Rating: Gen, PG
Characters: Ronon, McKay
Word count: 3000
Summary: "No," McKay said, while Ronon stood impassively, and waited. "No, I can't go in there. You can't make me."
Warning for claustrophobic situations.
“I think,” McKay said, with an air of somewhat forced dignity, “That I would prefer to wait until your friends come back and kill me, if it’s all the same to you.”
“They’re not my friends,” Ronon said. “Not anymore.” He was resisting, very strongly, the urge to yell at McKay to just do what he was being told to do. But that might encourage their captors to come and investigate. Possibly spilt them up. And while being held without their weapons, radios or any other equipment inside a dimly lit cave might not on the face of it appear to be a very good situation to be in, it was still more hopeful than if they were in separate caves. Or any cave other than this particular one.
“Yes, clearly that’s the most important thing right now. Ronon the Barbarian has found himself some more mortal enemies. I don’t know how you do it.”
“McKay, just shut up! I know another way out of this mountain.”
“So you said. That doesn’t mean I have to believe you.”
“You’d rather be killed by them instead?”
McKay, sitting against one cold dark wall, folded his arms resolutely. “Yes. As a matter of fact, I would prefer a quick death, rather than wandering around in the dark while we get lost and slowly starve to death, or get crushed by a cave-in, or – ”
“That’s enough.” There really wasn’t time for this argument. Not when the men could return at any moment. “Just suck it up, McKay.”
McKay shook his head. Ronon couldn’t quite make out his expression in the dim light which filtered down from the fissure above, but he assumed it was a scowl. “You can’t make me.”
Well, if it comes down to that… Ronon casually fingered his leather wrist-guards. “You want to put that to the test?”
McKay eyed him desperately. “Well, no. But it’s dark. I really don’t want to go deeper into this cave in the dark.”
It was always good to have, as Sheppard put it, an ace up your sleeve. He’d never understood the actual expression, but the meaning was clear enough. Some of his knives had been missed by his searchers, as had the flashlight in his boot. He hadn’t even been hiding that – it was only there so that he could have it to hand in unexpected situations. Now he pulled it out and flicked it on. “There. Not dark.”
Somehow, McKay looked even less reassured. “Look, Ronon, you know I don’t like small spaces?” He waved his hand around to illustrate.
Ronon’s patience finally reached its end. “Not much you do like. Just get up. We’re going now.”
At least McKay did get up. They had wasted too much time already. Ronon immediately turned into the darkness of the tunnel, the flashlight beam skittering over the rough walls. “We’d better hope they don’t come check on us too soon.”
McKay jogged a few steps to catch him up. “Forgive me for asking the obvious, but why would we be locked in a prison which has a way out?”
“They don’t know about the other way out.” Obviously.
“So how come you do?”
Ronon felt himself tense. He didn’t like talking about the past. What was done was done, after all. But then, McKay was a relentless questioner, and it was sometimes easier to just give in. “I came here when I was a boy a few times, with my father. I had a friend here, and we explored these caves.”
He remembered the days. Crawling through the mountain’s deep places with the recklessness of being nine years old and invincible, emerging hours later grinning and covered with grime. Exploring. Hunting. Fishing. Running.
“So that’s why you thought they’d trade? Because you knew them?”
“Yeah. Seems the system of government changed in the meantime.”
“Can’t your friend speak up for us?”
“He was culled. When he was eleven.”
“Oh.” McKay was silent for a little while, as they walked over years of rock ground down to dust. Then, quietly, “What was his name?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He hoped that McKay would take the hint, and shut up. Remarkably he did, and he could concentrate on remembering the way. Everything was almost-familiar, and he hoped that that would be good enough. “Stop,” he said, finally.
“Shouldn’t we be carrying on?” McKay asked.
“No. There’s a dead end that way.”
“So what are we doing?”
