My assigned author was argosy, and it was a real pleasure to remix her work. I knew as soon as I re-read "One Piece At A Time" that I wanted to tell John's side of the story; I wanted to fill in the missing time, when he was lost to Atlantis and all alone.
I'm really, really pleased with how the story turned out. I think it's the best remix I've done so far -- true to the source, but bringing something new and different to it. And this John just breaks my heart, but in the best way. Thank you so much, argosy: I loved writing this, and it's down to all the wonderful things in your original.
Title: One Peace At A Time (One Damn Thing After Another)
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Rating: R, for violence
Remix of: One Piece At A Time, by argosy
Beta: Thanks to miscellanny for helping out with no notice at all, and making the story so much better.
Summary: The day he woke up and counted seventy-nine blood dots on his calendar, John panicked. It was taking too long. Something had happened to his team. They weren't coming for him.
They were sitting in the mess, John's lunch mostly uneaten in front of him as he glared across the table. Rodney seemed oblivious, which was nothing new lately. John was about to start taking it personally.
"Three weeks, Rodney," and, yeah, John knew he was whining, but come on! He'd gone to all this trouble to make Operation Win-Rodney happen -- not to mention that they'd get to construct an awesome build-your-own airplane together, which was the best romantic smoke-screen ever, even if John did say so himself -- and Rodney wasn't even in the goddamn hanger yet, let alone getting onboard with the plan.
"Fine!" Rodney said at last, after at least ten solid minutes of John being as annoying as he knew how. Rodney rolled his eyes and stuffed the final three bites of meatloaf into his mouth all in one go, and then surged to his feet. "C'mon 'en," he said around the mouthful, giving John a flash of half-chewed food in the process.
John ignored the slob factor with the ease of long practice, beaming at Rodney in the heady rush of victory. As they headed for the door, he put his hand in the small of Rodney's back -- because he totally deserved a reward for all that work -- and nudged Rodney along before he could change his mind.
"How long is this going to take?" Rodney grouched, but it was all bark as he was still moving along at John's side happily enough.
"Well," John said, buzzing with anticipation, "at a guess I'd say less than three weeks."
"Oh, let it go already," Rodney replied, and then his elbow jerked hard, knocking John in the ribs...
... and John woke up in the dark, groaning into the musty mattress, one arm protectively wrapped around his aching ribs, and fuck, that hurt. Rodney could hurry up with the rescue any time now, that slow, sorry sonofabitch. What was taking him so long? Had he stopped for coffee on the way or something? Decided to take a few days off?
John let out a careful breath, and when his chest didn't hurt too much, gingerly rolled over to face the cell wall.
It was almost too dark to see, but a couple of the glow-bug things were scuttling around chewing on the mattress filling and bringing the ambient light up to somewhere around dingy. They'd freaked John out at first, with their constant clicking and scuttling, going about their business every time the too-bright overhead light went out, but now he was just grateful not to be in the dark. Also, he was pretty sure the guards had no idea they were in here -- they weren't the type to cut someone a break, no matter how pathetic and creepy that break might be.
He carefully nudged one of the bugs aside, and then slid his hand to the edge of the mattress, dipping it just enough so that he could see the tiny row of dried blood dots hidden in the crack where the wall joined the floor -- twenty-three now. Which meant he'd been here three weeks, maybe.
John had no access to natural light or any way to tell the time other than through the rhythms of his body, not that that was very reliable at the moment. The Sith -- they wore stupid cowled robes, okay, and also looked like freakishly wrinkled mutants whenever he caught a flash of skin -- kept beating him until he passed out, so his calendar could be off by anywhere up to a factor of a week or more.
Still, crappy though the calendar was, it was better than nothing, and John needed all the psychological advantages he could get. He carefully ran his unbroken pinky through the still-tacky patch of blood in his hair, and daubed on another spot. Twenty-four.
And fuck McKay's rescue anyway, that two-faced, piking asshole. John was just going to have to rescue himself. Just as soon as he figured out how.
They were sprawled on the cell floor, waiting for Atlantis to negotiate their release. Ronon had curled up into a ball and gone to sleep, but John was too hyped up to try that.
"This is all your fault," he said, because needling Rodney never got old, even when they were stuck in a cell together, waiting around with nothing else to do for hours.
Thirty-seven dots, now, but when John went to add a new one, he found the most recent in the series was still tacky, even though he had no memory of adding it.
"Oh, shut up," Rodney bitched right back. "If you hadn't flirted with that Shaman in the first place--" and they were off and racing, Teyla looking on with amused tolerance from the sidelines, as John pointed out it wasn't his flirting that had made the Venalis decide they were good candidates for ransom, and Rodney huffing indignantly that he couldn't have known that eating a power bar would fill these people with unquenchable avarice.
