Tipping the Scales

Mar. 27th, 2008 02:11 pm

Fandom: SG: Atlantis

Characters: Team (pre-McShep)

Rating: R

Warnings: Rodney!whump, language

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Beta: ferret_kitty, who needs some hugs.

Summary: The one where Rodney ends up on trial with the rest of the team hanging in the balance.

Author's Note: It's a day that ends in 'y', so I'm tormenting Rodney. And the rest of the team is getting dragged along for the ride this time, as well. I'm not sure how much of this is actually sherriaisling's intellectual property. Smithers definitely is. And Buttercup. And probably Cassandra, too. I've got a Rodney-torturing partner in crime!

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Rodney's proposal of a mission to 4X2-092 is something along the lines of talking for almost twenty minutes about all the energy readings that he's found echoing across subspace from the planet. John listens, because he learned years ago that it was really better to let Rodney babble his way all the way through to the end. Interrupting him usually meant you missed something important or derailed Rodney in mid-epiphany.

And so, eighteen minutes into more technical descriptions and computer simulations than John can shake a stick at, he immediately picks up, "—far more advanced than Earth and we probably wouldn't have found them for years if I hadn't been checking all the planets that had been in the Replicator's path to see if—to see if there were any survivors."

Rodney looks briefly miserable, a flash of sour emotion twisting up the corner of his mouth. They've already had all the conversation John is willing to have about Rodney's lack of complicity in the deaths of the hundreds of thousands that the Replicators wiped out. John has no interest in talking about it again, instead waves a hand at the computer and says, "So why'd the Replicators skip over them?"

Rodney rolls his eyes, crossing his arms and looking at John like he's disappointed him in some deep, unspeakable way, "Gee, if only I had thought of that question myself and then decided to try to find out by requesting a mission to go see if they have some potential weapon we can use against the sudden and inevitable return of our mortal enemies." He pauses, tone dripping condescension, "Oh, wait."

John would choose sarcasm over guilt any day. He sighs long-sufferingly just because he knows it makes Rodney bristle, drawls, "There a reason you're telling me instead of Carter?"

Rodney makes an impatient sound, snapping the laptop closed and shoving it into John's arms, "Your boyfriend is lurking up in her office for the next week, remember? He'd probably forbid the mission just to spite me. Whereas you go can play grab-ass and renew your membership to the Mutual Appreciation Society and it'll go through without a hitch."

John says, "I don't know what you have against Ellis," as he heads for the door just to tip Rodney the rest of the way into irritated. When John retreats from the labs he can already hear Rodney's voice, rising to berate some unfortunate subordinate caught in the crossfire.

It's unfortunate when Ellis has to go and prove Rodney right five minutes later. The man looks up when John finishes his highly condensed explanation for the mission and says, "This sounds like one of McKay's—" and then with a quick look towards Sam's hard expression, "—ideas."

John's pretty sure that there's no way for him to pass the research off as his own, so instead he shrugs, "He's got a point, and I agree. The Replicators weren't leaving anyone standing to take them in the ass. If these people have shielding or weapons that they're willing to trade then we need to know."

Ellis opens his mouth again, John chooses to believe it would have been acquiescence, because he really doesn't want to end up in the same initially sour relationship with this man that he had with Caldwell if they can just skip to mutual respect. Carter talks over Ellis before he can prove John wrong, "It's a good idea. Set it up."

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4X2-092 is another world suffering from a combination of Ancient tech and a society nowhere near ready to use half of it. The natives do seem to be doing better than most, though. The cities are all clean, full of buildings with multiple stories, and have paved streets. There are even huge, hulking phone booths scattered around on various street corners.

John feels out of place in his BDUs and P-90, but Ronon and Teyla are getting most of the stares, so he grins and bears it. The natives are all wearing loose, linen clothing, pants and skirts that fall to their heels and tight tops that bear midriffs on both men and women. Most of them are barefoot as well, their hair cut close and tight against their scalps, and John figures it's as good a way to deal with the heat as any he's heard of. Not including air conditioning.

John falls back a step, nudges Rodney in the side and says out of the corner of his mouth, "So, where are these energy readings coming from?"

Rodney snorts, doesn't even look up from the scanner he's cradling in his hands, "Everywhere. I'm pretty sure I said that already. Maybe all those concussions you keep getting are affecting your short term memory? Weren't you supposed to be finding someone we could talk to?"

John is pretty sure that these people aren't going to be half so willing to just tell them everything they want to know as Rodney assumes that they are. The natives don't look suspicious, or angry, but they're not exactly tossing necklaces of flowers to his team and leading them off to meet their leader. Although, the one time that had happened it hadn't exactly ended happily.

Teyla and Ronon had called the inhabitants of 6MX-616 Wraith worshipers. John had called them cannibals. Rodney had called them primitive assholes with no grasp of the explosive properties of lye and blown up half the village before they'd legged it back to the 'gate.

John shivers in the dry heat of the present, says, "Well, keep looking anyway, I'd rather not risk upsetting the locals if we can help it."

Rodney hums something indistinct but probably offensive, and continues walking without looking up. John had asked once how Rodney managed to follow them without ever looking up from the floor and Rodney had snarled something about John making roughly the same amount of noise as a three-legged hippopotamus in a china store. John was pretty sure that was a lie.

Ronon is making faces at the girls standing around one of the telephone-booths when John steps forward and leaves Rodney to his work. Teyla looks unimpressed, says, "Perhaps we should try to speak with someone?"

John sighs, tilts his head towards the long, low sandstone building in front of them, out of place amidst all the cool marble buildings lining the street, says, "We'll duck in there, see if we can figure out who exactly is in charge here."

Teyla nods agreement, and John wonders if she possibly just wants to get out of the sun. Its harsh, almost white light is giving him a headache, and he's got sunglasses on. Rodney hadn't complained about undue UV radiation, so John is figuring that the danger is, for once, more annoyance than painful death.

"Huh."

