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ComingHome

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years ago

Coming Home

 

Author: Xanthe (NA8)

Pairing: Rodney McKay/John Sheppard (AU, set in a bisexual/BDSM universe)

Rating & Warnings: NC17 for loving, consensual BDSM sex and spanking scenes.

Spoilers: Season One.

Summary: “Colonel John Sheppard knew, from the moment he first met Dr Rodney McKay, that the man would be trouble.” This novel-length story is a prequel to General & Dr Sheppard telling the story of how the AU John and Rodney first got together.

 

Nominated Category:

Best Love slave Fic,

Best First Time - Slash

&

Best Spanking Scene: Acted TV & Movies (for Part 5)



 

Part One: Trouble with a Capital 'T'

 

Colonel John Sheppard knew, from the moment he first met Dr Rodney McKay, that the man would be trouble. He wasn't sure how, or why, or even what form that trouble might take, but after nearly twenty years in the military, John had an instinct for trouble, and Rodney McKay was it - with a capital 'T'.

 

John was standing in Lady Elizabeth's office, going through the personnel files of the people they were taking with them on the expedition to Atlantis, when someone knocked on the door and then barged in without waiting for a reply. John stiffened; Lady Elizabeth was their leader, and, although he'd only known her for a few days, John had a lot of respect for her, so he didn't appreciate someone so rudely interrupting their private meeting - especially not the dishevelled man who brushed past him, shoving him to one side in his eagerness to get Elizabeth's attention.

 

"Is this the guy?" the newcomer demanded, glancing at John as if he was something he'd stepped in. "Isn't he a bit young to be in charge of the entire military side of this expedition? And what's with the hair? Oh never mind. You said he has the ATA gene? Because if so, you have to lend him to me. Carson is driving me insane and besides he nearly destroyed General O' Neill's transport with one of those drones, and you know if anything had happened to the General then Daniel O'Neill would have blamed *me* and then there's no chance I'd get anywhere near Atlantis - I'd be strung up in little pieces somewhere while he carved into me with a blunt knife. That man is the most possessive sub I've ever met."

 

John blinked, and glanced at Elizabeth, overwhelmed by the whirlwind of chatter.

 

"Ah, Colonel Sheppard - I should introduce you to our Head of Science - Dr Rodney McKay," Elizabeth said, with a wry grin. Sheppard took a second to process that *this* man, standing here, fingers clicking together impatiently, was the very eminent Rodney McKay, a scientist of outstanding brilliance - according to his personnel file at least. The man in front of him had long, unkempt, wavy hair, most of which was standing on end, as if he'd just spent several days running his hands through it - maybe he had. He had three days worth of stubble on his chin, and was wearing a faded blue expedition sweater and a pair of black pants with a coffee stain on the thigh. He looked sort of unkempt, as if he had long since stopped caring about his appearance and didn't expect anyone else to, either, and yet… John noticed a pair of bright, intelligent, if guarded, blue eyes, and a crooked mouth that looked as if it could spit out insults as soon as give you the time of day. Yes, the man was definitely Trouble.

 

"Dr McKay." John nodded, and held out his hand in greeting. McKay gave him a withering look.

 

"Yes, yes, time for that later - at the moment I need you - or rather I need that gene of yours. Come with me."

 

It was an order, and so peremptory that John found himself glancing at Elizabeth in shock, seeking her approval to end the meeting. She just gave a little grin and nodded her head in the direction of the door.

 

"I think Rodney's need of you is more pressing than mine," she murmured. "We can catch up on this later."

 

John gave her a polite nod, and then followed on after the scientist. It wasn't his usual style to notice such things, but he couldn't help but think, as he walked down the hallway after the other man, that Rodney McKay had a very nice ass.

 

"So you, apparently, have the ATA gene. It doesn't seem very helpful that one of the military boys should have such a strong manifestation of the gene when I'm the one who has to get this stuff working but I suppose we have to live with that. Carson is working on some new treatment that should resolve that issue for us but he's going at a maddeningly slow pace at the moment. I don't see what's so hard about it - it's not as if what he's doing is *real* science - but I suppose we have to accept that he knows what he's doing. By the way, do they *allow* hair cuts like that in the military? I thought you all had to have buzz cuts which is rarely a good look for anyone but I assumed it was some kind of weird bonding ritual you went through, and here's the chair so if you'd like to sit down please?"

 

"What?" They had come to a halt beside a large, ornate chair, situated in the centre of a little chamber, and Rodney's request had been so jumbled up in the rest of his stream of consciousness speech that John had to take a moment to process it.

 

"Chair. Sit," Rodney said slowly, as if talking to an imbecile, or a dog. John gazed at him steadily for a moment. He had been in the military for most of his adult life and he was more than used to taking orders, but not from scruffy scientists who seemed to be lacking a social skills gene. Rodney blinked, then looked at John as if seeing him for the first time. "If you wouldn't mind," he added, in a more polite tone of voice. John gave him a smile.

 

"Not yet," he said. "Firstly, I want you to tell me why you need me for this - and what's supposed to happen when I sit in that chair? I know I've got some kind of a genetic thing going on which means that I can activate Ancient technology but I don't want to make any mistakes, or do the wrong thing."

 

"Oh god. You're not afraid of it are you?" Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's bad enough dealing with Carson but at least he's a doctor and has an excuse for being uncomfortable around weaponry. I'd have thought you would be delighted to get the chance to be in control of this kind of destructive power."

 

"Really?" John raised an eyebrow. "I don't know what you know about the military, Dr McKay, but personally I prefer to have a thorough understanding of my weaponry *before* I use it."

 

"Really?" Rodney raised an eyebrow back at him. "As a matter of fact I know quite a bit about the military and I have to say that's not my experience of you military boys," and there was something about the way he said it, and the sour little bark of laughter that accompanied that comment, that made John frown. He wondered just what experiences the scientist was talking about.

 

"Explain it to me," John told him, softly but firmly, "and then I'll decide if I want to sit in it."

 

Rodney rocked back on his heels and gave John an assessing look, clearly realising that this wasn't someone he was going to be able to push around, and that he'd have to at least give some kind of explanation.

 

"You won't understand," he warned.

 

"Try me," John grinned. Rodney's eyes narrowed, and then, obviously deciding this was a challenge and he was happy to seize the gauntlet, he opened his mouth and launched into a detailed explanation of how the chair worked that was so technical John had to concentrate extremely hard to follow it. However, despite all his bluster, the scientist actually had a very good way of explaining things, and there was something rather amusing about his style of speech and his frequent snarky asides that made John smile. He came to an end of his explanation and then stood there, looking at John with an expectant smirk on his face, clearly expecting him to have been completely lost in all the technobabble.

 

"Thank you." John inclined his head towards the scientist. "So basically you're saying that these drones are telepathically controlled and when I sit down I have to be careful not to unleash another one?"

 

"Something like that," Rodney grunted sourly, obviously annoyed that John had grasped the central concepts so easily. "Especially if General O' Neill's helicopter is anywhere nearby. We really don't want any harm to come to him or…"

 

"Or his husband will come after you with a blunt knife. I remember," John grinned. "Sounds like the general has his hands full with that one."

 

"Yes, well, I really don't have the least interest in their particular dynamic," Rodney snapped, but John caught a flash of something in the scientist's blue eyes - something naked, something hurting, and that surprised him because this man was so outrageously rude and brusque that John would never have suspected him to have a sensitive side. There was clearly a whole lot more to him than met the eye. John put him on his mental list of people to watch on this expedition.

 

As it turned out, John didn't get a chance to watch anyone for the next few weeks as they were beset by a series of crises from the minute they walked through the gate into the Pegasus galaxy. The city welcomed him like a returning son, lighting up at his every step, only to start crashing all around them as the power ran out. John led an expedition offworld to find refuge and instead encountered a hostile alien species that captured half his team, forcing him to lead a rescue mission, and when they returned to Atlantis, the city activated her own failsafe device by rising from the depths of the ocean into the clean, clear air. So much happened in such a short space of time that John almost forgot about Dr Rodney McKay - until the incident with the jello.

 

"Colonel Sheppard - take a seat." Elizabeth gestured with her hand at one of the spare chairs in her office. She looked tired, and John wasn't surprised. They'd all been running on empty for the past few days. She was dressed, as usual, in the tight, dark red, leather uniform suit that showed off her slender frame to perfection. John had worried initially about how he'd get along with her. They were both tops, which wasn't a problem - although John doubted he'd have had a problem if the leader of the expedition had been a sub, either. He'd known some tops with terrible leadership qualities and some subs who truly excelled in that area and he knew sexual inclination wasn't any guide as to how well someone performed in their job. Luckily, Lady Elizabeth Weir had proved herself to be a thoughtful kind of leader, and although he didn't always agree with her more cautious decisions, he was glad that she was someone he could work with, and respect. John wondered for a moment whether she had taken a sub - he was sure that half the available subs in the city would jump at the chance because she exuded an air of capability and control, but he also knew that it wasn't always easy taking a sub from among people you worked with. Still, he didn't like the idea of her being lonely - a good leader needed an attentive partner, whether sub or top. John was feeling that lack in his own life right now, but he had nobody but himself to blame for that. He'd had some great relationships with a variety of willing and compliant submissives, but the truth was that he'd never been in love and he was beginning to despair of ever finding someone he connected with on anything other than a sexual level. He longed for the soul-deep connection he'd seen other couples enjoy - including his own parents - but somehow it had just never happened for him and he was beginning to wonder whether it ever would. Maybe he was asking for too much but he knew that he couldn't fake it. He'd bent many beautiful bodies, both male and female, to his will, enjoyed them for the taking, and loved doing it too, but he had reached an age where he wanted more than that, and as a result he'd been celibate for over a year now.

 

"What's going on?" John asked, seeing Elizabeth sigh heavily as she flicked through a file, before handing it to him.

 

"There was some kind of fracas in the mess hall yesterday," she told him. "One of your men - a Sergeant Bates? - sustained a cut to his forehead requiring four stitches."

 

"I heard about that. I assumed it was just some horsing around," John commented, surprised that this minor issue had made it to her desk. "I'll deal with it, my Lady," he said in a grim tone, getting to his feet. He'd been so busy dealing with one crisis after another since they arrived that he hadn't had a chance to establish a clear sense of discipline - and the men under his command were all new to him. This was his first major command, and he was aware that he'd landed it partly because of the ATA gene. Not that he hadn't proved himself in the field of combat, over and over again, and the military had commended him for his leadership abilities on several occasions, but this - out here, in another galaxy - this was a whole new ball game.

 

"It's not that simple," Elizabeth told him, with a strained smile. "I asked you here because Sergeant Bates has made a formal complaint against one of the civilian members of the expedition - and now I have to decide what to do about it."

 

"Oh." John sat back down again. Setting up a judiciary system and formal punishment room hadn't exactly been top of their list of priorities when arriving here, but it was clear that it had just been shunted up the list. "So what happened?" he asked, flicking through the complaint that was in the file that Elizabeth had given him.

 

"It's not easy to tell - I've only got Sergeant Bates's version of events and there were no witnesses save for a group of military personnel and…" Elizabeth gave another sigh, "Dr McKay."

 

"McKay?" John looked up in surprise.

 

"Yes. Bates alleges that McKay launched an unprovoked attack on him, and, uh…threw a plate of jello at him. The rim of the plate cut Bates's forehead - hence the need for stitches."

 

"My god - if I'd been wounded by a flying plate of jello I'd keep quiet about it, not launch a formal complaint!" John laughed. Elizabeth gave him a wry smile.

 

"Unfortunately, Sergeant Bates seems to be taking this very seriously. He's pressing for punitive charges against Dr McKay," she told him.

 

"What?" John shook his head. "Oh god. We could do without this after all we've been through these past few weeks," he muttered. "So what does McKay say about all this?"

 

"I don't know. I thought I'd speak to you first - find out a bit more about Sergeant Bates. The facts seem incontrovertible though," she said, her hazel eyes weary. "The other marines in the mess hall at the time all say that McKay threw the plate at Bates."

 

"So, what are you thinking of doing?" John asked her slowly, not liking where this was going but this wasn't his decision - it involved a civilian so it was hers.

 

"I'm not sure I have a choice," she replied. "I don't like it, but…we're out here all alone, John. We have to make it clear to people that the rules are the same here as they were on Earth. I can't go bending them for anyone - particularly for a member of my team. It'll look like favouritism. If we let this slide, then I'm worried that things will fall apart and anarchy will set in. I don't want anyone thinking I'm a weak leader - we both know that's fatal for morale and for discipline generally."

 

She sat back down at her desk and looked at him, her arms spread in a gesture of defeat.

 

"I'm unhappy about the idea of a senior member of the civilian team being publicly disciplined," John told her, shaking his head. "Dr McKay is a man who should command respect, and that'll be hard for him after something like this."

 

"I know, but what can I do?" Elizabeth gazed at him helplessly.

 

"Well, talk to McKay for a start - find out his version of events," John told her. "As for Bates - I can't give you much help there. I barely know him. I've read his file though, and he's a by the book kind of guy. Not very imaginative, but does his job to the letter - perhaps he takes that a bit too far at times, but he's solid."

 

"That's what I'd heard too," Elizabeth nodded. "All right - let's get Rodney in here and see what he has to say about this."

 

Rodney McKay burst into the room a few minutes later, looking as dishevelled as ever. John wondered whether the man ever shaved - or changed for that matter. He was wearing a coffee-stained blue tee shirt, and his eyes were red-rimmed, as if he'd been up all night working on something. His hair was as startling as ever - standing up in manic tufts all over his head.

 

"Well - what is it?" he demanded of Elizabeth. "I've just spent the past seventeen hours working on hooking up the damn naquada generators to take over the massive job of heating and lighting this city now that the ZPMs are all defunct, and could do without the interruption thank you very much."

 

John winced. He longed to get hold of Rodney McKay and shake some politeness into him, but Elizabeth seemed used to his manner and she just smiled at him, that strained smile of a leader under pressure.

 

"Rodney, sit down. We need to talk," she told him.

 

"Oh god. That's never a good phrase," Rodney sighed, sitting down in the seat beside John. "This isn't about that stupid incident in the mess hall yesterday, is it?"

 

"I'm afraid it is," Elizabeth told him. "Sergeant Bates has pressed charges against you."

 

"Oh WHAT?" Rodney looked outraged.

 

"He did need four stitches in his head, Dr McKay," John said. "So I think he has a right to press charges, don't you? Unless you're saying it was an accident?"

 

Rodney turned to look at him, those blue eyes of his flashing. "Well, you're military, so of course you'd take his side, Colonel," he snapped. "What's Bates saying, Elizabeth?"

 

"That you threw a plate at him."

 

Rodney stared at her for a moment.

 

"Is that true?" Elizabeth prompted.

 

A defeated look crept into Rodney's blue eyes and he shrugged. "Yes. I suppose it's true," he said softly.

 

"And?" Elizabeth waited but Rodney just shrugged again. "Come on, Rodney, work with me here. Were there any extenuating circumstances? Anything that makes this look less bad than it is?"

 

Rodney thought about it for a moment. "Things were said. It was heated. I didn't honestly intend to hit him with the plate but I admit I lost my temper and threw it in his general direction. Of course if I'd actually been *aiming* for his head it would undoubtedly have sailed over it by several inches because although I'm a genius my aim is crap - as is my ability at competitive sports. It was a freak accident - nine times out of ten I doubt the plate would have broken any skin but it sort of ricocheted off the wall and broke and the ragged edge caught him on the forehead. You're right though - he did need stitches and I accept full responsibility for that," he said quietly. Elizabeth sighed and sat back in her chair.

 

"What kinds of things were said, Dr McKay?" John asked, picking up on something the scientist had said. Rodney turned to look at him again, and this time those blue eyes of his were guarded, and he gazed at John with a distrustful expression.

 

"It doesn't matter. I clearly behaved…inappropriately. I'll apologise to the sergeant."

 

"It's gone beyond that, Rodney," Elizabeth told him. "He's asked me to take punitive action."

 

Rodney thought about that for a moment and John gazed at him, fascinated by the play of emotions that flitted across the other man's expressive face, from dismay to humiliation to, finally, resignation. His jaw tightened into a jutting display of tense bravado and he got up. "Well, that's your decision, Elizabeth," he said softly. "Now, if that's all I have work to do. Whether the military boys like it or not, I'm the one who keeps the lights and heat on around here."

 

"Rodney!" Elizabeth called, and he paused by the door, his back stiff. "You do know what I'm talking about here, don't you?" she said. "This will be a public disciplinary. I don't want that any more than you do and I don't think it sets a good example if a senior member of the expedition is in this situation - do you?"

 

John watched the tense play of muscles in the other man's shoulders as he stood, his hand on the door. Finally, Rodney turned.

 

"No," he said. "I don't think it's a good idea for any number of reasons, not least of them being my concern about my own ass, but I also know that if you have to throw me to the wolves to keep this base running efficiently then you will, and I do understand that. I do!" he repeated fiercely, as she opened her mouth to protest. "I'm not going to put you in an awkward position, Elizabeth. Do what the hell you want. You will anyway." And with that, he left the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

 

Elizabeth turned to John, her arms open in a gesture of despair again.

 

"There's no helping some people," John told her, with a shrug. "Especially if they won't help themselves."

 

"You think I should authorise the punishment?" she said, stroking her neck anxiously, as she always did when she was uncertain.

 

"I don't think you have much choice. The guy admitted he threw the plate and he wouldn't give us any extenuating circumstances - there's not much else to be done, is there?" John said, giving her a sympathetic smile. Privately, he couldn't help thinking that Rodney McKay was such an obnoxious piece of work that it would do the man good to have some humility drummed into him.

 

"All right. You'd better get a punishment room set up. I'm keeping this light though - enough to satisfy Bates, but no more," Elizabeth said grimly.

 

"Agreed." John nodded. He walked out of the meeting with a heavy heart; this was not a good beginning to their time on Atlantis.

 

John went back to his office and studied his personnel files, while deciding what to do next. Bates was part of a close knit group of marines who had been working with the expedition team for months before John had even come onboard. He was deputy head of security on Atlantis, reporting in to John's second in command, Major Lorne, and he took his job very seriously, but there had never had any complaints about the man.

 

John decided to speak to Major Lorne first. He didn't know the major very well, but he liked and respected what he'd seen of him thus far - and, more importantly, Lorne knew these men, having worked with them for the past year or so. Lorne didn't tell him any more than John knew already though - that Bates was solid, and, although the sergeant was a fairly humourless individual, with a vindictive streak, Lorne couldn't imagine him making this whole thing up.

 

With a sigh, John dismissed Lorne and made a call on his radio asking Sergeant Bates to come and see him.

 

"You've made a complaint about Dr McKay," John told him, gazing at the man's head - he had a dressing over his left eye, and a slight bruise was visible around the edges.

 

"Yes, sir." Bates nodded.

 

"Care to tell me what happened?"

 

"He came into the mess hall, sir, and he was angry because we'd eaten all the blue jello," Bates told him. John tried not to laugh out loud - that sounded very like Rodney McKay. "I pointed out to him that if he wanted the good stuff he should have got there earlier so he'd just have to settle for the green. He said he'd been working all night just to keep the place running and he expected a little gratitude. I told him we were all doing our jobs…and that was when he threw the jello at me, sir," Bates told him.

 

John sighed. This all sounded entirely plausible. "Was it necessary to make a formal complaint though, Sergeant?" he asked. "We all have to live together after all."

 

"I'm going to be permanently scarred because of one man's petulance, so yes, sir!" Bates growled. "I think it was necessary."

 

"Could I talk you out of it?" John asked, leaning back in his chair, feeling tense about even suggesting it because this was Bates's prerogative, and he didn't want the other man to think he was trying to pull rank on him over this.

 

"No, sir! I don't think you can," Bates told him firmly.

 

John sighed. "Very well. You can go," he said. He called in a couple of the other men who'd been witnesses, but they all said the exact same thing, so John had to conclude, reluctantly, that there was nothing further to be done and that Dr McKay would just have to take his licks.

 

The disciplinary was scheduled to take place the following day at ten a.m. John didn't usually attend public disciplinaries - these things were best dealt with privately, in his view - but Rodney didn't have a top to speak for him and refused to speak for himself. John didn't even know if the man was a sub or a top – but his top radar picked up on something about the scientist which made him suspect that McKay was more likely sub than top. Apart from anything else, the incident with the jello had taken place in public, and by law Bates was therefore entitled to request public redress. John attended the disciplinary purely out of duty; this had taken place on his watch and some of his men had been involved. He also wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere on the base - to see if people would feel justice had been done, or whether a more ugly mood was brewing.

 

John entered the punishment room and then paused in surprise - the place was packed to the rafters so he guessed that he wasn't the only one Rodney had irritated with his brusque manner and snappy comments. As he took his seat and glanced around, he realised the majority of the people present were his own men - there were a few people from the civilian side of the expedition, but, he noted thoughtfully, none of Rodney's own team was present. He was glad about that - it wouldn't be easy for the man to maintain his authority after this, and he was still their Head of Science after all.

 

Elizabeth was there, sitting at the back, her expression subdued. John gave her a half salute as he went in, and she acknowledged him with a little nod. He wasn't surprised that she wasn't handing out the punishment herself. As their leader it was her prerogative but it was more usual to delegate that kind of task to a trusted member of staff. He *was* surprised to see that she'd chosen Peter Grodin for that job though - Grodin was on Rodney's staff, under the Head of Science's direct command, and John wasn't sure it was a good idea for him to be the one doing this, but he guessed that Elizabeth had a pretty small pool of people to choose from on a base this size. Grodin stood in the centre of the room, examining the equipment they'd brought with them, which they hadn't had to use to date. It was standard judicial stuff - a sturdy frame, and a case of implements. Grodin took out a light paddle and swung it through the air a couple of times, to the obvious delight of some of the military personnel in the front couple of rows.

 

On the dot of ten a.m. Rodney McKay appeared in the doorway. He looked as tired as he had done the previous day - although John suspected this was more because he'd spent another night working on the naquada generators than because he'd been up all night worrying about the disciplinary. The scientist paused in the doorway, and then blinked, several times, as he took in the crowd in the room. John felt a pang of sympathy for the man, despite himself. It couldn't be easy to realise that all these people had come here to witness him being punished - or that they would take pleasure in it. Rodney's eyes were glinting, and he gave them all a dangerous, baleful glare as he stepped into the room, daring anybody to say anything, his jaw pushed out to the maximum, in a full tilt of defence. None of this had much effect on the marines in the front couple of rows though - they laughed out loud and gave some ribald catcalls. John cleared his throat - loudly - and the jeering subsided.

 

Rodney stepped over to Peter Grodin and stopped for a moment to say a few words to him. John couldn't hear what was said but Peter managed a forced smile and he nodded at whatever it was Rodney was saying to him. Then Grodin said something in return, and John guessed he was reading Rodney his rights, going through the usual disciplinary preamble. John wondered if the scientist had ever been publicly punished before. Plenty of people managed to go a lifetime without getting into any kind of judicial trouble, although somehow John doubted that Rodney was one of them. During his teenage years, John had earned himself a couple of public disciplinaries. They had been carried out by a bored cop in the small public punishment arena back in his hometown in front of a couple of equally bored witnesses and his own disappointed and disapproving parents. That had been bad enough, so he couldn't imagine how unpleasant it must be to be in Rodney McKay's shoes right now.

 

Grodin finished whatever it was he was saying to Rodney and then he gestured to the punishment frame. Rodney gazed at it with distaste, and then, with a mulish look on his face, he went over to it and loosened his belt and fly, before sliding his pants and boxers down his thighs until they were resting just beneath his buttocks. Then he leaned forward and took hold of the handles on either side of the frame, so that he was bent over, his ass jutting out.

 

The punishment frame was deliberately designed for this purpose. It was a large, curved piece of equipment with a padded bench. The only part of the miscreant's body visible from the front was his face and shoulders - it didn't form part of the punishment that any more flesh than that was on public display, although from some angles a little bit more was certainly visible. The only one who got to see any naked flesh full on was the person performing the punishment, and Grodin stepped up, slapping the paddle lightly against his own hand. John glanced at his men, who were watching with rather more rapt attention than he liked. He caught sight of Bates, and noticed the smugly satisfied expression on the sergeant's face. John didn't like the look Bates was giving Rodney, and he glanced back at the scientist. Rodney gazed out at the audience, those blue eyes of his hiding absolutely nothing of the sheer humiliation he was feeling right now, and then he did something that John would never be able to get out of his head, for as long as he lived. It wasn't much - but there was something about it that made John sit up and really notice this man for the first time. Rodney turned his head, and his eyes made the briefest of contact with John's before he rested his face sideways on the punishment frame. His face was now angled, unintentionally, in John's direction and John watched as Rodney slowly closed his eyes and then opened them again, and then he lay there, and there was an expression in his eyes of such sad acceptance that John's breath caught in his throat. Suddenly this had gone beyond duty for John, beyond his faintly bored witnessing of an unpleasant man getting his due. The expression in Rodney's eyes seemed to say, "Right. Yes. Of course. Here we go again." And rather than looking like the brusque, sarcastic scientist John thought he knew, now he resembled nothing so much as a lost, forlorn puppy, friendless and without a home. That realisation took John totally by surprise and now his interest in the proceedings was no longer dispassionate. Now it felt personal.

 

The moment passed and Grodin raised the paddle and brought it down firmly on McKay's ass. John's gaze never left the scientist's face, and Rodney didn't so much as make a sound. His expression never faltered, either - there was no acknowledgement of the swat at all, except in those sad blue eyes. John felt his hands clenching into fists. This was wrong. He wasn't sure why, or how, just that it was. This shouldn't be happening like this - he didn't want to witness this event. He had seen plenty of people punished before - hell, in his job he'd had to discipline countless unruly men himself over the years, and he'd never had a problem with it, but this…THIS…this was wrong. Not because Rodney didn't deserve it, because John was by no means convinced on that score, but because John felt so profoundly uncomfortable that so many other people were witnessing it. To be honest, he couldn't have articulated what his emotions were, just that it angered him, and he felt a primal instinct rising inside him, wild and furious. That instinct warred with something else, something infinitely more tender and protective, and the two of them combined to make his fists clench and unclench convulsively, and his breath hitch in his throat. Nobody should be touching Rodney like this, damnit, because…. He had no end to that sentence - he just knew that the scene in front of him outraged him beyond belief.

 

Grodin raised the paddle again and delivered another swat, and again there was no reaction from Rodney, save for a little spark of distress in those blue eyes. John couldn't take his eyes off the other man's face. His attention was totally rapt, and he felt as if he was hardly breathing. Rodney's expression was dead, and his body was loose and unresisting, as he took the eight licks Elizabeth had ordered. He didn't once cry out, or say anything. He barely took any notice of the crowd, as if they weren't there, and John sensed their mood change. In the beginning they'd come here looking to enjoy the arrogant scientist get his comeuppance, but, in the face of Rodney's innate dignity and sad sense of calm, there was nothing to enjoy. It became just another punishment session, and they'd all seen or endured enough of them to know how it went. The punishment came to an end, and Grodin went over to Rodney and murmured something into his ear. He didn't touch Rodney - it wasn't protocol - even though John knew, as a top, how hard it must be not to give some kind of reassuring comfort after this kind of event. But Grodin wasn't Rodney's top and didn't have the right to touch him - John doubted that Rodney would have welcomed any such patronising displays of concern in any case. The scientist pushed himself away from the frame, pulled up his pants, fastened his belt, said a couple of words to Grodin, and then left the room, without once looking at the assembled crowd.

 

John wasn't sure what he was doing but somehow he found himself getting to his feet and running out of the room after the scientist. He was vaguely aware of the marines getting up and starting to talk and laugh amongst themselves behind him, but he ignored them. He chased up the hallway and found Rodney waiting by the transport at the far end. Having run after him, John suddenly found that he had nothing to say, and he hesitated by the transport, gazing at Rodney's flushed face.

 

"Come to gloat, Colonel?" Rodney asked, in a tight little voice. "Your men must be pleased - they always enjoy it when I'm the floorshow."

 

John stared at him, shocked by the bitterness in Rodney's voice, and by his misunderstanding of John's intentions. "Not here to gloat, no," John told him, in a quiet voice. "I thought you took that with amazing dignity actually."

 

A look of confusion flooded into Rodney's eyes and he rocked back on his heels, still glaring at the colonel.

 

"Dignity. Right. Okay." He shook his head, as if amused by some private joke.

 

The door to the transport opened and Rodney stepped inside.

 

"Wait!" John said, grabbing hold of Rodney's arm. "You should go and see Dr Beckett," John told him. Rodney stared coolly at the hand John had on his arm.

 

"Take your hand off me, Colonel, or I'll bring charges of my own," he hissed. John let him go, as if stung.

 

"I didn't mean…" he began. "I'm just saying - those swats were hard - you should see Beckett."

 

"It was only eight swats. I'm sure I'll live. Besides, I have work to do," Rodney growled at him and then he thumped his hand on the door panel and it closed, shutting John out.

 

John stood there for a moment. Something about this had been wrong, very wrong, and he realised, with a start, what it was. It was him. He hadn't done enough to investigate this situation. Oh, sure, he'd had a word with Bates, and some of the other marines, but he hadn't done any further digging - he'd just taken the sergeant's words at face value. There was something else going on here, something that had to explain the ugly jeering he'd witnessed in the punishment room when Rodney had made his entrance.

 

John wasn't sure where to start digging, but he found himself going down to the infirmary. Rodney wasn't there, although John hadn't expected him to be - the scientist had been very clear on that topic. Dr Beckett was alone down there, gazing at something under a microscope. John paused, and then went over to him. He'd met the doctor a few times and he liked the jovial Scotsman with the clear blue eyes and sympathetic bedside manner. Carson was a no-nonsense kind of man, and John was fairly sure he topped, judging by how well he managed to deal with some of the more difficult patients in his infirmary, but he was also essentially kind-hearted and John liked that about him.

 

"Hey, Doc. What's going on?" John asked, perching on the side of Carson's desk. The doctor looked up, and gave him a brief, tight smile.

 

"You tell me," he said. "I heard there was some action in the bear pit this morning. I suppose you've just come from there?"

 

John frowned. "You're not in favour of public disciplinaries I take it?" he asked.

 

Carson shrugged. "I accept that sometimes they're necessary," he said. "But sometimes they just seem like entertainment for the masses, and I for one don't get off on public humiliation."

 

"Well, I'm with you on that one," John told him, shaking his head. "That's why I'm here. You've known Rodney McKay for longer than anyone else. What's he like?"

 

"Brilliant, obnoxious, irascible, irritating, arrogant, condescending, stubborn and completely and utterly without guile. Why?" Carson asked.

 

"I'm not sure," John mused. "Do you think he threw that plate at Bates the other day?"

 

"Without question," Carson grinned. "He admitted it, didn't he?"

 

"Yes he did…but he didn't say why." John chewed on his lip thoughtfully. "Carson - what's Rodney's story? I gather he doesn't have a top's protection right now – I mean, I’m assuming he’s a sub? I get that vibe off him."

 

Carson sat back in his chair and gazed at John, those blue eyes of his piercing right through him.

 

"Are you asking because you think it'll throw some light on your investigation, or because you have a personal interest in him?" he asked cautiously.

 

"Does it matter?" John threw back.

 

"Aye, it matters," the doctor told him firmly. "I'll not have anyone screwing around with Rodney. He's been through enough. So if you were looking for a sub to play with, then I'd advise you to take it easy and go slow. He'll likely bite your hand off as soon as kiss it though, so he'd be a challenge if that's where your interest lies."

 

"He is a sub then?" John put his head on one side. Carson sighed.

 

"Aye, he is. I think he struggled to come to that conclusion, but he's comfortable enough with it now."

 

"What did you mean by him having gone through enough?" John asked carefully, unsure why he felt such a sense of relief at finding out for sure that Rodney was a sub. Carson sighed again.

 

"Colonel, I haven't known you very long but you strike me as a good man, so I'll tell you, but please keep this confidential," Carson requested. John nodded. "Okay then…Rodney is…well, you have to get to know him to understand him, but he's a good man. He's about the best friend I have out here, and he'd do anything for you - he just doesn't want you to know that. He hides behind all that bluster and sarcasm but he'd go to the wall for you if you let him. I meant what I said just now - he IS obnoxious and arrogant, and he says the most terrible things, but he's also kind, funny and…well, sort of lovable underneath it all, if he lets you get close enough to see it."

 

"Did you…did you ever play with him?" John asked, wondering why he felt a tight knot in the pit of his stomach as he asked that question. Carson shook his head.

 

"We got close to it one night when we were both drunk, but it wouldn't have been right. He's a handful and I like a quieter life. I'm not a heavy top, either - he's someone who needs taking down and I prefer my subs respectful and worshipful rather than mouthy and mixed up."

 

"And the bit about him having gone through something?" John wanted to know.

 

"His parents were a nightmare. They screwed him up good and proper and the poor lad never had much by way of affection there. They died in a car crash when he was just eighteen. He was a graduate student at MIT by then but he came home to look after his little sister and continued his studies at the University of Toronto. He fell out with his sister a few years back, and he hasn't spoken to her since then which cuts him up deep inside because he loves her to bits although he'd never tell you so. I used to tell him to write to her but he's a stubborn so and so and he wouldn't. His argument with Jeannie upset him more than he cares to admit and he was all at sea for awhile and fell into some bad relationships. I know there was a woman who was quite abusive towards him, and some chap he ran rings around until the poor bastard gave up and threw him out. Rodney took that quite hard, although I didn't blame the man - Rodney is a handful, as I said. Then there were a series of one night stands that went really badly. Rodney is a genius - and he doesn't always understand how other people think or feel. He's an odd mixture of superiority complex combined with a genuine lack of understanding as to why anyone would love him, and that makes it hard getting through to him sometimes. He's a good man, Colonel, but he's been given a hard time by some of the people on this base."

 

"Who - and why?" John leaned forward, sensing he was about to learn something here.

 

Carson sighed. "Rodney went out with one of the military lads for a couple of weeks a few months or so ago but it ended badly. The man in question wasn't the brightest button in the box and Rodney needs to be with someone smart. And you know Rodney - he doesn't mince his words so his lover was in no doubt at all about what Rodney thought of his intelligence. As a result, he spread some rumours about Rodney that I'm certain aren't true. He said that Rodney was a crap submissive, that he wasn't worth playing with, and that people shouldn't touch him with a bargepole. Rodney was genuinely bewildered by all this, I think. He might be a challenging sub but he does like to be the best at what he does so I'm sure he's eager to please and tries his hardest. A lot of people miss that about Rodney.” Carson sat back in his chair and gazed at John. “Are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?” he asked.

 

“Very sure,” John said firmly.

 

“It doesn’t reflect well on your men.”

 

“Then I’m even more sure,” John growled.

 

“Okay then.” Carson nodded, leaning forward as he continued. “The military lads had it in for him from then onwards - they never wasted an opportunity to taunt him about his lack of sexual prowess, or anything else that they thought would needle him. Sometimes it got really ugly - and that's just the stuff I overheard. I imagine it was much worse when there were no witnesses. Rodney took it all with rather more patience than I'd have expected. He had a tough time at school - he was too bright to fit in, and he got bullied quite a bit. He couldn't tell his parents about the bullying because they showed so little interest in him so I gather that he led a rather lonely existence. This thing with the military lads - I think it's almost what he's used to, like what happened to him back in high school, and that's why he put up with it. I wasn't surprised it finally spilled over though - Rodney's put up with a lot over the past year or so, and that particular plate of jello was a very long time in coming."

 

Carson sat back again and surveyed John intently. "So that's your story. Do with it what you will, but, if you're the kind of man I think you are, you'll do the right thing."

 

John gazed at him, feeling somewhat winded, and sickened to his stomach by what had happened that morning. That hadn't been justice - that had just been more bullying, and it had to stop. Nobody got away with behaving like that on his watch.

 

"Why didn't Rodney say anything about all this when Elizabeth called him in to defend himself?" he demanded.

 

"Well, I can't say for sure but I'm guessing it was because you were there," Carson pointed out. "You're military after all, and after what he's been through Rodney doesn't have a great deal of trust left in the military. I presume he just thought you'd take their side. Also - it's not exactly an easy thing to talk about, and the man has his pride. He'd find it hard to admit to the two highest ranking tops on this expedition that there are rumours circulating that he's a bad sub."

 

"Damnit!" John growled, leaning back and thumping his fist on Carson's desk, angry with himself for not knowing any of this and for unwittingly putting Rodney is such a difficult position. "This man Rodney was seeing - is he on the base?" he asked, wondering why that spark of jealousy was flaring in his belly again, white hot.

 

"No. He didn't make the grade and was reassigned before we left - but Bates was his best friend," Carson told him pointedly. "I suspect Bates also thinks Rodney is the reason why his friend wasn't part of this expedition but that's all bollocks, if you'll excuse my Scottish, because Rodney didn't have any say in the selection of the military personnel. It wasn't a relationship he had with this man though - just a couple of nights as I understand it. Rodney doesn't trust anyone enough to have a relationship with them. He keeps people at bay."

 

"I'd noticed," John chuckled. "Okay. Thank you, Carson. You've been very helpful."

 

"I do my best." Carson flashed him a broad smile. "It's over to you now, Colonel!"

 

 

John left the infirmary and made his way back to his office, thinking this through. He was absolutely furious that any of the men on his team had behaved in this way, and decided that they needed to understand the kind of behaviour their commanding officer expected of them. John wasn't a showy man, but he did have certain very firm ideas, and he wasn't afraid of following through on them. He didn't think for a moment that all the men under his command were the same as Bates and his friends, but it was up to him to make it clear to all of them the kind of operation he would be running on Atlantis. In his experience people needed to know where they stood, and John wanted to leave them in no doubt on that score. This might be his first major command, but John had been a leader all his life, and he subscribed to the notion that people took their lead from those in charge, so it was time to let his men know exactly what kind of a man he was. He summoned Major Lorne and asked him to assemble his entire military staff in the punishment room in an hour's time.

 

"The punishment room, sir?" Lorne raised a questioning eyebrow.

 

"Yes - the practice room is too small for what I have in mind," John told him, "and the chairs are already laid out in the punishment room so it'll work fine. Get it cleared of the frame and implements - they can be put in the adjacent storage room."

 

Lorne nodded, and then left, clearly mystified as to John's intentions. John smiled - he liked Lorne but he wasn't sure he could trust him yet, so he'd let the major find out what was going on in an hour's time, like everyone else.

 

Forty-five minutes later, John collected the equipment he needed from the practice room and carried it along to the punishment room, and then he waited for his men to arrive. He was dressed in practice clothes, fully prepared for what was going to happen next. When the marines started filing through the door, John smiled at them pleasantly, and greeted each man by name, just to make it clear to them that he wasn't some remote commanding officer who would take no interest in them, and also so that they knew they wouldn't be able to hide behind their anonymity. He knew exactly who they were and if they ever screwed up then he'd know who to ream out too.

 

John waited until they were all seated, and then surveyed them.

 

"We've had a busy few weeks," he told them. "What with the city shutting down and the wraith attacks. I've had a chance to see you guys in action and I have to tell you that I'm impressed. You're a good team - the best - and I feel privileged to know I've got you guys watching my back when we go out there."

 

He paused for a moment, and surveyed the room, taking in their faces. That was the softener; the carrot. Now it was time for the stick - literally.

 

"You guys don't know me very well and I know you've been wondering why the hell an Air Force colonel has been brought in above your own chain of command to run this operation. And the answer to that is - that it's none of your goddamn business." John smiled sweetly, and a little chuckle went around the room. "Now, like I said, you don't know me very well - that's why I've ordered you here, to do a little…military bonding." John smiled again and the men all looked at each other uncertainly, clearly wondering what the hell that meant.

