Characters: Rodney, John, cameos by others
Word Count: ~8300
Spoilers: Through S4's Trio
Summary: Sometimes the small things in the dark are worse than the big things in the light.
A/N: Written as a Christmas present for x_erikah_x (what do you mean Christmas is over?) who wanted bugs, blood, whump for Sheppard and McKay (more for Sheppard), male bonding, snark, and Rodney having to comfort John. I hope I came close. Thanks to kristen999 for the beta. All faults mine.
“I understand why…you benched Teyla. Pregnant…and all. But Ronon? I mean…it was only…a torn ligament. That’s like a…splinter to you and me. OK, maybe…you because I’m…you know…sensitive to…pain. Which reminds me…you are a lot heavier…than you look. I…have to stop…just for a minute.”
Rodney staggered to a halt and knelt, allowing Sheppard to slide bonelessly off his shoulder to rest against one of the larger trees.
“Oh, thank God.” Rodney slowly straightened, pressing both hands to the base of his spine as it popped and cracked. “Ow! Ow, ow, ow. I think you’ve crushed all my vertebrae. They’re probably completely fused at this point. You so owe me for this. A month of desserts. Good ones. And a massage by the hottest Swedish chick we can find on our next trip back to Earth. If we ever get off this rock.”
He tipped his head back with a sigh and gasped as a red gas giant peeked over a mountaintop. “We’re on a moon, Sheppard. This system’s version of Jupiter is rising. I would really love my job right now if we weren’t on the run from raving lunatics.” Frowning, he glanced down at the unconscious man. “Now would be a good time for you to wake up. You remember that I’m not Ronon, right? Quit lying down on the job. We need to get out of here, and I could use a little help.”
At Sheppard’s appalling lack of response, Rodney crouched to check the man’s pulse again – strong and steady. No need to panic, he told his thrumming heart. It was just a stun. Sheppard would be fine. He’d wake up any second, insult Rodney, and then lead them home. That’s what he did. Maybe he needed some encouragement.
“That blast must have hit you in the head if you have no comeback for that. Seriously, could I have left myself any more wide open? Anyway, without my gear, I have no way of contacting Atlantis even if I could locate the gate. We can follow that painfully bumpy path back I think, but that’s where the bad guys are. I don’t do covert well on a good day, and certainly not if I have to haul your lazy ass around.”
Apparently it wasn’t enough encouragement. Grabbing Sheppard’s arm, Rodney pulled him over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and stood with a grunt. The forest near the trail had been heavily logged, resulting in very few trees and sparse foliage. The sun had just started to dip toward the horizon which left them exposed to anyone looking in the right direction. Or so he assumed. Ronon said things like that all the time.
Once Rodney found his balance, he headed deeper into the woods. “I bet you wish…Ronon was here. He would’ve…already found a cave, made…camp, and had a small furry animal…roasting on a spit. But, no. I’m here, and…he’s living it…up on Atlantis.”
Sheppard dunked a muffin in his coffee. “Keller said the knee damage isn’t permanent. Ronon should be good as new after a few weeks of physical therapy.”
“I am pleased to hear it. I have never seen him in such pain,” Teyla said.
“I’d hate to be Jorgenson when Ronon asks for a rematch,” Rodney remarked around bites of scrambled eggs and toast.
“Me too. I hope he gets it out of his system before our next sparring match.” John grinned mischievously. “Or yours.”
“I’ll have you know I can hold my own.” Rodney glared at Sheppard’s guffaw. “I can,” he insisted, “just not for long.”
“I’d guess for about thirty seconds.”
“I have seen them spar, John,” Teyla affirmed. “I would estimate it to be closer to forty-five seconds.”
“Hey! I’ll have you know I lasted for a full minute last time. Almost.” Rodney smiled when she laughed, a rare sound these days.
“OK, Jet Li. Time to go.”
“I hate it when you call me that.”
Sheppard smirked as he stood and collected his tray. “I know.”
“I told you we…shouldn’t…negotiate. Ever. We suck at it. We need Teyla…or Elizab- Damn. Sorry. I saw Sam…in her office a few…days ago and for a minute…I wondered when Elizabeth…had gone blond. Sometimes, I…forget. Last time…I woke up in…the infirmary, Keller had…to remind me that…Carson, well, you know.”
Rodney paused to catch his breath. The underbrush reached to mid-calf and had tried repeatedly to trip him. While there was no discernable path, he had taken the easiest route, which was now rapidly growing steeper. The planet’s climate was perfect – sunny, gentle breeze, white wispy clouds in a startlingly blue sky – but sweat poured down his face and back. Unknown rustlings in the brush made his heart leap, prodding him onward.
“What was I…saying? Oh, yes, negotiating should be…left to anybody…but us. I have…no idea what we did, but…we should definitely…not do it again.”
Rodney glanced around. Medieval hell. Again. “What are we doing here?”
“Sergeant Munroe said the Silem are interested in trading some kind of bean and access to the ruins in exchange for repairs to their irrigation system.”
“Their irrigation system. Do I look like a farmer to you?”
“This has nothing to do with farming. The pump for their well is broken.”
“What do you need me for? Any of the sycophants working for me can fix it.”
“You’re here because I’m here, and I’m here because Colonel Carter couldn’t come. You do remember breaking her leg, don’t you?”
“That wasn’t my fault!”
“Sure,” Sheppard drawled.
Negotiations had been surprisingly smooth. The Silem were happy to see them, grateful for the assistance, and growers of the most fabulous almost-coffee bean that Rodney had encountered in Pegasus. A celebratory feast in honor of the agreement capped it off. Then, halfway back to the gate, everything went to hell.
