"Life signs are that way. No other energy signatures." Rodney said, tucking the LSD in a pocket. "Remind me again why we are here."

John slid on his aviator shades and stepped off in the direction indicated. "For the fifth time, McKay – to establish trade relations."

"You and me?"

"Do you see anybody else here?"

"I'm just saying that negotiating isn't our strong suit. Remember the Genii? The Manarans? We should leave it to the professionals."

"I'll admit that we've had… issues in the past, but surely some of Teyla's charm has rubbed off on us. Well, me anyway."

"Right. Keep telling yourself that."

This world was like almost every other one they had visited – pleasant climate, lush landscape, pre-industrial society. The Croyans had described the Ilorek as fair traders of a variety of vegetables which Atlantis now needed to supplement the Daedalus supply runs until Midway was rebuilt.

Lythos, head of the Ilorek council, greeted them warmly. A few hours later, they raised a glass in a celebratory toast of a new trade agreement.

oOo

Lorne zipped his tac vest and clipped on his P-90. "How overdue are they?"

"Two hours," Carter answered. "We dialed twice. The first time we couldn't establish a connection, and when we finally got through, we couldn't raise anyone."

"My team is ready, ma'am."

She glanced up at the control room. "Dial it."

oOo

Ronon scowled at Teyla. "When?"

"Major Lorne's team left no more than twenty minutes ago."

Storming up the stairs, he headed straight to Sam's office, Teyla hurrying behind him. "I want to go to that planet."

She gestured to a chair and sighed when he ignored it and chose instead to hover at the corner of her desk. "Major Lorne's team-"

"I don't care. I want to go." When intimidation didn't work, he took a deep breath and tried a different approach. "They are my team."

Carter studied him carefully then nodded. "Go."

"Ronon," Teyla called. "Find them."

The anxiety on her face matched the fear in his soul. "I will."

oOo

"I'm gonna be sick," Rodney moaned. Between the migraine and the nausea, he felt like death warmed over. "What happened?"

"You were right," mumbled Sheppard. "We should have left the negotiations to the professionals."

"Where are we?" The painful jolting had to be causing permanent kidney damage, not to mention what it was doing to his spine.

"Back of a wagon as far as I can tell. There isn't enough light for me to see much of anything."

"We're in trouble, aren't we?"

"Was it the drug hangover or the handcuffs that gave it away?"

Rodney yanked at the chains that bound him to the side of the transport. The rings were firmly attached to the wooden slats. "Don't suppose you have a harebrained idea on how to get out of here."

"Nope."

"Any hidden knives?"

"Wrong teammate."

"Are we still on Ilorek?"

John scratched his nose on his shoulder. "Don't think so unless they had a sudden heat wave. It's at least twenty degrees hotter."

The wagon bumped to a halt, and the rear gate dropped open. McKay and Sheppard squinted as blinding sunlight flooded in, glinting off the stunner a shadowed form held. A smaller man hopped inside and removed their shackles.

The weapon flicked slightly. "Out."

The shadow was actually a tattooed pro-wrestling reject with bad skin and several missing teeth. A trio of men, including the runt who had unchained them, stood behind him with weapons drawn.

"Hey, fellas," John greeted. "There seems to be-"

Hulk Hogan slammed the stunner into Sheppard's temple. "Silence, slave."

"Slave?" Rodney squeaked as he helped John to his feet. The weapon swiveled in his direction, and he raised his hands in surrender.

"You will speak only when spoken to."

McKay opened his mouth but shut it again quickly and nodded.

"This way."

He led them through a stone archway to a massive construction site. Rock was being lifted from a quarry and moved about manually by men with ropes, and scaffolds dotted the area. The land was arid, sandy, and Rodney suddenly felt like an extra in a Charlton Heston movie. John had the heel of his palm pressed against the gash on his temple, a trickle of blood crusting on his cheek, his eyes in constant motion.

A rotund man approached. "Only two?"

"For today," the slaver confirmed. "My contact assures me he will have others soon."

His gaze flickered over McKay and Sheppard. "They don't look like much."

"Appearances can be deceiving, Gassep," he warned. "Do not underestimate them."

"Hmmm…. Very well. Payment will be delivered as usual."

Hulk leered in the direction of a series of shacks. "Excellent. I will leave them with you then. Until next time."

Turning to John and Rodney, Gassep examined them closely, squeezing biceps and shoulders.

"Hey!" McKay exclaimed. "Stop with the touching."

"Rodney!" John warned too late.

The overseer backhanded McKay with a cane rod. Stars exploded behind his eyes as he reeled sideways and crumpled to the ground.

"Pick him up," Gassep ordered.

John pulled Rodney upright, whispering, "Don't say another word."

McKay gave an imperceptible head bob, holding a shaking hand to his face.

"You will be processed and assigned a task. There are no excuses here."

They were escorted through the worksite to an enclosed space in the rear corner where several men studied drawings spread across tables. Various bags littered the area, and a small fire blazed nearby, a few metal rods piled neatly next to it. One of the men – tall, thin with shaggy black hair – moved to stand in front of them with a frown.

His gaze was cold, appraising. "Strip," he ordered.

Rodney shot a panicked glance at John who glared defiantly but pulled his shirt over his head. Swallowing an indignant squawk and an equally scathing rant, McKay complied as well, though the uncontrollable trembling impeded his ability to unlace his boots. While the other men argued over their clothing, Shaggy poked and prodded their arms, chests, and backs. Unfortunately, dying from humiliation was not really possible.

The site manager shuffled through some papers, eyes darting to McKay and Sheppard then back. Finally he reached into one of the bags at his feet and tossed two pair of threadbare drawstring pants at them. As he scribbled on one of the papers, the man next to him moved to the fire.

"Get dressed," Shaggy said. "You will report to Jomul to assist in conveying rock from the quarry to the palace."

Rodney cinched the overly snug trousers as tightly as possible. "We are so screwed," he whispered when the man walked away.

