"—And another thing, Major, I don't know if you've had the opportunity to examine my medical files, but I have a few health conditions that would make regular off-world travel inadvisable. When I was twenty I was hospitalized for a bee-sting—"
"You're already off-world," John pointed out, his lazy smile not shifting. Partly because in the week since they'd arrived, he'd already noticed how much it threw the scientist off his stride; apparently McKay was used to his rants intimidating or annoying, more than amusing. And partly because John found it hard enough just keeping himself from cracking up. McKay on a tear was a trip. He didn't think he'd ever get tired of it. "Off-galaxy, even. For all we know Pegasus doesn't even have bees."
"It's not only bees," McKay hastened to inform him, "I also react to citrus, and pollen of course, not to mention I'm hypoglycemic, and borderline hypertensive, and I've exhibited arrhythmia after heavy exertion, and my cholesterol—"
"And you're the smartest man on this expedition," John said. "I need those brains in the field, helping me, whatever minor problems the brawn has. This is going to be our number one team, and I need you for that."
McKay's mouth snapped shut. John marked the silence on his mental scoreboard, one point for him. It took a full four seconds for the scientist to stammer out, "You do realize, I'm not trained in military tactics, I've only fired a gun twice, off-world reconnaissance was never in the official job description—"
"Don't worry, McKay," John said, clapping the man on the back. "We'll keep you safe out there."* * *
His muscles burned from the day's heavy lifting, but John forced himself to walk another two laps around the little cage to cool down, before he let himself collapse on the pallet. The moldering straw under the coarse linen pricked his hands. He tipped his head back against the iron bars, angled a look at his cellmate on the pallet across from his, and asked, "How's it going?"
Rodney had been muttering non-stop for the last half-hour, by John's best estimate. That stream of babble wasn't interrupted now; he just cranked the volume up to intelligible. "How's it going—how do you think it's going? I'm attempting to fine-tune complex Ancient equipment, in the dark, with a twig. A literal twig that I had to strip leaves off of and all but file to a point with my teeth—and oh god, did you see what these blithering morons uncovered in the secondary chamber today, I'd bet Zelenka's glasses that it's an electron microscope. At least it was, until they started taking it apart with hacksaws—"
In the eight days they had been here, Rodney's outrage had increased exponentially with each passing day. It wasn't the indignity of forced manual labor in the ruins of an Ancient research outpost; it was their captors' utter lack of respect for or understanding of what they had discovered. "They're probably making jewelry," Rodney had despondently moaned the first night, after watching the wholesale dismemberment of a console, every crystal ripped out and thrown into a clinking gunny sack.
John couldn't help feeling that Rodney would object less to the slave labor if their guards had a few official degrees on sheepskin. Then again, if their captors had been men of learning, Rodney would've talked rings around them so fast he'd be in charge before anyone knew what had happened. As it was, John had made sure that Rodney hadn't had the chance to show off his smarts and get himself hauled off somewhere they'd never find him. Mostly by kicking him in the shins whenever he opened his mouth around the guards, or by having Ronon glare or Teyla raise a warning eyebrow if they were too far apart for a physical reminder.
Rodney had only taken a couple of days to get the idea—he was a genius, after all—and now did a decent performance of a mindless drudge during the day, but at night in the cages, exhaustion and aching muscles couldn't silence his intellectual agony. John had a private bet with himself over whether Rodney would first suffer a stroke under the pressure; or else provoke another prisoner, if not John himself, into a homicidal rage, wherein he would strangle McKay just to shut him up and get some rest.
His own money was on rescue or escape, as soon as possible and preferably before any aneurysms or homicide, seeing as John could do without another black mark on his record, and Atlantis needed Rodney intact and as compos mentis as he was going to get. Their captors were old hat at abducting slave labor and had taken them through an extra Stargate on the way here; even if Atlantis collected the last fifty addresses from the DHD of the world they had been captured on, they'd have to search all of those worlds' fifty addresses as well. One chance in twenty-five hundred were worse odds than John preferred, so escape it was.
If he stretched out his legs, he could bump Rodney's knee with the toe of his boot. He did so. Rodney looked up, moonlit face smudged with dirt and eyes narrowed in irritation. "What? Do you want this done tonight, or are you really looking forward to another week at the Pegasus Spa and Labor Camp?"
"Tonight works for me. Are you that close?"
Rodney looked back down at the life-signs detector in his lap. Yesterday, while Ronon and John had staged a fight to distract the guards, he had jimmied the device out of the outpost's wall with a chisel, and hidden it under his shirt. It was a bit worse for wear, dented and gray with grime, but John could see the faint blue glow of the display illuminating Rodney's frown. "Getting there," he said. "I'm not sure if these energy readings are accurate, or glitches, or if I'm just so hungry I'm not seeing straight, don't they usually feed us by now—"
"We don't need full energy readings," John said. "Life signs will tell us where the guards are, that should be enough of an advantage, if we time it right." He raised his arm to knock on the thick wooden wall of their prison. "Teyla? Ronon? How you doing over there?"
The wood thudded under a heavy blow, rattling against his knuckles. Rodney, who had been leaning back against the panel, yelped and hammered his fist on the boards. "Stop kicking, I said, damn it!"
John heard a quiet, admonishing murmur, and then Teyla's voice came from behind the wall, "We are well enough, John."
She sounded tired but faintly amused, in that tense way Teyla got when her patience was stretched to the point she had to laugh or snap. Ronon could handle the heavy labor, but he took exception to being caged at night in what amounted to a circus wagon, complete with iron bars for the beasts within to be observed. The guards came by to check on John and Rodney only a couple times a night, but Ronon and Teyla had proved to be popular entertainment. John didn't know if that was because Teyla was the only woman among the prisoners, or because Ronon was the tallest and broadest of them, or because for the first few nights they had sparred together to keep calm.
"Hey, Ronon," John called back. "Hang in there, okay?"
"...Okay," Ronon said, in the tone of a guy taking an order obediently, if not happily.
Rodney's mutters had dropped back into the indecipherable. John leaned his shoulders against the wooden wall and wormed his hand through the iron bars, his elbow just clearing the gap as he bent his arm down. After a moment, Teyla's strong, slender fingers met and clasped his. She would be sitting on her own pallet on the other side of the wall, mirroring his position; it gave him some comfort to be able to see her so clearly in his mind's eye, if not in person.
He squeezed Teyla's fingers back, then withdrew his hand and looked out through the bars to the other cages parked across the way. It was too shadowy to make out the other prisoners within, but the glow from the three moons gleamed dully off the metal bars. The wagons were just low and narrow enough to fit through the Stargate. This was an organized outfit, traveling slave labor for hire.
John entertained a brief, satisfying thought of vengeance, freeing the prisoners and slamming these iron bars shut over the guards, setting fire to the wagons, tearing down the whole ugly operation—but that could wait. First priority was getting his people out of here.
A sharp triple rap on the wooden wall had both him and Rodney sitting up, Rodney scrambling to hide the detector under his pallet. John watched the flickering yellow wash play on the ground, the light of the approaching guards' torches—real torches, fiery oil-drenched brands that let off smelly black smoke. "They've got clean, safe, phosphorescent lanterns literally lining the walls a hundred meters away," Rodney had despaired the first night, and probably would have given up and gone mad right there and then if he hadn't been Rodney McKay.
The guards, walking in pairs as always, didn't speak, just lifted the grating and shoved in two trays. "It's about time," Rodney said, sniffing like he was mentally reducing the waiter's tip from twenty percent to ten, and fell upon dinner. John quickly snatched his own tray before Rodney not-entirely-accidentally grabbed something off it—hypoglycemia was all very well, but he was working harder than McKay out there. The guards had given up on making Rodney lift or carry, and had put him to dismantling things, which he did reluctantly, whimpering like he was sacrificing his first-born, but at least it wasn't straining his back.
The regular meals were pretty hearty; the managers of this operation understood that labor needed sustenance. John had considered a starvation gambit, but didn't see what it would get them. If they worked, they were useful; if they couldn't, they were expendable. His team hadn't been grabbed for their fighting prowess or knowledge of Ancient tech, but simply because they had been off-worlders and the hunters weren't choosy about who they earned their bounties with; any strangers were fair game.
Dinner tonight, like every night, was chunks of meat in gravy over slices of something bread-like, and if the bread was tough and stale, and the unidentifiable meat was gamey if not quite rancid, it was edible. There was plenty of water; buckets in the corner of the cage were filled every morning and evening, enough for washing, after they'd drunk their fill. There was even dessert of a sort, wooden cups of sticky sweet jelly that maybe had the nutrients to stave off scurvy, though John wasn't planning on being here long enough to find out.
The first couple nights, Rodney had steered clear of the jelly, even after John had assured him that he tasted nothing lemony about it. More like blueberry jam, or applesauce; the flavor was a little different every night, but it cleared the aftertaste of the meat, anyway. Rodney had cautiously touched his tongue to it the third night, and finding it to his liking, he had taken to finishing his own share and stealing what he could of John's.
Which was more than he really deserved, but John was already conditioned into sliding over his Jell-o cup when he'd taken the last of the blue. And Rodney's pathetically sugar-deprived looks were harder to ignore when he was dirt-smudged, and sunburned from working out in the daylight. ("At least you guys get to be inside the complex where it's cool," Rodney had said, making the dank and dangerously unstable underground sound like an air-conditioned haven, but it was true, he did burn easily. He tied a strip of his jacket's liner over his head, but his cheeks were red and his nose was peeling. The slavers didn't stock sunblock, or aloe lotion.)
Tonight, Rodney didn't try to bum John's dessert off him, even subliminally; he only had eyes for the life-signs detector, poking at it with his stick as he shoveled bread and meat into his mouth with his other hand. When the bread was gone, he blindly reached for the cup of jelly, gulped it like he was downing coffee in his lab.
His hunched shape in the shadows was turned towards the moonlight, the better to see the detector, his eyes catching just enough light to gleam. "So you've got it reading life-signs?" John asked.
"Not with the range I'd like," Rodney said, "but yes. I don't know that this is going to give us the amazing advantage you're counting on, though," and he coughed, cleared his throat, "since usually we can see the guards just fine, as they never let us out of their sight."
"Once we escape, it'll be a big help," John said.
"And how are we planning to actually escape? Politely ask the goons to look away for a sec?" Rodney asked snidely, and coughed again.
"Yeah, I was thinking, if we used the magic word..."
Rodney ignored him; he was peering down into the empty jam cup, frowning. "Look, if you're still hungry," John began, picking up his own cup to offer. Brain cells did require energy, as Rodney was always quick to remind him, and the better the McKay brain worked tonight, the better for all of them.