It's a programmed response. Rodney says 'huh' or 'look at that' or 'wow' and the rest of the Team is suddenly paying attention. Ronon has his hand on his blaster and Teyla is crouching and scanning the area. John fingers the safety off of his P-90 and shoves Rodney towards the middle of their impromptu protective circle.

Rodney pushes back at John's hands, irritated sharp slaps, before Rodney takes two big steps back and cocks his head to the side with an absent, "That's interesting."

John rolls his eyes, "What's interesting?"

Rodney looks up, squinting against the glare of the sun, "There's some kind of interference here. Well, technically not right here, it's more where you are, actually. The scanner won't work." Rodney takes another step back, holding the scanner up and frowning absently, "Must be a force-field. Not EMP, whatever it is. I could probably—"

John can already see where this is going, and he's pretty sure nothing good would come of letting Rodney even think about taking apart the native's no doubt highly sacred whatever-beam-emitter. He says, "We're going to go ask them to take us to their leader."

Rodney waves a hand, "Yes, yes, fine, you do that. I'll stay here and try to narrow down our search area in case that doesn't go as smooth as I'm sure that it will."

Protesting is John's first impulse, but it makes more sense to keep Rodney out here where he can't accidentally turn off the planet's Magical Replicator Repelling Field. Besides, nine times out of ten first contact goes much more pleasantly without Rodney there. John says, "Don't move."

John can hear Rodney's eyes roll every bit as clearly as his voice, "I promise not to go exploring. Hurry up. I don't want to be out in this heat any longer than I have to."

John sighs, waves Teyla and Ronon back forward, into the cool interior of the sandstone building.

It's empty. The interior walls are bare, almost white stone. The floor is the same stuff, as is the ceiling. That's it. There are no people, there are no decorations or furniture or anything at all but a slightly musty smell. Ronon says, "Why do we still let you decide where we go?"

"Hey!" John frowns, already turning and heading back for the door. Ronon is grinning, that teasing smile that he wears a lot more now that he's getting laid, and even Teyla is radiating amusement. "How was I supposed to know that—"

He has a half second to notice the barrel of the blaster leveled on his forehead when he opens the door, and then nothing.

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John wakes up to a headache pounding away at the base of his skull and the industrial cleaner taste in his mouth that he's come to associate with being hit by energy weapons. His wrists ache, and his right shoulder is protesting its discomfort. John cracks one eye open and squints into the surprisingly bright room.

John is lying sideways on a thick rug, his head resting on something that's warm and soft and smells familiar. His wrists are chained to the ground in front of him, he's missing his shoes and socks. Ronon is crashed out over his legs, drooling on John's knees.

John swallows a groan at the pain, bounces his legs in an attempt to knock Ronon off but the bigger man doesn't budge. Teyla's voice is very soft, "You are alright, Colonel?"

John rolls as far onto his back as he can manage with his wrists pinned to the ground and Ronon using him as a pillow. He figures he really can't complain about that when he realizes that his head is presently pillowed against Teyla's thigh. She looks calm, but he can see her fidgeting her hands together where her hands are pinned to the floor.

"Great. What's going on?" John twists again, pulling himself to a sitting position that bends his waist awkwardly because Ronon has managed to get an arm around John's legs to hold on for dear life. John thinks the other man might be sucking on the fabric, and tries to jostle him loose again.

Teyla shrugs, threading her fingers together over and over again, "I woke up not long ago myself. We have been left alone at least since then."

The room is kind of surprisingly well decorated for a cell. The floor is the same antique white marble that the buildings had been built out of, there are wrought iron lights hanging around the room and John's pretty sure they look electric. There are even windows, wide open, though the fine, heavy silk curtains aren't stirring in the non-existent breeze.

Aside from the chains around their wrists, and the strange set up in the middle of the room, it's all pretty normal. John nods at the two poles in front of them, says, "Don't suppose you've seen those before somewhere?"

They're obviously of Ancient design, all long lines and huge squares and triangles. They're set about five feet apart, and they'd look a lot less threatening without the open clamps at the top. John thinks 'off-off-off' at them a few times, just on the chance that they're about to blow up.

Teyla sighs, still tugging ineffectually at her bonds, "I have not."

John takes a deep breath, manages to drag one leg out of Ronon's hold and kick the other man in the process. Accidentally. "Well, let's just hope McKay got back through the 'gate for reinforcements."

And because God apparently has a keener sense of comedic timing that John had been giving him credit for, that's of course when the door at the far end of the room swings open. Rodney McKay looks irritated and cranky, his hair messy and his jacket, vest, shoes missing. He looks, in fact, more like he was interrupted in the middle of a nap than anything else.

John jerks as far upright as he can manage, wrenching his shoulders while strangers flood into the room behind Rodney. Rodney isn't bound like the rest of the team, doesn't look injured in any way, and John growls, "This better be where they let us go and explain how this is all a big misunderstanding."

There are people behind Rodney, three women, three men, two of them carrying huge bowls. They all stiffen at John's voice, turn to look at him with flat eyes. Rodney is gesturing wildly, one finger held over his lips, eyes going wide as he hisses, "Shut up, before they change their minds."

John has never been any good at following orders, "Change their minds about what?"

The strangers don't have any weapons on them that he can see, and there's not really anywhere for them to hide them. But the poles in the middle of the room still make John's skin crawl, and he's got a sour tight feeling in his throat about the entire thing. Rodney rolls his eyes, voice sharp and waspish, "I should just let them kill you, honestly. What were you doing wandering into their sacred hovel of mystic hallowed ground?"

John opens his mouth, and Teyla kicks him, a quick snap of her leg against his shoulder that shouldn't be possible in the position they're sitting in. Rodney flashes her a grateful look, takes a step closer and drops his voice, "You're all okay, right? I made them promise not to do anything to you but people lie and I'm definitely not going through with the rest of this if they're already not holding up their end of the bargain."

Rodney looks almost hopeful that they've been mistreated. John scowls and shrugs, and Rodney's expression breaks for just an instant. There's fear in Rodney's wide blue eyes, in the flutter of his hands before he wipes his palms down the front of his thighs.

