Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis AU
Beta: The glorious vegetariansushi.
For: undermistletoe's Harlequin Week.
On the third day of Rodney's imprisonment, the gate of his cage was pulled open by three armed guards and the unconscious body of a tall, dirty, wild-haired man was thrown in to join him.
Rodney waited for the guerillas to re-lock the door and move well away from the cage before sliding over to check the man. Beneath Rodney's fingers, the man's neck was scratchy with several days worth of unshaven beard, but his pulse was strong and regular, and his skin a healthy colour beneath the dirt, if warm and a little sweaty. Of course, in the humid, midday jungle heat, warm and sweaty were to be expected.
The man had no obvious injuries, so Rodney figured he'd probably been smart enough not to put up a fight when he'd been taken. That was good; the last thing Rodney needed was to share a cage with an act-first, think-later lunkhead. Not that the man looked like any kind of muscle; he was far too pretty, in a scruffy, unshaven, academic kind of way. He seemed to be about Rodney's age, and was of a lean, lanky build beneath his baggy chinos and wrinkled cotton shirt. The picture was finished off with a pair of sturdy tan boots, a cheap digital watch, a black wristband, and an earring made of some kind of polished wood in the man's left ear--typical eco-tourist or post-doctoral-research wear for this region.
Damn. Rodney had been hoping for the cavalry, but it was beginning to look like no one was coming to rescue him. Maybe even that no one had noticed he was missing, despite the rather smug tenor of his last email to Sam, sent the day he'd left Siberia. It was just typical that he'd end up sharing his fate-worse-than-death with some idealistic humanities major.
Swallowing his disappointment, Rodney rolled the man into a more comfortable position. It wasn't the eco-moron's fault he wasn't here to bust Rodney out of this hole, and he was going to wake up in enough pain from the zat hangover as it was, without Rodney leaving him twisted like a pretzel.
Just as Rodney had got Eco-Guy sorted, there was a bustle of activity outside the cage. Across the clearing, the Goa'uld came out of her tent and glanced briefly over at Rodney, eyes flashing white with pleasure. Rodney shivered. The idea of a Goa'uld in control of his brain was the stuff of nightmares, and not just because of what it would mean for Rodney. The Goa'uld smiled at him, all lipstick and bright white teeth, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking, and then strode out of Rodney's field of view with a swish of robes. A moment later, several car doors slammed and a Jeep engine turned over; it revved twice, and then roared off towards the east. As the sound faded away into the jungle, the guerillas all around the camp relaxed, lighting cigarettes, getting out playing cards, and beginning to tell each other stories and jokes.
With nothing better to do, Rodney stretched out on the dirt floor and tried his best to doze off.
Rodney woke just on dusk to find Eco-Guy sitting up and rolling his neck. He didn't look quite as harmless with his eyes open, maybe because of the way he was watching Rodney watch him.
"Well," Eco-Guy said. "That was different."
"Different?" Rodney said, wondering what wasn't different about the situation. Waking up in a cage? Being lured into the jungle for hot sex with a woman who was actually a Goa'uld? Getting kidnapped by fanatical jungle guerillas who worshipped said Goa'uld?
"Yeah. Never been shot with an actual zap gun before. I kinda like the no bullet-holes part."
Rodney rapidly revised the man's IQ down to something in the mid-fifties. "Zat gun," he corrected, figuring there was no point in being pedantic about classified information when they were about to be implanted or dead in the very near future. "And of course it was different. Unless you make a habit of being kidnapped by aliens."
"Aliens?" the guy said, not looking all that surprised. "Huh. Guess that explains it." Then he held out his hand, as though they were in some normal place rather than caged like two sacrificial goats. "John Sheppard."
Rodney ignored the hand. "Dr. Rodney McKay."
Sheppard just smiled at him, not looking at all offended. He took back his hand so that he could fiddle annoyingly with the stupid wooden earring. "Rodney McKay," he said, drawling the words out until they sounded almost obscene. "Just the man I was looking for."
It took a moment for Sheppard's words to sink in, which was totally understandable given the way Rodney's body was thrumming in reaction to Sheppard's tone. "What? What do you mean, I'm the man you're looking for? Do I know you? No, no, I'd remember anyone as good-loo-- as flaky as you... Wait. What are you doing?"
Sheppard had stopped fiddling with his earring and had covered the distance between them so that he was almost in Rodney's space.
"Time to blow this popsicle stand," Sheppard said, shoving Rodney down hard--so that the bars of the cage were biting into his side--and rolling on top of him, covering Rodney's body with his own.
Even as Rodney opened his mouth to demand instant release, he found himself riveted by the feel of another person pressed close; his body alive to the unexpected intimacy after three days of no touch at all. He blinked languidly up at Sheppard, utterly bemused by the primitive hunger of his own skin.
Sheppard went still as he registered Rodney's hard-on pressing into his hip, but didn't move away. The last remaining light of the day limned Sheppard's face, revealing a keenness at odds with his laid-back exterior. His gaze flicked to Rodney's mouth.
Rodney began to pant, the taste of Sheppard's scent thick on his tongue with every breath--warm, masculine, heady--and when Sheppard's hands went gentle--one thumb drawing a circle of fire on Rodney's neck--Rodney lifted his head, wanting to taste for real, wanting to slide his mouth along the quirked edge of Sheppard's smile, wanting the comfort of sex, one last time, before tomorrow's fate arrived.
"Rodn--" Sheppard began, but before he could finish, Rodney closed the gap, cutting him off...
And that was when the entire camp exploded into flame.
