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When they climbed out of the jumper, Elizabeth looked at the mark between Sheppard's eyebrows, and then she exchanged a glance with Carson, and then she shot an expectant look at Rodney.
Terrific. Why not Ford and Teyla? Why did he have to be the object of that please-explain-now look?
"Listen, before you say anything, it wasn't my idea and it wasn't my fault," he said.
"Exactly what --" Elizabeth began.
"I mean, I know it might appear on the surface as though this works to my advantage, but I am just as unhappy about it as Major Sheppard is, believe me."
"Tell me what --"
"And whatever the Athusong city guards may claim, I was not treating Major Sheppard like a servant. I was treating Major Sheppard exactly the way I always treat him --"
"Which you have to admit is a lit--" Sheppard began.
"Let me finish," Rodney said, raising a hand.
Sheppard broke off in mid-word. That was novel enough that it took Rodney a couple of seconds to get back on track.
"Uh, right. So the city guards are going to claim that they observed our behavior, decided Major Sheppard was my personal servant or my bodyguard or whatever, and then treated him according to the traditional dictates of the Athusong --"
"Asuthong," Teyla corrected him.
"Let's not get hung up on details here," Rodney said, because how many interruptions could one conversation sustain? "The point is, the guards looked the four of us over and decided which one it would be to their advantage to, to remove from the negotiation, and they picked the major and slapped that slave-marking device on his forehead without asking anyone, and after that no one would listen to him. And they know something about Wraith strategy and tactics, but the other three of us don't have Major Sheppard's odd little knack for negotiation by randomness --"
"Hey," Sheppard protested.
"And so we got nowhere, revealed our presence, and showed them the gate and the jumper for nothing, and now Major Sheppard thinks he's my slave, and just please, please tell me you can undo this, Carson, because I can't have him tagging after me like an oversized kid brother --"
"Hey," Sheppard said irritably.
"He seems all right," Elizabeth said.
"Major?" Rodney tossed him three of the very delicious khama nuts that were the one and only good thing to come of this trip. "Here. Juggle."
"I can't juggle," Sheppard said, sending two of them flying at once. "Never had the knack," he went on as the third one joined them, three perfect parabolas, over and over.
Elizabeth glanced at Rodney and back at Sheppard. "Looks like you can," she said.
"No, no, I've tried," Sheppard said, still tossing nuts. "I always drop them."
For a long moment they all watched Sheppard juggle, and then Rodney said, "You can quit any time you want."
"OK," Sheppard said. "Hey, cool, watch this," and he switched to a circle pattern. "Toss me another one." He caught it in midair and sent it flying with the rest.
"So, hey," Rodney said, "you can do impossible things if I tell you to? Go walk on the ceiling."
Sheppard gave him a look of withering scorn. "Right."
"At least it doesn't seem to have affected his personality," Elizabeth said.
The mark on Sheppard's forehead was dark blue and roughly circular. Teyla said it might be a letter from the Asuthong alphabet, but it was too smudged to be sure.
Carson scraped a bit of it off (a process which took some skin cells, too, and allowed Sheppard to strike a number of stoic poses) and discovered it was nothing but an unusually persistent sort of vegetable dye.
"That's good. That's good," he said. "I imagine what we'll find in his bloodstream will be an agent that increases suggestibility, perhaps combined with a mild depressant. They come up unexpectedly and poke his forehead with something sharp, you see, they tell him he's a slave, everyone treats him like a slave, he comes to believe he's a slave."
What he actually found in Sheppard's bloodstream, after an hour's worth of testing, wiped the smile off his face.
"I've never seen the like," he said in a hushed voice, eyes never leaving the display where a molecule went on rotating. "It's not unlike a virus, and you can see the lipid envelope -- very fascinating, really. Already Major Sheppard's body is beginning to produce something analogous to antibodies." He pulled up another display. It looked like some sort of dog toy. "Based on the behaviors of these bodies in laboratory conditions, I'm guessing the majority of the infection should be overcome in twenty-four hours."
"So, what, we wait?"
"Aye, we wait. And you don't tell him to do anything that's hazardous to his health."
"I'm not going to tell him to do anything at all," Rodney said, "because I'm going to be very busy pulling the science team's collective head out of its collective ass for the rest of the day."
But that was where the next complication came up, because Sheppard, who had left for his own errands, came drifting back almost immediately, and lurked around at the edge of Rodney's peripheral vision until Rodney broke off brainstorming with Zelenka to say irritably, "What?"
"Why are you here?"
Sheppard shrugged. "Nowhere else to be."
"So you thought you'd come and pester -- wait. Are you feeling some sort of compulsion to stay close to me?"
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Yes, me and the birds and the stars and --"
"Major Sheppard. Tell me. Is the stupid alien slave virus making you stay close to me?"
"Yes," Sheppard said, glaring at him.
"They made him your slave? Pity it wasn't someone prettier," Zelenka said. "Tell me about it," Rodney said. "Well," he went on to Sheppard, "how do you feel about making yourself useful and bringing up something to eat?"
Sheppard didn't trot off like a good slave, and he didn't roll his eyes like normal Sheppard. He shifted from foot to foot and then said, in a choked tone that suggested he was speaking under protest, "I feel conflicted."
"Oh, my god, I've made you talk about your feelings. That stuff is strong," Rodney said. "All right. Let me rephrase that. Describe the slave thing's conflicting impulses."
Sheppard's shoulders came down a couple of inches. "It wants me to do what you want, but it also wants me to stay in earshot. Maybe it's because you didn't give a direct order."
"Well, that's easy. Go down to the mess and get lunch for all three of us."
"I'll expect a good tip," Sheppard said, and left.
Zelenka was giving him an I can't believe you just did that look, not that that was unusual.
"He'll feel better if he keeps busy," Rodney said.
"Hey," Sheppard said as Rodney arrived in the gateroom. "Just who I wanted to see. Tell me to hang from the top railing."
Rodney looked up at the second-floor railing. "What, you're a chimpanzee now?"
"C'mon," Sheppard wheedled. "I can almost do it by myself, see?" and he took an enormous upward leap, a hang-from-the-backboard sort of leap. His hands didn't come anywhere near the railing, though they did go well above the level of the upper floor.
"So you're thinking an order from me is going to add half a meter to your vertical jump? This is the sort of thing that gets people thrown out of the Olympics in disgrace."
Sheppard just went on looking at him expectantly, and Ford and Elizabeth and Bates turned their expectant looks from him to Rodney and back again. "Fine, Major. Jump up and hang from the railing, if it makes you happy."
Before he'd even finished the sentence, he was looking at Sheppard's boots. They dangled at face level for a few moments, and then Sheppard crashed heavily to the floor, laughing. "Did you see that? That was so cool. Watch!" And he did it again.
"Maybe 'If it makes you happy' is a functional part of the order," Elizabeth mused, "and his mind interprets that to mean 'any time you want to.' "
"Or," Ford panted from midair, "he could do it -- all along -- and the order just -- unlocked his potential." His unassisted high jump was a bit higher than Sheppard's had been, but not high enough to allow him to touch the rail. "Wish you could -- do that for me."
"Any time you need someone to order you to do something useful," Rodney began, and was interrupted by the thud of Sheppard coming down again.
"C'mon," he was saying, beaming. "Let's go get a jumper and find out what's a mechanical limit and what's a human one."
"Suppose I ordered you to go away," Rodney said four hours later, when Sheppard had taken the dirty dishes back to the mess and fetched a dropped whiteboard marker and eaten way more than his share of khama nuts and made Rodney look really bad in front of Zelenka by pointing out that he'd factored in water pressure on the subaqueous shields twice in different places.
"I'd do it, but I wouldn't be able to relax until I could hear you." They'd arrived at Rodney's room, which was definitely out of earshot of Sheppard's. Sheppard was yawning.
"OK, fine, go get a mattress or a cot or something and you can sleep on the floor. But just this once," Rodney said. "Oh, and hey, see if you can find me a blanket made out of something found in nature. I think this one is spun out of milk bottles."
When Rodney woke up the next morning, Sheppard was sitting up, watching him. His eyebrows were pulled together.
"Is it worn off? Snap your fingers."
Sheppard snapped his fingers glumly. "That's not all."
"What, is there something new?"
"You're hungry. You have a slight caffeine-withdrawal headache. Your elbows are dried up because the sheets are rougher than you're used to -- who knew you were such a princess, McKay? Your right shoulder and the back of your neck are stiff. And, uh, your bladder is full."
Rodney felt himself flushing, because that last one was clearly a euphemism that meant Sheppard had noticed that parts of Rodney greeted the new day with more enthusiasm than the rest of him, which he couldn't take care of in his usual morning way because Sheppard was in his room. "Why, thank you, Doctor Sheppard," he snapped. "And how's my cardiovascular health today?"
