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Term of Service

by Resonant

Rodney stepped through the gate and stopped short, so that Teyla jostled behind him, making a questioning noise. He walked forward absently, unable to take his eyes off the view from across the water. Beside him, Sheppard stared.

Jesus, a skyline. And not a dead one like on Sateda, either. Lights were going on and off over there on the other island. There was a small aircraft taking off and two more landing. And since this island was barely big enough for the gate, and deserted except for the Atlantis contingent, that trainlike thing that was on its way across the bridge was undoubtedly coming to meet the four of them.

"Doesn't look like they've been culled recently," Ronon said in an awestruck voice.

"Or, actually, ever," Rodney said. He looked stupidly up at the sky for a second, and then did what he should have done in the first place: got out his data pad and checked the energy readings. "The readings are consistent with the sort of shielding we have in the jumpers, but at a much greater distance."

"Teyla, were the Athosians in contact with these folks?" Sheppard said.

"Not for many years," Teyla said. "The Baj came to this planet from Atlantis many generations ago. They are said to be technologically advanced and quite friendly, and their society is generally very informal. But this island is the subject of many taboos. We must be careful."

Rodney looked across the water at the skyline. There were other cities dimly visible on other islands. "For a chance at whatever's keeping the Wraith away from a population this size, I'll follow any superstition they hand me."

The gate sat on the edge of a huge circular plaza of white brick, dazzling in the afternoon sun, with a pattern of small indentations all along the rim. The train thing, which was rounded and shiny and a rather tasteless shade of green, stopped at the opposite side of the plaza, letting out three people in pants and flowing tops. Only one of them was armed in any obvious way; Rodney took that as a good sign.

Teyla went straight to an older woman who had an elaborately knotted cord around her neck -- some sign of leadership, maybe, the local equivalent of a crown -- and started giving the standard speech. Rodney listened for a bit, but he'd heard it a million times. Peaceful intentions, trade and share information, blah blah blah. He wanted another look at the energy signature of the shield.

He pulled out the data pad, trying to be subtle about it for about fifteen seconds and then forgetting all about that, because he was beginning to formulate the very interesting hypothesis that the shield was outside the atmosphere, which would be amazing.

There were also some very interesting, and possibly not unrelated, energy readings coming from the other side of the gate.

"But before we discuss details, you have a claim on our hospitality." The woman with the rope -- whose title, creatively enough, seemed to be "knotwoman" -- took a thing that looked like a giant blue jelly bean out of her pocket, slid the two halves aside, and revealed something that was obviously some kind of communication device. A few minutes later, another train car arrived, this one magenta and full of people carrying boxes. They started setting up tables and spread out food and drink, right there in the plaza. Tables, but no chairs; apparently it was cocktail-party time on Ara lo Bajo.

Rodney put the pad away willingly enough. He wanted to get a taste of the things that looked like sausage in pastry. Life was a matter of priorities.

The sun was hot. The food was salty. All the drinks were heavily sweetened. He turned to the nearest native with a tray and said, "Excuse me, but could I just get a glass of water?"

There was the kind of sudden hush that you got in Westerns when the stranger walked into the saloon.

Rodney and Sheppard exchanged a glance. The knotwoman made an impatient gesture, and one of the tray-bearing people went away in a hurry.

He came back with a tray, bearing a saucer, bearing a very fancy vessel of water the size of an espresso cup.

"Uh-oh," Rodney said.

"Your planet short of water?" Ronon asked.

The knotwoman gestured at the sea. "As you see, we are surrounded by it," she said. "But our supply of potable water is limited, yes."

The water in the cup was dreadful, sulfurous stuff, but Rodney finished every drop while the serving guy watched thirstily.

Teyla took the opportunity to shift attention away from Rodney's faux pas and restart the negotiations at the same time: "We have an ample supply of fresh water, as well as the technology to remove minerals from seawater. Perhaps we might offer that for trade."

The knotwoman was probably a very good poker player, because she acted as though Teyla had offered secondhand tires. "Perhaps," she said. "And what are you seeking in return?"

From over here, Rodney could see that Ronon was half keeping an eye on Teyla and half focusing on a native woman with long red braids who was running her hand up his forearm; Rodney couldn't tell whether he was trying to encourage her or discourage her, but he certainly wasn't participating in the trade effort. Most of the natives weren't paying any attention to the negotiations, either, but just wandering around, chatting, eating, looking at the scenery. When one of them got out his own jellybean thing and started writing on the screen with a stylus, Rodney took that as permission to get his data pad out again.

"What are you doing?" Sheppard looked over his shoulder.

"Sh. Trying to get more information. There's a strange energy reading on the other side of the gate."

"Strange how?"

"Strange like a cloak."

Sheppard's eyes lit up. Anything worth cloaking was worth looking at. "Think Teyla'd mind if we checked it out a little?"

Possible cloak. But: heavy taboos. But: possible cloak. "I don't know," Rodney said. "Maybe we should ask her first."

They both looked over at Teyla, who was smiling a wide smile and waving her hands in the air. "Wouldn't want to interrupt her," Sheppard said. "We'll just walk a little bit over there and see what we can find out." When Rodney still hesitated, he said, "Come on, Rodney. It'll be fine," and Rodney, whose objections had never really been a match for his curiosity, gave in.

On the other side of the gate they found a deep pool, perfectly round and bigger than the gate itself, with concentric circles that looked like stairs descending into the greenish water. "Doesn't look too important," Rodney said. "Unless that's fresh water."

Sheppard dipped his fingers in the water and stuck them in his mouth. Rodney winced at the thought of the molds and other microorganisms that probably lived and excreted there. "Nope," Sheppard said.

The zeta waves were like nothing Rodney had ever seen before, and the source was inside the pool. "And I swear it looks like a cloak," he said to Sheppard. "I can't imagine the energy it's expending to keep up a cloak under the water --"

Between one word and the next, they were surrounded by grave-looking natives.

"Uh-oh," Sheppard said.

The knotwoman glared at both of them, and now four of the people flanking her had gotten weapons from someplace. "You said your team was aware of the sacredness of this place," she spat at Teyla.

"Wait, I never touched the stuff!" Rodney said. "Sheppard's the one who has no sense of hygiene."

"By setting foot in this area, you have violated our rules," the knotwoman said. "This trespass may not go unpunished."

"Uh, we didn't really mean to trespass," Sheppard said with the smarmy apparent dishonesty that he always got when he was most sincere. "Maybe you should put up a sign or something, a rope --"

"I fear that this offense makes trade between our peoples impossible," the knotwoman said. "I regret to relinquish the water-treatment technology, and I know you were eager to trade for the orbital shielding and the energy device, but such a severe violation of --"

"Orbital shielding?" Sheppard said, just as Rodney said, "Energy device?"

" -- must necessarily invalidate all our previous agreements --"

"I understand your anger," Teyla said, shooting Rodney and Sheppard a look that said that, yes, she understood it very well, "but we are most eager to trade with you. Surely there is some way of making amends? What punishment is meted out when your own people commit such a trespass?"

"Our penalty for such an offense would be a term of service," the knotwoman said. "One hundred days as the personal servant of one of our people."

"We could do that," Sheppard said.

"What? Doing what? Breaking rocks? Working in the mines?"

There were chuckles among the Baj. "The service is of a more ... personal nature," the knotwoman said.

"What? Cleaning? Cooking? Oh, god, please tell me it's not childcare --"

"Oh," Sheppard said in a voice that sounded like he was smothering a laugh. "Personal."

Rodney glanced at Ronon, who was smirking, and at Teyla, who was doing that thing she did when she wanted to smirk but considered it impolite. The penny dropped. "Wait, you don't mean -- oh, surely not. I mean, things like that happen on Star Trek with distressing frequency, but surely even in Pegasus that's too weird to --"

"Personal," Sheppard said.

"We will need to bring our leader here to discuss this," Teyla said.

"We can't ask this of you," Elizabeth said for the fourth time.

For the fourth time, Sheppard answered, "Satellite-based planetwide shielding against the Wraith. Plus a ZPM with about a quarter of a charge on it. Plus a chance for Rodney to pick someone's brain about the obviously Ancient cloaking technology they're using at the bottom of that sacred pool."

"It's completely unreasonable," Elizabeth said. "Surely you could do light housework or factory work or --"

"You think that would be better?" Rodney said.

"Come on," Sheppard said. "How bad could it be? Three months as gigolos for a couple of homely Baj women? Sounds like a pretty easy sentence to me. They could have put us in jail."

Elizabeth looked at Rodney.

"It's a little weird, yes, but you heard their conditions. They can't hurt us; we can say no to any particular task we find repugnant. And the rewards are fantastic -- have you looked at these energy readings?"

Elizabeth smoothed her hair in a distracted way. "You're telling me that you would sell your bodies for curiosity, orbital shielding, and a quarter-charged ZPM?"

Rodney and Sheppard looked at each other.

"Well, yeah," Sheppard said. "Who wouldn't?"

Rodney's contract came up for auction first, and there was a brief and flattering two-way bidding war. When the crowd parted, he expected someone elderly and ill-tempered, like the knotwoman, so when he spotted his new employer -- fortyish, small and curvy, with a short cloud of pale curly hair and an ironic twinkle in her eye -- he said the first ill-considered thing that came into his head, which was, "I wouldn't think you needed to pay for sex."

Instead of throwing him back on the second-highest bidder, she winked at him and said, "I pay to get my way and be left alone afterwards."

"Please tell me you're not a scientist," he said fervently.

"I'm a noble," she said. "We're not allowed to be anything. Kellen lo Saj," she added with the half-bow that they did instead of shaking hands. "Kellen to you unless you piss me off. Shh -- the bidding's starting for your friend."