 

"Okay. Let me lay it on the line. We're out here, in this galaxy, a long way from home, all alone, and the only way we're going to survive is if we pull together and all do things one way - and that way, ladies and gentlemen, is my way. There's no room for any dissent. I'm in charge here, and what I say goes. I'm not an unreasonable man, but I do have some very firm ideas on how the people under my command conduct themselves, and, if any of my special rules are broken, I will happily order you into this room and administer military discipline myself - and I'm sure Major Lorne will also be happy to oblige if I'm unavailable."

 

John turned, giving that statement a few minutes to sink in, and he went over to the table where he had laid out two sets of fighting batons which had been given to them by the Athosian people in gratitude for helping save them from the Wraith attack on their homeworld, and giving them sanctuary on Atlantis. He picked up one set of the batons.

 

"I'm not talking about military rules here," he said, as he turned back. "I'm talking about my own personal rules. What can I say? I'm quirky that way." He gave them another little grin, but he noticed they were starting to look a little uneasy, and he could see that they were wondering if they were stuck out here, in the middle of nowhere, with a psychotic commanding officer and nobody above him in the chain of command to appeal to. John did nothing to disabuse them of that notion - he wanted to keep them on edge.

 

"Now, you've already seen me in action, and I've seen some of you in action too, but I'd like to put a few of you through your paces." John smiled again. "So…I want some volunteers." Nobody ever volunteered in the military so John didn't wait for anyone to step forward. "You, you, you, you, you and you," he said, singling out Bates and the five other men who had been witnesses in the mess hall a few days previously. All of them, as far as John was concerned, were implicated in what had happened with Rodney McKay. "Come here." The men got up, glancing at each other nervously.

 

John threw a pair of batons at Bates, and then went and got a pair for himself. He was still a relative novice at using these, but he'd had a couple of weeks' tuition from the Athosian woman, Teyla, and that was a couple of weeks more than any of these men had been given so he was confident that he easily outclassed them.

 

"These," John said, holding up the batons, "are probably unfamiliar weapons to most of you. However, working with them speeds up your reflexes and makes you extremely agile, so you could all benefit from some workout sessions with them. If you want any guidance then ask Teyla. One of the benefits of being in another galaxy is that there are a hell of a lot of new things to be learned…and I'm about to give you your first lesson. Sergeant Bates…come at me please."

 

Bates hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward, raising his sticks. He narrowed his eyes as he approached, trying to size up the colonel, and then he charged forward, hard, batons flailing. John easily sidestepped him, thwacked the sergeant's hand with one of his own batons, effectively disarming him, and then he swung his other baton low, caught Bates a stinging blow on the legs, tripping him, and, as he fell, he delivered a satisfying swat to Bates's rump with his other stick. Bates lay there, panting and clutching his leg. John gave him a sweet smile and then turned back to his audience.

 

"Rule number one," John said. "I hate bullying. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a civilian expedition, not a military one. I answer to the head of the civilian team, Lady Weir, and we are mainly here just to protect their collective asses. That's our purpose. They aren't military, and if they ever complain that any of my men have tried to intimidate them, physically or verbally, I will personally take great delight in tanning your hides. Next please."

 

John threw Bates's batons at the next marine, a big, muscular, blond lad, and he swallowed convulsively and looked around uncertainly. "Now, Corporal!" John snapped and the corporal lumbered forward. John disarmed him with the same ease as he had Bates, and the big corporal went down with a satisfying thump - John made sure to thwack him hard on the backside on his way down.

 

"Rule number two: most of the guys around here will be smarter than you," John told his rapt audience. "That's just a fact of life. It's nothing personal - get used to it. Now, very smart people don't always act in ways that are easy for the rest of us to understand. That's fine. If you don't understand what one of the scientists wants, or if you think they're placing themselves or the rest of us in danger, then you can come to me, and I'll handle it. Otherwise - remember rule number one. This is their expedition and we're here to protect them, not obstruct them. Next please."

 

John handed the big corporal's batons to a thin, dark-haired man and beckoned him forwards.

 

"On the subject of how smart some of these people are - it might interest you to know what Dr Rodney McKay's qualifications are, for example." John grinned, and the dark-haired marine did a fancy little dance and then tried to side-step him. John despatched him without breaking sweat, delivering a hard swat on the man's ass as he went down, just as he'd done with the two previous men. "Dr McKay is Head of Science on this expedition and therefore I think you can assume he's pretty smart. In fact, Dr Beckett described him to me as a genius. "Did you know he graduated from MIT summa cum laude with a double major in math and physics when he was only seventeen?” John gazed at his audience dispassionately, recalling the facts he'd memorised from McKay's file. "Since then he's earned advanced degrees in mechanical engineering, applied mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Toronto and Cal Tech. He also happens to be extremely important to this expedition as he's the only one who fully understands how the Ancient technology works."

 

John gave them a few seconds to digest that information, because he wanted them to be in no doubt at all on the subject of Dr McKay. There wasn't a whole lot he could do for the Head of science to make up for what he'd endured that morning, but he could do *this*, if nothing else. Then he gestured to the next marine in line to come forwards.

 

"Rule number three: integrity. We might be a long way from home, but I still expect you to behave with the same standards of behaviour and integrity that I'd demand from you on Earth."

 

John feinted to the right, then took out his new opponent with a single flick of his wrist to the left. The man landed in a heap on the floor and John swatted him on his ass on his way down.

 

"Rule number four: obey me, take your lead from me, try and impress me - and we'll get along just fine." John gave another sweet smile as he called forth the next marine.

 

"Rule number five: I'm in charge. That's it. I'm your bottom line, ladies and gentlemen. Piss me off and by god you'll know it."

 

John saw off the remaining marines in lightning quick time, as if to illustrate that point, and then threw the batons back at Bates once more.

 

"Again, sir?" Bates asked, looking seriously pissed off.

 

"Oh yes, Sergeant Bates. Seven more times to be precise," John told him with another of those bright smiles. Bates glowered at him but John was sure that the symbolism of the number wasn't lost on him. John took on each of those six marines another seven times, and on each occasion they landed in a heap on the floor with the sting of his baton smarting on their asses, legs, or hands. When he'd finally finished with his object lesson, they were all looking dejected and decidedly the worse for wear. His audience was also looking subdued, clearly processing the knowledge that their new commander might not be psychotic, but he sure as hell was a hard ass. John didn't think there was any one of them who didn't know what the session with the batons had been about, and that was all to the good as far as he was concerned. When he'd finished wiping the floor with Bates and his cronies, John swung his batons up, and turned back to his audience.

 

"Well, this has been great, ladies and gentlemen. I've appreciated having the chance for you to get to know me a little bit better. Did anyone have any questions?"

 

Bates raised his hand, and John's eyes flickered over him in cool distaste.

 

"Good," he said, ignoring the man. "Now, if any one of you feels that maybe he's lost my good opinion, I would like you to know that I'm sure you can win it back, with lots of hard work and application and by following those rules of mine. That's all." And so saying, he swept out of the room.

 


Part Two: Propositions

 

John returned to his room later that evening still feeling pretty pleased with himself. This had been the first real test of his command, and he thought he'd handled it well. He certainly felt he'd nipped the situation in the bud. He was running a little late, and wanted to take a shower and change into his off-duty clothes and then head out to the mess hall…so he was brought up short to find the blond corporal he'd trounced that morning standing outside his door.

 

"Corporal Hicks?" John frowned. "Is there a problem?"

 

"No, sir. I just wanted a word with you," the corporal said, a slight flush rising to his pale skin.

 

"I've been in my office all afternoon - you only had to knock. I am always available to talk to my men," John told him firmly.

 

"I know that, sir, but what I had to say…well, it's kind of personal, so I thought I'd wait until you were off duty," Hicks said, that flush deepening. John gazed at him searchingly, and then sighed.

 

"Okay. You'd better come in." He opened the door to his room. "I'm sure whatever you had to say you could have said in my office," he said, as he strode into the room. "But now you're here I hope it'll be quick because…." He turned, and then stopped dead in his tracks, because the corporal had followed him into the room and was now kneeling in a gracefully submissive pose by the bed, face down, legs apart, back straight. "Corporal?" John asked gently. The corporal remained gazing at the floor. John sighed. "Permission to speak, submissive," he said finally, realising he wasn't going to get anything out of the young man unless he played the top. The corporal relaxed and raised his head.

 

"I came here to offer myself to you, sir," he said, in a soft voice, gazing at John with naked sexual longing. "I asked around, and people said you don't have a submissive right now. A man like you shouldn't be alone, sir. I'm a good sub - well trained and obedient. I'll do anything you want, sir, if you'll have me."

 

John gazed at the man speculatively for a moment. He couldn't deny that it was an attractive proposition. Hicks was young, handsome, and clearly a very prettily trained sub. John had no doubt at all that the kid's soft lips would feel good wrapped around his cock, and he paused for a moment to consider how that muscular body would look, laid out naked for his attention. The corporal's pale skin would probably pink up nicely under his hand, and John could imagine how all those hard muscles would feel tensing beneath his touch as he entered the young man from behind and fucked him. It *was* tempting - he'd gone a year without sex and he was out here, in the middle of a strange galaxy, which made you long to reach out for human contact to calm your fears over the unknown terrors that you were facing on an almost daily basis…and yet…John sighed. This wasn't what he wanted. This boy might be an enjoyable distraction, but he was too young and too dumb to offer him anything more than a good lay, and John wanted more than that, damnit! He knew how this would pan out, because he'd been there any number of times before, and he was bored with the routine of it.

 

"I'm sorry, Corporal," he said softly, letting the boy down gently, "but I'm afraid I'm not looking for a sub right now."

 

A look of surprise, mingled with dismay, flashed through the young man's eyes - he obviously knew he was attractive, and was upset that John was turning him down, but he also really wanted this. John realised that his little display in the punishment room earlier might have had some unforeseen consequences - it was no wonder a submissive as young and impressionable as this had taken something other than what he'd intended from that lesson he'd handed out earlier.

 

"I'm very good, sir," the corporal told him, his naivety removing any trace of arrogance from the statement.

 

"I'm sure you are. You're clearly a beautiful and eager to please submissive," John praised him gently. "This is nothing personal, Corporal, but I have a little rule about not getting involved with anyone under my command." That was a lie - it was pretty commonplace for a military top to take a submissive (or several) from the men under his command. That was part and parcel of military life and nobody thought anything of it. The corporal was clearly surprised as well, because he looked up sharply.

 

"It doesn't have to mean anything, sir!" he said. "I wouldn't ask for any special privileges. I just want to be your boy. Nobody even has to know."

 

John smiled at him. The kid really was very sweet - but ultimately John knew just how unsatisfying such an arrangement would be. He'd learned that lesson over and over again during his life, and he was resolved to pass up the short term temptation in favour of the possibility of a more fulfilling kind of love.

 

"I'm sorry, Hicks, but that's not the way I work," he said. "Now, I'm very flattered by your offer but it's a no," he added firmly. "There are plenty of other tops out there who I'm sure would take on a good-looking boy like you if you're lonely. Maybe someone closer to your own age?"

 

"None of them are like you, sir," the corporal sighed, looking utterly crestfallen.

 

"It's pretty common for a young sub such as yourself to have a crush on a high-ranking military commander," John said with a smile. "But love - and sex - are a damn sight more complicated than that, Hicks, as I'm sure you'll learn."

 

Hicks sighed, a somewhat dramatic and heartfelt sigh. John suppressed a grin - he doubted the boy's heart was broken - he had just seen something he wanted and had gone for it. John didn't begrudge him that. He held out a hand and the corporal took it and John pulled him to his feet. "You'll do fine," John told him, ushering him towards the door. "There are plenty of good, strong tops on this expedition who'd love to have a pretty boy like you warming their beds, believe me." He opened the door and pushed the boy out, giving him a sharp swat on his ass on the way. The corporal turned, a grin of delight spreading over his face as he rubbed his ass.

 

"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!" he said as he walked away. John shook his head, still grinning, and then went back into his room.

 

"I just never see it coming," he sighed to himself as he walked towards the bathroom.

 

It was late by the time he made it to the mess hall, dressed more casually in a pair of black jeans and a tight black tee shirt, with his black leather vest over the top. He got a tray of food and then glanced around the place - and his eyes alighted on Dr Beckett sitting across the table from Rodney McKay. John felt his stomach do an odd little lurch, and he decided he was hungrier than he'd thought as he made his way across the packed room to the two men.

 

Carson looked up as he got to the table, and the doctor gave him a broad grin.

 

"Mind if I join you?" John asked.

 

"Of course not!" Carson beamed, but John noticed that Rodney glanced at him sourly and then grunted something into his meal. John took his seat, and gazed at the scientist. Rodney looked as dishevelled as usual - John wondered if he was actually intending to grow a beard as the stubble on his chin was now getting a little out of hand.

 

"How are you doing, Dr McKay?" he asked, intending it to be general conversation, but then the events of that morning flooded back and he winced, realising he'd probably said the wrong thing. Rodney gave him a baleful glare.

 

"Fine," he growled. "Absolutely fine." Then he turned his attention to his food. John watched in amazement as the scientist began shovelling the food into his mouth and swallowing it down so fast that he could surely barely taste it.

"So," Carson said, glancing sideways at John, "I was delighted to receive a few visits from some of your men today, Colonel."

 

"Really?" John raised an eyebrow.

 

"Yes. They had an assortment of minor cuts and bruises. I gather you held a little practice session for them this afternoon." Carson cast a broad, knowing grin in John's direction.

 

"They came to you for that? My god, what a bunch of whiners!" John laughed. "I'd have taken what was coming to me and laid low to lick my wounds in private if it had been me - I wouldn't have dared show my face in the infirmary expecting anyone to take care of it."

 

"Oh, I had some very fine medicine for them to take," Carson said, the twinkle in his blue eyes belying the solemnity of his expression. "It tastes pretty nasty, mind, but I assured them it'd do them good - and to be sure it won't do them any actual *harm*," he added, with an impish grin.

 

John grinned back at him - Carson was a top after his own heart.

 

"What's this?" Rodney asked, between mouthfuls of food. John itched to take the plate away from him and feed him by hand, slowly, so he could appreciate the meal.

 

"The colonel here held a special practice session in the punishment room this afternoon," Carson told him, and he leaned forward as he did so; John got the impression he really wanted Rodney to understand what had happened. "I gather he asked for some volunteers - Bates, Hicks, Krettman, Harley, Zeigler, Smith…." Carson paused for a moment to allow the significance of those names to sink in. Rodney stopped, in mid-chew, and gazed at Carson, and John was struck by how those blue eyes of his seemed to show every single thought that crossed his super-fast mind. Blankness, followed by confusion, followed by realisation, followed by suspicion - that last as he turned those blue eyes upon John.

 

"A special practice session?" Rodney queried, chewing again, as fast as ever, his eyes fixed on John.

 

"Yeah - I wanted to get a few things straight with them," John told him. "They don't know me very well so I took the opportunity to enlighten them," he grinned. "I took them through some moves, eight times each - they ended up on the floor each time. I think they know me a hell of a lot better now."

 

Rodney seemed to consider that, and then, finally, he grunted. He looked away from John but John noticed him looking back, a few seconds later, from under his dark eyelashes, furtively snatching an uncertain glance at him when he thought John wasn't looking.

 

At that moment a loud shout went up across the mess hall and the three men looked up to see a little crowd gathering around two marines, patting them on their backs, and generally making a fuss of them.

 

“Aw – look. Stackhouse has collared Markham,” Carson said, smiling fondly. John grinned, realising that the two men were sharing a plate, rather self-consciously, for the first time, and Markham had a shiny new collar around his neck. Clearly the event had not gone un-noticed, and people were congratulating the pair on this new stage in their relationship.

 

“Oh for god’s sake!” Rodney exploded. “Who the hell gives a damn? It’s nauseating the way everyone turns into simpering yentas the minute some lame-assed couple decides to share a plate.”

 

“I think it’s very romantic,” Carson sighed. “Don’t you, Colonel?”

 

“Never seen the appeal myself,” John shrugged.

 

“And have you never thought about one day collaring a sub?” Carson said, looking rather dreamy.

 

“Nope.” John shook his head. “More trouble than it’s worth. I think subs are more into all that kind of stuff than tops anyway.”

 

“Not this sub,” Rodney snorted. “The whole thing is a total waste of time if you ask me.”

 

“You have not one romantic bone in your body, either of you!” Carson lamented.

 

"So what are you working on?" John asked Rodney, changing the subject. "Did you get the naquada generators in place?"

 

"I'm almost done," Rodney replied, soaking up a mass of gravy with some bread and then stuffing the bread in his mouth. "I've got to get back to the lab this evening to work on the final connections and then that should be it." John had to struggle to make out the last bit of that sentence as Rodney had so much food in his mouth. "In fact…I'm going to shoot off now," Rodney said, getting up, still chewing as he went. He grabbed the chunk of bread still left by his plate and stuffed it into his pocket. "See you, Carson…Colonel." He flashed a half-smile in the doctor's direction but only managed a stiff nod at John. John watched him go, lost in thought as he gazed at the scientist's disappearing ass.

 

"He's gotta get bad indigestion eating at that pace," John muttered to Carson when the scientist was finally out of sight.

 

"Rodney does everything too fast," Carson told him, looking at John with an oddly searching expression. "He's never still - and he's heading for a heart attack the way he goes on. He needs to find a good way to relax, but his head is always buzzing too much. To be honest I'm worried about him."

 

John frowned. "Is this about this morning?" he asked. "Because I took care of that the best I could - and at least he knows that now."

 

"Aye, and I'm grateful to you for that, Colonel," Carson said, nodding his head. "But this isn't just about this morning. You wouldn't know it to look at him right now but Rodney's always been kind of fastidious about his personal appearance."

 

"Really?" John raised an eyebrow.

 

"I know, I know." Carson shook his head wearily. "The way he looks at the moment is just another symptom of what's going on for him right now I think. He's stopped caring and I'm worried he's heading for the brink. I wish I knew a way to head him off. Maybe you have some ideas, Colonel?"

 

"Me? Why? I barely know the man."

 

Carson gave a little laugh. "Colonel, I just saw you checking out his ass, and you asked me some pretty personal questions about him earlier. I got the impression you were interested."

 

"What?" John frowned. Interested? In a man like McKay? A scruffy, sarcastic, arrogant man who was already proving that John's initial analysis of him as Trouble was turning out to be pretty spot on?

 

"Aye." Carson leaned back in his chair, and gave John a speculative look.

 

"Nope," John said, taking a forkful of food. "I just wanted to make amends for an injustice, and I've done that, so…" he shrugged, not meeting Carson's eye.

 

"Were you thinking of taking a sub?" Carson asked. "I can't believe that a man like you would have any shortage of offers."

 

"I just got one this evening as a matter of fact!" John laughed. "Nice lad - waiting outside my quarters when I got back."

 

"What did you do?" Carson asked quietly.

 

"Turned him down," John shrugged. "I'm not looking for just another pretty sub to decorate my bed."

 

"My god," Carson breathed. "This happens to you all the time doesn't it? Subs throwing themselves at you."

 

John looked up, surprised. "Well, I suppose I've had my fair share of offers, yes," he said. They had been beautiful offers too, he thought to himself, remembering the many men and women he'd taken to his bed over the years. Usually only the most attractive people ended up there as well - not by John's design, but it was simply that the more attractive subs were the ones who were confident enough to make the first move. He remembered Melissa, with her long, dark red hair, and vivacious brown eyes - she'd been his first proper sub, when he was finding out what kind of a top he was, and he could still recall the thrill he'd got from tying her to his bed, and making her his. After that, there had been so many easy conquests that he'd lost count. He'd enjoyed them all but he couldn't honestly say that he remembered them all, and when they'd eventually slipped out of his life he'd made no effort to keep them. He hadn't loved any of them enough to even try.

 

"Have you ever made the first move?" Carson asked.

 

John frowned. "What do you mean?"

 

"Well, to me, part of what I enjoy about being a top is looking over the available subs, getting to know them, and considering if any of them could offer me anything I'd be interested in. Then I like planning a slow seduction." Carson grinned. "I'm something of a romantic, Colonel, so I like to woo my subs, with fine wine and candlelit meals. I want to let them know what I can offer them in return for their submission and I want to know we'll at least have something to talk about when the sex is over. I'm not saying I've never been propositioned, but, not looking like you, with that effortless air of chilled out toppiness that you exude, I've always had to try a little harder I think. I prefer the thrill of the chase in any case."

 

John gazed at him thoughtfully. "I haven't taken a sub in over a year," he confided, unsure why he wanted to share this private fact with the doctor, but there was something easy about talking to Carson - he'd only known the man for a few weeks but he already knew, instinctively, that Carson was going to be a good friend. He didn't know what he'd expected Carson's reaction to this information to be, but he sure as hell hadn't expected the doctor to throw back his head and laugh.

 

"I'm sorry!" Carson said, patting John's arm affectionately. "I'm not mocking you. I'm just thinking that here I was envying you the way you look, the way you act, and that innate sense of cool…" John raised an eyebrow at that, "and thinking that you have no idea how it is for us mere mortals, and then you say this. John…do you mind if I call you that?" John shook his head. "John, bless you, lad, but you're bored. It's all been too easy for you, hasn't it?"

 

"Maybe. I just woke up one day and realised I wasn't getting anything out of it. I'm not saying it wasn't fun, just that I had this craving for something more."

 

"Ah - there see, you're a romantic too," Carson told him. "You're looking for love, John, and that's a lot harder to find than sex."

 

"Yeah," John sighed.

 

"Maybe you need to stop just taking what's on offer, and start thinking about what you really want from a relationship," Carson told him. "If you just wait around for the right sub to throw themselves at you then you might be in for a long wait, John, and I can see that celibate year you've just had stretching into two - and then more. You're so used to just taking what's on offer that you've never thought about going after something you want, have you? Or maybe you're just not sure what you want. Perhaps what you want might be so far from what you'd ever imagined yourself wanting that you won't even consider it."

 

John frowned. "Are we talking about Rodney McKay again here?" he asked.

 

Carson grinned. "You were definitely checking out his ass."

 

"The man is rude, obnoxious, sarcastic and arrogant - you said so yourself!" John replied, shaking his head. "To say nothing of the fact that he looks like everyone's definition of a mad scientist with that hair and those coffee-stained clothes. Why on earth would I be interested in him?"

 

"We're not on Earth any more, John," Carson told him, patting his arm again. "And you want something more than beautiful, willing bodies, I believe? He's not your usual type but then how would you know when you've only taken what throws itself at you, and never thought about what *you* are really looking for? Rodney isn't some pretty, empty-headed young sub - he's only a couple of years younger than you, and since he's about the smartest man in two galaxies I think it's safe to say that he's intelligent enough to hold your interest. True, he's lacking in social skills, and lord knows he's a bit of a lost soul, in need of some guidance - the kind of guidance that a good, strong top could give him. Maybe what you're looking for is a challenge, John. If you are, then I'd say you won't get much more of a challenge than Rodney McKay."

 

"You said he'd bite off my hand as soon as kiss it," John reminded him. Carson grinned.

 

"I did, and he will. If you're waiting for him to turn up outside your room and offer himself to you then you're in for a long wait. If, however, you want something more meaningful, then Rodney McKay might just be your man. It won't be easy, but then you've had easy all your life and you're bored with it. Maybe it's time to try something new?"

 

John sat back in his chair and stared at him. "I can't work out if you're very mischievous or very wise," he said at last. Carson gave that impish grin.

 

"Perhaps a little of both," he said. "But when I look at you I see someone very driven, very focussed - you'd have to be to get as far as you have in your career - and nobody in the military has a bad word to say about you. You're their golden boy and you don't seem to have put a foot wrong in your entire life - and that fascinates me a little. You've owned up to your ambitions but I wonder if you've ever even paid a moment's passing attention to your other needs? In some ways I think you know yourself very well, John, but in others - not at all. Maybe it's time to find out what's underneath that cool exterior - perhaps we'll all be surprised by it - you included."

 

John gazed at him, feeling slightly winded. Nobody had ever talked to him this way before, but then again, most of his friends had been military people, like him, and they rarely spoken about anything that deep - and, if John was honest, he'd always avoided these kinds of conversations before. Carson was an old soul, and he looked as if he understood the human heart all too well. Perhaps he was right? Rodney McKay though…John remembered the look in Rodney's eyes that morning as he'd turned his head and taken his licks, and his heart flipped in his chest. He remembered the rising tide of anger that he'd fought to control as he watched the man being punished publicly, and how wrong it had felt. John had never experienced emotions like these before and he'd just pushed them aside, unsure how to deal with them, but, after talking to Carson, that seemed like the coward's way out, and one thing John was pretty sure about was that he wasn't a coward.

 

Carson got up and nodded at him. "Something to think about, John," he said, and then, with another of those flashing grins, he left. He was right about that much at least. John gazed back at his plate, but suddenly he wasn't hungry any more. He remembered how he'd felt watching Rodney eat so quickly - how he'd wanted to take the plate away from him and hand feed him, and that was an impulse he'd never had in his life before. He knew some tops who couldn’t wait to start hand-feeding their subs from their own plates but that had never been an impulse John had ever experienced. It just seemed like a giant chore to him – his subs had hands so he didn’t see why they needed him to feed them. Sharing a plate was a big deal – a sign that a couple were serious about each other, and John hadn’t ever been serious about anyone in his life. Whenever previous lovers had suggested to him that it was perhaps time that they shared a plate, he'd run a mile and they'd been out of his life before they could blink, and yet here he was considering sharing a plate with a man who hadn't said one nice word to him yet.

 

A challenge? Carson was sure as hell right about that! And Carson was right about something else as well - he *had* been checking out Rodney's ass, and he'd been having all these strange thoughts and feelings about Rodney ever since he met the man. Something was going on for him, something he'd never experienced before, and he guessed he owed it to himself to find out what it was.

 

John made his decision, pushed his plate away, and got to his feet. Rodney had said he was going back to his lab. He'd take a trip there, on his way back to his quarters, and see if he could make any headway with the man.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

Rodney McKay returned to his lab, humming to himself. He wasn't entirely sure what to make of the conversation he'd just had with Carson and the new military commander, a man he distrusted on principle. Rodney had a lot of experience of the military, and mostly it hadn't been good. He thought that possibly might have been at least partially his fault - he knew he did and said things that upset the military boys, but he had no idea how to change and no real intention of doing so, so he'd have to live with it.

 

The lab was in darkness when he got back and Rodney grumbled to himself under his breath. He had told Radek to always keep a light on - Rodney never viewed himself as being off duty and he frequently got up in the middle of the night to go back to work when his insomnia got the better of him. He could do without fumbling around in the darkness and tripping over things. He turned on the light and started to walk over to his work station.

 

"Hello, Rodney," a voice behind him said. He turned, startled, to see Sergeant Bates sitting at Radek's work station.

 

"What the hell do you want?" he growled.

 

"You." Bates got up, and walked over to Rodney, with that tightly controlled walk of his, all his muscles bunched up under the skin. Rodney took a step back, and then another, and ended up flush against the wall with nowhere else to go.

 

"Are you threatening me?" Rodney demanded, coming out all guns blazing. He'd be damned if he'd let this oaf know that he was intimidated by him. "If so, I will have your ass, Sergeant."

 

"Really? Or maybe I'll have yours," Bates said, standing too close, invading his personal space.

 

"You already got your pound of flesh this morning," Rodney snapped. "Wasn't that enough for you?"

 

Bates gazed at him with an oddly intense stare, his gaze lingering on Rodney's lips in a way the scientist found disconcerting.

 

"This morning...no, you see, this morning just whetted my appetite for more," Bates said. "Seeing you, getting your ass warmed…made me wonder what you'd feel like squirming under my belt, Rodney."

 

Rodney glared at him. "In your dreams, Bates," he snapped. He tried to push the sergeant away but the other man took hold of him and slammed him back against the wall. Rodney's head banged against it with a thud and he felt a sense of helplessness spread through him. Damn these people - they were only one step up from Neanderthals and they dared to treat him like this - and damn him too because he had no answer for it. Never had.

 

"Careful, Sergeant," Rodney warned. "I could have you up on charges."

 

Bates shook his head. "Who'll believe you?" he said. "Everyone will think you're making it up to get back at me for this morning."

 

Rodney closed his eyes and thumped his own head back against the wall this time. Bates was right. It seemed like he was stuck with this particular tormentor for the rest of his life.

 

"What do you want?" Rodney asked quietly, opening his eyes again. He was surprised to find that Bates wasn't looking at him with any malice - there was a different expression entirely in his eyes.

 

"I already told you," Bates said, gazing at Rodney hungrily. "You don't have a top at the moment do you, Rodney?" Realisation assaulted Rodney and he gazed at the other man in horror.

 

"No, I don't, and I'm not looking for one."

 

"I'd take care of you. I'd protect you - make sure the other lads treated you okay. They'd never bother you again," Bates said, his eyes still fixed on Rodney's lips.

 

"Forget it. I'm not interested," Rodney snapped. He tried to push past Bates but the other man reached out and thumped him back against the wall again.

 

"The longer you make me wait, the more I'll take it out on your ass when you finally give in," Bates warned him.

 

"Well, that's such a tempting prospect, thanks," Rodney retorted sarcastically. "Tell me, Bates, why the hell you think a man like me would be interested in a grunt like you? Hmm? Your friend was a pinhead and you're just as stupid. Explain to me why that would appeal to me?"

 

Bates's expression tightened. "You want someone to give it to you rough," he said, in a low growl. "I can do that. I'm a hard top, Rodney - and you want that, don't you? You want to be bent over and fucked, and I'll fuck you like nobody ever fucked you before in your life."

 

"How romantic." Rodney pulled a face. "You sure as hell know how to sweet-talk a sub into bed, Bates. Look, I don't know what game you're playing but the answer is no."

 

Bates reached up, and stroked a finger down the side of Rodney's cheek. Rodney shuddered - and Bates grinned.

 

"That's good. That's the kind of reaction I like from my subs," he purred.

 

Rodney shook his head. "I'm not your sub, Bates. Look, until today you gave every impression of despising me - why the sudden interest? You want a trophy boyfriend? Someone you can show off to your family so they'll realise you're not the total loser they always thought? Hmm? Is that it?"

 

Bates's expression darkened. "You know, for a smart man you can be pretty dumb at times," he said.

 

"So I'm often told," Rodney replied, rolling his eyes. "But I'm still mystified as to your sudden 'romantic' interest in me, if that's what we can call it. I thought your friend told you and everyone else who'd listen what a crappy sub I am. So why the hell are you interested in me?"

 

"Well maybe that's part of the appeal - I like the idea of whipping you into shape." Bates lingered on the word 'whipping' and Rodney felt a shiver creep up his spine. "I've always liked making you squirm. You're such an arrogant S.O.B," Bates said. "Think you're so much smarter than everyone else…."

 

"I am!" Rodney protested.

 

"It's been fun, baiting you, but after this morning, watching you get your ass tanned…I want more. I want a piece of this ass." Bates's hand stole around Rodney's waist and cupped his left buttock, squeezing just a bit too tight. Rodney gazed at him helplessly - he recognised the look in the sergeant's eyes all too well. It was the look of a child in the schoolyard, chasing after one of the other kids so he could pull their hair and make them cry, and not because he didn't like them but precisely because he did. He didn't doubt that Bates's interest was genuine but the sergeant wasn't the kind of top who appealed to Rodney. He was sure there would be some subs out there who'd be turned on by this kind of behaviour, but he wasn't one of them.

 

"Take your hands off me, Bates," he said coolly. "It's never going to happen."

 

Bates gazed at him, his tongue sliding over his lips as he considered it. Rodney saw him almost visibly trying to decide whether to take this further, whether Rodney was just playing the coy sub, or whether to leave it there. Finally, he drew back.

 

"Make me wait then," Bates told him. "But remember what I said about your ass paying for it when you finally come crawling into my bed. I will have you, Rodney."

 

And then he drew back, and left the room. Rodney stood there for a moment, trying to get his breath back. Damn it, but his life was difficult enough without *this*. He wondered if he should tell someone - maybe Carson - but he felt ashamed of his own inability to deal with the situation more effectively. Maybe, in his own twisted way, Bates thought he had feelings for Rodney, but, like a small minority of the more stupid tops, he seemed to think it was enough to merely show up and be forceful to have a sub falling at his feet. Rodney wasn't the least bit attracted to that kind of a top. In fact, he still wasn't entirely sure what kind of tops he *was* attracted to. For a long time he hadn't even been sure he was a submissive - he was too irascible, too intellectual, too damn *smart* for most tops, as well as being far too opinionated. He'd either eaten his tops alive and spat them out, used up and useless, or they'd had to be so tough with him in order to keep him in line that he'd felt impossibly restricted, unable to breathe or be himself, and when his work had started to suffer that's when he got out because nothing, *nothing* was more important than his work. He'd tried being a top himself but had swiftly come to the conclusion that wasn't going to work. Now he'd pretty much given up on finding anyone he was compatible with, because sex was complicated and relationships even more so and he didn't think he'd ever figure them out. Although he told himself that he was simply too much the genius for any mere mortal to handle, a small nugget of doubt, deep within, suggested to him that the fault lay not with his genius but with himself. On some level he knew himself to quite simply not be lovable, so it was no surprise when each failed relationship, or dismal one night stand, proved that point to him over and over again. His most recent sexual encounter, with a marine who Rodney had mistakenly believed to be the strong-but-silent type had been a disaster. He'd discovered that that silence hadn't been hiding a quiet strength, but instead a knuckle-headed stupidity. The man, quite simply, had had nothing intelligent to say for himself, and once Rodney figured that out it had been hard to retain any respect for him -and Rodney couldn't find it in him to sub to someone he had no respect for. He'd ended it without a second thought, after having given the marine the benefit of his extremely long and thorough opinion on the subject, and he'd been surprised when Sergeant Stupid had then turned into Sergeant Vindictive, and started stirring up trouble for Rodney with his marine friends. Up until then, Rodney had enjoyed a fairly amicable relationship with the military. His job had always required him to work closely with them and while sometimes he found the military mind to be unbelievably slow, he would be the first to admit they had their uses.

 

At that moment the door opened again, and Rodney looked up, his heart beating too fast, wondering if Bates had returned, but instead he saw Colonel Sheppard standing there.

 

"What do *you* want?" Rodney snapped, over-wrought and just wanting to be left alone.

 

"Just thought I'd check up on you," the colonel said. Rodney gazed at him blankly.

 

"Why?" he asked at last. "I mean, really - WHY? Don't you think it'd be weird if I came to your office and said that? What the hell is wrong with you military boys anyway? Look, this is my lab, and I don't want you or any of your men coming in here without my express invitation - is that understood?" He found his chest heaving up and down, and he practically shouted those last few words. Colonel Sheppard gazed at him, those hazel eyes cool, and just a little bit angry.

 

"Yes, that's understood, Doctor," he said.

 

"Good. I know you've somehow managed to trick Carson into thinking that the sun shines out of your ass, but you don't fool me, Colonel," Rodney yelled, his heart still pounding, stressed out from the day's humiliating events, his own lack of sleep, and the recent incident with Bates. He'd thought, earlier, during dinner, that maybe Carson was right, and John Sheppard was one of the good guys, but Bates had shown him that you couldn't afford to let your guard down for a second. John Sheppard wore a uniform, and as far as Rodney was concerned, that made him the enemy.

 

"I see." Sheppard's eyes narrowed as he gazed at Rodney. "Okay. Fine. You've made yourself perfectly clear, Dr McKay. I promise you that I won't bother you again," he said and there was something hard about the way he said it that brought Rodney up short. He watched as the colonel left the room, his back stiff, and then, finally, thank god, Rodney was alone.

 

He sat down weakly on a chair, and gazed off into space, trying to collect himself, his hands and knees moving restlessly, full of anxiety. He'd thought that coming out here he'd be able to make a fresh start. Things had gone so badly for him back on Earth of late, but it seemed his bad luck had followed him, and he didn't have a clue what to do about it. Whatever he did seemed to backfire, and he honestly didn't understand why. He loved the work, loved this city and the Ancient technology they'd found here, but he found dealing with people as difficult as ever. If only they were all as easygoing as Carson, or as calm and unflappable as Elizabeth, but they weren't. He knew he wasn't popular, but even so, walking into that room this morning and being jeered…his heart pounded again, so fast he thought he was having some kind of seizure. His eyelids fluttered as he re-lived those terrible few minutes when he'd had to bend over that frame and take his punishment in front of that baying crowd. So much for new beginnings! And it hurt, damnit, it hurt deep in his soul. He felt bruised inside, unable to connect with people, or make them like him. Didn't they understand that without him they'd all be dead out here, so far from home, with no way of even contacting Earth? It might have been Colonel Sheppard's DNA that made the city light up wherever he went, but it was Rodney's skilful fingers that kept Atlantis running, Rodney's brilliant mind that unravelled mysteries that had lain dormant beneath the ocean for thousands of years, and Rodney's irrefutable genius that had kept them all alive. Yet even his brilliance hadn't been enough to impress them or make them value him, and he was as lost out here in the Pegasus galaxy as he had ever been at home.

 

Rodney tried to turn back to his work but found he couldn't concentrate. However much he pushed it aside, every so often he was assaulted by a memory of the morning's events. He had minded the punishment, painful though it had been, far less than the humiliation of the event, and yet there had been something so familiar about his own sense of hopelessness that his primary emotion when he'd bent over that frame had been one of resignation. That was strange, of and by itself, because he'd never been subject to a judicial punishment before. As a teenager he'd been forced to be old before his time, gaining his first degree at seventeen, mixing with people much older than himself, struggling to fit in but always set apart by virtue of both his age and his brilliance. Then, when his parents had been killed in a car crash shortly after his eighteenth birthday, he'd gone back home to take care of his younger sister. As the only beneficiaries of their parents' estate, money hadn't been an issue, and Rodney had simply lived at home during his studies, which had set him apart from his peers even more, but he'd tried to set an example to Jeannie as much as anything, having to be the grown-up in the house now that his parents were gone.

 

He'd always viewed himself as a fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizen - he might have a brusque manner and a smart mouth but that wasn't illegal and he had never hurt anyone in his life before that plate of jello had whizzed out of his hands and straight at Bates's forehead, taking them both by surprise. He hadn't meant it to happen, was still freaked out that he had done it at all, even while he relished the memory of finally letting go and screaming at a man who had made his life a misery for so many months. All the same, he was genuinely sorry for it, and now he was here, stuck in this place with people who gave every appearance of hating him, if his reception this morning was anything to go by.

 

A hot sweat prickled on his skin as he replayed the memory again. Him, standing in the doorway…that conversation with Peter that was a complete blank to him now…the look of discomfort in Peter's eyes - because Peter wasn't happy having to do this any more than Rodney was happy having to suffer it, not least because Peter of all people knew how brilliant Rodney was, and respected his work. Then there had been the slow walk over to the frame…the unutterable humiliation of unfastening his pants and having to offer himself up for punishment like a common criminal. It had all been so demeaning. He recalled turning his head sideways as he grasped the handles of the frame…and Sheppard had been there, just standing there, watching. Sheppard with his phoney concern, those hazel eyes of his mocking Rodney just as his marines had mocked Rodney.

 

Rodney took hold of his laptop and threw it across the room with all his force, and then stood there, panting, gazing at the shattered machine which was now lying in a mess of exposed circuitry on the floor.

 

"Okay then," he said, his crooked mouth quirking into a stubborn grin. "You may not like me but let's see you cope without me."

