Can't Take the Sky

Jan. 10th, 2008 08:56 am

Fandom: SG: Atlantis

Characters: Ensemble (Eventual John/Rodney)

Rating: Eventual R

Warnings: Slash, language, violence, AU

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Betas: ferret_kitty, joannindiw and I even got my gf mgbutterfly in on it. Yeah. It needed a lot of help.

Summary: Captain John Sheppard needs a new mechanic. Good thing he finds broken Rodney McKay to fix his ship.

Author's Note: So... This happened because joannindiw was like, what if Kaylee showed up in Atlantis? And we agreed that her and Rodney would get along (after he got over her not being Keller) and then we decided that River would think Rodney was completely fascinating. And then somehow it was decided that Rodney would have been captured by the evil Alliance and experimented upon had he been in the Firefly 'verse. And then I had to write it. So, Rodney's significantly younger than he usually is. And crazier. It's not a crossover so much as it's a complete AU, but the Firefly gang might show up later.

hr

New Athos is a big name for a little moon. It's like the natives assumed that a grander name would change it from the backwater Podunk little piece of nothing that it is. It's amusing, even a little bit cute, which doesn't explain why it sits just a little bit wrong with him. He's been to those big, grand places. Spent some time in luxury and riches, once. More than he likes to think about. And he'd take run down and backwater any day. It makes him wonder why they're trying so hard to be something they aren't.

Still. It isn't much to fault them for, and anyway, any port in the storm. He shuts the engine down, lets his ship settle. And then, only then, listening to the whine of the engine fading, does he jerk to his feet, snapping, "Where is that useless piece of shit?"

He's talking to himself, mostly, but Teyla answers him anyway, coming down the hall towards him with her hands already extended soothingly, "He is in the engine room, Captain, but--"

He doesn't shove Teyla, because shoving Teyla is a stupid mistake that he's seen cost men their hands before. Instead he dodges around her, flattening himself briefly against the bulkhead, because even though she's tiny she still manages to take up most of the space in the hall.

He doesn't even try to bite back on the irritation in his chest, big and huge and heavy inside his skull, because it's his ship. It's all he has, and he doesn't take kindly to people messing with it. He says, "Just gonna talk to him."

Teyla sighs; he doesn't hear her falling into step behind him but that's more because of her ability to be completely silent than any failure of his hearing. She says, disapproving, "Do not lie to me."

He pauses, looks over his shoulder, because well, it's Teyla. Half the time he's sure she knows him better than he knows himself, and he doesn't think he's that angry, really, but she's looking at him like he's going to explode. He runs a hand back through his hair, says, "It was a near thing that we didn't all die just now. I just want an explanation for why everyone on this ship almost found out what being decompressed was like first hand."

Ahead of them one of the cabin doors swings open, and he slides to the side just in time to avoid Cadman barreling into him. The blond woman pauses for a half second in the midst of tugging her coat on, and John catches a flash of guns and knives strapped to her arms and shoulders before they're hidden beneath the leather. She quirks her sharp smile at him, "Hey there, Cap'n. Who're we decompressing?"

Teyla interrupts before he can point out that she's supposed to be cleaning the cargo hold from their last haul, and also not minding his business. Teyla's saying, "No one is going to be decompressed. The captain is on his way to go for a walk to cool his head. That is all."

Cadman raises a disbelieving eyebrow, "He is?"

Right about the same time he says, "I am? And here I thought I was going to go wring that moon brained idiot mechanic's neck." And okay, apparently he is more upset than he'd realized. Because all of a sudden he realizes that had been his intention since pieces had started falling off his ship. Since he'd been forced to make this emergency landing on this little moon.

Teyla grinds out, "Captain. I believe you should go for a walk. You may speak with Kavanagh when you get back. When you are no longer so highly agitated." He gives her a blank look, because he's still pretty sure she's overreacting. It's not like he's going to kill Kavanagh for being an incompetent idiot. No matter how much he wants to.

She pulls a face at him, before finally saying, "John, stop. A corpse is the last thing we need here, not while we are looking for someone to fix what he has broken. Go for a walk, cool off, dong ma?"

And he realizes then, and only then, that his finger is curled up around the handle of his pistol, that he's gripping so hard his knuckles are white and aching. He jerks his hand away like he's burning himself, scowling at his own temper, at Teyla for being right, at Cadman for being there to see it, her mouth hanging half open as she gapes wide eyed at the pair of them.

His fingers are creeping back towards the gun, and he says, still surprised by the anger, "I'm going for a walk. See the local sights."

hr

He spends a fruitless two hours looking for anyone that appears even remotely mechanically capable. But New Athos isn't much of space port, and its people are more interested in farming and drinking than making machines work. On the plus side, there's no Alliance presence at all on the dust ball.

It's a small relief, when weighed against the fact that he's got no job, no ship in any condition to fly even if he did, and no mechanic to even try to get them airborne. He's not sure the walk has actually improved his temper at all. Case in fact, shooing Kavanagh in the head has just been looking better and better for the last hour.

He knows it wouldn't solve anything, but he's starting to think it might make him feel better.

He's gripping his gun again as he makes his way back to his ship. He did things Teyla's way, and now he's going to do things his way, be it a good idea or not. He's not seeing any need to injure the other man. Just scare him a little before dumping him here to rot on New Athos, where he can settle into a long life of potato farming.

They'd all known Kavanagh was shit at his job since they'd picked him up, but he'd been there and available and they'd needed to get the hell out of Dodge at the time. And he'd been regretting it ever since. And now he aims to end their acquaintance and pay back some of the misery the sorry bastard has inflicted on his ship.

His beautiful, perfect, ship. Who is not old, or broken down, or any of the other aspersions Kavanagh has made on her character over the month and a half he's served as mechanic. His grip tightens around the care-worn butt of his gun, and he finds himself walking faster now that he can see her, familiar and reassuring.

He's almost sprinting by the time he reaches her, and it feels good to stretch his legs. Feels good to have sky above him even as it's disconcerting to feel ground below his feet not thrumming with the song of the big engine. He's never trusted solid ground. It's always let him down, and his temporary flash of good temper is gone as quickly as it appeared.

He marches towards the open hatch, trying to decide the best way to get Kavanagh off his boat with a minimum of fuss, and gets distracted by soft mumbling, "Pegasus class, transport liner, serial number P3R-119, constructed by Essgeesee Industries, now bankrupt, assembled on core world Asg'rd--"

The words are spoken so quickly they're tumbling all over each other. John frowns, slides his gun free of his holster and drops to a low crouch. He follows the continuing, constant babble of words around the side of his ship, and then freezes.

There's a man—a boy really—that he's never seen before, pressed up against the side of his ship. John can't see much beyond the boy's hands, fingers splayed across the hull, beyond the boy's short brown hair, and his bare feet beneath ill-fitting pants.

He starts to bring his gun up, no intention beyond scaring the boy off. He's barely started the movement when the boy pushes away from the ship, leaving his hands flattened against the metal as he turns his face towards John. The boy looks dreamy, almost asleep, all big eyes, bright in the fading sunset. John clears his throat, "Look, I don't know what--"

That's when the boy's open, innocent, expression dissolves into irritation instantly. The crooked slant of his mouth settles into disgust like it was made for it, his tone waspish, "The idiot that reassembled her tactoric converters should be shot. He's got the inertial dampeners wired into the life support and her regulating system is torn to pieces."

John blinks at the boy, grip slipping away from his gun because there's nothing remotely threatening about him. At all. He walks closer, one eye on the boy, one eye on the boy's hands on his ship. He says, wondering at the proprietary air that they boy is displaying, "Know some about engines, do you? How to fix what's broke?"

The boy snorts, and then cocks his head to the side, eyes going distant, like he's listening for something John can't hear. His voice is still acid sharp, "Lots broke. Have to re-cover the secondary power conduits around the pressure relief valve and main oil conduits and rebuild all the F through H piston housings with scavenged parts because the housings were discontinued due to stress fractures in periods of extended sub light use that resulted in the death of a battalion of Alliance soldiers en route to Lantea in--"

It takes John a moment to shake himself out of the shock of realizing that the boy apparently doesn't actually have to breathe. And then he raises a hand and tries on his best non-threatening, nice guy smile when the boy freezes, words stumbling off to nothing. He braces a hand by the boy's fingers, close enough that he imagines he can feel the metal warmed by the boy's skin, "You can do all that? Put her back together?"

The boy's smile is a surprise, lights up his entire face, his whole body.Suddenly the boy is the brightest thing on the whole goddamn moon, and John sucks in a quick breath. People don't smile like that. Not anyone he's ever met.

And then it doesn't matter, because the boy's saying, "I can raise her from the depths. No place for her under the cold salt ice." And then he's pushing away from the ship, moving away from John. John reaches out without thought, grabs the boy around his upper arm, feels muscles jump and twist beneath his grip.

He says, "In case I wasn't clear, I'm offering you a way off this moon. I run a good ship, and--"

The boy cuts him off, staring down at John's fingers around his skin, like he's never seen anything quite so fascinating, "Ship won't fly. One bad apple rots the whole barrel. Have to cut off the dead weight and hope spring brings new growth. Have to thin the herd, get rid of one of your little lambs."

And he's not sure why he understands some of that craziness, why he doesn't just send the boy on his way. Why he's squeezing harder, dropping his voice like he can make the boy understand, "Look, consider the lamb slaughtered. You're telling me you can fix her and I'm telling you I need a mechanic. The pay's fair and--"

"There's dark, midnight black coming after the sun. You should cling to what light you have. Stupid is better than dead."

