Rodney McKay woke up in midair.
It took him a pathetically long and bleary few seconds to realize this--he felt like he was falling because he actually was--and then blind animal panic set in so that all he could do was flail and scream and fight the air around him as if he could crawl up the wind to safety.
The steadily accelerating beeping of the red triangle on his chest finally pulled him out of it. It sounded like one of Atlantis's systems and after nearly eight years of caring for her, almost nothing could make Rodney focus like his city in distress.
Nothing except a sharp command from John Sheppard, but he wasn't there. There was no one with him, no other sound between Rodney and the wild blast of wind except the beeping triangle on his chest, flashing red, red, red like a warning. But it was enough to drag him out of his terrified hindbrain, and at the same moment he recognized he was wearing a parachute, he remembered that he actually didn't need one.
Rodney flipped himself over, spreading out his arms and legs the way he'd watched people do on TV. It was hard to see anything with the wind in his eyes but he could make out the utilitarian tan color of two other parachutes, much lower than his, which burst open like ugly flowers in the distance. He was sure they'd opened too close to the ground to do the people attached to them much good. He hoped to hell they weren't members of his team.
There was one other person in Rodney's line of sight. They were much closer to him but also farther below, obviously dropped just moments before Rodney had been. But his streaming eyes and the bright sun made it almost impossible for Rodney to see them. Even when he threw his Shield up, Rodney could only get glimpses of a long body that was probably male, a flicker of dark hair and the occasional flail of a limb. But while Rodney had never skydived he was still a genius, and even half-blinded he could tell that was an uncontrolled fall; the person was still unconscious. And his chute wasn't opening, either.
Four drops--and that was his team, right there. That was the only conclusion. And maybe that was John, falling loose as uncoiled rope, or maybe it was Ronon, but either way if Rodney didn't do something that person was going to die.
The plummeting body who was either John or Ronon was too far away from him for Rodney to shield both the other person and himself, but he was a physics expert and observant when he had to be, so Rodney knew to slap his arms to his sides and point himself like a falcon in a dive towards the target below him. He kept his Shield up so he could see through the wind, grimacing at how the sun was so bright that it really didn't help. As he got closer he decided the man had to be John, since the hair was the right color and Ronon was larger than that. But he kept flickering in and out of Rodney's vision, like Rodney was only looking at him from the corners of his eyes.
The useless red triangle on Rodney's useless parachute was screeching at him by the time he was close enough to John to worry about catching him. Rodney had visions of his chute opening just in time to help him rip John apart, but mercifully it stayed closed when Rodney dropped his Shield and crashed into John's body. He grunted as the impact squeezed the air out of his lungs but he managed to avoid conking their heads together and was fairly certain he hadn't cracked anyone's ribs. He wrapped his arms desperately around John's torso and held on for dear life, then threw his Shield up again. They were so close together that the Shield surrounded both of them and kept Rodney's momentum from tearing him away from John as they fell. Rodney's triangle was one obnoxious blur of noise, but the triangle on John's chute remained ominously silent.
Not, Rodney realized, that he could actually see John's triangle, or his chute, or pretty much any part of him. John was definitely there--that was a solid and gratifyingly alive male Rodney held in his death grip as they tumbled downwards--but he was all but invisible, only almost there, like something glimpsed but never actually seen.
Rodney had the sickening, terrifying realization that this couldn't be John, and then one last turn dropped them into the trees. Branches whipped past as they splintered through the canopy, snapping harmlessly against his Shield until there was nothing but ground below them and Rodney clenched his eyes shut and braced for the impact he wouldn't feel--
He woke to the cheerful pop of his parachute billowing open behind him.
It wasn't nearly as lethal as shielding someone from an exploding missile, but Rodney had known that using his Gift to shield two people from a fall of several thousand feet would still be bad. The missile had nearly killed him; this just knocked him out for a few seconds. Though that was apparently long enough for the stranger he'd just saved to wake up too.
The stranger immediately shoved Rodney off him, scrambled away and then did something very fast and impressive to get to his feet. He had his gun out and pointed before Rodney could do more than blink dizzily up at him.
"Who the hell are you and what the hell did you do to me?" the now-armed stranger snarled.
"You're visible," Rodney said, which he realized a slow beat later wasn't actually the answer to either of those questions. "Um, just a minute." He didn't try to sit up because in his current condition that would be very, very bad. But Rodney always carried glucose tablets and energy bars in a couple of places on his tac vest, and if he could just find any of them...
The extremely visible stranger's mouth twitched in an aborted wince, but then he very deliberately took the safety off his gun. "I asked you a question."
"Actually, you asked me two questions," Rodney said. It was hard to be appropriately worried about the snarling and gun pointing through the heavy lethargy of a glucose crash. He fumbled at the parachute harness with fingers too thick and clumsy to open the unfamiliar clasp, then gave up and looked hopefully at his agitated companion. "Could you help me with this?"
The man glared ferociously. Not even John could glare like that. "Who are you and what did you do to me?"
Rodney rolled his eyes, which was a mistake. "Doctor Rodney McKay," he rasped out after he didn't feel quite so much like throwing up. "Astrophysics and engineering, not medicine. And I just saved your life, which I hope means you're not going to shoot me. Though it's possible you haven't noticed the extremely conspicuous parachute harness you're wearing, and how it didn't work. By the way, you're welcome."
The man blinked down at his parachute, looking like maybe he really hadn't noticed it. "Your parachute didn't work either," he said. He put the safety back on the gun, though he didn't lower it.
"No it didn't," Rodney said. He thought about trying to sit up again and decided against it. "Whoever tossed you into the air did the same thing to me. Luckily I have a Gift that makes a working parachute unnecessary. I saw you hurtling to your certain death and saved us both. Which you still haven't thanked me for, in case you've forgotten."
The man's eyes widened. "You saw me?"
"Not really," Rodney admitted. He lifted his hand to waggle his fingers near one of his eyes. "You kept...blinking in and out. I'm assuming you can make yourself invisible. Congratulations. Can you help me now, please? Or would you rather wait until I fall into a hypoglycemic coma and die?"
Rodney had never been good at reading people, but the stranger's face could flash between blank and astonishingly expressive in the same way John's did. He seemed relieved that Rodney hadn't been able to see him but inexplicably disappointed by it at the same time. Then he was showing only wary concern. "Are you seriously at risk of hypoglycemic shock?"
"Yes," Rodney said simply, too woozy for sarcasm. "I've got glucose tablets in my vest but I can't get this damn thing off." Or sit up, but that was probably self-evident.
"Just a sec," the man said, and just like that he holstered his gun. He glanced at his own defunct parachute harness, apparently understood it instinctively and undid it. He was kneeling next to Rodney and doing the same thing practically before the first parachute had hit the ground.
"Oh, thank God," Rodney groaned when the harness was finally open. "They're in there," he said, nodding at a pocket. He watched as the stranger deftly opened the pocket and pulled out a blister pack of pills and then snapped six of them into his palm.
"Is this enough?" he asked. The genuine worry on his face was kind of sweet, Rodney thought, but decided he probably shouldn't say that.
"I think so," Rodney said. Recovering from overusing a Gift wasn't an exact science, but at least six pills would be good to start.
"Good," the man said. He carefully tucked the blister pack back into Rodney's pocket and made sure the snap was closed, and then moved so he could slide his free hand under Rodney's neck and lift him. It was surprisingly gentle, especially given all the previous distrust and gun-pointing. "Can you take them yourself?"
"Yes I can," Rodney said. The stranger poured the six tablets into his palm and Rodney made sure he didn't drop any before he tilted them all into his mouth. He chewed them slowly, ignoring the miserably chalky taste. He only moved enough to help slide the parachute harness off his arms.
"If I let go, can you sit up on your own?" the man asked. He was like Ronon, Rodney thought as he nodded. Ronon could be as kind as he was dangerous too, and Rodney had no doubt whatsoever this stranger was dangerous. The practical menace of his black bulletproof vest would've been enough proof of that, even if the way he'd snapped awake ready to fight hadn't. Rodney's whole team could do that, and he knew exactly what they were capable of.
He just wished he knew where any of them were.
"I'm Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett, Hawaii 5-0 Task Force," the man said. He crouched near Rodney with his arms resting on his knees, looking around as he spoke.
"Police Task Force?" Rodney asked. The glucose seeping into his system felt fantastic, like his brain was working again. Something about the name Hawaii 5-0 Task Force itched at his memory, like there was a reason he should know it. It wasn't the invisible Lieutenant Commander though, Rodney was sure of that much. But he couldn't think of anything else.
He lifted his canteen, then remembered the many, many lectures on generosity he'd received since going to Atlantis, and offered it to McGarrett first.
McGarrett shook his head 'no' with a small smile of thanks. "Something like police, yeah. Are you military?"
Rodney shook his head then drank. Wherever they'd been dumped it was unpleasantly hot. He hoped McGarrett knew what he was doing by refusing the water. "Civilian consultant."
McGarrett nodded absently. He was still looking around them, apparently absorbing every minute detail. "This isn't Hawaii," he said with certainty. "It's similar, but it's definitely not Oahu or any of the other islands." He lowered his gaze to Rodney. "Do you have any idea where we are? Or why?"
"No," Rodney lied. He shook his head again and pretended to concentrate on recapping the canteen, because he was an awful liar and didn't want McGarrett to see his eyes.
The thing was, Rodney did have an idea where they were, and why. A very good idea. But he wasn't certain, and Rodney had learned years ago and the hardest way possible that sometimes if you didn't know for sure, it was better to say nothing. That way if you were wrong no one would get hurt.
Except right now Rodney wanted very, very badly to be wrong, because for once certainty would be far worse.
"Do you know anyone named Wo Fat?" McGarrett asked him.
"Never heard of him," Rodney said, happy that he didn't have to lie about this. "Do you work with him?"
The disgusted expression on McGarrett's face was eloquent answer to that. "No. He's an international crime lord. But if there's anyone who would abduct people and drop them into the middle of a rainforest, it would be him." McGarrett's jaw twitched. "He has the resources, and he likes elaborate schemes."
"Well, this certainly is elaborate," Rodney muttered. "But that wouldn't explain why I'm here."
"You said you're a military consultant. Maybe he's interested in something you're working on?" McGarrett continued eagerly. He'd obviously seized this idea like a terrier with a bone. It was completely wrong but Rodney had no way of telling him that without revealing everything he thought he knew. "Are you in weapons research?"
Rodney snorted out a laugh. "Sorry," he said quickly when McGarrett looked confused. "It's just that, what I'm working on is so classified that there's no way he'd know it even exists. And it's not weapons," he added, even though, yes, it was when the occasion demanded it. But he doubted that this Wo Fat guy would be interested in substandard nuclear weapons or guns that only took robots apart. Well, okay, he'd probably love Ronon's blaster. But that wasn't the point.
"All right. Maybe someone else, then. Some other reason. But who the hell would make this kind of effort? And why drop us here with everything except radios? I even have my wallet." McGarrett went quiet, thinking, and Rodney took the opportunity to get a good look at him.
McGarrett certainly looked like someone who knew what he was doing, even out in the middle of nowhere. Rodney figured his clothes were typical detective-rank cop stuff: combat boots and cargo pants and a blue tee-shirt almost as dark as the vest. His gold and blue Task Force badge was dulled by the misty grey of the humid vegetation surrounding them. McGarrett had dark brown hair, dark blue eyes and the same kind of jaw-dropping good looks as John: the kind that seemed too perfect to belong to a real human being.
Bet he has an active ATA gene, Rodney thought. The best-looking ones always did.
Rodney quickly turned his attention to a personal inventory before McGarrett noticed he'd been staring. He wasn't surprised to find out his radio was gone just like McGarrett said, but he was very surprised to discover he still had his M9 berretta sidearm and P90. The submachine gun had been carefully placed to hang at his side over the parachute harness. McGarrett must've been pretty confident he could've shot Rodney before Rodney went for it. Then again Rodney hadn't even remembered he'd had it until that moment. He also still had all the other typical off-world gear he always brought on first-contact missions. Which meant... "I don't believe it!" He snatched open his largest pocket while McGarrett watched, looking alarmed. "No, this is good," Rodney assured him, because he'd seen his hand drifting closer to his gun. "Got it!" he said as he triumphantly yanked his energy detector out and grinned as he showed it to McGarrett, who regarded it warily. "We can use this to find out if anyone else is here," Rodney explained. "It detects energy signatures and lifesigns. I'm one of a team of four, and I saw two other parachutes besides yours. If they're alive we can find them." He refused to think that they might not be.
"My team has five people," McGarrett said. His eyes widened. "You think they were taken when I was?"
"Let's find out," Rodney said with far more bravado than he actually felt. He let McGarrett pull him to his feet then studied the display on the small machine. "Bingo!" he said, grinning. "There we are." He pointed to the two lower white dots on the screen, almost overlapping. "And there are two more big life signs, that way." He pointed ahead of him.
McGarrett blinked at the machine. "You can tell those are people? How do you know they're friendly?"
Rodney grimaced. "Actually, it just shows large living things. They might be animals."
"Or people we don't know," McGarrett said, and Rodney knew what he really meant: enemies.
"Let's be optimistic, shall we?" Rodney said briskly. And he wished John were there to share the irony of him being the one to say it.
"Back there, what'd you mean about your Gift making you not need a parachute?" McGarrett asked. "Can you fly or something?"
"People only have flight Gifts in comic books," Rodney said. He didn't lift his head from the screen of the detector, following McGarrett without hitting anything through grace of long habit. He'd done this on more planets than he could count, so used to the routine of it that when McGarrett took his arm to steer him around a dense clump of plants he murmured, "thanks, John," before remembering that John was who he was trying to find.
"John's part of your team?" McGarrett asked. He walked carefully, like someone used to damp, misty, probably treacherous rainforests. Then again he'd said he was from Hawaii and Hawaii was full of them.
"One of them," Rodney said. He frowned at the little screen. He didn't like how neither of the white dots were moving. "I think--"
McGarrett slapped his hand over Rodney's mouth. "Shh. I heard something." He went completely still as he listened.
Rodney banked his annoyance at the muzzling and listened as well. There it was--someone was shouting for help, interspersed with inventive swearing. He nodded and McGarrett let him go.
"That's Danny," McGarrett said. "That's Danny!"
He took off at a run, caution apparently forgotten. Rodney glanced down at his scanner to orient himself and then chased after him.
Maybe only McGarrett's team was here. Maybe Rodney had been kidnapped and then dumped in this place all by himself. He wasn't sure if the thought made him more relieved or terrified.
Danny was loud. Following his high-volume bitching and pleas for help was as easy as tracking his white dot on the detector. McGarrett galloped into a clearing yelling, "DANNY!" with Rodney right behind and someone hollered 'UP HERE!' And there, apparently, was Danny. Dangling at least ten meters above the ground where his parachute had deposited him in a tree.
"Danny!" McGarrett called up to him, and he sounded so relieved and happy that Rodney had to punch down jealousy thick as bile in the back of his throat, because McGarrett had found his friend and Rodney was alone.
Of course, Danny was still in a tree.
McGarrett made blinders with his hands so he could look up at him, his expression ferocious again with his concentration. "Are you okay?"
"With or without the dangling from a fucking tree part?" Danny hollered back. Rodney saw McGarrett's lips flicker into a smile before redrawing thin and serious. "I'm fine, but I'd like to get down now, if it's not too much trouble!"
"I'm working on it!" McGarrett said. "Hang on!" He smirked at Danny's, 'that's really funny, Steven!' but when he turned around to Rodney his face was tight was worry. "Okay--you stay here with him. I'll go back to where we were and get the parachutes. I can probably use them to rig up a rope to lower him down. You keep him calm, okay?"
"No," Rodney said brusquely, partly because he was still out of breath. McGarrett was fast, and Rodney was still tired from shielding them both. He walked past a surprised McGarrett and took a few deep breaths so he could call up to Danny. "Hey! Can you take off your harness?"
Rodney could practically feel Danny's incredulity like he'd dropped it on his head. "Yes, I can take off my harness, and then I can fall to my death! Steven, who is this guy and please tell me that turning me into chunky salsa isn't the extent of your plan!"
"It's not!" McGarrett yelled before whirling on Rodney. "Are you crazy?" He pointed at Danny's dangling legs. "That's over thirty feet! A fall like that could kill him!"
"It could," Rodney said between pants. "But it won't. The same way a fall from much higher up didn't kill you. If he undoes his harness I can use my Gift to make sure he won't get hurt."
"How?" McGarrett demanded while Rodney gulped in more air. "You going to catch him?"
"Just tell him to undo the harness," Rodney said.
McGarrett looked at him, indecision in every worried line of his face. "You sure you can do this?"
Rodney let out a huff of frustration. "Yes. And I'm also sure that the longer we wait here arguing the longer it'll take to get to the next person on this." He waggled the detector near McGarrett's face. The white dot hadn't moved yet. Rodney hoped they were just stuck in a tree too.
McGarrett grimaced and then lifted his head to speak to Danny. "Danny, this is Doctor Rodney McKay. He has a Gift that will get you down safely, but you need to undo your harness."
"I'm not undoing my harness!" Danny yelled.
"You're not going to get hurt!" McGarrett yelled back, though he glanced at Rodney again as if for confirmation.
Rodney made a face that conveyed every iota of his impatience.
"Can't you just climb up here and get me?"
"Do it, Danny!" McGarrett barked.
"Fine! But if I die it's on your head!" Danny put his hands on the clips for the parachute harness but hesitated. His swallow was nearly audible on the ground. "You sure about this? It's a really long--"
Danny gritted his teeth and unsnapped the harness. He let out a small, desperate scream as he dropped like a stone.
And landed in an ungainly heap with a thud that sounded like it reverberated through the whole forest. As he hit the ground a golden-colored web flashed around him like filaments of lightning.
"Holy crap," Danny said. "I didn't feel a thing." He sat up slowly and looked down at himself, patting his chest and legs like he was searching for hidden injuries. "How did you do that?"
"My Gift," Rodney said. "And now I've saved both of your lives. And you're welcome," he added to McGarrett, pointedly.
"It's like a force shield," McGarrett said. "I didn't know anyone could do that."
"It's not a force shield," Rodney said. "Because this isn't Star Wars. And you didn't know anyone could do it because no one else can." Rodney would never stop loving that part, though he didn't quite have the energy for his usual glee. He took another three of the glucose pills, wondering if he should have a Powerbar or save them for later. He decided to save them; he had a bad feeling that he'd be using his Shield a lot. "My Gift is unique."
"Yeah, mine too," McGarrett said, but he didn't sound happy about it. "Come on." He held out his hand to Danny. "There's at least one other person who was abducted and dropped here. We have to find them."
"There's more?" Danny let McGarrett pull him up but let out a grunt of pain and held his ribs. "S'okay," he said quickly at McGarrett's concern. "I just pulled a muscle or something from landing in the tree. I'll be fine."
McGarrett didn't look mollified. "You sure? Maybe I should check--"
"I'm fine," Danny said. "Stop worrying. You're getting aneurysm face."
McGarrett glowered. "How's your knee?"
"That's fine too." Danny lifted his right leg as if in demonstration. "It survived better than the rest of me did."
He did look mostly fine, Rodney thought, though there were scratches on his arms and face from crashing through branches until one snagged him. It was interesting that Danny was as short and blond as McGarrett was tall and dark and he even had lighter blue eyes, like he'd been chosen purposely to make an attractive contrast. His thick hair was messy from the wind and kept falling in his eyes, and his button-down shirt was already torn everywhere his bulletproof vest didn't cover it. He was still freakishly good-looking, in a solidly compact kind of way. Maybe he had the ATA gene too. And maybe that was why he seemed vaguely familiar along with the name of his Task Force.
Not that remembering why the blond might be important would help Rodney find John or anyone else. "We're all alive. Great. Let's go," Rodney snapped to hide his worry. The white dot hadn't faded but it was still in the exact same place on the little screen.
Maybe it was John and he was clever enough to stay put, because he knew Rodney would find him. Rodney would always find him.
"It's this way," Rodney said, pointing. He started walking again.
"So, since no one seems to have brought it up yet, where the hell are we and what are we doing here? I mean, last thing I remember, Steve's kicking in a door. Then, boom! Big white light, and then next thing I know I'm plummeting through the air with a chute I don't even know how to use." Danny scooped a mass of sweat-drenched hair off his forehead and frowned. "God, I hate the heat."
"I don't know," Steve said. He absently pushed aside a branch the perfect height to whap Danny in the face, at the same time making sure he didn't lose sight of Rodney, who was walking ahead and following his unusual scanner. "But whoever dropped us here went to a lot of trouble to do it."
"No kidding," Danny snorted. "What do you mean, you don't know where we are? This is Hawaii, right? Didn't you scamper around, like, every square inch of this place growing up?"
"Yes I did," Steve said. "Which is why I know this isn't Hawaii. It's too hot to begin with. It should be at least ten degrees cooler at this time of year. And I don't recognize a lot of these plants. It's possible we're in the South Pacific."
"You think we're in the South Pacific because you don't recognize a lot of these plants," Danny repeated, deadpan. "Because naturally you know every single plant in the entire state--"
Rodney stopped dead in front of them. He looked around, then looked back at the scanner's screen, then turned in a complete circle while staring at the trees, then snapped his head up and did it again while searching the canopy crowding overhead. "I can't find him," he said, sounding frantic. "According to the scanner he should be right here. We're practically on top of him!"
"Calm down. He's not dead, right?" Steve said. Rodney nodded jerkily. "Okay, so we'll find him. We should--"
Rodney began yelling up into the trees. "John! JOHN! JOHN!"
Danny and Steve shared a look. "He seems good under pressure," Danny said.
"He's a civilian military consultant, and they gave him a P90," Steve murmured. "He can't be that bad." Though privately Steve wondered what the hell the military wanted with him. Or what kind of consultant needed a gun.
Now Rodney was circling the enormous trunk of the tree they'd stopped under. His head was tilted back as far as it could go and he'd pocketed the scanner so he could was feel his way along with his hands. Steve closed the three steps to Rodney and put his hand on his shoulder. "Look. If your scanner's right than he has to be in one of these trees. He's probably unconscious, which is why he's not answering."
"Yes, thank you, Lieutenant Commander Obvious!" Rodney whirled on Steve. "Of course he's unconscious and he's in one of these trees. This tree! Look!" He showed Steve his palm, which was smeared red. "He's up there and he's bleeding. And if I can't find him or a way to get to him that little white dot on the scanner won't just be not moving, it's going to go out!"
"I'm aware of that," Steve said, purposely using the tone that always got his team snapping to attention. "We know he's up there, right? So I'll climb up and together we can get him down, okay?"
Rodney nodded quickly. "Yes, yes. Do it."
Everyone stopped dead.
"John? John, I'm down here! Can you hear me?" Rodney bellowed. He pressed his body so close to the tree that it looked like he was trying to meld with it. "John! Are you all right?"
"I'm sure he's just peachy," Danny said.
"Are you okay?" John called.
"I'm not the one in the tree!" Rodney yelled back. "Are you hurt?"
"I'll be fine," John called. His voice was weak but he sounded hurt, not like he was dying. Steve thought Rodney could tell that too because he relaxed slightly. "I'm just kind of tangled up."
"You're bleeding!" Rodney hollered.
"Just a little bit."
"Oh my God, he's sliced an artery," Rodney muttered. To John he yelled, "Can you get out of your harness? If you drop I'll shield you!"
"No. I can't move that much. Sorry."
"That's all right!" Rodney said with desperate cheer. "I have a...colleague here who's going to climb up and get you."
"Ronon? Teyla?" John said the odd-sounding names with so much hope that Steve winced.
"My name's Steve!" Steve yelled up at him. "Hang on. I'm coming to get you!"
"I'll be here," John said.
Steve wiped his hands on his pants then rubbed them together as he started circling the tree. "I need a boost," he said to Danny.
"What's with you and telling everyone to hang on? He's in a tree," Danny grumbled as he obediently came over to where Steve was. But he made a face when he looked up at the branch Steve had chosen. "Uh, I don't think I can get you up that high."
"I can help," Rodney said. He impatiently shoved his P90 aside and made a basket of his hands. "Come on--he hasn't got all day!"
Steve had known Danny would be too short to get him right up to the branch, so he'd planned to find footholds in the bark of the trunk. Rodney didn't look formidable enough to lift him, but Steve knew better than to waste time arguing.
He put one foot squarely into Rodney's linked hands and pushed himself up with his other leg as Rodney lifted, until Steve was just able to touch the branch with his fingertips. Danny grabbed his other foot and together he and Rodney were able to heave him high enough to get a firm grip on the branch.
Apparently there was more strength than it appeared under Rodney's shapeless grey tee-shirt and bulging tac vest. Steve had underestimated him. He wondered how often that happened.
Steve swung his legs up and hooked his ankles around the branch so he was hanging like a sloth, then clambered onto the top of the branch and used the bark of the trunk to stand. He reached for the next branch and started climbing.
Working with his body like this was easy, so automatic that he could let his mind wander as he moved. It was likely they were in the South Pacific, somewhere closer to the Equator, because he couldn't think of anywhere else that fit this kind of heat and vegetation. That was one problem solved--more or less--but that didn't explain why or how the four of them had been brought here, let alone thrown out of a plane with lousy parachutes. It was as if their abductors didn't care if they died, which made no sense given the work that must've gone into getting them here in the first place.
None of it made any sense and he was getting nowhere trying to understand it, so Steve purposely put it aside for now. Maybe once John was safe the four of them could figure it out. And maybe Rodney could find the nearest road or something with that scanner of his.
"How're you doing?" Danny yelled up to him. "I can't see you anymore!"
"I'm fine," Steve answered him, smirking to himself. And Danny thought Steve was impatient.
"He needs his breath to climb!" Steve heard Rodney admonishing Danny, and then Rodney yelled loudly up into the tree, "Are you still okay, John?"
"Yes! Relax, Rodney," John called back.
"He needs his breath to breathe," Danny said.
Rodney, Steve decided as he pulled himself to the next highest branch and then the next, was easy to underestimate. Rodney's eyes were striking, blue and keen as his obvious intelligence, but his hair was mousy and his default expression seemed to be irritated, with one corner of his mouth constantly pulled down. And he wasn't exactly warm and cuddly, except for the lifesaving part. Steve smiled wryly as he found another foothold and pulled himself higher into the tree. Normally he would've thanked someone immediately for saving his life, but he'd been distracted, and then annoying Rodney had turned out to be kind of fun, just like with Danny. It helped make this whole incomprehensible situation a little easier to deal with.
Rodney reminded Steve a lot of Danny, actually. They both liked sarcasm and talked with their hands. Maybe that was why he'd been so ready to trust him back in the clearing, when he'd woken up and had no idea what was going on.
Not that Steve had more of an idea now, but at least climbing a tree to rescue someone was something he could do.
John was up much higher than Danny had been. He must've been caught just about as soon as he hit the canopy, because Steve could tell he'd already climbed about thirty feet and John was nowhere in sight. He stopped to sit on a branch and rest for a moment, licking the sweat off his lips and thinking that when they got down he'd have to take Rodney up on the offer of his canteen. He was used to this kind of climate so he hadn't wanted Rodney to dehydrate on his behalf, but he'd be in trouble if he didn't drink soon.
"John!" he called into the thick tangle of branches. "John, can you hear me?"
"Still here," John responded. It was easier to hear him now but he still sounded like he was farther up. His voice was tired but he seemed to be breathing all right. "Is Rodney really okay?"
"He's fine, don't worry. Not a scratch," Steve said, smiling a little. John was beginning to remind him of himself.
"Good. Thanks," John said. "You're Steve?"
"Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett," Steve said. He pulled himself back to his feet, looking around for his next handhold.
"Commander, huh? You a Navy man?"
Steve grinned as he pulled himself up to the next branch. "I'm a SEAL."
"Cool," John said. He sounded like he was trying to work up the energy to be impressed. "I'm Colonel John Sheppard, USAF."
Steve's eyes went wide. "Sir! I'm sorry sir. I thought you were a civilian."
He could hear John's--Colonel Sheppard's--bloodless smirk. "You're getting me out of a tree, Commander. I think we can use first names."
"Thank you. And it's Steve, then." He clambered onto the next branch.
"Great," John said. "So, Steve, I didn't know the SGC was recruiting you guys."
"Sorry, what was that?" The branches were thinner this high up and Steve had to concentrate harder to make sure the foot- and handholds could support his weight. "SGC?"
"Stargate Command. You're part of an extraction team, right?"
Steve went still, trying to figure out why John was speaking as if 'Stargate Command' was something real that made perfect sense. "Is that an op?"
The silence that followed felt distinctly uncomfortable. "Well, this is awkward," John said. "So, I guess that means you're not here to take me and Rodney back to Earth."
Steve almost missed the next branch. "Maybe you should rest, sir. I'll be there soon." John was delirious, which meant he was in worse shape than they'd thought. Steve started climbing faster.
"I know how it sounds," John said, "but believe me. I've had nothing to do for the last hour or so but look up at the sky, and we're definitely not in the Milky Way anymore."
"Sure," Steve said. He glanced up but all he could see through the canopy was slivers of punishing blue. Earth blue.
"The sun hasn't moved either," John added.
"I'll take your word for it." Steve grunted as he heaved himself over another branch. Down on the forest floor, the foliage above him had been too thick to afford more than a watery glimpse of sunlight, but there was no way that what John was saying could be true. "It's getting harder to climb. I'm going to have to stop talking for awhile." The smaller branches had twigs that were more like thorns; Steve was getting a good idea of where John's blood had come from. "You really should rest anyway."
"Right," John said. Steve couldn't tell if his sigh was weary or exasperated. "Take care."
"See you soon," Steve said, trying to decide where to put his hand. He was getting tired, the heat and the effort taking their toll on him. No one was watching, so it didn't matter if they could see him or not, and he could use every scrap of energy.
He let himself fade out.
That's what Steve called it: fading. Technically, it was more like camouflage or even an organic form of stealth, because he didn't change but everyone else's ability to perceive him did. But to Steve it had always been like fading away. He'd stop holding his Gift in and he'd disappear.
Back in training, before he'd managed to achieve the name 'Smooth Dog', they'd called him 'Woodwork', because he literally faded into the background if he didn't concentrate on not doing it. But by then he'd already learned to make himself the best in everything, because if he wasn't the star quarterback, the A student, the squad leader, if he didn't have a reason to be looked at, he'd disappear. He became a SEAL because only the best passed the training, and as long as Steve was the best he was there. People could see and hear him. No one would send him away. No one would abandon him again if he could be seen.
Steve had no problem seeing and hearing his own body as he climbed, but he knew that John couldn't hear him, and he'd only see the moving branches or maybe a flicker of a humanoid shape, like a glimpse out of the corner of his eye.
Speaking of humanoid shapes... Steve pulled his Gift back in. "John, John it's me, Steve. I'm right underneath you. Whoa."
John hadn't been kidding about being unable to move. It looked like he'd fallen almost directly into the middle of the tree, breaking through the branches until his parachute had finally caught somewhere above him. He'd been snagged in a bramble nest of thorny twigs that had pierced through the thin material of his black tee-shirt and the thinner material of his skin and tangled in his thick black hair. Larger thorns had stabbed through the legs of his pants, and one the size of a dinner knife was sticking into John's side though the cloth of his tac vest. His P90 was caught by its twisted sling, dangling forlornly just out of John's reach.
John had protected his face by turning sideways as he fell, but his forearms looked like he'd been rolling in barbed wire. Actually, most of him did. Nearly all the thorn wounds looked superficial except the one in his side, but John was dotted and streaked with blood. Only his nearly-shredded parachute had kept him from being fatally stabbed by the larger thorns.
"That's pretty much what I said," John said. Steve was amazed he could find any humor in this. "Thanks, by the way, for coming all the way up here."
"Yeah, well, Rodney was freaking out," Steve said as he gingerly pulled himself nearer. "Hello, sir," he said when he was finally close enough to John to look down at his thorn-caged face. John was younger than Steve had thought he'd be, for his rank. Early forties, maybe. "Wish I had a hacksaw."
"Me too," John said. He took a shallow breath that made his mouth twitch in pain as the thorns dug a little deeper. "I've been trying to reach my field knife, but I got worried about putting my eyes out."
"Understandable," Steve murmured. He made himself smile. "Luckily I have one of my own." He pulled his knife from the small sheath on his belt, his mouth twisting unhappily. "Might not be big enough for some of these."
"Just do your best," John said, like Steve was the one who needed the encouragement.
"Yeah," Steve said softly. He stood on a branch that put John's head level with his chest, and tried to figure out which thorn to cut first. There had to be hundreds, piercing John everywhere, and Steve had the sinking realization that freeing him one thorn at a time could take hours, if Steve could even do it at all.
"Wait," John said, right as Steve chose a thorn at random near his face. Steve hesitated. "Look up at the sky."
"I'll do it once you're free."
Steve sighed and glanced up at the sky. And froze, staring.