 

He glanced around the lab, thoughtfully. He had a mental list of many projects he wanted to work on when he had the time - well, why not now? Why was he flogging himself into the ground to equip this city to run on Naquada generators, a technology not strictly compatible with the way Atlantis was wired, when he could be working on his own pet projects? Oh, he wouldn't put the city at risk - he had as much of a vested interest in staying alive as the rest of them after all - but he wouldn't dance to their tune any more. Elizabeth had a list of projects which she'd personally prioritised and Rodney had agreed with her assessment. Despite his sarcastic manner, he'd always been a team player. He liked being part of something - it made him feel as if he belonged somewhere, as if he was vital and integral, and Rodney liked to feel needed. If he couldn't be popular, he could at least be *necessary*, but now he simply didn't care any more. After this morning he'd gone beyond caring. Maybe this had been building up for sometime, but Rodney wasn't thinking with any degree of clarity and his own motivations were a mystery to him. All he knew was that he hurt, lost in his own pain, and his reflex was to lash out in the only way he knew how.

 

Rodney found another laptop, and scanned the list with a scathing eye. He mentally crossed off the less interesting projects, and inserted some of his own preferred projects instead. Then, with a savage smile, he set to work.

 

 

~*~

 

 

John Sheppard was woken at six a.m. by the soft bleep of his radio. He reached for it, blearily, and cleared his throat into it.

 

"Sheppard," he mumbled.

 

"Sir? It's Hicks. Uh…we don't seem to have power down here," the corporal said. John reached out and flicked on his lamp.

 

"Working okay here," he said. "Where are you?"

 

"In my quarters, sir."

 

"Could be a…fuse?" John suggested, knowing that was ridiculous because the city didn't run on electricity.

 

"None of the marines have power, sir," Hicks told him. "Our entire floor is in darkness."

 

"Okay. I'm onto it," John said, swinging his feet over the side of the bed. He clicked the radio frequency to the lab, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, because this meant that he had to talk to Rodney McKay and frankly, after last night, that was the last thing in the world that he wanted to do. "Dr McKay?" he said, in as polite a voice as he could manage. The scientist answered with a brusque, "I'm busy so this had better be important" and John clenched his fists and counted to three before replying. "It is - my men don't have any power."

 

"Yes I know," Rodney replied. John thought about that for a second because it wasn't the response he'd been expecting. The scientist didn't sound remotely surprised.

 

"And the reason would be?" he ventured.

 

"I'm working on an experiment that needs power - so I diverted some," Rodney replied.

 

"Okay." John frowned. "Any reason why you diverted it from my men's quarters?"

 

"Well it had to come from somewhere," Rodney snapped.

 

"And your choice for where that somewhere was wouldn't have anything to do with what happened yesterday morning, would it?" John snapped back.

 

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Rodney replied, and then the link was severed. John sighed, and got up. Clearly this would take some sorting out. He pulled on his uniform and then trotted down to the lab, unshaven, his uncombed hair sticking up from his head. Damn Rodney McKay - he was proving to be even more Trouble than John had expected when he first met the man. Carson was insane to think John could be interested in someone so completely irritating and hostile. John barged into the lab without knocking, ignoring what Rodney had told him the previous evening. The scientist was all alone in the lab, and John suspected, from looking at him, that he hadn't left the place since their conversation the previous evening.

 

"Dr McKay, would you care to tell me what experiment is so important that you diverted power from my men's quarters?" he demanded. Rodney glanced at him with a malicious smile.

 

"I could explain it to you but I very much doubt you'd understand it," he said.

 

"Try me." John crossed his arms over his chest.

 

"It would be a waste of my time," Rodney replied airily, turning back to his work. "You're undoubtedly too stupid to understand it."

 

John uncrossed his arms and went over to the scientist.

 

"Excuse me?" he said, in a dangerous tone.

 

"Stupid," Rodney told him, with only the briefest glance in his direction. "Too - stupid - to - understand."

 

It was all John could do not to grab the scientist by the lapels of his lab coat and shake him. Hard.

 

"Okay, hopefully *you're* not too stupid to understand *this*," John told him. "Get that power back on in my men's quarters within five minutes or there will be unpleasant consequences."

 

"Would you like to detail them to me?" Rodney asked. "Just so I know what these unpleasant consequences are?"

 

John smiled, a slow, frightening smile. "No. I think I'll just leave them to your imagination," he replied.

 

And with that he strode out of the room. He stomped back to his own room, seething. He'd dealt with many difficult people in his time but none of them came close to Rodney McKay for sheer irritation factor. There was the man's superiority complex for a start, combined with that smug little smile on those crooked lips of his. John wanted to…he wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to do but he *was* sure that it involved wiping that smirk off McKay's face. It took a lot to make John lose his cool but he'd come dangerously close to it back there in the lab; people rarely got under his skin like that and it had taken him by surprise. John reached his room, and tapped his radio.

 

"Hicks - let me know when the power comes back on," he growled.

 

"It just has, sir," Hicks told him.

 

"Good. Fine." John took a few deep breaths. It seemed that however obnoxious Rodney McKay was, he did at least know when he was on thin ice which was good - at least John had found a way of handling the problematic scientist. John started to calm down, and he felt much more cheerful as he stripped off his clothes and got into the shower. Carson had been *so* wrong - he wasn't interested in Rodney McKay - he was merely *exasperated* by the man. Exasperated beyond belief! John turned on the faucet and grabbed the soap, and then let out a surprised yelp as a torrent of freezing cold water descended on his skin. At that precise moment the lights went off. He jumped out of the shower and felt around for his towel and then for his radio - but despite clicking McKay's frequency there was no reply. There was only one thing for it - John was in such a bad mood by this point that he didn't even bother pulling on a bathrobe. He simply tied his towel firmly around his waist and strode back down to the lab, dripping ice-cold water in his wake.

 

Rodney was still alone in the lab when he burst in, and the scientist looked up - and stayed looking as he caught sight of John's half-naked, furious, dripping wet body. Rodney's blue eyes widened and his gaze flickered, uneasily, over John's bare chest.

 

"Uh…" he said nervously, backing away as John advanced on him. John stopped in front of the scientist and smiled at him, a dangerous smile.

 

"Can you explain to me why I just had to take a cold shower?" John demanded.

 

"I'm not in the habit of prying into anyone's personal life," Rodney replied, rallying, that crooked mouth of his curving into the faintest hint of a smirk. "If you feel you need a cold shower then that's between you and your sub, although perhaps you ought to find a sub that takes better care of your needs if it's come to this."

 

"I don't have a sub," John replied. "I don't have any hot water or lights, either."

 

"Well, I'm sorry, on both counts," Rodney replied. "If you had a sub you might be less volatile and therefore less prone to storming around dressed only in a towel."

 

"Rodney," John said, keeping his voice sweet, "I don't have any lights or any hot water because you have diverted the power in my room to your experiment - as you well know."

 

Rodney blinked at him. "Well, you told me to restore the power to the marines' quarters so I did - but I had to replace that with power from somewhere else. Seeing as you were so adamant about your men having power I assumed you would be happy to go without on their behalf," he replied briskly, and then he glanced up at John from under his eyelashes, and for just a second there was a hint of mischief about him. John gazed at him steadily for a moment, and then, suddenly, he felt all the tension in his body break. God yes, Rodney McKay was Trouble, but by god he was *exhilarating* Trouble.

 

"All right. Okay. Here's how we're going to play this," John said softly. "I'm going to go to *your* room and take my shower there - somehow I'm betting the power will be on in there. You are going to restore the power to my room in time for me to use it this evening and make sure it stays on thereafter. And then *we* will say nothing more about this."

 

And with that, he turned on his heel and walked back towards the door, suddenly feeling very conscious of the fact that he was bare-chested and barefoot and showing a fair bit of leg in between as well.

 

"Sure you don't want to go running to Elizabeth about this?" Rodney called after him. "After all, isn't that what you military boys like to do?"

 

John turned, very, very slowly, and was gratified to see an expression of worry flit into Rodney's eyes.

 

"Oh I don't think I need to do that," John replied. "I think I can take care of you all by myself, Dr McKay. You might want to be careful about just how far you push me though."

 

Rodney looked at him with just a hint of uncertainty in those blue eyes of his, and then he shrugged, and started humming as he turned back to his work. John gazed at him for another couple of seconds, eyes narrowed, and then, finally, he left.

 

The exploits of Dr Rodney McKay became the stuff of legend over the next few days as the entire city spent huge periods of time enduring blackouts, and various other peculiar technological glitches necessitated by the scientist's mysterious 'experiments'. Finally Elizabeth called him in, and gave him a direct order to only work on projects she herself had sanctioned. Somehow John was not surprised, three days after that, to be once again watching Rodney McKay entering the punishment room - this time to be chastised for refusing to follow Lady Elizabeth's direct orders. It seemed as though the entire city was exasperated with the Head of Science, and the turnout was higher than it had been even the first time, although, once again, John noticed that none of Rodney's team was there. He found that intriguing, just as he found everything about Rodney intriguing, even if the man was incredibly annoying. Stories of Rodney's brusque temper and manner of talking to his subordinates abounded, and John would have thought that at least one or two of his team would enjoy seeing such a hard taskmaster taken down a peg or two, but that didn't seem to be the case.

 

John had procrastinated about whether to attend the disciplinary himself - he wanted to stay away, but somehow he found he couldn't. So he took a seat and watched as Rodney bounced into the room, looking very different to how he'd looked the last time he'd been punished. This time he was scruffier than ever, and there was a manic gleam in his eye as he took up his position. John found himself transfixed again by the way Rodney angled his face sideways and the expression in those blue eyes; they were defiant, rebellious even, and John had the shocked realisation that a good deal of what was going on with McKay was sheer bravado. He was, quite simply, running wild, and John wondered where this was all going to end. John wanted to take a quiet satisfaction from the scientist's discomfort, after having had several run-ins with the man over the previous few days, but instead, just like last time, he found himself getting angry, his fists clenching as he watched that faraway look of hopeless desperation creep into Rodney's eyes once more. John was glad when it was over, and the large crowd had dispersed back into the city. Rodney himself affected not to care, and left the room humming to himself when his punishment was done, to return to his beloved experiments as if nothing had happened.

 

John made his way to the mess hall and found Carson there, sipping a cup of coffee and reading a medical journal.

 

"Hey." John sat down with a weary sigh. Carson barely glanced at him.

 

"Hey," he muttered in a short tone. John frowned.

 

"Anything wrong?"

 

Carson put his journal down and glared at him. "You've just come from the bear pit I presume?" he said.

 

John shrugged. "Yes. Just…you know…wanted to keep an eye on the mood in the city," he lied. Carson's blue eyes looked right through him.

 

"I thought you were going to step in - show an interest in Rodney," he said.

 

"Oh I tried, believe me," John snorted. "The man is impossible."

 

"He knocked you back?" Carson gazed at him keenly.

 

"Knocked me back? We didn't even get that far," John grimaced. "He practically threw me out of his lab the minute I walked through the door. He made it very clear he wasn't interested in anything I have to say, and I've got better things to do than dance around after out of control subs."

 

"Oh really." Carson sat back in his chair and gave him an assessing look. "So, let me get this straight. You went to see Rodney and flashed that charming, laid-back smile of yours at him, and, when he didn't immediately fall swooning into your bed, you decided it was all going to be too hard for you so you gave up?" He raised an incredulous eyebrow. John felt himself flushing.

 

"Back off, Carson," he snapped. "It wasn't like that. I wasn't even sure I was interested in him and now that I've got to know him a bit more I think I can say categorically that I'm *not* interested in him, so don't give me all this grief. The man is out of control, and it's not my damn responsibility to take care of him and sort him out."

 

"Isn't it?" Carson asked softly.

 

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

 

"Did you know that when he was punished for the incident with the jello, that was the first time Rodney had ever been publicly disciplined?" Carson asked.

 

John frowned. "Really? I find that hard to believe," he snorted.

 

"It's true. Rodney might be temperamental but he's never been in any trouble. He's a good team player, John, and he's always viewed himself as pretty law-abiding," Carson said. John thought about it for a moment.

 

"Well. Okay. That's a shame. But I still don't see how that makes him my responsibility."

 

"Then think about it," Carson said bluntly, and John had the distinct feeling that he was being out-topped by another top, which was a very unusual situation for him. Carson got up and leaned forward. "Look, your sex life is your own affair - if Rodney doesn't do it for you then that's fine. I don't care about that. But regardless of that, you still owe him, John."

 

And with that, Carson gathered up his journal, and his cup of coffee, and left.

 

John sat there for a moment, feeling winded. He decided that Carson was one of those tops who fooled you into thinking they were mild-mannered and easy-going while hiding a big damn paddle behind their backs the entire time, to pummel you if you stepped out of line. He wasn't entirely sure how he'd stepped out of line but he supposed, grudgingly, that Carson had a point. Rodney McKay was clearly in freefall right now, and as at least some of his descent had been precipitated by the incident with Bates, and seeing as how that had taken place on John's watch, then yes, as far as that went, he had some responsibility towards McKay. He still wasn't interested in taking the man as a sub - that moment of madness was well and truly over - but there were other things he could do to help.

 

At that moment the lights went off in the mess hall, leaving him in total darkness. John sighed. "Either that or we spend the rest of our lives in a permanent blackout," he muttered.

 


Part Three: On The Team

 

 

"You want me to be on your team?" Rodney frowned at him distrustfully.

 

"Yes I do." John nodded, doing his best not to cross his fingers behind his back. He had no idea whether this was a good plan or a really, really bad one, but he figured it was worth a try. The incident with Bates had clearly knocked Rodney, and the least he could do was to try and give the man something in return, something that would show him how much he was valued and respected.

 

"Any reason why you're asking now?" Rodney demanded. "I mean, you've tried out Parrish, and you've tried out Grodin, and Collins, and Lewis - you even tried out Zelenka…." Both John and Rodney shuddered in unison at that, and Zelenka turned around, took one look at them, and ducked down behind his work station. "And so what - now you're all out of scientists so you come to me?" Rodney raised an eyebrow.

 

"No. I should have come to you first," John told him firmly. "I just wasn't sure about the wisdom of putting the Head of Science out in the field - and therefore in danger - on a regular basis, that's all. But the truth is that we need the best - and you're that."

 

Rodney's sharp blue gaze softened slightly at that, and John bit back a smile.

 

"We also need a ZPM - urgently," John said. "You know that as well as I do, and we haven't had much luck finding one so far."

 

"Our need is pressing, yes," Rodney mused. "Until we get a ZPM we're sitting ducks out here, and if the Wraith come after us then we don't stand a chance."

 

"I am really concerned about our long term survival if we don't get our hands on a ZPM," John warned, in an undertone, glancing around the lab to make sure they weren't being overheard.

 

"Hmm. Well, it's a good thing you've finally come to your senses and picked the right man then, isn't it?" Rodney said, chest swelling up in pride. John nodded, still holding back that smile.

 

"Good to have you onboard, Dr McKay," he replied, reaching out a hand to pat the scientist's arm.

 

John wasn't sure what to expect on Rodney's first mission offworld, but he steeled himself for the man to be a total disaster - and was therefore pleasantly surprised. Rodney seemed very excited by the mission - he was at the gate, waiting, on time (in fact he was even a few minutes early), and suitably dressed in his mission jacket, with a gun strapped to his thigh. He still had a layer of stubble on his chin and his hair was all over the place but at least his clothes looked *clean* which was an improvement. John assembled his team together and looked them over - he'd tried various permutations thus far, and none of them had gelled particularly well. He was sure that he wanted Teyla on his team - she was a skilled fighter and she knew the local people so that was a no-brainer, and today he was trying out a young lieutenant who showed some promise - together with Rodney.

 

Rodney was clearly nervous but John kept by his side as they exited the gate, and he was surprised when Rodney ran forward excitedly towards some ancient ruins covered in some kind of runic symbols, and began studying them.

 

"Is this good?" John asked, unable to keep from smiling as Rodney hopped around like a demented bunny rabbit on acid. This was a side to the man he hadn't seen before, and there was something unexpectedly endearing about it.

 

"Good - it's remarkable!" Rodney exclaimed happily. "The information on these runes could be invaluable. There might even be an indication of where to find a ZPM."

 

"Great. How long will it take you to transcribe them?" John asked.

 

"I have no idea. Hours - maybe days." Rodney beamed delightedly and John's heart sank.

 

"Okay then," he sighed, beckoning Ford and Teyla over so they could scout out the perimeter. Ford was bouncing around like a puppy, showing off for Teyla, and John couldn't help but grin to himself. John knew well enough by now that the most surprising people could be tops and vice versa - how a person behaved in their everyday life was no clue to their sexual orientation. However, he'd have bet his bottom dollar that Teyla was a top, and Ford was acting the totally besotted sub, showing off for all he was worth in order to get Teyla's attention. John had been the focus of that kind of behaviour all too often himself but he figured that a strong, assured top like Teyla had to be pretty familiar with it too, and able to deal with it without him butting in and rescuing her. Maybe she would even consider taking Ford as her sub. As far as John could see she was unattached - she didn't seem to be sharing a room with any of the other Athosians. She was certainly gracious enough towards Ford, while at the same time never once dropping her guard, or being distracted from their mission, which was a good thing as it turned out because a few minutes later the Wraith showed up, all guns blazing.

 

"Out! Out, out, out!" John yelled at Rodney, running up to the scientist and grabbing his jacket at the same time as turning and firing a volley of shots at the pursuing wraith. Rodney didn't need telling twice. He scooped up his laptop and ran straight for the gate. John covered him, firing at the wraith, and then ran after the scientist. They were nearly at the gate when a wraith emerged from one side, cutting them off. John fired and hit the creature, but then saw, too late, another wraith materialising seemingly out of nowhere, gun pointed straight at him. Time slowed down; John was dimly aware of someone yelling, "Look out!" and then he was knocked out of the way, and as he fell he saw the wraith unleash a shot that hit his rescuer point blank in the head. John flipped over and saw Rodney lying beside him, eyes closed, looking, to all intents and purposes, completely and utterly dead. Teyla ran up and took out the wraith, giving John time to grab Rodney and pull him bodily through the gate. Once his team were all home, and the shield had been raised, John knelt down beside the scientist and put his fingers to the man's neck, his own heart pounding so fast that he could hear it beating like a drum. He was taken aback by the strength of the wave of relief that washed over him when he felt a strong pulse beneath his fingertips.

 

"He was hit by a wraith stunner," Teyla said, coming up behind him, and gazing down on McKay. "He will be paralysed for a few hours but he should make a full recovery." A few seconds later Carson arrived with a gurney and Rodney was whisked off to the infirmary. "I think," Teyla said slowly, gazing after the stricken scientist, "that I must revise my initial impressions of Dr McKay. He was very brave out there."

 

"Yeah. You and me both," John muttered grimly.

 

Lady Elizabeth wasn't happy.

 

"Everywhere you go, the Wraith always seem to arrive shortly afterwards," she told him, pacing around her desk. "I think we must consider the fact that we have a spy among us."

 

"I find that hard to believe," John said, shaking his head.

 

"You have to admit that it's strange that every time you go through the gate, the Wraith show up soon after. That's happened on five of your last nine missions."

 

"You're starting to see a pattern then?"

 

"Aren't you?" Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "Look, I'm not accusing Teyla, but how well do we know the Athosian people?"

 

"Don't go there," John said firmly. "Teyla's people hate the Wraith - there is no way they've betrayed us. It has to be someone else."

 

"Not one of our people," Elizabeth said, equally firmly.

 

"I'm fairly sure Teyla will say the same about her people," John sighed.

 

"Maybe so, but I have to take precautions and I can vouch for my own people but there are many Athosians I don't even know. So, I'm going to conduct a series of interviews with Teyla's people. In the meantime, all offworld missions are suspended until we get to the bottom of this," Elizabeth told him firmly. John nodded - she was right, even if he wasn't happy about it.

 

He made his way down to the infirmary and found Rodney lying there, eyes blinking blearily.

 

"You'll be all right, Rodney," Carson was telling him, one reassuring hand squeezing Rodney's shoulder affectionately. "The stunner affected your central nervous system but the effects will soon wear off."

 

John went over to the bed and smiled at the scientist. "So, you know we're out here to protect you, right? Not the other way around," he chided gently. Rodney gazed at him, those blue eyes still blinking, which was about the only way he could respond right now. John shook his head wryly. "Thanks though - I appreciate you knocking me out of the way and taking that shot yourself, especially as you had no way of knowing it was just a stunner."

 

"Eggy ixted," Rodney replied, slack-jawed, the expression in those wide blue eyes indicating that he was as surprised by what he'd done as John was.

 

"I think that was 'acting on instinct'," Carson translated helpfully.

 

"Well - all the same. Thanks." John grinned again, patted Rodney's shoulder, and turned to leave.

 

"I told you he was a team player," Carson murmured as he passed. John paused, and gazed at him.

 

"And I believed you. That's why I put him on the team," he said. Carson nodded, and John nodded back. Things were still a little strained between them, but he knew that the doctor meant well - he was just fiercely protective of his friend, and John could respect that.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

Rodney was released from the infirmary several hours later, after driving even good-natured Carson insane with his constant moping about being bored - his speech came back a couple of hours before his motor skills, and he was never one to suffer in silence.

 

Rodney bounced back to his lab, feeling inexplicably cheerful, the minute the doctor finally kicked him out of the infirmary with instructions to take it easy for a few hours, which they both knew Rodney would ignore. Despite how it had ended, Rodney had loved his first offworld mission. He'd been aggrieved that Colonel Sheppard hadn't picked him to be on his team from the outset, but by this point being overlooked and downgraded was the very least he had come to expect from the military, so he hadn't been particularly surprised when Sheppard had selected various other members of his team to go offworld before approaching the obvious choice - himself.

 

He had been somewhat mollified by Sheppard's explanation that it was because he was too valuable to lose - which was true of course. Certainly his wounded pride had been soothed enough to make him forget the previous slight and, even if it hadn't, his excitement at finally getting a chance to explore this wonderful new galaxy in which they were stranded certainly would have done the trick. Rodney had an insatiably curious mind and coming across the ruined temple carved with Ancient runic symbols had been the kind of thing he'd fantasised about when signing up for this mission in the first place. Getting hit in the forehead by a wraith stunner wasn't something he'd anticipated but he guessed he was going to have to get used to that kind of thing if he was going to be on Colonel Sheppard's team. He still wasn't entirely sure why he'd saved Sheppard from being hit - he didn't even like the man particularly, although he did have to admit that he looked impressive in a towel.

 

Still, the day's events had been exciting - maybe his life had taken a turn for the better. It was late by the time Rodney got to his lab and everyone had gone. Rodney switched on his laptop to see what kind of a mess Radek had made of things in his absence, and was humming happily to himself as he worked when he heard a sound at the door, and then a familiar voice grated into his consciousness.

 

"I hear you were hurt today. I was worried about you."

 

Bates was standing in the doorway, carrying a cardboard box. Rodney slammed his laptop shut.

 

"Get out," he ordered.

 

Bates shook his head. "That's no way to talk to your prospective top, now is it?" he chided. "So, how did it go offworld? Were you out of your depth? Did you shiver and shake like a little girl when you got fired on, Rodney?"

 

"As a matter of fact, no," Rodney retorted. "It was good. I was good. It went well." He preened slightly at that, remembering the excitement of being out in the field, of finding that ruined temple with the possibility of a message from the Ancients carved on its crumbling stone walls. Bates gazed at him through narrowed eyes.

 

"Hmm. I was surprised Colonel Sheppard invited you along. Maybe he's got a death wish," he grinned.

 

"I thought I told you to get out," Rodney snapped.

 

"Uh-huh. My lady sent me to deliver this." Bates put the box down on the work surface.

 

"What is it?" Rodney asked suspiciously, not moving, suspecting some kind of a trap.

 

"Teyla's belongings. Lady Elizabeth thinks we have a spy among us alerting the Wraith to our offworld missions. She's spent the day interviewing all the Athosians to see where their loyalties lie. It was Teyla who pointed out that she was the one who'd accompanied Colonel Sheppard on all his offworld missions, so if we were looking for a spy it had to be her. She volunteered all her belongings for us to examine." Bates gave a hard little smile, and Rodney doubted that Teyla had exactly 'volunteered' them.

 

"Oh for god's sake - you can't possibly suspect Teyla of this!" Rodney exclaimed. He barely knew the Athosian woman but from what he'd seen of her, he really doubted she was involved in any kind of spying for the Wraith. He'd never met a more honest, genuine person.

 

"Check her belongings," Bates told him. "It's not a request - it's an order. Straight from Lady Elizabeth…only…I'm forgetting - you don't follow my Lady's orders these days do you?" Bates gave a tight little smile and moved closer to Rodney. Rodney faced him down. "Will you follow this one?" Bates murmured. "I wouldn't mind if you didn't - I enjoy watching you being punished, Rodney." He moved in even closer, invading Rodney's personal space. "You look so hot when your ass is being tanned - did you know that? Eyes down, submissive…I like that look. It suits you. One day you'll look at me like that."

 

"I'd rather die," Rodney replied.

 

Bates's expression turned hard and cold. "You're just resisting the inevitable, Rodney."

 

"That's Dr McKay to you because I think I outrank you by - oh I don't know - a billion times," Rodney said. "Let's go through the chain of command, shall we? First there's my Lady Elizabeth, and then…oh yes, that's right, there's me."

 

"Colonel Sheppard might have something to say about that," Bates snorted.

 

"He's a knucklebrain - just like you," Rodney replied dismissively. "He might command you military boys but don't ever forget that this is a civilian mission, and I'm second in line right after Lady Weir."

 

"She must wonder why she has to keep sending her second in command to the punishment room every five minutes then," Bates said with a grin. "It must be a bit of an embarrassment for her. Or maybe you enjoy it - is that it? Does it turn you on to get your ass tanned in front of all those people, *Dr McKay*?"

 

Rodney closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the sheer humiliation, to say nothing of the pain, of his punishment sessions in that room. There had been nothing pleasurable about it whatsoever, and he resented the taunt but he also knew that Bates enjoyed taunting him and he didn't want to give him the satisfaction of a response.

 

"I think you like it," Bates said, softly, moving closer. "I think you'll like it even more when I take you in hand."

 

"Never going to happen," Rodney hissed, through gritted teeth. Bates was so close now that they were standing nose to nose. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." He tried to push past Bates, shoving at him to get out of the way, but the sergeant grabbed his arm and forced him over the nearest work station, pushing his arm up behind his back to keep him in place.

 

"Come on, Rodney," Bates murmured, his breath warm and sickening on the back of Rodney's neck. "Just say the word and I'll take you on. There's no point you holding out for a better offer. No other top in this place is going to go near you." He leaned close against Rodney's body, and Rodney could feel the hardness of his erection pressed against his own ass. "So close," Bates whispered into Rodney's ear. "I bet you want it." He rubbed himself against Rodney's buttocks, and Rodney shuddered. "I mean it - who else is going to want you? You're arrogant, you yell at everyone, you look like shit, and you're earning yourself a reputation for trouble - nobody will ever want to take on someone like you. So do yourself a favour and get yourself over to my quarters so I can put you out of your misery."

 

"Let me go," Rodney growled, trying to twist out of the other man's grasp, angry with himself for not being able to get free.

 

"I'll make you crawl first. Make you crawl across the room, and beg at my feet. Make you beg for my hard cock," Bates whispered into his ear, making Rodney's blood run cold. "Make you pant, and plead, and whimper before I throw you over the table and fuck you into next week." He was rubbing harder now, and Rodney felt a tide of nausea at the thought that the man was masturbating himself on him.

 

Rodney managed to kick out with his foot and that dislodged Bates enough for him to wriggle out from the sergeant's grasp. Bates turned, and grabbed Rodney's arm again, clearly not done with him yet, but at that moment Zelenka bounded into the lab…and stopped short when he saw them. Bates dropped Rodney's arm immediately.

 

"I…realised I did not realign the conduits when I finished working," Radek said, frowning as he gazed at them. "Is everything okay in here, Dr McKay?" he asked quietly.

 

"Fine. Everything's fine," Rodney said, flushing slightly. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to know about this humiliating event.

 

Bates smiled at him, a thin, unpleasant kind of smile. "Lady Elizabeth wants to know about Teyla's belongings asap," he said. "So I suggest you get onto it, *Doctor*." He stressed Rodney's title with just the right degree of mockery, and Rodney felt his temper flare again. It was all he could do to nod stiffly to the man. Bates nodded back, grinning slightly at Rodney's discomfort, and then, with a disdainful glare in Zelenka's direction, he left the room.

 

"That man…seems often terse and mean," Radek commented when Bates was gone. "I do not like him."

 

"Oh for god's sake, Radek!" Rodney exploded, all the tension of the previous few minutes rising to the surface. "He's just a grunt! As for those conduits - I saw the work you did on them this afternoon and it's so sloppy a ten year old could have done it! Didn't you *read* the schematics I left you? If so, were you improvising on purpose, or did you just not understand what I was asking you to do?"

 

Radek gazed at him for a moment, with steady blue eyes behind his glasses. "I think the work was done okay," he said. "However, I am tired now, and it is late, and *you* have been in the infirmary all day and Dr Beckett said you should rest, yes? We can talk about the conduits some more tomorrow. I will leave you now to realign them yourself as my work is no good for you." He didn't wait for Rodney to reply. He just turned and left. Rodney gazed after him, his hands moving restlessly at his side, as they always did when he was anxious. He hadn't meant to yell at Radek quite so ferociously, but his pride was hurting beyond endurance right now. Here he was, the smartest man in two galaxies, and yet he couldn't shake himself of his unwanted 'admirer'. It was getting out of hand.

 

Rodney went over to the conduits to re-align them but he couldn't concentrate. He kept thinking about what Bates had said. He wasn't *looking* for a top, damnit! But all the same, the idea that nobody would want him anyway - well, he could pretty much believe that right now. He didn't know why it was the case, because it seemed to him that he was a damn good catch, being not only the smartest man on the base but also one of the most important, but he was sure Bates was right. No decent top was going to look twice at him, and while he had known that to be the case for a long time now, it didn't help to have your worst enemy confirm it.

 

Rodney finished with the conduits, and then turned his attention to the box with Teyla's belongings in it. He fished through them in distaste - he didn't like this kind of work, and if it hadn't been for the fact that the safety of the entire expedition was on the line then he would have refused to do it - just as he'd pretty much been refusing to do most of the other things Elizabeth had been ordering him to do lately. What surprised Rodney was how much he had enjoyed ignoring orders. He liked Elizabeth and had always been happy to obey her until recently - and yet there was something liberating about playing the rebel. Maybe he was making up for his lost teenage years, because god knows he hadn't done any real rebelling back then.

 

He was so busy ruminating along these lines that he almost fell off his chair when his desultory poking around with Teyla's necklace produced a flash of light, and he realised that there was a transmitter hidden in it.

 

It turned out that Sheppard himself had found the necklace a couple of weeks previously, buried under some dirt in a ruined city on Teyla's world, and he had given it to the Athosian woman - so the mystery of how the Wraith were being alerted to their presence was solved and nobody was to blame. Sheppard assembled his team in Rodney's lab the following morning to figure out what they were going to do about it.

 

"We need to use this to our advantage," the colonel said. Rodney eyed the box of guns and assorted ammunition that Ford had brought to the meeting, with a wary expression. "We need to get our hands on a living wraith and bring him back here so I can question him."

 

Rodney frowned. "That would be dangerous. Unless…oh god - you're going to keep him locked up, aren't you?"

 

The colonel gave him an assessing look. "It's the only way we'll be able to get the information we need, Rodney," he said.

 

"But…it's barbaric!" Rodney protested.

 

"They are trying to kill us, Dr McKay," Teyla pointed out. "They wish to hunt us for food."

 

"And it doesn't get more barbaric than that," Ford added. Rodney thought about it for a moment, surveying their anxious glances, and then, finally, he sighed.

 

"Okay," he muttered.

 

"Good. Here's how we'll play it…." The colonel patted Rodney on the arm and flashed him one of those smiles that made you feel like the sun was shining just on you. Rodney had noticed that Sheppard had a tendency to rely on that laidback charm of his to make people feel special. He'd also noticed how frequently it worked, on just about everyone on the base, top or sub. Even Carson, who was one of the most quietly confident tops Rodney had ever met, seemed to melt under the force of one of the colonel's smiles. Rodney wasn't sure what it was about the man, or why people reacted that way, but, basking in the glow of that smile, he had to admit that he knew how they felt. It also annoyed him. He always distrusted easy charm - maybe because it was something that was so alien to his own make up that he felt a stab of envy for those who did have it.

 

Three hours later, Rodney found himself sitting with his back to a wall on an alien planet, holding something that was entirely unfamiliar to him - a P-90. He knew how to fire the damn thing, but he'd never had to carry one into combat before and it felt heavy and strange on his arm. He had memorised Sheppard's plan to lure the Wraith to the ruined temple and capture one of them using tasers, but even so, he kept going over and over it in his head, anxious not to put a foot wrong, and place anyone on the team in danger. Colonel Sheppard was sitting beside him, gazing at him.

 

"You okay? You seem nervous," the colonel said. Rodney took a deep breath and kept his eyes fixed on the gun.

 

"No. I'm a part of this team. I'm doing this," he said, more firmly than he felt.

 

"Yes, you are. I just said you seemed nervous." Sheppard sat there calmly, which Rodney found both supportive and irritating at the same time.

 

"Oh, really. I thought you said, 'Rodney, you don't have to do this'," he snapped.

 

Sheppard grinned. "Yes you do," he said, inclining his head.

 

"Damn right I do," Rodney muttered, because he was on the *team* and that meant more to him than just about anything else that had happened since they arrived in Atlantis and he really didn't want to screw it up.

 

"You won't," Sheppard said.

 

"What?" Rodney frowned at him.

 

"Screw it up - that's what you're thinking isn't it?"

 

"Did I say that out loud?" Rodney panicked. Sheppard laughed.

 

"Nope - but you didn't have to. Just about everything you're thinking shows up in your eyes. Remind me to play poker with you some day."

 

"I'm lousy at poker," Rodney grumbled.

 

"I rest my case," Sheppard grinned. Then his mood changed, abruptly. "Okay, Rodney - we're nearly ready to go. You can do this - remember that. I wouldn't have put you on this team if I didn't believe it, either. Just stick with me, okay, and do what I tell you."

 

The next few minutes whizzed by in a blur of action. They were, perhaps, the most terrifying few minutes of Rodney's life, and yet, conversely, the most exciting. Rodney obeyed the colonel to the letter - he got up when Sheppard shouted the command, fired at the attacking wraith, then followed the colonel out into the ruined temple. They surrounded the stricken wraith, and on the colonel's command Rodney drew his taser and fired into the creature. Sheppard knelt down beside it and then got to his feet, yelling.

 

"It's got a self destruct! Take cover!" He grabbed Rodney's arm and the two of them ran away from the wraith - just in time as a few seconds later there was a loud explosion and Rodney felt himself flying through the air. He landed on the ground with a whumph, and then covered his head as chunks of what looked suspiciously like dead wraith fell on top of him. When it finally stopped raining wraith, Rodney looked around to find Sheppard lying next to him, gazing at him.

 

"You okay?" The colonel's eyes held a genuine concern and Rodney nodded, feeling shaky but exhilarated.

 

"I'm fine. This - this is fun for me," he croaked. Sheppard grinned at his bravado, and they both got to their feet. Rodney noticed that the colonel was clutching a stunner that he must have picked up from the recently deceased wraith but then all hell broke loose once more as Sheppard saw Teyla, lying on her back across the field with a wraith on top of her, his hand raised, just about to feed. The colonel took off at the speed of light, and Rodney watched as he took aim and felled the wraith with the stunner, just a split second before it fed on Teyla.

 

Try as he might not to be impressed by Colonel Sheppard, Rodney did have to concede that in the field the man seemed to know what he was doing. This whole adventure had been so exciting that he didn't even want to return to Atlantis, although he was looking forward to boasting about the mission to Radek.

 

Sheppard secured their prisoner in a cell in the lower reaches of the city, and then they all attended a debriefing. Rodney found himself humming as he entered the room - today had been *good* - one of the first really good days he'd had since arriving here. It felt great to be part of a team, and a valuable part at that. He'd held his own with all the leaping around and gun firing, and people were beginning to see how important he was to this whole expedition and that felt fantastic.

 

He thought nothing could spoil his good mood but that changed the minute he got into the meeting room to find Bates sitting there.

 

"What's he doing here?" Rodney demanded, unable to even feign politeness.

 

"Sergeant Bates has been put in charge of the prisoner," Elizabeth replied, looking surprised by his tone. "So he needs to be involved in any briefings about him."

 

"Why - he wasn't on the damn mission," Rodney growled. Colonel Sheppard placed a hand on his shoulder, and guided him firmly towards a chair.

 

"Everyone here? Then we should begin," he said, ignoring Rodney's angry glare.

 

"I take it everything went smoothly?" Elizabeth asked, casting a furtive glance in Rodney's direction.

 

"And nobody screwed up?" Bates looked at Rodney as he said that.

 

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney bristled immediately.

 

"Just that I'm not convinced of the wisdom of taking non-military personnel on military missions," Bates told him. "It's different if the mission is scientific but this one wasn't. You went out there to capture a wraith - no need for anyone other than military personnel."

 

Rodney glared at him. Damn Bates for this - going offworld as part of Sheppard's team was the one bright thing in his life right now, and damn it if the sergeant wasn't trying to take it away from him by planting these doubts in both Elizabeth's and Sheppard's minds.

 

"It was my call to take Dr McKay along with us," Colonel Sheppard replied, giving Bates a sharp look. "Are you questioning my military decisions, Sergeant?"

 

"No, sir!" Bates replied. "Just pointing out my reservations, sir, particularly in the case of Dr McKay. He has no formal training and, frankly, I think we all feel his judgement has been in question of late. It strikes me that he's a risky man to have by your side while he's behaving in such an...unpredictable way."

 

Rodney didn't make a conscious decision about what happened next - his emotions just took over. All his pent-up anger and frustration spilled out, and he found himself launching himself across the table towards Bates, screaming abuse at him as he went. Bates didn't even move, he just sat there as Rodney took a swing at him. Rodney felt the satisfying crunch of flesh under fist, and then he was being dragged backwards by Colonel Sheppard's strong arms, and he was still fighting, still wriggling to be free, yelling something incoherently the entire time.

 

"Pipe down," Sheppard hissed into his ear. "This is bad enough already." Rodney was beyond reasoning though - he was too angry. He struggled, pointlessly, in Sheppard's arms, and all the time he was aware of Bates sitting there, arms folded, a bruise rising on the side of his jaw…and a smug little smile curving at the corners of his lips. Damn it he'd planned this! He'd known how Rodney would react…and Rodney had fallen straight into the trap, like an idiot.

 

Sheppard propelled him over to the door so fast that Rodney's feet barely touched the ground. Then he released him, but only in order to grab the back of his neck and push him along the hallway to Elizabeth's office. He half-pushed, half-threw the still wriggling scientist inside, then shut the door and stood in front of it, glaring at Rodney. Rodney glared back at him, his entire body taut with fury.

 

"You just proved his point for him," Sheppard said. "Do you understand that, McKay?"

 

"Yes I damn well understand that!" Rodney yelled at him. "He was goading me. This was what he wanted."

 

"Why?" Sheppard asked. "Why would he want this? Look, I thought I took care of this a few weeks ago. I made it very clear to him, and to his friends, that they were to treat you with respect. Was he backsliding on that, McKay? Because if he was then I will deal with him."

 

Rodney paused, gazing at Sheppard warily. He still wasn't entirely sure he trusted the man, and the honest truth was that Bates wasn't treating him the way he had before. He wasn't constantly goading and baiting him - in fact, Rodney wished he *was* as that had been easier to handle, plates of jello notwithstanding. But no, now Bates was pursuing him, trying to force him into subbing for him - and how did he tell Sheppard *that*?