"You couldn't have mentioned you were here to rescue me?" Rodney hissed as they fled from the camp.
Between the six-foot Amazon appearing out of the darkness and taking out half their cage with two swipes of her double-headed axe, half the guerillas in the camp burning to death before his eyes, and having to run for his life through the night-time jungle with only Sheppard's hand pulling at his own as a guide, Rodney was feeling just a little overwhelmed.
"Where's the fun in that?" Sheppard replied, barely breathing hard as they careened down the hill through whipping fronds and the occasional ping of gunfire.
"Fun? Fun? Oh my god, I'm in the hands of a psychopath."
"Be quiet," commanded the Amazon pacing them somewhere in the darkness on their left flank. Sheppard had called her Vera, after they'd crawled out of what was left of the cage. Instead of immediately lopping his head off for being familiar, she'd passed him a gun and a torch and briefed him in flawless, unaccented English.
It seemed, however, that even Sheppard wasn't so foolhardy as to disobey her order, and they made the rest of the downhill dash without speaking.
By the time they emerged at the edge of a fast-flowing river, even Sheppard and the Amazon were puffing a little, and Rodney was wheezing like an octogenarian with emphysema. Several other dark forms had slipped out of the jungle on either side of them, and were busy uncovering camouflaged canoes.
Rodney could feel his eyes bugging out. "Oh, no! Canoes? What kind of third-rate rescue is this?"
John's fingers were a merciless pincer on his elbow as he dragged him towards one of the canoes. "The kind you have when your kidnapper has the roads blocked. Now shut up and get in the damn boat, McKay."
With all the reluctance of a wet cat, Rodney stepped in, only to end up falling backwards on his ass as the canoe was hastily shoved into the water. Sheppard steadied him with a hand on the shoulder as he gracefully settled in behind him. He squeezed Rodney once before letting go.
"By the way," Sheppard said, "don't dangle any body parts in the water unless you want to lose them."
One of the oarsmen looked up from his task and grinned at Rodney with a lot of well-maintained teeth. "Piranha."
"What?" Rodney wrenched his hands from their death grip on the rim of the canoe. "Are you crazy?"
"Nah," John said. "It'll slow down the pursuit, and piranha mostly sleep at night." He leaned forward and murmured in Rodney's ear, the puff of his breath warm and strangely comforting, "Just try not to wake them."
For the rest of the long, dreamy glide down-river, Rodney sat in a careful curl at the centre point of the canoe, lips pressed firmly together.
They came ashore just as the moon was rising, its light fighting a losing battle with the overhanging foliage. Rodney let Sheppard take his elbow again and lead him towards three Jeeps parked under camouflage at the side of the roughest road he'd ever seen. He and Sheppard ended up in the back seat, with Vera sitting in the passenger seat--an automatic rifle casually held in her lap--and the toothy oarsman driving. The other two Jeeps fell in at front and rear, sandwiching them, as the convoy bucked and revved over the uneven terrain.
"How you doing there, McKay?" Sheppard asked, peering at him in the uncertain light.
Rodney thought about that for a moment. He actually felt surprisingly okay. Free. He had absolutely no control over what was happening to him, and no way to get it back, but he was no longer facing imminent Goa'uld implantation, and, strangely, he found that he trusted Sheppard to keep him safe, despite knowing nothing at all about him. Although, now he thought about it, that, at least, was something he could fix.
"Who the hell are you people?" It came out a little snippier than he intended, but Sheppard just gave him a lazy smile and leaned back in his seat, the tension going out of his shoulders.
"You and I have a mutual friend," Sheppard said. "I owed Cameron Mitchell a favour, he called it in, and here we are." He waved at the jungle flashing by as they zoomed along a relatively straight, flat section of the track.
Mitchell. That meant Sheppard was probably military, maybe even SGC. That was reassuring.
"Must have been a big favour," Vera said, turning in her seat to give Rodney an unimpressed once-over. "Killing him would have been easier, and safer for all of us."
"Hey, now," Sheppard said, his leg suddenly tense where it pressed against Rodney's, even though he hadn't moved from his lazy slouch. "You know I wouldn't have asked for your help if it wasn't important."
Vera narrowed her eyes, looking not at all convinced.
"Oh please," Rodney snapped, "It may have been easier to kill me, but it would also have been infinitely stupider." He crossed his arms, tucking his hands into his armpits so no-one would see the way they were shaking. "There's a reason that bitch wanted my brain. I'm one of very few people on this planet smart enough to have any chance of saving us from her kind. Given the size of her operation here, you must already have some idea of what's going to happen if she isn't stopped, and, newsflash! She's just one of many, so unless you want your children and all their children to live as slaves until the end of time, you'll stop talking about easy, and start talking about getting me out of here so I can get back to figuring out how to win this war!"
Into the beat of silence that followed Rodney's speech, Sheppard said, pointedly, "Did you see the gun Sahte's guards shot me with?"
Vera nodded. "The hand of God. The prophecies tell of it, but it has been many generations since we have seen it." She eyed Rodney again, but with less hostility this time. "There are really more of Sahte's sisters still alive?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Rodney had started to sweat in the humid night air; he swiped impatiently at a trickle near his ear. "But I can't tell you about that."
"Of course." She snorted, but it sounded amused. "The US military does not share, even when the enemy is not theirs alone." At Rodney's surprised expression, she added, "You don't think I would risk my people without at least Googling you, Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD? Despite being described as one of the finest minds of our times, you haven't published anything substantive since 1997, when you began working on America's deep space telemetry project. It's not hard to connect the dots."
