After the First Death
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Characters: Sheppard and team
Summary: With the correct training, you can attempt to keep a badly injured soldier alive in the field until medical care arrives. If you succeed, your part in their story is over. But if you fail, what then?
Note: No canon characters were killed in the making of this story. Sadly, the same can not be said for redshirts. Fourth season cast, but no further spoilers. Written for the "first aid" challenge on SGAflashfic on LJ.
Ambush had been inevitable, of course.
McKay was playing Pied Piper, leading a column of scientists, as twitchy as rats. "…and make sure you investigate any strange energy reading. Everything, no matter how small. And if the glorified grunt leading your team tells you it's nothing, remind him who has the letters after their name."
Some of the Marines stiffened. "We are here, McKay," Sheppard called over to him. "With functioning ears."
"They have their uses, of course," McKay added, perhaps as concession to Sheppard, or perhaps following music of his own. "Never go running off alone into swamps and jungles no matter what this --" He waved his scanner in a triumphant gesture . "-- tells you. Make sure you have big man with gun. Or lady," he added, when it was Teyla's turn to look sharply at him. "They can do the fighting for your life thing, while you get on with saving the galaxy from total annihilation. Or discovering a new species of flower, which I'm sure is just as important."
"Does that happen… uh… often?" One of the rats raised a nervous hand. "The… uh… fighting for your life… thing?"
"All the time," McKay declared. "You think it's bad back on Earth, with jealous colleagues interrupting you all the time in an attempt to distract you from publishing before them, or just to commit oh so amusing practical jokes with your coffee. Just wait until you've tried to expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge while a Wraith is trying to turn you into lunch. Or an angry caveman with a spear. Or kids." He snapped his fingers. "Yes! Chocolate! Never go anywhere without chocolate."
"Chocolate?" one of Rodney's rats asked, but their leader had already moved on.
"Here we are," McKay said, pointing vaguely downwards. "One dank and doubtless disease-ridden Ancient ruin as ordered. So get to it." He snapped his fingers again. "Run along and analyse things and tell me what you find, unless something unspeakable kills you first."
"Sir?" One of the Marines spoke up; Sheppard was fairly sure he was called Wilson. When Sheppard gave him permission to continue, he said, "Shouldn't we go down first, to make sure it's safe, sir?" Sheppard smiled encouragingly. "And the rest of us should stay outside, on guard…"
It was done. The ruin was checked out and declared safe. Abandoned by their piper, the nervous rats crept down the stone steps, disappearing into the ruin. McKay gave a big sigh, and headed towards a rock. Sheppard raised one eyebrow, careful to keep all other expressions impassive. "Shouldn't teacher go with his pupils?" When McKay said nothing, and instead sank down on the rock, ostentatiously breathless after the short walk, Sheppard said more pointedly, "Leading by example, McKay?"
Something strange flickered over McKay's face for a moment, but with another sigh, he stood up. "I'm blaming you when I go down with some awful disease, Sheppard."
"Is he always like this, sir?" Lieutenant Harrison asked, when McKay had grumbled himself down into the darkness.
Sheppard's instinct was to say "worse," but the response stuck in his throat. It was one thing to say it to people who knew McKay, but all these men and women were strangers. "It's just his way," he said, finding these words harder to say that the joking answer would have been.
"I like him," Harrison said, with a quick grin. "I've got a brother like him – bark's worse than his bite."
Sheppard couldn't stop himself from smiling back. Most of the new arrivals on Atlantis seemed in awe of him, and either hid behind desperate obedience and constant sirs, or, in the case of the scientists, in tongue-tied shuffling. It took a while to break them into the ways of Atlantis. When they learned how to respect McKay, then they were family. Surprisingly few put in for transfer. It still amazed Sheppard sometimes, when he stopped to think about it. When contact had been re-established with Earth, he had expected them to depart in droves after that first year under his command.
"So what have you got in store for us, sir?" Harrison's eyes danced with glee. "I'm thinking it's something good."
Sheppard wondered suddenly if he could like the man; if he could, perhaps, even be a friend. The thought seemed strangely alien to him. He had a sudden memory of a man who had looked a little like Harrison – of banter in the bar and friendly competition in the air and the shared camaraderie of being new, at the mercy of the officers who, naturally, hated you worse than anyone had ever been hated.
