Faith

Jan. 14th, 2008 11:19 am

Fandom: SG: Atlantis

Characters: Rodney

Rating: R

Warnings: Hurt with a significant lack of comfort; language; general unpleasantness. Minor character death, brief implied McShep.

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Beta(s): ferret_kitty and mgbutterfly They are awesome.

Summary: Rodney has more faith than most know.

Author's Note: Hurting Rodney is therapeutic for me. Uh. I'm not sure what that says about my brain. Also! Now with cover art from the magnificent clear_as_blood

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The natives come for them so early in the morning it's still dark. Hell, it might still be night, he's not sure. But the sky seems marginally more on the gray side than it had been, and he tells himself morning, it must be morning. He tells himself it must have been hours since they were taken, and that a rescue party will be busting in any moment.

There's a long line of unfriendlies, all of them carrying torches, at odds with the energy weapons they wear strapped over their shoulders. Energy weapons that Rodney knows damn well they have no problem using. He jerks and pulls at his bonds, tight leather around his wrists, looped up around his neck, holding him tight to the stake driven into the ground at his back. There's no more give in them than there had been ten minutes ago.

There's an old woman at the head of the group, walking with a cane every bit as bent and twisted as her back. Rodney can only see one of her eyes, nothing but a reflection of light in the gloom, shiny and dead as a marble. Something about her chills his gut, and he scowls, feels the gag in his mouth dig into the corners of his lips.

The silence might be the worst part, there's no bird song, or even crickets. Nothing but the muted crackle of flames through the fog, his own loud breathing amplified and echoing through his skull. He stares down at the old woman, at the skull wide stretch of her smile. He wonders if she'll die in the crossfire, when Atlantis comes for them.

She braces a hand on his chest, talon thick fingernails pressing into his bare skin, and he cringes at the touch of her leather-rough fingers. He glares down at her and wishes his mouth were free, wishes he could tell her not to touch him. Not to even look at him. To let him and his people go.

After a long moment she steps back, a disappointed look on her wrinkled face, steps past him to little Miko, likewise bound. Miko manages a sound where he had not, a low whine, and Rodney twists his head to the side, trying to see her, trying to do anything. Her eyes are rolling around in their sockets, huge and panicked and he grunts, strains against his bonds again.

The old woman shakes her head at Miko, steps away from her and Rodney watches the Japanese woman sag, sliding down the stake until the leather band around her throat catches on her chin, sharp and hard enough to make her jerk in pain. He tries to look past her, to look at the four scientists and two soldiers beyond her, but the gloom and the angle swallow them.

But he hears it when the old woman crows in delight, when she says, "This one, take this one." And he hears it when Novak—God, this is her first mission with the expedition, it's supposed to be easy, it's supposed to be good—screams, voice drenched in desperation and panic.

Novak's pleading, "Please, no, please, you don't understand, I don't even want to be here, really. Please, let me go, let me go, you don't understand—"

And then she's not saying anything, because they've dragged her over to the stone altar on the raised dais in front of the stakes, and her voice has fallen to wordless, desperate pleas. Rodney jerks, hard, braces his feet on the ground and wrenches his shoulders, because no, just, no. This is not happening.

Nothing budges except his ligaments, screaming in pain at the abuse, and he bangs his head back into the stake, watching them force Novak face down onto the brown stone, watching them hold her flailing arms and legs. Watching them gather her long brown hair away from her neck with something like tenderness and he yells around the gag, nothing making it out of his mouth but a muffled grunt

She turns her face towards him at the last moment, big eyes dark in her narrow face, mouth open in a silent stretch of agony and fear. He can see her forming his name, her lips moving around the syllables as the man with the arms like steel girders raises the giant hammer over her head.

He wants to look away, but she's staring at him, and he makes himself hold her gaze, feels himself breathing too fast, too desperate, not getting enough air through his nose. She screams, "Help me!" and he's looking into her eyes when the hammer smashes into the back of her skull, when her head just...compresses.

