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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

Chapter Text

*********

Normal. This was normal. Rodney had been here so many times before, and he knew every single step along the path. But this time, this time, with brown - green? - eyes watching, there was no way to complain. No way to escape, and it all felt ten times worse.

"You are a very stupid man."

"I know."

********

"Major, are you growling?" Teyla asked.

John looked back down at his dinner before shoving it away. "No," he snapped. "Practice around eight?"

"I believe I have practiced enough lately." Teyla leaned closer, and John sat up very straight. She shrugged. "Have you spoken to him?"

Her eyes were kind, and the look she gave Rodney was the same. "It is difficult to see him so quiet."

His teeth threatened to crack. "He made his choice," he ground out and left her sitting there. Quiet? Rodney was more like a zombie. Weir had even remarked on it, and he wasn't sure she'd been pleased.

Spotting Cadman and Miko, John tried hard to look something other than angry. "Are you two ready for the mission tomorrow?"

"It'll be fun," Cadman said, smiling. Miko nodded, but she wasn't beaming. She'd passed the weapons requirement, and he had no doubt that Cadman would take care of her.

"Good. Tomorrow morning then." John tried to smile and started moving again. Unfortunately, he wasn't fast enough.

"Major!" Bates was always happy these days.

John turned but only just enough. "Yes, Sergeant?" It took every bit of John's will not to punch him.

"We need to review security arrangements again. It's been a month." Bates paused. His hand was firm on the leash. "I also think my team deserves a shot."

"Of course. Get a mission together with Grodin. I'm sure Dr. Weir will approve it." John found himself staring at Rodney's hands. They were twisting together like tortured snakes. "Security can wait another month. Nothing has changed."

"Yes, sir." Bates's lips twisted. "Will you be reviewing slave handlers?"

"I'm always doing that." John couldn't look at them any longer. "Dismissed." He tried not to flee, but he was pretty sure he looked as if he were running. Rodney had made a soft noise that might've been hurt or despair or some other terrible emotion that wasn't John's fault, and it drove him to the far reaches of the city.

********

Staff meetings were hell, absolute and total. They'd been bad before, and now they were worse.

"Dr. Beckett, you have a report?"

John wiped his sweaty hands on his thighs and hoped no one saw him. Carson looked right at him before beginning.

"All the slaves were examined. Miko has gained ten pounds. She needs a few more, but I'm not rushing her. No bruises, no illnesses, and no reports of sexual assault." Carson suddenly frowned, and John felt his pulse speed up. "My biggest concern is Dr. McKay. He's lost twelve pounds, and while he had it to lose, his lack of energy concerns me. His hypoglycemia could be flaring."

Weir folded her arms and leveled her best glare at Rodney. "Would you care to explain yourself, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney waved his hand. "It's all the running and screaming. I'm fine." He crossed his arms and for some reason glared at John. "I've never had a better handler."

Bates nodded. "We're a good match," he bragged.

John's breakfast rebelled, and he allowed his hand to tighten on the butt of his gun.

Carson's gaze dropped. He was the only one close enough to notice, and he did. "I suggest you make sure Dr. McKay eats small, regular meals. A hypoglycemic coma isn't something to fool around with."

Bates' smugness fell away, and Rodney swallowed hard. John wanted to jump up and start shooting, and he had the feeling Teyla knew it. She placed her hand on John's thigh and squeezed, under the table, where no one could see.

"Anything else, Doctor?" Weir filled the awkward silence.

"No." Carson sighed. John focused on Teyla's hand, gripping his leg. She knew. He hadn't managed to hide it from her.

"Major, your team will be ready within the hour?"

"Yes, ma'am." John hoped there would be plenty of Wraith to kill. Teyla and Ford left with him, and he made sure not to look at Rodney. Rodney had done this. He'd made his bed; he could lie in it.

*********

"Go, go, go!"

John was the last through, and bolts of blue energy were right behind. The funny thing was; he saw it coming, but there was no time, and it all turned black.

"Major?"

That was Carson. John was sure of it. He blinked, but nothing else on his body worked, and he tried to talk but his lips wouldn't move. It was weird. His brain skittered around and struggled to make sense of what had happened.

"He's awake. He'll be fine. He was stunned, nothing else," Carson whispered, and John had a feeling that the doctor wasn't talking to him. He shifted his eyes but saw nothing.

"Go on with you now, before Bates finds out you're here." Carson's words were almost lost in the background noise, but John heard, and he didn't understand.

"Carson! How's Major Sheppard?"

"Ine. 'M ine." John heard the words mumble out of his mouth. He wanted up, and he barely listened to the explanation of why his legs wouldn't work. Rodney had been here, watching him.

"Aye, he'll be up and around in no time. I doubt there will be any long-term effects." Carson patted him on the arm.

Weir came into view. "He looks like he's panicking."

"Major, settle down. It'll pass." Carson was trying to sound comforting. It was annoying. John grunted and strained every muscle - in his mind. Damn. This was terrible. Weir asked another dumb question, and they moved away. He tried to shut his mouth, feeling drool. Wanting Rodney back was ridiculous.

*********

"Sergeant Bates was right. Teyla is the traitor." Rodney wouldn't look John in the eye. Putting the necklace down on the table, Rodney continued, "The necklace is a transmitter. She's been giving our position away."

"I took the liberty of having her put in the brig." Bates was so close to grinning.

Weir looked shocked, and John tried to measure his words. He had to convince them. "I gave her that."

The silence was wide and deep, and Rodney's mouth dropped open.

"I found it on her planet in some ruins and gave it to her. She'd lost it as a child."

Rodney snapped his fingers. "You must've activated it!"

"The gene activated it," Weir added. She nodded, and John saw Bates' instant anger.

"That makes no sense! It's more likely that she waited to turn it on until we arrived!"

John tried not to roll his eyes. "I did it. My fault. Again. She had nothing to do with it!" He'd get her out of the brig now. Hitting his radio, he snapped, "Lt. Ford, escort Teyla to the conference room nicely, very nicely."

"Yes, sir!" Ford sounded happy about that.

"It's short range, chances are good that the Wraith have boosters set up on certain planets."

Bates pushed Rodney into a chair. The leash jerked Rodney's head. "Shut up, slave. No one asked you. Tell them the truth - she activated it!"

Tossing a chair aside, John advanced on them. Weir stepped in between. "Major, I'm convinced she knew nothing about this."

"We'll be lucky if she stays in the city, and we need her help in this galaxy!" John wanted to reach around Weir and pulverize Bates.

"Maybe it'd be better if you left this to me, Sergeant." Weir turned, keeping John at her back. "Rodney, thank you. Go back to work."

They left, and John wished he hadn't seen the desperate look on Rodney's face. Bates was furious, likely to do anything. As soon as the door shut behind them, John clicked his radio to the right frequency.

"Zelenka, manufacture an emergency that needs Rodney. Now."

"Major?" Zelenka sounded unsure.

"Do it," John growled. He clicked off and looked her right in the eye. "Bates is a liability to this base."

She didn't look away. "I'll handle this with Teyla. Bates made an honest mistake. He couldn't have known that you activated it."

Struggling with his temper, John fought to stay silent. There was no way to win. Bates, technically, had done nothing wrong. "I take it that you'll impress upon Bates that he has no authority to arrest anyone on this base in the future?"

"He's my chief of security. He does have the authority." Weir gestured at a chair. "Sit down. Take a deep breath. I know seeing him yank Rodney around made you furious, but I need you thinking clearly."

"Rodney wears that leash all the damn time!" John blurted before he could think better of it. "It's killing him!"

"Carson will take care of him, and there's no outward evidence of abuse." Weir straightened her jacket. "I have to deal with Teyla and this crisis. Rodney is fine, and please don't manufacture any more emergencies for him to handle. I'm drowning in paperwork as it is."

At that moment, Teyla and Ford came through the door, and John went to her. She hesitated for only a moment, and then they touched foreheads.

"I'm sorry," John whispered.

"I am fine." Teyla had a very small smile for him. "I know we are friends."

John nodded. "More than that." He stepped back and let Weir do the rest of the talking.

Ford gave him a hand signal, and they moved to the back of the room. "Bates is making a lot of noise."

"Have him watched." John had a brief fantasy that involved pushing Bates off a pier. Ford nodded, and John twitched his head toward the door. That was enough to get Ford moving. John considered calling Zelenka again, but it was too early. Instead, John took a step forward and concentrated on this problem. Teyla needed his help.

*********

John sat down on the stairs, peeled off his right boot, and poured the sand out on the floor. He'd had a miserable morning, and he was about to make it worse. "Get Bates and McKay. We have to go back and get the jumper." He put his boot back on and did the other one. He'd sweep up later. "Cadman, you and Miko go shower. No reason all of us have to be miserable."

They nodded and headed off together in clear relief. Teyla shifted on her feet. "I am still certain we were being watched."

Ford nodded, but John shrugged. "Me too, but it wasn't like we didn't try. Right now, we concentrate on retrieving the jumper."

"I'm not pushing it home," Ford grumbled. John agreed with that. He pondered whether to take more Marines while he laced up his boots. Ford tilted his head. "More guys?"

Raising four fingers, John nodded. "Get big guys. In case we have to push."

Teyla smiled, and it was rare enough that he grinned back at her.

"What's the mission, Major?"

Instead of spitting in disgust, John answered Bates in a calm voice. "We were brought down by some sort of magnetic field, or so Miko thinks. We're going back for the jumper. I'll need McKay to fix it."

"I suppose this will involve hours of walking?"

"Shut up, McKay, or I'll shorten your leash," Bates snapped. "You'll do it, and you'll smile."

John watched as Rodney collapsed in on himself. It was ugly. "We're taking a jumper, but we'll have to park a safe distance away. Hopefully, you can figure out where that is."

Bates adjusted his gun and snapped the leash to his belt. "We're ready."

Rodney opened his mouth to say something but stopped. It was probably a complaint, but John was curious.

"McKay?"

"Well, um," Rodney said, ducking his head, "I should probably get some specific tools that could help us. If you want. Or I can wing it?"

Wondering why Rodney was ducking kept John from answering for a moment. Bates flushed red, and John found some words. "Bates, get the equipment. Meet up with us in the jumper bay. I need some water anyway."

"Yes, sir." Bates stomped away, and Rodney was jerked around like a fish on a line.

Teyla startled him by putting her hand on his forearm. "Major, you should act on your outrage."

"McKay took away my right." John couldn't demand him back now. Even if Bates did something against regulations, Rodney would have to go to someone else. That was the rules. "Would you take him?"

"My people are firmly against this practice, and I will not support it in any fashion." Teyla was strong in her convictions, unlike him. She frowned. "Nothing good will come of this."

"Here's some water, sir."

"Thank you." John started up the stairs, gesturing for them to follow. "Let's do this again and try to get it right this time."

*********

In conclusion, I'm never taking Bates with my team again. I'll take Dr. McKay but not his handler. Please review your policy and consider letting me fit the proper scientist to the proper team, instead of worrying about handlers and leashes.

Staring at the words, John slowly used the backspace button until they were gone. He tried again.

Bates is nuts. Rodney deserves better. Please let me kill Bates.

"That'll work, John." He deleted that also. There weren't any words to describe how close Bates had come to getting them all killed. With no good way to end this report, John didn't. He sent it to Weir like it was. She wasn't an idiot. She could read between the lines. At least they'd gotten the jumper home, and those children had their shield back.

"You are a savage people," Keras said.

John winced at the memory, and the accusation - hell, the truth - had been impossible to deny. Rodney's collar, Bates' behavior, damned them all. Needless to say, that was one world they weren't welcome on again.

If it weren't for Teyla, they all might've ended up like pincushions.

The door rang, and John got it. "Come in, Teyla."

She handed him a big mug, and she had one of her own. "We must talk."

"When my wife said that, I always slept on the couch." John saw her surprise and shrugged. "Yeah, I was married, briefly."

Teyla touched her mug to his. "Drink."

That was a good idea, and after bracing himself, he did. It was good. "Thanks."

"You are welcome." She found a place to sit, and John found a place not too far away. His room really wasn't big enough. She smiled. "Why did you sleep on the couch?"

"Instead of the bed? With her?" John drank some more beer to cover his smile.

She laughed, and it was a surprise. "Our men must sleep outside the tent."

"Same thing." He gestured at his tablet. "I sent Dr. Weir a report, but it was mostly lies."

"I gave her a very thorough report." Teyla sipped her mug. "I, as you would say, have nothing to lose."

But John didn't want to lose her. He stared down at the dark beer and searched for words. She waited, and he finally said, "You're a good friend. We don't deserve you."

"I am going to be spending more time on the mainland with my people." She didn't pull her punches. It wasn't her way. "The situation with Keras was unfortunate. I am uncertain as to why the children liked Rodney."

John nearly snorted beer. He'd thought the same thing. "But?"

"They did, and their compassion is a gift." She took a deep breath. The worst was yet to come. "I will not be going on missions with Sergeant Bates in the future."

"Me neither." John hoped he could keep that promise. He took a deep breath to match hers. "Help me?"

Teyla smiled so big, and everything was suddenly okay. "New galaxy. New rules."

"Hey, I said that." John laughed, feeling hopeful for no good reason other than he had a friend. "Tell me what to do."

"First, you must take me home for a short while." Teyla didn't lose her smile. "And Rodney needs a flying lesson."

"He's so broken," John whispered, guilt threatening his sanity for a moment. "Where'd the anger go?"

"He is tired of fighting." Teyla pushed John's beer at his face. "You taught him there is another way, and now he's lost."

"It was his damn idea!" John took a huge drink. He didn't come up for air until it was all gone. Getting pleasantly buzzed was a great idea. "He wanted Bates!"

Teyla sighed. "He was afraid of having a real friend after a lifetime of being alone." She rolled her eyes, and she'd learned that from him. "Men are stupid."

"That's why we sleep on the sofa." John put the mug down and scrubbed his hands through his hair. "I can't fix this. The rules are clear, and I can't throw them out the window just for Rodney."

"The situation is complex." Teyla nodded and finished her beer. "We will need Dr. Zelenka to help."

John knew they were going to need more than that, and God help them if Earth suddenly dialed them up some day. If a platoon of Marines showed up, it was back to the status quo. "Dr. Weir?"

"She is seeing the light. Slowly." Teyla shrugged and got to her feet. "Change is never easy."

"When do you want to leave?" John wasn't sure how this was going to work out, but he'd sleep better at night if he were trying. "My father would be ashamed of me."

She shook her head. "No, he would be proud. You haven't surrendered your beliefs."

"Didn't I?" John disagreed. He had let his anger rule his reason. She picked up the mugs, and he knew this conversation was over. "What time?"

"Now, please, while there is daylight. I am packed."

"I really shouldn't drink and drive." John shrugged into his tac-vest and tapped his earpiece. "Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka, please report to the jumper bay." He switched channels. "Dr. Weir, I'll be taking Teyla to the mainland."

"She's really going?" Weir didn't sound happy.

"Yes." John kept it short. "I'll try to smooth things over with her."

Teyla's eyes twinkled. Weir replied, "Do that. We need her. I'll be speaking to Bates."

"Good. I'm taking Zelenka and McKay. I want the jumper given a thorough check before I try another orbital gate."

"I agree." She paused. "When you return, we'll be reviewing handler and slave policies."

John lifted his eyebrows at Teyla. She must've been very persuasive. He kept all emotion from his voice. "Sheppard out." He clicked off. "Let's get you home."

"No rush." Teyla opened the door. "There is more beer at our camp."

"I need it." John strapped his gun down on his thigh. He followed her to her quarters, tried to shoulder most of the bags, and laughed when she glared. "I'm a nice guy!"

She brandished a stick at him, and they made their way to the jumper bay. Zelenka looked patient, but Rodney was pacing. The old Rodney would've marched up and demanded some answers. This Rodney went completely still. His leash stopped swinging. He never went anywhere without it. It was either in Bates' fist or clipped to Rodney's belt. John had never hated anything more.

"We're taking Teyla to her people. I want a complete diagnostic on this jumper by the time we return. Get whatever you need and get back here." John tried very hard not to stare at Rodney's face. Exhaustion didn't cover it. He looked like shit. He'd hit the end of his proverbial rope.

Teyla stowed her things securely. "Dr. McKay does not look well."

"I did this," John whispered, guilt eating at him. "I gotta fix it."

"Yes, you do." Teyla nodded. "I believe there is time. Let today be the beginning."

John didn't have much time to fume before Rodney and Zelenka were back. Zelenka's eyes were wide, and John didn't ask, but he knew something bad had happened.

"Flight, Jumper One heading to the mainland."

"Jumper One, you're clear."

The sun was starting to go down, and Teyla took the co-pilot's seat. "Perhaps, you should make arrangements to spend the night."

The sound of the tablet hitting the deck was loud, and John automatically ducked.

"Well, that is broken," Zelenka said.

"No promises," John said to Teyla. He took the jumper up high and then executed a few slow maneuvers. She felt good underneath his hands.

"I am going to vomit," Zelenka whispered. John made sure not to laugh and evened her out. He glanced over his shoulder, but Rodney was staring intently at his tablet; his fingers poised over it.

Zelenka made several comments in Czech, and John hoped the little guy didn't expect answers.

"The left engine is still sluggish," Rodney muttered. "Radek, pull the panel down."

"Probably got sand in it." John smiled. "I'll blow the engines out."

"Oh, crap," Zelenka muttered.

John made sure the landing was soft, and he tried not to laugh at Zelenka's greenish face. Rodney didn't even look up from a pile of what were electrical cords in the Pegasus galaxy.

Teyla started getting her bags, and John grabbed as many as he could. He laughed and hurried so she had to run after him.

Halling invited them to stay for dinner. John accepted in the interest of continued good relations, of course, and Teyla made an obscure gesture at the jumper that was easy to understand.

"I'll get the geeks," John teased. She smacked him, and he pretended to be injured as he stumbled away. That would be the good part of the evening. Now he had to face Rodney, and that would be no fun at all. "Food. Now. Move it, geeks." He kept with the theme.

Zelenka wiped his brow and got up off his bended knee. "I am hungry." With that, he bolted from the jumper as if Wraith were after him.

"I'll get some later." Rodney's back greeted him.

Crossing his arms, John waited.

It took a few minutes. "What?" That one word seemed torn out of Rodney's throat, and he still didn't look at him.

Spreading his feet a little, John waited, and waited.

"Go away!" Rodney whipped around and yelled.

"Time to eat," John said. "Please."

Rodney shook his head. "No. No! No!"

John knew this wasn't about dinner. He was stupid but not a fool. "Are you sure you want to argue about this? Food? Which you like?" He frowned and scratched the back of his neck. "Aren't you hungry?"

"No," Rodney growled. He sat down hard on the bench. "Leave me alone."

"That's my motto. I repeat it every morning. 'Leave McKay alone. He hates your guts. Don't even look at him.'" John lifted his finger. "But! There's food, and Teyla wants to sit by you, and she's kinda cute. Think you gotta chance?"

"I really do hate you," Rodney said. He rubbed his eyes. "And you hate me too."

"No, I'm mad as hell at you for being a total jackass. There's a difference. Of course, someone with your stunted emotional growth probably wouldn't know that." John stretched out his hand. "Come eat."

"And if I say no?"

With a small smile, John told the truth. "I'll send you to Carson when we get back for some liquid food. You'll love it."

Rodney got to his feet, ignoring John's hand. "I think you're wrong. You do hate me." He went out and didn't look back. John shut the hatch with a sigh. He really had no clue how he was going to fix this, but Teyla expected it of him, and his father would too. Damn it.

*********

"Major Sheppard?"

"Here." John tapped his earpiece. "Problem?"

"Are you available in the jumper bay?"

John didn't have time. The Hoffans weren't going to wait much longer. He opened his mouth to say no, and Zelenka beat him to it.

"Please?"

"On my way." John's gut told him to go. He jogged part of the way and told Carson to go on without him. Zelenka was standing in Jumper Two, and John hurried up the ramp. "What do you want me to touch?"

Zelenka pushed his glasses up. "When this is over, you must speak to Rodney."

John put his fists on his hips. "That's why I'm here?"

"It is serious."

"It's always serious with him. Tell him to lodge a formal complaint." John hit his earpiece. He had to go. "Chuck, dial the gate."

Zelenka frowned, and John hoped that meant there'd be a complaint in his inbox when he got back.

*********

It took John half the base to track it down, but he did, and then it took a trade to get it. Tucking it under his arm, he headed for the infirmary.

Carson was at his desk; his cheek braced on his hand and his eyes gazing blankly at the screen. John leaned and turned it off with one finger.

"Hey!"

"So you are awake." John put the bottle in Carson's hand. "Would ye care for a wee dram?"

A frown and a blink, and Carson worked up to a glare. "Your accent is dreadful."

"Thanks." John pointed at the scotch. "All yours." He watched Carson inspect the label with a certain amount of worry.

"This is a wretched distillery. It'll do nicely." Carson popped the top off and filled a mug that might've had something else in it. "Sorry about your Wraith."

"I wasn't attached." John shook his head when offered a drink. "She was a good woman."

"Aye." Carson drank more scotch in one drink than John had ever attempted in his life. There was no grimace, no deep breath, or shudder. In fact, Carson put more in his cup. It was impressive. "The Hoffans are doomed."

John didn't bother with an answer. They both knew it was true. He was going to let Carson get drunk in private. "Take the day tomorrow."

Carson's answer was another long drink. John patted him on the shoulder and left him to it. Heading down the hallway, he decided to take a run, a shower, and then, hopefully, some sleep.

"Excuse me, Major."

Getting out of the middle of the hallway, his eyes nearly popped out at the sight of Rodney leashed, arms bound back. "Bates."

"Regulations allow it." Bates started moving again, and John went ahead and punched the wall. Zelenka had been right. What made it worse was that Rodney didn't even look at him.

John went straight to Weir's office and threw Chuck out with a glance. "What the hell is going on with McKay?" He was always careful to say McKay.

"Sergeant Bates had a conflict with Dr. McKay while you were gone."

"Physical?" John couldn't believe it.

Weir shook her head. "Verbal. Rodney got out of hand. Bates is following regulations to the letter."

"Our lead scientist is collared, cuffed, and dragged around Atlantis like some sort of... slave?" John knew he'd said something stupid, but he couldn't believe it. "How is this good for morale? People in this galaxy think we're brutes, and we are. We are!"

"Major." Weir shut her laptop and focused completely on him. "John. I can't free them. I can't change the laws. This is our society."

It was true, and it wasn't, and John didn't know what else to say. "Did you witness this confrontation?"

She tilted her head. "No. Apparently, it occurred in the privacy of Bates' quarters."

"Whatever words were exchanged, there's no excuse for that!" John raged. He'd never been so angry in his life.

"Major!" Weir got to her feet quickly. "Go cool off. Do not confront Sergeant Bates."

John felt his hands tremble. "Don't tell me how to do my job," he growled. He almost left, but something made him stay. Words that wanted out made him stay. "You're a brilliant woman, an intelligent, caring, compassionate human being. How can you condone this?"

Her eyes blazed, and he knew he'd made possibly the biggest mistake of his career that didn't involve death. It didn't stop him from continuing, "Don't you care? What if it were Radek? You've lived and worked all over the world, met thousands of people, seen so many different cultures, and this is okay to you?" He took a tiny breath. "Hell, you were one of McKay's handlers! Doesn't his pain and humiliation touch you at all?"

"Rodney gives as good as he gets. Always." Her face could've been carved from stone. "And I learned a long time ago to separate my beliefs from my job. You might try to do the same."

"No, but thanks." John was out of words. "My apologies, ma'am." He had to say it. "And off the record, Carson is a wreck. He's getting drunk in the infirmary."

"Good for him. He won't have far to go to get a painkiller in the morning." She stood. "You're dismissed, Major, and you know as well as I do that Rodney wanted him. Rodney asked for him, and Bates is a professional. He'll obey the rules."

John walked out. He ended up walking to the lab and sitting down heavily in front of Rodney's laptop. "There's nothing I can do."

Zelenka took off his glasses and rubbed his nose. "I believe if you don't that Rodney will find a way to end this. He is desperate now."

"My hands are tied by rules and regulations. Find me a loophole, Radek," John said. He shifted on the stool, adjusting his gun. "I can't just take him back."

"No, you can't." Zelenka scrunched up his face. "I will think on this."

"Tell Rodney to find me a solution." John's anger had gone out, leaving despair behind. "Have everyone report for their checkup tomorrow. Carson might kill me for it, but do it anyway."

"Yes, sir." Zelenka made a note on his laptop. "There is another way, but I dare not speak of it."

It was most likely something John didn't need to know about in advance. He'd be honor bound to put a stop to it. "Let's see what the doctors say, and then, if you have to, find a solution I won't like." He got to his feet. "This job stinks."

*********

John switched Bates' schedule. It was underhanded, but the smugness had asked for it. The bottom line was that he had to find a reason to reassign Rodney to someone, anyone. "Lt. Ford, come to my office."

"Yes, sir." Ford answered right away and came through the door within five minutes. "Sir?"

"I've posted a new schedule. Make sure everyone follows it." He waved at a seat. "And we need to talk off the record."

"About McKay?" Ford was no dummy. "Sergeant Bates has crossed the line. There aren't many in his corner."

That was welcome news. "I thought you were sure that slavery was the best thing since white bread."

Ford frowned. "I don't know what that means, but, um, we were all raised with it. It's normal, for us. Still, McKay has been quiet. He doesn't deserve what he's getting."

That was the damn truth. No one deserved it. "And what exactly is he getting?"

"You know, arms cuffed behind his back. Dragged around. Hell, I'm not sure he works anymore. Stackhouse said Bates took McKay on duty with him the other day. McKay knelt in a corner for hours." Ford swallowed hard. "You, um, didn't know?"

It took several deep breaths before the red faded from John's vision. "I was off-world. I'm almost sure that taking your slave to work with you is against regulations. Would I be right?"

Ford frowned. "Not sure. You should check." He got to his feet. "I'll spread the word about the schedule. Anything else?"

"No," John managed to say. "Thank you." He leaned back in his chair, and it took some time before he could think clearly. Then the answer came to him. He picked up his laptop and headed to the infirmary.

Carson's eyes were horribly bloodshot. "This is a dangerous place for you, lad."

"I know you want to kill me, and I don't blame you this time." John made sure not to grin. "Where's Rodney?"

"There." Carson pointed at a small, private room. "I put him on an IV. What the bloody hell happened while we were gone?"

"Still finding out." John knocked on the door before going inside. Rodney was sprawled, but he sat up fast, looking worried. John opened his laptop on a convenient side table. "Give me your flash drive."

Rodney didn't even ask why. He hunched his back, reached, and put it in John's hand. The lack of even a single question made John worry more than anything. John uploaded the last month's worth of information and handed it back.

"You don't hate me?" Rodney asked, clicking the flash drive back in his collar.

"Never." John shut his laptop. "You idiot."

Rodney's eyes were bleak. He rolled to his side, and John saw a man that had been pushed too far. Teyla had been right. Giving him a measure of freedom and friendship had broken him where all the abuse had failed. It was all so damn stupid.

John sighed. "You're restricted to the infirmary until further notice, and work is out of the question. I'll be sending Heightmeyer to you."

There was no movement at all. John opened the door and went out to find Carson. "How long are you keeping him?"

"At least a day. He's lost thirty pounds!" Carson looked furious. "His blood sugar is through the roof, and he's not talking. For him, that's the worst symptom of all." He glared. "Why the bloody hell did you do this to him?"

"He made me." John said it, but some of it was a lie. "He's not to leave here without my express permission. Understood?"

"Aye."

"Get Heightmeyer in to see him." John didn't have much hope for that. "Have you released anyone?"

"No." Carson scrubbed his face. "This is bloody hell for a morning."

John nodded. "As they leave, send them to my office."

"And if their handlers come to get them?" Carson really did look like hell.

"They can come along also." John pointed at him. "All of them." He left to let Carson organize his people. When he was out in the hallway, he touched his comm. "Sergeant Stackhouse, report to the infirmary."

"Yes, sir. Orders, sir?"

"All scientists are to report to my office after their physical." John was never, ever, saying the word 'slave' again in reference to his scientists. "No exceptions."

"Yes, sir!"

Satisfied that his order would be carried out, John went to get some breakfast and see exactly what Rodney had been doing the last month.

********

"Major, why is there a line of people outside your door?"

John shut his laptop, getting to his feet. "No reason to worry. They're just scientists. Cooling their heels for a couple of hours won't kill them."

Weir's eyebrows went up, and the mess hall went quiet. "Running the city wouldn't be a better use of their time?"

"Oh, is that why they were brought here?" John went ahead and raised his voice. "I thought they were nothing more than a bunch of dirty--"

"Major! Enough!" Weir interrupted him right on cue.

He picked up his laptop. "I sincerely hope that in the days to follow we don't need our scientists. to protect us from the Wraith. They certainly have no incentive to do so!"

"They want to live."

"Do they? Is this living?" John gave her a salute. "Excuse me, ma'am, I have interviews to conduct."

"Do that. I want a full report, and let's hope that you're wrong about the scientists."

There was a line outside John's office, and he noticed a lack of handlers. Miko was third from the end, and John stopped next to her. He leaned and whispered, "You doing okay?"

"Yes, sir," she said with a small smile. "Dr. McKay?"

"He'll be staying with Carson for at least a day." John cupped his hand under her elbow. "You first. Let's talk."

She nodded, and he winked at several others, including Zelenka. "Zelenka, you're next."

"I thought you'd make us wait forever," Zelenka grumbled.

John grinned. "Get a plan together while I talk to Miko." He nearly laughed at Zelenka's eye roll and opened his door. Talking to everyone was going to take a while, but he needed information and they had it.

*********

Rodney was sleeping. No one could fake the light snoring, the snuffles, and the trail of drool. John carefully sat down, put his feet up on the bottom rail of the bed, and took a break. He had a dozen things he could be doing, but he wanted to step back and think it all through.

Bates was screaming that Rodney was faking it. Weir was rubbing her forehead; Zelenka was threatening to do something, no one knew what, and Carson was just flat out furious. John had swung between so many emotions that he was worn out just from that. He'd led a quiet, simple existence in Antarctica, and part of him longed to go back to it.

To top it off, their supply of fresh food was low, and two planned missions were staring them in the face. He hated to go anywhere without Teyla, and she was still sorta mad.

"Aren't you supposed to be at work or something?" Rodney asked.

Without looking, John answered him. "Hiding. This is the one place they won't look."

"Not as dumb as that hair makes you look."

John needed to laugh, but he couldn't work up much of one. "You gonna get your ass up and help me fix this base?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Rodney waved his hand at the IV pole. He still looked pretty bad, almost gaunt. "I thought coming here, things would be different. Even if I did have a shitty handler, I'd have Atlantis, so I could take it." He grimaced and sat up a little more.

"But he took Atlantis away from you," John finished for him. "I know."

"No rule against it," Rodney said with real bite in his voice.

"Are you always this stupid?" John went ahead and blamed him for most of this.

Rodney licked his lower lip. "According to Zelenka, yes."

John got him some water without being asked. "Good to know." He wasn't angry any longer, but he did want an answer to one question. "Was it so hard being my friend?"

"Yes," Rodney whispered. He drank some more water and sat it down carefully. John watched him fall asleep again.

Carson walked in the room five minutes later. "Still asleep?"

"He woke up, complained, had some water, and fell back asleep." John got up with a small grunt. He didn't like the answer he'd gotten. He wasn't that crappy of a friend.

"Well, maybe he's feeling better." Carson grinned, and they went out together. "Does he still have the flu?"

The lie they'd told made John smile, but the truth worried him. "He looks awful. Is he really okay?"

With a shrug, Carson sat at his desk. "Pretty much. He's not ready for active duty, but if I knew he'd rest in his rooms, I could let him go."

"Um, right." John couldn't see that happening. "What about the eating thing?"

"Now, that's a problem. He's far too thin. Bates clearly didn't see that Rodney ate properly." Carson made a motion at his laptop. "I filed all the proper paperwork."

John was glad to hear it. "I don't have cause." He saw the instant anger on Carson's face. "I know! But Bates was careful. No bruising at all?"

"There was some soft tissue damage but nothing conclusive," Carson said. "What are you going to do?"

"I wish people would quit asking me that." John checked the time. "Gotta go to work. Keep Rodney isolated."

Carson nodded, but he was engrossed in something on his computer, and John left him there. Two hallways later, John's earpiece started chirping.

"Major, I need you in the gateroom now."

"On my way." John started trotting. Weir sounded freaked out, and he saw why immediately. He made sure not to grin as he stopped at the bottom of the stairs. "This is different."

Weir made a sharp gesture, and John hurried up the stairs. "What are you going to do about this?" she hissed at him.

John looked down at the gateroom full of scientists, sitting on their collective butts. "Is that Cadman sitting with Miko?"

"Yes!" Weir's hair bounced. "Call their handlers. I want them all taken to work."

"Oh, this is going to get ugly fast. Can I have the day off?" John really didn't want to make that call. It was a ridiculous idea and might start a riot. "Um, are you going to get Zelenka?"

She nearly leveled him with her glare. "I spoke to him. Unless I want to physically drag him away, he's not budging."

"Well, you're a skilled negotiator. What do they want?" John hoped they'd had the sense to come up with a list of demands. "Better pay? Vacation time?"

"Major, you're in charge of these people. I want them working." She looked as if she were clenching her jaw. "Now."

John pondered the problem, crossing his arms and staring down at them. "I'll have them all herded to the brig. A couple of hours there, and they'll want to go to work."

A crowd was starting to gather, of course, and he saw two more handlers join the scientists in a show of solidarity. Interesting. Not everyone was gung-ho on the slavery concept. He made a mental count. "Wait, the brig is too small."

"I realize that." Weir was starting to look dangerous. "I won't be held hostage to their demands."

He was ashamed that he wasn't sure what that meant. "I think we need to decide if this is an administrative problem or a military one, and then go from there. Maybe breakfast was terrible, and they're protesting the MREs. I heard Zelenka hates them."

"You're enjoying this a bit too much," she growled at him. He shrugged and thought about it some more. She tapped her foot impatiently, but he was in no hurry.

"Maybe they'll get bored and go back to work. They do love all those equations and stuff."

"As if I could be so lucky. How I got saddled with this expedition is--" She blinked. "I said all that out loud, didn't I?"

"Yup." John grinned, amused. "Okay, so! Do we agree that this falls in my jurisdiction?"

"We do." She waved her hand at the crowd. "Fix it. I don't care how. Oh, but the collars stay."

John rolled his eyes. "Picky. Picky." He ambled down the stairs, stopping two from the bottom. "Okay! People! Who's your negotiator?" He had to yell to be heard.

Zelenka bounced up and hurried over. "Me. We want two things."

"That's all?" John frowned. He liked the solution they'd come to, but they couldn't settle this too easily. "Radek, ya gotta think big!"

The noise level started dropping, and Zelenka's next words were heard all the way to Weir's office. "Dr. McKay will be given a new handler, and Dr. Weir will rewrite the policies, with help from two of us and yourself."

"Oh, is that all?" John admitted that they'd thought big. "How about we toss the collars in the ocean and call it a day?"

"We did not think you would agree to that."

The gateroom filled with laughter, and John tried to frown. He waited until it was fairly quiet again. "I have no grounds to dismiss Sergeant Bates."

Zelenka's arms flailed about, and John resisted the urge to duck. "Dr. McKay has been starved! Hit! Humiliated! And worse! He was not allowed to work!"

John rubbed his chin. "So?"

The collective gasp from the crowd was audible.

"We thought you were our friend!" Zelenka really did look angry.

Shrugging, John crossed his arms. "Rules are rules. I'm military. We follow rules."

"We need new rules!" Zelenka yelled at the top of his lungs.

The chant started softly but it grew until they were all shouting about new rules. John sat down, leaned back, and got comfortable. This could take a while, and he doubted anyone, anywhere in Atlantis was getting any work done today. His radio beeped, and he touched his ear.

"I'm going to have to handle this, aren't I?"

"I seem to be making them mad." John hoped he looked disgusted. Inside, he was laughing his head off. "It really isn't my area of expertise."

"Major! Disperse these slaves!" Bates yelled at the top of his lungs as he strode into the gateroom. "This is disgraceful!"

John saw Cadman look at him. He nodded, giving her permission. She would handle this in her own inimitable fashion, and there was no one more qualified. Bates' face grew red as she tore a strip off him, making him look like a fool and a brute, which he was.

He tapped his comm. "Be ready, Lieutenant Ford, but don't hurry."

"What?" Ford asked right as Bates punched Cadman in the face. Cadman must have moved at the last second because she didn't hit the floor. Bates, however, did when she got hold of him. John glanced at Stackhouse, who had joined him on the stairs.

"Helluva right cross."

"Too bad Teyla is missing this," John said. "Any chance someone is getting video?"

"Of course not, sir." Stackhouse smiled. "I'll see she gets a copy."

"You do that." John got to his feet, brushing off his knees. "Escort Bates to the brig. He definitely started it. We all saw it."

Stackhouse grinned and went to help Ford, who was finally pulling Cadman off Bates. John was somewhat amazed at the restraint shown by the scientists. They remained sitting, watching the show. There was no way they could be blamed. They'd made sure of that.

When there was quiet again, John cupped his hands around his mouth. "Can I convince you guys to go back to work?"

"No!"

"Huh." John surveyed the scene as if he didn't know what he was going to do. He touched his ear. "Everyone stay calm. Make sure your safety is on."

Several Marines adjusted their guns, and John saw Zelenka swallow hard, misunderstanding. "You sure you want to do this?"

"Yes." Zelenka marched over and sat down. "We will not go to work!"

John looked up at Weir's office. "I'll give her your demands." He marched up the stairs. This was working out fine. One nasty thought sent him back down to look right Zelenka right in the eye. "If the Wraith show up..."

"We will run to our stations." Zelenka made it a promise, and John was satisfied. They had to work this out if they were going to meet the Wraith as a unified people, and that small thing might be the key to their survival.

*********

"You did say we were going to review policies." John tried to smile charmingly, but he could tell she wanted to hurt him.

Zelenka smiled also. "I'm sure it will go quickly."

Weir glared at them both. "After we find some fresh food. Can it wait that long?"

John thought of Rodney, holed up in the infirmary. Bates could only be confined twenty-four hours for brawling. Protecting Rodney was a priority. Getting Teyla back here was going to be necessary. "I need Teyla for the mission."

"We want her and Dr. McKay to represent our interests." Zelenka was pushing his luck, even John could tell.

"Can we agree that we'll wait?"

"Only if Dr. McKay receives another handler." Zelenka crossed his arms, stubborn. "Now."

It was time to find some sort of compromise. "I'll talk to Bates, but for now, Zelenka, I have another solution." John tried to sound like it was a good idea. "As a gesture of good faith, we could agree to put the leashes away until further notice."

"No."

"That would be acceptable."

They said it simultaneously. John rubbed his forehead. "You two work that out. I'll go make arrangements for McKay." He eased out of the room before the fireworks began. They'd find a solution. He went right to the infirmary to speak to Rodney.

Carson met him at the door. "Rumors are flying. Are the slaves really in revolt?"

"Don't ever say that word to me again. They're scientists, and why you're not wearing a collar is a real mystery!" John pushed his finger at Carson's chest. "And yes, they're mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. Other than that, how's Rodney?"

With a look down at John's finger, Carson blinked several times. "Your scientist is feeling much better. I'd release him, but you told me not to, and is anyone injured?"

"Are you hoping?" John widened his eyes in fake disbelief. "Bates is going to have a black eye. Go visit him in the brig. I'll take Rodney with me."

"You're not his handler. You know the drill. I should wait--"

"I have the authority. I'm using it. Dr. McKay is in violation of several regulations, and I'm taking him to his quarters." John didn't glare, but he was thinking about it.

"Easy, lad. I'm not arguing. I was just hoping you finally realized that you have some power around here." Carson grinned. "I'll get my kit and go see Bates. It'll embarrass the hell out of him."

John laughed. "Release Rodney first?"

"Aye."

Rodney was glaring at the world when John got there. John didn't bother explaining and pleading. It'd never work. Rodney had been fed just enough to make him dangerous.

"I need a security detail in the infirmary," John said into his earpiece and then clapped his hands together. "Get dressed. You're leaving."

"Fine," Rodney spat. "Are you going to watch me dress?"

"Might." John walked out and assumed parade rest by the door. The security detail got there before Rodney emerged. "Okay, this is deal. I want two men on McKay at all times. Escort him to work, meals, and anywhere else he goes in the city. Two on his door at night, and he will be sleeping in his own quarters, alone. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Six hour shifts. Everyone below the rank of sergeant takes a turn." John heard the door open and turned to him. "Dr. McKay, you've violated several regulations recently. You will be escorted everywhere. Since your handler is in the brig, I'm confining you to your quarters unless you're eating or working."

McKay studied his shoes and then stuffed his hands in his pockets. It wasn't very helpful.

"Any questions?" John took two steps, unclipped the hated leash, and rolled it around his hand. "If you have any problems, contact me."

"You can't take that. He'll--" Rodney stopped. "Never mind."

"Go get some rest. All the other scientists are camped out in the gateroom." John knew that would send Rodney right there. "Dismissed."

Rodney hurried away, and he looked miserable, but he hadn't looked anything else lately. John went back to Dr. Weir's office, dropped the leash on her desk, and waited for her to look up.

"Bates isn't going near him again."

"I still can't believe Bates kept him from working." Weir was making notes on her laptop. "I'm sure he'll say that Rodney refused to go."

John nodded. He was too tense to sit down. Asking her was an admission of something he'd rather not look at too closely, but he had to do it. "Can I... have him back?"

She smiled in a wicked way. "I thought you'd never ask. It's unorthodox, but I think the situation warrants it. It also helps your case that I happened to be looking over the standing orders from General O'Neill recently. You weren't allowed to give him away. Were you aware of this?"

"No." John narrowed his eyes. He should've guessed his 'punishment' wouldn't be allowed to walk away.

"I informed Radek." She seemed very amused. "Only General O'Neill can change Rodney's handler. You don't have the authority." Now she chuckled. "Put yourself on report."

"I guess I'd better." John slumped down in the chair. It was good news and bad. "McKay is going to be furious, more furious."

Weir didn't look worried. "Let's give him some time, and then you can ask him if he'll take you back. Make it his choice and all our lives will be easier."

"Ask him?" John jumped to his feet. He didn't ever want to do that. "He, well, I can't!"

"It'll be good for that self-righteousness of yours." She looked down at her laptop and waved her hand at the door. "Go away."

John left before he cursed at her. He'd send her a blistering email later. Okay, maybe not, but he might glare where she wouldn't notice.

