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Harem Girl

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They're cutting his clothes off. It must be bad, John thinks. He must be in the infirmary. There's a woman's voice that could be Doc Keller's. Possibly. His eyelids are too heavy to open and check.

He feels cool air everywhere, like he's naked, not even a drape, and that's kind of weird. He wonders how badly he's hurt, and where, and why they need him naked.

He feels something warm against his skin, almost too warm, but it starts to cool almost immediately, sticking to his belly. A moment later he feels pressure in the same spot, like someone's touching it. He's thinking about forcing his eyes open when the pain hits. It feels like his skin is being ripped off and he tries to wrench himself away, only he can't actually move because his hands and feet are immobilized.

John's eyes fly open, and he blinks and squints against the bright light. He's not in the Atlantis infirmary, the woman standing over him is not Jennifer Keller, and there are two other women he's never seen before.

"Wha-?" he says, and the women look up. He tries again. "What the hell is going on here?"

"Take care of that," the one who's not Keller says, and the taller of her assistants comes over. She has a cloth in her hands and before John can say more than "Hey," she's forced it into his mouth and is tying it around his head.

"Mmpgh," he says through the gag, but she ignores him, and he feels more of the warm, almost-wet feeling.

Not-Keller is doing it, applying something to the skin of his stomach with a spatula. Something warm that cools and hardens. Wax.

She taps the wax like she's testing it, and then a moment later she yanks, and it hurts like hell. But she doesn't pause, just moves on to paint another stripe, lower down. Where it's going to hurt even worse.

John jerks and twists, fighting the bonds holding his wrists and ankles, but she doesn't even look up, just waits a moment for the wax to cool and then tests it with her fingers.

Fucking bastards, he wants to say as she rips it off. What the hell kind of torture is this?

They're not asking for information. He couldn't give them anything anyway, not with this gag in his mouth. They're just interested in hurting him. Humiliating him.

So maybe they're trying to break him. Saving their questions for later. He bites down on the gag and steels himself for the long haul.

"Lift the legs," Not-Keller says, and one of her assistants takes the ropes that are binding his splayed feet and loops them over a bar attached to the ceiling. John tries to struggle but it's no use. In less than a minute he's strung up like a pig.

Then Not-Keller spreads her wax between his legs and moments later he's in agony again.

Motherfucker, he says into the gag. It comes out, "Mffffggh."

She does his balls, which hurts worse than anything, and then the crack of his ass. He tries to clench against the pain but it's useless. There's nothing else he can do but endure it and hope he'll get a chance to feed them a few lies sometime soon.

But Not-Keller doesn't let up. She spreads her wax on the insides of his thighs, then the fronts and backs, painting stripes of pain up and down his legs. She does his calves and shins, and then tells her helper to let him down and untie one ankle at a time so she can do where the rope is.

John tries to kick, but there are two assistants, and they hold him like a vise and tie him back up as soon as they're done.

The anticipation is almost as bad as the pain. He's shaking by the time she gets back up to his abdomen, and it only gets worse as she moves on to his chest and underarms. But nothing stops her or even slows her down. She continues, methodical, down the outside of each arm to the back of each hand, and then, damn it, she starts on his face.

He twists his neck, trying to get away from it, but both assistants come up to hold his head straight. They take off his gag, but he barely manages to get a "fuck" out before they've shoved a ball in his mouth, and one of them holds it there. Not-Keller takes her time, ripping one small strip at a time, but every yank is agony, and he can't help crying out around the ball. By the time she's done his cheeks are damp with sweat or possibly tears. He doesn't even manage to yell at them when they take the ball out of his mouth and put the gag back on.

He's beyond struggling, or protesting. He just wants it to end. He's not even surprised when they pull him up to sitting and she takes a look at his back. She apparently doesn't find anything to wax there and he's grateful for that, but even when she has her assistants lay him back down, she's not done, because they each grab a pair of tweezers, and then it's a new kind of torture, one pinprick at a time.

He has his eyes closed, so he doesn't even know they've finished until the wet cloth touches his skin. It's cool, so it ought to be soothing, but it smells both alcoholic and herbal and it stings like hell. He finds the energy to twist away from it, but it's no use. Not-Keller swipes every part of his body she's previously waxed, including his face, which burns like hell. He's trembling by the time she puts the cloth away.

He forces his eyes to stay open. He needs some kind of warning for whatever new kind of torture they'll think of next. But there's no way to be prepared for what one of the assistants brings over: a scrap of cloth and straps that looks like a cross between a thong, a jock strap, and a chastity belt. It's light tan and it looks like microfiber or possibly leather, except for the waistband, which appears to be made of metal.

They're going to put it on him, and there's not a damn thing he can do.

They handle his dick and balls impersonally but firmly, and they know just where to press to make his balls slide up inside his body, into the cavities they originally came from. It's not painful, but it's not comfortable, either, and in moments they have the belt around his waist and the front panel pulled over his junk, tucking his dick down over his now-empty sack, pointing toward his ass. It feels tight and unyielding, and it only gets worse when they fasten the rear straps to the belt on each side, leaving his ass bare between them.

He should probably be grateful that it's not a single thong strap up the crack of his ass, only he can't bring himself to look on the bright side of this. He wants his hands free, damn it. And his feet, too.

"There," Not-Keller says, stepping back to survey her work. "That's much better. Now she won't horrify the other girls."

John squints at her, because she can't be implying what he thinks she's implying.

"She's shouldn't be here," one of the other women says. "She's not even pretty."

Not-Keller shrugs. "That's not our problem. Reman, take her gag off."

The first assistant steps up and John has to face the fact that they're talking about him. Well, of course he knew they're talking about him, he just didn't want to believe it. They've handled his junk. They damn well know he isn't a girl.

"What the fuck are you people doing?" he says as soon as the cloth is pulled away.

Just as quickly, the gag is retied. Okay, so that wasn't his best move.

"Sorry, ma'am," Reman says.

Not-Keller shakes her head. "Leave it on, then. She can nod to show she understands."

John clenches his teeth in the fabric and glares at her.

"You belong to the Grand Commissioner of Kanglach now," Not-Keller tells him. "You have two choices. You can behave yourself, or you can be punished. There is no other option."

John glares harder. He has no idea what "behave yourself" means to her, but given that they've ripped out his body hair and tied down his dick, he figures it can't mean anything good.

"Fine," Not-Keller says. "Put her in isolation. Water, no food. We'll see how long this defiance lasts."

He doesn't give them anything, pretending to be helpless even when they tie his bound hands together in front of him and then free his feet. He figures he'll be more hassle as a dead weight, but the taller woman throws him over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

He does his best to take in his surroundings, upside-down and backwards as he is, as he's carried down a long hallway and up a flight of stairs. Not-Keller opens a door and the tall woman slides him off her shoulder.

It's the chance he's been waiting for. John twists, using his bound arms as a blunt weapon and aiming a blow at the tall woman's midsection. She doubles over and he makes a break for the stairs. None of them have any guns that he's seen; he figures he's got a chance of making the lower corridor. But pain hits him like a stunner bolt, and he drops before he even gets to the stairwell.

He can't properly see how they did it to him. Not-Keller has some kind of stick in her hand; maybe it's some kind of cordless taser. All John knows is that it hurts like hell. He's still convulsing on the floor when the tall woman picks him up and carries him through the open door. He tries to struggle, but all he can do is squirm feebly, and then he's on the floor of a small room and the door is locking behind him.

Isolation. Without food. And his hands are still bound in front of him.

~~

When the pain finally recedes, he levers himself up to a sitting position and takes stock. He's in a small, rectangular room. There's a single window, heavily barred. A flat mat on the floor at one end of the room, and at the other end a table with a bowl on it and what looks like a large pitcher on the floor. The door has a small window in it, also heavily barred.

He's still gagged, and his hands are still bound in front of him. Right, well, that's the first order of business. He tries flexing his hands, but there's not enough play in the rope to reach the knots. He tries his teeth, but they're not much use with the gag in place, and when he tries to get the gag off, he can't quite reach the knot, even if he twists his head. His hands are too clumsy, bound like this.

The light from the window seems to be getting dimmer. It must be evening, although when his team arrived through the gate, it was morning. Of course, there's no telling how long he was unconscious, or even if he's on the same planet. Most likely he's not. So local time has nothing to do with Atlantis time, or any other time his body has a reference for.

He's hungry, though. That's probably a clue.

He doesn't remember being captured. All he remembers was the marketplace on M4C-623. He was with Teyla. He hopes like hell she's okay.

He gives up on untying his bonds before the light fades any further and gets to his feet to explore the room. The bowl on the table has water in it, but it's made of some kind of earthenware. If he has to, he can break it to get a sharp edge, but he'd rather not lose the water. The pitcher below is of similar material, and empty.

It shatters easily against the hard stone floor. John picks out a sharp shard and retreats to the mat, bracing his back against the wall. There's a blanket on the mat, and he manages to use his bound hands and a rolling motion to get it around his shoulders. He's functionally naked beneath it, but it keeps him warm enough that he can concentrate on getting his hands free.

It's frustrating as hell. As the dusk deepens, he can no longer see if he's making any progress, or even if he's sawing at the same place on the rope. His hands cramp and he has to take breaks. But he keeps at it, and sometime before dawn he feels the ropes go loose and with a few more efforts, his hands are free.

He leans back against the wall, shaking out his arms and trying to rub the stiffness out of his wrists. When they're loose enough, he reaches up and unties the gag, dropping it on the floor with a sigh of relief while he takes stock of his situation.

It's not good. He's tired and hungry and thirsty and he really needs to take a leak, but there's no place to relieve himself...except the broken pitcher.

Damn it, it was probably a chamber pot. Not that he's going to be able to piss anyway with this damn harness over his dick. He runs a hand over it in the dark, and it's hard and unyielding, more like vinyl than cloth, but there's a strategic hole at the bottom. So he could piss, if he had anything to piss into. He'd just have to sit or squat. Like a girl.

John scowls into the darkness. It's sick and twisted and incredibly annoying, though not in the way they obviously intend it to be. They think they can humiliate him by treating him like he's a girl, but they're wrong about that. He's served with enough women that he knows better than to associate weakness with femininity, so if that's their best torture technique, they've missed the mark. He refuses to be humiliated or shamed. He'd just kind of like to have access to his dick and balls.

Dawn comes. The pressure in his bladder gets worse, but no one comes to the door. He's going to have to piss on the floor and live with the stench. Unless he can figure something else out.

If nothing else, he ought to be able to get out of the damn harness. Chastity belt. What the fuck ever. He takes a good look at it as soon as the room is bright enough, running his fingers over the straps. They look like plastic, tight against his skin, but the belt is unyielding metal, and he can't find a fastener or buckle, even when he runs his hands all the way around it to the back.

He tries pushing the belt down over his hips, but it's too tight. He tries pulling at the straps and then sawing at them with a pottery shard, but he can't seem to make any kind of mark on them. And there's no way to get his dick out of the smooth triangle that covers it, which lies tight against his skin no matter how he bends and twists. And the whole time he's working, the pressure in his bladder is getting worse.

He gets to his feet, fighting a head rush that is probably from the combination of lack of food and lack of sleep, and crosses the room to examine the broken chamber pot. It's pretty well shattered, but one half is partially intact. If he balances it on its side, it's curved enough to hold some liquid. He's not sure how much.

He props it in the far corner and squats awkwardly over it. A real woman would have a clue how to aim properly, he thinks sourly, but he does his best, and he's past the point where he can hold back.

He gets most of it in the broken pottery. It's better than just going all over the floor. Afterward he feels damply uncomfortable, but there's not a hell of a lot he can do about that, either. He has to save his water for drinking.

He rations it, taking a few swallows and returning to his mat. He has no idea how long they'll leave him here. He might as well hunker down to wait it out.

The mat is hard and his skin is sore everywhere from the waxing, but he's past the point of caring.

~~

He wakes to pain in his crotch: his dick, fighting its confinement all by itself. But it doesn't succeed any better than he has, and after a few minutes his half-erection subsides and he's a little more comfortable.

The light has changed, but nothing else. John gets up and has another drink, then circles the room. He has the broken shards of pottery and his rope, which is in three pieces, none of them particularly long. It's not much, but it's better than nothing.

The door, of course, is securely bolted. So are the bars on the window. The walls are stone, but they're mortared. John picks up a shard of pottery, wraps one end with the piece of cloth that was his gag, and sets to work chipping at the mortar on a block directly under the window.

~~

He alternates chipping away at the mortar and trying to get out of the chastity belt. It breaks up his day. But he hasn't made appreciable progress on either front when the door opens.

He doesn't have time to decide whether to attack or play nice. It's the woman named Reman, and she has the taser-thing with her. She lifts it without saying a word, and John crumples to the floor in agony.

When he can breathe again, she's fastening a collar around his neck. It's chained to a ring in the floor, and when he jerks back, he discovers it's a very short chain. He can't even sit up.

Reman curls her lip at the broken pottery and disappears out the door. John yanks on the chain, but it's fastened to the ring with a lock, and the collar feels like the same metal as the belt, cool and seamless. He claws at it desperately, but it won't budge, and then Reman is back with a tub to clean up his mess.

She picks up the pieces, including the bit with the piss in it, the bit he was using to scrape the mortar, and the extra pieces he'd hidden under the blanket. The last thing she does is set out a new pitcher.

"If you break this one," she says, "you're not getting another." And she lifts her weapon and gives him another hit before removing the chain and collar and heading out the door.

He comes back more slowly this time. Apparently twice in ten minutes is harder to deal with. He sits up to look around, but the chamber pot is the only thing she's left him with. When he checks the old pitcher, his water is still half-empty.

He takes a small sip. On the plus side, if they don't give him more water, he won't have much to piss, anyway. And maybe if he gets weak enough, they'll stop hitting him with that damn taser-thing.

John sits, pulling the blanket around him. It's not a weapon he's ever seen in Pegasus before, and it doesn't look Ancient. It's more like something out of Star Trek, like those pain prods they had in the mirror universe episodes. What were they called? Agonizers. Yeah, that's a good name for them.

He's lightheaded with hunger, but there's nothing he can do about that, or anything else. He just has to stay alive. His team will be looking for him. They're damn well going to find him, sooner or later, and he hasn't gone through any time dilation fields, so he's betting on sooner.

He's sure of it. He has to be. He curls up in the blanket and feigns sleep until it's the real thing.

~~

For two long days, no one comes in. His water dwindles to almost nothing. His chamberpot reeks. His balls are cramped and his dick chafes in the damn chastity belt. And the only thing he can think about is food. Steak. Oranges. Pasta. Hell, he'd happily eat Teyla's tuttle root soup at this point. He'd eat raw squid.

He's lightheaded and nauseated at the same time, and when the door finally opens, for a moment he thinks he's hallucinated it.

It's Not-Keller again, with her agonizer-thing ready, but he manages to get his hands up before she fires.

"Look," he says, "I'm sure this is all some kind of misunderstanding. Maybe if we just sit down and have a nice, friendly..."

He never gets the chance to finish. She zaps him good, and the pain hits so hard he writhes on the floor. It's probably a good thing he hasn't eaten anything in three days, or he might puke. It's that bad.

"I'll be back when you're ready to listen to me," she says. She doesn't give him water.

~~

Hunger is replaced with thirst, and then with a surreal emptiness. He could die like this, he realizes, before his team gets here.

He's going to have to convince Not-Keller that she's broken him. By this point, he figures it won't be that hard to fake it.

He braces himself when he hears a noise at the door. Meek. He has to be god-damned meek. But when the door opens, it's a girl he's never seen before.

"What on...oh my goodness!"

She's no more than nineteen or twenty, dressed in gauzy clothes that leave little to the imagination. She crouches over John's mat, her fingers finding his neck like she's looking for a pulse.

"Water," he croaks.

"Oh!" she says, startling. "I didn't know you were...right, of course, water." She stands up and goes to check the pitcher, but John knows he drank the last of it ages ago.

"You'd better come with me," the girl says. "Can you walk?"

He's dizzy enough that he's not sure he can stand, but she crouches next to him again and pulls his arm around her shoulder.

"Come on," she says. "You have to try."

Somehow he gets to his feet, swaying and leaning on her narrow shoulders. Moving is harder, but he has to, so he does. He gets out the door and down the hallway, but he can't manage the stairs. He makes it up two before his vision goes, and the next thing he knows, he's leaning against the wall and panting for breath.

"I'll be right back," the girl says, and she leaves him there and runs up the steps.

He slides down the wall, all too aware that he's a sitting duck. At any moment Not-Keller or her cronies could find him here, and he's pretty sure they'll finish him off if they do. But there's not a damned thing he can do.

Minutes or hours later, he feels a trickle in his mouth. Delicious, cool water. He makes a swipe for the cup but misses, and then the girl's face swims into focus.

"I can't give you too much," she says. "It'll come right back up."

He knows she's right, even though all he wants to do is drown in the stuff. He lets her give it to him, sip by tiny sip, and then he has to rest for a while.

"Can you move?" she says. "It's not far. Just up the stairs and then a little bit more."

"Yeah," he says, not knowing if it's truth or lie. But when she gets his arm around her again, he's a little stronger.

Somehow they make it up the stairs. They stagger down the corridor. And it turns out she was lying, because there's another stairway down and a courtyard, but he manages that, too, and then he's in a large room and there are more girls and more water and when he lies down it's on something soft and maybe, just maybe, he's not going to die today.

~~

He comes back to himself slowly. His rescuer gives him some kind of tea, and then a large bowlful of broth, which tastes better than it has a right to. She puts a blanket over him and props him up on pillows. Some of the others hover, but she shoos them away.

He sleeps.

When he wakes again it's night. There's an oil lamp burning next to the bed, which is draped with filmy curtains. Sitting next to him is his rescuer, the blankets pulled up to her lap and some kind of complicated needlework in her hands. She has softly curling blonde hair and an innocent's smooth face.

"Hey," he says softly.

She starts and looks up. "Oh!" she says, not softly, and then she lowers her voice. "You look better. I'm glad. Serren was afraid we were going to lose you."

He feels better. He pushes himself up and his head doesn't swim. He's starving and he could drink an ocean, but he can hold his head up on his own. "Thanks for the rescue," he says, swinging his feet over the edge of the bed. "I'll just be going now."

He's a little woozy when he stands, but that's probably mostly the hunger. He's felt a lot worse.

"Oh, no, no, no," she says, putting her needlework aside and scrambling out from under the covers. "You can't leave. There's nowhere to go."

"Look," he says, turning to face her. Her nightgown is distractingly transparent; he can see her nipples through the thin cloth and it's pretty obvious she's not wearing panties. "I appreciate everything you've done for me, but I can't stay. I've got people out there. I have to get home."

"You don't understand," she says. "You're in the Grand Commissioner's palace. No one goes in or out except with the Commissioner's permission."

He pauses, one hand on the filmy curtain. Maybe she has useful intel. "What are we talking about, armed guards?"

Her face clouds. "It's not just Oskut. There's also the force field. No one but the Commissioner and his guests can pass through it."

Crap, that doesn't sound good. And if she's right, it means this Commissioner, whoever the hell he is, is the one responsible for having him kidnapped. "If they can go through, there must be some way to turn it off," he says.

"Yes, of course. But only the Commissioner has the key. And he hasn't been to visit for over a week."

Damn, he needs Rodney. Rodney would be able to bypass the force field generators or something.

"When's he coming back?" John asks.

"Oh, we can't predict that," she says with a little laugh. "Come on, come back to bed. You'll feel better in the morning."

John's teeth set. He wasn't planning to tell her; he doesn't even know if he can trust her, but he's out of options. "Look," he says. "I don't belong here. I'm sure you had nothing to do with it, but somebody had me kidnapped and tortured, and I'm not really interested in sticking around until they come looking for me."

But his rescuer just laughs. "Oh, you're one of us now. You're safe here. Oskut and her girls will have to leave you alone."

John frowns, because there's no way it can be that easy. "Pretty sure she's not going to see it that way."

She sticks her lower lip out. "Then we'll have to make her," she says. "Please, it's late. I need to blow the light out. We're keeping everyone else up."

He pushes back the curtain and looks out. Not ten feet away is another curtained bed, and beyond it another. The walls and even the ceiling are draped with cloth, too, in soft pinks and golds. It's not hard to imagine Oskut -- if that's really Not-Keller's name -- marching in and demanding him. "Can you get me something to eat?" he asks. "I'm kind of hungry."

"I'm sorry," she says, her face crestfallen. "We don't get more food until morning. But there will be plenty for you then."

John swallows down a curse. He's pretty sure at least half of this weakness he's feeling is hunger. "Okay," he says. "Can you at least point me in the direction of the can?"

She blinks at him like she has no idea what he's talking about.

"The toilets," he says. "I have to go."

"Oh!" she says, blushing. "Of course. I'll take you."

He doesn't want her to go with him. He wants to get out of this place, force field or no force field, but he can't think of a reasonable brush-off, so he lets her lead the way.

A few steps are all he needs to know he's still not in any shape to be plotting an escape. Whether it's the hunger or not, he's pretty damn wobbly on his legs, and he barely manages to make it to a bathroom stall without holding onto a wall for support.

He makes use of the facilities in an awkward squat -- apparently his stint in solitary didn't damage his kidneys, anyway -- and totters back out of the stall. The girl is waiting for him, holding her flickering lamp in front of her. She looks very young, and he can't imagine how she can possibly protect him from Not-Keller or anyone else.

Damn it, he has to get out of this place.

"Come back to bed," she says, placing a hand on his arm. "Oh. Oh, my. I can't believe we've been bedmates, and I don't even know your name."

Bedmates. She says it like it's something completely innocent. But she can't be that naive, can she? Of course, with his dick strapped down, it's not like he's any kind of threat to her virtue. If she cares about such things.

"John," he says. "My name's John."

She smiles. "That's pretty. My name's Mialla. Some of the girls call me Mi-Mi, but I hate it."

John can't help wincing at the word "pretty." But maybe she doesn't spend a lot of time around men. "I'll remember that."

She lowers her eyes, suddenly shy. "Thanks." Then she tugs on his arm, pulling him back toward the dormitory room. "Sleep, now?"

It's risky, but so is wandering into a force field in the dark. Exhausted, starving, and all but naked, because Mialla apparently hasn't seen fit to find him clothes. "Yeah, okay," he says, and lets her lead him back to her bed.

He'll deal with Oskut -- and try to figure out the damn force field -- in the morning.

~~

He wakes with another cramped hard-on and a clawing emptiness in his gut. He sits up, but Mialla's side of the bed is empty and cool to the touch, so she's been up for more than a few minutes.

A glance through the curtains shows the same cloth-draped room, the same row of beds. In the morning light he can see that the fabrics are shot with sparkling gold, and there's a plush carpet on the floor.

There's a night stand next to the bed with an unlit lamp on it, and it occurs to John that this place has a pretty strange mix of high and low technology. They have force fields and weapons that cause pain at a distance, but apparently no electricity. He probably should be grateful that they have indoor plumbing.

And food. At least, he hopes like hell they have food.

He feels kind of weird going out there nearly naked, but it's not like his goods are on display. He gets to his feet and pushes the curtains aside. He's light-headed again, but that's probably just the hunger.

Five over-curious faces turn to stare at him. They're all around Mialla's age, young and pretty and dressed in various styles of revealing. Yeah, well, it's not like he hasn't already figured out what sort of place this is.

"Hi," he says when they just look at him. "Any chance of breakfast around here?"

"In the dining room," one of them says, pointing to the far end of the room. The rest just continue to stare, and one titters.

"Thanks," John says, doing his best to keep the flush out of his face. He turns and heads for the far door, trying to convince himself that they're not staring at his bare ass.

The dining room is as softly decorated as the dormitory, with windows looking out onto a courtyard and a long table where ten or fifteen girls are eating. Mialla looks up almost immediately.

"Oh, you're up," she says, and she sounds ridiculously pleased, like he's her new best friend. She stands up, pushing her chair back. Her dress is almost as transparent as her nightgown was, and she's still not wearing any underwear, but John does his best not to stare. "Oh dear. I should have set out clothes for you. I'm sure we can find something."

"Any chance of something to eat first?" he says. It sounds pathetic, but he's desperate.

"You can't possibly sit down at the table like that," she says, but she takes pity on him, picking up something out of a basket on the table and bringing it to him. It appears to be some sort of biscuit and it's kind of dry, but when he crams it into his mouth it tastes better than anything he's eaten in ages.

Of course, he hasn't eaten anything other than broth in ages, so that's not saying much.

He's hungry enough to eat six more, but Mialla is gesturing to him impatiently. "Come on," she says, and she leads the way back to the dormitory. Four of the five girls are still there, and they look up as soon as John comes in, like he's the most fascinating thing they've seen in years.

"Tevin," Mialla says when she reaches them. "Do you have an outfit John can borrow? I'm afraid none of my things will fit."

