Area 52 HKH

Coming Home 1

by Xanthe

Summary: "Colonel John Sheppard knew, from the moment he first met Dr Rodney McKay, that the man would be trouble."
Info: This novel-length story is set entirely in an AU where bisexuality and consensual BDSM are the cultural norm

Colonel John Sheppard knew, from the moment he first met Dr Rodney McKay, that the man would be trouble. He wasn't sure how, or why, or even what form that trouble might take, but after nearly twenty years in the military, John had an instinct for trouble, and Rodney McKay was it - with a capital 'T'.

John was standing in Lady Elizabeth's office, going through the personnel files of the people they were taking with them on the expedition to Atlantis, when someone knocked on the door and then barged in without waiting for a reply. John stiffened; Lady Elizabeth was their leader, and, although he'd only known her for a few days, John had a lot of respect for her, so he didn't appreciate someone so rudely interrupting their private meeting - especially not the dishevelled man who brushed past him, shoving him to one side in his eagerness to get Elizabeth's attention.

"Is this the guy?" the newcomer demanded, glancing at John as if he was something he'd stepped in. "Isn't he a bit young to be in charge of the entire military side of this expedition? And what's with the hair? Oh never mind. You said he has the ATA gene? Because if so, you have to lend him to me. Carson is driving me insane and besides he nearly destroyed General O' Neill's transport with one of those drones, and you know if anything had happened to the General then Daniel O'Neill would have blamed *me* and then there's no chance I'd get anywhere near Atlantis - I'd be strung up in little pieces somewhere while he carved into me with a blunt knife. That man is the most possessive sub I've ever met."

John blinked, and glanced at Elizabeth, overwhelmed by the whirlwind of chatter.

"Ah, Colonel Sheppard - I should introduce you to our Head of Science - Dr Rodney McKay," Elizabeth said, with a wry grin.

John took a second to process that *this* man, standing here, fingers clicking together impatiently, was the very eminent Rodney McKay, a scientist of outstanding brilliance - according to his personnel file at least. The man in front of him had long, unkempt, wavy hair, most of which was standing on end, as if he'd just spent several days running his hands through it - maybe he had. He had three days worth of stubble on his chin, and was wearing a faded blue expedition sweater and a pair of black pants with a coffee stain on the thigh. He looked sort of unkempt, as if he had long since stopped caring about his appearance and didn't expect anyone else to, either, and yet... John noticed a pair of bright, intelligent, if guarded, blue eyes, and a crooked mouth that looked as if it could spit out insults as soon as give you the time of day. Yes, the man was definitely Trouble.

"Dr McKay." John nodded, and held out his hand in greeting. McKay gave him a withering look.

"Yes, yes, time for that later - at the moment I need you - or rather I need that gene of yours. Come with me."

It was an order, and so peremptory that John found himself glancing at Elizabeth in shock, seeking her approval to end the meeting. She just gave a little grin and nodded her head in the direction of the door.

"I think Rodney's need of you is more pressing than mine," she murmured. "We can catch up on this later."

John gave her a polite nod, and then followed on after the scientist. It wasn't his usual style to notice such things, but he couldn't help but think, as he walked down the hallway after the other man, that Rodney McKay had a very nice ass.

"So you, apparently, have the ATA gene. It doesn't seem very helpful that one of the military boys should have such a strong manifestation of the gene when I'm the one who has to get this stuff working but I suppose we have to live with that. Carson is working on some new treatment that should resolve that issue for us but he's going at a maddeningly slow pace at the moment. I don't see what's so hard about it - it's not as if what he's doing is *real* science - but I suppose we have to accept that he knows what he's doing. By the way, do they *allow* hair cuts like that in the military? I thought you all had to have buzz cuts which is rarely a good look for anyone but I assumed it was some kind of weird bonding ritual you went through, and here's the chair so if you'd like to sit down please?"

"What?" They had come to a halt beside a large, ornate chair, situated in the centre of a little chamber, and Rodney's request had been so jumbled up in the rest of his stream of consciousness speech that John had to take a moment to process it.

"Chair. Sit," Rodney said slowly, as if talking to an imbecile, or a dog. John gazed at him steadily for a moment. He had been in the military for most of his adult life and he was more than used to taking orders, but not from scruffy scientists who seemed to be lacking a social skills gene. Rodney blinked, then looked at John as if seeing him for the first time. "If you wouldn't mind," he added, in a more polite tone of voice. John gave him a smile.

"Not yet," he said. "Firstly, I want you to tell me why you need me for this - and what's supposed to happen when I sit in that chair? I know I've got some kind of a genetic thing going on which means that I can activate Ancient technology but I don't want to make any mistakes, or do the wrong thing."

"Oh god. You're not afraid of it are you?" Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's bad enough dealing with Carson but at least he's a doctor and has an excuse for being uncomfortable around weaponry. I'd have thought you would be delighted to get the chance to be in control of this kind of destructive power."

"Really?" John raised an eyebrow. "I don't know what you know about the military, Dr McKay, but personally I prefer to have a thorough understanding of my weaponry *before* I use it."

"Really?" Rodney raised an eyebrow back at him. "As a matter of fact I know quite a bit about the military and I have to say that's not my experience of you military boys," and there was something about the way he said it, and the sour little bark of laughter that accompanied that comment, that made John frown. He wondered just what experiences the scientist was talking about.

"Explain it to me," John told him, softly but firmly, "and then I'll decide if I want to sit in it."

Rodney rocked back on his heels and gave John an assessing look, clearly realising that this wasn't someone he was going to be able to push around, and that he'd have to at least give some kind of explanation.

"You won't understand," he warned.

"Try me," John grinned. Rodney's eyes narrowed, and then, obviously deciding this was a challenge and he was happy to seize the gauntlet, he opened his mouth and launched into a detailed explanation of how the chair worked that was so technical John had to concentrate extremely hard to follow it. However, despite all his bluster, the scientist actually had a very good way of explaining things, and there was something rather amusing about his style of speech and his frequent snarky asides that made John smile. He came to an end of his explanation and then stood there, looking at John with an expectant smirk on his face, clearly expecting him to have been completely lost in all the technobabble.

"Thank you." John inclined his head towards the scientist. "So basically you're saying that these drones are telepathically controlled and when I sit down I have to be careful not to unleash another one?"

"Something like that," Rodney grunted sourly, obviously annoyed that John had grasped the central concepts so easily. "Especially if General O' Neill's helicopter is anywhere nearby. We really don't want any harm to come to him or..."

"Or his husband will come after you with a blunt knife. I remember," John grinned. "Sounds like the general has his hands full with that one."

"Yes, well, I really don't have the least interest in their particular dynamic," Rodney snapped, but John caught a flash of something in the scientist's blue eyes - something naked, something hurting, and that surprised him because this man was so outrageously rude and brusque that John would never have suspected him to have a sensitive side. There was clearly a whole lot more to him than met the eye. John put him on his mental list of people to watch on this expedition.

As it turned out, John didn't get a chance to watch anyone for the next few weeks as they were beset by a series of crises from the minute they walked through the gate into the Pegasus galaxy. The city welcomed him like a returning son, lighting up at his every step, only to start crashing all around them as the power ran out.

John led an expedition offworld to find refuge and instead encountered a hostile alien species that captured half his team, forcing him to lead a rescue mission, and when they returned to Atlantis, the city activated her own failsafe device by rising from the depths of the ocean into the clean, clear air. So much happened in such a short space of time that John almost forgot about Dr Rodney McKay - until the incident with the jello.

"Colonel Sheppard - take a seat." Elizabeth gestured with her hand at one of the spare chairs in her office. She looked tired, and John wasn't surprised. They'd all been running on empty for the past few days. She was dressed, as usual, in the tight, dark red, leather uniform suit that showed off her slender frame to perfection. John had worried initially about how he'd get along with her. They were both tops, which wasn't a problem - although John doubted he'd have had a problem if the leader of the expedition had been a sub, either. He'd known some tops with terrible leadership qualities and some subs who truly excelled in that area and he knew sexual inclination wasn't any guide as to how well someone performed in their job.

Luckily, Lady Elizabeth Weir had proved herself to be a thoughtful kind of leader, and although he didn't always agree with her more cautious decisions, he was glad that she was someone he could work with, and respect.

John wondered for a moment whether she had taken a sub - he was sure that half the available subs in the city would jump at the chance because she exuded an air of capability and control, but he also knew that it wasn't always easy taking a sub from among people you worked with. Still, he didn't like the idea of her being lonely - a good leader needed an attentive partner, whether sub or top.

John was feeling that lack in his own life right now, but he had nobody but himself to blame for that. He'd had some great relationships with a variety of willing and compliant submissives, but the truth was that he'd never been in love and he was beginning to despair of ever finding someone he connected with on anything other than a sexual level. He longed for the soul-deep connection he'd seen other couples enjoy - including his own parents - but somehow it had just never happened for him and he was beginning to wonder whether it ever would. Maybe he was asking for too much but he knew that he couldn't fake it. He'd bent many beautiful bodies, both male and female, to his will, enjoyed them for the taking, and loved doing it too, but he had reached an age where he wanted more than that, and as a result he'd been celibate for over a year now.

"What's going on?" John asked, seeing Elizabeth sigh heavily as she flicked through a file, before handing it to him.

"There was some kind of fracas in the mess hall yesterday," she told him. "One of your men - a Sergeant Bates? - sustained a cut to his forehead requiring four stitches."

"I heard about that. I assumed it was just some horsing around," John commented, surprised that this minor issue had made it to her desk. "I'll deal with it, my Lady," he said in a grim tone, getting to his feet. He'd been so busy dealing with one crisis after another since they arrived that he hadn't had a chance to establish a clear sense of discipline - and the men under his command were all new to him. This was his first major command, and he was aware that he'd landed it partly because of the ATA gene. Not that he hadn't proved himself in the field of combat, over and over again, and the military had commended him for his leadership abilities on several occasions, but this - out here, in another galaxy - this was a whole new ball game.

"It's not that simple," Elizabeth told him, with a strained smile. "I asked you here because Sergeant Bates has made a formal complaint against one of the civilian members of the expedition - and now I have to decide what to do about it."

"Oh." John sat back down again. Setting up a judiciary system and formal punishment room hadn't exactly been top of their list of priorities when arriving here, but it was clear that it had just been shunted up the list. "So what happened?" he asked, flicking through the complaint that was in the file that Elizabeth had given him.

"It's not easy to tell - I've only got Sergeant Bates's version of events and there were no witnesses save for a group of military personnel and..." Elizabeth gave another sigh, "Dr McKay."

"McKay?" John looked up in surprise.

"Yes. Bates alleges that McKay launched an unprovoked attack on him, and, uh...threw a plate of jello at him. The rim of the plate cut Bates's forehead - hence the need for stitches."

"My god - if I'd been wounded by a flying plate of jello I'd keep quiet about it, not launch a formal complaint!" John laughed. Elizabeth gave him a wry smile.

"Unfortunately, Sergeant Bates seems to be taking this very seriously. He's pressing for punitive charges against Dr McKay," she told him.

"What?" John shook his head. "Oh god. We could do without this after all we've been through these past few weeks," he muttered. "So what does McKay say about all this?"

"I don't know. I thought I'd speak to you first - find out a bit more about Sergeant Bates. The facts seem incontrovertible though," she said, her hazel eyes weary. "The other marines in the mess hall at the time all say that McKay threw the plate at Bates."

"So, what are you thinking of doing?" John asked her slowly, not liking where this was going but this wasn't his decision - it involved a civilian so it was hers.

"I'm not sure I have a choice," she replied. "I don't like it, but...we're out here all alone, John. We have to make it clear to people that the rules are the same here as they were on Earth. I can't go bending them for anyone - particularly for a member of my team. It'll look like favouritism. If we let this slide, then I'm worried that things will fall apart and anarchy will set in. I don't want anyone thinking I'm a weak leader - we both know that's fatal for morale and for discipline generally."

She sat back down at her desk and looked at him, her arms spread in a gesture of defeat.

"I'm unhappy about the idea of a senior member of the civilian team being publicly disciplined," John told her, shaking his head. "Dr McKay is a man who should command respect, and that'll be hard for him after something like this."

"I know, but what can I do?" Elizabeth gazed at him helplessly.

"Well, talk to McKay for a start - find out his version of events," John told her. "As for Bates - I can't give you much help there. I barely know him. I've read his file though, and he's a by the book kind of guy. Not very imaginative, but does his job to the letter - perhaps he takes that a bit too far at times, but he's solid."

"That's what I'd heard too," Elizabeth nodded. "All right - let's get Rodney in here and see what he has to say about this."

Rodney McKay burst into the room a few minutes later, looking as dishevelled as ever. John wondered whether the man ever shaved - or changed for that matter. He was wearing a coffee-stained blue tee shirt, and his eyes were red-rimmed, as if he'd been up all night working on something. His hair was as startling as ever - standing up in manic tufts all over his head.

"Well - what is it?" he demanded of Elizabeth. "I've just spent the past seventeen hours working on hooking up the damn naquada generators to take over the massive job of heating and lighting this city now that the ZPMs are all defunct, and could do without the interruption thank you very much."

John winced. He longed to get hold of Rodney McKay and shake some politeness into him, but Elizabeth seemed used to his manner and she just smiled at him, that strained smile of a leader under pressure.

"Rodney, sit down. We need to talk," she told him.

"Oh god. That's never a good phrase," Rodney sighed, sitting down in the seat beside John. "This isn't about that stupid incident in the mess hall yesterday, is it?"

"I'm afraid it is," Elizabeth told him. "Sergeant Bates has pressed charges against you."

"Oh WHAT?" Rodney looked outraged.

"He did need four stitches in his head, Dr McKay," John said. "So I think he has a right to press charges, don't you? Unless you're saying it was an accident?"

Rodney turned to look at him, those blue eyes of his flashing. "Well, you're military, so of course you'd take his side, Colonel," he snapped. "What's Bates saying, Elizabeth?"

"That you threw a plate at him."

Rodney stared at her for a moment.

"Is that true?" Elizabeth prompted.

A defeated look crept into Rodney's blue eyes and he shrugged. "Yes. I suppose it's true," he said softly.

"And?" Elizabeth waited but Rodney just shrugged again. "Come on, Rodney, work with me here. Were there any extenuating circumstances? Anything that makes this look less bad than it is?"

Rodney thought about it for a moment. "Things were said. It was heated. I didn't honestly intend to hit him with the plate but I admit I lost my temper and threw it in his general direction. Of course if I'd actually been *aiming* for his head it would undoubtedly have sailed over it by several inches because although I'm a genius my aim is crap - as is my ability at competitive sports. It was a freak accident - nine times out of ten I doubt the plate would have broken any skin but it sort of ricocheted off the wall and broke and the ragged edge caught him on the forehead. You're right though - he did need stitches and I accept full responsibility for that," he said quietly. Elizabeth sighed and sat back in her chair.

"What kinds of things were said, Dr McKay?" John asked, picking up on something the scientist had said. Rodney turned to look at him again, and this time those blue eyes of his were guarded, and he gazed at John with a distrustful expression.

"It doesn't matter. I clearly behaved...inappropriately. I'll apologise to the sergeant."

"It's gone beyond that, Rodney," Elizabeth told him. "He's asked me to take punitive action."

Rodney thought about that for a moment and John gazed at him, fascinated by the play of emotions that flitted across the other man's expressive face, from dismay to humiliation to, finally, resignation. His jaw tightened into a jutting display of tense bravado and he got up. "Well, that's your decision, Elizabeth," he said softly. "Now, if that's all I have work to do. Whether the military boys like it or not, I'm the one who keeps the lights and heat on around here."

"Rodney!" Elizabeth called, and he paused by the door, his back stiff. "You do know what I'm talking about here, don't you?" she said. "This will be a public disciplinary. I don't want that any more than you do and I don't think it sets a good example if a senior member of the expedition is in this situation - do you?"

John watched the tense play of muscles in the other man's shoulders as he stood, his hand on the door. Finally, Rodney turned.

"No," he said. "I don't think it's a good idea for any number of reasons, not least of them being my concern about my own ass, but I also know that if you have to throw me to the wolves to keep this base running efficiently then you will, and I do understand that. I do!" he repeated fiercely, as she opened her mouth to protest. "I'm not going to put you in an awkward position, Elizabeth. Do what the hell you want. You will anyway." And with that, he left the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

Elizabeth turned to John, her arms open in a gesture of despair again.

"There's no helping some people," John told her, with a shrug. "Especially if they won't help themselves."

"You think I should authorise the punishment?" she said, stroking her neck anxiously, as she always did when she was uncertain.

"I don't think you have much choice. The guy admitted he threw the plate and he wouldn't give us any extenuating circumstances - there's not much else to be done, is there?" John said, giving her a sympathetic smile. Privately, he couldn't help thinking that Rodney McKay was such an obnoxious piece of work that it would do the man good to have some humility drummed into him.

"All right. You'd better get a punishment room set up. I'm keeping this light though - enough to satisfy Bates, but no more," Elizabeth said grimly.

"Agreed." John nodded. He walked out of the meeting with a heavy heart; this was not a good beginning to their time on Atlantis.

John went back to his office and studied his personnel files, while deciding what to do next. Bates was part of a close knit group of marines who had been working with the expedition team for months before John had even come onboard. He was deputy head of security on Atlantis, reporting in to John's second in command, Major Lorne, and he took his job very seriously, but there had never had any complaints about the man.

John decided to speak to Major Lorne first. He didn't know the major very well, but he liked and respected what he'd seen of him thus far - and, more importantly, Lorne knew these men, having worked with them for the past year or so. Lorne didn't tell him any more than John knew already though - that Bates was solid, and, although the sergeant was a fairly humourless individual, with a vindictive streak, Lorne couldn't imagine him making this whole thing up.

With a sigh, John dismissed Lorne and made a call on his radio asking Sergeant Bates to come and see him.

"You've made a complaint about Dr McKay," John told him, gazing at the man's head - he had a dressing over his left eye, and a slight bruise was visible around the edges.

"Yes, sir." Bates nodded.

"Care to tell me what happened?"

"He came into the mess hall, sir, and he was angry because we'd eaten all the blue jello," Bates told him. John tried not to laugh out loud - that sounded very like Rodney McKay. "I pointed out to him that if he wanted the good stuff he should have got there earlier so he'd just have to settle for the green. He said he'd been working all night just to keep the place running and he expected a little gratitude. I told him we were all doing our jobs...and that was when he threw the jello at me, sir," Bates told him.

John sighed. This all sounded entirely plausible. "Was it necessary to make a formal complaint though, Sergeant?" he asked. "We all have to live together after all."

"I'm going to be permanently scarred because of one man's petulance, so yes, sir!" Bates growled. "I think it was necessary."

"Could I talk you out of it?" John asked, leaning back in his chair, feeling tense about even suggesting it because this was Bates's prerogative, and he didn't want the other man to think he was trying to pull rank on him over this.

"No, sir! I don't think you can," Bates told him firmly.

John sighed. "Very well. You can go," he said. He called in a couple of the other men who'd been witnesses, but they all said the exact same thing, so John had to conclude, reluctantly, that there was nothing further to be done and that Dr McKay would just have to take his licks.

The disciplinary was scheduled to take place the following day at ten a.m. John didn't usually attend public disciplinaries - these things were best dealt with privately, in his view - but Rodney didn't have a top to speak for him and refused to speak for himself. John didn't even know if the man was a sub or a top - but his top radar picked up on something about the scientist which made him suspect that McKay was more likely sub than top.

Apart from anything else, the incident with the jello had taken place in public, and by law Bates was therefore entitled to request public redress. John attended the disciplinary purely out of duty; this had taken place on his watch and some of his men had been involved. He also wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere on the base - to see if people would feel justice had been done, or whether a more ugly mood was brewing.

