The last of three stories I wrote for the SGA Gen Ficathon, this one an h/c indulgence, based on the prompt "Slavery, captivity or hostages."
Written for Gnine, on the basis of two of her firmest principles of SGA fic: that there is not enough allergy-fic in this fandom, and there is no such thing as too much Rodney-whump. Great thanks to Naye and Gnine for betaing, and to C for the medical advice and letting me hold her epi-pen (even if she declined drinking OJ to give me a first-hand display of citrus-induced anaphylaxis. I can't imagine why!) Any mistakes are my own fault.
"--And another thing, Major, I don't know if you've had the opportunity to examine my medical files, but I have a few health conditions that would make regular off-world travel inadvisable. When I was twenty I was hospitalized for a bee-sting--"
"You're already off-world," John pointed out, his lazy smile not shifting. Partly because in the week since they'd arrived, he'd already noticed how much it threw the scientist off his stride; apparently McKay was used to his rants intimidating or annoying, more than amusing. And partly because John found it hard enough just keeping himself from cracking up. McKay on a tear was a trip. He didn't think he'd ever get tired of it. "Off-galaxy, even. For all we know Pegasus doesn't even have bees."
"It's not only bees," McKay hastened to inform him, "I also react to citrus, and pollen of course, not to mention I'm hypoglycemic, and borderline hypertensive, and I've exhibited arrhythmia after heavy exertion, and my cholesterol--"
"And you're the smartest man on this expedition," John said. "I need those brains in the field, helping me, whatever minor problems the brawn has. This is going to be our number one team, and I need you for that."
McKay's mouth snapped shut. John marked the silence on his mental scoreboard, one point for him. It took a full four seconds for the scientist to stammer out, "You do realize, I'm not trained in military tactics, I've only fired a gun twice, off-world reconnaissance was never in the official job description--"
"Don't worry, McKay," John said, clapping the man on the back. "We'll keep you safe out there."
o o o
His muscles burned from the day's heavy lifting, but John forced himself to walk another two laps around the little cage to cool down, before he let himself collapse on the pallet. The moldering straw under the coarse linen pricked his hands. He tipped his head back against the iron bars, angled a look at his cellmate on the pallet across from his, and asked, "How's it going?"
Rodney had been muttering non-stop for the last half-hour, by John's best estimate. That stream of babble wasn't interrupted now; he just cranked the volume up to intelligible. "How's it going--how do you think it's going? I'm attempting to fine-tune complex Ancient equipment, in the dark, with a twig. A literal twig that I had to strip leaves off of and all but file to a point with my teeth--and oh god, did you see what these blithering morons uncovered in the secondary chamber today, I'd bet Zelenka's glasses that it's an electron microscope. At least it was, until they started taking it apart with hacksaws--"
In the eight days they had been here, Rodney's outrage had increased exponentially with each passing day. It wasn't the indignity of forced manual labor in the ruins of an Ancient research outpost; it was their captors' utter lack of respect for or understanding of what they had discovered. "They're probably making jewelry," Rodney had despondently moaned the first night, after watching the wholesale dismemberment of a console, every crystal ripped out and thrown into a clinking gunny sack.
John couldn't help feeling that Rodney would object less to the slave labor if their guards had a few official degrees on sheepskin. Then again, if their captors had been men of learning, Rodney would've talked rings around them so fast he'd be in charge before anyone knew what had happened. As it was, John had made sure that Rodney hadn't had the chance to show off his smarts and get himself hauled off somewhere they'd never find him. Mostly by kicking him in the shins whenever he opened his mouth around the guards, or by having Ronon glare or Teyla raise a warning eyebrow if they were too far apart for a physical reminder.
Rodney had only taken a couple of days to get the idea--he was a genius, after all--and now did a decent performance of a mindless drudge during the day, but at night in the cages, exhaustion and aching muscles couldn't silence his intellectual agony. John had a private bet with himself over whether Rodney would first suffer a stroke under the pressure; or else provoke another prisoner, if not John himself, into a homicidal rage, wherein he would strangle McKay just to shut him up and get some rest.