Tevin straightens, and John sees that she's the biggest of the group. She's willowy rather than broad, but she's only an inch or two short of his own height. "You still owe me for that skirt you ripped," she says, but then she gestures to John. "Well, come on."

There's a large communal closet at the other end of the room. Tevin digs until she comes up with a gauzy skirt and something that really doesn't look much like a shirt.

John can't help making a face. "Don't you have anything a little less...frilly?"

Tevin rolls her eyes. "You could just walk around naked."

"John means 'thank you'," Mialla says quickly. She turns to face him, a little frown pulling her eyebrows together. "Of course, with your figure we really ought to put a corset on you, but since you're still recovering, maybe that can wait until tomorrow."

"A what?" John says, because that can't be what it sounds like.

"You know," Mialla says, "to give you a bit of a--"

She's interrupted by loud voices from the other room. John can't quite make out what they're saying, but Mialla seems to recognize them instantly. "Quick," she says, "get in these!"

John wrinkles his nose, not sure he wouldn't be better off naked.

"Hurry!" Mialla says.

The voices sound louder, and John feels a surge of adrenaline. He yanks up the skirt and then tries to figure out the top.

"Wow, you're hopeless," Tevin says, and shakes it out, then holds it up for him. So those are apparently arm holes. It settles on him, some kind of blouse that flutters over his shoulders and fastens tight across his stomach, leaving his chest entirely bare. On a woman it would be more than revealing. Her tits would be hanging out in the breeze.

Mialla adjusts something behind his neck, but then there's no time for anything else, because the loud voices enter the room, proving themselves to belong to Not-Keller and her cronies.

John schools his body into an insolent slouch, his blood pounding, his mind cataloging every exit in the room.

"Oskut," Tevin says. If it's a greeting, it isn't a cheerful one.

"You have something that belongs to me," Oskut says. She stops in front of them, her eyes boring into John's.

"I don't think so," John says.

"You can't take her," Mialla says, stepping forward. The pronoun is an unpleasant little shock, even though, in retrospect, maybe it shouldn't be. Although at least in Mialla's case it could be an innocent mistake. "I found her. She's one of us, now."

"I'm not done with her yet," Oskut says.

John shifts on his feet, but Mialla's already speaking. "You left her alone. You didn't even give her water. She could have died!"

Oskut looks unmoved. "That would have been my problem, not yours."

Mialla's hands are clenched at her sides. "She's ours," she repeats. "She belongs here, now."

Oskut's lip curls. "What makes you think the Commissioner wants her here?"

Mialla sticks her lower lip out, but her voice is uncowed. "I think we should let him decide. And until then, John's here and she stays here."

Oskut's eyes travel up John's body from his bare feet to his translucent skirt to his too-tight, low-cut blouse. "Fine," she says. "Keep her. But don't blame me if the Commissioner laughs at the sight of her."

"He won't," Mialla says. "You'll see. I'll make her so pretty he'll be enchanted by the sight of her!"

Oskut turns to go with a laugh. "You get to work on that, little Mi-Mi. You know I'll be entertained by your results. However they turn out." And she passes through the far door without looking back.

"Oh!" Mialla says in fury, stamping her foot. "I hate her. I really hate her."

"I'm sure the feeling is mutual," Tevin says drily.

Mialla doesn't seem to be listening. "I'll show her," she says, her voice still shaking with anger. "I'll make John one of the prettiest girls here!"

John clears his throat. He's grateful to her for defending him. Really, he is. But he has to make one thing clear. "Look," he says, folding his arms over his chest. "I guess you don't get a lot of contact with the outside world here. But you should probably know I'm not a girl."

Tevin laughs and Mialla's eyes go wide. "Of course you are," she says, just as Tevin says, "Don't be an idiot."

"I think I would know," John says mildly.

"You're a girl," Mialla says, and she suddenly looks far more nervous than she had when dealing with Oskut. "You have to be."

John shakes his head. "I really don't."

But Tevin rolls her eyes again. "Actually," she says, "you do. Because the penalty for a man found entering the Commissioner's harem is death."

John's stomach goes a little queasy as the strategic situation reverses itself in his head. He looks down at himself. His chest may be hairless, but it's pretty damn flat, and his chastity belt is visible through the gauzy skirt even if he doesn't have a tell-tale bulge. He's not going to fool anyone like this, not anyone who isn't dead set on believing the fiction already.

Well, he already knew he has to get the hell out of here, and there has to be some way to lower the force field.

"Hey," he says, uncrossing his arms, "you think there's any of that breakfast left?"

"Yes, of course," Mialla says, apparently taking that for a concession. She tucks her arm into his. "And after you've eaten, we can see about making you pretty!"

John swallows a grimace and follows her back to the dining room.

~~

The only food left is a thin porridge, but there are still a few fresh berries to go with it and a tea that might possibly have caffeine in it, and John feels a lot more like himself afterward. He's even reasonably steady on his feet, which means his next priority is obviously to work out how to get out of here.

It shouldn't be that hard to slip out. Well, it wouldn't be, if Mialla weren't insisting on giving him a makeover.

She begins with a bath in a huge tub set among a row of curtained tubs in the palatial communal bathroom. John's counted at least twenty-five girls in the harem; whoever the Commissioner is, he's ostentatious as hell.

John's not sorry to take off the skirt and blouse, both of which are seriously pinching his waist. But Mialla doesn't leave him to scrub up in peace, which was the only reason he agreed to this in the first place. He was counting on a chance to do a little reconnaissance.

Instead she insists on washing his hair herself with a floral-scented shampoo, then scrubbing him limb by limb with something that smells oddly familiar -- herbal, almost -- and feels like sand. When she's done with his arms and legs she does his back, and then his chest and stomach, and she doesn't stop at the chastity belt, either, scrubbing every inch of skin she can reach. He shies away when she gets to the crack of his ass.

"You need to be especially clean there," she says reprovingly.

"I can do it myself," he says. It comes out kind of strong.

She frowns. "I'll let you this once," she decides. "It will be easier next time."

John makes a face and uses a handful of the sandy soap to scrub his ass, sitting back down in the water to rinse as soon as possible. Mialla purses her lips at him, but he takes the opportunity to swish water around the hole in his chastity belt, cleaning himself there as best he can. The hole is big enough that he can touch a small circle of skin at the tip of his dick. Given the circumstances, he figures that's probably a bad idea.

He's gotten reasonably used to being confined. His balls feel overwarm up there, but they're not in pain and his dick has enough room as long as he doesn't have a hard-on. Of course, with a beautiful girl touching him all over and staring at his nearly naked body, that's kind of an issue right now.

When he's done rinsing, Mialla asks for his feet and he lets her work on them, trimming his toenails and scrubbing his calluses with a rough stone. When she finishes that she does his hands, clucking over how short his nails are while she cleans and shapes them.

"There," she says finally after what must have been a two-hour bath. "You'll do for now. We can work a bit more on you later."

She leads him out of the bath and dries him with a soft pink towel. "If we moisturize thoroughly it should improve your skin texture." Then she reaches for a jar of something that smells even more perfumey than the shampoo and soap.

"Look," John says, because he's been patient, but he needs to be done with this so he can get to work figuring out how to get out of this place, "that's really not necessary.'

"Oh, trust me," she says. "It's absolutely vital to have soft skin. The Commissioner will never want to touch you if you have the least bit of roughness."

Sounds good to me, John thinks, but decides against saying. "Fine," he says instead. "Let's just make it quick, okay?"

"You really need to learn how to take care of yourself," she says, and applies a glob of the perfumed moisturizer to his chest.

After the bath, having her rub him all over is almost torture. His dick, already half-hard, strains against the chastity belt. He tries to think about strategy, about the fact that his life is in danger, about escaping, but it's damn hard when her hands are running all over his ass.

"What the hell?" he yelps, yanking away from her, because she's getting goddamn personal and that was his asshole she just moisturized.

"You're awfully sensitive," she says. "But don't worry. We can work on that, too."

He rounds on her, ready to tell her that some parts are off limits, but she looks so innocent and sincere that the words die on his lips.

"Look," he says. "If I need moisture there, I'll put it on myself."

Her golden brows draw together. "I don't know what it's like where you come from, but here we help each other out. Especially for things like this."

He can't tell if that's naivete or a come-on. Of course, it's not like he could take her up on anything, even if he wanted to. Which he doesn't. Even if she is objectively pretty attractive.

"Does he touch you like that?" John asks.

Mialla's eyes go wide. "The Commissioner? Oh, no. We are always fully prepared for him. We never know who he's going to choose, you see."

It's more information than he really wants to know, but then, the mere existence of this harem isn't something he wants to contemplate. Of course, it's not like he ever really thought Pegasus was any better than Earth.

"Guess he's a pretty big deal around here," John says carefully.

Mialla blinks. "Well, of course he is! He's the leader for three whole planets. That's why he has to be away so much. But he always comes back to us. He doesn't have girls anywhere else."

John doesn't know whether to be relieved at that bit of information or appalled by her apparent hero-worship. "What do you call this planet?" he asks. He'd really like a gate address, but he doesn't want to push too hard, too fast.

"Oh, we just call it 'home,'" Mialla says airily. "It doesn't matter where we came from. We belong here, now."

John wonders if she doesn't want to tell him, or simply doesn't know. He wants to ask if she had a choice to come here, but he's pretty sure she'll say yes no matter what the truth is. He can't help wondering if she's been brainwashed. Maybe Oskut did it.

"Let's get you dressed," Mialla says firmly, holding up the too-tight skirt.

He doesn't protest as she helps him back into the clothes he was wearing earlier. He's too busy pondering who the hell this Commissioner is and whether he's anyone Atlantis has ever had contact with. The title isn't familiar, and he's never heard of this particular brand of decadence in Pegasus, so maybe the guy doesn't know who John is, either. Only if he doesn't, why have him kidnapped and tortured? And why do it here, in the same building where he houses his harem?

The obvious answer is the force field. It's easy security. So maybe the Commissioner isn't in the habit of kidnapping and torturing people. Maybe John's the special case. Which implies the guy has a specific issue with Atlantis, or is trying to get some kind of ransom out of Woolsey.

It can't be the Genii. Laydon Radim has too much invested in his alliance with Atlantis still. It shouldn't be the Coalition, either, because they've been on pretty good terms ever since Atlantis came back to Pegasus and actually helped them out a few times.

Of course, the Coalition is pretty fragmented. There's plenty of room for dissent there. And any number of factions could be trying to use John in some kind of political play. He can think of half a dozen who want him dead.

There's only one solution: get the hell out of here, the sooner the better. And if he has to do it dressed like a whore, at least it's better than being tortured to death.

"Look," John says when Mialla has the blouse arranged to her satisfaction, snug around his waist and cascading in ruffles to frame his hairless chest. "I'm feeling pretty tired, and I'm sure you have plenty of your own things to do. How 'bout I go lie down for a few minutes and leave you to it?"

"Oh, but we haven't done your hair or your face," Mialla says, pouting again.

"We can get to that later," John says. "I'm sorry, I had a really crappy day yesterday."

"Of course. I understand. Do you remember which bed is ours?"

John lets her show him and makes a big deal out of plumping his pillow and lying down while she fusses with the curtains. They're sheer enough not to hide him, so he waits until she's out of the room before sitting up to look around.

It's too much to hope that he's alone in the room, but the only one there is Tevin. She has what looks like some sort of sewing project in her lap, but she's staring at it with an expression of loathing. Or maybe that's just because she's in the same room with John.

He decides to take his chances and slips out from between the curtains.

"Not so tired after all?" she says, arching one eyebrow sarcastically.

John's pretty sure an innocent act won't fool her, but he tries anyway. "Just need the bathroom," he says.

She looks him up and down, no doubt taking in how badly her clothes fit him. "That way," she says finally with a twitch of her chin in the direction of the opposite wall. "But I'm sure you know that."

"Got turned around," John lies. But then again, maybe going through the bathroom is safer than trying a frontal attack on the common room. "Thanks."

"No problem," Tevin says, scowling down at her sewing. "I'm sure you're not planning to do anything stupid."

"Of course not," John lies. He feels completely transparent, but she doesn't stop him when he pushes the door to the bathroom open and slips through.

There are several girls putting on make-up in front of mirrors, and the sounds of splashing from several of the bathing areas. No one looks at John. He walks past the line of sinks and mirrors and makes a show of using one of the stalls to relieve himself. At the other end of the bathroom there are two doors. One, he knows, leads to the common room. The other, he discovers, opens onto a sunny courtyard. There are two girls playing some sort of game with sticks near the door. One of them looks up and nudges her partner, and they both stare.

John doesn't recognize them. They weren't at breakfast or in the dormitory room this morning, but they're obviously members of the harem, dressed in revealing outfits. This place is really not good for his blood pressure.

"Hi," John says, giving them a half wave. One of the girls waves back while the other turns away.

He's not looking for conversation, anyway, so he leaves them and walks the perimeter of the courtyard. It's ringed on three sides by the walls of the palace building. The fourth side is a bare brick wall that looks to be about ten feet high. In addition to the door John just came through, there are three others. One has a glass window, and a quick glance shows him another room that appears to belong to the harem, if the girls in skimpy outfits are anything to go by. The other two doors are windowless and locked.

The girls have gone back to their stick game, but they keep looking over at John, which he knows because he's watching them, too. After a while he leans against a pillar and crosses his arms over his chest, staring at a flower bush like it's commanding his full attention. After what seems like an eon, the two girls end their game and go inside.

It's his chance. The bricks are set pretty close together, but John's feet are bare and he's scaled a few walls in his days. He manages to find finger and toe holds enough, and in a few minutes he's dropping over the other side.

It's another courtyard. Not what he was hoping for, but one of the doors at the far end is unlocked, and opens into a long corridor with windows that look out over a formal garden.

Somewhere there's a door to the outside. Blocked by a force field or not, he's got to find it. He sets off down the corridor.

For maybe an hour, his luck holds. He tries countless doors and corridors and finds some locked, the rest empty. He'd give anything for a life signs detector right now. Or Ronon. But all he has are his gut feeling and his not-so-great sense of direction, so he's going to have to make do.

He makes it to what he's guessing is the east side of the palace. It's still morning, he thinks, and the sun is slanting through the windows. There's a less ostentatious corridor here, and he can smell food, so he's fairly certain there's a kitchen nearby.

His stomach growls in protest, but he tells it to be quiet. He can get food when he escapes. And if there's a kitchen, there has to be access to the outside. Someone has to bring the supplies in and out.

He's so sure of himself he almost misses the sound of footsteps. He opens the nearest door to find a broom closet, but it's better than nothing. He has to hope the person he's hearing isn't looking for a broom, but eventually the footsteps pass by and retreat. He waits until he can't hear anything, then counts to a hundred three times.

When the silence has gone on more than long enough, he pokes his head out. The corridor is empty again, and he slips down it toward what he thinks must be the kitchen, but he stops when he hears the sound of voices and clanking pots.

Somewhere nearby there must be a service door, but it's too risky with the kitchen staff on duty. Maybe there's another way out.

There's a narrow corridor to the right and he takes it, following it around until it ends in a small door. He puts his ear to it but doesn't hear anything, so he opens it carefully.

He sees a large, ornate room with a high ceiling and a wide staircase leading upward. Almost directly across from him is a set of tall, arched windows and between them, a grand double door.

His footsteps echo as he crosses the space quickly. The windows look out on a garden with a paved area and an exterior wall, but he can see a door in that wall, too.

He tries the handle, expecting it to be locked, but it turns easily in his hand and the door swings open onto a set of wide front steps.

John hesitates for a moment, but he can't hear or see anyone either inside the building or out, so he follows the steps down to the second door and tries the handle. It, too, opens easily.

There's no sign of another barrier, no tell-tale shimmer, but John's not an idiot. He searches until he finds a stone in the flower bed and tosses it through the doorway. It sails a yard past the door frame and then plummets to the ground like it hit an invisible wall.

Damn. So the force field is real.

John retreats to the front door to regroup. He's not giving up yet; there could be another door or a way over the wall that's not sealed. He just has to be careful not to be seen.

The outer wall is twelve feet tall and smooth, so no chance of climbing it unassisted. John tests it by lobbing another stone over it. This one, too, travels a good yard past the top of the wall and then drops straight down.

So the force field extends past the door. That doesn't mean it goes all the way around the building, but either way, John needs to know.

It's easy enough to duck under the windows and stick close to the wall. If he had a gun it would be out; since he doesn't, he keeps his eyes and ears open. He tosses stones at fifteen-foot intervals, but if the force field has an end, he hasn't found it yet.

He reaches the far corner of the building. The wall continues around, as does the garden, although it's more stones than plants here. John keeps going.

The palace is roughly square, and the outer wall follows the contours of the building. John continues his pebble-throwing, but the force field is unbroken. By the second turn, he's discovered it's closer to the wall at the corners, which suggests a central projection. Either that or the field emitters are just outside the wall and they just didn't bother to put extra ones at the corners.

McKay might know, but McKay's not here. John figures he might as well go ahead and finish his survey, just in case. He rounds the final corner of the building, and jerks to a stop.

Oskut and her women are standing on the front steps.

"Well, well," Oskut says. "Look who thought she was going somewhere."

John has enough time to count three agonizers pointed at him. And then the pain begins.

~~

When they're done with him, he can't even stand. He's shaking and sweating and it's possible he's pissed himself. It's as bad as a Wraith feeding. Worse, because there's no way to drain him dry, so he doesn't even have death to look forward to.

He barely notices when the pain stops. He just lies there, quivering, and he doesn't bother to move when Oskut kicks him.

"Pick her up," she sneers to the bigger henchwoman, and a moment later John feels himself being lifted and then thrown over a shoulder.

This time he can't even think about where he's going or what they're going to do to him. He vaguely remembers that they told Mialla they weren't done with him the last time, but he's not thinking about what novel means of torture they have planned. He's not thinking at all. So he's not even surprised when the woman slides him off her shoulder and he finds himself back in the harem.

"Oskut!" he hears a voice say. Mialla, he thinks, but he's too wiped to look. The steel arms of his captor are still propping him up. "Oh, how could you!"

"Next time," Oskut's still-too-close-to-Jennifer-Keller's voice says, "keep her where she belongs, or I won't give her back. And maybe I'll take a couple of you, as well."

"You can't," another voice says, and John forces his eyes to focus. It's Tevin, of all people. "You wouldn't dare."

"Oh, I can," Oskut says. "There's no one here to stop me. Now I suggest you keep the new girl in line. Or I'll tell the Commissioner exactly where I found her, outside the front door."

"Oh, John," Mialla says, and steps forward. John's captor takes that moment to push him away from her and he staggers, barely keeping his feet. "What were you thinking?"

John sways, staring at her. His body feels like he's been beaten and then kicked, even though he's pretty sure the agonizers haven't left a mark. "Just want to go home," he hears himself say.

"Oh, no," Mialla says. "This is your home now. You belong with us. You prefer us to Oskut, don't you?"

Oskut is standing right there, but it's not like it's a secret. "Yeah," John says.

"I should hope so," Mialla says, and slips her arm around his waist. "Come on. We have you now. And I think," she adds, wrinkling her nose, "that you'd better have another bath."

"See that you make her behave," Oskut says, "or you will regret it, Mi-Mi."

"I will," Mialla says with a little shudder. "I promise."

She steers John through the common room and into the bathroom, and he doesn't protest when she takes off his borrowed clothes. It's a relief to slide into a tub and let Mialla take over. She washes his face with a soft cloth, then his hair, and she lets him soak until most of the pain is gone.

When he finally gets out he feels drained, and he doesn't protest when she towels him off carefully and then leads him to her bed. The sheets are soft and the curtains block the worst of the light. John's asleep within minutes.

When he wakes, he still feels lethargic, but he's ravenous once again. He sits up and pushes the curtains aside to find two girls watching him.

One blushes and looks away, but the other meets his gaze levelly. "Go get Mialla," she says, and the shy one runs.

"Hi," John says.

"I'm Serren," she says, as if he ought to know the name.

"John," John says.

"Yes, I know." Her mouth tightens, and he realizes she's the oldest person he's seen in the harem. She may even be over thirty. "You're the new girl."

"So I've been told," John says pointedly.

"You need to understand the rules around here," Serren says. "You must not leave the harem. Outside these rooms we cannot to protect you from the palace security force, and you should know that if you leave again, Mialla will be held responsible, and punished accordingly."

It's no more than what he understood from Oskut, but it hits harder now that he's more himself. "Yeah, I figured," he says.

"Good," she says, and he thinks she's about to say something more but Mialla picks that moment to arrive, her arms filled with fabric.

"Oh, good, you're awake," she says. "We'd better get you dressed so you don't miss supper."

John's stomach rumbles loudly, and Mialla laughs.

"You see? Even your tummy agrees with me. Come on."

At least she's not berating him for endangering her. He nods to Serren and follows Mialla over to a dressing table, resigned to wearing whatever ridiculous outfit she's picked out for him. But he's unprepared for what she takes off the top of the pile.

"No way," he says, taking a step back.

She holds the corset up as if she's eyeballing the fit. "Please, John," she says. "You'll be amazed what it does for your figure."

He's sure he will be, and not in a good way. "I'm still kind of sore," he says. It's not even a lie.

"The sooner you get used to wearing it the better," Mialla says. "Don't worry, I'll go easy on you. I won't lace you tight your first time."

John grits his teeth. It's worse than the damn skirt and blouse she had on him earlier. A lot worse. "Can't I just wear what I had on before?"

Mialla shakes her head. "You soiled it pretty badly. I'm going to have to work to get it clean, or Tevin's never going to forgive me."

She's laying on the guilt, but John can't deny that he's been making her life pretty crappy. She didn't ask to be responsible for him. All she did was rescue him. "Fine," he says. "But real loose."

"Of course," she says, and she's already pulling it around him, laces in the back, a long row of hooks in the front. She does up each one quickly, like she has a lot of practice, and when the last one is fastened, it's tight, but not painful.

"Turn around," she says, and the next thing he knows she's yanking on the laces, pulling them so hard all his breath goes out of him.

"Hey," he says, pulling away. The motion tugs the laces even tighter. "C'mon, I gotta breathe, here."

"You barely have any waist at all," Mialla says. She's still hanging on tight to the lace strings.

"You said," John growls, "you were going to leave it loose."

"Oh, this is loose," she says, and he can feel her working with the strings, tying them, no doubt. "There," she says, patting his hip. "It's not much, but it's an improvement."

John looks down. The top of the corset is just below his pecs, and it pushes them up in a weird way, so that he almost looks like he has a tiny bit of cleavage. Further down it nips his waist in sharply, then flares, giving him the illusion of hips.

"I'll just get the skirts on," Mialla is saying, and she uses a row of pearl buttons at the bottom of the corset to attach a series of long cloth panels, like the skirts Teyla sometimes wears to spar in. They swirl when John turns, and Mialla squeaks. "Hey, I'm not done yet."

He waits while she gets the panels in back on. At least they hide his ass, even if they do swirl and gap as he walks.

"Okay," Mialla says, straightening and eyeing him critically. "I guess that will have to do. We can do your hair and face tomorrow."

"Now, just a damn minute," John says.

"Come on," Mialla says, ignoring him completely. "Before they take the food away."

She's already heading for the door and there's nothing to do but follow her.

~~

John makes it through supper, which is soup and bread. Not very filling, but he manages to snag a double helping. The corset squeezes him tight enough that it's hard to eat properly, but he's starving, so he keeps shoveling soup down, even when it gets uncomfortable.

Afterward the girls all go outside and walk around the perimeter of the walled courtyard in some kind of ritual evening stroll. John joins them, letting Mallia loop her arm into his and trying not to look too hard at the brick wall. He could scale it again easily, even in the skirts. He wishes it were that uncomplicated. Damn Oskut and her threats.

Bedtime is a routine that lasts over an hour, with some kind of bizarre facial mask that Mialla makes him wear while she moisturizes his hands and feet and cleans her own face.

Then, after she rinses his face, she finally takes the corset off him. He's so grateful he could kiss her.

Well, not that he really wants to. She's certainly attractive, and her nightgown is incredibly provocative, nearly as translucent as the bed curtains. But she treats him like he's a dress-up doll. It's not really the kind of thing that turns him on.

It's weird to get into bed next to her. He feels like he should apologize, but he's not even sure what for. It's not like she seems to care. She's busy prattling about makeup and moisturizer and making him pretty, so he tunes her out and closes his eyes and waits for her to blow out the light.

It's been a long day. He'll figure out a new plan in the morning.

~~

Planning turns out to be a little difficult when Mialla has his every waking moment scheduled. She squeezes him back in the damn corset in the morning and puts some kind of toner on his face that has the now-familiar sharp herbal smell. It stings, and John tries to pull away, but Mialla takes a firm hold of his chin.

"Don't squirm," she says. "You don't want this to get in your eyes."

"Look," John says. "This isn't really necessary."