"What makes you think that?" he said, with his best impassive face. Ronon was less successful, or perhaps didn't care enough to try. His grin was feral.
But they all expected it, of course. Make them wait, Sheppard thought. Stretch out the suspense until the surprise ambush came that was not a surprise to anyone.
Perhaps that was what killed them. Perhaps when the Gate activated unexpectedly, and there was no reply to their hail, the guards hesitated just for a fraction of a second before responding in the way they ought. Perhaps, in the darkness, the scientist who first saw the new life-signs appear on his monitor said nothing, thinking it was not his place to. Perhaps, when the warning came across the radio and Sheppard snapped those first few orders, there was that tiny pause when the expected reality was ripped away, and the new reality snapped into place on top of it, and that was what made all the difference.
"This isn't a drill!" Sheppard shouted, as the urgent words over the radio were lost in the sound of gunfire – the rattle of the P90, and the crack of something coarser and older. "Ronon!" He never needed words with him, not in the heat of battle. "Teyla, stay with McKay. Rodney!" He saw many things, but chief amongst them was McKay, just his head and shoulders rising from the stairs. Not even words with him, now, not any longer, not when it mattered. Terror flickered over McKay's face for a moment, then settled into resolve. Nodding once, he pulled out his gun and blocked the stairs, ranking himself as a defender.
"Harrison, Wilson," Sheppard commanded, "you're with me. Everyone else, do whatever Teyla and McKay tell you to."
Then he was off. It was less than a mile to the Gate, and they covered it quickly, dying leaves crunching under their feet. "It's all quiet here," McKay's voice came over the radio, "except for… ugh! A worm!" Ronon pressed his lips together and ran a few steps ahead of the other three. "Where are they?" Sheppard hissed at Rodney, and Rodney said, "They… uh… give me a moment… Oh. Still at the Gate, if those dots are…"
Nearly there. Sheppard raised a hand, and all three responded instantly. "They're by the Gate," Sheppard mouthed. He didn't have to tell them more. Harrison and Wilson were new to Atlantis, but not new to situations where people wanted to kill them. The trees were not dense, but were dense enough to provide cover, while the Gate stood alone in a clearing. "Ronon," Sheppard whispered, and conveyed the rest by gestures, and perhaps not even that.
Separated, they edged forward. The leaves were slim, like spears, crumbling beneath the heel of his hand. Dampness seeped through the fabric at his knees. A twig cracked. Sheppard's head snapped up, but no sound followed it except the slow flapping of a bird, a flash of darkness too high to be a man.
He signalled for them to stop, then crept forward enough to see the shards of colour and movement that were people in the clearing around the Gate. Forward again, and he saw that one of them was standing over the DHD, while another two were rifling through the pockets of one of the fallen men. Another foot, another – mossy rock beneath his hand – and he saw their utilitarian clothing and their weaponry. Three had heavy revolvers, and three had bows. There were packs on the ground beside them. The two on guard had not seen him.
Perhaps they were about to leave of their own accord, but they had killed… or wounded, at least. Killed, his mind thought. Killed. Two men, one new, one old – "welcome to your crash course in Pegasus Galaxy guard duty. Same as at home, but with more space vampires." His finger ached, wanting to pull the trigger and cut them down without a warning. Hidden in the trees, Ronon's impatience was almost palpable. But they would fight back, and then there were McKay's rats…
In the end, none of it mattered at all. The gunshot was almost deafening; the strangled scream worse, far worse. Sheppard pushed himself upwards, almost to his feet, then down again, down to crawl. The scream turned bubbling, almost a sob, and he saw a white face and blood; a man in streaked brown clothes with mud on his face; the barrel of a gun. He brought up his pistol and fired, and the man jerked; fired again, and the man fell backwards, sliding down a tree trunk, limp everywhere except for the hand that held the enormous revolver. Another shot, bark exploding in a shower, and that hand lay still.
