ne·go·ti·ate (ni-gO-shE-At), verb, 1. to attempt to come to an agreement on something through discussion and compromise. 2. to manage to get past or deal with something that constitutes a hazard or obstacle.
* * * * *
Elizabeth Weir is a diplomat. Has built a career and a life around her ability to negotiate peace treaties and trade treaties and, hell, any other kind of treaties they could come up with. She told me once that the key to any successful negotiation is balancing the give and take, convincing the person across the table you’re giving up more than you’re taking, when in reality what you’re taking is more valuable than they even realized. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so the saying goes. Or in this case, one man’s prisoner was an entire expedition’s science advisor . . . and another man’s best friend.
Too damn bad for the one guy that the other man was me. And too damn bad for him I wasn’t Weir. I had my own ideas about how to run a negotiation that were probably on the opposite end of the spectrum from Elizabeth’s . . . which was exactly why I hadn’t notified Atlantis when they had taken McKay. She would have wanted to discuss a release, spend hours, days even, working out what we could give them in return for one of the most important people in Atlantis. And on another planet with another group of locals, maybe that would have been the best thing to do.
But she hadn’t seen the dusty pens of indentured slaves surrounding the large manor house, and she definitely hadn’t heard the screams coming from the stockades on the opposite side of the public square. I had no idea if any of those screams were Rodney’s, but I knew he was in there. I had seen him being led away with a confused yet belligerent denial on his lips. Seen him look pleadingly to me as I stood, like Teyla and Ronon, with hands in plain view and weapons on the ground. Seen him being pushed through the doorway to that damnable prison, while I stood helplessly reasoning with a man who had us out-gunned and out-manned with his own personal army. A man who had just fixed me with an entirely fake sympathetic smile before dismissing us with a final leer at Teyla.
No, I had no idea how McKay was being treated. But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they dealt with their funky five-eyed cattle more humanely than the human livestock they kept locked up. I had no intention of waiting around to find out where Rodney ranked in that hierarchy. And I had my own idea of give-and-take that involved giving them one hell of surprise and taking back one hell of a physicist.
“So are we clear on the plan?” I looked to the two remaining members of my team, squinting against the last rays of the setting alien sun backlighting the gate in the distance.
Ronon busied himself with his gun, checking it over without acknowledging my question before spinning it into his holster with the flair of a paperback sharpshooter in a Wild West review. But I didn’t miss the way his eyes slid toward Teyla. And I couldn’t blame him, because the call really was hers.
Hearing me call her name, she inhaled and nodded her head, the stiff line of her back as straight as the set of her mouth. “I am clear, Colonel.”
“This isn’t right, Sheppard.” The words Ronon mumbled came from deep in his chest, seemingly muffled by the arms he had crossed tensely across it.
“This isn’t your decision, it’s Teyla’s,” I informed him.
“Still doesn’t make it right.”
“If you have a problem with my strategy, then tell me right now. If it’s a problem with your personal beliefs, then keep them to yourself until after. Do I make myself clear, Specialist?”
At my use of his Satedan rank, he straightened slightly, the muscles in his jaw flinching as he gritted his teeth. But he only responded with an enunciated, “Yes, sir,” as his eyes fixed on a spot somewhere in the distance beyond my left shoulder. Ronon may have been a forced renegade for seven years, but he was military trained and it showed.
And, unfortunately for us all, so was I.
Teyla stepped between us then, raising hands as she tried to appease us both. Weir wasn’t the only seasoned negotiator in our midst. “Colonel Sheppard is correct, the decision is mine. I believe the plan is sound. I also do not believe any of us agree with the customs of the people we are dealing with, but their bigotries have allowed us a way in and we would be foolish to not use them to our advantage.”
Yeah, bigotries. McKay had had a few problems with those himself. And I thought our debates over the death penalty and socialized medicine were heated. Seriously, you would think someone as big a hypochondriac as he is would demand the best medical care that money could buy. Eh, Canadians, what are you going to do? But those little conversations were nothing compared to his comments about slave trading and a penal system with a fast track to human servitude. And as much as I agreed with him on those particular issues, there was a time and a place for such free and open discussions, namely, at a time and in a place that supported the concept of free speech. It didn’t take a member of Amnesty International to recognize that Regorna was not such a place, and during a public flogging of a supposedly unruly prisoner was not such a time. But as the man couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it, literally, he had offended those same bigots to the point they had decided he had broken a few of their very cryptic laws, and ended up right in the middle of the very system he was criticizing.
