Title: Water, Sweat, Scotch
Pairing: John and Rodney slash
Characters: Sheppard and McKay
Word count: ~18,400
Spoilers: Anothing upto and including Inquisition.
Author Notes: This is an alternate slashy h/c ending for Inquisition, because, in my opinion, that's the best way to perk up a clip show. Thanks to Koschka for the quick beta.
Summary: Trapped on a desert planet with minimal supplies, John and Rodney must try to survive and hope that Atlantis will come for them.
Water, Sweat, Scotch
The air on the planet tasted of heat. It was amazing to Rodney that heat actually had a taste, but it did. Scorched with a faint whiff of ozone and a bit salty, or maybe that was just from the sweat running down his face in buckets. He was also amazed at how fast he’d become soaked with sweat as they climbed up the steeply inclined bedrock surface that rose high above the stargate below them.
"Tell me… again… why we couldn’t… put the tent… by the gate?" McKay panted as he squinted against the blazing sun. The heat was radiating back up from the red sandstones that seemed to go on for as far as he could see in all directions.
"Gate’s in a flood plain," Sheppard explained, shifting his overloaded pack and looking further up the sloped surface they were climbing.
Rodney waved his arms to encompass the environment surrounding them. "It’s a goddamn desert!"
"Goddamn deserts have goddamn flash floods," Sheppard told him, already starting their ascent once more. "And there are storm clouds building off in the distance. We could have rain later this afternoon… if we’re lucky."
This wasn’t what he’d expected at all when the court had found Atlantis guilty of crimes against Pegasus. Sure, he knew that they’d be sent to a world with no means to dial out through the gate, and he’d been right that there was no DHD on the planet. But he’d thought they’d be sent to some remote world that perhaps had a village with some sort of shelter and the possibility of food to scavenge from the forest and a nice stream flowing with abundant water. Not Dante’s ninth level of Hell.
Of course, Rodney had never thought they would be found guilty in the first place. Woolsey had been convinced he could make their self-appointed jurors see reason, see that Atlantis had done more good than harm during their time in this galaxy. But in the end, it hadn’t gone down that way. McKay figured they were just lucky Woolsey had been able to convince them not to send all of the team. Teyla had caught a break because she had a child, and while Rodney didn’t want Torren to grow up motherless, the whole thing had a misogynistic feel to it that, in McKay’s opinion, should have had Teyla morally outraged as a strong independent woman. As best he could tell, Ronon was shown leniency for having been a victim of the Wraith for all those years. Rodney decided that was as close to an insanity plea as you could get in this galaxy. Then Woolsey hadn’t even been in Pegasus when most of the crimes had been committed. Besides, there was a difference between isolating Atlantis and making them an all out enemy. Imprisoning a few personnel was one thing, imprisoning their leader could be considered an act of war.
So, in the end, they had settled for using John and Rodney as the scapegoats for all the wrongs the expedition had committed over the years. Actually, Sheppard, in one of his typical big hero moves, tried to convince them to just send him. He was the team leader, he’d argued. He was the one who had ultimately made most of the decisions they found morally corrupt, therefore he should be the one to pay the price. But Rodney was having none of that. For one thing, McKay was the only one who would have any chance of making the gate work if they’d damaged or removed the DHD. For another, you didn’t leave a man behind and you sure the hell didn’t let them go off on their own if you could help it. Besides, no one could come up with an excuse as to why he shouldn’t be sent away, so that pretty much sealed the deal and here he was.
Yeah, here he fucking was.
Rodney looked at the billowing clouds growing off in the distance. He’d seen them often enough during the summer monsoon season in Nevada and knew they would only build higher as the convective heat increased during the day. Actually, a little rain would be nice right about now. Anything besides the blistering heat would be an improvement.
"Rain would be good," McKay managed to say as he gulped hot air.
"Yeah," Sheppard agreed, stopping and wiping sweat from his forehead. "I’m hoping to have the tent set up by then so we can capture some for drinking water."
"Thought they were going to supply us food and water," Rodney reminded, catching himself before he went down when the world spun sickeningly and his feet slipped on loose rocks. "Not a death sentence… at least not supposed to be."
John reached out and grabbed McKay’s arm to halt the fall just in case, giving McKay a look that told him how much he trusted their wardens. Not much at all. "No reason not to be prepared." When Sheppard saw the panic in Rodney’s eyes he added. "Just in case."
The two of them stared at each other for a long moment, John’s hand on Rodney’s arm just not as reassuring as it should have been. Finally Rodney mumbled, "We’re pretty much screwed, aren’t we?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it," John promised before releasing McKay’s arm and letting Rodney sit to drag in several lungful of hot air. "Besides, Atlantis will be looking for us. It may take a little time, but they’ll find us. We just need to be ready when they show up." Sheppard pulled out his water bottle and handed it to McKay.
Rodney just stared at the water in front of him. God, what he’d give to have a swimming pool full of it right about now, and yet the thought of drinking it made him queasy. "By ready you mean alive?"
Sheppard shrugged nonchalantly before giving the bottle an inviting shake. "Pretty much."
Finally relenting, McKay took the bottle. "And how do you plan to do that if they don’t give us food and water like they promised?"
John stood and scanned the horizon as Rodney drank deeply from the water. "Well, the way I figure it, we’re each carrying enough MRE’s for one full meal a day for a week. We can easily stretch that to two if we have to. And I’ve never been in a desert that didn’t have some sort of edible plant or animal life. Then, if we’re lucky, and we get set up in time, those clouds will give us the water we need. Worst case we find roots with liquids."