He throws up, and there's no where for it to go, and for a terrible moment he thinks he's going to drown in it before he makes himself swallow it back down, bitter and burning and horrible. Novak's still staring at him with one dead eye, the half of her face not caved in, and he stares until they shove her off the altar, letting her body fall loose limbed and heavy to the ground.

The natives upturn a barrel of water over the altar, and he watches the red of her blood slide down the brown stone, watches it streak across the ground, and tries not to throw up again.

The old woman says, "Let us see how many of them are ripe for harvesting tomorrow."

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M1R-028 is uninhabited to the best of their knowledge and that's the only reason Carter approves two teams entirely comprised of scientists to explore the Ancient outpost there. Of course, SGA-5 is along with them, but three soldiers to nine scientists is a bigger difference than Rodney's seen approved for months. Although, technically Marquiss is part of Major Winter's team, and Rodney decides to leave his orders up to the Major.

Which leaves him seven people to direct, and a few well chosen insults and screams get everyone headed in the right directions through the complex. He settles into his own work in the command room, trying to get the systems through the hulking building operational, pausing every few minutes to wipe the sweat off his brow, to check the life sign detector in his pocket.

And that's probably why he notices that there are a dozen extra dots on the screen right around the same time he hears someone scream. Winter is already on the radio, ordering, "Everyone grab your assigned scientists and get them back the 'gate! Let's move, people!"

And Rodney looks at his scientists, spread out in distant corners of the complex, and feels something sour twist in his gut. He knows, before Winter speaks again, what he's going to say. At least the man sounds like it's killing him to give the order, "Shit, fall back to the 'gate, we need reinforcements, we need—" A pause, "McKay, where the fuck are you going?"

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The sun beats down, hot and cruel as the night had been cold and miserable. And suddenly Rodney understands how people can die of exposure in a real, visceral way that he hadn't before. He wonders if this is one of the worlds without enough of a protective layer against solar radiation. He wonders how badly his pale chest and thighs are going to burn. He wonders a lot that has nothing to do with thinking about Novak's murder.

Beside him, he thinks Kusanagi is unconscious, her head hanging forward against the leather strap. She might be trying to kill herself, though, and he wants to reach out and shake her, to yell at her, but he can't. He wrenches at the stake, his shoulders on fire with the strain of being pinned backwards for so many hours, is stupidly satisfied when the leather creaks audibly against the wood.

Kusanagi startles beside him, he catches the movement out of the corner of his eye. He watches her jerk and hears her muffled choking as she snaps her head up, her throat away from the leather collar. She meets his eyes, her glasses crooked and out of place on her otherwise naked body.

There are tracks of tears through the dirt on her cheeks, mucus dried under her nose running into the gag. He knows she's got to be a mirror of himself, except his hair is too short to have all those leafs and twigs stuck into it. He wants to tell her not to worry, that their people are going to find them, but the most he can do is nod.

After a long moment, she nods back.

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Some lieutenant whose name he's never bothered to learn is trying to pull him towards the 'gate, half the man's face is covered in blood, and Rodney wrenches away from him. Over their heads the energy weapons their enemies are using continue to rip the air apart, and he more feels the stranger's words than hears them, "What the hell do you think you're doing, McKay?"

He bends further over the console he almost has working, snaps, "If I can get the weapons systems operational then we won't have any problems with these—"

The soldier does not look pleased, reaches out and grabs him by the elbow, "We don't have time for this. I have specific orders to make sure you get back safely, now, please, Doctor, we need to go." Rodney jerks himself free, braces his foot around the leg of the console and turns his shoulders towards the control crystals.

He snaps, "My people are still in here. I'm not leaving them." There's another burst of weapons fire over his head, hot sparks falling across the back of his neck and slipping down his shirt and he curses. The soldier flinches, pops his gun above the console and fires off a few rounds.

"Doctor McKay—" his words end in a gurgled scream.

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Their captors come again once the sun is high in the sky. He can almost feel the solar radiation beating down on him. It's not the large group from the gray morning, instead it's a triumvirate of men wearing heavy white robes, cowls pulled down low over their faces. Two of them are carrying buckets, the other, particularly hulking, is possibly just there for muscle.

