VI. Down and Out in Texas
John woke slowly, as the sun crept across his face. He peeled his eyes open, feeling fuzzy-brained and tired. Normally, he was up before the sun, and watched it rise from his porch. Still hazy with sleep, he tried to figure out what was different, what was wrong. One hand crept towards the gun under his pillow, only to discover that there wasn't a pillow. And then he remembered -- he had company. That's what was different. He'd been up 'till all hours the night before, sitting on the porch with Rodney and Teyla, talking. Well, mostly it was John and Rodney talking, drinking cheap beer and arguing about politics, while Teyla leaned sleepily against the wall, wrapped up in John's best blanket.
Somewhere in the middle of Rodney ranting about Cold War mentality and the way those idiots at the State Department were shooting themselves in the foot in Iraq, John reached over and nudged him in the arm, then pointed at Teyla. She was fast asleep, resting limply against the wall in a pool of light shining through the door.
The conversation got quiet after that, and somehow John found himself talking about things that he'd never talked about, to anyone. He still couldn't even venture around the edges of the topic of Afghanistan. But he talked about the way it felt to feel the wind under his wings in an F-14, and it was the first time he'd thought of flying since leaving the Air Force without the pain in his chest crushing the air out of him.
It was similar with Rodney -- a sense that there were huge gaps in his life that he talked around, rather than about. But from some of the oblique hints he dropped, John thought that he had a much better idea of why someone Rodney's age, with Rodney's brains, was rounding up illegal immigrants in a hole-in-the-wall town rather than pulling down a six-figure salary working for one of the big agencies.
John gave Teyla his bed -- she was so sleepy when he helped her upstairs that she didn't even protest -- and Rodney got the couch, while John dug an old, musty military cot out of the attic for himself. He drifted off to sleep listening to Rodney, in the living room, complaining loudly to no one in particular about the lumpiness of the couch and the possibility of mice, bugs and RATTLESNAKES hiding in the cushions.
It actually scared John, as he fell asleep, how happy and content he was. It scared him because he knew it wouldn't last, and he wasn't strong enough to face the loss again.
Now he lay on the cot and wondered how much of yesterday had been a dream. A sudden round of cursing from the kitchen, followed by a low, admonishing voice with an exotic accent, made him smile and relax into his scratchy blankets. Not a dream at all.
He slouched into the kitchen in yesterday's T-shirt, realizing belatedly that he should probably clean up before greeting his guests -- but he'd been living alone so long that he'd stopped thinking about such things. Rodney was standing on tiptoe, poking around in one of the highest cabinets. Teyla, at the table, looked infinitely better than yesterday. Her feet were hooked around the legs of her chair; a pair of John's socks covered the bandages.
"Doesn't the man own a coffeepot?" Rodney demanded.
"It's on the stove, McKay." John shuffled into the room, yawning, and pointed at the battered aluminum coffeepot on the back burner.
"I mean an electric coffeepot, a real coffeepot."
"What you see is what you get."
"So how do you get the grounds out of that thing?"
"You don't. You pour from the top."
"Barbaric," Rodney growled, dumping a scoop of Folger's into the pot. "He's living in the dark ages."
"We did not want to wake you," Teyla said apologetically, with a pointed look at Rodney.
"It's okay, I was already awake." He tried not to limp too obviously as he made his way over to the fridge; his leg hurt even more than usual after sleeping on the cot all night. "I got eggs. Who's up for breakfast?"
Teyla grimaced. "I ... do not think I want eggs."
"Corn flakes okay, then?"
She smiled politely, looking blank.
"They better be damn good eggs to make up for this sorry excuse for coffee," Rodney snapped, fiddling with the stove. "Hey, does this thing work?"
John reached over and turned off the burner. "It'll blow us sky-high if you keep that up. The pilot light's broken. That's what the box of matches there is for."
Rodney gave him a look of disbelief. "What century are you living in?"
Teyla cleared her throat. "Perhaps ... I could make breakfast? I could make some of my people's foods for you."
And that was how John and Rodney ended up out on the porch with cups of slightly gritty coffee, while Teyla rolled out tortillas on the rickety folding table in John's kitchen. They had been chased out with exquisite, yet firm, politeness.
"I bet she cleans, too," Rodney said, in between picking coffee grounds off his tongue. "Despite the fact that it's politically incorrect, immoral and illegal, you should keep her."
Sheppard snorted. "She also nearly crushed my windpipe yesterday morning when I accidentally woke her up. She's a little more than just a handy, undocumented maidservant from across the border."
He noticed that Rodney, perhaps unconsciously, was slowing down to match his pace, and forced himself to speed up, stretching the atrophied muscles in his hip. God, he hated this. Being around other people again, even for this short time, reminded him of one of the reasons why he'd wanted to shut away the world: because normal people with four healthy limbs reminded him of what he wasn't anymore.
He hadn't even been able to protect his friends with a fully functional body; with one leg nearly useless, and one arm only slowly recovering, he couldn't help anyone or anything.
"Excuse me for asking, and not that I wouldn't be up for a twenty-mile hike across the Sheppard estate, but where are we going?"
John realized that he'd just started walking, forgetting once again that he wasn't alone, and explaining himself might be the polite thing to do. "Since we need to make a trip into town, I figured I'd get the truck out, make sure it's running."
"I can't help noticing the phrasing there -- not 'Make sure it's running well', but rather 'Make sure it's running' ... as in running at all. This inspires stratospheric levels of confidence in me. Maybe I'll walk."
"The nearest place to get a tire fixed is thirty-five miles away, so I hope you're ready for a long walk."
"You're kidding me," Rodney said flatly, as Sheppard pulled the tarp off the truck.
"Nope. You can't do it in that little one-horse burg. Have to go on over to the big city."
The truck coughed and sputtered, but after John opened up the hood and did some manual fiddling with the carburetors, it came to life with a roar and settled into a rattly idle. Rodney amused himself in the meantime by poking his index finger through various rust holes in the truck's leprous body. "Could rattlesnakes get through those, do you think?" he wanted to know, wiggling his finger in one of the holes.
"What's the deal with you and snakes, McKay?" John shut off the engine because the truck had a tendency to backfire badly when it idled for more than a few minutes, and one of these days he was worried it might burst into flames.
"There is no 'deal' except for the fact that I'm far too young and too valuable to the United States to die of snakebite on the open range."
"People rarely die of rattlesnake bites, you know." John was tempted to dig at the "too valuable" comment, but remembering some of the things Rodney had said last night under the influence of a little too much alcohol and camaraderie, he decided not to.
Teyla leaned out the door, dusty with flour, and hollered, "Comida!"
John left off fiddling with the truck and headed for the door, Rodney a bouncy step or two behind him. "Presumably that's Spanish for Come and get it," Rodney said.
