Two Way Street
Rating – T, violence, abuse, mentions of attempted non-consensual.
Disclaimer – I do not own Stargate Atlantis. I own some cats, dogs, birds, a rabbit and a few chickens, but nothing Stargate.
Synopsis – "Survival, Sheppard. It's all about survival..." Team fic and (gasp!) team whump! That's right, SD is doing some team whump, with Shep and Rodney getting the brunt of it, since I've been wanting to a team centric fic for a while. Spoilers for various, random episodes so watch out. Takes place after Phantoms and way, way, way, before the Return, because I said so. No slash.
A/N: I wrote this story a long while back but only recently finished it. I have such trouble with endings. Promised fics such as the sequel to Heartbeat are in the works but going slow for the mentioned trouble I have with endings.
You live, you learn, but that's only if you live. Sheppard lived more than he could count but wasn't sure if he had learned anything. Actually, that wasn't true. He learned how deep a human can succumb to evil, that wraith can have hearts, shoot a friend on accident and he'll never let you forget it, and being the biggest pain in the ass he could be actually had merit in saving lives.
For a time.
"Just blend in he says," Rodney panted. "Pretend to be like everyone else he says. We'll sneak off the first chance we get he says. How many days ago was that Colonel?"
John didn't say anything, just glower. He'd said his peace, over and over, each time Rodney had said his, and refused to keep playing that game. He also didn't have the breath to respond between slogging through a muddy road and ensuring Rodney remained upright and in motion.
"What else were we supposed to do?" Ronon growled from behind. He was both taking point at the rear and making sure no one decided to get frisky with the dazed, silent Teyla.
What were they supposed to do? After living three years in the Pegasus Galaxy it seemed rather mind boggling that there was actually a world at war with itself rather than the wraith (John suspected each side sicced the wraith on the other). Two countries duking it out over... Well John wasn't sure what. Their fellow prisoners of war had differing opinions on the matter. Some said land, some said riches, most said their captors were wraith worshippers, only to be challenged by the guards who said the prisoners were the wraith worshippers.
Sheppard's money was on two pissy leaders with more pride than what was healthy, and a century long family feud. This planet had a rather medieval feel, or would have if it hadn't been for the rifles, electric prods, and hypodermics full of drugs.
Sheppard hadn't known what was going on at the time when they'd stumbled onto the road after stepping through the gate. He hadn't known – and never would have fathomed in a million years - that the flood of people trudging over a mired road were prisoners on a death march rather than refugees left over from a culling. So John had seen no reason not to blend in for safety's sake, until Rodney got a prod to the back when his griping got too loud. That had been seven or eight days ago, give or take. John was losing count, Rodney was losing steam, Ronon patience, and Teyla was out of it after being drugged in an attempted rape. John had been drugged stopping it, but the supposed sedatives seemed to have the opposite effect on him. He didn't calm when the drug seared through his veins like acid. He'd been injected two days ago and still felt wired enough to take off at a run for all eternity and never drop.
Ronon was forced to play the good guard dog in order to keep himself from being drugged. Rodney had the theory that the effect was different only for those with the ATA gene, and John wanted Ronon lucid for when escape presented itself.
The day was cold, wet, overcast; like a dreary gray fall, days away from winter. Tall trees like pale pines and redwoods walled in the road dripping water accumulated from the constant drizzle. John's long-sleeved shirt stuck to his body, absorbing the cold like a dry sponge in water. They had left their weapons and tac vests to be less conspicuous. Ronon still had his plethora of hidden knives as their ace but John didn't want to have him whip them out until Teyla was lucid and John got enough food into Rodney to stave off the hypoglycemia. John's jacket had been taken when he wrestled the thugs off of Teyla, leaving him shivering in the wet chill.
They trudged on through the day and into the late night, not stopping until early morning to dine on stale crusts of bread and drink foggy water. John never ate his bread. He saved it for Rodney later in the day. The ever aware Ronon caught on to John's intent quick, and split his pathetic crust in two forcing Sheppard to eat the other half. John didn't argue against it. He hadn't had the heart to ask either Ronon or Teyla to share. Not out of pride, just out of the inability to do that to them. Starving to help Rodney wasn't a choice he was going to force on the others.
It took Rodney longer to catch on. Three days later, the next morning, he nagged John to just split the bread. Rodney didn't need a large portion, just enough to keep the hypoglycemia back.
Another day passed, making... Nine, ten? John knew he might as well give up counting. He wondered, in an exhausted haze, if rescue was around, searching and searching, one step behind for every step John's team took. Dirty, wet, bedraggled, they were blending in quite nicely with the crowd. And with a war making the terrain tricky to scale, John had to temper his hope concerning any sort of an immediate rescue.
Not that he was going to let the others hold back against hope. Ronon was realistic so John didn't even try with him. It was Teyla and Rodney who needed bolstering, Teyla especially. The drug should have worn off by now. John's nerves were no longer trying to writhe out of his body. Teyla, however, still had yet to say anything.
"They'll find us," John said as they hunkered down beneath a tree, eating bread, drinking water from the tin cups, and keeping close to stay warm. Teyla was between Ronon and John, with Rodney's jacket covering her. Rodney was leaning against John, panting heavily.
"When?" he rasped.
"When they find us," John replied, and lifted his shivering hands clutching the cup to gulp back the rest of his water. He tucked the remains of his bread into his mud-flecked BDUs.
Two more days of sloughing through the mud. On the second day, Rodney stumbled and fell nearly bringing John with him. John struggled hauling Rodney to his feet, but couldn't struggle fast enough. One of their gracious hosts strode forward shouting at them to move, didn't wait for a reaction, and stuck a prod into Rodney's ribs. McKay screamed and dropped to the ground convulsing.
Fury ripped through John like a hurricane. "You son of a bitch!" he snarled, and lunged at the guard. The guard was bigger, heavily built, energized on better food and water. He caught John by the throat and slammed him to the ground. The big man planted his booted foot on John's chest to hold him down so he could whip out a needle and fill it full of the misty gray liquid from a small, metal bottle. The medieval looking man tapped the air bubbles from the syringe, then plunged it into the side of John's neck.