They had been allowed to take the bare minimum of supplies with them when they were sent through the gate… Teyla and Ronon had turned over all the food and water they had on them in their packs as well as any other incidentals such as their first aid kits and emergency blankets. Teyla had given John her side arm and extra ammo clips and Ronon even gave them each one of his knives. The fact that the representatives of the coalition hadn’t tried to take them should have been an indication Sheppard and McKay would be the only ones on the planet they were to be imprisoned on. In addition to the supplies they cobbled together from the Atlantis gear, they’d been given a couple of blankets and a tarp to use for shelter. If their wardens planned for them to live, they didn’t plan for them to live comfortably, that was for damn sure.
Rodney regarded Sheppard with an expression somewhere between shock and admiration that he sounded like an outdoor survival expert. "How the hell do you know this stuff?"
"Desert survival training," Sheppard informed him. "Didn’t you ever have that?"
"There wasn’t a lot of call for it in Vancouver," Rodney pointed out, "or D.C., or Siberia, or Antarctica for that matter."
"Not even when you were stationed in Area 51?"
"Yes, it involved a map to the cafeteria and instructions taped to the vending machines on how to request a refund if they ate your money instead of dispensing your Cheetos and Diet Dr. Pepper."
"No vending machines here." John squatted beside McKay and reclaimed his bottle to drink some himself.
"Really?" Rodney snorted. "I thought you were taking me to the food court."
"If we’re lucky maybe we’ll come across a nice juicy reptile of some sort."
Rodney grimaced in response to Sheppard’s grin. "How long did you say the MRE’s will last?"
The grin just grew. "Nature’s buffet awaits us, buddy."
McKay dropped his head down to his raised knees and sighed. "Can it wait a little bit longer?" He sure the hell wasn’t looking forward to more of a climb. Honestly, he didn’t think he was capable of climbing any further given the way his muscles were cramping.
Sheppard’s hand landed on Rodney’s neck and squeezed gently. "Yeah, maybe that’s a good idea."
It was an odd touch, unexpected, and when it vanished as quickly as it had come, Rodney looked up to see John’s grin had been replaced by a frown. McKay wasn’t sure what to make of it until John retrieved the water bottle again to wet a bandana he pulled from his vest and drape it over Rodney’s neck. That’s when Rodney realized why Sheppard had touched his neck; even a snowbird like McKay had enough basic first aid under his belt to know John was checking for heat stress and apparently didn’t like what he’d found.
"Here, drink some more water." Pushing the water back into McKay’s hand, John asked, "You need something to eat? I have a powerbar."
"Oh, Jesus, I’m not even going to survive the first day," Rodney moaned.
"You’re going to be fine," Sheppard dismissed. "It just takes a little bit of time to acclimate, is all. Hell, half the guys in my unit fell out from the heat the first day we arrived in Kandahar."
Rodney wasn’t sure if he actually believed him or not, but he didn’t challenge the observation. Instead he just shook his head and ignored the nausea. "How do we always end up in situations like this?"
"If you’d just kept your mouth shut, you probably wouldn’t have ended up in this situation," Sheppard grumbled.
"And let you have all the fun in this paradise?" Rodney waved his hand sloppily.
Sheppard’s lips quirked at the comment and McKay could only imagine the way John’s eyes rolled behind his aviator glasses. There were a lot of things about Sheppard Rodney could only imagine, and he had imagined most of them at one time or another. One of the benefits of being a genius was that those day dreams could be pretty damn vivid, which was just one more reason why McKay had refused to let Sheppard come to this planet by himself.
"Besides," Rodney continued, "would you rather be here alone?"
John shifted his shoulders and didn’t answer the question directly. "You didn’t have to do it."
But the fact that Sheppard didn’t answer directly was really all the answer Rodney needed to know he’d done the right thing by insisting he come along.
"Yes, well, I’m sure I’ll come to regret it." Closing his eyes against the growing dizziness he sighed. "I’m pretty close right now."
"It’s your own damn fault," Sheppard pointed out with a pat to Rodney’s knee. "Think you can go a little further? The sooner we reach some level ground, the sooner we can set up the lean-to and get out of the direct sun."
"You go ahead," McKay instructed, dropping his head back down. "I’ll stay here and see if I can attract this planet’s version of a vulture. We’ll roast it for dinner."
"Sorry, McKay, I’m not going anywhere without you." John stood and was already tugging on Rodney’s arm to get him back on his feet and moving again.
"Is that a threat?" Rodney asked, letting Sheppard steady him when he stood and swayed.
"You bet your ass it is."
And with that promise, they started up the slope once more.
* * * *
The water drizzling across Rodney’s lips tasted like burlap, but it was wet and soothing as it slid down his parched throat and he swallowed it eagerly.
"Easy," Sheppard warned. "Not too fast or you’ll just puke it up."
Cracking his eyes open, Rodney saw he was under the canvas tarp they’d been given, water dripping down from the edges, but for the most part he was dry where he lay on top of the coarse blankets beneath the shelter. He was also stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt.
John, however, looked to be soaking wet, but his face held a look of wary relief. "You planning to stick around for a while this time?"
"Depends," Rodney croaked out. "Where are we?"
"Home sweet home." Sheppard indicated the makeshift tent, his grin as fluid as the rain dripping down his face, and Rodney could tell he wasn’t completely convinced McKay was planning to stay awake.
To be honest, Rodney wasn’t so sure he would either. Things were all a little surreal and Rodney had to keep himself from reaching out and thumbing away the water running along the contours of John’s stubbled chin.