There's something hard and intense on the boy's face, something a lot like fear. John shifts his hold, tugging the boy around so he's shielding him from any passerby, because by the sound of things he's got the only person on this tiny world capable of getting his girl in the air, and he ain't risking losing him. He's trying to decide what could have a farm boy scared in his own back yard, figures there's a good chance it's the same thing that's been scaring boys for the last couple millenia.

The boy's certainly pretty enough; addled or not, that some fresh-faced farm girl might have taken a liking to him that her daddy hadn't appreciated.

He says, down into those wide blue eyes, "Any trouble you're in, I got guns what can solve it, if you can get her whole and in the sky again." The boy cocks his head to the side, staring up at him, eyes tracking back and forth like he's reading some internal script.

And then he nods, seems to come to a decision within himself, "I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil." The boy twists out of his grip, moving toward the hatch like he knows where he's going already, calling over his shoulder, "Don't shoot him. Leaving breadcrumb trails only feeds the crows."

John opens his mouth, to call instructions, or demand an explanation, even he's not sure. And then Kavanagh's stepping down the ramp, mouth turned down sharp in the corners, dropping a suspicious look at John's holster. The man snaps, "Teyla said you wanted to talk to me."

John takes a deep breath, says, "Yeah. Let's take a walk."

hr

His ship is curiously silent when he gets back, Kavanagh cursing him to the blackest pits of hell for leaving him here still ringing in his ears. He waits for the crawl of unease up his spine, cold panic in his gut, but it doesn't come. He stalks through the halls, hand on his gun out of reflex.

He finds his crew in the engine room. All of them. They're all completely engrossed, staring fascinated into the room, and he can guess at what. He clears his throat, leaning in the doorway, and watches with no small satisfaction as all of them but Teyla jump. He grins at the guilty expressions, drawls, "Wasn't aware I was providing you with free entertainment. You've got jobs, best get to 'em."

They clear out, Cadman elbowing him in the side as she goes, dirty smile on her full lips, "Where'd you find him, Cap'n, or is everyone here moon brained?"

He rolls his eye, opens his mouth to tell her to go get a whore—it usually improves her mood—and his new mechanic snaps from somewhere beneath one of the huge pieces of machinery, "One unattached wire can lead to an entire cabin being flooded with electricity."

Cadman laughs, big and loud, and shoves the rest of the way past him. He thinks about telling her not to start anything, but gods know that's about as useful as tits on a man. He lets her go, lets the others file past until there's only Teyla, standing beside him with her arms crossed and her eyebrows raised. He grunts, "What?"

She sighs, gives him a hard look, "Laura may not have put it as I would, but I must nonetheless share her sentiment." She drops her voice, leans closer, "The boy is...not right, John."

He squints down at her, because Teyla isn't generally prone to dramatics, but really, the boy hadn't seemed more than passing odd to him. He's sure that seventeen or eighteen years of tending potatoes would end up making everyone seem a bit touched.

He hisses, "He says he can fix what Kavanagh broke."

Teyla makes a faint sound, "Perhaps he can, but Captain, we have had enough trouble recently. I am not sure that now is the time to be expanding the crew with one so...affected." And there's a brief flash of irrational anger, because goddamn it, but he found a way to get them airborne when it should have been impossible. The least she could do was thank him.

Common sense nips his irritation in the bud. Teyla's always been the cooler head between the two of them, and he's been trusting her judgment long enough that it's become habit. He pulls her slightly out into the corridor, hisses, "Just let him fix her. We'll give him just compensation, and explain that we've no room for anymore crew, dong ma?"

She pulls a face, but apparently decides to accept the compromise. She nods, says, "I shall see about re-supplying, then." And then she's gone. John contemplates going and telling the boy the bad news, but can't bring himself to.

He curses himself for a coward, and goes to try to iron out the details of a job with Chaya.

hr

Hours later and he's got a delivery schedule he's not sure he can keep and a promise of more money than the crew has seen in months. He's on his way to his bunk, exhausted, feet dragging. Sometimes he thinks he spends so much time in the black that his body forgets how to deal with real gravity.

Raised voices distract him. Well, one raised voice and one low rumble. He hears the razor-edged voice of the boy-not-to-be-his-mechanic, "Vibrations from re-entries to atmosphere improperly calculated have weakened the locking seal. The longer it remains broken the greater the chance of your shuttle being separated from the ship, leaving both vessels exposed to--"

He comes around the corner to find the boy standing off against Ronon. It's almost comical. The top of the boy's head only reaches Ronon's shoulder, but he's standing with his hands on his hips and his chin jutted out, a picture of irritation and indignation. Ronon has his arms crossed, looks a mix between amused and irritated, flashes his eyes towards John when he comes around the corner.

Ronon rumbles, "Sheppard. What's this?" the big man waves a hand at the mechanic, who spins to face him. The boy's eyes flash, all anger, and John feels himself grin in response. He can't help it, the boy wears his emotions so nakedly that he doesn't know how else to respond.

The boy's snapping, "Can't work with hands tied and he'll break her wings before the feathers dry." And John has to admit that possibly Teyla is more right than he'd been willing to accept, because the boy talks crazy when he's not talking about engines.

Still, he talks engines like no one's business, and John flicks his gaze to Ronon, "You impairing the progress of our new mechanic?"

Ronon grunts, but his gaze turns more speculative, less irritated. He moves to the side, and the mechanic makes a pleased sound before pushing his way into Ronon's shuttle. The Companion arches an eyebrow at John, arms still crossed over his chest, oil slick muscles shiny in the light of the hallway. The man rumbles, voice low and thick, "Finally get rid of our dead weight problem, Sheppard?"

He shrugs, leans his shoulder against the wall and watches the boy settle onto his haunches in the doorway, start pulling wires out of the wall and mumbling softly to himself. He says, "Got a job taking us up near Sanctuary, if you've got business what could use doing there."

Ronon rumbles, nods, "Let you know." And then he's leaning over, his shadow covering the boy as he says, "Gonna be long, kid?"

The boy pauses, freezes in the midst of winding two wires together. John can't see his expression, but he can see the way the boy's head twitches, three little jerks to the left before he's snapping, "Forty-three minutes, not counting time for interruptions for stupid questions."

Ronon snorts, it's the closest to a laugh John's heard from him in the entire time he's been on the ship, "And how many of those are you counting on?"

Another pause, and the boy turning to look up into Ronon's face. John can read irritation in the boy's expression, but also something like honest puzzlement, almost warmth. Some of the sting has leeched out of the boy's voice, "Counting that one?"

Ronon does laugh, then, big and booming, and ruffles the kid's hair on his way into his shuttle. He calls over his shoulder, voice echoing off the metal walls, "Keep the kid around, Sheppard. I like him."

John doesn't respond, just watches as the kid dances his fingers over the guts of his ship, competent and quick and smooth. He thinks about Teyla, and feels a bitter twist in his gut. He turns and walks away, because he knows she's right, as much as he really, really wants her to be wrong.

hr

He manages a few hours sleep, listening for the creaks of his ship around him, discomforted by their absence. He wakes up irritated, with half remembered nightmares still playing out on the insides of his eyelids. Tugs his shirt on and his suspenders over his shoulders, drags his hand back through his hair and goes to beat the day into submission.

The first step of which is always coffee. He slumps into the mess to find Weir already there, one of her elbows on the table beside her bible, though she's not looking at the book. She's got a soft smile on her face, hair curly today, falling around her jaw. He slaps his hand on the table on the way by, just to see her jump, flashes her a grin when she glares up at him. It's only then that he rumbles, "Morning."

She hums, lips pressing together into a smile, opens her mouth. Another voice cuts over hers, "Behind the cheese." John blinks, gears in his brain grinding together before he realizes that it's the kids voice, and that he's half in the ceiling, braced on a table with one foot, arms and shoulders disappearing up into the metal.

John stares at him, still wearing those too-big pants that hang low on his sharp hips, shirt riding up over a pale stomach as the boy stretches even further upward. He's barefoot still, too, toes flattened on the table as his other leg shifts out to the side, balancing himself, John assumes.

He drags his eyes away when Weir clears her throat, meets her arched eyebrow with another grin. He then saunters his way over to the counter, snags a coffee cup and kicks the fridge open, hoping that Teyla got some milk during her re-supplying. It's a luxury they don't get to take with them in the black, and happens to be the only thing that makes drinking coffee anything but a necessary chore.

He doesn't see any, though, and curses around the aggravation in the back of his throat. Leans further over, and starts shoving the other food—mostly protein—to the side, looking for a glass bottle filled with white ambrosa. And there it is. He shoves the cheese aside, half-fills the mug with milk before topping it off with coffee.

He swaggers his way back over to Weir, leans against the table and nods his head at the boy, "He been there long?"

She shrugs, "Since I got here." And then her eyes are suddenly serious, she's setting her own coffee aside and closing her good book, "Where did you say you found him, Sheppard?" He stares down at her hard, trying to read this sudden change in mood, the fishing for information. He's never been sure how to read her, never sure what possessed him to bring a preacher on his boat in the first place.

He nods at the boy, "Outside."

She hums again, folding her fingers around her cup, eyes sliding over to the boy. There's something contemplative, almost weighing, on her face, and he feels a sudden jerk of surprise. He wouldn't have bet on her looking for one so young. Still, he supposes he can almost see the appeal.

She says, "Teyla told me what you'd discussed." He raises an eyebrow and waits, because that's obviously a lead in to something more. He doesn't have to wait long, "I disagree. Do you think it's coincidence that we find him right when we had such—"

He snorts, cuts her off, "Don't start that shit with me, Weir. I stopped believing in destiny a long time ago. Ain't no grand plan beyond what we make ourselves, and none of that's written in stone."