Dark brown eyes challenged ones of a softer shade for an unspoken moment before returning to their contemplation of that elusive spot in the distance. “Fine, but if you don’t return within an hour, I’m taking a more direct approach.”
Teyla shook her head. “Ronon, the agreed upon time was two hours.” When he didn’t answer, she placed a hand on his arm. “And that is an order you will follow.”
The warrior shifted his shoulders and rolled his neck. “Then let’s do this and get it over with.”
I exhaled, satisfied that for the time being I still had control of my team. No, not the entire team. One was locked away in a cell. Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind. And I was willing to sacrifice another member in order to get him back. What the hell did that say about me that I was willing to sell my soul by whoring out Teyla just to get Rodney out of the hands of a group of people that thought no more of whipping a man in public than swatting an annoying fly? It just meant that Teyla wasn’t going to go into the situation blind. She was going in with eyes open and a plan to get out and an ability to defend herself that I doubted most of the women on this planet ever had the chance to learn or the bastards holding McKay would expect. That was our ace in the hole. And if I told myself that enough times, then maybe the rock that had taken up permanent residence in my gut would crumble away. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen until Rodney and Teyla were safely back in Atlantis.
“Sounds like we’re ready to rock and roll, then.” I rechecked my own weapons more out of nervous energy than need.
“Give me a few moments to . . . prepare.” Teyla disappeared into the trees without waiting for a response. When she reemerged a few minutes later, she had shed her vest and expedition jacket, wearing her Athosian top with the upper laces loosened and the expedition pants a little lower on her hips. It was amazing how much bare flesh a few inches of fabric could cover on the human body. The knife she typically wore at her side was no longer in sight, but I had little doubt she still carried it, along with a few other things. She crammed the jacket into the soft Athosian bag she always stashed in her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “We should go,” she stated matter-of-factly, “before we lose the light.” She turned and started back toward the village with quick, purposeful strides.
After a final disapproving glance in my direction, Ronon followed her. I may have had control, but I was starting to doubt it was over any sort of team. It had nothing to do with knowing we had to get McKay back. Everyone agreed it needed to be done and it needed to be done quickly. That fact alone was all that had stopped Teyla’s argument we should return to Atlantis and take the diplomatic approach. And both Teyla and I had shot down Ronon’s “storming the gate” strategy because no matter how good he was with that pistol of his, even he couldn’t handle the three dozen or so armed men serving as the personal guard for Dorando Vale.
Dorando Vale. I really didn’t like the man, and I had come to that conclusion before he had flicked his bald head, twitched his cheesy mustache, and had Rodney hauled away before any of us could ask what was happening, much less stop him. He was part-land baron and part-military leader, although the term “leader” implied he was actually guiding and nurturing those around him instead of ruling over them with fear and intimidation. He had a small army of men that oversaw the prisoners and slaves, worn men and tattered women who worked the small crop fields rutted into the surrounding countryside and the precious metals mine cut into the red-rocked mountains backing his large manor house and its surrounding compound of adobes, pens, and barns. And of course there was the prison, long and low, with a stench to make the barns seem downright April-fresh in comparison.
He was also taken with Teyla. Vale’s comments that had the Athosian herself ready to draw and quarter the man, much less the rest of the team, were evidence of that. And when he told me I was too possessive of my property for telling him to shut the hell up after one particularly derogatory remark, I knew it was time for us to leave. Problem was, that was also the time they decided to whip a prisoner for disrespecting a guard, and Rodney had a few choice words to say about Vale’s disrespect for human beings in general.