"Pretty poor," Sheppard said. "Don't you get it? This thing is telling me everything you need and pushing me to do something about it."
"Jeez. These people can do that?"
"McKay, I have an almost irresistible desire to come put lotion on your elbows. Please give me something to do."
"Get me some of those khama nuts out of the desk drawer," Rodney said hastily, "and then you can have the shower first."
Rodney looked glumly at the closed shower door. Wondering whether it was worse to have Sheppard know he was hard, or to have Sheppard know why he wasn't any more, pretty much took care of that problem.
When Sheppard came out of the bathroom, he brought a glass of water and stood over Rodney, glowering damply, until Rodney drank it all, and then he said, "That's better," and sat down on Rodney's bed and started cutting his toenails with Rodney's clippers.
"Ew," Rodney said, "cut that out." Sheppard stopped immediately. His face was freshly scrubbed and shaved, and he looked ridiculously wholesome except for the murderous glare. "What?" Rodney said. "I don't care if you're in chemical bondage. I don't want your toenail clippings on my bed. Go do that someplace else."
Still glaring, Sheppard went and sat in Rodney's desk chair. Rodney gave up and went to take a shower.
There was nothing unusual about having Sheppard eating breakfast with him, and nothing really unusual about his behavior there, at least after Rodney told him, "I want you to do whatever you want to do -- as long as it doesn't involve telling me what to eat and what not to eat."
It was unusual to have Sheppard lingering around the lab instead of getting on with his own life. "Don't you have work you need to be doing?" Rodney said after Sheppard had brought him another glass of water, located his laser pointer under two weeks' worth of power grid printouts, and turned off a lamp that Rodney hadn't even noticed was bothering his eyes. "I mean, I would imagine that there are things to glare at, things to shoot, things to fly really fast --"
So Sheppard left, but after half an hour he drifted back in to hand Rodney an antacid tablet. Rodney sighed. "Look. Tell me what you need to be doing and I'll order you to do it."
"Normally I'd be getting ready to hear everyone's weekly reports."
"All right, fine, I order you to go get ready for your reports." It was actually kind of fun to say 'I order you' to someone who took it seriously, and he got into the role a bit, giving a regal wave of his hand. Zelenka snorted behind him. Sheppard rolled his eyes and said, "Yes, sir," with amazing insincerity, and left.
And half an hour later he was back again with a painkiller and yet another glass of water, saying, "Jesus, Rodney, lay off whatever you're drinking before you give yourself a coronary."
Rodney, who had been drinking something that the Erdeven considered a path to achieving godhead -- and they were only exaggerating a little -- said, "Shut up." For once Sheppard actually did, but then he paced and twitched until Rodney said, "Fine, say what you've got to say."
"I need to hear briefings, and I can't because you won't take care of your immediate physical needs."
"Unless you gave birth to me and I've forgotten, my immediate physical needs are none of your business," Rodney said, "and I wish you'd leave me alone."
"I wish I could, believe me," Sheppard said, rubbing his temples. Rodney hated to be charmed by what everyone else was charmed by, but Sheppard looked so ruffled that his resolve took a serious hit.
"Perhaps if you ordered him not to pay attention to you," Zelenka said.
"Sure, why not. Don't pay attention to me, Major."
Sheppard's eyes squeezed shut. "Ow, ow, paradox," he said, grimacing. "Christ, that's even worse. Brain's like a hamster on a wheel."
"OK, never mind," Rodney said.
Sheppard relaxed all at once. "Thanks."
In the end, Rodney had to actually go with him to the briefings, which were unimaginably tedious. Worse yet, he had to roll his head around to loosen up his neck muscles, and prevent himself from feeling tense and restless, because as soon as he did, Sheppard felt compelled to help, and nothing brought a military briefing to a halt faster than the commanding officer stopping to say, "Deep breaths, McKay."
When the last of the military people had filed out, Rodney and Sheppard looked at each other.
"So obviously missions are out until this thing wears off," Rodney said.
"I'll tell Elizabeth. You go get lunch."
"I thought I was the one giving orders," Rodney said.
"And eat something with fiber in it, jeez."
"Carson, it's getting worse," he said. "He can read my mind now, and he won't leave me alone."
"You can read his mind?"
"Not exactly," Sheppard said, and stopped, and opened his mouth, and closed it again.
"Oh, go ahead and tell him. My personal boundaries are gone already," Rodney said.
Sheppard shot him one of those you-asked-for-it looks. "He has a tension headache around his eyes," he said to Carson. "His right arm and shoulder and the back of his neck are stiff. Sometimes he gets shooting pains in his upper trapezius. That Erdeven stuff he drinks makes his heart pound and his hands shake. He forgets to eat, and then he remembers and stuffs some random thing down in four bites and gets a stomachache. I'm not going to get into the state of his digestion. I don't know how long it's been since he got laid, but it's clearly far too --"
"Hey, hey, stop," Rodney said.
Sheppard gave him a reproachful look. "Don't you know better than to issue a command without parameters?"
"You're not a computer," Rodney said, "and I know this because computers don't whine. It's one of the things I like about them."
"You know, Rodney," Carson said, "the etel wasn't meant to be consumed like coffee. The Erdeven drink it in wee cups the size of eggshells, in a controlled environment, with foods that may neutralize some of the effects --"
"Were we here to talk about my habits? Because maybe I'm insane, but I could have sworn we were here because Major Sheppard still has an alien drug in his system that makes him think he's my personal body servant."
Carson turned to Sheppard, and opened his mouth to ask a question, and they both glanced at Rodney. "I'll leave," Rodney said.
"No," Sheppard said anxiously, and Carson looked from one to the other.
"That's another thing," Rodney said. "It makes him nervous if he's out of earshot of me, unless I've sent him on an errand. Major, I'm going to step outside, because I want you to be able to speak freely to your doctor about what your options are, and while you've never shown any particular compunction about hurting my delicate feelings, I don't trust this thing to let you think straight unless I tell you that's what I want."
"Rodney," Sheppard said. "Stay," and he wasn't pleading or anything -- his voice had no expression at all -- but Rodney stayed.
Carson couldn't do anything about the problem. The virus was still detectable in Sheppard's bloodstream, and he had no idea why the antibodies weren't working.
He'd located a chemical that neutralized the virus in a test tube. The drawback was that it was very, very poisonous.
"I do still think your body ought to be able to take care of this on its own," Carson said, "though I admit I thought it would have done already. If you don't mind my saying so, you've never been one to relish doing what you're told," he went on, which was like saying up was up. "I'm surprised you're taking this so well."
"He isn't telling me what to do," Sheppard said. "Much. Ow." Carson pressed Sheppard's fingers over the spot where he'd withdrawn the needle. "Anyhow, he could use some looking after. You wouldn't believe the things he --"
"Yes, thank you, that will be enough on that subject," Rodney said. "Hey, Major, if you're done getting drained of blood, go get that other laptop, will you? It's on the table next to my bed."
"You're very comfortable ordering him around," Carson said.
"I've always thought that a truly civilized society would find a way to liberate superior minds from tedious busywork," Rodney said. "Besides, he's military. It makes him happy to have orders to follow."
"Oh, certainly," Carson said.
But it did make Sheppard happy. When he brought back the laptop, he looked more relaxed than he had since they came back from Suthong. "Is it possible that the mark rewards him for obedience?" Rodney asked.
"Aye, it's possible," Carson admitted. "Or it may keep up a lowgrade pain or discomfort stimulus which fades only when he has an order to follow."
"See?" Rodney said. "It's for his own good."
After a blissfully Sheppard-free afternoon (during which he had eaten two things that were very much like apples, not that he planned to admit that to Sheppard), Rodney returned to his room and found that a cot had been moved in and set against the wall at right angles to his bed. He stopped short at the invasion of his personal space, and while he was still staring, Sheppard skidded around the corner. "Oh," he said when he saw what Rodney was looking at.
"Yeah," Rodney said. "I suppose protest would be futile?" Sheppard gave him a pleading look, and Rodney sighed. "All right, never mind, you can be my roommate if that's what you need. Just please don't give me tips on regulating my digestion in front of Lieutenant Johanssen any more. She's a beautiful woman and I'd like to retain some shred of personal dignity."
"Well," Sheppard said after a minute, "I was in the middle of a jog."
"I'd never have guessed," Rodney said, looking at the ring of sweat that darkened the collar of his T-shirt.
"Go get changed and you can come with me."
"I don't jog," Rodney said. "I don't run for recreation. I run when someone's after me with a weapon."
"That can be arranged," Sheppard muttered, and then he lurked around Rodney's door for so long that Rodney gave in and went jogging with him just to get rid of him.
It actually wasn't so bad. He never had to humiliate himself by saying, "Slow down," because Sheppard could sense when he was out of breath without being told, so it was pretty easy to settle into a reasonable pace.