“I am…glad to be out…of that damn wagon, but this…would have worked better if…you had let me get hit…with the stunner…instead of…shoving me out…of the way and getting…hit yourself. Who…knew a…stunner blast would…carry that far? I thought…we were well…out of range. Anyway, it’s not…that I don’t…appreciate it, but you…know I’m going to get…us caught again. Not Ronon, remember? It was…a valiant escape attempt…though I don’t…want to know…where you were…hiding that knife.”
The terrain had leveled off, and Rodney braced an arm against a tree as he surveyed the landscape. Trees, trees and more trees. No water. He eased Sheppard to the ground with a groan and stood stiffly, twisting to work out the kinks in his back.
“You wait here. I’m going to scout around a bit.” He sighed. “Never thought that would be something I would ever say.”
He stumbled through the undergrowth then stopped and backtracked when he realized he had to actually find Sheppard again. Pulling several PowerBars from various pockets, he started again, dropping them in spots of sunshine as he went. After a few minutes of searching, the welcoming gurgle of a brook greeted him. Lying on his stomach, he stuck his entire face in the water, drinking greedily and definitely not thinking about the gross and disgusting things that might be in it. He ran his fingers through his hair and down his neck, wiping away a day and a half’s worth of gunk and grime. Drying his face with the hem of his t-shirt, he poked around the area for anything that would carry water but came up empty. Sheppard would have to wake up and get his own damn water.
The wrappers glinted in the sunlight, and he picked them up as he made his way back, snacking on one and stuffing the rest in his pockets. When he burst through the foliage, he found Sheppard exactly where he’d left him, still unconscious but surrounded by their three severely pissed off captors. Huey, Dewey, and Louie whirled at his approach, aiming stunners at his head. Heart sinking, Rodney swallowed the last bite as he slid to a stop and raised his hands.
Dewey, a tattooed pro-wrestling reject with a buzz cut and several missing teeth, strode forward and backhanded him with the butt of a stunner. Stars exploded behind his eyes, and Rodney went down hard, curling into a ball with a yelp when a boot repeatedly connected with his ribs.
“Stop!” commanded Huey, the leader of the crew. He was tall and thin with long stringy hair that hadn’t been washed in quite a while and ordinary features. Except for the eyes. “We need him mobile. Unless you want to carry them both back.”
With a growl, Dewey yanked Rodney to his feet and shoved him toward Sheppard. “Pick him up.”
Rodney gave his best Ronon glare, one hand cradling his side and the other dabbing at the blood dribbling down his face. When that didn’t work, he tried the Sheppard approach. “I think I pulled something earlier, and you just dented my ribcage. Couldn’t we wait until he wakes up or something?”
Huey considered Rodney for a moment, glancing between him and Sheppard. Coming to some sort of decision, he smiled as he tucked his stunner into the belt of his leathers and drew a pistol. He chambered a round and pressed the muzzle to Sheppard’s knee.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Okay.” So much for the Sheppard approach. Palms out in surrender, Rodney took a tentative step forward. “Okay, no need to shoot anybody. Geez, rabid bunch of Neanderthals.” He knelt and hefted Sheppard across his shoulders. Rising slowly to his feet, he followed Huey through the forest.
A rippling of the muscles underneath his hand was the only sign of Sheppard’s returning awareness.
Head down, Rodney whispered, “They caught us. Don’t move.”
The arm went limp again.
When the ground began to slope downward, Rodney struggled to stay upright, but even though he worked out – maybe not as much as his teammates but he was a scientist after all – his body wasn’t used to carrying such an excruciatingly heavy burden and finally gave out. He fell to his knees and ducked instinctively, letting go of Sheppard in the process. Sheppard landed on the back of Rodney’s legs and rolled off immediately, launching himself at Dewey.
He hit the big man in his mid-section and drove him to the ground. Rodney scrambled to his feet and body-slammed into Louie, a horse jockey wannabe who crumpled in a heap. Sheppard pounded Dewey with a couple of impressive punches before a shot cracked the air and a bullet whizzed by Rodney’s ear.
“The next one won’t miss,” Huey warned.
Rodney sagged in defeat as Sheppard stood and dropped his arms. Dewey roared in anger and charged, slamming his fist viciously into Sheppard’s face until Huey cocked the gun in his ear.
“If his value is decreased for any reason, you will forfeit your share of the earnings.”
Dewey pushed away, and Rodney offered Sheppard a hand up while Louie staggered to his feet. The trio escorted them the rest of the way at gunpoint.
“Way to wake up after they catch us again,” Rodney muttered, studiously ignoring Sheppard’s split lip and the rapid swelling around his eye that was going to be one hell of a shiner.
“Not your fault, McKay,” Sheppard responded quietly as he pressed the heel of his hand to the bleeding cut on his temple.
Rodney scowled at him, chin jutting out. “I didn’t say it was.” He heaved a sigh. “But if Ronon had been here-”
“We’d probably all be dead.”
“That’s not true. You would’ve escaped.”
“With his temper? They would have shot us all by now.”
“Oh, please. He’s smart enough to know when to act and when not to.” Rodney cut his eyes toward Sheppard. “If you tell him I said that, I’ll deny it.”
Sheppard rolled his eyes, wincing slightly as he worked his jaw. “Even if he’d been with us on Silem, there’s no guarantee he’d have been brought here, wherever here is. They were looking for you and me.”
“I overheard them before we busted out. They’re bounty hunters.”