So less than an hour later, I found myself uncomfortably suggesting we use Teyla as a decoy to trade for Rodney. Once we had McKay back, Teyla would get away on her own and, if possible, plant a couple of charges of C-4 to bring down the manor house and cover our escape. It was a good plan. We would make the offer for the exchange just before nightfall so that Teyla would have the cover of darkness to make her way back to the rendezvous site. She was more than a match for Vale or any of the guards one-on-one, we had the element of surprise on our side, and if I had read Vale correctly, he would jump at the chance to have Teyla in his bed. And so, half an hour after we started back to the manor house, I found myself in the unwanted position of offering up one of my closest friends as bait to a slime ball.
The sun was low on the horizon when we arrived back at the compound, casting the backdrop of mountains and the red-dirt courtyard in a ruddy pink. After asking to speak with Vale, we were told to wait while one of his cronies passed on our request. Three other guards stood watch over us, and Ronon pulled my attention to one in particular with a softly spoken, “Sheppard,” and a nod of his head.
It took me a second to realize what he was pointing out. “Nice pants,” I told the man wearing a pair of expedition khakis, cinched tight with a belt. Around the corner of the house, I could see a flash of blue, and knew what had happened to Rodney’s shirt. I forced back any panic about what that might mean, rationalizing that all the slaves we had seen so far were dressed in dirty rags that had at one point been white. The guards weren’t dressed much better, so I was sure when they saw the chance at new clothes, they took it regardless of the fit. I fixed the one in the oversized trousers with a condescending smirk. “Did you at least let him keep his boots?”
He didn’t get a chance to answer as Dorando deemed that moment fit to honor us with his presence on the large front porch of the house. He stood with suspenders bulging over a broad belly and shirtsleeves rolled to his forearms, picking in his close-set teeth at the remnants of whatever he had eaten for his evening meal.
“Colonel Sheppard, I am surprised to see you and your companions back so soon.”
As if we wouldn’t have come. Either the man was an idiot, or he held the concept of friendship so low that it never dawned on him that we would want McKay back. Or maybe he was playing us for chumps. In the end, it wouldn’t matter as long as he took the bait.
“I’ve come to negotiate a release,” I told him even as I signaled Teyla to come forward, “and a trade.”
“A trade?” he asked in surprise. “You would trade the woman for the one we hold?”
“Dr. McKay is a valued member of our community. My leaders will be very upset if I don’t return with him. Personally, I would rather keep the one and let you keep the other.” I ran my left hand through Teyla’s hair and down her back, tense muscles twitching under my fingertips. The action was much too familiar for either of us, and in my peripheral vision, I saw her drop her eyes to the dust at our feet. But I kept my eyes locked on Vale, not glancing her way to offer the apology I so desperately wanted to give her.
“So, this McKay, he is valuable to you, yes?” Vale leaned casually against one of the porch posts, but I saw the way he eyed Teyla hungrily.
“Look, I’m going to be in a whole heap of shit if I don’t come back with McKay,” I deflected his question. “And from the looks of things around here, one more set of hands in the fields or in the mines isn’t going to make that much difference to you.” I raised my eyebrows with a conspiratorial tilt of my head. “But a set in your bed? A very skilled set, at that.” I shrugged as I pushed Teyla forward a few steps. “The choice is yours.”
“The one you seek, he has a mouth on him that won’t stop,” the large man informed me as he carelessly flicked the toothpick away.
“So does Teyla,” I smirked even as my stomach threatened to roll at the implications I threw behind that comment. Behind me, I could hear Ronon growl deep in his throat but ignored it because, by the humorous glint in Dorando’s eyes, I could see we were close.
“I doubt hers is as insulting as McKay’s.”
“Quiet as a mouse,” I promised. “Unless, of course, she’s enjoying herself, which she tends to do.”
Teyla shifted uncomfortably. I moved my hand from her lower back to her shoulder and squeezed briefly in support, covering the action with a stroke of my thumb along her neck.
Vale frowned. “I would think it would be difficult for you to give up one such as this, especially if she is as skilled as you suggest.”
“Listen, my ass is going to be in a sling if I come back empty-handed. I can always get another woman . . . if I come back with McKay. You, however, will never have a chance at a woman like this again.”
He considered for a moment, and I forced my stance to remain relaxed as his eyes moved from Teyla to me and back again. Finally, he turned to the guard wearing Rodney’s pants. “When they return from the mines, bring him.” As that man skittered away, he addressed the one on his opposite side. “Take her to my room. And this one no one is to touch until I am finished with her.”