The stuff burned as it snaked through John's veins, and absorbed into his nerves fast. Sweat beaded his brow, and his heart hammered fit to explode. He could hardly breathe, fogging his brain with panic, doubling his rage to become the only emotion he knew. He roared out in his confusion and fury, and grabbed the man's ankle to yank the foot off his chest. The man dropped to the ground. John rolled to his chest, then into a crouch, and pounced, pounding the man's face with the intent of caving it in, screaming out his rage until his ribs constricted his lungs. Hands from all sides grabbed him to pull him away. His rage rose to a new level, and he kicked, writhed, screamed, even attempted to scratch and bite. He was thrust roughly to the pliable ground, only to scramble back up and lunge at whoever was closest. Fists rained down on him, so he rained back with his own fists that met flesh with a solid smack or satisfying crunch.
John was blind with rage and high on an adrenaline rush he had never felt before. He felt indestructible, didn't acknowledge the blows, didn't see the blood dripping from his face. He felt nothing but the heat of fury and the bass drum beat of his infuriated heart.
"Oh just shoot the lunatic!" someone shouted, distant, like a voice out of a dream.
"No! Let me go! I'll calm him. I'll calm him!" This voice a little louder, less like a dream and more like someone calling to him. John's arms were suddenly pinned to his sides. He snarled and roared in rage trying to buck, writhe, and kick his way free.
"Sheppard! Sheppard stop! Listen to me!"
John knew that voice, a voice that couldn't fuel his rage, and one that he knew better than not to listen to.
"Sheppard, calm down and listen. This won't help Rodney. This won't help any of us especially if you end up dead."
Rodney... Rodney was hurt. He needed to check on Rodney. And Teyla, she wasn't well. This wasn't the time... Too soon...
John stopped struggling and cautiously went limp in the bigger man's arms. His heart jackhammered, his body thrummed with the need to react and he couldn't push his mind through the smothering haze that made the world tilt around him. He heard voices shouting in a ringing cacophony that throbbed nauseatingly against his eardrums. John closed his eyes in an attempt to shut out sight and fight against his rapid breathing.
"That shouldn't have happened," someone said, a male voice deep and rough.
"Something's wrong with him," said another.
"Just kill him," another.
"No, wait, this could come in handy..."
"Maybe we should try something else..."
"He'd make a good fighter. Put him in the circle for a few rounds. With that stuff in him, he can't lose..."
John was trembling uncontrollably, as though one quake-level away from a seizure.
"Sheppard?" Ronon's warm breath brushed against his ear. John nodded.
"I'm all right," he panted. "All right..." He needed to check on Rodney.
Ronon's hold remained for a moment, then gradually, hesitantly, loosened. John stumbled two steps and shook his head to clear it. He turned and stumbled drunkenly, body vibrating with so much energy it actually scared him. He dropped to his knees in the mud beside Rodney's huddled form and placed his hand on the shuddering man's shoulder. Rodney flinched with a quiet gasp, curled tighter, and shivered harder.
"Rodney?" John said. Rodney rolled his head to look up at John. The pain and shocked terror in Rodney's eyes was hard to look at. John swallowed.
"You all right?"
Rodney swallowed as well. "M-my side's killing me..." he chuckled, almost hysterically, "like a son of a bitch."
John smiled falteringly back. "As long as you're alive pal. Come on, I'll help you up."
John took Rodney's arm and slung it across his shoulders, and took Rodney's weight as he lifted the scientist to his feet. They started at a stagger forward, then soon resumed the walk, with Ronon beside them keeping a mute and distantly staring Teyla close. John felt a hand press into his back between the shoulder blades and give him a shove.
"You'll pay for what you did," a voice hissed behind him, "you scrawny little sack of filth."
John ran his tongue over his mouth inside and out catching the sour metallic tang of blood on the tip, and smiled.
Another day, and Teyla still hadn't spoken. She also wouldn't eat. The three men coaxed her, with John in a crouch, holding the bread out to her. His body shook with the drug that still permeated his system, wiring him to the point that every snap of a twig or abruptly loud voice made him start and tense at the ready. A guard walked by with a rifle in hand, and stopped to watch with a half-smirk as the three men tried to get the small woman to eat. Ronon looked at the man warningly, but John looked at him dangerously. He tensed, spine curved like a pissed tom cat, with every intent of charging if the guard so much as twitched one step closer. A light pat on his back made him flinch but never move.
"Easy boy. Be good and we all live a little longer," Rodney mumbled.
John smiled ferally and his body jerked with quiet snickering, but he never took his eyes from the potential interloper. John put his arm across Teyla's shoulders and pulled her to him protectively, shielding her from the guard's gaze while still presenting the bread to her.
The guard saw something in John's eyes he didn't like. The man's smile faltered, and he moved on.
John felt movement, and looked down as Teyla's shaking hand placed itself over the bread, then pull the bread away. She nibbled on it a little at a time with her head resting against John's chest. John released a breath of relief. He felt another gentle pat on his back from Rodney, and got a small smile from Ronon. John adjusted himself so he and Teyla could be more comfortable, but kept his eyes out toward the road, following whoever passed by – prisoner or guard.
Two more days, and the team had something new to worry about.
The circle – a spot of bare road marked by stones for the purpose of gambling through fights. The prize for the prisoner who won was extra rations. Ronon had been in a few ring fights, and naturally won. Now it was John's turn as he was literally dragged from sleep, injected with the serum, and tossed into the ring. There was no blind rage, only blind terror as he fought to defend himself. The fights weren't to the death (waste of good slave labor according to the guards) but if death happened it was no skin off the guards' teeth. John fought like an animal; pounding, kicking, even biting. His opponent was bigger but John was lithe and agile. He moved fast and suddenly, burning with both natural and chemically produced adrenaline.
His opponent dropped, and still John pounded away until he was pulled off. An armed guard ran into the circle and checked the opponent's pulse. He looked up, round eyed and pale.
The announcement hit John like ice-water and he jolted. Dead? Who had died? John didn't recall why he'd been fighting, and his inability to completely remember scared him. He was dragged back to his friends huddled at the base of a wide-trunked tree with spongy pale bark, and dumped in front of them. John remained on his hands and knees staring at the mossy ground between the road and the tree. Something cold and wet touch his, so he instinctively snatched it back.