Instead, he asked, "What happened?" Propping up on one arm with Sheppard’s help he took the offered water bottle again. The water still had that musty taste and Rodney surmised it must have been collected as runoff from the tent.
"You went down about a half mile back. Been in and out for the past several hours." The grin vanished entirely at the memory and John forced a disgruntled frown. "I had to drag your miserable ass all that way."
McKay knew he should just grumble some smart ass comment back, but he could see something in Sheppard he didn’t see often… the remnants of genuine fear.
"Sorry," Rodney told him in all honesty, his voice so quiet he wasn’t sure Sheppard had heard it over the echoing din of rain on canvas.
That was until John shook his head. "Listen, that not going anywhere thing goes both ways. Okay?"
"Okay," Rodney agreed with a sincere nod of his head.
Evidently that was as much emotion as Sheppard was willing to share for the moment, and after an awkward few seconds of silence, he hitched his thumb to indicate the open area around them. "I’m going to check the collection pools. Will you be all right for a few minutes?"
When Sheppard moved back out into the downpour, McKay could see what he meant by collection pool. Sheppard had spread the emergency blankets out across a circle of rocks to create basins to store the rain water. All their empty water bottle sat near Rodney’s feet collecting water that dripped off the edge of the lean-to. It had McKay wondering how they had become empty in the first place. But he had to admit Sheppard seemed to have set up a pretty efficient system for refilling them and stockpiling even more water. A hell of a lot more efficient than he felt at the moment.
Giving up on supporting his own weight, Rodney lay back down and discovered that his clothes had been turned into a makeshift pillow. Not exactly the most practical use of a uniform, but for the moment, it felt good to rest his throbbing head on them. He had almost drifted off again to the staccato rhythm of raindrops falling on the tarp above his head when Sheppard returned to crawl under the awning as much as he could.
"It’s really starting to come down out here." The slight shake of his head had water flying to sprinkle on McKay’s face and chest. "Good thing we moved to higher ground."
"You’re soaked," Rodney noted, pushing himself up to make room. "Come in here."
"I’m good," Sheppard assured. "It actually feels kind of nice after the heat of the day."
"And what about when it the heat of the day ends and we have the chill of the night?" Rodney countered. "I may not be a survival expert, but even I know the temperature can drop significantly in the desert when the sun goes down."
"Good point," John conceded, moving in further to sit shoulder to shoulder with Rodney. McKay didn’t complain and actually took advantage of having something to support himself against. "How are you feeling?"
"Like a piece of reconstituted beef jerky," Rodney admitted and drank some more water. "With a headache that’s apparently going for a world record."
"Once you’re rehydrated, you’ll feel better. I’m just glad it started raining when it did else I’m not sure I could have got your body temperature to drop with the limited water we had."
McKay plucked at his damp t-shirt. "I take it that’s what my current wardrobe, or lack thereof, is about." It also explained what had happened to all their water.
If Rodney hadn’t known better, he would have sworn Sheppard blushed, but surely it was just a touch of sunburn on his cheeks. "Yeah, I had to cool you down fast before heat stroke set in." John waved a hand his direction without making eye contact. "Survival training."
"Evidently it worked."
"Yeah, well, thought I might as well keep you around for the time being," John dismissed with exaggerated casualness.
"Ha!" Rodney grinned smugly. "Knew you’d eventually realize me coming along was a good idea."
"If nothing else, I figured if we ran out of food and couldn’t find any local wildlife, it’s always good to have a backup food source handy."
McKay rolled his eyes at the way Sheppard maintained a straight face. "I’ll be sure to sleep with one eye open and Ronon’s knife under my pillow."
"Like you stand a chance against me in hand to hand combat," Sheppard scoffed as he rolled his neck and allowed his eyes to close.
Rodney frowned. "Why am I suddenly having flashes of a Kirk versus Spock death match?"
"As long as you don’t go into Pon Farr, we should be fine," John told him around a yawn.
"Well, as long as we get off this planet sometime within the next seven years that shouldn’t be a problem."
Sheppard’s lips twitched at the comment and his head actually bobbed before snapping up abruptly. Rodney realized how exhausted he must have been what with the heat and carrying McKay and getting things set up and the adrenaline drain now that it looked like Rodney was going to live to stage a Rodenberry style mano y mano cage match if it came to that.
"You know, if you want to catch a little shut eye, I can stay awake." McKay really wasn’t sure if he would be able to live up to his offer, but he felt the need to at least propose it. "I guess that’s what we should do, right? Stay awake, take watch, that sort of thing?"
Sheppard forced himself to straighten. "Yeah, we should. And you’re still recuperating, which means I’ll take the first watch."
"Are you sure? I mean you did end up… helping me up part of the climb."
"Despite the fact that I ‘helped you up’ the slope, I can stay awake, McKay. Trust me, I’ve had to do worse before and managed to keep my eyes open afterward."
Sheppard’s jaw tensed and it dawned on Rodney that John had dragged Holland half way across Afghanistan and chances were Sheppard had wished he could have closed his eyes back then. Close them and block out the memories and images forever.
"Seriously, Sheppard, I’m feeling a lot better." McKay said it as much to try to get Sheppard to sleep as convince the man that this time the ending to his attempt to save a friend had been successful. "Just get a powerbar in me and I’ll be good as new."
"You can eat, but I’m still taking the watch," John insisted as he dug out a bar from his vest and handed it over. "Besides, I need to keep an eye on the water collection, at least until the rain ends."