"Did you taste this?" Rodney asked, oddly hoarse as he cleared his throat again. "Because...I think..."
"No, what?" John squinted at his own untasted jelly. It wasn't likely that the slave-drivers would poison them now, not when they still had work to do. "It's gone off?"
"No—oh, shit," and Rodney threw the cup aside, away from himself. John was standing by the time it clanged against the bars, because he knew every degree of Rodney's we're so screwed tone from mild inconvenience to universe-ending catastrophe, and if this wasn't Doranda then it was still pretty damn bad. Way beyond a panicked McKaysian false alarm, John knew, even before he heard Rodney's breath catch in his throat in a whistling wheeze.
"Citrus?" John asked, dropping to a crouch next to Rodney.
Rodney nodded jerkily. His eyes opened so wide their blue showed through the washed-out moonlight, and his voice was a rasp, strangled. "I—can't—"
"Breathe," John said, but McKay had always been crap about following orders, and this was going to be no exception; the wheezing in his throat was forced like the hiss from a punctured tire. Rodney's hand was groping at his side, for his pocket—
His epi-pen, never go off-world without it—John and Teyla both carried one as well, but their BDUs had been stripped of their supplies the first time they'd been thrown in the cages. "Shit," John said, feeling his own throat pinch tight. He grabbed Rodney's flailing hand and Rodney grabbed back, tight enough to cut off circulation, his round terrified eyes locking on John. "Rodney—it's okay, buddy, just hold on—" John said, babbling because this was insane, it was a fucking fruit cup, people don't die of jam, even alien jam.
Except that Rodney was doing a lousy job with the breathing, and while John had more than once witnessed McKay rant himself into hypoxia because he wouldn't waste time inhaling, this was different. Hell, he'd seen Rodney have an allergic reaction once before, in the commissary after eating that yellow mango-imposter from P4X-something-something-whatever, McKay remembered, enough to remind the cooks on a regular basis. But he'd only gotten a rash then, red cheeks no worse than his sunburn now, confirming John's private hunch that Rodney's fear of anaphylaxis was more paranoia than first-hand experience—
This, though, was no hypochondriac episode; Rodney's fingers clutching his were going cold like ice, and they were under key and guard and every medical supply was off in a junkpile somewhere—"Help!" John hollered, throwing back his head. "Help, damn it, you assholes, come HELP!"
Querulous mutters sounded from the nearby wagons, and a hard smack rattled the wooden wall. "John?" Teyla asked, her voice strong enough to carry and edged with panic. "What's wrong?"
"Rodney," John shouted back, "there was citrus in the damn dessert, he's having a reaction, and we don't have the stuff we need, the epi-pen, the pills—"
"Sheppard," Ronon's growl cut clear through the wood. "Put out your hand."
"Now," Ronon said, "Teyla says I shouldn't risk throwing it."
John stretched to reach through the bars. Almost immediately his knuckles grazed the hard leather of Ronon's arm braces, and something cool and smooth was pressed into his palm. His fingers closed around it automatically—a tube, a little thicker than his thumb and light enough to be plastic, not metal.
He drew his hand back into the cage and blinked for a second at the gray cylinder, lined with writing too small to read in the dim light.
"John, did you get it?" Teyla asked anxiously.
"Got it," John said, and had no more time for confusion; Rodney's eyes were squeezed shut and the whistling breaths were barely choked catches. John had never done this before, but all gate teams were trained in emergency field medicine, and Rodney had made such a fuss early on that he'd reread these instructions besides. Nothing to it—roll off the cap and tip out the injector, pull off the safety release and jab it home, direct into the side of his thigh.
Then hold for a ten count, and the instructions failed to mention that these could be some of the longest ten seconds of your life, right up there with flying a spaceship with a nuke in the back, one hippopotamus two hippopotamus three—while in his head John went over his ABCs, Airway-Breathing-Circulation, if the epinephrine wasn't enough, because Rodney's lips were darkening to blue and those choked catches had been squeezed down to nothing.
Nine hippopotamus, ten, and John dropped the expended epi-pen and rubbed his fingers hard over the needle-hole in Rodney's BDUs, as recommended. Call 9-1-1 next, according to the instructions, but he'd gone and left his cell phone in another galaxy. John felt his own lips moving, couldn't hear his voice but could read the shapes they were making, Come on, Rodney, come on, you can do it, come on—
Rodney must have realized he could breathe again at the same time John did, because they gasped simultaneously, with the same sharp, desperate inhalation. And Rodney kept breathing afterward, faster than John, heaving, hyperventilating pants like he was trying to make up for every breath he'd missed all at once. John grabbed him by the shoulders to steady him, feeling him cough and tremble like he was freezing.
"Ah—wha—" Rodney tried to say through it, eyes rolling open, but watering and dazed, not really seeing John.
Probably not hearing him but John kept talking anyway. "It's okay, buddy, you're okay, you're doing great."
"John?" Teyla's voice was high with stress and John realized it wasn't the first time he had heard his name. Ronon was roaring for the guards. "Rodney—John, how is he, is—"
"We got it, he's okay," John shouted back, over Ronon's bellows.
"M'gonna—b'sick—" Rodney mumbled, in time for John to shove out of the way and push the dinner tray under him, as Rodney messily refunded his meal. The stew didn't look much different coming up as it did going down. John supported him through the heaves, patted his back like they were a couple of frat boys after a night of partying hard.
Over his head, he called, "Teyla, Ronon—keep up the racket, we need the guards over here, now!"
"Understood, John," and Teyla added her voice to Ronon's.
Rodney was still shivering when his head snapped up, but the blue tinge of his lips was fading back to flesh tones. "What'd you do—how'd—what'd you give me, if it's alien, it could be poison, we don't know—"
"It was an epi-pen, Rodney," John said, picking up the empty tube to show him.
Rodney stared so hard he almost went cross-eyed. "But that's impossible, they took all our stuff. Where the hell—"
"Ronon had it."
"Oh, of course, Ronon stashes medical injectors in his hair, along with the cutlery and darts and probably toothpicks and a pin cushion and, I don't know, what else is pointy—"
"Rodney!" John pushed his shoulder, gave him a shake.
Rodney clacked his teeth shut. "Babbling, yeah, I know, I can't stop. It's the epinephrine, I hate this, I forgot how I hated this. I mean, it's better than dying, infinitely better, but it feels like I'm going to fly apart," and that John understood, because Rodney was vibrating like he might burst, like glass crystal shattering at the right pitch. "Doesn't last long, but from here it feels like about forever."
That dashed a bucket of ice water on any ember of hope sparked by Rodney breathing. "How long will the epi-pen last?" John asked. Call 9-1-1 in Pegasus translated to 'get through the gate and to the infirmary as soon as possible,' and he stared past Rodney at the iron bars. Behind the wooden wall he could hear Ronon and Teyla yelling themselves hoarse.
"Fifteen minutes," Rodney said, "twenty maybe, if I'm lucky, and when do the dice ever roll in my favor, so yeah, fifteen."
"And the allergy won't, you know, wear itself out?" because seriously, how fair was this, Rodney was breathing again, he was fine—if fine meant red-faced and panicked, jittering like he'd downed ten espressos, but that was standard McKay on a stressful, need-to-save-Atlantis-and/or-the-galaxy-from-imminent-doom day, which was most of them. So, fine.
Except John knew better, of course, had had it explained to him by two doctors of other than astrophysics, and damn the whole science of medicine anyway. Rodney's grin was humorless, ghoulish in the colorless light. "Temporary relief of symptoms," he confirmed, arms folded over his chest like he was holding his organs in, "so no, my body's not going to spontaneously decide that was a false alarm."
Ronon and Teyla quieted abruptly, and Teyla's voice floated to his ears through the wall. "John, we have roused them."
Rodney didn't notice, curled in on himself and rocking in place. "Damn it, I don't want to do that again, not breathing sucks, worse than this, oh, god, I'm going to—"
"Be fine," John said, "you're going to be fine," and he squeezed Rodney's arm, stood and took two long strides to the bars of their cage. The guards' tents were hidden behind the wooden wall, but there were stripes of amber torchlight stretching along the ground, and the mumble of voices. "Over here!" John shouted to the shadows crossing through the light. "Get over here now, damn it!"
Two shadows grew along the ground, resolving into figures, and the guards stepped before the bars. Two big men, hawk-nosed and gray-eyed, straw-yellow hair drawn back in queues; all they wanted for to complete the Viking image were a couple horned helmets. "Keep it down!" one of them growled, and banged his cattle prod against the bars with a clonk. The prods—or stun-sticks or whatever they were—weren't metal, but some sort of tough plastic-like material like Wraith stunners, and they gave a nasty zap.
"We need our stuff," John said. "The supplies that came with us, I know the bounty hunters threw them in as a bonus deal—we need them. My friend's sick, he needs medicine. If you don't want to lose a worker, you better get it, now—"
"Sick?" The shorter guard raised his torch to cast light into the cage, onto Rodney huddled on the pallet. His flushed face was shiny with sweat; not a bad performance of deathly illness, really. If they were on a TV show, the guards would unlock the cell and come in to check him out, and John would jump one and Rodney would take the other, a couple of punches and they'd be out of here. Perfect plan, should've thought of it sooner.
"Him?" the taller guard said, and then laughed—laughed, a raucous, knee-slapping guffaw. "Oh, yeah, I've seen him work. We lose this one, be difficult to replace him. Maybe we could get a two-week-old miter-kitten. Or an old woman."
John was moving before it registered, ramming up against the bars. "You sons of bitches, if you don't—"
The other guard took a step closer, squinting past John. "If he's really sick," he said doubtfully, "maybe—"
He didn't get farther. A big arm shot out from behind the wooden wall, hooked around his neck and slammed him into the bars. In the torchlight the knife blade against his throat gleamed slick gold, forcing him onto his toes.
"Get our stuff," Ronon growled from the next cage over. "Now."
The other guard didn't hesitate. He hefted his stun-stick but didn't bother swinging it up to Ronon's arm—maybe correctly calculating that Ronon could have his compatriot's throat slit by the time he did. Instead he touched it to the other guard's stomach.
The man jerked as the juddering shock coursed through him, and Ronon grunted sharply. The knife slipped out of his fingers, dinging once against the iron bars as it fell to the ground, out of reach.
His former victim slumped to the ground with it, gasping, while the other guard stepped over him to thrust his cattle prod through the bars. His lips were pulled into a sadistic grin, teeth bright in the torchlight. John couldn't see past the wall, but he could hear the crackle of energy, Ronon's choked grunt and Teyla's, "Ronon!"