"You patrol the Mexican border and you don't speak Spanish?"
"Hello, not my preferred line of work here," Rodney snapped defensively. "I speak a little bit of French and that's about it."
The food was wonderful -- not quite tacos as Sheppard was expecting, but rather, crispy, bready concoctions filled with a mix of meat and vegetables.
Teyla hovered nervously as they took their first bites. "I did not find all the things I needed to make them. I had to make do with other things in your kitchen. I hope they are good?"
"Teyla, they're wonderful," Sheppard told her, as soon as he could talk without spraying food everywhere.
Rodney didn't say anything, but he made little appreciative noises as he dug into his food. Teyla, rosy with pleasure, sat back to eat her own meal.
An hour or so later, John had cleaned up the kitchen and Teyla, whose rosy glow of happiness had been replaced by the pallor of exhaustion, had fallen asleep on the couch. John tiptoed out the door with Rodney in tow and got out his heavy-duty car jack from the shed. Soon the tire was off the Lexus and the two of them were jolting down the washboard ruts of the road to town.
Sheppard hadn't told Rodney this yet, but he planned on spending more than just a few minutes in town -- besides needing to pick up a few things from the store, he intended to make a few phone calls in search of the brother Teyla had mentioned. During their late-night discussions last night, she'd given him a few more details to go on, such as a name and a physical description. "Chicken farm in Texas" was still an appallingly vague search area, but he figured that a six-and-a-half foot tall Guatemalan with a penchant for knife fighting couldn't be that hard to find. Someone, somewhere, was bound to remember him.
He noticed Rodney watching him shift gears -- curious, apparently, about how he managed it with his left leg largely nonfunctional. Once again, with anyone else his hackles would have gone up, but with Rodney he found that he didn't really mind. It was just curiosity, like a kind of mild scientific interest. Rodney had watched with similar interest when he'd taken the tire off the Lexus earlier.
The leg would never be precisely straight; it was held together with a mass of screws and pins, probably more metal than bone. Key muscles and ligaments had been traumatized or destroyed, so he couldn't bend it -- much -- without taking it in his hands and doing it manually. It did bend, just not very well. When it was straight, though, he still had almost as much thrust as he'd ever had -- he could bring his upper body to bear, while locking the leg in position. So using the clutch wasn't that much of a problem as long as he had the seat pretty far back. The trouble was, it hurt; the feeble muscles in his leg tired out quickly and exhaustion brought the deep, aching pain that was never far away from him. To distract himself, he tuned into Rodney, who was a lot more entertaining than the staticky and erratic radio. Currently, Rodney was ranting about the state of the roads, again.
"I always thought the Border Patrol were given federal vehicles."
Rodney snorted. "Only at those stations that have actual funding."
"Have you thought about getting a car that's actually made for these conditions? Like a Jeep or a truck or something?"
Rodney gave him a supercilious sneer, as only Rodney could do. "That would only make sense if I were planning on staying here, Sheppard."
Like the thought of Teyla going up north, that gave Sheppard a painful stab in his stomach. Still, he knew that the situation wasn't permanent with Rodney. People who lived in a motel and ate in a bar were clearly people ready to drop everything and move at any given time.
"That may be, McKay, but if you expect to be stationed out here for at least another few months, it might be worth it anyway. You can always sell the truck when you leave." He wondered if that was as transparent a pretext as it seemed to him, to ferret out how much longer McKay expected to be here.
But Rodney wasn't cooperating. "It's not worth it to me. I don't like driving trucks."
"Are you serious? You'd rather drive a dinky little car like that than a truck?"
McKay's crooked smile came out to play. "You know what they say about over-compensation, right?"
God, he was going to miss this -- the annoyance, the verbal sparring, all of it. He hadn't been this relaxed around anyone since Mitch and Dex died. And it surprised him to find that he could think of them now with more ease. When he remembered them, what he remembered was laughing in dive bars and hitting on local women ... watching football ... cracking bad jokes. Not blackened corpses and the smell of charred flesh, the way he'd last seen them.
In town, they dropped off both Rodney's damaged tire and the equally damaged spare to be repaired. John hit a couple of stores to pick up various staples; with the way that his houseguests were decimating the food supplies, he was definitely going to need to go shopping more often than once a month.
One of the reasons why he didn't like going to town was because it usually involved walking, and he absolutely refused to use either crutches or a cane. He could walk pretty well over short distances -- his leg hurt when it took his full weight, but he'd gotten used to that. However, prolonged exercise made the traumatized muscles flutter with fatigue and then seize up. When he was by himself, he'd find a quiet corner and try to massage out the cramps, but with Rodney around, he couldn't do that. By the time they were done with the basic shopping, he was in a very bad mood and Rodney's normal abrasiveness had begun to grate on him like sandpaper on exposed nerves. And of course Rodney had had to stop at the snack food aisle at least twelve different times to pick up various things he "needed" back at the motel. The store wasn't crowded -- it was a Wal-Mart on a weekday in a relatively small town -- but John could feel the presence of so many unfamiliar people prickling on the back of his neck. Between that and the hot knives shoved up under the skin of his leg, he just wanted to escape back to his little house in the country and be alone for a while.
His usual way of getting into the truck was to step up with the right leg and then grab a handful of his left pants leg and swing the other one up after it. It was normally smooth and fast enough that he didn't think people paid attention to it. Getting back into the truck after spending an hour navigating Wal-Mart, though, took a couple of tries and there was pain-sweat running down his neck when he was done.
"God, you're white as a sheet," Rodney said.
It was absolutely the wrong thing to say. He could take a lot; he was usually an easygoing guy, and easygoing with Rodney in particular; but at that moment in time, he didn't think he'd ever hated anything the way he hated his disability -- and goddammit, it was a disability, no matter what he tried to tell himself. This spilled over into hatred for everyone and everything that reminded him of it, including Rodney McKay.
"Fuck off," John snarled.
This didn't have the desired effect, because unfortunately Rodney had the hide of a rhino when it came to that sort of thing. "Seriously ... are you okay?"
The concern appeared to be genuine, but he didn't want people to worry over him; he wanted to not be a fucking cripple anymore. He came damn near just throwing Rodney out of his truck and leaving him standing in a dusty Texas street. "Leave it alone, McKay."
Incredibly, Rodney shut up. John didn't look at him; he just put the truck in gear and drove. Shifting gears was torture. He didn't realize that he'd automatically started driving home until he looked up and saw the exit sign for the country highway leading out to nowheresville and his hundred and sixty acres.