His own money was on rescue or escape, as soon as possible and preferably before any aneurysms or homicide, seeing as John could do without another black mark on his record, and Atlantis needed Rodney intact and as compos mentis as he was going to get. Their captors were old hat at abducting slave labor and had taken them through an extra Stargate on the way here; even if Atlantis collected the last fifty addresses from the DHD of the world they had been captured on, they'd have to search all of those worlds' fifty addresses as well. One chance in twenty-five hundred were worse odds than John preferred, so escape it was.
If he stretched out his legs, he could bump Rodney's knee with the toe of his boot. He did so. Rodney looked up, moonlit face smudged with dirt and eyes narrowed in irritation. "What? Do you want this done tonight, or are you really looking forward to another week at the Pegasus Spa and Labor Camp?"
"Tonight works for me. Are you that close?"
Rodney looked back down at the life-signs detector in his lap. Yesterday, while Ronon and John had staged a fight to distract the guards, he had jimmied the device out of the outpost's wall with a chisel, and hidden it under his shirt. It was a bit worse for wear, dented and gray with grime, but John could see the faint blue glow of the display illuminating Rodney's frown. "Getting there," he said. "I'm not sure if these energy readings are accurate, or glitches, or if I'm just so hungry I'm not seeing straight, don't they usually feed us by now--"
"We don't need full energy readings," John said. "Life signs will tell us where the guards are, that should be enough of an advantage, if we time it right." He raised his arm to knock on the thick wooden wall of their prison. "Teyla? Ronon? How you doing over there?"
The wood thudded under a heavy blow, rattling against his knuckles. Rodney, who had been leaning back against the panel, yelped and hammered his fist on the boards. "Stop kicking, I said, damn it!"
John heard a quiet, admonishing murmur, and then Teyla's voice came from behind the wall, "We are well enough, John."
She sounded tired but faintly amused, in that tense way Teyla got when her patience was stretched to the point she had to laugh or snap. Ronon could handle the heavy labor, but he took exception to being caged at night in what amounted to a circus wagon, complete with iron bars for the beasts within to be observed. The guards came by to check on John and Rodney only a couple times a night, but Ronon and Teyla had proved to be popular entertainment. John didn't know if that was because Teyla was the only woman among the prisoners, or because Ronon was the tallest and broadest of them, or because for the first few nights they had sparred together to keep calm.
"Hey, Ronon," John called back. "Hang in there, okay?"
"...Okay," Ronon said, in the tone of a guy taking an order obediently, if not happily.
Rodney's mutters had dropped back into the indecipherable. John leaned his shoulders against the wooden wall and wormed his hand through the iron bars, his elbow just clearing the gap as he bent his arm down. After a moment, Teyla's strong, slender fingers met and clasped his. She would be sitting on her own pallet on the other side of the wall, mirroring his position; it gave him some comfort to be able to see her so clearly in his mind's eye, if not in person.
He squeezed Teyla's fingers back, then withdrew his hand and looked out through the bars to the other cages parked across the way. It was too shadowy to make out the other prisoners within, but the glow from the three moons gleamed dully off the metal bars. The wagons were just low and narrow enough to fit through the Stargate. This was an organized outfit, traveling slave labor for hire.
John entertained a brief, satisfying thought of vengeance, freeing the prisoners and slamming these iron bars shut over the guards, setting fire to the wagons, tearing down the whole ugly operation--but that could wait. First priority was getting his people out of here.
A sharp triple rap on the wooden wall had both him and Rodney sitting up, Rodney scrambling to hide the detector under his pallet. John watched the flickering yellow wash play on the ground, the light of the approaching guards' torches--real torches, fiery oil-drenched brands that let off smelly black smoke. "They've got clean, safe, phosphorescent lanterns literally lining the walls a hundred meters away," Rodney had despaired the first night, and probably would have given up and gone mad right there and then if he hadn't been Rodney McKay.
The guards, walking in pairs as always, didn't speak, just lifted the grating and shoved in two trays. "It's about time," Rodney said, sniffing like he was mentally reducing the waiter's tip from twenty percent to ten, and fell upon dinner. John quickly snatched his own tray before Rodney not-entirely-accidentally grabbed something off it--hypoglycemia was all very well, but he was working harder than McKay out there. The guards had given up on making Rodney lift or carry, and had put him to dismantling things, which he did reluctantly, whimpering like he was sacrificing his first-born, but at least it wasn't straining his back.
