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Not What It Seems

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********

This time, Rodney got what he wanted. Yes, he'd had to beg, plead even, but he was going. Once he got there, there'd be no coming back, and that was perfect.

"What's his name again?" It didn't really matter, but it was something to say into the charged silence. They were all the same, and he didn't listen to the answer until Colonel Ellis wrapped his big hand around delicate parts.

"O'Neill requested you on this mission, but don't think that you're going to get away with any shit out there."

Slumping, he did and said what it took to get away. What mattered now was going to Atlantis. There was no way his life could get any worse.

********

"Um, what?"

O'Neill rubbed his forehead. "Have you been living under a rock your entire life?"

"Not that," John drawled, "I'm aware of, sir."

"Something." O'Neill held it out again. "Well, take it. You're going to need it, and probably a taser."

John frowned. He hadn't seen this coming, and he sure as hell didn't want it. "I agreed to go, but I never agreed to this, sir."

"Part of the package. Didn't you read the fine print?" O'Neill's tone was light, but his eyes were steady and hard.

Protesting would only get John that overdue one-way ticket to Fort Leavenworth, or worse. He swallowed hard. His father had warned him, and he should've listened. Gingerly, he reached out and took it with two fingers. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Denied. Get him. Go. Dr. Weir won't wait." O'Neill looked satisfied. "Enjoy."

"Yes, sir." John strove to keep the sarcasm from his voice, but from the look in O'Neill's eyes, he'd failed. "That way?" He pointed down a long hallway.

O'Neill gestured the opposite direction. "Stay with him until the gate is open, and then you two are free to go."

"Right. Free." John made sure not to roll his eyes. Instead, he strode off, searching for the man in question. This was going to be awful. Terrible. Ridiculous. He was military. This was below him. Or above him. Whatever. He certainly hadn't deserved it.

Turning three more corners, dodging supplies and one huge cable: he found who he was looking for, and he knew again that this was going to be a disaster.

"Yes, yes, I'll be with you in a moment." Rodney McKay, genius, scientist, slave, and by reputation a huge pain in everyone's collective ass, gave him a mere glance before going back to work. "The ZPM should sense the gate and initialize."

John looked down at the leash in his hands. He was in way over his head.

*********

"I am ready to go. You?" McKay was no slouch in the sarcasm department.

John looked helplessly at McKay's collar and then down at the leash. "I, uh, don't--"

"Oh, God, save me from newbies." McKay grabbed the leash, snapped it on, and stuffed the other end in John's slack hand. "That way. Now!"

Swallowing the urge to gawk, John nodded. He could see smirks and hear the twitter of laughter. He'd just lost any street cred he had with the Marines. When he didn't move fast enough, McKay started without him. There was no question who was pulling whom, and he rushed so at least he could walk next to him.

"Does it hurt?" He stopped right in front of the event horizon, not scared but cautious.

McKay gave him a look. "If it did, I wouldn't be going." And he stepped into the blue puddle. John shut his eyes and followed. With his stomach still twisting, he snapped up his P-90 and dropped the stupid leash. McKay didn't seem to notice. His mouth hung open slightly, and they moved together through the large room.

*********

"720." John frowned at him, trying to make him understand how important this was.

McKay blinked. "I know, but I didn't know that you'd know."

"Well, I do. Let me know when you get a lock on a gate address." John realized his mistake, of course. Any sign of intellectual ability made people question whether or not he should be wearing a collar, but he was a pilot. Pilots had to be smart. Not too smart, of course, and he'd always been careful to stay on the right side of the situation - the side who didn't wear collars. McKay nodded, mouth still hanging open, and John went to handle some other screw up.

*********

"You realize that you're in command now?" Weir smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.

John gave up trying to ignore that reality. "Yes." He could feel the weight of Colonel Sumner's dog tags in his pocket. "You may have been right. We made things worse."

Weir tried to console him, and Lt. Ford looked understanding, but John didn't think either of them would be having nightmares about shooting their superior officer. Teyla interrupted them and gave him the traditional Athosian greeting. It was awkward, but he liked her. She was strong and honest. He hoped she would stay in Atlantis.

"How are you and Dr. McKay getting along?" Weir asked when Teyla and Ford went to get some food.

"Is it important?" John didn't think it was. He'd barely spoken to the man, and McKay seemed very capable of running the city even with poor resources and no ZPM.

She widened her eyes. "You carry his leash. He's your responsibility."

He didn't want to hear it. McKay was an adult. He could fend for himself. "I agreed to bring him here. He's here." He saw her face change, and he knew he'd made a big mistake.

Stepping further into his space, she glared. "If you won't do it, I'll assign him to Sergeant Bates."

"Is it that important?" John growled, not wanting to be involved with the man. The whole situation screamed insanity.

Weir answered him fast. "Yes! What will it be? I won't have McKay running wild on this base."

Glancing about, John saw they'd managed to gather a crowd. "I haven't ever had to do it."

"It won't look good on your record if you refuse." Weir tossed her hair back. "But Sergeant Bates has plenty of experience. Let me know soon."

"I'll do it," John grumbled. McKay had already had one argument with Bates, and John distinctly remembered the word 'moron' being shouted.

She didn't look convinced. "Think about it. I have to check on Dr. Zelenka."

John wasn't sure who that was, but he nodded. He was surprised that she'd been assigned a scientist. She wasn't military, and she was a very busy lady.

"Is this citrus?" McKay asked loud enough to be heard in the Milky Way, and John reluctantly made his way over to him. The complaints didn't end with that, but John waited for him to wind down. "Yes, yes, Major. What do you want?"

"We, um, have to talk." John would rather be shot in the foot.

McKay rolled his eyes and sighed, putting on a show. "Don't even try to assert your authority over me. You have none."

Wow, John was aware of that. He hated that other people were listening and drawing that same conclusion. "McKay, Dr. Weir is considering assigning you to Sergeant Bates, who, I understand, has a lot of experience dealing with slaves." He found a tiny glare and hated the word in his mouth. "If you'd care to discuss this matter before your transfer, I'll be in my quarters."

The slack jaw wasn't satisfying in the least. John turned on his heel and left the party. He wasn't in the mood. What he really wanted was another shower even though there was no blood to wash away. Once he got there, he idly kicked another piece of white furniture and sat down in front of his laptop. He'd been here two days and he'd gone from scapegoat to leader. It was wrong. So wrong. There'd be paperwork and men to discipline and drills and - he put his head in his hands - his slave to deal with.

It was the last that truly worried him. He wasn't prepared for it in the least. He'd never thought, and he should've. His door beeped, and he wanted to throw something at it. Instead, he crossed to it and palmed it open. Expecting McKay, John stared in silence.

"Major Sheppard."

"Sergeant Bates, can I help you?"

"Word is that I'm getting McKay." Bates narrowed his eyes. "True?"

John wasn't going to volunteer information. "Why? You want him?" He made sure not to sound as if he cared one way or the other, and he wasn't sure he did.

Bates shrugged. "I'll take good care of him." He paused. "I've been a handler before with no complaints."

"You have one already?" John didn't understand why anyone would want one, much less two.

"No." Bates seemed to want the responsibility of McKay. "Well?"

"Well, what?" John wasn't going to discuss it. "You're dismissed."

"Yes, sir." Bates looked surprised. John shut the door and went to stare at his Johnny Cash poster. He didn't want to know what that was all about, but if Bates took McKay, it wasn't John's fault. John had checked the objector box on the day he'd joined the Armed Services, and no one had challenged it until General O'Neill had forced this situation.

"Damn," John whispered. He should've known checking a stupid box meant nothing. Rubbing his eyes, he sat down on his little bed. Sumner's dog tags dug into his thigh and he pulled them out to stare at them again.

Dead. Gone. Sucked dry. The bullet had done nothing but put paid to him. The Wraith were the scariest things John had ever seen, and he'd seen nuclear explosions.

"Can't go back, only forward," John said, imitating his father consciously. His father would've had the balls to say no to General O'Neill and make it stick, but John had nodded his fool head and taken hold of the leash.

The door opened, and it was McKay. He looked nervous, worried. John took a second to put the dog tags on the small table by his bed. They weren't that far from the leash he never wanted to touch again. "Come in, let the door shut."

McKay took two steps, the door closed, but he didn't move any further into the room. They sized each other up, and John took a long look at McKay's collar. It was blue - all scientists wore blue shirts also - and it didn't look heavy. It was about two inches thick, tubular, and rested on McKay's collarbones. John didn't know what it was made of, but it wasn't metal.

"What's that sticking out the back?" John pointed, curious.

"Flash drive." McKay sounded resentful. "It's keyed to you now."

John leaned back on his arms. "What information is on it?"

"Everything I've ever done since the day I was collared." McKay crossed his arms. "I can assume you intend to give me to Bates?" He raised his chin.

There was defiance there, but John hadn't made up his mind one way or the other yet. "Is it okay if I call you Rodney?"

"It's marginally better than 'slave.'"

"Good." John didn't rise to the bait. He held out his hand. "Can you hand me the flash drive, please?"

McKay glared. "What part of 'keyed to you' didn't you understand?"

John laughed and saw McKay's eyes shift. "And you were twelve when you figured out how to get it out?"

"Eleven," Rodney - he looked like a Rodney - said after a long moment. He might've been smug, but there was worry there also. "I don't edit it."

"Much."

"Well, yeah." Rodney eased further into the room. "Why aren't you collared?"

It was a fair question, and John chose to answer it. "I was taught how to look dumb, and I wanted the military and made it known at a young age."

"Really?" Rodney looked interested despite himself. "Why?"

John wasn't going to answer that, waving his hand at some white furniture. "You can sit, if you want. If you'd rather pace, I understand." He did.

There was a moment where he thought Rodney might leave, but then he settled onto a chair. "How many slaves have you had?"

"None." John saw the widened eyes. "I marked objector, and I do object." He tried not to growl the words. His father would so kick his ass for this. "Unfortunately for you and me, I screwed up big in Afghanistan, and you're my punishment. Compliments of General O'Neill."

"Damn," Rodney whispered. "They must've wanted you to suffer. I went through ten handlers in thirteen months at the Antarctica base."

"You're an overachiever." John had to laugh. "Well, Dr. Weir wasn't given the memo, so she's ready to send you to Sergeant Bates."

Rodney might've flinched. "I accidentally yelled at her while you were gone."

"That was dumb. I thought you were a genius?" John didn't wait for an answer. "Oh, you're a high-strung, high-maintenance genius!"

"There is evidence in that direction," Rodney said, snapping out the words. "Well, get it over with."