And then the boy is falling, landing in a crouch on the table, eyes flashing like a wild animal's when John looks towards him. There's a screwdriver in one of his hand, a heavy wrench in the other, and his shoulders are tense, his expression feral and John is reaching for Weir, blood burning with adrenaline.

But the boy doesn't come at them, steps down off the table with unnatural grace, voice low and intent, "The corpses come, the cold hands, have to leave, have to go before they steal the lightning." John opens his mouth to demand that the boy make sense, and then Cadman is throwing herself into the room, breathing hard.

She says, after swallowing down a desperate breath, "We got a ship just breaking atmo on sensors, Cap'n. She's putting off Alliance codes, and she ain't happy."

John jerks his head back to the boy, who is vibrating in his own skin, tapping the wrench and screwdriver against his thighs in a constant, jerky rhythm. John moves towards him, hands out, pacifying, because the boy looks like he's going to stroke out, says, "Can we get airborne, can we make it to the black?"

For a long second the boy just stares, all pupils, fear, and then he's saying, "Three hundred and twelve." He bumps into John on his way past, sprinting towards the doorway, and his skin is burning hot, sweating. John watches the boy just shove Cadman out of the way, ducking under her arm.

He calls after him, "Three hundred and twelve what?"

He barely hears the boy, "Seconds!"

hr

He runs to the bridge, throws himself into the pilot's seat, glancing down at his watch to see how many minutes he has left before the boy's deadline. Three minutes left. He taps his watch, like that'll possibly make time speed up, and clenches his teeth. And doesn't pray, because he has no god to pray to.

Teyla sticks her head into the cockpit, says, "What is going on?"

He turns to look at her over his shoulder, smiles big and dangerous, "Boy says he can get us in the air." He shrugs, taps his watch, "Got two and a half minutes left. Might be a rough ride, best get everyone strapped in."

She frowns, "John—"

And he snaps, "Get everyone strapped in, Teyla, we got trouble and we don't have time to talk about this right now." She stares for a long second, like she plans to argue, and then she whirls, sprinting back down the hall, yelling for everyone to strap in.

He watches the seconds drain away, and then, thirty seconds before they hit the wall, the ship rumbles to life around him. He can feel the change in the engines, smoother, singing beneath his hands, and he leans his head back and crows with delight.

The ship responds like a dream under his hands, and then there's nothing but stars, all around him, beautiful and sweet as sex. The planet falls away into the background, the Alliance ship forgotten like the refuse it is, and there's nothing but the black, surrounding him. Welcoming him home.

He doesn't get to bask in the afterglow very long, Cadman's bursting into the room, voice worried, "Cap'n, you best get down to the infirmary, we've got trouble."

hr

Trouble turns out to be the boy, laid out on one of the medical beds, his head thrown back, making tiny animal sounds as he flails his hands around. Carson is hovering over him, trying to get a hand on his jerking limbs, failing. The boy moves fast. More than fast.

John marches over to the bed, grabs the boy by the elbow, and then curses and almost lets go. The boy's hands are blistered, ugly burns over his palms and up his fingers. John hisses, "What the hell happened to him?" The boy's skin is still hot under his touch, like he's running a fever, and he's shivering, shaking, trembling.

Carson flashes him a look between irritated and relieved, starts scanning the injured hand John's holding, motioning for him to grab the other. The doctor's talking while he works, "Donnau ask me. Teyla brought the lad in like this."

He looks around, like he'll find Teyla in the room even though he knows she wasn't there a moment ago. She's still not there, but the boy on the bed twists again, babbles, "Had to manually connect the coolant manifolds, had to keep the engine from blowing up, had no time, had no more seconds. The dead men were crawling out of their graves to get me."

He even sounds hurt, and John tries to gentle his hold on the boy's wrists, "Hey, no dead men. We're in the black now, dong ma? You did good, kid."

The boy smiles, huge and bright, and it makes him look even younger. Carson says, carefully, already treating the boy's wounds, "What's his name, then?" And at John's abashed look, because, yeah, it would make sense to know the kid's name, wouldn't it, "You don't know his name?"

The boy's still grinning, smiling at John like he's the only thing in the room, "Rodney."

John smiles back, though he thinks maybe he shouldn't, shouldn't let himself get friendly, because he knows that Teyla'll want to drop the kid off on the next no-name moon they visit. That's not stopping him from dragging his thumb down the inside of the boy's wrist, saying, "Well, Rodney, welcome to the Atlantis."

The boy sighs, happy and content, and then his eyes roll back in his head and he goes limp.

hr

Part Two: Sanctuary

Carson looks a mix between exasperated and relieved when John makes it back to the infirmary to check on their guest a day later. Rodney's sitting on one of Carson's counters, hands in his lap, staring at something above Carson's head. The kid's smiling, lopsidedly. For a second John pauses, one foot inside the door, staring at the bandages on the boy's wrists, the way his eyes track back and forth.

It's a surprise when Beckett appears at John's elbow, the doctor's voice pitched low, "He won't stop staring. He just—"

John's vaguely aware of his medic continuing to babble at him, but he's not listening anymore. Rodney's eyes have dropped to look at John, and he feels like the boy might be poking around inside his skull, might be staring right into him. John sucks in a quick, surprised breath, and Rodney slides off the counter, head cocking to the side.

When Rodney makes as though to step towards him John jerks his gaze away. Focuses back on Carson, ignoring the odd look the doctor is giving him, says, "How's he doing?"

It's Rodney that answers, "Worried that the blisters will pop and allow bugs to crawl up in my arms." The boy's looking over Carson's head again, his expression suddenly grim, the corners of his mouth dipping down. When he speaks again he sounds like he's reading a book, "The swelling and blistering that are characteristic of burns are caused by the loss of fluid from damaged blood vessels."

The boy frowns hard at Carson for another moment before raising his hands and staring at them. Carson makes a frustrated sound, grabs John's arm and shakes him before blurting, "And he keeps doing that! It's driving me to distraction!"

John sighs, "Figured you'd be thrilled to have someone that actually listened to a gorram thing you said, Doc." Carson shoots him an unreadable look, and John relents. It's never a good idea to have a pissed off medic, and besides, the kid's probably sick of sitting in the infirmary.

John waves Rodney forward, says, "How about I give you the grand tour?"

hr

Of course, Rodney already knows where everything is. He's rattling off information about each room as they reach it, the square footage, any systems in need of repair, and how he's going to repair them. John's impressed in spite of himself at how thorough the boy's managed to be in his brief time aboard. He ends up trailing a half-step behind Rodney as they traverse the ship in a whirlwind of information and too-big hand gestures.

It might be the most entertainment John's had in some time.

They pass Teyla in the hold where she's doing her stretches. John watches her tense up at the sound of Rodney's voice, feels a bit guilty about interrupting her. He's surprised when the boy lowers his voice to almost a whisper, surprised by the way Rodney's shoulders are suddenly every bit as tense as Teyla's.

He wouldn't have thought that Teyla would make her uneasiness with the boy known, but Rodney is obviously aware of it. John frowns, and lets Rodney rush them out of the hold, down hallways and past the crew's cabins. He's half-distracted and almost runs into the boy when Rodney suddenly jerks to a stop.

The boy's staring at one of the cabins, his head cocked to the side, one hand half extended towards the door. It takes John a second to realize that it's Kavanagh's old bunk, and he wonders suddenly if there's a nasty surprise waiting behind the door for him. He hadn't really given the old mechanic any time to collect his possessions, and the idea of having to dispose of his things isn't pleasant.

He has no time to hide his grimace over the thought of it when Rodney turns to face him, eyes big and confused. The boy is scowling, still reaching for the door, like he hasn't decided if he should open it or not. Rodney's voice is distracted when he says, "Empty. Lonely. Trying to fill up the hole. Yelling is better than nothing."

John shifts, suddenly uncomfortable. Slams his own palm down over the door control, if only to dispel the atmosphere of sadness that's settled over them. And then for a long moment all he can do is stare. Kavanagh's bunk is disturbingly empty. There are no personal effects besides the clothes sticking out of a battered suitcase at the foot of the man's mattress. It's eerie.

Beside him Rodney makes a soft, sad, sound, and pushes into the room. He's surprised when the boy kneels in front of the suitcase, pops it open, and starts going through the clothes. John says, "Uh," and makes a helpless gesture when Rodney looks up at him.

The boy stares for a second, before shrugging and tugging his shirt off. John startles, turns to face the hallway so quickly that he almost slams his face into the doorframe. Behind him he can hear the soft sounds of fabric against skin, and he asks, carefully, "What are you doing?"

Rodney's touch on his shoulders is such a surprise that John very nearly jumps. He hadn't heard the boy cross the room, and he's starting to think that everyone on his crew must have some kind of magical mute button that allows them to sneak around without his notice. He's just about to say so when the boy pushes past him, hair mussed from his wardrobe adjustment.

John stares. Rodney's got one of Kavanagh's shirts on. Somehow, it fits him even worse than his previous rag, and John clears his throat, "That's called stealing."

Rodney shrugs, tugging at the shirt, trying to tuck it into his pants and giving that up for a loss after a moment. After watching him fruitlessly wrestle with it John snaps, bats the boy's hands away and ties the front of the shirt into a rough knot at his hips. It results in a sliver a skin showing all the way around the top of the boy's pants, but it also takes care of the loose fabric.

He braces his hands on his own hips, examining the knot to make sure it's not in any immediate danger of coming free, and Rodney says, "Nine tenths of the law says it's mine." The boy sounds just a little indignant, and when John looks up he's got his arms crossed over his chest, wearing a sour expression.

And John figures what the hell. It's not like Kavanagh's going to be using the damn things anymore. He shrugs, "Fine. It's yours. We'll call it recycling." He extends an arm, motioning to the corridor still unexplored before them, "Done?"

