary and impatient with their nocturnal guard duties and primed to start swinging their straps.

"I was just--" Rodney paused to look at John and then away. "Worried. And I'm not a very good houseboy. I--drop things."

John nodded and shoved his shoes under the bed and lay back on the stiff mattress, scooting towards the wall to leave room for Rodney.

"Wow," he said. "Two blankets? And a pillow? We're living it up now."

John could make fun of pneumonia (or maybe it was bronchitis) and make it sound completely mock-worthy, but it was the lack of blankets and warmth and dry that had made John sick in the first place.

"Ha ha," said Rodney, very glad to focus on that instead of his face and what Ghent had done to him.

Rodney distracted himself further by picking up the jug. He uncorked it and gave a sniff. "Aren't you supposed to drink some of this?" he asked.

"A little bit each day, till it's gone," said John. "But I'm too tired. You drink it."

The sip of kvass earlier had made him feel good and it was probably full of vitamins and other stuff. It was some kind of local health drink, and if Rodney took any of it, he'd be much better able to deal with the hot kitchen and the sudden changes of temperature when he dashed out into the rain to bring wood in to dry for the fire. It was one of those bitter-tasting medicines that your mouth actually craved because you knew it would make you feel like a million bucks.

"No," he said, determined. "Sit up a minute, and drink a good swallow. You'll drink some every day till it's gone."

John levered himself up on his elbows, scowling, but doing what Rodney asked. "We'll be long gone from here before I finish that off."

John leaned to one side, reaching his hand up as if to hold the jug himself, but Rodney brushed his hand away. He held the mouth of the jug to John's lips, and then tipped his chin up to show John he meant it.

"Just drink it," he said. "A good big swallow, one that will make nurse very happy with you."

This made John smile as he swallowed, and his eyes sparked at Rodney, with good color rising on his cheeks already. Or maybe that was the shadow of the gas lamp doing that.

"You're not my idea of a nursemaid, Rodney," said John, after he'd swallowed. Still, he was smiling as he lay his head back down on the pillow.

"We'll, I'm all you've got," said Rodney, unperturbed. John liked to make smart remarks to everyone he met, but if he was making them, then that was a good sign. He could go on making them forever if he liked.

He corked the jug and tucked it at the bottom of the bunk where hopefully their feet wouldn't smash into it. Then he picked up the little box that John said had salve in it.

"This the salve?" he asked, opening it. The smell was strong, like grass starting to ferment, and in the half dark, Rodney couldn't tell what color it was.

"Jax put that on my chest," said John. "I told, you it's like Vicks, but I don't need any more. Maybe we can trade it."

"What, for cigarettes or panty hose?" Rodney snorted. "This is not Sing Sing, kehks don't come equipped to make great trading partners. The most we could get for this would be…oh, I don't know, sawdust maybe? And we've got enough of that already, thank you."

John started to scowl just as the sounds came of kehks settling down for the night, someone banking the stove, someone checking the door, someone else dousing the gas lamps. It got dark fast, with no shadows or light, only the faint glow from the stove, and it left Rodney sitting on the edge of the bunk with the salve in his hand.

"I'm just going to do it," said Rodney, dipping his head. He waited for John to object, but maybe John knew better to argue about it, because Jax's application of the kvass and the salve (and who knows what other local homeopathic mumbo jumbo) had gotten John better and that was that.

He reached out in the darkness and pulled down the blanket and pushed up John's tunic, which was loose enough to reach all the way up to John's breastbone. He wished he could see what he was doing, but he'd start small and just use a little, and see how that went.

With the first touch of his fingers with the salve to John's skin, John jumped. "Stomach," he said.

Rodney moved his hand up, and when he felt John's chest hair and the pectoral bone, he started spreading the salve. He used small circles, and used gentle pressure, feeling the warmth of his skin melt the salve, and smelled the dark, green smell of damp grass.

"What's in this stuff?" asked Rodney, getting more salve.

"Beats the shit out of me," said John. He sounded tired, like his eyes were already closed, and he was just seconds away from sleeping.

Beneath his hand, John's skin was warm, his chest hair was wiry, and Rodney's fingers brushed John's nipples for just a second, and he blushed in the dark, even though no one could see. And it wasn't as if they'd not lain naked together in the dark, so what was one more body part.

Mid-rub, John fell asleep, but Rodney kept it up for a minute or more, putting the salve everywhere he could reach, along John's ribs, across his sternum, under his arms, so the salve would be everywhere, and soak into him to do whatever alien magic it was designed to do.

Then he spread what was left of the salve on his own fingers on his throat and across his clavicle, which made his eyes water as the vapor rose up. He wished he could reach his own back and put some on there, to help with the ache from Ghent's whipping, but it was meant to help John, so maybe it was best that he couldn't.

He put the top back on the box and tucked it down next to the jug, then stretched out beside John, pulling both blankets up, mostly over John, just making sure his feet were covered. Now that he could pull John next to him, and rest John's head on his shoulder, and hear John's breathing in his ear, a little ragged still, but better, much better. He'd be warm enough, and having John next to him in the dark was like its own kind of fire.


In the morning, John woke up coughing, but it sounded productive, rattling, and so when John rolled over Rodney (a sudden, welcome warm weight in the morning chill) to get to the washroom, Rodney kept out of the way and didn't ask any questions, though he got up and followed John.

The washroom was damp and full of kehks waking up, using the shared basin and towels, and the holes in the bench to defecate and pass water. Rodney kept his head turned the other way, but John didn't seem to have any problems, spitting phlegm down one of the holes and then unbuttoning his trousers to pee. It was a military thing, Rodney figured, or a kehk thing, none of them seemed to have any modesty at all.

Rodney gingerly splashed his face at the basin and then wiped his hands on the towel and waited for John, so they could go outside for the morning count.

The second the fresh, morning air hit their faces, John took a breath.

"Gates are open," he said, clearing his throat, tipping his head in Rodney's direction.

Rodney looked. He'd been in the Second Camp for days now, and never noticed, but yes, the gate was wide open, yawning open, in fact, to let an oxen cart come in, and a band of kehks go out. Some scarf-wearing kehks were carrying shovels and axes, like they were going to dig trenches or build forts or whatever they were going to do. The fact was, and now even Rodney noticed, the guards at the gate (pikes in hand) didn't even look at them as they went past.

"See?" said John. "That's something there. How do the guards know the kehks aren't just trying to escape?"

"The scarves and the tools," said Rodney, without thinking. "They've got tools, they've obviously been given them for some task, and the guards know that. No tool, no scarf, no passage."

The guard was coming by, moving his mouth silently as he counted, so Rodney felt John look at him without looking at him and heard, "Smart ass," under his breath and smiled. He knew he'd he gotten it right, you walked with purpose through that gate, carrying some tool or other, and the guards assumed that no kehk would even dare--

"Kehks, work!" the guard shouted and the three by four rank broke up and Rodney let the way to the kitchen. There they'd get a piece of bread and slice of some type of meat before they started the day's work, Rodney knew the pieces that you got if you were at the head of the line were better than the ones you got if you were at the end.

"Here," he said. He reached back and grabbed John by the front of his tunic and pulled him up in front, so he was the first at the door when Henks opened it. "Don't be shy," he whispered in John's ear. "Be greedy; you need the energy."

John tipped his head back, maybe as a way of thanking Rodney, and wasn't shy or polite about taking the biggest piece of bread and meat on the tray that Henks pointed to. They were going to be fine, then. John's sense of survival was never very dormant, and with Rodney looking out for him, together they'd figure this out and get home.


They worked in the warmth of the kitchen; there was good color in John's cheeks and Henks had him chopping up bits of fat and offal other parts of some animal, and putting it through a grinder into buckets. John's tongue stuck out a little bit as he concentrated on his task.

Rodney moved close to check on him during a lull in the morning.

"What are you making?" he asked, looking at the mess in the bucket. It looked almost like someone could make sausages out of it.

John shrugged his shoulders, his right arm never stopping moving the grinder around and around.

Someone behind them said, "That's stew for the Third Camp. They add water and sawdust, and send it on down."

"At least nothing goes to waste," said John, turning to look at Rodney, his eyes twinkling.

Of course he would tease; military types could eat anything, even if it was dog shit roasted on a stick. It would never bother John that he'd spent many days eating ground up testicles and tendons and eyeballs, for crying out loud--

Rodney could hardly breathe. He turned away from John and the buckets, and heard John laughing under his breath and tried not to throw up. It would be a long time before he could look a sausage in the eye.


Rodney's back itched, from Ghent's whipping from the day before. The welts throbbed and ached and itched with sweat, and Rodney wanted nothing more than some Neosporin to put on it, and maybe a couple of Advil, and then a hot shower. No wait, he'd need the Advil, then the shower, then the Neosporin. And a good night's sleep, after which he'd be ready to go.

He'd had been watching John all day. Towards the afternoon, John was moving a little slowly and soon Henks would notice and maybe take him to task about it. But there wasn't much more for him to do than finish what he was cutting, and maybe Rodney could figure out how to maneuver John into position where he only had to wipe tables instead of mopping the floor or standing over a sink with a pile of greasy pots and pans.

Rodney was just about to go over to where John was and pretend to be asking him a question, and maybe he'd be able to take the knife from him and quick, chop up what remained on the wood table next to the chopping board, when the door opened. Right away, Rodney could tell it was a guard from the great house and he held his breath hoping it wasn't--but it was.

The guard beckoned to Rodney, and Henks and John and everyone else was watching, so there was nothing Rodney could do, but go. He untied the apron from around his waist and laid it on the table, then jerked his chin at John, a casual goodbye until later, that hopefully John would read as that, casual and unconcerned, and that it wouldn't reveal the frantic thread of panic that started flickering at the pit of Rodney's stomach.

He turned and walked out the door without a single word, and when the door slammed behind him, he followed the guard, who carried a gas lamp in hand, and tried not to think a single thing.

It was all too quick that he felt the stone steps beneath his feet and the guard left him at the top of the stairs. He walked up and stood at the end of an all too familiar hallway, the gas lamps flickering against the clean ceiling beams, and the scrubbed stone floors, the smell of wax and ash soaking into him, and Rodney wanted nothing more than to run, very fast, in the opposite direction. But they were so close to getting out (the open gate, freedom!) that Rodney knew he couldn't mess it up now. He had to be…attentive, make himself useful, until such time (maybe tomorrow) that he and John would make a break for it.

By the time he walked, oh, so slowly, down the hallway, Ghent's door was already open, and Ghent waited in the middle of the room. He wore a pale, thick shirt and his trousers, and his boots, but his hair was loose, and glinted in the firelight. Had Rodney been anywhere else, with anyone else, it might have seemed nice, because who didn't like having sex, in a clean, well-lit room like this one?

"Kehk, come here." Ghent's tone was furry, like he was purring.

"What, no tea?" asked Rodney. "No building the fire?" It was warm enough in the room already, but surely--

"Take your clothes off."

Rodney felt cold all over, suddenly prickled with icy sweat. He hated being naked at the best of times, and only Beckett's patience and casual but careful treatment had gotten him used to the regular infirmary visits that followed every off-world mission. Beckett had even perfected the art of looking-but-not-looking when he did his exams, for which Rodney was eternally grateful. Now there was a medical man for you; more should be like him.

"Now, kehk."

Ghent wasn't even shouting, a product, no doubt of whatever it was he was drinking from his ceramic cup, so there was still nothing for Rodney to rail against. He could only follow orders and hope that whatever followed didn't taste too awful or hurt too much. And why was sex so much fun for these people anyway? Rodney found he couldn't remember why he'd ever enjoyed it himself, and maybe after this, he'd become monk-like and devote all his time to his science.


His eyes grew hot, but he made himself duck his head and blink against it. Then toe off his shoes and ratty socks, to stand barefoot on the fire-warmed stone. Then he peeled off his shirt; if Ghent got an eyeful of the welts and bruises he'd left the day before, so much the better. Rodney didn't feel shy about that at all.

Ghent circled round to stand between Rodney and the fire. His eyes were half lidded as he sipped something from his cup and watched, gesturing with his hand to get Rodney to continue. So Rodney did, undoing the one button and letting the pants slide down his legs to step out of them. He twitched all over. His hands crawled to cover himself, there wasn't so much as a breeze in the room, but he didn't like Ghent staring like he was, and the familiar cup of his own hand was better than alien eyes--

"Take your hands away, kehk."

Rodney grit his teeth hard, and his hands were shaking, but he tried to loosen his jaw by taking a breath and pretend that it was okay to let his hands slip to his sides to expose himself, leaving his genitals and pubic hair on display like so much messy art for Ghent to stare at. And stare he did, moving so close that Rodney couldn't even pretend he was somewhere else, standing naked in a room perhaps, soaking in a little vitamin D from a stray ray of sun.

"Go lay on the bed," said Ghent. His voice was soft, almost a whisper, and it made Rodney's skin feel like something was slithering against it. But he went to the bed, as ordered, and noted that the sheets and blankets were already pulled back, because of course, Ghent wanted to get right down to it. He was only drawing it out because it amused him to watch Rodney shiver and shake.

He crawled into the sheets, feeling Ghent's eyes take in every line of his legs, how he stumbled as he lay back on the pillow, sighing for a second, at the incredibly soft sheets, but knowing those same sheets were kept soft by slave labor, and by the time Ghent had taken off his clothes and crawled in alongside Rodney, Rodney was scowling and full of rage.

"This isn't--"

But Ghent rolled on top of him and clamped his hand on Rodney's mouth and pressed his weight down, pressing Rodney's welts and bruises into the sheets. It hurt so badly, tears sprang into his eyes, and he slammed his eyes shut.

"Such a soft heart you have, kehk," said Ghent. He pressed his bent elbow against Rodney's throat, and now with his mouth covered, and his throat squeezed, Rodney had to breathe through his nose, clogged up with the hot air and the smell of Ghent's breath. He wheezed and tried not to kick, and if he could speak, he'd start begging--

Ghent reached down between Rodney's legs, but Rodney was as soft as he'd ever been. Ghent huffed his annoyance, and moved both his hands to press Rodney's shoulders and hold him still while Ghent moved between Rodney's legs and pressed them apart with the breadth of his thighs.

"I should fuck you to teach you a lesson, kehk," said Ghent, almost gently enough to sound like he was apologizing. "But this will serve as well; you are not to move."

Rodney felt Ghent's hands leave him and then with one fist, Ghent pulled Rodney's hands over his head and pushed them into the pillow. Then Rodney heard him spit, and opened his eyes to see Ghent taking his hand away from his face and shoving it between them. There were the obvious sounds of spit on skin, and then Ghent gripped Rodney's hip and began thrusting between his legs. On one stroke, Ghent's penis shoved upwards through Rodney's pubic hair, dragging his penis with it. On the next stroke, the end of his penis banged into Rodney's anus with each thrust and the motion of Ghent withdrawing burned along the insides of Rodney's thighs.

Rodney shivered, and as Ghent moved his head and sank his teeth into Rodney's neck, Rodney tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling. Hoping Ghent wouldn't try to kiss him, it was bad enough as it was, the feeling of skin being rubbed raw with every thrust of Ghent's hips.

"I said not to move, kehk," said Ghent, voice muffled against Rodney's skin. "Or do you actually want another whipping?"

That made every bone in his body freeze, every joint wedged solid, which only made Ghent laugh in his throat and thrust harder and faster, like he was enjoying it, rubbing against Rodney, making him hurt like this. With a few quick pumps, Rodney felt the warmth of Ghent's sperm along the curve of his butt and between his thighs and he shuddered as Ghent rolled off him and pushed Rodney out of the bed. Rodney landed hard on his knees and scrambled as fast as he could for his clothes.

"Ah, kehk," said Ghent.

Rodney stopped, mid-scrabble, his head ducked down, on his knees, curled forward, clothes in his hands.

"You are the worst attendant I have ever heard of, but at least you are not boring. You may put your clothes on."

Rodney yanked on his shirt and then his pants and bent to put on his socks and shoes as fast as he could. The inside of his thighs smarted like he'd been scrubbed with a dry hard brush, and he felt like he needed to go to the bathroom, badly, even though he didn't. Felt the drip of something really sticky and gross on the inside of his leg. As he watched Ghent put his clothes back, on he felt the shiver run through him and then another, like he was trying to get warm, even though he felt like he was sweating all over.


When he got back to the kitchen, the supper hour was over. Henks had put aside some meat and leftover fried brown stuff, and Rodney stood near the door and ate it standing up, even though it tasted like nothing. John was at the sink, scrubbing up, watching him, so Rodney made himself eat all of it. Then he took his plate and fork over to be washed, scraping it into a bucket before handing it to John.

"You okay?" asked John. "You look all white."

Rodney shrugged. "Just making myself useful, as usual." He looked around for Henks, hoping that Henks would give him something to do. Luckily, Henks was right on the ball.

"You, kehk, sweep and scrub, now!"

He knew John was staring at his back as Rodney hustled for the bucket and soap, which he left in the corner of the dining room. Then he came back to grab the round-handled broom, ignoring John's expression, the one that wanted Rodney to come over so John could ask him what was going on. But of course, Rodney couldn't disobey Henks, now, could he. Even John knew that.

So Rodney lifted benches with another kehk, and put them on the tables. When the kehk went away, Rodney swept the floor, pushing all the dust and debris out the door. As he came back in, he saw John by the bucket, with another bucket in his hands, full of soapy cold water.

There was nothing for it, but to keep on walking like everything was okay.

"Come to help me?" he asked John, as he came up to him.

"You'd never manage without me," said John.

Rodney winced because of course this was true. He'd never make it without John, especially not now, even if he couldn't tell John what was going on. John was the reason he was doing it for, and if John wasn't there, that would leave Rodney without a reason in the world to keep going.

"You know it," said Rodney, trying to make it sound cool. It came out sounding desperate, but that didn't seem to bother John. He came up close and clasped his hand around Rodney's wrist and gave it a gentle squeeze.

"I'm not going anywhere," said John. "I feel like a million bucks, thanks to you."

They spent the evening scrubbing floors, and drying the stone with rough cloths, and then they replaced the benches on the floor, all without sharing even so much as a word. But they worked side by side, their shoulders sometimes touching, so close that Rodney could smell John's sweat, see it dappled on his forehead. But it was the good kind of sweat, the kind that came from hard work, rather than from having a fever.

At one point, without thinking, Rodney took off his apron, and wiped John's forehead, almost missing John's expression as he tied his apron on again. But he caught it as he looked up; John's eyes were half-lidded, his mouth almost frowning, but he didn't look mad. Instead, he cupped his hand to the back of Rodney's neck and petted it.

"We can wash up now, can't we," said John. "I keep forgetting."

"Me too," said Rodney.


Back at the barracks, John's attentiveness continued. He pulled Rodney to the washroom, and made Rodney take off his shirt, and then he soaked a cloth in cold water from the pump and wiped Rodney's face with it. When Rodney tried to stop him, his hand on John's arm, John shook his head in warning.

"I'm the team leader, Rodney, so you just get to stand there and let me do this."

There was nothing else Rodney could do. It seemed like John knew that something was wrong, and even if he didn't know what, he acted like he did know. And this half-knowing led to him doing what he was doing. He turned Rodney around with a small sound of dismay, and then began to press against the welts with a cold cloth, and a careful, cautious touch. He took the time to rewet the cloth every few pats, so the heat in Rodney's skin began gradually to lessen.

"These look almost new, what happened?"

Rodney ducked his chin to look at his feet and the puddles on the floor. "Oh, that was yesterday" he said. "I just can't seem to carry that tray without dropping it and Ghent--"

"Is that the guard you're working for?"

"Yes, Ghent, he's very picky, and yesterday I actually broke something, and he wasn't too happy about it."

"But nothing today," said John.

Rodney wasn't sure that John had been convinced by Rodney's nonchalance. And as Rodney opened his mouth to say, it was just an ordinary beating, John, the kind kehks get all the time, John turned him back around and began wiping down his chest.

"Nothing happened today to make you look like you've been smacked around a bit," said John. It wasn't really a question, but the look in John's eyes was scary; John wanted to know what was going on.

Well, Rodney had lied up till now and he was going to keep lying, for as long as he could. And he was getting pretty good at it actually.

"No," he said, and then his throat closed up and he couldn't say anymore. John didn't look convinced, but he didn't push it. Except now he'd really be watching, so Rodney couldn't risk any more mistakes with Ghent, couldn't let John see how bad it was getting.

"Here," Rodney said, clearing his throat. "Let me do you, now."

And John let him, which gave Rodney something to do with his hands. He soaked the same cloth in cold water and made John take off his tunic, and then he wiped his face and his neck, below his eternal five-o'clock shadow, watching John close his eyes, as if with pleasure. John's muscles were right under the bruised skin, with the fat burned away and his skin pale, till he looked rangy and undernourished.

It was strange to think that only a short while ago, they were in Atlantis, dressing alone, bathing alone, and now, here they were, and he was giving John a sponge-bath. Kehks came and went around them, using the facilities, but nobody said anything to them, or gave them funny looks. Maybe the kehks simply didn't care, because for them, living in the Second Camp, this was as good as it got and who were they to comment on the bathing habits of strangers from another place?

He turned John around, and wiped down his back. He rewet the cloth under the pump and turned with the cloth dripping in his hands. John was standing there, with his tunic draped over one arm, as if waiting for Rodney.

"Here," said Rodney, trying to put words to what he wanted. "I'm going to--" He bent down and pulled up one of John's trouser legs to expose a hairy calf. "I'll just finish--" Yes, skin to skin was what he wanted, not just to make sure John was alright, but for himself, for his own sake. His chest ached, a dull, low tightness and if he could just touch John, gently, like this, then he could block out the imprint of Ghent's rough touch.

John stopped him, his hand on Rodney's head as he knelt at John's feet. Rodney looked up. He fully expected some kind of brush-off from John, some short comment like that's enough or back off, McKay. But he didn't do that. His touch was soft and his eyes, though dulled a little from exhaustion, didn't look away.

Rodney was surprised that John didn't pull away. He seemed like he was going to let Rodney do this; he looked at Rodney with mild eyes as if understanding Rodney's urgent need to touch John, to touch him all over, a need that Rodney didn't quite understand himself. But he was glad he didn't have to say it, to ask, and say, yes, I need my skin on your skin, let me, please let me.

"Here," said John. "Let me--"

He toed off his shoes, and Rodney held onto his arm while he balanced and took off his socks. It was when he was unbuttoning his trousers and pulling them down that Rodney realized what John was doing. John looped his clothes over one arm, his shoes dangling from his fingers, and stood naked in the washroom.

For a second, Rodney wasn't sure whether John wanted Rodney to keep washing him, or if he wanted to take over himself. But John just stood there, his body half-turned away from Rodney and the pump, and he was just waiting. It was one of those military things again, it must be.

"Might as well make it worth the while," said John. "But hurry, 'cause it's freezing."

Okay, so, it was okay, it was going to be okay. Rodney wrung out some of the water on the floor and placed his hand on John's hip (to let John know what he was going to do), and started wiping him down. He started at John's waist and moved down, pulling the cloth along John's groin, and the length of his thigh, going gently over any skin that looked sore.

"What I wouldn't give for hot water and soap," said John. He coughed a little bit, using his elbow, even though, in a place like this, it really didn't make any difference.

"Shower or bath?" asked Rodney, trying to make his voice sound normal as he moved the cloth down the outside of John's leg.

"Shower first," said John. "Then bath, then another shower, and over again until the water runs out."

"You know the water will never run out in Atlantis," said Rodney. "Not since Zelenka and I fixed the pumps." He moved the cloth up the inside of John's leg, trying not to think too much about it, trying to be practical. John's leg had hair that curled a bit but ran all in the same direction. Rodney moved the cloth against the grain of John's hair, then stood up to rinse out the cloth and make it wet again.

He wiped John's other leg down, and then up, and then between his legs. John shifted a bit, and suddenly it got easier for Rodney because this was John, and he'd saved John from the ring, and now, washing him was easy. It wasn't a chore. He nodded as he did some tsk-tsking of his own.

"You need to eat," he said. "Lots and lots. I can see all of your bones."

John nodded, looking down at him as Rodney knelt at his feet and wiped them down as best he could. "We'll have a feast," John said. "When we get back. You and me and anyone who wants to come. Back in Atlantis."

There was a promise in John's eyes, and Rodney wanted to believe him, he really did. But though John was better now, getting better, they were stuck in the Second Camp until Ghent decided to let them go. Which would be never.

When he was done, he stood up and laid the cloth on the edge of the sink for someone else to use.

"Hurry, don't catch cold again, I don't think I can make any more deals." His voice shook a little when he said it, but he didn't mean to complain. Not when the result of the deal he had made was John standing there, in front of him. And yes, John's skin was colored by bruises (there was a long one on his legs, and the leftover welts on his back that Rodney tried to be gentle with), and he was far too thin, even for John, but he was alive. And more than that, Rodney couldn't hope for.

He watched while John put his tunic and trousers back on. He still carried his socks and shoes (and Rodney tried not to think about the germs in the puddles of water John was standing in), but he looked like he was going to put them down and take his turn at giving Rodney a sponge bath.

Rodney backed away. He grabbed up his tunic from the edge of the sink, and tried to make himself very clear as he pulled it on.

"I'm too tired to care about being clean. Honest." He looked at John and held out his hands. "And I'm way too shy." Truth was, if John saw the bruises on Rodney's groin, and the streaks of semen, it would be all over, and there was no telling how pissed John would get.

"Shy?" John asked. His eyes almost twinkled, because of course, he was probably that close to figuring it all out anyway. "With me? After all this?" He lifted his hands to encompass the washroom, and the kehks using the toilet while they stood there. "But okay," said John. "Another time, then. When you're less shy."

Rodney ducked his head and nodded, gulping the lump in his throat as he led the way to their bunk. Their clothes weren't damp so they really didn't have to take them off to dry them, but Rodney missed the skin on skin. Then again, he'd just insisted on keeping his clothes on, so he couldn't very well turn around and ask--

Behind him, when Rodney stopped at the bunk, he heard John rustling with the bottle of kvass, taking a drink. He felt the tap on his shoulder and turned around to find John holding out the jug to him.

"Take some, it'll make you feel better. Make you look less white. Are you coming down with something?"

"No," said Rodney. He took the jug and took a big swallow, tasting the bitter and the sour and tried not to think about it. He handed the jug back to John, who corked it and stored it at the bottom of the pallet. "Maybe."

"You want some alien Vicks?" John asked now. He was zeroed in on Rodney, he wanted to do something for him, it seemed, and wouldn't go away until he'd done it.

"Yes, that's it, that's exactly--I don't want to bother you but--"

"Sure," said John. "Take off your shirt and lay back, and I can--"

Rodney did as he was told, and pulled off the tunic again, and put his head on the pillow and looked up at John. "Maybe I am getting a cold or something," he said.

John made a noise under his breath and just as the lights went out, he saw John picking up the little jug with the alien Vicks, and a second later he felt John's fingers on his chest. He tried not to shiver all over, but he couldn't stop it. When John was touching him, it was better, it felt like it was better, but it was confusing because he'd never needed it like this before.

"Okay?" asked John, low. He stopped for a second.

"Yes," said Rodney, equally low. "I'm okay, keep going."

John continued to rub the salve into Rodney's chest, even though Rodney wasn't getting a cold and didn't need it. He liked it and it felt good because John's hands were strong and they didn't stint on the pressure, and they went everywhere, up Rodney's neck, down his sides, across his stomach. Then, with a slow palm across Rodney's sternum, John pulled back.

"There," he said. "You smell like a swamp, but it gets through your skin and warms you up inside"

"Put some on you," said Rodney, half sitting, propping himself on his elbow. His chest and stomach felt all greasy now but he also could feel his bones warming up.

"We're all out now," said John.

Rodney took John's hand, with the residue of the salve on it, and rubbed it on his own chest to pick up more salve and then he made John rub his own neck and down into his tunic to get to his chest.

"What we have, we share," said Rodney, pulling on his tunic.

"Yeah," said John.

He pushed at Rodney and made him lay down, then he tucked himself against Rodney, and Rodney put his arms around John and pulled him tight.

"It's getting in my hair," said John, sounding like he was pretending to complain.

"We'll get you the best shampoo Atlantis has to offer," said Rodney, promising it, wanting to believe it's true. "But just sleep now; kitchen work is harder than it looks."

But though John fell asleep almost right away (he had a little snore going on, which didn't bother Rodney at all), Rodney stayed awake for a long time, it seemed, staring at the darkness of the bunk above them, and wondered how they were going to get out of there.


The next evening, when Rodney was called to attend Ghent, he felt John trying to catch his eye, but he wouldn't let it. If he did, then John would see how freaked out he was, and if that happened, then John would want to know why. Rodney was already on his last bundle of bravery; if John pushed, it would be all over.

So he walked as fast as he could to stand in front of Ghent's door and raised his hand to knock. The last thing he wanted to do was knock, of course. It would have been far easier on his freaked out state had two of Skandar's heftiest guards dragged Rodney kicking and screaming and thrown him at Ghent's feet. As it was, he had to drag himself, not kicking and not screaming, and not raising a fuss.

He couldn't even begin to fight, because then Ghent would make the threat about throwing John through the ring come true, and Rodney would just have to jump right after him at that point, even though he wasn't officially team leader anymore, and just how long had that lasted? 48 hours? 72? He was so bad at it, so very bad; just how ineffectual could one man be and still live?

He knocked on the door, trying for somewhere between timid and didn't-give-a-shit, something that was more along the lines of what John Sheppard would do.

The door opened, and Ghent had a cup in his hand, and his lips were moist and the fire was blaring and the room was hot. Too hot, like Ghent had been building the fire up himself, and kept forgetting that he'd already laid logs on.

Ghent gestured him to come in and Rodney caught a whiff of his breath; alcohol was alcohol, wherever you went, be it from soaked hops or crushed grapes. Ghent's glance at Rodney was amused and easy, but that didn't make it any easier. If Ghent was all boozed up, who knew what craziness he'd come up with for his evening's entertainment.

Rodney came to a stop in the middle of the room, feeling Ghent looming there behind him. "Would you like me to make tea?" he asked, hopefully, wondering if Ghent would figure out that he hated all of this and, being unwilling, deserved only to be beaten or have John thrown through the ring or--

But Ghent couldn't trace all the shades of grey in Rodney's mind, so he kept his mouth shut about any of it. But when Ghent yanked hard on his arm and shoved him over to land on the bed, his lungs exploded and he felt the high-pitched yip escape him as he tried to steady himself, his hands reaching behind him on the bed.

Ghent began to undo the buckle on his pants, looming over Rodney, so Rodney shut his eyes. If Ghent wanted him to watch, then he was going to have to order Rodney to do it, because Rodney was about to be seriously molested and it wasn't anything he wanted to see.

But Ghent did. "Open your eyes, kehk."

Rodney did, out of sheer will alone, just in time to see Ghent's hand coming at him. But there was no smack to the face, no command to disrobe. And no sense (or even pretence) of courtship, though why Rodney even expected this was beyond him.

Ghent grabbed Rodney's shoulder and shoved Rodney face down on the bed, bent at the waist, legs trailing to the floor. Then Rodney felt Ghent's hand at his waist, hot for a second against Rodney's skin just before he yanked Rodney's pants down, sending them to pool at Rodney's knees. Rodney tried to shut his eyes, but Ghent would see and then might make it worse than it already was. Then he opened his mouth to protest, but John wouldn't do that, so Rodney couldn't.

Still, as he heard the clink of Ghent's belt, he ducked his head and grabbed the woolen counterpane and tried to stare at the irregular patterns on the stone all. Tried not to tighten his thighs as Ghent reached between his legs to push them apart with the width of his fist. But when he felt the brush of fingertips on the sensitive skin just behind his balls, all the hairs, even the smallest invisible ones, stood up and Rodney shook and closed his eyes, and tried to breathe and had never been so scared--

"Don't," he begged, gasping. He couldn't do it, couldn't let it be done. "Please, don't, I can't, just can't, so sorry--"

The weight of Ghent's body dipped the bed next to Rodney and for a second, Rodney thought that Ghent and he were going to have a little chat about deals and how not to break them, and how Ghent would go slowly if only Rodney could try to relax--

Instead, Rodney heard the sound of something slick and then felt one of Ghent's hands slam in the middle of his back, pressing him down, hard. Too shocked to struggle, Rodney froze when Ghent's damp fingers pushed up against his anus and pushed hard, getting partway in at the first stab and Rodney closed his eyes, orders be damned. Even John would close his eyes at this point, wouldn't he?

Ghent leaned his body weight into Rodney. He realized that Ghent was sitting on the bed at his ease while he opened Rodney up, taking his leisure. And all the while, his fingers pushed and with withdrew and with only spit to ease the way, it was like being ripped from the inside with a narrow metal grater. Rodney felt something slice him, thought it was a ragged fingernail and couldn't take it any more. Not to discount the germs, the millions of bacteria hosted underneath even the cleanest of nails, but it hurt. Rodney tried to grab the other edge of the bed to haul himself up but the bed was too wide so all he got was a handful of blanket and the sensation of his pants slipping down to gather at his ankles.

"Ah," said Ghent. "Willing, were you?"

That stopped Rodney for a second as he weighted the ramification of not being willing and what might happen to John--but then Ghent's weight was gone from the bed, only to settle between Rodney's legs, as Ghent used both hands now, not to nudge, but to shove, sending Rodney up on his elbows and knees, fully on the bed now, pants slipping, cuffing his feet so he couldn't move.

"And now, to our deal." Ghent's voice was smooth and pleased with itself and Rodney shook as he felt Ghent's thumb pulling him open. Felt the hot round snub of Ghent's penis against his anus and grit his teeth as he felt it pushing in, roughly and eagerly, not slowly and considerately, no, of course not.

