"Dead or Alive"

by Grey Lupous

Summary: When McKay's abducted right under the team's nose, it's up to Sheppard to save him before it's too late.

Spoilers: Quite a few for "The Storm" and "The Eye", some minor ones for "Underground", "Hide and Seek" and "Childhood's End". I think that's it.


Author's Notes: This takes place some time after "The Eye", and probably before "The Defiant One". I've got no idea how much time was left open between episode on the show, so if there's not time for this adventure, let's just pretend. This story is rated higher than my others for violence, language, and well, uh, my villain is kind of sadistic, and I couldn't stop him from making innuendos.


And I would like to thank... my lovely betas Linda and Tipper. You guys managed to wade through all of this and still make some great suggestions :) This fic is much better for it. (Especially the weapon count which I had so freely ignored). Also have to thank Kimba for assuring me that no, I didn't kill Shep. And also thanks to my buddy Colt for being my sounding board, even though it's doubtful he'll ever read this. Thank you for helping me figure out how to wrap up Ford and Teyla's part of this story.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The P-90 was a wonderful device: capable of firing 900 rounds per minute, absurdly easy to reload, and when properly trained on it, was a very deadly weapon. As a flashlight – it sucked. Right now what Rodney McKay needed was a nicely sized maglite, or maybe one of those hard hats with a little light on top, that way he didn't have to hold anything while he tried to study the symbols on the wall before him. At least with a flashlight of some sort he wouldn't feel reluctant to pass it to the native who was supposed to be helping him with deciphering this wall. As harmless as these people looked, he really didn't think handing them a fully automatic weapon was the brightest of ideas.

The native in question watched him trying to juggle the gun, a notepad, and pencil all at once with no small trace of amusement. The man could maybe have been a little help if he could dictate what he was trying to read, but the man, of course, had no knowledge of how to write the English language, although he could speak it just as fluently as the rest of this galaxy. Which was a point that really confused McKay to no end, but he had decided to stop trying to figure that one out after about the tenth inhabited world.

Back to his original point, the man couldn't write a lick of English, and was an awful artist at that. McKay was desperately wishing some other member of his team was down here to point the light or take notes, but they were all outside of this damp, dark cave trying to negotiate trade agreements with the villagers they'd met upon leaving the gate.

Like many other worlds, M5G-1115, as they had designated it, or Fresca, as the natives called it, was among the thousands of planets plagued by the Wraith. That wasn't a real shocker to McKay, nor was the fact that they lived like they were perpetually stuck in the Bronze Age. However, they seemed genuinely friendly and were excited about the prospect of a new trading partner, hence the talks. They had mentioned the ruins not too far outside of the village once they heard of McKay's interest in old artifacts. In fact, Major Sheppard looked pretty annoyed that he'd let it slip along with their place of origin.

Oh well, like the pitchfork-wielding citizens of Fresca were really going to tar and feather them because they lived in Atlantis. These people weren't like the Genii. Really! They weren't! McKay had done some "discreet" scans after they'd met the natives to make sure no one was trying to build any atomic bombs under the surface. Maybe that's what Sheppard was a bit more annoyed about. It's not like Rodney could keep his device from beeping, and, really, he had been doing the scans for the good of Atlantis. No one on Atlantis, he in particular, wanted to run into another hostile culture like the Genii.

So here he was, with his guide/useless assistant, trying to decipher runes on a wall that looked vaguely Ancient. Since it wasn't definitely Ancient, he was having trouble. He was a physicist after all, not a linguist. However any excuse to get out of another round of boring trade negotiations certainly appealed to him. It wasn't like he was doing anything dangerous. While a little tall and maybe a little built, his cave companion seemed to be on the slow side, and not prone to violence. Besides, why would anyone attack him? Other than due to pure jealousy of his dashing good looks?

"Mersir McKay, you look like you are having some difficulty. Am I not here to provide assistance?"

"It's Doctor McKay," he corrected for what had to be the fifteenth time that day. "I'm a doctor of physics, not one of your medicine men. And I'm fine, there's not much you really can do but keep talking and distracting me, uh..."

"Vargas," the native provided with the smile of a simpleton. "I could hold your light for you, that way you can write."

"This?" McKay glanced at the P-90, then back at Vargas. "No, no, you might... break it." Or shoot my head off as you manhandle the SHINY object.

"I promise that I will be careful." Again with the goofy smile. Like he was going to give THAT something with bullets.

"I've got a better idea." McKay tried smiling back, hoping it came out more placating than frustrated. Stowing away the pen and paper for the moment, he tapped his radio. "Lieutenant Ford, are you busy?"

He knew that Sheppard had to be there during the negotiations and maybe Teyla too, with all her experience in the past trading for the supplies they needed. They were running dangerously low on food now that the storm had wiped out almost all of the Athosian's crops. Teyla knew exactly what her people needed to begin reconstruction... and he also had strong suspicions that Elizabeth had secretly asked her to make sure the Major didn't start giving away all the C-4 again. Ford, though, seemed to enjoy trade negotiations about as much as he enjoyed one of Carson's enemas.

"Not really," Ford's voice was hushed, but if McKay was reading the tone right, "not really" meant "Do you need help? Are you being attacked by flying monkeys? Is there any way I can join in on your vacation from this torture?"

"Well, I really could use someone who has the slightest mastery of the English alphabet," McKay shrugged at Vargas. "No offense."

"I'll be right there! I mean—uh, if it's okay with the Major." McKay had a vision of Ford jumping to his feet, only to get a reprimanding look from his superior officer. About fifteen seconds later Ford came back with an affirmative.

With a relieved sigh, McKay turned back to Vargas, who looked a little offended. "What? You really can't consider this the greatest way to spend an afternoon. I'm sure you have something you want to do more than stand around in a dark cave."

"Actually..." Vargas smiled, but it was no longer the smile of the village idiot. It was feral, even a little wicked. "I've been thoroughly enjoying our time together."

McKay's stomach did a little flip-flop, and he mentally chastised it, before offering Vargas a truly placating, if somewhat nervous, smile. "Uh, really?"

"Yes," the tall man took a step closer to Rodney, and the stomach olympics resumed. "In fact what do you say to spending a lot more time together?"

"Um, well," McKay took a step back equal to Vargas's step forward, "you see, I'm already in a committed relationship back on Atlantis. And well, my girlfriend really isn't into threesomes, you know?"

Vargas apparently didn't, but took another step closer. "Really? A woman? Who?"

"Uh," McKay quickly glanced around for an escape route, "Teyla? You met her on the way in, didn't you?"

"Why don't we ask her?" Vargas continued his approach, and as McKay took another step back, he felt the cold wall of the cave meet his back.

"Let's not, and say we did." McKay tried to quickly step around Vargas, but was outmaneuvered. He really wasn't serious about that dashing good looks thought earlier. Really, he was rather homely, could hardly look into a mirror on his best days. Oh, and he probably should have been babbling that aloud. "Listen, I think we really need to define my personal bubble. If you just back up out of the cave, I think you won't be invading it anymore."

"I'd really rather not," Vargas leaned in close.

McKay realized that he was still holding his P-90. "Okay... but I warned you."

He swung the handle into the other man's gut, trying valiantly to remember those self-defense lessons Sheppard was always badgering him to attend. His temporary plan worked and as the villager doubled over, McKay swiveled out of the way while bringing the gun back to bear on Vargas.

"Now, I'm going to leave this cave, and if you don't follow me, maybe we can forget this ugly incident ever happened." McKay began to back out, one finger resting against the trigger of his gun, and both eyes trained on his attacker.

Vargas just chuckled, and rose up, as if having a P-90 rammed into your gut tickled. He continued to mirror Rodney's footsteps like he was approaching a frightened deer. Oh, how he really didn't want to think of being compared to venison right now. "How can I forget? We were getting along so well."

McKay tried to make the gun in his hands look more menacing by waving the tip slightly. "I will shoot! Just--just take another step! Watch me!"

"Really?" There was that smile again, the one that sent chills up and down Rodney's spine, but he didn't stop coming. "You know, if you were going to shoot me--"

Suddenly he wasn't in front McKay anymore, he had dived off to the side with a speed that would put Teyla to shame, and as soon as McKay had corrected his aim, he'd switched directions, and was closing in the distance fast. Backpedal faster you moron! Shoot him! His mind was working fast enough, but his feet felt clumsy trying to run in the reverse direction, and he certainly didn't want to turn his back against Vargas. He was sure he was almost to the mouth of the cave; they hadn't gone down that deep.

Just as fast as Vargas's personality shift, the ground and his feet parted ways and his back slammed against the ground, his head smacking into it two seconds later. The air whooshed out of him, and he desperately tried to get it back, but the bright stars in his vision and blinding PAIN in his head had other plans. Through all of this he felt Vargas yank the P-90 from him, nearly taking Rodney’s arm with it. Vision returned in time for Rodney to see it unceremoniously tossed to the side.

"—you should have done it from the start." Vargas finished.

Well crap, there goes my edge, McKay thought staring at his gun. He was sure he had a knife stashed somewhere within the many pockets of his vest—if only his head would stop pounding long enough for him to remember where it was.

Operation: Get-Air-Back-Into-Lungs hit a snag as Vargas placed a knee directly on Rodney's sternum. He grinned sadistically as he leaned most of his weight onto the downed scientist.

"I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't do that," McKay managed to whisper between gasps of air. "Seems to make it a little hard to breathe."

If anything, Vargas put more pressure on McKay's sternum. "This better?"

"Peachy," he gasped.

"Now that I have your attention, I'd really like to take you to meet a couple of friends of mine."

"Speaking of friends, I have some back in the village that I really should be getting back to—" Rodney squawked as the weight on his chest increased. "Okay, shutting up and listening!"

"Good," Vargas pressed his lips together as he studied the scientist beneath him. "As I was saying... I think a little walk would be just the thing to help that breathing problem. Get a little fresh air, you know?"

"Walking is good!" McKay squeaked.

"And you'll be a good mersir and not force me to do this again?"

"Promise," McKay wheezed, and felt the pressure on his chest lighten considerably. "But can I say one thing?"

Vargas sighed. "And what would that be?"

Before Vargas could stop him, McKay grabbed his radio. "Ford! I need he--"

McKay saw stars again as Vargas backhanded him and grabbed both of McKay's wrists in his hands. "Now, now, what did I say about being a good mersir?"

McKay tried to think of a witty response as the cave and Vargas whirled around in circles. "I, uh, bing tiddle tiddle bong?"

Vargas's face scrunched up in confusion. "And what does that mean?"

The world finally spun back into place, and he felt heartened to see the precious light and flickering shadows streaming in from the front of the cave, forming a familiar shape out of the darkness and light. "It's a common Atlantean phrase meaning, look out behind you!"

"What?" As Vargas spun to look over his shoulder as one Lieutenant Ford slammed into him.

A brief struggle ensued between the two men, both grappling at each other's arms, before the Lieutenant pulled one of the moves McKay had once seen during those mandated self-defense rounds with Sheppard. Using his legs like scissors, he trapped Vargas's torso between them and used his body to slam the other man into the ground. Without pause, Ford slammed the butt of his P-90 against Vargas's skull. The bipolar villager crumpled into an unconscious heap, and Ford quickly leapt free and helped McKay to his feet.

"You all right?"

"Just grand," McKay held his pounding head as he told his knees they were not made of Jell-O. "You know, I've got this sudden urge to attend food negotiations."

"I bet." Ford kept a hand on McKay's shoulder as they made their way out of the cave, stopping long enough to scoop up McKay’s P-90.

"McKay! Report!" Sheppard's voice erupted over the radio with a small crackle.

"Oh, right, he heard that." Rodney held his head, and considered taking the earpiece out, so the Major's outbursts wouldn't agitate his headache.

"McKay's fine sir," Ford glanced back at the cave. "The villager that escorted him to the caves attacked him, but I handled it."