John looked up at Rodney's pale face, into his sunken blue eyes. Rodney stared back at John hard, and reached out again, slowly, wrapping his fingers around John's wrist and tugging.
" What happened?" he asked. " You're covered in blood." He pulled John closer to them, despite the blood. He positioned John between himself and Teyla, who still wouldn't talk.
John shook his head. "I – I don't remember..." he stammered. He looked at Rodney, hoping for answers, but Rodney's only reply was a look of frightened bewilderment. So John looked at Ronon. Ronon's gaze was fierce, angry, and it made John cringe. Then the runner's gaze softened, and he shook his head.
" Self-defense," he rumbled. " That's all you need to know."
Yeah right. It happened again the next day. Fighting, blindly, lashing out with everything he had until he was once again pulled away. This time no one died. His opponent had fallen to his hands and knees, and that's when those watching ended the fight. John was brought back to his friends. Ronon looked pissed, but Rodney looked afraid, and that made John afraid.
"What did I do?" he begged. He honestly couldn't remember, except that there had been blood, and blood usually accompanied death.
Ronon just shook his head. " Doesn't matter. Don't worry about it."
John, shivering and panting, saliva and blood flying from his mouth in thin threads, shook his head. " No... No... I – I did something..."
Ronon gave John a cold look that could have withered the trees around them, but did make Rodney shrink away.
"It – does – not – matter," Ronon enunciated low and dangerous.
John didn't care. He was tired of this haze, of the violence and the pain that came out of nowhere leaving him shaken and painted in blood. John Sheppard killed when he had to and knew what he was doing when he did. The act became a separate part of him when it was a necessity - an alter ego, a tool - and after all was said and done he was able to detach it from himself and shut it away for future need.
He needed to know if he was killing for a purpose. Saving a life? Then whose life? He needed to know so he could shut it away. He never killed – never hurt – unless he had no other choice, and that was the only time.
John dug his fingers into the mud like claws sinking into flesh. The mud oozed between his fingers, cold and pliable, until his fingers curled inward for the nails to bite into his palm.
"What did I do!" he roared sending crimson flecks of foam spraying from his mouth. Now it was John Rodney was cringing away from, Teyla with him without looking at John. Sheppard recoiled back in alarm at their reactions, and realized his stance was in an attack position, with back curved and everything, ready to pounce. John eased back onto his haunches and wrapped his arms around his knees to come across as harmless as possible, then looked away.
"Never mind," he muttered. If Rodney and Teyla were afraid of him, then obviously he'd done something wrong.
"You did what you had to do, Sheppard," Ronon said. John looked over at him.
"Which was?" he challenged.
Ronon shrugged. "Live so we can get out of here."
John supposed that was good enough. It had to be since he knew for a fact Ronon wasn't going to expand on the matter any further.
It was Ronon who next reached out taking John by the wrist and gently tugging to pull Sheppard toward them. But Sheppard steered himself to sit on Ronon's other side, away from Teyla and McKay. He didn't want to be near them with the way he was feeling, not after scaring the hell out of them. He leaned forward enough to look at Teyla. Her head was turned away staring beyond everything with eyes of glass. They still had to prod and coax her to eat.
She was a strong woman. Even as she was now, John would never think otherwise. She just needed time, that was all. They'd gotten to her in time, before the men had proceeded on to the unspeakable. Problem was, they hadn't arrived to stop the violation before it began. Violation not by one, but by five. Sex hadn't been forced on her, but beneath Rodney's jacket nothing remained of Teyla's shirt.
John's blood resumed burning with rage, rising like lava, until Ronon's heavy hand planted itself on his shoulder to snap him from it.
"Not yet," he whispered.
John was starting to wonder when 'yet' would come. Guards were everywhere, and if not guards then desperate prisoners willing to snitch for a little more bread. Breaks were once a day and short lived, and the last guy who tried to take off into the night was last heard yelping after the crack of rifle fire deep in the woods.
This wasn't their world. Hard as Sheppard had tried, he no longer knew the direction to the 'gate.
All they had to hang onto was a rescue that had no idea where the hell to find them. Maybe the Daedalus, but that had still been weeks away from arriving.
Three more days came and went, with no fights after that. The road curved, and the forest opened into a small green valley surrounded by storm gray mountains capped in white nearly to the base. There was a massively long hill bisecting the valley where people moved like ants over its grassy surface. Within the valley were tents of soiled white cloth, and at the top of the hill was what looked to be a wall of stones in the throes of being constructed.
Fortification. Hills were always strategic locations – the high ground – and having a defensive wall only made it better. Sheppard vaguely surmised that beyond the mountains was something important, perhaps a city or the capital. Either that, or there was a plan to bring a battle here for the sake of reducing a crap-load of the enemy's number.
John was thinking all this just to be thinking about something other than his racing heart and nerve-shattering agitation. The serum was acting even more deliberate about being metabolized.
The prisoners were hustled down into the valley toward the base of the hill where the tents were scattered. The guards called for a halt ten feet from the tents. A tall, bald man dressed in leather and furs strolled purposefully toward the mass of exhausted trekkers followed by several burly, leather and fur-clad escorts. The man stopped five feet from the gathered.
"Here it is then," he called. "You wish to live, then you work. You take the stones brought in from the quarry and add them to the wall. Refuse to work, try to escape, and death will come slowly and painfully... Mostly to any loved ones or friends that happen to be with you, then to you should your lesson not be learned. Now get to work. You eat when evening comes."
That said, the task-master strolled away back to the tents. A guard bellowed and the prisoners were escorted around the encampment to the hill where piles of rocks waited to be hauled up the side.
Rodney groaned. "This is gonna suck."
John shrugged and attempted a weak smile, clasping Rodney on the shoulder. "Just... think of all the exercise you'll be getting."
Rodney's head turned slowly to regard Sheppard as though he'd sprouted two heads. "This is really not the time to attempt the positive, Sheppard."
John gave Rodney a helpless look. Damned if the genius wasn't right.