 

"McKay?" Sheppard asked.

 

"No." Rodney felt his mouth settle into a straight line, and he pushed up his chin defiantly. He was an unattached submissive, and he couldn't see a top like Sheppard being remotely interested in his problems shaking off an unwanted suitor. The man would just laugh at him and tell him to figure it out for himself. He was hardly a kid after all.

 

"How about the other marines - have any of them been taunting you?" Sheppard asked.

 

"No." Rodney shook his head again. They hadn't, either - whatever it was Sheppard had done to them that day in the punishment room had definitely worked. The military boys had all been suspiciously friendly towards him ever since - or else gave him a wide berth. One of them, that blond kid, Hicks, had even come up to him and muttered a shame-faced apology.

 

"Then, right now, Bates's concerns seem to be justified," Sheppard said.

 

"Are you taking me off the team?" Rodney asked, his heart beating too fast, because this was all he cared about - he didn't give a damn about anything else.

 

"No." Sheppard rocked back on his heels. "But if there's something you're not telling me I'll be pretty pissed off."

 

At that moment the door opened, and Elizabeth swept into the office. Rodney steeled himself - but she didn't look angry. She just looked concerned.

 

"Colonel Sheppard - would you excuse us please," she said, and Sheppard nodded, and swept a little bow at her before retreating. Rodney rolled his eyes. Honestly, that man could be ridiculously old-fashioned. Who bowed towards the highest ranked leader these days? It was quaint - and also stupid. He wondered whether Sheppard would bow to *him* if he was the one running this expedition, and he found he liked the idea.

 

"Rodney - what's going on?" Elizabeth asked, seating herself at her desk. Rodney sighed.

 

"Just order the punishment and have done with," he said, striding towards the door. "I'm kind of getting used to it anyway."

 

"Hold it, Dr McKay," she said, in a voice of pure steel. He hesitated, one hand reaching out towards the door, but this was *Elizabeth* and he wasn't yet so far gone that he'd ignore her when she was talking to him. So he turned. "Sit down, Rodney," she said, in a softer voice.

 

"I don't have anything to say," he muttered.

 

"I said, sit down," she repeated. He took a deep breath, and then did what she commanded. Lady Elizabeth Weir wasn't a widely respected diplomat and well regarded top for nothing, and he’d heard only good things about her from the subs she'd played with over the years. There had been a time when he'd have happily subbed to her himself, but she had never shown any interest in him in that way, and he had always known he never stood a chance when there were so many other subs vying for her attention.

 

"Rodney, you're one of the most senior and respected members of this expedition," she told him quietly. "Yet, since we've been here, you're the only one I've had to punish. I've known you for a few years and this isn't like you, Rodney. Is something troubling you?"

 

"You mean apart from the widespread lack of regard in which I'm held by just about everyone on this base?" he snapped. She shook her head.

 

"That isn't true. Your own team speak very highly of you, and everyone knows that we wouldn't even have got this far if it wasn't for you."

 

"Hah," Rodney sulked, unable to find an answer for that.

 

"I can't help you if you won't tell me what's wrong," she said, those warm hazel eyes of hers full of concern. Rodney gazed at her helplessly. He had no idea what to say. It wasn't just Bates that was the problem, it was everything, and he couldn't even sort it all out in his own mind. First there had been that terrible estrangement from Jeannie. He'd tried his best to take care of her when their parents had been killed, and she'd pretty much thrown it in his face - to his mind at least - and while he did concede that there were two sides to every story, as far as he was concerned she was just plain in the wrong. Then there was his own dismal sex life, or lack thereof, and his inability to connect with people. Bates was just the latest in a long line of problems that Rodney had no way of solving. And Rodney was a problem-solver. That was what he did, every day of his working life, but technology was simple and people were complicated, and it frustrated him beyond belief that he was so effortlessly able to find all the answers to any problems he had with the former and none at all to the latter.

 

"Nothing's wrong," he told her softly, because everything was wrong and he had no idea where to begin explaining it to her. Her expression hardened.

 

"Needless to say, Bates is demanding that I punish you," she told him.

 

"Oh, I'm sure." Rodney shrugged. "Not much you can do is there?"

 

She took a deep breath. "There were witnesses, it was unprovoked," she agreed. Rodney remembered being held over a workstation, his arm shoved up his back, his assailant's erection digging into his ass, and mused on this new definition of 'unprovoked', but Elizabeth didn't know about that - and, if it came down to witnesses, nobody had seen it, either. Even Radek had been just a couple of minutes too late. "However," Elizabeth continued, "I'm going to ignore that. I'm going to go out on a limb for you, Rodney. I'm not going to punish you - I'm giving you a free pass, just this once. However…you do one more thing in the next week that makes me regret this decision, and you'll find yourself staring at the floor of the punishment room before you can even draw breath. Understood?"

 

Rodney gazed at her. She was trying to help, in her own way, but none of it was any use. Nothing was any damn use right now.

 

"Understood," he told her, in a low tone. He didn't want to be in her debt. He didn't want to be condescended to, and patronised. He got up and walked towards the door.

 

"Is there something you want to tell me about Bates?" Elizabeth asked. "A lot of your confrontations seem to be with him."

 

Rodney didn't even falter. "No," he said, not turning around. "There is absolutely nothing I want to tell you about Bates." And that was pretty much the truth. Rodney thought he'd rather curl up and die than tell the leader of their expedition that he couldn't handle a man so much less smart than himself that he could have belonged to different species. His pride wouldn't allow it. So he just slammed his hand against the door panel and left, without looking back.

 

It had, on reflection, been one of the best days and worst days of his life, Rodney thought to himself as he retreated to his quarters to lick his wounds. He took a shower and leaned back under the warm water, trying to relax muscles that were aching through sudden use after years of idleness. He remembered the sheer exhilaration of being out in the field beside Colonel Sheppard, of running alongside the man, holding a P-90 and proving to everyone that Sheppard had done the right thing by putting him on his team. He'd done well too - he thought he'd seen a kind of respect in Sheppard's eyes, and Rodney knew he wasn't immune to the colonel's charm. Like everyone else on this base, he wanted Sheppard to think well of him, wanted to earn a word of praise from the laid-back colonel, or experience another one of those conspiratorial smiles. Sheppard had a way of making you feel complicit with him, as if you and he shared some kind of a special secret, and there was something intoxicating about that feeling. Once you'd tasted it, you wanted to keep on tasting it. Now though…now Rodney was pretty sure he'd lost any respect the colonel had for him. He remembered the feel of Sheppard's taut, angry body as he'd manhandled him out of the meeting room, remembered the feel of his hand on the back of his neck, and the way he'd thrown him into Elizabeth's office. Sheppard had said he wouldn't pull him from the team but Rodney was sure that the colonel had to be regretting his decision to pick him in the first place.

 

Rodney got out of the shower and dried himself, and then dressed himself in boxers and a tee shirt before crawling into bed. He lay there, looking up at the ceiling blankly. He didn't expect to sleep - he'd been experiencing insomnia for weeks now, to the point where he’d almost gone to Carson for some medication, but he hadn't wanted to face Carson's concerned blue eyes and the endless questions he knew would result, so he suffered in silence - something that went entirely against the grain.

 

Rodney lay there for a few hours, getting no sleep whatsoever, and in the end he gave up, got dressed, and went back to his beloved lab. At least here he could lose himself in his work. He was still there, unshaven and bad-tempered through lack of sleep, when his staff arrived the next morning. They took one look at him and gave him a wide berth, clearly sensing his mood. Rodney couldn't even be bothered to attend the senior staff meeting at ten a.m. and ignored all of Elizabeth's radioed requests that he get himself up to the meeting room, pronto. He also ignored her email requesting an inventory of all the Ancient technology they'd thus far discovered, because he had more important things to do than sit around making lists for god's sake!

 

Sheppard dropped by the lab a few hours later and leaned casually on a monitor.

 

"So…Elizabeth's looking for you," he said.

 

"I'm not hard to find," Rodney replied, not taking his eyes off his work.

 

"Yeah…only I think she thinks you should go to her, and not the other way around."

 

"Well, I'm busy." Rodney turned to another work station and punched in an algorithm, pausing only to deliver a tirade at Miko for getting in his way. Sheppard winced.

 

"Bates has been to see her," Sheppard said quietly.

 

"Has he?" Rodney didn't even bother to feign an interest in that statement.

 

"So you might not want to piss her off right now, seeing as how she's basically covering your ass for you."

 

"I really don't give a damn," Rodney replied with an air of total indifference. "Look, Colonel, I'm sure you mean well but I'm not interested. The way I see it, we're stuck out here, and I'm the best chance any of you have of getting home. So Elizabeth can jump up and down all she likes, but she can't fire me, and she can't demote me - at least not without putting the entire expedition in danger. All I ask is that people leave me alone to get on with my work, and then everyone will be happy."

 

"Don't count on it," Sheppard replied. "Look, Rodney, what is this? Do you enjoy getting into this much trouble?"

 

Rodney raised his head and actually looked at Sheppard for the first time since the man had entered the lab. Sheppard's hazel eyes were curious, and the man looked genuinely concerned. "It's an interesting question," Rodney mused. "Honestly? It's been kind of fun." He grinned.

 

"Because you don't care any more?" Sheppard leaned forward. "Is that it? Don't you even care about the consequences?"

 

"I do care about the consequences, yes," Rodney agreed, nodding, because he hated the thought of making another visit to the punishment room, but he was so busy pushing a self- destruct button right now that not even that was sufficient to stop him careening along on his current rebellious path. "But somehow…I just don't care enough."

 

Sheppard gazed at him steadily. "Go and see her, Rodney," he advised. Rodney shrugged.

 

"I don't think I will," he replied, and then he set about blowing up a small, pre-prepared corner of the lab in a controlled experiment which made Sheppard jump and reach for his gun on instinct. Rodney grinned. It had definitely been kind of fun, and he wasn't ready for it to end just yet.

 

Elizabeth gave him a couple of days before sending two armed guards to escort him to her office. She gazed at him steadily, her eyes flickering over his stubbled chin and admittedly wayward hair. Rodney gazed back at her, tilting his chin forward defiantly.

 

"Do you have that inventory I asked for?" she requested.

 

"I don't, no."

 

"Do you have an explanation for not having it?"

 

"You mean apart from the fact that it's a total waste of my time and mental energy? 'Fraid not." He shrugged, in a maddeningly offhand manner, entirely aware of how unhelpful he was being.

 

"Do you have an explanation for missing senior staff meetings?"

 

"I was busy."

 

"Do you have a *good* explanation for missing senior staff meetings?"

 

"I was *very* busy?" He folded his arms and stared at her.

 

She took a deep breath, clearly struggling to keep her cool. "Bates wants to press charges," she said at last.

 

"Of course he does. He's Bates." Rodney shrugged again.

 

"You know, I'm all out of reasons for why I should cover for you, Rodney," she said tersely, although he thought he saw a hint of hurt in her eyes and he regretted that, he honestly did. "Report to the punishment room at ten a.m. tomorrow - twelve strokes this time. You can go now."

 

"Thank you." He inclined his head in mock gratitude and turned to leave. His punishments seemed to increase incrementally by two each time which he supposed reflected her escalating irritation with him. Rodney didn't even think about the forthcoming punishment - he just went back to his lab, humming to himself, finger still firmly pressed on that self-destruct.

 


 

Part Four: Escalation

 

 

 

Rodney's first visitor the following day was Sergeant Bates. The man arrived early, while Rodney was the only one in the lab.

 

"I have a proposition for you," Bates said, smiling at him.

 

Rodney raised an eyebrow. "Another one? Because I responded so well to the last one," he mocked, suddenly finding that he'd gone beyond caring at some point.

 

"You'll like this one. Come and sub for me, Rodney…"

 

"If I'm not very much mistaken that *is* the last proposition," Rodney interrupted. "Not even cunningly disguised as a new proposition."

 

"Come and sub for me and I'll drop the charges," Bates said. Rodney stared at him and then burst out laughing.

 

"Oh, this is good. Let me get this straight, knucklebrain. You're saying that if I agree to be your sub, with all the many attractions that offers, not least, as I recall, the fact you promised to tan my ass, then you'll get me out of…oh, yes, having my ass tanned. Seems like a zero sum equation to me, pinhead."

 

"Just offering." Bates grinned. "You'll give in eventually, Rodney."

 

"What makes you assume that?"

 

"Because I'll make your life a misery until you do. See you later. Around ten a.m. I believe." Bates gave him a mock salute and then left.

 

Rodney gazed after him, sightlessly. Maybe Bates was right. In fact, maybe it would be easier to just give in. It would certainly be less wearying - all he had to do was say 'yes' and his current misery would come to an end. Of course he'd be throwing himself into the path of a new kind of misery but honestly, Rodney wasn't sure he could bring himself to care. All the same, some innate obstinacy that went soul-deep with him kicked in. If he gave in now then Bates would win and besides, he honestly thought he might gag just at the *thought* of kneeling in front of the sergeant, and taking the man's cock in his mouth, so the reality didn't bear thinking about.

 

Rodney received his second visitor at five minutes to ten. He was just leaving the lab on his way to the punishment room and found Colonel Sheppard loitering outside. He ignored him, but Sheppard fell into step beside him as he walked.

 

"Can I help you, Colonel?" he asked.

 

"Just thought you might want company," Sheppard replied.

 

"Not really, no," Rodney said curtly.

 

"Well, you've got it anyway."

 

Rodney sighed.

 

"Elizabeth did try and help you out of this one you know," Sheppard told him as they walked.

 

"Yes. I do." Rodney nodded.

 

"Why didn't you let her help you?"

 

"Because it doesn't matter," Rodney shrugged, getting into the transporter. "None of it matters, Colonel." Sheppard got in beside him and leaned back against the wall.

 

"I think it does. I think that's the problem. I think it really matters. I think it matters so much that it hurts," he said softly.

 

Rodney blinked. Did it? He felt so numb inside that he couldn't tell any more. The door opened, and he got out without saying a word and strode along the hallway towards the open door at the end. His stomach contracted as he got closer. Sheppard was right - it did hurt. It hurt just as much this time as it had the first time, and it hurt deep inside. Rodney shoved the sensation down, searching again for the numbness. They reached the door, and Sheppard paused.

 

"Coming in to enjoy the day's entertainment, Colonel?" Rodney asked, in a mocking tone. Sheppard shook his head.

 

"Not this time," he replied softly.

 

"I'm surprised. You watched the previous times," Rodney spat at him, feeling another wave of pain slice through him, raw and bitter. "I saw you."

 

"I know, but not this time," Sheppard said firmly.

 

"Why not?"

 

"Because now you're on my team." Sheppard patted his arm. Rodney felt something break inside, and the numbness fell away. He gazed at Sheppard blindly. Damn the man for making him care about what happened to him *now*, right when he needed not to care. "I'll be waiting," Sheppard told him, and then he stood up straight, outside the door, almost as if guarding it. Rodney didn't have a clue what this all meant, and he didn't have time to think about it, because it was ten a.m. and he'd watched enough bad movies to know what happened if you didn't turn up for a punishment on time.

 

Carson called it the bearpit, and Rodney had developed a keen appreciation of what the doctor meant by that now. He'd never been remotely interested in public punishments, one way or the other, before he'd been subjected to them. They simply were, like coffee or taxes - they existed, but, unlike coffee or taxes, they had never impinged on his everyday world before. He'd only ever been to one - when his mom had insisted that he and his little sister accompany her to watch a local teacher being punished for drunk driving, something she had a thing about but only, Rodney suspected, because she was secretly hoping his father would one day be up on the same charge. Rodney had found the whole thing boring, and had spent the time reading a text book on particle physics and writing emphatic messages in the margins next to all the bits that were wrong. Jeannie, on the other hand, had been so freaked out by it that Rodney had been forced to take her to the park and buy her an ice cream afterwards to calm her down. His mom, as usual, hadn't taken any responsibility at all, and as she was able to withstand Jeannie's sobbing better than Rodney she just shut herself in her room until Rodney dealt with it, and didn't emerge until he brought a much happier Jeannie home from the park, chin still smeared with chocolate sauce.

 

Rodney had never thought that he'd one day be in the same situation as that disgraced teacher. As a sub, he was happy to give his body to a top of his own choosing, for whatever pre-arranged and carefully negotiated erotic pleasure appealed to them both, but there was nothing erotic about being bent over and beaten by one of your own subordinates in front of a crowd of jeering marines and scientists from the *botany* department for god's sake! Rodney glared at them all as he entered the room but that just seemed to amuse the marines who laughed out loud at him. Now he wished Sheppard *was* in the room, because the mood was uglier than it had ever been before, and he sensed that was because the colonel wasn't there to calm them all down with one raised eyebrow, or a wry, warning, clearing of his throat.

 

Peter was standing by the frame, looking kind of anxious, clearly freaked out by the mood in the room. Rodney took a deep breath, and then walked over to him.

 

"Could we dispense with the whole reading me my rights thing?" he asked. "Because I've heard it twice now, and I could actually recite it back to you, and I have three different coupling systems to recalibrate by lunchtime and I'd really rather waste as little time as possible on this nonsense."

 

"Well…okay," Peter shrugged. "Just…I'm supposed to so if you're asked you'll have to say I did."

 

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he muttered. He glanced up, and saw Elizabeth sitting, pale and remote, right at the back as usual. Her face was set in a cool mask that gave nothing away but her eyes met his and once again he felt a pang as he saw the hurt in them. He wished he could do things differently, but right now he wasn't entirely sure he could change the way he was behaving.

 

Rodney moved his hands to his pants and undid them, then stepped over to the frame and leaned forward. Only when he was in position did he yank them, and his boxers, down to just beneath his ass - he wasn't going to give the bastards watching the satisfaction of catching a glimpse of bare flesh, although some of them would see his face clearly enough and that was possibly even worse. Rodney turned his face to one side, and as he did so he caught sight of Bates, sitting right slap bang in the middle of the front row. The sergeant wasn't joining in the catcalls, and he wasn't smiling, either - instead, there was a grim, sickly kind of expression on his face, and Rodney felt a shudder run through his body as he realised that the sergeant was enjoying this in an entirely different way. Now Rodney missed Sheppard even more - he hadn’t been consciously aware of it before, but somehow he'd always caught the colonel's hazel-eyed gaze during previous punishments, and he didn't know why but that had anchored him. Now he felt all at sea. He closed his eyes to shut out the queasy feeling rising in his stomach.

 

The first swat landed a split second later and his eyes flashed open, despite his best efforts to give nothing away. Rodney didn't mind a good, erotic spanking, and one of his tops had enjoyed hurting him way beyond that, for her own amusement, but at least he'd had a choice about that, and could stop it with a word. This wasn't like that. He didn't have a choice about this - this was simply designed to hurt - and it did. It wasn’t delivered with love and affection by someone he trusted and was intimate with – it was meant to punish, plain and simple. Rodney bit on his lip as the second blow fell, and he clutched the handles on the frame tightly, feeling his palms start to sweat. He didn't mean to, but he found himself seeking out Bates's face in the audience again. Bates had an intent expression in his eyes, and he was barely blinking as he drank in Rodney's misery.

 

Rodney supposed he should be grateful that Elizabeth had only ordered the paddle - she had a whole array of implements at her disposal, ranging from the paddle to the cane to - and Rodney dreaded the thought of anyone ever being on the receiving end of it - the bullwhip. But right now, he didn't feel particularly grateful. Twelve strokes suddenly stretched out into eternity, and he wondered what would happen if he tried to walk out. The frame had restraints but they had paid him the courtesy of not using them. Elizabeth would presumably just send armed guards after him to drag him back and make him take his punishment if he tried to escape. Rodney knew that he wouldn't walk out in any case. On some level, he felt he deserved his punishment - not for hitting Bates but for the way he'd behaved towards Elizabeth, and, while he would never apologise to her in person, he could take this - he had pretty much walked into it head first after all.

 

Eight swats in, and his ass hurt more than he wanted to think about. He could hear Peter grunting with the force of each stroke and he was struggling to remain silent but he wouldn't give his audience the satisfaction of a reaction. He remained where he was, as still as he could hold himself, gaze averted, just resting there like a dead fish on a slab. He was screaming inside though - yelling in outrage and pain. He had always been a noisy sub, and he enjoyed it when a top took him to places that finally made him shut up, accepting whatever was being done to him, totally under the spell of a sexually dominant partner, but staying silent in these circumstances was much harder. Rodney bit back a howl as Peter delivered the ninth stroke. Three more…three more. He saw Bates shift in his chair, his hand resting on his groin, rubbing there surreptitiously, and it was all he could do to swallow down the bile that rose immediately in the back of his throat. He swore, there and then, his mind hazy with pain, that he'd get his own back on the sergeant somehow.

 

The final strokes hurt more than he'd been expecting - he guessed he was nearing the limit of what his body could comfortably tolerate, and he knew that alone should be a warning to him not to push Elizabeth any more, but somehow, even knowing that, he doubted he would be able to stop and take himself off his current path of self-destruction.

 

Then, finally, it was over. Rodney took a deep breath, and pushed himself away from the frame. His hands were shaking as he pulled up his pants and fastened them, and although he wanted to get out of there as fast as he could, his legs felt like lead and he wasn't physically able to bounce out of the room the way he had on the previous two occasions. He muttered something to Peter - he had no idea what, but it wasn't Grodin's fault that he'd pulled the short straw and got to be Elizabeth's lackey on this, and then he walked slowly towards the door, surprised by how shaky he felt. He got to the door, face flushed from pain and humiliation, and was unaccountably relieved to find Sheppard still standing there, still in the same position, hands behind his back.

 

"Okay?" Sheppard turned as he heard the door open, raising an eyebrow.

 

"What do you think?" Rodney growled, pushing past him. His legs still weren't working very well, and his mind felt fuzzy.

 

"Whoa!" Sheppard reached out a hand and cupped his elbow, holding him steady. Rodney wanted to wave him away but right now he wasn't sure he'd stay upright if he did that, so he leaned into the colonel's strong, lean body and allowed the man to help him down the hallway and into the transporter.

 

"Looks like it was bad," Sheppard commented. Rodney closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. He wasn't sure why he was feeling like this - he'd only taken two more swats than previously and he'd been fine then. Now he felt as if he was seasick, and everything was moving around him, making him unsteady on his feet. The transporter door opened and Sheppard put a hand under his elbow again. Rodney squinted at the hallway.

 

"This isn't the way to my lab," he said.

 

"No. It's the way to the infirmary."

 

"Well, I don't want to *go* to the infirmary," Rodney snapped. "I want to go to my lab."

 

"I don't care," Sheppard said grimly. "We're going to the infirmary."

 

Rodney considered arguing but he really didn't have the energy, and besides, Sheppard had that same look in his eyes that he got when he was out in the field, facing down wraith. The one that said he was in charge and nobody better argue. Usually he was so laidback that Rodney was surprised the military had picked him for a command post, but having seen the man in times of crisis he was beginning to understand that there was more to him than was usually evident on that ironic, unruffled surface.

 

They walked, unsteadily, down the hallway to the infirmary, and by the time they got there Rodney was feeling so ill he didn't even mind when Sheppard picked up his arm and draped it over his shoulder, then put his own arm around Rodney's waist and hauled him the rest of the way.

 

He was only dimly aware of Carson getting to his feet, a surprised look on his face as Sheppard carried him into the infirmary.

 

"My god what's happened to him? Put him on the bed," Carson ordered. "Rodney? Stay with us."

 

"Ow, ow, ow!" Rodney yelped as Sheppard sat him down on one of the beds, making his sore ass blaze with pain.

 

"Go easy, man," Carson chided, turning Rodney more comfortably onto his side. "Was it that bad?" He glanced at Sheppard.

 

"I don't know - I was waiting for him outside," the colonel said, spreading his hands. "But I don't think it's the punishment that did this. He was looking pretty pale beforehand."

 

"Ah. I think I have an inkling…" Carson's blue eyes swam into view. "Rodney - when did you last eat anything, son?" he asked.

 

Rodney tried to think about it. "No idea," he croaked at last, and even ill as he was, he knew how weird that was. He *always* knew when he'd last eaten. His life revolved around food, coffee and work to the exclusion of just about everything else.

 

"Damnit, Rodney. You know what happens when you go too long without food," Carson scolded, pushing Sheppard out of the way and going over to his desk.

 

"A power bar? You're giving him a power bar?" Sheppard asked incredulously, as Carson returned and pushed something sweet and crumbly into his mouth.

 

"Aye. He's hypoglycaemic - a wee taste of a power bar will help him more than any medicine," Carson grinned. His hand came down on Rodney's shoulder, and he stroked gently. "This isn't like you, Rodney," he murmured. "Not remembering to eat."

 

"He is looking a bit thin," Sheppard commented. Rodney tried to think about that. He was sure he *wasn't*. Not that he'd looked in a mirror lately, but he was sure he was still as robust and well built as ever.

 

"Aye. I'd noticed that too," Carson said. Rodney frowned and sat up, propping himself up sideways on one arm so he wouldn't have to put too much weight on his sore ass.

 

"Don't talk about me as if I'm not here," he snapped. Carson glanced at Sheppard and grinned.

 

"See - I told you the power bar would do the trick," he said.

 

"It's a miracle," Sheppard laughed.

 

"Well, if you're both done, I have work to do," Rodney muttered, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Carson put a hand on his shoulder.

 

"Och, I don't think so, do you, laddie?" he said, shaking his head ruefully. Rodney sighed - Carson was a total martinet in the infirmary so he had doubted he'd get out that easily but even so, he decided to push his luck.

 

"I'm fine - I'll go eat something and then get to work. Don't make a fuss, Carson," he snapped. "Sheppard - tell him. I'm perfectly able to get back to work."

 

Sheppard shook his head, casting a sideways glance at the doctor as he did so. "You're arguing with Carson? On his own turf? Good luck, buddy but you're on your own with that one."

 

Carson gave a little gurgle of laughter at that. "Come now, Rodney. Now I've got you here, I might as well give you a proper check up. I've noticed you've been looking tired lately. Are you sleeping well?"

 

Rodney bit on his lip and glanced at Sheppard. If he admitted to Carson about his insomnia then the colonel might take him off the team and he didn't want that. He was already annoyed about the colonel finding out he was hypoglycaemic. The man must be thinking what a total liability he was in the field.

 

"I'm fine," he growled. Carson's blue eyes saw right through him.

 

"Well, you can stay here and keep me company for the rest of the day in any case," he said firmly. "I want to do some blood work on you and I'm going to get one of the nurses to run to the mess hall and bring you back a proper meal. You can eat it while I watch just so I can be certain you won't collapse again. Then you can lie down in here this afternoon and take a nap under my supervision."

 

"I'm not tired," Rodney complained.

 

"I don't care." Carson grinned sweetly. "Come now, Rodney - I'm having a dull day and it'll be nice for me to have a patient to cluck over."

 

"You don't cluck. You terrorise," Rodney scowled.

 

Sheppard grinned at him. "Man you like living on the edge. You know, Rodney, you do work pretty hard, and you could do with some down time. I'll drop by your lab and let Radek know he's in charge for the rest of the day."

 

"No…oh for god's sake," Rodney growled, as Sheppard patted his arm and then, with a cheery grin at Carson, he left the infirmary. Rodney gazed after him forlornly. There had been something rather comforting about having Sheppard's tall, commanding presence by his side and he found he missed him. He was suddenly aware that Carson's blue eyes were fixed on him, with an assessing look.

 

"What?" Rodney snapped.

 

"Nothing." Carson gave him a gentle little smile. "I'll go and get you something to change into and then I'm going to do a proper examination, whether you like it or not. I want to check to see if there's any damage after this morning."

 

Rodney flushed and gazed at his feet.

 

"You've got friends you know, Rodney," Carson told him softly, hovering close by, his hand reaching out to stroke Rodney's shoulder again. "Friends who care if you don't eat, and you can't sleep, and you keep getting into trouble. If there's anything bothering you - you know you can tell me, don't you?"

 

Rodney looked up, his throat suddenly feeling dry, as if he was trying to swallow uphill.

 

"You're right," he muttered at last. "I do feel kind of tired." And he leaned back on the bed, put his head down, and buried his face in the pillow so he wouldn't have to look into Carson's kind eyes any more.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

John walked along to the lab, and went over to where Radek was working. The Czech scientist looked up, startled, and pushed his glasses further up his nose, in a familiar, nervous gesture.

 

"I just wanted to tell you that you're in charge for the day," John told him.

 

"Why? What have you done with Rodney?" Radek squeaked, looking concerned.

 

"He's in the infirmary," John told him. Radek gave a low hiss, and muttered something in Czech that even someone like John, with zero knowledge of the language, knew had to be an expletive. "Is there a problem?" he asked, frowning.

 

"No, no…no problem except one must ask why you are all so determined to ruin one of the finest minds of his generation with all this…." He spat out a word that John didn't recognise and John noticed that some of the people in the room were listening in on their conversation.

 

"Do you have a few minutes?" he asked. "Maybe we could go to the mess hall and grab a donut?" He had noticed that donuts seemed to be a staple food for the scientists. Radek shrugged, and they retired to the privacy of the empty mess hall.

 

"I am not saying he is easy to work for - he is not," Radek said, as he sat down at a table. John brought over the donuts and coffee, and sat facing him. "But genius is not without its price. He is short-tempered, and he expects more from us than I think we are capable of - or maybe it is just his way of coaxing brilliance from us…whatever it is, I have achieved more working with him for one year than I did in my life before."

 

"Well that's good," John said, sipping on his coffee and gazing at the scientist thoughtfully. "Do all the other members of his staff feel the same way? I've noticed that none of them attend his punishments."

 

"We would not!" Radek looked outraged at the idea. "When you have worked with him you cannot but respect his mind - we have no desire to witness what passes for justice out here."

 

"You disagree with Elizabeth's decisions to punish him?" John asked, frowning. Radek sighed.

 

"My Lady Elizabeth is very wise, and I respect her very much, but in this instance, yes, I disagree with her, but then I am always at odds with the authorities on this issue." He gave a wan smile. "I was a political activist in Czechoslovakia, before the war," he murmured. "I underwent many such punishments myself."

 

"You're a radical," John said, sitting back in his chair and gazing at Radek thoughtfully. Radek grinned.

 

"I am, yes," he agreed, and then his smile faded, and he looked anxious again. "But how is Rodney? You said he was in the infirmary?"

 

"He's fine - apparently he just forgot to eat." John shrugged.

 

"Rodney forgot to eat? It's surely impossible." Radek shook his head ruefully. "I have never known this to happen," he told John, with a glint in his eye. John had a sudden sense of how well Radek knew Rodney, and for a second he felt a wave of resentment towards the scientist.

 

"Are you a top, Radek?" he asked bluntly.

 

"What?" Radek pushed his glasses nervously up his nose again. "What business is this of yours?"

 

It was a good question, and John struggled to find an answer. "I just wondered. You seemed worried about Rodney, so I thought…."

 

"No. No, no, no…do not go there, Colonel," Radek interrupted him, looking kind of angry. "I do not top."

 

"Oh. Right." John leaned back again, feeling unaccountably relieved.

 

"I do not sub, either," Radek said.

 

John frowned. "You switch?"

 

"No." Radek looked uncomfortable. "I do not do any of these things - they do not appeal to me. I identify as non-dynamic."

 

"Really?" John was a little shocked but he did his best to hide it.

 

"Also…I am not interested in Rodney in that way because he is a man."

 

John gazed at him blankly and Radek flushed an even deeper shade of red. He leaned forwards and spoke in a whisper.

 

"I am monosexual."

 

John did his best to keep his face non-judgemental because really it was no business of his if Radek only wanted to sleep with women, and he was cool with it in any case. He'd never actually met any monosexuals but there was quite a strong monosexual movement that had gained acceptance in the past few years.

 

"You're mono?" he grinned. "Honestly, Radek, that's not as big a deal as it was a few years ago."

 

"No. But even so." Radek shrugged. "I do not speak of it often - it has no bearing on my work and I have encountered prejudice so I prefer to keep my private life private."

 

"Mono *and* non-dynamic? Man, you're pervy!" John laughed. "Where the hell do you go to *meet* people, Radek?"

 

"There are clubs," Radek shrugged. "It is easier now than it used to be, now that more people are prepared to admit that they do not identify in the traditional way, with dominant or submissive inclinations."

 

"Are there any others on Atlantis?" John asked, curious. Radek shrugged.

 

"Not many, but there are always some. I thought to ask Elizabeth for permission to start a little newsletter, so that we could be open about our preferences."

 

"Well I think that's a great idea." John nodded. "And I promise you that I'll help you handle any negativity that you might encounter. I can't stand that kind of crap. What you do in the bedroom is your own affair. It's not for me but I don't see what the hell business it is of mine."

 

Radek smiled, and looked more relaxed than he had thus far.

 

"You work closely with Rodney," John said, returning to the original topic of conversation. "Is there anything going on that we should know about?"

 

Radek thought about it for a moment and then shrugged, uneasily. "I think you are asking the wrong man," he said.

 

"I've already asked Rodney but he just closes up like a clam," John sighed.

 

"I did not mean Rodney," Radek said quietly. "I think if you want to find out what is wrong with Rodney then you must first find out what is happening with Sergeant Bates."

 

"Bates?" John frowned. "I thought I'd dealt with Bates. Hell, Rodney told me himself that Bates wasn't giving him any trouble."

 

"Maybe that is so, if Rodney says it is," Radek said. "But Rodney is a proud man, perhaps the proudest man I've ever met, and I think he would not want a top such as yourself to know his problems. Yes?"

 

"Is there something you know that you aren't telling me?" John demanded. Radek shifted nervously.

 

"It is Rodney's business," he said, finally. "That is all I wish to say."

 

John considered this for a moment, but Radek looked very tight-lipped, and clearly wasn't going to tell him anything more. John sighed.

 

"Okay - let's leave it at that then," he said, still none the wiser as to what, exactly, was going on with Rodney. Not that it was his responsibility to find out - he wasn't interested in taking the man as a sub after all. No, the only reason he cared was because Rodney was on his team, and John always looked out for the people on his team.

 

John walked back to his office, feeling unsettled by the day's events. For some reason he couldn't get the mental image of a pale, tired-looking Rodney McKay out of his head. The scientist looked like a man running on empty - and utterly out of control at the same time. John wondered what the hell was going on in the scientist's mind - from everything he'd heard, this wasn't typical Rodney McKay behaviour, and he could only guess at how much it had to be costing such a proud, arrogant man, to end up on that punishment frame time after time. He remembered the way Rodney had stumbled, and how he had fallen against him, the warm solidity of his body against his own and the look in those blue eyes - combined sadness and a kind of guarded desperation. John felt his fists clench, and he sat down at his desk and slammed his hand onto his radio.

 

"Sergeant Bates - I'd like to see you please. Now," he snapped curtly.

 

Bates looked his usual clean, sharp self when he arrived a few minutes later, in stark contrast to the city's shambolic Head of Science, with his unkempt hair and scruffy clothes. Bates was every inch the professional soldier - parade ground ready, boots polished, everything shining. John gazed at him, wondering what the hell he was expecting to learn from this meeting.

 

"Sergeant Bates - I'm concerned about that punch Dr McKay threw at you in the briefing room," John said cautiously. "It seemed…kind of out of character. Dr McKay's main form of attack is his sharp tongue after all," John said, watching Bates carefully. "So, I was wondering if you knew of anything that might have set him off."

 

Bates frowned. "Such as, sir?" he asked.

 

"I was wondering if the two of you had argued recently, or if there was any animosity between you. I seem to recall making my feelings on that subject very plain right after the jello incident."

 

Bates shook his head. "I can't think of anything, sir," he said. "To be honest I've hardly even seen Dr McKay since that time with the jello in the mess hall. Our paths don't cross much."

 

John sat back in his chair and considered the sergeant, saying nothing, hoping that would un-nerve the other man. A minute passed, and Bates started to look uncomfortable.

 

"Why sir?" he asked eventually. "Has Dr McKay made a complaint about me?"

 

"No," John said slowly. "What makes you think he would?"

 

"Nothing, sir. Just that you seem to think there might be some kind of problem.”

 

"And is there?" John raised an eyebrow.

 

"Not with me, sir," Bates replied, and there was something about the way he said it, with just the hint of an eyeroll, that made it clear to John that Bates was saying that if anyone had a problem it was McKay, and nothing whatsoever to do with Bates.

 

"So, you can't think of anything you might have said, or done, that would have caused him to punch you a few days ago?" John pressed.

 

"Nothing beyond what you heard in that meeting, sir. To be honest, I'm not sure that Dr McKay is coping very well with the pressure of life out here. You only have to look at his appearance - the man is a mess." Bates gave a conspiratorial little smile. "But then he's a scientist after all, not a soldier, and he's had no training for what we're facing out here."

 

"What are you implying?" John asked quietly. "Speak your mind, Sergeant - off the record."

 

"Well, we're in another galaxy, and we've come up against some pretty scary aliens, sir. I'm just saying that a lot of people might find that hard to handle and Dr McKay doesn't strike me as being the most stable of people. Maybe he needs fewer responsibilities. You have to admit that it doesn't look good when the Head of Science, the second in command on this expedition, ends up in the punishment room every week or so. Off the record…I'd say he was cracking up, sir."

 

"Really?" John pondered that for a moment. Rodney was certainly desperate - but cracking up? The truth was that John felt more confident about Rodney's behaviour offworld, with all that implied by way of scary aliens, than he did about the scientist’s conduct in the city. Offworld, Rodney had been brave, committed, relaxed and even pretty good fun to be around - it was only back on Atlantis that he played up.

 

"Yes, sir. Honestly, I've got nothing against the guy but I have wondered if he needs psychiatric help. I mean - the way he threw himself at me in the briefing room? It was kind of extreme. You were there - I hardly said anything that warranted that kind of personal attack. My first thoughts are always for the safety of the mission and the people we're here to protect, sir." Bates nodded firmly and John had no doubt that he absolutely meant that.

 

"You think Dr McKay is a liability?"

 

Bates hesitated. "Well, nobody's denying he's very smart, sir, but yes…I think he IS a liability. If it were up to me, I'd bench him for a few weeks, take the pressure off him. For his own good and the good of the expedition."

 

"I see. Sergeant - I'm very much aware there was some bad blood between you and Dr McKay. Now, if you lie to me about this I will have your guts, Sergeant, and I promise you that it won't be pretty, but if you tell me the truth then you'll only get your ass kicked a little. I'm only going to ask you this once: have you bullied Dr McKay at any point since that day in the punishment room when I put you through your paces and made it very clear that he was deserving of your utmost respect?"

 

Bates's mouth set into a hard line. "No, *sir*," he practically spat. "I always follow orders, sir and you made your views on that day very plain, sir."

 

"All right then, Sergeant. I'll take you at your word. Dismissed," John said. He watched Bates go, feeling as if he'd got nowhere, and he couldn't shake the niggling feeling that he'd missed something. He slapped his headset again and called Corporal Hicks to his office. Bates was a hard nut to crack - but Hicks? Well, he was just a kid, and a pretty malleable one at that.

 

Hicks stood to attention in front of his desk a few minutes later and John sat back in his chair and surveyed him. He didn't give the corporal permission to stand at ease, and the blond kid started to flush under his scrutiny.

 

"Corporal, I'm going to ask you a question, and I want an honest reply," John told him. Hicks flushed even deeper and his voice croaked as he replied.

 

"I would always be honest with you, sir." There was a wistful look in his eyes as he said that, and John remembered how cute he'd looked on his knees, with his head down, utterly submissive. Yes, there was no way this kid would lie to him - and even if he did, John would see through it without any trouble at all.

 

"You hang out with a little gang in your off duty hours I believe," John said. "With Krettman, Bates and some of the others - yes?"

