Author/Artist: lavvyan with lovely art by smuffster
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard (slash)
Rating: R for intense situations and the occasional swearword
Warnings: May squick a little. People die (neither John nor Rodney, though).
Wordcount:: ~10,200 (for me, that's practically a book *g*)
Author's Notes: Extra thanks to pegasus_01 and kuna_yashmaa for pointing out very helpful material on emergency procedures for subway trains – if those are screwed up, I managed that all by myself. :)
Let's all pretend that this is some cheap action movie. And by that I mean 'let's all ignore that the plot is a far cry from realistic and the holes in it are big enough to hide at least Hawaii in them'. Oh, and there's no such city as Riverdale. Thank you. Now, lower the lights, hang on to your popcorn, and enjoy.
ETA: kensieg pointed out that indeed there is a Riverdale. Pure coincidence, I swear! :)
Download By the End of April as podfic
Cover by smuffster
Rodney had bought the city's FireFighters Calendar. It was a stupid thing to spend his money on, and really, if Andrew hadn't practically bullied him into doing it to support the local fire brigade he'd probably never have noticed the calendar even existed. But he had bought it and put it up on his bedroom wall, and now Mr. April was glowering down at him, pretty face distorted into a scowl that was probably meant to look sexy but in reality just made the man appear like he had a serious problem with indigestion. On the other hand, April was blond, had a very nice six-pack and a hand down his pants, so there had to be something to that month.
Still, Rodney couldn't wait for it to be May.
Three more days, and he'd finally have an excuse to flip the calendar to a new picture, to the picture, the one he could stare at for hours and never stop drooling. Mr. May was tall, slender, his fingers rough where they peeked out from the heavy work jacket, but his chest and abs looked silky and just… delicious. Shaved, too, because no one with such a wild mop of hair on their head and determined five o'clock shadow could be that smooth in other places. May wasn't smiling either, but where April's expression was pained, May's was simply serious, with dark green eyes and quirky brows and a slightly crooked nose and lips that were obviously made to be nibbled on.
Rodney would love to nibble on them. Probably on some other things, too. He often jerked off to the odd fire brigade scenario, imagining May's hands on his skin after the man had saved him from certain death, how it would feel to run his own fingers through that messy hair when Rodney pulled him down for a kiss. There was usually licking of some kind involved, the image of saliva-slick lips wrapped around his dick, of pressing into soft tightness, holding his breath until there were stars dancing in front of his eyes. Wouldn't it be nice if there were gay firemen in town?
The egg-timer's shrill ring jerked him out of his daydreams. Rodney sighed, and flipped the calendar back to let Mr. April resume his scowling. In the kitchen, his stew looked just about done, and after a round of tasting, seasoning, and tasting again, Rodney settled on the couch with his dinner and a Molson's and switched the TV on. He liked a bit of distraction while eating, and if American television had anything it was plenty of mindless entertainment. He decided on a documentary about some Japanese super company and dug in. Rodney didn't often do his own cooking, but it was Sunday, he'd been in the mood, and he'd felt like he needed something good before the working week started again. Just thinking of it made him grimace.
His research post at the Riverdale District University wasn't actually that bad, but it was a constant fight between his physics department and the chemists for more funding, better labs, new personnel. Rodney had scored the latest point when he'd gotten Andrew, a rather brilliant astrophysicist whose thesis had been on dark matter but who'd proven to be a true asset in the field of wormhole physics. Plus, he and Rodney had known each other for years, so now there was somebody to joke with, someone who didn't sulk when Rodney pointed out a flaw in their calculations an undergraduate could have spotted. A friend. Rodney had used to have a cat to complain to when he came home at night, but it had run away. Go figure.
Rodney sighed again, his eyes flickering from the TV set to his half-open bedroom door, the lower left edge of the calendar just visible in the dim light.
He really couldn't wait for it to be May.
Rodney was riding the subway mostly out of spite. He'd been using the good old "You'll be sorry when I get stabbed and maimed and die" argument to persuade the university board to place a car and driver at Rodney's disposal for quite some time now. So far it hadn't worked, but Rodney was not one to give up easily. Of course, with his rather down to earth lifestyle he'd amassed enough money to buy his own Lexus or something, but it was the principle of the matter.
The thing about riding the subway, though, was that you had to share even the last wagon with other people. Rodney saw mostly the same faces every day, and by now everyone knew he liked to sit on the left, third row from the back, away from the window. But, having one's own seat didn't make it easier to deal with the four giggling students who got on at 26th. Or with the unwashed drunk who was always sleeping in the back row, snoring and stinking and generally unpleasant. Then there were the quiet ones, like the grey-haired businessman who spent the time reading the paper, or the middle-aged woman who brought a different cheap romance novel every Monday and Thursday. Rodney didn't truly mind them; they didn't distract him from his journals.
Today, the wagon was emptier than usual. It was Monday, the one day of the week Rodney actually had to teach someone about physics, and he was dressed accordingly: light chinos when he usually wore cargo pants, a simple dark green sweater instead of his everyday garb of patterned shirt or t-shirt over solid-coloured long-sleeve. The clothes were supposed to make him look less approachable and they seemed to work; or maybe his repeated, "Don't bother me with your dim-witted questions" did, he wasn't sure. He only knew that on Mondays, he had even less patience for the giggling students from 26th, but they hadn't gotten on the subway today. There was just the tramp snoring away in the back, reeking of cheap booze. A few seats in front of Rodney, the grey-haired businessman had reached the sports section, which he was skimming with a condescending smirk. Mrs. Romance Novel's eyes were practically glued to her book, and at the far end of the wagon, a young mother was quietly telling her two kids a story. The little girl was listening open-mouthed, but the boy just looked bored and kept kicking the wall in a steady thump-thump-thump. Rodney grimaced. This was exactly why he hated kids. Only fifteen minutes till RDU, he told himself and tried to concentrate on his journal. There was an article about Sagittarius A East – and why its existence alone was proof that Sagittarius A* couldn't possibly be a black hole; a theory that would have been hilarious if it hadn't hurt so much. Seriously, the author couldn't have gotten their PhD. from anywhere but a box of breakfast cereal.