"Of course it is," she says. "You don't want any of that ugly...I mean, it's good for your skin. And if we don't hurry, we're going to miss breakfast."

She was going to say something else, but John's not sure what. "Fine," he says, because he's starving and there's not nearly enough food in this place. "Just get it over with."

After the skimpy breakfast, Mialla decides to tackle his hair, with predictable results.

"This is impossible," she wails. She's tried three different hair creams, and she can't get it to do whatever it is she wants it to do.

"Told you there was no point," John says. "I gave up years ago."

"I'm not giving up," Mialla says, her lip set in a pout. "There has to be something we can try."

John just shrugs. It's her problem, not his. He doesn't give a damn. But then Mialla's eyes light up.

"Wait, I know," she says, shoving the jar of shampoo at John. "Here, wash that stuff out. I'll be back."

He doesn't trust that look on her face but he hates the sticky feeling in his hair, so he does what she asks while she runs off. For a moment he contemplates sneaking out again, but he hasn't solved the problem of either the force field or Mialla's taking the flak yet, and he can't do that to her. Even if she does want to do something worrisome to his hair.

He's toweling it dry when she shows up again, a fistful of something brown trailing from her hand. He only realizes when she gets closer that it's hair.

"I got donations!" she says.

None of the hair really matches his own color. Some is too light, some too dark, and none of it is longer than eight inches. John can only guess that she cut a single lock off every brunette in the harem.

"What do you think you're going to do with that?" he says.

"Just wait."

She makes him sit in a chair with his head tipped forward while she works, one lock at a time. He can't tell what she's doing, exactly, but there's thread involved, and braiding, and it yanks and takes forever. And then she isn't even finished because she gets out some scissors and goes to work shaping the results. It's hours before she's done.

"There!" she says finally, obviously pleased with herself, and she pulls him up by the hand and drags him over to one of the harem's many mirrors. "What do you think?"

It looks god-awful. Well, okay, it's not that bad. The little braids where she's added the extra hair in are hidden up underneath the layers of his own hair, and she's managed to make the different shades look like intentional streaks. She even had the good sense to trim it reasonably short, so it mostly looks like his hair, only longer, with a few bits coming down to frame his face and longer pieces covering his ears and falling forward to brush his cheeks and neck. Except his own hair is still short and tufty on top, which kind of ruins the effect.

"Um," John says, racking his brain for something that won't hurt her feelings.

"Just wait until we do your make-up!" Mialla says.

They've nearly missed lunch, so they eat first, and then Mialla gets him in the damn chair again.

He wants to refuse. He wants to be over the courtyard wall and looking for a door near the kitchen. But it's still the wrong time of day, and he wasted last night. And the longer he's had to think -- and he's had a damn long time, this morning -- the more he's wondering whether his best bet isn't the Commissioner himself. Oskut will expect him to make a run for it again, and he's really not up for another session with her agonizers, even if he could come up with a way to keep Mialla from taking the blame.

But the Commissioner has to have a way to get in and out. Mialla mentioned a key. So maybe the guy had John kidnapped for political reasons, but the only way to figure that out is to find out more about him. Maybe even confront him. It would be a way to get answers, anyway, and John can't help wanting to see the face of the guy that did this to him.

"So," John says casually as Mialla gets to work doing something to his cheeks, "you hear anything about your boss stopping by?"

"The Commissioner?" she says, eyes wide. "No, of course not. We never know when he's going to come home to us." She dabs her brush in the make up jar and resumes her painting. "But I'm sure he'll be here by the end of the week. He never can stay away from us long."

"Think I can talk to him?" John asks.

"Don't be silly. You're the new girl. Of course he's going to want to see you." She squints at his face and then dabs at it with a washcloth, like she's dissatisfied with her work already. "If I do a good enough job with you, he might even pick you!"

John doesn't have to ask what for, but then, he's pretty sure even Mialla's dedication can't turn him into an even remotely attractive girl, so it's not likely he's in that kind of danger.

He lets her do her thing with the make-up while he mulls over contingency plans in his head, and when she finally pulls him in front of the mirror again, he does a complete double take. He's not exactly pretty, but Mialla has gone kind of heavy with the black stuff around his eyes, and with that and the hair and the paint on his cheeks, he looks startlingly like a drag impression of Joan Jett.

The one thing he doesn't look like is John Sheppard. Hell, between the makeup and the hair and the corset, he's not even sure his team would recognize him like this. It's kind of disconcerting.

"I told you I'd make you pretty," Mialla says.

"Thanks," John says, and if it sounds a little ironic, well, it's not his fault.

"Come on," Mialla says. "Let's show the other girls."

John suffers through being paraded through the harem, where the girls smile and compliment Mialla and recommend that she tighten his corset. They're engaged in a variety of tasks, from exercises that look kind of like pilates to sewing something-or-other out of the ubiquitous gauzy material to walking around with what looks like plates balanced on their heads.

It's just John's luck he ends up in the last group.

"Come on," Mialla says. "You need to learn how to move more elegantly."

John ends up breaking three plates. He never claimed to be a fast learner.

~~

He washes his own face at bedtime. He's spent the whole day playing dress-up doll, and it's a relief to get the goop off his eyes and his corset unlaced. He never thought he'd appreciate breathing quite this much.

Of course, he has to leave the hair in. Mialla brushes it for him, skimming over the braided layers and smoothing the ends. He's not thinking about how he's going to get it out when he finally escapes this place. He'll shave his head if he has to. At this point he'd be happy to.

But he's playing along and it's not that big a deal, just like it's not a big deal to slip into bed nearly naked next to a pretty girl in a very sheer nightgown and nothing else.

At least, it's not a big deal until she blows out the light rolls over onto his side of the bed.

"You've been such a good girl today," she breathes. "I think you deserve a reward." And then she kisses him.

"Whoa," he says against her lips, but she's insistent, pressing him down against his pillow and teasing his mouth open. So apparently she's not nearly as innocent as she looks, because she's got one leg hooked over his and she's rubbing up against his hip.

"Wow," he says, because she's actually a damn good kisser, or else he's horny as hell. Of course, it has been a week since he last had access to his dick. "Are you allowed to do this?"

"Don't be silly," she says, sliding a hand over his chest. "You know I wouldn't break any rules."

It's a bad idea. He's aware of that, just as he's aware of the fact that under ordinary circumstances, she wouldn't be very high on his list of people to make out with. But she's got a leg between his thighs and she's sucking on his nipple and damn, it feels good.

He eases a hand down until he's cupping her ass through the thin fabric of her nightgown, pulling her against him. She giggles and squirms, finding his mouth again to cover it with more open, eager kisses. Her leg rubs up against his trapped crotch and he groans, because apparently all his blood has gone south and there's not nearly enough room for it down there.

He puts his hands on the belt, tugging at it desperately. "Tell me you can get me out of this thing."

But she just lifts her head and laughs. "Silly thing," she says. "I told you I wouldn't break the rules."

"Crap," John says, and then she's kissing him again. His hands rove over her back and ass, helplessly turned on as she palms his chest, then slides a hand down to cup his hip. He's hard enough that his confined dick hurts, but he doesn't stop or push her away.

"Mmmm," she says, her hand straying around to slide between the mattress and his ass. "I bet you've been fucked by lots of boys."

"What?" John says, because yeah, he did a few things with guys in his misspent youth, but he's never done that. "No."

Her head jerks up like she's staring at him. Most of the girls in the room have already blown out their lights, but John can still make out her startled eyes. "Really? You're a virgin?"

John rolls his eyes and then remembers what he's not supposed to admit. "Didn't say I'd never done anything," he says. "Just never done that."

"Oh, my," she says, her hand brushing his fake hair off his cheek tenderly, like she's suddenly decided he's made of glass. "You're going to love it."

"Um," John says, because if he has anything to say about it, it's not going to come to that.

"Trust me," Mialla says confidentially. "It feels amazing."

John can't help shifting his hips, rubbing against the thigh that's still pressed against him. "So I've heard."

"Just wait," she says, and kisses him again.

He's uncomfortable as hell and there's no possible way to get off in this damn chastity belt, but he can't help wanting more, can't help thumbing the tips of her breasts through the sheer fabric and palming her ass and rolling with her when she rolls. He slides his hand down, figuring he can make at least one of them happy, but she bats his fingers away when he tries to lift the edge of her nightgown and after a while her kisses slow.

"Mmmmm," she says softly. "That was nice. Sleep well, John."

He flops onto his back, panting. His dick is still cramped and aching, his balls tight and hot up inside him, and all he wants to do is kiss her some more. But she's plumping her pillow and turning her back to him and she probably has no idea what she just did to him.

John clenches his jaw and rolls away from her. God damn it, he needs to get out of this place.

~~

He sneaks out of bed in the middle of the night. Mialla's breathing is soft and heavy, and the rest of the room is silent except for a few gentle snores. John pads barefoot through the bathroom, only to find the courtyard door locked.

The common room door is locked, too. John goes back to try the windows that look out on the courtyard, but they're closed and locked as well. He could break the glass, but that would wake someone.

So much for a little midnight exploration. He uses the bathroom -- he's almost used to squatting, now -- and heads back to bed.

~~

Mialla wakes him with another kiss, like that's how it's going to be between them now. John's dick is half-full and aching already, and the kiss really doesn't help, but it's all he can do to keep from rolling on top of her and humping her leg.

"Yeah," he says, pulling away. "How 'bout we go see what's for breakfast?"

He still hasn't figured out how to escape without having her take the heat for it. There are no distractions in this place, no outside input. What he really needs is a way to shift the blame to Oskut, but that would take an external witness, and in any case, he's really not sure he wants to find out what would constitute an abuse of power.

It all comes back to the damn Commissioner. Who will be arriving, sooner or later. John just hopes it's before his balls start to atrophy. He's a little worried about them, even as he's gotten used to having them stuck up inside him. But there's not a damn thing he can do about it right now.

The after-breakfast routine is about what he was expecting. A bath, with Mialla carefully washing his hair and more of that sharp-scented soap followed by the equally sharp-scented toner. Make-up and the corset with its skirts. Mialla pulls it tighter today and he doesn't even protest when she admires his figure and kisses him, afterward.

He fingers his jaw thoughtfully as he follows her back to the common room. He can't feel any sign of stubble yet, and he can't help wondering when it's going to start growing in and what Mialla will do when it does. He can only hope she won't resort to more wax.

In the common room, a group of girls are kneeling facing the back of a long sofa. John can't really see what they're doing except they all lean forward as if on cue and then...oh. Crap, they're sucking on a pegs attached to the frame of the sofa. No, not pegs. Dildos.

He can't watch. He's caught between the wrench in his stomach and the flare of arousal lower down. He can hear the obscene slurping noises the girls are making, the giggles and comments from the ones watching.

"Suck harder!" one girl demands. "Come on, put some effort into it. You don't want to disappoint the Commissioner, do you?"

John can't help looking then. The one speaking is Serren. She's standing over the kneeling girls like a coach. Or an overseer.

The girl she spoke to is obvious from her wide eyes and red face. That and the hollowness of her cheeks. The girl next to her looks more relaxed, bobbing back and forth on her dildo with her eyes closed.

"Very good, Liwak," Serren says, and Liwak smiles smugly around her dildo and doesn't open her eyes.

John can't look anymore. He jerks around, only to find Mialla at his elbow.

"Don't worry," she says. "I'll tell Serren you're virgin and she'll go easy on you your first time."

"No," John hears himself say. He's lightheaded and he didn't eat much for breakfast but now he's wishing he'd skipped it entirely. "I'm not doing this."

The room goes suddenly silent. No slurping sounds. No giggles. John doesn't look around, but he knows everyone's staring at him.

"But you have to!" Mialla says. "If you want to stay here, if you want us to protect you, you--"

John doesn't stick around to hear it all. He's out of the room and heading for the courtyard. He has to get out of this place. He has to escape. And for a moment he almost doesn't care that someone else will take the heat for it.

"John, come back! It's not that hard," he hears Mialla's voice behind him. But it's Tevin he comes up against. Literally. He barrels into her in the doorway to the courtyard.

"Hey, watch it!" she says as they both almost go down.

"Sorry," he says, twisting to get past her, but she grabs his arm in a shockingly firm grasp.

"Don't be a fool," she says. "There's no way out. Trust me, I've tried."

He pauses. Mialla will be here in a moment, but he can't help himself. "Maybe you haven't tried everything."

"I have," Tevin says, low-pitched and rapid. "I've tried the roof, the basement, and the kitchen, and they're all dead ends. You need the Commissioner's key."

John grits his teeth, but it's intel, the first real intel he's had here. "Oh yeah?"

"He keeps it in his left waistcoat pocket. The only way to get it is to pinch it. Before or after he fucks you."

"You got this first hand?" John says, because if she did, why is she still here?

"I've seen it," Tevin says. "Haven't got my hands on it yet, but I will, even if I have to--"

"Even if you have to what?" Mialla says. She's just coming out of the bathroom. She can't have heard much.

"Even if I have to cover for people who aren't taking care of their own responsibilities," Tevin says, switching gears without a pause. She uses her grip on John's arm to shove him back toward Mialla. "I believe you lost something? She was headed outside."

"Oh, John," Mialla says with a pout. "Where did you think you were going?"

He reminds himself that she's an innocent victim, too. That she doesn't deserve to be punished any more than he does. "Just needed some air," he says.

"Ah," she says, "of course," and she takes his hand, pulling him past Tevin and into the courtyard. But as soon as they're both through the door, she's in his face and kissing him.

John flails, trying to pull away, but she follows until his back is against the wall next to the door, and when he looks up, Tevin is gone.

"It's okay," Mialla says. "You'll get used to it here. We won't force you to do anything until you're ready. I promise." She looks up at him with wide, too-sincere eyes and her hands stroke his chest above the corset. He wants to push her away, but then her thumbs find his nipples, and the sensation shoots straight to his crotch. He's still horny. He can't help it. So when she kisses him again he just takes it, lets her rub her breasts against him and slide a thigh between his.

He's not getting away now, anyway, not if Tevin's right. Of course, there could be a way out she hasn't discovered, and she could be lying about where the Commissioner keeps his key. But at least it's a theory to prove or disprove, which is more than he had ten minutes ago.

"Mmmm," Mialla says, and slips a hand around his hip, underneath the panel of his skirt. Her mouth is open against his, her tongue flicking in and out. He wants...crap, he doesn't even know what he wants. He wants to get off, and if he doesn't manage to soon, he's pretty sure his balls are going to explode.

"That's it," Mialla says. "Oh, yes, John." And he realizes he's the one kissing her, pressing up against her, sucking on her tongue. He feels her hand cup his ass, and he rocks his hips against her even though it makes his dick hard enough to hurt again. Her other hand comes down to join the first, pulling him in tight, and he can't help widening his stance and tipping his pelvis, desperately, fruitlessly trying to get pressure in the right place.

Her fingers feel hot on his ass, and he's suddenly hyperaware of them. Aware of them sliding inward until she touches his asshole. But he doesn't push her away. He's too desperate, too far gone, and it's just more sensation with all of the rest. Not nearly enough, but it's something.

When she pulls back, he makes an embarrassingly needy noise. Her eyes are soft and dark, like she's almost as turned on as he is, but she must have iron will, because she smiles sweetly at him and says, "Oh, that was nice. Now let's go fix your make-up."

For a moment all he can do is stand there in disbelief, panting and aching. He can't believe she's doing this to him. Repeatedly. When she knows he doesn't have access to his dick.

Of course, if he had access to his dick, he wouldn't be here. He'd be under threat of execution, and he's pretty sure Oskut and her women would be perfectly happy to carry out the sentence.

"C'mon, silly," Mialla says, taking his hand. She leads him into the bathroom, and he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His chest is flushed, his face a mess, smeared with lipstick and mascara.

"You might want to go a little easier on the war paint," he says when she gets him in the chair, but she just smiles and does exactly what she wants to do.

~~

He manages to avoid anything to do with dildos for the rest of the day. He's less successful at avoiding further make-out sessions. Mialla's sneaky -- or possibly just really horny -- and she can't seem to keep her hands off him.

It doesn't help that John keeps reacting to her like a rocket going off. He's past the point of caring that it hurts. He's almost to the point of believing he could get off like this, if he could only get enough stimulation. But she never gives it to him. She teases and teases him, the fingers of one hand circling his asshole, the other hand playing with his mouth until he's sucking on her pointer finger, his tongue working the underside like it's her clit.

But she won't let him touch her. Every time he tries, she just laughs and pushes him away. So they're both riding this wave of arousal and there's no release in sight.

He catches Tevin looking at him over dinner. He's pretty sure he sees pity in her face.

~~

He's not surprised to find Mialla on his side of the bed after she blows out the light. His cock is already aching, and he's half dreading, half desperate for her touch.

He rolls over to face her and she kisses him, softly at first and then harder and deeper, until he's pretty far gone. But it's still a shock when her fingers slide into the crack of his ass and they're cool and slick.

"Fuck," he says into her mouth, but he doesn't pull away as her fingers circle his hole and then press against it, even if he can't help squirming and making a choked-off noise as her fingers enter him. Two of them, he thinks, and for a moment it hurts, but she makes a soothing noise in her throat and after a moment it's better. She strokes him on the inside and against all expectation his arousal starts to build again, pain and heat and desperation so strong he can't do anything but kiss her and welcome her invasion.

He ends up on his back, his knees splayed while her fingers work inside him, the palm of her hand bumping against the trapped head of his cock. He's so close that he can't help groaning when she pulls out, but she rolls out of bed, padding off quietly in the direction of the bathroom.

He wonders if she's going to go get herself off, but she's back in less than a minute, smelling like soap, so probably all she did was wash her hands.

"Good-night, John," she says. "Sleep well," but he can't find it in himself to say anything at all.

~~

He wakes sometime before morning, aching and furious. He can't believe she's doing this to him. She has to have some kind of clue, even if she really doesn't know much about men apart from her Commissioner. And she has to be frustrated as hell herself, unless she's faking her own arousal.

He slides out of bed. He knows it's pointless to check the doors and windows; there's no reason to expect anything will be different, but he goes through the motions, testing every handle. And then, in the dining room, one of the window catches turns.

It's a tall, narrow window, but it opens easily and it's wide enough to squeeze through. He leans out and decides he'll be able to get back in if he has to. It's only a short drop to the flagstones of the courtyard outside.

John pauses, one hand on the window frame. He knows that if he goes, he's endangering Mialla. He doesn't know what Oskut would do to her if he disappeared, but he knows there's no love lost between the two of them so it wouldn't be pretty. And as pissed as he is, he wouldn't wish Oskut's brand of torture on anyone.

So he can't escape. Not tonight, on Mialla's watch. But that doesn't mean he can't do a little bit of surreptitious sleuthing. He just has to get back before anyone notices he's gone.

It's a little cool to be wandering around next to naked, but a couple of the girls have left silky shawls by the back door, so John ties one around his waist and another over his shoulders. It's not much, but it's better than nothing. He heads back to the dining room and slips through the window.

Getting out of the courtyard is easy enough, as is retracing his steps to the kitchen area. The hallways are lit at intervals with candles in sconces, but there's no sound of anyone stirring. John takes one of the candles and pushes the door to the kitchen open.

It's a warren of pots and pans, some hanging from racks, some piled on the counters, gleaming haphazardly in the candlelight. John slides past the sink and the enormous stove, looking for a hatch or door that could be access to the outdoors. He tries one, and finds an icebox full of limp vegetables. He searches on.

There's a door at the far end of the kitchen that opens to a narrow staircase. He follows it down to find a cellar full of dry goods. Barrels of flour and bean meal. Dried peppers and sausages hanging from the ceiling. And at the far end, a small door in the wall.

It opens to reveal a box with a shelf in it and four chains attached at the upper corners. He recognizes it immediately from his too-privileged childhood: a dumbwaiter.

There's a crank on the wall next to it, and John gives it a turn. The dumbwaiter jerks and rattles and lifts a few inches. It's too small to climb inside, and even if he could, there would be no way to crank it up, but the shaft is another possibility. John cranks until it stops turning and then leans inside, holding his candle up so he can see.

It's a no go. The shaft goes up about eight feet, but any access to the outside is blocked by the box of the dumbwaiter.

Discouraged, he lowers the thing again and tries pulling it out into the room, but it's too wide to fit through the doorframe. He tests the construction of both the frame and the dumbwaiter, but they're both pretty solid, put together with something that might or might not be screws, but require some tool he doesn't recognize to tighten or loosen.

Okay, so apparently the kitchen's a dead-end. That doesn't mean there isn't another way out of this place.

John turns around and makes his way back to the kitchen. He's thinking ahead, thinking about the force field and how high it can possibly extend when the shawl around his shoulders catches on a pan handle, but he'd distracted enough that doesn't even notice until an entire stack of pots and pans has started to fall. He dives for them, trying to avert disaster, but he only catches one, and the rest clatter to the tile floor, loud enough to wake the dead.

Fuck. He's screwed. John blows out his candle and runs, his only hope to get back to the harem and claim innocence. He hears a door slam not far away, and then voices. He dodges into the next corridor and runs faster.

He makes it into the adjacent courtyard, but there are more voices. A woman's voice, raised in a shout, which has to be Oskut. More slamming doors and running feet.

John's up and over the courtyard wall in record time, his feet stinging, his sides heaving. Oskut's voice is coming from inside the harem. He's too late. But he dives through the open window and yanks it shut behind him.

"Tell me where she is!" Oskut's voice says, shrill and vicious. "Tell me or you'll pay. You'll all pay!"

"No!" Mialla says, sobbing. "No, I swear, she's here somewhere. She wouldn't do that. She wouldn't do that to me."

John remembers to strip off the shawls, tossing them haphazardly over the pegs by the door. He straightens, tamps down his breathing, and strolls through the bathroom.

"Looking for someone?" he asks from the doorway. The harem dormitory is blazing, every bedside light lit.

Oskut jerks around and then stalks toward him, agonizer in hand. "And just where, exactly, have you been?"

John gives her an elaborate shrug. "Had to use the facilities. Didn't realize everyone was going to be getting up. Isn't it a little early?"

Mialla's just behind Oskut, her face streaked with tears. John feels something in his gut wrench at the sight of her. He shouldn't have endangered her. It was a crappy thing to do.

"You okay?" he asks.

She gulps and nods. "We just didn't know where you'd gone, and Oskut mistakenly thought--"

"I'm not wrong," Oskut says. "She was in the kitchen, where she had no business being, and I'm going to hold you responsible."

"You got proof of that?" John says lazily. "Because if you punish the Commissioner's prettiest girl without a good reason, I don't think he'll be too happy."

Oskut glares at him, and then at Mialla and the rest of the harem for good measure. "Fine," she says. "But you better not let me catch you out of bed again."

"Next time," John says, "check the bathroom first."

There's no time to duck. Oskut's open hand catches him across the jaw, and she's no weakling. John staggers back, his eyes stinging, and by the time he straightens, she's gone and Mialla's arms are around him.

"Oh, I was so scared," she says, sniveling against his shoulder.

John brings his hands up awkwardly to pat her back. He's crap at this kind of comfort, and it doesn't help that he feels guilty as hell. "Sorry," he says, and he feels even guiltier to be lying to her. "Sometimes I just take a while in the can."

"You should have told me," Mialla says. "You should have woken me up."

"Didn't have the heart," John says. Over her shoulder he can see the other girls blowing out their lamps. "We should go back to bed."

"Just don't do that to me again," Mialla says. She wipes her eyes with the back of one hand, but she keeps her other arm around John's waist, steering him back toward their bed. "Promise me you won't."

"I'll do my best," John dodges, pushing the curtain out of the way so he can climb into bed. Mialla climbs in after him, making no pretense of sliding over to her own side.

"You'd better," she says, and she kisses him hard, petting his hair with both hands. After a while she relaxes against him and tucks her head against his shoulder. "I don't want to be crying my eyes out over you again."

John suppresses a wince, because even if she didn't mean that as a guilt trip, it's working. "'Sorry," he says again.

She snuggles against him, an arm thrown over his stomach. "That's okay," she says sleepily. "You almost made up for it when you called me the prettiest girl in the harem."

~~

He knows he should figure out how to say no to her, but he dreads the thought of making her cry again. So he lets her kiss him awake. Lets her kiss him after breakfast. Lets her push him up against the wall in one of the shower stalls and have her way with him.

Having her way with him turns out to involve an enema, and he tries to say no to that. He really does. But she cajoles and teases and kisses him some more and somehow he ends up with a nozzle up his ass. After that it's no surprise when she follows up with her fingers and rubs him on the inside until he's so turned on he can't see straight.

It's not something he'd ever done before with any of the women he's slept with or the few guys he experimented with, way back when. And maybe it's just that it's the closest thing he can get to actual stimulation right now, but for whatever reason, her fingers inside him drive him crazy, and all through it, Mialla keeps prattling on about the Commissioner. How he's strong and handsome and how he gave her the softest handkerchief to wipe up her tears the night he took her virginity.