 

"Yes, sir," Hicks nodded but he looked worried, clearly uncertain where this was heading.

 

"Have you witnessed Dr McKay being harassed in any way recently?" John asked. Hicks flushed a bright red, and looked a little ashamed of himself.

 

"No, sir," he whispered. "And I apologised to Dr McKay about the way things were before. I didn't realise it had gone too far. I was just…kind of joining in but I can see that was pretty dumb of me now."

 

"What about Bates? Have you seen him harassing Dr McKay lately?" John pressed. Hicks shook his head vehemently.

 

"No, sir! In fact, I haven't seen them so much as say two words to each other since that day you, uh, made things clear to us in the punishment room, sir." Hicks was now flushing a shade that could only be described as vermillion. "Bates won't let any of the others say anything, either - he glares at anyone who even looks at McKay in a funny way, and he gets kind of angry if anyone says anything against McKay - even in private. I've seen him almost get into fights over that."

 

"Okay. Thank you, Corporal," John sighed. He dismissed the kid and sat back in his chair again feeling completely demoralised. There simply weren't any obvious answers here - unless he accepted Bates's assertion at face value that Rodney was simply cracking up. Both Bates and Hicks were singing from the same hymn sheet, and while he wasn't completely sure about Bates, he would bet his life on the fact that Hicks was telling him the truth. It was Bates's behaviour that bothered him though. The man had just effectively briefed against Rodney, in the most subtle of ways, undermining him, calling his mental state into question, suggesting he be sidelined…and yet, Hicks was adamant that Bates not only didn't have a bad word to say about Rodney when they were alone together, but also that he wouldn't tolerate anyone else bad-mouthing him, either. It just didn't stack up.

 

John sighed - maybe there was some kind of obvious answer to all this in here somewhere, but if so, it completely eluded him. There was little he could do except monitor the situation, and hope that if there was an obvious answer, it'd eventually make itself so obvious that it hit him upside the head, because right now he had nothing.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Rodney had a surprisingly nice day in the infirmary. Carson didn't seem very busy - or if he was, he put his workload on hold. He joined Rodney for a meal which felt relaxed, not like a doctor/patient thing at all, but more like two friends passing some time together. Carson joked around with him and didn't once mention his recent punishment, for which Rodney was extremely grateful. Rodney was still feeling pretty fuzzy after his hypoglycaemic attack and he didn't demur when Carson insisted he take a nap during the afternoon. In fact, it felt really nice to get some sleep - he hadn't realised just how bad his insomnia had become. Usually there was no way Rodney would have been able to sleep during the day, but Carson sat beside him, reading through some notes, and that was oddly comforting and before he knew it he was coming to, blurrily, to find that five hours had passed.

 

He should have realised that Carson wouldn't let it go at that though. Only when Rodney had eaten another meal, and was feeling exponentially better, with a full stomach and several hours sleep behind him, did Carson lean forward, gaze at him with those knowing blue eyes, and start in on all the killer questions.

 

"So, how long have you had the insomnia, laddie?" he asked. Rodney winced. He always knew it was going to be bad when Carson started calling him laddie.

 

"It's nothing. I've never needed much sleep," he replied. Carson smiled, that tight, toppy little smile that said there was no way he would ever let Rodney get away with that kind of an answer. Rodney sighed.

"The past couple of weeks have been stressful," he admitted. "I needed to get the generators online and I wanted to test a couple of theories about how the city worked which involved setting up some complicated experiments that you wouldn't understand." Carson grinned, completely unfazed by Rodney's aspersions on his intelligence.

 

"Do you lie awake at night worrying about anything, Rodney?" Carson asked. Rodney gazed at him blankly. He thought of Jeannie, thought of Bates, thought, inexplicably, of Colonel Sheppard. "The Wraith maybe?" Carson added. Rodney snorted.

 

"No, Carson. I can promise you I never lie awake at night worrying about the Wraith," he said, truthfully.

 

"I don't know why the bloody hell not!" Carson exclaimed. "Those little buggers give me the heebie jeebies. It'd be natural enough if you were freaked out by them."

 

"Well I'm not," Rodney replied firmly.

 

"So what do you lie awake thinking about?" Carson pressed. Rodney felt his hands start to twitch anxiously.

 

"Just…I don't want Sheppard to throw me off his team," Rodney said, surprising himself by that admission. Some kind of a knowing look flashed into Carson's blue eyes.

 

"And why do you think he would?" Carson asked quietly.

 

"Some of the things Bates said before I punched him." Rodney shrugged. "And man, you have no idea how good *that* felt."

 

"Ah. Bates. I wondered when he'd come up," Carson murmured. "Is he bothering you, Rodney? Because if he is, there are plenty of people here who can take care of that."

 

"I am perfectly capable of dealing with Sergeant Bates all by myself thank you very much, Carson!" Rodney growled. "Stop patronising me and don't treat me like an idiot. I may be very many things but stupid is not one of them."

 

Carson gazed at him thoughtfully. "You didn't answer my question, Rodney," he said softly. Rodney thought about telling his friend but he had a sudden flashback to Bates sitting watching him being punished that morning. He recalled the way Bates had been rubbing himself, getting off on his pain and humiliation. Damnit, he would get back at that bastard, if it was the last thing he did.

 

"No," Rodney said, tilting his chin forward firmly. "Bates isn't a problem. He isn't a problem at all."

 

Carson finally released him around seven, with strict instructions that he was not, under any circumstances, to go back to his lab. Rodney was fine with that - he had already decided that he was going somewhere else in any case. He arrived outside a door a few minutes later, and hesitated, steeling himself for what he intended to do next. He'd had enough of being pursued and harassed - it was time to turn the tables and start fighting back.

 

The door was locked, but that didn't bother Rodney. He knocked first of all, and when there was no reply he used his knowledge of the city to open the door and then stepped inside. The room was in darkness but Rodney didn't bother turning on a light. He just closed the door behind him, and went and sat down. He put his legs up on the table, feigning a nonchalance at odds with his wildly beating heart…and waited. The marines worked to a very strict schedule so he knew Bates wouldn't be long, and, sure enough, the sergeant returned to his room ten minutes later. He didn't turn on the light, either, just started tugging at his uniform collar to loosen it.

 

"Hello, Bates," Rodney said softly.

 

Bates swung round, reaching for his weapon. Rodney gave a wry little chuckle and leaned back to switch on the light on the wall, flooding the room with light. Bates looked at him, an expression of total surprise on his face. That gave Rodney a buzz of pleasure, and he gave a wide grin.

 

"How did you get in here?" Bates demanded. "I left the door locked."

 

"Oh, I know this city backwards," Rodney told him. "I know just about everything there is to know about it - including how to bypass a few simple door mechanisms. So, you might want to be careful - with all the stuff I know, you really don't want to piss me off."

 

Bates gazed at him for a moment, and then his face creased into a broad grin too. "You wouldn't do anything," he said. "You're soft, Rodney."

 

"Want to bet your life on that?" Rodney asked, in a sinister tone. Bates's mouth set into a hard line.

 

"Don't threaten me, boy," he snarled. "You're just a sub running wild right now, and what you need is a hard top to bring you into line." Then his expression changed, and he gave a twisted kind of grin. "The way I see it, you're here for a reason right now, whether you've figured it out or not. You want what I can give you, Rodney."

 

Rodney slid his legs off the table, fighting the rising tide of panic in his gut. Suddenly the whole 'attack is the best method of defence - show up in his room and freak him out' strategy wasn't working as well as he'd expected, and he was acutely aware that he was stuck in Bates's room with no one around if the sergeant decided to turn nasty.

 

"I told you," Bates said, in a low, soft tone. "I told you that you'd come here. I knew you wouldn't be able to stay away. Now get on your knees, boy, because I'm going to beat the shit out of you before I fuck you." His hands went to his belt and Rodney got up, and edged nervously towards the door.

 

"I don't think so," he hissed, and then he tried to make a dignified exit, striding purposefully towards the door. He was nearly there when Bates got to him, caught hold of his arm, and spun him back.

 

"I said, on-your-knees," Bates ground out, pushing Rodney down in the general direction of the floor. Rodney slammed his hand into the other man's belly and broke the sergeant's grasp, only for Bates to trip him as he tried to make another run for it. Rodney scrabbled around frantically on the floor, trying to get away again, but Bates was too fast for him. "That's right," Bates hissed. "On your knees, where you belong." He grabbed hold of Rodney's hair, pulled his head back, and then traced a finger over Rodney's mouth. "Oh yes…cock-sucking lips…I'll put them to good use," Bates whispered.

 

"Stick your cock in my mouth and I'll bite the damn thing off," Rodney snarled, twisting helplessly in the other man's grasp. The expression in Bates's eyes made it clear he wasn't going to risk that, but Rodney could feel his hardness against his cheek all the same, and it made him feel physically sick to realise that this was turning Bates on. "I saw you today, you sick pervert," Rodney said. "Saw you when I was being punished…rubbing yourself…."

 

"What can I say?" Bates grinned. "The sight of you, ass up over that frame, makes me horny. Is that why you're here, Rodney? Did it turn you on too?"

 

"Let me go," Rodney hissed, and he was surprised when, a second later, Bates did just that. Rodney slumped to the floor but got up quickly. Bates watched him, still grinning, his eyes raking over Rodney's body as if he was mentally undressing him.

 

"You are such a crappy sub," Bates said. "I'm going to make you beg for it, Rodney. One day, you'll beg me to allow you to suck my cock. It can be today if you want. Do you want it, Rodney. It's hard for you." His hand went down to the front of his pants and caressed the hardness through the fabric.

 

"If you want to beg me right now then I'll let you suck me. Might be a good way of shutting up your whiney little voice."

 

Rodney backed away towards the door, and Bates followed him, a dark, intent look in his eyes. "Did you know that Colonel Sheppard has serious doubts about your mental health, Rodney?" he said suddenly, in a sweet little tone. "I saw him today. My bet is that you're going to be taking an enforced break soon - and my other guess is that the only way you're going to be able to get your job back is if you start putting out for me."

 

"What?" Rodney gasped, horrified.

 

"Yeah. It's true. Sheppard and me had a nice, cosy little chat earlier. I told him that you're a liability, and he agrees with me. If you still keep acting crazy then I'm going to have them confine you to your quarters for your own safety…and I'll volunteer to be on the guard detail. I'll keep you safe, Rodney, just as long as you're a good boy for me. If you co-operate then I'll get you moved into my quarters, and put my training collar around your neck. Once everyone knows I'm your top, and once you've spent a couple of weeks in here, tied to the bed, nice and meek and mild, then I'll help you win your job back. I'll even help you keep it, just as long as you're a good little sub and let me fuck that soft ass of yours regularly. I heard you give pretty good blow jobs - I'm looking forward to getting one of those real soon."

 

He caressed his cock again through his pants, and Rodney backed off towards the door, his chest constricting in fear and loathing. He scrabbled for the lock and felt the door whoosh open behind him, and then he was stumbling out into the hallway.

 

"Real soon, Rodney!" Bates called after him.

 

Rodney made it back to his own quarters, ran into the bathroom, and then threw up the meal Carson had made him eat.

 

"Oh shit," he muttered to himself as he lay on the cold bathroom floor after having heaved his guts up into the toilet. "God you're fucked. You are so fucked, McKay."

 

 

Rodney spent the next few days doing what he did best when faced with any kind of enormous personal crisis - he buried himself in his work. He literally holed himself up in his lab and pored over the transcripts they'd copied from that Ancient temple. They weren't written in Ancient, but in an Ancient numerical code, which was unusual, and for that reason alone, Rodney was pretty sure he was the only person on Atlantis who'd be able to decipher them. Elizabeth dropped by, fascinated by what he was working on, and for awhile things were like they used to be between them, as Rodney explained, in super-fast tones, why the code was so exciting, and Elizabeth smiled at his obvious enthusiasm and asked what even Rodney had to concede were fairly intelligent questions.

 

Four days later he bounded into her office, interrupting a meeting she was having with Sheppard, and threw his laptop triumphantly onto her desk.

 

"Eureka!" he said excitedly, bouncing around the room, barely able to contain himself. Sheppard grinned at him.

 

"Damnit but I really would love to play poker with you," he commented.

 

Rodney grinned back at him. "I would lose, spectacularly, but on this, on being a brilliant genius capable of translating 10,000 year old Ancient numerical code language, on *this* I totally win and everyone else totally sucks," he proclaimed happily. Sheppard rolled his eyes, still grinning. Elizabeth was busy looking at the data he'd placed in front of her, her eyes wide and fascinated. Rodney couldn't even begin to contain the chirrup of pride that escaped his lips.

 

"These are all co-ordinates to planets with ZPMs?" she asked.

 

"Yes! ZPMs!" Rodney's hands did a little dance of glee entirely of their own volition. "Of course, this data is 10,000 years old so who knows if the ZPMs are still there but at last we have a lead - and look, there's three of them. Three potential ZPMs! When can we leave?"

He whirled around and addressed that last comment to Colonel Sheppard without pausing. The colonel placed a hand on his shoulder.

 

"Hold on, McKay… let me see the data first before you go saddling up the puddle jumpers," he grinned. He kept his hand on Rodney's shoulder as he bent over the laptop and Rodney took a deep breath, calming down from his previous level of high octane excitement. This was good! ZPMs! And maybe this discovery would help him get the respect he felt he deserved around this place.

 

"Well, we haven't been to any of these places - so why don't we start at the top?" Sheppard suggested. "RGT-9650."

 

"Great. Fantastic!" Rodney slid out from under the colonel's hand and bounced over to the door.

 

"Uh…not right this minute, Rodney," Sheppard said, in that amused drawl of his. "We'll need to prep."

 

"Agreed," Elizabeth said, nodding slowly. "Also, I'm presuming we won't just encounter a ZPM sitting by the gate so you might be gone for some time - and that means you'll need supplies, and I'm also going to suggest you take a squad of marines with you for backup. This is too important to screw up."

 

"Yeah." Sheppard nodded his head, in a maddeningly slow way, clearly considering all the mission requirements. Rodney sighed.

 

"Tomorrow then?"

 

"Six a.m." Sheppard grinned at him again. "Good work, Rodney!" Rodney felt a glow of pride that warmed him from the inside out, and it was as if he was walking on air as sauntered back to his lab. This - this - was why he was on this expedition.

 

RGT-9650 was a planet of dense forest but it was at least sunny when they stepped through the gate. Rodney judged that the time was somewhere around early afternoon, which gave them a few hours to look around before it got dark. Rodney unearthed some directions to another ruined temple, etched into a way-stone by the gate, and that saved them several hours searching. The only difficulty was the large, bat-like creatures that kept making bomber dives on them every few minutes. They weren't dangerous as such but they delivered a few nasty scratches to people's heads and necks, and made proper exploration of the temple impossible. Sheppard and his team of marines were kept busy firing at them to scare them away, while Rodney and *his* team of scientists were constantly interrupted in their study of the Ancient ruins by the creatures. After one of them nearly bit Rodney's ear, which Rodney complained about, vociferously, for a full ten minutes, Sheppard finally called for more backup. Half an hour later, another squad of marines came through the gate and Rodney stiffened as he saw Bates leading them towards the offworld team.

 

Bates barely looked at him though - as punctilious as ever when in the presence of others, he was every inch the professional soldier, saluting at Sheppard, and then ordering his men to sweep out and keep their guns ready to fire on the bat creatures.

 

Rodney relaxed. There was no way Bates would try anything out here, and he was too stoked up on the excitement of possibly being on the same planet as a ZPM to take much notice of the sergeant.

 

The day wore on, and the team spread out - the ruins were huge, and most of the etchings on its walls were some kind of religious mumbo jumbo that was much too recent to have been done by the Ancients, but Rodney was convinced there had to be something more if they just kept on looking.

 

As evening fell, they heard a noise from the direction of the stargate and Sheppard took a small team of marines to investigate. Rodney wandered down some old stone steps into a little ante-chamber and fumbled for his flashlight in the twilit room.

 

"Found anything?" a voice behind him asked.

 

"Not yet - the likelihood is that this room was used by some kind of elder, perhaps for robing ceremonies or secretarial work, and there's therefore more of a chance that there's some kind of secret message transcribed on the walls, rather than the hocus pocus we saw in the main chamber," Rodney said absently, and then he froze, recognising that voice. An arm went around his waist from behind, and he felt lips press against the back of his neck.

 

"I've wanted to get you alone all afternoon," Bates whispered into his ear. Rodney pushed back but only succeeded in dropping his flashlight, plunging the entire chamber into darkness. Bates laughed. "Such a klutz. I'm surprised Sheppard even allows you out on your own.

 

"Let me go," Rodney said, in a tight voice, squirming in Bates's grasp. He was a big man but Bates was a trained soldier, and his hard, toned muscles were more than a match for Rodney's softer bulk.

 

"You've been teasing me," Bates said. "You keep bending over to look at stuff written down by your feet, and I keep thinking about how good it'll be to finally get my hands on that fat ass of yours and fuck it long and hard."

 

"I told you that's never going to happen," Rodney hissed. "How much more obvious do I have to make it?"

 

"You're the kind of sub who has to be railroaded," Bates told him firmly, his lips brushing the back of Rodney's neck again, making him shudder. "You don't know what you want but you will when you feel my hard cock slamming into your ass. You'll know then."

 

"Do it then," Rodney said angrily. "You keep on threatening so just do it. What's stopping you, Bates?"

 

"I don't want to take you by force, Rodney - there wouldn't be any fun in that. No, I want to see the look in your eyes when you surrender to me. I want the joy of seeing you beg, on your hands and knees."

 

"I don't beg," Rodney said haughtily. "And if you're waiting for my consent then you'll have a damn long wait because that's never going to happen."

 

"Oh I think it will," Bates said softly. "Sheppard already thinks you're crazy - and with the way you keep acting out it won't be long before you screw up again and then I'll insist they bench you - you're clearly not safe to have around. I've got it all planned out, Rodney, and I can wait. It'll be all the sweeter to wait, to wait until you have nowhere left to go except my bed. I can smell your humiliation now, can see just how good you'll look on your hands and knees, crawling over to me and asking me to put you out of your misery and fuck you."

 

Rodney stood there, just gazing into the darkness, numb. Would it be so bad, he wondered, just to give Bates what he wanted?

 

"I'm a lousy sub. You'd soon grow tired of me," he said wearily. Bates's arm tightened around his waist, and Rodney felt his semi-hard cock digging into his buttocks.

 

"I'll train you up," Bates promised. "I have a fine collection of whips. I can guarantee I'll soon have you licked into shape." And with that he ran his tongue over the back of Rodney's neck, smearing saliva into his skin. "Soon, Rodney," Bates promised. I give it a couple of days - a week tops. Then you'll be mine." At that moment there was a commotion outside, back in the main chamber. Bates pulled away, quickly, and then Rodney heard him push on further into the depths of the temple.

 

Rodney stood there for a moment, trying to collect himself. He reached up and wiped the back of his neck with his sleeve, feeling dirty, and then he felt a rising tide of anger so furious that he couldn't stop himself from slamming his fist against the wall. The momentary pain brought him up short, and he gave a silent howl, but at least it distracted him from the memory of Bates licking his neck. Then he heard footsteps on the stairs leading down from the main chamber, and a second later a flashlight shone in his eyes.

 

"McKay?" Sheppard's voice. "We have to get out of here. Quick - there are wraith ships out there." The flashlight came close and Rodney caught sight of Sheppard's worried hazel eyes. "Anyone else down here with you?" Sheppard asked.

 

Rodney didn't actually consciously think about it, but if he had, he was pretty sure that he'd have given the same answer. He shook his head.

 

"No," he said. "Nobody else. I came down here alone."

 

"Let's get moving then." Sheppard ushered him back up into the main chamber, pushing him up ahead, clearly worried. The main chamber was empty, and the sun had almost set, casting the ruins in a shadowy light, making them look ten times more spooky than they had that afternoon.

 

"Great - you've found him," Ford said, running up. "I've already taken all the scientists through the gate, Colonel.

 

"Good - everyone accounted for?" Sheppard asked, starting to jog out of the chamber and back towards the forest.

 

"Everyone except Bates, sir," Ford said.

 

Sheppard came to a halt and glanced back at the temple. "Did you see him back there?" he asked Rodney.

 

Rodney shook his head again, glancing nervously back at the temple, hoping Bates wouldn't appear. "Nope. I saw him leave when you first sounded the alarm, Colonel. He must have headed back to the gate on his own."

 

"You sure?" Sheppard frowned.

 

Rodney nodded. The lie had already been told. There was no point backtracking now. "Positive."

 

Sheppard tapped on his radio. "Sergeant Bates…" he began, but at that moment a wraith ship screeched overhead. "Run!" Sheppard ordered, pushing Rodney out of the way of the beam. Somehow they got separated from Ford in the melee, and it was just the two of them, zig-zagging through the forest. Rodney could feel his chest pounding and he was grateful that Sheppard seemed to know where they were going as he'd lost his bearings completely. Sheppard kept nudging him with a hand on his shoulder, and eventually they emerged into a clearing. Rodney saw the gate directly ahead but there was a wraith ship circling overhead.

 

“Run for the gate while I cover you! I’ll shoot at the ship to keep it away,” Sheppard yelled. Rodney hesitated. "Do it!" Sheppard commanded.

 

"What about you?" Rodney asked breathlessly, leaning his hands on his knees, too out of shape for such a long jog over such difficult terrain.

 

"I'll be right behind you," Sheppard said.

 

"Let's run it together," Rodney suggested, not liking the idea of Sheppard staying behind to be scooped up by the Wraith.

 

"No!" Sheppard yelled, over the screeching sound of the dart overhead. "Go!"

 

Rodney thought about it for a moment, and then shook his head. "Together," he said obstinately, sticking his jaw out. Sheppard gave him an exasperated look and then, finally, he grabbed Rodney's arm and they both started running. It was only a short distance to the gate but to Rodney it felt like miles as they ran, Sheppard firing furiously into the air the entire time. They got to the gate just as the wraith ship swooped towards them, its beam sweeping the ground. Sheppard pushed him through, and then tumbled in after him, and they arrived on the other side together, in a tangle of limbs.

 


 

Part Five: The Training Collar

 

 

 

John got to his feet, held out a hand to Rodney, and hauled him to his feet.

 

"Close shave," Rodney said, grinning at him.

 

"You are going to have to learn to follow orders when we're offworld," John told him, rolling his eyes at him.

 

"Hey - we both got back safely, and if we'd done it *your* way it's likely you'd be in the belly of a wraith ship right now," Rodney told him, those blue eyes of his gleaming. John shook his head in disgust.

 

"Incorrigible," he muttered under his breath as he turned towards Teyla.

 

"Did Ford make it back okay?" he asked her. She nodded.

 

"Just a minute before you, Colonel. Everyone is accounted for except for Sergeant Bates."

 

"Bates?" John whirled around and looked at Rodney. "I thought you said you saw Bates running for the gate just after I sounded the alarm." Rodney looked at him from wide, innocent blue eyes.

 

"I thought I saw him," he shrugged. "Maybe I was wrong."

 

"Oh for Chrissakes, Rodney! That wasn't what you said back there! You said you were positive you'd seen him leave."

 

"Did I? I thought I said I was pretty sure he'd left but couldn't swear to it," Rodney said, glancing at John through his eyelashes. John had been lied to by enough wilful subs in his time to know what was going on here, and he fought down a wave of anger.

 

"Great. Now I'm going to have to go back for him," he growled.

 

"Or you could just leave him there. He's a grown man…" Rodney began.

 

"I don't leave men behind!" John snapped. "Not now, not ever, no matter what. Now you, stay here. Don't move, don't go anywhere, don't do anything until I get back. I want a few words with you."

 

John unholstered his gun and turned back to the gate, and was surprised when Rodney grabbed his arm just as he was about to go through.

 

"No…no, no, no," the scientist said, a note of panic in his voice. "You're not going back through alone! There are wraith ships out there!"

 

"That's precisely why I'm going alone," John ground out angrily.

 

"Wait, no, this isn't what I wanted…." Rodney bit on his lip. John grabbed his arm, hard, and took him to one side.

 

"What did you want, Dr McKay? For Bates to get scooped up by the Wraith? For Bates to die out there? Is that what you wanted?"

 

Rodney shook his head, those blue eyes of his looking horrified. "No. No. That isn't what I wanted, either," he whispered. "I didn't mean…look, let me come back with you. We can find him together."

 

"No. You'd be a liability," John said and Rodney drew back, a strange, crumpled look on his face that John didn't understand at all but he didn't have time to consider it. He just turned and threw himself back through the gate without another word.

 

It was now dark on the planet, but there were three pale moons overhead, giving him just enough light to see a lone figure lurking in the tree line, gazing apprehensively at the wraith dart that was patrolling above the gate.

 

"Bates!" John roared over the sound of the hovering dart. "Run for it. I'll cover you." The sergeant nodded, and started running, and John took up position and fired at the dart, forcing it to move along, out of beam's reach of either of them. Bates was fast, and a few seconds later they were both able to run back through the gate.

 

Rodney was still hovering where John had left him, that anxious look on his face. "Oh thank god, Colonel," he said, running over when John was through the gate.

 

"You, come with me," John hissed, grabbing hold of Rodney's arm and propelling him towards the stairs, and then up towards Elizabeth's office. He strong-armed Rodney through the door, mentally clicked it closed behind them, and then turned on the scientist.

"What the hell was that about?" he demanded. Elizabeth got to her feet, startled.

 

"John - what's going on? Teyla just radioed to say everyone was back safely."

 

"Yeah - no thanks to McKay," John snapped. "I'm struggling to understand this right now, McKay - but did you tell me a deliberate lie that resulted in a man nearly dying out there?"

 

Rodney thought about that for a moment, and then he gave a world-weary kind of smile and stuck his jaw out in that obstinate way of his.

 

"Yes, you know, I think I did," he said.

 

"Damnit!" John turned away in disgust.

 

"Rodney - I don't believe that," Elizabeth said, gazing at Rodney intently.

 

"It was Bates," John told her. "The man we left behind because Rodney told us he'd gone on ahead was Bates."

 

"Oh. Okay. *Now* I kind of believe it," Elizabeth sighed. "But still, Rodney, would you really go this far? Throwing a punch is one thing but leaving a man to get taken by the Wraith? I just find it hard to believe you'd do something like that."

 

"I didn't think he'd get taken," Rodney snapped. "I just thought it'd scare him a little. I told Colonel Sheppard I'd go back and get him but he wouldn't let me."

 

"Well at least that's something," Elizabeth said, but her hazel eyes were hard and angry. "You've gone too far this time, Rodney," she said. "I honestly despair of you." Rodney rocked back on his heels, a completely unreadable look in those blue eyes of his. "Why would you do something like this?" Elizabeth asked.

 

John was struck by the shadow that flitted across Rodney's eyes in response to that question, and he frowned. Something wasn't right here - something that niggled away at him but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Rodney gazed at Elizabeth, and then he glanced sideways at John, as if searching for something, beseeching for something. For a second John thought he saw an answer in Rodney's eyes but then it was gone, and Rodney just shrugged, making no reply.

 

"Rodney," Elizabeth said in a warning tone. At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Sergeant Bates entered the room. He didn't even look at Rodney, just stood to attention.

 

"My lady, Sir - I've just heard that Dr McKay deliberately conspired to leave me behind back there," he said, in crisp tones. "I no longer feel safe working with Dr McKay, and I'd like to request that he be removed from his position."

 

Elizabeth sat down with a sigh, and John felt for her. This was a mess, no doubt about it.

 

"Sergeant - Dr McKay is a senior member of this expedition with expertise that we sorely need - expertise that could save our lives," she said wearily.

 

"You'll forgive me for not finding that very reassuring when he doesn't seem to have a very high regard for *my* life," Bates said.

 

Elizabeth took a deep breath. "Okay. I'll consider this. Rodney - as you've given no defence, please report to the punishment room at eight this evening to take your twenty strokes." John was watching, but not a flicker of emotion crossed Rodney's face. "You're also suspended from duty for now," she said, and this time the reaction was immediate - but it wasn't the outrage that John had been expecting. Instead, it was more akin to a wry and hopeless resignation. "Zelenka can take over your work until I've given this matter some thought," she added.

 

Rodney gave her a tight little nod, accepting her decision without question, which of and by itself John found strangely puzzling for someone as vocal and argumentative as McKay. Then the scientist turned to go. He brushed past Bates on the way out, and the sergeant shuffled to one side, and, as he did so, he muttered something to Rodney. It was only one word, and John wasn't close enough to be sure he'd heard correctly, but it sounded like Bates had said 'tonight'. Rodney flinched, and he turned and looked at Elizabeth, and opened his mouth, but she shot him such a forbidding look that he just closed it again, and left the room without saying another word, his shoulders slumped and defeated. Elizabeth excused Bates, leaving the two of them alone together.

 

"This is really ugly," she murmured.

 

"Yeah." John leaned against the wall, trying to put his finger on this nagging feeling he had, deep in his gut, that things weren't exactly as they seemed. There was just something…something…. "Elizabeth," he said suddenly, surprising himself. "Will you let me perform the punishment this evening?"

 

Elizabeth frowned. "Technically speaking Rodney doesn't come under military jurisdiction," she said.

 

"I know," John nodded. "But…nothing we've done so far has worked, and this situation is getting out of control. Now, we're stuck out here, and, as you said, Rodney is pretty much our only hope of surviving - we can't ignore that, any more than we can ignore him deliberately putting a man's life in jeopardy. However…I think we have to take some responsibility for the way he's behaving right now."

 

She raised an eyebrow and nodded her head, indicating that he should continue.

 

"That first time he was punished - following the jello incident?" She nodded again. "I made some enquiries and I think that whole event was more complicated than we realised. I'm sorry I didn't tell you - I thought I'd taken care of it - I had no idea it would escalate like this. However - punishing Rodney for that - I think it kind of broke him," John said quietly. "He's a proud man and he was desperately humiliated by it - to the point where he seemed to give up caring. So, I think we kind of owe him."

 

"I'd hate to think we did this to Rodney," Elizabeth said, her eyes dismayed.

 

"I don't think we did - not entirely. There's clearly something else going on with him, and I think he was already kind of losing it before we got our hands on him, but I don't think what we did helped any - it just pushed him another few steps closer to the edge."

 

"Are you suggesting we don't punish him this time?" she asked. "Because I really don't think we can do that. I can't be seen for a moment to be condoning what he did this afternoon - and Bates will make sure that word gets around about it. I'll have a mutiny on my hands if he's not punished."

 

"No. I agree. He has to be punished. Whatever the circumstances, you can't leave a man out there at the mercy of the Wraith," John said firmly.

 

"And why do you think it will help him if you perform his punishment instead of Peter?" Elizabeth asked.

 

"I just want to break up the dynamic a little," John shrugged. "He's kind of used to the routine of being punished - it's not working for him, and it's not getting us anywhere, so I think we need to shake him up a little by doing it differently. Also, I like Rodney - and he's on my team. He seems to value that, and I think it might have more impact if I punish him."

 

"Well…okay," Elizabeth sighed. "Anything's worth a try at this point I suppose."

 

 

John went to the mission debriefing, grabbed a bite to eat in the mess hall, and then stopped by Major Lorne's office to give him a very important instruction. After that he returned to his quarters to take a shower before changing out of his BDUs and into his more usual outfit of black leather pants and black tee shirt. He felt more comfortable once he got into his everyday clothes - they fitted him like a second skin and he needed that right now. He was nervous about performing Rodney's punishment which was odd of and by itself because he was used to handing out punishments to his men. This was different though. This was complicated, and he didn't want to do anything that would make the situation worse. Finally, drawing on years of experience as a top, he decided that he'd keep a close eye on Rodney and play it by ear. He had a pretty good idea of how he'd go about this but a lot would depend on Rodney.

 

John got to the punishment room ten minutes early and he used the time to push the frame to one side, and put a chair facing him, and then, having got the room as he wanted it, he sat down on a chair and waited. Rodney showed up exactly on the dot of eight, as John had known he would, and the scientist hesitated in the doorway, blinking in surprise.

 

"What's going on?" He glanced at the empty chairs. "Where's my loving audience?" he queried, in a bitter tone.

 

"You know…I don't think anyone's coming today," John said. Rodney gazed at him suspiciously.

 

"Why the hell not?" he asked. John shrugged.

 

"Come on in, Rodney, and shut the door behind you," he said.

 

"I don't understand." Rodney stood there, his blue eyes confused. "Why wouldn't they come? I'd like to believe it's because they all love and respect me too much to want to see me being punished but we both know that's not the case." He gave a bitter, mirthless little laugh and John felt a pang of sympathy for him.

 

"Come in, Rodney," he said again, in a more gentle tone.

 

Rodney bit on his lip but he did as ordered. John beckoned him over. "Come and sit down," he said, patting the chair he'd placed opposite him.

 

"Sit down? Is this…am I being punished tonight?" Rodney demanded. "Because if not, I'd like to go back to my quarters. It's been a long day, and I've had to do far too much running."

 

"You are being punished, Rodney," John told him. "So you're not free to go."

 

"Wait…wait, wait, wait…." The look on Rodney's face was so horrified it was almost comical. John raised an eyebrow, wondering what the hell was coming next. "Oh god, please tell me you're not going to be the one punishing me," he hissed. John gave a wry smile.

 

"Yup," he said.

 

"Why?" Rodney demanded. "And what happened to the whole 'you're on my team now' thing?"

 

"All the more reason - it was me you lied to, and you did it while you were under my command when we were offworld," John replied.

 

Rodney gazed at him, those blues eyes of his still aghast. "But I'm not military!" he protested. "You have no right…and Elizabeth has no right to order this!"

 

"Something had to change," John told him firmly. "Clearly the old routine wasn't working - time to try something new."

 

"I don't like it," Rodney growled.

 

"That's kind of the point," John replied. "Now, come and sit down."

 

Rodney sighed, loudly. "Oh god. This goes from bad to worse. There's going to be some kind of lecture first, isn't there?"

 

"Not really. I just wanted to talk." John shook his head.

 

"See - those words never bode well for anyone," Rodney grimaced, but he did finally walk over and sit down opposite John.

 

"What's going on with Bates?" John asked bluntly. Rodney got straight up again and began walking back towards the door. "Sit down, McKay. I'm not done with you yet," John said, in his most commanding tone. Rodney hesitated, the muscles in his back tight and tense, and then, with a sigh, he turned around and came back to the chair.

 

"Nothing is going on with Bates," he said quietly. "I just don't like the guy."

 

"Okay." John nodded slowly. "There are plenty of people I don't like but I wouldn't let them become wraith fodder."

 

"Well maybe you're a nobler person than I am," Rodney shrugged.

 

"Or maybe you have more reason to dislike him than I know about," John pressed. Rodney glared at him but remained mute. John sighed.

 

"Have you ever thought about finding a top, Rodney?" he asked, surprising himself with that question. Rodney flushed, angrily.

 

"I don't want a damn top!" he snapped. "I'm not even looking for a top! The last thing I want is some stupid dominant marching around giving me orders. I *like* being single."

 

"I was just thinking - it might give you some grounding."

 

"Yeah. Right. Because everything's about sex, isn't it?" Rodney shot at him. "God you're impertinent, Colonel, and regardless of what happened today I don't have to answer these kinds of questions, so either punish me or let me leave!"

 

"I'm sorry," John said quietly. "That was out of line. I just wondered why you're so unhappy."

Rodney gazed at him, his blue eyes suddenly big. John took a sharp intake of breath. "You *are* unhappy, Rodney," John said softly. "I'm not just talking about the way you behave towards Bates - but look at how you are with Elizabeth half the time. Now, I know that's not like you, because Carson sings your praises, and Radek thinks the sun shines out of your ass."

 

"He does?" Rodney looked surprised. "Well, of course, I *am* brilliant. He must find it a humbling experience working with me."

 

John swallowed down a laugh. "I'm sure he does, Rodney," he murmured. "So what's going on? Why are you so unhappy?"

 

Rodney gazed at him with those big eyes again and for a moment John thought he might have had a breakthrough, as Rodney looked for just one second as if he trusted him enough to reply…and then the moment passed, the shutters came down again - and that guarded look was back in Rodney's eyes.

 

"Ah. Very good, Colonel. Did you learn that little empathy trick in some leadership seminar, hmm?" Rodney asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

 

"I'm sorry," John said simply. Rodney frowned, wrong-footed.

 

"What?"

 

"I'm sorry. I should have apologised before for that jello incident. I did make enquiries and I know that there was some provocation there. I thought I should let you know that I'm sorry about that. As I mentioned to you before, I did discipline the men in question."

 

"It was a public punishment. A public apology might have been more appropriate," Rodney said softly. John inclined his head.

 

"You're right. I didn't think of it that way. I'm sorry about that too. I'm not your enemy, Rodney. I like you - and I like having you on my team."

 

"Really?" Rodney's expression brightened momentarily, and then faded. "Well, tough, I guess, because I'm on suspension now."

 

"Hopefully not for long," John said.

 

"Well…" Rodney gave a tight, twisted little smile. "Maybe not. If I do what…what is expedient, then maybe not. Is it worth it though? Is my job worth that? I guess that's what I'm trying to figure out right now."

 

"What do you mean?" John frowned, wondering what the hell Rodney was talking about. "What do you mean by doing what's 'expedient'?"

 

"It doesn't matter. It'll be all over by tonight, one way or another." Rodney shrugged. "Now, are you going to punish me, Colonel? I think Elizabeth mentioned twenty swats." He got up and went over to the punishment frame. "This seems to have been pushed into the corner." He put his hand out to move it.

 

"Leave it. I put it there. We aren't doing things that way," John told him.

 

Rodney turned, startled. "What do you mean?"

 

"I mean, that this will be different," John said firmly. "Now unfasten your pants and get over my knees please."

 

"What?" Rodney asked, looking completely aghast. "Oh come on, Colonel! No way!"

 

"The frame wasn't working. We're trying something different."

 

"It's illegal!" Rodney snapped. "You don't get to perve over me, Colonel."

 

John glared at him. "Pipe down, McKay - I don't appreciate that kind of accusation. We're out here, in a completely different galaxy, all alone, and we're having to muddle through right now and do the best we can. So, you can either get over my knee and take your swats from my hand, or you can wait until tomorrow and I'll have Elizabeth arrange it so that Peter can blister your ass with the cane in front of a jeering crowd. So what's it to be?"

 

"The cane?" Rodney bit on his lip.

 

"Yeah. Twenty with the cane - because if Bates really wants to then he can make a case for attempted homicide and Elizabeth wants to head that off. So that was what she said to me - you either take what I hand out, or you come back tomorrow and take something much worse. It's up to you."

 

John sat back and waited. Rodney thought about it, and the minutes ticked by, really slowly. John watched the play of emotions cross his face as he weighed it up, but, eventually, his shoulders slumped in resignation, and he gave in.

 

"It's wrong," Rodney said at last, walking towards him, his hands going to his belt.

 

"No. It's unusual - it's not wrong," John said.

 

"Why are you doing this?" Rodney stood there, looking utterly miserable, and John couldn't help but feel sorry for him. He knew this had to be hard for Rodney - an over the knee spanking was something intimate, something delivered by a lover, a parent, or a good friend. It was still a punishment, but it was also a gesture of caring and trust, and Rodney didn't find it easy to trust anyone. No wonder he was struggling with this. And it *was* unusual - judicial punishments were impersonal affairs and an implement was always used, but John didn't have any intention of using a paddle or strap - he didn't think that would reach Rodney in the frame of mind he was in right now, and he really wanted to reach Rodney, before things escalated even more. They needed Rodney too much to just give up on him.

 

"Because you've had a hard time lately," John replied softly, firmly. "And because I want to help."