John blinked. "What?"

"Throw me to Bates," Rodney snapped. "You didn't want a slave in the first place."

"True." John leaned over, untied his boots, and toed them off. When he looked at him again, there was panic in those blue eyes. Rodney started shaking his head, getting up fast and backing away until he was against the door. John hoped it wasn't a seizure or something. "Rodney, what the hell is wrong with you?"

"I - I - I'd rather not." Rodney rubbed his mouth.

"What?" John truly didn't understand until Rodney paled further. The reason hit him hard and sickened him. "Rodney, I would never. Never."

Rodney bit his lower lip. "Why should I believe you?"

"I'm a Quaker." John threw it out there. It was usually held against him, but it might make Rodney understand. "Born and raised. Home schooled."

Two noisy breaths, and Rodney glared. "Quakers don't serve in the military!"

"That's what my father said. He's still upset about it, but we try not to argue about it where people can hear us." John shrugged. "I wanted to fly." He blushed. He'd just said too much.

Some tension went out of Rodney's body. "You marked objector?"

"I did. I do. It's disgusting." John crossed his legs and leaned forward a little. "Don't you hate it?"

"I was collared at four. It's all I've ever known. Third day at pre-school. I was reciting the times table." Rodney's voice held a note of pride that John didn't understand. "My sister made it to seven. She remembers not wearing one. I don't."

John held out his hand. "Flash drive, please?"

With an odd look, Rodney reached back and took it out. He dropped it on John's palm. "Why?"

"Why not?" John would look at it later, maybe do some research on how the collars worked. He wasn't going to admit that he'd never cared to find out before now. The collars could be alien technology for all he knew. He turned the flash drive over and asked, "GPS?"

"Yes."

"Audio playback?"

"Yes."

John was willing to ask one more question. "What happens if the memory is full?"

"Hasn't happened yet, but mine is at a little over fifty percent." Rodney skimmed his hand around his collar, shrugging a little. "The collar up-links with any computer I'm using and records the data. See the tiny pinhole?"

Peering, John nodded. "Camera?"

"Yes." Rodney looked furious for a second and then it smoothed away. "And covering it sets off an alarm."

"Wow, they thought of everything." John's visceral reaction to the thing was to try to take it off Rodney's neck. "Removable?"

"No." Rodney's voice held a note of steel. "When I die, they'll take it off."

There was also a slight tone of exasperation in Rodney's voice, and John got the message to shift the subject. This was their first real conversation, and he was surprised that Rodney didn't seem like that bad of a guy.

John quickly made up his mind on the most important subject. "If you want to go to Bates, I'll agree. Otherwise, I'll give this a try."

Rodney shrugged. "Sorry, but, um, could you try?"

"Yes." John's morals were stuck between a rock and a hard place, but he'd do it and not complain about the bruises. "But no more humiliating me in public. It isn't nice." He did want to make that clear. It was going to be hard enough being the commander of a bunch of jarheads.

"Privately is okay?" Rodney looked sly.

Laughing probably wasn't a good response, but John enjoyed it. "Yes, but I am the boss of you."

"Not really." Rodney went from shy to resentful in nothing flat. "I find it very uncomfortable to actually want you as a handler, instead of Bates. Don't think you can take advantage."

John blinked. Earlier, Rodney had been afraid. Now, he was demanding. The man obviously had issues. John rolled his eyes and tried very hard to look disgusted. "I wouldn't even know how. Maybe you can give me a crash course in how exactly to take advantage of my... you." The word 'slave' wasn't one John wanted to say, ever. It'd be easier to pretend something else was going on - anything else.

"Let's see: there's laundry, fetching you a tray, following you like a dog, kneeling at lunch, taking food from your hand..." Rodney suddenly trailed off, and the worry was back.

There was only one correct response to all that. "Gross. I mean--" John searched for an adult word. "Just gross." Asking the question wasn't smart, but he did it anyway. "Have others made you do all that?"

Rodney's back straightened. "Some tried. Others had different ideas of a slave's place." He looked pointedly at the bed.

Vomiting was a bad idea, but John felt his dinner want to come up. He swallowed hard. "Christ."

They exchanged a cautious look. Rodney obviously didn't trust him, probably never would, and John had a hard time blaming him for that. "What do you want me to call you?" Rodney asked.

"Major, or Sheppard," John said, not wanting to get Rodney in more trouble with Weir. "It that allowed?"

Blue eyes looked him up and down. "You are clueless to the power you hold."

John thought that was an understatement, but he was also amazed at the implicit ego behind the statement. "I refuse to believe you'll do anything I say."

"I refuse to believe you won't try to hold my sister over my head like my last thirty or so handlers." Rodney crossed his arms and raised his chin. He did look angry. "It won't work. We're estranged. Threaten all you want."

The depth of that lie was astounding, and he wondered how many of Rodney's handlers had believed it. That thought was pushed aside by sheer nausea. "Rodney, why don't we take this one step at a time? We don't know each other, other than I admire the work you've done getting Atlantis on her feet, and I see no reason to fight this early in the game."

Rodney's eyes blazed, but John saw him make an effort to tone it down. His next words came out in a low growl. "Always a game. This is my life. Doesn't anyone give a damn about that?"

Regret flashed across Rodney's face, and he got to his feet fast. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that." He wrung his hands. "I'll try harder. Tell Dr. Weir that I'll try harder."

The flashing between worry and resentment was making John's head spin. He rubbed his face and sighed. "Maybe we can both try harder. You're dismissed, Dr. McKay."

"Yes, Major." Rodney hesitated one second as if he might say something else and then he was gone. John glanced at the flash drive. He'd look at it sooner rather than later, and he began to hope there was a manual somewhere that would tell him what to do. It'd be easy if there were rules and regulations to follow. Easier for him, at least. He lay back on his bed, covered his eyes, and determined that he should get some sleep. He'd need it to deal with Rodney.

*********

"Have you given some thought to your team?" Weir arranged a few items on her desk in a new pattern, not looking him in the eyes.

John hadn't realized that he was getting a team, but he did some quick thinking. "Ford, Teyla, and McKay."

"Slaves aren't allowed off-world," she said without a pause.

Sitting down in a chair that had been placed in front of her desk, he tried to stay patient. "That was on Earth, and you and I both know it didn't apply to General O'Neill's team. I'm going to need him. You can't expect a bunch of Marines to be competent in Ancient technology, and that's all we're going to find in this galaxy."

"He's too valuable." Weir frowned. "And could you trust him?"

He realized again that sticking his head in the sand over this issue had been a mistake. "He's valuable. That's why I need him. And trust? I trust him as much as I trust anyone."

Weir stared and then nodded. "I see your points. Fine, you can take him. Leashed. But if he gets lost, the SGC will kill us both."

He'd won the argument but lost the war, and Rodney was going to kill him. "I wonder if anyone has ever successfully leashed Rodney McKay," he muttered, agog at the idea.

"You will, or Sergeant Bates will." Weir shrugged. "I won't have this base compromised by McKay's ego."

Getting to his feet, he nodded, but his heart wasn't in it. "I'll start getting organized for our first mission."

She returned his nod and glanced to her right. "Back to work, Radek."

"Yes, ma'am." Zelenka - John thought that was the right name - got up from his knees and double-timed it out the door. He didn't look back.

"Radek is the perfect slave. Make McKay into one. I have a feeling that you're the one to do it."

John couldn't even bring himself to nod. He made some weird gesture that could be interpreted any way she liked and ducked out of her office to find the closest restroom. He needed to vomit.

********

"Slaves aren't allowed to shoot guns." Rodney lifted his chin.

John's remaining shred of patience snapped. "People need to stop telling me what you can't do!" He fired two quick bullets into the target's head. "Now, pick up the damn gun and kill the damn target!"

Rodney bit his lip, but he picked it up, and John almost ducked at the trembling hand. Getting behind him fast, John steadied the process while trying not to touch him too much.

"I'm going to suck at this," Rodney said.

"Think of trajectory, speed, vectors, and impact ratios." John wasn't teasing him. "Squeeze, don't jerk, and please open both eyes."

"Okay, okay, shut up now!" Rodney shot the target in the crotch.

John couldn't control his wince. "Ouch." He stepped back a little. "Aim higher, will ya?"

With a grin, Rodney fired again. John watched and gave no advice whatsoever. He didn't think it would be welcome, and Rodney would get the hang of it eventually. Might take a while. A long while. Okay.

"Straighten your arms, quit breathing so hard!" John eased in behind him and made minute adjustments to Rodney's very tense body. "Kill the target. Don't choke the gun to death!"

"This is hard!." Rodney put the gun down and shook out his hands. "Show me how you do it again."

One more time, John pulled his gun and went through the steps. He concentrated on body shots, no need to show off. Rodney made several noises that could've meant anything, and then he said, "I have to relax."

"Exactly." John got out of the way and handed him a freshly loaded gun. "Once more and then we'll take a break."

Rodney took it. "You don't worry I'll shoot you?"

"Believe me, I'm going to stand behind you." John smirked. He had a glimmer of an idea and he waited until Rodney was focused on the target. "Rodney, I'm going to leash you before we go through the gate."

The bullet went right through the poor target's brain, followed by two hearts shots and three to the groin. Rodney's eyes narrowed, and John took the gun from him.

"I knew you could do it," John said with a grin.

"You are not!"

"We can't go otherwise. What's a little leash between friends?" John shrugged nonchalantly, but he hated what he was going to do, and he prayed his father never found out. "You can put it on and decide how I'll carry it."

Rodney looked down and his frown was deep and wide. "You promise?"

"Have I leashed you yet?" John laughed at the memory of their arrival. "Let's take a break. More practice this evening."

"Okay," Rodney said with a little enthusiasm. "Can I keep that?" He pointed at the target.

John smiled at that. "Sure. Go get it. I'll put the guns away."

*********

The mess hall was usually a busy place, but after a while, it dawned on John that he never saw anyone wearing blue there. He'd kept his eye out for Rodney, but he'd never seen him, and finally, he went in search of the reason. There would be probably be ridicule involved, but curiosity won the day.

Striding into the lab area that Rodney had claimed soon after they'd arrived, John came to a complete halt when everyone stopped eating and talking. One or two forks even dropped, and he had the feeling he'd barged into a party uninvited.

Rodney got to his feet, leaving an over-filled plate, and walked to him, but there was a definite lack of enthusiasm. "You, um, wanted something, Major?"

John could see him struggling to be polite, and it was against Rodney's nature. "I wanted to eat lunch with you, but I--" He stopped and lowered his voice. "Another dumb rule I don't know about it?"