Sheppard led him past the water-treatment area and out a door he'd seen a million times, and suddenly they were actually outside. They jogged around a wide curve with the city on one side and the apparently endless sea on the other, and then out a long pier with the sea on both sides, and then up a short flight of stairs to a circular platform where they could see forever in every direction.
The city looked tiny and misty behind them, and Rodney suddenly realized two things: that he never went outside except on missions, when mortal danger tended to mute his appreciation of the fresh air, and that this was closer to genuine solitude than he'd had since he came to Atlantis.
"Hey," he said to Sheppard. "This is great."
"Thought you'd like it," Sheppard said.
There was something very much like real bacon in the mess the next day, which Rodney, not being an early riser at the best of times, would have missed if Sheppard hadn't grabbed him a plateful and left it on the desk beside his bed. He'd left a big glass of water there, too, with some ice still in it, and he'd moved the laptop over to the other desk so he wouldn't have to worry about spills.
Of course it would have been nicer to have someone fussing over him because he liked him, rather than because he was under chemical compulsion to take care of all his bodily needs, Rodney thought with his mouth full of bacon. But this wasn't bad.
Sheppard returned as Rodney was eating the last of the bacon. He glared at Rodney. "You didn't -- never mind."
"Spit it out, Major."
"You didn't jerk off."
"Jesus." Rodney covered his eyes with his hand. "Next time I tell you to say what's on your mind, remind me that I don't really want to know."
"But it was the whole reason I left."
"Oh, you gave me fifteen minutes. How generous of you."
"You need longer than fifteen minutes? What do you do, interpretive dance?"
"What I need is real privacy, which apparently I'm not ever going to have again. I mean, put yourself in my shoes. If I were lurking outside your door, knowing --"
"I don't lurk. And I can't not know. And if you don't do something about it, it's going to start taking care of itself in your sleep, and I'll be forced to know about that, too, so think about it. So I'm going to go out again -- is half an hour long enough, or do you need me to wait until lunchtime?"
"This is not going to happen, and the more you talk to me about it, the more you make sure it's not going to happen."
Sheppard gave him a smirk that told Rodney he'd noticed that Rodney was lying. But, hell, this kind of conversation would be a turn-on for a lot of people. He wouldn't be surprised if Sheppard himself -- well, he was certainly not going to look.
"Fine," he snapped. "Go take a nice long jog, and then go take a nice long shower in your own room, and keep your telepathy turned off, please."
"I don't have telepathy. I just know when you need something. And if I could turn it off, I would, believe me, because sometimes what you need is a swift kick." He left with the attitude of someone who was pissed that the door wouldn't slam.
"Way to inspire my libido, there," Rodney said into the quiet, well-mannered hiss of the door.
He'd never had to jerk off on demand, and as he assembled his lube and his washcloth, it seemed like the most joyless thing he could imagine, and he wanted not to, except that Sheppard was out there, and he knew what Rodney needed --
His cock stirred in his loose hold.
What the hell was that? He glared down at it, as though it could explain itself. He was getting off on knowing that Sheppard was out there somewhere killing time, waiting for him to jerk off? He wondered if Sheppard could tell that he'd gotten started, if he'd be following along --
God, yes. This was doing something for him, for real. He pressed two fingers into the base of his cock -- not that he needed anything to make him any harder; he was doing just fine in that respect -- and made a ring of his other thumb and forefinger, twisting just below the head, making it last. Sheppard apparently thought he'd do it fast; maybe that was the way he liked it himself, oh, god, if he could tell what Rodney was doing maybe he'd learn something, that sweet sensation of going right up to the edge and staying there, until your breath came hard and you could feel your heart racing, until your hands shook and your eyes squeezed shut and your lips pulled back, just like that, maybe he'd never tried it, maybe he was heading back to his quarters now, cock heavy in his running shorts, maybe he was going to try it right now --
Coming was like a fist clenching, over and over, and he hung on through it, gentling his hand and holding on -- gentle enough and slick enough and you could keep it going, no spasms but shivery pleasure right on the edge of pain for a few minutes, until either you got hard again or your body finally said Enough. He wondered if Sheppard knew about that, if he ever -- the picture pushed another quick squeeze out of him --
OK, fine, fine, a little belated self-awareness, that was fine, he got it already. Either he had a thing for guys or he had a thing for an audience that was so strong that the identity of the audience didn't matter much. Fine.
There was something to be said, actually, for learning this stuff about yourself when you were past that who-am-I anxiety, he thought as he wiped off and headed for the shower. It would have freaked him right out at sixteen, but here he was, full of endorphins and well-being, and apparently either bisexual or an exhibitionist or possibly both. And he felt fine.
When he came out in his shorts and T-shirt, Sheppard was lying on the cot, also freshly showered, smirking at him. "Feel better?"
"Do you?" Rodney asked him, because there was no way Sheppard hadn't just been up to the same thing.
He hadn't remembered to put the lube away -- it was still out there on the desk -- but he couldn't bring himself to care.
"We have to do something about this," Elizabeth said when Sheppard followed Rodney into a science team briefing.
Rodney looked at him -- having Sheppard following him everywhere had stopped seeming strange to him, and anyway, one of the agenda items was finding some way to make the jumpers more power-efficient, which was something Sheppard actually knew something useful about. But if it was a problem for Elizabeth, he'd fix it. "He can leave if I send him on an errand. Want him to bring up some of the khama nuts?"
Elizabeth shook her head like he was some kind of selfish jerk, which was totally unfair -- she was the one who wanted Sheppard gone. "I meant something about the continued effects on Major Sheppard's free will, though I know you don't want to sacrifice your personal fiefdom."
"Hey," Rodney said, waving his hand at the scientists around the table. "These are my personal fiefdom, thank you very much. Major Sheppard is a colleague suffering from an alien attack, which, I remind you, is not my fault," but of course it never did any good to talk to these people. "Anyhow, Carson's only managed to upgrade the antidote from 'fatal' to 'almost fatal.' "
"How bad is it?" Elizabeth asked Sheppard.
Sheppard's eyes cut sideways to Rodney. "Go ahead," Rodney said, "tell her the truth."
Something happened to Sheppard's face, but he said to Elizabeth, "It's not too bad. The virus makes it all feel normal. I miss going offworld, though. Gets boring just hanging around washing McKay's socks."
"Figure of speech," Rodney said hastily. "He's only done that once."
Outside the door of the meeting room, Sheppard rounded on him with the narrow-eyed look he usually reserved for Wraith ships. "Do not order me to tell the truth in front of Elizabeth and the science staff," he said. Rodney had seen people mistake that voice for a friendly drawl, but only people who didn't know Sheppard very well.
"What, you wanted to lie and you couldn't?"
"Have you ever been under physical compulsion to answer every question truthfully? She could have asked me anything. I'll rig up a pentathol drip for you and you can see what it's like," he said, and stalked off.
He was still gone when Rodney went to bed, which meant either the compulsion was weakening or he was very seriously pissed off.
Rodney really needed to cut out the etel. It was beginning to interfere with his sleep.
By the fourth day, it was obvious that Sheppard's antibodies weren't going to do the trick unassisted.
"So I think we need to send a team back to Suthong to get information and hopefully find a cure," Elizabeth said to the hastily assembled group in the lab. "Radek, would you be able to represent the science side?"
"Wait, wait, hold on," Rodney objected. He was pleased to see that Sheppard was shaking his head, too. "If you're sending a team back to Suthong, it needs to be the same team."
"But you and Major Sheppard have both told me that offworld missions aren't safe for him due to his condition."
"Yes, I remember, thank you, and I stand by that, but there are special circumstances here that -- Major, back me up on this. No, wait, don't. Say anything you want. Or, or nothing."
"McKay's right," Sheppard said. "If we sent a different team, they'd probably pull the same stunt on one of them. But they know us, and they can see the mark, so they can't pretend to misunderstand."
"Right, exactly, plus who knows better than we do what to ask about? Of course, they won't let him speak, so he'll have to give one of us his input beforehand, but at least he'll be there and he can signal me, us, if something's not adding up."
"I want them to look me in the eye and tell me there's nothing they can do," Sheppard said in a dangerous voice, and Elizabeth said, "Well, all right, then."
As it turned out, the Asuthong didn't look Sheppard in the eye and tell him, because they didn't look at him at all; once they'd spotted the mark on his face, they paid no more attention to him than they would have paid to a horse. In fact, Rodney had to prevent them from taking him away to be cleaned and fed.
The jerk with the floppy hair who'd ordered this done in the first place was "unavailable." The new jerk with floppy hair told them blandly that he couldn't understand why the effect wasn't wearing off. They had long-term marks, of course, for their own slaves, but they used the one-day mark for visitors.