John entered the punishment room and then paused in surprise - the place was packed to the rafters so he guessed that he wasn't the only one Rodney had irritated with his brusque manner and snappy comments. As he took his seat and glanced around, he realised the majority of the people present were his own men - there were a few people from the civilian side of the expedition, but, he noted thoughtfully, none of Rodney's own team was present. He was glad about that - it wouldn't be easy for the man to maintain his authority after this, and he was still their Head of Science after all.

Elizabeth was there, sitting at the back, her expression subdued. John gave her a half salute as he went in, and she acknowledged him with a little nod. He wasn't surprised that she wasn't handing out the punishment herself. As their leader it was her prerogative but it was more usual to delegate that kind of task to a trusted member of staff. He *was* surprised to see that she'd chosen Peter Grodin for that job though - Grodin was on Rodney's staff, under the Head of Science's direct command, and John wasn't sure it was a good idea for him to be the one doing this, but he guessed that Elizabeth had a pretty small pool of people to choose from on a base this size.

Grodin stood in the centre of the room, examining the equipment they'd brought with them, which they hadn't had to use to date. It was standard judicial stuff - a sturdy frame, and a case of implements. Grodin took out a light paddle and swung it through the air a couple of times, to the obvious delight of some of the military personnel in the front couple of rows.

On the dot of ten a.m. Rodney McKay appeared in the doorway. He looked as tired as he had done the previous day - although John suspected this was more because he'd spent another night working on the naquada generators than because he'd been up all night worrying about the disciplinary. The scientist paused in the doorway, and then blinked, several times, as he took in the crowd in the room.

John felt a pang of sympathy for the man, despite himself. It couldn't be easy to realise that all these people had come here to witness him being punished - or that they would take pleasure in it. Rodney's eyes were glinting, and he gave them all a dangerous, baleful glare as he stepped into the room, daring anybody to say anything, his jaw pushed out to the maximum, in a full tilt of defence. None of this had much effect on the marines in the front couple of rows though - they laughed out loud and gave some ribald catcalls. John cleared his throat - loudly - and the jeering subsided.

Rodney stepped over to Peter Grodin and stopped for a moment to say a few words to him. John couldn't hear what was said but Peter managed a forced smile and he nodded at whatever it was Rodney was saying to him. Then Grodin said something in return, and John guessed he was reading Rodney his rights, going through the usual disciplinary preamble.

John wondered if the scientist had ever been publicly punished before. Plenty of people managed to go a lifetime without getting into any kind of judicial trouble, although somehow John doubted that Rodney was one of them. During his teenage years, John had earned himself a couple of public disciplinaries. They had been carried out by a bored cop in the small public punishment arena back in his hometown in front of a couple of equally bored witnesses and his own disappointed and disapproving parents. That had been bad enough, so he couldn't imagine how unpleasant it must be to be in Rodney McKay's shoes right now.

Grodin finished whatever it was he was saying to Rodney and then he gestured to the punishment frame. Rodney gazed at it with distaste, and then, with a mulish look on his face, he went over to it and loosened his belt and fly, before sliding his pants and boxers down his thighs until they were resting just beneath his buttocks. Then he leaned forward and took hold of the handles on either side of the frame, so that he was bent over, his ass jutting out.

The punishment frame was deliberately designed for this purpose. It was a large, curved piece of equipment with a padded bench. The only part of the miscreant's body visible from the front was his face and shoulders - it didn't form part of the punishment that any more flesh than that was on public display, although from some angles a little bit more was certainly visible. The only one who got to see any naked flesh full on was the person performing the punishment, and Grodin stepped up, slapping the paddle lightly against his own hand.

John glanced at his men, who were watching with rather more rapt attention than he liked. He caught sight of Bates, and noticed the smugly satisfied expression on the sergeant's face. John didn't like the look Bates was giving Rodney, and he glanced back at the scientist. Rodney gazed out at the audience, those blue eyes of his hiding absolutely nothing of the sheer humiliation he was feeling right now, and then he did something that John would never be able to get out of his head, for as long as he lived. It wasn't much - but there was something about it that made John sit up and really notice this man for the first time.

Rodney turned his head, and his eyes made the briefest of contact with John's before he rested his face sideways on the punishment frame. His face was now angled, unintentionally, in John's direction and John watched as Rodney slowly closed his eyes and then opened them again, and then he lay there, and there was an expression in his eyes of such sad acceptance that John's breath caught in his throat. Suddenly this had gone beyond duty for John, beyond his faintly bored witnessing of an unpleasant man getting his due. The expression in Rodney's eyes seemed to say, "Right. Yes. Of course. Here we go again." And rather than looking like the brusque, sarcastic scientist John thought he knew, now he resembled nothing so much as a lost, forlorn puppy, friendless and without a home. That realisation took John totally by surprise and now his interest in the proceedings was no longer dispassionate. Now it felt personal.

The moment passed and Grodin raised the paddle and brought it down firmly on McKay's ass. John's gaze never left the scientist's face, and Rodney didn't so much as make a sound. His expression never faltered, either - there was no acknowledgement of the swat at all, except in those sad blue eyes. John felt his hands clenching into fists. This was wrong. He wasn't sure why, or how, just that it was. This shouldn't be happening like this - he didn't want to witness this event. He had seen plenty of people punished before - hell, in his job he'd had to discipline countless unruly men himself over the years, and he'd never had a problem with it, but this...THIS...this was wrong. Not because Rodney didn't deserve it, because John was by no means convinced on that score, but because John felt so profoundly uncomfortable that so many other people were witnessing it.

To be honest, he couldn't have articulated what his emotions were, just that it angered him, and he felt a primal instinct rising inside him, wild and furious. That instinct warred with something else, something infinitely more tender and protective, and the two of them combined to make his fists clench and unclench convulsively, and his breath hitch in his throat. Nobody should be touching Rodney like this, damnit, because.... He had no end to that sentence - he just knew that the scene in front of him outraged him beyond belief.

Grodin raised the paddle again and delivered another swat, and again there was no reaction from Rodney, save for a little spark of distress in those blue eyes. John couldn't take his eyes off the other man's face. His attention was totally rapt, and he felt as if he was hardly breathing. Rodney's expression was dead, and his body was loose and unresisting, as he took the eight licks Elizabeth had ordered. He didn't once cry out, or say anything. He barely took any notice of the crowd, as if they weren't there, and John sensed their mood change. In the beginning they'd come here looking to enjoy the arrogant scientist get his comeuppance, but, in the face of Rodney's innate dignity and sad sense of calm, there was nothing to enjoy. It became just another punishment session, and they'd all seen or endured enough of them to know how it went.

The punishment came to an end, and Grodin went over to Rodney and murmured something into his ear. He didn't touch Rodney - it wasn't protocol - even though John knew, as a top, how hard it must be not to give some kind of reassuring comfort after this kind of event. But Grodin wasn't Rodney's top and didn't have the right to touch him - John doubted that Rodney would have welcomed any such patronising displays of concern in any case. The scientist pushed himself away from the frame, pulled up his pants, fastened his belt, said a couple of words to Grodin, and then left the room, without once looking at the assembled crowd.

John wasn't sure what he was doing but somehow he found himself getting to his feet and running out of the room after the scientist. He was vaguely aware of the marines getting up and starting to talk and laugh amongst themselves behind him, but he ignored them. He chased up the hallway and found Rodney waiting by the transport at the far end. Having run after him, John suddenly found that he had nothing to say, and he hesitated by the transport, gazing at Rodney's flushed face.

"Come to gloat, Colonel?" Rodney asked, in a tight little voice. "Your men must be pleased - they always enjoy it when I'm the floorshow."

John stared at him, shocked by the bitterness in Rodney's voice, and by his misunderstanding of John's intentions. "Not here to gloat, no," John told him, in a quiet voice. "I thought you took that with amazing dignity actually."

A look of confusion flooded into Rodney's eyes and he rocked back on his heels, still glaring at the colonel.

"Dignity. Right. Okay." He shook his head, as if amused by some private joke.

The door to the transport opened and Rodney stepped inside.

"Wait!" John said, grabbing hold of Rodney's arm. "You should go and see Dr Beckett," John told him. Rodney stared coolly at the hand John had on his arm.

"Take your hand off me, Colonel, or I'll bring charges of my own," he hissed. John let him go, as if stung.

"I didn't mean..." he began. "I'm just saying - those swats were hard - you should see Beckett."

"It was only eight swats. I'm sure I'll live. Besides, I have work to do," Rodney growled at him and then he thumped his hand on the door panel and it closed, shutting John out.

John stood there for a moment. Something about this had been wrong, very wrong, and he realised, with a start, what it was. It was him. He hadn't done enough to investigate this situation. Oh, sure, he'd had a word with Bates, and some of the other marines, but he hadn't done any further digging - he'd just taken the sergeant's words at face value. There was something else going on here, something that had to explain the ugly jeering he'd witnessed in the punishment room when Rodney had made his entrance.

John wasn't sure where to start digging, but he found himself going down to the infirmary. Rodney wasn't there, although John hadn't expected him to be - the scientist had been very clear on that topic. Dr Beckett was alone down there, gazing at something under a microscope.

John paused, and then went over to him. He'd met the doctor a few times and he liked the jovial Scotsman with the clear blue eyes and sympathetic bedside manner. Carson was a no-nonsense kind of man, and John was fairly sure he topped, judging by how well he managed to deal with some of the more difficult patients in his infirmary, but he was also essentially kind-hearted and John liked that about him.

"Hey, Doc. What's going on?" John asked, perching on the side of Carson's desk. The doctor looked up, and gave him a brief, tight smile.

"You tell me," he said. "I heard there was some action in the bear pit this morning. I suppose you've just come from there?"

John frowned. "You're not in favour of public disciplinaries I take it?" he asked.

Carson shrugged. "I accept that sometimes they're necessary," he said. "But sometimes they just seem like entertainment for the masses, and I for one don't get off on public humiliation."

"Well, I'm with you on that one," John told him, shaking his head. "That's why I'm here. You've known Rodney McKay for longer than anyone else. What's he like?"

"Brilliant, obnoxious, irascible, irritating, arrogant, condescending, stubborn and completely and utterly without guile. Why?" Carson asked.

"I'm not sure," John mused. "Do you think he threw that plate at Bates the other day?"

"Without question," Carson grinned. "He admitted it, didn't he?"

"Yes he did...but he didn't say why." John chewed on his lip thoughtfully. "Carson - what's Rodney's story? I gather he doesn't have a top's protection right now - I mean, I'm assuming he's a sub? I get that vibe off him."

Carson sat back in his chair and gazed at John, those blue eyes of his piercing right through him.

"Are you asking because you think it'll throw some light on your investigation, or because you have a personal interest in him?" he asked cautiously.

"Does it matter?" John threw back.

"Aye, it matters," the doctor told him firmly. "I'll not have anyone screwing around with Rodney. He's been through enough. So if you were looking for a sub to play with, then I'd advise you to take it easy and go slow. He'll likely bite your hand off as soon as kiss it though, so he'd be a challenge if that's where your interest lies."

"He is a sub then?" John put his head on one side. Carson sighed.

"Aye, he is. I think he struggled to come to that conclusion, but he's comfortable enough with it now."

"What did you mean by him having gone through enough?" John asked carefully, unsure why he felt such a sense of relief at finding out for sure that Rodney was a sub. Carson sighed again.

"Colonel, I haven't known you very long but you strike me as a good man, so I'll tell you, but please keep this confidential," Carson requested. John nodded. "Okay then...Rodney is...well, you have to get to know him to understand him, but he's a good man. He's about the best friend I have out here, and he'd do anything for you - he just doesn't want you to know that. He hides behind all that bluster and sarcasm but he'd go to the wall for you if you let him. I meant what I said just now - he IS obnoxious and arrogant, and he says the most terrible things, but he's also kind, funny and...well, sort of lovable underneath it all, if he lets you get close enough to see it."

"Did you...did you ever play with him?" John asked, wondering why he felt a tight knot in the pit of his stomach as he asked that question. Carson shook his head.

"We got close to it one night when we were both drunk, but it wouldn't have been right. He's a handful and I like a quieter life. I'm not a heavy top, either - he's someone who needs taking down and I prefer my subs respectful and worshipful rather than mouthy and mixed up."

"And the bit about him having gone through something?" John wanted to know.

"His parents were a nightmare. They screwed him up good and proper and the poor lad never had much by way of affection there. They died in a car crash when he was just eighteen. He was a graduate student at MIT by then but he came home to look after his little sister and continued his studies at the University of Toronto. He fell out with his sister a few years back, and he hasn't spoken to her since then which cuts him up deep inside because he loves her to bits although he'd never tell you so. I used to tell him to write to her but he's a stubborn so and so and he wouldn't. His argument with Jeannie upset him more than he cares to admit and he was all at sea for awhile and fell into some bad relationships. I know there was a woman who was quite abusive towards him, and some chap he ran rings around until the poor bastard gave up and threw him out. Rodney took that quite hard, although I didn't blame the man - Rodney is a handful, as I said. Then there were a series of one night stands that went really badly. Rodney is a genius - and he doesn't always understand how other people think or feel. He's an odd mixture of superiority complex combined with a genuine lack of understanding as to why anyone would love him, and that makes it hard getting through to him sometimes. He's a good man, Colonel, but he's been given a hard time by some of the people on this base."

"Who - and why?" John leaned forward, sensing he was about to learn something here.

Carson sighed. "Rodney went out with one of the military lads for a couple of weeks a few months or so ago but it ended badly. The man in question wasn't the brightest button in the box and Rodney needs to be with someone smart. And you know Rodney - he doesn't mince his words so his lover was in no doubt at all about what Rodney thought of his intelligence. As a result, he spread some rumours about Rodney that I'm certain aren't true. He said that Rodney was a crap submissive, that he wasn't worth playing with, and that people shouldn't touch him with a bargepole. Rodney was genuinely bewildered by all this, I think. He might be a challenging sub but he does like to be the best at what he does so I'm sure he's eager to please and tries his hardest. A lot of people miss that about Rodney."

Carson sat back in his chair and gazed at John. "Are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?" he asked.

"Very sure," John said firmly.

"It doesn't reflect well on your men."

"Then I'm even more sure," John growled.

"Okay then." Carson nodded, leaning forward as he continued. "The military lads had it in for him from then onwards - they never wasted an opportunity to taunt him about his lack of sexual prowess, or anything else that they thought would needle him. Sometimes it got really ugly - and that's just the stuff I overheard. I imagine it was much worse when there were no witnesses. Rodney took it all with rather more patience than I'd have expected. He had a tough time at school - he was too bright to fit in, and he got bullied quite a bit. He couldn't tell his parents about the bullying because they showed so little interest in him so I gather that he led a rather lonely existence. This thing with the military lads - I think it's almost what he's used to, like what happened to him back in high school, and that's why he put up with it. I wasn't surprised it finally spilled over though - Rodney's put up with a lot over the past year or so, and that particular plate of jello was a very long time in coming."

Carson sat back again and surveyed John intently. "So that's your story. Do with it what you will, but, if you're the kind of man I think you are, you'll do the right thing."

John gazed at him, feeling somewhat winded, and sickened to his stomach by what had happened that morning. That hadn't been justice - that had just been more bullying, and it had to stop. Nobody got away with behaving like that on his watch.

"Why didn't Rodney say anything about all this when Elizabeth called him in to defend himself?" he demanded.

"Well, I can't say for sure but I'm guessing it was because you were there," Carson pointed out. "You're military after all, and after what he's been through Rodney doesn't have a great deal of trust left in the military. I presume he just thought you'd take their side. Also - it's not exactly an easy thing to talk about, and the man has his pride. He'd find it hard to admit to the two highest ranking tops on this expedition that there are rumours circulating that he's a bad sub."

"Damnit!" John growled, leaning back and thumping his fist on Carson's desk, angry with himself for not knowing any of this and for unwittingly putting Rodney is such a difficult position. "This man Rodney was seeing - is he on the base?" he asked, wondering why that spark of jealousy was flaring in his belly again, white hot.

"No. He didn't make the grade and was reassigned before we left - but Bates was his best friend," Carson told him pointedly. "I suspect Bates also thinks Rodney is the reason why his friend wasn't part of this expedition but that's all bollocks, if you'll excuse my Scottish, because Rodney didn't have any say in the selection of the military personnel. It wasn't a relationship he had with this man though - just a couple of nights as I understand it. Rodney doesn't trust anyone enough to have a relationship with them. He keeps people at bay."

"I'd noticed," John chuckled. "Okay. Thank you, Carson. You've been very helpful."

"I do my best." Carson flashed him a broad smile. "It's over to you now, Colonel!"

John left the infirmary and made his way back to his office, thinking this through. He was absolutely furious that any of the men on his team had behaved in this way, and decided that they needed to understand the kind of behaviour their commanding officer expected of them. John wasn't a showy man, but he did have certain very firm ideas, and he wasn't afraid of following through on them. He didn't think for a moment that all the men under his command were the same as Bates and his friends, but it was up to him to make it clear to all of them the kind of operation he would be running on Atlantis. In his experience people needed to know where they stood, and John wanted to leave them in no doubt on that score.

This might be his first major command, but John had been a leader all his life, and he subscribed to the notion that people took their lead from those in charge, so it was time to let his men know exactly what kind of a man he was. He summoned Major Lorne and asked him to assemble his entire military staff in the punishment room in an hour's time.

"The punishment room, sir?" Lorne raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Yes - the practice room is too small for what I have in mind," John told him, "and the chairs are already laid out in the punishment room so it'll work fine. Get it cleared of the frame and implements - they can be put in the adjacent storage room."

Lorne nodded, and then left, clearly mystified as to John's intentions. John smiled - he liked Lorne but he wasn't sure he could trust him yet, so he'd let the major find out what was going on in an hour's time, like everyone else.

Forty-five minutes later, John collected the equipment he needed from the practice room and carried it along to the punishment room, and then he waited for his men to arrive. He was dressed in practice clothes, fully prepared for what was going to happen next.

When the marines started filing through the door, John smiled at them pleasantly, and greeted each man by name, just to make it clear to them that he wasn't some remote commanding officer who would take no interest in them, and also so that they knew they wouldn't be able to hide behind their anonymity. He knew exactly who they were and if they ever screwed up then he'd know who to ream out too.

John waited until they were all seated, and then surveyed them.

"We've had a busy few weeks," he told them. "What with the city shutting down and the wraith attacks. I've had a chance to see you guys in action and I have to tell you that I'm impressed. You're a good team - the best - and I feel privileged to know I've got you guys watching my back when we go out there."

He paused for a moment, and surveyed the room, taking in their faces. That was the softener; the carrot. Now it was time for the stick - literally.

"You guys don't know me very well and I know you've been wondering why the hell an Air Force colonel has been brought in above your own chain of command to run this operation. And the answer to that is - that it's none of your goddamn business." John smiled sweetly, and a little chuckle went around the room. "Now, like I said, you don't know me very well - that's why I've ordered you here, to do a little...military bonding." John smiled again and the men all looked at each other uncertainly, clearly wondering what the hell that meant.

"Okay. Let me lay it on the line. We're out here, in this galaxy, a long way from home, all alone, and the only way we're going to survive is if we pull together and all do things one way - and that way, ladies and gentlemen, is my way. There's no room for any dissent. I'm in charge here, and what I say goes. I'm not an unreasonable man, but I do have some very firm ideas on how the people under my command conduct themselves, and, if any of my special rules are broken, I will happily order you into this room and administer military discipline myself - and I'm sure Major Lorne will also be happy to oblige if I'm unavailable."