 

Rodney's eyes shone an intense shade of blue and he gazed at John helplessly. John gazed back at him, willing him to trust him. Finally, something seemed to give way, and Rodney put his head down and undid his pants, and then lowered himself over John's knee. He was slightly awkward about it because of the situation, but he had the air of a practised sub, and was soon in position. John took a deep breath. He had known this might be hard for Rodney, but he hadn't appreciated that it would be hard for him too. Intimacy went both ways after all. John reached for Rodney's pants and slowly pulled them down, along with his boxers, to just beneath Rodney's ass, and it was only then that he realised that he'd just made a huge, giant mistake.

 

There was a reason why judicial spankings were impersonal - and John figured that out a minute too late. He was an experienced top, and he'd handed out a lot of over the knee spankings in his time, but only to lovers, and, a couple of times, to young men under his command who needed a firm but essentially kind hand. He had thought this spanking fell into the latter category, had thought he could easily play the concerned, stern role that he thought Rodney needed right now, but instead he was hit by a wave of something so intense it took him completely by surprise.

 

This felt right. It didn't feel like a role he was playing in order to save Rodney from himself. It felt like something he wanted to do, and to do often, not to punish Rodney, but to have him, to keep him, to hold him, to touch him, to *own* him…. Rodney's weight was solid on his thighs, and John wanted to reach out and stroke his back, the way he might do with a lover, calming and gentling him before a spanking. He had been insulted when Rodney had accused him of wanting to perve over him, but now he suddenly felt uncomfortable in this position. He just hadn't anticipated this response. He didn't even want to look at Rodney's ass, because he wasn't sure he could trust himself not to want to caress it, and that would be taking the worst kind of advantage of Rodney.

 

John took a deep breath, and tried to collect himself. He had no idea what was going on. He'd dismissed any idea of taking Rodney as a sub weeks ago. The guy was nothing but trouble - endearing trouble, but trouble nonetheless, and John had never thought a prickly, arrogant, opinionated scientist would be what he wanted from a partner, no matter how blue his eyes, or how plump and perfect his ass. John struggled with these strange, new, and almost completely overwhelming emotions for a moment, trying to get control of himself. This wasn't the time or place to think about this. He thought instead about the way Rodney had lied to him this afternoon. He liked Rodney, and he felt sorry for the man, but his lie earlier in the day had almost got a man killed - and not just any man - one of *John's* men. John felt his jaw tightening - he was usually a pretty laidback kind of guy, but that hid some very fierce instincts, and one of his cardinal rules was that nobody ever - *ever* - got left behind. Rodney's lie could have condemned Bates to death, and, regardless of the circumstances, for that alone Rodney deserved this punishment.

 

John lifted his hand and brought it down hard on Rodney's ass. He tried not to think about the enticing pink mark it made, or how Rodney settled down more firmly on his lap in acceptance of it, or the way his buttocks wobbled slightly from the swat. He just wrapped his arm around Rodney's waist and smacked down another stinging swat, and then another, keeping his hand hard and his pace lively, not allowing Rodney time to recover between the swats. He wanted something to break, wanted to feel some sense of catharsis from Rodney, and for that reason he had no intention of stopping at twenty. This would go on for as long as it needed to go on, and he'd know when that was by how Rodney responded.

 

The blistering pace continued, and John soon lost count. It was clear that Rodney hadn't though, as, a few seconds later, he gave a big sigh and tried to lever himself off John's lap. John held him back down and Rodney struggled, starting to panic.

 

"That was twenty!" he complained. "Elizabeth said twenty!"

 

"But *I* didn't," John told him. "I just told you that you'd have to take what I handed out - I didn't say how many. And we're going to keep going until I'm satisfied we've got somewhere."

 

"No! Fuck you!" Rodney tried to push himself off of John's lap but John was more than a match for him, and he wrapped his arm even more firmly around Rodney's body and started in again.

 

"A man could have died because of your lie, Rodney," John told him grimly, as he delivered hard, fast swats to the scientist's upturned ass.

 

Rodney just lay there, seeming almost stunned, and then he began to mutter angrily - and it was the first reaction that John had ever seen him give to being punished. John remembered how silently Rodney had taken his previous punishments, and how that had made them all the more soul-destroying to watch, and he realised that this was *good*. This was what he wanted from Rodney - a reaction, any reaction.

 

Rodney cursed and hollered for the next few minutes, before, finally, he seemed to realise that this wasn't going to stop, no matter how many names he called John. Then he went quiet again, and John almost thought he'd reached a state of acceptance, but then he glanced at Rodney's face and saw that it was screwed up, full of pent-up emotions, and it was those that John wanted to shake loose. So he just pulled Rodney closer, and swatted him again. This time he kept up a rhythm on one particular spot on Rodney's ass, knowing how painful that was, and how hard it would be for Rodney to handle it.

 

Rodney started to growl, a deep, angry sound in the back of his throat, and he kept on growling for several minutes, until John wasn't sure whether he was going to break or not. He hoped so, because there was now a very red spot on the scientist's ass that was starting to look pretty painful, but John knew that he'd go as far as was necessary, no matter how painful it got. After what felt like an eternity, the growling changed into something more akin to a whimper. It was a soft sound, and so sad it almost stopped John in his tracks, but he knew that now was the time he had to continue, harder than ever, if he was ever going to get through to Rodney. He picked another spot on Rodney's ass and proceeded to smack his swats down there instead, and the whimpering became even more desperate. When John looked back at the scientist's face he saw real tears streaming down his cheeks. Rodney had buried his face in his arms and was trying to hide his reaction but John saw it, and he knew he'd done what he'd set out to do. He stopped spanking, and, deciding that protocol and regulations and everything else could go fuck themselves, he reached out and gently caressed Rodney's back. Rodney's breathing was coming in hitching gasps that John knew had far more to do with his emotions than the spanking he'd just received. Rodney's ass was glowing a deep crimson, concentrated in two particular spots, one on each buttock, but John thought that maybe, just maybe, this punishment had got though to him in a way the others had not.

 

He reached out and gently slid Rodney's boxers and pants up over his punished ass, but Rodney made no move to get off John's lap. Instead he just lay there, his body convulsing silently, and all the while John continued to stroke his back, gently reassuring him, the way he'd reassure a much cared for sub after a hard spanking. This didn't feel formal - this felt personal, and intimate, and although John had planned it that way it still took him by surprise to realise just how much it was affecting him. He'd acted purely on instinct this evening, trying to reach out to Rodney in the best way he knew how, and he hoped he'd done the right thing. It felt like the right thing - it felt like he'd read Rodney correctly, and done what was best. John didn't say a word, and neither did Rodney. The scientist just lay there, wracked by silent, heart-rending sobs, and John just sat there, stroking and comforting him. Then, finally, after what felt like hours, Rodney's sobbing subsided, and he lay there quietly, still unmoving. John let him go at his own pace - this was about Rodney, not him, and he'd respond to whatever Rodney wanted. Eventually Rodney slid, awkwardly, off John's lap, and stood up, shakily. John reached out a hand to steady him, and Rodney gave him a wan smile. His face was blotchy, his eyes a shade of bright aqua, and his wet eyelashes were startlingly dark, giving him an almost childlike quality.

 

"Thank you, Colonel," Rodney muttered softly. "I think…maybe, you know your art too well."

 

John shook his head, wryly. "I needed to see you respond," he said, just as softly. "You never have before. It had to make a difference or there was no point doing it."

 

"Yes. In retrospect I was an idiot," Rodney said, trying to do up his fly with shaking fingers. "I should have opted for the twenty with the cane. They would have been much easier to take. But then you were sneaky - and I made the mistake of not realising what, precisely, was on offer before agreeing to it."

 

"I'm sorry." John inclined his head. He watched as Rodney finally managed to do up his fly and then fumbled with his belt. "You took that well," John told him, needing to reach out to him, wanting that connection they'd shared to never end, because while nothing should have changed, everything - *everything* - was different between them now, and could never be the same again.

 

"You handed it out well," Rodney replied, with a sound that was halfway between a strangled laugh and a sob.

 

"Here." John couldn't stand watching him fumble with his belt any more, and he reached out and batted Rodney's hands away and did up his belt for him. Rodney stood there, dreamily, and one hand came up to rest on John's shoulder, perhaps to keep his balance, or perhaps just by instinct. John finished with his belt and then looked up to find Rodney's blue eyes very close. There were a hundred things he wanted to say but somehow he couldn't find the words to say any of them, and Rodney said nothing - he just stared at him with those hazy, tear-stained blue eyes. John guessed that they both knew something extraordinary had happened here, and that while neither of them wanted it to end, neither of them knew how to continue it, either. Finally, Rodney cleared his throat.

 

"I understand now," he murmured, glancing at the empty chairs over John's shoulder.

 

"Understand what?"

 

"Why there was nobody here. You told them not to come."

 

"Well, I got Major Lorne to tell them, but yes." John inclined his head.

 

"Well, for that I thank you." Rodney inclined his head. "I'd rather die than know the gawping masses had witnessed what just happened."

 

"Nothing happened, Rodney. It was just one man needing to let something out - needing to let a great deal out," John told him. He wanted, with every single impulse in his body, to take hold of the scientist and draw him into a hug.

 

"No, don't sell yourself short, Colonel. You broke me, pure and simple," Rodney replied, in a soft kind of voice. "Now…now I'm not entirely sure what to do with myself."

 

"That's why I'm here. To talk - if you'll open up," John said. "I didn't do that for my own amusement. I want to be a friend to you, Rodney, and I can be, if you'll trust me."

 

Rodney stared at him for a long time, and then, finally, he wiped his sleeve across his face and turned away. "Thank you…but…I think I really need some time alone right now."

 

John disagreed. He thought some time alone was the last thing Rodney needed right now but he wasn't Rodney's top and he couldn't hold Rodney, and comfort him, and do all the things that every instinct in his body was screaming out to be allowed to do right now. He could only watch, helplessly, as Rodney gave him a strange, formal, little nod, that was so wrong after what they'd just shared, and then the scientist turned, and walked slowly out of the room.

 

John sat down, feeling as if he'd been felled at the knees, and he put his head down and tried to concentrate on breathing. He'd had no idea that would be so intense…had no idea that what should have been a routine enough punishment would unleash all these emotions - and he still had no idea what these emotions were. Something about Rodney was making him feel all kinds of things that he had no frame of reference for. He knew he felt some things very deeply - he had a strong protective instinct for the men under his command, and he'd been very fond of the various subs he'd taken in his time, but he'd never felt like this before. This felt like being thrown head first over the side of an abyss, flying through the air in freefall, not knowing where you'd land. What was it about Rodney that evoked this reaction he wondered? What had been so special about spanking him that it had made him feel like this?

 

He went over and over the events of the past hour in his mind, trying to figure it out, but all it came down to was a sense of loss and total wrongness when Rodney had walked away from him. Something else niggled at John too - something about their conversation that he still didn't understand. Rodney had spoken about doing something expedient, something that would save his job, and John wondered what the hell he'd been referring to. He hadn't liked the bleak look in Rodney's eyes when he'd said that.

 

John got to his feet. He wasn't sure what he intended to do but he knew that he'd been wrong to allow Rodney to leave. John ran out into the hallway and along to the transporter. He stepped inside, and then hesitated. Where would Rodney have gone? Elizabeth had put him on suspension but would that stop him from going to his lab? He had spoken about being tired - would he have gone back to his quarters? John thought about it for a moment and then acted on instinct. The lab. It had to be the lab. Rodney might be on a suspension but he'd make sure he had his laptop and anything else he needed if he was going to be sitting around twiddling his thumbs for the foreseeable future.

 

The hallway leading to the lab was in darkness, which wasn't a surprise as it was late, and this section of the city was only used during working hours. John thought that maybe he'd made a mistake, and Rodney had gone to his quarters after all, but then he saw that the door to the lab was half open - and a light was shining inside. John strode up to the door and looked inside. Rodney must have only just arrived, because he was grabbing his laptop and various bits and pieces of equipment as John had predicted, moving slowly, taking care not to jolt his sore ass. He still had that dreamy look on his face, as if he wasn't quite there, his mind someplace else. John had seen subs look like that before, and he knew Rodney was floating away on endorphins right now, still in a post-spanking haze. What he needed was someone to take him by the arm, put him to bed, and watch over him, and John was happy enough to volunteer for that task. He was about to push open the door the rest of the way when the sound of a voice took him by surprise.

 

"I've been waiting for you."

 

Rodney froze, all the muscles in his back tensing, and John paused, one arm still outstretched, wondering who had spoken. He couldn't see anyone from where he was standing, but then he couldn't see the whole room through the half-open door. Rodney clearly hadn't been aware of anyone, either, but then he was pretty out of it right now so that wasn't surprising. John heard the scraping of a chair, and a man came into his field of vision.

 

Bates.

 

John took a deep breath and stayed where he was. What the hell was Bates doing here? And why had he been waiting for Rodney? Hicks had told him that the two of them had barely spoken a word to each other since the jello incident. Bates walked towards Rodney, and John saw that he was carrying a small, metallic box. John frowned - this just got more and more weird.

 

Rodney finally unfroze and turned, very, very slowly, and John saw a look of weary resignation in his eyes.

 

"Well played, Sergeant," Rodney said, nodding his head in a bitterly ironic way. "Looks like you won."

 

What the hell was *that* supposed to mean?

 

Bates gave a tight little smile and came to a halt right in front of Rodney, too close, invading his personal space. John tensed.

 

"Not yet," Bates said. "Not until I've got you crawling on your hands and knees, Rodney."

Rodney took a deep breath and backed up slowly until he reached the wall. Bates followed him, still invading his space. John wondered whether to go in there and break things up, but he was curious as to where this was going.

 

"I haven't decided about that yet," Rodney replied. "I…you need to give me more time."

 

Bates shook his head. "No more time. It has to be tonight."

 

"Why?" Rodney asked, and John frowned at the tone of complete despair in his voice. "Why does it have to be tonight?"

 

"Because." Bates put the box down on a table, and then leaned forward and put his hands on the wall on either side of Rodney's head, trapping the scientist there, effectively pinning him against the wall. John tensed again - this was starting to look ugly. "I was robbed," Bates hissed and John had to strain to hear what he was saying. "I was looking forward to seeing your fat ass being caned tonight and instead Colonel fucking Sheppard ordered us to keep away. Now, as you tried to get me killed today, I think I'm owed, and tonight is when I collect. I've got a cane waiting for you, Rodney, back at my quarters. I'll stripe your ass with dozens of juicy red welts and then I'll fuck it into kingdom come…come being the operative word. I've got a nice chastity belt for you as well - you won't be coming tonight, Rodney, or any time soon. From now on, you're mine, and you don't get to come unless I say so - and I'm going to damn well make sure you earn it."

 

John was transfixed by the emotions crossing Rodney's expressive face; revulsion, fear, despair…. John felt his hands clench into fists. Was this some kind of sex game, he wondered, fighting down a surge of anger? Was this what Rodney wanted? It sure as hell didn't look that way.

 

Rodney closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he seemed to have come to a decision. He jutted out his jaw in that obstinate way he had and John tensed, waiting for his reply.

 

"No," Rodney said firmly. "The answer's still no, Bates. The answer has always been no and will always be no. So do what the fuck you like to me, ruin my career and make my life a misery, but I'm not going to sub for you - not now, not ever."

 

John felt a wave of euphoria sweep through him. Thank god for Rodney's stubborn streak! It might make him infuriating to work with but it also made him a hard man to push around.

 

Bates shook his head, grinning. "You don't mean that. You just like playing hard to get." He stepped back and opened the box. "Here - I brought you this," he said, taking something from the box and holding it up. John craned his neck to see what it was - and then gave a low hiss of anger. "It's my training collar," Bates said, and he held it up so that the links of the chain collar clinked through his fingers. It wasn't just any kind of a training collar, either - it was a very specific kind indeed, and John wasn't surprised to see the colour drain from Rodney's face when he saw it. The collar Bates was offering was a choke collar, like the kind you might put on a boisterous dog to keep it in check. There had been an unsuccessful campaign to make them illegal a few years' back and John didn't know any responsible top who'd use one. They were vicious - and in the wrong hands, tightened too far, they could kill. "It's got my tag on it," Bates said, holding the collar right up in front of Rodney's eyes and flicking at the little silver tag with his finger. "It says 'Property of T. Bates'. You see, Rodney, I want everyone to know you're mine. I'll make you wear it day and night so everyone can see who you belong to."

 

Rodney made a little noise in the back of his throat, and John saw the look of total horror in the scientist's eyes. Now everything made sense - the punch, the lie about Bates having left the planet - John wondered how long this had been going on, and felt physically sick at the thought of it.

 

"Just bend your head, Rodney," Bates said. "Bend your head for me so I can slip my collar on you."

 

"No." Rodney shook his head. "I told you no. Fuck you, Bates."

 

Bates gave a twisted little grin. "No - you're the one who is going to be fucked, Rodney, fucked long and hard up that fat ass of yours until you scream. Now, bend your head and take my collar - then I'll go to Elizabeth tomorrow and tell her that now I've had time to think about it, I've realised it was all a misunderstanding, that you're a good boy after all, and deserve your job back."

 

John felt cold inside as he finally figured out how far this had gone; Bates had planned this, and it must have been going on for some time. How often had Bates sought out Rodney when the scientist was alone and intimidated him like this, John wondered? How often had Bates used Elizabeth - and John himself - to do his dirty work for him, demanding that they punish Rodney, using them to close this nasty little trap around the man? Rodney's attacks on Bates hadn't been the unprovoked lunacy of a man out of control - they'd been the reasonable enough response of a desperate man backed into a corner, unable to see a way out.

 

"Call me sentimental," Rodney murmured, "but I always thought that when someone offered me their collar it would be a romantic moment. I'm not a hearts and flowers kind of man but I guess I had some stupid fantasy that if I ever allowed a top to put a collar on me that it would be an act of love, not blackmail."

 

"Blackmail's an ugly word," Bates hissed. "I'm just claiming what's rightfully mine. Now bend your head. Do it!" He slammed his hand onto Rodney's shoulder, holding him in place at the same time as trying to sling the collar over Rodney's head.

 

It was the first time he'd actually touched Rodney, and John felt something break inside him. He wasn't even aware of what he was doing as he threw himself into the room, stormed across to where they were standing, and grabbed hold of Bates bodily from behind, pulling him away from Rodney. He threw Bates halfway across the room, and was briefly aware of the look of total shock on the sergeant's face as he landed, awkwardly, on one of the workstations, and then rolled over and got to his feet. John didn't even let him draw breath - he was consumed with a kind of anger he'd never experienced before as he charged over to where Bates had fallen, grabbed him by the collar, and then felt a satisfying crunch as his fist connected with the sergeant's jaw. Once, twice, three times…

 

"When a sub says no," John growled, landing blow after blow on Bates's face, "he means no. It's not hard to get your head around."

 

"What the fuck are you doing?" Bates panted, managing to get his hands up to deflect the angry blows. "This is nothing to do with you, Colonel! It's private."

 

"Oh yeah? 'Cause it looked more like harassment and coercion from where I was standing," John growled, throwing Bates across the room again and watching him land with a satisfying thud on the floor.

 

"He's an unclaimed sub!" Bates protested, scrambling away on his hands and knees as John advanced on him again. "He's fair game. Nobody else wants him anyway. I was doing him a favour!"

 

"He said no!" John yelled, so angry that he could barely see straight. There was a red mist in front of his eyes, and all he wanted to do was grab Bates and pound his fist into his face, over and over again. He was aware that they were living out the cliché of hundreds of really bad movies, two tops going head to head over an un-collared sub, but nothing in his life had prepared him for the way he was feeling right now. He just knew that someone had *touched* Rodney - someone had tried to put their collar on Rodney, against Rodney's will, and that made him really, really angry.

 

"He doesn't know what he wants. He's falling apart. You've seen him - he's a total fucking mess! Look at him!" Bates spat, still crouching on the floor. John was aware of Rodney scuttling sideways, his face pale and his blue eyes wide with shock at what was happening. He picked up something from the floor and then darted forwards, cutting in front of John, making straight for Bates. John heard a clinking sound, and next thing he knew Rodney had thrown the collar over Bates's head and tightened it around his neck with one vicious pull on the loose end of the chain. Bates gave a strangled gasp and put his hands up to his neck, trying to free himself.

 

"Yeah, look at him," Rodney said, in a bitter tone, looking down on the sergeant with an expression of withering disgust. "How does it feel to be on the receiving end for a change, hmmm, Bates? Here, Colonel…he's one of your men - you deal with him," Rodney snapped, handing the end of the choke chain to John. John took it, loosening it off a fraction, and Bates knelt there, gasping for breath, clawing at his throat. Rodney shot him one last look, and then he turned on his heel and left the room.

 

John wanted to run after him, but first he had to deal with Bates. The sergeant was a mess - his jaw was bruised, one of his eyes was closed, and there was blood dripping down one side of his face and onto his uniform. John reached out and gave him a casual backhander, still holding onto the chain, and Bates went swinging away. John pulled him back and Bates put up his hands to protect his face. John wanted to hit him again - but the man was defenceless and he knew he'd gone far enough.

 

"Fuck you," Bates was hissing. "You had no right to interfere, Colonel. It was a sex game…he was nearly mine…."

 

"No he wasn't - and if it was a game, only one of you was damn well playing," John growled. "Now get your ass up and along to the infirmary, *Corporal*. Yeah, you heard me. I'm busting your sorry ass down a rank. From now on you're on a punishment detail - I want to know where you are every single hour of every single day. Starting with right now."

 

He undid the choke chain from around Bates's neck and held it up. "And these? Are fucking dangerous - as you now know, first hand." He turned around and threw the collar hard against the wall. It smashed into the surface and then slid down to the floor, where it came to rest in a little crumpled heap. "Tell me, Bates, were you trying to get us tops a bad name with the subs on this base, hmm? Because if so, you've damn well succeeded."

 

John tapped on his radio and called for two of his men to escort Bates down to the infirmary.

"He is not, under any circumstances, to be left on his own," John told them when they showed up a couple of minutes later. "When Dr Beckett is done with him you can escort him back to his quarters and stand guard outside. He's to report to Major Lorne at 08:00 tomorrow morning and you will escort him there."

 

"You're making a big mistake, Colonel," Bates panted as he was marched out of the room. "I'm good at my job and you don't have many replacements to choose from out here!"

 

"Oh, somehow I think we'll manage," John snorted, and then he turned away in disgust.

 

He stood in the room, hands on hips, breathing heavily, trying to calm himself. He still felt angry. He felt as if he wanted to take his fist and bury it in living flesh, to hurt and lash out and destroy - and that was disturbing of and by itself. It wasn't like him - usually he was able to keep a tight lid on his emotions but there was something about this situation that was making that impossible for him right now. He didn't know why he was reacting like this - he'd seen some abusive tops in his time, had even taken one or two aside and dealt with them in person, but none of them had affected him like this. If he closed his eyes he could still see Bates advancing on Rodney, *touching* Rodney, pinning him to the wall and trying to get his collar on him. A wave of total revulsion twisted in his gut, taking John by surprise, and he leaned over and retched up his guts onto the floor of the lab. He felt as if he was being held in thrall by his own emotions, and they were eating him up, spiralling away from him. He'd never felt like this in his life before and he was so freaked out he didn't know what to do. One part of him wanted to go after Rodney, to check he was okay, but the man wasn't his sub and he had no rights over him. Another, darker, part of him wanted to go after Bates, to hold him down and kill him with his bare hands, and that disturbed him so much that he started to tremble, honestly unsure that he could control himself.

 

Eventually he staggered towards the door, reaching for some gum in his pocket to take the taste of vomit from his mouth. He needed to see Rodney. It was like some kind of physical imperative, and he felt utterly helpless as he followed where his emotions led, which was a new experience for him. He knocked loudly on Rodney's door, and then waited. He heard a noise inside, but nobody answered the door.

 

"It's me, Rodney!" he yelled. "Sheppard." He banged on the door again, and this time it was opened, and Rodney stood there, gazing at him warily. "I just…" John suddenly didn't know what to say. His eyes raked over Rodney's body, flickering over his neck, where Bates had wanted to put his collar, and he fought down another wave of nausea. "Just wanted to make sure you're okay," John managed to finish. Rodney's blue eyes were unreadable.

 

"I'm fine. You were the one who did all the heroics," he muttered, in a bitter tone.

 

"Why didn't you tell someone?" John flashed back angrily. "Why the hell didn't you come to me, or Elizabeth - or hell, even Carson, and tell us what he was doing to you all this time?"

 

Rodney's eyes were sullen and…ashamed? "I'm the second in command on this base. I'm not…some…some stupid kid who's just woken up to the fact he's a sub and is having to figure out how to handle the unwanted attentions of some thick-skulled top. I'm…it was…." He shook his head. "I should have been able to handle it," he muttered.

 

"You shouldn't have had to," Sheppard sighed, remembering what Radek had said about Rodney being a proud man. He couldn't stop himself devouring Rodney with his eyes, wanting to touch him, to own him, to claim him. The adrenaline was still running high; he was a top who'd fought another top over a sub and won…and there was something old in his blood that wanted to reach out and take his prize to his bed, to mark him with bites, to kiss him and fuck him and possess him completely, so that nobody was in any doubt as to who he belonged to, and nobody would ever try and touch him again.

 

"If you wanted me to thank you then…thanks," Rodney muttered gracelessly.

 

"I don't want your damn thanks," John growled.

 

"Then why are you here?" Rodney's jaw jutted out in that familiar way and John longed to grab it and kiss that crooked mouth. He could see that wouldn't work though. Rodney had just fought off the attentions of one unwanted top this evening, and he didn't look as if he was in any mood to entertain the advances of another. John's stomach contracted in need, but he was just about in control of himself enough to know that now was not the time to make any claims on Rodney. Instead he took a fierce mental grip on himself and nodded at the scientist.

 

"Like I said - I just wanted to see if you're okay."

 

"And like *I* said - I'm fine." Rodney nodded back, curtly.

 

"I'll speak to Elizabeth of course," John said, in a softer tone, unable to take his eyes off Rodney. "About the suspension. We need to talk about what happened. I'll arrange a meeting for tomorrow."

 

"I don't want anyone to know what happened," Rodney snapped.

 

"Well tough," John snapped back. "This has gone beyond what you want, Rodney. Elizabeth needs to know about this if she's to do her job properly."

 

"Great. Fine. Whatever. Can I go to bed now?"

 

John tried not to think about what Rodney would look like, lying naked in bed, a nice set of cuffs around his wrists.

 

"Sure. I'll see you tomorrow." It took every ounce of his strength to tear himself away from that door, and walk back down the hallway, away from Rodney.

 

Once he got to the end, he started to run, and he didn't stop until he had sprinted down to the south-west pier and was standing in a torrent of pouring rain, looking out over the black ocean. He stood there for a long time, breathing heavily, his dark hair inky-wet, but his emotions were as strong and urgent as ever. Finally, he forced himself to run again, to run so fast and pound his body so hard that he could think about nothing else except the beating of his heart and the raw wind gusting into his face, blowing sheets of rain at him. He ran and ran, hoping to outdistance his own emotions and be swallowed whole by the dark, Atlantean night.

 

 

~*~

 


 

Part Six: The Commitment Collar

 

 

It was late by the time Carson Beckett finished up at the infirmary. Bates had needed a few stitches and required quite a bit of tidying up as well. Carson still wasn't entirely sure how the man had come by his injuries - he looked as if he'd been given something of a beating, but he'd remained tight-lipped about the cause of the wounds, and the guards with him hadn't given him much of a clue, either, although Carson gathered they were there by order of Colonel Sheppard so he guessed that the colonel knew what the hell was going on, even if he didn't.

 

Now it was late, and Carson was so tired that he almost trod on the wet bundle of a man sitting in his doorway.

 

"What the…?" he began, and then he bent down and took a closer look. "Christ, John, what the hell are you doing lying here like this?" he whispered. John Sheppard looked terrible - truly the worst Carson had ever seen him. He was wet through, his black tee shirt sticking to his skin, and his dark hair wind-tousled and slick with water, but that wasn't what struck Carson most. Instead, he was drawn to the expression in the colonel's usually friendly hazel eyes. Carson winced - he recognised that look, knew, instinctively, that this was a top in trouble, and suddenly he had no doubt at all that John's current condition was directly related to Bates's injuries.

 

"You'd better come inside, lad," he sighed, opening the door to his quarters. John got up, stretching out those long legs of his as he pulled himself upright, and then he followed Carson into the room, dripping water as he went.

 

Carson didn't say a word to the man. He just guided the colonel into a chair, slung him a towel, and then, while John was towelling down, Carson brewed some tea, filled it with sugar, added a dram of whisky, and handed it to the colonel. John took a sip and then made a face. Carson shrugged.

 

"Drink it," he advised. It wasn't a tone of voice that anyone had ever yet refused, and even John Sheppard, confident top though he was, just got on with it and swallowed the sweet tea down in gulps. Carson found the colonel a fresh tee shirt and a pair of sweat pants and gave them to him, pointing in the direction of the bathroom. "First you get changed, then you come out here and we talk," he said firmly. John took the garments without a word, like the most obedient of subs, and disappeared into the bathroom. Carson took off his white coat, and pulled on a fresh sweater of his own. He was tired, and it was late, but somehow he thought this might take awhile. He poured himself a measure of whisky and downed it in one gulp, and then he sat down on the side of the bed and waited.

 

The colonel reappeared a few minutes later, and hesitated in the doorway, holding his damp, crumpled clothes.

 

"Leave those in the bathroom," Carson instructed. "And get yourself over here, John."

John did as he was told and sat down on the chair by the bed. The sweatpants were too short for his long legs and his ankles poked out of the bottoms, incongruously.

 

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to inconvenience you." His body was shaking ever so slightly, and Carson frowned and took a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around his shoulders.

 

"No apologies required. I'm your doctor and your friend - so it isn't an inconvenience," he said firmly. "What happened tonight, John?"

 

John looked up, and there was a burning expression in his eyes that Carson had never seen before. Usually the colonel was so laidback, rarely looking as if he cared about anything very deeply, but he certainly seemed to care about something right now.

 

"I can't control it," John said, still shivering. "I feel like…I came here because I was worried about what I'd do, Carson."

 

"About what you'd do…? Ah." Carson nodded. "I presume this has something to do with Bates? I've just finished with him and someone gave him a nasty beating; judging by the condition of your knuckles, that someone would be you." He glanced at the knuckles on John's right hand, which were red raw and bleeding in places. "If you're worried that you might be tempted to go back and finish the job then I think you can rest easy on that score. You posted a couple of guards on him remember?"

 

John nodded, his eyes hazy.

 

"What did he do?" Carson asked.

 

"Tried to force his collar on Rodney, to make him sub for him." John's hands clenched into tight fists, and Carson winced at the look in his eyes. "It's been going on for weeks, Carson - the coercion, harassment, physical intimidation - been going on right under our noses, and we didn't see it."

 

Carson got up, his jaw tightening. "That bloody bastard. If you hadn't already taken care of it I'd go and sort the bugger out myself," he muttered. "Is Rodney okay?" He wanted to go to his friend, to check for himself that Rodney was all right, but John's need seemed more pressing right now so he forced himself to stay.

 

"He's fine. He's his usually prickly self in fact." John gave a wry ghost of a grin. "But I'm not fine, Carson. I've been an idiot."

 

"I'm sure you have," Carson said wryly. "About what in particular?"

 

"About everything I think." John shook his head. "I didn't see what Bates was doing. I…punished Rodney tonight for lying to me, for leaving Bates behind when we were offworld, but I can't honestly say I blame him now that I know what was going on. What he did was wrong, of course, and I can't ever condone leaving a man behind like that, but…all the same, I can see why he did it."

 

"Rodney's a big boy, John," Carson told him firmly. "If the punishment was unjustified he could have argued his case but he gave you nothing."

 

"He was ashamed." John fastened his fingers around his cup and stared into the dregs.

 

"Is it guilt you're feeling? Is that why you're here?" Carson asked, hoping that wasn't the case. If John wanted some kind of punishment to relieve his emotions then he'd do it - he'd done it for other tops before - but it wasn't something he enjoyed.

 

"No." John shook his head. "I can't keep the feelings under control, Carson. I…I've never felt like this before and it's driving me insane. When I saw him just now…oh christ, I want him, Carson. I want him so much it *hurts*."

 

Carson rocked back on his heels and gazed at the colonel. He wasn't surprised by this news, but he was surprised by how John was handling it.

 

"It's all I can think about. Touching him, claiming him, kissing him…I feel like if I can't have him it'll kill me. When Bates tried to put his collar on him…." John got up, and slammed his fist against the wall. Carson winced - John's knuckles were already torn so that had to hurt. "If anyone touches him I don't know what I'll do. How can I work with him?" John asked in despair. "If we're out in the field and he gets hurt, or if someone threatens him…how will I be able to control myself?"

 

"You'll learn," Carson said, in a hard tone. "You'll learn because you have to. Now come here and sit down." He got out the emergency medical kit he kept in his nightstand and beckoned the colonel over. There was no use soft-soaping the man, and sending him on his way with platitudes. John had a real problem, and it was one that Carson had encountered before, so he wasn't going to make light of it. Some tops, usually those at the more dominant end of the spectrum, *did* find it hard dealing with the strength of their emotions towards their subs. He was just surprised that John, of all people, felt this way, and the man would need real, hard-headed support, if he was going to handle it.

 

John did as he was told, and Carson took hold of his hand and examined the knuckles.

 

"Well I don't think anything's broken," he said, wiping some gel over John's hand and reaching for a bandage.

 

"Have you ever felt like this?" John asked. "Christ, what's going on. Why can't I…?" He pulled his hand away, got up again, and started pacing impatiently around the room like a caged panther.

 

"Sit down, Colonel. Now," Carson ordered, in as hard a tone as he possessed. John gave a low growl, but did as he was told, and Carson finished bandaging up his hand. "I know it hurts - oh, not your knuckles - how you're feeling - but you've got no choice but to learn to live with it, John, because it won't be going anywhere," Carson told him firmly.

 

"You don't know what it damn well feels like!"

 

"No, I don't. That's not to say I've never had moments of romantic despair," Carson grinned, "But no. I've never experienced what you're going through, but I do know you can control it."

 

"How?" John asked bleakly. "Damn it, Carson, what's happening to me? Why do I feel like this?"

 

Carson gazed at him for a moment and then burst out laughing. John glared at him.

 

"I'm sorry, laddie," Carson sighed, shaking his head. "I didn't realise. You don't know, do you, John?"

 

"Know what?" John gazed at him blankly.

 

"You're in love, John. That's what you're feeling. You told me that you'd never been in love before – well, this is how it feels for you."

 

"I'm in love? With Rodney?" John looked so surprised that Carson had to bite on his lip to stop himself laughing again.

 

"Yes, John. With Rodney," he grinned. "I know he's not someone you'd probably actually *choose*, but it seems as if your heart's ignoring your brain on this because you are head over heels in love with him. I suspect you have been for some time but just didn't want to face up to it until events forced you to sit up, and take notice. And to be honest, I think your brain's got it wrong because you and Rodney would make a good couple. You're calm - well, usually anyway - and he's excitable. He's smart - but you're smart enough to keep up with him, which god knows he needs. You're laidback enough not to crush all the spirit out of him, and he's interesting enough to keep you always entertained."

 

"He's also arrogant, argumentative, and sarcastic," John pointed out.

 

"Aye, and loyal, brave, and funny," Carson replied. John sighed and buried his head in his hands.

 

"Did you think it was just a sex thing?" Carson asked. "That all you had to do was fuck him and then you'd feel all right again?"

 

"I don't know. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I just knew I had all these…goddamn *feelings* and they wouldn't go away. You sure there's nothing you can give me for this, Doc?" He gave Carson a hopeless kind of smile.

 

"I'm afraid I can think of only one cure, laddie," Carson grinned, patting his arm affectionately.

 

John shook his head and groaned. "He'll barely speak to me," he sighed. "I just broke him with a punishment I'm sure he feels he didn't deserve, he's just been relentlessly pursued by an abusive top who wouldn't take no for an answer, and he's told me point blank he likes being single and he doesn't want, and I quote, 'some stupid dominant marching around giving me orders'. What the hell chance do I have of changing his mind?"

 

"Well…I know you've not had much experience in this field, but speaking as one not as naturally gifted in the looks department, or as effortlessly charismatic as yourself, I can tell you that romancing a sub is an art form of and by itself, and one I'd be happy to give you some pointers in," Carson said.

 

"Romancing?" John raised an eyebrow.

 

"Aye," Carson grinned. "I know, it's a whole new world for you, laddie. They usually fall at your feet in droves, but this particular sub will be worth the effort, I'm sure."

 

"How do you know that?" John asked.

 

"Because you love him." Carson shrugged. "It's as simple as that."

 

"Supposing I'm crap at this romancing thing?" John asked, and Carson smiled to himself because he'd never have thought that John Sheppard of all people would lack confidence in affairs of the heart.

 

"Supposing he turns me down, Carson? Supposing I can never have him?" His voice broke a little as he said that.

 

"Then you'll have to live with that," Carson shrugged. "The days are long gone when a top could just claim an un-collared sub and take them by force."

 

"I'd never force anyone!" John said, in an angry tone.

 

"Calm down, laddie. I know that." Carson patted John's arm again. "But as for Rodney turning you down - why would he? You're a good-looking man and most of the subs on this base would offer themselves to you given half the chance. You just have to work at it. You've already won his trust, John - I've seen the way he looks at you, and he might fight it but he has learned to trust you. Now you have to court him."

 

"Court him? Who says that any more, Carson?" John grinned, shaking his head.

 

"Well, I'm Scottish, and my mam often talked of courting my dad. I like it," Carson replied, smiling. John's grin faded, and he looked thoughtful.

 

"Okay. I'll court him, for want of a better word, Carson. I'll do anything it takes. I want him - not just for a quick fuck but for good. I've never put a collar on anyone, never shared a plate, or done any of those things. I've never *wanted* to - but…I want to with Rodney." John shook his head, looking somewhat amazed by this revelation. Carson smiled.

 

"Aye, well, love can take the best of us by surprise, lad," he said, feeling a little pang, and suddenly envying his friend his new found love. Was there anyone out there for *him* he wondered? He'd taken subs before, many of them, had even fallen in love with some of them, and had his heart broken by a couple of them, but he'd never found the right person. Someone to settle down and grow old with. Someone to put his collar on and share a plate with. He'd always hoped he'd get married one day but he was getting older and there was no sign of anyone on the horizon. He wasn't looking for the perfect sub - just the perfect sub for *him*. He sighed.

 

"You know, John, you have no idea how lucky you are," he said. "You might be hurting right now but you can make this come right."

 

"You won't tell Rodney?" There was a note of anxiety in John's voice.

 

"No. I won't tell anyone. Now…it's getting late and I think we both need some sleep. Do you trust yourself to go back to your room and get some rest?"

 

John took a deep breath, and then nodded.

 

"Any problems, just call me." Carson gestured to his headset which was lying on the nightstand.

 

John got up. "I will. And…thanks, Carson," he said awkwardly. Carson just shook his head and pulled the colonel into a brief hug before releasing him and booting him out of the door.

 

 

~*~

 

 

John returned to his quarters feeling much happier than he had before he'd gone to see Carson. So, he was in love. At least that made sense of all the wild emotions he seemed to be experiencing, and at least he had a chance of doing something about it. He thought of Rodney, wondering what it would be like to claim the scientist for his own, to quell those restless hands by placing them in cuffs, and to silence those endlessly talking lips with a long, deep kiss. John had topped many subs in his time, but he'd never claimed one for his own, or demanded any kind of submission outside the duration of a sex game. He'd never wanted to, never been remotely interested in assuming all the responsibilities and pleasures that came from putting a collar on another human being. He thought he was a good top - he knew tricks that made his subs sigh with pleasure and kiss his feet in gratitude, but he'd always kind of played at it before. This was different. This felt serious. This went way beyond sex and into new territory completely, and he didn't want to screw it up.