"Oh, but it only hurts a little!" she says, pulling her fingers out. "And the next time it feels fantastic."

He wants to cry out in frustration. He wants to beg her to keep going, to take him all the way even though he has no idea if he can come like this. But she's already washing her hands and talking about what she's going to do to his hair.

She experiments with his make-up, painting his lips a deeper shade of red and adding something sparkly around his eyes. It's not an improvement, but apparently Mialla doesn't see it that way.

"Just look at you," she says with a soft sigh. "I think I may even be a little jealous when the Commissioner chooses you."

"Mialla," he says, trying to head that off at the pass, but she pouts.

"No, I mean it," she says. "I've never felt this way about any of the other girls. I don't know what's gotten into me."

Maybe you're just straight, he doesn't say. He still hasn't managed to figure out if she knows he's not a girl. It's almost impossible to believe she could be that naive, considering where she's had her hands. She really ought to know he has the wrong parts down there, even if they are tied down and covered.

But she's so damn unstinting in her earnestness that he has a hard time believing she could be lying, either. If she is, she's a damned good actress.

"Look," he says, feeling awkward and guilty and horny as hell, "don't fall for me. It's a really bad idea."

"I know," she says, and her voice trembles a little. "I know I shouldn't."

"Crap," he says, but when she puts her arms around him and buries her head in his shoulder, he doesn't have the heart to push her away.

~~

It goes on like that for days, days that might as well be weeks. He feels like he's walking around in a haze, like he's a teenager again, turned on by everything, only he never had it this bad when he was a teenager. When Mialla touches him, he feels like he's going to explode, but she seems to know exactly how far to tease him, and she always leaves him desperate.

He does his best to do more reconnaissance, but the windows and doors are always locked, and he doesn't want to risk getting caught. He couldn't do that to Mialla. Even if she is responsible for turning his balls blue. At least she's not to blame for their current location.

~~

Then, one afternoon, Mialla takes her turn at the dildo-sucking practice. John's already half-hard -- he's spent most of the day like this -- and the sight of her leaning in, her eyes closed and her throat working, turns him on enough to hurt. Serren gives her a few words of approval, and Mialla climbs to her feet with a soft, satisfied expression. But the next thing John knows, she's wiping the dildo clean and gesturing to him.

"What?" he says, eyeing the other girls whose performance hasn't yet met Serren's exacting standards. "Come on, I thought we agreed..."

"Please," Mialla says, stepping into his space like she belongs there. "For me?" And she slips a hand around his hip, stroking his ass through the fabric of his skirt.

His body reacts like it's been trained, his aching cock straining against its confinement. He wants...fuck, he wants release. He wants anything, and somehow putting a dildo in his mouth doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

He lowers himself to his knees and eyes the damn thing. It's shaped pretty realistically, with smooth, flared head, but when he touches it to his lips, it's hard, like carved wood. Right, well if he's doing this, he's doing this, and it may have been a while, but he never got any complaints the few times he gave head.

He puts his mouth around it, testing the size. Big, but not impossible. He tongues the underside and slides down a little, not far enough to gag. This was easier on a real guy, he decides. It helped to have feedback.

"Slowly at first, John," he hears Serren's voice say. "That's it. Now don't forget to move your tongue. You don't want him to fall asleep before he climaxes, do you?"

He feels his cheeks heat, even though it's damned contradictory advice, and he gives the fucking dildo the blowjob of its life, speeding up slowly and working his tongue and sucking hard enough to make himself dizzy.

"Not bad," Serren graces him with finally, and since the dildo isn't going to come in his mouth, he figures that's as close to a success as he's going to get. He pulls off and gets up off his creaky knees only to be nearly bowled over by a slender, blonde tornado.

"Oh, you were wonderful. I can't believe that was your first time."

He doesn't even correct her, just lets her wrap her arms around him and kiss him in front of Serren and everyone. Her hands cup his ass possessively, her fingers sliding under his skirt and then into the crack of his ass, and he rocks against her, feeling the heat in his groin and his face at the same time. He can't believe she's doing this to him. He can't believe no one in the room is saying anything. And then he's too turned on to care.

"Come on," Mialla says finally, pulling back. The room is a little quieter than it was before, and John's face is still hot. "I know what you need."

She slips an arm around his waist and he lets steer him out the door, down a corridor, and into a room he hasn't seen before, where there are rows of low padded tables. At the far end of the row, one of the harem girls is giving another a massage.

"Here, this will help," Mialla says, and pats one of the tables.

He has no idea how she's managing to lead him around by his dick when she won't even acknowledge he has one, but he does what she says, stretching out face-down on the cool leather.

She starts on his upper back, right above the corset laces, but she doesn't stay there long. Soon she's moved down to his feet, working her way up his legs. He feels cool air on his backside; apparently the skirt panels have been pushed to the side and he's bare to the world, but she keeps going and before long her fingers are, inevitably, inside his ass.

He closes his eyes against the onslaught, spreading his thighs shamelessly to give her more room. After a while he feels a hand on his shoulder, then two hands, even though the fingers are still in his ass. So it's not just Mialla touching him, but he doesn't care. He's floating in sensation, trapped in a universe of arousal with no hope for release.

He wants to moan. He wants to beg for mercy. But he's afraid that if he says anything they'll stop, so he forces his body to relax, melting into the table while the sensation builds inside him. And the fingers keep moving, inside and out.

He could come like this, he suddenly realizes. It's that intense. He's that close. And then the fingers pull out.

He can't help a small, broken sound. He was almost there. Another minute or two is all it would have taken, but he's left hanging once again, feeling the blood in his aching dick and balls, the emptiness in his ass.

"Please," he chokes out. "Just a little more."

"Oh, John," Mialla says, bending to kiss his cheek. "It's okay. One day soon, the Commissioner will be here and you'll get to have the real thing."

John swallows hard. For the first time he thinks about it that way. If he can almost get off from being fingered, maybe he really could come from being fucked. Maybe what he needs is to get fucked. And maybe the Commissioner really will choose him.

He sits up slowly, still hazy with want. There are several other girls in the room, and some of them are getting massages that are as intimate as the one he just got. But as he watches, one of the massagers pulls her hand out from between her partner's legs, leaving her looking the way John feels, panting and desperate. John suddenly realizes that he's not hearing any cries of ecstasy from the rest of the room, either. So it's not just him. No one is getting off. They all apparently live like this, in a state of near-constant arousal, with only one potential outlet.

It suddenly makes sense why they all seem to worship the guy. Why they can't wait for him to get back. John wonders how many girls he fucks when he's here, and whether the harem is going to erupt in a cat fight.

Crap. He knows the guy is responsible for kidnapping and torturing him. He knows he has to get out of this place. But right now he'd almost trade the chance at revenge or escape for a single release. He's that fucked up.

"Come on, John," Mialla says. "Serren wants to have you fitted for a prettier corset."

~~

He doesn't protest the new corset even though it's tighter than the last one and covered in black satin. He doesn't complain when the skirt Mialla attaches to it is nearly see-through and so short it just brushes the tops of his thighs. He fixes his own damn make-up in the mirror, cleaning up the smudges under his eyes with his thumb and applying the lip gloss Mialla hands him while she watches with one hand on his hip, her skin warm through the thin fabric of his skirt.

"Mmmm," she says when he hands it back. "Very nice, John."

He eyes himself in the mirror critically. He's too tall, he thinks, but the corset does do more for his figure than the last one did. It has a lace ruffle at the top that his nipples peek out over like they're playing a coy game of hide-and-seek, and it's padded underneath his pecs, which gives him even more of an illusion of cleavage.

His face will never be delicate, but if he squints it's not that bad. With all of her experimenting, Mialla has improved over the past couple of days. Today she's skipped the sparkly eyeshadow and he looks a little less like an eighties rocker.

It may not be good enough, but it's better than before. It will probably at least get him close to the Commissioner. Maybe even close enough to steal the key. Because that's what this is about. Not about getting off, but getting out of here. He just has to keep remembering that.

He hears the uproar before it's intelligible, voices calling, high and breathless.

"He's here!" he finally makes out. "The Commissioner is home!"

He cranes his head toward the door to the common room, hoping for a glimpse, but Mialla tugs his arm. "Not here, silly! Come on, we only have a few hours to prepare."

The harem erupts with activity. Baths and showers all turn on, and by the time John gets out of his new corset and into a shower, the water is tepid. He's scrubbing himself head to toe with the herbal soap when the curtain opens and Mialla steps in. She's naked and beautiful, and his chest squeezes strangely as he looks back down at his own gangly, middle-aged body. He can't hope to compete with her, but he has to. Somehow he has to.

"Mind if I share?" she asks, stepping into the water.

He shakes his head and finishes rinsing his underarms. He still doesn't have any hair regrowth, and he's grateful enough that he's not going to question it. "I'm about done," he says, but she smiles and shakes her head and reaches for the enema nozzle.

When he's thoroughly clean inside and out, she helps him dry his hair and get back into his new corset. She does his face and her own, going a little heavy on the eyeliner for John's taste, but he trusts her to do it right, even when she puts some kind of rouge on his nipples so that they're pink rather than brown.

Her own outfit is as revealing as his, a skin-grazing silk dress with slits up the side and in back and gaps in the front so that her breasts are bare. She dabs her own nipples with the same rouge, pinching them critically until they stand up pertly.

"There," she says, and then does the same thing to him.

The touch of her fingers feels electric. He's been teased and toyed with for days, and he's hard in seconds. He wants to rip off his chastity belt and rub up against her. He wants something -- anything -- inside him, stroking him until he comes.

"Bend over, John," she says, and he does it without questioning or hesitation. Her fingers enter him, cool and slippery, and he pushes against them, begging for more. But once she has him thoroughly slicked up, she pulls out.

"Sorry, sweetie," she says. "You're not mine, tonight."

She gives him a pair of pointy-toed slippers that almost fit and he figures he's dressed and done, but then she leads him into the bedroom and opens a small box from under her bed. It's a jewelry box, and she takes out a delicate chain for her neck and one for each of her wrists.

"Your turn!" she says brightly, and takes out another set of chains. They're less delicate than her own, proportioned to John's frame, and she fastens one around each wrist and then around each ankle, too.

They jangle when he walks, which isn't ideal, but it's too late to protest because the bustle is already moving into the dining room, where instead of the usual meager fare there are trays of bite-sized delicacies everywhere. Bits of cheese wrapped in cured meat. Fruits drizzled with honey. Tiny pastries, both savory and sweet.

"Don't eat too much," Mialla says, ignoring her own advice by taking six of each. John is tempted to follow her example rather than her words, but his nerves are wound too tight to do the spread justice. He gets some of it down. That has to be good enough.

All too soon Oskut arrives, looking like she always does with her steel face and green uniform. She gestures to the girls with her agonizer, and they stream out the doorway. They're all, like John, wearing soft shoes. It's the first time he's seen them anything but barefoot.

They head toward what John recognizes from his explorations as the front of the building. They pass through the grand entranceway and climb the staircase, then enter a long, open room.

There are tall windows looking out over a courtyard all along the back wall, and there are couches and settees and ottomans scattered the length of the room. Some of the girls claim them, arranging themselves in a variety of poses. One girl sits down at an instrument that looks like an organ. When she starts to play, it sounds like a flute.

Mialla leads John to the far end of the room, where a table has been laid with trays of drinks. She takes one herself and hands one to John. He takes a sip, surprised to find it some kind of distilled, sweetened liquor.

She's watching him, so he pretends to take another swallow, barely wetting his lips. He needs his wits around him and it's far too sweet for his taste.

There's a flutter of anticipation from the other end of the room, and the door opens again. A tall, square-jawed man walks in, surveying the harem girls imperiously. Several jump to their feet and one claps her hands, but the square-jawed man steps to one side and a second man enters the room.

He's not nearly as impressive a figure. He's shorter, rounder, and noticeably more bald. But several girls squeal, six or eight run up to him, and one -- the blushing beauty Serren chastised for her blow-job technique -- throws her arms around his neck.

"Well, well, how are my girls?" the Commissioner says heartily. He kisses them one by one and then detaches them expertly, giving each a pat or a squeeze. "In fine form, I can see."

So this is the guy who had John kidnapped. He doesn't look like anyone John's ever met or even heard of. But it's a big galaxy, and just because he's never heard of the guy, it doesn't mean the guy has never heard of him.

As John watches, the Commissioner works the room, greeting each girl, accepting kisses, caressing waists and shoulders and asses, cupping breasts and laughing out loud. "That's my girl!" he says to one girl, even as his hand strays to the next.

John sets his drink down on the table and feels Mialla's hand on his hip.

"It's okay," she says. "He'll get to you eventually."

The Commissioner is dressed in a style John secretly calls Pegasus Steampunk, an off-white suit with a yellow-striped vest underneath. There's a gold chain connecting one of his vest pockets to a buttonhole like a watch fob, and he's wearing something that looks like spats over his shoes. He doesn't look like someone who would order a person kidnapped and tortured, but John knows better than to judge a book by its cover. He doesn't look like someone who would keep thirty girls in a harem, either.

"Well, well," the Commissioner says, turning and suddenly locking eyes with John. "What do we have here?"

"This is the new girl," Mialla says. Her hand slips down to John's ass, pushing him forward a step. "She just arrived this week."

"Is that right?" The Commissioner says heartily. Up close he's taller than John thought, only a couple inches shorter than John's own six feet. "Well, I can't say you're not a whole lot of girl," he says, looking John up and down, and then laughs at his own joke. "What's your name, sweetheart?"

John can feel his heart in his chest. He could take this guy, even wearing a corset. But he'd still have to get past Oskut and her agonizers, not to mention Lantern-Jaw at the door. "John," he says.

"John," the commissioner repeats. "An unusual name. And how are you enjoying life here in my palace, John?"

There are a lot of ways he could answer that. John feels Mialla's hand move on his ass, sliding under his short skirt. "Better than I was," he says.

But the Commissioner doesn't take the bait. "Good, good," he says. "I'm sure my other girls have done their best to welcome you."

"Of course we have," Mialla says, her hand squeezing John's ass. "You can see for yourself how pretty she is."

The Commissioner lifts a hand to John's chest, thumbing one nipple, and Mialla chooses that moment to press a finger between his cheeks. He can't help jerking at the double onslaught, and the Commissioner laughs.

"Pretty responsive," he says.

"Oh, yes!" Mialla says. She leans in closer, her finger circling John's hole and he squirms but he can't pull away without making it obvious what she's doing. "And believe it or not, she's a virgin, too."

The Commissioner laughs again. "Well, now, that's a pleasant surprise. I'll just have to see what I can do about that."

John's face is burning but his body is reacting to Mialla's onslaught. He wants...fuck, he doesn't even know what he wants. The key. Right. He wants the damned key. Tevin said it's in the Commissioner's pocket. "Maybe we can go somewhere a little more private," he says in what he hopes is an alluring voice.

The Commissioner grins. "I'm sure that can be arranged. Just let me go say hi to the rest of my girls."

John lets out his breath as the Commissioner turns away to accept more fawning attention, but Mialla's hand is still on his ass. He twists, pulling away from her but she manages to turn with him, and the next thing he knows, her hand is sliding under his skirt again.

"Hey," he says, because damn it, she really needs to learn how to take a hint.

"You need to relax, John," she says sweetly. "It'll hurt less if you're ready for him."

"I'm damn well ready already," he growls, pulling away again. This time her hand drops to her side, but her lower lip pushes out in a pout.

"I'm only trying to help," she says, and damn it, her eyes have gone suspiciously shiny.

"Look, I know that," he says. His treacherous ass knows it, too, and it's telling him he wants her touching him again. He does his best to ignore it. "But you've already done enough. I'm going to be fine."

"I'm sorry," she says, and her eyes drop. "I guess I really am a little jealous."

"Crap," John says. He should have figured that was what was going on. "Look, Mialla--"

"He's going to love fucking you," she says, her lip starting to tremble. "You're going to be so tight and so hot for it he's not going to want to fuck anyone else for days."

John can't help a wince, even as he feels his confined dick twitch at the thought. Crap, he's a mess. "I'm sure it won't come to that," he says.

"Just wait," she says, and wipes surreptitiously under her eyes. But a moment later her expression changes entirely, a winsome smile replacing the pout.

John doesn't have to turn around to know the Commissioner is back.

"And how's my new girl?" he asks heartily. "I see you're not drinking anything. Here, try this. I think you'll like it."

He's holding out one of the two-sweet cocktails, and John takes it reflexively and then wishes he hadn't. The Commissioner and several others are watching him, so he makes a show of taking a sip. It's still cloyingly sweet, and he doesn't have to fake the expression of distaste.

"Sorry," he says, setting the drink down on the table. "Not really my thing."

The Commissioner's eyebrows go up and then his hand cups John's hip. "Well, I suppose we'll just have to find another way to help you relax."

"Oh, I'm good to go," John says, meeting his gaze squarely. He's ready. He wants to be done with this farce. "Whenever you're ready to blow this place."

The Commissioner laughs out loud and pats John's ass. "I do like a girl who knows what she wants," he says. He turns to Mialla. "Give my best to Serren," he says. Then he takes John by the wrist, just below the bracelet Mialla put on him. "Shall we?" He lifts his head and nods to the lantern-jawed guard. "Borovis, you're with me."

John's hyperaware of everything: the stares and pouts of the girls, the Commissioner's hand on his wrist, the silent glance between Oskut and the guard. He doesn't know whether to be relieved that Borovis is the one who follows them into the hallway. He's usually all about the devil he knows and the guy is almost as big as Ronon, but having experienced Oskut's brand of torture up close and personal, he's not sorry to leave her behind.

The Commissioner leads him down the hallway to a door that opens to an ostentatious bedroom. There's a high, gold-draped bed and a thick patterned carpet, and even the walls are covered in gold silk.

On a side table is a decanter full of amber liquid. The Commissioner ambles over to it and pours two glasses, handing one to John. "Perhaps you'll like this a little better," he says.

The liquor is fiery and complex, like a good single-malt Scotch. It's far more to John's liking, but he sips it gingerly and then sets his glass down. He needs to keep his head. "Not bad," he says.

The Commissioner grins. "I see you have taste," he says, taking a healthy swig of his own drink. "But then, you're not quite as young and fresh as most of my girls, are you?"

John narrows his eyes, feeling bizarrely insulted even though it's nothing but obvious truth. "Sorry," he says. "What you see is what you get."

"Oh, I'm not complaining," the Commissioner says. His eyes rake John head to toe, and John feels the heat rise in his face...and in his body, too.

He can still feel the buzz of arousal from Mialla's manhandling. It's backed off enough that his dick doesn't hurt, but he's still too aware of it. Aware of how long he's been without. Aware of how long he's been on edge. He can't help himself; he can't stop thinking that could let this guy fuck him.

He might even get off on it.

The thought that he could let it happen -- that he could enjoy it -- turns his stomach. But he's not an idiot; he knows he needs that key. So if his voice comes out a little soft, a little needy, he can use that. It's all a means to an end. "Good," he says, lifting his hands to stroke the Commissioner's chest. "Let's see what I can do for you."

The Commissioner chuckles and sets his drink down next to John's before settling his hands on John's hips. "Well, well," he says. "So there's a bit of fire under the prickly exterior, after all."

John lets his hands slip downward. His fingers catch on the chain, and he follows it down to the vest pocket. The left vest pocket. Where there's a lump at the end of the chain.

It's the key. It has to be. It's right where Tevin said it would be, and it makes sense that the Commissioner would keep it tethered on a chain. Harder to steal, but not impossible.

John doesn't let his hands slow or stop. He doesn't dare give himself away. He slides them down and then back up again, imitating a move he saw one of the harem girls use. "I'm not prickly," he says.

The Commissioner laughs again. "True, true," he says, cupping John's cheek with one hand. His thumb strokes John's cheekbone. "You're really surprisingly smooth." And he tugs John's face in for a kiss.

His mouth feels weird. His breath tastes like alcohol and his tongue is wet and insistent against John's lips. It's not sexy at all, but John can't help the way his body responds. He's been primed for this -- he knows that, but knowing it doesn't help.

The Commissioner is pushier than anyone John's ever kissed. His hands find John's ass, pulling him in like he owns him, like he can do anything he wants. And John lets him. John feels his dick growing hard, painful and cramped in his damned chastity belt. He doesn't want this, and yet he does.

A glance over the Commissioner's left ear tells John that Borovis is less than ten feet away, leaning against the door and looking vaguely disgusted. John tips his head, letting the Commissioner plunder his mouth, letting him rub up against John's thigh. He wants, he needs... Fuck.

He needs the key. He needs to get out of here, before he loses what little self-respect he still has. And then the Commissioner's fingers slip under his skirt and into the crack of his ass, and he can't help it when his whole body jerks.

He doesn't even know if he's jerking closer or trying to get away. He only knows he needs to move, and what moves is his knee, slamming up into the Commissioner's crotch.

It's not the controlled attack John was hoping for, but he goes with it, grabbing the Commissioner's rotund body as he gasps and swears, twisting him around to serve as a human shield just as Borovis lifts his agonizer. John feels a bizarre pang of regret when the agonizer fires and the Commissioner screams and crumples to the floor, but the next moment he's facing the guard, aiming one Teyla-inspired chop at his wrist.

It's not enough to incapacitate, but it's enough to get hold of the agonizer. John flips it, fumbling for the trigger, and finds a depression for his thumb. In a moment the guard is the one screaming and hitting the floor.

John doesn't waste time on niceties. The Commissioner is still on the floor, and John zaps him one more time for good measure before tearing the chain out of his buttonhole. The other end is attached to a small gold cylinder. The key to the force field, John dearly hopes.

He runs.

There's no time for anything fancy. The palace will be in an uproar in a minute. He heads for the only exit he's sure of, the grand front entrance. He hurtles down the stairs, half-sliding down the bannister and gasping for breath in the too-tight corset. He tears at the hooks with one hand but it's too tight to unfasten, too well-made to rip out of.

He makes it to the front door. He hears shouts behind him, but he ignores them, concentrating on looking at the key as he runs. It, too, has a depression for his thumb, and when he presses it, he hears a crackling noise. He really hopes that's the force field going off, because otherwise this is going to be a very short escape attempt.

But he doesn't pull up as he approaches the outer wall. If the force field is still up, he'll pay, but if it's down he can't afford to waste a moment. He barrels through the gate and there's nothing to stop him, nothing but open, rolling fields and a road leading off to more buildings in the distance.

"Yeah," he hears a voice say, just behind him. "I don't think so."

It's too late to slow or turn around. The pain hits as he's running, and he barely feels the extra shock when his body hits the ground.

~~

It's Oskut. Of course it is. She gives him no mercy, laying into him with her special brand of agony until the world around him goes gray. He's aware of being picked up. Of being carried back inside. Of being laid, face down, on the gold-covered bed.

"It's a real shame," he hears the Commissioner's voice say. "You know, I was planning on being gentle for your first time, but I'm afraid you've left me no choice."

John lurches up onto his hands and knees, but he doesn't have enough control of his body yet, and the next thing he knows, he's face down on the bed again, his arms yanked down on either side. He hears the snick of metal clipping to metal, and when he tries to pull his hands up again, something's caught around his wrists.

He can twist his head just enough to see. The Commissioner has clipped the chains on his wrists to ones around his ankles and there's another chain linking his ankles to the bedposts. He jerks against them, but the metal is too strong. He's securely bound with his face flat against the bedspread and his ass in the air.

"It really is too bad," the Commissioner says. John can't see him, but he can hear something that sound suspiciously like clothing being unfastened. "I thought you had the sense to be a good girl."

John feels a burn that has nothing to do with arousal. "Cut the crap," he says. "We both know I'm not a girl."

The Commissioner laughs and John arches and lifts his head, twisting until he can see him. He's still wearing his shirt and vest, but he's removed his jacket and his fly is unlaced. John can just see the head of his cock poking out from between his shirt-tails. Hard. Like he gets off on this. On having John helpless.

"I'll admit you're not much of a girl," the Commissioner says. "But you have a hole to fuck, so you're good enough for me."

John yanks on the chains until his wrists ache, but it's no use. "Is that why you had me kidnapped and tortured?" he asks. "Because thirty girls isn't enough for you?"

"Oh, you know how it is," the Commissioner says. The bed dips as he climbs up behind John. "You get bored of the same old thing. Even being worshiped gets a little old. There's no challenge to it."

John grits his teeth and pulls as far away as the chains will allow. There's no way to get free, but he's not going to make it easy on the guy. "Do you have any idea who I am?" he asks.

"Of course I do," the Commissioner says. "You're my new girl. And really, that's the only thing that matters."

His hands close on John's hips, and a moment later John feels the warm, blunt head of his cock pressing between his cheeks. It feels a hell of a lot bigger than it looked.

"You don't want to do this," John says. "My people are going to come looking for me, and they're not going to be real happy when they find out how I've been treated."

