Rodney pretty much hurt all over. Driving a car into a ravine will do that to a person he decided, and having his face bashed in by an exploding air bag as a result didn’t help matters. It did, however, bloody his nose and subsequently ruin a brand new shirt he’d bought just for this trip. But that was nothing… nothing… compared to having a goddamn Goa’uld take up residence in your best friend and plan to have one of his clones do the same to you.
Smurfing Sheppard with his smurfing road trip that turned into a smurfing mission back on smurfing Earth. And, no, smurfing was not his first word of choice in the matter, but Teyla wanted kid friendly language then, by god, smurfing would have to do. Besides, Teyla would kick his ass if he used the one he wanted to use in front of her son. It started with f, ended with uck, and was most definitely not fire truck. Sure, the kid wasn’t there, and neither was Teyla for that matter, but better safe than sorry. After all, he’d seen the bruises on both Sheppard and Ronon after a particularly aggressive sparring match with the overprotective mom. Rodney almost laughed at the thought given his situation. Here he was worrying over dropping the F bomb when he had much bigger fu… smurfing problems to deal with at the moment, and they were all Sheppard’s fault.
How one man could attract so much chaos would forever be a mystery to McKay. Never mind that Rodney was present during the majority of the crises, somehow this was all Sheppard’s fault. He was the one who came up with the idea of a team vacation. He was the one who ended up with a goddamn alien in his head. He was the one who had Rodney shooting at him, and that… well, that had totally sucked is what that had done.
Tripping over a root, Rodney caught himself before he fell flat on his face, but he went down hard on his hands and knees. The cell phone went flying and he ignored the sharp sting in his palms and scrambled after it on all fours. Retrieving it from the undergrowth, he flipped it open and saw that nothing had changed and there were still no coverage bars. Rodney knew that Ba’al had planned it that way. He’d cut them off from any help and left them with two unacceptable options; become a host for a Goa’uld or kill John to keep it from happening.
No, he was not about to let either one of those happen. Just like he was not going to let Sheppard live this one down. And he sure as hell was not going to pay the damages on that fu… smurfing rental car. Christ, maybe Teyla would let him find a compromise with freaking or something like that. Then again, at that moment, he was prepared to tell Teyla she could just go… smurf herself. That was if she wasn’t already a Goa’uld host, too.
Swiping at the blood still dripping from his busted nose, Rodney pushed himself back up on his feet. He winced at the weight on his banged up knees but kept moving. Teyla and Ronon were back at that cabin and Rodney needed them if he had any chance at all of saving Sheppard. And that meant he had to keep them Goa’uld free and that meant he needed to make it back and destroy those little slithery bastards in the bathtub before Ba’al did. And he had to do it by himself.
Yeah, sure, no problem. Piece of cake. Everything was going to be smurfy. He only wished he had it this easy back on Atlantis. What with the Wraith and the occasional rogue Genii and various hostile tribes and Ancient technology on the fritz, not to mention the random killer space amoeba trying to eat his brain, a single Goa’uld was a walk in the park. Or a staggering run through the woods as Ba’al pursued him, as the case may be.
Rodney knew he never should have come on this damn trip. He should have stuck to his guns and stayed back on Atlantis and finished the backlog of work he had waiting there. He should have told Sheppard he had no business dragging Ronon and Teyla with him on beach hopping trip. He should have stated up front that this was a bad idea from the beginning. And he should have taken the supplemental insurance coverage on the convertible when he had the chance.
Goddammit. Who would have thought a person could miss a nice day of avoiding imminent death from the Wraith?
McKay took a moment to orient himself; it wouldn’t do anybody any good if he roamed aimlessly through the woods and missed the cabins all together. Leaning against a tree, he gulped air and listened for any sign of pursuit. Hearing nothing, Rodney decided either he had managed to lose Ba’al, or the Goa’uld had concluded he would return to the cabin instead. Rodney thought he’d managed to hit Sheppard with one of the shots. It had been a calculated risk and the only saving grace was that, with the Goa’uld’s healing abilities, it was unlikely any wound would be fatal. But McKay was hoping it would be enough to slow him down. Satisfied that no one was behind him, Rodney attempted to figure out the quickest way back to the cabins. The sound of running water to his left indicated he was still heading in the correct direction, so he continued to climb up along his current path. Several long minutes later he could make out the main lodge house through the trees. There had to be a working phone in there. If he could let the SGC know about Ba’al’s plan then at least the Goa’uld wouldn’t be able to leave Earth for Atlantis no matter what he managed to do with the team’s bodies.
Rodney stopped at the edge of the clearing, checking to make sure the way was clear before he darted across to the back door of the building. The SUV was nowhere in sight, which could be either a good sign or a bad one, but right now he needed to find a phone and worry about exactly where Ba’al was afterwards. Slipping into the back entrance of the lodge, McKay kept his gun out in front of him, making his way quietly down the hallway until he found a room marked ‘office’. Trying the doorknob, he found it was locked, but the fumbling had muffled voices calling from inside.
"Hello? Is anybody in there? Open the door, I’m here to help."
He was answered by more frantic mumbling sounds and thumping and Rodney quickly concluded that the people in the room were probably bound and gagged. "Hold on, I’m going to try to break down the door."
A few second later, Rodney wasn’t certain, but he was pretty damn sure he might have just broken his toe attempting to kick the door down… the door that was still standing firmly in place. He tried again, and this time he was rewarded with a cracking along the door jam. The third kick had the door swinging open to reveal a middle-aged couple duct taped to chairs. Their stifled yells for help increased when he walked in with the gun, but McKay ignored them, scanning the room and practically diving for the phone on the desk.
"Son of a smurf!" Rodney swore under his breath when there was no dial tone.
"Mmmf muh mm mmym mu muh mmmh!"
Realizing that maybe the man could provide him some information, McKay ripped off the duct tape from the man’s face. "Ow! What the hell?" the man demanded in outrage.