In the end, Rodney gave up on fighting Sheppard on taking watch. After he ate, even something as small as the powerbar, McKay was the one who could barely keep his eyes open. Food, the sound of the rain, and the lingering effects of the heat stress had him drifting off in midsentence of a discussion regarding the best fight scenes in the original episodes of Star Trek.
When he woke, the rain had stopped, the sun had gone down, and Sheppard was pulling the blanket up over Rodney’s shoulders. Rodney squinted up at John in the pale moonlight then started to sit up in a disoriented panic.
"It’s okay," John assured him from where he squatted. "The winds just starting to pick up and the temperature’s dropping."
Rodney could just make out the way Sheppard’s teeth were chattering and he grabbed John’s wrist before he could pull his hand away from the blanket. "Christ, you’re like ice."
"It’s not so bad when I move around," Sheppard dismissed but couldn’t stop the shudder that passed through him.
With his other hand, McKay reached out and touched Sheppard’s shirt. "You’re still wet."
"Sun went down before they could dry."
"For God’s sake, take them off and get under the blankets," Rodney insisted.
John froze with a slightly panicked look on his face before shaking his head. "I’ll be fine."
"No, you won’t," Rodney argued. "And then who’s going to stand watch tomorrow night while I sleep if you die of hypothermia tonight?"
Sheppard looked as if he wanted to argue more, then finally decided to listen to reason. "Okay," he relented and then set to unbuttoning his shift with trembling fingers.
McKay watched him for a few seconds as he attempted to work the buttons with what had to be numb fingers before slapping Sheppard’s hands away. "Oh for the love of…"
Rodney was three buttons in and had exposed Sheppard’s chest before he realized what he was doing and how John was staring at him. But when he looked up, Sheppard immediately looked away. Now Rodney felt the heat rise in his own face because how many times had he thought about doing this under much different and more pleasant circumstances? Trying to push those thoughts out of his head, he went back to work on the shirt after awkwardly clearing his throat but not being able to think of anything to say.
Once he finished, he waved his hands and mumbled, "You can… with your pants…"
"Yeah," John mumbled in return, already unfastening his belt. "I’ve got it."
McKay lay back down, ostensibly staring at the canvas over his head that was flapping and snapping in the wind and not watching Sheppard finish undressing. Never mind that John had undressed him early. That had been to save McKay’s life, just as Rodney’s help with those buttons had been to save Sheppard’s life. That’s why he was here wasn’t it? That’s why he had insisted on coming to this planet. To watch his teammate’s back. His teammate. His best friend. His teammate and best friend who was stripped down to his underwear and climbing into bed with him and…
Oh, God, how many times had he wished something like this would happen and here it was happening? Only Sheppard wasn’t interested in doing anything more than staying warm, staying warm by taking advantage of Rodney’s body heat.
"Oh, God, your feet are fucking popsicles!" McKay exclaimed as soon as Sheppard slipped under the blanket.
John pulled the covers up to his nose and shivered again. "Exactly what did you expect when you told me to get under the blankets to keep from freezing to death, McKay?"
Rodney’s mouth opened and closed several times, mortified that Sheppard actually knew what the X-rated side of his brain had been considering. But then McKay realized John was simply talking about his feet being cold and forced himself to calm down.
"You’re right. Sorry, I was just caught a little off guard."
John was pressed shoulder to shoulder against him, and really that shouldn’t have been awkward since he’d sat shoulder to shoulder with him plenty of times. So what difference did it make that they lying down instead of sitting up? Or that both of them were stripped down to their underwear? None whatsoever. Their body position and state of dress should not matter one iota. It just meant that there was bare skin… lots and lots of bare skin… within arm’s reach and a wonderful amount of it was already pressed against Rodney’s bare skin and warming by the second.
Struggling to find something, anything, else to think about besides the fact that Sheppard was laying next to him more naked than not, Rodney blurted, "You know, Katie had the coldest feed of anyone I’ve ever know. She said it was a low iron level issue."
Rodney dared a glance over at Sheppard, who he could just make out peeking over the top of the blanket with confused crinkles framing his eyes. "Yeah, Nancy was the same way," he finally admitted in a voice muffled by the covers. "I think it’s a chick thing."
"Well, low iron levels is a chick thing," McKay agreed, thinking this was a stupid conversation but it was better than thinking about how nice John felt against him. "Or so I’ve heard."
"I’ve heard the same thing." They lay there staring at each other silently for a few seconds as the lean-to snapped in the wind before John returned to staring at the shelter over their heads. "So do you miss her?"
"Who?" Rodney asked before remembering he had been the one to bring up his ex-girlfriend in the first place. "Oh, you mean Katie." With a shrug that just went to remind him John was right there beside him, Rodney confessed, "Sometimes. Usually not, but then I see Teyla with her family and kind of think about how I could have had that. Not that Katie would have been the person to do that with, but she was the closest I’ve ever come to finding that person. You know? That person you could spend the rest of your life with and not have to wonder what’s next."
Sheppard sighed quietly. "Yeah, I know."
"How about you?" McKay dared to ask. "Do you ever miss Nancy?"
Sheppard never opened up about his ex-wife or his family or much of anything really. And what little he did tell those he trusted enough to share with at all, was nothing along the lines of what Rodney was asking. So he was a little surprised when John did answer.
"Nancy was… is a good woman and she has the capacity to make a guy real happy. We just didn’t make each other happy."
"Not the one for you," Rodney observed, thinking the same thing about Katie.
"Not the one for me," John confirmed.
"Do you think the one is out there somewhere?"
Sheppard hesitated. "I think… I think it’s a nice thought."