My jaw clenched in disgust at the implication of that statement even as Teyla turned startled eyes my way. Ronon stepped forward. I could feel his presence hovering mere inches behind my back, and I took hold of Teyla’s arm. “Now, that’s not quite fair that you get your part of the bargain and I haven’t even seen if mine is still alive.”
“Oh, he lives,” Vale assured me. “And if it makes you feel more at ease, I will stay with you until the work detail returns from the mines and you can see for yourself.”
“Then Teyla stays with us, as well,” Ronon told him from my shoulder.
“How do I know you won’t try to take them both back when he arrives? No, she goes to wait in my room, or you can take her back to your world and leave McKay here. That is my offer. Now the choice is yours, Colonel Sheppard.”
And what the hell kind of choice was that? But I had faith in Teyla’s abilities, and I had faith that the guards were scared enough of Vale that they would follow his orders and leave her alone. So as long as he was with us, Teyla was in no danger and may even be able to use the time to our advantage. “Take her.” I looked him straight in the eye. “But if we don’t get McKay back, Ronon will drop you where you stand and I will go in and get her back myself.”
He grinned at my bravado and indicated a table and chairs sitting under a large tree. “I would be disappointed if you attempted anything less. Now, we will drink to close the deal.”
The same man who led Teyla away returned a few minutes later with a bottle of sweet wine that made my teeth ache just to sip it. Ronon drained his cup in one gulp before turning it upside down on the table, standing and walking to a small water fountain that bubbled in the middle of the plaza. After almost half an hour, the sun set behind the mountains and oil lamps were lit around the courtyard. In the shadows around the perimeter of the compound, I could see the slaves from the fields trudging back to their lean-tos in the pens. They were silent, ghost-like, the scrape of tools on the rocky ground and the occasional flash of their light-colored garments the only indication they were there. Dorando didn’t even acknowledge their presence, simply drank his wine and talked about the precious metals trade with a neighboring world. They didn’t even qualify as human with him, were nothing more than shadows cast by the lamplight.
Jesus, I hated this place, and I hated the man responsible for it even more.
Ronon stood from his seat on the fountain, and I followed his gaze toward the mountains. In the distance, a line of lanterns could be seen winding down the trail from the mines. “Ah, they are returning,” our host offered cheerfully, but I barely registered his words. All I could think was that they were as quiet as the field workers, and that couldn’t be good because that was one word that could never be applied to McKay. As they got closer and there was still no sound beyond the clank of tools and creak of carts carrying ore, I was ready to take the jabbering man at my side by the shirt collar and demand to know what the hell he had done with Rodney. And that’s when I heard it.
“What the fuck? Seriously, what the fuck is it now?” I couldn’t stop the grin of absolute relief that crossed my face as the annoyed voice drew closer. “I mean, I worked in the damn mine for you, didn’t I? And not once did I point out that there were at least a dozen underground safety violations you really should do something about. Not that there’s an oversight organization that is going to impose a fine on you or anything, but honestly, it’s just good business sense—if you insist on people playing seven dwarves, you should at least have them do it safely.”
“Seven dwarves, Rodney? So I guess that would make you Grumpy, now wouldn’t it?”
At the sound of my voice, the tirade stopped. “Sheppard?” The guard led him into the lamplight and he blinked against the brightness of even that dim glow. He was filthy, dressed in threadbare clothes and covered in red dirt from bitching head to booted toes. It was odd: now that I knew he was okay, I could focus on something as trivial as the fact they had let him keep his shoes.
“That would be ‘Snow White’ to you, McKay,” I corrected as his face brightened when he blinked against the gloom and saw my own.
He rolled his eyes even as he forced a frown. “Ha! As if that icon of chaste purity could ever be applied to you. Too bad they didn’t have Sleazy, or maybe Cocky, that one would pertain in more ways than one, I’m sure.”
I looked him over quickly as I gripped his arm and pulled him out of the hands of the guard that had delivered him. “Maybe we can just settle on Dopey and leave it at that.” Aside from the new wardrobe and the grime, he looked pretty much unharmed, but I couldn’t help but ask him quietly, “You okay?”