"Mmmm. Stale bread again," John said to the particularly bold bug curled up on the mattress's giant blood stain. "Want some?" It waved its antenna in an interested way, but when he put a crumb down, the bug sniffed it briefly, and then turned around and scuttled off.
"Yeah," John said. "I don't blame you, buddy."
After they'd chewed all the meat out of that topic, they moved on to twenty-questions (and, no, Chaya was not a vegetable, Rodney, let it go already. Jesus). Followed by a tournament of staring which Rodney claimed he'd won, even though it had totally been Teyla's snake-eyed stare that had psyched them both out (it is not cheating, Rodney; you did not inform me of any rule which said I could not partially close my eyes). And then he and Rodney had settled into one of their familiar Star Wars discussions...
"Tell us how to get through the security door which covers your Ring of the Ancestors." Darth Noxious said.
"Never," John said, ignoring the terrible pain in his fingers, and the way they wouldn't move anymore. "I'll never join you."
And then the rod came down again, this time on his foot, and he could hear the crunch of bone as it made contact.
"No! Luke can't be your favorite!" Rodney said, "You're disintegrating my world-view. Han Solo was a pilot. He had rakish hair. He was cool."
John just shook his head tiredly. He was so tired. "I know who my favorite is, Rodney."
Somewhere inside the wall, close to where he was resting his head, he could hear the skitter-scratch of something hiding in the dark, and when he closed his eyes, he could no longer feel the warm press of Rodney's knee against his thigh, and the air smelled musty, like old mattresses and bugs.
The people of MXG-641 had an alien princess they wanted John to marry.
"No," John said, fire-ants doing a dance in his belly and all up and down his spine. "No way in hell!"
"I do not understand," Teyla said. "They are offering--"
"Nothing I want to buy," Sheppard said, the taste of blood familiar in his mouth.
They'd bought in a new Sith to play good-cop to Noxious's bad-cop. It seemed that whatever tech they had used to hide him from Rodney, it wasn't advanced enough to force John to do what they wanted. So now that they'd softened him up a bit with old-fashioned torture, they were trying to get him to play their game through coercion.
"Don't you want the pain to stop?" the new Sith -- Darth Avarice -- had whispered in John's ear. "I can make it stop. I can make you feel good, so good. Don't you want to feel good?"
"There's nothing wrong with her," Rodney insisted. "And even if there was, you never have to see her after today. Did you smell the chocolate? Chocolate, Sheppard!"
Teyla nodded. "The Frolians have agreed to a very generous arrangement, John. We will be glad of the Tsika grain come winter."
It wasn't fair that they were ganging up on him like this. "I just think we should start thinking about these things more. Maybe we shouldn't take marriage so lightly." He stared hard at Rodney, because if there was one thing Rodney could be relied on to do, it was to be jealous of John's virtue. And sure enough...
"You're involved with someone on Atlantis, aren't you?" Rodney said, looking betrayed. "Who? And why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm not seeing anyone!" John snarled. "They want my semen to make lots of nice little gene-enabled babies. I'm thinking that's not a good thing, Rodney. What's so fucking hard to understand about that?"
Rodney continued on as though he hadn't heard a word John said. "Oh my god." He waved his hands wildly. "You're in love. You are, aren't you?"
"Shut up," John said, and opened his eyes so he wouldn't have to see the moment Rodney got it, finally got it, and started to pull away.
Darth Avarice was leaning over him, whispering in his ear. Her breath smelled sweet, like slow cooked onions.
John lay as still as he could and concentrated on breathing: in, two, three; out, two three.
After a while the whispering stopped, and the pain started up again.
The night they installed the plane's rudder cables, and the aileron controls, and had worked their way up to the engine mount, Rodney finally seemed to be on-board with Operation W-R. He'd been letting John touch him for a while now; no, he was more than letting it happen, he actively leaned into John's hands, and sighed quietly whenever John moved away.
So when Rodney wrenched his side removing a stubborn bolt, John didn't even hesitate; he slid his hands over Rodney's tense shoulders, the way he'd been wanting to for weeks, months, and dug his thumbs into the knots of muscle.
Before he could go any further, Rodney flinched away, and for just a moment there were fire-ants marching up John's spine, and then Rodney gave one of his sweet, lopsided smiles and said, "Hurts," shrugging a little and wincing.
"Idiot," John said fondly, and began massaging his shoulders again. And that was the moment -- with Rodney's skin warming John's palms despite the layer of cotton between them -- that John decided it was time to make his move.