John was fixated on a sight to his right, and McKay gaped in horror when he followed his gaze. Four men stood around the fire heating one of the metal rods.

"Are they doing what I think they're doing?"

"Yes."

"Oh God. Oh, my God," he whimpered, sucking in huge gulping breaths. "I- I can't do this. Pain and I don't mix well. Please, oh, please, um, oh- There has to be a way out of here." A glance behind him showed three guards, armed and glaring at them. "Shit!"

"Breathe, Rodney."

"How can you be so calm? We are going to die."

"No, we aren't. Our people will find us."

"They don't know where we are. We don't know where we are."

"We don't leave our people behind."

"I know that," he hissed.

"Then believe it. We stay alive until they get here."

Sheppard's jaw clenched as the men approached, and he turned to face McKay. "Listen to me, Rodney. You do whatever it takes to stay alive." Two men forced him to his knees.

"John!" Rodney surged forward, but the other two men caught him. "Please! Please don't do this."

Shoving Sheppard onto his back, one man yanked his head to the side while another sat on his chest. "Do you hear me, McKay? No matter what." His eyes widened then clenched when the brand sizzled into the sensitive skin beneath his right ear, ripping a scream from his throat.

"NO!" Rodney shouted as the stench of burnt flesh assaulted him, and he dropped to all fours, gagging.

"No matter what, McKay," Sheppard rasped.

Rodney squeezed his eyes shut as they pinned him to the ground, feeling the heat of the fired metal as it neared. "No matter what," he whispered.

oOo

"Where are they?" Ronon roared.

Lythos struggled in Dex's grasp, toes not quite reaching the floor. "Help me," he pleaded.

Evan raised a brow. "Why should I?"

"We have an agreement."

"Says who?"

"Col. Shep-"

Ronon slammed the council leader into the wall again. "Tell me what you did, or I will make your death slow and very painful."

"Major, please!"

Lorne tilted his head in grim amusement. "Please what? If you are looking for mercy from me, you are wasting your time. Col. Sheppard is my commanding officer and my friend. If you don't answer the man's questions, I'll not only allow him to take you apart piece-by-piece, I'll help him do it."

Lythos whimpered as Ronon's grip tightened. "We sold them."

Stunned, Evan could only stare. "You what?"

"A band of slavers pay well, and we are a poor society. When strangers come-"

Ronon hit him so hard that Lorne wasn't sure the man would ever eat solid food again. Lythos slumped to the floor, unconscious.

"You know, it might have been helpful to have him tell us how to find them before you knocked him out."

Mouth twisting in a snarl, Ronon stalked toward the door. "Didn't feel like waiting. He didn't take Sheppard down by himself. Someone else will know."

The council treasurer took one look at Lythos and confessed everything, handing over a radio and gate address.

oOo

"So they just call and leave a message?" Sam was incredulous.

"Yes ma'am," Evan answered.

"God," she moaned. "And I thought the Milky Way was screwed up." Rubbing her forehead, Carter asked, "Did we leave a message?"

"We did. The Ilorek seemed surprised when no one came after six hours. Apparently they are usually there within thirty minutes. Ronon and a couple of black ops guys stayed behind. Just in case."

"And if the traders show up?"

Lorne's features hardened. "We find out what we want to know."

Sam's brows lifted. "Major?"

"Ma'am, as far as I'm concerned, killing is too good for them. Ronon will get the information, and I really don't give a damn how he does it."

"I appreciate how you feel, but we can't lose who we are in the process."

"They are slave traders. They bought and sold our people like cattle. Col. Sheppard can handle himself, but have you considered what's going to happen to Dr. McKay? He won't last long, and the colonel will die trying to protect him."

Carter sighed. "Yes, I am aware of that." She contemplated a gouge on her desk and wondered how many more of these decisions she would face. "Do whatever it takes."

oOo

"I need to eat something," McKay murmured.

John shifted the rope to his other shoulder, ignoring the burns on his hands and back. "This is not the time, Rodney."

"I'm not kidding. I haven't eaten since we left Atla- home."

Sheppard glanced back at McKay. The man was sporting a nasty sunburn already. The brand on his neck was inflamed, the gash on his cheek was swollen, and blood dribbled down his arms and chest from rope burns. John didn't know if the muscle tremors were from strain or low blood sugar.

He did know that he didn't look any better. His head pounded, and every muscle in his body ached. Pain snaked like tendrils through him, emanating from the site of the brand, a spot last occupied by an Iratus bug. He still couldn't stand to be touched there.

"Hang in there, Rodney."

"I can't do this."

"Yes, you can. Keep your hands on the rope and your feet moving. One step at a time. Don't think about it."

"Are you nuts? Thinking is what I do."

"Suck it up, McKay."

A slight whistling sound was all the warning John had before the cane whipped across his back.

"Sheppard!"

He fell to his knees when the rod landed again. The air cracked around him, and Rodney cried out in pain. John ducked his head as the cane landed again and again, his world shrinking to a haze of agony. A boot caught his ribs, flipping him over and grinding his tortured back into the sand.

Jomul stared down at him. "You will not speak."

Nodding in understanding, Sheppard climbed to his feet and slung the rope over his shoulder. Rodney was staring at him with a face full of apology and cradling his left side, a bright red lash mark disappearing behind his back.

John half-shrugged one shoulder and mouthed, "Whatever it takes."

Grabbing the rope, McKay mouthed back, "No matter what."

oOo

"It's been two days," Ronon growled. "I tried doing this your way, and it didn't work. Now we'll do it mine."

Lorne blocked his path. "What are you going to do? Step through the stargate and start knocking heads together? We don't know the slavers are even there. It could be a relay station."

"Someone will know."

"Look, I'm not saying you're wrong, but let's think about this before we go off half-cocked and get the colonel and Dr. McKay killed. We need a plan."