 

He wanted Rodney but he wanted his heart and soul as well as his body. He wanted to see those blue eyes gaze up at him with trust, love, and affection, and he knew this was too important to fuck up by moving too fast, or demanding too much, too soon. Rodney was special. He wasn't the easy lay John was used to. He'd need time, need to be gentled like a spirited colt, need to be loved into submission. That's where Bates had got it all so very wrong. Rodney couldn't be harried or coerced - he had to be won, like the prize he was, and John was determined that he'd do it, however long it took. One day he'd take Rodney McKay to his bed and make him his, and if it was the hardest thing he ever did he didn't care because it was also the most important thing he'd ever do, and he'd damn well do it right.

 

John went over to his closet and took out a small box. He'd carried it on all his postings but hadn't looked at it in years. His fathers had given it to him on his twenty-first birthday, just a few weeks before they'd died. John thought of Rodney, losing both his parents at an even younger age, and he wondered if that accounted for some of his attraction to the brilliant if wayward scientist. It was something they had in common, and although John suspected they came from very different families, it gave them a kind of connection.

 

John opened up the box and looked at the collar lying inside on a bed of silk. It wasn't a wedding collar - you would only ever fashion a wedding collar for your sub's specific measurements and to your own personal tastes - but it was a commitment collar. Some people might call it a training collar but John had never liked that term. If he ever put a collar on a sub it wouldn’t be to train them – it would be to show them they were loved, and to show the world who they belonged to, making it clear to other tops that this particular sub was most definitely not unclaimed.

 

The collar was a thick strip of white gold, sturdy enough to take a leash if you wanted to attach one, but slim enough to lie easily against the neck. Commitment collars took many forms, but this one was a very fine piece of jewellery. John slid his fingers over the collar, caressing it. He'd never taken much interest in it before, perhaps because he'd never been remotely interested in collaring a sub before. Putting a collar on a sub was a huge deal and it wasn't anything John had ever fantasised about. In his view it was mainly subs that made a big issue out of being collared, and he could point to a plethora of movies on the subject to prove his point, but now, for the first time in his life, he suddenly wondered what it would be like to place his collar around a sub's neck and have the right to claim that sub as his own. He had a mental image of Rodney, kneeling in front of him, blue eyes gazing sweetly up at him, and he shivered, surprised by the raw force of his own sexual response to that image.

 

He knew that one of his own fathers - his biological father, Adam - had worn this collar, briefly, before accepting his other father's wedding collar. John hadn't thought about his parents for a long time, not because he hadn't loved them but because their loss still hurt in some place deep inside. He thought he'd walled off that part of his heart until tonight, outside in the dark and the rain, when he'd come to understand that there were some emotions you could never outdistance, no matter how fast or how far you ran.

 

He remembered Adam - tall and dark haired, with an impish grin that charmed everyone except his other father, Gil, who would see through it, shake his head, pull Adam close, and scold him while laughing affectionately the whole time. Gil had been broad and blond, muscular and stocky. The Sheppards were an old, military family, and they did things the time-honoured way, opting for only the most traditional of marriages and living their lives by the vows they made to each other. They had met in the military when Adam had been a raw recruit, eighteen years old and full of potential, and Gil was his lieutenant, four years' older, with an outer toughness that hid a kind heart because he was the gentlest man John had ever known. It had been a love match that never wavered in the thirty years they were together, right up until their deaths. The mission they'd been on was classified, and to this day John had never uncovered the full details, but he did know that Adam's unit had gone missing behind enemy lines, and Gil had gone back for him. The Sheppards never left anyone behind - it was the golden rule that John had been brought up with. Gil had been injured in the rescue attempt and Adam had carried him home, desperately trying to keep him alive through the lifebond they shared. Gil had fought to live, but he had massive internal injuries and he'd died in Adam's arms in the hospital. Nobody knew precisely how the lifebond worked, whether it was the shock of its loss that killed the surviving partner, or whether the bond was so strong they had no choice but to follow their bonded mate into death, but Adam had died just moments later, lying on Gil's hospital bed, their bodies entwined. They had been buried together at Arlington.

 

John fingered the collar thoughtfully. The pain of his loss still hurt, even after a lifetime of suppressing it, and John realised now why he never looked at this collar. He hadn't understood how love could be so strong that a person could die of its loss. Secretly, John had always wondered whether it was essentially selfish to lifebond with another - especially when you had a child. True, he'd been technically an adult when his parents had died, but he had still felt that his heart had been ripped out of his body, leaving him raw with pain. John had always distrusted love after that, fighting shy of any emotion that could leave such devastation in his wake. He'd joined the Airforce, because he couldn't imagine doing anything else, but he tried not to think about the men who had loved and raised him, and had avoided loving anyone else since their deaths, wanting to spare himself the pain that came with losing people you care about so much.

 

Only love had found him anyway, and he was discovering that it hurt every bit as much as he'd always feared - but also that it brought with it an intoxication all of its own.

 

John replaced the collar gently in its box, and instead of putting it back in the closet, he placed it on his nightstand, where he could see it. It was time, he thought. Past time, maybe. In his mind's eye he could see both his fathers playing with him in the park. He could see Gil throwing him into the air and catching him safely in his strong hands, and remembered how Adam's dark hair would flop into his eyes as he bent to scoop a giggling John into his arms. John thought about the way that Gil would always wrap his arm around Adam's waist and slide his hand down the back of his jeans and just rest it there, laying claim to him, and making sure the world knew who he belonged to, and his heart suddenly ached. Damnit, he *missed* them. But that was only one part of the ache - the other part, both more urgent and more painful, was the knowledge that he wanted that kind of love for himself.

 

John took off the clothes he'd borrowed from Carson and slid into bed, feeling surprisingly calm and relaxed. Now he *knew* what was going on for him he could stop fighting it and just think about how good it would feel to curl his fingers in Rodney's soft hair, to press his lips against Rodney's crooked mouth, and to sink his cock into Rodney's beautiful round ass. He remembered that ass lying over his lap just a few short hours ago, how he'd wanted to stroke and caress it, and how right Rodney had felt bent over his knee, submissive and accepting, and he went to sleep with a smile curving on his lips.

 

He was woken, several hours later, by an urgent knocking on the door and he got up and staggered, bleary-eyed, to open it. Carson was standing there, a worried look in his blue eyes.

 

"Is Rodney in here?" he asked, glancing over John's shoulder at the empty bed behind him.

 

"I'm afraid not." John frowned. "Why? Has something happened to him?"

 

"I don't know. I went to his room as soon as I thought he'd be up - he keeps some very strange hours - but there was nobody there. I went to the lab, the mess hall…kept trying on his radio but there's no reply. After what you told me about what happened last night…I'm a wee bit worried about him." Carson's forehead was wrinkled up in concern, and John felt his stomach do a little flip. If anything had happened to Rodney….

 

He turned and grabbed his own radio from the nightstand to check first of all that Bates was accounted for, but he was told that the corporal hadn't left his room all night.

 

"Where can he be?" Carson fretted, pacing the room frantically while John pulled on his BDUs.

 

"I don't know." John shook his head furiously.

 

"I should have checked on him last night. I was going to but you said he was okay…."

 

"I thought he was!" John growled. "I went to see him and he bit my head off as usual. No change there."

 

"We should have thought though," Carson sighed.

 

"I know." John was kicking himself over and over again. He knew what a proud man Rodney was, and first he'd broken down his barriers with that punishment, forcing him to give in and cry which must have been the last thing he wanted to do, and then he'd witnessed that grotesque scene with Bates and that obscene training collar…. It would hardly be surprising if Rodney had felt unable to cope with the evening's events but…where would he go?

 

John finished dressing and then ran down the hallway towards Rodney's quarters, with Carson hard on his heels. He easily opened the door with a mental flick and charged inside…and then stopped. Rodney wasn't a very tidy person, and his room was strewn with laptops and page upon page of notes. There was a Rodney-sized dent on the middle of the clearly un-slept in bed, and dozens of sheets of paper lying on the floor. John frowned and picked up the notes from the floor.

 

"Looks like he was lying here, hanging over the end of the bed, working on these," John said.

 

"Aye, and no doubt into the early hours if I know Rodney," Carson said, peering over John's shoulders to read the notes.

 

"These are the transcripts he took off that temple," John said slowly.

 

"When Rodney is really in a bad way he has a tendency to throw himself into his work and try and block everything else out," Carson said, glancing around the room, looking for more clues. "Perhaps we should get Radek to decipher the notes?" he suggested to John.

 

John shook his head. It wasn't easy following Rodney's scrawl, but he wasn't stupid, and he got the gist of what was in them.

 

"Oh shit," he said, stuffing the notes in his pocket and running for the door.

 

"What is it? What did you find?" Carson said, running after him.

 

"Rodney thinks he's found the location of a ZPM," John said, as he ran for the gateroom.

 

"But…are you saying…surely…he wouldn't have gone there…alone?" Carson puffed. "Why would he do that?"

 

"Because everything fell apart for him last night, and this…this was his way of trying to piece some of himself back together again," John said grimly.

 

They got to the gateroom and John ran up the stairs two at a time to find the nightwatch gate technicians sitting at their post.

 

"Have you seen Dr McKay?" he demanded.

 

They looked at each other, and then back at him. "Yes, sir. He went through the gate," one of them offered, stammering slightly in the face of John’s brusque and agitated manner.

 

"When?" John demanded.

 

"About four hours ago, sir," the other one said.

 

"And you didn't think that was odd?" John growled. "That he'd go through the gate in the middle of the night?"

 

"Well, it was Dr McKay," the first one muttered. "And everyone knows he does weird shit."

 

"He had security clearance," the second one added. "It's not up to us to tell a senior member of this expedition that he can't go through the gate."

 

"And we have protocols," John fumed. "Lady Elizabeth approves all offworld trips."

 

"Dr McKay was very insistent," the first one said, looking panicked.

 

"Plus…he kind of yelled at us," said the second. "And you know how he can be when he does that."

 

John sighed. Yeah, he knew just how Dr Rodney McKay in full sarcasm mode must have come over to these two.

 

"Have you heard from him since then?" Carson asked, coming up behind John and putting a hand on John's shoulder, calming him. The technicians looked at each other blankly.

 

"He called to say he was through okay," one of them said.

 

"And you've heard nothing since?" It was all John could do not to grab them both by their shirts and bang their heads together. He liked working with scientists but god knows he sometimes wondered how they got by with so little common sense.

 

"Um…no," they replied, looking a little sheepish.

 

"Dial up his destination. We're going through," John said, turning.

 

"Aye, that we are," Carson said. "And let Elizabeth know what's happening, lads - okay?"

 

"And if we don't call in every hour, on the hour, then for god's sakes get Lorne to send a unit of marines after us!" John snapped, running for the gate.

 

"Just a second, Colonel. I'm not going offworld without a medical kit," Carson said, trotting down the steps towards the storage hatch where they kept emergency offworld provisions. John growled, hating any delay, but Carson was right, and he waited, impatiently, by the gate, as Carson grabbed a kit and checked the contents. John tried to keep a tight clamp on his emotions, recognising that if he wasn't careful they could spiral out of control, as they had the previous evening, and he took a few deep breaths, trying to focus. He'd be no good to Rodney if he was all over the place, and, as Carson had so rightly pointed out, he had to learn how to live with all these new feelings, had to master them and make them work for him, or he'd end up being a total mess. Finally, Carson was ready, and he took his place by John's side, a grim but determined look on his face. John remembered how little Carson liked going through the wormhole, and he knew that only the thought of Rodney being in danger was spurring the doctor on right now.

 

They ran through the gate, and John immediately tapped his radio. "Rodney?" he yelled. It was night on the planet, and the trees were swaying in a high wind, making the whole place seem eerie. The radio crackled but there was no reply.

 

"Sounds like…" Carson hesitated, frowning, concentrating on the sound.

 

"Sounds like someone tried to reply but the signal's not getting through, yes," John agreed.

"Rodney?" He tried again, to be greeted by another burst of static that might, just, have been the sound of someone's voice. John pulled out his lifesigns detector but all he could see were a series of blurry dots that merged into one another.

 

"Electrical storm!" Carson yelled over the sound of the wind and rain.

 

"Yeah. Then we're going to have to do this the hard way," John yelled back, pulling out the sheaf of papers from his jacket pocket. There wasn't much to go on, and John guessed that Rodney had taken the most relevant papers with him, but he was at least confident of the general direction to head in. They half-walked, half-ran through the storm, with John pausing to tap his radio every few strides. After a couple of miles of this, John paused, picking up a faint response in his ear.

 

"Rodney?"

 

Static. And then, faintly. "…ruins we…east…shit…ow, ow…."

 

"Rodney?!" John roared over the sound of the wind in the trees.

 

"That was definitely him," Carson said. "Sounds like his radio isn't working properly."

 

"Or something's interfering with the signal - maybe the closer we are to him the better we'll be able to hear him," John replied. "It sounded like he was telling us to go east of the ruined temple."

 

"Could be - it's all we've got to go on," Carson shrugged. They turned and headed east, with John keeping the radio channel open the entire time. The signal grew stronger as they jogged.

 

"Rodney? Come on, buddy, keep talking," John yelled, fighting to be heard over the driving wind. He didn't damn well fall in love with someone just to lose him before he'd even had a chance to kiss him! That was not damn well going to happen!

 

"…Colonel…found…then…stupid…fell…dark…stupid…."

 

"Do you have a gun?" John shouted into the radio, hoping that Rodney could hear him better than he could hear Rodney. "If so, fire it up into the air, away from you."

 

They paused, and a few seconds later they heard a faint sound in the distance. John broke into a run, heading towards the sound, his heart pounding in his chest. He jumped over fallen tree trunks, and ducked under branches, running as fast as he could, panicked by the thought of Rodney lying injured somewhere. He paused for a moment, and called into the radio again, but this time when he heard the reply it wasn't via the radio - he could hear Rodney's voice, somewhere nearby, shouting for help. Carson caught up with him a few seconds later and they scoured the area by flashlight.

 

"Over here." The voice sounded surprisingly close, and John turned and the beam of his flashlight fell on a bedraggled figure lying at the bottom of a small ravine. John's heart did a surprisingly exuberant somersault in his chest, and he scrambled towards the scientist. He was half-running, half-sliding down the side of the ravine, getting caked in mud and leaves as he went, leaving Carson trailing far behind in his eagerness to get to Rodney.

 

John reached the bottom of the ravine and then ran over to where Rodney was lying beneath a tree, clutching his ankle. There was a dark smudge of dirt down one side of his face and a deep wound that was oozing copious amounts of blood on his forehead. John skidded to a halt beside him, suddenly realising that despite the fact that every nerve-ending in his body was screaming out to grab Rodney in his arms and kiss him, the scientist had no idea how he felt and would probably be extremely alarmed if he did any such thing. So John went for the next best thing instead.

 

"Damnit what is it with you?" he scolded. "Do you go looking for trouble or what?"

 

"I wasn't looking for trouble, no," Rodney replied, in a weary but happy tone. "I was looking for a ZPM and…guess what?" He gave a triumphant smile and pulled something out of his backpack. "Da-nah!"

 

"You found it? You found a ZPM?" John reached out and tousled Rodney's hair affectionately, trying hard not to think about how much he wanted to kiss him right now.

 

"That's right. I was reading through my notes, you see, and then it suddenly just hit me where the ZPM had to be, and I had to come here and find it. I would have been fine as well if one of those stupid bat creatures hadn't flown straight at me, making me fall down this ravine. My radio was semi-busted in the process and…ow!" Rodney let out a howl as Carson reached them, and began examining his obviously hurt ankle.

 

"That's a bad sprain you've got there, laddie, but I don't think anything's broken," Carson said.

"Although I'll certainly be happy to break that thick skull of yours when we get you home. What were you thinking, Rodney, taking off like that?" He moved up to examine Rodney's head wound.

 

"I was thinking I'd bring back a ZPM," Rodney scowled. "Which we need to, you know, get the city's shield working and protect us from the scary, life-sucking, monster people."

 

"What, you couldn't wait until morning and then get the team to come out looking for it?" Carson asked, frowning as he pressed a dressing onto Rodney's forehead.

 

Rodney shrugged, and gazed mutinously at the floor. "Suspended remember? I didn't know if I was on the team any more, and I didn't trust anyone else to bring this back," he muttered, gesturing with his head at the ZPM.

 

John leaned forward. "You're still on the team, Rodney," he said, directly into Rodney's ear. "But if you're going to *stay* on the team then we really need to work on a few basic rules. One of which is that you don't go anywhere without me."

 

He felt a little tug inside as he said that. If he could just damn well put a collar and leash on this man then he'd make sure he didn't go anywhere without him ever again.

 

"Hah." Rodney just made a face at him. John put a hand on his arm and Rodney went curiously still.

 

"I mean it, Rodney. Don't mess with me on this," he warned. Rodney gazed at him, a suddenly panicked look in his eyes, and John knew that they were both thinking about that punishment he'd handed out the previous evening. Then John smiled. "I'm glad you're safe, Rodney," he said softly, reaching out to brush some of the mud off Rodney's cheek with a gentle stroke of his thumb. "Now…let's get you home shall we?"

 

He glanced at Carson, who had finished with Rodney's forehead and was now busy bandaging up his sprained ankle.

 

"Is he okay to travel?" John asked.

 

"Well, we'll never get a puddle jumper through these trees, and a gurney will take too long - he's already in shock and I want to examine that head wound properly - it looks nasty," Carson replied. "So I think helping him back to the gate between us would be the lesser of two evils."

 

"Okay then." John looked at Rodney, who seemed paler than ever now that Carson had enunciated his injuries so succinctly. "Rodney - stay with us," he ordered. Rodney blinked and nodded, and John squeezed his arm gently, trying to reassure him.

 

He put an arm around Rodney's body and pulled him to his feet, and then slung one of Rodney's arms over his shoulder. Rodney was unable to put much weight on his ankle, and, despite the makeshift compress Carson had placed on his head wound, blood was soaking through the bandage and he was clearly concussed, his pale face shining with sweat. He wasn't going to be up to doing much by way of walking so they'd have to support his weight between them. John fastened his arm more tightly around Rodney's body, securing him, while Carson took up position on the other side. This was going to be a long, slow journey, and John felt guilty for liking the feel of Rodney's warm body against his own, and the way he smelled, nestled so close.

 

John felt another of those strange, protective urges sweeping through his body, starting in his gut and spreading out to flood him with warmth. God, he wanted this man so much. He'd throw himself in front of any danger to keep him safe, battle any kinds of monsters this godforsaken galaxy threw at him just to be by his side. Earlier, when he thought they'd lost him… John pushed that thought away and ghosted a gentle caress along Rodney's hand with his thumb. I want you, a voice inside him said. I want you…I want you…I want you…. It repeated over and over again in his head, like a mantra, all the way back to the gate.

 

Elizabeth was waiting for them with a hundred questions when they stepped through the gate, and pandemonium broke out as Carson insisted, furiously, on taking Rodney to the infirmary while Rodney insisted, equally furiously, on installing the new ZPM immediately.

 

"Radek can do that," John pointed out.

 

"It's *my* ZPM!" Rodney snapped, holding it close to his chest like a baby. "I get to do it!" He jutted out his jaw obstinately, and John was about to tell him not to be an idiot when he saw a look in Rodney's eyes that stopped him. This was about Rodney's pride, and John felt he'd dented that enough in the past 24 hours - what would a small delay matter, if it gave Rodney back some of what he'd lost?

 

"We're taking him downstairs," he said to Carson, ignoring the doctor's immediate protest. Rodney gave him a surprised, grateful smile, and they shared a tiny moment, then John hauled Rodney's arm over his shoulder again, and they began walking.

 

Carson ran in front of them and planted himself in their way. "What the hell do you think you're playing at, Colonel!" he protested. "Rodney has a serious head injury!"

 

"And we've just walked him for three miles through a fucking great storm!" John snapped. "Another five minutes won't make much difference."

 

"Oh, so you’re the doctor now are you, laddie?" Carson fumed.

 

"Please. Carson." John looked at him beseechingly. "Come with us, keep close and whisk him off to the infirmary the minute he's done, but please let him do this."

 

Carson considered it for a moment, his eyes raking anxiously over Rodney's wounded head. John bit on his lip - the last thing he wanted to do was endanger Rodney's life, but he felt they'd all been ignoring Rodney's needs for long enough, and this was important, damnit!

 

"All right," Carson said at last. "But I'm hauling him to the infirmary if his condition deteriorates, no matter what."

 

"Deal," John said, giving him a grateful nod.

 

Elizabeth trailed on behind them, demanding to know what the hell was going on, but John didn't say a word as he helped Rodney down to the power generator and propped him up on a chair beside it. It only took a couple of minutes for Rodney to install the ZPM, and then he leaned back, gave John a triumphant smile, pressed a button and…nothing happened.

 

"Oh fuck," Rodney sighed.

 

"Rodney?" John looked at the ZPM and then back at the scientist. Rodney looked as if he'd shrunk, as if he'd kind of crumpled, all the triumphant happiness of earlier ebbing visibly from his body, leaving him sagging in its wake.

 

"No power." Rodney gave a bitter little laugh. "All out of juice. Probably has been for millennia. Christ, I've been a total idiot."

 

"You couldn't have known, laddie," Carson said sympathetically. Rodney's blue eyes looked completely devastated and John felt the blow with him. There was silence for a moment, as they all took in the news, and then Rodney's eyes rolled back in his head and he swayed in his chair. John ran forward and caught him just before he fell. He held Rodney tight and lowered him to the floor while Carson called into his radio for a gurney.

 

"John, what the hell is going on?" Elizabeth demanded as they waited for the medical team. "Why were you all offworld without my permission? How did Rodney get injured? And why have I had *Corporal* Bates in my office complaining that you busted him down a rank because of some fight the two of you had over a sub?"

 

John barely heard her as he cradled Rodney's head in his hands. The scientist was out cold, and under the bright Atlantean lights John saw that his head wound was much nastier than he'd realised. He felt his gut clench and he wanted to be physically sick. Carson was there, making reassuring noises, but there was little he could do until they got Rodney to the infirmary.

 

"John?" Elizabeth pulled him away as the medical team arrived and bustled around Rodney. "I want you in my office, now. I want an explanation and it'd better damn well be a good one! Carson - I want a full medical report on Rodney as soon as you've treated him," she said, before turning on her heel and leaving, every line of her body screaming her fury.

 

John gazed after her, and then gazed at Rodney, helplessly, as he was transported in the opposite direction. Carson patted his arm.

 

"Go tell her what's been happening, John," he said. "You can't help Rodney right now and I'll need space to work on him - I hate it when people's partners get underfoot when I'm trying to do my job."

 

"He's not my partner," John sighed, gazing longingly after the gurney.

 

"Not yet." Carson grinned and patted his arm again. "He's in good hands. Now go," he ordered, before running after his medical team.

 

Elizabeth gazed at him with furious eyes as John followed her into her office and shut the door behind him. He took a deep breath.

 

"I'm sorry," he said first, in an attempt to diffuse her anger. "I know this all looks completely crazy and I apologise for not keeping you in the loop but I had no idea that things would escalate like this."

 

"Explain." She sat down at her desk and looked at him expectantly. "Why is Rodney injured? What happened to him? And how the hell does Bates fit into all this?"

 

John felt his jaw tighten at Bates's name. "Bates was a catalyst," he said, trying to keep a check on his temper.

 

"He says you gave him a thrashing yesterday evening - and I have to say he didn't exactly look pretty. Did you do that to him, John? I can't condone that kind of behaviour on this expedition!" Her eyes flashed angrily.

 

"With all due respect, how I discipline my men is my business," John snapped at her.

 

"Discipline is one thing - order him to be punished if need be - but he just looked beat up to me and that's something else," she snapped back. "He's saying that you demoted him because of a private matter that had nothing to with his job. There was something about an argument over an un-collared sub?"

 

"So he came crying to you?" John shook his head. "Man, he's a whiner - he's whined to you all the way along and he's still doing it."

 

"And you still haven't given me any answers!" Elizabeth retorted.

 

"He's playing you! Playing us! The way he has since we arrived!" John told her angrily. "Maybe this will make more sense to you when I tell you that the sub in question, the sub he's talking about, the one we were supposedly fighting over, was Rodney."

 

That brought her up short. She stared at him, frowning, and then shook her head.

 

"Rodney? He doesn't even like Rodney. The two of them have been at loggerheads for weeks."

 

"No. What's been happening is that Bates has been harassing Rodney for weeks - in private, behind closed doors, no witnesses. He had one of those choke collars, the kind they tried to ban? I found him last night trying to make Rodney wear it. If Rodney agreed, Bates was, very kindly, going to help him get his job back."

 

"What?" Elizabeth looked completely aghast. John wasn’t surprised. Abusive tops weren’t very common in their society – part of the genetic imperative that led someone to identify as a top in the first place usually also made them protective and caring towards their subs. John wasn’t sure why Bates had got it so wrong but there was something about the man that he couldn’t put his finger on – something unsettling.

 

"That's partly why Rodney has been acting out. Bates has been applying the heat and Rodney has been exploding - only we haven't seen the heat, only the explosions, so they weren't making any sense to us. I don't think it's all been about Bates, but, like I said, he's been the catalyst," John told her.

 

"So you kicked Bates's ass and busted him down to corporal?" Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. John shrugged. He didn't care if she disapproved of his methods - Bates had deserved a damn good hiding and John didn't regret giving it to him.

 

"Too damn right I did."

 

"Good," Elizabeth said, in a low, heartfelt tone. John looked up, startled. "I have issues with abusive tops," Elizabeth explained, with a tight little smile. "And I particularly have issues if Rodney is the sub involved. Besides, as you said, how you discipline your men is your concern, Colonel. I'm certainly not going to interfere. I will say that we're all alone out here so we have to learn to live with Bates somehow. I'll also point out that we need all the good men we can get, and Bates was always very efficient at his job."

 

"I'll promote someone to take his place," John told her.

 

"Do you have someone in mind?"

 

John thought of Hicks, earnest and eager to learn - he'd been impressed by him over the past few weeks. "I have someone with definite potential, yes," he said.

 

"And as for Rodney…he and I go back a long way," she sighed. "I feel like I've let him down."

 

"He didn't give us a whole lot to go on," John told her. "But I know what you mean - I feel the same."

 

"And that leads us onto his current condition and your unauthorised trip offworld," she said. "I know our relationship has been a little dysfunctional lately, but Rodney is both vital to this expedition and pretty special to me personally, John, so I hope you have a damn good explanation for the way he looked just now."

 

John was startled by her vehemence. Maybe there was just something about Rodney, he thought, something not immediately obvious to the casual observer who might only see Rodney's bluster, sarcasm and arrogance, because all the strongest tops on this base seemed to feel protective towards him - although he was pretty sure that Rodney wouldn't thank them for the sentiment. John nodded and took a deep breath. "Okay," he said, before launching into a thorough account of exactly what had happened.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Rodney woke a few hours later and blinked, several times, wondering where the hell he was. He hurt. His head was pounding, his ankle throbbed and he felt nauseous. His ass ached too and he wondered why…and then the memories of the past 24 hours flooded back in and he gave a little groan. He wasn't even sure where to start with all the humiliating and unpleasant things that had happened to him over the past day, although his sore ass seemed as good a place as any. Damnit, had he *really* broken down and cried like a baby as a result of a simple hand spanking? His pride really didn't want to let him go *there*. And then having Colonel Sheppard rescue him from that humiliating encounter with Bates and his damn training collar…. And then falling down that stupid ravine and hurting himself - no wonder he felt as if it'd been hit by a truck. None of the aches and pains in his body mattered though, because he hurt more inside. It had been a ZPM, and he had been so sure it would buy him back some of the respect he felt he'd slowly been losing over the previous weeks. The sense of disappointment was hollow in his gut. Everything he touched at the moment seemed to go wrong, and he was so tired of it all.

 

"Hey. You're awake." Carson's blue eyes were gazing at him affectionately. "Idiot," Carson added for good measure. Rodney managed a faded smile.

 

"Yeah," he agreed.

 

"If you were mine, I'd wait until you got better and then give you the spanking of your life for the stunt you pulled last night," Carson told him, but the fond look in his eyes, and the reassuring hand he had on Rodney's shoulder, belied the sternness of his words. Rodney blinked, suddenly realising that he missed having a top to watch out for him. Not that he'd ever really experienced that - he was too much the egotist, too smart and too independent to take kindly to any attempt by his tops to rein him in. He thought it must be nice if you could trust someone enough to let them do that for you, but trust had never come easily to him. Right now though, he wished there was someone he could lean on, someone he could sink back against and let them take care of him. He was so damn tired.

 

"Oh I'm sure the inevitable punishment isn't too far off," he muttered. He'd sneaked offworld without permission after all, causing Carson and Sheppard to risk their lives chasing after him. He couldn't imagine that Elizabeth was best pleased with him right now - although maybe if he'd brought back a functioning ZPM, and if he hadn't been stupid enough to get himself injured, maybe then she'd be less angry with him. He just hoped she wouldn't appoint the colonel to take care of it. He wasn't sure he could face that. Sheppard had a way of getting under his skin and making him face himself, and that hurt more than any punishment ever could.

 

Carson was gazing at him sympathetically, his hand squeezing Rodney's arm. "How are you feeling, Rodney?" he asked. "You gave us all quite a scare back there, laddie. Now, you've got a nasty head wound. I've sutured it but I want to keep you here, under observation, for a couple of days."

 

"Oh god." Rodney tried to sit up, encountered a wave of nausea, and put his head back down again. Carson shook his head.

 

"No sudden movements - you need to take it easy for a few days."

 

"No laptop then?" Rodney asked hopefully.

 

"What do you think, laddie?" Carson rolled his eyes at him.

 

"I think you always call me laddie when you're being particularly bossy," Rodney retorted.

 

"Aye, laddie," Carson grinned. "Just so long as you remember that this is my infirmary and I'm in charge here. I know what a terrible patient you are, and I don't want any of your usual moping and complaining."

 

"I don't mope *or* complain. I just voice my perfectly reasonable protests about…" Rodney began, and then he caught the extremely no-nonsense look in Carson's eyes and he didn't risk continuing down that path. "Oh never mind," he sighed into his pillow. "I'll just lie here and be bored for days on end."

 

"Good." Carson smiled brightly. "Although I doubt you'll be all that bored. There's a whole list of people who want to visit you."

 

Rodney frowned. He thought it *should* be the case that people would want to visit him but seeing as he seemed to be on disastrous terms with most of the base, half of whom happily turned out to jeer at him whenever he was being punished, he *really* didn't think that was likely.

 

"Who?" he asked suspiciously.

 

"First up is Colonel Sheppard," Carson said brightly, and then he disappeared before Rodney could protest. Rodney glared after him. He felt uncomfortable talking to Sheppard for a whole host of reasons, but it seemed he had no choice because the colonel sauntered in a few minutes later, in that laconic way he had, sat down on the chair beside the bed and put those long legs of his up on the mattress. He looked tired, and his ridiculous dark hair was all mussed up as if he'd just spent hours running his hands through it and disturbing the truckloads of gel he must have to apply to it each day.

 

"So, how you feeling, Rodney?" he asked.

 

"Terrible," Rodney snapped.

 

"You look pretty crappy," Sheppard told him. "Oh. Here. Teyla sent these along." He dumped a bag on the bed beside Rodney, and Rodney peered into it suspiciously.

 

"What are they?" he asked.

 

"Some kind of Athosian cherries I think." Sheppard shrugged. "Apparently they're the customary gift for someone who is sick."

 

"I'm not sick. I fell down a ravine," Rodney quibbled.

 

"Yeah. You've gotta stop doing that," Sheppard told him with a wry grin.

 

"I'll bear that in mind next time I'm out hunting for a ZPM in the middle of the night while being assaulted by bat creatures."

 

"You're on thin ice with that one, Rodney," Sheppard said, shaking his head, and Rodney bit back a frosty retort because the colonel was right about that. "However, I was thinking that as you seem to be making a habit of unauthorised heroics then I'd better teach you how to fire a gun properly - that way you can learn to take care of sky-diving bat creatures without falling down the nearest ravine."

 

Rodney glared at him but he wasn't entirely sure why. He felt uncomfortable about spending any more time than was necessary with the laidback colonel, but at the same time he felt rather pleased that Sheppard thought he was worth the effort.

 

"Not that there's gonna be a next time," Sheppard said firmly. "Because from now on, if you ever, ever, go offworld without permission again, or if you do something really stupid, like running off by yourself while we're on a mission, then the punishment I gave your ass last night will seem like a slap on the wrist by comparison. Clear?"

 

"Perfectly," Rodney muttered, feeling his face flush warmly. He really didn't want to think about the previous evening and how it had felt to lower himself over the colonel's knees. It had been too intimate, too personal, and he wasn't comfortable with it.

 

"I really want to talk to you about that," Sheppard said, leaning forward.

 

"And I really don't," Rodney replied.

 

"Tough." Sheppard shrugged. "Look, I'm not going to apologise for punishing you because I think you deserved it. I never, ever leave people behind, and while I can understand why you lied to me, don't ever do anything like that again, Rodney. But…." He reached out a hand, as if he wanted to touch Rodney's arm, but then drew back, his hazel eyes conflicted. "I *am* sorry for what you went through with Bates. I wish you had felt you could have told us what was going on - it makes me really uneasy that you were punished all those times when he was making your life such a misery."

 

Rodney stared at a spot somewhere over the colonel's shoulder. He really would have preferred it if Sheppard had come in here and been distant, or even if he'd yelled at him for going offworld without permission, but an apology was harder to take.

 

"I should have been able to handle him," he muttered. "I'm not a child, Colonel. I don't need to be protected. You have no idea how much it pisses me off that you had to come riding over the hill to rescue me from the clutches of the big bad top. I've never imagined myself to be one of *those* subs. I feel like I got trapped in a really bad movie and that makes the whole thing even worse." He shuddered. "It's not even as if he was the cool-but-sexy villain. He was just a thug - a really stupid, dumbass thug."

 

Sheppard laughed at that and Rodney glared at him, annoyed. Sheppard shook his head. "I'm sorry - I just figured out that what's really pissing you off is not that Bates tried to force his collar on you but that he was smart about it," he grinned. "He had a plan and it damn well nearly succeeded, and you're mad as hell about that."

 

Rodney gazed at him through narrowed eyes. "Did you want me to tell you that you'd outstayed your welcome, or have you figured that out for yourself?" he scowled. Sheppard laughed again.

 

"Message received. Loud and clear," he said, unfolding those long legs of his and getting up. He leaned forward, and for just one second there was an intense look in his eyes that took Rodney by surprise. "I'll be back this evening," he said. "I'm glad you're okay, Rodney." He ran his hand gently along Rodney's arm, never taking his eyes off Rodney's face, and Rodney felt all the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and he shivered, puzzled by his reaction. Then the moment passed, and Sheppard turned to go.

 

"He didn't nearly succeed," Rodney said quietly, just as Sheppard reached the door. Sheppard glanced back over his shoulder. "The answer would always have been no," Rodney said, thrusting out his chin obstinately.

 

A fierce look flared in Sheppard's eyes, and the colonel nodded at him. "I know that, Rodney," he said softly, and then he left.

 

Rodney closed his eyes and tried to sleep but found he couldn't switch off. He just lay there, remembering how awkward and yet how easy it had been to lower himself over Sheppard's knee. He felt as if he'd been falling for a very long time, and then Sheppard had come along and caught him, upturned him over his knee, and broken through barriers and walls that Rodney had constructed a very long time ago.

 

He dozed, only to find Sheppard chasing him through his dreams as he re-lived the events of the past 24 hours over and over again, all jumbled up in his mind. He could still see the look of surprise on Bates's face as Sheppard had clawed him away, and thrown him bodily across the room. Could still feel the cold steel of that training collar pressed against his neck, and the raw, hungry look in Bates's eyes as he'd forced him against the wall and demanded his submission. Then he was lying at the bottom of that ravine, lost in the dark, and Sheppard had appeared out of nowhere, looming over him, asking if he was hurt, rubbing dirt off the side of his face and smiling at him with that goofy, laid-back smile. Yet all the while those hazel eyes of his held a different expression entirely, hinting that the colonel wore a mask that nobody was ever meant to see behind. What did lie behind it, Rodney wondered, feverishly, as he tossed and turned on his infirmary bed. Who was the real John Sheppard? Was it the effortlessly cool, if slightly distant man, who sauntered around this base exuding a kind of easy charm that Rodney distrusted instinctively? Or was it the man who had just brushed his arm; intense and dangerous, with a fierce, dark, passionate edge that thrilled Rodney even as it scared him? Rodney didn't know the answer to that question, and, finally, he managed to fall into an exhausted, troubled sleep.

 

 

 

~*~

 


 

Part Seven: Rodney's Stalker

 

 

It was late afternoon when Rodney woke, his head was still pounding, and there was a visitor sitting beside his bed, typing quietly into her laptop. Rodney blinked, blearily, and Elizabeth smiled at him and closed her laptop, putting it to one side.

 

"Are you feeling better?" she asked, her hand finding his on the blanket, and squeezing, gently.

 

"Yeah." He managed to sit up and she rearranged his pillows behind him. His mouth felt dry, and Elizabeth poured him a glass of water and held it out for him to drink. Then he lay back, exhausted by the effort.

 

"Colonel Sheppard told me everything," she said.

 

Rodney sighed. "Everything?" he groaned.

 

She grinned. "Everything," she said firmly. "You and I need to mend some fences, Rodney."

 

"Wish I knew how," he muttered, meaning it. "I'd like to promise that everything will be okay from now on…but…I keep surprising myself you see. Don't know what's going on really. Everything…got kind of jumbled up."

 

She gazed at him thoughtfully, and then nodded. "Let's take it one day at a time then."

 

"All right. Are you going to have Sheppard punish me for running off last night?" he asked, wearily.

 

"Does it work?" She raised an eyebrow.

 

"When Sheppard does it? Probably," he replied, honestly.

 

"I'll bear that in mind then. But, Rodney, nobody is going to punish you for last night," she said firmly, getting up and coming to sit on the bed beside him. "I think, because we're so far from home, and there are so many pressures out here, that maybe you and I lost touch with what's important. I'm sorry for my part in that. I'm just glad you're okay." And then she took his head gently between her hands, leaned forward, and kissed him tenderly on the forehead. Rodney blinked uncertainly. "Please don't do that again, Rodney," she told him, drawing back and gazing at him affectionately. "You're far too important for us to lose you."

 

"Well that's true enough," he replied. "I mean, Zelenka's good but he's not brilliant. He's not a bona fide genius like yours truly."

 

She gave a little gurgle of laughter. "You're probably right!" she said, and then she shook her head, her smile fading. "But that's not what I meant," she added softly, her hazel eyes deadly serious. “Get well soon, Rodney. And please remember that if anything upsets you then you can talk to me. My door is always open – especially to you.”

 

She got up, picked up her laptop, and left. Rodney gazed after her, startled. It occurred to him then, that despite his best attempts to keep people at arm's length, somehow they'd all crept in under the radar anyway. Carson, Sheppard, Elizabeth - even Radek and some of the other members of his staff. He had responsibilities here, and people who cared about him, and he really needed to stop being an idiot and start being Dr McKay again. Not that the whole belated teen rebellion thing hadn't been fun, in its own way.

 

Rodney closed his eyes again, and this time, when he slept, it was a deep, dreamless, healing sleep.

