Codes: McKay, Sheppard/McKay, Teyla, Ronon
Spoilers: none specific
Summary: He can still hear the beat of drums, matching the hard beat of his heart, and catching his breath, Rodney keeps running.
Author Notes: Thanks to svmadelyn for beta, commentary, and suggestions. All my appreciation, chica.
Warnings: Please see cut tag Warnings for warnings.
Warnings: violence and implied cannibalism.
He doesn’t know how long he's been running.
Forests are forests no matter the planet, alien evergreens reaching long arms into the darkened sky, dirt lousy with leaves and roots that catch his boots, the shadows too dark and the caves too deep. Every step takes him farther from the camp, breaking through fragrant, rain-wet fern and bushes draped in berries shining red as blood. Scratches climb up both arms and snake across his face from too-low branches and too many stumbles on unfamiliar rock.
He's not made for this kind of terrain. His world's been circumscribed by the four walls of a lab, bright overhead lights always on, clean tables stretching beneath his fingers, keyboards and microscopes and telescopes. A million miles from this.
Rodney drops against rough bark of an unidentifiable tree that spirals into the dark above him like it might go on forever. There's no moon to see from beneath the canopy of leaves, and suddenly, he wonders how far he's come. Without even the stars to guide him, he could have run for miles, or only feet.
An alien world, but the smells are the same, pine and oak, trampled vegetation sweet and astringent, the scent soaking into his skin and clothes, green stains on his hands and his knees from every fall. Wiping his hands on his thighs, he sees stripes of blood from rock-scraped hands. His mind brings up infection, contamination, but the thoughts won't stick, floating away with the thud of blood in his ears, instinct louder than intellect could ever be, *move* and *go*, *hide* and *run*.
He can still hear the beat of drums, matching the hard beat of his heart, and catching his breath, Rodney keeps running.
"I like it," Sheppard says with a grin, looking over the wide clearing, the neat circles of tents stretching out around them. Nice tents, too, as far as tents go, Rodney thinks, watching his scanner pick up fuck-nothing when seconds ago, there'd been *something*. This will drive him crazy.
The Elgesh remind him of Teyla's people, with more of the moving and less of the gathering. Hunters, he thinks, wondering if he should suggest that someone from the social sciences come out and slowly orgasm over yet another semi-primitive society, if a society that uses what appears to be generators for their lighting can be called primitive. The Pegasus galaxy threw the technological curve on civilization development in interesting directions.
The leaders that had met them seemed nice enough, and they'd bonded with Teyla and Ronon in a completely unsurprisingly turn of events, leaving Sheppard to wander after Rodney as he continued his scans, P90 carelessly tossed over one shoulder, like he didn't have a care in the world.
Of course, he could have it back in his hands and pointed at an enemy in less time than it took Rodney to breathe, so maybe careless isn't quite the word. "I don't believe this." Rodney controls the urge to knock the scanner with one hand, because Ancient technology doesn't respond to violence. Or so he'd learned. The hard way. "Something should be showing up." Coming to a stop, Rodney turns in a slow circle, watching the readings. "There's something here. I *saw* it."
Dark hair brushes against his cheek as Sheppard leans over his shoulder. "Sure you're reading it right?"
Rodney jerks away and forces down an inappropriate urge to snarl. "Go do something useful. Hit on someone. Better yet, maybe figure out where we're going to set up camp, because we're not leaving until I figure this out."
Sheppard just smiles contentedly. "I already radioed Elizabeth that we'd be staying the night. And for camp, we'll be staying with the nice people who invited us for dinner." Leaning against a tree, Sheppard's gaze drifts behind them, where Teyla and Ronon disappeared into a tent early on. "I could get used to missions where we aren't shot on sight."
Rodney has to agree, but he doesn’t have to say it. Grunting softly, he flips the scanner closed, giving the sky a glance. "It's almost dusk. Maybe it's solar activated or something. I'd know if I could *find* it." His stomach rumbles uncomfortably, and Rodney reaches into his vest, dragging out a power bar. "Any chance we'll be eating soon? Starvation setting in. Not good if you want me to find out whether this planet has a ZPM or not."
Sheppard grins. "Come on, let's find out."
Rodney lets instinct take over. It can't be any worse than the panic. Thinking is getting him nowhere.
Keep moving, stay out of the open spaces, duck when he hears a sound. Don't run through the bushes, that leaves traces, avoid the piles of leaves, keep in the shadows, run, run, run, don't stop, don't *ever* stop.
*Run*, and *move*, and *hide*.
Two hours, he thinks as he comes to a stop against the trunk of a tree, breathing a little too lightly for the way he's been running, like his body's not aware that he's never done *anything* close to this. Listening for the sounds of feet that he knows he'd never hear until they're too close to evade, he finds himself scanning the shadows around him. He's seen them move, slick and fast and careful, like shadows without substance, watched them change from people into something else entirely; he has no idea how he's gotten this far and not been caught.
"Right," he murmurs to himself, looking around, picking up the dark shapes of other trees, the slow incline of the land, the clearing just ahead bathed in silver that's temptation and danger all at once. "Right, right, stop, think, *think*," but no thought will complete, circling back to listening behind him for footsteps through undergrowth. Stargate, get back to that, but he has no idea where he is, how far he's come, sense of direction fucked to hell. Radio, lost miles back in a twisting pile of leaves he'd fallen into, and who the hell would he call? Stop and wait, that's so incredibly stupid that he can't believe it even made the list.