The regular meals were pretty hearty; the managers of this operation understood that labor needed sustenance. John had considered a starvation gambit, but didn't see what it would get them. If they worked, they were useful; if they couldn't, they were expendable. His team hadn't been grabbed for their fighting prowess or knowledge of Ancient tech, but simply because they had been off-worlders and the hunters weren't choosy about who they earned their bounties with; any strangers were fair game.
Dinner tonight, like every night, was chunks of meat in gravy over slices of something bread-like, and if the bread was tough and stale, and the unidentifiable meat was gamey if not quite rancid, it was edible. There was plenty of water; buckets in the corner of the cage were filled every morning and evening, enough for washing, after they'd drunk their fill. There was even dessert of a sort, wooden cups of sticky sweet jelly that maybe had the nutrients to stave off scurvy, though John wasn't planning on being here long enough to find out.
The first couple nights, Rodney had steered clear of the jelly, even after John had assured him that he tasted nothing lemony about it. More like blueberry jam, or applesauce; the flavor was a little different every night, but it cleared the aftertaste of the meat, anyway. Rodney had cautiously touched his tongue to it the third night, and finding it to his liking, he had taken to finishing his own share and stealing what he could of John's.
Which was more than he really deserved, but John was already conditioned into sliding over his Jell-o cup when he'd taken the last of the blue. And Rodney's pathetically sugar-deprived looks were harder to ignore when he was dirt-smudged, and sunburned from working out in the daylight. ("At least you guys get to be inside the complex where it's cool," Rodney had said, making the dank and dangerously unstable underground sound like an air-conditioned haven, but it was true, he did burn easily. He tied a strip of his jacket's liner over his head, but his cheeks were red and his nose was peeling. The slavers didn't stock sunblock, or aloe lotion.)
Tonight, Rodney didn't try to bum John's dessert off him, even subliminally; he only had eyes for the life-signs detector, poking at it with his stick as he shoveled bread and meat into his mouth with his other hand. When the bread was gone, he blindly reached for the cup of jelly, gulped it like he was downing coffee in his lab.
His hunched shape in the shadows was turned towards the moonlight, the better to see the detector, his eyes catching just enough light to gleam. "So you've got it reading life-signs?" John asked.
"Not with the range I'd like," Rodney said, "but yes. I don't know that this is going to give us the amazing advantage you're counting on, though," and he coughed, cleared his throat, "since usually we can see the guards just fine, as they never let us out of their sight."
"Once we escape, it'll be a big help," John said.
"And how are we planning to actually escape? Politely ask the goons to look away for a sec?" Rodney asked snidely, and coughed again.
"Yeah, I was thinking, if we used the magic word..."
Rodney ignored him; he was peering down into the empty jam cup, frowning. "Look, if you're still hungry," John began, picking up his own cup to offer. Brain cells did require energy, as Rodney was always quick to remind him, and the better the McKay brain worked tonight, the better for all of them.
"Did you taste this?" Rodney asked, oddly hoarse as he cleared his throat again. "Because...I think..."
"No, what?" John squinted at his own untasted jelly. It wasn't likely that the slave-drivers would poison them now, not when they still had work to do. "It's gone off?"
"No--oh, shit," and Rodney threw the cup aside, away from himself. John was standing by the time it clanged against the bars, because he knew every degree of Rodney's we're so screwed tone from mild inconvenience to universe-ending catastrophe, and if this wasn't Doranda then it was still pretty damn bad. Way beyond a panicked McKaysian false alarm, John knew, even before he heard Rodney's breath catch in his throat in a whistling wheeze.
"Citrus?" John asked, dropping to a crouch next to Rodney.
Rodney nodded jerkily. His eyes opened so wide their blue showed through the washed-out moonlight, and his voice was a rasp, strangled. "I--can't--"
"Breathe," John said, but McKay had always been crap about following orders, and this was going to be no exception; the wheezing in his throat was forced like the hiss from a punctured tire. Rodney's hand was groping at his side, for his pocket--
His epi-pen, never go off-world without it--John and Teyla both carried one as well, but their BDUs had been stripped of their supplies the first time they'd been thrown in the cages. "Shit," John said, feeling his own throat pinch tight. He grabbed Rodney's flailing hand and Rodney grabbed back, tight enough to cut off circulation, his round terrified eyes locking on John. "Rodney--it's okay, buddy, just hold on--" John said, babbling because this was insane, it was a fucking fruit cup, people don't die of jam, even alien jam.
