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Lighter Than Air

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At first, the Ml'suk refuse to meet with John and his team, which is strange because they'd been the ones to raise Atlantis' jumper over the radio in the first place. John talks to a guy named Kalhar who basically says that they're a secretive, anti-social people. John's about to say okay and move on, because it's weirdly difficult to navigate through both the blanket of fog hovering above the ocean and the thick white wall of the clouds. There's some kind of interference going on with the navigational control.

Then Ronon says, "We're looking for allies in destroying the Wraith."

There's silence for a moment, the channel staying open.

"We are peaceful explorers," John states. "We're also looking for trading partners."

Kalhar asks, "Do you have viewscreen capability?"

Rodney makes a squeaky, happy sound.

On-screen, Kalhar looks like he can't buy beer yet, bright-eyed and full of anticipation. John half-expects him to wave, but he simply looks them all over and then says, "It would be an honor to meet with you, at these coordinates."

As they're approaching the landing pad, the clouds thin out enough that John can see more of the settlement, which is about the size of Reno, give or take, packed into three or four square miles.

"It's my first time to a city in the clouds," Rodney says. "You're all seeing this too, right?"

"It looks like Atlantis," Teyla says.

Ronon leans forward. "On a really foggy day."

The central spire's shorter and the buildings aren't quite right. They don't look as though they could blast off into space, so the city's inhabitants probably aren't Replicators. There's a good-sized landing pad. As the puddlejumper lands, circles of blue light flash outward from it, and then more blue light shines out of pits along the side of the building. A bay door opens.

"Whoa," John says, letting go of the controls. "Everything's going into auto-pilot. We're being pulled in, same as at home."

"Well, that's confirmed," Rodney says. "Hey, maybe they'll have some spare ZedPMs."

"If they want you to ascend, remember to say no, kids," John says. He rolls down his sleeves and buttons them. The external thermometer reads 43 degrees.

The inner bay door slides shut, and then another door opens, revealing several people dressed in green pantsuits standing in a row. It looks as though they'll all be taking a train into the city.

"Why don't we have one of those?" Ronon asks.

"I – I don't know," Rodney says, sounding awed. He makes a note on his tablet. "But I want one."

John's chopping wood when he first catches sight of a dot of color in the sky. Actually it's more like he's chipping wood, as he doesn't have a real ax, and he's still figuring out how to get the blade welded to the handle. By handle he means stick, and the blade more resembles a triangular-shaped rock that he'd found on the shore after a hailstorm. It had looked a lot easier in those Survivorman episodes that Rodney had made him watch under pretense of subject matter importance. John had known the truth, aka Rodney's crush on Les Stroud's brain. Rodney had started out saying things like, "First of all, that would not happen," and "Oh, that'll never work," and then John would find him glued to the screen three hours later, taking notes, and recreating situations in the labs.

Elizabeth had once hinted to John that Rodney's hobby had more to do with John than with Rodney, and yet he hadn't made the connection until it was his lonely ass parked on an island, feeling a growing kinship with Tom Hanks.

The only source of heat on John's island is the massive stone fireplace that takes up most of one wall in the main room of his house, so chipping wood eats up a fair amount of his day. It still hurts, remembering how he'd loaned Lorne his wire saw.

It's been too many chip-filled days since John's taken up residence on the island, without communication from his team or from Atlantis. His internal clock is all messed up, since it stays light during what he's sure should be nighttime, and there have been several continuous strings of days where John doesn't see the sun. The cliffs overlooking the ocean have a sheer drop; he can't time the tides; there's no beach, just pointy rocks. He's lost hope that the Daedalus is en route to snatch him away from this icy paradise. Now if only his idea of a good time was fur-lined parkas and permafrost.

His island sucks.

At least the gear is right, the tac vest a familiar fit, same as the military-issue cold weather BDUs and boots. In its holster, John's gun has a certain reassuring weight against his thigh, and his extra clips of ammo are in the same pocket as always, though John hasn't spotted any bird or animal larger than a golden retriever. He doesn't precisely remember his capture, or really anything after leaving the jumper. It's a blank right up until he woke up alone, in a cold room, with nothing but time to think about his team and his old life. Although he didn't expect Woolsey to negotiate for his return, it's still a punch in the guts each morning when he's no closer to getting to the gate than he had been the night before. The solution evades him; he's lacking the materials and the skills to construct a boat or a plane from scratch.

Soon after their return trip from Earth, Atlantis had ceased negotiating with terrorists, kidnappers, hostage takers, et cetera. The irony of the new rule mocked him, as he and Woolsey had crafted that new bit together. They were supposed to be taking a more defined military stance against the Wraith. By then, Atlantis had put together a mostly-reliable network of intergalactic stoolies and narcs, and John's team leaders knew who to ask and how much to believe from a variety of people spread out all over Pegasus.

He's not injured or starving, exactly, but the existence he's managed to eke out isn't great, either. The ideal scenario would be the one where rescue is as easy as shooting off a flare, and then the puddlejumper cavalry zwips in, guns a-blazing. It's the best one, because no one dies trying to save him, or martyrs themselves, or does anything other than wrap John in crinkly emergency blankets and make frantic, coffee-breath promises about how this will never happen again, even when they both know the comfort is the lies.

Rodney's tense, his shoulders ache, and his throat feels raw from all of the yelling he's done today. He's supposed to be contributing to the supposedly very last debriefing of their failed mission to P5Z-633, but really he's trying to ignore the raised voices around him. He knows he's in shock; he doesn't need confirmation on that from Jennifer, and so far he's pitching a perfect game, ignoring multiple suggestions that he should be admitted to the infirmary. Staring at his fingers poised over the keys of his laptop, he tries to remember the last rule, number nine.

He remembers six and seven clearly. Six: the rules will not be repeated. Seven: break a rule, and the game is forfeit.