John turned, giving that statement a few minutes to sink in, and he went over to the table where he had laid out two sets of fighting batons which had been given to them by the Athosian people in gratitude for helping save them from the Wraith attack on their homeworld, and giving them sanctuary on Atlantis. He picked up one set of the batons.

"I'm not talking about military rules here," he said, as he turned back. "I'm talking about my own personal rules. What can I say? I'm quirky that way." He gave them another little grin, but he noticed they were starting to look a little uneasy, and he could see that they were wondering if they were stuck out here, in the middle of nowhere, with a psychotic commanding officer and nobody above him in the chain of command to appeal to. John did nothing to disabuse them of that notion - he wanted to keep them on edge.

"Now, you've already seen me in action, and I've seen some of you in action too, but I'd like to put a few of you through your paces." John smiled again. "So...I want some volunteers." Nobody ever volunteered in the military so John didn't wait for anyone to step forward. "You, you, you, you, you and you," he said, singling out Bates and the five other men who had been witnesses in the mess hall a few days previously. All of them, as far as John was concerned, were implicated in what had happened with Rodney McKay. "Come here." The men got up, glancing at each other nervously.

John threw a pair of batons at Bates, and then went and got a pair for himself. He was still a relative novice at using these, but he'd had a couple of weeks' tuition from the Athosian woman, Teyla, and that was a couple of weeks more than any of these men had been given so he was confident that he easily outclassed them.

"These," John said, holding up the batons, "are probably unfamiliar weapons to most of you. However, working with them speeds up your reflexes and makes you extremely agile, so you could all benefit from some workout sessions with them. If you want any guidance then ask Teyla. One of the benefits of being in another galaxy is that there are a hell of a lot of new things to be learned...and I'm about to give you your first lesson. Sergeant Bates...come at me please."

Bates hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward, raising his sticks. He narrowed his eyes as he approached, trying to size up the colonel, and then he charged forward, hard, batons flailing. John easily sidestepped him, thwacked the sergeant's hand with one of his own batons, effectively disarming him, and then he swung his other baton low, caught Bates a stinging blow on the legs, tripping him, and, as he fell, he delivered a satisfying swat to Bates's rump with his other stick. Bates lay there, panting and clutching his leg. John gave him a sweet smile and then turned back to his audience.

"Rule number one," John said. "I hate bullying. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a civilian expedition, not a military one. I answer to the head of the civilian team, Lady Weir, and we are mainly here just to protect their collective asses. That's our purpose. They aren't military, and if they ever complain that any of my men have tried to intimidate them, physically or verbally, I will personally take great delight in tanning your hides. Next please."

John threw Bates's batons at the next marine, a big, muscular, blond lad, and he swallowed convulsively and looked around uncertainly. "Now, Corporal!" John snapped and the corporal lumbered forward. John disarmed him with the same ease as he had Bates, and the big corporal went down with a satisfying thump - John made sure to thwack him hard on the backside on his way down.

"Rule number two: most of the guys around here will be smarter than you," John told his rapt audience. "That's just a fact of life. It's nothing personal - get used to it. Now, very smart people don't always act in ways that are easy for the rest of us to understand. That's fine. If you don't understand what one of the scientists wants, or if you think they're placing themselves or the rest of us in danger, then you can come to me, and I'll handle it. Otherwise - remember rule number one. This is their expedition and we're here to protect them, not obstruct them. Next please."

John handed the big corporal's batons to a thin, dark-haired man and beckoned him forwards.

"On the subject of how smart some of these people are - it might interest you to know what Dr Rodney McKay's qualifications are, for example." John grinned, and the dark-haired marine did a fancy little dance and then tried to side-step him. John despatched him without breaking sweat, delivering a hard swat on the man's ass as he went down, just as he'd done with the two previous men. "Dr McKay is Head of Science on this expedition, and therefore I think you can assume he's pretty smart. In fact, Dr Beckett described him to me as a genius. Did you know he graduated from MIT summa cum laude with a double major in math and physics when he was only seventeen?" John gazed at his audience dispassionately, recalling the facts he'd memorised from McKay's file.

"Since then he's earned advanced degrees in mechanical engineering, applied mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Toronto and Cal Tech. He also happens to be extremely important to this expedition as he's the only one who fully understands how the Ancient technology works."

John gave them a few seconds to digest that information, because he wanted them to be in no doubt at all on the subject of Dr McKay. There wasn't a whole lot he could do for the Head of science to make up for what he'd endured that morning, but he could do *this*, if nothing else. Then he gestured to the next marine in line to come forwards.

"Rule number three: integrity. We might be a long way from home, but I still expect you to behave with the same standards of behaviour and integrity that I'd demand from you on Earth."

John feinted to the right, then took out his new opponent with a single flick of his wrist to the left. The man landed in a heap on the floor and John swatted him on his ass on his way down.

"Rule number four: obey me, take your lead from me, try and impress me - and we'll get along just fine." John gave another sweet smile as he called forth the next marine.

"Rule number five: I'm in charge. That's it. I'm your bottom line, ladies and gentlemen. Piss me off and by god you'll know it."

John saw off the remaining marines in lightning quick time, as if to illustrate that point, and then threw the batons back at Bates once more.

"Again, sir?" Bates asked, looking seriously pissed off.

"Oh yes, Sergeant Bates. Seven more times to be precise," John told him with another of those bright smiles. Bates glowered at him but John was sure that the symbolism of the number wasn't lost on him. John took on each of those six marines another seven times, and on each occasion they landed in a heap on the floor with the sting of his baton smarting on their asses, legs, or hands.

When he'd finally finished with his object lesson, they were all looking dejected and decidedly the worse for wear. His audience was also looking subdued, clearly processing the knowledge that their new commander might not be psychotic, but he sure as hell was a hard ass. John didn't think there was any one of them who didn't know what the session with the batons had been about, and that was all to the good as far as he was concerned. When he'd finished wiping the floor with Bates and his cronies, John swung his batons up, and turned back to his audience.

"Well, this has been great, ladies and gentlemen. I've appreciated having the chance for you to get to know me a little bit better. Did anyone have any questions?"

Bates raised his hand, and John's eyes flickered over him in cool distaste.

"Good," he said, ignoring the man. "Now, if any one of you feels that maybe he's lost my good opinion, I would like you to know that I'm sure you can win it back, with lots of hard work and application and by following those rules of mine. That's all." And so saying, he swept out of the room.

John returned to his room later that evening still feeling pretty pleased with himself. This had been the first real test of his command, and he thought he'd handled it well. He certainly felt he'd nipped the situation in the bud. He was running a little late, and wanted to take a shower and change into his off-duty clothes and then head out to the mess he was brought up short to find the blond corporal he'd trounced that morning standing outside his door.

"Corporal Hicks?" John frowned. "Is there a problem?"

"No, sir. I just wanted a word with you," the corporal said, a slight flush rising to his pale skin.

"I've been in my office all afternoon - you only had to knock. I am always available to talk to my men," John told him firmly.

"I know that, sir, but what I had to say...well, it's kind of personal, so I thought I'd wait until you were off duty," Hicks said, that flush deepening. John gazed at him searchingly, and then sighed.

"Okay. You'd better come in." He opened the door to his room. "I'm sure whatever you had to say you could have said in my office," he said, as he strode into the room. "But now you're here I hope it'll be quick because...." He turned, and then stopped dead in his tracks, because the corporal had followed him into the room and was now kneeling in a gracefully submissive pose by the bed, face down, legs apart, back straight.

"Corporal?" John asked gently. The corporal remained gazing at the floor. John sighed. "Permission to speak, submissive," he said finally, realising he wasn't going to get anything out of the young man unless he played the top. The corporal relaxed and raised his head.

"I came here to offer myself to you, sir," he said, in a soft voice, gazing at John with naked sexual longing. "I asked around, and people said you don't have a submissive right now. A man like you shouldn't be alone, sir. I'm a good sub - well trained and obedient. I'll do anything you want, sir, if you'll have me."

John gazed at the man speculatively for a moment. He couldn't deny that it was an attractive proposition. Hicks was young, handsome, and clearly a very prettily trained sub. John had no doubt at all that the kid's soft lips would feel good wrapped around his cock, and he paused for a moment to consider how that muscular body would look, laid out naked for his attention. The corporal's pale skin would probably pink up nicely under his hand, and John could imagine how all those hard muscles would feel tensing beneath his touch as he entered the young man from behind and fucked him.

It *was* tempting - he'd gone a year without sex and he was out here, in the middle of a strange galaxy, which made you long to reach out for human contact to calm your fears over the unknown terrors that you were facing on an almost daily basis...and yet...John sighed. This wasn't what he wanted. This boy might be an enjoyable distraction, but he was too young and too dumb to offer him anything more than a good lay, and John wanted more than that, damnit! He knew how this would pan out, because he'd been there any number of times before, and he was bored with the routine of it.

"I'm sorry, Corporal," he said softly, letting the boy down gently, "but I'm afraid I'm not looking for a sub right now."

A look of surprise, mingled with dismay, flashed through the young man's eyes - he obviously knew he was attractive, and was upset that John was turning him down, but he also really wanted this. John realised that his little display in the punishment room earlier might have had some unforeseen consequences - it was no wonder a submissive as young and impressionable as this had taken something other than what he'd intended from that lesson he'd handed out earlier.

"I'm very good, sir," the corporal told him, his naivety removing any trace of arrogance from the statement.

"I'm sure you are. You're clearly a beautiful and eager to please submissive," John praised him gently. "This is nothing personal, Corporal, but I have a little rule about not getting involved with anyone under my command." That was a lie - it was pretty commonplace for a military top to take a submissive (or several) from the men under his command. That was part and parcel of military life and nobody thought anything of it. The corporal was clearly surprised as well, because he looked up sharply.

"It doesn't have to mean anything, sir!" he said. "I wouldn't ask for any special privileges. I just want to be your boy. Nobody even has to know."

John smiled at him. The kid really was very sweet - but ultimately John knew just how unsatisfying such an arrangement would be. He'd learned that lesson over and over again during his life, and he was resolved to pass up the short term temptation in favour of the possibility of a more fulfilling kind of love.

"I'm sorry, Hicks, but that's not the way I work," he said. "Now, I'm very flattered by your offer but it's a no," he added firmly. "There are plenty of other tops out there who I'm sure would take on a good-looking boy like you if you're lonely. Maybe someone closer to your own age?"

"None of them are like you, sir," the corporal sighed, looking utterly crestfallen.

"It's pretty common for a young sub such as yourself to have a crush on a high-ranking military commander," John said with a smile. "But love - and sex - are a damn sight more complicated than that, Hicks, as I'm sure you'll learn."

Hicks sighed, a somewhat dramatic and heartfelt sigh. John suppressed a grin - he doubted the boy's heart was broken - he had just seen something he wanted and had gone for it. John didn't begrudge him that. He held out a hand and the corporal took it and John pulled him to his feet.

"You'll do fine," John told him, ushering him towards the door. "There are plenty of good, strong tops on this expedition who'd love to have a pretty boy like you warming their beds, believe me." He opened the door and pushed the boy out, giving him a sharp swat on his ass on the way. The corporal turned, a grin of delight spreading over his face as he rubbed his ass.

"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!" he said as he walked away. John shook his head, still grinning, and then went back into his room.

"I just never see it coming," he sighed to himself as he walked towards the bathroom.

It was late by the time he made it to the mess hall, dressed more casually in a pair of black jeans and a tight black tee shirt, with his black leather vest over the top. He got a tray of food and then glanced around the place - and his eyes alighted on Dr Beckett sitting across the table from Rodney McKay. John felt his stomach do an odd little lurch, and he decided he was hungrier than he'd thought as he made his way across the packed room to the two men.

Carson looked up as he got to the table, and the doctor gave him a broad grin.

"Mind if I join you?" John asked.

"Of course not!" Carson beamed, but John noticed that Rodney glanced at him sourly and then grunted something into his meal. John took his seat, and gazed at the scientist. Rodney looked as dishevelled as usual - John wondered if he was actually intending to grow a beard as the stubble on his chin was now getting a little out of hand.

"How are you doing, Dr McKay?" he asked, intending it to be general conversation, but then the events of that morning flooded back and he winced, realising he'd probably said the wrong thing. Rodney gave him a baleful glare.

"Fine," he growled. "Absolutely fine." Then he turned his attention to his food. John watched in amazement as the scientist began shovelling the food into his mouth and swallowing it down so fast that he could surely barely taste it.
"So," Carson said, glancing sideways at John, "I was delighted to receive a few visits from some of your men today, Colonel."

"Really?" John raised an eyebrow.

"Yes. They had an assortment of minor cuts and bruises. I gather you held a little practice session for them this afternoon." Carson cast a broad, knowing grin in John's direction.

"They came to you for that? My god, what a bunch of whiners!" John laughed. "I'd have taken what was coming to me and laid low to lick my wounds in private if it had been me - I wouldn't have dared show my face in the infirmary expecting anyone to take care of it."

"Oh, I had some very fine medicine for them to take," Carson said, the twinkle in his blue eyes belying the solemnity of his expression. "It tastes pretty nasty, mind, but I assured them it'd do them good - and to be sure it won't do them any actual *harm*," he added, with an impish grin.

John grinned back at him - Carson was a top after his own heart.

"What's this?" Rodney asked, between mouthfuls of food. John itched to take the plate away from him and feed him by hand, slowly, so he could appreciate the meal.

"The colonel here held a special practice session in the punishment room this afternoon," Carson told him, and he leaned forward as he did so; John got the impression he really wanted Rodney to understand what had happened. "I gather he asked for some volunteers - Bates, Hicks, Krettman, Harley, Zeigler, Smith...." Carson paused for a moment to allow the significance of those names to sink in.

Rodney stopped, in mid-chew, and gazed at Carson, and John was struck by how those blue eyes of his seemed to show every single thought that crossed his super-fast mind. Blankness, followed by confusion, followed by realisation, followed by suspicion - that last as he turned those blue eyes upon John.

"A special practice session?" Rodney queried, chewing again, as fast as ever, his eyes fixed on John.

"Yeah - I wanted to get a few things straight with them," John told him. "They don't know me very well so I took the opportunity to enlighten them," he grinned. "I took them through some moves, eight times each - they ended up on the floor each time. I think they know me a hell of a lot better now."

Rodney seemed to consider that, and then, finally, he grunted. He looked away from John but John noticed him looking back, a few seconds later, from under his dark eyelashes, furtively snatching an uncertain glance at him when he thought John wasn't looking.

At that moment a loud shout went up across the mess hall and the three men looked up to see a little crowd gathering around two marines, patting them on their backs, and generally making a fuss of them.

"Aw - look. Stackhouse has collared Markham," Carson said, smiling fondly. John grinned, realising that the two men were sharing a plate, rather self-consciously, for the first time, and Markham had a shiny new collar around his neck. Clearly the event had not gone un-noticed, and people were congratulating the pair on this new stage in their relationship.

"Oh for god's sake!" Rodney exploded. "Who the hell gives a damn? It's nauseating the way everyone turns into simpering yentas the minute some lame-assed couple decides to share a plate."

"I think it's very romantic," Carson sighed. "Don't you, Colonel?"

"Never seen the appeal myself," John shrugged.

"And have you never thought about one day collaring a sub?" Carson said, looking rather dreamy.

"Nope." John shook his head. "More trouble than it's worth. I think subs are more into all that kind of stuff than tops anyway."

"Not this sub," Rodney snorted. "The whole thing is a total waste of time if you ask me."

"You have not one romantic bone in your body, either of you!" Carson lamented.

"So what are you working on?" John asked Rodney, changing the subject. "Did you get the naquada generators in place?"

"I'm almost done," Rodney replied, soaking up a mass of gravy with some bread and then stuffing the bread in his mouth. "I've got to get back to the lab this evening to work on the final connections and then that should be it." John had to struggle to make out the last bit of that sentence as Rodney had so much food in his mouth. "In fact...I'm going to shoot off now," Rodney said, getting up, still chewing as he went. He grabbed the chunk of bread still left by his plate and stuffed it into his pocket. "See you, Carson...Colonel." He flashed a half-smile in the doctor's direction but only managed a stiff nod at John. John watched him go, lost in thought as he gazed at the scientist's disappearing ass.

"He's gotta get bad indigestion eating at that pace," John muttered to Carson when the scientist was finally out of sight.

"Rodney does everything too fast," Carson told him, looking at John with an oddly searching expression. "He's never still - and he's heading for a heart attack the way he goes on. He needs to find a good way to relax, but his head is always buzzing too much. To be honest I'm worried about him."

John frowned. "Is this about this morning?" he asked. "Because I took care of that the best I could - and at least he knows that now."

"Aye, and I'm grateful to you for that, Colonel," Carson said, nodding his head. "But this isn't just about this morning. You wouldn't know it to look at him right now but Rodney's always been kind of fastidious about his personal appearance."

"Really?" John raised an eyebrow.

"I know, I know." Carson shook his head wearily. "The way he looks at the moment is just another symptom of what's going on for him right now I think. He's stopped caring and I'm worried he's heading for the brink. I wish I knew a way to head him off. Maybe you have some ideas, Colonel?"

"Me? Why? I barely know the man."

Carson gave a little laugh. "Colonel, I just saw you checking out his ass, and you asked me some pretty personal questions about him earlier. I got the impression you were interested."

"What?" John frowned. Interested? In a man like McKay? A scruffy, sarcastic, arrogant man who was already proving that John's initial analysis of him as Trouble was turning out to be pretty spot on?

"Aye." Carson leaned back in his chair, and gave John a speculative look.

"Nope," John said, taking a forkful of food. "I just wanted to make amends for an injustice, and I've done that, so..." he shrugged, not meeting Carson's eye.

"Were you thinking of taking a sub?" Carson asked. "I can't believe that a man like you would have any shortage of offers."

"I just got one this evening as a matter of fact!" John laughed. "Nice lad - waiting outside my quarters when I got back."

"What did you do?" Carson asked quietly.

"Turned him down," John shrugged. "I'm not looking for just another pretty sub to decorate my bed."

"My god," Carson breathed. "This happens to you all the time doesn't it? Subs throwing themselves at you."

John looked up, surprised. "Well, I suppose I've had my fair share of offers, yes," he said. They had been beautiful offers too, he thought to himself, remembering the many men and women he'd taken to his bed over the years. Usually only the most attractive people ended up there as well - not by John's design, but it was simply that the more attractive subs were the ones who were confident enough to make the first move.

He remembered Melissa, with her long, dark red hair, and vivacious brown eyes - she'd been his first proper sub, when he was finding out what kind of a top he was, and he could still recall the thrill he'd got from tying her to his bed, and making her his. After that, there had been so many easy conquests that he'd lost count. He'd enjoyed them all but he couldn't honestly say that he remembered them all, and when they'd eventually slipped out of his life he'd made no effort to keep them. He hadn't loved any of them enough to even try.

"Have you ever made the first move?" Carson asked.

John frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, to me, part of what I enjoy about being a top is looking over the available subs, getting to know them, and considering if any of them could offer me anything I'd be interested in. Then I like planning a slow seduction." Carson grinned. "I'm something of a romantic, Colonel, so I like to woo my subs, with fine wine and candlelit meals. I want to let them know what I can offer them in return for their submission, and I want to know we'll at least have something to talk about when the sex is over. I'm not saying I've never been propositioned, but, not looking like you, with that effortless air of chilled out toppiness that you exude, I've always had to try a little harder I think. I prefer the thrill of the chase in any case."

John gazed at him thoughtfully. "I haven't taken a sub in over a year," he confided, unsure why he wanted to share this private fact with the doctor, but there was something easy about talking to Carson - he'd only known the man for a few weeks but he already knew, instinctively, that Carson was going to be a good friend. He didn't know what he'd expected Carson's reaction to this information to be, but he sure as hell hadn't expected the doctor to throw back his head and laugh.