That's all it takes to get Rodney explaining to him exactly why the wear patterns of improperly recycled air through the vents have led to the beginnings of rust in the vents along most of the starboard side of the ship.

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Rodney doesn't hesitate until they're at the bridge. He pauses there, chewing on his lip and staring at the floor. John gives him an impatient look that goes unnoticed, and opens the door himself. The cockpit is familiar and welcoming and his, and he sinks down into the pilot's seat with something like relief swelling in his chest.

The auto-pilot still has them pointed towards Sanctuary, their long range sensors are showing nothing but stars. All is well, except that Rodney is still hesitating in the doorway, shifting his weight from foot to foot like he wants to step inside and can't bring himself to.

John looks at him over his shoulder, drawls, "In or out, Rodney."

The boy startles with a guilty look, but then he's stepping carefully through the door, moving with exaggerated care over to the co-pilot's seat. John bites his own tongue to avoid blurting that he can't sit there, that no one sits there, not since Ford—

Rodney is sitting on the edge of the seat like it might swallow him if he leans back in it. The boy's radiating tension, staring out into the darkness of space, mouth set and grim. John takes a deep breath, says, "Look, I've got some minor course corrections need making. Best you just sit and relax for a few minutes."

He's aware that Rodney's staring at the side of his head, but John doesn't lift his gaze from the instruments spread out before him. A long moment later he hears the boy settle back against his chair, hears him make a soft, content sound, and John smiles with the side of his mouth turned away from Rodney.

When he finishes, when they're on a more efficient course towards Sanctuary and he's sent out a message telling Chaya they'll be there within the week, he turns to face the boy. Rodney's curled up in the seat, eyes closed, a soft smile on his lips. John thinks he's asleep, right up to the moment where the boy blinks groggily up at him. His own voice sounds soft, unfamiliar to him, "Want I should take you back to Carson?"

Rodney bobs his head agreeably, says, "Don't want the bugs to eat me from the inside out."

And John thinks that maybe he needs to have a talk with Carson about appropriate explanations for medical treatment to clearly naïve boys who've probably never seen half the incomprehensible machinery in Carson's infirmary.

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That night John dreams odd dreams.

In them he's lying in the infirmary, listening to the soft beeps and humming of Carson's equipment, blinking into the gloom that surrounds him. He can feel Carson, across the room, a warm, deep, presence that makes him feel sleepy and heavy. He can hear the other man typing, can hear each individual depression of a computer key. His brain buzzes with the informational input, trying to decode the patterns that Carson's tapping out.

It's unintelligible gibberish—beautiful as the sunrise over the flat land of the White Plains, eyes like cornflower petals, skin touchable as silk, wild as an unbroken mare, loud as the sparrows in father's barn in those brief spring months—

It makes his head ache, all kinds of want and need seeping out of the words and into the beat of his pulse. He wants it to stop, and is relieved when the door opens, right up until he realizes who stepped through. There's a pulse of unease, something almost as bitter as fear in the back of his throat. A flash of blue hands reaching for him and a drop of liquid hanging on the point of a needle, catching the light and fracturing it into a thousand different pieces, broken past his ability to fix.

He pretends to sleep, in the dream, hears Carson's voice, soft and pleased and drenched with embarrassment, "Oh, Elizabeth, I didn't expect to see anyone else in here so late. Do you need something to help you sleep?"

Elizabeth's voice is friendly, "Actually, I was just looking for some conversation. Sometimes it still gets to me. Being on a ship like this. I thought a friendly face might help, and knew you kept late hours. Do you mind?" Carson is shoving aside a pang of regret, sadness, loss. Elizabeth is blank as a canvas drenched in bleach.

John shivers, almost misses Carson's reply, "No problem at all, love. Have a seat. Could I get you some of the monstrosity we're calling tea? Maybe something a little stronger? Brandy has no problem keeping, you know."

Elizabeth laughs, her voice is bells and angels and the sad notes of a piano played by rain drops, "Tea sounds wonderful. I'll pass on the libations, of course." And Carson's relieved, because he'd been saving his liquor for something special, for long blond hair and curves and the shine of light on the edge of a knife, a smile as wicked sharp as a razor.

There's silence as Carson fusses with his teapot, John can smell the herbs, drenched in preservatives and pesticides. The steam is a reminder of the heat of the engine, kissing up against his skin, more painful than pleasant. He tries not to stir, tries to keep his breathing slow and even and careful. Elizabeth says, "This is excellent, Carson."

And Carson laughs and says, "Unlike some of our crew I have read that good book of yours, preacher. Enough to know that lying is every bit as frowned upon as the intoxication you avoided earlier."

Elizabeth hums around a mouthful of tea, bitter but not as bitter as some things she's drunk. Not as foul as the big pills she swallowed once, the ones that had caught in her throat, landing like little bombs in her gut, even worse when she'd gagged them up later. "How's our new mechanic?"

Carson sighs, "Physically he'll be fine. The burns are barely second degree. He must have barely touched it at all." Carson hadn't thought that at first. He'd seen bloody hands, seen panicked eyes and thought the worse, thought he'd lose another person on his table, wounds he couldn't mend, life pumping out with each beat of the heart.

Weir's voice is soft, she's gone blank again, "Physically?"

Carson hesitates, there's a spark of regret swallowed by the greater need to talk, "Well, he's obviously addled. I wouldn't go so far as Lau—as Cadman—does, but there's no doubt that the boy is, well, a wee bit damaged. I'm willing to bet it's harmless, though."

Elizabeth is silent, for a long moment, her hands are warming around the tea cup. She says, "Harmless. Hm." John wakes up when she stands, when she sets the tea cup down with barely a whisper of sound. Her final words chase him into the waking world, "Thank you for the company, Carson. I think I'll be able to sleep now."

John wakes up panting, staring into the darkness of his room, wondering what the hell that was all about. Beside him, the clock says it's two in the morning.

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Rodney's waiting for him outside the cockpit in the morning, leaning his shoulders against the wall, staring up at the ceiling with a distant expression on his face. His hands are still wrapped, but with substantially less cloth. Half of his fingers, skin red and agitated but not blistered, are free.

John says, "Ni hao," which earns him a blank look, and then a careful smile. Rodney's got dark circles under his eyes that weren't there last night, is wearing another of Kavanagh's shirts, tied in the front the same way. When it becomes obvious after a moment that Rodney isn't going to answer John shrugs, steps past him into the cockpit.

Rodney hesitates again in the doorway, and John rolls his eyes, says, "C'mon, kid."

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By the time they land on Sanctuary Rodney's hands are fine, if a little pink. He's also permanently covered in grease, is wearing a smear of it high on his right cheek and down the line of his neck every time John sees him. Not that he sees the boy that often.

Rodney spends most of his time buried in Atlantis' guts, as far as John can tell. He doesn't eat with the rest of the crew, and John would worry that he wasn't eating at all except that he finally catches the boy squirreling food into his cheeks late at night. Rodney freezes when he catches him, a hunk of cheese halfway through his lips, eyes wide and startled.

John watches, then reaches out and pushes it the rest of the way into the boy's mouth. Says, "You know, you drag yourself out of that engine room every now and then and you'll find we have three hot meals around here a day."

Rodney stares at him for a moment, before absently licking his lips. John reaches out without thinking, grabbing another piece of cheese from the plate Rodney has set beside him on the counter and offering it up. When Rodney leans forward far enough to take the cheese from his fingers, lips a wet brush against John's skin, he shivers, turns on his heel, and marches out of the mess.

Still, Rodney shows up almost every time John heads into the cockpit to correct their course. He always ends up curled up in the co-pilot's seat, eyes closed, dreamy smile on his lips. John would say something about it, except that it's the only time he sees the boy relax, and besides, it's not like Rodney talks or does anything distracting.

Of course, Rodney more than makes up for the fifteen minutes of silence every other minute of the day. The boy talks like he's got too many words inside and letting them out is the only thing he can do to keep from exploding. John catches him babbling excitedly to Ronon, or Carson, or to himself more often than not.

All of which makes it even more obvious that Rodney doesn't talk to Cadman or Teyla, and that he tiptoes around Elizabeth like she might bite him if he gets too close. John figures the boy's probably just shy around all the pretty girls. He'd seen what New Athos had to offer as far as the fairer sex went. He can understand Rodney being a little gun shy.

Especially around Teyla, who corners John inside his quarters the morning before they're due in Sanctuary. She has her arms crossed, says, "John," and the flat, serious tone of her voice makes him curse and wave her in.

He rubs a hand back through his hair, contemplates that maybe it's time to get a hair cut while they're planet side because he's never letting Cadman near his head with scissors again. He opens his mouth to tell her that he hasn't forgotten, that he knows they've got to ditch the kid. He never gets the chance.

She holds up one hand, staring at the wall somewhere over his left shoulder, "I do not like it, but he should stay." And then she's turning on her heel, marching out his door, calling over her shoulder, "I will see you at breakfast, Sheppard."

For a long moment he stares after her, and then he shrugs. He goes to find Rodney, to tell the boy to make him a list of parts that they need from port, to tell him to unpack Kavanagh's suitcase.

He finds Rodney at the breakfast table, sitting in a chair away from everyone else, inhaling his fried protein. He feels all his words die in his throat, watching the boy push his food around with his fingers. John only realizes how long he's lingered in the door when Rodney straightens, turning to look at him, his lips shiny with grease when he says, "Saved you some."

John decides to make an exception, and sits between Rodney and Teyla instead of in his usual chair.