Surprise flitted across Rodney's expressive face. "We're not allowed to eat in the cafeteria unless our handlers take us."

"Why?" John asked, furrowing his brow. "Are they afraid you'll do some math or something while they're eating?"

There was silence, and then a few chuckles. Zelenka actually grinned - he had a big one. "Our brains scare them."

"Yeah, me too." John couldn't resist the joke. "I'll get a tray."

"What?"

While Rodney sputtered, John went back to the mess hall, piled a tray, and returned. He plunked it down right next to Rodney and found a stool to pull up. It was most of his meat and a few potatoes before people started to talk again at a muted level. John was a killjoy. Well, he'd always known that.

"Ready for the mission?"

Blue eyes shifted. "Of course."

"I'm a little nervous." John went ahead and admitted it. "Promise me you won't accidentally shoot me."

"I'd miss," Rodney said.

"There is that to comfort me." John grinned at Zelenka. "Hey, do you guys want to eat in the mess?"

More silence. Rodney broke it. "Sky might fall, or someone would make us kneel."

"Or eat our lunch off the floor," some guy with a pony-tail growled.

John hoped his instant anger didn't show but from Rodney's face, it did. "The way I see it, new galaxy, new rules."

"Right," Rodney said, slathering on the sarcasm. "Can we have pie in the sky too?"

"I'll fire up the jumper." John knew it would be an uphill fight with Weir, but a few changes wouldn't hurt anyone. He tried to steal a muffin, but Rodney slapped him on the hand. "Ow!"

"Rodney!" Zelenka yelled. "Apologize."

Rodney's chin went towards the sky, and John took the opportunity to pop the muffin in his mouth.

"You, you took shameless advantage!" Rodney howled, and John grinned a bready grin. The tiny bit of laughter seemed to completely break the ice and by the time lunch was gone, the noise in the lab was almost normal. John took it for the compliment it was.

When the trays were empty, John eased to his feet and stretched. "Make a pile and I'll take them back."

Rodney gave him a steady look. "Everyone will know, and you'll lose face. Miko, it's your turn. Take the major's as well."

"Yes, Doctor McKay." Miko scurried about, and John let it happen. He could see that it was useless to argue about it. John gave everyone a casual salute and leaned closer to Rodney.

"Ready room at eight a.m." John left on that note. He had things to do. Somewhere.

*********

Studying on topics assigned to him had begun at a young age, and John decided that living in ignorance about the slave laws was below him. He was better than that. Sticking his head in the sand and pretending was the way of a coward. What he discovered irritated the hell out of him, and his father's words of condemnation rang in his head.

It had begun as a means to protect a valued resource. After World War Two, the scramble had been on for top scientists, and governments had gone to extremes to protect the ones they had from being snatched. It had gone too far, but many of the customs that had been solidified were nothing more than human nature. Humans loved to push the edge, take advantage. Something precious and valued was now treated like dirt, and that was so very wrong.

When he was finished, he made some notes. He was the military commander of this base, and things were going to change as far as he could force them. Tapping his radio, he contacted his best resource.

"Rodney, do you have time to meet for dinner?"

The radio silence was frustrating. He rubbed his forehead and switched channels. "Lt. Ford, do you copy?"

"Yes, sir." Ford came back instantly.

John, by this point, was very tired of stupid rules, stupid governments, and stupid customs that hurt people. "Take McKay a radio and headset right now."

"Sir, slaves--"

"Now!" John barked. "Do you understand my order?"

"Yes, sir!"

John ground his teeth for the ten minutes it should take for Ford to deliver it. He waited another five after that, and then tried again. "Dr. McKay?"

"Major, have you lost your mind?"

"Yes, now get your butt to my quarters," John said. He heard a sound that might have been outrage, but he ignored it. "Now."

"Fine."

It was five more minutes before John's door chimed, and he opened it with a thought. Rodney looked flustered, maybe angry.

"I want your help." John pointed at the laptop. His temper was stretched to the breaking point, and he'd have to watch his mouth. "That's not against the rules, is it?" he asked, slathering on the sarcasm.

"No." Rodney moved to the laptop and sat down, fidgeting the entire way.

A tiny detail made John growl in frustration. "Put on the headset. Wear it every moment of every day. What if there's an accident and I can't reach my lead scientist? Are we supposed to die while someone runs to get you?" He wanted to punch the wall. "Say, yes sir."

"Yes, sir," Rodney said, staring at the screen. "Can Zelenka have one?"

"Everyone should have one!" John would make it a priority to speak to Dr. Weir about it ASAP, but it could wait a few minutes. "Right now, I want a list of every slave and their handler, and I want a list of the slave regulations that the SGC follows. Not customs, not stupid ideas that have no basis in the law. Actual rules!"

"Yes, sir." Rodney's fingers started flying across the keyboard.

"Good." John rubbed his hand through his hair. "I'm going to speak to Dr. Weir. Find me when you're finished. Oh, and I want actual paper, not a flash drive."

"How about a tablet?" Rodney's voice wasn't angry.

"Paper!" John marched out and headed straight for Dr. Weir's office. It probably wasn't smart to tackle her while he was upset, and he slowed down, delaying it until he was sure he had it under control.

Weir was in stargate operations, and she turned the instant he stepped behind her. "Major, we need to talk."

"Yes, we do." John saw Lt. Ford slinking away and wasn't terribly impressed with the young man, but that could be handled after this. She led the way to her office, and he was determined to get in the first shot. "Dr. McKay is a valuable asset, as you recently pointed out, and I needed his help on a computer matter. Do I have to send someone for him? What if it were a life-threatening situation? Custom is one thing. Idiocy is another!"

She narrowed her eyes at him and then went around to sit at her desk. "Scientists are kept isolated for a reason."

"And that would be?" John assumed parade rest.

"Lack of access gives us greater control." Weir opened her laptop.

John wanted to pull his hair. "Us who? This isn't the United States, struggling to retain its scientists against the Communists! We have so few resources, and we're cut off from getting more. Can we afford to isolate them?"

Weir now openly glared at him. "You should've come to me first."

"I am the military commander on this base, which you so kindly reminded me not that long ago, and this is a security issue. My job is to keep everyone safe, and I can't do that if I can't talk to McKay!"

Weir stood, put her palms flat on her desk, and leaned forward. "I'll give you this one, but I suggest you put aside your Quaker foolishness and live in the real world."

"And I suggest you look outside the window and discover we're in a new galaxy where being eaten by Wraith is a distinct possibility." John didn't budge an inch, and he'd heard worse insults about his religion. "I'll be issuing radios to everyone."

She sat back down. "You're dismissed."

He turned on his heel and marched out. Actually, that had gone pretty well. Tapping his radio, he said, "Lt. Ford, I'll wait for you by the stairs in the gateroom."

"Yes, sir." Ford didn't sound excited about the idea. He did appear promptly though, and his face was calm.

John put his hands on his hips. "I thought more of you." He used words he'd heard from his father's mouth. "Tell me, do you always kiss ass to the highest point in the chain of command?"

Ford pressed his lips together.

"Issue head sets to every member of this expedition and instruct them on the many channels and proper usage." John widened his eyes and lowered his voice. "Don't disappoint me again."

"I won't, sir." Ford didn't look right at him.

"Dismissed, and get busy." John left him there. Word would spread, and it was possible he'd lose even more 'face' with his men. He really hated command.

Rodney was still in John's room when he returned, and he wished there was a door to slam. Instead, he paced, refusing to look right at him.

"No radios, huh?"

"She agreed." John smacked his fist into his palm. "Ford is taking care of it." He distinctly heard a sound of amazement, but he was still too angry to enjoy it. "This isn't Earth! Do we all have to die before someone gets the idea?"

He was shocked when Rodney chuckled.

"Stop pacing. I'm getting dizzy." Rodney waved his hand at the chairs. "I had everything printed off in the lab. I'll go get the paper."

John went ahead and glared at him. "Paper is good, but if you want to put the info on a tablet, I won't mind."

"I already did that." Rodney handed him a tablet. "I also made several notes as to my thoughts on each pairing."

"I'm sure it'll be helpful." John had a feeling that Rodney had taken it as an opportunity to complain. "Anything else?"

"I also put all your files and schedules on the tablet so you can look busy during meetings." Rodney might've smiled. "And a few games."

Now John stopped to stare at him. "Did you reconfigure my email?"

Rodney met John's eyes. "No." He waved his hand in circles. "Um, yes?"

"Thanks. I think." John tucked the tablet under his arm, hoping there'd come a day when Rodney wouldn't lie to him. "Let's go get the paper."

"With me?"

"Walk and talk. Move it." John didn't wait. He went out the door and headed for the lab. It took some time before Rodney was walking beside him. Moving was relief, and he realized he was scowling when several people blanched, and two Marines threw him a salute. He cast a quick look at Rodney but there was no sign that he was intimidated. That was reassuring.

The lab fell quiet the instant John made his appearance, and it was Zelenka who brought him the pages. John looked about, spotted a couch-like thing, and sat down to read the rules. Finally, the real, god damn rules.

"Maybe you should kneel near him," Zelenka whispered.

"Like hell," Rodney grumbled.

John didn't even look up. "Go away." He settled back and put his mind to work. There were always loopholes, ways to influence people, and if he were ever - ever - going to look his father in the face again, he had to make a positive difference. If possible, he should really change the world, at least this one.

********

"Dr. Weir will skewer you." Rodney waved his hands around in a manner that John found funny.

John pointed at his tablet. "Rule number four: the military commander is responsible for all handlers and their charges. That's me."

"But she's the boss of you!" Rodney's voice hit a screech.

"So, I'll give her a full report and make sure to sound stern." John smirked. "You can help me write it."

Rodney put his hands over his eyes. "I've been saddled with an idiot."

With a small laugh, John slapped Rodney on the knee. "Yes, and you're stuck with me. Now, did the rules get posted in every location?"

"Yes," Rodney said sullenly, "and I sent every handler an email, emphasizing strict adherence to the rules, and I'm hungry."

"Oh, sorry." John stood and put the tablet on the bed. It was past dinner. "Let's go eat in the mess. Think I'll get beat up?"

"Maybe." Rodney sounded a little worried. "Major, seriously, if you have any authority, you better use it quick. People are going to be angry."

John hoped for a few confrontations. It would help drive his point home. "Well, then, we can discuss it, and we'll see who wins." He opened the door. "Food. Now."

Rodney didn't move. "I don't think I should."