"Um," Rodney said, not sure how to respond to that. He wasn't surprised his rescuers knew who he was, but it had never occurred to him that there might be localized resistance to the Goa'uld. Now that he was face-to-face with what was obviously some kind of SWAT cell, he wondered why it hadn't been raised before. He'd have to mention it to the SGC when he got back.
John shifted in the seat next to him, the tension once more easing out of him. "And here I was, thinking you came along for the ride because you liked me, Vera."
She smiled, and it lit up her face, making her look young and very beautiful. "I do, John. But I like it even more that you now owe my people a favour."
"Yeah," Sheppard muttered, slouching even lower in his seat. "Great. I'm feeling the love."
Vera turned to Rodney. "There will be reprisals for this. Make the price we pay worth it, Doctor." Without waiting for a reply, she swivelled around to face front again.
Rodney briefly caught the gaze of Toothy Oarsman in the mirror. It was loaded with expectation, and it dawned on Rodney that these people might not know exactly what the Goa'uld were, but they understood the stakes, and they understood why Rodney was important. Vera hadn't threatened to kill him because she wanted him dead, but because she wanted him to understand that they were trusting him with their hope, with their future. Rodney tore his gaze from the mirror, feeling like a million tonne weight had settled on his shoulders.
He closed his eyes and leaned sideways into Sheppard, letting their shoulders brush, taking in the soothing clicks and hoots of the jungle, the flow of air ruffling his hair, the unpredictable cant and shiver of the Jeep.
Several hours later, they came to a halt outside a rickety building on the edge of an open field. The moon was high in the sky, its light gleaming off the white sides of a small plane chocked nearby.
John pulled the wooden earring out of his ear and rubbed at his earlobe; it looked red, even in the moonlight. He handed the earring over to Vera. "Thanks again. I'm sorry to cut and run, but--"
"Time is of the essence." Vera handed the earring to her offsider--who carefully tucked it into his breast pocket--and pulled John into a hug. "Take care of yourself, John. Keep in touch."
"Will do." John gave her a quick, easy kiss on the lips, before pulling away. "Come on, McKay," he said, and headed off towards the plane.
"Right," Rodney said. "Um, thanks." He held out his hand.
Vera's hand was warm and gun-calloused, but her nails were neatly shaped, and her nail polish had little stars at each cuticle. "Remember," she said.
Rodney nodded, "I will," and at Vera's dismissive wave, he turned and headed after John.
Sheppard was busy running some kind of visual check, but he dropped the steps and slapped them, saying, "Up you go."
Rodney climbed aboard and found that the rear of the plane was seatless cargo space, so he went through to the tiny cabin and settled into the co-pilot's seat. Ten minutes later, Sheppard had removed the chocks, climbed into the pilot's seat, and run through his preflight check, while Rodney was still struggling to get his seatbelt to clasp.
"Here," Sheppard said, leaning over into Rodney's space and giving a sharp tug on the recalcitrant strap. It slithered free of the sticking point with embarrassing ease, and Sheppard's hand briefly brushed Rodney's bare neck as he settled it into place.
"Oh god," Rodney said, suddenly putting two and two together--remembering the way Sheppard had kissed Vera goodbye and realizing, "You were checking my neck to see if I'd been implanted. Not--" He turned away, trying to hide his blush.
Sheppard settled back into his seat, hands deft on the controls as they began to taxi down the field. "Implanted?"
Not wanting to dwell on that subject, Rodney demanded, "Where are we going, anyway? I know you military types like to play things close to the chest, but this is ridiculous."
Sheppard gave him a sidelong look. "Second star to the right and straight on 'till morning." The plane bumped up off the ground and soared, easily clearing the shadowed swathe of trees marking the edge of the field.
"Ha ha." Rodney glared. "Are you kidnapping me? Don't get me wrong, if it's a choice between you and Sahte, kidnap away, but I'd like to know if I should be devising a fiendish revenge."
"Depends. How fiendish are we talking here? Emperor Palpatine fiendish, or Doctor Evil fiendish?"
Rodney couldn't manage to hold back his laugh; it came out sounding squashed and not unlike that of a vaudeville villain. "Probably somewhere in between."
"Oh, well. In that case," Sheppard said, his ear-to-ear grin making him look about five, "Mitchell's sending someone to pick you up at the border."
"See? Was that so hard?"
"Nah, I just enjoy watching you get all wound up."
Not dignifying that with a response, Rodney crossed his arms and resolutely stared out into the star-filled sky, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep from smiling.
Rodney jolted awake with the plane lurching like an out-of-control rollercoaster, and Sheppard, sounding not at all cool, shouting, "What the fuck is that?"
One glance out the windshield told him that that was the unmistakable scythe-like glide of a Goa'uld fighter in mid-attack. He'd never seen it in real life before; the footage hadn't done it justice.
"Rodney?" Sheppard wrenched at the controls sending the tiny airplane into an almost vertical climb just in time to avoid twin laser bolts. As the engine began to make ominous stalling sounds, he flipped the plane over in a balletic barrel roll, narrowly avoiding two more shots, and making Rodney profoundly thankful he hadn't eaten in hours.
"Alien spaceship," he admitted as Sheppard snaked the plane through the air in a way Rodney was pretty sure broke at least two laws of physics. "It has inertial dampeners--"
In a perfectly timed demonstration, the Goa'uld ship smoothly flipped itself out of its over-shoot trajectory and homed in on them again.
"--and laser weaponry. I didn't even know there were any based here on Earth. And also, we're pretty much fucked."
"I noticed that, Rodney!" Somehow Sheppard managed to corkscrew away from another salvo, but as he pulled out of the turn the whole plane juddered, and a warning light flicked on for the right wing. "Okay, this isn't working. We need a Plan B."