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They land on Sanctuary at noon, where the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and somewhere money is waiting to change hands. He goes to find Rodney, to get his parts list, and doesn't have to look very far. Rodney is standing outside the cockpit, arms crossed and chin tilted up like he's preparing for an argument. John raises an eyebrow at him, says, "Got my list?"

Rodney smiles, says, "Yes." And doesn't elaborate.

John leans against the door, since Rodney's effectively blocking his way forward. A quick look up and down reveals the boy's made the effort to acquire shoes and actually wear them for once. Other than that it's the same too-big clothes that John's gotten used to. He says, "Can I have it?"

Rodney's smile slips to something almost devious, it's an expression John's not seen him wear before. The boy says, "So you can take it with you?" John thinks that it would be fitting if Rodney were rubbing his hands together. Or possibly cackling.

He drawls, "Yes. Got it in one."

Rodney brightens even further, and his arms aren't crossed anymore. He taps the side of his own head, and says, "Don't trust anyone else. People get confused. Can't read. I need to make sure everything is right. Make sure they don't buy her clothes too small, don't get her colors she doesn't like."

And since John can't think of a decent reason for the boy not to tag along he grins, says, "Cadman was going to get your stuff. Best you go catch up with her." The boy makes a face, but then bounces on the toes of his feet and spins around, heading off to find Cadman.

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Teyla's quiet all the way to Chaya's place, a silent presence at John's side through the dusty streets. Sanctuary is noisy enough to make up for her reticence, there are vendors occupying every available space, consumers winding in and around the stands bartering and arguing exuberantly.

John twirls a toothpick between his teeth with his tongue, squints against the harsh yellow light of the two suns this world circles. The air smells like fresh cut grass and rain, the people smell like sweat and dirt, and John already misses the metal and grease smell of his ship.

He rolls his shoulders back, comforted by the weight of his gun at his hip, by the pull of his heavy leather coat over his shoulders. The black is slightly uncomfortable in the heat, but it's nothing he can't stand. Even if it does mean he can feel lines of sweat tracing down his back, sticking in the cotton of his shirt, soaking into the waistband of his pants.

He says, "So."

And Teyla says, "He is a good mechanic."

They lapse back into silence, the scuff of their boots over hard packed dirt, the soft creak of their leather. And then they're in front of Chaya's, the fine stone front of her business, the looming wooden doors. He sighs, pulls his gun free of the holster and checks it one final time before saying, "Ready to work?"

Teyla doesn't dignify it with an answer. Just pushes into the building. He takes a deep breath, lets a smile stretch across his face, and follows her. It's cool and dark in the foyer, all marble floors and rugs laid out across the stone. The electric lighting is dimmed down to the point of making everything vague and shadowed.

The guard behind the desk looks at them hard for a moment, and then smiles and removes his hand from below the desk. John can hear the soft click of a safety being thumbed back on, and smiles back, jerking his chin towards the staircase at the back of the hall with a questioning lift of his eyebrows. The guard waves an absent hand, says, "She's expecting you."

Teyla makes a soft, scornful sound, and John nods to the guard before nudging her shoulder towards the stairs.

It's brighter, upstairs. Chaya's easy enough to find, standing before a huge open window, one hand tangled in the gauzy curtains as she stares down at the street below. She's gilded with light, it turns her white dress almost iridescent, and has her skin glowing. John feels something in his gut clench, unpleasantly.

John clears his throat, and Chaya spins towards them with a smile on her full lips. Chaya's voice is honey soaked sweetness when she says, "Good, you're here. Shall we get down to business, then?"

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Cadman shifts the cigar to the other side of her mouth, puffs on it until she can taste the tobacco not just in her mouth but feel it down her throat and in her lungs. Carson gives her hell every time he catches her smoking one, but she figures that one every time they manage to get planet-side ain't actually likely to do her much harm.

Besides, she's pretty certain that a bullet or a knife or something nastier is gonna end her life before the cancer that Carson spends so much time worrying his crazy head over can get her.

Irritated by the slant of her thoughts, she chomps harder on the cigar, and cuts her eyes sideways to the man walking beside her. The new mechanic is humming softly under his breath, looking with wide eyed awe around the open air market. He looks different in the sun, his skin not so pale with the golden light kissing off of it.

He's shiny, and if she hadn't walked in on Sheppard hand-feeding him the other day she might have told him so. Cadman rather likes having steady meals and pay she can mail home to her momma to help with the little ones, and no quick roll is worth messing that up for.

They've been walking around the market for the last few minutes, the parts that they'd needed to pick up for the ship bought and paid for and being delivered by the three big sons of the salvage operator. She'd have liked to swing by and see one of her girls, Maggatha or Ambre, but she's not sure what to do with the mechanic.

If she takes him back to the ship then there'll be no time to see the girls and blow off some of the tension crawling around under her skin. If she leaves him on his own she's almost certain he'd wander off, and she's plenty smart enough to know that the captain wouldn't take well to his little charity case being misplaced. And somehow she can't picture either Maggatha or Ambre being thrilled with the extra company.

She puffs hard on the cigar, shoves her hands deeper into her pockets, and watches Rodney jerk to a stop. He's moving towards a stand before she can stop him, and she rolls her eyes, and follows. By the time she catches up he's already curving his shoulders over the counter, running the edge of one finger carefully down the side of some ugly orange sculpture. There's something almost endearing about the way he focuses on the butt ugly thing, she can feel her mouth twitching up into a smile without her consent.

And she figures what the hell, ain't like she's got anything better to do. She steps forward, leans her elbow onto the counter beside the ugly statue and pokes at it. That's about when the shop owner comes rushing up. She catches sight of a smudged, dirty, face, a handlebar mustache, and a shiny bald head. And then the man has Rodney by the wrist, jerking the mechanic's arm up and twisting it hard, spitting, "Thief! Thief! Did you think I would not see you—"

Cadman drops her hand to her gun on autopilot, has it out of the holster, the safety off, the muzzle kissing against the vendor's temple, within seconds. Rodney's hand twitches in the man's hold, long fingers curling up against his palm in a facsimile of a fist, and she grinds out of the corner of her mouth, "Is it really worth it, hwun dan? Cause if it is, go ahead."

The shop owner is looking at her out of the corner's of his eyes, little pig eyes bugging out of his bloated face. She can see the movement when he tightens his hold on Rodney's wrist, just like she can hear the soft whimper it drags from the mechanic's throat.

She grins, snarls, "Xie-xie." The shop owner has just enough time to flare his eyes open in surprise and then she's bringing her free hand up, fingers digging through the man's greasy beard to the delicate throat beneath. He makes a strangled sound, and she draws her gun back, smacks him hard across the face and smiles grimly when he collapses to the ground.

Rodney is staring at someplace over her head when she turns back to him. It's a habit of his that she's noticed, and she figures it's better than him staring a little bit below her face the way most men do. Besides, one quick snap of her fingers below his nose has him meeting her eyes.

Cadman points at the ugly orange statue, says, "You want it? We'll consider it recompense for emotional damages if'n you do."

For a long moment Rodney just stares at her, and then his eyes cut towards the orange thing. And Rodney's jack shit at hiding his emotions, she rolls her eyes and snags the thing, tucks it under her arm and slides her gun back into her holster. Cadman says, "You okay?"

Rodney smiles across at her and rubs at his wrist absently. There's some bruising, already staining his pale skin purple, but it's gonna be small change compared to the pain the store owner's going to be in when he wakes up. Rodney says, "You should wash your hands. Greasy."

She rolls her eyes, and out of spite grabs him by the shoulder with the hand that had been smashed up against the store owner's filthy facial hair. She says, "Cap'n should be done by now."

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An hour later, after more tea ceremonies than John cares to think about, they have a contract and a shit load of money in the bag he swings over his shoulder. Most of it they don't get to keep, of course, but there's an extra bonus for them personally insuring the safe delivery of payment as well as goods. He lets Teyla precede him down the stairs, ignores the scent of Chaya's perfume as she follows him.

Chaya's saying, voice a low purr, "I'll be expecting you back in sixteen days. Please, do not be late. My clients have left me with very strict instructions on when they're expecting the delivery." He doesn't ask what the delivery is. It didn't take very long in this line of work to figure out that there are some questions best left unasked.

John herds Teyla towards the door, not that he's having to put very much effort into it. She's booking it towards the exit, her shoulders set grim and angry. John speeds up his own steps, fast as he can go while still walking. John drawls, "When have we ever let you down?"

Teyla pushes out the door, the noise of disgust she makes almost swallowed by the creak of the wooden door. John follows her, and Chaya's still on his heels, stepping out into the sunshine behind them. Chaya's saying, "Well, you certainly never did." He ignores the leer in her voice, and regrets once more the hunger for touch that had driven him into her bed those years ago.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. She'd been beautiful and available and he'd been lonely and desperate. Although, the sex had been, if nothing else, a learning experience. It had been lesson number one on why it was a bad idea to sleep with one's occasional boss.

John blinks against the sudden glare of the sun, scanning the passerby in the road for Cadman's shock of blond hair, always easily identifiable. In front of him Teyla says, "John," and nods her head to the left where Cadman is leaning against a barrel of fruit, a cigar sticking out of her mouth as she absently turns some strange orange statue over and over in her hands.

John's surprised by the sick twist of worry in his gut at the realization that Rodney isn't standing beside her.

He doesn't get to dwell on the worry long. Chaya's saying, "What's this?" She sounds puzzled and contemplative and John looks back at her on instinct. He's surprised to find Rodney standing directly behind him. John finds himself wondering how the kid managed to squeeze himself between John and Chaya.