"Move." John started walking. He had the feeling Rodney would follow him. Sure enough, Rodney was only a half step behind when they hit the mess hall, and John met everyone's gaze without a flinch. The funny thing about all this was the fact that he hadn't done anything yet. Not one thing. All he done was remind them of the official rules. He suspected they harbored some guilt, or they wouldn't have cared.

Shoving a tray in Rodney's hands, John got his usual turkey sandwich, plus an extra one, and whatever else looked good. He glanced behind him once. "There's only one orange left, you want it?"

"Absolutely not. I like living." Rodney grabbed some coffee, and John could see him itching to stride ahead. John moved a little faster, finding a seat. Rodney paused. "Next to you or across?"

"What do you think?" John growled.

Rodney sat down across from him. "Thanks." He looked about quickly. "This is strange."

"Eat." John took a bite and thought to ask, "Why no oranges?"

"Deathly allergic to citrus. Heard of biphasic reactions? Epi-Pens? Anaphylactic shock?" Rodney asked each question in a manner that was slightly insulting.

A few more bites and John decided to answer all that drama. "Yes." He dug out his dog tags and wiggled them. "I'm allergic to penicillin."

"Really?"

"No." John tucked the dog tags away. He saw Rodney waver between outrage and disgust at the lie. "Didn't you read my file?"

Rodney blinked and red crept up his neck. "No?"

"You're the only guy I've ever met that can make a 'no' a 'yes.'" John smiled and went back to eating. "It's a rare talent."

"Once or twice, I almost liked you."

John couldn't answer that. He'd decided a few days ago that he liked Rodney more than was safe, easy.

"Major, that slave belongs on his knees," Bates growled, stopping at their table.

Watching Rodney's entire body freeze was unpleasant. John tilted his head and looked up. "Sergeant Bates, is that rule in the current SGC regulations?"

Bates looked as if he might hit Rodney in the back of the head, and John was on his feet and in between them before another second passed.

"No," Bates ground out as if the word hurt him.

Narrowing his eyes, John put his hands on his hips. It took a good two minutes.

"No, sir."

"No, Sergeant, it isn't a rule. It's your ego run wild, and I won't have it on this base. Dr. McKay is a valuable resource, and it's my job to protect him. You, on the other hand, are a pain in my ass." John lowered his voice and glared. "Are we clear?"

"Very." Bates hesitated. "Sir."

"If I hear of you harassing any other valuable resources, you and I will be having a discussion about your future on this base. You're dismissed." John turned and sat down. He went back to eating and didn't watch him storm off. The mess hall was remarkably quiet after that.

John looked at Rodney, half-expecting some remark, but he was merely eating. The rest of their meal passed in silence. Rodney leaned and whispered after his tray was empty, "It's amazing the problems you can cause."

"I wasn't really exerting myself." John shrugged. "We still have a mission in the morning."

"Has it only been a day?" Rodney's eyes widened in fake disbelief. "Can we go shoot things again?"

"I've created a monster." John got up and went to put his tray in the dirty pile. It didn't escape his notice that Rodney was right behind him.

*********

"This is stupid," John muttered, but he couldn't make his hand reach for it. He was grateful when his door beeped, and he could step away.

"Today? Please?" Rodney glared and frowned. "Oh, God, you can't do it, can you?"

"It goes against everything I believe." John threw up his hands in disgust. "My dad would kill me!"

Rodney grabbed the leash. "You actually listened to your parents? Now I am weirded out." He snapped the leash on and looked John over like a piece of meat. "If I remember right, General O'Neill wears Carter's like this."

John actually flinched as the loop on the end of the leash was hooked to an empty lanyard that hung from his belt. Rodney was very close. John could smell the type of soap and the lack of aftershave. He tried to find a place to put his hands that wasn't on Rodney.

"This is awkward," John managed to choke out.

"You'll get used to it." Rodney sounded sad about that. "I'll be behind and to the side, but if you fall down, so will I."

"Great." John rolled his eyes. "Are people really going to try to steal your big brain?"

Rodney's eyes widened. "I hope not, but maybe. I'm counting on you to shoot them if they try."

"I'm praying you won't accidentally shoot me in the back!" John opened the door and started for the gateroom. He wanted to rant about stupid people and stupid rules, but it wasn't his way. He'd swallow it down and try to work around it.

They made it to the gateroom without either of them tripping, more to do with Rodney than himself, and he had to clamp down hard at the sight of Weir's satisfied smile.

"Be safe," she said with a nod. "Dial the gate!"

John kept his response to a return nod and focused on getting his P-90 up. "Ford, Teyla, be ready for anything."

They were, and he hoped he was imagining Rodney's worried look. They stepped into the event horizon, leashed together, and John hated it, but there was some tiny part of him that wanted Rodney right where he was - at John's back.

The instant they were through, and it was apparent the Wraith weren't waiting to kill them, John unhooked the leash from his belt, letting it swing. "Secure that, McKay.

"Ford, if you run home to Mommy and tattle, this'll be your last mission on my team." John didn't look directly at him. "McKay, I expect you to use that gun if you have to. Teyla, you take point. Ford, get our six."

"Yes, sir." Ford moved to the back, and to his credit, he wasn't sulking.

"Um, Major?" Rodney stared down at some gadget. "That way."

Securing a small trade agreement - food for medicines - was easy enough with Teyla doing the talking, and no one asked about the stupid collar around Rodney's neck. Rodney was quiet, but John heard a lot of tiny beeping noises.

"Anything interesting?" John peeked over Rodney's shoulder at the detector. It wasn't Ancient technology, looking like something Rodney had built himself.

Rodney jumped and glared. "Not a thing. It was too much to hope that a ZPM would be lying in one of their dirt huts, right?"

"Right." John turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees. "Nice little planet."

"Not really." Rodney dug out a power bar and munched it while continuing to study data. John couldn't help but smile as he went back to Teyla and Ford. After making promises to return, they headed back to the gate, and they hadn't been gone more than three hours. It was a successful first mission, and John almost relaxed. Almost.

Ford dialed for home, and Rodney sidled up to hook the leash back on John's belt.

"Stupid. Stupid. Stupid," John muttered. He caught Teyla's eyes and knew she agreed with him.

The ka-woosh did its thing, and Teyla looked back. "Wraith!" she shouted.

They ran.

"We're coming in hot!" John shouted into his earpiece, hoping someone would think to provide some backup on the other side.

Blue bolts of energy shot around them, and John tried to run backwards and shoot, while missing Rodney. Rodney stumbled, dropped to his knees, and John could see the fear clearly.

"Damn it, McKay, run!" John grabbed the leash, pulled, and dragged him through the gate with bullets and energy bolts flying. They landed in a heap on the other side, the leash tangled around John's arm, and he felt like a fool. He was very sure that had never happened to General O'Neill.

*********

"That's why we leash them! If the Wraith had gotten Dr. McKay, this entire base would've been compromised!"

Slouching, John tried to measure his answer. "He fell because I was trying to fire, miss his head, and run at the same time. We nearly lost him all right because I nearly shot him!" He lowered his voice. "Dr. Weir, it's not safe. I think we're going to be doing a lot of running in this galaxy. We don't have time to be stumbling over leashes!"

She looked very stubborn. "I'll take it under advisement." And now she frowned. "Bates told me there was a problem in the mess hall?"

"No problem." John shrugged and got to his feet to take a long stretch. "He wanted Rodney to kneel. I told Sergeant Bates to go away."

"Slaves do usually kneel in public eating places."

John ran his hand through his hair. "It's not in the rules. I'm a stickler for rules. It's a custom. Nothing more."

Now she also stood. "Tread softly, Major."

"But I feel like stomping." John gave her a tiny salute. "I need to report to the infirmary and check on Rodney."

"Do that."

He left, but he could feel her eyes on him. Eventually, they'd have a real shouting match, but he'd avoid it as long as possible. Staying strictly within regulations would only protect him for so long. She obviously approved of how slaves were treated, and her relationship with Zelenka was further proof of that. The man spent part of each day kneeling beside her desk.

Walking fast, John heard the yelling before he stepped through the last door.

"I will not release you until your handler gets here!"

"This is ridiculous!"

"It's nice to be wanted," John drawled and took a good look at his responsibility. "You okay?"

The doctor, Carson Beckett, who had nearly killed John in Antarctica, nodded. "Some bruising, and he twisted his ankle, but he's fine. If you don't mind, I'd prefer he not kneel for a few days."

"He kneels?" John was glad to see those blue eyes raging. He smiled. "Sorry about your ankle, Rodney."

"You should be. It was entirely your fault. You nearly shot me!" Rodney waved his hands wildly. "And you run much faster than I do."

"It's a problem." John patted him on the shoulder and winked at Carson. "Maybe we could practice or something."

Carson moved closer. "Major, it's time for your physical. I need blood."

"Sure." John knew better than to argue. "Rodney, why don't you take a shower, and I'll meet you in your quarters when Carson gets through with me?"

Rodney scrambled off the gurney. "You're confining me to my quarters because I fell down?" he yelled at full volume. "That is so unfair!"

John ducked his head and eased closer. "We need to talk. Wait for me?" he asked.

"Um, well, okay." Rodney looked very confused. "You're not mad?"

"Not at you." John pointed at the door. "Go on." He turned to Carson. "You're not going to fire drones at me this time, are you?"

"Funny, lad."

*********

Freshly showered, John glanced longingly at his bed. Some sleep would be nice, but Rodney was probably pacing, cursing, and wondering where John was hiding.

Two steps from Rodney's door, it opened, and John stopped in surprise. Rodney was asleep, face down, snoring slightly. A small sense of protectiveness came over him and John shut the door, locking it. Rodney needed his sleep.

John went to bed too. Some rest was a great idea.

*********

"This is ridiculous!"

"I know!" John shouted right back at him. That was one of the nice things about Rodney; he never took it personally. "Use that big brain of yours to figure out another option!"

Rodney snorted and grumbled something rude under his breath. John smacked him on the back of the head.

"Looks like you're getting the hang of it, Major," said Sergeant Stackhouse.

"Sergeant, you're in charge of PT this week." John wasn't happy, and by God, everyone was going to be miserable also. "Double the drills. Pretend the Wraith are coming to kill us!"

"Yes, sir!" Stackhouse fled, and he'd pass the word to stay away from the CO for a while.

"I'm done." Rodney leaned onto his knees, breathing hard.

John didn't think so, but he gave him another minute before starting again. This time, he slowed his pace, trying for timing instead of speed. Rodney didn't run. Rodney lumbered, and his weight had a tendency to yank John around. When, and if, they mastered this, they'd learn to run backwards, firing weapons.