"I see." Sheppard’s voice rose in what some might mistake for amusement, but really was a very restrained annoyance or anger. "Meet us at the edge of the village in ten minutes."

"Understood."

"He doesn't sound too happy," McKay remarked.

"I think the negotiations may be cancelled." Ford agreed, half-leading, half-guiding McKay back to the village.

*          *          *          *          *

McKay followed Sheppard so close he was practically stepping on his heels. Not that John could blame him much. If Ford hadn't arrived in the cave when he did, he wasn't sure what that crazy villager would have done to the scientist. The village elders had apologized profusely, but Sheppard wasn't willing to take any chances. He continually scanned the trees in front of him, not wanting to let his guard down. He had an uneasy feeling resting at the base of his spine; a weird tingling that wouldn't seem to go away.

It didn't take them long to reach the large grove where the Stargate rested. The pine-like trees reached high up into the sky, much like the redwoods in California, and surrounded the grove like a fortress. The gate itself was placed in front of a line of trees on the far side of the grove, completing the pretty little picture. Sunlight streamed down from directly overhead, illuminating the gate as if it were a heavenly arch. If it wasn’t for the fact that his scientist's head hadn't just nearly been taken off by a whacked out villager, Sheppard would think the entire place was peaceful. As it was, he still couldn't shake that feeling.

"Ford, you watch the path, make sure  no one sneaks up behind us. McKay, dial it up. Teyla and I will do a perimeter check."

As soon as the orders were given his team moved automatically to follow them. With a glance backwards he saw Ford step into a defensive stance, and could see the lieutenant scanning the trees lining the path they'd followed as well. Teyla had moved to start inspecting the left side of the grove, and McKay had approached the DHD. He started scanning the tree line on his side of the grove, thinking that maybe he was overreacting a little.

Rodney reached the DHD, telling himself to stop touching his head. He was fine, and his crazy little fan was back in the village, probably doing penance of some sort. He depressed the first symbol in the sequence, and watched despondently as the gate spun and locked into place. He returned his attention back to the DHD, and pressed the second symbol. Unsurprisingly, the gate once again spun and locked the second chevron.

A flicker of shadow behind the gate grabbed his attention. Great, he was seeing things now.

He stared where he thought he'd seen whatever it was, but it was just as peaceful and as still as when they entered the grove. Dismissing it to his agitated nerves and overactive imagination, he punched in the third and fourth symbol. He reached to press the fifth symbol, but stopped when he felt something cold, metallic, and definitely sharp press against the soft and fleshy part of his neck. His hand hovered in the air, and his body refused to release the breath he'd just taken.

Hot breath tickled his ear as the owner of the knife leaned in close to whisper needless instructions. "One word or any sort of warning to them and you'll never make another annoying squawk."

Even if I wanted to, Rodney thought, not daring to move except to glance behind him to try and get a look at Sheppard or Teyla. He could barely make out the Major's form, which was turned in the completely opposite direction, and he could only assume Teyla was even further away. Oh yeah, that would figure. The one time there was actually an ambush at the gate and Sheppard was staring at trees.

The uncomfortable sensation of another body pressing against him brought his attention back to what was happening to him. The hand not holding the knife wrapped around him and quickly pressed three other symbols.

McKay resisted the urge to laugh. He'd already started the address to Atlantis, the chances of this one working were nearly impossible...

His kidnapper finished the sequence and the gate roared to life.

McKay felt his throat go dry. He had the strange feeling that this was going to be a longer day than he had originally anticipated.

*          *          *          *          *

Sheppard heard the gate whir to life, and the telltale splash of the wormhole engaging, and felt himself relax. Now they could get back to Atlantis and make sure to mark this planet off the list of friendlies.

"Took you long enough McKay. What were you doing?" Sheppard teased and turned to the gate. "Waiting for an--"

The native that had attacked McKay earlier had a large and rather wicked looking knife pressed to Rodney's neck and was dragging the scientist closer and closer to the event horizon.

"Shit!"

There was no time to aim, the shot might hit McKay, or cause his attacker to jerk the knife in the wrong direction. He let his P-90 drop, feeling the gun slap at his side as he sprinted for the gate.

*          *          *          *          *

Ford and Teyla heard the curse and both quickly spun around in time to see the man from the village drag McKay through the Stargate. Only a few yards behind was Sheppard, eating up distance between his former position and the gate. A few feet away from his goal, they heard the telltale signs of the gate shutting down. With wide eyes, Ford watched the Major literally dive into the closing wormhole, watching as it winked into nothingness milliseconds after Sheppard's boots had disappeared.

*          *          *          *          *

This trip through the wormhole was definitely different from the rest. The coldness leeched onto every uncovered part of his body, providing a stark contrast with how incredibly uncomfortably close Vargas was holding him. As they emerged on the other side, the fun continued, as he was dragged down the ramp. Boy, that man had an absurdly accurate ability to navigate backwards.

Damn it Rodney, focus! Remember that knife?

 

No, was trying to forget it, really.

He could feel his mind entering panic mode as he stared at the shimmering blue of the gate. He was so dead. So very raped and dead. So very GANG raped and dead, since he was being taken to meet some of Vargas's “friends”. He really hated being so damn handsome! Honestly though, what were the chances of there being another active gate that shared the same first three symbols with Atlantis? They were...

His mind paused as it tried to do the math, but when he started carrying numbers he breathed out and felt his skin poke against the blade of the knife. Damn it! He couldn't concentrate like this! Where was Sheppard to solve impossible equations in the blink of an eye?

Right as the energy of the gate started to dissipate, like a swimmer finishing a graceful dive, Sheppard flew out of the gate, straight as board, immediately curling up into a ball and rolling until he came to stop with P-90 pointed directly at McKay and his kidnapper. The gate shut off a beat later.

Oh.

There he was.

*          *          *          *          *

"Major! So good of you to join us! My friend and I here were just discussing the finer points of--agh!" McKay's greeting was cut off as the villager dug the knife closer to his neck.

Sheppard narrowed his eyes, keeping focus on his target, but in the back of his mind hoped that the knife hadn't broken the skin. He just wanted to dispatch with this lunatic and get back to Atlantis. No injured scientists, please.

"Major Sheppard, nice to see you again." The villager drew McKay closer to him, his tall form seeming to shrink behind his human shield. "I believe we met briefly back on Fresca."

"Yeah, you seemed to talk a lot slower then." With a shoulder shot no longer an option, Sheppard re-adjusted his aim to the forehead. "Can't say I can remember your name too well. You know, all those Frescan names sound alike."

"You may call me Vargas, as the Mersir does."

Sheppard wrinkled his forehead in confusion, before remembering that was their word for doctor. Right, this guy was real polite.

"Well, Vargas, I know this might come as quite a shock to you, but I think you ran off with something that doesn't exactly belong to you."

"On the contrary, Major, the Mersir and I became very good friends in our short time in the cave. I really would hate to part ways with him right now."

McKay mouthed something along the lines of "Pleasedon'tlethimhavehiswaywithme!". That, or something about a walrus. He was mouthing the words too fast to really tell.

Sheppard narrowed an eyebrow, studying his opponent. His grip on McKay was tight and controlled; the sadistic smirk on his face definitely had nothing to do with friendship. His stance and tactics reminded John more of the mercenaries and rebel fighters in the Middle East than the kind of abduction Rodney was thinking of.

"Well you see, I've got this problem too. I sort of made this promise to bring him back every time I step through the gate, no matter how tempted I might be to leave him behind or let whoever feels like it kidnap him for their own evil deeds."

"Hey!"

Good, there was Indignant McKay. He wasn't scared completely witless. "And I mean that in the nicest possible way."

Now only if John could somehow communicate what he needed to do so McKay wouldn't do anything stupid like move at the wrong second.

"Are you saying there's no way I can convince you to just go back to your city right now?" Vargas was eyeing Sheppard just as closely as John was eyeing him. Oh, something told him this guy didn't miss much.

"Sorry, really afraid that's not possible. Now if you'll just give McKay back, I won't be forced to do anything drastic, and we'll leave, no harm, no foul."

"Unfortunately Major, I can't do that either." Vargas grinned before he ducked his head behind McKay's, and resumed dragging the scientist back. "Something tells me you won't shoot if you think you might hit him instead.”

"Obviously you and McKay aren't as good friends as you think," Sheppard returned, mentally cursing Vargas. "Just let him go!"

"How about I make the demands, and you listen, Major Sheppard?" Vargas made entirely too quick of progress walking backwards while effectively restraining a human shield. It was almost inhuman in a way. "You will not follow us, or I shall kill him! You will return to Atlantis, and you will not return, or again, I will kill him!"

"Sounds like you have just one threat there Vargas!"

The villager ignored him, continuing to make his way towards the line of trees.

"I have the feeling it is a powerful one to you! If you, or any Atlantean tries to stop me, I will kill your Mersir, and leave you little pieces to track down all over this jungle!"

McKay renewed his struggles, but quickly stopped with a short yelp as the knife once again bit into his skin.

Sheppard squelched the growl he felt rising in his throat, and had to raise his voice nearly to a shout to be heard over the distance. "If you do that, there'll be no safe place for you anywhere in this or any other galaxy!"

"Then perhaps you should make sure it doesn't come to that!" Vargas returned, his and McKay's forms growing smaller and smaller with the distance. "Do not follow me!"

"Oh right, like I'm going to be able do that after he gives me that tempting speech," John muttered to himself, watching as Vargas disappeared beyond the tree line with his friend. He made sure to wait long enough until he was fairly sure Vargas couldn't see him, then began to make his way towards the jungle, ripping out the life signs detector from his vest, watching the three little dancing dots. There was more than one way to play this little game, and he was not going to let this happen again, especially so soon after the Genii invasion. Someone's head was going to roll for this... Sheppard just hoped it wasn't going to be McKay's.
 

*          *          *          *          *

Ford released the deep breath he hadn't realized he'd drawn in when he saw Sheppard dive for a disengaging wormhole. Visions of a severed body danced in the lieutenant's mind, but he shoved that image away. He turned to face Teyla, who was staring at the gate with a frown.

"Did you get the address?"

She nodded; having etched the symbols in her mind as soon as she realized the gate was shutting down. Ford followed her as she stepped up to the DHD, pausing as she went over the symbols in her mind.

"Well?" He asked, impatiently adjusting the P-90 strap on his shoulder.

"I know the symbols, but not the sequence Lieutenant. If I just started trying addresses, we could be here all day," she said patiently.

"Maybe we should dial Atlantis and give them the symbols, they can look it up in the database," Ford mused.

Teyla nodded and started to dial the gate when she felt something whiz by her shoulder, hearing the report of a gun go off at the same time. She quickly whirled around, as Ford returned fire, scanning the tree line. The ground next to her feet spat up dirt as a bullet plowed into the dirt.

"This way!" Ford barked and dashed for the cover of the trees. Teyla followed without thinking. The gunfire followed them until they finally lost their attackers in a more heavily wooded area.

"I thought they didn't have anything more dangerous than sticks and arrows!" Ford muttered to her, trying to keep his voice low enough so they could hear if they were still being chased.

"Apparently they decided to hide that fact from us," Teyla whispered back, glancing about the trees.

"I've heard that gun before," Ford frowned as he tried to pinpoint the exact weapon in his mind. The answer danced just beyond his reach.


"Why would the Frescans attack us though?" Teyla muttered more to herself.

"They didn't exactly explain why the big guy attacked McKay," Ford shot back, glaring at the trees. If they couldn't get back to the gate, Sheppard would have to handle that crazy villager alone. "I've got the feeling there's a lot they haven't told us."

"So it seems."

*          *          *          *          *

McKay grunted as Vargas tossed him to the ground in a small cleared area along the path. He rubbed his neck where the knife had kept poking him. It felt like it was still in one piece, which was a relief. That was one less thing for him to panic about. He glanced at Vargas, noting that the other man was intent on surveying the trees. No doubt looking for Sheppard and a sign to make good on his threat.