A dead-eyed middle-aged man with a red mark on his forehead was ordered over, and he stood, not moving or raising his eyes, while Carson drew blood and scraped skin. He didn't answer Carson's questions until ordered to do so, and then he used a voice that sounded like it hadn't been used for years.
Rodney looked at Sheppard, trying to imagine him shuffling around with his head chemically emptied of everything but the desire to obey. But Sheppard was looking satisfyingly tight-lipped and smoldery, even back in the jumper when he wordlessly went over to the med kit and handed Rodney a bandaid for his blister before taking the pilot's seat.
At least they got more khama nuts, so it wasn't an entirely wasted trip.
That night, Sheppard was so full of snappy comebacks, got in so many sly putdowns on Rodney, that Rodney was momentarily reassured. Until it occurred to him that Sheppard was giving him what he needed most, namely some reassurance that he was still himself and not really a slave at all. Evidently "your master needs you to pretend he isn't your master" wasn't the kind of paradox that hurt Sheppard's head.
Carson, when they could get him to look up from the apparently fascinating puzzle of the two pseudoviruses, confirmed that the chemistry of the permanent bond was totally different. All he could do was keep working on reducing the toxicity of the antidote.
"You're tense," Sheppard said.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Thanks very much," he said. "That's like saying, 'You're breathing.' "
"You're making me tense. If you're wound this tight all the time, it really explains your personality."
"No, no, my personality would make perfect sense if you met my family," Rodney said, putting away a laptop because what he needed was on another laptop, and why the hell had he ever thought networking the personal machines was a secondary priority? "My tension, on the other hand, is a direct result of the utter, blinding incompetence of Samtow and Mitchell, which I suppose could be traced to their parents." Maybe it was on the first laptop after all.
Sheppard was wincing as though Rodney was making loud noises in his ear.
"If it's that bad for you, Major, you could make yourself useful. Either find the power consumption projections file or give me a backrub."
Sheppard handed him a folder. "Mitchell does projections on paper, remember? You had quite an extensive analysis of the problems that entailed at the last briefing, but she has some sort of mystical compulsion."
That left the backrub. Rodney looked at him hopefully.
"Sorry," Sheppard said. "Can't help you. Don't know how."
"You don't know how to give a backrub?"
"I don't know how to give a backrub that doesn't end up in bed."
"Figures." Rodney rolled his head forward. The muscles in his neck twanged like rubber bands. He was pretty sure he'd rather have a backrub than sex, which was kind of a sad commentary, actually. "I don't know," he said. "Try me."
Sheppard's palms spread out large and warm on his shoulders -- he hadn't had a backrub from a guy since the collapse of the web boom had killed off the phenomenon of the corporate masseur, but the bigger hands were definitely an advantage -- and Sheppard's thumbs went unerringly to the worst spots with just exactly the right pressure -- whoa, semi-telepathic contact was even more of an advantage.
Sheppard's hands pushed a glob of fiery pain up each side of Rodney's neck and out, leaving behind a streak of absence-of-pain that was better than pleasure.
Sheppard groaned when Rodney did.
"Is it that bad for you?" Rodney was full of backrub-generated affection, which was just as bad as the alcohol-generated kind.
"Same as it is for you, except I keep trying to loosen up my back and fix my posture, and nothing helps because it's not my body." Sheppard did the same thing again starting from lower down on Rodney's shoulder blades, and Rodney sighed happily. "If you did some ab work, your spine would be better supported, and your neck wouldn't hurt all the time."
"Or, alternately, if a genie came and gave me a set of magic wings -- oh, yeah, yeah, right there," he added unnecessarily, because of course Sheppard knew it was a good spot, and he went to work on it. "God, yes."
"Raise your right arm," Sheppard said, and worked all along that shoulder. "Can't you do some of your touchpad work lefthanded?"
Rodney didn't even dignify that with an answer, just dropped his head forward, because it seemed likely that something nice would happen if he did.
Sheppard's hands stilled on his shoulders for a second, and Rodney could feel it all shifting gears, even before Sheppard ran his nails lightly up the back of Rodney's neck, making him hiss at the gooseflesh rising on his arms.
He couldn't even say it wasn't what he wanted, because it felt fantastic. He was just as hungry for this kind of touch as he had been for the backrub. For just a second his whole imagination flamed up with the idea of what it would be like with someone who could sense his desires and had a compulsion to fulfill every one, and he closed his eyes. And then he reluctantly brought his sanity back online and opened them again. "Yeah, that's, I see what you mean about your backrubs," he said.
"Yeah," Sheppard said. It was probably going to hurt him just as much to walk away as it was going to hurt Rodney. Weird how it was so hard to give up when it wasn't really what either of them wanted in the first place.
And the stupid slave thing was going to make Sheppard hurt because Rodney wouldn't let him give him what he needed. Rodney rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.
"All right," he said, turning in his chair. "All right, no, I think not, but, you know what? Why don't we go down to the weight room and you can show me how to do the ab machine?"
God, he had to be the biggest idiot in the world -- there was something badly wrong with his life when he was prepared to turn down one of those kinds of backrubs, and in favor of sit-ups, for crying out loud.
Sheppard raised his head with a look of utter, adoring gratitude, as though he'd already thought Rodney was the greatest thing since crunchy peanut butter and Rodney had just proved he was grape jelly too.
It was just the virus, Rodney told himself, and grinned back at him. "OK, right, let's get the suffering over with."
Rodney woke up next morning with a strange, not unpleasant tightness in his stomach muscles and a completely familiar tightness elsewhere. Thank heaven Sheppard had finally learned just to give him some space in the mornings without having to have a big conversation about what he needed privacy for.
If he'd let that backrub go where it wanted to go, it would have ended up -- well, here in his bed, actually.
He tried to put a more appealing partner into the picture as the person dedicated to fulfilling his every need. Lieutenant Johanssen with her hair out of that long braid, that Athosian woman with the freckles who sometimes came with Halling from the mainland, Shelly who'd cut his hair back home -- but it seemed weird and creepy to imagine getting this kind of service from women he hardly knew, even though both Johanssen and Maira were probably stronger than he was and Shelly was always armed with a pair of sharp scissors.
Maybe if she wasn't drugged, but was doing it out of gratitude? Because he'd saved her life, and her family, and her village? Because on her planet, average-looking but brilliant astrophysicists with poor social skills were the ultimate objects of desire? Because a broken gate had stranded them on another planet for a year, and she'd come to revere him? Jesus, what good was an imagination if it was going to insist on a higher level of plausibility than his real life did?
All right, fine, damn it. Suppose it was Sheppard himself? Who actually seemed to like him, who weirdly enough knew him better than anybody had since grade school, who could make bad jokes at his expense even under the influence of an alien slave virus, who made moany sex noises while giving him a backrub --
Oh, hell, it just figured that would work when nothing else did.
He let himself imagine it. Sheppard's nails running lightly up the back of his neck again, Sheppard's lips following them. Sheppard's arms wrapping around him and leaning him back against that warm body, Sheppard's mouth on his ear and his face and his mouth, because physical pleasure was nice, very nice, but if he was going to get his dearest wish, it would be for something that went deeper --
No. No. He was willing to be pathetic up to a point, but there had to be limits.
Sheppard's hands on his body, then, knowing what he needed before he knew it himself. Sheppard's mouth -- Sheppard's mouth --
Oh, god, it would be so good.
Sheppard gave Carson a blank look every time Carson suggested that he should be more worried than he was about having some unknown alien pseudovirus flowing in his bloodstream and forcing him to notice whether or not Rodney was getting enough sleep.
"It's fine," he said dismissively, as though Carson were pestering him about a hangnail.
Rodney, too, had gotten used to it pretty quickly. He could have done with less of the mother-hen act. On the other hand, having someone actually notice when he had a headache, and bring him a glass of water and one of his private stock of effective painkillers, and make him pinch the web between his thumb and forefinger to see if that would help with the pain -- well. To have somebody actually care -- it was, it was nice.
They couldn't go out on missions, but it turned out that a mission came to them. A loud and scary one with screaming children, which was the very worst kind, and, OK, maybe it was an improvement not having anybody chasing after them trying to shoot them or suck out their life force, but on the other hand, they couldn't get out of this one just by running for the gate.
The shouting of Jinto and the two other half-grown idiots who needed rescuing came over the comm like it was inside Rodney's own head, and the more harnesses and failsafes they strapped on him, the less safe he felt.
"Are you sure, now," Carson said in a shaky voice, "that you can't take Rodney along as a backup pilot and let me be the one to override the safety on the environmental control system?"
"No time," Sheppard said. "Come on."
"Believe me," Rodney said over his shoulder as he hurried after Sheppard and went on tightening straps across his chest, "I'd rather be in a nice safe jumper than dangling from the few remaining bits of the Level 12 bridge. But the sad fact is that I've got the best chance of getting the air vent open before the rest of the floor collapses under them."