Sheppard had a leather jacket on, and naturally the bidding went on forever, getting louder and louder, until Kellen got out one of those jellybean PDAs and got involved in some project that she wouldn't let Rodney look at. By the end, there were actual screams, and Sheppard was getting that mildly alarmed look that female attention always brought out.

Finally the bidding ended with a ring of a gong and a haughty laugh of triumph, and then the winner stepped forward and Rodney's jaw dropped, because she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen in three dimensions.

She was a tall, proud girl with black hair and big blue eyes and the body of a Victoria's Secret model. She looked nineteen or twenty. She was nearly as tall as Sheppard, and when she stepped up beside him, there was a little murmur in the crowd at how well matched they were. Sheppard looked around, like he wasn't sure whether he was more attracted or nervous, but the girl took no notice. Maybe she was used to crowds saying "Ooh" everywhere she went.

"Lija lo Mallor," Kellen said. The venom in her tone surprised him; she'd seemed such an easygoing type. He glanced at her and found her eyes narrowed. "You'll want to keep an eye on your friend. That one's trouble."

But Lija had linked her arm through Sheppard's and was looking up at him with a liquid Bambi gaze. He looked down at her and patted her hand reassuringly.

Rodney was disappointed to find Kellen so subject to female jealousy, but he supposed nobody was perfect.

Stupidly, the Baj apparently hadn't figured out a way to get both vertical and horizontal movement into a single transporter; it took two separate ones to get them to Kellen's apartment, which was large and messy. She waved him to the couch, poked around on her data jellybean, and then opened a little mini-transporter and took out two cups of something hot and tea-like. "OK, let's go over the terms of the contract before it all gets awkward." It was odd to have everything spelled out in such detail, but repetition took the embarrassment out of it pretty quickly. Turned out he was on the hook for "body services" -- which might mean anything from sex to a foot massage -- up to four nights in a row, unless he was ill or otherwise incapacitated. No escorting Kellen to public events ("Unless you specially like that sort of thing?" "God, no." "Oh, good.") or entertaining her friends. Any other services compensated according to a standard table, payable either in processor time or in trade goods.

"Wait a minute. Other services, what other services?"

"Well, what can you do?" Kellen said. "Can you cook? Type? Hang shelves? Sing? Read aloud? Proofread documents? Sew? Figure out how to extend the battery life on a data device? Wrap New Year gifts?"

"You have a weak battery? Have you checked whether you're charging with clean power?"

"See? Everyone's got skills." And then she stood up, took his mostly-full teacup out of his hand, and led him back to the bedroom for his first performance as a sex slave.

It was -- nice, actually.

Kellen wasn't the dewy-eyed supermodel that Lija was, but she was very far from being hard on the eyes. And she clearly found Rodney reasonably attractive (which proved definitively that his problem really had been his mouth all along); he didn't have to win her or impress her.

He'd always hated not knowing what to do, but he'd hated it almost as much being told what to do, because it was unpleasant to have a woman look you in the eye and say, in so many words, "You're really not doing it for me." But when Kellen said, "Easy -- back and forth now, just -- oh, yes, keep doing that for a while --" it was like saying to a barber, "A little shorter on the neck." There was no judgment implied. She was just getting what she'd paid for.

He made her come four times. With his fingers, first, and then twice with his mouth, and then she pushed him upright at the head of the bed and sat down on him like an armchair, pulling both of his hands around to her breasts. When she was done, she leaned back, drowning him in the nutmeggy scent of her hair, and purred out, "You, too, if you like," and he actually laughed, and then she obligingly wiggled her beautiful ass and his long-deferred arousal finally caught up with him in an amazingly lengthy orgasm.

His satisfaction was about half sexual and the other half the clean tired end-of-day pleasure of a job well done.

When Rodney went back to their shared quarters, the first thing Sheppard said was, "You OK?"

"Yes, having sex for the first time in untold years didn't do me any damage," he said, but he was too relaxed to give the question the sarcasm it deserved. "How are you surviving the trauma?"

"Fine," Sheppard said shortly.

Just like Sheppard, Rodney thought drowsily. If he didn't want someone prying into his private business, he should have thought of that before he started playing twenty questions.

Rodney had dire visions of what sort of wardrobe might be provided for a pleasure servant, but when he opened the closet in his room, it turned out that the only difference between these and the clothes he normally wore was that all of these were soft -- not soft like velvet but soft like a favorite sweatshirt two washes before it finally gives out and is reduced to threads. It might be worth it to work a couple of extra months just for the secret of that technology.

There was no kitchen in their shared quarters, but there were data screens in both bedrooms, and another screen sort of embedded in the arm of one of the chairs, and with a little poking around, Rodney discovered a directory labeled "Termsman/Termswoman Expenses" with a form marked "Order Necessities." Even when he got it narrowed down to edible necessities, he was somewhat hampered by not knowing what anything was called; he supposed that "panga" meant something to Baj the way "egg foo young" meant something to him, but it wasn't very useful for the uninitiated.

He clicked away at it with the stylus, and after about six clicks, the computer yielded to his perfectly reasonable desire for context and provided a sort of glossary.

Twenty minutes after he placed his order, a panel he hadn't noticed slid open -- his own personal transporter-slash-dumbwaiter. Inside was something he'd thought would be like oatmeal but which turned out to be closer to tabbouleh, several kinds of non-citrus fruit, something that looked tantalizingly like waffles but smelled strongly of onions, and some more of those pastries with sausage. It probably said something about his life that this wasn't the strangest breakfast he'd ever had.

That night Kellen taught Rodney an amazing trick with the knuckles of two fingers, which he sincerely hoped would improve his standing among the women of Atlantis when he got back. Then he showed her how to program her doors with different levels of security for different identity signatures, which improved his standing with her enough that she gave him an ID that he could use to unlock some technical data on the computer. He went back to quarters at nine eager to share his triumph, but when he found the room empty, he started exploring his new data options and discovered a really fascinatingly wrongheaded approach to experimental energy generation, and spent a long happy evening demolishing it.

When Sheppard ambled in, it was nearly dawn. He was wearing eyeliner, and there was glitter in his hair.

Next morning, Rodney began exploring the native-sea-life portion of the breakfast menu.

Lija's deal with Sheppard apparently included her picking out his food for him. The dishes she'd chosen were all the same shade of pale green: bread, fruit, vegetables, cheese, and something like sorbet only spicy instead of sweet. The servings were small and delicately garnished, and the plates were beautiful and fragile.

When Sheppard had eaten it all, he looked longingly at Rodney's plate until Rodney gave him all the rest of the shrimpy-scallopy things.

It wasn't that there was nothing in the databases about the pool on the gate island; there was plenty, but some of it was mythology, and some of it claimed to be history or science but was mythology just the same. Reading between the lines, Rodney gathered that sea level had risen over the years, so that what was now a pool had once been a cave. The cave had been sacred to a now-defunct goddess cult involving fertility, so Rodney suspected there was a spring inside.

Whatever it was, the Baj weren't using it now. "They take you to sit on the steps and dip your feet in the water if you have a long illness," Kellen said with the unconcern of the naturally robust. "Otherwise everybody stays away from it. I've always thought it was creepy. You can't see the bottom."

"I'd think you'd be at least a little bit curious," Rodney said. "If it really is a spring down there, it could save you people a lot of trouble."

"If you want to know about it that badly, you could try persuading me to unlock another security level for you," Kellen said.

Rodney gave a small tug to the belt of the robe she always wore when she wanted sex rather than engineering from him. "Your wish is my command."

"Of course it is," she said, grinning.

When Sheppard's door was open and his bed was still empty when Rodney got up, Rodney shook his head, and ate breakfast, and sent the dishes back up. When Sheppard still hadn't appeared, Rodney lost himself in an overview of Baj cloaking technology, which he was using to try to sneak up on the mystery of the pool from a different direction.

About ten-thirty, Sheppard staggered in. He was streaked with sweat, his newly cropped hair spiky with it, and he smelled strongly of something that wasn't any smokeable drug Rodney was familiar with but was still definitely a smokeable drug of some sort.

"Dance contest," he said, and collapsed on the curving couch with his head on Rodney's lap.

"You have got to be kidding me," Rodney said, but Sheppard had fallen asleep.

Sheppard was not a toucher, even within the very narrow limits accepted for military guys. The backslap, the shoulder squeeze, even the occasional hug to celebrate cheating death, were all acceptable by the code of movie Westerns that he'd apparently memorized, but he himself had a force field around him.

So at first Rodney assumed that Sheppard had used him as a pillow by accident, or hadn't noticed he was doing it.

But here he would sling an arm around Rodney's neck, or choose the terminal next to his so their knees touched.

Evidently being a slave had a certain relaxing influence.

Sheppard got more and more silent as the days went on. Lija had given him a wardrobe completely in black, which suited him pretty well, except that they were all cut like something out of Sigfried and Roy.

She also pierced both his ears, probably with a rusty needle, though Sheppard wouldn't give any details. Anyway, the lobes stayed swollen and red for days, until Rodney asked Kellen for some ointment, which made her mouth go tight. "Lija," she said, and wouldn't say anything else.

"I don't have enough hands," Sheppard said later; he was holding a silver mirror in one hand, and with the other hand he appeared to be trying to put ointment on his earlobes without actually touching his earlobes.

"Don't, stop, stop, you're wasting it. It's all going to wind up in your hair." Rodney took the tube out of his hand -- Healio, it said, with a picture of a smiling animal with a big ragged scab where one eye should be -- and began dabbing the stuff on. "Why didn't you stop her?"

"Have you tried saying no to anything yet?"

"What do you mean, tried? They're not supposed to punish you; if they don't honor your request, you can issue a complaint."