"We're almost done. Keep going!" John dropped back, letting Rodney take the lead. One long hallway later, it was over because Rodney took a swan dive, and John hit the deck right next to him.

"I hate you."

"It's mutual." John rolled to his back and breathed hard. It wasn't the distance or the speed; it was hauling Rodney behind him. "We're so gonna die."

*********

"What the hell?" John moved fast and slapped his hand down on the table hard. "Corporal Romo, what are you doing?"

"Having lunch with my--" Romo stopped and his eyes widened in panic. "Responsibility, sir. She's my responsibility!"

"And you thought you'd show her consideration and care by making her eat on her knees? Were you raised by wolves, Romo?" John used his voice to tear at him. "This is clearly not in the regulations. Miko, get up. Go sit by Rodney. I'll be reviewing your handler's ability to take adequate care of you."

"Yes, sir." Miko fled, hunched over, and John felt sick inside.

"Sir, I--" Romo bit his lower lip. "She's--"

John leaned onto his arms, getting right in Romo's air space. "Yes?" he drawled in his most dangerous voice.

Romo looked down. "Nothing, sir." He might've sighed. John wanted to hit him. Rodney had warned him that this pairing was trouble.

"We'll speak at length later." John would take her straight to Carson after she ate. Any sign of physical abuse and John had cause to reassign her.

"So you did read my report." Rodney's voice was low when John got back to the table.

"Shut up." John sat down. Miko's quiet sobs made him want to go back and punch Romo in the mouth. "Miko, can you eat?" Her answer was more sobbing. "Rodney, finish eating and go back to work."

"What?" Rodney's chin went up. "I will not!"

"For once, do what I tell you." John eased to his feet and helped Miko up. She clutched him, and he managed a scathing look at Romo before clearing the door. It was interesting that no one had jumped to the corporal's defense. One or two even looked at Miko sympathetically, and it was progress, of a sort. Of course, no one had had the balls to intervene.

Carson proved exactly how good a doctor he was over the course of the next hour, and John stayed out of it as much as possible while looming and cursing under his breath. He had plenty of time to flip through radio channels and see what the chatter was, but there was only silence. That could be good or bad.

"Um, Major?"

John tapped his earpiece. "You're at work, right?"

"Reluctantly." Rodney sounded huffy. "She okay?"

"As soon as Carson tells me what's going on, I'll radio you," John promised. "Don't think this will get you out of practice tonight."

"Crap." Rodney clicked off. John went back to pacing and was very surprised to see Weir come around the corner. He went to meet her.

"Report?"

Before John could open his mouth, Carson came up behind them. "Elizabeth, Major, glad you're both here. I sedated Miko, put her on an IV, and I'll be keeping her overnight."

John clenched his fists and shoved them onto his hips. "And?"

"She's underweight, there's bruising, and some residual evidence of sexual assault." Carson's voice was harsh. "I'll be filing an official complaint against her handler."

"You do that." John turned and punched the wall. The pain felt good, but he heard Weir's gasp.

"Major, calm down," she said. "Occasionally, these things happen."

His temper surged and bucked. "Dr. Weir, that's Miko in there, crying, abused. Go explain to her how it's just one of those things." He took several steps back. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go start the paperwork for getting her a new handler."

Weir crossed her arms, and Carson sighed, but they didn't stop him from leaving. Couldn't she see how wrong it all was? Was she blind? John tugged at his hair and wanted to hurt someone.

"Major!"

Reluctantly, John stopped, but it was Rodney. "I thought I told you to stay in the lab!"

"You didn't radio me!"

"Oh." John thought for a few seconds, grabbed Rodney by the shirt, and strode to the nearest empty room. Through the door and John locked it with a thought. He wanted to scream with frustration and anger, but he throttled it all down. "She's staying overnight. Carson sedated her and put her on an IV. I'll be assigning her to another handler."

Rodney crossed his arms. "Did he rape her?"

John felt his jaw clench. He would not answer that because Miko had a right to privacy. "I'll punish him within the constraints of the law. It's all I can do."

"That's bullshit, and you know it." Rodney looked as furious as John felt, and there was a certain comfort in that. "Do something!"

"I will!" John would find a way. "But you are staying out of it!"

"Like hell. That bastard will never have a hot shower again, and if his door opens, it'll be a damn miracle." Rodney tapped his earpiece. "Do it, Radek."

John stared and then shrugged. "What else have you got?"

"For some reason, that wasn't the reaction I expected." Rodney frowned. He went to stare out the window. "Things are different here. We're not going to take the abuse any longer."

"Good." John knew Weir would kill him for fostering rebellion. "Can we do it in increments?"

"How very mathematical of you." Rodney put his hand up the glass. "If we go on strike, people will sit up and take notice."

"And we all might die," John said, moving up behind him. "Could we, um, work something else out?"

Rodney whipped around fast and poked John in the chest with a strong finger. "Or what?"

"Weir will toss you all in the brig, I'll be forced to help, and then the city will explode." John slapped his hand down on Rodney's and yanked him close. "Let's see where we can take this. Trust me."

There was nothing in Rodney's blue eyes that hinted at trust. Anger, yes. "You're military. You're my handler," he said with considerable scorn.

With a sigh, John gave in to what he'd wanted to do days ago. He put his forehead against Rodney's, imitating Teyla's way, and said, "I'm your friend. I'll bend over backwards to help. Die trying. The whole nine yards."

"I thought it was ten yards?" Rodney snapped, but he didn't pull away.

"It's an expression!" John gave him a small shake. "Let's be angry together. Smart angry. Change the world. This one."

Tearing from John's hands, Rodney began to pace. "It'll never work. Never."

John decided it was time to be quiet. It was his turn to go to the window. Atlantis was beautiful, lovely even, set in a blue ocean, and their behavior sullied her. He knew he was a fool to think that way, but it was the truth - that he'd keep to himself.

"They think we're nothing but trash!"

"They can learn different." John smiled. "Did you cut Romo's hot water?"

Rodney lifted his chin. "Yes."

"Good. Cut all the hot water. Tell them that was Miko's area of expertise." John smirked. He would have to work at looking indignant and then angry. "I'll back you up." He went to Rodney and clutched him on the shoulder. "Together?"

"I don't have much choice." Rodney looked sullen, frowning.

"Yes, you do. The other choices just aren't good ones." John didn't let go. He glanced down at his boots. "Let's go train with the damn leash. Tell me after that."

"If I ever find out that this leash thing was your idea--"

"Weir refuses to let us go off-world if you're not leashed! We have to save ourselves!" John fumed. He turned him loose and headed for the door. "Move."

Rodney crossed his arms and managed to look more stubborn. "No."

John laughed. He'd expected that days ago. Stepping back to him, John lifted his hand and traced one finger down Rodney's stubborn jawline. "Save that for an argument you can win. I have no intention of dying or letting you die. We'll practice because you want to live. Are we clear?"

It was easy to see Rodney swallow hard. "I want Romo in the brig."

"Trust me." This time, John went out the door, straight for his quarters. They'd get the stupid leash and practice surviving.

*********

"Major, I want that hot water on by the end of the day!"

John blinked, all innocence. "Do you expect me to fix it? I've yelled at him until I'm hoarse. It only makes his hands shake."

"I heard." She crossed her arms. "Do you really expect me to believe that Miko is the only one who can fix the hot water system?"

"McKay has to learn it from the ground up. I'm sure he'll have it soon." John looked pointedly at Zelenka, kneeling by her desk. "It might help if he had full use of all his resources."

She sat down behind her desk. "I want results."

"Radek, go help McKay." John hooked his thumb at the door. "Hopefully, he's stopped yelling at everyone."

To Zelenka's credit, he was up and out the door fast. Weir growled, "I'm his handler."

"And you're both under my supervision."

"You really did grow up under a rock."

John was not impressed that she'd eavesdropped on him and the general. "My father taught me that we're all born equal. Here, on Atlantis, we do not have the option of punishing a segment of our population because of their intelligence."

"Are you lecturing me? I've worked as a diplomat all over the world." Weir was clearly furious. "And I am fully aware of our situation here."

"I'm sure you are." John left it there, saying more was wasted breath. "Excuse me, I'll go yell at McKay some more." He left before she could dismiss him. Yes, she could conceivably replace him, but not until they re-established contact with Earth. He had some time to make a difference.

"Major," Zelenka said, stepping out of a shadow and falling into step with him. "You will never change her mind. I have been with her for months."

Answering him could wait until they were out of the transporter. After the doors opened, John said, "If anything changes her mind, it'll be the Wraith, not me. Tell me, do you love her?"

Zelenka looked surprise. "I like her very much, but I am old and my knees ache."

"Say no. She can't make you."

"Ah, you are stupid about women." Zelenka chuckled. "Rodney has never had a woman handler long. They hate him, worse than the men."

Now John was surprised. "Why?" But they were at the lab, and Zelenka hurried to his laptop. Rodney gave John a long glare that meant nothing. They'd agreed to have several public arguments, for John's reputation, but John suspected that Rodney wanted to keep his rep as being difficult also.

"You have twelve hours," John snapped in his best asshole voice.

"Yes, yes. Thank you for delivering her threats." Rodney knew how to cut a man's balls right off. He waved his hand dramatically. "Go play with your guns and let us work."

"Ten hours, or you can spend the last two in the brig while Zelenka finishes the repairs." John didn't stick around to glare. He strode out the door and tapped his earpiece. "Lt. Ford, report to the lab in ten hours. If the hot water isn't on, escort Dr. McKay to the brig."

"Yes, sir!"

John had no doubt that Rodney would spend time in the brig. Sympathy for Miko was running high and punishing Rodney for her abuse would make people think. Hopefully, they'd realize that the entire system was screwed up. Rodney was convinced it'd take more than one isolated incident. He was probably right.

That was why the desalination tanks would be the next to go.

*********

"Again?"

"Just put it on." John hadn't managed to do it yet. He felt dirty thinking about it, much less doing it. "You feel good today? Rested?"

Rodney had dark circles under his eyes. "Up late," he mumbled.

John seriously considered postponing the mission. It wasn't absolutely vital. "If you can't make it, we won't."

"I'll be fine." Rodney looked him right in the eye and clipped on the leash. "We're ready."

"As long as I don't panic." John smiled, hoping Rodney would smile back. Rodney looked away and shrugged, taking a small step towards the door. This time, they walked as a team, and John tried very hard not to be pleased.

Weir met them in the jumper bay. "Good. I hope we'll have no more arguments about leashes."