There was another planet above them, so large and so near it was like Steve could reach up and touch it. It looked like Saturn with two sets of majestic rings, but Saturn wasn't close enough to see the planet clearly with the naked eye, let alone the striations on its surface. Not from anywhere in the South Pacific; not from anywhere on Earth.
There were too many moons as well, and what was probably another planet far too bright and too close, but Steve couldn't stop looking at the largest one. It felt like if he didn't hold onto the tree branch he'd fall up, sucked into its gravity like a pin to a magnet.
"That can't be real," he said, and his voice sounded as shredded as he felt: everything he'd known had just ripped to pieces around him. "That can't...how?" He wrenched his eyes away from the impossibility swirling above him, looking desperately at John. "How? How can this not be Earth? Where are we? What--" He had to stop talking, suddenly too gut-sick to do more than stand there with his eyes shut tight and breathe, gripping the branch above him like it was his last tie to anything real.
He didn't know where he was. He was lost so far from home that he couldn't get back. He didn't know how to get back, and Danny was here and he'd never get home, never see his daughter...
"Steve! Steven, I need you to look at me. Look at me, Commander. Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir," Steve forced his eyes open, compelled by his training and the command in the Colonel's voice. John was staring up at him. He was still trapped, still bloody, but his flint-dark green eyes were intent and focused in a face grayed by pain.
"We're going to be okay, Steven," John said. "I know this seems impossible and you're scared, but you need to believe me. We're going to get off this planet and get back to Earth and we're going to be fine. McKay's down there and if there's anyone in the universe who can get us home, it's him. But you need to trust him and you need to believe me when I tell you that we're going to be all right."
"Yes, sir," Steve said faintly. He took a deep breath, then another one, feeling embarrassed now that the wave of panic was receding. "Sorry, sir. I..." He aimed for a smile and missed. "I just...It's hard to take in."
"I know what you mean," John said. "Don't worry about it. I felt pretty much the same way when it first happened to me."
"Thanks," Steve said. He felt a lot calmer now, back in control. He still had no idea how they were going to get home, but John had said they would and he was so certain of it that Steve couldn't help but believe him.
"No problem," John said on a breath.
Steve nodded then frowned as he looked at all the thorns pinning John. He'd been gripping his knife so tightly that his fingers had gone numb, so he held the blade between his teeth while he worked feeling back into his hand.
"I don't think you can cut me out of this," John said.
"Yeah, me neither," Steve said when he was able to spit out the knife. He looked around at the area John was trapped in, studying the layout of the branches. Then he looked down at the ground so far below them that Danny and Rodney seemed like dolls, both of them craning their necks to look up into the tree.
"Rodney!" He yelled to him. "You alive down there?"
"What?" Rodney demanded. "Is John all right?"
John rolled his eyes and Steve smiled a little before he called back. "John's okay!" Now that he could actually see the situation he knew that was a lie, but Steve also knew Rodney well enough already to be certain the truth would go over very, very badly. "And I know how to get him down." John arched an eyebrow at that and Steve gave him a quick nod. "But it might happen suddenly, so you need to be ready."
"All right." Rodney's nervousness carried all the way up through the branches, but Steve could see him moving further back and crouching a little, as if he was really planning on physically catching them. His hands curled into tight fists at his sides.
"What's the plan?" John asked, and he sounded a little nervous too.
Steve sheathed his knife then crouched on the branch he was standing on, moving very, very carefully. "I'm betting that our combined weight will be enough to break through these branches trapping you, but I have to get your parachute off to do that. And I don't want you to get stabbed on the way down." He carefully took hold of the largest thorn, not moving it. It was the one half-buried in John's side. It was slick and bright red with blood. "This is probably going to hurt."
"I know. Do it."
Steve nodded, then gripped the thorn tightly and pulled. It came out more easily than Steve had feared, but John groaned in pain. More blood leaked out of the hole now that nothing was stopping it, but not enough to make Steve worry.
The other, smaller thorns attached to the branch came out of John as well as Steve bent it downwards. John hissed and grimaced but stayed perfectly still, letting him work. The branch was too supple to break, but Steve was able to bend it enough to hook it around another branch to hold it out of the way. That still left more than enough to make things unpleasant, but it wouldn't be nearly as bad to break through those other branches as the first, larger one would have been. "You all right?"
John was panting and paler than before, but he gave Steve a terse nod.
"Okay. Now I'm going to cut through the parachute so you'll probably fall deeper into the branches trapping you. You should cover your eyes."
John did, pressing his bleeding hands over his face.
Steve straightened as carefully as he'd lowered himself, then held on to a higher branch and studied the parachute harness. John was on his side, so just cutting through the chest band wouldn't do very much. Steve's best bet would be to cut the straps to the parachute cords one at a time. He licked his lips, thinking of his small knife and wishing there was a way to do it faster. Then he remembered John's P90, and smiled.
"I'm going to shoot through the straps," he explained as he slowly wrapped his hand around the one clear area of the gun's barrel. He got a few scrapes but pulling a gun free was a lot easier than a human being. The sling attaching it to John's tac vest was just long enough to let Steve aim it with one hand. "Ready?"
"Ready," John rasped, muffled through his palms.
"Rodney, get ready!" Steve yelled, and pulled the trigger.
The brown straps split like paper under the short burst of submachine gun fire and instantly John dropped, crying out as more thorns stabbed into him. And then he kept going. Without the parachute lifting him up the branches bent gracefully under his weight and John fell straight through them.
Before Steve had a chance to let go of the P90.
He swore violently as he was yanked completely off balance. He tumbled after John, finally dropping the gun in time to throw his arms over his face to keep from being blinded as the thorns scraped and pierced his clothes and skin. And then he was in open air and the ground--
Didn't hurt at all.
Steve rocketed upright, terrified that he'd broken his fall on John's body, but John was alive and uncrushed on the ground next to him.
"Steve!" Danny shouted in a mix of happiness and alarm, just as Rodney shouted 'John!' in exactly the same way. Both men rushed over. Danny dropped to his knees hard enough to make Steve wince and started patting him down for injuries. "That was incredible! He shielded you both, one right after the other!" He snapped his fingers twice. "Bam, bam! Just like that--I didn't think anyone could think that fast! Are you okay? Jesus! You look like you pissed off a porcupine! What happened to you?"
"I'm fine, Danny. The branches were spiky, that's all. Just a few scrapes." Steve gently pushed Danny's hands away then turned to John, who was now sitting up and leaning on the tree trunk, helping Rodney take off the harness. "He's been stabbed several times, but the worst one's here," he said to Rodney, then pulled up the hem of John's tee-shirt to expose the wound. He hissed in a breath when he saw the amount of blood, then looked at Rodney, worried. "I didn't think it was that deep."
"Oh my God," Rodney breathed, then fumbled at one of the larger pockets on his tac vest and yanked it open. He took out a bandage roll, ripped off the package covering it and slapped the large gauze pad over the stab wound so hard that John jumped.
"You're bleeding to death," Rodney snapped. "Shut up."
"Rodney, I'm fine," John said, though he sounded much more fond than annoyed and he put up with Rodney's fussing over the bandage with a small, tired smile. Then Rodney started tying it and John grimaced. "Not so tight--you're going to slice me in half!"
"Bleeding to death, remember?" Rodney said, but he let some slack out though his fingers and John exhaled in relief.
Steve held the gauze in place, quietly making sure the bandage was loose enough.
"Aren't you a doctor?" Danny said to Rodney. He looked at Steve. "You said he was a doctor, right? Shouldn't he be better at this stuff?"
"I'm not that kind of doctor. I practice science." Rodney said it like Danny had offended him.
"Rodney's an astrophysicist," John explained. "The best anywhere."
"Yes I am," Rodney said matter-of-factly. He gave the bandage one last check and straightened, rubbing his lower back. "Lucky for you."
John smirked. "Yes, Rodney," he said, long-suffering. But then he smiled at him, and Rodney grinned back, and there was such a wealth of understanding there; such an obvious length of history and depth of friendship between them, that Steve dropped his eyes and looked away, feeling like an intruder on something intimate and precious. This was nowhere he belonged.
His eyes caught Danny, who'd been watching them as well. Danny's smile was wistful, like that was something he wanted, too. Missing his ex-wife, probably.
Steve shook his head, physically tossing away the maudlin thoughts. His friendship with Danny was still new, but it was deep, just like with the rest of his team. It was enough.
He turned around so that he was leaning against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. The bark was no cooler than anything else in the rainforest, but it was damp enough to offer slight relief from the heat. Steve was hot and tired from the climb and he felt safe enough to rest for a moment. His skin itched where the tree thorns had scraped him but that wasn't difficult to ignore. He imagined that he was on the beach outside his house, turning the quiet conversation around him into the languid whisper of the waves.
"Hey, hey, Steve," Danny said, gently shaking him.
Steve's eyes flew open. "What?" His voice creaked and he had to swallow a few times to get enough saliva to speak properly. His throat was so dry it burned.
"Nothing, everything's fine," Danny said quickly. "It's just that you need to drink something."
"Oh," Steve said, feeling foolish. He wiped his dry mouth with the back of his hand. John was staring at him.
"You disappeared," he said, nonplussed. "Do you always disappear when you fall asleep?"
"I feel asleep?" Steve winced. "Sorry."
"Yes he does," Danny supplied. "And also when he's really hurt or unconscious, which makes my job just that much more fun and exciting, playing find-the-SEAL-before-he-dies."
"That happened once." Steve scowled. "One time. And I was only out for a minute!"
"Yeah, dangling off the edge of a cliff--!"
"Okay, kids, that's enough. Save it 'til recess," John said. He held his canteen out to Steve. "Here. I tried not to get blood in it."
Steve didn't want to take John's water, but he knew that if he didn't drink soon he wouldn't be able to function. He nodded his thanks as he took the canteen and drank as much as he dared. The water was warm and tasted stale, but it was hard not to just tilt his head back and finish all of it. They needed to find a source of clean water soon or they weren't going to survive.
He wordlessly offered the canteen to Danny, but Danny waved him off, shaking his head.
"I'm good, thanks." He nodded at Rodney. "He's got Powerbars and glucose tablets, if you want any."
"Later," Steve said. He had a blister pack of glucose tablets in one of his cargo pockets, though he hadn't exactly expected to be trekking through the wilderness on another planet when he'd gone to work that morning. But he wasn't going to start using up anyone's supplies until he really needed to.
"Your Gift's quite unusual, by the way," Rodney said, as if Steve didn't know that. Rodney unwrapped one of his Powerbars and took a huge bite. "Chameleon Gifts are relatively common," he said around the mouthful, "but I'm pretty sure you have the only one that's autonomic."
"We work with a few people who have autonomic Gifts," John added, as if he could tell that his Gift was one of the last things Steve wanted to talk about. He grinned. "There's one guy, everyone calls him 'Sparky' because he makes little multicolored lights." John moved his hand in front of his torso, wiggling his fingers like they were tiny sparkles. "Most of the time he looks like a human Christmas tree."
Danny chuckled. "That's crazy." He gestured between him and Steve. "One of our teammates--Kono--she has the most incredible balance. Like, dancing on the head of a pin type stuff. I've seen her walk on windowsills too narrow for a cat." His smile faded as he looked at Steve. "Think they're freaking out that we're gone? Or that they even know what happened to us?"
Steve nodded, glancing at John. "I'm sure they know by now that we've been abducted."
"Do you have a Gift?" John asked Danny, probably to distract him, Steve guessed, since it was obvious Danny didn't know they weren't on Earth. Steve didn't want to have to bring that up anytime soon, either. "I'm Colonel John Sheppard, by the way. United States Air Force." He wiped his hand on his pants and held it out.
"Detective Danny Williams, Hawaii 5-0 Task Force," Danny said, reaching across Steve to shake John's hand. "Pleased to meet you in the middle of the fucking jungle. And yes, I do have a Gift. And no, I'm not going to demonstrate."
Steve smirked as he rolled his eyes. "It's a rainforest, Danny. And you do not have a Gift. Come on, that's getting old."
"Just because I don't use my Gift to torment my co-workers doesn't mean I don't have one, Steven," Danny said. "I've told you--I use my Gift for survival, not for fun."
"Because you don't have one," Steve said with finality. "If you did, you'd use it."
"I have used it," Danny snapped. "That's why I try like hell to never have to! It's too dangerous. What?" he demanded, because Rodney was staring at him like Danny was the one who'd disappeared.
"Danny Williams? You're Daniel Williams?" Rodney asked. And then to Steve's shock Rodney actually stood up and backed away from him.
Steve looked at Rodney and then at Danny again. "What?"
"Danny's not kidding," Rodney said. "He does have a Gift and it's extremely dangerous." Rodney brightened a little. "I knew there was a reason you and the whole 5-0 thing was familiar!"
"Come on," Steve said. He was still looking back and forth from Rodney to Danny, waiting for someone to crack a smile. "This is some kind of joke, right?"
"It's no joke, Steven." Danny just sounded sad. He tilted his head to look up at Rodney. "But I don't get how you know about it."
"He stalks Gifted people," John said. "It's his hobby."
"Now that's getting old," Rodney said to John, annoyed. He turned back to Danny. "I work for an international organization in a particular research area that tends to involve a large number of Gifted people." It sounded like a sales' pitch he'd memorized. "One reason for this is that Gifts can be exceptionally useful for what we do--like mine--"
"Naturally," John said dryly.
Rodney spared him a brief glower before continuing. "The other reason is that people with Gifts always have a particular gene that, if active, allows them to use certain kinds of vitally important technology. Like this." He yanked his scanner out of its tac vest pocket.
John straightened up, looking wary. "Rodney..."
"It's not like they won't know soon anyway, John," Rodney said without looking at him. "And we don't exactly have any non-disclosure agreements out here, so we'll just have to improvise. Here." He tossed the scanner to Steve, who automatically caught it.
It went dead as soon as it hit his hands.
Steve looked at the tiny screen then back at Rodney. "What happened? Did it just turn off?"
"Something like that," Rodney said. He looked disappointed, and Steve couldn't stop the tiny stab of shame, like he'd failed at something important he should have been able to do.
"This is why we can't have nice things," Danny said. He grabbed the scanner out of Steve's hands and it immediately burst into life, beeping excitedly like it was happy to meet him. "Hey, cool." He smiled smugly at Steve. "Guess it likes me better." He looked at the screen, forehead creasing in confusion. "What are all these white dots?"
"What?" John bolted to his feet. He held his hand out. "Give it to me."
Steve got up too.
Danny handed it over, standing as well. "White dots mean something bad?"
"Not necessarily," John said, in a voice that implied very strongly that yes they did. John moved closer to Rodney so they could both see the screen, but he spoke to all of them. "Six of them, coming towards us. Fast."
"They could be other people," Rodney said, but it was obvious he doubted it.
"They're not," John said. He shoved the scanner back at Rodney and lifted his P90. He glanced at Steve and Danny. "You guys armed?"
"Yes, sir." Steve nodded.
"Yep," Danny said grimly. He and Steve lifted their handguns.
Rodney jammed his scanner back into its pocket and raised his P90 too, looking frightened but determined and like he knew what he was doing.
"Keep your backs to the tree," John said. Steve knew that and he was sure Danny knew that, but they both nodded and made certain they were too close to the huge trunk for anything to sneak up behind them.
"They'll be here any second," Rodney said, hushed.
John adjusted his grip.
And now Steve could hear them: the rapid thudding of feet moving fast over the ground, the crackle of crushed vegetation, and the growls.
And then six animals burst out of the trees in front of them, animals like nothing Steve had ever seen.
He heard Danny's gasp of shock and then everyone started firing.
Amazing the stupid crap that went through your mind when you were about to die, Danny thought.
Like how loud the fucking beeping was from Rodney's fucking scanner, which he'd thought was so awesome until all those white dots of death appeared on it like he'd conjured them. Or how John looked like a blood-streaked version of what Steve would be in about ten years, with the grey flecks in his hair and the laugh lines and the more mature but still incredibly handsome face. Or how Danny would probably look like Rodney. Only shorter.
If any of them lived that long, which suddenly seemed a hell of a lot less fucking likely when six creatures that looked like they'd come slobbering out of a horror movie ran at them.
The dogs--okay, they weren't dogs, but Jesus fuck there was nothing else he could think of that fit--looked like hairless wolfhounds. Wolfhounds with ugly, lean skulls and mean little eyes. And spikes. Spikes like God-damned dinosaurs jutting out of their shoulders and necks and foreheads.
Danny was pretty sure he was screaming as he fired his tiny and pathetically useless gun again and again and again at the damn things and he really didn't give a shit. If monster demon dogs from hell weren't worth screaming for than nothing else could possibly be ever, and he'd got off six shots and he knew he'd hit one of the fuckers twice in the head and another one in its meaty avalanche of a shoulder but they were still coming like he'd been gleeking spitballs. And then one of them leapt at him and he didn't even know where he could put his hands to keep its horns out of his throat and then it hit a flash of webbed gold and bounced off like a mutt hitting a patio door.
Rodney's Shield, saving him again, but Danny couldn't even take a second to say thanks because just then his stupid fucking idiot of a Navy SEAL asshole partner kicked the dog in the face. In order, apparently, to make himself the most funnest target, because then Steve yelled, "DANNY, RUN!" like he wasn't about to get gored by two dogs at once.
Danny didn't have enough breath or time to give him a hearty 'fuck you' in exchange, because exactly like he'd predicted the dog that Steve had kicked swung its raptor snout around and reared up apparently so it could gore him, and before he even thought about it Danny shoved the barrel of his gun into one of its beady little demon eyeballs and fired.
That dog actually died. Score one for Jersey. But there were still two of them left and Danny got a glimpse of dog one using its deceased pal as a springboard to try to eat Steve's face. Then dog two barreled into Danny like a rabid linebacker and hit so hard that he went on a short flight and landed flat on his back with his very own face-full of snarling raptor-head hellhound.
His gun was gone, knocked out of his hand like the air out of his lungs when the dog tackled him. Danny grabbed two of the dog's head horns and tried to use them to push the animal away from him, but he had no leverage and the damn thing was as strong as he was and his arms were already shaking.
So he stopped trying to push. Instead he let go with one hand, slapped his palm over the hideous lizard muzzle of the thing, and set it on fire.
And it hurt, okay; it hurt worse than Danny remembered. Much worse. But he held on and held on while the fire danced around his fingers and the dog thing bucked and screamed like a cat tied to a firecracker as its head burned. Its body slid off Danny onto the ground and shook wildly as the smoke billowed and then all of it was on fire, even the horns. Danny let go and twisted away to put out his burning hands between his Kevlar and the damp earth. He heard the creature screaming louder and louder until it finally stopped.
While he lay there he thought he heard a long, low sound, like a horn.
Danny used his elbows to get back up to his knees. His vest was scorched where he'd lain on top of his hands, but he didn't want to look at his hands just yet. His arms were killing him from his wrists to his knuckles, but from the knuckles down he couldn't feel anything at all. He knew that was a very bad sign.
Danny heaved one leg up then the other, trying to stand. His knee twinged nastily but it was nothing compared to his hands.
He heard Steve calling him as he finally made it all the way to his feet. Danny tried to say something like 'I'm all right', but he couldn't seem to talk and turn towards his friend and keep his balance at the same time and his legs gave out and he collapsed back to kneel in the circle of blackened earth.
The dog he'd killed was a few feet away. What was left of it was still burning and smelled like rancid overcooked meat. It hit Danny like a baseball bat in his stomach and he leaned forward and vomited barely-digested Powerbar and the few sips of water he'd had between his knees. So much for his unbroken non-puking streak. Fucking hell dogs.
"Danny! Danny, what happened?" Steve was kneeling right in front of him, probably burning his knees in the ash or getting Powerbar goob on his pants. There were thick, bloody streaks on both Steve's arms and splashed all down his vest. Danny really hoped it belonged to the dogs. John and Rodney were standing right behind Steve and looking unnervingly freaked out.
"Told you I had a Gift," Danny rasped. His attempt at a smirk sounded like a sad, pained whine.
Steve took Danny's nearest arm, keeping his hands above his wrist. He gently turned it palm up and sucked in a breath, then looked up at Danny again. "Oh my God, Danny."
Danny swallowed. "It heals pretty fast," he said. His voice sounded as brittle as the baked dog.
"Those are second and third-degree burns," Steve said. "And they're deep." He looked at John over his shoulder. "We've got to cool the skin down or it's just going to keep burning."
"We don't have anything," John said. "And we can't wait here. I'm sorry, but we need to move fast. We have to leave."
"I know," Steve said. He sounded like each word cost him a lung. He turned back to Danny. "Can you walk?"
Danny nodded, but as soon as he collected his legs under him and tried to stand he swayed and would've toppled sideways if Steve hadn't grabbed him.
"Wait! Here! This will help." Rodney jogged closer and snapped at least half a pack of glucose tablets into his palm, then thrust them at Steve along with his canteen. Rodney looked fine, except for how a dog had exploded on him. Danny wondered what the hell was up with that.
"Hurry up," John ordered. He had his P90 up and aimed, trying to cover every direction at once. There was fresh blood on his arm running from his elbow to the side of his hand, and the gauze pad Rodney had tied around his waist was dark red in the center.
The look Steve lobbed John was pure poison, but Steve didn't say anything, probably too busy trying to get the handful of glucose pills into Danny's mouth.
"Don't. Don't. I'll throw up," Danny said, though the idea of puking again was preferable to Steve feeding him like he was some fucking baby bird. He tried to push Steve away but just touching his seared hands to anything made him cry out like the dog.
Steve reared backwards, trying to support Danny without actually touching him anywhere below his neck. "Oh God, Danny. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Danny would've liked to give him an earful for his general Neanderthal ways but he didn't have enough air to spend on words. He held his hands curled like shriveled crabs against his chest, tucking his body around them like he could stop them hurting with sheer force of will. It wasn't working. Most of his hands were numb, but the parts he could feel throbbed in agony with every single pulse of scalded blood, and he knew he was making humiliating sick kitten noises but he couldn't stop and still keep his stomach behind his teeth.
"Danny. Danny, listen. Listen to me." John's voice was calm but there was still a soft ring of command that made Danny lift his head and blink blearily at him, eyes watery with pain.
"That's it," John said. He crouched near enough to Danny to make it easy to see him. "I need to talk to you, Danny. All right?"
Danny nodded. His neck felt like a rusty hinge.
Steve was watching John with his jaw clenched and expression steadily darkening like a gathering storm. His hand on Danny's shoulder was so gentle he was barely touching him, but he'd clenched his other hand so hard he'd probably crushed all the pills he was holding to dust.
"Great." John smiled at Danny like Steve wasn't even there. John had a nice smile, very friendly. "I know you're in a lot of pain right now, but your hands are fine. You're not even that badly hurt."
Steve actually bared his teeth at that, but he didn't say anything and John ignored him.
Danny managed a noise that expressed his disbelief, but John just smiled wider. "I know it looks bad, but if you think about it, you weren't touching the dog that long, were you?"
Danny shook his head. He couldn't really remember. It sure as hell seemed long enough to charbroil everything from the wrists down, but maybe John was right.
"I can't feel my fingers," he said.
John's smile froze, but then he was grinning again like that was excellent news. "That's because the fire hardly touched you. Yeah, your hands got burned, but it's nothing, is it? I'm sure they barely even hurt anymore."
He was right; they barely did. Danny slowly unclenched his hands, letting out a breath that seemed to take every muscle in his body with it. He sagged against Steve, laughing, stupid with relief at the beautiful, beautiful lack of pain. "Thank you," he said to John, because he'd been so sure his hands were going to drop off until he'd told him they were actually mostly okay.
John gave him a nod and another smile, but this one was tight and worn around the edges.
"Here, you need to take these," Steve said, still with the damn pills. But this time Danny just opened his mouth and let Steve give them to him because he was too happy to care.
"Give him these too, for the swelling," Rodney said to Steve, and then a moment later Danny had three tablets in his mouth that were even more disgustingly bitter than the glucose.
"It's Tylenol. Don't spit it out," Steve said, then held Rodney's canteen to Danny's mouth so he could swallow the damn things. He didn't realize until the metal lip of the canteen clattered against his teeth that Steve's hands were shaking.
"Are you done? Great, let's go." John swung his P90 to his back, all angry Colonel again. He and Steve had a lot in common. "Can you walk if Steve and I help you?"
"Sure." Danny nodded vigorously. He could probably walk by himself. He felt fine.
"I can take him," Steve said to John.
"What?" Danny asked him, because Steve's words were more-or-less polite, but the tone was completely touch him and die, and that made absolutely no sense. It wasn't like John had done anything.
Naturally, Steve didn't answer him. He just handed the canteen back to a worried, hovering Rodney and then shuffled around so he was next to Danny. Then he ducked and very, very carefully put Danny's closer arm across his shoulders. "Ready?" Danny nodded and Steve heaved up like a crane and everything went tilt-a-whirl for a second, but Danny stayed upright and he didn't puke again so he figured that was a win.
John stood as well, more slowly and favoring his side, then stood with his eyes closed and his hands on his temples like he was dizzy. Rodney quietly came over and handed him an unwraped Powerbar. John took it with a tiny, uncomfortable smile.
"Are you all right?" Rodney asked him, hushed, like Danny and Steve weren't meant to hear.
"I'm fine," John said. He took a bite of the Powerbar and started walking, chewing mechanically. "I'll take point," he said to Steve. "You stay behind me with Danny. Rodney, watch our six. We need to get to higher ground."
"Wouldn't you be better watching our six than the nervous civilian consultant?" Danny asked Steve.
"He can shield us. I'm not leaving you," Steve said, and he glared at John's back as he followed him like he wanted to drill a hole through his spine.
Danny sighed. No point in arguing when Steve got like this, though he couldn't figure out the hate-on he suddenly had for John. John was a nice guy. "Can someone tell me what the fuck those things were? And are they dead? They're all dead, right? They're not following us."
"Hunting hounds," John said grimly over his shoulder. "Yeah, we killed them." He didn't sound like he was happy about it.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. Did you just say hunting hounds? I heard that?" Danny stopped walking and got dragged a step before Steve noticed and slowed down. It made Danny's forearm slide in Steve's grip and Danny hissed in pain. The burns might be hurting a hell of a lot less now but that didn't mean touching them wasn't a bitch.
"Sorry," Steve said quickly to Danny. "Something called them." He sounded about as thrilled by it as John was. "They must know by now none of the animals are coming back."
"Hunting hounds..." Danny repeated, blinking. Then he turned his head towards Steve so quickly that he whapped his face on his shoulder. "Are you trying to tell me that those mutant hell-dogs were flushing us out? Jesus Christ." The thought would've stopped him walking again except he wanted to avoid more dragging. "Is this some kind of experiment? Were we kidnapped to be walking happy meals for these things?" Danny's heart started lurching along like the rest of him. "Fuck, what if there's more of them? Or, wait--you said something was calling them?" That was exactly what Steve said, Danny realized. He wasn't being so quick on the uptake. "Something worse?"
"There's nothing worse, don't worry," Rodney said from behind them, in exactly the kind of voice that Danny used with Grace when he was scared shitless but trying to keep her from worrying.
"There's something worse?" Danny did stop at that point, dragging his feet until Steve stopped with him.
"No, Steven," Danny said. "You do not 'Danny' me. You do not 'Danny' me about this." He tugged on his arm just enough to make Steve let him go and he whirled on Rodney and then probably would've done a faceplant if Steve hadn't grabbed him. "You there," Danny said to Rodney when the trees had stopped spinning, "just said in so many words that we are so completely fucked I can barely begin to conceive of it, and I want to know what the hell's going on!"
Rodney sent a big-eyed look to John, who had turned around and had walked up to the rest of them. He was grinding his teeth. "Um," Rodney said. "We don't know...? Exactly?"
"Yes we do," Steve said. He leveled his glare back on John, as if daring him to even open his mouth. "We're on another planet. And being hunted."
"I need my gun," Danny said. "Damn it! I left it back at the tree. What am I going to do if I don't have a gun? We're being hunted by fucking aliens with hell-hounds...!"
"It's okay, I picked your gun up, Danny," Steve said. John didn't see how he could've done that, considering he'd been occupied with the aftermath of Danny turning one of the dogs into really disgusting barbeque. But it hardly mattered anyway considering that the only way Danny could hold anything at this point was if someone duct-taped it to him.
"We're going to be fine as long as we keep moving," John said. He didn't stop walking, only turned his head enough to make his words audible to the two men behind him. Even then he could see the black look Steve shot him, as if every word that came out of John's mouth now was suspect.
John turned back to picking out the clearest route for them through the forest. His side was starting to hurt like a motherfucker, hot in a way he knew meant it was likely infected even though it'd only been a few hours; swamped with alien bacteria apparently all too happy to make John's warm, wet body into their brand-new living space. He just hoped his immune system caught a clue before it got worse.
But there was nothing he could do about it, so John just clenched his jaw and ignored it. He wasn't nearly as successful at ignoring the ticking rage, or the sickly urge to apologize like he'd actually done something wrong. Because of him Danny was mobile and coherent, and considering he and Rodney had nothing stronger on them than the damn Tylenol, what did Steve think they could've done for Danny, otherwise?
Nothing. The answer was nothing. But obviously Steve couldn't deal with that.
"Why us, anyway? Why--why would they take us from our own planet? And to hunt us? Like animals? We're not animals, we're people! Why would they do that?"
"Because we're the most dangerous game," Steve said. He sounded grim, but considering he'd been on the verge of a major panic attack up in the tree he seemed to be taking the reality of the situation pretty well. "They want us because we're people. Animals wouldn't give them enough of a challenge. Right?"
The query must've been directed at Rodney, since he piped up from the last place in their short line. "Yes. That's it, essentially, though I have to say I'm impressed you figured it out. Then again I assume you could see the sky, as high up as you were--the completely unfamiliar solar system and the alien dogs would've been pretty big clues."
"Rodney," John said.
Rodney cleared his throat. "Right. Um, yes. From what we've been able to discover about them, these aliens have been doing this for thousands of years. Maybe hundreds of thousands of years, given some of the artifacts that we've recovered."
That stopped John in his tracks. He whirled on Rodney and then did his best to hide the groan as his body twisted and pulled on his wound. He sidestepped John and Danny so he could see Rodney's face instead of talking over the other men's heads. "Wait, are you saying that you've been here before?"
Rodney dropped his eyes to the scanner's readout screen, which right then was mercifully silent. "Well, not personally, but the SGC was. They sent out a team here about ten years ago."
"How do you even know it's the same planet?" Steve asked.
"Yeah--and how'd you even know it wasn't Earth in the first place?" Danny demanded. "And how the fuck did we get here, anyway?"
Rodney grimaced. "I knew it was the same planet from the dogs. They brought back two complete skeletons. And human remains. Two-thousand year old human remains." He turned to Danny. "And, uh, I knew initially from the parachutes, to answer your question. That wasn't Earth technology."
"You could tell from the parachutes?" Steve sounded amazed.
"It's his job," John snarled at Steve. "Is there a Stargate here?" he demanded of Rodney. That was the only information he cared about. Rodney could tell them as much as he wanted about hunter aliens and dog skeletons as soon as they were thousands of light years away from this place.
Rodney nodded vigorously and John would have let out a whoop except his side hurt too much. "Yes! Absolutely!" Rodney tapped the scanner's screen. "I've been working on modifying the scanner to detect the specific energy readings of a Stargate." He gave John a half-wattage version of one of his delighted smiles. "I'm almost finished."
"Great," John said. He gave Rodney a dim glare in return. "And when, exactly, were you going to tell us that there was a way off this rock the whole time?"
"I just did!" Rodney said indignantly. "And excuse me if I wanted to be certain first! All I knew for sure until we were attacked by those triceratop-dog things was that we were on an Earth-compatible alien planet! You may recall that there are a few of them!"
"Wait, wait, wait," Danny said, looking from Rodney to John, "there's a way to get back to Earth? Seriously? Where is it?"
"Um, just a sec..." Rodney frowned at the scanner, then his expression brightened and he pointed in a direction a full 90 degrees from the one they were heading in. "There's a Stargate that way."
Everyone turned to look the way he was pointing, as if the Stargate would be right there, but there was nothing but the same hot, thick rainforest.
"What's a Stargate?" Steve asked.
"Big, round, metal circle that creates wormholes via a technological process that I'm not even going to try to explain," Rodney said.
"You can walk through it to other planets," John said.
"Or in our case, to Earth," Rodney added. He'd gone back to frowning at his scanner. "Of course we still have to get to the Gate, which might take awhile, actually."
"If it's not close we'll need to find a water source first," Steve said.
"I'm aware of that, Commander," John said to him, because there were two ranks between them and he was pissed off enough right now to rub it in. He turned back to Rodney. "Can you use that to find water?"
"On it." Rodney did something to the scanner, then smiled and then looked irritated. "I found one, but the closest is more-or-less back the way we came."
John sucked a tooth. "How far away is the Stargate?"
Rodney looked up, expression miserable. "About five or so hours from here, depending how fast we can move, and whether we stop."
No one had to even glance at Danny to know they'd have to stop. John didn't want to admit it even to himself, but he wasn't sure he could make a full five hours without resting either, not with his side like this. It felt like someone was branding him from the inside out.