“They stole my clothes, Sheppard. Can you fucking believe that? Then they gave me these to wear, which I seriously doubt have been washed since the last poor soul wore them. Do you have any idea how unsanitary that is? There is no way in hell I’m going to avoid coming down with some alien mange no matter how hard I scrub or how much antibacterial soap I use.” He scratched preemptively at his chest even as the complaints bubbled out of him like the water in the fountain. And I drank them up like a thirsty man in the desert. “They stole my clothes and then they put me to work in the mines. The most brilliant mind any of these insects have ever come across, and they stuck a pick in my hand and had me digging in the dark . . . the very tight-quartered, closed-in dark, I might add. I have blisters, for Christ’s sake.” He held out shaking hands to show me the raw, open wounds, and I squeezed his arm reassuringly.
“We’ll get those cleaned up as soon as we get you out of here,” I promised.
He swallowed and fixed me with hopeful eyes that had nothing to do with bandages and everything to do with never going back in those damnable mines again. “Soon?”
“Now,” I assured him, even as I squared my jaw and turned back to Vale. “You’ve got your part of the agreement—we’ll just be taking ours and leaving now.”
“Agreement?” Rodney demanded. “What agreement?”
“I’ll explain later,” I hissed.
Dorando stood and tilted his head. “I still believe I got the better end of the deal, Colonel Sheppard. That is, if she lives up to all you have promised.”
“She?” McKay’s gaze darted around frantically. “Where’s Teyla?” Of course, he didn’t find her, and the pieces fell together all too quickly for the genius he was. “Holy shit, John, what have you done?”
“What I had to,” I gritted, shoving him hard toward Ronon, whose hand clamped down on the scientist’s shoulder and held him firmly in place. “Just shut the hell up for the time being, okay?”
“Sheppard, I want to go home, but not like this.”
“Quiet, McKay,” Ronon threatened.
“What? You agreed to this, too?” Rodney’s tone was unbelieving, and the wince and glare he shot the large warrior holding him was all I needed to know that the grip on his shoulder had tightened painfully. But if it got him to keep his mouth closed for just five minutes so that we could get out of here, I wasn’t going to complain.
“A deal’s a deal, Vale. We drank on it, and in my book that means we’re good to go. You have Teyla, we have McKay, and we’re leaving. I expect you to keep your end of the bargain so I don’t have to be looking over my shoulder the entire trip back.”
“A man should always look over his shoulder, Colonel, as long as there is another man behind him.” He stood then and headed back toward the house, back toward Teyla, and despite his warning, he never looked back at us. I guess that advice didn’t apply when you had a small army to do it for you. “But you have my word none of my men will trouble you on your return trip.” With that, he disappeared through the doorway, and I took it as our cue to hightail it out of there, which is exactly what we did.
Of course, hightailing it is a relative term when it comes to Rodney McKay.
“It’s a little . . . um . . . dark out here, don’t you think, Colonel?”
The voice was close at my shoulder, much closer than Rodney tended to get with his whole well-defined personal space issues. We had left the lamp lights of the compound behind several minutes earlier, but the double moons of the planet shone enough light to see by once my eyes had adjusted. Ronon moved as if it were full daylight, with a sloppy agility that still amazed me with its ability to blend two seemingly opposing ideals. I was just about to give McKay shit about needing a night-light when it dawned on me what he had said about the mines . . . the very tight-quartered, closed-in dark mines.
I fished a mini-Maglight out of my vest and handed it over. “Try not to wave it around too much. And when we leave the path, you’ll have to turn it off.”
He adjusted the small beam so it was at its tightest, barely a penlight shining on the ground. “Thanks,” he mumbled, but he didn’t back off and I didn’t mind, as it let me catch him by the arm when he stumbled over a rock in the road.
After a few minutes of uncustomary silence, he told me, “There were bat-like things in the mines. I never really got a good look at them what with the poor lighting conditions and all, but they squeaked and I could feel them flutter above my head.” In the moonlight, I could see one hand mimicking the wings, the other holding tight to the small flashlight, his eyes locked on the tiny beam of light on the ground.