They reach Rodney first, and he jerks, pure animal instinct bouncing him from foot to foot, trying to get away. The big one reaches for him with hands like hams, huge blunt fingers with fingernails filed down to points. His skin smells like lye and flowers, sweet and clean and it mixes with the bitterness of the bile still thick in Rodney's throat, turns his stomach.

He wrenches his head to the side when the monster of a man grabs his gag, and rips it out of his mouth. His jaws aches, for a long, terrible moment he can't move it, his mouth just hangs open, and then he's sliding it back and forth, hearing and feeling the crack-crack as the joint resettles. His tongue is thick and sour and he can feel the skin in the corners of his mouth burning, rubbed raw.

He snaps, because the day he loses his voice is the day they bury him in the ground, and he'd always wanted to be cremated, anyway, "Do you have any idea what you've done? Do you even know how utterly, utterly fucked you are? I'm going to wipe you people out of existence, I'm going to come back here and burn your whole goddamn world to the ground—no! No. I'm just going to blow it up. Like you never were. My people are going to—"

The men don't say anything, and they're expressionless under their white hoods. And then the beefy one is jerking into movement, the heel of his hand catching Rodney hard under the chin, driving his head back and up, his neck stretched tight. Rodney rolls his eyes around desperately trying to see something besides leaves, teeth clenched together tight.

And then the man's got his other hand at the corner of Rodney's mouth, thick fingers pushing into his jaw, forcing him to open his mouth. He tries to bite the fingers, but the man digs his thumb in hard up under Rodney's chin, and almost blacking out from the flash of pain dampens his violent impulse.

The press of cool ceramic against his lips is an unpleasant surprise. For a half-second he assumes they're changing his gag to some kind of insane pottery, but then there's liquid flooding into his mouth. It's thick and bitter, like tea steeped too long, and he coughs because he hadn't been prepared for it. It burns its way down his throat, makes his lungs spasm and jerk and most of it ends up spilling out the corners of his mouth, streaking down his neck.

He's still trying to breathe, trying to ignore the burning in his chest, when there's another liquid poured into his mouth. This one is warm, salty-sour, chunks of something unidentifiable bouncing off his tongue as the big man slams his mouth shut again. He expects the man to leave him and go after that, but he just stands here, implacable strength tipping Rodney's head further and further back by the second, until he's sure his heads just going to pop off, until he's sure he'll be pez-Rodney.

He swallows, convulsively, feels God knows what slide down into his gut, and the pressure on his jaw is gone, just like that. He coughs, sucks in desperate breaths through his mouth, fighting down the urge to gag, the way his stomach is seizing up. He gasps, "I know just the guy to kick your ass. Just wait, when the giant with the dreads shows up, he's going to be coming for—"

And then the big guy is forcing his mouth open again, shoving the gag back into his mouth, tightening it hard around the back of his head and the vomit taste is, if possible, even fouler now.

Rodney glares, because what other recourse does he have, and listens to them move down the line of his people. Only four of his staff left, and he wonders if the other two made it through the 'gate or if they died trying. Two soldiers, and he wonders if Winter made it home. He wonders if Atlantis is still waiting for them to check in, or if there's already rescue operations in effect.

The three men come back again, later in the day, as the sun sets and takes its warmth with it. This time Rodney's prepared, and manages to swallow most of what they pour into his mouth because God, if this is all they're going to be fed he'll need all of it he can get to keep from going into shock. And there's still the distinct possibility that it won't be enough.

He grunts, painfully aware of the soup or broth or whatever the hell it is running down his chin, "You know, I do have to give you credit, you're even worse cooks than Teyla and I hadn't even—" This time, when they shove his gag back in, the heel of the man's hand slams hard into his teeth. He winces at the jar of it, the pain up through his face.

The old woman comes again, too, with her people trailing behind her, hours later.

This time, no one gets pulled to the altar, and she makes a small, disappointed noise before leaving.

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Rodney stares down at the lieutenant collapsed by his feet, bleeding profusely from an ugly wound against his temple, and curses. He can hear the enemy, moving closer to their position now that they weren't taking any return fire, and realizes he'd just ran out of whatever time he might have had to get the weapons up and running.

He improvises.