John stares at the back of the boy's head, speechless with surprise when Rodney snaps, "Not a toy, not there for you to light up and not your buttons to push." Chaya looks completely dumbstruck, her mouth hanging open for a half second before her eyes narrow and her teeth click shut. And Rodney's not done, "None of them are toys, can't collect them. Can't store them in their first edition boxes."

John expects Chaya to snap at Rodney, or to dismiss him out of turn and address her ill humor directly to John. He's not prepared for her expression to narrow, to go still and calculating as she drags her eyes up and down the boy's body. It takes maybe a handful of seconds, and then she's smiling, soft and gentle, reaching one hand towards Rodney as she says, "Your eyes? Is that their natural color?"

Rodney shudders, full body, makes a tiny little animal sound. John can almost see the boy's skin crawling, and he reaches out without thinking, grabbing Rodney by his shirt and twisting. He shoves the boy towards Teyla, grins tightly at Chaya and says, "We'd best be on our way. Sixteen days, and all."

The flash of disappointment across her face, the way she strains her neck to try to see Rodney over John's shoulder, sits heavy and uncomfortable in his stomach. He hefts the money bag up with one hand, salutes her with it and walks backwards away from her.

Rodney is still pale and looking vaguely nauseous by the time they get back to the Atlantis. John thinks about ordering him to the infirmary, but then Cadman's grabbing the boy's arm, tugging him off to the side and demanding in what she probably thinks is a quiet voice, "Thought you was alright, kid?"

Rodney's hands flutter around for a moment, like he doesn't know what to do with them, and then he's gulping down thick swallows of air. He sways into Cadman, and she makes a face, but allows it, even pats awkwardly at the boy's shoulder. Rodney babbles, voice desperate and rising higher, "Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad place, bad place—"

When Cadman slaps him his voice cuts off abruptly. She squeezes his shoulder, once, and then she's stepping around him, calling over her shoulder, "Lots of bad places in this verse. Best you get used to 'em."

For a long time Rodney just stands there, staring at the floor. It takes Teyla touching John's arm, soft and careful on his elbow, for John to realize that he's kind of just standing there. Staring at the boy. He shakes himself, says, "Yeah," to no one in particular and rubs his hand up over his face when he walks out of the room.

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Part Three: The Best Little Whore House

The plan was to stay planet-side until Ronon finished with his client, but John's itching inside his skin and instead settles them into a high orbit around the planet to wait. Ronon had said six hours when he took his shuttle and made his way off to do whatever it was he did.

It's time that John doesn't feel like spending lingering on Chaya's doorstep. John throws the bag of money down behind the pilot's seat when he finally contents himself with their orbit and stands. John's not particularly worried about anyone stealing it, seeing as there's no way they'd get off the ship with it. Besides, the only one that might take it would be Cadman, and she's still too besotted with the idea of a bed of her own and steady meals to fuck things up.

John sighs, looks down at his watch for the fourth time in as many minutes, and Weir startles him from the doorway, "Everything all right, Captain?"

It's habit to smile at her, to slouch back against the pilot's seat and let his voice get just a little lower, "Shiny."

Weir arches an eyebrow and smiles like she doesn't believe him. John's not sure why it's disconcerting when she steps into the cockpit without permission, when she steps up behind him and leans her elbows on the back of the co-pilot's seat. He wonders where Rodney is.

Weir is saying, "Nothing going wrong with our illicit employment, then? No disagreements with our charming employer?" She's watching him out of the corners of her eyes, he can feel the pressure of her gaze like a physical touch.

The bag of cash rustles promisingly when John toes it with his boot, and he drawls, "Like I said. It's all shiny." Weir hums, shifts, a rustle of soft fabric. He wonders what she's waiting for, and looks down at his watch again. He's sure that the second hand has actually stopped. Twice. He clears his throat, "Well, I should—"

It takes a vague gesture to the door and miming drinking coffee for her to get the picture. Weir straightens with a soft, "Oh," and precedes him out the door. John casts one last look at his watch, wishing it would jump ahead, wishing Ronon would come back early, wishing they could be on their way, wishing he understood why he had such a bad feeling about this job.

Then he wishes for a cup of coffee, because every now and then he likes to be able to give himself something he wants.

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Ronon's barely managed to dock his shuttle by the time John kicks the engine one and steers them towards their destination. It's like a weight lifted off John's chest as Sanctuary falls away behind them. He breathes easy for the first time in hours and shoves himself out of his seat, goes to find some food, because he thinks he might be able to eat.

John's just sitting down, a can of something that might possibly be intended to be beans open in front of him, when Ronon stalks his way into the mess. John rolls his eyes behind his spoon, because the Companion's always like this after a job, all loose limbed and full of himself. And Ronon always raids the fridge afterwards, too. It's almost tradition.

John raises his can in greeting as the other man passes, gets a grunt of acknowledgement in return. And then Ronon's backpedaling, leaning his hip against the edge of the table by John's hand and rumbling, "Are those the pinto beans?"

John smiles around the spoon between his lips, shrugs and turns the can so that Ronon can see the label. Ronon narrows his eyes, John narrows his back, and then the Companion is tugging the can away from John's grip. The spoon falls out of John's mouth when he protests, "Hey!"

Ronon does not look repentant, carrying the beans with him over to the counter and fishing around for a spoon. John arches over the back of his chair, points a finger at Ronon, says "You can't just take my beans." When Ronon just smiles, and continues eating his stolen meal, John sighs and shoves out of his seat. Fine. He'll just eat some black beans, then.

John's just opening his mouth to tell Ronon so when Rodney bursts through the door. The boy is wild-eyed, and makes a sharp, relieved sound at the sight of Ronon. And then Rodney's scrambling across the room, dodging around John like he's not there, skidding to a stop in front of Ronon.

The boy wraps a hand around Ronon's wrist, and John freezes. No one touches Ronon after a job. Not while the oil he smears so carefully over his skin is still marred by the hands of strangers. Not while his hair is still hanging loose and wild around his face. Not while he still smells like sex under the incense and spices.

Except Rodney is, while also talking about a hundred miles an hour, "Dolls with the strings cut all tangled together. Buried in dollars and cents and drowning in everyone else's dreams. You have to untangle them. Have to buoy them."

Ronon is just staring down at the boy, and John can't read the bigger man's expression. John's not sure there is one under the studiously blank mask. And then Ronon is carefully setting aside the can of beans, bending over like he's trying to put himself on a level with Rodney. The Companion's voice is very low, "Want to run that by me again, nyen ching-duh?"

Rodney makes a frustrated sound, waves one hand to bat around his head, like he's shooing ghosts. The boy says, "They're not even complete, they're partial fills, you have to give them time to bloom and blossom and fade and wither."

Ronon leans down even further, says, "I don't—"

Rodney throws both hands up, his face twisted up in an irritated grimace. Rodney spins away from Ronon, snapping, "You're not even that hungry," before stretching up to his tiptoes to grab a can from the cabinet above the stove. And then the boy is stalking towards John, can held in front of him like a weapon.

Rodney slams the can down hard enough to jostle the table, and then the boy is heading out the door. John reaches out after a second, hefts the can of black beans and turns it over in his hands a few times before turning to look at Ronon. The other man isn't looking at him, and after a moment John shrugs, pops open the top of his can, and resumes his dinner.

hr

Later, when John goes back to the cockpit to adjust their course, Rodney shows up. It's normal, has become habit, John had been expecting him. But Rodney won't come inside, hovers in the door, staring at the bag of money with an unreadable expression on his face.

John takes the bag with him to his room, feeling silly and impatient with himself even as he stuffs it into his storage locker.

The next time John throws himself into the pilot's seat, Rodney is there. He looks across when the boy's settled himself in the co-pilot's seat, watches until Rodney says, "You're not supposed to be sad when you fly." John turns his attention to their course, and ignores the soft sound of relief Rodney makes after a moment.

hr

There's an odd air of tension in John's ship the next eight days. Like everyone is holding their breath. Like someone has bottled the thick pressure of the sky before a storm and released it inside the Atlantis. It gets quiet, and it gets still, and John's skin itches with discomfort.

John's pretty sure that Teyla doesn't actually leave the hold except to eat, shower, sleep. He finds her in there at all hours, stretching herself into increasingly twisted shapes. There's something about the lines of stress in the corners of her mouth that make him not interrupt.

John doesn't even see Ronon at all. The Companion stays sequestered in his shuttle. John catches Rodney leaving the shuttle a few times, the boy looking slightly less covered in engine grease every time he steps back into the main ship. Rodney acquires a hair cut at some point, no longer looking like someone had taken a knife to his hair, slicing off hunks without thought or intention.

Cadman spreads her guns and knives all over the mess, starts taking them apart, cleaning them, putting them back together and starting the whole process over again. Her expression settles into a permanent scowl, and she takes to chewing on her cigar nonstop, though she doesn't dare light it on his ship. Twice John finds Rodney sitting on the floor beside her, silently moving his hands in the same patterns she is.

Carson and Weir are the only ones that make any effort at keeping up a semblance of normalcy. They have tea, frequently, in the infirmary. John stands outside the door, listening to the only voices in his otherwise silent ship. He doesn't even mind so much, at first, that all they seem to have to talk about is Weir's God.

John would demand an explanation for the silence, except that it's swallowed him up, as well. He feels like a ghost in his own ship, moving through hallways with footsteps that are oddly muffled against the metal, feels like his ears are stuffed with cotton.

John finds himself avoiding the rest of the crew, pacing through the halls, doing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups in his cabin until his exhaustion is a physical thing that he can no longer fight against.

It's a relief to finally pick up Hartland on the scanners, to settle on the dust-ball of a planet. Even if Rodney does manage to disappear the entire day, out of the cock-pit, out of the kitchen. If they hadn't been in the black John would have thought the boy had run off.

