The knock on the door is hesitant, the tapping light enough that John could ignore the noise – he knows it's Rodney, it always is – but he's on call tonight, and Rodney is his responsibility.
The door opens to reveal the man of the hour, standing outside of John's quarters with his head in his hands. He's muttering something unintelligible; when John says his name, Rodney shivers, peeling his fingers away from his face and grimacing, although John knows it's supposed to be a smile. Rodney looks about as wired as John's ever seen him, wan and messy-haired, his teeth chattering between hurried words.
“It's – I found the – here, hi, hello, hell-oh, I have a pass,” Rodney says, hands fluttering, bouncing back on the balls of his feet. The tails of his lab coat move as he rocks forward and back.
John watches, amused. Rodney's one of the smartest guys they've ever had, and he's saved the city what feels like a couple hundred times, so they work him pretty hard. The geniuses, they tend to burn out faster than the regular super smart ones. A long while back they'd figured out how to test civilian working capacity, how to define someone's prime years in relatable numbers for the SGC. It's hard to imagine how little might have been accomplished in that same stretch of time, if they'd never known who needed to be on the front lines.
“Pass, see, I have a pass, it's the – this one,” Rodney says, a wrinkle of frustration creasing his forehead. He yanks at the key cord attached to his belt, fumbling with the card separator.
Nodding, John lets him in, not moving from his position of shoulder to the doorjamb, half-blocking the entrance. He reaches up to push the privacy button. “All right, just this once.”
“You're a pal,” Rodney says in a sudden moment of lucidity, his familiar sarcasm scorching John's ears red.
He's not a pal, and they both know it.
Shoving past John, Rodney pushes them both into the room, then makes a beeline for the line of low shelves built into a corner. He strips, tossing his balled-up clothes and tags into the cubby labeled with his name. John allows himself a few seconds of watching the whirlwind of Rodney disrobing, noting the pale skin of his back, how the muscles in his shoulders move as he leans down, and then John turns away, irritated that he let Rodney into his head.
The chain hoist is hundreds of years old, requiring use of a hand crank to bring it down out of the ceiling. John hadn't been in a good place with the quartermaster or his CO when they assigned his quarters, teams, and departments. The really good tow chains are in the practice room, and they slide seamlessly into the floor afterward, and then reattach as clean as ever.
Rodney comes back into view, naked, holding his collar. John keeps them for all his responsibilities, because he gets that they're distinct and separate people. He's not one of the old-fashioned lobbyists who talk about civilians as an indistinguishable mass, like clods on the bottom of a boot. That's not in his job description, and he's never been ordered to change his methods. Some of them take it better than others, sure, but no one's ever said anything outright, so John figures his gesture must be appreciated.
“Checklist,” Rodney says, snapping his fingers. “Checklist, check the check, the checklist --”
“Stop,” John says, putting a little steel into his voice. “Did you take your pill?”
Rodney nods his head back and forth. “Yes, yes indeed, yeppers, I – I, wait, pill? No, no, Lorne wanted me to, but I said no, nope, non, nyet. Don't like it.”
“You're kind of nuts right now,” John offers, unsure if what Rodney needs is stress management. He looks as though he might pass out, and John wouldn't mind sleeping with Rodney in his bed tonight.
“You'd be fucking nuts too, if you did ten percent of the work that I do,” Rodney says, and there's nothing in his tone to suggest he's joking.
It's probably the truth. John's a smart guy, but he grew up military, in an antithetic world from the events described in Rodney's dossier. Purportedly at age eleven, Rodney built a working atomic weapon; at age twelve, he failed all standardized capabilities testing; then at nineteen, he put together a free-standing chem lab from the ground up, rhapsodizing on science and methodology to anyone who listened; at aged twenty-two, he'd been recruited by the SGC, after attracting notice for publishing a paper demonstrating such a thorough understanding of wormhole physics that O'Neill thought they had a leak.