"Stop it!" John shouted, with all the command authority he didn't have, but he didn't give a damn, any more than he did about the bruises it left when he slammed his shoulder into the iron bars, rattling them in their reinforced sockets.
"Ronon?" Rodney gasped behind him. When John glanced back, Rodney was kneeling on the pallet, bracing his hand on the wooden wall to stand, his face gone paler under the feverish flush. John shook his head, motioned hard for him to stay put.
The guard finally stepped back from the bars, still grinning, slapped his stick into the palm of his hand. Behind the wall, John could hear Ronon panting, harsh dragging sounds, and Teyla murmuring. Comforting him, maybe; cursing out their captors, more likely. John ground his teeth together, feeling the grate of his jaw behind his ears.
The guard kicked his fallen fellow in the ribs. "Get up, you piss-bottle. You've gone soft if you can't take a little tickle like that." He yanked the other slaver to his feet and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Let's drink this off."
"Wait!" John said.
The guard looked back, teeth gleaming in that sadistic smile. "Have to come by in the morning, haul away the corpse," he remarked to his half-stunned companion. "Before it starts to rot."
"Wait, damn it!" John demanded. "You can't—you need to get him the medicine. You need him! Wait!"
He lunged across the cage. Rodney had thought better of standing, no thanks to John's advice; he was slumped with one shoulder against the wall, and breathing as hard as if he were running a marathon. Breathing was breathing, though, and John wasn't going to sweat the details.
The life signs detector was beside him on the pallet where he had dropped it. John grabbed it, ignoring Rodney's question, and turned back to the cage bars. "Look at this!" he hollered.
That might not have gotten the guards' attention, but the detector's high-pitched beep when John jacked up the volume did. Confusion was writ broad on the taller man's blunt features, as he stared at John's face limned in the blue glow off the device's screen.
"What's that?" he demanded, pushing aside his fellow to approach the cage. He kept a wary distance, but his gaze was locked on the detector.
"Just one of the trinkets here," John said. "But how much more will it be worth, when it can light up like this?"
"Hand it over!"
John bit down on his triumph. Gotcha. He tossed the detector through the bars.
It went dark as it left his hands, fell to the ground as a dead piece of junk. When the guard picked it up, nothing happened. The detectors could function on particular settings in non-ATA hands, but Rodney hadn't bothered with that adjustment.
"You broke it," the guard growled.
John shook his head. "No, it was broken. He was fixing it," and he extended his hand through the bars, fingers spread, palm up; a harmless gesture. "Give it back, I'll show you."
Suspicious and tentative, the guard placed the device in John's grasp, where it flickered back to life. John saw the greed light up in the slaver's eyes, reflecting the blinking stars of their life signs.
Behind him, the other guard was staring. "By the Ancestors," he whispered, an observation or an oath.
"He fixed this," John said. "He could fix every damn thing you've found here, bring the Ancestors' stuff back to life. Right, Rodney?"
"Yeah, sure. Anything. Transporters, warp engines, light sabers, you name it." Rodney's thready stammer had never sounded less arrogant or confident. But the detector made a compelling argument. John reached forward, shoved the device back into the guard's hands and let go, the light winking out.
"He's a fucking miracle worker, he'll make you a hero," John hissed, "but you lose him, you lose that chance. Just get our stuff and he'll make you rich. That's all you have to do."
The man stared down at the darkened detector, then through the bars, past John to where Rodney was huddled. He licked his lips, looked back at his fellow. "Where'd their junk get put?"
"Supply tent," the other guard said. "No one's keeping watch."
"Fine, you get that. I'll go tell the others we've shut these sumpters up for the night. No need to tell anybody what the fuss was about," and he concealed the detector under his leather coat with a satisfied smirk.
John watched the two men walk away, teeth gritted to keep himself from shouting at them to hurry. "Ronon?" he asked, pitching his voice to carry just far enough and no farther.
Teyla's answer was equally low. "He is unconscious, but breathing evenly. What of Rodney?"
John looked back over his shoulder. Rodney was hunched over in the moonlit shadows, his open eyes reflecting like patches of mirage over hot tar, watery and glittering. "Same here—still breathing," he panted.
Seeing silhouetted movement beyond the bars, John reached through the iron to touch Teyla's cool fingers for an instant. Then he scooted back to the pallet, knelt next to Rodney. "They'll be back before you know it, with the meds. Hang in there."
"Hanging," Rodney forced out, "yes, that's a lovely image, thank you. Easily visualized, I know exactly what it feels like, slow asphyxiation—"
"You're not suffocating now," John told him. He didn't have to touch Rodney to see how he was trembling with tension. "You have to stay calm."
"Stay c-calm?" Rodney's teeth clicked together erratically as he shivered. "Epinephrine's just another word for adrenaline. I've got the original fight or flight hormone in my blood, and I can't do either because we're locked up and I can barely breathe and every cell in my body wants to go in a different direction. And you want me to calm down—because I'm usually such a poster child of cool and collected—"
"Yeah," John said, "exactly. You live in a state of barely controlled panic anyway, so...control this. Before your brain explodes."
"Before my heart does, you mean—that can be a side-effect of epinephrine, and my blood pressure's too high anyway, and oh god, I think I'm having a heart attack right now—"
"That's the adrenaline," John reminded him. Curling his fingers around Rodney's wrist, he felt his pulse racing like the thrum of a chopper's rotors. No reliable way to time it, but three beats a second, easy. He kept his voice calm, slow. "You are not having a heart attack, and you're not going to have a heart attack. You hear me, McKay?"
"I hear you." Rodney's voice stuttered and cracked. "I hear you fine, but my heart might not be listening."
"It's gonna be okay. You just have to try to relax. Bright blue skies, Ferris wheels..."
"You remain the single worst meditation instructor ever," Rodney informed him, but he shut his eyes, made a concerted effort to draw deeper breaths. John kept his hand around Rodney's wrist, the skin damp with sweat but cool to his touch, though not the chill of shock. He wanted his watch—he'd always had a decent time-sense, but not as exact as he needed now. Eight minutes since he'd used the epi-pen, at least; maybe nine or ten, if luck wasn't running with them, and when was it ever? The guard had hardly been running to the supply tent, moseying more like, if he'd had a damn gun to hold on them—
If John had a gun then they wouldn't be in this cage, wouldn't be on this world, and Rodney wouldn't have eaten that damn fruit cup—
"I didn't know I was suicidal," Rodney said, apropos of nothing. His tongue was tripping over words blurted even faster than usual, like the pressure of silence was too much and he had to release some stray thought or else explode. "I've gotten more—resigned—to dying; or maybe it's daring, becoming more convinced that I won't die, every time we miraculously survive. But I didn't think I actually had a death wish."
"That's because you don't," John told him. "It was an accident."
"So, eating unknown fruit on an alien world, when I know I have a dangerous allergy—not suicidal, just suicidally stupid. Thanks, but I'd rather I was insane than an imbecile."
"You were distracted. Could've happened to anyone, and I was the one pushing you to fix the detector."
"Oh, no!" Rodney waved his hands, dislodging John's loose grip on his wrist to point a shaky finger at him. "You don't get to claim responsibility on this one, Colonel Stealth-Guilt-Trip. I'm perfectly happy to place blame where it goes, but this is my stupid body with my stupid lethal reactions, and I knew better—should've known better. This is my own damn fault, and if those goons don't come back in time, or if they don't come back at all—oh, god, this sucks so hard—"
"No argument there," John murmured. Rodney was still quivering, rocking and rattling like a broken fan, his arms crossed over his chest. The catches of his rapid breaths were too much like sobs. "But they're coming back. They're going to be here any second, just hold on." He dropped his hand to the back of Rodney's neck, flushed skin hot and sweaty under his palm. Rodney twitched away but John kept his hand in place, squeezed reassuringly. "It's gonna be okay, buddy."
Rodney swallowed hard, muscles of his throat working under John's hand. "If I—if they don't—"
Eleven minutes. Twelve, maybe. "They will."
"Yeah, but if they don't, can you—Ronon and Teyla, too—you can say I was, you know, shot, or whatever, trying to escape. Daring attempt. Trying to get all of us out—I would, you know, I would've, if I'd had the chance, so if you could just—or anything. Just, not this. This has to be the single stupidest way to die. Make it all the way to another galaxy, survive life-sucking aliens and Ancient devices, and then I'm murdered by a piece of fruit. Any epitaph but that—"
"You're not getting any fucking epitaph," John said. "Unless you're planning on being buried alive, because you're still breathing, and you're not going to stop."
They waited in silence, John not listening to Rodney struggling not to hyperventilate, instead straining to hear footsteps, watching through the bars for the glow of approaching torchlight. "Teyla?" he asked.
"I can see nothing," Teyla called back, voice almost breaking with apology and concern. "I am sorry, Rodney—but I am sure they will be coming back shortly."
Rodney gave a shuddering not-laugh, raised his hoarse voice to call back, "Thanks, Teyla." He gulped. "Tell Ronon—I'm sorry he got hurt. He was trying, I really appreciate—tell him—"
"Shut up," John growled, not intentionally, not realizing he had spoken until Rodney's teeth clacked shut. His hand was still on the nape of Rodney's neck, and he kept that touch gentle, when what he wanted was to haul McKay up by the scruff and shake him. "You can tell him when he wakes up."
Rodney attempted a skewed smile. "They say denial's the first stage."
"It's not denial if I'm right."
"So what are my chances of figuring out Ascension again in the next minute?"
"Hey, if anyone could do it—you want to try?" John didn't think about what it said of their lives, that this was a viable option. But Rodney had nearly done it once before; if he could pull it off again...
Rodney shook his head, screwed shut his eyes and shot them open again. "Don't think I'm in the right Zen frame of mind. What with thinking every breath could be my last." He took a couple quick ones, making his point. "At least it's thematically appropriate."
"Asphyxiation. Seems like the way this galaxy has been out to get me from the start. Drowning on Atlantis, in the first timeline, or in the sinking jumper; or in that lunar space station when the control room depressurized..."
John had tasted vacuum a couple times himself, suppressed a shudder at the memory, the pressing ache of air being pulled from his lungs. "Positive thoughts, Rodney," he said.
"So, the brighter side of suffocation?" The familiar bite of sarcasm was reassuring, but the wheeze at the end of the word was not. In the gray moonlight, John saw Rodney's eyes go wide again, luminescent and terrified.
His hand slipped down, wrapped around Rodney's fingers as tightly as if he were grabbing him at the edge of a cliff, as if he could keep him from falling. Rodney's breaths quickened and shortened, and John couldn't hear himself over the rush of blood in his ears, couldn't hear his own voice shouting, "Get back here, now, you assholes!"