"Sorry," Rodney flicked his hands toward his own mouth with a discomfited wince. "I was thinking it was like a band aid, you know, just rip it off and it’s less painful."
"Well, it’s not!" the man snapped. "And that son of a bitch cut the phone lines. Tied us up at gunpoint, cut the lines, and then we heard gunshots, then a few more a little while ago."
"Yeah, I know," McKay dismissed, moving to remove the tape from the woman’s mouth as well.
"I’ll take care of my wife, just cut me loose."
The wide-eyed alarm on the woman’s face at the prospect of Rodney removing her gag disappeared when McKay started rummaging through the desk drawer for something to cut the tape. He could only assume these people were the proprietors of the lodge considering the photos on the desk of them smiling happily as they cut a ribbon across the front door. They were even wearing the same red and white checkerboard shirts they had been in the photo. It was a far cry from the disgruntled expressions on their faces now as the man moved his lips gingerly against the blossom of red on his cheeks from where the tape had been. Ungrateful bastards, Rodney thought as he dug through a tangle of rubber bands and paper clips in the drawer. They could still be sitting here, dressed like human picnic tables, bound and gagged, if not for him.
"Did you run into him?" the owner asked, apparently taking the time to see what a mess his rescuer was. "The guy who did this? He was tall, dark messy hair…"
McKay cut him off as he victoriously raised the pair of scissors he finally found. "Yes, yes, seen him, confronted him, shot him."
"He’s dead?" The man brightened at the prospect.
"No, he’s not dead!" Rodney insisted. At least he hoped not. Christ, he hadn’t even considered that as a possibility as to why Ba’al wasn’t chasing after him. And what if he was? What if that bullet had hit somewhere a little too vital for Ba’al to repair?
But before he had time to even let the idea that he’d killed Sheppard sink in, the front door to the lodge beeped, indicating someone had just walked in.
"Oh, crap," McKay grumbled, heading for the door to the office before he finished cutting the man’s hands loose.
"Wait, where do you think you’re going?" the man demanded.
Rodney did his best to shush him and whispered. "Quiet! He’ll hear you." Listening for a second for approaching footsteps, McKay told the couple in a hushed voice. "I’ll be back for you. I promise."
"Hey!" the owner hissed in a lowered voice. "You can’t leave us like this!"
McKay put his finger to his lips as he backed out the door and closed it as quietly as possible.
"Going somewhere, Dr. McKay?" Sheppard’s voice drawled behind Rodney. It was Sheppard’s voice but decidedly not Sheppard given how the tone was a little too lofty in its confidence, too disdainful in its amusement.
Rodney turned to see John’s eyes flashing gold as Sheppard lifted the hand with the ribbon device on it and McKay felt himself being thrown through the air a couple of meters down the hall.
And then even the recognizable portion of the voice vanished as the reverberating voice of the Goa’uld spoke once more. "But we have so much to discuss."
The impact with the hallway floor had the wind rushing from Rodney’s lungs and he rolled to his side trying to suck in air and make it back to his feet and failed miserably at both. Sheppard smiled to see Rodney fight to stand again, as if he had any chance of running away from what was to come next. No, not Sheppard, Rodney reminded himself. But John was in there…somewhere.
Managing to drag in a ragged breath, Rodney pleaded to the only person who had any chance of helping him. "Don’t let him… do this to me." Before he even made it to his feet, he was slammed against the far wall by the same unseen force and stars exploded behind his eyes causing his vision to go dark momentarily. "John," he gasped, "Please… stop him."
The hand device lowered slightly and McKay with it, but he barely registered the ache in his knees as they hit the floor seeing as the pain was already starting to flare in his head from the device. Ba’al was toying with him, and by the growing grin, enjoying the hell out of it.
"Shep…pard," Rodney tried to call again, because the burning sensation was increasing to the point that it was getting even harder to breathe than when he was first thrown to the floor. If John didn’t do something, McKay was pretty damn sure his head was going to explode.
"I’m sorry, Dr. McKay, Colonel Sheppard can’t help you now. But it’s not from a lack of desire."
If the device hadn’t been holding up him up, Rodney would have been curled in a ball on the floor. "Need me…" Rodney tried to reason with the Goa’uld.
"I need your body," Ba’al corrected. "Your mind is of no consequence to me. In fact, I rather wish I’d done this to the colonel before I took control of his body. All this incessant begging and groveling and threatening for your life I can hear is maddening. It almost makes it hard to concentrate." The smile turned harder, more determined, but still just as self-assured. "Almost."
To Rodney’s surprise, that’s when the real pain started and if he’d been able to suck in enough air to fill his burning lungs, he was sure he would have screamed himself hoarse.
* * * *
Teyla woke to the sound of a high pitched screaming and her fist thought had been Torren was in pain. But as hard as she tried, she could not seem to force her eyes open.
"Kanaan," she slurred groggily, attempting to move her hand to wake the man who should be asleep in the bed beside her. Because the shrieking was growing louder and Torren obviously needed help and apparently she was not capable of providing it.
The shriek turned into a high-pitched squeal that was cut short by the sound of a hard thud and Teyla’s desperation to help her child spiked. Garnering all of her strength, Teyla lifted her head and prepared to push her body from where it lay. The surface beneath her palms was hard and cold, not a bed, which only added to her confusion, as did the familiar but unexpected voice she heard next.
Cracking her eyes open, she could just make out a face framed with a mass of dark hair and scruffy beard. "Ronon?"
"Yeah, it’s me. You okay?"
"What has happened?" She gave up on trying to rise and settled for rolling to her back. "Where is Torren?"
"He’s at the SGC with Kanaan. We’re in the cabin where we tracked Sheppard. Remember?"
"John?" A white ceiling slowly came into focus above her and when she shifted her sights she could see matching white walls and bathtub. The bathtub… that should be important. Lifting her head again from the tile floor, she continued to scan the room until her sights settled on a snake-like creature twitching in the corner. That was when the memories came flooding back into her head.