John and Ronon made sure to seek out the smaller rocks for Rodney and Teyla to carry. They trudged up the hill with the rocks, and half-walked/half slid back down without. It was no different than trudging through the mud, at least to John it wasn't. Rodney begged to differ. He was the first to start stumbling and falling, sliding back down, which earned him too many prods to count. John finally resorted to hauling both rocks and Rodney up by hooking one arm through Rodney's and yanking him up whenever he started to fall. Ronon caught on fast, and changed places with John when John started to falter. Teyla moved mechanically and never faltered.
Strong, no matter her state of mind.
By midday, or what John guessed to be midday, he was no longer cold. In fact, if it wasn't for the chilled breezes, he would have forgotten it was verging on winter here. On their return trip to the pile, John removed his shirt and tied the arms of it around his waist. He was about to bend to pick up another rock when he noticed Rodney staring at him, wide-eyed, blanching, and just a little melancholy.
John looked down at his own body, at the mess of bruises, blindingly red scabbing cuts, and protruding ribs. John was somewhat shocked himself.
"When the hell did that happen?" he said, going for light, then shrugged like it was no big deal - because it wasn't - and lifted another rock.
Ronon had gone shirtless a little while before John. The man's muscle tone hadn't changed but there was a bit more visibility of bone. Rodney refused to go shirtless, not matter how much he sweat or how the shirt was probably chafing him.
"You'll feel better, Rodney," John tried to cajole.
Rodney's breath was ragged and heavy as he lugged the rock up with John pulling him along. "Yeah..." he panted. "Somehow I doubt that."
"I think we're a little beyond trying to scrounge for dignity," John countered.
"Doesn't mean I can't try."
If Rodney was trying to hide the changes beneath his clothes, he was failing miserably. His shirt was hanging from him - his shirt had never hung from him – and his shoulders were looking a little sharp under the fading material.
Stone grated against stone as they piled them onto the wall, smashing fingers, nicking them, scraping their palms. The next time Rodney fell, it was right on his knee, and his outcry of pain clapped through the valley like a gunshot. John's heart shot into his throat when a guard stomped toward them. He he pulled Rodney to his feet and half-dragged him up the hill before the man and his shock-stick could get to them. Once at the top, Rodney deposited his burden and leaned onto the wall gasping for every molecule of oxygen as though it were water.
"I – I – I can't... Can't do this..." he gasped. John clasped him on the back while keeping his sights fixed as best he could on every stick brandishing bruiser in their vicinity.
"Sure you can, McKay. Mind over matter. Just try not to think about it and you'll make it 'til nightfall."
McKay shook his beet-red head. " No... Bunch of... unproven... crap. Freakin'... Joke. I can't..."
John's lip pulled back from his teeth when he saw a bruiser approach from the other side. He pulled his gaze away and leaned in to Rodney's ear.
"You can and you will, McKay," he hissed. "You can do this, you've been doing this, and I'll keep helping you. Just don't give up now."
" Why? What's the... Point?"
John pulled Rodney away from the wall and hustled him back down the drizzle-slick hill. "There's always a point McKay. You survived being underwater and on a damn hive ship. Are you seriously going to tell me that you're going to let some damn hill defeat you? No way McKay. Like I'm letting you lose to some stupid landscape feature."
"If we survive this," McKay wheezed, " and I ever have to climb another hill again... I'm taking your precious C-4 and blowing it to hell."
John smiled and laughed softly. "That's the spirit, McKay."
Nightfall came early but the work dragged on until a trumpet blared, followed by voices shouting for everyone to pretty much drop what they were doing and gather at the base of the hill to receive their rations. Every intake of breath scraped John's trachea raw. He dragged his weary body along with McKay's even more weary body back down the hill. Ronon alongside Teyla veered toward them, and they managed to sit together when they reached the bottom. They sat Indian style shoulder to shoulder, touching elbows or knees to elbows or knees. Ronon had one arm draped over Teyla's shoulders feigning her as his 'property' to keep the ones leering in her direction at bay.
He didn't look happy about it, and Teyla seemed not to notice any of it.
Bowls were passed down, and a thin porridge ladled into them by a man in greasy clothes and with a bulging gut lugging along a black kettle pot. The tin cups came next, and the cook's twiggy assistant limping down the line ladling water from a bucket. Sheppard wasn't too sure about this arrangement, until a third assistant – short and squat – hobbled along the line tossing everyone a small chunk of bread. This John liked, and he slipped his portion into Rodney's pocket.
They were silent as they drank their dinner, except to urge Teyla now and then to eat her own. When John finished, he followed the lead of his fellow prisoners and tossed the bowl in front of him to be picked up later. When the bowls were retrieved, the prisoners were ordered to sleep where they sat. John moved to have Rodney and Teyla between himself and Ronon. He tugged his shirt back on and scooted closer to Rodney.
"Suck it up, McKay," he said. " It's the only way we're going to stay warm."
Rodney curled his lip in displeasure but kept his mouth shut. John couldn't hold back a small grimace of his own. He didn't bristle about the whole touchy/feely thing like McKay, yet neither did he tolerate it all that well.
The team packed in and lay on the ground, back to back or arm to arm, whichever way their stirring, restless, shivering attempt at sleep pointed them. The moist grass took its sweet time about warming – barely – leaving John's other flank open to the assault of the icy breezes. He felt Rodney shivering against his back, and heard his shuddering inhales and exhales. John stared into the overcast sky like the black ceiling of a light-less dungeon.
Ah, crap, let them please find us, he begged to no one in particular, or to whoever was listening. There were times he didn't want to believe that someone was listening, and times he couldn't help but wonder if there was. He'd survived a wraith feeding, for crying out loud – and was still young. That said something, meant something, he just wasn't sure what. That someone was listening, watching, caring, whatever? It was getting harder and harder to doubt. Even here and now because of everything else that came before.
I blame the Maker and he still doesn't hate me. John gritted his teeth to keep the laughter trapped in his chest from bubbling up and out. In what was an official darkest hour, he was starting to crack and show some faith. Wouldn't Rodney just love that.
So bring on the miracles. John wouldn't call himself reborn or anything, it just didn't hurt to ask for a little help now and then.
Morning came so fast it seemed unnatural, or maybe nights were as short as days on this world. John started awake to the blaring of a trumpet that sounded like a dying sheep, and lifted his heavy head on a stiff neck off the ground. People moaned, groaned, and yawned all around him. John struggled against stiffened muscles and aching joints into a sitting position. He had to help Rodney, who uttered broken cries of pain when he forced his overtaxed muscles to do as they were told. Rodney leaned heavily against John as the bowls were handed down and porridge slopped out. Water came next, and John barely got halfway through both when the trumpet sounded again and the foreman shouted viciously for everyone to get to work.