Except that Rodney was doing a lousy job with the breathing, and while John had more than once witnessed McKay rant himself into hypoxia because he wouldn't waste time inhaling, this was different. Hell, he'd seen Rodney have an allergic reaction once before, in the commissary after eating that yellow mango-imposter from P4X-something-something-whatever, McKay remembered, enough to remind the cooks on a regular basis. But he'd only gotten a rash then, red cheeks no worse than his sunburn now, confirming John's private hunch that Rodney's fear of anaphylaxis was more paranoia than first-hand experience--
This, though, was no hypochondriac episode; Rodney's fingers clutching his were going cold like ice, and they were under key and guard and every medical supply was off in a junkpile somewhere--"Help!" John hollered, throwing back his head. "Help, damn it, you assholes, come HELP!"
Querulous mutters sounded from the nearby wagons, and a hard smack rattled the wooden wall. "John?" Teyla asked, her voice strong enough to carry and edged with panic. "What's wrong?"
"Rodney," John shouted back, "there was citrus in the damn dessert, he's having a reaction, and we don't have the stuff we need, the epi-pen, the pills--"
"Sheppard," Ronon's growl cut clear through the wood. "Put out your hand."
"Now," Ronon said, "Teyla says I shouldn't risk throwing it."
John stretched to reach through the bars. Almost immediately his knuckles grazed the hard leather of Ronon's arm braces, and something cool and smooth was pressed into his palm. His fingers closed around it automatically--a tube, a little thicker than his thumb and light enough to be plastic, not metal.
He drew his hand back into the cage and blinked for a second at the gray cylinder, lined with writing too small to read in the dim light.
"John, did you get it?" Teyla asked anxiously.
"Got it," John said, and had no more time for confusion; Rodney's eyes were squeezed shut and the whistling breaths were barely choked catches. John had never done this before, but all gate teams were trained in emergency field medicine, and Rodney had made such a fuss early on that he'd reread these instructions besides. Nothing to it--roll off the cap and tip out the injector, pull off the safety release and jab it home, direct into the side of his thigh.
Then hold for a ten count, and the instructions failed to mention that these could be some of the longest ten seconds of your life, right up there with flying a spaceship with a nuke in the back, one hippopotamus two hippopotamus three--while in his head John went over his ABCs, Airway-Breathing-Circulation, if the epinephrine wasn't enough, because Rodney's lips were darkening to blue and those choked catches had been squeezed down to nothing.
Nine hippopotamus, ten, and John dropped the expended epi-pen and rubbed his fingers hard over the needle-hole in Rodney's BDUs, as recommended. Call 9-1-1 next, according to the instructions, but he'd gone and left his cell phone in another galaxy. John felt his own lips moving, couldn't hear his voice but could read the shapes they were making, Come on, Rodney, come on, you can do it, come on--
Rodney must have realized he could breathe again at the same time John did, because they gasped simultaneously, with the same sharp, desperate inhalation. And Rodney kept breathing afterward, faster than John, heaving, hyperventilating pants like he was trying to make up for every breath he'd missed all at once. John grabbed him by the shoulders to steady him, feeling him cough and tremble like he was freezing.
"Ah--wha--" Rodney tried to say through it, eyes rolling open, but watering and dazed, not really seeing John.
Probably not hearing him but John kept talking anyway. "It's okay, buddy, you're okay, you're doing great."
"John?" Teyla's voice was high with stress and John realized it wasn't the first time he had heard his name. Ronon was roaring for the guards. "Rodney--John, how is he, is--"
"We got it, he's okay," John shouted back, over Ronon's bellows.
"M'gonna--b'sick--" Rodney mumbled, in time for John to shove out of the way and push the dinner tray under him, as Rodney messily refunded his meal. The stew didn't look much different coming up as it did going down. John supported him through the heaves, patted his back like they were a couple of frat boys after a night of partying hard.