"There are Goa’uld!" Teyla struggled to shuffle back away from the creature on the floor as well as the others in the tub.
Ronon’s large hand landed gently on her shoulder. "Hey, it’s okay. I took care of that one before it got to you."
She shuddered at the thought of how close that one must have come to inhabiting her body. "The others?"
"They’re next on my list," Ronon promised, offering to help her to her feet.
Teyla took this hand and let him pull her up and steady her when she swayed. "Where are John and Rodney?" she asked after a quick glance around the room.
"I don’t know. After Sheppard shot me with that stunner gun I don’t know what happened."
"Nor do I," Teyla sighed, rubbing her neck and wincing at the lingering pain of the ‘zat blast. "But we should contact the SGC and let them know there is a Goa’uld threat."
"There’s about to be three less Goa’uld threats," Ronon informed her as he pulled the stopper out of the tub to drain the liquid there.
Leaving her teammate to deal with the aliens, Teyla crossed the room to make use of the telephone. Colonel Carter had been kind enough to show Teyla how the various Earth communications devices worked when she arrived at the SGC so that she would be able to contact Kanaan during their vacation… something Rodney had promised to do but quickly found more important things to occupy his time once they stepped through the gate into the underground facility.
When there was no tone as she had heard before, Teyla returned the ear piece to the cradle. "The telephones appear to have been disabled."
Ronon answered over the sickening screeching of dying Goa’uld. "Maybe one of the other cabins has one that works."
"Perhaps," she conceded. Looking out the window, Teyla reported, "Both the vehicle we arrived in and the one that was parked outside this cabin are gone."
"You think McKay ran for help and Sheppard went after him?" Ronon suggested as he stepped out of the bathroom having finished his task.
"That is the most likely conclusion," Teyla granted with a worried expression, because it was unlikely Rodney would be able to outrun John even in an automobile.
Seeing where her thoughts were going, Ronon reassured, "Sheppard won’t hurt him."
"John might not," Teyla agreed. "But the Goa’uld controlling his actions would not hesitate." Her eyes flicked meaningfully to the body of the dead woman on the floor.
Ronon checked her gun before handing it over. "There were three Goa’uld in the tub and three of us, one already in Sheppard… he had a plan for all of us."
"And you believe that will be enough for him to keep Rodney alive?" she asked hopefully.
"We’re not in the habit of coming home a man down." The Satedan shrugged as he readied his own sidearm and amended, "Or at least staying that way. It would definitely raise suspicions even more than Sheppard going missing like he did."
"We should at least determine if there is a telephone to use in the common house."
Ronon headed out the door, gun at the ready. "And if there’s not?"
"Then perhaps there is someone who can provide transportation to one nearby."
Teyla followed after Ronon, covering his back as they made their way cautiously toward the main building. Ronon paused only long enough to look quickly at the damaged flower bed in front of the building.
"Looks like McKay’s been here."
Teyla glanced around still not seeing either vehicle. "But he did not return."
"Not unless he did on foot," Ronon agreed then started up the stairs to the porch. Peeking into the window he told her, "It looks clear."
Teyla took up a position beside the door and nodded that she would cover his entrance, knowing full well that looks could be deceiving. Ronon turned the knob on the door gently to avoid any additional noise, then grimaced when a cheerful chime sounded as soon as he opened it.
"Dammit!" he snarled, jerking back and letting the door close on its own. If anyone was in the building, they would have heard the alarm.
Teyla risked another look in the window to see a tall form walking out from the back portion of the building. "Someone is coming this way."
There was nowhere nearby to take immediate cover, so they split and darted to opposite sides of the wraparound porch. Teyla pressed back against the log wall, hearing the bell once again when the door opened and footsteps sounded on the floorboards.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," John called menacingly.
Teyla stepped warily forward to peer around the corner. Ronon, however, had revealed himself completely and was holding his gun steadily on John.
"It’s over," Ronon told him. "Your buddies are dead so you might as well give up Sheppard, too."
"Oh, you really shouldn’t have done that," the Goa’uld in John warned before he lifted his hand and fired a weapon at Ronon.
Ronon went flying backwards over the top of the railing bordering the porch and landed hard on his back in the dirt and gravel of the parking area. John’s body moved forward to check on the downed man and Teyla took advantage to step out from her hiding place and closer behind him.
"Do not move," she threatened in a steely voice, taking another step forward.
"Ah, Teyla, there you are." John didn’t turn but the arrogant grin was palpable in his tone.
"Remove the weapon," she insisted, "or I will shoot."
"And kill Colonel Sheppard in the process?" But he took the device from his hand and dropped it to the ground.
"Not if I shoot him in the leg," Teyla reasoned before ordering, "You will release him."
"No, I won’t," he stated simply.
"Once the SGC has you in custody you will have no choice," she told him before demanding, "Where is Rodney?"
"Dr. McKay is… indisposed at the moment." He glanced back over his shoulder and the amused expression she saw on John’s face chilled her. "He’s just inside. I can show you if you like."
She called a worried, "Ronon?" and was answered by only silence which only made John’s eyebrows flick up in delight.
Teyla knew the Goa’uld was planning something but Rodney was missing, Ronon was down, and John was trapped inside his own body. As much as she did not want to fall into his trap, inside the building was exactly where she needed to be. There was possibly a telephone, a place to secure her prisoner, and hopefully Rodney.
Taking a step back without lowering her gun, she hitched her head toward the door. "You will lead the way."
He did as she instructed, opening the door and stepping inside then leading her down a hallway toward the back entrance to the building. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a bound woman in an office that they passed, but her attention was drawn immediately to a body in their path.
"Rodney…" she gasped at the sight of him lying in an unresponsive heap on the floor.