"She doesn't refuse. She pouts." Sheppard's skin was hot, and taut with swelling, and didn't really feel like an ear at all, and Sheppard sighed, "Ahh," and closed his eyes as the cool stuff touched it.

"Jesus, does she want you to die of blood poisoning or something? Do we even know what's in these stupid earrings? Other side, come on, there's no time to lose before the infection goes straight to your heart."

When Rodney went to put the cap back on the tube, Sheppard put his hand on Rodney's wrist. "Rodney," he said, "thanks," with his eyes all crinkled, and Rodney said, "Oh, well, it's no trouble. I'm sure you'd do the same for me if you happened to notice before I died of gangrene," because it was only just occurring to him that you never saw Sheppard smile, here.

After a while, Lija got bored with choosing fancy meals for Sheppard, and after that it was the same thing at every meal: some slices of roasted meat with a spicy chutney sort of sauce, cooked vegetables, a breadlike thing that resembled a soft pretzel coiled into a figure eight, and a fruit salad.

"Here, trade with me," Rodney said. "You must be getting bored."

"I'm military, McKay," Sheppard said, but he took Rodney's plate of white fish and spicy greens awfully fast.

The shared quarters were pretty sizeable -- a nice sitting room with their bedrooms opening off either side -- but at first Rodney had been worried that he'd have trouble getting any work done with Sheppard always hanging around. As it turned out, though, he had the whole place to himself a lot of the time; Lija liked to take Sheppard clubbing, and he'd stagger home at midmorning and sleep for most of the day.

And occasionally she would dismiss him, and he would arrive in quarters to find that she'd left a message demanding that he come back up to give her one more goodnight kiss.

"It's like having a really high-maintenance girlfriend," Rodney said.

"More like being a show poodle," Sheppard said, unhooking a chain of tiny bells from his left ear hoop.

Rodney wasn't homesick. He didn't really miss Atlantis here, any more than he'd missed Earth while he was on Atlantis. Occasionally he'd get a craving for some food or music that he couldn't get here, but between Kellen's assignments and his own research into the cloak in the pool, he had enough interesting problems to occupy his mind. He was a little ashamed of how rarely he thought about his other life.

Nothing here was urgent or dangerous, which made it kind of boring compared to life with the SGC. But regular sex made up for a lot.

One morning Sheppard arrived at the same time breakfast did, shouldering past Rodney so fast that he tilted the tray and sent half the little yellow berries flying. He didn't turn at Rodney's exclamation, just grabbed the juice pitcher and drained it.

"Among the civilized worlds, we have a device called a drinking glass," and then Rodney fell silent, because the petal-like sleeves of Sheppard's shirt had fallen back and Rodney had gotten a glimpse of his rope-burned wrists. "What in God's name has she done to you?"

Sheppard didn't answer, too busy refilling the pitcher with the stale water that came from the tap and draining it again. The other wrist was even worse, and Rodney could see a suspicious streak of shadow under his adam's apple.

"Sheppard. What the hell did she do to you?" The shirt was made of a slick dark fabric that wouldn't have shown blood even if it had been dripping with it, and Rodney was reluctant to find out by touching him and seeing if he screamed.

"I'm fine," Sheppard said. He wiped his mouth and chin sloppily with his hand. He was panting a little from drinking so fast.

"Show me your back."

Sheppard's hand made a quick gesture toward the hem of his shirt and then went still again. "She didn't flog me, McKay. She just sort of forgot about me."

"How do you get your wrists rubbed raw just from being forgotten?"

"It was the way she -- look, just, it's not important."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "If it breaks the skin, it's important."

"She had me all, you know, tied up," and it was amazing that after all this time of being an honest-to-god sex slave, Sheppard still seemed to find this stuff embarrassing to talk about, "and then she got a call and went in the other room with it, and then she and whoever she was talking to started arguing about some band -- look, it was stupid, it doesn't matter."

"And you didn't scream bloody murder?" Rodney bent down and tugged on the loose leg of Sheppard's pants. There were bruises and scrapes around his hairy ankle, too.

"Oh, god, no," Sheppard said. "If I talk back, she gets all upset. Sometimes she cries." He shrugged. "Anyhow, she remembered me, eventually."

Rodney thought about those two pitchers, but he didn't say anything. Lija wasn't the only one who knew how to punish people for talking back. "This girl ought to buy stock in Healio," he said instead.

The tube had gotten shoved into a handy little compartment under the lid of one of the end tables, along with napkins and pencils and anything else small and frequently used; Rodney made a triumphant noise and straightened up, ready to hand it to Sheppard, but Sheppard was holding out both wrists.

The damage wasn't that awful, but it would be uncomfortable for a couple of days, and he really hoped Lija wouldn't be in the mood for any more bondage before it healed. "Serve her right if she breaks you," he said bitterly, turning Sheppard's hand over so he could spread ointment over the inside of his wrist. "Then she won't have anybody to play with."

"I'm pretty sure she could afford to replace me," Sheppard said.

As a noble, Kellen's official role was to set an example of honorable life for the masses. "If the programmers in the capital and the seaweed farmers in the provinces find any inspiration in my example, then they must be very easily inspired," she said.

Unofficially she had long since gotten bored with leading a lovely life and now focused instead on trying to systematize the records of the noble quarter -- including what had until recently been the most extensive library in the city and the records of many nobles who practiced various kinds of amateur science. This put her in the ideal position to aid in Rodney's research, and also to commiserate with his complaints as to the miserable state of the recordkeeping; there was a certain bond, Rodney found, that formed when two people spent a lot of time beating their heads against the same brick wall.

"Look -- 45,924 results found, how nice. Have you people never heard of Boolean searches?" He'd been speaking sarcastically, as usual, but the look on Kellen's face told him that she actually hadn't.

He coached her until well after midnight and left her heavy-eyed and wired, sighing, "I never expected you to make me this happy with my clothes on."

One morning no alert appeared when Sheppard touched his terminal. "Damn," he said.

Rodney tried to look over his shoulder. "What?"

"Nothing." He blocked Rodney's view with his body, then sighed and gave up. "It's just, she didn't order my food."

"So call her and remind her --"

"No, on purpose," and now he sounded irritated with Rodney.

"Man," Rodney said. "What did you do, eat all her snacks?"

"Just didn't measure up, I guess."

Rodney couldn't get any more out of him. "Here," he said, "pick something off my card; I don't think Kellen has any limits on me, or I would have heard about them on the day of the seven cheeses. Or is Lija going to beat you or something if you don't show up with a lean and hungry look?"

"Can't beat us; it's against the rules," Sheppard said. "Anyhow, I doubt she'll care."

There was no alert for lunch, and none for dinner, and none the next morning, and after a while it became obvious that either Lija was intentionally starving Sheppard to death or she just didn't care.

If they were both in quarters when a meal came, Rodney would just let Sheppard order from his menu, but there were days when they hardly saw each other awake. It gnawed at Rodney, the idea that Sheppard might be back there hungry while Rodney was absorbing an alien approach to the problems of relativity or rubbing scented lotion into Kellen's freckled back.

After a day or so in which the worry reduced his concentration to barely above average, it occurred to him that he could order things that didn't sound perishable and leave them for Sheppard to eat later. He spent a really stupid amount of attention noticing what Sheppard ate and what he ignored.

Kellen noticed eventually, of course. "Rodney, not even you can eat this much. Are you hoarding? Because I promise you can trust us."

"I don't even know what to take offense at first, the accusation of hoarding or the 'not even you.' " He should have known she'd be monitoring what he ordered. It was worse than working for the military and having to sign a requisition form every time you wanted a ballpoint pen. "Anyway, half of it's for Sheppard."

She frowned. "His meals are supposed to come out of Lija's account."

"Yeah, well, he broke his crayons or something and she stopped feeding him. And I don't know about the Baj," he went on, talking faster as her frown deepened, "but we have to eat to live."

"How long ago?"

It dawned on him that she was angry, but not at him. He counted back. "Six -- no, seven days ago. He wouldn't tell me what he did wrong."

"It doesn't matter." She was loudly hitting the buttons on the keyboard. "Twenty-two meals missed, and before that the same meal for a fiveday, and before that doll food. I wouldn't trust that child with a fish in a tank," she said, still tapping keys. "There, he's got free choice now, like a normal person. He can be on my account for the rest of his term. I'm requesting a Council investigation, too, but don't hold your breath; those things drag on forever."

"Oh, hey, Kellen got you mess privileges again," Rodney told Sheppard when he saw him next morning.

Sheppard stiffened. "Tell her thanks," he said without expression.


"When Lija hears about it --"

"Sheppard, is she some kind of evil abuser?"



"She'll say it's proof that I don't trust her."

"I'd say not trusting her is the reasonable default position at this point, considering that she -- Tell me she's not going to beat you."

"She's not going to beat me. She's going to sulk. And then I have to knock myself out proving that, yes, I really do trust her --" He was slowing down as he took in Rodney's expression. "It's not like that with Kellen?"

"I'm pretty sure Kellen understands that she hasn't bought my trust."

"Lija thinks she's bought my soul."

Having had this conversation seemed to loosen Sheppard's lips on the subject of Lija. Over the next few days, Rodney learned:

That the Baj had a dance called the Rose and the Briar, which required eye contact and wreaked havoc on the lower back because of all the lifting;

That Lija liked pet names and elaborate compliments, and had pouted about Sheppard's not bringing her gifts until he'd pointed out that he had no income, and had then set him up with a little salary and taken away his pillow as punishment for talking back;

That Sheppard's refractory period was a source of frequent conflict between them, especially on the occasions when she brought a friend.