Ghent's penis felt round and huge and dry as Ghent shoved it in, not dragging back, but push-push-push, bringing flecks of tears to Rodney's closed eyes, squeezing out from behind clenches eyelashes. Heroes didn't cry and surely John Sheppard never did; Rodney tried not to, but his throat began to make little uh-uh noises and when Ghent clamped both hands on Rodney's bare hips and shoved, hard, all the way in, he felt it, one long, searing tear, and cried out. He tried muffling his mouth against the rough wool of his forearm, but that only seemed to amplifying it in his ears and surely Ghent would get irritated and punish Rodney for this?

Behind him, Ghent began to pump in and out and Rodney thought he heard humming, so he clenched his jaw and tried to steady his heart and bit into his arm and tried not to cry.

With a series of low grunts, Ghent sped up, his fingers biting into bone, and with a few hard pump-slam motions, Rodney felt it, deep inside, something hot that curled around and he wanted to gag, thinking of alien semen soaking into his insides.

Then Ghent pulled out with a jerk and patted Rodney's bare hip, roughly.

"You'll get better at this, by and by," said Ghent.

He sounded like he was pulling on his clothes, so it was over, at least for now. Rodney reached back blindly for his trousers, and stood up, trying to pull them on, his thighs struggling to keep him upright. But before he could manage, Ghent reached out and held Rodney's trousers down and reached out to touch Rodney's penis. It stayed flaccid. Rodney didn't try and explain that if the sex was forced, if it hurt, then it was hardly likely to give him an erection, was it. Besides, Ghent didn't care, because after all, he was just a kehk to be used and discarded as needed. If he had some naqueda and enough of the right materials, he'd bomb this whole stupid planet--Rodney had never known what it felt like to be treated like a piece of meat. Now he knew.

"Next time," said Ghent, drawing his hand back. "Next time, we'll work on your lack of response to my touch."

Rodney pulled up his pants the rest of the way and did the one button and couldn't bring himself to retort that he wasn't a trained dog. Not when he felt Ghent's fast cooling sperm oozing out of him. Not when all his nerve endings buzzed with pain and as he stood there, he felt his vision go dark and flare in time with his heartbeat.

Ghent picked up something red from the side table near the bed and walked over to Rodney, holding it out to him.

"This will keep you warm while you shiver through your chores, kehk," said Ghent. "Go on. Take it."

Reaching out, Rodney took the bundle and scrunched it in his fingers. It was big and cushy and part of it fell from his grip, and then he realized what it was; a thin, long sleeved tunic made of very fine red wool.

"You wear it under the kehk brown," said Ghent, smiling as he picked up his ceramic cup and took a big gulp from it. "I like you shivering, but not from the cold."

Rodney was so mad he wanted to spit. The sex they'd just had wasn't a gift, a kindness to be repaid with more kindness, it was rape--

But he clamped his mouth shut and stared at the floor, trying to hide his glower.

"You may go," Ghent said, imperious, dismissing Rodney's ragged state. He seemed pleased with himself. "But be prepared to come when I call."

Rodney stumbled out into the hallway, leaving the door open, leaving the pretty firelight to spill across the stone floor. He ran down the hall as fast as he could. Right out into the rain, blessedly cool and non-committal, a gust of air dragging the stink of Ghent's touch right off him and bringing a waft of something a little greener and a whole lot more palatable.

He tucked the end of the red tunic in the waist of his pants, and hurried, thinking all the while of the hot showers in Atlantis and the countless bottles of ibuprofen available in abundance in every room. He made himself think of John and barely remembered reaching the relative warmth and comfort of the barracks.

Rodney passed the line of bunks against the wall and made a beeline for the washroom. He used the cold water and rough cloth as best he could, trying to reach the hurt places without taking anything off.

He couldn't bear to look down at himself in the single gaslight, more, he couldn't stand the thought of anyone walking in on him and seeing. For while surely everyone knew he was Ghent's attendant, there was no need to advertise, was there. No one bothered him, which was lucky, though it still took him a full count of a hundred and back again to get his heart to slow down. He threw the used cloth down one of the holes, as surely no one would want to use it again after what he'd just done with it.

He stumbled into the main room to find his bunk, mostly by touch because he couldn't seem to focus. The pot-bellied stove was at the other end of the room, near the door and the better bunks, but Rodney was glad to be shadowed in the lower one, against the furthest wall, almost completely hidden in case someone should come in. He fell into it, fully clothed, knocking his knees against the edge, and slapped his face into the pillow as he pulled the grey blanket all the way up over his head.

It was dark now and still and the trembling that he'd tried to keep at bay now rippled up and down his body like a slow snake and he didn't know how to stop them. He shifted, rolling on his side, trying to breathe, trying to forget--images of Ghent's huge, blunt-fingered hands and alien spit and semen dripping out of Rodney--

He took a breath and pushed the heel of his hand against his mouth and made himself think about John. He'd done this for John--because now that John was well, he could rescue Rodney, which was all Rodney ever wanted.

Who wanted to be team leader anyway? It sure wasn't any fun. Sure, you got to make all the cool decisions, and take the plum missions for yourself and your team, but in the end--Rodney could remember any number of times that one of them had been grabbed at gunpoint or spear point or whatever, and John, skin intact or already beaten and bruised in the struggle, would step up and use his best team leader voice and say, "Take me. I'm the one you want. Take me and if you let them go, I'll come quietly and that's a promise."

In spite of the fact that any such promise was a total full-out lie, sometimes the hostile aliens (unused to any human guile, especially John Sheppard 's brand) would believe it, and make the appropriate exchange and suddenly Rodney (and the team) would find themselves free. For a second it was a very heady feeling, that is, until he would catch sight of John being led away, bound in rope or wooden handoffs, and Rodney would have to struggle with fighting off a sense of relief alongside the guilt.

Not to mention the profound awe he would experience at the thought of it - to save his team, John Sheppard would always, always sacrifice himself. Give himself up to whatever darkness and pain and unknown terror awaited him. Gladly and gratefully and with a full heart, knowing his team was safe.

At least that's the way it always looked to Rodney, though John's post mission reports always skimmed the really bad parts. Rodney's mission reports tended to use the full flower of the written English language to expound on every aspect of every detail, whereas John's usually read more like a telegram from a cheap relative with a lot of unknown meaning built into each word and punctuation mark. He often abbreviated the most important words, much to Weir's dismay: Made exchange, team relsd. Sbmtd to intgn, gave nm, rnk, and srl #.

Rodney's read those reports, and always suspected, though he never knew, just exactly what was behind those abbreviations. Now he knew; behind the intgn, there was nothing but pain and fear and the certainty of more to come. Rodney's throat closed up and he ducked his head and pressed the palms of both hands against his eyes because he was sure, quite sure, even if the intgn was actually torture, that Colonel John Sheppard never cried. Not even once. Not even alone in the dark, muffled by a blanked and a pillow and the wall and the low murmur of the camp beyond the wall of the barracks.

John had done that kind of sacrifice a hundred times, a hundred times a hundred times - Gladly and gratefully and with a full heart…knowing his team was safe - and all with that casual last look at each of his teammates before he was dragged off and always, always, he'd look at Rodney last. Didn't matter that he always seemed to come back in (mostly) one piece, it was almost beyond Rodney's ability to understand that kind of backbone.

Rodney knew his own backbone was made of something less strong and far more bendable. If he was going to make it and keep making it till John figured out a way to get them out of there, Rodney was going to have to gird his loins and step up to the plate. Be a man. Besides, Ghent had fucked him and he wasn't dead, right? Sore, maybe, but intact and alive to be fucked another day--

Rodney sucked his lips hard against his teeth and tried not to let the sob he'd been holding back escape. But escape it did, along with two, hot, fat tears that slid past his nose and made his skin itch. He buried his face in the crook of his elbow and let out another huge, barking sob. He was not John Sheppard, he was nowhere near that brave, he was not the kind of man John was.

Rodney pulled his hands away and wanted to throw up. He rolled on his stomach and tried to ignore the throbbing between his legs and to think of something else. He had to get through this, the best he could, and his reward would come when he and John stepped through the ring into the elegant embrace of Atlantis. He wanted to do his best, it was all he could do.

Rodney scrubbed at his eyes with his fingers and took some deep breaths. He made himself think about vegetables and toasted bread and the little pan that Henks used to catch the hot grease as the side of alien beef twirled on the spin in the giant fireplace of Henks' kitchen. There, better, easier. More distracting. Rodney could do this. He had to. For John.


He woke up a little later, and scrambled out into the dark, but by the time he made it back to the dining hall, they were finishing up. Henks was dismissing the workers, sending them out into the rain, and at the head of the line, dark head turning as it scanned the compound, was John.

"Here," said John, coming up to him quickly, once he saw him. "I saved you something."

He held out his hand, holding his other hand over it to shield it from the rain. Rodney saw that it was bread and butter.

"I would have gotten you some jam or ham," said John, "to go with it, but they had neither, but here you go."

Rodney took it, but he wasn't the least bit hungry. The insides of his legs were raw and chafed, and his stomach was moving up and down as though he were at sea.

"Thank you," he said. "I'll--" He brought the bread and butter to his mouth, and bit off the tiniest amount, and made like it was more. "Yes, good, they don't mess around with the butter here, do they--"

He followed John into the barracks and made straight for the bunk, where he sat down and looked at the bread and butter and couldn't even imagine taking another bite. It was all he could do to keep the one bite down.

John went into the washroom and came back out a minute later. To distract him, Rodney pulled out the red tunic and handed it to John as he sat down to take off his shoes.

"What's this?" asked John.

"I got it for you," said Rodney.

John took it with both hands, and petted it as though it were a cat. The wool was fine, and tightly woven and looked warm and cozy in John's hands in a way that it hadn't in Ghent's.

"How did you get this?" He snapped his head up to look at Rodney. "Are you going to get in trouble for having it?"

"No, no," said Rodney. He waved the bread and butter in John's face, shaking his head like this was the most ridiculous thing ever to be considered. "I just made myself useful, is all."

"I thought you were a terrible houseboy," said John.

"I am. But I think Ghent is trying to win my heart or something; it's a status symbol around here to have a completely obedient houseboy, I think, and maybe they give gifts or something, I don't know. Anyway, I want you to have it. Put it on, it'll keep you warm." He was proud of himself; his voice didn't shake at all.

"You--you should wear it," said John, stumbling over the words, and Rodney thought he was embarrassed that he had nothing to give to Rodney in return.

"Well," said Rodney. He took a bite of the bread and butter and pretended to enjoy it though it made him want to puke. "Red is so not my color, if you'd ever taken the time to notice the fact that I never wear it, and so. Put the damn thing on before another kehk sees it and gets jealous. Besides, it'll keep your skinny chest warm, keep you from getting chilled, and, therefore, sick again."

"Tired of hearing me cough?" asked John. "Here." And with that, he leaned in close to Rodney and opened his mouth, his tongue hanging wide, and coughed hard and loud. Just to be mean. But behind that, Rodney heard a little rattle, and then John really did have to cough, and Rodney spent the next minute rubbing John's back to help him relax through it.

"Do you need to spit?" asked Rodney.

John nodded and got up to go into the washroom to spit into one of the holes and then he came back, tugging off the brown tunic as he did so. Then, naked to the world, and skinny as hell, he slipped on the red tunic and actually hugged his arms to himself, his eyes lighting up as he smiled at Rodney.

"You're gonna be sorry you gave it to me," said John.

"Why's that?"

"Because it's soft and warm as hell, that's why."

Rodney took his shoes off, nodding; he'd figured that, by the way it looked and felt in his hands.

"Plus, I'm never taking it off, not even to wash it, on account of you gave it to me."

Rodney nodded and rested the bread and butter on his knee, but it was shaking so badly that the whole thing went plop, face down of course, on the floor. In the Third Camp, they both would have been diving to rescue it and eat it, in spite of the dirt and grit that would be imbedded in the butter, but now, both of them just looked at it.

John sat down next to Rodney, real close, as though personal space, both his own (very precious) and Rodney's, meant nothing to him. He pulled on the brown tunic over the red one, and shimmied his shoulders to settle it. Then he took off his shoes and socks.

"Much better," he said, looking at the bread on the floor. He poked it with his bare toe, which meant, naturally, that there was no way Rodney was going eat it, not all toe-poked and everything. "Except you're all wired like there's a wraith coming at you. What's going on, Rodney? Don't tell me you still want to go back to the Third Camp and actually make that twig sorter machine."

Rodney leaned forward, and pretended to look at the fallen bread and butter, while he rubbed his hands along his thighs. He wanted to take a hot soak in an Atlantis bath tub and then rub lotion on his raw skin. He wanted to bathe in something sweet and flowery, anything to keep the smell of Ghent's semen rising up to hit him in the face, and couldn't John smell it on him? No, John smelled like alien onions and soap, which was powerful enough to act as a filter.

"I'm just tired, is all," he said, keeping his head ducked and his voice low. "I want to go home, to Atlantis, to my lab and the bad coffee and the idiots there who don't know basic trigonometry, and…can we go home?"

His voice rose at the end of his little speech and he looked over at John's knees and tried not to keep talking. John knew, had always known, that something like this, being kidnapped for hard labor by angry aliens, was one of the reasons Zelenka never came on off-world missions, not if he could help it, and Rodney wasn't fond of them much either. Except, if you had John Sheppard on your team, the possibility of coming home practically unscathed was near to 100% every time.

"Yeah," said John. His voice was soft. "I've been watching and asking around a little. The guards might check, but they never stop you from going through the gate, especially if you have a scarf on. All we have to get is a legitimate excuse, or what looks like one, and voila, we're off. Down to town and through the gate. Easy."

Sometimes John's easy schemes were harder than they looked, though Rodney knew that the most straightforward a plan was, the better chance it had of working.

"What will we use as an excuse?"

"Some errand that Henks sends us on. More spices or something. We'll figure it out." John patted Rodney's knee and then he froze. He peered up into Rodney's face, but Rodney turned away. He didn't want John smelling Ghent on him.

"You're shaking, Rodney."

"Nope," said Rodney, shaking his head, clenching his teeth tightly. "Seismic anomaly, that's what you're feeling. Look around, it's like Pompeii in here."

John wasn't fooled. "Rodney," he said in that tone that was a question and a warning all in one.

Rodney's shoulders slumped. He was on the verge of telling John, but couldn't tell him. "I'm tired. Just tired, down to the bone, and I promise I'll never have us go looking for coffee in an alien market again, so can we just sleep now and escape tomorrow?"

John nodded. "Okay, Rodney, okay. We'll sleep now, escape tomorrow. Here."

He rolled into the bed and arranged himself next to the wall and patted the pillow that they shared. "Tonight you get a whole blanket to yourself." And at Rodney's shocked look he said, "Don't think I don't know what you've been doing, only now I feel better enough to stop you doing it. Now, bed."

Rodney stretched out on the mattresses next to John, his head on the pillow, and pulled the blanket up to his chin. It was scratchy, nothing like Ghent's baby-bottom-soft sheets, but Rodney didn't care. John blinked at him, watching, not missing anything, but Rodney'd not told him, so there was no way John was going to find out.

They lay there till someone banked the stove and put out the gas lamp, and all of a sudden, John leaned forward and pressed his forehead to the side of Rodney's temple. Rodney almost jumped out of his skin, but it was John, just John, and John wouldn't ever hurt him.

"What?" he whispered in the dark.

"I swear to god I wouldn't have made it without you. I never get sick like that, never. If you hadn't done--whatever it was that you did--I'd be a pile of bones on the other side of some gate somewhere and--"

"Shut up," said Rodney. "Please just shut the hell up. I don't want your gratitude; you would have done the same for me, if the roles were reversed, and in fact, you have done, on many occasions in the past." None of it was easy to think about and he didn't want John to thank him for what he himself would have done.

"Well," said John, his hand on Rodney, "thank you anyway."

Rodney turned his head and their foreheads bumped, in the Athosean manner, and there was a little electric spark there, though John didn't touch him at all, other than that. It was just that it was John, there in the dark, alive and well and thinking straight and taking charge, and that's how it should be.

"Welcome," Rodney mumbled, trying to end the conversation.

Just then, John patted his face, so gently, and Rodney couldn't stand it anymore. He rolled up against John and buried his face in John's armpit, where he couldn't smell anything but John, and shook while John patted his back and didn't say anything at all.


In the morning, John didn't ask about the night before, but he didn't act like he minded Rodney shoving up against him, either. He stayed as close to Rodney as Rodney wanted him to be and they managed to eat side by side, and chop vegetables side by side, and Rodney knew that if it stayed like this always, he'd be a pretty happy guy, because even without Atlantis, he had John.

John bumped his shoulder every now and then, and Rodney caught the sparks in his eyes and it helped, even though he felt sore all over and there wasn't enough soap in all of Skandar to erase the traces of Ghent's rough hands on him. Still, he didn't want to tell John any of that, so he smiled and nodded, and kidded John about his apron, and made sure to give John a portion of his serving of meat, and enjoyed the cool drink of fresh water and sitting at the table, and the way everything sometimes seemed so normal. Even good.


After lunch, Henks sent them out to the woodlot to cut wood and pile it in neat rows under a tarp, as there was supposedly a storm on the way and more rain, and Henks didn't like smoky fires caused by wet wood.

"Pile it up to the mark, understood?'

Rodney nodded and led John out to the woodlot. It was hard to believe that there was a storm coming. It was almost warm, and the Skandar sun was pulsing through the clouds like it meant to break through and actually cast some shadows and light around the place.

As it was, the woodlot was still, and quiet and they cut wood side by side and Rodney, oddly, didn't feel the need to say much, and caught John looking at him with dark eyes. He knew John was worried about him, but he couldn't say anything. Not till they were away, maybe not even then.

Rodney almost felt the vibrations along the ground before he saw Ghent coming into the woodlot. It was the only afternoon, and Rodney couldn't imagine what Ghent wanted with him, or, if he wanted him, why he didn't send a messenger to come and fetch Rodney. It was almost like Ghent had betrayed a trust, the ultimate trust, in exposing himself to John's gaze. John wasn't stupid, he was anything but stupid. It would take him two seconds of watching Ghent say suggestive things to Rodney, or listening to him talk about the kind of sex they were going to have. Or even see Ghent's expression as he contemplated his less-than-stellar-in-the-sack attendant.

Except when Ghent came up, weaving his way amongst the woodpiles, it wasn't Rodney he was looking at all, but John. In fact he all but stared, sparing a single glance for Rodney before glaring at John.

John, being John, glared back, with an armful of wood and a mouth that was starting to sneer. Whatever John thought Rodney did for Ghent, however benign he thought it was, he sure didn't like Ghent much, that Rodney could see. But if John so much as spoke, it'd come out defiant and angry and Ghent could toss him through the ring, just like that. It was up to Rodney to step in.

"Ghent?" he asked, stepping forward, trying to put himself and his armful of wood between John and Ghent. "Did you need something? Some tea perhaps? I could come make it for you, right now. I'm sure Henks will understand, John can take a message to him to say I've been called away to attend you--"

Ghent cut him off with a wave of his hand, the kind a Skandar man could do and speak volumes. "You will come with me now." He was looking at John, and for a moment, Rodney thought he meant John and his heart made a painful leap in his chest. But Ghent looked at him and said, "You, kehk." He was sneering as he looked at Rodney.

Rodney nodded and laid the bundle of wood at his feet, and quickly trotted after Ghent as he left the woodlot. He didn't even have time to look at John and shrug, or to telegraph that it would be alright, or anything. He had to walk away and not look back.

Ghent led the way with long strides, and though Rodney was by no means short legged, he had to trot to keep up, slipping in the mud with his haste, and almost crashing into Ghent when they reached the great house.

"Upstairs," said Ghent, snapping. "Now."

Rodney hurried, trying to take steps two at a time, which he could do, if he was going somewhere in Atlantis that needed him or on an adventure with John. But here, it was just to follow Ghent, who was angry at something, and by the time he reached the top of the stairs, he was winded. Ghent didn't care, just grabbed Rodney hard by the arm and dragged him the rest of the way, slammed open the door and threw Rodney inside his quarters.

The fire was low, one or two gas lamps were lit and the bed was unmade. A small tray of food was sitting sideways on the desk, and it looked like whatever had drawn Ghent out of his quarters had interrupted a small snack. There was no tea cup out, though, and no tea things in sight.

"I'll make you tea, if you like," said Rodney.

Ghent whirled around, and banged the door shut behind him, and as Ghent loomed, Rodney curled his shoulders forward and ducked his head.

"Where is the tunic I gave you?" asked Ghent, growling. "Where is it now?"

It was all so clear, so quickly, what the problem was, why Ghent was angry, that Rodney made wild motions at the door and turned and started walking towards it. He intended to get to John and get the tunic off him and back at Ghent's side before Ghent could even consider being any angrier.

"You think you can mock me by giving my gifts away?" Ghent stopped him by grabbing his shoulder to whirl him around. "You think you can make me the laughing stock of the Second Camp by deigning to give something to a kehk? You are a kehk, you have nothing to give, how dare you--"

Ghent delivered a back-handed smack that was hard enough to smash Rodney against the door before he slid to the floor. His ears rang and his face throbbed, and he tried to soothe his jaw with his palm as he looked up at Ghent.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Really sorry. It's a nice tunic, a really nice one, all red and warm, and I would have worn it, even though I don't really wear red a lot - but John needed it, needed it for his chest so he wouldn't get cold, so he wouldn't get sick again."

"John?" Ghent spat this out as if completely disgusted by the fact that one kehk would call another by his real name. Some kehks had names, of course, but certainly not the dregs of the Third Camp.

"He's my friend," said Rodney, and as he watched Ghent's eyebrows raise and his hands turn into fists, Rodney stuck out his chin. "And he needed it--"

His subsequent flood of babbling excuses, which he had just waiting behind his next breath of air were stalled when Ghent turned and grabbed the strap from the hearth.

As Ghent advanced, huge boots clonking on the stone floor, all the bravery that Rodney had, or thought he had, left him, leaving in its wake crystals of ice that sprang into every pore. He closed his eyes and curled up into a small ball, arms squeezed across his chest. And let his mouth run.

"No, please, please, don't--I'm sorry, so sorry--please--"

The leather strap curled fast and hot around his shoulders, making Rodney jump and he had to open his eyes to see, yes, Ghent was clocking his arm all the way back and swinging his arm through the air with all the heartless brutality of a man who didn't care that there was flesh and bone at the other end. Ghent hadn't even asked him to get down, to pull his shirt up for the more civilized, control beating. Twenty blows, or even twenty five, were easier to bear if you could count through them. You could count the swing and the thud and vibrate through the pain that would, at last, come to an end.

This strap whistled, and as it curled around his shoulders, Rodney could feel the air snap around him. He pushed towards the door, and pressed his face against it, hands up to guard his head, but Ghent got in close and kicked him away from the door, making him sprawl across the floor, legs out, hands burning on the stone as he tried to stop himself.

But now Ghent had all the space he needed, and part of Rodney's brain could picture the narrow room and just how much cubic feet Ghent needed (and was using) to wield the strap. He hit Rodney with it, braced himself, pulled back his arm, and hit again. And each blow, more frantic and furious, cut harder and deeper, slicing open Rodney's brown tunic, right through to the bare skin beneath, leaving fire. And the snake-like vibration of searing pain all the way to his bones.

He tried to scrabble away, but each strike of the strap made his body curl in on itself, followed by a kick from Ghent to make him gasp and loose any connection between his brain and moving--and what would a hero do? What would John do? He would bear it, silently, gritting his teeth, and he would keep trying to get away to a place where he could fight back and yes, even flee if he had to. If he could, to come back and fight another day.

But Ghent's kicks were so hard, and the whipping hurt so much, that finally, as Ghent lay down three final blows, Rodney couldn't move at all. He could only lay gasping, his whole body twitching, mouth open, trying to blink past the tears he couldn't keep from forming and sliding on his cheeks.

But it was over, right? Ghent tossed the strap to one side, and then Rodney saw, horrified, that Ghent was taking off his belt. Rodney couldn't even move to get away, but he had a feeling that even Ghent's previous attention to detail (that is, lubrication), though minimal at best, would now be completely absent.

Ghent landed on him, tore off Rodney's trousers, and pushed Rodney down on his face, to spread his thighs wide across the cold stone, and began shoving himself into Rodney's body. It wasn't easy without any spit or slickness, but Ghent, fueled by his fury, pushed and pushed until something gave way, making Rodney scream and grasp and spread his hands wildly, trying to get some purchase on the stones, to pull himself away.

To stop him, Ghent hauled himself up on his knees, and Rodney with him, and obviously didn't care that their knees banged hard on the stones, he seemed beyond pain, not caring what pain he was causing. He grabbed Rodney's hips and shoved and pulled and pumped so hard, Rodney could feel his insides ripping, little screamingly hard rips, and a heat that built in nasty, feverish gallops. If he was bleeding, nothing was eased by it, as Ghent slammed and grabbed and pushed so hard that Rodney fell on his face, smashing his mouth on the stones as Ghent stiffed and pumped into him and fell on top of Rodney, shaking and hot, and gasping against the back of Rodney's neck.

He was very heavy and spent, but Rodney didn't dare move. His body felt hot all over except where his skin was pressed to the cold stones. He waited till Ghent hauled himself to his feet, then curled on his side, and tried to slow his breathing, and sucked on the heels of his hands and didn't look at Ghent.

But Ghent wanted to be looked at. He kicked Rodney in the stomach, more to get his attention than to hurt him, it seemed, as the kick wasn't very hard. "Kehk," said Ghent. "Get up and get out."

Rodney pushed himself up on one hand, and tried to stabilize his balance as he got to his feet. His stomach did several uncomfortable contractions, and suddenly he felt a blaze of hot fluid down the inside of his legs. Without looking at himself, he leaned to pull up his trousers, and to do the button, head bowed, hands shaking.

"Out," said Ghent. "And be prepared to come when I call."

Rodney staggered out into the hall, down the stairs and into the yard. He didn't know what to do now. Normally, he'd return to work. He'd find John and join up with him in whatever task it was at hand that needed to be done. He'd keep John's attention on other things, until he'd settled down, and John wouldn't see him shaking. But now?

It was too much, too obvious. He headed to the barracks and as he scurried to the washroom, he grabbed spare pants and tunic that were hanging by the pot bellied stone. The reek of the three-holed toilet in the relative warmth of the middle of the day overwhelmed him. Shaking, he slid to the floor and ducked his head against his knees and waited for his lungs to slow down and his heart to settle to normal thumping, and waited till the fever heat that dappled his forehead to go away. Then he wiped his face with the back of his sleeve.

He would need to clean up and change before he went back to the dining hall. He'd need to find a way to get any visible blood off him, as well, and figure out a good story for the raw state of his hands, and the bruise that was no doubt forming on his face. Bad tea. He'd say he'd been slow at making tea and then had made it badly and you know how temperamental Skandar men are about their tea, John--

That would work.

Rodney palmed himself up against the wall, and rested there a second, catching his breath, going over his story one more time. And then I spilled the fancy cookies he'd been preparing to have with his tea, so you can imagine--

It was simple, but the simple plans always worked best, he'd discovered, even though the more complicated ones were more fun, more interesting. And more distracting. Should he add some details to distract John even further? Or should he keep it the way it was?

The questions helped him not concentrate on the pain and heat between his legs, or the thumping streaks of fiery pain that vibrated across his back. He grabbed a washcloth, mostly clean, and not too moldy, and soaked it in the communal basin. He washed his face with it and then his neck, and peeled off his tunic to dab at the welts on his shoulder, wiping the pinpricks of bright red blood as gently as he could, only to have them replaced by more. That was almost a lost cause then, so he put the washcloth down and pulled on the borrowed tunic. They were all mostly the same size, and a dull brown that hid stains rather well, so, so far so good. He could stand the rasping feeling of wool on welts and bruises if John couldn't actually see them.

Still feeling hot and sweaty, he bent to toe off his socks and shoes, and was dismayed to find that blood had soaked into one of his socks. He undid the single button on his trousers and stepped out of the them as carefully as he could. His knees screamed at him and the backs of his thighs throbbed. He felt bruised all up and down between his legs, and yes, alas, a long trail of blood had made its way down his leg, curling along the push of thigh muscle to trace its way down along his calf to lace around his ankle. It had just about dried, which meant that maybe he wasn't bleeding so very badly, and that he'd be able to--

"What the hell is going on here?"

Rodney yelped and covered himself with his hands, then tried grabbing the end of the tunic to pull it as low as he could on his bare legs. John glared at him from the doorway.

"You going off with him in the middle of the day, it seemed kind of weird, so I snuck out--" John's gaze raked over him, glittering and green and not missing a thing. "What happened?"

"Please let me get dressed," said Rodney. "I can't explain if I'm naked." Actually he couldn't barely think with John staring at him like he was, naked or not.

John moved towards Rodney so quickly, that he seemed to aspirate right there, into Rodney's space.

"Get dressed then. I assume with these pants." He grabbed the pants that Rodney had laid on the edge of the sink. "And then you can explain why there's blood on your leg and why the side of your face is purple, and why you have welts all over. Rodney? Welts?" He said this almost as though it were Rodney's fault, somehow, that they'd ended up on a planet where slavery and brutality was everywhere. But really, he was probably yelling at Rodney because he was angry.

"It's nothing," said Rodney, voice shaking, legs shaking as he put the relatively clean pants on, one leg at a time. "And then I pissed him off by--well, and then, it got a little out of control--" He was completely missing the detail about the tea and the cookies but his throat closed up and he had to swallow with a big noisy gulp. And then he started sweating, and his stomach started cramping up. He bent forward, pressing his fist to his stomach, trying to breathe.

"What'd he do, Rodney?" asked John, somewhere above the mist of pain in Rodney's head.

Rodney shook his head. "Nothing, noth--" Oh, how he wanted to throw up. And was he bleeding again?

"What did he do, Rodney?" John asked again, this time hissing. "Why do you have blood on your--"

"He was mad that I gave you the red tunic," said Rodney. Shivering, he sank to the floor. He was no hero. He was going to start bleeding out of his ass in a completely undignified way, for all the world, for John, to see, and there was nothing he could do about it. "Let me just sit here," he said, waiting for the cramps to subside.

He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve and tried to think cool thoughts. He really wished, too, that somebody would just take his body and dump it in the compound, so the rain could soak him through to the bone. Wash away everything.

John crouched on his heels, touching Rodney's face with the back of his hand. Gently. His eyes blazed and he made Rodney look at him by guiding his chin with soft fingers. "Just tell me, did Ghent rape you? Did he?"

Rodney's mouth started to shake. If he thought it was bad putting up with Ghent beating and raping him, then having John find out made it a hundred times worse. But he couldn't say no, already his head was nodding, and his eyes began to sting and he scrubbed at them angrily with one hand.

"Get up then," said John. "Hey. We're getting out of here. Right now. Can you walk, you have to walk, we're getting out of here. Now."

That meant escape, that meant that John had figured out that it was time to put into motion their ultra-simple plan to get through the gate. Rodney let John pull him up and made himself breathe in and out as slow as he could, feeling like his whole body was on fire, and followed John to the door of the barracks. John opened it and looked out at the mostly empty compound, a few kehks on errands for their masters, the two guards at the gate, and the rain.

"But first," he said, low, turning his head back towards Rodney. "You're going to show me where Ghent is. Now."

Rodney nodded, and led the way to the great house, up the stairs and to the last door on the right. He didn't know what John had in mind, perhaps John was going to punch Ghent, or maybe beat him up and then demand an apology. John had his own, personal sense of justice, and usually it was swift and to the point.

The second Rodney pointed to the door, John snapped into action, barreling into Ghent's private quarters, and without a sound, pulled Ghent to his feet. Ghent, caught off guard and startled at the no doubt unusual sight of a kehk coming at him, made no move to defend himself. He left himself wide open, it seemed, for John's swift kick to his crotch, the elbow slam to his neck, and finally, the smash to his head worthy of any WWW wrestler.

Ghent tumbled to the ground, silent, still surprised, and John straddled him, legs splayed and punched him in the throat with a move Rodney thought he recognized from John's sparring bouts with Ronon. He heard a tiny snap follow the punch, and suddenly Ghent was grabbing his gaping mouth and making sounds like he couldn't get enough air.

"I broke your windpipe," said John, with perfect calmness, which made it even scarier for Rodney to watch. "And so now you can't breathe. You won't be able to call for help, even when I do this--"

John reached over to Ghent's desk and grabbed the knife that was leaning against a plate from Ghent's snack. He plunged it right into Ghent's stomach, and Rodney heard it gush through living flesh until it hit wood.

"You're pinned and unable to breathe, said John, his teeth bared. "And it'll be a sweet contest to see whether you bleed out or suffocate to death. Except I really don't care which way it goes. You hurt a member of my team, you hurt Rodney, and I don't give a fuck how long it takes you to die."

Blood pooled up around the knife as John twisted it back and forth once or twice, and some of it spurted up to dapple John's arm. Rodney could only stand there with his mouth open.

"Grab his boots," said John, standing up, moving back from Ghent's form.

"What?" gasped Rodney. His mind was still reeling with how fast John had moved, how deadly.

"That's our errand, his stupid boots. We each get one, no one will say a word. Now grab one. See any brightly colored cloth? We'll need scarves too."

Rodney reached down and picked up the heel and toe of one of Ghent's boots and started tugging. Ineffectually, Ghent struggled and pulled but he also gasped and groaned and spat blood out of his mouth. Ghent couldn't hardly resist, and so pulling a boot off was almost easy. Except for the fact Ghent kept trying to catch Rodney's eye, to speak, but only made bloody gurgling noises, and couldn't seem to focus.

Rodney stood up with the boot in his arms. It smelled like Ghent's feet, like the soap he used, but before he could think too much about this, John wiped the blood from his arm on the back of his pants.

Then John stopped and pulled off his brown tunic and then the red one. He yanked the knife out of Ghent's belly, which made the blood seep down Ghent's sides in horrible loud gulping pools. John used the knife to make strips out of the tunic, and handed Rodney a triangle-shaped piece to tie around his neck. He tied one around his own neck, and just then, before Rodney could blink, John bent down and stuffed the tunic in Ghent's gaping, gasping mouth, using two fingers to poke it down hard.