“Seriously? Who’s looking for us now?”
Sheppard shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“We are really screwed.”
“Think positive, McKay.”
“Shut up back there,” Huey ordered.
“I am positive,” Rodney hissed, “that we are screwed. No one knows where we are. How do you think we’re going to get out of here?”
“That’s what I have you around for. Use that big brain of yours.”
Huey wheeled, his pistol aimed at Sheppard’s head. “Not another word.”
When they reached the wooden transport, Dewey shoved them into the enclosed back and bound their wrists with the remaining leather straps to the metal bar that ran the length of cart. He sat near the gate, gun drawn, while the other two climbed in the front and guided a team of moose-on-steroids down the cheese-grater path.
Rodney tried to flex his numb, purpling fingers. “Got any ideas?”
“Shut up!” Dewey growled.
They traveled for a while – at least an hour – Rodney’s kidneys making note of every rut and pothole along the way. A few curves in a downward direction ended in the splash of water and the crunch of rock.
“Whatever they’re paying you, we’ll double it,” Sheppard offered.
“Do you actually listen to any of those movies you make me watch?” Rodney hissed as Dewey glared. “That never works.”
“You asked if I had any ideas.”
“I should have said any good ideas.”
“Well, I’m still waiting for you to come up with one, genius.”
“Now that’s just-”
“Shut up.” Dewey cocked the hammer and aimed at Rodney. “Shut up before I decide killing you is worth more than the reward.”
The wagon ground to a painful halt a short time later. The gate opened, and Dewey stood guard while Louie climbed in and undid their bonds.
Huey looked in as Dewey and Louie hopped out. “Strip. Now.”
“What?” McKay squeaked. “Here? Have you lost your mind?”
As the bounty hunter turned those cruel eyes in his direction, Sheppard whispered, “Do as the man says.”
Rodney blinked at Sheppard who had already pulled his shirt off and was unlacing his boots. “I- I- I don’t-”
Hunching his shoulders, he complied, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the far wall.
“God, Rodney, what did you do in gym class?”
“Do I strike you as someone who actually participated in gym class?”
“Good point. You wouldn’t have lasted long in the military either.”
“Ah, there’s that Mensa intellect at work.”
“Do you two ever shut up?” Huey growled as he tossed dingy draw-string pants at them. “Get dressed.”
McKay cinched the trousers tightly around his waist and crossed his arms over his bare chest. “What was the point of that?”
Sheppard tracked Huey as he walked away before responding. “So nothing will identify us as being from Atlantis.”
“I thought they were looking for us specifically. Wouldn’t they already know that’s where we’re from?”
“But nobody would be able to walk into town and recognize us.”
“Like our off-world contacts,” Rodney said glumly. “Great.”
Dewey glanced away then waved his gun at them. “Get out.”
Rodney followed Sheppard out, blinking in the afternoon sun. They were in the middle of a shabby collection of dilapidated buildings and gaunt, hollow-eyed townspeople. Huey exchanged a few words and several forceful hand gestures with a frail man with thinning silver hair and a cane. Finally the old man nodded and opened a small bag, pulling out a shiny object. Huey looked it over, nodded, stuffed it in his pocket, and headed back to the wagon.
Sheppard’s eyes had been in constant motion as he studied the area. He turned to Rodney with an intent expression. “We may not be in as much trouble as I thought.”
“Have you ever seen starvation?”
“In National Geographic and the occasional documentary. Oh, and we had to read-”
“McKay,” Sheppard sighed. “I meant in person.”
“Like you have.”
“Yes, Rodney, I have. There was a mission to a place…. Anyway, my guidance system was knocked out, and I made a hard landing in a not-so-nice spot.”
“Of course, on Earth.”
“You really have to get out of the lab more often.”
“Where the hell do you think I am right now?”
Sheppard pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look at these people, Rodney. What do you see?”
“Dirty, skinny imbeciles who had us kidna…” Rodney’s gaze locked on a little girl with sharp bones and a distended stomach. Give her a bath and dress her in pink and she could be Madison. “This doesn’t make any sense. Why pay-”
He broke off when Sheppard jabbed an elbow in his still aching ribs. The bounty hunters glared as they rolled by in the wagon, heading back up the Worst Road Ever, presumably to the gate and out of his life forever.
The old man hobbled toward them, head bowed. “I am so sorry,” he whispered, raising horror-filled eyes. “This was a mistake, a misunderstanding.”
Rage shot through Rodney. “Misunderstanding? How do you-”
“McKay,” Sheppard snapped, “let the man talk.”
“Please,” the old man begged, “please forgive this indiscretion.” He waved a gnarled hand and a woman scurried up, handing them threadbare tunics and ragged shoes. “We had no wish for you to be treated in such a matter. Those…barbarians mistook our request. We offered payment for information about you, a way to contact you, to ask for help. We never meant…” He shook his head sadly, a wispy sigh escaping.
Rodney frowned at the scraps of material that could laughingly be described as footwear. “What could you have possibly given them as payment?”
“The only thing of value we had – a weapon I found at the Mreqil market several years ago.” He flashed a smile and pulled a crystal from his pocket. “Of course, it won’t work without this.”
Sheppard grinned. “I’m John Sheppard and this is Rodney McKay.”
“I am Demec. Welcome to Ebalron.”
A cool bath and eight icy glasses of water later, Rodney felt almost human. He was still stuck in his scratchy tunic and trousers without even a single PowerBar to his name, but at least he wasn’t in a cell or mining rock or any of the other thousands of horrible outcomes he’d imagined. Demec had offered his hovel as a place for them to rest and clean up then invited them to the town square. A large tree with thick oval leaves shaded a good portion of the ground. Rodney sank onto the cool black soil with a sigh.