He tried to swallow the lump forming in his throat, but when it refused to dissipate, he realized he would have to ignore it so he could concentrate on his current predicament. He was currently in the hands of a madman with very questionable intentions towards the good doctor.

Shifting his position, his attention was tugged from his troubles to the weight hanging off his neck. Eyes drifted down to the P-90 still dangling there.

No, his mind argued, not believing the good turn of luck, he couldn't have forgotten. Although, Rodney had to admit, going a few verbal rounds with Sheppard could knock someone off their game, if they, say, didn't have the sheer brainpower of one Dr. Rodney McKay.

It sure seemed as if Vargas didn't consider McKay a threat. Quietly, he let the gun slip into his hands, subconsciously balancing the weight as he'd been taught to do. Moving slowly and surreptitiously, he lined up the sight of the gun where he gauged the other man's heart to be. It was easy... too easy.

Something vile and odious bubbled up within the scientist, and he stared through the sight of the gun as if he were looking through the eyes of someone else, someone a lot more like the Wraith. There was no denying that this man was acting out of less than pure intentions; however, even as the more frantic and instinctual part of his mind demanded he tighten the finger on the trigger, he felt that damnable rational part kick in.

This, of all times, was not the place for a personal crisis of ethics. Survival instinct screamed at the more peace-loving hippie part of his brain, trying to remind it that not fifteen minutes before this man had threatened to skewer him on that ridiculously large knife.

Flower power wilted as the survival instinct made a very valid point. Besides, he could always do a shoulder shot. That wasn't so hard. Hefting the P-90 back up, he retrained his aim so that it now focused on the back of Vargas's shoulder. Sucking in his breathe, he pulled on the trigger, and the single shot seemed to plow through the silence of the jungle.

Opening eyes he hadn't realized he'd closed, McKay looked for the prone form of Vargas, half expecting the man to pull another rabbit out of his hat. But no, there he was, sprawled out on the ground, arms flailed out to the side as he'd fallen forward.

He'd done it? He'd actually shot someone?

Pride and disgust welled up in his chest, and it was hard for him to try and acknowledge one over the other. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew the Major had to have heard the shot, and would be running hell bent for their current location, but the rational flowery powery part of his mind had managed to catch up to the more primal part, and he could feel his hands shaking, and the grip on the gun loosening.

He needed to leave, and now. That much he knew, but he couldn't tear his eyes from the still body of Vargas even as he started to back up to the path they'd taken into the jungle. He needed to find the Major and get out of here.  He reached for his radio, only to find it not there. When had that happened?

A familiar voice hissed from the ground beneath one of Vargas's hands.

"McKay! Rodney! Are you okay?"

While still very much in control, Rodney could detect the edge of nervousness in it. Of course he was fine. He'd just shot his first hostile alien. Time to celebrate, right? Rite of Passage and all that?

His backwards progress stopped as he realized it would probably be best to retrieve his radio. There was no way he could navigate back through that jungle. Most of his thoughts had been concentrated on not having his throat slit as he'd been forcefully dragged away from his only two avenues of escape: Sheppard and the Stargate.

Besides, if Vargas moved, Rodney could always shoot him again. Gathering his courage he cautiously approached the still man on the ground. The radio fell silent as Sheppard gave up trying to get an answer, and for a moment, all he could hear was silence.

The silence was broken by wind rushing through his ears as McKay's feet were literally knocked out from under him. The packed dirt rushed up to meet him, at the same time a heavy weight settled right between his shoulder blades.

"Now that was just rude Mersir McKay," Vargas tsked as he shifted his weight from a tackle to a sitting position. "Shooting a man when his back is turned? Have you no honor?"

McKay snorted. Honor. That was a good one. He would've responded something in kind, but he was literally kissing the ground at that moment, and the prospect of actually tasting the dirt didn't  seem too appealing on top of everything else.

"And here I was going to reward you for being a good Mersir—now you force me to do something I hoped I wouldn't have to."

A spike of fear lanced through McKay as the weight from his shoulders shifted. Oh god, here it was. The ultimate in humiliation and violation. Why oh why couldn't someone want him for his brain? Eyes tightly clenched, he was surprised when he felt something cool and metal snap around his wrists.

...What the hell?

Since when did backwater-sodomizing kidnappers carry handcuffs?

He opened his eyes as Vargas hauled him to an upright position, so they could see eye to eye. He was grinning again, apparently able to deduce what McKay had thought he meant. Smug bastard. "Why Mersir, you look surprised. What on earth do you think I wanted to do?"

McKay just glared in return. He wasn't going to give Vargas the satisfaction of hearing it aloud.

Vargas's lower lip protruded, which looked rather creepy instead of cute. It was at this moment that McKay noticed that the man was also completely unharmed, no bullet holes anywhere.

"I thought I shot you." Now it was his turn to pout. All of that and no bullet hole to slow him down. Where was his luck today?

"Oh you did," Vargas let go of McKay to pull his tattered homespun shirt aside to reveal a small chunk of metal caught in a vest that looked very similar to Kevlar. "A gift from my Uncle Athor."

"No offense, but how does an obviously pre-technological society make a bullet-proof vest, in a place where you don't use bullets? Does your uncle just invent crap in his hut in his spare time?"

"You misunderstand Mersir," Vargas's eyes twinkled with malicious glee. "My uncle is not Frescan."

McKay's frowned deepened.

"He's Genii."

*          *          *          *          *

Sheppard's cautious jog into the jungle, led by his trusty life signs detector, had turned into a full-blown run after he'd heard the shot. His calls on the radio were unanswered, and he couldn't tell if it had been Rodney or Vargas who had fired the shot. The lack of response wasn't a good indicator, hence the run.

The two blips he'd determined to be McKay and Vargas hadn't moved since then, leading him to believe that something had happened.

"Damn it Rodney," he muttered to himself as he brushed a large leafy plant out of his way. "This isn't funny!"

He'd been closing in on the two dots, so focused on his goal that he almost didn't hear the voices drifting faintly over his earpiece. Apparently whoever had the radio, had forgotten to turn it off. Relief flooded through John as he heard McKay finally speak up.

"I thought I shot you."

Well, that explained it. Sheppard slowed his reckless pace to a walk as he heard Vargas babble something about gifts. He could only guess that Vargas had gotten the upper hand again. He gave McKay the points for trying anyway.

He continued to close in on their position, glad that the life signs detector didn't include plants in its scans. He hoped it didn't pick up on bigger life signs like jungle cats or something, because that would not help him any. The thought of a huge predator stalking the trees caused him to glance up at the branches uncertainly. That would definitely complicate things more.

He didn't see any sign of animal life though, just him and the trees. He'd have to use them to his advantage somehow, maybe mask his presence from Vargas until he could get a nice clean shot.

To the head, he amended, as McKay mentioned something about Kevlar. Exactly how Vargas had managed that really didn't seem to matter at that point. What did matter was that he was getting harder to kill with his current arsenal.

"He's Genii."

John stopped in his tracks as he heard the name. Oh no. Oh no, no, no. He'd had enough of the Genii to last him a lifetime. He did not need to go another round with them. Couldn't they take their licks and go home like good paranoid commies?

Glancing at the life signs detector, Sheppard noted that he was almost to Vargas's position. He quirked a smile as he looked up at the trees. It looked like that childhood tree house was going to come in handy.

*          *          *          *          *

"The Genii?" Rodney asked incredulously. "How can he be Genii?" His eyes widened. "Are you—?"

Vargas smiled as he rose to his feet, leaving McKay in his awkward position on the ground. He rolled the shoulder that the scientist had shot, pausing as he addressed his captive audience again. "No, I'm not. Not really."

Seeing McKay was intrigued, Vargas continued to speak as he began to round up the scientist's personal items. "My mother was Genii, while my father was Frescan. You see, our two planets have a long history of trade and cooperation. Before the Wraith, Frescans were part of the same great federation as the Genii. Unlike the Genii, we lost all of our technology and knowledge."

McKay shifted on the ground to a less uncomfortable position. "If you lost all of your knowledge, how do you know that?"

Vargas fixed him with a sour look, but decided to let it slide apparently. "Our people  still traded with the Genii after the Wraith destroyed our people. My father met my mother on one of those occasions, and despite the disapproval of her people, they fell in love, and were married."

"Heartwarming," McKay grumbled, and when Vargas fixed him with an angry stare, he quickly added. "Please continue!"

 

"Their marriage opened relations between our people, and the Genii shared with my people their secret, that you and the major so eloquently stumbled upon," Vargas couldn't smother his amusement at McKay's surprised look. "Yes, I know about that. I also know of that unfortunate incident with the storm."

A feeling of foreboding danced on the edge of McKay's mind as he started assimilating what he'd just learned. "So you and the Genii chat regularly I take it? You just pass stories back and forth. You know a, 'Oh I killed a boar today' and, 'Really? We raided an ancient city full of pesky Earthlings' kind of thing?"

"Something like that." Vargas ripped open McKay's pack and began rifling through it, tossing several power bars over his shoulder.

"I know I'm all tied up here, but don't you think that's just a little invasive?"

Vargas paused, shrugged, and turned the pack upside down, emptying its contents onto the jungle floor.

"Hey! Hey! Careful! There's some delicate equipment in there!"

Vargas quickly sorted through the pile before deciding there was nothing of use or threat in there. He rummaged through the various items until he found the radio he had taken from McKay, loosely securing it to his now exposed Genii Kevlar-ish vest. He picked up the nearly forgotten P-90 and the nine millimeter he'd also confiscated from the scientist, before turning back to McKay. "I'm sorry, what?"

Lifting his lip into a sneer, Rodney cut to the chase. "Fine. You, Cowen, and Kolya play checkers on the weekend. What does this have to do with me?"

"Ah! I was wondering when you'd get around to that!" Vargas plopped down across from McKay, his face lit up like a child. "So you want to know why I won't let you just run along home to annoy my mother's people some more?"

"Yes!" An exasperated McKay replied.

"Well, if you must know, Chief Cowen has expressed a desire for you to share your knowledge of… how did he put it, 'everything about everything' with him."

A shiver ran down McKay's spine, as he recalled Kolya trying to drag him and Elizabeth back to the Genii home world not even a month ago.

Vargas continued, "He was even more intrigued after hearing of your manipulation of the technology of the Ancient's city. Apparently he thinks you could be of some use to the Genii."

McKay gulped nervously. "Ah, he couldn't feel that strongly about it. I mean—"

"Oh no, I'll be paid very handsomely to bring you in."

"Paid?"

"That's what I do for the Genii. I take care of their little loose ends, and in turn, they provide my people with their technology and protection."

"You're a bounty hunter?" McKay asked incredulously.

Vargas shrugged. "It's a living."

The butterflies in McKay's stomach turned into gut-wrenching anxiety. He was so very, very screwed.

"Of course, you're not the only Atlantean on their list," Vargas added, almost thoughtfully.

McKay's attention snapped back to his captor, as Vargas brought the mouthpiece of the radio that apparently hadn't been left on by accident. "Something you'll be interested in, Major Sheppard."

*          *          *          *          *

From his high perch overlooking the path, Sheppard froze. He'd been listening to the entire conversation, unease mounting with each revelation. He watched as Vargas looked around, apparently not expecting him to remain at the gate.

"The price on your head is almost that of the Mersir's, which I can assure you, is very tempting. Apparently they're not too happy with you. I think you killed one too many soldiers in 'self-defense'."

John frowned and pulled out his binoculars, so he could see his opponent's face, which was currently lit up in a maniacal sneer, directed at the forest around him.

"In fact, I don't even have to bring you in complete like I do this one here," Vargas indicated the bound McKay. "Although I'll get paid more so they can exact their satisfaction, but I believe their words were something along the lines of 'dead or alive'."