"I'm sorry," Danny said.
"Not your fault," Steve said. "I'm sorry I didn't believe you had a Gift."
"Is there water nearby in the direction we need to go?" John asked.
"Of course there is--I just thought we could use the exercise!" Rodney snapped. "Amazingly enough, no. There is no water closer to us than where I just told you. That is, there is water in that direction," he amended, pointing again in the direction of the Stargate, "but it's at least three hours from here, as opposed to less than one." He plucked at his gore-covered tac vest. "I wouldn't mind smelling like a walking happy meal for less than three hours, personally."
"How did you get that all over you, anyway?" Danny asked him. "You look like a dog blew up."
John checked his watch. It was set to Atlantis time and was all but meaningless here, but he couldn't help it. He could practically feel their pursuers running them down. It didn't matter that nothing had shown up on the detector yet, they might already be following their dogs.
"A dog did blow up," John said, terse, just as Rodney was opening his mouth to likely launch into as long and self-laudatory an explanation as humanly possible. "Rodney made a Shield in its mouth and expanded it until its head exploded." Which had been pretty cool, but that was completely beside the point. John didn't know if Danny was this distractible in general or if it was because of his injuries, but they couldn't afford the time. "If we keep standing around like this they're going to find us." John started picking his way through the vegetation, now turning in the direction Rodney had indicated. "You should save your strength," he said to Danny. "And we don't know how well they can hear us."
"How do you know there're more than one?" Danny asked him.
"There are always more than one," Steve answered him as they began walking again.
"They'll be at least three," Rodney put in helpfully from the rear. "And they probably can't hear us, because they'd be shooting at us otherwise."
"Fantastic," John muttered. "Anything else you'd like to share with the class?" he shot at Rodney over his shoulder, "or should we just keep guessing?"
"I said I wasn't certain before!" Rodney groused, stomping loudly over the broken branches and leaves underfoot. "Okay, here's everything I know. They're big, bigger than Ronon. As in, around seven feet tall and built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have armor that can make them invisible--kind of like you, actually," he said to Steve. "They see in infrared, but since your Gift affects the brain and not the eye, it shouldn't make any difference."
"Good," Steve said.
"Yes, that part's good," Rodney agreed. "But the very bad part is that they're extremely hard to kill. Like, take several bullets and shrug it off hard to kill."
"Like the dogs," Danny said. "Only we can't see them. That's great. That is so incredibly great."
"They live to hunt. Their entire culture is built around it," Rodney went on. "And like I said, they've been snatching humans and other aliens for thousands of years."
"Back up," Steve said. "Other aliens? How many planets are inhabited?"
"Thousands," Rodney said with offhanded certainty. "And these guys occasionally come by and grab the inhabitants they think are the most dangerous. Then let them loose here and hunt them."
"Thousands?" Steve's voice cracked like brittle ice over the word, and John grimaced on his behalf.
"You mean, we're the most dangerous people on Earth?" Danny said, blowing right through his partner's struggle with his epiphany. "Seriously? I mean sure, super ninja SEAL here I can understand. But the rest of us?"
"Well, I did blow up five sixths of a dead solar system, once," Rodney said, and only Rodney could sound both smug and ashamed about something at the same time. "And John is probably the only human ever who could frighten a Wraith."
"A Wraith?" Steve demanded, obviously reeling. "What the hell's a Wraith?"
"Most of the planets in the universe were either seeded or populated by a single race of people everyone else calls the Ancients, the Ancestors, names like that," John said to Steve, glancing back to make sure he was listening. "The Ancients look exactly like us and could even interbreed with humans, which is why so many people on Earth have Gifts. We got it from them. So while most other life-supporting planets are technically inhabited by 'aliens', they actually look and behave pretty much exactly like we do."
"They couldn't keep it in their pants, and now roughly seven-hundred million of us have super powers," Rodney said. "Yes, you have alien DNA," he added to Steve and Danny. "But before you have your existential crisis, keep in mind the bit about how the Ancients seeded all human life on Earth even before they did the horizontal mambo with our ancestors. We all already had alien DNA, so a few strands more doesn't make much difference."
"Wow," Steve said, very softly. He sounded awed in a bad way, like he had in the tree: when he'd looked like he was about to lose it until John talked him down. John hoped he wasn't going to have to do it again, because he didn't think Steve would trust him enough for it to work.
"So, the Wraith are human," Steve said.
"No," Rodney said. "Wraith are big, ugly aliens with a leather fetish that look like a cross between catfish and Marilyn Manson. They feed on human life energy. That is, they literally suck the life right out of you. With their hands. And they are extremely hard to kill, especially if they've just fed."
"Oh, you are not telling me that now I have to worry about motherfucking space vampires!" Danny exclaimed. "Please say they can't get to Earth!"
"They can't," John lied through his teeth. "They live in the Pegasus galaxy, which is too far away. None of their ships can travel that kind of distance, and they don't know where Earth is." Except for that one group of Wraith who got the coordinates, or that other Wraith who used Ancient technology to power his ship. But all those Wraith were dead, and this was really not the time to share exactly how often Earth had almost been destroyed or fallen to intergalactic conquerors.
"Thank God," Danny said.
"The Pegasus galaxy is about three and a half million light years from here. From Earth, I mean," Steve said.
"You know that?" John could practically hear Rodney gaping.
"He's a regular Mr. Science when he's not storing grenades in my car or killing sharks when his bare hands," Danny said. They'd barely been walking for ten minutes, but John was sure Danny already sounded weaker. He hoped they weren't going to have to carry him.
"We live in the Pegasus galaxy too," John said flatly, answering Steve's unasked question. "In Atlantis, which is a starship that's also a city the Ancients left behind. We explore Pegasus and protect the native inhabitants from the Wraith."
"Wow," Steve said again. "Do a lot of people live there?"
"Not as many as you'd think," Rodney said. "There are less than three hundred people in Atlantis, most of them from different countries on Earth. I'm Canadian, by the way," he added, and John smiled to himself to hear the self-satisfaction in it. Rodney was still so proud of what he considered to be Canada's moral superiority over the US. "As for native inhabitants of Pegasus, I'd be surprised if there were more than a million, all told. The Wraith are quite diligent about culling their herds."
"Herds?" Danny parroted. "Of humans?"
"We're the only thing they can eat," John said.
"We're the only things life-sucking aliens can eat," Danny said. "And you're saying that like it's no big deal, like you cannot even possibly imagine how unbelievably fucked up that is. You know what? Yesterday--if it was just yesterday, and not, say, six months ago--I was watching my partner kick yet another door in and I was thinking that the only things I had to worry about were Steve getting us killed, Grace's eventual dating, and if I was ever going to find an apartment that wasn't infested with cockroaches, black mold or ghosts of old ladies in funny hats." He stopped speaking for a moment, like he was gathering his strength. "And now, suddenly, I find out that the entire fucking universe is a giant terrarium project populated with aliens that want to kill us. And you two, apparently, live in another galaxy and don't seem to think there's anything weird about that. Does that sum up the situation here? Or did I miss something?"
"Never said it wasn't fucked up," John said. "You just get used to it." He turned to look at the men behind him. Danny was breathing fast. John really hoped it was just from all the talking.
"I don't see how you could get used to that," Steve said.
"When I found out that there were actual, real-live aliens out there, it was the best and worst day of my life," Rodney said. John blinked, wondering if Rodney had actually heard the same thing in Steve's voice that he had. "The idea that Earth--that I--could be vulnerable to a threat from another planet was terrifying. Curl up on the floor terrifying, believe me." Rodney chuckled self-depreciatingly. "But everything else...there are wonders out there--technology, animals, people, entire cultures you can't even imagine." He paused and John could see Rodney's smile without even having to look at him. "I loved working with Ancient technology, but going to Atlantis...stepping through the Stargate was the best moment of my life." He paused. "Well, second best, after that time an obnoxious USAF helicopter pilot sat his ass down in the Ancient control chair after he'd been told specifically not to touch anything."
"Was that you?" Danny said to John's back. "That was you, wasn't it? That's really cute." His voice was definitely weaker now, drifting in a way John didn't like.
"Stay with us, Danny," Steve said. Of course he'd heard it too. "We're almost there."
John glanced at his watch again and made a guess. "We should be at the river in less than twenty minutes."
"Worst day of my life, meeting you," Danny said. John was sure he was talking to Steve, less sure that Danny had heard either of them. "Nearly shot me, then you got me shot, nearly dislocated my shoulder, made the Governor force me to join your Task Force of crazy, suicidal surfers..."
"I didn't dislocate your shoulder, Danny," Steve said, sounding far more concerned than irritated. "And then you nearly broke my jaw, remember?"
Danny let out a dry wheeze of a laugh between his too-rapid breathing. "Navy SEAL. Dropped you like a brick..."
John gritted his teeth and stopped walking. He took a deep breath, then turned around and went to Danny, who wasn't standing now so much as hanging, staying upright only because of his arm over Steve's shoulder and Steve's hand fisted around Danny's belt. It was hard to tell if Danny was sweating too much even for the miserable heat, especially considering how he was wearing a Kevlar vest over a long-sleeved shirt, but John didn't like how shallowly he was breathing or how obvious it was that Danny wasn't entirely tracking anymore. His hands were swollen where the skin had been burned the least and shiny with fluid no longer contained by his skin. They'd have to be very careful he didn't get dehydrated.
"Danny," John said. He grabbed his canteen, unscrewed the cap with fingers that felt a little clumsier than they should; the heat was getting to him too. "Danny, can you look at me? Pay attention, Danny." John couldn't help glancing at Steve as he spoke, very aware that Steve knew exactly what he was doing. "Look at me. You need to drink something."
Rodney came jogging up. "What is it? Is he all right?"
"No," Steve said. "He might be going into shock. Danny! Can you hear me?"
"It's very hard not to, Steven," Danny said, speaking with the same slow, exaggerated care as someone drunk. But he did lift his head to look at John, moving with what seemed like a huge effort, and then seemed startled that Rodney and John were so close to him. "What...?"
"Help him drink," John said to Rodney, handing him the canteen. He fished a blister pack of glucose pills out of his tac vest and popped four into his hand.
"That's not what he needs," Steve said.
"Well unless you want to OD him on Tylenol this is all we've got." John kept from actually snarling at him because he knew Steve was just voicing his fears. Danny needed a hospital, but the closest one was around five hours and who knew how many light years away.
Danny obediently chugged the water Rodney held for him and let John place the pills in his mouth, though Steve's eyes were like dark blue laser sights on John the whole time. And John knew Steve saw how his hands were shaking when he clumsily popped out two more glucose pills for himself before putting the package away.
After Danny had grimaced and chewed and swallowed he seemed a little brighter, at least, though he still looked like only Steve's strength was keeping him off the ground. Steve himself looked mostly fine, but he was breathing hard too and it was obvious that Danny wasn't up to doing much more walking.
"Rodney," John said. "Help Steve with Danny."
Rodney looked big-eyed with misery, but he just glanced worriedly at John's side and nodded.
Steve looked like he wanted to refuse, but he nodded at Rodney and waited while John helped Rodney squirm carefully under Danny's other arm. And John didn't miss how both Steve and Danny looked more comfortable once they had someone else taking part of his weight.
"Are you all right, John?" Rodney asked him.
"We're being hunted through a hundred-degree rainforest by aliens harder to kill than Wraith. I'm great. Why wouldn't I be?" John said, purposely thickening the sarcasm to keep Rodney from asking about his side outright, because he knew that's what Rodney really meant.
In anything John's side felt worse, but he was still mobile and better off than Danny, which was all that mattered. He'd walk as long as he had to.
"Fine." Rodney glared at him, clearly aware of John's ploy but also knowing not to push it. He used his free hand to yank his detector out of his tac vest. "Here." He held it out for John. "God knows you'll only get lost otherwise."
"Thanks, Rodney," John said dryly. "Everyone ready?" he asked, and then waited until Steve and Rodney nodded. "Danny, you with us?"
"Yes, unfortunately," Danny said, but he had his head up now and looked alert again, so John just gave him a smile and kept his eyes off the wreck of Danny's hands.
"Great," John said. He looked at the screen, happy that there were no white dots between the four showing their little group and the blue line representing the water. "Okay, kids, let's go down by the riverside."
"Funny," Danny murmured.
They started walking again.
The river turned out to be bigger than John had expected, about twenty feet across, running through a clearing that was made out of some kind of white, pitted stone. It was stark but surprisingly pleasant, with the constant growl from the water and occasional cool spray. The lush green of the rainforest stretched up like walls on either side, where the stone was gradually taken over by rich earth. The only problems were the heat, and how the river was loud enough to make hearing anyone sneaking up on them difficult.
John was sitting facing the river, eyes searching the opposite shore in case anything came from that direction. Every few seconds he checked out the water as well, but Rodney had inhaled another of his Powerbars and seemed strong enough to shield himself in case there was something in there that tried to eat him. But the water was clear down to the sandy riverbed, and Rodney seemed perfectly safe, washing his tac vest and kicking his bare feet in the water. John wanted to join him but he was keeping watch. He just wished it wasn't so damn hot out here without any kind of shade.
Instead he counted his ammunition and made sure his P90 and Rodney's were still working, and then did the same for the sidearms. They had one magazine each for the P90s, Rodney had one magazine for his M9 and John had two for his .45. That meant Rodney had 15 bullets and John had 28. Considering he and Rodney had both emptied their P90s and managed to kill a grand total of one dog each with them, John figured they'd have a better chance of using the guns to club the fucking things to death if they came back. Rodney's Gift had been a hell of a lot more effective than their weapons.
But John made sure each one was fully loaded anyway, because it'd be stupid not to and hey, maybe they'd get lucky. He figured they were due.
Danny lay on his stomach on one of the flatter rocks, with John's tac vest folded up under his head and both his arms trailing elbow-deep in the water. It'd been so long since the initial burns that John didn't think the water could do any good at this point, and both Rodney and Steve had been concerned about bacteria or parasites getting into Danny's damaged skin. But Danny seemed marginally more comfortable and it would keep the swelling down, and other than regular doses of Tylenol there was nothing else they could do for him. If they got back to Atlantis or Stargate Command in time, then even if Danny got sick he could be healed of everything anyway. And if they didn't, then it wasn't going to matter.
All the same John had used his iodine tablets to purify the river water in his canteen before he had everyone drink, because better safe than sorry. But he hadn't said a thing when Rodney shucked his vest and dunked his entire head in the water, then took off his boots and socks, rolled his pant legs to the knee and began soaking his feet almost as soon as they'd arrived.
"How you doing, Danny?" Steve asked. He was sitting next to Danny with his back to the river and his eyes constantly scanning the shoreline. He'd checked and reloaded his SIG and Danny's P30--which he really had picked up, apparently--just like John had done with his and Rodney's weapons. Steve's face was so intent he looked dangerous, but he had his hand on Danny's back, gently patting every so often in comfort.
"What's the last thing you remember before we got taken?" Danny asked him instead of answering his question. "I've been thinking about it, and it was a white light just after we--actually I mean you, because why knock on a door when you can break it?--kicked in the door at Hoapili's doubtlessly perfectly legal import/export business."
"We were there to raid the place, Danny," Steve said, though he was smiling. Then he glanced at John and looked away again, lips flat and hard. "But yeah, that's the last thing I remember too."
"We were..." Rodney looked at John. "Exploring something? Yes." He nodded when John did. "Ronon and Teyla were back in the village and I wanted to check out that energy reading and you'd just said something really annoying..."
John rolled his eyes. "Because that's the important part. I annoyed you before we were kidnapped by aliens."
"How long do you think we've been gone?" Danny said. "I mean, it could be weeks, for all we know. Maybe longer than that." Danny opened eyes turned cloudy by fear and pain. "What if Grace thinks I'm dead? What if I die here and she never even knows what happened to me?"
"Hey, hey, don't talk like that," Steve said. "We don't know if it's even been more than a few hours." He glanced at Rodney as if for confirmation, but Rodney just shrugged. "And we're going to get home, Danny. You're going to see your daughter again. Rodney knows where the...Stargate is, and he said we can use it to go back to Earth. We just have to get there. It's only about five hours."
"We're being hunted by aliens, Steven," Danny said. "We might not last another five minutes."
"Buck up, Danny," John said, not terribly gently. "If you start thinking you're going to die, then it's pretty damn certain you will. But you're still here, and you're going to see Grace again. You need to concentrate on that."
"Okay," Danny said. He didn't sound convinced, not that John could really blame him. He closed his eyes again, looking defeated.
Steve just looked murderous. John ignored him.
Rodney pulled his feet out of the river and stood, coming towards John and kicking water all over the place. His hair was soaked, dripping water down his face and neck. He'd rung out his more-or-less clean tac vest and put it back on. It'd soaked his shirt and pant legs. "That felt so good!" He grinned at John. "You should put your feet in, too. I'm serious. It'll cool you right down."
"Maybe later," John said, smiling at him. Rodney dripped and smiled back, and right then all John wanted to do was get up and hug him, wet hair, sopping vest and all. "You look like something the cat dragged in," he added, which was a ridiculous substitute for 'I love you', but it was hard for John to say it at the best of times; right then with two near-strangers an arm's length away he wasn't even going to try.
"You too," Rodney said, but he was grinning back so maybe he'd understood anyway.
Steve was watching John with lightning in his eyes. "Could I speak to you for a minute, sir?"
Here it comes, John thought. "Sure," he said. He looked at Rodney. "Can you take care of things for a minute?"
"Yes." Rodney nodded, though his eyes shifted from Steve to John and he hesitated. "Is, ah, everything all right?"
"It's fine, Rodney," John said, giving him what he hoped was his best relaxed smile. It was obvious Rodney didn't buy it but at least he nodded anyway. John shouldered his P90 and holstered his .45, then lifted his hand for Rodney to help him to his feet. He'd purposely used his left hand so he wouldn't pull on his side with the hole in it, but it didn't help much. Just getting to his feet had him clenching his teeth together so he wouldn't cry out in pain.
"John?" Rodney's eyes were huge and he hadn't let John go. "Are you okay?"
John nodded, extremely aware of how Steve could see and hear everything. Steve was already snarling at him like a malcontent Beta wolf; John really didn't want to have to worry about his leadership. "Just a little sore," he said, with a smile that probably looked as fake as it felt.
"Okay," Rodney said, deeply unhappy. "Well, see you in a minute, then." He let go of John's hand and went to sit heavily next to Danny. He began miserably repacking his vest pockets.
John shook his head. He was walking a few feet further up the bank to talk to a pissed-off Navy SEAL, not going on a suicide mission. Trust Rodney to bring the drama anyway. "Dry your feet before you put your socks on," he admonished over his shoulder, then smiled slightly at the, 'Thanks, Mom! I would never have thought to do that!' that Rodney bitched in response.
And then it was just him and Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett, standing with his arms crossed and so rigid with fury that he looked as stiff as the trees crowding his back.
John crossed his arms as well. "What is it, Commander?"
"I know what you did to me in that damn tree and I know what you're doing now, and I want you to stop fucking with my friend's mind. Sir," Steve said, grinding every word through his teeth.
"No," John said simply. He continued speaking over Steve's gathering rage. "I will not stop using my Gift on Detective Danny Williams because right now it's the only thing keeping him from going into shock. And you know that just as well as I do, because otherwise we'd be having this conversation where he could hear it. But instead we're all the way over here and keeping our voices down because if Danny finds out I charmed him he might stop believing that the crock of shit I told him about his hands is true. And then we'll all be fucked, won't we? Especially him. So don't stand there and try to pretend that you want me to stop using my Charm, Steve. Because that's the last thing you want and we both know it."
Steve had uncrossed his arms while he listened, curling his hands into fists so tight they were trembling. He looked like someone pushed to the point where the only choices were to take a swing or walk away and he hadn't decided which one to go with yet. John took a step back and dropped his own hands into fists, ready to move into the stance Teyla had taught him for when he was forced to fight bare-handed. He tried not to show how much his side hurt.
Steve noticed--of course he did--but instead of galvanizing him into the violence John expected it seemed to freeze him in his tracks. Steve relaxed his hands all at once then turned away. He carded his fingers through his hair then stayed standing like that, looking down the long stretch of white stone.
"You're right," Steve said at last. He dropped his hands and faced John again, looking angry and scared and determined. "You're right. But I know what Charmers can do, and I'm not going to let you take him."
John closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, giving himself a second to calm down so he wouldn't be tempted to punch a tree or Steve, either of which would likely break his hand. "Steven," he said, opening his eyes and looking at him. "You don't know anything about Charmers at all. We don't do that. We can't do that. I'm not going to turn Danny into a God-damned minion because I've talked him into feeling better a couple times!" He realized his voice was getting louder so he took a deep breath and crossed his arms again. "Charm only works if the person trusts you in the first place, and it doesn't linger, or any of the other crap you might've learned from your high school buddies in the locker room. And I sure as hell can't charm anyone into something they're not already inclined to do. If you'd wanted to stay freaked out in that fucking tree or if Danny wanted to be in pain, I couldn't stop it."
John waited some more while Steve digested that. Ironic how he was giving Steve a condensed version of what Rodney had told John the same year they met, when John had been convinced of the exact thing he was now telling Steve was completely wrong. When he met Rodney John had thought two people he loved had killed themselves because of his Gift. He'd worn gloves all the time, had kept himself apart and untouchable for over a decade, because he was sure his Gift was slow poison and that physical contact would make the effects that much worse.
He didn't believe that anymore, mostly. But sometimes it was still hard to shake the instinctive fear. There would always be a tiny but insistent part of him that still believed the same crap that Steve did about Charmers; a tiny part that was terrified of finding out one day that Rodney only loved him because John wanted him to.
"Danny trusts you," Steve said at last.
"Yes he does," John said slowly, because that was about the last thing John had expected Steve to say. He was sure Steve meant more than just those three words, but John was lousy with this kind of stuff and always had been, so he just went with the straight answer to the question. "Which is lucky, because otherwise we'd have a problem."
Steve nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly. He swallowed. "Thank you."
"Yeah, well, don't thank me yet," John said, relaxing fractionally. At least there wasn't going to be a fistfight for Danny's honor. "We have a long way to go before--" He saw Steve's eyes go wide the same second he saw the bright red targeting laser out of the corner of his eye, and then Steve yelled GET DOWN! and tackled him.
John landed with a grunt and his hurt side bellowing in pain, and he looked up to see a strangely beautiful curve of blue light--it looked organic, almost like a jellyfish--blast through the air where his head had been and straight towards Rodney and Danny.
"No!" John screamed, but the light was already splashing over Rodney's Shield, blue flickering against gold. Rodney had made a dome to protect both him and Danny. Right now they were safe, but John knew domes were hard and Rodney couldn't hold one very long. Especially not taking force blasts like that.
The alien materialized out of thin air, or at least that's what it looked like. It was exactly as big as Rodney had claimed, with yellow skin and a helmet that made it look like a streamlined wolf. Its laser gun was mounted on a shoulder turret, moving as the creature aimed like some grotesque, elongated eye.
Either Steve's warning or John's cry had alerted Danny and he was sitting up, looking around for the gun he wouldn't be able to use. "Steve! Steve! Where are you?"
Steve was gone.
No, not gone, vanished. John couldn't see him but he knew he was there by the heat of his body and the sound of his breathing.
"Don't move," Steve said, whispering it so softly that it was barely more than a puff of air in John's ear. "It can't see or hear us, but if you move too much my Gift won't cover you."
"John?" Rodney called, his voice all but lost under the near-constant sizzle of blue light against his Shield. He was looking right at the two of them but it was obvious he couldn't see anything.
The alien couldn't see them either, but it wasn't dumb and did exactly what John would have: it fired at the place where he and Steve should have been.
Steve rolled them as the alien pulled the trigger. The jellyfish light hit the ground close enough to them that John could feel his hair singe, but it missed.
Rodney took advantage of the alien's diverted attention. He dropped the Shield, grabbed his P90 and fired.
John expected the alien to do the same jerky bullet dance thing a Wraith did before it dropped and died. But even with splotches of fluorescent yellow blood bursting all over its torso, it just calmly aimed at Rodney again.
"Shield!" John yelled. Rodney stopped shooting and put his Shield up before the blue light could hit him or Danny, but he didn't look in John's direction.
"They can't hear us," Steve said in that same barely-there whisper. "You can hear me, but only because I'm practically on top of you. If you keep holding on to me, we can sneak up on the thing and shoot it at close range. That might kill it."
John nodded and then remembered Steve couldn't see him. "Sounds like a plan," he whispered. Steve's response was a small squeeze on his arm.
It was strange, knowing Steve was right there and moving but not being able to see or hear it. Steve kept his hand clamped around John's wrist, and John guessed that was enough to keep the alien from noticing them. Pretty fucking impressive, actually, though John could tell how much effort it took because of the way Steve's hand was shaking.
"Steve, can you hear me?" John said, but Steve didn't answer or tighten his grip so John figured that they were too far apart. Not that it mattered with the target so close.
John kept expecting the alien to swing towards them at any second and blast them into a fine mist with its turret gun. But it just kept firing at Rodney and Danny like it'd forgotten John and Steve even existed. Which was just fine.
John bared his teeth, carefully lifted his P90 with his free hand and held it so close to the alien's side that it was almost touching. And opened fire.
Not even a seven-foot tall alien could shrug off a submachine gun at point-blank range. The alien's scream was more like a guttural, clicking roar, but Steve muted it by emptying his SIG into its chest. He'd opened fire when John had, though it was probably overkill after the P90 cut the fucker in half.
It dropped like a very large, fluorescent yellow rock. Two very large, fluorescent yellow rocks. It fell almost in one piece, but then the torso tumbled away to leave the mask staring emptily up at the sky. John thought better about bending over to take off its helmet.
"You did it!" That was Danny. Gleeful or incredulous, it was hard to tell. He let Rodney help him up and came over to them, Rodney holding his upper arm. They were both moving slowly and John really didn't like how pale either of them were, or the lines of exhaustion around Rodney's eyes.
Danny grinned up at Steve. "Pretty awesome ghosting there, babe."
Steve grinned back at him, looking oddly shy.
Rodney was looking pretty gleeful himself. "So maybe it's only slightly harder to kill than a Wraith."
John didn't smile. "It won't be alone. We need to get out of here."
"Oh, fuck," Rodney said, just as two more red beams burst out of the forest. "Run!"
Steve grabbed Danny by the shoulder straps of his Kevlar, hauling him bodily towards the water. John grabbed Rodney's arm and took off after Steve, so much adrenaline screaming through his veins that the stab wound in his side felt like a mosquito bite. He heard one of the jellyfish blasts hitting against Rodney's Shield, then another and another. And then he all but threw Rodney into the river and threw himself in after him.
Blue light streaked by overhead, and then one splashed into the water right next to him. But by then the current had snatched them all up and was charging downstream, dragging the four men with it.
John had a glimpse of Steve up ahead, on his back with Danny's head on his chest, fighting the current to keep the two of them from being tossed ass over elbows. Then suddenly he disappeared completely and John panicked, thinking Steve had slipped under and was going to drown. And then he didn't have time to panic for anyone but himself.
He could swim, but he hadn't learned how until he was almost forty and he wasn't incredibly good at it. And right now his entire right side was so stiff that he could barely raise his arm, and the current kept dragging him under and it was harder and harder to surface again.
Rodney saved him, scooped him up like a child and flipped him onto his back so he was holding him the same way Steve had held Danny. And normally John would've hated that, needing to be rescued like a little kid, but right that second he was in too much pain and too grateful to be breathing to care.
And then Rodney threw his Shield up over them and suddenly they didn't even have to swim. His Shield carried them, bobbing along like a cork on the water.
"Rodney," John said, and then had to shout it again to be heard above the water's roar. "Rodney! Stop! It's too much work!" He meant that shielding them both like this after the aliens' weapons would use too much energy, but he didn't have enough air to say all that.
Rodney seemed to understand, though. "Less work than swimming!" he said, and he sounded winded as hell but maybe that was because he had John lying on his chest. Maybe.
Danny was still up ahead, floating on nothing, and John realized that of course Steve hadn't sunk, he was right there. He'd just turned invisible to save energy. Rodney really needed to do that.
"Rodney, turn your Shield off!" John ordered.
"Shut up," Rodney said.
They sped on.
The water was freezing. If Danny had been sleepy before he sure as hell was awake now. His hands were already blessedly numb from holding them in the water, but the rest of his body was rapidly joining them. He tried not to shiver because he didn't want to shake out of Steve's grasp. Danny was a good swimmer, much as he hated going in the water when he didn't have to, but he didn't have any strength in his hands--didn't have any strength anywhere right now--and he had no illusions about how long he'd last if Steve let go. The best he could do was to kick with his feet to help Steve stop them from spinning. The current was getting stronger as the river narrowed, and if they ran into rocks it'd be cooler not to hit them head-first.
It was disconcerting, knowing absolutely that Steve was there but not being able to hear him, and only seeing tiny glimpses like Steve was perpetually in the corner of his eyes. Danny knew Steve ghosted out occasionally just to piss him off, and there were a couple times he'd fallen asleep, like on his lanai or Danny's couch, where no one had realized he was there until they'd literally stumbled into him. But this was unpleasantly strange. Disconcerting. Steve was right there, keeping Danny from drowning, but it still felt like there was nobody with him. Nobody real, and it was crazy how alone Danny felt, as anchorless as the crashing water around him.
"Steve?" he said. His voice was weak and came out chattering and all he got was a mouthful of freezing river water in reply. He tried again--"Steven!"--but he couldn't tell if Steve heard him. With Steve in ghost-mode Danny wouldn't hear him if he answered back anyway, and Steve's arm was across his chest, hanging onto the sleeve of Danny's bulletproof vest around his opposite shoulder. Danny could barely feel him.
No rocks yet, but they were blasting along like bullets now and Danny was getting a bad feeling about how this was going to end. He tried to find John and Rodney, who had gone into the water behind them and should have been right there, and he was just beginning to freak out when he spotted the two of them twirling along in what looked kind of like a crackling gold soap bubble. Danny was so relieved that he would have laughed, if another wave hadn't smacked him in the face.
The river got rougher as it sped up and Danny could barely see a damn thing with all the water splashing almost constantly in his eyes. But his ears worked fine and Rodney's shout of alarm was very, very clear. At the same moment Steve started flailing, swinging both their bodies around until they were lying horizontal to the unrelenting current.
And oh yeah, that was a fucking waterfall, one of those narrow little ones that probably fell hundreds of feet into a pool two inches deep and filled with sharp rocks. There was absolutely nothing to grab onto, either. Steve tried to stand and Danny tried to help but it didn't work. The water was too fast to let them get their feet under them. The rest was a battle with gravity and momentum that Danny could only guess at: Steve pulled his knife and tried to stab it into the bank but it popped right out of the loose, wet earth. (Danny saw the splash as it dropped into the water). Then Steve used his hand, digging his fingers into the mud like claws (they slowed down for a few seconds; Danny saw the furrows), but that didn't work either. Then Steve wrapped both his arms around Danny's waist and curled around him like he was going to use his own body to break Danny's fall. And that was just, no. No, Danny would not let him do that. But Steve was like a gorilla octopus and Danny couldn't use his hands and then they both thunked against a solid wall.
"Get out of the water!" That was John doing the bellowing, because Rodney was too busy trying to keep the Shield up to talk. The water at the edge of the cliff was shallower than it had been back wherever the hell they started, no more than waist-deep on Steve and sadly higher than that on Danny, but it was getting steadily deeper now that the river had nowhere else to go, creeping up the banks, and Rodney was looking like the kids who always threw up in Phys Ed and no shit they really had to get out of the water before the guy's heart exploded.
With the shield to lean against Steve was able to drag himself upright, still holding Danny for all he was worth. They inched along like that, with their backs to Rodney's wall and the water rising, until Steve basically shoved Danny at John. John didn't catch him so much as grab him as they both fell over, but by then they were at the rapidly submerging bank so John was able to stagger his way to dry land, dragging Danny with him. They both collapsed onto their sides in the mud.
Danny lurched upright at the same time that John tottered back to his feet. The Shield Rodney had made was gone, nothing left but the water surging back to its original course, draining off the waterlogged banks. Steve had his feet planted with one foot in the river and the other partway on the bank, bent over and obviously off balance. He was holding onto Rodney's tac vest with both hands, fighting the water and losing as he desperately tried to keep Rodney from being swept over the falls. Rodney was lying face-up but he was completely limp like something dead, just letting the water take him.
"Rodney!" John was shivering violently but he scrambled back down the bank and into the water, sliding like a puppy in the mud. He grabbed Rodney's limp arm and heaved backwards, but he was trembling with cold and blood was leaking over the mud caking on his bandage, and he couldn't do it. Danny could see it happening: John was fighting like hell but he was going to lose his footing, and when he fell he'd pull Steve over too and the river would get all three of them.
"Fuck," Danny spat to the universe in general, already moving. At least he could keep his balance without grabbing anything because otherwise he'd be screwed since his hands couldn't grab. And he wasn't even sure this would work but he had to do something, so he waded into the water and wrapped his arms around John's waist and pulled as best he could without using his hands.