"There," said John, sarcastically kind as he pulled his brown tunic on. "You'll die a little quicker, thanks to Rodney's gift to you."

Then John he pulled Rodney out of the room. He shut the door quietly behind him, and hurried down the stairs, never letting go of Rodney.

At the bottom of the stairs, just before he went out the main door, he stopped. "No matter what, don't say anything. Look tired. Look put upon. But keep your mouth shut, got me?"

Rodney nodded, and swallowed and tried to keep up with John as they marched through the mud to the main gate. When John slowed down, Rodney did too, not even moving as much as to wipe the rain out of his eyes.

"Boots, eh?" asked one of the guards.

"He likes them tidy," said John, shaking his head. "But he wears them out."

"On you go, then," said the guard, and he waved his spear at John and Rodney as if he'd already wasted enough of his time on them. "Back before dark or we'll send a hunting party after you."

This made the other guard bark with laughter, for some reason, but John just kept walking, shaking his head as if annoyed at the tasks that lay before him. Rodney stuck to him like glue and marched along the muddy road that would take them down the mountain, trying to think like a man who had every right to be doing what he was doing. He was so freaked, he couldn't even unclench his jaw to ask John if they were alright, if they were going to make it, and probably that made John happy, which was good, because out of the corner of Rodney's eyes, he still looked pretty pissed.


They walked along the long muddy road down the mountain, and then through town with their heads high, each of them carrying a boot. John actually stopped at one of the shops and pretended to ask for directions, and the lady behind the wooden counter, looking completely bored, pointed down the street and told them that the leatherworking area was by the river.

John nodded, and pushed Rodney out of the store with his elbow. Rodney followed, almost shaking with his misery. He was wet up to the knees, and his ass hurt badly, rubbed raw inside and out. The welts on his back, grated on by the rough wool tunic had nothing on his ass. Even his aching knees couldn't come close.

By the time they made it through town to where the gate was, Rodney's been clenching the boot so hard, that his fingers had left marks, and now couldn't uncurl. His fingers were numb. In fact, as he and John lingered in a doorway, eying the stargate, he realized he couldn't feel a thing, inside or out. He knew he was tensed up and he could hear John shifting beside him but he couldn't feel anything. The only sensation available to him was the pressure on the top of his head, pushing him adown, and there was a buzzing in his ears, ringing like he'd just taken a blow to the head.

John looked at him and his mouth opened and when he put his hand on Rodney's arm, Rodney jumped back, slamming into the wall behind him, nearly cracking his head open on the overhang.

"I can't go," he said. "I can't go back there."

"What?" John was almost distracted as he watched people in the town, gauging how they moved, where they stopped.

"I said I can't go back there." He held onto Ghent's boot even tighter. "I can't."

But John ignored him, and dumped his boot in the mud. He reached for Rodney to pull him, but Rodney moved back. Then he yanked on Rodney's shirt collar and pulled him right up to the gate and dialed it with one hand. No one was watching as the DHD clicked and hummed and when the wormhole opened, Rodney felt his heart stop cold.

Finally John turned to him, letting him go. "What is your problem?"

"They'll know what happened to me," said Rodney. He knew he was blathering, but he couldn't make himself stop. "And I can't let them know, they mustn't know, don't you understand?"

"C'mon Rodney, cut the crap--"

"Beckett will send me to Heightmeyer, and besides being completely ineffectual and so, so less than useful, the word will get out, and they'll make fun of me, and frankly, if that's bad it's nothing to the fact that they never, ever give Nobel Prizes to victims of rape, I mean, have you ever heard--"

"No, Rodney, that's not important now, you have to come with me. We're going home, don't you get it? Or did he smack you that hard that your brains have all shifted to stupidity?"

Normally this would make Rodney pissed off to defend himself even though he knew full and well John was kidding. Not this time. He felt perfectly calm. "They already don't like me."



"I like you."

"Well, this will give everyone else the excuse they've been waiting for, to point and poke and make fun, because--"

"You're serious," said John, looking at him steadily; his chest rose and fell shakily and Rodney knew that this was stressing John out enough to affect his breathing. But Rodney couldn't make himself stop.

"You're not going to come unless I promise not to tell?" asked John, his voice growing ragged.

Rodney's heart thudded in his chest, but at last, John was really listening to him. It had been bad enough having John find out exactly how much Rodney was not a hero. Heroes didn't let that happen to them, or if it did, they soldiered on, and never complained and all Rodney wanted to do was lay down and die, he hurt so bad all over.

"Rodney," said John. "Let go of that boot and step into the wormhole like a good alpha team member and I promise I won't tell anyone."

"You promise?"

John nodded. He reached out his hand, and it didn't, Rodney noted, shake, not even a little. "I promise." He smiled a little bit, but it was an insincere smile.

Rodney's head was pounding so hard he couldn't think straight. "I need a hot shower before I go back," he said, just as he thought it.

"You'll get one, but only on Atlantis, not here. So if you put that down, and come with me." John reached his hand closer, and grabbed the boot out of Rodney's hands. "Just do it now," said John, so loudly that people turned to notice the wormhole. John started to cough, but he put his arms around Rodney's shoulders and pulled them both through.

Chapter Text

Lay Me Down So - Part III

The second they stepped through the gate, Rodney crashed to his knees, and John wasn't that far behind. It was nighttime in Atlantis, or so it seemed. Atlantis never slept, but the large lights were dimmed for the deepest part of night. Even in the dimness, the floor seemed to shimmer beneath his hands; he'd almost forgotten how slick and clean the floors were.

There were only three people manning the main console. All of them stood up at once, and Rodney could hear them activate their in-ear communicators.

He raised his voice to make sure he was heard. "Get a medic down here quick, get Beckett."

He didn't mean for himself of course, he was right as rain, but John was bent over coughing and it would prove the perfect decoy. The more attention was focused on John, the less would be paid to Rodney. Beckett usually half-ignored his complaints anyway, and Rodney knew he was considered a hypochondriac by most if not all of the medical staff. Usually that made him feel prickly and irritated but this time around it was going to suit him just fine.

"Dr. Beckett is on his way," said someone and Rodney ignored them in favor of turning to John, to rub his back and try and help, as best he could. But in the back of his mind, he knew this was perfect, couldn't be more perfect: John was gasping and coughing and shaking and so when Beckett showed up with a stretcher and a medical team, his eyes went right to noisy John.

"I'm okay," said John, trying to breathe between each word. He also was trying to resist being put on the stretcher.

Beckett spared a glance for Rodney. "Are you alright then?"

"I have blisters and hangnails," snapped Rodney. "But he's got walking pneumonia or bronchitis, or at the very least, a bad cough, which you are, by the way, hearing right now. He's had since almost the day we got captured, so why don't you get him to the infirmary rather than chit chatting with me?"

His tone, nothing more than Beckett probably expected, had the right effect. Beckett's attention slid back to John, because he knew, as everyone did, if Rodney was the least bit hurt, he'd make it known, loud and clear.

"Fine," said Beckett. "You can follow; I'll give you a once over and stamp your card so you can be on your way."

Of course, there was no real card, it was just Beckett's old-fashioned phrase, but Rodney followed the stretcher's swift flight to the infirmary, and all the while everything between his legs felt raw and abused. He thought about technology and whether the scanners could catch what happened to him. Maybe, if the scanners were adjusted for high resolution, like for a nanites, but if Rodney didn't say anything, then Beckett wouldn't change the settings, right?

In the infirmary, all was bustle with lights coming on and the nighttime staff moving like a five star general had arrived. John was moved onto a bed and hooked up with wires and tubes and monitors and solutions. Rodney turned away and went into a little alcove and gingerly lowered himself onto a contoured plastic chair. It didn't hurt to sit, not too much, not if he was careful and besides sitting on the one part of him that hurt the most would keep Beckett well in the dark about what had happened. He was concentrating on this so hard, he was startled when Beckett showed up right in front of him.

"Okay, Rodney," said Beckett. He fiddled with the pockets of his lab coat, as if distracted by thoughts of actually being in bed asleep instead of having to deal with any sick people. But that wasn't fair; Beckett was a good doctor, and, day or night, he wanted to help. But not too much, Rodney didn't want him to help too much.

"Let's go in here," said Beckett as he gestured to one of the smaller exam rooms. "The scanners have been down all day and once you're back on your feet maybe you can take a look? But for now…" Beckett turned and led the way.

Rodney got up to follow him. This was even better--a broken scanner? By the time it was fixed (and by someone else; Rodney was far too important for basic maintenance tasks like that), the exam he was about to undergo would already have been written up and filed and a mound of paperwork would have buried it. Beckett would have no time, and, hopefully feel no need, to bring Rodney back in to submit to the scanners. And even if he did, it would be weeks out and his body would be all healed--

Rodney smiled and went into the room and sat on the exam table; in less than ten minutes, he'd be in his own room having a good hot shower with all of this behind him.

Except Beckett wasn't smiling.

He closed the door and stood in front of it with his hands behind his back, as though he were resting them on the door knob.

"Dr. McKay," said Beckett, frowning. "I need you to listen to me and I need you to cooperate with me."

"Carson?" asked Rodney.

"Colonel Sheppard told me what happened--"

Rodney leaped off the table and went to the door, but even as he reached around Beckett for the knob, Beckett stood his ground.

"--on pain of death not to tell anyone, or write it down anywhere--but he's worried about you and so am I."

"Let me out of here." Rodney couldn't stand it; the whole world was ganging up on him, especially John, who had betrayed him. His whole skin felt like bits of him had been ripped away. "Right now, god damnit!"

"You even so much as set foot outside that door before I've had a chance to make sure you're okay, and I'll have two marines slap you in that scanner so fast your head will spin." Beckett seemed quite firm on this and was unperturbed by Rodney standing so close to him.

"I thought you said the scanner was broken!" He couldn't believe Beckett had lied to him, that John had promised him, and then--

"To get you in here, to keep you calm," Beckett explained. "Now, if you let me do this, let me check you over, I'll write down hangnails and blisters and a sprained elbow, whatever you like and I won't tell Heightmeyer or anyone. If you let me look at you and you follow my course of treatment--rest, fluids, healthy diet, Lorazepam--"

"I don't need tranquilizers!"

"Of course you do, Rodney, you've been traumatized--"

"I am not traumatized!" Rodney felt his voice booming out of his chest in a way that would have had every lab attendant scurrying. "I'm a little freaked out, yes, but--"

"You're not freaked out and especially you're not shaking so hard I can hear your teeth clicking together from here."

"Non-nonsense," said Rodney, but he knew it was true, his secret was out and as he looked at his hands, they were fluttering like leaves. He clutched his tunic, which was starting to smell really bad in the warm, still air of the closed room, and he looked at Beckett, feeling hopeless.

"I'll take some blood and look at it myself--I'll make it all quick and painless, but Rodney, you have to let me--"

He stopped and looked at Rodney, his eyes sad.

It seemed there was no way out of this, not when Beckett looked like that.

"You won't tell anyone?" Rodney asked, hating it that he was whispering.

"Not on my Hippocratic oath, I won't, not unless something's terribly wrong or you develop some--" Here Beckett started moving towards Rodney, his movements slow and careful. "But you look hale and hearty, Rodney, so you should be fine. I just want to make sure, understand?"

Rodney backed up and slumped, feeling like a wire had been snapped inside of him. The back of his head banged against the glass door of a medicine cabinet, sending the contents rattling.


He felt Beckett's hand on his arm and tried to focus on what was happening. The floor seemed to be moving up and down, and the room, was getting a little dark.

"Just sit in the chair, for now," said Beckett.

Rodney sat down, and barely felt Beckett use a needle to take some blood from his arm, though usually Rodney would scream long and loud at how useless and painful and barbaric it all was.

Then he felt Beckett's hands on his face, cool fingers on his skin, almost putting him in a trace at how gentle they were, how careful, how like John's.

Beckett pressed various places beneath Rodney's jaw and Rodney heard him mutter and proclaim as he touched the side of Rodney's face.

"Does this hurt, of course it does, glands look good, you're going to be fine now. We'll get you some ibuprofen…"

Rodney let himself float away on this. It was, like listening to the chitterings of a mouse in the floorboards, though Atlantis had no floorboards where mice would hide, and no mice, not like on Earth.

Then Beckett paused a moment to take Rodney's temperature with the ear thermometer.

"Okay, Rodney," said Beckett as he slid the instrument in his pocket. He put his arm gently under Rodney's elbow and tugged. "Stand up for me now, and put your hands on the table."

Rodney felt cold all over and clamped his mouth tightly shut, breathed through his nose and seethed. He was never going to forgive John for opening his big fat mouth and telling. For all he played everything so close to the chest for himself, he sure could blab about anyone else's business in a damn hurry--

"Rodney, hold on to the table and take a few deep breaths."

Rodney hung on so tightly to the edge of the table that his knuckles cracked.

Beckett touched his hip. "Let down your trousers for me, Rodney, or I can do it, if you prefer."

Rodney felt a rush of bitter acid in his mouth; if Beckett wanted to poke and prod at Rodney's ass, then he could just do it himself. But the best he could manage was a grunt as he kept absolutely still. Then he heard the snap of rubber exam gloves and felt it all at once, Beckett's hand on the button of his trousers, and cool, dusty feel of Beckett's gloved hand on his bare hip as his trousers slid partway down.

"Bend forward, just a wee bit," said Beckett in his I'm-looking-but-not-looking voice that he used to soothe Rodney's modesty. He said it so slowly and gently that it made Rodney start to shake all over again. He closed his eyes and wished himself a million light years away as Beckett's finger traced a line beneath his buttocks to touch gently, oh so gently, Rodney's anus, making him jump and hiss.

"There is some dried blood, here," said Beckett, "but nothing fresh. Is it sore, of course it is--sharp pain or dull?"

One of Beckett's fingers pressed a little way in, making Rodney draw in his breath so sharply, he started to cough. "Dull," he said, gasping.

Beckett's hand dropped away, only to lift the back of his tunic. "You have a lot of welts and bruises, some of them deep, they're even worse than what I saw on Colonel Sheppard. They look bad, can I--"

"Those are none of your business," said Rodney, as he fastened his pants.

"You can let go of the table now," said Beckett, after a pause. Then he dropped Rodney's shirt and turned away as if this were all an everyday thing, and Rodney was so grateful it was over that he wanted to cry.

"Let me get you some drugs."

As Rodney stood and wiped his hands on his stomach over and over, Beckett snapped off the exam gloves and then opened the cabinet and was rummaging around. Rodney made himself stare at the pale blue walls. Everything looked clean and bright and smooth; it made his eyes ache. He thought about everything looked just at it had been, nothing had changed. But he had changed, all over and inside and out, and if the Atlantis grapevine hadn't changed also, then--

"Here," said Beckett. He handed Rodney a pile of bottles and a small tube. "Ibuprofen, 800 mg every four hours till you don't hurt any more, two week's worth of antibiotics just in case (and the blood test will tell us more), some cream you can put on anything that feels tender, and some Lorazepam--"

"I told you I don't need tranquilizers!" Rodney grabbed all the bottles and clutched them to his chest.

"There are only ten pills in there, and yes, they're addictive, but I want you to take one now, and then cut some in half and take half of one for a few days, and then check back with me to follow up."

Rodney couldn't do anything but scowl. He'd thought he'd be happy to come home, but he wasn't. Not when there was all this poking and prying into his private affairs. It was nobody's business but his own what had happened to him and he aimed to keep it that way.


"Fine," said Rodney. "I'll check back."

He brushed past Beckett and opened the door with the edges of his fingers, and kept a tight grip on his meds. The last thing he wanted was to drop them and have someone come over to help him. They'd smell the filth of his clothes, and perhaps inquire whatever was the matter?

He strode through the infirmary, trying not to look right or left, but of course, there was John, with a breathing mask on, and tubes in his arms, and his dark eyes narrow, as though he were just trying to sleep. His glance caught Rodney's and his eyes opened, or tried to. He raised a hand, lifting it and the IV tube, and gestured at Rodney as if he wanted him to come closer.

Rodney froze, wanting to go, but it was as if John had cut into him, cleaving down to the bone, exposing him to Beckett and thence, from there, to all of Atlantis, that Rodney had whored himself out without barely batting an eye--but this only froze him further. John didn't really know.

Sure, he knew that Ghent had raped Rodney and then John had killed Ghent and so, to him, that's all there was, it was done. Which was why he wanted Rodney to come over, for a little middle-of-the-night tête-à-tête, so John could ask, we're cool, right? Because, in John's mind, they were. Except there was more to it than that, a whole lot more, and Rodney wanted to keep his deal with Ghent private, now more than ever. Besides, it made him feel itchy all over to see John watching him, when he knew that John knew what had happened.

So he scowled at John and turned on his heel and walked away. He didn't want to see or know what John wanted.

Yet, as he walked under the silver and blue archways, he was shaking head to foot and his eyes kept skidding along the length of the slick hallway, lit dim for night, and along the watery smooth floor. Skidded and slipped until his eyes felt raw and his brain ached with the complete and utter lack of filth. It would take some time getting used to, just like it had taken time to get used to the relative chaos on Skandar. He knew he would adapt in a day or so, but right now his brain crawled around frantically and his lungs felt dry, taking in the paper smooth air.

He went out into the corridor and walked as fast as he could. He knew the way to his quarters, he could get there in his sleep. He had, on many occasion, when finally leaving the lab late, late at night, found himself standing next to his bed, half undressed, with a shoe in one hand. So though he'd been away, his feet directed his brain and he was home, finally, the door sliding open and a rush of dry, cool, slightly stale (who had been working on the scrubbers while he'd been away?) swirled around his head.

Everything was familiar and yet strange, with everything as he'd left it, nothing out of place, yet so empty. He went over and dumped the meds on the bed and tore off all his clothes and tossed them in the recycle chute. He even punched the shoes in there, thick with mud and alien ox shit and who knows what else. He never wanted to see them again.

The smell of Skandar, and the camps, was still on his skin, like a low, searing pain. He got into the shower and took up the soap (blessed Atlantis-smelling soap) and scrubbed himself all over, sluicing the suds gently between his legs, being a little more rough on his head, glossing over his shoulders, where the welts were. They positively sizzled when even a little soap hit them.

When he got out, he rubbed himself dry and stood in front of the mirror to shave his face and clip the back of his hair with the scissors he kept in the drawer. He didn't look at himself while he did any of this, because he knew what he'd see: besides bruises all over and circles under his eyes, he'd see the traces of Ghent, there in his face, and it would feel like it all had just happened. Which, yes, it had, but he didn't want to linger over it, didn't want to think about it.

Instead, he brushed his teeth, twice, flossed, and then brushed again. His mouth felt like he'd ravaged it, but at least it was finally clean. He clipped his fingernails and toenails right down to the quick, throwing the clippings in the trash.

Then, as he looked at the shower stall and the beads of water sliding down the glass and tile, he turned on the water and hopped in again, for a quick rough scrub. By the time he got done a second time, and dried himself off, his skin felt raw all over, but at least he was, clean, clean, clean.

He stood there for a moment, trying to focus on what he should do next. If he'd been back on Skandar, it was early evening, with the washing up from lunch still to do and the prep for supper--

Shaking his head, he put the towel on the rack and made himself not thing of these things. He was home, Atlantis was all around him, and John--John was going to get better, be 100% healthy and--

He reached into his second drawer and pulled out a soft t-shirt and some boxers and put them on and stuck out his chin and didn't let his mouth wobble. John had betrayed him, plain and simple, and Rodney wasn't going to speak to him ever again. And if he did speak to him, it would be about business, about the running of Atlantis, and nothing else. He would probably have to ask to be assigned to another team, or stop going off-world altogether, seeing as this is how it went: when you went with John, you had adventures, and not always the fun kind. From which you came back so changed that you could hardly recognize yourself.

His hands reached out to the bottles and the tube on the bed. He took the ibuprofen first, swallowing it back, and then realized he needed water. So he got a glass and sat on the bed, making the bottles run into the dent made by the weight of his thigh. He took the antibiotic and then held the tube in his hand, and put it on the dresser. Then he looked at the Lorazepam, the medicine for crazy people, and he wasn't crazy, and then he realized that all the pills where jumping up and down like Mexican beans were supposed to, so he put the bottle down and looked at it some more.

Maybe he'd do it just like Beckett had said, take one and then take half of one for a few nights, just to settle himself back into the routine. He could, of course, get dressed and go to the lab and see what disasters awaited him, created oh-so lovingly by his less-than-competent staff. Had they missed him, had Zelenka missed him? Or had they barely noticed he was gone, and would be dismayed to find him back?

John, of course, would get the hero's welcome. There'd be the Atlantis facsimile of a ticker tape parade, and as much rejoicing as was ever heard in the well polished hallways. John would be fine, and he'd slip right in, and Rodney--

Well, right now, he never wanted to leave his room again. And he didn't need those stupid pills, so he wasn't going to take them.

Going into the bathroom one more time, he started to feel his muscles easing up, and some of the ache in his back and neck go away; the ibuprofen was kicking in. He opened the tube, and used the cream between his legs, wiping his fingers on a tissue when he was through. Then he washed his hands, and then turned out the lights. Got into bed, and sighed, right from his toes, as his head hit the pillow.

Yes, his whole body hurt, especially the welts on his back, where the blood seemed to be pounding right beneath his skin. Still, he was lying on his own personal mattress, so yes, it was good to be home.

Except there was a sound beneath his bed, and something popped near the window. He closed his eyes; he wasn't afraid of the dark. He was afraid of small spaces, and being trapped beneath thousands of feet of water, sure, but who wasn't. He wasn't afraid of the dark and especially not the common, familiar dark of his own room.

There it was again, a pop and a crack, and then a sigh as if there was something or someone in the room.

He sat up and flicked on the light and stared, hard, at every corner and shadow that the lamp made. He even got up and went to the bathroom and flicked the light on, and then left it. It wouldn't do any harm to leave the light on, until he became readjusted to his surroundings.

Then he got back into bed.

Ten minutes later he was up again, turning on all the lights, and almost crying with the frustration of it, not knowing where the sound was coming from, and unable to turn off his attentiveness to it. Still, he made himself get back into in bed, and kept his eyes closed, knowing that sooner or later he would fall asleep.


He woke up, feeling like his chest had been cracked wide open and he was bleeding out, blood soaking warm into the mattress. He spread his hand out, surprised to find only cool sheets and no blood, no John. Of course, it was something he had to get used to now, sleeping alone and John-less. What they had on Skandar had been a kind of desperate closeness and nothing that was needed in the clean, straightforward environs of Atlantis. And surely nothing John would want, now that they were both back safe and sound.


The clock face showed him that only an hour had passed since he'd gotten into bed the last time, and that it had been less than six hours since their return. But the impulse (desperate and nerve-jarring) to make sure John was okay had been ingrained into him, hard and fast and messy. So it wasn't something to be gotten rid of that easily, right? What harm would it cause if he were to check on John one more time before giving into the return to normalcy that was now his life? (Blood-sucking Wraith notwithstanding, of course.)

He got up in the dark, got dressed, pulling on something loose and soft from his dresser. Desperate haste started building in his chest as he slipped on some shoes, and forgetting socks altogether, used the nearest transporter to zip him to the infirmary.

The lights were low, in deference to the cycles and rhythms of the human body, but it was light enough for Rodney to see John in his bed, circled in the glow of the light from the night nurse's desk. The nurse was one of Beckett's finds, a man named Howard something-or-other, who had, according to Beckett's stream of accolades, steady hands, a quiet mouth, and a terrific bedside manner. Which Rodney was now going to test as he realized his own hands were shaking a little bit and if Nurse Howard so much as hinted that Rodney wasn't allowed near John for some reason or other, Rodney was going to come apart and take Nurse Howard with him.

He walked up to John's bed as if he did belong there, and Howard came up, dark hair and dimples, wearing scrubs and an infirmary badge.

"How's it going, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney opened his mouth, on the verge of retorting with something snappish and rude that would send Nurse Howard on his way, when he realized that Howard's greeting was followed by Howard lifting the electronic chart to tap it and squint at the contents. Then he looked up and smiled at Rodney.

"Here's the update," said Nurse Howard, as though Rodney had actually asked for it. "He had a bad cold and a sinus infection, which turned into acute bronchitis. But it's viral rather than bacterial, so--"

Rodney waved him off. He knew the drill, viral infections didn't get antibiotics. Still.

"What about the sinus infection, surely you're giving him something for that?"

"Yes," said Nurse Howard, still being pleasant in spite of Rodney's acerbic tone, and as if Rodney had every right to be there. "Antibiotics for that and a banana bag full of vitamins and potassium and saline to stabilize his system and get fluids into him. Dr. Beckett wants to keep him another 24 hours, just to make sure he rests because you know how Colonel Sheppard is." Here Nurse Howard stopped to give Rodney a half smile, seeming to be oblivious to Rodney's amazed surprise that Dr. Beckett was doing everything exactly right, everything Rodney would have demanded Beckett do, had not Beckett waylaid him and caught him off guard.

"Anyway, he should be out tomorrow, right as rain." Nurse Howard touched the cannula beneath Jon's nose, adjusting it, and then gave John's still hand a pat. "I'll give you guys some space, but don't wake him, okay? He needs rest; it's the best thing for him."

Rodney nodded and watched Nurse Howard return to his desk to go through files or whatever it was he normally did. While Rodney struggled with an almost outrageous gratitude for the small kindness of a moment alone.

He turned to John and on impulse circled his fingers around John's wrist (the IV-free one) and gave a small squeeze. John's skin was warm, almost soft beneath his fingers, and a good kind of a shiver went through Rodney. Yes, he was pissed at John for telling Beckett what he ought not to have told him, but not in this small space, in the quiet darkness, he could feel that it was all worth it. That he'd saved John and made it possible for John to save him, to bring them both back to Atlantis in one piece, and together they would go on taking care of everyone in Atlantis--well, not together, because he pretty much didn't want to be around John anymore; John had betrayed him and if he let himself feel it, it was almost like John had broken his heart.

Besides which, John would want a swift and speedy return to the status quo, even though what they'd been through was the furthest thing from the quo that Rodney had ever encountered. It was twisted to want to be back there again, just to have some skin-on-skin, so Rodney didn't want that, oh no he didn't. Rodney wanted John up and around, hale and hearty, flying puddlejumpers with the glee of a kid on a tricked-out skateboard. But for now, in this moment, Rodney let himself feel that ache and loss, a wide-open, carved out section of his heart where no light would probably ever shine again.

He bent close and pushed the straggly, out-of-order hair from John's forehead and kissed him there.

"This is me, saying goodbye," he whispered to John's skin. "But you'll never even notice that I'm gone."

Rodney straightened and rubbed his hands together, fiercely clamping his mouth shut. He'd keep it as normal between them as he possibly knew how. Even if it killed him.

Back in his room, he sighed and gave in and took one of the Lorazepam pills and swallowed it down, dry. It was so small, he barely felt it go down. Then he turned off the overhead light and got into bed. And waited.

Sure enough, everything started spinning round and round. Not in a scary way, but lazy, like it knew it could overtake you and it didn't have to rush. This is what psychopathic drugs did to you, they messed with you, and messed hard. No fooling around. Why people became addicted to feeling this loopy was beyond him, but he was definitely going to complain to Beckett about it in the morning.


When he awoke in the morning, with the sun streaming in through his windows, it was after a night without dreams. He'd thought he'd dream, and had been sure it would have been awful, but there was nothing, just a vague feeling of cotton mouth and a stomach that wanted food. Now. He reached beside him, thinking for a minute, where was John, was John okay? As though John was still dependant on him to stand and to breathe and everything else.

He opened his eyes. The sheets were hardly ruffled as if he'd not moved the entire night. He felt mostly okay, he realized. He was sore all over, and his back was killing him, because adjusting to any sleeping surface, even if his mattress in Atlantis was superior to the pallets on Skandar, made it hurt. Plus the welts; he'd slept on his back all night long and he'd be feeling it all day.

The space next to him in the bed next to him was unoccupied, and his hand, outstretched, touched only emptiness.

No, he wasn't going to think like that. He and John had spent a lot of time together, but it hadn't been fun or anything like that. They'd gotten to watch each other pee and shit and down bowls of grey slop and wipe the rain out of their eyes. It was nothing he wanted to go back to. He was home and safe, and so was John, and their lives would go on, and why was he feeling like part of him was missing?

He shook his head and made himself sit up, groaning as he pressed down into tender sore spots. He looked down. His body was a mess of bruises. There were marks everywhere, stripes of purple and black around his hips, and his stomach was blotchy with color. There was a large, dark handprint on his hip that must have come from--

He got up. He would get dressed. No, wait, he'd take a shower, take his drugs (minus the Lorazepam) and then go get something to eat. There wouldn't be a hero's welcome for him, but there'd be food. Fresh, hot food, and plenty of it. Eggs. Bacon. Toast. Coffee.

Then he looked at the clock, saw that it was late, almost 10 o'clock, and started getting dressed so fast that he almost fell on his face. But there was no time for that. His life awaited him.

And then the door chimed. He went to open it, feeling normal, so normal, to be irritated at being interrupted.

It was Elizabeth.

"Can I come in?" she asked and he let her in, thinking how clean she looked, how bright and cheerful and found himself smiling in return to her smile.

"I won't stay long," she said, "as I know you have a lot to catch up on. I did get the prelim medical report back from Beckett, you came out of this relatively unscathed, but he's insisting on at least a week being off duty. Which leaves you with a lot of time on your hands. So do you think you can a least work on a mission report during that time?"

Her smile was teasing because they both knew he could do a mission report in his sleep. Except, probably, this time around, he'd be skimming over the really bad parts, leaving out some events altogether. Which is what John would do. Not that Rodney cared about what John would do anymore.

Elizabeth reached out to touch his arm, in that way she had, practiced, efficient, right from the leader-of-Atlantis code book. Still, he nodded, and felt more at home doing it than he ever thought possible.

"I'll get right on that, right after I've had some coffee."

That made her laugh and the door whooshed shut behind her as she left.


On the way to the mess hall, the first person he bumped into was Ronon. Literally, he bumped into Ronon, which sent him two feet in the air. He'd forgotten Ronon's sheer height and the breadth of his shoulders and just for once second, Rodney thought that Ghent had somehow, inexplicably, shown up in Atlantis.

Rodney almost yelped, but Ronon, looking sleek and healthy as he always did with his hair spilling down in dreadlocks, didn't notice or pretended not to. But Rodney's whole body took a step back as Ronon stepped towards him. Luckily Ronon didn't reach out to touch him or the buried yelp would have turned into a shriek. Ronon froze in place and looked at Rodney steadily.

"You just back?" asked Ronon, although it was obvious to them both that of course he was back. It sounded more like Ronon was making a statement rather than asking an actual question.

"Actually, yes, as you can see. Yesterday, late last night, John--Colonel Sheppard and I, he's in the infirmary now--"

Rodney stopped, mouth flapping open and wondered how long he would feel like this, so overwhelmed by what had happened to him and where he'd been that he was completely unable to articulate any of it.

"I'm on my way to see him now," said Ronon. Though, it occurred to Rodney that if Ronon meant to see John in the infirmary, there was a much shorter route than via the one to the mess hall.

"Thought I'd check on you," said Ronon.

"Uh," said Rodney. He eyed Ronon, feeling confused at the thought of anyone checking on him. Except that Elizabeth had done the very same thing not half an hour earlier.

"Just take it slow," said Ronon.

Now Rodney nodded and thought if anyone would understand the difficulty of transitioning from a scary, muddy, hellish existence to the sleek halls of Atlantis, it would be Ronon.

Rodney watched him go and wondered if he could put off eating. His stomach instantly told him no.

The mess hall wasn't too crowded but that was probably because it was mid-morning now and certainly all the people he knew and worked with were hard at work, in the labs chalking up computer time. As he stood there with a tray in his hands, he felt like he was alone at the top of a tall, rainy hill, though the sun was shining and it streamed through the windows creating, warm, golden paths on the floor.

But he wasn't alone, was he. No, he wasn't, and there was plenty of food. He got coffee and eggs and toast and everything that looked good, until his plate and tray were overflowing. He sat down at one of the tables with a thump, his utensils clattering off the tray and onto the table. People were looking, and Rodney wanted John, right beside him, solid and calm.

He was not going to make it if he kept going like this. He needed to keep calm.

"You alright, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney looked up. It was one of the cooks, some no-name guy who worked in the kitchen. One of those fools who did his best to sneak citrus into the food to try and kill him.

Rodney opened his mouth and was going to yell, to spend all his wired-up energy telling the cook just exactly what Rodney thought of him and his food, when he saw the cook tightening up as if for a blow. He reminded Rodney of the kehks, who were always doing that very same thing.

This froze Rodney cold.

"Uh," he said instead. "I just got back, long, off-world mission, still settling in--"

The cook relaxed, then nodded, looking completely relieved.

"I heard you were gone," said the cook. "You and Colonel Sheppard and you're back now." He pointed to the tray on the table. "You need anything?"

The kitchen staff was never this felicitous and it was driving Rodney crazy. But the last thing he wanted was to be anything like the guards on Skandar, so he clamped his mouth shut and shook his head, and tried for something a little more moderate. "Just better coffee," he said.

The cook smiled. "We're always working on that," he said. Then he left Rodney alone, presumably to go back to work, cutting vegetables, and putting the scraps in a bowl for the livestock--Except, there was no livestock on Atlantis. Unless you counted the Athosean livestock on the mainland, maybe they saved scraps for them. Rodney found that he didn't have the slightest idea, and would never have even wondered about it. That is, before Skandar.

Rodney ate until he was full, which happened much more quickly than it had in the past. He bussed his own table and went back to his quarters and felt tired and lonely and itchy all over. But he wasn't sleepy, so he stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt, and sat at his desk to open his laptop, finding he felt a little less shocky and strange with the comfortable square of his laptop under his fingers.