The Goa’uld in John took advantage of the distraction to turn and hit her with a forceful backhanded punch. Teyla staggered back from the blow, losing her gun as pain blossomed across her face then her ribs from a second hit. She recovered fast enough to block the fist that followed the initial strike and get in a hit of her own in return. It was clumsily delivered but it was enough to allow her to back up a step and kick into John’s chest and make a staggering run toward the front door and more open quarters of the front room than the closed hallway that gave him the advantage with the greater body strength.
He gained on her quickly, making a grab from behind that she countered with an elbow to his ribs and pivoting to deliver a punch to his jaw that had him staggering backwards. He lunged again in a move that Teyla recognized from her times sparring with John in the gym. It was a move she had taught him and Teyla realized the creature inside John was pulling on his memories of their time together to determine the best way to beat her. It hoped to use the information to its advantage to defeat her, but actually it gave her the advantage because she now knew what to expect. As good as John had become, it was rare he could defeat her… especially when he made such a blatant mistake with one of his punches that she had pointed out the first year they had fought. She blocked it easily, delivering a swift kick that had his feet flying out from under him.
John rolled clear off her follow up attack, quickly regaining his feet and squaring off once more, but it had her realizing that maybe John… the real John… was helping her fight after all. Maybe he was intentionally feeding the Goa’uld misinformation to give her the upper hand in the brawl. The next deliberate error had her convinced of the fact and she backed up and prepared to finish him off as she had in the gym the week before.
But then the front door flew open across the room, the chime ringing cheerfully in sharp contrast to the outraged older man, wearing a garish red and white checked shirt, standing in the doorway with a shotgun in his hands that he pumped once as he lifted it and aimed at John’s back.
"No!" Teyla screamed to stop the man, but it was too late. He fired before John could even turn around.
Instinctively she dropped and flinched away from the gunshot, feeling a sharp bite on her arm closest to John’s location, and seeing blood dripping down her arm when she reopened her eyes.
"Sorry, sweetheart," the old man apologized when her hand went to the wound. "Buckshot can have a mind of its own sometimes."
But she barely heard the man as she choked out a horrified, "By the Ancestors, no… John?" She had completely forgotten the sting on her arm as she crawled frantically over to where John lay face down on the floor with blood rising up in what seemed to be a hundred small puddles through the white of his shirt.
* * * *
Yeah, Earth really sucked, Ronon decided as he lay with gravel eating into his back. Although the clouds he was staring up at dizzily were kind of pretty. Somewhere off in the distance, he could hear Teyla calling his name, and maybe he should try to see what she wanted. Of course, that would involve moving and that would involve breathing and right now his lungs just didn’t want to cooperate. But considering that the fluffy little clouds were disappearing into a coalescing blackness, he decided maybe he should try harder.
This time he was able to suck in some air, although it stuttered to a stop as the sharp pain radiated around his entire right side. Yep, there were definitely some broken ribs involved with the fall he’d taken. That thought had him trying to remember how he’d fallen in the first place. Sheppard. Sheppard had done this. Sheppard and his damn glowing eyes. Only Sheppard’s eyes didn’t glow, not normally. Not unless…
The memories of what had happened slammed into him with the same force as the Goa’uld weapon that had tossed him as easily as a child’s doll off the porch and halfway across the parking lot. He rolled over and pushed up to his hands and knees, biting off a cry when the pain in his ribs flared again with the movement and turning it into a growl as he forced himself to his feet. The world tilted, threatening to once again come up and meet him, but he closed his eyes until his footing felt steady again. Wrapping an arm around his ribs, Ronon surveyed the rocky ground until he caught sight of his gun. Bending over to retrieve the nine millimeter had him groaning and wanting to empty his stomach of the two Big Macs he’d eaten… maybe he shouldn’t have stolen half of Sheppard’s fries after all.
Managing to keep his lunch down, Ronon straightened and started for the main lodge where he would hopefully find the rest of his team. He stopped once to lean against a vehicle similar in design to the one McKay had called an Explorer, only this one was bigger and older given the rust spots on the metal, but a set of keys dangled from the ignition with what appeared to be a small statue of an Asgard hanging off the ring. Ronon frowned in confusion since he thought the entire Stargate program was classified, including the Asgards. But any additional pondering of that idea vanished when he saw a man in a red and white shirt sneaking around the building with a shotgun in his hands to look into the window of the front door.
"Hey," Ronon called quietly, trying to gain the man’s attention without alerting the people in the building to his presence.
Where the guy had come from, Ronon had no clue, but he obviously knew something was going down in the building. In fact, he was so intent on what was happening inside that he apparently didn’t hear Ronon talking to him outside since he pushed the door open and immediately fired the gun.
"Hey!" This time Ronon shouted because chances were damn good that the man had just shot at one of Ronon’s friends. "Stop!"
Ronon began running then, ignoring the throbbing in his busted ribs and taking the steps two at a time when he heard Teyla frantically cry, "John!" from inside.
Stopping in the doorway, Ronon stared in horror at the sight of Sheppard lying face down on the floor with his shirt a bloody mess and Teyla trying to rouse the unmoving man.
"Guess he won’t be tying people up with duct tape anymore," the older man with the shotgun proclaimed proudly.
Ronon grabbed the man by the collars of his checked shirt and shook him hard. "What did you do?"
The gun fell from the man’s hands in shock as he stammered, "He was going to kill her! Then he was going to go back and kill me and my wife. We’d probably be dead by now if that other fellow hadn’t cut the tape enough for me to get free."
Somewhere in the back of his rage, Ronon knew the other person must have been McKay. He also knew that if he’d been the man, not knowing about the Goa’uld in Sheppard, he’d have done the same thing. But that didn’t change the fact this man had just shot one of Ronon’s best friends and he shook him again with an outraged roar.
"Ronon!" Teyla yelled to gain his attention. "He is still alive!" Seeing that Ronon had stopped his attack on the man, Teyla continued in a more normal tone of voice. "There is a pulse. John is still alive, but he needs medical attention immediately. And Rodney is down the hall, hurt as well. I do not know how badly." She left unspoken her fear of how badly it could be.