Closing his eyes, Rodney plays the scene out in his head, setting it up from the beginning.

The people on P5Z-633 called themselves the Ml'suk, which had sounded like Mollusks in Rodney's head, only these invertebrates stayed out of the ocean. They lived in staggeringly high, stilted houses that swayed to absorb the high-altitude winds, and all held together by a web of connective tubing. The bulk of the planet was water, with hundreds of tiny islands scattered around the northern hemisphere. The Ml'suk lived further south, where it reached a tepid ten degrees Celsius around the time of the vernal equinox.

As long as Rodney hadn't looked out of the windows, he was okay; surprisingly, it was Ronon who'd been made queasy by the height of their accommodations.

The Ml'suk had figured out a way to blend their houses in with the low-hanging clouds. Something about their composition, combined with a mineral that was mixed into their building materials caused Rodney's life signs equipment to go haywire. He'd correctly surmised that Wraith tech didn't fare much better, and as an additional deterrent, the gate had been stationed on the other side of the planet from Upek, the city where all law-abiding Ml'suk lived. Kalhar had assured them that the only life signs that could be located using outside technology were on the northern islands.

They'd already visited the islands, actually, since that had been where their so-called outside tech had pointed them. Sheppard had kept the jumper in a hold pattern, hovering over what looked to Rodney like a giant block of ice, but Teyla had pointed inland to a structure seated off the coast. The single dot still hadn't made sense until Ronon said, "Seen this before, with the Olesians."

"The who?" Rodney asked, ignoring Teyla's sigh of disapproval. He couldn't be expected to remember everyone’s' names; it wasn't as though they all stayed in touch and traded holiday cards.

"Collars," Sheppard had said, the tips of his ears pinkening, gaze trained steadily on the screen.

"Ohhhhh," Rodney said, dragging the word out, pushing John's buttons. "These are all, what, miniature prisons? One criminal per island?"

"Guess so," Ronon answered.

They hadn't landed the jumper. As they'd discussed it, the Ml'suk raised their craft on the radio, and Rodney had been relieved to ditch. He'd put the idea of prisoners assigned solitary sentences out of his mind, ignoring the sick clench in his stomach in favor of wondering what sorts of goods might be available in their theoretical upcoming trade agreement.

The Ml'suk had been hospitable bordering on obsequious, all of which changed dramatically when Rodney and Teyla returned from their meal spent dining with the guy in charge of production for the wonky mineral. Rodney's smile had gotten wider throughout their meal; if they wouldn't trade for the cynoxium, he'd been confident that the chemists on Atlantis could recreate it. Upon entering the communal gathering house, uneasiness pricked across the back of Rodney's neck. Seconds later he'd seen Ronon lying unconscious on the floor. A few of the Mollusks had his blaster on a table and were pointing at it, yammering away.

"Sheppard!" Rodney had yelled, his voice loud enough to carry over the din. People around the room fell silent, turning to look at him. Rodney slapped at his earbud. "Colonel Sheppard, come in!"

"Where is Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla asked, her gaze narrowing on Kalhar, who raised his hands in supplication.

Apart from potable water, the nicest thing about John's island is the house's location. A wall of rock and a scattering of tall trees provide excellent shelter from the many elements – rain, hail, snow, more snow, and heavy winds – that the planet has to offer. The house itself is just okay, with one story that's roughly half the size of a football field, constructed out of wheat-colored wood and veiny, marbled rock. It's chilly in the outer hallway; the three rooms are light on furniture; and the whole place has a sterile, pre-fabricated feel, but the fireplace does a great job of keeping the temps above freezing in the main room. Two smaller rooms connect to it via doors that remind John of being on Atlantis, because he can open and close them with a mental command, same as the shutters over the windows and the flue in the fireplace. One of the rooms stays frigid no matter how high he builds up the fire, so John keeps all of his food there. He's been stacking wood in the second room, its original purpose unknown. He figures he'll make it into a games room someday: a little foosball, some air hockey.

The house's crowning glory is that it sits mere yards away from an off-shoot of the freshwater river that traverses the middle of the island. The ease of obtaining water is awesome, but what John really wants is a water wheel. When he'd emptied out the pockets of his tac vest, there had been a little spool of wire tucked underneath the powerbars, and he'll think about how to cobble together the magnets later.

Glancing up at the sky again, John notes that the dot of color has disappeared. His fingers are going numb, so he loads up the hand-litter with chunks of wood and scraps of kindling. Inside, embers glint through the metal screen, and he uses a poker and the bellows to stoke the flames, feeding it with today's spoils. Outside the windows, snow begins to fall in thick, soft flakes, and whatever that dot had been – weather service, rescue party, joyriders – will have a tough time finding John beneath it.

He wishes that he could plant a flag on the highest peak, but the snow at the base of the mountains is too deep. During the first few days, John had slapped together a set of snowshoes using tree branches and a length of the parachute cord from around his wrist, but they're not built to last. Every few steps, he's forced to stop, tightening and adjusting the strings, and it takes hours to cover just a few kliks. No way he'd be able to make it to the upper ridge and back in one trip, and he wouldn't survive the night without fire and shelter.

Instead, John settles for the classic S.O.S., creating one using packed snow and set on the brown grass backdrop. Each morning before he checks his snares, he pushes off any excess snow to make sure the message is still visible from the air, in case a low-flying puddlejumper happens by. He's put up a couple of flags, too, made from sticks and strips of orange duct tape. Sunlight makes its way through the ever-present cloud cover so scarcely that his signal mirror's useless, and there's never anything up there anyway.