Up the hill and down the hill, with Sheppard doing twice the work as he aided an aching, already exhausted Rodney. There was a brief respite during the middle of the day in which bread was handed out. Water was made available in communal buckets at the bottom of the hill. Later in the day, when Rodney's hypoglycemia tried to rear its ugly head, John pulled the bread from Rodney's pocket and forced him to eat it fast as they staggered down the hill.
The next day, Rodney could barely move, he was so stiff, and John could barely help him. He didn't notice when Rodney's arm slipped away from his, or see Rodney stumble back and fall to go rolling down the hill. It was the cry of pain that got John to whirl around in time to witness a guard kick Rodney in the back and jab the business end of the electric stick into the physicist's side. Rodney's back arched off the ground and his mouth opened wide to release a gutteral cry.
"No!" John screamed. He dropped his rock and ran down the hill dropping to his knees by Rodney's side. He knocked the prod away, and draped himself over Rodney shielding the scientist's body with his own.
"Leave him alone!" John snarled, seething, glaring, wishing death-stares weren't just a metaphor.
The guard was indifferent. Actually, he looked bored. He placed one calloused, dirty hand on his hip, and tapped his thigh with the stick.
"Get off," the guard said.
John pulled Rodney closer to him, and shook his head. "No."
The guard looked up and waved someone over. Seconds later – burning agony. John arched back with a bellow of pain at the electric fire ripping through his spine radiating from the point where a prod met the flesh of his bare back.
" Get off!" the guard sneered. The fire ended, and John fell limply forward over Rodney.
Again, John shook his head no.
The man rolled his eyes. " Oh for..." then nodded.
John wasn't met with another surge of electricity tearing through him, he was met with a hard blow across his shoulders, then electricity.
" Get off!" The big bad guard with the big bad stick was getting mad. John almost laughed out loud, but bit it back in favor of avoiding future electronically induced seizures.
Another blow, then another, lower this time, and sharper. John could have sworn he heard something crack. Following that came the electricity that turned the pain from a throb to a body-wide riot. John screamed, arching, but never relented his protection over Rodney. Unfortunately it didn't matter. The pain had debilitated him enough to be pulled away no matter how he kicked and struggled. The bruiser over Rodney shocked and shocked again, over and over until Rodney had no breath left to scream and his body twitched and squirmed in absolute agony. The guard kicked Rodney a good one in the chest, sniffed, jerked his shoulders to adjust his coat, and walked away. The man holding John released him by shoving him to the ground.
John scrambled on hands and knees to Rodney.
"McKay?" John's heart raced with panic and from the lingering affects of getting shocked. His hands shook as he took the hem of Rodney's shirt and lifted it. Bile rose burning into the back of John's throat. Rodney's body was splotched with bruises like continents on a white ocean, and dotted in perfectly round burns from the sticks.
"Son of a..." Sheppard breathed. He lowered Rodney's shirt and rolled the man onto his back. Rodney's face was colorless, and pinched in pain. John gently patted both of McKay's cheeks.
"Come on, Rodney, open your eyes. You need to get up before Attila and his cattle prod get their second wind."
Rodney's head rocked from side to side with breaths exhaling on a whimper.
"Yes, Rodney, come on. It's over, you can open your eyes now."
"It'll never be over," Rodney breathed on a sob.
John's chest constricted leaking into his throat, making it momentarily hard to breathe. "Y-yes it will. Come on Rodney, you've gotta get up before they come back, please."
John was scared, and without realizing it had conveyed that fear through voice. It worked though, in it's own way. Rodney's eyes blinked open to stare at John and reflect his fear. Rodney's breathing increased, and his hands reached up scrambling over John's bare, filthy, sweat slicked shoulders.
" Help.. Help me up," he begged. John grabbed both of Rodney's arms and yanked him to his feet. Rodney stumbled and nearly fell. John, however, kept hold of his arms until the normally petulant man found his footing.
John ducked to look into Rodney's face. "All right?"
Rodney nodded and gulped. "Yeah... yeah, I will be."
John nodded back, and together they headed on down the hill to retrieve more rocks.
Night came, and with it the longer, more blessed respite.
John slipped his bread into McKay's pocket. In between drinking his own porridge, he joined with Ronon to get Teyla to drink her own.
"That's him, that's the one."
John snapped his head up to see the tall, bald-headed task-master moving toward them, flanked by his muscled entourage, and led by a guard John didn't recognize what with the man's hood being up. John stiffened, setting down his bowl and scooting slightly forward to have Teyla and Rodney behind him. Ronon mirrored the action.
"Those two, actually," the hooded man sad. " Took me the whole night to find them, but they're the ones you want."
Cue-ball nodded, rubbing his jaw. "Right then. Bring 'em to the ring."
John's heart slammed against his sternum. "Oh no."
The muscled entourage surged forward to grab both Ronon and John.
"Rodney!" John called as the larger men dragged him away. "Rodney, watch Teyla!"
The last thing he saw before a tent blocked his view was Rodney scooting closer to Teyla. John and Ronon were shoved and prodded along toward what was relatively the center of the encampment and a clearing where a large ring of stones had been set up. They were brought to a stop outside the ring and before an audience of guards leaning on their weapons, against rifle racks, or eachother's shoulders. Cue-ball stepped around the men holding John and Ronon. With a nod of his bald head, John's shirt was forceably removed, and Ronon's followed after. Cue-ball looked both men over, lingering on Ronon, then chuckling as he studied Sheppard.
The task-master gestured at John. " Him? He's been your champion? You can't be serious. I can see every bone in the man's body."
The hooded guard pulled a syringe from his pocket, uncapped it, and filled it from the small metal bottle produced out of his other pocket. "I'll grant he needs a little incentive," hoody said. He grabbed John by the hair tilting his neck to the side, and stabbed the needle into a vein. "But I assure you, this man is quite the vicious little brute. A real animal. You saw the bruises on half the boys. We were almost forced to shoot him."