He had over a thousand e-mails, but he wasn't over his limit because early on he'd set his controls to have an unlimited in box. Around half of the e-mails had been filtered into their respective folders, to be dealt with when he had time. Which was now. And like the brainless work of cutting vegetables in the Second Camp kitchen, sorting through e-mails felt settling and soothing. Except, who the hell was sending him supply requisitions as though he were the quartermaster?

He answered Zelenka's e-mails first, one of which was a request to check Zelenka's methodology on a personal project, and Rodney shook his head, wondering why Zelenka was messing with spontaneous parametric down-conversion when the desalinization tanks were waiting? But then there was another e-mail that reported that Zelenka was working on both at the same time, so that was okay.

Then he answered the e-mails that looked like they were really waiting for something from him, rather than him being in the chain of communication, simply as an FYI. Those (and anything from the Botany department) he threw away. It all felt much more normal when he was finished.

He took another shower, and pulled on clean boxers and a t-shirt and crawled back into bed, to fall asleep fast and wake up starving. He sat up, and took all the pills, including the Lorazepam.

It was only early evening, but he was hungry, so he stumbled on the brilliant idea of asking for food to be delivered. They did that in the infirmary all the time, didn't they, so why not to his room? Especially since he was, ostensibly, according to the duty roster, an invalid. Plus, that way, he wouldn't risk running into anyone. Not Ronon, or John (assuming he got out of the infirmary early), not anyone.

He used the intercom on his desk, and got someone in the kitchen. To his surprise, they were only too happy to oblige him. "Yeah, we'll send something from the supper menu right away, no problem."

Not ten minutes later, a covered tray arrived, delivered by someone from the kitchen. As Rodney placed it on his desk, and took off the cover, he saw that he'd gotten chicken fried chicken, white gravy, green beans, and even pie for desert.

Rodney ate what he could, then put the tray in the hallway, like he was at a hotel. He took another shower, and then went back to bed, just as all the drugs kicked in. He didn't want to live like this forever, but for the meanwhile, it was nice to be able to zone out.


When he woke up the next morning, he was groggy and his mouth and throat felt thick, like someone had painted the insides of it with glue. He got up and drank two glasses of water and thought about never taking the Lorazepam again, it was too hard to wake up after. As he looked in the mirror, he figured it probably wasn't the drugs that made his hair stand straight up like that (more glue?), but his brain was not only a talented instrument, it was delicate; Lorazepam seemed to shut down all systems with the delicacy of a sledgehammer. So, thusly, no more.

He showered and shaved, put some more cream between his legs, testing his anus, which was tender, but not throbbing. He washed his hands and took his antibiotics, and when he opened the door to the corridor, he felt very ready to meet the world.

He headed towards the mess hall, and hadn't turned but one corner when he ran into Zelenka.

"Dr. McKay!" Zelenka rushed up to him, bright smile, glasses glinting in the sun from the high windows, hair madly askew. "I hear you are back--are you well? Are you in one piece? And, most importantly, did you find coffee?"

Rodney felt himself smiling, though it never was a good thing to encourage Zelenka too much with his prattling and carrying on. But it felt good to be fussed over a little, and Zelenka's greeting didn't startle him half as much as Ronon's had.

"Yes, fine, fine, as you can see," said Rodney, putting his face in an expression that felt familiar, even though it had been ages since he used it last. It was the one that said, Who are you again, and why are you bothering me?

"In your absence," said Zelenka, unfazed, as he usually was, by Rodney's moods, "we started a movie night in your honor. Bad sci-fi, some sports movies, popcorn, and I am here to invite you. Dr. Weir says it's good at morale, in any case, and an excuse to eat popcorn."

"Good for morale," said Rodney, correcting on auto pilot. He felt more normal each minute he talked to Zelenka, and at this rate, everything would be back the way it had been, back to before, in no time.

"For morale," said Zelenka. He was smiling and seemed as pleased as if he'd solved the equation that would prove cold fusion. "I'd let you pick the movie, but Colonel Sheppard says you have the worst taste--"

"He does."

Rodney froze. He knew that voice; ice crystals formed in every pore. He'd know those footsteps, steady, certain footsteps, anywhere. Even blind, he'd know them.

But he made himself turn to look, and yes, it was Colonel John Sheppard, looking a little pale, hair still slightly flat, wearing two layers (black and more black and not a red, woolen tunic in sight), and coming right up to Rodney and Zelenka as if everything was alright. Hale fellow, well met, slipping back into his place in Atlantis as if nothing had happened. Well, to John (he couldn't think of him any other way, in spite of himself), it hadn't, so what did he care. Even though Rodney's heart began to speed up in an almost painful churn, just to be so close to him.

John caught Rodney's gaze with his own, on purpose, eyes raking up and down Rodney's whole body as though looking for evidence of what had happened. Rodney got the same sensation that he'd gotten before, in the infirmary, as though bugs were crawling all over his skin. John knew what had happened to him, and it was a sure bet that he was going to treat him differently because of it.

Rodney didn't let himself ask what John was doing out of the infirmary so soon. Though, knowing John, that only made sense.

"We should watch Back to the Future, just to remind everyone how great a movie it is." John smirked at Zelenka as he said this.

And then his eyes flicked to Rodney, as though waiting for Rodney's response, so that he and Rodney could banter the way they used to. It was as though John was inviting him inside a space right next to him, one that would be safe for Rodney to say something snarky in return. Rodney blinked fast and his mouth opened and he couldn't think of a thing to say. Not even a rebuttal to the oft-used teasing remark. Nothing.

But it created in him, deep inside almost every muscle, a deep-seated longing to reach out, to touch John, like he'd once done, all the time, any time, touch his skin, check for fever, listen to his breathing and ask, "Are you warm enough?" But here on Atlantis, that wouldn't be appropriate, so he could hear his rational brain saying: Don't touch, don't touch, look but don't touch.

"Or we could branch out," said John, pretending to direct his comment at Zelenka, but all the while, he never stopped looking at Rodney. "Try something new, say, Gone with the Wind."

"Gone With the Wind?" asked Zelenka. He pushed his glasses up on his nose with his thumb. "That's American Civil War picture," he said.

"Yep," said John. "A good courtship movie. So they say."

"Women like this movie?" asked Zelenka. You could almost see the cogs in his brain moving in a new direction. "I did not know."

"You bet," said John. "Co-eds, moms, grandmas, all of them. Something about Rhett Butler, as I recall."

"Interesting," said Zelenka. "Most of movies on the list are sci-fi, but," here he shrugged. "We can be flexible." Then he turned to pat Rodney on the arm. "I must go back to work. You are on Beckett's no work list, but come by when you've rested and I'll show you new work on the desalination machine. More capacity." He grinned as he walked off, eyes glinting blue and grey, his day completely made by the though of more water.

Which left Rodney alone with John.

"Hey, Rodney," said John, and Rodney thought about all the days and nights, the rain, and the cold, and John beside him, coughing up a lung or trying to step in front of Rodney to save him from a beating. But in the end, none of that mattered; he was still furious that John had told Beckett, and his eyes felt hot.

"Rodney? You okay?"

"Perfectly fine, thank you Colonel, as are you, I see, and now that we've had that discussion, if you'll excuse me--"

"You don't have anything to do, you know," said John. "Beckett put you on leave."

"That's all well and good," said Rodney. "But I don't care to spend any of it with you because as you may or may not know I don't like hanging around someone who breaks his promises--" His voice cracked on the last word and he had to shut up now, he really did. But he lifted his chin and stared at John like he was the last person Rodney cared to waste his time with. Even if that wasn't strictly true.

"Are you pissed off just because I told Beckett what happened? Is that why you never came to see me in the infirmary?"

Rodney didn't even nod. He didn't know why he didn't correct John of his error, but he wanted to keep it to himself just now that he'd been mooning and all weepy and worked up over John. None of the reasons for which he could currently remember.

John took a step closer. "Are you mad because I couldn't save you from that guard?"

John's eyes had that downward pull to them, at the outer corners, that Rodney only saw once in a while, when John was worked up about something but couldn't do anything about it.

Rodney wanted to feel sorry for him, but wouldn't let himself. "You'd feel better if it had been you, is that it? So you could march around and announce your sacrifices and be the brave hero, saving Rodney McKay from a fate worse than--"

"It's not like that, Rodney," said John. Now he moved in a little closer. "I would have done anything, anything, so you wouldn't have to go through that--"

"So now it's on your conscience. I see." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest, and didn't bother to lower his voice. "You can't stand the fact that someone made a sacrifice for you, you can't stand that you couldn't save us both. So your act of revenge was to tell Beckett, and soon, quite soon, my filthy secret will be all over Atlantis!" He waved his hand in the air to create a circumference.

"What are you talking about?" asked John, sputtering. "That's not why I told him--"

Rodney had to backtrack and fast, otherwise, John would sense that there was something else Rodney was talking about and he would want to know all about it. So Rodney decided on a direct attack. "And I don't care why, Colonel Sheppard. I asked you not to say anything about what had happened, I believe I was quite clear on the matter, and you agreed. You said yes. And here we are. Who has betrayed who, now, huh?"

John's face shut down, just as fast and as efficiently as the doors to the SGC in Cheyenne Mountain. It was his way, the old way, the way it used to be before Skandar, where somehow, in spite of everything, and how bad it had been, he and John had shared something. Well, not anymore. It was to be as if that time had never happened, and the sooner he got used to it the better.

"Rodney--" John had raised one hand, just a little bit, as if he had a wild impulse to actually do something with it, like touch Rodney or comfort him or start in on a little speech about hypothermia and just buddies.

"You can keep your hands to yourself, thank you very much," said Rodney. His voice was so loud it echoed in the metal corridor, and several people at the other end appeared to be looking at them.

"Fine," said John.

Rodney didn't let himself say anything else that he wanted to say. It wouldn't make any difference anyway, and people were already watching and listening, and then it wouldn't be John letting the cat out of the bag, it would be him. Then he'd have nothing to be angry at John about, nothing to make it any easier to stay away. But he could see how it was going to go, already. Like it always did, with John fitting back in and Rodney left on the outskirts because who in Atlantis would want to be around someone who'd let that happen to him? No one, that's who.

Rodney started walking away; John remained still and silent behind him. That's when Rodney knew he was going to lose it, right then and there. So he walked quickly the way he had come. Back to his quarters, where he'd turn up the heat and take another shower, and take some ibuprofen, and maybe he'd play some solitaire on his computer. Maybe he'd sleep.

But when he got to his quarters, and the door slid open to reveal the empty, quiet room, he was too worked up to sleep, so he took another shower and sat at his desk in his boxers and t-shirt, enjoying the feeling of his bare feet on the cool (but not freezing, just pleasantly cool) floor, and typed his mission report as fast as he could.

He wrote the thing chronologically, because that made the most sense. He talked about the un-official (but critical) mission of finding a new source for coffee (because Columbia could not be the only place that it grew, not if there were a thousand galaxies with a million planets out there. Besides, if the pyramids could happen all over the place, then so could coffee beans).

Then he wrote about getting grabbed by emissaries from Skandar, using the simplest language that he could to describe how the Skandar people put them to work in slave camps. He tried as hard as he could not to use the word gulag, but it was the only one that fit. He wrote succinctly about how John got sick, and how Rodney managed to get them to the Second Camp, where John got well, how Rodney made tea, and then how they escaped.

He put in the part about John killing Ghent (because John was likely to; he counted the deaths, not to brag, but because he felt responsible for them), but not about anything that Ghent had done to Rodney, except maybe a beating or two. Elizabeth would read the report, see the word gulag and be able to infer the rest of it. Leaving out a few blow jobs and the non-consensual sex wouldn't alter the fact that it had been muddy, cold, and miserable, and they were glad to be home. Alas, the ultimate mission of finding coffee had been a failure. He used no abbreviations, because that's what John would do, and Rodney wasn't going to do that anymore.

The report was half as long as he usually wrote, because of leaving out some of the brutality, and all of the intimacy he'd shared with John. Not only did no one need to know about that, it was an anomaly particular to that time and place.

Then he attached the report to an e-mail and sent it out Weir. He cc'd John and the major department heads. Most of whom didn't read the reports very closely if at all, unless they pertained to their own interests. Though, he did imagine that most department heads would be very interested in the search for coffee, in spite of the fact that it had been a failure.

He sat back, feeling better. Obviously the report had been weighing heavily on his mind and his own thoughts were starting to echo in his head in a weird way. So maybe it was time to sleep. Or try to.


He woke up in the middle of the night, reaching for John again, his heart aching with the emptiness of his bed. How long it would be till he stopped doing that? And why was it that a short period of hard labor, bad food, and beatings (all shared with John) would make him want to be with John? Maybe it was because John was the only one who had been there, the only one who knew.

He was almost too warm, so he got out of bed, and dragged a blanket with him and padded barefoot across the pseudo-linoleum floor, which felt good beneath his feet. He opened the window and sat on the windowsill, with the blanket under him and half around him. The wind from Atlantis's ocean swept over his skin with an almost delicious shock and he took a breath to let it sweep deep into the bottom of his lungs.

He wanted it to wipe him clean so he wouldn't miss John so much, wouldn't keep reaching out and wanting to touch when he shouldn't. It was all so muddled in his head, the memories of Skandar shifting and shrinking beneath his skin, out of sight. Soon, the memory would fade, what with the far more welcome pressures of his work and imminent Wraith attacks (and when weren't they imminent?), and his never-ending battles to keep the cooks from putting citrus in his food. He had far more to worry about than the tattered remains of a friendship. Didn't he?


He woke up starving, watching as the light streamed in through the windows. Again it wasn't raining, and if he just stirred himself a little bit, he would find hot water and soap, a toilet that flushed, as well as clean clothes and a world full of people who weren't out to hurt him or make him do things he didn't want to do. Well, Weir would eventually want him to go to meetings, which were sometimes boring, but even that was okay because nobody hit anybody in the meetings. Okay, sometimes people threw things and shouted, but still. And, also, most importantly, there was coffee and breakfast waiting for him in the mess hall.

He got up and took his antibiotics and some ibuprofen, and took a shower and shaved. If he didn't look at himself in the mirror at the circles under his eyes, or the bruise around his mouth, he could almost convince himself that he felt pretty good. It was going to be good, he was home now, and the sooner he adjusted to that, the better.

As he got dressed, he decided he'd eat breakfast and then try the lab. In spite of Beckett's lack of okaying his working, he was going to go to the lab anyway. Work had been his cure in the past for feeling out of sorts and it would again. Plus, the lab was his favorite place, because it was there that he got to do what he loved most, working with ideas and facts and theories. He was the smartest man in two galaxies, besides, so the lab was where he should be. Right now. Or, rather, right after breakfast.

He went to the mess hall and ate breakfast as fast as he could. No one talked to him, and he didn't bump into anyone he knew. That was okay, because the coffee was hot and he added extra sugar to make it sweet.

Then he ate two bowls of oatmeal, and an omelet, and some chopped up stuff that he was assured wasn't citrus, but some kind of fruit from a local planet, that looked like chopped eggplant, but tasted sweet, like ripe nectarines. Nobody even so much as rolled an eye at him as he went up for seconds for more. It was wonderful to eat as much as his stomach wanted, though he did feel a bit full, right about now. Still, he was content, happy. He was home.

But then, as he left the mess hall, he saw John coming down one of the long corridors that led to the mess hall. John had three people flanking him, Lorne, and two other marines that Rodney didn't know. Lorne said something and everyone laughed, and John's teeth flashed and his dark hair was shiny in the sunlight from the windows. He looked better than he had the day before, and was walking straight, shoulders level, not all crooked over with coughing and spasms. Which was why Rodney'd done everything he'd done.

Rodney made a quick left and took the closest transporter to get to the lab. He made himself not care that John was already fitting in. He'd know that would happen, it always happened. John was at home wherever he went, he was missed and wanted and people depended on him, so it only made sense that he was connecting with his troops as quickly as possible. Why, he was probably already planning who would replace Dr. Rodney McKay on his team.

Rodney made himself continue on to the lab instead of going back to his quarters. He was tired of sleeping, tired of doing nothing. He walked at a fast clip, ignoring all the parts of him that started to scream with pain, the backs of his knees, his hips, and between his legs. Not to mention the fact that he felt hot all over, like he'd just been dragged back from a cliff and barely missed death, and why did he feel like that? When he reached the door of the lab, he was sweating all over.

Luckily, the door was already open (someone was leaving), and he slid in and bumped into Zelenka.

"Couldn't resist, yes?" asked Zelenka. He pushed up his glasses with his thumb and smiled up at Rodney. There was a smudge on one of the lenses, which made one blue eye look a little fuzzy, and made Zelenka look a little mad, but that was okay, too. It was more normal than just about anything. "Except you don't look so good, you should be resting, and aren't you off duty also?"

"I'm going crazy with nothing to do but eat and sleep, and I was hoping…." He trailed off, not sure what he wanted here. "Maybe you could show me the equations for the tanks and I can tell you what's wrong with them, or we could go down there and take a look at them, or you could--I wanted to come look at the desalination tanks," he said, sounding lame to his own ears.

"There is time enough for that," said Zelenka. His blue eyes searched Rodney's face. "When I have perfected it."

"How can you possible perfect it without me, that's my main concern." Rodney said this, but by rote, it's what he would have said to Zelenka before, but he couldn't even feel the sting of it.

"You need rest," said Zelenka. "Especially after what you've been through."

"What do you mean, what I've been through?" Every nerve ending in his body was on alert. "What do you mean?"

"I saw the mission report, Dr. McKay," said Zelenka, retreating behind the formal name, as he sometimes seemed to do when Rodney yelled. "I know what gulags are. I know what happens there."

Rodney's mouth fell open and cold replaced the sweat, leaving ice crystals all over.

"You've never been in a gulag in your life." He shouted it. "Never!"

"I have uncles, cousins, they have been. Sometimes they don't come back and even whey they do--"

"Shut up," said Rodney. "Just shut up, you have no idea--" And there he was, falling apart, right there in the doorway to the lab, his lab, what was supposed to be his sanctum sanctorum, and now this stupid Czech wasn't going to let him in, and presumed to know what he had been through.

"It doesn't matter what happened," said Zelenka. He lowered his voice till Rodney had to lean forward to hear it. "Just that you were there was enough. I know the stories."

"The stories are lies," said Rodney. He straightened his back, and tugged at his shirt and looked down his nose at Zelenka. He would squelch this here and now, because what he did not need, what he most definitely did not need, was some half-rate scientist spreading lies about it. "It was a cakewalk. We did basket weaving every night, and on the weekends we put on a show." Rodney didn't care how ridiculous this sounded, what mattered was the slow, oh so slow, expression building on Zelenka's face. It was understanding.

"You are right," said Zelenka. "All lies."

He hated it when Zelenka was like this, knowing without being told, and giving Rodney what Rodney never gave anyone, which was a break, because two more seconds and Rodney would be telling him--

"So, please?" asked Rodney and both he and Zelenka knew that Rodney almost never said please. "Can you give me something to do, something to focus on, other than--"

There was a long pause, but he could see that Zelenka was relenting.

"I could give you some equations to check," said Zelenka slowly. "The new lab assistant has good ideas and works hard, but rushes. She always rushes."

Full of gratitude that he could never properly express (and that Zelenka would wave away as being unnecessary), Rodney nodded, and followed Zelenka over to where a young woman in a white lab coat sat at a table that had two laptops and cords going everywhere, and a small e-pad that she was scanning with a plastic pen.

"Take a break, Foster," said Zelenka. "Dr. McKay will check your work. You can assist Dunbar with his power channel research."

The woman stood up, eyes wide, and vacated the table, leaving the chair swinging slightly. The table was next to a little window that looked out over the ocean, and as McKay sat down and saw the mess of algorithms, he wanted to cry. It was perfect. He could bury himself in math and he'd even be able to yell at Foster later, as well.

"Keep it short and sweet, McKay," said Zelenka. "I don't want Beckett yelling at me, but I know how you are, so, either you are here, with my eye on you, or you are in your room, with nobody watching to make sure you don't overdo."

"I don't need a nursemaid, you crazy Czech." It felt good to snap.

"And I say you do. And as you are still on leave, who is in charge of lab?" Zelenka paused for effect, pointing to himself with both hands. "Why it's me, of course. And until that changes, you do as I say."

Rodney waved Zelenka away and turned to the first laptop, where a lengthy equation was written, followed by a diagram with arrows and boxes, and he could see right away what Zelenka was talking about. Foster had the right idea, but she was rushing and got sloppier as the equation went on, as if her notations couldn't keep up with her brain. Well, he could fix that. First, he'd line up the cylindrical polar coordinates, and then he'd fix the errors in the Navier-Stokes part of the equation. It would take him hours. It was perfect.


When he headed back from the lab, he felt more relaxed. Infinitely more relaxed. Nobody had bothered him, nobody acted like he'd been away for weeks and weeks, it was all normal. Not even the lab geeks had approached him in his little desk in the corner, or if they did, Zelenka shooed them away or suddenly found something else for them to do. Soon, everything would be as it was. Everything.

Except, he still felt edgy. The walls and floors were still too clean and dry and the sun shone through the patterned windows, all warm and more yellow than it really had a right to.

He was not normally prone to think about the injustices of the world, but it was sticking in his head that while there were many places like Atlantis (calm, educated, clean Atlantis), places like Skandar also existed, full of cruelty and filth and misery. But the fact that they balanced each other out (because there was always balance in the universe), was a far more comforting thought than the one that coldly reminded him that on Skandar, the kehks would go on suffering forever, because it was not the expedition's policy to change the course of any pre-industrialized civilization.

Although, that was only true on a planetary scale. Unlike the fictional Prime Directive on Star Trek, which was only a plot device (as any fool knew), the Atlantis expedition had, on occasion, marched in (or crept in, depending on what was warranted) to rescue a member of Atlantis, or to right a general wrong, and once they had even let a pack of convicts go, just to teach people a lesson on ethics and morals. Oh, and to rescue a fair maiden or two along the way.

So it was possible to give Skandar their comeuppance, and change things around, though Rodney didn't relish trying to convince anyone of it, because too many details would come out. Nor did he want to participate in the handing out of said comeuppance, because he just couldn't stand the thought of going back there. He was just grateful to be home and as he stepped into the transporter, he trailed his fingers over the glossy control panel, just to prove that he was home, safe and sound. Well, mostly sound, though true soundness would come with time.

Except, just as the door was about to slide closed, John stepped in, and as the transporter carried them toward Rodney's quarters, John moved in quite close and shook a sheaf of papers in Rodney's face.

John's eyes snapped and Rodney could tell by the twitch in his jaw that he was upset. And by John's fingers, clenched to the point of whiteness around the papers. Not to mention the fact that he had paper in his hands; Atlantis was a mostly paperless society, to use their small stock of paper meant that whatever was printed out was very important to John.

Rodney tried to breathe and concentrate and just as he was about to reach out to touch John's forehead with the back of his fingers, the transporter landed, and the doors swooshed open.

"What the hell is this, Rodney?" John was already walking along the corridor and Rodney extended his stride to keep up.

"I really don't know, though it would help if you stopped batting it around like that." He said this with what he hoped was perfect calmness, though it still made him feel itchy enough to imagine that if he examined his skin, he'd find hives.

Just as he looked down at his hands to check the backs of them, John stopped mid-stride, and Rodney had to dance to keep from tripping over John's heels.

"It's your mission report."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest; his heart was thudding "And? So? I do mission reports all the time. So do you."

"Well, I don't understand it."

"Well, maybe you need some remedial reading lessons, because it's written in plain English. Good Canadian English, I might add, with proper spelling, punctuation, and all those little niceties that Americans seem to think are beneath their dignity to utilize."

"I don't understand it," said John, gritting his teeth, grinding his words out, "because it doesn't make sense."

Two botanists were coming down the corridor, talking between them and cooing over a plant that one of them held in his hand.

Rodney waited till they had passed. "In what way doesn't it make sense?" he asked, almost hissing. "I didn't leave anything out except the obvious things, so it's all there, everything that's relevant."

Rodney watched John take a deep breath and maybe John didn't want this discussion exploding into a yelling match, like the last time they'd talked. Rodney didn't either. It was bad enough that they weren't friends anymore, let alone anything else. So for that, for John, Rodney nodded and tried to look calm and interested and alert.

"So what's missing?" he asked now. "No, honestly, what did I leave out?"

John scrubbed at his hair as he looked at the papers like he was looking at a test that he'd studied very hard for, but for which he'd received a failing grade. Then he licked his fingers and turned the pages till he found what he was looking for.

"Here…I was able to trade my service as houseboy, which included making tea and tending fires, and general light housekeeping and making myself useful to Ghent, who was a Skandar guard. This ensured Colonel Sheppard's transfer to an infirmary in the Second Camp, where he received short-term, but adequate treatment for his condition, which I judged to be something between a very bad cold and pneumonia. [See Dr. Beckett's notes on final diagnosis.] As part of that deal, I was also transferred to the Second Camp and was assigned basic duties in the camp's dining hall. My duties included, and it goes on like that, blah, blah, blah."


It was a little weird to have his words coming out of John's mouth, but he needed to ignore that and focus on why John was asking. "So what's wrong with that? It's what happened; you were there, you should know." Rodney spread his arms wide, feeling exasperation like a dry scraping sensation in his stomach. But just as he was about to make a smart and pointed remark about the lack of abbreviations, John reached out and grabbed him by the upper arm.

"That was the explanation you gave me when I was in the infirmary on Skandar," said John. "And your mission report says pretty much the same thing. But." He stopped and let Rodney go to stare at the paper again, his eyes half-lidded as he took the sheaf of papers in both hands.

Rodney could have walked on and left John to his musings and confusion but something in John's face stopped him.

"It doesn't make sense," said John, scanning the words. "I mean, looking back, at that culture, those people. Because of your deal, we were lifted out of a hellhole. But how were two men's lives saved, simply because you can make really, really good tea?"

Now John raised his head and looked at Rodney, really looked at him.

Rodney's heart started to race, because John was just about to figure everything out. He had to distract him. "Oh," said Rodney, with as much disdain as he could muster, looking down his nose at John. "So you resent me being the one getting us out of the Third Camp, is that it? Because only you can be the hero on missions?"

"That's not true and you know it."

Rodney did know it, so he tried a different tact, his words tumbling out as he said the first thing he could think of. "It raised Ghent's status to have a houseboy, you know. I guess he liked my face, although I guess you probably couldn't imagine anyone preferring me over you--"

He stopped, mouth open as John glared at him and clenched the papers in a fist.

"He liked your face," said John. There was a long minute as John's mouth worked, and then his eyes flashed with rage. But his voice was still quiet as he said, "So maybe you used that to get us into the Second Camp."

Rodney he raised his hands as if that could stop it from happening, his whole body feeling cold, down to the bone. "No, no, that's not it at all, I simply--"

"Made yourself useful," said John. He took a step forward, raising both his hands in fists. "That's what you kept telling me, when--that's what you did, didn't you. You traded you, you traded yourself--"

John stopped but Rodney knew that John understood it all now, had figured it out in spite of Rodney's clever non-disclosure attempt at every turn. Rodney's whole body seized up as though flash-frozen, and his hands curved against his chest.

"You said you were making yourself useful, but I didn't think you meant that!" John took a huge breath, and his face went white. "Every time you came back from--" Here John stopped to make quote marks. "Making tea, you looked--terrible. I just figured it was that place--How do you think I feel, knowing that you did--that you did what you did, that I didn't know about it, and do it for you?"

"So, you're the only one who gets to be the hero, is that it?" Rodney felt his eyes grow hot. "That you'd rather it had not been me who saved the day? You want all the glory? Well, you can have it, Colonel--"

"That's not what I mean, Rodney," said John. He looked lost, the way he did when things would get away from him, out into the realm where sarcasm and a smirk wouldn't get him further than the next word. John's chest heaved and he looked as pale and messed up as when they'd been on Skandar. "Why did you do that?"

"I did it for you, because I didn't want to watch you die." It sounded very straightforward to Rodney.

"I told you to just let me go, when they took me," said John, growling.

"Let you go?" Rodney's voice rose.

"I gave orders. You were supposed to let me die and save yourself, so why did you disobey me?"

It came out before Rodney could stop it. He meant to say something along the lines of that's my business, but what came out was, "Don't you think you were worth it?"

"Don't you think you were worth more?" John roared back, glaring.

Rodney could see how it was just as clearly as if John had written an equation on a whiteboard. "Even I know that it's not an equation where sacrifice X John = Rodney's safety is correct but the corollary is incorrect. It doesn't work like that."

"No?" asked John, demanding it.

"No," said Rodney. He made himself say it as firmly as he could, but he wobbled in the middle of it anyway. "No," said Rodney. He cleared his throat. "I'm not worth more than you. Or less. Or whatever. It's not about relative worth, it's about--"

"Just tell me why."

"Because," said Rodney. It was kind of astonishing, really, with as much as John had figured out, that he could miss this one essential fact. "It's what John Sheppard would do. When Ghent made his offer--"

"What I would do? What the hell does that mean?" John's shout echoed to the ceiling. "And what offer? When did that happen? While you were on coffee break?"

"Don't be ridiculous, you know as well as I do that there was no coffee on Skandar."


When John sounded like that (like he could tear buildings down with his voice), Rodney knew the jig was up and he had to explain the whole thing. So he took a deep breath and resolved to say it all fast, to get it over with as quickly as possible.

"On the first day, when we were separated for work detail--anyway, Ghent came up and made me an offer, and I said no because, at that time, I figured that's what you would do. And then when you got sick, he came up again, and I made a bargain because, at that time, I figured that's what you would do, and then I--I pretended I was you, and made some hard decisions."

It felt strange to be telling John the truth, but it felt good too. Well, except for the look on John's face.

"Well, don't do as I'd do--and I would never do that. Any of it." John's skin was grey and the papers fell from his hands to spill across the floor, white leaves fluttering. "Fuck, Rodney, that's not what I would do and you know it."

"No, I do not know it," said Rodney. His relief left him and he felt raw and empty inside/ There was no way he could make John understand what it had been like to be there, with John's limp, feverish body in his arms, the sweat on John's face as Rodney carded the dark hair back with shaking fingers. Their survival on Skandar totally depending on him stepping up and making decisions for them both. To do what John Sheppard would have done and had done, many times, in one way or another.

He watched John turn on his heel and walk away, his boots spreading papers in his wake. He figured John didn't blame him for wanting to survive, no, John blamed himself for not being able to stop Rodney from making it happen.


Back in his room, Rodney took a shower, and took some ibuprofen as he got dressed and thought about taking some Lorazepam, just to round things out, but he didn't want to. The pills, although tiny, made the edges of his thought processes fuzzy and indistinct. And he was feeling okay, anyway, getting used to Atlantis again, being home.

He stared at his desk and his laptop and his pictures and his things and thought about the kehks on Skandar, and the poor bastards in the Third Camp who slept on the ground beneath a rain flap and worked until they died. It made him feel cold all over, and shivery, like he had a fever or was coming down with something.

He went into the bathroom and used his ear thermometer and tried not to catch his own eye in the mirror while he waited the worried thirty seconds till it beeped. But when he looked at the readout, it was normal, just as normal as it could be. So why didn't he feel better?

Because John was never going to want to be his friend again, and Rodney would be all alone, that's why.


After breakfast the next day, Rodney headed straight for the lab, and was grateful, when he met up with Zelenka, that there was no more talk of gulags. He was able to work through all of Foster's equations, and then he took up Zelenka's work on the desalination tanks, and, sadly, could find very little wrong with it.

Mid-afternoon, the little intercom next to his desk chimed, and when Rodney went to answer it, it was Teyla.

"Dr. McKay, I have returned from the mainland and I am very glad to hear that you are returned and in one piece. I have not yet read the mission reports, but I hear that it was a difficult time for you and Colonel Sheppard."

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, fighting the sense of relief to hear her voice, to hear someone's voice who didn't know the meaning of the word gulag, or didn't know what it was like to come to Atlantis after spending time with your face in the mud. Except that Teyla's people knew exactly what it was like to suffer deprivation and pain and loss--Rodney bent his head and cleared his throat. "It was all very exciting but it's over now and there's lots of work to do in Atlantis, only they won't let me do it."

"You need your rest. Although--" Here she paused, as Teyla sometimes did when wending her way through the foibles of human interaction, so as to make no inappropriate moves. "I would like to see you with my own eyes; it is an Athosean custom to welcome--"

"Yes, yes," said Rodney again, before she could start up with one of her little speeches about what her people did when one of them so much as stubbed their toe. He almost had to work himself up to that level of irritation though, because the thought of spending a quite supper hour with Teyla was terribly appealing. She wouldn't poke or pry, or try to make him talk about it. She would just be there, like Ronon, only with more to say and with more quiet smiles. "Just tell me when and where."

"I will meet you in the mess hall at 18:00. Will that work for you as well?"

"Fine," he said. "I'll meet you there."

He signed off, letting his finger trail on the button and wondered how long it was really going to take till he felt 100% at home.


He ended up heading back to his quarters to take a nap before supper, which was an unbelievable luxury, not to mention it would probably win Dr. Beckett's stamp of approval. But, then, when he woke up, he felt thick-headed and slow, and when he looked at the clock he almost thought he was late, but he had a good half an hour, so it was okay, he had time. All the time in the world, and nothing to do.

As he yanked on his clothes, tugged on his socks, he knew that he was going back to the lab tomorrow and keep working till somebody stopped him (as if anyone would dare try), and then he'd start attending meetings, like it was where he belonged. Taking off all this time only gave him too much time to think; it would be better to start feeling normal by acting normal. Well, except for John. That was never going to be normal again.