Sighing, he took a different exit and circled downtown aimlessly until he located the library. He'd never been there, but he figured they'd have computers where he could access the Internet and maybe start looking for Teyla's brother. He killed the engine -- it continued to idle for a minute or two in defiance of orders, before shuddering into stillness and leaving them in an almost deafening silence. Oppressive heat shimmered off the pavement.
John couldn't figure out what to say; he sucked at apologizing, and his leg still hurt like a bitch. To his surprise, Rodney was the one who spoke first. "I have a big mouth sometimes."
"Only sometimes?" Sheppard managed to quirk a bit of a smile, and Rodney gave him an echo of it back. John ran his hand through his sweat-damp hair. "No, look -- I'm just used to living alone, that's all. Being around people like this ... it gets to me ... sometimes."
"You could -- you know --" Rodney fidgeted, his hands clasped between his knees. "There's probably a bus that goes out that way ..."
"Oh, for Pete's sake, I'm not just going to leave you here." Not that he hadn't been thinking about it a little earlier, but not seriously, and it depressed him that Rodney actually thought he might. "Look, the library's probably air-conditioned. I'd rather not sit out here until I turn into a puddle." His traumatized leg complained that yes, it did want to sit here, all day if necessary. He ignored it and gave it a nudge to get it down to the pavement below.
"I thought this time of year was supposed to be cooler," Rodney complained, slamming the truck door and then staring at the rust flakes that shivered off. "Are you absolutely sure this thing isn't going to fall apart before we get back?"
"It's hung together so far." He didn't bother locking it; anyone who stole it probably wouldn't get a hundred yards before they ran afoul of its various clutch problems, if they could even get it started at all.
The library was pleasantly cool inside. Rodney suffered through watching him use the Internet for about five seconds before pushing him out of the way with an irritated, "My cat can use a computer better than you!"
"You've got a cat?" John asked, sliding over.
"Well, not anymore." Rodney looked momentarily wistful. "Gave it to a neighbor when I moved down here. Probably a wise move; I imagine poor Newton would've been shot and eaten by a random redneck inside a week."
John leaned his chin on his fist and watched as Rodney manipulated Google in ways he'd never seen done before. "Well, that's what you get for naming a cat after a kind of snack food, isn't it?"
The look on Rodney's face was priceless. "The cat was named after Sir Isaac Newton, you clueless mor--" He froze, glowering at John. "You're making fun of me, aren't you?"
John smiled with all possible innocence, still with his chin resting on his hand. Rodney heaved an exasperated sigh and went back to the computer.
To John's amazement, after several rounds of searching agricultural websites and after feeding a lot of quarters into the pay phone down the street, they found a lead. The foreman at one of the farms near the Oklahoma border actually remembered Ronon and Melena -- not by name, but by description. He thought they'd gone down to Florida to work as orange pickers. The guy said that he knew some of their friends and thought he might be able to get a message to them. Sheppard gave his name and rough directions to his house, although he knew that the odds were about a million to one that it would ever get to the intended recipient. He gave them the number of Rodney's motel, since he didn't have a phone.
"Needle in a haystack," Rodney commented as they drove back to the tire store.
"I know." John wasn't sure why he was so determined to find Teyla's brother for her, except that he doubted she'd be able to find him on her own, with no money, no resources. Not that his odds were much better. Needle in a haystack, indeed.
He stopped by a convenience store on the way out of town to pick up a couple bricks of ice cream and stash them in the cooler in the back of the truck. Noticing Rodney's eyes following the treats, John said, "You know, we'll probably get back late enough that everything will be closed; you want to stay for supper?"
He could see Rodney hunting around for an excuse, and not finding one. "Teyla might cook for us again," John added.
"Are you sure you aren't going to keep her?"
"Of course not. She's got places to go, things to do, and a new life in America to live, which hopefully doesn't involve cooking for a recluse on a farm in the middle of nowhere." Hmm, that had come out with wince-inducing levels of self-pity.
Rodney didn't seem to notice. "Well, as long as you can wring a few home-cooked meals out of her first."
But Teyla didn't cook for them that night. They got back as the sunset stained the western sky, to find Teyla sprawled on the couch with a blanket in a tangled knot around her legs. There were bright spots of color on her cheeks, and she didn't wake up when John called her name, nor when he gently shook her.
"It's those damned feet." John was testy with his own pain and worry; Rodney hovered in the doorway, grocery bags in his arms. "They were full of dirt and gravel, and then she hasn't really been resting -- she feels like she has to keep up with us. Damn it!"
McKay set the bags down and leaned over the back of the couch. He held his hand near Teyla's cheek, feeling the warmth. "We should take her to the hospital."
"Rodney, you work for the Border Patrol; I shouldn't have to tell you what's wrong with that idea. She's undocumented. They'll fix her up and then send her straight back to Mexico, if she doesn't sit in a jail cell for a while first."
"So ... what? Let her sit around here and bake her brain inside her skull?"
Sheppard stared at her, contemplated the logistics of getting her upstairs without having to resort to dragging her in front of Rodney, and decided that she looked comfortable enough on the couch. "Cold washcloths. Try to bring the fever down a little, make her more comfortable."
"She needs antibiotics."
"McKay, I know that, but we work with what we have, all right?"
Sheppard roused her enough to get her to take a couple of aspirin; she was out of it, though, mumbling in Spanish, and he could feel the heat coming off her body as he supported her head to tip a glass of water to her lips. He changed the bandages on her feet, wincing at the swollen, oozing cuts and scrapes, some of them alarmingly deep. She'd been walking on those all morning, and he hadn't even thought about it...
Rodney hovered, wringing his hands, and then followed Sheppard outside into the warm darkness, where he held a flashlight while John put the tire back on the car. "I feel useless," he complained, shifting from foot to foot while Sheppard tightened bolts with his leg stretched out in front of him in the dust, the abused muscles screaming at him.
There were a lot of ways he could have answered that, but all he said was, "I like getting my hands dirty."
Rodney shivered, rubbing his free hand over his arm, and looked away as John pulled himself up on the hood of the Lexus. "Is that why you live out here, with the .... you know, the sagebrush and the snakes and everything? Lots of manly physical labor opportunities, I'd imagine."
There were a lot of reasons why he lived out here. Maybe some of it was because he liked working with his hands; he'd never thought about that. "Partly, yeah, I guess."
Rodney followed him around the side of the car and directed the flashlight beam downward while he stowed the other tire in the trunk. "You know ... about today ... I ..."
Sheppard closed his eyes briefly. This ... this was why he didn't like having other people around. "Rodney, seriously, I was a jerk and I'm sorry about that, so let it go."
Rodney leaned on the roof of the car, getting in Sheppard's personal space, impossible to avoid. "Your leg, it -- Isn't there something that some doctor, somewhere, can do? Could they fix you? Have you tried?"