Rodney was busy scribbling into the margins the many reasons Dr. S. Falkney was stupid, stupid, oh so stupid when he heard a short dull bang. A mere second later, there was a much louder bang as the carriage shook like it had crashed against something. Rodney was thrown against the seat in front of him, losing both pen and journal. The breath was knocked out of him and his collarbone almost cracked as the plastic dug painfully into the soft skin between neck and shoulder. The kids and Mrs. Romance Novel screamed, then the wagon shook again, lurched as the back wheels jumped out of the tracks. When the rear end hit the tunnel wall the lights went out, glass splintering inside as the wagon jerked, tilted… and fell over. Rodney cried out, tumbling, hitting his head hard as he fell against the opposite seat, blinking through the blooming pain and holding on for dear life. The wagon screeched sideways across the tracks, rocking and shaking and finally slamming to a stop with a brutal jerk that knocked Rodney into a stanchion and right out of consciousness.
When he woke up, the left side of his face was sticky and warm, and he could smell blood. His head hurt like a bitch, especially as he felt for his temple and found a short, deep gash from when he'd hit the seat. He wiped the blood away as best he could, but the smell didn't lessen. There was something cold under his cheek… a railroad track… he was lying on a railroad track where one of the wagon's windows had been. Broken glass and gravel all around him – he was probably lucky the shards hadn't cut his throat or something like that.
Groaning, Rodney sat up, fingers pressed on the wound at his temple. The wagon was silent, but from outside Rodney could hear crying, curses. Somebody had pried the doors in what was now the roof open, and Rodney was looking for an easy way up when he spotted the dirty sneakers in the back of the wagon. He looked closer, almost without conscious decision, and swallowed. The tramp was lying in a heap between the backseat and what had been the roof before the wagon had fallen over. His eyes were open, and his forehead looked strangely flat, dented.
He was dead.
Rodney swallowed again, this time to keep the bile in his throat from spilling over. He stumbled toward the intercom at the end of the wagon, well aware he was bordering on the edge of hysteria, and tried to call the train operator, but the intercom was as dead as the guy at the far end of the wagon. With something like a sob, Rodney swallowed the broken giggle that was clawing at his throat.
"Hey," he called up to the open door, his voice cracking, "hey, I want out, get me out!"
Footsteps nearing the wagon, and then… Then a young man in a blindingly bright red shirt poked his head through the former roof a few feet to Rodney's right. Rodney jumped, heart beating a rapid-fire staccato as he squeaked his surprise.
"Come on out then," the young man snapped, a dark bruise blooming across the left side of his face, and disappeared again. Now that he knew it was there, Rodney could see the open hatch. He let out a shaky laugh and climbed outside, away from the dead body and into the semidarkness of the subway tunnel.
Outside was chaos. There were at least thirty people lying and sitting on the ground, men, women, children, some of them badly hurt, almost all of them bleeding. Others were tending to them, or trying to get yet more people out of the wreckage. Mrs. Romance Novel was lying a few feet away, skirt torn, one shoe missing. Her naked foot looked strangely vulnerable, and Rodney swallowed. A bit further, the little boy was clinging to his mother, both bruised and crying but seemingly okay. The boy's sister was nowhere to be seen. Rodney's wagon was lying sideways, the tail end of a jumble of steel that was twisted and bent. Wedged together so they were both half upright, each supporting the weight of the other, two more wagons were blocking one end of the tunnel. The other end was free, if mostly dark where the subway had taken out the tunnel lights, and Rodney could see the grey-haired businessman standing on the narrow walkway in a group of perhaps twenty people, pointing into the open darkness. Slowly, carefully keeping away from the single plastic-covered track he knew carried the high voltage for the trains, Rodney made his way over to them, half-nauseously trying to ignore the wreckage around him.
"Uh, hi," he greeted lamely. Some of them murmured back, and Businessman nodded at him with the familiarity of commuters who saw each other every day without ever exchanging a word. His charcoal grey suit was rumpled and his hair matted with blood, but his eyes were sharp.
"I'm just saying we should take as many of the wounded as we can," someone snapped impatiently. It was the young man with the red shirt who had so nicely shown Rodney the way outside.
"They'd only slow us down," Businessman returned, and most of the others nodded. "The importance is to get help as fast as possible. Anything else would be counterproductive."
A murmur of agreement, and Rodney found himself nodding along even though he'd only just joined the conversation. Truth was, he simply wanted to get out of the tunnel, wounded or not. He suspected that was true for almost everyone around him.
"What if they bleed to death? We can't leave them!" the young man insisted.
"If they're hurt that badly, we'd kill them if we tried to move them. They better stay here. There are enough volunteers to keep them safe until we return with help." And there were. Mostly women, which was probably unsurprising, unhurt and fluttering from wounded to wounded in more or less successful attempts to soothe, to help, to stop the pain.
Grudgingly, the young man gave in. "All right then, let's go. But hurry up!" The last was said with a nasty sideways glance at Rodney, who felt his hackles rise at that. True, he was no marathon runner, but he could keep up with that little asshole every day.
Businessman nodded and went over to one of the caretakers to share a few parting words with her, probably assuring they'd return soon. Well, Rodney wouldn't, that much was for sure. The copper-stench of blood was making him sick, and the crying grated on his nerves. He'd be the first to admit that people situations weren't his forte, and this… this was a people situation.
Businessman returned, wiping his grim, sweaty face with a linen handkerchief he'd kept in his pocket, and they started walking towards freedom. It wasn't easy – the tunnel was only dimly lit, uncomfortably warm, and the narrow walkway had been damaged by the crashing wagons. Rodney wasn't the only one who stumbled more than once, who flinched and turned at every unknown sound. The group around him was silent, shell-shocked, the faces pale and bruised. Some of them were quietly crying and for once, Rodney could relate. They walked past the call boxes on the tunnel wall without even bothering to try and call the subway operator – the wagons had shredded the cables; there'd be no signal anyway. By unspoken agreement, they kept away from the two sets of tracks. It wasn't that anyone expected any oncoming trains, but after what they'd just survived, it was better to be safe than sorry. Rodney didn't even want to know how many people were still lying inside those wagons, killed when the subway train had crashed. How many were dying right now.
A sign on the tunnel wall told them the next station wasn't far now. And true, Rodney could already see the station lights, shining bright from around the next corner, bobbing and moving and- wait. Not the station, flashlights.
Rodney had just made that connection when next to him, a thin young girl cried out. "Help! We need help!"