One of the men steps forward, and his belly-shirt-thing doesn't look nearly as amusing as it had originally. Especially not when he wraps a hand around Rodney's bicep and steps close to say, "We wish to reiterate that you are not responsible for these that have defiled our land. You did not desecrate our holy place, and there is no need for you to do this."

Rodney looks up at the other man, expression curdling away from fear and into exasperation, "You're going to kill them."

The man shrugs, "It is as the gods decree. We are not inhumane. They will feel no pain, they will just fall into a sleep from which there is no waking. It is a better death than many manage." John feels a chill climb his spine, kicks at Ronon again and is relieved when the bigger man finally stirs, mumbles something groggily.

Rodney snorts, jerks his arm out of the other man's hold and waves a hand, "We're going to pass on the euthanasia today."

"As you wish" The man steps back, out of Rodney's space, and folds his hands calmly together over his bare stomach, "If you pass the trial then these that you claim as yours shall go free. Please," the man motions towards the pillars in the middle of the room, and John doesn't even try to ignore the twist of premonition in his gut.

He blurts, "Wait, Rodney, don't—" and Rodney winces, lurches forward to slap a hand across John's mouth. The strangers are all looking at them with various levels of unease on their features, obviously unhappy and rapidly becoming impatient.

Rodney hisses, "Thanks for the vote of confidence there, Colonel. Look, they were going to kill you, and this was the only way to get them to stop. They just want to hook me up to their little machine and then we all get to act like friends. I figure it can't be that bad. It's obviously Ancient. I'm good with Ancient."

John glares at him, because the Ancients were, by all indications, sadistic idiots who created plenty of things for the sole purpose of making the universe a more miserable place. By the flash of fear, there and gone again in Rodney's eyes, John's pretty sure that the other man knows it as well.

John bites hard on Rodney's palm, hisses quiet as he can when Rodney pulls back, "What are they testing for?"

Nervous fidgeting had not been the response that John had been hoping for, but that's what he gets. Rodney won't even meet his eyes, voice gone high with fear, "They say it's, um, to make sure I'm a good person. And, well, I realize that there are various ways to measure that, but, surely no one could argue that I'm not, in fact, remarkably good in an innumerable variety of ways. It should be—" Rodney's voice cracks, he clears his throat, "—a cake walk."

Teyla apparently decides that since John is flouting their captor's rules all over the place there's no reason for her not to, "You are a very good man, Rodney."

It's more encouraging that what John had been planning on saying, and he almost bites back on his own words. Almost. "What happens to us if they decide you're not?"

All the color drains out of Rodney's face, and that's really answer enough. John's jaw tenses up, and he yanks hard at the chains. The native man clears his throat, standing by the poles, "We must start the ritual now. Please."

Rodney cuts his eyes to the side, and John jerks against his bonds, swallowing a curse as Rodney wipes his palms on his pants again and walks towards the strangers. John wants to protest, but he's tied to the floor, he's without anything to barter with, and the helplessness burns.

The Ancient devices only come up to Rodney's waist, and he stands between them awkwardly, shifting his weight from foot to foot, stuffing his hands into his pockets and then pulling them out again. The native man, the same one that was touching Rodney earlier is there, taking McKay by one wrist and twisting it sideways into place against one of the cuffs.

Rodney tenses, his hand balling up into a fist when the cuff snaps shut over his arm with a click like a lock sliding home. The position of his arm already has him leaning over. When the native man grabs Rodney's other arm Rodney makes a face and settles down onto his knees. The marble has to be anything but comfortable, and Rodney starts shifting almost immediately, jerking his head to the side as the second cuff closes.

Teyla makes a sound, John can see her straining against her own bonds, and feels a swell of deep affection for his team, for all of them, even Rodney for risking this when he should have went back to the 'gate and called for help.

Rodney licks his lips, John can see his chest rising and falling with too rapid breathes. McKay manages a crooked smile, and John does his best to return it with something that feels tight and strained. He tries to ignore the waiver in Rodney's voice, "It'll be fine. I'm—I'm a good test taker. It's all about giving the answers they want, you know."

That's about when the native man steps over to the wall and presses his hand against a panel set into the stone. The light that floods across Rodney's skin is golden, shining out of the poles and dancing across his skin.

Rodney's eyes go wide, unseeing, and his voice is tiny, "Oh."

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There's something unnatural about watching Rodney just sag, go limp and still. Four years of sleeping beside the man in the field have taught John that Rodney either sleeps balled up in a tight twist of arms and legs, or sprawls out loose and jerks and twitches all night long. Even unconsciousness leaves Rodney locked up, like he's bracing himself for blows that might come while he isn't aware enough to dodge them.

Rodney is limp now, hanging forward by his wrists, his legs sliding out and to one side as his whole body succumbs to gravity. His fingers are loose, curling slightly up into his palms, his head bowed forward. If it weren't for the fact that John can see each breath the man takes in the slow flex of his shoulders, John would have thought Rodney was dead.

John bites his tongue, and then decides that the natives don't actually seem that serious about killing them for talking, "What the hell did you do to him?"

One of the native women looks at him, she's got short blond hair and her shirt is hardly doing anything to disguise the swell of her breasts and for one insane second all John can think is that she's just Rodney's type. She's got a bowl cradled in her arms, and when she shrugs the light dances across its metallic surface. She says, "When judging a life, we must start at the beginning."

John still isn't seeing any knives, guns, or any other various instrument of nasty death, so he grits his teeth and presses on, "Let's all assume I'm stupid. Why don't you tell me exactly what you mean by 'judging a life'."

The woman sighs, tilts her head back to let her hair fall away of her face, "It will see his deeds, the good and the bad that he has done, and see if he is worthy to walk among the chosen."

John curses, ignoring the dirty looks it earns him, and Teyla leans closer to him, keeps her voice to a whisper, "It may be another device they designed for Ascension. Perhaps to test how close they are to achieving the balance necessary to take the final step?"

