When the king's guards return Colonel Sheppard to them, he's wearing a collar. He's also stoned out of his mind.
"Oh, crap," Rodney says, "not again."
"Commander-Doctor McKay," says one of the little underlings, "we are sorry for the confusion, but you really shouldn't let your slaves wander off like that. We found him in the armory. He could have killed himself!"
"Yes, that's probably true," Rodney says weakly. Sheppard smiles and rubs against him like a cat.
"He seemed upset," the underling goes on, "so we administered a stress relief. As you can see, he is much calmer now."
Rodney pushes Sheppard away from his ass. "It's in the collar, right? Enters the bloodstream through the skin?"
"Exactly!" The underling claps his hands together in joy. "You are so wise, Commander-Doctor McKay!"
"Yes, yes, gracious returns to you, Cheerleader-Minion. Tell me how to get the collar off." Sheppard submits to letting Rodney inspect the collar. It's a single strip of leather and has no visible release mechanism, not even a snap. Rodney gives it a tug and Sheppard relaxes against him, practically purring. Rodney would be creeped out if this hadn't happened about a dozen times before. It's like Sheppard has a radar for these planets.
"Oh," says the minion, "you do not want to remove the collar before it is done releasing its magic. It would be a great shock to the system. He could develop a nervous disorder! Or become angry and sullen like your other slave. Such a horrible tragedy."
"I like Ronon that way," Rodney says, safe in the knowledge that he and Teyla are waiting outside and won't hear him expressing approval of Ronon's social skills. "He kills people that annoy me."
The minion whimpers with happy submission. Eerily, Sheppard's doing the same thing, except much closer, and in Rodney's ear.
"Okay, do you have a pamphlet or anything? Aftercare for your chemically castrated slave or something like that?" Sheppard pushes his hips against Rodney's ass. "It was a metaphor," Rodney spits at him. "Hey, can you talk? Say something."
"Hi," Sheppard says, low and sultry.
"I swear to god this better wear off," Rodney says, pointing at the minion, "or I will send Supreme Scottish-Doctor Beckett to deal with you and he won't be happy!"
The minion shivers. "Once your slave is back in a familiar, comforting environment, the magic will dissipate. You may help to speed the process by showing him he is loved. Our Healer said this one is filled with fear and anxiety."
Rodney fucking hates these planets. Everyone on Atlantis is filled with fear and anxiety. Sheppard's just better at hiding it than the rest of them. It's his one true gift of leadership. Of course he's scared, but he doesn't talk about it. He just smiles, rides off with his nuclear bombs, and lets everyone think he's fine with it. And Rodney was fine with that, except now these backwater royals are making him think thoughts he doesn't want to think!
"Fuck!" Rodney says, storming out of the castle, Sheppard slinking along behind him.
Ronon and Teyla are waiting on the drawbridge that spans the empty moat.
Rodney crosses over to them. "The bursar says we can come back in a monat whatever that is, and pick up our grain. Sheppard's in chemical bondage again. I'd suggest not making eye contact. I think he takes that as an invitation."
"An invitation to what?" Ronon asks, staring at Sheppard.
"Do I have to draw you a diagram?" Rodney says as Sheppard drapes himself over Rodney's back, slipping a hand down the neck of his shirt. Ronon doesn't ask any more questions after that.
The fly home is quiet because Rodney requires complete silence when he drives and Ronon's snickering was getting on his nerves. Teyla's riding shotgun, and Sheppard's sitting on the floor between Rodney's legs, head resting on his thigh. Rodney'd tried to get him to sit somewhere else, like in the back with Ronon, but Sheppard just pushed his face into Rodney's leg and refused to move. He may look pliant, but he's as stubborn as ever, and here the collar proves to have at least one good thing about it. It's useful for grabbing him when he gets a little too familiar. Rodney's not much for self-examination, but having Sheppard's head between his legs is making him uncomfortably aware that he likes it more than he should. He tries to think of other things. Lunch. He likes lunch.
They're halfway to the gate when they hit a field of space junk. Sheppard's head pops up and the HUD engages, displaying an interface Rodney's never seen before. It looks disturbingly like a game of Asteroids. Completely without Rodney's input, the jumper starts shooting little energy pellets at the debris and vaporizing it. After a while it even starts making shooting noises.
Pew pew! Pew pew!
"How are you doing that?" Rodney demands. "Will it shoot at Wraith? I wanna play!"
Sheppard indicates a secondary joystick on the dash, then turns around to grin at him. Together they blast a clear path through the junk, and Rodney pilots them through, Sheppard returning his head to Rodney's leg with a satisfied sigh.
They make the orbital stargate and Rodney phones home to tell them that Sheppard's got to be put in lockdown again. It's not that he's dangerous, but the Marines probably don't need to see him wearing a collar and nuzzling Rodney's neck.
"He seems perfectly healthy," Carson, the hack, says and puts down his scanner. "As do you."
"Do you see this?" Rodney asks, gesturing at his throat and neck area where Sheppard's happily nuzzling away. Rodney had to get an exam too, just to satisfy Carson's prurient curiosity, since, as he pointed out, Sheppard doesn't seem interested in molesting anyone but him. In fact, Sheppard seems unwilling to be separated from Rodney at all.
"Aye, that is somewhat out of character for the Colonel," Carson says.
"Somewhat? Somewhat!" Rodney slides off the exam bed, Sheppard scrambling after him. "If you're not going to be any help --"
Carson holds up his hands. "What did they say about the collar?"
This is the part Rodney doesn't want to say out loud. "They said the effects would wear off as soon as he felt safe, and loved," he mumbles.