Ronon spun away angrily, pacing the length of the Ilorek council chambers. "I should've been here with them. I should've…."

"Should have what? Not followed the lead about the Athosians? We did what we could with the intel we had, and you were the only one who could infiltrate that group. We had no way of knowing what would happen here. Besides, you would've been sold too."

"Maybe not."

"Come on, Ronon. They admitted to drugging Sheppard and McKay. You would've been just as unconscious."

Dex blew out a breath, unable to ignore the guilt. "So, what now?"

"Let's go make friendly with the people on the other side of that gate address."

oOo

"You OK?"

Rodney jerked as John's voice penetrated the fog. "What?"

"You zoned out there for a minute."

He couldn't make his eyes focus. "Um, sorry. What did you say?"

Concern etched itself across Sheppard's face. "What's wrong?"

"I, uh, I…. Do we have any chocolate cake?"

John looked at him like he'd lost his mind. He hated this part – the disorientation, the confusion, the trembling that wouldn't stop.

"Rodney?"

"I could really use a steak right now – medium rare with mushrooms. And a baked potato. Loaded."

"Is the bread gone?"

"Yeah. I ate it when you gave it to me yesterday. I wanted to save some, but I was just so hungry…."

Sheppard's eyes flicked, doing that cold, flat thing that scared the crap out of him. "Wait here. I'll be right back."

McKay tried to make his legs move, but coordination had abandoned him. "No, don't." He knew that look. The last time he'd seen it Todd had just finished snacking.

Pausing at the entrance to their hovel, John kept his back to Rodney. "Hang tight, McKay."

Rodney crawled to the water bucket, sloshing half his cup on the ground before getting it to his lips. He tried not to think about his hypoglycemia, his hunger, what Sheppard was doing. Food came once a day, and survival of the fittest reigned. They'd been on the losing end the first day, and even after John waded in, all elbows and fists, they'd barely had anything to eat since.

This place had to be a version of hell – whips and canes and ropes and sun and heat. At least water was plentiful. They had no medicine or bandages; wounds cracked and bled, and infection was a death sentence. He had burned, peeled, and burned again. After breaking his back all day, he had helped John scrape together enough material to build this crummy excuse for a shack that was just big enough to sleep in. His muscles cramped, and his head throbbed from too much sun and not enough everything else.

"Here." Sheppard knelt in front of him, split lip, black eye, bruised and bleeding hands holding a loaf of bread.

"What did you do?" McKay's mouth watered incessantly as John tore off a hunk and handed it to him.

"Does it matter?"

Rodney contemplated the question. "No. Tell me anyway."

"I did what I needed to. Now eat."

He knew he wouldn't get anything else. "Not unless you have some too."

"Fine." Sheppard ripped off a piece and stuffed it in his mouth. "Satisfied?"

"Don't talk with your mouth full," he mumbled, devouring his portion.

"Pot. Kettle," John muttered as he divided the rest.

"We need a new phrase. That one makes me hungry."

oOo

Sam stared at the conference room table, the swish of Ronon's coat as he stalked behind their chairs breaking the silence. The sob that Teyla had only partially repressed had summed up Carter's feelings as well.

"What do we do now?" Keller asked.

"We go back and try again," Ronon declared flatly.

"Major?" Sam asked.

"I agree ma'am. Someone has to know; we simply haven't found them yet."

"If I may," Zelenka interjected. "I would like to download the gate addresses to compare against the ones from Ilorek's DHD."

"Thank you, Radek. That's a good idea." She had been watching Ronon pace, and when he turned, she caught his eye. "What is your plan?"

He seemed genuinely surprised to be asked. "I want to take Teyla with me."

xxx

She stepped through the gate and immediately wrinkled her nose in disgust. "What is that?"

"Don't know," Ronon answered, "but it doesn't get better. Ready?"

Smoothing her hands over her abdomen, Teyla tugged on her coat lapels and squared her shoulders. "Yes."

They walked the short distance from the gate to the nearest tavern. She had heard Rodney use the term 'hellhole' on more than one occasion and decided that this planet definitely fit in that category. The hour was late yet people roamed the streets freely. Staggered might be a more apt description. Brothels were interspersed with drinking establishments, and the dregs of humanity seemed to be in charge. A perfect place for slave traders.

She skirted two people passed out on the saloon's front steps and entered, Ronon at her back. Lorne's black ops personnel were quite talented; she had only spotted one on the way in, and she was comforted to know three more were about.

They moved to the bar where a woman her age looked them over.

"What can I get you?"

"My brother says you might be able to assist me in locating my husband. He and his brother disappeared four days ago from Ilorek." She did not need to pretend as the tears welled. "My child is due soon, and for him to grow up fatherless…." Emotion choked the rest of her words.

"Like I told your brother, I've never heard of Ilorek. I can't help you."

"Please," she begged. "I have heard tales of men who traffic in... people. I can pay. I must find them. They are all the family we have left."

The woman regarded them for a moment. An appeal for sympathy hadn't moved her, but her eyes had brightened at the mention of money. "Wait here," she said before slipping into a back room.

A man sidled up to Teyla. "You are wasting your time. She doesn't know anything."

Schooling her features into what she hoped was helpless desperation, she turned to him. "Can you help me?"

"The men you seek are dead."

Her blood froze in her veins. "You are certain?" she asked.

"Yes. My woman worked for them."

She took a ragged breath as her heart restarted. "Then it is the slavers who are dead?"

"Yes," he answered. "I just said that. Apparently they tried to take a chieftain's daughter, and he didn't appreciate it."

"Do you know what happened to the men they took from Ilorek?"

"I assume they were taken to Sachratia. That's where most of the orders have come from lately."

She heard the growl in Ronon's throat and gripped his hand tightly. "How do we get there?"

"I have no idea. Vree, that's my woman, said they are a closed society. Only her boss knew the address. They wouldn't talk to anyone but him, and they weren't interested in trading for anything but slaves."

