"What are you in for?"
The disembodied voice floated to him from the other cell and Rodney rolled from his cot and came to the front, pressing hands against the bars. There was a mirror held in a hand out to him and Rodney could just see the reflection of a green eye, smooth forehead and tousled brown hair. He wasn't sure he felt like talking. His eyes were burning from the delousing treatment and the fire hose shower and he'd only just managed to drag on his regulation pants and itchy shirt.
He wasn't sure he had enough energy for that conversation.
"Are we supposed to talk?" he asked instead, watching the eye crinkle in derision and wondering what the rest of the man attached to it looked like.
"They don't really care. As long as we aren't yelling or wrecking the cells. They like to keep us calm."
"Oh, right. I suppose that would make things easier," Rodney replied amiably, secretly wanting to scream that he didn't belong here, how the hell did he end up here at the top of his lungs.
"So...?" he was prodded and Rodney sighed.
"You haven't even bought me dinner," Rodney quipped and heard the other man sigh before the hand with the mirror disappeared and there was the squeak that meant he'd lain back on his bunk.
"Great, a wiseass," he heard muttered from the other side of the wall.
The set up of the cell block meant that when his neighbour was taken for a shower or out into the exercise yard for the precious half an hour of daylight they were allotted that day, Rodney never saw him. He had to wait until he was taken out to try and catch a glimpse and only got the impression of a long, lanky frame and wild dark hair before being hustled passed. When he was brought back in, the man was lying down again and so Rodney could only see his feet.
"So, what are you in for?" Rodney prompted, threading his arms through the bars at the front of his cell and leaning heavily against it.
"I'm innocent. Lawyer screwed me," the man non-answered and Rodney rolled his eyes. The mirror had been discovered and confiscated the day before and he didn't even have the green eye to look at.
Apparently the guards were worried about suicide, which was ludicrous given the circumstances.
"I don't even know your name," Rodney said, leaning forward to inscribe a large 'O' on the floor. His neighbour had come up with chalk from somewhere and although they weren't close enough to actually play on the same grid, they'd both drawn a noughts and crosses game outside their cells and would copy each other's moves as well as their own.
Rodney didn't know why his heart had warmed so much when the precious piece of chalk was broken in half and the bigger piece rolled across the floor and into his waiting hand. He was waiting for the Guards to tell them to stop writing on the floor but all four men on duty were gathered around the desk at the end of the cell block, playing poker. There was the smell of cigars in the air and although Rodney didn't usually smoke, it was something that free men did and so for once in his life he desperately wanted to.
"John," the man answered, first inscribing Rodney's 'O' into his own game square and then placing an 'X' of his own. The chalk was green and his fingertips were now coated in the dust.
"As in Doe?"
"As in Sheppard."
"Shepherd?" Rodney copied the 'X' and then paused, his hand hovering.
As if John could tell Rodney's spelling from his pronunciation, he said, "Not the sheep kind. Sheppard, two P's."
"Oh, like this?" Without thinking about it, Rodney scrawled the name across the top of his game.
"Yeah. What's yours?"
"Rodney. Rodney McKay."
"Mac-Kay." John said as he wrote it out and Rodney watched and then grunted.
"No, M.C, capital M, K.A.Y." Rodney corrected and watched in fascination as the arm pulled back into the cell, only to emerge and then the thumb rubbed over the extra 'a' and the lower case 'K' and made the correction. Rodney realised that John had licked his thumb to make his edit. The hand drew back and rested just outside the bars and the tip of the thumb was still wet. Rodney let his forehead thunk against the bars in front of him, knowing that it must have been a long time if that was sexy.
He hadn't even seen John properly yet.
Rodney was pressed against his cell wall, feeling the vibration through the cement and stone every time John's body hit the side. The Head Guard had called in sick and they were left with two younger guys and two floaters from cell block D. All four had had the look of the stupid-mean and when they'd approached the cells about three hours into their shift, Rodney had heard a low murmur, almost like a prayer.
"Pick me, you assholes."
Rodney hadn't been quite sure what he'd meant until the men stood outside the cells, looking from one to the other as if making a choice and Rodney had suddenly understood. Just before he retreated to the back of the cell, he'd seen those lightly muscled arms that he'd gotten to know over the course of the last three days thread through the bars and rest lightly.
"You boys want something in particular?" John had asked, his tone jovial. "Something you're not getting from your sisters at home that is?"
All four pairs of eyes had swung in John's direction and with that, the decision had been made. They could explain away one man getting beaten half to death but not both and John had forced their hand.
There'd been cursing and harsh cries but nothing from John. Rodney knew, although how he wasn't quite sure, that John wasn't the type of man to take a beating lying down. When John was dragged from his cell, Rodney finally got a look at his face but it was covered in blood, masking the features. The one guard that wasn't involved in hauling John away down the middle aisle of the cell block looked at Rodney, wiping at his bloody knuckles with a monogrammed handkerchief that he'd pulled from his top pocket.