John waved a hand up and down his body. "This is fixed, all right? I was crushed in a chopper crash, McKay; you don't jump up from that and do handstands. I can do everything I want to do regardless of how it looks, and the subject is fucking off limits."
Rodney was quiet for a little while as they walked back to the house -- or, rather, Rodney walked; John limped, and slowly, too. "You certainly do swear a lot," Rodney said at last.
Sheppard barked a laugh, because of the various things he'd been expecting when Rodney inevitably couldn't keep his mouth shut any longer, that wasn't one of them. "I'm a soldier; we do that." WAS a soldier, his brain reminded him. "Don't you watch the movies?"
"Not those kinds of movies." And something about the way McKay said it let John know that they'd trespassed, just a little bit, on one of his sensitive areas.
Aren't we a psychologically healthy bunch, he thought. Out of the three of them, it looked like the woman who'd walked barefoot from Mexico was the most well-adjusted, and that was just sad.
Teyla tossed and turned through the evening. John got some more water and aspirin into her, and then left her alone. He and Rodney sat at the kitchen table in a pool of lamplight and tried to get the very touchy oven warm enough to bake a frozen pizza.
"I really can't believe you don't have a microwave. How in the world do you make popcorn?"
"Believe it or not, Rodney, people actually did eat popcorn before the microwave was invented. I hear they had it at Plymouth Rock, actually."
"Lies, damn lies," Rodney muttered, staring at the oven's temperature gauge as it crept sluggishly past 200.
From the living room, Teyla cried out "Papa!" in the voice of a little girl.
John looked over and saw Rodney staring into the dark doorway, a world of worry on his expressive face. "You know, I could drive into town, maybe find a pharmacy and get her some drugs or something."
"Not in the dark. Even I don't drive that road in the dark, unless I really have to."
Teyla began sobbing softly. Rodney ran his hand over his face. Maybe it was just the lamplight, but he looked ten years older, the lines in his face painting a stark tracery of age. "You know, I think I could get some antibiotics for her."
"By doing what, robbing a pharmacist?"
Rodney shook his head. "I'm serious. In my line of work ... you meet people, you know? I've never, um, tried to buy illegal drugs, but I think I know some people who would sell them to me."
"Except that if you know about them, then they probably know you're a fed. This isn't a big town, McKay. Sounds like a good way to get yourself shot."
"Nobody out here is crazy enough to shoot a cop." Rodney sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as John. He waved a hand towards the living room. "If the alternative is sitting here and watching her get eaten feet-first by bacteria ... I'm telling you, my stomach isn't that strong, okay? I'm serious -- I know where I can buy antibiotics for her."
He was serious, Sheppard realized, amazed -- and suddenly his estimation of Rodney McKay went up about ten notches. The INS agent was actually willing to walk into a den of drug dealers to get antibiotics for a young woman he'd known for less than 24 hours.
"We're not going anywhere tonight, so let's just see how she does until morning, okay? She's not going to drop dead in a few hours. If she's not any better, you could tell me who to talk to, and I can do the actual -- er, buying."
Rodney let out a long sigh, and leaned on the stove. "And now I've gone from having dinner with illegal aliens, to buying drugs for them. This is a pretty steep slippery slope you're pushing me down, Sheppard."
VIII. Crazy Gringos
Teyla wasn't better in the morning; in fact, she was worse, tossing and moaning, talking to people who weren't there.
"What if she dies while we're gone?" Rodney fretted, trailing Sheppard out to the Lexus.
"She's not that sick, Rodney." Sheppard slid into the passenger's seat, then turned to frown at him. "Are you absolutely sure you want to do this? We could try to find another way."
"I'm absolutely sure I do not want to do this. However, since taking her to a hospital is out, as you so irritatingly yet accurately pointed out -- name one other option on the table. Other than watching her die."
He was actually scared out of his mind, and with good reason, he felt. In a couple of hours he was going to have to talk to an actual drug dealer ... an actual drug dealer who knew that he was a fed. He thought that Sheppard could be a lot more supportive.
"Are you sure this guy's not going to shoot you?"
Rodney gritted his teeth and eased the car down into a washed-out place across what passed for a road, then gunned it to get up the other side. "Of course I'm not sure, and thank you so much for bringing up the possibility every five minutes. But he's a friend. I mean, well, we've talked. Okay, we talked once. But it was friendly, the talking. Sort of."
Amazed to have made it back to town in one piece, he insisted on swinging by the hotel to pick up his gun and take a shower -- Sheppard had offered the use of a shower back at the ranch house, but Rodney didn't want to climb back into his dirty clothes, and he sure as hell wasn't wearing Sheppard's.
When Rodney opened the door to the dingy little motel room, a piece of paper went sliding across the nappy carpet. He knelt down and picked it up, turned it over. It was a USPS notice that he'd missed the delivery of a certified letter and should pick it up from the post office -- he'd been having his mail delivered to the motel, to the management's annoyance.
"What's that?" Sheppard asked, limping into the room without being invited.
"None of your business." He stuck it in his pocket.
While Rodney showered, Sheppard used the motel phone to call a few more leads on Teyla's brother.
"You'd better not be running up my long-distance bill, Sheppard." Rodney stepped out of the bathroom, feeling a little more confident now that he wasn't wearing two-day-old clothes. He toweled his hair into stiff spikes and ran a hand over it to smooth it down.
"Aren't you billing it to the government anyway?" was Sheppard's comeback. He set down the phone and sighed. "No luck. Needle in a haystack, like you said."
"There are three hundred million people in this country; what are the chances you can find one of them?"
"I know, I know, but ..." Sheppard's voice trailed away and he looked at the wall. "If she really is dying, her brother ought to be there."
Rodney grimaced and strapped the gun to his leg, taking pains to buckle the holster correctly because he knew he'd never hear the end of it if he didn't. "Let's go buy some drugs." He paused then, realizing that he only had about twenty bucks on him. He wondered if drug dealers took Visa. "Uh, let's find an ATM and then buy some drugs."
"Way ahead of you." Sheppard reached in his pocket and held up a wad of bills. Rodney could feel his eyes go round.
"Where'd that come from?"
"I keep a little on hand in case of emergencies. My bank's back in DC and the nearest ATM's in the city, so it pays to be prepared."
"You're very strange," McKay said, flatly.
Sheppard grinned. "I know. Take me to your drug dealer."
"He's not my drug dealer."
The drug dealer that Rodney knew was named Edgar Kavanagh, which Rodney thought (and Sheppard agreed) was about the least drug-dealer-ish name ever. From what Rodney had heard in town, Edgar paid illegals to smuggle drugs across the border under their clothes. He also had a meth lab and dabbled in sundry other chemical substances, including resale of nominally legal drugs, such as painkillers and antibiotics, obtained in various ways.