He heard the sound of Ronon's blaster. He heard screaming and furious shouting, and faintly, the sound of a wormhole coming into being. He heard gunshots, and he saw a face, eyes open, mouth open, gasping for breath. His leg gave way beneath him in sudden enormous pain, and he fell forward, rolled onto his side, onto his shoulder, spat out leaves, and pushed himself up again, crawling towards the wounded man. Wilson. His name is Wilson. The bullet had struck him in the side of the neck, and the bleeding was enormous, "but not too much," Sheppard told him. "You're in the Pegasus Galaxy now, place of miracles," and as he spoke, he was tearing open the vest, testing the pulse and finding nothing, testing breathing…
"Ronon," he rasped into the radio. "I've got to…" Tilt the head back, open the airway. Hands slick with blood; drenched in it. "CPR. Make sure they're…"
"They're leaving." Ronon sounded disgusted.
"Account--" Kneeling up was like wading through flames, and his voice cracked. "--for all of them."
Ronon was the only one-- He found the place and started compressions. No, and Teyla. Ronon and Teyla. Three, four, five… The only ones who could do it, who could take command, whom he'd trust… And breathing. His breath caught in the inhale, but he exhaled anyway, as knives grated in his leg, and his hand slipped in the leaves. Compressions again, and his hands were blood to the wrist, slipping against each other as he folded them together. Only Ronon, and… Goddammit! He had to be out there, fighting for his people, but he had to be here, too, fighting…
Afterwards, they told him that he had kept it up for nearly four minutes before Ronon had found him, a further thirty seconds while Ronon tried to stop him, and that five more minutes had passed before a medical team had arrived from Atlantis and taken Wilson away. By that time, the bullet in Sheppard's thigh – Bullet? There was a bullet? But that was just the stupidity of drugs talking, wasn't it, and didn't deserve the sharp and anxious look that it received – had grated and edged and scraped its way into… "Well, suffice it to say that we almost lost you, colonel."
"Wilson?" he managed to rasp out, as his fingertips found enough slack in the sheet below him to pinch it tight.
Keller's look was his answer. Then, later, when he woke and wondered if he had misread that look, he heard McKay say, "Only Sheppard would use up his dying breaths performing CPR on a dead man." And that was an answer, too.
He had nowhere to run to.
"There was nothing you could have done," Keller told him, with an expression in her eyes that made him think that she had moved onto the next page without him. "Even if a fully equipped medical team had been on the scene within seconds, I doubt we would have saved him."
"I know. Yeah." He moved his hand vaguely towards his neck.
The two men from the Gate were dead, too, but he had only asked about them on his second waking. When someone died when you were touching them… When you breathed your own breath into their lungs, but still they… He clenched his fist; bit back words.
"If the heart has stopped, it is unusual to start it again with… manual methods," Keller said. "You did enough for us to take over, if he had been… I mean, if he wasn't…"
"I know," he said again. Countless courses, training sessions, paper certificates. Field medicine and first aid. And usually it worked. You did what you had to do, and afterwards… And, God! Even the wild things, the crazy things, the million to one chances… They worked. You clasped a shoulder and said goodbye, but then you woke up and…
"But you were bleeding out, Colonel. You shouldn't have…"
"I hadn't realised I was hit," he said, quite honestly, finding himself unable to come up with any answer less.
"Which would worry me," she said, "if I hadn't worked with soldiers before." But her eyes said 'you', and there was some sort of distance there.
On the third day, Harrison came into the infirmary to have the dressing changed on an injury no-one had told Sheppard about. Sheppard was a chained prisoner, seeing only those people that chose to visit him, and unable to leave until they had done what they had come for.
"Glad you hear you're going to be okay, sir." Harrison stopped at the foot of Sheppard's bed.
Harrison opened his mouth as if to say something else, then pressed his lips together. Sheppard couldn't see his feet, but heard the sound of them shifting.
He couldn't plead appointments, places to go. He couldn't hurry off for meetings, for paperwork, for sparring.
"It's an honour to serve on Atlantis, sir."
Perhaps he was waiting to be dismissed. Sheppard struggled to find words, but the pain and the drugs were a genuine call, trying to drag him away. Like a coward, he nodded vaguely, and let them.
"Why are you moping?" McKay blurted out, with his usual tact.
