The space men seem completely unimpressed by their helicopters and planes, but then, they've not really seemed impressed by anything she's shown them on their half dozen visits. She'd be irritated over that, but they're not going to be her problem for very much longer, and so she pushes her feelings on the matter aside.
In the seat across from her the one she has come to know as Rodney McKay leans into John Sheppard's space, and says, "Do you really think that it's a good idea to go this far away from...things?" He's winding his hands around and around each other, his mouth downturned with worry.
Sheppard waves a hand, dismissive as he twists his head back over his seat again. "Things'll be fine, Rodney." He faces back forward, flashes her a bright, disarming grin. "Did you say that there were stewardesses on this flight?"
Rodney's scowl deepens, he stands stiffly and shoves past John towards the aisle, banging knees as he goes. He snarls down at John, "I'll just leave you two to work on your mile high club membership then, shall I?" and stomps off towards the front of the plane.
John leans back in his seat, eyes following Rodney's retreating back for a long moment, before grinning at her like she might possibly not have noticed him checking out the other man's ass. She rolls her eyes, tries to direct the conversation back to something worthwhile, though that's pretty much a doomed venture now that McKay has gone. "Tell me again how it is you are both able to access the technology of the Ancestors?"
The Institute hasn't given her very much information about their sudden interest in the visitors, but she's not completely stupid. There had been no interest at all in the strangers until she'd noticed that two of the four that usually visited where capable of turning on the Ancestral machines. Even then, the interest had been low level.
They took no real interest until she'd reported that McKay, with his bright blue eyes and sharp tongue, had received the gene that apparently allowed one to control the Ancestor's machines artificially. She'd gotten almost constant missives from them since that day, starting with a short order to deliver Rodney McKay to DeQuarn's Military Base as soon as possible.
She'd had to wait a month for them to come back on their next trading visit, dealing with increasingly prickly letters from her superiors as the days drew on. She'd felt something like relief in her chest when she'd gotten the call this morning that the two men had appeared out of the trees around the Observatory, appearing out of thin air, the way they always did.
Of course, there'd been a brief spell of panic where she worried that perhaps Rodney McKay had not been one of the pair that returned. He'd seemed mildly distrustful at her joy in seeing him, had been eying her suspiciously since she'd grabbed one of his hands in both of hers and enthused, completely sincerely, over how very happy she was to see him.
She's never seen a man quite so mistrustful of a beautiful woman suddenly taking an interest in them as McKay. She'd expected Sheppard to be jealous, to perhaps storm off and leave her and McKay alone, but the other man had responded to her advances by gluing himself to McKay's side and flirting with her shamelessly.
It's very odd, and she shifts now, under Sheppard's surprisingly sharp gaze. And then he relaxes in his seat, sprawls attractively across the seat that McKay had vacated, drawls, "You'd have to ask Rodney about that, all that science stuff..." He makes a vague gesture, half rolling his eyes and making a sound of either bafflement or scorn, continues, "I bet there's something more interesting you and I could talk about."
She stifles a sigh, sure that the man's never so much as batted an eye in her direction before. It's not that she's not flattered by his sudden attentions, or captivated by the slow stretch of his smile and the tempting splay of his legs. She's just puzzled, over why this, of all things, is his response to her flirting with his friend.
She thinks, once more, that she'll be relieved when these foreigners are taken out of her hands. They're driving her positively insane. She stares hard at him, and then very deliberately cranes her neck over her chair, an imitation of his earlier search for these 'stewardesses' of his. Says, "I do hope Rodney returns soon."
He narrows his eyes, and there's a flash of cool intelligence over his features as he leans forward, elbows braced on his knees. She's suddenly aware that he's in her space, the smell of him, warm and sharp and laced with sea salt, filling her nose as he purrs from somewhere near her jaw line, "I can turn things on, too, you know."
It is then that McKay does storm back up. She hears an indignant snort, and then John Sheppard is being shoved back into his seat, one of Rodney's hands flattened against his chest. Rodney's snapping as he lowers himself back into his seat, "The pilots say we're landing soon--and no, before you ask, no cool toys. Just a standard cockpit, though I'm sure they'll let you fly us on the return trip."
She thinks that the smile creeping across Sheppard's mouth is possibly the first sincere one she's seen from him. He's staring at McKay, eyes soft, not complaining over the fact that Rodney has settled his hand on John's thigh. They're all jammed into each other's space, because John hadn't moved from his stretch into Rodney's seat, and they're pressed against each other from shoulder to knee. His voice is low and sweet, none of the fraudulent charm that had drenched it earlier, "You talk 'em into it for me?"
McKay rolls his eyes, shoving at the other man, and somehow managing to look like he's pushing him away while Sheppard manages to, in fact, hook a leg around McKay's and crowd closer to him. "Don't be ridiculous." But he's smiling smugly, just with the corners of his mouth, and Sheppard's beaming at him like he's given him a present. "I just explained why you're more than capable of flying this thing far above their skill levels, and you could probably teach them a thing or two."
Sheppard's grin gets even bigger. "Sweet talker."
Rodney turns to look at him, and seems completely unbothered by the fact that Sheppard's almost in his lap. They've settled into what she can only think of as a familiar tangle, and when the plane starts banking, starts making its descent to DeQuarn's, McKay doesn't complain when Sheppard leans across him to peer out of the window.
Sheppard flashes her a sharp look, leaning over McKay, one hand braced at the other man's shoulder, the other by his knee, and she thinks she must finally be reading the expression on his face properly. She's not sure she's ever been warned off anyone else's territory before.
She tries to smile disarmingly back at the other man, and Sheppard returns it after a moment, before drawing back to what might, technically, be considered his side of the seat. Rodney's significantly paler than he was when they finally land, snaps, "Of course, they land like you."
Sheppard flattens a hand over his own heart, scoffs, "I'll have you know I've never had a complaint about my landings." They're all standing, letting her herd them towards the front of the plane, bouncing back and forth off each other.
"Consider yourself officially complained to."
She can see Sheppard opening his mouth, ready to fire back with something she's sure she'll understand every bit as little as she's grasped their conversation thus far. But his mouth snaps shut with an audible click as the door to the plane opens, and soldiers arrayed on the other side all swing their guns up. Sheppard's hands come up, even as he eases himself in front of McKay. "Hey, I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding, here. Rodney didn't mean whatever it was he said about your mothers, trust me."