"Regular Renaissance man," Sheppard commented as they jolted down the rutted road to Edgar's place. "And you never busted him?"
"I never had any evidence," Rodney protested defensively. Actually, he probably could have come up with some if he'd tried; he just didn't care enough to bother. "He's a small-potatoes kind of guy by drug dealer standards. Even with the reorganization and funding increases after 9/11, the CBP is stretched pretty thin, and they don't really have time for guys like Edgar; they're more concerned with busting up the big rings. Edgar's just a high school dropout who knows a few people."
"Customs and Border Patrol; aren't you paying any attention at all?"
"Sorry. Other things on my mind." Sheppard leaned on the car door and stared pensively out at the brown hills.
Rodney found that even he didn't have much to say to that, because his rebellious brain kept drifting back to Teyla thrashing around on the couch. He didn't even know her, and it was stupid to risk what he was risking to help her. But she'd smiled at him, and she'd thanked him for helping her, even though he really hadn't done anything, at that point. And it had been a long damn time since he did anything he could feel proud of.
Sheppard raised his head from the window as they jolted into Kavanagh's yard. "So this is where drug dealers live."
"This is where one very pathetic drug dealer lives," Rodney corrected him. It was a shiny aluminum house trailer, with a few feeble cottonwood trees shading it from the sun. The yard was awash in rural detritus: assorted cars on blocks, old refrigerators and washing machines, a child's swing set.
John reached to open his door. Rodney said, "Nice try at hogging the glory, but I don't think he'll talk to you. He doesn't know you; he does know me."
"Unfortunately what he knows about you is that you're a fed."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, but I'm a fed who's been living in this town for a year, drinking beer with the locals and never once arresting any of them. While you, on the other hand, cruised into town one day on your motorcycle with your -- your flyboy hair, and your random loads of cash, and bought a crazy-person house out in the country. For all they know, you're a fed too, only one with better funding who's conducting some kind of actual, long-term sting."
Sheppard's eyebrows shot right up to his scruffy hair. "You've got a point," he said, and added, a bit apologetically, "Not well liked in town, then, am I?"
Although he didn't sound too put out about the idea, Rodney felt oddly compelled to soften the blow. "Well, they just don't know you. Whereas, they know me, and they know what to expect from me." Hmm, he was making himself sound like some kind of incompetent, Barney Fife type of cop, which was certainly not true. He just didn't do a whole lot of actual crimefighting.
"I'll wait in the car." Sheppard handed him the cash, then patted the pocket of his jacket. "But I've got my Beretta here, and if you holler, I come out with guns blazing."
"And in all likelihood fall flat on your face because you can't run." When Sheppard glared at him, Rodney just smirked; it was better than giving in to the stomach-churning panic creeping over him. He was about to talk to an actual drug dealer. "What? You know it's true."
With that, he walked away from the car towards the trailer, because if he didn't get this over with, he was going to throw up or otherwise embarrass himself and totally lose whatever paltry street cred he possessed. He let his hand slip down to rest on the butt of the H&K, and then he wished he hadn't brought the H&K because it was sort of threatening and made him look like he was here on official business, but at least he had Sheppard backing him up and covering him from the car ... but he'd just insulted Sheppard, which meant that there was a drug dealer in front of him and a possibly crazy and, now, angry veteran behind him with a gun pointed at his back ... and why, oh why didn't he think this plans through beforehand?
He knocked on the door.
There was a long silence and then, as he raised his hand to knock again, a mumbled voice from behind it asked, "Wh'm'th'r?"
"What?" Rodney said.
The door opened a crack. A bloodshot eye peeked through.
"Kavanagh?" As Kavanagh recognized him, the bloodshot eye widened and the door started to close. "Wait! Wait! I'm here to buy drugs!"
The door paused in its swing. "Huh?"
"Drugs. I need to buy some. Well, antibiotics actually."
The door opened just a bit wider, so that he could see the drug dealer looking him up and down -- over the barrel of a shotgun, pointed at Rodney's head. "Most people go to the pharmacist for that."
When Rodney was scared -- and having a shotgun pointed at him did have that effect -- he had a tendency to babble. "Let's just say I can't but I heard you might have some and I really do need it and I can pay and -- Uh, maybe I'll just go away now."
"If you're wearing a wire, I'll shoot you."
"No wire!" Rodney's voice was just a squeak of terror now. "Look, nothing, see?" He ripped open his collar and pulled it wide to reveal his shoulders and the upper part of his chest.
Kavanagh groaned and shut his eyes for a moment. "For God's sake, put it away." He opened his eyes again; they narrowed, speculatively. "Let me see your cash."
"Oh no, I know how this works. I show you the money, you kill me and take the money."
The bloodshot eyes rolled skyward. "I'm trying to run a business here, okay? And I don't extend credit. Just show me the cash."
Hoping desperately that Sheppard was a good shot and, even more importantly, a fast shot, Rodney dug in his pocket and let the edge of the money peek out. "See? Cash. Now show me the drugs."
"How much you need?"
"I don't know? A lot? She's pretty sick -- here, look, however much this will buy me." He pulled out a random handful and handed it through the door.
Kavanagh snatched it out of his hand. "You suck at haggling," the drug dealer informed him, thumbing through the bills.
"I know," Rodney said.
"Hang on." The door closed, and Rodney fidgeted in the sun, until he heard Kavanagh's shuffling footsteps coming back, and tensed up. The door cracked open again, and a ziploc bag was deposited into his hand.
"There's only six pills in here."
"I know. It's the newer kind. One a day. Heavy-duty stuff. Oh, and the sixth pill's morphine. Whoever it's for, in case they're in pain. New customer special. Nice doin' business with you." The door slammed.
"What, don't I even get a -- a product fact sheet, or anything?" Rodney demanded of the closed door. He held up the baggie at eye level, squinting at the capsules. They looked like antibiotics. On the other hand, for all he knew about drugs, they could have been horse pills.
With dawning amazement that he'd survived an actual encounter with a genuine drug dealer, he scurried back to the car and shoved the baggie at Sheppard. "Here. Do these look like antibiotics to you?"
"I don't know. I guess so." Sheppard pinched them between his fingers and stared at them, holding the bag so close to his face that he was almost cross-eyed.
Rodney slammed the car into gear and sped out of Kavanagh's driveway before the little weasel could change his mind and decide to shoot them instead. As the trailer receded behind them, his heart rate slowed from heart-attack-inducing levels to merely uncomfortably fast.