"I'm not moping," Sheppard said. "In case it's failed to come to your attention, I'm grounded. Lying here's the only thing I'm allowed to do."
"Moping," McKay said. "It's not as if you haven't been at death's door before, so that's not it. Is it because of that guy who died? Willis?"
"Wilson." If it was a trap, Sheppard fell straight into it.
"Because Keller says there was nothing you could have done. And you did almost… well, kind of… die in your attempt to save him, misguided and stupid as it was – and, seriously, Sheppard, please could you stop stunts like that. My baby scientists are still talking about it. Most of them think you're a hero, and I can't be having that; they're mine. The others… Well, only one's outright requested a transfer, but I'm keeping her on because she's… well, she's good. Hot, too, and it was only a little blood – well, a huge lake of it – and she'll get over it. Baptism of fire, and all that… though of course when she asked, I had to tell her that, no, that's not the worst it gets, and just wait until you see someone being fed upon by the Wraith, and, anyway, I think that all counts as going above and beyond the call of duty, so quit beating yourself up about it."
"I know that," Sheppard said. "These things happen."
"Oh. Well. Because…" McKay pressed his hands together, stilling them only briefly. "I just thought it might make a difference, touching him when he… died. Mouth to mouth. And the failure…"
"There was nothing I could have done," Sheppard stated. And he knew it. He believed it. It was true. Like McKay, he found it hard to cope with failure, but he always did cope, and he carried on, and scar tissue well hidden beneath your clothes was scar tissue that could not be allowed to matter.
"Yes. Well…" McKay shifted in his seat. "I just thought you might not know, because you're… stupid at times, when it matters, in things like…" He stopped; faded into silence.
"Must suck," Ronon said, without preamble. "Stuck there in bed." It was not long after the time for their usual morning run, and Ronon was damp around the edges.
"Yeah." Sheppard shifted as much as he was able to.
"I'd be breaking things by now."
Sheppard made a sound that was half laughter, half a breath. He hated being out of action. He had always thought it was the uselessness – the knowledge that Atlantis was going about its business, and he couldn't be part of it, guarding against threats – but now he wondered if the worst thing was the helplessness. People came and went according to their schedule. Telling them to go away was a big thing, far bigger than just making an excuse and leaving.
"Want me to bring you something to break?"
He smiled. "I'll pass on that, buddy." The smile faded. He almost didn't say it, but this was Ronon. "How are the new guys taking it?"
"As if they're tempered steel," Ronon said. "They never thought it was a game, but now they know. They're good." He grinned. "And you're a hero. Some of them weren't sure about you, but now they know. McKay says he hates it – he wants stories told about him – but he doesn't mind really. Better than them hating you."
Sheppard looked away. You don't deserve it, said the part of him that was hurting, pain radiating from his leg. He'd had men die before, of course, but it was so much more visceral when it happened when you were next to them, skin against skin, failing to save them. But that was foolishness talking. It wasn't different. It couldn't be different. A death was a death. A man under his command, dead, whether it was blood slick on his hands, or someone dying far away, out of sight and sound.
"Hey," Ronon said. "You did what you had to do."
Yeah, he thought, because he'd killed the man even before that. Wilson, you're with me. Six new recruits, and it could have been any of them, but Wilson had lost that particular lottery. Sheppard gave orders, he assigned men, and sometimes some of them died. It was what being a commander was all about, and you had to live with it. The day he stopped caring was the day he quit, but the day he let himself be broken by it… That, too, would be the day he quit. You got past this, because you had to. It was as much part of the job as taking fire.
It was just so much harder to feel that, to really feel that, when you had tried to breathe life into the body of someone under your command, but still they…
"It's being stuck in this bed," Ronon said, clapping Sheppard on the shoulder. "That's what it is."
"I understand you walked today." Teyla settled down smoothly by the bed.
"Yeah. A whole ten steps. With crutches." And he felt wrung out as a result, with his leg like fire and his bones like water, but that was something no-one needed to know.
Teyla seemed to consider before speaking again. "We found the people who did this," she said carefully. "They claim they did not intend violence. They had come to what they thought was an uninhabited world to escape justice that was awaiting them elsewhere. They… over-reacted when they saw resistance. They blame us, of course, for hostile intent. They claim they would have gone away peacefully if they had not been --"
"So it's our fault." Even speaking required almost more energy than Sheppard had available to give.