When he got to the mess hall, Teyla was waiting for him. She was glossy and brown and healthy, and so like herself that he wanted to stand very close and soak it in. So normal, so Teyla. But he didn't, because he usually didn't, and Teyla, because she usually did, put her hands on his upper arms and tipped her head for the Athosean greeting. Rodney did it, more willingly than he had in the past, it was familiar and known and gentle, and when Teyla lifted her head, she smiled at him.

"I am so glad to see you well and whole, Dr. McKay," she said. "And I hear that the cooks made iced brownies this evening."

Rodney had turned Teyla on to chocolate early on, and then, when they became available, he introduced her to the overwhelming pleasure of iced brownies, the school-cafeteria kind with the thin frosting that crackled when you bit into it. She was now a fellow addict.

"It's about time," said Rodney. "I only sent them a dozen memos since I got back about it."

Teyla smiled at him in a way that told Rodney she didn't think he was kidding. Which made it even funnier, and he ducked his head and almost laughed under his breath. It was good to be among friends again.

They got their trays and got in line, and Rodney took some of everything that looked good, including two of the brownies. No one even tried to stop him or frowned at him for being greedy.

So he was still smiling, carrying his heavily loaded tray on top of both of his arms, as they walked through the rows of tables.

"I read your report, and I want to hear about your adventures," said Teyla from behind him.

Of course, Teyla didn't mean adventures the way other people did. She probably knew it had been hard. Reading the mission reports, and all about beatings and doing double work, had probably given her a good idea of what it had been really like. Not an adventure at all.

It was just as they were passing a table of marines that Rodney heard his name.

"Hey, Dr. McKay, heard you were back."

Rodney stopped and turned to look. One of the marines was jerking his chin up, in that way that so many macho men had, a kind of a greeting and a challenge all at once. John Sheppard did it, and Ronon, and so many others. He used to be affronted by it, and perplexed at the way they assumed he would know what it meant. But now, he knew. So he stopped.

"Yes, I'm back, as you can plainly see. In one piece," he added. Not that the marines couldn't see that for themselves. He felt Teyla bump into his side, a slight presence.

"Well, the way I heard it, you came back in one piece because Colonel Sheppard carried your ass the whole way."

"What are you talking about, where did you hear that?"

"I read your mission report, same as everybody." The marine had scowl lines between his eyes, and a tight look around his mouth, and of course he'd be very protective of his precious John Sheppard; most of the marines were fanatically devoted in the same way, and Rodney was used to that. Except not like this.

"Yeah," said another marine. He had the same short hair, so short you almost couldn't tell the color it was, but he had the same tough jaw line, and glittering eyes as all the other marines. "While you were off making tea, Colonel Sheppard was digging ditches so you wouldn't have to."

Rodney's jaw dropped, and he clutched the tray so hard to his breast bone that it began to hurt. "That's not what it says," he said, feeling like he was squawking, but unable to stop it. "Did you even read the report? That's not what it says at all, it says--"

But then he had to clamp his mouth shut. In order to explain to these hooligans with guns exactly what had gone on, he'd have to tell them exactly what had gone on. And he couldn't do that. He'd forced John into a code of silence, which he couldn't well break himself. Not that he wanted to. "What about Colonel Sheppard's report, did you read that?"

One of the marines spoke up, not at all embarrassed to be caught with only half the facts. "Nope. He hasn't written it yet."

"I am sure," began Teyla, using that voice she used to scold without scolding. "I am sure that both Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay both contributed to--"

"Teyla, I got this one."

With boots clonking and chairs scraping, all the marines stood up, which they normally wouldn't, because Colonel Sheppard didn't stand on ceremony, and especially not in the mess hall. But as Rodney turned to look, he could see that they stood up because of the look in John's eye, the dark glare, the way his mouth drew up tight. Yes, if he was one of John's men, he'd stand up too, at that moment, if he'd not already been standing.

As it was, he tried to breathe long and slow and deep, because his heart started racing when John looked at him. Before, John had only known about one time, now John knew it all, knew everything. But he didn't say anything to Rodney in particular, just tipped his head at Rodney, and Rodney didn't know what to make of that, because it felt like John was just saying hello, as if everything was alright between them. Trust John to make a confusing situation more confusing by being nice.

Then John's attention was all on his marines.

"Now listen to me one time," said John. His voice came out perfectly calm and flat, but his mouth was tight as he spoke. "I got sick on day two, and in that place if you were sick and couldn't work, they tossed you through the ring, no questions asked. You listening? Dr. McKay did his work, breaking stones, and then he did my work, carrying gravel. And when they caught him doing that, they beat him. And then he kept doing my work and getting whipped for it. And somehow, he got us moved to where I was in the infirmary, and he started waiting hand and foot on some asshole guard, in exchange for our safety. And when I got out, he was still doing his work and my work. And getting beaten for it. So don't tell me I carried him. It was the other way around, and if I hear one more comment about it to the contrary? I'm going to assume it came from you guys and then every single one of you is going to get booted back to earth faster than the ink can dry on your DD 214 forms."

The whole of the mess hall was as quiet as if there was no one in it. The empty sound echoed across the walls, and John looked like someone just punched him in the mouth for no reason and he was pissed.

"Is that understood?" John's voice rang out and bounced off the walls like he didn't care who heard him.

White faced and bunched together in a group, none of the marines spoke up. This seemed to set John off; he grabbed the closest marine by his shirt collar and got right into his face, holding him so tightly that the marine looked like he was having trouble breathing.

"Is that a yes or a no, soldier?" Teeth bared, John shook the marine, and as Rodney watched, John let go with one hand and was bunching up a fist. All of which could only end badly.

Nerves jumping, Rodney laid his tray down and stepped forward to put his hand on John's arm.

John shook him off, irritated, nearly winging Rodney in the throat with his elbow.

"I got this one, McKay," said John, not looking at him.

"But John, you don't want to--"

"I said I got this, don't you ever listen?"

Rodney tugged one more time, because the marine really needed to breathe and John didn't need to be beating up on his subordinates, but it was like touching something electric, where the current would soon send everything into overload. John shook him off again, and then, his jaw clenched, he let go of the marine and punched Rodney in the mouth. Rodney didn't even feel it right away, even as he tumbled to the floor, arms flailing, his tray crashing into John's and sending the whole mess of food to land on his head. His mouth started throbbing and he could taste blood, and wiped it away with the back of his hand.

For a second there was silence, a deep grave kind, and someone helped him up and brushed him off. It was Teyla, her concerned eyes looking at him before she straightened up and looked at the doorway, through which appeared two security guards (full regalia in place). Rodney grabbed onto the table to hold himself upright, and tried to get John's attention, but John was only looking at the guards, and his whole body seemed to say, arrest me, I deserve it.

"I'm sorry Colonel, but we're just following regulations," said one of the security guards as they both came close. "You all need to come with us, Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, and any eyewitnesses also, to file complaints and help press charges."

The marines looked at each other, mouths open, gawping almost comically, but right away Rodney could see what the trouble was. There was no way any marine was going to want to press charges or be party to any press charging, not when the object of it all was their beloved commander, and yet they were trained to follow orders. As nasty as some marines could be, he could tell it was a horrible impasse for them.

"Actually," said Rodney, stepping forward, moving his hands in circles around each other to cover the fact that his mouth was throbbing and bleeding and his knees were knocking together. "This is just between me and Colonel Sheppard. These dumb jarheads," Rodney tipped his head in their direction, "were eating with their hands again and didn't see a thing."

The security guards and John, and really, everyone, including the white-faced marines, looked at Rodney.

"You sure about that?" asked the security guard.

"Yes, they were eating with their hands, but what can you expect from guys whose knuckles still scrape the floor when they walk."

"No, I mean about the punch, did they not see who punched you?"

Rodney shook his head. He had no idea, really, where the impulse to protect the marines came from, except perhaps, that it would, in turn, help John. "No, they did not. And this is really a personal matter, just between John, I mean, Colonel Sheppard and myself, why do we need to get into any of it?"

The security guard talked into his earpiece and then nodded at Rodney.

"Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay, Dr. Weir wants to see you both in her office. Now. We'll escort you and as a courtesy to your respective ranks, no cuffs, but no trouble, alright?"

Stepping around the mess on the floor, Rodney walked beside the security guards, head held high, pretending that he didn't care that he had a bloody lip (that felt enormous right about now), not to mention the huge stains all over him from the dumped food. As they climbed the stairs, he tried to catch John's eye at the same time. It didn't work; John stayed one step ahead of him all the way to Weir's office, fists clenched at his sides, head down.

Even when the security guards dropped them off with a nod and Weir motioned for them to come in and shut the door, John didn't look up.

"Okay, Dr. McKay," said Weir. She stood up and came around to the front of her desk to lean on it and cross her arms over her chest. "Care to enlighten me as to what has disrupted a perfectly normal supper hour in the mess hall?"

Rodney opened his mouth because of course he had a lot of information that could enlighten everyone, but John beat him to it.

"I punched him. He was irritating me, and I punched him," said John, his voice sounding like gravel. He looked Weir straight in the eye as he said it, but his hands were still fists.

Weir looked at Rodney. "Is that what happened, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney touched his mouth, and licked the inside of it with his tongue. He'd been punched once or twice in a similar manner, but nothing so sharp and hard as what John had given him. But John was shaking, standing there staring at the floor, holding himself together with every last thing he had, and it killed him to see it. Killed him that he and John were so far apart now, when they'd been so close before.

So he shook his head. "No," he said.

"No?" asked Weir. "But Rodney, you--" She waved her hand at him. "You obviously had a busted lip, and I'm afraid that regulations are quite clear, that punching anyone, whether or not in the mess hall, is subject to charges being pressed. We're a small community and can't have violence breaking out over personal matters."

"Well, you see," said Rodney, making himself look at Weir, like John had done. "You see, that's the thing. It's a personal matter, and it might have gotten out of hand, but in my mind, it's all a misunderstanding, and if I don't press charges, there's not a damn thing you can do about it."

"Rodney," said John, and when Rodney looked over, John's fists were clenched and John was gritting his teeth and very obviously holding himself back from taking a lunge at him.

"Not a damn thing," said Rodney, as calmly as he could, as though John weren't three feet from him and about to go off on him. "Besides which, believe it or not, every single person in that mess hall who was there, including the marines, I might add, will back me up, right to the wall. So you see, you'd really be wasting your time. And it won't happen again, so--"

"It better damn well not happen again," said Weir, her mouth all bunched up and tart. But she didn't seem too upset and Rodney figured she'd rather give them a lecture about it than have anything go on their records. Especially John's, she had a soft spot for John and his habit of breaking regs to do the right thing for all the right reasons. "We can't have brawling and fighting, and you two need to set good examples. I'll let it go, but I don't want it to happen again, or I will press charges, with or without you. Understood?"

"Perfectly," said Rodney, and it was then that his heart started beating fast. He'd been able to save John from what would be, at the very least, a severe reprimand, and if he could do that, then maybe, just maybe, he could salvage a friendship.

"Okay," said Weir, taking a deep breath. "Here's what we're going to do. John, you need to see Heightmeyer for at least one session and as many more as she recommends; you're obviously working through some anger, and I don't want it getting out of hand. And Rodney, go the infirmary and see Beckett about that lip. Dismissed, gentlemen."

Rodney turned, but John slipped past him and raced out the door on his way to places unknown, and Rodney shut Weir's door behind him and thought about rising to the chase. Except his mouth hurt and now his hip, where he'd fallen on it, and it wasn't that he would mind the mocking that would follow him racing through the halls in salad dressing-covered pants, but he didn't think he could catch John. He could find him alright, he could always find John, but John was at a breaking point and needed to run for a little bit, and Rodney knew he needed to let him.

He was supposed to go to the infirmary, and normally, he would, just to get some iced cloth for his lip, and some extra ibuprofen and maybe a cute nurse to fuss over him. But that, oddly, didn't seem as important, because he wasn't as mad at John anymore. Peeved, yes, John shouldn't have said anything to Beckett, but what he thought he'd seen (John adjusting to being back in Atlantis) was not actually what was going on. Rodney was doing much better at readjusting than John, by miles and that wasn't right, no, it wasn't right at all.

His feet led him to Heightmeyer's office. He pressed the buzzer, and the door slid open. It was after regular office hours, so Heightmeyer was having a bite to eat at her desk, and stood up, wiping her hands with a napkin.

"Dr. McKay," she said, "I expected Colonel Sheppard, rather than--well, anyway, it's good to see you, what can I do for you?" She pushed her plate and glass to one side, and gestured that he could sit across from her, but the few times Rodney'd visited her, he never liked sitting in that spot, and so.

"This is an unofficial visit," he said. "Strictly off the record."

"Okay," she said. She came out from around her desk and sat in one of the comfy chairs next to the wide bank of windows, and looked up at him as if to demonstrate how perfectly friendly and harmless she was. "We'll just talk as friends then. What's on your mind?"

He didn't believe for one instant that Heightmeyer was going to do John any good. But a required session with her had to be met or John would get written up. Trouble was, John would most likely (probability 99.9%) not tell her what he was really angry about, and so would hem and haw, which would lead to more required sessions, which would lead to John perhaps acting out in other ways, like taking suicidal missions as though they were a walk in the park.

"So there's just one thing," Rodney said. "Just one small thing--"


"It's about John. Colonel Sheppard."

Heightmeyer leaned back and propped one ankle up, crossed over her knee. "Go on," said Heightmeyer.

There was no better way to say it that just say it.

"He's angry," said Rodney. "So angry about what happened. Today he nearly decked one of his marines--" He didn't need to say that John had actually hit him, Heightmeyer obviously knew all about that. But still, sometimes it was so hard to do the sharing and caring that everyone else seemed to do so easily, but he needed to do this. For John. Plus, Heightmeyer needed to know, in order to help John.

"What is he angry about, is this about his required session?" she asked.

Rodney turned to look at her, and he realized he was holding himself so tightly that he was starting to tremble. "You have to keep this off the record, and I'm only telling you because he won't, and then you'll never know why he's so angry. So that's why I'm telling you. Off the record."

"It's okay, Rodney," said Heightmeyer, keeping very still. "We're just two friends having a chat, one of whom is the smartest man in two galaxies, and the other who is remarkably well versed in human psychology. Off the record, then."

So he told her. He told her pretty much everything about Skandar, leaving out the closeness he and John shared, leaving out anything personal about John. As he told her how Ghent had raped him, he stared out the window. He did not tell her it had been multiple times, the one was enough to get the message across.

"He's so angry now," said Rodney, finishing up. "He can barely stand to look at me, and yet, he's just the same as he ever was. You know." Rodney gestured with his hand in the air, a little flip and roll meant to convey everything about John and the military. "But his eyes--they're. Well. He looks lost. As if someone hurt him."

Heightmeyer tapped her knee and stared at it. "Can I be frank, Rodney?"

"I thought we were," said Rodney.

"Figure of speech, okay?" said Heightmeyer, her voice dry. She stopped tapping her knee and looked at Rodney, face calm and neutral. "I've seen this before, unfortunately. But when someone gets assaulted, as you were, the person closest to the victim often acts out, rage, grief, more rage. It's a confusing time. And when the two people are as close as you and Colonel Sheppard--"

Slowly Rodney nodded. Of course, he and John were close. Even though John had been distant-- "We've been back for days," Rodney said, trying to work it out even as he described it, trying to incorporate what Heightmeyer had just said. "Days." He lifted his arms to encompass what an enormous amount of time that was. "He's been avoiding me and when we do cross paths, well, there was shouting, and oh, god, this is so--I don't like talking about it."

"That's completely normal." Heightmeyer nodded. "And it makes sense. You seem fine, pretty well adjusted, but any crying jags, feelings of suicide, vomiting, extreme rage--anything like that?"

"Me, you mean? Me?" He curved his hands towards his chest, his whole body tightening at being the sudden focus of this very personal conversation." No, no, nothing like that." He made a face that felt like it expressed his disdain for over-emotional idiots.

"So, no breakdowns of any kind?"

"I told you no already," Rodney said with a snap. "Mostly I've been sleeping, taking showers, and I sometimes think he's in my quarters--" He closed his mouth, a little shocked that that tidbit managed to slip out.

"By he, you mean the guard that assaulted you?"

"Yes, exactly," said Rodney. It was interesting how Heightmeyer managed to boil down the horror that had been Ghent and the Second Camp to the word assaulted. Anyone who'd read the report, as Heightmeyer obviously had, would consider the Third Camp the worse hell, but Rodney knew better. "But overall. I just find myself--" He stopped, thinking of the people in Atlantis who'd been nice and hadn't asked too many questions. "Having supper with Teyla, just her and me, which I don't usually do, and then I ran into Ronon, and have been helping Zelenka at the lab--hey!"

But Heightmeyer was already smirking. Rodney realized he'd just let the cat out of the bag; he wasn't supposed to even be thinking about working till Beckett gave the OK. "Don't tell Beckett, I was just helping with a little fact checking," said Rodney, curling his shoulders forward in defense. "And Zelenka didn't let me pull any all nighters."

"Actually," said Heightmeyer. He stood up and tapped Rodney on the shoulder to get him to move, "I already knew that, and so does Beckett; we have spies everywhere."

"You've been keeping tabs on me? It's shocking how much you think you can--"

But Heightmeyer just laughed. "Spies, Rodney. I pay them well. But here's the deal." Now she sat up, more serious, and it was the hardest thing to look at her while she talked. "You have adjusted, you're doing pretty good, considering. And do you want to know why?"

Actually he did. "Yes," he said. "I feel pretty much fine."

"Here's what I think," she said, after a pause. "I think you made your deal with Ghent, and yes, I've read your mission report, and it put you in control, a little bit. You were able to get that guard to do what you wanted him to do. I don't imagine, in that society, that that happens very often. So when he assaulted you, it was as if you put yourself in line for that, as part of the price of your safety and John's well-being in the Second Camp. Does that make sense? You chose. You decided. There was a purpose, as it were, behind what happened to you. Most rape victims don't ever get that."

"Oh," said Rodney, and all of a sudden it came back to him, the sense of power and doing what John Sheppard would do, and how he'd been suffused with it, and how he'd not been afraid, when he talked to Ghent, when he demanded that Ghent agree to his terms. "Yes, that makes sense." His voice sounded very faint in his ears.

"And as for John." Here she ducked her head. "Didn't the report say he killed that guard?"

"Yes," said Rodney. He remembered considering whether to put in all the details about that particular incident, and then determined it would be better to leave out John in full revenge mode, as leaving a man to die slowly (even an enemy) was not merciful nor quick, nor listed as an approved killing method anywhere in any military guide.

"Then he's lucky," she said. "Or at least relatively speaking, because unlike most people who've gone through this, he was able to kill the person who hurt you. And, for John, that's better than the alternative, which is never being able to do anything about it. So, keep talking to him, be there. He'll work through his rage, and I'll try to help him as best I can. I'll also keep it off the record, the part about the assault. Besides it's normal for there to be some psych sessions after what you guys have been through, so we'll consider this your session, and when John comes, that'll be his. In the meantime, I'll be here if you need me, okay?"

"Okay," said Rodney.

Heightmeyer looked up at Rodney. "You two should take care of each other, okay?"

As he walked out the door, it was strange to think that anyone thought he and John were close. Which they were. But it was like people knew what had gone on on Skandar, without really knowing exactly what had gone on. On the other hand, people made assumptions, all the time, based on very little evidence. And if he kept his mouth shut, and John did, then no one would really know whether they were or not. But then, maybe John didn't want them to be close. It was all so confusing.

He hurried as fast as he could, imagining he could see John's dark head just ahead of him at every turn. But John wasn't in all the usual places (his semi-office, his quarters, the jumper bay), which must mean that he was in one of his more unusual haunts, though, really, all of Atlantis was his own personal back yard.

Rodney used the transporter three different times, and thought about going back to John's quarters, but he didn't want to miss John if he was wrong and John was somewhere else. Then he thought about the pier, the north one, where John liked to go sometimes, to take a six pack of beer and kick back a little. Sometimes he even took Rodney. There was lots of fresh air up there, all swirling around and smelling clean, so maybe, just maybe, that's where he went.

It turned out to be true. Rodney spotted John the second he opened the door to the outside platform; wind swept up from the ocean and skimmed over his skin and yes, it made sense.

"Colonel Sheppard," he said, calling out. "John."

The dark head looked his way, and for a moment Rodney wondered if John was considering getting in nearest transporter (at the other end of the pier) and going somewhere unexpected, so that Rodney couldn't find him. But except for a twitch as Rodney got closer, John didn't move.

"You don't have to defend me like that," said Rodney, striding up to John, forgetting that he meant to be at least a little nice about this. But it was also embarrassing to have even a part of the story told. "It would have died down after a while."

"It shouldn't be starting up in the first place," said John. He ducked his head as though he were studying his boots and trying to figure out a way not to get mad. His shoulders certainly telegraphed that he was about to start yelling. "Everyone in Atlantis contributes in their own way; everyone was chosen, hand-picked, so it pisses me off when--"

He lifted his head and looked at Rodney. The skin beneath his eyes was tight, and his eyes looked a little wild and lost. His jaw clenched and unclenched.

Rodney opened his mouth to explain, once again, that he didn't need defending, and that he was still a little mad at John about telling Beckett about what happened to him, but John held up his hand, flashing his black wristband like a stop sign.

"I'm sorry I punched you and you were right."

"I was?" Rodney blinked and searched John's face. "About what? I mean, yes, I'm usually right, always usually right, but I've not seen you for a few days, and besides that--"

"Just listen a minute, okay?"

Rodney shut his mouth, and as John took a deep breath and held on to the railings and looked out at the ocean, Rodney held himself as still as he could, preparing to listen at any second. But John didn't say anything for a while, then he took another breath.

When he looked up at Rodney, his face was so grave and so still that Rodney knew it was important.

"First," said John, "I'm sorry. But I would rather have you hate me for telling Beckett, I'd rather have you hate me for the rest of my life, than watch you die from alien STDs or bleeding out or--whatever. There was no way I was going to watch you die if I could help it."

Rodney's jaw dropped open. He now he understood it, and would have done the same, himself. He wanted to say that, to explain, but John held up his hand, and his fingers were almost close enough to touch Rodney's face, and John's mouth curved as though he were just about to ask are you warm enough?

"And second, you were right," said John now. "You did exactly what I would do, down to the letter. I was out of it, and you took care of your team just the way I would have."

Surprise batted at Rodney from every direction. "Of course, I'm right," he said, trying to cover his confusion. John Sheppard, when he apologized at all, kept it short and sarcastic, nothing like this. "I'm always right, don't you…." His voice trailed off as he saw John press his mouth together, hard enough to make his mouth a white slash in his face.

"It doesn't matter," said Rodney, rushing. "We're here now, and we did what we had to do. You would have done it if I couldn't, I know you would have, so that's okay, isn't it?

John's whole body suddenly sagged, and Rodney reached out in case John should fall, or slip on the wet deck. But he still gripped the rails, his knuckles turning white, and Rodney made himself stay where he was.

"It's just that," said John, still not looking at Rodney. "Every time I look at you--I can't stand it."

"Wait, what?" If it was true-- "You can't stand looking at me simply because I--you hate me now because of what I did? Because of what happened to me? Because I let it happen?"

"No," said John. He waved his hand, gesturing to himself, and his voice came out faint but Rodney heard it. "I hate myself. I hate myself for not being there for you. For not seeing what was going on, for not stopping it."

Rodney's mouth fell open. "But--you're not responsible. You were out of it. You had a fever of over a hundred, most days, and you coughed so hard I thought something was going to come loose." The words tumbled out, but they weren't having any effect. John gripped the railing again, and swung his body back to bury his head against his arms.

"You're not responsible. I'm the hero, here, remember? It was my choice."

"Should have been mine," said John, low. "Please, just go, leave me alone."


"But you've been alone, I've left you alone, after all of our arguments, it seemed the right thing to do and now? It doesn't. I don't want to leave you, aren't we friends anymore?"

This seemed to stop John, his whole body stilled, and Rodney wanted to go on that none of it was John's fault, because you couldn't be blamed for getting sick, especially not in a place like the Third Camp. But surely John already knew that, and Rodney didn't want to tip it over till John exploded again. So he said, in a very small voice, "You saved us in the end. You got us out of there, and that's everything, that's what I was working for."

"Just leave me alone," said John. He didn't look up.

There was nothing Rodney could do but leave. Except he wasn't going to leave without reinforcements this time, so he found one of John's marines. He couldn't be sure if it was the one he'd spoken to earlier, or even if it was one of the five he'd shielded from having to press charges, but the marine was all at attention when Rodney approached him.

"Yes, Dr. McKay, what can I do for you?"

Well, that certainly made a change, but instead of making a snotty comment about it, Rodney just nodded. "Colonel Sheppard is out on the north pier. He doesn't want me--he wants to be alone, but that deck is slippery even in warm weather, so I was wondering if--"

"You want someone to keep an eye on him?" asked the marine.

"Don't let him know," said Rodney, trying not to panic as the marine's eyes narrowed; he looked like he was about to go into instant kill mode.

"Off the record then, sir; we'll take care of it."

And then he actually, much to Rodney's surprise, saluted and turned on his heel. It was only then that Rodney could take a breath and know, even without being near to him, that John would be looked after. As to where he and John would go from this point, he didn't know. John was angry, but it was at himself, and about how it had been on Skandar, none of which Rodney could help.

The best he could manage, oddly, was to do what Heightmeyer had said, to be there for John, whenever John was ready, when John was nearby. And that Rodney intended to do, except not tonight. His mouth hurt now, and his chest felt all compacted, though he knew he wasn't coming down with anything. He was filled with worry about John, and crushed by the fact that maybe the friendship was ruined forever.

He went back to his quarters and took a shower, which was still an amazing treat, and brushed his teeth, swallowed some ibuprofen and got into bed. Except it was hard to fall asleep when the air around him felt like it was too warm, and crackled with electricity and the pings of Atlantis moving into a night cycle.

Usually the sounds of the city were more like a lullaby or comfortable white noise that let him work or sleep or whatever he needed to do. It wasn't usually a distraction like this, but now he lay in bed, flat on his back, waiting for sleep. Irritated, he kicked off the sheets and the blankets until only the calf and foot of one leg was covered. Enough to keep him warm, not too much to get overheated.

It must have been before his time on Skandar, but he never noticed it before. Just how did one find internal equilibrium if the air was always too hot or too cold, or….just plain too empty?

Because it was empty, without John. John, who now, hated the sight of Rodney because of how it made him feel. The worrisome thing of it was, if John didn't like something, he avoided it. Like his family. He was now in another galaxy to avoid them, so how far would he go to avoid Rodney? All the way back to earth? Or would he send Rodney back, or find a way to make it impossible for Rodney to stay and he would send himself back? Couldn't they just find a way to get along? To keep working in Atlantis? Surely, if they gave it time, it would all blow over and John wouldn't be as mad. Not at Rodney, or the Skandar people (too stupid to know how barbaric their civilization was), or even himself.

Rodney shifted over on his side, toward the window, where there seemed to be a smidgen of cool air, and flopped his thigh on top of the blanket. And huffed under his breath. Because what was really amazing was not that John couldn't acknowledge that Rodney was right, but that he was so right, so, so right. The kind of sacrifice Rodney had made on Skandar was the kind of decision that John made all the time. All the time. Although whether it could be called a sacrifice if you did it willingly was another question. Rodney would willingly do it again a million times, to save John, it hadn't been easy, no. But it never was for John, either. So why was he so worked up that he never wanted to look at Rodney?

Probably because it was so very personal, on Rodney's part. John's sacrifices usually involved him being tied up and tortured in a more anonymous way, where people punched him or threatened to cut parts of him off - no one, as far as Rodney knew, had, well, had done what Ghent had done. So maybe that was it. Well, Rodney couldn't help that the intgn he had undergone had involved very little cutting or punching. Okay, there had been hitting and the whippings and the--the sex part. Not his fault. Totally not his fault that that's what it had been.

He sighed and closed his eyes, and turned on his back again, pushing his shoulders into the mattress and shifting his head to find a cooler spot. Then he ran through Foster's equilibrium equation in his head, imagining a white board, and a red and a blue marker, one each, and imagined writing it out, fixing it. Then when he'd fixed that, he moved on to the power channel research, that Dunbar was supposedly doing, remembered that Dunbar was the guy with the double M.A. from MIT, smart enough but not quick on his feet. The research was going like mud, probably, and they'd need Rodney to light a fire under it to get it to the speed where it would do Atlantis any good.

So he was needed here. He knew that, everyone knew it. John knew it too. No matter how mad he was, he wasn't going to be able to send Rodney away easily. The trick was, if that avenue was cut off, to keep John from leaving. Only he didn't know how to do that. In that one area, of getting John to do what he didn't want to, Rodney wasn't a genius at all. Not even close.


A sound awoke him. At first he thought it was a speckle of rain against the glass, though rain on Atlantis was rare, this time of year. Then he heard another sound, something distinctly more human, like a breath, and for a second, he thought about Ghent, and how strong he was and maybe he wasn't dead, and how maybe he'd followed Rodney, right here to this room--

Rodney sat up, and swung his feet over the edge of the bed. Expecting to find the cool, Atlantis floor, he was surprised to find the soles of his feet pressing against something soft, something a little furry, like a blanket. It was a blanket. And that was--

"That's my stomach," said John's voice, in the darkness.

The sensation against his ankles was exactly like getting up and almost stepping on the cat. Sort of furry and bony, and warm and curved around. And--

"John?" Rodney moved his feet back a little bit, till his heels were on the cool floor and his toes could feel the edge of the blanket that had been thrown on the floor, and the edge of hard bone, maybe a knee. John's knee.

"Yeah?" This said in a tone that indicated that having a nighttime conversation in the near dark where one of the participants was wrapped in a blanket and lying on a rather hard floor in the other participant's room was perfectly normal.

Rodney's hands were hot on his bare thighs, prickling with sweat, feeling hotter than he wanted to, he was so hot, he wanted to be cool--"What are you doing here? I thought you--" A hundred explanations rushed at him, but none of them made sense. "Why are you on the floor, it's so hard, and cold, surely you--"

He felt John's hand circle around his ankle, feeling rather like a cat's tail as it wound around you leaving its scent and hoping for gushy food.

"I--" John paused, finding the hard spot of Rodney's ankle bone and stroking it gently with what felt like his thumb. He cleared his throat. "I'm not trying to mess with you…I wanted to sleep with you, but I didn't want to wake you."

"Oh," said Rodney and his mind stalled out at that point, because he couldn't imagine what would have taken John from not being able to look at Rodney to curling up at Rodney's bedside in the dark simply because he missed him. But he did and it was messing with him, making his heart race, and pound, and get all out of whack simply because John wanted to sleep with him. Wanted to, and was here to do that very thing. Except Rodney had no idea what he was supposed to do.

In the darkness, John's form loomed over him as John stood up, soft around the edges where John gripped the blanket to him, and dark and sharp in the middle, where John was, where his face and expression was and everything that Rodney couldn't see. But what did that matter, when he had what he had here before him, right now.

And John didn't ask, he just did, as he did so many things, with an unerring sense of direction and purpose; if John Sheppard wanted to do something, he did it. And he proved this to Rodney, as he had so many times, by sweeping the blanket back from his shoulders and settling one leg on the bed, pushing at Rodney's thigh so that Rodney had to scoot back in the bed to leave room for John.

Rodney moved, his heart pounding, but willing, because John was not Ghent, nor anything like him, not even close. John settled on the bed, stretched out, and waited for Rodney to stop moving, then he reached down and swept Rodney's sheet and blanket over them both. And it wasn't too hot, not at all, nor too stuffy, especially when John moved his legs so that one of Rodney's feet was out in the air, just like he liked it. It was a quiet, warm, calm dark, he had everything with him that he needed, right here, right now.

He tucked both hands under his pillow and pressed his cheek into them, trying to see if he could see John, lying there, like he could sometimes see him in the cold gloom of the barracks of the Third Camp. Or in the warmer (slightly) flicker of the flame in the pot-bellied stove of the Second Camp. But it was too dark for that, it was dark for sleeping, and the shush shush sound of air from the vents was now a good white noise, the perfect kind. If he had the energy he would get up and open the windows so that they could hear the sound of the ocean, the way John liked it, but he didn't want to move, to break the spell of the sweet, warm darkness. With John there.

Then he felt John's hand touch his hair and his forehead.

"How's your lip, did I punch you hard?"

"Yes, but it's fine now, I took some--it's fine."

"You warm enough?" John asked, a little rough.

"Yes," said Rodney, almost whispering.

"Good," said John, seeming satisfied, slipping his hand back to rest on the crook of Rodney's elbow. Lingering there, leaving Rodney to wonder what John would have said had he said no, that he wasn't warm enough, and whether it would have been time for the hypothermia lecture and about being just buddies.

But John didn't say anything and Rodney let himself relax to the sound of John's breathing, so close, like it had been on Skandar, close and even, not rattling at all, not a single echo of anything in his lungs or his throat, he was breathing as easily as he ever had, but now, so close. So even and warm, and it was better than white noise, it was, well, it was John noise.

"John?" he asked. He didn't have anything to ask, at this point, nor was John likely to answer him. He just wanted to hear the response, whatever it was John would say, in the dark, with a tone of nighttime in his voice.

"Sleep now, Rodney," John said. "It's going to be okay."

Rodney fell asleep in two seconds flat.


In the morning, John was gone, leaving just a little indent in the pillow and a few black hairs to show that he'd been there at all. But that wasn't surprising, John liked to run in the mornings, and wasn't the type to have heart-to-hearts either early in the morning or at all. But that he'd come to Rodney's room and slept on the floor just to be near him, well, that said more than words ever could. As to where it would go from there, Rodney didn't know, and didn't think he wanted the inevitable answer, sorry buddy, it was just a one off.