Rubbing his bloody hands against his knees, he controls the urge to move. Think, think, stop reacting, think, and when he moves, he's clumsy again.
He bites his tongue hard enough to taste the blood, shaking the fog for brief seconds of clarity. This is *wrong*.
"Don't, don't, don't," he whispers to himself, looking at the smear of blood he left on the rock. "Don't run, stop, think--" but his body's not interested in logic, and he goes along because it's not like he has any better ideas. Stargates and wide clean four-walled rooms, the soft hum of computers, high ceilings and bright sunlight, all like half-remembered dreams of a place he's never been.
It's *crazy*. They did something to him, they--
"Run," he hears himself say, staring at the silver-bathed clearing, the forest shadowed beyond. Something whispers he'll be safe there.
He believes it.
The Elgesh believe in feeding guests.
"We're honored to have you among us," the assumed leader says, the woman they'd first met, now less in the way of clothes, which Rodney approves of immensely, since she seems to come from the Teyla school of fashion, slit skirts and halter tops, though he admits the fact that the woman's skirt is considerably shorter.
That's a lot of leg. He likes primitive people.
Picking up his bowl, Rodney watches Sheppard, head tilted, listening to the man on his right while making his way through his second helping of stew. He can just overhear the conversation, which seems to be a description of bringing down something that seems to describe a boar two days ago.
Sheppard listens with every sign of interest, but Rodney's seen that same look turned on Elizabeth when she's marveling on the wonders of Ancient culture, so right. John's as bored as he is.
"We thank you for your hospitality," Teyla is saying, on her third bowl of stew. Ronon's he stopped counting at five. Reaching for another piece of bread, Rodney steals a surreptitious look at his scanner, still depressingly blank. Solar energy required, perhaps, or natural dampening effects from something around here. Tomorrow, they can explore farther, see if the rock formations they passed have anything to do with the problems in reception. "We have heard little of the Elgesh," she adds, and Rodney sees the woman's eyes flicker over them briefly, fixing on John, as women's eyes tend to do, before darting to Teyla.
"We keep to ourselves," the woman says, taking another spoonful of stew with careful fingers. Rodney wonders if they use utensils when they don’t have visitors--no one seems comfortable with them, awkward with bowls and strangely unsure with the ladle.
"You must, if the Wraith have avoided your planet for so long," Teyla says over a piece of bread. Rodney can hear the question in her voice. This place, this world, so much like Athos that even Rodney can see the similarities, but untouched by the Wraith. They don't keep a census, but there are thousands of tribes, and if this is any sample, their population must number into the hundred thousands..
The anthropologists would be happy, Rodney thinks blackly, staring at his almost empty bowl. A friendly hand refills it before he even gets the chance to ask, and Rodney's eating before the ladle fully withdraws, golden broth just salty enough, faintly tasting of chicken and herbs.
"The Wraith have no terror for us," the woman says with another too-wide smile, passing another loaf of bread to Ronon, who hasn't stopped eating since they sat down. Rodney doesn’t blame him. For something cooked over an open fire, it's amazing. "They--have learned how we deal with unwelcome guests."
"Oh?" Teyla asks, eyebrows raised. The conversation derails when one of the men comes forward, murmuring something in the woman's ear, and Rodney turns his attention back to Sheppard, vaguely surprised to see him on what seems to be his third bowl of stew. Huh. "Colonel?"
With a smile that doesn't hide his relief (at least to Rodney), Sheppard turns to him, looking absolutely normal except for the desperate look in his eyes that's better than telepathy. Yes, *just* like Elizabeth's lectures. "McKay?"
"Can you tear yourself away from dinner long enough for me to get some readings before we turn in?" Rodney asks, and Sheppard's on his feet so fast that Rodney barely sees the transition. Had he always been that fast? A hand closes around his wrist, pulling him up and with a few words directed to Teyla and the woman, Sheppard leads him away from the circle of firelight. "Toward those rocks we passed earlier," Rodney directs as Sheppard drops his wrist, missing the warmth in the cool night air. "I'm thinking natural insulation of some kind, since the readings stopped almost as soon as we got here."
"You think that's the source?" Sheppard points toward unwavering darkness. "More to the left if you want the rocks."
Rodney squints at the blank darkness. Nothing. "Your night vision's better than mine," he admits grudgingly, frowning at the blank scanner and pulling his vest closer. "This is ridiculous. Power doesn't just vanish."
"Hmm," Sheppard says, and Rodney looks up. It's almost too dark to read his expression, but there's a familiar twist to his mouth that's usually followed with running and shooting, or sometimes, really large spaceships. "You know, since we got here--"
"What?" Rodney prods, stumbling over a rock in the uneven ground. Sheppard's hand slides beneath his elbow, balancing him before he falls.
"Nothing," Sheppard says finally, but he's still frowning Absently, he lets go of Rodney's arm, unzipping the top of his vest. "It's a little warm tonight."
Rodney frowns at that, but his attention's jerked away by the sound of--something. A low, regular rhythm that pushes into the back of his head, making the bones behind his ear vibrate. Sheppard turns abruptly, hand jerking out to catch Rodney mid-stride, almost knocking him over. "Wait."
"What is that?" Rodney frowns back at the camp, the faint flare of light from the torches set up in a circle around the center. From here, the small, comfortable fire seems larger, somehow.
When he looks up, Sheppard's eyes are fixed on it. "That reminds me of something," Sheppard says slowly, eyes narrowing. Almost like he's being pulled, he starts toward the camp, dragging Rodney behind him like an afterthought. "I've heard that before."
