Rodney's Finest Moment

by Gillian Middleton

Sheppard pushed his dark glasses back up his sweat slicked nose. "McKay! How much longer you gonna be? It's hot out here."

"Oh, really, Colonel, is it?" McKay snapped back, squinting in the bright light. "I hadn't noticed."

"Just hurry it up, willya?"

"It'll take as long as it takes," McKay muttered, leaning back over the console. "You want it done right or you want it done fast?"

"I want it done period, so we can get back home. It's bolognaise night."

McKay's head lifted like a hound finding the scent. "Really?" He made a thoughtful face. "Give me another ten minutes and I'll have this wrapped up."

Sheppard glanced at Ronon who smirked back at him. Some things never changed.

McKay blew a few stray curls from his forehead and straightened, hand automatically going to his back even though his new body was quite a bit fitter and younger than the old one. Sheppard supposed it was force of habit.

"Okay, it looks like the Daedalus's scans were right, there are definitely signs of old mine shafts underground here."

"Can you tell what they were mining?"

"You mean can I tell whether it was naquadah?" Rodney shook his head. "I never really thought it was. The only naquadah mines we know of were strip mines. Still, if the Ancients thought it was worth mining - it's at least worth us taking a look. We'll need a geological survey team and probably engineers as well. If these are Ancient mine shafts, then they've been sitting here for ten thousand years or more. Probably not going to be up to code." He rubbed the back of his hand across his sweaty brow and Sheppard looked away.

He was doing that a lot lately.

As McKay grew more comfortable in his new body, Sheppard found himself more and more uncomfortable around him. And right now, with his vest discarded and wearing tight sand coloured pants and t-shirt, brown hair curling damply at the tender nape of his neck and a sheen of sweat on his flushed skin... Rodney was exceedingly disturbing.

Sheppard wondered if he was the only one feeling this way and he glanced over at Ronon, but the big man was staring through the rocks at Teyla who was hurrying towards them.

Sheppard gripped his P-90 and tensed, looking back over her shoulder at the path to the village.

"Colonel," Teyla said excitedly. "This is a stroke of luck! The Rosmar are holding a market day, with traders from all over the galaxy! It is a great opportunity to make new alliances, and perhaps even trading partners."

"You want to go back to the village?" Rodney said, staring at her. "But it's bolognaise night."

Sheppard frowned as if he hadn't been the one to bring up bolognaise night in the first place. "Priorities, Rodney," he drawled. "Besides, I'm sure somebody will save us some."

"I'm sure they won't," Rodney muttered glumly. They gathered the equipment and headed back down the dusty road towards the small village.

"What do the Rosmar have to trade anyway?" Sheppard asked curiously. "Doesn't look like much grows here."

"They trade workers at harvest and planting time for a share of crops. The Rosmar are a strong and hardy people."

"They'd have to be, living here," Rodney griped. "It's not exactly hospitable, is it?"

"You said you were sick of rain," Sheppard reminded him.

"You did say that," Ronon agreed. "Rain and rain forests."

"I believe what I said was that this galaxy seemed to be full of damp, rainy forests," Rodney corrected.

"And mosquitoes," Teyla chimed in. "You mentioned the mosquitoes very many times."

"Giant mosquitoes," Rodney pronounced. "Giant, blood-sucking, vampire mosquitoes. Who specifically targeted me."

"You had to mention the mosquitoes," Sheppard said to Teyla from the corner of his mouth. A man stood waiting for them at the town gates, tall and sun browned to a leathery tan.

"Palen," Teyla greeted. "Thank you for your hospitality."

"Teyla," the old man returned. "It has been many years since you attended a trading day."

"They have been busy years," Teyla nodded. "May I introduce my friends? This is Colonel Sheppard, Dr McKay and Ronon Dex."

They all nodded and the old man bowed his head, sharp grey eyes taking them in.

"This is Palen of the Rosmar," Teyla said formerly. "Leader of his people for many years."

"Not so many people now," Palen said sadly as he led them up the dusty road, lined with rough stone shacks. "The last culling took a bitter toll."

"I am very sorry."

"And so few have shown up to trade," Palen said somberly. "Our workers had few crops to plant or harvest, this year or the last. Times are lean."

"No offence," Sheppard said. "But have you thought of moving your people to another world? Maybe somewhere the Wraith have already been? Somewhere you can grow your own crops."

"This is our home," Palen said sadly. "Our children were born here." He looked away, squinting his eyes in the bright light. "But the time may soon come when those of us who are left have to leave."

The square bustled with people, and tables had been set up with woven baskets of fruit and vegetables and grains.

"Teyla," Sheppard said as Palen nodded and hurried away. "You want to walk around, see if you can find anyone with anything worth trading for?"

Rodney cast a dubious glance over the small, sunlit square. "I don't fancy our chances of finding much to trade for here. And it sure won't be food, these people look like they need every scrap of that for themselves."

"McKay's right," Ronon rumbled, eyeing a small child sitting under a crude canvas awning. "Even the children look hungry."

Sheppard shook his head. "I don't get why anybody would stay in a desolate place like this, with the stargate right there. It's not as if there aren't hundreds of better worlds in this galaxy." He pulled out a power bar, ripped it open and handed it to the child, who gave him a delighted, ragged toothed grin in return.

"Cooler ones anyway," McKay said, fanning himself with his handheld scanner. "Can we go inside? I have very fair skin and I need to apply more sunscreen. What?" Rodney said defensively to Ronon as the big man snorted. "This body lived in an underground city her whole life. That means my skin is very sensitive."

