His legs were burning by the time he made it back to the slave camp. Getting old, John--only a week without his regular jog, and look at him puffing for breath.
Then he lost track of those inconsequential aches, as through the trees he saw the camp. The slavers had called it a day early: all the slaves had been returned to the cages, locked inside; and the dozen or so guards were gathered in the space between the wagons and their tents. And in the middle of that group--
Teyla was on the ground, facedown with her auburn hair spread over the dirt, but she was moving, at least. Rodney was kneeling on the ground behind her, and one of the guards stood over him, back to John, with his dirty blond queue hanging down the length of his spine under his grimy leather coat.
He had his stun-stick out, was holding it to the side of Rodney's head, and Rodney's mouth was open like he was screaming, but he wasn't making any sound that John could hear.
If John had taken a moment to think, he probably could have come up with a better plan than bellowing, "Stop it!" and charging forward with Ronon's knife in his hand.
But then, if he had taken a moment to think, the slaver would've kept the stunner to Rodney's temple for that much longer.
As it was, when the other guards had grabbed John, ripping his knife away, and dropped him into the dust beside his teammates, Rodney was lying on his back, his eyes open but unaware, staring up at the sky as he panted in almost inaudibly shallow breaths.
"Rodney?" John said, reaching toward him. The guards had applied their stun-sticks to loosen his grip on the knife, and his arms were trembling from the aftermath, like the quivers of muscle fatigue after benching over his max. "Come on, buddy, look at me--"
Teyla was awake, but her legs were tangled in two pairs of the guards' bolas; every time she twitched there was a crackle and flash like the charge of the stun-sticks, and she would shudder. "John," she gasped, trying to crawl closer anyway, "I had hoped you were able to escape--"
John shook his head at her, silent command to lie still and not get zapped. He was dizzy himself from the partial stunning, and one of the slavers had clouted him across the head hard enough that he was tasting blood. And Rodney hadn't moved, body rigid, and his wrist was cold when John put his fingers to the pulse point. Going into shock--the anaphylaxis without the proper chance to recover had put him to his limit; now he'd been pushed past it.
The guard standing over them was shouting, "--have to show all you workers how pointless it is to try to escape!" John squinted up into the sun at the man, recognizing the blunt, twisted features of their erstwhile ally.
The slaver sneered down at John. He looked a little put out to have had his trust betrayed. "What, you weren't expecting an escape attempt?" John asked him. "You must be new to the slave-keeping gig, huh--"
He was ready for the backhand, let his head turn with it to dispel the worst force of the blow, though it opened his split lip again, blood tangy on his tongue.
"Now that you've been recaptured," the guard said loudly, towering over John and blocking out the blinding sunlight, "you'll also make a lesson for the others." He gestured at the surrounding cages, positioned so that all of the slaves could see their spectacle. Most of them were watching, some eagerly, grinning in anticipation like this was the best entertainment they'd had in a while; though a few had turned away.
The guard didn't look like he particularly cared one way or another; more into giving the object lesson than actually educating. "Once your friend and his woman have taken their punishment, you'll get what's coming to you," he told John, then crouched to grab Rodney by the collar, hauled him up to his knees again.
Rodney didn't resist, head not lolling back for all the unconscious blankness of his stare--his muscles locked tense, stiff as an unjointed action figure, rigor mortis in a living body. "This is what happens to those stupid enough to try to run," the guard said, projecting to be heard by the watching slaves, and he was smirking as he brought up his stun-stick again.
Teyla cried out in powerless protest. "Wait!" John shouted, pushing himself up, but he didn't make it to his feet before two other guards grabbed him from behind and wrestled him to a standstill. They were bigger than him and their hands were like manacles around his biceps, but he fought back. "You can't--" Rodney still wasn't moving, and his hands at his sides were curled into claws, like he was still in the grip of the stun.
"Maybe we should hold off," one of the guards holding John said, though he didn't relax his grip any. The glimpse of his profile was enough for John to identify the big guard's crony, the other one in on the deal, the man who had brought the medicines the night before last, just in time. "He's no good to us if he dies..."