"Hey, readings? Rocks? Did you--let go of me!" Rodney bats uselessly at the hand on his arm, pulling him a little too fast, just off his normal stride; he has to take three steps for every one of Sheppard's two. "It's drums, they're--probably doing some tribal welcoming dance or whatever. They all do. Now can we get back to--Sheppard?"
Like Sheppard doesn't even *hear* him. "Colonel? *Colonel*. What are you *doing*?"
"I know this," Sheppard says, moving faster--not quite a run, but close enough, and Rodney pockets the scanner, making himself keep pace, vague discomfort crawling out from inside his head, pushing at the edges of his thoughts like an itch. "It's--haven't you heard it?"
"No, unless you mean bad eighties rock. Can you let go?" Though there is something he recognizes in the low, pulsing rhythm, something that makes him not fight quite so hard, move quite so slowly.
The benches and tables were cleared away at some point--Rodney has a vague impression of movement in the crowd, as slow as the drum beats from the group gathered close to the main tent. Coming to a stop at the edge, Sheppard lets him go, hesitating on the edge of the light.
And the fire is bigger, Rodney thinks, taller than the tallest of the natives, and how did they get time to build it up that far? Were they gone that long?
"It has been many moons since we have had guests," the leader intones, and somehow, though Rodney can't quite wrap his mind around the *how*, she seems even less dressed than before, standing on the edge of a table braced against the tent.
Sheppard takes a step toward the ring of light from the torches, and that feeling again, discomfort and warning both this time. Rodney reaches out, grabbing his sleeve and pulling him back. "Don't."
The dark eyes turn on him. "What?"
"We honor those that went before us," she says, firelight gleaming off bare arms. Sheppard's gaze is jerked back to the group. The crowd seems to be growing as more of the camp drifts into the circle of firelight, and the drumming is faster, picking up the rhythm of her words, the bodies following in a slow, strange sway that's almost hypnotic to watch. Rodney tightens his grip on Sheppard's arm just as they both sight Ronon, a head taller than anyone else, but with the same look on his face that Sheppard has. "The choices they made that keep us free."
"Colonel," Rodney whispers, missing the next part of whatever the hell the speech is supposed to be about. "Something's wrong." With a jerk, he gets Sheppard's attention, eyes flicking back to Rodney, clearing a little in confusion. "Something--" At his waist, he feels the scanner hum. "Oh. Wait. The power source."
"Power source?" Sheppard says slowly, like Rodney's not speaking perfectly normal English. His eyes keep skipping back to the woman, her arms still raised, and Rodney can feel him moving--slowly, not quite like the crowd, but picking up the strong beat of the drums.
Letting go of Sheppard's arm, Rodney fumbles the scanner out, watching as the power levels spike. "What--it can't be--" Fuck, Sheppard's shifting toward the light again. Rodney reaches out, catching a sleeve just before Sheppard can get too far away. When he looks at the moving crowd, he thinks he sees a glimpse of Teyla, staring up at the woman with the same glazed attention as the others. "Stop that! What the hell is wrong with you? Power source, why we're here--" No clear direction. Like it's in the air. Or they're standing--
"Rodney, I know this," Sheppard says softly, and he jerks back, hard enough to throw Rodney off balance, fingers tearing the fragile fabric of his shirt. One step, then another, crossing the line of light, then Sheppard slows, stopping short outside the group, shaking his head. "I've heard this before."
"We're standing on it," Rodney hears himself say, watching Sheppard's body tense, turning slowly to look at him with wide, surprised eyes. Afraid, Rodney realizes, scanner forgotten as Sheppard slowly turns away, the drum beat getting stronger, louder, matching the sharp rhythm of the blood pounding in Rodney's ears. "Colonel." His mouth shapes the word, but it's impossible to hear, even if Sheppard had been listening. Rodney watches Sheppard hesitate again, like he's fighting that last step. "Colonel, don't--"
"You were asleep," the woman says, and the entire group goes still, drums stopping, leaving a silence so loud it makes Rodney's ears ache. Rodney feels--something--a coiling something, huge and thick, hanging just above their heads in the perfectly clear, perfectly normal night sky, and it pulls at him, too, tempting him toward the edge of light, and all on their own, his feet start moving, swaying toward it, whatever it is, like a favorite song, a familiar voice, home--
"No," he whispers, dropping the scanner, hitting his foot sharply, jerking him back into thought like a splash of cold water.
It's more felt than seen--Rodney feels it drop, his feet inches from the edge of it as it covers them, the entire clearing going so still he can hear the wind in the far off trees, the lone sound of an animal howling, a single leaf drop to the ground. An exclusion so sharp Rodney can feel it in his gut like pain, locking him out, the second the group becomes something else.
There are over a hundred people less than twenty feet away, but he feels completely alone, the drums starting again, faster and sharper, or maybe it's just the sound of their feet in the clearing, the way they all move. He can see Teyla, slim and fast, Ronon, dark and tall, face in shadow--and Sheppard, moving with them, among them, glittering and bright and alien, all of them, in a way they've never been before, strangers wrapped in familiar skin.
"This is how we remember what we are," the woman says, and Rodney keeps his eyes on the group, leaning down to feel for his scanner, stumbling and landing on his ass when he hits the edge of a tent peg. Stuffing the scanner in his vest, Rodney pushes himself slowly back, the sound of the drums working up into his arms from the ground, vibrating every bone, every muscle, a single thought flashing through his head as the woman brings her arms down.