"Do you have parachutes?" Rodney asked, clutching at his seatbelt with both hands.
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "Do you know how to use one?"
"Great. Sounds like we have a plan."
Rodney would have protested, but at that moment Sheppard turned the plane on its side and flew it into a rocky chasm that was so narrow Rodney could probably have jumped across it from a standing start.
"This'll only buy us a minute. You need to get geared up, McKay."
"Oh, God," Rodney said, faintly, but obediently unbuckled his harness and slithered into the rear compartment. Fortunately, there was webbing along most of the walls, and he clung to it with vice-like tenacity as Sheppard started throwing the plane around again.
By contorting himself like a rubber man, he managed to follow Sheppard's shouted instructions and get the parachute on and buckled. Then the plane steadied, and Sheppard was suddenly right there, sliding on his own parachute with practised ease.
He caught Rodney's gaze as he hurriedly did up the final clasp. "We're low, so just pull the cord as soon as you're out the door. I'll be right behind you."
And then the door was open, the night sky rushing in and tearing at Rodney's hair and John was grabbing him, holding him, pushing him out into the roaring nothingness, Rodney's scream ripped from his throat by his own slipstream as he scrabbled at the cord with frantic, sweat-slick hands.
The moment he pulled it, the world shuddered, making a sound like sundering velcro, and then he was floating, drifting, the night sky turning into a bright orange rose of fire that bloomed and filled the air with the sharp smell of fuel. He was still a few feet above the feathery darkness of the trees as the shell of Sheppard's plane tore its way into the jungle's canopy, and then he was swallowed up by whip-thin branches and snake-like vines and all he could see were purple after-images and the dark.
He came to a stop somewhere far above the ground, still swaying with the last of his momentum, surrounded by an invisible rainfall of dislodged debris rustling down, down into the darkness beneath his feet.
It took Rodney nearly two hours to figure out how to get down without killing himself in the process. The main cutting blade of his Swiss army knife would never be the same again, but the primitive pulley worked, the lianas held, and he made it to the ground with only minor scrapes to show for the adventure.
Despite that, his worry was rapidly edging into terror. Sheppard hadn't responded to any of Rodney's shouts for help, and when he'd reluctantly set off the flare he found in the small survival pack attached to the bottom of the parachute frame, the only response had been a laser show overhead that had briefly, but alarmingly, set the canopy smoking.
Rodney was staring despairingly at the darkness, wondering what to do next, when the welcome light of a flare fizzled overhead, followed by another laser barrage that lit Rodney's path like a flickering beacon. He dashed through the jungle, heedlessly leaping logs and crashing through bushes in his haste, finally bursting into a small clearing in which Sheppard was seated on a rock, flicking his flashlight on and off in a repetitive pattern, while pressing a wad of cloth to his forehead and looking pale and dazed beneath his even messier than usual shock of hair.
When he saw Rodney he let out a long sigh, the flashlight falling out of his hand onto the rock. "What the hell took you so long?"
"Excuse me," Rodney said, stomping across the clearing. "I'm not the one who couldn't follow the plan. Or did I miss the part where you said, 'I know, let's cut our heads open and bleed to death'? Because I think I would have objected if I'd known about that." He pulled the miniscule first aid kit out of his survival pack. "How bad is it? Were you unconscious?"
Sheppard shrugged. "I think it's stopped bleeding."
"Thank you for that helpful and insightful assessment." Rodney slapped Sheppard's hand away, and gently eased the makeshift bandage aside. The wound beneath was deep but small. He dumped antiseptic powder onto it, ignoring Sheppard's hiss of pain, added a cotton pad, and covered it with a giant band-aid. "It's not too bad. You'll probably end up with a rakish scar."
"Just what I always wanted."
As Rodney was zipping the first aid kit away, the Goa'uld ship flashed briefly across the narrow strip of sky above the clearing.
Sheppard was the first to speak. "Can that thing land, or, um, beam people down here? Or us up there?"
"No, but it'll have a radio."
"Right. And that means minions." Looking none too steady on his feet, Sheppard stood. "We need to move out."
Rodney nodded. "I hate minions."
Casting Rodney an appraising look as he picked up his torch and pack, Sheppard said, "I bet you have minions."
"Yes, and I hate them. They're all morons."
Sheppard snickered a little, then winced and stopped, lifting a hand to his wound.
"Don't fiddle with it," Rodney said. "Try using your head for something more constructive, for a change. Tell me how we're getting out of here without being caught by the minions."
"Easy." Sheppard pulled a small compass out of his pocket and took a bearing. "We need to slide beneath their radar."
"How?" Rodney said, skeptically. "They have a spaceship. Their radar is pretty advanced."
"I may not have minions, but I have my ways." Sheppard lifted an eyebrow in what was probably meant to be a man of mystery look, but it was somewhat spoiled by his wince. Giving up on the attempt at intrigue, he turned and walked off into the jungle. "Coming?"
Falling in behind him, Rodney muttered, "Fine, don't tell me. I'm just a genius, after all. What possible contribution could I make to the plan?"
They walked steadily north-east until just before dawn, only stopping occasionally for Sheppard to check the compass. As the air was turning pearly with first light, a dank, heavy rain began to fall, and after a few minutes of glum trudging they gave up and took shelter beneath a rocky overhang.
Rodney was about to complain that he was not only drenched and exhausted but starving too, having long since devoured the meagre rations in his kit, when Sheppard reached into a pocket and pulled out a giant chocolate bar. He handed it over wordlessly.
