The first moon that had hung fat and low earlier had moved behind the mountains, leaving only the thin sliver of the second to light our path. Despite the relatively early hour, the compound supported a farming and mining community that operated from sunup to sundown. Most of the small houses were dark; the inhabitants already asleep in preparation for another day of backbreaking work that would come with the dawn. Even the manor house was quiet, with only a single light shining in the window of a room on the second floor.
I squatted next to Ronon in the shadow of one of the outbuildings, a barn by the smell and the lowing of animals, with Rodney, miracle of miracles, actually following orders and squatting just behind me.
“There, the room with the light, it’s where they took Teyla.” I didn’t doubt Ronon’s observation, having decided his unusually unsocial nature during the drinking had more to do with scouting out the house and less with not wanting the alcohol.
“Guards?” I whispered back.
“Two in the front, two in the back, three more around the slave pen and more in the prison. Not sure how many are actually in the prison, but I’ve seen four different ones since we’ve been here.”
Rodney leaned over my shoulder. “Any sign of Teyla?”
Ronon shook his head and I sighed. “Okay, Ronon takes out the guards in the back and around the pens. We go in the front and see if we can find Teyla.”
Ronon nodded and slipped off into the shadows to circle around the house. I led Rodney to the tree where we had awaited his release and parked him there. The splash of the fountain would cover any sounds, and the branches blocked what little moonlight there was. Then I took out a few guards myself. For a half a second, I considered stripping Rodney’s pants off the one son-of-a-bitch as he lay twitching, but then I decided I really didn’t have the time. For the other half of the second, I considered leaving Rodney right where he was and going on into the house on my own, but Rodney didn’t have the patience to wait his turn in the cafeteria line, much less during a covert operation. The last thing I needed was for him to come looking for me.
So I signaled him with the small penlight, and he scurried across the courtyard and up onto the porch. He opened his mouth to ask me something and I quickly covered it with my hand, swinging my head slowly in the negative to accentuate my point that he was to remain completely silent. And as long as he didn’t physically explode from that restriction, I was beginning to think we might be all right.
The front door of the house opened onto a small entranceway, with a staircase off to the right of the door leading to the kitchen. To the left, a large sitting room and a hallway led to several closed doors. From the sounds of snoring, it appeared the house acted as a bunkhouse for the guards as well as Dorando’s private residence. I used my P-90 to indicate the stairway and McKay nodded his understanding. He held the 9mm in front of him, low and ready, keeping an eye out for anyone coming up behind us, while I watched for anything looking to jump out in front of us.
We made a good team. A hell of a team, actually. Starsky and Hutch without the polyester and gold chains. Crockett and Tubbs without the alligator and the eighties soundtrack. Butch and Sundance without the Bolivian army and the excessive amount of dynamite on the train.
But as I reached the top of the stairs and approached the bedroom Ronon had pointed out, I realized that maybe we had more in common with those Hollywood teams than I had originally thought. Because in addition to the light leaking out from under the doorway of the room, there was a tiny red light blinking on the doorframe. A tiny red light blinking in sync with a timer that was ticking down the seconds on a detonator stuck firmly into a mass of C-4. And if Teyla had done her job, which I now had no doubt she had, that meant there were several more masses spread throughout the house.
The timer was on ten seconds. Like all those damn cop shows where they turn a corner and the bomb is blinking at them in blood-red digital numbers. And let me tell you, ten seconds isn’t a lot of time to do much of anything. In the shows, they have time to run from the building, jump in their fast cars, and drive away with a fireball exploding behind them. In reality, you can do little more than fist your hands in the shirt of the wide-eyed physicist at your side, push him through the door where you see an underwear-clad Dorando Vale bound and gagged spread-eagle on a bed, keep pushing him until you reach the window that overlooks the slave pens, and push him further until he’s falling backwards out the window and onto the porch-cover less than a story below. And then you can hope like hell he lands on something to break his fall before he breaks his neck, as the house explodes and the roof collapses in on your own sorry ass along with the darkness.
Dark and heavy.
Dark and heavy and unable to move. A truly shitty way to be, let me tell you. I tried to take a breath, but it was nearly impossible. Everything was dark and tight and closing in . . .
“Oh, fuck me!”
McKay? That had to be McKay. No one could combine absolute pissiness with absolute terror like Rodney. But where . . . ? The mines. McKay was in the mines. The dark, tight-quartered, closed-in mines. Was I in the mines, too?
“Sheppard!” Banging and thumping. “John!” His voice echoing from a distance. “Sheppard, where the fuck are you!” Must be the mines. “Sheppard!”