"Now we hunt."
He's two thirds of the way across the clearing before his head clears.
Coming to a stop, Rodney draws in a short breath, then another. He should be tired. He should be fucking *unconscious*, his body's never had to do this, but there's the barest hitch of breath in his chest, the lightest pain in his legs.
He should be tired and he's fucking *not*.
The meadow stretches grey and black around him, colors washed to nothing by the silvery moonlight. All around is nothing but trees, dark and swaying.
"Hunt," he murmurs, forcing the word over instinct, exposed, move, run, faster, farther, don't let them catch you; it's like elementary school all over again, except nothing like it. "Hunting. What the *hell*?"
Hunting as in, you are being chased. Prey.
Christ, this isn't what he signed up for. "Fuck," he whispers, just to hear his own voice, drowning out the chant in his head. "Fuck fuck fuck, stop, *think*."
Straightening, Rodney forces himself to move slowly, adrenaline so sharp that every movement's too jerky, over controlled--his own body's fighting him, energy spiking by the second until he's jogging without even meaning to, already staring at the trees ahead, measuring the distance, how far he can get before the next time he turns, throw them off--
--keep moving, keep hiding, don't get caught, don't be caught out, not here, not here, not *here*.
"No," he tells himself and forces his feet still. "I'm not prey."
Though he seriously doubts that the people he's running from are going to see the logic of that one.
And it's so fucking hard to *think*.
Rodney pushes heels and hands into the ground, struggling backward, shedding his vest without meaning to as the group's movement sharpens, faster, focusing, pulling at the edges of his mind, the message as clear as a shout in silence.
*Join. Or. Run*.
The woman raises her arms again and all movement freezes, leaving only the fast beat of the drums to trickle off to silence. "Good hunting."
All eyes turn, moving as one, staring at him struggling on the ground, a single, powerful *something* focusing on him for a second that lasts forever. This, Rodney thinks suddenly, is every Discovery Channel special he's ever slept through, condensed into a single shining second of perfect fear.
Nothing human is looking at him from within that group, nothing familiar, no one he's met, no one he knows.
In front, Rodney sees Sheppard, staring at him with alien eyes.
"I'll find you."
Rodney's never moved so fast in his life.
Feet or miles later, he's not sure which, he's stumbling, finally, breath hitching in his throat, *finally*, exhaustion overcoming adrenaline, *finally*, and Rodney collapses against a tree, lungs burning and every muscle turned to water.
*Run* isn't as powerful when he can't even catch a full breath, panting into rough bark, not caring what kind of splinters he's pushing into his scratched hands, the rocks against his knees, this is *insane*.
"Stargate," he tells himself, but where the fuck *is* it? The forest is all the same, dark and green and thick around him, and there's no way he can follow his own tracks back, even if he wasn't sure that they were behind him, out there, somewhere. "Elizabeth," but she isn't real, nothing is but the dark curling around him, the need to move, hide, run until he can't anymore, whoever catches him--
Oh God, he doesn't want to know what comes next.
Pushing off the tree, Rodney stumbles to his feet, dragging in deep breaths, easily avoiding exposed roots, hidden rocks, blood-red bushes and slippery moss, water rising up around his ankles, chill even through his boots.
It's almost enough to make him want to think again, whatever's driving him clear for a second, just a second where an almost-idea clears his head--
*someone is behind you*
Rodney makes it to the other side of the creek when a body collides against him, knocking him into a tangle of fern and leaves. Rodney instinctively struggles, his hand sliding to his belt--*what happened to my gun?*--pulling the knife he's never used before today.
A hand traps his arm against the damp forest floor, the body settling over him and easily holding him down. Rodney stares up into Ronon's eyes, moonlight-silvered, and his breath catches in his throat.
Fingers work brutally into his forearm, fingers going numb around the knife--*were you going to use it? Against Ronon?*--and it falls to the leaves silently. Ronon bares his teeth, staring down at Rodney like they've never met.
"Ronon," he whispers, feeling the edge of a blade against his throat. Honoring those that came before, his mind offers up. Offering. No. Not right. Sacrifice.
There's enough moonlight that Rodney can see he'd lost his shirt somehow, smudges on his skin in patterns that look like symbols, chased up and down each muscular arm, across his chest, one high cheekbone. The blade presses closer, the tip pushing against the hollow of his throat, and Rodney can feel the second it breaks the skin, blood pooling hot on his skin around the cool metal.
Of all the ways he thought he'd die in the Pegasus galaxy--and there are a lot--this hadn't come *close* to making the list. "Ronon, what the *hell*? You *know* me. Get the fuck *off* me!"
That gets him a snarl, and Rodney's fingers feel for the knife again, scrabbling on dry dirt and slick grass, like there's any chance he can possibly use it. Instinct, his mind offers up helplessly as the blade presses closer. No one wants to die, not like this.
"No," he whispers.
"No," says another voice. Ronon's head jerks around, knife moving a not very comforting distance from his unprotected neck. Rodney follows his gaze and sees Sheppard slumped against a tree, breathtakingly normal and anything but.
"Mine," Ronon growls, like he's forgotten how to speak, knife moving back down, and Rodney shuts his eyes, because there's no way that Sheppard can--
There's a dull sound and something scrapes across Rodney's cheek, the weight off him so suddenly he forgets to move, opening his eyes to see Sheppard crouched beside him, close enough to touch. He looks--so normal, head tilted, mouth curved in an amused smile, but there's a knife in his hand and blood smeared all the way up to the hilt. His other hand rests just on Rodney's chest, palm pressed in silent warning. Stay down.