It was a nice thought, a really nice thought, and Rodney found it an even nicer thought to think that the man lying next to him could fulfill that role. But that wasn’t exactly something he could say given their situation. Because who the hell wanted to be trapped on a planet with a guy who was pining after you, especially if you had to share blankets to stay warm at night?
"I think your feet are warming up," McKay deflected to keep his thoughts from going too far into a territory that he didn’t want to linger in. "Which just proves I was right… as usual."
"Fine, yes, you were right," Sheppard grumbled. "Think I can save the genuflecting in your all-knowing presence until morning?"
"I suppose I can let it go this time," Rodney sighed dramatically.
But when Rodney woke at the first gray light of morning with John’s head pillowed on his shoulder, dark hair tickling his jaw and warm breath on his neck, Rodney sure the hell didn’t want to let any of this go ever again. John snuffled in his sleep and Rodney went perfectly still, afraid that if he moved he’d wake the sleeping man, which could lead to some very uncomfortable moments if Sheppard had simply shifted unknowingly in his sleep.
So he lay there, doing his best not to wake Sheppard while simultaneously savoring every rise and fall of John’s chest against him. Eventually, the rhythm John’s breathing and warmth of his body lulled Rodney back to sleep. When he woke again, it was to the sound of a gunshot, the sun had risen, and Sheppard was gone.
* * * *
On the plus side, the iguana-like creature Sheppard had managed to shoot tasted like chicken. On the down side, it tasted like raw chicken seeing as they had nothing with which to build a fire to cook it on. Still, Sheppard had pointed out, it was a protein source and one was big enough to feed the two of them. It was also enough to have Rodney puking it up less than halfway through the meal. To be honest, John didn’t look like his was settling so great either and he promised to look for anything that might burn in order to cook the next one in hopes that McKay would be able to stomach it better.
Rodney wasn’t exactly optimistic about that possibility, but he gladly ate a packet of mashed potatoes from one of the MRE’s to settle his stomach and drank his instant coffee packed mixed with cold water collected from one of the pools Sheppard had built to hold their water supply.
"I need something to place over the water to slow the evaporation," Sheppard pointed out as he tossed away a lizard bone.
McKay tried his best to block the memory of the slightly slimy meat and concentrated on his reconstituted mashed potatoes. "You could use the tarp from the tent," Rodney suggested.
John shook his head. "That’s our only shade. We’re not going through a repeat of yesterday. From now on, we sleep during the heat of the day and work at night."
Rodney didn’t ask what he meant by work seeing as he had a pretty good idea… scouring the surrounding area for food and any signs of civilization on the planet. But McKay had work of his own to see to. "I’ll need light if I’m going to access the gate controls."
"We have to dig them out first," Sheppard reminded. "There’s no way we’re doing that in this heat."
Rodney couldn’t argue with him there, but he was a little disappointed that they would be sleeping during the hottest parts of the day because that meant no more snuggling with Sheppard for warmth. In fact, it probably meant just the opposite.
"Use the blankets for the shade and drape the tarp over the pools," Rodney recommended before sipping at his coffee. More than anything, McKay thought he’d miss the caffeine the most once it was gone, regardless of what Sheppard had said about only increasing his susceptibility to dehydration. It was honestly the first time his head had stopped throbbing since he’d been forced through the gate and onto this miserable planet.
"Good idea," John agreed with an appreciative nod of his head. "You feel up to a little scouting this morning before it gets too hot?"
"Before it gets too hot?" Rodney scoffed, already plenty warm enough to be sitting in just boxers and t-shirt on the rocks.
"Relax," Sheppard told him. "I have no desire you drag your unconscious body across the sandstone again. You’ll be safely lounging in the shade of the cabana long before the temperatures climb into the danger zone."
John had redressed in his now dry uniform before he went on his little hunting excursion that morning and despite the comfort factor of his limited dress, Rodney was becoming increasingly aware of it the longer he sat around in his underwear.
"Then I suppose I should get dressed so we can get back in time for the lunch buffet next to the pool."
Standing, Sheppard chucked the remains of their breakfast reptile as far from their camp as he could. "Wouldn’t want to miss out on the afternoon siesta, now would you?"
John hadn’t mentioned their sleeping arrangement the night before, nor the use of Rodney’s body as his own personal pillow, and McKay had taken his cues from Sheppard and remained mum on the subject, too. But the memory of it came back easily at the thought of once again sleeping next to John and, yeah, Rodney really needed to put on his pants before he said more than he meant to without even speaking a word.
"No, wouldn’t want to miss that," Rodney mumbled, gathering his clothes before Sheppard started disassembling the lean-to in order to cover their precious water supply and Rodney stepped into his pants in an attempt to take down another more personal tent.
Turning back around, he notice how John looked away from him quickly, and please oh please surely Sheppard hadn’t seen his predicament. Christ, if he saw then there was no way he would get within ten feet of Rodney, much less sleep next to him again.
But a few minutes later after McKay had finished lacing up his boots, John slapped him casually on the back. "Come on; let’s go say hi to the neighbors." His hand lingered a few seconds longer than necessary and Rodney figured it was to make up for the grimace of dread that cut across his face.
The neighbors weren’t out and about. But they did find signs that there had been neighbors at one point, a very long time before.
"How long?" Rodney asked as he squatted beside Sheppard who was studying the remnants of a fire pit and smoke stains on the walls of a small cave the found. It was little more than a place to get out of the rain for one person.
John picked up a handful of sand that had blown in and filled the stone circle over time. "Long enough that I don’t think we’re going to be complaining about the music to the landlord."