One of the soldiers clears his throat, says, "Step aside, sir, or we'll be forced to open fire." Rodney curses under his breath, grabbing the back of John's jacket and hauling him backwards into the plane. They turn towards her, eyes wide, and she swings the stun baton she's been cradling all flight long up.
Her first blow catches Rodney McKay in his right knee, she can hear something crack. Sheppard catches her next swing in one hand, his body jerking as the electricity floods down his arm. He collapses on top of his comrade, staring up at her with dark, hateful eyes. He growls, teeth jittering against each other, "Gonna kill you."
She smiles at him, pitying, "You will never see me again, John Sheppard."
His first sight of the off-worlders is them huddled in one corner of their cell. One of them is still unconscious, the one he knows from photos and reports as John Sheppard. He's laying on his side, his friend kneeling over him. The scientist, McKay, is tearing the other man's shirt to pieces with his teeth, clumsily wrapping Sheppard's right hand with the strips of fabric.
McKay startles when Johson steps into the room, jerks to his feet in front of the other man, hands balled up into helpless fists. He's got the filthiest look Johson's ever seen on his face, is snarling before Johson's even through the door, "What the hell did you do to John?"
Johson shrugs, eyeing the unconscious man. "I heard he held onto the stun baton for almost a minute. The effects are bound to take some time to wear off."
He's, in fact, never heard of anyone staying conscious that long after being hit by a stun baton. He's relatively impressed by the other man, at least on a purely physical level, and wonders if maybe he can get some tests arranged for him, as well. McKay interrupts his musings, snapping, "Well he's been burned, and he needs medical attention. I don't you who you idiots think you are, but if we're injured in any way when our people come for us you're all going to be--"
He laughs, watches McKay jerk back like he's been struck, says, "Your people aren't going to find you, Doctor McKay. We've taken precautions." McKay tenses up even further, mouth opening and closing without sound. Johson takes the opportunity to continue, "I'm afraid you're going to have to be coming with me now, Doctor."
McKay gapes at him, and then backs up, tripping on Sheppard's limp body behind him. He ends up on his ass, eyes wide and horrified as soldiers flood into the room behind Johson. McKay's scrambling backwards, pressing himself against the wall, shaking Sheppard's shoulders and shouting, "Colonel! Colonel, you need to wake up right now. John, John--"
He thrashes out when the soldiers grab him, when they drag him forward, is still screaming for the other man as they haul him out into the hall, and down to the labs. Johson smiles, tight, and follows them, ignoring the rising panic in the stranger's voice.
By the time he reaches the labs, though, there's an actual skirmish going on, and for a half second he stands and stares. McKay is in the middle of a crowd, scientists and soldiers, all trying to get a hold of the wildly thrashing man.
McKay's a whirlwind of movement, blood already sliding down his chin as he throws wild punches, moving faster than Johson had been led to believe that he could. He sighs, rolls his eyes, and mutters, "For god's sake." He pushes through the crowd, shoving underlings aside, grabbing one of the needles already laid out in preparation for McKay's arrival.
He doesn't bother grabbing the other man, who has already managed to lay out a half dozen soldiers, just slams the needle into the man's shoulder and depresses the plunger. McKay twitches so violently that the needle snaps, but the drug has already been delivered into his system. The man faces him with eyes flashing anger and hate, and throws a punch with enough force behind it to knock Johson backwards, to make his head spin and his jaw throb.
Johson doesn't realize that he's fallen to the floor, till he looks up at McKay, who is suddenly swaying on his feet. The man blinks, opens his mouth, closes it, and then his eyes roll up into his head and he goes down hard. Johson snaps at the crowd standing around, looking confused, says, "Get him in the chair, we have work to do."
He stays to watch, because it's the first set of experiments, and he needs to be there, even if his jaw is aching like a son of a bitch. Watches the others lift the man into the chair they had devised, watches them strap in his wrists and ankles. Watches them slice open the man's shirt from the nape of his neck to the bottom.
He sighs, snaps on his gloves and motions impatiently for the instruments he needs for the procedure. They'd decided, weeks ago, that the man's spinal fluid would be the best source of the genetic structures they needed to retrobuild the gene that allowed the man to control the tools of the Ancestors.
He stares down at the man's shoulders, smooth white skin stretched across broad bones, the needle that Johson had stabbed into him earlier bobbing up and down with each breath the unconscious man draws. He braces a hand low on the man's back, reaches for the antiseptic, smoothes it over the nape of the man's neck and grabs the first needle.
It's a long, tedious day, hours of repeatedly sliding identical long, thin needles into the flesh over the man's spine. McKay regains consciousness at some point, jerks against his bonds and starts screaming. Johson can see each jerk of his body, tremors in the man's shoulders. The man's screams rock his body, grind on Johson's nerves, and he motions for another needle filled with the cocktail of drugs they'd decided to use to keep the man subdued.
There's a long moment where the man keeps fighting, screaming like a beast, before he shudders, and goes limp. Johson sighs again, resumes his work. It's not till hours later that he finishes, leaving behind nothing but a fan of tiny red holes across the man's neck. He flings his gloves into the corner of the room, motions for the others to remove the man, and goes home.
The next morning he doesn't go to retrieve McKay himself. He's actually nearly ten minutes late, caught in early morning traffic, and by the time he stalks into the room the man is already prone on his chair, hands and ankles shackled. But he is conscious, spitting bloody murder at the techs gathered around him, straining against the cool metal around his wrists. He's yelling, "--let me out, let me out, let me out--"
Johson scowls, because goddamn it, but he has to do everything himself, snaps, "Sedate him, you idiots." They do.
Rodney McKay's back is all he sees of their visitors for the next week. He watches the trail of perfect red circles stretch from the base of his neck, down over the curve of his ribs, lower. He notices, absently, that someone has tried to tend the wounds. Some of them even appear to be healing, and he wonders if it is one of his staff, or Sheppard, that is apparently playing nursemaid.
On the seventh day, John Sheppard makes an escape attempt. The alarms all start blaring at the same time, and Johson snaps his head up, leaving the needle half-full of McKay's blood bobbing in his skin. He pulls down the mask over his face, shoving subordinates out of the way, grabbing the radio and demanding, "What's going on?"