After staring at the bounty for long minutes, Rodney resolutely broke it with a sharp rap on his thigh. He kept the larger portion for himself, but held the rest out to Sheppard with barely a pang.
"You don't have to--"
"Oh, shut up." Rodney dropped the chocolate into Sheppard's lap. "Eat it. You look like a twig as it is."
"Gee thanks, Rodney." Sheppard smirked at him. "It's not every day someone admires my sylph-like figure and gives me chocolate. I feel special."
Blissed out on the sweet, rich heaven filling his mouth, Rodney could barely be bothered to scowl.
Rodney woke, heart pounding, to find that it hadn't all been a nightmare, and that the jungle's endless dark had become the tepid green of late morning. Sheppard was curled around him like an octopus, breathing deep and slow in his ear in a way that made Rodney ache to be naked and safe on a large bed with clean sheets.
"Sheppard! Sheppard! John!" Rodney resisted the urge to run his fingers through Sheppard's--no--John's hair, making do with shaking his shoulder instead. "Come on, wake up."
It took Rodney a moment to realize that John had woken; his breathing hadn't changed, but suddenly his eyes were slitted open and he was watching Rodney's face as though it was the most important thing in the world. It lasted barely a second, and then he blinked and rolled over onto his back, groaning as he stretched out the kinks.
"I'm getting too old for this shit."
"Yeah," Rodney agreed. "What I wouldn't give for a hot shower."
They lay there in companionable silence for another minute, mentally gearing up for what was ahead.
"We need to get moving." John sat up with obvious reluctance, pressing a hand to the small of his back. "You up to walking?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"That's what I thought." Rodney accepted the hand John offered and gingerly pulled himself to his feet.
They had been walking for about an hour when they came to the bottom of the gully and found their way blocked by a relatively small, but fast moving stream. A brief foray revealed that a large tree had fallen across the river a bit further downstream, creating a natural bridge. Half-way across, John stopped and gripped Rodney's arm, silently pointing up at the side of the mountain visible through the hole in the canopy above the stream. A surprisingly long distance away, sun glinted off something moving across a naked expanse of rock. It was hardly unexpected, but it was still rather daunting to have proof that they were being tracked.
"I guess she really, really wants that brain of yours."
"Believe me, the irony isn't lost on me," said Rodney, as he followed John the rest of the way across the log and slithered gracelessly down onto the ferny bank.
John took out his compass and checked their heading. "How's that?"
Rodney sighed, but figured he might as well get it over with. "We met at a conference a couple of months ago. She said she wanted to show me her... telescope."
"Ah." Nothing on John's face gave him away, but Rodney could tell he was laughing on the inside. "The old telescope gambit. Fiendish."
"She really has one," Rodney said defensively, still feeling bitter about it; much more so than being duped on the sexual innuendo front. "Or at least, the real Dr. Susan Marino works on the SETI project. It's not like I didn't check her bona fides before flying all the way down here! But I didn't even get to do the tour before she kidnapped me. I mean, what was the rush? She just had me sitting in that cage for three days! There was plenty of time to fit in a tour first."
"That bitch," John said, and now he was openly laughing, but he was also patting Rodney consolingly on the shoulder, and Rodney found himself feeling much less ridiculous than he'd expected.
They stood in the deep cover of the jungle, looking down at the small compound made up of a row of dingy prefabricated huts that to Rodney's practiced eye screamed third-rate research funding.
"The only road goes round the other side of the mountain," John said. "Even if they'd headed straight here, they should still be a few hours away." But he didn't move from his spot beside Rodney.
"We're out of food," Rodney pointed out. "And we only have three water purification tablets left."
"Yeah." John moved his now very light survival pack from one hand to the other. "Maybe I should go down first. Scope things out."
"Please. Do I look like Tarzan to you? I'd last about three seconds on my own."
There was really no arguing with that, so in the end they cautiously entered the compound together. Upon closer inspection, the place had a chaotic, but well-maintained look to it. There were twenty or so empty gas tanks stacked against one of the shacks, and assorted wetsuit parts hanging limply on a clothesline. A single, clapped out car was parked in the shade of a tree covered in bright red flowers, but there was an empty spot next to it with well-worn wheel ruts. As they approached, they startled several pecking fowls, who scolded them loudly and darted off to the other side of the yard. A moment later, the screen door on one of the huts creaked open, and out came a blond-haired woman with flawless Scandinavian skin and the square-shouldered, confident gait of someone who uses their body hard. She scanned the compound warily, a hand sitting on the butt of the gun she wore on her hip, but as soon as she recognized John she broke into a welcoming smile.
"Hey stranger," she said, holding out a hand in welcome, pulling John into a quick hug and an easy kiss. Then she laughed and patted his bristly cheek. "Not your best look, hotshot. You look like a tramp." She glanced at Rodney. "Not as much as your friend does, though."
"You're such a sweet talker, Ashley," John said, but took the hint and introduced her. "Dr. Ashley Jorgensen, Dr. Rodney McKay."
Her grip was strong and capable as she shook Rodney's hand, and up close she was even better-looking: eyes bright with intelligence, hair gold and shiny in the dappled sunlight. She was even polite enough to enquire about his doctorate without cutting her gaze back to John.
After a few rounds of, "Oh, astrophysics. How interesting," and "Geology? Really? That's very, um..." John cut in with, "We had a bit of engine trouble, Ashley. Any chance we could use your radio?"
"Sure," Ashley said, melting under John's smile as she ushered them towards the hut.
Following along in their wake, Rodney gritted his teeth in silent and completely inappropriate jealousy. Ashley. What kind of name was that, anyway?