"This is getting ridiculous," said Rodney to his feet as he planted them on the floor. There he saw John's blanket, crumpled next to the bed. He lifted it up and brought it to his face, and yes, it smelled like John; he'd keep it with him, and make John ask for it back. Not that John couldn't get another from the store room, but John didn't like to ask for extra, so--

Then he remembered that he had a follow-up checkup with Beckett, and he might as well get it over with here and now, and keep Beckett from thinking anything was wrong, because nothing was, was there. He was good to go, especially after the great night's sleep he'd just gotten, so it was the perfect morning for a checkup.

He walked into the infirmary, ignoring the usual bustle and movement, having eyes only for Beckett and wanting to get this over with as soon as possible. Luckily, Beckett noticed him right away and escorted him into the smaller exam room they'd used before.

As Beckett closed the door, he walked over and patted the exam table. "Hop up, then, Rodney," he said.

Rodney hopped up and felt hardly a twinge as he sat down. He actually felt great, like a machine, one well-oiled and tended to.

"You're looking better," said Beckett, as he took Rodney's vitals, heart, lungs, temperature. He hummed a little bit as he looked at the readings.

"Feeling better, of course," said Rodney.

"You're doing quite well, Rodney," said Beckett, smiling at him. "Everything looks normal, and you've put on a little weight, which is a good thing, in this case."

Rodney made a face at this, and then pulled the bottle of Lorazepam pills out of his pocket. "Here," he said. "I only took three, but you can have the rest back now. I don't need them anymore so save them for another loony."

"Now Rodney, they're not loonies--are you sure?"

"They muddle my brain, which is, as you know, one of the most valuable assets this expedition has, so I'd like to treat it as gingerly as possible. Taking one of those is like slamming into my consciousness with a sledgehammer. No thank you."

"Very well, then," said Beckett. He gave Rodney's thigh a slight pat. "Come back in a few days, when you're finished with your antibiotics, and I'll take some blood. Now, get out of here, and leave me to care for people who are actually sick."

Any other time, that kind of comment would have pissed him off, but now it only made him smile. Rodney hopped off the table, and decided he'd head towards the lab and see what trouble he could scare up there, even if Beckett hadn't given him the official okay, according to Heightmeyer, he already knew, so it wouldn't make any difference anyway.

Besides being in the lab would give him something to do while he gave John his space. But not too much; John had had enough space already, and Rodney wanted to talk to him about it. Them. Their relationship. Whatever. He didn't know what he wanted to say, exactly, but he knew he needed to try; working in the lab would help him figure out what he needed to do.


Which, several hours later, it did.

Rodney skirted the tables in the mid-afternoon emptiness of the mess hall. Any time in the past when he'd asked for any of his favorites, he'd gotten waved away as if he were no more than an irritating fly, which pissed him off because he was very important to expedition, him and John both. The kitchen's response to his upcoming request would prove whether Atlantis' cooks knew it too.

He stopped at the door that led to the kitchens and knocked, peering through one of the window circles that let him see into the back workings of the mess hall. When he saw people moving around, but got no answer, he pushed open the swinging doors and walked in anyway. What greeted him was a post-lunch, pre-supper bustle that, with its warmth and smells of cooking, reminded him, with a pang, of the kitchen in the Second Camp. Sans anyone wearing kehk brown, of course.

One of the cooks, slightly comical in his puffed paper hat, came up, looking sweaty and irritated.

"You're not supposed to be back here, what do you want, McKay?"

Rodney took a breath and lifted his chin. "I--well--it's not for me, it's for Colonel Sheppard. You see, he didn't get any iced brownies yesterday and I was wondering if you had any left?"

When he heard Colonel Sheppard's name being invoked, the expression on the cook's face shifted from sarcastic refusal to, something more resembling generosity. Mostly it was his eyebrows flying up into his forehead, but there had been a change, yes, there had been a distinct change there.

"We have a whole sheet," said the cook. "Was going to put them out at supper so people could finish them off, but for Colonel Sheppard, you can have as many as you like."

Which was how Rodney found himself toting a plastic container of at least half a dozen iced brownies, as well as a large carafe of sugared and creamed coffee. Rodney liked his coffee black with sugar (putting cream in the coffee always slowed him down), but John liked it sweet and white, so that's what he was getting. Rodney smiled at the thought of it, and hoped John would be pleased.

He already knew where John was, having checked around before he'd gone to the mess hall kitchen. John was in the jumper bay, fooling around with the puddlejumpers, probably running his hands all over them, like a lover welcoming them home, even though it had been him who'd been away and not them. And doing this in spite of Dr. Beckett's most likely stern injunction not to work. Well, the puddlejumpers were inside of John's blood, just like the lab was in Rodney, and no power on earth could ever--

"Can I help you, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney jumped out of his skin. He'd been about to go into the jumper bay and skirt the edges till he found John, but there was a marine, the one from the day before who'd had such nasty things to say. Only now, after John's stern lecture, and Rodney's intervention to keep him from filing charges, the marine looked a little woebegone and timid, which was really, really hard for a marine to do.

"I'm looking for John, I mean, Colonel Sheppard, is he here? Working on one of the puddlejumpers?"

Rodney started edging to one side, keeping the plastic container close to him. Those brownies were for John and no one else.

"Yeah, he's in the back, in bay number three, I think he's looking at the tractor or something."

"You mean the retractable engines?" Rodney did his best to hide his irritation that the marine didn't even know what he was talking about, though he probably did a poor job of concealing it.

"Yeah, that's it--say, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney sighed. He'd been hoping to just get in there and be with John for a little bit and share some chocolate and caffeine and--


"I wanted to apologize for yesterday, Colonel Sheppard was pretty pissed about, and even this morning, he gave us hell--"

"Yes, yes," said Rodney, waving the apology away. He didn't want it, didn't need it. John Sheppard had spent the night in his bed last night, and while the jarhead didn't need to know that, neither did Rodney need to be soaked in the kid's adoration of their commanding officer. "I know you think the sun shines out of his ass, but--"

"Well, it does, doesn't it?" The marine looked at him, an open-faced, honest kid, reacting to what was right in front of him, and when Rodney caught sight of John, they both looked and John was coming closer, his smile growing when he saw Rodney. Rodney found himself smiling in return, and caught the marine looking at him and seeing it all, right there. On his face, broadcasting everything.

"Yes, yes," said Rodney, snapping. He waved the marine away. "Okay, fine, we're done here, I'm going now."

He pushed past the marine, who didn't stop him, and met John halfway across the bare, empty floor of the jumper bay.

John looked a little more rested, and wasn't holding himself so tightly. He looked good, all over.

"How's the mouth?" he asked, tipping his head in Rodney's direction.

"It's fine, look, I brought you something." He held out the goodies that he brought to share. But John didn't take the container nor the carafe. Instead he looked at Rodney and his hand came up as if to touch, and then dropped to his side again.

"You brought me something," said John, sounding a little irritated. "Again. And what do I bring you? Nothing?"

It slipped out before Rodney could stop it. "You bring me you," he said, swallowing noisily as he watched John's face shift, and knew that he'd laid it on too thickly. John looked like Rodney had smacked him and yes, he'd laid it on too thickly, and now--

Then John sighed as he rubbed the side of his head with his palm.

"You slay me, you really do. Come here."

Except John came up to him, all the way up, and when they were toe to toe, he cupped his hands around Rodney's as if taking the container and the carafe from him. He let his hands linger, and his head tip forward, till Rodney's did too, almost in reflex, till their foreheads touched.

"Hey," said John. "Whadja bring me?"

"Coffee," said Rodney, breathing a little hard. "And iced brownies, you know, the kind that you used to get at school, with the icing that crackles a little when you bite into it?"

"Yeah, I know the kind," said John seriously, as seriously as if they were discussing their current food supply. "I love those kind, how did you know I loved those kind?"

"Who doesn't love those kind?" asked Rodney in return. This was good, this was fine, John was going to sit with him and they were going to eat and drink and make everything normal again. Except for the part where he wanted more of skin-on-skin with John and how was that going to work out if John didn't want it?

"C'mon," said John. He gave Rodney's hands a pat, and led the way to bay number three, where there were tubes squiggling across the floor to the jumper. There was also a bench and tools laid out, and some safety goggles (that John wasn't wearing). Puddleumper number three had its back hatch open and one of the retractable engines swung out, presumably so John could take a look at the inner workings. He wasn't an engineer, per se, but he knew about flying machines and their delicate needs.

"Been checking out the hydraulics," said John.

"So I see," said Rodney. There was a datapad on the floor next to the goggles, and he felt a sense of pleasure rippling through him at the thought of working on this (or any project) with John. Like they used to do. "You should have called me."

"Was going to," said John. "Especially after--after yesterday--well, after yesterday. Anyway, sit." He waved at the bench, oddly a wooden bench amidst all the metal and plastic of the docking bay, and scooted a wrench over and sat down himself.

"Here." John patted a space next to him, and Rodney sat down, too, and put the carafe down, and the container of brownies between them on the bench. Quickly, John had the container opened and had taken a brownie and crunched through the icing, smiling as he did it, with a film of chocolate on his teeth.

He was doing it just to annoy Rodney, and it felt so good that Rodney huffed and allowed himself to be annoyed and grabbed a brownie before John hogged them all.

"What about cups?" asked Rodney through a mouthful.

"We'll just share," said John. "How 'bout that?"

Share. That's what they'd done on Skandar, except for Rodney's time with Ghent, they'd shared everything. They'd shared their food and their water and their energy, and shared every moment together, waking and asleep. And now, John wanted to do that, just like that, to share the carafe of coffee, with germs and backwash and everything.

Rodney nodded. Yes, he wanted that too. "Here," he said, picking up the carafe. He unscrewed the top and handed it to John. "You get the first sip. I made it like you like it."

John took the carafe and looked into it, and when he saw that the coffee was done his favorite way, his mouth tightened a little bit. Without looking up, he said, "You can't keep doing this, doing everything for me."

"I'm not actually doing everything, but you don't mean everything, do you, you mean--so, yes, I can," said Rodney, his heart skipping around a little bit in his chest. "I want to, and you can do it back, if you want."

He waited while John took a sip of the coffee, watched John's throat as he swallowed. Then John lowered the carafe and looked at Rodney, his face serious and still. "I want a lot of things," he said. "But first, what do you want?"

Rodney took the carafe and took a large swallow of sweet and smooth coffee (maybe cream did have its place), and licked his lips to get some brownie crumbs. John was still looking at him as Rodney put the carafe down, waiting, with those green eyes of his, and that shock of misbehaving hair, and Rodney felt lucky because maybe he had a chance, maybe they had a chance--

"I know," he said, taking a deep breath. "I know I might be suffering from separation anxiety and maybe even an unhealthy attachment to you, and maybe Heightmeyer might have something to say about it, because maybe while adversity tries people, it's not meant to make them feel like--" He waved his hand between them, trying to indicate a connection that was invisible, but still there. "Feel like I feel, and I know I'm blathering, but I feel better with you around, with you in my life. I mean, I don't understand exactly what I'm asking for, but I am asking for it, and that has to be worth something, doesn't it?"

It felt amazing to have said it at all, even though John hadn't said anything in return, and even though Rodney knew that John could have anyone, and that anyone on Atlantis would want him right back. In fact, he had the world to pick and chose from so why on earth would he want someone whose basis for wanting him was the fact that they'd suffered through something horrible on an alien planet?

"Yeah, about that," said John, after a thick silence. "I saw her this morning and basically got a pass to walk, and all because you told her what happened. And I mean what really happened. I thought you were set on no one finding out, and yet you ripped yourself wide open. Why?"

Rodney didn't hesitate. "She needed to know, because I know you wouldn't tell her, and I hated the thought of you being stuck in those meetings until she could find some psychosis to pin on you. That'd get you sent home faster than anything. And I didn't want that."

"Thanks," said John, looking a little sober. He shook his head. "That's one more thing I owe you."

"I'm not keeping score," said Rodney. "Never have, never will. Besides being a perfectly good waste of time, these things can only be measured on the particle level, and while I've got some pretty good spreadsheets set up, and some amazing algorithms, I simply can't be spared for all that accounting. It's beneath me."

This made John laugh, a little bit, and Rodney smiled in return, because that's how John's smile made him feel.

But then John straightened up, all serious. "Okay, back to it. What do you want? You gotta tell me Rodney, because while I'm MENSA-worthy, I did not bring my schwami hat with me today. So just. Tell me."

It was like one of those moments on Skandar, like that night in the Third Camp where Rodney was sure John was going to die at any second, and against his resolve to do anything to keep John from being taken away, there was John's resolve to make him obey one last order: let me go, stay behind, and survive. Then John had kissed him. Well, Rodney had kissed John first, but it had been on the head, like you would with a sick child. But, kindly kisses aside, there had been something there, something wide open between them, making it, just for a second, as though he and John shared the same skin.

"I want--" he began. He licked his lips and lifted his chin and looked John right in the eye. This was important and he wanted to get it right. "I--"

"Don't worry about it, Rodney," said John. "Just say it."

Rodney closed his eyes, knowing that he was the smartest man in two galaxies so he should know this. As he thought back to the gulag camps of Skandar, the points of kindness amidst the harsh work and damp, cold conditions. Then he thought about John--and the pallets, barely out of the rain in the Third Camp. And in the Second Camp, John's smile as they stood looking at the hand-turned spit that John usually manned, with John, reminding Rodney that you didn't get points for helping the enemy be more efficient.

Rodney opened his eyes, expecting John to be growing impatient or bored with waiting. But John just looked at him, his eyes dark and level, and it looked like he would wait forever. Which was strange. Usually it was Rodney who had to wait for everyone else to catch up to the mechanizations of his ginormous brain, usually it was him who grew impatient. But not John. Never John.

So he said it.

"I want for it to be cold and for us to be warm. And it's not like I want to be back there, god knows I don't, but there was something we had, you and me, and I've never felt that way before. Never been able to warm myself on another person's skin, the way I did with you. Only, that's not what I mean, I mean, it is what I mean, but it's not just that. It's not just the skin-on-skin, but how it felt in here." Rodney stopped to point to his chest, almost gasping with the effort to not simply throw up words and fling them at John (though, right, too late), but to say it in a way that John would understand, even if he didn't want what Rodney wanted. "I want to feel like that all the time. With you."

He dropped his hand and let it fall to his lap. He was done. John could say yes or now, as he pleased, if he could even begin to understand what Rodney had been trying to tell him, which would be a miracle, because Rodney didn't quite understand it himself. But he thought he'd gotten the essence of it correct, that he wanted skin-on-skin, and, more than that, he wanted how the skin-on-skin made him feel.

But John had a little half-smile, that was very definitely approaching a smirk, and Rodney shot to his feet, because he was not going to sit here and get teased about it, not after he'd just laid his heart bare, and was this how it would always go? That he would have these--feelings for someone, and say them aloud, only to have them trampled?

John reached out a hand and gripped Rodney's forearm tightly. "Don't go," said John, sternly. "You didn't let me answer."

Making himself sit back down was very hard, but Rodney'd done, by the very definition of the word, much harder things. Besides, he could bolt any time. He'd spent weeks doing hard labor, plus he'd not been sick like John had, so he could probably outmuscle him easily.

John took the carafe and the brownies (plenty left of both), and put them on the floor and scooted along the bench, until he was hip to hip with Rodney. Then he turned and touched Rodney's face, and said, "You and me, huh?"

Just then a gaggle of maintenance techs (and one marine) came into the jumper bay, and John pulled back a little bit, a wrinkle forming between his eyes as he watched the techs go to bay number two and start unloading their tools.

But he didn't pull all the way away, he still sat close and brought up the carafe and the container and held them out to Rodney, and so Rodney took a brownie and started chomping away at it. As John drank some coffee, Rodney could feel John's thigh against his, and thought that this was how it might be, the closeness that they always shared, and more than that.

John waved a hand at the techs and the marine. "You know it's funny, back on Earth, the DADT is a stupid guideline that weirds everybody out but doesn't help anyone." He turned to look at Rodney and smiled. "I guess we're lucky here, huh?"

Rodney gave a little shrug. "And how is that?"

"We are a multi-national expedition, and our guidelines and bylaws and regulations--well, I think the most it says about any of that stuff is something along the lines of, we don't know, and even if we did, we still wouldn't give a shit."

"Is that the official language?" asked Rodney, almost choking on a snort of laughter.

"Pretty much," said John, affecting his most serious sure-I-always-follow-orders face. "Anyway, we'll figure it out when we get there."

Then Rodney couldn't stand it anymore; he needed to know if John wanted what he wanted, and he needed John to say it. Some things were too important to be open to interpretation. "So is that a yes or a no?" he asked

"Ah," said John. "I thought I--well, what you said. I can't say it as well as you, but yes. Me too."

Then John looked around the docking bay, and then tucked his head down till it was resting against Rodney's shoulder, and then he kind of pressed his weight down, until there was nothing Rodney could do but drop his arm back and swing it around John's shoulders. Rodney pulled John close, feeling his heart leaping around with ecstatic beats in his chest, feeling John's breath against his skin. John nuzzled Rodney's neck, his hair tickling under Rodney's chin just like Rodney liked it, like he especially liked it, only he'd never told John this, and yet, somehow, John knew.

"Me too," said John again, and Rodney sighed with his whole body. He felt a little out of breath by it, him asking and John saying yes. He wanted to look at John, look at his face and his eyes, and ask him a thousand questions, and watch his mobile mouth while he answered. He wanted to take John's clothes off and lay him down and use his hands to soothe John's skin, over and over, until John sighed with pleasure. He wanted--

But then, if he did too much, if he overwhelmed--yes, that had been his problem in the past, overwhelming the object of his affections with wanting too much, too soon, digging for intimacy with a bulldozer instead of a feather. But hadn't he and John shared, well, pretty much everything? Yes, they had, but he should still go slowly, especially with John, so as not to spook him. He took a deep breath and nodded to himself, closing his eyes to concentrate on the feel of John's hair on his skin.

Still, he had to find out something.

"So--you and me--and you're okay with that, right? Because I was thinking, that you and me and…later? We could--" He ran out of steam at that moment, feeling his face grow hot, because it almost sounded like he was begging. So he finished up with, "So could we?"

He completely expected that this might make John regret saying yes, but that he would agree because Rodney wanted it, and Rodney found himself sitting straight up, floundering because he had no idea how to flirt or make propositions or anything.

But John reached for him and made Rodney look at him, so Rodney could watch that mouth as it moved, and watch John's eyes spark like something precious. "You live out loud, you know that?" said John. "Every damn minute of every damn day."

"Is that--is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Rodney was totally confused now.

"It's neither," said John. "It's just you. And yes, you and me, later. Okay? Don't worry so much, it'll work out. Now. Eat some more brownies so your eyes light up and I can watch."

Rodney nodded, and he liked the way John wanted that, so he picked up the carafe and drank some coffee and had another brownie, and made sure John ate at least half of the brownies, and they sat there together for a time, not saying much, and Rodney soaked John's heat into him and wanted to wipe the crumbs from John's mouth but didn't. But he felt pretty good thinking that, at some point, maybe tomorrow or next week, he would do just that.

Then he had to go back to work, and he touched John's arm as he got up and John nodded, smiling with his eyes.

"Thanks for the brownies," he said. And then, in a somewhat deeper voice, meant only for Rodney, "I'll catch up with you later, okay? Now, go to the lab and bug Zelenka, 'cause I know you want to."

He really did, and of course John knew this, like he seemed to know, without being told.

"Yes," said Rodney. "I'll look for you later." As to what later would bring, it didn't matter specifically, as long as it involved more of this, more of him and John together, like there weren't any other people in the world. Rodney hadn't wanted anything like that since, well, since forever, and it was feeling pretty huge that he wanted it now. And the fact that that John, Colonel John Sheppard, the darling of Atlantis, wanted it right back, was really amazing.

"I'll be in the lab," he said, giving John a slight wave as he turned and walked away.

"Which one?" said John after him, almost shouting. "The big one?"

"Yes," said Rodney. He couldn't stop smiling, he really couldn't.


Rodney leaned over Foster's desk and jabbed a forefinger at her notes, hard, because he wanted to make a point.

"You wouldn't look so stupid if you took the time to slow down and use the right notation, and that, even if you do nothing else right, because if someone tries to apply your equation, they'll learn the hard way that when you write F, you actually meant to write F2 to represent summary external acceleration. It's a motion model for a satellite, not a cake recipe. If you keep it up like you have been, your orbital body is going to crash into the nearest planet."

"Or star," she said, looking up at him, trying for humor, thank god, and not bursting into tears, or pouting, like so many of his lab rats did when he yelled. But he couldn't smile at her or show favoritism, because that would be like showing weakness, and then every idiot in the lab would start falling over each other, turning into sycophantic comedians in an effort to turn away his wrath. And his wrath was a very important management tool.

Just then Zelenka came up, hair-tossed, with coffee cup in hand. He opened his mouth to ask a question or to say something, but Rodney didn't care which.

"You, Czech guy," said Rodney, snapping his fingers. "Give me a pen."

Zelenka gave him a pen and Rodney bent and wrote out the equation Foster had been working with, then turned the paper towards Zelenka and asked, "In this formula, what does M stand for?"

Zelenka looked at it. "It is--" Zelenka paused for breath and Rodney knew he knew the answer; he worked with equations all day. But Rodney needed to make a point.

"M stands for the mass of the satellite," he said, "which any self-respecting engineer should know, especially on Atlantis. My god, where did they dig all of you up anyway, the writing department at Iowa State?

"Hey," said Foster, shifting in her seat. "I got my undergrad at IA, thank you very much."

"That's enough out of you," said Rodney pointing at her with the pen, but looking at Zelenka. He felt good, like he'd slipped back into his own slot, and Zelenka was laughing at him, his eyes bright.

"Attention people! We're going to have a remedial test." Rodney announced this to the lab at large and watched as his lab rats shivered and scurried. "Periodic tables, basic equation variables, the works. A pop quiz for brainiacs and anyone who doesn't get 100% is on the next transport home. Make it so, Zelenka."

Zelenka gave Rodney a mock salute and Rodney nodded, satisfied. It didn't matter if the quiz never happened (but it always drove the point home better when it did) because right now, the quiz was hanging in a cloud over everyone's heads and everyone would be brushing up, regardless.

As Rodney turned to get back to his laptop, Zelenka pushed up his glasses. "Rodney."

"What is it now," he asked snapping, as he opened the lid and signed on.

"Tomorrow is movie night. We are showing Slapshot."

"Is that the hockey movie?" asked Rodney.

"Yes, that's the one. It gets you worked up. Gets the ladies worked up too." Zelenka gestured with upward motions of his hands. "I hope to ask out--"

"And I really don't care about that right now, but yes. I'll be there."

Zelenka smiled, not in the least perturbed. "Good. I'll save you seat."


Later, in John's world, turned out to be after supper, and as Rodney approached his quarters, he saw that John was leaning against the door, arms crossed over his chest. He was looking the other direction from which Rodney was walking, relaxed and waiting, surveying the hallway with half-lidded eyes. He looked totally relaxed, almost burnished in the light, dark hair sparking up everywhich way. And as he turned and saw Rodney, his face lit up with a smile. Which made Rodney feel like he was blushing, but it felt good too, to think of John seeking him out, and waiting for him at his doorway.

When he got close enough, John reached out to touch his arm.

"Okay, so," said Rodney, feeling his mouth move uselessly while he opened his door and motioned for John to precede him. "You're here."

"Yeah," said John, smiling with white teeth as he walked passed Rodney and into the room as relaxed as though it were his own. "I want you to tell me again what you want."

"But you already know," said Rodney.

"I like hearing it."

And there John stood, waiting to hear it, his voice low in a way that made the back of Rodney's neck (and the inside of his stomach) feel all shivery and fluttery. But he wanted this, he knew he wanted it. So he had to answer, even if it half-terrified him.

"I want--you know." His hands winged in the air, desperate to explain what his throat had suddenly closed up on. Then he tried again, being brave by looking down, at John's collar, and the skin beneath, where he could see John's pulse thumping beneath skin, a flush, dark chest hairs flecking there. "I want for it to be cold," he said, making himself very clear. "And for us to be warm. And I want you to stay. Will you stay--this time?"

John's hands came up and rested upon Rodney's forearms. John's hands were warm and strong, and as Rodney moved in, John smelled nice, warm and clean. Their foreheads bumped.

"How cold?" asked John, his breath sweet against Rodney's mouth.

"Cold," said Rodney. "Like--" He squeezed his eyes shut; he had to be able to say it. "Like it was on Skandar. Like that. Just you and me, curled up against the cold." He broke in a small sweat, and his eyes flew open to find John there, patient and still. "Isn't that strange? But we were close, so close, everything was just you and me, and everything else just--wasn't."

"Everything still is," said John. "Just you and me, I mean."

Rodney felt little bubbles of joy and energy start rushing around, up his legs, down his arms. And started babbling. "If we were going to do it right, we would hop in the shower, maybe find some mud and throw it on, and then we'd have to take off our wet clothes and drape them on the bed, you know, to be absolutely accurate, but I think--maybe that's too much. And I wouldn't want you getting sick again."

"Yeah," said John. He was almost smiling with curved, lush mouth, but really, it was all in his eyes. "But we can make it cold, that's for sure."

He let go of Rodney and went over to the temperature controls by the door and waved his hand over it. Then he peered at the gauge and waved his hand again. Then, as he dimmed the lights, Rodney heard the whoosh of air as the temperature spiked down; all systems go with Atlantis standing by. You want cold sex? Here you are.

John came back and led Rodney to the bed, and made Rodney sit down next to him.

"How do we do it?" asked John. He tipped his head sideways to look at Rodney, lashes long, and his expression very grave.

Rodney knew that John knew, but he also knew that what John was doing was letting Rodney set the pace - as if to offset the fact that on Skandar, Ghent had.

"I'm okay with--" said Rodney. He meant to say that he was okay with anything John wanted, it was as much John's time as his.

Gently, John took Rodney's hand and placed it on his arm. "I'm not wearing kehk brown, and neither are you. So tell me what you want. Or show me."

The air on his skin was downright chilly, but it kicked up his sense memory, heightening it till everything prickled and tightened. His fingers were cold, rather than numb, but sometimes technical and absolute accuracy was overrated. He unbuttoned John's shirt and took it off, watching goose pimples form all over John's chest and arms, soothing skin with his hands as he drew off the dark sleeves.

Dark strands of welts curved over the top of John's shoulders, but they were fading now, and would keep fading. John shivered a little bit, and Rodney leaned in close to taste, his tongue on John's neck, kissing one of the welts, almost understanding when Ghent had said, I like to see you shiver, but not with the cold. For him, it was both, and he liked the taste, liked feeling John arch his neck, see his hands lifting to hold on to nothing.

"Rodney," said John, whispering, as they had done in the barracks. "Freezing here."

It wasn't freezing, but it was way below warm, 60 degrees F, which was perfect weather for a cuddle under the blankets.

As he leaned down to unlace John's boots, he asked low (in case anyone was listening), "Is now the time for the hypothermia speech, do you think?"

John laughed, rumbling, bending close to untie his other boot, as though Rodney was too slow, too slow, and they raced with the laces. John toed off the boots with Rodney's help.

"No," John said, lying back while Rodney took off his socks. "I think we know it by heart, now."

Rodney shucked his low boots as fast as he could and got up to tug at John until they were both on the bed, face to face and hip to hip. Rodney pulled up the covers, and John shuddered with his whole body, ducking low to blow breaths between them to warm up their shared space. Body heat would soon kick in and take care of the rest.

"Are you warm enough?" asked Rodney. He touched John's forehead as he'd done on Skandar, and in the infirmary (both on Skandar and Atlantis), pushing back dark hair from John's forehead, enjoying how John didn't shy away.

John nodded, reaching down to pull Rodney's hips close. "Do we get to take our pants off now? And your shirt? Is it time? Is it dark enough?"

"It's always time," said Rodney. He kissed John's chin, and then his soft warm mouth, a bit of his cheek, leaving behind a trail of slight heat to make John shiver.

"Tickles," said John, bending close for more.

"Pants," said Rodney. "Yes, I believe it's time for pants now." He bent forward and reached with his hands, the top of his head grazing John's chin, undoing John's pants and shoving them down, underwear and all, till John could shimmy out of them.

"Now you," said John, naked and warm, and right where Rodney wanted him to be.

But this was the part he liked, where John undid him from his clothes, shirt and pants and boxers, he had it to an art, one hand on each, and pulling in different directions. Creating a muddle of clothes under the blanket to be kicked to the bottom of the bed beneath the sheets. Then John's hands were on him all over, touching bruises on his back and hips gently, stroking and warm while the cold air fought to twist its way under the covers, sharp on his face, his ears, making his nose cold as he nuzzled against John's face, making John shiver.

"Now are you warm enough?" It was John's turn to ask, and Rodney's turn to shiver, and turn open mouthed, meeting John's mouth, tasting him in the warm tunnel of skin and blanket that they had created. Almost sighing with the bliss of it, the texture of John, the rough feel of his chest hairs, and John's hands on his chest, rubbing over him up and down, and again, and then around his back, to pull him close.

"Your back is cold," John whispered, gently tonguing the edge of Rodney's sore lower lip. Then he nipped, the bite tasting sharp.

"I like it like that," said Rodney. "Because it's like--" But he stopped; it felt too foolish to say it aloud.

"Yeah?" asked John. His hands stroked Rodney's hips, making Rodney grow hard without even touching him there. "Like how?"

Rodney ducked close, pressing his erection against John's, nuzzling John's neck, knowing his nose was a little cold, knowing how it felt, like a line of ice was being run down your skin. Then he took a breath and hurried. "Like--the wind is coming, and the rain, but it won't reach you. It can't--can't get to you, through me. I won't let it."

Now he felt hot, felt the blood rush across his face, searing up to his ears. It was foolish, poetic nonsense, which he seldom thought of and never expressed. The last girl he'd ever recited even a smidgen of something that lyrical had laughed in his face.

John's whole body went perfectly still next to him, his hands frozen on Rodney's hips, and for a moment, Rodney was sure he'd said the exact wrong thing, the stupidest, wrongest thing--like he always did, in tight situations that called for tact and deftness, neither of which he possessed at all, and--

John's hands whipped up and grabbed Rodney's face, and Rodney's eyes flew open. He could see flecks of moisture at the edges of John's eyes, but heroes didn't cry, even when they could; Rodney knew this, and knew it hard as he watched John blink it all away.

"Don't say that to me, don't--" John's voice was hoarse, and low, like it had been when he'd been sick with camp fever. But then John kissed him and then kissed him again, his breath panting over Rodney's skin.

"No?" asked Rodney, completely confused as to whether he'd said the right thing or the wrong thing. He brought his hands up to clasp over the back of John's hands and still them. "Not ever? Or just not now?"

John pushed Rodney away, a little bit, almost gently, and rolled on his back where he crossed both arms over his eyes. Which is when Rodney saw it, a single, shocking glimmer that flicked out of the corner of John's eye. He watched John's throat move as he swallowed and then swallowed again.

"John? Are you okay?" Rodney leaned in close, didn't touch John's face, not even to wipe away the wetness. Instead he let his hand push down the blanket a bit to give John some room to breathe; watched the goose pimples form again and wondered if this was going to be a disaster and whether he should get up and turn up the heat a little. "I know I'm terrible as far as telling people things, like how I feel or anything like that, but I wanted--"

"Rodney," said John, in a whisper that shook Rodney, a jolt to his stomach, scared that he'd messed it up. "Just--you don't know."

"No," said Rodney, agreeing. He kept petting John's stomach and his chest, watched the hairs move under his hands, watched John breathing, in and out. "So tell me. I told you, after all."

"It's that." John pulled his arms away, and pushed at his eyes, scrubbing at them as though he were wiping away sleep or dust. Then his glance flicked at Rodney and away, at the ceiling, and Rodney sank down, propping his head on one arm to watch and listen.

"You say it to me," said John, to the ceiling. "Your eyes say it to me all the time, only I never knew that that's what they were saying."


John took a shuddery breath and reached down to pull up the covers; and he looked at Rodney, a glint of teeth, using that smile, a little grin to teach Rodney how it was to be. He rolled back on his side to kiss Rodney, using just his mouth, not touching him anywhere else. "And, anyway," he said, nipping at Rodney's lips a bit. "We're done talking now, aren't we?"

"Oh, yes," said Rodney, agreeing, reaching for John. Pulling John close.

"Except." John ducked his head and sucked on Rodney's neck, sending shivers all around in circles. "You can tell me what your eyes are saying, if you want. Sometimes. I don't mind."

Rodney nodded, silent, mouth open, feeling the pulse and slick of John's mouth and unable to think of words to go with the feeling. Only that John was here and pressed close. Warm, in their shared shelter.

"And you have to tell me what you want, anything you want, what do you--"

Rodney grabbed one of John's hands, and pulled it down to his hip, and then back to his ass. "I want you to do that, to do--to take it all away, everything on Skandar, and do--Well, before the rape, there was fucking, I want you to do that."

"What he did?" John's voice was low in Rodney's ears, almost a murmur. "I thought you weren't going to tell me."

"In little bits," said Rodney, equally low. "I just, well, not throwing them at you all at once seemed like a good idea at the time, only then I realized if we were reversed, I'd want to know--so I could handle you with the best care."

"Oh, I will," said John. He lifted his head and looked right at Rodney, with that impressive ease he always displayed when he slid into team leader mode. "But not rough, I'm not going to be rough, just because he was. You got that? I mean, later, if we want that, but--"

"Yes," said Rodney. He nodded, solemn, feeling the weight of John's anger growing. "Later is time enough, but now, so--will you? Erase it all away?"

John nodded, maybe not so angry now, and Rodney lifted John's hands away so he could roll on his front and spread his legs a little to show John what he meant.

"Like this? He--" John stopped and Rodney felt fingers trailing along his spine. "You want it like this, with the cold air on you? I could turn up the heat."

"No," said Rodney. He nodded his chin into the pillow, and pulled his hands under it. "Because it was too warm in his room, too warm. Here. It's cold here. With you. So no."