"You'll have to tough it out a bit longer," Sheppard told him unsympathetically. "I want you and Ronon to check out the old machinery we spotted from the jumper on the way here."

"That's half a mile away," Rodney whined and Ronon grinned and patted his head.

"You need the exercise," he rumbled.

Rodney made a face and pulled his floppy hat back on his head and tightened the string. "You always say that," he grumbled.

"I just don't want you ruining this body like you did the last one," Ronon said with a sly grin at Teyla and Sheppard. He turned and strode away and Rodney skipped to catch up with him on his smaller legs.

"There was nothing wrong with my last body."

"Nothing a month in the gym couldn't have cured."

Sheppard listened to them bicker all the way out of earshot and then raised a brow at Teyla. "They'll be fine."

"At least Ronon seems to have gotten over his tongue-tied stage," Teyla said with a smile.

"You noticed that?"

"It was hard to miss. Like many large men, Ronon has a softer side. And Dr McKay's new body seems to have awoken a protective streak in him."

"Rodney is kinda cute and pocket-sized now," Sheppard mused.

"I'm sure the next few hours of exposure to him will cure Ronon of any lingering sentimentality."

Sheppard snorted his agreement. "I'm gonna go and radio base, tell them we're hanging around for a few more hours."

"Better tell them not to expect us before dawn," Teyla advised. "Most of the best agreements are made around a table over a mug of ale."

"Just like home," Sheppard smirked, and they separated. He located the jumper at the edge of the village and radioed Atlantis, passing along the message. It was early afternoon there, while on this world the sun was already heading down towards the horizon. He promised to radio back in twelve hours and set the alarm on his watch accordingly.

888

No matter how poor a town was, there was always some sort of pub or tavern. This one was made of thick, pale stone and was significantly cooler inside than out. Rough hewn stone tables were scattered around, and Sheppard took a seat. He traded a power bar for a drink and surveyed the huge mug of frothy ale dubiously as it was delivered to the table. His radio sounded in his ear.

"Colonel Sheppard? Where are you?"

"In the tavern," Sheppard responded, tensing at the sound of urgency in her voice. "Is everything okay?"

"At the moment. Is Dr McKay there with you?"

"He's with Ronon, they're on their way back, I just spoke to them. Teyla?"

"I will be right with you, Colonel. Do not let Rodney out of your sight once he arrives."

Sheppard tapped his commlink. "Ronon?"

"Yeah?"

"Where are you?"

"Near the market square. Problem?"

"I'm not sure. Is McKay with you?"

"I left him at the edge of the village, he was trying to trade power bars for a bigger hat."

"Jeez," Sheppard muttered, pushing his untouched ale aside and crossing to the door. "Go back and get him, and stay with him, we'll catch you up. Teyla, you copy that?"

"I am on my way," Teyla panted and Sheppard could tell she was running. He pushed out of the dim coolness and into the blaze of the afternoon, wincing against the garish reds and golds of a desert sunset.

"McKay?" he said into his headset. "McKay, respond?"

There was no answer and he quickened his pace into a lope as he hurried down the street. He spotted Teyla out of the corner of his eye but didn't stop to ask her what the hell was going on. He trusted her instincts implicitly, if she said to find McKay then that was what they needed to do - there would be time for questions later.

Ronon hurried out of an alley, looking pissed and they all met in the center of the deserted street.

"I can't find him," he said briefly. "The woman with the hats is gone too."

"Great," Sheppard panted, wiping at the sweat on his brow with his wrist band. "Teyla? Care to fill us in?"

Teyla caught her breath and spoke, her voice calm but worry still plain on her face. "There is a party of men here. Traders. Their leader is called Neesom the Trader, and he is well known among those who have traveled extensively."

"Well known for what?" Ronon asked.

Teyla grimaced. "As a girl my father would bring me along to these market days, to gain experience and to make contacts. When Neesom showed up... My father would send me back home through the ancestral ring. It was well known that no young girl was safe when he was around. Nor pretty boys for that matter."

Sheppard felt a surge of disgust. "Why would anyone trade with him?"

"His crops. The grain he trades is strong, keeps well and is amazingly nourishing. Once during a lean time my village survived on nothing else for an entire winter."

Ronon frowned. "You worried about McKay?"

An image of the scientist as he was now flashed into Sheppard's mind and he grimaced. The doctor at Atlantis estimated that Lilya had been in her late teens when her body was exchanged for Rodney's. But being small and quite petite Rodney could pass for much younger. Add to that the big brown eyes and soft curls - and he might be in real danger.

"McKay, please respond?" he said into his headset again. "Dammit, Rodney! Okay," he said to his team. "We'll split up. Quarter the streets, ask questions. Teyla, where did you see this trader's party?"

"There he is!" Ronon exclaimed, and Sheppard spun, sighing in relief as Rodney appeared at the end of the street, limping around the corner, clutching a broken straw hat.

"Thank god," Sheppard muttered, following the big man as he hurried towards him. "Why the hell didn't you answer your radio?"

McKay frowned and reached for his ear, groping for an absent headset. "Huh," he said. "Must have lost it in the fight."

"Fight?" Teyla said, catching hold of his arm. Ronon's eyes were running over him, a frown on his face, and Sheppard could see the seam of McKay's tan t-shirt was torn and hanging from one flushed shoulder.

"What happened?" Ronon growled. "McKay?"