Teyla's still quiet in the hanger, flanking him on the right, Cadman fidgeting agitatedly on his left. John clears his throat, adjusts the money bag over his shoulder, and says, "All right, let's go earn some money. Cadman, no shooting anyone this time."

He means it lightly, but she doesn't smile, just shifts her cigar to the other side of her mouth and says, "Can we just get this over with?"

Teyla makes a short sound of agreement, and John sighs, and starts forward. He's halfway down the ramp when a sound from the hold catches his attention. John cocks his head over his shoulder to find Rodney crouching in the middle of the hold.

The boy is resting on his haunches, one palm flattened on the ground in front of him, the other wrapped around the back of his neck. Rodney's barefoot again, his expression shuttered, his voice whip snap sharp, "Don't do it."

John says, "We'll be back," and goes.

hr

Ronon spent years learning how to read people, how to track them by the heat of their bodies, how to follow their movement with his other senses when he couldn't look at them. It had been a natural skill, now honed by years of practice. It made it simpler to move in the dark, to know what a client a little shy of having their bodies exposed to the harsh reality of sight needed or wanted.

It also means that Ronon can always tell when Rodney breaks into his shuttle.

Rodney is one of the few people Ronon has ever met who can move silently, but there's nothing the boy can do to disguise the heat of his body, his smell. Ronon feels the boy cross the shuttle, ignoring the fact that he has no idea how the boy managed to get the door open without Ronon noticing. He can feel Rodney pause behind him.

Ronon rumbles, "Hey, little one."

Rodney makes a soft, pleased, sound. The boy always seems happy when Ronon greets him before he has done anything overt to make himself known. Rodney says, "Almonds?" and Ronon grunts in agreement, because the incense he's burning does smell faintly nutty. And then he waits. The boy usually takes a while to say whatever it is he needs to talk about.

Ronon spends the time he waits threading his needle through the fabric he has gathered in front of him, creating off of a pattern he can see perfectly in his mind's eye. Rodney is still behind him for a long moment, and then the boy sighs, and reaches out.

Ronon feels the boy's hand, hovering over his head, and doesn't try to move away when Rodney runs the tip of a finger down one of his dreads. The boy blurts, "What are their names?" Ronon can feel Rodney shifting dreads, picking them up individually, tugging gently, arranging them in some pattern that apparently pleases him.

Ronon snorts, relaxes a little further back into his chair. It's been a long time since anyone touched his hair. He'd forgotten how soothing it was. For a long moment Ronon lets himself just enjoy it, then rumbles, "Not everything has a name."

Rodney's response is immediate, "Alphanumerical designations?"

Ronon rolls his eyes, "Sure, go for it." Rodney makes a pleased sound, his sorting gets slightly faster, but no less gentle. Ronon concentrates more attention on the garment he's crafting, long, even stitches through thick cotton. It's soothing, doesn't require much thought, and it keeps him busy. It's seemed important to be busy this last week, though he couldn't say what caused the sudden tension on the Atlantis.

In his hair, Rodney's fingers momentarily jerk, and then his touch gentles again. The boy sounds irritated when he speaks, but Ronon's noticed that's pretty much Rodney's default setting, "Sheppard won't listen. Distracted by hips and thighs and breasts."

Ronon laughs. He doesn't mean to, but Rodney tends to have that effect on him. Rodney tugs sharply on one of his dreads, makes a remonstrative noise. Ronon explains himself before Rodney gets it in his head to do some actual damage, "You'll have to trust me that Sheppard is definitely not distracted by breasts."

Rodney hums, "He is. Dark eyes and soft hair and sharp nails and regret. Trying to make it better the wrong way. Picking at the scabs."

"Are you talking about Chaya?" Ronon pulls on the seam he just finished, satisfied that it'll hold and lay properly. Rodney tugs again on his hair, softer. Ronon takes it for agreement, says, "She is just a job, kid, you don't- "

Ronon had more planned to say, but Rodney's gone as quickly as he came, disappearing with one last sharp tug on Ronon's hair, and a vague noise of displeasure.

hr

It's John and Cadman who wrestle the box with their cargo into the hold. Teyla is a half-step behind them, one hand on her gun all the way through town, just in case things decide to take a turn for the worse. The job has gone a little too easy, money safely delivered, goods safely picked up, and John can't shake the itch in the back of his skull that says things are going to go to hell.

It's a surprise to make it back into his ship without being shot, chased, or robbed. John doesn't dare actually believe that it all went off without a hitch until the hatch is closing behind him, and Cadman's dropping her end of the box with a curse of, "Tah mah duh hwoon dahn! That's heavy."

Cadman kicks at the side of the box, and John rolls one of his shoulders, because she's right. He's not sure that the package was every bit of the one-hundred and seventy five pounds that the seller had estimated, but it was close enough that his arms burn, and there's an ache in his back that he's sure is going to be killing him in a few hours.

John turns to look over his shoulder at Teyla, to tell her to close the hatch, but she's already a step ahead of him. He watches the last of the daylight disappear behind the metal. Cadman says, "We ain't staying here long enough for me to have any fun, right?"

Teyla answers for him, pushing past him without sparing a look for their cargo, "No. We are leaving. Captain?"

John can feel a muscle in his jaw jumping, shakes himself and turns on his heel, "Yeah. Leaving. You'll have to wait until we're back on Sanctuary to scratch that itch." Cadman snorts and rolls her eyes, kicks the box once more before heading for the ship proper.

John moves to follow her and freezes.

Rodney's standing on the catwalk above, hands gripping the railing hard enough that his knuckles are visibly white. The boy's staring hard at their cargo, his expression flashing anger. John clears his throat, says, "Something you—" Rodney turns on his heel and stalks out before John can finish his sentence.

Rodney still shows up when he pilots the ship back into space, but the boy isn't smiling.

hr

Meals get even more awkward after that, somehow. It doesn't help that Cadman leaves a half-dozen guns on the table, loaded and cocked, like she's hoping to instigate the bloodiest food fight possible. John gives her a look, and she makes a face, but tucks the weapons into various places on her person.

Still, John can see the strain in the shoulders of everyone around the table. Like they're all waiting for a blow to land. Teyla keeps cutting looks at him, and he shrugs, because while he's choking on the atmosphere every bit as much as she is, he still has no idea how to fix it. Hell. He doesn't even know what's causing it.

Weir is the only one of them still unaffected, the only one managing a smile. Even Carson has dimmed, shadows moving behind his blue eyes, tucking into his dinner in uncharacteristic silence. John clears his throat, opens his mouth to speak, and when he can't think of a single thing to say shovels food into his mouth instead.

It's something like a relief when all his food is gone. John slouches back into his chair in time to watch Rodney load up his plate again, refill his glass with water, and disappear out of the room without a backwards glance. John wipes a hand across the back of his mouth, feels his food settle heavy in his gut.

Weir clears her throat, "Why don't I clean up tonight, hm?" And when no one answers her after a long moment she stands and starts collecting their plates. John pushes himself up from the table and goes to wear himself out in his room.

hr

Teyla can't put a name to the cause of the nerves that have been driving her to distraction for the last two weeks. She'd blamed them at first on the constant headache, the beat of pressure at the base of her neck and behind her eyes that never so much as dims. But she's fairly certain that the nerves came before the headache, before the twist of nausea low in her gut, the tension up her legs that leaves her continually feeling like she's ran a marathon.

Stretching is the only thing that seems to help, withdrawing into that peaceful place deep in her chest. Teyla knows she's spending too much time in the hold, knows that she's pushing her body to the limits and risking tearing a muscle, sliding bones out of joint. It doesn't matter. She needs something to relieve the pressure.

Teyla watches the mechanic gather up an extra plate of food and feels the headache ratchet up another few, painful, degrees. For a half-second the pain is so bad that her vision goes black, that she feels the burn of tears behind her eyes, can almost taste the salt of them on her tongue. She shakes herself, and goes to stretch.

She's only managed to get herself settled, to start the most basic of her patterns, when her eyes are drawn to the crate of freight sitting in the middle of the hold. There's something chilly about the gray box, cold and unnatural, though she could not say what. It's a box. The same as hundreds of other boxes they've delivered over the years.

Teyla is aware that it's silly to fixate on it, but she's staring at it. And at the plate of food set beside it, the glass of water. She can feel her body locking up, knees, elbows, hips, shoulders. She can taste tears in her mouth again, she can smell dirty unwashed flesh and her stomach aches with hunger so sharp it's dizzying.

She stumbles to her feet, jerks backwards. She can't even remember the last time she moved with anything but planned intention, but she feels knocked off balance, shaken to her foundations.

It's an unpleasant jolt, painful down her spine, when she realizes her hands are shaking as she grips the rungs of the ladder. Teyla hauls herself up hand over hand, misses a rung with her feet and wonders why she's running away from her space, from the area that's always belonged to her on this ship.

It doesn't matter. She's finally at the top of the ladder, heading for the door when she realizes that Rodney is crouching to one side. His fingers are wound around the railing and he's staring hard down at the crate below them, blue eyes sharp, mouth turned down.

Teyla hesitates, half-kneeling herself, feeling her heart pounding, adrenaline burning like fire through her veins. Rodney turns to face her, meets her gaze full on for the first time. His eyes are pale, cold, hard, like the icy water of the rivers that surrounded her village back on her home world. His voice is low, secret intense, "You don't have to pretend. It's okay to know the things you know. I can show you how to know more."

Teyla feels like she's choking, pinned in place by the ice in Rodney's eyes. The pressure of her headache is a knife driving into her temples, cleaving her brain into pieces. She makes a sound, small, raises one hand and flattens it over her face, startled by the fever under her own skin, the press of wet heat against her fingers.