Rodney felt John start behind him, and thought that maybe John understood a little better now, how it had been, with Ghent in the warm room (which anyone would think was nicer), and John in the cold, damp barracks.

"Okay," said John. "Slow and cold."

But John's hands on him, on his back, though slow, were warm, and though soft, with even pressure, John went up and down, till Rodney felt his back relax, and his legs, and even his heart. It was going to work this way; he'd not even known how to do this, or explain it to John.

"I don't really have a kink for cold, you know," said Rodney, almost mumbling into the pillow. "It's just that I needed--"

"I know," said John. "I get it now."

John petted him, each stroke warm, leaving a path of touch that the cold air shocked against, and then Rodney could feel John's knees as he knelt between Rodney's thighs, spreading them further. Using his hands to stroke up and down, from knee to groin, his fingers bumping his own knees, and pressing into Rodney's skin. Then, for a moment, John bent all the way forward, his warm chest on Rodney's chilly back, his breath, slow and curling around Rodney's neck.

"Spit?" asked John. And Rodney nodded, because that's what Ghent had used. Only not very nicely and not enough of it.

"Do you want to--" John half whispered it, and then stopped. "On my fingers. Here."

When Rodney felt the ghost of John's fingers on the side of his face, he closed his eyes, and opened his mouth and found one of John's fingers with his tongue. He used one hand to pull more fingers in, stretching his mouth wide, letting saliva build, sucking, as his cock grew hard in about two seconds flat, thumping blood where it was pressed between his hip and the mattress.

He felt John's groan through his back, and against his ear, John's breath, low, slow, warm, as he sucked, and rolled his tongue around the tips of John's fingers.

"Okay, now," said John, breathy, like he'd been running. "I have to--now, before I get all out of control. Okay?"

Rodney nodded and pulled John's fingers out of his mouth and turned his face into the pillow, wiping away sweat, as he closed his eyes. Not wanting to see, but wanting to feel John, feel him shift his weight, and pull off, leaving a swath of cooling sweat. Then he felt John's damp fingers stroke the curve of his ass, down to the crease of where it met his thigh, and then up, across his anus, leaving a silvery, shivering line that raced right up Rodney's spine.

Then John pushed in with one finger, making Rodney tense, until John stroked his bottom and his back and his hip, over and over, low breaths, soft touches. It was okay, it was John, only John, who would never hurt him. But it was hard to relax.

Which was when John bent down and kissed his hip, and then his butt, and the small of his back, pushing and teasing with his finger, pushing and tipping and kissing, till Rodney shivered, and felt John's finger ease in.

Rodney felt his mouth open with a kind of awe; how good it felt when John was doing it, this very same thing that Ghent had done, rough and graceless. But John--


"Yeah." His voice came out like he was panting. "Keep--yes. That's. Yes."

John seemed to understand what he meant, because he pulled out and pushed two fingers in and moved them and eased the way, and then three fingers, and all the while, he pressed gently on the small of Rodney's back, moving his hand, stroking, keeping the skin there warm, where everywhere else was cold.

Then John shifted, and Rodney felt the heat of John's cock against his inner thigh, and he lifted his head, not knowing what he was going to say, until he said it.

"Okay, yes--a little rough, do it fast." He looked back at John, who was warm in the cool dark. "I mean it. Just do it. Take over. Take over everything, because with you--" He broke off to tip his forehead into the pillow, and waved behind his neck, taking in the area of his whole self, and wondered if John would understand what he meant. "With you I know that if you take it all, you'll give it back again."

John stretched out, his front to Rodney's back, his legs along Rodney's legs, and kissed Rodney's hand and then the back of his neck, and whispered, "You kill me when you talk like that, nobody's ever--" And then another warm kiss, soft, open mouthed, more shivers, heat and wet.


"Yes," said John. His voice was rough as he rose off of Rodney, his mouth leaving one last nip on the back of Rodney's neck.

John shifted his weight and Rodney couldn't track exactly where he was, but then he felt John's cock between his legs, and spread them wider to show John he meant it. Do it rough, do it now, now, now.

Then John's cock pushed in close, making Rodney shiver as John guided himself with his hand, and pushed a little and pulled back, pushed and waited, pulled and shivered back, and then pushed again, with more force, doing it a little hard, a little angry, because Rodney had asked it of John. Rodney could feel John's thighs shake as he pushed again, all the way in, felt the sear of pain, a circle of tightness, as John kept jerking his hips forward, little by little.

"Shove," said Rodney. "Now."

John hesitated, and Rodney heard him take a breath and then, with a low grunt, he shoved, all the way in, hilted in, his pubic hair scraping close, his sharp hips biting into Rodney's thighs. It hurt, like John was slicing him. Then John pulled out, sharp and sudden, leaving Rodney feeling suddenly empty and alone, and then John shoved in, hard, hands landing on either side of Rodney's shoulders with a muffled thump.

With a cry, John pulled out again, and shimmied his hips, and pumped in, hips jerking forward, and it hurt, a little, but John was shaking so hard, that something grew low in Rodney's gut, and when John said his name, over and over, it all tumbled out of Rodney, coiling up and out, and his cocked pulsed into the sheets, soaking them as he clenched his fists under the pillow.

"Rodney." It sounded like a curse, the way John said it, as he bent close and clenched Rodney's shoulder, and moved his hips fast, the pain zinging a little, but there were kisses on his shoulder, and Rodney reached back and clasped the back of John's neck, hot and sweaty under his hand, and felt John clench all over, and felt the pump of heat deep inside of him, and sighed as John collapsed on top of him.

He waited while John panted, and felt drips of sweat fall off of John's ribs to sink down his own. Then John rolled off him and Rodney refused to let him just go away, so he grabbed John by his middle and pulled him in close, even though they were both sweaty and hot and mucky.

John didn't protest. He reached down between them to touch Rodney's cock, now spent. "Did you already come?" he asked.

"Like a thirteen year old with my first porn magazine," said Rodney, smiling, half to himself at the memory. "Or was it twelve."

He half expected John to come back with some zinger, about how John (precocious John) had experienced his first orgasm at the tender age of ten or something like that. Instead, John brushed kisses across Rodney's shoulder with his open mouth and flicked a glance up at Rodney, letting Rodney see right inside of him, where there was nothing hidden and no need for secrets or even bravado.

"Next time," said John, kissing the edge of Rodney's eye. "I'm going to suck you--did he ever--I shouldn't ask that--"

"I did him, it wasn't very nice," said Rodney, arching his neck to encourage John to find soft spots there.

"It is. I'll show you. I'll suck you dry, you won't be able to walk after."

This made Rodney smile and he sighed, linking his arms around John's waist, and let his eyes fall closed. And when John shifted, as if to rise from the bed, he said, "You promised you would stay."

"I will," said John, settling down. "All the way till morning."

And with that, Rodney found a spot where he could rest his head on John's shoulder, and John shifted back to let Rodney wrap around him, which was the way Rodney liked it.

"I'm gonna--" said John, but this was cut off with a huge yawn.

"Yes," agreed Rodney, managing to finish that before he yawned as well. "Tomorrow, okay?"

John grunted, low, and his hand stroked Rodney's arm across his stomach for a minute, and then his hand fell still. Rodney counted seconds until he heard John's soft, soft snore that he would never admit to having. And Rodney smiled into John's skin, and felt the cold air try to get at them, and turned his back to it, because it never would.


When he woke up in the morning, the sun was streaming through his windows, which was becoming more normal to his eyes, and John Sheppard was in his bed, which was a bit of a shock, but a nice one.

Rodney scrubbed at his face, trying to wake up, and turned to look at John, lying dark against the pale sheets. Two seconds later John's eyes opened and stared at the ceiling a moment, blinking. Which was how he usually woke up, when they were on away missions. Rodney had always thought that John's instant awake state had more to do with being off-world and away from Atlantis, except now, he was finding out he was wrong. Which made him smile because being wrong in the case of something like this meant that there was going to be more he would be wrong about, more he would be able to find out about John. Now that they were--well, whatever they were.

"Why did you say yes?" He found himself asking this, all in a rush, but he had to know. He reached out a hand and laid it on John's ribs, which were still too close under the skin.

John laid his hand on Rodney's to still it. "Is this the part where we have to talk about it?" He was still looking at the ceiling.

Rodney shifted till he realized he was sitting up in the cool cycled air that streamed all over his skin, except for one spot of sunlight that was warming a patch along his neck and shoulder blades. Then he saw that he was pulling the covers and sheet off of John, so he shifted and tried to fix that, when John gave a tug on the other end.

"Just leave it," said John.

In spite of the cool air, and the fact that John wasn't quite looking at him, Rodney felt himself grow warm. Why couldn't he just accept that John was here, with him, in his bed, why did he have to go poking holes in every damn thing? He would have lain down and forgotten it but John's hand eased under the sheet to curve around Rodney's thigh.

"So--" Rodney began but John cut him off.

"You are going to make me talk, aren't you?"

John turned his head on the pillow to look at Rodney, with his dark hair going everywhere, his green eyes bright in the morning sun, his morning stubble making him look swarthy and warm. Rodney shut his mouth over the diatribe that wanted to come spilling out: Don't make me beg, for Christ's sake, it isn't dignified. But he imagined there had been others in this very position, for surely there had been more than one who had acquired a night with John Sheppard, and liked it so much that in the morning, had begged John to stay forever.

But with the look on John's face (there were shadows under his eyes and his mouth looked a little tight), Rodney realized, and had always known, perhaps, that John wasn't the type of man whom anyone could force to stay; he would come or go of his own free will, his and no one else's. Rodney could ask him to stay, and had, in fact asked, but could not bring himself to beg. But he wanted it, he knew that he did. And he could only have it, if John wanted it too, only now--He rolled his shoulders forward and prepared himself to hear that while John enjoyed being with Rodney, it didn't necessarily mean that he wanted to be with Rodney, and that Rodney had completely misunderstood yesterday's conversation.

John reached up and brushed Rodney's lip, oh, so gently, with the pad of his thumb.

"You're kinda cute when you pout, you know," said John. Then he shifted, reaching up to cup around the back of Rodney's neck. "C'mon, down you come."

John made Rodney lie down and tuck his head in the curve of his neck, and stroked him over and over.

"You want that avowal, don't you," John said. His voice rumbled beneath Rodney's ear.

"A vowel?" Rodney's voice rose when he asked this, but his heart had stopped beating so painfully. "Who do you think I am, Vanna White?"

John kept him where he was and wouldn't let him sit up. "Cut it out," said John, kissing the top of Rodney's head. "Admit it, you think I'm sexy when I use big words. Especially ones you don't know. It turns you on, I know it does."

Rodney nodded, rubbing his face on John's skin, taking his hand to sweep down the sharpness of John's hip, tracing an old bruise, a long, old, fading yellow bruise that had come, no doubt from Skandar. With this, with all this, beneath his hands, at his side, having John there, why did he need words? But he did. And so he waited. Waited while the connection between their bodies grew warm, waited and felt John breathing next to him, and sighed inwardly at the sensation of John trailing his fingertips along the outer curve of Rodney's shoulder.

"It's a lot of things, Rodney," said John, and Rodney kissed the curve of John's chest and made himself wait.

"You know how in the beginning, how we clicked?"

Rodney nodded.

"We clicked pretty hard, and that was good enough for me, all that stuff--but. Well. It was the bread."

"What bread?" Now he was confused. They'd not even gotten up for breakfast yet that morning, and by the angle of the sun on the far wall, would probably be too late for anything but brunch, at that point.

"In the Third Camp, when that Second Camp bread came through. You wanted to take it. I offered it to you and I could see that you wanted it, you were almost salivating. But you wouldn't take it."

John stopped altogether, and Rodney made himself not say anything, because at this point John was telling him, and would tell him. Rodney would find out what the tipping point was, he just had to wait.

"You wouldn't even take half, didn't even suggest it, because I was sick, and you wanted me to get well, and that bread was all we had."

"Oh," said Rodney, and he felt something move through him, like a solid thing liquefying before it settled down, dark and calm and certain, knowing its place, making itself at home.

Now John pulled Rodney tight to squeeze him and kiss the top of his head. "It was the most selfless thing anyone's ever done for me. On top of all the other devoted, stubborn--and that--what you did with Ghent, selfless, and don't ever do it again. Any of it."

"In a heartbeat," said Rodney, without a pause, now that he understood what John was trying to say. "I'd do it a bazillion times over, and besides, when we're not on an off-world mission, you don't get to boss me around."

"Nope," said John. "Guess not." But the low, rough tones of his voice told Rodney what it meant to John because John wasn't the type to say, You were great, you mean the world to me. No, John had to circle around it till all the words got put out there, like a jumble of puzzles that only someone as smart as Rodney could put together. Luckily, John had said a lot so it was easy to know that John meant it, meant to stay, and intended to be next to Rodney, like this, because he wanted to be.

"Anyway," said John. He rumbled an early morning cough deep in his chest, and rolled to face Rodney, letting their legs tangle together beneath the sheets. "We're going to be good you and me, we're going to be good, so can we stop with the talking part of it now?" His eyes had that spark in them, and his face was a little rosy along his temples and cheeks, so Rodney knew that if there were any more talk, John would be full out blushing. Besides, Rodney had what he wanted, more than what he'd asked for.

"Yes," he said. He thought about saying something snotty to follow up, just to make it easier for John, but found he couldn't. So he leaned in and kissed John on the mouth, and followed that by lazy kisses along his face, to his ear, and down the line of muscle, leaving John shivering against the pillow. "No talk," he said. "Only sex now."


It was later that day that Rodney walked out of the lab feeling pretty good; he'd woken up with John at his side, and then they'd had more sex. Though they'd finally had to get up, when they were dressed and at the door, John had planted a kiss on Rodney's mouth that told Rodney he'd be back. And, on top of that, Rodney'd actually found an error in Zelenka's desalinization equations. It had been a small one, but still, it was a blow for victory of his supreme intelligence. Plus the sun was shining through the windows like it was trying to get in and as he passed by one he could look out and see the whitecaps shimmering one after another as they came towards Atlantis.


Rodney stopped and looked and was hugely amazed and flattered that it was John, rushing towards him, face open, smiling, eyes sparking green and brown, hands wide.

As John came up, he grabbed Rodney around the waist, and pushed his hands up a little bit to get under Rodney's shirt and on his skin, and then without even looking around, he tipped his head in for a kiss. This felt shocking, sending ripples of worry along his spine, even after last night, because it was in broad daylight. But Rodney was never one to turn away any kiss, let alone one of John's, so he opened his mouth and felt the warmth of John, the bite of salt, the pulse of John's heart.

When John broke the kiss, he looped his arm around Rodney's shoulder, and tugged Rodney close. Rodney knew that John would only leave it there for a second before he drew it away, this being a public hallway and all.

"You had lunch yet?" asked John.

"As a matter of fact," said Rodney, pretending to frown. "I was considering doing just that, if I could find anyone I liked to go with."

"Oh," said John, with mock seriousness. "Pick me, pick me."

Rodney tried not to smile, but it was hard, the way John made him feel, all glowy and warm, pressed close against him and hang what anyone would say about it. So he gave in, and smiled, tilting his head back. "You of course," he said. "As if you even had to ask."

"Colonel Sheppard."

The voice came from behind them, and when Rodney turned (with John's hands trailing every so slowly off of his neck), he saw it was Major Lorne. He carried a datapad and was holding it out for John to take.

"Sorry to bother--You ran off--These need to be signed before we send the next databurst, it's requisitions for supplies, sir."

John took the pad and examined the list and frowned at it for a minute, and while he did so, Lorne caught Rodney's eye and he did that chin jerk thing, in a way Rodney thought was meant to say, hey, how's it going, without any malice in it whatsoever.

At the same time, he considered what Lorne had said, that John had run off, which of course, had been to catch up with Rodney. Which made him smile all over again, and rock on his heels, and try not to smile, because then Lorne would guess their secret. Which, actually, it wasn't a secret and wasn't going to be a secret, and what did Major Lorne think about that?

But Lorne just waited and nodded, the way people do when they don't have much to say. Lorne was never one for smalltalk anyway, so at least that was till the same. He took the pad when John gave it to him and tucked the plastic pen in its slot.

"Dr. McKay," he said, shifting the pad to the crook of his elbow, "you'll be glad to hear that your request for blue, fan-style sticky notes is on this very list. Along with the appropriately configured dispenser."

"Uh," said Rodney. "Thank you."

"Yes, thank you, Major," said John, "because he's hell to live with if he doesn't have those fan-style sticky notes. Makes him cranky."

"I hear you," said Lorne. "I've got a master sergeant who swears by a certain type of pen and has a shit fit when he can't get them."

"Office supply junkies are the worst kind of trouble," said John, smirking. He tipped his head at Rodney. "Of course they keep us out of trouble, so a few of the right kind of sticky notes or pens isn't too big a price to pay. Wouldn't you say?"

"I say it all the time," said Lorne, all serious now. He nodded at the two of them. "Have a good one," he said. "As you were." And then he walked away.

For a second John watched him go and Rodney watched John. They'd talked a little bit about what this would mean, but it seemed that Lorne was simply unruffled by their public display of affection.

"Did he even notice?" asked Rodney, wishing that John would turn around and look at him.

Which John did, his mouth doing a little frown, the one it did when a new thought occurred to him. "I don't honestly think he cared."

"Do you think anyone will?"

"Only the most narrow minded," said John. "Which we don't have a lot of, in Atlantis. Right? We screen."

He put his hands on his hips and looked the direction that Lorne had gone and then reached up to slap Rodney on the shoulder. "Let's hurry. I hear they have lemon meringue pie today." Then he started walking to the mess hall.

"You know perfectly well--" Rodney began to sputter, and then realized that John had messed with him just to mess with him and that of course, John knew. John knew everything about him, everything that mattered, and then everything else, as well. That's what would keep Rodney warm, and with it, he could keep John warm, and keep the cold rain and winds at bay. And John would learn to see in Rodney's eyes what he sometimes wasn't able to say.


In the mess hall, he carried his tray, which was severely overloaded, as it turned out that the cooks had made chili, corn bread, and pecan pie. It was exactly mid-day and the tables were crowded and the room was loud and warm with people talking and the sun streaming in. He was still somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of food that was available all around him and the amount that people were leaving on their trays. It wasn't as much as might be in a similar mess hall back on Earth, but still, it was enough to make Rodney think of the kehks and want to, somehow, ship the food to them.

He stuck close to John and wondered where they'd be able to sit. Luckily Ronon and Teyla were there, halfway through their meals, and they smiled and waved John and Rodney over. This felt good, it was like old times, so Rodney gladly sat beside Ronon and tried not to smile too much across the table at John. Except John hadn't gotten the memo about being circumspect, because every time he put something in his mouth, he smirked at Rodney, and he had, frankly, the cutest smirk Rodney had ever seen.

"So I read your mission report, Colonel Sheppard," said Teyla. "It was very interesting."

Rodney's ears perked up and he looked at John; he'd not gotten any e-mail about that from John, but then, he got so many e-mails it was easy to miss one.

"You read fast," said John, nudging her with an elbow. "I just wrote it this morning," he explained to Rodney.

"I read it too," said Ronon, in his level voice. "And I've heard about Skandar before this; it's a pretty nasty place."

"That it was," said John, and he seemed rather blasé about it as he shoved a potato chip in his mouth and crunched down. "I put all that stuff in the report about them, because I wanted Elizabeth to know we definitely don't even want to consider trading with these people unless they change their tune about slave labor."

"Why would we even consider it?" asked Teyla, voicing Rodney's own question. "A civilization that cruel doesn't deserve to benefit from the generosity of Atlantis."

"Well, Elizabeth's gotten other reports from other traders, and you know that rain? Well they have fruit, all kinds and lots of it. And the wood they have, all those trees?" He looked at Rodney now, as if to make sure Rodney was listening. "It grows fast, fast as weeds, and is flexible until it dries, and then it's hard as iron. We could use it to build shelters on the mainland."

"My people prefer to live in tents, Colonel," said Teyla, looking like she was working very hard not to snap. "We always have; it is our way."

"Okay," said John, not put out by this. "Bridges, then. Well covers. Tent poles. Whatever. But we won't be trading with them, not until they shake things up, and quit enslaving unsuspecting tourists."

Rodney thought about this, trying to squish down his confusion over the fact that Weir was even considering trading with such a horrible place, such a backwards civilization. At the same time it made him feel hopeful, because then, if she got them to change things on Skandar, maybe he wouldn't have to worry about the kehks anymore. "But what would they need from us? Seemed like a pretty fertile planet."

"Their birth rates are low, Elizabeth said. Too many people dying off from disease and infection, not enough kids being born. They need medicines and someone to teach them about soap and hot water." Here John stopped to wink at Rodney. "And to teach them how to purify water, so that disease doesn't spread."

"They have no good water?" asked Teyla.

"Oh, they have plenty of good water, but they don't seem to know how to transport or store it so it stays good," said John. He tipped back his head to toss in a grape and catch it with his mouth, while Rodney watched, fascinated. "I put my recommendations in the report, it's all in there. Mostly it's about Rodney, and his amazing rescue, but I didn't put in half the stuff he did, because it wasn't relevant to the report, but it was amazing anyway."

Suddenly both Teyla and Ronan were looking at him, curious and attentive.

"Don't look at me," said Rodney, half snapping. "I don't know what he's talking about!"

"C'mon, sure you do."

"No, I don't. Look, I'm trying to eat here."

"So you don't remember eating that shitty food without one complaint?"

"I did complain," Rodney insisted as Teyla smiled and Ronon snorted. "I did! Why does no one believe me; I'm a born complainer."

John just laughed, throwing back his head, showing his teeth and the tanned column of his throat, and this made Rodney smile again, even though it was very confusing to have John heap compliments on him like this. But maybe that was changing just as everything else in their relationship was.

"Tell us, Colonel," said Teyla. She pushed her tray to one side. "I believe I would like to hear more."

"Okay," said John, sitting up, elbows on the table. "You should have seen it. We had crap food, this horrible gruel and bread, every day, morning and night. We found out later that it was made of sawdust, and deer tendons, maybe some fish guts and eyeballs, all ground up. It was nasty. And yet, Rodney ate it, without saying a word. We had open toilets, and Rodney used those, not one word."

"Well, maybe I said a few," said Rodney, in a small voice. "A few choice words about the complete and utter lack of sanitation."

"We slept on rock hard pallets," said John, grinning, "and shared one blanket between us and not once did Rodney complain about his back, or about chilblains, not once. I kept expecting it, but it never came."

His voice was warm and fond, and Rodney ducked his head and knew he was blushing. But this didn't stop John.

"We had to crush rocks, and Rodney goes in there, takes one look at this huge boulder, hefts the sledgehammer, and swings, and by god, the boulder smashes into a million pieces. Just like that. He did that for days and days and days. Only complained once about his blisters. And then when I fell sick--"

Here John's voice wavered, but only for a second, and Rodney knew (hoped he knew) that he was the only one who'd heard it. "Anyway, they're about to haul me off in the ox cart, and throw me through the ring, right? But Rodney stands up and threatens everyone with the sledgehammer if they so much as dare touch a hair on my stupid head. And then what does he do? He negotiates a deal that gets me into their infirmary for a few days and gets us both easier work, a warmer place to sleep, better food, better everything."

"That is amazing, Colonel Sheppard," said Teyla. But she was looking at Rodney when she said it. And smiling.

"That's not the best part, are you going to eat that?" John pointed at Rodney's second piece of pecan pie, as yet untouched.

"Sure," said Rodney. He took the plate off his own tray and put it on John's.

"The best part is," said John, chewing around a mouthful of pie, "is the water. They've got rivers and rain, right? They've got tons of water, and yet, they insist on handing it out as if it were gold. Except they do it badly, so that it gets scummy and stagnant. At least in the Third Camp. Three times a day they hand out water, either in a barrel or from a bucket. Each kehk comes up, uses the dipper, and drinks from it. Then they plunk the dipper back in the barrel. You see where I'm going with this?"

"I believe so, Colonel," said Teyla.

"McKay doesn't drink backwash," said Ronon, utterly serious, his eyebrows flying up.

Both of them looked at Rodney as if he'd grown a new, additional head, and John just smiled at him.

"Exactly. I mean, it's a pathogen stew, all backwash and germs and who knows what parasites. So--" John laughed a little bit and waved his hand in Rodney's direction. "So, the first night, McKay goes up, takes one look at this thing, and kind of twitches all over." John twitched his whole body to show them what he meant. "I expected him to start screaming, but he just blinks--" And here John grew serious as he looked at Rodney, his eyes bright. "Just blinks and drinks it. It was the only water to be had, other than what came off the roof, and Rodney drank it, regardless of the source, without saying a single word about it. Can you imagine? It was amazing, absolutely amazing."

John shoved a forkful of pie in his mouth and sat back in his chair, shaking his head.

"Bravery comes in many forms, it is said," said Teyla.

"I'm impressed," said Ronan. He clapped Rodney on the back to prove it.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Rodney, meaning it. He liked the compliments; he liked them a lot, in fact, especially from John. But his face felt hot, and hearing John tell it like that, like it was a funny story, made him feel a little lonely inside, and he wasn't sure why.

But John was watching him and must have seen his face fall, because he reached right across the table and grabbed Rodney's wrist. "Hey," he said. "Listen to me." He jiggled Rodney's wrist and didn't let go. "It'll get easier, and sometimes laughing at things helps that. Being brave means going up against something that freaks you out, and doing it anyway. They don't give out medals for drinking from dippers that a hundred men have used before you, but frankly, they should."

Rodney swallowed the lump in his throat, and could barely look at John. There was a heavy silence at the table, and Rodney didn't know whether to say thank you, or to flee, or demand that they stop.

Then he felt Ronon move, and his arm reached out and he grabbed the remaining triangle of pecan pie from John's plate. "Sounds like you wouldn't have survived without him, John," he said, shoving it in his mouth.

"They wouldn't have survived without each other," said Teyla, and Rodney looked up in time to see her glaring at Ronon.

"No," said John. He shook his hand and let Rodney go, but Rodney made himself look and listen and feel it, feel what John was saying, and let it seep through him. "It was definitely a one way street. Without Rodney, I wouldn't even be here."

Both Ronon and Teyla nodded, looking as though not only they agreed with John, but they weren't the least bit surprised to hear him say it. Rodney squeezed his hands in his lap.

"Can we talk about something else now?" he asked. "It's not that I mind--I mean, I like it but--" He waved his hand over his tray. "Just talk about something else, something other than--that place."

Rodney looked up. John's eyes were soft, and glittering, narrow, as though he too were remembering and understood what Rodney meant to say. Having John be nice like this was still so new, it would take some getting used to. Although, yes, he liked it, especially when John blinked at him, slow, like a cat that kissed you with its eyes.

Ronon grunted under his breath, sounding like he understood, too, and asked John about the new shipment of guns and whether any of them would be a match for his photon blaster or whatever it was that he had. John turned to Ronan and responded in kind, and Rodney's overwhelming sense of , well, being overwhelmed, faded a little bit, and at the end of the meal, he was able to get up, perfectly calmly, to make his exit.

"I've got to get back to the lab," he said, picking up his tray.

John stood up too, mouth open, eyes wide, as though he didn't want Rodney to go because he had more nice things to say. And while a Colonel Sheppard with more to say was quite a novelty (and much adored), Rodney needed the quiet of his labs, and the utter lack of interest that his fellow lab workers usually expressed towards him. That is, unless they needed something from him.

"Zelenka has been running amok while I've been gone, and it's going to take some time to get things back on track." This wasn't even remotely true, Zelenka had done a great job in Rodney's absence, but Rodney needed to use something to get away, and so Zelenka was it.

"Movie night, then? Later?" asked John. "Isn't that tonight?"

"Yes," said Rodney. He'd almost forgotten. "I'll save you a seat." His voice rose at the end to make it more of a question; John didn't have to be there if he didn't want to be, but Rodney wanted him there. It was movie night, after all, even if it was a dumb movie about sports.

"I'll be there," said John.

Rodney took his tray to the bussing area, and when he looked back, he saw that John was still standing and watching. He raised his hand to wave, and John waved back, and that made him feel a little better. Even if it turned out, as it did, that most of the mess hall saw the wave, and were probably, at that minute, pretending they knew what it was all about.

He went to the labs, but instead of letting Zelenka know he was there, he pulled up his laptop (in the corner, not too far away from the coffee maker), and opened his e-mail. It took him a while to find John's e-mail (it had gone in the Spam folder, for some reason), but when he did find it, he opened it right up, and started reading.

It was probably a good thing he was reading in the lab, with the bustle of lab flunkies, and the computers going and the cooling fans, and Zelenka raising his voice on the other side of the room to be heard. It helped him focus, and keep his cool, while he read John's report. There were abbreviations, of course, but far fewer of them, as if John had decided that in order to explain Rodney's bravery (which was what most of the report was about), he needed to use the full flower of the English language.

John had written things like, grace under pressure, and extreme bravery, and cool professionalism under extreme duress, which made Rodney blush all over again. He wrote about the bad water, too, and about Rodney's ability to exist in difficult conditions, which didn't explain anything about what had actually gone on, unless you'd been on Skandar. Or, actually, unless you'd been at lunch that day; Rodney wondered how far the story would travel (because it would), and how much it would change, until Rodney was described as drinking blood and eating eyeballs to save John's life.

John mentioned killing Ghent, but he kept it simple, as Rodney figured he would; there was no need to broadcast John's killing rage, making Ghent suffer when a slit jugular would have done just as well. But Heightmeyer was probably right, being able to kill Ghent is what made John able to cope as well as he was.

And John wrote about Rodney taking care of him, going above and beyond, to care for John while he was sick, feverish, out of it. And how Rodney got him water to drink and made sure he ate and made sure he was warm at night, all at a cost to himself, a cost which he never counted.

Rodney sat back. It was quite flowery language, especially for John. But there was more, a final paragraph, short and succinct, but it said everything, right there in one sentence.

I would not have returned to Atlantis without Dr. McKay's efforts. This goes beyond medals; I owe him everything.

Okay. He was done now. He clicked the report closed, and shut down his e-mail without checking anything else. Standing up, he pressed the heel of his palms against his suddenly hot eyes; ending up on Skandar had been horrible, but it had brought him John.

"Dr. McKay," said a voice that Rodney vaguely recognized as Zelenka's. "Rodney, are you--you alright? You are shaking."

"I'm fine," said Rodney, but his voice came out small, but that wasn't right because it was good, everything was good, and he was fine. He took his hands away from his face with a gasp.

There was a streak of sunlight across Zelenka's face, and it was almost too bright, making Rodney blink. "It's just--" He stalled out in trying to explain, but maybe he needed to. "I was just reading Colonel Sheppard's--John's--report and it took me back there, and just for a minute, I forgot I was here."

Zelenka nodded at him, hair askew as he stepped out of the beam of sunlight. "Perfectly normal." He shrugged. "My uncle, he said it fades with time. And you'll be ready for movie night, right?"

Rodney nodded, and Zelenka went back to his work. Rodney closed the laptop, pressing down until he heard the click. He would get used to being home, on Atlantis, with time, was almost already used to it. And he would get used to him and John, being close, get used to the sharing between them, and saying things that only John would understand.


He went back to his quarters and took a nap. He figured he deserved as many as he could get, between now and the time that Beckett was going to sign off on it being okay for him to work. Although, really, he'd been working since he'd gotten back, as had John. Which was probably why Rodney couldn't find him for movie night. He searched all the usual places, and some unusual ones as well, but came up blank.

Okay then, John knew it was movie night, and if he wanted to be there, he'd find his way.

Rodney stopped at the door to the movie night room and saw that Zelenka had saved him a seat on one of the couches next to the near wall. He went over and nudged Zelenka with his knee.

"Move. My seat." Rodney liked the aisle.

"Too bad for you," said Zelenka. He threw a piece of popcorn in his mouth and chewed, open mouthed and smiling.

"Fine." Rodney clambered over Zelenka's legs, making sure to bump them a little. Then he sat back in his seat on the couch and thought about stealing some of Zelenka's popcorn, mostly because he could. Then he thought about fingers and secondary spit and so, no popcorn. In the two rows ahead and behind, people were finding their seats, mostly men, but a few ladies, too, and Rodney settled back, ready to relax, and wondered which of the women that Zelenka was hoping to ask out.

He was listening to Zelenka muttering about something, and watching the two idiots fiddling with the computer projection screen and the cables, as well, which weren't hopelessly tangled, but which were obviously being handled by incompetent boobs. Rodney was just about to get up and offer his superior brainpower, when John popped his head in the doorway, and scanned the gathering. Rodney assumed he was looking for one of his marines, or maybe a mechanic or whatever. For a second Rodney wished that he was the one John was looking so intently for. Then, when he spied Rodney, John's eyes narrowed and he did that chin jerk motion, and Rodney realized that he was who John was looking for.

In front of the whole room, some of whom were watching John, John made his point clear by lifting his hand and crooking his finger at Rodney. Then he came all the way into the room, and started making his way over, because for some reason he didn't seem to want to wait for Rodney to come to him. Which made Rodney's stomach go a little fluttery, and his pulse sped up, because, now he knew what it felt like to be wanted by John Sheppard. With an audience, if you please.

Scrambling, Rodney got up, feeling all arms and legs, and tried to get past Zelenka, in a hurry. Except his ankle hooked on Zelenka's and Rodney went pitching forward. Right up against John, who caught him and held him close to keep him from falling.

"Hey, Rodney," said John, with a smirk. He smelled good, so Rodney was glad to be up close.

At least for a second. Rodney realized the whole of the movie room was perfectly silent and listening and watching, though Rodney didn't dare turn around to look. All he could do was wait. As he looked up at John, he could see the curve of John's chin, his cheekbone, curve of eyelash, and a shock of John's hair all awry around his ears. And John wasn't letting go. Rodney's heart began to hammer, it was one thing to be all casual and talk about multi-national regulations like they didn't really matter, but that was when they were in private. Not when everyone was looking.