"You would never believe it," Rodney said in an aggrieved tone. "I'm walking along, minding my own business, when some guy just grabs me. In broad daylight."

"Are you okay?" Sheppard asked in concern. Rodney looked okay. He looked angry, but he didn't seem to have a mark on him.

"No, I'm not okay," McKay snapped back. He held out his hand. "He broke my hat!"

"Your hat?" Ronon repeated in disbelief. "Is that all?"

"Is that all?" Rodney repeated, outraged. "I had to trade two power bars and my canteen for this hat! And he broke it!"

Sheppard squinted down the dusty street behind McKay, but only the long shadows of evening moved slowly down its length. "What exactly happened?"

"I told you. A guy grabbed me. Looked like a freakin' bear with a red beard."

"Neesom," Teyla said grimly.

"Friend of yours?" Rodney said snidely. "Because I have to tell you - the guy smelt like he'd slept under a chicken coop. Who wears fur in the desert?"

"How did you get away?" Ronon asked curiously.

Rodney looked unconcerned. "I kicked him in the groin."

Sheppard was gaping, he could feel himself doing it.

"You kicked him...?" Ronon repeated.

"In the groin," Rodney confirmed. Teyla shook her head and started laughing and Sheppard couldn't help joining in.

"What?" Rodney demanded. "It's the first thing Teyla taught me in How-To-Fight-Like-a-Girl School."

"It was," Teyla confirmed, chuckling hard.

Ronon ruffled Rodney's hair. "Good one, McKay."

Rodney shrugged him off and ran an irritated hand over tumbled, dusty curls. "It'll be your turn next if you don't stop ruffling my damn hair," he threatened, and Ronon smirked and ruffled again, then danced teasingly out of the way when McKay raised one knee.

"I think we should get out of here," Sheppard decided.

"I agree, Colonel. Neesom usually travels with three or four men. We do not want any trouble."

"Who is this guy anyway?" Rodney asked conversationally as they began to retrace their steps.

888

"I can't believe people trade with that creep!" McKay complained as they crossed back through the village towards the parked jumper. "I mean, he's a pervert! An honest-to-god pervert who just grabbed me in the street! Oh, this being-a-girl thing just gets better and better. Now I have red-bearded pedophiles lusting after me."

"Pipe down, McKay," Sheppard said patiently. "Let's just get out of here before he gets his friends together for a little payback."

"I left him gasping like a fish," McKay said in satisfaction. "He's probably still laying there in the dust."

Several men emerged from cover behind the rocks on the rough track ahead.

"Or maybe not," Rodney muttered, lifting his gun.

"These are men of Rosmar," Teyla said, stepping forward cautiously. Ronon had turned and was covering their back, Sheppard stood side by side with McKay, watching the empty hands of the men ahead.

"Friends!" Teyla called. "Do you have business with us?"

"What have they got on their heads?" Sheppard said, eyeing the odd arrangements. They looked like leather ear muffs, and he was just wondering why anyone would be wearing ear muffs in the desert, when the shock wave hit them and they went down.

888

"Oh, god."

Sheppard opened his eyes at the voice, wincing as the headache pounded in his skull.

"Oh, crap, my brain is broken."

For a minute he couldn't place the girlish voice, then it connected to an image of the old Rodney in his head and it all came back. He sat up with a rush, then clutched at his head with both hands as it felt like the top came off.

"Ouch," he grumbled irritably, squinting open one eye. Rodney was opposite him, looking groggy and ill. Further inspection revealed Teyla on the floor and Ronon sitting propped against the wall, his eyes open and a decidedly pissed off look on his face.

"Are we in a cell?" Rodney asked groggily.

"Looks like it," Sheppard agreed, wincing at the sound of his own voice in his head.

"Again?"

"Yep."

Sheppard managed to locate his feet and dragged himself up using the helpful bars next to him. "Teyla? Ronon? You okay?"

"Ugh," Ronon said.

"I feel very unwell," Teyla said. "I may vomit."

McKay stumbled to his feet and limped away from her to the other side of the room. "Sorry," he grimaced. "But if you throw up then I'll throw up. It's a reflex thing, I can't help it."

"Why are we locked up?" Sheppard said, feeling grumpy. "And what the hell did they hit us with?"

"I think it was some kind of sonic weapon," Rodney said, leaning against the bars. "Maybe even ultrasonic, although I doubt they have that level of technology. Mmm, this metal feels so cool on my forehead."

"Sonic. Sound waves?"

"How can sound knock you out?" Ronon said disbelievingly.

"Very easily as it happens," Rodney said, entering lecture mode. "Look, picture a laser. It's just an electromagnetic wave with a single wavelength that can be focused and targeted on an object. Right? Well ultrasound is just an atmospheric wave that can be focused and used to strike an object. Sheppard's country back on Earth already uses a weapon that blasts a tightly controlled stream of caustic sound that can be turned up to high enough levels to trigger nausea or possibly fainting."

"I'd say definitely, not possibly," Sheppard said, rubbing at his brow as the waves of nausea finally began to recede.

"Oh, I don't think the natives here are using anything as sophisticated as the LRAD," Rodney said absently, pressing his cheek to the metal bars now.

"Sophisticated enough," Ronon muttered, leaning against the wall as he found his feet.

"Teyla, what's going on?" Sheppard asked. "I thought these guys were friends?"

"This isn't because I kicked that creep in the fork, is it?" Rodney said, turning his head and grimacing.