Teyla allowed her ire to show, and the man took a step back. "I am very disappointed to hear that," she stated. "What should we do with him, Ronon?"

"Dial a Wraith planet and toss him through."

The man's eyes widened, and he tried to run, but Ronon grabbed him by the collar and started for the door.

"It's the truth! I swear."

"I believe you," she said coolly.

"Where are you taking me?"

"To the Ancestral Ring."

"I tried to help you."

"After you heard the mention of money."

"Did you even know the men who were sold?"

Rounding angrily, she slapped him. "They are my family!"

He dragged his feet, kicking in protest as Ronon hauled him along. "Wait! There has to be something I can do."

She arched a brow at Ronon who nodded. "Where was their place of business?" Even the words were distasteful.

"This way," he gestured. "I'll show you."

He led them to a small building that had seen better days. Teyla clicked her radio twice as Ronon tied the man to a chair. They had been searching for five minutes when Lorne and his team arrived.

Four hours later, they stared at each other dejectedly.

Nothing.

oOo

Rodney leaned against the shaded stone and wiped the sweat from his face, grimacing as stubble grated against the oozing blisters on his hands. Breaktime was unheard of, but a problem with the section of wall that they were supplying rock for had caused a bottleneck.

"Water." John handed him a cup before sliding to the ground.

A week here had taught him the proper appreciation for the cool liquid. He drank slowly, savoring every drop and watching the builders shift a few of the larger stones.

"They're doing it wrong," he observed.

Sheppard cracked open an eye. "What?"

"They're doing it wrong," McKay repeated. "That load bearing column is in the wrong place. When they try to use it, that entire wall will collapse."

"So?"

"I was…. Never mind." Rodney plopped down next to him.

"Old habits die hard?"

"I guess I can't help myself."

They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes.

"Damnit," McKay muttered as he stood.

"What do you think you're doing?" John scrambled to his feet and followed.

"Do you know how much rock we'll have to haul if that wall gives way?"

"Do you remember the penalty for speaking?"

That brought him to a halt. "Good point." He glanced over at the wall. "Maybe they'll appreciate the fact I saved them some time and money." At Sheppard's skeptical expression, he sighed. "You're right. Must've gone crazy for a moment."

John snorted. "You didn't have far to go."

"That's because I spend all my time with you." He stared at the builders. "They're doing it-"

The cane slapped his shoulder, and he froze. Jomul walked around him slowly, trailing the tip of the rod across his chest and up his throat, lifting his chin. "Do you speak without permission, slave?"

Rodney lowered his gaze to the ground, forcing out, "My apologies, Master." The last word always came out garbled.

Jomul jabbed the end of the cane in the soft tissue beneath McKay's jaw. "Have you not learned yet?"

Swallowing hard, his mind raced for the right words. "I- I was merely expressing… concern over the, uh, stability of the wall."

The driver swung the rod, connecting solidly with Rodney's face. He stumbled into Sheppard who caught him then stepped between him and Jomul. Enraged, the man swung again but stopped short as the wall swayed and began to topple. Slaves scurried in every direction but couldn't avoid the falling rock. Horns blew as drivers and crews rushed to help. Not in time. The structure collapsed completely.

Jomul stared at it then at them. "How did you know?"

"Because I am a-" McKay reconsidered. "Because I- we had schooling. Before."

It took hours to dig all the bodies out, and the fight for food that night wasn't as brutal as usual. The next morning, they were transferred from the hauler crew to the builder crew. Their new master was Salot, driver of the builders, a dark-skinned man with a hard face and unmerciful eyes.

While still manual labor, skill was more important than brute force, especially an eye for detail and an understanding of weights and angles. Rodney actually began to think he might live long enough to be rescued. Then he met Yerik.

oOo

Ronon twirled a stick as he circled, noting every muscle twitch of his opponent. He attacked, swinging down with his right and crossing with his left. The smaller man blocked the blows deftly, ducking under his arm and tapping his back. Hissing at his lack of concentration, he hurled the sticks across the room.

"This is taking too long!"

Evan wiped his face on his sleeve, holding his stance for another second before relaxing. "We're working as fast as we can. Zelenka didn't find any matches, and the database doesn't have any info on Sachratia. A hundred addresses is a lot of territory to cover, and we're spread thin already due to that mystery plague. Plus, our MALP supply isn't unlimited."

"I don't need a MALP. Give me a list."

"And if one of those addresses is to a Wraith planet or a spacegate?"

Ronon rolled his eyes. "You don't really think someone from one of those worlds went through a spacegate."

"Not on purpose. They could have misdialed. Or a dart could have gone through."

"I'll take that chance."

"Well, I won't, and neither will Col. Carter. Besides, Sheppard would have my hide if I did and something happened to you."

"I can take care of myself."

"What does Teyla say?"

He fought back his initial reaction as the full import of the question hit him. Teyla was family as surely as John and Rodney were. With them gone and her people missing, he was all she had left. He had an obligation to her as well. Striding across the gym, he gathered his sticks.

"Yeah," Evan murmured. "That's what I thought." He grabbed his water bottle and squirted some in his mouth. "We will find them."

Ronon twirled the sticks again. "We have to."

oOo

"I can fight my own battles, you know," McKay snapped angrily, ripping the pants into bandages.

John grunted in reply, taking slow, shallow breaths.

"I know you don't think so, but I can. Your ribs can't take another beating."

Biting back a cry as Rodney helped him sit up, he held as still as possible while McKay rewrapped his chest with the remnants of some dead guy's clothes.

"Do you remember what you told me when we got here? 'Do whatever it takes to stay alive.' You realize that runs both ways, right?"

"Rodney-"

"I'm not kidding. I've learned more about medicine in the past four years than I ever wanted, and I know that Yerik will drive shards of your ribs into your heart and lungs if he hits you just right. Salot doesn't seem to have any interest in stopping him, and you can't keep taking a beating for me. We're a team. OK, maybe half a team, but still…. We risk our lives to save each other."