Teyla shook her head. "It was chance. It was chance that brought them there, at just that time."
And chance that Wilson had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and chance that the bullet had missed the protection of his vest by a fraction of an inch. Chance that this was one orientation mission that Sheppard had decided to take himself, rather than leaving for Lorne. Chance that…
No, he could not accept that. One person's chance was another person's choice. Accidents happened, but he had to believe that every choice he made had the potential to change things. He wouldn't be in Atlantis if he didn't believe individuals could change the way things turned out. Sometimes bad stuff happened and someone was responsible. Sometimes that person was him. Sometimes…
It was too noisy when all three of them were talking at the same time. Physiotherapy left him more exhausted than he would ever admit, and the long hours of night left him drained. He thought he wanted them to go away, but he didn't want to ask them to. It was harder to keep control of his expressions when he was tired and in pain.
"…and I think you'll all agree that I won that little encounter, and that Zelenka --"
"Life is not always a battle, Rodney."
"Tell that to Conan here, who spends his days painting bruises on the new recruits."
Sheppard had become very attuned to the sound of footsteps. He looked up, looking past his team-mates sprawled on chairs around his bed, and saw Harrison approaching. Sheppard watched him as he passed, and watched him as walked away.
He remembered that tiny moment when he had wondered if he could be friends with the man. Of course he couldn't. You couldn't be friends with someone when a single command from you could send them to their death. You couldn't expect a man to be friends with someone who one day might have to demand instant and unquestioning obedience. You could be on friendly terms, but you could not be friends. Command was a cold place, and often a lonely one.
"It's so unfair." Either McKay had changed the subject abruptly, or Sheppard had been drifting in thought for longer than he knew. "Save the galaxy with the power of your genius, and what do you get? Mockery and sarcastic jibes from people who don't know any better. Indulge in some ridiculous and near-suicidal act of stupidity, and you're feted as a hero. Huh! Doesn't that say everything about the American military?"
Caught by surprise, trapped by pain, Sheppard found himself saying, "It isn't right. I don't--" He pressed his lips together and turned his head to the side, his fist gripping hold of the sheet.
When he was in command of himself again, he turned back. They had all moved. Their poses were still casual, but more deliberately so. Teyla and Ronon were closer, but McKay was the one who spoke first. "Remember Graydon? I could never remember his name. I hired him by mistake – got him mixed up with some other guy. And then I sent him…" His hands were still, clasped in his lap. "I never forget his name now that he's dead. Funny, that."
Of course. Sheppard was breathing too fast, and consciously forced it to slow. Of course, he thought again. Rodney was no soldier, and had never even had training for command, but he, too, had chosen people for tasks that had killed them. Teyla led a people who were forever teetering on the brink of extinction. Ronon had been an officer in a war that had wiped out his people, and must surely have had far more people die in his arms than Sheppard had ever had.
They understood. However stupid and irrational his feelings were, they had doubtless felt them too at some point in their lives. If he wanted to talk about such things, they wouldn't judge him. If he preferred not to, they probably understood anyway, reading the truth in his silences. They understood. He couldn't be friends with Harrison, but these people were his team. Not one of them would be hauled before a court martial if they disobeyed him, but they chose to follow his command in the field, and at other times they chose to argue.
"Would you like us to leave, John?" Teyla said quietly, and Sheppard saw that she was standing up, nodding to the others to do the same, and knew that in this, too, his team understood more than he had ever known.
"No. No." He collected himself, and managed a smile, suddenly finding that he didn't want them to go, that he wanted them to stay and all talk at once, to make too much noise, to bring the world outside to his bedside in a way that he couldn't escape.
When things became uncomfortable, you could walk away, but when you couldn't walk away, then perhaps… Sometimes, perhaps… Perhaps it's better.
Perhaps he would tell them how he was feeling, and more probably he wouldn't, but that didn't matter. He could, and merely knowing that made everything feel that much better.
"Stay," he said, and they did, talking to him and around him and over him until he slept.
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