Ronon rumbles on John's other side, staring contemplatively at his shackles, "I'm starting to think that the Ancestors were kind of bastards."

John looks at Rodney, eerily, frighteningly still, and says, "You and me both. Look, we have to get him out of—"

Rodney jerks like someone has ran an electric current through him. He gets his feet under him, tries to stand and jerks sideways and down when the cuffs prevent the completion of the movement. Rodney's eyes are huge and confused, his mouth set into a hard unhappy line, as his hands open and close in the air. John clears his throat, trying to slow down the crazy pound of his heart, "You okay, buddy?"

Rodney doesn't look towards him, doesn't give any sign that he even hears John. He's blinking, looking vaguely suspicious, like he doesn't know what to make of what he's seeing. John feels sick, desperate, looks at the strangers lingering in the doorway and demands, "What did you do to him? How long does it take for this to wear off?"

The blond woman gives him a puzzled look, "The test is far from over. He is many cycles old. We estimated it will take at least two days to gain the scope and breadth of his life." John opens his mouth, and she talks over him, tone scolding, "Please, be silent. This is a holy occasion."

And watching Rodney look down at himself, brow furrowing in confusion, John feels his mouth click shut.

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They left John his watch, either because they didn't know what it was or they didn't think it was a threat. He finds himself looking at it every few minutes, trying to avoid thinking about the heaviness in his stomach, the way his heart keeps catching in his throat.

Rodney started fidgeting against almost immediately after jerking back to consciousness or whatever the hell that had been. He's been squirming and pulling on the cuffs almost nonstop since then, making soft, unhappy sounds when they won't give. Rodney is still—frighteningly—not focusing on anything in the room besides himself and his bonds.

John thinks that he should be getting bored any minute, but he can't seem to distract himself from Rodney. It's partially because Rodney is the only thing in the room to look at, it's partially because he's scared out of his mind that Rodney is going to be stuck like this, confused and lost.

There's no other movement until the hour mark, when the two natives with the bowls step slowly away from the wall towards Rodney. John startles, beside him Ronon growls and throws himself forward against his shackles. John yells, "Get away from him!" And is ignored.

One of the natives that kneel in front of Rodney is the blond woman, the other a red-headed man. They set their bowls down carefully, and the blond woman reaches out, drags her knuckles down the side of Rodney's face.

Rodney startles. John can see McKay's eyes clear for the first time in an hour, watches him blink, sleepy and dazed, at the blond woman. The native man reaches out, catches Rodney's chin and turns it towards him, and John feels anger bubble up at the intimacy of the gesture. John snarls, jerks hard enough that he can feel the bruises forming, big and black under his skin.

John is making so much noise that he barely catches the low murmur of the red-haired man's voice, "Do you wish to continue, Rodney McKay?"

John watches Rodney's eyes jerk, feels his breath catch when Rodney meets his gaze and holds it. Rodney is still looking at John when he draws himself up, squares his shoulders and says, "Yes. I—yes. Do it." Rodney swallows convulsively, dragging his eyes down to the bowls set in front of him, "I get—I get that now, right?"

The blond woman nods, reaches into her bowl and lifts up a silver cup brimming with water. It drips down her fingers, clear drops that run down her arm and drip back into the bowl as she raises the cup to Rodney's lips.

Rodney drinks greedily, his chin tilting back, swallowing hard and gasping when the woman carefully replaces the cup in the bowl. Rodney's lips are wet, slick, he licks at them and John grits his teeth and pulls at the shackles.

The red-headed man is moving then, lifting something wrapped in a leaf out of his bowl, pressing it to Rodney's lips. Rodney chews, quick before swallowing, his face scrunching up in disgust, and coughs out, "Next time I want the water second."

The natives say nothing, the man running his knuckles down the side of Rodney's face as they shift backwards and then stand. John can see the exact moment Rodney goes under again, watches his eyes fog over and his breathing quicken.

John jerks his head to the side and curses.

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John's watch says it's been an hour and fifteen minutes the first time Rodney makes a sound in the weird trance state. Rodney jerks, full body, hands balling up into tight fists as a whimper catches in the back of his throat. It sounds small, broken, and John hates these people for making him hear it.

The sound is fading almost as soon as it escapes Rodney's throat, but John can still hear it, like nails on a chalk board, a memory that won't fade. Teyla is working her arms in the shackles, trying to flatten her hand and slide it through and John wants to tell her it's useless, but he's trying the same thing, and so he keeps his mouth shut. Ronon is just straining upwards, constant steady pressure on the bolts holding the shackles into the floor.

Time passes, measured in the too slow circuits of the hands of John's watch and the soft clicks of their chains and Rodney's occasional whimpers. John doesn't let himself look, because he can't bear to see. He spends his time instead contemplating how difficult it would be to break his hands and whether he'd be able to do anything useful if he did.

By the time the two hour mark rolls around John has managed to bloody his wrists and is disappointed to realize that really, blood isn't as good a lubricant as he'd always hoped it would be. He jerks his head up, instinct when he catches movement out of the corner of his eyes, watches the blond woman and her partner approach Rodney again.

John waits until Rodney's eyes clear, then snarls, "Stop, okay, stop. It's enough. This is enough, we'll figure something else out."

Rodney's smile is lopsided, soft and too-big, and he has to clear his throat twice before he replies, "Not that bad, Sheppard. Just my, hm, my turn to save the day." And then Rodney is turning his attention to the natives, saying, "It's okay. I want to keep going."

They feed him the leaf-thing first this time, and then the water, and John blurts, before they can put him back under, "Rodney! I can't—I can't." And then curses himself because he can't finish the thought either. Rodney's eyes are still on him when they cloud over.

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Part Two

It's possible that Rodney somehow managed to understand what John couldn't even vocalize. Rodney is quiet the next ten hours, horribly, terribly quiet. John has to keep looking up, distracted from his useless escape attempts, to make sure Rodney is still alive.

