Permutationality

Apr. 28th, 2008 11:27 am

Fandom: SGA

Characters: Rodney, Todd, John (hints of one-sided Rodney/Todd, and pre-McShep)

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: Whump, language, mind-fuckery

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Beta: sherriaisling made this so much better than it was.

Summary: Rodney gets a crash course in the inner workings of a Wraith Hive. John gets him back.

Author's Note: Written for IlluZen. This was supposed to be about two thousand words. Twenty thousand words past that I finished it. Sorry it took me so long to finish it.

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Rodney wakes up on his side, face smashed up against the sticky floor. One of his arms is tucked under his body, numb and tingling, and when he pushes himself up with his knuckles, his elbows almost buckle. His head swims from the change in position, his mouth tastes like battery acid, and his joints ache.

He says, "Okay, okay, at least there's no cocoon, right? That's got to count for something." The walls don't answer him, and neither does the sticky, tangled mess that is the door to his cell. Rodney turns in a slow circle, flexing his right hand, trying to work feeling back into his fingers, talking just to break the silence, "Yeah, McKay, it counts for them not wanting to have to pull you out to eat you."

Wraith interior decorating hasn't gotten any better since last time he enjoyed their hospitality. There's one narrow bench that looks about as far from comfortable as it's possible for furniture to look. The light is still faded blue, weak enough to remind him of twilight, to make him squint just a little in an effort to bring things into sharper focus. Everything smells organic and sour, like sulfur and rot with a side of blood and unwashed bodies.

Rodney looks down at his hand, nerves burning like fire as circulation creeps back in. He gripes, "Well. This is just great." The wall has a pulse when he presses his palm against it, quivers when he runs his thumb nail along its slick surface, looking for a seam. He says to the empty room, "They were serving chocolate cake tonight, you stupid bastards. You couldn't have waited until tomorrow for this?" and pokes his tongue out the corner of his mouth when he pushes all of his weight down onto his thumb. The thick epidermis of the wall gives under the pressure.

The wall is bleeding.

Walls shouldn't bleed, but then, the Wraith are responsible for a lot of things that shouldn't happen and do anyway. Spaceships that bleed really don't compare to half of the greater horrors they've unleashed on the galaxy at large, but right now it's Rodney's biggest reason to hate them.

His vest is gone, as are his belt and shoes. That's irritating on a whole different level. It's hard to get those boots broken in, and, besides, now his socks are soaked in the goo that covers pretty much all available surfaces in any given Wraith base. Rodney makes a face, bending and then hopping on one foot to pull one of his already ruined socks off.

Wraith-goo squishes between his toes and Rodney, scowling, continues, "I hate this galaxy so much," and works his fingers into the hole he made with his thumb. The wall tears slowly, like it doesn't want to part, flesh wet and soft under his fingers. Rodney grits his teeth, pulls hard, and then rams his sock into the hole he made, probing around for the damaged veins and applying pressure.

For a half second, he thinks about the fact that he's performing first-aid on an alien space ship. Its blood is every bit as warm as a human's, trickling over his knuckles, dripping down to the floor. Rodney shakes himself, pulls off his other sock and uses it to wipe the blood away from the tendons and wiring beneath, walking his fingers over the bundles of nerves and lymphatic systems, letting himself remember what does what.

It would be easier to think about the Wraith systems as mechanical, but it also wouldn't work. Silicon and fiber optics don't squirm away when you reach for them, don't writhe between your fingers. Rodney has no problem dealing with hard thoughts, and he accepts the fact that he's mutilating a living thing because he has no other choice.

The wall is bleeding, and as much as he likes to think that Atlantis is living, she isn't alive like this. His fingers slip on tendons, but he manages to get his thumb and forefinger around a thick nerve cluster. It jumps when he squeezes it, slippery against his skin, and Rodney braces his forehead against the flesh-warm wall, grits his teeth, and adjusts his grip.

He hisses, "Sorry, sorry," and rubs the pad of his thumb in a firm circle. The thing is, the stupid thing is, that he barely sees Wraith as alive anymore. They're the monster under the bed, faceless aliens with a hard-on for leather and questionable facial hair. He's shot them without thinking about it, without guilt. He's blown them up by the thousands, and not lost sleep over it. This shouldn't bother him.

Rodney squeezes harder, and his stomach twists, bile burning bitter in the back of his throat.

The door to his cell jerks, snaps half open before freezing, and Rodney bites his bottom lip and presses as hard as he can. The door opens all the way, a fresh wash of blood pouring down over his fingers, hot and sticky as Rodney jerks his hand free.

Rubbing his fingers on his pants is done without thought, and he leaves his socks behind when he moves to the door. No radio, no weapons, no fucking shoes, and if giving up were something he were any good at, now would be an excellent time for it. But Rodney has always been too damn stubborn to know when he's beat, so instead he wipes his hand again and says, "Okay."

And that's when a Wraith steps around the corner and stuns Rodney before he can so much as duck.

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There's something tickling along the side of his face, and that's what wakes Rodney up. He's curled up again, arm numb, feeling like death warmed over, and all he catches out of the corner of his eye is corpse-white flesh and a black talon of a fingernail.

Rodney means to curse, but the words come out tangled together, his tongue thick and dry in his mouth when he pushes himself backwards. The floor is wet and warm under his fingers, and his right side is soaked with goo. The skin on his cheek is still tingling from the touch of the Wraith Queen.

She's watching him as he scrambles to his feet, her eyes big and curious, like a cat watching the crippled bird it's just starting to enjoy playing with. Rodney wipes at his cheek, ignoring the goo he smears across his skin, trying to get rid of the memory of her touch.

The Queen is still watching him, her hair black as coal, shot through with strands of seaweed green, her skin so pale he can see the veins below it. He doesn't recognize her as one of the queens that they've had run-ins with previously, and he wonders if that's a good or bad thing.

Her voice, soft, for a Wraith, still itches along his nerves, alien and predatory, "What is your name, human?"

Rodney sneers at her, trying to ignore the pounding of his chest, the bitter twist of fear and panic that he's sure she can smell, "What is this, speed dating? Why do you care?"

The queen cocks her head to the side, eyes dropping half closed as her nostrils flare. Rodney curses the biological systems that must give him away when her wide mouth curls up into an ugly smile, when she hisses softly, "You know of our systems, we are...curious."

"Yes, well, isn't that special for you?" Rodney hates that his voice breaks when she steps closer to him, but he dares anyone to do better. There's a wall behind him, but he has no delusions about his odds for making it around her to the door. When she steps up to him, tall enough to look down at him, he squares his shoulders because there's nothing else for him to do.

She hisses, "Kneel," and Rodney has seen John do this often enough to know how it goes. There's an itch down his spine, something twisting in his brain, and then his knees are on the ground, aching from the impact. The Queen trails a fingertip down the curve of his cheek, and Rodney wonders what words he might say that would make her spare him.

In the end, all he can come up with is, "I bet you really burn in the sun. You should look into—"

"Silence!" Rodney's mouth snaps shut and that's how he knows that the mental compulsion must actually work because no one ever manages to shut him up. The Queen looks pissed. He wonders if she's just not used to food talking back. She growls, "I grow weary of you."

Rodney can't stop himself, "Feeling peckish?"

The queen hisses, drawing her arm back, and Rodney thinks that, really, this isn't half as bad as he'd thought it would be. There's a lot less torture than he'd been anticipating, and while he doesn't want to die, he'd rather not be tortured either. It's almost a relief, insane as that is.

Rodney closes his eyes, because he's not morbid enough to want to watch his own death. He waits for his life to flash before his eyes and feels cheated when it doesn't. There's a pressure against his chest, and then a voice that he knows, booming in the high-ceilinged room, "Wait! I must see the prisoner!"

Rodney's eyes snap open, and he twists his head to the side in time to see another Wraith run up. Rodney boggles up at him, familiar facial tattoo and ragged pale hair. He can hear the incredulity in his own voice, "Todd?"

Todd spares a look down at him, before focusing his attention on the Queen, his voice low and urgent, "This human is the one I spoke of—the one who helped me to develop the code that destroyed the Replicator abominations."

The Queen pauses. Rodney can almost see her thinking, her eyes narrowing. Todd continues, "He is worth far more to us alive than dead. I can think of a dozen uses for him in my labs, and—" Todd hesitates, then presses on, "—his team will come for him. There is no telling what Sheppard will give for his safe return."

Rodney opens his mouth and the Queen hisses, fingers tight on his jaw. Something twists in the back of his skull, a compulsion that swallows his words, and she says, "You believe that this food will be able to help you in some way?" Her voice is a mix of curiosity and scorn and Rodney tries to get his jaw to work, because he is imminently useful.

Todd heaves a sigh, "He is exceptionally clever for a human."

The Queen stares down at Rodney for a long moment. Rodney wishes she'd make up her mind before his knees crack. His jaw pops when he tries to speak again, and the Queen smiles down at him. It's an ugly expression, all sharp teeth. She says, "Very well, he is yours." She cocks her head to the side, "For now," and then she backhands Rodney hard enough to send him reeling back against the wall.

Rodney doesn't even have time to get an arm up before she stuns him again.

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Rodney wakes up on his back, his head swimming and his back one big mess of pain. The ceiling above him is pale blue, fragmented by darker blue veins, and off-white constructs that might be bones. Rodney stares up at it until he realizes that he's staring at the ceiling, then tries to reach up to rub at the ache in the back of his neck.

His hands haven't made it above his waist when his wrists catch with a metallic clank and Rodney curses. Arching his shoulders up off the floor doesn't help the blistering pain dancing up and down his spine. Rodney wiggles his fingers, pulls on his bonds again and scowls, "Cute. Real cute."

The cuffs are nearly identical to what they'd kept Todd in while he was on Atlantis. The thick leather around his wrists hasn't warmed to skin temperature yet, and the band around his waist is loose enough to shift freely. Rodney is sure that there's going to be chaffing.

"I thought you might appreciate that."

Rodney startles, managing to roll and push himself up onto one knee, hands useless in front of him. Todd is standing in front of a Wraith console, scanning the words that are scrolling past too quickly for Rodney to catch more than a few.

The Wraith looks calm, in control, and Rodney pushes himself to his feet. His clothes dried while he was out, stiff and rough against his skin from the Wraith goo, and his hair feels matted to his skull. Rodney's chin goes up automatically when he speaks, "What do you think you're doing?"

Todd doesn't turn to look at him, "I believe I am saving your life." There's just an edge of sharpness to the words, and Rodney tries to cross his arms, forgetting already that his movement has been restricted. The chains clack together and Rodney makes due with balling his hands into fists.

"I don't recall asking for your help." He's not chained to anything besides himself, and Rodney can't really help looking around the large room he's in. There are a half dozen consoles scattered around, along one wall there are tubes full of vicious green liquid, and, at intervals that seem to have no pattern, there are almost translucent screens with information scrolling across them. Rodney steps to the nearest one, scanning the words.

"You would have preferred I left you to die?" Todd's voice is sharp, mocking, and Rodney frowns because that wasn't what he'd said. He's distracted by the calculations scrolling across the screen in front of him, tries to reach out for them, but his hands catch with the tip of his middle finger just brushing the screen. It's just as well, because it's only then that Rodney remembers that this isn't his lab. He draws his hands back, steps away from the screen.

Rodney takes a deep breath, "I'm not going to help you."

Todd does look up at that, tilting his head to the side, slitted eyes narrowing on Rodney's face. Rodney squirms, but does his best to make it look like he's just shrugging. He has his doubts about the effectiveness of his efforts when Todd smiles, flashing needle sharp teeth, "Oh, I think you will." And Rodney feels a chill climb his spine, feels his skin crawl, and grits his teeth.

Then Todd shrugs, stepping away from his console and kneeling to dig through what Rodney recognizes a half-second later as his vest. Rodney says, "Hey!" and takes a step forward, drawing up short when Todd straightens, the movement smooth and fast, setting off all the instincts in the back of Rodney's head that tell him to run.

Todd eyes him for a moment, hissing with what might be amusement before extending his hand, a power bar held between his fingers. The Wraith says, "We will have to acquire some of your food, but until then..." He peels the plastic wrapper off the bar, offers it again, and Rodney hates his stomach for choosing that moment to rumble loudly. Todd, just for a second, flashes a victorious, sharp smile, and Rodney hates him too.

Rodney says, between clenched teeth, "Unfortunately I appear to be unable to reach my mouth." He jerks against the chains just for emphasis, trying to ignore the dizziness that he'd been blaming on the recent stun blasts.

Another sharp smile from Todd is all the warning Rodney gets before the Wraith is in his space, the powerbar pressed against his bottom lip. Todd is close enough that Rodney can smell the dry, earthy odor of him, the dirt-dust-sulfur scent that clings to all the Wraith that he's ever met. Todd says, head tilted down so that his face is in shadow, "We both know you are hungry, Doctor McKay."

And because it doesn't make sense that Todd would try to poison him after saving him from being the Queen's snack, because he is hungry, because if he's going to stand any chance of getting himself out of this mess he's going to need to not be in a coma, Rodney makes himself take a bite of the bar.

There's a part of Rodney that expects it to turn to ash on his tongue, to be full of wriggling maggots or decaying flesh. But it just tastes like artificial sweeteners and raisons. His mouth is dry, and his throat catches when he swallows. Rodney winces, takes another bite, and holds Todd's eyes the entire time, nursing the anger in his chest

Rodney licks his bottom lip when he's done, and for just a half second Todd looks distracted. Before Rodney can figure out what happened, Todd is stepping back, balling up the powerbar wrapper and shoving it into one of the many pockets of his coat. The Wraith says, "Now, let us discuss what use I have for you, Doctor McKay."

Rodney expects Todd to ask him for the coordinates to Earth, or the codes to bring Atlantis down around the expedition's ears. He expects a demand that he won't be able to even consider, something worth so much more than his own life that he won't even have to think twice about it.