This was like a bad western, set in a jungle. Sheppard drew his P-90, trying taking aim through the trees. Vargas finished another sweep of the area, before returning to hover over McKay. John mentally swore and let his aim drop.

"Even if it weren't for the bounty, I think I'd be tempted to finish you off."

Well, he was a real talker, wasn't he? Sheppard let his P-90 drop back to his side, deciding to bide his time.

"Do you remember that shield you brought up? The one that killed fifty-five Genii?"

Remember? Hell, he saw every featureless face each night, along with Sumner, and everyone else he'd been forced to kill in his military career. Bringing the binoculars back up, Sheppard was surprised to see that the sneer had been replaced with a snarl.

"My cousin, Idos, was one of those 'few'. I was willing to be obliging if you didn't get in my way. So remember, Major, if you try to stop me from reaching the Stargate, I won't hesitate to collect both bounties."

Well crap, Sheppard thought to himself. Talk about complications.

*          *          *          *          *

"I'm hungry," McKay groused on the ground, still trussed up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.

Vargas barely spared a glance as he began to round up all of their supplies.

"Thirsty, too. Do you expect to deliver me dehydrated and starved to death? That's got to knock down the price on the bounty a lot."

Vargas muttered something to himself in his own language.

"Not to mention that, when my blood sugar level drops, I get cranky, and if you think I'm bad now, just give me half an hour."

Vargas rolled his eyes to the sky, and Rodney was pretty sure he was counting to ten, or some half-Frescan, half-Genii equivalent. Finally he pushed himself to a standing position and slung his supplies over his shoulder before unceremoniously yanking McKay to his feet.

"Let us feed you then, shall we?" Vargas said, somewhere between his manically cheerful demeanor and the natural state of agitation McKay was able to reduce any normal human being to.

"Lead the way. This is your jungle, um, sort of," McKay muttered to himself, glancing around at the trees, hoping, wishing to see some sign that he wasn't alone out here. All he saw was green, green, and more green. Just plants, trees, and jungle as far as the eye could see.

Vargas tugged and pushed McKay along like a prized bull going to market, further into the forest. McKay briefly wondered if Sheppard was going to be able to keep up with them, or if he'd get lost within the first ten yards.

The branches above McKay swayed slightly and the leaves rustled. His heart leapt, this was it; this was his big rescue. He braced himself for whatever crazy plan Sheppard was planning, prepared to do whatever he could to help.

Hope turned to horror as Vargas whipped up McKay's P-90 and let loose a spray of gunfire into the leaves. McKay heard an inhuman scream of pain and several thumps as something heavy fell from the branches, finally landing on the ground in a heap. Despite the sick feeling in his stomach, Rodney forced himself to look, knowing that he'd see his friend lying broken and bleeding on the jungle floor, all to save him.

Instead he found himself staring at the limp body of something that resembled a strange mix of a howler monkey and a leopard. Furry mane surrounded the feline face, full of sharp deadly looking teeth, on the body of a bulky spotted primate.

"What the hell?" he breathed.

"I call them howlers. They're nasty little buggers, always have a craving for fresh meat. Eat their prey alive," Vargas smiled in a friendly way as he poked the dead body with his boot. "Drove most everyone off this planet. Seems no one wanted to be eaten by both the Wraith and these guys."

McKay forced himself to swallow and nodded. "I can see that."

And without another word Vargas shoved McKay forward, and their journey continued deeper into the jungle. They finally stopped when they reached a small creek, where Vargas finally let McKay have a drink. He dumped all of the supplies on the ground before making a small perimeter.

Finally satisfied, he turned to his prisoner. "Looks like Sheppard finally got smart and went home."

McKay flexed his jaw, before looking back the way they came. He knew Sheppard was out there somewhere, he just didn't know where. If it made Vargas a little sloppier and a little overconfident to think that though, who was McKay to argue?

"Don't look so upset, Mersir. It's the way these things work. No one sticks their neck out for anyone past a certain point. It's just stupid."

"Seems to be the way things work here in Pegasus," McKay agreed partially, thinking of the Manarians and the Genii, always wanting something in return for offering a hand. He was beginning to think the Athosians and their kindness were the exception rather than the norm.

Vargas pulled a line from his pack and looped it through the cuffs on McKay's hands, before securing it around one of the many trees. "I suppose I do have to feed you, but it's so hard to hunt when you're stumbling over every root and scaring off all the game."

The bounty hunter patronizingly patted McKay on the head, who had the sudden urge to bite the hand that was about to feed him. "Just stay there. You may want to be still—the howlers especially like prey that thrashes around."

And then he slipped off into the jungle, silent as the shadows. McKay heaved a sigh and jiggled the cuffs behind his back. They were locked pretty securely, and, after a tug, he confirmed that the line was secure too.

"This has just stopped being funny," McKay said to himself, since no one else was around and the silence was creeping him out more than normal jungle noises would.

"Now don't say that," a familiar voice spoke from behind. "I happen to find it very amusing, Genii bounties and their jolly hitmen aside."

"Took you long enough," McKay sniped at Sheppard and struggled to stand up. "You mind getting these off before Happy comes back?"

"I guess not. If he didn't gag you, it's just not worth keeping," Sheppard emerged from behind the trees and knelt next to McKay as he studied the bindings.

"Funny. Now untie me!"

Sheppard grinned and drew his knife, not noticing McKay flinch at the sound of it being drawn. He quickly made work of the line securing Rodney to the tree and hauled the scientist to his feet. The cuffs were another story.

"We'll have to try and pick those later. Right now, I'd like to get out of here before he gets back."

"Do you see me arguing?" McKay glanced around nervously, as if expecting Vargas to jump out of the bushes with a loud, "Boo!"

"Relax," Sheppard shoved the life signs detector under McKay's nose where he could clearly see a little white dot moving away from the two dots clustered together. "See? Now c'mon, let's get put some distance between us and him, just in case."

McKay nodded, following Sheppard as he made his way through the foliage, stumbling over a few of the roots Vargas mentioned, only to have Sheppard catch and right him. After the fifth time the major had had enough.

"Those things are coming off, even if I have to fashion a blowtorch. We're getting nowhere at this pace," he glanced at the life signs detector, and seemed satisfied at Vargas's position.

"Is it my fault I never took 'Sneaking Through the Jungle 101'?" McKay grumbled and watched as Sheppard began opening various pockets on his vest. "What are you doing?"

"Looking for something to pick the lock with."

"You're kidding me, right? They're Genii handcuffs. For all you know, they've got some fingerprint imprinting lock. Although that's giving them entirely too much credit. The state of their nuclear program alone—"

"There we go!" Sheppard pulled out a small shiny object from one of the pockets and held it up like an Olympic medal.

"That looks like—" McKay squinted at the object, "you've got be kidding me! You can't pick the lock with a paperclip!"

Sheppard had the grace to look offended. "Hey, I don't mock your last minute out-of-left-field ideas to save us."

"Yes, you do!"

"Okay, maybe a little, but, still, it'll work. Besides, it's the only use I've found for these things," he unraveled the paper clip

"You've picked handcuff locks with a paperclip before?" McKay asked dubiously.

"I've picked one or two locks with a paperclip," he felt more than saw Sheppard shrug behind him.

"What? The lock to your parents' bedroom door?" That question was met with silence. "Major?"

"Oops."

"No, don't 'oops' me! What did you do?"

"The paperclip broke," he admitted sheepishly.

"Oh, for crying out—" McKay spun around to face his so-called rescuer, "you have to be the worst knight in shining armor in the history of rescues!"

"You're not exactly a beautiful princess yourself, McKay," Sheppard shot back. "Now just stand still, I might be able to finish the job."

"With what? A toothpick?"

"Shut up and be still."

McKay grunted but did as he was told.

"Now if I'm right—"

"Oh yes, always a comforting way to start a sentence."

"—I should be able to take this and…" he trailed off and McKay heard a soft click and felt the pressure around his wrists release as the cuffs fell to the ground.

He pulled his wrists in front of him and rubbed the aggravated flesh. "I can't believe that just worked."

"Have I ever let you down before?" Sheppard grinned to himself and pocketed what remained of the paperclip and picked up the set of cuffs on the ground, presumably to keep from leaving a trail.

McKay bit his lip at that comment, honestly not being able to think of any instance, but his pride wouldn't let him admit it aloud. Sheppard rescued him from the uncomfortable moment as he checked the life signs detector again.

"Looks like Vargas caught dinner. I think we should get moving before he realizes I've stolen his date." Sheppard ignored the dirty look McKay shot him. "C'mon, it's this way."

McKay grudgingly followed after Sheppard, but wouldn't let the comment slide just like that. "So how do you know we're headed the right way, Prince Charming?"

"I don't," Sheppard shrugged.

"You don't?" McKay asked incredulously. "Then what's the point of running if we're just getting more lost?"

"Would you rather re-join your tour guide? It seemed like you two were having fun."

"I hate you."

"Aw, now you're just playing hard to get," Sheppard picked up his pace, leaving McKay jogging to keep up.

*          *          *          *          *

The Frescans had been sweeping the forest constantly, forcing Ford and Teyla to stay on the move. One misstep and they would be discovered by their pursuers. Ford glanced around, relieved to find that they seemed to finally be alone. He let out a breath and started to move, but Teyla's hand on his arm stopped him. He looked back at her quizzically, but she shook her head silently, pointing to the open path. Seconds later a Frescan decked out in shredded leather with mismatching submachine gun stalked by. To Ford, he more resembled an extra from Hercules getting lost in a film noir flick than a deadly mercenary.

As he passed by, Ford studied the gun intently, eyes widening as he finally recognized the make. Teyla cocked her head to the side in curiosity, but knew better than to risk asking while they were still in the forest. They had already circled around the Stargate, but found it too heavily guarded to make an attempt to storm it.

So they ventured further and further into the forest, hoping to find some sort of shelter where they could make a plan of action. As the day wore on, they found themselves further and further from the gate, and the encounters with their search parties fewer. The ground grew more unsteady and rose up into a steep incline.

"Mountain?" Ford asked softly.

Teyla nodded, and after checking her surroundings once more to be sure that they were not at risk of being exposed, she darted forward to what looked like to be an overgrown bush.

"I believe we can hide in here for now," she called softly.

Ford stepped out warily, not willing to believe there was such a thing in this forest. They'd been hounded for too long for him to be anywhere near comfortable until they were off the planet. "Is that a cave?"

"I believe so. I think we should seek shelter here."

"You sure?" He took another step and eyed the cave opening dubiously. "What if something big and nasty just stepped out for something to eat?"

"A creature might have lived here at some point in time, Lieutenant Ford; however this cave has been abandoned for a long while now. We will be safe."

"I don't know. The last thing we need is some alien Smokey the Bear pissed at us."

"Lieutenant, I believe we have eluded our captors, but do you think it wise to tempt fate and stay out in the open?"

Ford gave her a dirty look, but led the way in. Teyla could kick his ass from here to next week, but he still felt it was his duty as second-in-command to take the risks. He clicked on the light on his P-90 and shone it around the shallow recess. It certainly appeared to be abandoned. Teyla followed behind him, taking special care to arrange the brush camouflaging the entrance to look as it did before they entered.

He settled down, pointing the light on his P-90 at the opposite wall as he started to inventory his weapons. When Teyla was satisfied that they would not be discovered, she joined him, and they both allowed themselves to relax a little. She began to follow his example and started laying out her weapons. She watched his face carefully, surprised to see it scrunched up in concentration.

"Is something bothering you Lieutenant?"

"You mean other than that psychopath taking off with McKay or the Major almost getting cut in half by a wormhole?"

"Did Doctor McKay not say that it delivered matter whole?"

"Not comforting Teyla." He shook his head and leaned his head against the wall. "The Frescans are what are really bothering me."