"I can't believe I did that. I just bought something on the black market. Me. Rodney McKay. And he had a gun and I didn't freak out -- much -- and I was ... I was cool, Sheppard!" He felt like a total dork, getting this excited about it -- but, damn. True, he'd been working for the CIA at the age of eighteen, but he'd never been out of a lab. It was different to be out here in the field, doing this kind of thing for real.
"I know. You were cool." Sheppard was grinning infectiously at him.
On his way back through town, Rodney stopped at the post office to pick up his certified letter. Wonder of wonders, the little window was actually open; the post office had exactly one employee, who both delivered the mail and staffed the window, on those rare occasions when she felt capable of facing the public.
Sheppard wandered off to check his mail, and Rodney strolled up to the window. After standing there for a minute or two, and being ignored, he cleared his throat. The postmistress jumped, sending the pile of letters that she'd been sorting all over the floor, and began hiccuping.
"A little service would be nice."
"Sorry, sir," she managed between hiccups, scrambling around to pick up the letters in a flustered kind of way.
"So -- could I actually get service? This millennium, maybe?"
Rodney gave her the postal slip and waited while she hunted around in the back, popping up occasionally to reassure him that she'd have it -- hic! -- in just a minute, and then vanishing again. She never once made eye contact.
Rodney had never really figured out if she was pathologically shy, or just terrified of him specifically -- or both.
Eventually, he signed for the letter and turned away, glancing at the return address. It was from the CIA. Rodney's stomach curled into a ball, and he swallowed. He stuck the letter in his pocket without opening it.
"All done?" Sheppard asked impatiently, coming up with a handful of catalogs and a Soldier of Fortune magazine.
"Yeah. Done." The letter burned in his pocket like a live coal. He steadfastly ignored it. "Let's see if Teyla survived our absence." She'd better have survived. He hadn't risked his life so that she could inconsiderately drop dead.
She was still alive, but limp and sweaty. Sheppard lifted up her torso and gently coaxed her to swallow one of the pills. Rodney looked away, jealous and, at the same time, glad that he wasn't the one having to do it.
He went out and sat on Sheppard's hot, dusty porch -- honestly, had the man never heard of air conditioning? -- and opened the letter. As he'd suspected, it was a job offer, and the pay they were willing to offer made his eyes go wide. Apparently he hadn't burned all his bridges, after all.
Rodney sighed, crumpled up the letter and stuck it deep in his pocket. He so didn't want to deal with this right now.
He heard Sheppard's distinctive clunking footsteps coming up behind him -- one normal, one dragging. "You staying for dinner?" Sheppard asked.
He ought to get back to town. He didn't want to get involved with these people. He had a job offer waiting for him in DC, where the buildings actually had air conditioning and all the damsels in distress were somebody else's problem.
But, free food.
Sheppard cooked something that involved pasta, while Rodney sat on the back of the couch, feeling useless, and watched Teyla sleep, occasionally changing the cold compress on her forehead. "She still looks way too hot," he reported.
"Antibiotics take days to work, Rodney," Sheppard called back from the kitchen.
"I know that." Then he looked down and discovered that a pair of fever-glazed dark eyes were open and staring at him. "Oh. Uh. Hi." In a moment of panic, he yelled in the direction of the kitchen, "Sheppard! She's awake! Uh ... I think."
Teyla blinked slowly. As Sheppard nearly fell over himself sliding into the living room, she turned her head and blinked in his direction, too. "John," she said in a soft voice.
"And Rodney," Rodney said, indignantly.
Her lips curved up a little. "And Rodney," she agreed, her voice a breathy whisper.
"We got antibiotics for you," Sheppard told her. "So you'll be all better in no time."
"Assuming that they're actually antibiotics and not laced with -- ow!" Rodney cringed as Sheppard elbowed him in the stomach.
Teyla frowned blearily up at them. "I do not know that word."
"Medicine," Sheppard said. "You have an infection. This'll fix it."
"Bought 'em off a drug dealer," Rodney put in.
"Yeah, Rodney's got the strangest friends."
"He's not a friend --"
Teyla's forehead creased. "You did this for me?"
"As opposed to letting you lay there and die, yeah," Rodney said brusquely.
"Crazy gringos," Teyla mumbled in an affectionate kind of way, and drifted off to sleep.
IX. Coyote Steve
Since Teyla had the couch, and John took the bed, Rodney spent the night on the cot. This was getting to be a habit ... and one that was exceedingly bad on his back. Waking up slowly to the smell of cooking bacon, he reminded himself that he needed, very badly, not to get too involved with these people.
But there was bacon. He'd always been a sucker for bacon.
"Overcooked things a tad," Sheppard said, scraping slightly blackened bacon and eggs onto their plates. "Heat regulation on that stove is a bit of an art."
Rodney snorted and dumped copious amounts of pepper on his eggs. "Why don't you take one of your fat wads of cash and buy a new stove?"
"I'm not made of money, McKay. I don't work, so I'm living on my savings."
Suddenly Rodney felt guilty for eating John's food. Annoyed with himself, then, he took second helpings.
There was a sudden squeak and then a thump from the living room as Teyla woke up and rolled off the couch. She blinked woozily up at the two anxious gringos hovering over her.
"Your fever broke last night, I think," John said, helping her back up onto the couch. "Are you hungry? Do you want anything?"
Teyla blinked slowly, thinking about this. "I think I would like a drink of water," she said finally, in a faint, raspy voice.
Rodney jumped up. "I'll get it." He was sick and tired of feeling useless around here. Soon he was back with a beer stein full of water -- proper glasses seemed to be another thing that Sheppard didn't own.
Teyla drank, and then with a little help from Sheppard, made it upstairs to the bathroom and shower. Rodney followed him back down to the kitchen and watched him heat up a can of soup. "You like this sort of thing," Rodney accused him.
"Hmm?" Sheppard looked up, all spiky hair and innocent green eyes.
"You like this stuff, taking care of people, don't you? You're one of those."
"One of those?" Sheppard mimicked in a lazy drawl, tipping the soup into a cup.
"What, have you turned into a parrot now? You heard me. I thought I had you figured -- living out here with your truck and your guns, farming rocks and shooting at planes. Crazy hermitude is something I can, kinda, almost get my mind around. But this ..." He waved his hands around him, aware of Sheppard's eyes on him with something sharper and darker behind the lazy amusement. "Why are you here? I'd expect to find you, I don't know, working with abused quadriplegic orphans or something other disgustingly heartwarming vocation."
"I like living alone," Sheppard said, with a sharp undercurrent of Leave it alone, McKay.
"Yeah," Rodney muttered, "sure you do."
Teyla limped into the kitchen just then, her hair dark with water and wearing another of Sheppard's T-shirts. She was holding onto the wall for support. Sheppard gave up glaring at Rodney and caught her just before she fell, maneuvering her to the couch.