He had no idea if John had been in this situation before--Danny hoped not--but John was also part of a team and he seemed to slide into working with Danny like they hauled unconscious people off the lips of waterfalls together all the time. John waited for Danny to move before he did, pooling what remained of their strength to help pull Rodney in. They moved backwards like that, step by slow, miserable step, until the three of them were finally able to drag Rodney a safe distance up onto the bank.
John, Steve and Danny ended up panting in the mud, and Danny wouldn't have minded curling up and dying for a little while but John struggled back to his hands and knees and crawled over to Rodney and groped at his neck for a pulse.
"Rodney! Rodney! Can you hear me? Wake up! Damn it, wake up!" Rodney wasn't responding. His skin was grey everywhere it wasn't covered in mud, and it looked like he was sweating even though they'd just pulled him out of very cold water.
"He's in hypoglycemic shock," Steve said, like any of them didn't know that. Danny was a cop; he'd seen it a couple times. Just never with someone who'd saved his life.
"Fuck," John gritted. He slapped at his tee-shirt and his eyes widened. "Oh, fuck." Whatever John needed was obviously in his tac vest, which Danny remembered had been pillowing his head at the other end of the river. They hadn't exactly had time to pick it up.
"No, no, no, no, no." John fell back onto his hands and knees and started pawing at Rodney's vest, scooping away mud to get at the pockets. "Not again! Not this, Rodney. Don't do this to me!"
"What is it?" Steve asked, picking up John's fear like a magnet. "What do you need?"
"Glucagon," John said. "I had some but it was in my fucking vest and now I can't find it! Where the hell does he keep--yes!" He yanked out a pen injector then stuck the cap between his teeth and pulled it off. He hesitated for a second, trying to find a place on Rodney clean enough to use as an injection site, then gave up and swiped off a smear of mud on his upper arm. John plunged the injector in, pulled it out and waited, vibrating with cold and tension.
"Come on, buddy, come on, come on. Open your eyes, Rodney. Come on!" John felt for Rodney's pulse again, his other hand wrapped tightly around Rodney's. John was obviously one of those guys who responded to fear by just yelling louder and his voice was rising into jet-engine range. "Come on! Don't do this, Rodney! Open your damn eyes!"
Steve put his hand around John's wrist. John whipped his gaze to him with an expression like a knife blade. "It's okay, it's okay, John," Steve said in his best trade-me-for-the-hostages voice. "He's coming around, see? Look."
"John?" Rodney's throat creaked open like his eyes, startlingly sky-blue framed by streaks of mud.
John let out a huge breath, sagging so much with relief Danny was a little concerned about him keeling over. "Thank God."
Rodney blinked at him. "You okay?"
John made a sound like a wet, incredulous snarl. "Yeah, I'm fine. I wasn't the one who fainted at the edge of a fucking waterfall! I told you not to shield us, asshole." He used the cleanest part of his hand to clear his eyes of what Danny knew everyone would pretend was mud. "I'm sick to the fucking teeth of doing this, Rodney! You almost fucking died! Again!"
Rodney was blinking less muzzily now, looking like he was trying to decide if it was his turn to be pissed or not. He began the struggle to sit up and Steve and John helped him, John with a gentleness that spoke even louder than his angry shouting. "It was a calculated risk."
"Calculated risk?'" John parroted with all his teeth. "And you dead at the bottom of a cliff--where did that fit into your calculations, Rodney?"
"As preferable to all of us being dead at the bottom of a cliff!" Definitely feeling better, then. Rodney looked down at his tac vest and grimaced, then started fastidiously wiping off the mud. "Damn it. I need to see if the detector still works."
"You should have some more glucose first," John said. His voice had dropped to a quiet growl. He reached for his non-existent tac vest again then exhaled in frustration.
"It's okay, I got some," Steve said. He opened one of the many, many pockets on his cargoes and pulled out a very obviously Navy-issue blister pack of pills the exact same color of concrete, which was probably what they tasted like. Steve popped six into his hand, hesitated then added two more, then held his palm out for Rodney.
"Those look disgusting," Rodney said, but he dutifully held out his hand to take them and slapped them into his mouth. He chewed experimentally with an expression that rivaled one of Grace's for eloquence. He swallowed with difficulty then took a large swig from his canteen. "God, do you take those as part of your endurance training? Are they given to you for Hell Week?" Rodney tried to clean his tongue on his teeth. "Please tell me you only keep those for emergencies."
Steve smiled. "I do only keep them for emergencies. I've got better-tasting ones at home." He popped three into his hand and took them; making faces every bit as hilarious as Rodney's had been.
"At home," Rodney said, nodding in mock comprehension. "Useful."
"Glucose burnout's always a risk with a Gift like mine. I feel it's better to take the more powerful tablets with me," Steve explained with his eyebrows drawn like Rodney had insulted his integrity.
"We can't stay here. The hunters have got to be following us. We need to reorient and find the best route to the gate from here," John said, and Danny gave him a look because yeah, no kidding, but Steve was just nodding like John was Colonel Guru and he was hanging on every word. "My P90s gone, but I still have my sidearm and two magazines." He glanced at Rodney. "Rodney, you're P90 should be fine, just make sure the barrel's pointed down to drain the water out of it. Steve, do you still have your weapons?"
Steve shook his head. "I've got my SIG, but Danny's P30's gone. Sorry, Danny. I'll get you a new one."
Danny might have smirked at Steve's ridiculously misplaced guilt, but he was too exhausted and in too much pain to manage it. He waved him off tiredly. "Don't worry about it."
John began the long climb to his feet. "Okay, Rodney, hopefully the--" his words broke on a cry as he fell back to his knees clutching his side.
"John!" Rodney lunged forward and got his hands on John's shoulders, which was good because it looked like John might have collapsed otherwise. "John, what is it? What's wrong?" Steve was perched on his knees, obviously wanting to help too but Rodney was in his way. Danny just stayed where he was, because he couldn't do anything.
John was panting with his eyes squeezed shut, in too much pain to speak.
"Here." Steve worked his way around Rodney. "Help me lay him down."
"No." John shook his head in a short, violent jerk. "No time." He took a few more breaths then lifted his head. "I'm fine. I just moved too fast. Pain caught me by surprise."
He looked anything but fine. John still had his hands clamped over his stab would like he was trying to squeeze the pain back in, and swallowing after every other word like he was trying very, very hard not to throw up. And he was shivering worse than Danny was, and Danny was pretty damn cold, thank you very much. The ambient 200 degree heat was helping to warm him up, but the river water had been freezing.
Steve darted his hand out and touched his fingers to John's neck. John startled like Steve had jabbed a knife into him. "Sorry. I'm just trying to gauge your temperature," Steve explained. He looked at Rodney. "I know my hands are still cold from the river, but he feels too warm."
"You think?" Rodney snapped. "Of course he's too warm! He was stabbed by an alien tree on an alien planet full of alien bacteria! His wound's infected." He looked worriedly at John. "Does it hurt worse? Of course it hurts worse. Maybe you should let us look at it..."
"Not now, Rodney," John growled. "There's nothing we can do about it anyway. Just give me some Tylenol and let's go before we lose whatever head start we might've had."
Rodney looked very unhappy with that decision but he yanked open one of his muddy vest pockets anyway, grabbed the small bottle and undid the cap and shook out two pills, then a third one. "Before you accuse me of poisoning you, that's nowhere near the maximum recommended dose. Besides, you're liver's probably immune to everything by now."
John just took the pills silently, washing them down with a few sips of water. "Is your detector working?"
Rodney snatched it up from where it had fallen off his lap when he'd grabbed for John. He pressed a few buttons then grinned. "Yes! Once again, my personal modifications outshine the Ancients." He studied the readout and his grin faltered. "Wait. No, this can't be right."
"What can't be right?" John demanded. He climbed to his feet again, more slowly this time. He let Steve help him but barely gave him a nod in acknowledgement.
"The scanner. I don't understand it--I modified it to detect the unique energy readings of a Stargate, but it keeps showing me two sources of the same readings. Or, well, not exactly." He leaned in closer to the screen, squinting at it as if that would help him read it more easily. "It's like a Stargate, but it's not one."
"What is it?" Steve asked.
"Does it matter?" Danny asked wearily. The other three men were all standing now but he was still sitting in the mud. He figured he should probably stand up, too, eventually. Standing would be good.
"It might," John said flatly. He still had one hand pressed to his side, but he looked a little better now. Maybe the Tylenol was kicking in. "It depends on what it is. So what is it?"
"Um." Rodney squinted at the little screen some more, pressed a few more buttons. Then he blinked. "Oh. Well, I suppose I should've expected that."
"Expected what?" Steve asked, out of patience. "What is it?"
"Rodney," John said with a trace of warning.
Rodney lifted his head. He looked like he wasn't sure whether to be happy or worried. "It's a spaceship."
"Look, the little guy is right," Rodney said, pointing vehemently at Danny and ignoring his insulted 'hey!' "There's no way that ship isn't guarded. We don't know how many hunter aliens we're dealing with here--there could be three of them just waiting for us to stroll up!"
"We're not 'strolling' anywhere, Rodney," John said. He shifted his weight so that his hurt side wasn't touching the tree he was leaning against. A thick mesh of leaves spread above him, hiding them all and shading everything green. Steve wondered if John thought no one noticed he was in terrible pain. "And you're the one who said there were at least three after us already--"
"Which there are," Rodney cut him off.
"So it's the same threat. The difference here is that we'll have the advantage of surprise, because they won't be expecting their prey to come to them directly."
"We can't assume that!" Rodney said. "Look." He fumbled with his scanner then turned it around so all of them could see the display. "Here's the ship," he pointed to a large red dot on the screen, so close to where they were that the smaller white dots representing them were almost on top of it. "And here's the Stargate." He pointed to the other red dot, which was significantly farther away. "We can already assume that the hunters either don't know about the Stargates or don't use them, because otherwise we would've been dragged here, not dropped, and they wouldn't have a ship that big. So the likelihood of them having anyone waiting in ambush at the Gate is next to zero. But here,"--he pointed to the first dot again--"is their ticket home." He looked at John. "We always leave someone with the Puddle Jumpers, why wouldn't they?"
"Excuse me for injecting a thread of logic into this lively discussion," Danny said, "but no one seems to have considered how this is an alien spaceship. Made by aliens. How do we know we can even figure out how to get the door open?" He was sitting next to John, slumped against a different tree with his bad leg stretched out. He looked ragged and filthy and miserable and somehow smaller, less substantial. Steve had never seen Danny like that--not even when Rachel left him the second time, not even when he was dying of Sarin poisoning. Danny's personality was so big that seeing him like this felt completely wrong. Like Danny was fading too.
Steve looked away from him, refocusing on John and trying to shake off the terror gnawing at his stomach. Danny said his burns healed fast; he would be fine. "That's a good point. Are we sure this is even a useful objective?"
"If it's got an engine, Rodney can make it work. And I can fly anything." John said it with such total certainty that there didn't seem any point in challenging him. And then Steve wondered if that was John's Charm, but immediately forced it out of his mind. He couldn't afford to think like that.
"Whatever we decide, we need to do it sooner, rather than later," Rodney said, still looking at his scanner. "We may have come pretty far from the river, but it'll be obvious we didn't go over the waterfall. They'll see our tracks in the mud." He looked at John. "I still think this is a terrible plan, by the way. We should just go for the Gate."
"The Gate is now six hours from where we are, Rodney!" John said. "The ship is right there." He pointed in the direction indicated by the red dot on the screen. "Are you really trying to tell me we should drag our asses for six hours instead with hunters after us?"
Danny raised his hand, looking apologetic. "I'm still not sold on the alien spaceship thing, but I have to put the kibosh on the six-hour death march. I really don't think I can walk that far." He gestured at his leg. "It's not the burns--they're not too bad, actually--it's my knee. It's hurting the way it did before it gave out the last time."
Steve glanced at Danny, letting his eyes graze over John on the way. John still shook with cold, despite the sweat dotting his forehead and streaking his muddy face. He was flushed with fever and obviously favoring his wounded side as much as possible, all classic signs of infection. He looked like he was barely holding on.
Danny did look better, at least compared to that. He wasn't shivering and he didn't seem to be in so much pain anymore. But he still wasn't trying to stand up, either. There was no way either of them could walk for six hours.
"I don't think we have a choice anymore," Steve said. He took a breath and looked at John. "But we don't have to go into this blind. I can go first and do a recon of the area so we'll know what we're dealing with."
"Good idea," John said. He straightened, pushing himself away from the tree with obvious effort. "Rodney, stay with Danny. Steve and--"
"Are you kidding me?" Rodney blurted, cutting John off again. "Have you somehow missed the fact that you have a huge, gaping, infected hole in your side and can barely walk? What part of that makes you think you can go traipsing off into the jungle and not expect to come back extremely dead?" Rodney crossed his arms. "No. No way. I'm not letting you kill yourself so you can prove to Lieutenant Commander Navy SEAL how badass you are."
"Rodney." John's voice was deadly quiet. "You listen to me--"
"Don't you dare," Rodney spat, eyes blazing. "Don't you dare use--!" He stopped speaking, glanced at Danny and then glared at John again. "Don't you use that 'listen' crap with me. This isn't about your pride, John! This is about keeping all of us alive. Including you. And I'm sorry, but you're in no shape for this."
"This isn't about pride, Rodney!" John looked so affronted that Rodney winced with guilt. "This is about protecting my team!" He gestured at Steve. "Who's going to watch his back?
Rodney thrust back his shoulders, lifting his chin like he was challenging the world. "Well, me, of course."
"I'll be okay, sir," Steve said to John. "I've done this before, and with my Gift the hunters won't be able to see or hear me. I think Rodney's Gift would be most useful here, especially since Danny can't protect himself."
"I might be able to if you didn't lose my gun," Danny said. He flexed his fingers experimentally. "I think maybe they're feeling better."
The last thing Steve wanted to look at was Danny's hands. "Sir?" he asked John.
John stared at him, grinding his teeth so hard that Steve could see the muscles in his jaw tensing. "Fine," he said on a breath. "You've got twenty minutes. If you're not back by then I'm coming after you."
"Yes, sir. I know what I'm doing," Steve said, rankling at John's insistence that he couldn't go off alone. Didn't John think he could handle this? He was a SEAL--he'd cut his teeth on reconnaissance missions. The only thing different here was the objective.
"I'm sure you do," John said. "On Earth. This isn't your home turf, Commander. Don't forget that."
"I won't, sir," Steve said tightly, channeling every bit of military discipline so he wouldn't say something he'd regret. They didn't have time for it anyway.
"Wait," Rodney said. He pulled his M9 and handed it to Steve. "I'd give you my P90, but..."
"No, that's good. You keep it," Steve said. "And thanks." He made sure the safety was on and tucked Rodney's gun into the back of his pants where he just had to reach behind his back to retrieve it. He made a last glance around the small natural bower they'd holed up in, making sure it was as defensible as possible.
He knew he was procrastinating because he was afraid, but it wasn't for himself. It was for Rodney and John and especially Danny. He didn't want to leave them behind.
You're not abandoning them, he reminded himself fiercely. They'll be here when you come back.
"Good luck," Danny said.
"I'll return soon," Steve said, then turned around and faded into the trees.
Steve ran for a little more than five minutes, going in the direction John had pointed, and then he smelled smoke.
He stopped, leaning against a tree and catching his breath while he figured out which direction the smell was coming from. There was no wind this deep in the forest so it had to be close, maybe even next to the ship. Which could be a problem.
Steve pushed himself away from the tree and pulled his SIG, walking more cautiously now. He would be invisible and soundless regardless of how fast he went, but he knew that speed made him slightly easier to see.
He crept in the direction of the smoke, now moving as carefully as if he had no Gift to hide him. He made sure not to touch any of the plants around him because the hunters would see the branches or vines move, even if they couldn't see him doing it.
He ducked under a branch and found himself in a clearing. It was a wide strip of deep brown earth, littered with old, broken branches and dried leaves and hemmed in by berms on either side. The vibrant dark green of the forest gave way to sickly grey vines, which surrounded the clearing and clung to dying trees. Farther away loomed stark grey cliffs, scarred with the remains of falling stone. A more truly alien landscape than anything Steve had already seen.
The clearing itself was dotted with the stripped, jagged corpses of trees, and hanging from each one were flayed, gutted and headless bodies of animals Steve didn't recognize. Their viscera had been casually dumped in a pile near the edge of the clearing. The smoke did nothing to disguise the stench.
Skulls were everywhere: some obviously cleaned and set aside, others tossed away like broken bowls among all the other bones. Hundreds of other bones. A few of the skulls still hung from cleanly-cut spinal columns, obviously human. One might have belonged to a Neanderthal--Rodney had said this hunt had gone on for possibly hundreds of thousands of years. Most of the skulls were as unfamiliar as the skinned animals, some with pitted ridges over the crowns and front teeth that looked more like claws than anything.
Thousands of inhabited planets, Steve thought, and couldn't help the shudder that ran through him.
Near the edge of the clearing was a frame made out of branches that held a stretched skin. The symbol of the United States Marine Corps was tattooed on what probably had been part of someone's chest. Another person scooped up like a fish in a net and dropped here to be hunted and killed. His family would never even know what happened to him.
Steve had tattoos on each shoulder. He imagined them glowing translucent as the sun shone through them and then had to grit his teeth and swallow the nausea down.
"Bet you'd love that, wouldn't you, you fuckers?" he whispered.
The scents of rot and smoke were so pervasive that it was impossible to tell if the fires were cooking anything or just getting rid of debris. It looked like they'd been left untended for awhile, by the amount of ash and guttering flames. The creatures who'd made them had left to go hunting.
The largest dead tree in the clearing wasn't a tree at all, but a huge, sharp-angled arch of metal half-buried in the ground. Steve had no idea what it could have come from, but it was obvious from the blood coating the sides what the hunters were using it for. This was where they tied their prey when they weren't ready to kill them.
Some of the blood was yellow, like the alien he and John had killed by the river. So they even hunted each other. Wow.
There was nothing else to see here beyond the casual horror, so Steve picked his way carefully over the death-strewn ground, reorienting himself to the direction the ship was supposed to be in. He wished he could have borrowed Rodney's scanning machine. Even though Rodney needed it more right now, Steve still felt...bad that he hadn't been able to operate it. Like something was wrong with him.
It didn't matter anyway, because the ship wasn't there. Which didn't make any sense. There was even a path here, leading to a second and much larger clearing. It was well-worn and definitely used recently, evidenced by the very large boot prints stamped into it. Had the ship left while Steve was in the other clearing? It couldn't've, not without him hearing it. Maybe he'd gone the wrong way, but this was the only clearing large enough for any kind of craft, even one as small as a fighter jet. It wasn't like it was easy to hide something like that...
Steve smiled. It wasn't easy to hide something like that, unless you had the technology to make yourself invisible, too.
He walked forwards into the second clearing, moving slowly with his hands held out. Less than fifty steps later his palms touched something cool and smooth. Instantly a flash of blue rippled out from where he'd put his hands, arcing over the entire form of the ship before crackling back into nothing.
"Oh, fuck," Steve breathed. He whipped his hands away and bolted towards the forest. There was no way the hunters couldn't have seen that. Which meant they'd seen him, too.
He dove into the closest hiding spot, crouched among the roots of a giant, fallen tree. They'd probably look here first, but if he was lucky when they didn't see or hear him they'd just keep going. He might not see them either, but he'd be able to hear them if they came for him. But nobody did.
Steve checked his watch and grimaced. Less than three minutes before he was due back and he knew for sure that John would come after him the exact moment he was over his time limit. But he waited another few seconds, just to make sure there really wasn't anyone tailing him.
Apparently Rodney was wrong. No one was watching the ship.
"Lucky," Steve whispered, very softly. "Lucky break. But where are they? Why aren't they after me?" His eyes went wide. "Oh, fuck!"
It was obvious. They hadn't come after Steve because he was hard to find. So they'd gone after the easier prey first.
Steve hurled himself to his feet and started running back the way he came, as fast as he could.
John had fallen asleep sitting next to Rodney with his head on Rodney's shoulder. Rodney was sure he hadn't intended to. He could feel the uncomfortable heat of John's skin even through the shoulder strap of his tac vest, and John's hair was a disgusting, sodden mess that smelled of sweat and mud. Rodney was fairly certain the Tylenol had stopped working. That wasn't good.
Danny was on Rodney's other side, looking like a yellow kitten that had been dragged backwards through a swamp. But he was awake and alert, and seemed to be in less pain. Other than what Rodney would do to him if he asked what time it was again--
"What time is it?" Danny asked. He leaned over Rodney--again--to try and see John's watch, which wasn't more successful than it'd been the first ten times. "Steve should be back by now. He's taking too long."
Rodney let out an extremely irritated huff. "How can you know that if you don't know what time it is?" Rodney gave in and checked his own watch. "And he still has seven minutes."
Danny shook his head mulishly. "It's too long." He smacked the back of his head against the tree behind them. "John shouldn't've given him that much time. He has no idea what kind of shit Steve can get into in twenty minutes. In twenty minutes he could start World War III. We need to go after him. We totally need to go after him."
"I'm sure he finds your faith in him heartwarming," Rodney said. He looked away from Danny to concentrate on finding John's pulse in his wrist. It was definitely too fast, beating frantically under skin unnaturally warm with fever. "I'm the only one who can go after him, anyway. And believe me, I will readily admit that trying to outmaneuver aliens in a landscape littered with tripping hazards is not something I'm particularly good at."
Danny snorted. "What are you good at?"
Rodney decided he'd be generous because Danny was worried, and chose to ignore the implied insult. "Everything else."
Danny smirked but it was almost completely humorless. He turned his hands palm-up on his thighs, flexing his fingers. "I really think they're healing. Look." He flexed his fingers again, faster this time, showing Rodney. He grinned. "John was right--I must've barely touched the thing. My hands would've never healed this fast otherwise." He shook his head. "Last time I used my Gift, it took at least a week before I could pick things up. And that was after the nurse at the burn clinic used her Gift to fix the worst of it." He kept bending his fingers, looking at them in delighted wonder. "This is fantastic." He made a face. "Damn, I wish I still had my gun."
"You can use mine when Steve gets back," Rodney said, privately wondering when he'd gotten so good at faking optimism, and why John kept missing him doing it.
He also wished he could tell John that his Charm had probably saved Danny's hands, maybe even his life. Definitely the sixth best Gift on Atlantis, he thought, and smiled a little.
John's fingers twitched, then he sighed in his sleep and started talking. The words were too low and indistinct for Rodney to understand, but he could hear the urgency in John's voice and see the agitation in the way he was moving.
"Whoa," Danny said. He looked worriedly at Rodney. "Is he okay?"
"What do you think?" Rodney snapped at him, then turned towards John and nearly got smacked in the nose when John tossed his head. Rodney jerked back and John's head slipped off his shoulder and he toppled sideways, landing heavily on Rodney's thigh before Rodney could catch him.
John's eyes opened to heavy slits. "Rodney! I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I still trust you. Please come back."
"John? John, I'm right here," Rodney said, but it was obvious that John couldn't see or hear him.
"It's the fever," Danny said with authority. "My kid gets like this sometimes--most fucked-up dreams you can imagine." He leaned across Rodney again and gently shook John's shoulder. "Hey, hey, John, wake up. You're having a nightmare, babe. Everything's fine, you just need to wake up."
John rocketed upright so fast that Danny nearly fell over Rodney's knees. John stared down at the crook of his elbow in horror, and then started scratching his arm with his nails like he was trying to tear off a layer of skin.
"Oh no." Rodney dove for John at the same time Danny said, 'what the fuck?' and grabbed John's arm.
John fought them both, crying out in incoherent anger and fear as he kicked and thrashed, trying desperately to get free. Blood ran down his arm from three deep furrows he'd dug with his nails before Danny had pulled his hand away. It looked startlingly red against the grayish mud and the pallor of John's skin.
"Jesus Christ, he's like an animal!" Danny straddled John's legs, trying to trap them with his own. He was holding John's arm with both hands.
"John, damn it, wake up!" Rodney hissed next to John's too-warm ear. He pulled John against him with John's back to his chest and his arm across John's torso so he wouldn't break free and try to rip the skin off his arm again. He held John's wrist in his other hand, hating that his grip was tight enough to bruise. But he didn't know what else to do. "John, it's just a nightmare. You're fine, you're not changing. You're fine. God, please wake up!"
Rodney could see Danny gaping at him, and Rodney was about to say that no, this was definitely not the time to ask about the changing thing. Except that just then Danny's wide blue eyes went impossibly wider.
"Shh!" he said, right before Rodney heard a crack like the snap of fresh vegetation trampled by someone who didn't care if they were heard or not.
Rodney's next breath turned to cement in his lungs. He moved his hand up to smack it over John's mouth and pressed down tight. Danny tightened his grip on John's arm and shifted so that all his weight was pinning John's legs, foregoing any gentleness to keep him from moving and making a sound.
Another crackle, like someone was circling the bower. Rodney's detector was snug in one of his pockets, as unreachable right then as the Milky Way. He couldn't even tell how many things were out there. All he knew was that it couldn't be Steve. Steve would have just come in. They're toying with us, Rodney thought frantically. They're toying with us because they have to know we're here. How could they not know we're here? Rodney looked at Danny and the grim lines of his mud-streaked face echoed Rodney's thoughts. They'd been found.
Rodney's P90 was caught between John's back and his stomach, giving him bruises and likely carving dents in John's poor spine. John's .45 was still in its holster on his thigh. But if Rodney let John go to grab for either of them, he had no idea what John would do. He kept fighting them, straining uselessly against their combined weight. His eyes were still wild and blank and as lost as the mind behind them.
Let him go. Danny only formed the words with his mouth then leaned backwards just slightly, not enough to let John move but to show Rodney what he meant.
Rodney swallowed, but nodded. He hated the idea of letting John hurt himself, but they needed their hands free more than they needed to save John from his hallucination.
Danny mouthed, One, two, three, and they both let go at once. John sat up like they'd released a taut spring, and Rodney grabbed his P90 then swung it up and aimed it at the bower's easiest entrance. Danny snatched John's .45 with his left hand and fisted a hunk of John's tee-shirt with his right, using it as an anchor for his forearm to hold John against the tree trunk directly behind them, keeping most of his body between John and the large, yellow alien with the dog helmet, which hadn't already killed them only because it had to duck to get in under the net of vines and leaves.
Rodney blasted the thing with every bullet in his gun. His aim wasn't exceptional but this close there was no possible way he could miss. He shot at the hunter's belly, too scared to do more than hold the gun steady and hope the creature died.
Uneven circles of bright yellow blossomed all over the alien's torso and it gave a clicking roar even louder than the train rattle of the bullets in the small, enclosed space. Danny was methodically emptying John's .45, but he was using his off-hand and trying to keep John from getting in the way and Rodney couldn't tell how many of his shots actually hit.
The hunter started moving, stalking towards the three of them even as it took the bullets and bled and roared in affronted pain. And then Rodney's P90 ran out and all that was left was the last barks of Danny's sidearm, and then nothing but the pathetic clicks of an empty magazine.
"Fuck." Danny shrank away from the alien that was now looming over them, using his body to protect John and keep him from moving. Rodney just watched with his heart hammering in his throat as the alien bent his clawed fingers and extended a very long and jagged-edged sword out of the housing on the back of its wrist.
"Rodney...!" Danny's voice rose as the hunter lifted its sword then turned into a yell as it came down. He ducked and lifted his free arm above his head, but the sword crackled gold against Rodney's shield and didn't touch him.
Danny gurgled out a relieved laugh but Rodney was concentrating too hard to hear what he said. He hated making domes. They were hard and they took a huge amount of concentration and they hurt. It always felt like the mental equivalent of the last set of reps of all the most exhausting workouts he'd ever had to endure, only without the endorphins to compensate or being able to rest afterwards.
The alien thundered another roar, this time in pure rage. It slashed at Rodney's shield again and again and again.
Danny looked at Rodney worriedly, flinching every time the blade came down. "How long can you keep this up?"
"As long as I have to," Rodney grit at him. "But maybe you should reload."
Danny hesitated less than a second before he let go of John. "Stay!" he ordered him then leaned into Rodney's space again, fumbling at his tac vest. "Sorry--can't reach John's pockets. Where's your magazine?"
Rodney slapped at one of the larger pockets, not talking to conserve his strength. Danny grabbed it and smacked it into the P90, then unhooked the gun it from its strap so he could lift it without Rodney strangling. Danny glanced up at the alien, which had stopped its useless slashing and was just watching them. Its yellow blood sizzled every time it fell on the dome. "This is so fucked. It's like we're in fucking shark cage."
The alien made a few more jabs with its knife, carefully, like it was experimenting. Then it stepped back a few paces, tilting its head side to side like it was looking for a good angle. And then it aimed its shoulder turret gun.
"Ah, shit," Rodney gasped, just as his Shield sparked golden under the blue flash of light.
He didn't see the vines move again at the bower entrance, had no idea anyone else was there until suddenly the alien staggered sideways and crashed into the nearest tree trunk.
"Steve!" Danny shot upright, only to bash his head on the inside of the Shield. "Ow!"
It was very strange to see the alien being shot at nearly point-blank range but not hear anything but the wet smack of the bullets in its flesh. It roared again and slashed out desperately with its sword, trying to hit something it couldn't hear or see. It missed, and missed, and missed until the alien swept its arm out in a huge, wild arc that was suddenly stopped by something right before the gunfire stopped too.
"No!" Danny screamed and lunged for Steve so fast that Rodney was forced to drop the Shield before Danny smashed into it and broke his own neck. Danny threw himself to his feet, yanked up the P90 and blasted what was left of the alien.
Any human and most Wraith would have been dead at least six times over. But the hunter was still alive, and still had enough strength to snarl and aim its shoulder turret at Danny.
And it was John who tackled him out of the way just before the alien fired. The blue light smashed through the vines on the far side of the enclosure and then though the tree behind it. Rodney was pretty sure John and Danny landed on Steve, hoped he was still alive enough to notice, and then shielded the alien as it adjusted its aim.
It fired and the turret gun exploded, right along with the alien's head.
Rodney more-or-less didn't black out but he did end up on his face spitting out a mouthful of dirt.
John helped him back up to his knees while Rodney swayed and wiped his mouth and blinked dust out of his eyes. The two-thirds that remained of the alien were slumped over some tree roots, quietly dripping yellow gore into the earth.
"Rodney!" John grabbed him when Rodney teetered a little too far. He still looked like hell, maybe slightly worse, but he was there. Sweating and sick and Rodney could feel the terrible warmth radiating off his skin, but John was awake and aware and right then that was good enough. "Are you all right?"
Rodney nodded, patting vaguely at his vest until he found one of his many half-empty packs of glucose pills. John had to press them out of the blister pack for him.
"You okay?" John asked him. Rodney chewed and swallowed and then nodded more vigorously as his brain came back online. John did his shoulder-whacking thing that meant 'I am desperately worried about you but happy you're still functioning' and then turned his entire attention to Danny, who was crouched next to nothing as far as Rodney could tell. It took him a dazed second to remember why that was bad, and then he gasped and lurched to his feet to go help them.
When Rodney knelt heavily next to John in the dirt his knee squelched into blood that was red, not overly bright yellow, and when he traced the blood to where it disappeared he jammed his fingers against what could only be Steve's bulletproof vest.
"Steve! STEVE! Can you hear me? Stop ghosting!" Danny was leaning over Steve and pretty much shouting into his ear, or at least where it had to be considering there was nothing visible but tree roots and dirt. "We can't stop your bleeding if we don't know where it is! STOP GHOSTING!" He slapped at Steve's torso and then ran his palms over the shape of the vest, searching for the site of the wound. Everything but the backs of his hands disappeared, vanishing with the proximity to his friend. He slid his hands down Steve's side and stopped, and his face went white. "Oh no." He lifted his hands and they were covered in blood.
"Help me sit him up. We need to get this vest off," John said to Danny, voice tight.
Danny obeyed immediately. He and John each found a shoulder and gently lifted Steve up. "Stop moving, idiot," Danny snapped at him. "It'd hurt less if we could see...!"
Rodney felt for the Velcro fasteners on the sides and ripped them open. His fingers slid over the long gash on the side of the vest, feeling the warm wetness of the blood he couldn't see. He could smell it now, though: metallic and cloying and like every other time he'd been in this position, trying desperately to keep someone alive.
Rodney carefully lifted the open vest over Steve's head and then tossed it aside, watching it suddenly appear like a magic trick as soon as it stopped touching Steve's body. The gash Rodney had felt in the vest was a wide, shallow angle that had hit right under Steve's arm. It was bright red with new blood. The whole side of the vest was covered with it.
"Jesus Christ," Danny murmured.
"Lie him on his side," John said.
Rodney, John and Danny moved Steve as carefully as possible, positioning his body by feel. It looked like they weren't doing anything, like this was some ridiculous trust exercise. But Rodney was horribly aware that Steve could be screaming and they wouldn't even know.