Dinner consists of roast grouse-like bird and piping hot seaweed soup, which John remembers tasting a lot better when he'd eaten it in Korea. His stomach's full, but he's not satisfied. He can survive on this island for as long as it takes, he knows how, but that's all it will be – survival. There's no happiness to be found here; there's no Rodney. John's constantly thinking of things that he wants to share with Rodney. He thinks about their life together, and replays memories of the two of them: how they met, how they fell into bed, how it didn't mean too much until John had almost died, and suddenly his feelings solidified. Suddenly he didn't want to wait and see.

John loves his team, he'd told Teyla that he would die for any of them and that's still the truth. Right now, they're out there without him to watch their backs, and his city floats on without him. He presumes it's all right to brood in a situation such as his, and he glares into the crackling fire until he has to close his eyes against the heat. Another day, and then the one after that. He can do it. Rodney won't give up on finding John, so John can't give up, either.

"Answer me!" Teyla demanded. She'd advanced on Kalhar, flicking open her holster.

"We would have thought you would be lighter of heart to have him gone," Kalhar had replied, and Rodney parsed this jumble of words at the same speed as Teyla, who pulled her gun and then took the words right out of Rodney's head, saying hotly, "You are very much mistaken!"

Rodney had tried to take a swing at Kalhar, and then there'd been a blur of pain and shouting, his heart pounding staccato in his chest. Shoved down, he and Teyla were driven into the corner next to Ronon. The suggestion to stay put was made with pointy spears and Ronon's purloined blaster. Rodney and Teyla had been stripped of their weaponry and tac vests, and one of the Mollusks kicked Rodney's feet out from under him, knocking the breath from his lungs.

He'd been forced to stay sharp, though, shaking his head and gesturing no, no as he flailed at Teyla, who was trying to stab his thigh with an Epi-pen.

"Sorry," she said, not even wincing at the grip Rodney had on her wrist. "I am sorry, Dr McKay."

Rodney gave her arm an awkward pat and laid back, trying not to suffocate. No apologies necessary for trying to save his life, misunderstanding or not.

Another Mollusk stepped up to them, casting a lofty smile at Rodney. "If you long for justice, if you are of a wishful nature, then you may wait here for the sentencing."

"The – the sentencing of what?" Teyla asked.

"Do not worry," the Mollusk replied. She winked at Teyla. "You will hear it for yourselves. It is an absolute that we will be harsh and unforgiving. Your Colonel has demonstrated how willing he is to trespass, to try and trick us all. This is a serious infraction."

Rodney had thought the translators were malfunctioning; the listing in the Ancient database had referred only to a Game Day called Mr'edon. It seemed unfair of a people that held game days to also harbor such strict regulations for things that their guests could know nothing of, unless John had accidentally murdered someone, but even so – accident!

"What are the charges?" Teyla sounded unmoved, but Rodney knew her, and from a glance he saw that she was far from cool-headed.

The Mollusk hesitated, taking a step back and crossing her arms.

"Answer her, Ml'suk," came the pissed-off rumble of Ronon's voice from behind Rodney.

"Your Colonel has broken our trust," the Mollusk said with reluctance. "He is one of the lost."

"The lost what?" Rodney blurted out. "Lost boys? Luggage? What?"

She nodded toward the doorway. "You are lucky that we uncovered his secret in time. Who knows what could have happened if we had not the skill to discern his status."

Rodney hadn't remembered standing up, or grabbing the Mollusk by the shoulders, or giving her a little shake. "What the hell have you done to him?"

A crowd of a few hundred Ml'suk made a noise then, a crooning sound that drowned out Rodney's words. The door at the far end of the hall opened. Two more Mollusks wheeled out a furniture dolly, and strapped to it was Sheppard, parodying Hannibal Lecter.

"Mr'edon," Kalhar said with satisfaction. "Mr'edon begins now."

Rodney watched in horror as John struggled against the ties, his head lolling to the side. He'd shouted John's name, his voice overlapping with Teyla and Ronon, who were shouting, too. A hush fell over everyone gathered in the hall when John's mouth opened.

One of the flunkies proclaimed, "He speaks!"

"Hey," Ronon whispered in Rodney's ear. "Gotta get out of here."

"Rodney," John said, except it sounded like 'Awraree,' which was how John sounded when he'd been drugged and dropped most of his consonants.

"No way," Rodney said. "We can't leave him."

"Yeah we can," Ronon said. "We'll come right back, promise."

"You go, then," Rodney said, not tearing his eyes away from John's limp form on the dolly. He had to know what they were going to do with Sheppard.

"Ml'suk," Kalhar intoned. "It is a bright and noble day."

The crowd murmured a reply. "The noblest of days."

"Ronon is right," Teyla said, her voice hushed. "We're outnumbered, we need more weapons, and we need you to pilot the jumper."

"But the sentence could be immediate death," Rodney pointed out, because who knew what kind of quote-unquote games these assholes wanted to play.

"True," Teyla said with reluctance. "This is no chess tournament."

"Thank you," Rodney said, ignoring the smidgen of sarcasm in her tone.

"We have waited a long time to play this game with the Ancients," Kalhar said.

Rodney's breath caught in his throat. "Now that is not what I wanted to hear. Ancients?"

"Were you as baffled as we were?" Kalhar asked from the front of the room. Various Ml'suk turned to stare at their trio in the corner. "Do you feel as betrayed as we once felt? Do you long for justice as forcefully as the great Ml'suk, who live in the sky like no other being?"

"We do," the crowd replied, sounding eager. Some of them knelt on the floor, others shuffled forward, arms outstretched and hands cupped. "We long for justice. We are of a wishful nature!"

Rodney and Teyla exchanged shocked looks. Wedging between them, Ronon draped his arms over their shoulders. "Cultish behavior plus superficial niceties adds up to big, bad danger. The sentence won't be immediate death, McKay. They wanna play with him."

"– to the infirmary, and this is the last time I'll say it, Dr McKay!"

Startled from his memories, Rodney looks up to find Woolsey glaring at him. Woolsey's expression softens when Rodney meets his gaze.