"I am fine," Teyla protested. The fact that she was clutching her head in both hands and trying to keep her feet from touching the floor didn't give much credence to her claims, though.
"Uh-huh." John brought her the cup of soup. Rodney, feeling more useless than ever and definitely out of place in this disturbingly domestic little scene, edged towards the door.
"So, I'll just be -- you know, places to go, stuff to do, lots of work and ... stuff."
"Wait!" Teyla set aside the cup of soup and rose to her feet, teetering for a moment, and then limped across the room. Rodney eyed her nervously, especially when she put her arms around him and drew him into a hug.
"Um ... what was that for?" he asked when she let go. He hoped that the flaming heat in his cheeks didn't mean that he was blushing, but from Sheppard's thinly concealed smirk, he didn't have a good feeling about it.
"For helping me. I do not know how to repay you, but I hope that I will someday find a way."
"Er ..." He was acutely aware of Sheppard watching them. "There's no need for repaying and ... stuff -- I was, it was, um, yeah. You're welcome." Feeling about as uncool as it was possible to get, he flustered his way out the door.
Sheppard followed him out into the dry Texas sun. "You know, you're welcome to come back out here for dinner anytime, if you want. I know it doesn't exactly compare to the homey charms of the Atlantic Motel, but ..." He shrugged. "We've got ice cream, and enough people to play most of the major varieties of poker."
"Until her feet heal and she goes north." He didn't mean to be cruel, but the barely perceptible slump of Sheppard's shoulders let him know that he'd cut deeper than he intended.
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "Until then."
Feeling like a Grade-A cad, Rodney reminded himself that this sort of thing was why he needed to get away from these people as quickly as possible. The CIA letter felt hot in his pocket. "One of these nights," he lied, and pretended that he didn't notice Sheppard watch him drive away.
He checked for cell phone reception at several points between Sheppard's ranch and town, finally getting three glorious bars on top of a ridge that had simply no business being part of a road. With the countryside spread out at his feet in glorious green, red and gray, and completely failing to notice it, he called the CIA and was bounced around between different departments until finally they redirected him to Weir.
"Elizabeth. Rodney. I'll do it," he said, and hung up before she could ask for particulars. He dropped the phone on the seat beside him, cranked the air conditioning and tried not to think about it on the rest of the drive to town.
Back at the motel, he showered and then stared at the mess of dirty laundry, takeout containers and dog-eared scientific journals scattered around the room. He contemplated packing, and then procrastinated by driving into the "city" -- as the locals called it -- and hiding out in a darkened theater all afternoon, watching a series of asinine and instantly forgettable movies. In lieu of trying to follow the banal plots, he tried listing the many benefits of living in DC.
Starbucks, he thought. Restaurants. Wireless that actually works. People who discuss more intellectually stimulating topics than last night's episode of "Hee Haw". CIVILIZATION.
But every time he tried to make that list, he found himself, sooner or later, thinking of Teyla, limping across the room in her sock feet to hug him, and Sheppard saying, You're welcome to come back anytime ...
He got Chinese food and ate in the car as he drove back to the motel over twenty miles of potholes. He was packing tonight, by God, and leaving first thing in the morning.
He pulled into the parking lot of the Atlantic Motel just as the sun began to set. A surprisingly cool wind shivered in his hair when he got out of the car, and he stood for a moment, looking at the surreally beautiful hills. Then he shook off the mood and headed for his hotel room.
The door opened under his hand when he reached out with the key, and he was thinking in surprise, Crap, I must've forgotten to -- when motion exploded in his peripheral vision and suddenly he was up against the wall of his room with the air being crushed out of him and an unshaven face six inches from his own.
"I hear you been buying antibiotics, McKay." Coyote Steve twisted Rodney's shirt into a knot under his chin. "Who you buyin' em for?"
Rodney managed a gargling sound.
"Jesus, Steve, he can't talk if you choke him to death." There was a harsh laugh. "You can do that later."
Ohmygod, Rodney thought, I'm going to die. He tried to remember where his gun was. In the car, probably.
Steve laughed, easing off on his grip. It was an ugly sound. "Don't need to kill him, Bob. It's 'Look the Other Way' McKay. Everybody in town knows that all he wants is to stay as far away from trouble as possible."
"Hey!" Rodney protested weakly.
Steve and one of his buddies shoved him down into the motel room's single chair, and bound his hands and feet to the frame with -- oh lord, he really was in redneck hell -- bungee cords.
"Now, let's chat." Steve sat on the edge of the motel bed -- a bit carefully, with one arm around his middle, and Rodney remembered that he'd been supposedly stabbed just a few days ago. Still, he looked about as healthy as he ever looked, with his crooked teeth and sallow skin. "I hear you been running around town with the crazy guy that bought the old Sumner place -- what's his name -- Sheppard? Hear you been buying up antibiotics. Couldn't be drugs to fix a sick wetback, huh? You two keeping a piece of Mexican tail stashed in the hills?"
"She's not Mexican, you moron," Rodney said, and God, he really did need to do something about his smart mouth one of these days.
Pain exploded across the side of his face. One of Steve's microcephalic buddies had hit him. Rodney licked his lips, tasting a salty sting that might be sweat or blood. A steady litany ran through his head: Be brave, be brave, be brave...
"Now Mike, no need to go gettin' rough with our cop friend here." Steve smiled, showing a row of hideous tobacco-stained teeth. "He already told us what I wanted to know. Didn't ya?"
And crap, he had, hadn't he? He'd given them away. Rodney closed his eyes briefly in despair.
"Lucky for you, a man can go up the river long and hard for killing a fed." Steve stood up, looming over Rodney. "There's no need for us to kill you, right? Because you're going to stay out of our way. Right?"
Rodney swallowed and almost gagged on the dryness in his throat. For the first time in his life, he was literally scared speechless.
Steve backhanded him hard across the face, snapping his head to the side. "I said, you gonna stay out of our way. I can't hear your answer, McKay."
"Okay," Rodney whispered.
"Good boy." Steve reached out and grabbed Rodney's face with one dirty hand, squeezing to open his mouth. As Rodney made incoherent protesting noises, Steve jammed a rag between his jaws. He choked and tried not to think about where it had been.
"Now," the coyote said, stepping back. "You just stay out of this, McKay, and you ain't gonna have trouble with us. This has nothing to do with you. This is between me, that bitch, and the asshole who's been hiding her." He laughed again. "If anything, I'm doing you a favor. Since you don't like getting your hands dirty, we'll do your job for you. One less wetback in the country. Hey, you might even get a promotion, huh?"
They filed out of the room, laughing, as McKay trembled with rage -- and not all of it at them. Steve was the last one to leave, and he turned back, the laughter gone. "I'm serious," he said softly. "Stay out of this. All you have to do is walk away."