Over his head, he called, "Teyla, Ronon--keep up the racket, we need the guards over here, now!"
"Understood, John," and Teyla added her voice to Ronon's.
Rodney was still shivering when his head snapped up, but the blue tinge of his lips was fading back to flesh tones. "What'd you do--how'd--what'd you give me, if it's alien, it could be poison, we don't know--"
"It was an epi-pen, Rodney," John said, picking up the empty tube to show him.
Rodney stared so hard he almost went cross-eyed. "But that's impossible, they took all our stuff. Where the hell--"
"Ronon had it."
"Oh, of course, Ronon stashes medical injectors in his hair, along with the cutlery and darts and probably toothpicks and a pin cushion and, I don't know, what else is pointy--"
"Rodney!" John pushed his shoulder, gave him a shake.
Rodney clacked his teeth shut. "Babbling, yeah, I know, I can't stop. It's the epinephrine, I hate this, I forgot how I hated this. I mean, it's better than dying, infinitely better, but it feels like I'm going to fly apart," and that John understood, because Rodney was vibrating like he might burst, like glass crystal shattering at the right pitch. "Doesn't last long, but from here it feels like about forever."
That dashed a bucket of ice water on any ember of hope sparked by Rodney breathing. "How long will the epi-pen last?" John asked. Call 9-1-1 in Pegasus translated to 'get through the gate and to the infirmary as soon as possible,' and he stared past Rodney at the iron bars. Behind the wooden wall he could hear Ronon and Teyla yelling themselves hoarse.
"Fifteen minutes," Rodney said, "twenty maybe, if I'm lucky, and when do the dice ever roll in my favor, so yeah, fifteen."
"And the allergy won't, you know, wear itself out?" because seriously, how fair was this, Rodney was breathing again, he was fine--if fine meant red-faced and panicked, jittering like he'd downed ten espressos, but that was standard McKay on a stressful, need-to-save-Atlantis-and/or-the-galaxy-from-imminent-doom day, which was most of them. So, fine.
Except John knew better, of course, had had it explained to him by two doctors of other than astrophysics, and damn the whole science of medicine anyway. Rodney's grin was humorless, ghoulish in the colorless light. "Temporary relief of symptoms," he confirmed, arms folded over his chest like he was holding his organs in, "so no, my body's not going to spontaneously decide that was a false alarm."
Ronon and Teyla quieted abruptly, and Teyla's voice floated to his ears through the wall. "John, we have roused them."
Rodney didn't notice, curled in on himself and rocking in place. "Damn it, I don't want to do that again, not breathing sucks, worse than this, oh, god, I'm going to--"
"Be fine," John said, "you're going to be fine," and he squeezed Rodney's arm, stood and took two long strides to the bars of their cage. The guards' tents were hidden behind the wooden wall, but there were stripes of amber torchlight stretching along the ground, and the mumble of voices. "Over here!" John shouted to the shadows crossing through the light. "Get over here now, damn it!"
Two shadows grew along the ground, resolving into figures, and the guards stepped before the bars. Two big men, hawk-nosed and gray-eyed, straw-yellow hair drawn back in queues; all they wanted for to complete the Viking image were a couple horned helmets. "Keep it down!" one of them growled, and banged his cattle prod against the bars with a clonk. The prods--or stun-sticks or whatever they were--weren't metal, but some sort of tough plastic-like material like Wraith stunners, and they gave a nasty zap.
"We need our stuff," John said. "The supplies that came with us, I know the bounty hunters threw them in as a bonus deal--we need them. My friend's sick, he needs medicine. If you don't want to lose a worker, you better get it, now--"
"Sick?" The shorter guard raised his torch to cast light into the cage, onto Rodney huddled on the pallet. His flushed face was shiny with sweat; not a bad performance of deathly illness, really. If they were on a TV show, the guards would unlock the cell and come in to check him out, and John would jump one and Rodney would take the other, a couple of punches and they'd be out of here. Perfect plan, should've thought of it sooner.
"Him?" the taller guard said, and then laughed--laughed, a raucous, knee-slapping guffaw. "Oh, yeah, I've seen him work. We lose this one, be difficult to replace him. Maybe we could get a two-week-old miter-kitten. Or an old woman."