"Stay calm," came the answering call, and then the owners of the flashlights rounded the corner. Rodney's knees went weak with relief. Firemen. Firemen were great, firemen were professionals, they'd know what to do. Which meant that Rodney wouldn't have to do anything, that he could just continue on towards freedom and air and a hospital, or at least outpatient treatment. He smiled at the prospect, and then the firemen lowered their flashlights.
One look at the tall man in the middle, and Rodney couldn't have kept the words from spilling out if he'd tried: "Mr. May!"
Mr. May rolled his eyes, but one of the others, a Hispanic who looked barely old enough to be out of High School, cheerfully grinned and called, "Hey guys! How's it going?"
Rodney was surreptitiously trying to wipe the grime from his cheek to make himself a little more presentable, cautious to avoid the gash on his temple. A corner of his green sweater was sacrificed for that purpose; it was ruined anyway. They were on their way back to the site of the crash, and no, he didn't quite get that either. In fact, the firemen had made it very clear that there was supposed to be a gas leak, and everybody should get the hell out while they still could. And most of their group had, but, as Anderson – the businessman – had pointed out: "There are dozens of wounded. You'll never be able to get all of them out in time, not without help."
Anderson wouldn't take no for an answer, and neither would the rude young man and one of the women in their group. So Rodney had also offered to help as the worried, altruistic citizen he was.
"I saved a bird's nest once. It had been knocked out of the tree by a storm, and I put it back. Well, of course I didn't climb all the way up, I'm not insane, but I did secure it on one of the lower branches. Quite cleverly so, I might add, but then again, it's basic physics."
"Really?" Mr. May drawled. "That's fascinating."
Rodney nodded. "Of course, then the cat got them, but I think it's the thought that matters."
"Are you sure you don't want to go up with the others? It's really not safe down here." There was a hint of desperation in May's voice, and Rodney preened at the obvious concern for his wellbeing. Then again, that was the man's job, wasn't it?
"Thank you, Mr. May, but I feel it's my duty as-"
"Sheppard," the fireman interrupted.
"The name's Sheppard. Do me a favour and stop mentioning that damn calendar, would you?"
A few steps behind them, the young Hispanic sniggered. Rodney graciously ignored him in favour of introducing himself. "McKay. Dr. Rodney McKay, head of the RDU physics department. You might have heard of me."
"Dr. McKay. I think most people who've worked with the university have heard of you." Anderson had turned around to nod at him. "Maybe we can leave the social niceties for later, though."
"I was just trying to," get a date, "be polite."
"Naturally." And what the hell was that supposed to mean? Sure, Rodney didn't have the best reputation, but that was only because people didn't get him. Besides, the rumours he'd heard were grossly exaggerated, except for the bit about being unapologetically gay, but Anderson looked at him with disdain. Perhaps the man was homophobic. Very deliberately not pouting, Rodney shut up; he stayed close to Mr. May – Sheppard – though. If the man had been hot on a calendar leaf, he was gorgeous in real life. A bit taller than Rodney, lean, moving like he owned the world. His voice was a little rough – perhaps that came with the job – and his eyes weren't simply green, they were actually hazel. Usually a boring colour, but Sheppard made it look sexy. His helmet was hiding the way his hair stood up in wild angles, but Rodney knew it was there, messy and rakish. He'd bet the man smelled good, too. Even if he didn't score a date, jerking off would be so much better now he had all that fantastic new data to work with.
The young man with the red shirt kept staring at him, a light sneer on his face. It was irritating, rude – although that seemed to be a given – and finally, Rodney pulled himself away from his gleeful fantasies to glower at the guy.
"What?" he demanded.
"Just wondering how you can be thinking about sex in a situation like this."
"Excuse me?" Rodney spluttered, "what gives you the idea I'm thinking about, about… that? Severely traumatised crash survivor here!"
"People are dying back there, and you're hitting on a fireman!" the asshole snapped back, but before Rodney could think of a suitable comeback that didn't involve trying to break the guy's nose, Sheppard interrupted them.
"Hey. I think we have important things to worry about right now. So do me a favour, and play nice."
Rodney shut up, grumbling. He didn't want to leave too much of a bad impression, and the yelling made his head hurt. Redshirt obviously didn't share that sentiment: "A guy like him shouldn't even be here!"
"A guy like me?" Rodney exploded. That ignorant little shit, who the hell did he think he was? "What, you mean gay? A fag?"
"Yeah! Just go home and paint your nails, you fucking-"
"Hey!" Sheppard barked, and Anderson pulled the furious young man further to the back, not without a long sideways glance at Rodney. Rodney's head was pounding in time with his racing pulse, his heart hammering with anger – seriously, who the fuck did they think they were?
Sheppard's hand on his elbow derailed that line of thought. Rodney looked up, and the fireman gave him a shrug. It wasn't much; in fact, as communication went, the gesture could have meant anything. And still, Rodney felt a little better.
They were almost at the crash site when Rodney first noticed the smell of gas. The closer they got to the train, the stronger it became, and perhaps coming back here hadn't been Rodney's brightest idea. A few of the wounded were crying, others looked far too still. Those who'd stayed back to help seemed tired, helpless anger on their faces.
"Sam, go check the wagons, see if there are any survivors left inside." The young Hispanic started towards the closest wagon as Sheppard turned to the next fireman. "Nick, you and Andy see if you can find the gas leak. The rest of us will get those people out of here."
"How can we help?" Anderson asked, once again with the handkerchief in his hand.
"One of you can help the people who aren't too badly hurt get on the walkway. The rest of you stay with a fireman and do what they tell you. Got that?" They nodded and Redshirt went back to the walkway, where he was surprisingly nice about helping others climb onto the narrow platform. Sheppard raised an eyebrow at Rodney. "Let me guess, you'll stay with me."
Rodney shrugged. The stench of gas and blood was making him queasy. It seemed callous to keep flirting with someone when around them, people were in pain. Dying. Not even Rodney was that self-centred. "I'll do whatever you tell me to," he said simply. It earned him a strange expression he couldn't decipher and a nod.
"You're with me," Sheppard decided, and they started towards one of the closest wounded, a young Asian girl with fine, black hair who couldn't be older than twenty-five. The dark blue jacket over her white blouse was torn, the matching blue pants stained with dirt. She was sitting on the ground, rocking gently, her black eyes bright but dry as she looked up at them.
"Can you walk?" Sheppard wanted to know, his voice business-like but kind.