Rodney doesn't want to *think* what this means.
Ronon makes a soft sound, low enough to be a growl, raising all the hair on Rodney's neck. Rodney fumbles for his knife, jerking it close just as Ronon's boot comes down where his wrist was.
Sheppard gives him an approving look before his eyes flicker back to Ronon. "No," Sheppard says, reaching out too fast, swiping Rodney's blood from the cut on his throat. "Not him."
Rodney watches in fascination as Sheppard smears the blood across Ronon's forehead with his thumb, drawing another symbol into his skin. They---those are--
His eyes flicker to Sheppard, taking him in this time, dark spots on his chest and arms, the smears in patterns that his mind almost recognizes.
Ronon catches Sheppard's hand, drawing Sheppard's thumb into his mouth, licking away the blood with slow, deliberate strokes of his tongue, before he nods, then his head jerks up, scenting the air.
"Teyla," Sheppard says, not even turning around. Rodney watches in disbelief as she materializes from behind a tree like a shadow, circling Rodney's feet to drop on her knees by Ronon, knife flashing out.
Sheppard catches her wrist and twists effortlessly, eyes narrow. The knife falls on Rodney's stomach. "*No*."
Teyla frowns, gaze flickering between Sheppard and Ronon for a second before she nods sharply. Sheppard drops her hand, head tilting as she retrieves her knife, and her head lowers as Sheppard swipes another finger of blood, drawing the same symbol on one high cheekbone. Slowly, they all stand, and Rodney, gripping the knife in one shaking hand, slowly starts to sit up.
"What the *hell*--"
Sheppard's boot presses against his chest, pushing him back down with just enough force to get him groundward. "Stay down."
"Not even. Colonel--" But the eyes that fix on him aren't Sheppard's, as endlessly dark as a starless night.
"Stay. Down." His eyes flicker to Rodney's knife, almost amused. "Keep that."
"Was planning on it," Rodney murmurs, clutching the knife against his chest, but he stays down, and Sheppard's mouth curves in a brief, too-familiar smirk before his head turns, following Ronon and Teyla's gazes outward.
"They're coming," Ronon says softly.
A few long seconds of utter silence follows, then Sheppard's head cocks, boot moving from Rodney's chest. He flickers glances at Ronon and Teyla, like they don't even need words, then looks at Rodney. "Let's go."
Maybe they don't need language. They certainly don't seem to have problems communicating with just a look. They're faster, too, blinding speed that should scare him and doesn't; sometimes he can match it, and that doesn't scare him either.
Teyla and Ronon appear and disappear in the dark, but Sheppard's a constant, close enough for Rodney to trace the patterns on his back with his eyes when it should be too dark to see, even tell who did which ones--Teyla's smaller, finer fingers on some, Ronon's larger ones on others. All of them mean something, something he can almost grasp, flickering at the edges of his mind.
"Something's wrong," Rodney tells them, getting thoughtful looks for his trouble.
There are others in the dark, watching them warily, and Rodney can feel their challenge on his skin, waking up something inside that wants to answer it.
Sometimes, they come on Ronon pulling his knife out of an unfamiliar body, letting it fall silently to the forest floor, and Rodney watches, eyes wide, as Sheppard kneels behind him, fingers dipped in blood, painting another symbol onto Ronon's back. Rodney counts them once and then stops thinking about it immediately after, because the connection is clear enough even for him.
They leave the bodies in a trail behind them, a warning to those who track them. Rodney wonders why on earth anyone would want to follow.
He watches as Teyla and Ronon take down one together, silent and still in synch with each other. Another one. Another. Each one written into their skin with their own or John's fingers.
"Why do you--" But he stops there, with no idea what question he could possibly ask to explain this. He gets an interested look in return, but Sheppard would have pushed him to continue and this man doesn't, hand closing on his elbow to pull him faster.
The ground should be less familiar, but it's like they've been in this forest forever. Vivid colors even in the dark, green and red and gold, and he can *see* things, too bright, too rich.
There's a rhythm to this that Rodney can almost fall into, the one that's wrapped around Teyla and Ronon and Sheppard; he can feel the edges of it pulling at him, and if he doesn't stop to think, he falls into it; part of him wants to, reaching for it when he stops thinking, pulling back when he realizes what he's doing. Every time he does, Sheppard looks at him with the same thoughtful focus, almost--waiting?
Waiting, something like it, layers behind it that he can't quite touch. Teyla and Ronon and Sheppard move like choreography on impossible, unfamiliar ground, and when he's close to them, Rodney does it too.
That's how he sees the one that gets past Ronon, past Teyla, slipping through shadows, and he can feel Sheppard's sharp observation but no action. Rodney turns to look at him just as Sheppard steps away and an unfamiliar body crashes into his, rolling him onto hard, unforgiving ground, leaves crackling beneath him.
For a second, pinned on his back, he has no idea what to do. A glance around shows Ronon and Teyla, close enough to see, but unmoving; Sheppard, close enough to *stop this*, but still and quiet, crouching, eyes wide and dark.
And knowing, answering every one of Rodney's unspoken questions with a look. This one is supposed to be his.
"No," he hears himself whisper, but his body's already in motion. Rodney kicks, with no clear idea how he's doing it, jerking his knife up and out until it meets flesh, rolling them faster than he knew his body could move and bringing it down, catching the scent of fear and anger pouring from the man beneath him, overlaid with the scent of freshly shed blood.