"I doubt the Rosmar would detain us for that, Rodney," Teyla replied, taking a deep breath. "I feel a little better."

"Yes, the effects seem to wear off quickly enough, which is a good sign," Rodney observed.

"Why?"

"Well, because although sound wave weapons on Earth are termed non-lethal, the correct term is probably less-lethal. They can cause internal damage and bleeding in the brain."

"Lovely," Sheppard muttered, checking his ears for blood.

"These probably aren't powerful enough, but we really don't want to be caught in another blast anytime soon, is what I'm saying."

Ronon had found a small window and was peering out. It was dark outside, but torchlight flickered against the stone walls outside the cell, and when Sheppard looked out the window he could see flaming lights in sconces along the empty street.

"How far from the stargate do you think we are?"

"Might as well be a million miles," Rodney said gloomily, shaking the bars. They were set in stone and appeared very solid.

"Anyone got anything?"

They checked their uniforms, but their utility vests had been stripped away, and the velcro pockets on their pants were empty. They were left in sand coloured BDU pants and singlets or t shirts. Ronon groped under his hair and pulled out a short knife with a grin.

"I gotta get myself some of them," Rodney muttered.

"It's only good in close quarters," Ronon admitted, stowing it back in his hair. "D'you think they'll be opening that door anytime soon?"

"I wish I knew why the Rosmar imprisoned us," Teyla said.

"Looks like you might get a chance to find out," Sheppard said, and nodded out the barred window. "Palen's coming."

The old man walked slowly down the street, flanked by two men with weapons thrown over their shoulders. Sheppard studied the weapons closely, they were the size and shape of the P-90's, but the barrels flared out like an old fashioned blunderbuss.

"The sound weapon?" Sheppard murmured and Rodney nodded.

"They don't look very accurate," Rodney observed quietly.

"Which explains the ear muffs."

"Ear muffs?" Rodney said quizzically, but then the prison door was opening and Palen and his guards entered the square, stone building, standing just beyond the metal bars of the cell.

"Palen?" Teyla asked. "Why have you done this?"

"I'm sorry, Teyla," the old man said sadly. "I wish it hadn't been you."

"What are you talking about?"

Palen pulled a thin piece of paper from his pocket and held it out. After exchanging a glance with Sheppard, she reached out and took it.

"Colonel," she said after studying it for a moment. Sheppard peered down at the paper, Rodney pushing into the circle as well.

"This looks familiar," Sheppard said, his heart sinking.

"Oh, great," Rodney said sourly, and pulled the paper from Teyla's hands and shoved it at Ronon.

"The Genii," Ronon said, staring down at the hand drawn pictures on the thin, printed leaflet. The drawings were of insignia, uniforms, weapons. Atlantean insignia and Earth weapons. Different languages were printed neatly around the sides. "Bounties offered in exchange for anyone wearing these insignia or carrying these weapons. Preferably alive."

"Oh, that's nice of them," Rodney retorted. "I hate those guys so much."

"Join the club," Sheppard said tightly. "Palen, who gave you these?"

"Men, soldiers who came through the ancestral ring. The bounties they offer are generous. I'm sorry, Teyla. I wish you had not been wearing the uniform."

"I don't wear the uniform," Ronon pointed out.

Palen looked at him nervously. "When the soldiers return, if they don't want you, you will be set free."

Ronon stepped forward and fixed the man with a grim stare. "You better hope they want me," he said softly.

"Palen, how can you do this thing? We are not your enemies. How can you trade our lives to our enemies?"

"My people are hungry, Teyla. This place is not safe any more. The Genii have offered us work in their fields and the protection of their underground city."

"You mean they leave you up on the surface as Wraith-bait while they cower in their holes in the ground," Rodney said acidly.

"I must do what is best for my people," Palen said stubbornly. "The Genii will be here by dawn." He met Teyla's eyes. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, he's sorry," McKay said as the heavy door closed behind them. "Well that makes me feel much better about spending the rest of my life locked up in an underground radioactive bunker. My short, miserable life."

"At least the Genii want you alive, Rodney," Sheppard said sarcastically. "The rest of will probably be facing their version of a firing squad at dawn."

"Yeah," Rodney acknowledged, grimacing. "Sorry."

"So let's think of something," Sheppard said.

"Won't we be overdue in a couple of hours?" Rodney said hopefully. "Elizabeth will send in back-up for us."

Sheppard shook his head. "She's not expecting me to check in until dawn."

"Dawn," Rodney repeated. "When the Genii arrive. Oh, that's just great. Things could not get worse."

"Sheppard?" Ronon said from the window. "Something's happening."

Rodney covered his face with his hands. "Oh god, this is my fault for saying things couldn't get worse. It's fatal!"

Sheppard peered out the cell window and down the moonlit street. Palen and his guards stood under a streetlight, the old man was towered over by the man talking and gesturing at him. The big man pointed down the street and Sheppard caught a glimpse of red in his beard and long, straggling hair.

"Neesom," Teyla said.

"The guy I kicked in the groin?" Rodney asked curiously. He pushed between them and lifted up on tip-toes to peer out. "I hate being short."

Sheppard could feel a tightening in his gut as the big, bearded man again gestured down the street towards the cells. Ronon glanced at him and Sheppard met the look, seeing the worry in his friend's eyes.

"I don't like this," Ronon said.

"Hey," Rodney observed. "They're coming back here. Why are they coming back here?"

Now Teyla was looking at him worriedly over Rodney's head, tension in every line of her body.