"You got something to say as well?" he snarled and Rodney shook his head quickly.
Rodney was mystified, considering what was scheduled to happen in three weeks, where his sense of self-preservation came from.
"Why did you do that?" Rodney demanded when John was manhandled back into his cell four days later.
"I was bored," John sighed and Rodney wondered how he could have missed and feared for someone who he'd only known for a handful of days.
"What do you think it's like?"
"Death. After, y'know."
"Well, that's terribly morbid of you."
Rodney watched as John's hands made a self-deprecating gesture and he wondered at the marvel of being able to tell such a thing from just hands. He'd spent a lot of time looking at them and figured he knew them as well as his own. He knew every line and contour on the back and palm. Square nails, dark hair that actually reached the knuckle and pale skin underneath.
He had thought it a travesty that these hands were pale. They looked like they should be tan, belonging to a man who lived on the beach and worked on boats and touched a wife in the dead of night.
"I don't know," he sighed. "I've had this recurring dream about a city floating in the middle of an ocean and I'm respected and have a lot of people around who care for me. I'd like to think it's kinda like that."
"Wow," John breathed and Rodney watched as the hands clenched and then flexed. "Your afterlife sounds nice. Mind if I tag along?"
Rodney grinned at the absurdity of it all. "Not at all," he assured, imagining the lanky and wild haired John Sheppard in his shining city and thinking that he looked at home there.
He liked his lawyer a great deal but thought she was at best being overly optimistic and at worst horribly placatory.
We have strong grounds for appeal, she says.
Your sentence will definitely be commuted, she says.
Don't lose hope, she says.
During the trial and even a short time afterward, Rodney would conjure the image of Elizabeth Weir whenever he was alone and in need of relief. She was the kind of scary-smart woman he craved and he could even overlook the fact she wasn't blonde.
The last few days, another comes to the forefront of his mind.
"My sister's husband was beating her," Rodney finally confesses. They had been talking about nothing in particular when Rodney decided that he just had to answer John's very first question.
John made a sound that was a prompt for Rodney to continue and he swallowed. He'd told this story hundreds of times but it just seemed important to get it right when telling John Sheppard.
"Bad enough that she would be in the hospital one or two times a month. I was afraid he'd end up killing her but she kept asking me to wait, not to do anything. She had a baby, a sweet little kid they named Jacob. When Jacob was just three years old Jeannie brought him round to my place and he had a black eye. I saw red."
"Bastard," John spat and Rodney was comforted that John's automatic reaction was anger.
"I made Jeannie wait in my flat and went over to their place. I started out just wanting to scare him but hitting him was just so damn... satisfying that I couldn't stop. I wanted to give back every broken bone, every bruise that he'd given my sister, with interest. I was still hitting him when the police came. Apparently by that time he'd already been dead over twenty minutes."
"Wow," John breathed and Rodney waited, fists clenched and not daring to breath. Not until John said probably the only words that would make everything alright.
"I would've done the same thing."
Elizabeth Weir was true to her word.
She stood out in the corridor next to the dayshift Guards with a smile on her face while Rodney gathered his things.
Commuted to life, she'd said, next step, freedom.
As Rodney passed John's cell, an arm shot out and grabbed his forearm. The Guards moved forward, hands on their clubs but Rodney dropped his things and waved them off, before turning to grasp both of John's hands in his own.
"Won't be the same without you," John smiled and Rodney finally got a look at the full, unobstructed features of John Sheppard, tousled hair, green eyes and rakish grin. He was also a man beaten down by circumstance. Rodney had thought him lanky but he was actually rail-thin. His hands were work roughened like he'd imagined as the calluses on his thumbs rubbed over the backs of Rodney's hands.
"I can try-"
John chuckled, a mirthless breech of the quiet. "There's no commuting what I did," he said, the lazy grin chasing the darkness from his features. The Guards made an impatient noise behind Rodney and he took a second to glare at them before looking back.
"That, McKay I will never tell you," John said, finality in his tone. "But don't forget, save me a spot in that afterlife of yours. I'm going to need it much sooner than you."
Rodney was herded roughly away, breaking contact with John with his arm outstretched and fingers reaching.
He decided that the last image he would keep in his mind of John Sheppard would not be a man reaching between bars of a cell, but a man standing on the balcony of a city in the sea, ocean-wind playing across his features.
He would stand beneath a circle of stone, protection from the darkness, holding back the tide.
He would be happy and free and the horrors of this life would never touch him.
Rodney would join him there.
Summary: Two men, waiting on death row, find solace in each other.