"What's your point?"

"It's my turn."

"I'm not going to let Yerik-"

"And I have no intentions of letting him. I am a genius, remember? I've learned a thing or two from Ronon."

Sheppard chuckled dryly. "How to fall?"

"Oh, har. It's about leverage and surprise and… leverage." McKay knotted the bindings and eased him back down. "But," he continued quietly, "you can't interfere even if I lose."

"Not a chance in hell."

"Whatever it takes. That's what you said."

"Rodney, you don't know what you're saying."

"Yes, I do. He isn't the first bully I've encountered."

"Yerik isn't some schoolyard thug. He means business."

"Don't you think I know that? Do you seriously think I don't understand the consequences? I am not going to stand by and do nothing while Yerik kills you."

"He could really hurt you."

"Gee, I couldn't tell from the ass-whipping you've been getting."

"McKay-"

"I know. All right? I know. Promise me you won't interfere."

"I can't-"

"You mean you won't. I know it goes against your nature, but you have to so we both stay alive. No matter what."

"OK."

"Don't you lie to me. Don't try to bullshit me either. Promise."

John's gaze locked with Rodney's. "I- I…."

"You would if I was Ronon."

"But you're not."

McKay winced. "At least let me try. Promise you'll let me try."

"I'll let you try."

xxx

Sheppard was shifting a rock into place when it started.

"Hey, little man."

McKay met John's eyes and gave a sharp shake of his head before glancing up at the mountain of a man. "What is it, Shrek?"

He snarled and kicked Rodney to the ground. "I told you my name isn't Shrek. It's Yerik."

"They're close. Besides, you remind me of Shrek. It's that overgrown, smelly thing you've got going."

Cuffing McKay on the head, he glanced around. "Where's your bodyguard?"

Rodney dug around the base of the stone he'd been setting. "What bodyguard?"

"You know who I mean. The one who fights your battles for you."

"Oh, James Bond? He's busy right now."

He must have been practicing on his bluffing. Only the fluttering fingers told John how scared he was.

Yerik yanked McKay to his feet and shook him like a rag doll. "You think you're smarter than me, don't you?"

"Oh, hell yes. My niece is smarter than you. My cat is smarter than you."

It took every ounce of self-control John possessed to not throw himself at the big man when he slammed a fist into the side of Rodney's head. McKay collapsed to the ground, gasping as Yerik kicked at him.

Rodney rolled and came up, fighting poorly but fighting nonetheless. Two punches connected before a fist in the gut sent him sprawling against the stone. He threw sand at Yerik and twisted away.

Yerik roared in rage and charged. McKay never stood a chance. The bigger man body-slammed him to the ground, pummeling him. Rodney clawed at him, trying to protect his face and escape. Grabbing his ears, Yerik slammed his head into the dirt, and McKay went limp.

John had had enough. Palming the stone shank he'd sculpted, he slipped from behind the wall and approached stealthily. Movement caught his eye, and he found Salot silently watching. Sheppard knew the punishment for killing another slave, but he wasn't going to let this happen. He might not live, but Yerik wouldn't either, and Rodney would be safe.

Sneaking behind Yerik, John wrenched his head back and stabbed the shank deep into his neck then jerked it out. Blood spurted, and the man gurgled as he clutched at the wound. Sheppard shoved him to the ground and pulled McKay free.

John stared down at the dying man. "Should've kept it between you and me."

Rodney sat up groggily, wiping blood from his eyes. "Is he dead?"

Sheppard waited another minute. "He is now."

"You shouldn't have done that. You know what'll happen."

"I know."

"John-"

"I wasn't going to let him; I told you that."

"What happened to 'stay alive no matter what'?"

A crowd had gathered, and overseers were running in from every direction. Salot knelt next to Yerik.

"I'm not dead yet, Rodney."

"In your condition, it won't take much to change that. What the hell were you thinking?"

"That I couldn't live myself if I let it happen."

"Slave!" Salot thundered. "You have destroyed the property of Sachratia and will be punished accordingly. Take him."

"No! Please! Take me instead," McKay begged.

Two guards dragged Sheppard to the post across the compound and secured his wrists. Hugging the pole as tightly as he could, John pressed his forehead against it. He heard the whip crack before it landed, and he flinched in spite of himself. The stone and metal fragments dug into the flesh over his right shoulder blade and ripped across his back. Gasping for breath, he locked his knees and braced for the next blow which landed just left of his neck, scraping through skin and muscle to form an X. Sagging, he panted and pushed upright. Abuse and lack of food had taken its toll in the past two weeks. He wasn't going to last long.

The next lash buckled his knees, and he couldn't hold the scream inside any longer. Voices surrounded him but were distorted like he was underwater. His heart hammered, stuttering when he was hit again. This time he could hear Rodney's strident tones, terrified and livid. He wanted to reassure him, but his body wouldn't obey his commands anymore. When the whip struck again, it embedded itself under his right arm, and his world went white. Slumping to the ground, he watched the blood leak from the hole in his side.

"Sorry, Rodney," he mumbled.

xxx

When Carson died, he'd felt like his soul was on fire. Everything hurt. When they lost Elizabeth, a piece of him had flamed out each day, crumbling into ash when they finally learned of her death. But watching them flay John for protecting him…. He hadn't known rage like this was possible. He owed Ronon an apology.

When Sheppard crumpled under the last blow, what was left of McKay shut down. Blissful numbness.

"Enough," Salot pronounced.

A guard untied John while the slaves under Salot's command returned to their work. Rodney climbed over the half-wall into the punishment area, avoiding the spreading pools of crimson around his friend. A ragged gasp told him Sheppard was alive for the moment. He pulled John's arms over his shoulders, ignoring the weak cry of pain and the slick of blood and sweat, and made his way back to the small lean-to.

