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The Art of Survival

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There was sand in his boots.

There was sand in his hair, his eyes, his mouth, sand against his skin, under his fingernails, against his teeth and in his ears, gritty and rough and hot, and everywhere he looked there was just sand, sand, more damn sand.

Rick O'Connell sank slowly to his knees and tried to steady his breath. He was lightheaded and his mouth was dry, and more than once (more than a dozen times) he had seen the shimmering promise of water or shelter in the distance, only to have it melt away as he drew closer.

"O'Connell," he panted, "you're in deep, deep shit this time."

He lowered his chin to his chest, feeling the burning heat of the sun on the back of his neck. He licked at his chapped lips and closed his eyes, watching pinpricks of angry light burst and fade against the red darkness of his eyelids.

As he tipped forward slowly — fainting gracefully, he thought, swooning into the sand — he wasn't sure if the pounding in his ears was his own heartbeat, or the galloping hooves of a horse coming to chase him into the afterlife.

He woke with a start, extremely ungracefully, a gasp rattling in his throat, half a mouthful of water getting sucked into his lungs.

He coughed and floundered against his apparent weightlessness, trying to open his eyes, trying to right himself.

Gentle words murmured to him softly — not in English, but he knew them all the same; the locals had uttered them quietly to their horses and camels. Restless livestock soothed by easy, easy, easy.

It took him a long time to fix upon his own gravity. For a moment he had slipped sideways into an unfamiliar darkness, and his mind was having trouble righting itself again. He blinked up at an inky blue sky, stars starting to wink and flicker in its depths, and felt the rocking motion of gentle water beneath him, a strong arm behind his shoulders, holding him afloat.

He glanced up and came face-to-face with a dark set of eyes watching him intently.

Rick grunted and sucked in another mouthful of water, not entirely on purpose.

"Drink slowly," was the calm instruction.

The idea of saying anything back was preposterous — his tongue felt ten times its normal size and his throat felt raw from heat and sand. He closed his eyes against and dipped his mouth beneath the water, sucking in another cool mouthful.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed before his mysterious rescuer dragged him from the pool. Rick staggered a little, but was quietly proud at being able to get his legs beneath him again.

There was a low-burning fire crackling, and a line of elegant trees were silhouetted in shadow against the sky, standing around the pool of water like desert guardians. Rick was dropped gently to a bedroll laid out by the fire. He sighed with relief, his head no longer spinning, his thirst finally slaked.

A black horse wandered nearby, snatching mouthfuls of grass, and Rick reached out his hand and touched the ground in wonder, feeling the cool strands of greenery between his fingers.

A blanket, which smelled strongly of horse, was dragged over him.

"I'm naked," Rick blurted, having belatedly realized the extent of his situation.

"I undressed you, for it is not a good idea to sleep in wet clothes in the desert," the other man said, kneeling by the fire and holding his palm to the flames, feeling the heat carefully. "It may get below freezing tonight."

"I know how to survive in the desert," he replied obstinately.

This was met with a look of skepticism.

"I'm having a bad day," Rick admitted. He gave a feeble wave. "Rick O'Connell."

"I am Ardeth Bay, of the Medjai warriors."

"The what now?" Rick asked. He glanced back at the pool of water, which was growing inky-black as the sun sank further below the horizon.

"The Medjai are sworn to protect the borders of the city of Hamunaptra, and to prevent the awakening of the Creature slumbering beneath."

Rick raised his eyebrows, doing his best to match Ardeth's earlier expression of disbelief. "The Creature?"

"The Bringer of Death," Ardeth said, and a cold wind seemed to blow through the trees and disturb the surface of the water.

"If he is ever to awaken, he will spread a curse across this land — a plague upon mankind." Ardeth ran a hand through his damp hair. "Foolish soldiers running around Hamunaptra… do you not realize the darkness you could have unleashed upon this world?"

Rick turned this over in his mind for a moment. The conversation had taken an intense turn he had not been prepared for. "You're not talking about the Tuareg raiding parties, are you?"

Ardeth made a soft noise, which might have been a scoff. "Perhaps it would have been better for all involved if I had left you to die beneath the sun."

"Why didn't you?" Rick asked, feeling irritated all of a sudden. "Is this the only way you can get people to listen to your wacky stories?"