Carson and Rodney babbled when they were scared, and Teyla and Ford dropped into their two cultures' different versions of warrior readiness. Sheppard just clammed up and hurled the jumper up out of the bay in total silence.
"Look, Major," Rodney said. "You can't be worrying about me, so I, I order you to go get those kids out of the tower, OK? I'm your second priority until they're out -- is this working at all?"
"Can't tell yet."
"You can fight it for an hour," Rodney said. "I want you to." He wanted those kids alive, and he really, really didn't want to have them and Sheppard on his conscience, to be the one responsible for spoiling Sheppard's concentration. Damn it, this slave-owner thing was a lot of responsibility.
"Sure you're OK?" Sheppard shouted out the open door of the hovering jumper. The tower was canted over in an eleven-o'clock position, and the environmental controls, which had once been easily accessible by a person standing on the bridge, were now in the middle of the downward face of a sheer, leaning wall.
Rodney's fingers were shaking so badly they slipped, and slipped again. Sheppard's expression was frantic. Any second now he was going to leave Carson in charge of hovering the jumper, which would be -- there! On the third try he finally got the last strap attached to the pipe overhead with a satisfying click. He tugged it to be sure. "It's fine!" he shouted over the noise of the wind. "Go!"
Sheppard gave him a longing look -- it was like sending away a dog that loved you -- and then the jumper door slid shut and the whole big unwieldy thing lifted away without stirring the slightest breath of air, and surely the people who made that could be trusted to have made an emergency remote override that Rodney could figure out.
When he leaned back gingerly against the harness, bracing himself with his feet against the wall, the jumper actually paused in midair, in violation of numerous laws of physics. Rodney could imagine Sheppard, desperately torn, the virus compelling him to come back and keep Rodney safe and Rodney's own order compelling him to go on. He leaned back hard, heart in his throat. The harness held.
"It's fine," he said out loud, and the jumper moved again, hesitantly. "It's fine. Go on. You know what you need to do." It soared away upward.
Prying off the cover of the environmental control system required a sickening yank with no way to stabilize his center of gravity. "It's fine, it's fine, it's fine," he muttered, no longer sure whether he was talking to Sheppard or to himself. The cover slipped out of his hands and fell, and he did not, did not look down, but for a while he listened to see if he could hear it hitting. "I'm fine. Go on. I'm fine," he said, and wiped his hands on his pants, and concentrated on the panel of crystals.
The first six configurations apparently did nothing at all. After the second one, it occurred to him that his muttering was probably getting on everybody's nerves as much as the kids' crying was, so he bent the mike outward, away from his mouth, and went on a two-volume system: I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, "Anything yet?" I'm fine, I'm fine.
He really was very far from fine; his hands were unsteady, and in spite of his vow not to look, he was very aware that he was balanced with his toes on a windowsill and twelve stories of nothing whatsoever under his heels.
Complaining would have been a wonderful way to bleed off some of the tension, but even Sheppard, who was stubborn as hell, might not be able to fight the compulsion to help him if he actually asked for help.
Stay by the vent, be ready, be ready, don't worry about me, he muttered, slotting in two crystals at once, and adding in his audible voice, "Anything?"
"Not yet," Sheppard's voice came in his ear. "You OK?"
He sounded worried. "Fine, I'm fine, you guys just pay attention and be ready to pry that vent open," Rodney said. He pushed a crystal into place, and a grinding noise over the radio told the story, which was a good thing because all Sheppard did was give an inarticulate shout.
And it was at that moment that Rodney's foot finally slipped off its precarious spot and gravity slammed him back hard into the harness, legs swinging free.
The harness held. The harness held. For a couple of seconds that was all he was aware of, that he had fallen out to the limit of the straps holding him to the wall and then jerked to a stop, dangling under the tower.
"Rodney!" Sheppard's voice over the radio sounded panicked. Behind him, over the comm, Rodney could hear Teyla calling to the kids and the rumble of breaking masonry.
"Fine, I'm fine, just slipped." He himself had been getting ready to panic, but he couldn't, not yet. "Have you got them out?"
"I -- uh --" Sheppard had to think about it -- focusing on something else was obviously an effort.
"I'm fine." Rodney bounced up and down in the straps to prove the point. "The kids. Focus."
"Right, right. Teyla thinks there's rubble or something in the channel -- it only slides an inch or so -- but that's enough to work a pry bar in, so she and Ford are just going to muscle it open."
"Good, you do that. Think about me after you've got all three of them out."
If the tower had been vertical, he'd probably have swung back and bumped against it when he fell, and if he hadn't broken his nose in the process, all he'd have to do now would be hang onto the straps with his hands and climb back up onto the narrow ledge. Unfortunately the tower wasn't vertical. He'd been clinging, spiderlike, to the underside, and now he was dangling out at an angle -- or, rather, he was vertical and the tower was at an angle to him.
He pawed out with one foot, but he couldn't quite touch the building. Another kick, and the toe of his boot made brief contact, brushing the wall just below the level of the ledge.
He kept up a litany under his voice: I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, beaming it mentally at Sheppard. They hadn't closed the channel, and Rodney could hear the noises -- Ford counting, "One, two, three," and a grinding noise, and panting, and the kids saying, "It moved! It moved!" and Ford saying, "OK, again --"
If he'd started earlier on the ab machine, he'd probably be able to just crunch up and put his feet on the ledge. As it was, he was going to have to swing in the harness, like a pendulum, and eventually his momentum would carry him close enough to get his feet on the ledge. He hoped the amount of speed required to give him that distance wouldn't also have him moving so fast that his feet couldn't get a grip.
"We've got five inches now, Rodney."
Or he could just hang by his armpits and wait for them to finish up and come rescue him. He tried it for a second or two, but as soon as he stopped thinking about the problem of getting back on his feet, he became aware of all sorts of things of which ignorance had definitely been bliss -- the space between him and the ground, and the wind that stirred around him, and how the harness bit into his armpits, and how it was utterly, panic-inducingly unnatural for a human being to feel his feet resting on a very tall column of nothing whatsoever --
Fine. I'm fine. Focus on the vent. I'm fine. He went back to calculating trajectories in his head, and when that had pushed the sour taste of panic back down his throat, he pushed his feet forward, and then backward, and very slowly began to swing.
The jumper didn't make any noise; it might as well have materialized out of nothing beside him, and he actually jumped when he saw it there. It was edging slowly closer, coming at an angle, so he could see it by turning his head, and then the hatch was sliding open and he could see Carson in the opening, holding out his hands. Rodney used his last swing to take him backwards through the hatch, and when he began to swing downward again his knees hit the floor and Carson grabbed him and said, "Got him."
Rodney waited patiently for him to undo the clips that held the harness to the straps, because he'd promised himself that when he heard that third click he could pass out.
Only, strangely, he didn't. He shut his eyes, and then he opened them again, and looked past the white-lipped Carson at Ford and Teyla and the kids, who were staring at him, and then past them to Sheppard in the pilot's seat, craned around backward and shaking visibly.
Carson stood up fast. "You get the ship away from the tower, and I'll take it in," he said, and Rodney thought they both must look pretty bad to make Carson volunteer to pilot the jumper.
Rodney tried to stand up, but his legs were unsteady and he went down again, and Sheppard landed beside him with a loud thud and just wrapped both arms around him.
"I'm fine. I told you I'd be fine," Rodney said, and laid his head on Sheppard's shoulder, and closed his eyes.
"I was never in any real danger," he was saying irritably to Elizabeth fifteen minutes later. "Carson can check me out if he wants to, but I can tell you all he's going to find is sweat and harness bruises, and I'd really like to go lie down now."
Sheppard had let go of him just about the time the clinging would have gotten embarrassing in front of the others, but he still wouldn't get more than an arm's length away. Rodney had to admit it was rather comforting.
Elizabeth was giving him that knowing look that usually meant she saw right through him, except that this time she had nothing to see through to. "We're all very grateful for what you did."
"I swapped some crystals, and then I lost my footing, and then I hung around, literally, until my ride came," Rodney said. "Sheppard and Carson and Ford and Teyla carried out the daring rescue, as usual." He looked at her tucked-in mouth and sighed. "All right, fine, everyone in this room has been very brave and deserves the adoration of a grateful populace, ideally in the form of something edible, and I'll be happy to lend out my slave for the greater good any time. Can I go now?"
Sheppard followed Rodney back to his room, and when they got there, he just sat on the cot and stared while Rodney splashed his face and drank about five glasses of water.
Sheppard was a mess, dust and plaster powdering his hair and sticking to the sweaty places on his skin and clothes, which was pretty much everywhere. He went on staring even when Rodney was quite obviously getting ready for a shower -- boots off, watch off. "Do you mind?" he said, and Sheppard ducked his head apologetically, but didn't look away.