"Not on my own," she shrugged, and Sheppard nodded.
"Well, Rodney here will help you up," Rodney threw him a confused glance at the unexpected use of his first name, "and then we'll get you up on the walkway. Someone will help you out, all right?"
"Sure." She looked expectantly at Rodney and reached out with her left hand. Rodney scrambled to help her get to her feet, overbalancing and stumbling, feeling himself flush under Sheppard's gaze.
"I've never done this before," he defended himself, but the fireman only shrugged and took the girl's other arm.
"Yeah, I thought as much." For some reason, that remark stung as they started toward the walkway.
"Look, I know you don't like me that much, but if you got to know me better you'd see I'm not as much of an asshole as everyone keeps saying."
"I like you just fine, McKay. You bought our calendar," Sheppard returned, but before Rodney could think of an answer to that – an invitation, a question, something to keep the conversation going – there was an ominous creaking sound, and from then on everything happened in a dreamy kind of slow motion.
The two wagons that were wedged into each other at one end of the tunnel gave another metallic groan, then the left one started to fall. Rodney saw it in his mind's eye, as clear as if it had already happened: the spark when one of the wagons nudged against the high voltage track, the ignition that would follow. The whole section of the tunnel was flooded with gas; they'd all be dead before they could as much as blink.
A hard push yanked him out of his frozen panic, Sheppard yelling, "Run!", and a deep, shuddering breath made the world turn again.
Rodney ran, grabbed the girl and dragged her along without paying attention to her cries as she put weight on her injured foot, ankle, whatever. The wagons creaked, stopped, held each other in a precarious balance, and-
"Over here!" Again, Sheppard, pushing Anderson and an elderly woman into a narrow side tunnel Rodney hadn't noticed before, and what, did he honestly think they'd be safe there? Rodney shook his head even as he hauled the girl toward the small group, heart hammering in his chest, and then he saw that Sheppard was fumbling with some kind of trapdoor, yanking it open just as they reached him.
"What are you doing?" he yelled, but Sheppard just grabbed the elderly woman and shoved her down.
"Shut up and get down there!"
It wouldn't work, they were far too slow, and still Rodney pushed the girl to the iron staircase leading down and bellowed at her to hurry the fuck up. She looked at him and let go of the handles, jumping down, as did Anderson. Rodney got ready to follow-
And saw Sheppard let go of the trapdoor, saw him start towards the train wreck, where the two wagons were now seriously leaning to the side. A precious second ticked by before he found the air to yell.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Those are my men out there!" Sheppard shouted, already two steps from the hole in the ground.
"You can't save them!" Rodney yelled back, but he could see from Sheppard's mulish expression that he wasn't getting through. The wagons keeled over. Rodney pushed.
And down in the darkness, holding his breath as the explosion slammed through the tunnel above them, he was glad he couldn't see Sheppard's eyes.
The elderly woman's name was Mrs. Pankow, and she kept muttering. Her red-dyed hair curled into a cheap permanent, and her practical dark brown shoes didn't really fit her light green, knee-long dress or the thin white jacket she wore on top of it. She was the kind of lady who wouldn't be caught dead in a pair of pants, the prototype of Single Middle-Aged Woman With Cat. Or perhaps a poodle. Her constant murmuring was driving Rodney insane, but at least it distracted him from Sheppard's accusing gaze. The fireman had lost it at Rodney's first hesitant question if everyone was all right, yelling at him in a cracking voice, "I just lost my whole team and at least three dozen civilians, McKay! No, I'm fucking not all right!"
Rodney had recoiled, barely keeping himself from stupidly saying, "You've lost your helmet, too," and after a moment's silence, Sheppard had switched on his flashlight and started to explore the surrounding tunnels while the rest of the group had tried to keep an appearance of normalcy by introducing themselves. In the dark, as the flashlight Sheppard was carrying was the only light source they had.
From what Rodney had seen before the fireman had stomped away, they were in an old tunnel system, with brick walls and old spider webs hanging in corners and from the ceiling. The air was stale, and everything carried a thick layer of dust; it must have been months since the last time someone had been down there. Rodney wasn't even sure what 'down there' really was: an old aqueduct? Maintenance tunnels? He only knew that the way up was blocked, and if they didn't want to die of dehydration, they had to find another way out.
He said as much to Sheppard when the man returned. Sheppard just shrugged. He was visibly calmer than before, but his face was pale. Then again, that might have been the flashlight. "I only know these tunnels are there, not where they're going."
"Some of them go up, actually," Anderson said, his features looking strangely distorted in the cold light. "We'll just have to find one with a noticeable gradient."
"How do you know that?" Sheppard asked, and Anderson smiled.
"This city is a hobby of mine. All the forgotten corners, the hidden places – I like to discover them. These tunnels are part of the old sewage system, and while I haven't memorised their layout, I know that some of them still end in parks or on the roadside, hidden behind trashcans and the likes."
"So there is a way out?" the Asian girl, Tony – "My parents wanted a boy," she'd said, and Rodney had nodded with a sympathy born of experience – wanted to know.
"Yes, there is. We'll just have to find it."
"Well, fine. What are we waiting for?" Rodney ignored the way Anderson's smile froze on the man's face and offered Tony his arm. The girl didn't take it, though, and looked pointedly at Mrs. Pankow, who was still muttering, worrying the edge of her thin jacket with shaky fingers. With a small shrug, Rodney took a step back, and the girl hobbled over to the older woman. When Tony leaned on her, Mrs. Pankow took her arm automatically, blinking at the sudden intrusion. She didn't stop muttering, but seemed to settle a little. Rodney smiled slightly and turned around – only to see Sheppard's eyebrow raised at him.
"Maybe it'll make her shut up, too," he answered Sheppard's questioning look quietly, and the fireman shook his head.
"You're all heart, aren't you?" It didn't sound too unfriendly, so Rodney bit down on his scathing reply. He didn't like how these people kept pushing him into a defensive position, though.
"Have dinner with me and find out," he offered, firm believer in a good offence being, well, a good offence, and making a defence entirely unnecessary. Sheppard rolled his eyes, shook his head, and took point. Well. Worth a try.