But he heard Teyla, frantic—"John, the guard is here, he's returning!"
Movement in the corner of his eye and John snapped his head around. The shorter guard was standing before the cage bars, two packs and all three of their tac vests piled in his arms. He gaped at John's snarled, "Front of the vest, third pocket down!"
The man stared at him like a brain-dead zombie, like whatever scientific magic of translation that allowed them to communicate had failed. "Now!" John ordered, in between, "Hold on, Rodney, he's here, it's gonna be okay—"
Rodney was fighting to breathe, and losing that fight for the second time in fifteen minutes, and John couldn't tell if what was in his eyes was desperation or terror or resignation. Couldn't tell what he was feeling himself, so he didn't try, just let it all flare up into anger—Rodney's cold fingers in his, the gulping catches as Rodney tried to swallow air like water, the fucking painfully slow motions of the guard, all kindling on the blaze of his rage.
The guard flinched when John glared at him, jerking like when his fellow had hit him with the stun-stick. He dropped his burden and started pawing through the equipment. Distantly John heard Teyla repeating his instructions, explaining with excruciating patience, "Not that vest, the next—yes, that, the third pocket, it will be a tube—"
John saw the dull sheen of plastic in the moonlight, lunged to jam his hand between the bars. "That's it, give it here."
The guard was crouched out of reach, blinking up at John with the epi-pen in one fist and his stunner in the other. "If this is a weapon," he said, trying for intimidating and failing when his tone raised in question.
"It's not, give it to me! Now!"
Teyla said something soft and threatening. Finally, the guard reached up, gingerly holding out the epi-pen like a magic wand. John stretched, chest pressed to the iron bars, got his fingers around the plastic tube and snatched it away, spiraled off the cap with a flick of his thumb.
Rodney had slipped down onto his side on the pallet, fingers clawed into the straw-filled matting. John didn't take the time to reach his leg, just jammed the injector against his bicep. He heard the hiss-click of the needle and counted the seconds aloud.
He was still circling his knuckles hard over the puncture when Rodney heaved a shuddering breath, and another. John gripped his shoulder to steady him, as Rodney pushed himself sitting, dragged a shaking arm across his face and said, in a small, broken voice, "Fuck. Can we not do that again?"
Outside the bars, the guard had stood, tac vests and bags strewn in the grass at his feet, and was staring at them. "That was medicine?" he asked doubtfully.
"One kind. We need others," John said. "Try the bags. Yeah, that one." They all carried epi-pens in their standard gear, but the antihistamines were in the medkit. If it hadn't been raided—the epi-pen would have been a mystery, but pills and other more identifiable medicines might have been recognized and sold off—but the medkit was there, and intact, from what John could see, when the guard unzipped it. He wouldn't pass it over, but he brought it close enough for John to point out what he needed, and listened when John told him where to find the spare epi-pens in Rodney's and Teyla's vests.
John took the other two injectors and the packets of pills with an automatic, "Thanks." The courtesy was unintentional and meaningless, but he had to tamp down the welling gratitude, a side-effect of relief, of the rasping, constant sound of Rodney breathing again. The release of anger made his head spin; crap, he was all but smiling at the man, a slave guard, their damn overseer.
The guard nodded, polite for a slaver, and peered past John. "He gonna be okay?" Worried about his promised profits, of course.
John didn't look back, kept his gaze cool and steady on the man. "We'll see." If he's not, if you took too long bringing this stuff, he promised silently, then you'll know. You and your buddy both, you'll understand when my bullets go through your skulls.
He turned his back on the guard, shut him out and went back to Rodney, sitting on the pallet with his knees drawn up. He looked flushed and greenish at once, biting his lip as he tried not to be sick.
"Hey," John said, "how're you doing?" When Rodney didn't answer right away, John put a hand on his arm, gave him a shake. Rodney was so tense that it was like trying to rattle the iron bars of their prison, even as he trembled like an airfoil in a crosswind. "Got the Benadryl," John told him, popping two tablets out of the blister pack. "Can you keep it down?"
"Guess I'll have to," Rodney said. His voice, too, was so tense that it was hard to tell if he was being resigned or ironic; edgy, like someone biting their tongue on a screaming fit.
John proffered the pills and Rodney reached for them, only to clap his hand over his mouth and twist away, hacking up a spatter of bile on the floor. When he sat up his color might have been infinitesimally improved. He took the tablets, swallowed them with a handful of water from the bucket John pushed toward him, then dipped his hands in again to splash water on his heated cheeks.
His throat was swollen, but the angry rash was subsiding, under the sunburned red. Sweat smeared the dirt to mud, and his eyes stared out of that misery, their blue terribly striking in the monochrome shadows. "Give me more," he said, raspy and too fast. "Gotta load up, I'd be on an IV if I was in the infirmary, but if this is all we got then I need what I can get down."
John frowned at the blister pack. "How much is an overdose?"
"More than that. Okay, I don't know exactly, but a hell of a lot more than two. They actually stop the reaction, instead of just putting it off, and I'm partial to my airway staying open."
Rodney's hands were shaking too hard to manage the pack; John popped out more tablets and handed them over. Rodney swallowed some and chewed others, grimacing at the flavor—"It's supposed to be, what, cherry? Even alien cherries don't taste like this."
He kept muttering as he chewed, too rapid to make sense—riding on the second jolt of adrenaline to his system, and that was dangerous in itself, if not as dangerous as the anaphylactic shock. John trapped his wrist and checked his pulse, trying to time the pounding beats. Even faster than before, and little good if he survived the allergy only to suffer cardiac arrest. "Rodney, you got to stay calm. You're all right now. Relax."
"Easy for you to say," Rodney muttered, and John wanted either to laugh or to hit him. Which was par for the course, with Rodney McKay, and the relief of that was enough to start him laughing in itself.
"Yeah, easy enough," he said, "as long as you don't do that again. Jesus, McKay, watching you stop breathing, not exactly good for my heart."
That shut Rodney up for a moment, staring at John with that look he got when his eyes opened so wide that you could see clear down into the bottom of his being. All dumbstruck astonishment and disbelieving intimacy, and when he whispered, "Thank you," it was like the gratitude wasn't even for stabbing him with a needle to save his life.
"Yeah, you're welcome," John answered. It wasn't the most difficult thing Rodney had ever thanked him for, not by a long shot, but he still had to look away. Rodney wore his heart on his sleeve, but John was the one who ended up stripped bare.
He got Rodney to drink more water, couldn't convince him to lie down but got him to sit against the wall, anyway. Rodney couldn't stop shaking; not really shivering, and his skin was warm to the touch, sweat beading on his face, but John wished they had a blanket for him to wrap up in.
"John?" Teyla called over. "Rodney?"
"We're doing okay," John raised his voice to reply.
"Yes, just fantastic," Rodney said, and then, "What about Ronon, is he...?"
"He has not yet awoken," Teyla answered, projecting practiced calm. "By his snoring he has fallen asleep. Do not worry."
"Good, yeah. That's good, I'm not worrying," Rodney said, but his mouth was turning down unhappily.
"You think Teyla would lie? He's going to be okay." John sat against the wall next to his teammate, shoulders not quite touching. "So how are you doing now?" he asked, and slouched back, not really listening to the answer. Usually it was stimulating to try to keep up with Rodney's conversation, stretching to follow his leaps of logic; but there was no logic now, just an outpouring of words. His overclocked body wanted to be sprinting, fleeing, flying; denied that, Rodney talked. Mostly bitching out their imprisonment, the cage, the guards, this whole planet and the waste of its treasures: every complaint of the last week, compressed into a few frenzied minutes, with addendums about deficient immune systems.
When the torrent slowed to a trickle, John didn't notice right away, not until Rodney's shoulder bumped his. Rodney pushed himself up from where he had slumped into John. "Sorry," he said with a yawn. "Antihistamine side-effect. May cause drowsiness, do not drive or operate heavy machinery. They knock me out."
"It's okay," John said. "No cars here for you to crash. Maybe you should just go to sleep."
"I can't." Rodney blinked at him owlishly. He'd dropped from high gear down to first, words not quite slurred but coming at half speed. "You heard what I said about biphasic reactions. If you were listening."
"Right," John said. He'd picked up the crucial details, anyway, reminders of what emergency field medicine had brushed upon. "There's a chance of another reaction, even without more citrus."
"High stress, unsterile environment, physical exhaustion—odds are pretty high," Rodney said. His eyes fluttered shut and he blinked them open again. "...that I will. Don't want to sleep through my own death. That'd suck."
"Yeah," John agreed wholeheartedly. "How about I promise to wake you up for it, then?" He hooked his arm around Rodney's shoulders, hand splayed over the top of his chest, the better to monitor his breathing.
Rodney made a clumsy effort to push himself away. Crashing hard; his eyelids were drooping and he moved slowly, sluggish. It didn't take much for John to hold him in place. "Can't," he mumbled through another yawn. "Not safe..."
"What, you don't trust me to keep watch?"
John said it as a joke, mostly, but Rodney blinked in stoned confusion, the nuance of tone going over his head, if not the words. "No," he said, with the over-careful enunciation of a drunk, "I trust you."
"Then go to sleep, McKay," John said, pitched too soft to make it an order. "I'll keep an eye on you."
"But," Rodney said, and lost track of where he was going after that. "But..."
When John tugged, Rodney tilted into him, head falling heavily against John's shoulder. His eyes were closed and his breathing was steady and slowing, a rhythmic rise and fall under John's hand. He muttered something, but it was mostly unintelligible.
A few minutes later, Teyla asked, "John?"
"It's okay, he's conked out," John called back, keeping his voice low. Rodney didn't stir, snoring a little with his mouth dropped open. From the angle John could see of his face, he was still pale under the flush, and his rest wasn't the release of drugged sleep but a drained collapse, exhausted misery in every limp line of his body. It wasn't any colder a night than it had been for the last week, but John could feel him shiver in little trembling starts.
"Good." Teyla's relief was tangible. John wanted to see her and Ronon badly, wanted to reach through the thick wall and touch them. "Ronon is awakening, I think," Teyla added, and her voice lowered to a two-syllable murmur of their teammate's name.
John didn't need to see through the wood to be able to picture Ronon snapping awake, the way he did after taking a Wraith stunner, fighting fit and raring to go. Teyla's voice stayed calm and low, but John clearly heard Ronon's rough, questioning, "McKay?"
"He's okay," John called over, too loudly in his effort to reassure—Rodney jerked back awake, tried to sit up.
His eyes were open wide and glazed, confused. "Ronon's—"
"He's fine," John told him.