Sheppard, who was mercifully unconscious, didn't move while McKay cleansed and bandaged the wounds as gently as he could. Rodney knew he should feel something, anything – concern, relief, anger, despair. John was going to die, either from infection or blood loss, and he was powerless to stop it. But the nothingness remained. In a way, he was glad. Feeling hurt too damn much.

He stared at Sheppard's unmoving form, resolving to stay until the end regardless of the punishment Salot would mete out. And he would do his best to live so John's sacrifice wouldn't be in vain. He hoped for rescue, hoped someone would bring enough C-4 for him to blow this place to hell. After that, it didn't matter.

Dumping the red-stained water from the bucket, McKay rinsed it clean at the well and refilled it. When he ducked back in the lean-to, he startled at the woman kneeling next to Sheppard.

"Get away from him," he snarled.

She glanced up but didn't otherwise move. "Is it true he killed Yerik?" Rodney had heard rumors of a rewards system for overseers and favored slaves. She could have been anywhere from twenty to fifty with ratty hair and a collection of bruises that her skimpy clothing couldn't hide.

"Yes. Now, get out."

Pulling several items from a bag, she removed the bandages from John's back.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"I can help him."

"How?"

"I have a healing ointment that fights infection, and I can stitch his wounds."

"Why would you do this?"

Her eyes were hard. "He killed Yerik."

"Fine," he decided. "Do what you can."

She took the bucket from him and cleansed the wounds again, her touch soft and skillful.

"Only five lashes," she murmured.

"'Only five?' How can you say that?"

"The last man to kill a slave received fifteen. He was dead after ten."

Sheppard cried out as she scrubbed dirt from his mangled back, dabbing with a cloth and pouring water on the injuries repeatedly.

"Would you fill this again?" she asked.

Rodney did as she requested, handing her a full container. She continued cleansing for another few minutes then gently patted the skin dry with a towel. Painstakingly piecing together the edges of jagged flesh, she sutured the larger gashes with small, neat stitches then smoothed ointment over every lash mark, finishing by lightly bandaging his entire back.

"Where did you get that stuff?"

"I make it. Occasionally the overseers are injured." She placed the towel and sewing items in her bag. "I wasn't always a slave."

"Will you get in trouble for helping him?"

"Will you get in trouble for not being at your assigned area?" she asked in return.

He met her eyes with a shrug. "Thank you."

"He killed Yerik. That's thanks enough." She handed him the ointment jar and a few clean bandages. "Keep the wounds as clean as possible. Rinse the skin with water and reapply again in the morning and evening."

"Will he live?"

"That's up to him. And you."

xxx

McKay slugged his way through the crowd to get bread, managing to grab a handful before being tossed aside. It wasn't enough to make a decent sandwich even if he'd had anything to put on it. But it was all he had. He wondered how John usually managed to get two entire loaves.

He rounded the corner and came face-to-face with Salot.

"You were absent this afternoon, slave."

There were no excuses. "Yes, Master." He hated to think how easy it was becoming to say that word.

The driver walked behind him, and the cane landed once, twice. Either Rodney was getting tougher or Salot was losing his touch.

"Do not let it happen again."

"Yes, Master."

Or the woman wasn't the only person glad to see Yerik dead.

xxx

"Get up, Sheppard."

McKay's words finally pierced the mist he'd been floating in. "Can't," he whispered.

"Oh, yes you can," Rodney responded, tugging on one arm.

He moaned as excruciating pain shot through him. "Stop. Please," he begged.

"I can't. He'll kill you if you don't show up today."

John forced his lids open to find McKay kneeling next to him. "Hurts."

"I know. Now get up. I'll help."

With assistance, he sat up then stood, accepting the cup of water and bite of bread Rodney offered. Something was wrong with McKay. His voice, usually laced with excitement or sarcasm or fear, sounded flat. Sheppard thought it could have been his hearing until he looked in the man's eyes.

When the horn sounded, they hobbled outside to their designated spots. John could barely lift his arms and certainly couldn't move rock. McKay worked feverishly to complete his own tasks and cover Sheppard's. John's entire body trembled, and he stumbled a few times, spending the majority of the day pretending to align the base of a column. When he had to move, he focused on putting one foot in front of the other and made it most of the way back to their hovel at the end of the day.

McKay helped him inside, and he sprawled on his stomach only to gasp as Rodney removed the bloody bandages from his back. His breath stolen, he curled away in protest.

"Hold still. I have to wash the wounds and apply this cream again."

"W-w-what c-cream?" John stammered.

"Just shut up and stop moving."

That lifeless tone again. "What's wrong with you?" Only biting his lip kept him from screaming as water splashed over the raw skin.

"What do you mean?"

Hissing as the ointment was applied, he moaned, "I don't know. You sound funny."

"Do I?"

"Who are you, and what have you done with Rodney McKay?"

Strips were placed lightly across his back, and he turned his head as Rodney stood.

"Be right back."

McKay grabbed the water bucket and disappeared. John was drifting off when he returned with fresh water, a hunk of bread, and a bloody nose. Rodney halved the food, handing Sheppard his portion and a cup of water.

John studied him for a minute as they ate. McKay's trousers were a bit baggy now, and his muscles were toned. Scars and calluses ran across his shoulders, chest, and back. The sunburn had turned to a tan, and his beard had grown in an alarming shade of red. But still, the biggest change was the look in his eyes. Or the lack thereof. They weren't accusing or frightened or flashing with emotion of any kind. Just blank.

"Tell me what's wrong, Rodney." His words were slurring, but he forced his eyes open.

"You mean besides being kidnapped and enslaved?"

"Yes, besides that."

"Don't know what you're referring to. Well, there was that little incident yesterday where you almost got yourself killed." He said it conversationally, like he was commenting on the weather.

"If you think I'm going to apologize, you're wrong."

"I wasn't expecting an apology. I guess deep down I knew you'd jump in. It's who you are."

McKay's expressionless voice was driving him crazy. "Then what's the problem?"