"Maybe there are others," McKay suggested. "Or this person moved on to someplace better."
"Maybe," Sheppard conceded but Rodney could tell he didn’t really believe it. If anything, Sheppard figured they’d come across the other person’s bleached bones before they found any signs of human life.
In fact there were no signs of life, period, other than the tracks of several different animals. The most common was what Sheppard was pretty sure was the still living relatives of the lizard they’d had for breakfast, but there were a few others in the vicinity of a small pool of water that had collected in the shade of a rock outcropping… tracks that probably belonged to smaller lizards with thin narrow tails leaving whipping trails between their footprints, a small bipedal creature that might have been a bird, a possible beetle track, and one that had Sheppard frowning when he found it.
"What?" Rodney asked in worry as he peeked over John’s shoulder at the prints in the sand. The track was definitely larger than anything else they’d seen.
"There’s something big out here." Sheppard stood and studied the landscape around them. There was nothing but red sand and sloping bedrock with the rare scrub brush poking up through the desolation.
Still, Rodney felt the need to scan the horizon, as well… even if he had no clue what he was looking for. "How big?"
"Big enough," Sheppard evaded.
"Cows are big," McKay pointed out nervously. "They’re big and harmless."
"This is no cow, Rodney." John shook his head in thought as he followed the tracks a little further. "Maybe the size of a large dog, with claws, larger back legs than front." He pointed at a set of tracks on the ground that alternated from two larger prints with two smaller tracks and back to the two larger prints by themselves again. "Looks like it goes from four legs to two pretty easily."
Oh, Christ, that didn’t sound good. "So where is it now?"
"More than likely under cover, holed up in a cave or crevasse to stay out of the heat. Something like this is probably nocturnal. In an environment like this, the larger predators usually are."
Rodney raised his eyebrows. "Just like we’re supposed to become?"
"Wouldn’t you rather be awake if something comes snooping around than asleep?" John challenged.
"But just to be on the safe side, I think we should set up alternating watches during the day."
"I’ll take first since you were up most of the night," Rodney offered.
Sheppard agreed with a nod. "If the weather holds, we can start digging for the gate controls tonight."
"You know, if we are able to expose the controls, they might be totally shot…"
John cut him off. "You’ll be able to fix them."
"Well, yes, that’s the plan, but in all likelihood…"
"You’ll be able to fix them, McKay," Sheppard insisted.
Rodney crossed his arms across his chest. "And what if I can’t?"
John shrugged. "You always do."
Rodney blinked at the certainty John had in him. "You really believe that?"
"Look, you’ll either have the gate functional again or blow up the planet. Either way, we won’t have to worry about slowly dying of dehydration on this rock."
"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence," McKay responded drolly.
"You’re welcome." Sheppard hitched his head back in the direction of camp. "Come on, it’ll be up over a hundred degrees within the hour. We better get back and under the shade."
Sheppard was right and both men were dripping sweat by the time they crawled back under the lean-to and finished off their water bottles before refilling them from the collection pool. Rodney honestly wasn’t sure if he hoped it would or wouldn’t rain that afternoon. Even with the tarp, their water supply was evaporating in the scorching heat, but unless they had a chance of excavating in the drainage beside the gate, there was no way they had the possibility, slim as it was, of returning the gate to operational status.
Sheppard curled on his side, pillowed his head on his backpack, and was snoring gently within a few minutes. Military training was the only excuse McKay could come up with for how quickly Sheppard could go from wakefulness to sleep and vice versa. That and the fact that in a crisis situation John would push himself to the point of exhaustion before finally allowing himself the luxury of sleep. Not that Rodney was much better about actually catching some shut eye, but at least he bitched appropriately about not being allowed to get the rest his body needed. Although, right now he didn’t mind being the one awake. He owed Sheppard his life… again. He was sure he’d have the chance to return the favor eventually, he always did. But for now, watching over his sleeping teammate would have to do.
* * * *
Rodney lifted his head to the heavens, opened his mouth, and let the clean sweet taste of rainwater slide down his throat. It was so much better than the flavor of tarp or plastic that lingered on the tongue with the water captured from the tent or the collection pools. Water was water, and he was grateful for every drop they had in this environment, regardless of if it tasted like a burlap sack. But this… standing out in the middle of the downpour, letting the rain wash away dirt and sweat and thirst all at the same time… this was pure bliss.
After two nights of digging in the alluvium, the weather had finally turned. Not that Rodney was going to complain seeing as their water supply in the collection pools had been down to the last half inch. Rodney had taken first watch again that morning, chewing on the grains of instant coffee from the MREs to stay awake after a back breaking and hand mangling night of digging. John wasn’t in any better shape and had slept most of the day and Rodney had let him. The clouds growing on the horizon had made it pretty obvious that they weren’t going to be digging that night, and when the first drops of rain had started falling just after midday, Rodney had crawled out from under the lean-to and uncovered the collection pools so they could fill again. Sheppard had woke to the sound of McKay swapping the canvas for the blankets since they’d need those for warmth tonight when the sun set and helped prepare for the coming storm, but eventually the pitter pat of rain on the tarp lulled John back to sleep.
Rodney had dozed off and on for a while himself before the rain started coming down even harder and the idea of a shower, even a natural one, was more than he could resist. Stripping down to his boxers, McKay had moved out from under the canvas to stand in the falling rain and let it wash him clean. Clean was a relative term at this point, there was dirt and grunge that seemed to be embedded in his skin and wasn’t going anywhere without a thorough scrubbing and whole bar of soap, but the illusion of hygiene was one McKay would gladly buy into.