Sheppard's flashlight was bright, but that made the shadows only starker. Swallowing against the sudden dryness in his mouth, Rodney tried to keep his breathing steady as their small group marched through the tunnels. His heart wasn't going all that fast, but he could feel every single beat all the way up to his throat. The ceiling was low, the space between the brick walls narrow, and Rodney found himself breaking into a cold sweat at the first stirrings of a half-forgotten claustrophobia. Mrs. Pankow did shut up, eventually. But instead of being a relief, the silence was oppressive, heavy, just the sounds of five people breathing and shuffling through the dirt, until Rodney couldn't stand it any longer.
"So, ah. Where were you going?" His voice was scratchy – from the dust, he told himself – as he asked the person closest to him, who turned out to be Tony. Anderson snorted quietly, reaching into his pocket to pull out his already crumpled handkerchief, wiping away the sweat on his forehead.
"I was going to have an interview at the RDU," she replied, adding resignedly, "well, I guess I can say goodbye to that job now."
"RDU, really? Which department?"
"Chemistry. Well, biochemistry; they're hiring two assistants. Not me, obviously."
Rodney refrained from telling her that, as a reasonably intelligent young woman, she should have studied something sensible, like physics. "I'll have a word with Rennebaum when we're out of here," he promised. "His department can use people who survive accidents."
"Really, you can do that?" Tony sounded excited and grateful, and Rodney smiled. It was going to cost him, but-
"Of course I can." Somebody should have something nice happening to them today.
"You shouldn't accept favours from a man," Mrs. Pankow said suddenly. Her tone was halting, uncertain. Whiny. "He… he will want favours in return."
Rodney gaped, baffled, and Tony giggled.
"I think I'm safe with this one," she assured the older woman, but Mrs. Pankow wouldn't have it.
"That's what they say, and then, then a young girl finds herself pregnant and on the street when he leaves her, and, and that wouldn't do!" Mrs. Pankow was becoming increasingly agitated, and Rodney tried to calm her down.
"No, look, I'm gay. She's probably in more danger from Anderson over there, or from Sheppard, although I'm sure he's usually more charming than this, I mean look at him, and this is a rather intense situation, I'd say. Of course, the whole discussion is meaningless if we all die down here, which is rather likely, but-"
Sheppard's angry voice interrupted him. "McKay, if I promise to go on a date with you once we're out of here, will you shut the fuck up?!"
"Sure," he replied automatically. "But I get to choose the place. I'm deathly allergic to citrus – you wouldn't believe how many dishes-"
"Shutting up now." He did so reluctantly, grateful that Tony kept talking quietly to Mrs. Pankow, who was muttering again. Rodney was so busy concentrating on clear blue skies and deep breaths that it took him several minutes to realise he'd just scored a date with the hot calendar fireman. Then it hit him like a brick: a date with the hot calendar fireman! For real, and it didn't even matter that it had been a way to bribe him into silence because, date! Rodney found himself grinning stupidly as he followed the shine of Sheppard's flashlight with a bounce in his step. He was perfectly aware that at this point the attraction was rather one-sided, and he'd never had any luck with straight boys, but still, he'd try. And if they didn't work out, well, he wouldn't have lost anything, would he?
After a while, the women fell silent, but Rodney didn't mind so much anymore. The floor had been going up for at least ten minutes, something he'd seen Anderson note with a satisfied nod. Even Sheppard's shoulders had straightened at little, losing a bit of their brooding slump. Rodney liked to think of himself as a realist, yet he couldn't help feeling a little more positive that they'd survive this experience after all. Some part of him kept wondering why he wasn't freaking out more. He had been in a train crash that could have killed him, had killed several others. Then he'd run away from an impending gas explosion, which had then ended the lives of at least forty more, some of which he hadn't known, not in person, but would have recognised in a crowd. And now they were stuck in a tunnel system no one really knew and instead of the freak-out Rodney would have expected, he was feeling vaguely optimistic.
Perhaps it was Sheppard. Perhaps having the star of his jerk-off fantasies of the last three and a half months around in person had done something to his brain, even if, right now, the fireman didn't actually like him all that much. Rodney didn't delude himself into believing anything else, although he was confident enough that he could change that first impression for the better. He wasn't good at small-talk, but that didn't mean he didn't have anything interesting to say.
A wooden creak was his only warning, then the ground beneath him broke away with a splintering sound and took him right along. Rodney let out a terrified yell as sharp wood tore into his calf without doing anything to stop his fall.
"McKay!" he heard dimly as he threw himself forward, his fingers scrabbling for purchase on the dirty floor, finding nothing, and then-
Then his right arm was yanked so hard that he yelled again, this time with pain as he dangled over the hole in the ground. His shoulder felt like it had been wrenched out of its socket. Darkness closed around him, and after a long moment Sheppard's flashlight shattered far below.
"Hold on, McKay," Sheppard ground out, his hand clasped around Rodney's wrist like a vice, like Rodney might try and wriggle out of that grip. A second set of hands fumbled for his other arm, then Anderson's voice came out of the dark.
"I've got him."
Together they pulled him up. Rodney collapsed to the ground, heart racing, his body shaking with adrenaline as he gulped down huge lungfuls of air. His shoulder was smouldering with pain, his left leg sticky, stinging. "Shit," he muttered, and then, "sorry," because now the flashlight was gone and they were stuck. They'd never find their way through the darkness, and it was his fault.
"Not your fault," Sheppard told him quietly, gentle but firm hands feeling for injuries, finding Rodney's calf, and Rodney let out a shaky laugh even as he clenched his teeth against the pain.
"Of course it isn't," he replied, but his voice lacked conviction even to his own ears. There was a ripping sound as Sheppard tore off the shredded parts of Rodney's pants and proceeded to wrap them around his calf, trying to stop the bleeding. Rodney couldn't entirely suppress a groan, and it probably wasn't a good sign that his torn leg still hurt less than his shoulder.
"Can you stand up?"
Rodney moved his leg, trying to decide if he'd be able to put any weight on it. He didn't think so. "Probably not," he admitted. When Sheppard sighed, he was glad he couldn't see the man's face.
"I can-" Anderson started, but Sheppard interrupted him.
"I've got it." A rush of air as he knelt at Rodney's side and reached for his right arm. Agony flared in Rodney's shoulder and bright spots danced in front of his eyes as he let out a strangled moan, tried to take a breath, didn't quite manage.
"McKay?" Sheppard sounded alarmed, which was both gratifying and disquieting. If the fireman didn't know what to do… Rodney pulled himself together.