"I'm sorry!" Carson said, patting John's arm affectionately. "I'm not mocking you. I'm just thinking that here I was envying you the way you look, the way you act, and that innate sense of cool..." John raised an eyebrow at that, "and thinking that you have no idea how it is for us mere mortals, and then you say this. you mind if I call you that?" John shook his head. "John, bless you, lad, but you're bored. It's all been too easy for you, hasn't it?"

"Maybe. I just woke up one day and realised I wasn't getting anything out of it. I'm not saying it wasn't fun, just that I had this craving for something more."

"Ah - there see, you're a romantic too," Carson told him. "You're looking for love, John, and that's a lot harder to find than sex."

"Yeah," John sighed.

"Maybe you need to stop just taking what's on offer, and start thinking about what you really want from a relationship," Carson told him. "If you just wait around for the right sub to throw themselves at you then you might be in for a long wait, John, and I can see that celibate year you've just had stretching into two - and then more. You're so used to just taking what's on offer that you've never thought about going after something you want, have you? Or maybe you're just not sure what you want. Perhaps what you want might be so far from what you'd ever imagined yourself wanting that you won't even consider it."

John frowned. "Are we talking about Rodney McKay again here?" he asked.

Carson grinned. "You were definitely checking out his ass."

"The man is rude, obnoxious, sarcastic and arrogant - you said so yourself!" John replied, shaking his head. "To say nothing of the fact that he looks like everyone's definition of a mad scientist with that hair and those coffee-stained clothes. Why on earth would I be interested in him?"

"We're not on Earth any more, John," Carson told him, patting his arm again. "And you want something more than beautiful, willing bodies, I believe? He's not your usual type but then how would you know when you've only taken what throws itself at you, and never thought about what *you* are really looking for? Rodney isn't some pretty, empty-headed young sub - he's only a couple of years younger than you, and since he's about the smartest man in two galaxies I think it's safe to say that he's intelligent enough to hold your interest. True, he's lacking in social skills, and lord knows he's a bit of a lost soul, in need of some guidance - the kind of guidance that a good, strong top could give him. Maybe what you're looking for is a challenge, John. If you are, then I'd say you won't get much more of a challenge than Rodney McKay."

"You said he'd bite off my hand as soon as kiss it," John reminded him. Carson grinned.

"I did, and he will. If you're waiting for him to turn up outside your room and offer himself to you then you're in for a long wait. If, however, you want something more meaningful, then Rodney McKay might just be your man. It won't be easy, but then you've had easy all your life and you're bored with it. Maybe it's time to try something new?"

John sat back in his chair and stared at him. "I can't work out if you're very mischievous or very wise," he said at last. Carson gave that impish grin.

"Perhaps a little of both," he said. "But when I look at you I see someone very driven, very focussed - you'd have to be to get as far as you have in your career - and nobody in the military has a bad word to say about you. You're their golden boy and you don't seem to have put a foot wrong in your entire life - and that fascinates me a little. You've owned up to your ambitions but I wonder if you've ever even paid a moment's passing attention to your other needs? In some ways I think you know yourself very well, John, but in others - not at all. Maybe it's time to find out what's underneath that cool exterior - perhaps we'll all be surprised by it - you included."

John gazed at him, feeling slightly winded. Nobody had ever talked to him this way before, but then again, most of his friends had been military people, like him, and they rarely spoken about anything that deep - and, if John was honest, he'd always avoided these kinds of conversations before. Carson was an old soul, and he looked as if he understood the human heart all too well. Perhaps he was right? Rodney McKay though....

John remembered the look in Rodney's eyes that morning as he'd turned his head and taken his licks, and his heart flipped in his chest. He remembered the rising tide of anger that he'd fought to control as he watched the man being punished publicly, and how wrong it had felt. John had never experienced emotions like these before and he'd just pushed them aside, unsure how to deal with them, but, after talking to Carson, that seemed like the coward's way out, and one thing John was pretty sure about was that he wasn't a coward.

Carson got up and nodded at him. "Something to think about, John," he said, and then, with another of those flashing grins, he left.

He was right about that much at least. John gazed back at his plate, but suddenly he wasn't hungry any more. He remembered how he'd felt watching Rodney eat so quickly - how he'd wanted to take the plate away from him and hand feed him, and that was an impulse he'd never had in his life before. He knew some tops who couldn't wait to start hand-feeding their subs from their own plates but that had never been an impulse John had ever experienced. It just seemed like a giant chore to him - his subs had hands so he didn't see why they needed him to feed them. Sharing a plate was a big deal - a sign that a couple were serious about each other, and John hadn't ever been serious about anyone in his life. Whenever previous lovers had suggested to him that it was perhaps time that they shared a plate, he'd run a mile and they'd been out of his life before they could blink, and yet here he was considering sharing a plate with a man who hadn't said one nice word to him yet.

A challenge? Carson was sure as hell right about that! And Carson was right about something else as well - he *had* been checking out Rodney's ass, and he'd been having all these strange thoughts and feelings about Rodney ever since he met the man. Something was going on for him, something he'd never experienced before, and he guessed he owed it to himself to find out what it was.

John made his decision, pushed his plate away, and got to his feet. Rodney had said he was going back to his lab. He'd take a trip there, on his way back to his quarters, and see if he could make any headway with the man.

Rodney McKay returned to his lab, humming to himself. He wasn't entirely sure what to make of the conversation he'd just had with Carson and the new military commander, a man he distrusted on principle. Rodney had a lot of experience of the military, and mostly it hadn't been good. He thought that possibly might have been at least partially his fault - he knew he did and said things that upset the military boys, but he had no idea how to change and no real intention of doing so, so he'd have to live with it.

The lab was in darkness when he got back and Rodney grumbled to himself under his breath. He had told Radek to always keep a light on - Rodney never viewed himself as being off duty and he frequently got up in the middle of the night to go back to work when his insomnia got the better of him. He could do without fumbling around in the darkness and tripping over things. He turned on the light and started to walk over to his work station.

"Hello, Rodney," a voice behind him said. He turned, startled, to see Sergeant Bates sitting at Radek's work station.

"What the hell do you want?" he growled.

"You." Bates got up, and walked over to Rodney, with that tightly controlled walk of his, all his muscles bunched up under the skin. Rodney took a step back, and then another, and ended up flush against the wall with nowhere else to go.

"Are you threatening me?" Rodney demanded, coming out all guns blazing. He'd be damned if he'd let this oaf know that he was intimidated by him. "If so, I will have your ass, Sergeant."

"Really? Or maybe I'll have yours," Bates said, standing too close, invading his personal space.

"You already got your pound of flesh this morning," Rodney snapped. "Wasn't that enough for you?"

Bates gazed at him with an oddly intense stare, his gaze lingering on Rodney's lips in a way the scientist found disconcerting.

"This, you see, this morning just whetted my appetite for more," Bates said. "Seeing you, getting your ass warmed...made me wonder what you'd feel like squirming under my belt, Rodney."

Rodney glared at him. "In your dreams, Bates," he snapped. He tried to push the sergeant away but the other man took hold of him and slammed him back against the wall. Rodney's head banged against it with a thud and he felt a sense of helplessness spread through him. Damn these people - they were only one step up from Neanderthals and they dared to treat him like this - and damn him too because he had no answer for it. Never had.

"Careful, Sergeant," Rodney warned. "I could have you up on charges."

Bates shook his head. "Who'll believe you?" he said. "Everyone will think you're making it up to get back at me for this morning."

Rodney closed his eyes and thumped his own head back against the wall this time. Bates was right. It seemed like he was stuck with this particular tormentor for the rest of his life.

"What do you want?" Rodney asked quietly, opening his eyes again. He was surprised to find that Bates wasn't looking at him with any malice - there was a different expression entirely in his eyes.

"I already told you," Bates said, gazing at Rodney hungrily. "You don't have a top at the moment do you, Rodney?" Realisation assaulted Rodney and he gazed at the other man in horror.

"No, I don't, and I'm not looking for one."

"I'd take care of you. I'd protect you - make sure the other lads treated you okay. They'd never bother you again," Bates said, his eyes still fixed on Rodney's lips.

"Forget it. I'm not interested," Rodney snapped. He tried to push past Bates but the other man reached out and thumped him back against the wall again.

"The longer you make me wait, the more I'll take it out on your ass when you finally give in," Bates warned him.

"Well, that's such a tempting prospect, thanks," Rodney retorted sarcastically. "Tell me, Bates, why the hell you think a man like me would be interested in a grunt like you? Hmm? Your friend was a pinhead and you're just as stupid. Explain to me why that would appeal to me?"

Bates's expression tightened. "You want someone to give it to you rough," he said, in a low growl. "I can do that. I'm a hard top, Rodney - and you want that, don't you? You want to be bent over and fucked, and I'll fuck you like nobody ever fucked you before in your life."

"How romantic." Rodney pulled a face. "You sure as hell know how to sweet-talk a sub into bed, Bates. Look, I don't know what game you're playing but the answer is no."

Bates reached up, and stroked a finger down the side of Rodney's cheek. Rodney shuddered - and Bates grinned.

"That's good. That's the kind of reaction I like from my subs," he purred.

Rodney shook his head. "I'm not your sub, Bates. Look, until today you gave every impression of despising me - why the sudden interest? You want a trophy boyfriend? Someone you can show off to your family so they'll realise you're not the total loser they always thought? Hmm? Is that it?"

Bates's expression darkened. "You know, for a smart man you can be pretty dumb at times," he said.

"So I'm often told," Rodney replied, rolling his eyes. "But I'm still mystified as to your sudden 'romantic' interest in me, if that's what we can call it. I thought your friend told you and everyone else who'd listen what a crappy sub I am. So why the hell are you interested in me?"

"Well maybe that's part of the appeal - I like the idea of whipping you into shape." Bates lingered on the word 'whipping' and Rodney felt a shiver creep up his spine. "I've always liked making you squirm. You're such an arrogant S.O.B," Bates said. "Think you're so much smarter than everyone else...."

"I am!" Rodney protested.

"It's been fun, baiting you, but after this morning, watching you get your ass tanned...I want more. I want a piece of this ass." Bates's hand stole around Rodney's waist and cupped his left buttock, squeezing just a bit too tight. Rodney gazed at him helplessly - he recognised the look in the sergeant's eyes all too well. It was the look of a child in the schoolyard, chasing after one of the other kids so he could pull their hair and make them cry, and not because he didn't like them but precisely because he did. He didn't doubt that Bates's interest was genuine but the sergeant wasn't the kind of top who appealed to Rodney. He was sure there would be some subs out there who'd be turned on by this kind of behaviour, but he wasn't one of them.

"Take your hands off me, Bates," he said coolly. "It's never going to happen."

Bates gazed at him, his tongue sliding over his lips as he considered it. Rodney saw him almost visibly trying to decide whether to take this further, whether Rodney was just playing the coy sub, or whether to leave it there. Finally, he drew back.

"Make me wait then," Bates told him. "But remember what I said about your ass paying for it when you finally come crawling into my bed. I will have you, Rodney."

And then he drew back, and left the room. Rodney stood there for a moment, trying to get his breath back. Damn it, but his life was difficult enough without *this*. He wondered if he should tell someone - maybe Carson - but he felt ashamed of his own inability to deal with the situation more effectively. Maybe, in his own twisted way, Bates thought he had feelings for Rodney, but, like a small minority of the more stupid tops, he seemed to think it was enough to merely show up and be forceful to have a sub falling at his feet. Rodney wasn't the least bit attracted to that kind of a top. In fact, he still wasn't entirely sure what kind of tops he *was* attracted to.

For a long time he hadn't even been sure he was a submissive - he was too irascible, too intellectual, too damn *smart* for most tops, as well as being far too opinionated. He'd either eaten his tops alive and spat them out, used up and useless, or they'd had to be so tough with him in order to keep him in line that he'd felt impossibly restricted, unable to breathe or be himself, and when his work had started to suffer that's when he got out because nothing, *nothing* was more important than his work. He'd tried being a top himself but had swiftly come to the conclusion that wasn't going to work.

Now he'd pretty much given up on finding anyone he was compatible with, because sex was complicated and relationships even more so and he didn't think he'd ever figure them out. Although he told himself that he was simply too much the genius for any mere mortal to handle, a small nugget of doubt, deep within, suggested to him that the fault lay not with his genius but with himself. On some level he knew himself to quite simply not be lovable, so it was no surprise when each failed relationship, or dismal one night stand, proved that point to him over and over again.

His most recent sexual encounter, with a marine who Rodney had mistakenly believed to be the strong-but-silent type had been a disaster. He'd discovered that that silence hadn't been hiding a quiet strength, but instead a knuckle-headed stupidity. The man, quite simply, had had nothing intelligent to say for himself, and once Rodney figured that out it had been hard to retain any respect for him -and Rodney couldn't find it in him to sub to someone he had no respect for. He'd ended it without a second thought, after having given the marine the benefit of his extremely long and thorough opinion on the subject, and he'd been surprised when Sergeant Stupid had then turned into Sergeant Vindictive, and started stirring up trouble for Rodney with his marine friends. Up until then, Rodney had enjoyed a fairly amicable relationship with the military. His job had always required him to work closely with them and while sometimes he found the military mind to be unbelievably slow, he would be the first to admit they had their uses.

At that moment the door opened again, and Rodney looked up, his heart beating too fast, wondering if Bates had returned, but instead he saw Colonel Sheppard standing there.

"What do *you* want?" Rodney snapped, over-wrought and just wanting to be left alone.

"Just thought I'd check up on you," the colonel said. Rodney gazed at him blankly.

"Why?" he asked at last. "I mean, really - WHY? Don't you think it'd be weird if I came to your office and said that? What the hell is wrong with you military boys anyway? Look, this is my lab, and I don't want you or any of your men coming in here without my express invitation - is that understood?" He found his chest heaving up and down, and he practically shouted those last few words. Colonel Sheppard gazed at him, those hazel eyes cool, and just a little bit angry.

"Yes, that's understood, Doctor," he said.

"Good. I know you've somehow managed to trick Carson into thinking that the sun shines out of your ass, but you don't fool me, Colonel," Rodney yelled, his heart still pounding, stressed out from the day's humiliating events, his own lack of sleep, and the recent incident with Bates. He'd thought, earlier, during dinner, that maybe Carson was right, and John Sheppard was one of the good guys, but Bates had shown him that you couldn't afford to let your guard down for a second. John Sheppard wore a uniform, and as far as Rodney was concerned, that made him the enemy.

"I see." Sheppard's eyes narrowed as he gazed at Rodney. "Okay. Fine. You've made yourself perfectly clear, Dr McKay. I promise you that I won't bother you again," he said and there was something hard about the way he said it that brought Rodney up short. He watched as the colonel left the room, his back stiff, and then, finally, thank god, Rodney was alone.

He sat down weakly on a chair, and gazed off into space, trying to collect himself, his hands and knees moving restlessly, full of anxiety. He'd thought that coming out here he'd be able to make a fresh start. Things had gone so badly for him back on Earth of late, but it seemed his bad luck had followed him, and he didn't have a clue what to do about it. Whatever he did seemed to backfire, and he honestly didn't understand why. He loved the work, loved this city and the Ancient technology they'd found here, but he found dealing with people as difficult as ever. If only they were all as easygoing as Carson, or as calm and unflappable as Elizabeth, but they weren't.

He knew he wasn't popular, but even so, walking into that room this morning and being jeered...his heart pounded again, so fast he thought he was having some kind of seizure. His eyelids fluttered as he re-lived those terrible few minutes when he'd had to bend over that frame and take his punishment in front of that baying crowd. So much for new beginnings! And it hurt, damnit, it hurt deep in his soul. He felt bruised inside, unable to connect with people, or make them like him. Didn't they understand that without him they'd all be dead out here, so far from home, with no way of even contacting Earth? It might have been Colonel Sheppard's DNA that made the city light up wherever he went, but it was Rodney's skilful fingers that kept Atlantis running, Rodney's brilliant mind that unravelled mysteries that had lain dormant beneath the ocean for thousands of years, and Rodney's irrefutable genius that had kept them all alive. Yet even his brilliance hadn't been enough to impress them or make them value him, and he was as lost out here in the Pegasus galaxy as he had ever been at home.

Rodney tried to turn back to his work but found he couldn't concentrate. However much he pushed it aside, every so often he was assaulted by a memory of the morning's events. He had minded the punishment, painful though it had been, far less than the humiliation of the event, and yet there had been something so familiar about his own sense of hopelessness that his primary emotion when he'd bent over that frame had been one of resignation. That was strange, of and by itself, because he'd never been subject to a judicial punishment before.

As a teenager he'd been forced to be old before his time, gaining his first degree at seventeen, mixing with people much older than himself, struggling to fit in but always set apart by virtue of both his age and his brilliance. Then, when his parents had been killed in a car crash shortly after his eighteenth birthday, he'd gone back home to take care of his younger sister. As the only beneficiaries of their parents' estate, money hadn't been an issue, and Rodney had simply lived at home during his studies, which had set him apart from his peers even more, but he'd tried to set an example to Jeannie as much as anything, having to be the grown-up in the house now that his parents were gone.

He'd always viewed himself as a fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizen - he might have a brusque manner and a smart mouth but that wasn't illegal and he had never hurt anyone in his life before that plate of jello had whizzed out of his hands and straight at Bates's forehead, taking them both by surprise. He hadn't meant it to happen, was still freaked out that he had done it at all, even while he relished the memory of finally letting go and screaming at a man who had made his life a misery for so many months. All the same, he was genuinely sorry for it, and now he was here, stuck in this place with people who gave every appearance of hating him, if his reception this morning was anything to go by.

A hot sweat prickled on his skin as he replayed the memory again. Him, standing in the doorway...that conversation with Peter that was a complete blank to him now...the look of discomfort in Peter's eyes - because Peter wasn't happy having to do this any more than Rodney was happy having to suffer it, not least because Peter of all people knew how brilliant Rodney was, and respected his work. Then there had been the slow walk over to the frame...the unutterable humiliation of unfastening his pants and having to offer himself up for punishment like a common criminal. It had all been so demeaning. He recalled turning his head sideways as he grasped the handles of the frame...and Sheppard had been there, just standing there, watching. Sheppard with his phoney concern, those hazel eyes of his mocking Rodney just as his marines had mocked Rodney.

Rodney took hold of his laptop and threw it across the room with all his force, and then stood there, panting, gazing at the shattered machine which was now lying in a mess of exposed circuitry on the floor.

"Okay then," he said, his crooked mouth quirking into a stubborn grin. "You may not like me but let's see you cope without me."

He glanced around the lab, thoughtfully. He had a mental list of many projects he wanted to work on when he had the time - well, why not now? Why was he flogging himself into the ground to equip this city to run on Naquada generators, a technology not strictly compatible with the way Atlantis was wired, when he could be working on his own pet projects? Oh, he wouldn't put the city at risk - he had as much of a vested interest in staying alive as the rest of them after all - but he wouldn't dance to their tune any more. Elizabeth had a list of projects which she'd personally prioritised and Rodney had agreed with her assessment. Despite his sarcastic manner, he'd always been a team player. He liked being part of something - it made him feel as if he belonged somewhere, as if he was vital and integral, and Rodney liked to feel needed. If he couldn't be popular, he could at least be *necessary*, but now he simply didn't care any more. After this morning he'd gone beyond caring.

Maybe this had been building up for sometime, but Rodney wasn't thinking with any degree of clarity and his own motivations were a mystery to him. All he knew was that he hurt, lost in his own pain, and his reflex was to lash out in the only way he knew how.

Rodney found another laptop, and scanned the list with a scathing eye. He mentally crossed off the less interesting projects, and inserted some of his own preferred projects instead. Then, with a savage smile, he set to work.