Her hand is shaking when she pulls it back enough to look, to see the dark wet crimson of blood smeared across her fingers. She gasps, "Stop, please, I can't—" and doesn't know what she's asking for, or who she's asking for it from.

But the pain is gone, or at least mostly gone, then. Back to manageable levels, and she sucks in desperate breaths, dizzy and boneless with relief. Rodney's hands are surprisingly strong around her arms, pulling her to her feet. She can feel the press of his calluses against her skin, hears his voice as though from far away, "Sorry, sorry, breakable fragile thing, easy to forget."

It's easy to cling to him, just for a minute, to let her forehead rest against his shoulder, to wind her fingers into the impossible softness of his hand-me-down shirt. Her blood tastes salty against her lips and she licks at it compulsively, swallowing around her thick tongue, trying to outlast the terror, pain and jumbled thoughts swimming through her brain.

Rodney says into her hair, "Oh, there. Light switch."

And it cuts off. All of it. The headache is gone like it never was, the whirlwind of emotions, the images of unfamiliar faces flashing up behind the insides of her eyelids, the claustrophobia that had been smothering her. She hiccups on a laugh, lets Rodney hold her weight for another moment before pulling away from him.

The front of his shirt is stained with her blood and she wipes distractedly at her nose, wonders if it's still bleeding. Rodney is staring at her expectantly, head cocked to the side, waiting. She says, "Thank you," though she's not sure what he did, not sure that it wasn't all his fault to begin with.

One side of his mouth curls up into a smile, in any case. He reaches out and pats awkwardly at her shoulder, says, "You know," and cuts a sharp look towards the crate in the middle of the hold.

Teyla is shaking her head before he finishes speaking, moving towards the doorway, mind and body instinctively shying away from the pain, "I do not know anything." She sees his disappointed expression before she's out the door. She goes to see Carson.

hr

John doesn't realize that the weirdness on his boat is going to extend past silence until four days later when he asks Teyla to get something from the hold and she turns to Cadman and passes the order on. John frowns, and Teyla frowns back and Cadman rolls her eyes at both of them and goes to do her job.

John stares at Teyla hard, but she avoids eye contact, and starts humming under her breath after a minute. He decides to let it drop, goes back to looking at the inventory list, wondering if he might have cut their fuel rations a little too tight to get back to Sanctuary.

When Cadman wanders back in she's got a stack of plates filled with food in one hand, a cup in the other. She looks confused, and John raises his eyebrows at her, drawls, "Hungry, Cadman?"

She cocks her head to the side, rolls her eyes and flashes him a smile that can safely be described as insubordinate. Cadman says "Ha, ha. I found 'em in the hold. Beside our package. Thought you'd want to know that someone has been leaving presents. Wasting food."

John leans back in his chair, staring at the food. It's hard to tell rates of decay with the protein. Mostly it all looks brown and kind of shapeless from beginning to end. He turns towards Teyla, and she hums without looking at him before saying, "I believe it is harmless."

For a long moment all he can do is stare down at the top of Teyla's head, gaping in surprise. Finally she looks up, dark eyes impatient. Teyla's voice is dismissive, she waves a hand over her head, like she's batting his stupidity away. "Comfort sometimes comes in odd places, John. Leave it."

Cadman snorts, "Well it's mine, then. Ain't all of it went bad yet."

hr

By the time they make it back to Sanctuary, John is almost drowning in relief at the prospect of the job being over. He thinks that he'd known it was a bad idea to take this job with Chaya in the first place. He'd known and he'd done it anyway, out of desperation, but never again.

John checks his guns so many times that he feels like he's memorized every inch of steel. When John shoves his hands into his pockets he can still feel the press of metal against his fingertips, sense memory that makes his skin jump and twitch.

John is certain that he's actually going to drive himself crazy with it, and makes his way down to the hold, even though they're not due to make the drop for another three hours. He's surprised to find Teyla already there, kneeling beside the package, a sharply contemplative look on her serene face.

There aren't any plates of food, but John is sure that's more to do with Cadman coming around and collecting them every night than whoever is leaving them stopping. He crosses to Teyla, stands uncertainly by her shoulder. Waits.

When Teyla does finally speak her voice is careful, distant, "There are those who sell flesh. Plenty, here on the border land. Tell me, John, what does Chaya deal in?"

John flinches at the question, because there are some things you're just not supposed to ask, some things best left to silence. Teyla's still not looking at him, and he grits his teeth and says, "Never came up in conversation."

"She would have bought Rodney from you, last we met her." The words are soft, bland, and John knows they're the truth. He'd read the same thing in Chaya's gaze, dollar signs flashing behind her eyes as she'd appraised the boy. Teyla continues, "I think...that we should open it."

John just stares for a long moment, and then he takes a deep breath. He's been listening to Teyla for years. It's a habit he sees no reason to break. The locks are simple and he could probably pick them himself given the time, but a few bullets work just as well.

The gunshots are loud in the small space, almost deafening. The clink of the padlocks on the ground are a whispered afterthought to the retort of his handgun. The room goes still around them, and then Teyla is reaching out, swinging the crate door open.

The smell is enough to make John want to gag. He jerks his head to the side, throws an arm across his nose and mouth. His eyes are watering, and he coughs into his jacket, locks his knees to keep himself from reeling away. Teyla chokes, "Run-tse duh fwotzoo. Children, they're just children, John—"

John makes himself open his eyes, makes himself look.

They are children, two of them, crawling out of the crate with wide, hollow eyes and tangled hair, tattered clothes. John thinks they might be a boy and girl, but they're really too young to be able to tell. Their faces are too thin for their ages, their golden curls filthy and plastered against their skulls. They're clinging to each other, big, terrified eyes darting back and forth between Teyla and John.

John curses, loud in the silence of the hold, spins on his heels and sprints for the ladder. Teyla calls at his retreating back, "What are you doing?"

John doesn't look back, doesn't dare, manages to say, "Taking us away from here. Get them fed. Cleaned up. Let them know—let them know they're safe here, dong ma?"

hr

John locks himself in the cockpit. It's something he hasn't done for a long time, just retreated to his last safe haven and hidden himself there. He watches the stars stream past, takes comfort in their distant, perfect beauty. There's no ugliness in them. No kids being sold to the highest bidder.

John soaks himself in their peace until his heartbeat is something like normal, until he no longer feels nauseous, no longer feels the terrible, burning wrath beneath his skin. It takes a long time to bury it all deep enough that he doesn't feel it. John has had a lot of practice.

John's hands still shake when he leaves his self-imposed imprisonment. He tries to force it out, tries a smile on for size, even though there's no one around to see it, and isn't surprised when it feels made of jagged glass. John almost decides to go back to the cockpit, to hide some more, but he's never been a coward, and so he makes himself keep going.

He finds his crew in the common room. Most of them are hovering around the walls, nervous, jumpy expressions on their faces. Ronon is leaning against the arm of the couch, arms crossed over his chest, glowering at nothing in particular. Teyla is sitting cross-legged on the floor, a gun resting in her lap like she doesn't even realize it's there.

And on the couch is Rodney. The children are curled up against Rodney, one pressed to each of his sides. John can see tiny little hands balled up in Rodney's shirt and golden curls poking up at odd angles. He can see the steady rise and fall of their bodies with each breath.

Rodney doesn't appear to notice that they're clinging to him. He's fiddling with some piece of machinery, turning it over and over in his hands, sliding and rearranging pieces every now and then. Rodney's tongue is caught in the corner of his mouth, his eyes sharp and intent on his task.

John leans in the doorway, says, "How're they doing?"

"Have names. Caelum and Abi." Rodney isn't looking at him, does something particularly complicated with his toy and makes a pleased little sound. John watches one of the kids snuggle closer, feels the corner of his mouth twitch up involuntarily even with the situation.

John drawls, "How are Caelum and Abi doing?"

Teyla shifts, tilting her face towards John without actually looking away from the children, "They are...as well as can be expected. Ronon and Carson have done what they can for them."

John can feel his eyebrows climbing, turns his gaze to Ronon. The Companion is still scowling, the closest to angry that John's ever seen him. After a long moment Ronon speaks, "I've contacted some of my associates, there's a group traveling back to the Core from Halfway in two days. Rodney says that we can make it."

John blinks, "Does he?"

"Fuel injectors working at maximum capacity can make the trip in forty-three hours and thirty-four minutes." John opens his mouth to protest, and then remembers that Rodney knows engines better than anyone else he's ever met.

"And why are we taking them- " Rodney interrupts with a sharp, displeased noise. John rolls his eyes before continuing, "Why are we taking Caelum and Abi to your associates, Ronon?"

The Companion gives him an arch look, "Regardless of your personal assumptions about the job, Sheppard, they've got experience helping people that have suffered as these have. Believe me, we're not going to find better care for them anywhere else in the 'verse."

John's willing to concede that this is most likely true, but, "So they're going to end up as whores anyway?"

The ensuing argument results in his crew getting back to their work and Rodney smiling up at John from the couch. John walks over, perches on the arm of the couch and watches the kids, softly snoring, still dead to the world even after the shouting.

Rodney reaches out, takes John's hand and puts it on one of the kid's heads. John still can't tell them apart, but it doesn't seem to matter. Just soft blond hair under his palm, radiating heat. The kid's head is tiny, delicate, breakable. He imagines someone hurting one of these little ones, feels something bitter twist in his gut.

John's aware that Rodney's still holding onto him, long greasy fingers wrapped John's wrist, not rubbing or tugging, just touching. Rodney's voice is soft, "They'll be taken care of, now. Food and clothes and people who understand."

John says, "Yeah."

to be continued...

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