Sheppard leaned against the tree trunk, arms crossed, and smirked at him. “Comfortable?”
“As comfortable as I’m going to be until I get back home.”
“Exactly how are you planning on doing that?”
“I’ll think of something. If you had set up a new alpha site already…”
“You know, uninhabited planets that aren’t on the radar of the Replicators or the Wraith and that don’t have dinosaurs or active supervolcanoes or ice ages aren’t that easy to come by. We’ve already had two compromised this year. I’m working on it.”
“Yes, well, without radios or GDOs or an alpha site, we’re stuck. I don’t have anything to rig a signal, and I don’t relish going splat against the shield. We don’t even know how many gates they took us through. Atlantis might not be able to track us.”
“Then we’ll come up with another way. Maybe one of our trading partners…”
Demec’s brow wrinkled. “You have no way of returning home?”
“The men who, uh, brought us here took all of our equipment,” Sheppard explained. “We need it to contact Atlantis in order to return.”
The old man’s face turned ashen. “Truly?” He seemed to crumple. “Your people were our last hope.”
Rodney exchanged a quick what the hell glance with Sheppard. “Um, could you be a little more specific? What’s the problem?”
“The wood from our forests is used to construct the finest homes and buildings on dozens of worlds. We chop the timber and float it down the mountain stream to a facility the Ancestors left us to cut it to size and treat it. We have been experiencing power fluctuations for years now. Our production has continued to slow, forcing us to accept fewer orders and receive less food in trade. We’ve attempted farming, but we have neither the expertise nor the seed necessary. My people are starving.” He drew a shaky hand over his face as his voice broke. “The power failed altogether several weeks ago.” He looked at them bleakly. “We have heard rumors for some time now of people living in the City of the Ancestors, people who knew how to operate the technology. Your names have been mentioned. We had hoped…”
“That we could fix your facility,” Sheppard finished. “We’ll be happy to take a look.”
“And by ‘we’ he means me.” Rodney rolled to his feet. “Show me.”
Demec’s face lit. “You will help us? Even after what happened?”
Sheppard shrugged. “Like you said, it was a misunderstanding. Happens to us all the time.”
They followed Demec through town to a heavily traveled road that skirted the edge of the forest and disappeared into the side of the mountain. Rodney walked as close to Sheppard as he could without being obvious. The set of Sheppard’s shoulders told him the man wasn’t completely sold on Demec’s innocence either, but was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt to get near Ancient technology and a way to contact Atlantis.
Rodney frowned as they crossed the threshold of the facility. Building inside a mountain wasn’t the Ancients’ style. They valued beautiful structures, choosing to cloak if they wanted to hide.
Sheppard’s step became hesitant. “McKay?”
“I know. Something’s wrong.”
Torches flickered to life as Demec’s people spread out. The room was small, cramped, filled with ugly machinery similar to early twentieth century logging on Earth. The air reeked of oils and chemicals, and a thick layer of saw dust coated everything.
“Um, Demec,” Sheppard said. “How long have your people lived on this world?”
“For several hundred years.”
“And this place was here when you arrived?”
“Yes,” the man answered proudly. “We felt fortunate to find a place the Ancestors had favored.”
“I hate to tell you this,” Rodney broke in, “but this isn’t Ancie- I mean Ancestor, uh, stuff.”
Demec blinked at him. “I do not understand.”
Sheppard bit his lip. “The Ancestors didn’t build this place. Somebody else did.”
“But- but it is so advanced.”
Rodney snorted. “Hardly.” At Sheppard’s glare, he amended, “That is, it’s advanced but not as advanced as Ancestor technology.”
Demec’s eyes widened in despair. “What will we do?”
Rodney felt Sheppard’s gaze on him. He looked at the ceiling, the floor, the saw blade with several bent teeth. “Fine. I’ll take a look at it.”
“You can fix it?” Demec asked breathlessly.
“Yes. Most likely.” Rodney folded his arms over his chest. “Probably. I mean, I don’t have any tools or anything so there’s only so much I can do, but-”
“Just show us where the power room is,” Sheppard interrupted.
Demec led them past worktables and storage shelves to a door in the back that led to a stairwell. Rodney blinked into the darkness. Stairs leading downward glinted faintly in the light of the torch Sheppard had been handed.
“What’s down there?” Rodney asked.
“Some sort of generator. Our people were never able to make any sense of it.”
Rodney ran a critical eye over the stairs. Metal-hemmed wood, they looked fairly solid. In all likelihood, this was going to be a giant waste of time, but if these people had been sophisticated enough to construct a generator that could power a saw mill then maybe, just maybe, they had some type of radio.
“Only one way to find out,” he muttered as he stepped in.
The stairs creaked and groaned but didn’t sway as he and Sheppard made their way down. Demec, too unsteady to navigate the steps, remained at the top for a few minutes then disappeared. Stale, musty air and a stench that made Rodney’s eyes water grew stronger as they reached the bottom. The room was small, a few storage shelves on one side and a broken generator on the other. Their torches weren’t sufficient light to properly diagnose and repair all the problems, but perhaps he could coax it to life enough to get some lights on.
“Can you do anything with it?” Sheppard asked.
“Yeah,” he replied absently. “It’s Telnorran. Looks like it needs a new capacitor and a couple of diodes since these are cracked. I hope they have some q’salc around here.”
Sheppard’s face scrunched. “Q’salc? What’s that?”