John was moving before it registered, ramming up against the bars. "You sons of bitches, if you don't--"
The other guard took a step closer, squinting past John. "If he's really sick," he said doubtfully, "maybe--"
He didn't get farther. A big arm shot out from behind the wooden wall, hooked around his neck and slammed him into the bars. In the torchlight the knife blade against his throat gleamed slick gold, forcing him onto his toes.
"Get our stuff," Ronon growled from the next cage over. "Now."
The other guard didn't hesitate. He hefted his stun-stick but didn't bother swinging it up to Ronon's arm--maybe correctly calculating that Ronon could have his compatriot's throat slit by the time he did. Instead he touched it to the other guard's stomach.
The man jerked as the juddering shock coursed through him, and Ronon grunted sharply. The knife slipped out of his fingers, dinging once against the iron bars as it fell to the ground, out of reach.
His former victim slumped to the ground with it, gasping, while the other guard stepped over him to thrust his cattle prod through the bars. His lips were pulled into a sadistic grin, teeth bright in the torchlight. John couldn't see past the wall, but he could hear the crackle of energy, Ronon's choked grunt and Teyla's, "Ronon!"
"Stop it!" John shouted, with all the command authority he didn't have, but he didn't give a damn, any more than he did about the bruises it left when he slammed his shoulder into the iron bars, rattling them in their reinforced sockets.
"Ronon?" Rodney gasped behind him. When John glanced back, Rodney was kneeling on the pallet, bracing his hand on the wooden wall to stand, his face gone paler under the feverish flush. John shook his head, motioned hard for him to stay put.
The guard finally stepped back from the bars, still grinning, slapped his stick into the palm of his hand. Behind the wall, John could hear Ronon panting, harsh dragging sounds, and Teyla murmuring. Comforting him, maybe; cursing out their captors, more likely. John ground his teeth together, feeling the grate of his jaw behind his ears.
The guard kicked his fallen fellow in the ribs. "Get up, you piss-bottle. You've gone soft if you can't take a little tickle like that." He yanked the other slaver to his feet and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Let's drink this off."
"Wait!" John said.
The guard looked back, teeth gleaming in that sadistic smile. "Have to come by in the morning, haul away the corpse," he remarked to his half-stunned companion. "Before it starts to rot."
"Wait, damn it!" John demanded. "You can't--you need to get him the medicine. You need him! Wait!"
He lunged across the cage. Rodney had thought better of standing, no thanks to John's advice; he was slumped with one shoulder against the wall, and breathing as hard as if he were running a marathon. Breathing was breathing, though, and John wasn't going to sweat the details.
The life signs detector was beside him on the pallet where he had dropped it. John grabbed it, ignoring Rodney's question, and turned back to the cage bars. "Look at this!" he hollered.
That might not have gotten the guards' attention, but the detector's high-pitched beep when John jacked up the volume did. Confusion was writ broad on the taller man's blunt features, as he stared at John's face limned in the blue glow off the device's screen.
"What's that?" he demanded, pushing aside his fellow to approach the cage. He kept a wary distance, but his gaze was locked on the detector.
"Just one of the trinkets here," John said. "But how much more will it be worth, when it can light up like this?"
"Hand it over!"
John bit down on his triumph. Gotcha. He tossed the detector through the bars.
It went dark as it left his hands, fell to the ground as a dead piece of junk. When the guard picked it up, nothing happened. The detectors could function on particular settings in non-ATA hands, but Rodney hadn't bothered with that adjustment.
"You broke it," the guard growled.
John shook his head. "No, it was broken. He was fixing it," and he extended his hand through the bars, fingers spread, palm up; a harmless gesture. "Give it back, I'll show you."
Suspicious and tentative, the guard placed the device in John's grasp, where it flickered back to life. John saw the greed light up in the slaver's eyes, reflecting the blinking stars of their life signs.
Behind him, the other guard was staring. "By the Ancestors," he whispered, an observation or an oath.
"He fixed this," John said. "He could fix every damn thing you've found here, bring the Ancestors' stuff back to life. Right, Rodney?"