This isn't him, but his body doesn't know that.
I'm not like this, Rodney tells himself, then cuts the exposed throat with a quick, efficient twist of his wrist, moving instinctively away from the spray of blood, surprised how easy it is. Rolling off, he comes up on his knees, staring at the knife in his hand, slick with blood, smeared up his wrist and over his shirt, waiting to feel something. It's not like he's never been responsible for a death, but it's never been this personal, close enough to watch the light fade from blue-green eyes, going dark and lifeless and silent and still.
Then Sheppard is kneeling in front of him, fingers pushing his chin up, fierce approval radiating from him like the heat from his bare skin. "Yes. Like that."
Closing his eyes, he can feel the brush of steel as Sheppard cuts off his shirt, then fingers, warm and wet, drawing something on his chest. Opening his eyes, he stares down at the almost familiar symbol etched into his skin as Sheppard draws away, looking up to see the satisfaction in Sheppard's eyes. Rodney catches the slim wrist, bringing the bloody fingers to his mouth and slowly licking them clean.
That feeling again. That hovering *thing* that's his team, reaching for him and into him and a part of him, welcoming him home with the first copper taste. Sheppard's other hand curves around his jaw, pulling his fingers free. Leaning forward, Sheppard's mouth touches his a fast, sharp kiss, with a bite to his lower lip that makes him gasp, then Sheppard pulls away and stands up.
He follows, legs unsteady, feeling Teyla and Ronon's pleasure, feeling *them*. They don't need language, he thinks, feeling drunk but clearer than he's ever felt before. They have *this*. He slots into place like they'd been waiting for him to catch up, a net of feeling/thought/memory, their confusion when he wasn't with them in the camp, something *missing*, of Sheppard hunting him through the forest, catching his scent on trees and stone and grass, searching desperately to be the first to find him, *ours, don't hurt, ours, don't kill, ours* when Ronon caught him, waiting, not quite him, not quite there, not quite theirs, but now, now, now….
"Oh," he whispers, and Sheppard nods slowly, mouth curled up in a smile before the nod, *move*, more coming, many more, *go*, run and maybe rest for a little while before they start again.
He and Sheppard take two more, and he knows what to draw on Sheppard's back, as easy as an equation on the line of his spine, matching the ones Sheppard draws on him. When he kisses Sheppard this time, there's nothing but warm satisfaction, a shock of pleasure like liquid metal that burns into the shape of Sheppard's fingers against his skin.
He feels high when they stand up, and he wants more.
They stop for a while to rest, and Rodney crouches while he cleans his knife on a patch of clear grass. Behind him, he can hear Teyla and Ronon spreading cleaned bones on the path behind him, a firmer warning than the first ones.
When he looks up, John's smiling at him, and Rodney closes his eyes as John reaches for him, licking the blood from his mouth.
They get quieter as the night goes on, falling into seamless rapport without even trying, so easily Rodney forgets he's supposed to fight this, or even why he should want to. It's like they are as a team, but better, brighter, focused in a way they've never been before. So much easier, Rodney thinks a little wildly, to *know* what to do, not rely on misleading body language and misinterpreted, imprecise words. The vivid night is fascinating; he's never been interested in the outdoors, but tonight, everything seems more real, the scents and tastes, the warmth of the woods closing around him, Ronon and Teyla tracking with cool deliberation, and John's single-minded focus guiding them, keeping them safe from the others.
The others watch, but they steer a wide berth now. Rodney can see them from the corners of his eyes, feel the edges of their fear, hiding in the trees, watching them go by, confused and uncertain and wary. He thinks they'd submit if they were sure John wouldn't kill them.
Rodney's not sure John wouldn't either. He's not even sure if *he* wouldn't, and it should be more frightening than it is.
"They don't move in groups," Rodney hears himself say when John falls into step beside him, sharp and painfully bright, glittering edges naked, the way he's never been on Atlantis. This is what he's always hidden, Rodney thinks, and feels John's slow smile and agreement, the warmth of his approval like a blanket. It's a dangerous feedback loop, Rodney thinks, the instinctive need to please their team leader.
"Noticed that," John murmurs, moving liquidly on the rough terrain, up a short, steep incline before pausing to wait for Rodney to catch up. "You'd think they'd catch on by now," he adds absently, and Rodney wonders about that, too.
"Maybe it's supposed to be solitary," he says as Teyla comes up behind them, Ronon a silent shadow beside her. "Maybe this wasn't supposed to happen to us." Prey, Rodney thinks, remembering how the leader had looked at them, the unfamiliar way they held utensils, her smile as she set them free to hunt. "We were their prey."
"They were going to hunt us," John says softly as he catches Rodney's thoughts, pausing when Ronon stops short, making a sharp left that they follow. Rodney thinks of the fire, the way they looked at him, and wonders how many John killed to get to him in time.
*Killed*. Rodney's mind plugs in for a vivid, almost painful second, because he just doesn't *care*. "The power spikes I saw started when you were--" There aren't words for what he saw. "Something in the ground at the camp."
John tilts his head in question, and Rodney struggles to frame the concepts into something understandable.
"I don't know how--but she was powering something." His mind offers up a thousand comic book scenarios of mind-control machines, and God, what he wouldn't do to believe that, to wrap himself in it as justification, but it's just not. He's still Rodney, the person he was on Atlantis, but it's like he woke up here, and the man in the lab is so many thousands of light-years from what he is now that he barely recognizes him. Before is a monochrome, sterile dream, slow and frustrating and he wonders how he lived before this, before his team, family, all the definitions and none of them, because there aren't words for what they are now.