“It’s the fuel this thing runs on.”
“When we were on Telnorra?”
“We weren’t. I-” Rodney’s brain finally caught up with his mouth. Maybe he could distract Sheppard. “See what you can find on those shelves over there. I need one of those,” he pointed at the broken capacitor, “and two of these,” he said, indicating the diodes. “I’ll look for the q’salc.”
Sheppard rooted through the shelves. “You didn’t answer my question, McKay.”
“Hmm? What question was that?” Please don’t ask where I saw a generator like this.
“If we haven’t been to Telnorra, how do you know about their generators?”
“Saw it on another planet. Did you find anything?”
Glass clanged against metal. Sheppard muttered a curse as something crunched. “Not yet. Which planet?”
Damn it, the man could be a pit bull when he wanted to. Rodney sucked at lying, figured Sheppard would know even if he couldn’t see his face, but he really didn’t want to dredge it back up now.
The small container sloshed when he kicked it, and a whiff confirmed it. “Aha! Q’salc.” He scurried back to the generator and checked the chamber. Plenty of yahrik. The reaction when he poured the q’salc in should boot the generator right up, assuming Sheppard found the parts he needed.
“Here.” Sheppard crouched next to him and shoved a capacitor and two diodes at him. “Will these work?”
“Hold this.” Rodney handed the torch to Sheppard then trailed his fingers delicately over the parts, rotating them slowly in the dim light. No fractures or defects that he could detect. “Yeah, I think so.” He set them down carefully and began removing the damaged ones.
“I realize we’ve been to a lot of planets, McKay, but I don’t remember seeing anything like this. Was it-”
“In Ford’s cave,” Rodney said quietly. “Jace had a few in Ford’s cave. I helped him repair one while we were there.”
Sheppard’s quick inhale said everything. The man had never quite been able to put losing Ford behind him. It had shaken Rodney more than he’d like to admit. He hadn’t been as close to Ford as Sheppard had, but to watch the enzyme twist that happy-go-lucky kid into something almost unrecognizable had ripped a hole in his heart. The only time he’d ever seen Sheppard completely hammered was shortly after they got back. John had packed Ford’s belongings then vanished. It took the three of them almost two hours to find him on the south pier. Rodney had hurried back to the control room to direct Ronon and Teyla to empty halls as they carried Sheppard to his quarters. They’d never spoken of it.
“His cousin emails me every year on his birthday.”
Rodney held his breath, stunned. He was rarely – well, never – speechless, but he had no idea how to respond.
“He’ll be twenty-nine in a couple of months.”
Will be, not would have been.
“You think he’s still alive?” Rodney asked, keeping his eyes trained on the generator. He knew there was no way Ford had gotten off that hive. They’d kidnapped Sheppard because Ford couldn’t fly the dart.
Sheppard sighed heavily. “I don’t know.”
A big admission for Mr. Optimism. John clung to hope like no one else. Rodney had no idea why Sheppard was suddenly willing to talk. Maybe it was the darkness, maybe the close call with the bounty hunters. He didn’t care. But he did have something he’d been thinking about for a few months now.
“Have you ever thought about what would have happened if Ford hadn’t left Atlantis?”
“No, I mean it. If Ford hadn’t been jacked up on enzyme and ran away, so much would be different. We wouldn’t know the effects of the enzyme for one. We wouldn’t know, or at least wouldn’t have known as soon, about the Wraith infighting, about Wraith worshipers. Or runners.”
“We wouldn’t have found Ronon.”
Rodney angled to face him. “Exactly. No way Lorne’s team would have found him. Not with Parrish’s yammering.”
Something flickered in Sheppard’s eyes. Apparently Rodney wasn’t the only one still haunted by the sight of Ronon striding through the stargate, his belongings in hand. That damn painting had been the only thing left.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that I would have traded Ford…” Rodney turned back to the generator. “Forget it.”
Sheppard was quiet for a moment then settled a strong hand on Rodney’s shoulder. “I know you wouldn’t. The universe is a strange place, I guess. Took Ford, gave us Ronon.”
“Do you think it was a coincidence that they were on the same planet?”
“Now you’re beginning to freak me out.”
“It’s just, I don’t believe in coincidence. Never have.”
Sheppard arched a brow. “You think someone orchestrated it?”
“I…have no idea. I think I’ve questioned everything I’ve ever believed in the last four years.”
“Who are you, and what have you done with Rodney McKay?”
“Shut up.” He shoved Sheppard’s shoulder and chuckled when John sat down hard, a toothy grin shining in the firelight. “I’m finished. Let’s see if she’ll work.”
The engine coughed and sputtered. Rodney adjusted a few settings, and the chugging smoothed out a bit.
“Why aren’t the lights on?” Sheppard asked from somewhere over his right shoulder.
“Maybe someone turned them off. Do you see any kind of controls?”
Sheppard moved around the room, his torch held close to the wall. “Maybe. This might- Ow!” He slung his hand then swiped the back of his neck. “Something’s crawling on me.”
“Probably whatever’s been nesting in your hair.”
“Seriously, McKay, get it off.” Sheppard’s voice was tinged with panic. “Ow! Now, damn it!”
“Okay, okay.” Rodney stood, shaking out numb legs, and shuffled over. “What is the- Holy shit, Sheppard! There’s- there’s like a dozen scorpion-looking things on your back!”
“Get them off!”
“I don’t care! Just…just…” Sheppard yelped and dropped his torch as he slapped at his back, his shuddering body casting drunken shadows. “Make it stop!”