Zelenka was down near the gate, talking fast and furious, and occasionally switching to Czech, which made everyone frown. John went to listen, trying to look like he didn't care.

"All leashes will be put in Dr. Weir's office until further notice. Our handlers must provide a written reason to use them." Zelenka raised his hands high. "Major Sheppard will be going to the mainland to get Teyla. She will be mediating the negotiations."

"I will?" John muttered. He could do that. Maybe Rodney would like to go. They'd never had a flying lesson. It'd taken too long to get all the systems in the jumper working to Rodney's specifications that time they'd taken Teyla home. He stepped closer to one of his Marines, Jameson. "Did I get signed up for anything else?"

"You and Weir are squaring off against McKay, Teyla, and Simpson. If I were you, I'd take extra ammo."

That was a good idea. "Simpson the guy or the lady?" John asked.

"Dunno."

"Hey, unofficially, what do you think about all this?" John hoped Jameson wasn't Bates' best friend.

Jameson glanced at the gate, up at Weir's office and then lowered his head to speak closer to John's ear. "They want us dead. We're dead. This ain't Earth."

"The voice of reason." John was glad someone got it. "How's the mood swinging?"

"A few diehards want them all leashed to their desks." Jameson shrugged. "Wasn't so long ago it was a matter of color."

John wanted a list of diehards so he could put them on duty at the furthest point on a pier that might sink at any moment. He stood up straighter. "Thank you, Corporal." He wondered if Rodney had ever been leashed to his desk. Probably.

"That is all! We will go back to work now!" Zelenka hurried to Rodney, and they were whispering, and John wanted to edge closer.

Miko caught him by the arm as the scientists began to leave. "Is it true that you are punishing Dr. McKay?"

He wasn't sure what to say. The truth wasn't necessarily a good thing in this situation. "He violated regulations by skipping work."

"He did not have a choice!"

"Prove it. Bring me actual scientific proof." John winked at her. "Please."

Her eyes were big behind those glasses. She frowned and hurried away, and he hoped she could bring him proof. It'd make confronting Bates much easier.

"Hey, Zelenka!" John had to make sure Zelenka hadn't told Rodney about the standing orders. That would be disastrous.

Zelenka's hair was wild as he whipped around to face John. "What?"

John pointed to Rodney and made a gesture to the security team nearby. "Get him to his quarters before he falls over from fatigue."

"Yes, sir." They escorted him away, but his anger was palpable.

"Zelenka, don't you tell a soul about that standing order." John pitched his voice barely above a whisper. "I'll handle this."

"You better." Zelenka's collar beeped, and he looked up at Weir's office. "I will not tell him, and you are in charge of collecting leashes!"

"What?" John protested as Zelenka dashed up the stairs. That was wrong on several levels, and later, John would have to explain to him about being whipped and also about making women wait.

Ford wandered over. "Can I help, sir?"

"Just the man I need." John would get his tablet so they didn't accidentally miss one. "You good with this situation?"

"Never really met a scientist until I got here." Ford adjusted his hat. "They're not all stuck up. Most of them look worried, scared. Of us."

"Can't say I blame them." John was glad to see Ford thinking. "Let's go to my office, get my tablet, and start collecting leashes. You can carry them."

*********

MREs sucked. They did, and he'd eaten plenty of them over the years, and they weren't getting any better. He liked power bars okay, and he decided to munch on one of those instead. Grabbing up water, he was going to head to somewhere else, but Rodney was eating in the corner - his security detail right behind him.

Going over there was a foregone conclusion. John sat down across from him and hooked his thumb at the door. His guys moved away, and he started with, "Afternoon, McKay. How's everything?"

Rodney's fork didn't stop moving food to his mouth. For a guy who had a reputation as a blabbermouth, he was remarkably quiet.

John was willing to try again. "Mad, huh?"

"The depths of my anger should frighten you," Rodney said in a dangerous voice.

"Oh, I'm scared." John wasn't joking. Rodney could blow them up several times over. John unwrapped his bar. "Sorry about the enforced mealtimes. Carson made me do it."

"Yes, yes." Rodney didn't look convinced. "Do you mind if I blame you for the guards?"

"Um, no." John uncapped his water. "Anything else?"

Rodney dropped his fork and finally looked up from his tray. His face went pale, and John followed the path of those blue eyes.

"Sergeant."

"Major." Bates crossed his arms. "How long will this continue?"

The answer was one John had prepared in advance. "Until Dr. McKay learns the error of his ways and gets caught up on his work." He paused and went with the sarcasm. "It could take a while."

"I suppose it is at your discretion." Bates was no slouch in the sarcasm department.

John smiled pleasantly at him. "I suppose it is. Your duties are lacking as well. Get caught up."

"Yes, sir," Bates drawled. He stomped away, and John took another bite of bar, glad he'd skipped a meal.

A bare whisper caught his attention. "He's dangerous."

"And you're not?" John raised his eyebrows. "Fact of the matter is: I'm more scared of you then Bates."

"Ah, yes, because I carry a gun." McKay proved that he could probably win the sarcasm award. "And am psychotic!"

John leaned closer to him. "You're not?" He grinned. "So, you feel better?"

Rodney shrugged and started eating again. John finished his bar and swallowed some water. There were things he had to say - tell him - but it could wait. Maybe forever. "Mission coming up. I'd like to take you, but Carson says no, and he has sharp needle things."

"Will you go away now?"

"I'd rather stay and pester you some more." John meant that. "I'm still mad at you." He meant that too.

"Oh, good." Rodney glared. "And am I right in thinking that you'll punish me forever?"

With a shrug, John nodded. "I will. You'll do nothing but work, eat, and rest in your quarters." Now he took a breath. "With your guards to protect you from Bates. I know you'll be miserable, but if you could help Zelenka with the backlog, gain some weight, and stop looking like a hunted animal, we'd all be appreciative."

He got up first, made sure to take his water, and went to Rodney's detail. "Any problems?"

"Sergeant Bates tried to go in Dr. McKay's room last night. He was turned away."

The growl was impossible to push down. "Make sure every shift is aware that I will be furious if Dr. McKay isn't left alone."

"We're aware, sir."

John fielded their salutes. He had to get with Teyla and go over their next mission. Hopefully, it would go well and they'd get enough fresh food to last a while.

*********

"Wait, Cadman, I thought it was that way." John stopped and pointed down a small path. They were heading back to the Genii farmhouse where Teyla and Ford were waiting, and he was sure it was that direction.

Cadman nudged Miko. "Sorry, sir. This way. Trust me."

Miko nodded, and John shrugged. "If we get lost, we're eating Miko first."

They gave him a look that said he was so very wrong, and he laughed. "This way?"

"That way."

*********

"Report, Major."

"We traded a small amount of C-4 and medicinal supplies for food." John pointed at Teyla and grinned. "She's a tough negotiator. The Genii seem like nice people, kinda creepy, but good farmers." He hadn't trusted them, but they had food. "I think Ford's still a little tipsy."

Ford ducked his head, and Cadman laughed. "Wimp," she whispered.

"Well, there's good news all around. Bates' team was also able to secure a treaty for food." She smiled at them all. "Go see Carson and then, John, I want a full report."

"You heard the lady." John wanted to talk to Carson about Rodney, and now things were settled on the food issue, it was time to start negotiations with the scientists. Things around here were looking up.

********

"Major!"

John stopped in his tracks. "Teyla." He tried not to smile as he turned to face her.

She smiled, and he knew she'd seen his hidden one. "I should check in with Halling about the upcoming harvest. Do you have a pilot available?"

"All the jumpers are busy." John frowned, trying to make it look good. "And they're not for personal use."

"Now would be fine." Teyla never lost her smile.

"I'll get Rodney." John used the radio and ignored the grumpy reply. Rodney would show up. He was still mad, but he looked better, and Zelenka said that things were going well. It was a start. "You did intend for me to turn this into a flying lesson, right?"

"I did." She nodded, and they walked together. They stopped for him to pick up his tac-vest, and Rodney was pacing near the jumper when they arrived.

"Another stupid diagnostic?"

Ouch. Rodney had recovered his bad attitude. Teyla's eyes actually widened. John raised the back hatch and didn't answer. He hooked his thumb at the seat behind him, and Rodney only took it after John said, "Flight, this is Jumper One. I'm going to the mainland with Teyla. McKay is also on board."

"You're clear, Jumper One."

John opened the roof and took her out slow and easy. He wasn't in any rush, and he wanted to have some fun. "Buckle up," he said and let her stretch her wings.

"Have you lost your mind?" Rodney screeched after a belly roll into a dive that straightened out right at ocean level. John peered at the windshield and wondered about wipers. The wind whipped the droplets away, and he was tempted to see if Jumper One could swim.

"No! You will not!" Rodney's voice wasn't getting any calmer. "We don't know they're submersible!"

"They gotta be airtight." John looked at Teyla. "You bring a fishing pole?"

"I did not." Teyla didn't look worried at all, which was kinda disappointing. "Will the engines function underwater?"

"That's the question that I don't want to answer!"

John turned and flashed Rodney a grin. With a thought, he brought their speed down to a rate that was an embarrassment for any fighter pilot. "Okay, time for your lesson." He let go and slid out of the seat. "Rodney?"

Rodney was pale. "No!" He made a gesture at his neck. "I never should have mentioned it. When you send me back, and he finds out. No!"

The fear and disgust made John instantly furious. He took a deep breath, searching for calm and words to make it better. "Rodney, take out the flash drive. It'll be our secret."

His blue eyes were wide, and he made a sound like a moan. "No," he choked out.

"Consider it an order. I need all the pilots I can get." John kept his eye on their altitude. He really didn't want to get wet. Rodney shook his head several times, and John was forced to pull out the big guns. "Rodney, get in the chair. I will let us sink."

Teyla spoke up. "Dr. McKay, I would prefer to stay dry on this trip."

"Crap," Rodney whispered, but he moved into the driver's seat. John grinned, sure Rodney wouldn't notice.

"Now, first thing you do is relax." John waved Teyla to the other back seat. He studied Rodney's face while he taught him how to drive. It really wasn't flying, not like a helicopter, jumpers were too easy. When a very small, tentative smile appeared, John eased his hand onto Rodney's shoulder and gave a small squeeze.

"Straight, Rodney, is a linear concept I'm sure you understand," John joked.

The exasperated noise that burst out of Rodney's mouth was reassuring. Rodney was getting his feet back under him. He'd been down but not out, and some more time would help. There was no reason to talk about handlers until later, much later.

"Okay, bring us down slow, Rodney." John wasn't sure about this, landing was the hardest part of any flying lesson. "Gently."

They were going to die. John reached and pressed, thinking furiously. The jumper slowed, landing with a slight bump.

"We are here!" Teyla said cheerfully.

John realized he was half in Rodney's lap. "Oh, sorry. Just didn't, um, want to die." He moved away fast and hoped he wasn't blushing. "Any chance there'll be food, Teyla?"

"Of course." Teyla hurried out, and John would've followed her, but Rodney was still sitting, staring down at the sticks.

"You okay?" John sank back down in the co-pilot's seat. He thought Rodney had done fine, for a first try.

Rodney looked up but not quite at him. "That's it, isn't it?"

What exactly that meant took a moment to register. John purposely misunderstood when he answered. "Yes, that's how the jumpers fly. Landing is the worst. When we go back, we'll go into space. Now that you have the feel for it."

Silence, and then Rodney's hand began to make a tight circle. "I wish you'd give me back to Bates and get it over with. I hate waiting."

"What makes you think I'm ever going to do what you say again?" John asked, nearly yelling the words. He had more to add on this topic. "I know you don't like me. I know you don't want to be my friend. Hell, you made that crystal clear, but your brain is Atlantis's best hope against the Wraith, and I'll be damned if I allow Bates to kill us all."

"Slaves and handlers are never friends! You're being stupid about this whole thing!"

John glared and got to his feet. He walked out of the jumper without another word. Being called 'stupid' was mild on the insults list, but Rodney's opinion of him mattered more than it should.

"Wait!"

Turning, John raised the ramp with the remote, in case some Athosian kids were around. He didn't wait. There was food somewhere, and he was going to find it. Rodney pounded up behind him, and John discovered after a few steps that they were walking as if leashed. It was disturbing on several levels.

********

"Can, um, I fly back?"

Glancing at Teyla, John frowned. "What do you think? I'm stuffed full. One roll and I'll barf."

"I told you not to eat that last bit of daklav." Teyla smiled. "Dr. McKay, you may drive, but I prefer that the major do the landing."

Rodney was twisting his hands, and John had the feeling that this wasn't a joke to him. John sighed. "Okay, but if I say stop, pull over."

"He's joking, right?" Rodney looked pleadingly at Teyla, and John wished he got a look that wasn't a glare from time to time.

John took the co-pilot's chair again and raised the ramp. "Okay, Rodney, show us what you got." He earned himself another glare, but Rodney got them off the ground and going towards Atlantis. John encouraged him to gain a lot of altitude. A couple of turns around the planet couldn't hurt.

"Major, what is that?"

"Hurricane?" John called up the HUD to look at the data.

Rodney stared. "Oh, this is bad," he whispered. "Very bad." He abandoned his seat, hurrying to the back of the jumper.

"Hey!"

"Get us back! Fast!"

Sliding into the seat, John made a mental note never to send Rodney up alone. "It's a storm, a big one, but that's no reason to stop flying!"

The muttering made John worry even more, and Teyla pointed out the front window. "It is headed for Atlantis?"

"Give the lady a kewpie doll," Rodney said. "Seriously, Major, I need to analyze this with the city's sensors."

John glances over his shoulder at Rodney working furiously over a tablet. "Okay, hold on." He knew something really bad was up when Rodney didn't even complain about the ride, and he bolted out of the jumper like he was on fire.

"This is bad," John said. He touched his comm. "Zelenka, Rodney is on his way." He switched channels. "Lt. Ford, see that the security detail picks up Dr. McKay again." And again. "Dr. Weir, we may have a situation."

Teyla gathered the few things she'd brought with her from the mainland. "We should hurry."

*********

"Find us a friendly place to camp, huh?" John wasn't sure it was possible. They hadn't exactly made a lot of friends in this galaxy.

"Yes." Weir nodded. "Perhaps the Genii?"

"Don't trust them." John wasn't going there.

Bates spoke up. "The Manarians seemed nice enough."

It was impressive the way Teyla never really looked at Bates. "I recommend the planet with the children."

"They hate our guts." John made a hand motion at Rodney and Zelenka. "Any ideas, guys?"

"We, uh, plan to have a... plan before it hits." Rodney flushed.

"Yes." Zelenka pushed his glasses back.

The silence was broken by Bates. "I say we evacuate, let the city take a pounding, and come back when it's over."

John saw no reason to even answer that bit of stupidity. "Why the kids?" he asked Teyla.

"We should mend that tear and show them that you are not--" She hesitated.

"Brutes," John finished for her. "Go on."

Teyla nodded. "They are a gentle people."

"They nearly filled us with arrows!" Bates yelled.

John wanted to punch him in the mouth. Instead, he looked at his boss. "Your call, Dr. Weir."

She tapped her fingers idly on the table. "Teyla, try to find some common ground with the children. I'd prefer our people were under a shield if at all possible."

"I'd prefer we weren't shot full of arrows," Bates grumbled.

His temper snapped right in half. "Yes, well, if it happens, we can blame you." John let him have it. "If you hadn't insisted on dragging McKay around like some sort of dog, they might've given us a chance!"

"He's a damn slave!"

"He's a damn scientist!" John didn't know when he'd gotten to his feet to yell in Bates' face, but he was there now. "It was a political solution! Nothing more! He was never intended to do your damn laundry!"

Bates had a sneer a mile wide on his face. "Like you didn't fuck him."

"Gentlemen! That is enough!"

Weir's voice helped John regain a measure of control. "Sergeant, you're dismissed!"

"He's still mine," Bates hissed.

John felt Teyla right at his shoulder. "Out. Now." He watched every step Bates took until the door shut.

"Major, I expect better from you in the future," Weir said. "Rodney, I want a plan on my desk in six hours."

"No pressure," Rodney mumbled. He shut his laptop and got to his feet. His chin came up, and John waited to hear it. Chances were good that Weir's eyes would bulge from the insults headed her way. Rodney's voice was low, strong, and his eyes very blue. "I demand a new handler."

"You're always complaining about your handler." Weir smiled a little. "You hated the major, and he practically carried you around on a pillow!"

Rodney went pale, pinched. "I was wrong. I just..."

"Enough," John snapped, unable to watch Rodney humiliate himself. "McKay, don't worry about it. I'm not going to allow anyone to hurt you again. Focus on saving our asses from drowning, okay?"

Zelenka made a small noise of agreement. "It is a difficult problem. We may have to abandon the city."

"Get busy." Weir waved her hand, which effectively shooed them out the door because Zelenka pulled Rodney away. Teyla seemed to be lost in thought, and John moved his hand in front of her face.

She gave him that look that meant he needed to watch himself next time they practiced. "I was merely thinking of a path to reconcile with Keras. I will inform him that because of his actions, you are rewriting your laws. Would this be correct?"

"To some extent, yes." Weir nodded. "Keep me informed, and make sure to take plenty of backup with you."

Teyla nodded and left without looking at him. John was reluctant to leave without mentioning a thing or two. "Bates needs a leash."

"If we evacuate there, we'll have to keep a close eye on him." Weir leaned back in her chair. "When are you going to tell Rodney?"

John didn't want to discuss that. "Soon," he lied. "Let's get through this crisis."

"Agreed."

*********

Sleep was a commodity that John would pay dearly for, but there's no way his back was hitting a mattress in the near future. Teyla and Keras had reached an agreement with the understanding that things were changing for the slaves of Atlantis. Three little words that had made John's blood boil.

"All handlers report to the gateroom." Chuck's smooth tones rolled through the city.

John had staked out his position, and he intercepted Bates long before he got to the gateroom. Teyla was in a briefing, so there was plenty of time for them to have a private conversation.

"Not you," John growled.

"I'm his--"

"No, you're not." John had let this go on too long, but he was fixing it now. "I didn't have the authority to transfer him. It was my mistake."

Bates had put his hands on his hips, but the anger on his face suddenly slid away. "He's a level five?"

That was disbelief. John answered with the truth. "I have no idea what that means, but only General O'Neill can change Dr. McKay's handler. Those are his standing orders. Dr. Weir didn't know and neither did I until recently."

Now Bates laughed. "You fucked up! When the general gets here, and he will, he'll bust you back to airman for disobeying his order!"

"Could I be so lucky?" John muttered. "Stay away from Dr. McKay. We clear?"

"I want it in the report that I was blameless, and I am." Bates scowled now. "You screwed up. Not me."

"Got it." John would take all the blame, just heap it on him. "I'm putting a note in your file that you're not suited to handle scientists." He saw the anger come right back. "You're a mean bastard, and you enjoyed hurting him. I'll be damned if you'll get your hands on someone else." He didn't wait for Bates' reply. "We're evacuating. I expect you to be on your best behavior, Sergeant."

Finally, Bates nodded. "When you're busted down a few ranks, we'll discuss this again, sir."

"I look forward to it." John dismissed him with a look and turned around, feeling like someone was right behind him. Zelenka had his hands over his face, and Rodney's eyes were like chipped ice. This was beyond bad, and John was sure he looked guilty as hell. "Oh, crap."

"Did you leave me with him just to punish me?" Rodney's voice cut through him. "You hate me that much?"

"I didn't know until after you got out of the infirmary," John snapped, hard and fast. "Weir informed me that I'd made a mistake."

Rodney didn't look anywhere near convinced. "So instead of telling me, you put me under house arrest?" If anything, he looked angrier. "Did I have to come crawling to you before you'd tell me the damn truth?"

John flushed. It had been the exact opposite. He'd been supposed to beg, but there'd be no convincing Rodney of that now. "I was trying to give you a chance to get your feet back underneath you before you heard the bad news."

"You're a piss poor liar."

Frustrated beyond words, John focused on the thing that he could deal with. "Do you have a plan to keep us from drowning?"

"If I did, I might let you drown anyway!"

"Nice." John had to walk away from him, heading for the gateroom. There was too much to do to stand around and let Rodney win the argument. Yes, he could hear them whispering behind him, but he didn't care. They could fight later. If there was a later. This galaxy was always trying to kill them.

*********

"Solutions?"

Rodney and Zelenka exchanged a worried look, and John tried to look casual, slouched near the door.

Zelenka took his glasses off. "We simply do not have enough power."

Deciding to speak up was probably a bad idea. "What about all those naquadah generators?"

"Has the lightning begun to strike us yet? Because I would rather run out with a kite than listen to you talk to us about solutions to this problem!" Rodney couldn't have looked angrier.

"Rodney!"

"Lightning?" Zelenka frowned.

Snapping his fingers several times, Rodney stared wide-eyed at Zelenka. "Power."

"It could work if--"

"If we disconnect the grounding--"

"Stations." Zelenka nodded, shoving his glasses back on. "We can't--"

"Store it, but there's something to be said for survival." Rodney's fingers danced over his tablet.

Weir nodded, and John wondered why. Neither of them knew what was going on. "Do we still have to evacuate?"

"Yes, yes," Rodney said. "The city will become a huge lightning rod. The only safe place--"

"Will be in the control tower. Here." Zelenka smiled as if this were a good plan. John had his doubts, and the fact they could finish each other's sentences creeped him out.

"The city will survive?" Weir asked.

"Ninety percent--"

"Seventy percent chance, yes." Zelenka pointed to the tablet.

"Eighty then." Rodney shrugged. "We'll use a small team."

Weir leaned back in her chair. "Get on it."

"Right." Rodney spared a glare for John. "Grounding stations, first."

Zelenka shook his head. "Power distribution center."

"Good call." Rodney left with Zelenka, but he never lost his glare. John groaned. He would never apologize, and even if he did, Rodney would never listen.

"He knows?" Weir was no fool.

"He does." John pushed away from the door. He had a thousand things to do. "Batten down the hatches, it's gonna be a bad one."

"And the hurricane will be fierce too." Sad thing was, she wasn't joking.

*********

"I recommend the smallest team possible." Rodney clutched a tablet. "Me, you, and, um, Lt. Ford?"

John crossed his arms. He didn't bother with a glare. "It's my job to stay."

Weir nodded at him. "I agree. You, me, and Zelenka. Rodney, head to the planet."

"It's my plan! My idea!" Rodney protested. "Zelenka was in charge of evacuating the more sensitive experiments!"

"I wasn't aware of that." Weir frowned. "I should be planet-side, in case there's a problem, and Keras wants to discuss further trade." She glanced at John. "Keras has generously offered to take our slaves and free them."

"Good for him," John said automatically.

"Oh, don't pretend you care!" Rodney huffed.

Weir glared at them both. "Major, you'll be staying here with Rodney and any other Marines you think are necessary."

"I agree." John smiled charmingly at Rodney, not her. "No one in or out while you're gone."

"Wait for my authorization code before opening the iris for us." Weir got to her feet. "Rodney, when will you be ready?"

"I need some... help?" Rodney moved the tablet up to his chest; his hands nearly white from gripping it. "With the grounding stations."

"Major Sheppard, give Rodney a hand. Will you be requiring his leash while I'm gone?"

She had to say that. John was sure he visibly shrank. Rodney went from worried and fretting to furious in the blink of an eye. "No, he won't!"

"Really, I won't." John waved his hand. "Grounding stations? Before we all die?"

"As if that's my concern! Your death!"

"Rodney, go do your job," Weir snapped. "You may not care about the major's death, but I know you don't want Atlantis to sink!"

"Well, there is that." Rodney clicked his fingers several times. "Come along."

John nearly reached out to smack the back of Rodney's head. He managed to hit his radio instead. "Lt. Ford, I want four men left in the gateroom." Only then did he follow Rodney down to the lab for a thorough lecture on grounding stations. Listening was in his best interest, and he let slide all the nasty little side remarks about the lack of intelligence in military personnel and his hair.

"Bottom line: we're each doing two." John checked his watch. They were on schedule, more or less, maybe less than more. "All non-essential personnel have been gated off. Let's do this."

"Yes, now would be good!" Rodney strode away, not looking at him, and John headed the other direction, even though it meant doubling back.

The rain had begun, and he was dripping by the time the damn thing pulled in half. He took a deep breath when he was out of the rain and got his bearings.

"Major, are you done yet?"

"One more to go." He started trotting the right direction. "You?"

"Almost finished." Rodney's grounding stations had been closer to the transporters, of course. John hadn't complained at the time, but now that his boots were leaking water, he wished he had. He tapped his ear piece. "Dr. Weir?"

"She just gated off-world, sir."

"Good." John was glad they were gone to safety, but he really hoped Rodney knew what he was doing. "Don't drop the shield for anyone but her IDC."

"Yes, sir."

"Are you through dawdling, Major?"

"I'm not even there yet!" John decided to run. If he slipped and fell on his ass, someone was going to pay. Skidding around the corner, he opened the door and the wind forced him back. "Damn it!" he yelled at no one in particular and Rodney specifically. He took two seconds to stare at the mess. "Rodney! Get your ass down here!"

There wasn't much John could do except get drenched and curse. Checking his watch neurotically didn't give them any more time.

The door opened, and Rodney dashed inside only to pull to a splashy stop. "Oh, we are so screwed!" His hands went to his head. "What did you do?" he screamed.

"Me?" John yelled right back at him. It was the only way to be heard over the rain and wind. "Didn't you check them?"

"Well, no! But they were working!" Rodney dropped to his knees and started ripping panels off, and John did the only thing that came to mind. He tried to shield him from the worst of the rain. Rodney's lips were moving, but John couldn't hear a word. It didn't matter. It had to be cursing. Looking up, Rodney's eyes were blown wide. "Someone shot the hell out of this!"

"I realize that!" John had a few ideas about who might want Rodney dead, but that would have to wait. "Can you fix it?"

Water was running down McKay's arms, and John edged closer, spreading his coat and trying to keep some of it off. Rodney curled his shoulders, ducked his head, and yelled, "If I can't, we'll drown! If I do, we'll get hit by lightning!"

John didn't have an answer for that, but he watched Rodney's fingers fight to make new connections. Apparently, they were going with the lightning. He wasn't going to complain. It had to be better than drowning.

"If you ever find the son-of-a-bitch who did this, I get to shoot him!"

"Deal." John didn't yell. He shifted his hips and pressed into Rodney's kneeling body. It would steady him, and it did. Rodney did spare him a short glare, but he went back to work, without moving away. They both flinched at a boom of thunder right over their heads, and Rodney gave him a nudge.

"Get ready to run!"

John wrapped his hand into Rodney's jacket at the shoulder, knowing his knees had to be numb. With a terrible grinding noise, the station pulled apart, and John dragged him up.

"Run!"

Out the door, down the hallway, John didn't turn loose. Rodney stumbled, nearly fell twice, and
yelled, "Okay! That's far enough! We can walk now!"

"Rodney, I don't want to drown!" John kept pulling until they were running again. Rodney directly behind and to the right. Their feet beat in rhythm, and the transporter wasn't far. John hit the center light, and they pounded up the stairs together. "Lieutenant! Are we all here?"

"Yes, sir!"

Rodney's hands were flying over keyboards, and he paused for one second, looking up. "If this doesn't work, we're dead."

"Do it." He felt it in his bones, sweeping up over them. Rodney made an exclamation of some sort, and John gave his worried-looking Marines a thumbs up. "Good job, Dr. McKay."

"I'm not sure why I saved your ass!"

"Yeah, that's why I appreciate it so much." John smiled from relief more than anything. He moved away from the consoles and swiped his hands through his hair. Droplets of water slicked off, and in the background he could hear Rodney muttering about this and that, but he didn't listen.

Bates had done it. It had to have been him. It didn't make any sense, but he was the most likely suspect.

Rodney stepped right behind him. "You know it was Bates!"

"Be quiet," John said. He would not discuss this where his Marines could hear, and he wasn't convinced now that it had been said aloud. Bates was an asshole, but he wasn't stupid, and he wanted to go home to Earth someday. "Got video feed down there?"

"No." Rodney bit the word off. "It was--"

John shut him up with a sharp gesture. "Concentrate on getting us through this storm." He pointed. "Jumper bay safe?"

"Yes." Those blue eyes looked mad now. John turned away and motioned to two of his men. They followed him up to the jumper bay. A quick search turned up nothing, but John had an itchy feeling that always meant trouble.

"Stay up here." He didn't want anyone messing with his jumpers. "No slacking off. The grounding station was shot up. If someone is here, they aren't on our side."

"Yes, sir."

Satisfied with their level of alertness, he walked back to the gateroom, trailing his hand along Jumper One just to touch her. She was always ready for a quick flight. He checked the corners before going back towards the gateroom.

Almost expecting to hear the storm, he found a window to look out, and the shield was golden, arching over them. He actually flinched when it winked out. Freezing, he listened.

"Lock it!"

"All right! It's locked!" That was Rodney.

John heard the jumper bay door snick behind him. Three seconds difference and he'd be on the wrong side.

"Now, we wait." The voice wasn't familiar.

"Why the hell are you doing this? I so don't want to die!" Rodney sounded very convincing. John crouched and worked his way closer, trying to stay out of sight.

"Too bad!" It was a roar. "He screwed it up! There's a certain way things are done, and it's all messed up now!"

Not much farther, John ducked behind a pillar, able to see his men on the floor. A quick glance showed him that Rodney had his hands up, facing one of John's men, but which one was still a mystery.

"I agree," Rodney said. "Sheppard's a moron." He paused. "You're not even assigned anyone!"

"I know! He was supposed to be mine!" The guy was really worked up about it. "Stackhouse promised, and then the major changed all the rules!"

That wasn't true, but now wasn't the time to argue about it. Markham. It had to be Markham. He and Stackhouse were best friends. Kavanagh. This was about him. It would've been laughable if they weren't about to die.

"Listen, let me put up the shield, and then we'll track down Sheppard and put a few bullet holes in him," Rodney pleaded. John blinked in surprise, but he would assume that was a lie, for now.

"No! Once Atlantis is gone, things will go back to normal."

"We'll never get home!" Rodney yelled.

John moved into position for a kill shot. He didn't want to do it, but he wasn't losing Atlantis over some lover's quarrel that had made Markham lose his mind.

Rodney shuffled around until he was facing John, and that was perfect. John eased away from his cover and aimed very carefully. Something in Rodney's face must have given him up because Markham spun, but taking out his shoulder was still an easy shot.

"You could've killed me!"

Moving fast, John kicked Markham's stunner away and searched him, tossing away another gun, some ammo and two knives. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rodney scrambling to get the shield back up.

Markham groaned and flailed, and John gave him basic first aid.

"Release the jumper door." John radioed his men to get their butts down here. When Markham was secure, John dialed the gate over Rodney's grumbling. "Get him to Carson. Keep him secure but let Heightmeyer to talk to him."

"Yes, sir."

"This is all your fault!" Markham wailed.

"Yeah, I know." John didn't watch them leave. He went to check on his stunned men. The fact that Markham had stunned them instead of shooting them meant he wasn't too far gone. Oh, he was still headed for the brig, but it could've been worse.

"Are they okay?" Rodney asked.

John was strangely glad that Rodney would ask. "Just stunned. Give 'em an hour or two. How's the storm?"

"Huge." Rodney made a funny flipping motion with his hand. "I thought you were going to shoot me."

"I'm a very good shot. Remember?" John didn't believe that Rodney had been scared. "I was more worried he'd get a shot off with that stunner and Atlantis would sink because there's no way I could run your program."

Rodney looked down for a moment and then up. "You're smart enough to wear a collar."

"Gee, I'll pass on that." John had never really thanked his father for teaching him to hide his intelligence. He'd rectify that as soon as he got home. If he got home. "Can we handle this?"

"Genius here," Rodney said. He smoothed his wet hair back. "Did you happen to get any MREs?"

"Uh, no." John slapped a few pockets until he found a power bar. He tossed it at him. It was gone in three bites, and he could see that Rodney wanted more. "All out. The shield?"

"Holding. Parts of the city are flooded, but we won't sink." Rodney was all business now, moving from console to console. "Think there's any food in the jumpers?"

John had to sit down a minute. Adrenaline was still coursing through his veins. He was wet, angry, and couldn't remember the last time he'd slept.

"Hey, don't, um, whatever it is you're doing." Rodney's voice helped steady John. He was fine, really. In a minute, he'd get up off the floor and check his guys again. After taking several deep breaths, he looked up. Rodney frowned. "Okay?"

"Yeah," John breathed. He really didn't like shooting his own people. "I didn't tell you because you were so hurt. You needed some time to recover."

Rodney gave a tiny shrug. "I appreciated the guards after he tried to get to me." His voice wasn't loud or strident. "I just couldn't believe you wouldn't give me back to him."

John got his feet under him, Rodney extended a hand, and he was up. Rodney had never touched him on purpose. John stared at their locked hands for a second. "I screwed up, but once I knew what was going on, I would never have allowed him to have you back. Why would you think I would?"

The silence ended. "I didn't want to be wrong," Rodney mumbled.

That was perfectly understandable. "Geniuses hate being wrong," John said, giving ground.

"We do! I do." Rodney looked away, took one step, and their hands slid apart. "Jeannie always said I should trust people more."

"What do girls know?" John smiled at the small spark in Rodney's eyes. "Is she really okay?" He'd wondered once or twice.

With a nod, Rodney made the rounds of consoles and laptops again. "In Canada, we do things slightly different than the U.S. She got married, has a kid, and works at the Ottawa-Carleton Institute for Physics."

"Wow. Good for her." John ran his hands through his hair. He felt like he should be doing something, helping. "Why didn't you ever get married?" The words popped out before he could pull them back, and he groaned. "Never mind. I shouldn't have asked."

Rodney's eyes were big. "You really don't know?"

John should learn to keep his mouth shut. "Know what?" he asked, dreading the answer.

"In the United States, we're not allowed to marry. My sperm was collected fairly often for sperm banks." Rodney sounded as if it was no big deal, but John didn't think that was true. There were children out there with Rodney's crooked mouth and dazzling intelligence. John was sure of it. It made his heart clench in a funny way.

"We really suck."

"Too true." Rodney waved his hand dismissively. "Better than being a woman. They have to give birth to at least three children but aren't allowed to raise them."

John felt his jaw clench. "It's a wonder--" He stopped, unable to finish the sentence.

"It's a matter of national security, protecting the U.S. from the Commies and whatnot." Rodney's grin was false. He shrugged. "Can't fight city hall."

"No, but we could burn it down," John said between bared teeth. The anger forced him to move, and he made sure his men were fine. They were.

The gate dialing in was loud in the quiet gateroom, and they both hurried to see who it was.

"Major Sheppard, report, please." Weir's voice came through loud and clear.

After giving her a brief rundown, John gestured for Rodney to speak. "McKay has a report also."

Rodney never seemed to run out of glares, but he gave a full report. There was a long pause. Weir finally answered. "I'm sending you Zelenka and Lt. Ford. Keras wants to speak to Rodney. Major, I expect you also."

"Yes, ma'am." John lowered the shield, watched they come through, and the gate fizzled out. He avoided looking at Rodney.

"Can't be good," Rodney muttered.

"Dial the gate," John said. He went to brief Lt. Ford.

*********

Keras was waiting for them when they stepped through the gate, Weir's eyes were warning them, and Rodney was close enough to touch. The sudden change in temperature made John shiver.

"Rodney!" Keras grinned. "You are soaked!"

"Hurricanes will do that to you." Rodney almost smiled. John saw it and tried to stomp on the instant jealousy. He really hoped this was going to go well this time. Arrows were pointy. Rodney looked all about in an exaggerated fashion. "No arrows, right?"

There was some muted laughter. Keras didn't lose his smile. "Right. Tell me, Rodney, is Major Sheppard your handler now?" He said the word as if it hurt his mouth.

Rodney met John's gaze. John wouldn't even try to understand what was going on behind those blue eyes.

"He's my... something, I have no idea what."

**********
End

Chapter Text

*********

Rodney didn't get it. His genius wasn't kicking in on this problem. He'd never been good with people, but this made no sense on any level. Accepting it, if he did, was the hardest thing he'd ever do. Quantum physics, easy. This? Impossibly difficult.

Sheppard gave him a long, lazy look from across the fire. It might've meant anything.

"Don't be sad, Rodney. You're here now."

He looked down at the filthy child in his lap. "And is here a good place to be?"

*********

Leaning a little closer to Teyla, John made sure his voice was low. "The kids are freaking me out."

Teyla flashed him a fast smile. "Perhaps they sense in him some quality we cannot."

"Perhaps they smell the chocolate bar I'm sure he has hidden in his pants." John went with the more logical answer. He rubbed his hands and put them towards the fire. It felt good to be warm and dry. Rodney and Keras were across from him, talking. It was impossible to hear them over the noise, and he was tempted to go over and demand to know what they were talking about. The fear they were discussing his shortcomings kept him seated.

Weir worked the crowd like the skilled diplomat that she was, but he wasn't so sure the natives were impressed. Actions spoke louder than words, and the collars made them extremely skittish.

John met Rodney's eyes briefly. "Why do you stay with us, Teyla?"

"Atlantis is the best hope for our galaxy, and I believe your people will grow."

"I wish I had your confidence." John couldn't sit still any longer. He waved at the trees. "Gotta take a... never mind." He eased up and tried to find a shadow to disappear inside. Unfortunately, he practically stumbled over Kavanagh and Stackhouse, sitting together under a big tree. They both jumped to their feet.

"Yes, I'm angry. Sergeant, I expect a full report when we get back. Black eyes and all, and if I suspect you're not being honest, I'm going to bust you back to corporal. Is that clear?"

"Very, sir." Stackhouse looked miserable, and he should be ashamed.

Kavanagh was trying to sneak away. John put a stop to that. "Kavanagh! Do you want a new handler?"

The silence didn't fill John with confidence.

"No," Kavanagh said. "Markham was a fling, and he took it seriously. I never intended to switch handlers, and he got crazy mad! It was stupid."

"Stupid enough to get Atlantis sunk to the bottom of the ocean!" John went ahead and yelled.

"I'll have you know he wanted me!"

"You should've warned me! Or McKay!" John wanted to smack him. "When we return, you're restricted to quarters, unless you're working or eating, until further notice. Understood?"

Kavanagh looked mulish.

"Ben," Stackhouse said, "you'll do as he says."

John waited until he got a nod and then he rounded on Stackhouse again. "He'll be confined alone because you'll be in your quarters as well!"

"Yes, sir."

"Go check on your friend, if he is a friend." John walked away, swinging around in a circle until he was near Rodney again. Getting to him was hard, wading through children, but John scooped up a small child near the end and asked, "Keras, can I borrow Rodney for a few minutes?"

Keras looked at Rodney. "Do you wish to speak with him?"

"No, but he'll pout if I don't." Rodney pushed the child off his knee and stood. They walked together to the outskirts of the camp and beyond towards the old ruins. It felt good to move. Rodney made a huffy sound. "Nothing works here. What I'd give for my tablet."

"You needed a night off." John stopped in a place the trees parted and looked up at the stars. "I confined Kavanagh to his quarters unless he's working. Okay with you?"

"Can we shove him off a pier instead?" Rodney seemed serious, and he was staring up at the stars also. "If we ever do find a ZPM, I'm opening a gate to Earth and pushing him through with a note that says, 'No returns.'"

"Can we see home from here?" John slowly spun in a circle, searching for the place he loved, though he'd never admit it to anyone.

"Earth? Are you a complete – oh - you mean the Atlantis solar system." Rodney turned around twice. "That one, I think."

John followed the finger, stepping closer to do it. "Cool." He was almost close enough to kiss the back of Rodney's neck, not that he would. "I'm sorry about everything."

"Everything?" Rodney turned until they were facing each other. John kept his eyes on home, but he could see Rodney perfectly.

"Yeah." John shrugged his shoulders. "Not for teaching you to fly a jumper, but everything else."

"Zelenka informs me that you really didn't know, and that I'm an ass." Rodney smiled a crooked smile. "He says that second part pretty frequently."

"I'd imagine." John smiled back at him. The stars could wait while John enjoyed a smile turned on him. "General O'Neill is definitely going to yell at me." He paused. "I was angry, and you paid for it. I'm sorry."

Rodney, for once, didn't glare or look away. "I asked for it. I thought - I thought it'd be easier."

"Wrong often?" John couldn't help but ask.

"No." Rodney stared down at the dirt. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "I'm good at making people mad."

John had known that, and he was ashamed that he'd been so easy to manipulate. "Maybe if I'd have had more experience, I wouldn't have made that decision."

"If you'd had more experience, you'd have raped me that first night, so, um, well, I think I like you just the way you are. Quaker weirdness and all." Rodney started walking again, turning away. John clicked his jaw shut and wandered after him.

"You like me?" John asked, but he knew he wouldn't get an answer. "Hey, that's kinda nice. No one ever likes me. They put up with me, but--."

"Oh, shut up!" Rodney didn't turn this time. "Teyla practically fawns at your feet. Carson likes you. Even Weir secretly likes you, and every scientist in this galaxy would kill to be your--"

"Don't say that word!" John interrupted him, yanking him around. "I'm sick of it!"

Rodney's eyes were very round. "I get it." He lifted his hand and poked John in the chest with a finger. "You can't change it."

Grabbing Rodney's hand, John leaned into it. "Not without your help."

"And when Earth finds a way to contact us?" Rodney wasn't glaring, but he was close.

"We'll deal with it." John had no idea how. He doubted they'd last that long. "Wraith will probably eat us first."

The sound of little pounding feet forestalled Rodney's answer, and they were mobbed by sticky children. Several of them had chocolate-smeared faces that were easy to see even in the dim light.

"What is it with you?" John couldn't resist throwing one of the smaller ones in the air to make him scream.

"Stop encouraging them!" Rodney didn't like his new job as pied piper to the children. That was obvious.

"Major Sheppard, what's your location, please?"

John touched his comm. "Surrounded by hordes of children. What's up?"

"I'm heading back to Atlantis. Stay here until we give you the all clear, then get everyone home, and make sure Rodney doesn't bring any stowaways."

"Copy that." John picked another child to torture, laughing at the squeals of delight. "Let's go back to the fire."

"You go first. In case that one pukes."

*********

"Have a medical team in the jumper bay when we get there," Rodney said in a very loud voice.

"Already done. The last three times you told us."

John nearly chuckled at Weir's tone of voice. He didn't because it would hurt. "Settle down, Rodney, and get us home."

"Don't talk, Major," Teyla said and stroked a bandage across John's sweaty forehead.

"I'm fine." John had to say it again, but even he knew it was a lie. Shivers racked him, and he tried not to shake. He waited until he felt Atlantis take control of the jumper to set it down gently. "Rodney, come here."

Rodney knelt next to him. "What?"