"This sumpter's no good to us anyway," the taller guard snapped. "He's too weak for real labor, and look what happened when we showed mercy, gave him easier work. They're playing us for fools--"
John's bark of laughter was painfully forced, but it got the slaver's attention away from Rodney. "We don't have to play you for that, you do fine on your own," he said, staring the man in the eye and making his smirk as insulting as possible. "Hell, you wouldn't even have caught me now if I hadn't come back." He widened the smirk. "And showing mercy, is that what you're calling it--I thought you were trying to make some extra cash behind your buddies' backs, or should I not be mentioning our deal--"
"Shut up!" The guard's face went red, all but frothing at the mouth. He threw Rodney down and stalked toward John, stun-stick raised.
Rodney made a faint groan as he crumpled to the ground, and that proof of life was enough that John's smile became real, for the split second before the guard's stun-stick touched his temple.
There was the crack of a released charge, and the world whited out in a pain so total it was annihilating. John couldn't tell where it hurt, couldn't tell what was hurting, whether he still had a body to be hurt. He'd felt the stun-sticks before, several times daily, and just a few minutes ago; but this was a whole other realm, the difference between a paper cut and a severed limb.
When it stopped, it took him a couple moments to realize it was over, another few moments to remember where he was, to become aware of himself again, of his body juddering from the shock like he was seizing, of the ground and grass crushed under him. To hear the shouts and stuttering retorts of gunfire--
But the slavers didn't use guns. John blinked--his eyes were already open, he realized--heaved a breath and rolled onto his side to lever himself up to his knees.
"John?" Teyla had dragged herself to his side to touch his arm, sweat beaded on her forehead and her complexion gray under the warm bronze. The bolas wrapped around her legs were still shocking her whenever she moved to free herself. But her lips were pulled into a tight, grimacing smile. "I believe Ronon's escape was as successful as ours was not."
P-90 fire was still strafing overhead, and the jumper's engines whistled as it soared by. Some of the slavers were standing their ground, but most had scattered into the woods, or were crouched with their hands over their heads.
"Rodney?" John demanded, looking around.
"Yeah?" Rodney said from John's other side, on hands and knees and his face the color of milk gone off, but his eyes were focusing, more or less.
Just past him, hunkered low on the ground, was the guard who had brought the drugs, who had hesitantly spoken up to his buddy against zapping Rodney again. He had his stun-stick in his hand and was looking at Rodney, and John could see the wheels in his head turning, considering what their rescuers would do in a hostage situation.
John met the man's eyes, shook his head. "Don't," he suggested. "Get out of here. Our people aren't here for revenge. Just us."
The slaver stared at him, then glanced at Rodney. Then back at John, taking in his shaky arms, his dizzy wavering, even sitting down.
The look in his eyes, Touch him and I'll kill you: not a threat, only a fact.
Slipping his stun-stick back in his belt, the guard peered over his shoulder at the advancing Marines, then pushed to his feet and took off for the forest, leaving them behind.
John reached for Teyla's legs. His hands were trembling, but he managed to unwind one of the entangled bolas and started on the other, muttering swears as she hissed with every shock.
Rodney blinked at them, then twisted his head toward the people approaching. John followed his gaze. With the sun at their backs it was hard to make out their faces, but a silhouette that tall could only be Ronon, and John raised a hand in an about-time-you-guys-showed-up wave.
"We're getting rescued?" Rodney asked, weary and confused, like he couldn't trust his eyes.
"Yeah, buddy," John told him, reaching over to tap his shoulder, assure him he was awake and not hallucinating. "Unless you'd like to stick around, get some exercise in, sample more of the local fruit--"
Teyla smacked him on the arm, none too gently but it was worth it for Rodney's aggravated, amused snort.
o o o
True to Ronon's prediction, McKay spent the night in the infirmary, getting his blood sugar balanced and his vitals monitored. Though he didn't whine about it, instead was atypically subdued; but after the last few days John figured he was ready for a rest. Ronon brought an extra tray down from the commissary for him, and John set up his laptop on the end of the bed, and the four of them got most of the way through the X-men movies before the medical staff chased them out for the night.
Two days later, when they were organizing the expedition back to M5Y-349, Rodney declined to accompany the team. Since he was still looking a little peaked, and had only been cleared for light duty, John cut him some slack and let him skip the mission.