A voice that he doesn't recognize answers him, sharp and panicked, "It's Sheppard, sir, he's killed his guards and we can't find him-"
"Fuck." Somehow, he hadn't wasted any thought on their second prisoner, except that they might be able to use him for leverage against McKay at some point. He thinks that possibly this has been a serious oversight. "How long ago did this happen?"
There's a long pause, and the boy sounds nervous, guilty, "We're not sure, sir, we only found the bodies a few minutes ago, but, um, the MPs seem to think that they've...been there awhile." He hears himself curse again, throws his hands up and paces in a tight circle, because he's got a enemy agent running around his base.
His gaze lands on Rodney McKay, limp and drugged in his harness. He snaps, "Put me on speaker, all through the base." The boy makes a small affirmative sound, and Johson's moving across the room, shoving people aside again. It takes him seconds to release the shackles on McKay's wrists and ankles, significantly longer to drag the dead weight of the man over to his desk.
He snaps into the room, counting on the radio to pick up his voice, "Colonel Sheppard, I've been informed that you're making a somewhat unadvised escape attempt. I'm going to have to ask you to turn yourself over to my people, now, son."
He lets McKay slump against the table, his eyes unfocused, his mouth open and slack. It takes Johson long moment to find what he's looking for, and he stifles a relieved grunt when he closes his hand on the handle of the hammer. Says into the silence, "Not talking to me, John? That's not very nice. I have someone here I'm sure you'd like to say hello to. Want to say 'hello', Rodney?"
He braces McKay's hand flat on the table, ignoring it when McKay himself slides down to the floor, raises the hammer. He worries that Rodney won't actually scream, that he must be too far gone for the pain to even register. It doesn't matter. The sound his little finger makes when Johson brings the hammer down on it, a wet snap, is loud enough that he's sure Sheppard must be able to hear it over the radio.
Just in case the man has any doubts about what the sound is, Johson says, "That was his finger, Sheppard. I'm perfectly willing to keep going through the other nine, and sooner or later the pain's going to cut through the drugs. We both know you don't want that to happen, John."
Silence, and Johson counts to thirty under his breath, then sighs, "Really, John." He brings the hammer down again, and this time McKay gurgles, thrashes against his legs. "That's two, if you're keeping track at home." And there's still no response.
He raises the hammer, slams it down. McKay screams, body curling up on itself. The sound he makes is guttural, terrible and long for all that it's not particularly loud. It makes the hair on the back of Johson's neck rise, twists some animal thing in his gut. It's horrible. It's terrible. He can't believe he caused it.
And then he realizes that the scream is actually Sheppard's first name, drawn out till it's almost unrecognizable.
He doesn't understand how he keeps his voice steady, when he yells over McKay's ragged plea, "You hear that, Sheppard? What kind of man are you, that you can listen to this man pleading for you to help him?"
And then McKay's voice changes, somehow, becomes words and strength and something more, "Go! Go, get out of here, John, gogogogogogogogo-" Johson brings the hammer down again without thinking, and the man's voice returns to mindless agony.
"You going to let me just finish this hand off then, Sheppard?" He's breathing heavy, watching McKay's blood slide across his desk, hearing the splatter of it against his floor, somehow, over the screams. There's still no response, and Johson takes a deep breath, draws the hammer back one more time and--
"Stop! Stop, okay! I'm giving myself up, right now, just--stop hurting him."
The hammer falls out of his suddenly limp hand, and he stumbles back a step, watching McKay curl up on himself. His heart is beating unnaturally loudly in his ears, his voice seems far away, "Good boy, Sheppard. Good boy." From the floor McKay twists, trying to stand, and the absurdity of it renders Johson momentarily speechless.
He steps forward, backhands the man hard across the mouth, and feels a hot flood of relief when he goes down hard. He lets the others drag McKay back to his cell, retreats back to his office and locks himself in with his liquor and bloody hands.
He's not sure why his feet carry him by their cell, not even sure he's where he's going till he's stopped in front of it. In the cell, Sheppard is in the corner, McKay curled up against him. Johson can hear Sheppard's voice, keyed low, "Oh God, Rodney, oh God, I'm so sorry. I'm so--I didn't know--I'm sorry." By the almost rhythm he's speaking in, Johson assumes that he's kept up a similar litany since they were thrown into the cell.
Sheppard's running his hands carefully up and down McKay's arms, rocking the other man slowly back and forth. Johson can see McKay's battered hand, roughly bandaged, cradled between them. He's not sure how long he stands there staring before Sheppard's head comes up, before the man makes eye contact with him.
About two seconds after that Sheppard's on his feet, storming towards the door to the cell. He throws himself at the door, snarling, again and again. Johson takes an involuntary step back, feeling something twist in his chest at the icy hate in the other man's eyes.
The sound of Sheppard, throwing himself at the door, follows Johson down the hall, through the parking garage, into his car, all the way home.
The next day he walks into the news that none of the samples they've drawn from McKay's body have given them any additional help in figuring out how to engineer the gene. It makes his already horrible week even worse. Especially when McKay's already strapped to the table when he wanders into his labs, flat on his back, his unfocused eyes on the ceiling.
He's not sure why the thought of cutting the other man open suddenly bothers him, but it does. He'd had shapeless nightmares the previous night, full of blood and McKay's voice, breaking over and over in his head. For a long time all he can do is stare down at McKay's prone body, and then his assistant presses a knife into his hand, says, 'Sir, we need to proceed with the tests now."
And so he does.
McKay's skin parts easily under the blade. He peels it back, takes his samples from the man's organs. There's no use to sewing McKay up when he's done, because they'll be back in here tomorrow, doing the entire thing over again. It chills him, sours his stomach, and he has to be sick in the bathroom before he can even think about going home.
His footsteps carry him back by the cell, and he stares for a long time at the two men. Sheppard's holding McKay again, but tonight there's no whispering, no sounds at all in the tiny room. He stares, feeling something horrible growing in the back of his throat, and has to run the rest of the way to the parking lot.
He gets well and truly drunk when he gets home, ends up collapsed on his living room floor and wakes up to his phone wailing. For a long moment it sounds like alarms, and he thinks his building must be on fire, thinks that Sheppard must be escaping, automatically reaches for a hammer that's not there.
By the time he manages to get off his ass, the phone isn't ringing anymore, and he waits for the message to start playing. Instead, two seconds later, the phone starts ringing again, and he lunges for it. His head is pounding, his stomach roiling, and he snaps, "Yes, what?"