John held Steve's head--it looked like he was cradling air in his hands--until Rodney grabbed the discarded vest and folded it into a makeshift pillow that wouldn't get wet blood in his hair. He surreptitiously dragged his fingers along Steve's jaw until he could touch his lips, trying to tell if he really was screaming or not. Rodney could feel the puffs of ragged and shallow breathing, but he didn't know what that meant. The side of Steve's face was wet, all the way up into his hair.
"He's got blood on his face too," Rodney said as soon as he could see his fingers again. "He might've hit his head." He wiped his hand on the cleanest part of his tee-shirt then grabbed his second and last roll of bandages out of a pocket.
"That's not big enough," Danny said. He had that kind of iced-over focus of someone who wasn't panicking only because they'd trained themselves not to. He put his hands on Steve's side and kept his eyes on the leaves above them as he carefully swept up and down, trying to feel out the edges of the wound. "It's like I'm blind," he said, snarling it through his teeth in frustration. "Where the hell's the hem of this shirt--?"
Steve bucked violently, something Rodney could only tell by the reaction of Danny and John. For less than a second he was visible--not just a flicker of a shape but a full-color-and-sound human being very obviously in pain--but he vanished again, as quickly as shutting off a light.
"Damn it! Steven!" Danny shouted. He looked helplessly at Rodney and John. "We can't do this. We're killing him, groping around like this! How can we even bind his wound if we can't fucking see it?" He clenched his jaw then leaned over and gave Steve a hard sternum rub with half-invisible hands. "Steven! Fade in or I'll kill you!"
Rodney could tell Steve moved again, but they still couldn't see him.
John drew a deep breath and swiped sweat of his forehead with a bloodstained hand. He put his hand on Steve's shoulder, merging his fingers into nothing.
"Steven, I need you to listen to me," he said, and Rodney could hear John's Gift in the timbre of his voice.
"John..." Rodney began, but John gave him a sharp, narrow-eyed glare and shook his head. And Danny was right there so Rodney couldn't say anything else.
John swallowed and started speaking again, ignoring Rodney completely. "I know you can hear me, Steve, and you have to listen. This is important."
Rodney closed his fist over the unopened bandage, watching John and the way the shadows seemed to darken under his eyes.
"I know you're tired," John went on, "and I know it hurts so bad you can't think. But I also know you're a God-damned Navy SEAL, Commander, which means you're going to suck it up and turn your Gift off so we can help you. You don't have to like me and you don't have to trust me, Steve, but I know that you sure as hell don't want to die in a fucking game preserve millions of light years from home. So turn your Gift off, Steven. Now."
Steve faded back into the world. He was pale as death, which made the blood drenching his side and half his face stand out in startling crimson. And he was clawing at the ground with his chest heaving in agony and his eyes bare slits like he didn't have the strength to keep them open. But he still managed to glare up at John.
"F-fuck you, sir," he panted, spitting out the blood that ran into his mouth.
John sank back on his heels then leaned heavily against the tree behind him, holding his side. The blood from the gouges in his arm was clotted burgundy, the brightest color anywhere on him. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "Yeah, you're welcome."
Rodney glanced at John, then at Steve, then at the body of the alien and the thick vines of the bower behind it. "We shouldn't stay here," he said, even as he started unwrapping the bandage. "What if more of them come back?"
"They won't," John said without opening his eyes. Without his Gift threading through his voice he sounded like he could barely find enough energy to speak. "Not for awhile, at least. We've killed two of them. They need to regroup."
"He's right," Danny said, as if Rodney wouldn't believe John otherwise. He ripped open his vest and took it off, then lifted up on his knees and yanked his ripped shirt off over his head without trying to unbutton it. He swore softly in pain but Rodney had no idea what part of him was hurting. Danny knelt again and spread the shirt across his lap, folding it until it was a thick pad of cotton. "Here," he said, offering it to Rodney. "Maybe it'll help absorb the blood."
Rodney was pretty sure the thin material had already reached its saturation point, but he figured it couldn't make things worse so he nodded his thanks and took it anyway. "I'm sorry," he said to Steve, "this is going to hurt."
Steve just nodded and closed his eyes.
"The ship is invisible," Steve said between labored breaths. "Like the hunters."
"Shut up," Danny snapped at him. "You're getting blood everywhere. It's disgusting." John thought it was pretty obvious it wasn't the aesthetics Danny was worried about, given how very carefully he was holding Steve up without putting any pressure near his wound.
"But you said the shield didn't repel you, like mine does. You could touch it?" Rodney asked him. He was trying to secure the remains of Danny's shirt against Steve's side, using the gauze pad of the one remaining bandage. The gauze was a lot smaller than the folded shirt and wasn't holding it too well. Rodney frowned and adjusted it again. "Sorry," he said quickly when Steve sucked in an involuntary breath.
Danny glared at Rodney.
"It's okay, Danno," Steve panted. "He's trying to help."
Danny glared at Steve. "I told you to stop talking."
Rodney finished tying the bandage, still looking unhappy. "I know it's probably too loose, but I don't want to risk making your ribs worse." He sat back on his heels, running his thumb over his blood-covered fingers, something he only did when he felt particularly helpless. It was a perfect tell for how upset he was. John knew Rodney would be pacing if there was enough room for it. "You were able to touch the ship, right? Just nod," Rodney added quickly before Steve opened his mouth.
"Great," Rodney said. He reached up to rub the middle of his forehead, noticed all the blood on his hand and obviously thought better of it. "So all I have to do is break into an alien ship I can't even see. Piece of cake."
"I thought you could fix anything," John said, because nothing got Rodney motivated like a little jab to his ego, and John wasn't above occasionally using that against him.
Of course Rodney knew him pretty well by now, and the look he shot John in reply said he knew exactly what John was doing. "I can fix anything, given enough time. And provided I can see it. It's going to be a little harder trying to manipulate unfamiliar technology by Braille!" He leaned over the gauntlet on the very dead alien's wrist, wincing in disgust and trying to touch it without actually using his fingers. "Figuring out how this thing works is going to be hard enough...!"
"You'll manage it, Rodney. You always do," John said with a weariness that he wished wasn't precisely how he felt. He knew they were going to have to leave the shelter as soon as possible--the few minutes it took to bandage Steve's wound was already too long--but he was still working himself up to standing. He was miserably cold and every part of him ached. The small stab wound from the thorn felt like it had grown into a black hole, steadily consuming his entire body. He couldn't remember if black holes were hot, but under the filthy bandage the wound in his side was hot and swollen and hurt like hell. It was still leaking something, but John didn't think it was blood anymore. Not that he'd wanted to look to find out.
He was so damn tired that all he wanted to do was flop down next to the tree trunk and fall asleep. A small part of him didn't even care that the aliens would find him. He wouldn't feel this awful if he were dead.
But he'd rip Rodney a new one if he heard him talking like that, or anyone on Atlantis if it came down to it. And the others were all counting on him to get them out of this, especially with the super badass SEAL so thoroughly incapacitated. He had cracked ribs for certain--John had had them often enough to recognize that particular kind of shallow, uncomfortable breathing--and he'd bashed his head when the alien had shoved him into a tree. Head wounds bled like a bitch but Steve insisted he'd only been dazed, nothing worse. John could only take his word for it, since no one had seen what happened.
But the gash in Steve's side was bad enough, even without a concussion to make things worse. John was pretty sure he wasn't going to bleed to death, but the cracked ribs were going to slow him down; Steve was already breathing too fast and finding it hard to talk.
John tried to ignore the whisper in the back of his skull that it was his fault, but he was too sick to manage it. He had a vague memory of a nightmare where he was turning into that Wraith/Iratus bug hybrid thing again, and there was no mistaking the blood on his arm and fingernails. He could only guess he'd been deliriously clawing at himself to get non-existent scales off while Rodney and Danny and Steve fought the alien without him. And even though he realized he hadn't exactly asked to be dumped into a tree full of thorns, he couldn't help thinking he'd let everyone down anyway, freaking out when they needed him. It didn't matter how sick he was, he couldn't let that happen again.
And he wouldn't. He just wished he could stand.
"...I'm serious. You have no idea how difficult it is to carry off the endless miracles I constantly perform." Rodney seemed to have worked up a good head of steam, and John realized that he didn't even know how long he'd been talking.
"So, perform another one," John said, which as a comeback was so lame it should've been shot but it did do the trick: Rodney glowered at him and then went back to examining the hunter's gauntlet with that much more concentration. It worked every time. John smiled as he concentrated on getting his rubber-band legs to actually obey him.
"You know, you two need some serious couples counseling," Danny said.
"They sound like you," Steve panted, and then grinned at Danny's expression. John was sure the effect would be better without all the blood.
"First of all, I told you to shut up," Danny said. "Second, you may believe, erroneously, that they sound like me, but that is because you, my friend, have no idea what the difference is between friendly, heartfelt and generously-given advice--which is what I do all the time--and cruel and gratuitous insults, which, as your partner, is what I'm forced to endure on a daily basis. Can you stand if I help?"
John was too busy dragging himself to his feet to watch Danny lift Steve, but he could hear by the stifled groan that Steve didn't enjoy it very much. John's body wasn't enjoying having to support itself again either, but he only wobbled a little bit as he turned around, then let himself lean against the tree for a second, just to gather his strength.
"You done yet?" he said to Rodney. "We need to get out of here ten minutes ago."
"Thank you for the reminder of how much peril we're in. It's so easy to forget things like that," Rodney snapped absently as he worked on the gore-spattered gauntlet. "Got it!" he exclaimed, then slithered the thing off, grimaced then held it up in weary triumph. "Found the key fob," he explained. "This should turn the shield off, but I'll know for sure once we're closer."
"Knew you'd figure something out," John said, and he made sure his smile was friendly, heartfelt and generously given as he tottered away from the shelter of the tree.
"What the hell is this place?" Danny murmured. His eyes were darting like bright blue marbles as his gaze jumped around the large clearing. He was carrying Rodney's M9 and looking like a blond Wolverine wearing his Kevlar vest with nothing underneath it. John could tell it was hurting Danny to hold the gun with both hands, but considering how Danny had looked after burning the dog it was fantastic that he could hold anything at all. Danny had said that the burns he got from his Gift healed quickly, but John hadn't expected anything this fast. It was amazing.
And lucky, considering that they needed all the firepower they could get. Not to mention that right now the P90 he was carrying felt roughly as heavy as a car. John had wanted Rodney to carry it, especially since it was his in the first place and he hadn't been spazzy enough to lose it. But in the end John hadn't argued much because he didn't think saying, 'you should take it because I don't think I can lift it' would go over very well. Rodney had enough to worry about, and way more important things to concentrate on than John being a little under the weather.
"Trophy grounds," Steve murmured. He still had his SIG, though he'd said he was almost out of ammo and it had to hurt like hell to have his arms up like that. But he'd insisted on walking without anyone's help and John hadn't argued too much about that, either. Danny had hollered blue murder of course, until Steve had pulled the either-I-walk-or-I'm-staying-here-because-I'm not-endangering-you card, which was pretty low but made Danny cave with surprising immediacy. The worst part was that Steve wasn't wrong, because they were basically strolling right into enemy territory and they needed everyone mobile to have a hope in hell of surviving. But John couldn't blame Danny at all for the black looks he threw Steve, or how Danny became Steve's self-appointed bodyguard, practically hovering next to him and searching the clearing with so much vigilance that John figured he'd spot an alien even if it was invisible.
Rodney, of course, had pretty much glued himself to John though he'd pretended it was for his own protection since John had better aim. But he was carrying John's .45 like the pro he now was, steps sure and confident even as his eyes darted around the same way Danny's did. John knew Rodney just wanted to be close enough to make it easy to shield him, with was both touching and humiliating.
"I'm sure they're watching us right now and laughing," Rodney said, which John would've dismissed as typical Rodney paranoia if he hadn't felt exactly the same thing himself. "They know we're going for their ship and they probably think that's hilarious. Or cute, or something." He made his voice into a saccharine coo: "Oh, look at the adorable little humans being so stupid!"
"They can definitely hear you," John murmured. He carefully stepped over a skull that he was eerily certain had belonged to an Asgard, with the triangle-shaped face and the freakily large eye-sockets. The flayed skin that made Rodney whimper had obviously been part of a human, once. He hoped the guy had died quickly.
"That is...please tell me that's not human," Danny said, obviously looking at the same thing. "Are they going to make a coat or something? That's just sick. That's fucking demented."
"They're aliens, Danny," Steve said, breaking the words into single syllables. The blood on the side of his head had mostly clotted, but he was squinting despite how the trees filtered the sunlight and he kept rubbing his temple like his head hurt. It probably did, considering he'd been bowled into a tree.
"You all right?" John asked Steve, interrupting Danny's less-than-polite reply.
Steve nodded, giving John a smile that was too pathetic to even be fake. "Ribs're sore. I'll be fine."
"What about your head?" John pressed, because that was what he was really worried about.
"It's fine." Steve pointedly turned away before John could push him on it, which only proved that John had been right in the first place. Another problem he couldn't do anything about, except get them all home before things got worse.
Danny said something that called Steve on his blatant lie, but John missed it because of how he nearly tripped over a long, dark thing on the ground and the way catching himself made the world spin and his side howl in pain. It turned out that he'd almost ended up on his face because of a sword, not a tree branch the way he'd thought. It was a katana, which really shouldn't have been that surprising, given what Rodney had said. It was no fun at all shouldering his P90 and then bending to pick the katana up, but it was worth it to have another weapon.
The weird part was how it was possibly over a thousand years old. The poor Samurai it'd been taken from had probably thought he'd been abducted by demons. John wondered if he'd even had a chance against them, a thousand years ago or not.
The sword didn't look like it was that old, though. The hilt was obviously worn, but when John pulled the blade from its scabbard there was no sign of rust or wear. Only a rime of clotted yellow blood. That explained why the sword had been tossed aside like one of the stripped bones. John wouldn't want a reminder of a colleague's death, either.
He smiled grimly as he re-sheathed the katana and slid it through his belt. Looked like the Samurai got some of his own back before he died.
Danny looked at him skeptically. "Do you really know how to use that?"
"Yep." John walked past him, too tired to bother elaborating. It wasn't the exact type of sword that Ronon had taught him, but the katana was roughly the same size and shape and John was sure it'd be close enough. The idea of having to dredge up the energy to actually fight with the thing was pretty awful, but considering how low they were on ammunition he might not have a choice and what the hell was that?
John froze, sure he saw something moving. Something dark, larger than he was--
And of course, of course he should've expected that, he chastised himself even as he aimed his P90 and yelled a warning. The Wraith were the top of the food chain in the Pegasus galaxy, so powerful and terrifying that some civilizations worshiped them as gods. Of course the hunter aliens would have abducted them too. They were tougher, stronger and faster than humans, and with humans to feed on it would take them forever to die. Like the Wraith that was coming for him, coming for all of them, striding through the trophy grounds like it owned the place and not even flinching at John filling it with bullets. John couldn't stop it and it was going to kill everyone...
"John! John! Stop!" Rodney yelled at him, right in his face and John stopped firing automatically so he wouldn't hit him. "John, there's no Wraith. There's no Wraith, see? It's a skull. It's just a skull. It's as dead as everything else."
John followed where Rodney pointed with his eyes and saw the skull, nothing more than that, tied to one of the dead trees and haloed by wisps of tangled white hair. What John had thought was its black fetish-garb Matrix coat was another flayed skin of some other long-dead animal, fluttering like a pennant in the wind. It wasn't even tacked to the same tree.
John blinked. "Oh," he croaked. It took him a moment to remember how to loosen his hand from the white-knuckled grip he had on his gun.
"I really don't want to meet a Wraith, if that's a typical reaction," Danny said. He looked more than a little wild-eyed, staring at John like he'd grown horns. John couldn't blame him.
"Fever," Steve said, probably because he didn't have enough air for 'hallucination'.
"No kidding," Rodney said. He slapped his hand over John's forehead. John reeled in alarm and Rodney put his other hand on the back of John's neck to steady him. "Sorry. Moved too fast." John felt cold, not hot, but he didn't miss the flash of concern before Rodney schooled his features into his regular irritation. "He should be in a hospital, not playing hide-and-seek with killer aliens."
"Sorry," John croaked some more, deeply ashamed. Way to go, John. Blow your ammo on nothing. He couldn't even keep his shit together when everyone was depending on him.
He wanted to take the P90's sling off, to give the gun to Rodney. Rodney would be able to use what few bullets were left without freaking out at shadows. But for a second John couldn't figure out how to do that, and when he tilted his head to make it easier he swayed in the same direction. Which was the only reason the blue jellyfish light seared his tee-shirt and didn't decapitate him.
Rodney yelled something and grabbed his wrist and ran, hauling John after him. Danny was galloping along beside him, keeping up despite his knee, and John just hoped to hell Steve was there too, because he'd pulled his disappearing SEAL act again. That meant Rodney couldn't shield Steve either, because his Gift only worked if he could see what he was shielding. Except Rodney had obviously constructed another dome around them as they ran, so maybe he was just winging it, estimating where Steve should be by using that incredible brain of his.
"What now?" Danny hollered, and then winced and ducked as blue and gold light splintered in his peripheral vision. He was the only one of the four of them who could run and talk at the same time, since John was too sick, Steve was...somewhere and couldn't spare the breath even if they could hear him, and Rodney was too busy shielding them and trying to work the alien gauntlet at the same time. Rodney had let go of John so he could use both hands and he was running mostly blind, barely sparing a glance around him every so often to make sure he didn't fall.
John ran faster through sheer force of will, catching up to Rodney so he could grab his arm to guide him. He saw that half of one of Danny's hands was missing and John's heart stumbled with oh my God he's been hit before he realized that Danny had to be dragging Steve with him. And then John's relief that Danny was whole and Steve was findable made his heart stumble again, only this time his feet went with it. He pitched sideways and smacked his shoulder against the inside of Rodney's Shield, which hurt just as much as he remembered but that was barely comparable to the pain ricocheting through the rest of him.
"Damn it, John!" Then Rodney grabbed John again and hauled him upright, then kept holding his arm as they ran. Rodney was red-faced and laboring as the four of them thudded along a path full of very large boot prints that John really, really hoped led to the ship and not, say, more aliens or a pit trap, and Rodney shouldn't've had to do this: keep John on his damn feet when he was doing so much to protect them all already. John hadn't felt--hadn't been--this useless since the time his team had been trapped in a Jumper with that fucking Iratus bug gnawing on his neck, and at least then he'd figured out how to save himself. This time he had absolutely nothing.
"Where's the ship?" Rodney called to the invisible Steve over his shoulder. Then, "The ship!" Much louder, as if Steve hadn't heard him.
Steve faded in, looking pale and very much in pain. "Just told you. Almost there."
"We can't hear you when you're ghosted, remember?" Danny snapped at him.
"I'm here," Steve said.
That wasn't an answer to what Danny had asked, and made John worry enough to risk a glance over his shoulder at him. Steve was loping along in a kind of sprinting lurch with one arm wrapped around his chest, as if that would do a damn thing for his ribs. He looked about as lousy as John felt, but he seemed alert enough and he wasn't the one who'd freaked out over a skull back in the trophy grounds. And they were almost home free anyway; they just had to keep going until they got to the ship.
No problem, John thought, wondering who the hell he was pretending to convince.
"There!" Steve pointed at basically nothing but John could see where the footprints disappeared and he skidded to a messy stop, forcing Rodney to slow down before he ran right into the thing.
"This is it? We're here?" Rodney asked but answered his own question by patting the air in front of him until the gold web of his Shield hit something solid and blue flashed out in a bizarrely pretty wave to frame the ship. It wasn't much of a cloak if it disappeared whenever you touched it John figured, and that probably shouldn't have given him any reason for optimism but Jeez, the little Jumpers back on Atlantis had better cloaks than that. Rodney could probably crack this easily, if the tech was that down market.
John knelt heavily when Rodney did, using the unseen overhang of one of the ship's engines for the minimum cover it provided. Danny ducked in beside him while Steve stayed on Rodney's other side, crouched down with his back to the hull. Another jellyfish light smacked into Rodney's Shield and scattered blue and gold, but nothing like the barrage John was expecting.
"They're not trying very hard," Danny observed then startled visibly when another blast scattered right in front of his face.
"They know they're just wasting ammo," John said. All the same he didn't know how much more of this Rodney could handle. He flinched every time a bolt hit whether or not he could see it, and he kept having to stop what he was doing to wipe sweat out of his eyes.
"So, why are they still here, then? Why don't they, I don't know, blow up the ship or something?" Danny asked. He winced as another bolt hit. "This is just creepy. We can't even see them."
"I think there's just one left," John said. "The shots are coming from the same origin point." He couldn't be sure since he couldn't see the hunter, but there was definitely only one bolt at a time.
"So we'll all be killed by the same alien? Convenient!" Danny said before he flinched and ducked when another beam hit Rodney's Shield. "Why is he just shooting at me?"
"Maybe you're too loud," John said. He turned to Rodney. "Any time now! It'd be great to get in before your Shield drops."
"No pressure!" Danny added, but John thought the sarcasm might be for him.
"I'm doing the best that I can," Rodney spat through his clenched teeth. "And they're not blowing up the ship because I think I managed to disable any other gauntlet access to it. I think."
"Maybe you should try opening the door?" Danny said.
"I am trying to open the door!" Rodney snarled. "But there wouldn't've been much point if they could just blow the ship up!"
John couldn't argue with that, but when the next blue light hit his Shield Rodney actually groaned out loud and dropped the gauntlet. "Fuck," he murmured, fumbling for it in the dirt between his knees.
"Rodney, lose the Shield," John said.
Rodney spared a second to gape at him. "Are you crazy?"
"Maybe," John conceded. "But I have an idea."
"Dying horribly is not a good idea!" Rodney said, but this time when a jellyfish bolt hit his Shield flickered and then part of the light went right through. It just missed grazing Rodney's arm and he cried out and fell sideways.
Steve caught him before he hit the ground. It looked like Rodney was propped up on empty air. Steve had disappeared again. John wanted to believe that was deliberate.
"Oh, crap," Danny breathed. He scrambled to his feet, panting in fear as he tried to aim his gun at a creature he couldn't see.
"Don't, Danny," John ordered. "Lower your gun."
"You really are crazy!" Danny said. "We'll be sitting ducks!"
"We are sitting ducks," John said. He stood as well, moving slowly and hoping the alien bought that he was doing it on purpose. He stepped in front of Rodney, who was at least upright again though he was rubbing his arm like he couldn't believe it was still attached.
"Keep working," he said to Rodney. "I'll try to buy you some time."
He couldn't see the alien--he really hoped there was just one--but he knew he had its complete attention. The alien wasn't firing anymore because it knew it had won. It just wanted to see what John would do.
John ducked and carefully pulled the P90s sling over his head and handed it to Danny. Then John unsheathed the sword. He held it in both hands, feeling the grip and the weight and the way it balanced. It was a beautiful weapon. Hopefully he'd live long enough to do it any kind of justice.
The alien turned visible, walking forward to accept John's silent challenge. It extended its jagged sword with a sound like clashing knives.
"Holy fuck--you're going to sword fight with that thing? It'll kill you!" Danny sounded awed and impressed and horrified, but John couldn't spare the time to look.
"John?" Rodney just sounded horrified. "John, no! Don't do this!"
"I'll buy you as much time as I can," John said. "Get them home."
"How?" Rodney demanded. "Damn it, John, I'm not a pilot! I can't fly this without you!"
"You're a genius and you've flown Jumpers. You'll figure it out," John said. He took a step away from the ship and adjusted his grip on the sword to make sure he kept the alien's attention. He didn't want the thing to get bored and start shooting again.
"No! John, he'll kill you!" Rodney reached for John but John sidestepped him.
"Rodney, you need to get Danny and Steve home," John said, putting his Gift into it. It made him dizzy and he wasn't sure it worked, but he didn't have time to try again and he was pretty sure Rodney would forgive him anyway. Pretty sure.
"Protect him," John said to Danny, and then steeled himself as he saw the hunter lifting its sword arm. "So long, Rodney," he said, and charged.
Or, really mostly staggered with something approaching actual speed. John remembered everything he was supposed to do. Practice, repetition and Ronon's friendly insults had etched it all indelibly into his brain. And Ronon was almost the hunter's size, so John had practice with that, too. But the katana felt like a lead bar and every movement dragged like he was moving through water. The alien blocked John's strike with humiliating ease and didn't even bother to hit him in return. It just shoved a little and watched John stumble back.
John gritted teeth and attacked again. It was very hard not telegraphing every move when it cost so much effort just lifting the sword, and John wasn't surprised when the alien caught his next strike then shoved him away again. It was laughing at him. John could tell by the creature's stance, even if the thing didn't make more than the clicking sounds. This was just a game. He was being played with like a cat with a mouse.
The anger made it a little easier to ignore the clawing pain in his side, and John's next slash was fast enough to graze the alien's arm. John grinned at the indignant roar then managed to twist fast enough to block the hunter's counterstrike, though moving like that hurt so badly John almost regretted doing it.
The alien wasn't laughing anymore, but it wasn't playing either. It swiped a long red line across John's chest before he could do more than parry the worst of it, but at least he wasn't cut in half. And his adrenaline was running now, dampening the pain and quickening his limbs. This time he managed a feint that the hunter didn't catch, and the slice along its tree trunk thigh made it click-roar in recognizable pain.
John blocked the swing it made in furious retaliation but the blow almost tore the sword out of his hands. The hunter spun and slashed at him again and he threw himself backwards swiftly enough to keep his head and his neck attached, but the jagged tip of the blade scored a tiny nick out of the base of his throat. He landed heavily on the ground with the wind kicked from his lungs and his side on fire and everywhere else hurting to the core of his bones.
He tried to get up but he was done: shaking with fever and exhaustion and so spent he could barely move. He caught a glimpse of Danny--still outside the ship, God damn it--aiming the P90, but John couldn't dredge up a yell to stop him before he fired the few remaining bullets.
There wasn't enough ammunition left in the P90 for even a full second of fire, but the bullets danced along the hunter's shoulder and up to its face, splashing into yellow blood where they hit exposed skin and then flickering blue where they hit its shoulder guard and Anubis helmet.
John heaved himself up onto his elbows, trying to use the distraction to crabwalk away, but the alien stalked forward and used its foot to flip John onto his stomach, then stepped on his back and shoved him down so hard he tasted dirt.
It kept John pinned like that while it did exactly what John had tried to warn Danny against and shot back at him. Danny and Rodney both threw themselves under the engine pod as the alien fired, and its deadly blue light hit that instead, burning a thick black hole into the long cylinder.
That just made the alien even angrier and John felt his ribs creak as it put more weight on his back. It lifted its sword and John heard Rodney yelling his name the way people always did when there was no way you could answer, and John scrabbled for his katana because he wasn't going to just die like this, not with Rodney watching with his blue eyes wide and terrified. And then the alien stabbed down with his sword right at the center of John's back and it hit the gold of Rodney's Shield and skidded away.
The alien did its clicking roar and yanked its foot back, stung by the Shield suddenly forming underneath it, and then roared even louder as four bullets smacked into it. Four bullets from nowhere, which meant Steve had come after him.
John was more pissed than grateful about that, since Steve had just gone and fucked up the whole reason John had grabbed the short straw in the first place. But John wasn't going to waste an opportunity to keep breathing, so he flipped onto his back--boy did that hurt--and grabbed for his sword again. But it was gone.
Vanished, actually, John realized in the next moment when a small yellow line appeared on the alien's unprotected stomach. It howled and grabbed automatically at the invisible cause of its pain, only to howl some more as it just sliced up the palms of its hands.
Steve yanked the sword out in a fluorescent yellow geyser of blood. The hunter swatted at the air where Steve had been but John could tell that Steve ducked low out of the way because of the flicker in the corner of his vision. Then Steve stabbed another deep line of blood in the alien's unwounded thigh.
John grinned, and he could hear Danny yelling in gleeful encouragement. Steve used the sword more like a very long combat knife, but he was doing some real damage and John started thinking they might all get out of this, him included, until Steve straightened up, and this time John could tell because the katana was suddenly visible again.
Stood up too fast, John thought helplessly, remembering Steve's headache and weird non-reply and the obvious concussion he'd insisted was fine. And because John could see the sword, he could tell when Steve staggered and then when he dropped it, and of course the alien could too. Just like the alien could use it to figure out where Steve was standing.
"Move!" John hollered at him, trying to get up to help, to do anything, but it was already too late. The hunter backhanded Steve across his chest, so hard that John could tell where he landed because of the marks left by his body rolling in the dirt.
And now John had the alien's full attention again. And it was pissed. This time it didn't bother with its sword. John saw the red spatter of the laser target meander up his chest to his forehead and he closed his eyes and got ready to die.
'Protect him', ordered Colonel bet-you-only-thought-SEALs-were-this-suicidal Sheppard, right before he leapt up to throw himself on an alien-shaped grenade. Protect Rodney. And how in hell, exactly, was Danny supposed to do that?
Rodney was the one with the Shield, okay, and Danny got that he was a little busy right now but he only had Rodney's M9 and a P90 with maybe three bullets left in it, and once dogface the alien got through mincing John into itty-bitty pieces Danny didn't think one sidearm, a mostly-empty gun and his winning personality were going to do a hell of a lot.
"We're not just going to let him do this, are we?" Danny asked Rodney then grimaced as the alien casually blocked John's strike and shoved him backwards. "That thing's going to slice him apart!"
"I know! But I have to get you guys home!" Rodney hissed back at him. He had a small tool kit out with the pieces scattered around his knees, prying at the dead alien's gauntlet with what looked vaguely like the lovechild of a screwdriver and a magic wand. "I can only do so many things at once! Yes!" he exclaimed when the ship suddenly flickered into visibility, just before an ugly yellow spark jumped from the gauntlet up the screwdriver and zapped his fingers. "Ow! Fuck." Rodney bared his teeth at the gauntlet and then at Danny. "Of course I don't want him to be killed! But he told me to get you home."
"What, he tells you to do something so you're just going to let him die?" Danny gaped at Rodney and then turned away from him, too angry to keep talking. He holstered the M9 in favor of hefting the P90, which could be used one-handed but was much easier with two. He aimed at the hunter, who was still playing with John like a cat toy, but he didn't trust himself to fire and not hit John by accident. He groaned in frustration. "Steve!" he called instead. "Steve! Where the hell are you?"
Danny'd assumed (well, okay, he'd hoped) that when Steve disappeared again it'd been because he was doing another stealth ninja thing, but Steve would've told him. At least he did most of the time. But he was just gone, like he'd forgotten to turn his Gift off, or that Rodney and Danny couldn't see him. "Steven!"
Normally when Steve stopped the ghosting he went from invisible and silent to full picture and sound in the space of a blink. But this time he didn't appear so much as fade in incrementally, like an old movie played in reverse. Like he couldn't do any better. He was crouched against the silvery-green hull of the ship, SIG in one hand and his other arm holding his ribs. Finally all there physically, but when he looked at Danny it was like some part of him was still missing.
"Danny?" Steve asked like he wasn't totally sure Danny was there. He cleared blood out of his eyes with one hand, leaving red and mud-brown streaks on his pain-whitened skin. He said something else but Danny couldn't understand because it wasn't in English.
That wasn't good. In fact that was really fucking unbelievably bad. "Steven!" Danny barked, and Steve jerked his head up and blinked at him. "This isn't Korea," Danny said, gambling that Steve's brain had dumped him back in the last awful place with this much plant life and people trying to kill him. Steve already had the head injury and the shit beaten out of him. Really, all they were missing was the cattle prod and chains.
"I know, Danny," Steve panted, even though he looked like he mostly didn't, but just then John caught Danny's attention by falling flat on his back and staying there, and Danny murmured, "Shit," and launched himself to his feet and started shooting.
There were, unfortunately, barely enough bullets to do more than mildly annoy the thing but even if the alien was standing on John he wasn't killing him so score two for Jersey. Danny had a nanosecond to be pleased about that before he realized that the alien was multitasking and going to squish John and shoot them at the same time. He and Rodney dove out of the way but the ship didn't, and Danny really hoped it could still fly with a hole that big because otherwise they couldn't be more fucked.
Not that they weren't completely fucked already, naturally, but Danny was kind of used to that. One of the many, many professional hazards of working with Steve. Who had disappeared again, apparently in order to go play tag-team suicide with John.
It almost worked, too. Swords might have been the only weapons in existence that Steve wasn't an expert in, but you didn't have to be an expert when your opponent couldn't see what you were doing.
"Yes! Yes! Get him, you badass ninja motherfucker!" Danny whooped when Steve skewered the alien through its snot-colored torso and then ducked its counterstrike to stab its thigh. Danny waited for the hunter to topple over and finally be dead, but it stayed alive like it was God-damn Jason Voorhees, and then Steve went from badass ninja to easy, stumbling target in one move and the alien hit him hard enough to send his body flying. Danny could only tell where Steve landed by the scuffs his body left on the ground.