When the natives snap collars around John, Teyla and Ronon's necks and lead them down the hall after eight hours, ordering them to use the facilities before dragging them back to the cell, John almost loses his mind. Each minute away from Rodney in his present, helpless, state is a nightmare on his nerves. When they get back it's almost a relief to find Rodney still and suspended between the poles. That was four hours ago.

Rodney is tense, his fists rotating slowly in the cuffs, his chin tucked down against his chest. He stays like that, strung tight, only looking up or talking when the natives sink down in front of him with their food and water and damning question.

John feels swallowed by the same silence that Rodney is abiding by, bites his lips against the order that Rodney stop this right now. Rodney won't look at him anymore, either, keeps his eyes on the ground, sucking in breaths and shaking apart in the minute respite he gets every hour.

John grinds his teeth together, and watches Rodney go tense again, catches a glimpse of Rodney's mouth, his bottom lip drawn up between his teeth before Rodney ducks his chin back down. John sets his teeth, twists his fingers together.

John's blood has dried all over his hands, coating his skin and itching. It's still oozing out, slow drops sliding down the insides of his palms, tickling against the bases of his fingers. John twists his arms hard, enough to rip the scabs open, to feel the hot burst of blood running down the back of his hands, dripping down to the puddle already in front of him.

John is exhausted, wrung out from twelve hours of having to kneel here, bleeding, from all the hours he'd been awake before that. And he hates himself for indulging in the temporary self-pity, because Rodney is hanging there, reliving memories that John is sure can't all be pleasant. He drags his fingers through the blood, and grimaces.

The whisper of movement makes John's head snap up, thinking at first that the hour slipped away without his notice and the natives are on the move again. All the strangers are still standing against the far wall. It's Rodney that's moving, jerking up to his knees, spine snapping straight, face tilted up and to the side for the first time in hours.

Rodney's mouth is open, he's swallowing air, his eyes squeezed shut. Rodney's hands are as stiff as the rest of him, fingers extended straight out, trembling. John jerks, because Rodney's expression is broken, crumbling. When Rodney grunts, a low hoarse sound, like someone hit him hard under the ribs, John throws himself forward hard enough that he ends up toppling.

John's shoulder hits the ground hard, and he grits his teeth, shoving his feet against the floor, trying to pull himself forward as far as he can. Beside him he can hear Teyla and Ronon responding similarly, can hear the low, threatening growl in Ronon's throat.

Rodney flinches, jerks hard on the cuffs, one side and then the other, over and over again. Rodney's babbling, voice high and desperate, loud, bouncing off the stone walls of the room, "Please don't, please don't, please, please, I'll do, I'll do it better just don't, don't, please—"

John is on his back, arms stretched out so far that his shoulders are burning. He grits his teeth and pulls hard, feels bones in his wrists shifting while he curses up to the ceiling. His voice is louder than Rodney's, tangling their words together, his curses and Rodney's soft, tumbling pleading. John can hear Teyla, trying to reason with their captors, and he can hear the low dangerous rumble of anger in Ronon's chest.

John arches his head up off the floor, straining forward to watch Rodney jerk. Rodney has all his weight shifted to the right, one leg braced against the left pole, pushing against it and leaning his shoulders away. Rodney's fingers are red and angry, all the muscles along his arm standing up, his veins pressed up against his pale skin.

Rodney's voice is broken, "Please don't, I don't want to, please, don't make me anymore—"

Ronon roars, there's no other word for it. It booms off the walls, rings in John's ears and steals all John's words. John rolls on his side, ignoring the burn in his shoulders, watches Ronon wrench against his bonds, face twisting into a grimace of pure fury. Ronon's promising, "Let him go, let him go or I will kill you all."

The natives don't answer, they don't even flinch. John's always been aware that for all Ronon picks at Rodney the big man is painfully protective of their scientist. Neither of the other men had said much about their time on the Wraith Hive ship that had nearly made it to Earth, but Teyla had told John that something had changed between them.

Ronon is going out of his mind now, and John turns his attention away from Rodney because Ronon is going to snap his own goddamn wrists if he doesn't cool it. John rolls and twists, slipping in his own blood and sweat on the slick floor, kicks at Ronon's heaving shoulders.

Ronon spins on him, snarling and John snaps, "Get a fucking hold of yourself." And when Ronon doesn't settle, "That's a fucking order."

Ronon jerks, goes still in mid-rage, his eyes narrowing to slits and focusing in on John with nothing but cold fire in his gaze. Ronon is frozen, breathing quick and shallow, his nostrils flaring, growls, "What do you think is happening to him, Sheppard?"

John's eyes slip back towards Rodney, whose back is bowed, whose hand is crushed so tightly against the cuff that John is worrying again about teammates breaking bones. Rodney, who's pleading with someone none of the rest of them can see, "—please, I don't want you to, just let me—"

John's stomach clenches, he swallows hard, rasps, "We don't know anything." Ronon laughs, hard and flat and completely without humor. John winces at the sound of it, balling his hands up into useless fists.

Rodney falling silent is a relief. John watches Rodney suck in a breath, face schooling back down into something nowhere close to blank. Rodney's eyes are open wide, sightless, and he's shaking, still slumping to the right.

Teyla is saying, soft but determined, "It is alright, Rodney, it is alright." And John doesn't even try to tell her that Rodney can't hear them, because the rise and fall of her voice is making him feel better. He feels like he's made of broken edges, watching Rodney try to even out his features, watching Rodney pull himself back to the center of the poles, watching Rodney duck his chin back in against his chest.

When the hour runs out, when the natives move towards Rodney, Teyla is still talking, low and soothing. John watches the blond woman drag her knuckles down the side of Rodney's sweating face, and talks over Teyla, "Rodney, stop. Stop. I'm ordering you to—"

Rodney's voice is a rasp, hitching oddly, "Fuck you, Sheppard." Ronon laughs, and John watches Rodney's crooked mouth twist up. Rodney says, blinking rapidly, "Keep going." And the natives give him the leaf and water, and John has to watch him sink back into whatever nightmare is going on inside his head.