At the door, she paused with her hand on the handle. "Wait... God, that wasn't you with the explosion last night, was it? It scared the crap out of me. I thought it was just ball lightning again, but it was so loud."
"It sounded a lot worse than it was," John lied, and it was so smooth that Rodney almost believed it himself.
Once inside, John tilted his head at Ashley and gave Rodney a speaking look: keep her occupied. Then he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder and said, "I'll just give my buddy Mitchell a call," and disappeared into the other room with a familiarity that spoke of many visits.
Rodney looked around, a little desperately, hoping for a conversation starter. The room was small and cramped, although there was a single large window that gave a panoramic view of the jungle, and stopped the space from feeling totally box-like. Built into the wall alongside the window was an air-conditioning unit, but it wasn't on; instead, three fans set up at strategic points blew crosswinds back and forth. Two big desks took up most of the room; on one was an open laptop playing a screensaver of reef-fish, and all around it were stacks of paper--mostly handwritten notes and diagrams. On the other desk was a huge topographic map covered in coloured markers. Most of the wall space was taken up with overlapping aerial photographs of the region at various scales; some were even satellite shots.
The papers all flapped restlessly with each oscillation of the fans. Through the doorway, Rodney could see that the hut's other room was also an office. John had settled in front of a computer in there, and was pulling on a set of headphones.
"So," Ashley said brightly, making her way over to a coffee pot. She pulled out the used filter and dropped it into the bin, then started to spoon in fresh grounds. "You and John."
Rodney gaped at her, thinking he must have misunderstood what she was implying. "What?"
Ashley paused mid-spoon and pouted--actually pouted--at him. "Oh, come on! Trying to get anything out of John is like conducting an inquisition." A cascade of coffee grounds was blown off the spoon by one of the fans, and she hastily went back to her task. Raising her voice, clearly intending John to hear her, she said, "He's the worst gay man in the history of gossip. He should get his membership card revoked."
Winking at Rodney, she pulled out the dreg-filled carafe and went over to the tiny sink to rinse it. At a more conversational volume, she said, "So how did you and John meet?"
Feeling a little weak in the knees, Rodney shoved a pile of papers aside, and collapsed onto the edge of the nearest desk. "Uh."
"Was it romantic?" She finished setting up the coffee machine, and turned it on. "Please say it was. I don't think I could bear to have all my illusions shattered."
"Illusions?" Rodney said, weakly.
"That beneath that devil-may-care exterior lurks a lover not a fighter."
Recovering from his moment of weakness, Rodney snapped, "Are you insane? Or has living out here in the wilds just rotted your brain? Sheppard, granted, may look like a featherweight Fabio, but do I look like a romance heroine to you? I haven't bathed in four days! That's not romantic, it's just revolting."
Into the silence following Rodney's speech, John drawled, "Have you been harassing my boyfriend, Ashley?" He was leaning in the doorway, all hair and stubble and canted hips, the corners of his mouth twitching with amusement.
"A little bit," Ashley conceded. "You should have warned me he had teeth."
"Now, where's the fun in that?" John slouched into the room and dropped into one of the office chairs.
"I'm sitting right here," Rodney said, crossly, heart still thumping stupidly at John's use of boyfriend, "but please, feel free to insult me some more."
He found it hard to maintain the rage, though, when Ashley plied him with fresh coffee and offered him the use of her shower. He was further mollified when she presented him with a tray of assorted biscuits and a bowl of fruit. By the time he and John were bickering over the last cookie, he had somehow fallen deeply in like with her. And then, after watching Rodney dab mournfully at the remaining biscuit crumbs with his finger, she said, "There's real food in the other hut," and thus sealed herself in Rodney's good graces forever.
Unfortunately, John had other ideas. "We don't have time," he said. "We need to be gone before the party-crashers get here."
"Oh." Ashley gave him a knowing look. "That kind of engine trouble."
"When they get here, don't admit you saw us," John said, no humour in his face at all. "Sahte isn't a happy girl right now."
"I know the drill." It was said with such a world-weary grimness that Rodney found himself believing that she'd be able to handle a whole invading army, if it came to it. "Do you need the car?"
John shook his head. "I thought we'd take the scenic route." He gestured towards the window, and at Ashley's dawning look of comprehension a whole unspoken conversation passed between them that Rodney figured went something like:
Ashley: "You do know you're talking crazy talk?"
John: "Yeah. But you think I'm cute."
Ashley: "Crazy and also insane."
John: "Yeah. But very, very cute."
Ashley: "If you get yourself killed doing this, I'll tan your ass."
John: "You might as well class me with puppies and kittens and be done with it."
Rodney got his first inkling of how truly crazy and insane John was when he found himself looking down into a rocky waterhole at a tiny two-person sub. "No!" he said, and, "Hell no!" and, "I don't care if Satan herself is after me, you're talking crazy talk."
But John said, "Aw, come on, Rodney," and it was all kittens and puppies again, and before he knew it, Rodney was down on the small pontoon floating at the edge of the waterhole, close enough to the sub to read, with fatalistic horror, the name "Nemo," which had been hand-painted in bright blue on the sub's yellow fiberglass hull.
And then he found himself inside, squashed in behind John like the world's oldest and largest sardine. He looked longingly up at the open hatch, which was framing Ashley's anxious face.
"Just remember," she said, "if you bust it, you bought it."
"No busting," John replied, reaching up to pull the hatch shut. He hesitated, fingers looped around the pull-bar. "Be safe, Ash. Don't piss off any armed monkeys."