Rodney shook his head like he could cast off the drugged haze. "Have to—need to find him, if they took him—stun him, tie him up, stick one of those trackers in him again—"
"No, they're not." Rodney was flailing, trying to muster the coordination to get up. John kept his arm around him, gripped his shoulder. "Rodney, hey, buddy, it's okay—no Wraith here, no one's taking Ronon anywhere."
"I'm okay, McKay," Ronon said, the rumble of his voice cutting through the wooden wall. "Rodney. Go back to sleep."
"Huh, what? Oh," Rodney said. "Good," and he blinked once and relaxed, or collapsed, back on the pallet. John was pretty sure he was out before his head hit John's shoulder.
John shook his own head, sighed. It was going to be a long night even if Rodney managed to keep breathing through all of it.
Rodney didn't quite wake up, but stirred and shivered harder when a cool night draft blew through the iron bars. Wanting a blanket, John yanked at the linen wrapped over the straw pallet, but it was secured to the wooden frame, probably to keep the slaves from hanging themselves with their bed sheets.
Even with his arms folded over his chest, Rodney was trembling in the chilly air, unconsciously huddling against John. John settled with his back to the rigid wooden wall and pulled him closer, Rodney's broad back against his chest and their legs crossed over each other.
Rodney was no lightweight, but it wasn't that uncomfortable; warmer for John, too, and easier for him to monitor the continued rhythm of his friend's breathing. When he shifted to get more comfortable on the pallet, Rodney roused partway, jerked up his head and nearly bashed John on the chin. John stifled the urge to shrug him off, push him away and reestablish personal space. Rodney was still shivering a little, and he was obviously not with it, mumbling incoherently about lemons and bees and artifacts and Heisenberg—"Seriously, McKay, Heisenberg, the hell?"
Wherever Rodney was, it was someplace too far away for him to hear the quiet gibe. But when John told him, "It's okay, Rodney, we've got it covered," Rodney sank back under with the soft sigh of a sleepy child, tucking his head against John's shoulder like he was nestling in. John didn't try to stop him; Rodney was way too out of it to know what he was doing. And he'd stopped shivering.
His breathing was slow but even, every small snore and open-mouthed snuffle proof of life. "Good job, Rodney," John murmured into the quiet night, staring at the shadows of black bars before them. "You just keep that up."* * *
Come daybreak, John's back ached, his limbs were stiff and cramped, and his eyes were gritty from too many hours awake. The rising sun piercing through the bars hurt.
Hours later, and his heart still felt too loud from that unnerving moment when Rodney's breathing had caught, rash creeping hot over his sallow skin again. John hadn't known for sure if it had been an actual secondary reaction, or if he'd just been paranoid, but he'd shaken Rodney awake none too gently, had forced another handful of antihistamine pills onto him. Better safe than sorry, anyway, and Rodney had offered panicky agreement before the new dose had knocked him out cold.
After a week, John was familiar with the slavers' schedule, and with the sun up he was expecting Teyla's knock warning of the guards coming. Breakfast, and then they'd be marched out to work in the ruins.
In the pastel morning sunlight, the looming guard was less threatening than he had been in torchlight, but John recognized the blunt features of their acquaintance, and his shorter comrade standing quietly behind him. The taller man shoved two trays of food through the bars, then stared at Rodney. "How is he?"
"Great," John said, "thanks for asking," and he drew back his lips in a vicious smirk, not moving a muscle. Sometime before sunrise, Rodney had slid down so that he all but had his head resting in John's lap. If anyone who mattered had been around, John would have woken him up to spare them both the embarrassment; but he wasn't about to interrupt Rodney's much-needed rest because a couple asshole slavers were gawking.
The wannabe Viking guard took out his stun-stick, slapped the heavy end into his palm. "He gonna do the work like you promised?"
"Yeah," John said, holding himself still, one arm under Rodney and long since gone numb, his other hand resting on Rodney's shoulder, keeping track of his working lungs. "He'll do it."
"Then he can come now," the guard said, "before you workers are gathered."
Wanting to make sure their fellows didn't notice the private commission, John guessed. He glared at the taller man, and the slaver stared back, smug and sure, enjoying John's impotence.
John prodded Rodney's shoulder. "Rise and shine. Room service's here."
"Huh? What?" Rodney snorted and started awake, began to sit up and rolled onto his back instead, groaning a pitifully small, "Ow."
"You okay?" John asked, shaking feeling back into his freed arm, his other hand still on Rodney's shoulder. After the night it was more instinct than conscious contact.
"I'm terrible," Rodney rasped. "I'm awake and not dead." He rubbed his face, keeping his eyes shut. "Ugh."
"Antihistamine and epinephrine hangover. Also my back. Ouch." His face scrunched in a wince as he made to sit up again.
John gave him a hand, pushing him vertical. "On the bright side, you're breathing."
"There's that." Rodney's eyes were bloodshot when he finally pried them open, his hair a disastrous tangle, matted flat against his scalp, and his face pallid. "I'm debating whether it counts as a positive or a negative."
He should be in a bed in the infirmary, on more drugs and an IV drip, but he didn't even have the luxury of sleeping in here. "You up for breakfast?" John asked, aware of the watching guard's impatience, the smack of the stunner against his palm. That electric encouragement was the last thing Rodney needed at the moment.
"No," Rodney said, staying sitting up but shutting his eyes again. He concentrated for a moment, then mumbled, "Or, yeah, sure, what is there?"
"Let's see." John's own back was none too pleased with him as he stood, and the sleepless night provided a moment of dizziness as a reminder. "We've got gray gruel with white lumps, and white gruel with gray lumps."
"Please, sir, may I have some more?" Rodney muttered, a line they'd already used the second morning, but John wasn't going to call him on it, not until Rodney was a better color than the porridge. He shoved over the trays, and Rodney slowly picked up one of the bowls.
"Hurry up," the guard demanded, bashing his stun-stick against the bars, as his fellow glanced over his shoulder, watching for the other slavers.
Rodney almost dropped the bowl, watery gruel slopping over his hands. "It's okay," John told him, and glared at the guards. "Give him a moment, he's still sick."
"You said he could do it."
"I can fix whatever undoubtedly useless piece of equipment you give me," Rodney said, "provided you also supply the tools, and haven't managed to damage it beyond any chance of repair while using it as a birdbath or baseball bat or what-have-you."
"You know the deal?" John asked. He hadn't been sure Rodney had been paying attention at the time.
But Rodney nodded. "I was dying, not actually dead." He glanced up at John, said awkwardly, "Um, thanks. For getting the drugs and such."
John nodded, not really accepting the gratitude. He should have made a better bargain somehow. Rodney was wan enough to be gray beneath the sunburn, and his hands holding the porridge bowl were shaky with fine tremors. Whatever he said, he didn't look up to tying his shoelaces, much less tinkering with Ancient artifacts.
The guard didn't let him finish even half the bowl, before he clanged his stunner against the iron bars again and jammed his key in the padlock. "All right, that's it, get out here now."
"Yeah, hold on," John said, straightening up to face him. "We're coming."
The slaver shook his head. "Not you," he said. "Just him."
John glanced from the blond man to Rodney. "No way, you're getting both of us. He might need help—"
"He'll have to make do on his own," the guard said. "No one'll notice if he's not working," and he gestured disparagingly at Rodney, "but you're still needed excavating."
"Hey," Rodney protested weakly. "That's..."
"Now wait just a damn minute—" John began.
"Colonel, if I may suggest?" From the other side of the wagon, Teyla's voice carried clearly through the crisp morning air. "I could assist Dr. McKay, as that is my usual duty, is it not?"
John blinked, but Rodney caught on faster. "Right, yeah," he babbled, "Teyla's my, uh, my lab assistant, helps me all the time, can't fix a thing without her."
The guard eyed him. "So that's why you had a woman with your fighting unit, to serve this one?"
"Right, sure," John said. "Exploration and research—two scientists and two fighters to protect them, that's how we work."
The guard nodded. "Fine, then, we'll bring her along. Now get up."
John breathed an inaudible sigh of relief, reached down and pulled his teammate to his feet. Rodney staggered, leaned against John to steady himself. He looked like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to throw up or sit down.
"Just take it slow, and try not to piss them off too much," John told him in a low murmur. He slipped the other two epi-pens into Rodney's pockets. "You can do this."
"Yeah, right." Rodney's mouth twisted in a grimace, but he took the few tottering steps to the cage door on his own, clambered down from the wagon. The guard padlocked the door behind him, while his comrade held his stun-stick to McKay's back, though he didn't trigger it.
John watched Rodney make his way around the wagon, tripping when the guards shoved him faster, but he didn't fall. Through the wooden wall John heard Teyla and Ronon's cage open, and braced himself, fists clenched, ready if Teyla or Ronon made a move—but the camp was stirring, and there were other guards about. They wouldn't have gotten far, and didn't risk it.
He heard the murmur of Teyla's greeting and Rodney's response, took some small comfort in that, but then they were out of hearing range. He didn't even know where the slavers planned to take them.
"McKay looked like shit," Ronon said through the wall, all the frustration and anger boiling in John sounding in his teammate's growl.
"I know," John said.
"Living shit, though," Ronon said, and for now that would have to do.* * *
The slavers, experienced in their business, never let their workers gather together to plot or riot. The press gangs changed daily, and during the midday lunch break they were discouraged from mingling, with stun-sticks if necessary. Most of the other slaves had shown no interest in talking with the newcomers, and today John didn't try to make conversation, cramming the thick, dry flatbread into his mouth as he kept an eye out for any of his team. He had crossed paths with Ronon while hauling out barrows of dirt from the caved-in passageway, but of Teyla and Rodney, he had seen no sign.
The guards didn't have guns or whips to crack, just the stunners, and looped cords hanging on their belts that were some sort of Pegasus bolas. They didn't need more. John had watched the slavers catch scurrying rabbit-like things with one throw of the bolas, and figured an bolting slave would be a slower, easier target to bring down. And anyone who had felt the zap of a stun-stick came quickly to attention when the guards shouted orders. Tired as he was, John jumped to his feet as fast as any of the slaves when the lunch break was over.
Ronon was still busy hauling buckets of junk up from the lower levels on creaking pulleys. John slowed down as he pushed past him, muttered, "You seen them?"
Ronon grunted, shook his head no. "Want to go find them?"
Hell yeah, John wanted to go—but there were three guards in sight. By John's count there were a dozen guards for the thirty-odd slaves, and at least two tended to be stationed near Ronon at any time; his strength was useful to them, but they weren't too arrogantly stupid to be careless.
And they didn't know where Teyla and Rodney were, how easy it would be to use them as hostages. "No, don't try anything yet," John whispered, and Ronon ducked his head in acknowledgement.