The pressure eases, just a little. "Oh, come now. If someone were looking for you, surely they'd have found you by now. Or maybe they simply don't dare."

"My people," John says between clenched teeth, "don't leave people behind."

"A pretty sentiment," the Commissioner says. "Too bad it didn't work out this time." And he shoves his cock into John, hard.

It hurts like hell and John can't help crying out, his face against the bed. He can't believe this is actually happening. He can't believe he ever thought he wanted this. Or something tangentially related to this, because he sure as hell never thought he'd enjoy being chained up and reamed.

The Commissioner bottoms out and John can feel the press of his stomach against his ass. He can't help jerking against the chains, and the Commissioner laughs again.

"You've got spirit. I'll give you that." He pulls out and strokes in again and John has to bite his tongue to keep from making any more noise. But he's not going to give the Commissioner the satisfaction. He's not going to give him a damned thing, and if that means lying here like a dead fish, he can do that.

He closes his eyes, willing himself to the place he goes when the worst happens and there's nothing he can do to stop it. That's the hardest part, the helplessness. But he can't think about that. He has to think about something else. Like getting out of this place. Which he's damn well going to do, whether his people come for him or not.

The Commissioner is pumping in and out of him and gradually his body gets used to it, the bright pain fading to a slow burn. At least Mialla lubed him well.

Crap. Mialla. She did this to him. And she knew exactly what she was doing, because she's the one who put the chains on his wrists and ankles.

He should have figured. Hell, he did figure, or at least he never really trusted her. But it still hurts to know she was colluding all along. That all the stuff about liking him was a lie. She's as bad as Oskut, in her own special way. And he let her do it to him, let her kiss him and manipulate him and stick her fingers up his ass.

It's funny how things seem a hell of a lot clearer when you're in the middle of being raped.

The Commissioner is grunting with every thrust, but John doesn't do a damn thing to help him along, even if it would get things over with faster. He just lies there, trying to ignore the cock pounding into him. It's not about him. He's not even here. He's just a body to use, while his mind can go wherever the hell it wants. Bright blue skies and ferris wheels. He's gone.

He doesn't even notice the Commissioner is done until he's pulling out and smacking John's ass.

"Well," he says, "you were tight enough, at least. But I'm warning you, next time I'll expect a little more effort."

John's vision goes red, and for a moment he couldn't speak if he wanted to. There's not going to be a next time. Not if there's anything -- and he means anything -- he can do about it.

The Commissioner is busy fastening up his pants and putting his jacket back on. John's head is turned to face the door, so he sees him nod to the guard. It's Borovis, the guy John zapped with the agonizer.

"Get Oskut to escort her back to the harem," the Commissioner says. "Oh, but feel free to enjoy her first. I know she's not much to look at, but a fuck's a fuck, right?" He laughs heartily as he disappears through the door.

John tries his chains one more time, but his wrists are raw and there's no more give than there was before. He steels himself as Borovis comes over, unfastening his pants as he walks.

"You shouldn't have shot me," Borovis says. "I didn't like that."

"It wasn't personal," John says. "C'mon, don't tell me you'd just roll over and let yourself get fucked without putting up a fight."

The guy's lip curls. "I'm not a girl."

"Funny you should mention that," John says. "Because I'm not-- shit."

Borovis doesn't wait for him to finish his sentence, just shoves right in, and either he's bigger than the Commissioner or John's really sore, because it hurts all over again. John gasps for breath and tries to brace himself, but the guy's a lot fitter than the Commissioner, and he sets up a blistering pace, slamming into John's ass over and over. It's all John can do to grit his teeth and survive.

He knows it's finally over because Borovis groans loudly and squeezes his hips so hard they feel bruised. After a few more strokes, he pulls out and unfastens John's wrists and ankles methodically, then yanks him up by the laces of his corset.

"No funny stuff," he warns, and pulls John off the bed.

John's been chained up so long his legs are rubbery, and it's all he can do to keep his feet. "Funny stuff" is pretty much out of the question, even more so when Borovis shoves a agonizer against his corseted ribs and tells him to move. He staggers down the hallway to the room where the harem had congregated. There's no one but Oskut there now.

"I suppose you want me to take care of her," Oskut says, coming over. She's armed, too, of course, and she looks like she wouldn't mind using her agonizer a few times, just for fun.

The guard shoves John over to her. "Too bad you don't have a dick," he says. "The Commissioner said she's fair game."

Oskut's nose wrinkles. "No thanks," she says. "You forget, I saw her when she first came here."

Borovis laughs. "She is pretty ugly."

But Oskut just shrugs, like that wasn't what she meant. "I'll take her from here."

Borovis nods, and Oskut prods John's ribs with her own agonizer.

"Come on, get a move on," she says, and she steers him down the stairs and through the palace to the harem. The blood comes back into John's legs and walking gets a little easier, although his ass is sore enough that there's a hitch in his stride. He doesn't try to hide it. He knows Oskut doesn't have anything resembling a conscience, but there's always the chance it might make her underestimate him.

He needs to make his chances from here on out. He doesn't imagine there will be any more freebies.

The harem's evening is winding down when they arrive, with most of the girls in nightgowns or washing their faces. Mialla's there before the door closes behind them. Well, of course she is. She probably thinks she can still manipulate him.

"Oh, John," she says, her face full of disappointment and something that's probably meant to be pity. "How could you? Didn't I tell you to be good?"

He's made it forty-odd years without hitting a woman, but he's sorely tempted. "Thanks for these," he says, holding up his wrists. His left one is bleeding all over the chain.

He watches the expressions race across her face -- surprise, anger, and possibly even guilt -- before she settles into wide-eyed innocence. "Oh, you've hurt yourself! Come on, I'll bandage it for you."

"No, thanks," John says, and walks right by her and into the bathroom.

He cleans up his broken skin as best he can, then fumbles with the catch on the chain, but it's hard to unfasten one-handed. He looks up to see a row of faces watching him with open mouths. Like they have no idea what he's going to do next.

Mialla's among them, but she doesn't offer to help and neither does anyone else. John bites his lip in concentration and finally gets the catch on the right one free. The left is easier, and he manages the chains on his ankles just fine, but when he goes to try to unlace his corset, he's stymied. There's no way his hands can reach the place where the laces are tied.

He looks up to see the girls still watching him. Right, well, if they're all complicit in his kidnapping, torture, and, oh yeah, rape, they can damn well help him now. "Who's gonna help me get out of this thing?"

For a moment, no one moves. Several of the girls lower their eyes, and a couple shuffle toward the door. And then Tevin pushes through the crowd, her chin up defiantly.

"You're really hopeless as a girl, aren't you?" she says. There's nothing but dryness in her voice, but John feels something loosen inside his corset even before she touches the strings.

She knows. She's known all along. And maybe that's what she was trying to tell him in the beginning, back when he thought she'd just taken an instant dislike to him.

"You might as well all go to bed," Tevin says to the watching girls. "It's not like John won't be here in the morning." And she starts on his laces, tugging the knots until the pressure eases and John can finally breathe again.

By the time she's unhooked the front, the room is empty except for Tevin, John, and Serren, who's watching them from the doorway. John just stands there and breathes for a while, not meeting Tevin's eyes.

"You should clean up," Tevin says at last. "You look like crap."

"Thanks," John says sarcastically, and turns and walks by her and into the nearest shower stall. The hot water stings, but he scrubs his skin until it's red, and the holes in the drain are wide enough to take the chains from his wrists and ankles, so he feels better afterward.

Tevin's still there when he's done, although she looks like she'd rather be somewhere else. But she's holding out a towel, which is an unexpected kindness.

"Thanks," John says, and it's sincere this time.

"So," she says, as he rubs the towel over his hair. "I guess you're looking for a place to sleep tonight."

He drops the towel to his shoulders, contemplating that. He pictures crawling in with Mialla. Pictures her trying to make up with him in the morning. "I'm good with the floor," he says.

Tevin wrinkles her nose. "Don't be an idiot. You can bunk with me. As long as you promise to keep your hands to yourself and stay on your half of the bed."

It sounds like heaven. "I can do that," John says, but he hears Serren's voice from the door.

"No. John will sleep with me."

Tevin whirls, like she completely forgot Serren was there. "Where's Parek going to sleep, then?"

"She can bunk with you," Serren says.

Tevin crosses her arms over her chest and glares. "No. No way. She simpers."

"You'll get used to her," Serren says. "Maybe she'll be good for you. You could do well to imitate her manners."

"Yeah, right," Tevin says, and turns her glare at John, like she's blaming him for this turn of events. She leans in suddenly, turning her back to Serren. "I need to talk to you," she mouths, still glaring at him. "Midnight. Here."

He has enough presence of mind not to answer, and in a moment she's pulled away.

"Come, John," Serren says. "You need your sleep. We all need to sleep so we can be at our best for the Commissioner tomorrow."

Fuck, John doesn't say. But of course the Commissioner isn't going to drop by for just one night. He has thirty girls to entertain him. And John.

"No, thanks," John says, leaning casually against the sink. "I'll make my own arrangements."

Serren stares at him like that's the last thing she expected him to say, and even Tevin looks shocked. "Don't imagine you're going anywhere," Serren says. "The windows and doors are locked. I made sure of it myself."

John thinks about it for a moment. Thinks about breaking a window and going back to the gold-draped bedroom. But something tells him the Commissioner uses that room for sex, not sleep, and he needs to find the Commissioner in order to find the key.

Bastard probably sleeps with it under his pillow. Wherever he sleeps.

"I'm not sharing your bed," John says. "Or Mialla's, either. I'll sleep on the damn floor."

Serren regards him steadily, and he sees a flicker of softness in her eyes, quickly covered. "That won't be necessary," she says, and her eyes flick up. "Tevin, you're still sleeping with Parek."

"Hey," Tevin says, still pissed, but she doesn't protest further, just follows Serren to a closet that turns out to contain a folded wooden cot. John helps carry it back to the dormitory and they set it up at the end of the row of beds, next to what turns out to be Serren's.

So it's not really a reprieve, but at least no one can roll over on top of him. When the blankets are in place, John falls into the bed. He's asleep before he can even think about it.

~~

He wakes to the brush of a hand on his shoulder, startling into consciousness with a jerk of adrenaline.

"Midnight," a voice whispers. And then footsteps pad away.

John sits up in his cot. The dormitory is silent except for the sounds of sleep. There's not enough light to make out anything but the dim shapes of the beds, but after a few minutes he gets up and makes his way to the bathroom, walking past the toilets to the row of sinks.

"John," a voice breathes, and this time he recognizes it as Tevin.

"You alone?" he asks, just as quietly.

"I damn well better be," she says.

He feels her hand on his arm, tugging him into a shower stall, and she pulls the curtain closed around them. He can't see her as more than a shadow, but he can feel her presence in the darkness.

"You hurt him, didn't you?" she said. "Oskut said you used his weapon on him."

John doesn't know whether to admit it or not. "Look," he says. "You gotta understand. I don't belong here. I have people waiting for me out there. It was just a means to an end."

"I wish you'd shot him twice," Tevin says darkly.

Oh. So that's where she's coming from. John grins into the darkness. "Actually, I did. Had to give him an extra jolt to get the key."

Tevin's voice is fervent. "Oh, I wish I'd been there to see his face."

"It wasn't pretty," John says. "Not that it ever is."

Tevin laughs, and then covers her mouth to keep quiet.

"It wasn't worth it," John says. "He made sure of that, later."

"Yeah." The laughter drains out of Tevin's voice. "I know."

Christ. "Did he do that to you, too? Chain you up when you said no?"

She doesn't answer, and the silence stretches between them. Like that was exactly the wrong thing to ask. "Yeah," she says, finally, less of a whisper than a breath. "I never told anyone."

For some reason that's almost as bad as the rape itself, that she had no one to turn to, afterward. "Okay," John says, "we're getting out of here. The only question is how and when."

Tevin lets out a breath and John can feel her lean against the shower wall next to him. "You're crazy. You know that?"

John shakes his head even though he knows she can't see it. "We just need a better plan. Mine was pretty half-baked."

"No shit," Tevin says. "You were an idiot to try to pull something like that alone."

It's true enough. John can't take offense. "What we need is a distraction. Something that will put the place in an uproar so they don't have the resources to chase us."

"Like rats?"

John makes a face into the darkness. "Might work."

"Trapping them's easy enough," Tevin muses. "You just need food and a box. But we'd have to hide them until the right moment, and that's a lot harder."

"We need to go big," John says. "Something to make them think the palace is under attack." Damn. He could really use a small army about now.

"We could set a fire." Tevin sounds eager, not the least bit afraid.

"Fire's dangerous," John says slowly. "Too much risk the whole place will go up."

"A little fire," she says. "We could be careful. Set it where it will do some damage without endangering anyone."

It's not a great plan, but John's having trouble thinking of a better one. "Okay," he says. "Maybe a small fire."

"It's easy enough to tip over a candle," Tevin says, "but we're going to have to do it soon. The Commissioner's not going to stay interested in you for long."

John's quiet as he wrestles the queasy feeling in his gut into submission. But he knew it would come to this. One of them has to get close enough to get the key again. "He's going to be watching me. I may not get a good chance."

"Then you don't go off half-cocked," Tevin says. "You wait for your opening. Even if you have to wait months."

There's an edge to that, like it describes her own life here, which it probably does. "Look," John says. "Just don't set any fires until you know I have a chance at the key."

"And if I'm the one who gets the key?"

"Then I'll set the damn fire." He suddenly realizes what he hasn't told her. "Listen, only one of us needs to get out. If it's me, I promise I'll come back for you."

Tevin snorts. "Right."

That hurts, but then, she has no reason to trust him. He plows on. "If you make it out and I don't, I'm going to need you to contact Atlantis for me. You can go to M2C-964 -- they're a little on the feudal side, but they have something called an IDC. Whatever you do, don't try to dial Atlantis without one."

"Atlantis," she says, and it's hard to read emotion in a whisper that quiet, but John thinks she's surprised.

"Yeah," John says, and repeats the address, Pegasus-style. "Can you remember that?"

"I'm not the idiot, here," Tevin says. "What am I supposed to tell them?"

"You're not going to have to say much. Just tell them you know where John Sheppard is. You know the gate address of this planet?"

He can't see her, but he'd bet money she's rolling her eyes. "Told you. Not an idiot." And she recites a gate address.

That's something. John commits it to memory. "So. We have a plan?"

She shifts against the wall and doesn't answer. "We need to get one thing straight first," she says, and then pauses, like she doesn't want to say it.

"Yeah?" he tries.

She rounds on him, her face close to his in the darkness. "We're getting out," she says. "And I'll help you. I'll even go to that planet and contact Atlantis, if that's really where you're from. But I'm not going to fall at your feet just because you got me out of here. You may be a man under that thing, but I'm not looking for one."

"Whoa," John says, because that never even occurred to him. "Look, I'm not looking for a girl, either, so we're even. Okay?"

He can feel her chest rise and fall, inches from his own. "How do I know you're not lying?" she says.

"You don't." John stays where he is, careful not to make any move. "All you have is my word."

"That damn well better be enough," she says, turning away from him. "Go back to sleep, John. You're going to need to be on your toes tomorrow."

He can't stop himself from asking, "You think he's going to pick me again?"

She pauses, and he can hear her breathing. "He's pissed as hell at you. So yeah, I think he's going to pick you. And make you pay again."

John grimaces. "As long as we take advantage of it," he says.

"Yeah," she says. "See that you do."

~~

The harem is busier than usual in the morning, with girls everywhere engaged in a variety of extreme beauty rituals involving exercises, massage, and purple goop on their faces.

Everyone pretty much ignores John. Well, Mialla tries to talk to him, but he walks away.

Tevin doesn't even look at him. When it's finally time to get dressed for the evening, it's Serren who does his make-up and puts him into his corset. Extra tight.

"Where are your bracelets?" she asks.

John shrugs. He's not going to admit he put them down the shower drain. She'd probably try to fish them out.

"I can see I should have taken charge of you a long time ago," she says firmly, and she finds a pair of silver cuffs with metal rings on them.

John almost balks, but he remembers his promise to Tevin and lets her fasten them on his wrists. He watches carefully so that he knows how to undo them, but it doesn't look like it's going to be easy to do one-handed. At least she doesn't have anything for his ankles.

There's good food again, and John forces himself to eat his fill. He doesn't know what's going to happen once he's away from this compound, how long it's going to take him to find the gate. There's no point in starting hungry.

He's just finishing his last pastry when Oskut arrives, and there's a stir among the girls.

"A visitor!" he hears. "The Commissioner's brought a visitor!" "Maybe he'll be handsome!"

That doesn't sound good. John can't help wondering if it has something to do with him. If the Commissioner is planning to make him fair game to all and sundry now. But there's not a damn thing he can do about it. He catches Tevin looking at him and nods once. She lifts her chin almost imperceptibly, but he gets the message. The game is on.

Oskut and her women herd them to the same room they were in before, at the top of the grand staircase. John positions himself away from the door, not particularly close to any of the other girls. He wants to be where he can see the Commissioner and whoever he's brought with him before they see him.

It's not long before the door opens again, and Borovis comes in, but today he's followed by seven more guards, all in uniforms with blank faces. John wonders if the heightened security is on the harem's behalf, or the visitor's. Either way, it doesn't bode well.

The Commissioner enters the room, laughing and joking with a tall, dark-haired man. A big guy, bigger even than Borovis. His hair is straight and black, falling around his clean-shaven face, and it's only when he turns to scan the room that John recognizes him.

It's Ronon.

John's heart does a double-take, thudding to life in his chest. He's safe. He's rescued. But then Ronon's eyes skim over him, stutter, and move on again.

Ronon saw him. He recognized him. But he didn't say or do a damn thing, which means...right. John sizes up the situation. Ronon's dressed like the Commissioner, in a coat and vest, classic Pegasus Steampunk. He's cut his hair and shaved his face and he even has make-up or something over his neck tattoo, all of which means he's here in disguise. He's also not wearing a radio or any obvious weapons, although knowing Ronon he must have a knife or two stashed about him somewhere.

Still, he looks less like he's here to break John out and more like it's a reconnaissance mission. Maybe Atlantis didn't know whether John was actually here. Maybe Ronon has to signal them in order to bring the cavalry.

Well, he knows now. And whatever his plan is, John will be ready. Although if he doesn't know about the agonizers, John figures he better signal him somehow. The last thing he wants is to see Ronon writhing on the floor.

John reassesses the eight guards. They're all armed, all alert. There's no way to take them easily, not unless he and Ronon can split them up, and even then it's chancy. John's gaze finds Tevin, but she's not looking at him, so there's no way to signal her without being obvious.

He's going to have to wait for Ronon to make a move. He has to trust and be patient, because Ronon saw him. He's sure of it.

John suddenly feels his chest go tight as it hits him that Ronon saw him. Ronon recognized him like this, in hair extensions and make-up and a skirt so short it barely brushes the tops of his thighs.

He doesn't know whether to be grateful or mortified. He's always had a bit of a competitive thing with Ronon; he figured it was mostly their relative ages and his own stupid need to prove himself. But now, fuck, he doesn't know. He just knows that Ronon's pretty much the last person he would have wanted to see him like this.

Ronon's still not looking at him, and that helps a little. As John watches, the Commissioner beckons to a nearby girl, and she comes smiling over to Ronon.

"This," the Commissioner says, "is Noema. Noema, say hi to Meredith."

John can't help a quick intake of breath. There's no way Ronon would choose that for an undercover name if it weren't intended as a message. Something about Rodney. Or from Rodney.

Something simple, probably, like, Rodney has a plan.

"Hi," Ronon says to Noema, but even across the room John can see his smile is pained.

"Not to your taste?" the Commissioner says. "Well, maybe we can find a girl who suits you better."

Noema drops back, clearly disappointed, while the Commissioner leads Ronon over to a group of girls that includes Mialla.

"Why, hello there," Mialla says, and the next thing John knows, she's plastered against Ronon's front, her arms around his neck. "Wow, you're really tall."

"Guess so," Ronon says, and maybe John's imagining it, but it sounds a little less dismissive than he did with Noema. But then, he's always had kind of a thing for blondes.

John closes his eyes, feeling the anger course through him. He doesn't want to watch Mialla trying to seduce Ronon. Ronon is his. His teammate. His rescue. And he damn well doesn't want to share.

"Sorry," Ronon says, and John opens his eyes to see him disentangling Mialla's hands from his hair. "Your girls are pretty," he tells the Commissioner. "Not real sturdy, though."

Mialla's lower lip sticks out in a pout, but the Commissioner just laughs. "I can see why that would be an issue for you," he says, eyeing Ronon like he's sizing up a draft horse. "Come to think of it, I may have the perfect girl for you."

John knows what's about to happen before it does, but he can't help the queasy feeling in his gut. Ronon said that on purpose, he reminds himself. He has to have a plan.

"Meredith, meet my newest girl," the Commissioner says, stopping in front of John. "She's a little rough around the edges and she needs a firm hand, but I think you'll agree that she's 'sturdy.'"

Ronon glances at John impersonally, and wow, if John knew he was this good at acting, he would have sent him undercover a long time ago.

"What's your name?" Ronon asks.

John finally manages to catch his eye. "John," he says, going for casual. I'm okay, he tries to put into that one syllable, but I wouldn't mind getting the hell out of here.

Ronon holds his gaze for a long moment, and John thinks he can read a lot in it. Things like, this sucks, and we're going to get you out, I promise. "That's a funny name for a girl," Ronon says.

"So I've been told," John says dryly.

"Come, John," the Commissioner says. "Show me you know the proper way to treat one of my guests."

John swallows, but it's his chance. Hell, maybe this is Ronon's plan, crude as it is. At least it's an opportunity to talk, even if the Commissioner is standing at their elbows.

He steps forward, right into Ronon's space, and slides his hands up under Ronon's lapels. Ronon's chest feels warm and solid. Reassuring. Real. "Hi there, big guy," John says, searching for the right sort of double meaning. He's feeling ridiculously self-conscious, but he can feel the Commissioner's eyes on him, so he can't pull away. "Can I do something for you tonight?"

"Maybe," Ronon says neutrally. "Or maybe not."

That's a coded answer. It has to be. Sit tight, it means. We're working on it. It's not what John wants to hear, but he can live with it. He can live with almost anything as long as he gets out of this place.

"You don't like her?" the Commissioner asks, and something in his voice sets off alarm bells in John's head.

"She's fine," Ronon says.

"I'll admit she's not much in bed," the Commissioner says, "but she'll hold up to a fair bit of action, if you know what I mean. I was thinking of giving her to my guards tonight. They're not terribly picky."

Ronon's bland expression vanishes, his eyes narrowing in pure, naked fury, and John knows he has to do something. Ronon's broken for less, and the last thing they need is for him to go into berserker mode right now.

John sidles closer, conveniently positioning his head so that he blocks the Commissioner's view of Ronon's face. He puts his arms around Ronon's neck in a parody of Mialla's earlier position. "That doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun," he says. It's a risk, but he's desperate. "Pretty sure I'd rather have you."

Ronon looks down at him, his eyes shooting questions. John presses his lips together and darts his eyes to the guards and back, trying to make it clear that the threat is real. He sees Ronon's jaw muscles twitch. Message received.

"I'll make it good for you," John says. He feels a pang about putting Ronon into what could be a damned awkward position, but it's better than the alternative, and if Ronon can do this much, he can fake a little sexual interest. "You won't regret it."

"Okay," Ronon says. John can still see the fury behind his eyes, but it's controlled for now. "Fine. I'll take this one."

The Commissioner laughs. "She can be surprisingly persuasive when she wants to," he says, and he smacks John on the ass. "Go ahead and enjoy her." He waves to the door. "You can use one of the rooms down the hall. My guards will show you."

It's an opportunity to be alone together, at least. John spares a longing glance at the Commissioner's vest pocket as he slips his arms from around Ronon's neck, but there's no way to steal the key discreetly. Well, maybe a skilled pickpocket could do it, but John doesn't trust himself not to get caught. Ronon's hand settles on his shoulder, squeezing once. John lifts his shoulder under it, trying to make it a warning.

"Thanks," Ronon says to the Commissioner. He doesn't wait for an answer, just steers John toward the door. Where seven of the eight guards -- including Borovis -- peel off to escort them into the hallway.

John glances back as he goes, searching for Tevin in the crowd. When he sees her, she's frowning at him, and he has no way of telling her he's found help. But that's okay. He's a man of his word. When Ronon gets him out, he can always come back for her.

Ronon's busy eyeing the guards, and John can tell what he's thinking. He could take them. And he probably could, if they weren't all carrying agonizers. But seven with that kind of firepower against two unarmed is crappy odds, and without the key, it's not worth it. John catches his eye and shakes his head once, firmly.

They're good. They're no longer under the watchful eye of the Commissioner. At least they'll get a chance to talk this way.