Todd asks for his help in the Wraith civil war, and Rodney feels all the bravery, any willingness to just let himself die for the greater good, just slip away. Todd has to be able to read his inner turmoil on his face, because he calls guards in to escort Rodney back to his cell to sleep on the decision.

The guards put a cuff around Rodney's ankle, hooked to a chain in the middle of the floor. There's enough length for him to pace inside the cell, not enough for him to reach any of the walls, and Rodney hates that the bad guys are never as stupid as he hopes they are.

Rodney paces, a habit he picked up from Sheppard, trying his best to ignore the pressure around his ankle, the clack-clack of the chain every time he moves. He tells himself that he's not going to sleep, that he's going to figure a way out of his chains and out of the cell and off the ship, but exhaustion wins in the end. He sleeps curled up on the floor, hating himself for the decision that he knows he's going to make when Todd comes for him.

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Rodney wakes up to a bowl of something that smells almost like oatmeal sitting right in front of his face. The bowl is ceramic, bright green with spots of yellow all over it, and Rodney wonders who the Wraith killed to get it. He raises his gaze, and is not surprised to find Todd standing over him, radiating superiority and knowingness.

For a half second, Rodney entertains the thought of hurling his oatmeal at the Wraith, but he's dizzy now, a headache pounding away at his temples. Besides, his hands are rather unfortunately incapacitated. Rodney scowls up at Todd until the Wraith kneels, palming the bowl and awkwardly spooning the thick oatmeal into Rodney's mouth.

Rodney resists making a joke about airplanes, fairly certain that his present audience wouldn't understand it anyway.

The Wraith waits until Rodney is done before speaking, "I have set up a station for you in my labs." The assumption that he's going to give in, true though it might be, is almost enough to make Rodney reconsider. But it's a stupid thing to die for, when he's been doing the same thing in his own labs for almost four years.

Killing Wraith is killing Wraith.

Rodney jingles the chain around his ankle, says, "You know what helps me work better? Being clean." He's not sure that a Wraith shower is something he particularly wants to think about, but his skin is crawling from the various things he's ended up laying in, and he desperately wants to scrub himself until he feels something like clean again.

Todd waves the guards in, and it takes every bit of Rodney's self control to hold eye contact with Todd instead of looking down when the Wraith guard unhooks his ankle cuff. Todd cocks his head to the side, nostrils flaring before he makes a face, "I will see what I can do when you have proved your usefulness to the Hive."

Rodney thinks that there's something fundamentally wrong about being in a situation where you have to earn showers. Then again, there are a lot of things very wrong with his present situation, and none of them look likely to miraculously resolve themselves. Rodney can almost feel the ugliness in his smile when he says, "Well then, let's get to work."

Todd leads the way through the twists and turns of the Hive, and apparently on the off chance that Rodney is planning to make a run for it, the guards stay close, a stunner pressed low into the space between his shoulder blades the entire way.

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John wakes up in the infirmary, his right arm covered from shoulder to wrist in thick, white bandages. He aches all over, his head pounding and his throat dry. There's always water somewhere close in the infirmary, and he gropes a hand out for the pitcher or cup, still trying to remember exactly how he ended up here.

Someone, from somewhere far away, yells, "He's waking up!" and then there are thin, warm fingers smoothing over his brow and someone is pressing a cup against his lips. John has to squint to focus on caramel-dark skin, swallowing down all the sweet, cool water that he can, feeling it like a balm over his thick tongue and rough throat.

He coughs when he's done, but only briefly. There's a press of cold metal against his chest, and Keller's voice swimming through his head, "How are you feeling, Colonel?"

That's a stupid question, and John waits for Rodney to point it out. There's silence, and John shakes his head in an attempt to clear it, finally gets Teyla and Keller in focus past indistinct blobs. Teyla looks concerned, Keller distracted, and Rodney is not there. John pushes up onto his elbows, ignoring the flare of pain from his right arm and Keller's agitated insistence that he lie back down.

John's voice is a rasp, his tongue too thick to work the way it's supposed to, "Where's McKay?"

Guilty looks are never good, and John sucks in a sharp breath when Teyla and Keller exchange one over his head. John reaches up, pulling scanners off his temples, reaching for the I.V. in his arm before Teyla catches his wrists, twisting his arms until he's forced to go still. She says, "You have been asleep for nearly three days."

John frowns, "That's not what I asked." Teyla and Keller exchange another look, and John can almost feel it when his worry eclipses his impatience. He pulls against Teyla's hold, trying to remember how he got here, what happened to land him in the infirmary. Memory comes back in bits and snatches.

They'd been off-world, his arm had been swallowed by some kind of giant, angry, plant-thing. He has disjointed memories of Ronon chopping the plant off in the middle of its stem, of his skin burning and his head swimming and the whine of Wraith engines overhead. Something in his chest shifts to ice.

"Teyla, where is Rodney?"

John can remember staring at the ground, being thrown over Ronon's shoulder as they hid behind the ruins of a dead civilization. He can remember Wraith everywhere, and nothing separating them and the 'gate but a stretch of wide open field, no cover, no chance, and Rodney, shouting loud enough to be heard over the static in John's ears, "I'll draw their fire! Get him out of here!"

Teyla says, "I am sorry."

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It takes Rodney two days—or, well, two trips to and from his cell, it's impossible to tell time inside the Hive—to figure out what Todd is trying to do. It takes him about thirty seconds after he gets that straight to come up with a dozen different reasons it won't work.

What the Wraith don't seem to understand is that biological warfare doesn't work very well when your enemy has the exact same genetic make-up you do. Rodney has a head start making that logical leap, because humans have been trying it for ages.

Any of the diseases that Todd is proposing are stupidly risky, too easily spread. And while Rodney can see all the upsides of wiping out every Wraith in existence, he doesn't think that Todd and his Hives particularly want that.

Still, he is impressed by Todd's use of updated nanotech to spread the disease, though the Wraith have given the nanites a distressing amount of decision making ability. That's a surprise, if only because of the deep seated mistrust of nanites that the Wraith are carrying around. It doesn't make a lot of sense to Rodney for them to be growing something that obviously scares the shit out of them in their labs. He wonders how many of Todd's experiments are secrets kept from his own people.

In any case, Rodney has an unpleasant amount of experience in trying to get the nanites to do certain things in a living body. There's a trick to the programming that he can't explain, that makes it easier to tell them what to do and not do, and Rodney re-writes hundreds and thousands of lines of coding.

He does it all while dealing with conditions that make work a living hell. The chains mean he has to stand to reach the consoles, and his back is a mess of never-ending pain, his wrist ache and burn from the angle he has to hold them at, his eyes blurring from focusing on the squiggles that make up the Wraith written language. And he's really fucking sick of oatmeal.

He nonetheless prefers the lab to his cell. He can feel the pressure of the ankle cuff against his skin all the time now, even when it's off. It sours his stomach to think that the bonds on his wrists will be the same way, that even when he gets out of here he'll still be held tight by the memory of them. That he'll never be able to raise his hands without hearing the clink of metal chains in the back of his skull.

It's a stupid thing to worry about, considering that he's living amongst monsters that want to suck his life out through his chest.

But then, for the most part the Wraith leave him alone. Todd's lab is apparently an off limits area, and most of them got bored with wandering by Rodney's cell and taunting him within a day or two. It's not enough for him to feel safe, but it's enough that the constant fear of being fed on fades out of focus enough for him to sleep without constant nightmares of waking up as a husk.

By the end of the first week, Rodney has almost settled into a pattern. Wake up to Todd hovering over him, eat oatmeal, go to the lab, work, back to the cell, sleep. There's something comforting in the monotony of it. It's the first time in what feels like forever that Rodney has gone a week without dealing with a crisis of some kind. If it weren't for the fact that he was being held prisoner by the alien race that was using his race as a food source then it would be almost relaxing. Rodney snorts, amused by the thought, and across the room Todd looks up.

When Rodney doesn't offer an explanation Todd turns back to his work, says a moment later, "You used to talk more."

Rodney shifts his weight from foot to foot, still without shoes, though he's almost used to that by now. Shoes stopped being a priority around the time he realized they weren't going to provide him with caffeine, and there had been an ugly few days where he'd just wanted to cut his own head off. Now that the withdraw headaches had faded even that didn't seem too bad. Rodney re-writes another line of code, then pulls back enough to rotate his wrists, to say, "Yes, well, I also used to be able to sleep in a bed, eat real food, and shower whenever I wanted."

Todd is watching him and Rodney meets his gaze, wishes again that he could cross his arms. It feels unnatural and wrong, even after a week, to have his hands trapped by his waist. If he were completely honest, it's hard to talk without them, without being able to use them to shape the words that race around inside his skull. Todd says, "I did not expect to miss it."

And Rodney sneers, because somehow he's not feeling sorry for Todd in their present situation, "I'm sure it must be horrible for you." Todd says nothing.

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The next morning there are dates, or something distinctly date-like anyway, in his oatmeal. Rodney eats them slowly, because it's apparently been long enough since he's had something sweet that shriveled fruit is appealing. When he's done, the guards come in and he follows Todd out, already gearing up for another day of what has somehow become boring routine.

When they miss a turn Rodney startles, trips over his feet and one of the guards shove him hard in the back. Rodney goes to one knee, trying to catch himself on his hands which doesn't work so well when they're chained to your waist. He ends up with a shoulder slumped against the wall, pain spiking up from his knee, catching a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye.

Rodney braces himself, shoulders curling over, wishing he could get his hands up to cover his head, and Todd snaps, "Stop! Lower your weapons." There's a pause, and then, "Step back."

Rodney can hear the guards shift backwards, their heavy boots echoing against the floor. He lets out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and looks over his shoulder, finds the faceless guards standing with their stunners held across their chests.

Todd's hand is bigger than human, skin unnaturally rough when he closes his fingers around Rodney's elbow and hauls him to his feet. Rodney can feel the split of Todd's feeding maw against his elbow, the hard press of Todd's nails sharp against his arm, and can't suppress the shudder that moves across his skin. Todd says, "Do try not to fall, Doctor McKay."

Rodney frowns at him, shivering again when Todd removes his hand, snaps, "You're going the wrong way."

That gets him a sharp look from Todd, who is walking again. A jab in the back with one of the guard's blasters gets Rodney moving as well. Todd's voice is as tight as his expression, "I am most certainly not." Rodney opens his mouth to protest, but by then Todd has stepped into a new room off the main hallway. Rodney snaps his mouth closed when he follows the Wraith.

It reminds Rodney of the inside of his mouth, all pink and red walls, and a pink floor, all of it looking disturbingly wet and organic. The floor moves under his toes, a constant shift of pressure, and Rodney sniffles at the high humidity in the room.

Todd says, "You wished to wash," while reaching for Rodney's hands. Rodney watches what pocket the keys come out of, disappointed but not really surprised when Todd puts them back in a different pocket. The cuffs opening is a miracle, and Rodney rubs at his wrists, the skin red and agitated, hot from being trapped inside the leather for so long.

The soft, relieved sound that escapes Rodney's throat is involuntarily, low and gasping. Todd looks at him sharply and Rodney would be embarrassed but it feels too good to be able to stretch his arms out, though he can't seem to stop rubbing his wrists. He barely notices that the band around his waist has been removed as well until Todd speaks again, "You do not have an unlimited amount of time."

Rodney flashes him a sour look, before gazing around the room. The walls are all uniform, frustratingly without anything that looks remotely like a shower head. Rodney crosses his arms, marveling in the reassuringly familiar movement, "Does it swallow me? Because if it swallows me then I'm not going in there."

Todd sighs, a sharp sound, "If I wanted to kill you I would just kill you."

Rodney is willing to concede that to be the truth. He scowls anyway, and then figures what the hell. He doesn't really, at this point, have anything to lose. If the giant Wraith mouth-room eats him at least he'll be out of this situation.

The fabric of his shirt is stiff and stuck to his skin at the small of his back. Rodney winces when he pulls it off, tries to fold it out of habit and gives up after a moment. Rodney tosses it to the floor—which at least isn't covered with a layer of goo—and then pauses with his fingers on the button of his BDUs, "I don't suppose you people have developed privacy yet?" Todd smirks.

Rodney rolls his eyes and steps out of his pants before grabbing his shirt again. He can at least try to wash them as well, and he casts another doubtful look around the room before stepping forward.

Todd catches him with a hand on his shoulder and that's the second time Todd has touched him today. Familiarity doesn't make his skin crawl any less, alien flesh against his own, just slightly too cool to be human, one claw pricking at the curve of his neck. Rodney musters as dark a look as he can manage, pumps his voice full of scorn, "Yes?"

Todd takes his clothes away, and Rodney is surprised by the jag of upset and loss. They're all he has left of where he belongs and Rodney reaches for them without thinking. Todd is watching him, dropping the clothes and saying, "We will provide you with clean coverings." Todd bears his teeth, it might be a smile, "It took some time to find anything that would fit you."

"Yes, yes, you're all very tall, how very special for you." And apparently that's it. Todd is silent and his guards are just standing there. Rodney shakes Todd's hand off of his shoulder. The way the floor gives just a little each time he steps forward is eerie, but not as disturbing as the way that the air gets thicker the further in to the room he walks. It's like trying to move through soup, and Rodney scowls at the room in general before taking another step forward.

Rodney chokes, backpedaling and managing to fall onto his ass. He coughs, water running across his skin, staring at the empty air in front of him as his heart jackhammers. For just a second he'd been completely surrounded by water, and the sudden terror of not being able to breathe had him stumbling backwards before he could really decide what was going on.

The floor under him is warm and soft and Rodney shakes himself, pushes to his feet. He can't really help casting a look over his shoulder, though he can't tell if Todd is smirking or not. The guards are, of course, completely impossible to read. Rodney wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, staring mistrustfully at the air in front of him before cautiously reaching out.