"Ditto." She turned to Rodney. "Take care of yourself, and don't let him do anything too stupid. Oh, and I think there's some peanuts and dried fruit floating about in there somewhere."
She stepped back, hand raised in farewell, as the lid snicked into place. As soon as John was sure the seal was tight, he started turning things on, just as deftly as he had in the plane. With the flick of a switch, the tiny cabin filled with the hissing sound of the baffles taking on water.
"How far can we actually get in this thing?" Rodney asked, resting his forehead against John's back. The warm, solid reality of him helped dispel the first creeping press of claustrophobia.
John tapped a display to his right, drawing Rodney's attention. It showed some kind of Localised Positioning System, with the Nemo marked as a blinking dot at the hub of a huge web. "The cenote system stretches under most of the Yucatan, and it's all interlinked. But realistically? We only have enough air for about six hours of travelling time. That should get us pretty close to the border, though."
A clang echoed through the cabin as a grapple released outside. Rodney's stomach lurched, and when he looked out of the perspex porthole, he realized that they were slowly sinking down, down, down into surprisingly clear water.
The cenote wasn't like anything Rodney had ever seen. It was an underwater fairy land of strange, eeling fish and bright-coloured ribbons that seemed to be neither plant nor entirely animal. The rock was curved and knotted in an intricate honeycomb of tunnels, and Rodney was very grateful for the steady blink of the LPS guiding them through the maze. He couldn't even begin to guess how many years it had taken to create the map, but he suspected the tally must be in the decades.
The most amazing thing, though, was the way fresh water sat on top of sea water, like a transparent oil slick that created strange optical illusions as they passed through the dividing line: the top layer looking just like air, until another ribbon-creature floated by and made it water again. But even that lost its fascination after the first half-hour.
As the minutes ticked into hours, gliding through the tunnels became monotonous, the endless sameness of it only occasionally interrupted when they passed through one of the waterholes that opened up to the sky, sunlight suddenly stabbing down all around them. A moment later, sun-blinded, they'd plunge back into semi-darkness, the sub's headlights reflecting dully off the passing rock.
The third time Rodney frantically clutched at a charlie-horse in his thigh, he blurted out, "What the hell are you doing out here, anyway?" in a desperate effort to distract himself from the way the sub seemed to be shrinking with every breath he took.
John cast a quick glance over his shoulder, and something about Rodney's face must have clued him in, because his deflection died unspoken. Instead, he shrugged and said, "I couldn't face being a drone for one of the commercial airlines. Down here, I could afford to buy my own plane."
"And before that? You were in the Air Force with Mitchell?"
"Yeah," John said, his voice overly casual. "Until they kicked me out."
"Oh." Even Rodney could pick up on the implied Don't ask beneath John's words. But the sub wasn't getting any bigger, and the question just spilled out on his next panicky breath. "Why? You're so good at--"
"Fucking around with the wrong people?" All the cool was gone from John's voice, and suddenly Rodney was breathless for a whole different reason, hyper-aware of how closely they were squashed together. "Yeah, I'm a fucking star at that."
There was nowhere for Rodney to go; no way to give John space. In the end he just rested his forehead against John's tense back again, not knowing what else to do. "Why are people such assholes?"
As quickly as it had blown up, John's temper disappeared. It seemed to Rodney that he leaned back, reducing the tiny gap between them by an infinitesimal degree. "I have no idea," he said, "but if you ever figure it out, let me know."
They rode along in companionable silence for a long time after that, until the air-tank indicator was edging towards empty, and Rodney had been biting back the demand to be let out, out, out long enough to be feeling sick with it. Just as he couldn't bear it another moment, they cruised into a pit that wasn't like the others. Its sides were smooth and perfectly round, except for a set of stairs leading up to the rim, which looked like they had been carved straight out of the rock.
"We're here," John said, as the sub bobbed to the top of the water like a cork, nudging the stone platform at the bottom of the stairs.
"Where's here?" Rodney asked, but when John popped the top, Rodney could see for himself. They were inside the partially-tumbled glory of an ancient temple. It soared over them in ageless, elegant lines, letting light in through cleverly designed apertures.
John pulled himself out of the sub with his usual grace, mooring it to a stone post before leaning over to offer Rodney a hand. "I figured this way, the sub couldn't be seen from the air."
They walked up the stairs side by side, emerging into a huge chamber. The floor was covered in detritus: chunks of fallen masonry; patches of decomposing, windblown leaves; and piles of bones and scat left behind by animals. Beneath it all, the pattern of the floor tiles was still visible in large fractal-like grids.
While Rodney was trying to figure out the pattern, John said, "Cool," and wandered over to look more closely at the markings on the innermost wall of the chamber.
"You know, this could almost be a--" Looking up from his study, Rodney shouted, "Don't touch that!" just a moment too late.
John took a hurried step back as the part of the wall he'd been fondling slid down with an ear-grating rumble, revealing another huge room that was rapidly filling with artificial light as console after console powered up.
They both just stood there for a moment, stunned, and then Rodney rushed over, yelling, "You idiot! What have you done?"
"How the hell should I know? You're the expert on weird stuff. You tell me."
Ignoring John completely, Rodney tentatively peered into the glowing room. "Oh my God," he said, recognizing the script on the nearest console as a common variant of Ancient. Then he spun around and stared at John. "Oh my God! You have the ATA gene!"
"Never mind, come here." Rodney charged into the room, trying to take in everything at once. Some of the consoles were familiar, but many more were new to him. He pointed to one of the familiar ones. "Touch this. Right here. And think of where we are in the solar system."