There were a lot of illusions he was buying into lately, or maybe delusion would be a better word for it. The confidence that digging in the dirt until his hands bled would get them home was one of them. The belief that the constant dizziness and threatening nausea would eventually pass once he acclimated to their surroundings was another. Rodney knew his body was completely off kilter from lack of food and that his blood sugar had been hovering near the basement since they had started rationing supplies on their arrival. Sheppard had noticed it, too, and pushed McKay to eat twice a day from their stores instead of just the once, but that only cut their supply down to one week instead of two with nothing but the occasional helping of partially cooked lizard meat to supplement their diet. Sheppard had gathered as much scrub brush as he could to burn for a fire, but it was more smoke than flame on a good day.
But Rodney didn’t want to think about that right then. He didn’t want to think about the fact that any brush they collected would be too wet to burn at all for at least another day. He didn’t want to think about how the hole they had worked so hard to excavate would probably refill with more sand and rocks after the rain washed through the ephemeral stream today and they’d be right back to square one again tomorrow. He didn’t want to think about how much he wished he had a razor so he could shave off the scratchy growth of bear on his jaw. He didn’t even want to think about how it was doubtful he’d completely dry before the temperature dropped and he’d be extra cold tonight. All he wanted to do was take a minute to forget about all the heat and sweat and dirt and hunger and let the rain wash over his body in cool sheets.
An exhaled breath had Rodney opening his eyes to see Sheppard standing beside him in a similar state of undress, enjoying the feel of water as much as McKay. "Good idea," John told him scrubbing at his heavily stubbled face before running his hands through already soaked hair.
Rodney hadn’t expected to be caught, much less joined, in his natural shower, and he was suddenly very aware of the way his cotton boxers clung to his skin. "Well, you know, when life gives you lemons you do your best not to go into anaphylactic shock."
John snorted and moved his hands down his body to help slough away the dirt from his chest and shoulders. "Never heard it expressed quite like that."
God, what Rodney wouldn’t do to be the one running his hands over Sheppard’s body, to be the one rubbing small circles across John’s belly down to the waistband of his own boxers that had become nearly transparent when they were wet, although watching Sheppard do it to himself wasn’t half bad either. In fact, it was pretty fucking hot.
Sheppard looked up and McKay quickly turned away, scrubbing vigorously at his own arms and trying his best not to think about how John’s sodden underwear conformed to highlight every curve, every bulge of his body.
"You have something on your back," John told him and Rodney nearly jumped when Sheppard’s hand brushed across the curve of his shoulder blade then along his spine. "It looks like you scraped yourself pretty good."
"I, uh…" Rodney fought to concentrate as rough fingertips traced along the length of the scratch. "I hit a boulder sticking out of the trench wall when I stood up last night."
Sheppard stepped in close enough that Rodney could feel the heat coming off his skin. "We might want to put some antibiotic cream on that, just to be on the safe side. The last thing we need is you getting an infection."
"Yeah, that would be bad," McKay agreed, biting his lip as John’s hand moved a little lower.
"Did you knick yourself anyplace else?"
Oh, Jesus, this wasn’t happening. He wasn’t standing here half naked and soaking wet with Sheppard actually touching him. Okay, Rodney thought, play it cool. Don’t be a dork and scare him off, because he’s probably just worried about you in a strictly nonsexual manner. You know, how two guys dripping wet and only wearing their underwear often have platonic moments together.
"I’m not sure." Rodney managed to force the words out without his voice cracking. "Maybe you should check?"
One of John’s hands landed on the nape of McKay’s neck and pushed Rodney forward slightly, as if to give Sheppard a better view of any potential injuries while the other continued to move meticulously across the spread of Rodney’s back.
"I’m not seeing anything," John reported and fingertips slid along McKay’s spine.
Rodney couldn’t stop the shiver and he sure the hell didn’t want the touching to stop, so he was just about to offer to check Sheppard over, when John stepped away abruptly.
"What?" McKay asked in alarm and a little frustration. "What’s wrong?" Because when he turned around, Sheppard was staring off in the distance with his head cocked as if straining to hear something.
"There. Do you hear that?"
Rodney had heard it and his eyes widened as he realized what it was. "The gate! Someone’s dialing into the gate!"
John immediately dashed over to the lean-to and started putting on his boot, skipping any other clothing, before starting down the rocky slope. Rodney was just a few seconds behind him, not even bothering to tie his own boots he’d stepped into. When they were partway down the rock face, they could actually see the gate below them, and the boxes that were being thrown through.
"Supplies," Sheppard noted in surprise. "The sons of bitches are actually sending us supplies."
"And they’re throwing them into the floodplain," Rodney observed of the already rising water that was flowing closer to the boxes. Within minutes the containers could be washed away.
"Go back and get the rope from my pack," John ordered, already moving down toward the gate and their endangered provisions.
"Sheppard, you can’t go into that," McKay insisted. "The water will be too dangerous by the time you reach it."
"That’s why you’re getting the rope," Sheppard called back, not stopping his descent.
Seeing that his arguments were falling on deaf ears, Rodney quickly climbed back up the hill to grab the rope and then made his way back down to the ravine below. By the time he reached the bottom, the water by the gate was already flowing turbulently down the streambed. John had started out into it, past shin-deep, and McKay knew he would be swept away before he made it across.
"Sheppard!" he yelled to be heard over the din of rain and running water.
John turned at the sound of his name, catching himself when he was nearly knocked over by the torrent of rainwater flowing around his legs. "Throw me the rope!"