Danny's horrified scream got stuck somewhere in his throat. He was sure Steve was dead, that with one swing a fucking alien had managed to do what even Wo Fat couldn't with an entire military bunker and truckloads of hired thugs. And all Danny wanted to do was find what was left of his best friend but he couldn't, because that red laser was crawling up John's body and Danny had to do something or John would be dead too, and there was no fucking way that was happening.
The only thing Danny had to shoot now was Rodney's M9, but it was good and solid and he was so angry that his hands didn't hurt and it was very, very satisfying to put every single one of the 15 bullets into the middle of the fucking dog-faced hunter's body. Rodney joined the party with the .45 and that had to be enough, except for how this had become a horror movie and it wasn't.
The alien was hurting at least. Yellow blood ran down its torso like paint, covering its booty shorts and legs. The hunter clamped his big hands over his torso where Steve had stabbed him. Got you, fucker! And it was trying not to put any weight on one of its legs. But it wasn't hurting enough to be unable to shoot, and it definitely wasn't stupid. It ignored John and didn't even come after Danny, but shambled towards Rodney instead, blasting at him with the turret gun.
John's cry of denial sounded more like the miserable mewl of a kitten even though Danny knew exactly what he meant. But Rodney was still alive, and though every crackling splatter of light against his Shield looked like it was stabbing him in the chest he kept his Shield up and held on, barely, not just protecting himself but the ship too. And the alien kept pounding him, because the dogface was smart and had figured out that Rodney and the ship were their way off this alien-infested hellhole. And since it was dying it didn't give a shit about its ride anymore, but it was going to make sure its prey didn't get to escape.
That was fucking petty, and Danny didn't like petty. But mostly he didn't like being hunted or watching his friends get shot at or someone he really cared about get bashed so hard they were thrown like ragdolls and were probably dead.
And he'd had enough. He'd had it up to the eye teeth with this fucking jungle or rainforest or whatever the hell it was and being chased like animals and toyed with and shot at and run down with dogs. So when John grabbed one of the alien's blood-slick legs and tripped it, Danny ran up to the thing as it was climbing to its feet and likely deciding if it was going to shoot John or stomp on him again.
"Hey! Ugly! Yeah, you, ET asshole, over here!" Danny shouted, and when the alien swung its head towards him he used the P90 to club it right in the side of its dog helmet.
Danny knew he wasn't tall but he was dense and thick-boned and powerful and really, really angry, and a submachine gun might not make the best blunt weapon but that didn't stop it from putting in a really big dent in the alien's helmet before knocking it right off.
Danny'd expected an actual dogface under there, he really had. Something like the hell hounds that'd attacked them or like in the Little Red Riding Hood stories he read to Grace, where the big bad wolf sometimes walked on his hind legs like a man. But this wasn't a wolf, or even a demon dog, or anything resembling either of them.
The alien looked way more like a cross between a lizard and a pig, with a heavy lizard skull fringed by long, thick strands of what might be hair but looked like rubber hose, and deep-set, piggy little eyes glowering above a muzzle like a warthog. It had comically teeny nostrils but its mouth was nothing but pointed teeth, framed by what looked like four clawed fingers growing out of its jaw. Fluorescent yellow blood bubbled between its teeth and dripped over the finger things, and when it roared the fingers flared out like mandibles.
It was a walking nightmare, and every animal neuron in Danny's brain was telling him to run, run, run as far and as fast as he could even as he swung the P90 into the lizard pig's skull a second time. That blow staggered the alien enough to drive it down to one knee, and now it had yellow blood in a piggy eye and Danny wouldn't even have to reach up to hit it, thank you, and he lifted the gun again but the hunter heaved up its sword arm and knocked the gun away. Then it tried clumsily to aim its turret gun at him and not shoot itself too, and Danny had no weapons left to stop it.
"Danny! Danny, don't!" John shouted, trying to get to his feet as he saw the smoke curling from Danny's fingers. Danny wasn't listening. He'd had enough and it'd been a really shitty day and Steve was probably dead and he was done.
He grabbed the alien's sword arm when it tried to stab him, felt the jagged edge slice through the Kevlar to crease his side, but it didn't matter because the arm he was holding burst into flame.
The alien flailed, reacting like a human would and trying to pull away from the pain. It even fired its turret gun but Danny was right underneath it and the bolt passed mostly harmlessly down his back (he hoped John wasn't right behind him). He didn't let go until even the sword was burning, and then Danny put his hands around the creature's stump of a neck and set that on fire too.
The alien was howling in agony and Danny was sure the sounds he was making weren't human either, but for Danny it was all rage, not pain. It didn't even hurt. He was too angry for it to hurt. Even when he could smell his own flesh burning and see the smoke coming from his vest, it didn't hurt at all. He kept holding onto the alien as it tossed its head and its rubber hair swung and burned and it tried to push him away with hands that cracked and split in the flames consuming them. Danny kept holding on as the alien tried to shoot him again and again and again until the turret gun stopped working.
He only let go when John grabbed the back of his smoldering vest and bodily ripped him away.
They both dropped to the ground with John more-or-less on top of him, and Danny was concerned that John was going to catch on fire too, but John was able to get up before that happened. He rolled Danny onto his stomach and Danny could hear the thumps against his bulletproof vest and feel John's desperate hits as he used his hands to smother the flames on Danny's back, on his neck and shoulders and the back of his head.
"Rodney! RODNEY! HELP HIM!" John hollered and then there was a flash of gold around Danny and all the flames went out.
Then John carefully rolled him over again and patted out the embers on his chest.
"It's okay," Danny said. His voice sounded like drifting ash. "It doesn't hurt."
"That's good," John said. "You're fine, Danny. You'll be fine," but Danny could tell by John's eyes that he wasn't and he wouldn't be, either. He'd seen that kind of fear in people who'd witnessed someone dying.
"It doesn't hurt," Danny said again, because he wanted John to feel better. Though his face and arms were actually starting to hurt pretty badly and that really sucked. "Is it dead?"
John barely glanced at the thing before he nodded. It was still burning: a thick, crumpled bonfire that smelled like the dog did. At least the stench didn't make Danny nauseous this time. Maybe he'd gotten used to it. "Yeah. You got it, Danny. You killed it." John's smile was lopsided and didn't touch the fear in his eyes.
"Good," Danny said. He let his head fall back and stared up at the dizzying blue of the sky. He was beginning to feel heavy and sick in a way that wasn't nausea but worse, like his body was only just beginning to realize that something really, really bad had happened. "I don't feel well," he said. He swallowed something that could've been saliva or even bile but tasted like smoke. "Maybe I shouldn't've done that."
"You saved our lives," John said, and then he swallowed too and turned away. "Rodney, I need your help."
Rodney plopped down onto his knees beside them. "Oh my God," he said, and then looked at John, frantic. "John! Can...you have to--"
John nodded. He rubbed his forehead like his head hurt. "Give me a minute. You need to find McGarrett."
Rodney nodded quickly. "Is he all right? Where is he?"
"Over there." John gestured with a jerk of his chin and then closed his eyes like he'd just made himself dizzy. "Unless he got up again."
"Is he even alive?" Rodney said it all hushed, as if that would mean Danny wouldn't be able to hear it. "I mean, I don't know where he got hit, but--"
"He's alive," John growled. "If he was dead his Gift would've shut off and we'd be able to see him."
"Oh. Right. That's right," Rodney said. "I'd better go check, then." He looked at Danny again and opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but then just snapped it shut and stayed silent. Rodney pulled himself heavily to his feet and plodded over to where John had shown him. He looked like a stiff breeze would lay him on his ass and Danny wasn't surprised when he pulled yet another blister pack from a pocket and mechanically popped what looked like ten of the glucose pills into his hand.
John had fumbled out one of the tablet packs too. "I'd give you some, but your mouth is, uh...I think you burned your tongue and it might be difficult swallowing," He wiped his forehead with the heel of a grubby hand before he emptied out five or six pills and dumped them in his mouth. The faces he made as he chewed also reminded Danny of Grace.
Danny was only barely paying attention though, because Rodney hadn't found Steve yet and there were only so many places he could be lying. Rodney did some kind of complicated, shuffling grid pattern, going over everywhere Steve should've been, and Danny appreciated that kind of thoroughness until Rodney stopped and bent his head to blink stupidly at something on the ground and said, "Whoops."
John's head shot up. "What do you mean, 'whoops'?"
Rodney turned to look at him. His eyes were glazed in a way that Danny didn't think even 100 glucose pills could fix. They were all running on less than fumes.
Smoke, he thought, but just about every part of him except his hands was hurting like a bitch and that wasn't funny anymore.
"I think he left a boot print, but I erased it," Rodney said. "But um..." He stopped, like he was trying to remember what he was going to say, then brightened slightly and wrenched his scanner thing out of a pocket. He blinked at it a few times and then pointed behind him, to where the trees were waiting like open jaws. "He went that way."
"Fuck," John muttered. He put his hands over his eyes. Then he looked down at Danny and the fear leapt right back into them. "Danny," he said, then took a deep breath and licked his lips. "Danny, I need you to listen to me. Can you do that?"
"Yeah," Danny said softly, because he didn't have the strength to make his voice louder than that and something was wrong with his mouth and making it hard to talk. And it wasn't like he was going anywhere, or anything.
"Great." John's lips stretched into what could've been a smile. He reached for Danny, then hesitated, then finally put his hand on the charred bulletproof vest. "I'm not going to lie, Danny. Your Gift is incredibly powerful and you got burned pretty bad. I'm sure it must hurt like hell. But..." He swallowed and cleared more muddy sweat away from his eyes. "But you're going to be okay, Danny. I know it hurts, but you're still here, and you're strong and you're going to get through this. Rodney will get you home and the doctors where we work are going to fix you right up and your little girl won't even know anything happened. You just have to hang on, Danny. And I know you can because...Because..."
"John!" Rodney skidded back to his knees in time to grab John as his eyes rolled back and he started listing. "John!" He pulled John against him and slapped his hand over John's forehead, which John protested blearily. "God, you're burning up!" Rodney said, then glanced at Danny and winced.
"M'fine," John said. He pushed clumsily at Rodney as if he couldn't figure out how to move his hands, but Rodney eventually got the point and let him go. He took another half-empty pack of glucose and smacked at least five pills into John's hand.
"God, I'm sick of these," John said, but he still took them. Then, "I'm sorry," he said to Danny. He was still a little muzzy but the words were obviously heartfelt, and Danny had no clue what he was apologizing for.
Danny mangled a smile for him. John was right--his mouth had to be burned, the way it hurt to move it. He had no idea how he'd done that. "Lousy pep-talk anyway."
John smirked weakly before he turned to Rodney. "Give me your detector. I'll help you get Danny into the ship then you take him to the Gate and get help. I'm going after Steve."
Rodney gaped at him. "No," he said with finality, shaking his head. "No. No way. We'll all go back and then send someone, or..." His face kind of crumpled before he reorganized it into his defiant chin-tilt. "I'll stay. I can find Steve just as well as you can."
"I'm not leaving without him," Danny said, wishing he could shout it.
"Yes you will," John said, like there was no other possible choice. "Rodney, help me get him into the ship."
"No!" Danny and Rodney said that at the same time, but when Danny tried to push himself up so he could at least sit to argue the roar of pain along what felt like every one of his nerve endings was so bad that he found the strength to scream somewhere and they probably heard him back in Oahu.
Except for his hands. His hands didn't hurt a bit and that was even worse.
"No! Oh, no." Rodney again, his expression stricken. He grabbed the shoulder straps of Danny's vest and hauled him upright, then held him so, so carefully through the worst of the agony like he was a child.
"You're okay. You're okay, Danny," John said. "I know it hurts but you can control it. Just hang on. You're going to be all right." Everything John told him was absolute crap except for the part about it hurting, but John's hand was on Danny's back and his words were strangely comforting all the same. And the pain was tolerable again now, so maybe John was right. He seemed to know a lot about burns.
There were tears on Danny's cheeks by the time he'd shuddered himself back under control. They felt strangely cold on his skin.
"You need to get him to Fraiser, Rodney," John said once Danny had quieted. "Fraiser or Vala. I don't think anyone in Atlantis has a strong enough Gift for something like this."
"I know. We're probably closer to the Milky Way anyway," Rodney said. "But what about you? And Steve?"
"We can't take the time to find him, Rodney! That's why I'm staying," John said.
"No!" Rodney said again. "John, you--!"
"I can't fly, Rodney!" John snapped, interrupting him, and then looked like he regretted speaking that loudly. "I can't fly," he repeated much more quietly. "Not sick like this. I can barely see straight."
"Then how will you even use the detector?" Rodney demanded.
"I'll manage," John said. "It's not as complicated as a HUD. I'm sure I can handle following a white dot."
"What about us?" Rodney said. "I can't fly the ship without you!"
"Rodney," John said, completely serious. "I know you can do this. I meant it before and I mean it now, and you know I'm not..." He cleared his throat. "You know I'd never let you do this if I thought you couldn't. But you've flown the Jumpers hundreds of times and this won't be any different. Not for the few minutes it'll take to get to the Gate. And..." He glanced at Danny. "And of the two of us, if necessary my Gift is the one most likely to keep Steve alive until you can send help."
"What Gift?" Danny asked, but everyone ignored him.
Rodney closed his eyes for a second and when he opened them they were red-rimmed and liquid. "Yeah, okay," he said softly.
"No," Danny panted. "Not without Steven."
"I'm sorry, Danny, but we don't have a choice," John said. "I promise I'll bring him home."
Which of course could mean dead as much as alive and John had to understand just how unacceptable that was. "Alive," he rasped at John. "Alive, or you don't come back."
It was a completely empty threat but anger was better than the iceberg that had lodged in his chest or the pain that raced like electricity over the rest of him.
"I promise I'll do everything I can to bring him home alive," John said, which was a still a cop-out, the fucker. His gaze sharpened a little and he put his hand on Rodney's shoulder as if he was bracing himself. "You don't have to worry. You're going to be fine, Danny. There's nothing to worry about. Just rest and let us help you. Go to sleep, Daniel. Rest, it'll be all right."
It wasn't all right, and it wouldn't be until they found Steve and everyone was off this hellhole and safe, but Danny trusted John. Not as much as he trusted Steve, but enough so that when John said he didn't have to worry and that he'd be fine Danny almost believed him; he sure as hell wanted to.
Danny could feel his consciousness trickling away like water and he didn't fight it. John had told him to rest and that seemed like a really great idea. Way better than being in pain, anyway, even if he couldn't shake the fear that followed him down into sleep.
"Alive," he said, or thought he said to John. One last plea before he let the darkness have him.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Rodney hissed at John. Quietly, so he wouldn't disturb what was left of the tattered man he still held in his arms. "You almost passed out two minutes ago, trying to use your Gift! And then you use it two more times? Are you stupid?"
"What was I supposed to do, Rodney? Leave him in agony?" John didn't wait for Rodney to answer. He climbed painfully to his feet, using Rodney's shoulder as a bulwark so he wouldn't fall over again. Rodney was feeling pretty awful himself, but he stoically put up with the abuse until John was standing and then until he'd stopped the alarming swaying.
"Don't. I'm not picking you up off the ground again," Rodney snapped at him when John reached to help him with Danny. Instead Rodney carefully shifted Danny until he had his right arm across the remains of his bulletproof vest and he could get his left under Danny's knees. Standing up was more of a problem than Rodney would ever admit, especially with Danny being entirely dead weight. Not dead! Rodney's brain supplied frantically. He's not dead! He'll be fine! But maybe one of the saddest skills Rodney had learned over the years was carrying actually dead weight, so he managed it gamely enough even though it felt like a hundred meters between the burning alien and the open ship hatch, and then a hundred more before he found something that looked enough like a chair that he figured it'd be safe to put Danny down.
John staggered in after him, hovering the whole time like he was prepared to jump in and grab Danny the second Rodney floundered with him. As if he'd be able to do that even if Rodney did flounder, which he didn't.
Rodney was a little surprised that there was a chest harness, considering the hunters seemed the types to find something like a seatbelt too wimpy, but Rodney was perfectly happy to make sure Danny would be held securely enough to not roll onto the deck during the inevitable jolts and bumps when Rodney flew the thing.
He was very careful to be certain the belts didn't touch Danny's skin, and very careful not to look too long at the burns, because he didn't want to throw up. At least Danny was asleep, and maybe John had the right idea after all. Not that Rodney was any less angry at him.
"Okay," John said when Rodney turned around. He was standing so close that their heads almost collided. He didn't look like he'd noticed. "Do you think you can make sure the plants don't get in?"
Rodney grimaced. "You do know that didn't make any sense, right? Of course you don't." He resisted the urge to touch John's forehead yet again because he already knew it would be too hot and there was very little he could do about it. "Here." He fished out the bottle of Tylenol and shook more pills into his hand. Four this time and he briskly reminded himself that the old limit on Tylenol was eight pills and these four would only make seven, and it would take days before the permanent and fatal liver damage started anyway. And if they were all alive by then even Johansen the Great Dane with the reasonably-useless Healing Gift could repair a liver if he had enough time to recover whenever he fainted.
"I asked you if you were ready to start it up," John said. But he still took the pills and drank them down with wobbly obedience. It was very hard for Rodney to stifle the guilt that even incoherent with fever John trusted Rodney enough that he would calmly let Rodney possibly poison him.
"In your head, maybe," Rodney said, grabbing the canteen from John when John seemed to lose track of what to do with it. John had his own anyway, mud-crusted but still dangling from its strap. "You have your own," Rodney reminded him, then on impulse yanked the strap for his off over his head and put it on John. "You need it more than I do. I can get more at the SGC. It's nearly empty anyway!" he said when John glared at him.
"Fine," John muttered. He spared one more look at Danny and the ruins of his burned skin, and then went with Rodney to the instrument panel. "There. That's got to be the yoke and the ignition," he said, pointing. The yoke wasn't a joystick or a set of handles but a kind of raised platform with very large hand-shaped depressions on it. He leaned closer and Rodney frowned to see how John was still trying to hide how much his side hurt. John squinted painfully at the yoke. "Looks like you press one or the other, depending if you want to go up or down, and push them to either side for turning."
"Great," Rodney sighed. He'd been hoping for something that required less effort, like the Jumpers. He was so tired that keeping himself upright felt like work; he wasn't sure he'd have the strength to make the ship move. "All right." He sat heavily in the extremely large pilot's chair and then had to perch on the edge to reach the yoke. "So now I just have to turn this baby on." He lifted his left arm, which was covered from his wrist nearly to his elbow with the hunter's gauntlet. "It didn't exactly fit in a pocket!" he snapped at John's disgusted face. Most of the yellow gore was on the outside anyway. "Now, if I'm right, then..." he tapped one of the blocky buttons, then grinned as the engine started with a roar and the inside of the ship was flooded with bright green light.
Of course now that he'd turned it on he had to actually fly it. "I really think you should be doing this," he said to John. He glanced at Danny. "What if I get lost? Or crash? Who will come after you?" He swallowed, not trying to hide his fear. "Look--we can wait until you get back with Steve. Or I can go, or we both can!"
"Those burns are fatal, Rodney. Danny can't wait and you know it," John said. "Steve could be a mile from here by now." He put his hand on Rodney's shoulder. It felt like a brand with the heat from his skin. "You can do this. The Gate's practically in a straight line from here. You'll just have to keep this in the air for a few minutes."
"You know I'm terrible at flying in a straight line," Rodney said, but it was a weak protest and he knew he wouldn't change John's mind so he just gave up and pulled the detector out of his pocket. Once again he was left to protect the dying while John ran off to be the hero and likely die as well. Rodney had vowed to himself that after the hell of that first time he'd never let either of them end up in that situation again. But here he was, and this time there was nothing he could shield John from.
"It's just a few minutes," John said. He took the detector and smiled, soft and sad like part of him was sure he wouldn't be back. Then he leaned forward and dropped a chaste kiss on Rodney's mouth with lips that were bloodless and overly warm. Rodney had to help him straighten so he didn't pitch over onto the deck.
"See you later," John said, and then all Rodney could do was watch him go out the ship's hatch.
Rodney swallowed. "Just a few minutes. Right. I'm coming back for you, asshole," he said to the indifferent console in front of him. "You and your stupid Navy variant clone. And you'd better be alive or I'm never going to forgive you."
He used his gauntlet to shut the hatch, then put his hands on the yoke and watched in distant satisfaction as a map flashed onto the blank screen in front of him. He didn't know how to show anything specific like a Stargate, but he could see the trophy grounds and the river and that small round circle had to be the Gate, practically in a straight line.
"All right, baby, let's see what you got," he said, then pressed down on one arm of the yoke and lifted the ship into the air.
He could smell burning.
Steve opened his eyes. One was gummy, stuck half-closed. Probably blood. He could smell blood, thick in his nostrils like the smoke, coating his tongue. His head hurt very badly, so did breathing. It was hard to keep his eyes from closing and he kept jolting alert without knowing if he'd lost time. It felt like he lost time.
Ribs're broken, Steve thought. That seemed right--it'd happened before; he knew what it felt like--but he didn't remember when or what had done it. Wo Fat? The bastard had enjoyed hitting Steve enough, though it'd mostly been in Steve's abdomen because that hurt like hell and kept Wo Fat from breaking his fingers. But still, maybe it'd been him.
Steve had landed face-down with his head turned, bloodstained grass and tree trunks in front of his aching eyes. He needed to get to the forest, away from the bunker behind him and Wo Fat's men. He was very lucky they couldn't see or hear him, since he was lying out in the open like this. Sitting ducks. Something Danny would say, but Danny was back in Hawaii. Safe. Steve was alone here.
No. That wasn't true. He'd chosen this, to come here with Jenna, nobody else. She was dead now and he hadn't wanted that, but her last living act had been to help free him and he wasn't going to waste that gift. But that meant he had to move before anyone found him.
Steve gathered his shaking arms and pushed himself up to his knees. Everything hurt but the side of his chest was like a handful of knives, barbed wire imprisoning his lungs. He coughed, arms wrapped around his ribs and more blood spattering the grass. His lungs hurt. His head was like a rock balanced badly on his shoulders.
He got to his feet, swayed and nearly fell again before his head stopped spinning. There were...there were people nearby, and something burning, and something made of metal and very large. Shards of a picture that wouldn't coalesce in his head. He couldn't make them mean anything beyond a rising urgency and a sense of terrible danger. He shouldn't stay here. That much made sense.
He still had his SIG and his boots and he knew Wo Fat had taken them, dragged him through the forest with a rope on his neck like a dog, but it didn't matter. He'd escaped and he had to keep going.
He faded between the trees. He couldn't see very well from the blood in his eye and his vision was blurry and grey around the edges. He needed to run, put as much distance between himself and the bunker as possible, but he couldn't. He couldn't get enough air and he kept coughing, had to lean against the trees so he wouldn't fall. That left smears of blood from his hands, spatters from the blood in his mouth. Stupid mistake. It would be very easy to find him.
Wo Fat had a hired thug who could smell things like a hound, that's how they found him the first time he escaped. He'd crept out of the bunker and then fought his way through the circle of rifles outside, but the hound kept telling everyone where he was and then another thug had hit him with some kind of blast from his hands. Steve remembered waking up in the back of a truck with Danny swearing to himself as he tried to untie a rope he couldn't see. He told Steve later that he'd almost missed that Steve was even in there, until he realized that the rope wasn't cut but actually disappeared, vanishing where it touched Steve's skin.
Steve had never thought Danny would find him. He hadn't thought anyone would. He still couldn't believe they were willing to be in so much danger for him.
Now Steve was trailing blood like a rope but he had to do better than that because Danny wasn't going to come after him. Steve was alone and his chest was full of knives and his head was killing him, and he didn't know where he was but he had to escape.
He tried to navigate by the sun but it wasn't in the right place in the sky, though maybe that was because he was having trouble with his eyes, or maybe it was just the pain in his head that made it hard to think. He couldn't figure out which way was south. He didn't recognize anything around him at all. He couldn't even tell how long he'd been moving, but he could still smell smoke, along with his own blood. Maybe that was just an illusion. He didn't remember touching anything that had been burned.
Danny. Danny was burning.
Steve stopped, gasping. That wasn't right. It couldn't be. Danny was safe. He'd found Steve in the truck and untied his hands and he was fine. Not a scratch on him. Steve was the one who'd been beaten, that was why everything hurt so much. Danny was--
in the clearing near the spaceship that looked like a raptor. He was gripping the alien tight and they were both on fire, Danny's skin turning red and black and his hands oh God his hands--
Danny was burning and Steve had abandoned him.
Steve turned around immediately and started back the way he came. He tried to run again, tried hard, but his legs felt like sand, disconnected from his body. He couldn't go fast enough. It was like running in water and he couldn't breathe. His lungs were full of water and he was going to drown.
He collapsed to his knees, choking, trying to clear his lungs but he was coughing up his own blood and there was always more of it. Liquid and salt but no air, a wave sweeping him under and he couldn't fight for the surface because it had blocked out the sun. He couldn't see anything.
John jogged to a minimum safe distance to watch the ship take off then waited until it was out of sight before he let his legs give out and sat hard on the ground. The energy detector felt as heavy as a cinderblock and for awhile he just stared at the two white dots on the screen, trying to remember what the hell he was meant to do with it and why the dots were important. He was freezing cold and he felt terrible and he just wanted to keel over and sleep, but he couldn't do that. He needed to get up and there was a good reason for it. He just needed to figure out what it was.
He managed to chip the word 'seal' out of the boiling-hot granite that had crammed into his skull. That somehow made sense, and that was a good enough reason to haul himself to his feet even though he couldn't remember what a seal was. Some kind of animal. Some kind of animal that went in the water.
Steven. And wow, that should not have been that hard but at least John had his objective, and that first dot had to be him, which meant the other dot had to be Steve. And it'd been going away from the John-dot but it looked like it was coming closer again, and that was great because John didn't want to walk that far. But then the Steve-dot stopped moving.
John stared blearily at the screen, waiting for the Steve-dot to move, but it didn't. That couldn't be good.
"Crap," John wheezed. He took a jerking step in the direction of the Steve-dot and then thought that maybe he should get a weapon, just in case the barbequed alien had another friend somewhere or more dogs showed up. The only useful weapon left was the katana, so John went for that.
His side was fucking killing him, sweat stinging his eyes, but he didn't fall over when he picked up the sword, though it felt heavy and completely unnatural in his hand and just holding it made his entire arm hurt. He had no illusions about how well he'd be able to use it if he had to, but John tried to believe it was better than nothing. Maybe he could buy Steve a few minutes anyway, give him time for the cavalry to come.
It was probably disgusting that the warmth coming from the burning alien corpse felt good, but despite the tropic heat of this planet's late afternoon John was shivering so hard his teeth were chattering. The extra warmth was fantastic and it wasn't like the alien was alive to give a damn.
John had a woozy vision of curling up like a very sick cat in front of the dead alien fire but it was too appealing to be funny. Later, he promised himself. Once Rodney came back with help he could get warm. He'd get one of the silver thermal blankets and he'd be warm and he could sleep...
John jerked away from the fire with a start; he'd been listing right into it. Death by fricasseed alien would be a really lousy epitaph.
He'd dropped the detector, too. Hadn't even felt it tumble from his hand.
Fuck. He was so sick he was losing it. Sick puppy. Sick seal.
Steve. Right. John had to go after him.
John took a deep breath and gritted his teeth and ignored the awful sounds he made when he had to bend again to scoop the detector off the ground. And then with it in one hand and his sword in the other he followed the white dot into the forest.
Turned out he didn't really need the detector.
Steve was nowhere to be seen or heard of course, but there were traces of him everywhere--spatters of blood still bright, brilliant red in the dappled sunlight, dotting the grayish bark of the trees and scattered like raindrops on the ground. Larger, dark smears on the tree trunks like finger paint. It was such a perfect trail that for a second John was worried that he was being led into a trap, and then decided that Steve was too hurt to do better. John was likely leaving a trail a mile wide himself.
He had his eyes flicking between the white dot on the detector and the ground in front of him, matching the narrowing distance between the John-dot and the Steve-dot to the blood trail, so when the third dot appeared he saw it immediately. It was right behind him.
The shot of adrenaline woke him up a bit so at least he felt more alert even if he was still too cold and more scared than he'd ever admit and in a lot of pain. At least they won't find Steve, he thought, but then realized that of course they would. All the alien had to do was keep walking in a straight line. It'd fall over him eventually.
So. John just had to kill the super strong, unhurt alien with the turret gun using a sword he could barely lift. No problem.
He swallowed and dropped the detector so he could lift the katana in both hands. He set himself into a fighting stance, ignoring the sandpaper wrenching of his nerves as he pulled back his shoulders and bent his knees. Whatever happened, this was really going to suck.
But nothing happened. No one came at him.
John blinked, and waited. And waited. And then he thought maybe the alien was using its stealth tech armor so he grabbed the detector again and looked at the screen. There were only two dots. The aliens could hide from normal sight with their stealth armor, but they couldn't hide from an energy detector. And there were only two dots. John had been waiting to fight to the death with a hallucination.
John let out a breath and wiped sweat out of his eyes. He didn't even have the energy to be angry at his own stupidity. He just turned around and kept walking and tripped over Steve.
He face-planted really embarrassingly and then probably kicked Steve in the kidneys a few times while he struggled to get up to his knees, but he figured that they were both lucky that he hadn't landed on the katana or accidentally plunged it into Steve when he pitched headfirst over him. John had bit his tongue, though. The surprisingly sharp pain of that was actually a welcome distraction from everything else.
But Steve hadn't reacted when John all but fell on top of him, or at least in no way that John could tell, and John had hit him pretty hard. If Steve was too out of it to notice someone taking a header over him that was really, really bad. John took a guess at where Steve was and put his hands down on the reassuringly warm cotton of his tee-shirt. A little more movement of John's hands confirmed Steve was lying on his side with his legs bent and his arms more-or-less crossed over his chest. It was unnervingly like he'd been laid out for a small grave.
John slid his hand down to Steve's chest, muttering an apology that he doubted Steve could hear. He could feel that Steve was still breathing, but not well, and his pulse was thready and fast when John felt for it under his jaw.
John's hands had blood on them when he pulled them back and he wasn't even sure where it came from, so he did the touch-slide search again. Steve's side was still bleeding under the useless bandage, which John had expected, but there was also blood coming out of Steve's mouth. Punctured lung, John thought, and the chill that went with it had nothing to do with his fever. It'd probably happened when he'd been hit for a second time, broken ribs stabbing into the soft tissue they were supposed to protect. The blow might've made Steve's concussion worse too, but it was impossible to tell like this. John had nothing but an invisible, human-shaped lump under his hands. Steve could be trying to talk to him or in a coma or breathing out his death-rattle and John would have no idea.
So John just squirmed painfully back until he hit the tree, then made a supreme effort and dragged Steve up so he was leaning against him, hoping that would make it easier for him to breathe. Steve's head lolled painfully into John's jaw and John jerked away, spitting out dirt from Steve's hair. Steve was heavy and everywhere his body pressed against John's it hurt, but at least he was warm.
He'd forgotten that Rodney gave him his canteen until he reached for one and hit two. John's throat hurt along with everything else up to his hair follicles but he drank as much of the warm, stale water as he could. He'd probably sweated out a lake's worth, unless he was still this wet from the river. It was too damp in the forest for anything to really dry. He wished he could give some water to Steve.
"Steve," John said and then had to cough a few times, trying not to jar Steve too much. "Steve! Can you hear me?"
John was sure all he was really doing was wasting his breath, but a moment later he felt Steve move. It wasn't more than a weak twitch, but it might mean he was waking up, and John leapt at it. "Steven! Steven, I know you can hear me. Wake up." John took as deep breath as he could and put some of his Gift into it. "You need to wake up now, Steven. Come on. Open your eyes."
The back of Steve's head whacked John's nose.
"That's it, that's right," John cajoled him, wrinkling his nose to make it stop smarting. "You're safe. I got you. Turn your Gift off and open your eyes."
Steve reappeared as slowly as a ghost in a film. John could see his face with the pained slits of his eyes and the blood covering his chin and neck and the front of his shirt. John could also see the frantic heaving of his chest but the rest of him wasn't there. Steve's arms disappeared below his shoulders. Below his ribs his body faded into nothing.
It was like holding someone who'd been blown apart and John fiercely reminded himself that it wasn't true before the bile got too high in his throat. "Good job," he said, listlessly patting Steve on his nonexistent arm. "Welcome back, buddy."
"Where...?" Steve's voice sounded like someone had yanked it through barbed wire, and he couldn't get farther than the one word before he started coughing. Blood sprayed out of his mouth and spattered on the back of John's wrist.
"You're safe," John said again. "We're waiting for Rodney to send people to come get us."
"He's going to be fine," John said, hoping he wasn't lying. "Rodney's with him. He's getting him help." He pulled Steve closer to him because Steve didn't feel warm enough, though John didn't know if that was real or just because of John's fever, making everything else cold in comparison. He patted Steve's arm again. "Everyone's fine. You just need to worry about breathing."
Steve coughed again then groaned breathlessly in pain. "You...came back?"
"Yes," John said. "And I'm not interested in arguing with you about it, so save your breath." It wasn't like Steve had enough to spare anyway. "We both know you don't leave anyone behind."