"It is very disturbing indeed. By all appearances they should not have the capabilities to build such weapons."

"They don't," Ford answered, eyes returning to his P-90. "Those guns are Genii."

Teyla stiffened. "The Genii? Are you sure?"

"The harmonics on that gun got me thinking, but seeing it up close cinched it for me. I never forget a weapon, Teyla—those guns are definitely Genii made."

"Why would the Frescans have guns from the Genii?"

"The Genii are sneaky bastards. We didn't know the Manarians were in league with them until it was too late," Ford glared at the wall. "I really don't like those guys."

"The feeling is quite mutual Lieutenant. I can only hope that Major Sheppard has been able to rescue Doctor McKay."

"He will, don't you worry about that. The thing we need to be worried about is how we're going to get to the Stargate."

"And how are we going to do that?"

"I'm open to suggestions. Got any?"

Teyla sighed. "I believe we have a problem."

*          *          *          *          *

The light filtering down through the canopy shifted from tiny little white slants directly overhead, to orangey slashes on the ground in front of them. Dusk was drawing near. Sheppard checked his newest best friend, the life signs detector  ,to see if they were still being followed. The dot he'd labeled Vargas appeared to be stationary, making Sheppard wonder if the bounty hunter knew something they didn't.

"Still hungry," McKay chimed from his "lead" that he'd decided to take when it was clear Sheppard had no idea how to get back to the gate. Not that McKay knew any better, but he felt it was his duty as he had the better sense of direction out of the two.

"Sure, let me just pull a Power Bar out of my ass," Sheppard snarked back without thought—it was just second nature now. He continued to study the display, weighing their options.

"You know, as appetizing as that sounds, I'll pass."

Vargas knew this jungle a lot better than either of them, as the man had intimated to McKay. They had seen neither hide nor hair of any other creature their entire time in the forest, but faint chirping noises in the distance confirmed that there was indeed life. If this jungle was anything like the ones back on Earth, then that meant the big predators came out at night.

"I'm thinking we may want to stop for the night," he said aloud, interrupting McKay's monologue on Hypoglycemia.

"What? Why?" McKay spun around, but continued to walk backwards as if to prove his point. "Not that my feet or stomach won't thank you, but that seems like a bad idea."

"Stop."

"Huh?"

"Root!"

"What the hell does that—" and McKay went down, tripping over the exposed root of a strange, gnarled tree. "Next time! Warning!"

"I did warn you," Sheppard cocked his head at the strange appearance of the tree. The trunk was made up of several roots shooting out of the ground, winding together. Several feet off the ground some of the roots shot out into branches, while the rest continued to climb. "Interesting tree."

"Evil tree," McKay corrected. "It tried to kill me!"

"It was here first," Sheppard shrugged. "You really need to watch where you're going."

"I was before you suggested we stop and wait for the mood swinging psychopath to catch up to us!"

"He's stopped for the night. Any reason why he'd do that?"

"I'm supposed to be able to peek into the mind of a man who gets kicks out of pretending he wants to steal my virtue?" 

"First, what virtue? Second, he never said that, you assume too much."

"Were you there for all our lovely conversations? No. Shut up." McKay glared at Sheppard before rubbing his ankle. "Damn it."

"What?" Sheppard frowned and knelt down to examine his friend's foot.

"Knock it off!" McKay slapped Sheppard's hand away. "It's fine."

"Yeah, really?"

"Really! Watch!" As McKay jumped to his feet his eyes widened in pain, and he choked back a yelp. With a shaky voice he asked, "See?"

"Very convincing. Now sit back down."

McKay didn't argue and sank back to the ground.

"Now we definitely need to stop for the night," Sheppard said with finality.

"No we don't; it's just a little twist of the ankle. Get me a stick and we can keep going."

"When you stop complaining about injuries you start to scare me," Sheppard raised his eyebrow. "Anything else wrong?"

"No," McKay spat. "We just can't chance him catching up."

"You know back on Earth the large predators usually hunt at night. Did Vargas mention any of the wildlife in the area?" He watched as McKay paled a little. "What now?"

"Monkey-cat."

"Monkey-cat?" John echoed.

"Vargas killed this giant cat thing that looked like a monkey, with really sharp teeth and, yeah, monkey-cat."

"Dangerous?"

"Oh, let me clarify: giant, man-eating monkey-cat!"

"So you want me to find that walking stick still?"

"You know, Major, I've decided that we should stop for the night." McKay pushed himself to his knees, to find Sheppard offering him a hand up. Pursing his lips together he took the proffered hand, bracing himself as Sheppard helped haul him up. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," Sheppard grinned, resting a hand on McKay's shoulder. With the other hand he indicated the gnarled tree that had tripped McKay. "Ready to climb?"

"What? The tree of death? No, no, no!"

"C'mon, McKay, you won't even need to use your ankle."

"You know, when I was a kid, I always fell out of any tree I tried to climb. I wound up eventually breaking my arm. I've already got a foot out of commission. Don't need to compound my injured state, do we?"

"I'll make you a safety harness. Climb."

"Did I mention the monkey-cat came out of the trees?"

"Nope. Climb."

"It'd be like going into a cave while a bear's using it!"

"We'll climb higher. Go."

"Major, I am not climbing that tree, and nothing you can say will change my mind!"

"Have it your way," Sheppard shrugged, and started moving forward. "You want me to leave you my P-90? Or hey, here's my nine mil," Sheppard handed the gun over as he moved past McKay. "But I'm sure the snakes and jaguars of this planet will choose to go around us."

"You know, when I said earlier that I hated you, I really meant," McKay's nervous chipper voice turned to ice as he speared Sheppard with a glare, "you are the most loathsome individual in this galaxy."

"Great!" Sheppard grinned. "Let's start climbing, huh? Sooner we're up there the sooner we can look at that ankle."

"Bite me."

*          *          *          *          *

"What would the Genii gain by ambushing us?" Teyla asked aloud, watching as the last of the sun's light disappeared through the bush.

"My guess is, if the Genii are involved, and these guys are working with them, they want McKay."

"That would make sense," she admitted, even if the idea of a trap being set up for the sole purpose of setting up the scientist did not sit well with her. "And they wanted to make sure that none of us returned to Atlantis to let anyone know what happened."

"That just doesn't seem right," Ford shook his head. They had seemed like such nice, if really boring, people. But here they were, hiding out in a cave.

"I have been thinking," Teyla said after a few moments of silence. "Do you remember hearing Doctor McKay punch in the address?"

Ford frowned. That wasn't exactly a detail of the day that he'd chosen to keep entrenched his mind. "Not really. Why?"

"I heard him start dialing..."

"You could hear that from where you were?"

Teyla raised an eyebrow at being interrupted. "Yes, Lieutenant. I'm sure you heard too, as it was very quiet."

With a sigh, Ford went over their encounter at the gate in his mind, and when he thought about it, yeah, he thought he could remember McKay stopping dialing. "Okay, right, he stopped dialing after a few symbols."

"Exactly. What if he had started to dial Atlantis?"

"What?" Ford leaned forward. "Why the hell would his kidnapper let him dial home?"

"He wouldn't," Teyla corrected, using the light from Ford's P-90 to sketch the symbols out in the dirt on the cave floor. "These four symbols are also part of the address to Atlantis."

"Is it possible to have a planet with that similar of an address? That's a hell of a coincidence."

"Coincidence or not, if we start with these four symbols, then there are only a handful of combinations that we could try."

Ford studied the symbols. "I think you're right. We wouldn't need to dial Atlantis and wait for them to try and find it in the database."

"Dr. Weir would want to be apprised of the situation," Teyla frowned.

"And then we'll have to wait just that much longer to go and help Sheppard and McKay. If they had been able to get back to Atlantis by now, I'm sure they would've dialed in and radioed us," Ford met her gaze evenly. "They need our help. They've already had to wait long enough for backup."

Teyla still looked uncertain, but nodded. "I hope that you have a plan then."

Ford studied the darkness outside and slowly smiled. "I think I might have an idea or two."

*          *          *          *          *

"There," Sheppard finished wrapping McKay's ankle with what field dressings he had in his uniform. "That's the best I can do with what I've got on me. I'm sure if Beckett were here he'd have me fashion you a hammock or something, and make me drag your ass back to the gate in a travois."

McKay had alternated between glaring petulantly at Sheppard and his ankle.

"Come on, cheer up. This is tough terrain, you can easily trip if you're not watching every step."

"Right."

"McKay, first you don't complain about an injury, now you're speaking in single syllables. What the hell is wrong?"

"So if I don't prattle on like a hypochondriac there's something wrong with me?"

"No, but I know you well enough that if you aren't talking a mile a minute then something's bugging you."

"Really? Know me so well, Major?" McKay turned his angry glare out to the surrounding canopy.

"I'd like to think so," Sheppard shrugged. "All kidding aside, if there's something bothering you, I'd like to know."

"I'm just peachy, Major. I've been kidnapped, had a knife at my throat, been dragged around half a jungle by a man with very questionable sanity, been nearly torn apart by a freakish half-monkey, half-jaguar, shot my very first person today only to have him rise from the damn grave, twisted my ankle, had to climb a freaking thirty foot tree on said-ankle—"

"Okay, so you haven't had the greatest of days."

"I haven't had the greatest of days? That's the understatement of the freaking millennium!"

"At least you're speaking full run-on sentences now."

McKay harrumphed and crossed his arms.

"Look, McKay, I just want to make sure you're all right. In case something happens tomorrow, I need to know exactly how much I can count on you," Sheppard watched as an anguished look flashed across McKay's face. What the hell?

"I won't let you down," he said, the bristling in his voice sounding forced.

"You haven't yet," John assured, watching his friend's face intently. He saw a flash of guilt that was quickly replaced by another frown.

He racked his brain, trying to think of any instance McKay had cause to feel guilty for. Planet with kids, shadow monster, with the Genii and—oh—crap. The last time he'd been around knives and Genii was during the invasion of Atlantis. He wasn't still feeling guilty about telling Kolya about the plan, was he?

"McKay, I thought we went over this. Kolya was a master of torture—"

"I know that!" He snapped, his gaze whipping back to fix Sheppard with an intense look. "Look, I don't want to rehash that ever again, so if you would stop bringing it up, I'd really appreciate it, Sheppard."

Ooh, last name. He was pissed. "I'm not going to shut up until you tell me what's going on in that head of yours."

"Please, you wouldn't be able to last one minute in my mind."

"Probably not, if your  rapid fire speeches are anything to go by. Doesn't mean I'm going to stop picking it." Sheppard leaned his arms back on the wide branch, since he'd chosen to prop McKay against the trunk.

"You are so annoying!"

"But very lovable."

"If my uncontrollable urge to shove you out of this tree counts as lovable, then yes."

"Love hurts." Sheppard shrugged.

"Shut up."

"Not until you fess up."

"If it wouldn't hurt my ankle, I'd kick you."

"Just sing a little song, McKay."

"No!"

"I can keep this up all night."

"I'm not talking to you!"

"Except that you are."

"That was the last thing I was going to say, except that was. Not talking anymore."

"Well if you're not going to talk, guess I'm not going to share this delicious peanut butter Power Bar. Food of the Gods."

"That's not fair."

Sheppard started to peel away the wrapper seductively, and took an experimental whiff. "Mm... smells as good as Reese's."

"Did I say loathsome earlier? I actually meant pure evil!"

Sheppard feigned taking a bite, but stopped and grinned at McKay. "Want?"

"I'm going to tell Carson you denied a sick man nourishment!"

"Yes, but, by then, I'll still have eaten. You'll just be an empty shell of a man, a—"

"FINE! I didn't want to stop for the night! I want to keep going!"

Sheppard started to hold out the power bar, but as McKay made to grab it, John pulled it back. "And why is that?"

"I despise you." At Sheppard's look he reluctantly continued, "I don't trust Vargas."