The room they're ushered into is decorated in blue, only slightly less ornate than the gold room. The guards follow them inside, flanking the door like they think they have a right to be there.

Ronon turns to face them, his mind obviously going to the same place John's has been. "Leave us."

"We have orders to stay." Borovis's expression is impassive.

Ronon's jaw sets. "I don't like an audience."

Borovis is unmoved. "I obey the Commissioner, not you."

Ronon's brows compress, and John can't help stepping back just to get out of his way. "It's not going to make a difference if you're out in the hall. We're not going anywhere."

But Borovis just shakes his head. "I follow orders. I don't want to end up like her," he says with a jerk of his chin toward John.

Ronon's lip curls, and he turns a questioning look at John. Like he's thinking of trying to take them again. John meets his eyes evenly, not daring anything more obvious, but Ronon's always been good at reading him.

"Whatever," Ronon says, and his hand closes around John's bare arm, pulling him around to the other side of the bed. It's no more private, but it's a little closer to out of earshot.

"Okay," Ronon says. "Show me what you do."

John doesn't need to translate that. Ronon's ceding him control of the situation. John only wishes he had more options.

Flight is out unless Ronon has a means to get through the force field, and if he's here as guest of the Commissioner, he was let in. Fight is pointless unless they can flee. It's safer to play along and appease the guards, unless Ronon knows something he doesn't.

They need to talk, and the only way to have a real conversation right now is to pretend they're doing something else. John steps up, tips his head back, and wraps his arms around Ronon's neck.

He feels warm all over, just from this, even though he knows it shouldn't be a big deal. Hell, he's been up close and personal with Ronon plenty of times before -- sparring, fighting shoulder to shoulder, even a manly bear-hug or two. This isn't all that different, except that it is.

Ronon's mouth is right there, and John has to make this look good. He slides his hands up into Ronon's shorn hair, tugs his head down, and kisses him.

Ronon follows his lead like it's the natural thing to do. His lips are surprisingly soft and full, and he's closely shaved, so there's no prickle. John can feel his hands around his corseted waist, pulling him in. It's fine. It probably looks great. It would probably look even better if he tipped his head and opened his mouth, so he does.

He feels a ripple of surprise through Ronon's body, transferred through his chest and hands and hips, which are now pressed against the lower part of John's corset. But Ronon goes with it, one hand sliding up into John's false hair, and their tongues brush for an instant.

Sensation courses through John's body. It's fake -- he knows it's fake -- but he's kissing someone he trusts, and two weeks' worth of sexual frustration comes flooding back. It doesn't matter that he's never thought about Ronon like this before. It doesn't even matter that Ronon's only doing this to save his life. His body doesn't give a damn about logic. It just wants.

"Whoa," Ronon says, pulling back.

John feels his face heat as he pants for breath. He struggles for self-control, willing Ronon to believe this just all part of the fake-out. When he's managed to catch his breath, he leans in to suck on Ronon's jaw, back near his ear. "The guards have wireless tasers," he mouths, trusting Ronon's excellent hearing. "The palace is surrounded by a force field."

Ronon's cheek moves against his, and then Ronon's pulling him closer and nuzzling his hair. "I have a sensor from McKay," he breathes into John's hair. "He needs a reading from inside. Says he can take down the force field with it. I just have to get out."

John closes his eyes and tips his head up. Ronon's words feel like another kiss. They have a plan, a real plan. Ronon just needs to get out of here unscathed. "The Commissioner has the only key," he whispers back.

"I know." Ronon's mouth moves again, tracing a path down John's neck, and John can't help shivering.

"I can do anything," he says out loud. It comes out breathy, but still loud enough to carry across the room. "Anything you want."

"You're doing fine," Ronon says, and this time he's the one who brings their mouths together.

Ronon kisses like they've been doing this for years. His mouth moves easily against John's, his lips parting gently although he doesn't repeat the thing with the tongue. It feels right, the way Mialla's kisses never did, and John can't help responding again, his whole body vibrating against Ronon's. He hasn't forgotten that he's faking it. He knows Ronon is. But he can't help the slow burn in his groin that spreads until his dick aches and his chest feels so tight he has to pant for breath.

"John," Ronon says softly, and John knows he's asking if he's okay.

He can't answer. He can't do anything but kiss Ronon again, combing his hands through Ronon's hair. It feels strange, even though he's never done this before. He can't help thinking his fingers shouldn't be able to slip through the strands.

Ronon grunts and shifts, pulling John closer to him. Ronon's legs are long and the boning of John's corset is stiff, so he can't tell if Ronon's still faking it. He knows it's stupid to wish he isn't. It doesn't stop him from rocking his hips against Ronon's thighs.

Ronon releases his mouth abruptly and leans in to suck on his earlobe. "Shit, Sheppard," he whispers. "What the hell did they do to you?"

John can't answer. All he can do is shiver in Ronon's arms.

"Bastards," Ronon says quietly but with feeling. His head drops until he's mouthing a trail across John's bare shoulder.

John can't help himself. He tips his head back and closes his eyes, his only focus the progress of Ronon's mouth. He wonders if Ronon's going to fuck him. If Ronon could, or if he's disgusted by this whole situation. By John, all tarted up like this.

John wouldn't blame him. He knows he looks ridiculous, and even if he didn't, Ronon's never given him any indication that he fucks guys. The one time John asked -- out of curiosity, mostly -- Ronon didn't give an indication one way or another. Of course, he didn't freak out at the question, either. Like he's not freaking out now.

At least, John doesn't think he's freaking out. He's busy sucking on John's collarbone, so it's kind of hard to tell.

"Are you going to get on with it or what?" John hears. It's one of the guards, from over by the door.

Ronon lifts his head and glares, his hands still firmly around John's body. "If you want a show, go somewhere else."

The guard sneers. "Just do it. We don't want to stand around here all night."

Ronon turns, one arm still possessively around John's corseted waist. "Then I'm not going to fuck her," he says. "Not in front of you."

John feels a sudden dizziness, like he stood up too quickly and got a head rush. But of course Ronon doesn't want to fuck him. What the hell was he thinking?

"All right," Borovis says. "Rennick, escort the Commissioner's guest back to the salon."

"Oh, come on," one of the guards -- apparently Rennick -- says. "That's not fair."

"You can come back," Borovis says. "You weren't going to get to go first, anyway."

Ronon's ignoring them, heading for the door with his arm still around John's waist.

"She stays," Borovis says.

Ronon's arm tightens. "What?"

"Sorry," Borovis says. "If you're not going to fuck her, we will. The Commissioner's not going to mind."

John's stomach turns over. Ronon's bluff is called, and he's got nothing up his sleeve. But John's not going to be their fuck-toy. Not if he can help it.

"Please," he says, turning and putting his hands on Ronon's vest. He doesn't have to try to make his voice sound desperate. "I told you I'll do anything and I will. Don't give me to them."

Ronon's teeth clench in frustration. "I don't like being watched," he says. His chin lifts and he scowls over John's shoulder at the guards. "Tell the Commissioner I want to talk to him. I'll buy this girl if it's the only way to get a little privacy."

It's a bold move, but the guard shakes his head.

"We can't disturb him. He's with a girl right now. But I can tell you he's not going to sell her to you. He never sells his girls until he's tired of them, and he's only had this one a few weeks."

Ronon makes a disgusted face. "Fine. I'll talk to him myself," he says, pulling John toward the door.

All seven guards raise their agonizers, and John jerks to a stop. "Don't," he says, trying to warn Ronon without breaking his role. "Please. Those things hurt like hell."

"Thought I was a guest here," Ronon growls.

The weapons don't waiver. "You're a guest until you disobey the Commissioner's rules," Borovis says. "After that, you're fair game."

Ronon's body tenses with frustration, and John knows what he's thinking. He calculates the odds in his head. There's a chance they could take all seven guards without getting zapped. It's not a good chance, but it's real, and the agonizers, while painful, aren't deadly.

And then he sees Borovis reach inside his jacket and pull out John's own semiautomatic Colt. As John watches, he cocks it expertly, like he's been practicing.

So much for the odds.

"Look," John says turning to look up into Ronon's face, "I'm sorry I'm not what you wanted tonight." It's not what he wants to say, but it's the best he can do with the guards watching. He can't let them get suspicious. Ronon has to get out of here.

"It's not you," Ronon says. "You're fine."

John hopes like hell that really means what he thinks it means. "Then fuck me," he says.

Ronon's jaw works. He looks back at the guards, then at John again, and John can see the warring emotions on his clean-shaven face. He opens his mouth like he's going to say something, then closes it again, like he's suddenly realized that this is for real.

John tries not to wince. He knows what he's asking for. He knows it's wrong. But someone had to make the call, and he doesn't like any of the other options. He doesn't want to be raped, but he'd rather it was Ronon than anyone else. He hopes like hell Ronon feels the same way.

Something changes in Ronon's face. It's not anger. It might be pity. "Fine," he says. He shoots an extra glare at the guards. "Don't watch." And then he turns and leads John back over to the bed.

John's as ready as he'll ever be for the kiss, but it still makes his legs wobble. He wraps his arms around Ronon as much for stability as anything else.

"What the hell, Sheppard?" John can feel the words against his lips and cheek, with barely a breath behind them.

"Sorry," he mouths in return. "You got a better plan?"

Ronon's mouth goes hard against his skin and Ronon's arms tighten, pulling John in. "No," he says next to John's ear. "Can you do this?"

John nods against his neck. He doesn't even know if it's the truth. He's too fucked up, caught between his arousal and his need for freedom. He wants. He knows he'll regret it. But he'll regret being gangbanged a hell of a lot more. "Yeah. If you can," he says.

Ronon doesn't say anything, but his hand travels up one of John's arms, tugging it down until he finds the silver cuff. Ronon's fingers work the catch, and in a few moments the cuff is off. John doesn't need to be asked for the second one, and he feels remarkably better when they're both off.

Ronon puts his arms around John's back again and John moves closer, but it's not for a kiss. He can feel Ronon's hands working purposefully, and then he can breathe again, which can only mean Ronon has loosened the corset.

"Take this off," Ronon says, and his hands come around to the front, his big fingers undoing the dozens of tiny hooks.

"Hey," the guard says from the door. "What are you doing?"

"My fuck, my way," Ronon says. "I thought I told you not to watch."

John cranks his head around to see, but the guard lowers his agonizer, muttering like he thinks Ronon's crazy. And then Ronon's unhooked the last hook and the corset falls to the floor, leaving John bare and a hell of a lot more comfortable.

Bare except for the chastity belt, that is.

"What the hell is this?" Ronon asks, tugging at the waistband. John's skin is rough where the metal has chafed his hip. He's been wearing it too damn long.

"That doesn't come off," the same guard says, and this time he sounds smug. "You wouldn't like what you found underneath it, anyway."

Ronon's eyes jerk up to John's, and John realizes he thinks he's been maimed. John give a quick shake of his head, trying to reassure him, but Ronon's fingers scrabble over the metal, trying to find a catch.

For a moment John thinks he'll find something, maybe in the back where he can't see it, and he turns to give Ronon access. But apparently the damn thing is impenetrable, because nothing Ronon does loosens it.

"It's okay," John says. "I'm used to it."

"I don't like it," Ronon says.

"Yeah," John mutters. "Join the crowd." But he steps in to Ronon and tips his head. "We doing this?"

"Guess so," Ronon says, and a moment later, they're kissing.

Without the barrier and constriction of the corset, it feels far more intimate. John can't help sliding his hands inside Ronon's jacket, feeling the warmth of his body through his vest and shirt. Ronon's lips are undemanding, but when John opens his mouth, Ronon follows suit, and this time when their tongues touch, Ronon doesn't shy away.

John feels like he's being twisted in knots. His hands find Ronon's waist while Ronon's tighten around his bare shoulders. John wants skin under his own hands, but he knows it's too much to ask for, when Ronon's already giving him this.

"Hey." Ronon's hands cup John's face, and he's so god-damned gentle that John's chest aches. "Here," Ronon says, and strips out of his coat. He leaves the vest on, and John suddenly remembers McKay's sensor. Ronon has to be carrying it somewhere on his body. He probably doesn't dare take all of his clothes off. "C'mere," Ronon says, and guides John to the bed.

John sprawls on his back, looking up at Ronon. He knows he should get up on his hands and knees or offer a blow job. It would be easier on Ronon. But he can't make himself do it. If Ronon really needs it, he can ask.

But Ronon doesn't ask. Ronon stretches out next to him and runs his hands over John's skin, touching his chest and his shoulders and his hips. His hand ends up on John's arm, circling a patch of skin, and John realizes it's the site where his subcutaneous transmitter was implanted. It's intact, which means his captors don't know about it. But Ronon does.

Ronon leans in for a kiss, but John doesn't need to talk. The force field must be blocking the transmission. If McKay can get it down, they'll be able to pinpoint his location within the palace, wherever he is.

It's his last rational thought. Sensation takes over, the warmth of Ronon's lips and tongue, the rough calluses of his palms, the press of the buttons of his vest against John's stomach. John wraps his arms around Ronon's shoulders and holds on. He doesn't care that he's not supposed to want this. He doesn't even care that he doesn't have a choice. He needs this. And Ronon's here to rescue him in every sense of the word.

Ronon's hands stroke his thigh and he opens his legs shamelessly. Ronon's hand slips higher, skirting the impenetrable panel of the chastity belt, dipping back behind.

"I'm ready," John gasps, because Serren slicked him as thoroughly as Mialla ever did.

Ronon's fingers linger, circling his hole, and it's all John can do to keep from whimpering. This is what he wanted, before, when he thought he wanted to get fucked. Exactly this.

"Okay," Ronon says, and his hands go to the fly of his trousers. He doesn't take his pants off, just pushes them down, and John gets a glimpse of his cock -- hard, thank God -- before Ronon rolls on top of him.

Ronon kisses him slowly, like he actually wants to. John can feel his cock, a hot ridge pressing against his groin, but Ronon doesn't seem to be in any hurry. It's like he thinks John's made of glass, and John can't help rocking against him, trying to prove he can take more. That he can take it all.

When Ronon finally releases his mouth, his face is serious. This is it, his expression says. If we do this, there's no taking it back.

But they're past that point, and if they stop now John's pretty sure he'll break. He rolls his hips helplessly, pushing up against Ronon's cock. Ronon grunts and closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them again, he lifts up onto his knees, his cock jutting out beneath his shirt.

"Like this," he says, pulling John's legs up until his knees are over his chest. John goes with it, but he can't help flushing. He feels wide open. On display. And then Ronon reaches down to guide himself with one hand and presses in.

He's expecting it to hurt and it does, but Ronon stops and holds like that -- the head of his cock just encased in John's body while John breathes through it -- and the burn subsides. When Ronon finally starts moving, it's in gentle, shallow thrusts.

At first John's grateful, because the pain fades entirely, but then it's not enough. Ronon's holding his power in check and John wants to feel it. He doesn't care if he can't get off. He just wants Ronon to fuck him for real.

He grabs his knees, pulling them in to his chest and lifting his ass just as Ronon thrusts again, and Ronon goes deeper with a surprised grunt. It hurts again, but John doesn't care, because there's a burst of pleasure with the pain. Ronon's eyes snap to his and the next thrust is slow and controlled, but deeper, deep enough to make John gasp.

"You okay?" Ronon mouths, and John nods, even though he's not sure he is. He can't explain that Ronon's reinventing everything he ever knew about himself, stroke by stroke. That he's so turned on he'd do anything for more. But Ronon doesn't make him beg. He keeps thrusting, steadily deeper, steadily harder, until John's panting and clawing at the bed covers.

When Ronon's thrusts finally start bottoming out, the heat of John's arousal has spread from his aching dick and balls all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes. He's covered in sweat, his breathing shallow and ragged, so far beyond need he's forgotten what anything else feels like. All he's aware of is Ronon's cock pumping into him and Ronon's body arched over him.

He clamps his mouth shut, denying the sounds that want to come spilling out. He fixes his eyes on Ronon's mouth, half-open above him. Ronon's eyes are closed and his brow is beaded in sweat from his exertion. He's the hottest thing John's ever seen.

And then Ronon's eyes open and meet John's, and there's so much in Ronon's gaze -- anguish, empathy, and, yes, arousal -- that John can't hold back a soft moan. Ronon's doing this for him. Ronon would follow him to hell and back, and John doesn't know why he deserves that, but it's too much to resist now.

With helpless need he rocks to meet Ronon's thrusts, taking him harder and deeper. Ronon responds, giving him three fast, perfect strokes, and then, impossibly, John's coming. Coming with his dick still bent wrong, spurting all over his own ass and Ronon's cock, where it's pushing into him.

The release is so overwhelming it hurts, the pleasure so pure he feels his eyes water. Ronon's still pounding into him, and then he feels Ronon's mouth against his.

John whimpers and lifts his head, desperate for the kiss. He's still coming, like it's never going to end. He can't believe Ronon gave him this. That he's still giving him this. But he should have known. If anyone could make him come just by fucking him, it would be Ronon.

Ronon's thrusts go jerky and then slow, but Ronon's mouth never leaves John's until he finally starts to pull out. He does it slowly, like he's worried it's going to hurt, but John's not sore.

Of course, that could be the endorphins. John's feeling a little high. But he knows it's over. He has to come down now. He has to start thinking about strategy, and how to make sure Ronon gets out of the palace safely.

Because that's the priority. Not thinking about the way Ronon's lips or cock felt, and certainly not thinking about kissing him again.

Ronon's busy pulling his pants up and fastening his fly. He picks up his jacket, but he doesn't put it on. Instead, he holds it out to John.

"Here," he says. "So you don't get cold."

Without the corset, John's practically naked, so he doesn't say no. But one of the guards coughs and another snickers.

"She's a harem girl," the second one says. "Not some kind of lady."

"My fuck," Ronon says. "Not yours."

But Borovis steps forward. "You're done with her. She's ours now."

"Now, just a damn minute," John says, forgetting himself, and Ronon snarls.

Borovis flinches and John doesn't blame him. Ronon's intimidating enough when he's not mad, and right now he looks ready to take on twenty Wraith bare-handed. But he's facing down six agonizers and a 45, and John still doesn't like the odds.

Or maybe he's just thinking more clearly now that he's not walking around with an aching dick. And what he's thinking is that the guards may not be too bright, but if Ronon keeps up the jealous lover act, they're going to catch on.

He tries to catch Ronon's eye, to tell him to get the hell out of here, the faster the better. That he's okay and he'll survive anything as long as they come back for him. But Ronon's not looking at him. Ronon's still staring Borovis down.

"What if I'm not done?" he growls.

John shivers at the thought. He can't help wanting it. Wanting to be kissed. Wanting to be fucked until he's sore. Even if he can't come again, he wouldn't care as long as Ronon could.

Borovis looks bored. "The Commissioner didn't say you got seconds," he says.

"He didn't say I couldn't," Ronon argues. He takes a step forward and the agonizers go up.

"You don't have a lot of respect for rules, do you?" Borovis says. "I think we should do something about that."

They're going to have to fight. Without access to the key, which means their chances of getting out of the palace are slim to none even if neither of them gets shot. And John doesn't want to think what they'll do to Ronon if they take him prisoner.

That's when he hears the screams. For a moment he can't distinguish words, just that it's women's voices, a lot of them. And then he hears one voice, louder than the rest, shrieking, "Fire!"

It's Tevin. It has to be. His secret co-conspirator to the rescue.

Borovis's gaze doesn't leave Ronon's. "Go check on that," he tells the other guards, and two head out the door, but John's starting to smell the smoke already. Maybe Tevin went a little overboard.

"Smells like a fire," Ronon says with a wolfish grin. "Might want to take care of that."

Borovis's agonizer wavers, and then there's another shout in the hallway.

"What the hell is going on here?"

It's the Commissioner. Borovis whirls as he appears at the doorway, his vest askew, his hands still doing up the fly of his pants.

"Fire!" another man's voice shouts from the corridor.

"Something's burning," Borovis says.

"Well, get me out of here!" the Commissioner says.

Borovis frowns. "Someone should put it out."

The Commissioner waves a dismissive hand. "The others can take care of it."

"What about him?" Borovis points to Ronon.

The Commissioner's eyes narrow. "He can come with us. I don't trust him alone with my girls."

Ronon lifts an eyebrow, but John gives him a subtle shove. It's their chance. They have to take it.

"Well, come on," the Commissioner says, and he and the three guards head out into the hallway.

John follows Ronon, trying not to draw attention to himself. Whatever happens now, he knows he's going to have to make his own luck. But then he sees the girl trailing after the Commissioner.

"John," Mialla says, far too sweetly. "Did you have a nice time with the visitor? I certainly hope you behaved yourself."

He doesn't answer, feeling his ears go warm. The smoke is visible in the hallway ahead of them, now. It appears to be coming from the room where the harem girls were on display earlier. He holds up his arm so he can breathe through Ronon's jacket sleeve.

The Commissioner opens a door on the left, revealing a narrow staircase. Servants' stairs, probably. The Commissioner and his guards head down and Ronon follows, but John hesitates. He could follow Ronon and try to overpower or trick the Commissioner and his guards, but he's not in any immediate danger here and he doesn't want to do anything to jeopardize Ronon's escape. Besides, he's responsible for this damn fire, and he needs to make sure all the girls are safe. Mialla may not be innocent, but most of the rest of them are.

"Where do you think you're going?" Mialla says, one hand on his shoulder.

John pulls away and below him, Ronon stops on the stairs, turning to look up at him.

"Go," John says, but Ronon looks down the stairs after the Commissioner and then back up at John.

"Can't leave you here," he says.

"You damn well can," John says. "I'll take care of the fire. You get the hell out of here." And when Ronon still hesitates he adds, "Do it, Ronon."

Ronon apparently hears the order in his voice, because he nods once and then he's off down the stairs. John turns back to the hallway, only to find Mialla staring at him.

"That's funny," she says, and the innocence in her voice has never sounded so false. "I thought he said his name was Meredith."

Crap. It's just what he needs right now. "Love to stay and chat," John says, "but there's a fire to take care of." And without waiting for a response, he turns and runs for the salon.

Smoke is pouring out the doors, but he can't see any flames. He keeps his mouth covered as he goes, but he hears coughs behind him. Damn it, it's Mialla.

"Go!" he shouts, turning, but as he does, he sees it. Outside the open windows at the far end of the room there are flames from below. The courtyard is on fire.

"Downstairs!" Mialla yells, and they both pelter out the doors and down the wide stairway. At the bottom John catches a glimpse of Ronon following the Commissioner and his guards across the front lawn. As he watches, they pass through the gate together.

Ronon's out. John's saved. Except for the little matter of the damn building going up in flames.

"Water!" he calls to Mialla. "Where?"

She points and runs and he follows her to what looks like a janitor's closet. With a sink and mops and, thank god, a pile of buckets. John fills a bucket and hands it to Mialla, then fills two more and runs. Mialla leads the way to a door that opens onto the courtyard.

John can see the forms of several guards through the smoke. They're beating at the flames on the other side of the yard, but a row of bushes is just catching fire at the near end, far from where they're working. The walls of the courtyard are made of stone, but the flames are leaping for the overhanging eaves with their wooden beams.

John runs over blackened, smoldering grass to throw his bucketfuls on the bushes, but the flames die back for only a moment. Mialla copies him, and it helps, but it's not enough.

"Get the girls!" John yells, and Mialla stares at him. "C'mon," he says. "We can't let the roof catch!"

She glances at the eaves and her eyes go wide. "Oh, no," she says, and runs.

John pelts back to the janitor's closet. It's too far, and the buckets are too small, but he fills two. As the second one is almost full when he hears a sobbing cough.

"I'm sorry," a hoarse voice says. He turns to find Tevin, her face and dress stained dark with smoke. "I didn't know what else to do. You were taking too long."

"You saved my ass," John says roughly, and hands her a bucket, setting a third to fill. He tears a long piece of the lining of Ronon's coat off, wets it down, and ties it over his mouth and nose, and Tevin copies him with a piece from the hem of her dress. "Now let's go do some damage control."

The roof still hasn't caught when they get to the courtyard, but the flames are just below it. Three buckets isn't enough, but it beats them down for a moment. They run.

It's a nightmare of smoke and flame and water. The guards at the opposite end of the courtyard appear to be making no progress, and John and Tevin are doing worse. When they arrive the second time, more bushes have caught fire, and the flames are leaping for the beams. The water they have barely makes an impact.

"We have to get on that roof!" John says. Tevin nods, coughs, and leads the way. They're heading up the stairs when the run into Mialla with the harem girls.

John's never been so happy to see her. "This way!" he yells. "We need to form a bucket line."

The girls catch on quickly. John and Tevin take the roof, and the rest of the girls form a line from the nearest source of water, this time a bathroom on the third floor. More buckets appear, and within minutes there's a steady stream of them being passed hand to hand down the line to John and Tevin.