Water closes on his hand and Rodney rubs his fingers together, slides more of his arm in. He's trying to figure out how it works, because that makes it easier to deal with it, stepping forward so that half of his body is in the water and then taking a deep breath before moving all the way in.

The water is warm, bordering on hot, and Rodney scrubs at his skin. It shouldn't be possible to have water just suspended in the air, unless they're using some kind of force-field, but he hadn't felt any tingle on his skin when he stepped through. Rodney wishes for soap. When his lungs start to burn, he steps out of the water again.

There's water in his nose and he accidentally breathes too quickly, coughing hard and wincing because this time he's sure that he hears Todd laugh.

It takes Rodney almost twenty minutes to get somewhere closer to clean, and true to his word Todd has clothes laid out for him by the time he's done. The Wraith, unfortunately, appear to be unaware of things like towels, and Rodney ends up pulling on some kind of heavy linen shift that sticks to his wet skin. There are still no shoes, but then he hadn't really been expecting there to be.

The guards are their silent, expressionless selves when they chain him up again, the leather rough against his wrists. Rodney is wishing that his hands were still free to wipe the drop of water he can feel running down his forehead away when Todd reaches out, the rough whorls of his thumb dragging across Rodney's skin.

Rodney stares at him, sopping wet, unfamiliar clothes clinging to his skin, the band around his waist just waiting to turn into a chaffing nightmare, and Todd says, "Now, shall we get back to our work?" Like he's done Rodney some kind of favor.

Rodney frowns, "I don't suppose you have a toothbrush?"

hr

Rodney says, his hair finally drying, as he works his way through more of the impossibly huge code, "I don't remember you being this stupid."

Todd is working across the room, but pauses, some expression that Rodney can't read flashing across his face when he says, "Excuse me?" Rodney rolls his eyes, wiggling his fingers impatiently at the screen, the endless repetitions that are all frustratingly not wrong but...not right, either.

"Zelenka could have done half of this work. And even he knows better than to try to reuse search and destroy programming for repair systems. Even if they are using materials from their host area to rebuild you can't just use the same commands. They end up ruining too much of what they need to work with and then they end up destroying more—which is fine until they break because all the material is destroyed. It's sloppy. Lazy."

Todd stares at him for a long moment and Rodney ignores it, busy re-writing to his specifications. Really, he doesn't know what they would have down if they hadn't found him. Half the code would have the Hive destroyed long before they could use it against their enemies and that's an idea that Rodney tucks away for later, including a back-door into this particular sub-level of programming with a quick twist of his fingers.

Finally Todd says, "Perhaps what I am trying to accomplish is just beyond your comprehension."

Rodney snorts, "Perhaps you're full of shit."

hr

"He's not dead." Carter winces and John realizes that maybe he's being just a little bit too loud. He lowers his voice, bracing his hands on her desk and waiting until the door to her office finishes sliding closed, "You have to let me look for him."

Carter sighs, looking up at him through her bangs, dark circles under her eyes. Her voice is tight, controlled, "Ronon and Teyla both report that the Dart scooped him up." She pauses, her eyes softening, "John, that was a week ago, we have to accept that—"

John jerks back, afraid that she's going to reach for him, try to offer him some kind of comfort. He repeats, "He's not dead." And if John hadn't been trapped in the infirmary for the last week he would have made sure they all knew it sooner.

The expression that crosses Carter's face is complicated, equal parts pity and regret and sadness, "I've managed to convince the IOA to list him as missing in action, but that's—it's just for the paper work, John. They don't—"

John is sure that constantly interrupting her is not the way to get her approval for this, but then he isn't sure what other path to take, how to make her understand. "I would know. If he died, I would know." He has to believe that, bone deep, he would know if Rodney McKay was gone, that he couldn't continue existing unchanged if Rodney died. "Let me find him."

Carter's eyes are so soft, her mouth twisted up and John hates that because it's pity. She sighs, looks away, fiddling with the papers on her desk, the mission report for the world where they lost Rodney. When she finally speaks, the words come slowly, like she's rehearsing them in her head before giving them voice, "I can't authorize a search and rescue mission across the entire galaxy, Colonel. In fact," she pushes back from her desk, stares across at him, "I think that you and your team need some time to cope with this loss. You've got quite a bit of leave accrued. Why don't you go see some of the sights in our new galaxy? Visit some old friends?"

John stares at her, trying to keep his shoulders from sagging with relief. He snaps off a salute, throat too tight for words, and turns on his heel. She calls when he's at the door, her voice distracted, "If I told you not to get yourself killed..." she trails off and John steps out the door because if she's smart enough not to complete the question, he's smart enough not to answer.

hr

Rodney is in the middle of explaining why it would be more effective to program a virus that would attack another Hive's secondary systems, fire control and ventilation, a combination he's fairly certain would vent the entire ship to space, when Todd interrupts him, "Were you always like this?" The Wraith is working at the station next to him now. It feels odd to be working besides someone again after two weeks of existing in his own little bubble.

Rodney frowns, "Devastatingly brilliant?" Todd makes the huffing, loud sound that Rodney has come to recognize as the Wraith equivalent of laughter. It's a weird thing to know, what the enemy sounds like laughing. Weirder still to have the brief, immediately crushed desire to curl his lips up into a smile. Rodney tells himself that it's nothing but instinct, to laugh or smile when someone else does.

"As a matter of fact, yes, I've always been blessed and cursed with intellect that shocked and impressed my fellow man. And fellow alien, too, I suppose. In fact, I learned French before I could crawl by listening to my grandparents when they were watching me. My parents thought I was making up words when I spoke it." His parents had thought he was making up a lot of things before they realized he didn't have to make up anything. Truth weirder than fiction, and all that.

Todd pauses, shifting away from his console, and Rodney takes the opportunity to throw in another back-door, praying his expression doesn't betray his guilt. Todd says, sounding curious, "What is French?"

Rodney flashes him an incredulous look, more scorn than the situation calls for, but he's drawn himself up to be as prickly as possible lately, trying to make up for all the defenses that have been stripped away from him. "It's a language, it's—" He waves a hand as best he can, let's the words of his first language roll off his tongue, "—I'm going to get out of here and kill you all. You should have killed me when you had the chance."

The thing about French is that it always sounds pretty. It's part of the reason that Rodney doesn't speak the language very much anymore. It's hard to be scornful when it sounds like you're composing poetry or talking about having sex.

Todd cocks his head to the side, imitating a few of the sounds, which turn into a garbled mess in his throat, before saying, "It doesn't translate." He sounds curious, expectant and Rodney flashes him a dark look, gesturing with a shoulder at the screen where he's supposed to be working. Todd just watches him.

"Some languages don't. Are you telling me you haven't noticed? We've found at least seven languages just from—" Rodney cuts himself off, adrenaline burning down his spine and making his skin itch. Todd is standing very still, staring at him without blinking, and all the hairs on the back of Rodney's neck stand up.

Rodney is prepared for there to be a push about Earth now. He's opened the door to it and he knows it, furious with himself and his mouth and Todd, for being more damnably clever than any overgrown bug has the right to be. Instead Todd lets out a series of sounds that are all clicks and hisses, grating along the edges of Rodney's nerves and trailing off finally in a low pitched, "—cth-cth-cthal."

Rodney blinks up at the Wraith, and Todd's expression is all superior condescension, "We are aware of the translation gaps, Doctor McKay."

They'd surmised that the Wraith might have had a different spoken language after Elia, but they'd never had any proof of it. This is really more anyone else's area of expertise—or concern—but Rodney is the only one here, and so he snaps his fingers, habit now accompanied by the jangle of his chains when he tries to point. He covers his wince with words, "Say it again." Todd snorts and Rodney rolls his eyes, wiggles his fingers, "What, are you shy now? Say it again."

Todd does, after another skeptical look, and Rodney mimics the sounds back with a smirk. It's worth it to see the way Todd's eyes go huge, the way he fixates on Rodney's mouth and throat, expression all surprise and bewilderment. Rodney jerks his own chin up, orders, "See, brilliant. Now tell me what it means."

Todd sounds distracted when he does.

Languages are something Rodney has always liked, both for their use as a means to an end—it's so much easier to get people to do what you want when you're screaming at them with words they understand—and because he likes knowing things other people don't. Besides, learning his way around the Wraith language, listening to Todd form the sounds and letting his own vocal chords shape them, at least makes the time pass faster.

By the time the guards show up to drag him back to his cell, Rodney knows how to tell them good-night. He likes to imagine that they look startled under their masks. Todd certainly does when Rodney chirps a greeting at him the next morning.

hr

Part Two

Todd says, "You are very pale."

Rodney startles in the middle of buttoning up his newest change of clothing, relieved that after two weeks he finally got Todd to understand that importance of towels. They still haven't managed anything very absorbent, but it's better than nothing. Rodney had almost enjoyed his daily shower. Aside from the whole wet-pink room and evil alien captors watching thing, it wasn't so bad.

They don't usually talk in this room, though, and Rodney blinks up at Todd, wondering how long he can stall the cuffs being put back on his arms. His arms are freakishly hairless under the leather now, skin constantly pink and irritated, and he misses having full use of his hands. Rodney goes for the conversational tact most likely to draw things out, "What?"

Todd shifts, says after a pause, "Your skin. Most of your people have a darker coloration."

There's got to be a certain amount of humor in an alien with white hair and skin that's not much darker commenting on Rodney's pigmentation. Rodney fidgets with a button half-way down his chest, and calls Todd an idiot in Wraith just to see him startle before launching into an explanation, "Not all of us are farmers, or sun-bunnies out to get cancer as quickly as possible."

That just gets him a blank look, which Rodney is willing to bet is either from a mistranslation of 'cancer' or 'sun-bunnies'. Some words just don't have matching partners. Rodney waves a hand, a gesture he immediately regrets when Todd narrows his eyes and makes an impatient sound, but doesn't let that derail his lecture, "Look, some of you are green, some of you are yellow-y, some of you are blue. Why are you different colors?"

Todd is staring pointedly at Rodney's abandoned shirt-buttoning, looking like he's about to start tapping his foot, and Rodney glares at him before resuming. Todd only speaks again when Rodney has the buttons closed up to his collar, "The Hive decides what physical traits we inherit from the Queen and Drone."

Sometimes Rodney is pretty sure Todd lies to him, but the Wraith's expression isn't giving anything away. The guards are grabbing Rodney's arms, fitting the cuffs around them, claws pressing against the fleshy part of his hands, sharp enough that Rodney jerks involuntarily back. He expects the retaliatory rough tug, the way that they close the cuffs too tight, so that the leather bites against his skin, so that he can feel his pulse all down the inside of his arm with every heartbeat.

Rodney curses them, hisses and growls because Wraith is a surprisingly satisfying language to curse in. It has more than enough of the vitriol and hate that French lacks, and honestly, Rodney would be surprised if there was a way to sound nice while speaking it. He kind of regrets that he didn't get the chance to learn it until now, because he's certain that he should have been using it for ages.

The guards are, of course, unaffected by his ire, standing there with their bastardized hockey-mask faces and steroid-using-weight-lifter bodies. Rodney opens his mouth to insult their ability to properly feed and the quality of their enzyme excretions and Todd grabs one of his hands.

It startles Rodney enough to get his mouth closed, and by then Todd is already reaching for the cuffs. Loosening them is a relief, because Rodney had been sure that his fingers were already going numb. Todd smoothes a thumb over the buckle of his right cuff and Rodney balls his hands into fists.

Todd finally drops his hands, takes a step back and motions for the guards before stepping out into the corridor. Rodney flashes the guards a dirty look that he wishes he could tell if they were returning or not, and for once they keep their stunners out of the general area of his back.

They work in a flurry of sound now, of Rodney complaining about the idiotic things that Todd tries to do with the programming and Todd arguing back that Rodney is missing the bigger picture. Rodney demands continued lessons in the Wraith language and it's almost, well, not comfortable, but distractingly like working with Zelenka. Except for how Radek had never hissed at him. Well, almost never.

In any case, Rodney has put the weird conversation from the bathing room out of his mind. He's concentrating on running the code and trying to master the Wraith numbering system, which seems to involve a lot of body language that is being severely hampered by the fact that he has no range of motion for his arms. He's not prepared for it when Todd says, "There are those that believe that those of your race with pale skin are the product of a mixing of our species."

Rodney chokes, coughs and thinks miserably about how it would be great to be able to cover his mouth. He manages, feeling his face flush red, "What?"

Todd appears to be trying not to laugh, and Rodney glares at him from the corners of his watering eyes. Still, the Wraith does get one of the glasses of what Rodney has been telling himself is water off the console and hold it to Rodney's lips to let him drink. Rodney says, after Todd wipes away the line of water that escaped the corner of Rodney's mouth, "What kind of idiotic idea is that?"

Todd is smirking, "I believe it makes it easier for them to accept certain things."

Rodney keeps glaring at him, straightening when he's sure that he's not going to start coughing again, "What? Is it okay for them to eat people that might be their great-cousins twice removed? I mean, my family is admittedly a little messed up, but even we never considered eating each other to be acceptable behavior."

There's a pause, Todd shifting his thumb back and forth over the jut of Rodney's jaw. The realization that they've been standing still for too long has Rodney shifting back, wishing his hands were free all over again to wipe away Todd's touch.

Todd says, voice low and contemplative, "Perhaps you are right."

hr

"Here."

Rodney wakes up to the smell of oatmeal—ah, his old friend—and something big and black dangling in front of his face. Batting at it is reflex which doesn't work, and he comes completely awake, finding himself on his back, blinking up at Todd.

The Wraith looking amused, snorts with laughter when Rodney jumps at the one-two thump of the big, black things Todd had been holding dropping to the floor. Rodney eyes his oatmeal before reaching for the boots, not his, and looking up at Todd, "What's this?"

Todd makes an impatient sound, scoffs, "You wanted shoes."