Teyla turns to look at John, her voice knife blade sharp, "Do not tell him to stop again, John. It is not helpful."

hr

Rodney falls back into silence, broken by occasional whimpers that John can see him trying to swallow back. Rodney's shoulders are a stiff line, his hands balled into fists that don't move, his arms rigid as fuck. Rodney is barely breathing, just short shallow breaths, holding himself tight as a piano wire.

When the natives move in again John bites his bottom lip so hard that it bleeds, but manages not to say anything.

When Rodney sinks back inside his head John pushes himself off his back. He's breathing hard, even after an hour, his arms stained with blood up to the elbows. He can feel spit and blood sliding down his chin, looks over at Ronon. John says, "We're going to have to make a trip to Earth after this."

Ronon smiles, a vicious flash of teeth. He doesn't answer, but he doesn't have to.

Teyla keeps up a steady stream of encouragement, and John sinks into her voice. He has a feeling that the words, soft and with an undercurrent of steel, are more for his and Ronon's benefit than Rodney's. John also has a feeling that they need it.

He watches Rodney, can't take his eye off the other man, the sweat that's running down the line of his cheeks, dripping off the spikes of his hair. Rodney's muscles are jumping, constant little twitches, and John's fingers are itching with the need to soothe, to do something.

Teyla is saying, "And the first time I was allowed to help my people bring in the harvest of mallozi fruit I picked an entire basket that were not yet ripe and ruined them." John wonders if it's a true story. It doesn't matter. She could be saying the same word over and over again, it's the tone and emotions behind the words that matter.

When the natives bring Rodney out of it this time, Rodney turns his head towards Teyla, smiling at her big and sloppy. Rodney's eyes are very bright, there's a drop of sweat hanging on his chin, and he grins dopily at Teyla right up to the moment he sinks back under.

John keeps his mouth shut, because he's not sure he can get anything but a plea for Rodney to stop out of his throat.

hr

Rodney goes still again, then. Not limp. Just...frozen, his spine snapped up straight, his shoulders squared. His expression has gone completely blank, and it's creepy as fuck. Rodney's hair is dark and wet with sweat, and drops run down the curves of his cheek. There's a muscle in Rodney's jaw jumping, over and over and over again.

John finds himself wondering what's going on. He never found out very much about Rodney's childhood. Just the fact that he was too smart for his own good and that the CIA might have had some interest in him and something about pianos. It isn't enough for him to create any theories about what might be going on inside Rodney's head.

Whatever it is has Rodney right hand balled up, thumb cocked, index finger straightening and tightening over and over again. It's the only movement he's making. Teyla is still talking, but John isn't hearing the words anymore. Rodney stays still and tense the entire hour.

When the natives bring Rodney out of it he sags, breathing hard, eyes squeezed shut. Rodney's voice is hoarse, too tight, when he croaks out, "Yes, again, keep going."

hr

The hours slide by. The sixteenth has Rodney frozen for the most part, then gasping and moaning in what doesn't sound like pain. John catches the whisper of a name, and a crooked smile on Rodney's mouth. John tells himself that it's a good thing, getting to see Rodney finally smiling, but it somehow it feels even worse that seeing him panic. Whoever this Cassandra was, whatever he did with her, it was private.

Teyla's words stumble to a halt, John looks over to find her blushing and looking uncomfortable. John knows that he should pick up the slack, but he can't bring his throat to form words, not when Rodney tilts his head up and to the side, mouth open and wet and panting.

Ronon takes over, his voice low and deep, sharing stories about Sateda that John had never thought to ask about.

The seventeenth hour has more whispers of Cassandra, and John's impressed that Rodney managed to hold a relationship down that long. It also brings the first sign of Rodney's impossibly bright grin, the one that means he's figured something out that no one else could manage, the one that means he's working his own special brand of magic.

John stares, dumbstruck by the familiar expression. Rodney smiles more, after that, though he still spends most of his time scowling. His hands jerk and dance in the cuffs, like he's trying to talk with them and it eases some of the pressure in John's chest.

When the natives strap them back into their collars and drag them down the hall again, John dares to think that the worst is past.

hr

That's how it goes for a further nineteen hours. Nineteen. Hours. John thinks that at least it's probably only fair that Rodney's life was kind of boring after his crappy childhood. That doesn't stop the entire experience from being a mix of completely boring and terrifyingly nerve-wracking, waiting for things to get bad again.

John is exhausted and hungry, and all the adrenaline in his system has drained out and left him empty. He's terrified he's going to fall asleep and he doesn't leave his people behind, he won't abandon Rodney in the middle of a mission.

When Teyla falls silent—she and Ronon have been trading soothing babble sessions back and forth—John clears his throat before Ronon can. John's doesn't know what he's going to say until he's talking. He hasn't talked about his childhood for decades. He hasn't even thought about it.

It's surprisingly easy to talk about the fields out behind the main house. John takes a deep breath and tells Rodney all about the horses that John could have spent hours a day around, tending them, riding them. John figures it's the stress and the exhaustion loosening his tongue, because he hasn't even spoken any of his family member's names for years.

John talks until he's hoarse, happy and embarrassing memories that he thought he'd forgotten pouring off his lips, and then Ronon takes over. Teyla stretches out her leg, nudges John in the thigh and he can't make himself look at her, trying to bite back on the shame of sharing that much of himself with anyone else.

hr

Things start going to shit again slowly, so slowly John doesn't even notice. Rodney twitches, his expression tightening up, and John doesn't realize what's changed, how close they've gotten to the end, until Rodney hisses, tight and miserable, "John."

Rodney's hands twist up and John winces at the expression on the other man's face, panic and fear. The smile still breaks through every now and again, but for the most part Rodney wears stress in the lines around his mouth and eyes.