Ronon still had the man’s shirt fisted tightly and he gave a rough shove to push the man away from him. "Do you have one of those telephone things?" he asked as he headed down the hall to find McKay.
"Telephone thing?" the man repeated in confusion at the wording.
Ronon didn’t have time to be frustrated with himself for not sounding as much like an Earth native as he should so he covered it with anger, which was easy with this guy. "Do you have one or not?"
"I do but the line’s been cut thanks to your buddy there."
Ronon ignored the comment and jogged the rest of the way down the hallway as soon as he saw Rodney. "McKay!" He dropped to his knees and shook Rodney’s shoulder lightly and was rewarded by a low groan. "McKay, come on, wake up. We need to get Sheppard to a doctor."
"Shepp…ard?" McKay seemed to be trying to remember why that name sounded familiar. But then he mumbled, "He okay?"
"No, he’s not," Ronon reiterated. "He’s been shot. We need to move."
"Was me," Rodney told him still not moving to get up or even open his eyes. "Ba’al healing him."
"Not this time. He was shot by a guy in an ugly shirt." Realizing that still didn’t distinguish the man from McKay, Ronon clarified, "Uglier than yours. Come on, you need to drive us down the mountain."
"No car," McKay told him as if that settled the matter.
Ronon shook him a little rougher this time. "I know where we can get one. Now, let’s go."
Rodney cracked his eyes open only to close them immediately and try to curl into a ball. "Can’t… head hurts."
"Yes, you can."
The thing about McKay that Ronon had learned over the years was that Rodney could be a very selfish person if you let him. But the thing about Sheppard that Ronon had learned over the years was that John never let Rodney be that way. It was a talent Sheppard had, being able to pull the absolute best out of Rodney when McKay was at his worst. No one else could do it exactly the same way with the same results, but Ronon had learned a trick of his own since joining the team and it usually got some decent results.
"If you don’t, Sheppard’s as good as dead."
Even though Rodney would never admit it out loud, the only people he cared about more than himself were his team.
There was a split second pause then McKay reached out a hand. "Help me up."
Ronon pulled him up and Rodney immediately grabbed his head and nearly went down again with a cry of pain. Ronon wrapped an arm tight around his shoulders and took almost all of his weight.
"McKay, you can do this," Ronon coaxed, but it was obvious that wasn’t the case. The man wouldn’t be standing if Ronon wasn’t holding him up.
"I can’t… fuck… see… think… anything," Rodney managed to grit out.
"Ronon? We must go now," Teyla informed him desperately from the other room.
"McKay can’t drive," he told her as he moved Rodney down the hall as McKay ground his teeth against the pain. "We’ll have to have the old guy take us down."
Ronon could see Teyla didn’t like the idea as soon as they were back in the lobby. "We cannot," she informed him simply. "The SGC…"
"Screw the SGC, all right?" Yeah, the SGC wouldn’t like the fact that some old guy had seen them being beamed away by the Daedalus, but he had more important things to worry about right now than Earth bureaucracy.
"Ronon," Teyla warned. "We cannot go against the rules."
"SGC?" the man in question asked warily before starting to back away. "Hey, now, letters usually means government, and I don’t want any trouble from the government."
Ronon exchanged a look with Teyla and he saw he wasn’t going to win this one, especially when they didn’t have time for the argument in the first place. So he just went ahead and made a decision.
"We’re taking your vehicle," he told the man. "You can find it at the bottom of the mountain later."
"Who will drive?" Teyla asked as Ronon started toward the door with McKay.
Rodney may not have been capable of driving, but maybe he could at least talk Ronon through it. He quickly had McKay in the passenger seat and after throwing out several boxes of tools and the like, he had Teyla with Sheppard in the open back where the second seat should have been. It appeared that the owner had modified the truck to allow for the work he needed to do around the cabins and that just ended up making things easier for them in the long run.
McKay grunted out a quick tutorial with his knees pulled up and head dropped on top of them… peddles to make the truck stop and go, steering wheel to turn it, a handle on the side of the steering wheel to allow the car to move when he did push the peddles. And with that general knowledge, they were off.
Ronon soon understood why McKay had such trouble with these things, they could be very temperamental and would respond wildly to the slightest touch of the go peddle and he nearly threw McKay through the windshield when he hit the stop one in an attempt to control the vehicles wild acceleration. Rodney had let out a high-pitched yet oddly melodic humming sound when he hit the dashboard before he curled into a ball in the seat beside Ronon.
"Sorry," Ronon mumbled as he stepped on the go peddle again.
Teyla braced her hand on the back of his seat as she spoke with what he could tell was patience strained to the snapping point. "Perhaps it would be best to take it slowly until you are better familiar with the operations of the vehicle."
"Right," he agreed, slightly frustrated that he hadn’t mastered driving as soon as he sat behind the wheel. But he managed to make it out of the parking lot without major damage and when he managed to successfully navigate the first curve of the road he couldn’t help but grin in pleasure of his accomplishment.
John’s weak voice had Ronon trying to look back and control the car all at the same time. When he nearly ran into the Explorer parked on the side of the road, swerving to miss it and nearly joining the convertible he saw at the bottom of the ravine, Ronon decided he should concentrate on the driving.
"John, do not try to move," Teyla chided softly.
"Ba’al… something’s wrong… he’s here but not… don’t know how much time…"
Teyla tried her best to calm him. "You have been shot. Perhaps the Goa’uld is injured as well."
"Help Rodney…" Sheppard urged. "Ba’al hurt him… think I hurt him bad."
"We have him," Teyla assured, although by the looks of it, the strain had finally become too much and Rodney had passed out again. "We have you both and we are going to get help and you will both be well cared for."
"Hurts…" Sheppard’s breathing was labored as he fought to speak. "Hurts to breathe."