"Jesus," Rodney said. "Your life is always either a porn film or a horror movie, isn't it? Has she offered to pierce anything else of yours?" He eyed Sheppard's filmy black shirt, but neither nipples nor navel seemed to have any unexpected bulges.

Sheppard shuddered. "No, but I'm glad I wasn't born in Europe."

The Boolean search episode had resulted in Rodney getting the equivalent of top-secret security clearance. This had unlocked a fascinating array of documents at which he was fairly certain no Baj ever really looked closely, including a set of satellite images of all the islands, some photographic and some infrared and some that looked like MRIs. He spent hours zooming in close and looking inside the gate island, which was riddled with caves. So when Sheppard slouched home in the late morning hours, at first Rodney didn't notice anything was different.

After a while the silence got to him, and he looked over and found Sheppard ignoring his breakfast and staring blankly at the wall.

"Have a good night?" Rodney said -- small talk got really weird when your day job was being a sex slave.

"Oh, raped a girl," Sheppard said. "How about you?" His voice and face were no different than if he'd been saying he'd gone dancing, but they hardened at Rodney's silence. "You're not even surprised, are you? Just about what you expected."

"No, Sheppard, people say things like that to me every day. I know exactly how to react," Rodney snapped.

Sheppard pulled up his knees and laid his face down on them. "Sorry."

There was a long silence, and then Rodney said, "What on earth are you talking about?" in a much gentler voice than he usually used with those words.

"Lija brought a friend, and the friend brought her own -- what do they call them? Termswoman?" There was a lot of venom in the word. "Lija and Taya decided they wanted us to put on a show for them, and when Taya's girl didn't show the proper enthusiasm, they trussed her up. Lija's bed is good for tying people to." He turned his head to one side. "She was crying. I said no. Taya called in her other termsman, who's bigger than Ronon and missing some teeth, and Lija said me or him."

"Christ," Rodney said. "That has got to be against the law. How is that not against the law?"

"It's in her contract," John said dully.

Rodney went to put his hand on Sheppard's shoulder and then stopped, because there ought to be one room where he could be sure no one would touch him against his will, and then started again because the last thing he wanted was for Sheppard to think Rodney considered him too filthy to touch, and while Rodney hesitated, Sheppard made a harsh noise and fell against Rodney's chest.

When Rodney's hands came down on the back of his clammy shirt, Sheppard's trembling became more pronounced, but he was clinging hard, one hand clutching Rodney's arm and the other with a fistful of his shirt.

He hung on for a long time. By the time his breathing evened out, Rodney's spine was beginning to protest being curled over, but when he began to straighten up, he realized Sheppard was asleep. Thinking regretfully of the research he'd left half done, Rodney tipped them both over to lie on the couch, arranging them as well as he could manage, Sheppard's hot forehead pressed against his neck, his hand stroking the back of Sheppard's hair.

He woke up hours later, with an ache in his shoulder and that faintly feverish sensation you got when you slept too much in the daytime. Sheppard's weight was still pinning one of his legs to the couch, but Sheppard's head was no longer resting on his chest.

He opened his eyes to find Sheppard looking down at him -- looking like hell, with bruised eyes and deep lines around his mouth. Rodney took a breath to utter some inanity like "How are you doing?" and Sheppard kissed him.

People usually telegraphed a kiss pretty thoroughly, so that even Rodney, who was not the best at predicting human behavior, knew they were coming and could get his mouth in the proper position beforehand. This one was totally out of left field, and Rodney's lower lip got smashed against his teeth while his upper lip wrinkled up uncomfortably under his nose.

It lasted maybe two seconds, and then Sheppard's whole body went tense. With lightning speed Rodney saw the way to prevent another round of guilt and horror, and he cupped a hand over Sheppard's cheek and opened his mouth.

For a while the kiss was an oddly ceremonious affair, like a dance. It occurred to Rodney that Lija had trained Sheppard in the way she wanted him to kiss, and he was just starting to get pissed off when apparently it dawned on Sheppard that he was on his own time and could kiss any damned way he wanted to, and suddenly everything got a lot wetter, a lot dirtier. Rodney made a noise that wasn't quite a groan but fell very far short of being English.

He put his hands on Sheppard's back and took a shocked breath; somehow this morning he'd failed to notice the way the silky fabric conducted body heat so well that it was like touching bare skin. Sheppard shivered against him, kissing deeper, and Rodney ran his hands down and found that the pants were just the same. He rubbed his thumb along the undercurve of Sheppard's ass, and Sheppard drew off his mouth to say, "Oh, yeah."

"I can't -- can't entirely approve of how hot I find this," he said, gathering up a handful of the slippery fabric.

"Yeah?" Sheppard wiggled his ass under Rodney's hand.

"Yeah, but this -- I mean, this is the, the material of your oppression and whatnot."

Sheppard raised up further to look Rodney in the eye. "It's different," he said, "if you like it."

In Atlantis, Sheppard had been so palpably untouchable that Rodney had never seriously considered him as an object of fantasy. Here, where he'd been slinking around in harem pants and eyeliner and falling asleep in Rodney's lap, the Atlantis habits of mind had persisted. It was a little hard to reconcile his former purely aesthetic appreciation of Sheppard with the carnal appreciation that was apparently permitted now.

Sheppard licked his neck, his ears, his jaw -- stripped him of his soft shirt and lay back down on top of him to rub that silk all over his naked chest until Rodney shoved it off him so he could touch him properly, and then Rodney groped him further down and stopped dead when he found him not hard.

"What -- is -- are you --" He got control of his sputtering with effort. "Jesus, Sheppard, you don't -- I mean, you don't have to come back here and service me."

Sheppard looked confused, drunk with kisses; he took a couple of panting breaths -- and, god, he couldn't be faking all that; Rodney could feel his heart pounding -- and then he shook his head fast, like he was trying to shake off a fly. "No," he said, "it's, that's not the point. It's not about that."

"How can it not be about --"

"Jesus, Rodney, a guy has limits, you know? If you're not going to give me -- I mean, if you can't unless I --" and his voice was breaking, and he was already moving to get up, and Rodney grabbed him around the hips and rolled on top of him. He forgot to be gentle, but Sheppard moaned and writhed against him, and Rodney said, "No, don't, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, we can do anything you want."

"This," Sheppard said, shoving at Rodney's pants until Rodney got them off, "do this, I want this," and he hauled Rodney all the way on top of him, scratching up and down his back and muttering encouragements under his breath, until Rodney was crazy with it, shoving his cock into Sheppard's body heat in the silky pants over and over until he came.

"God, Rodney, yeah, that was so good," Sheppard said, with one of his old wicked grins, and Rodney smiled back down at him and said, "You, too, you were amazing," all in an embarrassing confessional rush until he bent to kiss Sheppard some more just to shut himself up.

It was only afterwards, when he'd kissed Sheppard into an exhausted sleep on the couch and laid a blanket over his bare chest and smeared pants, that it really hit Rodney with full force how very deeply fucked up everything was now.

He had about half an hour before he was due in Kellen's rooms, which meant he was going to have to recover at a speed he hadn't managed since a good day in graduate school. Sheppard, asleep on the couch with his eyeliner smeared and his jaw shading from 'unshaven' to 'bearded,' still managed to look about twelve. There was now no one on the entire planet except people who wanted to have sex with him. Rodney was no expert at this sort of thing, but he kind of thought that wasn't a good thing.

It worried him to leave. He ordered flatbread and cheese and a sort of sour salsa that went together to make a reasonable approximation of a pizza, and then he took a shower and went rather sluggishly up to Kellen's.

"Found a friend in the men's quarter?" she said when he didn't have his usual enthusiastic response to her. "Come, now; it's clear you've spent your purse elsewhere, and none of the nobles could have you without my permission, so it has to be a private matter."

The last time she'd been displeased with him, she'd cheerfully shut down all his computer access. He'd lasted an hour and a half, and then gone back to her with the most heartfelt apology of his life, and she'd relented after demanding a backrub of epic proportions. But he really couldn't apologize for this with any sincerity.

He stiffened his spine. He could live without intellectual stimulation. He could. He had inner resources.

She gave one of her husky laughs. "Oh, Rodney. I'm not going to take your lover from you. If I'd wanted a claim on the whole of a man's heart and body, I'd have been looking for a sweetheart, not a body servant." She poked his foot with hers. "Tongue still works, yes? Hands? Then I've no complaints."

The "pizza" was eaten and Sheppard was gone when Rodney came back to quarters; there was nothing unusual in that, but he went to bed feeling uneasy, and kept waking up suddenly from dreams where he couldn't stop things from blowing up or breaking down, and discovering that only ten minutes had passed since the last time he'd looked at the clock.

In the hours before dawn he heard his door open, and a moment later Sheppard was snuggled up against his back, sweat-sticky and smelling strongly of sex.

Rodney had a number of complaints about uninvited smelly naked people in his bed, but before he could utter any of them, he was deeply and dreamlessly asleep.

They were still entangled when he woke up. He wondered whether Sheppard was this much of a cuddler, or whether Lija had trained him to do this, too, so thoroughly that he defaulted to it even when he was asleep.

Sheppard still looked worked-over, with dark smudges around his eyes that could have been either exhaustion or eye makeup. The sex smell was even worse the next day, and Rodney couldn't quite get his brain to leap the gap between John Sheppard and this warm body in his bed. And none of that did anything at all to slow down the surge of desire he felt.

God, he had no mental tools for solving a problem this weird, but having sex with Sheppard was obviously a bad move, even if it was Sheppard's idea. Rodney was going to have to figure out a way to offer him, whatever, reassurance, friendship, physical comfort, without getting drawn into something that would only screw him up further.