Rodney grabbed the fallen torch, stabbing the fire out and swiping at the bugs. Most fell and scrabbled away into the darkness, but one landed on his arm and plunged its stinger deep in his forearm, right where Kolya had twisted that knife. He yelped as pain shot through him and beat crazily at it with the torch. The bug toppled off, its barbed tail stabbing repeatedly at the ground. He blinked in dismay at the rags pretending to be shoes until Sheppard snatched Rodney’s torch from his hand and slammed it down on the bug. The sizzle and stench of burnt arachnid turned Rodney’s stomach, and he swallowed convulsively as bile rose.
“We need to get out of here,” Sheppard slurred. “Now.”
“What about the lights?”
“Screw the lights.” Sheppard stumbled forward, tripping over the first step and face-planting on the stairs.
“Sheppard! What the hell?” Rodney reached for him and bit back a screech when fire radiated from the spot of the sting to his shoulder. “Oh, this is not good.”
He could feel the venom racing through his veins, igniting the nerves in his chest and back. Sheppard screamed and flopped weakly on the stairs. Rodney rolled him over, ignoring the blood dripping down his face.
“Come on, John. Get up.”
Sheppard clutched at Rodney’s sleeve but couldn’t seem to make his fingers work properly. His back arched, and every tendon and vein in his neck bulged as he screamed. He blinked helplessly at Rodney while his body convulsed.
“Sheppard? Sheppard! John! Don’t do this.” He pulled Sheppard up when the tremors declined and slung an arm around him. “Help!”
His voice echoed, and his imagination kicked in. A thousand insect legs skittered over his skin. He was boiling on the inside. His heart hammered; his breath came in ragged gasps. Oh, God, he was going to die!
“Help me!” he screamed.
The roar of machines overhead suddenly registered. The saw mill was running. Muscle cramps knotted his arm and spread quickly. He didn’t have much time. Rodney gritted his teeth and focused on one step at a time. Sheppard shuddered, panted, muttered about bugs in Pegasus and bull’s eyes.
“Hold on, John. We’re almost there.”
Light danced becomingly in the doorway. Rodney staggered, leaning against the wall as his back spasmed. John cried out, the muscles in his arm and back knotting until they were rock hard under Rodney’s palms. Reaching the top, Rodney stumbled into the factory and sank to his knees, letting John slide to the floor and collapsing beside him.
“You have done it!” Demec’s exultant voice rang out. “You- What has happened?”
Rodney rolled onto his back, grimacing as pain raged through his chest. “Some kind of…big-assed bug stung us.”
Demec’s eyes widened. “A januc? About this long,” he held his hands a quarter meter apart, “with a barbed tail?”
Rodney nodded as he pushed himself against the wall and checked John. The gash on his forehead from his fall was still bleeding freely. His eyes were swollen shut, and the area around the sting on his neck was streaked white. He clawed the ground, biting his lip until it bled.
“The januc’s venom has been known to kill. How many times were you stung?”
“Just once,” Rodney replied, “but he was stung at least three times.”
“There is little hope for your friend,” Demec said sadly. “Your pain will be great for about a day, but you look strong. You should recover.”
“You don’t have an antidote or something?” Rodney refused to believe a man like John could die like this. Not after the hell they’d been through.
“I am sorry. There is nothing.”
“Tr-tr-trading p-p-partners,” John stammered, shivering uncontrollably, sweat slicking his skin.
“What? Oh, oh, of course. Um, let’s see.” Rodney hissed through clenched teeth to hold the scream of pain inside. “The Manarans hate us. Uh, the Belkans only speak to Teyla. Oh, crap, okay, um, oh, Harmony.” He squeezed his eyes shut, riding out the cramps contorting his insides. “I need something to write with.”
Demec snapped his fingers; paper and charcoal appeared moments later. “Will this do?”
“Yes.” Rodney concentrated on drawing the symbols to the girl’s world on one side then scribbled a note on the other. “Be sure you give this to Queen Harmony. Tell her Doctor McKay will be her slave forever-”
“Right, bad idea. Okay, um, tell her I’ll owe her one. Have her contact Atlantis and give them this. Oh, write the symbols to this world on there so they’ll know how to find us. Tell them to hurry.”
Demec nodded and hobbled away. John whimpered, curling tightly then gasping as his body convulsed.
Rodney gripped his shoulder. “Hang on, John.”
The convulsions worsened. John’s eyes rolled back in his head as muscles became stone. Rodney pressed on the tightest ones near his neck, blinking back tears as his chest tightened. When John went limp, Rodney crawled away and retched. Spent, he rested his forehead against the dirty floor until a rhythmic thumping told him John’s spasms were back. He scooted over and leaned against the wall then pulled John’s shivering form to his chest.
“Hold on,” Rodney whispered.
A few villagers brought blankets and water. Rodney managed to get a few sips down but couldn’t hold John still enough to give him any even with two men helping. The pain ripping his insides apart made Rodney want to claw his eyes out; he couldn’t imagine what John was feeling. What was most worrisome were his blue-tinged lips and the wheezing. Rodney had experienced enough allergic reactions to recognize one. Not anaphylaxis, but still a serious reaction.
Time crawled. Logically, Rodney knew it hadn’t been more than forty-five minutes and since they were further than that from the gate, help wouldn’t arrive for some time. He wanted to panic. He wanted to scream at someone, point fingers, rant at the top of his lungs on the unfairness of the galaxy and the idiocy of bounty hunters. But he didn’t. He wrapped his arms around John’s chest and prayed for help to hurry, tears of pain freely streaming down his face.