"Teyla?" Sheppard asked slowly. "Palen wouldn't..."

"Wouldn't what?" Rodney asked, glancing between them.

"I do not know," Teyla admitted. "I would not have believed him capable of selling us to the Genii either."

"They're here," Ronon reported quietly.

"Rodney, get behind us and stay out of sight, you hear me?" Sheppard ordered as Ronon and Teyla flanked him.

Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again when Sheppard glared at him. It was a glare he saved for special occasions.

"Fine," Rodney muttered with ill grace, rolling his eyes and stepping behind them.

The prison door opened again, and this time Palen's guards remained outside as the old man stepped heavily in. By his side was the huge bearded man, and Sheppard fought to keep the grimace of disgust off his face at the thought of this creep grabbing Rodney in the street. He was big, bigger than Ronon, and wide in a muscled, fleshy way. His hair was long and hung in reddish strands over his shoulders, between his bushy eyebrows and thick beard a ruddy band of flesh could be seen. Sheppard shivered at the sight of his cold, muddy eyes.

"Step aside," Palen ordered.

"Go to hell," Sheppard said pleasantly.

"Do not make me use our weapons against you again, Colonel," Palen said said roughly. "You may not get up so quickly this time. Now show us the young one."

Sheppard and his team stood their ground, but Rodney was already stepping around them, head lifting boldly. "What?" he said insolently.

"That's the one," Neesom said, flat eyes gleaming avariciously. "Five bushels of grain."

Sheppard clenched his jaw as his worst fears were confirmed, and he saw Rodney's small hands ball into fists by his sides.

"You have got to be kidding me!" Rodney snapped.

"Palen!" Teyla exclaimed. "What are you doing?"

"The Genii have offered me much more," Palen said reluctantly to the red-bearded trader.

"You have three others to give to the Genii," Neesom said, his eyes never leaving McKay. They swept up and down his body and Sheppard couldn't take it for another second, he grabbed Rodney by the arm and pulled him roughly back behind him. The bearded man smirked. "I only want this little one. Ten bushels."

"Ten?" Palen repeated in surprise.

"Palen, no!" Teyla said. "Think what you are doing. You know this... man." She grimaced at the big trader. "You know what he is capable of. Would you willingly hand over this child to him?"

"You put the child in danger," Palen snapped back. "You put a weapon in her hand and brought her here."

"We thought we were among friends!" Teyla cried.

"Palen, think about what you're doing here," Sheppard said, keeping his voice even. "We offered the hand of friendship to you, and we mean it. But if you even consider this action then you become our enemy. You do not want to be our enemy."

"It's one thing to hand soldiers over for a bounty," Ronon sneered. "But to sell a girl to be used by an animal like this? What kind of man are you?"

"I cannot believe this!" McKay was muttering.

"This is not gonna happen," Sheppard said intensely.

Palen stared at him, the old man's face pale beneath his lifelong burnished tan.

"Palen, please," Teyla implored. "You have daughters of your own. Surely you cannot -"

"I have no daughters," Palen interrupted harshly. "I have no sons. Not anymore. All I have is what is left of my people. And I must do what is best for them. Ten bushels," he said to Neesom, who grinned widely.

"I'll take her now," he said, stepping closer to the bars.

Beside Sheppard Ronon and Teyla tensed, and he could feel Rodney's hand balling in the back of his shirt, small knuckles pressing into his spine.

"You'll take her when the price is paid and not before!" Palen barked. "The Genii come for them at dawn. If you are back before then with the grain, then we have a trade."

"Palen!" Teyla called as the old man turned on his heel.

Sheppard felt a rush of fury as the big trader paused for a moment more, grinning snidely. "Palen!" he yelled, but the prison door was closing with a slam.

"Holy crap!" Rodney said, pushing past Sheppard and glaring at the cell's bars. "This is un-freakin-believable."

"This is very bad," Teyla said worriedly.

"Oh, you think so?" Rodney shrieked.

"Calm down, McKay," Sheppard said sharply.

"Calm down?" Rodney spat. "You know I think I've been pretty calm over this whole becoming-a-girl thing. I mean, I put up with all the crap and the stares and the peeing sitting down. And don't even get me started on menstruation. But I refuse to be bought and sold like a freakin' piece of meat!"

"McKay!" Sheppard said firmly, reaching out and tapping the back of his head. "Snap out of it."

"Ow," Rodney said, glaring at him.

"Would you just calm down." Sheppard ordered. "We're not going to let him take you."

"Well, gee, Colonel," Rodney snarled. "That would be so much more reassuring if you were saying it from outside the cell."

"We've just gotta think of something," Sheppard said reasonably.

"That'd be a good start!"

"You know," Ronon said slowly. "This could actually work in our favor,"

Rodney stared at him in outrage. "Excuse me?" he demanded.

"When the Genii come it could be with a battalion," Ronon explained. "But when the trader comes back..."

"It'll probably be with a lot less men," Sheppard finished, a glimmer of what Ronon was thinking appearing.

"All I need is someone to open that door," Ronon said with a wicked smile. He deftly pulled his short knife back out and spun it nimbly between long fingers.

"But what about the sound weapon?" Teyla asked.

"I, uh, I don't think that'll be a problem," Rodney said thoughtfully.

"Why?"

"Well, I've been thinking about it. In between bouts of homicidal terror. With a sonic weapon, if the stream of sound is properly controlled, then the person wielding the weapon should feel no ill effects. They certainly shouldn't need protective gear."