Rodney finished his water and stretched out on the ground. "I can't do this anymore."

"Do what?"

"I was never very good at it anyway."

"What are you talking about?"

"Feeling."

"Feeling what?"

"Anything."

"We're going to survive this."

"Hmmm…. Maybe. I'm not sure I care."

"Don't give up now."

McKay grunted as he turned over. "I think it might be too late."

John stared at the fresh scars on Rodney's back. "Hang on, McKay. Just a little bit longer."

oOo

"Thirty-seven worlds and not a sign of them." Carter's eyes were gritty and her voice hoarse from lack of sleep. She poured her fourth cup of coffee for the morning. "Tell me you have something, Radek."

Zelenka pulled off his glasses and rubbed his blood-shot eyes. "We are analyzing the telemetry from the MALP that was damaged in the rock slide on M4R-857. I'm sorry to say we haven't found anything yet."

She stared down at the silent stargate. "Ronon is due back today."

"Already?" Radek asked.

"It's odd, isn't it? Time seems to creep and fly at the same time."

"Do you think they are still alive?"

Three weeks was a long time for men like Sheppard and McKay to bow to someone. She had her doubts. Being the leader sucked sometimes.

"Absolutely," she replied.

A tech knocked at the door. "Excuse me, ma'am, Dr. Zelenka."

"Tell me you have something."

Her smile lit the room. "We have something."

oOo

John guided the stone into place, allowing it to drop with a resounding thud. He straightened, stretching muscles that he suspected might never work exactly right again. The past few days had been a blur; he didn't remember most of it, mainly Rodney encouraging him in his weird new voice to keep moving. Which is what he had done.

Glancing around, he spotted McKay measuring the next section. Rodney moved clumsily, almost drunkenly, his hands palsied. He stumbled, his knees buckling, and landed awkwardly on his side. When he didn't get up, Sheppard hurried over, hoping Salot was occupied elsewhere.

"Rodney?"

McKay blinked slowly at him. "Oh. Hey."

"What are you doing?"

"Resting."

"Well, stop it. Salot will be here any minute."

John wrapped an arm around him and pulled him up, but he immediately sagged back down.

"When did you last eat?"

"Yesterday. You were there."

"How much?"

Rodney looked away, mumbling, "A couple of bites."

"A couple of…. Damnit, McKay. You were supposed to halve it!"

"You needed it more. To get better."

"Mealtime isn't for several hours. You have to get back to work."

"Sorry," Rodney sighed. "If you get out of here, don't tell Jeannie what happened."

"Get your ass up."

"I'm serious. I don't want her to know."

"I'm serious too. Tell her whatever you want when we get home."

"Sheppard, I'm not going to make it home. You stand a lot better chance without me anyway."

"Quit being so melodramatic."

"What is going on here?" Salot's voice was deathly calm.

"Walk away," McKay whispered.

"We don't leave our people behind," John reminded him quietly as he stood and faced the driver.

xxx

Ronon checked and rechecked his blaster, bouncing a knee as they exited the wormhole. He sat behind Zelenka who had taken the co-pilot's chair while Lorne flew. Keller rounded out the cockpit crew. If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend he was with his team. Almost.

The rest of the strike force filled the rear compartment and the three additional jumpers. The HUD showed two sub-cu transmitter signals in the midst of hundreds of life signs. Cloaked, they hovered over the site in question.

Evan's jaw tightened, and Radek muttered something in his native tongue. Ronon didn't have to speak the language to understand the sentiment as he leaned on the console for a better look. Lorne directed the jumper toward the framework of a wall where men were beginning to gather. One man lay slumped on the ground while another stood protectively in front of him facing a third man. And Ronon knew.

"That's them. Land this thing."

Lorne banked sharply in reply, flying them over the stone outcropping that ringed the construction site. Ronon hopped out the rear hatch before it had completely lowered. The guards at the archway gaped when he appeared from nowhere, and their hesitation was their undoing. Stunning them, he raced through the entrance, confident that the Marines were fanning out behind him.

The layout memorized in the glance from the jumper, he dashed through the maze of buildings in search of his brothers. Rounding a corner, he spotted the newer construction in the distance. He could only catch snatches of Sheppard as the crowd gathered.

John fought like a wild man – biting, clawing, scratching, kicking at anyone who came near. The last man who got too close lost a few teeth as Sheppard wrenched a rod out of his hands and slammed it into his face. Three other men converged on John who fought ferociously but fell.

Ronon ran until he thought his heart would burst, too many slaves between him and his friends for his blaster to make a difference. He tried anyway, stunning one after another. The bandages on Sheppard's back turned red as blows rained down. Then Rodney moved, crawling slowly, covering John's body with his own. McKay collapsed after the second blow and didn't get back up.

Howling in rage, Ronon plunged into the crowd as P-90 fire filled the air. People ran in every direction, and the men attacking Sheppard and McKay wheeled at the sound. Stunning them, he dropped to a knee and gently shifted Rodney to the ground.

"R'non?"

"Be still, McKay. We're here to take you home."

"My last hallucination was prettier," he mumbled as his lids slid shut.

"Where's Keller?" Ronon shouted.

Rodney's complexion was grey, his skin clammy, and blood pooled around John who was laboring to breathe. Seconds later, the doctor skidded to a stop, med kit in one hand and a scanner in the other. Muttering words he didn't understand, she worked feverishly as the Marines took up positions around them.

"Let's get them out of here," she ordered.

Gurneys loaded, they hastily made their way back to the jumpers. Leaving behind the strike force to help the rest of the slaves, Lorne headed to Atlantis.

xxx

Teyla held John's hand, stroking the back of it with hers. Keller had spent hours repairing the muscle, tissue and nerve damage he'd suffered. He had received blood transfusions while Rodney had been given glucose to raise his blood sugar. Sheppard and McKay had been malnourished and exhausted, and both were still sleeping after three days.