The planet was pretty much as they had left it, warm yellow sun shining over the green forest and fields. The charred husks of the prison wagons were cold ash, no longer smoldering. After they had released the slaves, John had taken out the wagons with a couple jumper drones--overkill, maybe, but it had felt damn good. The slaves had dialed out, to wherever they liked; those who didn't have a home to return to had been taken to the Alpha site, to relocate with the Athosians or make their own plans.
The slavers had mostly fled in the forest; those who the Atlantis soldiers had captured had been let go anyway. There wasn't any Pegasus tribunal to hold them accountable for their crimes, no code of justice to try them by.
Ronon had suggested execution, not a joke and not even that angrily; matter-of-fact in a way that had shaken John. More than anything because he considered it, could have done it. Lorne and the Marines would have looked the other way, if they wouldn't help--and they might have, after over a week of frustrated searches.
But Rodney, huddled on the back bench of the jumper wrapped in a blanket, had mumbled, "Are you nuts, we can't do that."
And of course they couldn't. Except that John, gripping a P-90 in his hands, remembering that terrible whistling, wheezing sound Rodney had made struggling to breathe; and Rodney's eyes, glazed and blank with agony--John could have done it then, and he went cold later, thinking about it.
Instead they'd let their captors turned captives go, warned them not to come back, and had contented themselves with destroying the tools of their slave trade. John had assigned a couple Marines in a jumper to keep watch on the ruins of the Ancient outpost, told them to ignore anyone leaving through the Stargate, and then returned with his team to Atlantis.
Coming back now, walking through the gate in a clean uniform with the comfortable weight of his P-90 hanging from his vest, felt like a mission to a new world; even the burnt-out wagons might have been the debris of an unknown people. Zelenka and the other four scientists Rodney had selected were ecstatic, scurrying about the ruins of the outpost like kids on Christmas morning, poking at this and that. John sat on a stump beside the entrance of the main tunnel where he'd hauled rocks for a week, gun resting casually in the crook of his elbow as he watched the scientists work from behind his sunglasses.
"Feels weird," Ronon remarked, leaning on a nearby tree with his arms folded, his blaster in hand. He had retrieved it from the guards' tents before they had left the planet, and hadn't let go of it since, that John had noticed. Even on Atlantis he'd been keeping a couple fingers on the grip when he had it holstered.
"Being back here? Yeah," John agreed. He tilted his head back so the sunlight fell warm on his face. "Kind of nice, though, when we don't have to do anything. The weather's great."
"Rodney ought to have come with us," Teyla said.
"You know how McKay feels about sunlight and fresh air."
"Yes," Teyla said, "but after all the objections he made to the work we were forced to do, I would have thought he would want to oversee the exploration."
John shrugged. Rodney could have used the sun--he was looking pale now that the sunburn had faded, and still tired; he'd been retiring from the labs before midnight every night. But John hadn't been all that eager to come back himself, however pleasant it might be sitting in the sun now; he could understand Rodney's reluctance to revisit the place where he'd stopped breathing, not to mention the whole slave labor deal. "This place has been around for ten thousand years, we can come back when he's ready."
Besides, it wasn't as if McKay were staying uninvolved; John had caught him giving Zelenka a laundry list three pages long of things to check out. And when they got back to Atlantis, Rodney descended on all of them, badgering them with questions about the condition of the ruins, and sweeping up the various artifacts his people had collected like some kind of deranged device vacuum cleaner, rushing everything back to his lab for examination with better equipment than sticks and rocks.
He was so excited by the trove of collected gadgets that John assumed he was regretting not going personally after all, and started planning a second trip to M5Y-349, after their upcoming missions were completed.
So he was surprised to get an entirely different email from Dr. McKay the next afternoon. Rather than reply to it, John saved himself some typos and went down to the lab to ask in person. "What do you mean, you aren't available for tomorrow's mission?"
Rodney, busy at two laptops with three esoteric, scratched and dusty devices on the counter before him, wouldn't look him in the eye. That wasn't unexpected; he wouldn't have resorted to sending an email if this were anything he wanted to get confrontational about. Which set off most of John's warning bells, because Rodney rarely backed down from confrontation.