Rodney had taken to the Beckett therapy like a time bomb exploding in a glass house, his gene roaring to life. He'd shattered previously-held records, worked out a way to accelerate decryption of the database, and had increased the efficiency of everyone tapping into Atlantis' network, all in an astonishing show of brainpower.
His recruiter, Caldwell, advanced two ranks and had received an above-ground condo in New Tokyo. John had tried not to be envious, and then he'd been assigned Rodney as a responsibility. Now all he wants to do is shake Caldwell's hand, to congratulate him, and to thank him for his service to their planet.
“Hood,” John says.
“No,” Rodney says.
“Half-hood,” John suggests, but Rodney shakes his head.
John looks down at the list on the tablet. “Gag, then.”
“Yeah right,” Rodney says. He mimes a toss at John. “Key, give me the key.”
“What do you need the key for?” John asks, tapping the picture of the full hood on the screen. His order will be here before Rodney's out of the bathroom.
Silence. John looks up, sees the look on Rodney's face. “What?”
“You want me to piss myself, Sheppard?”
John considers that for half a second. “You don't need the key to piss.”
Rodney's calmed down a lot since John locked the collar into place. He's still shivering, involuntarily, and he's whispering something about numbers theory, Rodney's favorite topic when he's cranked out on crystals. Maybe it's whatever he and Zelenka've been working on. The pair of them are on assignment to one of the cold-temperature moons where the SGC cooks up a lot of their bioweapons, where the freeze burrows into every structure they've erected planetside. It's definitely one of the tougher environments, but a lot of the best research happens there, something to do with chromosome extraction and stunting adolescent Iratus growth.
Right now, Rodney stares at John, meanly. “I don't need – unbelievable.”
“You wear that thing all the time,” John points out. “You manage.”
The anger falls away from Rodney's face. He looks gutted.
“Sorry, slick,” John says, turning away to check the pulley. “And don't dawdle.”
The SGC retains the best of everyone who responds well to the Becketts' gene therapy. The middle tier, the ones who take to it so-so, they live out their days in the sub-basement maze of Aurora, sister mountain to main ops at Cheyenne. Reparations in the guise of insurance policies go to the family, and they send a smartly-dressed set of Reps to explain that their loved one died in service to their planet. Their name is emblazoned in the Tombs, as a hero, and it's all considered a big deal on Earth.
The civilians know that going in, of course, after they've been tested, and after they've signed their contracts. The SGC delivers a persuasive pitch, often refusing to take no as an answer, and John has admiration for these selfless people. Their volunteerism is a force of good, all points for patriotism.
Throughout John's childhood, his parents held decent if slowly rising ranks in the local administrative division, and their property skirted some of the richer provinces. John had grown up groomed, knowledgeable, and detached. He studied war and aeronautics at school, the math lining up happily next to the field strategies in his mind. His dad wanted him to go into politics, but military had been bred into John for about a thousand generations on his mother's side.
John blew through his training, could fly anything they wanted him to, could make the lights shine and dance like only a handful of people on the planet.
His father ended up having another child, a half-brother who John barely knows. John ended up a galaxy away with responsibilities to everyone, because that's what it means to be a soldier for the people.
Fishing the robe from the warmer, Rodney sits on the couch to shrug into it, letting out a sigh of contentment as it falls down around him. There's a glare directed at John anyway, and he wiggles sideways when John sits down next to him. He lets John rub his back though, in big, slow circles, then down to his shoulder and arm. With one hand, John works the cloth against Rodney's skin, waiting until Rodney stops shivering, and then stroking more gently, petting at Rodney's neck between the collar and his chin.
“Show me,” he says, laying the tablet aside. “If you don't, you take the pill.”
Rodney hates taking the pills because they blot out his memories, and he's scared when he can't remember. John's known this since their first time together, and it's an effective threat.
“Fine,” Rodney grumbles, after eying John for a moment. “But only because this is actually almost comfortable.”
Leaning back against the cushions, Rodney spreads out, bending his knees, showing off the shiny hardware between his legs.