"Salvage that Wraith ship and the satellite. I'm putting you in charge. Get it done. Teyla, help him." John did his best to sound forceful.

"I will." Rodney nodded fast.

"Yes, John."

"Move it, people." That was Carson. "Lad, are you daft, taking on a Wraith single-handed?"

"Rodney helped," John whispered. They got him up, and he didn't protest the gurney. His legs felt like noodles. It was Rodney who eased him back flat, and John tried to smile.

"Don't worry, Sheppard." Rodney gave him an awkward pat.

John winced slightly as a needle shoved into his arm.

"Secure the IV and then take him," Carson said. "Rodney, you're a mite dirty. Any injuries?"

"Other than general exhaustion, hunger, and muscle cramps?"

From there it was all a blur. He burned hot, cold, and voices were loud and soft. When the world settled, he cracked open an eye and saw Rodney asleep next to him.

"McKay, what the hell are you doing?" John nearly winced at the sound of his own voice - like a scratchy record.

Rodney's eyes flew open. "Carson!" He leaned over him, looking tired.

"I told you to work, not sit by my bed!" John wanted to sit up and yell at him, but that wasn't going to happen today.

"About damn time, Major!" Carson interrupted them, but John saw the flailing hands. Rodney had plenty to say. Carson took John's temperature. "Much better. Damn fever is finally gone."

John heard Rodney's whoosh of relief. That was a bad sign. "How long was I out?"

"Forever," Rodney muttered.

"Not that long." Carson started doing a bunch of stuff. "The bullet lodged in your arm caused a wee bit of trouble."

"You see, I thought bullets always went through soft tissue, but if the velocity has diminished enough, it might not, and that can lead to massive infections! I'm surprised your arm didn't rot off from all kinds of bacteria!"

"Please make him stop." John tried to move his arm and decided it could wait a day or two. He didn't want to think about teeming masses of bacteria.

Carson chuckled. "I've sent him out twice, but he keeps coming back."

"I'm surprised he doesn't have work to do," John grumbled and licked his lips. He was very thirsty. Two seconds later, Rodney poked a straw at John's lips. It was drink or drown, so John drank.

"Not too much, Rodney." Carson pulled it away. "Don't want him to vomit. His stomach is going to be a bit tender for a few days."

"Report, Carson." Weir came up behind him. "And Rodney, shouldn't you be in your lab?"

John managed to catch Rodney's arm. "I need an update. Don't leave."

"I won't." Rodney's voice was small instead of his usual self.

Carson gave Weir a rundown, and John tried not to listen. What mattered was that he would be back on duty soon. He gave Rodney's arm a squeeze and let his hand slide away.

"Good to have you back, Major." Weir took front and center. "Carson assures me you'll be up and around very soon."

"I'm sure he's right." John couldn't find a smile. He felt as if he'd let them down. "McKay will get me up to speed fast."

"Not too fast, lad." Carson smiled big.

There were a few things that John had to know now. "Who's been in command?"

"Sergeant Bates." Weir's eyes flashed. "Lt. Ford has been assisting with the recovery of the Wraith ship."

"Which is very cool," Rodney said. "The second part, not the first."

"Send Bates to me." John tried to add some zing to his eyes. He wasn't sure he succeeded.

"He's been informed. I'm sure he's on the way."

"Yeah, right." Rodney snorted. John saw the look Weir gave him. She needed to get over thinking that Rodney would ever be anything but outspoken, unless he was beaten daily. The residual anger over that helped him sit up. His ribs ached, and he took shallow breaths.

Rodney tucked a couple of pillows behind him. "Easy. One of those ribs was broken."

"So that's why it hurts," John said between clenched teeth. He concentrated on breathing until the pain faded away. Rodney hovered, and John pulled some strength from that.

Weir waited until John was settled. Her smile was brittle. "Get well, John. We need you."

"Yes, ma'am." John would never admit that he was glad to see her go. Carson pushed Rodney a further distance away and did a complete exam that meant rating pain. "Carson, it hurts!"

"Right." He turned and started fiddling with the IV. "I'll up your morphine for a day or two and then you'll have to live with it."

"Fair enough." John hated broken ribs, but it wouldn't slow him down if push came to shove. Carson fussed with the blankets before grabbing Rodney by the jacket and dragging him away. John didn't protest because he knew Rodney would be back.

*********

Carefully, John readjusted his body on his bed - he ached - before opening the next report on his tablet.

"Sheppard, you okay?"

"Yep." John kept thinking he'd be annoyed by Rodney's attention, but so far, it hadn't bothered him at all. "You?"

"Ha. Ha." Rodney leaned back and stretched. He'd taken over John's chair and computer station several days ago when John had been released from the infirmary. He was still restricted from even light duty, but he was out of the hospital, and that's what counted. Rodney sighed. "Dinner soon?"

"Yep." Saying it again to irritate him was fun. Rodney's rolled eyes was reward enough. "McKay, what am I going to do about Kavanagh?"

Rodney didn't answer right away. He crossed his arms and stared at his laptop. John read the latest report from Lt. Ford during the silence.

"If ever a man needed a leash, it's him." Rodney rubbed his eyes. "Stackhouse babies him. Gives him everything he wants."

"What do you want?" John was sorry he'd asked the question when he saw Rodney flinch.

"He should be working, instead he runs around making trouble." Rodney's voice was low. He shrugged and got to his feet. "I'm hungry."

John laughed and started the process of getting up. It was easier than last week, and he was going to insist on light duty very soon. Rodney stepped close, his hands ready, and John wondered what would happen if he toppled right over.

"Sheppard?"

"I'm good." John caught Rodney's forearm and straightened with a groan. "Thanks. When do I get an update on technology scavenged from the Wraith ship?"

After a bit of staring at John's hand, Rodney looked up. "Soon?"

"Okay." John wanted to ask him what he was thinking, but that was a very dangerous proposition. Instead, he shrugged his jacket on and opened the door. "I requested cheeseburgers tonight."

"Talk about a pipe dream."

They walked together, and John didn't hurry. He had to take these days to heal because the Wraith were coming. When they got closer, he could smell what he'd ordered, and he grinned. Rodney cast him an incredulous look and walked much faster. John chuckled and hoped the Pegasus equivalent of French fries made Rodney smile.

"Hurry up! If I miss this because of your laziness, I will feed you to the Wraith myself!"

John grinned and walked faster, catching a wave from Carson that indicated a good table out in the fading sunshine. Something was missing, and John clicked his comm. "Cadman, I thought I put you in charge of music."

"Almost got it. Wasn't as easy as it looked."

There was a long pause. "The Beach Boys?" He hoped no one blamed him for that.

Teyla caught his eye, and he was glad she came over to talk. "Major Sheppard, your party is a success."

He agreed. "I would guess you got the ale."

"I did." She smiled. "I predict Dr. McKay will eat three of the burgers."

"Three? I'd bet four." John pointed towards Carson. "Sit there?"

"I will get yours. I have eaten, and you look tired." She nudged him that direction. "Go."

"Thanks, Mom." He didn't argue about being tired, doing nothing but paperwork was exhausting. Grabbing a mug of ale, he made his way to Carson. Rodney was still in line, impatiently shifting from foot to foot, and it made John smile.

Carson gave him a steady look. "Don't overdo, lad, or I'll put you on an IV faster than you can say Wraithkiller."

John groaned. "I haven't! I took my walk this morning, which was your idea, and spent the rest of the day doing paperwork."

"That'll kill a man. I'd say do less." Carson grinned. "Still, I better get some blood and make sure you're okay."

"I'm going to bang my head on this table from frustration, and then you'll have something to look at!" John drank some ale. It was dark, rich, and somewhat fruity. He'd definitely be having more than one cup. Scanning the crowd, he frowned and touched his ear piece. "Zelenka?"

"Here, Major."

"Yes, but why aren't you here?" John saw a lack of blue shirts. "Close the lab. I didn't go to all this trouble so you could pretend there isn't beer!"

"There's beer?" Zelenka paused. "We will be there quickly."

"Better be," John grumbled and clicked the connection off. "Scientists give me a headache." He took a big swallow. Another thought popped up, and he was very glad for his radio. "Stackhouse?"

"Here, sir."

"Kavanagh is where exactly?"

"Working."

"Take the detail off him, but Sergeant, make sure he understands that I expect him to act like an adult, or he can join Markham in the brig."

"Yes, sir."

John saw Carson's look. "What?"

"I should've confiscated your radio."

"And make me walk all over this base?" John did his best to look horrified. "I might collapse!"

"Oh my God, I have French fries!" Rodney had a huge tray of food, stacked and piled, and his face beamed with something between awe and wonder. "And they're almost yellow!"

Carson and John laughed, but Rodney didn't even look at them. He ate. Teyla sat John's tray down in front of him.

"Just two?" John wasn't complaining, but Rodney had four. He tried a fry first, and they were good. "Ketchup?"

Rodney dug in his pockets and put a pile of packets on the table. "I'm not even going to ask what kind of meat this is!"

"That's a very good decision." John hadn't asked either, and the innocent look on Teyla's face wasn't reassuring.

"So, Major, what's the occasion?" Rodney asked around a mouthful of all kinds of stuff that John didn't look at too closely.

Carson raised his eyebrows, and Teyla leaned closer. The music blared something that John was sure was disco, and he swallowed before he answered. "It's your birthday."

It was somewhat interesting to watch Rodney stop chewing. Carson's eyes widened, and Teyla laughed.

John touched his ear piece. "Hit it, Cadman."

It was pretty terrible. Cadman had gathered every awful rendition of the Happy Birthday song and spliced them together to make something that could torture a person's ears. When it finally ended, Rodney was a color that John hadn't seen before - it could be good or bad.

Another tap. "Lt. Ford, you got it?"

"Yes, sir," Ford said from directly behind him. John was glad he didn't jump. He pointed at Rodney, and Ford delivered the box.

"Happy Birthday, Rodney." John was really trying not to grin, but he couldn't manage it.

Zelenka picked that moment to start cheering, and it didn't take much for most everyone to join in, and John saw Rodney's hands tremble as he took off the wrapping - courtesy of Miko - and opened the box.

Rodney's lack of vocabulary was starting to worry John, so he leaned close. "Welcome to the big watch club."

"Tells military time, standard time, waterproof to a greater depth than anyone wants to go, date, light, and can be equipped with a small amount of C-4." Ford seemed to take his watches seriously. "Oh, and it has an alarm so you won't be late to team meetings anymore!"

More than Teyla laughed, and Rodney finally found his voice. "Thanks, um, really--" He blushed, and John wanted to hug him. "Can I eat now?"

John laughed and gently smacked the back of Rodney's head. That broke the silence and everyone started eating and talking again. More than a few people stopped by to wish Rodney a happy day, and John stuffed his mouth full so he wasn't tempted to grin or laugh. The way he figured it, he was in enough trouble.

Carson brought several more ales to the table. "Any chance there's cake?"

"What's a birthday without cake?" John claimed an ale fast. "I put Stackhouse in charge of going through every MRE ration sent with us. It was a dirty job."

Rodney sat up very straight. "Tell me it's not the Lemon Seed Poppy cake."

"It's not." John touched his radio. "Sergeant, it's cake time."

"Are all birthdays so elaborate on your planet?"

Before John could answer, Rodney snorted. "No. Trust me."

"We usually celebrate more when we're children." John could see in Rodney's eyes that it had been a long time since anyone had remembered his birthday. "By the time we hit forty, we don't want to be reminded that we're having another one."

"Bloody truth that." Carson waved his hand over Rodney's decimated tray. "How you have room for cake is a real mystery."

Whatever Rodney was going to say faded away as Stackhouse put a cake in front of him. "Pumpkin pound cake, sir."

"There were three, and I hid the other two for the future. Five year expiration date." John lifted his beer. "Happy Birthday, Rodney."

Carson, Ford, and Teyla drank to that, and Rodney would of, but he was already eating his cake. Weir and Zelenka joined them, and the party began to get noisy. Tables were pushed aside, and people began to dance, and John made a note never to let Cadman be the DJ again.

"Lt. Ford, make sure the shift rotation happens on schedule." John could only hope someone was in the gateroom. Chuck wasn't. He was dancing with Simpson - the girl scientist.

"If a Wraith ate me now, he'd get heartburn," Rodney said. It was the first thing he'd said since the cake had been delivered. He started fiddling with the watch, and John waited as long as he could before taking Rodney's arm and strapping it on for him. "Hey, I'm full!"

"It affects his motor skills," Carson said. "Teyla, dear, would you like to dance?"

"I would."

They left, Ford wandered off, and John stared into his beer, unsure what to say.

"Thanks." Rodney's voice was barely above a whisper. "And that's the only time I'm saying it."

John nodded, believing him. "I was bored." He downplayed it so neither of them were embarrassed any more tonight. Getting to his feet, he wound his way through the people until he was at the rail. The moon was up now, and there was the usual breeze, and all was right with the world for now.

*********

"I'm not so sure about this, Rodney."

"What? You don't trust us?" Rodney's voice climbed an octave.

John was very glad that Weir wasn't at this meeting. "This isn't about that. You're talking about taking nearly every scientist in your department and traipsing through the most dangerous sections of Atlantis. I don't want to lose you to a structural collapse."

Rodney frowned. "Me?"

"You. Plural. The scientists." John glared, already tired of arguing. He nearly gave in, but it really didn't seem like a good idea. "One accident, and I can't exactly requisition more brains!"

"Look, this is important. If there's a problem, we need to know now, not when one of the piers sinks!" Rodney was waving his hands now - a bad sign. "Zelenka told me to ask. I am never listening to him again."

Rubbing his forehead didn't make it better. "Can't you use the internal sensors?"

"Well, yes, maybe, but nothing beats actually looking." Rodney had his arms crossed now. For some reason, this was important to him. John had a feeling it had to do with the negotiations in progress between Weir and Teyla, drawing up guidelines for the Atlantis scientists.

"First, use the sensors, bring me a report, and we'll set up some teams to ascertain the problems." John held up his finger to forestall any more arguments. He had to say this right. "I won't lose you."

Now the chin had gone up. "This is so unfair!"

"Okay, let's say the creature from the Black Lagoon has been washed up on one of the lower levels. Shouldn't we look before we get dragged to our doom?" John got up from his desk and took a cautious stretch. He needed a couple more weeks before he was a hundred percent, but he was working out with Teyla today.

"Oh, you are so funny." Rodney frowned. "You really think? No, not possible."

"How about labs full of rabid mutations, released from their stasis booths by the water?" John lowered his voice, trying to sound spooky. "What if the doors seal behind you and you drown? Or how about this--"

"Stop!" Rodney's eyes were a little wide. He swallowed. "A couple of interior sensor sweeps couldn't hurt."

"Good idea." John opened the door. "I'll send Cadman to help."

Rodney squawked some noise. "No!"

Hitting his ear bud, John smiled. "Lt. Cadman, report to Dr. McKay. He has need of your particular expertise."

"Will do, sir."

John paused before he headed to his quarters for some gym clothes. "Rodney, I want a report by dinner. Do not even think about going down there."

The silence was ominous. John walked away before Rodney filled it with cursing. Teyla went easy on him, and he was pathetically grateful. He was also glad they didn't discuss the negotiations or anything important. She didn't feel the need to fill the silence between the banging of the sticks.

Back at his quarters, he took a long shower and tried not to think about Rodney. Right after John had been released, Rodney had practically lived in John's quarters. Those days were long gone. It'd only been a week since he'd stopped coming by in the evening, but it felt like longer. When had he become dependent on a grumpy astrophysicist to help him go to sleep?

John glanced at his perfectly-made bed. It wasn't bed enough for one, much less two. He scrubbed his hair with the towel and set about finding clothes. Maybe if he pulled another all-nighter he could get some rest because there was no way he was admitting that he liked having a baby-sitter.

"Major Sheppard?"

The tiny voice came from the table, and John hurried to put it on and over his ear. "Here."

"This is Lt. Cadman. I thought you might want to know that Dr. McKay went in search of a lab on the lower levels."

"Excuse me?" John couldn't believe she hadn't stopped him. Wait, they were talking about Rodney. "No, don't repeat it. When?"

"Not long after I got here." She paused. "You were off-radio."

He groaned. "I'm going to kill him. Meet me in Dr. Weir's office."

"Yes, sir."

Fast now, he finished and practically flew out the door. For some reason, he just knew this was going to be bad.

*********

"Rodney, answer me please," John said in what he hoped were calm tones. He'd used the leash to pinpoint Rodney's exact location, a life signs detector to confirm, and had a squad of Marines at his back. However, there was no way he was opening the door before he spoke to Rodney. "Rodney!"

"Don't come in here!" Rodney sounded frantic. "Sheppard, clear everyone off this level!"

"I want answers, McKay." John shined his light down the hallways, noting the water marks, the destroyed furniture, and other smashed bits. Rodney didn't answer, and John grew impatient. He used the life signs detector again but there was nothing on this level but Rodney and the Marines. "Okay, men, fall back. Whatever is the problem, I don't think it's shootable."

They didn't look convinced but he herded them as far away as the transporter. "I'll be right back."

No one answered, and he could see they weren't sure about all this. Well, he wasn't either. He went back to the lab and opened the door.

"Oh, you didn't! When I say no do you hear yes?" Rodney started moving backwards. "Shut the door and leave! Now!"

"No." John stepped inside and shut the door. He could see broken glass and machinery that had seen better days, but no monsters. "What the hell is going on? I specifically told you not to come down here!"

"I know!" Rodney jerked his head to the side and drew in a sharp breath. "Damn!"

John touched his comm. "Carson, I need a medical team down here."

Rodney snapped his fingers three times. "We do! But no!" He turned completely around and then crouched down. "Oh, God!"

"What's the problem, Major?"

"I have no idea. Rodney appears to have lost his mind. We're in a lab that was underwater quite recently. Follow the breadcrumbs left by my Marines." John took another hard look around. "And wear a hazmat suit."

"Level 4 containment?" Now Carson sounded worried.

"Better safe than sorry." John wasn't sure about sending his Marines back now. He made sure to stay between Rodney and the door. "It might be airborne."

"What exactly, Major?"

"No! Don't you see them?"

"Whatever is making Rodney spin in circles and yell at no one." If they lived through this, John was going to kick Rodney's ass so hard.

"Get down!"

John tried to grab Rodney, but he ran, and locking the door became a real necessity. "Rodney! Stop!"

Rodney's eyes went wide and he rushed back. "John? Have you lost your mind? I told you not to come in here!"

"I know, but I was worried." John grabbed Rodney by the arms. "Sit down. Tell me what's going on!"

"Wraith. Everywhere." Rodney shuddered. He was very close to John's face. "This lab. They were making something. Something bad." He wrenched his neck around, trying to look behind, above, and under, all at the same time. "I didn't find all the information before they started coming for me!"

"Calm down, buddy. I got you." John got him to sit down on a bench. "Why did you come down here?"

Rodney stared over John's shoulder. "I knew there wouldn't be mutants! You're just trying to keep me leashed!"

Smacking him was out of the question. "So what's infected you?"

"Oh." Rodney slumped over. "There're mutants in here. You really should've stayed out."

"Guess so." John held on tight to him. "Hang on. Carson will figure it out."

"Need the information." Rodney bit his lip and ducked. "Laptop. Download from console." He yanked away and ran towards the laptop but dived under the desk at the last minute. "Help!"

John had no idea what was going on, but it was time to find out. Rodney wasn't going to be much help. That was clear. John went to the laptop, standing practically over Rodney and tried to figure out exactly what to do.

"Carson, are you on your way?" John snapped into his comm.

Weir answered him. "It takes a few minutes to gear up, Major. I'm sending Zelenka with the medical team. Should we assume your squad is infected also?"

"Yes." John had told them to stay put. He was sure they'd followed orders. Scanning the information, he made a note to start studying Ancient. "Rodney! What do I do?"

"Hide!"

"Just great."

*********

"You should be dead." Carson didn't look as if he were joking, but it was hard to tell in the orange suit.

John saw something out of the corner of his eye and turned quickly to fend it off. "Wraith! They're everywhere!" He went for his gun, upset when it wasn't there. "Rodney, we need to get out of here." He grabbed him and started for the door, but it wouldn't open. "What the hell?"

"Sheppard, you're going to be hallucinating for a couple of hours. I promise it'll get better." Rodney took a good hold of him. "Remember? I thought I was seeing things."

"Well, maybe you were right!" John peered suspiciously at the ceiling. There had been something up there. He was sure of it. "You did this, but I'm going to save your ass anyway!"

"Thanks." Rodney didn't turn loose. "Carson, why should I be dead?"

"The nanovirus is designed to kill humans."

"This is bad," John muttered. He'd heard all the talk between Rodney and Zelenka, but all it meant was that they needed to run, maybe use a jumper. "My men?" he asked again.

Carson shook his head. "None of them are infected. We triple-checked."

Pacing around the perimeter of the isolation room, John caught sight of the orange suits. "Rodney, let's put on the suits again and leave. Please. I'll fly the jumper. We'll find some place safe."

"We're safe here." Rodney shook his head. "We can't infect anyone. Carson, stay out unless it's an emergency."

"We have to figure out a way to kill the wee little beasties." Carson took a step towards the door, and John went with him. Out. They had to get out.

The door opened, and he was staring down the barrels of more than enough stunners to do the job. Rodney grabbed him by the jacket and dragged him away. He didn't fight, but he glared up at the observation deck. They were watching.

"Sheppard, get a grip." Rodney rapped him on the forehead. "You're safe. You're not going to die. At least, I don't think you are. This'll be over soon."

"Damn." John whipped around. He'd seen it again. "Is Lt. Ford in command?"

Weir answered him from up above. "Yes, Major, per your instructions."

"If they can't kill the nanites inside us, you'll have to gate us to a deserted planet and nuke the gate." John heard Rodney's quick breath. "That's my standing order."

"Understood, Major, but I'm sure it won't come to that." She paused. "Zelenka has sealed that lab. No one else will ever get in there."

Rodney went back to his laptop, and John tried not to look up. They were waiting.

"It's the gene!" Rodney started waving his hands. "Zelenka! It's the gene!"

John turned completely around twice. There was no place to hide in here, but they were hiding. "I need my gun." He walked the walls again. "You did this because you thought I kept you on a tight leash?"

"Well, um, maybe?" Rodney kept staring at his laptop. "You do!"

"I do not! I hate that stupid thing!" John spun around fast and ducked. Right there. It was right there.

"Not the real leash!" Rodney still didn't even glance at him. "A metaphorical one! You think you're the boss of me!"

"I am! I'm the goddamn commander of this base!" John strode over to him. "You're on my team! I am responsible for your welfare!" He flinched from the cold touch of a Wraith and grabbed Rodney by the collar. "You could've killed us all!"

"I know!" Rodney struggled with him. It made John crazy. They needed some cover. He shoved Rodney face down on the floor and made sure they couldn't get him.

"Get down!"

"Help!" Rodney wheezed.

********

The room came into focus slowly, and he rubbed his hand across his mouth, or he tried. His hand flopped like a dead fish. "What did you do?" he mumbled.

"They stunned you." Rodney gestured toward the observation deck. "You were nutty as Aunt Martha's fruitcake. I have bruises!"

John groaned and rolled to his stomach. "Have you gotten rid of them yet?"

"No."

Then there was no reason to get up. He pillowed his head on his arm and hoped the feeling came back into his extremities soon. "I'm going to kill you for this."

"Yes, yes."

"No, seriously. You disobeyed a direct order. Death, really, seems fair." John rubbed his forehead against his arm. "Or flogging. I might go for that." He wiggled his fingers - or he tried. "Definitely brig time - a couple of years should do it."

"Alright! I'm sorry!" Rodney sat down next to him. "Really sorry! I was being stupid!"

"And?" John glared up at him.

"And I know I gave them ammunition against us, proving that scientists can't be trusted." Rodney hung his head. "I screwed up."

That was the understatement of the decade. "And?"

"If we end up exiled, it's my fault." Rodney put his face in his hands and scrubbed. "I'm not saying sorry again, even if I am." He sighed and leaned against the wall.

John wiggled his toes in his boots. "And?"

"Stop saying that!" Rodney dug his palms into his eyes. "It wasn't you. It was me. It's so hard. I keep waiting for you to change your mind. Make me kneel. Something. It's hell!"

Forcing his arms to move, he managed to creep up the wall and lean next to him. From there, he could see the observation room was empty, at least near the window. He glanced at Rodney's big watch. It was three in the morning. "I know that you'll never trust me, but you are not allowed to kill us based on irrational fears brought on by lack of sleep and too much caffeine!"

Rodney's eyes were huge. He said in a small voice, "I deserved that."

"And really, you went by yourself? You didn't even take Cadman!" John rolled his eyes. He snorted. "Genius, right."

"Hey, you were the one who opened the door! I told you to stay out!"

"You're my damn responsibility! Mine!" John tried to smack him but only managed a bump with his elbow. He took a deep breath and stared into blue eyes. "Do you get it now?"

There was a moment where John thought maybe Rodney did get it. Blue eyes flashed away and then back and then widened. But that was it. Rodney said nothing. John groaned and shifted, nearly falling over.

"I'll find a way to turn them off," Rodney whispered. "Then you can confine me to quarters or something."

"Expect it." John nodded, very serious about that. He wouldn't like it, but he'd do it. If they ever got out of here. Believing there were tiny robots in his brain was difficult now that he wasn't crazy. "Robots, really?"

"Really." Rodney hurried back to his laptop. "I've been trying to access their coding, but they won't let me. We have the gene, so we're alive, but if we infect anyone without the gene, it'd be bad."

For a moment, John laughed at the idea of robots inside his body, just like any number of creepy science fiction movies. "Use a laser on them," he joked.

Rodney turned, stared, and then snapped his fingers three times. "Why didn't I think of it earlier? Granted, you were bouncing up and down on top of me, screaming about Wraith, but still." He whirled back to his laptop and touched his earpiece. "Zelenka, are you there?"

John concentrated on getting his body working again instead of listening. He also refused to think about the bouncing part.

"Yes, I know getting it down here isn't going to be easy. Would you rather we meet you there?"

That made John smile, and he sat up straighter. He was shaking it off now, and he indulged in several long stretches that pulled at sore ribs. It was funny how being stunned really didn't help make up for lost sleep. There were MREs on a table, and he stumbled over to snag one. He ate it fast, needing the energy, and drank as much water as he could hold.

"It'll work! Stop mumbling in Czech and get it down here!"

Grinning, he walked a little more steadily to the sofa and flopped down. "I need a nap." He noticed that Rodney shot him a glance but what it meant was anyone's guess. "Wake me when we can get out of here."

"Major?" Rodney sounded annoyed. "You really went to sleep?"

"Of course not," John stretched again and opened his eyes. He was military; he could sleep on his feet, and had, but there was no reason to brag about it. "Who could sleep with all the racket?"

"Do not--"

"I know!" Rodney glared at Zelenka. "Get out. I'll do this, and then I want some sleep."

John eased up and took a good look at the array of machinery. "You sure this is safe?"

"Yes." Rodney shrugged. "Well, not really, but yes." He waved him close. "We're going to do a controlled overload. The EM pulse will kill the nanites."

"You hope." John eyed all the warning signs. He wasn't sure close was a good idea. Rodney pressed several buttons, reached out, and jerked him until they were practically on top of each other. A red button began to flash. "Should we shut our eyes?"

"Five, six, seven, eight, um, no." Rodney pressed another button. The machine whirred and whooshed, and then there was a high-pitched whine. A whiff of something burning, and John ducked when the flash drive in Rodney's collar exploded. "Oh, shit!"

Panic wasn't useful, but it was all John had until he saw the bottom of Rodney's hair catch fire. Using his hands wasn't smart.

"Stop hitting me!" Rodney ducked.

"You're on fire!" John manhandled him down, beating at the tiny flames, and spotted the crack in Rodney's collar. Taking a good grip, he yanked hard.

"Ow!" Rodney bucked like a bronco, and John threw the collar the length of the room. Someone in a hazmat suit burst into the room and hit them both with a blast from a fire extinguisher. Rodney yowled several more things that John would find hilarious some other day.

Collapsing down to his back, he could feel the burn on his hand now, and he made a note to put in for a transfer.

"I need a blood sample, Major."

John sighed. He'd kill for a nice turkey sandwich. "Of course you do. McKay, you still on fire?"

"Don't touch me!"

*********

Finding a quiet moment in the infirmary wasn't as easy as it sounded. The fact he kept falling asleep didn't help, but finally, the nurses seemed to be on break, and he could slide out of bed. Rodney was asleep, but John sat down next to him anyway.

"Finally free from that stupid thing," John whispered. He had a feeling that the drama would be highly unwelcome. Rodney's neck was swathed in some burn gel stuff. His hand had gotten the same treatment. "If we're lucky, they didn't bring replacements."

Rodney snuffled, rolled, and sat bolt upright. "Ouch!"

John couldn't help but laugh. He didn't mind the glare. "Sh-h-h. I just got rid of the nurses."

"I like nurses." Rodney gingerly touched his neck and winced. "I suppose I should thank you for putting me out."

"Hey, I'd do it for almost anyone, maybe not Kavanagh." John studied his hand. It hurt, but he wouldn't complain about it. The tips of his fingers were the worst. He glanced up. "Feel weird?"

"Completely. I'm twelve ounces lighter." He suddenly smiled. "Weir was wrong." Then he giggled - it was a giggle. "She said I'd wear it the rest of my life."

John remembered. He grinned. "Think there'll be a line at the EMP thingie? Get your collar blown off here!" Rodney's laugh made him laugh, and they might've gotten loud. It was probably the dead robots floating in them, and that made John laugh harder.

"I'm in so much trouble." Rodney grinned.

It was easy to laugh about that too. "Oh, I think you raised the bar on bad scientist behavior."

"You two do realize that patients are not supposed to be happy in my hospital?" Carson smiled and pulled up his own chair. "it sets a terrible example."

Rodney and John laughed some more and then avoided each other's eyes long enough to stop. John pointed at Rodney's hair. "Like his new haircut?"

"Lovely." Carson rolled his eyes, but he was still smiling. "Congratulations, you two are my first patients to catch fire while under my care."

"Don't even pretend you're not writing a paper about the nanites." Rodney crossed his arms, and it was his turn to do the eye roll thing. John could see that Rodney had struck home when Carson didn't deny it. Carson poured them both a small cup of water, and they drank.

Carson gave them a refill. "Thank God the wee beasties are dead."

"On one level, they were fascinating." Rodney sipped some water and continued, "Why would the Ancients create a nanovirus to kill humans?"

John thought it was a good question. "Maybe the Wraith did it?"

"You don't kill the sheep before shearing time," Carson said.

Rodney and John exchanged a look. "Do you have any idea what that means?"

"None," John said and shook his head. "Probably not Wraith. Who then?"

"Someone who really doesn't like humans." Rodney put his water down. "I'm tired and scorched. Go away."

John smiled and went without complaining. He was tired too, and tomorrow would be difficult. The paperwork alone on this one was going to be hell.

*********

"Major Sheppard, I'm ready to release Dr. McKay." Carson's voice was in John's ear.

John tapped his comm. "So?" He groaned loudly when he realized why there was silence. "Do I have to?"

"It's the rule."

"Stupid." John nearly tossed his tablet off the balcony in disgust. He'd been released from the hospital two days ago, and it'd been non-stop problems since then. Teyla stopped him with a gentle touch and a small smile. He handed her the tablet. "Find us a mission. I need a break."

"I agree." Teyla cradled the tablet. "I will get with Dr. Grodin and find an address. Do not worry about things you cannot change."

He would worry, but he nodded. She went left, and he went right, and Rodney looked furious. It was a bad beginning. Around his neck there was nothing but a thick winding of gauze. His shirt was a hospital scrub, which was a smarter choice than a T-shirt.

Carson was all smiles, but there were lines around his eyes. "Checkups daily."

"Is that necessary?" John pointed at the gauze collar. It wasn't exactly subtle.

"Aye." Carson wouldn't meet John's eyes. Weir had gotten to him. Rodney's chin couldn't get any higher, and John was at the end of his proverbial rope.

"You're a doctor. You have a code of ethics that calls you to a higher standard." John balled up his hands, glad for the pain. "Make your choices carefully." His father had said those words to him so many times. He'd never really appreciated them until he'd come to Atlantis.

There was a moment where John thought Carson had listened, but then he turned and went to his office. Rodney's chin came down.

"It's not his fault."

John refused to agree or disagree. He knew it took courage to take a stand, but he'd thought that Carson had it.

"You're being stupid again," Rodney said with a sigh. "You need to learn to bend your proud neck."

"No." John squeezed his burned hand tighter. "Not going to do it." He put his hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Come on. I'm sure you're hungry, and we need to talk."

"One moment, Major." Carson worked quickly with the scissors, cutting the gauze away and balling it up. "Burns need to breathe, and I want to look at your hand tomorrow. I gave Rodney some salve. Put it on him before bed."

"I will." John gave Carson a salute. "Thanks, Doc."

Carson flushed red and left fast, waving. Rodney fell into step at John's shoulder, and John would never admit how much he liked it.

"See, you have to stay positive."

"I'm positive that you're going to lose your job." Rodney sounded serious about that. "How's your hand?"

"Better." John flexed it a few times. "And Rodney, keeping this job was never in my future. I shot my commanding officer. Dead."

Rodney's elbow bumped John's. "So, why?"

"It's the right thing to do. We have to try." John saw Rodney's skepticism. "Yes, you're helping, whether you like it or not. You're my scientist, remember?"

"Crap."

John always liked Rodney's enthusiasm. He let him go first in the line for food, and they found a table outside. It wasn't long and Teyla joined them, and then Ford, and Zelenka, and a few others.

Zelenka's question was very soft, but John heard him. "How does it feel?"

Answering for Rodney was rude; John did it anyway. "Extra crispy."

"Oh, man, what I'd give for a bucket of the Colonel's chicken." Rodney moaned. "But, yes, it hurts."

"What I don't understand is why you smarty pants didn't realize it'd blow up. There's a computer around his neck. Of course it's going to blow." Ford grinned. "Which, by the way, was very cool."

Rodney glared, Zelenka too, and John nudged Teyla. She helpfully spoke up. "So, what did you do when you realized Dr. McKay was on fire?"

It was easy to grin and slouch. "I started smacking at him!"

"I thought he was assaulting me!"

"He was ducking, and I was slapping." John laughed, and he saw Zelenka hiding his own grin.

"You can't feel your hair on fire. It's weird." Rodney brushed his hand through his short, new haircut. "I figured he was mad!"

Everyone burst out laughing. John could see Rodney struggling not to laugh also. Miko complimented Rodney on his new haircut, and Zelenka tossed something like a chicken nugget at Ford, who caught it and ate it. It made Teyla laugh again, and John let himself enjoy the moment.

"Can I assume you'll be escorting Dr. McKay to the brig after his meal?"

John wanted to cover his face with his hands and never peek out. The silence was full of anger, accusations, and disgust - all of it from him. "We're all aware that Dr. McKay disobeyed a direct order. There will be consequences. Personally, I think being on fire was punishment enough, but you and I disagree on that point."

Her eyes flashed and she stood very straight. "The penalty for removing the collar is death."

"Lt. Ford, pull your gun and shoot me," John said dryly. They'd argued about this in private. Obviously, she wanted a public win.

"I'll glue it back together!" Rodney yelped and pointed. "He pulled it off. I didn't do anything!"

Seeing her smirk, John wanted to punch her, and he'd been raised better. She saw this as a direct threat to her power, and so far, there'd been no reasoning with her. Rodney was the leader of the scientists, and for him to go without a collar set a dangerous precedent. Her opinion. Not John's.

"There aren't any extras?" Rodney's eyes were flicking back and forth from John to her.

"No," John said, and that wasn't his fault. "They're indestructible."

"Not so much it turns out," Rodney said.

John could see this conversation was about ready to descend into Rodney panicking. "Back to work, everyone." He stood and faced her, seeing that she wasn't going to give an inch. Rodney scrambled up and got behind John. Guess he was a genius.

"Do your duty." She held out Rodney's leash.

He almost didn't take it. She narrowed her eyes, and he grabbed the end with the hook with his burned hand. He handed Rodney the loop. He'd be damned if he were going to put it around Rodney's burned neck. "Move it, McKay."

Rodney almost dropped his end, and John was sure his distaste was plain to see as he dragged him away.

"I could probably fix it. I can fix most anything." Rodney didn't drop his end of the leash. "How many pieces is it in?"

"Two." John had it in his quarters. "Four, if you count the flash drive." He could feel her following them. "Walk faster, will ya?"

The transporter wasn't close enough, and John didn't turn around. He studied the map and made up his mind.

"Um, that's not the brig."

"I know, Rodney." John looked at him after they re-materialized. "Are you aware of the penalty for directly disobeying a handler's order?"

Rodney frowned. "I do it all the time!" He hurried to catch up. "But yes, I am."

"And do you know the punishment for disobeying the commander of whatever military facility you might be stationed at?" John hadn't known, but Weir had been glad to educate him.

"Uh, no?"

John opened Rodney's door and shut it right after him. "I don't have many options here." He dropped his end of the leash and sat on the bed. His hand ached, and he stared down at it without seeing the burn. "I'm sorry," he said, and he was. Sorry for the whole damn system. He should've stayed home and been a teacher like his father wanted.

"It's not your fault. None of it." Rodney sat next to him. "You didn't make these rules."

"I'm just the schmuck who has to enforce them." John kept staring at the burn, instead of looking at the thigh pressed into his. "Teyla promises me that this will be a major point of contention in the new regulations they're drawing up. Weir has informed me that some things will never be acceptable, and this is why we, meaning her, expect handlers, meaning me, to keep their charges, that's you, under control."

"I bet Bates is laughing his ass off." Rodney had every right to be bitter. He lowered his head and put his palms against his face. "I took advantage of you."

That was an interesting way to look at it, but John wasn't sure he agreed. "You want to be free to make your own decisions and live with the consequences. I respect that."

"But?" Rodney didn't raise his head.

"But here on Atlantis, those consequences can be deadly for more than just you. If Ford had pulled this stunt, I'd bust him back to private, toss him in the brig for a couple of days, and put him on KP for the rest of his life."

Rodney made a soft sound like a mixed groan and sob. "I'm sorry."

"I know." John sighed, disgusted with the entire situation, but he would do all he could to make this easier. "I need you to tell Zelenka not to do anything stupid." He handed Rodney the radio. "Please."

"I'll tell him." Rodney took it and tucked it over his ear. John wandered over to the window to give him a measure of privacy. The conversation was soft and low, and he didn't try to listen. He'd made the arrangements for this yesterday. There was no way he was putting anyone in their regular brig for more than a few hours. There was no toilet, for one thing.

"No!"

John locked the door with a thought. "Rodney, tell me what you're thinking."

Rodney breathed heavily, backing towards the door. He lifted his hands, palms out. "Please."

"I can assume then that Zelenka told you the punishment?" John eased closer and held out his hand. "Radio, please."

The urge to throw it was right there on Rodney's face, but he handed it over with shaking hands. "Yes. No. Don't do this!"

"I don't intend to. That's one of things we have to discuss." John took up his position on the bed again. It might help Rodney take a breath. "I refused to do it or allow anyone else to do it. It's excessive, even cruel and unusual."

"I totally agree!" Rodney started pacing. "Twenty! A day!"

"With a strap, first thing in the morning." John nodded. His stomach hurt thinking about it. "I bargained our way to this compromise. Two hours a day in a stress position of my choosing."

Stopping, he turned and stared open-mouthed. "Two hours?" He swallowed hard. "Oh, God."

"It's that or, well, I don't know. Weir might assign Bates to do it and force me to resign. It's possible." John wouldn't put it past her. She was beyond angry, and women were dangerous when they were mad. "Also, Carson put his foot down on the only bread and water thing."

"Thank God." Rodney sat down with a thump - on the floor. He looked wrecked, and John wanted to tell him it'd be okay, but that would be a lie.

John nearly went to him. "I know you've been confined and beaten before, but I promise you that won't happen here. I won't allow anyone to hit you."

"You know?" Rodney rubbed his eyes. "I guess you did some reading. I think they sent me to Atlantis to get rid of me."

"That and you asked forty times." John was very glad Rodney was here, whatever the reason. "Put on your favorite boxers. No matter what anyone says, we're not doing this naked."

Rodney didn't move. "I hate you all."

"With good reason." John got up now. "The sooner we get started, the sooner we're finished."

"How many days?" Rodney got up with a terrible groan. He must've seen the truth in John's eyes, and he cringed. "I'm there until she lets me go."

There'd been no way to talk her out of that. John had tried. The charges were serious, and on Earth, Rodney might've been put to death or imprisoned for the rest of his life. Genius or not, there were some things that weren't allowed. John hoped, prayed, that it wouldn't be too long. Atlantis needed Rodney, and Weir would see that when her anger faded.

"Are you going to be okay?" Rodney moved so they were standing close.

Surprised by the question, John told the simple truth. "No."

"All you wanted was to fly," Rodney said. He reached, and John could've moved away, but he didn't. The touch was gentle on John's face. "Thanks for what you did."

The huge wad of guilt in John's throat wouldn't let him answer. Rodney stripped off his shirt, and the rest of it followed, until he was down to his boxers. "I'll need a collar."

"No," John said, hearing his voice crack. "Carson wouldn't allow it." John didn't say that he'd pitched a fit like a three-year-old. "The salve?"

Rodney leaned over, fished it out of his pocket, and John took it from him. John tucked it away and picked up the leash. Rodney took his end, and John wound his tightly around his burn. The pain would help him do this.

"When life hands you lemons," John said.

"I scream and run away." Rodney opened the door, and John settled his face into what might become a permanent scowl. The corridor was lined with scientists, soldiers, doctors, and the few Athosians who were on Atlantis. Teyla looked thunderous. John tried to figure out the mood without directly looking at anyone. The silence made the short hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

Rodney squared his shoulders, dropped into position at John's back, and they walked together. Keeping his eyes forward was difficult. No one said a word, and John had the feeling that Weir would blame him for this show of solidarity on Rodney's behalf.

The room was tiny, nothing more than a stripped out bathroom. The cot was the kind they used in the field - damn uncomfortable. A chain led from the wall to a pair of handcuffs that John didn't want to pick up. There was no door. A forcefield had been installed in what remained of the opening.

"Hey, a toilet." Rodney's fake cheerfulness made John want to punch walls. "Last time, I didn't have one, so thanks."

His jaw clenched, John put the cuffs on him, loosely. Just one click. "I hate them all," he growled, hating himself as much as them.

Rodney shrugged. "Did they ground that field properly?"

"Like I know. Let's hope for the best." John rubbed his hand through his hair. "I'll be by later."