There's an unfamiliar voice on the other side of the line, soft and trembling, "Sir, we've...we've got a problem. I think you need to get down here and--" There's a flare of static over the line, and then screams that almost drown out the other man's voice, "Oh God, oh God, it's too late, it's going to blow--"
There's a whump of sound, so late that his ears ring with it even over the phone line, and then nothing but the dial tone.
He's slept lightly his entire life, a defensive mechanism ingrained into his very being against first the cullings, and then the war with the Hesberrians. He'd spent fourteen years in the trenches of the war, learning the soldier's skill of sleeping with one eye open and one hand on his knife.
That's why, when he jerks awake to the feel of the cold barrel of a gun digging into his forehead, at first he thinks he's dreaming. His room is filled with all the tells of a nightmare, the suffocating stench of blood flooding into his lungs, the liquid ice chill of fear down his side. But the dig of the gun is painful in his skin, and he makes himself squint up into the surrounding dark, feels his mouth opening, hears his own voice, "What--"
Another voice, male, talks over his, fast and low, "Shut up, or I will kill you." He closes his mouth, slowly, swallows, and it feels too loud in the stillness of the room. "You're Danithan Cottle, regiment doctor for infantry unit three-oh-two?"
He starts to open his mouth to reply, thinks better of it, and nods carefully, trusting the gun to transfer the movement to the other man. He dares to breathe of the first time when some of the pressure eases off, thought the relief is short lived. "Good. I would have hated to have had to kill you. Get up."
It's odd, how strangely non-threatening the other man's voice sounds, sort of slow and lazy even as he throws out two threats against Cottle's life in as many minutes. He reaches for his bedside lamp without thinking, and the gun jerks off his forehead so quickly he's only just noticed it's gone when it slams into the side of his face, enough force behind it to flood his mouth with blood.
The man still sounds painfully friendly, "No lights around the windows, doc." The barrel of the gun is resettled against the side of his neck, nestled under his ear, intimate as a lover's caress. The man nudges with the gun, two impatient jerks, and Cottle slides to his feet, trying to get his bearings in the pitch black room. The man nudges him again, suggests, "Forward."
He stumbles forward, groping in the black, and only realizes that there's someone else in the room when he closes his hand on cold, wet fabric, and an unfamiliar voice whimpers, loud in the silence. For the first time there's something less than friendly in the man with the guns voice, when he snaps, "Watch it."
He moves slower, after that, and it's numb, brainless relief that floods him when he finally reaches the door to his room. There's a little more light in the hallway, the faded blue-gray of midnight. He starts to turn, subconscious instinct to see who these people that have broken into his house are, and the gun slams into the side of his head again, leaving him with ringing ears and a wave of twisting nausea.
The man's back to genial familiarity with his tone, "None of that, now. Let's just mosey on down to your bathroom and get on with things, huh? The faster this is over with the faster we're out of your hair."
Cottle does not point out that all of his hair fell out sometime at least ten years ago. He doubts that it would be appreciated, and it seems a stupid thing to die for. Instead he makes himself walk forward, gradually becoming aware of the shuffling steps of the pair behind him, the soft, choked on whimpers that echo and reverberate through his home. The man, when he speaks again, has dropped his voice to an almost sub vocal whisper that raises the hairs on the back of Cottle's neck, "Just a little bit farther, Rodney. You can do it, just a little bit more, I promise."
And then they're in his bathroom, and he's being shoved into the wall, the man's forearm braced across his shoulders. He feels his breath jerk from him in a rush, tries to muffle the sound, and for his trouble feels the press of the gun against the back of his neck.
There's soft grunting movements behind him, too many bodies trying to squeeze into too little space. The smell of blood assaults him anew, sharp and fresh in his nose and he swallows compulsively. Sounds that had been muffled against the rugs outside are suddenly audible now, the steady drip-drip of blood against tile, the slow stumbling drag of the second man, leaning on the first.
The man speaks again, obviously not directing the words to Cottle, "Okay, okay, sit here, just sit here, it'll be fine. It's fine. It's fine now, I promise, okay, I promise we're okay now. It'll be okay." The other man groans, low and broken, and Cottle can hear him sinking down onto the toilet, all soft whispers of pain.
And then he's being pulled away from the wall, the lights flicking on as the first man drawls by his ear, "I took the liberty of collecting some supplies for you. You'll have to pardon us if we don't exactly want to use anything that might have been in your house. So, doc," and he's only vaguely aware of the bulky black bag being shoved into his unresisting hands, busy gaping at the sight before him, "why don't you get to work?"
For a long moment he just keeps staring, dumbstruck. He's not sure how the man on his toilet seat is even alive. How he isn't screaming in agony with each shallow breath, with each slow flutter of his eyelids over eyes glazed over with pain. How the man manages a smile, tiny and crooked and bloody as the killing fields of Hasperon, Cottle will never know. The man croaks out, "Nice to meet you," blood sliding out the corner of his mouth and down his chin.
The other man, the one with the gun and the deceptively friendly voice, shoves Cottle forward hard, drawls, "I said, get to work."
He wants to protest that he doesn't know where to start, that he needs an operating room and x-rays and nurses. He turns his head, finally looks at the man that's been holding a gun to his head for the last ten minutes, and feels the words die in his throat. He's had his life threatened before, enough times to know that there are men who mean it, and men who don't. This man means it.
Instead, he moves towards the wounded man, crouches in front of him and tries to smile, because smiling always seems to help the ones that are as good as dead, somehow. He keys his voice soft and soothing, says, "Hey there, Rodney, I'm just going to get some of this blood off so we can see what's going on, okay?"
The man takes a deep breath, gasps out, "Yeah," while waving a hand out to the side. At first Cottle thinks he's trying to draw attention to the wounds on his arm, but then the other man steps up, captures the hand in his own, and Rodney goes still, relaxes. When he sucks in another deep breath, Cottle can hear the rattle in his chest. "If I die, he's going to kill you."
Cottle stares up at the man's eyes, so painfully blue, wide with pain, and knows that it's the truth. He bends over the bag at his feet, digging for scissors to cut what's left of the man's clothes off. He's lived this long, far longer than even he dared to expect in his wildest imaginings, and he'll be damned if he's going to be killed in his own home.