"Please, Rodney, listen," Teyla says, and Rodney focuses on her, turning his contempt for the situation into words.

"You all might be okay with wasting valuable time, but I am not," Rodney says. "I'm not leaving this seat until there's a plan – a good plan – and a rescue team being assembled!"

"Then I'm sorry to tell you this, Doctor," Jennifer says, "but right now, we're both going to follow orders." She sticks a needle that has to be the width of a finger into Rodney's arm.

As though from far away he hears Ronon saying, "I've got him, where do you want me to..."

Another day, another hour spent clearing snow from the middle of the 'O' in his help message. The cold drives a sharpness into John's lungs that he ignores, whistling as he scoops snow into a pile, being careful not to move too quickly or work up a sweat. He's pretty far from the house, and it would be hard to warm up fast enough to avoid the involuntary, body-wracking shivers that would keep him from his daily routine.

He's been experimenting with tree sap, hoping it will work as a sealant with the right measurements. There's seaweed to collect and dry, snares to check, and one of these days he'll catch another fluffed-out fox in its winter coat. He needs two more to finish the lining of what he's diplomatically calling outerwear. The emergency kits that Rodney designed include a needle thick enough to string sinew, and John's gotten a lot better at scraping skins than he'd been during survival training set up through the Air Force. The focus of those courses is to survive long enough on probably-foreign soil to find the nearest town, which doesn't quite translate to foreign galaxies. He's lucky that the vegetation and wildlife are at least vaguely familiar. John's been stranded before, but never in complete solitude. It's alternately peaceful and grating to have only himself for company.

There are herds of creatures up by the mountains that remind John of Shetland ponies. They've avoided him so far, but they're not afraid, either. He's always had a soft touch with horses, and when he was younger, he'd devoted a lot of time to them. His mother taught him how to ride, and he'd enjoyed every minute of it: the shift and lunge of movement, the rhythm of hoofbeats, then loosing the reins, seated low and bent over his horse's neck in a flat-out gallop across the fields. He'd dreamed of becoming a jockey until he grew seven inches during the year before high school.

Lately, John's dreams are about Atlantis, about waking up next to Rodney, their legs tangled together and Rodney's arm thrown over John's side. The thin ache of being grounded lodges itself in John's chest, and he dreams about piloting choppers, all of the different ones he's ever flown. There's a nightmare about flying the F-302 infected with that computer virus, and how the controls vibrated under his palms. He dreams that he's soaking in a hot bath, and that the mess serves medium-rare steaks and good beer every night. He wakes up wishing for coffee, toothpaste, for real soap, and sometimes even for his copy of War and Peace.

John looks up into the sky. The dot on the horizon has returned, and it's getting closer.

Rodney swims up to the surface of consciousness, where everything is oddly quiet save for the occasional beep of a machine. Cracking open one eye, he sees that he's in the infirmary, a privacy curtain drawn around his bed, and he can hear the tap-click of someone typing close by. Funny, he doesn't feel hurt, so it's probably something so terrifying and fatal that Jennifer's pumped him full of drugs. He'd better get some good sex from John before he goes, though, and that's not going to happen while –


Leaning back against the pillow, Rodney calls up his interrupted memories again, thinking over what Ronon had said, about how the Ml'suk wanted to play with John. He's forgotten, somehow, that not everyone in Pegasus focuses on fighting and defeating the Wraith, and that some peoples have their own axes to grind. Turns out that the driving force behind the entire Ml'suk civilization's need to survive is based on the Ancients' abandonment of their planet circa a few thousand years ago.

He's suddenly furious with the entire thing and everyone involved: the Ancients; the Mollusks; all of their stupid rules; their idea of using John's death as entertainment; a grudge held too long. Woolsey, for not listening about the rules. Jennifer for sedating him, for god's sakes, and why is he still lying in bed when he should be working? Surely his team wouldn't plan anything without him. He is John's sponsor in a death match, a title and an event that sound so hateful that it boggles his mind that the Ml'suk are so irredeemably stupid. Diabolical with keen attention to detail, fine, but overall, their actions and intents are ludicrous and asinine.

The Ml'suk have decent tech, even if most of it came as gifts from the Ancients. Still, they've kept it working all this time, and they take advantage of the components that they can control. They've been waiting for so long to spring their trap on a bonafide Ancient that they've gone mad with the craving; John had unknowingly announced his presence when he landed the jumper, and Ronon related how Kalhar pressed objects into John's hands, that John had obliged them, playing light switch. Mr'edon may have started as a game designed to test the strategy and wits of their intellectual superiors, but after centuries of storytelling about god-like benefactors, the obsession presented as a cult society and a sadistic test of survival. Possibly the Ml'suk realized they would never be able to beat the Ancients, but in Rodney's opinion, they'd just grown increasingly bitter about their abandonment. It hadn't occurred to them that the other side of the coin was freedom.

Rodney has theories on how to locate John. The other problem is reaching him. Rule five: no foreign matter of any kind will be accepted throughout the course of the game. The problem after that is retrieving him. Rule four: one visit allowed after the fourth rotation, presuming the subject survives for that long. Rule one: only the sponsor may visit the subject.

One of the Ml'suk fail-safes is the detection of foreign matter passing through the gate, including the organic material that composes the Wraith darts. Whatever Rodney wants to build has to be sourced locally on P5Z-633, which will be a huge time suck, and he has only a few Atlantean months to complete all of it.

First things first. He's watched nurses stab needles into his veins all the time, so taking it out shouldn't be too hard. Rodney peels back the tape holding the I.V. needle in place, grimacing when it pulls his skin.

"May I help you with something, Dr McKay?"

The question comes from a perky-looking nurse who's appeared at the foot of his bed.

Busted. Rodney freezes, one hand behind his back holding together the hospital johnny. He's never been adept at giving puppy dog eyes, so instead he gets to the point. "Get out of my way."