He wasn't prepared for the answer, however. "Not just tomorrow's mission," Rodney said. "I thought my message made that clear."
"'For an indefinite period of time' makes zilch clear," John said. "What happened, weren't you cleared for active duty this morning?"
Rodney shook his head. "Technically, yes, but." He stopped typing, folded his arms and exhaled. "You'll be getting the notice tomorrow. I'm officially removing myself from the off-world team roster."
The words hung in silence for a moment. Eventually John realized the punch-line he was waiting for wasn't coming. "What?"
"If you want another scientist on your team," Rodney said, "I can prepare a few recommendations; Zelenka's an obvious candidate, but there are a couple other engineers and physicists with off-world experience. Or else there are several Air Force and Marines officers with fairly extensive backgrounds in science; the SGC tends to recruit--"
"Wait, what?" John said again. "You're not serious--"
"I'll have the paperwork ready tomorrow, but I wanted to give you a heads' up about the mission, in case you want a fourth for it. It sounds like a cakewalk, but--"
"Rodney, what the hell?"
Rodney set his jaw, still not looking at John. "Recent events have forced me to realize that I am unsuitable for regular off-world travel."
"You've been going through the gate for years," John said. "Now one mission goes sour, and you're going to quit?" He might have laughed, if he wasn't wondering if he should be calling the infirmary. Or else having Lorne check for pod people growing in the lower levels. "Not even the worst mission we've had--hell, it wasn't the worst we've had this year." Okay, the brush with death was closer than he preferred, but they'd come closer. "You weren't even in the infirmary for twenty-four hours."
"You know, it wasn't as bad as I remembered," Rodney remarked, contemplatively. "The anaphylaxis. I mean, it was horrible, definitely not my chosen way to go--peacefully in my sleep at a hundred and twelve--but there's worse. I've faced worse, in the last few years, and I think overall I prefer suffocation to, say, being burned alive."
There was a knot like a ball of ice in the pit of John's stomach. "Look, I know it was rough, but if you don't think you can handle off-world--"
"It's not that," Rodney said, irritated. "I came to terms with my mortality when I started going through the Stargate."
John arched an eyebrow. "Really, now."
"Well, no, not at all, but I've been indoctrinated into the reckless mindset of you adrenaline junky types, such that when necessary I can willfully forget we're a hair's breadth from certain death. So, close enough." Rodney shrugged. "This has nothing to do with me; it's about you. All of you. The team."
"What about us?" John asked, and the cold sick knot in his belly burst; he was so angry he could taste bile. "You don't think we did everything we could? Ronon carried the epi-pen, Teyla--"
"I am painfully aware of what they did--of what you all did," Rodney said over him. He spun his chair around, finally looked at John directly. "I told Teyla to go--I told her to get the hell out of there, when I knew I couldn't make it. The guards were occupied, the way was clear, she could've made it. But she wouldn't leave me behind, and I couldn't keep up, even with her help, I couldn't go fast enough."
"It wasn't your fault," John said. "All the dust and crap in the air, your allergies were reacting to it worse than usual. According to the doctors it's lucky you didn't go full-blown biphasic again."
"And Teyla risked her life, on my sorry luck. Had to risk it, because that's the way we work, we don't leave anyone behind. And you, you came back, for both of us--and that's why."
Rodney faced him, back drawn up straight and rounded shoulders braced. "When you first came to me, told me I would be on your team, and I told you it would be too risky--I wasn't considering the real risk. I didn't properly realize how great a liability my health could be. Not to myself, that I got just fine--but to the people I work with, to our mission. I didn't calculate what the hazard would be to you, keeping me safe."
"I've got conditions that could potentially kill me. Citrus, bees, the hypoglycemia, I've lived with that all my life. But that they could get other people killed--that I could kill my..." Rodney shook his head hard. "It's not like I didn't know my weaknesses. I'm not a soldier, I've never wanted to be one, but I've done what I could. I've gone to the shooting range, I've let Ronon abuse me in the name of self-defense training. But this--there's nothing I can do about this. I tasted the wrong damn fruit--fruit, for god's sake, how absurd is that?--and all of you paid for it."
"And now you want off the team," John said.