Rodney. The word didn’t come out; the weight was too much to let me force out a breath, much less his name. Who knew darkness could be so heavy? But he was obviously scared. Couldn’t really blame him; this dark was pretty damn scary. Pressing in on my chest, my legs, my arms. Filling my lungs so that I couldn’t even call Rodney’s name. But didn’t he know I was in here with him?
Shit. Something was wrong; something was really, really wrong. He needed help. I tried to move again, to get to him, but I couldn’t. Why the hell couldn’t I move?
“Dr. McKay, you are bleeding.”
Teyla. Was Teyla in the mines too? And bleeding? Rodney was bleeding. Jesus Christ, why couldn’t I move? I needed to . . . I needed to . . . Goddammit! I needed to get to him.
“It collapsed. The whole fucking thing just collapsed. Help me dig.”
Collapsed. The mine collapsed. The mine collapsed and Rodney was trapped. Oh, fuck, if I could just move, I could help dig him out.
Ronon. He was a big guy, he could dig McKay out.
“I don’t know.” More banging, a little closer now. I could hear Rodney a little clearer. “He was there, I saw him. He pushed me and then I looked up and saw him and it exploded and collapsed and then I didn’t see him anymore. Oh, for God’s sake, people, dig!”
“I do not understand—why was Colonel Sheppard in the house?”
The house? Why was Teyla asking about the house? Rodney was in the mines . . . trapped in the mines.
“You were overdue.”
“I was not. It had not yet been two hours since Vale came into the house.”
“Well, mystery solved, Ronon, we now know when Teyla started the countdown. Why aren’t you two digging faster?” The darkness around me shifted, sunk in a little closer if that was even possible. “Whoa! Christ, this whole thing is going to go soon.”
“It shouldn’t have taken you that long.”
“Are you questioning my abilities, Ronon? I had to disable and secure Vale without anyone hearing, sneak and retrieve the C-4 we had hidden, return, and plant the charges. It took as long as was necessary.”
Vale. Now he was one nasty son of a bitch. I couldn’t help but grin at the thought of how Teyla had left him. Left him tied to a bed in a room set to explode . . . a room Rodney and I had been in. But Rodney was in the mines, right? I was in the mines with him. And evidently so were Ronon and Teyla and they were digging Rodney out. Only, Rodney was talking to them. So why wasn’t I?
“We were worried.”
“I am as capable of taking care of myself and my assignments as you, Ronon Dex.”
“Like sands through the hourglass, blah, blah, blah. Dig!”
“Hourglass? So you thought I was overdue as well, Dr. McKay?”
An aggrieved sigh. So close I could almost feel it. “It’s an Earth expression, from a television show . . . ” Then weight increased across my legs painfully. So painful that it forced a groan out of my dark lungs. “Wait, did you hear that? John?” Another painful shifting. Another groan. “Here! He’s down here!”
“Where are the guards?”
What, did Ronon think the guards were going to help dig? Those bastard who had stolen McKay’s pants? Stolen his pants and sent him to work in the fucking dark that was about to break my goddamn kneecaps?
“The slaves are revolting.”
Revolting? Well that was a little harsh, especially from Teyla. I mean, they were a pretty unsanitary lot, but it wasn’t their fault. The banging and clanking was closer, right above me.
“I guess they have their hands full then, except for the ones that were sleeping in the house when it came down. Those fuckers are probably . . . Oh, Jesus.” Rodney’s voice, as soft as the air I could feel brush across my face. “Sheppard? John! Goddamn answer me!”
“Colonel Sheppard?” And now Teyla, right there hovering in the darkness with McKay, both of them fluttering around me, but not nearly as bad as the bat-things Rodney had talked about. Kind of nice, really. Nice to have people I knew so close, even if it was still dark. “Ronon, see if you can move this post so we can reach him.”
A grunt and the weight on my legs was gone, and honestly I thought that might actually hurt worse. My chest sure as hell did now that I could draw a full breath. Two sets of hands were moving gently across my body and worried discussions were taking place about possible broken bones, internal bleeding, and other things I didn’t want to think about. Because it was becoming more and more obvious they were talking about me, and I had no idea why in the hell it would be me when Rodney was the one who had been trapped.
“Sheppard, can you hear me?”
I tried to answer but all that came out was a hoarse, “ . . . ney.”
“Thank God.” A hand on my chest. Rodney’s hand was splayed across it. “We’re afraid to move you but Ronon’s gone to the gate to get help.”