For a while he thinks it's not going to be enough. The flames are licking the whole edge of the roof, and every time they soak one section, the fire flares somewhere else. But the girls heave bucket after bucket, Mialla and Serren join them on the roof, and Tevin runs and coughs and pours, and eventually first one side goes out, then the middle, and then the final encroaching flame.

There's still smoke everywhere, but it's thinner now, and when John clambers down the still-hot tiles to look, there's nothing but smoldering grass and bushes below.

He climbs back up onto the cool tiles and leans back to rest and cough for a while.

"John," he hears. It's Mialla, tugging on his arm. "You can't stay here. You need fresh air."

Right, there's no point in making his smoke inhalation any worse. "Tevin?" he asks.

"She's inside already."

"Okay," John says, and he lets Mialla lead him back inside and down through the warren of the palace until they're back in the harem's quarters. All of the girls are standing around like they're waiting for him. Some of their faces are blackened with soot. Nearly all of them are soaked. They've never looked more beautiful.

"Hey," John says, in a voice hoarse from smoke and shouting. "Thanks." And he collapses onto the nearest sofa.

There's a lot of chatter and a lot of coughing. Several of the girls touch John, patting his shoulder through Ronon's smoke-stained jacket. It's not sexual at all. It feels good.

He catches Tevin's eye, but doesn't speak to her. She seems to be over her guilt and back to her usual sarcastic defiance. He thinks of the other way this evening could have gone, with Ronon captured and tortured and the guards taking turns on John's ass. None of the girls are hurt. He'll take it.

He looks up to find Mialla standing in front of him, her face streaked with black but her expression confused. "You helped us," she says, like it's a possibility she'd never even contemplated. "You didn't even try to escape."

John shrugs. "Had to make sure everyone was okay."

Mialla wrinkles her nose and rubs under one eye, smearing soot across her cheek. "I thought you hated us."

He hasn't forgotten what she did to him. He hasn't forgotten what she knows, either. "I don't like it here," he admits, "but that doesn't mean I want to see you hurt."

She sits down next to him and there's an awkward silence. "It's not that bad," she offers after a few moments. "You get used to it after a while."

For the first time he thinks that maybe she's telling the truth. Her own truth, about how she feels about being here. "Sorry," he says. "Can't really see it that way."

"It could be worse," she says stubbornly. "At least we have the force field."

John can't help rising to that. "That force field is keeping you prisoner," he says.

She frowns. "It's keeping us safe."

He can't help staring, but it makes a hell of a lot of sense, even if it is a Faustian bargain.

"My parents were culled," Mialla goes on. "My aunt already had six children to take care of. The Commissioner said he'd protect me, and he has."

"But you can't leave," John says.

"I don't want to."

"That's great for you," John says, "but what about the girls who do?"

Her face clouds. "They should learn to be a little more grateful. You should be a little more grateful." Her tone turns chiding. "That man who was here. You shouldn't have talked to him. The Commissioner's going to find out you know him and you're going to get punished."

"Yeah, I don't think so," John says, hoping like hell he's right. "I'm not planning on sticking around that long."

"And just where do you think you're going?" a hoarse voice says.

John looks up to see Oskut and her women. They're streaked with sweat and smoke, which means they were part of the group fighting the fire.

"Somewhere with better decor," John says. Yeah, it's stupid, but he can't help himself.

Oskut's agonizer is out, and for a moment he thinks she's going to use it. But then her eyes drop to survey the length of John's body. He's still wearing nothing but Ronon's smoke-stained jacket and his chastity belt. "That was you on the roof," she says.

John nods warily, not sure whether he should mention that he had help. If he's going to get punished, he doesn't want to implicate anyone else.

"That was good work," Oskut says gruffly, and the hand holding the agonizer drops to her side. "Thanks."

"Thank the girls," John says. "They did most of it."

"Huh," Oskut says, turning to look around the room. Some of the girls flinch from her gaze, but others return her look defiantly. "You all did well," she says to the room. "The Commissioner will reward you."

"How 'bout you reward them by letting them go?" John says.

Oskut whirls to face him. "What?"

"Lower the force field," John says. "Let anyone who wants to leave walk out."

Oskut's face registers surprise, and then an oddly pitying expression. "I can't," she says. "The only person with a key is the Commissioner."

For a moment he almost believes she'd do it if she could. And then the harem door opens behind her.

It's the three guards who fought the fire. With agonizers out, pointed straight at John.

"We're here for the new girl," one of them says. John notices with a sinking heart that it's the one who was eager to fuck him before. Rennick.

"If you step in this room," Oskut says, and John remembers that Mialla once told him the penalty for a man entering the harem is death. "I will tell the Commissioner."

Rennick takes a step back like the threat is real, but he doesn't lower his agonizer. "The Commissioner said we could have her tonight," he says. "Just hand her over and everyone will be happy."

But strangely, Oskut doesn't back down. "He didn't give me orders, and she helped put out the fire. You can have her when the Commissioner comes back. If he says you can."

"She didn't just help put it out," Rennick says. "She started it."

For a baseless accusation, that's far too close to the truth. John can't help a quick glance at Tevin in the far corner of the room. She looks scared but defiant, like she's about to do something stupid.

"Is that true?" Oskut asks, all empathy gone from her face.

"No," Tevin says, just as John says, "Yes."

The entire harem looks back and forth between them.

"I did it," Tevin says with fierce bravado. "I set the fire."

John's heart sinks. "You can't take the blame for this," he says. "I'm not going to let you be punished on my behalf."

Oskut turns to John. "You set it," she says drily, "just so you could help us put it out?"

"It was more of an accident," John tries. It's worth a shot.

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Mialla says, stepping forward. "John wasn't anywhere near the courtyard. She was with the visitor the whole time. I saw her."

"I set it," Tevin says. "And I'd do it again."

"Well, well," Oskut says, advancing on her, "This changes things."

Fuck. John can't let her do this. Not when she did it to save his ass. "No," he says. "It doesn't change a damn thing. I told her to do it. It's on my head."

"Well aren't you two just a couple of devoted love birds," Oskut says. Any gratitude or sympathy she seems to have had is gone, replaced with her usual sneer. "Under the circumstances, I don't think the Commissioner is going to mind if I give John to the guards. Tevin, you're with me."

Tevin comes forward, her chin still up, but John stays where he is. He's not going until he has to. But Oskut gestures with her agonizer.

"Now, John. Unless you'd like to feel this again."

He's screwed either way. And while getting gangraped isn't high on his list of evening activities, it will probably hurt less than that damn thing.

"Whatever," John says, and turns toward the door.

The guards look triumphant. Rennick looks nauseatingly eager. And Tevin looks anguished. It's all there in front of John, a moment crystalized in perception. And then he feels the familiar tingle of an Asgard transport beam.

"Then again, maybe not," he says, but he's saying it to the cramped, sterile, familiar walls of the Daedalus infirmary.

"Oh my God," Jennifer Keller says, and John's never been so happy to hear her voice. Her real voice, not Oskut's harsh imitation.

"I'm fine," he says. He looks around, only just realizing that Keller and Marie, Atlantis's head nurse, are the only two people present. "Where's my team?"

"Ronon said you'd probably like some privacy," Keller says. "He also said you'd need a full check-up."

"Yeah," John says. "Later. Right now I need a radio and my team." He notices Keller is looking a little wild-eyed and looks down at himself. "And a uniform."

"Look," she says, "I'm sure you want to get back in the swing of things, but I need to make sure you're okay before I release you. From the look of you, you're suffering from smoke inhalation at the very least, and Ronon said..." she falters, then forces herself to go on, "that there were some other issues."

"Then make a note I'm against medical orders," John says. "Sorry, I gotta get back out there."

Keller rolls her eyes a little, but she hands over a radio and a stack of clothes, which she has ready and waiting for him. She's apparently used to him by now.

"You probably want this, too," Marie says, handing him a steaming towel.

He must reek of smoke if she's that concerned about it, but when he wipes his face, the towel comes across smeared with color as well as soot. Right, his make-up. He must look like a refugee from a circus fire.

"Thanks," he says when he's gotten the worst of it off. He takes off Ronon's ruined Steampunk jacket and starts getting in his uniform, first the shirt, and then the pants. He hesitates when he realizes he's still in the chastity belt.

"At least let me get you out of that thing," Keller says.

He's sorely tempted, but it's not like another few hours are going to make a difference to the health of his balls, and the clock is ticking. "Later," he says, pulling up his pants. He hooks the radio over his ear and taps it on. "Ronon, Teyla, McKay, you around?"

"Oh, thank God," Rodney's voice says in his ear. "We were beginning to think they'd locked you in there."

"We're going to need a jumper and weapons," John says. "And whatever you used to get the force field down. Meet me in the--" But he breaks off as the infirmary doors open because they're standing right there, all three of them. His team.

"You got the fire out?" Ronon asks. He's back in his own clothes, and the clean-shaven face and cropped hair look even more wrong, but John can't stop the rush he gets from the sight of him, the surge of it coursing through his body like a full-sensory memory.

A couple hours ago, they were fucking.

"Yeah," John says, "but I left one of the girls in danger and it's my fault. We have to get back there."

Teyla's nodding, but Rodney's gaping at him like he's still in full make-up.

"What?" John says.

"Your hair," Rodney says. "How did they...? I mean, you've only been gone two weeks, and I understand you're not, ah, follicly challenged, but that's ridiculous, even for you."

John rolls his eyes, fighting the heat he feels rising in his face. He's not going to be self-conscious about the way he was tortured. Okay, maybe he is. "It's extensions, McKay."

"You want 'em gone?" Ronon asks. John meets his eyes and feels another full-body rush. Damn it, he's a walking mess.

"Yeah, but there's no time. We have to get down there."

"There's time for this," Ronon says, slipping a knife out of one of his leather cuffs. He takes a handful of John's too-long hair and the knife slices through it, the strands parting without resistance. Ronon must keep that thing ridiculously sharp.

It takes him four cuts and it's done. John puts a hand to his head. He can still feel the little braids mixed in with his own hair, but they can come out later. With his hair short, he feels a lot more like himself. Even if he is still wearing the chastity belt.

"Thanks," he says. "Now let's go kick some ass."

~~

They get the go-ahead from Caldwell and a promise to maintain orbit. They get a puddlejumper, which is apparently onboard the Daedalus thanks to Rodney's insistence. Everyone seems weirdly attentive and accommodating, like they're just that glad to have John back. It's gratifying, but kind of unsettling, too.

"Did they really make you into a harem girl?" Rodney asks on the trip down. "Because Ronon's been ridiculously close-lipped, but that was what all the intel seemed to point to."

"McKay," Ronon says, and John's glad to be in the pilot's chair so he doesn't have to look at them, because the protective note in Ronon's voice is giving him shivers.

"They tried," John says. He's going to have to tell them sooner or later. Might as well be now. "It didn't really take."

"What kind of person would do something like that?" Rodney asks. "I mean, yes, fine, he's a petty dictator, but that is just..."

"What kind of intel do you have on him?" John interrupts as they enter the first layer of the planet's atmosphere. "I mean, I know he calls himself a Commissioner, but beyond that the girls weren't real helpful."

"His name is Adri Rummel," Rodney says. "Self-styled 'Grand Commissioner of Kanglach,' although as far as we can tell, no legitimate government has ever given him any sort of commission. The story has it that a few years back he came across a stash of technology. It wasn't Ancient; it must have belonged to a civilization that was destroyed by the Wraith. But whatever the source, he used what he found to arm a small private army and conquer three planets, and he's been ruling them and reaping the rewards -- including, apparently, a stable of harem girls -- for the last six years."

That meshes with everything John saw at the palace, the odd mix of high and low tech. "So why kidnap me? What's he got against Atlantis?"

"We haven't figured that out yet. Sorry. We came as soon as we suspected he might be holding you."

"Not complaining," John says. "Just want to know what we're up against."

"Yeah," Rodney says. "Me, too."

They land in the courtyard by the harem. John gets a little turned around on the approach, but he pulls up the life signs detector on the HUD. It's the only part of the palace with more than four life signs clumped together.

"Don't let them shoot you," he tells his team. "Their weapons hurt like hell. Oh, and set that thing to stun," he says to Ronon, who makes a face, but complies.

"If I see that bastard," he growls.

"No," John says. "I want to talk to him. Before or after we set his girls free."

The door to the harem is locked from the inside but Ronon kicks it in easily. Several girls scream and more than a few run, but then Mialla sees them.

"John?"

"Yeah," he says, and the chaos reorganizes itself into gaping stares. "You weren't expecting me?"

"You aren't allowed in here," she says faintly. "The penalty for a man entering the Commissioner's harem is death."

"That's funny," John says, "because I'm still the same person I was an hour ago." He turns his head to survey the room. It's just the girls, no sign of Oskut or her henchwomen. "Anyone know where Tevin is?"

There's a brief silence. And then one of the girls says, "Are you really in love with her?"

John stops short of rolling his eyes, but Ronon makes a guttural noise behind him. "Just answer his question."

"Tevin's with Oskut," another girl pipes up. "We don't know where she took her."

"Of course not," John says, and gestures to his team. "Come on. I've got an idea."

His knowledge of the palace is still imperfect, but there's a clump of four life signs one floor up and across the courtyard. Either it's Oskut with Tevin, or it's the male guards. Either way John's got an axe to grind.

Rodney mans the life signs detector and John takes point with Ronon at his shoulder and Teyla watching their back. They climb the stairs and cross the corridor and once again Ronon kicks the door in.

"What the...?" Oskut says, and one of her women fires her agonizer, but the shot must go a little wild, because Ronon just grunts and takes her out. Teyla stuns the second woman, and then it's just Oskut holding her agonizer on Tevin.

"Let her go," John says. Tevin's sooty face is streaked with tears, but she's staring at John like she can't believe he's here.

"She set the fire," Oskut says. "She admitted it herself."

"I told you," John says. "She set it on my orders. Now hand her over, and I won't shoot you."

"She belongs to the Commissioner," Oskut says. "It's my duty to punish her." And without warning, she fires her agonizer and Tevin screams.

There's an immediate, satisfying zap from Ronon's gun and Oskut crumples. John's crouching next to Tevin in an instant, helping her to her feet.

She straightens shakily, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "You came back for me," she says, like she still can't believe it.

"Told you I would," John says. "Sorry about all this." He waves a hand at the crumpled forms of Oskut and her women.

Tevin surveys them with wild satisfaction. "Are they dead?"

"No," John says, leaning down to collect their weapons, "but they're going to wake up with a hell of a headache."

"I guess that's something," Tevin says, and spits on Oskut's prone form. And then she seems to get a good look at John's teammates for the first time. "Wait," she says, pointing to Ronon. "You mean he belonged to you all along?"

John can't help a twitch at her word choice, even though he knows it's not intentional. "Tevin, this is Ronon, Teyla, McKay. My team."

"From Atlantis?" Tevin says, like she didn't believe that part, either. "Seriously?"

"Yeah, seriously," John says. "Now c'mon. We've got some more asses to kick."

They head back down the stairs to the ground floor. John's hyperaware of Ronon at his shoulder, radiating power and anger. It's distracting and wrong and he's almost grateful for the confinement of the chastity belt because the last thing he needs is to pop a boner right now.

They're crossing the first courtyard when Rodney indicates his life signs detector. "Looks like the girls are about to get company."

John takes a look. Nine life signs are approaching the harem from the opposite direction. "Good," he says, pocketing his stunner and unhooking his P90. "Saves us a trip."

He leads the way to the next courtyard, where they skirt the cloaked puddlejumper and reach the harem rooms just as the life signs arrive through the opposite corridor.

The courtyard door is still hanging drunkenly on its broken hinges, and they pass through it together, John in the lead, Ronon and Teyla just behind him, Rodney and Tevin bringing up the rear. John can hear the Commissioner's voice, raised in anger.

"What do you mean, she's back? Where is she?"

John signals with his eyebrows and Ronon opens the door to the harem common room.

"Not 'she,'" John says over the barrel of his gun, pointed straight at the Commissioner's chest. "But you knew that."

The girls shriek and scatter, and the guards raise their agonizers, but Ronon and Teyla have their weapons up and ready, ignoring the girls as they hide behind couches or retreat to the doorways.

"John," the Commissioner says. "Well, isn't this a surprise?"

"Not so much," John says. "C'mon, you didn't really think I was going to let you get away with this, did you?"

"And here I thought we were getting along so well."

Ronon growls, and two of the guards shift their aim to him. The Commissioner's eyes widen when they settle on Ronon, like he hadn't figured out that piece of the puzzle, but he recovers quickly.

"And Meredith, too. What a lovely reunion."

"The name's Ronon Dex," John says. "Maybe you've heard of him. He's killed over a hundred Wraith, a lot of 'em bare-handed."

"Yes, well, I'm sure we're not going to have to resort to violence," the Commissioner says.

"You kidnapped and tortured the military head of Atlantis," Rodney says from behind John. "Do you really think we're going to let that slide?"

The Commissioner smiles. "Well, I was hoping you'd consider it. But then, I was also hoping she'd make a prettier girl."

He's trying to provoke them. Trying to make them do something stupid. But John's not going to crack. Not now, when he has the bastard in his sights. "Okay, here's how it's going to go," he says, cutting through the crap. "We're going to take your weapons and disable your force field. You're going to let the girls go. And if you behave yourself, we'll play nice and refrain from blowing the whole place up."

The Commissioner smiles another of his false, jovial smiles. "I'm sorry," he says, "but I don't really like that plan."

John sees the movement, a signal twitch of the Commissioner's right hand, and he knows what's coming the instant before it hits. But his returning fire goes wide as the pain slams into him.

He hits the floor writhing, barely aware of the stunner bolts flying over his head and the screams from the girls. It hurts like hell, all the worse because he's reliving every other damn time he got shot by one of those things. He clenches every muscle in his body, curling into a tight ball, trying to get away from it. And then, suddenly, it's over.

He lifts his head to see the guards on the floor. But the Commissioner isn't down. He's brandishing an agonizer himself, and he's holding a girl in front of him like a shield.

Not any girl. Mialla.

John uncurls slowly and Tevin gives him a hand up. Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney have their weapons trained on the Commissioner.

"Sheppard," Ronon says softly.

"I'm good," he says, turning to face the Commissioner.

"You must let her go," Teyla says, but John realizes that Mialla's not trying to pull away.

"John," she says. "Tell them to lower their weapons. You've won, okay? Just let him go."

"You gonna go with him?" John asks.

"I owe him everything," Mialla says. "If it weren't for his protection, I might not even be alive."

"You sure of that?" John says. "Because if we can get through his force field, what's stopping the Wraith?"

He sees her swallow, like she hadn't even contemplated that.

"The people who invented that tech were wiped out years ago," John says. "You've been lucky here. That's it. The force field keeps you in. It doesn't keep anyone out."

"That's not true!" Mialla says desperately. "It can't be."

"Lies," the Commissioner says. "All lies. I would never let anything happen to my precious girls." And he lifts his agonizer again, pointing it straight at John. "Let me go. I'll give you the damn palace. Just give me Mi-Mi and safe passage to the gate."

John sees Mialla flinch and remembers how much she hates that nickname. "He doesn't even know you, Mialla," he says. "He's not worth it."

"He loves me," she says, half-stubborn, half-shaky, and from behind him, John hears Tevin make a disgusted noise.

"You always were an idiot, Mialla," she says, and she steps forward, bending down to scoop something off the floor. It's Oskut's agonizer, John realizes. It must have fallen out of his vest when he hit the floor.

"Hey," he says, but Tevin ignores him, raising the agonizer and calmly firing it at Mialla. She screams and collapses to the floor, and Tevin fires again, this time straight at the Commissioner.

He goes down hard, but Tevin's face is implacable as she fires and fires again at his twisting body.

"Stop," Mialla sobs, crawling away. "Tevin, don't do this."

"Then he shouldn't have done it to me," she says, and fires again.

"Are you going to just let her...?" Rodney says faintly.

"She has a right," Ronon says, and Teyla nods. "If he did this to her, it is not our place to protect him."

"He did worse," John says, as Tevin pauses her firing.

"That was for me," she says. She stares down at the Commissioner pitilessly. "This is for every other girl you ever hurt." And she fires again.

"Please," the Commissioner gasps. "Tevin, you know...I never meant...I would never...please. Please, stop."

"Funny," Tevin says, "how you didn't give a damn when I asked you to stop."

"I'll give you anything," the Commissioner says. "Wealth, power, anything you want."

"Power." Tevin spits the word like a curse. "Like you even understand the meaning of the word. All you care about is lording it over people and fucking the ones who don't want to be fucked."

"Tevin!" Mialla says, scandalized, and the Commissioner's face rearranges itself in an absurd parody of his earlier oily joviality.

"You know I wouldn't do that. I care about all of my girls! I would never want to hurt any of you."

"Bullshit," Tevin says. "You got off on hurting me. Just like you got off on hurting John."

"I never," the Commissioner starts, but Tevin rolls her eyes and fires again.

The Commissioner convulses over and over again, howling in pain, but just when John's thinking about stepping in, the Commissioner stops yelling and lifts his head. Tevin thumbs the power on the agonizer one more time, but nothing happens, and he sits up, wiping his face with his sleeve.

"Well, look at that," he says. "You burned it out. Now what are you going to do?" And he makes a move to climb to his feet.

"I wouldn't," Ronon growls, and the Commissioner sinks back down, suddenly realizing that there are still three weapons pointed at his head.

"Wait," John says, and the pieces suddenly fit together in his head. "You're running out of tech, aren't you? How many of those things have you burned through?"

"We have all that we need," the Commissioner says, but Teyla leans down and scoops up the agonizer he dropped when Tevin first shot him and hands it to Rodney, who pulls out a scanner.

"The power on this thing is almost depleted," he reports. "Let me guess: you don't understand it well enough to know how to recharge it."

"You wanted to use me to get to Atlantis," John marvels. "You heard we have some tech and all you could think about was taking it for yourself."

"Well, it's not like you know what to do with it," the Commissioner says. "You're wasting it on the Coalition."

So Tevin's right and this is all about power. And, apparently, galactic politics. "So you thought the best way to steal our tech was to kidnap me and put me in a corset," John says. "Well, I give you points for novelty, anyway."

"It would have worked if I'd had more time," the Commissioner sneers. "I would have had you eating out of my hand."

John can't help a shudder, but he remembers how horny he was. How desperate. How he'd wanted to be fucked. It's only because of Ronon that he's clear-headed now. "Yeah, no," he says, and suddenly he's done with this conversation. He pulls out his stunner and fires, and the Commissioner sinks to the ground.

"Come on," John says. "Let's get the hell out of here."

"With the girls?" Ronon asks.

"Yeah," John says. "As many as want to come."

He can hear Mialla crying in the corner, but Tevin's face is grimly satisfied.

~~

The first thing they do is confiscate all of the weapons, including John's Colt. Before any of the guards wake up, they lock them in one of Oskut's windowless interrogation rooms, leaving Oskut and her women in another and the Commissioner in a third.

Then they radio the Daedalus to tell Caldwell to pass a tip about the Commissioner's current status along to the Coalition. John figures there's no love lost there, and it's probably the safest move, politically speaking.

It takes them two trips in the jumper to ferry the girls to the alpha site. They take as many as will come, which includes Serren but not Mialla, who insists on staying with the Commissioner. Tevin tries arguing with her, but it's no use.

"She can't admit she was wrong," Tevin says, finally. "'Cause if she did, she'd have to admit what she did to you was awful."

Ronon's standing with John, and he lifts an eyebrow but doesn't say anything. John feels himself flush. He hasn't told anyone the whole story, and he's not planning to.

"C'mon," John says, and Tevin follows him and Ronon to the jumper for the last trip through the gate. They radio the Daedalus to head home and then fire a drone at the force field generator as they leave. It makes a satisfying hole in the unoccupied center of the palace.

The alpha site is surprisingly unchaotic, which is probably due to Teyla, who stayed with the first group. She's organizing the girls to set up a row of Athosian tents, stored there as temporary shelters. In the one that's already up, Doc Keller is examining the girls one by one.

Serren and several other girls approach as John and Ronon escort the second group into Keller's tent.

"Thank you," Serren says, clasping John's hand. "I didn't believe you would do this for us, but I am very grateful."

"No problem," John says. "Did Teyla tell you? You and the girls are welcome to stay here as long as you need to. She's gonna help find you places to go, for anyone who doesn't have a home to get back to."

"You have been very generous," Serren says. "And we would like to thank you in any way you like. Any of us would be happy to be of service."

John frowns. "I can't think of anything you could...oh." He feels his neck heat as he figures out what she's implying. "Wow, that's, uh, very generous, but I'm not really looking for that." He sees her face fall and tries to soften it. "Right now. Or, really, ever. Isn't that what I just rescued you from?"

"It would be different with you," Serren says, and one of the other girls says, "Really. We wouldn't mind."