"Okay." Rodney sat down on the bunk, hands loose between his legs. "No one will hit me?"

"I promise." John wanted to touch him, comfort him, and that was one promise that he was keeping no matter if he had to sleep in the hallway. Stepping out, he made a gesture and one of his men turned on the forcefield. "No one is allowed inside without my permission. No one is allowed to touch him. Failure to follow these orders will result in a court martial, and you can join Markham in lockup."

Smith and Albertson nodded together. John tapped his earpiece. "Your orders have been carried out, Dr. Weir."

The wait was short. "Thank you, Major Sheppard."

*********

The last thing he was going to do was worry about Rodney. Rodney was fine. John pushed the tablet aside and took the bandage off his hand. It'd bled through, and he saw that he'd popped the blisters. It'd heal. Rodney's neck was worse.

"Major?"

John put his hand flat on his desk. "You know the way to my office, Ford?"

"Funny, sir." Ford didn't smile very often. He was a serious, young man. "I wasn't sure you knew where it was."

"Oh, I get here now and again, usually when someone's looking for me." John leaned back. "Is there a problem?"

"I checked on Dr. McKay. He's good." Ford sat down in the chair opposite the desk. "Well, not good, but he's okay."

Not knowing what to say was a big part of John's life. "You ever get the feeling we're hopelessly unqualified for the roles we're being asked to fill?"

"Every day." Ford nodded and shifted his feet. John waited for it. Ford coughed. "Colonel Sumner didn't like you much."

"Not one bit." John pushed the images of Sumner screaming in pain away again. "I disobeyed a direct order in Afghanistan, and that always makes the brass nervous."

Ford's eyes widened. "They didn't discharge you?" He ducked his head. "Dumb question."

"Hey, I felt the same. I kept waiting for them to do it. I was brought up on charges, I pled guilty, and I waited. I was reassigned to Antarctica." John kept the story simple. "I guess good pilots are hard to come by."

"I heard how you sat in the chair."

"It'd been a long day." John wouldn't make that mistake again. He was willing to tell him a little more. "After that, I was given a choice. Atlantis or, well, they left it hanging. Sumner was furious when he found out I was coming along because, technically, I was his second-in-command."

"Wow." Ford rubbed his hand across his mouth. "What would he do in this situation?"

That was an interesting question. John hadn't known him. "He'd have kept order at any cost."

"My great-grandfather was a slave. One great? Maybe two." Ford pointed at the tablet. "We should go over the duty roster."

"Good idea. I also think we need to clamp down on inventory. We can't make more bullets." John was relieved to change the subject. He didn't know how to keep order without busting heads, and where Sumner would've done it, he wasn't sure he could.

********

"I think I'm going through caffeine withdrawal."

"This is news?" John leaned against the door. He'd sent his men away. They probably needed a break. "This is going to be a huge pain in my ass."

"I feel your pain." Rodney rolled his eyes, eating his food as if it'd be snatched away. "I'm not drinking from the toilet."

John blinked. "Uh, I didn't think of that." He rubbed his forehead, tired of being angry. "I'll have a couple of canteens brought to you every morning when the shift changes. Anything else?"

"Tablet, deck of cards, and someone warm to hold." Rodney drank some water. John tried not to watch the droplet trickle down to land on Rodney's chest.

"I'll get on it." John was willing to volunteer to hold him.

Rodney finished eating. "I'm going to starve." He stared at his empty plate.

"Carson won't allow that." John cleared the tray away, taking it out in the hallway. He didn't understand why Weir had insisted on a chain and a force field. Rodney was standing when John returned.

"You realize that my hands are supposed to be in back, right?" Rodney shifted on his feet. "I could kill you with a loop from the chain."

"Who'd feed you then?" John slouched against the doorway. He wasn't worried. "I need to put medicine on your neck."

A sigh, and Rodney managed to move farther away. "It hurts."

"This will help." John didn't take a step. "Carson is going to visit every morning." He could see that Rodney was thinking about doing something crazy. "Will yelling help?"

"No," Rodney said.

John couldn't stand it any longer. He broke right down the middle and put his arms around him. If Rodney hit him, it would be fine. Rodney shuddered, and after one tense moment, leaned his head against John's shoulder. Very slowly, John brought his hands up, but it was hard to touch Rodney's bare skin. One hand was all he could manage, and the tips of his fingers felt scorched all over again.

"I'll find a way to help." He felt Rodney twitch and stepped back. Before Rodney could move away, John got out the medicine and started slathering it on. Rodney winced and grimaced, but he didn't scream, so it was a victory of sorts. "Cold?"

"Well, duh." Rodney shivered. He fumbled at the lotion, and John let him take it. "Your turn."

John made a fist, unwilling, and Rodney rapped him on the knuckles with the cuffs. "Ow!"

"Fair is fair."

It was true, but opening his hand made him feel vulnerable, and Rodney stared down at it. "Hand me your radio, please?"

"I'm almost sure I shouldn't." John hesitated and then took it off. Zelenka was already complaining about the work load. A quick conversation wasn't a problem.

Rodney adjusted the channel. "Carson, Sheppard's hand is infected. Swollen. There's even pus. I might puke." He handed him the radio back while John's mouth was still hanging open. "That is gross."

"Yeah, well, your neck looks like fried chicken!" John fumbled the radio back on his ear. "Smith, your break's over and bring a couple of canteens of water with you."

"No lemon."

"He's not going to put lemon in a canteen!" John was going to glare, maybe smack the back of Rodney's head, but Rodney sat down on the cot and stretched out as if he were going to bed.

"A pillow would've killed you guys?" Rodney shut his eyes, and John had to force himself out the door. Since Rodney's eyes were closed, John really looked at him. Rodney wasn't muscular or handsome, but he was strong, smart, and felt like home. Okay, he was handsome.

"Major! What the bloody hell were you thinking?" Carson had already tracked him down. John blinked, determined to look as if nothing was wrong. Carson stopped right next to him. "Damn."

"I know." John activated the forcefield. He had exhausted all his arguments, but Carson hadn't, and it was time to send him to Weir. "He's cold."

Carson put his hands on his hips. "He's going to be ill by tomorrow."

"Go get 'em, Carson." John turned away to meet his detail. "Dr. Beckett is on the very short list of people who are allowed to see Dr. McKay, and make sure he's given his water every morning."

"Yes, sir." Smith nodded. "We'll pass the word. Aren't those cuffs supposed to be in back?"

John frowned and tilted his head. "Are you challenging my orders?" he growled.

"No, sir!"

"I would hope not. I'd hate for you to be there, holding his dick, every time the man had to piss!" John went ahead and roared, enjoying Smith's look of terror. "Carson, are you going to keep staring, or are you going inside?"

"Inside," Carson said with no enthusiasm. "I'd heard horror stories, but I didn't know."

Rodney sat up and laughed. "Oh, kill the drama. This is Club Med compared to the last hole I visited."

John winced at the raw truth in Rodney's voice, and he was afraid to stay any longer. He might do something irrational. "Give the doctor some breathing room, men."

They went further down the hall, and John opened the forcefield. "Take your time, Carson." He might've left a little too fast, and he was sure it looked as if he were running. He was. The urge to kill someone was too great. He cared too much. He'd never thought he'd care for anyone. Love, hell, like wasn't something he did. He had buddies - they usually died - but this thing with Rodney was totally different. He really was a queer Quaker.

*********

Teyla found him. She would. She had all that woman's intuition and hunter instinct going for her. John lowered the hatch and didn't even want to look at her.

"Dr. Beckett asked me to inform you that he's taking you off active duty."

"Asshole," John muttered. He glanced at her. "I was going to see him in the morning. It's late."

"So why are you not sleeping?" Teyla sat down in the co-pilot's seat.

John went with a shrug. He didn't want to discuss his stupid hand. "What now, Teyla? I feel as if I lost the battle." He hoped he didn't sound depressed. "Hell, I lost the war."

She nodded. "It is a setback. Dr. Weir refuses to return to the negotiations table. Dr. Zelenka and the others are furious, and Dr. Beckett is talking about the... Geneva Convention?"

"It's a set of guidelines about how prisoners of war can be treated. It doesn't apply to Rodney's case. His falls under Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." John could see her confusion at his emphasis, but there was no way to make her really understand. "The Geneva Convention gives prisoners certain rights: warmth, food, shelter. The other one is based on the principle that as long as there's no lasting harm, well, then, it's okay if prisoners are cold, in pain, hungry, chained to the wall for hours at a time." He tasted bile.

"What information does Dr. Weir hope to gain?" She really looked confused now.

He wasn't sure how to explain it any better. "She doesn't want information. She wants him to grovel, go back to work, and never cause another problem. The techniques are useful for that as well. Tomorrow morning, I have to put him in a stress position. It's going to hurt."

"Him or you?"

"Both, but him a lot more than me," John said. "I hate to say this, but Teyla, I suggest you leave. Take the Athosians and go. There's nothing you can do now."

She was silent. He went back to staring down at the console. Her radio clicked. "We are on our way."

"Carson?"

"Yes." Teyla wrapped her small, but strong, hand into John's jacket and pulled him from his seat. He gave up and went with her to the infirmary. Carson's brogue was thick, and his eyes were angry, and John simply nodded at all the strange names that Carson called him.

"I told you if they blistered, not to pop them!"

Teyla shifted, John saw that it was a warning, and Weir came striding around the corner.

"You've relieved him of duty?" Weir demanded.

"Aye," Carson snapped.

John saw something on her face that made his stomach hurt. She gave him a hard look. "I'll instruct Lt. Ford in his duties in regards to Dr. McKay."

"Perhaps Dr. Becket meant he was restricting me to light duty," John said, not liking the sound of that. "It's late, and we're all tired."

Strangely enough, Carson glanced at Teyla. "Didn't I say light duty, lass?"

"I did hear you say that." Teyla nodded. "When did you sleep last, Dr. Beckett?"

"If I could remember, I'd tell you." Carson nudged John. "Lay back. I want to get a broad spectrum antibiotic in you tonight and then light duty tomorrow."

Now was not the time to pitch a fit. John removed his holster and handed it to Teyla. "Thanks."

"You are welcome, Major." Teyla smiled and then rounded on Weir. "Dr. Weir, my people and I will be leaving Atlantis. Dr. Grodin has found a suitable planet for us."

Weir blinked. John saw it. He wanted to protest, but he knew it was for the best. Teyla didn't deserve to be caught up in this mess.

"Teyla, you're a valuable member--"

"Halling and I have discussed it. Your recent treatment of Dr. McKay proves that you are a people who cannot be trusted. None of us wish to be confined and tortured." Teyla was not a tall woman, but she towered over Weir in that moment.

Carson groaned. "Teyla, I don't think--"

"How a people treat the least among them is more important than how they treat the best." Teyla spared a look at John. "Regardless of our affection for Major Sheppard, we will no longer condone this through silence. Do not come to our people for trade, and you can be certain we will spread the word that barbarians have taken over the City of the Ancestors and are not to be trusted."

Weir screwed up her face. She might've been chewing lemons. "I trusted McKay and Sheppard, and they both let me down. McKay earned his punishment. It's our laws, and I'm the one who has to enforce them."

"I truly thought you had come to understand." Teyla shook her head. "I see now that I was wrong."

"All it did was show me that if we loosen up, the scientists will find a way to kill us all. I don't have the gene. I'd be dead!" Weir shouted.

Teyla stepped to John and put her hand on his leg. "Get well, Major, and know that you will always have a place among my people."

John swallowed hard. He hadn't wanted this. "Take care, Teyla."

Weir wasn't finished. "You can't blame me for their carelessness!"

"I blame you and your people for brutality born of fear." Teyla patted Carson's hand. "Goodbye, Dr. Beckett."

"Lassie," Carson said. He waved one of his cringing nurses over. "IV for him now."

Whatever Weir had planned to say or yell was cut short by Teyla walking out with her head held high. She'd probably made up her mind about all of this earlier in the day. He hoped she remembered to take the weapons. John winced as a needle was shoved in his arm. Carson was still fussing with the burn.

"I suppose it's for the best," Weir said.

Carson gave her an incredulous look, and John couldn't find the strength to say anything in the face of her stupidity. Teyla was right. Fear was driving Weir to this, and there was nothing he could say to make her less scared.

"I assume you're going to speak with her. Convince her to stay." Weir gave him a cautious smile that didn't come close to reaching her eyes.

What he wanted to do was fake passing out. Instead, he clicked his comm. "Sergeant Stackhouse, please assist Teyla and the Athosians as they relocate to their new home. They'll need jumpers and manpower."

"Yes, sir." Stackhouse sounded half-asleep.

Weir peered down at him. "They could stay on the mainland."

"This planet isn't a prison. For some of us." John didn't wait for her to yell at him. "My apologies for abusing your trust."

She said nothing for long enough that John felt sweat trickle down the side of his face.

Carson broke the silence. "Better, lad?"

"Keep me informed on his status, Doctor." She didn't wait for an answer, and John let out a cautious breath when she was gone.

"We are officially screwed."

"Aye."

*********

There were more than a hundred people on Atlantis, and from what John could tell, they were all angry, more than that, sorta pissed off in a scary way. The Athosians had left Atlantis, and he'd noticed that Teyla had told everyone who would listen the reason why. Weir was holed up in her office, but she had her supporters, who by and large blamed him for everything.

But it was Sergeant Jameson who made absolutely sure that John was wedged tightly between the proverbial rock and hard place.

"Major, I'd like to respectfully decline guard duty on Dr. McKay today."

John was sure he made a dumb face of surprise. He was only one hallway from the infirmary, so Jameson had been lying in wait for him. "Would you mind telling me why, Sergeant?"

"Me and my buddies, well, we're just a bunch of jarheads, and we never really thought about it until we got here." He adjusted his thick, black glasses and ran a nervous hand over his bald head. "Dr. Carver - he's collared - and well, it ain't right what's happening to Dr. McKay."

It was very easy to see where this was going. "Do you have a list of men who would prefer other duties?"

"Cadman's on the list too." Jameson handed it over. "Not sure she's a man, but yeah." He ducked his head. "We're sorry about this. If you want to put us on night duty or KP, or both, well, that's cool."

"Did you pull the short straw?" John found a small smile.

"Yes, sir." Jameson looked embarrassed.

There was one thing John had to know. "How firm are these beliefs of yours? If I bust all of you back to private, are there going to be denials this list ever existed? If Dr. Weir wants to court martial all of you for disobeying orders, what then?"

Jameson's face went very still and his spine straightened. "You're our commander. We trust you to do what's right."

"Oh, thanks." John scanned the list before tucking it away. He never should've been bullied into coming here - stupid gene. "Inform everyone on this list that they're confined to quarters for the remainder of the day."

"Yes, sir!" Jameson saluted - Marines did a lot of that - and marched away. John wanted to bang his head against the wall. He hurried to Rodney's cell and his detail was there, but they weren't happy about it.

"You're dismissed. Sergeant Jameson has your orders." John had eyes only for Rodney, and he was sprawled on the cot. While John watched, Rodney took a very long stretch. Muscles bunched, the chain rattled, and John made up his mind to get Rodney some pants.

"What's it take to get some food around here?" Rodney grumbled.

John lowered the forcefield and tossed him a power bar. Rodney fumbled the catch but tore it open in record time. "Zelenka was here," he said around his first mouthful. "Morons have already screwed up the power distribution. Have you ever seen a naquadah generator explode?"

"Saw a nuclear explosion once." John couldn't eat. He found a wall to lean against. "About the same?"

"Bigger." Rodney laughed in a not so nice way. "So! What's up with you?"

"Same old, same old. Thinking seriously about unloading my gun so I don't accidentally shoot myself on purpose." John rubbed his face. It was hard not to stare at him. "Tell me the truth, Rodney. Why'd you go down there?"

Looking away, Rodney answered. "You say we're friends, but we're not. We can't be."

Amazement made John click his jaw shut. "This was a test? To see if I'd still like you?" He felt his knees wobble. "That's the dumbest thing ever."

"In hindsight, it seemed perfectly logical at the time." Rodney cringed. "Stop looking at me like that!"

John smirked.

Rodney blushed. "Still, the nanites are fascinating. They could revolutionize how we treat diseases." He blinked up at him. "Not that we'll ever know."

"Don't lie to me. I'm sure you have them hooked up to a laptop somewhere!" John roared.

Rodney studied his toes. "You'll need to discuss that with Zelenka." He took a deep breath and eased to his feet. "Stress position and then real food, right?"

"That was the plan." John didn't move. He frowned at the sudden change of topic. He'd have to trust that the scientists wouldn't accidentally re-activate the nanites. He already hated the little buggers. Seeing the tension in Rodney's body, he wanted to cringe. "In your mind, will this constitute torture?"

"After about five minutes." Rodney grabbed up a canteen and took a drink, and John had to sit down. The cot was close. He couldn't do this. It was torture, and he'd known that he was getting on a slippery slope when he'd taken Rodney's leash, but he was at the bottom now, and he felt filthy. Forget facing his father, after this he'd never be able to look in the mirror again. He wasn't a pacifist like most of his relatives, but this was wrong.

"I can't do it." He was ashamed that he'd thought he could.

Moving to stand over him, Rodney rested his hands on John's shoulder. "If you don't, it'll be worse for me."

He knew that. He did, and yet, for himself, he couldn't do it. "I can't torture you because if I don't, someone else might."

"Put it that way, and it does sound bad." Rodney sat down next to him, very close. "It's that Quaker stuff, isn't it?"

"Good way to put it." John wanted to run down the hallway screaming, but instead he hooked his chin over Rodney's very bare shoulder, nearly gasping from the touch. "Did Carson make those wrist pads for you?"

Rodney's lips ghosted over John's temple. "Cursing the entire time. He left here determined to track you down."

"He sent Teyla when he couldn't find me." John studied his bandaged hand. "She left." He let Rodney take him by the hand. "They found a new planet."

"Damn." Rodney turned John's hand over. "Hurts?"

John shrugged. He had more trouble than a gimpy hand. "What's Zelenka's plan? I know he has one."

"He's going to request a new handler."

"I'll need cause."

"He says he has it." Rodney's voice was low. "Did I mention I was sorry?"

"Yeah." John couldn't blame him for all of this. "Dr. Carver has his own group of followers. They're all mad."

"Carver?" Rodney hummed and then snapped his fingers. "The guy with the beard? Good mathematician, a little weak on the practical side, but not as dumb as some of the others."

"High praise. Too bad he's encouraging a mutiny." John had wanted to fly planes, and now he was trying to manage an entire base of angry people. His father would laugh until he collapsed. "The irony of all this is that I am the one person who is hopelessly unable to deal with all this, and yet, I'm in charge." He went ahead and sighed. "Of course, maybe not for long. She has the authority to relieve me of duty."

"Really?" Rodney frowned. "I don't remember seeing that in the guidelines."

"She told me she did." John pulled back enough to rest his forehead on Rodney's shoulder. "She lied, didn't she?"

"Maybe. You should check. You might be the only thing standing between Bates and the rest of us." Rodney shuddered. "He enjoyed hurting me."

John would feel guilty about that until he died, but given all his other problems, he didn't want to re-hash it today. "I have to get you some clothes."

"The entire base is near revolt, and that's all you can think of?" Rodney might have laughed a little.

"You're cold! And well, I can't get anything done knowing that you're miserable." John had to stop touching him. Lifting his head, Rodney's lips were right there. Rodney moved, and the kiss wasn't much of one, but it was so much.

Rodney whispered, "Not cold right now."

John bit back a groan that would've made it impossible to get up and go face the angry hordes. He turned away. "So incredibly wrong," he said and went to the door fast before he changed his mind, his morals. Keeping his eyes away from the bulge in Rodney's boxers, he was dismayed by the raw emotion he saw on Rodney's face. "I can't."

"Too clean, too moral, to dirty yourself on a slave?"

The scorn on twisted lips made John flash back to all the other people over the years who had taunted him. "I'm nothing but a crazy Quaker. Take my advice and keep your distance." He belatedly remembered why he was here, but he wasn't doing it. "Go sit in the corner and look miserable. Think about what Kavanagh is doing to your lab."

"Get out." Rodney didn't look at him.

After turning the forcefield back on, John realized he didn't have a detail any longer. "This job sucks." He touched his head set. "Lt. Ford, find someone without scruples to come down here and guard McKay."

"On it, sir."

Leaving him alone might be a bad idea, and John positioned himself across from the door. Rodney pushed the cot away from the corner, dropped it over on its side, and sat down behind it. From there, he disappeared completely, lying on the floor. Well, one thing for sure, the man was miserable.

John scrubbed his hand through his hair. He'd really screwed that up, but fixing it would give Rodney ideas, and those ideas were bad ones. Even a simple touch was taking advantage, and John wouldn't do that. Again. There was no such thing as consent when Rodney couldn't say no.

Stackhouse came around the corner. "Sorry, sir."

"You're okay with this?" John asked curiously, gesturing at the cell.

"Uh, no, sir, but, well--" Stackhouse hesitated.

John narrowed his eyes. "Tell me now."

"Some of the guys want to kick McKay's ass." Stackhouse lowered his voice. "They blame him for most everything."

"Son-of-a-bitch!" John was running out of options, ideas, and energy. He needed help, divine intervention would be good. "What is it going to take?"

"Dunno, sir. This whole..." He waved his hands at Atlantis. "It's all new, and the Wraith want to kill us, and the natives hate us, and most of us had never even seen a scientist. I thought they'd be a bunch of assholes, and Kavanagh sorta is, but even he's scared of us."

"Okay, I get it." John could understand all that. He was overwhelmed too. "Is it safe to leave McKay here?"

"In my opinion, no. Bates wants him hurt." Stackhouse looked down the hallway. "The detail is on the way. I gotta go."

It sunk in that Stackhouse had only dashed down here to warn him. "Well, go then." He leaned back against the wall to wait. There had to be a way to fix all this. The detail arrived, and he had to bite back a snarl. They weren't here to make sure McKay didn't hurt himself. They were here to beat the hell out of him, and he saw their caution after they spotted him.

"Glad you're here. You." John pointed. "Take that cot to my quarters. And you, go get some bolt cutters."

They exchanged a look. "We're here to guard him, sir."

"Do you always question orders? Does Sergeant Bates know that you don't follow orders?" John opened the forcefield. "I suggest you move."

"Yes, sir," they muttered at the same time. Their disappointment was a good sign. The cot was carried away, and John met Rodney's murderous blue eyes.

"New game plan, and oh, you're going to hate it." John waited impatiently and then used the bolt cutters to snip the chain to the length he wanted. Scooping up the end of it, he said, "I hate myself more every day I'm here. Next time some Wraith tries to eat me, I'm going to smile and say thank you."

And he headed out the door before Rodney was on his feet. There was a good solid yank, but John didn't slow down. They'd be miserable together.

*********
End

Chapter Text

*********

Rodney kissed him. It was the first time in his life that he'd initiated a kiss, and he could still feel the slight pressure where their lips had met. It wasn't possible, but it lingered, and he scrubbed his mouth the instant before the chain yanked his arms. He fully intended to set his shoulders, make Sheppard drag him, but then he saw that Sheppard had the chain in his burned hand. The fool.

The Marine turned his leg, and it was enough to send Rodney stumbling, falling, landing hard. Sheppard didn't slow down, anger set across his shoulders.

"Move your ass, slave."

"Corporal, report to KP." John stopped and turned; his mouth nothing but a thin line.

This would end. They'd send him back to his lab. They would. They always did. He had to hold on and in the future, he'd avoid looking at, or even thinking about, the Quaker from hell.

********

John waited for Rodney to start yelling at him. When it didn't happen, it was alarming. He wouldn't look over his shoulder though, and he squeezed the chain tighter, feeling the burn. His first stop was Rodney's quarters.

"Put on some sweats."

Rodney fumbled open a drawer and put them on fast. John had seen a lot of men naked, but not one of them had made him as achingly hard as Rodney did in boxers. The sweats had to help. Unfortunately, they were tight across his ass and showed off his package perfectly. He dressed right, and there was a lot there that needed dressed.

"What?"

Opening the door, John refused to answer, but the sweats had been a bad idea. Maybe later he'd make him wear a huge baggy sweatshirt that covered him to his knees. Realizing that he was walking much faster than usual, he slowed down. Rodney grumbled something, and John decided to ignore it. He was going to be hearing a lot of complaints in the future.

More than a few people stopped to watch the parade, but John didn't slow down to talk. He was mortified, beyond embarrassed, and mad as hell. For him, these emotions were not a combination he had a lot of experience with. He stopped in his office, grabbed up his tablet, made sure not to bump into the man dragging behind him, and headed for stargate operations.

Chuck took one look, swiveled fast, and spit coffee all over the carpet. John stopped to watch him gasp for air.

"Dr. McKay, what do you have to say to Chuck?" John prompted him.

"Stop eating and drinking near the ten thousand year old equipment!" Rodney roared. "You moron!"

"Thank you," John said, knowing how much Rodney had needed that. "Chuck, clean that up."

"On it." Chuck could be forgiven for running. Rodney made a huffy sound, and John continued to Weir's office.

She looked up; her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth. Nothing came out. She shut it. John sat down and turned on his tablet. He tucked the end of the chain through his belt. Pointedly, he didn't tell Rodney what to do.

Rodney slumped down to his knees near John's chair, breathing hard. "You didn't tell me we were going jogging."

"Hush," John whispered. He focused on Weir. "Ready for our meeting?" He opened his file and forced himself to smile as he looked up. "Dr. Weir?" While she hesitated, he sent a quick email to Zelenka, asking him to join them.

"Should we discuss Dr. McKay first?" She cleared her throat and pointed with her chin.

John did his best to look confused. "He's fine." He didn't look at him. "Or did you mean the pants? Sorry about that, but the man's boxers do not cover near enough territory, and I was extremely tired of looking at his Canadians."

Weir shut her eyes for a moment and then rubbed her forehead. "If he were in his cell, you wouldn't have that problem."

"My men refused to guard him, well, except for the few who wanted to beat him up. I had to improvise." John waved his hand. "The point was to make him miserable. Does he look happy?"

"He belongs in a cell."

"I disagree. I can't keep him safe in one. Maybe you can." John took the chain and held it out. "Would you like to try?"

Her eyes practically shot sparks at him. She frowned harder. "You can't control your men."

"Yes, I can, but even if I force them to stand guard, McKay is still getting his ass kicked. McKay, have you ever been confined where they didn't kick your ass?"

"Um, no?"

John smiled. "You didn't provide me with this information, so I had to adapt. We did agree that our priority would be his safety. Well, he's safe."

"Major, are you disobeying a direct order?"

"Nope. I'm adapting your orders." John looped the chain around the chair's arm. "I'm making sure your lead scientist isn't killed. It would look terrible on your record." He thought maybe he could hear her teeth grinding. Zelenka choose that moment to race across the bridge and screech to a stop in front of her desk. His hair was on end. John heard Rodney make a sound that might have been choked off laughter.

"Radek?" Weir got to her feet. "Is there something wrong?"

Zelenka stared down at Rodney, pointing wildly. "Can you not see? This is wrong!"

"You don't have the gene either!" Weir went a direction that John really didn't see coming. Teyla had been right about the fear. John turned off his tablet and got to his feet. She continued in her loudest voice, "You were in there!"

"I was safe!"

John eased towards the door, and when she didn't look at him, he made a break for it. He noticed that Rodney was right behind him. "I say we get breakfast."

"Hurry," Rodney whispered.

They did, and John took the blue jello off Rodney's tray. "You're being punished."

Rodney glared. "I hate you."

That was a given. John went to a back table and hesitated. He didn't want to do this, but he had to, and it made his stomach hurt.

"Sit on the floor." He dropped the chain. There was a noticeable lack of blue shirts in the mess hall. Rodney made more than a few grumpy noises, but he sat down on the floor and started eating. John wasn't hungry, but he ate because he'd skipped dinner. More than a few people stared, there was whispering, and he read a few reports because he had his tablet with him.

There had to be a long-term solution, but he wasn't smart enough to figure it out. Teyla had been his best hope. Counting on Zelenka was a mistake. Weir would emerge from that argument angrier. John was sure of that, but he wasn't going to criticize. They had a relationship, of sorts, and he would do well to stay out of that mess.

Cadman slid into the seat across from him. "Pulling your hair yet?"

"Did that earlier." John casually took a sip of water. "You're smart. Got any brilliant ideas?"

"A few." Cadman grinned. "Did you know that you're allowed to have as many scientists as you want?" She nodded at his blank look. "Yep. You command this base. You want them. You got them. You don't need cause."

"That wasn't in the rules and regulations that Rodney gave me." John thought he would remember it. "You sure?"

"Positive, and it's not exactly a rule. It's more of a tradition." Cadman winked at him. "I've even seen it done before. I was in Afghanistan. We had a couple of scientists working with us when the commander of the base just took them, had them shipped back to the United States. Their handlers were pissed."

John believed her. "The military does love the chain of command." He filed that away for later. "What else have you got?"

She dug in her pocket and tossed Rodney a chocolate bar. John glared, but she smiled, unrepentant. Rodney, of course, tore it open and started stuffing it in his mouth.

"Slow down. I'm not going to take it," John growled. He didn't look to see if Rodney was following that order.

"Most of us are behind you. I count six that need a good ass kicking." She smiled in a scary way now. "Did you know that you can bust us down to the rank of 'slave'?" She used air quotes.

"That's not possible!" John had suspected they'd do that to him after Afghanistan. "I'm only a major!"

"You're our commander. You have the right." She nodded and shifted about, full of energy. "I suggest you do it with Markham. He's going crazy, well, crazier. Give him a job and keep him under surveillance. He'll be fine."

John pushed his tray far away and put his elbows on the table. Leaning his face into his hands, he widened his eyes. "Go on. You know I'm starting to love you, right?"

"All men do." Cadman laughed. "I've got a thing for Carson, so you're out of luck." She also leaned closer. "McKay there scared Weir half to death with the nanites. Let Zelenka and her fight it out."

"You're a fountain of wisdom." John ignored Rodney's snort. "How about Kavanagh? Got any advice on him?"

"Yep. Put him in my PT group." She popped up to her feet. "Gotta go."

"I'll see you get a raise." John opened his duty roster file and cross-referenced the list he'd been given earlier. Anyone not on it was getting a shit job, and he'd take care of Markham. It was a start. He still missed Teyla, but maybe that was fixable too.

"She's nuts."

"You have chocolate on your lips." John hated that he'd noticed and wouldn't mind licking it away. "All right. I have rounds to make. No talking. I'm serious."

Rodney's mouth drooped. "Coffee?"

"No." John cleaned the table and the floor before getting the stupid chain. He clipped it on his belt and picked up his tablet. This was the worst job in the world, but these were his people, and he was determined to keep them safe. It was time to make good choices.

********

"Take a shower, please." John removed the handcuffs and sprawled on Rodney's bed to wait. Rodney had been quiet since breakfast and they'd skipped lunch. Any minute now, John expected an outburst, but Rodney was gone into the bathroom in a flash.

"Major Sheppard?" Carson's tones rang in John's ear.

"How can I help you, Dr. Beckett?" John wasn't sure why Carson was angry, but two could play that game.

"By hauling yours and Rodney's arses down here and letting me check those burns." Carson wasn't easily intimidated. "Now would be fine."

"He's in the shower. We'll get there before lights out." John clicked off. He wiggled his back to get comfortable and shut his eyes. Things with the men were falling into place. Markham had been a popular officer, and everyone was glad to see him out of confinement and doing something productive. No one would ever trust him with a gun again, but that was different. Heightmeyer had agreed that it was the right decision, so John actually felt good about it. He'd have to thank Cadman.

Reassigning all of Bates' buddies to shit jobs had been easy, and Ford had been more than willing to help. Letting them know that he was watching them could wait until tomorrow. Checking in with Zelenka was next on John's list, but that had to be done carefully.

"Are you asleep?"

John didn't open his eyes. Seeing Rodney wet might kill him. "Yep." He almost asked him to put on a shirt, but it might irritate his neck.

"Can I talk now?"

"Go right ahead." John let the words ebb and flow around him, answering with grunts. He was relieved that he hadn't somehow broken Rodney's vocabulary and ability to use it as scathingly as possible. When Rodney stopped, John lifted his head, opened his eyes, and asked, "You done?"

"No!" Rodney only had sweats on again. "I hate this. I want clothes!"

That was reasonable, but it wasn't happening. "We'll add socks tomorrow." He dropped his head back. "I think your bed is more comfortable than mine." He heard Rodney take a deep breath. "Wait. Before you start yelling again. You have to tell me if your hypoglycemia kicks in. I forget to eat when I get busy."

"I noticed," Rodney said with scorn dripping. He smelled clean, and John wished he hadn't noticed. Sprawled on Rodney's bed was suddenly a horrible place to be, and John got up with no delay. Rodney flinched away.

"I wouldn't hurt you," John said. He had, but he hadn't wanted to, and that wasn't a very good excuse.

Rodney looked down at the chain, lying between them. "Not much."

"I'm trying here." John gave it a kick.

"I know!" Rodney waved his hands. "My fault!" He grabbed up the cuffs and chain. "Just... don't lose the key."

John shook his head. "I won't, and I'll try to keep my temper in check."

"That'd help." Rodney's eyes were too blue, too big, and John had to look away. Frustrated, John sighed, trying not to sound miserable. Instead, he focused on what he could do.

"Here." John pulled a set of black wristbands from his pocket. "The shower destroyed Carson's handiwork."

"The man works in gauze." Rodney stared down at John's hands before taking them. "You had these all day?"

"Yeah."

John picked up the chain, waiting until the wristbands were settled before putting the cuffs on him. "Let's go." It was something safe to say, but he could hardly turn from bare chest, bare feet, and way too much vulnerability. He was tempted to make Rodney angry. Anger was much easier to push away.

"Infirmary?"

"Does it hurt?" John tried to get closer without looking like he was, and he could see Rodney's neck was red. His hand ached on and off, but he deserved it. "Yuck."

"Thanks. When I'm scarred for life, it won't be so funny!" Rodney snapped and snarled.

"Not laughing." John groaned. He didn't want to go to the hospital today. Instead of griping, he hooked the chain on his hip and opened the door. "I should be getting hazard pay for this expedition."

"Hey, at least you get paid." Rodney complained. John didn't try to shut him up, and it was non-stop until they hit the infirmary.

"You lads decided to visit, huh?" Carson glared, even crossing his arms. "Major, the nurse will see you in a moment. I want to speak to Rodney privately."

"You, uh, want the cuffs off?" John flushed. Now that he was faced with Carson's anger, it didn't feel all that great. He fumbled with the key, nearly dropped it, and took them off before he heard the answer. "I'll be over there." He squeezed the chain hard and turned so he didn't have to watch them go off together. It wasn't that he was jealous of their easy friendship. Okay, maybe he was.

"Major Sheppard?"

John nodded and smiled to reassure her that he wasn't evil. He'd done this to Rodney for the right reasons. Of course, it didn't look that way. "No needles, right?"

"We'll see."

She might've given him a sharp look or two, but her hands were gentle as she put some medicine on his hand and changed the bandage. It didn't take long, and she was gone quickly. He eased off the gurney and went to wait by the door. The chain hung slack in his hand, and he hoped they'd get through hating him soon.

It took long enough that he was starting to get annoyed. When they did come around the corner, Carson got to John first. John half-expected to be punched in the face.

"Sorry for being snippy earlier. I heard you were dragging him to bloody hell and back." Carson sounded sincere. "And a good thing you did."

"It was nice, in a mean way." Rodney picked up the end of the chain with the cuffs and clicked them on with a small sigh.

John pointed at Rodney's neck. "He okay?"

"Oh, here's more salve, and I want him to take these antibiotics - twice a day - morning and evening." Carson handed him the medicine, and John tucked it all away.

"He said to feed me more." Rodney looked smug. "Tell him."

"Watch his diet. Less sugar and caffeine. He's thinner than I'd like, but junk food makes it worse."

"What?" Rodney's voice went up an octave.

It was definitely time to leave. "Come on, Rodney." John thanked Carson and tried to get Rodney out of there without actually dragging him.

"I need coffee!"

"Too bad." John stopped right outside the lab door. "Now be quiet and follow my lead, okay?"

Rodney glowered. That would have to be good enough. John wasn't surprised at the sudden silence when he pulled his scientist through the door. Rodney wasn't exactly cooperating, and John ached to smack him on the back of the head, gently, of course.

Zelenka was hunched over his laptop, but his hair was still crazy. He didn't turn around.

"Dr. Zelenka, I know you're swamped with projects. I expect Dr. McKay to assist you. Quietly." John ignored the grumbles from the rest of the staff. "Dr. McKay, you will work. Got it?"

"I need coffee." Rodney was still trying to glare, but he was staring longingly at his laptop too.

"No." John wasn't giving in on that point. "I expect a full report before you quit tonight."

"Yes, sir." Zelenka brightened considerably. "I will also have updates on the Wraith ship, and our progress on the LaGrange satellite."

John was happy to hear it. "I want a tour." He had been down to that lab several times, but he wanted more. "We need to find a weakness in the Wraith ships." Fishing out the key, he unhooked the cuffs again. "Rodney, get to work."

Rodney bolted for his laptop, and John fought away a smile. He crooked his finger at Miko. She followed him out into the hallway. "He can have water but nothing else. Don't give in on that, and call me if any of my Marines show up for any reason."

"I will." She bobbed her head. He shooed her back to work, coiled up the chain, and checked the time. He'd bring Rodney his dinner in two hours, but now he'd track down Stackhouse and Kavanagh. It was a plan.

********

"These calculations only work if you want the city to blow into five smallish pieces that sink to the bottom of the ocean!"

John laughed and found a ringside seat next to Zelenka. "This is quiet?"

"He really did restrain himself, until you fed him." Zelenka took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Still, we were more productive today than any since he infected himself with nanites. It is something."

"Good to hear." John lowered his voice. "Did you have something to ask me?"

Zelenka stared at him for a moment before putting his glasses back on his face. "I fear I must."

It was easy to see that Zelenka was reluctant. He did care for Weir. John shrugged. "Let me handle it. I have a few ideas."

"Should I be frightened?"

"Yep." John smiled and nodded. "Rodney!"

"What?" Rodney whipped around, nearly marking through an equation. "Oh, it's you. When did you get here?"

"Hours ago." John loved the brief look of confusion on Rodney's face. "You're very noisy."

"Oh. Sorry." Rodney wandered over to them. Zelenka gave a funny laugh, and John grinned at him.

"First priority, Drs. McKay and Zelenka, is to get the satellite up and running."

"Not likely."

"What? Are you crazy?"

"Yes, now work on it. When the Wraith come, and they will, I want to blow a few of them out of the sky." John raised his finger to stop Rodney's next comment. "Your second team should be working day and night to find a weakness in the Wraith tech that we can exploit. Everything else can wait."

Rodney crossed his arms. "Everything?"

"Clear it with me first." John pushed on his knees and stood. His hand gave a protest at the action but he didn't show it. "I wanted a tour of the Wraith lab, but it's gotten late. First thing tomorrow." He swung the cuffs up and saw Rodney's eyes roll. "Salve. Bed."

"Use verbs." Rodney shut down his laptop first. He grumbled and groaned, but he put on the cuffs, and John waved at Zelenka before starting towards his quarters. Rodney gave a grunt. "You enjoy this, don't you, Sheppard? I'm like having a pet."

John kept on walking, refusing to dignify that with an answer. Atlantis was quiet. Most people had hit their bunks a couple of hours ago. He liked the quiet; it made it easier to hear the city. Changing his route slightly, he lengthened his stride and made sure his men were on duty in the gateroom. They were, and one of them smirked. He could see the light on in Weir's office, and he had no real desire to confront her again today. He'd sent her several reports and received polite replies. It was enough.

There was a jerk on his belt, and he knew Rodney was tired of all the walking. Using the transporter was a concession to that, but when they stepped out, Bates was waiting.

"Sergeant." John sensed that Rodney was directly behind him now.

"Major, we need to discuss security concerns and the placement of manpower." Bates looked as if he wanted to glare.

That was military code for telling John that he had screwed up the latest roster. "I agree. My office, after lunch." He was putting it off until then. "And Sergeant, just out of curiosity, was your great-grandfather a slave?"

Now Bates glared. "Excuse me, sir." He got on the transporter and the doors closed.

"You have a death wish," Rodney whispered. John glanced over at his shoulder. Rodney was right there. Right there.

"I came to this galaxy, didn't I?" John hurried now to his quarters. He locked the door behind them, removed the cuffs, and made sure not to look right at him. "I'm going to take a shower." He tossed the hated chain by the door. "I had some of your stuff brought here."

Rodney made a soft noise that might've meant anything. John wished for two things: a bigger room and pajamas. Grabbing up some sweats and a T-shirt, he went to shower. He might've stayed longer than was polite, but it was his room.

When he finally edged out of the bathroom, he spotted the snoring lump on his bed even though the lights had been dimmed. Relief poured through him, and then irritation, and then amusement. If he had any balls, he'd kick Rodney in the ass and chase him to his cot.

John made sure his radio was close before collapsing on the cot. It brought back vivid memories of Afghanistan to his shoulders, but listening to Rodney snuffle and snore helped keep him on Atlantis, and he let his eyes shut.

*********

Shoot Wraith
Shoot Bates

Smiling at the last two entries on his list, John considered briefly adding Rodney to it, but he didn't want to kill Rodney with a bullet. No, he wanted to murder him slowly. Savor the moment. Squeezing his head between his hands, he laughed.

"Freaking me out," Rodney said in a sing-song voice.

John squeezed a little harder. "I need air." He wasn't taking his confinement well. Oh, wait, it was Rodney's confinement. It had taken four days to discover the depths of Rodney's hatred for him. John was half-way convinced that Rodney had taken it easy on Bates.

The root of the problem was the fact that Weir seemed relatively happy having Rodney dragged around like a... John wasn't even going to think the word. She had resisted his gentle efforts to prod her into turning Rodney loose again.

She'd said to him, "Rodney needs a keeper. That's you. I feel safer knowing he's supervised more closely."

Cursing at her would've have been unproductive, so he'd waited until he was in the transporter. Ruffling his hand through his hair, he'd got the feeling that Rodney was amused. Smirking, even.

Now, it was late. They should both be asleep, but Rodney kept hours like a gerbil. That had been the most annoying pet ever. Thank God the cat had finally eaten it. The sound of Rodney clicking away on the laptop picked up again. Tomorrow, John intended to transfer all the scientists to his care, but he wished he could speak to Teyla about it. Maybe she'd talk him out of it. He stared at his laptop and deleted the last two entries on his list.

"Rodney, get dressed. Field clothes," John snapped. He shut his laptop and tapped his earpiece. "Ford, we're going on a short mission."