"I want a lot of things." Like to be back on Atlantis. Or to know if Sheppard survived whatever that giant plant thing did to his arm. Shoes are actually pretty low on the list of things that he wanted, but he'll take what he can get. He turns them over, wondering what exactly they're made out of. It's nothing he's familiar with. Rodney almost drops them, then thinks better of it, but can't keep the tightness out of his tone when he speaks, "Where'd you get them?"

Todd bears his teeth, razor edged amusement lacing his words, "Shall we just say that their previous owner won't be needing them anymore?"

Rodney's stomach twists. The reminder that just because he isn't being fed on doesn't mean there aren't potentially thousands of other humans in this Hive waiting for death is thick and sour down his throat. Rodney busies his fingers unlacing the boots to give himself something to distract from the guilt and anger. His jaw feels locked up tight, and he wonders, pushing his foot into one of the shoes, how he's going to make himself eat. "You come in such a variety of sizes." Todd sounds distracted.

Rodney whips his head up, finds Todd staring at his feet with a distant expression. It makes Rodney want to tuck his feet up under his body, but he starts tying up the shoe instead. He doesn't try to keep the waspishness out of his tone, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Todd startles, wipes a hand down the front of his coat, "Nothing. Eat your breakfast." Rodney eyes him, but the Wraith doesn't seem inclined to go on, so Rodney just puts his other boot on, lacing it up tight before motioning for his breakfast.

Fifteen minutes later he has to take the boots off again to shower, but somehow just knowing that they're there makes him feel better. Shoes were an important part of his escape plan, after all. Mostly because he figured it was going to involve running for his life at some point, and that generally went better with some protection for his feet.

He ties the shoes tight after his shower, and tries not to think about the poor bastard they belonged to previously. That's an exercise in futility, and when Rodney dreams that night, he dreams of the split second of terror before you're sucked up in a Wraith Dart.

By the time morning rolls around, Rodney is almost ready to give the shoes back to Todd, to wash his hands of the entire business. But he will escape, and he's started entertaining the prospect of taking all those held captive here with him. And shoes, shoes are pretty much the cornerstone of his escape plan, at this point.

Rodney keeps them, even though they pinch his little toes and are too loose in the ankles.

hr

It's been a month the first time Rodney wakes up without smelling food. It's still dark in his cell—not full dark, of course, but the dim green light that signifies a sleep-cycle in the Hive. His heart is racing, and for a half-second Rodney assumes that a nightmare woke him.

And then there's a big hand wrapped around his neck, feeding mark pressed up against his windpipe, thumb tucked up beneath his jaw. The green light plays tricks, and Rodney's eyes are already blurry from sleep. He blinks in an attempt to clear his vision, and the Wraith cutting off his air supply backhands him across the mouth, lets go, hisses and clicks orders.

Rodney's ears are ringing; he catches no more than a few words, 'prisoner', 'up', and 'answers'. And then there are big hands on his shoulders and upper arms, hauling him to his feet, and for a half second Rodney isn't sure if he's being held by one Wraith guard or two, but then they try to pull him in different directions. They're eerily silent, the way the guards always are, but apparently they come to a compromise somehow anyway, because after a half second they stop trying to pull his arms out of their sockets.

Rodney hangs between the guards, squinting against the weak light, licking his lips and ignoring the taste of blood there to say, "What the hell are you doing?"

That earns him another blow, leaving behind stinging skin across his cheek and a sharp bite of pain where his teeth caught at his tongue. Rodney spits blood because he doesn't want to swallow it, and the Wraith that hit him growls out, "Speak when spoken to, human."

Someday Rodney is going to learn how to follow simple instructions. Today is not that day. He says, "Does Todd know you're here?" This time the blow catches him at the temple, and Rodney feels the room lurch. For a long moment the guards are all that's keeping him upright. Of course, they're leaving behind their own bruises to do it, but Rodney will take what up-sides he can get. "Because I'm pretty sure he's going to be pissed off if you kill me before I finish his work for him."

Being slugged in the stomach hurts. Oddly, not as much as being hit across the stomach with a stick. It still has Rodney attempting to curl over into himself, breath rushing out of his lungs. The Wraith leaves his hand against Rodney's stomach, shifting so his thumb nail presses into the triangle below Rodney's rib cage, sharp even through his shirt. The Wraith says, frustratingly calm, "You talk too much."

Rodney grits his teeth and tells himself to just shut the hell up. It doesn't work very well, "It's been said."

The Wraith hisses, not words, at least not any that Rodney recognizes, and he's picked up a lot of the language by now. With his free hand the Wraith reaches up, grabbing the too-long hair at the nape of Rodney's neck and yanking it back. Rodney makes a note to ask Todd to pilfer some corpses for scissors for him, and feels his stomach lurch. The Wraith looks green, but that might just be the light. The Wraith bears all of the considerable number of teeth in his mouth when he says, "I believe I can use that to the Hive's advantage."

Rodney scowls at him, not the easiest thing to achieve with his head tilted back and his neck barred. Vulnerability isn't something Rodney has ever dealt with well, and he opens his mouth to declare that he isn't going to tell them anything—because while that's probably a lie, it's a lie he really wants to believe—and doesn't get the chance.

Instead, Rodney ends up making a loud protesting sound when the Wraith grabs the collar of his shirt with both hands and yanks. Rodney has been forced to contemplate that his clothes probably came from the same place his shoes did, and really that explains some things. Like garment quality. The fabric holds for a moment, then rips, the seams across his shoulders giving.

The Wraith lets go, and the front of Rodney's shirt flops forward. The back is still hung up on the sleeves, and they're not going anywhere with his arms pined. Rodney's heart is racing, and he struggles against the hold of the guards, even knowing he can't budge them. One of them steps on his ankle chain in retaliation, knocking Rodney's ankle sideways, unbalancing him.

The Wraith's hand over Rodney's heart is cool and clammy, rough. Rodney says, "Oh, God. Don't," and then tries it in Wraith, the clicks almost getting stuck in his throat from the uneven flow of his breath. The Wraith does not appear impressed.

"How did you tell your people of our attack on Hershiban IV?"

Rodney blinks, "I don't even know what that—" and his voice cuts off. There's a scream lodged somewhere in the back of his throat and Rodney realizes after a few seconds of burning, twisting, crippling, pain that he doesn't have to try to swallow it. There's no one here to be strong for, and he tells himself to scream, tells himself it's okay. It stays caught in his throat, suffocating him as the Wraith sucks out his life.

The feeding feels like it might go on for hours, but Rodney knows it was probably closer to seconds. His knees buckle when the Wraith stops, the guards tightening their hold on his arms when he sags. His chin has dropped down against his chest, and he doesn't remember that happening but he doesn't have the energy to raise it.

The Wraith fits his hand around Rodney's jaw, tilts Rodney's head back far enough to glare into his eyes. Rodney glares back, he's sure not very effectively, and the Wraith says, "Are you proud of your massacre of my people? Todd," the Wraith's mouth twists up into a sneer, "was told you were too dangerous to be kept as a pet."

Rodney clears his throat, which feels painfully dry, "Can I have a clue what the hell you're talking about?"

That only increases the sneering, the disgust that is radiating off of the Wraith, dripping off his voice, "You hate us for taking but a few of you and then you destroy entire Hives. Does such duplicity not disgust you? Do you not feel guilt?"

Rodney snorts, throat burning with it, "Are you trying to reason with me? Look, I'm not really going to see your viewpoint when you're holding me at hand-point, trying to—" This time he screams, feeling the pain in every nerve, in every bone, under every inch of his skin, coiling behind his eyes, burning under his fingernails.

It goes on forever, for an eternity and a half, and when it stops Rodney can barely breathe. He feels small, wasted away, and keeps his eyes closed because he doesn't want to see, because each inch of his body is a testament to pain and if he doesn't look then he can believe that none of this happened.

The Wraith says, up close to Rodney's ear, either in an attempt to be intimidating or because he's realized that Rodney's hearing is probably gone, "Tell me how you got word to your people."

Rodney thinks about licking his lips, but even his tongue feels dry. His voice is slow, a sandpaper rasp that he doesn't recognize as his own, "There are four lights." It makes him want to laugh, which isn't the best idea in his present circumstances. He's pretty sure that Sheppard would be proud, because even he hadn't found a way to work Trek into a kidnapping, and he'd had more than enough opportunities.

The Wraith growls, pressing his hand hard against what's left of Rodney's ribcage, and Rodney thinks that really, this wasn't as bad as everyone said. And then there's pain, twisting up his legs and arms like fire, blossoming out from his gut, and Rodney's voice comes back half-way through, wordless and full of odd echoes from the shape of the cell.

When the Wraith stops, Rodney feels heavy again, has only the familiar ache in his lower back, the one he wakes up with every morning. When he opens his eyes, his head slumped forward again, he's staring down at his chest and it's familiar. Rodney pants, trying to catch his breath, trying to slow the jack-hammering of his heart, and the Wraith says, "Is it our subspace frequencies? Have you transmitted a message from our own communications relay?"

Maybe it's the stupid, giddy, joy of not being ninety years old again that makes Rodney laugh. He's almost frightened by the hysterical edge to it. The pull of the feeding, just enough to lance pain up and down his spine, has the laughter cutting off. Rodney grits out, "You're assigning credit where credit isn't due."

There's a pause, and Rodney smirks, "That means I didn't do it, I just wish I had." And then there is more screaming.

Rodney's screams taper off to whimpers when the Wraith finally stops. He feels weighed down impossibly by the chains, the belt that was supposed to be around his waist slides down over his hips, and he has a half-second to think about possibly squeezing his hands free while he's like this and then there's a furious voice from the doorway, "What is going on here?"

It's familiar, Rodney knows it is. But he's drifting on pain and dizziness, on the feeling that he's collapsing under his own weight, too weak to support his brittle bones and paper-thin skin. When the guards let go of him, Rodney goes down, the hip he lands on bursting into white-hot pain.

There's an argument going on somewhere above him, but it doesn't seem particularly important right now. Rodney stares up at the ceiling, unsure if the blurriness is the fault of his eyes or the light, and beyond caring. He's cold, shivering, and each heartbeat is coming a little slower than the last. It is, oddly, inappropriately, almost peaceful.

Someone drops down beside him, a big head that blocks out his view of the ceiling. Rodney starts to reach up to push them away but his hands are still restrained, so he grumbles, "You're in the way."

Big hands are manhandling him. Rodney feels the world shift, something marginally softer than the floor under the back of his head, one of those big hands splayed across his chest. Rodney blinks down at the hand stretched over his ribs, and then he lets his eyes drift closed because he's so very, very tired. He says, words absently falling off of his lips, unable to stop his mouth from running even as he dies, "Not much of me left."

And then there's pain, pain, pain.

hr

When Rodney's vision comes back, the spots in the corners of his eyes finally fading, he is looking up at Todd. He takes a careful breath, but his lungs no longer feel water-logged, and so he takes another in relief. His back hurts, but his fingers don't.

Rodney clears his throat, "That is really remarkably unpleasant."

Todd snorts, and Rodney squirms and pushes until he manages to sit up. His head is pounding and the change of position makes him dizzy again. For a few seconds the spots come back before fading again, and Rodney stares at the collapsed Wraith lying across from him in surprise. Todd says, grunting as he pushes to his feet, "We have work to do, Doctor McKay."

Rodney tears his eyes away from the husk of the Wraith, the way its mouth is stretched open in what looks like a twist of agony, all the life drained from its body. Todd is offering him a spoonful of oatmeal, and Rodney opens his mouth, wondering if it had all just been a nightmare.

The fact that his shirt is torn to pieces suggests that it was plenty real. He eats slowly, eyes drifting again and again to the corpse of the Wraith that had attacked him.

hr

Ronon says, "None of them know anything about him." The big man is rinsing his hands off in the cool, fast moving stream outside their make-shift camp. The water flows away from him, dirty, and John watches it, tracking the way the current tumbles and turns dispassionately.

John sighs, his own hands on his hips, the edges of the water curling over the toes of his boots. He doesn't ask if Ronon is sure, because Ronon is always sure. Instead he says, "Is there anything left of any of them?"

There's a pause, nothing but the sound of the stream and Ronon scrubbing his skin clean. After a long moment, Ronon shifts back onto his heels, his hands hanging over his knees, drops of water tracing down his long fingers. Ronon grunts, "No. Teyla didn't want to keep them around."

John nods, knows she's right. It had been stupid and risky and stupidly risky to assault a Hive ship, but they'd done it. And everything had even went startlingly according to plan, right down to them managing to take out three other Hives with the one they commandeered before making off for the planet with their loot.

The Wraith that they'd taken had been stubbornly ignorant. John had been telling himself, over and over, that all he had to do was find a Wraith and they'd know where Rodney was. But none of the ones that they'd captured had coughed up his location, or even admitted to hearing about him. It settles like a lead weight in John's gut.

Ronon says, still staring out across the stream, seemingly unaware of the smears of blood across his cheek, "We'll find him, Sheppard."

John squeezes his eyes shut, fights down the urge to hit something—anything. Behind his eyes he can still see the Hives exploding, fire-work bright, breaking into pieces and spitting bodies into the hard dark of deep space. He hadn't allowed himself near the Wraith they'd captured, because they needed to be questioned and John knew himself well enough to know that he wouldn't have asked any questions. He finally makes himself say, "Yeah," because there really isn't another option. They're going to find Rodney.

Ronon shifts to his feet, shaking his hands to get rid of the last few drops of water. The big man says, "Still no word from Todd?"

John snorts, turning his back on the stream, a fresh twist of anger curling in his gut, "Not a peep from that shifty bastard."

Teyla is waiting for them when they make it back to the camp proper. The pile of bodies is burning, thick black smoke curling up to the sky with the smell of burning hair. John stares as the flames crawl all over the dead Wraith. Teyla interrupts his contemplation after a moment, "We will need more C-4."