The serum burned, and John's heart thundered faster and faster like a stampede of wild horses. He was shoved into the ring along with Ronon, and the audience lifted their weapons to shake while hooting, whistling, and shouting cat-calls.
"The skinny one's dead," someone shouted as though it were a matter of fact.
John whipped his head in Ronon's direction. The Satedan was staring at him, and it was a stare John couldn't fathom through the haze slowly slicking his mind. It looked almost like... Resolve; peaceful resolve?
"I can handle whatever you throw at me, Sheppard," Ronon said. "I'll live, so don't worry about anything else."
John began trembling. The haze wasn't thick enough yet for John not to understand what the former runner was getting at. John shook his head.
"No. Ronon, you don't know what this stuff does to me, you can't..."
Ronon cut him off by charging him and slugging him across the face. John was snapped sideways and stumbled back until he fell to his knees. He shook his head trying to clear it. Instead, the haze thickened, voices became muffled echoes and the world tilted beyond his control. He felt an impact to his side, not hard, just enough to topple him. Instinct took over where common sense had no place, and John swept his legs in an arch until they connected. He heard a thud and a grunt, and looked up to see Ronon on his back. John pushed himself to his feet in panic and hurried over to the runner.
Ronon leaped to his feet and slugged John again, and again, driving him back until the haze darkened and John struck back without realizing. He didn't know what was going on, couldn't recall why Ronon was attacking him, so fell to natural reactions and fought back. He slugged Ronon over and over, crying out his fear and confusion each time his fist met flesh and bone. Ronon went with the punches then finally blocked the blows with his wrists. Ronon shoved John back, but John didn't go far when he rushed Ronon and tackled him to the ground. John reached for Ronon's throat, so Ronon grabbed both his wrists holding him back. Even doped up on the serum, Ronon was still stronger.
John curled his fingers into fists. This was Ronon. He was hurting Ronon, and John couldn't remember why. He tried to pull away except Ronon wouldn't let him.
" Keep it up, Sheppard," he said.
John struggled trying to extract his arms from Ronon's vice grip. " Why? Why... What's going on... Ronon, what the hell!" He was terrified. He wanted to break free and run before he... or Ronon, he wasn't sure... Did something they would regret.
Ronon rocked from side to side until enough momentum had gathered for him to roll so that he was on top and John was underneath. He placed his knee on Sheppard's thin chest without applying pressure, and kept a good hold on Sheppard's wrists.
"Hit me," Ronon urged. "Hard as you can." He released Sheppard's arms. Sheppard just stared at him in horror.
"Do it, Sheppard," Ronon growled, then smiled flashing blood-flecked teeth. " You trust me, right?"
"Then hit me."
So John balled his fist and struck as hard as he could. Ronon grunted, then grunted again when he fell to his side and remained where he was, motionless. John rolled to his knees and crawled closer to Ronon. The runner's eyes were open, blinking drunkenly as he tried to clear his head. John reached out a trembling hand placing it on Ronon's shoulder.
A small, twitchy smile curled the Satedan's lips, and his chest heaved in a quiet chuckle. "Good hit, Sheppard," he said. "Think you knocked a few teeth lose."
John shook his head. He didn't get what was so funny, and couldn't remember why he'd hit Ronon. He didn't have time to ask when he was pulled away form his friend to be dumped unceremoniously outside the circle. Guards swarmed around Ronon in a crouch, pointing at him, feeling him over, and generally discussing him like he was a piece of beef about to be bought. John attempted to move back to Ronon only to be grabbed and restrained. John pulled against the ones holding him back, then stepped it up to struggling.
"What are you doing, leave him alone!" John screamed. Struggling escalated to frantic until he spun around and decked the one holding him. Guards descended on him from all sides to grab him and bring him to the ground snarling, clawing, even biting whatever hand got too close to his mouth. He heard laughter, and looked up to see cue-ball standing over him with arms folded, looking down.
"I like this fellow." The task master folded his legs in a squat. He rubbed his jaw, then reached out to press his fingers to the side of John's throat over the pulse-point. "He's got energy to spare. Let's keep him on the serum, see if that steps up his productivity. Know why the serum does this to him?"
The hooded man shook his head. "No Master Vranum."
Vranum nodded and chewed his lip. "Too bad. It's very handy in him. Take them back, let them rest." Vranum said. He stood and walked away. John was pulled to his feet, still restrained, and saw Ronon being pulled to his feet. Both men were given their shirts and man-handled back to where Rodney and Teyla huddled. Rodney straightened when Ronon and John were dumped down in front of him.
"What happened? You guys all right? Where'd they take you? Why are you covered in blood?" Rodney reached out toward John. The moment his fingertips met his arm, John flinched back and turned to Ronon.
"Ronon? What...? What did I do? I can't... I don't remember." All he did remember was fighting Ronon, not why. Ronon pulled his shirt over his head sneering to hide a grimace of pain. When he finished, he crawled over toward John. John shrank away and scuttled back. Ronon stopped, sat back, and held up both hands. With one hand, he reached out deliberately and took John's shirt. He bunched it around the neck, and with the same methodical – gentle - caution, placed it over John's head.
"You did what I asked you to do," he said. " If I won, they would have killed you. You win, you still have a use, and I still have a use. Survival, Sheppard. It's all about survival, so don't worry about anything else. Now get dressed before you freeze."
John shakily tugged his shirt the rest of the way over his body. Ronon looked him over darkly, making John nervous.
"You all right?" the runner asked.
John swallowed and tried to asses how he felt; the throbbing aches, sharp pains, and an oil-slick film over his mind that wouldn't let him think straight. His heart wouldn't stop pounding, he wouldn't stop shaking, and his skin felt like it was trying to crawl off his bones.
John twitched his head. " I... I don't know. I don't know."
Ronon stared at John for a little while longer. He then reached out wrapping his fingers around John's upper arm. Ronon tugged on that arm until John finally relented into scooting closer and becoming a part of the huddle for warmth.
The next morning, John paid little attention to the work, and more to the guards spread throughout the hill. He pulled Rodney along, never letting him fall, and when he stumbled made sure to straighten him out before any of the guards noticed. More serum had been shoved into John's veins until his body hummed with an energy that frightened him. Moving fast and moving constantly with McKay in tow kept him from giving in to the inexplicable desire to run -even if it was just to run in circles until he collapsed. He wasn't just getting sick of this energy, he hated it. It was too much for one body to take, especially a body that was supposed to be collapsing from exhaustion by now.