Sheppard stretched, and groaned, and opened his eyes. "Jesus, I reek," he said, and stuck his face in Rodney's neck and said, "but you smell fantastic," and opened his mouth over Rodney's jugular, and before Rodney could talk himself out of it, he was plastered against Sheppard again, hard and panting and utterly out of the tenuous contact he'd managed to make with his better intentions.

He tried, just the same. "Sheppard --" he said, when he could get his mouth free. "I'm not sure this is a good idea."

Sheppard cheated by nibbling on the side of Rodney's ear before replying, which was definitely not accepted debate technique. "I want this," he said in his low morning voice.

"I'm not convinced that you're in your right mind, frankly," Rodney said, shaking his mouth off. "I mean, you've had a spectacularly traumatic experience, and it's making you think you want something that under ordinary circumstances I'm sure would never cross your mind --"

"It'll be fine," Sheppard said with one of his patented winning looks.

"I seem to remember you saying that quite recently," Rodney said irritably. "I seem to remember that things turned out very badly."

"Do you have something else you'd rather be doing, Rodney?" he said in a familiar impatient tone that lowered Rodney's guard just enough for Sheppard to flip him and crawl down his body.

It was so unexpected that he actually jumped when he felt Sheppard's mouth on his cock. "Christ," he said, "you do this?"

Sheppard raised his head. "No," he said, and lowered it again.

"Oh, god, that's -- all right, yes, ow, easy," because Sheppard clearly had no clue how to proceed, but it didn't matter very much; a bad blowjob was still better than almost anything else, and a bad blowjob from John Sheppard, laid out on his stomach humping the bed frantically -- Rodney flung him off just in time and came all over his neck from where he was looking up and going, "What, what, did I do it wrong or, fuck, Rodney!"

"No, no," he said when Rodney moved to show him how it was done. "I didn't shower, I came in all, jesus, I'm disgusting."

"Never mind that," Rodney said, though the sanitary implications were horrifying.

"You don't need to, just," and Rodney's hand collided with Sheppard's on Sheppard's cock, and Sheppard shuddered all over and came before Rodney could even close his fist.

"OK, so, seriously, this, you want to go do that and come home to this? Because you don't have to, you know that, I would never --"

"What I don't want is to have to negotiate all this again," Sheppard said, and he stalked off to the shower before Rodney could muster a single argument.

Morning sex was more consistent with a night job as a body servant. By the time Kellen was ready for him, Rodney was rested up, but Kellen winked at him and said, "Take it home with you."

He was surprised to find Sheppard still in quarters, even though it was after nine p.m.

"This is pretty common for her," Sheppard said. "Lot of the time her nights don't even start till midnight." He seemed oddly hesitant, as though he felt the same way Rodney did; if they were both conscious and not suffering from any immediate trauma, it was hard to cross the space between them, or even know for sure if Sheppard would want to, now that his immediate need for comfort was over.

If Rodney had been alone in quarters, he would have started working his way through the technology database, but that would be rude.

While he was standing there dithering, Sheppard said, "Don't overthink it, McKay. Just say what you've got to say," and he looked up and realized that Sheppard had his arms crossed and a belligerent look on his face, as though he thought Rodney was going to reject him.

So Rodney said tentatively, "Honey, I'm home?" and Sheppard relaxed a little and said, "Just let me get my French maid outfit," and Rodney flinched and said, "Don't even joke about it. If she hasn't done it yet, I'm sure she will."

"I don't," Sheppard said in a low, thrilling voice, "want to talk about her," and for the first time when he was conscious and not traumatized, he put his hands on Rodney.

Just his neck, but it felt so good that Rodney sighed, "Oh," and Sheppard said, "God, Rodney," and brought his hands up to hold Rodney's face still for kissing.

Kellen never kissed; she said it tended to create inappropriate attachments. Probably his attachment to Sheppard was already inappropriate, but after all these weeks of having actually a quite satisfactory sex life, Rodney discovered that he was longing for just this, Sheppard's mouth on his, the taste of him strangely familiar after such a short time, something that wasn't about skill or even really about physical pleasure but just about connection.

It seemed to be different for Sheppard; Lija did kiss, and maybe that was what made him hurry through it now. In a minute he was pushing up Rodney's shirt, muttering, "Come on, come on, I want you," against Rodney's bare shoulder, pulling Rodney down on top of him.

Not that that wasn't good, too.

They rolled around on Sheppard's bed for a while, clumsy and eager, too turned on to do a halfway decent job getting each other undressed or to stop and separate and take care of their own clothes. Sheppard liked Rodney on top of him, and kept turning him. They were like that, grinding frantically together, John with his shirt undone and Rodney still in his pants, when Sheppard's bedroom workstation chimed a flowery little arpeggio.

"Shit," Sheppard said, taking his hands out of Rodney's pants. "That's her code. I thought maybe she'd give me the night off."

Rodney rolled off him, and he rolled on top of Rodney, pushing up on his arms to see the screen. "I'm due at midnight," he said. "Almost an hour. Take your pants off."

Rodney did, and rolled back on top of him, not even trying to take it slow any more; Sheppard's cock slid alongside his easily, and Sheppard sucked in his breath through his teeth and said, "Jesus, jesus, don't, I'll come."

Rodney frowned at him. "Well, yeah."

"Can't," Sheppard said, removing Rodney's hand. "No, really, oh, fuck, you've got to, god, stop. If I go off now, I won't be able to get it up for her."

Oh, christ, and she wasn't likely to be as understanding as Kellen was. Rodney backed up reluctantly and tried to get himself under control. He wondered if politeness required him to wait till Sheppard left to jerk off.

"No, you idiot, why should you stop? You're done for the day."

"It seems more -- etiquette would --"

"No, come on, Rodney, I want you to," Sheppard said, stroking his cock with a tentative hand. "Come on. It'll be hot."

"Oh -- god, all right, yes, yes," he said, because if Sheppard wanted to jerk him off and pant in his ear and lick anywhere he could reach, that was, he had no objection to, oh god it was good.

"Say 'John,' " Sheppard said in a growly voice. "Nobody here can say it properly. Say it, Rodney," and Rodney said it and kept saying it while he came all over his hand.

"Aw, fuck, I wish --" John kept on rubbing him slickly until Rodney had to grab his arm, and then he linked his squishy fingers through Rodney's and kissed him like crazy, until just when Rodney was afraid he really wasn't going to be able to stop himself, he rolled to the other side of the bed, panting.

He looked better than porn with that damned shirt still hanging off one arm, and then the workstation chimed his ten-minute warning and he got up and showered without closing the curtain, and that was porn, too, washing his hair and drying off and getting dressed, hard all the time and looking at Rodney out from under his eyelashes.

His figure-skater pants hid nothing, especially without underwear, and Rodney couldn't resist groping him at the door, kissing him and feeling him up till the blush came back and John grated out, "Stop," and Rodney looked at him and said, "Whatever she paid for you, it wasn't nearly enough."

And when John came home in the morning, Rodney sucked him off before he was even properly awake, and then he felt better.

Except the thing was, John liked making out in the evening. He liked making Rodney come and then going right up to the edge and stopping and then going off to Lija so hard he could barely walk. "That has got to be hazardous to your health," Rodney said one night when they were both panting for it because John had asked Rodney to wait till he was dressed this time.

"No, I'm pretty sure that's just something we tell girls," John said lazily, like he wasn't leaking a wet spot on Lija's late-Elvis-period pants.

"Well, it's frustrating as hell for me," Rodney snapped, and then he wished he'd kept his mouth shut, because John looked so stricken, and the last thing he needed was someone else with ownership rights over his body.

"No, but, see," John said, pulling Rodney closer, the sequins sharp against his bare skin, "see, I like it. I like it because I walk out of here," and by now he was talking between fast kisses that were all tongue and breath, "and I have to go up and play Romeo for Lija, but all the time I can be thinking that this is yours, you made me this way, it's all really for you. It makes it better."

"Well, that's," Rodney swallowed. "Twisted even for Pegasus." He licked John's ear, tonguing around the cuff and the hoop. "But when --" His courage failed him before he could mention Atlantis, because it wasn't like they'd agreed to go on when the term was up. "When you're out of that woman's clutches," he said instead, kissing John, biting gently against the desire to make a mark, "I'm going to make you come five hundred times."

"Christ," John said, biting his lip hard. "You just about started tonight," and he was on his knees before Rodney could stammer an apology.

Kellen didn't say anything about Rodney's continued incapacity, but after the second time, she provided a device, in shiny candy colors like everything else here and with a sharp bend to it, not lifelike at all but apparently very effective.

Anyway, once he pointed out the satellite imagery, most nights she had more use for him with his clothes on. "Rodney, there's machinery in there."

"I've identified the cloak generator," Rodney said, pointing at the lower edge of the screen. "But I don't know what all the rest is. Whatever it is, it's something your ancestors considered particularly vital."

"How do you get that?"

"Well, for one thing, look at these lines here. This is something metallic, under the water, that connects the gate island with every other island in the chain. And all those millions of taboos? The ones that got us in trouble in the first place? They have to come from somewhere."

Her eyes got big. "Could it be a water-treatment device?"

"It could be, yes. Could you get me in there to look at it?"

"It wouldn't be easy," she mused. "Even if I could get you onto that island, which would be very difficult, you'd still have to have a way to get down there."

"You have underwater craft," he pointed out.

"You've seen the pool," she said. "I don't know anyone who could pilot one in such narrow spaces."

"I do," Rodney said.

John stayed out late and slept till lunchtime, like a night-shift worker only with eyeliner, crawling into Rodney's bed while Rodney was in the dream-sodden sleep of the very early morning. Rodney sometimes tried to stay in bed till John woke up, but the sense of time wasting became a burden to him; he wasn't really a morning person by nature, but he'd become one by necessity, and once he was awake he wanted -- well, actually he wanted coffee, but lacking that, he wanted breakfast, a stimulant, and a new problem to solve.