"Jujitsu," the nurse – no, probably an orderly – replies.

Rodney's busy looking for his pants. "Bless you."

"Dr McKay, I can't let you leave here until you've been cleared by Dr Keller," Perky says, and while he's no good with the anime eyes, Rodney is stellar with narrowed, rage-filled ones.

"I said move," Rodney says, taking a step forward and winding up on the bed, flat on his back, staring at the infirmary's ceiling. "Ow."

"You'll be fine, Rodney," Jennifer says as she bustles into view.

"Is that what they taught you to say at witch doctor school?" Rodney asks, glaring at Perky. "Okay, that wasn't my best material, but people keep making me fall down!"

Perky gives a half-shrug as she leaves, and Jennifer says, "Thank you for your assistance, Nurse Syamsudin."

"Assistance?" Rodney squawks. "Is that what we're calling it now? More like grievous assault."

"You were pretty worn out yesterday," Jennifer says. "I wanted to clear you myself."

"You'd be worn out too if your –" Rodney pauses, taking a deep breath. "If your best friend and colleague had been forced into exile by a bunch of Ancient-hating lunatics."

"Mmhmm," Jennifer says, pulling out her stethoscope and gesturing for Rodney to lean forward. "Rodney, at the last Palarian festival you declared John Sheppard the love of your life and invited us all to check out his cute butt as the two of you walked away."

Rodney stares at the bedspread, his face heating up. "You – that was confidential! And by confidential I mean never to be repeated. Never ever. And don't think you can waltz in here, infuse a little humor, and everything will be okay!"

"I know," Jennifer replies, squeezing Rodney's shoulder. "I just... I want him back too, Rodney. And we'll figure out a way. We will."

"Duh," Rodney says. "Are you done yet? I need to think about what happened next."

Jennifer looks confused. "You mean what happens next?"

"No," Rodney replies. "What happened."

What had happened was that back in the great hall, Kalhar had approached them and made a sweeping gesture with his arm. Perhaps it hadn't been an invitation, but Rodney took the opening and marched through the crowd of Ml'suk toward John, not hesitating to throw an elbow here or there.

"Awreee," John slurred, his voice raspy. He strained forward against the bindings.

"Colonel," Rodney had replied, not wanting to broadcast his terror to John, or the depth of attachment to Kalhar.

John's face was sweaty, his pupils dilated, and Rodney had reached forward to check his pulse when Kalhar said, "Do not touch him. Your Colonel has chosen his sponsor. He remains here until we present the rules."

"That had better be me," Rodney muttered, curling his hands into fists. He edged closer to John.

"It is the noblest of days!" Kalhar cried.

"Right, glorious, noble days, we get it," Rodney said, proud of how steady his voice sounded. "What's a sponsor and what are the rules?"

"The rules," the crowd parroted back. "The rules."

"We have waited a very long time for the Ancients to return, for one to bestow his attention upon us," Kalhar said. "It was they who transformed our planet, making it safe for life. They introduced our race here, they promised they would be our guardians, that they were here to both give and take care."

The crowd settled in, some mouthing the words along with Kalhar as he spoke them. Rodney met Teyla's gaze. She nodded, signaling to Ronon, and the two of them skirted the crowd, staying close to the walls. Rodney tried not to give away their progress by watching.

"I take it that's not what happened," Rodney said, attempting to draw Kalhar's attention.

Kalhar ignored him, continuing with his story, a mix of idolization and angry tirade.

"We were glad to receive their visits. They brought seeds for us to grow, and cloth for us to wear. We rejoiced. They created birds and animals so we could feast, so our bellies would always be full. And we rejoiced. They created the clouds in the sky, the rain, the wind, the howl of snow, so that we would know of their magnificence..."

Rodney tuned him out, eying the straps across John's chest, searching for a clasp to unhook.

"...and the Ancients loved us, cared for us, made us whole inside and out..."

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Rodney checked on his teammates' positions. Ronon had retrieved his blaster from a now-unconscious Mollusk, and Teyla was almost all the way to Rodney.

"And then came the Day," Kalhar said.

"The Day, the Day," the crowd repeated, and Rodney had been confused by the puzzled expression on Teyla's face until he focused on the Ml'suk. Many of them were crying, tears streaming down their cheeks as though witnessing a miracle or experiencing rapture. "We remember the Day."

It was silent in the hall for a beat, and then Kalhar flipped back the collar of his cloak. "We waited. Ml'suk waited expectantly for the Ancients, but they did not come. We made sacrifices. We sang our pleas. But they did not come."

"They did not come," the crowd intoned.

Kalhar took a deep breath. "Why did they not come?"

"I'll take Absolute Nutjobs for $300, Alex," Rodney said. Beside him, John laughed. He was still too spaced out for Rodney to discern if John had gotten the joke, or if he could even move.

Whirling to face him, Kalhar sneered. "Do not test me, worm. We do not need you to play the game."

"Actually I meant the Ancients," Rodney said. He took advantage of Kalhar's momentary confusion, redirecting the Mollusk's attention to Teyla and Ronon, who acted on the cue by punching people in their smug little faction faces.

Rodney pulled everything from his pockets and shoved items into John's vest: a tiny solar flashlight, a miniature board cutter, a roll of electrical tape, two powerbars, and a magnesium flint. He had an idea about where Kalhar's game was headed, and John needed whatever help his team could provide. Only Ronon had praised Rodney's idea to make all personnel carry survival kits secreted on their persons, until everyone started using the contents to fix malfunctioning equipment or to get out of scrapes and tight spaces. Rodney checked to make sure John still had his paracord bracelet looped around his wrist, tucking it out of sight up his sleeve. He wished Woolsey had sprung for the portable tracking devices Rodney had recommended; the subcutaneous transmitters were susceptible to various forms of interference, and usually the Daedalus was too far out to safely rely on its beaming technology.