He wasn't sure if Steve was trying to process that or just trying to breathe, but it took a long time before he said anything again. "You...can't...see."
John blinked sweat out of his eyes, wondering if it was just his fever that made that incomprehensible. "I can see fine." Except for the hallucinations. "Why do you...Oh. You mean you," John said, his voice dropping as he figured it out. "You mean I can't see you."
Steve moved his head in what might've been a nod, which made him cough again. John held him until the spasm had passed then carefully cleaned the blood off Steve's mouth with his fingers.
"Woodwork," Steve said, or something that sounded like it. "Not..." What he tired to say splintered into more coughing and John could only keep Steve upright and murmur stupid shit like, 'it's okay, it's okay' until Steve finally stopped shuddering. Pretty much only his head was visible now, which was unsettling as hell and meant Steve had to be clinging to consciousness by the skin of his teeth.
John licked his chapped lips, wishing he wasn't too sick to figure out what was tumbling through Steve's damaged brain. "I didn't have to see you, Steven," he tried. "I knew you were there. That's why I came back. We weren't going to leave you behind." Maybe that was what Steve needed to hear. Or maybe he was too far gone to care what John said anyway.
Except that John felt Steve's unseen fingers fumbling at his hand, and then gripping it with whatever trembling bits of energy he had left.
"I got you," John said again. "You're still here." He held Steve's hand even after he faded completely and his fingers went lax.
"Damn it," John grit through his teeth. "Steven! Steven! Wake up!" He was shouting right next to his ear, but Steven didn't even twitch.
"Fuck," John muttered. He wrapped his arms around Steve's chest and leaned his head forward so that his ear was so close to Steve's mouth that John was probably getting Steve's blood on it. It was awkward and uncomfortable but at least like this he could still hear the faint, wet rasping of Steve's breathing as well as feel it. So he knew exactly when the wet rasp became a wet rattle that meant Steve was starting to die.
"No!" John found Steve's pulse despite his own heart thudding like a train in his ears. It was still there, but too fast and too weak, stuttering out the last minutes of Steve's life. "You are not going to do this! You're not dying in a game preserve! Remember?"
Steve couldn't respond and John wasn't even sure Steve was present enough in his own head to hear him. But John had been here before, both the times Rodney had almost died and John couldn't do anything but use his Gift to talk him into that one more breath, then one more, and then one more after that, until help had finally arrived. He'd never wanted to be in that place with anyone ever again, but this was the one good thing his Gift could do. This was why Rodney had let John go.
John took a deep breath and started talking, pushing his Charm into the words with every bit of strength he had. "Steven! Stay with me. Keep breathing. That's it, that's it," he coaxed, feeling Steve's chest heave as he pulled one more breath and then one more into his lungs. "Keep breathing, Steve. Keep breathing. Live."
John snapped awake because the weight and warmth next to his body were gone. The freezing chill that replaced it had him coming up swinging, grabbing for the katana with the automatic skill of long practice, the longer familiarity with violence and the need to protect and stay alive.
"John! Stop!" The words barely registered and John stabbed upward, aiming for the woman in front of him. She grabbed his wrist and slammed his arm to the ground, pulling John over with it.
"It's all right, John. No one will hurt you," she said, and John blinked up into her beautiful brown eyes and he knew exactly who she was.
"It's good to see you too, John," she said as she helped him upright. She hugged him by touching their foreheads, gently as if she knew his skull was about to break open. "We were all very worried." John watched dully as Teyla pried his fingers off the sword grip. "You can relax, now. Everything will be well." She turned her head, said something about an IV line and John realized she was speaking to someone else. "You have a very high fever," she said to John, and he wanted to say, yeah, no kidding, but the words got tangled on the way to his mouth and he just ended up with a pathetic mewl that didn't mean anything.
She smiled anyway and gave him some water, which he drank like an automaton. At least it tasted good. "It's all right, John. Tegan is here and Doctor Fraiser has already tasked her with using her Gift to lower your fever. I promise you'll feel better soon."
"Just let me get this IV in, Colonel," Tegan said. Whatever she cleaned his arm with was amazingly cold. "Sorry," she murmured when he flinched. "Everything feels worse because of your fever. I'll see what I can do to encourage your immune system in a moment."
The stab in his arm didn't feel particularly encouraging, and neither did the liquid that slid like ice water into his vein afterwards. But something about feeling cold was familiar and he tugged on that until he finally teased out that there'd been someone else with him. Steve. John didn't know if he was even alive.
"Seal," he said, which wasn't the right word but somehow seemed reasonable anyway.
"Seal?" Teyla looked confused and then turned to someone behind her. "Do you know what he's saying?"
"He means the invisible guy," that person answered. And then he added, "Hello, sir. And don't worry, he's okay." And then John recognized Lieutenant Colonel Evan Lorne, smiling in that perpetually bemused way of his.
Evan was there with most of his team, John realized. Sergeant Conroy and the nurse Tegan Blin, who was doing something with the IV in his arm. Evan was holding the bag up.
"He'll be just fine," Tegan said to John and smiled. "Doctor Fraiser is helping him." She bobbed her head sideways. "They're just over there. You can see if you turn your head."
That seemed incredibly difficult, especially with the added weight of his relief, but John rolled his head in the direction Tegan said. He could see Fraiser, kneeling next to what appeared to be an empty stretcher which meant that Steve had to be there. Her back was to John but it looked like she was holding one of Steve's hands and had her other hand on his forehead, and John vaguely remembered that she did that when she was using her Gift.
Of course, it didn't really look like she was doing anything except holding air. But John could see Fraiser's effort in how still she was, as if every part of her being was focused on healing Steve.
"All right," Fraiser said suddenly on a breath. She pulled her hand away from Steve's forehead. "That should do it." She kept holding Steve's wrist, obviously feeling his pulse, then nodded to herself and lay his invisible arm next to his invisible body. Fraiser lifted her peaked field cap to push back her sweaty hair and then ducked her head and put the fingers of one hand between her eyes like she was riding out a wave of vertigo.
Conroy had been hovering near her, looking worried. "You all right, Ma'am?"
"I'm fine, thank you, Sergeant." Fraiser gave him a quick smile. "Could you please wake the Commander? I'd like to give him some fluids but I need to see what I'm doing."
"Yes, ma'am," Conroy said. He concentrated a moment and smiled, tapping the side of his head. "I can hear he's waking up on his own, but I'll give him a little push for y'all."
Then Steve appeared out of the thin air and opened his eyes.
"Whoa, that's weird, how he does that," Conroy murmured.
Fraiser's nose wrinkled. "Aren't you a mess," she said to Steve, then pulled something out of her pack. "This will be cold, but I need to make a clean spot on your arm so I can put an IV line in."
Steve blinked at her then looked around, taking in everyone else. "John?"
"Here," John said. He listlessly raised an arm and gave Steve a wan smile when the other man's eyes found him. "Good to see you."
Steve didn't smile at the lame joke, but he seemed marginally more relaxed to know John was there. "Are these...do you know these people?"
"Yes I do," John said, and saw Steve relax a little more. "That's Lieutenant Colonel Lorne, my 2IC, Teyla Emmagan, Sergeant Conroy and Tegan Blin." Everyone nodded or smiled and waved. "And that's Doctor Fraiser. She probably just saved your life."
"Yes I did," Fraiser said matter-of-factly. She finished cleaning an enormous swath of Steve's inner arm then stabbed him with an IV catheter. He barely winced. "Doctor McKay said you had injured ribs and had taken a severe blow to the head and wandered off. He was right," she went on over Steve's weak protest. "It's actually pretty miraculous that you survived until I got here." She glanced over her shoulder at John, as if she guessed he was responsible for that.
"Oh," Steve said faintly.
"I was able to reduce the swelling in your brain and repair most of your lung," Fraiser explained to Steve, "but I can't do more until we get you back to the SGC."
He nodded, still looking stunned. John figured finding out you almost bought the farm would do that to you.
"Is Rodney all right?" John asked. Evan and Teyla had laid out another stretcher and John tried not to feel too embarrassed by how much help he needed to just get onto it. He looked up at Teyla. "Where's Ronon? And how come you guys were at the SGC? You should be in Atlantis."
"We were in Atlantis, or at least Pegasus," Evan said. "Parrish twisted his ankle so Teyla came with my team."
"Ronon is with Stonetree and his men, conducting another search," Teyla added warmly. "He will be very happy to know you and Rodney have been found."
Evan broke in again. "We were finishing another search for you and McKay when Weir radioed us. She said she'd just been contacted by Stargate Command and that they had Rodney and he knew where you were." He shrugged like this kind of thing happened every day. "We were still in the Jumper, so we just came to this planet via the Gate Bridge instead of going back to Atlantis. We picked up Doctor Fraiser at the Gate."
"Thank you," John said. "But, are we in the Milky Way? And Rodney? How is he?"
Teyla smiled when she looked at John again. "We are in the Milky way. And Rodney is quite well, though he was extremely concerned about you. He wished very badly to come but Doctor Lam wouldn't allow it."
"She almost sedated him," Fraiser put in mildly.
"Wait," Steve said. He tried to sit up but Fraiser gently pushed him back down onto the stretcher. "Danny--is Danny all right?"
"He'll be fine," Evan said seriously. "Vala's healing him, and she's brought people back from the dead."
Steve bolted upright, eyes bright with panic. "Danny's dead?"
"Careful!" Fraiser put her hand on Steve's chest before he scrambled to his feet and yanked the IV bag right out of Conroy's hands. "Cool your screws, Sailor. Detective Williams is very much alive." Fraiser pushed Steve back down again. He went quietly, staring up at her like someone who wasn't used to hope. "Vala's not Gifted but she has a device that can heal people even better than I can. It'll probably take a couple of days before Danny's good as new, but he'll be fine. Now, if everyone's done talking, I'd appreciate it if we could get these gentlemen out of the dirt."
The first time Danny woke up, he was surrounded by light.
Not, luckily, the same white light that had abducted him and Steve, but bright, all-enveloping light just the same. And Danny Williams wasn't the sort of guy to believe in things like God or angels or ghosts--well, maybe ghosts--or sacred burial grounds, but he wasn't dumb and he knew about near-death experiences and going into the light and all that crap just like everybody else did. He also had a very clear memory of being on fire and knew he should be in a fuckton of pain.
But he wasn't. Nothing hurt at all. And he was surrounded by light. Ergo, he had to be dying.
And that, that was not going to happen. Danny had a daughter, okay. He had things he needed to do. Kono was giving him surfing lessons and this weekend was the one he had with Grace and who the hell was going to keep Steve from doing stupid shit and getting himself killed if Danny wasn't there?
So screw the light. Danny was not going towards the light. In fact, Danny was going to turn around and go as far away from the light as possible. There weren't going to be any pearly gates or rainbow bridges or turns of the wheel or whatever in his immediate future, thanks. There was going to be lousy hospital food and his little girl and Steve's goofy face and, yeah, the burns, and pain...
"Stop fussing!" a woman snapped at him, and she had the same snooty British-type accent as his ex wife and he probably said, 'Rachel?' even though he didn't remember talking because a second later she said, "No, I'm not Rachel, but I am working very hard to heal you, Daniel, and if you don't stop fighting me you're going to spoil all my considerable time and effort and find yourself in a great deal more pain. So calm down!"
Danny was already in a great deal more pain. A fuckton more pain, as a matter of fact. The burns he hadn't been able to feel just moments ago had all said, 'screw you, Danny', and had cornered him in an alley and brought their friends. Even his hands, which he hadn't been able to feel since the fight with the last hunter, were hurting like hell. It felt like he was burning all over again and this time he didn't have adrenaline or rage to dull any of it. Every nerve was vibrating in crystal-clear agony.
"Damn it! Why must every man named 'Daniel' be so bloody stubborn?" Not-Rachel said. "Well, this is useless."
The light stopped.
Danny would've asked where he was, and who the woman was, and where Steve was and what the hell was that light anyway, but he had a tiny problem forming the words between screaming in pain.
He could tell he was some kind of hospital or clinic, though it wasn't a very large one. He was in one of a line of beds, with the usual beeps and clicks of medical machines running in the background and medical workers doing their medical stuff. He hadn't really noticed the medical worker next to his own bed because of the light and the fuckton of pain, but then the guy held Danny's shoulders down with his hands in the places where the shoulder straps of his Kevlar had been; two of the very few places Danny hadn't been burned.
That was thoughtful of him. Danny appreciated that. But nearly every other part of him hurt so badly that any lack of pain was meaningless. And he knew he was fighting for nothing but he couldn't shut off the instinct to get away from what was hurting him. The problem was that there was nowhere he could go.
"Doctor Lam!" Danny's shoulder-pinning friend hollered, and he was peripherally aware of someone else rushing over from the far end of the room.
"Daniel." Not-Rachel was speaking to him again and Danny looked up through tear-blurred eyes at a woman with a long face and black pigtails who looked almost nothing like Rachel but reminded him of her anyway. "You really must stop this," she said, as if all he needed was a stern talking-to and he could get a grip. But it wasn't like Danny was trying to throw himself over the bedrails or break everyone's eardrums. He was trying to get a grip, actually, but he'd never been in this kind of pain (he'd never thought it was possible to be in this kind of pain) and it wouldn't stop or even go down to a level he could tolerate.
"What happened?" another woman asked. This one had more black hair and a white lab coat.
"He fought off the healing device," Not-Rachel said. "It's the first time that's happened."
The other woman just 'hmmed' in reply. "Hold his leg so I can access the IV line."
Not-Rachel did that, and Danny hadn't even been aware he was kicking until suddenly he couldn't. He didn't even know you could have an IV in your leg and what the hell did that mean about his arms?
"There, that's better," the second woman said like she'd done something and Danny snarled at her because no, everything hurt just as fucking much until it suddenly didn't.
Danny relaxed--actually it felt like he kind of oozed into the mattress--and the woman who had black hair but no pigtails and who didn't sound like Rachel looked at him and nodded, then turned to the one with the pigtails. "You should be able to finish now, Vala."
"Wonderful," said the woman with the pigtails who wasn't Rachel but apparently called Vala. "All right, let's try this again." She lifted her hand, which had something that looked like a bizarre metal glove on it. There was a round, copper circle with some kind of jewel in the center covering her palm and this was where the light came from. It poured out of the disk and covered Danny like snow.
"Don't," he said, but whatever the woman had given him had ripped away his strength along with the pain and it was all he could do to keep his eyes open. "Don't want to die."
"You're not dying, Detective," the woman who wasn't Vala said briskly. "This is actually doing the opposite. Vala's saving your life."
"I expect a great deal of praise and elaborate gratitude," Vala said. "But for now I could do without a repeat of the screaming."
"Sorry," Danny whispered, right before he fell asleep.
The second time he woke up, it was because of the same light, only this time it wasn't on him.
It was on Steve, who was lying in the next bed over looking dead to the world and the first thing that skittered through Danny's mind was Oh my God light of death and he was all set to leap out of his bed and tackle the woman with the metal glove attacking Steve. And then he realized several things at once:
Steve wasn't dead. In fact, he wasn't even unconscious since Danny could actually see him. And he looked fine. Maybe not perfectly let's-go-hiking-up-a-mountain-it'll-be-fun-Danny fine, but way better than the last time Danny had seen him.
Danny was way better than the last time he'd seen himself. He felt fine. Better than fine, since his knee wasn't hurting and his knee pretty much always hurt. And he felt way too alert for it to be the drugs still talking.
And the light was supposed to heal people, not kill them.
He remembered the woman with the light-up metal glove. Her name was Vala and now that he could actually concentrate enough to look at her she was kind of hot. She noticed he was looking at her and she gave him a wink with a blinding grin underneath it.
"Hello, sweetheart," she greeted him cheerily in an accent that was still way too much like Rachel's to make Danny entirely comfortable. She nodded her head towards Steve. "I'm topping him up," she said, in a tone that somehow made it sound like porn.
Danny had an image of Steve filling up with light like a gas tank and gave his head a quick shake. "Is he...will he be all right?"
That got him another blinding grin. "Yes he will, because I am fantastic. And I'm still expecting heaps of gratitude. Or presents."
"I'll take you swimming with dolphins," Steve said. He threw one bare arm over his eyes, which was oddly adorable and endearing in a way Danny didn't want to think about right then. Mostly because he was perfectly happy to be sitting up in the narrow bed and grinning like an idiot, because Steve was alive and awake and visible and knew where he was.
Well, okay, technically neither of them knew where they were, but right then that didn't matter.
The light stopped and Vala dropped her hand. "Well, you look like I did a wonderful job."
Steve lowered his arm and opened his eyes, then blinked like he was surprised. "I don't know you," he said to Vala.
"I'm Vala Mal Doran," she said. She smiled winningly. "And I just finished doing a wonderful job of healing you and you promised me a swim with dolphins."
Steve blinked again. "I thought I dreamed that."
Vala laughed. "No, we're all definitely here."
"Where is 'here', exactly?" Danny asked.
"Welcome to Stargate Command," John said, walking up to the three of them with Rodney right behind. His timing was so perfect he could've been waiting outside the door. He was wearing something black and untucked that looked vaguely like a uniform with a patch of the United States flag on one arm and another one with a horse flying over the word Atlantis on the other. He had a cloth bag dangling from one hand, and he raised the other in a casual greeting. "Hey, Vala."
Rodney was wearing jeans and a black tee-shirt that said, 'I'm here because you broke something'. "Well, more accurately this is the infirmary at Stargate Command," he said. He looked kind of scarily happy. "We're inside a mountain."
Vala gave John and Rodney another one of her megawatt smiles. "Hello, John, Rodney. You two look better."
They really did, considering all of them were half- to two-thirds dead the last time Danny had seen them. He'd been a little too preoccupied with screaming his lungs out with pain or--he guessed--being drugged into unconsciousness to worry about them, but seeing John and Rodney alive and well like this was a big relief all the same.
"Thanks," John said to Vala. He smiled uncomfortably like he wasn't sure what to do with the compliment. "Fraiser finished fixing me up this morning." He shrugged. "She said she would've preferred to let my white blood cells do more of the work, but SG-1's going on a recon mission today and she'll need the room in her infirmary."
"Oops," Vala said cheerfully. "I forgot about that. I hope I didn't miss too much of the extremely fascinating pre-mission briefing while I was saving people's lives. Goodbye, Steve," she said to him. "It's been a pleasure."
"Thank you," he murmured. He ducked his head but Danny could still see him blushing. Vala seemed to have that effect on people.
"Yeah, thanks. For me and Steve," Danny said, hoping Vala would be able to tell how much he meant it. "You, uh, you literally saved my skin." He held up his hands and smiled, wiggling his fingers. "Sorry I freaked out."
"Not a problem, Daniel," Vala said. "And you're very welcome." She came closer and leaned down like she was about to share a secret. "I hope I'll see you again. I love men with your name. They're always stubborn and beautiful."
She walked away with Danny definitely not gaping after her, though he did wonder how many other Daniels she knew. He wasn't sure if he should envy or pity them.
"You said we were inside a mountain. Which one?" Steve asked Rodney, apparently too interested in local geology to laugh at Danny, which was awesome.
"Cheyenne," John said.
"Cheyenne Mountain?" Steve said. "What about NORAD?"
"Oh, that's still here," Rodney said breezily. "We're just lower down."
Danny broke into a grin. "I think you're missing the truly relevant point, Steven. We're on Earth." He looked at John and Rodney, sure his expression was pathetically hopeful. "This is Earth, right? Not planet Cheyenne, or anything."
"Nope. We're in Colorado." John stuck his free hand in his pocket and rocked back on his heels, looking as smug as if he'd dug out the mountain himself.
"You're home," Rodney said, and he smiled at Danny as if he knew exactly how Danny felt.
"Thank God," Danny said on a breath. He'd been almost certain they were on Earth, but it was even better to know for sure. Home. Safe. "Thank you," he said to Rodney.
"Oh, um, you're welcome." Rodney said. Apparently he took gratitude about as well as John took compliments.
"I told you we'd get home, Danny," Steve said to him. His grin was even more dazzling than Vala's.
"I have no recollection of that," Danny said, which was true but he regretted it when Steve's face fell a little. "Though I'm sure you did say it, because it's exactly the kind of ridiculously optimistic promises you give everyone all the time." Naturally the insult made Steve smile again and Danny felt better. "But we're not entirely 'home' yet. Maybe they didn't teach you any geography in SEAL school, but Colorado is kind of far from Hawaii." He looked at John. "I need to call my daughter."
John nodded. "Of course. And don't worry, guys--we'll get you back to Oahu. But we were kind of hoping we could show you something first."
"After I call Grace," Danny said, because there was no way he was waiting to do that. He didn't even care what time it was in Hawaii. He just had to hear her voice and know she was okay.
"Sure, fine," Rodney said. "But this is awesome. I'm serious." He looked as excited as a kid and Danny couldn't help feeling both charmed and a little wary at his enthusiasm.
Steve just looked wary. "What is it?"
"The Stargate," John said. He lobbed the bag at Steve's head, not looking the least bit surprised when Steve easily snatched it out of the air. "There're clothes and toiletries in there. We'll meet you outside the infirmary in twenty."
"Make it ten," Steve said.
"I am not taking a three-minute shower, Steven," Danny said. "Not all of us were trained to enjoy your self-imposed crazy ninja SEAL masochism."
"You know, you two need some serious couples counseling," John said. Then he grinned when Danny scowled at him.
The garrison uniforms John had given them looked oddly generic, Steve thought, and like they'd been pulled off the rack from a surplus store. They were light blue, which made Danny remark, 'how pretty!' with deep, deep sarcasm. So Steve made sure to mention how well they went with his eyes. Several times. As far as Steve was concerned real clothing was much better than the white scrubs they'd been wearing or the awful gowns before that. He knew his body had been healed, but he didn't really feel good until he was completely clean and shaved and dressed in real clothing. No matter how blue it was.
Someone had even dug their wallets and car keys out of what they were wearing on the planet, though Danny's were too burned to use. Their boots had been cleaned and dried out, too. That was kind.
"We're going to be late, Danny," Steve said. He leaned against the concrete wall of the shower/changing room they'd been led to that attached to the infirmary, unconsciously tensing for pain that didn't come. Part of him still expected every move to hurt. He was far more used to being injured than to recovering this quickly.
It was astonishing that given the extent of their injuries that they were both fine. Steve knew that he should be dead, not standing inside a mountain waiting for Danny without a single mark on him. If he'd been wounded like that back in Oahu or even on any of his SEAL missions, he would be dead. He owed more to the SGC's healers than he and Danny could ever repay.
And maybe that was why Danny was staring at himself in the mirror like that: as if he'd never seen his own face before, pink-cheeked as a baby and missing some of the laugh lines. Steve watched Danny's reflection and tried to shove down the guilt before he choked on it.
"You look fine," he said.
"No I don't," Danny said the words like they weren't up for argument. He ran his fingers through his hair, which was as short as Steve's now and even lighter blond than before, like it'd been bleached by the sun. "It doesn't even feel the same. It's like...It's like Gracie's, when she was a baby." He shook his head, looking bewildered and more than a little horrified. "This isn't--this isn't my hair. This isn't me. What the hell did that Vala chick do?"
"Danny," Steve began.
Danny cut him off. "Don't, okay? Do not even start with me. Because you're standing there looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and liked you walked off the cover of Soldier GQ and I've got baby hair in a blond that Lady Gaga would reject as too extreme. And I have to go home like this, and what the hell am I going to tell Grace, huh?" He turned around, gesturing angrily at his head as if Steve had somehow missed it. "That I lost a bet? I look like I had fucking radiation therapy--!
"Your hair was burned off, Danny!" Steve barked. "Your scalp, everything! Your entire upper body was on fire! Don't you remember that? Don't you remember? You were standing there...you...I saw..." He swallowed heavily and he looked down at the scuffed grey floor, too ashamed to meet Danny's eyes. "It's just hair, Danny. It'll grow back."
"Hey," Danny said, walking towards him. "Okay, you just told me that looking like a kewpie doll isn't a big deal, but suddenly you're acting like you're more upset about it than I am, which is pretty fucking upset, believe me. What gives? What's going on in that Neanderthal brain of yours?"
Steve made himself look at Danny because Danny deserved that much, but he couldn't find a smile despite the ridiculous insult. "It's my fault," he said simply. "I saw you and I just left you there." His voice rose, meeting the anger he felt at himself. "I just wandered off,"--he made a flitting gesture with his hand, trying to convey the extent of his uselessness--"and left you to die! You almost died because of me!"
"Whoa, whoa, wait just a minute." Danny raised his hands, which were covered in new, red-tinged skin. Danny had probably seen that too. "What, exactly, about getting abducted by aliens was your fault? Because from where I'm standing the only ones to blame here are yellow, scaly, and thankfully deceased. Or is this more of your, 'I've never seen a guilt complex I didn't like' thing?"
"I'm not talking about that!" Steve said. "I know it wasn't my fault we ended up on that planet! What, exactly, about my walking away and leaving you burning to death isn't my fault?"
"The part where you didn't put a gun to my head and tell me, 'go barbeque the alien, Danny'?" Danny asked him in exaggerated confusion. "The part where you hit your head so badly when an alien threw you into a tree that you were speaking in Korean? Or maybe--"
"I was speaking in Korean? When did I do that?" Steve said, blinking.
Danny rolled his eyes. "Yes, because that is the relevant piece of information, here. You started speaking Korean after you got hit on the head, Steven," he explained in mock-patience. "As in, you were firing on maybe one and a half cylinders and were lucky you could walk in a straight line. And that was before you got backhanded into next week." Danny tilted his head, considering. "Though come to think of it, throwing yourself at Schwarzenegger-sized aliens with nothing to protect yourself with but a handgun and congenital insanity was pretty stupid. Then again you do that kind of thing all the time, so it's hardly worth mentioning."
"I abandoned you, Danny," Steve said.
Danny looked at him for a moment, then let out a defeated huff of air and pinched the bridge of his nose. When he dropped his hand his eyes were bright with anger. "No, okay, see, this is where you turn into a brick wall." He crossed his arms, leaning back a little so he could pin Steve with his gaze. "Tell me--this 'abandoning' thing that you're so certain you did, was it willful? As in, did you look at me, think, 'oh, Danny's on fire' and then just fuck off?"
Steve gritted his teeth so he wouldn't start grinding them. "I should've recognized what was happening."
"Aha!" Danny pointed a finger triumphantly at him. "So, you're saying that, while in a state of advanced brain trauma, you weren't able to, as you said, recognize that I was in trouble--trouble I voluntarily got myself into, let me remind you--which is the only reason you left."
Steve's jaw hurt. "Yes."
"Yes. Exactly." Danny nodded in satisfaction. "And tell me this, Steven, if you had recognized that I was in trouble, would you have left me?"
"No." Steve shook his head. He had to swallow again. "Never."
Danny spread his hands. "So why are you blaming yourself?"
Steve looked away. Because I should've been there to protect you and I wasn't. Because I lost it during a fight and you almost died. Because I'd have to look your daughter in the eye and tell her I couldn't save you. Because you're my best friend and I couldn't stand losing you. He shrugged one shoulder. "I should've done better."
"Of course you would say that," Danny said. "And you need to practice that walking on water thing while you're at it." He watched Steve for another moment and then gave a put-upon sigh. "Come here, you idiot."
He spread his arms in clear invitation and Steve bent a little so he could step into the hug. It reminded Steve too much of when Danny had just gotten out of the hospital after inhaling Sarin gas, and it was probably pathetic and maybe even as insane as Danny accused him of being, but for a moment Steve was grateful for what they'd been through, because he would never initiate physical contact like this. It wasn't his right. Most of the time he didn't even know he wanted it, anyway.
Danny knew, and maybe that was why he didn't complain or try to pull back when Steve hung on just a little too long.
John checked his watch. "You know, I would've thought a Navy SEAL would be more punctual than that."
Rodney was standing right next to him, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed the same way John was. "I would've thought you'd stop caring that he was a Navy SEAL by now," Rodney said. "I'm surprised you haven't challenged him to a duel."
"I'm not jealous of him, Rodney," John said. "Besides, if it was stick fighting I'd totally win."
"Not that you're jealous, or anything," Rodney scoffed. He turned his head so that he was staring at John's nose and smiled. "He can fly helicopters too, according to his file. Isn't that neat?"
"Fuck you," John said without heat. "He owes me for saving his life, anyway."
"I think he's one up on you for that," Rodney said. "And I'm still pissed at you, by the way."
John turned his head so that they were nose-to-nose. Rodney's features were entirely a blur but it was easy to tell he meant exactly what he'd said. "That I went back for Steve?"
"Of course not!" Rodney said. "You made a compelling argument and as it turned out you were absolutely right. That has nothing to do with it."
"Okay..." John said slowly. He'd been sure Rodney would be angry about that. Rodney hated it when John risked his life over anything. "If you're not pissed that I went to save Steve, what's the problem?"
Rodney's blurry eyebrows slid blurrily upward. "'So long, Rodney'? Seriously? You go charging off to your probable death and that's the best you can do? I didn't even rate a 'goodbye'?"
"Rodney, I barely remember what I even said," John lied. "But if I did say that,"--he ignored Rodney's 'you totally did!'--"then it was obviously because I was sure I'd see you again."
"You are such a terrible liar, John," Rodney said sadly. "And no, you weren't sure you were going to see me again. If anything, you were sure you were going to die. And all you could do was 'so long'?"
"I was sick," John said.
John huffed out a breath. "I don't like goodbyes, okay?" He shrugged. "There. So I'm sorry I didn't give you the farewell you wanted, but I didn't want to in case...I don't know, in case it really meant I wouldn't come back."
"Oh," Rodney said. "That's touching and kind of stupid."
John smirked. "That's me. Touching and stupid."
Rodney edged closer so that their shoulders actually were touching. He twined his fingers through John's. "Well, I'd agree with the 'touching' part."
"Is that supposed to be suggestive?" John asked. "Because it was kind of lame." He curled his fingers so he and Rodney were unmistakably holding hands and squeezed gently before pulling away.
"I think it depends on what's being touched," Rodney said. He grinned when John rolled his eyes, but then his expression went soft and sad. "I don't like goodbyes either," he said. "I'm really glad you're not dead."
Which was about as romantic a declaration as Rodney could handle, so John snagged his hand again. "Me too," he said seriously. He sighed. "I really wish we were back in Atlantis."
"Me too," Rodney said, getting what John was talking about. This time Rodney pulled his hand away. It was likely no one at the SGC would care they were in a relationship, but it was easier to be discreet than to risk it.
Rodney perked up suddenly. "Hey, if Williams and McGarrett join the SGC, do you think we can keep them?"
"They're not kittens, Rodney," John said. But Danny and Steve had just come into the waiting room and Danny did look slightly kittenish with his new soft, spiky hair.
"Sorry about the wait," Steve said gravely.
"No problem," John said, pushing away from the wall. He smiled. "Even a SEAL can't be good at everything."
Steve smiled wanly at him. John smiled wanly back.
"Did he just say we're not kittens?" Danny asked Steve.
"You kind of look like a kitten, with the hair," Steve said as they walked out of the room.
"Hey, this food isn't bad. For, like, military stuff," Danny said. He had a plate full of eggs and bacon, with a small bowl of fruit on the side that Steve had bullied him into getting. Steve was astonishingly interested in Danny's health and well-being, Rodney thought. John would just eye whatever Rodney chose smirkily and then make a crack about Rodney's arteries solidifying or something.
Rodney had also gone for the bacon and eggs and was privately enjoying how Steve and John seemed to have been in a competition to get the healthiest breakfast possible.
"I thought you hated oatmeal," Rodney said to John, smiling innocently at the mild glare he got in return. "He hates oatmeal," he said to Danny.
"Does anyone actually like oatmeal?" Danny asked him. He'd spent a half-hour on the phone with Grace and he looked happy, though he kept checking the clock on the wall like he couldn't wait to leave.
"I like oatmeal," Steve said. He dug up a large spoonful as if to prove the point. "It's good for you. It's full of fiber and protein."
"I should have said, 'does anyone normal actually like oatmeal'," Danny amended. He took a large bite of eggs and barely swallowed before he spoke again. "I'm starving. It's crazy. I feel like I haven't eaten in days."
"How long have we been here?" Steve asked. "The last thing I remember clearly was Lieutenant Colonel Lorne, I think, doing something called 'dialing the Gate'. Then there's not much before waking up with Vala using that healing device."
Danny blinked at him. "It's unsettling how much of what you said makes sense."
"You were operated on, to pull the rib fragments out of your lung," Rodney said to Steve through a mouthful of egg.
"Fraiser didn't want to risk lung tissue growing around the bone and getting re-damaged later," John added.
"I had no idea," Steve said, wide-eyed. He felt his side as if expecting to find some sign of what happened. "I don't even have a scar."
"Was I operated on too?" Danny asked, looking almost as wide-eyed as Steve.
Rodney shook his head. "You, ah, you just..." He cleared his throat, trying to find the best way to say, you were so badly burned that Vala and Fraiser had to tag-team healing you. "You just needed a bit more work."