John Sheppard was woken at six a.m. by the soft bleep of his radio. He reached for it, blearily, and cleared his throat into it.

"Sheppard," he mumbled.

"Sir? It's Hicks. Uh...we don't seem to have power down here," the corporal said. John reached out and flicked on his lamp.

"Working okay here," he said. "Where are you?"

"In my quarters, sir."

"Could be a...fuse?" John suggested, knowing that was ridiculous because the city didn't run on electricity.

"None of the marines have power, sir," Hicks told him. "Our entire floor is in darkness."

"Okay. I'm onto it," John said, swinging his feet over the side of the bed. He clicked the radio frequency to the lab, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, because this meant that he had to talk to Rodney McKay and frankly, after last night, that was the last thing in the world that he wanted to do. "Dr McKay?" he said, in as polite a voice as he could manage. The scientist answered with a brusque, "I'm busy so this had better be important" and John clenched his fists and counted to three before replying. "It is - my men don't have any power."

"Yes I know," Rodney replied. John thought about that for a second because it wasn't the response he'd been expecting. The scientist didn't sound remotely surprised.

"And the reason would be?" he ventured.

"I'm working on an experiment that needs power - so I diverted some," Rodney replied.

"Okay." John frowned. "Any reason why you diverted it from my men's quarters?"

"Well it had to come from somewhere," Rodney snapped.

"And your choice for where that somewhere was wouldn't have anything to do with what happened yesterday morning, would it?" John snapped back.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Rodney replied, and then the link was severed. John sighed, and got up. Clearly this would take some sorting out. He pulled on his uniform and then trotted down to the lab, unshaven, his uncombed hair sticking up from his head. Damn Rodney McKay - he was proving to be even more Trouble than John had expected when he first met the man. Carson was insane to think John could be interested in someone so completely irritating and hostile.

John barged into the lab without knocking, ignoring what Rodney had told him the previous evening. The scientist was all alone in the lab, and John suspected, from looking at him, that he hadn't left the place since their conversation the previous evening.

"Dr McKay, would you care to tell me what experiment is so important that you diverted power from my men's quarters?" he demanded. Rodney glanced at him with a malicious smile.

"I could explain it to you but I very much doubt you'd understand it," he said.

"Try me." John crossed his arms over his chest.

"It would be a waste of my time," Rodney replied airily, turning back to his work. "You're undoubtedly too stupid to understand it."

John uncrossed his arms and went over to the scientist.

"Excuse me?" he said, in a dangerous tone.

"Stupid," Rodney told him, with only the briefest glance in his direction. "Too - stupid - to - understand."

It was all John could do not to grab the scientist by the lapels of his lab coat and shake him. Hard.

"Okay, hopefully *you're* not too stupid to understand *this*," John told him. "Get that power back on in my men's quarters within five minutes or there will be unpleasant consequences."

"Would you like to detail them to me?" Rodney asked. "Just so I know what these unpleasant consequences are?"

John smiled, a slow, frightening smile. "No. I think I'll just leave them to your imagination," he replied.

And with that he strode out of the room. He stomped back to his own room, seething. He'd dealt with many difficult people in his time but none of them came close to Rodney McKay for sheer irritation factor. There was the man's superiority complex for a start, combined with that smug little smile on those crooked lips of his. John wanted to...he wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to do but he *was* sure that it involved wiping that smirk off McKay's face. It took a lot to make John lose his cool but he'd come dangerously close to it back there in the lab; people rarely got under his skin like that and it had taken him by surprise. John reached his room, and tapped his radio.

"Hicks - let me know when the power comes back on," he growled.

"It just has, sir," Hicks told him.

"Good. Fine." John took a few deep breaths. It seemed that however obnoxious Rodney McKay was, he did at least know when he was on thin ice which was good - at least John had found a way of handling the problematic scientist. John started to calm down, and he felt much more cheerful as he stripped off his clothes and got into the shower. Carson had been *so* wrong - he wasn't interested in Rodney McKay - he was merely *exasperated* by the man. Exasperated beyond belief!

John turned on the faucet and grabbed the soap, and then let out a surprised yelp as a torrent of freezing cold water descended on his skin. At that precise moment the lights went off. He jumped out of the shower and felt around for his towel and then for his radio - but despite clicking McKay's frequency there was no reply. There was only one thing for it - John was in such a bad mood by this point that he didn't even bother pulling on a bathrobe. He simply tied his towel firmly around his waist and strode back down to the lab, dripping ice-cold water in his wake.

Rodney was still alone in the lab when he burst in, and the scientist looked up - and stayed looking as he caught sight of John's half-naked, furious, dripping wet body. Rodney's blue eyes widened and his gaze flickered, uneasily, over John's bare chest.

"Uh..." he said nervously, backing away as John advanced on him. John stopped in front of the scientist and smiled at him, a dangerous smile.

"Can you explain to me why I just had to take a cold shower?" John demanded.

"I'm not in the habit of prying into anyone's personal life," Rodney replied, rallying, that crooked mouth of his curving into the faintest hint of a smirk. "If you feel you need a cold shower then that's between you and your sub, although perhaps you ought to find a sub that takes better care of your needs if it's come to this."

"I don't have a sub," John replied. "I don't have any hot water or lights, either."

"Well, I'm sorry, on both counts," Rodney replied. "If you had a sub you might be less volatile and therefore less prone to storming around dressed only in a towel."

"Rodney," John said, keeping his voice sweet, "I don't have any lights or any hot water because you have diverted the power in my room to your experiment - as you well know."

Rodney blinked at him. "Well, you told me to restore the power to the marines' quarters so I did - but I had to replace that with power from somewhere else. Seeing as you were so adamant about your men having power I assumed you would be happy to go without on their behalf," he replied briskly, and then he glanced up at John from under his eyelashes, and for just a second there was a hint of mischief about him. John gazed at him steadily for a moment, and then, suddenly, he felt all the tension in his body break. God yes, Rodney McKay was Trouble, but by god he was *exhilarating* Trouble.

"All right. Okay. Here's how we're going to play this," John said softly. "I'm going to go to *your* room and take my shower there - somehow I'm betting the power will be on in there. You are going to restore the power to my room in time for me to use it this evening and make sure it stays on thereafter. And then *we* will say nothing more about this."

And with that, he turned on his heel and walked back towards the door, suddenly feeling very conscious of the fact that he was bare-chested and barefoot and showing a fair bit of leg in between as well.

"Sure you don't want to go running to Elizabeth about this?" Rodney called after him. "After all, isn't that what you military boys like to do?"

John turned, very, very slowly, and was gratified to see an expression of worry flit into Rodney's eyes.

"Oh I don't think I need to do that," John replied. "I think I can take care of you all by myself, Dr McKay. You might want to be careful about just how far you push me though."

Rodney looked at him with just a hint of uncertainty in those blue eyes of his, and then he shrugged, and started humming as he turned back to his work. John gazed at him for another couple of seconds, eyes narrowed, and then, finally, he left.

The exploits of Dr Rodney McKay became the stuff of legend over the next few days as the entire city spent huge periods of time enduring blackouts, and various other peculiar technological glitches necessitated by the scientist's mysterious 'experiments'. Finally Elizabeth called him in, and gave him a direct order to only work on projects she herself had sanctioned. Somehow John was not surprised, three days after that, to be once again watching Rodney McKay entering the punishment room - this time to be chastised for refusing to follow Lady Elizabeth's direct orders.

It seemed as though the entire city was exasperated with the Head of Science, and the turnout was higher than it had been even the first time, although, once again, John noticed that none of Rodney's team was there. He found that intriguing, just as he found everything about Rodney intriguing, even if the man was incredibly annoying. Stories of Rodney's brusque temper and manner of talking to his subordinates abounded, and John would have thought that at least one or two of his team would enjoy seeing such a hard taskmaster taken down a peg or two, but that didn't seem to be the case.

John had procrastinated about whether to attend the disciplinary himself - he wanted to stay away, but somehow he found he couldn't. So he took a seat and watched as Rodney bounced into the room, looking very different to how he'd looked the last time he'd been punished. This time he was scruffier than ever, and there was a manic gleam in his eye as he took up his position. John found himself transfixed again by the way Rodney angled his face sideways and the expression in those blue eyes; they were defiant, rebellious even, and John had the shocked realisation that a good deal of what was going on with McKay was sheer bravado. He was, quite simply, running wild, and John wondered where this was all going to end.

John wanted to take a quiet satisfaction from the scientist's discomfort, after having had several run-ins with the man over the previous few days, but instead, just like last time, he found himself getting angry, his fists clenching as he watched that faraway look of hopeless desperation creep into Rodney's eyes once more. John was glad when it was over, and the large crowd had dispersed back into the city. Rodney himself affected not to care, and left the room humming to himself when his punishment was done, to return to his beloved experiments as if nothing had happened.

John made his way to the mess hall and found Carson there, sipping a cup of coffee and reading a medical journal.

"Hey." John sat down with a weary sigh. Carson barely glanced at him.

"Hey," he muttered in a short tone. John frowned.

"Anything wrong?"

Carson put his journal down and glared at him. "You've just come from the bear pit I presume?" he said.

John shrugged. "Yes. know...wanted to keep an eye on the mood in the city," he lied. Carson's blue eyes looked right through him.

"I thought you were going to step in - show an interest in Rodney," he said.

"Oh I tried, believe me," John snorted. "The man is impossible."

"He knocked you back?" Carson gazed at him keenly.

"Knocked me back? We didn't even get that far," John grimaced. "He practically threw me out of his lab the minute I walked through the door. He made it very clear he wasn't interested in anything I have to say, and I've got better things to do than dance around after out of control subs."

"Oh really." Carson sat back in his chair and gave him an assessing look. "So, let me get this straight. You went to see Rodney and flashed that charming, laid-back smile of yours at him, and, when he didn't immediately fall swooning into your bed, you decided it was all going to be too hard for you so you gave up?" He raised an incredulous eyebrow. John felt himself flushing.

"Back off, Carson," he snapped. "It wasn't like that. I wasn't even sure I was interested in him and now that I've got to know him a bit more I think I can say categorically that I'm *not* interested in him, so don't give me all this grief. The man is out of control, and it's not my damn responsibility to take care of him and sort him out."

"Isn't it?" Carson asked softly.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Did you know that when he was punished for the incident with the jello, that was the first time Rodney had ever been publicly disciplined?" Carson asked.

John frowned. "Really? I find that hard to believe," he snorted.

"It's true. Rodney might be temperamental but he's never been in any trouble. He's a good team player, John, and he's always viewed himself as pretty law-abiding," Carson said. John thought about it for a moment.

"Well. Okay. That's a shame. But I still don't see how that makes him my responsibility."

"Then think about it," Carson said bluntly, and John had the distinct feeling that he was being out-topped by another top, which was a very unusual situation for him. Carson got up and leaned forward. "Look, your sex life is your own affair - if Rodney doesn't do it for you then that's fine. I don't care about that. But regardless of that, you still owe him, John."

And with that, Carson gathered up his journal, and his cup of coffee, and left.

John sat there for a moment, feeling winded. He decided that Carson was one of those tops who fooled you into thinking they were mild-mannered and easy-going while hiding a big damn paddle behind their backs the entire time, to pummel you if you stepped out of line. He wasn't entirely sure how he'd stepped out of line but he supposed, grudgingly, that Carson had a point. Rodney McKay was clearly in freefall right now, and as at least some of his descent had been precipitated by the incident with Bates, and seeing as how that had taken place on John's watch, then yes, as far as that went, he had some responsibility towards McKay. He still wasn't interested in taking the man as a sub - that moment of madness was well and truly over - but there were other things he could do to help.

At that moment the lights went off in the mess hall, leaving him in total darkness. John sighed. "Either that or we spend the rest of our lives in a permanent blackout," he muttered.

"You want me to be on your team?" Rodney frowned at him distrustfully.

"Yes I do." John nodded, doing his best not to cross his fingers behind his back. He had no idea whether this was a good plan or a really, really bad one, but he figured it was worth a try. The incident with Bates had clearly knocked Rodney, and the least he could do was to try and give the man something in return, something that would show him how much he was valued and respected.

"Any reason why you're asking now?" Rodney demanded. "I mean, you've tried out Parrish, and you've tried out Grodin, and Collins, and Lewis - you even tried out Zelenka...." Both John and Rodney shuddered in unison at that, and Zelenka turned around, took one look at them, and ducked down behind his work station. "And so what - now you're all out of scientists so you come to me?" Rodney raised an eyebrow.

"No. I should have come to you first," John told him firmly. "I just wasn't sure about the wisdom of putting the Head of Science out in the field - and therefore in danger - on a regular basis, that's all. But the truth is that we need the best - and you're that."

Rodney's sharp blue gaze softened slightly at that, and John bit back a smile.

"We also need a ZPM - urgently," John said. "You know that as well as I do, and we haven't had much luck finding one so far."

"Our need is pressing, yes," Rodney mused. "Until we get a ZPM we're sitting ducks out here, and if the Wraith come after us then we don't stand a chance."

"I am really concerned about our long term survival if we don't get our hands on a ZPM," John warned, in an undertone, glancing around the lab to make sure they weren't being overheard.

"Hmm. Well, it's a good thing you've finally come to your senses and picked the right man then, isn't it?" Rodney said, chest swelling up in pride. John nodded, still holding back that smile.

"Good to have you onboard, Dr McKay," he replied, reaching out a hand to pat the scientist's arm.

John wasn't sure what to expect on Rodney's first mission offworld, but he steeled himself for the man to be a total disaster - and was therefore pleasantly surprised. Rodney seemed very excited by the mission - he was at the gate, waiting, on time (in fact he was even a few minutes early), and suitably dressed in his mission jacket, with a gun strapped to his thigh. He still had a layer of stubble on his chin and his hair was all over the place but at least his clothes looked *clean* which was an improvement.

John assembled his team together and looked them over - he'd tried various permutations thus far, and none of them had gelled particularly well. He was sure that he wanted Teyla on his team - she was a skilled fighter and she knew the local people so that was a no-brainer, and today he was trying out a young lieutenant who showed some promise - together with Rodney.

Rodney was clearly nervous but John kept by his side as they exited the gate, and he was surprised when Rodney ran forward excitedly towards some ancient ruins covered in some kind of runic symbols, and began studying them.

"Is this good?" John asked, unable to keep from smiling as Rodney hopped around like a demented bunny rabbit on acid. This was a side to the man he hadn't seen before, and there was something unexpectedly endearing about it.

"Good - it's remarkable!" Rodney exclaimed happily. "The information on these runes could be invaluable. There might even be an indication of where to find a ZPM."

"Great. How long will it take you to transcribe them?" John asked.

"I have no idea. Hours - maybe days." Rodney beamed delightedly and John's heart sank.

"Okay then," he sighed, beckoning Ford and Teyla over so they could scout out the perimeter. Ford was bouncing around like a puppy, showing off for Teyla, and John couldn't help but grin to himself. John knew well enough by now that the most surprising people could be tops and vice versa - how a person behaved in their everyday life was no clue to their sexual orientation. However, he'd have bet his bottom dollar that Teyla was a top, and Ford was acting the totally besotted sub, showing off for all he was worth in order to get Teyla's attention. John had been the focus of that kind of behaviour all too often himself but he figured that a strong, assured top like Teyla had to be pretty familiar with it too, and able to deal with it without him butting in and rescuing her. Maybe she would even consider taking Ford as her sub. As far as John could see she was unattached - she didn't seem to be sharing a room with any of the other Athosians.

She was certainly gracious enough towards Ford, while at the same time never once dropping her guard, or being distracted from their mission, which was a good thing as it turned out because a few minutes later the Wraith showed up, all guns blazing.

"Out! Out, out, out!" John yelled at Rodney, running up to the scientist and grabbing his jacket at the same time as turning and firing a volley of shots at the pursuing wraith. Rodney didn't need telling twice. He scooped up his laptop and ran straight for the gate. John covered him, firing at the wraith, and then ran after the scientist.

They were nearly at the gate when a wraith emerged from one side, cutting them off. John fired and hit the creature, but then saw, too late, another wraith materialising seemingly out of nowhere, gun pointed straight at him. Time slowed down; John was dimly aware of someone yelling, "Look out!" and then he was knocked out of the way, and as he fell he saw the wraith unleash a shot that hit his rescuer point blank in the head. John flipped over and saw Rodney lying beside him, eyes closed, looking, to all intents and purposes, completely and utterly dead. Teyla ran up and took out the wraith, giving John time to grab Rodney and pull him bodily through the gate.

Once his team were all home, and the shield had been raised, John knelt down beside the scientist and put his fingers to the man's neck, his own heart pounding so fast that he could hear it beating like a drum. He was taken aback by the strength of the wave of relief that washed over him when he felt a strong pulse beneath his fingertips.

"He was hit by a wraith stunner," Teyla said, coming up behind him, and gazing down on McKay. "He will be paralysed for a few hours but he should make a full recovery." A few seconds later Carson arrived with a gurney and Rodney was whisked off to the infirmary. "I think," Teyla said slowly, gazing after the stricken scientist, "that I must revise my initial impressions of Dr McKay. He was very brave out there."

"Yeah. You and me both," John muttered grimly.

Lady Elizabeth wasn't happy.

"Everywhere you go, the Wraith always seem to arrive shortly afterwards," she told him, pacing around her desk. "I think we must consider the fact that we have a spy among us."

"I find that hard to believe," John said, shaking his head.

"You have to admit that it's strange that every time you go through the gate, the Wraith show up soon after. That's happened on five of your last nine missions."

"You're starting to see a pattern then?"

"Aren't you?" Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "Look, I'm not accusing Teyla, but how well do we know the Athosian people?"

"Don't go there," John said firmly. "Teyla's people hate the Wraith - there is no way they've betrayed us. It has to be someone else."

"Not one of our people," Elizabeth said, equally firmly.

"I'm fairly sure Teyla will say the same about her people," John sighed.

"Maybe so, but I have to take precautions and I can vouch for my own people but there are many Athosians I don't even know. So, I'm going to conduct a series of interviews with Teyla's people. In the meantime, all offworld missions are suspended until we get to the bottom of this," Elizabeth told him firmly. John nodded - she was right, even if he wasn't happy about it.

He made his way down to the infirmary and found Rodney lying there, eyes blinking blearily.

"You'll be all right, Rodney," Carson was telling him, one reassuring hand squeezing Rodney's shoulder affectionately. "The stunner affected your central nervous system but the effects will soon wear off."

John went over to the bed and smiled at the scientist. "So, you know we're out here to protect you, right? Not the other way around," he chided gently. Rodney gazed at him, those blue eyes still blinking, which was about the only way he could respond right now. John shook his head wryly. "Thanks though - I appreciate you knocking me out of the way and taking that shot yourself, especially as you had no way of knowing it was just a stunner."

"Eggy ixted," Rodney replied, slack-jawed, the expression in those wide blue eyes indicating that he was as surprised by what he'd done as John was.

"I think that was 'acting on instinct'," Carson translated helpfully.

"Well - all the same. Thanks." John grinned again, patted Rodney's shoulder, and turned to leave.

"I told you he was a team player," Carson murmured as he passed. John paused, and gazed at him.

"And I believed you. That's why I put him on the team," he said. Carson nodded, and John nodded back. Things were still a little strained between them, but he knew that the doctor meant well - he was just fiercely protective of his friend, and John could respect that.

Rodney was released from the infirmary several hours later, after driving even good-natured Carson insane with his constant moping about being bored - his speech came back a couple of hours before his motor skills, and he was never one to suffer in silence.