When John lay down, Rodney didn't even wake up any more; full morning would come and there John would be, hair very odd because it usually wasn't all the way dry when he hit the pillow, a pile of satiny black stuff on the floor outside the shower, and sometime around midmorning John would wander out naked and lean over behind Rodney at his computer and say, "What's up?" and they'd go back to bed and stay there till hunger drove them out.

Rodney didn't know how John got to be the age he was, looking and acting the way he did, without ever making out with a guy, but he wasn't bashful. "Hey," he'd say, when Rodney hauled him frantically away before he came, "if you can swallow, I can swallow," or, "Hey, you're not too heavy, I like it," or, "Hey, wow, that's all it takes? Cool."

Or, "Hey, I want you to fuck me."

"No, you don't," Rodney said irritably; he'd never found it easy to shift gears. "You think you do, but believe me, you don't."

"C'mon," John wheedled. "Lija pegged me once. It didn't hurt very much."

"Oh, a ringing endorsement, that is so very -- oh, fine," Rodney said.

With their customary bluntness, the Baj packaged their lubricant in a giant plastic dick; there was some in the all-purpose cabinet that Kellen had had stocked for them when they'd requested the Healio. It had a big smiling face on the head. Rodney brought it back to bed and found John laying flat on his belly; he hauled him back onto one hip, one knee bent, and when he had him arranged, he slicked his fingers and ran them over John's hole.

John went up on one elbow and craned back, trying to see his own ass. "What are you doing?"

Rodney's stomach clenched. "Wishing Lija a painful, protracted, humiliating death." He went on rubbing his fingertips back and forth, riding on a thin slick of lube. After a moment, John put his head back down. After another, his muscles began to relax, and he made a noise and said in a surprised tone, "Rodney. That's pretty nice there."

"It is, isn't it?" Rodney said. "I like it, too, in case you're keeping track."

John lifted into the stroke, just a fraction. Rodney tried an experimental fingertip, just a quick in-and-out, and John said, "OK," but Rodney kept to what he was doing until John said, "Yeah," and then, "Please."

When Rodney slid a finger into him, John began to talk, his voice thickened, slowed, like the time they'd gone to the rain planet and brought home the depressant rice.

"I know what you're thinking, but it really wasn't bad," he said. "It wasn't like this, but it wasn't bad. Kind of a nice break. She couldn't see my face. No eye contact. No worrying she'd send me away because I had the wrong kind of smile."

"Mm?" Rodney wasn't really listening. John's ass closed behind his finger as he pulled it out; he loved the feel of it opening again each time, and the way John was pushing into each stroke now. Obviously nobody else had ever put their fingers here. He'd found possibly the only untouched bit of John Sheppard.

When Rodney stroked over his prostate, it was almost an accident -- not like he didn't know it had to be somewhere in the vicinity, but he was still just fooling around when John said, "Fuck, what --" and then, "Oh, jesus, now, please."

And just like Rodney was dying to get in, crazy for it, and he wrapped himself around John's pliant form and pressed fervent kisses into the back of his neck and, with an agonizing slowness that he felt deserved a medal at this point, pressed inside.

"Jesus," John said tightly, but there wasn't any serious resistance, and he was rising up to meet Rodney coming down. "Jesus, Rodney, that's so -- intense," and Rodney braced up on his knees and reached under John's leg, along the slick trail he'd left, over and down to grasp John's cock.

John arched back hard and came without a sound.

Rodney hung on until John dropped his head, panting, and then finally got to make a handful of full strokes before he was coming himself.

"God, yeah," John said, turning over and stretching, sleepy smile on his face. "That's what I wanted." But before Rodney could fish for any more compliments, John was asleep.

Rodney thought he'd stay awake just to enjoy the rare unguarded look on John's face, but that lasted about thirty seconds.

John woke him up hours later jerking him off and rubbing his own cock against Rodney's hip. "Do it again," he muttered against Rodney's neck, face hot where it was hidden against Rodney's skin. "I can't stop thinking about how it felt. Do it again."

"Jesus. What time is it?" He lifted his head to look at the screen beside the bed. "You've got less than an hour before --"

"Don't," John said before Rodney could say her name. "It'll be fine. I won't -- I just want to feel you one more time."

"Yeah, right, you can, and anyway you're probably sorer than you think you are, and, oh, fine, give me the Slippero," because John was kneeling up against the headboard, slanting Rodney a look over his shoulder that wasn't so much seductive as annoyed, and, yes, that turned him on way more than it ought to.

In just one try, John seemed to have learned all about how to do it, and he pushed back on Rodney's fingers, and then he pushed back on Rodney's cock, with a groan like relief.

"Does, oh, god, does it hurt?"

"A little," John sighed, rocking back against him. His knuckles on the headboard were white. The patience that Rodney had been so proud of earlier was long gone, and he rocked in John, as gently as he could but without stopping, and John said, "Rodney, yeah, yeah, do it now," and he came so fast he was embarrassed.

Lija's ten-minute warning chimed.

John grabbed Rodney's arm where it was slung across his chest, panting. "Not yet. Stay in me. Just a little bit longer." HIs voice was gritty, and Rodney could feel his heart pounding.

Rodney looked over John's shoulder, down the length of his body. "I want to touch it. It's not fair that she gets to touch it and I don't."

"Oh, god," John said. "Do it. Just a little bit."

"If you --"

"Just a little bit," he said through gritted teeth. "I can take it." He loosened his grip on Rodney's arm, and Rodney slid his hand slowly down, over John's sweat-slick chest, over his belly down between his cock and his body -- John breathing in shallow pants, his whole body taut in Rodney's arms, quivering around Rodney's cock where it was still in him -- and when Rodney stroked a thumb up the hot length of John's cock, John grated out, "No, no, no, Rodney --" and came.

"Oh, god, she's going to have you flogged," Rodney said. "I'll call Kellen. We'll get you out of it. We'll say you've got the flu or something."

"You want her to come here?" John said in a horror-stricken tone. "I'll go. I'll tell her I just want to worship her body." He did up the laces of the black pirate shirt with shaking hands. "I'll tell her I had a dream about her. I'll tell her I got kicked in the balls." His face was tight as it had been before they'd ever touched. It was pretty obvious he was terrified.

"Christ," Rodney said. It was awful. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, this is my fault, I should have been the one person in Pegasus who could resist you." He hated that John looked hot in the stupid clothes Lija picked out, hated that he himself had a nice quiet evening of database searches ahead of him, hated that tonight John couldn't stay home and steal his yellow berries and get the rest he needed, hated that all he had to do was look at John to want him again.

"It'll be fine," John said, and slunk out.

"I am so very much not reassured," Rodney said to the closing door.

When he woke up, John wasn't there.

This wasn't unheard-of. Lija kept late hours. He didn't panic. He didn't.

When he left for Kellen's, John was still missing, and he was still missing when Rodney came home, and Rodney woke up next morning in an empty apartment. He was getting started on a sort of low-key panic when John came in, wearing different clothes, and lay down with his head in Rodney's lap.

"She said," he said, voice muffled against Rodney's stomach, "that since nothing else made me do right, she was going to see how I did without the bad influence of my countryman." Rodney could feel him trembling.

"Crap. So she had you in jail or something? In solitary?"

"No, it was an apartment just like this one. Just. You know. Alone." He hid his face for a second and then said, "I should have held out."

"Held out, what do you mean held out?"

"Always before I could just act like I didn't give a shit what she took away from me, because I didn't. But this time I let her get to me."

"She's a vile creature of the underworld," Rodney said.

John's mouth moved slightly, not quite a smile. "Yeah," he said, "and now she knows how to hurt me."

Having sex with Kellen had made Rodney's mind work better. He'd been relaxed and rested, alert without caffeine, more able to cope with the small frustrations of everyday life than he could remember being since he was a child.

Having sex with John sometimes made Rodney's brain stop working altogether, and not just in the mindless-orgasm sense, either. He was worried and tense, now. Every choice looked like a test with a heavy penalty for failing, every mistake like a dropped gun.

He hadn't even been aware of what a luxury it had been to have nothing to lose.

John was doubly careful not to displease Lija in any way, and after a few days of extra effort -- composing poetry and saying wistful things -- he finally hit on the brilliant strategy of letting himself get caught stealing her black-beaded choker and saying shamefacedly that it made him think of her.

These tricks seemed to restore him to his old self somewhat, enough so he could talk about her with rolled eyes instead of that haunted look.

"If she puts you in solitary again, I'll get Kellen to find out where you are and I'll come and, and bust you out," Rodney said.

"She's not going to put me in solitary again." John used his thumb to wipe away a stray splotch of eyeliner. His nails were painted a deep iridescent purple-black. "I've got her number."

But when he came home the next morning, something weird was definitely up. He brought Rodney breakfast, and put out the clothes, and fussed over Rodney as he ate until finally Rodney said, "Hey, I didn't buy your contract, so either you have something to feel guilty about or you're buttering me up for something." And John, instead of denying it, sat down and rubbed the back of his neck in a very suspicious fashion and said, "Lija knows about us."

"What?" Rodney said. "You told her? Why aren't you in solitary? Did she beat you?"

"It's not so bad. She thinks it's cute. Like when your dog sniffs another dog at the park."

He was still rubbing the back of his neck. Rodney sat down across from him. "What aren't you telling me?"

"It's nothing. It's not a big deal. I'm going to talk her out of it anyway."


"She wants to see us. But I can bring her around."

Rodney frowned. "You wouldn't be panicking if all she wanted to do was meet me, so -- oh, my god."