"Yes, sir!" Ford couldn't have been awake, but he sounded enthusiastic. John stepped outside his room to pace and wait for Rodney.

John tapped his earpiece again. "Stackhouse?"

There was a long pause. "I'm here, sir."

"Sorry to wake you up. Meet me at my quarters, please." John didn't have sympathy for anyone who got to sleep.

Stackhouse came down the hallway about the time Rodney burst out the door. John had the chain but he didn't put it on him.

"Sir?"

"McKay and I are going on a short mission. While we're gone, I want all of his things and my stuff moved to one of those big rooms." John waved his hand in the general direction.

"The ones on the East Pier?" Rodney didn't sound happy. "They were under water!"

Stackhouse looked from Rodney to John. "We'll find you something bigger, sir."

"I'll make sure there's something extra in your paycheck." John tossed Rodney the cuffs. "And please tell the guys to be careful with my skateboard."

"Skateboard? My computers! If they break my computers, I'll--"

John cut Rodney off by starting for the transporter. Their first stop was the ready room, and Ford met them there. John took off the stupid cuffs one more time. "Ford, we're taking Teyla's people some goodies. Load up."

"C-4?" Ford got out three backpacks.

"No, but let's take plenty of ammo, and half of those pointy stunners." John considered. "I'll get some medical supplies." He looked right at Rodney. "You get as many MREs as you can carry."

"Did you ever think that diminishing our supplies before the Wraith attack might not be the greatest idea?"

"Rodney, shut up." John grabbed up his backpack and headed for the infirmary. Carson was asleep, but several nurses were glad to help out, and he returned with a bulging backpack. "Ready?"

Before Rodney could open his mouth again, John secured the backpack on Rodney's shoulders, tightening the strap.

"That's too tight!"

John clapped on the cuffs. "Ford, hand me two of those, and give Rodney one."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I am not a pack mule!"

"Give him two." John smiled. Ford handed them to him, John took his two and started for the gateroom.

Weir was standing right where he knew she'd be - at the bottom of the main staircase. He marched right to her. "Permission to suck up to Teyla's people, ma'am?"

She blinked and looked him over. "Medical supplies and a few stunners?"

"Yes, ma'am." John waved at Rodney. "And a few MREs."

"Permission granted." She gave him a solemn nod. "Anything else?"

"Rodney is driving me crazy." John smiled. "We'll check in regularly. I need some air."

"I thought as much. Enjoy." She looked up. "Dial New Athos!"

John didn't take a deep breath until he was on the other side of the gate. Trees, sky, and sunshine. Perfect. He unclipped the chain from his belt, removed Rodney's cuffs, and abandoned the whole damn thing near the DHD.

"Not going to drag me triumphantly into the village?" Rodney wasn't funny.

John hefted his stunners and wished he'd gotten directions. Ford pointed. "That way." He led the way, and John got their six. Rodney complained every step until Teyla appeared on the trail.

"Major, your people are not welcome here." Her face was stern.

"I'm one of your people," John said, knowing it was true. "So are Ford and the whiner." He handed her a stunner. "I told you to take some stunners."

"I was afraid you'd need them more." She took it easily.

Ford laughed. "I don't want to stun them. I want to shoot them!"

She relented and gave John the traditional greeting. "You are a stubborn man."

"I need your counsel." John made a show of looking around. "Nice little planet you got here."

"Come. We will talk."

"And eat?" Rodney asked.

Teyla laughed and led the way.

*********

"It was not necessary to bring us food."

"It's always good to have something in case you have to cut and run." John wasn't taking it back. "Atlantis, well, we miss you."

Teyla sighed and ducked her head. "I feel as if I let the scientists down."

"They understood." John had spoken to Zelenka about it. "When I get back, I'm taking them all from their handlers."

"What?" Her eyes widened, and she smiled. "You can do that?"

"Apparently so. I'm going to make sure they each have their own quarters. I think it'll level the playing field." John noticed her confusion. "If someone wants something, they'll have to ask nicely."

She gave him a smile. "Or go through you."

"Exactly." John hoped Weir didn't kill him. "But Rodney still has to live with me."

"Which of you is being punished?"

"Me. Trust me on that," Rodney said, sitting down next to her and chewing on something that looked like a chicken leg. "He won't let me have coffee, insists I sleep, and refuses to let me wear a shirt!"

John rubbed his face. "His minions sneak him coffee for favors, he never sleeps, and the burn on his neck isn't fond of cloth. Case in point." He pointed, and the irritation on Rodney's neck was easy to see.

"Only hurts a little." Rodney tugged at his blue shirt. "I still blame you."

"I will take you to see Charin. She has many medicines that heal burns, and I will find an appropriate shirt." Teyla dragged him up and away. John picked at the last of his food. It was too early to ask her to come back to Atlantis, but maybe she'd go on a mission or two and then things would progress naturally.

"You look tired, Sheppard." Halling sat down across from him.

"It's night in Atlantis. I skipped sleeping." John sipped his water. There was something they needed to discuss, but he didn't want to offend him. "Halling, we need to work on your defenses against the Wraith. Running and screaming aren't working."

Halling drew his head back. "There is no defense against a Hive ship!"

"I agree, but most of the time it's three or four darts coming through the gate. Let's make plans so they die instead of scooping people up." John tried to sound persuasive. He wasn't good at this diplomatic stuff. That was why he'd asked Teyla to be on his team. "Is there any evidence that the Wraith have ever been here?"

"No. This planet has never been settled as far as your Peter Grodin could tell." Halling started to loosen up. "We hope they won't find us."

John nodded, but hope would only get them so far. "Ford! Get over here!" He smiled. "Your people are hunters. Let's combine our knowledge and find some solutions."

Halling rubbed his chin and then shrugged. "I am tired of running."

"Good."

Ford had that intense look on his face. "Sir?"

Smiling, John waved at him to sit down. They'd do this, and it wouldn't make up for the losses, but it was a beginning.

********

"I prepared a tent for you and Rodney." Teyla smiled. "You look tired. Go rest."

Shaking his head, John went ahead and pointed his finger at her. "Not tonight. I'd rather sleep under a log." He saw her look of surprise and forged ahead, trying to explain. "You know I like Rodney, just not tonight."

After a moment, she nodded. "I understand. You are weary of him."

The hair on the back of John's neck prickled, warning him that someone was close. "He's been obnoxious as hell since I had to cuff him, and I don't blame him. He needs a night off from me."

"And you?" Teyla's eyes shifted minutely to the right.

"I'm tired of feeling guilty for everything," John said. He wasn't going to look over his shoulder at who he knew was lurking there. "I'll sleep when we go home." He scooted around her and hurried to the other end of camp. He'd find a place to sit under the stars. It wasn't cold, and he couldn't face him tonight. Not without Atlantis around them to keep John from making a mistake. It'd be so easy here. He ducked a big branch and made his way back to the DHD.

********

It'd taken John a few days to get over seeing Rodney half-naked all the time, but the Athosians shirts that Teyla had found for him made it bad all over again. Rodney looked good in them. No sleeves, wide v-neck that didn't touch his healing burn, and the soft brown seemed to bring out the blue in his eyes. John shut his own eyes and forced himself to think about Ferris wheels. It didn't really work.

"Major? Is everything okay?"

"Yes, Teyla." John was losing his mind, but that didn't count as a problem. "You promise you'll go on our next mission with us?"

"I do." Teyla gave him a gentle smile. "Be patient."

John thought that was good advice, but he wasn't sure what the question had been. "I'll try. Ford, you done playing with the traps?"

"Yes, sir." Ford's eyes were bright. Rodney snorted as if in disgust and picked up the chain. John took his end very reluctantly.

Teyla patted him on the arm and vanished into the dark woods. Ford dialed Atlantis, and John went home with Rodney right behind him.

Weir was on the bridge, and he gave her a nod. She'd want a debriefing, but John wanted a shower first. He tapped his headset. "Stackhouse, I'm going to need directions to our new quarters."

"On my way, sir."

She met him at the bottom of the stairs. "Report?"

"After a shower, if you don't mind." John knew he smelled bad.

"Rodney, that's a new look for you." She might've smirked. "I trust the Athosians are still in one piece?"

Rodney lifted his chin, and John almost groaned. This was going to turn ugly. He shuffled a step, hoping to distract him. Rodney jingled his cuffs and said absolutely nothing. For some reason, his silence was more condemning than his usual rant would have been. It was a good thing Stackhouse showed up.

"This way, Major."

John tried to look pleased, nodding at Weir and following Stackhouse to the transporter. It was a tight fit with three of them, and he sensed that Rodney ached to complain.

The quarters were large. A balcony, a room with a table, dressers, desks, and the beds set up so there was a measure of privacy for each man. "Thank you, Sergeant, and thank whoever helped. This will do nicely."

Rodney palmed open the balcony door, letting in some fresh air. John was sure complaints were going to begin any moment, but he could put them off by taking a shower. Grabbing up some clean clothes, he almost held his breath.

"Sheppard, make sure to sleep today."

Surprised at Rodney's tone, he stopped. "Maybe tonight." Seeing that he'd forgotten the stupid cuffs, he dropped his clothes and went to him. "Sorry," he said as he took them off. The chain hit the floor, and John kicked it to the corner. It could stay there. Rodney's eyes were wide, and John ached for what he couldn't have. He must be extra tired. Going to the shower was all he could do. Thankfully, Rodney said nothing.

It was another surprise when Rodney was still there when John emerged cleaner. The water had washed away the dirt, but he still felt dirty, and he knew why.

Rodney had rearranged the computers and the furniture, and John would admit that the place looked even better. Quickly, he finished dressing, strapping down his gun, and putting in his earpiece. It was time to get the hell out of there.

"Major, I'm heading to lunch. Join me there?" Weir interrupted John's break for the door.

"On my way." John looked at his boots instead of Rodney. "Lunch?"

"I ate before we left." Rodney's voice was calm, not angry. John snuck a peek at him. Rodney raised his eyebrows. "I bully you that much?"

John blew out the breath he'd been holding. "Of course not," he lied. He quickly followed it with some truth. "I thought we were going to accomplish something together, but I'm stupid. You've made that clear." He edged towards the door. "I have this debriefing. Are you going to work?"

There was a pointed glance at the chain. John shook his head. "I'm done. You've been punished enough, and so have I. Go to work, or not. Do what you want." On that note, he left him. Rodney hadn't looked exactly happy, but that was nothing new. John hurried to the mess hall, got a tray and some food, and sat down across from Weir at a back table.

"Rodney?"

"Dunno." John took a bite of the bread. He met her eyes firmly and chewed. She ate a piece of fruit and didn't look away. He hoped she didn't think the silence would get to him because after days of listening to Rodney complain, this was nice.

Eventually, she gave up. "I want him collared, and I want him confined when he's not at work."

"I'm his handler." John drank some water to wash the crumbs away. "Speaking of which, I'm going to be sending out a memo to all the handlers today that their services are no longer required. I'm going to handle all of the scientists."

Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. "What?" It was loud.

He shrugged and nodded. "Everyone on this base has jobs. They don't need the hassle of looking after a scientist."

"Major, you don't have the authority to--"

"Yes, I do," he interrupted her. "I'm in charge of them. Not you. You're in charge of the entire mission. I don't criticize the way you handle mission assignments, and you don't ask about ammunition."

"They're not bullets!" She glared, and she'd stopped eating. "This is unacceptable."

"We are at war." John leaned a little and glared. "I intend to kill as many Wraith as possible, and I'm going to utilize the scientists to the fullest to see that it gets done. No more investigating Ancient devices because it's fun. The Wraith are our top priority. When they're dead, we'll talk again about handlers."

"Our mission is a peaceful one: exploration and discovery," she ground out.

"Tell the Wraith that." John didn't really intend to cut out all other avenues of discovery, but she didn't need to know that. "If you have anything you need investigated, we will, of course, accommodate you."

"Generous of you."

"Yes." John lowered his voice. "Colonel Sumner would've taken over this mission entirely by now, and I think you know it."

"He also would've had Rodney shot!" Fury was in every line of her face.

John glared right back at her, too tired to pretend any longer. "He never would've destroyed needed resources, and McKay is the best we've got." He changed the subject. "I convinced Teyla to go on missions with us again. She told me to give you her best."

Weir sat back and blinked several times. "Really?"

"Yes. Teyla hasn't given up on us." John couldn't understand why not after this conversation. "We helped make their camp more secure, and she apologized for being angry."

"I'm shocked she'd admit she was wrong." Weir glanced down at her food and back up again.

He forced a raw chuckle. "She only admitted to anger, and she doesn't like being angry. Just like a woman, huh?" He managed a grin. "Halling promised me they weren't out trashing our name in the Pegasus galaxy, not that I'd blame them if they did."

"That's something positive." Weir sighed down at her food. "It's possible I was angry also."

John widened his eyes in fake amazement. "I may have to change my opinion of women," he said. Glancing around the mess hall, he noticed that it was now empty. "Well, we know how to clear a room."

"Bates asked for command while you were gone." Weir smiled in that way that wasn't so nice. "I think he wants your job."

"He'd change his mind after he had it a day or two." John wasn't worried. If she'd wanted to push the replacement issue, she'd have done it already. He changed the subject to something more interesting. "How long were you McKay's handler?"

"I had him in Russia." Her eyes faded as if she were remembering. "Six months? He was pulled to Colorado when there was an attack on the stargate." She shrugged a little. "A Major Lorne had him next."

"I think McKay liked you best." John smiled a little. "I'll watch him. We've had several long talks about how stupid he was. He understands the depth of his mistake."

She sighed. "John, please, believe me when I tell you that Rodney McKay is the most dangerous scientist you will ever meet. He's reckless and out of control much of the time."

"That's what we'll need to kill the Wraith." But John nodded. He'd remember her opinion. Considering that General O'Neill had talked about a taser, it was probably generally shared at the SGC, but that didn't make it right. "You've read the reports about the satellite?"

Weir nodded and slowly began to eat again.

"I want to send a team to try to repair it. I know it's a long shot, but better now than when the Wraith are on our doorstep." He had a feeling that Rodney could fix anything if given long enough. "I'll take a team in the jumper."

She didn't answer him for so long that he began to think he'd need to argue about it. Finally, she said, "Send me a mission plan, and we'll find a time. I believe you're behind on your paperwork."

"Nothing new about that." John bit back a yawn and got to his feet. "Do you really want Bates to head the military?" He hoped the question would catch her off guard and he'd be able to see the truth on her face.

"He's not as intelligent as you are, but he isn't burdened with all those morals. Still, no." She looked up at him, and he saw the truth in her eyes. "You're right about Colonel Sumner."

He gave her a small salute - thanks for her honesty - and took his tray to the dirty pile. Things weren't exactly better around here, but they could be worse. He headed to his office, and he'd pick up the leashes stored in Weir's office along the way.

*********

His bed was heaven. Heaven. He tossed his radio on the nightstand, shutting his eyes before rolling flat again.

"You! Have lost your mind!"

He scrambled for his gun, forgetting that he'd set it aside and falling off the bed in the process. "Ow," he muttered. He seriously considered crawling under the bed to escape Rodney. Rubbing his face, he fought to get back on the bed and put the pillow over his head.

"Tired?"

"Who are you?" John collapsed back down, refusing to think about anything. "Please, yell at me tomorrow." He shut his eyes again and fought to pull the blanket up to his chin.

Rodney made a huffy noise. "You didn't sleep today."

"Busy. Go away. Don't blow anything up." John took the silence as agreement and drifted. Much later, he felt the blanket tuck closer, and he snuggled deeper.

*********

Rodney was quiet, too quiet, and after the storm of the past week, John wasn't sure what to say or do around him. Of course, that wasn't anything new. They fell into a rhythm, cautious on John's part, and without the harsh words, Rodney was a surprisingly good roommate. John had plenty of people to compare him to, and he wasn't that bad.

Even the snoring wasn't too loud. John put his attention back to his tablet, trying to finish the latest round of reports that Weir wanted for reasons that John couldn't fathom. Occasionally the thought crossed his mind that she was trying to kill him with paperwork.

"Sheppard?"

John blinked in surprise and looked for him. Rodney sidled in the open door of John's office. His thumbs were doing that weird thing he did when he was nervous or freaking out. This might be bad.

"You need something?" John leaned back and tried a very small smile. He hated to jump to the conclusion that nanites were on the loose. Concentrating, he shut the door, and when Rodney flinched, it was worrisome.

"Um, lunch?" Rodney looked desperately at the door. "We could talk about the missions coming up, but, yeah, well, never mind." He swiped his hand across the crystals. John frowned and kept it shut. He didn't do that often, and he saw Rodney's eyes widen. "Did you? Can I... go?"

Turning off his tablet, John got up with a stretch. He wanted to act casual. Rodney had never come to him before for anything like this. It meant something. "Lunch sounds good. Weir is trying to suck out my soul with reports."

Rodney's eyes were very round. "Zelenka says she's ignoring him."

"Well, that could be a good thing." John had no idea. He wanted to ask one thing while the door was shut. "Is everyone happy with their new quarters?"

"How can I know?" Rodney touched the crystals. "How do you do that?"

"Practice." John stepped forward until Rodney was forced to look at him. "You're my link with the scientists. You're the lead scientist. The boss. Top dog. I expect you to know what's going on and keep everyone on task."

"I've been the de facto leader." Rodney swallowed hard. "But I really don't like people. Most of them, I don't even know their names."

John laughed, believing that. "Get Zelenka's help, but I want daily updates, and if you think there's a problem, I want to know before something goes kablooey!"

"This isn't a Roadrunner cartoon!" Rodney snapped. John took one more step and narrowed his eyes. Rodney put up his hands. "All right! I've never had an administrative role, but I can see that's what's required now."

"It is. Wing it. I am." John smiled and opened the door with a thought. "Atlantis needs you to be more actively involved. Quit dragging your feet and do it."

He frowned but gave a stiff nod. "Dr. Weir?"

"I'll filter the reports to her." John made sure they were walking side by side by slowing down. "Do this right."

Rodney sighed. "I suppose Bates is hoping the city will explode, proving him right."

"Yep." John let Rodney go first in line. It was that or be nudged a dozen times. "Get organized. Carson could probably help. He heads his department. Or that woman who likes plants." He heard Rodney make a strangled noise, but they didn't pick up the conversation until they sat down at the far table.

"The botany department head?" Rodney looked scandalized. "That's not even science!"

"She's kinda cute." John grinned. Atlantis was full of scientists, but only some of them were collared. "Seriously, what if you'd have gone into a "soft science," would they have taken the collar off?" He used air quotes to irritate him.

Talking while chewing was not attractive, but John was getting used to watching. Rodney gave him a short glare. "We're not given a wide range of career choices."

"Things That Go Boom or Things That Could Go Boom?" John picked up his roll. He didn't want to know why it was sorta orange. Rodney gave it the evil eye, and John put it back down.

"Your grasp of the situation is astounding." Rodney managed to sound very resentful. "Never mind if someone wants to be, well, something else."

"You'd have made a great fireman." John sighed down at his food. They needed more choices soon, or it was back to MREs. "My dad wanted me to teach." He shuddered from the mere idea. His father still held that against him, among other things.

Rodney suddenly touched his bare neck. "Still feels weird."

"Want another one?" John wished he could guarantee that Rodney would never wear one again. He didn't look for the glare that he knew Rodney had shot at him. "Okay, the missions. First of all, we're picking up Teyla in the morning and heading out. Hopefully, we'll make a trade for some fresh food." He was hoping for turkey. "In two weeks, we're going to the satellite. I'll pilot. You get a science team together. Fifteen hours one way. Pick people you like."

"I'm going alone," Rodney grumbled. "You think you should go? If something happens..." His voice trailed off.

John was glad to hear a note of real concern in Rodney's voice. "What about you? You know the city best. Maybe I should take Zelenka." He meant that.

Rodney stuffed the last of his dessert in his mouth. He swallowed and took a drink. John wasn't sure if Rodney was thinking about the problem or ignoring him.

"I could take Kavanagh?"

Now Rodney grinned, but it wasn't a nice one. "The beauty of vacuum." He looked over his shoulder. "I'll go. Zelenka's never been off-world. He'll be a wreck. Maybe Grodin?"

"Just three of us? Can we handle it?" John liked Grodin, even if he was a Brit.

"Might have to add Simpson." Rodney shrugged. "I'll figure it out before we leave. We'll have to take a naquadah generator. Your job is to decide which section of the city you want to lose power."

Rubbing his forehead wasn't much of an answer, and John was sure he wasn't the person to answer this question. "I'm sure you're best qualified to choose. I'll await your recommendation breathlessly." He tried to find a smirk. Pushing his tray away, he peered at Rodney's neck. "That better?"

"Doesn't hurt." Rodney shrugged and gave his neck a fast rub. "You still have the collar, right?"

"Right." John had found it in his desk drawer. "Why?" He hoped the redness faded with time, and Rodney didn't carry a permanent scar.

Rodney gave him a look that told him not to be stupid. "I'm still a slave, Sheppard. When will you get that through your thick skull?"

John sat back away from him. For once, he found a retort. "When are you going to stop defining yourself by the people who enslave you?" He got to his feet and finished with, "Thought you were a damn genius!" He might've tossed his tray in the dirty pile a little harder than necessary.

**********

"Oh, we are so dead!"

John wasn't going to turn around to argue. "Fix the damn cloak!" He coaxed a little more speed from the jumper and cut a path down and around, but they were screwed. "McKay!"

"It's broken!"

"Should I dial the gate?" Ford asked; his hand hovered over the DHD.

"We'd never make it." John slid them into a belly roll, but they took another hit, jarring them all.

"We have bigger trouble than darts coming our way! Brace for impact!" Rodney nearly fell down.

Figuring that out was impossible until the HUD pulled up, and he saw the dart explode, and then the other one, and then, it was their turn to be enveloped in huge ball of pure energy. It passed over and through them, leaving him tingling.

"We're alive?" Rodney scrambled to his feet, looking disgusted.

John wanted to laugh aloud, but he only smiled. "Seems that way. I wonder why."

"Perhaps the answer is on the planet." Teyla was always calm, but John heard the relief.

"Any weapon that can do that has to be powered by ZPMs!" Rodney practically yelled. "Still not sure why we're alive, but we have to investigate."

"I agree." John plotted a course, finding a good-sized town and landing a short distance away. "Any chance you can fix the cloak?"

Rodney looked up from his tablet. "You really don't accept the truth very well. It's a character flaw."

"I prefer to call it positive thinking." John grabbed a P-90 from the locker. "Let's play nice but take plenty of ammo."

Ford tucked an extra round into his vest. Teyla opened the back hatch, and Rodney didn't move, at all. John stepped out and took a good look around. Nice planet, plenty of sun, and he slid on his sunglasses.

"Come on, Rodney." John smiled at the grumbling and raised the hatch behind him. "Ford, take point. I'll get our six."

At no point during the twenty minute hike did Rodney look up from his equipment, but he did switch to a tablet. Twice, John used the handle on the tac-vest to steer Rodney away from trouble. He didn't seem to notice. Teyla smiled and shook her head, and it was good to have her with them.

That good feeling had totally drained away an hour later after being ignored and then brusquely told by a man in a red robe that they had no need of anything Atlantis could provide. Even Teyla looked frustrated.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing." Rodney had said it three times already. "There is no power source on this planet capable of destroying those darts. I'm sure of it."

"Really?" John was all for heading back to the jumper.

Rodney frowned at him. "Yes?"

John turned, taking one more look around at the colorful homes and people. There was a sense of safety here. These people didn't fear the Wraith. "Maybe other people could come here."

"A haven from the Wraith." Teyla looked pleased at the idea.

"Got company," Ford said, and it was amazing how the threat of thousands of refugees finally got them an audience with the lady in charge - Chaya.

*********

"You had sex with her, didn't you?" Rodney's voice surprised him, coming out of the darkness of their shared quarters.

Denying it would have been very easy, since he hadn't. "Yes," he said, lying. "It was the only part of the negotiation that went successfully." He shifted so his back was to Rodney. Their nights together had become very long, filled with breaths, motion, and an aching need for things John couldn't have. "I asked Dr. Weir to include you in the meeting."

Rodney grunted. "It was no surprise to be left out. Did you think there was something strange about Chaya?"

John had to think about that a long moment. "She was nice." It was true enough. She had been nice, in a creepy way, but Rodney didn't need to know that.

"Yes, yes, we all knew you liked her." Rodney huffed in annoyance. "Carson said her vital signs were perfect. Perfect. You know any perfect people?"

"Guess she was my first." John wasn't sure why they were re-hashing this. "It doesn't matter. She refused to grant sanctuary to anyone. With an orbital gate, no one can get there but us and the Wraith."

Rodney made another soft noise that went straight to John's groin. Usually, John made a point of being asleep, or faking it, when Rodney staggered inside to collapse face down on his bed. Rodney had surprised him by coming back early tonight, and it had made sharing the bathroom decidedly awkward.

"Something on that planet killed those darts," Rodney muttered. "I'm hungry. Wanta go get a snack?"

Saying no was the right thing to do. The lights came up to dim, and Rodney said, "Oh, and I know you didn't have sex with her."

"I did too!" John protested, getting up fast and yanking on his BDUs. He slammed his feet into his shoes, infuriated and frustrated.

Rodney laughed, but it was a real laugh, not mean, and John almost laughed with him. "The timing doesn't work, unless you did it in the jumper, and I think Teyla would've noticed. Good try though. Tell you what. I'll spread the word you scored. Get you some street cred."

The very last thing John needed was street cred, and it sounded incredibly stupid when Rodney said it. "Shut up!"

"Oh, the last bastion of the juvenile mind." Rodney opened the door. He didn't exactly wait, and John wasn't sure why he hurried to catch up. The mess hall was deserted, but there was always something out, and Rodney scooped up more than his share, some of which John stole as soon as they were sitting down. "Hands off the food!"

John shoved Rodney's hands away. "Didn't you learn to share in kindergarten?"

"No!" Rodney gave him a push and snatched a jello cup. "Anyway, I skipped that grade."

"I can tell!" John reached and their arms entangled, and he began laughing. Rodney suddenly grinned, and their heads managed to bang into each other.

"Ow! Not my brains!" Rodney looked indignant, but he was still guarding his food. John rubbed his head and decided to let him have it. Maybe he could steal it later. Rodney pointed at John's head. "I'm not sure you even felt that through your mop."

"Oh, shut up." John tried to flick Rodney's forehead but missed. The food disappeared into Rodney's belly so fast that John was alarmed that there was choking in their future. His eyes naturally trailed down to Rodney's neck. It was healed with pink skin that would fade to white soon. It was easy to forget that Rodney's life wasn't his own. Weir had given John a direct order to collar him again. He hadn't decided if that was an order he would, or could, follow.

Rodney suddenly stopped eating and frowned at him. "What?"

"Nothing." John shrugged and snatched a muffin, probably one of the last ones. He ate it while Rodney sputtered about thieves and lies. The talking didn't stop him from eating. John finished his sandwich, listening and nodding like an idiot. He wasn't up to speed on Wraith tech. It was enough that Rodney seemed to have a good grasp of it now. "You're going to save our asses, right?"

"You can hope I save your muffin-stealing ass." Rodney suddenly got serious. "I think Carson is on to something. We'll see. Four days until the satellite. If we're wrong, it's going to be a long trip for nothing."

"You? Wrong?" John faked astonishment. "That never happens."

"You're right." Rodney suddenly glanced at the doorway. "Crap," he whispered and hunched his shoulders. John didn't look, but there weren't that many people that got that reaction out of Rodney. It was almost a relief when Weir sat down across from them instead of Bates. Almost. John tried to smile pleasantly at her and received a polite nod for his efforts. Rodney was completely absorbed with his jello. He actually managed to look miserable.

Weir began to eat, and John waited for it. She rarely ate in the mess hall, so she must have something on her mind. Rodney shifted, looking as if he might dash away. John tried to pin him with a glare.

"Did you repair your collar, Rodney?" Weir didn't look at him. Her eyes were on John.

Rodney made a breathy noise. "I looked at it. It's fried. I could tape it back together, but it'll never work again." He put his head down, and John found himself griping Rodney's thigh tightly under the table.

"Major, find Rodney something to wear." Suddenly, she stabbed the air with her fork. "It's for his own protection! If the SGC come through the stargate tomorrow, they'd be within their rights to have him shot!"

John could almost smell Rodney's fear. "You wouldn't stop them?" He regretted the question instantly when he saw her nostrils flare.

"As you've pointed out recently, my powers are limited when it comes to the scientists." She stabbed at her food with her fork, and John tried to take his hand off Rodney. His hand refused to move, and he bit his lower lip.

"I'll find something," Rodney said, "and put a tracking device in it."

"No arguments, Major." Weir nodded in satisfaction. "You've dodged that direct order as long as possible."

"Yes, ma'am," John said, but he would still try to get out of it. "We'll come up with something."

"Something round." Her glare had never quite gone away, but she was eating again. John almost flinched when Rodney put his hand on top of John's. She wasn't quite finished. "Mission briefing on the satellite in three days. Be ready to convince me that we're not wasting our time."

Now Rodney answered. "Yes, ma'am."

Weir sipped her water, looking satisfied. John loosened his grip so their fingers curled together. Rodney glanced at him. "Maybe we should go work on that collar thing."

"I'm certain the major's morals prevent him from participating." Weir hid her smirk, but John knew it was there. She smiled brightly, falsely. "You've upgraded the collar system before, Rodney. Why not do it again?"

"I had command codes then." Rodney's mouth twisted.

John lost his grip on his mouth. "Don't worry, Rodney. We can't threaten your sister to coerce you this time."

She drew back in what he hoped was surprise. After a long stare at Rodney, she spoke. "I didn't think you cared about anyone."

"I don't," Rodney snapped, anger pouring off him. He abandoned the table, putting his tray in the dirty pile and walking away without a glance back. John flexed his hand. He was still warm from Rodney's touch. That touch gave lie to what Rodney had just said, but she couldn't know that. She shrugged and ate some more salad, and John tried to control the feelings that pounded through him.

"Don't feel sorry for him." Her eyes glittered. "He's been given plenty of chances to play nice, and he never does."

Yelling at her would get them nowhere. He had to do this smart. "Rodney has never had any incentive to play nice. The man doesn't even get paid." He could also smile falsely. "But don't worry. I'll make sure he gets back to picking cotton."

Before she could find a sharp retort that would make him look stupid, he put his tray on the pile, and hurried out the door. He only paused when he got to the transporter because he wasn't sure at all where Rodney would go. It was a big city. John scrubbed his hand through his hair and decided not to chase after him. Rodney would hate that, and he was angry enough.

John touched a destination and took his time getting there. It always paid to be safe. He hadn't taken the time to come down here lately. Palming open the door, he stopped. Sneaking away wasn't an option, but going inside had its own pitfalls. It didn't help that Rodney sat slumped with his face firm against his palms.

Staring would make it worse. John strolled to the wall and looked out into the ocean. Some tiny purple fish swam in circles before darting away, and he never had words when he needed them. He had a responsibility here to have a few answers, and he had nothing. His father would frown and tell him to buck up; do what was right not easy.

"You disobeyed her order for me?"

"Not really. I was postponing it." John didn't even glance at him. "Your neck is still pinkish."

Rodney snorted. "Right."

It was a surprise when Rodney moved to him, and they stood shoulder-to-shoulder. "I suppose we'll do this together," he said with a trace of steel in his voice. "This being an absurd attempt to overthrow a system that has functioned well for a number of years and will most likely result in our deaths."

"Good." John crossed his arms so he didn't touch him. "And it's about damn time." He wasn't sure whether to be hopeful or scared, probably both was the way to go. "What's the plan?"

"I made up my mind two minutes ago, and you want a plan?" Rodney asked.

John nodded seriously, ignoring the indignation. "You're the genius." He might've grinned, but he kept his eyes on the fish. Rodney groaned and nudged him. Moving away was the proper thing to do. John slung his arm around and rested his hand on Rodney's hip. Rodney drew in a sharp breath, and John almost ran out the door.

"So now you like me?" Rodney looked up at him, incredulous. "I give in to your stupid idea that's bound to get us both shot, and now you like me?"

It hurt more than it should have, and John was afraid it showed on his face. He pushed him away roughly. It was hard to breathe, and he could feel his fingernails digging into his palms. Rodney nearly fell, but he straightened up fast, and he swallowed hard. John turned on his heel and marched out of the room. He had to gain control, and he could only do that by leaving. Rodney didn't try to stop him.

*********

"Major Sheppard?"

John pushed away from his desk, stretched, and touched his earpiece, recognizing Zelenka's voice. "What do you need, Doc?"

"Do you have Rodney detained?" Zelenka sounded puzzled. "He is always here before me."

Panic surged up, and John choked it down. He never should've left Rodney in the back alleys of Atlantis.

"This is bad," Zelenka said.

"Stay put." John switched channels as he hurried through the long hallways. "Carson, Rodney has gone missing. Get ready for when I find him."

"What?" Carson sputtered. "Oh, crap."

"Move!" John started to jog. The panic hadn't died down. It was worse, and he changed channels again. "Ford, I want you to make sure every security team is exactly where they're supposed to be, and have Stackhouse catch up with me in subsection eleven with a life signs detector."

Anger curled around the panic, and he hated that his best hope was that they'd left Rodney in the hallway.

"Major Sheppard, what's the situation?" Weir asked.

John tapped his earpiece. "Rodney is missing. Stackhouse and I are preceding to his last known location." He'd find out who had told her later. He didn't want to initiate a city-wide search until he made sure Rodney hadn't fallen asleep in the aquarium room. His gut told him that hadn't happened, but it usually paid to be cautious.

"This is why he should be collared," Weir ground out. "He's probably run off, and he's too valuable to lose!"

Stackhouse came running around the corner, and John forestalled yelling at her to get his hands on the detector.

"Isolated life sign up ahead, sir." Stackhouse showed him and turned it loose. John didn't pretend any longer. He ran. Stackhouse pounded along behind him. Three more levels and through a section that had been underwater, and they found him there.

"Give Carson directions," John ordered and dropped to his knees. "Rodney, Rodney! Wake up!"

Rodney didn't even twitch, but John found a pulse, and Rodney was breathing. Wet seeped through the knees of John's BDUs, and he ripped off his jacket to put over him. Rodney's skin was very cold to the touch.

"Major, don't move him." It was clear that Carson was running. "Pulse?"

"It's there." John gently turned Rodney's face, leaned over, and listened. "Breathing on his own. He's been in water." He watched his hands tremble as he tried to make sure they hadn't shot him. There was blood, but he thought most of it was from Rodney's face. His lip was split wide, and the rest was bad. He had enough medic training to know. "Rodney!"

No answer. Not even the flutter of an eyelid.

"What can I do, Major?"

John fought away the scream that wanted out. He tapped his comm. "Carson?"

"Five minutes!"

"Stackhouse, I want the men who did this in the brig." John wanted them shoved off a pier, but he didn't think Weir would allow that. His radio crackled, and he answered it before she could speak. "I'm sending Sergeant Stackhouse to you with a report." He shut it off. "Tell her the truth."

Stackhouse bit his lower lip. "You think there are security cameras down here?"

"Ask Zelenka." John could hear them coming now. "Go. You'll just be in the way." He didn't watch Stackhouse leave, focusing on Rodney.

"Ah, bloody hell!" Carson and his team came to a fast stop. John got out of the way but stayed close. This was his fault. He'd stomped away like a teenager, running, always running, and Rodney had paid for it. The medical jargon was flying back and forth, and John held his breath as they lifted Rodney onto the gurney. Carson snapped, "Move it, people!"

Stopping him to ask questions wasn't a good idea, but John almost did. He slammed a fist into his other hand and cursed, "Damn it!" Every time things seemed slightly better, it all went to hell again. He kept pace right behind the gurney, unsure what his first priority was but knowing that he wasn't going to leave Rodney alone.

"Major, do you have an update on Rodney's condition?" Weir asked.

Reluctantly, John answered her. "No, but Carson looks worried."

"What was Rodney doing in that part of the city?"

He couldn't feel any guiltier. "There's an observation room. I met him there, and we talked. I left, assuming he'd return to our quarters. They must've followed us, or him. Damn." John whispered the last word. He didn't need to be told that he should've checked on Rodney, instead of going for a long run and hiding in his office.

"I want him under the scanner," Carson said the instant they cleared the doors to the infirmary. "Quickly now, people."

John took a ragged breath and caught him by the arm. "Tell me."

"More problems than I have to time to discuss, but I think his spleen has burst. I have to deal with that first." Carson patted John's hand. "I'll take very good care of him. Go on with you now."

Managing a stiff nod, John got the hell out of the way. He couldn't form a coherent thought to save his soul. Rodney might die, and all because of John's damnable pride. A nurse encouraged him out the door, and he leaned against the wall, trying to catch his breath.

"It is true? They beat him?"

"We don't know anything yet, Radek." John took one look at Zelenka's face and knew this wasn't the time to throw gasoline on the fire. "We'll need a thorough investigation."

"This time, I thought things would be different." Zelenka's fury was easy to see. "I think it is the hope that hurts the worse. We really... no, it does not matter." He pointed at John's guts. "I want your word that you will protect him."

"You have it, but I've done a crappy job so far." John wasn't impressed with his behavior, running away like a scared boy. "I thought--"

"You think that your men are reasonable. They are not. They will not stop trying to teach us our place. It is all they know." Zelenka's eyes blazed even through his glasses. "Rodney made plans. I am going to carry them out."

True alarm jangled up John's spine. "Please, don't do anything crazy."

Zelenka stomped away, talking rapid fire in Czech, and John knew his duty. He knew it, but nothing had ever been so difficult. Raising his hand, he counted to ten before clicking his head set. "Dr. Weir, I believe we have a situation that requires a lock down of all non-military personnel."

The silence surprised him. Finally, she answered. "I'm on my way to the infirmary. We'll discuss it when I get there."

His instincts told him that would be far too late. "Ma'am--"

"You're over-reacting, Major," she snapped, and her radio clicked off. John leaned against the wall and rubbed his face hard. She wasn't leaving him much wiggle room.

"Ford?"

"Sir?" Ford sounded worried.

"Be ready for anything. Spread the word. Quietly." John clicked off and waited. It wasn't long.

********

The world came back around him, and he stared up at the ceiling wondering exactly who had taught a bunch of geeks to shoot stunners. The realization that it was Rodney came one second later, and John went ahead and groaned. The whole plan had been Rodney's, and of course it had worked like a charm.

"Major? Major?"

"Yeah," John whispered. He could've been angry, but mostly, he was tired. Tired of dealing with a pack of fools and feeling like he was the captain of the Titanic. Concentrating, he slowly brought his hand up to his ear. "Carson? Rodney?"

"He's out of surgery. Give him some time, and he'll be back to driving you crazy." Carson paused. "Did I miss anything?"

"Nah," John croaked. He clicked it off and let his hand fall flat. The gateroom was quiet, everyone having been stunned.

"You okay, Major?" Chuck gave him a nudge. He managed a small nod and rolled to his stomach. Chuck helped him up. "They were kinda mad, huh?"

"Can't imagine why," John muttered. Today was not going to go down as one of his finest. He'd be lucky if he wasn't busted back to airman, but they couldn't say he hadn't tried. Sure, he hadn't tried hard, but that was his secret. The sound of running made him try to turn without falling down.

Ford was out of breath. "Dr. Weir is stuck in the transporter. None of them are working. Switch channels on your head set."

"Of course they aren't working." John forced his legs to carry him the right direction. "I want a head count and lock this base down until further notice. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!" Ford dashed away.

"Chuck? Are you coming?" John tried his radio, flicking the channel away from the medical one. "Dr. Weir?"

"Major?"

"I'm on my way." He turned it off before she started complaining. Chuck didn't look enthusiastic, and they ended up staring at the transporter door together. John removed the control panel. "Chuck?"

"Um, sure." Chuck didn't sound sure, but he started messing with it. "I'll have her out in a second."

Bates barreled around the corner, yelling at the top of his lungs. "This is your fault!"

John's physical symptoms faded as rage took over. He shoved Bates against the wall and shook him. "You did this! You and your stupid gang! You had to go and teach him a damn lesson!"

Bates' lip curled. "He needed one! You weren't handling him right!"

John hit him hard, cracking him across the face. "All you did was teach them that we couldn't be trusted to protect them!"

"That's not our job," Bates ground out. "They're slaves! Tools!"

"You're a moron." John hit him again, taking a return shot to the stomach with a grunt. "You've killed us all!"

"That's enough, Major!"

"Oh, I haven't even started!" John wanted to beat on him all day, but he turned him loose with another shove. "You're confined to your quarters, Bates."

"I agree," Weir said. For some reason, she was breathing hard. John scrubbed his hand through his hair and took a deep breath. He didn't know what to say to her. She gave him a steady look. "I want the men who assaulted Rodney confined. Now."

"Yes, ma'am." Finally, an order that John was happy to follow. "Ford is getting a head count and I locked down the base."

She frowned. "Why?"

It hit him then that she couldn't know. "Dr. Weir, the scientists are gone, all of them but Rodney."

Her silence was that of a truly stunned person. "They left?"

"Used the gate." John rubbed his hands again to take out the sting. "They--"

"I know why, Major." Weir's shoulders drooped. "This is why only leashed slaves are allowed in the SGC gateroom."

John had a hundred things to do, and he took a cautious step away. Yelling to her about change and risk and the idiocy of trying to keep the smartest minds on the planet in servitude wouldn't do any good, but he was very tempted. Instead, he shrugged. "Always more slaves where those came from I guess."

"Major, I don't appreciate your sarcasm." Weir drew herself up. "Rodney will know where they went. We'll get them back."

Laughing at that ridiculous statement was a bad idea, but he did allow himself a chuckle. "Yes, because they haven't mastered the use of the gate yet."

Her mouthed opened, nothing came out, and then she shut it. John felt the same. "Yes, we're screwed. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go find out exactly how far we're screwed." He strode down the hallway, calling Ford, Cadman, and Stackhouse.

********

John found himself once again hiding at Rodney's bedside. Their situation wasn't critical, not yet, but everyone was scared, with good reason. Atlantis didn't run by herself, and the men and women who did the bulk of the maintenance had gated to worlds unknown. The few techs that were left - like Chuck - looked about one minute from a full-blown panic attack.

Bates and his cronies, who had been insufferably proud of themselves until the reality that the entire base would be dead soon had set in, were under guard in their quarters. A couple of them had bruises that John in no way felt guilty about, and their sheer arrogance that no one cared and on Earth they'd get promoted just made him sick inside.

Rodney groaned, and John moved to stand over him, avoiding wires and IV's.

"Wake up, buddy," John said. "I'm going to need your help, and you sorta said you would."

"Major Sheppard?" Teyla asked from behind him.