John was too weak to shudder now. He lay in Rodney’s arms, panting for air and clawing the floor until his nails ripped, his lips and throat too swollen to allow much in. Rodney shifted John carefully, crying out when pain shot through his chest. Slightly more upright, John sucked in a deeper breath and relaxed against Rodney, his head lolling to the side.
“Don’t you give up on me. They’ll be here.”
Tufts of spiky hair scratched Rodney’s face.
“I’m assuming that was a nod since not even your hair grows that fast.” Rodney took the soft grunt to be a laugh. “You know, if you were going for a team with the best hair, you missed with me. Ronon and Teyla are keepers though. Seriously-” He swallowed thickly as his stomach roiled. Not now. “We’re going to have to register Ronon’s dreads as lethal weapons if he keeps growing them. Last time we were off-world, he spun around at something you said and almost knocked me down.”
John’s back arched and his hands clutched at Rodney’s legs.
“Breathe,” Rodney begged, rubbing the corded muscles in John’s neck. “Just breathe. They’re coming.”
A whimper rode on John’s whistle of breath. Rodney’s stomach heaved, and he scuttled away to retch. His pulse thundered in his ears, and agony tap-danced down his spine. He dragged himself back and held his hand in front of John’s mouth, sagging in relief when he felt staccato bursts of air.
“Rodney?” a feminine voice called.
He glanced up as Keller and a med team raced toward him, Lorne and a squad of Marines on their heels.
“Oh, thank God. Help him.”
She peered at Rodney for a second. “Marie, take a look at him,” she murmured then turned her attention to John. “What happened?”
Rodney offered his arm to the med tech. “Got stung by some kind of scorpion-looking thing. Just once in the arm for me, but John got stung several times.”
The tech pressed on the bite mark, and Rodney’s world turned red. The next few minutes were hazy – the tech shouting for help, hands on his arms and legs, a glimpse of Keller sliding a tube down John’s throat. Pain raced through his chest. His heart stuttered. When blackness came for him, he willingly succumbed.
Rodney jerked awake when the muscle cramps started again. He was on his back, flying, ceiling tiles blurring overhead. Gurney.
“Sick,” he mumbled, trying to roll on his side.
The gurney screeched to a halt and strong hands held him as he dry-heaved. Slumping back, he nodded and clenched his eyes shut when the racing began again. The flurry of activity around him overloaded his senses, and he moaned, begging to be knocked out.
“I can’t do that, Doctor,” a soft voice said. “We haven’t determined the kind of toxin in your system. Doctor Velasquez is testing the insect we brought back.”
“We’re doing everything we can.”
After several agonizing minutes, the noise level dropped, and he cautiously opened an eye. John was in the bed next to him, hooked up to so many machines that Rodney couldn’t see his face, but the heart monitor beeped reassuringly.
Rodney shuddered as the cramps spread, balling his fists in the sheets. Tears pricked his eyes as the bands in his chest tightened, and he couldn’t hold in a groan. Shoes squeaked on the floor nearby.
“What’s wrong, Rodney?” Keller asked.
“Hurts,” he stammered, sucking in a ragged breath.
A nurse approached and handed her a report. Keller frowned at it then turned sympathetic eyes his way.
“The venom is similar to that of a box jellyfish.”
“And that means what, exactly?”
“According to Doctor Velasquez, that kind of jellyfish is one of the most venomous creatures on Earth.”
Rodney groaned as the nerve endings in his arm scorched and throbbed. “Whatever. Just give me something for the pain.”
“You’re already on the strongest pain meds we have. Nothing’s going to alleviate it. That’s the curse of this type of venom. It has to run its course.”
“Seriously? We can travel between galaxies,” he hissed as his arm spasmed, “but we don’t have anything for a bug bite?”
“We’re still checking the database for information, but we haven’t found anything yet.”
“That’s the most- Oh, God, John! What about Sheppard?”
Keller’s frown deepened. “The toll on his body is incredible. The strain on his heart…” She glanced at John. “He’s fighting as hard as he can. The allergic reaction made it worse. He must have been stung with a similar toxin before to react this way. We finally got it under control, and he’s breathing on his own for now.”
“His body is tiring. If he doesn’t improve soon, I’ll have to intubate him.” She sighed and turned back to him, pulling a syringe from her lab coat. “I can give you something for the nausea, and Ezra will be by soon to help with the muscle cramps.” She injected the medication in the IV port and squeezed his hand lightly. “Try to get some rest.” She waved down the lights and disappeared around the corner.
Rest wasn’t possible. When the muscle cramps died down, his heart pounded and bolts of pain shot through his arm and chest. His arm itched to the point he thought he’d go mad. Muscle twitches turned to spasms then became tremors. Just when his body had exhausted itself, John started screaming. Medical personnel descended in organized chaos. Nothing worked. Alarms blared as the convulsions began.
Rodney begged his legs to hold him as he crawled out of bed and leaned on his IV pole to shuffle over.
“Do something,” he hissed at the night-shift attending physician.
The woman barely spared him a glance. “Go back to bed, Doctor McKay.”
“Not until you help him!”
“If I give him any more sedation, it will stop his heart! We are doing everything we can.”
John’s face was a mask of agony. He had a death grip on the bed’s rails, his breath coming in short, rasping pants. Sweat had plastered his hair to his skull, and his pallid complexion only highlighted the cuts and bruises.
The whine of the alarms slowly ceased as everything returned to normal, and John slumped, moaning.
“There really isn’t anything you can do?” Rodney asked.