The day he woke up and counted seventy-nine blood dots on his calendar, John panicked. It was taking too long. Something had happened to his team. They weren't coming for him.
And worse than that, with a terrible clarity he knew what the Sith were doing: they were making him doubt. Keeping him unbalanced and in pain; hammering away at the trust he kept clenched hard and small in his chest; making him lose hope, one sliver of hard-won peace at a time.
The day of dot eighty, he lay on the floor, feigning a blurry lethargy that was only one short, frightening step from reality. Two of the robed guards stepped forward and lifted him up, one on each side as usual, the other two standing several feet away and watching, always watching.
John stayed slumped and still in their grip all the way to the dungeon; let them drop him down into the torture seat without so much as a twitch; did nothing as they looped the straps around his wrists; and then, just as they were tightening the slack, he kicked out with both feet at once, ignoring the sharp crack of pain in his left ankle and the way it made his head swim. One guard dropped, gurgling and clutching at his crushed throat; the other spun away and fell to the floor, unconscious or close enough. The next two guards were there before their comrades had fallen, raising their rods, aiming at John's ribs and legs, but John was already spinning the chair so the rods came down -- thump, thump -- on the hard side struts, and before they had pulled back to strike again, John lashed out with the hardened leather straps still looped around his wrists, taking one in the eye, the other in the balls -- they both went down fast, one of them screaming.
It was all speed after that; sprinting down corridors, following the mental map constructed piece by piece as they'd dragged him back and forth from his cell. He turned the final corner, and there it was, straight ahead -- the guard station, and beyond that the lift to the surface, and yes, right where he'd expected it, some kind of hybrid Ancient control console.
He ran as hard as he could, ignoring everything else -- the cold sweat coating his skin, the way his heart was rabbiting way too fast, the corkscrews of hurt all down his left side every time his foot came down -- all his focus on getting his hand on that console, and he was nearly there -- three strides, two -- and then his head exploded with pain, and his knees buckled. He skidded to the floor, coming to rest against the edge of the console as a large black boot came hurtling towards--
John couldn't quite believe this was finally happening. He and Rodney were alone in his quarters, having dinner. And sure, John was temporarily a woman, which hadn't quite been in the original plan, but Rodney seemed to like it, so what the hell. It'd be a first time to remember, assuming Rodney didn't die of nervousness first.
"You, ah, got the chicken-thing," Rodney said, sniffing at the food as though it was about to leap up off the plate and shove a lemon down his throat.
John reached out and touched his arm; it was nice to just be able to do that now. "You okay, buddy?" he said, rubbing a little to let Rodney know everything was okay. Together they'd get through the strangeness, and then, John was pretty sure, it was going to be awesome.
Except Rodney was starting to look really flushed now. Maybe he was sick -- that would just be typical of John's luck, but it would explain why he hadn't touched his food. "Rodney?"
"I'm fine," Rodney said, and John let out a breath. Maybe it was just nerves after all; he rubbed Rodney's arm again, hoping that would help him relax the way the massage had.
Rodney stared at John's hand, then at his breasts, and John was leaning forward, hoping to steal a kiss, when Rodney leapt up from the table and said, "Go! That is--me." He made a flailing gesture at the door and backed up another step. "Simulation. Very important."
"Okay," John said, trying not to look too disappointed. Just because Rodney wasn't ready yet didn't necessarily mean he'd changed his mind.
"Right," said Rodney. "Simulation. I'll just be."
And after a round of the most inane good-byes ever, Rodney fled the room so fast he practically left skid marks.
"Well, fuck," said John, poking sadly at his plate of chicken-thing, which had already congealed into an unpalatable mass.
John stopped marking the wall after dot eighty; there didn't seem much point keeping track anymore. He was missing three teeth, and most of the feeling in his left foot, which was probably a mercy, and all he had the energy to do was lie curled on the mattress in the dark, letting the tides of pain wash in and out.
The next time he opened his eyes, Rodney was there, sitting next to the infirmary bed, hunched over his laptop.
"Rodney," he said, his voice raw. He reached out a hand; his fingers were still bruised black and broken, and his hand was shaking.
Rodney continued to type away a mile a minute, as though he hadn't heard, as though he couldn't read the unspoken plea written in the empty palm of John's hand.
"Are you mad at me?" he asked.
"Yes," Rodney said, never looking up from his work. "You're being a moron. I know you like to pretend you're as stupid as your hair makes you look, but you're taking it to suicidal levels. So, yes. Yes, I am mad at you."
"I tried," John said.
Rodney finally stopped typing. His eyes were glowing bright blue in the dim infirmary light. "Well try harder. You're not making proper use of your resources."
"I don't have any resources," John said, but Rodney was gone, and in his place, two glow-bugs were on the wall, feeling each other up with their antennae.