"Rodney, relax, it's never going to --"

"Oh my god. Your -- owner -- wants us to put on a sex show for her. That's it, isn't it? Oh, my god, I never expected to find myself in the sex trades at this late time of my life."

"You can say no. Or get Kellen to forbid it."

Rodney looked at him. "You don't actually want to do this, surely?" John didn't answer. Rodney examined him. "Because it's a terrible idea. This -- you and me --"

"It's private, yes, I know."

"I was going to say, it's the only thing keeping you sane in this place. To the extent that you are sane. It's -- can't you see that --" He stopped, because John didn't actually seem to be aware that he wasn't the same here as in Atlantis, and it probably wouldn't be good for him to notice just how much he'd changed in here. But to have Lija's sticky fingerprints all over this sanctuary ... it seemed just the sort of thing to spoil John's only escape from life with a girl who seemed to think his every thought was for sale.

And now John was giving him this disgusting pout, and he couldn't even remember whether the pout had been part of the repertoire of Lt. Col. John Sheppard of Atlantis, or whether it was part of the identity of Lija's termsman. "What is it?" he said wearily. "Is this some sort of, of exhibitionist fantasy for you, or is it that you want both of us together, or what?"

"She's jealous," John said. "She's driving me nuts with questions. She's all demanding proofs of devotion."

"She doesn't own you."

"She can make my life hell if she thinks she's not getting what she paid for," John said. "I keep telling her it's just for fun, so I thought if I could show her, she'd shut up about it."

Rodney looked at John to see if he was joking, but John's face had every appearance of sincerity. "OK, ow," Rodney said. "You want me to go be naked in public in front of Satan's youngest daughter so that I can demonstrate my insignificance."

"Yeah, I knew you'd get it," John said.

He hadn't quite expected the squalor of Lija's rooms; he knew from Kellen that people at their level of wealth could get cleaning services on request, so apparently Lija just never requested it. Every surface was thick with clotted dust and sparkly flower-scented body glitter, and drifts of filmy discarded clothes covered the floor and the furniture.

Not surprisingly, there were a lot of mirrors.

Lija herself was, aesthetically speaking, still as beautiful as she'd been at the auction, delicately arranged in some wrapping of dark-blue satin that bared her arms and her cleavage and about half a kilometer of pale leg. Somehow in the intervening days, Rodney had begun expecting her evil to show on her face, but even her petulant expression wasn't unattractive.

She had a couple of friends with her, both very pretty girls; the three of them were sprawled out on a couch, making a picture that would have looked like porn except that all the looking tonight was going to go in the opposite direction.

Lija raised her perfectly exquisite eyebrows at him. "This is the other foreigner, Rodley," she said to her friends. Kellen had had some difficulty with the DN combination, too, but she'd at least made the effort. Rodney didn't bother to correct her.

"Oh, but I had forgotten," Lija said. "He's so -- not like John." She couldn't quite manage the way a J sounded in English, so that came out somewhere between 'Chohn' and 'Yohn.' "Could you not have had a companion who was more -- like you?"

"He's my buddy," John said, bumping Rodney with his shoulder.

"Oh, yes, I see!" she said, beaming. "This is not for romance but only because it's easy."

Rodney tried to exchange a glance with John at that, but John didn't take his eyes off Lija.

"Still, he's not very -- I certainly don't want to watch him." She pressed her long-fingered hands together under her little pointed chin in a thinking gesture that someone had obviously told her was adorable. "I know!" she said at last, clapping her hands together. "Rodley will sit like this --" She bounced to a seat against the many pillows piled at the head of the bed. "And my Yohn will sit in front of him --" She patted the bed in front of her. "And then I will be able to see what it is that he can do for you that you like so much."

"That'll work," John said in his usual lazy drawl. Now he looked at Rodney, with a hard, expectant look. "Right, Rodley?"

"Sure," Rodney said tightly.

It was clear to him that the idea of seeing his body wasn't filling anyone here with joy, which was just as well; Rodney could think of worse people to be naked in front of, but they were all blood relatives. He kicked off his shoes and went and sat in the indicated spot.

John, on the other hand, was obviously expected to undress, and he did so, with a showy little hipshot pose. His body language was totally relaxed. Right down to the flirty little glance out from under his eyelashes, everything he did said, I like having you look at me. I like showing off my body for you and your friends. Rodney made himself watch -- it seemed like the supportive thing to do -- but it was creepy as hell, and he was glad when John finally sat down in front of him and leaned back.

The name of the game seemed to be to put John on display so Lija's friends could admire her taste. So Rodney figured his role was to show John off a bit. He ran his hands up over John's chest, and John leaned back against him; he still felt a little tense under Rodney's hands, and he wasn't all the way hard, either, but the situation wasn't exactly conducive.

Under different circumstances, Rodney would have relished the chance to do some of the leisurely exploration of John's body that he hadn't yet gotten to do. This thing they were doing was so much a part of what passed for reality on Ara lo Bajo that sometimes Rodney forgot that they hadn't really been doing it for that long, that they had another, realer life somewhere else where it would have been weird in the extreme that he was running his fingertips up John Sheppard's inner thigh while three beautiful women watched.

He nudged John's dick with his thumb, rubbed his knuckles gently up the side of it. This was going to take forever.

One of Lija's friends, the redhead, leaned over and murmured something, probably something derogatory. "Oh, no," Lija said. "That's the way my Yohn is. He has wonderful stamina." The redhead looked at him with new respect.

Thumbs on his nipples made John sigh and squirm back; Rodney couldn't quite tell how to take that. "Yeah?" he said into John's ear, very low; he didn't care to share any of his conversations with Lija and her friends.

John leaned back further, and his neck finally unbent enough for him to lay his head back next to Rodney's. "Yeah," he said, a long sigh. "Keep talking, Rodney."

"Right," Rodney said. "Because this isn't a challenging enough exercise in acting, let's add improvisatory dirty talk to --"

John's cock was hardening perceptibly.

"Oh," Rodney said.

"Yeah, oh, you idiot," John muttered. "Did you think I wanted you to do Penthouse Letters for me?" He shifted his weight from one hip to the other, moving against Rodney's hand on his belly now. Lacking the useful bottle of Slippero, Rodney licked his hand; John caught it in his mouth and licked it, too. The women murmured, heads together. A little pout had started up on Lija's rose-petal face.

"You might want to look at your girlfriend. She's looking a little neglected."

John groaned, sounding more pained than excited, but he obediently opened his eyes. Lija tucked most of her pout back in.

Rodney took John's cock in a loose grip and for a long moment there was no sound but John breathing through his teeth as Rodney established a rhythm just a little faster than the small movements of John's hips. If he kept his eyes on his own hand, it was actually kind of hot.

"That's good, good," Rodney said in John's ear. "Let her think this is all for her. We know better, don't we? I know who all this is for. I know who you do this for. I know --"

John's shoulders pressed back suddenly, and Rodney had one of those moments where he saw doom coming but wasn't quick enough to stop it. "Oh, hell," he said, and slapped his hand over John's mouth, but not fast enough to prevent him from crying out the first syllable of Rodney's name.

He saw from the sudden flaring of Lija's nostrils that she'd heard, too.

"Oh, hell," he said.

When Rodney arrived at Kellen's apartment, out of breath and halfway into a panic attack, the door rolled right open for him; apparently she'd programmed it to let him in even if it was five in the morning. She was still up, barefoot in her lounge clothes, reading a book with a cover drawing of an anthropomorphized sea mammal with six tentacles and a hat.

"Whose idea was that?" she said when he told her the problem. "It was a very stupid one, if you don't mind my saying so."

"It was Lija's, and I think when John says no to her, she sulks him to death," Rodney said. "But even I didn't foresee that it would be a disaster of these proportions. Or am I wrong and there's some chance he'll come out of this unpunished?"

"You're not wrong," Kellen said grimly. "She'll do whatever she thinks will hurt him the most."

"Which is to separate us."

"Will that be so bad? If he's got half a brain, it will only take a couple of fivedays to bring her around, and she's not allowed to actually hurt him or deprive him of necessities. And now that the Council investigation is in progress, she'll be under extra scrutiny."

"The last time she put him in solitary, he was shaking after twenty-four hours," Rodney said. "Not to be excessively conceited or anything, but this has screwed him up in ways I can only dimly imagine, and I'm his only link to a life where he's anything other than Lija's toy."

"Well, then," Kellen said. She smacked her palms down on her thighs decisively. "If I can gather the Council, get you an underwater craft, and demand his presence on the gate island, are you fairly confident that you won't fail and humiliate us all?"

"No," Rodney said. "We're just going to have to take the chance."

It took Kellen two days to make the arrangements. And then it was back again to the gate island, and now those weird concentric rings down into the pool made perfect sense; they weren't like stairs, they were stairs. The craft was visible in the gray-blue water. It looked sleek and maneuverable. Rodney hoped it wasn't all style.

The Council were gathering in the plaza in front of the gate, in various states of annoyance, confusion, ruffle-haired drowsiness, and obvious hangover, as though it were 8 a.m. rather than almost noon. Kellen had told him she was already a bit of a joke for letting her termsman mess around in the archives. If he failed her, she was going to be a laughingstock.

Rodney looked at the row of assembled people. "I have the solution to your water problems right down here." They looked right past him. Maybe he needed a megaphone. He looked at Kellen, and she sighed impatiently and nodded her head toward the spot, one step behind her, where a termsman ought to stand, and he glared at her and stood there.

"Knotwoman," she said. "Councilors. Thanks to Rodney's research, I have something very interesting to show you, but I'm going to require the help of Y-John."