"But the Rosmar wear those ear thingies."

"Yes, yes," Rodney agreed. "I'm thinking those weapons are pretty inaccurate. More like throwing a grenade than shooting a gun."

"And that helps us how?" Teyla asks.

Rodney stared at her. "Well would you throw a grenade in a room you were inside of? It'd probably bring the walls down on your head, that's if it didn't kill you."

"So they can't fire it inside," Ronon said with satisfaction.

"I'm guessing no."

John nodded. "So if Redbeard comes before the Genii, all we need is a distraction. Rodney. Remember how you said you could have been an actor?"

"Yes. Wish I was now."

Sheppard had to grin at the memory, and Rodney gave him a small, rueful smile back. A little of the hectic color had faded from his round cheeks.

"Do you think you could cry on demand?"

"Normally, I'm not sure. Tonight, absolutely. I can start now if you like."

"Save it," Sheppard advised.

"You think to touch Palen's heart with tears?" Teyla said doubtfully.

"No, I think to distract him long enough to take out his guards and kick the crap out of him," Sheppard admitted. Ronon grinned.

"Sounds like a plan."

"That sounds like a plan?" Rodney echoed. "That's a terrible plan! What if I'm wrong about the weapon? What if the pervert brings back more men? What if-"

"You're not allowed to shoot down my plan unless you have a better one of your own," Sheppard told him.

"And what have we got to lose?" Ronon said. "If the Genii comes we're dead anyway."

"Speak for yourself," Rodney argued.

"And if Redbeard comes back first?" Sheppard said dryly. "Then we're still locked up waiting for the Genii and you'll spend the rest of your life in that creep's version of a harem."

Rodney grimaced. "Fine," he snarled. "It's a wonderful plan. I can't wait to take on who-knows-how-many guards with Ronon's hair-knife and our bare hands."

"I suggest we get some rest," Teyla said quietly. "To preserve our strength for the fight to come."

"I'll keep first watch," Sheppard volunteered, knowing he wouldn't sleep any time soon. Blood was still pumping through his veins, driven by rage and fear. The memory of that big savage stripping McKay with his eyes was still too fresh in his mind. And the feel of that hand clenched into his t-shirt at the small of his back. Rodney had been all anger and bluster over the situation, but that small fist had told Sheppard all he needed to know.

Ronon sunk down onto the floor, crossing his legs and leaning his head back against the wall. Teyla sat down with her legs curled under her.

"Sit down, Rodney," Sheppard ordered as he leaned back against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him.

"I won't sleep a wink," Rodney declared, but he smoothed the hard packed dirt with his boot before sitting gingerly down and drawing up his legs.

Ronon's eyes were closed and Teyla was sitting as if meditating. Sheppard willed his tense limbs to relax, knowing they would need all their strength in a few more hours. The torch-light from outside the window flickered around the cell, gleaming on the dull old metal of the bars and the mellow sandstone of the walls. He thought idly that given enough time they could probably carve their way out with Ronon's knife, and then he wondered if he could wait until everyone was asleep before discreetly peeing in a corner.

An hour passed. Sheppard may have had a lousy sense of direction on the ground, but he had an uncanny sense of time passing. His watch had been taken but he was guessing it was about two in the morning, relative Rosmar-time.

"Colonel?" Rodney whispered, crawling over towards him and settling on his left side.

"It's okay, I'll keep watch for a little longer," Sheppard murmured. "I doubt I'll sleep now anyway."

"You have to promise me something," Rodney said abruptly, his voice low. Without waiting for an answer the words tumbled out of him. "You have to promise me that you won't get yourselves killed tonight. Okay?"

"I usually plan not to get myself killed," Sheppard said dryly.

"I mean it," Rodney whispered fiercely. "You think the Genii will kill you anyway and you have nothing to lose, but you don't know that's true. Anything could happen between now and then and I need you to stay alive."

"I'm touched."

"And I'm serious," Rodney muttered. "Believe me, Colonel, this is not altruism. If I... If this doesn't work..."

"It will," Sheppard said firmly.

"But if it doesn't."

"It will."

"No one will know what happened to me," Rodney said feverishly. "And no-one would come for me but you anyway. You're the only one who could do it."

Sheppard twisted, trying to catch McKay's desperate eyes in the dim light. "Listen to me," he said strongly. "Nobody is taking you away, okay? It's not going to happen, so stop driving yourself crazy over this."

"I can't help it." Rodney drew a shuddering breath. "I'm scared," he whispered, his voice haunted and low. "I mean, I know terror and I are usually best friends, but this is different." He shook his head, his eyes huge. "I was starting to think I could survive anything the Pegasus Galaxy had to throw at me, you know? But not this," he said somberly. "I wouldn't survive this."

"I think you're a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for," Sheppard said roughly, because he understood that kind of fear, how alien it was to a man, how terrifying when finally confronted. He wouldn't spill the secrets of his past for the world, but he was in the service, he'd seen war and the ugly faces men showed each other. He'd faced the horrible fear stalking Rodney now, and he'd done it as a man, with a man's strength. Rodney was newly a woman, how much more frightening must facing that kind of violation be?

"I, uh, I think you're giving me way too much credit," Rodney said.

"Come here," Sheppard said, and he reached out and caught narrow, trembling shoulders, drawing Rodney against his side. For a moment the other man was stiff, then the tension seemed to bleed from him and he curved closer, resting his head on Sheppard's shoulder.