It took three tries before he finally caught the end and by that time the water was up to Sheppard’s knees. Water was lapping at the boxes sitting on the gate platform and John quickly tied the rope around his waist and started across once more. But he only made it a few more steps before the current became too much and he went down.
Rodney braced himself at the sudden increase of weight on the rope, doing his best to dig in his heels in the coarse gravel he stood on. The nylon cord bit into already battered hands, but McKay held tight knowing he was the only thing keeping Sheppard from being swept away completely.
John managed to stand up once more, only to lose his footing almost immediately. This time he was pulled downstream, and Rodney could do nothing more than stagger along on his side of the stream trying to hold on and not lose his own precarious balance. But the force of the water was relentless and continued to tug McKay along as it swept John further away. Sheppard’s head bobbed above the surface occasionally and Rodney split his attention between that and trying to find something, anything, to secure the rope around so that he could pull John to shore.
Finally, Rodney spotted a fissure in the bedrock to his back and he wedged the rope in the crack and tied a knot in the end so that it couldn’t pull out. The rope went taut, but held, and Rodney moved to pull Sheppard out hand over hand. Already tired muscles in his arms and back strained against John’s weight and the drag of the current. Rodney couldn’t see John’s head bobbing up anymore and he refused to even think the term dead weight, because without Sheppard, Rodney didn’t stand a chance in hell of surviving here.
"Yeah," McKay grunted out loud as he continued to pull with every ounce of strength he had left, "you just keep telling yourself that what you’re afraid of."
Eventually, Rodney caught sight of John’s limp body moving through the water, finally getting it close enough that he could stagger out into the stream to hook his hands under Sheppard’s arms and drag him to the shore.
"John?" Rodney dropped to his knees beside Sheppard, giving him a rough shake with numb hands. "Sheppard!"
McKay was shaking so hard from exertion and fear that he couldn’t even attempt to check for a pulse, but it was obvious Sheppard wasn’t breathing. Taking up a position where he was kneeling with his legs on either side of John’s, Rodney used his hands to thrust against Sheppard’s diaphragm to clear some water from his airway before moving back to his side to tip John’s head back and deliver two rescue breaths.
"Oh, you fucking son of bitch," Rodney snapped at the nonresponsive man.
When there was no answer, he breathed into John’s mouth a few more times, and this was not how he had hoped things would turn out when they’d been up at their camp just a little while before. Sure he’d hoped to be straddling lean hips, putting his lips on John’s, but not like this, not forcing water out of Sheppard’s waterlogged lungs and doing his damnedest to replace it with oxygen.
"You better start breathing so I can tell you what a fucking moron you are to your face." So he could tell him more, so goddamn much more.
Another breath had Sheppard gurgling up water, and Rodney rolled him to his side and braced him as John pulled knees up and coughed and gagged on the water he was clearing out of his airways.
"Su…plies," John managed to sputter out between coughs.
Rodney shook his head and gripped John’s arm tightly. "Doesn’t matter."
"Need… them." Sheppard was actually trying to sit up and McKay didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the stubborn attempt.
He settled for dropping his forehead to rest on John’s shoulder as Sheppard lay curled in the gravel hacking up more of the floodwaters. "What I need, you stupid son of bitch…" Rodney struggled to drag in a ragged breath of his own. "What I need is…"
You,is what he wanted to say. You alive. You here with me. You, you, you. But words wouldn’t come, hell, the way his throat was constricting, air would barely come. And the way John reached up and squeezed the back of Rodney’s neck, McKay didn’t need to say them
"Okay," John conceded as he continued to gulp air and squeezed again. "Okay."
It was still raining lightly when they reached the top of the bedrock where they had their camp, but the sun was almost down. Their climb to the top was done mostly in silence, both of them contemplating what they had lost and what they had almost lost and neither feeling the need to discuss either one. Rodney had supported Sheppard for most of the way up, leaving the rope down below to be retrieved later along with anything they might be able to recover from the supplies. It wasn’t important, Rodney kept telling himself, none of it was important except that Sheppard was still alive. They’d manage with what they had. Somehow they’d manage to make do until Atlantis could find them.
Once they were back to their camp, McKay eased Sheppard down onto the blankets. John winced at the rope burns that circled just above his hips, and Rodney grimaced in sympathy before insisting, "It’s your own damn fault."
"Yeah, all right, not the smartest thing I’ve ever done," Sheppard admitted.
"Not the smartest?" McKay parroted in contempt. "How about one of the stupidest, most idiotic, brainless…"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it," John sighed, screwing his face up in discomfort once more as he rolled on his side. "Can we just drop it and get some sleep?"
"I’m going to check the pools," Rodney told him without agreeing to dropping the subject at all.
Sheppard sighed as McKay stomped off into the slowing rain, but he was already asleep by the time Rodney came back and crawled under the blankets, too. Or at least he was pretending to be. Rodney didn’t care, because he really was getting used to the illusions he’d set up for himself. Besides he honestly didn’t want to talk about it anymore either, in fact he didn’t want to think about it but that just wasn’t going to happen because every time he closed his eyes he picture Sheppard lying there not breathing. Not fucking breathing.
After several minutes of that, Rodney decided to hell with it and rolled on his side to spoon up behind John and wrap his arm around Sheppard’s chest, his hand pressed over John’s heart so that he could feel the steady beat and reassuring rise and fall of John’s chest. Sheppard didn’t say a word or try to move away, and if he was faking sleeping, he didn’t complain about having Rodney so close.