Two hastily typed commands have large portions of the compound locked down, most of the enemy trapped in hallways and transporters. It's the best he can do to help the members of the expedition closest to the exits escape, and he prays it's enough to get someone back through the 'gate.

The lieutenant is heavy, dead weight, and Rodney grunts and hauls him half to his feet. The boy's P-90 is right there, swinging between them, and Rodney grabs it with his free hand, fires vaguely in the direction of the footsteps he can hear stomping their way.

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The next day is a copy of the previous, except the humidity has thickened the air to roughly the consistency of soup. There's sweat running down his skin, sliding into his eyes and burning, and each breath is a struggle, his allergies closing off his nose. The only sound he can hear is his own wheezing, his double time heartbeat.

He thinks that he's really going to have to get Keller to come up with some kind of long lasting anti-histamine shot when he gets back. Because, honestly, suffocating from his own snot is not the way he pictured dying. Killed by pollen is not how he wants to be remembered.

He's still thinking about it when the old woman comes back again, when she makes the same disappointed face up at him before moving down the line. He thinks angry things at her, imagines Teyla beating the shit out of her, imagines Ronon holding her upside down and shaking her, imagines John grinning while feeding her to a Wraith.

He laughs, a wheeze of sound that makes his chest ache and burn and he hadn't been expecting the pain. He wonders if they've managed to give him pneumonia or if it's just the stress of the position they've got him tied in finally getting to him.

And then someone screams, and he stops wondering, any thought of or about laughter shriveling in his skull.

The old woman is saying, "Yes, this one and this one as well." And she sounds pleased, voice dry and thin and Rodney's gut roils at just the sound of it. He wants to close his eyes, wants to not see who they drag over to the altar. But it's too late.

He watches them drag the lieutenant that had tried to get him back to the 'gate to the altar. The boy's limp and boneless in the hold of the four people carrying him, his blood gone black and flaking on his face. It's worse, somehow, than Novak's screams; his sullen willingness to just be spread across the stone, to lie there motionless as the hammer is raised.

This time, when the hammer comes down, it's with a whisper instead of a scream. Rodney groans, feels his fingers twitching, curling and uncurling against his palms. He wonders how old the boy was, if he'd wanted to stay in Atlantis, if he'd had a girl back home waiting for him.

John would know, and for a half second Rodney hates himself for having no answers to his own questions.

And then they're shoving the boy off, dragging Doctor Mitchell forward and he, at least, is fighting, thrashing weakly against the strong, sure hands of his captors. The man makes a strangled sound when they push his down onto the altar, when they flatten his face into the lieutenant's blood.

Mitchell gags, and Rodney swallows at the answering acid burn in his own throat, jerks and twists and winds his fingers together. And then Mitchell is looking at him, the other man's voice flat and numb, "They didn't come for us. They didn't come for us. They didn't—"

It's almost a relief when they bring the hammer down, except for how it really isn't.

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He gets off a dozen shots, and manages to actually hit people with most of them, but there's too many and he can't shoot at them, drag the lieutenant and get the doors open all at the same time. He hauls the boy up higher, one arm under the boy's arms, drops the P-90 with a growl, and rips the control panel off the wall.

The unfriendlies are coming over their friends' dead bodies, and Rodney holds his breath, rearranging control crystals with fingers tacky with the boy's blood. And yes, there's the broken one. He yanks it out, drops it to the ground, grabbing another, bridging the gap between the opening mechanism and the locking control and—

The door opens like the answer to a prayer, and his breath escapes in a whoosh. He throws himself through it, and waves his free hand desperately at the scanner on the other side. He's willing it closed, willing it shut and locked and the blaster from the energy weapon catches him high on the left side of his head.

He goes down in a flash of heat and nausea and his legs suddenly just not working. The lieutenant lands heavily on top of him, and that crushing weight is the last thing he feels before unconsciousness reaches up and drags him down into welcoming black.

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The fourth day it rains.

He buries his chin against his chest as best he can with the leather strap. It's an eternity of big stinging drops beating down against the top of his head and running down his face, making it even harder than it already is for him to breathe. He thinks that at least it's warm rain, thinks: small mercies, and wheezes out a laugh.