John nods, shakes himself out of his funk, and gets back to work.

hr

There's always been a level of surrealism to living on the Hive. In that way, Rodney's life doesn't really change, except that it does. Todd nods at the angry skin on his chest when he gets out of the bath, asks in a rough rumble, "Does it hurt?"

Rodney wonders if the Wraith has ever cared before, and pulls his shirt on without pausing to dry off first because he wants the extra layer of protection. He frowns up at Todd, offering his wrists up to be bond with no more than a slight wince, "Like a bitch." That's a slight exaggeration, but it had definitely hurt at the time and Rodney is pretty sure that counts.

Todd hisses, his eyes narrowing, and when the guards step forward to slide the cuffs around Rodney's arms, Todd takes them instead. It doesn't really matter, the cuffs still go on, his arms are still rendered frustratingly useless. If nothing else, the back-and-forth of the feeding healed the agitated skin of his forearms, turning it back to pale white for a few hours before the leather rubs it angry red again.

Their lab is noisy all day because Rodney can't seem to stop yelling about everything and Todd calls him impatient and unfocused. Rodney starts wishing he had a coffee mug and the ability to hurl it at Todd's head within minutes. The anger builds and builds and there's nothing he can do with it, no outlet, no way to excise it from the space it's occupying behind his ribs.

Rodney snaps when Todd finally calls it a day, planting his feet and ignoring the guards poking him in the back with their stunners. Todd turns to look back from the door, rolling his eyes and huffing impatiently, like Rodney is being a difficult child. Rodney feels warm all over, anger filling him up and spilling over into his voice, "Why didn't you just let me die?"

Todd jerks like he's been struck, and then collects himself. One of the guards shoves the tip of its stunner hard into the edge of Rodney's ribs and he spins on them. He doesn't care anymore. They've drained him to the edge and let him look over into the black abyss of death and it wasn't that bad, really. Rodney snarls, the clicks and whistles of the Wraith language coming almost naturally, "Stop. Touching. Me."

The guard stares down at him or past him or maybe right through him. The masks give nothing away and Rodney hates that, maybe as much as anything else. He can't even assign his captors anger or hate or impatience, because they're nothing but blank slates.

Todd says from the doorway, voice tight, "Doctor McKay—"

Rodney spins back to him, hands clenching and unclenching into fists, nervous energy with nowhere to go. "Why won't you just kill me?" And he hates himself for the plaintive tone, for wanting to reach out and shake Todd or one of the guards until they end his captivity.

Todd looks almost as expressionless as the guards, his face wiped clean of any emotion. He's staring, calm in the face of Rodney's rage, and Rodney feels all the useless, futile anger in his chest burn away to ash. Rodney hangs his head, momentarily too tired to hold it up, a laugh that's all sharp edges falling out of his throat. Rodney says, bitter laughter back where it belongs, "Fine. Fine. Whatever. Let's go."

When he follows Todd out the door, the guards don't poke him in the back. He thinks about that until Todd stops, trying to figure out if it means anything, if there's some way he can use it to get out of here, one way or the other. And then Todd steps into another room and Rodney looks around the corridor he's standing in and says, "Where are we?"

Todd's voice comes back through the open doorway, sharp and impatient, "Come in and find out."

Rodney considers. The guards are still hanging back a step, but he has no idea where he is, his hands are incapacitated, and there are three more guards approaching from the other end of the hall. Rodney shifts his weight, takes a bracing breath, and steps into the room.

It's dark. Rodney blinks against the gloom, stumbling to a stop to avoid tripping over something. The room smells faintly like trees, evergreens maybe, and Rodney tries to remember if he's allergic to them or not. It's also a little on the uncomfortably warm side, and Rodney starts to turn back to the door just in time to watch it slide closed.

There's a noise behind his shoulder and Rodney jumps, trying to muffle a squeak and failing. His heart is pounding away like it's trying to beat its way out of his ribcage, and there's a scream just waiting to escape his throat. Todd says, voice close in the darkness, "It is not safe to leave you in your cell while the Queen is angry with you."

Rodney squints in the general direction of the Wraith's voice. The room remains frustratingly murky, and Rodney resists the urge to curl up into a ball. It wouldn't work very well with the restraints anyway. He clears his throat, "What did I do to the Queen?"

Another noise, he thinks they might be footsteps, and then a hand closing on his shoulder. Rodney resists being pulled for a second, and Todd presses the sharp edge of his thumb nail against Rodney's collarbone. Rodney, cursing at him in Wraith, moves, shuffling his feet in an attempt to not trip over whatever unseen hazards are before his feet.

Todd sounds amused when he speaks, "Well, that's part of it. There's never been a human that learned our tongue before."

Rodney glares into the blackness where Todd might be, "You taught me. Why isn't she mad at you?"

They've taken thirteen steps when the pressure of Todd's hand on his shoulder increases, and Rodney gropes as best he can in the darkness. He can't feel anything, but when he shifts his leg his knee runs into something solid and square. He shifts enough to sit and Todd lets him go, says, "I did not say she wasn't mad at me. But I am too valuable to her to be killed. You are not."

Rodney snorts, "Well that's just great. She obviously doesn't know how much of your work I'm doing for you. That doesn't answer where we are, by the way." Wherever it is, he's sitting on something very uncomfortable. One side of his ass might be going numb already and he's only been sitting down a few seconds. That's not a good sign.

Todd says, further away, "We are in my quarters. Sleep, Doctor McKay."

Rodney can't really stop himself from blurting, "What?" but that doesn't get him an answer. He shifts around on the possibly-a-table, then jerks to his feet, not sure what to do now that he's gotten that far. "Why? Not...not why should I sleep. I meant, why am I in your room? I'd rather be in my cell, if it's all the same. I've gotten kind of attached to my three walls and floor and I think I've finally found the most comfortable place to curl up."

There's something that might be sleepiness in Todd's voice, and that's disturbing in a way Rodney isn't comfortable thinking about, "I would prefer you remain alive. I assumed you preferred the same. That will not happen with you in your cell. They will not attack you here."

Rodney tries to wave his hands, curses at the clatter of his chains and turns in a hopeless circle. The darkness is getting on his nerves. He's gotten used to the constant light of the Hive, the green or blue light that follows him everywhere. He blurts, "Aren't you worried that I'll smother you in your sleep?"

Todd laughs, which isn't the response Rodney had been hoping for. It takes a while before Todd answers, "And who will keep you alive if I am dead, Doctor McKay?" Rodney scowls, balling his hands up into fists, thinking that it might be worth it anyway. Death is just waiting on the right moment to grab him here anyway. At least this way he'd take out a Wraith with him.

Todd continues after a long moment, sounding sleepy again, "The door is keyed to my personal codes, but feel free to exhaust yourself trying to open it."

Rodney kicks the possibly-a-table, and then curses at the flare of pain from his foot. There's no further noise from his captor, and Rodney waits for exaggerated snoring or anything else. He gets silence, and when that gets stale after about two minutes, he gropes and stumbles his way back to the door.

Todd's a smug bastard, and frustratingly right, because Rodney wastes the entire night trying to get the door open. But there will be other nights, and sooner or later Rodney will figure it out. He supposes that really, he should be grateful to the Queen for giving him the ability to move without the ankle restraint again.

hr

Rodney falls into a pattern, because as much as he hates it, he does have to sleep sometimes. There's no way to tell time in the pitch black room, but by the time his hands go mostly numb from the position he has to hold them in to work on the door he generally decides that it's time to let his body rest. He's gotten rather used to sleeping on the floor, so there's no big change there.

Todd doesn't comment on the nightmares that Rodney knows he's having, the ones that leave him with cold sweats and a hoarse throat. Rodney isn't sure if it's just not important to the Wraith or if he's sleeping through it. They'd never gotten a chance to study the sleeping habits of the Wraith—there were more important things to study about them, like how to wipe them off the face of the galaxy—so Rodney doesn't really know. He doesn't really care, either.

Guilt over hurting the ship before—and he knows how ridiculous that is, but can't seem to help it—keeps Rodney from digging into the walls. There are access panels of a sort, places where he can coax the epidermis to pull back, and he spends his time hunched in front of them, trying to learn his way through the systems with the tips of his fingers, eyes closed and head bowed forward. There has to be a way to work around the codes that he needs, and he'll find it.

Patient isn't a word that ever applies to Rodney, but he learned long ago that he could out-stubborn pretty much anyone, and it's nearly the same thing.

Everything else stays the same, work in Todd's lab, the pink shower-room, the guards that dog his footsteps. They've kept their stunners to themselves since Rodney yelled at them, and he's tempted to see if it's a language thing, if he could get them to do other things, but if it is he doesn't want to waste it now. Someday he's going to get out of here, and being able to slow down or stop the guards would be a big help.

Six days after Todd changed Rodney's sleeping arrangements, they don't go back to Todd's room at the end of their day. Rodney feels gooseflesh break out down his arms, following Todd deeper into the Hive than he's yet been, deeper where it's cool and smells like unwashed bodies and fear. Rodney doesn't ask where they're going. He can guess.

When they pass the first people in cocoons, Rodney winces, tripping over his own feet before managing to stop. These humans, their skin shades too pale to be healthy, are unconscious, hanging up like sides of beef for the Wraith. Rodney's stomach twists and he says, "Let me go back to the room."

Todd pauses, looking at him with his head cocked to the side. There's curiosity in his expression but no pity, no understanding. Rodney says, "Please," because even if it makes him a coward he doesn't want to see this, he doesn't want to have to watch this and be able to do nothing about it.

It's funny, how sometimes he almost forgets that he's the prisoner here, and that they don't give a shit what the hell he wants. Todd nods to the guards at Rodney's back, then says, "You stay with me. That's safest." The guards wrap their hands around Rodney's upper arms and he considers folding up, making them drag him down this hallway of horrors.

Rodney follows Todd, ignoring the constant twist of his gut, making himself look at the people hanging in the cocoons, limp and put away to be fed upon. Someday, he is going to get out of here, and take all these people with him, or at the very least end their suffering before they have to be dinner for some giant space bug. He can give them that much.

Todd walks for what feels like an eternity, passing other Wraith. Rodney tries to pick out the ones that have fed recently from the ones that haven't, judging the pallor of their skin and brightness of their eyes. They even have a different smell to them after they feed, damp and earthy, like rotting leaves.

When Todd finally stops, Rodney jerks his head to the side, trying to breathe through the rush of nausea. His voice sounds thick, words slow and rough, "Please don't." There's not even a part of him that thinks Todd will listen, but he has to try.

Todd says, his voice almost gentle, "You do not have to look."

Rodney grits his teeth, breathing hard though he doesn't know why, makes himself look up at the child in the cocoon. The boy is tall and lanky, one elbow sticking awkwardly against the edge of the cocoon, bright red hair frizzled out in a halo around the boy's head. The boy's face is one big freckle and he's wearing the long, thin earring in his left ear that Rodney recognizes as the mark of the Epsoians. Rodney blurts, "Don't! Look, you can—feed on me instead, please. Let him go."

For just a second Rodney dares to hope. Todd is watching him and Rodney would pull aside his shirt if he could. He goes to his knees, because that's all he can do, and the Wraith seem to have an obsession about that anyway. His voice is so thin even he can barely hear it, his throat trying to swallow the words before he can speak them, "Please, he's so young."

Todd's eyes slide to the side and he turns, sharply. Rodney makes a sound he hadn't intended, sharp and desperate, and he manages to lunge for Todd before the guards catch him and put him back on the ground. Rodney beats his heels against the floor, trying to throw the guards off, eyes riveted to Todd reaching past the cocoon, placing his palm over the boy's heart.

Rodney yells, something wordless and loud. There are hands tight around his shoulders, claws digging into his upper arms, and he struggles against them. It goes on forever, a nightmare that he can't wake up from, and he's vaguely aware of biting his own tongue and shouting things that don't even make sense as the boy shrivels up right in front of him.

When it's done, when the boy goes limp, body nothing but a shell that once held life, Rodney chokes on the pressure in his throat. He knows he must look ridiculous, lying splay-legged in the middle of the hallway, one guard lying across his chest to hold him down, the other holding his shoulders with one hand, the other braced on Rodney's forehead.

Todd turns to look at him, skin almost glowing. Rodney rasps, throat raw, "I hate you." Todd shifts his gaze to the guards, waves a hand and they move, rising to their feet and moving towards the corpse in the cocoon. Rodney grunts, pushing himself to his knees, scowling at the stream of blood curving down his bicep, forming drops at his elbow and dripping down onto the floor.

The guards pull what's left of the kid out of the cocoon, allowing the body to collapse to the floor, something cracking in its skeleton. Rodney chokes on a laugh trying to be a sob, slumping over so that he can trace his fingers over the brittle, pale curls that are all that are left of the boy's hair. There's movement above him and then Todd's voice, "Leave it a moment."

Rodney squeezes his eyes shut. Strands of hair are coming loose around his fingers, and the skin of the boy's ear is cool and dry. Dead flesh. Rodney shudders, tracing the shell of the boy's ear to the earring hanging off his wrinkled, ruined ear. The lobe comes apart like crumbling ash when Rodney pulls on it, and he folds his fingers around it, pulling back and ignoring the pounding of his heart.

When Todd and the guards finally take him back to the room Rodney sleeps, exhausted and worn thin, and dreams of dying a thousand different ways.

hr

Hiding the earring is surprisingly difficult. Rodney is sure that they're going to find it the next morning when they take him to the shower-room, when they take his cuffs off. His hands are sweating, and he knows he wears guilt all over his face.

One of the guards is staring at his hand when Todd interrupts, asking about the next scheduled culling in three weeks, and the guard gets distracted. Rodney is still shaking by the time he steps into the water, skin crawling and adrenaline burning like fire along his nerves.

The earring goes in his mouth, tucked under his tongue. It's too long to be there comfortably, and pokes sharply against the base of Rodney's tongue while pressing against the back of his front teeth. No amount of shifting it around makes it comfortable and Rodney is running out of air so he steps back, out of the water.