The next time the guards came, John waited until they were close, and then reached into his hollowed out mattress, pulled out a handful of glow-bugs, and threw them into the guards' faces.
It was only meant as a diversion, just to give him a fighting chance, but his reflexes were shot to hell and he wasn't even all the way to his feet when the bugs hit, and in the end that saved him.
The bugs bristled and swelled in the bright overhead light the guards always turned on when they came for him, and John caught a glimpse of true terror on the nearest guard's face, and then the bugs started shrieking like a dozen boiling kettles.
And then the room blew up.
A moment later, John found himself lying in the corner, still clutching the mattress-sack full of bugs, and there were bits of guard scattered all over the floor.
"Yuck," John said, flicking a finger off his knee. The urge to laugh was strong -- exploding bugs! -- but John was pretty sure if he started he wouldn't be able to stop; he was in too many pieces now, and it wouldn't take much for him to break apart like an undone jigsaw.
Instead, he forced himself to move, crawling over to the body of the furthest guard, who was mostly intact. He rolled the body over onto its back, and found that the woman was still alive, her eyes wide open, and blood bubbling at her lips. A piece of bone was sticking out of her chest, but her robe was dark enough that the spreading blood didn't really show.
Ignoring her flailing hands, John rolled her out of the robe and put it on; then he picked up his mattress-sack, said, "It's been a slice," and walked out of the cell.
It was all a bit of a blur after that -- explosions, screaming, blood -- and then the Ancient control console was cool under John's hand. A second to find the self-destruct, another to set it for fifteen minutes, and then, without looking back, John dropped the empty mattress-sack on the floor, stepped into the lift. Went home.
He mostly thought it was a dream at first: Lorne, grimly waiting for the word so he could wreak bloody vengeance; Keller, gently dressing his wounds and giving him the good drugs; Teyla and Jara telling him stories and stroking careful fingers through his hair; Ronon like a silent sentinel, watching over him at night.
The thing that finally convinced him he was really on Atlantis was that Rodney wasn't there as much as he had been before, inside the prison cell, inside John's head.
So when John woke to find Rodney sitting next to the infirmary bed, hunched over his laptop, he said, "Rodney? Are you mad at me?"
"What?" Rodney said, looking guilty and offended at the same time. "No!"
"Because you were acting kind of mad at me. You know, before." Before he'd been kidnapped; before he'd escaped.
"I'm not mad at you," Rodney said, and he sounded like he meant it, maybe.
John cautiously stretched out his hand; palm up, empty and shaking.
Rodney reached back without hesitation, his fingers cool and familiar, and he held onto John just as tightly as John held onto him. It was worth the twinge of pain, and John had no intention of letting go.
The day John could walk again, Rodney hustled him off to the South Pier and the box-like hanger that housed their plane.
"Look," Rodney said, fidgeting with embarrassment. "I didn't know if I should do this, but..."
A warm, happy feeling started to spread through John's belly. He could feel his face splitting into a smile the size of the sky.
"Oh, hell," Rodney said, and waved open the hanger doors, "I finished your plane."
And sure enough, there it sat, just the way John had pictured it in his mind: sleek and silver and ready to fly.
John stared and the world spun around him, feeling too perfect for one horrible moment, and he listened hard for the skittering sound of bugs, waited for the taste of his own blood in his mouth... but there was just the wind and Rodney babbling a mile a minute about Ronon's obsession with the riveter and something about tar and a runway. John walked around the plane, letting Rodney's voice wash over him, feeling the bumps of the rivets, the chill of the metal.
He ducked under the wing and went over to Rodney, who didn't hesitate, didn't flinch away from John's touch; when John hugged him, he wrapped his arms around John and held on as though he wanted it too, and for a moment John thought, this is good; I can live with this, but it didn't really sound like his thought. It sounded like Noxious, like Avarice, like losing... so John pushed away doubt, and leaned forward, hoping to steal a kiss.
Rodney's mouth opened hot and eager against John's. He kissed back as though he'd been waiting forever to do this, just this, kissing John as though he was dying for want of it. John kissed back, just as hot, just as desperate, falling into it, enjoying the way Rodney sighed beneath his hands and rubbed against his thigh.
"Oh, thank God," Rodney said when they eased apart, panting for breath, and John laughed and rubbed their cheeks together, before kissing Rodney again, this time slow and easy, getting high on it; clear blue skies wheeling overhead, their plane next to them, waiting to fly, and John was finally home, all the pieces of his life coming together -- Rodney's fingers in his hair, his own name whispered in his ear -- everything clicking into place as something small and hard inside his chest unclenched and let go.