"Who would? Why?"

"I'm not going to spell it out for you!" McKay spat viciously. "The man is more unstable than Windows XP!"

"Home or Pro?"

"Home! Worst operating system ever!"

"You're changing the subject," Sheppard reminded him.

"Of course I'm changing the subject! I don't want to talk about this! Now give me the damn power bar! Forced confessions make me hungry."

"Everything makes you hungry," Sheppard handed over the Power Bar. "You're a walking black hole."

"Forced confessions make me hungrier!" McKay snatched it from his hand and tore off a third of the bar in one bite.

"Forget cat-monkeys, your appetite is scary."

"Shut up, you got your confession. Let me eat in peace."

"I said share."

"After that? Not a chance. Just be happy I didn't eat your hand too."

Sheppard sighed. "Look, McKay, I'm sorry about that, but I can't have you holding anything back on me. What if one of those cat things had been stalking us this afternoon?"

McKay glared and chewed on his enormous bite of energy bar.

"If you're that worried about what he's going to do to you, you can stop. I won't let him hurt you."

McKay snorted, and around his mouthful of food. "Again with the knight in shining armor routine."

"I'm serious. He won't lay a hand on you. I promise."

"I'd love to take you on your word Major, but not even you can keep that promise."

It was Sheppard's turn to glare. "Watch me."

No one laid a hand on his geek. If Rodney was that afraid that Vargas would do more than collect his bounty, then he'd just have to kill the bastard before he could try.

*          *          *          *          *

Dawn crept through the leaves. Sheppard woke first, having slipped into a light doze sometime during the night. He'd try to stay awake as possible to keep an eye out for McKay's cats, but the need for sleep had finally caught up with him. He quietly pulled out the life signs detector and checked it. He could clearly see a white dot moving in their direction.

Crap.

He jostled McKay awake. "C'mon, we've gotta move."

"Coffee."

"We need to go now, Rodney; he's on the move."

Rodney's eyes snapped open. "Right, right! Pitter patter, let's get at her!"

"Are you still asleep?" Sheppard narrowed an eyebrow.

"Do people normally sleep while they're panicking?!"

"Stop panicking. You'll fall out of the tree."

"Comforting!" McKay shot him a look before reaching for the trunk.

"What are you doing?"

"Climbing down, what do you think?"

"Well be careful, I don't want to carry you to the gate. We're not even engaged."

"If you don't stop making jokes like that, I'm going to seriously wonder if you fall under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'." McKay grunted as he took a firm hold of one of the spiraling roots with one hand, and the branch with the other.

"I should go first."

"With your amazing Monkey Man abilities? Will you stop hovering and let me get off this branch so we both can get moving?" McKay dropped his legs over the branch, face scrunching up with concentration and effort as he moved his grip from the branch to one of the roots that made up the trunk.

"Looks like you're more of a Monkey Man than me."

"Yuk it up!" McKay snapped as he carefully scaled down the tree, making sure to keep his attention focused up so he wouldn't see how big of a drop it would be if he lost his grip. Sheppard was still peering down at him. "Are you just going to sit up there all day?"

"Sorry, I've never seen you move so fast. I'm making sure I remember this day."

"Fine! But once I reach the bottom I'm not waiting for you!"

"Picky, picky," Sheppard crouched low on the branch, wrapping his arm around it before deftly swinging to grip the other side of the tree, putting McKay's acrobatics to shame.

"Show off," McKay muttered, daring a glance to see he was only a few feet from the ground. He slowed his descent so that by the time his foot could touch the forest floor, he could place most his weight on his good ankle.

On the other side of the tree, Sheppard shimmied down the trunk as if he'd grown up in the canopy above them. He leapt the last few feet, catching McKay's incredulous look. "What?"

"Where the hell is your prehensile tail?"

"I had a tree house when I was a kid."

"With Tarzan?"

"McKay—" Sheppard's tone was warning.

"No seriously, you are a freak, Major—"

"Look out!" John moved faster than he thought possible, tackling McKay to the ground. He felt the whoosh of air as a howler sailed over them both, landing on its hands and feet. It swiveled around, rising to its full height.

Sheppard hauled McKay up with him, watching the predator warily as he reached for his P-90, only to come up empty. His eyes quickly searched the ground to find it where he'd dropped it before leaping to the ground.

Beside him, McKay audibly gulped. "Not so nocturnal of a predator, I'm guessing."

"My gun's on the other side of the tree."

"So is that thing!"

"I know. Distract it."

"You want the gimpy man to do what now?"

"I need you to hold its attention long enough for me to grab my gun. You'll be fine."

"No I will not 'be fine'! I will be very dead!"

"Nah, I'll shoot it before that."

"Oh, did I forget to mention it eats its prey alive?"

"I think you did."

"Well, it does!"

"Then you better hobble fast."

"Major!" McKay shouted in frustration as Sheppard ducked behind the tree. "I am so telling Carson! And Elizabeth!"

The howler let out an unholy shriek of anger as it took a step forward. Now that he was staring a live one down, he couldn't help but notice the long sharp claws that extended from its human-looking hands. He took a step backwards, feeling his bad ankle protest.

"You better hurry it up, Major!"

As he called out, it seemed to alert the giant predator to the other man's presence. McKay's eyes widened in horror as it suddenly pivoted and charged Sheppard. The tree blocked out his view of the clash, but a flying human body let him know who had been the winner of the encounter. He heard the P-90 clatter some distance away as well.

"Major!" Forgetting his ankle, he rushed towards his friend.

Sheppard pushed himself up from where he'd landed on the ground, fresh claw marks running up one arm. As he looked up from his wounded arm, he saw McKay rushing to his aid. "Rodney! Get out of here!"

McKay put on the brakes as Sheppard's order reminded him of his very strong survival instincts. He skidded to a stop a few feet from the major, seeing the howler lumbering towards the fallen man slowly. Rodney hesitated, feeling loyalty warring with panic.

"McKay, RUN!" Sheppard shoved himself to his knees, as the howler looked between him and McKay.

McKay took a step backwards as the howler gave him a particularly vicious look. He started to take another step but his foot got tangled in that same damn root from yesterday and he went down again.

"I hate this tree!" McKay yelled as his foot twisted painfully, straining the already sprained ankle. He sat up, trying to manually dislodge his foot. As he glanced up he felt all the color drain away from his face as he saw the spotted muscled body coming straight at him. He made a squeak of protest, throwing his arms up in front of his face, waiting for those wicked claws to slice into him.

The impact never came, but instead heard an enraged shriek. He looked up in time to see Sheppard standing in front of him, acting like a human shield. A second later a massive clawed fist raked across Sheppard's chest, causing the soldier to double up in pain. With another shriek the creature smacked him out of the way as if he were an annoying gnat.

Sheppard collided with the tree with an audible thump, sliding down to a prone position.

"Major!" Rodney watched in horror as John didn't rise up. He was either unconscious, or worse…

A hoarse grunting noise and hot sticky breath on his face brought him back to his own predicament. With a growing sense of terror, he slowly turned his gaze up to the howler towering above him. He crab-crawled backwards, but the beast kept in step with him, seeming to relish McKay's squirming. He turned over to crawl like a normal fleeing human, but a heavy weight shoved him into to the ground. The feeling of five sharp points pressing into his back left him with no doubts as to what was going to happen next.

He squeezed his eyes shut, and in his final moments he was mildly surprised to hope that his death would provide enough of a distraction for John to get away.

Rodney was even more surprised when a bellow of rage drowned out the rapid pounding of his heart and felt the weight suddenly lifted off of him. He rolled over, watching as a large hulking figure plunged an impossibly large knife into the howler's chest. The beast gave a shriek of pain as it struggled to free itself of the piece of metal now embedded in its rib cage. Rodney's rescuer pulled the knife out with a sickening wet crunch, and before he could blink, finished off the howler with a quick slash to the neck. Like a grim reaper he rose, clutching the bloodstained knife in one hand.

Vargas didn't even give Sheppard a look as he crossed the distance between him and McKay, yanking the scientist from the ground as if he were a rag doll.

"You make things very complicated, Mersir," he growled, his face inches from McKay's. He lifted the other hand so that Rodney could see the knife clearly, before wiping the blood on McKay's jacket. "There will be no more complications, understood?"

The coppery smell overwhelmed him, and McKay felt his empty stomach clench as nausea swept over him. Vargas apparently didn't need an answer though, and deposited McKay on his feet before shoving him down the path they'd been traveling the other day.

*          *          *          *          *

Awareness danced at the edge of John's senses, sounds, smells, and very blurry vision intermixing with the burning pain on his chest and arm. He focused on the pain, knowing it would bring him around faster than concentrating on anything else. As the world came rushing back to him, he shoved the pain to another part of his mind so he could assess the situation more clearly.

The voices had hushed, but he could hear heavy steps making their way away from him. Sheppard forced his eyes to focus, watching from the ground as Vargas led McKay back into the jungle. He could see the large man's shoulders tensed with barely controlled rage, and caught the quick stricken look McKay tossed over his shoulder.

Vargas roughly grabbed the scientist and shook him for the effort, propelling them further. Sheppard watched, anger and fury rising in his gut as Vargas's rough treatment made Rodney's limp more prominent. He pushed away the dizziness and disorientation as he pushed himself up. He'd promised McKay he'd handle the bounty hunter, and there was no way he was going to squelch on his word.

He lurched to his feet, feeling his equilibrium sway, but focused all of his attention on moving forward. After he took care of Vargas he'd have time for something as trivial as gaping chest wounds. Staggering around the tree, he searched for where the damn monster cat thing had knocked his gun. With a grin he leant down to pick it up, nearly toppling over. Closing his eyes he forced himself to stay upright, and groped blindly with a hand until he managed to grab a hold of the strap.

With a grunt he righted himself, waiting for the dizziness to pass. When it did he finally opened his eyes and inspected the weapon. It looked fine on a cursory glance, but it had taken the brunt of the impact with the cat. Turning it over again he frowned as he spotted the jammed cartridge. He could fix it given time, but that wasn't something he had.

He let the gun drop to the ground, almost cursing giving McKay his 9mm earlier. Vargas certainly wouldn't let him keep it, although why the scientist didn't use it on the howler earlier was beyond him. That was something he'd have to work on later, but right now...

He stumbled back around the tree in the direction Vargas had taken McKay. He didn't need to pull out the  life signs detector in order to follow them as Vargas was leaving a clear trail on the forest floor. John continued to surge forward, not really having a plan of action, instead letting his determination lead him. This was going to end now.

*          *          *          *          *

Ford and Teyla had made far better time getting back to the Stargate than it had taken for them to reach the cave, but even though night had fallen, a few of the search parties still remained. Whatever the Genii had offered the Frescans, it must have been very valuable, as it appeared they were as equally determined to protect the gate from intruders as Ford and Teyla were to get off the planet.

Through the trees she could see the clearing for the Stargate, as well as the group of Frescans guarding the gate. There were only four guards now, as opposed to the eight there had been earlier, but they were still as heavily armed. Ford had been right in guessing that the night watch would be less guarded.

Before they had left the relative protection of the cave he had double-checked their supplies. They had prepared for a diplomatic mission, so they didn't have much in the way of munitions, but always the ever prepared marine, Ford had stashed away a few extra supplies on him, "just in case".

She watched as Ford, obviously in his element, melted into the shadows in front of her. He was almost imperceptible in the dark as he silently approached one of the guards patrolling the perimeter. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but she caught his signal and silently moved into her position to flank the guard on the other side.

Ford's guard didn't even see him until he was right behind him, and before the guard had time to let out a shout or warning to the others, Ford had clubbed him over the head with his P-90. Unfortunately for Ford, the other guard had caught the movement out of the corner of his eye.

Acting quickly, Teyla grabbed a fallen branch and swung it like a pitch hitter, smacking the guard on the back. He landed on the ground with a thump, but she had already discarded the branch and was on top of the guard, holding a hand over his mouth.