Ronon had fired a shotgun once before and Sheppard had explained the concept of buckshot, which was similar to bullets he had seen on other worlds in Pegasus. It was possible, given the range of the shot, that John’s lungs had been punctured.
"Then do not speak," Teyla instructed. "We will be back at the SGC soon and they will help."
But John wouldn’t do as she said. "Tried… tried to stop him…"
Teyla shushed him once more. "We know, John. There is no need to worry. We all know you did everything that you could. We do not blame you and you must not blame yourself. Now rest."
Sheppard finally fell silent again and Teyla looked up, meeting Ronon’s eyes in the mirror. "Perhaps you are feeling more confident in your driving abilities and could go faster?"
"Yeah," Ronon agreed. "I was thinking the same thing."
It was several more long minutes before Teyla informed Ronon that the cell phone was in service again. Ronon pressed down on the stop peddle, relieved and pleased that he had managed the trip with only a few terrifying moments along the way. All and all, he thought he’d managed almost as well as McKay would have. Ronon looked down on the man beside him and was kind of sorry Rodney was unconscious and had missed the trip. Actually he was sorry Rodney was unconscious for a lot more than denying Ronon of a chance to give him a hard time, and Ronon actually gave a sigh of relief when he placed a hand on McKay’s neck and was rewarded with a small whimper but steady pulse.
Teyla had dialed the SGC before the truck had come to a complete stop and immediately demanded to speak with Colonel Carter. After quickly explaining their situation, she closed the phone and informed Ronon, "They are contacting the Daedalus now." Rechecking Sheppard, Teyla frowned in worry. "His breathing is getting worse."
"At least he’s still breathing," Ronon offered, although he frowned at the blood seeping up through the towel they had pressed against Sheppard’s back. "We all are."
"Yes, there is that for which to be thankful."
Ronon forced a small smile. "Some vacation, huh?"
The joke had the desire effect and had Teyla’s lips curling slightly in return. "Next time, I believe I shall take Rodney’s side and insist we stay home."
Given their current situation, sometimes it was hard for Ronon to believe that there would be a next time. But there always had been since he joined Sheppard’s team. They’d traveled down this desperate road before, one or all of them hurt or missing, and somehow they always managed to scrape by and make it. He’d lost so much over the years before he joined Atlantis, and even since then they’d lost Beckett and Weir and many more. The ache of those deaths, even after a version of Carson had come back, still filled his chest when he allowed himself to think about them. But to lose one of his team was something he refused to consider. They’d come close in the past but they’d always found a way. This time wasn’t going to be any different.
"Next time," Ronon repeated with a melancholy sigh.
There would be a next time, Ronon was sure of it, because he couldn’t stand the thought of what would happen if one of these times there wasn’t a next time for one of the people with him in the car. And when the air shimmered gold in the Asgard transport beam, Ronon was still holding stubbornly to that belief.
* * * *
The pain in John’s body was intense. His back was on fire, his lungs just didn’t want to cooperate and made every breath he managed to drag in an agonizing chore, and Ba’al was disturbingly silent. If anything, that last scared him the most because Ba’al had been taunting John since he took possession of Sheppard’s body. Somewhere filed away in those trivial bits of interesting but probably not applicable to me data he had collected since joining the SGC, he remembered that a Goa’uld could kill its host if it chose to do so, and they typically chose to do so before they died. The Goa’uld in him was hurt, no doubt about it, just as bad, if not worse, than John himself. Eventually, the creature would have to realize that it wouldn’t be able to heal itself and it would take John with it.
He should be enjoying the silence, John thought, enjoying the fact that he couldn’t hear laughter as he begged Ba’al to spare Rodney, enjoying the knowledge that Ba’al wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone else again. And if he had to die to keep his team safe, then he didn’t mind it one bit. But there was something… hollow about a death like this. Going out in a blaze of glory to save his friends or Atlantis was one thing, going out a pawn and an observer who couldn’t stop the threat in the first place was something else entirely.
So he attempted to talk to Teyla while he could still speak, desperate to make sure someone took care of McKay, and equally desperate for them to know he tried his best to stop Ba’al. After that, it was a disjointed set of images and voices floating in the darkness that kept swallowing him whole.
At one point he was on the Daedalus and heard Caldwell’s voice informing Ronon and Teyla, "The SGC is trying to reach a Tok’ra operative they were in contact with a few weeks ago."
"Will the Tok’ra be able to remove the Goa’uld?" Ronon asked.
"If they can reach them fast enough and they’re willing to help," Caldwell told them. "But seeing as its Ba’al, I think they’ll at least respond."
"The Tok’ra will be able to heal both John and Rodney, will they not?" Apparently Teyla had been paying attention to the files she’d read over the years, too.
"Again, if they’re willing," Caldwell repeated with a sigh. "I’m sorry. If Hermiod were still here, he could take care of the extraction."
Sheppard could hear the frustration in Caldwell’s voice, knew the colonel understood what John was going through, one of the few people who could. But before Caldwell could say more, another voice cut through the com.
"Colonel Caldwell, we’re ready to beam Colonel Sheppard’s team back to the SGC."
"Proceed," Caldwell ordered, before a final, "Good luck."
He didn’t hear either Teyla’s or Ronon’s thanks, but more importantly, he didn’t hear Rodney at all.
The next time awareness came, they were in the SGC and he cracked his eyes enough to see Carter talking to Teyla and Ronon.
"Varoosh is on her way," Sam promised of what John could only assume was the Tok’ra agent. "She should be able to help with both Ba’al and the damage to Colonel Sheppard’s lungs."
"And keep the Goa’uld from harming John further?" Teyla prodded hopefully.
"We’ve run into clones in the past that were unable to produce the enzyme that will kill their human host upon their deaths," Carter explained. "If we’re lucky, the same is true of Ba’al’s clones."
"What about McKay?" Ronon pressed and John was thankful since he was wondering the same thing.