John reaches forward and toys with the miniscule padlock, enjoying the clink of the metal. He keeps his gaze trained on the strips encircling Rodney's dick, trying to ignore the curls of hair on Rodney's thighs. “I like this on you too much.”
Rodney grabs John's wrist as he starts to move away, and they sit together for a few moments, frozen in place, listening to the sounds of Atlantis settling around them.
Lowest tier, the ones who could maybe power a lightcoil, or open a window halfway are returned to their homes, to lives that predate employment with the government. Mostly they're left alone, free to do whatever they want. Of course they're kept under carefully controlled supervision, using tech from other galaxies, since it's the least detectable. John hasn't been to Earth for a while, but he watches at the daily beam-in, every time he's on base. There are always reports of pockets of unrest, of civilian-rights activism and outright anarchy. History has shown them viable ways to combat disobedience, so it's good to know that homeland troops continue to keep Earth as safe as possible from these domestic terrorists.
On Atlantis, the news is censored. That's only because they keep the scientists pretty isolated, giving them limited options on how to spend their time.
There's work, which is preferred. Breaks for food and vitamins counts as another, though John's guarded scientists working with IV drips in one arm, nutrient bars scattered across their desks. Sleep, which is regulated for everyone, and based on current assignments and responsibilities. And then there's stress management, which is why Rodney's bound hands are hooked on John's chain hoist, and why Rodney's calves tremble as he tries to balance on the tips of his toes.
Formally it's called sensory exhaustion, and they do it to all of the scientists, to the researchers, their aides, pretty much anyone who's a civilian. Outsiders don't get inside, and they don't get inside information. That had been Sumner's standing order since their arrival, and John still feels terrible about displacing so many people, but Atlantis isn't a refuge. Atlantis is a weapon. All they have to do is figure her out.
It's John's favorite fantasy to trade places with Rodney, to experience the kind of pleasure and pain that would overwhelm him, make him black out and rest, like forcing a computer to shut down. John's never been put down hard like that, and he wonders about it, if he'd like it. He'd never risk it; it's so taboo that the fleeting thought of being discovered, of humiliating his entire lineage, makes John's guts tangle and clench even as his dick hardens.
So instead Rodney's the focus of attention, and John likes that too, more than with any of his other responsibilities.
Dragging over the stepladder, John climbs up to check the ropes looping around Rodney's wrists, to make sure the bite of the rope around his arms isn't too deep. The position has Rodney's hands behind his head, his elbows sticking out, rope twice-circling the space between bicep and shoulder, all to hold him up as a sacrifice. His pecs pull up, nipples tight, and John watches him struggle for a couple more minutes before releasing the chain a couple of rotations, letting Rodney down onto the soles of his feet.
Rodney's head sags, and through the hood, he makes a noise that John interprets as relief. He'd taped Rodney's mouth shut, then closed the bottom half of the isolation hood. He'll close up the eyepieces later on; John likes being able to watch Rodney's eyes, which seem to channel Rodney's expressions. He likes it when Rodney cries, tears absorbed into the padding clinging to his cheeks, and John likes it even more when Rodney looks angry, indignant about being made to wear the hood, or the clear desperation in his eyes when John holds him on the edge until Rodney's whole body quakes.
“The pleasure's mine,” John replies, reflexively answering Rodney in the formal way, seeing that Rodney catches it from the way his eyes widen. “Sorry.”
There's no reason for John to have said that, and he ducks his head to escape Rodney's gaze, skimming the backs of his fingers over Rodney's nipples. He continues the motion until Rodney huffs out a hard breath, and then John pushes in with his knuckles, harder with each pass. He switches to light touches whenever Rodney's thighs tense, then strokes his fingers into the gaps of the metal rings over Rodney's cock.
John licks his finger, touches it to the peak of Rodney's nipples, moving between them, and Rodney groans, the sound muffled. John strokes along the vibration in Rodney's throat, nimbly outlining his Adam’s apple, going up under the boundary of the hood, feeling along Rodney's jaw and touching the edge of the tape over his mouth.