"S-slow... Slow down..." Rodney gasped
John complied though it made his muscles twitch in agitation. He looked over at Rodney who was fighting just to keep his legs straight and breathe without gasping like a dying fish. It made John's heart clench in terror. Rodney wasn't doing well. He wasn't going to make it. They needed to get out of here...
John snapped his head around to the bearded guard slapping his prod into the palm of his hand. "Just dump him. He's dead weight and slowing you down. You need to pick up the pace..."
John dropped his rock to ball his fists, and bared his teeth clenching them in a rising flood of rage.
"Back off!" He growled, taking a step toward the guard that was eying Rodney like the dead weight he claimed him to be. The guard went rigid and took a step back with prod tight in his grip.
"Now just calm yourself there, boy. There's to be no trouble..."
"Then shut up and leave us alone!" John gripped Rodney's arm tight and pulled him, dragging him, up the hill though neither still carried their rocks. Rodney slumped over the wall with each breath a rattling effort in its course. John, rocking back and forth from foot to foot, alternately rubbed and patted Rodney's shoulder.
"It's all right it's all right it's good they won't do anything it's all right..."
Rodney's head rolled in John's direction, and bloodshot eyes rolled up to look at him. "No it's not," he rasped. "I can't do this for much longer and you... That serum's screwing you up."
John shivered from more than just the cold brushing his bare, filthy skin. He nodded convulsively. " I know, I know, I know... It, uh... It doesn't feel right, McKay, I don't feel right. But they won't hurt you, any of you, I promise, I won't let them, it's all right..."
Rodney sighed, a defeated sound, and reached up with a trembling hand to place on John's sharp, naked shoulder. "What about you?"
John's eyes wouldn't stop darting around to the guards that were watching them like vultures waiting for death. "Huh? Me?"
"They're hurting you, John."
John flinched at McKay's use of his first name.
"I'm fine... um... Fine."
McKay lifted his tired body resting his weight on his shaking arms. "Bull. You just said you weren't fine."
"I will be."
McKay shook his head. "Not if we stay here much longer." His hand slid across John's shoulder to his neck, where his fingers pressed against the pulse point. "If your heart goes any faster, it's going to explode. This isn't natural Sheppard. And it's only a matter of time before one of us drops."
John cringed, ever so slightly. "What am I supposed to do about it?" No sarcasm laced that question. He honestly wanted to know. He was scared, terrified, with every beat of his slamming heart. It was a fear so strong it betrayed itself on John's features. He knew this when he saw the fear flickering through Rodney's eyes diminish like a sputtering candle, leaving the charred remains of empty despair.
When Lt. Colonel John Sheppard was afraid, then all were screwed. John realized this with a jolt that physically rocked him. It's why he fought never to show fear. Leaders weren't supposed to show fear. It was dangerous to show fear.
At that very moment, John despised his position in life, his rank, his leadership. It didn't allow him the simplicity of giving in – not to fear, not to any emotion. He was supposed to be the strong one to give strength to everyone else. That was his job, his responsibility. He was supposed to keep hope alive so that it continued to burn in those he led, even if it was just pretend after hope had smoldered out of existence from him a long time ago.
He was the stoker of flames, the light that guided, that beckoned, pushing onward and dragging everyone with him where ever they went, never letting them drop...
John despised it, despised all of it. He couldn't do it, he couldn't...
You have to. They'll die if you don't. No choice.
John shook with a combination of rage and terror.
No choice, no choice, no choice. Look at Rodney. He's dying, giving up, because you can't even pretend you're handling things. Rodney looked sick. Pale, sunken-eyes like bruises, labored breathing, and shaking limbs. He was growing thin, wasting away right in front of John. Losing to a damn hill.
John shook his head fiercely.
"Uh-uh," he gritted, and grabbed Rodney's arm, holding him up as they trudged back down the hill. "We'll be all right. You'll be all right. You, Ronon, Teyla, you will. You will!" he roared, causing Rodney to flinch, which was good. Fear would give him energy. It would help.
John was wrong.
When the next morning came, Rodney couldn't move. John had to help him lift his bowl of porridge to drink. Then the trumpet sounded and the prisoners forced their wasted bodies to move. A man came injecting John with the serum, then moved on. John's body continued to thrum from yesterday's injection. Today's made every nerve ending feel as though insects were shredding them piece by piece. He rose and tugged on Rodney's arm trying to get him to move.
"Come on, come on," John urged. He really was dragging Rodney's dead weight up the hill today. Rodney shook his limp head on his weak neck.
"Rodney come on! Get up, please!"
John knelt and slid his arms beneath Rodney's armpits trying to haul him up only to be brought back down. "Rodney!" John both snarled and begged. He looked up to see a guard moving toward them. But instead of having his prod at the ready, the guard unslung his rifle. John's heart slammed hard enough to jerk his body, and the breath caught in his throat.
"Rodney move! Please! They're going to kill you!"
That got Rodney struggling to his feet with the moist grass making them slip out from under him. He really couldn't do it, no matter how hard he tried.
"Rodney please!" John snarled and sobbed.
Rodney grabbed John's shoulders, and used him to pull himself up. He turned keeping one hand on John's shoulder to steady himself, when the valley reverberated with the thunder of gun fire. Rodney cried out and went down with his left hand going to his right shoulder.
"Rodney no!" John screamed, dropping with Rodney, landing on his knees. Rodney rolled side to side and his legs kicked while blood oozed between his pale fingers from his shoulder. Ronon came running over, Teyla with him, her eyes wide, her face empty of color.
"Rodney!" she cried, dropping at his head and lifting it to set in her lap. Ronon was crouched on Rodney's other side.
McKay's terrified eyes were locked onto John's face.
"He shot me," he croaked. "He... I was up..."
John nodded, but could barely hear Rodney above the roar in his ears. John tore his gaze away from Rodney to the guard standing passively by leaning on his rifle. John's lip curled, as did his back.