"This is getting to be a habit," he murmured.

"Twice isn't a habit."

"It's nice. Comforting."

"That's the thing about comforting hugs. They can be quite... comforting."

"Yeah," Rodney agreed, his voice slurring. "I wouldn't know. Can't really 'member the last time someone comforted me before you." He yawned and his head grew heavier. He snuffled and gave a tiny snore.

Sheppard smoothed his hand down Rodney's narrow back, feeling the delicate bones under his fingertips, the fine tremor of over-tired muscles. In the darkness opposite him Ronon opened his eyes and gazed at him across the dim expanse. The big man never did give much away, but Sheppard could read the concern and worry. He supposed he should feel embarrassed, cuddling Rodney to him like this. It was McKay, for god's sake.

Men didn't comfort one another with hugs, unless they were dying on a battlefield somewhere, and even then, probably not. Sheppard had never comforted Rodney with more than a rough pat on his back. That was just the way it was. If you were tough enough to carry a weapon and shoot to kill, then you were tough enough to suck it up when it hurt. And if the pain didn't go away after the battle, well, then you drank, or fought, or fucked it away. That's what men did.

Of course, in Sheppard's world, men had never turned into women either.

There was no denying the fact that it was just easier to offer comfort to a woman.

Which was weird, when Sheppard thought about the women he knew. Elizabeth, Teyla. Strong and tough. Some of the toughest marines he had were women, some of the best pilots and the very best navigators he knew were women. Sheppard respected women, loved them, admired the hell out of some of them.

But still. It was just easier to wrap an arm around Rodney and give him someone to lean on, now that he was a girl. Sheppard gazed back at Ronon, feeling the tickle of dusty curls under his chin. Ronon nodded briefly and uncurled like a big cat, striding to the window and leaning against the wall, gazing out into the night.

Sheppard half closed his eyes as Rodney snuffled into his neck, breath warm on his skin. Of course, he mused, if Rodney was still a man none of this would have happened. He wouldn't have caught the eye of that red-bearded pervert. He wouldn't be facing the proverbial fate worse than death.

Rodney huffed a sigh and curved closer and Sheppard snorted quietly to himself.

If Rodney were still a man then soft young breasts wouldn't be pressing into Sheppard's ribs at this moment. A small hand wouldn't be curved over his belly and Sheppard himself probably wouldn't be having momentarily inappropriate thoughts about his team mate.

About Rodney.

How long was it until dawn anyway?

888

It was actually less than an hour later that Ronon was shaking him awake and Rodney was jerking away and wiping at the drool on his chin.

"Someone's coming," Ronon hissed, and Sheppard rubbed his eyes, feeling adrenalin kick through him.

"Showtime," he said, climbing to his feet with a suppressed groan. He was too old to be sleeping on hard dirt floors.

"Rodney," Teyla said, stepping to the back of the cell. She held out her arms and Rodney glanced at Sheppard with fear in his eyes, before moving into their circle.

"Lay it on thick," Sheppard advised softly.

"Oh, you mean pretend to be terrified," Rodney muttered back waspishly. "Gee, am I that good an actor?"

Sheppard and Ronon flanked them protectively as the doors were pulled back and Neesom and Palen stepped into the room, followed by four guards, two guns cradled in their arms. Ordinary looking guns. Not the sonic weapons.

Rodney was already crying loudly, face buried in Teyla's shoulder while she held him against her like a mother lion.

"Step away!" Palen ordered as one of the guards unlocked the cell door. The armed guards raised the weapons and aimed them, one each, at Ronon and Sheppard. Feigning reluctance, the men stepped back. The cell door was flung open and the two unarmed guards stepped in.

"Send her out," Palen ordered and Rodney wailed even more loudly.

"No," Teyla said fiercely. "You will not take her."

"I do not wish to injure you, Teyla," Palen said.

"I'm afraid you will have to," Teyla returned, lifting her head proudly. "Before I let you rip this child from my arms."

Ronon moved restlessly and the two guards glanced back over their shoulders nervously.

Palen nodded and the guards moved forward, one reaching for Rodney's arm.

"I want my mother!" Rodney suddenly wailed, throwing his head back. "I WANT MY MOTHER!"

The guards faltered again and finally Neesom stepped forward impatiently. "Just grab her, you soft fools," he snarled, elbowing them out of the way.

Just for an instant the two guards were off balance, and Sheppard and Ronon seized their chance. Ronon went for Neesom with his knife gripped between his first two fingers, the short blade protruding. It slashed across throat and through beard, flinging the big trader against the bars with the force of the strike.

The guards outside fired in unison, but Ronon and Sheppard already had a guard each and they swung them around. Bodies jerked as projectiles hit home, and then they were flung aside as the two men pushed through the cell door and took the armed men down. Teyla had Palen pushed against the wall a moment later, her forearm a choking hold under his chin. Wide grey eyes gazed back at her, surprised but unafraid.

Sheppard had seen it before. Men so ravaged by war and loss that nothing frightened them any more. Men who were unafraid of death to the point that they almost welcomed it.

Panting harshly Sheppard glanced back into the cell at Rodney, heart jerking in his chest as he saw the red-bearded trader on his feet, one hand clutching his neck, the other extended like a claw at Rodney's throat. For a moment everything slowed down, Sheppard couldn't move, couldn't cry out, the man was going to snap McKay's neck like a twig, and the few meters separating them might as well be miles...

But then Rodney was cursing and kicking out, and Neesom went down, hand now clutching between his legs.