Ardeth stirred the fire, sending up sparks. "I had a feeling about you," he said eventually. "I do not think I was wrong."

"A feeling," Rick muttered. He pulled the blanket up his bare chest a little. The air was already starting to grow cold.

"Do you intend to return to Hamunaptra?" Ardeth asked bluntly.

"No," Rick said, trying to out-blunt him as best as he could. "They told me there'd be gold there, but…" He directed a helpless laugh to the stars. "All I got was a whole lotta trouble."

"Gold is rarely obtained without trouble."

"Thanks for the tip," Rick said. "I'm guessing you're not headed back to Hamunaptra yourself then?"

"I will take you to Cairo, and from there you must continue alone."

"I'm not sure Cairo is gonna work for me," Rick said hesitantly. "I'm uh — not popular there."

"Then I will leave you to the mercy of the desert," Ardeth suggested.

Rick coughed and looked helplessly up at the sky. "Cairo will be fine."

Darkness fell swiftly. Insects clicked and buzzed in the trees, and Ardeth's horse was still grazing contentedly, cropping neatly at the green grass with his teeth.

Rick lay beneath the scratchy blanket and wondered how far he'd get if he leapt to his feet and made a run for him, galloping away before Ardeth could give chase.

Not far, he concluded sorrowfully. It was an effort just to lift his arms — the heat; the fight at the garrison; the desert itself… it had all sapped his strength entirely.

"What is your plan of escape?" Ardeth asked. He had pulled his robes back on and was lounging by the fire, leaning back against his saddle.

"Steal your horse," Rick said.

"He will not obey just any man," Ardeth said dismissively.

"I'm not just any man, Medjai."

"You are a con man," Ardeth said. "It does not take a scholar to see that."

"I wouldn't call myself a con man." Rick grinned up at the stars. "I'm an opportunist."

"An opportunist with no trousers," Ardeth reminded him.

Rick frowned at him. "Where are my clothes? And my gun? And…"

The box. He remembered it suddenly — the only trinket he'd managed to find and stuff into his pocket.

Ardeth tossed him his clothes. "Get dressed, it will soon get cold."

Rick bunched them in his hands, but the box was gone. "And my gun?"

Ardeth gestured to one of the bags on the ground beside the saddle. "Are you planning on shooting me?"

"Maybe," Rick grunted, pulling his sand-crusted uniform back on. It reeked of sweat and gun smoke. "Shoot you, steal your stuff, ride your horse back to civilization."

Ardeth gave a low laugh, sounding genuinely amused. "Let us get through the night first, and see what morning brings."

Rick was restless. His skin still held the heat from the desert sun, and the scratchy horse blanket only seemed to make it worse. Despite this, the night still seemed too cold, and the fire didn't seem hot enough no matter how close he squirmed to it.

He was aware of Ardeth watching him from across the flames. Rick tried not to let it unsettle him, but Ardeth's eyes were very deep and dark, and it seemed they could see things Rick didn't necessarily want to reveal.

The art of survival was closely intertwined with the art of deception, and Ardeth Bay didn't seem like a man easy to deceive.

Rick fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of sand heaving beneath his boots; dreaming of low voices thrumming through ancient stone and up into his bones; dreaming of gold glinting just out of reach, piles and piles of it covered in dust and sand.

He woke as Ardeth slid beneath the blanket beside him, one firm arm crossing over Rick's side and up against his chest.

"Mmph," Rick mumbled, elbowing him away. "I'm sleeping."

"You are shivering," Ardeth said, shuffling up behind him. "There is not enough fuel for a bigger fire, and so this is the best way to keep warm."

Rick sighed, giving in to the inevitable. The man was right — and anyway, it didn't seem entirely fair that his rescuer should have to spend the entire night without a bed.

They settled together beneath the blanket, loosely spooned together, Ardeth's arm heavy over Rick's ribs. It wouldn't entirely unpleasant, except for the sunburn still kissing Rick's skin.

That, and Ardeth's riddles.

"I am a stranger traveling from the east," Ardeth murmured, "seeking that which is lost."

"Hey, I know this one," Rick said sleepily. "I am a stranger traveling from the west. It is I who you seek."