"More coming," John says softly, and Rodney turns his head enough to take in the anticipation on John's face. "They're afraid."
Rodney can feel John's focus sharpen abruptly, pulling them in, rage that he never suspected lived below the surface of John's skin, pleasure in the chase, satisfaction in the finding, pure joy in his team around him, the undercurrents of a feeling that he knows now that John's searched for all his life without knowing it, never found until now.
"They should be," Rodney answers, equally soft, shifting his grip on the knife. John's been looking for this all his life, and maybe, Rodney has, too.
It's hard to think around John's focus, bright and sharp as a laser, cutting through logic and uncertainty like they don't exist.
Like there's nothing but here, nothing but now, nothing but--
"We need to get back to the gate," Rodney hears himself say eventually, the words clumsy and foreign on his tongue after hours of silence. Night is ending soon, and they'll stop--no idea why, but Rodney's body telegraphs it, some mix of instinct and whatever the hell is doing this to them. "John."
John stops short, looking back from his place beside Ronon, then eyeing the slowly lightening east, brows furrowed. "We can't--"
"--go back like this," Rodney says, feeling Teyla's silent agreement. "I know. But--we have to--Lorne is coming. His team. If we don't check in."
John takes that in for a second, and Rodney feels the flashes of John's too-fast thoughts. Lorne, here, and maybe a threat, maybe not, maybe they'll be able to recognize other Atlanteans, but no one feels real, not like their team. The worry underneath it, that they aren't controlling this and had stopped trying a long time ago. The worry that they're forgetting that they need to.
It's just enough to clear his head, pushing himself out of the mesh of thought, be himself for a second, and he sees John slow-blink his displeasure, thoughts coalescing around Rodney. "We have to get to the gate. If we can even find it."
Ronon snorts softly, and Rodney can feel his amusement on the edge of his thoughts. He can find it, they'll find it when they're ready, no pressure to do so now. Now is sunup and they need shelter, pulling on the edges of their minds. Daytime, rest, later, find it later, find the gate, later. Later.
A glance from John, and Teyla and Ronon scout ahead. John stays right where he is, watching Rodney warily. "You're afraid."
There's nothing for them to fear. No one on this planet can touch them. "Not--exactly." Afraid that they care so little. That he cares so little. That he knows they're doing things they would never do, horrific images that crawl up to the surface of their thoughts. He keeps thinking, what are we doing with the bodies? And he thinks he knows the answer. "John--"
"Care, I know, I don't either, but we *should*." The pressure sharpens, wrapping around him, almost physically painful. "Stop that. I can't--"
The pressure dissipates, drawing back, hovering tantalizingly out of reach; John's blocked him. The sudden silence is deafening, and Rodney opens his eyes on a distant Sheppard, not John, watching him with the cool eyes of a stranger. "That's petty."
And God, he can feel the things he's done this night crawling upward from the murk of his mind. He can't do this. He can't live like this. He can't--
Sheppard cocks his head, arms crossed incongruously over his chest, a parody of normality. "You're keeping us out."
"To *think*." Frantically, he grasps for them, Sheppard shifting away, holding the team away from him, dangling it like bait. "I need to fucking *think*, and I can't, I can't when I--" It's like a drug, that feeling, he wants it *back*, more than he wants to figure this out, far more than any indistinct concept of *Atlantis* and *home*. Every second stretches like an hour that Sheppard holds him like that, away from anything familiar, alone in a way he's never been before. John. *John*.
Sheppard crosses the space between them, light and easy and angry; Rodney can read it in his body language like a shout. A foot away, he pauses, still watching.
"You manipulative son of a bitch."
Sheppard's expression doesn't change. "You're shutting us out." For a second, he lets Rodney feel the gap he's left, ripped mesh edges of thought and knowledge and feeling, and Rodney *gets* that, can feel them in himself. Sheppard's this stranger he doesn't know and he *should*. "Rodney."
*Don't leave me.*
Then Sheppard lets it go, and Rodney grasps for it desperately, surrounding himself with his team, gasping in a breath, relief sharp in his throat, his chest, feeling whole again, the world coming back into focus. John's fingers slide around his wrist, rubbing a thumb into his pulse, *like this, us, all of us*.
"Come on," he says, head turning to the east. Rodney can see the rise of dawn, pink-violet and grey, just beyond the edges of the trees, feel the sharp taste of discovery, satisfaction from ahead. "Ronon's found a place."
They stop--*daylight*--thin and pale, short days, long nights, taking shelter in a cave. The forest looks different now, somehow wrong with too-bright green light filtering through the trees. It feels like home.
There's something they should *remember*--
Sheppard's hand against the small of his back is a command, and Rodney frowns but obeys.
It's darker inside, the farther they go back, moving carefully to avoid leaving signs of their passing. Perfect, comfortable dark closes around them finally, warm and safe, until Rodney's eyes adjust enough to see bare stone walls, the sandy floor. Ronon murmurs something soft against Teyla's skin, answered with a whisper, then Sheppard's pulling him again, pressing him down into soft dirt, dried leaves crackling against his back, running his tongue up Rodney's jaw before a sharp, brief kiss.
Yes, this. No, not like this. Not like--
"Colonel," he says, but the word's shaped wrong in his mouth and Sheppard--John's eyes narrow. He wonders, suddenly, why he'd even said it, what it means. "John."