Rodney's eyes look huge and liquid, but not in a way suggesting an imminent meltdown, so John pinches at both of Rodney's nipples, holding tight as Rodney wriggles. He spends a long time squeezing and releasing, which some of the guys call milking; whatever it's called, it makes Rodney shut up and relax, makes him more pliant under John's hands.
The tips of John's fingers look a little flattened when he lets go, so he switches to using his mouth, licking at Rodney's chest, biting his way up to a nipple. Rodney's breaths sound belabored, and John grins, abruptly changing direction and sucking a line of hickeys up Rodney's side. He worries a ticklish spot by Rodney's armpit.
“Quit moving so much,” John says, digging his thumbs in above Rodney's hipbones.
John closes the eyepieces while he gets other stuff hooked up, including a bar that keeps Rodney's ankles apart, attached to a ring in the floor.
He turns one of the fans on, cooling down the room, and rubs a dab of ointment onto each of Rodney's nipples to warm them up. John's not sure what all's in there, but the times he's used it, it made his nipples burn, a fiery sensation that had been impossible to escape. Pressure makes the burn hotter, a blaze of heat, and John pushes the heels of his hands against Rodney's nipples, proving his point when Rodney stumbles back, finding the end of the chain. He rights himself, regaining balance, and John rubs his hands in circles, daring Rodney not to fall.
John sucks at Rodney's throat, tonguing and biting at his skin, rubbing his cheek down the line of Rodney's neck. Standing, John rips open the eyepieces, feeling proud somehow, seeing marks that he'd made decorating Rodney's body. He wipes away the grease of the ointment, letting it simmer instead of burn. Clamps go on first, connected by a thin chain, and then John clips on a couple of weights.
“Mffffff,” Rodney says, twisting back and away, but John follows him, keeping a steady pull on the chain. He adds one more weight for good measure, and suddenly Rodney's back arches, using the hook for leverage and pulling the chain tighter, welcoming the pain.
John rewards him with little strokes between the bars on his dick, touches to his balls, and by petting Rodney's thighs. This time, Rodney's shivers have nothing to do with the temperature.
Because the thing is, in order to get fast results, sometimes they cut corners. They work their employees hard. Really hard. Sometimes the line between drive and force gets skirted, but progress doesn't come without sacrifice, and everyone knows that. The expectation is one of highly intelligent brains on-demand, all working on weapons and gadgets, interacting with the database and holos, lighting things up and figuring out how they work, and then how to reverse engineer and replicate it. They expect their scientists' brains to be in top working condition, because they have discovered an important thing: what feeds Atlantis best is brainpower.
And it's one thing to sketch that out to someone on Earth, but it's a crapshoot as to how they'll react when they get to Atlantis, when they arrive in what is fondly known as the War Zone. The city floats in the middle of it, protected by a shield powered by a couple of ZPMs and brainwaves, and the Wraith don't stand a chance. John's sure that they'll never get to Earth, that they'll never find it.
As disposable as the civilians often are, John knows that if it's between keeping the Wraith out and keeping Atlantis intact, it'll have been nice knowing you, and be sure to say goodbye. There had been a memo about how many failsafes Atlantis has in place (roughly a ton), but if the SGC wants her gone, she's gone. As long as the Wraith think that the only way to the Milky Way is inside Atlantis – they're golden.
Usually, John doesn't see Rodney for just enough time that he starts to miss him, and on his more cynical days, he thinks that's probably regulated too. Lately, each time he sees Rodney like this – kneeling down, head and shoulders pressed to the floor, his ass in the air – Rodney's imprint on John sears a little deeper. The shackles on Rodney's arms and wrists that hold him immobile look blue, like the tinted lights, casting everything as dreamy, the air thick between them. John's left the full, closed hood on Rodney, since the next part doesn't require as much involvement. He can open the eyepieces later, closer to when Rodney's eyes might be wet with tears.