"If I end up dead, I'm going to be angry about it." Rodney put his hands on his hips. "Will you be releasing Romo from the brig while we're gone, Dr. Weir?"

"Rodney, Dr. Weir doesn't have the authority to do that, and his sentence is up in five days, which you know." John tried to sound patient. "Did you muck with the environmental controls down there?"

"Absolutely not!"

"Gentlemen!" Weir raised her voice. "The mission?"

"Are you ready, Dr. McKay?" John was careful not to tug the leash. Rodney frowned and turned away as much as he could, which was his answer. John looked at his boss. "Dr. Weir?"

"Be safe." She had a pained smile on her face. "In and out, right?"

"Right. No chances." John took a step. Teyla and Ford were already in the jumper. She nodded, and he went to take the pilot's chair. Rodney would sit behind him.

John was afraid his eyes lit up with joy as he engaged the engines. "Dial the gate, Lieutenant."

**********

John didn't unhook him. It was too dangerous, but he saw the look Rodney gave him. It hinted at betrayal. "Stay close," John said as way of explanation.

"As if I have a choice," Rodney grumbled, but John was glad for his decision when the leash kept Rodney from sliding over a sudden cliff. "Whoa!"

They all stared, and John loosened his grip on Rodney's arm. "You okay?"

"I thought you said there was a base?" Rodney asked, glancing about nervously. "All I see is a hole in the ground."

Ford started protesting, and Teyla's measured tones didn't change the facts. There was nothing here any longer, and they needed to be going.

"Wraith!" Rodney pointed, and they were running, firing, and running.

"Go on ahead!" John yelled at Ford and Teyla, and they pounded off. Rodney seemed paralyzed with fear, and John almost cut him loose, but they were out of time. "Down. Fire!"

They fought together, and the fact they managed to not shoot each other was gratifying. Running backwards, John kept up the firepower until Rodney yelled something incoherent and shoved him on his face.

"What the hell?"

"Big, spider thing!" Rodney scrambled, dragging John with him. "Web!"

John saw it now - freaky - and they ran around it. One more Wraith popped up, and Rodney put him down.

"Faster!" John didn't take the lead, and suddenly the jumper was there, and he engaged systems fast, so fast, and they were flying. The cloak swooshed on, and he immediately changed their vector but they still took a hit. "Give me more," he whispered. The jumper shuddered. "Rodney! Fix it!"

The leash dropped to the floor, and John dodged and ducked, but he was very relieved when he felt the cloak slide back over them.

"Dial the gate!" He took them through fast, and Peter snapped the shield up. While the jumper went up to park, John took a deep breath. Getting to his feet quickly, he slapped Rodney on the shoulder. "Good work."

Rodney sat down on the bench hard. His eyes were very round. "We're alive."

Ford grinned. "And a few of them aren't." He pointed at the leash. "Weir will be coming."

John looked down at it. "Stupid thing."

With a small smile, Teyla patted Rodney on the arm. "You did very well."

John could see the pleasure those few words brought to Rodney. Rodney ducked his head. He stepped, scooped up the leash, and snapped it on. Their eyes met, and John felt them click together as a team. "What the hell was that big bug?" he asked as he opened the ramp.

Teyla and Ford looked confused. Rodney started talking fast, describing it in great detail, and John shuddered. They walked out together, Rodney's hands flying.

"It was huge! Pointy tail! It might've stabbed us to death!"

And Weir came striding up. "See Carson and then we'll have a debriefing." She looked them over. "Rodney, you can go to work."

John hoped his jaw hadn't dropped at her incredible rudeness, and from the gleam in her eye, she knew it. She was testing him. "See that, Rodney, you were gone three hours and the place fell apart."

Ford laughed, and John unhooked the leash. He couldn't stand it one more second. It swung to the floor. Teyla moved smoothly between John and Weir.

"It was an interesting mission," Teyla said.

Rodney's jaw was clenched, and John put his hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Infirmary, please. Did you twist that ankle tackling me?"

"It was a small shove!"

"I have dirt in my eyebrows." John gestured to Ford. They walked together, and Teyla would catch up. Only when they were out of earshot did John say, "All that practice came in handy. If you hadn't been there, that bug would've--"

"Eaten you," Rodney finished. "I wonder if it eats Wraith."

Chills crept up John's spine. "I hate bugs," he muttered. "Did I thank you?"

"Actually, no."

"Well, thanks." John smiled, enjoying saying it. "Next time we catch a hive ship on the ground, I say we blow it up, huh, Ford?"

"Yes, sir," Ford said with real enthusiasm. "I'll pack extra C-4."

*********

"That's my leash you're so carelessly dragging on the floor."

John didn't stop until they were seated, with food. He took a couple of bites. "So?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't dream of complaining, but it's a piece of technology that I designed and wrote the code for, and I can't bear to watch you drag it like a puppy."

"What?" John reached back, unclipped it, and held it up like the disgusting thing it was. "This?"

With a glare, Rodney took it from him. "See the tiny transmitter?" He pointed to nothing that John could see but he nodded.

"Say my name into it." Rodney held the loop out.

"Um, Rodney McKay?" John blinked in surprise when Rodney's collar began to beep. "Oh, that's creepy."

"It lets me know you're looking for me." Rodney fiddled with the loop some more and peeled it back. "Now, see the GPS inside it? You can locate me anywhere. Well, it has a rather short range, but definitely five miles or so."

John leaned closer. "Turn it off."

Rodney held it out. "Click it on and it automatically turns off. It took me four months to get everything right and build in some pretty hefty shock absorbers." He must've noticed that John wasn't taking it because he clicked it on his collar himself. The beeping quit. "So, again, delicate technology. Treat it gently."

"You designed and built a tracking device?" John couldn't believe it. "You supported the very system that enslaves you?"

"It was an interesting technological problem!" Rodney's eyes darted everywhere. "I wanted to do it."

"Bullshit." John knew that was a lie. "Did they threaten your sister? Beat the crap out of you?" He saw Rodney's jaw set and lift and the answer was clear. "Both, huh? What a great country. Why the hell didn't you stay in Canada?"

There was sadness in Rodney's eyes now. "There is a treaty with U.S. I was bartered away. Jeannie is still in Canada though. It's something. She's safe, or safer."

The food stuck in John's throat. He took a big drink of water. "And what was your reward for making the leashes?"

"I was allowed to work in the Stargate program." Rodney wasn't eating just staring down at his food. "In Russia."

John realized now the mistake of asking for Rodney's trust. Rodney had had years of being bent over, beat up, and used. Nothing would ever make him trust again. The Weir's and O'Neill's of the world had shown Rodney what to expect, and he had learned well.

"How are Miko and Lt. Cadman getting along?" John changed the subject to allow Rodney time to recover.

Rodney took a few bites before he answered. "That's a good pairing. I may salvage Miko yet."

"Glad to hear it." John would review Rodney's notes again tonight and find out who else to watch. He managed to finish his food, and he hoped it didn't give him heartburn. "And you? How's your handler treating you?"

"Well, at first I thought he was a total idiot, but he's not so bad. Kinda clumsy, and the hair is awful, but it could be worse." Rodney shrugged, and there was a small smile teasing at his lips. John went ahead and laughed, knowing it would make everyone stare.

*********

"Rodney, Carson wants to see us." John noticed the lab didn't quiet down when he showed up anymore. It was nice to be treated like old news. "Today. Now even. I'm almost sure he meant in this century."

"Ha, ha." Rodney shook his head. He hadn't even gotten to his feet or moved one inch. "Word is out that he has some experimental treatment for slaves. I'm not doing it. I have enough health issues."

John tilted his head. "What? Seriously? No one ever tells me anything!"

"Seriously," Zelenka said. "It is from program he started on Earth. Genetic manipulation and, of course, his first test subjects will be us."

"Over my dead body." John wasn't going to sign off on that. "I don't have near enough scientists. He can't go turning the ones I do have into mutants!"

"Are you mocking us?" Rodney looked on the verge of a frown.

"Not so much." John shrugged. "Come on. We'll be polite, and I'll say forget it." He tugged Rodney's jacket. "Then we'll get cake."

"There's cake?" Rodney stood, but he was still drinking his coffee. "You better not be lying about that!"

"Would I lie about dessert options?" John winked at Zelenka. "And why aren't doctors collared? Medicine is a science."

Rodney sprayed coffee all over. "It is not! They guess! And they get it wrong!"

"Like you don't." John took the coffee from him. "Let's go. You can mop the floor when you get back. Hey, maybe he'll turn you invisible. That'd be cool."

"Super powers? Could I be so lucky?" Rodney looked enthusiastic about that idea. It was almost instantly replaced with suspicion. "More likely I'll die horribly."

John went ahead and grinned. "I couldn't be so lucky." He kept his grin in the face of Rodney's terrible scowl. "That sour face doesn't work on me."

"Does anyone appreciate your sense of humor? Or should I say lack of humor?"

"Was I joking?" John was afraid he liked teasing Rodney a little too much. One of these days, he was going to slip up and do it in front of Weir.

"Ha. Ha." Rodney stopped walking right before they got there. "Um, I think I've changed my mind." He was serious.

Instead of arguing, John went for persuasion. He shrugged. "Okay, but personally, I want to know what's going on. Knowledge is power."

Throwing up his hands, Rodney started moving again. "I hate it when you're reasonable. I reserve the right to run screaming."

"Me too. I hate doctors," John said at the exact moment they met up with Carson. "Oh, sorry, Carson. Not you, of course."

Carson didn't look convinced. "So you've forgiven me for that little drone thing?"

"Um, no." John shook his head. "Even though, once or twice since I got here, I've wished you succeeded in blowing me out of the sky." He put his hands on his hips. "Okay, why are we here?"

John noticed that Rodney had wandered over to stare at the mice. Carson took a deep breath and launched into a detailed explanation. After a minute, John hopped up on the gurney. He waited, listened, and considered the problem at length.

"No."

"What?" Carson took a small step back. "Are you joking again?"

"No." John got down and put his hands on his hips to emphasize. "Rodney is our lead scientist. No one knows more than him about this base and the systems that keep us alive. Find someone who isn't vital to our continued existence."

"But--" Carson looked frustrated, and John didn't care.

"No." John gestured at Rodney. "Come on. You're not doing this." He was shocked when Rodney came to him but caught him by the forearm.

"I want it." Rodney was almost pleading, and that was a shock. "For me, it's everything. That moment you made the chair light up, I nearly died of jealousy." He took a deep breath. "Please."

That one word really set John back on his heels. "Hello, mutant DNA?"

Rodney put his hand on his collar. "Give me this tiny bit of freedom. I could even... fly a jumper. Maybe."