When Rodney gasps, head jerking to the side, John wonders which one of the nightmares of the past four years he's reliving. He doesn't have to wait long to find out. Rodney blurts out, names all running together, grief drenching the words, "Oh—Wagner—Johnson—Dumais—Hays—"

Rodney chokes on the words, back bowing over and John winces. Teyla starts talking faster, her words tight and tumbling, an attempt at soothing. Rodney is wincing almost non-stop, and John's bracing himself, because he knows what's coming, what has to be approaching on shadowed wings.

Rodney muffles the scream, when it comes. John can see Rodney biting into his lip, but the sound still edges out, Kolya's name in Rodney's tortured voice. John's eyes go involuntarily to Rodney's arm, the pale scar not even visible from this distance. John knows the shape of it anyway, the fishhook of ruined skin.

After that Rodney loses what control he might have had over his emotions. John watches his expression run the spectrum, from anger to fear to happiness so bright it hurts. Rodney's expression collapses to terror and pain and aching, aching sadness when Rodney gasps, "Grodin, oh my God."

John has to look away, because Rodney has slid down, limp and whimpering, mumbling, "Should have been me, should have been me, should have been me," over and over again.

Teyla pauses, her voice strained off to nothing, and John picks up the slack, automatic by now. "So Ralph told me that if I wore a cape I could jump off the roof and I'd fly. I figured it was worth a try and I had a towel that was the exact color of Superman's cape and—"

Rodney's words become a litany, soft names mixed with self-recrimination and soaked in guilt. It starts up again as soon as the natives put him back under, the list getting longer and longer, Ford's name starts making frequent appearances, mixed in with Lindstrom and Abrams. Gall and Collins. Griffin.

And the thing is that Rodney doesn't let any of the names go. The list just gets longer and longer. It keeps repeating, cycling through, all this guilt that John hadn't even realized the other man was carrying around. It burns like a knife in John's chest, and it twists each time Rodney apologizes, each time Rodney whispers his name with a plea for understanding.

John keeps talking, even when Ronon tries to take over, because no. Just no. Rodney is his, and he won't let him break, and somehow he's become convinced that if he just keeps talking, it'll keep Rodney going. John can keep doing this, bearing all these pieces of himself, because he doesn't have a choice.

By the time the natives bring Rodney out again John's throat is burning, but he can't make himself shut up now. He's saying, "And the first time I saw you I thought you were the only thing in that entire base that made any sense."

Rodney blinks across at him, hanging limp from his wrists, and John just keeps talking, all these secrets that he swore he'd never tell, "I thought you died when you walked into that energy creature, I thought you died, Rodney."

Rodney straightens, half his mouth hitching up in a smile completely devoid of amusement. Rodney says, "Stop, John. It's," his voice breaks, rough and dry, "It's fine, just stop."

John watches the native man raise his hand, and blurts before Rodney is stolen away from them for another hour, "Fuck you, McKay."

hr

The next hour is a nightmare. Rodney starts making a low, whining sound in the back of his throat. It doesn't go away, not even when he hiccups around Jeannie's name. But Rodney's back stays straight, and even though his shoulders curl in, his chin stays up.

Right up to the point it doesn't.

Rodney chokes on Carson's name, all the strength draining out of him in one smooth motion. Rodney's legs splay out awkwardly and he makes a low, terrible sound. Rodney's talking too fast for John to make sense of his words, but John figures he can guess. John snaps, loud, breaking the random memories he'd been sharing, "It wasn't your fault."

Rodney can't hear him. Even if he could, John doubts Rodney would be listening. Not when he's dropping his head down against his shoulder, his voice a low whine, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry John, I had to, it was Elizabeth, it was—"

John's jaw feels too tight, all his words trapped behind them. Teyla clears her throat, and John can almost guess what she'll say, some soft story about a harvest festival or the first time she tried to make a ceremonial meal.

Before she gets the chance to start the natives are waking Rodney up, and John tries to be relieved that this is the last time. That after this it'll be less than an hour until they have Rodney back, until this nightmare is over. John is decidedly not thinking about the possibility that Rodney won't be deemed good enough. Rodney's a good man. A great man.

John can't lose him.

Rodney keeps his head down this time when the natives wake him up, like he doesn't have the strength anymore to lift it and John wonders why he didn't realize how hard the loss of Carson and Elizabeth hit the other man before. He makes himself talk, because Rodney looks beaten, "It wasn't your fault."

Rodney doesn't look up, and John feels something icy creep up into his chest. John clenches his fists, and grits out, "It was mine."

Rodney looks up just as the native runs his knuckles down Rodney's face. John catches a flash of irritated denial in Rodney's eyes, sharp irritation on his features, before he's sunk back to that place that John can't reach him.

And since that's the only thing that's gotten any response from Rodney in so long, John goes with it. The words burn in his throat, sharp as broken glass, "It was my fault they took Elizabeth. It was my fault we lost her, Rodney, okay?"

John doesn't expect an answer, and so he isn't disappointed when he doesn't get one. Rodney is shaking his head, back and forth, words that make no sense tumbling off his lips, fragmented apologies and the names of all the dead.

None of it compares to the way Rodney finally sobs, a raw, broken sound. John wonders if it's almost losing Jeannie. It could be the hundreds of thousands the Replicators killed. It could be Heightmeyer's death, though John doesn't think the two of them were that close. It could be finding Elizabeth just to lose her again, or losing Katie.

John doesn't want to know what it is that's finally hit hard enough to break this last piece of Rodney's control. John looks up to the natives, still standing calm and patient as rocks, growls, "Let him out. Please." They don't budge, and Rodney sobs again.

John makes himself keep talking, not even aware of what he's saying anymore, talking just to hear his own voice while Rodney squirms and whimpers and sounds like his heart is being ground to dust in his chest. John thinks he's going to kill all of these bastards for making Rodney live through this shit again.

John is counting down minutes to the end, because they've got to be almost out of time.

When the end does come, it's with a whimper, not a scream. Rodney sobs one last time, an almost silent sound, and then just goes completely limp. John jerks against his bonds, terrified by the sudden stillness and silence from Rodney. He chokes on, "McKay?"

There's no answer. Rodney doesn't even stir. Beside John, Ronon is roaring, "McKay! Someone fucking get him up."