John spreads lube on a plug, wiping his fingers off over Rodney's hole, and when he twists the blunt point of it in, Rodney moans, either cursing or praising John. Once the plug's seated, he starts the vibrations, and then steps away. There's a timer on John's watch, and every so often he gets to pull on a glove that feels scratchy on the outside, like tightly-woven wool with a little bite. He gets to rub his hands all over Rodney's body, anywhere he can reach, from elbows to the soles of Rodney's feet. He can trace a line from the base of Rodney's skull to his asshole, again and again, and let the glove rasp against the hot, tender skin of Rodney's balls.
This part lasts as long as it needs to, or as long as John wants it to, until he's satisfied that Rodney's down, and ready for more.
Mostly the practice works, and by the third or fourth time, John's responsibilities have found or created some kind of acceptance when they come to him for stress management, so it becomes second nature for them to arrive at John's door with a hesitant knock, always soft and unassuming, easily told apart from the loud pounding delivered by military personnel. It's weird to think about the role he plays in their lives, how different it is from interacting with civilians in the hallways or seeing them in the labs. Even though they'd all given consent when they signed paperwork and contracts at the SGC, the idea of mandatory stress management sends an occasional chill down John's spine. He's so lucky to have been born military.
They've been told that civilians prefer riding in the transporters alone, so John never pushes the issue, content to let them have their quirks. Military and civilians don't share mess or gym times, and obviously their brains are much too valuable for them to go off-world on offensive maneuvers.
Sometimes he wishes that Rodney would get transferred, miraculously, or that someone could buy out his contract with the SGC, but he doesn't and John can't, and no way would Director Weir go for that, anyway. Rodney's the smartest guy John's ever known, though, and so far, he hasn't shown any signs of the sickness that infects the scientists. Sooner or later, the symptoms manifest, indicating their brains are overworked or overtired. Everyone receives preventative treatments. For a while, the disease can be staved off with stress management and the resulting sensory exhaustion, acting as a kind of reboot each time the civilian wakes up, refreshed and purely him or herself, no longer high, hallucinating, or bone-weary.
Eventually, reaching that point no longer matters, and the process of connecting to the interfaces takes a more significant toll on their bodies. Next comes a sleepwalking stage, then a period of time when the person flits between a trance-like state and hyper-clarity, and finally there's a fast descent into a permanent coma. Bodies are put into stasis, while their brains remain interfaced for as long as possible.
Civilian bodies break down before the brains do, everyone knows that. Scientists know that they'll be observed, that they'll be subjected to tests and physical exams over the duration of their stay on Atlantis. What's not made apparent by the papers they've signed is that they'll never return to the Milky Way. With or without the full backing of various planetary governments, the SGC won't ever let this kind of resource go to waste. Atlantis is never stronger than when a new, constant source of energy connects to the neural network. The interfaces are designed for people who've come by the gene naturally, but modifications have proved mostly successful. Keller's Algorithm, for example, combined with a pulse of electric stimulation, usually works well enough to force a connection. It's all necessary in order to protect the people of Earth, and defending Earth will always be the highest priority of this expedition.
John helps Rodney kneel up and then flip back, lying flat on the floor. After fixing the shackles, getting them reattached at Rodney's ankles and along his arms, John slips a cuff around both of Rodney's thighs, holding them tightly together, and then hooks the nipple chain to the main hoist, high up enough for Rodney to enjoy a good tug.
Opening up the hood, John removes the fabric at Rodney's eyes, then peels back the tape covering Rodney's mouth. He slides a tiny plastic hook over Rodney's bottom lip, and attaches a nutriline. Rodney sucks on it, licks his lips, and John presses a hand over his own erection that's still tucked inside his pants.
John slips the key from his pocket, then fingers Rodney's balls for a while, leaning over him, and pinning his legs down harder. Rodney's hips thrust up when John tugs the cage down, his cock filling and growing; John grasps it with one scratchy-gloved hand and squeezes lightly. Rodney groans, hands clenching into fists by his sides. Stripping off the glove, John licks his bare palm, then rubs around the head of Rodney's dick. Leaning forward, John carefully tongues the foreskin, pushing it down, then sucking on it. He alternates between that and long, slow strokes, digging his thumbnail into the slit at random passes.