"Take your shirt off," he said instead.
"I -- excuse me?"
"You said you had bruises."
"You must be joking."
He wasn't joking; he was still giving Rodney that can-you-kick-this-puppy look. "I need to see."
Rodney sighed. "I don't suppose I could order you to respect my privacy? No, of course not, what was I thinking, we tried that already. Do you think the Asuthong are tyrannized by their slaves like this?"
"When the Asuthong cause their slaves pain and discomfort, I don't think they care very much," Sheppard said.
Rodney sighed again, went to the mirror, and pulled his shirt off.
There actually wasn't any bruising yet, though he'd be surprised if some didn't come up in the night. His armpits and the fronts of his shoulders, where the harness had taken his weight as he fell, were a bit sore -- he touched them gingerly -- and there was some deep-muscle soreness, too, but nothing showed.
Sheppard came and stood behind him, looking first at his back and then at his reflection.
He'd expected it to be uncomfortable to take off his shirt and let Sheppard look at him. But Sheppard wasn't judging him, and he wasn't being brisk and practical like Carson, either. Rodney remembered the half-finished backrub, and Sheppard's eyes gave him the same feeling now that Sheppard's hands had then: as if his skin, his body, were infinitely precious to him.
More. As if Rodney's body belonged to him, was his to protect and take care of. To, to cherish.
Rodney blinked rapidly and focused his attention back on his nonexistent injuries before he could be drawn further into some longing that Sheppard might feel compelled to satisfy. He imagined even the Asuthong would balk at ordering a slave to cherish them.
On the right side of his neck, where his shirt must have been pulled aside so that the harness touched bare skin, there was a small reddened patch, like rope burn. Sheppard spotted it at the moment he did. Well, naturally; he probably spotted it because Rodney did.
Rodney was just wondering whether Carson might have some lanolin or whether the best option would be chapstick when Sheppard touched it.
He didn't move his fingers, so there was no friction. He was very gentle, so there was no pain. His fingers were cooler than Rodney's skin. He rested his fingertips there for a long moment, as though he was gathering information by touch -- and for all Rodney knew, he could do that now -- and Rodney stood very still and tried to think about anything but his pulse and the flush heating his cheeks and --
Without moving his fingers, Sheppard bent his head over Rodney's shoulder and kissed the side of his neck.
"No," Rodney whispered. He wasn't at all surprised when Sheppard ignored him.
Sheppard kissed another spot, and another, none of them too close to the burn, all of them desperately sensitive and long-ignored, because there were a lot of things you could do for yourself, but you really couldn't nibble your own neck. Rodney had to close his eyes to block out the reflection of Sheppard's dark, bowed head and his own desperate face.
"Please let me," Sheppard said against his neck. "I can be so good to you, Rodney. I'll know exactly what you need, every single thing --"
God, the better it sounded, the more he hated it. "You have no choice but to want to please me," he pointed out, wishing his tone were more commanding and less breathless.
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "Let me."
"I can't even begin to describe how screwed up that is."
"But I want to," Sheppard said in his persuade-the-natives voice. "And you want me to." He had kissed a path out to Rodney's shoulder and was working his way back in. Soft lips, no tongue, sticking close to some comfort boundary he'd intuited.
"You want to because you're on drugs. I want to, yes, and I don't want to think about what that says about me." He craned back to look at Sheppard, who looked back with an expression of dopey sincerity -- another from his persuade-the-natives toolkit. "Look, Major -- John," he corrected in response to a microscopic pout. "I know this is totally antithetical to the spirit of sex, but I'm going to make you tell me the truth, all right?"
John blinked at him. Evidently this was not what he'd expected to hear. "I guess so."
"Right. Right. You're telling me that you want to have sex with me while you're under a chemical compulsion to fulfill my every need?"
"Yes," John said, fervently, eyes half shut, as if it was the sexiest thing he'd ever heard.
"Right. Did you want to have sex with me before we went to Suthong?"
That wiped the blissful look off his face, replacing it with a reproachful pout, as though Rodney had brought up a subject that was in terrible taste. "I liked you. You were my friend. I wanted to hang out with you, spend time with --"
"No," he said, dropping his eyes.
"No, I thought not," Rodney sighed. "And if we do this, then when the stupid slave virus goes away and you no longer get pellets every time you do something nice for me, do you think it's likely that you're going to look kindly on this little romantic interlude?"
John was silent for a long time, and then he opened his mouth. Rodney interrupted. "Tell me the truth, not what it would make me happy to hear, please."
John looked at the floor for another long time, and then he looked Rodney in the eye. "I don't know," he said. "I can't predict at all."
"Huh. I was expecting a ringing no," Rodney admitted.
"I still want to."
"I still think it's a terrible idea."
"No, you don't," John said smugly.
"Yes, yes, I do; I'm just not really all that good at choosing my long-term best interests over short-term pleasure. Though usually the available pleasures are more in the line of speaking my mind freely rather than -- are you even interested in men, normally?"
"Used to be," John said, and he seemed to have heard the yes buried in all that blathering, because he'd gone back to kissing Rodney's shoulder. "Had to give that up, though, if I wanted to fly."
"Oh, this, this is the best idea since the Bay of Pigs," Rodney said, but he closed his eyes and let John turn him around.
It wasn't exactly the kiss of his dreams. John smelled even worse than he did, and he kissed like he had to cram everything he could into every second, like there was a time limit on kissing. Rodney thought about how the virus ought to show him how to give the perfect kiss, and then he thought about how knowing it was coming from the virus would have made it less perfect.
And then John pulled back, and gave him a knowing look, and cupped his big hands around Rodney's face, and slowed way, way down, running his parted lips over Rodney's cheek and jaw as if just being permitted to touch Rodney's skin was a privilege he'd longed for but never hoped to deserve.
"Hey, cut that out," Rodney said, and John looked at him and grinned. "I mean it. I'm not going to be able to enjoy this if you're acting like I'm some kind of Roman emperor."
"Now there's a picture," John said, and he unbuttoned Rodney's pants one-handed. "I think you'll enjoy it, all right." And he slid to the floor.
When his tongue touched Rodney's cock, they both groaned, and Rodney thought about a younger John doing this, a teen-aged John maybe, and then giving it up because he wanted to fly. He certainly did it like he'd missed it. He was creative and exploratory, making happy snuffling noises.
Rodney liked the noises, liked them a lot -- brains and beauty were all very well in their way, but what you really wanted in a sex partner was enthusiasm, and it turned him on like crazy to have John going, "Nn -- nnn," like he was almost ready to come just from having Rodney's cock in his mouth.
God. As soon as he thought it, John sucked harder, until they had a nice feedback loop going, with John's pleasure turning Rodney on and Rodney's pleasure turning John on. And then John made a particularly loud "Nnnn!" and Rodney looked down to see him shuddering, panting, almost certainly coming, and still sucking -- god, there weren't even words for what it did to him, knowing John had come just from having Rodney's cock in his mouth -- and Rodney was seconds away from coming himself, seconds, when all at once that beautiful sensation just went away.
"Wh --" He opened his eyes and tried again. "John?"
"Tell me to take it all the way."
John's voice was low, hoarse, and Rodney could feel his cock leaping against John's face, but he was stymied by an uncharacteristic scruple. "No, I can't."
"Come on, Rodney." God, it was surreal; it was the same whine as always. "I've always wanted to, but I could never --"
"Ignore a reflex that protects your body from damage? I wonder why." The thought of it made him hot and queasy at the same time, because on the one hand it was, not to put too fine a point on it, shoving his dick down the throat of someone who couldn't say no -- but on the other hand, oh my god, he'd always wondered what it would feel like, and it wasn't a skill that non-professionals tended to have.
And if John enjoyed it like he'd been enjoying the rest --
"There. See? You want to," John said with his favorite winning smile. "C'mon, Rodney. It'll be fun." And he was still stroking Rodney's cock gently with both hands, not even like he was trying to turn Rodney on but just like a person might rub a smooth stone, just for the pure pleasure of it.
"All right," Rodney said, thick-voiced with excitement, "all right, yeah, take it all, if you want to, all the way, do it --"
There was half a second of glorious moving tight wetness, and then John made an awful noise, and Rodney stepped back frantically.
John knelt back and wiped his eyes and gave Rodney a calculating look. "OK, here," he said, "go lie down," and he followed Rodney to the bed and lay down beside him in sixty-nine position and tipped his head back and swallowed.
He could feel it every time John made a noise, and John made a lot of noise. Rodney didn't dare move, and he couldn't quite shake his consciousness of what he was doing and how uncomfortable it must be. But evidently his order had made John some kind of instant expert, because he set up a rhythm with great confidence -- in, two, three, out, breathe, breathe, over and over.