"Yeah, sure. Anything. Transporters, warp engines, light sabers, you name it." Rodney's thready stammer had never sounded less arrogant or confident. But the detector made a compelling argument. John reached forward, shoved the device back into the guard's hands and let go, the light winking out.
"He's a fucking miracle worker, he'll make you a hero," John hissed, "but you lose him, you lose that chance. Just get our stuff and he'll make you rich. That's all you have to do."
The man stared down at the darkened detector, then through the bars, past John to where Rodney was huddled. He licked his lips, looked back at his fellow. "Where'd their junk get put?"
"Supply tent," the other guard said. "No one's keeping watch."
"Fine, you get that. I'll go tell the others we've shut these sumpters up for the night. No need to tell anybody what the fuss was about," and he concealed the detector under his leather coat with a satisfied smirk.
John watched the two men walk away, teeth gritted to keep himself from shouting at them to hurry. "Ronon?" he asked, pitching his voice to carry just far enough and no farther.
Teyla's answer was equally low. "He is unconscious, but breathing evenly. What of Rodney?"
John looked back over his shoulder. Rodney was hunched over in the moonlit shadows, his open eyes reflecting like patches of mirage over hot tar, watery and glittering. "Same here--still breathing," he panted.
Seeing silhouetted movement beyond the bars, John reached through the iron to touch Teyla's cool fingers for an instant. Then he scooted back to the pallet, knelt next to Rodney. "They'll be back before you know it, with the meds. Hang in there."
"Hanging," Rodney forced out, "yes, that's a lovely image, thank you. Easily visualized, I know exactly what it feels like, slow asphyxiation--"
"You're not suffocating now," John told him. He didn't have to touch Rodney to see how he was trembling with tension. "You have to stay calm."
"Stay c-calm?" Rodney's teeth clicked together erratically as he shivered. "Epinephrine's just another word for adrenaline. I've got the original fight or flight hormone in my blood, and I can't do either because we're locked up and I can barely breathe and every cell in my body wants to go in a different direction. And you want me to calm down--because I'm usually such a poster child of cool and collected--"
"Yeah," John said, "exactly. You live in a state of barely controlled panic anyway, so...control this. Before your brain explodes."
"Before my heart does, you mean--that can be a side-effect of epinephrine, and my blood pressure's too high anyway, and oh god, I think I'm having a heart attack right now--"
"That's the adrenaline," John reminded him. Curling his fingers around Rodney's wrist, he felt his pulse racing like the thrum of a chopper's rotors. No reliable way to time it, but three beats a second, easy. He kept his voice calm, slow. "You are not having a heart attack, and you're not going to have a heart attack. You hear me, McKay?"
"I hear you." Rodney's voice stuttered and cracked. "I hear you fine, but my heart might not be listening."
"It's gonna be okay. You just have to try to relax. Bright blue skies, Ferris wheels..."
"You remain the single worst meditation instructor ever," Rodney informed him, but he shut his eyes, made a concerted effort to draw deeper breaths. John kept his hand around Rodney's wrist, the skin damp with sweat but cool to his touch, though not the chill of shock. He wanted his watch--he'd always had a decent time-sense, but not as exact as he needed now. Eight minutes since he'd used the epi-pen, at least; maybe nine or ten, if luck wasn't running with them, and when was it ever? The guard had hardly been running to the supply tent, moseying more like, if he'd had a damn gun to hold on them--
If John had a gun then they wouldn't be in this cage, wouldn't be on this world, and Rodney wouldn't have eaten that damn fruit cup--
"I didn't know I was suicidal," Rodney said, apropos of nothing. His tongue was tripping over words blurted even faster than usual, like the pressure of silence was too much and he had to release some stray thought or else explode. "I've gotten more--resigned--to dying; or maybe it's daring, becoming more convinced that I won't die, every time we miraculously survive. But I didn't think I actually had a death wish."
"That's because you don't," John told him. "It was an accident."
"So, eating unknown fruit on an alien world, when I know I have a dangerous allergy--not suicidal, just suicidally stupid. Thanks, but I'd rather I was insane than an imbecile."
"You were distracted. Could've happened to anyone, and I was the one pushing you to fix the detector."