The door closed softly behind them.
They're going after Teyla. And thanks to you, idiot, they know exactly where to find her.
Rodney wrenched at his bonds. Fortunately, bungee cords -- being stretchy -- didn't hold up very well to prolonged wriggling. Soon he was free and lurching towards the door. He froze at the thought that they might have left someone behind to guard him, but peeking out the door showed him only the weed-strewn parking lot with his Lexus parked at the edge. The sun had set, and the sky was the color of blood.
"Gotta warn them," Rodney muttered. He pulled out his cell phone, and then remembered belatedly that Sheppard had no phone. Also, he was only getting one bar. "Stupid freaking antiquated cell phone towers!"
The motel office. He started towards it. He could call the sheriff's office, get some backup, send somebody out to Sheppard's ranch --
-- whereupon they would arrest Teyla and deport her, and arrest Sheppard for helping her.
He stood in the parking lot, desperately torn.
If the choice was between being deported, or being dead ...
But for Teyla, it might well be one and the same. Sheppard had been right, when he'd said that she would just try again, and maybe wouldn't make it this time. And he could guess what Sheppard would want, if it was left up to him.
"Son of a bitch," Rodney groaned, and ran to the Lexus. The engine purred smoothly to life. He gunned it and tore out of the parking lot.
In the movies, there was always a convenient back route to get to the beleaguered farm ahead of the outlaws. In this case, though, he was pretty sure that the road was the only way, and certainly the most direct. Why on Earth couldn't Sheppard have a phone like a normal person? Now all he could do was drive like a bat out of hell and hope he could catch up to Steve and his buddies, and then somehow get around them without getting shot or run off the road. And even if he did make it to Sheppard's place, hopefully the ex-military guy would have a plan for how to hold off a half-dozen angry rednecks, because Rodney was certainly drawing a blank.
Jolting along over ruts that were probably killing his transmission, he reached into the glove box and located his gun. He tossed it onto the seat beside him. Maybe he could take some of them with him, before they killed him horribly.
He could see why Sheppard had warned him about driving this road in the dark. It was bad enough in the daylight, but at night, he couldn't see the potholes or loose rocks until the car slewed across them. He knew from driving it by daylight that there were some pretty steep drop-offs along the fifteen miles to Sheppard's ranch. If Coyote Steve didn't get him, the road probably would.
This was crazy and stupid. He couldn't imagine what he was going to accomplish other than getting himself hurt quite badly and probably killed. On the other hand, he had exactly two friends in the world, and Steve and his psycho buddies were going to kill them if he didn't do something.
He passed the lonely lights of the last neighbor's house, and thought about stopping, calling for help, turning around. But then he was past it, the Lexus gamely bounding over the sun-baked cracks in the road. And there, up ahead of him, he saw the distant glimmer of taillights.
Rodney's hands tightened convulsively on the steering wheel. The road was climbing now, heading up into the hills where Sheppard lived. He kept losing sight of the taillights as Steve's truck vanished over each dip in the road, but it always reappeared again, climbing up the other side. And he was gaining on them.
Now if he could just figure out what to do when he got there.
Shoot out their tires? Yeah, right. On solid ground, with both hands on his gun and all the time in the world to aim, he could barely hit a target. Trying to shoot from a moving car -- he'd be lucky if he didn't blow his own ear off.
The truck was close enough that he could hear the growl of its engine. His headlights washed over it, and he could see the good ol' boys -- and a couple of mangy dogs -- in the truck bed staring at him. Some of them had shotguns.
"Look the Other Way McKay huh?" Rodney said between his teeth, and rammed them with the Lexus.
It was flamboyant and daring, and would probably have worked beautifully in the movies. Unfortunately, the truck just slewed around and then recovered, while the front of the Lexus crumpled like a sheet of printer paper.
But it hadn't killed his engine, and the truck had swung around so that it was broadside to him. Undeterred, Rodney came in for another hit. He didn't even really have to cripple the truck; all he had to do was run it off the narrow road so that he could get around it.
This time, Steve gunned the truck at the moment of impact, rotating so that it took the impact on its rear bumper. There was a horrible shrieking metal sound, and the Lexus coughed and died.
Rodney screamed obscenities that he'd forgotten he knew, twisting the key in the ignition desperately. Then the doors of his car were yanked open, and he managed to snap off one lucky shot that utterly missed anyone, before the gun was knocked from his hand and a hard blow to the lower back sent him sprawling in the sand at Steve's feet.
"All you had to do was walk away." Steve sounded amused and maybe a little disappointed in him.
"Go to hell," Rodney said, spitting sand.
"You first." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of Steve's buddies aiming a shotgun at his head, and squeezed his eyes shut.
The anticipated explosion never came. Rodney peeked one eye open, to see Steve pushing the gun away.
"Don't be stupid, Mike -- he's a fed," Steve snapped. "There's gonna be an investigation here. Don't put a bullet in him. Hell of a lot of ways to kill someone out here and make it look like an accident."
Oh, this isn't good, Rodney thought, as he was hauled to his feet with his arms twisted behind his back. Around his feet, the dogs snarled at him.
"You said it yourself, I'm a fed!" They were dragging him off the road, his feet stumbling along as he tried to keep up. "They'll come looking for me! If you just let me go, no one's going to --"
Pain exploded in the side of his head, sending pinwheels of sparks cascading through his vision. He gasped, blinking tear-filled eyes to see Steve holding a jagged, fist-sized rock. There was blood on it. His blood.
"Looks like you're about to have an accident." Steve hit him in the head again with the rock. Dazed and dizzy, he didn't put up a fight as he was dragged down the hillside into a ditch beside the road. There was a culvert here, old and clogged with sand and brush.
"That's a good place, boys. Put him there."
Rodney stifled a cry of pain as he was dumped into the dark space like a sack of laundry. Rocks and sand cascaded on top of him, and the moment when he realized that they were burying him alive was the moment he could no longer hold back his screams.
"We'll come back in a few days, dig you up and dump you somewhere a little more outta the way," Steve said from far off, sounding thoughtful. "No incriminating bullet holes, see? Dump the car in the ocean, maybe. By the time they find your corpse, there won't be enough left to figure out what happened to you."
He couldn't move. The weight of the rocks was crushing him. Curling his arms over his throbbing head, he tried to create a little air space to breathe in.
Steve was still talking, but his voice was muffled and distant now. And finally the digging sounds stopped completely, or were blocked out, and Rodney was alone, immobile and hurt and trembling in the dark, trying not to count his own breaths. The thing that astonished him, though, was that as terrified as he was of his own impending, unpleasant demise, he was more scared for Sheppard and Teyla.
Continued in Part Three.