"Yeah," John says. "Well I would. Sorry."

Serren looks like she's about to press her point, but at that moment Doc Keller comes out of the tent.

"Colonel," she says. "Is that all of them?"

"All the ones who would come," John says. He's not going to think about Mialla, and what's going to happen to her. He probably still should be angry with her, but he can't find the energy.

"Great," Keller says. "Let's get you back to Atlantis."

John knows what she wants to do, and he's not looking forward to it. "Don't you need to finish up here?"

"Dr. Cole just arrived with her team," Keller says. "They can handle it from here."

"Right," John says, and he can't really make any more excuses. "Let's go."

~~

It takes Keller an hour with a rotary saw to finally get him out of the damn chastity belt. The release is kind of anticlimactic. At first nothing happens; his dick and balls stay right where they are, and all he feels is the cool air on skin that hasn't felt air in weeks. But then Keller gestures with a gloved hand and a sympathetic look.

"I'm sorry," she says, "but I'm going to need to examine you now."

It's better than having Oskut manhandle him, anyway, and he's damn well not going to have a flashback. "Go ahead," he says.

The gloves help a little. They make it less intimate. But it's still damned uncomfortable when she touches him, easing his dick away from his empty ball sack. The skin sticks and pulls, but she's gently insistent, and moments later he feels his balls drop, first the left, then the right.

"Fuck," he can't help saying, and Keller looks up in alarm.

"Are you in pain?"

"No," John says. "Yeah. I don't know." Because it feels fucking weird. It feels wrong, which is pretty damn wrong itself. He's safe. He's home. Everything's back to normal.

"I better get you under the scanner," Keller says. "Um, here. You can get dressed first."

His clothes feel strange the way they didn't when his dick and balls were still captive. His boxers feel too loose, and everything down there swings when he moves. It was only two weeks, he tells himself. He can't have forgotten what it's supposed to feel like.

He gets up on the exam table and lets the scanner do its thing, trying not to think about it. Trying not to think about what the results are going to show.

"There's no sign of permanent physical damage," Keller says eventually, "but I'm afraid I'm going to have to do some blood work, and I should do an anal swab as well."

John's heart jumps in his chest. "No," he says. "I mean, yes, fine, do the bloodwork. But nothing else.'

Keller frowns in pained sympathy. "Look, I know it's unpleasant," she says. "But if we have evidence against this guy, you might need it."

"The Consortium has him now," John says. "They've got their own beef with him. They're not going to give a damn what he did to me."

"John," Keller says, and he can't suppress a full-body shudder -- it's the name she never uses, and her voice is too close to Oskut's.

"No," he says again, because if there's any trace of semen inside him, he knows who it belongs to, and he's damn well not going to involve Ronon in this any more than he has to. "And that's my final decision."

"Okay," Keller says softly, and she doesn't sound like Oskut at all. "Okay."

~~

It's only early evening Atlantis time, but it's well after midnight for John and he's had a hell of a day. After Keller releases him he heads straight for his quarters, sleepwalks through a shower, and collapses into bed.

He wakes in the dark with his heart pounding, and for a moment he just lies there, waiting for Mialla to touch him. He can't figure out what's taking so long. He knows she's awake because he can't hear her breathing.

And then he remembers: he's back on Atlantis. Mialla isn't here. She's never going to scoot over and slide her fingers into him again.

"Fuck," he says out loud to his empty room. He turns over, feeling his erection drag against the soft fabric of his boxers. It doesn't hurt, but he almost wishes it did, because then he wouldn't have to deal with it.

He doesn't have to do anything, he tells himself. He can just go back to sleep. But he's wide awake now, and his hard-on isn't going away. His watch says it's three in the morning.

It's okay. He's fine. He's not fucking traumatized. He won't give them the satisfaction. He steels himself and reaches into his boxers.

After two weeks of being unable to touch himself, it ought to feel great, but it's almost too sensitive. John goes easy, giving himself a series of gentle tugs, but it's too much and not enough at the same time, and he has to let go and breathe for a while. He can feel his pulse in his cock, each heartbeat making a little twinge. He wants...fuck. He doesn't even know what he wants.

He doesn't want Mialla's fingers. He's not thinking about her. He's sure as hell not thinking about the Commissioner, or his lantern-jawed guard. He's not stupid and he's been through bad shit before. He knows how to compartmentalize better than anyone; Doc Heightmeyer once told him that.

So maybe he'll just go back to sleep. He doesn't really need to get off. Ronon took care of that last night, so he's good. He's fine. He's...shit.

Ronon.

Yeah, okay, so maybe he's not perfect at the compartmentalizing stuff, because he just felt his pulse pick up again, and he can't help sticking a hand back into his shorts.

Ronon fucked him. Just yesterday, he had Ronon's dick up his ass, and it was the hottest sex he's ever had.

He knows that's fucked up. He knows Ronon didn't want to do it, and it's wrong to think about him like this. But it's three in the morning and he's fucking aching for it and he wraps one hand around his cock and sticks the fingers of the other up his ass and pretends Ronon's fucking him until he splatters all over his stomach.

He feels sick and guilty afterward, and it's a mercy when he finally falls back asleep.

~~

It's strange to wake up in his own quarters, stranger still to head for the mess hall and be greeted left and right by people welcoming him home. He gets smiles and claps on the shoulder and even a salute or two. It's enough to make a person feel like he was missed.

It's also enough to make him wonder just how much people know about the specifics of his captivity. He can't help a flush at the thought, imagining what his soldiers would think if they'd seen him in a corset and a chastity belt. If they'd seen him with his wrists chained to his ankles and his ass in the air.

Fuck. He tamps it down with the full force of his will. He knows his team hasn't spilled any details. He knows Keller and Marie haven't, either. He's okay, and if he'd rather Ronon didn't know what Ronon knows, it's a hell of a lot too late for that.

"John," he hears, but it's Teyla, and he turns to her like she's the rescue brigade.

"Hey," he says, and puts his tray down on her table. He's okay. There's nothing wrong.

"You're looking well this morning," she says as he takes the seat across from her.

"I’m just happy to be here," he says. He can’t tell if she just didn’t notice his little freak out or she’s willfully ignoring it, but either way, he’s grateful. He waves his fork at his eggs and sausage. "The food there was terrible."

Teyla smiles. "It is good to have you back."

That's perilously close to all of the other congratulations, but John just digs into his food. Teyla knows more than the others do. She saw him in the hair. But she's treating him like she always does, with a mixture of fondness and mild exasperation. She doesn't think of him any differently.

"Morning," Rodney says, plunking his tray down next to John’s. "Hey, how'd you get a cheese Danish? There weren’t any when I went through the line."

Yeah, okay, Rodney doesn’t think of him any differently, either. John feels oddly warmed. And then he hears a low, soft, "Hey," and he feels warm for an entirely different reason, because it’s Ronon.

"Hi," he says, hoping it doesn’t sound self-conscious. Ronon sits next to Teyla, as far as he could possibly be from John at their small table. John has to remind himself that it was the only seat free. It doesn’t mean anything.

"You got your hair fixed," Ronon says, gesturing with his knife. John remembers a different knife, slicing through his false hair.

"Yeah," John says. "They took care of it in the infirmary." Funny how it took less time to get the braids out than it did to take the damn chastity belt off. "Sorry about yours," he adds, because he can’t help himself and Ronon still looks damn weird without the dreads.

"Hair grows," Ronon says with a lift of his shoulder. "It was getting heavy."

"We weighed it after he cut it off," Rodney says. "Did you know he was carrying six and a half pounds on his head?"

That sounds excessive, but maybe it includes a few knives or something. "Wow," John says, because he has to say something.

"You know, I offered to do the undercover thing myself," Rodney goes on, "but we couldn’t figure a way to disguise me as a Pegasus native. And Ronon was weirdly insistent. I mean, not that we all wouldn’t have done anything for you, but he wouldn’t let Teyla even consider infiltrating the harem."

John shudders. "That’s a damn good thing," he says. "Not," he adds quickly to Teyla, "that you wouldn’t have been able to take care of yourself. I’m just saying their security was surprisingly effective."

"Yes," Teyla says. "We all agreed that Ronon would have the best chance to get both in and out again."

John can’t help looking over, but Ronon’s busy with his food. He has stubble this morning, which means he’s probably growing the beard back. John can’t help wondering what it would feel like to kiss him like this, and his gut twists at the thought.

Yeah, still pretty fucked up.

"I’m just glad your plan worked," John says. "I owe you all one."

"Yes, well, I’d like to point out that it was my expertise that got the force field down," Rodney says. "A rather tricky bit of calibration, actually. I had to find the resonant frequency of..."

John tunes him out, concentrating on eating and not looking like he’s looking at Ronon. He’s glad they’re not sitting closer. He’s glad Rodney and Teyla are here. He needs to get back to normal, although he’s not sure how he’ll ever act normal around Ronon again.

But it could be worse. It could be a hell of a lot worse. He could still be locked in the damn harem, facing the prospect of gangbangs and brainwashing and being used against his own people.

He’s safe. He’s home. And he’ll get over being fucked up. One way or another.

~~

Doc Keller calls him down to the infirmary shortly after breakfast. He’s not real thrilled about going, but on the other hand, if the Commissioner and his goon have given him the space clap, he wants to know.

The last person he’s expecting to see is Ronon, who’s on his way out just as John’s on his way in.

He can’t help the way his pulse kicks up. He nods in response to Ronon’s "Hey," and hopes that’s going to be it, but Ronon stops like he wants to have a conversation.

"I’m negative," he says. "Figured you’d want to know."

Oh. Oh, God. "You told them?" John can’t help asking.

Ronon shrugs. "She asked."

Right. It’s just Keller doing her job. Of course she’d ask. And of course she wouldn’t tell John she was testing Ronon, too, because she respects patient confidentiality. He ought to be grateful.

"That’s good," John says. "I mean, the negative thing."

"Yeah," Ronon says, and for a moment John thinks he’s going to make some sort of physical gesture, punch his shoulder or something, but he doesn’t. "See you later."

"Sure," John says, and drags himself away to go face Keller.

She doesn’t say she understands, now, why he was reluctant to be examined. She doesn’t say a word about Ronon. She just takes him to a private corner and tells him he got lucky and discreetly mentions that the hair growth inhibitor they had him on should clear his system in the next day or so.

He nods and thanks her, even when she adds that he might want to talk to the base shrink, just to sort things out in his head. He knows she's doing what she thinks is best, but ultimately, it's his decision, and he’s doing fine on his own. He barely even notices his junk hanging loose in his boxers anymore.

Well, not very much, and if it still feels kind of weird, he’s pretty sure he’ll get used to it. Eventually.

~~

The more he thinks about it -- which he’s doing, even when he’s trying not to -- the more he knows what he has to do. It's not exactly his idea of fun, but he's done harder things in his life. Once or twice, anyway.

He tracks Ronon down after lunch. The guys in the gym say he's in the showers, so John waits outside, carefully not thinking about the fact that Ronon's naked in there. Fortunately, he doesn't have to wait long. Ronon comes out toweling his shorn hair, his stubble a little more pronounced that it was earlier. So, definitely growing the beard back.

"John," he says, stopping short like he wasn't expecting to see him. "What’s going on?"

"We probably should talk," John says, which is not really a sentence he ever thought he'd have to say to Ronon.

Ronon lifts an eyebrow, but all he says is, "Okay," and he follows John out onto the nearest balcony without making a fuss. It's reasonably private out there, but not private enough that John will do anything stupid. He’s done his best to think this through.

When they’re outside and the doors have closed behind them, John turns, putting his back to the railing. "So, listen," he says, steeling himself. He just needs to spit it out and get it over with. "I’ve kind of been thinking, and the thing I’ve been thinking is that I probably owe you an apology. Things got pretty hairy out there, and I ended up asking for more than I had a right to."

Ronon looks at him blankly. "You did what you had to."

John shakes his head. He's been over it a thousand times in his head, wondering if he would have chosen to fight their way out if he hadn't been so horny. "There's some things a commanding officer shouldn't ask of his men."

Ronon shrugs, like he either doesn't get it or genuinely doesn't care. "You would have done it for me."

John blinks, taken aback. He hadn’t thought of it that way, and he feels the heat rise in his ears. He can't imagine Ronon in a corset, desperate for rescue and horny as hell. He can't imagine Ronon reduced to begging. It's just fundamentally wrong.

"Yeah," he says slowly. "If you'd asked me." He wonders if that's how Ronon sees him now, and the thought makes his stomach hurt. He doesn't want Ronon to see him as fundamentally wrong.

"We're good," Ronon says. "You don't owe me a thing."

Actually, he does. He owes Ronon his life, and a good chunk of his sanity. "Okay," he says. "Okay, good."

"Sheppard," Ronon says softly, "you did what you had to."

"Yeah," he says. He's not even going to think about what Ronon can see in his face, that he felt like he had to repeat that. "I know."

"Good," Ronon says, his hand squeezing John’s shoulder for a brief moment, then dropping. "Maybe we’ll spar later."

"Sure," John says. He doesn’t watch Ronon leave. He’s too busy looking at the view and pretending he’s absolutely, one hundred percent fine.

~~

The thing is, the whole time he was in captivity -- he thinks of it that way, because anything else makes him queasy -- he hated what they were doing to him. He wanted his dick and balls back. He never stopped feeling like a man forced to live a farce. But now, somehow, he’s fucked up the other way.

It’s not that he thinks of himself as less of a man, or that he wants to dress up like a girl. He just feels a bizarre disconnect every time he hears someone refer to him as "he." It’s like part of his brain really was reprogrammed, and it’s nauseating and weirdly thrilling at the same time.

His nighttime fantasies are all about Ronon. Ronon kissing him. Ronon fucking him. Ronon manhandling him in ways he never did, pushing him against a wall or down on a bed, fucking him over a railing or the back of a couch.

Sometimes the back of the couch is lined with wooden dildos.

He doesn’t fantasize about being a girl, but he doesn’t fantasize about being a guy, either. He never thinks about Ronon touching his dick. He barely thinks about the fact that he's touching it himself.

When he comes, he comes hard, and he always feels sick afterward.

~~

The fourth day after he’s home, John’s door chimes at eleven at night. It’s late, late enough that John’s mind has been drifting to things it shouldn’t and his hands are already working on his fly. But he hasn’t actually gotten it open yet, and it could be something important, so he makes sure the buttons are all done and gets up to answer it.

The door slides open and it’s Ronon, and he feels a jolt of adrenaline mix with the tingle of his arousal. He hasn't really been avoiding Ronon. He's just been going a little easy on the togetherness. And yeah, that means he’s been making lame excuses every time Ronon wants to go running or have lunch. He was hoping Ronon wouldn’t see through them, but he’s not stupid enough to think there was really much of a chance of that.

"Hi," Ronon says, like it’s perfectly normal for him to be knocking on John’s door at this hour. "Can I come in?"

John just stands there, absent-mindedly scratching his chest, where his hair has finally started to grow back in. He’s too off balance to think of a way to say no, and Ronon’s pushing past him, anyway. He feels the warmth of Ronon’s body as he goes by, big and solid, and for a moment he all he can think about is what it felt like to kiss him.

"Or we could spar," Ronon says. "Might be easier."

John’s not sure how to answer that, but anything Ronon thinks is harder than sparring can’t be good. "Sure, what the hell," he says, not sure if he's buying himself time or just a couple hours of pain, but Ronon nods and they head out to the gym.

It's late enough that even the usual evening crowd has left, and they have the place to themselves. John figures Ronon probably planned that, and it makes him wonder again if he should be worried. But Ronon takes down a couple sets of Bantos rods and they start circling each other and John has to concentrate on keeping his hide intact.

Ronon's good with the rods, even though they aren't his natural fighting style. He caught on quick when Teyla first taught him, like he catches on quick to anything physical.

Like he caught on quick to fucking a guy in a corset and a chastity belt.

Crap. It hits John sideways and then Ronon hits him sideways and he ends up flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling and the dual tree trunks of Ronon's legs.

"You just gonna lie there?"

John looks up to see Ronon offering him a hand up. "I'm good," he says, taking the hold and pulling himself up. It's pathetic that he gets a jolt from that little bit of contact, but he can't help himself.

"C'mon," Ronon says. "You can do better than that."

John does his best to concentrate after that, dancing away from Ronon's swings and pressing back when he can. He manages to land a blow on Ronon's ribs and winces a little as Ronon grunts, but Ronon can take a lot worse and John knows it.

They circle some more. John tries not to get distracted wondering what Ronon thinks the point of this is, but it's hard. Doubly hard when Ronon whacks him on the ass and he feels a stab of arousal with the pain.

Yeah, well if Ronon wants to prove how fucked up he is, he's already there.

John presses harder, willing his dick not to get happy enough to show. It works surprisingly well, and he lands three blows, two to the arms and one to the hip. It goads him into pushing harder, and now it's Ronon dancing away.

"Ha," he says, as Ronon sidesteps and takes a glancing blow to the shoulder. "I'm not so out of shape as you thought."

Ronon grins and presses back, but he leaves himself open as he attacks, and John hits him full in the stomach. Ronon gasps and doubles over and it's John's chance. He could have Ronon on the floor with a couple of good cracks, which is not something he's ever managed to do before.

That's when he gets it. He's gone two weeks without training, two weeks with bad food and physical hardship. There's no way he should be doing this well. There would be no way even if he were in top shape.

"Now hang on a damn minute," he says, lowering his sticks. "Are you going easy on me?"

Ronon lifts his head and shakes it, but he can't help the guilty expression.

"Knock it off," John says. "I'm not broken."

"I know," Ronon says, straightening, and he comes at John again, but John's actually paying attention now and he can tell the blows are falling at half-strength.

"Damn it," John says, hitting back as hard as he can. Ronon manages to parry him, but only barely. It's genuine surprise, John thinks as he lunges forward, pressing his advantage until Ronon's backed against a wall. "What the hell is this, some kind of misplaced chivalry?" The thought hits harder than Ronon's sticks ever could. "You're pulling your punches because you still think of me as a girl?"

"Hell, no," Ronon says, and he pushes John away so hard John staggers to keep his feet.

John finds his balance through sheer stubbornness, keeping his sticks up in case this is all just some kind of elaborate strategy to throw him off guard. But Ronon is holding both of his sticks in one hand, resting them against one shoulder.

"I never thought of you as anyone but you," he says.

John swings one of his own sticks around in his hand. "Thanks." He pretty much means it.

"Wouldn't go easy on you even if you were a girl," Ronon says.

"Yeah," John says, thinking of Teyla, and the fact that she can whip both their asses. "I knew that."

Ronon shifts on his feet, looking sheepish. "Just thought it might make you feel better."

John frowns, and the evening rearranges itself in his head. "If I beat you up?"

Ronon shrugs. "Figured you gotta be pretty pissed at me."

For a moment John can't process that. It doesn't make sense, because he was the one who made the call, and he thought Ronon understood that. "You saved my ass out there," he says. "I thought I told you. I'm the one who crossed the line."

"Saved it by taking it," Ronon says, blunt as ever. "Bastards used me to fuck you over."

John feels a flush creep up the back of his neck. "So you're the one who's pissed."

Ronon bares his teeth. It's not a smile. "Yeah." He takes his sticks off his shoulder and swings one idly. "I should have killed that weasel when I had the chance."

John grins ferally back. "I should have let you."

And then, somehow, they're fighting again, sticks clashing and bodies dodging. Ronon's face has lost the distant, careful expression, and his sticks are moving faster, fast enough that John's out of his league, just the way he should be.

He does his valiant best, lunging and parrying for all he's worth, but Ronon's bigger and stronger and not coming off two weeks' hardship, and in a few minute's John's the one backed up to the wall with Ronon's sticks pressed against his chest.

"Better?" Ronon asks.

"Yeah."

Ronon's face is still close to his, close enough that John can see every hair of his stubble, now grown in almost far enough to count as a beard. And suddenly all John can think about is what it would feel like to kiss him.

It's a split second between thought and action, and it's quite possibly the stupidest thing John's ever done, but Ronon kisses him back. The sticks fall to the floor and Ronon's hands clamp on John's shoulders and his tongue finds John's. For the space of an unmeasurable moment it's like they've stepped into an alternate universe where everything's fine, where they just want each other and it's the most natural thing in the world. Ronon's stubble feels surprisingly soft and his lips are eager and John's lost in answering need.

And then Ronon wrenches himself away and says, "Oh, hell."

"Hey," John says, and tries to find Ronon's mouth again. But Ronon's stronger than he is, and Ronon's hands are still on his shoulders, only now they're holding him away rather than pulling him close.

"We shouldn't have done that," Ronon says.

"Why not?" John says. His heart is pounding and his mouth has gone dry. Ronon kissed him back. Ronon wanted to kiss him. Even if he's having regrets, now. "I mean, c'mon, if we both want it..."

"You're fucked up."

John makes a face, because damn it, that's not fair. "I don't care."

"Yeah," Ronon says softly. "I do."

It's possibly the kindest rejection he's ever had, but it still hurts like hell. "But you want me," John protests. He hadn't known, before. He'd thought it was all just Ronon doing his duty.

"Not like this," Ronon says, and John feels something crack inside.

"What, you want me in a corset?" John says, something twisting hot and wrong inside him at the thought. "Because I could probably get my hands on one. Hell, I could shove my balls back up and tape my dick down if that offends you, too."

But Ronon just looks at him. "Your body's fine."

"Then what?" John says. The hot, twisty feeling hasn't gone away. He wants...anything. Whatever Ronon wants. He'd spend hours on his knees. Or on his back. He'd even let Ronon chain his wrists to his ankles, if that was what he wanted.

"You didn't want me before," Ronon says.

"That's not fair," John says, because he can't deny that it's the truth. He'd noticed Ronon before. But he'd never felt like this.

"No," Ronon says, "it's not."

"Oh, come on," John says. "I'm not good enough because I haven't had the hots for you for years?"

Ronon shakes his head. "They fucked you over. They made you want things you wouldn't have wanted."

John scowls. "It wasn't aphrodesiacs. The docs ran my blood."

"It doesn't matter," Ronon says. "It wasn't about me. You would've fucked anyone who came to rescue you. I was there, John. You would've fucked Kavanagh."

John's face is hot, and his cock is full and heavy in his pants. "So I got lucky," he says. "I ended up with someone who's actually worth fucking."

Ronon just looks at him, and John thinks he sees something waver in his face.

"Look," John says. "I'll make it worth your time. There has to be something you've always wanted that no one's been willing to do for you."

But something changes in Ronon's expression. "You'd do it? Anything I want?"

"Yeah," John says, breathless.

For a long moment Ronon just stares at John, like he thinking about kissing him and fighting it for all he's worth. And then he shoves John back against the wall and wrenches himself away. "I can't."

"Crap," John says quietly. The back of his head hurts where it hit the wall. "Listen, Ronon..."

"No," Ronon says fiercely. "I'm not gonna use you."

It's ridiculously unfair. It's like he's still captive, and nothing he does is going to make him free. "What if I don't mind being used?"

Ronon's eyes go dark and dangerous. "You would have, before."

John grits his teeth. The worst part is that he can't deny any of it. Ronon's right, and that's what hurts the most. "Yeah," he says, "Maybe I would have. But I'm not that guy anymore."

"I know," Ronon says heavily, and John suddenly realizes that he does. Ronon's been through far worse than John ever has. He spent seven years in hell. He has to know all about feeling like a different person, afterward.

"So that's it," John says. "You're just going to walk away and pretend none of this happened?"

Ronon's eyes are still dark. "No," he says. "I'm not going anywhere, and I don't want to pretend."

"Then, what?" John says, exasperated. "We just live with it? Hanging there between us?"

"Yeah," Ronon says. "We live with it. It happened. We deal."

John has to just stand there and breathe for a while. He wants to kiss Ronon so much it hurts. He kind of wants to hit him, too.

"I'm sorry," Ronon says, and John suddenly realizes that his face looks just like it did when they were fucking, full of pain and empathy and arousal.

And then John gets it. He could force the issue. He could kiss Ronon right now, and Ronon might not be able to stop himself from kissing him back. They might even end up in bed together. But John knows how he'd feel afterward, because he knows how he feels every damn time he jerks off, thinking about it.

"Okay," he says. "Okay."

Ronon's expression turns soft and a little sad, like part of him didn't want to win the argument. "So we're good?"

"Yeah," John says. "We're good." And somehow that isn't even a lie. He doesn't know if this is what Ronon meant to accomplish by bringing him here, but he feels lighter than he has since he's been home. More like himself.

"Okay," Ronon says, bending to pick up his sticks. "You up for another round?"

It's almost midnight, and John has a life to put back together, but he grins and scoops up his own sticks. I'm not going anywhere, Ronon said, and suddenly he believes it.

"Sure," John says, twirling one of his sticks. Because maybe he's fucked up permanently, but maybe he's not. And Ronon's not going anywhere. "Let's see what you've got."