"I do not wish to harm you, but if you make another sound I will have to do something drastic," she whispered harshly in his ear. "Are you going to be silent?"

He nodded under her and she started to let him go. With one arm he lashed out, trying to strike at her temple. In one swift move she delivered a strong blow to the back of his head, knocking him unconscious. She looked up to see Ford dragging his guard back into the foliage, and followed his lead. She quickly covered the unconscious guard with some brush, and crept back towards the gate.

The light of the moon shone down in the clearing, illuminating the two other guards. The shadows of the trees did not reach far enough to conceal their movements, so they had to go with their backup plan. Reaching into her vest pocket, she pulled out the small canister Ford had given her.

She stopped a few yards from the guards and waited. This was the lieutenant's plan, so she was following his lead. A soft clink of him pulling out the pin was crystal clear in the silent night, and both guards stood up straight, pointing their weapons in Ford's direction. Without waiting she yanked the pin out of her device and tossed it into the clearing, seeing Ford's join it a second later. Thick black smoke billowed up from the canisters.

The guards started hacking as soon as the smoke reached their lungs, and Teyla took a deep breath and clenched her eyes shut before diving in. Flesh connected with flesh and she acted on pure instincts as she struggled with her attacker.

When the smoke cleared both guards were on the ground, out cold. With a cough, Ford waved a billow of smoke away with his cap. "Let's dial a friendly address and get the hell out of here. We should have enough time when we get there to try as many as we want."

Teyla rubbed at her eyes as she made her way to the DHD to dial one of her trusted trading partners, one she knew would not mind them stopping in for a quick visit.

"Hey, Teyla."

She looked up mid-dial. Ford flashed a grin and gave her a thumbs up. "You kicked ass."

She dipped her head and smiled in return, before finishing dialing the address.

*          *          *          *          *

Back in the jungle of horrors, McKay's mind was whirling, trying to come up with a solution to escape from this demented creep—again—and to go make sure that Major Sheppard was okay. As much as he didn't want to admit it last night, he knew Sheppard better than he knew almost anyone else. John would have fought to his very last.

He'd remembered Sheppard's nine millimeter too late, and it had been viciously flung into the forest by Vargas when Rodney had reached for it. He kept trying to come up with viable plans,  but as soon as his mind latched onto a coherent thought, he either caught a whiff of the howler's blood soaking his jacket and the noxious scent would send his head spinning, or Vargas would tighten his already iron-clad grip on his shoulder and draw himself uncomfortably close to McKay. How the hell was he supposed to rescue the Major if he couldn't stop losing his concentration?

It also didn't help that Vargas's ruthless pace was making his ankle twinge painfully with each step. He stepped wrong, feeling his ankle fold under him. He bit back on his grunt of pain, and Vargas grabbed a fistful of his jacket, keeping McKay from sinking to the ground.

"You are lucky I'm a very forgiving man, Mersir McKay," Vargas whispered in his ear. "A less patient man would've slit your throat already."

McKay clenched his eyes, actually trying to focus on the pain instead of Vargas's words.

"A less patient man with no self-control might have taken his frustrations out on you in a way that would not damage you for the Genii's purposes."

A cold shiver ran down McKay's spine, and he tried to keep his breathing under control. Vargas was bluffing, trying to scare him into obedience. Rodney tried to find that happy place where he could think with a calm rational head. It was up to him now; it was his turn to save him and Sheppard.

"You wouldn't dare," McKay ground out.

"Wouldn't I?" He could feel Vargas smirk, he was so close.

He prayed that the other man didn't hear his heart beating wildly in his chest. "Let me make a correction on that. You won't lay a hand on me."

"Oh? Who's going to stop me little man?" Vargas yanked them to a halt. "You?"

"No," a voice growled from behind them. Both Rodney and bounty hunter looked over their shoulders to see a bloody, panting Sheppard standing there, looking as if he could tear Vargas apart with his bare hands. "But I will."

"Sheppard," Vargas sneered. "Looks like the howler didn't finish you off."

"It'll take more than a few cat scratches to keep me down," he cocked his head to the side. "Now, if you'll be so kind," Sheppard narrowed his gaze, "let McKay go."

"And if I don't?" Vargas spun around, twisting McKay so that he put extra pressure on the scientist's injured ankle. "What will you do?"

A cold mask slid over Sheppard's face, and he straightened up from his slightly hunched position as McKay did his best to keep from crying out. The rage John'd been trying to squelch turned into hard fury. "Let's just say that you'd be better off at the mercy of one of those howlers."

"I told you that if you tried to stop me I would collect both bounties."

Sheppard cracked a smile, giving Vargas the coldest and most sinister look that McKay had ever seen. Suddenly, he had no doubt that Sheppard would make good on his promise.

"I'm standing right here, Vargas. Or are you such a coward that you can't face off with me without using a hostage as leverage?"

Vargas's eyebrow twitched in anger and he ferociously tossed McKay aside as he stalked towards Sheppard. "I will deliver your broken and lifeless body to Cowen, and both of us will gain the satisfaction of having you dead for good."

"Promises, promises," John arched an eyebrow. "You're all talk."

McKay rolled himself over from where he had landed, watching as Vargas drew his knife out with one swift move as he charged towards Sheppard. In one move, John sidestepped Vargas and grabbed a hold of his knife-arm. Just as swiftly, he swung under the bounty hunter's arm so he was to his back, using one leg to knock out Vargas's knee. Then with both hands he twisted Vargas's wrist until he let go of the knife. The weapon dropped to the ground the same time as Vargas hit the dirt.

As soon as the large man hit the ground he swung his feet around, sweeping Sheppard off his feet. Forgetting the knife, he rocketed forward, one beefy hand wrapping itself around Sheppard's throat, the other gripping Sheppard's injured arm.

Vargas increased the pressure on Sheppard's throat, leaning back far enough to get a better vantage point of his opponent's face, watching with satisfaction as Sheppard's face started to turn colors. His voice was low, only loud enough for Sheppard to hear, but it was laced with menace. "I'll snap your spine, so you are still alive but only able to watch as I break the Mersir's spirit in front of you. What do you think of that?"

McKay saw his friend's face tighten in pain and anger, and started to pull himself up, but before he could even gather himself together, John had lashed out with a leg, connecting solidly with the bounty hunter's head. McKay could've sworn he heard Sheppard say something like, "you're full of shit", but he couldn't be sure.

Sheppard slithered away from Vargas, and was on his feet again in a moment. Even from the distance, Rodney could see the utter concentration on Sheppard's face, as well as the undeniable anger simmering under the surface. Vargas unfolded himself, rising from the ground as if he were a morning shadow appearing with the morning sun.

Sheppard panted heavily, the toll of his wounds from the previous fight and the exertion from his trek through the jungle starting to weigh down on him. Opposite to him, Vargas swiped a hand across his face, smearing the blood from his split lip.

The bounty hunter ran his tongue across the wound. "Very good, Major, but it's going to take more than a few fancy moves to take me down."

"Talker, ain't ya?" Sheppard took a step back, watching as Vargas matched him step for step. They began to circle each other, moving around the dense foliage, only keeping each other in their sights.

McKay forced himself to his feet, determined to see this through. A soft cry left his lips as he put too much weight on his aggravated ankle, but forced himself to remain standing. He limped forward, grabbing onto a tree for support, watching as Sheppard and Vargas latched onto each other like two fighting dogs, exchanging blows quicker than he and Sheppard traded barbs.

His eyes fell to the ground as something shiny caught his attention, and he saw Vargas's bloodstained knife glinting from the forest floor.

*          *          *          *          *

The tree shook with tremendous force as Vargas slammed Sheppard against the trunk. John saw black dots dance across his vision, and the only thing keeping him from blacking out was pure determination—the desire to wipe that smirk off of Vargas's face. He savagely twisted and turned, trying to free himself from the bounty hunter's grip. Either he was too weak at this point, or Vargas was far too strong for him, because he couldn't shake him off. In a last ditch effort, he used a move from the Larry, Moe, and Curly book of fighting, jabbing his fingers into Vargas's eyes.

The monster of a man bellowed and grabbed a hold of Sheppard's hair and yanked his head to the side while the other hand descended to Sheppard's calf. For one awful moment, he was afraid that he was going to take McKay's punishment for him. The moment passed and Vargas's hand returned with the knife Sheppard kept strapped there during missions. He could've kicked himself for forgetting about it. He'd been too worried about McKay to even remember it.

With a hand still full of Sheppard's hair, Vargas yanked again so that Sheppard's chin was in the air, and his neck was fully exposed. With crushing force, he pinned Sheppard against the tree, holding the knife firmly against the Major's neck. With shallow breaths, John met Vargas's maniacal gaze with steely eyes.

"As you can see, Major, I have won," Vargas's lips drew back into a smile that could only belong on  someone out of their mind. "I will watch as you bleed in front of me."

"If you do," McKay called out boldly, "you'll never collect your bounty!"

"Oh, what do you want?" Vargas rolled his eyes as he turned to look at McKay.

The scientist stood several yards away, but was holding Vargas's large knife to his own neck.

"McKay! What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Sheppard hoarsely called.

"Saving your ass!" McKay called back, his stance not wavering. "Now Vargas, you let him go, or I'll save you the trouble of having to drag me back to the Genii."

Vargas chuckled softly. "That is very brave of you, Mersir, but we're both aware that you don't have the courage to carry through such an act."

McKay's face hardened with determination.

"Shit," Sheppard muttered, having seen that look only once, right as McKay was descending into the black entity filling the gateroom. "Rodney, don't!"

"He is too much of a weakling," Vargas shook his head softly. "Your ruse will not work, Major."

McKay pressed the knife further into his neck, sucking in a breath as the sharp metal bit into his skin. A thin trickle of blood ran down his neck, the deep red striking a dark contrast against Rodney's pale skin.

"You wouldn't," Vargas challenged.

Rodney met his gaze evenly, feeling in control for the first time since the cave back on Fresca. "You won't be able to stop me. If you let go of Major Sheppard to try, I guarantee you won't make it five steps before he takes you down. If you want to try me, that's fine."

Vargas's eyes widened as he realized McKay wasn't bluffing.

"So I guess you have to decide what you want more: your revenge, or your money."

The bounty hunter took in several deep breaths, trying to keep control of his temper. He glared at McKay, all the while keeping a firm grip on Sheppard. He could feel the Major fighting him, and wasn't about to let up.

"Fine, Mersir, you win. Drop the knife."

"You first."

Reluctantly Vargas let the knife drop to the ground, but immediately shifted so that his elbow was pressed against Sheppard's windpipe. "Now drop the knife."

"Drop Sheppard."

Vargas smiled coldly. "Gladly."

Using all of his strength, Vargas slammed Sheppard's head into the tree, and for the second time that morning, John lost consciousness.

"Hey!"

Vargas stepped away from Sheppard, indicating the limp body. "He is merely unconscious. You have your wish; now please drop the knife. I cannot deliver damaged merchandise to Cowen."

"I don't trust you."

"Pity."

"Come over here, I'll drop it as soon as I'm sure you're not going to go back on your word."

"You drive a hard bargain, Mersir," Vargas slowly approached McKay, holding his hands up in submission. "I did not think you had such loyalty in you."

"Neither did I. Go figure."

Vargas reached him, and grabbed the knife, twisting it out of McKay's grip. Rodney grimaced, but had grown used to biting back on his pain this morning. Vargas quickly stowed the knife, and lifted McKay's chin to inspect the cut.

"You will live."

"You can tell I'm ecstatic," McKay grumbled. "Not that I'm particularly ready to be a Genii slave, but why don't we step this up a little?"

"As you wish," Vargas gripped the back of McKay's neck. "But understand me, Mersir, I have no patience for you anymore."