"Colonel," Carson says loudly, as if Sheppard's gone deaf instead of snuggly, "how do you feel?"
"Fine," says Sheppard, for once actually sounding fine, if a bit high.
"I say we give him a day, monitor his vitals, maybe it'll go away on its own." Carson shrugs, truly, undeniably, the worst doctor ever, in any galaxy.
"Fine!" Rodney says, grabbing Carson's scanner. "Don't sprain anything with your concern. If it turns out we're both going to die and you'd like to prepare us for the inevitable, we'll be in my room. I've got some new data on the jumpers to look at. You'll love it, Carson. They shoot even more things now."
Carson pales and Rodney sweeps out of the room. His exit is somewhat hampered by Sheppard's hand tucked in the back pocket of his pants, but he makes do.
In his room, Rodney uploads the flight data onto the network and gets Zelenka on the radio. "The jumpers can shoot energy pellets!"
Zelenka makes one of his happy Czech noises. "I will meet you in jumper bay."
"Uh, I can't," Rodney says, watching Sheppard prowl around the perimeter of his quarters. "I'm kind of, in quarantine, but I'll watch on the network. Don't blow anything up!"
Sheppard finishes his patrol and comes to stand behind Rodney, hands on his shoulders, thumbs just brushing the back of his neck. On the long walk back to the jumper, Rodney'd told him to stop with all the touching, and he had, for a few minutes, but he looked miserable, and he always ended up right back in Rodney's space, his fingers flirting with Rodney's beltloops or the buckles on his vest. Rodney had given up and accepted the inevitable, but now it looks like he's going to get a neck rub and no way is he crazy enough to turn that down.
Sheppard's thumbs brush up and down the back of Rodney's neck and then his fingers push up into Rodney's hair. Oh god, scalp massage! Rodney lets out an embarrassing whimper and drops his head back into Sheppard's hands. Oh, this is absolutely going to ruin him for the days Sheppard has control of all his faculties and no longer suffers from an irresistible urge to run his fingers through Rodney's hair, but god it's good.
The door chimes and Rodney abruptly returns to the real world.
"Oh! There's someone -- you should stop. Stop!"
Sheppard stops, but Rodney can see his reflection in the dark screen of the laptop and he's pouting. Rodney remembers what the minion said about making Sheppard feel...appreciated.
Rodney turns around in his desk chair. "I mean that was very nice. Thank you."
Sheppard gives him a private little smile and looks so much like his normal self that Rodney asks, "Are you feeling better? More, uh, like yourself?"
"I feel good," Sheppard says, which for him probably counts as a no.
Rodney sighs and gets up to answer the door. It's Teyla, with enough food to feed him at least twice, maybe three times.
"Food!" He's been so busy getting groped by Sheppard that he forgot about dinner.
Teyla smiles. "I thought that as you would not be able to attend supper, I would bring you a tray. There is no citrus."
"Oh, that's -- thank you," he says. "Come in."
She sets the tray down on the desk and moves over to Sheppard. She says something too soft for Rodney to hear, and then draws Sheppard's head down to hers until their foreheads touch. Rodney turns away and focuses on the food she brought. He's never been good with intimacy, even other people's. He eats one of the blue berries that taste like pineapple and have the texture of ground beef. He can't decide if they're delicious or disgusting. He reaches for another but the bowl's missing. He looks up.
Teyla's gone and Sheppard's right next to him again, holding out a berry and looking hopeful.
"Oh no," Rodney says. "I can feed myself, and so can you. Put that down."
Sheppard pouts, but Rodney doesn't give in, and they eat at Rodney's desk. Sheppard picks at his food, and Rodney shovels his in while checking the network to see what kind of progress Zelenka's making on the jumpers. None, it seems, as he logged off ten minutes ago without even isolating the subsystem responsible for the energy module. Slacker.
He shoves the last of the round cheeses into his mouth and leans back in his chair. On the other side of the desk, Sheppard's looking absolutely stricken.
"Sheppard," Rodney sighs. It's like having a child, or a pet, or a, a boyfriend. Rodney can't be responsible for other people's emotional well being. He's not equipped!
Sheppard puts his hand out, palm up, on the desk between them. Rodney gives him an awkward little pat and Sheppard captures his hand and smiles sadly at him.
"I guess we can watch a movie," Rodney says, like Sheppard had asked. "Or maybe some Ancient cooking shows?"
General O'Neill had only been there an hour before he figured out how to make the Ancient televisions drop from the ceiling, but the only programs available are cooking shows, incomprehensible sporting events, and something that looks a lot like Murder She Wrote. Also, they're only kind of in English.
Sheppard tugs him over to the bed -- "No funny stuff!" Rodney warns him -- and gets Rodney arranged so that Sheppard can snuggle up against him. It's nice, really, really nice, and Rodney puts an arm around Sheppard and strokes his back and it's obvious neither of them are watching the television, but otherwise they'd just be cuddling and Rodney would like to maintain at least a little plausible deniability.
"I hope you don't hate me for this later," Rodney says after a while. "I'm just trying to make you happy, even if it's not real."
"I don't hate you," Sheppard says, sleepy and limp with happiness.
"Oh, sure, you say that now."
"I'll say it tomorrow, too."
Rodney falls asleep to the sound of Sheppard's breathing, the distant babble of the television, and in the morning he wakes up to the toilet flushing, and Sheppard standing next to the bed and leaning over him.
"I don't hate you," Sheppard says, and kisses him. It's a short kiss, sweet and shy, and that's how Rodney knows it's Sheppard, even before he sees the collar lying next to him on the pillow.