It was good to see Teyla, and he pressed his forehead against hers without prompting. "I guess you heard."

"I did." Teyla took Rodney's hand and squeezed. "They are not on New Athos."

"Not any longer." John had known they'd go there first. "Any word about movement among the Wraith?"

Teyla stared down at Rodney. "There are far less humans in this galaxy than the Wraith are accustomed to having, and we have heard of hives fighting hives. I do not know if it is true."

"Let's hope it is." John covered Rodney's and Teyla's hands with his own. "Carson says he'll recover. He'll have a scar or two."

She nodded and sighed. "How many people are left here?"

"Not many." The official head count was fifty-six. "Did you talk to Dr. Weir?"

"I am going there next." Teyla leaned against him. "When the Wraith come, you must gate to us."

John wasn't sure if he was expected to go down with the ship. "You'll be our first stop."

They stood in comfortable silence for a moment, and then she brushed a kiss across Rodney's forehead. "I must go. Stay safe."

He didn't see how that was possible, but he'd give it a try. "Thank you, Teyla."

She left quickly, and he settled in to watch Rodney breathe. He shut his eyes, knowing he wouldn't sleep but needing the dark to gather some strength. His father had warned him that there'd be days like this, and wow, his dad had been right.

*********

She was in his office for a change, but he'd given up talking to her three days ago. "Major, any word from the Manarians?"

He managed a very tight smile. "No, I think they're still laughing."

"Your attitude--"

"Is probably nicer than you deserve," John interrupted. He leaned back and rubbed his eyes. "Did you think it would come to this?"

"No," she snapped. "I thought you had them in hand."

"I did." John sighed. "Did you tell Bates to teach Rodney a lesson?" He'd suspected it from her pinched face and her lack of surprise.

She hesitated, which was damning. "He came to me. I probably could have been clearer in my rejection of the idea."

"You thought they'd push Rodney around a little, and he'd realize that I couldn't protect him, and all would be well in this magical place." John got to his feet and stretched. "Cadman told me. I didn't want to believe it. You've lost the respect of every military personnel on this base. You did this. You killed us because you were too damn stubborn to bend."

Her eyes blazed and she surged to her feet. "This happened because I negotiated! I should've had Rodney shot!"

"You keep believing that. Do you really think their plan wasn't in place from the first week they were here? Can you be that stupid? They probably had six plans." John opened the door. He had a parting shot ready. "The SGC is probably going to want to shoot someone. I'm starting to think it isn't going to be me."

He made a perimeter sweep of all that was left of his people, ending up in the infirmary. The complaining carried out into the hallway.

"I will not!"

"Aye! You will!"

John peeked around the corner. Unfortunately, Rodney spotted him. Even cracked and scabbed, those lips looked stubborn, and John tried to act casual as he strolled up to them.

"What's the problem?"

Now Carson looked mulish, and he shook his head. "Nothing. No, Rodney can't work, and no, he can't have his tablet, and--"

"Relax, Doc." John tried what had to be the flimsiest smile ever. "Mostly I'm making sure no one has been bothering him. Has anyone?"

"No," Carson said. "Some visitors, but they were all of the friendly sort." He waved his hand. "Rodney needs to rest. Can I leave you and not worry about a jail break?"

"Sure." John thought maybe Carson was glad to leave. Rodney hadn't spoken to John, not yet, not for any reason. Five days and not one word, and John needed a word or two. "When are you going to talk to me?"

Rodney's bruised jaw shifted, and John got close enough to Rodney's face to touch, if he wanted. He'd prepared this speech in advance, and all he could do was hope he could beg hard enough. "I've given this situation a lot of thought, and I need you to come up with a way to get a message to Earth. It's our only chance of survival."

That stubborn and bloodied face wouldn't even glance at him, so John kept trying. "I know what you're thinking, but I don't want any more scientists, just a few guns so we can go down fighting. Okay, maybe a nuke or two. Please, do this, and I'll make sure you're safely off-world when the cavalry comes over the hill."

The silence made John crazy. "I know I screwed up. I know I let you down. You can't hate me any more than I hate me, but I can't let these people die without trying something." He ran his hand through his hair and began to pace. "If it can't be done, I'm gating everyone to New Athos. Did I tell you the Wraith found our alpha site?" He thought he'd mentioned it, but he hadn't slept in forever. Slumping down into his usual chair, he squeezed his head. "I think I've rigged up a good enough self-destruct to destroy the city."

Rodney sat bolt upright. "You did what?" he yelled.

"I made a self-destruct. Chuck helped." John didn't have much faith it'd work, but he had a back-up plan. "Naquadah makes a good boom, or so I've heard."

"And how exactly did you plan to detonate one?" Rodney threw off the covers, grabbing for his IV pole.

"C-4." John thought it'd work, and so did Chuck. It wasn't like he had a real scientist to explain it to him. "I'm going to blow them all, not just one." He moved fast to steady Rodney, who'd swayed. "Don't fall down."

"Carson!" Rodney raised the roof. "Get me a wheelchair!"

John thought that was the best news he'd heard all week. "Does this mean we're not going to die?"

Rodney turned a terrible look on him. "I want the medical staff evacuated."

"Carson refuses leave." John spread his hands. He had tried. "The botanists are already on the planet with all the kids."

"Dr. Weir?"

"Won't leave." John saw Carson's exasperated look. "Carson, can I borrow him long enough to look at the self-destruct I built? I promise I'll bring him back."

Carson's eyes widened, and he nodded. "Aye. Will we be leaving first?"

"Definitely," John said, noticing that Rodney was halfway to the door. "Wheelchair?"

"Bloody fool," Carson muttered. "We're ready to go when it's time."

"Good." It was all he could think to say. He got the wheelchair and chased Rodney and his IV down. Rodney said nothing else until he saw John's handiwork. John rubbed the back of his neck. "It was all I could manage!"

After shaking his head, Rodney started yelling. John didn't listen much after the first sentence. He simply waited until the fireworks were winding down.

"So the plan, Quaker Oats boy, was to kill yourself?" Rodney got John's attention with that.

"Yes." John didn't see any reason to lie. It wasn't that he had a death wish, but it had to be done, and it fell to him. "Someone has to stay, in case the SGC shows up at the last minute, and to make sure it all goes off."

"I hate you." Rodney managed a great glare with his one working eye.

"Rodney, it's good to see you up and about," Weir said, coming up behind them. "I hope you can answer a few questions now."

John had monitored her attempts in the infirmary to get Rodney to talk. She'd been spectacularly unsuccessful. Rodney favored her with an actual glance. "As much as I hate him, I hate you more. Major, go find me a collar, any old piece of leather will do. Chuck, have you lost your mind?"

Chuck hung his head. "I haven't slept in three days."

"No excuse." Rodney sighed. "Get me everyone that's left. We'll do this right."

"On it." Chuck hurried away, and John watched Weir think, and he didn't like what he saw.

She placed her palms on the arms of the wheelchair and leaned close to Rodney. "You'll tell me where they went, or I'll have you shot." Her voice made the hair on John's neck stand straight up.

Laughter bubbled out of Rodney's broken lips. "And that will be different how from what the SGC will do when they catch up with us? Hmm?"

John touched his head set. "Stackhouse, Dr. Weir is leaving for New Athos as we planned. Get a squad to escort her there. Leave two men with her for protection."

"Will do, sir."

"You do not have the authority!" Weir raged, turning from Rodney to scream in John's face.

"I'm protecting you, as is my duty." John smiled, but it was as false as any she'd ever given him. "Get your things. Now."

She slapped him hard enough to break his lip, but it was less than he deserved. "Thank you, ma'am. I'll be in contact."

Stackhouse and his squad arrived, armed with stunners, and she lunged at him. One shot, and he caught her before she hit the floor.

"Never turn your back on her, Sheppard," Rodney snapped.

"I'll remember that." John eased her down and motioned for Stackhouse. Hopefully, when she woke up on New Athos, she'd get a grip. He dialed the gate himself, keeping an eye on Rodney's progress around the control room. Rodney seemed to be gaining strength with every scathing insult and suggestion that death was nigh. John touched his head set. "Carson, I want a nurse up here with Rodney."

"Already on my way."

"Major! Get your ass over here!"

John smiled, knowing how inappropriate the response was but feeling as if maybe they'd live through this after all. "Good to have you back, McKay."

*********
end

Chapter Text

********

Rodney worked as quickly as possible, given his lack of resources, people, and energy. Grodin was good, not enough to wear a collar, but clever in his own way. Chuck was mostly useless, and yelling didn't help. Some small part of Rodney exulted that they were gone, but another part of him was furious. It had been his plan, and it had come off without a hitch. The only mistake was leaving him behind.

"Rodney, eat this." John handed him a power bar and a bottle of water. His eyes were worried, and exhaustion showed on his face. Rodney took the bar, not understanding John at all. His maze of morals was confusing at best. John went to one knee, near enough to kiss. "Don't worry. No one is going to hurt you again."

Rodney wanted to touch him, fix the world for him. "You're so stupid."

********

"The Wraith won't be here tonight!"

John knew that. He did, but his gut said differently. "You got it rigged, right?"

"Yes! Atlantis will be a huge jigsaw puzzle, lying on the floor of the ocean!" Rodney pressed his hand into his side. "I need to lie down."

"I think Carson expects you back." John didn't try to take the tablet, but he got Rodney moving - in his wheelchair - towards the infirmary. "Can we do it? Can we send a message?"

"If I tie in every bit of power we have, maybe. I'm talking down to car batteries, if we have any, which I don't think we do." Rodney didn't look at him. "I need Zelenka." His fingers never stopped poking at the tablet. "Though why he'd want to help me call in the military so they can shoot us is beyond me!"

"We have to try." John pushed him fast. Carson was going to kill them. "If the Wraith aren't here within the week, we're going to fix the satellite."

Rodney groaned and hid his face in his hands. "I don't have any people left!"

"I'm smarter than I look." John winced when Carson stormed into sight. "He's all yours," he said and hurried the opposite direction before he got a tongue-lashing. He'd compared this command to the Titanic more than once, and right now, he was sure the iceberg was right off their port bow.

Ford came around the corner, and John could tell from the look that things were only getting worse.

"Spit it out, Ford." John didn't slow down on his way to the gateroom.

"Bates is waiting for you in the gateroom."

Fury pushed its way through John's veins, and he picked up the pace. "How many support him?"

"Three." Ford caught John's look of disbelief at the low number. "It's true. We know we wouldn't be in this mess if it weren't for him and Weir abusing McKay."

"You guys aren't as dumb as Rodney thinks you are." John was almost running by the time he got there, and Bates met him in almost the exact center of the gateroom.

"Major, you're relieved!" Bates might've thought volume would make up for his lack of authority.

John crossed his arms, trying for casual indifference. He looked around the gateroom, watching his men take up a perimeter, forcing Bates' friends to the center. Bates didn't have a weapon, but he was trying to bully his way into command.

"That's it? That's all you got?" John grinned, knowing it would piss him off. "The last time I checked, I outrank you."

"You've screwed up everything!" Bates puffed himself up to his greatest height. John was tempted to pull his gun and shoot him - somewhere - like the knee. It wouldn't solve anything, but it would feel great. Bates sneered, "You coddled him, and now we're all going to die!"

"Someone make a note. I am busting you down to the rank of slave." John waved his hand at the other three losers. "And you guys too." He smiled, tired, angry, and more out of control than he'd ever been in his life. A quick look around the gateroom, and he could see that he'd made the right decision.

Bates howled some curse words and threw himself at John. Two quick shots rang out, and John managed to get out of the way, letting Bates fall to the floor, dead before he hit it.

"Attacking the commander of a base is a killing offense." Cadman stalked over to the other three men; her gun still out. "Would any of you slaves like to register a complaint?"

"No, ma'am!" They all dropped to their knees.

John needed to vomit. He swallowed it down and growled, "Lt. Ford, take out the garbage. Lt. Cadman, stand down."

"Yes, sir." She holstered her gun. "You sure you don't want them dead?"

"Not today." John hated the stark fear on their faces, but these men had nearly killed Rodney, and they deserved what they got from Cadman. "Those three are in your charge. I know you can handle them."

"I certainly can." She smirked, making a sharp gesture to several Marines. "Take them." On her way by him, she flashed a grin. "Good work, sir."

"I might say the same." John surveyed the men he had left, making sure of them. "There are going to be some changes around here. The Wraith are coming. I intend to fight and survive!"

There were nods and a few tight grins. John spotted Stackhouse and motioned him over. "Dr. Weir is comfortable, I assume?"

"Teyla is taking good care of her." Stackhouse looked down at the blood smear from where Bates had been dragged away. "Your orders?"

"Give me a minute." John headed up the stairs. He would not look weak by dashing off to puke over a railing. Taking deep breaths, he stopped at the top and looked over his techs. Chuck looked half-sick, and Grodin was pale. John went to him. "Tell me again why you don't wear a collar?"

"Must've been an oversight." Grodin swallowed several times. "The self-destruct is ready."

"I'm glad, but right now, I want us to concentrate on conserving as much power as possible. Shut everything off that we don't need to survive." They had to have enough energy to make their last phone call home. "Water, lights, everything. No one is here to help run it all anyway."

Grodin frowned but then nodded. "A very good idea, but I can't guarantee doors will continue to work."

"Let me worry about that." John intended for everyone to pull back to the control tower. No more patrols in areas that were deserted. He strode out onto the bridge and stared down at the stargate. It would be hours until Carson let Rodney do anything again. John clicked his headset. "Carson, if you have a minute, we need to talk."

"Aye. Where are you?"

"Gateroom." John clicked off. He'd pull all his resources together, make a plan, and then hope the Wraith were delayed. His father had also taught him to do his best, and he would do that, right up until they sucked him dry.

********

"You again?"

John slumped down, closed his eyes, and let it all go hazy.

"Is he okay?"

"Exhausted," Carson whispered. "The Athosians are back. Dr. Weir has gone to the planet of kids. Two hive ships are on their way."

"Damn."

John agreed with that. No shield, no nukes, and no way to survive what was coming at them.

"How long until they get here?" Rodney whispered urgently.

Lifting two fingers, John didn't bother to open his eyes. "Two weeks. If we're lucky and they stop to feed along the way." The idea of Wraith eating other people and that being lucky for them made him want to puke. There was a prick on his arm, and he jerked up. "Carson!"

"You've got to rest, lad. You falling over won't help us survive what's coming," Carson said.

Rodney put his hand on John's arm. "Get some sleep. I'll go send our message."

"Promise?" John staggered up to his feet. Carson grabbed him under the arm, and John let him steer towards another bed. "Rodney?"

"I promise."

John remembered hitting the gurney but nothing after that until he swam back up to the surface because someone tapped him on the forehead. His eyes were gooey, and he felt like he'd been run over by a bus, but he tried to mutter something intelligent.

"I sent it." Rodney heaved out a big sigh. "But not the message you made. That one, I erased."

Sitting up fast enough to make his head spin, John half fell off the bed. He caught himself on the arms of Rodney's wheelchair. "What did you do, McKay?" he yelled.

The blue eyes were completely unrepentant. "You wanted me to help you change the world. You hate the system. Right? Even though you've made a few slaves of your own since you got here?"

Sliding down to the floor, John rubbed his face hard and tried not to whimper. Rodney handed him some coffee, and John downed it, not caring that he burned off the top layer of his taste buds. He took a big gasp of air, and Rodney tossed him a powerbar. John ate it in three bites.

"You're hopelessly naive and stupid, but this was your idea, and you gave me just enough hope to nearly kill me, so here we are." Rodney snorted. "Are all Quakers as hopelessly ridiculous as you?"

"Most are worse," John croaked. He spotted a bottle of water and drank all of it too. "Tell me how you really feel, Rodney."

"Since the Wraith are going to kill us, I'm going with your plan. You know the one - the dumb one?"

"Oh, shut up!" John made it to his feet and stretched his back. "You gonna tell me the message?"

"I don't trust you that much." Rodney wouldn't meet John's eyes.

John took a breath that came from his feet and leaned over to brush his lips over Rodney's forehead. "I trust that you got it right." He stepped back and turned away before Rodney could see anything damning.

"I really hate you," Rodney muttered.

Instead of answering, John went out the door as fast as his wobbly legs could take him. He could think of ten things he needed to check, and he cursed again under his breath at the loss of his scientists right before an invasion. He'd had some hope that they might find some exploitable weakness in the Wraith ships.

"Major, I wanted to check you over!"

"Sorry!" John kicked it into a trot, leaving Carson behind, and caught up with Teyla right outside stargate operations. She smiled, and he fussed, "I slept! You know that's against regulations."

"We managed without you, but it was difficult," she teased.

"We've got a bogie, coming in hot!" Chuck's panicked voice boomed through Atlantis, and they both froze for one second.

John didn't think. He ran for the jumper bay, sparing only a moment to shout over his shoulder, "Teyla! You're in command!"

She frowned but nodded, and he took the jumper out as fast as possible. "Chuck! Talk to me!" He tracked the dart almost instantly, changed vectors, found some extra speed, and--

"John! It's leveling off to scan us! You can't let that happen!" Rodney's voice went through John like a bullet. The name, the urgency, and John lowered his head, firing instinctively and throwing his mind after the drone to guide it. The explosion rocked him, and he had to jerk the sticks hard to avoid the main tower.

"John! John!"

"I'm here, Rodney," John drawled, trying for casual. "Just waving at the people through the windows."

"They were running and screaming," Rodney sniped back at him. "Such brave Marines."

John managed to turn his chuckle into a cough. He did a quick fly-by of the wreckage and said, "Teyla, get a team down to that dart, what's left of it, and I'm coming in."

"You're clear, Jumper One," Chuck said.

Rodney was in the jumper bay when John dashed down the ramp. "Teyla says there are Wraith in the city."

His words were quiet, almost hushed, but John saw the fear. "We'll gate you, Carson, and the rest of his team to safety now."

"I can handle that. You go kill Wraith," Rodney said, grabbing John by the arm. "Be careful."

"Will do." Then John noticed the wheelchair was gone, replaced by a single crutch. "Get the hell out of this city, McKay."

Rodney nodded, and they went their separate ways, and John only looked back once before throwing himself into the search and destroy mission. They utilized everyone in one capacity or another, and John had known that Cadman was tough, but she was like a dog with a bone when it came to clearing the city.

They lost three Marines, and it was three more than they could afford. Teyla looked grim but satisfied when the last Wraith fell to her gunfire. John pumped a few extra bullets into it, just to be sure.

"Pull everyone back to the main tower. We'll use the sensors to make sure we got them all." John wasn't going to worry about cleanup crews just yet. When they were all there, he made sure to check with each man individually for problems. A couple of his men needed first aid, and he clicked his ear bud for Carson before remembering that they were all gone.

Two minutes later, he spotted Carson working his way through the crowd, nurses fanning out also, and he looked up, searching for Chuck. Rodney stared down at him for a moment before moving away, and John took the stairs two at a time.

"What the hell, McKay?"

"Carson wouldn't leave, and I wasn't going without him." Rodney waved his hand, sinking down into a chair and holding his side as if it pained him. "They got Markham?"

"Yeah." John wiped his hand through his hair. He looked out over the railing at the men and women who were as determined to fight the Wraith as he was. "I promoted the morons who attacked you back to privates."

"Good," Rodney said, still in his chair. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

"Thanks for pointing out that I was being a total hypocrite." John meant that. He'd screwed up in his anger, using the system he hated instead of trying to destroy it. He could almost see the disgust on his father's face, but he'd fixed it. He had. Pushing the thoughts away, he gave Rodney a once over and said, "You look tired."

"Well, it took me three planets to find them."

John's hands began to shake, hope surging, and he turned very slowly to meet those blue eyes. "Them?"

"All non-combat personnel are under the shield with Dr. Weir now, but there were a few who insisted on turning this into a fight." Rodney smirked.

"We may live now." John blew out a breath, seeing Zelenka working diligently at a station and Miko peeking out at him. Relief made him light-headed. "You're finally pulling your weight?" He really tried for sarcasm but was afraid he only sounded pitiful.

Rodney rolled the chair closer, lowering his voice. "We're still going to die."

"That old rock and hard place, I know." John slid his hand down Rodney's arm just for the reassurance. "The satellite?"

"I need a pilot." Rodney jerked up his hand. "Not you. You're too valuable here."

John leaned in so he could growl. "There is no way I'd be lucky enough to die out there. Get with Carson, we're going as soon as you're ready." He saw Rodney's face pale a little, but whatever he was thinking didn't matter.

Ford made a quick motion down by the gate, and John went to deal with that problem. From there, it was one thing after another, and thank God for Teyla, or John was pretty sure he'd have had a breakdown.

For everyone left on the base, the Wraith, a few dead right outside the gateroom, were very real now. Before, it'd been an intellectual fear. Now, the fear had hold of everyone's guts and was squeezing.

The only good thing that came of it was that no one sneered at his orders any longer.

"Major, is it true that the Wraith will be stopping to feed along the way?" Teyla's eyes were wide, serious, and John instantly knew where this was going. Another big pile of guilt that he hadn't thought of it sooner.

Rodney was close enough to answer for him. "We think so. Their ships have an organic compound and require a break from hyperspace to heal." He rolled over to a interstellar map to show her. "You know these people?"

"We have been trading partners with them for years. How long until the Wraith arrive there?" Teyla's voice was breathless, and John knew these were people she cared about.

"Five days? If they keep their same speed." Rodney frowned, thinking hard, and John waited to see what he would come up with. "John, the Wraith want Atlantis. They don't want to destroy it. They want a gateway to Earth."

"Everyone knows." John crossed his arms. "So?"

"They'll beam Wraith in all over the place. The city is too big to defend with the manpower we have." Rodney had missed the briefing where they'd gone over this in detail. "So Teyla, go get us more men."

"And women," she growled.

"Not the Genii," John said. "First, we'll evacuate that planet. Then we see where we're at. Teyla, you and Cadman handle that. Rodney and I are going to the satellite, and Ford is going to hold down the fort."

"Zelenka and I are working on a bit of something also." Carson came up behind Rodney. "If we don't sleep for two weeks, we might get done."

"Sounds like a fair trade," John said. "Stackhouse, you're in charge of making sure everyone has adequate firepower and ammo."

Zelenka slowly raised his hand. "Everyone?"

It took a second, but suddenly it hit him. John raised his hand to his neck and rubbed, grinning. "Yes. Problem with that?"

"No." Zelenka grinned back at him. John wasn't going to ask him how they'd gotten rid of the collars - chances were good it'd been Rodney's idea - the only thing that mattered was that they were gone.

John smacked his hands together. "Everyone clear?"

Ford asked the question John didn't want to hear. "What if the cavalry comes over the hill?"

"Pray they bring nukes," John said, trying to sound firm. "The rest we'll deal with when forced."

Rodney had a strange expression on his face, and John waited for him to complain or say something rude, but there was nothing.

"Rodney?"

"I'll be ready in thirty. Grodin!" He crutched away, and John shooed everyone to work but Carson.

Carson shrugged. "I trust you'll take care of him."

"I will, but send anything you think he'll need." John caught Carson by the arm and whispered in his ear, "If the SGC does come, hide them in the Wraith lab until we know where we stand."

"Way ahead of you, lad." Carson smirked. "Now go fix that satellite!"

"Yes, sir," John drawled, but he didn't stand around talking any longer. If they wanted even a shot at living, they had to get busy.

*********

"Ask Grodin," Rodney said.

John sighed, wishing he were asleep. "Peter," he said, "how do you feel about slavery?"

"Never gave it much of a thought." Grodin didn't look embarrassed. "Grew up with it. It's normal, and really, how many people are we talking about? Ten? Forty?"

"In your country, near thirty," Rodney said. "When did you first work with someone who was collared?"

"At the SGC. We were told not to worry about it." Grodin gave John a sideways look. "You grew up with it too."

Rodney snorted. "No, he really didn't. But you see my point, Sheppard, no one cares. No one."

"You do." John went ahead and mentioned it. "Zelenka does. The SGC is full of scientists who care. Grodin, were you ever a handler?"

Grodin made a face. "Usually only military personnel are allowed to be handlers, but I wouldn't want to do it."

"But enslaving us for the good of the Western World is okay?" Rodney blurted. "Peter!"

"It kept you out of the hands of the communists!" Grodin shot right back. John ducked his head and rubbed his face. He shouldn't have asked the question, but it was very obvious that enslaving scientists for the good of the nation was an entrenched idea. His father had never mentioned that, just railing against it.

Rodney grumbled and argued until Grodin began to sulk, and at that point, John got to his feet.

"Take the stick, Rodney. I'm going to rest. That means you'll shut up." John ate first and then stretched out on the bench. He woke up with a start when Rodney touched him. "We okay?"

"Yeah. I'm tired." Rodney's eyes had dark circles under them. "You drive."

"Got it. Take your meds." John tried to make it an order. Rodney slumped down, and John kept an eye on him while checking through the systems. They were still eight hours out, and he hoped Rodney slept the rest of the way. Grodin tapped away on his tablet next to John, and they shared a look when gentle snores came from the back.

"So you think I was wrong to hate the system?" John asked.

"I think by sending so many scientists, they set this in motion," Grodin said. "Dr. Weir has never been known as a hard-liner."

"Sumner?" Gears started to turn in John's head.

Grodin glanced back. "Had a reputation as a man who threw himself into dangerous situations."

John blinked several times, checked their speed, and let Grodin go back to puttering. "Maybe I'm not stupid," he whispered to himself.

********

"As soon as this thing fires, the Wraith are going to move in and blow it from the sky!" John went ahead and yelled. "That's why there's only one left!"

"I know!" Rodney yelled right back. "I'm not sure we can even fire it without someone here to calibrate it!"

John slapped his hand against the side of the jumper in frustration.

"I'll stay," Grodin said. "Good of the many, yes?"

"No," John growled. "I'm not leaving you here to die."

There was a weird noise from Rodney and then he clicked his fingers several times. "Maybe I can..."

Grodin spread his hands, and John sat down with a thump. "Rodney?"

"Working!" Rodney moved back down into the main chamber, muttering and tinkering, and Grodin raised his eyebrows.

Opening a channel to Atlantis, John got a quick update from Teyla and Ford before getting Zelenka on the line. "Radek, Rodney is mumbling and scaring us all."

"Radek, send us another jumper," Rodney said, breaking in to their conversation.

Sitting up straight, John prepared a complaint.

"That could work, with another generator, but who will stay?" Radek asked.

"That's a damn good question!" John prepared to fight it out, but Rodney beat him to it.

"Grodin volunteered, but this way, he doesn't have to bother. Get a team to us. Now." Rodney clicked off, and John looked pointedly at Grodin.

"If he's going to do what I think he's going to do, I'll be on Atlantis, safe and sound," Grodin said.

"Unless you aren't," John grumbled. He felt useless here, almost wishing he'd sent another pilot. If he were home he could be helping Teyla. That made him pause. Home was worth fighting for, and he wanted to fight, not run.

"Quaker Oats! Some help here?"

John rolled his eyes, but he was grateful for something to do that didn't involve staring out the windshield, waiting.

********

To John it seemed as if Atlantis was busting at the seams when he exited the jumper bay. Even Rodney muttered something about interlopers before hurrying off to his consoles.

"Report, Ford." John spared a glance in the direction of Weir's office before it hit him again that she was gone, and he'd thrown her out, and he'd sure as hell better check on her soon. She was probably mad enough to set fires with her eyes. The realization that Ford was talking swept over him, and he blushed. "Sorry, I was distracted."

Ford nodded as if it happened all the time. "We got a report from Stackhouse. Dr. Weir is fine, helping with the refugees on that end and setting up an Alpha site directly outside the shield. Teyla brought home two hundred who are fit to fight."

John blinked in surprise.

"And Dr. Weir sent fifty more. They're all in their twenties, before you ask." Ford adjusted his hat and frowned. "I set up a perimeter and made a few booby traps. Is that okay?"

"You did great." John grinned to let him know that it really was. He was starting to think they'd at least put up a decent fight. "Carson and Zelenka?"

"In their lab. Haven't come out." Ford walked with John down to the gateroom floor where Teyla was waiting. Her eyes shined, and John greeted her formally.

"Welcome home, John."

"I like the way you guys redecorated while I was gone." John returned Cadman's wave, but she didn't stop to chat. "Any problems?"

"Not enough guns," Ford grumbled. "The satellite?"

"Up and working." John felt only satisfaction over that. "The Wraith are going to be surprised."

Teyla smiled. "We will fight."

Wishing more of his people had something beyond a crossbow was a waste of time. John nodded at Keras, who approached him with almost a bounce in his step.

"Your city is lovely."

"I hope it stays that way." John caught him by the arm. "Let's go look over Ford's preparations, Keras, and discuss weapons."

Keras beamed. "Rodney is better? Dr. Weir said he was injured."

"He's getting around." John shot Ford a look. "Tablet?"

Ford handed it to him. "Cadman has a few ideas about how to kill more Wraith."

A tall Athosian man pulled Teyla away, and John sent Ford after Cadman before starting to steer Keras through Atlantis. First, he'd figure out exactly where they were on their defenses, and then he'd make adjustments. The one thing he wasn't going to do was stand around, waiting for the cavalry.

********

"The ships have slowed," Rodney said.

John slid down the wall to sit near Rodney's head. Rodney was curled up on a pallet in a corner with an IV running in him. Dimming the lights a little, John put his hands on his thighs and squeezed. He could admit that he was tired, and a shower was probably a good idea, but right now, all he wanted was to trail a hand through Rodney's hair.

Rodney suddenly sat up enough to meet John's eyes. A few seconds of scrutiny by those blue eyes made John want to squirm. With a small grunt, Rodney grabbed John's shirt and pulled. "Pallet."

Surprise making him a bit light-headed, John shifted until his butt was on the pallet, back against the wall. Rodney abruptly collapsed down, and his head was pillowed by John's lap.

"That's better. You're bony, but you'll do." Rodney's voice was barely above a grumble. "Primitive conditions."

"The closer to the gate, the better because I will toss you through it if necessary," John growled down at him, liking the warmth, and now he had no idea what to do with his hands. His breath coming a bit fast, he ended up with one on Rodney's chest and the other on his own leg, close to Rodney's hair. "Sorry I'm stupid and you hate me."

"Oh, shut up. You are not. Sorry, that is." Rodney turned on to his side, curling, and John tugged the blanket up from around Rodney's waist. Eyes shut, Rodney curled his hands under his chin. "Still going to die."

"Think positively." John wasn't as sure as he had been. They might make a fight of this, especially if the surprises Cadman had come up with worked as planned. Rodney's breath evened out, and John stared down at him. He was mostly healed, but there were still yellow bruises and a pinched look of pain occasionally. The IV didn't worry John too much. Carson was overly careful, and John was grateful for it. "How many Wraith could there be on one of those ships?" he whispered, afraid he knew the answer.

********

"Off-world activation!" Chuck jumped to his feet, and John went from staring stupidly down at the stargate to running up the stairs in one second flat. Everyone seemed to freeze, and Chuck met John's eyes. "IDC Stargate Command!"

John instantly looked for Rodney, who didn't wait for the command. Rodney slapped his hand down, lowering the shield, and John could only turn to run back down the stairs.

Men and women in blue science uniforms and lab coats came pouring out of the stargate, and John would thank Rodney later for his quick reflexes. One second delay, and those people would be dead.

Stunned was the only way to describe them, and John held his breath in anticipation of the occupying force that would be on their heels.

"Keep moving! Keep moving!" Ford yelled, and Teyla jumped in to help, and John glanced up to see Rodney slowly cross his arms. His expression was unreadable.

They kept coming, smart enough to get out of the way of the people behind them, and John heaved out a huge sigh of relief when crates and boxes started to appear as well.

"Twenty-four minutes! Move it!"

Craning his neck, John could see Daniel Jackson in green fatigues near the gate. John fought the crowd to get to him.

"Jackson?" John grabbed him by the arm. "What the hell is going on?"

"We got your message." Daniel grinned. "Jack was right about you." He dashed away to help someone shove a huge crate further along. John gaped, shook himself all over, made up his mind to kick O'Neill in the ass, and got to work helping push things along.

"Two minutes!" Rodney yelled. "Two minutes!"

People and crates were now flying through the gate. The event horizon rippled, bullets came tearing out, and John screamed for everyone to get the hell down. Chaos ramped up, the gate flickered, and a large black man jumped from the wormhole and hit the floor hard right as it disengaged.

"Teal'c!"

"Carson!" John got to him first, and the bullet wounds were obvious. Jackson dropped to his knees next to him, and they applied pressure together until Carson shoved his way to them.

"Bloody hell!"

John stared at Daniel hopelessly, but Daniel didn't flinch. "His symbiote will heal him. That's why he came last."

Daniel took a box from Teal's clenched hand. "Rodney! We brought you something!"

Collapsing on his butt, John watched Teal'c continue to breathe when he should be dead. Carson and his people worked the room, setting up instant triage, and John got shakily to his feet.

"Welcome to Atlantis," he said to Daniel.

Daniel's grin was back. "Great to be here."

Rodney nearly tripped, John caught him, and Rodney's hands shook as he took the box. "Daniel?"

"Found it in Egypt. Hid it, of course." Daniel stepped forward and touched Rodney's bare neck. "Hey, this is a good look on you."

"I'm thinking I might be able to get used to it." And Rodney smiled, a real one, and John felt his heart twist. He eased a step back, giving them a moment as they were obviously lovers. John took a deep breath, cast a look around at the cavalry that had come over the hill, and hoped all these crazy scientists had remembered to bring a few guns. He'd think about that instead of Rodney.

Cadman caught him by the arm. "They brought nukes!"

John felt his mouth grin, but he wasn't feeling it on the inside. "Best news we've had in days." He noticed Rodney and Zelenka running off together, the box in hand. "Send a team after them."

She nodded, and John went up a few steps to get a better grasp of the situation. He was relieved to see a few soldiers in the mix, and he assumed they were sympathetic handlers. His first job was to round them up.

Trotting upstairs, he used the city-wide. "This is Major John Sheppard, current commander of the Atlantis base. All new military personnel please come up the shiny stairs."

Someone laughed, and John could almost feel the tension in the room drop a few degrees. People started moving, and he got a head count before they got to him. Twenty new soldiers for Atlantis. That was all. He directed them to the conference room, and it was easy to see their fear.

"Okay, men." John didn't see any women. "Let's go around and get everyone's rank so there's no mistake about chain of command."

One older man stepped forward, and his voice was gruff. "Major, the only thing we want to know is if we're going to be shot for participating in a mutiny."

"Not by me, but the Wraith might kill us all." John respected the gunnery sergeant's honesty. He smiled tightly and instituted a new policy. "This is Atlantis. We don't have slaves here. Not a one. I can assume this meets with your approval?" He made sure to look at them all, and their faces relaxed into relief. "Good. Now let's try to survive, okay?"

*********

"General O'Neill did what?" John fell more than sat in the chair behind him. "What?"

Rodney stared open-mouthed as well. "And Sam is with him?"

"Of course." Daniel rolled his eyes. "You could never slide a piece of paper between those two. The Daedalus should be here in three weeks. Sam swears she can boost the engines and get them here faster."

"She's usually right," Rodney said.

John was pretty sure he was dreaming. "A spaceship? O'Neill stole a spaceship?"

"Just one. The U.S. still has the Apollo and the Prometheus." Daniel leaned back in his chair, very casual. "We got everyone we could in the Mountain, and Jack has a full ship, I'm sure. For some odd reason, no one that I spoke to wanted to stay behind."

"Strange." John rubbed his forehead. "So… we have a ship?"

"He's usually not this dumb. He hasn't sleep in two days." Rodney tapped John on the forehead. "Catch up! We have ZPM. We have ship. May not die immediately!"

"Cool." John let himself wallow in this one moment where he had a glimmer of hope. "Very cool."

Rodney and Daniel exchanged a look, and John made a note to see they had a room together now that there was power.

"Daniel, I want you to go to Dr. Weir and bring her up to speed," John said. "Teyla will escort you to our Alpha site."

Daniel shrugged and nodded. "Will do. What if she wants to come back?"

John wasn't ready to make that decision so he avoided the question. "Rodney, I need a list of people you think should be evacuated.

"Ford, is Carson re-located yet?"

"Yes." Ford nodded. "The nukes are great, by the way."

Rodney rolled his eyes, and the conference door opened for Teal'c. He looked amazing for someone who had almost died. John waved him to a seat.

"Major John Sheppard." Teal'c gave him a slight nod. "It is good to be here."

"We are very glad to have you." John figured Teal'c counted for about ten more men. "How long, Rodney?"

"If we're lucky, they'll enter our solar system in three days." Rodney pushed a button that put up a detailed picture of the Wraith's current flight path. "The satellite is ready. Zelenka swears he's almost ready for an actual briefing on his plan. We have nukes, but no way to deliver them, and a shield that could conceivably last for a hundred years. All in all, it could be worse."

"I want Zelenka to brief me today." John wasn't going to take no for an answer. "Cadman, is everyone being outfitted with some sort of protection?"

"We had some resistance, and I have a list of those people so they can be evacuated." She slid him a flash drive. "If they won't carry a gun, they shouldn't be here."

"I agree." John wasn't going to let a shield lull him. The Wraith had defeated the Ancients. "On to another topic that needs to be addressed. I've told the new military personnel that Atlantis does not have slaves. If anyone of you wants to argue this policy, get it over with now."

Daniel grinned and nudged Teal'c. "Told you."

"Gloating is ugly, Daniel Jackson."

John waited, but no one else said anything. He looked at Rodney last. Rodney cleared his throat.

"We want all the collars off, Major."

Several eyebrows went up. John met Rodney's gaze evenly. "Then get them off."

"That's it?" Everyone could hear the skepticism in Rodney's voice. "No warnings about taking personal liberty too far? Or a mild concern that we might be a bit pissed at the military and start shooting at you?"

John leaned forward, knowing that no one in the room was breathing. "You're in charge of the scientists on this base. You're my second-in-command, and I count on you for any number of vital decisions every day.

"Again, there are no slaves on Atlantis. I made the rule myself. Now, I'd appreciate it if your men and women wouldn't shoot at any of my men and women. We clear, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney narrowed his eyes, looking stubborn, but he nodded. "I'll make sure no one takes a shot at you."

"Do that," John snapped, furious and not sure why. "Meeting adjourned."

No one moved, so John did. He got the hell out of the conference room and went to hunt up Carson and get a report on their casualties. Carson was in his office and poured them both a drink. Ten minutes later, John thought muzzily that he was never trusting the Scottish bastard again. And then he fell asleep.

**********

"Okay, so Sam was waiting for my signal." Rodney spoke softly. "It was a golden opportunity, you see. There were so many factors that could've gone wrong, but for the first time, it was barely possible that we had a place to run. Some place where they couldn't just come get us."

John took a long stretch. "I figured it out, Rodney." He probably should've felt used, but he had to admire O'Neill's planning. "You're just lucky they found a ZPM."

Rodney gave him a bare nod. "Daniel has been looking for years."

The name made John fume, but he had to know one thing. "So was it in your plan to have me transfer you to Bates? Was that your idea to make this base ready for a revolution? We all get to watch you be abused?" He might've yelled that last question.

Jumping to his feet, Rodney shouted right back at him. "No! I panicked, okay? We were moving so fast, and you seemed sincere, and I couldn't trust you, and--"

"Go away, Rodney," John interrupted, having heard enough. He turned away and screwed his eyes shut. Sleep took forever, but he got there, and when he opened his eyes, Rodney was gone. John figured that was all the explanation he was getting, and he was tired of feeling like an idiot. Carson managed to get there before John had his boots on his feet.

"Major, you are abusing your body."

John tied his laces and took another stretch. "That was a rotten thing to do."

"Don't make me do it again." Carson didn't back down. "We have a shield now. You can sleep at regular intervals!"

"Fine. I'll sleep again in two days," John grumbled. He eased up and grabbed his tac-vest. "Everything okay down here?"

"We lost Dr. Radner this morning." Carson's grief shined from his eyes. "Just too much damage from the bullets."

"Shit." John put her death squarely on the shoulders of the SGC. "Firing on fleeing civilians is…" He ran out of words, so appalled that he'd associated himself with people like that. "I should've stayed home and been a math teacher."

Carson stepped close and put his hand on John's shoulder. "If you had, nothing ever would've changed. You've done well here."

"I'm pretty sure Rodney would disagree with that." John had to take a moment and swallow his emotions. He'd never get the chance to argue with his father again. Going home to Earth was no longer an option. "I have to make sure everyone is getting settled. If you can, get everyone new in for an exam."

"I've been doing this doctor thing for a while now, Major." Carson snorted, letting him pass, and John got the hell out of there before he broke down and sobbed a little. He'd made his choices, and since he'd expected a firing squad, he was ahead in the game.

"Not a damn game," John muttered, hearing the echo of Rodney's words. He stomped his way to his quarters, intent on a shower, and stopped dead right inside the door.

Rodney was gone. All the bits and pieces that had made a Rodney-sized hole in their quarters was missing, even the bed. John touched his earpiece to demand an explanation but managed to stop himself from being a fool. Rodney was a free man, and he'd made his choice very damn clear.

John wondered how many times Rodney was going to have to reject him before he got the idea. Rodney didn't want him, not as a free man, and John didn't have time to stand around and care. He showered, threw a few things the length of their - his - quarters, and happened to stumble across Rodney's leash, rolled up in a drawer. The broken remains of Rodney's collar were there too.

Staring in pure hatred, he scooped everything up and headed for the closest pier. It was a waste of his valuable time, but he did it anyway, throwing each piece as far as possible.

"Feel better?"

Whipping around, he tried not to show his anger to Daniel. "No," he growled, wanting to walk away from Rodney's lover. It was only his need to punish himself that kept him there. "You get settled in?"

Daniel tilted his head and then nodded. "Rodney helped me find a place."

"I bet he did," John mumbled, hating himself for caring. "Walk with me. Tell me everything that happened after Carson drugged me."

"Sure, but one of these days I want you to talk with me about your upbringing. The Quakers are so insular in the United States." Daniel kept up easily, hands moving as he talked.

"First rule of Quakers is that no one talks about Quakers," John joked, knowing it was lame, but he was not ever discussing his religious upbringing, no damn way. Daniel didn't answer for a long minute or two, and John prodded, "Well?"

"Well, what? Oh!" Daniel grinned and started talking in great detail. John listened, walked, listened, and didn't bother trying to get a word in edgewise. Daniel finally frowned at him. "You're supposed to tell me to stop talking."

"Oh." John thought about it. It'd all been good information. "You think Dr. Weir is doing okay?"

"Actually, yes, but she's ready to return to Atlantis." Daniel looked sure of it.