"You are his sponsor, and you may visit him," Kalhar said to Rodney, his tone even. "But if you touch your Colonel again, I will chop off your hand."

Rodney straightened up to his full height. "What about my teammates?"

"We will release them to the craft you arrived in," Kalhar replied. "They will be under watch until the Mr'edon ceremonies have concluded."

"Fine," Rodney said, sticking his hands into his pockets. "And I will be allowed to leave then, as well."

Kalhar nodded, a smile tugging at his lips. "As our subject's sponsor, you are welcome to come and go as you please, Doctor. We will see much of one another over the next year... or more."

Next to them, John groaned. Rodney had wanted to join in. No way would he leave John here for that long, and if the Mollusks thought he would abandon John, well, they were even more stupid than he'd thought.

Rodney kept an eye on John throughout the recitation and crowd response section of the rules, only half-listening until the one about how the rules wouldn't be repeated.

John wakes to noises coming from outside, a sporadic thunk as though someone with a real ax is splitting wood. He pulls his pants on hurriedly, jamming his feet into his boots, tripping down the hall and finally yanking open the door.

The entire side of his house looks like it's been used for target practice. Arrows that are clearly handmade stick out of the wall, and there are several more strewn on the ground.

"Sheppard, goddammit!"

John whips around. "Rodney?"

"My arms are tired, Sheppard. Wake up!"


"John? John!"

It's difficult to tell with all of the clouds, but it sounds as though Rodney's voice is coming from above him. John looks up, steps backward on reflex, and sits down hard on the top step leading up to the porch.

There's a large, woven basket hovering near the roof.

John looks around, and then up again. "Uh... Rodney?"

"Yes! I'm here! Where are you?" That's definitely Rodney's voice. "These shitty controls!"

The basket tilts to the side, releases a powerful whoosh of air and then drops to the ground with a hefty thump.

"And then there was a hot air balloon in the front yard," John says, moving towards it. "Why can't I see you?"

"I seem to be stuck," Rodney says. "That's just great."

"But that's absolutely you in there, right?" John asks.

"Sheppard, you utter moron," Rodney says. "Get over here."

John peeks over the rim of the basket. "Hi."

Rodney looks up at him and smiles, and all John wants to do is crawl in beside Rodney and kiss him a thousand times.

"I'm really glad to see you," John says, feeling limp with relief.

"Christ, it's cold," Rodney says. "I'm sorry it took us so long to find you."

"That's okay," John replies. "When do we leave?"

"Uh, about that," Rodney says.

Crossing his arms, John rests them on the lip of the basket. "What is that supposed to mean? We are leaving, right?"

"Yes, definitely," Rodney assures him. "Just not yet. Also, we need to tether this balloon to your island, and the sooner the better."

John starts to ask why, and Rodney interrupts him. "Look, I have a bunch of stuff to tell you, and probably a lot of it is answers, but right now, we have to weigh down the basket."

John looks around. "I've got snow, snow, and – did you bring rope?"

Rodney throws a coil of roughly-hewn rope into John's face. With Rodney at the controls and John tugging at the ropes, they get the balloon steered over to a copse of trees near the house. John wipes sweat from his face. "We can anchor it here."

Frowning, Rodney glances up at the sky and then addresses John. "Okay, I think we'll have enough time, but we have to speed things up. I am actually stuck to the bottom of the basket."

He says it with a straight face, and John's so giddy with relief that Rodney is here to rescue him that he bursts out laughing, tears of mirth filling his eyes. "What – why are you even piloting a balloon to begin with," John asks, blinking away the moisture.

"Seriously, the Q & A needs to wait, and did you get those knots tied? My fingers are numb," Rodney says.

John heaves a sigh, but heads toward one of the thickest trees, looping the rope around his wrist.

"No, no, well, okay, but it'll have to be a few trees and then somehow attached to the house," Rodney says. "As it is, we'll probably rip away part of the foundation when we leave."

"Does your balloon have rocket boosters?" John asks, because he can, because Rodney is there and he'll answer back.

"Ha ha," Rodney says, his voice muffled. "I have another rope in here somewhere."

John secures the balloon as best he can, tying down and then double-knotting the rope.

"And I have presents for you," Rodney says, holding up a parcel wrapped in cloth. "But first you have to help me with these buckles."

John swings over the side of the basket and almost lands on top of Rodney. The interior's smaller than he thought it would be, and it's a tight fit with the two of them sharing the space. John wraps his arms around Rodney and hugs him closer. Rodney responds with a heartfelt sigh, burrowing his cold nose into John's neck, but his breath is warm, and John's senses are assaulted by touch, taste, smell. He holds Rodney tighter, maybe too tight, but Rodney isn't complaining.

"'M really glad you're alive," Rodney says, tipping his head up. "I was worried, because I wasn't allowed to try and find you for a specific amount of time, and everyone knows you're a badass, but –"

John kisses him, the feel of Rodney's mouth making him groan with pleasure. "I don't care," he says. "You're here now."

Rodney's erection presses against John, and John's got both of their zippers open before they surface from the next kiss.

"Oh my god, it's cold," Rodney says. "Why is it so cold!"

"I'll warm you up," John says, fully aware of how cheesy he sounds and not caring at all. He strips off one glove, stretches out his fingers, and then takes both of their cocks in his hand.

Rodney breathes out John's name, bending his knees just enough to grind up against John's body, and John stutters out a breath. Twisting around, John pushes back, leaning in for another kiss. Rodney's hand slips in between them. He's wearing a mitten made of very soft material. John throws his head back at the touch, his hand falling away, and Rodney licks at John's neck, rubbing his face against John's beard.

"Ah, Jesus," John says, and then Rodney does something amazing with his fingers, touching the head of John's dick with the mitten, sliding back and forth, and then down over the shaft. "Rodney, fuck!"