"Oh, god, yes, that's -- oh, god, John, that's --" He put out his hand, needing to feel skin, and grabbed John's hairy thigh, and fuck! It wasn't that he'd forgotten he was in bed with a guy, but this made it so much more real, and it turned him on like crazy.
Below him John groaned, and oh, that was amazing, and then there was a soft touch on Rodney's cheek -- oh, that was John's cock, hardening again, dragging its way down the side of Rodney's face.
Rodney closed his eyes and caught the tip on his tongue. His mouth watered suddenly, and every hair on his body stood on end, and before he could make any sort of warning noise he was coming.
"Oh, jesus, Rodney," John was saying. His voice was scratchy, and Rodney didn't entirely like the thrill that gave him. "No, don't, you don't have to, don't --" But Rodney didn't have an obedience virus, and he never took advice; you could ask anybody. So he went on reveling in the great well-being that followed on the heels of the best orgasm he'd ever had in his life, and, slowly and curiously, licking at John's cock.
"Oh," John said. "Oh, god. You like it. You like it?"
"Mm," Rodney agreed, nodding.
John hissed, "Shit," and pulled away. "Hey," Rodney tried to say, but John had grabbed his cock and just managed to aim it away from Rodney's face before he came all over Rodney's neck.
"Oh, god. Oh, my god," John panted, and flopped nimbly up to face him, grinning the same way he did when he'd just done something unwise at maximum speed. "God, that was great." He took Rodney by the back of the neck and shook him gently, and then he shut his eyes, still grinning, and went to sleep so fast it was more like losing consciousness.
Rodney tried to stay awake and freak out, but it had been a long day, with the dangling and the daring rescue and the sex with Sheppard, and he just didn't have the energy. He put it on his mental agenda for the morning.
The next morning, he would have gotten a nice early start on it, except that he woke up with John licking his neck and looping a nice loose circle of thumb and forefinger up and down his cock. John had clearly been doing this for a while before he woke up, long enough to get himself pretty thoroughly turned on already, breathing hard and rubbing his own hard-on against Rodney's thigh, but when Rodney woke all the way up and said his name, John went crazy, shoving and kissing him frantically like he couldn't care less about morning mouth or anything else.
John's hand was slick -- obviously he'd remembered that Rodney had lube -- and even through this frenzy of kissing and rubbing, he kept his hand moving on Rodney's cock nice and slow, nice and easy. God, it was amazing; John's face was morning-rough to touch, soft-mouthed with arousal, and it was just so good to be doing this with someone who took such obvious pleasure in it, who was this hot for him in particular, even if it was only because he was not in his right mind.
"Rodney," John groaned, deep and husky, and buried his face in Rodney's neck. "Oh, shit, I can't -- tell me not to come."
God, he was that close and Rodney hadn't done anything but rub his back and be grateful. That was amazingly hot, too. "Don't come," Rodney said obediently, and then, "No, hang on, I want -- here." He pulled John on top of him. "No, kneel up -- yeah, good, good."
John knelt over him, balancing on one hand and somehow still stroking Rodney's cock with the other -- well, he already knew the guy could juggle. Rodney looked up at him, blissed out face and head hanging down, cock curving out from his body and shaking with every breath -- and then he wrapped his hand around it and said, "Come now."
"Jesus!" John opened his eyes with a shocked look, and his cock jerked and pulsed in Rodney's hand, and the first jet striped Rodney's body from navel to collarbone. John looked at Rodney's face, and down at his own cock still dripping all over him, and his cock jerked again, like his orgasm just started up again in the middle. Like marking Rodney turned John on as much as it did Rodney.
"Oh, my god," he said as it wound down, "You wanted that? Rodney, you liked that?"
"Hell yes," Rodney said.
John's hand, which had never entirely stopped moving, tightened and redoubled its speed.
"You come on me now," John said, and Rodney obeyed like he was the one with the virus.
Afterwards John followed him into the shower without a word. He washed Rodney's back for him, and then washed Rodney's hair for him, and then Rodney washed John's hair. There was a hell of a lot of it.
"Were you this coordinated before?" Rodney asked when John was rubbing the back of his neck with one hand and scratching his back in an entirely different rhythm with the other.
"No, I don't think so," John said.
"Huh. Maybe we should see if we could get me one of those. I always wanted to be ambidextrous." He looked at John consideringly. "Wonder if you'll keep it when the antibodies kick in?"
John looked away, like that line of thought made him uncomfortable, so Rodney thought as hard as he could about breakfast to distract him.
It was amazing what it did for his general sense of well-being, starting his day like that, even though John and Carson together had conspired to cut off his supply of etel. Even so, he felt relaxed and alert and full of energy and creativity. John looked good, too, like either he too was doing better for sex and company and lots of touching, or maybe he just felt better because Rodney felt better. He still tagged along, but Rodney was getting used to it; he was pretty good company, and it was kind of a kick to give up frowning at an equation and say, "Hey, find the flaws in this plan, will you," and have John smirk, "Well, nothing, if you really want your pressure differential to be 13/5 rather than 5/13."
Elizabeth and Carson and the rest were still giving Rodney suspicious looks, until finally Rodney towed John over and said, "Hey, tell Elizabeth and Carson if I'm mistreating you or not."
"Well, he's killing me with sarcasm," John said, "just like everybody else, but I'm OK as long as he doesn't sing."
And Rodney, who unlike some people could actually carry a tune, said, "You should be so lucky," and smirked at Elizabeth and Carson. Vindicated.
That night after dinner, when Rodney was frowning over his laptop and rubbing the back of his neck, John said, "Hey, I can give you a backrub now."
It was as good as the first one, and then it was better, and then it was really amazingly good, and then somehow or other he had his fingers in John's ass and John was panting, slack-mouthed, grabbing the sheets and saying, "Fuck me," over and over like they were the only two words he knew.
He knew the theory, but he made John promise to tell him if anything hurt, made it an order. And John grumbled, and sighed, and then began to bite out a high-speed rattle of words, all together without pausing -- "It hurts don't stop! It hurts I like it! God, Rodney, please --"
Afterwards, blown past 'relaxed' and out the other side into 'manic,' Rodney slicked his hand through the come-sticky hair on John's belly and said, "I want you to do that to me. How soon can you do that to me? How soon can you get hard again?" and John looked at him like he was being a big moron and said, "As soon as you tell me to."
"Carson thinks I ought to be more upset about being stuck back here on indefinite standby," John said. There were a dozen khama nuts left; he divided them into two piles and pushed the larger pile across the bed to Rodney. "I told him that a normal military operation doesn't send out its leader and its top brain on exploratory missions, but he didn't seem reassured."
He put his hand on the back of Rodney's neck, and Rodney leaned into the warm touch. Rodney tried to believe John did all this snuggling for his own satisfaction, but he suspected John had figured out that he was touch-deprived, which was just way too pathetic. So mostly he tried not to think about it. "I can't imagine why not. That's so characteristic of your normal way of thinking."
"The virus is probably making sure I don't worry about anything that doesn't involve keeping you happy." He said it like it ought to make Rodney feel better.
"Rodney. Rodney, yeah. Don't ever stop."
And that was the problem, really. It hit Rodney suddenly that for more than a week now he'd been living like he didn't ever have to stop, like he could have John's cock sliding over his tongue for the rest of his life.
It had been a lot more fun before he thought of that.
John was squirming, twitching, and now he started making distressed noises; the virus made him want to do what Rodney wanted, but the things Rodney wanted were in contradiction with each other. He wanted John to come, wanted him not to, wanted the taste and feel of it, wanted to keep doing this for hours, wanted John soft-eyed and sated and grateful, wanted John hard and desperate and begging for him -- all day, all the time, all of it right now because any minute now the stupid thing could wear off and John wouldn't want this then, and --
"Rodney, no, no --" John couldn't read his mind, he knew, but he could feel his distress, and he pulled free of Rodney's mouth -- god, he had to be about two seconds from coming, and it was amazing that he'd had the strength to pull back, pull out of Rodney's mouth, go against both of the things Rodney wanted so he could drop down on the floor and give Rodney the one thing he needed, which was comfort.
"If you didn't want --" John broke off. He had to be confused; he'd be able to feel how Rodney had loved it, how Rodney wanted it back even now, and yet this unnamable other emotion had made him stop. "If you don't like it --"
"I love it," Rodney said, burying his face in John's neck and clinging embarrassingly. "I want to suck you for ten years, day and night --" John's hips shoved his cock against Rodney's stomach as he moved. "I just -- I don't want to stop."
"You don't have to stop." John kissed his face, over and over.
"I will," Rodney said. "When it -- when the thing --"
John's face blanked, the way it always did when the subject came up, and it was as much hating that expression as wanting the sex that made Rodney shove him down on his back and take his cock in his mouth again, this time with pure, single-minded purpose: Give it to me. Give me everything.