Making sure his face showed nothing, John was going to say no. He was. He really was.

"Please. I'll do something for you. I'll--"

John raised his hand to shut him up. He looked only at Carson. "Do it. If it kills him, I'll--" He had to stop before he threatened Carson with death. "Just. Don't screw up." He couldn't watch. "I'll be outside."

"Actually, I can't do it without you here." Carson's eyes were big. Apparently, he'd picked up on the unspoken death threat. "I'm very sure it's perfectly safe."

Rodney scrambled on the gurney and pushed his sleeve up. He wanted it, and John wasn't strong enough to deny him. It was John's turn to go talk to the mice, and he ignored the whispered conversation behind him. Rodney and Carson were friends. Oh, they tried to hide it, but it had become clear, especially during the last mission checkup. John wasn't jealous. He told himself that again. Commanders didn't get friends. He had his men, his team; it was enough.

"Ow!"

Turning, John frowned.

"Easy there, Major. He's fine." Carson was looking pointedly at John's hand. John took it off his gun. He hadn't intended to do that.

Scrubbing at his arm, Rodney hopped down. "How long?"

"An hour? Maybe four at the most." Carson might've smiled. "I want you in front of a scanner until it happens."

"You want to watch my brain change?" Rodney looked grossed out.

Carson practically bounced up and down. "That would be a rare sight."

"I'll get you cake." John needed to move. Get away. Rodney flashed him a big grin, and that made it worse. Walking away, he didn't look back.

*********

John's hands shook slightly as he took down the leash and peeled back the leather. The GPS was working fine, and he could see that Rodney was still in the lab. It was after midnight.

"Damn you, Rodney, what are you doing?"

The leash beeped, and John almost threw it out the window. "Shit!" He searched frantically for an off button, but found nothing, and finally gave up. Rodney was going to glare, maybe even yell.

The door chimed, and John reluctantly went to open it. Rodney stepped around him, scooped the leash off the bed, clicked it on, and handed him the end of it. The fact that John took it worried him.

"I did say I'd do anything," Rodney said. "I didn't think you'd claim it so soon, but I knew it'd happen."

Glaring and yelling would've been much easier to take than calm acceptance of a sexual assault, and John had no doubt that Rodney was offering himself.

Rodney's knees dipped and his hands reached for John's belt, and John hated them both. He hated Rodney for offering, and he hated himself for wanting.

"No!" John dropped the leash as if it were on fire and turned so he didn't have to see what the hell Rodney was doing. "I wanted to know if you were still in the lab. You work too damn much, and then I muttered your name and it started beeping. It was an accident."

"Oh?" There was a world of disbelief in that one letter.

John ran his hand through his hair, very sure his face was bright red. "You don't owe me anything. I didn't do it to gain!"

"Really?" Rodney would never believe that.

Taking a very deep breath, John turned back around, relieved to see that Rodney wasn't kneeling any longer. "I did it because you want to fly, and I understand that. I was thinking I'd teach you tomorrow, but you never sleep, and, well, forget it. Forget it!" He ran out of words. "Leave. Now."

"No." Rodney sat down on the bed. "Tomorrow?"

"Yeah." John leaned against a convenient wall. He felt like he'd been punched. His chest actually ached, and he rubbed it. It was time to ask him, but the words didn't want to come. John forced himself to say, "I know you want Carson for your handler. Tell me what to do, and I'll make it happen."

Rodney's lips thinned to a line and his blue eyes blazed. This was going to be bad, and John was surprised that he didn't want to hear it. Couldn't stand to hear it. Rodney opened his mouth, and John beat it out the door. He shut it fast and went quickly to the transporter.

"Sheppard!"

Pushing the button, John made sure it was impossible to see from behind.

"God damn it!"

John had spent a few evenings exploring the city, and he wasn't worried about Rodney finding him. What worried him was the moment they met again. It was probably better to get him switched to Carson before that happened.

Stopping at a big window to stare out at the city, John let his shoulders slump and he leaned against the wall. He was a damn fool to think they could be friends or accomplish something good. Change the world? Right. Stupid. That's what he was. "Way to go, John," he muttered.

"Are you sulking? If you are, I'm going--"

Fast, John switched his radio to a military channel. He didn't want to hear it. Rodney had every right to be angry. He'd almost gone to his knees. John rubbed his face hard. Never. Ever. It would be more than wrong because Rodney wouldn't have a choice.

Moving again, John headed for the infirmary. Yes, it was late, but Carson might be up, and he was sitting at his desk, sipping coffee and staring at his computer screen. John crossed his arms and waited for him to look up.

"Oh, aye! You're up?" Carson frowned.

John wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. "I'm going to transfer Rodney to you."

Carson's eyes bulged and the coffee slopped as he put it down. "You are not! I'll never sleep again! Between the allergies, the hypoglycemia, and the complaints, my life will be ruined!"

"What?" John shut the door so no one could hear them and found a spot to sit. "I thought--"

"Whatever you bloody well thought, you just get it out of your head. I won't do it." Carson crossed his arms. "I'm not military, and you can't make me!"

"You two are friends," John said, trying to understand. "I know he's gay so--"

"What?" Carson interrupted him again. "Who the hell told you that?"

Trying not to stutter, John found an answer. "Well, he seems to think we're going... I mean... I'm not! But he told me--" He had to stop talking. His face couldn't get any redder.

Carson relaxed, leaned forward, and looked less angry. "Rodney has had a lot of different handlers. Some of them have expected things. Yes, I've put him back together a few times."

John's temper pushed out his embarrassment. Now, his anger competed with a sense of helplessness. "Why would he even offer me, um, anything?" He really didn't understand.

"It's all he knows. He's never had a normal relationship with anyone. Gay? I doubt it. I'd say he's just decided not to argue about it." Carson gave John a stern look. "I hope I can trust you not to hurt him sexually. He's had enough stitches down there."

"Oh, God." John wanted to puke. He got to his feet, needing to flee. "Seriously, you should be his handler."

"I formally decline the honor." Carson stood also. "He likes you. He's never liked his handler. Draw firm boundaries and you'll be fine."

Leaving without another word was rude, but John wanted to punch someone, and he had to get moving before it happened. He headed deep into the city. Going back to his quarters was out of the question. Somehow, tonight, he had to build some boundaries.

There were places in the city that only John knew about, and this was one of them. It had probably been an underwater lab, but now it was just a big aquarium. If there had been consoles, they were gone. The lights still worked though, and John had dragged a big sofa-like thing near the biggest window.

The fact that it was night wasn't a problem. He engaged the underwater lights and sat down to watch the fish. They were odd-looking, small and large, and when he couldn't sleep, and he was too tired to run, he came here to watch. Occasionally, he wished for a fishing pole.

Boundaries. Right. Pushing Rodney away was going to be next to impossible. John shut his eyes and tried to see a way out - a solution - but he had nothing.

"You're sulking!"

"Crap," John whispered, instantly spotting the life signs detector that Rodney had used to track him down.

"Hey, this is… wow." Rodney walked up to the glass and put his hand against it. "Nothing in here but this?"

"No." John wanted to run out the door, but he had the feeling that Rodney would follow him. "Why aren't you sleeping?"

"Why aren't you?" Rodney shot right back at him. "It's late!"

John rolled his eyes. "No kidding." He made up his mind not to really look at him. That would help. "I spoke to Carson."

Rodney turned around fast. "I'm sure he told you that he'd rather be shot than handle me."

"Well, sorta." John spotted a fish and kept his eyes on it. He was sorry he'd gone and asked. It was time to establish a boundary, and it was going to hurt to do it. "Don't talk to me about sex again. Not ever."

After making a small noise that could've meant anything, Rodney answered. "I won't. I thought, well, never mind what I thought. Are you... going to give me away?"

"I'd like to, but no one will take you," John said with his best sarcasm. "Gee, I wonder why."

Rodney sat down next to him with a thump. "They always want blowjobs. Always." He paused. "A few of them wanted my ass."

It took every ounce of willpower John possessed not to pull his gun and fire at the window just to cause mass destruction. He couldn't look at him. The only sound was of their breath, and he didn't even try to find words.

"I didn't mind, not really. Usually it was just a hassle. Colonel Ellis was the, um, worst."

"Please stop. Before I have to murder people," John managed in a strangled whisper. "Please."

"Sorry." Rodney sighed loudly. "I sorta like you."

John griped his thighs, struggling to find that boundary. "Don't. I may have to leash you and drag you around like some animal. And I will."

Rodney snorted. "Right. More like I've leashed you and dragged you around."

"I should've stood up to General O'Neill, said no, but... there was this thing in Afghanistan. People died because of me. Guilt, ya know." John didn't know why he was talking about this, but he couldn't stop. "I knew I'd be punished, maybe collared myself. Instead, they sent me to Antarctica to fly helicopters in circles. Funny thing was: I liked it."

"And then you sat down in the chair."

"I'd been up nearly two days." John shrugged. "That'll teach me to find a wall to lean against."

With a smile, Rodney stretched back and laced his hands behind his head. "So they made you take a slave."

"Punishment, of a sort. I bet General O'Neill would be upset, if he knew I don't hate you." John felt his face grow hot. "Not that I… like you or anything."

"Too late. You like me." Rodney smiled, and it was wide and honest. "I try to be universally hated."

"Easier than trusting." John knew all about it. He wanted to say one more thing and then he'd shut up. "Blow the sewer system."

As if John's words had manufactured an emergency, the city shook around them. "Did you?"

"No!"

"Come on!"

*********

"Where's Rodney?"

John shushed her and pointed to the corner sofa where Rodney was sleeping, half-eaten sandwich in his hand. "He's tired."

Weir nodded gravely. "With good reason."

"They certainly saved our asses tonight." John lowered his voice. It was time to push another part of his agenda. "I want your support. No more abuse. None. The system was designed to protect them. It's our job to do just that."

"It comes back to that." She looked tired also.

"Do you know how many stitches Rodney's had?" John couldn't bring himself to name the location of those stitches. "Do you want to trust our lives to people who have been beaten and raped? I don't."

Her expression slowly changed. "I hadn't quite thought of it that way."

He waited. Finally, he had her thinking.

She stared at Rodney. "Does he know?"

"That he could kill us all? Of course. He's a genius." John couldn't believe she'd even ask that. "Why he hasn't after what Colonel Ellis did to him is a mystery."

"I didn't sanction that." She frowned now. "Ellis claimed it was an accident."

John didn't bother with any kind of retort. "Do I have your support in this area?"