"It's… it's entirely possible you might have dislocated my shoulder," he panted, stifling another moan at Sheppard's fumbling touch, then a scream as the other man did something that hurt, hurt so bad that for a moment there was nothing but blood-red pain. When it had throbbed down to a dull ache, Rodney grit his teeth, still curled up on the floor. "God," he managed, "what did I ever do to you?"
Sheppard patted his back. It felt like an apology. "Can't have you traipsing around the dark with a dislocated shoulder."
"You're all heart, aren't you?" Rodney snapped, darkly satisfied at the opportunity to launch Sheppard's own words back at him, but his shoulder did feel better. Not that he'd admit that. "What the hell was that, anyway?" He threw a hateful look at the hole where the floor had been. Not that he could see it, but he thought that it had felt deep.
"Probably an old trapdoor," Anderson speculated, "a connection to lower tunnels, just like the one we used to get down here."
"In the middle of the floor?" Rodney snapped, still unsettled, shaky. "What kind of idiot puts a trapdoor in the middle of the goddamn floor?"
"Come on, let's go." Sheppard helped him up, sliding Rodney's left around his shoulders to support him, keeping him steady with an arm around his waist. Rodney could feel the fireman's warmth even through his heavy jacket, radiating from the hand splayed across his hip. It should have been great, Rodney's body pressed against Sheppard's as the other man helped him hobble through the dark, should have been just what he wanted. But instead of relishing in the opportunity, Rodney just felt miserable.
"Rodney," Tony whispered, suddenly at his side, "Rodney, are you okay?"
"No," he answered honestly.
No, he really wasn't.
Progress was agonisingly slow. Anderson had taken point, cautiously feeling his way through the darkness, with Sheppard and Rodney behind him and the women at the back. Every now and then, Rodney could hear the telltale rustle of fabric when Anderson reached for his handkerchief, although the stupid thing had to be damp and gritty by now. Sheppard still had one arm around Rodney's waist, the other was hooked into Anderson's belt. Mrs. Pankow was muttering again, stilted half-sentences that might have been prayers or a shopping list, Rodney didn't know what. She was still supporting Tony and holding on to Sheppard, but with the darkness pressing in from all sides she had come dangerously close to losing it. Even Rodney could tell that.
As for himself, Rodney simply thought they were all going to die. The floor was still going up, true, but it wasn't quite as reassuring anymore when one didn't know, couldn't see where one was going. Who would notice a door announcing EXIT in bold, capital letters? Who could tell, at each of the many junctions, which was the safer way to take? No one; they'd survived a train crash and a gas explosion to die of thirst and exhaustion, and in fifty years their desiccated corpses would be discovered, and people would wonder what three men and two women had been doing in these tunnels. Rodney could see it in front of his mind's eye, even though his mind's eye was becoming admittedly blurry. They had been walking for hours it seemed; his mouth was dry; he was sweating all over. Every time he moved his right arm he felt the ligaments in his shoulder scream their protest. With every limping step his left leg hurt worse, and he just wanted to sit down and let the inevitable happen.
Sheppard wouldn't let him, though. Sheppard was the kind of guy who went out fighting, and he wouldn't let Rodney do anything less. He was half carrying Rodney by now, the slim shoulders underneath Rodney's left arm supporting more and more of his weight as the scientist's reserves dwindled. It was annoying, humbling, and perhaps Rodney owed the man an apology for judging him by a picture on a calendar. Even if it was a really hot one.
"Sheppard," he said, and then broke off, not knowing where to start.
"What?" Sheppard asked after a moment, his voice raspy and tired. Rodney decided to play it the American way and simply go for it.
"Look, I'm sorry. I, ah, I saw you and only thought of that calendar… but believe me, I'm usually not that shallow." Sheppard stayed silent, and Rodney continued, "All right, fine, I am, but, I mean, not that you're not hot, because you are, but you're also heroic and, well, stupidly suicidal, but by and large you seem rather smart and I'd. I'd like to get to know you better." Another moment of silence. "So, uh. You got any hobbies?"
The shoulder under his arm started to shake. After a second, Rodney realised that Sheppard was laughing, trying not to make a sound, and he huffed in annoyance. "Oh yes, fine, go ahead and laugh. Never mind the fragile emotional state of the injured man."
"You're really something, McKay," Sheppard said, his voice choked with mirth. "I wouldn't say fragile, but really… something."
"That was an insult, wasn't it?" Rodney asked, resigned. "I'd seek retribution, except I'm far too occupied with slowly dying right now. But I'll make sure this gets you some really bad karma points."
"It's called kidding, Rodney. Maybe you've heard of the concept." Sheppard was still chuckling. "And you're not dying. We're getting out of here."
The arm around Rodney's waist tightened, reassurance perhaps, but all Rodney could think of was that this would in all likelihood be the last human touch he'd ever get to feel.
"I'd have taken you to dinner," he said a little wistfully. "Expensive, too – it's not like I get to spend my money on much else."
"I'm not really a fan of dressing up for dinner. Or at all."
"A small restaurant then. Family-run, with excellent food and a relaxed atmosphere, would that be more to your taste?"
Rodney could feel Sheppard shrug. "Sure, sounds good."
"I'd just have let you decide. I dine out so often, they know me by name everywhere."
"Bringing a different boy every time?"
"You can take me out for dinner any time, Rodney," Tony piped in. "I'll even dress up for you."
Rodney smiled. Having an expensive dinner with a pretty young girl would have certainly made the rumour mill on campus explode, and Tony seemed like someone who'd enjoy mocking the other patrons. "I'd be delighted. How about French? There's this terribly snobbish place on upper 26th Street."
"L'Étoile," Anderson said approvingly. "A very good choice, they have an excellent canard à l'orange."
"Excuse me, did you listen when I said I was allergic to citrus? Are you trying to kill me?" Rodney spat without real venom. Nothing made people grow on you like trying to survive together.
"I was talking to the young lady. She can eat what she wants." Anderson sounded like he was smiling, and Rodney could hear the slight rustle of fabric as Sheppard shook his head. Then he realized that he could see it, too – Sheppard's face a pale smudge in the dark, the reflecting stripes on his fireman's clothing barely visible, but there. Rodney opened his mouth to say something, but-
"Light!" Mrs. Pankow gasped, and the strange tremor in her voice made Rodney turn and reach for her even as something in him recoiled. That wasn't the voice of a sane woman.