"How much 'work' are we talking, here?" Danny looked like he was trying to decide if he needed to be freaked out or not. He lifted his hands, turning them palm up and down to show the unblemished skin. "I don't have any scars either." He looked up at Steve. "Do I?"
Steve shook his head. "No, Danny. None."
"You won't have any scarring," John said. "Tegan did that, for both of you. In tandem with the Healers. Her Gift speeds up and encourages natural processes, like growing new skin instead of scar tissue. She also helped you re-grow your hair," he said to Danny. "She kind of had to start from scratch with some things. I guess that's why your hair looks..." His mouth twitched uncomfortably. "More new."
"Oh," Danny said faintly. He carded his fingers through his hair like he was checking if he still had any. "I didn't know it was that bad."
"It was that bad," Rodney said.
"Oh," Danny said again. He looked at Steve as if he needed confirmation.
"Yeah," Steve said, voice rough.
"You looked like a hotdog a kid had dropped into a campfire," Rodney said flatly. "Pieces of your skin stuck to my clothes. The only good thing was most of you was too burned to really feel it. What you did was one of the bravest and most terrible things I've ever seen." He forked up more eggs. "What?" he asked at John's vaguely horrified expression. "He wanted to know. Now he does." He eyed Danny's plate. "Are you going to finish that bacon?"
"No, that's fine. You have it," Danny said immediately.
"Way to be a ray of fucking sunshine, Rodney," John said as Rodney moved all of Danny's bacon onto his plate. John frowned at his oatmeal and grimaced a spoonful into his mouth.
"Yeah, you love that stuff," Rodney said to John. "And now he doesn't have to wonder about it, does he?"
"No. Now I'll just have Technicolor nightmares for the rest of my life. Thank you so much for that," Danny said.
"How long did the aliens have us?" Steve asked again.
"Only seven days," Rodney said. "But that includes your time in the infirmary."
"Seven days?" Danny gaped at Rodney. "Oh my God!" He looked at Steve. "Grace didn't say anything about that. Why didn't she say anything? She must've thought I was dead--!"
"It's okay, Danny. You just spoke to her. She knows you're fine," Steve said, but when he turned to Rodney he had just as much worry in his expression as Danny did. "He's right, though--we need to contact our team and let them know we're alive."
Rodney waved his fork. "We already did that two days ago. General Landry called the Governor and explained how you and Williams had been requested for a top-secret national security thing. So everyone already knows you're safe."
"And they bought that?" Danny said.
"Why wouldn't they?" John looked genuinely surprised. "Landry's a high-ranked general. There'd be no reason for anyone to doubt him."
"I find it hard to believe that a general made phone calls on our behalf," Steve said.
John gave him one of his make-nice-with-the-natives smiles. "Stargate Command looks after its people."
Which obviously didn't work on suspicious SEALs. "We're not your people," Steve said.
"You were when it counted," John said.
"Is that why someone cleaned our boots and we got these uniforms?" Steve asked. "You're 'taking care of us'?" He stabbed his spoon into the remains of his oatmeal. "Don't we get a choice about what happens to us?"
"Like the one you gave me when you had me hijacked into 5-0?" Danny asked him. He smiled innocently at Steve's narrowed eyes.
"That was different," Steve said. "I needed you."
"We need you!" Rodney said. "I'm serious--do you have any idea how hard it is to find people with active ATA genes and your skillset?"
"Of course we're giving you a choice," John said quickly before Steve threatened them with his spoon. Rodney was disturbingly certain Steve could turn even round-edged cutlery into deadly weapons. Danny just looked like he'd been gut-punched, and it belatedly occurred to Rodney that maybe he could've pitched things a little better even before John leveled a glare at him. "We want to offer you a job, not hold you against your will!"
"Did you seriously think we would wine and dine you and then, what? Drag you into a back room and chain you to a wall?" Rodney asked them. "Why did you think we wanted to show you the Stargate? Do you think we give a grand tour to everyone who wanders in here?"
"I have a job," Steve said tightly, though at least now he didn't look like he was going to launch himself across the table and stab Rodney's to death with his spoon. That was nice.
"This is a better one," Rodney said.
"I don't need a better one."
"I just want to go home," Danny said with heartbreaking sincerity. "I need to see my daughter." He looked at the clock again and ran his fingers through his short hair. "As it is, if we leave now we're still not going to get home before nighttime."
"What time does Grace go to bed on Saturdays?" John asked Danny.
Danny blinked at the non sequitur but answered anyway. "Eight or nine, normally. Why?"
John smiled. "Because I guarantee that we'll have you back in Oahu with more than enough time to kiss her goodnight, no matter what."
"So you have plenty of time to see the Stargate," Rodney said. "Please," he added when Danny looked like he was about to protest and Steve's eyes narrowed even more. "Just ten minutes. That's all I ask, okay? Just ten. And then..." he couldn't help the grimace. "And then if you somehow really don't want to join the Stargate program, we'll send you right home. Okay?"
"It's worth it," John said.
"It's up to you, Danny," Steve said.
Danny took a breath. "Yeah, okay," he said. "Ten minutes. And then we're going home."
"Wow," Danny said, three and a half minutes later when the event horizon of the wormhole burst like a whirlpool out of the giant circle of the Gate.
"Didn't I tell you it'd be awesome?" Rodney was practically bouncing on his toes and John smiled to himself. He didn't think the Stargate would ever get old for either of them.
Steve stepped closer to the glass wall of the control room, practically looming over Harriman, who shrunk down a little in his chair. Down below in the Gate room the splash coalesced into a rippling blue disk inside the circle.
"It looks like water," Steve said.
"That's just how we perceive it," Rodney said. Steve nodded though John didn't think he was really listening.
In the Gate room, the five members of SG-1 strode up the ramp, walking side-by side like they'd choreographed it. Vala hung back just long enough to turn and wave and then followed the rest of her team into the brilliant blue. In another two steps they'd all disappeared from sight.
"That's amazing," Steve said. He watched until the blue disk flashed out then turned to look at John with an expression full of wonder. It took years off his face and made John kind of wish he knew Steve when he was a kid. "And that's how you travel to other planets?"
"Yes!" Rodney nodded gleefully. "We make contact with races on other planets, find technology, natural resources--"
"Fight to the death with giant yellow aliens," Danny added. He was still looking at the Gate like he was trying to memorize the constellations carved into the alien material.
"Well, sometimes," Rodney agreed reluctantly. "But that's really a very small part of what happens. Honest," he added when Danny looked over his shoulder with arched eyebrows.
"Part of our role in the Pegasus galaxy is to protect the people who live there from the Wraith," John said. He knew he'd said that before, but a lot had happened since then and he didn't think a repeat would hurt. "But the rest is just like Rodney says. Most of the time we give aid, or we get to be diplomats or explorers." He grinned. "And the pay and benefits are excellent."
Danny snorted. "I'll bet." He looked a lot more relaxed than he had after Rodney's bungled recruitment attempt, though John didn't miss how he still kept checking the time. Danny turned around to face them then gestured behind him at the Gate. "And that's like, an ordinary day for you guys."
"Yup." John said. "And we get to fly spaceships, too." The last part was directed at Steve.
"Well, um, technically Steve wouldn't be able to fly the Jumpers," Rodney put in. "Yet!" he amended quickly. "We'll give you gene therapy, so you could do it. Your Ancient Technology Activation gene is probably latent," he explained to an obviously puzzled Steve. "Mine was latent too, but after I had the therapy I was able to access my Gift and Ancient tech. Like the energy detector."
"Oh," Steve said. He looked at Danny. "You can use the technology he's talking about. Maybe you should consider this."
Danny stared at him. "What? Why? Just because I've got this ATM gene thing you're sending me on my merry way, now? Have I suddenly been rendered unnecessary to 5-0? Do you think I can just move my daughter to Colorado? What?"
"We were hoping you'd come to Atlantis, actually," Rodney said eagerly before Steve could reply. "You could bring your daughter! We already have kids there, and she'd get a fantastic education!"
Danny switched his stare to Rodney. "When she's not dodging Wraith?" He shook his head. "No. No thank you." He drew a breath and turned to look at the Gate again, and maybe, yeah, John thought there was a bit of longing. "I mean, sure. If I didn't have a kid and I didn't have other obligations, I'd consider it. But as it stands, no." He shook his head again. "No. I'm sorry. I understand what you're offering, but I can't do it."
"You're not obliged to stay with 5-0, Danny," Steve said quietly.
"Not obliged to--" Danny started to say to Steve, but cut himself off by throwing his hands into the air. "You know what? Forget it. If you really think I've chained myself to your insanity out of some sense..." He shook his head. "Never mind." He turned to John and Rodney with a tight smile. "I'll consider your offer, thank you."
Despite his fascination with the Gate Steve hadn't said anything about joining the Stargate Program himself, and John thought that was too bad but it didn't really surprise him. He'd seen Steve's face the moment his whole universe had literally changed, and he'd looked shattered; completely undone. Steven McGarrett wouldn't want any part of this.
Once, years ago, someone had said to John that anyone who didn't want to go through the Stargate was crazy. In his heart John had always figured it was the other way around.
"Well, that's disappointing," Rodney said. He sighed then looked at John. "Maybe we really should have dragged--"
"That's all we ask," John said, stepping in front of Rodney before he incited Steve to violence. He gestured at the door. "I'm afraid we have a few non-disclosure agreements for you to sign, but after that we'll send you right home." It was easier to hide his own disappointment, mostly because he felt a lot more relieved than unhappy.
John liked Steve. Hell, it was hard not to like someone when you'd both nearly died together a few times, but that didn't mean he wanted to deal with him on a daily basis. In truth, the idea of Lieutenant Commander McGarrett leading his own Gate team was kind of a nightmare. He was too willing to throw himself into the line of fire, go for the self-sacrifice before any other plan because it was easier than risking anyone else's life.
He's too much like you, whispered a little voice in the back of John's head. John ignored it.
"How are you going to do that, anyway?" Danny asked him as they filed out of the room. It was hard to miss the relief in his voice--he sounded almost jubilant. "Do you guys have a super-sonic jet? Or are we hitching a ride in one of your spaceships?"
"Something like that," John said.
"So, um, I made you these," Rodney said, then grabbed Danny's hand and dropped something into it.
"My badge?" Danny blinked at it, then back at Rodney. "I thought I lost this on hell planet."
"We did," Steve said, staring at his. He looked up at Rodney too. "You said you made these? They're exactly like the real things."
"They're better than the real things," Rodney said, grinning like a little kid. "I got the design from Chan, but they're made out of the same material as the iris that protects our Stargate. They're virtually indestructible."
"Indestructible?" Danny admired his badge again. "That's pretty cool."
"His name is Chin Ho," Steve corrected Rodney. He lifted his new badge closer to his eyes to examine it. He grinned. "They look exactly the same."
"Of course. I made them." Rodney looked extremely pleased with himself. "When I told Cha-Chin Ho that you didn't lose your badges anywhere that some criminal could find them and use them--leaving out the particular details, of course--he was happy to just send me the mold specs and save on the paperwork. I made the actual molds for your badges myself."
"Thank you," Steve said.
"Cool," Danny said again. He put his new badge into the inside pocket of his ridiculously blue shirt and smiled at Rodney. "Thanks. Maybe I'll keep it in my shirt pocket, like armor."
"That would be a great idea." Rodney nodded seriously, as if he had no idea Danny was mostly joking. "No Earth projectile could go through it."
"I agree with Rodney," Steve said to Danny with grim seriousness. "You really should put your badge where it can protect your heart."
Danny rolled his eyes. "And how about I just Krazy-glue yours to your chest? It'd save you the trouble of improving your wardrobe."
John had been leaning against the very large conference table and smiling at Rodney with a kind of soft fondness that made Danny's unprotected heart ache just a little bit. Now he stood up and ambled over with his hands in his pockets. He and Rodney had both come in after the nervous Radar guy Harriman had left with a stack of papers he could barely see over. Danny's wrist was still smarting from signing everything. It kind of sucked that the only person he could talk to about any of this stuff was Steve. On the other hand a lot of it he was perfectly happy to never think about again. And most of the time Steve was his default person to talk to anyway.
"I got something for you too," John said. He pulled his hand out of his pocket with what looked like a couple key chains dangling from it: two yellowish crystals shaped like marbles and about the size of quarters, with a simple hole drilled through them so they could hang from a short chain. They even had key rings at the top. "Here."
Danny put his hand out and John dropped them into his palm. As soon as the crystals touched his skin they burst into brilliant light.
"No way!" Danny looked at John, grinning. "They're glowing because of the gene thing, right? Where did you get these?"
John shrugged like it was no big deal, which reminded Danny of Steve. "We always have tech here and there that we don't need. I asked one of the machinists to make them up for you. You know, as souvenirs."
"And maybe you could let us know if any of your friends have the ATA gene," Rodney piped up. "And what's wrong with that?" He asked John, who was shaking his head.
"Thank you," Steve said. He took one of the key chains from Danny's hand, picking it up by the crystal. It stopped glowing as soon as it left Danny's palm. Steve smiled crookedly at John before he tucked the key chain into his pocket.
"If you ever want to, um, visit, we could probably arrange for the gene therapy," Rodney said surprisingly gently.
Steve nodded, his smile going wistful. "Thanks."
John checked his watch. "So," he said. "You're ride's here. We should probably say goodbye."
Danny couldn't wait to see his daughter again, to get back to Hawaii and the normal level of crazy that was his life, but now that it was finally time to go he was reluctant to just leave.
"Right," Rodney said. He stuck out his hand awkwardly. "Take care, then."
Danny looked at Rodney's hand and then looked at Rodney. "A handshake? Really? We all almost died and we're shaking hands?"
Rodney looked worried. He slowly pulled his hand back. "No?"
"No," Danny said. He gave Rodney a hug. "Thank you for keeping us alive," he said after Rodney's small, astonished squawk. "And thank you for saving my life."
"Oh. Well, you're welcome." Rodney sounded surprised and smug at the same time, which Danny would've thought was impossible before he met him. He patted Danny's back a few times before he let go. "And thank you too, eh? I mean, I meant what I said before, about you being brave."
"You're welcome," Danny said simply, because he knew how to be gracious. "And, um, if you want to keep in touch, or anything..."
Rodney nodded vigorously. "Yes. That would be great. Because, you know, you might want to take a vacation in Colorado. Sometime."
Danny smiled. "Yeah. The ice skating in Hawaii's kind of lousy. Oh." He looked around, but the Radar guy had been scarily efficient with stripping the conference table of anything to write on or with. "You need my email."
"I already have it," Rodney said offhandedly.
"He stalks Gifted people," John said.
Danny smirked at Rodney's indignant, 'this has nothing to do with that!' and then it was time to say goodbye to John. Danny had a feeling from the subtle way John drew back that he was one of those guys who figured hugs should be rationed for football games or death, but fuck it; Danny hugged him anyway.
"You are seriously badass with a sword. You know that, right?" Danny said then thought he heard a strangled chuckle from John, who was hugging Danny back like he might explode if he was held too tightly. "And thank you, for talking me through the burn stuff. I don't know if I would've made it without that. And for going after Steve." That part kind of got caught in his throat so Danny decided it would be a good time to let go. John looked incredibly relieved, which was funny but mostly sad. "I still don't know what your Gift is, but whatever you did, thanks."
John rubbed the back of his neck. "No problem," he said, like Danny had asked him to pass the stapler. "But, uh, about my Gift...It's, um..."
"Not important right now," Steve said, and John looked startled and then so grateful that Danny wondered if his Gift was something weird and embarrassing. "But appreciated," Steve said to John. "Very much."
John nodded very seriously.
Steve held out his hand and they just did the handshake thing and John looked really relieved about that, too. "And, um, that stuff you said, when I was--"
"I know," John said quickly, like they were both speaking in code. "Don't mention it." It sounded like an order.
Steve nodded very seriously. "Thank you, sir." Then he stood back and gave what was probably the most textbook Navy salute in the history of Navy textbooks, and John gave him one in return and this was obviously the emotionally-stunted military version of a moving display of mutual respect and affection.
Rodney actually hugged Steve, which was a truly hilarious reversal of Danny hugging John. Steve was less pod-person about it though--he smiled and hugged him back--which Danny thought was a good sign.
And then, at last, it was really time to get the hell out of Dodge. Or Colorado.
John and Rodney took several steps back and Danny figured they'd be ushered to wherever the elevators were, but instead John just clicked on the thing in his ear that Danny had figured was a Bluetooth for his cell phone. "You guys ready up there? Great. Two for transport. You can lock on their signals."
"Signals?" Danny started to say and then finished it somewhere completely different. "What the fuck?" It looked like they were on some kind of landing pad, only it was inside a building. A big building made entirely of metal.
"Welcome to the Daedalus, Lieutenant Commander, Detective," a young, very professional-looking woman said. She was wearing an olive green jumpsuit with a patch on the chest of either a spaceship or a robot shark and the word 'Daedalus' underneath it. Just like she'd said. She gave Steve a crisp salute then held out what looked like an iPad to him. "Could you please verify that this is your home address, Commander?"
Steve blinked at her a few times. "Uh, sure." He blinked down at the pad then nodded. "Yeah, that's it."
"Thank you, sir," the woman said. She stepped back and touched the not-a-Bluetooth in her ear and Danny braced himself. "We have a go on the coordinates. Transport when ready." She gave Danny and Steve a warm but very professional smile. "It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Likewise," Danny managed just before they were suddenly standing in the living room of Steve's house.
"Holy crap," Danny said, looking around. Danny had no idea what the time difference was between Colorado and Oahu, but the closest clock said it was just after 7:00 AM and the house was barely lit by the early-morning sunlight. The only sign that anything had happened at all was an empty mug on the coffee table. Someone on his team had obviously left it there when they'd come over to the house trying to find him and Steve. "That was like, genuine Star Trek beam-me-up shit. Max would've loved to see that!"
He took a step and the house alarm started beeping in warning. "Uh-oh." Steve had left it off the day they were abducted, but Chin and Kono both had the code and had apparently turned it back on.
"Shit," Steve murmured and rushed to the wall panel to shut it off. He checked the system's history, and then once he was satisfied with whatever he read on the screen he started prowling around the house like he was sure Wo Fat was waiting for him. He checked the locks on all the doors and even looked in the kitchen cupboards and the fridge, and Danny wanted to ask what teeny little criminal he thought might be hiding in the crisper drawer, but Steve's face made him decide to keep his mouth shut.
Danny followed him upstairs, not at all surprised to see how Steve immediately made sure his spare handgun was still cached in the bedroom before making sure nothing else had changed.
"I don't think anyone's slept in your bed or eaten your porridge, Steve," Danny said. He'd been going for a joke but it ended up sounding like he meant it, which of course was insane.
"I know," Steve said. He went to the window, made sure it was locked and then looked outside. "It feels like nothing happened."
"Yeah." Danny nodded even though Steve wasn't looking at him. "But it did."
Steve nodded too. "We need to call the others, and the Governor. Let them know we're back."
"Yeah," Danny said, but neither of them moved.
"I guess Grace is awake, since you called her?" Steve said. He looked over his shoulder. "Doesn't she get up early on weekends anyway?"
"Yeah," Danny said, smiling a little. "You can't drag her out of bed on a school day, but if it's a weekend she's up at the crack of dawn." And wow, he could see her. It was supposed to be his weekend with her and everything. And suddenly he wanted his little girl in his arms so badly it felt like he was vibrating with it; a longing he hadn't felt since Rachel had first moved to Hawaii and taken her away from him. "I'm going to call Rachel, see if it's okay to come over this early." It would be, or he'd rip down that fucking pretentious iron gate. There was no way he wasn't seeing Gracie.
"I'm sure it will be," Steve said. He was still looking out the window, his hands tense on either side of the frame. "Don't worry about anything. I'll contact everyone, make sure they know we're home safe."
Danny was looking at his clothes, trying to decide if he had to change everything or just the pants. But his head shot up as soon as Steve's words registered. "Aren't you coming?"
That actually got Steve to turn around, and he looked so surprised that Danny wanted to smack him, or maybe hug him, or both. "You don't mind? I mean, it's your time with her..."
"Do I mind, he asks," Danny said. "Of course I mind--I just asked if you were coming because I like fucking with your stupid head. No, Steven," he said slowly, "I do not mind if you come with me to see my daughter, who I know cares about you a great deal and would probably like some reassurance that you're still breathing."
Steve's grin was so big and happy it was kind of heartbreaking. "Cool. We can bring her back here and she can play on the beach. And I'll invite everyone over later. I can cook something."
"Please, go ahead and plan my whole weekend, why don't you?" Danny said, but he wasn't really complaining and he knew Steve knew it. "First, though, we need to get into some normal clothes. Well, okay, you don't, but people might notice if I show up looking like your clone."
"You're too short to be my clone, Danny," Steve said, then laughed when Danny scowled at him.
"Oh, ha, ha. You are a comic genius," Danny said. Which means you're surely intelligent enough to have noticed that we have a couple minor problems." He began ticking off on his fingers. "One, being that we have no cell phones. Two, being that my credit cards and driver's license got charred beyond recognition. And three is that my car has either been impounded or is still parked outside Hoapili's place of business."
"No problem, Danny." Steve had obviously decided he had everything under control. "I'm sure the Governor can fast-track you some new I.D. on Monday, and we can use my truck."
"And your wallet. We're definitely using your wallet. So you can't pretend to forget to bring it," Danny reminded him.
"Yes, Danny," Steve said. All heavy-sighs and put-upon, but when Danny looked at him Steve was grinning, and Danny knew he was grinning too and they both probably looked demented but neither of them could seem to stop.
"You are such a goof," Danny said.
Steve just looked like that was the best compliment ever. "Come on, Danny, you know you love me."
"Of course I do. Why else would I stick around when you put grenades in my car and get me kidnapped by aliens?" And Danny said it like it was supposed to be a joke, and he was still smiling like it was a joke, but his heart suddenly went ka-thump like it'd decided before his brain did that it wasn't a joke at all.
Danny turned away quickly with his heart still pounding. "Glad I have a change of clothes here," he said, trying not to actually start babbling. "I've got to get out of this monkey suit. I look like a pilot for Air Candyland." But he was only halfway out the bedroom door when Steve said, 'Danny?' And of course what else would Danny ever do but turn around?
Steve licked his lips and his mouth opened just a little, like he was searching for words. And then he smiled and said, "I was thinking more, My Little Pony Cruise Lines," as if that'd been what was on his mind all along.
Danny smirked, relieved and weirdly a bit saddened at the same time. "You realize what you've just admitted about yourself by even knowing My Little Pony, right?"
"And yet you got the reference," Steve said, completely unfazed.
Danny shook his head, chuckling despite himself. "You, my friend, you are a child. Get changed already--I'd like to see my daughter before she goes to college." He was still grinning as he finally went out the door.
"Whatcha got there, Rodney?" John asked as he sauntered into Rodney's quarters on Atlantis.
Rodney was sitting at his desk, smiling at something on his laptop. The smile became a huge grin when he saw John. "Oh, hey, you're here."
"I'm here," John agreed, smiling back. "So, what was this thing that you wanted to show me?
"This," Rodney said. He rolled his chair to the side so John could see the small computer screen. "Danny's latest email," he explained happily, gesturing at the screen. "He has pictures of Vala's visit."
"Oh yeah?" John went closer to peer at the laptop. "Is that her with the dolphins?"
"Yeah." Rodney nodded vigorously. "Danny said he didn't think Steve remembered, but about a week after they got back he asked Danny if he could get her address."
"Huh," John said. He wondered if Steve always kept his word. Maybe that was something else they had in common. He leaned a little closer to the screen. "I can't tell if the dolphin likes her or if it's trying to eat her."
"I have no idea," Rodney said. He looked at John impatiently. "Have you finished ogling the sea mammals? Because I'd like to see the other pictures."
"You told me to look at the picture," John said, but he let Rodney scroll down to the next one. This one was Danny and his daughter. She'd obviously done something to spike his hair and was killing herself laughing about it, all doubled over with her hands over her mouth. Danny looked a lot like a robust Billy Idol with his nearly white-blond hair. The flash had caught his expression somewhere between pride and fond exasperation. Steve was in the background, holding up a half-empty bottle of dollar-store hair gel like a product model and grinning at the camera like it was entirely his idea.
Danny seemed to be something Steve and Rodney had in common too, with how Rodney was smiling at the picture so warmly like that. "So, I guess Danny is your new boyfriend now, huh?"
Rodney's look implied John had sounded a lot less casually jokey than he'd intended.
"Absolutely," Rodney said, dry enough to split rock. "I actually invited you over to break up amicably so I could catch the next available transport to Honolulu and consummate our undying devotion on the beach." He stared at John. "Please don't tell me that you were honestly thinking I would throw you over for a cop."
John shrugged, trying not to show how stupidly relieved he was. "You just seem to really get along."
"And I don't usually get along with anybody, I know," Rodney finished for him. "He's honest. I respect that in a person. And we shared a unique and inarguably intense experience." Rodney smiled self-consciously. "And it probably helps that most of our communication is long-distance."
"Probably," John said, then smiled innocently when Rodney made a face at him.
"He also put his own body between you and one of those aliens, even though I'm sure he didn't realize I could shield us at the time." Rodney smiled at John and there was so much more than just warmth in his expression. "That did a lot to endear him to me."
"Oh," John said, feeling like an ass. "I didn't know that."
Rodney turned back to the screen. "Well, that's not surprising, considering. And I thought you wanted to look at the pictures."
"Right," John said. He understood Rodney's brusqueness--he didn't want to think too much about their time in the game preserve either. The only really good memory he had of that place was the moment he found out that Rodney had made it back and all four of them would survive. "Whoa, what the hell happened there?" This picture was Steve, looking harassed and glaring at the camera with his shirt off and his hands on his hips. There was a wide, ugly dark bruise almost right in the center of his chest.
"The badges I gave them worked," Rodney said, scrolling down. The next picture was of a 5-0 badge on a glass tabletop. It had a tiny scratch through the 'ES' in the word 'Investigator', and Danny had Photoshopped in an arrow pointing to it and the words, This was an armor-piercing bullet that would've gone through his Kevlar if he hadn't clipped the badge on it. The doc figured it would've severed his aorta. I made him promise to name his first child after you.
"Meredith or Rodney?" John murmured.
"I'm sending Danny replacement badges for the rest of his team," Rodney said. He squinted at the picture. "You don't think the locator signal was damaged, do you?"
"Naw." John shook his head. "It'd take a lot more than just a bullet to break it, you know that." He patted Rodney's shoulder. "If any other aliens abduct them, we'll be able to get them back."
"Good," Rodney said. He frowned. "I still don't see why Fraiser couldn't've just put locator implants in their arms like we have."
"Because of a little thing called 'consent', Rodney," John said. "You may have heard of it? It means you can't put things into people's bodies without asking them?"
"They wouldn't have to know about it," Rodney huffed. "Fine. Consent. Whatever." He sighed. "I wish we could at least make full vests for them, instead of just the badges."
"I wish we could make full vests for us," John said. "I bet you didn't think those badges would come in handy so quickly, huh?"
Rodney scoffed. "Of course I did. I've seen him in action, remember?"
Well, that was true. "Maybe you should make me one."
"I don't need to make you one," Rodney said. "You have me."
"There is that," John said, and he couldn't help grinning because yes, he had Rodney. Rodney was his.
He put his hand on the nape of Rodney's neck, and Rodney glanced up at him with a smile before looking back at the screen. "Here's a cool picture of Kono." He scrolled and there she was: a gorgeous woman in a very small bikini, balanced on the edge of a surfboard that itself was balanced on a large rock in the sand. She was laughing, her arms spread wide with the deep blue of the sky and the even deeper blue of the ocean behind her.
"She really can balance on anything," John said admiringly. "I'd love to watch her surf."
"I'm sure you would," Rodney said. "But that's not all she can do. Check this out." He scrolled down some more and the next picture looked like it'd been taken at a restaurant or a bar. Danny, Kono, Chin, Vala and a thin blonde John thought was named Lori were sitting around a table. The empty chair and half-filled beer glass probably belonged to Steve, who John was sure took the picture. Kono and her cousin were grinning and holding Danny and Steve's key chains. Both of the crystals were glowing. Kono's was brighter than Chin's, but the shine from the crystals was very clear in the bar's low atmospheric lighting. Lori looked mystified and Vala was draped over Danny, saying something in his ear. He looked faintly embarrassed.
"Wow. Both of them?" John remembered how wistful Steve had looked when the crystal had gone cold in his hand, and he wondered how Danny had explained it to the rest of their team. "Steve must hate it, not being able to do that," John said quietly.
"I know how that feels," Rodney said.
"I know," John said. He rubbed the back of Rodney's neck with his thumb. "At least it's not something he needs for his job."
"True," Rodney said. "Unlike us, who use Ancient tech all the time. Oh, you'll like this one." He scrolled again and this picture was in someone's living room. Steve was lying on a couch, apparently fast asleep with one of his arms bent over his eyes. Danny was standing next to him, grinning evilly and about to pour what looked like an entire cup of water on his head. Vala was there too, mostly out of frame but clearly egging Danny on. "Vala's a really bad influence."
"Mmm," John agreed, and then blinked, realizing what was off about the picture. "Hey, how come we can see him?"
"You mean Steve?" Rodney said. "Oh, that's simple. His image here is recorded, not direct to our brain. His Gift only alters how we perceive him if we're within sight or hearing distance. So he was still invisible to whomever was taking the photo, but we can see him."
"Cool," John said. He was about to ask Rodney how Danny and the mystery photographer knew where Steve was, then he saw the red dishtowel someone had placed carefully over Steve's feet like a warning flag. The edges hung down far enough to be visible. Apparently Steve could sleep pretty deeply under the right circumstances.
John grinned at Rodney. "Is there a picture after Danny dumps the water on him?"
Rodney smirked and did more scrolling. The next picture was of a very wet Steve doing some kind of harmless equivalent of a chokehold on Danny, who was laughing too hard to seem particularly intimidated.
"Do you think they're together?" Rodney asked John all of a sudden. "I mean, like we're together, together. Because they obviously already work together, before you feel obliged to mention it."
"I don't know. Maybe," John said. Part of him--a big part--hoped so, because it meant Danny was off the market and there'd be no question of Rodney leaving John for him. "I don't think it'd be a good idea, though," he went on, thinking about it. "I mean, Steve's pretty reckless, and you know that Danny's got to be high-maintenance. It'd never work."
"What?" he asked Rodney a minute later, because Rodney was staring at him like his hair had turned Billy Idol blond.
"You're really not joking, are you?" Rodney asked, still staring.
John stared back. "About what?"
Rodney blinked and then shook his head. "Nothing. Never mind. Here's one of Kono teaching Vala to surf."
John shrugged and looked at the picture, sliding his arms around Rodney's chest and leaning his chin on the top of Rodney's head. Rodney's hair was soft and tickled. "That looks like fun."
"Not unless you enjoy the risk of drowning or being eaten by sharks," Rodney said. Vala was lying prone on a surfboard laid out on the sand, looking attentively up at Kono while the other woman mimed paddling with her hands. "I wonder if Vala knows how to swim?"
"I'd like to try that," John said honestly. He'd stopped going to pools or beaches after his Gift had kicked in, because everyone had too much skin exposed and he hadn't dared risk touching anyone and hurting them. But now that he knew his Gift didn't work like that he'd rediscovered how much he loved the water. "You think Kono would be willing to teach me?"
Rodney snorted. "I'm sure she'd ask to teach you, if it meant seeing you half-naked."
John privately doubted that since Kono had Steve and Danny to look at, but he appreciated the thought. "How hard do you figure it is to learn?"
Rodney tilted his head so he could look up at John's face. "You really mean it, don't you? And now I bet you're going to tell me you want to spend our next vacation in a pineapple-infested hellhole where I'll probably collapse in anaphylactic shock the instant I step off the plane."
"I'll make sure no one accidentally gives you citrus, Rodney," John said. He dropped a kiss on the top of Rodney's fluffy head. "We do have some leave coming up. And that way you can bring the badges in person. And wasn't Carson talking at the meeting last week about how the oral version of his ATA gene therapy was ready to use?"
"You planned this, didn't you?" Rodney said.
John shrugged. "You seemed to feel bad for Steve. So I just thought I'd mention it."
"Casually," Rodney said. "Because you haven't been planning this at all."
"Casually mentioned it," John agreed somberly. "Just like I may have casually booked us into a hotel in Hawaii for next week."
Rodney blinked at him. "I hate beaches."
"I know," John said. "But there'll be really good food. And Dolphins, which are like big, aquatic kittens. And I know you like kittens. And beautiful women in bikinis. And Danny said he'd take us to all the places he doesn't hate too much."
"When you casually contacted him," Rodney said.
John grinned. "We might have been in casual contact, yes."
Rodney sighed. "I hate you."
John moved his chin to Rodney's shoulder so he could hug him. "You know you love me."
"Yes I do," Rodney said. "Why else would I let you drag me to Hawaii?"
"No reason," John agreed happily. "No reason at all."