I reached out and took his arm again, trying to steady him emotionally this time instead of physically. “Rodney, you’re not going back in those mines, I promise.”
He quirked a small, crooked grin even though he never looked up. “No one gets left behind, eh, Colonel?”
“No one,” I confirmed.
“Do you think they’ll send her to the mines?”
I controlled the snort that would have said that would be the least of her worries right now. No need to upset him more than he already was. Explaining our plan had done little to alleviate the worry and the associated guilt he had for what Teyla was undertaking on his behalf. “One way or another, we’ll have her back before dawn and we’ll all head back to Atlantis together.”
He opened his mouth to say something more but never got the chance. Ronon stopped ahead of us and hitched a bearded chin into the woods. “The turnoff to where we’re to meet Teyla is here.”
I nodded my understanding, then told Rodney, “Sorry, this is where we lose the light.” I actually expected some protest, but when I didn’t loosen my grip on his forearm, he turned it off without comment, and the three of us headed into the underbrush. Ronon blazed the trail, which meant he led us under and around what he couldn’t pass through with little disturbance. Rodney stayed close on the tracker’s heels with me right on his. Finally, we passed into a small clearing with a stream backed by a cliff face. At the base was a small cave that would provide protection from a sudden downpour and little else. Still, when he saw where Ronon was leading us, McKay stopped dead in his tracks.
“It’s just a cave, Rodney, about the same size as the frog cave.”
He snorted. “And that’s supposed to make me feel better . . . how?”
I slapped him on the back. “Well, at least there aren’t any frogs.”
“Frogs?” Ronon asked even as I pushed McKay into motion toward our designated hideout.
“Colonel Sheppard and I had a life-and-death experience involving a landslide, massive bodily trauma to yours truly, and frogs,” Rodney informed him in a tone that dared him to challenge his assessment of the situation.
“Frogs?” Never let it be said that Ronon turned down a challenge. By the looks of the eyebrow raised in disbelief, he wasn’t buying the death-defying picture Rodney was painting.
“Well, they were really nasty frogs,” I supplied. “Vicious man-eating frogs with razor-sharp teeth.” The Satedan just stared. “Rodney almost died.”
“No,” I amended, “from falling out of a tree, but the frogs were the cause of the whole accident.”
“Did the frogs push him out of the tree?”
Rodney threw up exasperated hands as he settled in the mouth of the cave. “Oh, for God’s sake. No, the frogs didn’t push me out of the tree, the branch I was sitting on broke. And, technically, Sheppard, you can’t blame the frogs for the accident because if it hadn’t been for the fact that we’d been cloned, we never would have been on that planet in the first place.”
I sat next to him and nodded my head in agreement. “True.”
The second eyebrow joined the first at the top of Ronon’s forehead. “You were cloned? There are other Sheppards and McKays running around out there somewhere?”
“God, no, the clones are dead, along with quite a few of the frogs. Sheppard shot them.”
Ronon looked at me. “You shot the clones?”
“No, not the clones, the frogs. Jesus, McKay, you can’t tell a story to save your life, can you?”
“Well, technically, you did shoot the clones, or at least the cloned-you shot the clones.”
I winced at the memories that recalled. “Can we please talk about something else?”
Rodney shrugged defensively. “You were the one that brought it up in the first place.”
“Yeah, well, obviously not the best idea I’ve ever had. Next subject.”
“Fine, how about a first aid kit to bandage my hands before gangrene sets in?” He shoved the injured appendages in my face.
“Aw, shit, I completely forgot.” I rummaged guiltily in my pack until I found the little field kit.
Ronon rolled his eyes with a snort and shook his head.
“What?” I demanded, figuring it had something to do with the way McKay was accusing me of breaking a few of the Geneva Conventions as I dabbed alcohol wipes and antibiotic cream on his broken blisters, and my response to quit whining like a baby.
“Clones, man-eating frogs . . . I’m starting to think running from the Wraith wasn’t such a bad deal after all.”
“Yes, well, out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire.” At Ronon’s questioning look, the physicist I was treating continued. “It’s an Earth saying, means going from bad to . . . dammit, Sheppard, what the hell are you doing to my hand? Are you trying to maim me on purpose or just through complete medical ineptitude?”