Ardeth was silent, and Rick thought he had fallen asleep. He kept his eyes closed, listening to the crackling of the fire, his shivering finally easing itself as Ardeth's body heat warmed the space under the blanket.

"Where did you get the tattoo on your wrist?" Ardeth asked.

Rick stirred, lost somewhere between sleeping and waking. "An orphanage in Cairo."

"Do you know the meaning of the symbol?"

"Pretty sure it was slapped on me as some kind of punishment," Rick said, not able to remember. "I was probably told to remember my misdeeds whenever I looked at it." He shifted a little, easing the weight off his hip. "How closely did you look at me before you dunked me into the pool?"

"Quite closely," Ardeth replied simply.

Rick rubbed his nose and closed his eyes again. More minutes went slowly by, and again Rick thought Ardeth had drifted off to sleep.

"It means you are a protector of man," Ardeth said suddenly, disturbing the silence again.

Rick shifted so he could cover his ears with his hands. "Neat," he yawned. "Good night."

Ardeth's hand flattened itself against Rick's chest, and his heartbeat went up a couple of notches.

Damn it, Rick thought helplessly. It had been a long time since he'd had anyone this physically close to him — longer still since it had been anyone attractive.

"It means," Ardeth said, "that you are a warrior for God. A Medjai."

Rick huffed a laugh and gave up on sleep. He wriggled around so he could look at Ardeth over his shoulder. "Do the Medjai recruit from orphanages?"

"We have descended from the great Pharaoh's bodyguards," Ardeth said. "For thousands of years we have —"

"You know," Rick interrupted, "don't take this the wrong way, but I'm beginning to wish you'd left me to die in the desert."

"It was a decision I did not make lightly." Ardeth's dark eyes shone at him. His hand slipped lower, and Rick jumped a little. He was immediately annoyed with himself.

"Do you make a habit of picking up desert wanderers?" he asked. His throat was dry again. "Do you make a habit of sharing a bed with them?"

"Initially I instructed my men to allow the desert to take you. But I could not get you out of my mind, and I knew I had to investigate further." His hand flattened and slid beneath the waistband of Rick's pants. "The marking on your wrist proves it was a wise decision."

The idea that he should protest only half-formed in Rick's mind. He dropped his head and closed his eyes, breathing out slowly. This wasn't the first midnight fumble he'd had with a stranger, though it was the first one he'd had with a weird guardian of mankind.

"So you saw my tattoo," he said, "and now this?"

"I was not looking at your tattoo when I considered this," Ardeth said, his voice low against the back of Rick's neck. He closed his fingers around Rick's cock, which was well on the way to getting hard.

"Is this how you take your thanks for saving a life?" Rick asked, sliding his hips back a little.

"I'll only take what you're willing to offer." Ardeth stroked his palm slowly along the length of Rick's growing erection. "I am a good judge of character."

"You called me a con man," Rick reminded him, thrusting helplessly as Ardeth's fingers closed around him again.

"You are a con man. But you are also a good man."

"You've already got my dick in your hand," Rick said. "You don't need to flatter me, pal."

Ardeth mouthed an open kiss against his shoulder, his beard scratching at Rick's hot skin. His thumb teased the tip of his cock, and each stroke of his hand grew slicker and smoother.

Rick buried his face in the crook of his elbow, hips jutting back towards Ardeth's, his heart loud in his ears. His other hand reached back and fumbled with Ardeth's robes, but made no purchase — he fisted the loose material in his hand instead, gripping it tightly.

Ardeth squirmed closer, his hand squeezing gently before he started stroking again, faster now. The friction was almost too much — there was a roughness to it that made Rick grit his teeth, and it coupled with the sting of Ardeth's teeth grazing over his sunburned skin.

Still, he could feel the heat of something else burning low in his belly, building and warming him more than the campfire ever could. Ardeth's hand worked over him slowly, and his hips rocked against Rick's.

Rick gasped and tightened his hand in Ardeth's robes as he came, tugging him closer and turning his head so he could kiss him, groaning a string of curses against his mouth.

It seemed to be over embarrassingly fast, but Ardeth didn't seem to mind. He chuckled softly, and let Rick kiss him between panting breaths. He rocked his hips, but it was without urgency. He held Rick in place with both hands, pulling his body back against him, nipping at his lips, tasting him with his tongue.