At the end of the row was Lija, still in what was probably last night's clubwear, with her black hair tipped with silver, pretty as poison. She looked at Kellen blankly. "Yohn?"

"Yes. He's the only person who has the skill to do what needs to be done."

"You are making a formal claim of eminent domain over Lija lo Mallor's termsman?" the knotwoman said.


"And the particular task for which you make this request?"

"It doesn't matter," Lija said. "He's my Yohn, and he's very pretty but he has no skills whatsoever."

"We grant the request on the condition that the termsman agree. Produce him."

Lija's pout got stormier and her eyes got narrower. She whispered something to a member of her entourage, who brought out John, blinking as though it had been a long time since he'd seen sunlight. He was wearing a black garment that you could only call tights, and a short black tanktop; his feet were bare. Rodney wouldn't have believed he had any skills, either.

When he caught sight of Rodney, he actually took a step forward. It was probably only Lija's firm hand on his silver choker that kept him from flinging himself into Rodney's arms.

"Let him go," the knotwoman said, and Lija did so, with a pretty frown and many demands for kisses. John walked hesitantly across the platform. You could tell he was aware of all the eyes on him.

Rodney was abjectly thankful that John didn't try to touch him. "OK, here's your assignment," he said. "That thing is like an amphibious submarine. Down below here is a water-treatment station that used to be in a cave at the top of a mountain before sea level rose. I need you to take the sub down, through the doorway, into the hallway, up a flight of stairs, and through the cloak into the plant itself, which should be dry. The water treatment technology is based on Ancient designs, so it should look familiar to you, but otherwise just play it by ear."

For John Sheppard of Atlantis, this would have been a piece of cake. Lija's Yohn seemed to be having a bit of trouble with it. "Fly a sub from water to air," he said tentatively.

"Yes; I suppose maybe you remember doing something vaguely like that before? Come on, for god's sake. You're not a sex slave. You're a pilot."

Something changed in the set of John's face. It wasn't as simple as Sheppard of Atlantis coming back; Rodney couldn't even tell if it was good or bad. But without another word he turned his back and climbed the steps up from the platform to the lip of the pool. Rodney was sure he wasn't alone in admiring his glutes on the way up.

At the top he turned, as if to give Rodney a chance to call "Good luck" or "Godspeed" or some similar nonsense. "Well, what are you waiting for?" Rodney called. "Go save the universe again."

John actually smiled, and then he went down the shallow steps, slowly, so that they could watch his spiky hair vanishing, little by little, for a long time.

Then nothing.

It was a long time of nothing.

Rodney tried to look like someone who had completely confidence in his plan and wasn't at all concerned that his teammate's self-esteem might have been ruined by an extended term of service as Lija's personal teddy bear. The sun got hotter. The almost palpable UV rays got worse. Rodney, who had missed breakfast, felt his stomach begin to devour its own lining. The Council got restless. Lija's look went from petulant to bored to hopeful to triumphant.

There was a hiss, and from the little indentations around the edges of the plaza, water suddenly fountained up.

The Council members turned from side to side, eyes wide. They didn't seem to care that their hair and clothes were getting soaked. Some of them tipped back their heads and filled their mouths with water.

"It's fresh," Kellen whispered. She looked like she was going to cry.

"What is the meaning of this unconscionable waste?" the knotwoman thundered.

"I think you'll find," a familiar voice said, "that you don't have to worry about waste."

The person who climbed up the stair out of the pool was unmistakably Lt. Col. John Sheppard of Atlantis; tights or no tights, he walked like a man with a badge on his shoulder and a holster on his thigh. As he crossed the plaza, the Baj began to murmur, and then to applaud, and finally to laugh. A few of the younger ones looked as if they'd like to dance. None of them made any move to get out from under the fountains.

The knotwoman wanted information from Kellen, and Kellen kept asking Rodney, until finally Rodney said impatiently, "You might as well speak directly to me; Kellen has a reasonable layman's knowledge, but this isn't her specialty." The knotwoman gave Kellen an incredulous look, but apparently decided that it was more important to actually get her questions answered than to encourage the proper respectful attitude in a termsman, which he applauded.

Once she got that far, it was pretty easy to explain the treatment plant, and to come up with hypotheses that the Baj could test. When she began asking questions about the interface and the sub, Kellen called John over, compelling Lija to break the tight hug she had him in.

The tanktop was so tight around his chest that one of the shoulder straps had fallen down. The knotwoman kept her eyes carefully on his face as she questioned him.

When she was done, she turned to Kellen. "This is the termsman who was the subject of your investigation of mistreatment?"

John looked up suddenly.

The knotwoman slid open one of the ubiquitous data jellybeans, and examined the charges -- glanced at Lija, glanced back at the screen, took a good long look at John's clothes.

"It is the decision of the council," she said at last, "that the termsman Yohn be removed from the service of Lija lo Mallor while the investigation continues, and instead be placed in the care of Kellen lo Saj, for a fiveday, so that the Council may consider both the charges against Sor lo Mallor and the reward appropriate to the termsmen for their service to the Baj."

"What do you think she's going to want from me?"

John had plopped right down on the couch with his head in Rodney's lap; he didn't sound nervous, but Rodney was pretty sure he was.

"I have no idea. Sometimes it's sex, sometimes it's engineering, sometimes it's footrubs."

John was wearing Rodney's clothes, blue pants and a loose dark-gray shirt made of some kind of soft knit. Rodney absently rubbed down his upper arms, and John sighed. "You think she's going to want to go to bed with both of us?"

Rodney couldn't breathe for a second, thinking about it -- what John might make of that low chuckle Kellen sometimes gave, as if sex was funny to her, and what would happen to John if Kellen did that thing with her teeth, what they'd look like ... "I'm pretty sure I could get you excused from anything physical," he said, swallowing to make his voice go back to normal. "If you want."

"Are you kidding?" John said, craning his head back to look at Rodney's face. "After what she did for me? I'll kiss her feet if she wants me to."

"She's never shown any sign of being into that kind of thing," Rodney said faintly.

He was half relieved and half disappointed when Kellen was wearing the lounge clothes rather than the robe. "Oh, my," she said, looking at them appreciatively. "Aren't you a picture. Now, this is one of my favorite fantasies. You -- get the place cleaned up. You -- dial up some dinner."

By the next morning, the council was convinced that the water plant was no hoax. They got right to work on building retaining walls so they could get at it without the sub, and then they sent three exceptionally dimwitted engineers to come down there so Rodney could attempt to train them in understanding the interface.

It was less than a day before they were once again called before a full meeting of the council (a rather dryer one this time) and told they'd served their terms fully by virtue of their great contribution to Baj society, and would be sent home with honor and glory and half a ton of assorted minerals and metals and medicines. Not to mention orbital shielding technology and a quarter-charged ZPM.

Rodney started to go when the applause ended, but Kellen put her hand on his arm. "You'll be interested in the next item."

"It is the decision of the council that Lija lo Mallor is guilty of mistreatment of her termsman."

Lija gasped, beautiful eyes wide. "But -- I gave him every luxury! The finest clothes, the choicest foods -- he went with me everywhere! He slept in my own bed and ate off my own plate!" She turned to John, and there were tears trembling on the tips of her lashes. "I thought you loved me!"

John looked like he'd been stabbed through the heart, but Kellen kept him quiet while the knotwoman sighed as if she'd seen this sort of thing before. "The penalty for this violation is a hundred days' term of service. The auction will be scheduled for a fiveday hence."

The young man who'd been trying to comfort Lija stood up suddenly, as did ten other young men, glaring at one another in sudden recognition of their rivals. All over the room, data jellybeans were open as men checked their bank balances and their credit limits.

Kellen looked at her. "I'd be tempted to bid just to teach her a lesson, but I suspect she'd be even more trouble than you were." She looked at Rodney fondly. "Take care of yourself. Any time you want a vacation, come back to visit; there'll always be a place for you." And she gave him a long hug.

Rodney was surprised to discover he was going to miss her. "Can I take the clothes with me?"

The first priority on Atlantis was hustling John into the infirmary, and the second priority was hustling him up to Heightmeyer's office, and Rodney was ashamed of how he made use of John's habit of obedience, except for where he wasn't ashamed at all. He even made an appointment to see Kate himself, since that was the price he had to pay to see John sitting down in her chair as the office door closed.

Nothing much had changed in the labs -- no progress on upgrading the shielding, almost nothing done on the air purifiers. "What did you expect?" Radek said. "You were only gone a couple of months. Miracles, I regret to inform you, did not occur in that time."

"Really?" Rodney said. "It seemed much longer."

All day he kept running into John doing all the old stuff -- working out in the gym, having one of those low-voiced smiling conversations with Elizabeth, sending Lorne's team back for more ammunition, basically putting the skin of Col. Sheppard back over the perfumed body of Lija's Yohn. He wondered how long it would take before the piercings grew closed, and then he opened the file on his oldest and most annoying unsolved problem so he wouldn't have to think about it any more.

At dinnertime, it was strange to have to go get food rather than having it brought to him. "C'mere," Cadman said, sitting down at his table with four other women from the various military divisions. "McKay knows all about how to please a woman now."

"Sure," Rodney said. "In fact, I should probably talk to someone on earth about whether I qualify for certification."

Cadman blinked. "In sex?"

"In massage therapy."

There was a moment of silence, and then Lt. Keynes said, "Are you free for dinner tomorrow? How about Tuesday?"

When he went back to quarters after dinner, it took him an hour to stop expecting a chime summoning him to Kellen. His day was over now, and he was going to sleep alone.

Which was fine, just fine. Sleeping alone on Atlantis was normal.

He barely woke up when the door slid open, just groggily caterpillared over to make room for John to slide into the bed.

When the alarm went off, they ignored it.


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September 21, 2006