"John no!" he heard Teyla say, but it was background noise smothered by the scream of his blood. John pushed off from the ground and tore over the hill to leap at the guard who was never given time to even widen his eyes. He tackled the guard, and once the man was on the ground, pounded his face again and again, screaming out a fury that could have burned John from the inside out. He was only vaguely aware of hands gripping him trying to pull him away, so he fought them, all of them. He whipped around lashing out with his fists, striking faces and other body parts. He kicked, lunged, punched, elbowed, head-butted, anything he could think of. He fought with no real goal in mind, just the desire to feel the blood of others soak his hands to smother the blood pouring from his friend's body.
The consequence was to be beaten back. The strikes he barely felt, but knew they existed. Blows to his head, back, legs, arms, chest, ribs, stomach, everywhere. As he fought, others fought in tandem. Yet the pain was nothing to him. He felt nothing because it might as well be just a dream. He wanted it to be a dream. He wanted to wake up to warmth and his hands clean of bruises and blood. He wanted to dress, walk out, enter the mess hall where Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney would be waiting as they should be, as they used to be. Clean and smiling and...
Another crack of gunfire ripped into the real dream. The sound faltered John's animal frenzy enough for hands to pin him chest down in the grass. Another hand dug into his hair and forced his head up to see Cue-ball standing behind Teyla with something akin to a pistol pressed to her temple. Another man was behind Ronon with the business end of a rifle at his head.
"Calm yourself sir," Cue-ball purred. "You should think this through most carefully. Continue to resist and I will be forced to put an iron pellet into this lovely young woman's head. Acquiesce, and you and your compatriots will remain unharmed. We will even allow you to care for your wounded friend lying on the ground, casually succumbing to death. But you must cooperate. You are an excellent fighter sir, and worker. I would rather have your cooperation, if you don't mind."
John looked from the rigid but resigned Teyla to the glowering Satedan who looked just as ready to kill in return, then to Rodney writhing on the ground whimpering in pain. John could feel his own heart beating against the ground like a fist.
They must live, they must...
John finally nodded.
Cue-ball pulled his gun away and holstered it. "Good."
John was released, and he didn't hesitate in scrabbling over the ground back to Rodney. Blood continued to flow in rivulets between Rodney's fingers. John yanked off his own shirt and tore it into strips that he wrapped around Rodney's shoulder, tight, layer on layer. He heard the crunch of grass beneath heavy boot tread, but ignored it. He couldn't ignore it when the toe of those boots nudged him in his bruised and vividly visible ribs.
"Such a scrawny thing you are," said Cue-ball. "It amazes me you can even stand let alone put up such a fight. Could you boys imagine if we released him into the armies of our enemies with just a knife? Why, we'd have this war won."
Cue-ball's men guffawed at that.
"Chain him to the pole," Cue-ball said. "I don't want to have to find him for tonight's fight."
Hands were all over John once again, gripping him and pulling him away. Ronon moved to intervene only to have the rifle jab into his skull. Teyla, stroking Rodney's head, simply watched with tears cutting pale tracks through the grime on her face. Rodney watched with no hope left, and fear filling where hope should have been.
John was dragged to the center of camp near the fighting ring and chained by the ankle to a pole like a dog to a stake. The metal clasp hurt biting into his bony ankle, John's friends were in trouble, and terror blinded him until the need to fight, to escape, to defend became the center of his narrowed world. He pulled and yanked at the manacle and chain until both his hands and his ankle bled. He kept this up all day until evening, when the chain was suddenly removed and he was thrust into the ring.
His opponent was huge, taller than John, and thick as an elephant, with a heavy beard and no hair on his gleaming scalp. He came straight at John as the audience hooted, hollered, and shook their guns.
John was overcome by a new instinct, the instinct to run. Not because of fear, not because of potential defeat, but because he was free and wanted to get back to his team. So when the bull-man charged, John turned and ran from the ring. It was unexpected, so much so no one reacted for a whole three heartbeats. Then there were shouts, and a stampede of footfalls as several of the guards gave chase. John, high on the serum, ran faster than he had ever run before, back to the row of slaves settling down for another sleepless night. He ran along them, rousing them in alarm, their faces a white blur to him.
Except for the ones he searched for. He knew where they were, like an instinct, and skidded to a stop falling to his knees before his bewildered team.
"Rodney?" he panted, frightened, both wanting to know and not wanting to. Rodney was lying on the ground, his head in Teyla's lap and his sunken eyes closed. But at the sound of his name, the eyelids fluttered and pulled open.
"Sh-Sheppard?" He slurred. John smiled with relief strong enough to topple him.
"He has a fever," Teyla quietly stated.
Relief was snatched from John, along with his breath. He was about to respond when shouting and clamoring footfalls pulled his attention away. The men were coming.
"You guys need to get out of here," John frantically explained. "Tonight, however you can. Just go, get Rodney home."
Ronon shook his head. "We won't..."
"Leave me and go!" John snarled. "You can come back for me later, just get Rodney home, please. He won't make it..."
Numerous hands grabbed him and began dragging him away. John kicked, bucked, squirmed, and writhed.
Then a trumpet blared, three times sharply. The men hauling John away stopped, then seconds after dropped him. John didn't ponder this, he just rolled onto all fours and crawled back to the others.
"John?" Teyla said, voice small and timid, her eyes darting everywhere. Gunshots ripped the silent night, and shouts sounded in between. Every armed body in the camp – slave guards included – were rushing away into, then back out of, the camp. More gunfire cracked through the air, making the team cringe. Teyla began shivering with a look of confused fear. John moved to her, and wrapped his arms around her.
"It's all right, it's all right, it's all right," he said over and over. Teyla's head pressed against his chest as she clung to his arm with one hand while keeping the other clasped to Rodney's good shoulder. Rodney's hand was latched onto Teyla's sleeve. Ronon wrapped his arms around both John's and Teyla's shivering frames.
"It's all right, it's all right, it's all right..." over and over and over as the night erupted all around them with the explosion of gunfire and screams of dying men.
A/N: You like? Let me know. I don't use a beta so all mistakes are mine. I will be editing this story one more time later for any lingering corrections that need to be made, but wanted to get it up since it's been a while since I've posted a whump fic. And though the chapters may be long, there's only three all together, all completed.