When he looks back up, scissors in his hand, the other man has stepped even closer. Rodney's leaning into him, now, head resting against the jut of his hip, eyes half shut as the man's hand slides down, rests gently on the bloody curve of Rodney's neck. Cottle expects the man to be watching Rodney, but he's not. His hard gaze is still on Cottle, and his free hand is still holding a gun, aimed square at Cottle's forehead.
The man smirks, shrugs with one shoulder, and the gentle charm of the gesture is so completely at odds with the steadiness of his finger on the trigger that Cottle shudders. He looks away, unable to hold the other man's gaze, shuffles closer to Rodney, instead.
Rodney flinches at the first touch of Cottle's fingers, hisses and turns his face against the other man's body. "Watch it, he's hurt pretty bad," and there's that hard, flat tone again, the one that somehow bothers Cottle less than the friendly voice the man usually uses. He recognizes that the rougher tone is a lack of control, wonders why it is that this man feels more threatening when he's in control.
He shakes himself, ignores the obvious response that there's a difference between hurt pretty bad and dying. Sets to work ridding his patient of the blood soaked strips of cloth stretched across the flayed skin of his chest. Rodney's skin jumps and twitches under his touch, the man keeps up a low litany of whimpers and half-mumbled curses. He should be screaming.
When he's done, when the thing that was once a shirt is lying across his floor, he makes to stand, heading for the tub for hot water. He's not even all the way to his feet when the man with the gun kicks out. His boot catches Cottle under his ribs, and Cottle feels the flash burn of pain all the way up his side, old wounds flaring up as he throws himself against the far wall, staring up at the man, whose eyes are flaring, "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
He gasps out, "Water," around his burning lungs, "I need to clean him up."
For a long moment he thinks the other man will refuse, but then he nods sharply, motions with his gun towards the tub. Cottle drags himself over to the tub, painfully aware of the pins and needles beneath his rib cage, doesn't even try to retrieve a bucket.
The man makes no protest when Cottle grabs a towel from the ring on his wall, doesn't say anything when Cottle retrieves his scissors and chops the soft fabric up into usable rags. He leaves the water running, the splash and bubble of the steaming hot water a background to this nightmare. Spends the next small eternity taking the two steps between Rodney and the tub an innumerable amount of times.
It's like building a puzzle, or taking one apart, a piece sliding into place with each patch of blood he wipes away. Rodney's a mess of lacerations, ugly and long, some distressingly deep. Cottle hesitates over the fishhook shaped gash over the other man's gut, prays that his hands are not shaking when he carefully reaches out and lifts the wound open.
Above him Rodney gasps, and Cottle stares into the wound, deep enough that he can see the slippery coils of organs. He thinks, later, that the whisper of sound, the sight of Rodney balling his hands up into fists, is what steels him. He raises his eyes to the man with the gun, hears himself say, "Okay."
He doesn't know what, exactly, he's agreeing to, but it feels important. He settles more comfortably onto his haunches, starts digging in the bag for antibiotics and antiseptics. Let's himself fall into the too familiar rhythm of preparing to tend. Doesn't speak again until he's got everything spread out in front of him, when he reaches out and squeezes Rodney's knee to get the other man's attention. "I'm going to have to apply a local anesthetic, it'll-"
Rodney chokes, the sudden violent motion of him shaking his head moving his entire body, gasps out, "No! John, don't let-"
The other man, and at least Cottle has a name for him now, curls his shoulders down over Rodney, murmurs, "Sh, I'm not going to let it happen, it's okay. I got you, Rodney, okay? I swear, I'm not going to let any of it happen anymore, okay?" And then he's staring hard at Cottle, expression flat and suspicious, "No drugs."
Cottle sputters, "The pain-"
But the man's already shaking his head, running his fingers up and down the curve of Rodney's neck, though Cottle can't tell which of them the touch is intended to comfort. He repeats, "No drugs." And then, sharper, "Hop to it, doc."
He does, because there's nothing else for him to do, surprised by how much knowledge remains in his hands. He'd thought he'd forgotten what it felt like to hold a needle, to feed thread through living flesh, to put layer after layer of stitches into wounds that men had no right to inflict upon each other.
It all feels oddly surreal, under the soft lighting on his bathroom. The only sounds now are the gurgle of water down the drain and the broken sounds Rodney makes, occasionally interrupted by murmured encouragement from John. His hands are numb and cramping by the time he finishes the wounds on Rodney's torso, and if the other man's been wounded internally then he's only postponing the inevitable anyway.
He not sure when he starts drifting, when his mind disconnects from what his hands are doing. He thinks it's sometime after he cuts Rodney's pants off, when he's faced with the mangled purple-black mess of the man's left knee. Sometime before he resets the joint, and Rodney gags, body bowing convulsively forward as John curls over him, keeping him upright, whispering words the Cottle doesn't register.
There are hundreds of tiny angry wounds on Rodney's back, needle point small, littered down the length of his spine. All but one of the fingers on his left hand are broken, his wrist covered with the same bloody red dots as his spine. They're nestled in the curve of his elbow, as well, and there's another cluster cradled above his collar bone.
Cottle has no idea what they are, just treats them as best he's able, gradually becoming aware that John is speaking constantly now, voice keyed low and comforting, "It's okay, it's okay, Rodney, hey, look, he's almost done, he's almost done and then we can go home, okay? I'll take you home, I swear and then you can sleep, okay? Stay with me now, c'mon, Rodney, stay with me, me and you, Rodney, me and you, okay?"
Rodney's voice is what shakes Cottle out of his daze. It's been a long time since the man made a sound, even the pained whimpers had faded to nothing sometime after Cottle had splinted his fingers. "Promise?" And the almost teasing tone of it is so startling, so completely absurd, that Cottle jerks his gaze up to Rodney's face.
He's still got his head pressed against John's side, eyes closed now, breathing slow and steady. Cottle's not sure what to make of the tiny smile on the man's lips, but figures that perhaps the relief of some of his pain is just making him giddy. Though, honestly, he's fairly certain that mending the wounds must have been every bit as painful as receiving them.
John's voice is softer, gentler than Cottle would have imagined the man capable of, "I promise." Cottle watches him card his fingers through Rodney's hair, and understands. He reaches out again, squeezes Rodney's knee and tries to smile when the man's blue eyes flutter open, when he manages to focus them after a moment.
He says, "I've done the best that I can." And it's not a lie. He's sure he actually did better than could have been expected. His back aches and his hands are cramping up, his knees protesting violently when he pushes himself to his feet. Rodney follows his movement, blinking slow, lines of pain still etched around the corners of his eyes.