Rodney bounced back to his lab, feeling inexplicably cheerful, the minute the doctor finally kicked him out of the infirmary with instructions to take it easy for a few hours, which they both knew Rodney would ignore. Despite how it had ended, Rodney had loved his first offworld mission. He'd been aggrieved that Colonel Sheppard hadn't picked him to be on his team from the outset, but by this point being overlooked and downgraded was the very least he had come to expect from the military, so he hadn't been particularly surprised when Sheppard had selected various other members of his team to go offworld before approaching the obvious choice - himself.

He had been somewhat mollified by Sheppard's explanation that it was because he was too valuable to lose - which was true of course. Certainly his wounded pride had been soothed enough to make him forget the previous slight and, even if it hadn't, his excitement at finally getting a chance to explore this wonderful new galaxy in which they were stranded certainly would have done the trick.

Rodney had an insatiably curious mind and coming across the ruined temple carved with Ancient runic symbols had been the kind of thing he'd fantasised about when signing up for this mission in the first place. Getting hit in the forehead by a wraith stunner wasn't something he'd anticipated but he guessed he was going to have to get used to that kind of thing if he was going to be on Colonel Sheppard's team. He still wasn't entirely sure why he'd saved Sheppard from being hit - he didn't even like the man particularly, although he did have to admit that he looked impressive in a towel.

Still, the day's events had been exciting - maybe his life had taken a turn for the better. It was late by the time Rodney got to his lab and everyone had gone. Rodney switched on his laptop to see what kind of a mess Radek had made of things in his absence, and was humming happily to himself as he worked when he heard a sound at the door, and then a familiar voice grated into his consciousness.

"I hear you were hurt today. I was worried about you."

Bates was standing in the doorway, carrying a cardboard box. Rodney slammed his laptop shut.

"Get out," he ordered.

Bates shook his head. "That's no way to talk to your prospective top, now is it?" he chided. "So, how did it go offworld? Were you out of your depth? Did you shiver and shake like a little girl when you got fired on, Rodney?"

"As a matter of fact, no," Rodney retorted. "It was good. I was good. It went well." He preened slightly at that, remembering the excitement of being out in the field, of finding that ruined temple with the possibility of a message from the Ancients carved on its crumbling stone walls. Bates gazed at him through narrowed eyes.

"Hmm. I was surprised Colonel Sheppard invited you along. Maybe he's got a death wish," he grinned.

"I thought I told you to get out," Rodney snapped.

"Uh-huh. My lady sent me to deliver this." Bates put the box down on the work surface.

"What is it?" Rodney asked suspiciously, not moving, suspecting some kind of a trap.

"Teyla's belongings. Lady Elizabeth thinks we have a spy among us alerting the Wraith to our offworld missions. She's spent the day interviewing all the Athosians to see where their loyalties lie. It was Teyla who pointed out that she was the one who'd accompanied Colonel Sheppard on all his offworld missions, so if we were looking for a spy it had to be her. She volunteered all her belongings for us to examine." Bates gave a hard little smile, and Rodney doubted that Teyla had exactly 'volunteered' them.

"Oh for god's sake - you can't possibly suspect Teyla of this!" Rodney exclaimed. He barely knew the Athosian woman but from what he'd seen of her, he really doubted she was involved in any kind of spying for the Wraith. He'd never met a more honest, genuine person.

"Check her belongings," Bates told him. "It's not a request - it's an order. Straight from Lady Elizabeth...only...I'm forgetting - you don't follow my Lady's orders these days do you?" Bates gave a tight little smile and moved closer to Rodney. Rodney faced him down. "Will you follow this one?" Bates murmured. "I wouldn't mind if you didn't - I enjoy watching you being punished, Rodney." He moved in even closer, invading Rodney's personal space. "You look so hot when your ass is being tanned - did you know that? Eyes down, submissive...I like that look. It suits you. One day you'll look at me like that."

"I'd rather die," Rodney replied.

Bates's expression turned hard and cold. "You're just resisting the inevitable, Rodney."

"That's Dr McKay to you because I think I outrank you by - oh I don't know - a billion times," Rodney said. "Let's go through the chain of command, shall we? First there's my Lady Elizabeth, and then...oh yes, that's right, there's me."

"Colonel Sheppard might have something to say about that," Bates snorted.

"He's a knucklebrain - just like you," Rodney replied dismissively. "He might command you military boys but don't ever forget that this is a civilian mission, and I'm second in line right after Lady Weir."

"She must wonder why she has to keep sending her second in command to the punishment room every five minutes then," Bates said with a grin. "It must be a bit of an embarrassment for her. Or maybe you enjoy it - is that it? Does it turn you on to get your ass tanned in front of all those people, *Dr McKay*?"

Rodney closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the sheer humiliation, to say nothing of the pain, of his punishment sessions in that room. There had been nothing pleasurable about it whatsoever, and he resented the taunt but he also knew that Bates enjoyed taunting him and he didn't want to give him the satisfaction of a response.

"I think you like it," Bates said, softly, moving closer. "I think you'll like it even more when I take you in hand."

"Never going to happen," Rodney hissed, through gritted teeth. Bates was so close now that they were standing nose to nose. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." He tried to push past Bates, shoving at him to get out of the way, but the sergeant grabbed his arm and forced him over the nearest work station, pushing his arm up behind his back to keep him in place.

"Come on, Rodney," Bates murmured, his breath warm and sickening on the back of Rodney's neck. "Just say the word and I'll take you on. There's no point you holding out for a better offer. No other top in this place is going to go near you." He leaned close against Rodney's body, and Rodney could feel the hardness of his erection pressed against his own ass. "So close," Bates whispered into Rodney's ear. "I bet you want it." He rubbed himself against Rodney's buttocks, and Rodney shuddered. "I mean it - who else is going to want you? You're arrogant, you yell at everyone, you look like shit, and you're earning yourself a reputation for trouble - nobody will ever want to take on someone like you. So do yourself a favour and get yourself over to my quarters so I can put you out of your misery."

"Let me go," Rodney growled, trying to twist out of the other man's grasp, angry with himself for not being able to get free.

"I'll make you crawl first. Make you crawl across the room, and beg at my feet. Make you beg for my hard cock," Bates whispered into his ear, making Rodney's blood run cold. "Make you pant, and plead, and whimper before I throw you over the table and fuck you into next week." He was rubbing harder now, and Rodney felt a tide of nausea at the thought that the man was masturbating himself on him.

Rodney managed to kick out with his foot and that dislodged Bates enough for him to wriggle out from the sergeant's grasp. Bates turned, and grabbed Rodney's arm again, clearly not done with him yet, but at that moment Zelenka bounded into the lab...and stopped short when he saw them. Bates dropped Rodney's arm immediately.

"I...realised I did not realign the conduits when I finished working," Radek said, frowning as he gazed at them. "Is everything okay in here, Dr McKay?" he asked quietly.

"Fine. Everything's fine," Rodney said, flushing slightly. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to know about this humiliating event.

Bates smiled at him, a thin, unpleasant kind of smile. "Lady Elizabeth wants to know about Teyla's belongings asap," he said. "So I suggest you get onto it, *Doctor*." He stressed Rodney's title with just the right degree of mockery, and Rodney felt his temper flare again. It was all he could do to nod stiffly to the man. Bates nodded back, grinning slightly at Rodney's discomfort, and then, with a disdainful glare in Zelenka's direction, he left the room.

"That man...seems often terse and mean," Radek commented when Bates was gone. "I do not like him."

"Oh for god's sake, Radek!" Rodney exploded, all the tension of the previous few minutes rising to the surface. "He's just a grunt! As for those conduits - I saw the work you did on them this afternoon and it's so sloppy a ten year old could have done it! Didn't you *read* the schematics I left you? If so, were you improvising on purpose, or did you just not understand what I was asking you to do?"

Radek gazed at him for a moment, with steady blue eyes behind his glasses. "I think the work was done okay," he said. "However, I am tired now, and it is late, and *you* have been in the infirmary all day and Dr Beckett said you should rest, yes? We can talk about the conduits some more tomorrow. I will leave you now to realign them yourself as my work is no good for you."

He didn't wait for Rodney to reply. He just turned and left. Rodney gazed after him, his hands moving restlessly at his side, as they always did when he was anxious. He hadn't meant to yell at Radek quite so ferociously, but his pride was hurting beyond endurance right now. Here he was, the smartest man in two galaxies, and yet he couldn't shake himself of his unwanted 'admirer'. It was getting out of hand.

Rodney went over to the conduits to re-align them but he couldn't concentrate. He kept thinking about what Bates had said. He wasn't *looking* for a top, damnit! But all the same, the idea that nobody would want him anyway - well, he could pretty much believe that right now. He didn't know why it was the case, because it seemed to him that he was a damn good catch, being not only the smartest man on the base but also one of the most important, but he was sure Bates was right. No decent top was going to look twice at him, and while he had known that to be the case for a long time now, it didn't help to have your worst enemy confirm it.

Rodney finished with the conduits, and then turned his attention to the box with Teyla's belongings in it. He fished through them in distaste - he didn't like this kind of work, and if it hadn't been for the fact that the safety of the entire expedition was on the line then he would have refused to do it - just as he'd pretty much been refusing to do most of the other things Elizabeth had been ordering him to do lately. What surprised Rodney was how much he had enjoyed ignoring orders. He liked Elizabeth and had always been happy to obey her until recently - and yet there was something liberating about playing the rebel. Maybe he was making up for his lost teenage years, because god knows he hadn't done any real rebelling back then.

He was so busy ruminating along these lines that he almost fell off his chair when his desultory poking around with Teyla's necklace produced a flash of light, and he realised that there was a transmitter hidden in it.

It turned out that Sheppard himself had found the necklace a couple of weeks previously, buried under some dirt in a ruined city on Teyla's world, and he had given it to the Athosian woman - so the mystery of how the Wraith were being alerted to their presence was solved and nobody was to blame. Sheppard assembled his team in Rodney's lab the following morning to figure out what they were going to do about it.

"We need to use this to our advantage," the colonel said. Rodney eyed the box of guns and assorted ammunition that Ford had brought to the meeting, with a wary expression. "We need to get our hands on a living wraith and bring him back here so I can question him."

Rodney frowned. "That would be dangerous. Unless...oh god - you're going to keep him locked up, aren't you?"

The colonel gave him an assessing look. "It's the only way we'll be able to get the information we need, Rodney," he said.

"'s barbaric!" Rodney protested.

"They are trying to kill us, Dr McKay," Teyla pointed out. "They wish to hunt us for food."

"And it doesn't get more barbaric than that," Ford added. Rodney thought about it for a moment, surveying their anxious glances, and then, finally, he sighed.

"Okay," he muttered.

"Good. Here's how we'll play it...." The colonel patted Rodney on the arm and flashed him one of those smiles that made you feel like the sun was shining just on you. Rodney had noticed that Sheppard had a tendency to rely on that laidback charm of his to make people feel special. He'd also noticed how frequently it worked, on just about everyone on the base, top or sub. Even Carson, who was one of the most quietly confident tops Rodney had ever met, seemed to melt under the force of one of the colonel's smiles. Rodney wasn't sure what it was about the man, or why people reacted that way, but, basking in the glow of that smile, he had to admit that he knew how they felt. It also annoyed him. He always distrusted easy charm - maybe because it was something that was so alien to his own make up that he felt a stab of envy for those who did have it.

Three hours later, Rodney found himself sitting with his back to a wall on an alien planet, holding something that was entirely unfamiliar to him - a P-90. He knew how to fire the damn thing, but he'd never had to carry one into combat before and it felt heavy and strange on his arm. He had memorised Sheppard's plan to lure the Wraith to the ruined temple and capture one of them using tasers, but even so, he kept going over and over it in his head, anxious not to put a foot wrong, and place anyone on the team in danger. Colonel Sheppard was sitting beside him, gazing at him.

"You okay? You seem nervous," the colonel said. Rodney took a deep breath and kept his eyes fixed on the gun.

"No. I'm a part of this team. I'm doing this," he said, more firmly than he felt.

"Yes, you are. I just said you seemed nervous." Sheppard sat there calmly, which Rodney found both supportive and irritating at the same time.

"Oh, really. I thought you said, 'Rodney, you don't have to do this'," he snapped.

Sheppard grinned. "Yes you do," he said, inclining his head.

"Damn right I do," Rodney muttered, because he was on the *team* and that meant more to him than just about anything else that had happened since they arrived in Atlantis and he really didn't want to screw it up.

"You won't," Sheppard said.

"What?" Rodney frowned at him.

"Screw it up - that's what you're thinking isn't it?"

"Did I say that out loud?" Rodney panicked. Sheppard laughed.

"Nope - but you didn't have to. Just about everything you're thinking shows up in your eyes. Remind me to play poker with you some day."

"I'm lousy at poker," Rodney grumbled.

"I rest my case," Sheppard grinned. Then his mood changed, abruptly. "Okay, Rodney - we're nearly ready to go. You can do this - remember that. I wouldn't have put you on this team if I didn't believe it, either. Just stick with me, okay, and do what I tell you."

The next few minutes whizzed by in a blur of action. They were, perhaps, the most terrifying few minutes of Rodney's life, and yet, conversely, the most exciting. Rodney obeyed the colonel to the letter - he got up when Sheppard shouted the command, fired at the attacking wraith, then followed the colonel out into the ruined temple. They surrounded the stricken wraith, and on the colonel's command Rodney drew his taser and fired into the creature. Sheppard knelt down beside it and then got to his feet, yelling.

"It's got a self destruct! Take cover!" He grabbed Rodney's arm and the two of them ran away from the wraith - just in time as a few seconds later there was a loud explosion and Rodney felt himself flying through the air. He landed on the ground with a whumph, and then covered his head as chunks of what looked suspiciously like dead wraith fell on top of him. When it finally stopped raining wraith, Rodney looked around to find Sheppard lying next to him, gazing at him.

"You okay?" The colonel's eyes held a genuine concern and Rodney nodded, feeling shaky but exhilarated.

"I'm fine. This - this is fun for me," he croaked. Sheppard grinned at his bravado, and they both got to their feet. Rodney noticed that the colonel was clutching a stunner that he must have picked up from the recently deceased wraith but then all hell broke loose once more as Sheppard saw Teyla, lying on her back across the field with a wraith on top of her, his hand raised, just about to feed. The colonel took off at the speed of light, and Rodney watched as he took aim and felled the wraith with the stunner, just a split second before it fed on Teyla.

Try as he might not to be impressed by Colonel Sheppard, Rodney did have to concede that in the field the man seemed to know what he was doing. This whole adventure had been so exciting that he didn't even want to return to Atlantis, although he was looking forward to boasting about the mission to Radek.

Sheppard secured their prisoner in a cell in the lower reaches of the city, and then they all attended a debriefing. Rodney found himself humming as he entered the room - today had been *good* - one of the first really good days he'd had since arriving here. It felt great to be part of a team, and a valuable part at that. He'd held his own with all the leaping around and gun firing, and people were beginning to see how important he was to this whole expedition and that felt fantastic.

He thought nothing could spoil his good mood but that changed the minute he got into the meeting room to find Bates sitting there.

"What's he doing here?" Rodney demanded, unable to even feign politeness.

"Sergeant Bates has been put in charge of the prisoner," Elizabeth replied, looking surprised by his tone. "So he needs to be involved in any briefings about him."

"Why - he wasn't on the damn mission," Rodney growled. Colonel Sheppard placed a hand on his shoulder, and guided him firmly towards a chair.

"Everyone here? Then we should begin," he said, ignoring Rodney's angry glare.

"I take it everything went smoothly?" Elizabeth asked, casting a furtive glance in Rodney's direction.

"And nobody screwed up?" Bates looked at Rodney as he said that.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney bristled immediately.

"Just that I'm not convinced of the wisdom of taking non-military personnel on military missions," Bates told him. "It's different if the mission is scientific but this one wasn't. You went out there to capture a wraith - no need for anyone other than military personnel."

Rodney glared at him. Damn Bates for this - going offworld as part of Sheppard's team was the one bright thing in his life right now, and damn it if the sergeant wasn't trying to take it away from him by planting these doubts in both Elizabeth's and Sheppard's minds.

"It was my call to take Dr McKay along with us," Colonel Sheppard replied, giving Bates a sharp look. "Are you questioning my military decisions, Sergeant?"

"No, sir!" Bates replied. "Just pointing out my reservations, sir, particularly in the case of Dr McKay. He has no formal training and, frankly, I think we all feel his judgement has been in question of late. It strikes me that he's a risky man to have by your side while he's behaving in such an...unpredictable way."

Rodney didn't make a conscious decision about what happened next - his emotions just took over. All his pent-up anger and frustration spilled out, and he found himself launching himself across the table towards Bates, screaming abuse at him as he went. Bates didn't even move, he just sat there as Rodney took a swing at him. Rodney felt the satisfying crunch of flesh under fist, and then he was being dragged backwards by Colonel Sheppard's strong arms, and he was still fighting, still wriggling to be free, yelling something incoherently the entire time.

"Pipe down," Sheppard hissed into his ear. "This is bad enough already." Rodney was beyond reasoning though - he was too angry. He struggled, pointlessly, in Sheppard's arms, and all the time he was aware of Bates sitting there, arms folded, a bruise rising on the side of his jaw...and a smug little smile curving at the corners of his lips. Damn it he'd planned this! He'd known how Rodney would react...and Rodney had fallen straight into the trap, like an idiot.

Sheppard propelled him over to the door so fast that Rodney's feet barely touched the ground. Then he released him, but only in order to grab the back of his neck and push him along the hallway to Elizabeth's office. He half-pushed, half-threw the still wriggling scientist inside, then shut the door and stood in front of it, glaring at Rodney. Rodney glared back at him, his entire body taut with fury.

"You just proved his point for him," Sheppard said. "Do you understand that, McKay?"

"Yes I damn well understand that!" Rodney yelled at him. "He was goading me. This was what he wanted."

"Why?" Sheppard asked. "Why would he want this? Look, I thought I took care of this a few weeks ago. I made it very clear to him, and to his friends, that they were to treat you with respect. Was he backsliding on that, McKay? Because if he was then I will deal with him."

Rodney paused, gazing at Sheppard warily. He still wasn't entirely sure he trusted the man, and the honest truth was that Bates wasn't treating him the way he had before. He wasn't constantly goading and baiting him - in fact, Rodney wished he *was* as that had been easier to handle, plates of jello notwithstanding. But no, now Bates was pursuing him, trying to force him into subbing for him - and how did he tell Sheppard *that*?

"McKay?" Sheppard asked.

"No." Rodney felt his mouth settle into a straight line, and he pushed up his chin defiantly. He was an unattached submissive, and he couldn't see a top like Sheppard being remotely interested in his problems shaking off an unwanted suitor. The man would just laugh at him and tell him to figure it out for himself. He was hardly a kid after all.

"How about the other marines - have any of them been taunting you?" Sheppard asked.

"No." Rodney shook his head again. They hadn't, either - whatever it was Sheppard had done to them that day in the punishment room had definitely worked. The military boys had all been suspiciously friendly towards him ever since - or else gave him a wide berth. One of them, that blond kid, Hicks, had even come up to him and muttered a shame-faced apology.

"Then, right now, Bates's concerns seem to be justified," Sheppard said.

"Are you taking me off the team?" Rodney asked, his heart beating too fast, because this was all he cared about - he didn't give a damn about anything else.

"No." Sheppard rocked back on his heels. "But if there's something you're not telling me I'll be pretty pissed off."

At that moment the door opened, and Elizabeth swept into the office. Rodney steeled himself - but she didn't look angry. She just looked concerned.

"Colonel Sheppard - would you excuse us please," she said, and Sheppard nodded, and swept a little bow at her before retreating. Rodney rolled his eyes. Honestly, that man could be ridiculously old-fashioned. Who bowed towards the highest ranked leader these days? It was quaint - and also stupid. He wondered whether Sheppard would bow to *him* if he was the one running this expedition, and he found he liked the idea.