 

The next few days crawled by interminably. Once Rodney started to feel better he made sure that everyone in the infirmary was just as miserable as he was, and Carson's lectures gradually mutated from the wearily sympathetic to the extremely pissed off. Rodney was immune to it. He was bored and desperate to be back at work, and he hated all the enforced idleness.

 

"I feel sorry for the top you end up with!" Carson admonished him in desperation after one particularly heated exchange.

 

"Hah. There isn't a top around who could handle me!" Rodney riposted.

 

"You're the worst patient I've ever had!"

 

"You're the worst doctor I've ever had!"

 

"Is there a problem here?" Sheppard arrived, one eyebrow raised inquisitively. Rodney scowled at him. The colonel visited him every morning before his shift began and every evening after it ended, and Rodney had no idea why. He could only assume that Sheppard felt guilty for punishing him and was trying to make it up to him. Either that or he thought Rodney was such trouble that he wanted to keep an eye on him.

 

"No problem, no," Carson said, glaring at Rodney maliciously. "Rodney was just telling me that there isn't a top alive who could handle him. Apparently."

 

"Is that so?" Sheppard leaned against the wall, folding his arms over his chest and regarding Rodney in a way that made Rodney's scalp tingle and his entire body flush. His eyes raked over Rodney's face, amused, like a cat playing with a cornered mouse. "You should be careful about making those kinds of statements in public," Sheppard drawled. "Some tops might take it for a challenge."

 

"He started it!" Rodney accused, pointing at Carson.

 

"Aye, I did," Carson nodded. "I was just telling him, colonel, that I pity the top he ends up with, poor bugger." The two of them exchanged a look that Rodney didn't understand at all, and then Sheppard burst out laughing.

 

"Oh, I'm sure there's someone out there who can tame him," he said.

 

"I'm ill and you're taunting me. It's not good for my recovery," Rodney sniffed. "If only Carson would let me go back to my quarters…."

 

"You've only got a couple more days in here, Rodney," Sheppard said, in that reasonable tone of voice, helping himself to one of Rodney's Athosian cherries.

 

"He won't let me work!" Rodney accused.

 

"Well then we're even because you won't let me work, either!" Carson exploded.

 

"How's his ankle? Can he walk?" Sheppard asked.

 

Carson shrugged. "He can hobble."

 

"Good. Then how about I get him out of your hair for a couple of hours - wear him out with a walk down to the south-west pier?"

 

"That would make me a very happy man," Carson breathed. "Thank you, Colonel. A wee bit of mild exercise would do him good I think."

 

"Isn't anybody going to ask *me* whether I want to go for a walk?" Rodney fumed. Sheppard and Carson glanced at each other, and then shook their heads.

 

"Nah," Sheppard said.

 

"It's a miracle anyone ever gets better with this kind of care," Rodney snapped. "First I'm locked up with the local witchdoctor for days on end, and then I'm made to go out walking in the cold…."

 

"It's summer," Sheppard pointed out.

 

"Whatever," Rodney sniffed.

 

Sheppard grinned, and held out his hand. "Come on, Rodney, before Carson kills you with his bare hands."

 

"Fine. Ignore me. The pair of you just enjoy bossing me around when I'm too ill to fight back," Rodney complained, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and treading down gingerly. His ankle was still very painful and he had a pronounced limp. Carson held up a bathrobe and helped him into it.

 

"Oh you're doing just fine with the fighting back thing. Here take my arm." Sheppard held out his arm. Rodney looked at it as if it was a poisonous snake.

 

"I can manage," he growled, holding onto the side of the bed as the room swam a little.

Sheppard grabbed his hand, wrapped it firmly around his own arm, and then held it there.

 

"If you feel like you're going to pass out, or you're too tired to go any further, then tell me," he said. Rodney glared at him, but he knew he'd never manage to walk all the way down to the south-west pier without holding onto something, so he finally gave in.

 

It was kind of nice to be out of the infirmary too, even if he really wanted to be at work and not wandering at a snail's pace through the city hallways, clad in his pyjamas and bathrobe, hanging onto Colonel Sheppard's arm. Sheppard was being kind of nice to him, making conversation about the puddle jumpers, and how he'd recently made a trip over to the mainland to visit the Athosians in their new settlement.

 

They finally reached the south-west pier, and Rodney released his grip on Sheppard's arm and hung onto the balustrade. He’d spent so long locked up in his lab that he'd forgotten how good it felt to just stand, soaking up the sunshine, the wind gently rifling through his hair. Atlantean summers were pleasant too - not too hot, but nice and warm, and he sighed, and gazed out across the ocean.

 

“This is my favourite place in the city,” Sheppard told him. “I often come here just to get away from things. To sit and think.”

 

“It is nice,” Rodney agreed, suddenly realising he’d only ever viewed the city as a piece of machinery, something that had to be made to work, something to be maintained. He’d never gone anywhere to just sit and think.

 

"You ever been on the mainland, Rodney?" Sheppard asked, gesturing with his head into the deep blue yonder. Rodney shook his head. "It's nice - a bit wild, but nice. After I finished dropping off supplies for the Athosians, I took the puddle jumper along the coast and found this great beach. White gold sand, pure blue water - completely unspoiled."

 

"You sound like a travel brochure," Rodney muttered.

 

Sheppard grinned. "Maybe I'll take you there one day," he said.

 

Rodney scowled. "I hate beaches. You get sand between your toes and salt in your hair and everything's messy."

 

"You must have liked going to the beach when you were a kid." Sheppard put his head on one side and gazed at Rodney intently. Rodney shifted, uncomfortable under all that hazel-eyed scrutiny.

 

"I don't remember ever going to the beach as a kid," he muttered. "My parents didn't believe in vacations - it would have meant them spending too much time together. They hated each other."

 

"Why did they stay together then?" Sheppard asked in a curious tone.

 

"They had some weird co-dependency thing going on, and besides I think they enjoyed the battle too much. They were both switches, and neither of them ever wanted to give an inch to the other. They were locked into this little battle and they loved it."

 

"Must have been kind of hard to be in the middle of all that."

 

"Are you kidding? It was gruesome. They used me and my sister like chess pieces in their warped game of marital dysfunction. We were moved across the board, back and forth, like pawns, and god knows they were Grand Masters at it. You?"

 

Sheppard looked taken by surprise by the way Rodney had thrown the topic back at him but he just shrugged, in that casual way he had.

 

"My dads were great. *And* they took me to the beach. A lot," he grinned. The wind lifted his dark hair, and the evening sun bathed him in orange light from behind, making him look impossibly handsome. Rodney grunted. He hated impossibly handsome people. He especially hated impossibly handsome people with an easygoing charm and perfect childhoods. It was irritating. It was nice being out though. Sheppard was easy to be with, and Rodney found himself letting his guard down a little, and chatting. He was surprised when Carson radioed Sheppard to ask where his patient was as they'd been gone for a couple of hours.

 

The fresh air knocked him out, and by the time Sheppard delivered him back to his bed he sank back on the pillows, closed his eyes, and fell into an immediate doze. He was vaguely aware of Sheppard and Carson having a conversation but it washed over him, like waves on the seashore, coming in and out of focus.

 

"How did it go?"

 

"Fine. No - great."

 

"You didn't end up wanting to throttle him then?"

 

"Nope. He's got this weird vulnerability thing going on. Even when he's at his most obnoxious you still can't help liking him."

 

"Aye. Damn him. So you haven't changed your mind?"

 

"Yeah, right. You know me better than that by now, Doc. If anything I feel it more strongly than ever - and I'll do whatever it takes. I mean - look at him - he's…."

 

Rodney didn't hear any more as he was sound asleep.

 

 

It was a great relief when he was finally released from the infirmary and allowed to go back to his lab and see what kind of a mess Radek had made of things while he'd been gone. Nothing had been done to his satisfaction so he set about correcting all his team's errors while at the same time pointing them out to them as loudly as possible. He managed to berate every single member of his staff by ten a.m. on his first day and felt much better thereafter.

He was surprised when Colonel Sheppard dropped by at lunchtime and asked him if he was going to the mess hall to eat.

 

"I thought I'd grab a sandwich and work through," Rodney replied curtly.

 

"It's your first day back. You should take a proper break," Sheppard told him. Rodney sighed, loudly.

 

"Oh all right - I suppose Carson sent you to check up on me," he muttered. Sheppard just grinned and shrugged, and Rodney assumed that he'd been right about that so he wasn't entirely surprised when Sheppard showed up again in the evening.

 

"Dinner?" the colonel suggested.

 

"You really don't need to make sure I eat. I always remember to eat," Rodney told him, rolling his eyes. "Go and tell Carson that I'm fine, and I don't need a babysitter."

 

Sheppard grinned again. "You don’t always remember to eat as we both know all too well. And I need you to eat right now because I don't want you fainting on me in the firing range.”

 

Rodney frowned. "What?"

 

"Firing range. I'm giving you your first lesson tonight."

 

"And when were you going to tell me this?" Rodney snapped.

 

"I just did."

 

"Well it's impossible. I've been away from the lab for days, and it's a miracle the city is even still standing as my completely incompetent staff seem to have managed to wreck just about every single thing I asked them to do."

 

"It's your first day back and you are not working in here until midnight," Sheppard told him firmly. "Carson said you had to take it easy."

 

"Carson knows I always ignore him when he says that."

 

"He might. I don't," Sheppard shrugged. "Seems to me that if he says take it easy then that's what you're going to do. The firing range will be a good change of scene, and besides, you need the practice. Now, tear yourself away from your laptop and let's get moving. I'm starving."

 

Rodney stood there, completely flummoxed. "You're serious about this aren't you?" he said. Sheppard just smiled. "What if I say no?" Rodney narrowed his eyes.

 

"You don't want to do that," Sheppard replied easily, still smiling.

 

Rodney sighed and gave in. "Some tops just can't leave it in the bedroom," he muttered to himself as he limped over to the door. Sheppard gave a little snort, as if he'd heard that, and when Rodney got close he put a hand on his shoulder and escorted him out into the hallway.

 

Rodney had very little interest in guns, beyond a kind of vague horror that he might accidentally shoot off some part of his own anatomy in a moment of blind panic. He had to admit (to himself at least but not to Sheppard) that the colonel was a pretty good teacher. He explained how the gun worked (a lecture that made Rodney mentally roll his eyes because he knew how a goddamn gun worked), and then moved onto the best way to hold a weapon and how to load ammunition on the move. Then, finally, he gave Rodney a handgun to fire.

 

"No - don't stand like that - stand like this." Sheppard moved close behind him, and slid his fingers over Rodney's hands where they were held out in front of his body, clutching the gun. Rodney could feel Sheppard's breath on the side of his face, and the front of the colonel's body was pressed tight against his back and buttocks. Rodney found himself going very still, and his breathing seemed to slow down. He tried to concentrate on what Sheppard was saying but all coherent thought seemed to have escaped him. He felt very calm, very quiet…sort of lost in a little world of his own. It was the most peaceful he'd felt in a very long time, and he longed for the sensation to last. Then Sheppard was squeezing his hands, encouraging him with low, hypnotic tones, and Rodney found himself firing at the paper target, rapidly, one shot after another, and every shot was going home, right in the centre, tearing the target apart.

 

"Wow," Sheppard murmured in his ear, and Rodney broke out into a warm sweat. "Looks like you've been holding out on us, McKay."

 

"Did I do that? I didn't do that! My god - I did that!" Sheppard loosened his grasp on him and Rodney jumped towards the target excitedly. "There - see - genius *and* sharp shooter!" he exclaimed, hopping from one foot to the other in glee.

 

"Try again," Sheppard said, laughing at his obvious excitement.

 

Rodney took up position, and fired at the new target Sheppard put in place - and missed, dismally, several times, although one shot did puncture one of the lights overhead.

 

"Must have been a fluke," Rodney sighed, dejected. "Damnit! I always wanted to be good at something cool - not that rocket science and astrophysics aren't cool, but, well, you know, nobody else thinks so - but this *is* cool. If I could have done this at school then maybe I wouldn't have had to hide beneath the bleachers during recess with those idiots from the science club who got beat up all the time."

 

"You used to hide beneath the bleachers?" Sheppard raised an amused eyebrow.

 

"With our experiments!" Rodney explained, as if that rendered it less sad. "I nearly split the atom under the bleachers. There was this one time when…."

 

"Shall we try again?" Sheppard suggested. "And this time…." He came up behind Rodney and pressed in close again, his hands sliding down Rodney's arms and over his fingers and squeezing, "Stroke the weapon gently. Imagine you're on your knees, pleasuring some fantastically hung top, and you don't want to piss him off by going too fast, too soon, so you're just gently doing this…." Rodney felt his throat go dry as Sheppard talked, in that slow drawl of his, straight into his ear. He was a captive within the colonel's embrace, and that sensation made him want to go very still, and he felt that warm, peaceful glow descend on him again. He squeezed the trigger, as instructed, and hit the target in the centre, just as he had before.

 

"There you go," Sheppard said, as he finished firing. "Not a fluke."

 

"No," Rodney said softly. He didn't have the heart to tell the colonel that if he was going to repeat the feat in the field then Sheppard would have to be standing right behind him, whispering in his ear the entire time.

 

Rodney was tired by the time he returned to his quarters later that evening. Maybe Sheppard had been right about the whole taking it easy thing. The colonel insisted on walking him back to his rooms before saying goodnight and Rodney assumed the man didn't actually trust him not to go back to his lab. Of course, he might be right not to trust him, as Rodney had definitely considered it, but he was just too tired and his head was spinning. Rodney crossed the room, moving his head from side to side to relieve an ache in his neck, and he caught sight of himself in the mirror. He had a pink scar on his head from where he'd fallen the previous week. That was already fading but what struck him, suddenly, was how long it had been since he'd really looked at himself.

 

He got up close and examined his reflection, wincing slightly. His hair was long, far longer than was really respectable, and kind of greasy, matted at the ends from where he'd run his fingers through it after eating a jelly donut earlier in the day. It was sticking up in places, giving him a dishevelled look. He couldn't be bothered with shaving most days, and just did the minimum to keep the stubble on his chin from getting wildly out of hand. His clothes were clean enough, and he knew that he didn't smell, but he tended to just pull on whatever came to hand, without thinking about it. The result was that he was wearing an oversized tee shirt with a pair of baggy cargo pants, making him look a bit like a tramp, in clothes that were a size too big for him. Rodney pulled up the tee shirt and surveyed his stomach - it was perhaps a bit flatter than it used to be, and he hadn't been eating as regularly over the past couple of months as he usually did. No wonder his clothes were hanging off him.

 

"Man you look bad," he muttered to his reflection. He considered rummaging around in his belongings for some more flattering clothes - or bartering for some a size smaller on Atantis's flourishing black market - and possibly having his hair trimmed too while he was at it, but then he stopped. He remembered the look on Bates's face as he'd tried to put that collar on him and the last thing he wanted was to attract the attention of any other psychotic tops out there. Better to keep them at bay with both his sharp tongue and his slovenly appearance. There weren't any tops on the base who interested him in any case - he'd made a vow to himself that he wasn't going anywhere near a military top ever again, and none of the scientists was remotely appealing so that pretty much ruled out everyone. He couldn't see the point in smartening up just for the sake of it, either. He held out his arms, clutching a pretend gun, and re-lived the sensation of John Sheppard sliding his hands sensuously down his arms, his body pressed so close that Rodney could almost hear the beating of his heart. What kind of a top would John Sheppard be, he wondered? Then he dismissed the thought immediately.

 

"Impossibly handsome, remember?" he told himself. "Undoubtedly full of himself. The kind who'd make you blow them in front of a mirror just so they can watch themselves come. And he'd make you do his hair every morning. Probably already has a sub just to do that. A special hair sub - the servant of the gel. Dedicated to the sole task of whipping that artfully tousled hair into a state of perfection every morning. Expect he beats the hell out of the poor bastard if there's so much as one strand going in the wrong direction. Are you talking to yourself in the mirror? Why, yes I am. Idiot."

 

He moved away, stripped off his clothes, and went to take a shower, trying to banish all thoughts of John Sheppard from his mind.

 

Keeping John Sheppard out of his mind would be a lot easier if John Sheppard would only keep out of his sight, Rodney thought to himself a few days later. It was bizarre, but everywhere he went the colonel seemed to pop up a few seconds later. It started with breakfast - no matter what time he got to the mess hall to eat, Sheppard always seemed to show up before he got the first spoonful of food to his lips. The colonel would wander in, glance around the room, and his eyes would fall unfailingly on Rodney. Then he'd come over, sit down beside him or opposite him, and give that lazy grin of his. They'd make conversation - Sheppard would ask him about what he had planned for his day, and Rodney would explain that it was far too complicated for a mere Airforce colonel to understand. Sheppard would just smile and say 'try me' and that was like a red rag to a bull to Rodney who'd immediately find himself launching into a detailed technical explanation in the hope of proving to the colonel that there was no way he'd be able to keep up. Much to his annoyance, Sheppard was actually pretty good at keeping up, and would even ask the occasional intelligent question. Finally Rodney would realise that he was running late and tear himself away and forget about Sheppard for a few hours while he worked - until the colonel showed up around lunch time, where he would proceed to hang around the lab, getting underfoot, until such time as Rodney agreed to go and have lunch with him. There wasn't even any escaping the man in the evening - he seemed to know precisely what time Rodney would finish work, and Rodney would find him lounging around outside the lab door, or just nonchalantly walking down the hallway at the exact moment Rodney was leaving. It was kind of spooky, and Rodney was starting to get freaked by it. It wasn't that he minded the man's company as such, but he couldn't help thinking that maybe this was all part of some giant practical joke, and if it was, then he was pretty sure the joke would be on him. Sheppard was military after all. Alternatively…it was possible that Sheppard was keeping an eye on him, determined that he wouldn't cause any more mayhem after the whole running off to find a ZPM stunt he'd pulled. That irritated Rodney - he was doing his best to turn things around after all the problems he'd had when they first arrived, and he resented the fact that he wasn't trusted. The third possibility, which Rodney suspected was the most likely, was that Carson had appointed Sheppard as his personal health supervisor or something, and the man was under orders to trail around after him to make sure he was eating and not falling down ravines, or otherwise hurting himself.

 

After two weeks of this, Rodney finally snapped when Sheppard came to his lab late one night and leaned against the wall.

 

"It's nearly midnight," the colonel said.

 

"And your point would be?" Rodney frowned, trying to couple two extremely delicate wiring systems together, his fingers shaking ever so slightly from an overload of the caffeine he'd been consuming every half an hour throughout the course of the day.

 

"My point being that what you're doing looks kind of fiddly and complicated so wouldn't it be better to wait until morning when you're fresh?" Sheppard commented.

 

"Do I tell you how to run your missions? No," Rodney said firmly. "Do I hang around your office making suggestions about rotas and rifles and I don't know, all that military stuff that I presume you do all day? No."

 

"You'd be perfectly welcome to hang around my office. It's not as much fun as your office though," Sheppard grinned, glancing around the lab. "For a start, nothing gets blown up - well, for the most part anyway. And any time you have any suggestions about rifles I'd be interested to hear 'em."

 

Rodney rolled his eyes. "It was just an example. I have no idea what you do all day but I'm sure it's very important and involves far more blowing things up than I get to do, more's the pity. Oh fuck." The coupling escaped from his shaking fingers and slid to the floor. Rodney bent down and retrieved it.

 

"How much coffee have you been drinking?" Sheppard asked. Rodney bristled.

 

"None of your damn business."

 

"It's just that your fingers are shaking."

 

"I'm perfectly well aware of that, thank you, Colonel!"

 

"Okay. Just saying." Sheppard crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back against the wall. "Only it seems to me that if you worked shorter hours, and took more care of your health, then you'd probably get just as much done because you'd have a clearer head - and you won’t have worked yourself into the ground in the process."

 

Rodney gave him the Evil Glare of Doom that he saved for only his most irritating staff members - only to find, much to his irritation, that it didn't seem to work on Sheppard who just grinned at him. Rodney muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath and turned back to the coupling. He was so distracted by Sheppard's comment though, that his fingers slipped and he sliced one of them on the sharp metal casing. He dropped the wires with a yelp and clutched his hand to his chest as large droplets of red blood fell on the floor.

 

"Easy. Here, let me see," Sheppard said, suddenly by his side, his hand on Rodney's shoulder.

 

"No. You have done enough, Colonel. This wouldn't have happened if you weren't so annoying. Now just get out of my way." Rodney made for the door, still clutching his bleeding hand to his chest. Sheppard fell into step beside him. "I mean it!" Rodney growled. "I'm going to the infirmary and I don't need your help getting there. Leave me alone!" Sheppard thought about it for a moment, and then nodded, and allowed Rodney to go on his way.

 

Rodney strode down to the infirmary, to find Dr Biro the only occupant. He glared at her. "Where's Carson?"

 

"In bed I'd imagine," she replied. "It's gone midnight, Dr McKay. Are you hurt? I'm the doctor on night duty. Can I help?"

 

"No, you can't," Rodney said, turning his back on her and marching off in the direction of Carson's quarters. He kicked the door several times before his friend finally answered it, dark hair tousled, blue eyes sleepy and bemused.

 

"Rodney? Are you okay?"

 

"No, I'm not okay!" Rodney snapped, pushing past Carson and striding into his room. "I'm bleeding, and it's all your fault. Oh." He pulled up short as he saw someone slide out of Carson's bed and reach for his clothes.

 

"I'll leave you to it, Doc," the man said, pulling on his pants and then pressing a kiss to Carson's cheek. "Thanks for tonight - and, you know, good luck with McKay. You'll probably need it."

 

Rodney watched him go, open-mouthed, and then rounded on his friend. "Ford? You're sleeping with Ford?" he said, in disbelief.

 

"Why not? He's a good looking lad," Carson said defensively.

 

"He's a kid."

 

"He's legal! And he's cute!"

 

"He's got a massive crush on Teyla!"

 

"I know!" Carson snapped at him, two angry red dots appearing on both his cheeks. "I'm bloody well aware of that! He made no bones about it - came here this evening and said he wanted some no strings fun, couldn't promise anything more as he was holding out for Teyla, but in the meantime he's a sub, I'm a top, and why not play?"

 

"You're such a slut," Rodney said, sitting down on the side of the bed.

 

"I haven't taken a sub in months!" Carson protested. "I'm lonely!"

 

"He's *military*," Rodney growled.

 

"So?" Carson shook his head. "Just because you had a wee bit of bother with some of the military lads doesn't mean they're all bad. I like Aiden - he's a very eager-to-please young man and we enjoyed a nice scene this evening."

 

"I don't want to hear about it." Rodney glanced at the lube on the nightstand, the soft wrist

restraints hanging from the bed, and a rather sumptuous looking suede flogger abandoned on the floor.

 

"I wasn't going to damn well tell you about it!" Carson said. "Rodney what are you doing here? Damn it - are you bleeding on my sheets?"

 

"Oh. Yes. Sorry about that," Rodney muttered, looking down at his wounded hand, from which splashes of blood were dripping.

 

"Show me." Carson sat down beside him and pulled his hand over, none too gently.

 

"Ow!" Rodney complained.

 

"There is a night doctor on duty you know," Carson told him. "If you want more caring treatment you know where you can go."

 

"I wanted to see you, seeing as how this is all your fault," Rodney retorted, nodding at his bleeding hand.

 

"My fault? How the hell is this anything to do with me?" Carson asked, his fingers carefully probing Rodney's wound with their usual gentle skill, despite his words.

 

"It's Sheppard! You've got to call him off," Rodney said. Carson frowned.

 

"Call him off? What do you mean, lad?"

 

"I mean that you have to tell him to stop following me around. I'm a big boy and I can take care of myself. I'm not about to fall down any more ravines!"

 

"You think…you think that I've somehow set the colonel on you to make sure you don't do yourself any harm?" Carson asked, blankly.

 

"Well haven't you?" Rodney said, jutting out his jaw, suddenly feeling a little less sure of himself. Carson laughed, softly, shaking his head.

 

"No, Rodney. I haven't."

 

"Then why does he keep *appearing* all the time?" Rodney asked, puzzled. "Everywhere I go, he's there. Oh my god! You don't think he's stalking me do you?"

 

"Why would he do that?" Carson looked like he was having trouble keeping himself from bursting into a fit of hysterical giggles.

 

"I have no idea. But why does he keep meeting me at meal times, hmm? And when I'm walking down the hallways he just pops up and he…he puts his hand on my shoulder," Rodney said, in a low, meaningful tone, because that seemed particularly sinister now he thought about it.

 

"Maybe he's just being nice?" Carson suggested.

 

"Why would he be nice?" Rodney asked, blankly. Carson sighed.

 

"I have no idea, Rodney, but I do know a way you can find out."

 

"Really? How?" Rodney leaned forward conspiratorially. Carson leaned in too.

 

"You could try asking him," he said, in a whisper.

 

Rodney gazed at him for a second, wondering what on earth he meant, and then realised he was being teased.

 

"Oh thank you very much, Doctor. Ha, ha," he said mirthlessly. "Are you done with my hand yet?"

 

"No - but it's not very serious. You need to go to the infirmary and get Dr Biro to wash it and bandage it, and then you'll be right as rain," Carson told him. Rodney glared at him.

 

"Hah. It's bad enough letting you loose on me with your witchdoctor needles but now you expect me to let some other practitioner of the voodoo arts get their hands on me."

 

"You'll be fine." Carson got to his feet, pulled Rodney off the bed, and then pushed him towards the door.

 

"If I die it'll be your fault," Rodney told him.

 

"I'll just have to live with it on my conscience," Carson replied sadly.

 

Rodney hesitated in the doorway. "Seriously - you didn't tell Sheppard to keep an eye on me?"

 

"Seriously. I didn't." Carson shook his head.

 

"Hmmm." Rodney sighed, and walked out of the door.

 

"You're welcome!" Carson yelled after him. Rodney thought he heard some Gaelic swearing coming from the doctor's room as he walked away but he couldn't be entirely sure.

 

 

Rodney pondered the whole situation with Sheppard for the next few days. The colonel didn't seem to have taken his brush-off amiss, and he still showed up for breakfast the next morning and insisted on sitting with Rodney, as usual. He asked after Rodney's bandaged hand, which Rodney held pointedly on the table so that nobody could miss it. Rodney found himself sneaking glances at the colonel when the other man wasn't looking, wondering what the hell was going on. It would help if Sheppard wasn't so damn attractive - Rodney found his gaze lingering on the colonel's permanently moist lower lip, on the lean swagger of his hips, that neat, firm ass, and the surprising elegance of his hands. He didn't find his answers in any of those things though - Sheppard had that lazy, cool mask completely in place, and Rodney longed to get behind it for just a moment, to glimpse that other man again, the dark, passionate, edgy man who'd thrown Bates across the room, or the commanding, demanding man who'd broken down every one of Rodney's barriers during that punishment session.

 

He got his wish a few days later on TMP-0986. They'd been on the trail of another ZPM, and Rodney had run on ahead excitedly as his readings had indicated they were close, when a bunch of hostile natives appeared from nowhere. The first Rodney knew about the danger was when an arrow missed his nose by millimetres, and ended up embedded in the tree beside him. He'd turned, horrified, just in time to see Sheppard bearing down on him. The colonel grabbed his arm and threw him, almost bodily, out of harm's way, and then rolled down the side of a mossy bank after him, firing his gun as he went. He came to a halt on top of Rodney, and Rodney tried to disentangle himself impatiently.

 

"What the hell…?" Rodney began. Sheppard put a hand over his mouth and Rodney's eyes widened.

 

"Keep very quiet and very still," the colonel hissed, gazing meaningfully over Rodney's shoulder. Rodney gazed up at him, horrified, and was then surprised to find his body going completely still under the colonel's warm weight. This wasn't the first time this had happened and Rodney wondered what it was about the colonel that made him feel calm when he would normally be all panicking like crazy. Rodney heard people moving around just yards away, and he held his breath, hoping they'd pass by without seeing them. Sheppard looked down on him, and gave just the faintest hint of a quirky grin. Rodney managed a ghost of a smile in return. Sheppard was heavy on top of him, and even though he lacked Rodney's breadth, he made up for that in height, and a steely strength that took Rodney by surprise. Rodney felt himself relaxing even more under the colonel's hard body, and he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on breathing. Sheppard smelled of sweat from their recent exertion, but there was something else about his scent, something warm and musky, that made Rodney want to sink back further, and open his legs and…. Rodney's eyes flashed open, horrified at where his mental image had gone. Sheppard's knee was between his thighs, and their groins were pressed against each other, and Rodney could feel himself getting hard. If only he could banish that persistent mental image of Sheppard holding him down, arms above his head, the full weight of his body pressed on top of Rodney while he slowly….

 

There was a shout above them, and Rodney looked up to see one of their attackers pointing at them. He was almost relieved that they'd been discovered before his growing erection embarrassed him further, and the prospect of imminent disembowelment by a sharp arrow, although not entirely dissimilar to his fantasies, did at least focus his mind on survival rather than sex. Sheppard got to his feet, grabbed hold of Rodney, and pushed him away, yelling at him to run while he covered him. Rodney took off, his heart pounding in his chest as he stumbled through the trees, crashing so loudly that all he could hear was the sound of his own panicked flight. He was dimly aware of gunfire behind him, and he half-turned, anxious to make sure that Sheppard was okay, and, not looking where he was going, he crashed straight into a tree and bounced off it, landing awkwardly on the mossy forest floor. It was only then that he realised it hadn't been a tree he'd careened into, but the solid chest of a man standing a good six feet six inches, and built like the side of a mountain. He was dressed in strips of leather, and had a whole rack of knives hanging from his extremely impressive black belt. He looked like his entire purpose in life was to fight in hand-to-hand combat - and it was clearly a sport he enjoyed, if the big grin on his face was anything to go by. Rodney tried to scramble away, terrified, but the man just laughed at him, revealing a set of gold teeth, and then he reached out one big arm, and pulled Rodney bodily to his feet by the collar on his shirt. He looked Rodney up and down for a moment, and then gave a distinct leer. He looked as if he was about to run his fingers over Rodney's face, but there was a noise behind them and instead he swung Rodney round, and pulled him close against him, so that Rodney's back was pressed against his attacker's flat, hard belly. Rodney felt the sharp blade of a knife pressing against his throat and at that exact moment Sheppard ran into sight…and came to a sudden halt, breathing heavily, as he saw the situation Rodney was in.

 

"I…uh…don't think he's friendly," Rodney squeaked.

 

"You don't say." Sheppard looked kind of pissed off, which wasn't exactly the reaction Rodney had been expecting. Okay, so he'd just gotten himself into a hostage situation but he was sure that wasn't entirely his fault. Sheppard didn't look like he cared about that though, and there was an extremely angry glow in his hazel eyes.

 

"I'm sorry!" Rodney called to the furious colonel. "He just appeared out of nowhere. I crashed straight into him." Sheppard barely looked at him, his eyes were fixed instead on the man holding him hostage.

 

"Let him go and I won't hurt you too much," he said, waving his gun menacingly in the air.

 

"Uh…hello! He's the one with the bargaining chip right now!" Rodney protested. The big man just wrapped his beefy arm more tightly around Rodney's body, and pressed the blade of his knife closely against Rodney's neck. It was uncomfortable, and Rodney could feel the knife pressing against his skin. He swallowed hard, knowing that one quick slice of that sharp knife could cut his jugular, and end his life within seconds.

 

"What do you want?" Sheppard asked. The big man growled something in a language Rodney didn't understand. "Is that the only language you speak?" Sheppard demanded. Another torrent of something that Rodney didn't understand, and, right at the end, his captor spat on the ground as if to emphasise his point.

 

"Charming," Rodney muttered. "Homicidal *and* lacking in manners."

 

"He doesn't speak English, Rodney," Sheppard told him. "So he won't understand what I'm telling you to do. When I say 'duck', I want you to do just that - try and elbow him in the belly while you're at it."

 

"Oh you have got to be kidding me!" Rodney yelled. "He's got a knife on my jugular, Colonel. There is no way you're that good a shot that you're going to get him and not me."

 

"Rodney - just do as I say and you'll be fine," Sheppard ground out, looking extremely pissed off now.

 

"No way. No. No, no, no," Rodney said emphatically. "Why don't we try reasoning with these people? I'm sure they're very nice. It's just a little misunderstanding." He looked up at his captor hopefully, and the man grinned down at him, the light glinting menacingly off his gold teeth.

 

"How can we reason with them if they don't understand a word we're saying?" Sheppard yelled at him. "We don't even know why they're pissed off with us! For all we know, he thinks you're lunch. Or worse - you're his new fuck toy."

 

Rodney swallowed hard. The big man did seem to be holding him really tight, and there was something un-nerving about that knowing way he kept grinning at him.

 

"Just how good a shot are you?" he squeaked.

 

"Pretty damn good. Now take a deep breath. Ready?"

 

"No!"

 

At that moment a shot rang out nearby and his captor swung around in the direction of the sound. Sheppard took advantage of the distraction to fire, and next thing Rodney knew he was lying on the ground with a dead weight on top of him. He wriggled out, and came face to face with his captor, his face now grinning in a ghoulish kind of death mask, a big hole in the middle of his forehead.

 

"Shit. That *is* pretty damn good," Rodney murmured, as Sheppard ran up.

 

"I told you. Now come on." Sheppard still looked furious as he grabbed Rodney's arm and dragged him back towards the gate. They came across Teyla and Ford a few seconds later, both of them running like crazy too.

 

"Was that you firing?" Sheppard asked Teyla. The Athosian woman nodded grimly as she ran. From far behind they heard the sounds of pursuit. Rodney glanced over his shoulder to see a rag-tag band of hostile natives pursuing them. Some of them were on horseback, and Rodney had no idea how they were going to outpace them. He stumbled and Sheppard’s grip on his arm tightened, keeping him upright. A horse outflanked them, and Rodney got a brief glimpse of a tall, savage-looking woman with a scarred cheek. She leaned forward, surveying the Atlanteans intently, as if searching for someone. Then another horse loomed into sight. It was being ridden by a warrior but carried, as a passenger, a small, ugly man, clad in a thick black cloak. He was a shrivelled skeleton of a man and he was clutching some kind of orb in his hand. He pointed at Rodney and Ford, and yelled something in a language Rodney didn’t understand. The scarred woman nodded, and then rode her horse towards Ford. She was knocked from her steed by one of Teyla’s batons before she even got close to the lieutenant. Rodney didn’t have time to find out what happened to her because next thing he knew a big, grey stallion was bearing down on them, and a thin, hawk-nosed man was lunging straight at him, trying to grab him. The man went down before he even got close, as John fired his P-90 into him, sending the man flying, blood spurting everywhere. John grabbed Rodney’s arm again the minute he finished firing, and their pursuers drew back, nervous of the superior firepower the Atlanteans were packing.

 

They saw the gate in the distance and picked up their pace. Rodney had never been so grateful to throw himself through the wormhole in his life. He arrived back in Atlantis a few seconds later, breathing heavily. Only when they were safe did Sheppard let go of his arm. Rodney threw himself down on the floor in exhausted relief as he saw that Ford and Teyla had made it back safely as well.

 

"What the hell was that all about?" Sheppard demanded, turning towards Teyla. Rodney winced. It looked like the colonel's bad mood was still firmly in place. "Why did they attack us? We didn't do anything!"

 

"I believe they wanted our submissives," Teyla said.

 

"What?" Rodney screwed up his face in disbelief.

 

"One of the side effects of the wraith cullings is that the natural order of some worlds is disturbed," Teyla explained. "Usually it is the case that the number of submissives and dominants on a world is more or less even, but sometimes, after a culling, that is not the case. Then it is not unusual, on primitive worlds, for dominants to launch hunting parties, looking for any stray submissives who survived the culling and are without dominants."

 

"Oh please. How the hell could they know just by looking at us what our sexual preferences are?" Rodney snorted.

 

"They had a seer with them," Teyla told him earnestly.

 

"A what?" Rodney rolled his eyes. He hated this kind of mumbo jumbo.

 

"Some societies appoint a seer to gaze into a child's soul when he or she reaches puberty and determine what path they should take. It is usually a very peaceful and helpful ritual," she said, her eyes looking a little bit dreamy. "I went through such a ritual myself."

 

"You mean your people don't get to choose their own orientation?" Sheppard shook his head. "That doesn't sound like something I'd be comfortable with."

 

"One is not constrained by the seer's guidance," Teyla told him with a little smile. "But the seer is rarely wrong, and for those who are confused it can help them make their decision. On that planet though, I fear those with the seer gift are misusing it to identify people's preferences against their will - so that the dominants know who to target when they are out hunting."

 

Rodney remembered the wizened man in the black cloak, clutching his orb and directing the warriors on horseback, and he shuddered.

 

"They did seem to know exactly what they were looking for," Ford said. "A couple of them lunged at me and tried to drag me away but they weren't interested in Teyla or the colonel."

 

"But I didn't go anywhere near a ritual!" Rodney protested.

 

Teyla made an apologetic motion with her hand. "They were watching us from the minute we arrived, I fear. And some seers practice a very black form of their art. Some seers do not even need to see you - they are able to tell your orientation from a possession, or a lock of hair. In our case I believe all they did was observe - and that was enough to determine which of us they wished to target. If you recall, they very purposefully did not injure either Dr McKay or Lieutenant Ford. Their sole aim was to split them away from the dominants in the group, leaving them exposed and available for retrieval. Their arrows were not meant to kill, but to frighten us into splitting up, making our submissives easier targets."

 

Rodney remembered the way the man with the gold teeth had leered down on him, and he shuddered.

 

"So, that guy back there…he wanted to drag Rodney off and fuck him?" Sheppard growled. Rodney looked up at him, startled by the colonel's tone.

 

"He wished to make him his submissive, yes." Teyla said. "If they had succeeded they would have certainly killed you and I, Colonel, and taken Lieutenant Ford and Dr McKay. They must be very desperate people." She shook her head sadly.

 

"My god, I've never heard anything more sick in my life!" Sheppard snarled. "And you…." His gaze fell on Rodney, and he suddenly reached down, grabbed Rodney's arm in a vice-like grip, and hauled him off the floor. "You and I are going to practice how we get out of situations like that, and you are going to learn to follow orders when we're out in the field!"

 

"The guy had me at knifepoint! You were going to shoot him over the top of my head - forgive me for not being happy about that!" Rodney protested.

 

"You have to learn to trust me!" Sheppard hissed. The colonel's fingers were still digging into his arm, and he was looking at Rodney with a dark, intent gleam in his eyes. Rodney shivered - this was the same man who had thrown Bates across the room - he'd wanted to see him again, but now that he was face to face with him he wasn't so sure. He found himself going very still again as he gazed into Sheppard's wild eyes.

 

"Colonel," he whispered softly. And then, "John? You're hurting me."

 

The atmosphere was electric as Sheppard just stood there, studying his face intently, breathing hard, looking like he was about to explode and…do what? Rodney had no idea.

 

"John," he said again, trying to reach the colonel. The other man seemed lost in a world of his own, and, wherever it was, it clearly wasn't pretty. Slowly, very slowly, normality returned to his eyes, and then he suddenly released Rodney, and, without another word, he turned and stalked out of the room.

 

Rodney gazed after him, with horrified eyes, and Teyla came up behind him.

 

"Are you all right, Dr McKay?" she asked, resting her hand gently on Rodney's arm where Sheppard had been holding him.

 

"Me? I'm fine. Him on the other hand…" Rodney shook his head. "What the hell is wrong with him?"

 

"I will see to Colonel Sheppard," Teyla said. "I think I recognise his distress. I expect he has gone to the practice room and will require a sparring partner. Perhaps you will debrief Lady Elizabeth?"

 

"Yes. Yes of course." Rodney watched her go, still shaking his head in bewilderment over Sheppard's bizarre behaviour.

 

 


 

Continued Here

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