John sauntered over, giving the console a dubious once-over. "Now you want me to touch it? I thought you said not to."
"Yes, but that was when you were touching things at random with no understanding of the consequences. Now I'm telling you to touch this specific console." It came out with the all impatience Rodney usually reserved for undergraduates and military bean-counters. He crossed his arms so he didn't just reach out and stick John's hand on the console himself. "And think of--"
"The solar system. I heard you the first time." Slowly, John reached out and poked the console with one finger. When nothing bad happened, he slid his hand over the control Rodney had pointed to and narrowed his eyes, concentrating. Between one blink and the next, a blue hologram of the solar system appeared above their heads.
"Whoa. Did I do that?"
While John was busy watching the planets spin around the sun, Rodney was busy watching John. "I'm dreaming, aren't I? I'm still lying in that cage in a coma, and some fatal jungle fever is slowly turning my brain into mashed potatoes. I must be. It's the only reasonable explanation. Because you--"
John turned to look at him, eyes wide with delight.
"--god, you're just too good to be true."
It really did feel like a dream then, because John was suddenly in Rodney's space, sliding a hand around Rodney's neck and pulling him close, his thumb tracing a circle of fire on the bare skin of Rodney's nape. Then his mouth was right there, demanding Rodney open up and let him in, drawing Rodney into a kiss that was hot and hungry, salty with the flavour of stale peanuts and twenty-four hours of adrenaline, and so achingly real it made something inside Rodney's chest break open, releasing a rush of arousal that left him light-headed and desperate.
Rodney moaned into the kiss, trying to get as much body contact as he could, and that just seemed to spur John on. He blindly pushed Rodney up against the console, totally focused on the biting kisses he was trailing down Rodney's neck, one hand fumbling with the button on Rodney's pants, the other still stroking fire into his skin. "Hurry," Rodney said, at the same moment John demanded, "My belt," and it was then, while they were completely entangled in each other and oblivious to danger, that Sahte found them.
"Well," she gloated, looking John up and down in a way that made Rodney want to rip out her throat with his teeth. "How helpful of you to lead me to all this wonderful technology, complete with its very own key. Really, this couldn't have worked out better if I'd planned it." She snapped her fingers, and one of her minions came forward and dropped to his knees, offering up a pair of choke collars.
The rest of the minions remained on guard, zats aimed and locked, but while Sahte was distracted, Rodney risked a quick, pointed glance at a console on John's immediate right, and then looked into John's eyes, attempting to telepathically beam the message: Touch it. Touch it now.
John's eyes narrowed in reply: Are you sure? Are you sure you're sure?
"Oh, for God's sake," Rodney snapped; he'd never believed in telepathy anyway.
"Silence!" Sahte's eyes flashed, and in her Goa'uld voice she said, "I wonder which of you I should punish first."
John took one look at the flashing-eye thing, and the way Sahte was fondling the choke chain, and his hand darted out, quick as a striking snake, and slammed down on the console. Instantly, a wall of blue fire sprung up, bisecting the room. It absorbed the zat volley fired at them with a series of soft quacking sounds.
"Cool," John said, and waved cheerily at their stymied attackers.
"Not really." Rodney abruptly sat down and rested his head on his knees. "We don't have any food or water, or any other way out of here, and we just really, really pissed off the crazy alien."
"There is that." John sat down next to Rodney and draped an arm around his shoulders. "On the bright side," he added thoughtfully, "we could always have sex, and then I could cut our throats. You know, if it comes to that."
"I think it's a fair measure of my current state of mind that that plan doesn't entirely horrify me."
The stalemate lasted barely thirteen minutes; not even enough time for Rodney to really develop an appreciation for his impending doom.
He was poking at one of the unfamiliar consoles, trying to figure out if it would do anything useful, when John said, "Hello."
Turning, Rodney discovered that a fierce firefight was going on behind the forcefield, seemingly in complete silence.
"Shit," John said, as Sahte collapsed mid-tirade, felled by a zat blast to the head. "You know what this means?"
"We get to not cut our throats in a barbaric and pointless suicide pact?"
"Besides that." John waved their rescue aside with a casual disregard that made Rodney boggle. He looked far too glum for someone who was going to live. "This means I owe Mitchell another fucking favour!"
And sure enough, a moment later Mitchell swaggered in, looking entirely too pleased with himself. He stopped about an inch from the forcefield and spread his arms wide in an Am I the man, or am I the man? gesture.
John nodded and smiled at him, but the moment Mitchell turned his back, the smile fell away, and John gave Rodney the most pathetic puppy-eyed look in history.
"Forget it," Rodney said, already imagining the first bitter taste of coffee, the butter-soft give of a rare steak, and, oh god, a long, blissfully hot shower. "I don't love you that much."
Before Rodney could even fathom the full horror of his slip, John grinned at him, bad mood forgotten, and said, "Cool."
ETA Author's Note: I forgot to give the prompt, which is highly amusing, so I thought it worth adding:
The Man: Hunter McBride--he'd buried his past and his emotions long ago to become the ultimate warrior.
The Mission: Get the only proof of a deadly toxin out of the Congo jungle--with or without the innocent beauty who possessed it.
The Woman Who Changed the Rules: Just one look at Sarah Burdett and long-dead feelings stirred in Hunter's heart. She was just supposed to be part of the package--nothing more. But with every minute counting down to disaster, Sarah showed Hunter how to live again. Could he discover how to love again before their time--and the world's--ran out?
Happy Christmas, everyone! Thanks for the lovely comments. The shop is flat-out, so it'll take me a while to reply, but I'm reading them every chance I get.