"You told her about the whole no slave thing, right?" John might never let her come back if she couldn't wrap her stubborn head around that one idea.

Daniel leaned against a convenient wall and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Sheppard, O'Neill pushed the IOA to give her this expedition because of her reputation as a liberal."

"Huh." John could admit that she was more flexible than Sumner, but that meant so little. "She pushed to have Rodney beaten daily when he screwed up. I negotiated her down to two hours a day in a stress position."

Face now stony, Daniel stared down at the floor. "I never said she was anti-slavery."

"In the end, I refused to do it," John said. "Then she green-lighted Bates when he wanted to teach Rodney his place." He had to take a deep breath. "Rodney is missing his spleen because of her."

"She stays at the Alpha site," Daniel snapped, anger clear now. He didn't look up. "I'll talk to Rodney about all this."

John turned on his heel and headed for the nearest transporter. He wasn't surprised when Daniel didn't follow. Anger curled in John's guts, and he didn't bother trying to eat. He checked in with all his officers, made sure the perimeter had been moved to accommodate the new personnel, and spent some time talking with Halling.

Halling's slow and steady manner always seemed to help John think clearly. "Lt. Ford and a team escorted twenty scientists to the Alpha site while you slept."

"Cadman sent plenty of guns, right?" John wished he could go check personally.

"From my understanding, there are two jumpers, both equipped with nukes at the Alpha site." Halling nodded. "Perhaps someday I will have Dr. McKay explain to my people what nukes are."

It was almost enough to make John smile. "Make sure to have plenty of time and some snacks."

"We will do so. I very much like Daniel Jackson and Teal'c. They are good men." Halling had been steering John towards the cafeteria, and John gave in, getting a tray, but he refused to sit with Rodney, Zelenka and Daniel. Instead, John made his way out to the balcony and found a quiet corner to eat all alone. He should've stopped to get his tablet. The way things were moving around here, he needed to reorganize the entire base.

The idea that he wouldn't be in command in two weeks popped up. Chances were very good that General O'Neill would take over, and it was also likely that John would be given command of the Daedalus. John was Air Force, after all. That would very neatly take care of the ache in his chest when he saw Rodney and Daniel together.

A group of blue-shirted scientists stepped out on the balcony and targeted in on him like a missile. He couldn't help but straighten his spine, assuming this was bad news.

One of the men stepped more to the front, and John made sure to breathe. "Can I help you?"

Silence and ducked heads, and then a lady pushed her way to him. "We wanted to thank you." Her hand went to her neck. "We won't forget."

"Whoa." John put up his hand. "Go thank Dr. McKay. I haven't done anything."

"You made a place for us." She looked as if she might cry, and John tried not to cringe too noticeably. He was definitely going to hide in his office when this was over. He got to his feet and stepped around to them all.

"Welcome to Atlantis," he said, feeling stupid, and they smiled, and he could almost believe he had done something right.

*********

"Engaging satellite and uplink now." Rodney's voice came through John's ear bud. "Major Sheppard, activate your HUD."

John was one step ahead of him. The plan to slave the jumpers together was a brilliant one, John would give Rodney that, but he was still mad that they were losing a jumper. "Here they come."

"We can see them too," Rodney said dryly. "Remote feed, remember?"

Nothing like sarcasm to start off an armed conflict. John instantly assessed from the size and positioning of the armada that he had to make his one shot count. The chances of getting off a second shot were so small. Two Wraith hives, a dozen cruisers, and a few other small ships, plus darts swirled around them all, and he had to get this right.

"Major? What are you waiting for?" Rodney sounded shrill.

Trajectories, velocities, and flight paths tumbled through John's mind, making an answer impossible. He focused and took the best shot he could find.

"Holy crap!"

Frantically, John dealt with failing systems and overloads, re-routing and seeing the progress that Rodney was making on his end of the uplink. Darts swarmed towards the satellite, two cruisers peeled away, and John could smell frying components.

"John! Get out of that jumper!" Rodney screamed in John's ear. "Now!"

"One more second!" John glared, forced it, felt the connection as the satellite began to fire again, and he took two seconds to aim it.

"John!"

Throwing himself from the seat, he covered his head and ran through the smoke. A small explosion tossed him down the ramp. Landing hard, the air driven from his lungs, he crawled towards the door, coughing. Visions from Afghanistan thrust their way over him, and he half-expected sand under his hands.

"Get him the hell out of there!"

Using the last of the strength in his legs, John surged out the door.

"Initiating fire suppression protocols!"

John was glad they had some, and he sucked oxygen from the mask someone slipped over his face. He didn't have time for this, and he struggled to sit up. Carson pushed him back down.

"Let us look you over," Carson said, hands slipping back to cradle John's head. "I expect you were on the floor for a reason."

Sure he saw Rodney's leg, John grabbed and pulled.

"Yes, yes." Rodney dropped down next to him. "Five confirmed kills before we lost the remote feed. Both hive ships are gone, but there are still cruisers headed our way."

"We did it," John said, yanking down the mask. "We might live a little longer." He would only allow himself that small hope. "My jumper," he wheezed.

"I'll fix it." Rodney shoved the mask back in place. He started telling John just exactly how stupid it had been to stay in there, and how he was crap at obeying orders, and John did his part by nodding and breathing.

Three hours later, Carson released John to his quarters for a shower and some sleep, and he was surprised to have a small escort from Keras.

"I would have thought Dr. McKay would be here to walk with you," Keras said, strolling along beside him.

John had to put his hand against the wall for support for a second. Carson had wanted to keep him, but he'd insisted on his own bed. Keras slid under John's arm, giving him a place to lean and stumble along, and they made progress together.

"Rodney's busy fixing things," John said, feeling as if he should make an excuse.

Keras dropped his voice low. "I saw him leave the infirmary with Daniel Jackson."

"Good he's getting some rest." John concentrated on getting to his bed. He'd skip the shower. There was nothing he could do about Rodney and Daniel except feel the twist in his guts and hate himself for all the cruel things he'd done.

"I thought that…" Keras squeezed his arm a little more firmly around John's midsection. "I am glad Rodney is free."

"Me too." John stumbled and leaned harder against him. "I guess Carson was right. He said I'd never make it to my quarters."

Keras laughed. "Come. I will help."

John couldn't see why not. "Thanks," he mumbled, and he surprised himself by actually letting Keras help him shower and get to bed. At some level, he must trust Keras, and that was unexpected.

Sleep hit him before his head landed on the pillow, and he slept until he woke naturally. For a moment, he wasn't sure where he was, nothing was familiar.

"Rodney?"

"No, it is I." Keras sat down near John's hip and push John's crazy hair off his forehead. "You feel better?"

"Yeah," John croaked, not feeling better as much as weird. "You didn't have to stay."

"I was concerned." Keras smiled, ducking his head shyly. "Rodney called once but I told him you were still asleep."

"Wow. I must've been out of it." John fumbled for his ear bud, trying not to shove Keras on the floor but worried that something had gone wrong. He flipped channels, considered, and asked, "Dr. McKay?"

"Do you need something, Major Sheppard?"

The name was enough to let John know two things: Atlantis was fine, for now, and he absolutely had to get over his crush on McKay. Whatever Rodney had felt was dead. Dead and gone like the Ancients, and it wasn't coming back.

"Just checking in," John said. "Sheppard out." He bit his lip to keep from groaning as every muscle protested his first attempt to sit up. "Ow."

"Carson sent you this." Keras held out a tiny white pill. "Water?"

"Please." John blushed, wishing for clothes but grateful for the help. He swallowed it fast. "I guess I'm getting old."

"You are a very old man." Keras' eyes glinted with mischief. John hit him with the pillow.

*********

Every military man hated meetings. At least all pilots hated them, but they were a necessary evil, even when they were full of relatively good news.

"You're sure they're gone?" John said, not believing it.

"No, we're lying because we want you to be surprised when the Wraith show up!" Rodney said with extra hatred.

"That would be a shitty present." John let himself enjoy his victory over the Wraith for two seconds. "So any estimates on when they'll be back?"

"We're working on the long-range scanners now," Grodin said. "Another day to get it fixed, perhaps?"

Rodney gave a spare nod, and John made a few notes on his tablet after pointing at Carson to give his report. As John sat listening to everyone at the table give their reports, he found himself staring more and more at Daniel.

"I'm sorry, Daniel, but are we boring you?" John had seen him yawn twice now, and the thought that Daniel was tired from fucking Rodney all night long made John want to heave him over the railing.

Daniel sat up a little straighter. "I guess I'm just not sure what I can contribute here."

"You've been working with McKay since you arrived." John would concede that a large number of the soft science people were still off-world. He turned to Teal'c. "Are you bored too?"

"No, but I am training." He bowed his head to Teyla, and John blinked in surprise at the connection he could see between them.

Rodney waved one hand. "Daniel should go to the Alpha site. It's safer there."

That would be a perfect solution to the knife twisting in John's gut, looking at them sitting together, but John suddenly had a better idea. "All in favor of Daniel Jackson becoming the civilian head of this base raise their hand."

Jaws dropped open. John got to his feet, put his hands on his hips, and told everyone the painful truth. "Did you guys think I wanted this job permanently? Absolutely not! It sucks!"

Teyla laughed. "I never thought that."

"Well, neither did I, but you are the military commander," Carson said. "I just assumed…"

"Wrong." John got the hell away from Weir's chair. "I'm a pilot, and I'm half-ass good at running the military side of things, but we need more than me, and that's Daniel."

Daniel blushed, but Teal'c nodded, and it was Rodney who surged to his feet. "Are we forgetting Dr. Weir? She's going to come back mad as hell, and she has her supporters!"

Silence dropped like a bomb. John walked around and sat between Ford and Keras, leaving the chair empty. He'd never wanted to sit in it. Rodney gave him a scornful look and left the conference room without another word.

Daniel shifted in his chair, fiddling with his glasses. "Well, so…"

"I'm going to the Alpha site to meet with Dr. Weir. I'll give a report when I get back." John went around the table, meeting everyone's eyes. "Daniel, you're in charge of Atlantis while I'm gone. Ford, you keep the military side running smoothly, and Zelenka, I'm touring your lab when I get back, whether you like it or not. Carson, please make sure no one catches fire while getting their collar off."

"Aye."

"My people and I will accompany you, Sheppard," Keras said. "With the shield we are not needed here, and we miss our trees."

"We'll miss you, Keras," John said, hearing everyone's murmur of agreement. "Teyla, what have your people decided?"

Teyla hesitated. "We are unsure of our path, but some wish to return to our new home."

"You could come to work by stargate every morning?" John tried a smile, but he didn't want Teyla to leave again. "Your people's presence here has kept us all from giving up."

"Thank you, Major." Teyla eased to her feet. "I will speak with them again and let you know of our decision. Dr. Zelenka, you are sure that the shield will hold?"

"Of course." Zelenka nodded. "I am more concerned that Rodney will explode."

"That would be bad." John pointed at the door. "Let's call this meeting done. Everyone go celebrate that we at least cleared the solar system."

"You slept through the party," Daniel said, but he didn't leave with the others. "You're sure about giving up command?"

"I never wanted it." John didn't want to let his anger show. "And I'm not suited to handling all the different people from different planets who should have access to this city."

"I disagree. You built quite a coalition before we got here." Daniel pushed his glasses back and tapped his fingers on the desk. "Or was that Teyla?"

"Teyla, Cadman, and Ford, mostly, but I hope they don't all leave. Patrolling the living quarters and the labs is difficult with the few military that I have left." John counted all of his men and women again in his head. "We've lost too many."

Daniel sighed. "Jack often says the same. You realize he outranks you, right?"

John lost his hold on his temper. "I am damn tired of people asking me what I realize! No, I wasn't raised under a rock, and yes, I understand rank protocols and chain of command! You're in charge while I'm gone, try not to sink the city! It's harder than it looks!"

Daniel's eyes were wide behind his glasses, and John took his tablet and left him there. The anger faded quickly, leaving behind the usual feelings of stupidity, and John ducked out on a balcony to clear his head before he geared up to go to the Alpha site.

The air was crisp, clean, and he made sure the door behind him was locked. He put his tablet down and leaned out, just feeling the air and trying to remember good things in his life. His father had told him often to count his blessings, but he'd always thought it was nothing more than ridiculous sentiment.

Now, he understood. He understood nearly everything his dad had ever said, or shouted, at him, and it was far too late to apologize for being so damn dumb.

The door stuttered open, and Rodney crossed his arms. "Want a push?"

Lowering his head, John squeezed the hell out of the railing. He forced himself to remember Rodney pulling him close and sleeping in his lap. That had definitely counted as a blessing. They'd shared so little, but it'd been everything to John. Unfortunately, like a lot of things in John's life, it had ended in a pile of ashes.

"Weir can't be trusted. You know that!" Rodney half-yelled.

Turning, John faced him, schooling his expression. "Do you want me to go put a bullet in her?"

Rodney clenched his jaw over and over again. "I know you. You're going to bring her back! It's part of the whole Quaker forgiveness and redemption thing!"

"You don't know me!" John protested before he got a hold of himself. "And you don't know shit about being a Quaker!" He had to look away, back out across the city. His father, always it came back to his father, who had taught him that there was no such thing as redemption, only trying to do better, be more, and perhaps one day transforming. His mind spinning, he thought about his life since he'd gotten here, and he straightened his shoulders.

He'd tried to do better, and they were all more now, and he would not take one step back into the sin they'd come from.

"Sheppard, don't let her sweet talk you!" Rodney stepped closer, and John could see that Rodney was honestly afraid that Weir would return and try to re-establish the status quo. What hurt was that Rodney had no faith in John to resist her.

"McKay, get those long-range sensors working. Focus on that." John made sure his tone was even, calm. "I need to get ready. Keras will be waiting."

"Ah, yes, wouldn't want your boy toy to get bored and wander away." Rodney's lips curled in a nasty smirk. "Have fun in the trees!"

Anger was all John seemed to have any longer, but he refused to give in to it and make a fool out of himself. Rodney's eyes blazed, fists clenched, and he stepped forward as if he might hit him. John met him, and they were an inch apart at most.

"If it will make you feel better to hit me, then do it," John said.

Rodney stared down at his fist and then shoved him away. "You were never anything but another idiot in a long line of abusive handlers!"

"I know!" John yelled right back at him, pushing his way to the hallway and heading for the locker room. He didn't look at a single person until he was standing in front of the gate. Glancing over at Keras, he said, "Ready?"

"We are."

"Dial it, Chuck!" John settled his P-90, glad there were too many of them to take a puddle jumper. A nice long walk would help burn off his anger and give him time to decide what to say to Weir.

Hopefully, she wouldn't slap him again.

Keras stayed right at John's side for the trek to the Alpha site, but John pulled him to a stop before they got there.

"Keras, go see your children. I'll be fine," John said, making sure to sound firm. "Thank you for everything you and the rest of the twenty-fives did for us."

They embraced, and Keras smiled. "Sheppard, you are always welcome here. We will speak soon." He ducked off the path, gone in an instant, and John heaved out a sigh of relief. No matter what Rodney assumed, they weren't involved and never would be. Keras was far too young, and anyway, unfortunately for John, he was still hung up on Rodney.

Instead of tracking Weir down, John took a leisurely tour of the Alpha site, talking to everyone and making sure they had everything they wanted. Most of them wanted to go back to Atlantis, and he nodded.

"Let me talk to Dr. Weir, and then I'll make an announcement." As if saying her name had conjured her, she popped up behind him.

"Major," she said with bite in her voice.

"Dr. Weir." John echoed her tone. "It's good to see you."

She didn't argue that point thankfully, but she looked skeptical. John tried a small smile but she didn't return it.

"Are you prepared to let me return to Atlantis?" She went right for the throat, but he'd expected it.

"You've done a good job here." John deflected the question. He made a show of looking down the row of neat orderly tents and even a structure resembling a Quonset hut. "Daniel filled you in on all the news."

"He did." She narrowed her eyes. "Atlantis is my command. I deserve it back."

"You don't deserve anything," he snapped. "Supposedly, you earned that command, and General O'Neill made sure you got it."

"I earned it! It's mine!"

He could see something uncomfortably close to obsession in her eyes. "Rodney is scared of you, and since he's missing his spleen, I don't really blame him."

"You never blamed him for anything, and that was the problem!" Her voice continued to go up, and instead of slapping her, he walked to the far perimeter of the camp. He knew she'd follow because there was no way she was done yelling at him. Keeping her here in exile was a mistake, but sending her back to Earth was rife with problems too.

What if the SGC didn't open the iris for her? John did not want her death on his hands. He heard her step behind him, but he didn't turn. Even when he heard the click of a safety being pushed off, he didn't give her the satisfaction of looking at her.

"Go ahead. Shoot me in the back." He shrugged, sticking his hands in his pockets. "It won't solve anything, but go right ahead."

"If you're dead, Atlantis is mine again," she spat.

"Daniel Jackson is in command now." John stayed loose. She might try to shoot him. "When O'Neill gets here, he'll take over the military. I was informed of that earlier today." He looked down at his boots, still conflicted about that decision. "They don't need me any longer. I was nothing but a tool to get Atlantis. The only thing I'm left to wonder is how many scientists are on the Daedalus."

"O'Neill wanted me in command!" But her voice held a measure of doubt.

"He did. He thought you were liberal." John barked a laugh. "When he gets here, I'm pretty sure he'll bring you back into the fold, but not if you've shot me."

He heard her sigh of disgust. Now he turned and saw her wavering hand. "If it's any consolation, Rodney hates my guts. I'm losing my base command, and the Wraith still plan to eat us."

Abruptly, she folded down to the ground, dropping the gun. John winced, kicked it far out of reach, and sat down next to her. She sobbed for a very long time, head on her knees, and he knew better than to say a word.

*********

"That everybody, sir?" Ford asked before John had taken two steps from the event horizon.

John nodded. His gaze went up to the railing, just in time to catch Rodney turning away. "Everyone who wanted to come back is here."

They'd used the jumpers to haul equipment and people. Daniel had agreed that the Alpha site was situated too far from the gate, and they'd decided to find another planet, one without a population mostly consisting of children. Keras had been sorry to see them go, but they would visit each other often.

Ford stayed right with him. "Dr. Weir?"

Meeting Ford's eyes, John put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "She made a different decision."

"This galaxy will kill her," Ford ground out.

John had wanted this to wait until the debriefing but he could see that this was too important to Ford. "It might kill us all, but she didn't want to go to Earth, and she didn't want to come here. She's heard rumors of an Ancient sanctuary, and she wants to try to find it."

"Alone?" Ford sounded wrecked, and John understood now. He didn't know how to make it better, but he felt sorry for him. Loving someone who was totally oblivious was hell.

"I can't send people with her." John gave him a tiny shake. "If you leave…"

"I can't come back." Ford dropped his head low and closed his eyes for a second. "She never even looked at me."

It was true, and John didn't think she ever could care for anyone but herself. "Aiden, I'm sorry. Maybe when the Daedalus gets here, we can make a different decision."

Slowly, Ford let out a breath. "Not sure it's that simple."

"Oh, there you are, Major. Rodney has the long-range sensors working. We need to have a meeting," Daniel said.

"Of course we do." John didn't know what else to say to Ford. Love was never easy. If Ford decided to leave, John would let him go, but it would be a terrible waste. "Ford, talk to Teyla."

Ford nodded. "She's smart. I will."

"Okay, Daniel, you got your meeting." John handed Ford his pack and P-90. "But I am in serious need of a shower."

"It'll be a short one. The meeting, that is." Daniel bounced up the stairs, making John feel positively old. Zelenka gave John a long stare as he topped the stairs, and he shook his head.

"I am sorry for her," Zelenka said.

"Me too." John realized the meeting was taking place in front of the long-range scanners. "Dr. Weir made the decision to stay. All of her command codes have already been changed, and her IDC will no longer be accepted. If her code does come through, contact me and Daniel immediately. Does everyone understand?"

Everyone nodded or muttered yes, and John had one more thing to say on the topic. "If anyone wants to go with her, get with me, and I'll arrange it."

Rodney snorted. "Oh, sign me up for that voyage of the damned."

John failed at the snappy comeback for that. "In other news, we'll be looking for a new Alpha site, if anyone has an idea for a good one, and Daniel is our new civilian leader."

Daniel frowned. "I'm pretty sure you can't make that decision."

"Too bad. I just did." John studied the screen. "I see hive ships. This is bad, right?"

People refused to meet his eyes, and Rodney nodded. John took a deep breath. "How many? How long?"

"At least fourteen, and best scenario is three weeks," Daniel said. "The Daedalus will be here in one week, but we--"

"Are still really screwed, even with a ZPM," Rodney interrupted. "We can evacuate back to Earth, try to find a planet in this galaxy, or settle in for a siege. I might add that the Ancients went back to Earth."

No one argued or told Rodney that he was over-stating the issue, not even Zelenka. Daniel added, "I'm pretty sure Earth isn't an option for us."

John stared at the blips on the screen. They'd keep coming. They wanted to get to Earth and the Milky Way galaxy, where there were enough people to feed them for centuries. They'd bled this galaxy dry and were looking for an upgrade.

"I need a shower." That was all his brain could come up with at the moment. He also needed some food and some rest, but that could wait until he got the stink off. Everything on base would change again when the Daedalus arrived, and they'd have more options.

"That's it? That's your plan?" Rodney asked.

"For now." John brushed a small bug from his hair. "Daniel, the kids have some food supplies ready. Get with Ford to send a team after them." On that note, he headed for the transporter, effectively ending the meeting. He grabbed a sandwich from the mess hall along the way, wishing for a nice cold beer.

He left a trail of equipment and clothes across his quarters, making up his mind to move out as soon as possible. Not that it mattered. The Wraith were going to find a way to kill them. It was just a matter of time. Taking the last bite of his sandwich, he leaned over to untie his boots and slide off his filthy BDU's.

"What the hell?"

It took every ounce of willpower John had not to jerk his pants back up. Instead, he kicked it all away and started on his socks. "Did you want something?" he asked Rodney.

"I came here to yell at you." Rodney sounded confused.

"Again? Can it wait?" John kept his back to him but took a good long stretch and yawned. "Not like I'm going anywhere."

Rodney made a strangled sound, and the sound of the door shutting soon hit John's ears. John strolled to the door and locked it. He was not a man who felt comfortable naked, but that had been worth it. Laughing, he darted into the shower.

Cleaner, dressed again, he tuned his radio to the military frequency. "Senior military personnel, please report to Major Sheppard's quarters."

He received a small chorus in response, and he spent the time picking up his clothes and shoving furniture around so it didn't look so obvious that Rodney had moved out. Ford and Cadman arrived together. Teyla, Stackhouse, and John's new gunnery sergeant were right behind them.

"Everyone knows Master Gunnery Sergeant Leroy, right?" John waved his hand at the seats. Cadman tossed him a water bottle and everyone sat or leaned somewhere.

"I was not sure if I was included," Teyla said.

"Teyla," John growled. "Do not make my day worse." He drank some water and let their moods settle. "What's our situation here?"

They all exchanged a cautious glance.

The door swished open, and Rodney burst right into the middle of them. No one said a word, just looked at John.

"Can I help you, Dr. McKay?" John asked, drawling out the name.

Rodney raised his chin, crossed his arms, and twisted his mouth down. "If you're going to have a clandestine meeting, I should be included!"

"This is a military briefing. Last time I checked, you were the chief scientist. Chain of command goes like this." John made sure to smile. "Daniel, and then you, and I lead the military. At least until O'Neill gets here. If you have any questions, we can have our own meeting."

"The brass hate meetings," Cadman whispered.

"How do we know you're not in here plotting to do… something?" Rodney didn't look happy at all. "You're military!"

"Thank you for noticing our big guns." John found an easy smirk. "Yes, we're plotting and scheming. Can you leave so we can get back at it?"

Fury stamped its way across Rodney's expressive face. "I still hate you," he growled.

"Everyone on base knows how you feel." John opened the door with a thought. "Cadman, maybe you should escort Rodney out."

Cadman eased to her feet, and Rodney left without another word, stomping. John leaned back and shook his head. "Leroy, had you met Dr. McKay?"

"Seen him in passing." Leroy shrugged and pulled out a knife to start cleaning his nails. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

John nodded. "We're pretty casual on this base. I want your honest opinions, and Teyla really runs the show."

"I do not!" She glared, and he pretended to cower. "You are a very competent leader."

"Right." John rolled his eyes. "Leroy?"

"We don't have enough men, or women, to patrol a base this size." Leroy didn't look up from his knife. "Even with the Athosians helping. I thought this was a bunch of tents near some ruins on a planet, not a damn floating city!"

"It's a problem. Cadman, do we need patrols?" John had his own feelings about that, but he wanted her sharp opinion.

"This city isn't safe, and there still could be hibernating Wraith. Teyla doesn't think so, but…" Cadman dug in her tac-vest and tossed him a power bar. She was such a mother hen. He smiled his thanks.

"The scientists are running wild." Stackhouse sighed. "They're free, and they don't give a damn what we say. McKay is going crazy trying to keep them from doing stupid shit."

John had suspected they would. Sudden freedom had to be very heady. "Our old mission was to beat the hell out of them and make them work. Now what?"

They all stared at him, but all he did was eat his power bar. Swallowing, he pointed at Ford. "We need to keep a very close eye on inventory, especially those nukes."

"We're doing that, sir, but we did issue handguns to everyone who wanted one," Ford said. "Bad idea?"

"Not if there are Wraith in the city." John looked at Teyla, who nodded. "What's our mission now? Weir is gone. O'Neill will be here soon. He might have more military with him."

Leroy answered that question. "Our mission is to protect the scientists and keep this base from the hands of the Wraith. We do not want those fuckers in the Milky Way, even if we are pissed at some of the morons on Earth."

That's how John saw it, but he was relieved that someone else agreed with him. "Cadman? Stackhouse? Ford? We all agree?"

They nodded. Teyla did too. "We can re-organize sleeping arrangements to make patrolling easier. Too many of your people are spread too far apart."

"Good idea." John would have Daniel make them move. "Ford, are you with us?"

Everyone turned to him. Ford ducked his head. "We can't ever go home now."

"Well, you could, but I wouldn't recommend it. Even if you blamed crazy Major Sheppard, they still might prosecute you," John said. "I'm sorry." And he was.

"The right way is rarely the easy way," Teyla said. "Aiden, we all know it is a difficult choice."

John finished his water and tossed the bottle towards the trash. "Fourteen hive ships. Fourteen."

"Yeah," Stackhouse gulped. "We're all gonna die."

"Let's think positive." John wasn't ready to quit, but he did have this sense that making long-term plans would be a bad idea. "O'Neill and Carter will have a few ideas. I'm sure of that, and once we have a ship, we can kill a few of them. Maybe McKay can hook a nuke to a drone or something."

Cadman chuckled in a very evil way, and everyone grinned.

"Okay, class dismissed." John stood and stretched. "I'll get with Daniel and get people moved. Cadman and Ford, keep a damn close eye on all weapons inventory. Stackhouse and Leroy, I want you to make sure everyone else is organized and understands our mission.

"Teyla, it's your job to make sure I don't kill McKay," John said.

She rolled her eyes. "That may be impossible. Could I instead make sure our new residents understand the dangers of this galaxy and help them feel more at home?"

"Sure. You do that." John quirked a smile at her. "Tell me those stick-wielding people of yours are going to hang around and help us fight the Wraith."

She gravely nodded her head. "Some of us, yes. The rest will be going to New Athos with the other refugees. It will help relieve the strain on food supplies as well. The gate there is well-guarded and hard to access by ship. It would make an excellent Alpha site."

"Let's do that then. You're in charge." John grinned and nudged Leroy. "See? She's in charge."

Leroy cracked a smile. "For an officer, you're not too stupid."

John laughed, unable to help himself. "Thanks."

They all trailed out, chatting, and the instant they were gone, Daniel slid in the door before it could close.

"Should I be worried?" he asked, pushing back his glasses.

"Daniel, I have to organize my people to keep everyone safe. Chill, okay?" John looked around his quarters and sighed. "I know the instinct is to hate the military, but we really are on your side."

Daniel stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Sorry. Some of the scientists want you all gone."

"I figured that." John went to his balcony and opened the doors. He looked out over his city and wasn't leaving unless they tossed him through the gate. It was slightly ironic that freeing the scientists had been his idea, and now they wanted him gone. "Did you explain how we stand between them and the Wraith?"

"I did. It also helps that you're Air Force." Daniel followed him over and leaned against the door. "No more closed meetings, okay?"

"Not gonna promise that." John scrubbed his hand through his hair. "We have to reorganize sleeping arrangements so patrols are easier to run. Daniel, we had Wraith in the city. They could still be hibernating here. Life sign detectors don't pick them up. We pull everyone in close, and my people can keep us safer."

Daniel tilted his head and then nodded. "Let's do it. I'll get Rodney to help."

"Good idea." John took another look around. "I'll be moving myself. That way no one can complain." He went to his desk and found the right tablet. "This has our current room assignments on it." He saw Daniel's look. "Rodney gave you an updated one?"

"Yes." Daniel looked sorta sheepish. "I was going to give you a copy."

John decided to believe that. "O'Neill would want us to do this."

"He would. He likes a tidy camp." Daniel smiled. "I'll get you a room with a balcony."

"Cool." John didn't care. He put the tablet down and opened the door with a focused thought. Daniel took the hint and left. Slowly, John started to pack. He tried not to think too much, but he felt weird, almost out of place, like Atlantis was moving on without him.

The scientists were in charge now. His job was to protect them, like Leroy said, and it was a good mission. John sincerely hoped Rodney didn't have him thrown from the city. It wasn't as if they could return to Earth. They were all in this mutiny together.

By nightfall, John dropped the last load in his new quarters. They were smaller, closer to the gateroom, but there was a balcony. He had noticed plenty of other people carrying boxes and such through the hallways.

"Major, you never did report to me for your blood work," Carson said in John's ear.

"Oh, yeah." John abandoned his pile and headed that way. He should've gone to Carson first. "My mistake." He grabbed another sandwich before he got there and ate it while Carson fussed at him.

"You made these protocols!"

"So, I don't have to follow them, right?" John mumbled around a bite. He let out a long sigh and tried to get his shoulders to relax.

"Are you feeling okay?" Carson patted him on the knee.

John knew he should immediately reassure him, but he didn't feel okay, or even fine. He felt tired, old, and even somewhat sad, which was embarrassing. "I'm good," he said.

"Go get some rest, Major," Carson said, and John left before his mouth could get him in trouble. He made his way back through the city, just checking everything.

"I still can't believe Weir is gone," Rodney said. His voice carrying easily down the hallway. "He never should've left her to wander around the galaxy!"

John pressed into a shadow as Rodney and Daniel came around the corner together. Rodney was waving his hands, and Daniel was slouching, and John couldn't help but taste defeat.

"He did the right thing. This isn't a prison camp. Anyone who wants to leave can go." Daniel sounded sure of that. "You're just mad he went to see her without you."

"I didn't want to go!"

"Right."

Their voices faded away, and John slunk to his new quarters. He kicked a box out of the way and decided to mope on his bed. Maybe he'd find some chocolate and turn it into a real pity party. Rolling to his back, he laughed. If there was any chocolate on this base, it was in Rodney's room.

John had never been good at moping. Sullen? That he could do. His father had also claimed that he did a fine resentment and could keep a grudge forever. John laced his hands together, shut his eyes, and decided to go to his default. Avoidance. It worked for him.

*********

The cafeteria bulged with people so John worked his way around the edge and slid into an empty spot by Leroy. Almost against his will, John had come to like the man. The last week had been insanely busy, but Leroy was good at every task that John gave him.

"Gunny."

"Flyboy."

They grinned, and John did his best not to notice that Rodney was at their old table. "When we got here, the scientists wouldn't eat in the mess hall."

"Of course not." Leroy nodded. "You broke every regulation and a few extra."

"Not really." John pretended to be offended. "Just half of them."

Leroy chuckled. "The genius of it was that you didn't break any rules!"

It was hard not to laugh, and John was glad water didn't come out his nose. "Some people really don't understand how the military works."

"You should've been a lawyer," Leroy said with the right touch of derision. "But I did hear that you're a Quaker."

"Why? You gonna beat me up?" John shoved some mashed potatoes around in a circle. He wasn't worried. Leroy was the kind of man to use a gun.

Shaking his head, Leroy pushed his tray away. "Never easy being an outsider."

John wasn't going to admit the truth to that. "So, tell me. Who did you come with? Which scientist?"

"I had three of them." Leroy's lack of a smirk was a point in his favor. "O'Neill insisted."

"Gotta love that guy." John sighed down at his food and nudged it away. "Did you like any of them?"

"Nice people." Leroy shrugged. "Smart."

"You have a way with words." John glanced backwards, trying to make it casual. "Glad you're here. We were loaded up with young men."

"No mistake there." Leroy leaned a little closer. "The base is in good shape now."

John had to laugh at that. "Now that you're with us. Good job." He paused. "O'Neill's idea, right?"

"See you later, Chair Force," Leroy said, leaving before John could ferret out the truth and insult him back.

Rodney walked by, empty tray in hand, talking quickly at Zelenka, and John tried not to stare at him. Avoiding him was easy, getting over him was hard. Unfortunately, John's eyes were still at ass level when Rodney turned around.

"Don't think you can call in that blowjob now, Quaker Oats," Rodney snarled. "That ship has sailed."

Appalled, a protestation died in John's throat because Rodney had already walked away.

********
end

Chapter Text

********
Hurrying away, Rodney hated that he felt guilty. Guilt! Not something he had much experience with, but he knew it when it twisted in his guts. Sheppard had looked so… Rodney didn't know the word, but he felt like he'd kicked a kitten.

Sheppard had been staring at Rodney's ass. Rodney was positive of that, and he'd just wanted to make it known that his previous offer of a blowjob was off the table. Of course, Sheppard had denied he'd ever wanted one, but Rodney knew that couldn't be true.

They never talked any longer, or shared a powerbar, and Rodney kept waiting for Sheppard to say something. Demand recognition for what he'd done to make Atlantis a home for them. He didn't.

Sheppard hadn't even bragged about all the ships he'd destroyed before nearly being burned to a crisp. Now there he was, looking like he'd been punched in the gut, but Rodney had never promised Sheppard anything, not a damn thing.

"Rodney?" Zelenka asked.

He didn't bother answering. He glanced back and saw Sheppard doing nothing but staring at his tray. Now Sheppard's face was blank. Rodney hurried to catch up with Zelenka. There were so many repairs to be made now that they had a ZPM.

"I never understood him," Rodney muttered.

Zelenka snorted. "You never tried."

*********

It was typical of John that he'd fixate on someone who wanted nothing to do with him. "Way to go, John," he mumbled under his breath, putting his tray in the dirty pile. He was also pretty sure a few people were looking at him with actual sympathy. He much preferred the few glares of resentment from scientists who wanted all military drop-kicked out a space gate.

Forcing himself not to slink, he got the hell out of the cafeteria, vowing to eat more MREs in his room.

"Major Sheppard to the gateroom. Major Sheppard."

He walked faster, picking a spot to stand as far away from everyone else as was polite. Daniel gave him a bare nod. "Play it again, Rodney."

"Atlantis, this is the Not-the-Enterprise." They all heard a woman's laugh in the background. "We're on schedule to be there in a bit. We had to stop at a planet and get some new air, but we're all fine. Hope you're planning a party for us. O'Neill out."

"Obviously, they're carrying more than a full passenger load and taxing their life support system." Rodney waved his hand. "In a bit isn't an exact measurement."

Daniel smiled. "Three days, give or take. Recommendations on where they can land?"

"East Pier has more working transporters," Zelenka said. "Major?"

Surprised to be asked, John still nodded. "Less flood debris that way too. I'll take some people down there and make sure we're ready."

"You might want to take someone with an actual degree in engineering with you," Rodney said in a loud voice.

"Good idea. Rodney, go with them," Daniel said.

"Full gear," John said with a very false smile.

"Do I need my leash?" Rodney's venom made several people wince. John wasn't one of them. He contented himself with a shrug.

"The major threw it in the ocean," Daniel said. "And that reminds me, did we get all the collars off?"

Assuming his part of the meeting was at an end, John went downstairs and touched his radio. "Ford, get a team, gear up, and meet me at transporter eight."

"Yes, sir!" Ford always loved an adventure, even if it was in his own backyard. John counted on him to bring some C-4, but he did grab an extra round of ammo. Clipping on his P-90, he took several deep breaths and considered slapping himself several times. He could do this and not look like a complete idiot. He had to be able to work with Rodney. It was that or go hunt for Ancients with Dr. Weir.

Shuddering at that idea, he tucked away a few extra powerbars - for himself - and took his time getting there. Ford and a team were waiting for him. Rodney wasn't.

John tapped his ear bud. "Daniel, do I have to wait for McKay?"

"Yes."

"Damn." John found a wall to lean against. "Did Zelenka ever give you a report about his secret lab?"

"He and Dr. Beckett say they need more time." Daniel paused. "Should we send a jumper out to see what happened out at the satellite?"

"I don't recommend it. A couple of hidden darts and we'd be in trouble." John wouldn't let anyone go but himself. "Have the Daedalus swing by when they get here."

"Good idea." Daniel laughed. "And it's the Not-the-Enterprise."

"Got it." John quirked half a smile, seeing Rodney in all his grumpy glory coming towards them. "We'll check in once or twice, Sheppard out."

"'Bout time, McKay," Ford grumbled.

"I took the time to get the proper equipment," McKay groused right back at him.

"I'll get our six. McKay, lead the way." John made sure they wouldn't be in the transporter together, and then did his best to be as far back as possible. The thought that he was acting like a crybaby he firmly pushed away. He just didn't want to argue - that was all it was.
Whenever they came across broken furniture, John shoved it in the closest room. It didn't take more than twice before his men got the idea. They cleared hallways while Rodney stared at walls, ceilings, took readings, and generally complained while pronouncing that it was safe enough but he wouldn't want to live down here in the damp.

"Which brings me to this point - has anyone considered that all the people arriving will need rooms? They're not sleeping with me!"

"Gee, Ford, did we think of that?" John drawled.

"Pretty sure we didn't, sir." Ford shined his light up at the ceiling. "Major, use that super gene of yours and crank up the lights, will ya?"

John turned a circle, thinking the lights brighter, but they stayed low. "Not enough power."

"Too much damage to circuits," Rodney said with more than a hint of derision.

"Not much further." John almost felt like whispering. He opened the doors to the pier with relief, making sure they stayed open. It was sunny, cool, and a breeze whipped down the hallway. "We'll rig up some lights so no one panics."

"And by 'we' you mean 'me,' right?" Rodney gave everyone a good glare.

"Ford, do another sweep back to the transporter. This time, check every room." John kept his P-90 up and ready. For some reason, this hallway gave him the creeps, and he'd learned long ago not to ignore those feelings. He touched his radio. "Stackhouse, bring a jumper out and around to
the East Pier."

"You don't really think there are still Wraith in the city, do you?" Rodney edged closer as the rest of John's men disappeared back the way they'd come. "I thought we were just telling people that to get their attention." He pulled a life signs detector from his vest and peered down at it. "No one but us."

"Have you seen the Daedalus? How much space will it need?" John tried to focus on that, instead of the itchy feeling crawling up his spine. They should've brought Teyla. Her Wraith sense was never wrong. He turned back, Rodney's silence worrying him. "Rodney?"

"Something weird here." Rodney peered down at the detector.

John saw the furrowed brow and slightly opened mouth. "Ford, I think we got Wraith. Cadman, seal off the city."

"Yes, sir!" Cadman's voice came through loud and clear.

"Raising the shield," Chuck said.

Teyla's voice burst into John's earbud. "Wraith!"

Before John could do more than step in front of Rodney, there was a blur of movement to their right. Rodney made a choked sound of fear, and John instinctively went left. There was no time to think, but fury pounded through him. All the anger and rage that he'd bottled up boiled out of him, and when his P-90 jammed, he emptied his 9-Mil, and the damn thing was on him.

Something slammed into him, and then blew through him, and his last thought was for his knife.

*********

It was the quiet that woke John up. The sound of nothing was loud in his ears, and he lay there motionless, trying to hear something. Something that would reassure him that he wasn't dead. He arched his back, reaching desperately for Rodney.

"Hold on, John. Hold on."

The blistering hot touch was enough, and he crashed without any regrets.

*********

"Nothing quite like going from the frying pan to the fire," someone drawled.

"He saved my life." That was Rodney, who wasn't yelling for a change, and John wanted to go to him, but nothing in his body worked.

"Not exactly a point in his favor."

*********

"Decided to join the land of the living, lad?"

John pushed weakly at the blanket. He'd been awake nearly three seconds and all he could feel was a crushing sense of claustrophobia. He needed out and away. "I want to leave."

"Major, lie down now." Carson pushed at him, and he gathered his strength to shove him away and swing his legs over the bed. "Major!"

"No!" John's skin blazed like someone had poured gasoline on him, and he needed to run. "I'm leaving!"

"Oh, Christ." Carson radioed for help, and John fumbled off the tape, pulling out the IV. The ceiling closed in, and Teyla was suddenly right there. John grabbed her close.

"Teyla, you have to help me. Take me to New Athos," John growled, fighting his way to his feet.

"Major, the doctor wishes for you to remain here," Teyla said in her most patient voice.

"No." John rubbed his aching chest, remembering the claws as they drove into him. "Please, Teyla. You have healers. Take me there."

"Major!"

Some lingering sense of duty made John straighten his back. "General O'Neill."

"Lie down, and that's an order!"

John forced his brain to spit out a solution around the panic that gripped him. "I'm on medical leave, and I choose to spend it under the care of the Athosians." John tore off the sensor that clung to his hand, seeing them all take a step back. "Sir."

Everyone seemed to freeze, and John felt his blood racing around his body. He saw stunners come up in slow motion, and he ran, but he didn't turn loose of Teyla. He needed her help to get off the city. He stopped at the transporter. "Are we going?"

"I believe we are." Teyla's eyes were wide, shining, and she'd never betray him. "Daniel, the major and I are going to New Athos. Please dial the gate."

The transporter put them close to the gateroom, and every hair on John's body stood up as he stepped from cover. She put up her hands. "Do not fire!"

The wormhole engaged, and John nearly kissed the vortex, bolting for safety. He knew they were after him, and he ran deep into the forest. Running, running, all that mattered was running.

*********

Halling found him, slumped against a fallen tree, and John didn't have strength to run another step. He shook and shivered, leaning on him with no shame, and while nothing made sense any longer, he appreciated the steadying hand on his back when he fell down to vomit.

"I have heard stories of men who went insane after being fed upon for only an instant," Halling said, helping him up. "Do you remember if this happened, John Sheppard?"

"No. Yeah." John scrubbed his hand over the scars on his chest. "Someone shot me too."