Ronon shone the flashlight downwards. The fissure near his feet looked smaller to him than it had when he was child, but he was confident that they would both be able to fit through it. Behind it there was a long passage carved out long ago by some vanished stream – smooth, and the height to just allow an adult to crawl along it. This was the way out which he had discovered years ago.
He looked round, to see that McKay had backed up against the wall on the other side of the tunnel. His eyes were wide, and his face had drained of colour. “Oh, no,” he said. “No-no-no-no-no. Not going in there.”
“It’s the only way out,” Ronon said.
McKay shook his head, pressing back still further against the rock. “I can’t go in there. Just can’t. Never. No.”
“It’s safe,” Ronon said. “We’ll be out in no time.”
“Please, don’t make me.” McKay’s voice had dropped; now it was only just above a whisper. “You go. I can’t go in there.”
Ronon lifted the flashlight beam to McKay’s face, and then dropped it away again. He’d never seen the other man look quite so terrified. “Why can’t you go in there?” he asked, trying to gentle his voice.
“Because it’s too small and I won’t be able to breathe and I’ll die, oh, God…”
“And if we stay here it’s only a matter of time before they come looking for us, and we’ll die anyway.”
“You go out and get help. I’ll wait back in the bit where it’s light.”
“McKay, I’m not leaving you here.” He really couldn’t, he realised. Not just because it was part of his job to keep him safe, but because he didn’t have the heart to leave him underground on his own, when he was so clearly afraid beyond reason.
“Ok. Ok, that’s good. We’ll wait together.”
“No, we need to get out. What about Teyla and Sheppard? They could be hurt.”
“They could be,” Rodney tentatively agreed.
“They’d never let you forget it if you didn’t let us go and rescue them.”
“Ok, that’s a good point. But… going in there…” He shuddered.
Ronon knew that he had to act quickly, while McKay was still seeing the logic of his argument. “I’ll go first, with the light. We’ll crawl. You can hold onto my ankles.” He wasn’t so keen on that part, personally, but if it would help…
Moments passed. Then, shakily, McKay nodded. “I’ll do it.”
Ronon dropped to his knees, and stowed the flashlight in his belt, so that it gave some forward illumination while keeping his hands free. He didn’t give McKay any time to rethink his decision, wriggling through the fissure and taking most of the light with him.
The passage beyond was as he remembered it. His dreadlocks scraped the roof as he tried to twist his head to look behind him. But there wasn’t enough room for that. “McKay?” he asked.
For a moment he thought that McKay’s fear would be too much for him, despite the alternative prospect of being left alone in the dark. And then there was a scrambling noise, and a pair of hands grasped his booted ankles. He could feel them shaking. “You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah.” The voice which replied was high and breathless; hardly like McKay at all. His hands continued to shake, the motion clearly transmitting, even through the thick leather.
He began to crawl forward. Jerks of resistance from behind, which got evener as they found a rhythm of sorts. And a litany on the edge of hearing in that same unnatural, airless voice. “Not-happening-not-happening-
It was like sliding through the stomach of an snake. Rock above and around, thousands of tons of it, and the very thought of it pressed down on Ronon. It would be much worse for McKay, of course, but he doubted that reassuring words would do very much good. His head scraped against the roof, and the light intermittently illuminated the tunnel ahead as his arm passed in front of it and away again, jerking with his movements. He didn’t stop.
“You’re doing great, McKay,” he called, and his voice rumbled within the close walls.
McKay stopped his whispered litany to whimper something incoherent. Ronon realised, to his surprise, that if he had realised beforehand that McKay was this terrified of small spaces, he would never have expected him to enter the tunnel. His teammate was the oddest contradiction he had ever encountered.
“We’re going to be out soon.”
“Yeah.” This time, he could make out the reply. “Yeah, that’s – that’s – great. Great. Out soon.” The hands clutching his ankles tightened for a moment.
Just then, there was a boom from behind them, and vibrations shuddered through the rock, the mountain groaning in protest around them. “What was that?” Rodney half-yelped, his breathing audibly fast and ragged.