Sweat prickles across John's back, and the sounds Rodney's making fill up his ears, blocking out everything else. Rodney's body twists upward, pushing out as far as he can, and then he's coming, shouting out as spurts land on his belly.
John keeps stroking, using Rodney's come to ease the way, and he plays with the cock ring, turning it in a circle as he feels for the latch. The noises Rodney makes are decadent, and John increases the rhythm of the plug inside Rodney, turning it up so high that the noise is audible.
“John,” Rodney says, and John goes to him, lying down, propping up on one arm, and looking into Rodney's eyes. “John – John –”
John's unzipped, cock in hand, before Rodney finishes talking. He watches Rodney straining against his bonds.
“Yeah?” John makes sure to sound as lazily disinterested as possible, since that's led to some very creative dirty talk from Rodney in the past.
“'Not kidding, Sh'p'rd,” Rodney slurs out, his eyes narrowed.
“How'm I supposed to know if you won't answer the question,” John says.
Rodney makes a whining sound that skitters through John, arousal blooming across his body. The feeling smacks into his dick so hard that John's orgasm rips through him, and he splatters come onto Rodney's balls. He grits out Rodney's name and Rodney shudders, eyes squeezed shut, and then he shakes his way through another orgasm, a few more spurts onto his stomach. John drops the vibrator to low, drags his fingers through Rodney's spunk and sucks them clean, his heart pounding in his chest.
“One more,” John says, when he gets his breath back. “C'mon, Rodney, one more.” He licks the edge of Rodney's lips, tasting Rodney's sweat.
“Nuh,” Rodney says. “N'way.”
“I think you can,” John says, determined. He turns the plug back up to its highest setting yet, and slides the tips of his fingers in between Rodney's foreskin and his cock.
Rodney convulses, breath strangled in his throat, and John smiles. He knew it.
Recently, John had received correspondence that he suspected had been missent. It contained sensitive information about the evolvement of the gene therapy on Earth over the last few lifetimes. More civilians were showing stronger expressions of the gene, and more people were volunteering for the planet's benefit. Maps and charts showed growth in various geographic areas, and the percentages in the special districts represented particularly exciting news. It'd been clear that the work started generations ago by the Beckett clan was working, doing exactly what Ma Beckett had always theorized that it would.
John holds an enduring hope for his home planet, and by knowing this, he thinks maybe it'll all work out.
John likes being the one who takes Rodney out of his head, and then pieces him back together. He likes knowing he's had some kind of influence on Rodney. He doesn't want Rodney to forget him. Attending to Rodney afterward, John keeps his touches gentle, washing Rodney's limbs and getting him into bed. Everything's been removed except the collar, and John clips a cord to it, connecting it to the headboard. He attaches the main nutrient drip, which will rehydrate Rodney's body over the next several hours.
He waits until Rodney flips onto his stomach, arms buried in the pillows under his head, and then John turns the scratchy gloves inside out. He pets the soft inner side down Rodney's back, around and over his ass, down the backs of his thighs, and even his feet. Rodney arches a little in sleep, making a happy sound, and John's contented.
Reaching forward, he rubs his thumb over Rodney's bottom lip, slipping it inside until he feels Rodney's tongue against his skin.
“Until next time,” Rodney says, his voice quiet in John's ear. He drops a brief kiss onto John's temple, and John rolls over in bed, squinting while his brain plays catch-up, tucking away the use of Rodney's formal phrasing in return.
“You know you're the only one I –” Rodney starts, then breaks off. John's still muzzy with sleep, but he notices the blue privacy light has been turned off, and that Rodney's already dressed. When he meets Rodney's gaze, John's struck by the fierce expression on Rodney's face. “The only one.”
There's no good way to reply, so John says, “Yeah,” and experiences a momental craving for Rodney's understanding. John wants Rodney to know the best of him, not just these times, and not just this future.