"We don’t know how extensive the damage was from the ribbon device," Carter told him with a sigh. "But the fact that he was responsive for a few minutes suggests it is repairable. We’ll just have to wait and see. For now, I want you both to know that the doctors here are doing everything…"
Sam’s voice faded away to be replaced a while later by a reverberating and disappointed female one. "The damage to the Ba’al clone is severe. The body still lives but the consciousness is practically gone. It is unlikely he will survive to face the charges against him."
John could feel a warm, tingling sensation running along his body as the Tok’ra spoke that was similar to the sensation he felt when Ba’al had been healing the gunshot wound in his side.
"Then just get it out of Sheppard and fix him up," Ronon challenged.
The warmth floating through Sheppard spiked to a burning heat until Carter stepped in with an appeasing tone.
"Look, Varoosh, we understand the Tok’ra would like nothing more than to follow the correct procedure for the execution of another Ba’al clone. And if the situation were different, we would support your judicial process one hundred percent. But, given Colonel Sheppard’s deteriorating condition, we’re worried we may lose him if the clone isn’t removed prior to its death."
"Very well," the Tok’ra relented, "we will go forward with the extraction."
Sheppard wanted to gloat to the Goa’uld in his head. He wanted to tell that son of bitch he’d failed and even if John hadn’t been able to stop Ba’al himself, his team and the SGC had done it for him. But before he could really even form those thoughts, there was a sharp scalding pain in the base of his skull. John fought to hold on to the small sliver of consciousness that he was maintaining, but he could feel Ba’al trying to maintain his grip on Sheppard’s body even as he was being ripped away from it. Then, as quickly as it had started, the sensation ended and John felt inexplicably… alone, almost lonely. It didn’t take long for that feeling to start to fade and be replaced by warmth and an easing of his labored breathing and an unavoidable urge to follow the order of, Sleep, that was echoing through his entire being.
Sheppard would have sworn it had only been a few minutes since he had been healed, but when he finally opened his eyes again and could see the infirmary at the SGC, none of his team was in sight. In fact, probably one of the last people he expected to see was standing at the end of the bed talking with the doctor.
"Hi, there," General O’Neill greeted when he noticed John trying to sit up.
"General, Sir, I wasn’t expecting to see you here." In fact, when someone like Jack O’Neill showed up at his bedside, it started the alarms ringing in John’s head… the ‘you’re up shit creek now, Sheppard’ alarms.
O’Neill leaned against the bars at the foot of Sheppard’s bed. "Oh, well, you know how it is. The President tends to get a little agitated when aliens try to infiltrate, not just one, but two of his top secret facilities."
John reached a hand to the back of his neck, expecting to feel a massive scar where the Goa’uld had been removed but finding nothing by smooth skin. "The Tok’ra took care of it, though. Right?"
"Yeah," O’Neill informed him. "Although they’re a little pissy they didn’t get to have their big shindig and do it up right."
"Sorry about that," Sheppard winced in reply.
"Oh, don’t be sorry about that. I should thank you for saving me from another two hour recitations of Ba’al’s crimes against the Milky Way, especially since the snacks at the reception weren’t all that."
John risked a small smile, "Then, you’re welcome, I guess."
"No need to apologize for a dead Goa’uld," O’Neill clarified. "Although, the bill for a totaled rental car and the associated towing is a different story."
Sheppard was just about to point out that the rental car was all McKay’s fault when it dawned on him that he didn’t even know if Rodney was okay. And where the hell were Teyla and Ronon?
Evidently, the general read the worry on his face. "They’re fine; all of them," he assured, pulling back the curtain around Sheppard’s bed to show Rodney sleeping in the next bed over. "Teyla and Ronon are both resting, too." Leaning in, O’Neill whispered loudly, "I think Lam may have given them more than Tylenol for their bumps and bruises. She’s been known to do that from time to time." Speaking a little louder, the general noted, "Although McKay may be faking it to avoid the invoice from the rental company."
Rodney snuffled in his sleep before rolling over and John wondered the same thing. But instead of selling McKay out, he offered, "Well, technically, it was me who ran him off the road."
"No, technically, it was Ba’al who ran him off the road," O’Neill corrected, eyes boring into John to drive home his point. "You were just along for the ride."
"Yes, Sir," Sheppard agreed less than enthusiastically. Despite the fact he knew what General O’Neill was saying was true, it was kind of hard to forget the memory of what he’d done to his teammates, much less what he’d done to the woman Ba’al had been inhabiting before John.
The general’s eyes narrowed, not completely convinced Sheppard was onboard with his appraisal of the situation. "Which is why I’m authorizing payment for the damages to the car. Besides, it’s not like I can go after the true guilty party anymore."
"I’m sure McKay will be relieved to hear that."
O’Neill looked back at Rodney’s bed with a disbelieving expression. "Oh, I’m sure he’s relieved to have heard it." John did his best to cover his threatening grin when the general turned back to him. "Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a stack of paperwork on the report of government loss to fill out."
O’Neill started for the door and John called out a hesitant, "General?" When O’Neill stopped, Sheppard asked what he was kind of dreading to ask but really needed to know. "The woman… the one in the hotel room…"
"She was a rogue NID agent who had been working for the Trust, one who had been suspected of aiding Ba’al. The last anyone had seen of her was almost a year ago back before we captured what we thought was the last clone. We had hotel surveillance footage of her and Ba’al entering the hotel together then lost track of her. He’d apparently been hiding out in her for a while now."
"Thank you, Sir." John gave a sharp nod of understanding.
Understanding… Jesus, how could you understand something as screwed up as hefting the weight of the gun in your hand, feeling your finger squeeze the trigger, watching with your own eyes as another human being dropped dead at your feet and be expected not to blame yourself? The fact that the dead woman was a traitor really did very little to alleviate the sense of culpability.
"Don’t mention it," O’Neill dismissed with his hands stuffed into his pockets. Although it really wasn’t a dismissal so much as a reiteration that Sheppard wasn’t to blame himself for what happened. "Take care, Sheppard." John thought was the last of what the general planned to say until he casually called, "Later, McKay."