It cleans the vomit smell out of his nose for the first time, cleans the caked on soup or broth or whatever off his throat and chest. It all runs in rivulets down his stomach, thighs, yellow streaked with brown, mixing with dirt and leaving him looking like some kind of demented finger painting gone wrong.

His feet get swallowed by the mud, and he wiggles his toes. He's aware that he's distracted and feverish, swimming through the thickness of his own thoughts. The rain washes away the waste that had been forming a puddle around him, as well, and he wants to scrub himself clean, wants to take a bath in bleach to get the mess he's made off of himself.

It rains for a long time, until he falls asleep. The pound of heavy drops on his shoulders, chest, thighs, stomach easing him into unstable dreams where he drowns in cotton and gets tangled in the satin smooth sheets of the Ancients, and John Sheppard leans over him, smile soft and boyish as he cocoons Rodney in his stifling warmth.

He wakes up to the old woman, blinks at her with eyes that he can't quiet focus, and imagines his team hiding in the bushes at his back, planning how they're going to get him into the safe warmth of a Jumper before blowing the shit out of these insane bastards.

She pinches him, hard, before removing her hand, looks disgusted as she moves on. He stares down, fascinated by the bloom of angry red skin in the center of his chest, a jagged edge of blood sliding down with the rain and the dirt. He gets distracted by the swirl of it across his skin, the way that it separates across his chest hair and drips tiny little drops off the individual strands.

They kill Doctors Brown and Elliott, and Rodney watches through the haze of rain and tears and their blood swirls across the mud to him and winds tendrils fragile as spider's silk around his ankles.

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When the world swims back into focus he's tied hands and feet, lying on the ground, staring up at the DHD. He can hear panicked sobs around him, and familiar voices raised in anger. He can see the symbols for the 'gate address glowing on the DHD, and pushes and shifts until he's managed to get himself mostly sitting up.

His back screams in protest when he arches backward, dragging fingers thick and numb from being swollen with blood across the soft dirt. The symbols are small, 'gate short hand, and he doesn't know if they're clear, can't see them to check, but he gets them, all of them, before the 'gate flares to life.

And then there are strong, unfamiliar hands hauling him to his feet, and he prays that the symbols he's drawn aren't kicked over. That they remain, undamaged, because he knows that Ronon will find them. He knows that Teyla will know what planet they go to, the way she has every 'gate address memorized. He knows that John will come for him.

He watches their captors shove his people one after the other through the 'gate, five scientist, two soldiers, and then they're dragging him through.

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He drifts in and out of consciousness the fifth day. His skin is red and peeling, he can see little flakes standing up on his cheeks and nose. His chest aches, each breath is a rattling wheeze and his lips are bleeding, lazy trails of blood that curl down his chin and drip down onto his chest, flat and dull red.

He misses the rain.

He becomes aware, at some point, that Miko is rocking back and forth as much as she can, making tiny little animal sounds. She's sort of shapeless now, the blur behind his eyes won't go away, the dizzy thick fuzziness inside his skull that throbs like a drum beat against his temples. When the men come to feed them, he hears her, voice cracking and high, but he can't make any sense of her words.

He shifts, and bites back on a sob, because his entire body is aching. His hands are a mass of tingling, burning pain, arching up to his shoulders, down his spine, a path of knives down his thighs and a slow, constant throb from his right knee. The pain snaps him back to awareness, away from the lazy slide of his thoughts, just in time to hear the soldier—another man whose name he doesn't know—scream, "I can't, I can't, I can't—"

Rodney wonders what he can't do, but then the men must shove the gag back in, because there's silence again. He rolls his face up, blinks up at the clear blue of the sky and watches clouds dance slowly around each other, fluffy and white as snow. He thinks that when John comes for him, it will be from the sky, a storm, a force of nature such as these people have never known.

He spends the rest of the day watching the sky, looking for familiar shapes among the clouds, until the moon comes out and casts everything in ghost light. When the old woman comes he wants to tell her that he saw Jumpers and P-90s in her sky, but the gag eats his voice.