Rodney tells himself not to look over at his guards, sure that it's a sign of guilt, and makes himself step back into the water instead. The earring tastes like metal, already warm from being in Rodney's hand all night. Rodney swallows, almost laughing. Now he just has to figure out how to get out of Todd's room, get to the Darts, and fly himself off this nightmare ship. It should be, he's sure, a piece of cake.

hr

John checks his gun for the fifth time, then meets Ronon's eyes. Ronon nods, his own gun in his hands, and slams the door open with his shoulder, stepping in with his gun up. John follows him, eyes scanning the empty bar, heart pounding in his throat. Ronon is already on the bar, looking behind it, and Teyla is moving up the stairs in a low crouch.

By the time John has finished searching the kitchen and store rooms, Ronon and Teyla are both done with their searches. Ronon flashes John a thumbs up, Teyla nods, and John lets out a hard breath. He'd worried about an ambush, and there could still be one, but it's a good sign to get to the meeting spot and not find an army waiting for you.

Five minutes later, their informant strolls through the door and Ronon has his blaster braced up against the hinge of the woman's jaw immediately. Larrin rolls her eyes, flashes John an irritated look and holds her hands up. When Teyla steps forward to check her for weapons, Larrin says, "And here I thought you were never going to call, Sheppard."

John doesn't move from where he's sprawled on one of the few undamaged chairs in the wrecked bar. He stares at her from behind his sunglasses, lets his finger rest on the trigger of his P-90 when he says, "You said you had information we'd been looking for."

Teyla nods, stepping back, and Ronon lowers his blaster with a snarl. Larrin straightens her hair, strolls over to the bar and slides up on to it. She's swinging her legs back and forth when she answers, "I might. What's it worth to you?"

Ronon doesn't wait for orders before moving. The big man has a hand in Larrin's hair immediately, his blaster pressed against her temple. John says, when she gets done cursing, "I was going to bargain with you. Teyla pointed out that bargaining with you never really ends well for us, and we just don't have time for your shit right now. Give us any information you have or Ronon is going to kill you."

Larrin has gone very still, but she still manages some bite in her voice, "And here I thought we had something, Sheppard." John frowns, nods at Ronon, and Larrin is blurting, "Wait! Fuck, wound kinda tight, aren't you? Look, we got word from one of our contacts that there's a Hive keeping humans as pets."

Teyla makes an impatient sound, "Wraith worshipers are not uncommon."

That gets a sour look from Larrin, the woman tilting her head back and trying on a sneer for size, "I didn't say Wraith worshippers. Pets. As in, the humans aren't exactly thrilled with their present fortunes. Apparently there's a lot of chains and leather going on." She shrugs, "Sounds like bullshit to me, though."

It sounds like bullshit to John too, but it's the closest they've got to information since they started looking. At this point he's willing to take anything, any shadow that might lead them to Rodney. He says, "Don't suppose you know where this Hive is?"

Larrin grins, crosses her legs, like Ronon isn't pulling her head to the side, "Even better. I know where it's going to be."

hr

Part Three

Rodney is pretty sure he's making progress with the door in Todd's quarters. The control panel opens easier than it used to, and Rodney thinks that the ship actually likes him. He has no way of knowing for sure how sentient it is, but sometimes he swears that he can feel it purr against his fingers. In any case, he's careful with it, and after a week of further exploration the wall makes a soft, sucking sound and opens up a whole new section to him.

Rodney spends a moment smiling dopily at the wall in the blackness of the room. He pets at it, long soft strokes like his cats always liked. He keeps his voice pitched low and whispers to her in Wraith, calling her a good girl and complimenting her and he swears that he can feel a pulse of simple happiness through the flesh of the wall.

It's still slow moving, but at least there's some forward momentum, a flare of hope that he can hold onto in the face of the endless oatmeal and hours of lab work. He pokes his tongue over the earring still hidden in his mouth when he feels like screaming, and that helps too.

Someday he is getting out of here, and he holds onto that on the days where he doesn't speak English at all, when he worries that he's forgetting what it's like outside of this prison.

He and Todd are working in the lab, arguing in Wraith about the coding, Rodney clicking his tongue over the roof of his mouth to make the sounds, when the ship shakes. At first Rodney thinks he imagined it, his elbow smacking into the console he's working on, and then the floor under him jerks again.

Todd's eyes are huge, his expression angry and confused. Rodney says, "What's—"

Todd snaps, "Stay here," and moves towards the doors. The guards are already gone, leaving so silently that Rodney hadn't even noticed them go. Rodney stands in the middle of the empty lab, hearing alarms screaming out through the Hive, and curses softly.

His body is moving without waiting for his brain to catch up. Todd's computer has access to systems that Rodney's doesn't, and he mumbles under his breath as he scrolls through the information. Codes and systems fly by, Rodney tucking the symbols and numbers into his memory, fingers moving so quickly he's stumbling over keys.

Rodney hisses, "C'mon, c'mon," and the ship's schematics pop up. The Hive is like a rabbit warren, paths constantly crossing and curving. Rodney traces the corridors with his eyes, willing himself to remember, to burn the blue lines into the inside of his eyelids. Control room. Dart bay. Cocoons.

His fingers stumble over the keys, jarring the image to the ship's outside sensors. Rodney curses, taking an involuntary step back from the console. There's another Hive on top of theirs, Darts swarming in the space around them, sections of the ship flashing red, and Rodney slams the image closed, his heart pounding hard. He says, "Sorry, girl," patting at the side of the console and taking off for the door.

There's no lock on the lab, and Rodney knows how to open the doors now without hurting the ship. The door opens for him, and Rodney shouts and ducks when a stunner bolt streaks by over his head. The guard, its skin more purple than the guards in this Hive, takes another step closer to him, and a different guard tackles it, bracing a hand on its chest and draining it.

Rodney shudders, making his legs move. Smoke is pouring into the hallway, so he runs crouched over. The blue paths that he'd tried to memorize are already getting hard to remember and Rodney grits his teeth and focuses.

There's a part of him—a huge part—that wants to run for the Dart bay and try to steal one. He's sure that he can figure out how to fly one. Sheppard did, surely he'd be able to. Somehow, though, he finds himself heading towards the cocoons. He can't leave those people here to die, no matter how much he wants to.

Rodney works the earring forward as he runs, stepping over the bodies of Wraith in the hallways. He's breathing heavy, lungs burning, the smoke making his eyes water. There's a firefight going on at the first intersection he comes to, and he slouches down the wall, peeking around the corner.

There are Wraith guards coming from the other three directions, all firing on each other. Rodney curses with his teeth closed around the earring, and then bows his head, doing his best to cup his hands in his lap. The earring lands in the middle of his palm, and Rodney tilts his head up to the ceiling, grinning helplessly in relief.

He works the earring up to his fingers, watching the guards approach. They're dropping each other left and right, a purple one almost on him to the left. Rodney takes a deep breath, and throws himself at the guard's legs. They go down in a tumble, and Rodney kicks and pushes his way back to his feet and takes off. A stunner bolt goes by over his shoulder and then he's around a corner and there are no more Wraith in front of him.

Rodney sags against the wall, just for a second, just to let his heartbeat slow down. Smoke is curling along the ceiling, Wraith are screaming, the ship is shuddering, dying. Rodney shakes himself, makes himself move, wondering how the hell he's going to get all the people in cocoons off the ship but unable to consider leaving them behind.

He's almost to the first of the cocoon-hallways when he stumbles. There's a yell, hoarse and angry, and Rodney realizes he recognizes it a half second after his ears do. Rodney finds himself frozen, staring at the girl he can just see, hanging limp in her cage, wheezing from the smoke inhalation. He knows he should run, should go to her.

Somewhere to the left, Todd roars again, pain and anger drenching his voice.

Rodney stares down at his hands, back up to the girl, then turns his head to look down the hall where the roars are coming from. His feet take him down the hall, because Todd kept him alive and that means something, because Rodney can't just listen to him die. Rodney runs, legs burning with exertion, his hands jumping and jerking as he tries to work the earring into the lock, tries to work it open.

The hallway spills into a wide open room, huge and oval and beautiful. For a half second Rodney just stares, surprised by the mother-of-pearl overlay on the walls, the soft pink light, the delicate filigree work. And then he shakes himself, makes himself see what's going on in front of him.

Todd is on his knees, the Queen Rodney knows sprawled out behind him, her hair fanned across the floor. In front of Todd is another Queen, her chin up, her teeth bared, trailing a finger up and down Todd's cheek. Rodney swallows a deep breath, watching her hand drop down to Todd's chest, and throws himself at her.

They go down in a tangle of limbs. The Queen is all slim muscle, her skin hard under his hands and her hands hitting him like bricks. Rodney shouts, and the Queen grabs his arm as she stands, hurls him across the room. The wall breaks his fall somewhat less successfully than Rodney had been hoping.

There are spots behind his eyes, blood in his mouth, and Rodney spits it out. He's on his hands and knees, and for a long moment he stares stupidly down at his hands trying to figure out how that happened. The lock around his waist is hanging open, the earring still sticking out of it, and Rodney laughs, half hysterical.

Rodney shakes his head, trying to clear the ringing behind his ears. The Queen is already on her feet again, in front of Todd, and Rodney makes himself stand. Either the floor is moving or his equilibrium is completely fucked, and it takes more concentration than Rodney likes to think about to limp his way across the room.

His hands are still chained together, and Rodney resists the urge to rattle the chain. The Queen's long hair falls like crimson silk down her back, disturbingly pretty, and Rodney's fingers brush over it. And then his arms are over her head and Rodney is throwing himself backwards, pulling his arms back tight against his body, pulling the chain as tight over her throat as he can.

They land hard enough to drive the breath out of Rodney's lungs, to spear pain up through his ribs. The Queen is clawing at his hands and arms, sharp nails opening his skin, and Rodney grunts, trying to push down the burn of pain. She's bowing up on him, trying to twist them around, to get the chain off of her neck and Rodney kicks awkwardly at her legs, too breathless to curse.

The Queen twitches full body, and then again, and then goes still. Rodney's heart is racing and he doesn't move, her limp body laying over him, her head tilted back against his shoulder. Rodney can see one of her eyes, huge and sightless, and shudders.

Movement above him catches his attention and Rodney jerks his eyes up to find Todd looming over them. Rodney curses, trying to get his arms off her neck, trying to reach for the blaster at her hip. Todd leans down, grabbing handfuls of the front of her dress and hauling her off Rodney, tossing her to the side.

Rodney scrambles to his knees, looking up at Todd. His heart is racing and he thinks he might be sick. There's blood streaking down his hands and he thinks that by now he could have been in a Dart, on his way out of here. He thinks that by now he could have freed dozens of those people in the cocoons.

Todd stares at him, eyes dropping to Rodney's arms, to the loose chain that had held them tight against his waist. The earring is still sticking out of the lock, though it's bent now from the Queen falling on him. Todd surprises him by laughing, "You are clever, aren't you, Doctor McKay?"

Rodney scowls at him, "Don't you have a ship to defend?"

Todd sobers, looking over his shoulder when the living Queen rises to her feet. Todd says, almost contemplative, "The fight is over now. The Queen is dead." When Todd bares his teeth Rodney can't tell if it's meant to be a smile or not.

hr

Rodney's new chains don't have a lock. The guards just squeeze the metal together every time they put them on or take them off, abusing strength that Rodney can't hope to duplicate. Rodney figures that sooner or later the metal will weaken enough to give, but that could be weeks or months.

Todd takes the cuffs off to tend Rodney's wounds.

The last time Rodney had been scratched, it had been his cat, infuriated that he was trying to take her to the vet for her shots. These scratches are longer, deeper, and Rodney is willing to bet every bit as prone to infection as the feline variety. Todd sat him down in the middle of his room—the lights on for once, and Rodney was sure he should be memorizing the lay out of the room—and hustled off to get bandages and a basin of warm water from the adjacent room.

Rodney thinks about running, but he's exhausted and the ship is already in a state of agitation. There are guards everywhere with itchy trigger fingers just waiting for an excuse to shoot something. He stays put, arms held out, tracking the slow drops of blood that curl down his arms and drip off his fingertips. He's getting blood all over the floor. Todd comes back before Rodney can decide whether or not he wants to clean up his mess.

Wraith furniture for the most part seems to be cubes of various sizes. Todd pulls two closer to Rodney, sets his supplies on one and himself on the other. Rodney flicks his fingers, splattering drops of blood against Todd's coat and snorting. It isn't amusing, but he's too tired to care.

Todd sighs, rolls his eyes, and dunks a rag in his bowl of water before reaching out and grabbing one of Rodney's wrists. Rodney flinches automatically, yelps in surprise. Todd just tugs on his arm, making him straighten it and then dabbing at the jagged gash across the back of his hand. Rodney tries to pull his arm back, grits out, "What do you think you're doing?"

His only answer is the rag being smoothed over his fingers. Rodney jerks again, curling his fingers up against his palm. Todd makes an impatient sound, rubbing the rag over his knuckles, the scratch that's curled over the side of his hand, thin and deep. When the Wraith does speak his voice is distracted, "Such delicate skin."

Rodney tugs against his hold again, tries to twist out of his grip because this is too weird for him to deal with right now. He says, "Excuse me, I have delicate skin? Hello, who saved your ass earlier while you sat around doing nothing?"

Todd snorts, tugging Rodney's arm out straighter, patting at his bloody skin with the rag. Rodney can't help but notice that he's really kind of painfully bad at the whole first-aid thing. Emphasis on painfully, and Rodney clears his throat, "I can do this myself. Unless you're intent on causing further damage?"

That gets Todd's attention, finally. The Wraith looks up, looks surprised when he says, "Am I hurting you?" Rodney raises his eyebrows, putting as much scorn into his expression as he can, and Todd releases him. Rodney flexes his wrist, takes the rag out of Todd's hand, and dunks it back into the basin.