"Light!" Rodney's hand met only air as Mrs. Pankow brushed by him and Tony cried out. A moment later Rodney cursed and grit his teeth against an unmanly yell when the pain in his shoulder flared up as Tony stumbled against him and clung to his right arm to keep her balance.
"McKay?" Sheppard demanded tightly, the same moment Anderson shouted, "No, don't!"
"Light, light, lightlightlightlight-" Mrs. Pankow was but a pasty shadow against the blackness around them, her voice wobbling hysterically as she chanted, as she ran.
"Mrs. Pankow, stop!" Tony cried, still clinging to Rodney who was barely able to keep her upright and breathe at the same time, his shoulder hurt so bad. "Mrs. Pankow!"
"Light," Mrs. Pankow sobbed. "L-"
A splintering sound followed, and a shriek that came to a sudden stop. Tony started to cry, the only sound breaking the stillness, pressing her face into Rodney's side, her tears soaking his shirt. Rodney swallowed, awkwardly pulling away from Sheppard to put his left arm around her shoulders as he balanced on his good leg, trying to comfort her. Mr. Anderson murmured what sounded like a short prayer, his voice tired and old.
Sheppard didn't say anything. Rodney could practically feel the tension radiating off the other man.
"Not your fault," he told Sheppard quietly.
"Sure," was Sheppard's short answer and suddenly, Rodney was angry, furious at the other man and his hero complex.
"No, you don't get to blame yourself for this, Sheppard! None of us would still be alive if it hadn't been for you!"
"Yeah, tell that to Mrs. Pankow."
"Mrs. Pankow was insane! You couldn't have saved her! You can't save everyone, Sheppard!" Against Rodney's chest, Tony had stopped crying, clinging to his shirt in silence.
"Gentlemen," Anderson started, but he didn't get any further.
"I can't save anyone, that's what you meant, right? Is that it, Rodney?"
"Don't tell me what I meant!" Rodney exploded. "You don't even take me serious, do you? I'm just the guy chatting you up, the, the idiot who wants to take you to dinner even though you're straight, the distraction to keep you from thinking about your colleagues! You're not the only one who lost something today, Sheppard! You're not the only one who… who…" Weirdly, Rodney was thinking about the tramp lying dead in the back of the wagon, eyes open and unseeing. He'd never ruin Rodney's day again with his smelly presence in the backseat, his drunk mumbling or his liquid snores. And it was stupid, but Rodney thought he'd miss the familiarity of his discomfort. The tramp had been part of his routine, and now he was… he was dead. Rodney started to tremble.
"Rodney." Sheppard's hand on his good shoulder, Tony still clinging, and Rodney swallowed past the lump in his throat.
"I know." Sheppard gave his shoulder another squeeze and then turned around. "Anderson, you take the girl. Rodney and I will take point."
"All right." Anderson reached for Tony's arm, and after giving Rodney a quick hug she let go and stepped back. Sheppard retook his position at Rodney's side, supporting him. Rodney's good leg was wobbly, his breath coming in short pants as the adrenaline ran its course. Exhaustion weighed him down, numbed him from the inside out, but he walked towards the dim light.
When they passed the jagged hole that had swallowed Mrs. Pankow, they pretended it was still too dark to see.
Sirens were blaring in the near distance when they reached the thin wire fence that separated them from the small park the tunnel had led them to. Sheppard made quick work of the spring lock with his axe, and then they were standing between trees and unkempt undergrowth with the wide grey sky above them. There were cars, passers-by, birds, dogs; all improbably normal. After a lifetime in the tunnels, the world felt unreal. Too bright even on a cloudy day.
"Oh my god, are you okay?" A jogger, a woman, had stopped to stare at them with horrified fascination. Rodney took a look at his companions. Sheppard was dirty and pale, his face haggard underneath the grime. Anderson didn't look much better, only his constant rubbing with his handkerchief had streaked the dirt in nicely even lines across his forehead, and somehow he managed to keep an air of dignity despite the sorry state of his tattered business suit. Tony was ghostly white, with red-rimmed eyes and tear trails down her grubby cheeks, lips pressed together, hand clenched into the fabric of Anderson's suit in a white-knuckled grip. As for himself… Rodney didn't even want to know.
"Does it look like we're okay?" he sniped at the woman. "Are there any other stupid questions you'd like to ask, or do you maybe want to call 911? You do have a cell phone, don't you?"
"Yes, uh," the woman reached into the side pocket of her ghastly green sports jacket and pulled out the cell phone, handing it to Sheppard when he asked for it. The fireman made the call with practised ease, then the four of them walked/staggered/hobbled to a nearby bench and settled down to wait.
"It won't take long," Sheppard promised, "they have at least four ambulances three blocks away, at the site of the explosion. They'll just send one of those."
"Three blocks? That's all we walked?" Tony asked disbelievingly. "It's been hours!"
"But we didn't go in a straight line. Or particularly fast." Anderson pulled out his handkerchief, grimaced at its dirty, soggy state, and put it pack into his pocket with a sigh.
Rodney drew in a deep breath, then another. There was more air than he could possibly use up, wide open spaces between the buildings, the stench of car exhaust fighting against the lingering dust in his nose. His leg and shoulder throbbed in tandem, but medical attention and painkillers were perfectly within his reach. He grinned, free, alive, and enjoyed another deep breath. Then he elbowed Sheppard lightly between the ribs. "So. When do you want to meet? Today's Monday, is Wednesday okay? Or do you prefer Friday? I know a nice Italian restaurant where-"
"I said if, McKay." Sheppard didn't look at him as he spoke, concentrated on rubbing away the dust from the reflector stripes on his jacket. "You'll notice I never actually promised to go on a date with you."
Rodney's grin faded as the cold lurch of betrayal swept through his stomach and sent it spinning sideways. "What? But." No words. No words to protest, to give voice to that treachery, to scream his anger, none at all. His mouth opened and closed as if of its own volition, but no sound came out except for his ragged breathing. Biting the inside of his cheek, blinking against the sting in his eyes, Rodney stood, swaying briefly as his legs refused to carry him. Then he straightened, and started to walk. Behind him, he heard a sharp slap, Tony calling after him.
"Rodney! Rodney, wait!"
He didn't turn, kept on walking, trusting Anderson to take care of her, if nothing else. An ambulance raced past him with howling sirens and flashing lights. Numbly, Rodney hailed a cab – it seemed the only way to escape that wretched morning.