"Rodney - what's going on?" Elizabeth asked, seating herself at her desk. Rodney sighed.

"Just order the punishment and have done with," he said, striding towards the door. "I'm kind of getting used to it anyway."

"Hold it, Dr McKay," she said, in a voice of pure steel. He hesitated, one hand reaching out towards the door, but this was *Elizabeth* and he wasn't yet so far gone that he'd ignore her when she was talking to him. So he turned. "Sit down, Rodney," she said, in a softer voice.

"I don't have anything to say," he muttered.

"I said, sit down," she repeated. He took a deep breath, and then did what she commanded. Lady Elizabeth Weir wasn't a widely respected diplomat and well regarded top for nothing, and he'd heard only good things about her from the subs she'd played with over the years. There had been a time when he'd have happily subbed to her himself, but she had never shown any interest in him in that way, and he had always known he never stood a chance when there were so many other subs vying for her attention.

"Rodney, you're one of the most senior and respected members of this expedition," she told him quietly. "Yet, since we've been here, you're the only one I've had to punish. I've known you for a few years and this isn't like you, Rodney. Is something troubling you?"

"You mean apart from the widespread lack of regard in which I'm held by just about everyone on this base?" he snapped. She shook her head.

"That isn't true. Your own team speak very highly of you, and everyone knows that we wouldn't even have got this far if it wasn't for you."

"Hah," Rodney sulked, unable to find an answer for that.

"I can't help you if you won't tell me what's wrong," she said, those warm hazel eyes of hers full of concern. Rodney gazed at her helplessly. He had no idea what to say. It wasn't just Bates that was the problem, it was everything, and he couldn't even sort it all out in his own mind. First there had been that terrible estrangement from Jeannie. He'd tried his best to take care of her when their parents had been killed, and she'd pretty much thrown it in his face - to his mind at least - and while he did concede that there were two sides to every story, as far as he was concerned she was just plain in the wrong.

Then there was his own dismal sex life, or lack thereof, and his inability to connect with people. Bates was just the latest in a long line of problems that Rodney had no way of solving. And Rodney was a problem-solver. That was what he did, every day of his working life, but technology was simple and people were complicated, and it frustrated him beyond belief that he was so effortlessly able to find all the answers to any problems he had with the former and none at all to the latter.

"Nothing's wrong," he told her softly, because everything was wrong and he had no idea where to begin explaining it to her. Her expression hardened.

"Needless to say, Bates is demanding that I punish you," she told him.

"Oh, I'm sure." Rodney shrugged. "Not much you can do is there?"

She took a deep breath. "There were witnesses, it was unprovoked," she agreed. Rodney remembered being held over a workstation, his arm shoved up his back, his assailant's erection digging into his ass, and mused on this new definition of 'unprovoked', but Elizabeth didn't know about that - and, if it came down to witnesses, nobody had seen it, either. Even Radek had been just a couple of minutes too late. "However," Elizabeth continued, "I'm going to ignore that. I'm going to go out on a limb for you, Rodney. I'm not going to punish you - I'm giving you a free pass, just this once. do one more thing in the next week that makes me regret this decision, and you'll find yourself staring at the floor of the punishment room before you can even draw breath. Understood?"

Rodney gazed at her. She was trying to help, in her own way, but none of it was any use. Nothing was any damn use right now.

"Understood," he told her, in a low tone. He didn't want to be in her debt. He didn't want to be condescended to, and patronised. He got up and walked towards the door.

"Is there something you want to tell me about Bates?" Elizabeth asked. "A lot of your confrontations seem to be with him."

Rodney didn't even falter. "No," he said, not turning around. "There is absolutely nothing I want to tell you about Bates." And that was pretty much the truth. Rodney thought he'd rather curl up and die than tell the leader of their expedition that he couldn't handle a man so much less smart than himself that he could have belonged to different species. His pride wouldn't allow it. So he just slammed his hand against the door panel and left, without looking back.

It had, on reflection, been one of the best days and worst days of his life, Rodney thought to himself as he retreated to his quarters to lick his wounds. He took a shower and leaned back under the warm water, trying to relax muscles that were aching through sudden use after years of idleness. He remembered the sheer exhilaration of being out in the field beside Colonel Sheppard, of running alongside the man, holding a P-90 and proving to everyone that Sheppard had done the right thing by putting him on his team.

He'd done well too - he thought he'd seen a kind of respect in Sheppard's eyes, and Rodney knew he wasn't immune to the colonel's charm. Like everyone else on this base, he wanted Sheppard to think well of him, wanted to earn a word of praise from the laid-back colonel, or experience another one of those conspiratorial smiles. Sheppard had a way of making you feel complicit with him, as if you and he shared some kind of a special secret, and there was something intoxicating about that feeling. Once you'd tasted it, you wanted to keep on tasting it.

w Rodney was pretty sure he'd lost any respect the colonel had for him. He remembered the feel of Sheppard's taut, angry body as he'd manhandled him out of the meeting room, remembered the feel of his hand on the back of his neck, and the way he'd thrown him into Elizabeth's office. Sheppard had said he wouldn't pull him from the team but Rodney was sure that the colonel had to be regretting his decision to pick him in the first place.

Rodney got out of the shower and dried himself, and then dressed himself in boxers and a tee shirt before crawling into bed. He lay there, looking up at the ceiling blankly. He didn't expect to sleep - he'd been experiencing insomnia for weeks now, to the point where he'd almost gone to Carson for some medication, but he hadn't wanted to face Carson's concerned blue eyes and the endless questions he knew would result, so he suffered in silence - something that went entirely against the grain.

Rodney lay there for a few hours, getting no sleep whatsoever, and in the end he gave up, got dressed, and went back to his beloved lab. At least here he could lose himself in his work. He was still there, unshaven and bad-tempered through lack of sleep, when his staff arrived the next morning. They took one look at him and gave him a wide berth, clearly sensing his mood. Rodney couldn't even be bothered to attend the senior staff meeting at ten a.m. and ignored all of Elizabeth's radioed requests that he get himself up to the meeting room, pronto. He also ignored her email requesting an inventory of all the Ancient technology they'd thus far discovered, because he had more important things to do than sit around making lists for god's sake!

Sheppard dropped by the lab a few hours later and leaned casually on a monitor.

"So...Elizabeth's looking for you," he said.

"I'm not hard to find," Rodney replied, not taking his eyes off his work.

"Yeah...only I think she thinks you should go to her, and not the other way around."

"Well, I'm busy." Rodney turned to another work station and punched in an algorithm, pausing only to deliver a tirade at Miko for getting in his way. Sheppard winced.

"Bates has been to see her," Sheppard said quietly.

"Has he?" Rodney didn't even bother to feign an interest in that statement.

"So you might not want to piss her off right now, seeing as how she's basically covering your ass for you."

"I really don't give a damn," Rodney replied with an air of total indifference. "Look, Colonel, I'm sure you mean well but I'm not interested. The way I see it, we're stuck out here, and I'm the best chance any of you have of getting home. So Elizabeth can jump up and down all she likes, but she can't fire me, and she can't demote me - at least not without putting the entire expedition in danger. All I ask is that people leave me alone to get on with my work, and then everyone will be happy."

"Don't count on it," Sheppard replied. "Look, Rodney, what is this? Do you enjoy getting into this much trouble?"

Rodney raised his head and actually looked at Sheppard for the first time since the man had entered the lab. Sheppard's hazel eyes were curious, and the man looked genuinely concerned. "It's an interesting question," Rodney mused. "Honestly? It's been kind of fun." He grinned.

"Because you don't care any more?" Sheppard leaned forward. "Is that it? Don't you even care about the consequences?"

"I do care about the consequences, yes," Rodney agreed, nodding, because he hated the thought of making another visit to the punishment room, but he was so busy pushing a self- destruct button right now that not even that was sufficient to stop him careening along on his current rebellious path. "But somehow...I just don't care enough."

Sheppard gazed at him steadily. "Go and see her, Rodney," he advised. Rodney shrugged.

"I don't think I will," he replied, and then he set about blowing up a small, pre-prepared corner of the lab in a controlled experiment which made Sheppard jump and reach for his gun on instinct. Rodney grinned. It had definitely been kind of fun, and he wasn't ready for it to end just yet.

Elizabeth gave him a couple of days before sending two armed guards to escort him to her office. She gazed at him steadily, her eyes flickering over his stubbled chin and admittedly wayward hair. Rodney gazed back at her, tilting his chin forward defiantly.

"Do you have that inventory I asked for?" she requested.

"I don't, no."

"Do you have an explanation for not having it?"

"You mean apart from the fact that it's a total waste of my time and mental energy? 'Fraid not." He shrugged, in a maddeningly offhand manner, entirely aware of how unhelpful he was being.

"Do you have an explanation for missing senior staff meetings?"

"I was busy."

"Do you have a *good* explanation for missing senior staff meetings?"

"I was *very* busy?" He folded his arms and stared at her.

She took a deep breath, clearly struggling to keep her cool. "Bates wants to press charges," she said at last.

"Of course he does. He's Bates." Rodney shrugged again.

"You know, I'm all out of reasons for why I should cover for you, Rodney," she said tersely, although he thought he saw a hint of hurt in her eyes and he regretted that, he honestly did. "Report to the punishment room at ten a.m. tomorrow - twelve strokes this time. You can go now."

"Thank you." He inclined his head in mock gratitude and turned to leave. His punishments seemed to increase incrementally by two each time which he supposed reflected her escalating irritation with him. Rodney didn't even think about the forthcoming punishment - he just went back to his lab, humming to himself, finger still firmly pressed on that self-destruct.

Rodney's first visitor the following day was Sergeant Bates. The man arrived early, while Rodney was the only one in the lab.

"I have a proposition for you," Bates said, smiling at him.

Rodney raised an eyebrow. "Another one? Because I responded so well to the last one," he mocked, suddenly finding that he'd gone beyond caring at some point.

"You'll like this one. Come and sub for me, Rodney..."

"If I'm not very much mistaken that *is* the last proposition," Rodney interrupted. "Not even cunningly disguised as a new proposition."

"Come and sub for me and I'll drop the charges," Bates said. Rodney stared at him and then burst out laughing.

"Oh, this is good. Let me get this straight, knucklebrain. You're saying that if I agree to be your sub, with all the many attractions that offers, not least, as I recall, the fact you promised to tan my ass, then you'll get me out of...oh, yes, having my ass tanned. Seems like a zero sum equation to me, pinhead."

"Just offering." Bates grinned. "You'll give in eventually, Rodney."

"What makes you assume that?"

"Because I'll make your life a misery until you do. See you later. Around ten a.m. I believe." Bates gave him a mock salute and then left.

Rodney gazed after him, sightlessly. Maybe Bates was right. In fact, maybe it would be easier to just give in. It would certainly be less wearying - all he had to do was say 'yes' and his current misery would come to an end. Of course he'd be throwing himself into the path of a new kind of misery but honestly, Rodney wasn't sure he could bring himself to care.

All the same, some innate obstinacy that went soul-deep with him kicked in. If he gave in now then Bates would win and besides, he honestly thought he might gag just at the *thought* of kneeling in front of the sergeant, and taking the man's cock in his mouth, so the reality didn't bear thinking about.

Rodney received his second visitor at five minutes to ten. He was just leaving the lab on his way to the punishment room and found Colonel Sheppard loitering outside. He ignored him, but Sheppard fell into step beside him as he walked.

"Can I help you, Colonel?" he asked.

"Just thought you might want company," Sheppard replied.

"Not really, no," Rodney said curtly.

"Well, you've got it anyway."

Rodney sighed.

"Elizabeth did try and help you out of this one you know," Sheppard told him as they walked.

"Yes. I do." Rodney nodded.

"Why didn't you let her help you?"

"Because it doesn't matter," Rodney shrugged, getting into the transporter. "None of it matters, Colonel." Sheppard got in beside him and leaned back against the wall.

"I think it does. I think that's the problem. I think it really matters. I think it matters so much that it hurts," he said softly.

Rodney blinked. Did it? He felt so numb inside that he couldn't tell any more. The door opened, and he got out without saying a word and strode along the hallway towards the open door at the end. His stomach contracted as he got closer. Sheppard was right - it did hurt. It hurt just as much this time as it had the first time, and it hurt deep inside. Rodney shoved the sensation down, searching again for the numbness. They reached the door, and Sheppard paused.

"Coming in to enjoy the day's entertainment, Colonel?" Rodney asked, in a mocking tone. Sheppard shook his head.

"Not this time," he replied softly.

"I'm surprised. You watched the previous times," Rodney spat at him, feeling another wave of pain slice through him, raw and bitter. "I saw you."

"I know, but not this time," Sheppard said firmly.

"Why not?"

"Because now you're on my team." Sheppard patted his arm. Rodney felt something break inside, and the numbness fell away. He gazed at Sheppard blindly. Damn the man for making him care about what happened to him *now*, right when he needed not to care.

"I'll be waiting," Sheppard told him, and then he stood up straight, outside the door, almost as if guarding it. Rodney didn't have a clue what this all meant, and he didn't have time to think about it, because it was ten a.m. and he'd watched enough bad movies to know what happened if you didn't turn up for a punishment on time.

Carson called it the bearpit, and Rodney had developed a keen appreciation of what the doctor meant by that now. He'd never been remotely interested in public punishments, one way or the other, before he'd been subjected to them. They simply were, like coffee or taxes - they existed, but, unlike coffee or taxes, they had never impinged on his everyday world before. He'd only ever been to one - when his mom had insisted that he and his little sister accompany her to watch a local teacher being punished for drunk driving, something she had a thing about but only, Rodney suspected, because she was secretly hoping his father would one day be up on the same charge.

Rodney had found the whole thing boring, and had spent the time reading a text book on particle physics and writing emphatic messages in the margins next to all the bits that were wrong. Jeannie, on the other hand, had been so freaked out by it that Rodney had been forced to take her to the park and buy her an ice cream afterwards to calm her down. His mom, as usual, hadn't taken any responsibility at all, and as she was able to withstand Jeannie's sobbing better than Rodney she just shut herself in her room until Rodney dealt with it, and didn't emerge until he brought a much happier Jeannie home from the park, chin still smeared with chocolate sauce.

Rodney had never thought that he'd one day be in the same situation as that disgraced teacher. As a sub, he was happy to give his body to a top of his own choosing, for whatever pre-arranged and carefully negotiated erotic pleasure appealed to them both, but there was nothing erotic about being bent over and beaten by one of your own subordinates in front of a crowd of jeering marines and scientists from the *botany* department for god's sake!

Rodney glared at them all as he entered the room but that just seemed to amuse the marines who laughed out loud at him. Now he wished Sheppard *was* in the room, because the mood was uglier than it had ever been before, and he sensed that was because the colonel wasn't there to calm them all down with one raised eyebrow, or a wry, warning, clearing of his throat.

Peter was standing by the frame, looking kind of anxious, clearly freaked out by the mood in the room. Rodney took a deep breath, and then walked over to him.

"Could we dispense with the whole reading me my rights thing?" he asked. "Because I've heard it twice now, and I could actually recite it back to you, and I have three different coupling systems to recalibrate by lunchtime and I'd really rather waste as little time as possible on this nonsense."

"Well...okay," Peter shrugged. "Just...I'm supposed to so if you're asked you'll have to say I did."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he muttered. He glanced up, and saw Elizabeth sitting, pale and remote, right at the back as usual. Her face was set in a cool mask that gave nothing away but her eyes met his and once again he felt a pang as he saw the hurt in them. He wished he could do things differently, but right now he wasn't entirely sure he could change the way he was behaving.

Rodney moved his hands to his pants and undid them, then stepped over to the frame and leaned forward. Only when he was in position did he yank them, and his boxers, down to just beneath his ass - he wasn't going to give the bastards watching the satisfaction of catching a glimpse of bare flesh, although some of them would see his face clearly enough and that was possibly even worse.

Rodney turned his face to one side, and as he did so he caught sight of Bates, sitting right slap bang in the middle of the front row. The sergeant wasn't joining in the catcalls, and he wasn't smiling, either - instead, there was a grim, sickly kind of expression on his face, and Rodney felt a shudder run through his body as he realised that the sergeant was enjoying this in an entirely different way.

Now Rodney missed Sheppard even more - he hadn't been consciously aware of it before, but somehow he'd always caught the colonel's hazel-eyed gaze during previous punishments, and he didn't know why but that had anchored him. Now he felt all at sea. He closed his eyes to shut out the queasy feeling rising in his stomach.

The first swat landed a split second later and his eyes flashed open, despite his best efforts to give nothing away. Rodney didn't mind a good, erotic spanking, and one of his tops had enjoyed hurting him way beyond that, for her own amusement, but at least he'd had a choice about that, and could stop it with a word. This wasn't like that. He didn't have a choice about this - this was simply designed to hurt - and it did. It wasn't delivered with love and affection by someone he trusted and was intimate with - it was meant to punish, plain and simple.

Rodney bit on his lip as the second blow fell, and he clutched the handles on the frame tightly, feeling his palms start to sweat. He didn't mean to, but he found himself seeking out Bates's face in the audience again. Bates had an intent expression in his eyes, and he was barely blinking as he drank in Rodney's misery.

Rodney supposed he should be grateful that Elizabeth had only ordered the paddle - she had a whole array of implements at her disposal, ranging from the paddle to the cane to - and Rodney dreaded the thought of anyone ever being on the receiving end of it - the bullwhip. But right now, he didn't feel particularly grateful. Twelve strokes suddenly stretched out into eternity, and he wondered what would happen if he tried to walk out. The frame had restraints but they had paid him the courtesy of not using them. Elizabeth would presumably just send armed guards after him to drag him back and make him take his punishment if he tried to escape. Rodney knew that he wouldn't walk out in any case. On some level, he felt he deserved his punishment - not for hitting Bates but for the way he'd behaved towards Elizabeth, and, while he would never apologise to her in person, he could take this - he had pretty much walked into it head first after all.

Eight swats in, and his ass hurt more than he wanted to think about. He could hear Peter grunting with the force of each stroke and he was struggling to remain silent but he wouldn't give his audience the satisfaction of a reaction. He remained where he was, as still as he could hold himself, gaze averted, just resting there like a dead fish on a slab. He was screaming inside though - yelling in outrage and pain. He had always been a noisy sub, and he enjoyed it when a top took him to places that finally made him shut up, accepting whatever was being done to him, totally under the spell of a sexually dominant partner, but staying silent in these circumstances was much harder.

Rodney bit back a howl as Peter delivered the ninth stroke. Three more...three more. He saw Bates shift in his chair, his hand resting on his groin, rubbing there surreptitiously, and it was all he could do to swallow down the bile that rose immediately in the back of his throat. He swore, there and then, his mind hazy with pain, that he'd get his own back on the sergeant somehow.

The final strokes hurt more than he'd been expecting - he guessed he was nearing the limit of what his body could comfortably tolerate, and he knew that alone should be a warning to him not to push Elizabeth any more, but somehow, even knowing that, he doubted he would be able to stop and take himself off his current path of self-destruction.

Then, finally, it was over. Rodney took a deep breath, and pushed himself away from the frame. His hands were shaking as he pulled up his pants and fastened them, and although he wanted to get out of there as fast as he could, his legs felt like lead and he wasn't physically able to bounce out of the room the way he had on the previous two occasions.

He muttered something to Peter - he had no idea what, but it wasn't Grodin's fault that he'd pulled the short straw and got to be Elizabeth's lackey on this, and then he walked slowly towards the door, surprised by how shaky he felt. He got to the door, face flushed from pain and humiliation, and was unaccountably relieved to find Sheppard still standing there, still in the same position, hands behind his back.