"I don't suppose you have any Neosporin?" The question is more just to keep the silence from creeping too close than anything else, and Rodney isn't surprised when Todd doesn't answer. Most of the scratches have stopped bleeding, and Rodney dabs and wipes at them, which results in a few of them bleeding again but has to be done anyway. He wonders how many different kinds of alien bacteria are swimming around in his wounds now, waiting for an opportunity to kill him in some disgusting and painful way. "What about rubbing alcohol?"

Todd doesn't respond and after a moment Rodney looks up, the skin on his arms, the rag, the water all pink from blood. Todd is watching him, expression unreadable, and Rodney shifts, resists crossing his arms because that would hurt. Rodney says, "Are you listening to me?"

Todd jerks, eyes jumping up to Rodney's face, voice low, "You saved my life."

Rodney shrugs, dropping his own gaze back to the water, reaching out and swirling it with a finger. He says, when Todd doesn't make any effort to go on, "Yes, well, I figure I owed you. Didn't seem right to let you get fed on after you stopped them from eating me."

Todd hums, then shifts to his feet. He pauses, then reaches out, fingers surprisingly soft on Rodney's chin, tilting his head up. Rodney blinks up at him, almost overturning the basin of water in surprise, and for a long moment Todd just stares down at him before sighing, "You are a most confusing creature, Doctor McKay."

hr

The guards that follow him everywhere stop poking him with their blasters again. Rodney doesn't really think anything of it at first, beyond figuring that they've realized he's so little threat as to be inconsequential. Mostly, he just enjoys not being jabbed in the kidneys constantly and being able to fall more than two steps behind Todd without painful consequences.

It's not until one of his guards steps forward after he finishes toweling himself dry one morning with a hand extended that Rodney realizes something has fundamentally changed. Rodney flinches back, and the guard ducks his shoulders, waves his other hand in a gesture that Rodney's seen used to gentle dogs and horses. He takes a moment to be offended.

The guard stays there, making a soft, wordless sound, close enough to cooing for the entire thing to be incredibly disturbing. Rodney eyes him, then looks up to Todd, who looks as puzzled as he feels. The guards don't talk, not that Rodney has ever heard, and so instead of asking what he's doing, Rodney takes a steadying breath and reaches out to him.

The guard's cooing sound bubbles into something lower, and he catches Rodney's wrist, twists Rodney's hand palm up. Rodney jerks back automatically, but the guard doesn't loosen his grip and before Rodney can yell at him, he is bringing his other hand up, covering Rodney's palm.

There's a brush of nails over Rodney's palm, smooth against the soft skin, interrupted by the bandage that divides his hand. And then the guard is stepping back, bobbing his head up and down, hands out to the side. Rodney wonders if he's hallucinating, staring at the retreating guard and then down to his hand.

There's a stone cradled in the dip of his palm, a blue so pale it's almost white, oval and smooth save for the swirled pattern carved into its surface. Rodney slides his thumb over the surface. The stone is warm from wherever the guard had been carrying it. He flips it over, the bottom a mirror image of the top, and then looks up at Todd again.

Todd looks bemused. Rodney does not share the sentiment, curls his fingers up over the rock and gropes for his pants while demanding, "What's this all about?" His pants are disappointingly lacking in pockets, so Rodney shoves the stone down the side of his boot, where it slides against the top of his ankle. When he finishes, Todd is staring at the guards with a contemplative expression.

The Wraith finally says, "You saved the Queen."

Rodney snorts, "I saved you," and pulls his shirt on. He expects Todd to provide some more likely explanation, but the Wraith looks perfectly serious. "What? Really? Really?" He shifts his attention to the guards, drops his tone to condescending and sharp and his words to Wraith because that language conveys irritation so very well, "I didn't do it on purpose, believe me."

The guards just bob their heads, both of them this time, and Rodney rolls his eyes. He shoves his hands towards Todd to be bound, snapping, "Great. That's great. If they start bringing me dead moles then I'm not letting them in the house anymore, okay?"

That gets a blank look from Todd and Rodney shrugs because he doesn't feel like explaining about his cat Bernice and her penchant for leaving various small dead rodents on his pillow. Or about how he hadn't even been able to try to break her of it because she always looked so damn pleased with herself afterwards. Instead he says, as Todd squeezes the cuffs closed, "Where'd they get it, anyway? You guys have some kind of semi-precious stone exporting gig that I was unaware of?"

Todd hesitates for a half second, and then says, "Valuables are often removed before your kind are put in their holding cocoons."

Rodney freezes, a shudder climbing up his spine. There's a dead man's stone tucked into his boot and for a split second he can taste the bile climbing his throat. He wants to get it away from his skin, take another bath, scrub its presence away. But he can't reach it, and his fingers curl up, useless fists that pull the torn skin on the back of his hands painfully tight. Todd says, "Doctor McKay?"

Rodney nods, not sure why, just something to show he's listening. His stomach is clenched up tight and he doesn't think he can talk, not right now. The stone feels like a lead weight around his ankle the entire day, weighing each step down.

The next morning, Rodney pulls the stone out of his boot, turning it over and over in his hand. It's holding the warmth of his body. He wonders if Teyla would be able to figure out what world it came from. He wonders if it might bring some kind of closure to whoever was left, to know for sure what had happened to their taken loved one.

Rodney squeezes his fingers closed around it, wishing he could throw it against the nearest wall and shatter it to a thousand pieces, wishing that it had never been given to him in the first place. When he stands to make his way to the water, he leaves the stone on top of his shirt. When he gets back it goes back in his boot, a ball and chain he puts around his own ankle, a weight he has no choice but to carry.

hr

After that, the amount of trinkets from the dead that he receives grows and grows. Guards stop him in the hallway to press jewelry or small dolls into his hands, once a piece of heavily embroidered cloth. One of them gives him a chain, long and silver, links hooked together so finely that it flows through his fingers like water. Rodney hordes them all, and wonders how he's possibly going to get them all back where they belong.

Todd watches it all with a detached interest that Rodney can't read, and Rodney struggles to view it the same way. But he's never been good at considering things dispassionately, never been any good at all at not caring, and this is no different. He carries the dead around with him, dozens and dozens of them by the end of two weeks, a weight that gets harder and harder to shoulder every morning.

Rodney concentrates on what good he has left. He's pretty sure he's almost gotten Todd's door to open for him. He's pretty sure he knows the layout of the room well enough to get to where Todd leaves his blaster hanging. He has absolutely no idea how he's going to get his hands free, but with the chain off his ankle he's hoping he can make it with them trapped by his waist.

The programming is almost done, and Rodney has included enough of his own work that he should be able to manipulate it at will. It shouldn't take more than a few keystrokes for him to unleash a virus that would decimate every Wraith in the galaxy, and Rodney ignores the creeping insistence in the back of his head that it's wrong, that he shouldn't do it.

There are times when the thing he hates Todd the most for is making him see the Wraith as individuals. For giving them personalities, for looking worried when he cleaned Rodney's wounds, for teaching him their language. It was so much easier to consider genocide when they were nothing but comical constructs, goth-vampire-aliens terrorizing the galaxy at large.

When Rodney sleeps, he dreams of blowing up the Hive ships, and he wakes up with a tight throat and burning eyes and tells himself he has to get out of here before he goes completely insane. Sometimes, when he finds himself joking with Todd or smiling sadly at the guard who gives him a trinket, Rodney thinks it might already be too late.

hr

John tells Teyla and Ronon that they don't have to come with him, that he knows this is skirting painfully close to the edges of insanity, that they've done more than enough. Teyla stares at him like he's spouting drivel and Ronon calls him an idiot. They don't bother loading up with weapons, besides Ronon's usual stash. And then there's nothing left to do but go to MK4-294. It's a prosperous world, full of bustling cities, an age and a half since it was last culled.

They get as many people as they can into the hills and bunkers, and then they wait.

John feels wound tight, body so strung out with anger and nerves that even pacing isn't possible. He leans against one of the now empty buildings and drums his fingers on the bricks, grinding his teeth together. Teyla is crouched beside him, her face tilted up towards the sun, expression calm. Ronon is working another knife into his hair. They all startle when the 'gate whooshes to life.

John says, "Teyla?"

She's rising to her feet, movement smooth and elegant, saying, "Yes, it is the Wraith." And then there's the whine of the Dart engines, breaking the serenity of the early morning, roaring towards them. John rolls his shoulders and squints towards the horizon.

John clears his throat, "Guys..." and isn't sure where to go with it from there. They've put up with everything he's dished out over the last few months that Rodney's been missing. They've followed him across the galaxy and through Hive ships.

Teyla places a hand on his arm, smiling a hard smile, "Do not, John."

He nods, watching the Darts scream closer and closer to them. There's a certain appeal to standing in the middle of the main street of town, listening to the tick-tock of the big clock overhead, the Darts raising dust as they speed forward. If Rodney were here, John would make a joke about showdowns at high noon, but he's not.

One Dart scoops all three of them up, and John screams into the abyss, his cells tearing apart, his body ripped down to tiny fractions of itself. It's a horrible feeling, being swept up, and the pain is like nothing he can find the words to describe. Blackness brings relief and he sinks down into it willingly, knowing that somewhere on the other side is Rodney.

And that's all that matters.

hr

Rodney is walking behind Todd on their way back to his room, his eyes heavy with exhaustion, considering cutting out his attempts to get Todd's door open in order to get some sleep, when a guard catches his arm. It's habit by now to smile up at the Wraith's mask, to cup his hands and nod when the guard presses a present into his palms.

Rodney goes through the motions, brain fuzzy with calculations and grief, and finds himself staring down at the object cradled in his hands, not sure why it caught his attention. Rodney frowns, rubbing the dull gray chain between his fingers, staring at the metal ovals and trying to make sense of the words written on them, trying to figure out if it's a language he knows.

Todd says, "Doctor McKay?" and everything snaps into place.

It hits Rodney like a punch, his fingers curling closed immediately, hard enough to dig the metal into his skin. He feels breathless, dizzy, makes himself look up at Todd and blurt, "I'm tired." Todd stares at him, head cocked to the side before he shrugs and continues forward.

Todd says, looking over his shoulder, "Sometimes I forget about your weaker body." And Rodney barely hears him, the words settling in his ears without any real meaning. It's been a long time since he's seen English. Somehow, he hadn't expected his reintroduction to it to be with John Sheppard's dog-tags.

hr

It feels like Todd is never going to fall asleep, and Rodney can barely keep track of the Wraith's breathing over the furious pounding of his own heart. He's run out of time, out of options. Somewhere, John is hanging in a cocoon, and Rodney will not let this play out. He can't. It kind of renders the whole ordeal he's been through pointless if John goes and gets himself killed now.

The wall opens for his shaking fingers, lets him in, and Rodney tries to keep his touch gentle. He coos to the ship, so soft that the words are almost sub-vocal, muted pleas in Wraith. He knows it's not likely to help, no more than talking to Atlantis helps, but it always makes him feel better.

He's pressed face first against the wall, his cheek chilled by the contact with it, twisting his fingers in nerves and ligaments. Everything is slick and sticky and this would be easier if he could just see. But nothing important is easy, and Rodney bites his tongue, smoothing his index finger down the long curve of a nerve bundle, tapping out a rhythm against the interior wall.

His fingers dip into something soft and smooth, and Rodney feels the tissue around them contract. He freezes, breath stuttering out shallow and fast, then carefully traces the crevice he's found. There's a soft click in the wall, a whirl of a system coming online, and Rodney closes his eyes and hisses, "Please, please, please," and shifts the pressure of his fingers.

The door opens.

Rodney swallows the giddy laughter in his throat, pushes clumsily to his feet and trips his way over to the hook that Todd's blaster is hanging on. Light from the hallway is flooding into the room and Rodney knocks the blaster off the hook with his shoulder, kneels and grabs it. He tries for a second to get a comfortable grip on it, then gives up and moves towards the door.

There are two guards, and Rodney manages to shoot one before the other is jerking towards him and for a second he thinks this is how it all ends.

The guard throws himself at Rodney and Rodney's attempt to run away ends up with him tripping and falling flat on his stomach. There's a high pitched scream, bright and cut off, and Rodney kicks onto his back in time to watch the guard spasm in the door, his head looking misshapen where the doors closed on it. Rodney coughs, trying to gag and swallowing around it, pushing to his feet and expecting alarms to start screaming overhead.

There's something right on the edge of his hearing, a low whine, and Rodney lets out a shaky breath. There's a part of him that wants to duck back in Todd's room, hide and resign himself to this life. But he's carrying more than his own life, and so he makes himself go. One step, then another, the pale blue rock biting into his ankle with each shift of his weight.

He knows the way to the cocoons now, at least, can track his own steps there from when the other Hive attacked. The halls are curiously empty and Rodney isn't sure if that's good or bad. In his head he imagines that all the Wraith are feeding, that he's already too late, and his stomach twists unpleasantly.

He's out of breath by the time the first cocoons come into sight, and he makes himself stop for air. There's a young girl in the first cocoon and Rodney's footsteps stumble in front of her. This is it, his escape attempt, and that involves getting everyone else out of here as well. He stares at her, dark hair framing a long face, and makes himself move on.

John's tags are in his hand, between his palm and the stunner. John's tags pull him forward.

It's like running through the most fucked up fun house ever conceived. People of all shapes and sizes are hanging in the cocoons, some looking already fed upon, some reduced to skeletons, some still alive and hale. Rodney runs, scanning for a face he knows, hoping that John didn't manage to get taken to the Queen again.

Even knowing that John is here somewhere, even holding his tags, it's still a surprise, a shock, a thrill of disbelief down Rodney's spine to hear his voice, keyed low, "C'mon, Ronon, I thought you said you could get out of these things without a problem." Rodney freezes, knowing he doesn't have time for it but taking the moment to let himself believe that John lived, that John got off that planet, that everything is okay again.