Come nightfall, they were lead back to the circus wagons, John bruised and limping from where a cart of moldy chunks of wall had slammed into his shin. He was shoved into his usual cage alone, but Ronon was wrestled in soon after.
John stared at him. "Not that it's not great to see you, buddy," he said, hoping he was managing a drawl, "but you got any idea where our usual roommates are at?"
The look Ronon gave him, plain even muted in twilight, said he wasn't buying it. "There's no one in the other cage yet," he pointed out.
John cocked an ear and listened through the wall. Ronon was right. The other workers had all been brought to the wagons, but maybe the guards were keeping Teyla and Rodney after school for extracurriculars. That, or they were just waiting until no one was watching to bring them back.
John's temples were pulsing with fatigue, and his leg ached; he could tell himself it was to keep it from stiffening that he paced the cage, eight strides that way and eight back again. Rodney had made snide cracks about black circus leopards and spots showing through John's hair, the first few nights; but Ronon didn't say anything. He watched, though, standing with his arms folded and his face set like stone, his eyes tracking John's useless progress across the floor. Fully upright, the top of Ronon's head almost hit the wagon's heavy ceiling beams; the cage wasn't made to hold the likes of him.
John had done thirteen circuits—not that he was counting—when the rough floorboards vibrated under his boots, with the clang of the other cage's door smashing shut. Muffled footsteps thudded behind the wooden wall, and John stopped, listened close. Ronon stood stock-still in attention.
The murmur of voices was too soft to identify, but the pitch was high; there was only one woman among the workers, and none among the guards. "Teyla?" John asked.
"It is us," Teyla answered immediately. "Rodney and I. You and Ronon?"
"Here," Ronon checked in, his stone face cracking open. "McKay's okay?"
"Not by any practical working definition." Rodney's rasp hardly carried through the wagon's walls, but John, standing close to the bars, could make him out, and exhaled his relief. A McKay who could bitch was doing all right.
"He did very well," Teyla said. "Better than could be expected of him."
"She means I didn't actually pass out or throw up on anyone," Rodney said.
"Far more than that," Teyla said, and then quieted as the guards came with dinner.
After they were finished eating—"You want my fruit, McKay?" Ronon offered, teeth bared in a grin Rodney would be able to hear, if not see; "Oh, clever, mock the immunologically impaired," Rodney returned through the wall, and the sarcasm cutting through his audible weariness made Ronon's grin broaden—and the guards had retired to their tents, out of hearing range, Teyla explained, "We were unable to reclaim the life signs detector from the guards. But what we were working on should prove even more useful."
"What I was working with," Rodney corrected.
"Yes, what you were, Rodney," Teyla answered that rote obnoxiousness good-naturedly, "and I am sure you would have easily lifted that fallen panel by yourself."
"Fine, we," Rodney returned. "These morons don't know what they've found, obviously, we knew that already. So they didn't think much of locking us in a chamber, giving me a pile of stuff to try to fix, and leaving us alone for a while. Long enough for me to access some of the outpost's systems—they've destroyed enough consoles that most of the research database is gone, but Ancient systems are so redundant that the backups are still—" He broke off in a coughing, sneezing fit violent enough to be audible on their side of the wagon.
"Rodney?" John asked, hand pressed to the wooden wall in lieu of smashing his fist there in a futile effort to break through. He could make out Teyla's murmur, knew she'd be doing what she could, and Rodney ought to still have the other two epi-pens on him—but he was the team leader and he should be over there, damn it.
"...Fine," Rodney got out when he was done sneezing, to Teyla or to all of them. "I'm fine, it's not an asthma attack. I'm just hypersensitive now to the damn dust, or pollen, or stupidity—"
"You're always allergic to that," John pointed out. "How many times have you accused other scientists' theories of giving you hives?"
"As I was saying," Rodney said, sounding put upon, as if John were more bothersome than his haywire immune responses, "most of the major systems of the outpost are still intact. The doors, the lights, the ventilation."
"You've got access to all that?" John asked.
"To make sure we couldn't crawl out through a hole in the wall, they put us into one of the more intact chambers," Rodney said. "That is, the best shielded ones in the complex—which happen to be the main control rooms. We're being held by imbeciles."
"Lucky for us," John said. "So you can arrange a distraction for us to escape?"
"That is the idea," Teyla said. "There is this, too. If you would put out your hand, John."
John snaked his hand through the iron bars, fingers open, and grabbed hold of what brushed against them. "Got it." He examined the palm-sized, flat piece of cero-metallic paneling, one of the many fragments littering the outpost's half-buried corridors. It was scratched with tiny chalk markings, and he tilted it into the moonlight as Ronon leaned in to see: Stargate symbols, a gate address.
"That's this world," Rodney said, "one of the few things I did get out of the database. At least we know where we are now—maybe after we get away we can send a mission back, before they've destroyed everything here."
"Right," John said, burning the symbols into his memory with the ease of practice. Ronon, having grown up with basic Stargate mnemonics, was even faster; by the time John had finished he was already looking away. The bit of paneling was too hard to break without tools, but John scrubbed off the chalk with his sleeve and threw it away, through the bars. The guards wouldn't notice just another piece scattered on the ground.
"So what's the plan?" John asked. "When will you be ready to set off the distraction?"
"Tomorrow, a half hour into the lunch break," Rodney said. "Make sure you're outside the complex."
His voice was still hoarse and shaky, and John frowned. "You sure you'll be up for this? We could wait another day—"
"Can't," Rodney said. "I fixed a few of their more useless gadgets, but these morons are impatient. They want weapons, they won't let me keep working on harmless stuff for long. I'm with Teyla, I'll manage. You and Ronon just be ready."
"We will be," Ronon said, grinning dangerously.
"All right," John conceded. "We meet at the clearing with the abandoned shaft, make the run to the Stargate together. Got it?" He waited for Teyla and Rodney's agreement, then said, "Let's get some sleep now. Busy day tomorrow."
He waited, listening through the quiet night, until he thought he heard Rodney's soft snores, then asked, "Teyla?"
"I am awake," she replied. "'Rodney is sleeping soundly."
"How's he doing, really?"
Teyla only hesitated a moment. "Well enough," she said, "though he tired easily. I do not think he could have managed more strenuous labor than these repair tasks. But he did not suffer another attack."
"What about tomorrow? Is he going to be in any shape to run for it?"
Teyla paused again. "As he said, he must be," she said finally. "We have little choice. Rodney knows this."
"It's not like we're going to escape without him," John said.
"Rodney knows this, too," Teyla replied. "Be assured, John, I will guard him."
"Yeah, I know."
"It would do little good to tell you not to worry, would it," Teyla said with teasing asperity.
"Probably not," John admitted. "Team leader and all—it's part of my job description."
"Then I will only tell you to sleep, so you may have the energy to worry more."
John chuckled, probably too softly for Teyla to hear. "Right."
Ronon was already stretched out on the other pallet, though his eyes were open, glittering darkly in the moonlight. "Tomorrow we're getting out of here," he told John, determinedly triumphant, like they were already gone and safe. "All of us." He stretched out, boot soles jarring the iron bars. "Be good to be sleeping on a bed again."
Couldn't argue with that. "Rodney said the same thing every night. Only louder and more times."
Ronon's teeth gleamed as he grinned. "McKay's smarter than he looks, sometimes."
"This plan of his better work."
Ronon shrugged. "They usually do." He rolled onto his side to face John. "We get back, the docs will stick him in a hospital bed, instead of that stupid mattress he's so proud of. He'll whine about that. But he's going to be okay."
It was a statement, not a question, but John answered it anyway. "Yeah."* * *
Hard at work the next morning, John didn't cross Ronon's path, or catch a glimpse of Rodney or Teyla. At the lunch break, while most of the slaves sat to eat, resting while they could, John made like he was seeking out shade, strolling under the overhanging forest branches as he counted the minutes by.
Looking back at the half-buried outpost, he surreptitiously located the guards—three visible at the perimeter; and probably five more just out of sight. The three he could see were watching him back, alert but at ease. The forest's edge was sparse, the saplings too narrow to hide behind; they weren't expecting him to be stupid enough to make a run for it.
They weren't expecting the ground to start moving, either. Neither was John, for that matter. He was ready for a light show from the Ancient structure, alarms going off, maybe some doors closing. But the flashing lights, and the deafening wail shrieking from the very walls, were nothing to the quaking of the earth under their feet, the solid ground rocking like a table with uneven legs.
One of the guards actually fell over; John didn't take time to enjoy that, because he was already booking it for the forest, grinning as he ran. Good show, McKay. Really going above and beyond—not that he'd expected anything less.
He made it pretty far before he heard shouting, and a whizzing whir and thud of one of the guard's bolas hitting a tree—but all of that was behind him and that was all that mattered. Then he plowed into the underbrush of the deeper forest, crashing through giant shoulder-high ferns that could've fit on the set for Jurassic Park.
No one was following him, as far as he could hear—they had bigger things to worry about. John doubled back and headed for the clearing. An auxiliary to the primary facility, Rodney had guessed; the slaves had been working it their first day here, but then it had been abandoned for the more easily accessed main tunnels, the wagons and slavers' tents picked up and moved. The ground was still rutted and pocked from the wheels of the heavy iron and wooden prisons.
Ronon was already waiting for him, crouched among the long grasses. Keeping low himself as he caught his breath, John didn't see him until Ronon poked his shoulder. John whirled to attack with a blow that the big guy didn't even bother ducking, just blocked with a sweep of his arm.
"You found the place," his teammate said, not much over a whisper.
"Yeah," John replied, keeping his voice also low and his irritation mostly out of it. It wasn't like a clearing this big would be that easy to miss, even on the ground. "Were we followed?"
"Don't think so, don't hear any guards." Ronon shook his head. "Don't hear Teyla or McKay, either."
"Give them time, we don't know where they were when it went off."
"You see it?" Ronon asked, looking amused. "The way the place was shaking?"
"I saw the ground move. Was it the whole structure?"
"Like Atlantis when it flies," Ronon confirmed. "Good thing most of the workers were sitting down. Couple of the guards got knocked around."
By his smirk, John guessed they had had help going down. But Ronon knew when to go for vengeance, and when to run for it. Revenge could wait; escape was their priority.
The sunlight streamed through the forest's dark green-blue leaves, golden beams strained to cooler tones. Midday was hot, sweat tricking down the back of John's neck, and the buzz of alien insects swelled and fell again around them, not interrupted by anyone's approach. Rodney wouldn't have set off his distraction until he and Teyla were properly positioned, just give them the chance to show...
John didn't count the seconds to know it had been too long; his gut told him. "They're not coming."