"Neither do I," McKay muttered, watching Sheppard out of the corner of his eye as Vargas shoved him down the path. He closed his eyes when he could no longer see his friend, trying not to think too hard on what was about to happen to him.

*          *          *          *          *

This was starting to get annoying, John thought as he opened his eyes. A merciless pounding in his head signaled to him that even though Vargas hadn't killed him, he hadn't gotten off easily. He reached behind his head to feel the extent of the damage, and his fingers come away wet and sticky. Great.

He quickly tested his vision, thankful that the hand he held up had only five fingers. He was pretty damn sure there was no memory loss, as he remembered with excruciating detail the fight, blow for blow, and McKay offering himself up as a sacrificial lamb.

Damn it. McKay!

He surged forward, only to have dizziness overcome him. He dropped to the ground for a moment, letting the world spin back into place. He used the trunk of the tree he'd been left at to help him stand, watching as the jungle swayed before him. Oh, he really didn't need a concussion right now. It was bad enough Kitty Kong had used him as a scratching post.

He needed to move as fast as he could to catch up with Vargas and McKay... speaking of, which way had they headed?

Gingerly he reached into his pocket and retrieved the  life signs detector, watching as two white dots made their way away from his position. They were heading in a straight line, presumably towards the Stargate. If he hurried, he would still be able to catch them before Vargas had a chance to dial the gate.

He took a deep breath to steady himself, and shoved away from the tree, determined not to let McKay down a second time.

*          *          *          *          *

The Stargate loomed in the distance ahead, and McKay could feel his barely checked panic threatening to break loose. As they approached, the band across his chest constricted tighter and tighter, almost to the point where he couldn't breathe. If he went through that portal, the Genii were surely going to be on the other side, and he had a feeling they were about as forgiving as Vargas had been with Sheppard.

They would use him for his brainpower, he had no doubt about that, but he wasn't sure they would leave it at that. And if there was any chance Kolya had survived being shot in the shoulder... McKay shuddered at the thought. Sheppard would most certainly try to mount a rescue, but what chance did he really have, especially if the Genii were expecting them?

No, if he went through the gate, he knew there was no way he was ever going to see the light of day again. Vargas yanked them to a halt next to the DHD, and McKay's ankle throbbed in time with his heart. As the grip on the back of his neck loosened, he knew what he had to do.

He shook the grip off of his neck and made a break for it.

Behind him, Vargas roared in frustration. "You have tried my patience one too many times, little man!"

It was absolute hell on his ankle, but he kept running. He could hear Vargas's heavy footfalls pounding behind him, and rounded behind the gate, making a lap in front of the DHD. Maybe if he kept going, he could make a little merry go round of it, and during each lap plug in a symbol at a time of the address for Atlantis. Wouldn't that be a hoot?

His ankle chose that moment to fold under him, and he went crashing to the ground in front of the gate. If he could ever truly hate a part of his anatomy, he was cursing his ankle from here to the SGC. He felt the beefy hand grip the back of his neck, hauling him back to his feet.

"Can't blame a guy for trying," McKay chuckled nervously.

"I warned you not to try my patience, Mersir."

McKay's throat went dry, hoping to God that this was another one of Vargas's intimidation tactics.

"It seems you need some lessons in respect." Anger vibrated within the bounty hunter's tone.

Oh God, he wasn't joking this time. He really wasn't.

"I try to be nice. I try to keep you out of harm's way," the grip on the back of his neck tightened until the man's fingernails were biting into his skin. McKay tried to pull away, but the other massive hand grabbed a firm hold of his bicep. "I go to find you dinner, and you choose to reward my kindness by running away and nearly getting yourself eaten."

McKay struggled fruitlessly, Vargas holding him too close for comfort. "Let go!"

"And then you try and slit your throat so you can rob me of my just dues," Vargas hissed. "You make me spare your friend, and just when I thought we'd come to an understanding—"

"I'm w-warning you," McKay stuttered, trying to keep a hold of his rapidly diminishing courage.

"Warning me? What will you do, Mersir? You are too weak to stop me."

With his good foot, McKay savagely stomped on Vargas's foot at the same time as he rammed his elbow into the other man's crotch. The bounty hunter let him go with a cry of pain, and McKay quickly broke away, trying to remember everything he'd learned from Ford and Sheppard during those training exercises they'd forced him to go to.

Even as Vargas's eyes unwillingly watered with pain, Rodney could see the rage building, threatening to spill over. The bounty hunter rose up, clenching his jaw. With a step he was within striking range and flattened McKay with a fell swoop of his arm.

*          *          *          *          *

Sheppard broke the tree line in time to see the struggle happening in front of the Stargate. With no small amount of pride he watched as McKay managed to land a solid blow that actually made Vargas double over in pain, and jump back ready for the next strike. With each second he gained precious feet, but Vargas was a much better fighter than McKay. He was probably better than Sheppard even when the pilot wasn't injured. The scientist didn't stand a chance.

He watched helplessly, still running for all he was worth, as Vargas knocked McKay on his back. The bounty hunter reached for his knife sheath, and with a sick feeling he knew that the bounty that had protected McKay to this point no longer mattered.

"Rodney!"

Still too far away. Damn, damn, damn!

*          *          *          *          *

The breath rushed out of McKay as his back slammed against the ramp. He gulped in quick breaths for several seconds, not noticing the imminent danger he was in. Sheppard's voice roused him back to the present, and he couldn't help the small cry of terror from escaping at seeing the large blade rushing down towards him. He tried to roll out of the way, but somehow his feet got tangled up with Vargas's, and the bounty hunter came tumbling down on top of him, the machete getting flung to the side in the process.

He let out a grunt as the larger man used his ribcage for a landing pad. That was definitely going to hurt in the morning. Assuming he lived through this fight to see it. John needed to hurry up; he was not the action hero in their dynamic duo. Obviously, by the way he was getting the crap beat out of him. Vargas found his footing too quickly and hauled Rodney up by the collar of his jacket, bringing the scientist's face not even an inch from his.

Well, at least the machete was gone, that was a relief. Vargas let out an angry growl, and McKay wrinkled his nose as the other man's breath assaulted his nostrils.

"That really is bad hygiene. Doesn't your village have a dentist or something?" The words came out before Rodney even thought about stopping them.

Glancing over Vargas's shoulder he could see John was almost there. Almost was still too far though. Now panicked, McKay began pulling and kicking, and doing everything he could to escape the other man's grip.

Behind him he heard the whirring sound of the Stargate as the chevrons quickly locked into place. His eyes widened as he realized exactly where he stood. This really wasn't his day.

*          *          *          *          *

The last chevron locked into place as Sheppard began to close in the last few yards separating him from the struggle. The gate came to life, sending out the giant wave of energy that signaled the opening of a wormhole, and Sheppard skidded to a halt, feeling his stomach drop. McKay had gone into morbid detail on wormhole physics, and especially the destructive effects of the wave that formed the event horizon.

Time slowed to a halt as the wave rushed past Vargas and McKay. He'd been too late. Only a few more seconds and he would have been able to steal Vargas's attention, and possibly even be able to escape. It didn't matter now. Vargas was gone, but so was Rodney.

The wave receded, leaving the shimmering pool of energy that made the event horizon.

John slowly walked forward, needing to see what was left.

All that remained of Vargas was his boots, the rest of him had been obliterated. Good riddance. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see Rodney's military-issue boots or perhaps some more leftover parts. Something on the ground let out a pathetic whimper, and his eyes snapped open.

There, lying as flat as possible against the ground as he could get, was one shell-shocked scientist. His jacket was gone; presumably he had wriggled out of it in time to avoid the wave. John felt a relieved grin spread across his face as he sidestepped Vargas's boots and knelt next to his friend.

"Hey, Rodney, it's all right." He let his hand rest on McKay's shoulder, hoping to bring him out of his shock.

McKay continued to stare at all that was left of the boots, not able to get out an intelligible noise. John glanced up at the active gate, and realized that he had no idea who would be coming out of it. He'd better get at least some distance away so he could defend them in case Vargas had somehow managed to get a hold of the Genii last night. He hauled McKay off the ramp, watching the gate the entire time.

Once they reached the ground, the first figure stepped through. Sheppard instinctively grabbed for his P-90, only to find it absent still. All he had was the knife Vargas had tried to use against him. He brought it to bear, only to let it drop back to his side as he recognized the broad grin and bill-cap that greeted him. Moments later, Teyla followed Ford, and the gate shut off after her. He felt the tension drain away as Ford trotted the rest of the way to them, somehow missing the disembodied boots still standing tall on the ramp.

"Well, Lieutenant, I have to say that I'm glad it was you coming through there." He glanced back at McKay, who, though still staring at the boots, was starting to come out of his shock. "You cut it real close this time."

"Sorry, sir, we got held up by some unhappy natives," Ford grinned, before the meaning behind Sheppard's words sank in.

His eyes flicked back towards the ramp, and he finally saw the boots that Teyla was staring at with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Realization dawned on him, and a sick look settled on his features.

"You mean I—that was—?"

McKay's eyes finally snapped from Vargas's remains to Ford, and narrowed as he finally came out of his shock. "You!"

Ford whipped around to look at McKay. "Me?"

"You tried to kill me!"

"I didn't meant to—"

"Now, McKay, how could he have known you—" Sheppard started only to be cut off.

"I can take being poked at, cut, trying to be eaten by a feline ape, and manhandled in ways that I wouldn't even allow Colonel Carter to do! I can even take the very sick intentions of a crazed mood-swinging kidnapper—" McKay poked a finger into Ford's chest. "But when my own friend tries to obliterate me—"

"McKay, I swear I didn't know you were in the way!" Ford pleaded, glancing between the irate scientist and his team leader, hoping for some help. Sheppard shrugged and smiled. By now Teyla had joined them, and watched the exchange with confusion.

"Now if no one has any complaints, I'd really like to get back to Atlantis and start forgetting I ever left on this godforsaken mission!" McKay ranted as he limped towards the DHD. He reached for the first glyph, but stopped and looked sheepishly over his shoulder. "I'm pretty sure Vargas had my IDC when he went poof, otherwise its back in that hellish jungle."

Sheppard joined him at the DHD, leaning on it partly in friendly gesture, and partly because he was about to collapse. All of the adrenaline that had been keeping him moving had drained away and he barely had enough energy to keep standing. "You want to borrow mine?"

McKay eyed him suspiciously. "I don't have to tell you some embarrassing secret to use it, do I?"

"Nah, this one's a freebie. The next one though..."

"Indian giver. I can't even use it. It's keyed to your hand."

"How about I send the IDC through so none of us go splat?"

"Works for me," McKay sighed and started punching in the address back to Atlantis.

"Doctor McKay, Major Sheppard," Teyla asked cautiously, taking in their battered, bloodstained conditions. "Are you all right?"

McKay and Sheppard exchanged a glance, and before McKay could go start yelling at Teyla for asking the obvious, John shouted back, "Just fine, Teyla. It's nothing that ol' Beckett can't fix!"

"You go first," McKay said, punching in another glyph. "He might become so distracted with those claw marks that I might be able to slip away unnoticed."

"Don't you mean limp away?"

"Limping or slipping, I'm sure I can get away."

"You know, I've been racing around the past day and a half trying to save your sorry ass,  you can at least return the favor!"

"Exactly what do you call that little demonstration back in the forest?"

"Completely and utterly stupid."

"It saved your life didn't it?"

Sheppard and McKay continued arguing as Rodney finished dialing the sequence. When the address was complete, the gate hummed to life. As the water-like energy rushed past him, McKay quieted for a few seconds, watching it with trepidation.

"And who exactly were you calling Monkey Man, huh?"

McKay snapped out of his stupor. "No normal human being can climb down a tree like that!"

Ford and Teyla exchanged a look and sighed, before each one helped their injured, still-bickering teammates through the gate. This was going to be a long debriefing.

The End