Then he makes himself move.

Ronon says, voice a low, familiar rumble, "Someone's coming," and then Rodney is throwing himself around the corner. He can feel himself smiling, huge and inappropriate, and yet he can't seem to stop it. Because it's Ronon and Teyla and John, looking bedraggled but alive and whole.

They all stare back at him for a long moment, and then John is jerking in his cocoon, face a mask of concentration and frustration. He's gritting out, between thrashes, "Rodney, God, Rodney, motherfuck!"

Rodney laughs, giddy, almost not daring to believe this is actually happening. He drops the stunner, stepping forward and tangling his fingers in John's cocoon, holding on and babbling, "Stop, stop, I'm going to get you out, don't hurt yourself." And John is squirming around, his fingers winding around Rodney's, curling over the back of his hands, holding onto him.

Ronon tumbles out of his cocoon, managing to turn what should be a clumsy collapse into a graceful roll to his feet. Ronon is already reaching for Teyla's cocoon, grabbing a knife out of his hair, and Rodney winces when Ronon slices through the membranes. He has to push the upset away, because this is Ronon and Teyla and John and nothing else matters, not even ships that feel pain.

Teyla steps out, kneeling to snatch up the stunner that Rodney had dropped, moving in a fast crouch to the corner and poking her head around to see. Ronon's shoulder brushes Rodney's as he carves apart John's cocoon, and then John is shouldering his way free and Rodney says, "Oh, thank God," right before John grabs his shoulders and drives him back against the wall between two inhabited cocoons.

The ridge of the wall digs into Rodney's back between his shoulders, he opens his mouth to protest and John is shaking him, gritting out between clenched teeth, "Don't you ever do that again, McKay. You fucking idiot," John's fingers are digging into his shoulders, and there's a wildness in his eyes that Rodney doesn't really understand.

Rodney clears his throat, "I—"

Teyla interrupts before he can say anything else, her voice calm, "We are about to have company." She has one hand raised to her forehead, and Ronon grabs John's shoulder, pulls him back. Rodney lurches forward, no longer being supported against the wall, and John steadies him, eyes dropping to the cuffs around Rodney's wrists.

John makes a short, unhappy sound, then shakes himself, says under his breath, "Later. Later. Alright, we're getting the hell out of here."

When John tugs on his arm Rodney pulls back automatically, bracing himself, and ignoring the flare of confusion across John's face. It's so odd to read human expressions again that he isn't really sure if he's making the right interpretations. He says, running the words all together because he has to make them understand, "The others, we have to get them out, they'll—"

"There's no time, McKay." There's no room for argument in John's voice, but Rodney is opening his mouth to argue anyway because they don't understand. He can't leave these people behind, he can't abandon them, but John is snapping, "No. I'm not going to risk it. We're leaving. Ronon, Teyla, lets go."

John is pulling Rodney forward and Ronon has a hand braced against Rodney's lower back and for just a second Rodney feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. And then Teyla is stepping past them, taking point, Ronon constantly looking over his shoulder, and Rodney jerks back to the present. Rodney opens his mouth, "Wait—"

"Rodney, no." John sounds rough, his grip going painful, "Don't ask me again." His expression is tumultuous, a muscle in his jaw jumping, and Rodney swallows his protests. John looks frighteningly close to snapping, his hair grown too long and there is a cut across his jaw, like his hand slipped while he was shaving. Rodney wonders what he missed, what's gone wrong to hit John so hard.

They're running through the halls, stumbling to a stop when Teyla crouches and throws a fist up. John slams Rodney into the wall, a hand braced on his chest, mouth thin and white. Ronon is fishing knives out of his hair. Teyla winces, hisses softly, "There is one in front of us, more approaching from the rear."

There's a pause where they all stare at each other and then John nods, "Take the one, keep going." Teyla rises back to her feet, turning the corner and they're moving, Rodney tripping over his own feet the first few steps. Behind them, catching up, Rodney can hear the pound of loud footsteps, and his heart leaps into his throat.

They careen around another corner and Teyla is bringing the stunner up and Rodney's eyes go wide. His body works on autopilot, shouldering into Teyla and knocking her aim wide. Down the hall Todd cocks his head to the side, weaponless. John is growling, "What the hell, McKay?" and Teyla is readjusting her aim and behind them four guards are closing in, stunners up and ready.

The guards hesitate, and Rodney wonders what they're thinking, wonders how intelligent they are, really, under those masks. They're looking at him, or at least in his general direction, and John is trying to pull him closer to the wall, closer to the relative safety of having something to put his back against, and the guards jerk to action, all of them shifting their aim to John.

Rodney wishes his hands were free, because this situation calls for waving arms as no other. He improvises, pushing John to the side and shouting at the guards, splaying his fingers out in the closest he can get to motioning for them to stop, "Don't! Put the stunners down, right now!"

The Wraith words fall easily off of his tongue and somewhere behind him Ronon curses in surprise. Rodney doesn't have time to deal with their shock and horror right now, he takes a half step closer to the guards, wishing they had eyes he could make contact with, "Put the stunners down, please."

The guards pause, looking unsure, and Rodney sees them shift their focus over his shoulder to Todd. Todd, who has stepped closer while Rodney was distracted, who is bearing his teeth at Rodney's team, expression angry and dark. Todd says, "I would ask who was rescuing whom, but I doubt even you know at this point."

Rodney pushes aside the flare of irritation, not hard when his body is far more interested in panicking and trying to get out of this alive, "I saved your life."

Todd looks towards him, staring at him hard and Rodney makes himself not look away. His chin comes up automatically, his hands balling up, John's tags dangling where Rodney had managed to get them wrapped around his fingers. Todd's smile is sharp, "No more than I saved yours. I owe you nothing, Doctor McKay." Todd nods to the guards and Rodney grits his teeth and locks his knees.

There are threats waiting on the tip of his tongue, some that he can probably follow through on, some that he can't. There are pleas and bribery, desperate gambles that he can't quite convince himself would work. Rodney squeezes his eyes shut and waits for the flare of pain. It doesn't come. He cautiously cracks one eye open.

One of the guards has stepped forward, hand extended and Rodney moves on autopilot, cupping his hands and forcing a smile. The guard drops a tiny figurine into his hands, vaguely humanoid in shape, save for the crude wings stretched out above its head. And then the guard is shifting, stunning Todd and lowering its blaster. Rodney's breath escapes in a rush, his knees going weak, his hand closing around the trinket he's been given.

For a long moment no one moves, and then John is saying, "Okay," slow and careful. Rodney can see John reaching for him out of the corner of his eye, and the guard's stunners come up again. Rodney takes a quick step to the side, the guns go down. Everyone stays still, frozen in some kind of bizarre tableau.

Rodney clears his throat, and still doesn't really manage a steady voice, has to start over again, the clicks loud with his dry tongue, "Thank you. I have to go now." The guards show no sign of comprehending, but when Rodney takes a step back they don't move. Rodney takes another, and then makes himself turn around, the space between his shoulder blades itching.

Halfway down the hall Rodney pauses, doesn't dare look back, and says, English feeling weird and cumbersome in his mouth, "What are you waiting for? Let's go." And then he starts walking again, heart in his throat, sure that he's going to fall over at any moment.

After a moment John draws even with him, carefully keeping his hands to himself and they're running again, just like that.

It all ends up ending the way it started, with a Wraith beam scooping Rodney up and taking him apart. It doesn't hurt less because John is flying it, it's no less jarring, and it still leaves him with the promise of a splitting headache.

hr

Rodney wakes up slowly, drifting in and out of dreams that move fast as lightning and burn through him, leaving him feeling empty and lost. He wakes up to voices, familiar tones whispering on the edge of his hearing. He wakes up to foreign smells, and strikes him like a blow when he realizes he's smelling fire and cooking meat and cotton sheets.

Rodney opens his eyes, squinting against the light because the headache he'd been planning for is making itself at home in the base of his skull. He's on his back, staring up at crossbeams in an exposed ceiling. There is straw poking him in the back and he's willing to bet that the pillow under his head is stuffed with feathers. He's tangled in a blanket and one of his arms is hanging off the side of the bed.

Sitting bolt upright surprises even him, and apparently whoever else is in the room with him as well, if the cursing is anything to go by. But Rodney can barely think, too many thoughts clambering for attention and his hands are free and he can stretch them out and the stupid giddy joy of it overwhelms everything else. He can feel himself smiling like an idiot, and can't bring himself to care.

Someone says, "Rodney?" and Rodney thinks about ignoring them, but doubts they'd leave him alone. He shifts his attention away from the pink skin of his wrists, finds John standing at the foot of his bed with a guarded expression. Rodney grins at him, because his hands are free and somewhere there is real food cooking and John matches his expression slowly, carefully. "How you feeling, buddy?"

Rodney considers, rubbing his hand up and down his arm just because he can. He's mildly concerned that his shirt seems to be missing, but it hadn't been his shirt really, anyway. He finally settles on, "Compared to what? Because, really, compared to the way I've been, the only way to go was up. But compared to the way I should be I'm thinking a two, maybe a low three at the most."

He swings his legs over the side of the bed, and stares down at his toes, something icy twisting up his gut for no good reason. His voice doesn't sound like his own, "Where are my shoes?" He doesn't want to be barefoot again, kept and helpless.

John rests a hand on his shoulder and Rodney flinches, because it feels wrong, smooth and too warm, dry. John's expression is doing oddly complicated things when Rodney looks at him, but Rodney's heart is jack hammering and there's panic crawling up his spine and words tumbling out of his mouth, "John, I need my shoes."

A muscle in John's cheek twitches, and he's squeezing at Rodney's shoulder, saying, "Hey, it's okay, it's okay, Ronon went back to Atlantis to get your stuff, okay?" And Rodney, not wanting to be talked down to, slides to the side, bunching the sheets around his waist and drawing his feet up where he doesn't have to see them. "Rodney?"

"I need shoes." It's important, and John doesn't get to decide that he shouldn't have them. No one gets to decide that. He doesn't know this place and the lights here are too bright, and his head won't stop pounding. And he has no shoes, shoes had been the start of his escape, he knows that. Before he'd had them he'd been fucked.

John is standing up, moving real slow towards the door and saying, "Okay. I'm going to go see if I can find the ones you had, okay? I'll be right back." Rodney watches him step out the door and wonders what kind of lock it has. He presses a hand to the wall and can't feel it breathe, can't feel the pulse of life through it, just cold, dead wood.

Rodney's legs are a little shaky from the Dart trip, but they're steady enough. He's got no pants either, but at least they left his underwear. Rodney fidgets, hands automatically held at his waist, and then shakes himself because the chains are gone, he doesn't have to factor them into everything anymore.

There's a window above the bed, so Rodney climbs back on the mattress. Simple clasp, easy to open, on the second story. There's grass out there, and wide open sky, so big it's terrifying. It would be easier to stay in the room, but Rodney is thoroughly sick and tired of being put in rooms and kept there. And he has to find the Hive, somehow, has to get to the people he left behind in those cocoons.

Even crawling out the window and holding on by his fingers still puts the ground an intimidating drop away. But the odds of him being able to pull himself back in are pretty low, and he's already came this far. Rodney drops, lands on his ass on the soft earth and ignores the ache in his hip when he pushes to his feet.

There's an animal that reminds him of a duck, only a dozen times too big and wearing a saddle, and it stares at Rodney with one huge eye as he crosses to it. He wonders if the feathers in the pillow came from it, decides he would rather not know, and grabs the blanket slung over its neck before jerking back. The fabric is rough when he pulls it over his shoulders, but it's better than nothing. He wishes he had shoes.

"Rodney! Jesus Christ, what the hell are you doing?" Rodney blinks, looking over his shoulder. John is leveraging himself out of the window and Rodney flinches, looking across the wide open plains and not knowing where to go. He goes forward, because it's as good an option as any, and there's a thump from behind him, more cursing.

The grass is long, wrapping around his ankles and catching on his skin like the cuff had. Rodney stumbles and forgets that he can catch himself, pain lancing up through his shoulder even as he pushes back to his feet. His throat itches, pollen clawing at his sinuses, and the sun is burning his skin. He wants to go home, except he thinks maybe he's forgotten where that was.

A hand catches at his shoulder and Rodney shrugs it off, sidestepping away from John. John is persistent, grabs him again and Rodney jerks away, thinks about running, though it would be futile because, well, no shoes. But then he is anyway, not even sure what he wants except to maybe not have woken up.

John tackles him within steps, and they go down hard, the air crushed out of Rodney's chest, one of John's elbows digging into his back. Rodney bucks against him and John curses into his hair and pulls at his shoulders. Rodney keeps forgetting that his arms work, that he has free range of motion and when John yanks him over onto his back he forgets that he can hit John.

John is kneeling over him, eyes wild, hair getting caught and tangled by the wind. John has a hand on his shoulder, the other on Rodney's chest, holding him down and fear spikes through Rodney like a rush of fire. He can feel himself shudder, remembers how to move and grabs at John's wrist, pleads, "Please don't."

For a half-second John looks confused, before his eyes jerk down to Rodney's chest. John tears his hand away like it's burning, mouth falling open around a wordless sound of distress. Somehow that all ends up with John pulling Rodney upright, wrapping his arms around Rodney and squeezing him, babbling into his hair, "Jesus, Rodney, no. No. Fuck. I'm not—I wouldn't—I, fuck."

Rodney doesn't know what to do with his hands, what to do with any of this, really. But John's shoulder is warm and solid and right there, so he lets his head rest against it. And his arms work, well enough that he can squeeze John back. John makes a rough sound, rubbing a hand up and down Rodney's spine, cupping the back of his head, and it's dark against his shoulder, dark and just possibly safe. Rodney says, softly, "I need my shoes."

John's voice is rough, heralded by a laugh that doesn't sound amused at all, "You can have mine, how bout that?"

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