They drag Miko to the altar, and the loss of her presence at his side is like the removal of a limb, like he's lost a part of himself. He's still choking on his own screams, watching her cracked glasses slide off her ruined face, when he realizes that they've got the other soldier, too.

When they leave, they leave him alone.

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He tries to gauge how far they're taken on the other side of the 'gate, but it's hard to track distance when being carried. He doesn't think it's very far, but he's not sure if he's conscious through all of it or not. He could be losing time, losing perspective, but he tries his damndest to stay focused on the direction the 'gate lies in anyway.

When they drop him in the clearing with the altar in the middle and the stakes arranged to one side, he instinctively rolls to try to crawl away. He can smell the blood, the death that saturates this place. He can feel bones under his hands, under his body, and soft, rotting things. His fingers are tangled in the hair of a dead woman.

His skin is shuddering, and he rolls his face away, up to the free air and the man leaning over him smiles, says, "No one will come for you." And before Rodney can protest that yes, lots of people are going to be coming for him, the man brings his fist down hard and—

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The days blend together, after that. He tells himself to keep track of how many times they feed him, of the rise and fall of the sun, but his head is scrambled. His skin is angry, angry red now, burned under the burn and he itches to the point of distraction. He moves his hands, when he thinks about it, just to make sure that he can still feel them.

He's not sure how many times the old woman comes. Sometimes he thinks she comes in the day, now, the sunlight gilding her silver hair. Sometimes he thinks she talks to him, her voice harsh as a crow's, her glass eye rolling around in the socket, changing colors like a prism reflecting the sun. He can never remember what she says.

His head swims, and he thinks he hasn't been sick like this since he was nineteen and trying to put himself through school by working three shit jobs and they'd still turned off the heat in his apartment and he'd fallen apart shivering every night, his hands shaking so badly his papers were almost unintelligible the next day. He tries to remember how he'd made himself better then, remembers antibiotics and a hospital and his mother's face, worried and strung tight, and he doesn't remember if she was really there or not.

He thinks so. He's pretty sure he didn't manufacture the memories of eating ice while she yelled at his doctors and then yelled at him for not taking better care of himself. He's pretty sure that the image of her changing things on his chart isn't something he just made up.

And then he remembers that she died when he was sixteen, and wonders if it was Jeannie instead.

He starts saying, whenever they remove his gag to feed him, "Sheppard's going to kill you all," because it makes him feel better, and it's a reminder. John is coming for him. John is going to find him and take him home and feed him ice chips and kill all these sons of bitches. His voice doesn't sound like his own anymore. He's not sure if that's just if he's forgotten how he's supposed to sound. Sometimes he thinks he's just been irrevocably damaged.

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When Rodney wakes up again he's tied to the stake, his hands behind his back, wrists crossed and tied so tight that he can feel the echo of each beat of his pulse up his arms. It yanks his shoulders back, tight and painful and an impossible stretch. There's a band of leather around his neck, coarse and tight and he tips his head back further to try to get some of the tension out of it, but it doesn't work.

His ankles are tied, too, tethered individually to the bottom of the stake, and he shifts his weight, back and forth, back and forth. Tries to ignore the gag that's cutting into the corners of his mouth.

There's a whisper of sound to his side, and he looks across, surprised to find Miko there, similarly bound. She looks up at him with wide, helpless eyes, and he wants to tell her that it'll be alright, that Atlantis is going to be looking for them, that they'll find them before the day is out.

They're left there, alone and hurting, right up until the dark hours of the morning, when their captors come with fire in their hands and murder on their mind.

They kill Novak, paint her blood across their altar, and Rodney throws up.

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The old woman asks him, "Why do you fight us so?"

And he wants to tell her that it's a stupid question. That he fights because he's a difficult bastard, and he never learned how not to. That he never was any good at doing what other people wanted him to do, that he's an arrogant son of a bitch incapable of admitting when he might be wrong. That John Sheppard is going to come for him, and he knows it, and there's no way in hell he's going to be dead when the other man gets here.