Then there was a rustle and Rodney saw a piece of popcorn boink off John's forehead.

"Kiss him already," said a voice. Rodney didn't know who it was, but he froze, and felt John stiffen a little against him, but he didn't let go.

Then, after a second, someone else said, "Geeze, get a room, will ya?"

This was followed by, "Yeah, we're watching a movie here!" as well as a string of other semi-curses.

Then John made a decision, as he often did, not by talking, but by grinning, a white flash of teeth. And by letting go of Rodney with one arm and clinching the other arm around Rodney's neck. Pulling him close.

"Time to go, Rodney," he said and as he pulled Rodney through the doorway, they were pelted with a hail of popcorn.

In the hallway, John let go of Rodney and found a piece of popcorn stuck in Rodney's collar and without any hesitation (or seeming worry about secondary spit), tipped his head back and tossed the popcorn and caught it with his open mouth.

"Should we get a room?" John asked, walking fast, towards the nearest transporter.

"Yes," said Rodney with leaping heart, feeling his eye go wide.

He joined John in the transporter and they stood very close and the jocular feeling of the movie night room slid away, leaving a blanket of quiet and the growth of something new.

When the transporter stopped and the doors opened, Rodney realized they were headed towards his quarters, with his half-made bed and yesterday's clothes on the floor. He hesitated before palming open the door and when it slid open, he gestured to the mess.

"Rodney," said John, holding up his hands as if to forestall any explanations. "I already know it's a mess, so don't worry about it."

"It's not that much of a mess," said Rodney, hearing the sulkiness in his own voice.

But John just smiled and pushed past Rodney when he opened the door and went straight to the bed and started taking off his shoes. Rodney came to stand in front of him, enjoying the thought of it, still new, of having John Sheppard taking off his clothes, right here in his quarters.

"Will we keep doing it like this?" he asked, tipping his head down.

John looked up, crooking his knee to get at his foot so he could tug his sock off. "Like what?"

"My quarters, stolen kisses in the hall--" He stopped, because he really liked those stolen kisses. "I'd like the stolen kisses to continue, by the way."

"Me too," said John. He pulled off his other shoe and sock and then stood, barefoot, his hands going around Rodney's waist. "As for the tradeoff between your place and mine, we might think about sharing."

He grinned at Rodney's look of shock, and then leaned into kiss Rodney's mouth. "But later, we'll worry about this later."


"I have something else I want to do."


"Take off your--here, let me help you." John pulled up Rodney's shirt and took it off, letting the cool air spin across Rodney's chest. Then John pulled Rodney close, so close their toes and their hips were touching.

"I want to do something for you, something you did for me. Okay? You'll just let me do it?"

"Of course, but--"

John looked so serious that Rodney felt sorry for him, a little bit, and petted his face, and leaned up on his toes to kiss his temple, soothing that wild hair with one hand.

"Remember on Skandar, when you, well, you bathed me. Remember that night?"

"Yes," said Rodney. He would remember it for a long time.

"I don't know what it was that changed--" John paused, looking down, his hand stroking Rodney's forearm over and over. "I felt like, right then, I knew we were going to make it out of there. So I want to do that to you, so you know the same thing, that we're going to make it."

Now John looked up, his eyes blazing green, and his gaze so intense that it made Rodney want to melt inside.

"I take care of what's important to me," Rodney said, his breath catching in his throat. "And you are. Important to me." He lifted his chin afraid that John might be overwhelmed with him saying it like that, but John just leaned in and kissed Rodney again.

Then John smiled. "Okay," he said. "Okay Mr. Live Out Loud. Off with your clothes. All of them."

Rodney hastened to do as he was told, and used his hands to encourage John to do the same, until they were both naked to the air. When he looked down at himself, he could see a fading handprint, and some yellow smudges on his stomach from--well, he didn't want to think about where they came from, and besides which, they would soon be gone. As would the green and yellow slashes on John's back, that Rodney could see when John went over and made the room a little colder. As John came back to his side, Rodney didn't say anything about them, but vowed to be gentle.

John took Rodney's hand and led him to the bathroom. Rodney's toenail clippers, and the fingernail clippers he sometimes used to cut his hair, as well as used tissue, two used washcloths, and an empty can of shaving cream littered the counter.

"I take a lot of showers, too," said John, merely glancing at the detritus. He leaned around Rodney's shoulder and turned on the shower. "And now, I know that this particular ritual--"

"Now it's a ritual?"

"Yes, ritual, now don't interrupt, this ritual should be done with a skanky used washcloth soaked in icy cold water, but you deserve better." John pulled back and put his damp hand on Rodney's shoulder and kissed him. "You deserve the best, so that's what I aim to give you. And you can't help, you can't lift a finger, understand?"

Again, Rodney felt overwhelmed, as though what John was saying (and everything he wasn't) were waves and waves of some physical representation of all that caring and friendship and affection, and love. Yes, that was there. Rodney didn't think John was like this with anyone else.

"Here," said John. "Step in. Thanks to you, we've got plenty of hot water, and today, I'm going to use most of it on you."

Rodney did as he was told, and he let John guide him into the shower stall, which was plenty big enough for one person, but barely big enough for two. But John stepped in as well, and didn't seem to mind that if either of them made any move at all, their bodies touched and the shower water (which wanted to come straight down) splatted on their shoulders and heads this way and that, and that when Rodney lost his footing, he grabbed for John's waist and held on. No, John didn't seem to mind at all, he just moved in close and grabbed Rodney's shampoo bottle from off the shelf.

"I'm going to start at the top," he said.

All Rodney could do was nod and hang on, while John washed his hair with slow, careful fingers, and then rinsed and did it again, leaving soft kisses on Rodney's closed eyes as he put in the conditioner.

"You have baby soft hair," said John. "I never really realized that before."

Now he was blushing again, closing his eyes as John took up a clean washcloth and lathered it up with the hypoallergenic soap that Rodney had to special order every three months.

"You okay?" he heard John ask.

"I'm not used to--that is, I like it, I do," said Rodney. He nodded his head to emphasize this, tipping his neck forward to enjoy the sensation of John's hands on him. "It's just--it's a lot."

"Well, get used to it, damnit."

John sounded angry, and Rodney opened his eyes, blinking into the spray to double check. Yes, John was frowning, in concentration on what he was doing, but Rodney figured he must not like it when--

But John saw him looking and shook his head. "It's a lot for me to get used to, too. Feeling this way, thinking about killing that guard, wanting to kill him all over again. Especially when I see you still have welts and bruises, and a handprint that I know is not mine."

John's mouth scowled, hard, his eyelashes sparkling with water from the shower. Rodney leaned forward and with a very soft mouth, kissed it away.

"I don't like thinking about it," said John. He took a shaky breath and started washing Rodney again. "I just want to concentrate on this, and you need to let me. Understood?"

"Okay," said Rodney. "I understand. Bathe away. I won't say another word."

This profound statement was met by a snort from John, who obviously knew as well as Rodney that that would never happen, unless Rodney were asleep. But Rodney made his shoulders relax, and let go of John, and let John do what he wanted to do. Which involved a whole lot of sudsing the washcloth and slow scrubbing (quite gentle scrubbing), and rinsing of conditioner out of his hair. And long strokes with John's hands, everywhere he could reach. Not to mention kisses along Rodney's ribs and hips that left John's lips dappled with soap

Then John knelt down at Rodney's feet, and with the shower water coming down on his dark sleek head, he washed Rodney everywhere he could reach. Across his butt, between his legs, down his calves, even between his toes. Then he looked up, blinking, and used his bare hands to help the water rinse all the soap from Rodney's skin. It was far nicer than the hard scrub-downs Rodney'd been giving himself, though those didn't happen more than once a day now.

"Thank you," he said, looking down at John.

"Not done," said John. "Better brace yourself." He nodded in the direction of one of Rodney's hands which was resting against the waterslick tiles.

Rodney watched as John scooted up on his heels, and reached for Rodney's cock, and then he knew what John was going to do, so he flattened both his hands on the tile on either side of him. It'd been a long time since anyone had ever done this to him, and he was just going to skip right over his recent experience with Ghent, because obviously, this was a wanted thing. A good thing that came from someone who cared about him.

John kissed the end of Rodney's cock, looking up at Rodney with a wink and a smile, and then he wrapped his hand around it and started licking on it, and swirling his tongue around the crown and underneath the crown, and Rodney's knees started to feel woozy beneath him. Not to mention the silky sensation of John's hair whenever John's head brushed against the inside of his thigh. Or the front of it. Or the inside again. Silky, damp spikes tickling on his skin warred against the sensation of John's mouth on him, sucking, taking him in, slicking him up, and licking all over.

"Oh," he said. "So you--" He didn't quite know how to articulate that he was about to come, which he was, if the lightning zigging up the back of his spine was any indicator.

And either John got it or he didn't, either way, he gripped the root of Rodney's cock firmly in one hand, and braced himself on Rodney's thigh with the other, and sucked Rodney all the way in. Sucked hard and steady, and then he reached up and touched very lightly behind Rodney's balls.

It was like someone had flicked a switch inside of him, Rodney came. It felt hard and hot, and John's throat moving over it, swallowing it, made it even hotter, and that's when Rodney's head started to spin around, and the next thing he knew, John was beside him, arms around Rodney's waist. Holding on. Splashing kisses in the shower water, and finally, kissing Rodney's mouth, where Rodney could taste himself, tart and sour, under the sharp clean taste of the water.

"I can't stand up any longer," said Rodney, not wanting to complain, but he didn't want John to have to catch him either.

"Then the ritual has been successful," said John in mock-serious tones. "Bed now, yes?"

"Yes, yes," said Rodney. "Of course bed. Where as soon as I get my breath, I'm going to return the favor."

John led Rodney from the shower and dried him off, and then dried himself off, and to Rodney's pleasure, dropped the towel on the floor and stepped over it, taking Rodney with him. Of course, in John's quarters, John would have hung it up, and maybe Rodney would learn to do the same. But for now, John was doing it Rodney's way.

John took Rodney to the bed and pressed on his shoulders, and as Rodney went, he pulled John on top of him, creating a silky-damp pile of arms and legs, and John's chest hair, and Rodney's shoulders.

"We're not counting, tit for tat now," said John, warningly as he pressed Rodney into the mattress with kisses to his chest.

"I know," said Rodney. "I just want to, you have to let me."

John paused, and then lowered himself to Rodney's side. The beds were quite narrow, so John's ribs were sticking damply to Rodney's, while Rodney stroked John's stomach and John planted a kiss on Rodney's shoulder.

"You can do anything you want to me, absolutely anything. We'll do everything we want, you and me and that bastard won't ever--"

Here Rodney leaned sideways to kiss John, and leave a trail of kisses along his cheek. "No," he said. "We've already done that. We've erased him and replaced him and it's about us now, you and me. That's what we want here, not rolling around in old shit."

"Old shit?" This seemed to brighten John up from his temporary darkness, because John reached to tug on Rodney's shoulders and his eyes lit up as though he wanted to mock. "Old shit and old, skummy, backwash water, and I still can't believe you drank it--here, will you move, I'm trying to pull you on top of me."

"Oh," said Rodney. "On top. Okay."

On top of John, Rodney settled his elbows on either side of John's face, and trapping it there, peppered it with kisses, till John twisted away, laughing, and really, not struggling to go very far, while his long, hair legs rubbed against Rodney's.

"Will you just blow me already?" said John, but his voice was sweet, under the pretence of being impatient, and Rodney could see it in his eyes, bright and green, how much he wanted it. How much he wanted Rodney. And especially since, right after he said it, his hands came up to softly cup Rodney's face and pull it down for even more kisses.

"Okay," said Rodney. "But I've never done this before."

"Neither have I," said John. When Rodney's eyebrows flew up in his forehead, he said, "Seriously. I don't know what you heard, but I'm not the Casanova with both sexes like all the stories say."

It didn't matter anyway, John was in his bed now and Rodney figured they'd both get tons of practice, and Rodney suddenly wanted to taste what John tasted like. The way John had tasted him. So he shimmied down John's body, leaving light kisses and strokes and pets along the way, until he was nestled between John's legs. He ran his mouth, then his nose along the edge of John's groin, tangling his fingers in John's pubic hair, breathing John in, getting used to it. John even shifted his thighs apart to give Rodney more room, and that somehow zapped his heart and his gut, John being sensitive to touch, opening himself up like that. For Rodney.

Which meant that when Rodney held John's cock in his hand for the first time, he handled it as though it were bone china, petting it and smoothing it, until he felt John tap his head.

Then he looked up.

"I like it a little firm, more firm," said John, looking a little abashed. "You know. Firm."

This made John blush, rosy against his tanned face, which made Rodney smile, so he kissed the tip of John's cock and stroked the inside of John's thighs, and took John in his mouth, and rolled his cock on his tongue. This made John start making a noise, low in his chest, like a groan escaping, a sound he didn't even realize he was making. It was a good sound, and Rodney decided he wanted to hear more of it, right now. Which meant taking John's cock deep in his mouth and using his hand to stabilizing it, he started moving his mouth slowly up and down John's cock, over and over, slowly. So slowly.

John tasted salty and little tender, especially under the crown where his circumcision scar was and Rodney padded the spot gently with his tongue, being careful with his teeth as he swirled his tongue around and around. Making John groan louder, and his hips come up a little off the bed, making Rodney realize that John liked lots of tongue and he liked fast tongue, so that's what Rodney gave him. Hard, slippery, fast tongue, and lots of going down and up and then John's hips literally bucked, and Rodney felt the pulse, like he'd felt with Ghent, like a coiled tube that started pumping.

Only this time, John tasted good, and John's hands were gentle on Rodney's head. They didn't seem like they wanted to hold him or control him, they just wanted to be there. It was easy to swallow, and he tasted the salty thickness of John's come on the back of his tongue and just kept swallowing and holding on, till John's head went back with a sigh, and his cock softened in Rodney's mouth. Rodney drew off, gently, leaving a kiss behind before he rested his head on John's thigh.

He looked up to see John throw his arms over his eyes, which Rodney was beginning to see as a signal that John was in overload, sensation and emotion, and he wasn't very good with it, hence the covered eyes. To anyone else it would look like simple exhaustion, but Rodney knew. Now he knew.

He waited for John's quivering to still and planted kisses along his thighs, tasting salt and skin. Then, slowly, he kissed John's stomach and chest, stopping along the way to suck on one of John's nipples, which stood up at attention right away, so Rodney figured John liked that. When he got to John's neck and face, he gently peeled John's arms back and kissed John's closed eyes, one at a time, licking a line along his eyelashes, sweeping his lips on the tender skin beneath.

"Hey," he said. "Hey, John. You still with me?"

Mutely John nodded, but his mouth was moving in a funny way, like he was trying not to say something. But Rodney wanted him to say it; he rested his chest on John's and stroked John's mouth with his fingers.

"Just say it. It's only you and me here, and I'll never tell. You know I won't."

"It's just that--" John stopped and Rodney watched John's throat move as he swallowed. "Man, I wasn't going to do this, or go there, but--okay, so--"

"What is it?" Rodney asked, keeping his voice low. He kissed the end of John's nose. "Just tell me. Please? I don't often ask please, you know. In fact it's as rare as a blue moon, which isn't actually a blue moon, it's just the term they use to describe it when a full moon happens twice in a calendar month. Which isn't very often, hence--"

"Rodney, I know that. Jeeze."

John's eyes opened, and he was just a little irritated, but that was better than the alternative, so Rodney poked him. "Tell me."

"You wanna know?" asked John. "Okay. I was thinking about how you not only drank scummy water, you let some guy stick his dick up your ass just to save me, because I was stupid enough to get sick--"

"As if you meant to get sick." Rodney frowned to show what a stupid this idea was. "Besides, I'd do it again," said Rodney, hurrying to stop John from any more self-recrimination. "I'd do it again and again and again. A million times. A bazzilion times, if it meant saving you. Don't you get it yet? You're the most important thing in the world to me, and if anything happened to you--well, I'd be hard pressed to find--" His voice cracked in the middle and he swallowed and tried again, to make it less serious because if it got any more serious, he was going to start crying. "You give the best blowjobs I've ever had, and you'd be hard to replace."

"Did you just use the word bazillion again? That's like twice in two days, isn't it?" John's mouth twitched, and though the expression in his eyes was still a little dark, he could obviously see what Rodney was trying to do and, for the meantime, it seemed like he was attempting to go along with it. Maybe later they'd have more serious conversations about who had done what to and for whom, but not now. Rodney didn't want to talk about it now.

"Yes," said Rodney. "A bazillion times. And while we're at it, that talk you wanted to have later about maybe sharing rooms. Nope. We're having it now and we're sharing rooms; I'm not a young kid, and I'm not about to rupture a disk on one of these narrow beds. We get the okay from Dr. Weir, and we're moving into quarters with a bigger bed. A much bigger bed."

"And a balcony," added John, perfectly serious, though his eyes were twinkling. "I think one of the towers, the north one with the, uh, maybe the one I'm thinking about is the one with all the long windows? It's got huge rooms."

"That'll work for a start," says Rodney. "I never imagined myself being part of a young couple looking for real estate--"

"Young couple? Couple of what is what I want to know."

"--real estate, but I imagine we're going to get a taste of it. You like narrow windows, I like windows that open."

"I like windows that open," protested John. He reached behind him to rearrange his pillow and then wrapped his arm around Rodney's waist, and Rodney shifted down till his head was resting in the hollow of John's shoulder. "But we'll have a balcony for your goddamn fresh air."

"You like fresh air too," said Rodney, "don't lie." He poked John in the ribs to prove his point, and in return, got a kiss along his hairline.

"Yeah," said John, and the word gurgled in his throat as it turned into a yawn. Which Rodney was fast learning happened when John had sex, he fell asleep, almost right away. Which meant no more heart-to-heart, no more talking of any kind. Which suited Rodney just fine. He dipped his head for one more kiss of John's skin, anywhere he could get it, and then gingerly leaned over to use the switch on the nightstand to turn off the overhead lights. Everything else could wait till the morning.


"Hey, Rodney."

Rodney could hear the words but they didn't make much sense. Then he felt someone poking him and heard the words again, along with a couple more.

"Hey, Rodney, wake up, it's time to wake up."

Okay, that he understood, along with the dawning realization that John was a morning person, full of energy and chatter, and Rodney let himself snarl one time before he cracked open his eyes, to find his head half buried in a pillow and John hovering over him.

"Get back down here," said Rodney, not trying to hide his irritation. "You don't have anywhere to go."

John obliged him, and then some, scooping Rodney up to hold him against his chest, while he petted Rodney's back over and over till Rodney felt like purring. But not quite like getting up.

"You know what I want to do today?" asked John in a far too cheerful voice.

Rodney grunted.

"I want to be normal. I want to go to a meeting, a boring meeting, the kind Elizabeth seems to think is essential to the running of Atlantis. And, during the meeting, we should goof off, I want to play hangman on your datapad, can you set that up? Or would you prefer--no, hangman would be perfect."

"Now?" asked Rodney. He tried opening his eyes again, but it really wasn't working. "Why do you want to go to a meeting anyway, aren't I enough for you?"

This made John laugh and lean down to kiss Rodney, with a little bit of his tongue, even though Rodney knew he had morning mouth.

"You are all the excitement I'll ever need. Well, except for things that go 200 miles an hour and my beloved puddlejumpers. But they'll always come second to you, darling."

"Did you just call me darling?" asked Rodney, sitting up and sputtering. "Fine, I'll get up and we'll go to your damn meeting. Can we shower first?"

"Of course we can," said John, smirking.

Of course we can meant, in John's vocabulary, that they shared the shower stall, like they did the night before, except this morning, they fought over the soap and struggled for the one clean washcloth that was left, and flicked each other with it, and banged into the walls, and laughed so hard that they swallowed soap. Then, when they rinsed off and were done, they got out and dried each other off with the remaining towel, which got sopped before they were through and Rodney vowed to get more towels and washcloths and things in, before the next time John slept over. Or they moved into their new quarters, whichever came first.

They got dressed in yesterday's clothes, because it just didn't matter, and realized they were late for the meeting and raced all the way there, arriving, panting at the door, to grab two seats together.

Weir looked at them, eyebrows raised, making Rodney look at them both. His shirt was inside out and John's hair was sticking up in black spikes. Everyone else at the table tried not to stare, but Rodney could see how hard it would be because they both looked like they'd been doing exactly what they'd been doing.

"So," said Weir. "You boys solve your differences? Buried the hatchet and are now prepared to get back into the swing of things?"

John slouched in his seat, one elbow over the back, and nodded at her, which made his hair flop damply around his eyes. "Yeah," he said, in his slowest, most laconic voice, which didn't in any way prepare Rodney for what he was about to say. Which was, "We kissed and made up, so we're good now, Rodney and me."

No one at the meeting, not anywhere Rodney snuck a look, seemed at all surprised by what John had just said. Especially not Weir, who nodded and called the meeting to order, like it was an everyday thing to hear Colonel Sheppard talk about him and Rodney and kissing, all in one breath.

Except it felt like such an amazing thing to Rodney, to hear John say it like that, to announce it like that, as if daring anyone to have a problem with it. And then to end with Rodney and me, which brought back every single warm feeling that John had ever given him all at once. He was about to have a little meltdown, but John kicked him under the table, frowning at him. Except, yes, there was that little twitch of John's mouth and the spark in his eyes that said he didn't mind so very much, that Rodney felt things so very hard. Which was a good thing, because Rodney was never very good at keeping his feelings (or his opinions) to himself. Which everyone, including John, knew very well.

"Fine, then lets begin," said Weir. "The first item on the agenda is the proposal to send a team to Skandar to begin negotiations with them."

Shock rippled through Rodney, and beside him he felt John jerk in his seat. He felt like he'd been smacked in the head; he'd not been expecting this to be the first thing.

"We plan to set up a trading system with them, to barter for fruit and their wood," continued Weir, as if unaware of anything but her agenda. "But this will only happen if they are willing and able to alter their cultural structure and eradicate the slave camps."

"Can we actually ask that of a whole civilization?" This question came from the head of botany, Dr. Davis, with whom Rodney had very few dealings. Although, considering what they dealt with (plants), it was good to see that they might be willing to put the breaks on the project, if they felt it was out of line. Even with all they stood to lose.

"We can ask," said Weir. "Their population seems small enough that we could even force them, though I don't want to take that tactic. But they have some of what we need and while I wouldn't consider asking them to change everything about who they are, we are Atlantis, living in the city of the Ancestors, and I believe we have a duty to uphold and wipe out slavery when we can."

She looked around the room as if to gauge their reactions. "Besides, they would completely benefit from the change; clean water and proper sanitation would mean that they could lower the infancy death rate. And that's just for starters. Other benefits could be detailed for them, depending on the team that I assemble for the negotiations."

Now her attention was on Rodney, as if she were about to ask him to head that team. Rodney's chest started to get that squashed feeling he got when he thought about the kehks or about being trapped on Skandar. He felt John trying to get his attention, but whether it was to say something or keep Rodney from saying it, he didn't know. All he knew was that if any more air left his lungs he wouldn't be able to say anything at all. So he had to say it now.

"As everyone is probably aware," said Rodney, cutting Weir off, "Colonel Sheppard and I recently returned from Skandar, though I'm not about to repeat what's in the mission reports for the reading impaired. And while I'm very willing to be a point of reference for all things Skandar, and while I will answer any and all questions, and while it's very, very important that any negotiations--well, negotiations are important, because we need fruit and we need other things. But what's more important is that the negotiations include taking care of the kehks--" Here his voice broke, like he knew it would. But he made himself continue. "The kehks must be taken care of because they are the ones doing all the work and all the suffering and dying, and if any guard or bureaucrat tells you otherwise, then they are lying."

He snapped his mouth shut, breathing hard through his nose. As he looked around the room, he realized that only Dr. Beckett, John, and himself really knew what had gone on and that no one else would understand why he was so worked up. And yes, everyone was looking at him, somewhat taken aback, but without any comprehension whatsoever. So he tried again.

"The things that they put kehks through on that planet you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, let alone a friend, and did you know that none of them have any names? They're all addressed as "kehk" and that's it." His voice rose as he felt his chest get tighter with every word. "The first thing you do when you get there is you have to name them because you can't just set things up and go back a month later, and ask, Hey, how's Bob, because they won't have any idea who you're talking about. To them, a kehk is less valuable than a cord of wood. You have to give them names, and identity each one of them, and count them, for fuck's sake, and don't let anyone tell you they lost one of them!"

He had stood up, his hands were fists, and he was shaking, barely aware of John tugging on his sleeve to get him to sit back down. If it had been anyone else, he would have seared them to the quick with carefully chosen, acid-laced words. But it was John, and as Rodney looked down, John's face held no anger or anything that told Rodney he was a fool for coming apart like this. He let himself be pulled back in his seat, and looked at the faces around the table, familiar like Ronon and Teyla and Beckett, and less familiar like Davis, and the woman in charge of the Biology department whose name he could never remember. None of them could really understand; it made him want to bury his head in his hands in frustration.

"On top of which," said Rodney, and his voice came out so ragged, he was surprised it didn't tear in two. "On top of which, I am not stepping foot on Skandar, and neither is Colonel Sheppard. Ever."

"I'll take it under advisement," said Weir, in a collected tone of voice.

"Actually," said a voice from across the table, and Rodney looked up to see that it was Dr. Beckett speaking. "Actually, medically speaking, they should not go back."

"And why is that, Dr. Beckett?" asked Weir. She folded her hands in front of her, looking ready to fight back. "You said that they were both well and healthy, and that Colonel Sheppard had recovered from his bronchitis. I see no reason--"

"I've been doing some blood tests," said Dr. Beckett in a voice that made Rodney feel like he was making it all up on the spot, though it did warm him inside to think of Beckett going to bat for him like this. One glance at John, and his raised eyebrows, confirmed that he thought the same thing.

"Tests? I thought you were all finished with their files."

"I went back," said Dr. Beckett. "Just to make sure. It's not just bronchitis that Colonel Sheppard had, but a local strain of it known only on Skandar; if he goes back there, he's 99% sure of getting it again, in a more deadly and virulent form."

"And what about Dr. McKay?"

"He was that close to getting it." Dr. Beckett brought his thumb and forefinger close together to show her. "His white blood cell count was very high; he got away by the skin of his teeth from catching it. Besides," he paused to wave at himself, "I'll volunteer to go, to help with negotiations and inoculations and suchlike. I'll bring a team, and we'll make sure the kehks' interests are well looked after."

Rodney didn't think he imagined Beckett's tiny nod in his direction.

"And I would like to join the team as well," said Teyla.

"Sign me up," said Ronon. "I'll go, but it's too bad that one guard is already dead."

Weir knew when to back down. She nodded and wrote some notes in her datapad and then nodded at Dr. Davis. "We'll need a team from botany as well, people who are good with trees and fruit. Okay? And John," she turned to point her datapen at him. "I'll need some marines to back us up in case they decide to conscript us all for their camps."

"Sounds good," said John. He patted Rodney's knee, softly, almost stroking it and Rodney made himself stop breathing (well, huffing, really) through his nose. It wasn't perfect, but it was better because any change in the kehks' status would be a change for the better. Though he wouldn't be there to see the changes (ever), he'd be able to read about them, and since Beckett was going, those mission reports would be detailed down to the last germ.

His mouth felt dry, and his eyes were hot, but he sat back in his chair and pretended to listen while Weir brought up the next item on the agenda, which was something crucial about the percentage of personnel who weren't taking one day off in every six, as the recently revised regulations stated.

Grabbing a bottle of water from the center of the table, he opened it, and took a drink. Then he then opened his datapad and with hands that shook only barely, he started a game of hangman. The word of the day was frequency, which John would probably get in seven or so tries; he was eerily good at hangman, which was probably why he liked playing it.

John took the datapad, and attempting to look very serious and attentive, he took up the pen and started his guesses, but at no point during the meeting did his hand leave Rodney's knee.


Plenty of food, lots of coffee, enough sleep, and being with John every night for a solid week went a long way to calming Rodney's hypersensitive reactions to any mention of the Skandar Project. The less he had to do with it the better, though he did give Dr. Beckett a chunk of time regarding the water supply and what the soap seemed to be made of, even though no one on Skandar used hot water. He also created some diagrams of a twig sorting machine and handed it over to one of the scientists who was going, with extra written instructions as to how to assemble it. The rest of it he trusted John to tell him, whether it was important, or whether they needed his input.

Now he was in the lab, at the end of the day, going over Foster and Dunbar's power channel research. They'd taken the extra effort to write everything out, and had some test samples on the server for him to run, when he had the time. Which he did, and a laptop too, and soon he would find out how efficient the team of Foster and Dunbar was.

He flexed his fingers over the keyboard and considered going to get some more coffee (and maybe a sandwich) from the mess hall at the same time he considered closing up shop for the night. After all, John was probably also closing up shop for the night, and a minute alone with John was worth about a gallon of the best hot coffee in the world. Maybe even more than a gallon.

Suddenly he felt the pressure of a weight against his back, and two long, warm arms layered themselves above his arms, pushing down on them. Wild, witchy hair tickled the side of his forehead as hands hovered over his over the keyboard. It took him a few seconds to switch from computer/technology to warm/skin, but he knew it was John, the second he caught John's scent, the second that watch and that black armband came into view.

"Hey, I'm working here, if you didn't notice," he said, making it sound as tart and annoyed as possible, for extra effect.

"So I see," said John, absolutely unaffected. "Don't you ever check your damn e-mail? There's two things you need to see."

"I check it every ten minutes," Rodney said. "Not that anything important comes through." He leaned his head to one side so he could kiss the side of John's mouth while John furiously (and without permission) clicked away at Rodney's keyboard.

"Then you missed this one. Here." John tapped a final key and up came an e-mail and report from Weir on the Skandar Project. John made the file big, and Rodney scanned the text, disregarding the idiocy about the plants and the trees, and focusing on anything that had to do with the kehks. The first mention of which had to do with the official list of new names.

"Looks like they brought the Best Baby Name Book with them," said John, soft, in Rodney's ear. "The people on Skandar must want what we've got pretty badly."

"And they constructed my twig sorting machine," said Rodney, tapping on the screen. "Do you see? Right there! And a boiler to heat water in all the kitchens, plus repairs and upgrades to the latrines--"

"It's practically a vacation spot now," said John. He brushed his mouth on Rodney's cheek and Rodney tipped his head for more, not caring who was watching. Not caring if John heard him swallow and then swallow again; it might not be perfect for the kehks, but it was going to be a hell of a lot better.

"You okay?" asked John.

Rodney reached up and gripped the sides of the keyboard, hard, till his fingers were white. "I guess--well, I guess I didn't realize it would matter so much. And I'm not sure why, it's not like I'm there now, or I'll ever be, I just--"

John kissed him on the cheek and then reached to turn Rodney's head so he could kiss him on the mouth. Rodney sighed and let himself float on the kisses, and heard John say low, "You were a kehk, and so was I, and that's why it matters. Because we were there."

Nodding, Rodney made himself concentrate and open his eyes. "You said two e-mails," he said, his voice sounding all clogged.

John reached around, the scent of his sweat and his smell easing into Rodney, the weight of his arms pressing on Rodney's as he clicked and scrolled.

"Where did you put it?" John finally asked. "It just got sent out. Here. In the trash? Why didn't you read it?"

"I'm not the stupid quartermaster, that's why," said Rodney hotly. "I keep getting requisitions that are being sent to the quartermaster for supplies, and that's not me so I set up a filter--"

"Well, you need to reset your filters, Rodney, because this one wasn't sent to the quartermaster, it was sent from the quartermaster." John clicked on the keyboard and opened up the file. "Go on. Read it."

A little irritated, Rodney shoved John's hands out of the way and made the file large himself, and scanned it. Then he scanned it again, blinking a little at how easy it had been.

"See?" asked John. "It's a 614 slash-D, otherwise known as a supply requisition for new quarters, with an addendum (614 slash-D, slash R), with an approval stamp already in place."

Rodney felt John's hands on his shoulders, and nodded at the screen. "We got the balcony and the windows that open, we got both. And the huge tub. How did that happen?"

"I know a guy," said John, trying to play it cool, but since he himself was in charge of Atlantis, then he was that guy. "Do you see? It's got a bigger bed. So no more complaining from you about your blasted back, okay?"

"I haven't complained once bout my back, not once!" said Rodney, sputtering. Then he felt a kiss on the top of his head and knew that John was teasing him, just because he could.

"I know," said John.

"Did anyone say anything, did anyone care? Does anyone know?"

"Like I told you, nobody cares. Nobody was surprised either, which was a little surprising, but there you go. New quarters, for you and me, and a new life for the kehks. Or at least a new start."

Rodney ducked his head, letting the feel of John's warmth, the pressure of John's chest on Rodney's back, the feel of those warm fingers stroking the tops of his hands. He nodded. "I'm good now. So very, very good. All this--" He waved his hand over the top of the open keyboard, though he figured John would know that the all this encompassed everything, not just the laptop. "You and me--" It was too much. He shut his mouth pushed John off him roughly so he could stand up and look at John, a little open mouthed as he took in John's face and that hair and that flash of smile, the sparks in his eyes as he looked back at Rodney.

"Are you ready to eat?" asked John. "Because I am. I could eat my own arm and then your arm. And maybe one of Ronon's arms as well. Afterwards we'll pack for the new place. So let's go."

But first, John paused to cup Rodney's face in his hands, warm and still against his cheeks, and Rodney closed his eyes and let himself be kissed. And John kissed him, over and over and over. On his eyelids, on his mouth, beneath his eyes.

Then Rodney opened his eyes and saw that bright smile and the happy, calm look in John's eyes. Rodney could feel that same calm, that same contentment, inside of himself. He was going to have supper with John, and then they were going to pack and move into new quarters and be together for a good long time. He was the smartest man in two galaxies, and the luckiest man alive.

The End

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