"Okay?" Sheppard turned as he heard the door open, raising an eyebrow.

"What do you think?" Rodney growled, pushing past him. His legs still weren't working very well, and his mind felt fuzzy.

"Whoa!" Sheppard reached out a hand and cupped his elbow, holding him steady. Rodney wanted to wave him away but right now he wasn't sure he'd stay upright if he did that, so he leaned into the colonel's strong, lean body and allowed the man to help him down the hallway and into the transporter.

"Looks like it was bad," Sheppard commented. Rodney closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. He wasn't sure why he was feeling like this - he'd only taken two more swats than previously and he'd been fine then. Now he felt as if he was seasick, and everything was moving around him, making him unsteady on his feet. The transporter door opened and Sheppard put a hand under his elbow again. Rodney squinted at the hallway.

"This isn't the way to my lab," he said.

"No. It's the way to the infirmary."

"Well, I don't want to *go* to the infirmary," Rodney snapped. "I want to go to my lab."

"I don't care," Sheppard said grimly. "We're going to the infirmary."

Rodney considered arguing but he really didn't have the energy, and besides, Sheppard had that same look in his eyes that he got when he was out in the field, facing down wraith. The one that said he was in charge and nobody better argue. Usually he was so laidback that Rodney was surprised the military had picked him for a command post, but having seen the man in times of crisis he was beginning to understand that there was more to him than was usually evident on that ironic, unruffled surface.

They walked, unsteadily, down the hallway to the infirmary, and by the time they got there Rodney was feeling so ill he didn't even mind when Sheppard picked up his arm and draped it over his shoulder, then put his own arm around Rodney's waist and hauled him the rest of the way.

He was only dimly aware of Carson getting to his feet, a surprised look on his face as Sheppard carried him into the infirmary.

"My god what's happened to him? Put him on the bed," Carson ordered. "Rodney? Stay with us."

"Ow, ow, ow!" Rodney yelped as Sheppard sat him down on one of the beds, making his sore ass blaze with pain.

"Go easy, man," Carson chided, turning Rodney more comfortably onto his side. "Was it that bad?" He glanced at Sheppard.

"I don't know - I was waiting for him outside," the colonel said, spreading his hands. "But I don't think it's the punishment that did this. He was looking pretty pale beforehand."

"Ah. I think I have an inkling..." Carson's blue eyes swam into view. "Rodney - when did you last eat anything, son?" he asked.

Rodney tried to think about it. "No idea," he croaked at last, and even ill as he was, he knew how weird that was. He *always* knew when he'd last eaten. His life revolved around food, coffee and work to the exclusion of just about everything else.

"Damnit, Rodney. You know what happens when you go too long without food," Carson scolded, pushing Sheppard out of the way and going over to his desk.

"A power bar? You're giving him a power bar?" Sheppard asked incredulously, as Carson returned and pushed something sweet and crumbly into his mouth.

"Aye. He's hypoglycaemic - a wee taste of a power bar will help him more than any medicine," Carson grinned. His hand came down on Rodney's shoulder, and he stroked gently. "This isn't like you, Rodney," he murmured. "Not remembering to eat."

"He is looking a bit thin," Sheppard commented. Rodney tried to think about that. He was sure he *wasn't*. Not that he'd looked in a mirror lately, but he was sure he was still as robust and well built as ever.

"Aye. I'd noticed that too," Carson said. Rodney frowned and sat up, propping himself up sideways on one arm so he wouldn't have to put too much weight on his sore ass.

"Don't talk about me as if I'm not here," he snapped. Carson glanced at Sheppard and grinned.

"See - I told you the power bar would do the trick," he said.

"It's a miracle," Sheppard laughed.

"Well, if you're both done, I have work to do," Rodney muttered, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Carson put a hand on his shoulder.

"Och, I don't think so, do you, laddie?" he said, shaking his head ruefully. Rodney sighed - Carson was a total martinet in the infirmary so he had doubted he'd get out that easily but even so, he decided to push his luck.

"I'm fine - I'll go eat something and then get to work. Don't make a fuss, Carson," he snapped. "Sheppard - tell him. I'm perfectly able to get back to work."

Sheppard shook his head, casting a sideways glance at the doctor as he did so. "You're arguing with Carson? On his own turf? Good luck, buddy but you're on your own with that one."

Carson gave a little gurgle of laughter at that. "Come now, Rodney. Now I've got you here, I might as well give you a proper check up. I've noticed you've been looking tired lately. Are you sleeping well?"

Rodney bit on his lip and glanced at Sheppard. If he admitted to Carson about his insomnia then the colonel might take him off the team and he didn't want that. He was already annoyed about the colonel finding out he was hypoglycaemic. The man must be thinking what a total liability he was in the field.

"I'm fine," he growled. Carson's blue eyes saw right through him.

"Well, you can stay here and keep me company for the rest of the day in any case," he said firmly. "I want to do some blood work on you and I'm going to get one of the nurses to run to the mess hall and bring you back a proper meal. You can eat it while I watch just so I can be certain you won't collapse again. Then you can lie down in here this afternoon and take a nap under my supervision."

"I'm not tired," Rodney complained.

"I don't care." Carson grinned sweetly. "Come now, Rodney - I'm having a dull day and it'll be nice for me to have a patient to cluck over."

"You don't cluck. You terrorise," Rodney scowled.

Sheppard grinned at him. "Man you like living on the edge. You know, Rodney, you do work pretty hard, and you could do with some down time. I'll drop by your lab and let Radek know he's in charge for the rest of the day."

"No...oh for god's sake," Rodney growled, as Sheppard patted his arm and then, with a cheery grin at Carson, he left the infirmary. Rodney gazed after him forlornly. There had been something rather comforting about having Sheppard's tall, commanding presence by his side and he found he missed him. He was suddenly aware that Carson's blue eyes were fixed on him, with an assessing look.

"What?" Rodney snapped.

"Nothing." Carson gave him a gentle little smile. "I'll go and get you something to change into and then I'm going to do a proper examination, whether you like it or not. I want to check to see if there's any damage after this morning."

Rodney flushed and gazed at his feet.

"You've got friends you know, Rodney," Carson told him softly, hovering close by, his hand reaching out to stroke Rodney's shoulder again. "Friends who care if you don't eat, and you can't sleep, and you keep getting into trouble. If there's anything bothering you - you know you can tell me, don't you?"

Rodney looked up, his throat suddenly feeling dry, as if he was trying to swallow uphill.

"You're right," he muttered at last. "I do feel kind of tired." And he leaned back on the bed, put his head down, and buried his face in the pillow so he wouldn't have to look into Carson's kind eyes any more.

John walked along to the lab, and went over to where Radek was working. The Czech scientist looked up, startled, and pushed his glasses further up his nose, in a familiar, nervous gesture.

"I just wanted to tell you that you're in charge for the day," John told him.

"Why? What have you done with Rodney?" Radek squeaked, looking concerned.

"He's in the infirmary," John told him. Radek gave a low hiss, and muttered something in Czech that even someone like John, with zero knowledge of the language, knew had to be an expletive. "Is there a problem?" he asked, frowning.

"No, problem except one must ask why you are all so determined to ruin one of the finest minds of his generation with all this...." He spat out a word that John didn't recognise and John noticed that some of the people in the room were listening in on their conversation.

"Do you have a few minutes?" he asked. "Maybe we could go to the mess hall and grab a donut?" He had noticed that donuts seemed to be a staple food for the scientists. Radek shrugged, and they retired to the privacy of the empty mess hall.

"I am not saying he is easy to work for - he is not," Radek said, as he sat down at a table. John brought over the donuts and coffee, and sat facing him. "But genius is not without its price. He is short-tempered, and he expects more from us than I think we are capable of - or maybe it is just his way of coaxing brilliance from us...whatever it is, I have achieved more working with him for one year than I did in my life before."

"Well that's good," John said, sipping on his coffee and gazing at the scientist thoughtfully. "Do all the other members of his staff feel the same way? I've noticed that none of them attend his punishments."

"We would not!" Radek looked outraged at the idea. "When you have worked with him you cannot but respect his mind - we have no desire to witness what passes for justice out here."

"You disagree with Elizabeth's decisions to punish him?" John asked, frowning. Radek sighed.

"My Lady Elizabeth is very wise, and I respect her very much, but in this instance, yes, I disagree with her, but then I am always at odds with the authorities on this issue." He gave a wan smile. "I was a political activist in Czechoslovakia, before the war," he murmured. "I underwent many such punishments myself."

"You're a radical," John said, sitting back in his chair and gazing at Radek thoughtfully. Radek grinned.

"I am, yes," he agreed, and then his smile faded, and he looked anxious again. "But how is Rodney? You said he was in the infirmary?"

"He's fine - apparently he just forgot to eat." John shrugged.

"Rodney forgot to eat? It's surely impossible." Radek shook his head ruefully. "I have never known this to happen," he told John, with a glint in his eye. John had a sudden sense of how well Radek knew Rodney, and for a second he felt a wave of resentment towards the scientist.

"Are you a top, Radek?" he asked bluntly.

"What?" Radek pushed his glasses nervously up his nose again. "What business is this of yours?"

It was a good question, and John struggled to find an answer. "I just wondered. You seemed worried about Rodney, so I thought...."

"No. No, no, not go there, Colonel," Radek interrupted him, looking kind of angry. "I do not top."

"Oh. Right." John leaned back again, feeling unaccountably relieved.

"I do not sub, either," Radek said.

John frowned. "You switch?"

"No." Radek looked uncomfortable. "I do not do any of these things - they do not appeal to me. I identify as non-dynamic."

"Really?" John was a little shocked but he did his best to hide it.

"Also...I am not interested in Rodney in that way because he is a man."

John gazed at him blankly and Radek flushed an even deeper shade of red. He leaned forwards and spoke in a whisper.

"I am monosexual."

John did his best to keep his face non-judgemental because really it was no business of his if Radek only wanted to sleep with women, and he was cool with it in any case. He'd never actually met any monosexuals but there was quite a strong monosexual movement that had gained acceptance in the past few years.

"You're mono?" he grinned. "Honestly, Radek, that's not as big a deal as it was a few years ago."

"No. But even so." Radek shrugged. "I do not speak of it often - it has no bearing on my work and I have encountered prejudice so I prefer to keep my private life private."

"Mono *and* non-dynamic? Man, you're pervy!" John laughed. "Where the hell do you go to *meet* people, Radek?"

"There are clubs," Radek shrugged. "It is easier now than it used to be, now that more people are prepared to admit that they do not identify in the traditional way, with dominant or submissive inclinations."

"Are there any others on Atlantis?" John asked, curious. Radek shrugged.

"Not many, but there are always some. I thought to ask Elizabeth for permission to start a little newsletter, so that we could be open about our preferences."

"Well I think that's a great idea." John nodded. "And I promise you that I'll help you handle any negativity that you might encounter. I can't stand that kind of crap. What you do in the bedroom is your own affair. It's not for me but I don't see what the hell business it is of mine."

Radek smiled, and looked more relaxed than he had thus far.

"You work closely with Rodney," John said, returning to the original topic of conversation. "Is there anything going on that we should know about?"

Radek thought about it for a moment and then shrugged, uneasily. "I think you are asking the wrong man," he said.

"I've already asked Rodney but he just closes up like a clam," John sighed.

"I did not mean Rodney," Radek said quietly. "I think if you want to find out what is wrong with Rodney then you must first find out what is happening with Sergeant Bates."

"Bates?" John frowned. "I thought I'd dealt with Bates. Hell, Rodney told me himself that Bates wasn't giving him any trouble."

"Maybe that is so, if Rodney says it is," Radek said. "But Rodney is a proud man, perhaps the proudest man I've ever met, and I think he would not want a top such as yourself to know his problems. Yes?"

"Is there something you know that you aren't telling me?" John demanded. Radek shifted nervously.

"It is Rodney's business," he said, finally. "That is all I wish to say."

John considered this for a moment, but Radek looked very tight-lipped, and clearly wasn't going to tell him anything more. John sighed.

"Okay - let's leave it at that then," he said, still none the wiser as to what, exactly, was going on with Rodney. Not that it was his responsibility to find out - he wasn't interested in taking the man as a sub after all. No, the only reason he cared was because Rodney was on his team, and John always looked out for the people on his team.

John walked back to his office, feeling unsettled by the day's events. For some reason he couldn't get the mental image of a pale, tired-looking Rodney McKay out of his head. The scientist looked like a man running on empty - and utterly out of control at the same time. John wondered what the hell was going on in the scientist's mind - from everything he'd heard, this wasn't typical Rodney McKay behaviour, and he could only guess at how much it had to be costing such a proud, arrogant man, to end up on that punishment frame time after time.

He remembered the way Rodney had stumbled, and how he had fallen against him, the warm solidity of his body against his own and the look in those blue eyes - combined sadness and a kind of guarded desperation. John felt his fists clench, and he sat down at his desk and slammed his hand onto his radio.

"Sergeant Bates - I'd like to see you please. Now," he snapped curtly.

Bates looked his usual clean, sharp self when he arrived a few minutes later, in stark contrast to the city's shambolic Head of Science, with his unkempt hair and scruffy clothes. Bates was every inch the professional soldier - parade ground ready, boots polished, everything shining. John gazed at him, wondering what the hell he was expecting to learn from this meeting.

"Sergeant Bates - I'm concerned about that punch Dr McKay threw at you in the briefing room," John said cautiously. "It seemed...kind of out of character. Dr McKay's main form of attack is his sharp tongue after all," John said, watching Bates carefully. "So, I was wondering if you knew of anything that might have set him off."

Bates frowned. "Such as, sir?" he asked.

"I was wondering if the two of you had argued recently, or if there was any animosity between you. I seem to recall making my feelings on that subject very plain right after the jello incident."

Bates shook his head. "I can't think of anything, sir," he said. "To be honest I've hardly even seen Dr McKay since that time with the jello in the mess hall. Our paths don't cross much."

John sat back in his chair and considered the sergeant, saying nothing, hoping that would un-nerve the other man. A minute passed, and Bates started to look uncomfortable.

"Why sir?" he asked eventually. "Has Dr McKay made a complaint about me?"

"No," John said slowly. "What makes you think he would?"

"Nothing, sir. Just that you seem to think there might be some kind of problem."

"And is there?" John raised an eyebrow.

"Not with me, sir," Bates replied, and there was something about the way he said it, with just the hint of an eyeroll, that made it clear to John that Bates was saying that if anyone had a problem it was McKay, and nothing whatsoever to do with Bates.

"So, you can't think of anything you might have said, or done, that would have caused him to punch you a few days ago?" John pressed.

"Nothing beyond what you heard in that meeting, sir. To be honest, I'm not sure that Dr McKay is coping very well with the pressure of life out here. You only have to look at his appearance - the man is a mess." Bates gave a conspiratorial little smile. "But then he's a scientist after all, not a soldier, and he's had no training for what we're facing out here."

"What are you implying?" John asked quietly. "Speak your mind, Sergeant - off the record."

"Well, we're in another galaxy, and we've come up against some pretty scary aliens, sir. I'm just saying that a lot of people might find that hard to handle and Dr McKay doesn't strike me as being the most stable of people. Maybe he needs fewer responsibilities. You have to admit that it doesn't look good when the Head of Science, the second in command on this expedition, ends up in the punishment room every week or so. Off the record...I'd say he was cracking up, sir."

"Really?" John pondered that for a moment. Rodney was certainly desperate - but cracking up? The truth was that John felt more confident about Rodney's behaviour offworld, with all that implied by way of scary aliens, than he did about the scientist's conduct in the city. Offworld, Rodney had been brave, committed, relaxed and even pretty good fun to be around - it was only back on Atlantis that he played up.

"Yes, sir. Honestly, I've got nothing against the guy but I have wondered if he needs psychiatric help. I mean - the way he threw himself at me in the briefing room? It was kind of extreme. You were there - I hardly said anything that warranted that kind of personal attack. My first thoughts are always for the safety of the mission and the people we're here to protect, sir." Bates nodded firmly and John had no doubt that he absolutely meant that.

"You think Dr McKay is a liability?"

Bates hesitated. "Well, nobody's denying he's very smart, sir, but yes...I think he IS a liability. If it were up to me, I'd bench him for a few weeks, take the pressure off him. For his own good and the good of the expedition."

"I see. Sergeant - I'm very much aware there was some bad blood between you and Dr McKay. Now, if you lie to me about this I will have your guts, Sergeant, and I promise you that it won't be pretty, but if you tell me the truth then you'll only get your ass kicked a little. I'm only going to ask you this once: have you bullied Dr McKay at any point since that day in the punishment room when I put you through your paces and made it very clear that he was deserving of your utmost respect?"

Bates's mouth set into a hard line. "No, *sir*," he practically spat. "I always follow orders, sir and you made your views on that day very plain, sir."

"All right then, Sergeant. I'll take you at your word. Dismissed," John said. He watched Bates go, feeling as if he'd got nowhere, and he couldn't shake the niggling feeling that he'd missed something. He slapped his headset again and called Corporal Hicks to his office. Bates was a hard nut to crack - but Hicks? Well, he was just a kid, and a pretty malleable one at that.

Hicks stood to attention in front of his desk a few minutes later and John sat back in his chair and surveyed him. He didn't give the corporal permission to stand at ease, and the blond kid started to flush under his scrutiny.

"Corporal, I'm going to ask you a question, and I want an honest reply," John told him. Hicks flushed even deeper and his voice croaked as he replied.

"I would always be honest with you, sir." There was a wistful look in his eyes as he said that, and John remembered how cute he'd looked on his knees, with his head down, utterly submissive. Yes, there was no way this kid would lie to him - and even if he did, John would see through it without any trouble at all.

"You hang out with a little gang in your off duty hours I believe," John said. "With Krettman, Bates and some of the others - yes?"

"Yes, sir," Hicks nodded but he looked worried, clearly uncertain where this was heading.

"Have you witnessed Dr McKay being harassed in any way recently?" John asked. Hicks flushed a bright red, and looked a little ashamed of himself.

"No, sir," he whispered. "And I apologised to Dr McKay about the way things were before. I didn't realise it had gone too far. I was just...kind of joining in but I can see that was pretty dumb of me now."

"What about Bates? Have you seen him harassing Dr McKay lately?" John pressed. Hicks shook his head vehemently.

"No, sir! In fact, I haven't seen them so much as say two words to each other since that day you, uh, made things clear to us in the punishment room, sir." Hicks was now flushing a shade that could only be described as vermillion. "Bates won't let any of the others say anything, either - he glares at anyone who even looks at McKay in a funny way, and he gets kind of angry if anyone says anything against McKay - even in private. I've seen him almost get into fights over that."

"Okay. Thank you, Corporal," John sighed. He dismissed the kid and sat back in his chair again feeling completely demoralised. There simply weren't any obvious answers here - unless he accepted Bates's assertion at face value that Rodney was simply cracking up. Both Bates and Hicks were singing from the same hymn sheet, and while he wasn't completely sure about Bates, he would bet his life on the fact that Hicks was telling him the truth.

It was Bates's behaviour that bothered him though. The man had just effectively briefed against Rodney, in the most subtle of ways, undermining him, calling his mental state into question, suggesting he be sidelined...and yet, Hicks was adamant that Bates not only didn't have a bad word to say about Rodney when they were alone together, but also that he wouldn't tolerate anyone else bad-mouthing him, either. It just didn't stack up.

John sighed - maybe there was some kind of obvious answer to all this in here somewhere, but if so, it completely eluded him. There was little he could do except monitor the situation, and hope that if there was an obvious answer, it'd eventually make itself so obvious that it hit him upside the head, because right now he had nothing.