“Mines . . . trapped . . . ” Words. Why were they being such a bitch? They fought my mind and made me cough painfully.
“Colonel Sheppard, you were in the house when the C-4 detonated. But we have managed to dig you out. Can you move at all?”
At Teyla’s request, I shifted my legs and then my arms. Two relieved sighs, and I could just picture the smiles on their faces. But that wasn’t good enough, I wanted to see them, and I was tired of the dark. So goddamn tired of it. I tried to move again, tried to negotiate my way out of the dark and back to where Rodney and Teyla were.
A hand on my shoulder. “Just lie still, John, help is on the way.” But his voice, his hand, it was enough to show me the way out. I peeled my eyes open, just a sliver, and there they were, blurry and dim, but there. I tried harder and I managed to force my lids to half-mast, both faces so close, I could reach out and touch them. So I did.
I lifted a heavy finger to Rodney’s forehead, to the cut that ran crimson down his face. “McKay . . . you’re bleeding.” The words were muffled, thick and fuzzy in my mouth as they fought past the darkness that still sat heavy in my lungs, as dark as Rodney’s blood that dripped down my hand.
Without hesitation, his finger ran down my own face, across my cheek, and was presented to me with its own coating of red. “So are you.”
I choked out a snort . . . McKay was never satisfied if he felt he had been outdone . . . and watched as my own blood ran unhindered down to his palm. “We could . . . be blood brothers.” I hooked my index finger to his, blending our blood, blending so much more.
“At the very least,” he agreed with a sad smile but his finger gripped desperately around mine.
I hated that smile, hated the sadness behind it, hated that I was the cause. So I turned to Teyla, hoping for something a little more cheerful, but I saw the same look there. And suddenly the thought of just closing my eyes and not having to see that look of dismay ever again sounded pretty good. Just go back to the dark and let the bat-like things flutter me off to oblivion. But every time I tried, every time I started to let the world slide away and darkness return, Rodney squeezed my finger and talked and bitched and cajoled until I opened my eyes and saw him again. And after a while, I stopped hating it and actually started looking forward to it.
He didn’t stop even when Teyla bandaged his wounds, even when Ronon’s hairy visage appeared behind his shoulder with promises of help, even after Beckett arrived with the medical team and told McKay in no uncertain terms that he was now in command of the situation. And the last thing I remembered as they loaded me on the backboard, started an IV spiked with the good drugs, and a darkness I could no longer fight took me once again, was Rodney’s finger still hooked with mine.
* * * * *
Over the next couple of days, I managed to slip out of the dark on occasion and into the light of the infirmary. Sometimes to Teyla sitting and reading or meditating in the bed opposite mine. Sometimes to Ronon slouching casually in the doorway flirting with a nurse or playing curiously with one of the medical gadgets that sat around the room. Sometimes to Beckett checking sutures or chatting quietly with Elizabeth about my condition. But more often than not to Rodney and the clicking of his keyboard or the crinkle of a PowerBar wrapper, or even the sounds of his snores.
Which was exactly what woke me this time. He was sitting in the chair beside me, his feet propped in another chair and his head leaning against the railing of my bed with his mouth hanging slack in his sleep. Not exactly the smile I had looked forward to as he kept me conscious in the rubble of the house, but I’d take it anyway.
He hadn’t exactly walked away from the explosion unscathed. His right arm was in a sling to keep his shoulder immobilized, but I was sure that hadn’t stopped him from shedding it when he wanted to type, or eat, or anything else he could come up with. And the gash on his forehead had been stitched and dressed in clean, white gauze. With the same compulsion I had felt when it ran red, I reached out a finger and touched it.
Blue eyes popped open in surprise and he jumped back comically when he saw mine staring at him from the other side of the railing. “Jesus, Sheppard, don’t do that! You just about caused me a coronary.”
“You were snoring—just about caused me hearing loss.”
“I was not,” he insisted defensively.
“Last time I heard a noise like that, a Blackhawk nearly crashed on top of me.” I moved to sit up, gritting my teeth against the pain from the sutures in my abdomen. Beckett had briefed me on my condition, but the codeine haze had buffered most of the details. What I did recall was talk of broken ribs and emergency surgery for internal bleeding, and the less I knew about the fine print, the better by me.
McKay adjusted my hospital bed to a more comfortable position, fooling with the pillows even as he huffed, “Well, you’re one to talk. I’m surprised I was even able to fall asleep at all, what with you conducting your own nasal symphony. Not exactly Brahms, let me assure you.”