John kneels then, one hand dancing across the stitches and bandages that Rodney's been swaddled in, the other keeping the gun trailed on Cottle. He's making little approving noises in the back of his throat, dragging fingertips across Rodney's knee, stomach, hands, before relaxing.
It's such a brief thing that Cottle nearly misses it, but for just a half second John deflates, sags against Rodney. His shoulders shake, and Cottle can't tell if it's laughter or sobs, and one of Rodney's bandaged hands come up, splinted fingers brushing awkwardly through the other man's thick dark hair. The man gasps, "God, Rodney, I thought--"
And just like that he's straightening again, bringing Rodney with him as he stands, an arm under his shoulders and Rodney curls into his body. Cottle reaches out without thinking, because these men are a lot of things, but Rodney was also his patient, and that means something. He snaps, "He shouldn't be moved."
John turns towards him, and any softness, any weakness that might have been in him is locked up tight now. Rodney's got his head resting against John's shoulder, an arm slung around his neck, leaning most of his weight onto the other man as far as Cottle can tell. John's got his arm around the other man's ribs, supporting him.
And then John smiles, and Cottle takes an involuntary step backwards. John drops his arm, finger squeezing the trigger twice in less time than it takes Cottle to realize he's about to be shot. There must be some sort of silencer on the gun, because the shots are silence, are nothing but the sharp smell of gunpowder in the room and the sudden, terrible pain of both his knees being shattered.
Cottle goes to the floor in a mess of limbs, tries to catch himself and gives up. Reaches for his knees, for the ruin he can feel, and jerks his hands away when the pain lashes out with crippling force. He gasps, flails an arm out blindly and tries not to throw up.
John nudges him with the toe of his boot, still smiling down at him, says, "Thanks a bunch for your time, doc. Sorry about inconveniencing you like this and all, but, well, can't exactly have you sounding the alarm after we're gone, right? I'm sure that you'll be able to crawl to your phone in a few hours."
And it's only then that he realizes they intend to leave him here, crippled on his bathroom floor. He opens his mouth to protest, to beg, anything, but they're already gone. He curls onto his side, trying to force the pain down to a place that he can deal with it, hears John's voice from his hallway, back to soft and comforting, "Okay, just a little farther, just a little farther, Rodney, c'mon-"
It takes him five hours to reach the phone, at the bottom of his staircase, and by the time he does he's almost wishing that John had just killed him outright.
Brullis is literally just coming on shift when he spots the couple flagging him down. They're pressed close to each other against the late fall chill, well off if the quality of their heavy coats are anything to go by, and the man waving is doing it slow and lazy, like he has all day. As far as first customers of the day go, they're pretty much perfect, and Brullis pulls his cab over.
The couple almost stumbles over to his cab, they're holding onto each other so tight, and it makes him roll his eyes good naturedly. The man that had waved, the taller one, reaches out and opens the door, guides his partner into the warmth of the cab with surprisingly gentle hands.
The shorter man, all broad shoulders and pale skin, makes a small unhappy sound when his partner pulls his hands away. His eyes are slightly glazed, and Brullis stops wondering if they've been drinking and starts wondering how much.
It doesn't really matter, because neither of them seem particularly inclined to be violent. The other man finally slides into the seat, runs a hand back through his already messy hair and flashes a smile at Brullis. He's got a few days growth of stubble over his chin, black shot with white, and his eyes crinkle up in the corners, and Brullis can't help but like the man, says, "Where to, man?"
The man takes a moment answering, arranging himself in his seat, reaching out and drawing his partner over, half into his lap. "We're headed out past the edges of town, so, if you want to just take us as far as you can..."
His voice trails off as his partner snuggles against him, burying his face against the dark haired man's neck, hands coming up to fist in his shirt. It's so oddly adorable, especially when the taller man wraps his arm over his partner's back, his other hand resting comfortably on the man's knee, that Brullis feels something swell in his chest. He says, "You got the money, mister, and I'll take you all the way to wherever you're going. Just give me a destination."
The dark haired man smiles again, sprawls his legs out in the seat, drawls, "Well, in that case, we're going up to Westerfield Observatory." And Brullis whistles, low under his breath, because that is quite a drive, and no mistake. But the money'll be good, that far out, and there's no screaming kids or angry drunks or anything. It feels like a win-win situation.
He grins, pulling out into traffic. "Just sit back and relax, man, we'll be there before you know it."
He's relieved to find that the men in the backseat aren't interested in trying to talk his ear off, the way customers sometimes are. In fact, they seem perfectly content to just cuddle together, whispering softly to each other, voices pitched so low that he only picks up a word here and there over road noise.
Mostly the dark haired man seems content to play his fingers up and down the other man's side, so familiar and gentle that Brullis' eyes start helplessly tracking the movement. When they reach the edges of the city it gets quieter around them, and he starts being able to hear bigger parts of their conversation.
It feels oddly impolite, inappropriate, even if it is his cab. He reaches over and thumbs the radio on, just loud enough that it returns the conversation in the back seat to inaudible levels. He listens with half an ear to the radio, keeps his attention on the road and the couple in the backseat.
The news jockeys are still giving reports every five minutes about the attack on DeQuarn's Military Base, but none of them have anything new to say. No one knows what happened, though popular opinion seems to be that two spies for the Orange Rebellion were responsible for the wanton destruction.
Brullis isn't sure that he believes two men were capable of causing the sheer about of damage that everyone was saying the base had suffered. The fires are still burning, the body count still rising as they dig through the rubble for survivors. Everyone's nervous and jittery, anymore, worrying about war and how they have to do something, take some countermeasure against the huge loss of life.
It's depressing, and he contemplates turning the radio off again. A look in his rearview mirror convinces him not to, because the two men are snuggled even closer now, the dark haired man's mouth pressed into his partner's hair, lips moving.
It makes him miss his own wife, suddenly and terribly, and he starts to reach for his phone before reconsidering. They're almost out to the Observatory now, and he can call her as soon as he's got his customers safely dropped off. Maybe he'll call off the rest of the night, cruise home and spend a quiet night with her.
He likes the idea, smiles, and flicks his eyes again to the pair in his backseat.