“I wish there was.” She frowned as he doubled over when the cramps started again. “You need to be in bed.”
“I’m going.” He moved slowly toward his bed until the room cleared then headed back to John’s side. “Hey.”
John stared dully at him. “Hey.”
“Well, this sucks.”
“Yeah.” John’s neck arched and his eyes went wide as he strangled on a scream. “Oh, God, please,” he begged, “make it stop.”
Rodney’s heart twisted. “I wish I could. You have to hold on.”
John flailed, slamming a fist against the rails as a shudder ran through him. “Not…sure…I can.” He whimpered, curling on his side then rolling onto his back, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.
He gaped at John, more scared by the admission than by anything else. “You’re going to give up?”
“It hurts,” John gasped, grabbing at his chest. “Even worse than getting fed on.”
“You survived that, and you’ll survive this, too.” Rodney gripped John’s shoulder, feeling the corded muscles spasming. “Fight it.”
John sagged. “I’m so tired.”
Sunken eyes focused on him. “How are you?”
“Awful. This has been the worst day ever. I-” Rodney caught himself when John cried out and clawed at the back of his neck. “I had a huge splinter in my thumb. I may have lost use of it after the voodoo priestess yanked it out. And I’m quite sure my back will never recover from hauling you around. You owe me a month’s worth of desserts, by the way. And a massage.” Rodney’s nails bit into his palm as he fought the muscle cramps in his stomach.
A ghost of a smile crossed John’s features. “Got the perfect place for you. Moe’s House of Pain in Boston.”
“Oh, as if. You’re not getting off that easily, my friend. I-” He broke off when John’s eyes rolled back in his head and the convulsions began again.
And on it went – hour after hour of mind-numbing pain and screaming. Ronon and Teyla were allowed a quick visit. Sam and Radek came by. Rodney stammered out his report the best he could then they were shooed away. Keller asked if he wanted to be moved, but he refused; the idea of not being there if something happened was more than he could take.
John screamed until his voice gave out. Somehow soundless screaming was even more horrifying. The convulsions seemed to ease, but the doctor informed him that John’s body was too exhausted to respond to the nerve impulses. When John’s pulse-ox began to drop, the med team intubated him, adding the gentle whoosh and hiss of the vent to the myriad of other monitor sounds. Ignoring his own cramps and spasms, Rodney sat by John’s side until he finally, mercifully, slid into unconsciousness.
Sometime after dawn, Rodney’s body had enough. He dropped off into a dreamless state and slept like the dead for most of the day, waking in the late evening to quiet humming. Teyla sat between them, sewing intricate patterns on a small piece of cloth. Rodney tried to speak but only managed an undignified croak.
She glanced up, a brilliant smile lighting her face as she stood and gripped his hand tightly. “It is good to see you awake. Would you like some water?”
When his stomach seemed fine with the idea, he nodded slowly. Teyla helped him sit up and handed him a cup with a straw. The cool liquid worked wonders on his parched throat.
“Thanks,” he rasped, eyes darting to John. “How is he?”
“Better. His heartbeat has stabilized. Doctor Cole said he is past the worst of it.”
“So, he’s going to be fine, right?”
“He will be in a great deal of pain for the next couple of days, and it will take a few weeks to regain his strength, but he should recover fully.”
“Good. That’s, um, that’s good.” He turned away, staring at the far wall as he reined in his emotions.
Teyla wasn’t fooled. “What is it?” she asked, holding his hand again.
“Nothing. I just…I-” He scrubbed his free hand over his face. “This is my fault. If I hadn’t gotten us caught again. If I hadn’t tried to fix that damn generator. If I’d-”
He glanced up at her sharp tone.
Her face softened in understanding. “You saved John.”
“You figured out how to contact Atlantis and kept him alive until help arrived.”
He smiled shyly as sleep began to tug at him. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Yes, you did.” Teyla’s eyes danced with mischief. “Queen Harmony was quite insistent that we save you. I believe she is taken with you.”
“Tell me she’s gone home.”
“She has. Now,” she patted his hand and returned to her chair, “rest. Ronon or I will be here when you waken.”
“What?” Sheppard whispered, arching an indignant brow. “I did not. You left that bishop completely unguarded.”
Rodney glared fiercely and reached for his rook. “Take that!”
Sheppard shook his head and moved his queen. “Checkmate.”
“Face it, McKay. I’m better at chess than you.”
“In your dreams, flyboy.” Rodney reached to reset the game then caught Sheppard’s jaw-cracking yawn. “You’ve been asleep for almost four days. How can you possibly be tired?”
“Not tired.” Sheppard stifled another yawn. “Set it up, Jet Li. I’ll kick your ass again.”
“The next person who walks by is going to trip over those bags under your eyes. And stop calling me Jet Li.” Rodney packed the board and pieces in the box and stuffed it in the bedside stand. “We’ll play again tomorrow. I’d hate to take advantage of someone in your condition.”
“Someone in my- Get that back out. We’ll see who is in what kind of condition.” John hissed, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Whatever.” Rodney flexed his fingers as his arm throbbed. The toxin had left his system with a few residual side effects that Keller said would clear by the end of the week. He’d been released from the infirmary but not back to duty yet. “Stop talking before Keller kills both of us. Go to sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Another yawn split Sheppard’s face, and he grinned sheepishly as his lids drooped. “Good night, McKay.” His eyes closed then bounced open. “You did good, Rodney. Back on that planet.” His eyes slowly slid shut. “Wouldn’t trade you for anybody else.”
Rodney smiled as the doors closed. “You either.”