Ronon didn't question it; Ronon rarely did. He didn't ask if John thought their teammates had been recaptured, just said, "So we go back?"
"I'm going back," John said. "You go on to the Stargate."
Ronon's frown was thunderous, but John shook his head firmly. "It's a good half mile from here, and you're faster. And you've got the best chance of making it through whatever guard they have on it."
"Two of us would have a better chance," Ronon said.
"Can't risk it, we don't know what's happened to Teyla and McKay. If they're in trouble—"
"You don't have a weapon."
"Neither do you," John pointed out. "And I know you're dying to get your blaster back from these slaver bastards, but that'll be easier to reclaim when you've got a P-90 and a jumper at your back—and the longer we stand here talking, the more they could be doing to Teyla and Rodney, so go!"
Ronon didn't nod, just reached behind his back and pulled out a knife. He handed the blade to John, then turned and plunged into the forest without so much as a, "Good luck."
Gripping the knife's leather-wrapped hilt, John took off in the opposite direction, back toward the outpost and his two tardy teammates.* * *
His legs were burning by the time he made it back to the slave camp. Getting old, John—only a week without his regular jog, and look at him puffing for breath.
Then he lost track of those inconsequential aches, as through the trees he saw the camp. The slavers had called it a day early: all the slaves had been returned to the cages, locked inside; and the dozen or so guards were gathered in the space between the wagons and their tents. And in the middle of that group—
Teyla was on the ground, facedown with her auburn hair spread over the dirt, but she was moving, at least. Rodney was kneeling on the ground behind her, and one of the guards stood over him, back to John, with his dirty blond queue hanging down the length of his spine under his grimy leather coat.
He had his stun-stick out, was holding it to the side of Rodney's head, and Rodney's mouth was open like he was screaming, but he wasn't making any sound that John could hear.
If John had taken a moment to think, he probably could have come up with a better plan than bellowing, "Stop it!" and charging forward with Ronon's knife in his hand.
But then, if he had taken a moment to think, the slaver would've kept the stunner to Rodney's temple for that much longer.
As it was, when the other guards had grabbed John, ripping his knife away, and dropped him into the dust beside his teammates, Rodney was lying on his back, his eyes open but unaware, staring up at the sky as he panted in almost inaudibly shallow breaths.
"Rodney?" John said, reaching toward him. The guards had applied their stun-sticks to loosen his grip on the knife, and his arms were trembling from the aftermath, like the quivers of muscle fatigue after benching over his max. "Come on, buddy, look at me—"
Teyla was awake, but her legs were tangled in two pairs of the guards' bolas; every time she twitched there was a crackle and flash like the charge of the stun-sticks, and she would shudder. "John," she gasped, trying to crawl closer anyway, "I had hoped you were able to escape—"
John shook his head at her, silent command to lie still and not get zapped. He was dizzy himself from the partial stunning, and one of the slavers had clouted him across the head hard enough that he was tasting blood. And Rodney hadn't moved, body rigid, and his wrist was cold when John put his fingers to the pulse point. Going into shock—the anaphylaxis without the proper chance to recover had put him to his limit; now he'd been pushed past it.
The guard standing over them was shouting, "—have to show all you workers how pointless it is to try to escape!" John squinted up into the sun at the man, recognizing the blunt, twisted features of their erstwhile ally.
The slaver sneered down at John. He looked a little put out to have had his trust betrayed. "What, you weren't expecting an escape attempt?" John asked him. "You must be new to the slave-keeping gig, huh—"
He was ready for the backhand, let his head turn with it to dispel the worst force of the blow, though it opened his split lip again, blood tangy on his tongue.
"Now that you've been recaptured," the guard said loudly, towering over John and blocking out the blinding sunlight, "you'll also make a lesson for the others." He gestured at the surrounding cages, positioned so that all of the slaves could see their spectacle. Most of them were watching, some eagerly, grinning in anticipation like this was the best entertainment they'd had in a while; though a few had turned away.
The guard didn't look like he particularly cared one way or another; more into giving the object lesson than actually educating. "Once your friend and his woman have taken their punishment, you'll get what's coming to you," he told John, then crouched to grab Rodney by the collar, hauled him up to his knees again.
Rodney didn't resist, head not lolling back for all the unconscious blankness of his stare—his muscles locked tense, stiff as an unjointed action figure, rigor mortis in a living body. "This is what happens to those stupid enough to try to run," the guard said, projecting to be heard by the watching slaves, and he was smirking as he brought up his stun-stick again.
Teyla cried out in powerless protest. "Wait!" John shouted, pushing himself up, but he didn't make it to his feet before two other guards grabbed him from behind and wrestled him to a standstill. They were bigger than him and their hands were like manacles around his biceps, but he fought back. "You can't—" Rodney still wasn't moving, and his hands at his sides were curled into claws, like he was still in the grip of the stun.
"Maybe we should hold off," one of the guards holding John said, though he didn't relax his grip any. The glimpse of his profile was enough for John to identify the big guard's crony, the other one in on the deal, the man who had brought the medicines the night before last, just in time. "He's no good to us if he dies..."
"This sumpter's no good to us anyway," the taller guard snapped. "He's too weak for real labor, and look what happened when we showed mercy, gave him easier work. They're playing us for fools—"
John's bark of laughter was painfully forced, but it got the slaver's attention away from Rodney. "We don't have to play you for that, you do fine on your own," he said, staring the man in the eye and making his smirk as insulting as possible. "Hell, you wouldn't even have caught me now if I hadn't come back." He widened the smirk. "And showing mercy, is that what you're calling it—I thought you were trying to make some extra cash behind your buddies' backs, or should I not be mentioning our deal—"
"Shut up!" The guard's face went red, all but frothing at the mouth. He threw Rodney down and stalked toward John, stun-stick raised.
Rodney made a faint groan as he crumpled to the ground, and that proof of life was enough that John's smile became real, for the split second before the guard's stun-stick touched his temple.
There was the crack of a released charge, and the world whited out in a pain so total it was annihilating. John couldn't tell where it hurt, couldn't tell what was hurting, whether he still had a body to be hurt. He'd felt the stun-sticks before, several times daily, and just a few minutes ago; but this was a whole other realm, the difference between a paper cut and a severed limb.
When it stopped, it took him a couple moments to realize it was over, another few moments to remember where he was, to become aware of himself again, of his body juddering from the shock like he was seizing, of the ground and grass crushed under him. To hear the shouts and stuttering retorts of gunfire—
But the slavers didn't use guns. John blinked—his eyes were already open, he realized—heaved a breath and rolled onto his side to lever himself up to his knees.
"John?" Teyla had dragged herself to his side to touch his arm, sweat beaded on her forehead and her complexion gray under the warm bronze. The bolas wrapped around her legs were still shocking her whenever she moved to free herself. But her lips were pulled into a tight, grimacing smile. "I believe Ronon's escape was as successful as ours was not."
P-90 fire was still strafing overhead, and the jumper's engines whistled as it soared by. Some of the slavers were standing their ground, but most had scattered into the woods, or were crouched with their hands over their heads.
"Rodney?" John demanded, looking around.
"Yeah?" Rodney said from John's other side, on hands and knees and his face the color of milk gone off, but his eyes were focusing, more or less.
Just past him, hunkered low on the ground, was the guard who had brought the drugs, who had hesitantly spoken up to his buddy against zapping Rodney again. He had his stun-stick in his hand and was looking at Rodney, and John could see the wheels in his head turning, considering what their rescuers would do in a hostage situation.
John met the man's eyes, shook his head. "Don't," he suggested. "Get out of here. Our people aren't here for revenge. Just us."
The slaver stared at him, then glanced at Rodney. Then back at John, taking in his shaky arms, his dizzy wavering, even sitting down.
The look in his eyes, Touch him and I'll kill you: not a threat, only a fact.
Slipping his stun-stick back in his belt, the guard peered over his shoulder at the advancing Marines, then pushed to his feet and took off for the forest, leaving them behind.
John reached for Teyla's legs. His hands were trembling, but he managed to unwind one of the entangled bolas and started on the other, muttering swears as she hissed with every shock.
Rodney blinked at them, then twisted his head toward the people approaching. John followed his gaze. With the sun at their backs it was hard to make out their faces, but a silhouette that tall could only be Ronon, and John raised a hand in an about-time-you-guys-showed-up wave.
"We're getting rescued?" Rodney asked, weary and confused, like he couldn't trust his eyes.
"Yeah, buddy," John told him, reaching over to tap his shoulder, assure him he was awake and not hallucinating. "Unless you'd like to stick around, get some exercise in, sample more of the local fruit—"
Teyla smacked him on the arm, none too gently but it was worth it for Rodney's aggravated, amused snort.* * *
True to Ronon's prediction, McKay spent the night in the infirmary, getting his blood sugar balanced and his vitals monitored. Though he didn't whine about it, instead was atypically subdued; but after the last few days John figured he was ready for a rest. Ronon brought an extra tray down from the commissary for him, and John set up his laptop on the end of the bed, and the four of them got most of the way through the X-men movies before the medical staff chased them out for the night.
Two days later, when they were organizing the expedition back to M5Y-349, Rodney declined to accompany the team. Since he was still looking a little peaked, and had only been cleared for light duty, John cut him some slack and let him skip the mission.
The planet was pretty much as they had left it, warm yellow sun shining over the green forest and fields. The charred husks of the prison wagons were cold ash, no longer smoldering. After they had released the slaves, John had taken out the wagons with a couple jumper drones—overkill, maybe, but it had felt damn good. The slaves had dialed out, to wherever they liked; those who didn't have a home to return to had been taken to the Alpha site, to relocate with the Athosians or make their own plans.
The slavers had mostly fled in the forest; those who the Atlantis soldiers had captured had been let go anyway. There wasn't any Pegasus tribunal to hold them accountable for their crimes, no code of justice to try them by.
Ronon had suggested execution, not a joke and not even that angrily; matter-of-fact in a way that had shaken John. More than anything because he considered it, could have done it. Lorne and the Marines would have looked the other way, if they wouldn't help—and they might have, after over a week of frustrated searches.
But Rodney, huddled on the back bench of the jumper wrapped in a blanket, had mumbled, "Are you nuts, we can't do that."
And of course they couldn't. Except that John, gripping a P-90 in his hands, remembering that terrible whistling, wheezing sound Rodney had made struggling to breathe; and Rodney's eyes, glazed and blank with agony—John could have done it then, and he went cold later, thinking about it.
Instead they'd let their captors turned captives go, warned them not to come back, and had contented themselves with destroying the tools of their slave trade. John had assigned a couple Marines in a jumper to keep watch on the ruins of the Ancient outpost, told them to ignore anyone leaving through the Stargate, and then returned with his team to Atlantis.