"That's twice, you son of a bitch!" Rodney roared. His face was still wet with his feigned tears, but the torch light lit up the unholy glee on his pointed little face, gleaming on white teeth as he grinned wildly. He kicked out again and the body jerked. "Take that, you sick fuck!" One small booted foot lashed out once more.

Ronon was outside and sticking his head back around the door. "Looks clear," he said briefly.

"McKay?" Sheppard said.

"Buy me, would you?" Rodney said in outraged tones, sinking his boot again.

"Take us to our weapons and belongings," Teyla ordered Palen.

"McKay?" Sheppard said again. "Rodney!"

Rodney paused, foot raised again. "What?"

Sheppard tilted his head. "Want to get out of here?"

"What?" Rodney said again, then blinked. "Oh, yeah. Right."

"I don't care what you do to me," Palen said evenly.

"How about your people?" Sheppard said. "The ones you were willing to sell us to the highest bidder for? Do you care what we do to them?"

Ronon flashed his bloody blade and Palen set his jaw. "Yes," he said. "I care. I will take you to your weapons and the Ancestral Ring. If you promise not to hurt them."

"Get us the hell off your world fast enough," Sheppard said grimly. "And no one needs to get hurt."

888

Their weapons were in a house in the center of town, and Sheppard checked his gun over carefully, glad of its weight in his arms once more. Palen stood miserably by the door and Sheppard watched his team reclaim their belongings, eyes running over the dirt floor and the bare cupboards. He couldn't afford pity in the face of an enemy who had shown them none, but he was not a cruel man, and he understood the lengths people would go to when driven by war and hunger.

"Palen," he said abruptly. "There's a world I know of where the Wraith have already struck. The people are all gone, but the fields are still there. Forests full of game. Rivers full of fish."

Palen lifted his head and stared at him.

"I can't guarantee the Wraith won't come back, but it's a damn sight better than anything you have here."

The old man looked around the bare room and then back at Sheppard, eyes unguarded and ashamed. Then he hung his head.

888

"That was nice of you," Rodney said as they made their way back to the cloaked jumper. "Of course, I would have felt sorrier for the guy if he hadn't been about to sell me into sexual slavery."

"I understand your anger, Rodney, and I share it," Teyla said. "But I too feel pity for these people."

"They were going to sell us all," Ronon pointed out.

"Thank you," Rodney said.

"I am not defending them," Teyla said mildly. "Palen made poor choices. Hopefully he will do better and lead his people into a better life."

"Well, as long as he gets a happy ending," Rodney sneered as Sheppard uncloaked the jumper.

"We've all got a happy ending," Sheppard reminded him. "So stop complaining. And by the way, you deserve an Oscar for that performance. I want my mother? That was brilliant."

"Spooked me," Ronon agreed.

Rodney shrugged, looking modest. "I'm telling you, I could have made a career out of acting."

"You convinced me too," Teyla said as they took their seat and Sheppard closed the rear hatch.

"Yeah, but how much of it was acting?" Sheppard teased. "Your mother, McKay?"

"Hey, my mother was a formidable woman," Rodney informed him. "She would have kicked that pervert's ass for him."

"Instead of just his balls," Ronon snickered.

"Wasn't that beautiful?" Rodney said blissfully. "My finest moment."

"Remind me never to piss you off."

"Remember that next time you try to ruffle my hair," Rodney said with dignity, then yelped as Ronon reached out a long hand and wiggled teasing fingers.

Teyla was chuckling and Rodney narrowed his eyes in his death-glare. Sheppard felt his tension drain out of him as he dialed the gate and sent his IDC.

The jumper purred to life under his hands. "Lets go home."

"Gladly," Teyla laughed.

Rodney settled back into his seat. "Do you think anyone saved us any spaghetti?"

888

Time differences between worlds being what they were, it was somewhere around midnight in Atlantis, and the team sprawled wearily around a table. They were too wired to sleep yet, although the past twenty-four hours were catching up to them rapidly.

McKay had lucked out on the leftover spaghetti and was now smoothing the last of the garlic bread around the bottom of the plate to collect the rich, red gravy. Sheppard balled up a napkin and lobbed it at his head.

"Thanks," Rodney said thickly around his mouthful, wiping at his chin with the napkin. "Still getting used to this little mouth."

"Still seems pretty big to me," Ronon mocked and Rodney made a face and opened his mouth, showing off his half chewed meal. "Gross," Ronon said admiringly.

Teyla kinked her neck from side to side. "Do you think Palen will lead his people to that other world?"

"Who cares?" Rodney said offhandedly.

"Come on, McKay, get over it," Sheppard said wryly. "I'm not gonna forgive the guy in a hurry, but I do kind of understand where he's coming from."

"Losing so much to the Wraith," Teyla said solemnly.

"War screws people up," Sheppard agreed.

"We're not screwed up," Rodney said, and Sheppard shot him an incredulous look. Ronon was leaning back in his chair cleaning under his nails with his knife. Teyla had her legs crossed up on the seat and was doing stretching exercises. Rodney gazed blandly back at him from wide, brown eyes, a tumble of curls around his face in a dusty halo.

"What?" Rodney said belligerently, and then Sheppard started to laugh, and Teyla chuckled. Rodney looked down at himself and then around at the rest of the team.

"Well, maybe a little screwed up," he agreed, and then he was laughing and even Ronon joined in, his rare, booming laughter echoing around the room and the long, quiet halls of Atlantis.

The End