He had a hard time at the hospital to convince the staff he didn't want to stay. In the end, it took a screaming match with the medical director for them to let him go home. Rodney was a frequent visitor – they'd probably hate to lose such a good customer.
Back home, Rodney called in at the university and took the rest of the week off. He took a shower with his leg dangling awkwardly over the edge of the stall to keep the bandages from getting wet. He threw a frozen pizza into the oven, switched on the TV, zapped past the News on every channel. He hobbled into the bedroom. He flipped the calendar to look at Sheppard's earnest face.
He went to bed.
Mr. April was still scowling mid-May, but Rodney didn't look much at the calendar anymore. In fact, he had taken up a habit of working late, so that when he came home he could fall straight into bed. Weekends were trickier. Rodney's leg still needed regular exercising, though, and what was better than nice long Saturday and Sunday walks? All right, fine, a lot of things were, but those didn't help.
The shock over the whole ordeal – the train wreck, the gas explosion, almost falling to his death in the tunnels – had hit on Thursday, and carried well into the weekend. Rodney had thrown himself into work the following week, at least as much as he'd been able to. Walking between the labs had been an adventure. Typing with his right hand had been impossible – and who would have thought that the movement of one's hand could be felt so clearly inside one's shoulder? That had almost been an epiphany, if biology were something to have epiphanies over. Which it wasn't.
But, hindered from working properly, Rodney had concentrated the considerable force of his brain to persuade his rival Rennebaum into hiring a third assistant. It had cost him lab C, but Tony's smile – and the fact that he'd just scored a particle accelerator and thereby was in the lead once again – had been more than worth it. Tony often dropped by after her work was done, bringing him food or just chatting, although neither of them ever talked about That Day.
Right now, Tony was busy flirting with Rodney's second assistant and distracting the young man from the buffet. The physics department was having a particle accelerator party. To give Rodney the opportunity to gloat properly, the whole of chemistry had been invited. Only Tony had shown up, but then again, she was the only member of her department who was, in fact, welcome. Partly because she didn't eat very much.
Rodney took another swing of his beer and turned to tell Andrew, self-appointed DJ, to turn the volume up a few notches. His gaze met Sheppard's, and he froze.
The fireman was hovering in the doorway, his expression uncertain beneath the slight smirk. He was wearing a black button down shirt and faded blue jeans over simple sneakers, looking good. Looking hot, actually, and Rodney cursed himself for even thinking that. Sheppard had played him. The only time Rodney had wanted to see that disgustingly handsome face again was when he flipped the calendar to June. He set his beer on a nearby table and marched over to the door, his scowl deepening when Sheppard straightened warily.
"What are you doing here?" Rodney demanded angrily when he had reached Sheppard, barely keeping his hands from pushing the other man out of the door. It was deeply satisfying to watch Sheppard squirm, if only because he still felt so stupid for falling for the other man's ploy.
"It has been pointed out to me that I've been kind of an asshole," Sheppard began, and Rodney snorted.
"Well, yes, obviously I'll have to remind Tony that my business isn't hers. Nice of you to show up, I'm sure you can find the way out." Rodney turned to go back to his beer, alert campus security, he wasn't sure what. He only knew he had to get away.
"Actually, Anderson called to tell me off. Twice," Sheppard called after him and when Rodney didn't react, added, "Damn it, McKay, I'm here to apologise!"
Rodney turned again and stomped back to Sheppard until he could wave his finger under the man's nose. "Fuck you, Sheppard, and the fire-engine you rode in on. Is that clear enough for you? Do I need to spell it out? Fine: I don't want your apology. Go away."
Sheppard caught his hand and kept it in a firm grip, not letting go when Rodney tried to pull away. "McKay, I'm sorry. Rodney. I'm really, really sorry. Leading you on was a shitty thing to do and I had no business doing it."
Rodney huffed, but his anger was already evaporating in the face of Sheppard's genuine regret, no matter how hard he tried to hold on to it. Still, "How do I know this isn't simply a case of pretty words again?"
"Nothing, I guess. Just… it isn't, okay? I mean it."
"All right, fine. I can be the bigger man. I forgive you." There was a pause when Sheppard just smiled that crooked smile of his, relieved and sexy and absolutely not making anyone's pulse race, then Rodney asked pointedly, "Is that all?"
"Actually, no." Sheppard swallowed and shoved his hands into his pockets. "I came to ask you on a date."
He couldn't have heard that right. "What?" Really, the music was to loud.
"A date. Go on a date with me."
"Why?" Rodney frowned, thinking that Sheppard could look as exasperated as he wanted, it wouldn't make Rodney any less suspicious.
"Because," Sheppard drawled, "I promised. You mentioned an Italian restaurant, I happen to like pasta. Let's go there."
"You're not gay."
"I could be."
"But you're not."
"But I could be. Listen, Rodney, I spent the last three weeks trying to get you out of my head, and failing. It scares the shit out of me, but I'm willing to try this. If you're not too chicken."
Rodney was gaping, he knew that, but he couldn't seem to stop. "Are you challenging me?"
"If that's what it takes," Sheppard shot back, and suddenly, simultaneously, they both started to grin.
"You have no idea what you're getting into," Rodney promised, smirking.
"Oh, I don't know, I did some reading." Sheppard waggled his eyebrows, looking incredibly dorky, startling Rodney into a laugh. Tony beamed at them from the buffet and yeah, Rodney would give this a chance.
He still didn't expect much from Sheppard, but he'd give him a chance.
Their first date was a success. So was the second, except for when Rodney developed a serious case of vertigo and threw up all over the Ferris Wheel gondola. Sheppard evened the score when he choked on his wine during the second movement of Tchaikovsky's piano concerto no. 1 and started to cough and wheeze until Rodney ushered him away from their seats – expensive! Open air theatre! – and all the way back to the parking lot. Then he started to laugh and laugh, red-faced and honking like an old car horn, and didn't stop before Rodney had no other choice but kill him or join in. On the first of June, Rodney flipped the calendar over without second thought. He could see John every day if he wanted to. Tony kept teasing him, as did Andrew, but Rodney waved them away, telling them to get their own hot firemen if they were jealous. By the time July rolled around, John had taken the calendar off the wall, complaining he couldn't sleep while his colleagues were watching him.
The following year, they bought something with kittens.