Coming back now, walking through the gate in a clean uniform with the comfortable weight of his P-90 hanging from his vest, felt like a mission to a new world; even the burnt-out wagons might have been the debris of an unknown people. Zelenka and the other four scientists Rodney had selected were ecstatic, scurrying about the ruins of the outpost like kids on Christmas morning, poking at this and that. John sat on a stump beside the entrance of the main tunnel where he'd hauled rocks for a week, gun resting casually in the crook of his elbow as he watched the scientists work from behind his sunglasses.
"Feels weird," Ronon remarked, leaning on a nearby tree with his arms folded, his blaster in hand. He had retrieved it from the guards' tents before they had left the planet, and hadn't let go of it since, that John had noticed. Even on Atlantis he'd been keeping a couple fingers on the grip when he had it holstered.
"Being back here? Yeah," John agreed. He tilted his head back so the sunlight fell warm on his face. "Kind of nice, though, when we don't have to do anything. The weather's great."
"Rodney ought to have come with us," Teyla said.
"You know how McKay feels about sunlight and fresh air."
"Yes," Teyla said, "but after all the objections he made to the work we were forced to do, I would have thought he would want to oversee the exploration."
John shrugged. Rodney could have used the sun—he was looking pale now that the sunburn had faded, and still tired; he'd been retiring from the labs before midnight every night. But John hadn't been all that eager to come back himself, however pleasant it might be sitting in the sun now; he could understand Rodney's reluctance to revisit the place where he'd stopped breathing, not to mention the whole slave labor deal. "This place has been around for ten thousand years, we can come back when he's ready."
Besides, it wasn't as if McKay were staying uninvolved; John had caught him giving Zelenka a laundry list three pages long of things to check out. And when they got back to Atlantis, Rodney descended on all of them, badgering them with questions about the condition of the ruins, and sweeping up the various artifacts his people had collected like some kind of deranged device vacuum cleaner, rushing everything back to his lab for examination with better equipment than sticks and rocks.
He was so excited by the trove of collected gadgets that John assumed he was regretting not going personally after all, and started planning a second trip to M5Y-349, after their upcoming missions were completed.
So he was surprised to get an entirely different email from Dr. McKay the next afternoon. Rather than reply to it, John saved himself some typos and went down to the lab to ask in person. "What do you mean, you aren't available for tomorrow's mission?"
Rodney, busy at two laptops with three esoteric, scratched and dusty devices on the counter before him, wouldn't look him in the eye. That wasn't unexpected; he wouldn't have resorted to sending an email if this were anything he wanted to get confrontational about. Which set off most of John's warning bells, because Rodney rarely backed down from confrontation.
He wasn't prepared for the answer, however. "Not just tomorrow's mission," Rodney said. "I thought my message made that clear."
"'For an indefinite period of time' makes zilch clear," John said. "What happened, weren't you cleared for active duty this morning?"
Rodney shook his head. "Technically, yes, but." He stopped typing, folded his arms and exhaled. "You'll be getting the notice tomorrow. I'm officially removing myself from the off-world team roster."
The words hung in silence for a moment. Eventually John realized the punch-line he was waiting for wasn't coming. "What?"
"If you want another scientist on your team," Rodney said, "I can prepare a few recommendations; Zelenka's an obvious candidate, but there are a couple other engineers and physicists with off-world experience. Or else there are several Air Force and Marines officers with fairly extensive backgrounds in science; the SGC tends to recruit—"
"Wait, what?" John said again. "You're not serious—"
"I'll have the paperwork ready tomorrow, but I wanted to give you a heads' up about the mission, in case you want a fourth for it. It sounds like a cakewalk, but—"
"Rodney, what the hell?"
Rodney set his jaw, still not looking at John. "Recent events have forced me to realize that I am unsuitable for regular off-world travel."
"You've been going through the gate for years," John said. "Now one mission goes sour, and you're going to quit?" He might have laughed, if he wasn't wondering if he should be calling the infirmary. Or else having Lorne check for pod people growing in the lower levels. "Not even the worst mission we've had—hell, it wasn't the worst we've had this year." Okay, the brush with death was closer than he preferred, but they'd come closer. "You weren't even in the infirmary for twenty-four hours."
"You know, it wasn't as bad as I remembered," Rodney remarked, contemplatively. "The anaphylaxis. I mean, it was horrible, definitely not my chosen way to go—peacefully in my sleep at a hundred and twelve—but there's worse. I've faced worse, in the last few years, and I think overall I prefer suffocation to, say, being burned alive."
There was a knot like a ball of ice in the pit of John's stomach. "Look, I know it was rough, but if you don't think you can handle off-world—"
"It's not that," Rodney said, irritated. "I came to terms with my mortality when I started going through the Stargate."
John arched an eyebrow. "Really, now."
"Well, no, not at all, but I've been indoctrinated into the reckless mindset of you adrenaline junky types, such that when necessary I can willfully forget we're a hair's breadth from certain death. So, close enough." Rodney shrugged. "This has nothing to do with me; it's about you. All of you. The team."
"What about us?" John asked, and the cold sick knot in his belly burst; he was so angry he could taste bile. "You don't think we did everything we could? Ronon carried the epi-pen, Teyla—"
"I am painfully aware of what they did—of what you all did," Rodney said over him. He spun his chair around, finally looked at John directly. "I told Teyla to go—I told her to get the hell out of there, when I knew I couldn't make it. The guards were occupied, the way was clear, she could've made it. But she wouldn't leave me behind, and I couldn't keep up, even with her help, I couldn't go fast enough."
"It wasn't your fault," John said. "All the dust and crap in the air, your allergies were reacting to it worse than usual. According to the doctors it's lucky you didn't go full-blown biphasic again."
"And Teyla risked her life, on my sorry luck. Had to risk it, because that's the way we work, we don't leave anyone behind. And you, you came back, for both of us—and that's why."
Rodney faced him, back drawn up straight and rounded shoulders braced. "When you first came to me, told me I would be on your team, and I told you it would be too risky—I wasn't considering the real risk. I didn't properly realize how great a liability my health could be. Not to myself, that I got just fine—but to the people I work with, to our mission. I didn't calculate what the hazard would be to you, keeping me safe."
"I've got conditions that could potentially kill me. Citrus, bees, the hypoglycemia, I've lived with that all my life. But that they could get other people killed—that I could kill my..." Rodney shook his head hard. "It's not like I didn't know my weaknesses. I'm not a soldier, I've never wanted to be one, but I've done what I could. I've gone to the shooting range, I've let Ronon abuse me in the name of self-defense training. But this—there's nothing I can do about this. I tasted the wrong damn fruit—fruit, for god's sake, how absurd is that?—and all of you paid for it."
"And now you want off the team," John said.
"I don't want—" Rodney started, a knee-jerk reaction that he clamped his mouth down on a second late. "It's the right decision for all concerned," he said tightly instead, his hands balling into fists at his sides. "The risk to you—"
"Yeah," John said, "and what about the risk to us when we don't have you there? Other scientists, sure—who don't think as fast, who shut down when they panic instead of getting better. Who aren't used to working with us and can't do what you do. Damn it, McKay, how the hell would we have gotten away from those slavers, if we hadn't had you to engineer that earthquake?"
"It wasn't an earthquake," Rodney muttered, "just a mass displacement engine applied to—"
"It was a piece of ten thousand year old tech that you got working, right under those bastards' noses, with no tools and no time," John said. "You give me another one of your scientists who you can guarantee can pull off what you do, as fast as you do it—and when they're half-dead—and I'll consider letting you off the team. Until then—I told you way back when, I need the best. That hasn't changed."
Appealing to the McKay ego was always a delicate game—don't want to overfeed that beast. But Rodney wasn't the same man he'd cajoled onto his team a lifetime ago. The stubborn squaring of his jaw was the same, but the look in his eyes was that much older, the eyes of someone who'd seen that much more, who understood what he hadn't before. "The best of what?" Rodney asked quietly. "The smartest man on Atlantis isn't the best for your team, if he's not smart enough to avoid the lethal fruit cup."
"If I'd tasted it first, I could've warned you to avoid it."
"It wasn't your responsibility. My allergies, my job to look out for them."
"And my job to look out for you," John said. "You're not the only one with weaknesses. Teyla's got the Wraith-gene thing, that's damn useful but it's caused its share of problems, too. Ronon's past got you an arrow in the ass."
"And you attract any passing Ascended floozie," Rodney sniped, "but that's—"
"The same thing, pretty much," John cut him off. "Well, not the floozies—but we've all got our kryptonite. Hell, it's not like allergies are unique to you; epi-pens are included in the standard SGC gear for a reason. We're in an alien galaxy, there's plenty of dangers to watch out for. And plenty of dangers that we need that brain of yours to save us from." He pointed at Rodney's forehead with one finger. "We keep you safe out there, and you keep us safe. That's how the team works. That's how we're going to keep working."
Rodney was sitting very still, even his hands quiescent for once, resting on his knees. As stiff as when he'd been hit with the slavers' stun, and John felt as paralyzed. His choice, ultimately; Rodney wasn't military, John couldn't pull rank on him, couldn't do anything but choose a replacement, should Atlantis's head of science request removal from off-world missions.
He could understand what it had been like for Rodney, throat closed up and unable to breathe, his heart pounding too loudly in his ears.
Rodney's lopsided, quicksilver grin, there and gone again, was like a jolt of epinephrine, a surge of returned strength. "Through sickness and in health?"
John grinned back. "'Til death by Wraith, Replicator, or lemon. Whichever comes last."
Rodney narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "If we're going to make this official, you better be ready to wear the other dress, with Teyla. I can't pull off white, and I don't think veils will work with Ronon's hair, even if you could find a gown his size."
"...I don't want to know how your brain works, McKay."
"So." Rodney cleared his throat. "Mission briefing's at 1100 tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Got time for chess now?"
Rodney waved absently. "Later, I've got two crates of unsorted artifacts to go through, and I'm hoping those blond Neanderthals didn't get to all of them."
"I was calling them Vikings myself," John remarked. "Have fun with your doohickeys, then, see you at lunch."
"Right, yeah." Rodney had already turned back to his laptops, prodding the rusty gadget with prongs like doubled tuning forks.
John was at the door when Rodney said, "Hey. Sheppard."
Rodney didn't look up, busy with his devices. "Before I forget to say it. Thank you."
For saving his life; for keeping him on his team; for asking him to be on the team to begin with. Rodney didn't say and John didn't ask. It didn't matter; his answer would be the same regardless. "Anytime," John said, and went to make sure lemon meringue wasn't on the commissary's dessert menu today.