His fingers curled around hers momentarily before he awoke with a gasp. "McKay!"

Careful to not touch any of the hideous scars on his back, she caught his shoulders as he tried to push up. "Shhhhh…. You are home, John."

Wild, frantic eyes flashed at her, and he snarled before recognition set in. "Teyla? Home?"

"Yes, you are safe now as is Rodney. You will both be fine." One day.

Turning his face from her, the tension in his body drained away as he pressed his face in his pillow. She stroked the back of his hair until the shaking stopped and he fell asleep.

xxx

Rodney moaned in his sleep then whimpered and began mumbling about bread. Ronon squeezed his arm gently.

"McKay, wake up."

His eyes flew open with a cry, and he cringed away when Ronon stood.

"Easy, Rodney."

"Ronon?"

"Yeah."

"Is this a dream?"

"No. You're home."

McKay made a low pained sound and curled away as his breathing hitched. "Home."

Ronon dragged his chair closer and slouched down in it. "Brought you something."

"Chocolate cake?"

Ronon grinned. "Not yet. Keller made me promise to wait until your hyper- hypo- hype… blood is stable." He pulled the crystal from his pocket.

"A control crystal. Gee, you shouldn't have."

"It's from the DHD."

Rodney gazed at him blankly.

"From the planet."

"What- Oh." McKay stared at the crystal, frowning. "You disabled their DHD."

"The slaves who knew their home gate addresses were sent through. The rest were taken to the alpha site. Zelenka's figuring out how to get them home. We pulled the crystal, dialed with the jumper, and left the Sachratians to build their own palace."

"And if the Wraith come?"

"Do you care?"

"No."

Other than his initial reaction when he woke, Rodney had been strangely reserved. The emotion that usually flowed over his face was still absent, but his knuckles were white as he tightened his grip on the crystal.

"You OK?"

"How's Sheppard?"

"Doc says he'll be fine after some therapy. She's in with him now." Ronon jerked his thumb in the direction of the curtained area across the room.

McKay continued to gaze at the crystal, running callused fingertips over it. "He almost died because of me."

Ronon sat quietly as Rodney talked, his eyes never lifting from his hands. As the story bubbled forth, he grew more distant, finishing in a monotone and sitting with head bowed, as if waiting for judgment.

"Not your fault, McKay."

"How can you say that? You would've killed Yerik the first time he looked at you funny instead of Sheppard having to do it."

"Still doesn't make it your fault."

"You didn't see what they did to him. I should have been able to stop it."

"You did the right thing. You kept your head and kept him alive. Don't know that I could have done that."

"Stop trying to make me feel better," Rodney snapped.

"Since when do I try to make you feel better?"

"You know what I mean."

"No, I don't. We're different, but that doesn't make one of us better than the other. You did what you could, and you both lived. That's all that counts."

"Is it worth it?"

"What?"

Emotion flickered across McKay's face and filled his eyes as he finally looked up. "Picking up the pieces. Starting over again. Caring."

Ronon hated conversations like this, hated reliving the past, talking about feelings. But Rodney wasn't really asking about him.

"Yeah, it's worth it."

"How- Why- What makes you think so?"

"Because it reminds me I'm human. They didn't win."

McKay turned the crystal over in his hands then hurled it across the room. It smashed against a wall, shattering. When the nurse came running, he asked to be moved to the bed next to Sheppard.

xxx

A familiar clicking pulled him from the nightmare. Opening his eyes, he found a clean-shaven McKay slathering cream all over his face with one hand and typing on a laptop with the other.

"Rodney?"

McKay held up one greasy finger until he was finished then glanced over. "Well, if it isn't Sleeping Beauty. OK, 'Beauty' might be a little strong. You should seriously consider getting a little closer to a razor."

John blinked in surprise. While the old sparkle wasn't fully back, the smug tone was. Pushing up carefully, Sheppard rolled onto his left side, grunting at the twinges in his still healing back.

"Hey."

"You should see what Zelenka let them do to my labs. Three weeks, and it's an abomination. Trained monkeys would be more useful."

"But then you wouldn't have anything to bitch about."

"You were funnier when you were asleep."

Sheppard chuckled. "What are you working on?"

"I have six hundred and seventy-five emails plus two hundred project reports to read and six employee evaluations to write. How is that possible?"

"You're just Mr. Popular." The unblemished skin under McKay's right ear caught his attention, and he reached cautious fingers to his own neck.

"That little device Keller found after her adventures with the Bolo Kai does wonders, doesn't it? She said she'd, you know, fix your, um…." Swallowing thickly, Rodney waved vaguely at him without looking. "Your back. When the skin isn't quite so…." The furious typing resumed.

"Oh." John brushed his hand over his neck again. Even the Iratus bug scars were gone. His stomach chose that moment to growl loudly, and McKay threw a pudding cup at him.

"Um, do we-"

"Plenty of food here, you know. Don't have to fight to get it," Rodney said quietly.

"Yeah, I know. I was going to ask if we had any spoons."

"Oh." McKay rummaged through a bag on his bedside table. "Here."

"What else do you have in there?"

"PowerBars, water, a couple of KitKats, bag of chips-"

"Rodney." Are you OK?

"I didn't want to have to ask." I'll be fine eventually.

"Got any good DVDs in there?"

"You're idea of good or mine?"

"I heard there's a pirated pre-release of the new Batman movie floating around."

A smile tugged at the corner of McKay's mouth. "Really."

"Aw, come on. You've been holding out."

Rodney rolled the movable tray stand between them. Pressing a couple of buttons on his computer, he set it on the tray and angled it so they could both see.

"Is that OK?" We're good, right?

John smiled as he opened the pudding cup. "Of course."


Thanks to kristen999 for the wonderful beta and to stealth dragon who unknowingly provided the focal point for me. All faults are mine. Written for the sgagenficathon. Prompt: angst - slavery, captivity, hostages.