"Bye," came Rodney’s response back followed by a muffled curse that he’d fallen for something that simple.
O’Neill didn’t answer back, just waggled his eyebrows victoriously at Sheppard before turning on his heels and sauntered out the door with a distinctly gloating swagger.
Sheppard watched him go before shaking his head in disappointment. "You really do suck at faking it, McKay."
Rodney rolled back over to face John. "Hey, I accomplished what I needed to accomplish. That’s all that matters."
"Getting the United States government to pay for a totaled rental car for you?" Sheppard inquired with raised eyebrows.
McKay considered for a second before nodding, "Yeah. Pretty much." Settling back against his pillow, Rodney folded his hands across his stomach. "I thought he was never going to leave. It’s almost lunch time and I was afraid I was going to miss it. They make a killer meatloaf here at the SGC."
John raised his eyebrows at the enthusiasm. "So, I take it you’re feeling better?"
Although, when John stopped to think about it, the last time McKay had been this chipper he had an alien parasite trying to eat his brain from the inside out.
"Oh, tons," Rodney assured, hands fluttering around his head. "I mean after you attempted to scramble my cerebral cortex with that Goa’uld hand weapon, I was sort of wishing for the sweet release of death. But then the Tok’ra healing device put everything to rights again. I think she actually fixed that pinched nerve in my shoulder while she was at it."
Sheppard had hoped he’d covered the way his face fell when McKay had said John had used the ribbon device, but evidently he didn’t do such a great job because Rodney stopped rotating his shoulder and stammered.
"I didn’t mean… Ba’al… Ba’al was the one who was using the device… he was using you to use the device."
John raised his hand to stop the rambling. "I get it, McKay. You don’t have to apologize. After what you went through…" John could only shake his head. Hell, he’d nearly killed Rodney a couple times. He wouldn’t blame the man if he didn’t want to be in the same room with John, much less talk to him. And, yet, he did.
"After what we went through," Rodney corrected. "I mean, I did shoot you, after all."
"You did good, Rodney," John told him sincerely. If McKay hadn’t shot him, chances were good they’d all have Goa’ulds in them by then.
McKay seemed a little embarrassed by the praise and tried to dismiss it quickly. "All I’m saying is that I’m more than willing to share the trauma."
Sheppard managed to control the quirk of his lips and instead bitched, "Oh, sure, that you’ll share."
"I’ll share the driving on our vacation, too. How about that?"
John was a little shocked McKay was still willing to continue with their plans… shocked and pleased. But no need to let Rodney know it.
"I’ve seen the way you drive, McKay. I’d rather stay on the road and not in a ravine."
Rodney shrugged. "Eh. It was just a rental."
John rolled his eyes at how easily McKay was now dismissing the damaged vehicle then looked toward the door at the sound of Ronon’s voice.
"So does that mean the road trip is back on?"
Sheppard smiled to see both Ronon and Teyla, who was holding Torren in her arms, coming through the door. "I’m not sure how much driving I’m going to be doing from a hospital bed."
"The doctors say you two will be released later today," Ronon informed him. "We could be out of here first thing in the morning."
"Seriously?" John asked in surprise. "You guys are really up for trying this whole thing again?"
Both Teyla and Ronon looked a little worse for wear considering the fresh bruises they were both sporting… apparently the Tok’ra hadn’t felt the need to heal their minor injuries… but neither seemed the least bit concerned with their condition.
Rodney threw up his arms. "Jesus, Sheppard, you were the one who wanted to go on this fu…"
"Rodney!" Teyla snapped with a warning glance toward Torren.
McKay sighed in frustration and changed his wording to an impatient, "You were the one who wanted to go on this smurfing trip."
Teyla gave Rodney an exasperated is slightly perplexed look before turning her attention back to John. Sheppard, however, was staring at McKay like the Goa’uld weapon may have melted part of his brain after all.
"As Rodney has to eloquently pointed out, is that not why we came to Earth in the first place?" Teyla bounced her son with a smile when he babbled happily to a small plastic toy he carried in his chubby fists. "Besides, I believe Torren has grown quite fond of the Joyous Meals."
"Happy Meals," Rodney corrected apparently over his irritation at having to censor his language. "And just wait until he gets to eat an ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head at Disneyland."
"Head-shaped ice cream," Ronon observed blandly with an unconvinced expression. "I can’t wait."
"I would have thought that would be a plus for you," Rodney deflected before turning his attention back to Sheppard. "So what do you say? Are we back on?"
Sheppard took a moment to study his three teammates. Hell, who was he kidding? They had been more than that for years now. He couldn’t precisely say when that had happened, when four distinct people who had very little in common had become a cohesive unit like they had. Coworkers, friends, family. They’d started down a path together as one thing and wound up something else entirely, something so much better. And when he let himself be selfish for a moment, spending a week with them sounded even better now than it had when he first suggested it back on Atlantis.
"I’m in," John told them with a definitive nod that earned him grins all around.
"Great!" Rodney exclaimed with an eager rub of his hands. "So, I figure since we’re starting out from Colorado now, we could actually run the trip in reverse…"
As Rodney rambled on about his plans, Sheppard listened, cutting in from time to time like the others, arguing, teasing, laughing. It was a trend he expected to continue not only on this particular outing but for the journeys they had yet to begin. John knew that each trip would hold its own perils, and not just physical. The people with him had the ability to hold him together, make him feel whole in a way he’d never allowed himself before. But John knew they also had the ability to break him apart if he were to fail them one day… like he still felt that he had today despite what his team said. The road they had traveled so far sure as shit hadn’t been easy, but they had traveled it together. And for every setback and rough spot they had come upon, there were others like this that made it all worthwhile. It was the type of road trip he could look back on fondly and look forward to in the future, despite the risks.
How could he not take the chance to hit the road with them once more?