The natives move slowly, and John strains against his bonds because Jesus Christ, he can't tell if Rodney is still breathing or not. His throat is tight, his heart pounding too hard in his chest and when the natives kneel in front of Rodney, running careful hands over his shoulders and the top of his head, John realizes he's holding his breath.

Rodney doesn't twitch, not even when the natives finally, finally, release the cuffs. Rodney collapses to the floor, and John feels something snap in his chest, hears himself, "No, no. McKay. Rodney. This is, this is no time to be sleeping on the job, you wake your ass up."

Rodney doesn't make a sound. The natives are pulling at Rodney's limp body, rolling him onto his back and John makes a sound that is barely even human. Rodney's face is open and slack, his wrists bloody red. Ronon growls and Teyla starts praying, soft and desperate.

The blond woman finally stands, makes her way over to them and John glares up at her, nursing the flame of wrath in his chest. He grits out, "He was a good man."

The woman blinks down at him, expression curious and confused, "Yes, he is."

And behind her Rodney's shoulders curl up off the floor and he coughs, loud and wracking.

hr

John can't seem to stop yanking on his shackles, even as the blond woman unlocks them. All the scabs that had started to close over rip open, and John's fingers feel warm, wet, and tacky. He doesn't notice. Rodney is curled up on his side, still coughing, shoulders jerking, face flushed bright red.

John curses, finally getting his hands free, and shoves the native woman to the side. His legs are shaky, his heart pounding too fast, and John stumbles across the steps to Rodney. He doesn't care. It doesn't matter. None of it does.

Rodney's shirt is soaked through with sweat, and he's shaking. John doesn't think, grabs Rodney under the shoulders and hauls him upright, Rodney still wheezing. Rodney's hands scramble at John, tangling in his shirt, Rodney's face pressing against his chest. John doesn't twist to look over his shoulder, just snaps out an order, "We're getting out of here, right now."

Rodney whispers, "John?" into his shirt, and John can't bring himself to answer. Rodney's skin is jumping under his hands, all pressed up against him. John starts hauling him towards the door and a second later Ronon is there, grabbing one of Rodney's arms and dragging it across his shoulder.

The natives are saying something, hands catching at John's uniform and he ducks his head and shoulders past them, not listening. Teyla will deal with it. For now they're getting out of here, getting Rodney away from here right now.

Rodney is stumbling between John and Ronon, more dragged along than walking. He sounds rough, confused, "John?"

John snaps, "Not right now, McKay," and tries to pull Rodney along faster.

hr

John avoids Rodney for a week. He'd feel guilty about it, but he's avoiding Teyla and Ronon as well. It's hard to be around any of them without feeling stripped naked, without the itching feeling that they've seen all the very worst parts of him. The things that came before Atlantis, the parts of himself that he never really liked very much.

The avoidance probably would have went on longer, but at the end of the week John opens the door to his quarters and finds Rodney waiting for him. Rodney still looks the same, familiar features that John knows better than his own, and John thinks that's not fair. He should look different, darker now, but he doesn't.

Rodney is standing by John's dresser, fidgeting with the Matchbox cars John has spread out. John clears his throat, because Rodney doesn't look up at his presence. Rodney startles at the sound, dropping John's candy apple red Corvette to the floor and blushing.

John rolls his eyes, says, "What's up, McKay?" Because if his strategy of avoidance has been taken away he's moving on to feigning ignorance.

Rodney clears his throat, grabbing the car off the floor and putting it back, ninety degrees to the left of the way it had been sitting. John expects recriminations or for Rodney to apologize or to demand that they go back for the technology they had abandoned.

Rodney says, "His name was Peter Smithers. He used to offer to let me stay at his house so I didn't have to bike to and from school. Like I was stupid." Rodney scoffs, pushing the car back and forth, and John finds himself frozen. He's not sure he can hear this. Rodney isn't waiting for his permission, "He told me I was a genius. That he'd never had a student learn as fast as I did. And then he started telling me how pretty my mouth was."

John doesn't remember moving, but he's got his fingers around Rodney's wrist, holding it still. His voice is hoarse, "You don't have to."

Rodney shrugs, still not looking at John. Rodney speaks slowly, after a long moment, "You and Ronon and Teyla, you all told me everything. Didn't you? No, that's not—it's rhetorical. I remember, bits and pieces of what you said. It's not fair. To you. For me to know. And for you not to."

John can almost feel the undercurrent of tension, bouncing back and forth between them. He wonders what Rodney remembers. He wonders if Rodney knows about John's adventures in attempted superheroism at age eight. Or if he remembers John's awkward first time with Anna, the maid's daughter. Or when John had been forced to put down Buttercup, his first horse, after she broke her leg because he was jumping things he shouldn't have been.

There's a part of John that wants to take all Rodney's memories in recompense. That wants to know who Cassandra was, or what made Rodney so goddamn happy those nineteen years of peace. There's even a part of John that wants to know all the bad, the things that have hurt Rodney the most, so that he knows where to poke and push to hurt the other man, to drive him back from all the places that Rodney has gotten too close.

John clears his throat, staring at his hand around Rodney's wrist, tries to find a way to vocalize all the impossible words in his throat. John manages, "You're a good man."

They stand there for a long moment. John is close enough that he can feel Rodney's warmth, and Rodney's pulse is racing in his wrist. He wonders if he was clear enough, if Rodney got what he was trying to say. He prays that it's so, because he can't make himself any clearer.

Rodney finally moves, shifts, and for just a second he's pressed up against John's side. John forces his eyes not to drift shut, forces himself not to grab and hold onto, not to breathe too deeply. Rodney is gone almost as soon as the touch began, stepping around John and heading for the door.

Rodney pauses in the doorway and says, "You, too." The doors slide shut and John absently reaches out, ghosting his fingers over the hood of his Corvette. It's still warm from Rodney's skin, and John curls his fingers back.

When he says, "No, I'm really not," there's no one in the room to contradict him.

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