The sound John made as he came was almost enough to drive that look out of Rodney's head.
"Will you for crying out loud eat something that didn't come wrapped in foil?"
"Yes, yes," Rodney said absently, not looking up from his laptop screen. "I'm familiar with this dynamic, where you yell at me because you love me."
When John went utterly silent behind him, it took Rodney a second to even remember what he'd said. And then the figures on the screen suddenly lost meaning.
John, when Rodney turned to look at him, had an almost comical expression of guilt, like a kid caught sneaking pie.
Rodney went cold inside. "Oh, no," he said.
"But." He wanted to say more, Rodney could tell, but he couldn't because Rodney didn't want to hear it.
"No, no, no, no, no, no."
John pressed his lips together, doing that righteous-soldier thing he usually saved for higher-ranking officers, when there were any. "You can't tell me not to feel --"
"I can tell you not to mistake compulsion for emotion," Rodney snapped.
"Sorry to cause you such trauma." John actually had the temerity to look hurt. He met Rodney's gaze and then looked away over Rodney's left shoulder, and, god, Rodney hated to see the military body language trotted out to deal with him. "I'm something to you. I can feel it."
"Feel this, then," Rodney said, dangerously close to hysteria. "How the hell am I supposed to have that and then not have it any more? Do you have the slightest notion what that's going to be like? No, you hadn't thought that far ahead, had you?"
It made his head hurt, and for once John didn't step forward to rub his temples for him. Realizing how he'd gotten used to that made his stomach hurt, too.
"You -- just -- keep it to yourself," he said, more calmly, because knowing you'd completely and thoroughly screwed yourself, comprehensively stomped all over your dreams, was the sort of thing that made it pointless to get upset. There came a time when it was just too late to panic. "Whatever emotion it is that the alien supervirus is simulating, just keep it to yourself."
And because Rodney really, really wanted John to go away, John did.
After thirty minutes -- minutes that Rodney spent staring blankly at the laptop screen, unable even to remember what he'd been working on -- he was back, and this time he was heavily armed and had strapped on his "cover me; I'm going in" expression, all narrow eyes and pinched mouth.
"Come on," he said, in that voice that even the scientists obeyed. "We're going back to Suthong."
John walked right past the welcoming committee of floppy-haired owners without a glance, with Rodney and Teyla and Ford almost running to keep up with him. He headed for the government building again, but instead of going in the front door, he led them around the side. In the back, sure enough, there was a much less fancy structure full of people with tattoos between their eyebrows.
John made a stay-back motion and approached a middle-aged man in colorless homespun. He might even have been the same one who'd been ordered to be the subject of Carson's medical tests the last time; they all had the same short-cropped hair, the same shapeless, colorless clothes, the same utter lack of facial expression, and it was hard to tell them apart except by sex. Rodney remembered seeing masters shout orders in random directions and then wait to be approached. Maybe they couldn't even recognize their own.
It would be impossible to lose John in the crowd; among these drably dressed people he was dark and shiny and dangerous as a knife in the linen drawer. Rodney couldn't take his eyes off him. He'd had that sleeping beside him. How could he not have known that it would end with his flesh stripped from his bones?
The first man shook his head at John, and the second. Of course; they had to obey their masters, and would defer to anyone's master, but they were under no obligation to another slave.
"Perhaps I should --" Teyla began.
"Wait," Ford said, never taking his eyes off John. "The major's got a plan."
"How do you know?" Rodney asked him.
"The major's always got a plan."
And sure enough, John had given up on the household slaves and had collared three enormously muscled young men, clearly some sort of laborers. These men didn't seem to have any sort of orders not to talk to him. They were all talking at once, interrupting each other, even shoving each other for a turn.
John's face got more and more forbidding, his body got more and more still, until even Teyla looked wary, and Ford shot Rodney an uncertain look. The big slaves, though, weren't the least bit intimidated. They went away laughing, and John came back with his arms swinging easily, and Rodney wondered when he'd gotten so attuned to his body language that he could see the anger in that.
"Come on," John said, and they went wordlessly back the way they'd come, and it wasn't until John and Ford were strapped in up front that he said over his shoulder, "It's the goddamned nuts," and then none of them said anything else until they were back in the city.
Stay away, Rodney was thinking with all his conscious mind, but when the door of his room hissed open, he wasn't really surprised to learn that his subconscious desires had overruled him.
John sat down on the cot and stared at the far wall, not looking at him or talking to him but still occupying so much of his mind that he couldn't think of anything else. After a while, John said in a weary voice, "Do you think you could try to want just one thing? It's kind of exhausting."
Rodney spread his hands helplessly. He wanted it never to have happened. He wanted it to go on happening. He couldn't see that he'd done anything wrong, and yet he wanted John to forgive him, and he wanted John to be angry with him so he could be angry back instead of feeling guilty.
He wanted John's hands on him one more time.
He didn't want something else to be sorry for tomorrow.
"All right, look," John said, and he came over and sat beside Rodney on the bed and pulled him down into his arms. Rodney swallowed hard and burrowed into that embrace, pressing his face against the rough surface of John's shirt.
After a moment John reached down and moved just enough to get the button out from under Rodney's cheek.
He hadn't seen John eat a khama nut since this morning at breakfast. If he hadn't had a snack later, the virus might be gone by morning. Maybe his bond to Rodney would loosen little by little. First he had to be in earshot, and then he could be in another room, and then he could be on a whole other planet. First this was love, and then just a nice warm feeling, and then a period of delusion that he'd look back on with disgust, like an ill-advised drunken pickup only without the mercy of a fuzzy memory.
Or maybe it would disappear all at once.
John's arms tightened around him, maybe responding to Rodney's thoughts, maybe to his own. "Rodney," he said. "I think I -- I need to be someplace else when it happens."
"Yeah," Rodney said, relieved -- god, he couldn't stand to have to see John's face at the moment when the virus stopped making John love him. "You're going to need some time to think, when it -- when you're not --"
John interrupted him with a kiss, a long soft pressure of lips. Rodney closed his eyes, and sighed, and felt John sighing, too.
"I just hope," Rodney said, pressing his face to John's, "that you'll still want to be friends."
"Yeah," John said. "I hope so, too."
He got as far as the closed door, and then hovered there. "You still have to send me," he said in a scratchy voice.
Rodney wanted to stride across the room and kiss him one last time, but he didn't. "It will probably let me confine you," he said. "Go -- go to your room and stay there. Until you -- until you can come out."
"Yeah," John said, "that works."
Rodney stared at the door for a long time after it closed. Then he got up and washed his face and went and stood outside Elizabeth's room until she opened the door.
She didn't ask him any questions, and she didn't tell him everything was going to be fine. She gave him a hug, which surprised him, and then she rested her hand on his shoulder.
"I'm not denying that Major Sheppard may have a difficult time with this when he's himself again," she said. "But I think in time he'll come to appreciate how hard you worked not to take advantage of the situation."
You have no idea, Rodney thought, and went back to his empty room, and glared at the cot, and went to sleep like a person falling off a cliff.
He woke up alone, scratchy-eyed and headachy as if he'd stayed up all night instead of falling asleep at nine-thirty on a pillow that still smelled like John.
He was still lying there, trying to think of a good reason to get up, when the door opened, and before it had even finished shutting, John was across the room and leaping on him with enough force to shake the bed. He'd been jogging or sparring or doing something that left his hair and shirt damp with sweat. The mark was gone from his forehead. He smelled incredible. He had a big, slightly bloodthirsty grin on his face.
"What -- are you --"
John ground down against him, and Rodney momentarily lost the power of speech.
"I don't have any compulsion to please you any more," John said, with a little shimmy of his hips that pleased Rodney very much. "So I think maybe it's time you did a few things to please me, for a change."
Relief made Rodney lightheaded, or maybe it was the smell of fresh sweat. "Like keep you and the rest of your city alive in a dozen ways every day?" he said, and his hands on John's thighs weren't shaking at all. "Or maybe follow you into mortal danger every few days instead of staying in my nice safe lab where there aren't any mysterious alien pseudoviruses and mind-altering snack foods?"
"Not what I had in mind." John went on twisting restlessly against him as Rodney's hands came up without his conscious intent, cupping John's ass. "Unless maybe you only want someone who can come on command?"
And he stopped moving, and Rodney blinked and realized it hadn't been a rhetorical question. He slid one hand around to the front of John's thigh and then up into the leg of his shorts, rubbing the hair against the grain, and John's cock jumped when he touched it. "You sure you can't?" He could feel his grin getting bigger and stupider with every passing second.
John was smiling, too. He rocked into Rodney's hand, and Rodney's cock rubbed against his ass, and he took a fast breath and said, "I can still juggle."
Oh, god. Rodney hauled him down and said into his open mouth, "Maybe you could teach me."
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Back to in medias Res
July 4, 2005