"Changing our customs this far from home is a dangerous idea. People are more comfortable with the status quo in times of stress." She really seemed to believe that.

One of these days, John was going to have to pull her head out of the sand. "With all due respect, ma'am, any day we could be eaten by Wraith. We don't have the luxury of acting like assholes to the very people who can save us. The customs are shit. People always take advantage. It's time to put things back the way the government intended or throw the collars in the ocean."

"Have you always been an advocate against slavery?" Her face was unreadable.

"No. You can blame General O'Neill for that." John glanced at Rodney, still sleeping. Some sleep would be nice.

Slowly, the tension went out of her body. "I'll support restoring the government's original intentions. Radek complains about his knees anyway."

Blinking in surprise, John discovered he really didn't want to know about the details of their relationship. "Completely not my business."

*********

"Yes."

"No."

"Yes."

"No!"

John crossed his arms. "I can do this all day. I have a brother. Do you?"

"Sister. She always wimped out." Rodney glared.

"I don't." John glared right back at him. "We have a mission. You're getting a good night's rest. Now, move your ass!"

"You are not the boss of me!" But Rodney's glare weakened, and he got to his feet. "You're not!"

The words made John laugh. Then he pointed at the door with a strong gesture. "Go get your leash."

Rodney instantly took three steps toward the door. Suddenly, he stopped and his shoulders curled. "Point."

"I am not only your boss but also your commanding officer, and I say it's bedtime. Would you like a story?"

Several people snickered, and Rodney leveled them with the evil of his eyes. "I hate you."

"That's been established many, many times. Zelenka, lock the door when you leave. Rodney, you're with me." John made a sweeping bow, and Rodney reluctantly stomped out the door in front of him. In a concession to the early hour, John hooked his thumb at the mess hall and raised his eyebrow. Rodney nodded, and they ate together.

"Are things better?" John asked, only lowering his voice a little.

"Not much." Rodney shrugged. "I take incredible abuse from my handler."

"Only because he cares--" John stopped; his heart falling through the floor. "For the safety of his team, and you might shoot someone if you don't sleep!"

Rodney stared at him with those piercing blue eyes. "Nice save." He made a grumpy noise. "Kavanagh is a problem."

John had noticed that. "Because he's a moron and you want to kill him, or because his handler gave him a black eye."

"You knew?" Rodney looked surprised.

"I have spies everywhere. I spoke to Sergeant Stackhouse about it. He says he has no idea how it happened and that he was on duty all night."

"You believe him?" Rodney asked with an aggrieved tone.

It was John's turn to shrug. "He was on duty, but he's lying about something. What's Kavanagh say?"

"He pouted. That was about it. Everyone thinks it was Stackhouse." Rodney sighed. He pointed at John's dessert. "Can I eat that?"

"Yeah." John pushed his tray closer. He lowered his voice after looking to make sure no one was close. "They having sex?"

Rodney gave a bare nod and kept on eating. John decided to speak to Stackhouse again about consent. After he got Rodney to bed.

"Why are you suddenly a darker shade of tan?"

It was time to put his dirty tray in the pile, and he did that instead of explaining that he could never think of Rodney in bed again. Marching back to the table, John said gruffly, "Go to bed."

"You're not going to tuck me in?" Rodney's blue eyes were full of mischief. John went to find Stackhouse, doing nothing more than rolling his eyes. His radio clicked before he hit the transporter. Rodney said, "No peeking at the leash."

"Go to bed, Dr. McKay, or I'll leash you to mine," John growled. He was lying, of course, and he wouldn't dare, but the thought of Rodney, naked in bed, was enough to make him swallow hard. Luckily, Rodney didn't reply, and John shored up that damn boundary again. Thank God Rodney didn't know that his handler wanted him.

*********

John shouldn't have been within earshot, but he was, and there was no way not to hear the conversation. He did wiggle further back into the shadow and make sure he didn't breathe hard. Trying to leave would draw attention to himself, and he didn't want that - God no.

"Dr. Weir, I want a new handler," Rodney said; his face hard and cold.

There was no one else in the long hallway, and John was grateful for that.

She shifted on her feet. "I thought you liked Major Sheppard. Half the ideas he comes to me with, I suspect come right from your mouth."

Protesting would give him away, but he was shocked she thought it.

"I don't like him. We don't suit, and trust me, those hare-brained ideas are all his own. I told him flat out that the system will never change." Rodney looked sad. "I'll wear this until I die."

"Yes, you will." She nodded. "I'm glad to hear that you don't harbor false hope." Then she crossed her arms. "You should be talking to him. He's made it clear that I'm not in charge of pairings, and he's right."

"Yes, but if you tell him to do it, he will. He's military, and he'll obey your order." Rodney rushed the words out.

John hated that parts of him were clenched so tight they might never unwind.

"He seems to respect you, maybe like you." She smiled. "Work it out with him. You don't want Bates, and he's the only one willing to take you."

"I'll take Bates! Damn it, Dr. Weir! Tell him!" Rodney's face was flushed. "You don't know!"

"That you would rather be miserable than have a friend?" Weir shrugged and took a step away. "How long was I your handler, Rodney?"

Rodney's face turned crimson, and John stopped breathing altogether.

"He doesn't want sex from you. I'm sure it's a relief." Weir took two more steps. "Maybe you finally found your match."

Before John's lungs exploded from lack of air, Rodney gave her a terrible glare. "Major Sheppard is no match for me," he ground out. "And you were my handler long enough to know that I usually get my way."

"Good luck." Weir gave him a cheery little wave and strode away. John could see that Rodney was furious. Now was not the time to make an appearance. After a moment, Rodney hurried down the hallway after her, and John eased over to the transporter. He was gone in a flash, and he took several deep breaths, not knowing whether to punch something, or yell, or transfer Rodney to Bates without another word.

He ended up in the jumper bay, sitting in Jumper One and wishing he could fly away. When the entire bay rumbled, he blinked in shock, prayed he hadn't broken something, and dashed out. The ceiling was in the process of folding inwards, and his surprise quickly turned to something almost like happiness.

"Flight, this is Jumper One. Can I have clearance for a trip around the planet?"

"Major?"

"Got it in one, Chuck." John grinned. "The hatch just opened. I'm going to take her out."

"You're clear, Jumper One. I want a full report, Major," Weir said.

John nearly laughed. "You'll get one." He eased her up and out, and he was above Atlantis, and everything was fine. It wasn't, but he could pretend as he looked over his beautiful city. She wasn't really his, not anymore than Rodney was, and wanting wasn't having.

"Sheppard? What the hell happened?" Rodney's voice boomed into John's ear.

"I was sitting in the jumper, wishing, and the roof opened." John knew exactly how stupid the truth sounded. He didn't want to talk, and he was glad when the connection clicked off. Right now, he'd do a small survey of the planet, and by the time he got back, he'd have made up his mind what to do with... his slave.

**********

Landing the jumper, John sat for a moment to gain his courage. A clear cut decision had turned out to be impossible, so he was going to play it by ear and see exactly how angry he was when he looked at Rodney and go from there.

The mere idea of letting Bates near him made John's jaw clench, but if that was what Rodney wanted, that's what he'd get.

"What did you do?" Rodney hurried up the ramp; his hands waving wildly.

John shrugged, hating the surge of anger that made him clench his teeth. Rodney didn't want a friend. John had thought they were in this together. As usual, he was being a fool. They weren't friends. They'd never be friends. He knew he wasn't a great guy or anything, but it hurt in a way that he'd never admit.

Rodney had gone to Weir about him, complained about him behind his back, and it felt like a huge betrayal. John never should've trusted him.

"Nothing. I thought it. It happened."

"You must've touched something!"

"No." John walked past him, out of the jumper. Zelenka was looking up, and he hurried in the jumper once John was out of the way. Deciding to leave was easy. John headed for the door. A strong hand grabbed him by the arm, and he twisted free. "Back off!"

Rodney's eyes widened. "What the hell?" He raised his hands. "You're angry?"

"Report to my office at 0800." He saw something he didn't want to examine too closely flash across Rodney's face.

"What?"

Standing there another second wasn't possible. John used his best glare and left them to figure out the overhead door. If they couldn't, he'd fire them.

*********

Paperwork was fun. Really. It was. Well, it was definitely more fun than thinking. Paperwork was, at least, mind-numbing. He didn't question the need for it, but it was nice that there were no requisition forms.

"Are you, um, busy? I could come back." Rodney would run given half-a-chance. It was all over his face, and his hands were creating small tornados.

"Sit." John checked the time. Rodney was early, not by much, but he could wait. Yes, it was childish.

"You're mad. Okay, I get that. Not sure why, but whatever it is, can you not look at me like that in front of Zelenka? He thought you might shoot me." Rodney took a deep breath, sitting on the edge of the chair. "You aren't? Right? Your eyes are kinda scary."

John rubbed his forehead. He first glanced at the time and then set his tablet aside. "Are you finished?"

"Maybe?" Rodney frowned. "Just tell me what this is all about so I can stop freaking out."

John wondered when Rodney had decided to care enough to freak out. Well, it didn't matter. "Go get your leash. Bates will be here in fifteen. You're with him now."

"She told you," Rodney whispered; his face drained of all color. He rubbed his mouth, and John could see Rodney's hands shaking. "Zelenka said I was being stupid, but I - well."

"Go." John didn't want to hear it. He'd spent a lot of years taking a lot of insults, but Rodney throwing friendship back in John's face had somehow turned out to be the worst one. Going to Weir, complaining about him, like they were in grade school. Yes. Worst ever, and he'd thought being tagged the Queer Quaker had been bad. "Now, or I'll have him get it on his way."

Rodney got to his feet. "Sheppard, I--" He stopped. His hands that rarely stopped hanging loosely at his sides. "Never mind. I can see your mind's made up."

That was very perceptive of him. John picked up his tablet and went back to work, rotating the schedules so everyone had a turn at night duty.

Bates was right on time, and John made the transfer with as few words as possible. Not looking right at Rodney's face made it easier.

"Follow regulations, Sergeant," John snapped after seeing the smirk. He handed him the leash, and his hand actually hurt doing it. "I'll be watching."

"McKay and I are going to get along fine." Bates grinned and tugged the leash. "Let's go to my quarters and establish some ground rules."

John shoved his fists into his pockets and turned away. He was finished. It had been a bad match anyway and an affront to his religious beliefs. Not only that, but Bates was probably better at handling a scientist than John was.

"Major Sheppard? Thanks."

The door shut. John had no idea what Rodney was thanking him for, and it really didn't matter. Things were going to be better this way.

*********
end