But it's a rhetorical question, must be, because she leaves the gag in his mouth, and so he just shrugs. He immediately regrets it, of course, in the face of the gut twist of smothering pain, but it's done and she flattens her lips, shaking her head, glass eye rolling around, loose and dizzying.

She huffs a sigh, and waves her hands wildly, and Rodney blinks because he's never seen her have quite that response before. And then she goes to her knees, hands pressing up into the dark blossom of blood at her neck, and he hears the retort of a P-90 like dull thuds in the back of his skull.

The crowd panics, Rodney sees them going for the energy weapons in jerks and cuts, like his eyes are suddenly stop motion cameras, everything abrupt and nauseatingly broken. He squeezes his eyes shut, against the movement, against the way the bodies crumble around him, the blood that pours down into the ground.

He tucks his chin down to his chest and breaths and smells gunpowder and hot metal and the dead and the dying and the sea-salt smell of home. He hums, loud in the space between his ears, toneless and tuneless, something to block out the nightmare sounds around him, clenches his hands into fists and revels in the distraction of burning pain.

John Sheppard says, "Motherfuck." And then, "Rodney, hey, hey, look at me."

And Rodney does. John's got a bloody cut on one cheek, eyes wild and feral, his teeth and knife a flash of light in the pre-dawn gloom. Rodney blinks, dizzy, wondering if this is a fever dream, and then John is sliding the blade of the knife between Rodney's cheek and the gag, the motion of his wrist controlled and perfect. The leather flays easy as thread, and then John's pulling the gag itself out of Rodney's mouth.

It's harder now, to get his jaw back into joint, and when he does it's a such flash of relief that he whimpers, locks his teeth together tight. Rodney squeezes his eyes shut against pain and disbelief, and feels the cool side of John's knife kiss against his neck, feels the leather there briefly tighten and then go slack. He gasps, "Hands, hands, please, get my hands, please—"

And would have said more, but John's pulling his head forward, letting Rodney rest his forehead against the rough fabric of John's vest, saying, "I got you." His arms swing forward uselessly when John slices through the bonds, and he screams, muffling the sound against John's shoulder, because the pain is white hot, is a spasm from the base of his neck to the bottom of his ribs, every muscle along the way seizing and burning.

He's collapsing into John, his hips and knees giving out, and John grunts, gets an arm around his waist and takes his weight. He can feel the strain in the other man's body, muscles bunching up, and tries to straighten, to support himself, but his body is giving up and giving out.

John tries to drag him away from the stake, and Rodney's feet catch, agony lashing up from his swollen ankles, and he thinks he might gray out, just a little, from the pain. John is hissing, "Hold on," like there's any chance of him letting go. And then John's squirming, ducking, bracing a shoulder in the center of Rodney's chest and reaching down, snapping the last of his bonds before straightening again.

John says, "Where's everyone else?" only as he's dragging Rodney out of the clearing, like it's a secondary consideration, like he just thought to ask. And Rodney sees Novak's face, sees his scientists, sees the soldiers he didn't even know, and pushes uselessly at John before gagging.

There's nothing really in his stomach, he can't remember if they were still feeding him or not. For a long terrible moment he just dry heaves, body convulsing as John curses and tries to support him. He's embarrassed by the way he appears to be shaking all over, by the shivers he can't stop, by the way his voice waivers and cracks around, "Dead. All dead."

They're on the ground. He doesn't remember how they got there. John's rocking him back and forth, hands sliding up and down Rodney's sides, saying, "Jesus Christ, you're burning up, you're fucking on fire, Rodney. You're sure they're all dead? They weren't just—"

"I saw. They took the hammer and they hit them and they died and I'm sorry."

John says, "Jesus," again. And then he's struggling back to his feet, pulling Rodney along, getting them moving even though every single part of Rodney's body wants nothing more than to collapse. "It's okay. It'll be okay. I've got you. I found you."

He nods, weak and dizzy, and manages to get his fingers to work enough to flatten his hand up under John's vest, to curl them into the cotton of his shirt. He lets John support him, doesn't even care that he's naked and filthy. It doesn't matter somehow.

He says, relieved that his voice is more stable, less of a broken crack, "I told them you'd come for me."

John takes him home.

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