Another twenty minutes and he's reached the edge of the long driveway up to the Observatory, and the dark haired man stirs in the back seat, says, "Here's good." His partner mumbles something, clinging closer, and Brullis fights down a grin. Maybe not so much drunk as just really horny, then.
He lets the cab cruise to a stop, watching as the dark haired man gently disentangles himself from the other, pops the door open and slides out. He helps his partner out, all gentle touches on his shoulders and hip, and Brullis smiles again when they sag against each other, the shorter man's arms going automatically around the other man's neck.
There's a moment of silence, as the dark haired man digs in his pocket, and then he comes out with a wad of money. Brullis catches it automatically when the man tosses it at him, sees the stranger wink, and then the man's turning, walking carefully out across the field instead of up the drive.
Brullis counts the money, quick and efficient, and feels his eyes getting huge, because it's far more than he'd been owed. There's hundreds in his hands, and he blinks helplessly, jerking out of the car to call after the men and tell them that they've accidentally given him far too much money.
They're already much farther away than he'd anticipated, and he raises his hands to his mouth to call out. He gets as far as, "Hey-" when they take another step forward, and disappear. For a long moment he just stares, dumbstruck, at the empty space where they had been, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
There's a long rumble of sound, and he watches the grass blow around the field, moved by some invisible force. And then there's a louder sound, almost a roar over his head, and then it's over. He stares for another long moment, before moving around his car and walking numbly out into the field.
He's not sure how long he wanders around the field, crisscrossing patterns through the grass and weeds. By the time he's done the sun is rising, is staining the horizon pink and gold. He walks back to his cab, the wad of cash heavy in his pocket, and calls his wife.
The next day the news is all abuzz with reports from the Observatory that the Ring in their atmosphere, the one that they've been studying for decades, had a huge surge of power, the second in two weeks. And he can't help but thinking that he'd been carting aliens around in the backseat of his cab, and that, overall, they'd been pretty nice, and tipped damn well.
He hopes, absently, cuddling with his wife on the couch, that they made it back to wherever they were going.
Rodney spends a week in the Infirmary, half the stitches that poor bastard back on the planet had put in him torn free. He's apparently riddled with infections, and God, if he had known that idiots were using unhygienic needles to poke him full of holes he would have... Well, he's not sure what he would have done. Laid there and taken it, he supposed.
John hovers over his bedside, like a particularly shaggy and protective nurse. When Rodney sleeps, when his body just shuts down and turns off for a few hours he dreams about what happened on the planet. About John, and the needles, and the crush of his fingers between table top and hammer. Sometimes he dreams about the drugs, the ones that had choked his voice in his throat and kept him still and complacent as they took him apart.
He wakes up to John, voice low and icy cold, hissing, "Get away from him, right now."
The Infirmary lights are dimmed, and Rodney squints, sees John standing over him. John's got his side arm drawn, free hand pressed against Rodney's chest, holding him down, out of the line of potential fire. For a half second, Rodney thinks that they're back in that hellhole, that maybe they never actually escaped, and reaches blindly for the solid strength of Sheppard.
His fingers curl, the ones that work, into the material of Sheppard's shirt, and just like that John's hand in his shirt isn't restraining, it's pulling. Rodney rolls with the movement, feels things tearing out of his arms and only barely notices, getting his arms around John's chest. Before he even thinks about it he's leveraging himself out of the bed, using John for balance.
His wounds burn, and his knee protests being made to bear his weight, but at least the sharp burn of fear is edging away, replaced by the comfort of John and a gun. John's got an arm around him, holding him tight, backing them both towards the door.
Rodney knows he should recognize the familiar, soft voice that's saying, "Please, Colonel Sheppard, you need to let me tend his wounds. Please! I've--look--I'm putting it away, okay? See? Trust me, it's--"
John talks over her, and Rodney can hear the door slide open behind them, Atlantis offering them an escape route, "You were trying to drug him." It's flat and accusatory and Rodney feels a thread of panic snake up his spine, wonders if they've drugged him before. His mind does feel curiously fuzzy, and there's a sick knot of nausea in his gut when John continues, "If you try to stop me, I will kill you."
And then they're in the hallway, Rodney's forcing his legs to move, to keep moving, just another step and another and another. John murmuring, soft into his hair, "I've got you, I've got you, it'll be okay, I'm not going to let them hurt you again." And Rodney believes.
He loses track of where they're going, though his vision has finally cleared up enough that he doesn't feel like the world is out of focus. He can feel the wild pound of John's pulse against his skin, feel the flex of his muscles as he literally drags Rodney along. He wonders when this became comforting, and then realizes that he doesn't care.
John doesn't so much as pause until they're stumbled through the Jumper bay, doesn't let Rodney go until he's shoving him into the co-pilot's seat. And then he sags, goes to his knees, letting himself collapse against Rodney.
The flair of pain from his knee is nauseating, and Rodney swallows it down, grabs handfuls of John's shirt and hair and holds on while the other man trembles. John's saying, "You're safe here," and "I'm sorry," and Rodney curls over him, searching for the right things to say back.
In the end, he doesn't have to say anything, because John falls asleep like that, holding on to him, gun still clenched in one hand. Rodney wonders if the other man's slept at all, since this entire stupid nightmare started, knows he hasn't slept since they made their escape.
When the others come, when they start knocking on the sides of the Jumper and generally causing a hellacious racket, Rodney thumbs the speakers on. His own voice sounds tired, foreign to his ears, "John's trying to sleep right now, could you all come back in about twelve hours? You're going to wake him up."
Later, he will be surprised that they actually left. Right now, he just shifts to a slightly more comfortable position, considers trying to ease John down to the floor and the potential pros and cons of using the other man as a pillow. In the end, he's too tired to move, and tilts his head back against the chair, hands still balled in John's shirt.
This time, when he sleeps, there are no dreams.
Chapter 2: Snippet
Most of the wounds heal fairly quickly, even with the infections. But the deep, vicious cuts in Rodney's stomach, the ones that his medical record says were deep enough to let people poke around in his organs, take longer. By the time the last stitches come out, Rodney has gotten so used to seeing them that it's a surprise to step out of the shower, look in the mirror, and find them gone.
The scars, of course, stay to remind him.
John doesn't talk about what happened. Rodney doesn't ask him to. Rodney doesn't remember all of what happened, but he remembers enough to know that the rest isn't something he wants to have to think about. The drugs had confused him and kept him complacent, but they hadn't knocked him out. He knows exactly what the blade of the knife felt like cutting into him, and he knows what the bite of the needles into his spine was, and he knows what the hammer felt like coming down on his fingers.