"Oh, no!" Rodney waved his hands, dislodging John's loose grip on his wrist to point a shaky finger at him. "You don't get to claim responsibility on this one, Colonel Stealth-Guilt-Trip. I'm perfectly happy to place blame where it goes, but this is my stupid body with my stupid lethal reactions, and I knew better--should've known better. This is my own damn fault, and if those goons don't come back in time, or if they don't come back at all--oh, god, this sucks so hard--"
"No argument there," John murmured. Rodney was still quivering, rocking and rattling like a broken fan, his arms crossed over his chest. The catches of his rapid breaths were too much like sobs. "But they're coming back. They're going to be here any second, just hold on." He dropped his hand to the back of Rodney's neck, flushed skin hot and sweaty under his palm. Rodney twitched away but John kept his hand in place, squeezed reassuringly. "It's gonna be okay, buddy."
Rodney swallowed hard, muscles of his throat working under John's hand. "If I--if they don't--"
Eleven minutes. Twelve, maybe. "They will."
"Yeah, but if they don't, can you--Ronon and Teyla, too--you can say I was, you know, shot, or whatever, trying to escape. Daring attempt. Trying to get all of us out--I would, you know, I would've, if I'd had the chance, so if you could just--or anything. Just, not this. This has to be the single stupidest way to die. Make it all the way to another galaxy, survive life-sucking aliens and Ancient devices, and then I'm murdered by a piece of fruit. Any epitaph but that--"
"You're not getting any fucking epitaph," John said. "Unless you're planning on being buried alive, because you're still breathing, and you're not going to stop."
They waited in silence, John not listening to Rodney struggling not to hyperventilate, instead straining to hear footsteps, watching through the bars for the glow of approaching torchlight. "Teyla?" he asked.
"I can see nothing," Teyla called back, voice almost breaking with apology and concern. "I am sorry, Rodney--but I am sure they will be coming back shortly."
Rodney gave a shuddering not-laugh, raised his hoarse voice to call back, "Thanks, Teyla." He gulped. "Tell Ronon--I'm sorry he got hurt. He was trying, I really appreciate--tell him--"
"Shut up," John growled, not intentionally, not realizing he had spoken until Rodney's teeth clacked shut. His hand was still on the nape of Rodney's neck, and he kept that touch gentle, when what he wanted was to haul McKay up by the scruff and shake him. "You can tell him when he wakes up."
Rodney attempted a skewed smile. "They say denial's the first stage."
"It's not denial if I'm right."
"So what are my chances of figuring out Ascension again in the next minute?"
"Hey, if anyone could do it--you want to try?" John didn't think about what it said of their lives, that this was a viable option. But Rodney had nearly done it once before; if he could pull it off again...
Rodney shook his head, screwed shut his eyes and shot them open again. "Don't think I'm in the right Zen frame of mind. What with thinking every breath could be my last." He took a couple quick ones, making his point. "At least it's thematically appropriate."
"Asphyxiation. Seems like the way this galaxy has been out to get me from the start. Drowning on Atlantis, in the first timeline, or in the sinking jumper; or in that lunar space station when the control room depressurized..."
John had tasted vacuum a couple times himself, suppressed a shudder at the memory, the pressing ache of air being pulled from his lungs. "Positive thoughts, Rodney," he said.
"So, the brighter side of suffocation?" The familiar bite of sarcasm was reassuring, but the wheeze at the end of the word was not. In the gray moonlight, John saw Rodney's eyes go wide again, luminescent and terrified.
His hand slipped down, wrapped around Rodney's fingers as tightly as if he were grabbing him at the edge of a cliff, as if he could keep him from falling. Rodney's breaths quickened and shortened, and John couldn't hear himself over the rush of blood in his ears, couldn't hear his own voice shouting, "Get back here, now, you assholes!"
But he heard Teyla, frantic--"John, the guard is here, he's returning!"
Movement in the corner of his eye and John snapped his head around. The shorter guard was standing before the cage bars, two packs and all three of their tac vests piled in his arms. He gaped at John's snarled, "Front of the vest, third pocket down!"
The man stared at him like a brain-dead zombie, like whatever scientific magic of translation that allowed them to communicate had failed. "Now!" John ordered, in between, "Hold on, Rodney, he's here, it's gonna be okay--"
to be continued...