"You couldn't tempt me more," Rodney mutters. "Thumb, now."

John obliges, hips moving restlessly as he watches Rodney inspect John's thumbnail and then suck the whole thumb into his mouth. There should be enough room to drop to his knees; he can blow Rodney while Rodney bites at John's fingers.

Rodney releases John's thumb with a wet slurp. He grins at John. "Don't fall."

"Okay," John says, and then he has to lock his knees, because Rodney's moving John's hand down to their cocks again, only he's sliding John's thumb underneath Rodney's foreskin. A bolt of heat rushes through John's body. He's eager, bumping forward, their knees knocking together, and then Rodney slips his foreskin around the head of John's cock. John's whole body freezes and then quivers; Rodney wraps his other hand around John's neck and pulls him into a sloppy kiss. Rodney's hand feels warm and furry, petting and releasing, their cocks gliding together. John concentrates, trying not to come too soon, and then Rodney says, "I missed you so much," and John shudders through an orgasm with his mouth mashed up against Rodney's, panting, delirious with pleasure.

Wrapping his hand around Rodney's, John squeezes, hard, and bites at Rodney's lips, wanting his cock drenched in Rodney's come.

"I can't believe we did that," Rodney says. "I mean, I can believe it, and I'm glad we did, but now we are going to have to really hurry."

John wears a dazed expression, so Rodney snaps his fingers a few times in front of John's nose and then points down. "We weren't sure how long of a trip it would be, and Radek couldn't promise that the basket wouldn't tip, that is, his calculations were correct, but we didn't have enough empirical meteorological data to be one hundred percent sure, so we built in some safeguards."

"Why are your feet buckled into ski boots?" John asks, staring at Rodney's feet.

"Oh my god, pay attention, Sheppard," Rodney says. "I am not kidding when I say that we have a narrow window in which to escape, and if something's messed up, we'll live out the remainder of our days here, freezing cold on this not-at-all luxurious island. Is that what you want?"

"You know it's not," John snaps. He zips up, then scrunches down to fumble with the buckles on Rodney's boots. "So much for the afterglow."

"We can glow for days once we've returned to Atlantis!" Gingerly, Rodney extricates his feet from the boots. "Carry me to the house."

John shoots him a mean look.

"Fine, I'll owe you," Rodney says. Although he does not appreciate the fireman's carry that John uses, they make it into the house without any trouble. It's very warm next to the fire, and Rodney sighs gratefully as his extremities begin to thaw out. He tosses the parcel to John. "Clean undershirt, I know how you get; some long johns and a few MREs. I had to smuggle those in under my vest, so they might be squished."

"MREs," John says reverently, fondling the packages, his eyes going glassy. "You probably don't want to know what I've been eating."

"I'll find out in the debrief anyway," Rodney says, smiling. "You've lost weight."

"Yeah, there's no powerbar tree," John replies. "Or fruit. I probably have scurvy."

Rodney looks down at his crotch. "I'm going to ignore that statement until I can burn all of my clothes and spend a day in the decon shower."

"'S probably for the best," John says, unperturbed. "So what is the plan, and how narrow is this window?"

Rodney eases closer to the fire. "Well – you remember the Ml'suk, and the city in the clouds, right?"

"Um... kind of," John says. "I remember landing in a jumper bay. Ronon was with me, and you were with Teyla."

"It'd take too long to explain everything right now, so I'll sum up," Rodney says. "The Mollusks guessed that you had the Ancient gene, and they gave you lots of Ancient toys to hold to confirm their theory. Also, they hate the Ancients, a lot. And they took out their hatred on you."

"That's rude," John offers. He's filling the heater bags with liquid from a waterskin.

Rodney continues, "There were a bunch of rules we had to follow in order to play their sick game, like waiting at least forty rotations of the planet before trying to find you, and not being able to use any 'foreign material' in our rescue plans. I think they thought we'd give up and leave you here to rot."

"Well, I am an evil gene carrier," John says, shrugging.

"Also they knocked you and Ronon unconscious, drugged you, and tied you up," Rodney says.

"And their rules said X months or cycles or whatever, before you could launch a rescue attempt?" John's face is turned away, hands busy with the MREs, but his voice is bruised.

"Yes. John, I never would have – if Woolsey had said the plan was to keep you in the dark, there would've been some extremely loud opposition." Rodney points at himself. "Me, I mean. I would have been that opposition."

"Okay, Rodney, I get it," John says, smiling. He tosses one of the moist towelettes at Rodney, props the MRE packets against the stone fireplace, then comes closer, bumping Rodney's shoulder with his own.

"I'll fill in your memory blanks later," Rodney promises. "We need to warm up, chow down, and then be on the lookout for another basket or two. They should be here soon. If not, we're definitely screwed."

"How'd you come up with the idea of balloons, anyway?" John wants to know.

Rodney doesn't mention that the stroke of brilliance had come from Radek. Rodney would have thought of it if he hadn't been recovering from physical injury, sedation, low blood sugar, and probably a concussion. "Ah, excellent question. There were really only two options for getting to you in a timely manner – by water or by air, and adding in rule five, the one about no foreign materials – well, it would have taken a lot longer to build one boat, let alone several. You have no idea how long it took us to put these balloons together."

"Uh, yeah, actually I do," John says.

Rodney lifts his chin. "We've pretty much ruined the Mollusk economy, trading or buying for almost every piece of every resource they possess. I don't know how, but Woolsey cleared it with the SGC and even secured a bunch of medicines that we traded for that mineral, cynoxium, for cloth, and also used for bribes. Apparently you need a permit to cut down trees here, which is ridiculous, they don't even live at ground-level."

John's devouring the contents of the first MRE, so Rodney keeps going. "Anyone on Atlantis who can hold a thread and needle has been spending their every spare second sewing or weaving. Did you know that Ronon can knit?"

