“Uh uh! No way!” Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard says firmly, stepping forward so he’s between Dr. Rodney McKay and the armed guards. “That’s not happening.”
“He stole from us, Colonel,” Manar, the leader of the Valian people, says equally as firmly. “This is our law and as visitors here, you’re as equally bound by it as our own people. How would you feel if Tibor here,” he indicates a young boy standing near him, “was to go to your city and just take what he wanted?”
“But he gave it back,” John says placatingly at the same time Rodney retorts, “It wasn’t like you were going to use it. You’ve got a half dozen of them just lying around like decorations.”
“They were a gift from the Ancient Ones,” Manar says reverentially. “We may not have use of them but they are ours nonetheless.”
“Of course you have no use for them,” Rodney snaps. “You don’t even know what they do, do you? On the other hand we can really use one. They’re called ZPMs,” he goes on, his voice taking on that not so patient tone he adopts when he obviously feels like he’s explaining quantum physics to not very bright toddlers. “Simply put they provide us with energy, something we really need right now and that you don’t.” He waves a hand around, encompassing the village, lit only by campfires and torches.
“It wasn’t yours to take,” Manar says officiously, and despite himself John has to agree silently. He wonders when Rodney is going to learn that they can’t just walk onto a planet and take something because they need it and the planet’s inhabitants don’t. The answer to that he knows is “never” so he just shoots a warning look at Rodney then turns back to Manar.
“It’s barbaric,” John says, trying his best to appeal to the humanity of these people but Manar just shrugs.
“There are two punishments I can choose,” Manar replies. “Because of our former good relations, I chose the less severe. Would you prefer I have Dr. McKay put to death?”
“No!” John and Rodney shout it at the same time and John spares a moment to put a hand on Rodney’s shoulder and squeeze gently. Rodney’s face is white and his eyes are wide, the pupils dilated, and John wishes more fervently than he ever has that they hadn’t dropped Teyla and Ronon off to visit with Kanaan and Torren on the mainland, that they’d brought a back-up team of Marines but the Valians had been nothing but friendly and welcoming before, Pegasus Galaxy hippies as Rodney called them, and there’d been no hint that their legal practices might be less than civilized. John and Rodney have no weapons. It’s common Valian practice to ask they be handed over on arrival and given back when they leave. It’s never been a problem before and the trade the Lanteans have managed to make for fresh supplies and herbal medicines have been deemed worth the risk. But what the Valians lack in technological knowhow they apparently make up for with a wide assortment of weaponry, culled maybe from their trips through the Stargate to other planets on so-called hunting trips. John eyes the guards surrounding him, each one holding either a crossbow or a gun and knows that for now the best they can do is try to talk their way out.
“It’s okay,” Rodney suddenly says. “I’ll take my licks.” He cants a sidelong glance at John that’s filled with fear but also resignation. “If it means we both get to walk away from this, it’s a relatively small price to pay.”
“Rodney, they’re not talking about a few switches with a ruler like your teacher gave you for talking in class,” John says.
“I never got punished in school,” Rodney replies with a hint of almost-smile on his face.
“If course you didn’t,” John agrees. “I’m just saying this is probably nothing like that.”
“I know,” Rodney says a little too readily. “Look, I did the wrong thing and I just want this over with so we can go home, okay? Just… just let me do it.”
“I can’t,” John replies forcefully but Rodney’s already stepping around him, sinking to his knees in front of Manar. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking up at the chieftain, “I accept my punishment.”
John barely holds his rage in check as the punishment begins. He fights against the hold the guards have on his arms and curses aloud as livid welts appear on Rodney’s bare shoulders and back in the wake of the lash. The minute Manar counts five, John finds himself released and he rushes to Rodney’s side, unbuckling the restraints holding Rodney to the punishment frame with shaking hands.
Rodney drops to his knees, head lowered, his breath wheezing through lax lips. “Only five?” he asks. “It’s over?”
“It’s over,” Manar replies, walking up to stand over them. “We’re not barbarians after all,” he says.
'Could have fooled me,' John wants to say but he buttons his lip. “We want our weapons.” He makes it forceful and Manar nods.
“They’ll be returned to you as soon as you reach your ship.” He turns to the guards and they move forward, making as if to help Rodney to his feet but John waves them off. “I’ve got it,” he snaps. He drapes one of Rodney’s arms over his shoulder, holding him up, trying to ignore Rodney’s small gasps of pain, then turns and walks out of the village.
“How you doing?” John asks, glancing over to where Rodney is leaning forward over the console of the jumper, his head turned to one side.
“Morphine’s looking to become my new guilty pleasure,” Rodney replies and John nods then reaches across and rubs his hand over Rodney’s hair. “Be home soon,” he promises. “Just hang in there, buddy.”
“Promise me we’ll never go back there again,” Rodney murmurs.
“So, you have a promise to make to me too,” John says two nights later when they’re safely snuggled up in Rodney’s bed and the Valian experience is starting to feel like just something that happened and not the nightmare it was.
Rodney moves forward, snugging up more closely to John’s chest and John lets his fingers ghost gently over the bandages on his back. “Not hurting you, am I?” he whispers.
Rodney shakes his head and gives a small sigh. “Feels kind of nice actually, sort of tingly. So, what promise?”
“You know what promise.”
“Oh, that one.” Rodney raises his right hand and places it on John’s chest, right over his heart. “Okay, I promise never to steal other people’s ZPMs even if all they’re using them for is table lamps.”
“Good.” John plants a kiss on his head.
“What will you do if I break it?” Rodney asks.
“Something you don’t even want to think about.”
“No sex?” Rodney asks, sounding aghast at the very thought.
“For at least a year,” John promises.
“As if.” Rodney snorts a laugh. “You’d never be able to resist my manly body for that long.”
“If it kept you from being killed or hurt like this,” John runs a gentle hand over the bandages again, “damn straight I would.”
“I love you too,” Rodney says.