John kisses him again, slow and dirty, teeth against his lower lip like a promise or a brand. Warm, callused hands slide up his sides, nails scratching new patterns into his skin that he can almost read.
"John," he breathes when the warm mouth settles on his throat, sucking bruises into his skin, growling low when Rodney twists his hands in John's hair, leaves catching between his fingers, smoothing away twigs and patches of blood, breathing him in, quiet forest and warm night and soft sand around them.
When he pushes, John rolls onto his back in a liquid sprawl, easy as a cat. Straddling him, Rodney traces the lines of one of the first symbols, just below the collar, then leans down, tracing it with his tongue. Salt-copper and warm skin, sharp sweat, dirt and leaves and night air, John, distilled, electric like a shock from an open circuit.
He touches every symbol, mouths the skin between, memorizing scent and taste, feeling John's satisfaction, the warmth of his pleasure in Rodney's touch. More than that--their teammates close enough to breathe, to feel, Ronon touching Teyla like this, hands careful on her body, learning the lines of muscle and the curve of bone, her low sighs at every touch.
John smells of a long night running, the forest around them, the lives they took tonight, of family and loyalty and beneath it all, something feral and familiar and *Rodney's*. Hands on John's shoulders, he pushes him down, teeth sinking into the thin skin below his ear, feeling John arch up in surprise and pleasure at the touch, nails digging trenches into Rodney's back when Rodney's teeth break skin, tasting blood.
"John," he murmurs into damp skin, licking John's taste from his tongue, John's hand in his hair pulling him back to his mouth, sharp teeth nipping at his lip, his tongue, his chin, pushing him onto his back and covering him with miles of warm, willing skin. Rodney wants to take, claim, make new marks that won't wear off, carve them into John's skin, into his own, *mine* *yours* *ours*. It's John, but somehow more, stripped to something elemental and incandescent, glittering bright above him like the moon on a cloudless night, and Rodney wants him so badly he aches for it, stripping off his own pants and reaching for John.
*Inside you* John's spit-wet fingers press, asking, and Rodney opens up, twisting his hands in John's hair when two fingers twist inside, *want*--
"Yeah," Rodney mutters, "yes, John--" *do it now*
It's so easy, how he works open for John, cock thick and hot and not quite slick enough, but the raw edges make it better. Rodney presses down to get more, wanting cock in his ass and flesh between his teeth, leave John marked and claimed for everyone to see. He draws patterns with his fingernails on the smooth skin of John's back, follows the symbols with the tips of his fingers, tastes John's low moans. He can feel *everything*, everything, sharp and clear like a drink of cold water on a hot summer day.
"John," he whispers, feeling the proprietary growl hum along his skin as John's teeth rake across his shoulder. He leaves fingerprint bruises in John's hips, scabbed bites on his throat, moaning his pleasure into John's shoulder when he comes, bright and shaking and so high he feels like he's flying. John comes seconds after on a thrust Rodney can feel in his throat, and he wants this, wants John and nights spent running and days like this between, wrapped in feeling and instinct and John's surprised happiness.
Rodney murmurs it into John's skin, tells him with his body when he straddles John, *mine, yours, ours*, and John stretches out for him, long and golden and says *yes*.
The night's cold; Rodney wakes up curled up against John's body, blinking blearily at the sight of Teyla pressed against John's other side, Ronon wrapped around her like a blanket. Animal warmth and reassurance in the slow breathing around him, the rise of John's chest beneath his head, the hand locked possessively over his hip.
Pack, his mind offers up suddenly, and he eases back into them, feeling Teyla's warm contentment, Ronon's quiet relief, John's sleepy, fierce joy in having him, having *them*. This, them, this place, his people. *Pack*.
It comes together with a kind of inevitable understanding, why they don't fear the Wraith. Rodney wonders why he didn't figure it out before.
Beside him, John wakes up, as sharply as an animal, disturbed by the rhythm of Rodney's thoughts. Pushing himself up on one elbow, he stares at Rodney, eyes growing slowly wider, comprehension slicking the surface for a second too long "What's happening to us?"
Rodney feels the edges of John's panic as he takes in what Rodney already knows.
John's breath catches. "We--we aren't--"
"No," Rodney whispers, feeling that uncomfortable knowledge welling up again, more sluggish, more distant, less real. He can see it in John's face, feel it in the restless stirring of Ronon and Teyla, the fracturing of their easy connection into glass-sharp points, razor edged and cutting, hurting.
Rolling onto his side, he pushes Rodney over, mouthing the back of his neck for a heart stopping moment. "I don't think I even--"
"--care," Rodney answers, closing his eyes, lacing his hands through John's against his stomach. Clarity comes with a price, and he's not willing to pay it, not now, not ever, not if he has to give this up. "They'll come for us," he says. Atlantis, he thinks, feeling John's instinctive rejection as much as his own, fear clawing up from somewhere deep in his stomach. Faces flash through his mind, Atlantis-Elizabeth-Zelenka-Cadman-Caldwe
Nothing they can't live without. It washes over him, through John in a wave of relief, and Rodney can feel Teyla and Ronon go quiet as it settles into them as well. Nothing at all.
Rodney relaxes into John's warmth, rolling over to press a slow kiss against his mouth, growling softly until John responds. "They won't find us."
Rodney thinks of the miles of forest spread over the planet, caves beneath the surface, picturing this world that's home the way no other place has ever been: that he knows to his bones.
John grins against his mouth, teeth sharp on his lip, his tongue. "No. They won't."