Ronon stayed very still for a few moments. Boom, and again the shuddering rumble. “An explosion.”
“They took our C4. Sounds like they collapsed the cave. Probably thought we were inside it.”
The very next moment, he regretted speaking. Now there’s no way back… “McKay?” he asked cautiously. He had seen men paralysed by fear before. The wrong words, the extinguishing of a hope they’d held, could break them.
“I’m ok,” McKay whispered. “I’m ok. Ok. Can…we keep going?” There was clear effort in his voice.
Ronon was impressed. “You’re doing good.”
“Huh.” McKay began whispering again as they resumed crawling – a list of the words he had once explained were elements. Held everything together.
After a while, it became hard to tell that they were still moving forward. Jerking light, resistance from behind, cold rock beneath his hands and his knees and around his arms and above his head and his back. The endless quiet trickle of McKay’s voice, now reciting equations which held no meaning at all to him.
And then the beam of light was caught by something shining and thrown back at him. For a second he thought of the sun, that they were out – and then his hands splashed into cold water and he stopped sharply.
“What – what’s going on?” McKay’s voice rose again in pitch.
Ronon didn’t reply immediately. He scraped his elbow painfully against the rock as he fumbled the flashlight from his belt, but he had it between his fingers at last, and could look forward properly.
Smooth water lay across the tunnel, in a sheet of dark glass. A few body-lengths forward, the roof dipped down to meet it, sliding into it. It was a black mirror, and had lain utterly still before he had disturbed it.
Some things weren’t meant to be disturbed.
But this water lay between them and the way out. He tried to remember back all those years. There had been no water then, but had there been a dip? And how far did it stretch?
He tried to soften the blow. “There’s some water here.”
“Water? What? How deep is it?”
“We’re going to have to swim.”
“Swim? Why? I mean, this tunnel’s only small, you mean it suddenly gets deeper?” While Ronon tried to decide what to say next, McKay moved faster than him. “Oh God. Oh-God-oh-God-oh-God. Please tell me I’m wrong. Please.”
He could, but there wouldn’t be any point. “Tunnel’s submerged.”
“Can’t we, you know, go back instead? Because this hasn’t been very fun, and I really, really, really don’t want to drown underground.”
“We can’t go back, remember? And we’re not going to drown.” He wished that he could be certain of that. “We’ll come up the other side.”
“No. No. Do you understand what that means? I can’t do it.”
“You’ve managed this far. McKay, I know you can do this.”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t say it otherwise.”
“Um, oh. Right.” He paused. “Ok. I don’t – there’s no choice, is there?”
“No.” He thought that might have sounded slightly too harsh. “Look, you can still hold onto my feet. You won’t get left behind.”
McKay breathed out so fast that it was obvious he’d just put his finger on his teammate’s biggest fear. “Promise?”
“I promise. Take some deep breaths.”
Ronon inhaled rapidly several times. And then he pulled himself forward in one swift motion, plunging into the ice-cold water which would have stolen his lungful of air in a shocked gasp if he’d let it. His head was beneath it too now, and banging against the roof as he reached forward with his arms, bracing his hands against the walls and floor and pulling himself forward, creating swirling currents around him, aware of the effort of pulling McKay along behind him. Freezing cold all around him and over him, and it was like being swallowed by the mountain they had trespassed into.
And then, almost against his expectations, his head broke the surface. He kept moving, finding purchase, pulling himself along, until he was out of the water and dragging McKay over solid ground, the buoyancy gone, until suddenly the hands holding onto him fell away. He stopped instantly, crouched in the narrow gap, and breathed at last, long and deep.
“McKay?” he asked, as soon as he could, hearing the gravelly tone to his voice. There was no light anymore. He wasn’t sure if the flashlight had fallen away from him, or whether it had simply succumbed to the water, but it made no difference either way. What did matter was that McKay had still not replied, and the pressure around his ankles which had affirmed his presence was now missing. “McKay? You alright?”