"It is healed." Halling suddenly had more people helping, and John let them carry him to the village. Never had a big pile of furs seemed more welcome. He collapsed, feeling a million years old and wanting only to sleep. He hadn't slept in forever, but his skin wouldn't stop jittering, and his heart raced, and vomiting was no fun.

"I'm not insane," John croaked.

"I see that." Halling wet a rag and brushed it over John's face. "Dr. Beckett is very upset."

"I bet he is." John didn't remember anything but running. "Teyla?"

"I am here." She dropped the tent flap and knelt at his side. "You are ill."

John didn't think so. This felt more like what he'd read about crack addicts and withdrawal. His hands shook, and he craved… something. He didn't know what but he needed it now. "The Wraith--"

"Dr. Beckett believes it injected you with something he is calling the Wraith enzyme. It is to keep us strong enough to be fed upon." She tucked the furs and blankets close around him. "He also believes it is highly addictive."

"This is gonna suck." John wanted to claw his eyes out, but at least he didn't want to run any longer. "Please don't take me back."

"We will not unless we must, but I am certain Dr. Beckett will come here now that we have found you." Teyla washed John's face as if it were the most important task in the world. "I can feel your heart pounding."

"I hurt," John croaked, trembling and trying to pull the furs closer. "Can't sleep. Can't eat."

"You will be fine," she whispered. "Rest. I will stay with you."

He shuddered violently, waiting for his skin to peel off or something else awful to happen. Wraith enzyme - it even sounded bad.

*********

His throat hurt from screaming, and every muscle ached from trying to fly out of his body. All he wanted was to die, and they just wouldn't let him.

"Easy, lad."

Cursing and yelling at him made no difference, and John wasn't up to any more of that. "Gun."

"What did he say?" Carson asked.

Swallowing pain, John couldn't even manage to say it again.

"I believe he asked for a gun," Teyla said.

********

BDUs, black T-shirt, black socks, and one piece at a time John tried to put himself back together. He was missing a few chunks, but he no longer felt like ripping his skin off so he counted it as a good day. Carson said a lot of things about time and recovery, and he tried to believe. Sliding his shirt down over his chest, he told himself again that the scars would fade, and then sat down to put on his boots. On his feet again, he found the belt and pulled it tighter by a notch.

"Major?"

John skimmed his hand through his hair for no reason. "I'm ready." He turned and saw the slight flinch. "I can see fine."

Stackhouse nodded a little too energetically. "That's what the doc said."

They'd brought him back to Atlantis to save him, and he'd never thank them for it. Carson had shown him the enlarged black pupil that now passed for an eye, and he supposed it was too late to stab it out. The Wraith had left their mark on him, in him.

"Another damn meeting," John muttered. He wasn't sure if Stackhouse was supposed to escort him, but he knew the way. People winced away, some gasping, and he wished someone had gone ahead and posted his new look on the cafeteria bulletin board.

Conversation stopped when John stepped inside the conference room, and he took a seat without saying a word to anyone.

"Let's get started," Daniel said. "First, Major John Sheppard, I'd like you to meet Dr. Samantha Carter."

"Nice to meet you," she said with a smile. "And thank you."

Somewhat confused because he didn't know half the people in the room, John went with a small nod. "Glad you're here." He wanted to get the painful part of this over with and done. "General, as you've taken command, I'm certain my presence isn't required at this meeting."

"You'd be wrong," O'Neill said with a smile. "I suffer. You suffer. Daniel, go ahead and talk until our ears bleed."

Daniel grinned in a mean way. "Glad to. Carson has informed us that you have some memory loss, Major."

John gave him a terse nod, trying not to flush. He felt like a damn lab rat, everyone staring at him.

"I'm more than sure that it'll resolve itself soon enough," Carson said. "But you may need a refresher course as we go along, Major."

John looked around the table, seeing who would meet his eyes and who pretended to be busy elsewhere. Teyla smiled in her honest way, and John was glad he hadn't forgotten her.

"Instead of all of us staring at Sheppard, let's discuss our imminent death, shall we?"

"McKay has an excellent point," O'Neill said.

Filing the name away for later, John leaned back, forced his body to be still, and listened. He didn't have anything to add at any point so he stayed quiet, glad when coffee and sandwiches were delivered and they took a short break. It gave him a chance to step outside into the fresh air and take several deep breaths.

"If the claustrophobia gets bad, Major, let me know, and I'll make your excuses," Carson said from behind him.

"Oh, please, you never do that for me!"

John stayed turned away, breathing and sipping his coffee. For some reason, he had a memory of his father telling him to always drink it black. Cream and sugar was for cereal, not coffee. Those words spilling from his father's mouth were more real than the people around him.

"Major? Major!"

Fast, he turned, seeing instant worry on their faces.

"It's time for another one of your crazy plans, Major." The man named McKay raised his chin, blue eyes flashing.

Frowning, John saw the scientist was more than serious. He'd had plenty of time to think while recovering in the hospital, and he'd only come up with one idea. "The Ancients hid the city. We need to do the same."

"But we don't know how they sank it!"

"What we really need is--" Zelenka started.

"A cloak!" Fingers snapped several times.

Sam got in the mix then, and John ducked back into the conference room to snag a sandwich. He ate it next to Teyla, enjoying her quiet company.

"You are feeling well?" she asked.

He leaned and whispered in her ear, "I don't know some of these people."

Teyla stepped almost on his boots and quietly put names with faces for him. "I do not know the bald man in the green uniform either."

"That's Colonel Caldwell, kids," O'Neill whispered, smirking. "The Daedalus was his before I stole it and renamed her the Enterprise."

John looked him up and down, not quite understanding but willing to take a chance. He moved around the table and stuck out his hand. "Major Sheppard."

"Colonel Caldwell." They shook hands, and Caldwell didn't move away. "And she's still the Daedalus."

John sensed that was an argument he should stay out of. There were so many things he didn't know, but only one thing he wanted to ask. "Weren't you mad? About the whole hijacking thing?"

"Seemed like a good idea at the time." Caldwell gave an easy shrug. "We could discuss it over chess tonight."

Hiding his surprise, John considered and then nodded. "Be a pleasure, sir."

"Okay, people, we're going to continue with senior staff only!" Daniel smiled. "Everyone else can run for their lives."

They did, and John followed, very sure that he wasn't senior staff, half the people in the room outranked him. A hand on his shoulder pulled him up short.

"Hey, Sheppard, don't think you get out of this." McKay snapped.

John shoved McKay's hand away, hating the touch on skin that still felt too tight. "Back off."

Everyone froze, Carson sucked a breath, and McKay drew himself up. "I always suspected under that Quaker goodness you were hiding a foul temper."

Forcing himself to stay calm, John kept his voice level. "I don't know you, and my religion isn't something you're allowed to mock. Back off," he enunciated the last two words very clearly. He saw fear flash across McKay's face.

"Sheppard, why don't you go with Carson?" O'Neill slid between them. "Rodney makes me want to murder people on a good day, and for you, this might not be such a great day."

"Aye," Carson said.

"No more sedatives," John growled, glad when McKay moved away. "Not my fault the guy's grabby."

"Very true." Carson stayed behind him the entire way, and he groaned when the needle came out, but he didn't complain.

"I'm going to my quarters, Carson," John said firmly when his blood had been taken again for the thousandth time.

"Do you remember where they are?" Carson didn't look intimidated.

The image of Rodney McKay, clad only in boxers jumped up in John's memory, and John blinked. "No."

"I thought not." Carson ditched John at the door to his quarters, and John found himself reluctant to go inside.
It'd just be another cramped room, but this one with his clothes inside. Instead, he made his way out to the East Pier, wanting to see her. He'd read the reports in the hospital. They'd landed without incident, four hundred souls on board, all desperate to get off and breathe deeply. Their complement had been mostly made up of scientists, but with a few select military men O'Neill had handpicked.

John had to admit that O'Neill didn't go small when he stole military transport. He stopped a good distance away, trying to get a sense for her lines. She was boxy but sleek and he approved of the big bays that most likely held fighters.

"Like her?"

Not surprised, John nodded. "She looks like a fine ship, Colonel. It's probably a good thing you threw General O'Neill off. He'd definitely want to keep her."

Caldwell laughed. "He's greedy that way." He gave John a long look. "I have to admit that I thought you'd be angry about losing Atlantis to him."

The truth wasn't an easy thing to pin down. "She was my first command," John said, not sure what he wanted to reveal. He kept his eyes on the ship. "I thought we'd all die, so it's a win, right?"

"Is it?" Caldwell wasn't giving him an easy out. "She's a beautiful city."

"That she is." John turned to look back at her, putting them almost face to face. "Did we know each other before?"

"We'd met in passing. I made sure to glower." Caldwell assumed an easy parade rest. "We rescued everyone we could get a lock on, but we stopped before we left the galaxy."

"To see what the military was doing about the loss of its assets," John said, mind twirling with possibilities. He was afraid for those left behind. "And other countries? How did they react?"

"Maybe I didn't make myself clear. We didn't limit ourselves to the United States. Most of our scientists came through from Cheyenne Mountain." Caldwell nodded at John's look of surprise. "Russia had the most, but thanks to Sam we were able to lock on to the collar's signatures and beam them out. They were given the choice. Most stayed, a rare few went back."

John could picture the chaos and mix of languages. "Did the Apollo try to stop you?"

"Colonel Ellis had been conveniently ordered to investigate a Goa'uld problem." Caldwell smirked, clearly enjoying his story. "The Prometheus is out on a long patrol."

"So what happened?" John was ready for the ending. "Did they start killing people?"

"Nothing happened." Caldwell gave an easy shrug. "No news. Nothing. I think O'Neill is hoping that we can open a dialogue at some point."

"I want a tour of your ship," John said, not wanting to say how ridiculous an idea that was. "And you and I both know that our government will just go out and round up some more bright people and collar them."

"They might." Caldwell led the way. "Can you see out of that eye? I don't want to get in your blind spot."

"It's light sensitive, but my vision is still perfect." John thought it might even be a touch better. He liked the Caldwell just came out and asked instead of making assumptions. They walked up a ramp that came down from one of the fighter bays, and he had to stop to admire the 302s. "Nice."

"I almost had to dump them, and that would've been a damn shame. As it was, people slept under them." Caldwell didn't crowd him. "Good thing I was never claustrophobic!"

John trailed his hand along the side of one, enjoying the feel of the cool metal. His emotions were flying all over the place today, and while he knew it was a lingering side effect of the enzyme, he hated feeling out of control. "Were you a handler?"

"Yes." Caldwell tilted his head, shifting on his feet. "You were too."

"I don't remember it," John snapped, angry instantly, but a memory of Rodney, leashed and looking scared jumped up and hit him right in the face. Rubbing his eye, he thrust the image away. "I bet I was an asshole about it."

Caldwell laughed, a shocking sound. "Not to hear Carson wax on about your patience and kindness. I was starting to think I'd hate you on principle."

Laughing was easy. "I bet that McKay guy tells a different story."

Now Caldwell eased closer, eyes wide. "You don't remember him?"

Ducking his head, John rubbed the back of his neck. "I feel like an idiot." He spotted a step of stairs shoved up against a 302 and had to trot up them. The inside was sweet, and he hopped aboard without asking permission.

"These could handle Wraith darts," John said, running his hands over the controls, not able to resist turning on the HUD. "Nice design."

"You can thank Sam Carter when you see her." Caldwell again stayed well back, not crowding into John's air space. "Get a clean bill of health from Carson, and you can take her up."

"That would be great," John said, thinking he'd found his new place on Atlantis. A sudden misgiving swept over him. "You're staying, right?"

"For now," Caldwell drawled. "We have a few Wraith ships knocking on our door, remember?"

They were outnumbered fourteen to one but John had faith that Rodney would hide them. The best minds from Earth were working on the problem. The Wraith were in trouble, whether they knew it or not. Abruptly realizing that Caldwell was waiting for an answer, John powered down and slipped out of the cockpit.

"Very cool. Let's go back and steal more." John tried for a smirk of his own.

Caldwell slid down the ladder in a manner worthy of any pilot, and John followed suit. They shared a grin, and John gestured at the door. "What's next?"

*********

Dinner and chess ended up back in the cafeteria, and John tried very hard to act casual. To act as if nothing in the world was wrong with him, and he didn't want to climb the walls or claw out his eye. He hoped he was pulling it off.

"Will these help?" Caldwell dug in a pocket and handed him some Aviators. "You seem a bit edgy."

John slid them over his eyes greedily and sighed when the light shifted enough to bring relief. It took him a minute to adjust to the varying light levels. "Thank you."

Caldwell chuckled. "Keep them."

"I owe you one." John moved his pawn, ready to let Caldwell win now. People came and went around them, and he began to relax.

"Checkmate in seven," Rodney shoved his way next to John, plunking his tray down. "And I mean him, not you, Sheppard."

The memory of dragging Rodney through Atlantis by a chain hit John so hard in the gut that he sucked in a breath before he caught himself.

"I thought it was eight," Caldwell drawled. "How are you, Dr. McKay?"

The name sent a small jolt up John's spine. He knew, like he knew the color of the sky that he'd hurt him.

"Fine. Fine. Sam and I, mostly me, have come up with a plan that's genius, if I may say so myself."

John tried to ease out a long breath. Caldwell raised his eyebrows. "When's the debriefing?"

"Soon." Rodney nudged John with his elbow, not intentionally. The touch made John wince, and he nearly bolted up to run. Rodney's mouth twisted down. "Sheppard always thought he was too good to have a slave."

Caldwell moved his bishop, and someone opened the doors to the balcony, and John watched dust motes dance by as his life, all his memories, slid back together.

"He threw my leash in the ocean!"

"Did you want to wear it?" Caldwell asked.

"Not the point. It was a piece of equipment! I could've used the parts in other projects." Rodney made a twisting motion with his hands. "It's not like we can send for supplies now!"

Jumbled memories fought for attention, cascading through John's mind, and his stomach roiled.

"Did you come over to complain? The major and I were enjoying a game."

John forced his lungs to expand, hunching his shoulders against the onslaught of his own brain.

"Enjoying a game, huh?" Rodney growled. The anger was easy to hear, and John could almost feel the weight of Rodney as they slept together in the gateroom, tucked out of the way of traffic. Rodney laughed sharp and loud. "Well, excuse the ex-slave for interrupting!"

"Major?" Caldwell reached and tapped John on the hand.

"Anyway, Sheppard already has a boyfriend, Caldwell. You'll have to get in line behind Peter Pan."

Keras and the children swam in front of John's eyes, and they loved Rodney, and John did too, and it sent him spiraling to the floor. He landed on his hands and knees, panting from lack of air. Voices rose, a breeze caught his hair, and his eye pounded. An achingly familiar hand landed on his back, and he twisted, falling into the black.

*********

"Is he okay?"

"He will be," Carson whispered. "You could go speak to him."

"He hates me now."

"Well, you've been a right ass."

John rolled the other way, trying not to listen, not to care. He snaked a hand up to his black eye and pressed, rubbing.

"Awake, lad?" Carson asked.

"Yeah." John didn't move. "I'm tired of your hospital, doc."

"Understandable." Carson walked around the bed. "Does it hurt?"

"Not right now." John sat up, wincing away from the strong light. "Where'd you put those sunglasses?"

Carson searched a bit and then handed them to him. "It may heal with time."

"Are you lying to me or yourself?" John got off the gurney and took a long stretch. "Anything else?"

"Get back in here if you experience any more trouble." Carson sighed. "I wish there was more I could do."

"Me too." John made sure he had everything and took his time getting out of there, checking in two corners to see if Rodney was still lurking. Everything had almost been easier yesterday when he couldn't remember. Now it was impossible to forget how much he cared, how much he wanted him.

Nothing stood between them but everything they had been to each other and all the stupid things that John had done, not to mention all the mean things that Rodney had said. John didn't see how he could fix any of it. His quarters were dark, practically dusty, and he pushed his sunglasses back on his head.

"Major Sheppard, please report to General O'Neill. Major Sheppard."

Glad he didn't have time to sit around and sulk, he strapped on his gun, swung on his jacket, and tried to look ready for duty as he went to the gateroom. It was time he find out what his assignment would be, no more waiting.

He found O'Neill camped out in Daniel's office, making a paper airplane while Daniel stared at a laptop. John wasn't sure what to do, sit or stand. He settled for asking, "Sir?"

"Sit down, Sheppard," O'Neill pushed a chair at him with a boot. "Are you done passing out for the day?"

"Hope so." John sat down, deciding not to worry about Daniel. "Did you want my office, sir? I can show you the way."

"Nah, I'll get something eventually." O'Neill threw the plane at Daniel. "I like this one, but Daniel keeps taking the desk."

"Not leaving." Daniel didn't even look up. "You hated your office anyway."

"That I did, but it was nice to have some place to set my coffee." O'Neill sighed "Major, I put a lot of faith in you, and you came through like a champ, but you've been worrying me lately."

John tried not to show his anger at being used. Ultimately, he'd made those decisions, but no one liked feeling manipulated. "I'm ready for re-assignment, sir."

"Daniel thinks we need to re-organize the military here. Form one branch. Make new rules." O'Neill suddenly got to his feet. "Balcony."
Following, John wasn't sure what to say. He agreed, but he didn't want the job of doing it. "I like being Air Force, sir."

"Me too." O'Neill leaned against the railing. "I outrank you, but you know Atlantis and I don't, and your gene is stronger than mine."

"I doubt that." John didn't like the way this conversation was going. "You're in command, General."

"Am I? The men seem to be waiting for you to say something, do something. You earned their loyalty with hard work." O'Neill shook his head. "I hate to agree with Daniel. You have no idea how much I hate that, but let's start from scratch. You're our base commander. I can be the high Pooh-Bah or something. Mostly, I want to fish and play around with Daniel and Sam."

Stunned, swinging between chagrin and anger, John just stood there, uncertain what to say. He wanted to be happy about this, but he wasn't feeling it. "You don't want command?"

"Not my style. Ask Daniel." O'Neill grinned. "We have a fairly small contingent of military here. You do the work. I'll sit around and complain."

"I'm not sure, sir." John gripped the railing hard, knowing he'd do it, and he'd never wanted to give up his city, but he wasn't agreeing to anything yet. "Are we going back to Earth?"

"Maybe. Depends." O'Neill looked crafty for a second and then it smoothed away. "We don't leave people behind, Sheppard."

On that they could agree, and Sheppard nodded with satisfaction. A memory smacked him hard, and he had to catch a breath. "Did we get Rodney's sister?"

O'Neill looked away, and that said it all. "She wouldn't come. We'll try again."

There was nothing to say to that. John put his back to the ocean and adjusted his sunglasses. O'Neill shrugged and then abruptly went inside. He didn't look back. "Come on, Sheppard. We have a ton of work to do."

"We?"

"Meaning you." O'Neill flicked Daniel's ear. "That's for being right."

"Later, Jack," Daniel promised darkly. "Sit down, John. We have to get organized."

Looking at them together, John finally understood. They operated as a unit, and no doubt Sam and Teal'c would be along at some point. He was very sure they had long-term plans that they would never share until the last minute, if at all.

"How did I end up working for you guys again?" John grumbled.

*********

Sleep became a luxury as they watched the hive ships draw nearer. Lt. Ford was put in charge of the Alpha site, and he seemed glad to be gone from Atlantis. Stackhouse was transferred to the Daedalus to work with Caldwell, and Cadman was put in charge of the operational side of the military. Leroy took over as security chief, and everyone answered to John, who reported to O'Neill, who spent way too much time smirking.
John considered complaining once or twice, but he was too busy working and trying not to think about Rodney. They had three hundred and fifty scientists now, compared with only sixty military men and women. Food was going to be a problem long term, but Teyla was determined to help in that area, and he counted her as a blessing every day. They'd be so screwed without her.

"Commander, why don't you go sleep for eight?" Caldwell asked, finding John half-asleep in his MRE.

"I liked being a major," John grumbled, wanting to curl up on the bench. He always knew when he needed sleep because his eye started to pound.

"And you get to be a captain? That is so unfair."

"I liked being a colonel." Caldwell sighed. "O'Neill just wanted to be an admiral."

Their eyes met and they started laughing. Fatigue made it hard to stop, even when people began to stare. Getting a hold of himself, John managed to get to his feet. "Two days?"

"Two until they hit our solar system," Rodney said, coming up behind him. "I haven't slept in four days!"

"Have you been raiding Carson's supply of uppers again?" Caldwell asked. Before Rodney could answer, John tried to nonchalantly wander away. He did need some sleep, and he'd better try now. His legs felt rubbery by the time he opened his door.

"Let me help."

Shock woke him up enough to stare and gape. He was fairly sure that he was hallucinating. "You?"

"I could go get Caldwell," Rodney said as he pushed him into the room. John weakly batted at Rodney's hands as he was stripped to his boxers and led to the bed. Rodney pointed. "Sleep."

John groaned but got under the covers. He'd never been more confused. "Rodney, your sister, I'm sorry."

Rodney sat at John's hip, looking away and then back. His face was still, vulnerable. "I am too. She loves her soldier. He teaches at the local university, and they have a daughter."

Not knowing what to say was John's life. He fumbled for Rodney's hand and held on tight. Rodney huffed, "Moron."

A word John had never been happier to hear. Maybe Rodney had forgiven him.

*********

"You see, you're a series of contradictions. You're a Quaker, who shoots people. You're smart, but you're in the military. You're more than willing to die for people who are complete idiots and don't deserve a kind word from you, much less your life! And why were you nice to me? Me!"

Opening his eyes, John moved fast, catching Rodney by the wrist and preventing him from running away this time. "Do you always talk to sleeping people?"

"Mostly you." Rodney licked his lower lip. "You scared the crap out of me. How do you move so fast?"

"I don't know. Something left from the bug juice." John perched on the side of his bed, not pulling Rodney from his chair. It was time for them to exchange more than insults. "I was raised a Quaker. I wanted to be in the Air Force, and my father never forgave me because it meant I'd be
killing people. I trained myself to be an expert at firearms so I wouldn't accidentally kill people who weren't enemy combatants. It's the best I can do with the contradiction that is my life."

"But you bombed people," Rodney said. "From your plane."

"Never did. When I was sent to Afghanistan, I flew evac helicopters." John had never faced that dilemma, and he liked to think that he'd have walked away from flying before he'd have bombed faceless people. He went on to the next part of Rodney's diatribe. "The military does have some smart people in it, like Caldwell. You need to get over it. My job here is to protect everyone, not just the people I like, and I was nice to you because I was pretty sure you didn't sign up to be a slave."

"But I acted like an asshole," Rodney said, looking down. "On purpose to make you hate me."

"Yeah, I know." John still didn't blame him for it, not much at least. "Are we done?"

"The Quaker thing… your dad is angry?" Rodney furrowed his brow, the sign he was thinking hard.

"Furious. Quakers don't kill people, and we sure as hell don't join the Armed Services. He tried to talk me out of it for twelve years." John realized he was still holding Rodney's arm and slid his hand away. "All I wanted--"

"Was to fly," Rodney finished for him. "Was it worth it?"

No one had ever asked John that question, and it banged around in his heart before he found a few words. "Yes. And no," he said. "I made my choice, and I live with it."

"I never had choices until you gave them to me." Rodney fidgeted on his chair, glancing at the door. "I might've made some bad ones already."

"Welcome to my world." John plucked his ear bud off the side table and put it on, tapping it. "Sit rep, please, Leroy."

"We're five by five, Commander."

Rodney got up and started pacing. John was content to watch him for several long minutes, leaning back on his arms. He'd talked, and he wished he knew what Rodney was thinking. Having any hope for any kind of a relationship was a complete waste of time.

"So you've got a plan?" John went with the safe question, not the one he was thinking.

"It might even work." Rodney stopped, facing away from him. "I'm not sure I can trust you with anything but hatred and scorn. I thought we might be friends, but--" He broke off.

"It's safer to be mad. I get that." John stepped right up behind him. "I turned you down that time because there was no way you could consent. Hardest thing I ever did." He breathed a little faster at the thought of Rodney on his knees, willingly. "I'll shut up now."

Rodney's shoulders slumped. "Daniel and the others showed up, and it all became complicated. No one likes their handler. No one."

"Miko and Cadman got along all right," John said just to be contrary. "Leroy is living with someone that I'm pretty sure wore a collar. She's nice."

Whipping around, Rodney poked John in the chest. "And none of them had problems with the whole consent thing and collars, Oatmeal Boy!"

"They aren't me," John said. He managed not to slap Rodney's hand away. "And you were offering because you thought you owed me!"

"You're right. I was." Rodney shuffled a step back. "The eye is freaky."

Ducking his head, ashamed, John opened the door with a thought. "I need a shower. Go away."

It took a minute, but Rodney walked out the door, and before it managed to shut, he darted back inside and kissed John on the lips. Stunned, John didn't move. Rodney traced shaking fingers over John's Wraith eye.

"Thanks."

"Yeah," John breathed, forcing himself not to grab hold and ask for more kisses.

Then Rodney ran out the door, and John let himself smile.

*********

"Why are we whispering?" O'Neill asked.

"Because they're right over us!" Rodney whispered.

John smiled from his position in the chair, listening over his radio. He felt like whispering too. The Wraith had to believe Atlantis had set a self-destruct, and who knew what kind of technology they had. If they had life sign detectors, Atlantis was screwed.

They'd tossed every bit of debris they could find in the ocean, but they had no idea how cloaked they actually were. He made sure of his connection to the drones again, itching to fire, even if they couldn't win.

"What's going on up there?" John tried to sound patient.

"Give it a minute, Oat's 'n Honey."

"You shouldn't poke fun of his religion, Rodney," Daniel said, as if they weren't waiting to be destroyed by Wraith.

"He might kill you," O'Neill said in his slow way.

"Someone's dialing in!"

"Oh crap," Rodney said.

Panic gripped John's guts, and he hovered on the edge of firing.

"Can they hear that?" O'Neill barked.

"How can I know?" Rodney sounded frantic, and John held his breath, waiting for the signal to fire. Silence from the tower, and that was worse than insults.

"It's Dr. Weir's IDC!" That was Chuck.

"Do not drop that shield!" O'Neill commanded, and John felt like the entire base froze. His instinct argued with his good sense, and if he gave in, he could lower the shield from his position.

"I need some direction down here!" John put his lungs into it.

"Do not fire, Sheppard," O'Neill said. "Wait for it. Wait for it."

Everyone on the base heard the thump against the shield and then another and another. Shutting his eyes, John swallowed hard and listened for the command, nothing else.

"Jack," Sam whispered.

"It's not her," O'Neill said with commendable confidence. "She'd go to New Athos and Teyla."

Hoping that O'Neill was right was all John had. His fingers twitched. Three more thumps hit the shield, and Zelenka shouted, "They are breaking orbit!"

John forced his hands to unclench, but he didn't relax. "Rodney?"

"They're gone, John," Rodney said.

The gate shut down, John feeling it through the chair, and he disarmed the drones. His hands shook slightly from pressing them down so hard on the arms of the chair. "You did it."

"He had help," Sam said with considerable sarcasm.

"Get up here, Sheppard. We need to find out who was throwing themselves against our windshield," O'Neill said.

"On my way." John ran, burning off the adrenaline and clearing his head. By the time he got there, Cadman had a MALP ready to go, and they sent it through immediately. There was a long pause, radio transmission connected, and then a blast.

"Wraith," Daniel breathed.

"Rodney, get a nuke," John said with no hesitation.

"Radek!" Rodney pelted down the stairs. For once, not even arguing for a second.

O'Neill cleared his throat. "You gonna clear that with me, Commander?"

"I'll make my report later." John gestured to Chuck. "Keep that gate open." He tapped his ear bud. "Rodney, our lives sorta depend on this."

"Sam, go," O'Neill said, and she ran off too.

Minutes stretched, but when they pushed it into the gateroom, they were all running. Rodney, Sam, and Radek all talked at once, and they didn't wait for permission. They shoved it through, the gate dropped, and John trampled the desire to take a jumper and see what happened.

"Wish we could go watch," O'Neill grumbled. They shared a quick grin and ignored the looks of incredulity from all the scientists. "Oh well."

"I guess if they don't come back, then… we win?" Daniel furrowed his brow, staring off into space and nudging his glasses back. "Jack?"

"Don't hurt your brain, Daniel." O'Neill put an arm around him. "We'll be okay. We got Sheppard, and he's not afraid to use nukes. I like that in a man."

John's knees suddenly felt wobbly, and he leaned against a wall. Rodney, still panting, eyes wild, said, "I need to sit down."

Radek, hair standing on end, nodded. "What if it does not go off?"

"It will," Sam said. "Do you think?" She paused. "That Dr. Weir was on that planet?"

No one answered her, and John refused to discuss it. "We should send the Daedalus to check it out."

"The Enterprise, and yes, I agree. Chuck, make it so."

Everyone in the control room rolled their eyes, and John had to admire O'Neill's ability to shift the subject from something painful.

"So then, are we done? I have some translations I want to get to," Daniel said to Sam.

"Go on, Daniel." She patted his shoulder. "Rodney and I need to argue some more about the configuration of the--"

Rodney interrupted her by sputtering loudly and claiming she was an idiot and had no business touching any Atlantis system, and Radek found a chair to sit down with a thump. John leaned over to whisper in Chuck's ear, "Make sure someone stays on the long-range scanners."

"Way ahead of you, sir." Chuck grinned. "We're alive."

"It does seem that way." John noticed O'Neill watching him as he slipped away to the transporter. He found a quiet balcony and a spot in the sun to grieve. She was dead. She had to be, and he hadn't even tried to stop her from going off by herself. Of course, he'd told her not to do it, but he'd known she would ignore his advice.

"Crap," he said, folding down to his knees and holding his head. His anger had killed her.

"John, you're not responsible," Rodney said, walking up close enough that John could have tied Rodney's shoelaces.

"Yeah, I am." John added her to the litany of people that he'd let down. "I could've stopped her. I should've stopped her."

"First of all, we don't know anything for sure." Rodney didn't move back. "She could be alive. Secondly, she was an adult who made her own choices. She had choices!"

With a grunt, John got to his feet, and they were eye-to-eye. "We both know that I didn't have to exile her. I over-reacted."

"She attacked you! And she nearly got me killed!" Rodney's eyes were very blue and shiny. "But Zelenka is upset, and I have to deal with that now."

"No, I'll go to him." John found a tiny bit of courage and put his hands on Rodney's hips. "Good job out there. Saved our asses again."

Rodney flushed. "Well, yes, but I had help, not much, but some." He might possibly have nudged closer, and John took that as permission to kiss him, nothing more than a brush of lips. Rodney sighed. "I kissed you first."

John couldn't help but laugh, leaning his forehead onto to Rodney's. "Sorry I screwed it up."

They stood that way for a perfect minute, and then Rodney said, "I'm sorry I was such an ass."

Pulling back, John made a face of fake horror. "Did you just hurt yourself?"

"Oh, shut up! I've said it before!" Rodney shoved him but not hard enough to move them apart. It was more like a palm smack, and John wasn't turning him loose. Rodney shifted forward, and they were kissing again. John let him take the lead, and he took and took until they both gasped for air.

"Rodney? Oh, never mind."

Jerking away like he'd been scalded, Rodney practically knocked John down before running away.

Sam shrugged, made a funny motion with her hand, and hurried after him. John stood there, enjoying the stunned feeling that went with Rodney's kisses.

*********

It felt as if they'd all been holding their breath, waiting to see if the Wraith were coming back. John didn't think they should ever truly relax. It didn't seem to him that the Wraith were the kind to give up. Caldwell returned from the address that had dialed in with Weir's IDC, but there was nothing left on the planet. The nuke had done its job. Whoever had been there was dead, blown to hell, and the gate had been buried so deep that no one would ever use it again.

None of their contacts knew where Dr. Weir was, and John couldn't commit resources to chase the galaxy looking. No one blamed him for that decision, but he blamed himself. Daniel had a memorial for all the people lost, and John hoped it provided a measure of comfort for everyone.
John wasn't avoiding anyone, especially Rodney, but the base wasn't going to run itself. O'Neill had been honest about the whole not wanting command thing to the point where John almost wished Atlantis was a land base with no access to water, fish, and more fish. Almost.

Waiting until Carson was busy, John snuck into the secret lab one night when Zelenka was too tired to put up much of a fight. It was the creepiest lab on Atlantis, Wraith bits and pieces everywhere, and John remembered nanites fondly after he stuck his hand in Wraith slime.

"Their ships are organic. Carson believes he can engineer a cancer virus that will--" Zelenka switched to Czech to finish, but John got the gist of it.

"And that'll kill them?" John had a hard time believing it.

"Their ships should break apart. It has worked in testing. We are trying to produce enough, and then there is a delivery system to build." Zelenka yawned. "Rodney will have a hand in that, or so he swears."

"Well, keep at it." John left the lab with a tiny spring in his step that might've been hope. If they could eliminate the Wraith, well, a lot of people would sleep better at night. It might be possible to give a better future to the people of the Pegasus galaxy, and that led John back to thinking about his own galaxy. The Daedalus was on its way back to Earth to assess the situation and perhaps liberate a few more people. John hoped Rodney's sister would make the leap this time. It was pie in the sky to hope that the governments of Earth had seen reason and stopped enslaving people, but John liked pie. He liked it a lot.

"Hey, wait up, Quaker Oats!"

Rolling his eyes, John slowed and turned. "Rodney," he drawled.

"I haven't seen you in days!"

That wasn't completely true, but John would let it slide. They'd both been busy, and with Rodney's kisses on his lips, John had been very reluctant to push for anything that would earn him more harsh words. Their truce seemed fragile, and not breaking it was important to him. Also, he was a big chicken, not that he'd admit that to anyone.

"Are you going to say something?" Rodney's hands twisted like they did when he was nervous.

"Sorry. I was woolgathering." John started for the cafeteria out of both a need for food and the hope that it would make talking easier. "I gotta eat."

"Good idea." Rodney fell into step beside him, and John tried not to shoot him a dozen little glances. Rodney's shoulder was close enough to nudge. "You missed the last staff meeting."

"I was off-world with Teyla." John made sure Rodney went first down the line. It was safer that way. "More people to feed, and all that."
Rodney loaded his tray. "I guess we're not a team any longer."

There was a tiny bit of wistful in Rodney's voice. John got an extra sandwich and searched for the right words to reassure him. "O'Neill wants us to hunker down, make sure we don't run afoul of the Wraith."

"If you'd have been at the meeting, you'd know that Ford is staying at the Alpha site on New Athos. No one is allowed to gate straight here any longer." Rodney gave John a complete rundown of the meeting, and John didn't interrupt, even though he'd spoken to O'Neill upon his return. They found a spot at their old table, and John tried to look calm. He was calm.

"Are you even listening? Breathing?" Rodney glared, and that was so normal that John smirked in the face of it.

"Yup," John drawled. "Are you done?"

Rodney crossed his arms. "Yes."

Irritation was something John could deal with, and he grinned. "We'll get back out there. Let's just humor O'Neill and Jackson for a month or two.
This galaxy is scary."

"It really is." Rodney went back to eating.

Silence fell between them, and John could hardly put food in his mouth, thinking so hard about what not to say. "So you're not with Daniel?" He almost clapped his hand to his forehead. That was the one thing he'd told himself not to ask, ever.

"No!" Rodney seemed indignant about that. Then he blushed. "Not anymore. It was never serious, just something."

"Oh." John had known they were lovers, and he was glad that was over, especially since Rodney had kissed him a number of times. The tips of his ears started burning, and he hoped he didn't hyperventilate.

"Can I ask you something?" Rodney looked nervous, licking his lower lip. He didn't wait for an answer, just plowing on. "We need a few things in the lab initialized? Would you... I mean... if you're not busy?"

"Sure." John almost took a huge breath of relief. "Anything good?"

"I have high hopes from a couple of items." Rodney launched into a detailed explanation, and John relaxed into it. He could do this. They could, maybe, start over, more on equal footing this time with no collars or leashes or stupid rules between them.

********
Epilogue

Rodney was a genius twice over, but people were impossible, unpredictable, and generally unreliable. He'd given up on them years ago. Until Sheppard came along. Sheppard was... Rodney wasn't even sure. He just knew he felt dizzy from all the emotions even looking at him stirred up.

"I thought you and Sheppard were friends?" Sam asked. "I haven't seen him around much since I caught you guys kissing."

"Shut up." Rodney hid behind his monitor. "I'm sure he's very busy with military-type things, and it meant nothing. We were just apologizing."

"With your tongues?" Sam laughed. "Oh, Rodney. You're so stupid."

Zelenka snickered, and Rodney had to find something to yell at her. "He's a Quaker, okay? They're all a bunch of oatmeal-loving saps. It'd never work out!"

Now Sam narrowed her eyes. "You're scared. Scared as hell that you actually like him. Just start over. Pretend the whole slave thing never happened."

Rodney drew himself up to his full height. "I will never forget, not while even one of us wears a collar!"

Silence fell in the lab, and Sam rolled her eyes. "That's not what I mean, and you know it. He was a good handler. He tried hard. He kept you alive. Just let it slide."

"Little you know," Rodney huffed, but it was barely possible she had a point.

"Rodney was complete asshole to Commander Sheppard." Zelenka added his two cents.

"You really were," Simpson chimed in. "He liked you. I have no idea why."

Everyone seemed to agree on that point. Rodney got to his feet and tried to kill them all with his brain. "Get back to work!" He stormed out, ignoring the comments trailing after him. Sheppard had said he would help out in the lab, and now was a good time for that. Before Rodney lost his nerve. He touched his ear bud. "Sheppard, are you busy?"

"Which lab?" Sheppard asked with no delay.

"Lab six." Rodney picked that one because not only did he have a few goodies stashed there, but it was far away from one Samantha Carter and her meddling mouth. He tapped off, took several deep breaths, and straightened his shirt. This was his choice. He wanted this, whatever it was with Sheppard. With John. It was barely possible that he didn't have to understand it. He just had to do it.

*********

John ran a hand through his crazy hair before he opened the door to lab six. It'd been two days since Rodney had asked for John's help in the cafeteria, and John hadn't been waiting for the call, not at all. He was more nervous than he could remember being in some time. Rodney turned fast, smiling, and John could've leaned against a wall or slouched into a convenient chair, but instead, he strode right to him, almost close enough to kiss.

"You wanted me?" John asked, meaning it in so many ways.

Rodney swallowed hard. His eyes were round, and he looked like he might pass out, but then he nodded and said, "I do."

"Best news I've had since I got this assignment." John slid his hand up Rodney's arm to rest on his shoulder. He shuddered out a deep breath. "I missed you when you moved out." It sorta hurt to admit it.

Blinking, Rodney frowned. "I was angry at..." He made a gesture that included everything.

"I know. You, um, still mad?" John didn't want to ever fight again, unless it was about something stupid like who got the last cookie.

"No." Rodney managed to inch closer, putting his hand on John's hip. "Sam says I'm stupid, but this thing is hard, not easy, and with people it's easier to not even bother than take a risk."

John furrowed his brow, trying to decipher all that. "This thing being the fact that you don't hate me?"

"Exactly." Rodney's other hand came up to curl around John's neck. "Can you give me credit for trying?"

"Yeah," John breathed. He was about done talking. He smoothed his thumb across the skin on Rodney's neck where the collar used to be. "I spent a lot of time convincing myself that you'd never like me."

Rodney kissed him. "Well, you're an idiot, remember?"

"That does sound familiar." John stole a kiss of his own. "My quarters. Right now."

"Your quarters suck. Mine are better." Rodney wrapped his hand into John's gun belt, tugged, and got them moving towards his place. John was shocked enough to go along with him, not sure how he felt about being lead around by a belt, and then thinking maybe it was Rodney's turn to drag him somewhere.

"You're not going to leash me, are you?" John asked, interested in an honest answer.

"I might. You have a tendency to wander off and get hurt, hide from me, and generally be unavailable when I need someone to rant at, and that is just unacceptable," Rodney said. He gave John's belt another pull, and they got to Rodney's quarters that much faster. Rodney swiped open the door and dragged John inside.

"I'm only going to say this once, Rodney." John wished he didn't have to say it at all.

Rodney's eyes got very round. "I'll stop poking fun at you!"

"That's not it."

"I'll stop yelling all the time!"

"I doubt it." John put his hand over Rodney's mouth. "I'll only ask one time, Rodney. Listen. You said we'd do together, remember?"

Rodney pulled John's hand down. "Was that right before I mocked you, and you took off, and then I was beaten within an inch of my life?"

John nodded. "Sorry about that. I was sorta pissed."

"It's very hard for me to trust anyone's motives." Rodney had his chin in the air now. "That probably isn't going to change. Ever."

"I get that." John did, and he didn't blame him. "But, do you think? Can we?"

"Do this together?" Rodney ducked his head, grimacing. "Really?"

The natural reaction was to move back, glare, but John kept himself from making that mistake. Instead, he stepped and put his hands on Rodney's shoulders. "It's a tough galaxy. So, yes, really."

"Oh." Rodney seemed to slump, and then they were together, wrapped close. He sighed. "I'm only answering this once." He took a deep breath that John felt as well as heard. "Yes, Quaker Oats, we're in this together."

After slapping the back of Rodney's head, John kissed him. "Good enough."

It was no surprise that Rodney yelled about abuse before kissing him back, and John nudged him towards the bed twice before Rodney got the idea. Then it all turned awkward and fumbling, and they couldn't look each other in the eye, and John abandoned the idea of getting all his clothes off. It just didn't seem possible.

Rodney made a lot of noise but none of it made any sense, and John knew how that felt because he was there too. They found a rhythm, pressing flesh together. Rodney nearly gave John a split lip trying to kiss him and move at the same time, and John would've complained, but he was too busy trying not to orgasm.

When Rodney spilled on their stomachs and rucked up shirts, John was two seconds behind him, and they both collapsed in the mess to groan. Rodney found the ability to speak first, of course.

"Not my best work."

John laughed, breathing hard and wanting more. "First time I've done it in the daytime. I think it threw me off."

"We're pathetic." Rodney wiped his hand on his T-shirt. "And for the record, I still think you're nuts."

"Got it." John shut his eyes, letting it all settle. It'd been tough getting here, but this was a good place to be. "We changed one planet. You ready to take on another?"

Rodney made a terrible noise. "No. Not really, and we shouldn't rush things." Then he launched into a spiel about the current political systems on Earth, but John heard the passion underneath. Together, he and Rodney were unbeatable, and he expected that it wouldn't be easy, but hard things were worth doing.

"Hey, your dad would be proud of you," Rodney said in a hushed voice. "I'll smack him if he isn't when we see him."

"I bet you will." John rolled on top and kissed Rodney breathless.

********
end - for real