The stars slowly circled overhead, and the fire burned lower.

There was a gentle paleness at the horizon when Rick woke. He could hear the sound of lapping water, and when he sat up he could see Ardeth, waist-deep in the pool.

"Isn't it cold?" Rick asked. His voice sounded too loud. Ardeth's horse seemed to look at him with a particular kind of irritation.

"There are worse things in life than a little cold water," Ardeth said.

"Don't you ever answer a damn question with a straight yes or no?"

"Yes," Ardeth answered mildly.

Rick kicked the blanket back and staggered to the pool, sloshing into the water. He inhaled sharply, though it wasn't as bad as he'd assumed it might be — the night simply hadn't been long enough to draw out all of the heat from the previous day.

He plunged under, scrubbing his hands through his hair, and came up grinning as the sun peeked its first proper rays over the horizon. He scrubbed at his clothes, wrestling his way out of them and shoving them into the shallows to soak.

Ardeth had soap which barely lathered, and chalky toothpaste. Rick accepted both gratefully, washing away the lingering grip of the previous day, and the reminders of how closely he'd come to perishing in the middle of nowhere.

"Hey," he said, spitting his toothpaste. "Uh, thanks for not leaving me to die."

Ardeth glanced at him, tilting the open blade of his razor so it caught the sun.

Rick looked down at it. "You're not gonna kill me now, are you?"

"That would be a waste," Ardeth said. He waded closer, and touched his fingers gently beneath Rick's chin, encouraging him to tilt his head.

Rick closed his eyes, letting Ardeth rub a gentle lather into his short beard, before the blade touched his cheek, rasping carefully against his skin. Rick reached out and steadied himself by holding Ardeth's hips.

Ardeth ran the blade carefully over his face, following each pass of the razor with the pad of his thumb, testing the smoothness of his skin, letting the pool's cool water rinse away the suds and stubble.

Rick let his fingers splay out over Ardeth's skin, his thumbs pressing and circling slowly. He pushed Ardeth back two steps, three, four, until the water was shallow enough for him to sink to his knees in front of him. He chased a water drop down Ardeth's muscled stomach with his tongue, and grinned when Ardeth tossed his razor towards his neatly-piled robes. He tangled his fingers in Rick's wet hair.

Rick took the tip of Ardeth's cock between his lips, circling his tongue and slowly sucking the length of him into his mouth.

The sun rose behind him and warmed his shoulders as he knelt in front of Ardeth, drawing wet suction over him, his fingertips raking down his thighs and digging into the muscles of his ass, holding him closer, taking his entire length.

Ardeth was silent when he came, but his hands gripped Rick's hair tightly, and his body shuddered and trembled.

Rick swallowed, and grinned up at him smugly.

"You are better with your mouth when you are not talking," Ardeth said, and Rick lunged at him, dragging him back into the depths of the pool, laughing as he kissed him.

Rick's clothes were still damp, though they would soon dry in the desert sun.

Ardeth's horse was saddled, and Rick's gun had been handed back to him, and tucked into its holster.

"I had something else," Rick said, already knowing it was a lost cause.

"Yes," Ardeth said, not sounding impressed. "And now you do not, and the world is safer for it."

Rick ran a hand through his hair with a sigh. "So," he said. "Cairo."

"I can take you to Cairo," Ardeth confirmed. "Or you can come with me, to the Medjai. Accept your fate as a warrior of goodness and light."

"You're ten bags of crazy," Rick said.

"Perhaps," Ardeth said with a small smile. "In many ways I hope that there is no truth to my belief."

"You want me to guard Hamunaptra with you?" Rick asked, raising his eyebrows.

Ardeth smiled and looked off into the distance. "Amongst other things."

"You trust me not to just… go back and take the gold?"

Ardeth laughed. "You want the gold that badly?"

Rick thought about the gunshots ringing against the stone ruins, and the sand sinking out from beneath his boots. "No," he said. "I'll never set foot there again."

"That is a dangerous assumption to make," Ardeth said, giving Rick his hand and helping him up onto his horse. "But, all going well, it may be an accurate one."

"Well, something tells me my luck might have changed," Rick said. "Lead the way, Medjai."