He stretched a foot backwards, prodding the shape it found. “McKay!” He thought he had found a shoulder. He kicked it – not too hard. “Hey!”
To his immense relief, his foot was grabbed and pushed back. He had already been wondering how he could get a possibly unconscious McKay out, and the options were – unpromising. “Yeah,” a voice groaned. “M’here.”
“How’re you doing?”
“Cold. Can we – get out now?”
He chuckled slightly. “That’s the plan, buddy. You ready to move?”
“I want my hands,” McKay said. His voice was flat, as if he had already given most of himself to his fear, and to the water, and now had not much left. “I’ll keep moving. Promise.”
“Ok. Let’s go.”
It was even more unreal now, in the black pitch-dark, without the constant reminder that there was another human being there with him, unless he counted the shuffling and snuffling noises behind him. No more whispering.
They followed the tunnel like worms, or moles, burrowing and twisting through the mountain roots, deep through rock and earth. There was just darkness, and the rigid touch of the cold rock, and the cold water in his still-sodden clothes and hair. On and on, breathing air which left the taste of ancient dust on his tongue.
From time to time he paused, until McKay ran into him from behind, needing this check that he was still keeping up. Still neither of them spoke, and the darkness was absolute.
On and on.
And then there was light.
He said nothing about it at first, in case it was just his mind trying to fool his eyes. Just kept on crawling towards it, until he found that he could see the shapes of his hands ahead of him.
“Is that – ?”
McKay had seen it, too, finally. His voice was hardly audible.
Ronon didn’t reply. He kept moving through the gloaming tunnel, arms and legs following the same established rhythm. Until –
Of course they weren’t yet, quite, but a few more metres made it true, and his hands were quite suddenly meeting soft fronds of branching ferns rather than dead rock. He pushed them away and pulled himself out into a sunlit day, blinking against the bright blue sky, rolling away from the darkness and over the thick green vegetation, to sit up and help McKay pull himself out.
McKay was sheet-white. He stumbled away from the hole and then dropped to his knees, retching and shaking. Ronon followed, and dropped down beside him.
“Go on, mock me,” McKay muttered, when it seemed that he was finally able to breathe properly.
“Wouldn’t do that,” Ronon said, seriously. He put a hand on his shoulder. “You did good.”
“Really?” He looked so disbelieving, and so desperate for reassurance, and so proud, all that the same time, that Ronon almost laughed.
“Sure you did, buddy. I didn’t know you were that brave.”
McKay wiped his face. “Huh.”
“So. Want to go home now?”
“As much as that sounds wonderful, I don’t quite see how that’ll work. We don’t have Sheppard and Teyla, and do you even know where the Gate is from here?” Despite still being pale and trembling, the sunlight had apparently pulled the snap back into McKay’s voice.
A patch of the low-growing plants just in front of them spontaneously flattened. Ronon grinned. “I don’t think we have to worry about that.”
The Jumper shimmered into visibility.
McKay gaped. “How?”
The hatch dropped. Sheppard lounged against the inside wall, grinning nonchalantly and playing with Ronon’s blaster. “Good to see you. We’ve been following your transmitters. We picked them up just as those guys brought down half the mountain with your C4.”
Teyla didn’t look quite so calm, smiling broadly in a relieved fashion. “We were worried that you had been trapped, at first. It is good to see you safe.”
McKay looked as if he didn’t know quite what to say.
Sheppard stared at the hole in the rock face which they had emerged from, a frown on his face. “McKay, you came through that?”
Ronon pulled McKay upright, and clapped him on the shoulder. “McKay? He wasn’t going to be beat by a bit of dark. Right, buddy?”
Rodney’s smile was unsure at first, and then it broadened. “Hey. Yeah. I did it!”
“Yeah, you did.”
“You owe me a lot of desserts for putting me through that.”
“That’s only fair.” Ronon nodded towards the waiting Jumper. “Let’s go home.”