"I don't want--" Rodney started, a knee-jerk reaction that he clamped his mouth down on a second late. "It's the right decision for all concerned," he said tightly instead, his hands balling into fists at his sides. "The risk to you--"
"Yeah," John said, "and what about the risk to us when we don't have you there? Other scientists, sure--who don't think as fast, who shut down when they panic instead of getting better. Who aren't used to working with us and can't do what you do. Damn it, McKay, how the hell would we have gotten away from those slavers, if we hadn't had you to engineer that earthquake?"
"It wasn't an earthquake," Rodney muttered, "just a mass displacement engine applied to--"
"It was a piece of ten thousand year old tech that you got working, right under those bastards' noses, with no tools and no time," John said. "You give me another one of your scientists who you can guarantee can pull off what you do, as fast as you do it--and when they're half-dead--and I'll consider letting you off the team. Until then--I told you way back when, I need the best. That hasn't changed."
Appealing to the McKay ego was always a delicate game--don't want to overfeed that beast. But Rodney wasn't the same man he'd cajoled onto his team a lifetime ago. The stubborn squaring of his jaw was the same, but the look in his eyes was that much older, the eyes of someone who'd seen that much more, who understood what he hadn't before. "The best of what?" Rodney asked quietly. "The smartest man on Atlantis isn't the best for your team, if he's not smart enough to avoid the lethal fruit cup."
"If I'd tasted it first, I could've warned you to avoid it."
"It wasn't your responsibility. My allergies, my job to look out for them."
"And my job to look out for you," John said. "You're not the only one with weaknesses. Teyla's got the Wraith-gene thing, that's damn useful but it's caused its share of problems, too. Ronon's past got you an arrow in the ass."
"And you attract any passing Ascended floozie," Rodney sniped, "but that's--"
"The same thing, pretty much," John cut him off. "Well, not the floozies--but we've all got our kryptonite. Hell, it's not like allergies are unique to you; epi-pens are included in the standard SGC gear for a reason. We're in an alien galaxy, there's plenty of dangers to watch out for. And plenty of dangers that we need that brain of yours to save us from." He pointed at Rodney's forehead with one finger. "We keep you safe out there, and you keep us safe. That's how the team works. That's how we're going to keep working."
Rodney was sitting very still, even his hands quiescent for once, resting on his knees. As stiff as when he'd been hit with the slavers' stun, and John felt as paralyzed. His choice, ultimately; Rodney wasn't military, John couldn't pull rank on him, couldn't do anything but choose a replacement, should Atlantis's head of science request removal from off-world missions.
He could understand what it had been like for Rodney, throat closed up and unable to breathe, his heart pounding too loudly in his ears.
Rodney's lopsided, quicksilver grin, there and gone again, was like a jolt of epinephrine, a surge of returned strength. "Through sickness and in health?"
John grinned back. "'Til death by Wraith, Replicator, or lemon. Whichever comes last."
Rodney narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "If we're going to make this official, you better be ready to wear the other dress, with Teyla. I can't pull off white, and I don't think veils will work with Ronon's hair, even if you could find a gown his size."
"...I don't want to know how your brain works, McKay."
"So." Rodney cleared his throat. "Mission briefing's at 1100 tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Got time for chess now?"
Rodney waved absently. "Later, I've got two crates of unsorted artifacts to go through, and I'm hoping those blond Neanderthals didn't get to all of them."
"I was calling them Vikings myself," John remarked. "Have fun with your doohickeys, then, see you at lunch."
"Right, yeah." Rodney had already turned back to his laptops, prodding the rusty gadget with prongs like doubled tuning forks.
John was at the door when Rodney said, "Hey. Sheppard."
Rodney didn't look up, busy with his devices. "Before I forget to say it. Thank you."
For saving his life; for keeping him on his team; for asking him to be on the team to begin with. Rodney didn't say and John didn't ask. It didn't matter; his answer would be the same regardless. "Anytime," John said, and went to make sure lemon meringue wasn't on the commissary's dessert menu today.
Thank you so much for reading to the end, I hope it satisfied, and that you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. Endless gratitude to anyone who's taken the time to leave a review - I'm always happy to have people reading my stories, and even happier knowing they've been read!