Rodney shakes himself, wrapping his towel around his waist and turning away from the mirror. The scars on his stomach are still red, but all the tiny dots down his spine are already fading to white. There's nothing he can do about any of them, no way to wash them away, as badly as he wants to.
John is sitting at his desk, staring hard at the door, his expression tense. That's John's default setting anymore, and Rodney doesn't blame him. He's not exactly sure what he and John are doing, now. John sleeps in his bed, curled around him, and follows him around most of the day, but they're not...well, they're not where they were.
Rodney takes what comfort he can in the other man's presence, and bites his tongue against asking for more. He nods at John, moving towards his dresser, and John reaches out, lightning fast to catch Rodney's wrists, holding on tight.
Rodney blinks down at him, saying, "Hey," without really expecting a response, because John doesn't say very much anymore. He's surprised when John hums softly, when John tugs him a step closer, John's other hand coming up to ghost over the fishhook scar low on Rodney's stomach.
John's voice is hoarse. "The stitches all came out." Rodney nods, shivering a little when John flattens his palm against the scar. And then John draws his hand away, and leans forward, pressing a feather light kiss against the ruined skin.
Rodney sucks in a surprised breath, the warm brush of John's breath against his skin making his toes curl up. The scar tissue is sensitive, and he shivers again when John's tongue darts out, licking across the bottom curve of the hook.
"John?" Rodney's not sure when his voice got breathy like that. He swallows heavily, his heart beating way too fast. John tilts his face up without moving away, his chin resting against Rodney's stomach. His eyebrows are raised and he looks curious, calm. "What are—I mean." Rodney takes a deep breath, "I don't understand."
John shrugs. "Me either," and he goes back to the kissing. For a long moment Rodney just stares down at the top of John's head, and then he lets himself breathe out, reaching one hand up to hesitantly run his fingers back through John's hair.
The strands are coarse beneath his touch, and John hums, pushing up into the touch. Rodney says, "Oh," not really sure why, and repeats the gesture, his other hand coming up to rest on John's shoulder.
There's a lot of scar tissue for John to cover. By the time he shifts back, just an inch, Rodney's skin is reddened by John's stubble, and he feels shaky. John blinks up at him, eyes dark and warm, and then John turns his head to the side, pressing a kiss to Rodney's wrist, reaching up to take Rodney's hand in both of his.
There's no outward sign of Rodney's broken fingers. The skin had been broken in a few places, but it had healed up without scars. But they ache, constant dull pain that Rodney hasn't told anyone about, because he knows there's nothing they can do about it.
John kisses each finger slowly, reverently, before drawing Rodney's index finger into his mouth and sucking. Rodney breaths, "Oh," again, his heart beating faster, and by the time John has finished with his hand Rodney feels weak-kneed and dizzy.
John stands slowly, his body warm and familiar pressed up against Rodney's. For a moment they just blink at one another, and then John slides a hand around the back of Rodney's neck, drawing him into a soft kiss. Rodney finds himself gripping handfuls of John's shirt, holding on even though the kiss is little more than a brush of their mouths together, barely there and teasing.
When John finally draws back, he says, "Rodney," tone so sad and lost that Rodney leans back in and kisses him again, soft and hesitant until John makes a soft sound against his mouth and gasps, "Bed, bed now."
Rodney nods, walking backwards across his room, John staying pressed close, still trading kisses that are so feather soft they might not even be connecting. John stops them before Rodney's legs even hit the mattress, one of his arms wrapped around Rodney's back, the other curved against the towel around Rodney's hips.
John pulls away after a lingering kiss, turning Rodney, pushing him towards the bed with a soft touch between the shoulder blades. Rodney feels like he's caught up in a dream, crawling up onto his bed, easing down slowly to his stomach, arms folding under his head.
John crawls on after him, a point of weight on either side of Rodney's hips, one hand braced beside Rodney's shoulder, warmth radiating between them. The brush of John's lips against the back of his neck is not a surprise, but Rodney gasps anyway, and John croons something wordless to him, covering all the tiny scars with his soft touch.
By the time John starts kissing down his spine, Rodney is shaking and can't stop. His eyes are burning, and he buries his face against his pillow, breathing fast and shallow and not sure what half the emotions he's feeling are. John is still murmuring to him softly, his free hand stroking up and down Rodney's skin, and the gesture is so obviously gentling that Rodney almost thinks he should be offended. He isn't.
The brush of John's lips right above the towel makes Rodney's breath catch. The scars don't extend below the edge, and Rodney isn't sure what happens now. When John rocks back, Rodney whimpers in loss, squeezing his eyes shut against the sharp flare of emotion in his chest.
And then John is turning him, rolling him onto his side and sliding down beside him. Rodney sucks in a shuddering breath, grabbing automatically, and he doesn't really know which of them are pulling where, but it doesn't matter because they end up all pressed together in any case.
Rodney has an arm around John, and one of his thighs is over John's hip, the poor towel finally giving up its fight to stay on. He thinks it should be a little weird that he's naked, with John still dressed, but then John is sliding a hand around his neck again, drawing him close and the kiss renders everything else unimportant.
John gasps, "Rodney," and rolls, pushing Rodney's shoulders down against the bed, settling over him, heavy and familiar and comforting. Rodney tangles his fingers in John's hair and holds him close, the kiss changing to something deeper, to the groan in John's chest, to the way they might be melting together.
"I—" John cuts himself off to tilt Rodney's head back, sucking at the skin over Rodney's wildly beating pulse. They're rocking against each other slowly, and Rodney doesn't even remember when that happened, the drag of the fabric of John's pants against his cock enough to make him want to squirm away and press closer all at the same time. "I need you to know that—" he moans raggedly, shoulders curving over as he grinds down against Rodney's thigh. "You need to know—" John makes a sound like a sob.
Rodney tightens his hold around John's back, holding onto him as tightly as possible, and uses his other hand to pull John's chin back up. He gasps out, "I do. John, I do," and John makes that odd, tight sound again, and then kisses him, hard and deep and desperate.
Rodney can feel the burst of warmth when John goes tense over him even through John's pants, and that's enough, that's all it takes, to push him over the edge of his own orgasm. He tightens his hand in John's hair, and they breathe each other's air, holding onto one another.