“It’s sterile gauze, Rodney, not razor wire coated in battery acid. Be a goddamn man and show a little backbone, why don’t you?”
“Yeah,” drawled the large warrior seated across from us, “the Wraith are sounding better and better.”
“I’m beginning to think you’re right,” Rodney agreed. He flinched away as I attempted to secure the gauze I had wrapped around his hand. With a frown, I pulled the hand back, holding it firmly by the wrist as I continued to bandage it and he continued to talk. “At least with them you know where you stand immediately . . . dead last in the food chain. You can shoot first and not bother with the questions at all. It’s the humans that are hard. You never know if you’re going to find a friend or foe. And by the time you figure it out, they have you at gunpoint in their secret underground bunkers or have killed off half their population with a flawed vaccine or are stealing your pants and sending you to work in a mine while your teammate plays the role of prostitute in a very non-Pretty Woman situation to get you out.”
“He’s not going to touch her, Rodney,” I reassured him. Reassured me, for that matter. “Teyla can take care of herself and you know it.”
Ronon stood and peered into the darkness. “She should be back by now.”
“It hasn’t even been an hour since we got McKay back,” I reasoned. “Give her time.”
“It’s been over an hour and a half since they took her into the house,” the Satedan challenged.
Rodney looked between us. “So when did the two-hour clock start? When she went in the house or when they released me?”
I locked eyes with Ronon and saw he was struggling with the same question. “I don’t know,” I admitted honestly. “We didn’t exactly take that into consideration when we set up the timetable.”
“Oh, well, that just fills me with all sorts of confidence.” I couldn’t really argue with the snipe so I didn’t. “So, what do we do now?”
“We go conservative,” Ronon insisted. “Assume the time line began when they took her, and if she’s not back in half an hour, go get her.”
“And if she didn’t start counting until Vale came in?” I countered.
“An hour and a half is more than enough time to do what she needed to. Besides, if she’s done, it’ll be obvious, and we’ll come back and meet her.”
He was right. If she was able to plant the C-4, we would hear the explosion from where we sat. And when we didn’t hear it over the next thirty minutes, Ronon headed off toward the compound in a swirl of leather coat and swaying dreds, with little more than an, “Are you coming?” thrown back over his shoulder.
I stood, adjusting my vest and weapon, shaking my head when Rodney stood as well. “You stay here.” Before he could protest, I held up a hand. “In case Teyla comes back. We need someone to be here to tell her where we went.”
He bent, picked up a clump of red mud, and wrote on the cave wall: Be right back, RMc. “There, now she’ll know.” Wiggling fingers beckoned impatiently. “Give me a gun before we lose sight of Ronon.”
“Dammit, McKay, can’t you just once follow an order and sit your ass back down and wait?”
“No. Now give me your sidearm and let’s go.”
“Rodney, you have already been through—”
He cut me off angrily. “How long do I wait, Sheppard? How long do I wait if you or Ronon or Teyla don’t show up? And if you don’t, then what? I have no fucking clue where we are, which means I’ll have to wait until daylight to even attempt to find my way back to the road and the stargate. By that time, they’ll have probably found me and dragged me back to the prison and the mines.”
“And if they catch us trying to rescue Teyla, Vale will probably do a hell of a lot worse.”
“Worse than what he might be doing to her right now while we stand around wasting time arguing about it? She was willing to risk that to save my life—at least give me the chance to return the favor.”
I pinched my nose, willing away the growing headache. Why the fuck did things have to be so damn complicated? When I didn’t respond, Rodney started off in the direction Ronon had headed. I grabbed his arm with one hand and pulled my M-9 with the other. Handing it over, I told him, “You stay right behind me, do exactly what I tell you. Understand?” He rolled his eyes and I squeezed harder on the arm in my grip. “I’m not shitting with you here, Rodney. You do what I say, when I say, with no arguments. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” he told me solemnly as he tucked the firearm into the small of his back and started into the dark again.
I grabbed him by the scruff of his tattered shirt and pulled him back. “Behind me,” I reminded, and set out on Ronon’s trail.