John nods. "Yeah, he had to know how to make clothes out of virtually anything."

"Oh, because – the Runner thing," Rodney says.

"Yeah, and also because of the being trained in the military thing," John says. "But he told me that his mom taught him."

Rodney's mom hadn't been particularly hands-on with her kids, too wrapped up in writing her own papers and getting published. Rodney has watched Les Stroud make fire out of a milkweed pod and an aglet, but that's television, and Stroud's producers will come looking for him. "Can you imagine if it had been me?"

"It wasn't," John says curtly. "And screw their stupid rules, I would have been on the next jumper in to find you."

"Do you think we should've done the same?" Rodney asks, worried.

"No," John replies. "There probably would've been some retaliation. If they're that wound up about the Ancients having shafted them before..."

"Kalhar threatened Teyla," Rodney says. "He told her that if we tried to search for you early, they'd pull the crystals from the DHD, and you'd be stuck here forever. We'd never have gotten here in time otherwise. The nearest gate's about three hundred years away."

John wraps an arm around Rodney's shoulders. "You did the right thing, buddy."

"The Mollusks didn't expect us to find you so quickly," Rodney says. "Bad news or good news?"

"Good," John says.

"Well, we have a few tricks of our own with the balloons. We've made them harder to track by mixing the powdered cynoxium in with the dyes we used on the cloth, so they'll blend in with the clouds just like the Ml'suk houses do," Rodney explains.

"Wow," John says. "Your idea, right?"

"Yes," Rodney says. He can't help preening a little, but there's still the bad news to deliver. "Also, they have drones, and they know how to fire them."

"Oh," John says, sitting down on the edge of the hearth. "Yeah, that's not good."

"But I think we may have something to combat a reprisal. As I mentioned, boats would have been too slow for the second part of the plan... which came about later, actually, when I learned that the Mollusks track their island prisoners in a very distinct way."

John slices the top off of one of the MRE packets and hands it to Rodney. "They have the tech for that?"

"Oh yes," Rodney says, folding down the lip of the package. "Remember how we, uh, sort of propagated the idea of civil war, between Geldar and Hallona? Accidentally."

"Hard to forget," John replies. "Plus I got to find out all about your innermost psyche."

"Right back at you," Rodney says. "Leather daddy, really?"

John raises one eyebrow and doesn't reply. He starts rolling the meal bag up from the bottom, taking bites with the tiny spoon.

"Anyway," Rodney says, tearing his gaze away from John's mouth. "Supposedly, some of the other prisoners on the islands deserve to be there. They're Mollusks who've committed other crimes, though none so heinous as yours.

"In the central spire, there's a board that looks a lot like the ones from our, um, social experiment, and while it's primarily a life signs detector, it can also focus in on individual heartbeats. Each prisoner's heartbeat is recorded before they're shipped off to the northern wilds, and when one of the heartbeats blips out, they can notify the person's family or whatever. Kalhar wouldn't tell me if they retrieved the... the bodies or not."

Rodney clears his throat. Having to put in a request to send for John's body had not been an option.

"I would never have eaten my gun, Rodney," John says, his tone dark. "I would have lived until I was ninety just to spite these assholes."

"I know that. Anyway, we had plenty of recordings of your heartbeat on Atlantis. I guess you're in the infirmary a lot," Rodney says, trying out a smile.

John makes a defensive noise, so Rodney hurries to continue. John will probably be sensitive about this next part, but it's already done. "And, you know we have the nanite lab, and we can create more than just human form nanites."

"Yeah," John says, sounding wary. "Rodney, what did you do?"

"I created seventeen beating hearts," Rodney answers. "They should be arriving shortly."

The balloons start drifting in, one after the other until the coastline is awash in color. Everything on the island is a shade of white or brown; even his clothing is black and gray. John hasn't realized how much he's missed colors until they're all spread out in front of him in bright hues, reds and yellows on the same balloon as violet and magenta. They're all attracted to Rodney's basket, the tiny beacon affixed to the controls drawing them to the ground.

"All packed?" Rodney asks from behind him.

"Yup," John says. He's sitting on the top step, and he's wearing his fox-fur poncho, having discarded the worn-out tac vest on the floor of the house. There's a bundle wrapped up in it, but John doesn't need to see the nanite heart twitching.

They move from basket to basket, activating the hearts, one per balloon.

"Each one is programmed with your heartbeat," Rodney says. "I did all of the coding myself. There are strict parameters set on exactly what their functions are, and how long they're to keep going. I was very careful, John."

"I know. It's just weird." John makes a face at the last box.

"Fake decoy hearts in padded boxes going up in hot air balloons?" Rodney asks. "It's just another day in Pegasus."

John barks out a surprised laugh, and leans forward to kiss Rodney.

Color spikes on Rodney's face. "Okay, we do not have time for that."

"Just one kiss?" John wheedles. "Come on, we're going to be sharing a tight space for a while, we should at least get friendly."

A grin crosses Rodney's face. "Yeah, yeah, any kind of flying machine makes you hot."

They don't need to buckle Rodney's feet into the boots this time since there's more weight in the basket, and John uses his serrated knife to cut the ropes harnessing the basket to the house. There's a rush of hot air above John's head as Rodney works the controls, and as the basket rises into the sky, the other balloons follow suit, until they're cutting a swath of color through the clouds.

"Release the Kraken," he says, feeling dramatic.

Rodney laughs, handing over a gadget that looks like a primitive remote control. "You do it."

They watch as the balloons float off in all directions, and John guesses that whoever's manning the board in the main spire looks really puzzled right now.

"We're on course," Rodney says. "I really hope this works."

The ache in John's chest dissipates; he's no longer grounded.

"It'll work," John says. They're going home, and he feels lighter than air.