“Why were you sleeping?” I asked as he held a cup of water with a straw for me.
“Well, contrary to the opinion of most of my staff, I’m not one of the undead. I do need a minimal amount of sleep to function properly. Not as much as certain more basal life forms, to be sure,” he shot a pointed look in my direction, “but I do sleep nonetheless.”
I swallowed the last sip of water and pushed the glass gently away. “That’s not what I meant. Why were you sleeping in here instead of your room?”
“Well, Teyla had to go to the Mainland, and Ronon had training scheduled with some of the new Marines, and Elizabeth had morning briefings with Lorne’s team. Of course, I had to finish up with the bilge pump repairs that were recirculating seawater back into the fresh water supplies. You would think that once Radek and I had the whole damn system reconfigured, the start-up would be easy. Well, evidently that’s not the case for anyone who is not Radek and I. They came and found me after dinner last night and I finally sent them to wake Radek around midnight. I eventually sent him up here at dawn to relieve Teyla until I could get up here myself about an hour ago.”
“Did you fix it?” I asked with a grin at the way his hands flew faster the more irritated he became with the memories.
“Did you taste salt in your water?” he demanded incredulously. “Of course I fixed it. I always fix everything. When have I not fixed anything?”
I opened my mouth to point out a certain weapons system that blew away a solar system but was cut off with a narrow-eyed glare as he refilled the cup with salt-free water from the pitcher on the table.
I took the clue and changed the subject . . . sort of. “The point is, you didn’t have to be here, no one had to be here. I have the entire medical crew hanging over me, poking and prodding, I don’t need my team hanging around as well.”
His shoulders slumped slightly and I heard him mumble, “Maybe we need it more than you.” More loudly, he said, “That’s exactly why you need us here. Carson has taken a decent medical staff and turned them into a brilliant veterinary staff. Unfortunately, they don’t always stop to check for hooves before they start with the drench guns.”
I closed my eyes with a snort, settling back against the pillows. “Rodney, go back to your room, get some sleep. You look like Hell and your snoring could shake the rafters of it.”
But I heard him settle back in the chair, boots clumping into place. “Elizabeth will be done with the briefings soon and she promised to stop by. I’ll take off then.”
“And in the meantime, I get to listen to you snore?”
“In all likelihood, yes.”
“Not much of a compromise,” I told him with a grump.
“Well, you aren’t much of a negotiator.”
“Managed to get you back, didn’t I?”
I said it lightly, meaning it more as a good-natured ribbing than anything. But the shuffling of one unyielding physicist against an equally unyielding seat stopped abruptly. “Yes, you did.”
I cracked an eye at the uncustomary solemnity from a man that was anything but. Rodney sat regarding me with an expression to match his tone, and I swallowed thickly at what I saw. There were things I could say, things that could . . . hell . . .
I had come to Atlantis with a ton of acquaintances, a few friends, and family . . . well, acquaintances and friends had been enough in the past. But the City of the Ancients had done more than reveal my propensity for turning on lights and making things glow blue. It had shown me that I needed a hell of a lot more and, fortunately, it had given them to me as well in the form of a team that backed me up, and a surrogate family that watched over me when I needed it. Even when I didn’t know when that was . . . especially then. And who the hell could ask for more than that without coming across as greedy?
I forced an airy smile. “And you repay me by snoring so loud that my ears ring?”
He grinned back crookedly. “I’ve been told I talk in my sleep as well, Colonel—consider yourself lucky.”
And at that moment with my best friend settling in and closing his eyes in the chair beside me, I did. I was the luckiest damn bastard in Pegasus.
“And that should surprise me?” I continued in the same teasing manner. “I’ve yet to see you stop talking while awake, why should asleep be any different?” His only response was to raise his right hand and show me his middle finger, before crossing his arms across his chest and settling in a little further. I just smiled wider. “What do you talk about? Mathematical proofs, quantum physics, your nonexistent sex life? Any of those topics are sure to bore me to sleep, anyway.”
“Careful, Sheppard, you’re treading on dangerous ground,” he warned and yawned all in the same breath.
“I’ll take my chances, McKay.”
I had successfully negotiated the path that led straight to Rodney McKay’s buttons many times in the past. It was a trail I knew all too well, and one I had come to enjoy traveling. And, honestly, I think he enjoyed it, as well. The grin that never left his face as he slumped back into slumber was a pretty good indication of that. No, I’d take my chances with Rodney any day, and as I drifted off to the sound of his snoring at my side, I looked forward to the chance to do just that.
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